Critical Conditions

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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It's likely that if Freud were around today, he'd have to include jazz criticism in his famous list of impossible professions...
One of the most heinous creatures to stalk the nightmares of a jazz musician - next to the club owner and the wedding guest who keeps requesting "Proud Mary" - is the critic. Even the word is aversive: sharp and insect-like - cri-TICK - it evokes the specter of some prowling bloodsucker, draining people of confidence (and future bookings), and getting more power-bloated with each victim.

Of course, this may be a slight exaggeration. Despite rumors to the contrary, most critics aren't bent on destroying the reputation and livelihoods of musicians they don't happen to like, and recent studies suggest that they don't really have guacamole for brains. It only seems that way—at least to those who think every bad review reflects gross unfairness and hopeless ignorance But most critics I've encountered seem to know and love the music, admire those who make it, and enjoy spreading the word about the best of it.

And therein lies the first rub: what, exactly, is the best of it, given that the definition often varies from critic to critic (just like it does among other humans)? The whole enterprise is largely subjective, anyway—hardly news, but worth repeating. There's no guarantee that what the artist meant to say is what the critic actually hears, filtered (as it always is) through a thicket of personal variables, including taste, experience, and mood. Like any other interpersonal communication, there's often a gap between what was sent and what was received. This, it seems to me, is pretty normal.

The problems arise when the gap is automatically attributed to a lack of quality on either end ( baaad musician! baaaad critic! ), rather than an irreconcilable difference between their respective sets of ears. Judging any artistic product is amorphous enough. At least film and book critics work with something that already moves in the realm of words, and is more easily captured there. Musical products are altogether different: floating on the air, bypassing the higher cognitive centers, they head straight for the viscera (do not pass cerebral cortex, do not collect neurotransmitters).

It's extremely difficult to verbalize the impact of music—which is actually a good thing, since if it could be perfectly translated, it wouldn't be so precious, unique, and freeing. Of all the jazz critics, I think Whitney Balliett comes closest to evoking the sound of jazz in words, since he mines that middle sensory ground of poetic imagery, but Frank Zappa really nailed it when he said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

There are several ways to get around this problem. Some critics fill up a review by scrolling the lineage of a player—he studied with X, played with Y, and sounds like Z. Others plug in their technical knowledge, detailing unusual chords or techniques, eager to prove that they can tell when the time signature changes within a tune. Another approach is to describe the emotions the music kicks up, hoping the reader will identify with the experience of listening to it. All of these strategies have their validity, but the disparity evokes the tale of the blind men and the elephant, where each man grabs a different part and insists he's got the "true" essence of the thing. (Meanwhile, the musician may be shaking his head because he thought he'd created a giraffe.) It's likely that if Freud were around today, he'd have to include jazz criticism in his famous list of three impossible professions (government, education, and psychoanalysis) "in which one can be sure beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results." Even a rave review will piss somebody off—namely, the person who didn't get one.

I write about jazz, among other things, and have wrestled with some of the quirky puzzles of this enterprise. One is the idea that, to be fully credible, a jazz critic must also be an accomplished player (Mel Brooks once said that critics "couldn't make music if they rubbed the back of their legs together"). Why is that a prerequisite? After all, nobody requires the dance critic to pirouette before his opinions of the dance can be respected.

This is not to say that musical training and experience don't help. They do—as long as they're not accompanied by resentment at those who made it when you didn't (even if you chose not to take that path). But knowledge doesn't equate to fairness, any more than a PhD guarantees wisdom. Besides, what's the definition of a "fair" review, anyway?

For starters, I think a fair review is one where the reviewer listens carefully to a whole CD a number of times - and on different occasions. This minimizes the possibility that anyone will be penalized for the lunch burrito that's backing up, or your angst over your flaring bursitis, annoying relatives, or the continuing plunge of your 401K. Ideally, critics should listen with open ears and a clean slate—or do the best they can in that direction, given the other demands of their lives. Musicians deserve a respectful hearing for what they put into that little silver disk.

But what if, after clearing a listening window and attending fully and repeatedly, you find a CD so awful that it makes your fillings hurt? Should you say so, or is it better to say nothing at all? (That sound you hear is Pandora's box creaking open.) On the one hand, your perspective might actually help someone; on the other, it can hurt. For a long time I resisted writing any negative reviews until several people pointed out that if I liked everything, I'd seem to have no discernment at all. So I panned a few that I honestly felt deserved panning (maybe 15 out of hundreds). Most artists took it in stride, while others erupted in surprising nastiness: everything from mean-spirited personal attacks to cyberharassment, including a vengeful spamming campaign that flooded my in-box for weeks.

I don't think such retaliation helps the musician, aside from the gleeful, frothing moment when s/he's doing it. It seems a bit healthier to shrug off bad reviews—especially since they seem to be inevitable, sooner or later (and often both), regardless of how far up the jazz food chain you climb. However high you get, someone isn't going to like that next project of yours. And in print.

Finally, the idea of "liking" is yet another lump in the sauce: the longer you write, the more artists you get to know. Some of them become your friends. This can tip an already-subjective activity over the line into personal. So can meeting players you don't like, or becoming privy to inside horror stories about others. Do you recuse yourself from reviewing all of them—like a judge with a conflict of interest—because knowing their character influences the way you hear their music? Or can you completely separate one from the other?

It's tricky stuff, this. I haven't worked it all through yet. Right now I'm just enjoying the opportunity to immerse myself in my favorite music—and my favorite people—and to learn something from every disk I spin. I've also gone back to my previous policy of not reviewing CDs I don't like; if it makes me seem indiscriminate, well, them's the breaks. People invest their heart, soul, and hard-earned shekls in their CDs, whether they happen to please me or not. Let somebody else spill the negative ink on them.


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