Dance of the Infidels: Some Jazz Musicians Take Aim at Critics


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There have been a couple of incidents recently of jazz musicians striking back at critics who they feel have wronged them that have gained some degree of notoriety, at least in the small circle of people who are avid jazz fans or who actually read jazz criticism. While it is not new for musicians and critics to be at loggerheads, the particularly vitriolic nature of the responses in these cases seems shocking, at least at first glance.

In the first case, we have guitarist Al Di Meola's letter to JazzTimes in response to a review of his most recent CD, Flesh on Flesh. I myself reviewed this album at Jazzitude, and gave it a generally positive review. " Flesh on Flesh is an overall triumph," I said, "bringing together the various styles in which Di Meola has worked over the years into a satisfying whole that's as tasty as a good paella and should be of interest to guitar fans, Latin music fans, and jazz fans in equal number." I understand that there could be room for disagreement here; not everyone is in love with Di Meola's technique-heavy style of guitar fusion, and I myself have found fault with plenty of his work over the years. Still, the most recent album seemed something of a victory to me, a skillful marriage of technique and feeling that made it a particularly welcome addition to Di Meola's discography. So I was surprised to read a brief and somewhat dismissive review published in the November, 2002 issue of JazzTimes , attributed to Aaron Steinberg, who termed the album "a glossy, lightweight, inorganic artifact." His criticisms of the album include a reference to the fact that Di Meola switches from acoustic to electric guitar frequently: "switching from electric Strat to nylon string as he moves from one phrase to the next—rather than commanding attention through his playing." That seems to be a bit of a problem, since switching between acoustic and electric guitars is one element that guitarists can use to change the texture of a piece. Would Steinberg have said the same in a review of Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock? Maybe he would. Still, the entire review did seem to rely on the general idea that Di Meola is a fusion castaway who has not recorded straight ahead jazz work in some time and therefore does not merit serious consideration, as indicated by the opening line: "With Flesh on Flesh , guitarist Al Di Meola attempts to marry Latin sounds to his familiar fusion." That hardly seems like an earth-shattering observation, since Di Meola has combined 'Latin sounds' and fusion before on albums like Elegant Gypsy and Casino. OK, so Steinberg probably received the review as an assignment and doesn't particularly like Di Meola or fusion. Still, the album is a serious work and probably demanded a little more analysis than he provides.

Still, it is doubtful that anyone could have expected the kind of response that JazzTimes published in its Jan/Feb 2003 issue under the heading "Di Meola Calls Writer Names." That heading is accurate, as Di Meola refers to Steinberg as "another hardass, lame jazz critic" and a "jackoff." He dismisses Steinberg as someone "who probably works at McDonald's during the day and was way off base with some bullshit comments." Outside the personal attacks, Di Meola raises some of the same issues that I have. Unfortunately, his anger and blustering tone detract quite a bit from his overall argument, making him appear to be a petulant artist who is upset merely because of a bad review, when it was (seemingly) really the dismissive tone and inaccurate perceptions of the review that drove him over the edge. "I don't make easy-listening smooth jazz. Never did!" exclaims Di Meola. While I don't think Al has ever purposely cut what he would consider a lightweight, smooth jazz-oriented album, there are plenty of listeners out there, most of whom have never written an album review in their life, who would disagree. And some of them may even work at McDonald's.

In the case of the University of Idaho's student paper, The Argonaut , the artist involved, jazz guitarist Russell Malone, reacted strongly to a bad review that was both flippant and ignorant. Annie Gannon, a University of Idaho student, started her review of the Benny Green/Russell Malone piano/guitar duo release Jazz at the Bistro with the line "Why does it sound like an elevator in my apartment?" She continues, "OK calling it elevator music is a bit harsh. There are a few places it shines, but sadly, not many. I guess I didn't go into it with much hope, either." Admitting that you were predisposed to disliking an album you are reviewing is a no-no, unless you are going to write about how the album turned your opinion around as you listened. "I should stop to give the warning that I don't know that much about jazz," the spunky Miss Gannon writes. "I know what I like, though I haven't been exposed to as much as I should. However, I enjoy live jazz because it creates atmosphere." Someone (an editor, perhaps?) should have clued Gannon in to the fact that live jazz is not played primarily to create atmosphere. It is played by musicians who enjoy reacting to each other in the spontaneity of the moment, and listened to by audiences who get a kick out of hearing and seeing two musicians communicating with each other and enjoying themselves. When this happens the audience also enjoys itself.

Not everyone likes jazz guitar, and a duet between a guitarist and a pianist requires close listening. Obviously the dynamic range of such a duo will be considerably more limited than those of, say, a big band or an electric ensemble. Someone who does not understand this is not going to be able to write an informed review of this CD. Furthermore, from her comments on individual songs, it is clear that Gannon has no idea where some of the standard jazz repertoire comes from, nor the stylistic variances that a single performer may bring to bear in the course of a single performance. For example, she dismisses a fine performance of the Billy Taylor-penned "A Bientot" with the line "I'm getting sleepy." Sorry, Ms. Gannon, I think the line for 'N Sync tickets forms to the left.

Russell Malone, who is one of jazz music's best young guitarists, did not take kindly to this review. He fired off a letter to The Argonaut's editor, Matt McCoy. "I find it disturbing that you would hire someone of such low intellect to review anything. She even admitted herself that she doesn't know that much about jazz. I have nothing against critics, but it's vermin like her that give critics a bad name," wrote Malone. "She had absolutely nothing constructive to say. Instead of writing an insightful, constructive critique, she came off as if she was making a personal attack. I get the sense that she knows just enough about music to be a pain in the ass, and she has just enough influence to be dangerous." None of this is too bad, but Malone went on to suggest that the genetic material contributed to Gannon's conception by her father was wasted and other crudely expressed attacks. As with Di Meola, Malone no doubt hurt his case with the average reader by coming off as a thin-skinned musician stomping his foot over a bad review. But when the reviewer admits to falling asleep halfway through the CD and didn't even hear much of it, how much respect does he or she really deserve?

To be fair, Gannon should probably never have been put in the position of reviewing the recording. The Argonaut's Arts & Entertainment Editor, Chris Kornelis, who wrote a profile of Malone in the same issue as part of the paper's coverage of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, held at the University every year, said that he also listened to the Malone/Green CD, opining that "I decided it was one of the worst albums I've heard in a long time." Really, Mr. Kornelis? Jazz at the Bistro has received good reviews from a variety of writers at music publications both online and in print. No one has said that this is the most groundbreaking album of the year, nor do I think it was meant to be. But no one has gone so far as to say it was one of the worst albums they've heard recently. I write and edit reviews for an assortment of publications and receive many CDs for review, and I can assure you that this CD doesn't even fall into the "slightly bad" category. You may not like it, but it just isn't "bad" in any musical sense of the word. The fact is, Kornelis was uncomfortable reviewing the album after interviewing Malone and Green and writing a profile of Malone, so the CD was given to Gannon to review despite her admission that she knows little about jazz. How gutless.

And where was Matt McCoy, the paper's editor, when this review came in? Both he and Kornelis should have recognized that it was incendiary, particularly with Malone in town that weekend as part of the Hampton Festival. I'm not suggesting that a good review should have been substituted, but surely these editors must have realized that critical analysis was nonexistent in this review and that the writing was weak? McCoy insists that there was nothing wrong. "We believe anyone is qualified to review music, theater, art and literature" said McCoy in an editorial about the incident. There's a difference between saying that anyone has a right to express their views and maintaining that everyone is qualified to do so. I wonder if McCoy believes that anyone is qualified to edit a newspaper? "There is likely correlation between education and the appreciation of the higher arts," writes McCoy. "But this doesn't mean uneducated or highly educated individuals must be stupid for not liking opera, classical music and stuffy 19th-century British novels." It may not make them stupid, but neither does it qualify them to review these works in publications that purport to offer critical analysis. In any case, it would appear that college students are no longer required to study the arts, writing, or critical analysis. And why should they? It's much easier, and probably more lucrative to just get out there and say the first thing that pops into your head, like Simon Cowell on American Idol. McCoy goes on to say that "a negative review doesn't mean what people are doing isn't worthwhile." That's true, but what can one take away from a critique such as "I read in a review that Malone played soft pastel chords. Yes, and this one is beige"?

Imagine that you are working at your job—chef, lawyer, and engineer, whatever. You are a professional, you have attained a certain level in your career because you've performed consistently well for some time. You may have trained for some time in order to obtain the knowledge necessary to practice your particular career. Maybe you worked through graduate school while holding down a job or worked took in typing and waited tables to support yourself while spending long hours studying and writing a dissertation. Now, imagine that someone who knows nothing about your work and has no idea about or respect for the time you've spent achieving the level of skill you hold is going to follow you around for a day and write an article about how well you do your job. This article will be read by a large number of people, including both those in your professional sphere and others who have no understanding of what you do. It will potentially affect whether you get your next raise, whether your clients continue to have confidence in you. Imagine that person doesn't take their task seriously or understand the consequences of performing it sloppily, and they give the impression that you do a lousy job. Now, tell me, what is your first emotion? My guess is anger.

Both Al Di Meola and Russell Malone reacted with extreme anger to these flippant reviews. My guess is that they reacted very quickly. In Di Meola's case, the letter was submitted to JazzTimes via email. I don't know if that was the case with Malone, but everyone who has drafted a provocative email to their boss and then thought better of it knows that the instant communication allowed by email can make for the expression of emotions that are better left to mature and temper with time. In my opinion, these artists did not react the way they did because they received a bad review, even though it's been painted that way on some bulletin boards and in some blogs across the Internet. They reacted in the extreme way they did because after taking the time to carefully craft a set of music, after working to establish themselves as musicians worthy of the public's attention, their efforts were kissed off with little effort to critically analyze them or understand them by lazy critics.

This war between jazz musicians and critics has, of course, been going on for many years, and there are sings that it is accelerating. At the International Association for Jazz Education conference this past January, Oscar Peterson, who received the President's Award, told the assembled group of musicians and educators that "Jazz has suffered from inane and unsubstantiated so-called jazz reviews." Peterson cited aspiring and unknowledgeable critics as a "peril" to the jazz community, and many of the musicians in attendance agreed with him. "In the '50s, everybody went to hear everybody all the time. Now audiences may not come out if the people read that a critic doesn't like the music," saxophonist Jimmy Heath told Carla Rupp.

Most musicians understand that music critics and writers have their role to play in the music industry. Duke Ellington, who received more than his share of critical reviews, once said "Critics have their purposes, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they did." A healthy attitude towards criticism is expressed by Joshua Redman: "If everyone liked what I did, I probably wouldn't be playing anything of depth." But I think that the British pianist George Shearing hit the nail on the head when he said, "You know, I think we tend to say 'It's bad' rather than 'I don't like it.'" That's really what's at issue here. Rather than Steinberg and Gannon merely saying that they did not like these artists' recent releases and providing a well-reasoned critique, they condemned the recordings they reviewed as just plain "bad." That kind of review can feel like a personal attack, even when that is not what is intended. And people who feel personally attacked are much more likely to strike back in kind. While musicians should not necessarily sit silently by while less-than-knowledgeable critics attack their work, they should probably work through a few drafts of their letters to the editor and try to remain as civil as possible. Flying off the handle when one's work is criticized, even unfairly, is probably not the way to win readers over or get them to check out the music in question. That's what music writing should be about, anyway—getting good music into the hands of listeners who might not otherwise have heard it.

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