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

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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.

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