Jazz musicians are magicians and Jazz is the spell they cast
I have been involved in music in one way or another since grade school. Starting on viola, I tried my hand at Classical guitar in my teens. Eventually, I was instrumental in creating a performance major for guitar at SUNY Stony Brook, and got a good background in music theory and history. Fate was cruel and I had to stop playing because of severe right hand problems. I later moved to electric blues guitar but developed left hand problems! Jazz was picked up along the way, and I still remember hearing Miles' Round Midnight and Bill Evans' Undercurrent for the first time. I guess reviewing is my way of staying in touch with something deep inside, and nothing matches the feeling of hearing that new performer who cuts me to the quick.
Jazz is an ethos, not a style!
The question below are the kinds of things that would cause a particular release to stand out, grab me by throat and force me to listen:
Does it grab me quickly?
Do time and space change?
Does it bear repeated listens, and over how long?
Do new things appear with each listen?
Does it have a combination of body and mind appeal?
How unique is it, and in what way?
Is it beautiful or powerful or both?
How memorable is it overall and each track individually?
Is there a certain fearlessness, a risk taking apparent?
Is that Whitney Balliet sound of surprise present?
Am I even asking myself these kinds of questions?
We all change, but hopefully that which I like, that which just grabs and won't let go today, will have the same effect tomorrow. It is also possible that something that leaves me flat today might be tomorrow's gem. I cannot help that, but the more one has listened to, and the more one questions one's reactions, the more one introspects, the more one can get out of Jazz, and the more to which one can be open.
I have heard very, very few bad releases, and yet probably 80% would get 3 stars, which means average. Admittedly, the 'average' Jazz release has high musicianship, but the average here could mean, 'just blowing changes', not saying much, nothing to make it stand out - hence, average. This doesn't mean that it is unlistenable, but just that I, personally cannot recommend (which is what reviews are about, right?) it as something earth shattering. Turning standards into the exceptional takes a Betty Carter or a Jean-Michel Pilc. Then again, just because something has 'new' sounds does not make it an immediate winner. And you thought this was easy! My job is to do two things simultaneously: (1) to describe the music objectively and put it in context and (2) to try and get across a release's emotional impact on me. What I seem to be REALLY bad at is identifying a player's influences unless it is very obvious as in: trumpeter so-and-so has a Donald Byrd/Lee Morgan sound but mixed together to create his own thing.
In a way, Jazz is like drugs in that when you have heard music that has that 'it', that entrances, stops time and changes space, you need more of it and find the weaker material harder to listen to. I want to be fair and give the performer the benefit of the doubt, but I find myself valuing creative originality more and more highly. Standard Jazz has to be very special these days to move me, and yet I cannot tell you how many times I have played for a friend a CD that I think is spectacular, a CD that makes me almost cry, and end up just getting a shrug.
Jazz is one of the last bastions where spontaneous creativity is the norm. It is the antithesis of the prepackaged. Jazz is brain food and tones the synapses. Jazz make me feel alive and glad be living now. Jazz makes my blood flow and my skin flush; it allows me to forget everything else for an hour or two.
To hold a new CD in my hands and be able to experience an
entirely new universe of expression is one of the most thrilling things I can think of, and this is what keeps me going. Stumbling upon someone new or being sent a disc out of the blue, putting it on and then having sense of YES! is priceless.
If you end up agreeing or disagreeing with a review of mine, because you bought something I reviewed or already had it, I would like to hear from you. I learn by talking to people with an interest in the vast subject of Jazz, and you might pick up something I missed. So fire away with those emails.
PS: I am just like you in that I have a full time (and then some) job as a computer programmer and have a darling wife who doesn't want to be a Jazz reviewer widow, but who loves Jazz. I guess I am lucky that way.
Upcoming Projects (sooner or later):
Krzysztof Komeda BAJL/multiple CD review
A Polish Jazz BAJL with Cezary Lerski (Mr. Polish Jazz Network)
Marilyn Crispell multiple/BAJL
Tony Coe multiple/BAJL
my path to my collection (i.e. the six degrees of separation technique of navigating the streams and eddies of Jazz)
Either/Orchestra BAJL/multiple (I love Russ Gershon's work)
A Wayne Shorter BAJL (very hard to choose just 12!)
Whatever else comes to mind - email me with your suggestions about what you would like to read.
My Jazz Story
My earliest music exposure was to Classical music. Drawn to Bach, I teared up when I first heard "Ich Habe Genug" BWV 82.
Later on I had the same reaction to Sibelius' "Lemminkäinen Suite" and it became clear that there was something about the
northern European aesthetic (little did I know...).
Blues as an art form became part of me during college ('68-'72), as did blues guitar.
Jazz didn't happen until the '80s, and I worked backwards from Swing to the '20s and then forward through Hard Bop.
And then came Tomasz Stanko's "Leosia", which totally shattered me. I was hooked and I wanted more of THAT - specifically
ECM! I wanted to be engulfed as much by the emotions of improvised music as I had been by that of Classical and the Blues.
4,000 (or is it 5,000?) CDs later, here I am, trying and failing to keep up with the world-wide deluge of improvised music, while
attempting to put into words the emotions this music produces, and help spread the word.