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Modern Jazz Criticism


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By Jeremy Pelt

Some time ago I was having dinner with a musician friend of mine and we started talking about the state of modern jazz criticism. Ever since I can remember, I never understood the profession of criticism. I always thought that everyone's a critic in some way or another, so why pay any substantial attention to any one person because that's their job?!

Am I beginning to sound bitter? Here's a better question: How much of criticism is valid and how much of criticism is led by a writer's ego?

In the relatively short time that I've been on the scene (since 1998), I've amassed a steady stream of mostly good praise from critics (believe me when I tell you that I'm not writing this from the standpoint of complaining about the few bad write-ups I've received). But I've been observing critics and taking notes and the biggest gripe I have with critics is not them personally, but the influence that their pens have on intelligent people.

Let me try and break down some of the problems I see in modern criticism:

  1. Most critics are just plain misinformed about the music that they're listening to. As much as they blame musicians for jumping on bandwagons and sounding too much like this person or that person, they (critics) themselves often write the same tireless diatribe. How many times must my music be compared to Miles Davis or Freddie Hubbard? Any time you hear a trumpet player using keyboards and effects, critics run (not walk!) to their "stock licks . "Such and such sounds like Bitches Brew . Now really, I ask you, was that the only significant fusion recording in the history of jazz? Was Miles the only horn player to plug himself into a wah-wah pedal? I distinctly remember reading two bad reviews of my last CD (Close To My Heart), in which essentially all the reviewers had to say was that they hate strings! None offered any reason as to why the strings were a bad idea, though they are the same ones who love Charlie Parker with Strings and Clifford Brown with Strings. More bandwagon to come...

  2. Since when do we as musicians start letting critics decide what makes music hip?! Since I've been recording my own CDs (four to date), it's impossible not to notice "the race . What is "the race , you ask? The race some recording artists impose upon themselves to find something new and fresh brought on by their secret desire to appease the critics instead of their vision. Critics love to say something is "new and "fresh (I think those are the words that are suggested in their How to be a Jazz Critic guide) and with reckless abandon. How do they know what's new?! What's the secret? I figure they should all be musicians and take jazz forward into the new era, since they obviously know what to do. Two bands of recent years that have been getting a lot of ink for being "new have been The Bad Plus and Jason Moran's Bandwagon. Both bands are great - I love the fact that they both have individual group sounds which are identifiable and that they interact well together as a group. I have yet to read a single review detailing what is "new about the music, though. It's funny because critics have a great time dissecting what they think is "old about music. But, in this paragraph I can't just blame the critics though can I? There are definitely musicians out there that try and force their music into being "new and "fresh just so they can get ahead, which I attribute to the pressure put on them by the critics. (I'm not naming names, but let it be known that I'm in no way referring to The Bad Plus or Jason Moran).

  3. Ego trippin'!! This one I really hate... A few months back I opened at the Village Vanguard with my band. I noticed there was a critic (who shall go nameless) who made it his business to sit right in the front with a notepad and a big black pen. Now, again I ask you, what the hell was that about?! I hope he's reading this, because I would love for him to know that I wasn't the least bit intimidated by this action and believe me, if his thought process was to come down and intimidate a young, 28-year old cat on his 2nd stint as a leader down at the Vanguard. Sorry. My point is that I've read some of the silliest reviews that basically are meant to exalt the writer. And there are some writers out for blood. They write with a chip on their shoulder. How can a review be taken seriously when there may be so much bias and ego involved. As a musician, how are you supposed to take things "constructively (which is another term that they use to fire back at opposition), when you know that ego and bias are involved?

Of course, there are two ways of thinking from the musician standpoint: "Don't pay attention to the reviews and "whup this reviewer's ass when you see him! I haven't subscribed to either one of those (though admittedly, I've thought of the latter). Rather I'm in the middle. My philosophy is to put some heat on the critic. I've e-mailed them before to see what they meant and for the most part they respond, but what they say oft-times isn't any more clear than what they wrote (the benefit of electronic dialog is that you can be just as confusing as you want).

Anyways, I'm glad I got the chance to vent. Really. If I've offended any critics then most likely you were the ones that I was talking about. Through it all I've learned to not let bad write ups (or good write ups) affect the quality of my music.

But, hey, everyone's got a job to do and I understand that. All we as jazz musicians can hope for, in a industry that thrives off of what the critics determine to be "new and "hip , is that the critics take more time to listen to the music... not just merely hear it.

Photo Credit
Jimmy Katz

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