November 9, 1998
The Kenny G joke (“Coming next: Kenny G's Salute to Bebop!”) got me to thinkin'. (uh oh.)
Actually, there is a purpose to this question. I have been writing about music on a freelance basis for a decade now, and for a variety of publications, including a major metropolitan newspaper, often under a nom de plume which I will soon be dropping. The staff jazz critic at the paper has the "legit" jazz CD scene pretty well locked up. However, the Arts section editor has asked me repeatedly if I'd be willing to cover jazz CDs of a more "mainstream" (ie "adult contemporary," "smooth jazz," "pop jazz," etc.) nature, the type of stuff the staff critic has no interest in covering. As a "scene," I certainly don't have any interest in that stuff either, but I do want to keep my foot in the door as a freelancer (I do get occasional plum jazz performance review assignments, etc.). But I also do not want to simply pick pseudo-jazz discs at random and write nothing but one slam after another (gets boring, and I don't enjoy wasting precious time listening to a mountain of crap), and I've already written a few such reviews.
So, the question for rmb'ers who are not afraid to admit knowing about such things in public (private e-mail is fine, too), of the new and hip "contemporary jazz" (as defined by the billboard charts--one criterion mapped out by the editor) musicians out there, are there any who do (or at least have shown that they can) in fact make music that has some real value beyond garnering airplay on the Wave-type stations? An example that comes to my mind is the late Art Porter, who could play excellent jazz, but also went where the money was.
At the very least, it would give me a reason to listen beyond simply gathering enough info to write a review.
“So at the risk of this turning into a full baked rant, here's my advice:
tell your editor to give this beat to someone with an open mind, or at
least willing to give each effort the benefit of a doubt for it to stand
on its own. You're too biased, and as clever as your turn of phrase
might be, your overall credibility will suffer. For my money, a writer
with an agenda is no reporter. He needs a job on "Inside Edition". “
I suppose I expected the response I received from Skip, and I agree to a certain extent with his criticism of me reviewing this stuff in the first place.
However, if you glance at the Tribune's archives and see what I have written about the handful of "smooth jazz" discs, I don't feel that I've created reviews that "build myself up by cutting down" [or something to that effect] the musicians. I in fact have tried to address the strengths of the music in terms of what the goals were. I referred to my writing "slams," and that was a poorly chosen term on my part. Since I cannot run a list of my biases and perspectives on musical genres prior to every review, I try to make these apparent when I do state what I believe the weaknesses are in a recording (keep in mind, I have maybe 100-150 words max--not much space). My hope of being able to find recordings that can succeed at least to some degree as both jazz and pop (or whatever) speaks to my dislike for simply being negative. I have resisted submitting reviews of music that I simply can't stand "just for the sake of seeing my name in the paper" (or getting paid), and I do not plan on starting.
As for why the Trib asked me to do this, it is because none of their staff critics want to, and when they have attacked (term chosen deliberately) these types of discs, the reviews have been of the type that Skip is probably reacting to. The editor's hope is that because I like people like Bela Fleck, who treads in a variety of streams, that I can be more fair to these styles of music. I've never believed in approaching a disc of oranges and slamming it because it is not apples. There is plenty of music I enjoy that I'm sure (because I've seen it) many or most RMBers scoff at, some of it quite popular, which I don't hold against it;-). But I also hear plenty of stuff which I find to be devoid of any kind of creativity, and I would rather avoid this stuff, no matter what type of music it is. That is my agenda. Skip said he'd "give an honest effort by a competent musician a closer and more serious examination than one by a poser any day. And for serious fans and musicians, it becomes immediately obvious whether or not a person is accomplished on their instrument--and I don't base that solely on technical ability either." That is largely what I guess I was asking for through my initial post, suggestions along those lines. Hopefully I am always sincere in what I write (otherwise, why bother?), and as I said, my nature is not to be cruel or snide. That's why I am trying to find recordings that will satisfy what the Trib wants while allowing me to at least somewhat enjoy listening as well, and to write reviews which reflect that, along with the basic descriptive responsibility of the review. One's opinion might be that the music would best be left "uncovered" by the Trib rather than have me be the reviewer. Maybe, maybe not. If it does come down to being asked to review mainly recordings which I cannot respect or in which I hear nothing of value, then have no fear, I won't be accepting the assignment.
I have done a pretty good deal of recording myself (drums/percussion), though not for a decade or so, and I also know how hard it is to get things out there, from the standpoint of marketing, distribution, etc. I don't take the effort lightly.
As for Slonimsky's book (The Lexicon of Musical Invective), I adore it, and have for years. I hope Skip will allow me the benefit of the doubt before considering me a candidate for inclusion by whomever does the "new millennium" edition, at least until he sees what I've actually written. If he then thinks I still deserve inclusion, OK, ignominy here I come.