To continue my series of rants about jazz criticism, I must point out that there are many fine journalists who write about jazz and have made valuable contributions to the jazz community at large. They are an integral and necessary part of this community, and I applaud them whole-heartedly. My rants have been directed to a certain element in jazz criticism referred to as “the frustrated musician with an axe to grind” type “critic.” Recently, it was pointed out to me, by a member of the Jazz Journalist Organization (JJO), that the unwritten law amongst today’s critics is “if you don’t like a recording, don’t review it.” Although I don’t agree that this should go across the board, since there are positive as well as negative things that should be pointed out in most recordings, however, there are times when the particular type critic referred to earlier crosses a line. From this perspective the position taken by the JJO should be applauded in my estimation due to the fact that a negative review can certainly hurt an artist professionally.
There is the famous story of the late, high profile, critic who gave a bad review to an artist in the L.A. area, and as a result the artist was unable to get bookings in L.A. This, allegedly, is where the unwritten law of not reviewing a recording you don’t like originated. Then what should we make of a bad review that does make its way into a major jazz magazine? This seems to be an attempt by a critic to intentionally hurt an artist they either don’t like or feel threatened by. In my estimation, it is our old friend, “the frustrated musician with an axe to grind” rearing its ugly head once again.
Such is the case, in my estimation, of two particular reviews by the same critic that appeared in a major jazz publication. Both are of the same artist who apparently threatens the hell out of this critic. The first was of a piano trio recording from 2010 by Mike Longo that received rave reviews and the highest praise from writers at other publications while remaining on the national airplay charts for a total of 16 weeks, peaking at # 3. Its debut on the charts was at the #13 position the very first week it was released. Furthermore it made the list of the top 100 CDs of 2010 occupying the #60 position.† Not only did this critic trash this particular recording, giving it only 2 stars out of a possible 5, his review was filled with musical inaccuracies and opinionated logic that should not have been in a review from a professional perspective. The second review of a recording by this same artist was reviewed in a December issue of 2011 by this same obviously inadequate individual and contains not only inaccurate musical references and absurd criticism, but also downright ignorant, mean spirited and unqualified opinions.
Upon doing research on the background of this critic I came to find out that he is a jazz pianist of sorts who has failed at this pursuit and turned to journalism where he has enjoyed a somewhat successful career with a few published works under his belt. Upon doing further research into this "critic’s" background, I came to find that he resides in Tennessee playing piano in a particular establishment there and writes about and reviews mostly country music artists. Since I know some well respected jazz musicians from this area I inquired as to their familiarity with this particular individual. An excellent bass player there who had played with him described him as "a mediocre lounge type player." Often times, contrary to popular belief, musicians do not make the best “critic”, especially failed musicians, in my opinion. One reason is that often a musician is unable to remain objective about the music he or she is reviewing, allowing personal taste and opinions to cloud the reality of the music that is actually on the disc. Of course, this type of thing is not confined to musicians only, as there are several non-musician critics who fall into the same category. However, in most cases, the non-musician critic is an individual who is a fan of the music and generally has an appreciation of it and is able to communicate to the potential buyer an accurate description of how the music affected him or her, providing a barometer for the public to choose if they want to possess the product for their own recording collection or not.
Another rather negative “unwritten law” among journalists is that they think they can say anything they want about an artist and that the artist has no right to rebut their criticism or he or she will be accused of not being able to “take criticism of their work.” This is even in the face of facts and evidence that show that the criticism may be rooted in jealousy and envy or ignorance and inaccuracy. As to the particular reviews in question, it is a prime example of a critic who, instead of reviewing what is on the recording, proceeding to tell us what he thinks should have been on the recording. All music, and particularly jazz, is something that is supposed to be experienced and not just listened to. When an individual listens to a piece of music with an attitude of finding flaws that need to be pointed out he invariably misses the “experience” that the music has to offer and thereby misses the “point” of the music. It is precisely for this reason that I have taken on the task of dissecting these two particular reviews to point out the absurdity of statements made and to shed light on what I feel are reasons why the “frustrated musician with an axe to grind” is unqualified to review, much less criticize, the work of valid artists and thus does a disservice to the music we all love and cherish called jazz.
First I will shed light on the review from 2010 of the Mike Longo Trio recording “Sting Like a Bee” featuring Bob Cranshaw on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. This review begins as follows: “Three masters at work, each schooled fully in his art and none driven by any lingering need to prove himself: That pretty much wraps up Sting Like A Bee, not to mention a good number of piano/bass/drums trio albums by artists comparable to these in stature.” It goes on to state: “Digging a little deeper, this means that the trio format is well suited to allowing musicians to stretch; whether that means to challenge themselves or to enjoy a leisurely idyll is up to participants. Sting Like A Bee fits into the later category, with loosely arranged tunes breezing along the roadmap of head, blowing choruses, some drum fours (which Nash plays crisply and caps with a brisk, brief solo "Daahoud"), reprise and finish.”
Judging from the accolades from critics and track record on the charts one would have to conclude, that this individual had a totally different experience when listening to this recording than the rest of the world seems to have had.
Now, on this particular CD, the liner notes clearly state that the approach to it was a “live in the studio” type date. Judging from the other reviews it received as well as its airplay track record and being designated as one of the top 100 CDs of 2010 (#60) it appears that the jazz public seem to appreciate what these “three masters” did. This critic seems to feel that this approach is “invalid” since what people want to hear is “musicians challenging themselves.” This may be what this critic wants to hear but doesn’t seem to be what other critics or people who listen to jazz and buy the CDs want. Here we have a musician who is described by his peers as “a mediocre lounge player” telling musicians he himself describes as “three masters” what they should have done instead of reviewing what they did do. In these times when jazz is rapidly loosing its audience more and more each day while not cultivating new listeners and fans, I for one am delighted that these musicians did what they did because they made a lot of people happy and did a lot to bring fans back to jazz -- a point that was made in several of the other positive reviews this CD received.
I have often asserted that certain critics are unable to comprehend musical content. Or, as this critic appears to have done, gets so involved in searching for flaws he fails to follow the melodic content of what is played and therefore misses the experience the music has to offer. Picture if you will a person who does not understand the Japanese language and merely hears the sounds when it is spoken. To this type person, every time he hears something said in this language it sounds the same to him. Unfortunately he does not comprehend what is being said and therefore doesn’t know the difference between a stand up comedy routine and a eulogy at a funeral. They both have the same sound to him. There are some critics of this type in the jazz world. This critic coming under scrutiny now does not seem to have a basic grasp of jazz in the sense of what is taking place when it is played. For example, a musician, who I respect, once alluded to the idea that jazz was like seeing a baseball game -- his point being that when you watch a game being played you are seeing the same base lines, pitcher’s mound, infield and outfield, etc. You see men hitting and catching the ball and all of the things that are common to all baseball games. However, there is no way in life that if you go to see the Yankees play today, you are going to have the same experience you had at yesterday’s game.
Being a Dizzy Gillespie fan for many years, I can recall whenever Diz was in town I would go hear him three or four times in the same week. This is because I knew that tonight’s “Night in Tunisia” was not going to be the same “Night in Tunisia” I heard last night. This has been true of all the jazz greats that set the standards for this type of music and is the essence of innovative jazz improvising. Now let us look at another statement this critic made in his review of this CD. “There are closing cadences so embedded into the canon that their familiarity substitutes effectively for the absent thrill of the unexpected, from the bluesy walk-up at the end of "Checked Bags" to the lick, slightly botched, that wraps "Love For Sale."
This is like someone saying “He slid safely into second base and that is so embedded in the baseball ‘canon’ that the thrill of the unexpected was missing.” Today’s reference to the “jazz canon” is even an off the wall attempt to filter jazz through the standards of classical music in my estimation. A jazz recording, for example, is like a snapshot from an event that happened on one occasion since the next time the players play the same composition it will be a completely different experience for those who can hear and comprehend jazz. This is unlike what is considered the Mozart Canon for instance…which has a musical content that is cast in stone with events that take place in the same order every time it is played. To view jazz this way is as ludicrous as someone choreographing the 1929 World Series and performing it for people exactly as it was originally played and claiming they are “playing baseball.”
It is my opinion that critics like this one, just don’t get it. Here is another statement from this review. “ . . . Which brings to mind perhaps the one challenge that all who want to credibly follow this approach have to honor: When playing standards, effort should be made to cast the tune in an even slightly different light than usual.”
Oh really? When was this law passed? And since when do “mediocre lounge type players” dictate standards that “master musicians” should follow? This tends to suggest that this fellow totally missed things like the phrasing, the time conception, the touch conception, the uniqueness of the tone on the instruments and all the things that actually did “cast the tune in a different light than usual” even if they just played the head and blew improvised choruses on it. These sorts of things, which are an integral part of a jazz performance, seemed to be over this guy’s head and are probably absent in his own playing, which is probably why he is unaware of them. Not only do these types of things go unnoticed by this critic he attempts to impress the readers with his supposed “knowledge” of music by pointing out technical things that he pretends to hear as a musician. However, when they are subjected to close scrutiny one can see they are completely off base and inaccurate. Here is an example: “Similarly, ‘Speak Low’ is presented as an intimate ballad, nicely harmonized and buoyed by Cranshaw's and Nash's discreet, spacious support. Beyond their agreement on this feel, the only sign of preconceived arrangement here is a set of descending triplets, played together by all three participants, which leads from each second ending into the next verse. And that's it.”
First of all, with jazz musicians of this caliber, it is not always necessary to present a “preconceived arrangement” since many times the tune only serves as a vehicle for the improvising and simply stating the theme and improvising on it has been done successfully many times to everyone’s great delight. This critic’s logic is something like “this has already been done before and you must now do something different.” To which many would ask “Why?” I don’t mean to suggest that there is something wrong with a preconceived arrangement by any means. But to recall the great moments from the old “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series that Norman Grantz produced when some really high powered and exciting jazz was produced from cats just stating a theme and blowing on it and to hear someone discount that as somehow no longer valid is a sad commentary indeed. In my estimation there is room for both approaches. What is idiotic is when a musician chooses one and a critic says he should have chosen the other. Who the hell does this critic think he is?
What is ludicrous about his last statement about the “Speak Low” track is that the section he refers to, as a “set of descending triplets” has absolutely nothing to do with a triplet in any way. Also he seems to have missed another very important aspect of this track. This melody was originally written in the key of F major and the players play the melody as it was originally intended. However, if one checks the harmony used it will be discovered that they are playing it in the G Dorian mode. A simple little fact that seemed to get passed “Mr. Big Ears.”It seems that this fellow is trying to create the impression that he is a very knowledgeable musician with superlative ears and banking on the fact that most readers will not comprehend what he is saying due to the fact that they are not musically sophisticated from a technical standpoint and just go by how the music makes them feel. My research on the reviews given this CD by other critics turned up that this was the only negative review given this CD, and in fact the criticisms leveled here were actually viewed as positives and raved about by other critics. One track that was a favorite of most of the others was Longo’s interpretation of a medley of three tunes from Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Here is what this critic had to say about it: “Inspired by Longo's study with Oscar Peterson ’Westside Story Medley’ actually features some of the album's best blowing, especially in the driving treatment of the first section, "Tonight." But slamming on the brakes and veering suddenly to a rubato, solo piano rumination on "Maria" subverts that energy, and when Longo slips into the waltz "I Feel Pretty" those several seconds of "Maria," in turn, become superfluous. It might have been better to just pick any one of the Bernstein pieces and live with them for a while.”
Now, once again, we have an example of a critic instead of reviewing what was played is telling us what he thinks should have been played. A pianist described by his peers as “mediocre” is telling musicians who he himself describes as “Masters” that they should not have interpreted what they played the way they did but should consider interpreting it the way he thinks they should. And are you ready for the most ludicrous part of his statement. The tune “Maria” is nowhere to be found on this recording!
Now we fast forward to the end of 2011 where this same critic offered an obnoxious review of Longo’s latest CD called “To My Surprise” by the Mike Longo Trio + 2. This also featured the rhythm section of Longo, Cranshaw and Nash on six tracks with the addition of trumpet master Jimmy Owens and tenor saxophonist Lance Bryant on the other six. Like the pervious CD, this one hit the top ten on the Jazzweek airplay charts and remained on the charts for 22 weeks. It received numerous reviews and all of them raves except this one from this same critic. In fact, the very magazine that this critics review appeared in gave it an editors pick for the month of December in their 2011 on line newsletter. Not only did the other critics praise Longo for his superb playing and writing and the other musicians for their contributions as well, more than one of them referred to it as the “best jazz CD of 2011.”
Now we come to this critic. The one big difference in his 2011 review compared to the previous one in 2010 is that this one seems to be a mean spirited attack on Longo and his music that was totally uncalled for. This prompted me to wonder why a critic could say such obnoxious things about musicians of this caliber while all the other critics as well as musicians felt it was a virtual jazz gem. What I discovered was that the issue following his 2010 review had a letter from a fan in the “letters to the editor” section of the same magazine in which he stated that this critic’s review of Longo’s recording had “all the earmarks of a frustrated musician with an axe to grind.” His words, not mine I assure you. This coupled with another letter complaining about this same critic’s review of a Cedar Walton CD that he trashed in the November 2011 issue of the same magazine in which a reader points out that this critic went to the trouble of clocking the exact time (7:47) of what he considered Walton’s “muddy elaboration and fudged notes” on a particular track. The reader goes on to complain “A tone of Olympian disappointment pervades the review and represents a new low in surgical negativity and self-congratulatory hubris in a jazz critic.”
It appears to me that the “mean spirited review” of Longo’s latest CD was prompted by a bruised ego. This is also ludicrous in that it seems that the critic seems to be blaming the musician for the way the public reacted to his lame reviews.
Upon further investigation of this critic’s reviews a disturbing pattern began to emerge. I noticed an over abundance of negative criticism leveled at great musicians who play straight ahead jazz that swings and has the element of the blues in it. This led me to suspect that this “musician” is threatened by this type of jazz and appears to be of the school that says this type of playing is passé and that their brand of jazz has evolved to a “new thing.” These days we hear a lot of music coming from a jazz influenced classical approach, that although the orchestrations are sometimes quite beautiful, are more or less “impotent” from a jazz standpoint. In other words they don’t swing. The big lie perpetrated by this ilk is the suggestion that they reject swing and blues out of choice instead of owning up to the reality that they have an inadequacy in this area. Of course many of them will claim this is not true by demonstrating that they can swing by regurgitating “licks” they have copied from recordings that swing. Little do they realize that the great players are not playing “licks” but spontaneously creating melodies that swing from their digestion of elements of time and touch that make this type of playing possible. This group, including this critic, appears to be unaware that such a thing exists and obviously have not digested this aspect of jazz or assimilated into his or her own music. There is also an element of racism, although quite subtle, in this attitude in that they seem to be trying to eliminate the African element from jazz to accommodate their inadequacy in digesting and producing it in their own playing. This is the old adage that “only black musicians can play jazz” rearing its ugly head again coming from a segment of society unable to view an African person as a man or woman just like themselves.
As we dissect this 2011 review of Longo’s recording you will begin to see elements of some of these observations emerge through the statements made by, what I consider, an “unqualified critic.”
His review begins, “Mike Longo's latest is perfect to use on Blindfold Tests. Everyone plays well, but if you
didn't see their names in advance, it's unlikely
that you'd be able to identify them.”
Here is a case of projectionism at its worse. This critic is projecting onto jazz fans his own inadequacy in recognizing players like Bob Cranshaw, Lewis Nash and Jimmy Owens who have appeared on hundreds of recordings as if their ears are as lame as his. He goes on… “The leader shows the most individual style. Unfortunately. He can be recognized by his use and reuse of certain stock figures and voicings Longo plays a lot of augmented chords, nudging the fifth up half a step. He also likes overlaying a major II over the I root. Now and then, these elements open the door toward a whole-tone figure or run. Within these formulae, Longo further restricts his range.”
I have heard Longo play many times, both with Dizzy and others, and he is an improviser who does not rely on “licks.” Like Diz and others, his solos are spontaneous melodies that occur in the moment. I have searched this recording over many times and nowhere do I hear an over use of “augmented” chords. The only thing that comes close to it is his solo on the tune “New Muse Blues” which other pianists I have talked to consider a great solo. And even here the solo embraces an augmented idea for a brief second or two.
It also should be pointed out that other critics who reviewed this very same recording mentioned this same solo in very superlative terms. Nowhere else on this recording can anything resembling this critics “criticism” apply. There are two things noticeable in his comments. For one, it appears to me that this is another classic case of projection in that the playing of “licks” is probably this pianist’s approach to playing jazz.
This is evident in the fact that he listened to Longo’s playing from this perspective and points out elements of music taken totally out of context of the musical message being portrayed here. It is as silly as someone criticizing the author of a literary work by saying “he uses an adjective here and a pronoun over there” and because he is looking at it that way is unable to tell you what the story was about or anything significant about what was conveyed in the work. This is in my estimation, the way people with an inadequacy view things that threaten them.
What is it about this music that threatens this critic? In my estimation the rhythm and time conception is over his head and he knows it.