29 October 2008

On The Jazz Press and Media Criticism

A mini-controversy erupted in the jazz blogosphere this week, as Anthony Medici at the Princeton Record Exchange Blog wrote a brief screed against the jazz media, specifically JazzTimes and Down Beat. His criticism elicited a response from Lee Mergner, the Editor-in-Chief at JazzTimes [Full Disclosure: I currently subscribe to JazzTimes and have subscribed to Down Beat in the past]. To recap:
  • On Sunday, Medici accused the jazz press of "feeding from the public relations trough," or pushing the new model, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Crouch. He argues that if both JazzTimes and Down Beat issue cover stories on the same artist (he uses the recent example of David Sanborn), then this is likely a case of both magazines being "driven by the PR- flack- hype - machine" (sic). This is also the case if either magazine writes a cover story on an musician of limited artistic merit, according to Medici (he uses a story on the Return to Forever reunion as an example). He also takes the magazines to task for poor editing and poor writing, comparing both to the golden age of Down Beat (which I'll define as the mid 1950s to late 1960s), when critics like Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Don DeMichael, and Nat Hentoff were creating the form of jazz criticism as a highly literate and informed discipline. He concludes that these magazines are in fact bad for jazz because they are so industry-driven and badly written.
  • Later this week, Lee Mergner of JazzTimes responded to these charges on a listserv post reproduced on the Night Lights blog. He first argued that just because recent cover stories on Return To Forever, Esperanza Spaulding, and Freddie Hubbard also coincided with new album releases does not make those stories irrelevant from an artistic standpoint. He also notes that the magazine recently featured the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk on its cover, which works against Medici's argument. He added that nostalgia for older issues of Down Beat hides the fact that there was plenty of bad writing during the magazine's heyday (a point to which I can attest, having read every issue of the magazine published between 1955 and 1972). Though JazzTimes obviously has room for improvement, Mergner argues that the magazine is better than the critics suggest. In a media environment that rarely pays any attention to jazz, Mergner points out, it is ludicrous to suggest that a magazine that so avidly promotes jazz and features preeminent critics like Hentoff, Gary Giddins, and Nate Chinen bad for jazz. He closes, "As my teenaged daughter would say, 'whatever.' Or, as stated in a quote often attributed to LBJ, 'Any jackass can burn down a barn, but it takes a helluva carpenter to build one.' "
Night Lights added its (valuable) two cents, pointing out that if JazzTimes is not your bag, there are plenty of great writers discussing jazz in the blogosphere, like Ted Gioia at jazz.com and Doug Ramsey at ArtsJournal, not to mention jazz musicians with blogs like Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus and Darcy James Argue.

It seems that both sides have made their arguments and the controversy (for lack of a better term) will soon die down. However, I feel a few important points need to be made about the jazz press, blogs, and media criticism:
  1. It must be noted that magazines like JazzTimes and Down Beat rely on advertising from record companies to help keep their magazines profitable. Even in the best of times, subscriber and newsstand revenue alone cannot keep a magazine in business. However, that doesn't mean these magazines are in the pocket of record companies. Artistry and commercial viability are NOT mutually exclusive. And even in the case of a cover story that veers to the more commercially viable side of this bipolar construction, there are still plenty of places to find good criticism in JazzTimes, including the monthly columns from Hentoff, Giddins, and Chinen, the record reviews, and the Before and After feature (JazzTimes' verison of the blindfold test). As the saying goes, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
  2. That being said, I think bloggers are in an excellent position to offer valid and (hopefully) constructive media criticism. This kind of thing happens all the time in the worlds of sports and politics (see for instance, this post from Deadspin criticizing ESPN for inconsistent treatment of two network personalities who made separate unfortunate and ill-advised references to Adolph Hitler). However, such media criticism needs to be done responsibly for it to be effective. Bringing up a good point, then burying it under tired analogies and exaggerated claims tends to hurt the critic's credibility rather than bring light to any legitimate grievance. So let's play nice and keep it professional, okay?
  3. In the complex media environment we inhabit today, it is ludicrous to write of a monolithic "Jazz Press" or assign excess agency to large periodicals like JazzTimes. Even if the people at JazzTimes wanted to be "bad for jazz," how would such a fringe publication (in the grand scheme of things) accomplish that, anyway?
  4. As Night Lights points out, if JazzTimes and Down Beat are not up to your preferences, there are plenty of great alternatives on the internet. You can start with the links on the sidebar of this page. We live in a free market, and sometimes the best way to make yourself heard is by using your wallet (which is why I buy free-range vegetarian-fed eggs, but that's another story for another blog).
That's all for now. I will be back to the music soon...

h/t: Night Lights blog

UPDATE: At Jazz Chronicles, James Hale, a regular contributor to Down Beat, weighs in on the feud, mostly debunking
Medici's fetishization of the 1950s-60s as a golden age of jazz journalism.

23 October 2008

Fun Fact

What do Dizzy Gillespie and actor Rainn Wilson (who plays Dwight on The Office) have in common?

If you answered, "They are both followers of the Bahá'í Faith," then twenty points goes to you.

Program Note: I have decided to make Friday Album Cover an occasional feature. The reason is simple: I've run out of album covers that I wanted to write about, and I don't have the time right now to search for a new one every week. I could just pick random covers and write, but that isn't as interesting to me...

Onto some links...
  • Jazz.com recently interviewed saxophonist and fellow Miami-transplant Marcus Strickland.
  • Amazon.com is offering a free download of an ECM sampler on their mp3 site. The sampler features tracks from Pat Metheny Group, Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, and Chick Corea, among others. Get it while it is available.
  • Nice Kenny Garrett interview at All About Jazz.
  • The National Endowment for the Arts held their annual Jazz Masters ceremony, bestowing the title upon Lee Konitz, Jimmy Cobb, and Rucy Van Gelder, among others.
  • R.I.P. to Neal Hefti, whose Basie charts were a favorite to play in my high school jazz band.
  • Someone pointed out Heliocentric Worlds to me the other day, where I saw this awesome video of Charles Lloyd with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette from the late sixties:

19 October 2008

Review: Migration

Antonio Sanchez
Fans of Pat Metheny should be familiar with Antonio Sanchez. The drummer has been a mainstay of Metheny's groups for the past five years, and has also recorded with Michael Brecker and Danilo Perez. His bona fides go on, having attended the Berklee School of Music and sitting in the drummer's chair of the Dizzy Gillespie United Nations Orchestra. Last year, he recorded his debut album as a leader, Migration. The album is an exciting debut from a seasoned veteran (at age 36, Sanchez's career had seen some incredible highs up to that point).

Aside from the opening and closing tracks (which feature special guests Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, respectively), Sanchez presents a quartet with the interesting front line of tenor saxophonists David Sanchez (no relation) and Chris Potter. Bassist Scott Colley rounds out the group. Following Corea's "One for Antonio," the quartet portion of the album kicks off with "Did You Get It?," an intriguing melody with densely harmonized lines by Potter and Sanchez on tenors. It is the first of four originals by Antonio Sanchez, and I was immediately impressed by the quality of his compositions. Like Tony Williams, an obvious influence, Sanchez takes writing very seriously, and reveals a harmonic sophistication not often associated with drummers (you can read more about his compositional techniques in this All About Jazz interview).

Following a pair of solos by David Sanchez and Potter (whom I, unfortunately, cannot tell apart - note to Amazon.com: please include liner notes with your mp3 downloads!) as well as a solo by Colley, Sanchez gives a (too) brief solo which combines a sense of polyrhythm reminiscent of Tony Williams with the melodic instincts of Max Roach. I was left wanting more, unfortunately (a drummer can and should give himself more than eight bars on his own record).

"Challenge Within" is the highlight of the disc, another Sanchez composition which evokes the powerful frontline of the 1960s Blue Note Sound with a driving Latin-tinged beat. It is stunning to hear a drummer present such a provocative melody on his debut (even accounting for the fact that he was an old-by-jazz-standards 36 when the album was released). Potter (I think) opens up the solo section with a melodic masterpiece as one familiar with his work would expect. After a statement from David Sanchez and a restatement of the melody, Antonio Sanchez gives an extended solo over Colley's bass acompaniement. What is nice about Sanchez's playing here and elsewhere on the album is that he eschews the pyrotechnics one might expect on a drummer's debut for a sublty melodic statement that would have made Max Roach proud.

Other points of interest on the album include Sanchez's haunting original, "Ballade," his reworking of the Joe Henderson classic "Inner Urge," and (I think) David Sanchez's solo on "Greedy Silence," in which he and Antonio channel Elvin and Trane in a frenetic exchange of ideas. Indeed, the quartet selections are so good that the duet with Metheny and trio with Colley and Corea could have been left off the album entirely, and I would still be satisfied. As it is, the bookending tracks are icing on the cake. Sanchez has given a resoundingly strong opening statement, and I excitedly await the next chapter.

Track Listing: One for Antonio; Did You Get It; Arena (Sand); Challenge Within; Ballade; Greedy Silence; Inner Urge; Solar
Personnel: Sanchez, drums; Chris Potter, David Sanchez, saxophone; Scott Colley, bass; Chick Corea, piano (on One for Antonio); Pat Metheny, guitar (on Arena (Sand) and Solar)

11 October 2008

Under the Radar: Happy Apple

Happy Apple

Where to begin?

If pressed to describe them in two sentences or less to someone who had never heard of them, I would call Happy Apple a band that fuses the avant-garde style of Air with a punk sensibility. But, like most abbreviated descriptions, this does not do the group justice. Comprised of saxophonist Michael Lewis, bassist Eric Fratzke, and drummer David King (of The Bad Plus), Happy Apple is an exciting band that does not deserve the unfortunate "side project" designation.

On Youth Oriented, the trio's fifth album (and first on a major label), the group presents ten originals which expand the boundaries of jazz while allowing plenty of room for individual and group improvisation. Typical of their approach is Lewis' "Green Grass Stains on Wrangler Jeans," a 5/4 tune with a subdued melody. After dispensing with the head, Lewis begins soloing, but, as Fratzke puts it,
We're not just the drummer and the bassist backing the big bad-ass soloist. We strive as a group to communicate as a single entity, not just laying back until it's time to solo.
King pushes and pulls on the beat with his frenetic drumming under Lewis, while Fratzke holds everything together.
Whereas Happy Apple kept things light and subtle on "Grass Stains," the boys lay it on thick on "Salmon Jump Suite." Lewis gives the opening salvo forcefully, and Fratzke and King join him in a rollicking melody, mixing atonal phrases with bluesy Ayleresque blues riffs. The effect is jarring, it is as if the Stooges played jazz. Fratzke weilds his bass like Les Claypool, hammering on an electric bass with a guitar pick for extra emphasis. Underlying this is King, who stays just ahead of the beat despite pounding on the kit. The song is over in an exhilarating three minutes and thirty-seven seconds.
Lewis, Fratzke, and King are kindred spirits; exploring rhythms and sounds of multiple genres while pushing the outer regions of tonality in a captivating manner. They keep things fresh and exciting on "Youth Oriented," and are, in the words of Ellington, beyond category.

Track listing: Youth Oriented; Green Grass Stains on Wrangler Jeans; The Landfill Planetarium; Salmon Jump Suit; Drama Section; The Treetops of a Bad Neighborhood; It Will Be; Creme de Menthe Quasar; Youth Oriented
Personnel: Michael Lewis, saxophone; Erik Fratzke, bass, guitar; Dave King, drums

10 October 2008

Coming Attractions

While not watching the stock market implode this week, I've been working on a post on Happy Apple. It will be up sometime this weekend. In the meantime, check out a video of the group.

Here are a few links that have been piquing my interest as of late:
Today is Thelonious Monk's birthday. Here is a video:

And, apropos of nothing, here is the Giant Steps robot:

09 October 2008

List: New Standards

This week at jazz.com, Matt Leskovic listed twelve tracks in which contemporary musicians used recent popular music for new perspectives. His list was pretty good, but I thought I would suggest a few alternates.

1. The Bad Plus, Flim

Leskovic was right to select The Bad Plus, who have offered many takes on their favorite pop music, but none work better than Aphex Twin's "Flim." Included on their first album, These are the Vistas, the tune showcases David King's energetic drumming.

2. Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, Sticks and Stone

Here is a great case of a group reworking a pop tune into thier own milieu. From Scofield's album of Ray Charles tunes, What'd I Say, Medeski, Martin & Wood join the guitarist and meld Charles' tune into their signature brand of avant-garde funk. Coming in at a quick four minutes, this tune gets the job done in an exhilarating hurry.

3. Brad Mehldau, Everything In Its Right Place

Paranoid Android is a great track, but I prefer a different Radiohead tune from his album Anything Goes.

4. Medeski, Martin & Wood, Everyday People

From their album Combustication, MMW take the Sly Stone classic at a slow burn. MMW was the single biggest glaring omission from this list. MMW have always enjoyed signifying on popular material, covering such diverse acts as Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, and King Sunny Ade.

05 October 2008


No new content in a week, but it was a busy week, so sorry. I'll have something up soon, in the meantime, listen to The Bad Plus...