Hit it. Cab Calloway in The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis, 1980)

How high is the moon? Sweet and Lowdown (dir. Woody Allen, 1999)

Deep in the juju, chasin’ the Trane: The Mighty Boosh (2003-2007 BBC TV show)

You play jazz flute? I dabble. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (dir. Adam McKay, 2004)

updated 05/01/17

Mouthwatering clips here from a new Schlippenbach freely improvised trio recording Warsaw Concert just released by Intakt, the veteran free jazz piano icon joined by Evan Parker and Paul Lovens, a unit that has been making records together for over 40 years.

Check the slightly amused note at the end of the Bandcamp description: “Good recording technology. But we never saw Kinga, an assistant it was agreed we would be given.” So of course what do they do? Name a track ‘Where is Kinga?’

It’s interesting, slightly exasperating perhaps more so, when you hear comments along the lines of that’s the best, the greatest. And it is not, sad to say, always about love even when the song, thankfully, remains the same.

Depending on who’s making such a claim of bestness and whether a bandwagon begins to roll this can eventually end up transformed into an album becoming critically acclaimed. How does this happen in the first place?

Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is influenced by other people’s comments and recommendations. At its most basic this involves pointing someone to an album they haven’t yet heard. At its most complex it is deciding, given numerous examples of roughly the same style, the work that happens to rise head and shoulders above it all and might, just might, be an album we will all be listening to for a long, long time in the future. It might even change music itself. 

Joe Bloggs and the dogs and cats on the street know if a thing is good or bad so why should that be different for music writers? It certainly helps to have really detailed knowledge so the reader accepts what you’re saying. But critics often go for qualities that actually don’t matter to their readers and vice versa. In a Facebook age when ‘likes’ say everything, critics may have dumbed down a little to justify their enthusiasms in response. Certain media only operate, in terms of reviews anyway, along similar lines on whether item X or Y is any good or not. By contrast if most critics had their way they would much prefer to justify their “don’t likes” in the spirit of constructive comment perhaps unless they are just being offensive.

If a specialist rates a certain record only in the context of its specialist or microscopically inclined sub-genre then that really is the only narrow value of that rating and actually this should be pointed out in explaining what is being judged. Lists that overclaim just distract or muddy the waters.

Jazz criticism operates on a number of levels. And critics come in different guises contributing to an overall body of opinion, not just from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and increasingly blogs. Even though DJs, radio presenters, and festival promoters aren’t critics they contribute too as judges in a practical sense particularly to do with taste and what gets played or presented live.

A DJ might not make judgments on air about the records he or she is playing. Yet by playing what they choose to they are making a statement so this, especially if it is consistently interesting and new, can become an endorsement and in the case of a groundbreaking style a platform for someone no-one at all in the mainstream has hitherto heard but who will eventually be taken on by. That’s a judgment call, as is on a microscopic level a retweet (RT) despite naïve disclaimers, and our consumption of media and critical response will lead us in a direction that might change our own listening more than any of us would care to admit. But the next time you hear yeah that’s simply the best or ‘brilliant’ take a moment to consider how they have explained their claim or is it just sheer charisma and genuine belief that carries you into agreeing in the end. Maybe we should all have a little faith if we weren’t so cynical to let it go and lap up what we genuinely like, and put the records on we cherish for whatever reasons when we get home, rather than seek out the critically acclaimed all the time and realise whether arriving as words on the printed page or chit chat among friends enthusing about what is turning us on that the rest is mere conversation. 

Towards a conclusion, there never really is one on a subject such as this, the fundamental point is whether a consensus is reached among the arbiters and the arbiters have to be well chosen. Even then a critically acclaimed record can be distorted by hype among other factors no matter how much the arbiters take the hype into consideration offsetting it as best they can.

When I look at something like the 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll my comments as relevant caveats would be it is (i) populated by a North American-centric world view and that's fine and natural given that most of the critics involved are from North America as is NPR; and (ii) more significantly it is too dominated by what one might loosely call avant styles, the latter a more telling point as after all avant stylings are only a part of the picture and because avant does not always necessarily equate with excellence. And without going into a different discussion this is simply not the art/entertainment dichotomy, simply subjectivity within taste that exists and includes a set of acquired artistic signifiers possibly defined by long acquired passion, study and interest and confined to certain listening areas of interest only. Also, and this is more a thing for academic follow-up, each person's list may need to be peer reviewed, contextualised in terms of their other writings making allowances for any blindspots and taking into consideration their methods of critical analysis or at least surveyed for a general overview to guide users of such lists to make up their own minds. (For a good book on jazz critics see Blowin’ Hot and Cool.) 

OK, and I could refer to the oft attributed Duke Ellington truism at this point “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind,” but that is more an indication of Duke’s elegant wit as well as his dislike of putting music into boxes (antithetical to critics as well as marketing folk!) and does not add much to the subject under discussion and might just get everyone listening to a range of Ducal classics which maybe is why it is worth mentioning so as not to actually forget the music rather than soak up the enjoyable chat.

What is more important and we all as giddy consumers of lists forget this is that subjectivity in the arts is paramount. Where's the science bit? Well that might be in a successful ad but it ain’t in a do-the-math list. However, consensus when it connects with a revered brand (and NPR is a global great badge of quality) stack up. Ultimately notwithstanding however we should take “critically acclaimed” with a pinch of salt or regard such nomenclature as a luxury item just as we should be sceptical of the also widely revered tag line “million seller” the latter leading to another discussion. The gap between the two great boosts, kudos or sales, choose your costume for the show, as wide as ever. 

Stephen Graham

updated 02/01/2017