Critics

Jazz critics come in two kinds: the ones we all might care to read; and the ones that we definitely do not. The latter category is where, unfortunately, the majority certainly fall. Why we all do not read certain critics is more instructive to …

Published: 26 Dec 2019. Updated: 10 months.

Jazz critics come in two kinds: the ones we all might care to read; and the ones that we definitely do not. The latter category is where, unfortunately, the majority certainly fall.

Why we all do not read certain critics is more instructive to figure out than the ones we do read. It is not just a matter of taste, more a question of whether they are speaking your truth.

Print critics now are more invisible than ever. They only are read exclusively by their relatively small circulations of readers whether on the 'newstands' or by subscribers. Being scarcely available and collector's items, like rare grooves, does not mean these views are better. Type their opinions on finest vellum and the vellum has more value. I think in print as online (and most jazz blogs deliver only at best adequate wordsmithery often because their writers are slumming it after pursuing a past professional career) only a few critics have loyal followings in the sense that a reader will believe what it is that is set before their eyes and then go out and follow the critic's tastes.

Many of the great critics are dead. However there are some wonderful critics out there who probably do not even use that name but operate in the way we all want: someone whose opinion we trust and who can provide thought provoking articles that can steer us in a direction we did not face towards before.

The great critics like Ralph J. Gleason knew and know what they are talking about and write it with great style and what they are writing makes sense flaws and all. They do not need to be musicians. In fact most of the great critics, while they may have played an instrument like many writers do, were not musicians at all, at least musicians that anyone could properly review.

Think of the best jazz writers around today and do you wonder what they sound like on their instrument? No, we ''judge'' the critics themselves by what they write and not what they play. Musicians who are proper musicians, playing regularly as their main artistic activity, should not write critiques of anyone else's work or give their views on radio because the process is essentially biased, editorial guidelines notwithstanding, or at best a case of banally needing to hedge their opinion bets. Musicians like critics have their own axes to grind.

Critiquing when it is done well is useful. Ask musicians who collect reviews of their own work and put them online in their press packs or press releases. Unless they have a very good satirical sense of humour they do not collect the bad reviews that they can quote verbatim and which were true and they know it; they use them because they contain praise and praise might get a guy a gig. Failing that it can fuel a little more narcissism and self love always handy on a quiet night as a morale boost.

Far more useful, and remember jazz critics are writing for readers not to service publicists, is that they write what people might say quietly in all honesty to friends to help point out things that need addressing.

If a musician for instance has great ability on their instrument (usually taken as read incidentally) but turns the audience off because of their arrogant manner and the critic realises what is going on, that is definitely worth pointing out.

A lot of jazz critics refuse to actually report what they see, let alone hear. Writing with great style always elevated the best critics' work. However, let us be frank, a lot of critics do not know what they are talking about and by that I mean they may perhaps know the facts but they do not know what they are talking about in the sense of feeling the music properly let alone experiencing it fully. In other words the rubbish critics are trying to do the impossible, approach the subject with a scientific rigour when that is completely the wrong approach. Some jazz writers (critics) should not be in the game at all because their views are not interesting however well meaning.

All I'd suggest rather than reel off a lot of names of heroes and zeros is that I'd avoid critics who project a sense of preening entitlement and image of intellectual superiority. No one owns the music and no one owns the universe of opinion about jazz. Don't get me wrong, however, it is good to have well formed opinions that can be backed up if challenged.

Poor critics often hide their real agendas although the way they write usually betrays their inadequacies and it does not take a literary critic of genius to parse the pomposity and dissect their foibles. Work out as a reader what their agenda is (often to underline the significant fact that they are that great thing, the critic) and it is a start. Above all when a critic actually wins your trust, value that achievement no matter what they say it is that you disagree with because they have won you over somehow. They are only speaking their truth in their own high wire act, doomed to fail as it often is. Otherwise if they are not they are faking it all and that is always a turn-off and not worth reading a word of. SG

''I dig me as a critic, vain and arrogant as it may sound. I don't care if I make it with musicians. I wouldn't care if Miles and I didn't get along – it happens that we do but that could change. The important thing is that I stay straight with myself,” Ralph J. Gleason

Tags: Opinion

Samuel Blaser interview

From 2018. Paying tribute to the Skatalites’ Don Drummond led by brilliant Swiss improviser SAMUEL BLASER on trombone and a band of all-stars who include Soweto Kinch and Alex Wilson, recently in action with the Bansangu Orchestra, Blaser explains …

Published: 25 Dec 2019. Updated: 10 months.

Next post

From 2018. Paying tribute to the Skatalites’ Don Drummond led by brilliant Swiss improviser SAMUEL BLASER on trombone and a band of all-stars who include Soweto Kinch and Alex Wilson, recently in action with the Bansangu Orchestra, Blaser explains the origins of the project

“I decided to form this band after a talk with Juhamatti Kauppinen, a ska, dub and reggae lover for whom I recorded some trombone for his latest release on Playground, at the Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland. I told him my dream was to pay tribute to Don Drummond. He booked the the idea right away and offered to perform at his festival in November 2019. I am still super-excited about it and can’t believe it’s happening!

“At that time I was starting to perform regularly with bassist Ira Coleman who was by the way a member of Ernest Ranglin’s band. He’s the first member to have joined my group. Then Ira recommended me to get in touch with Dion Parson who will be on drums and Alex Wilson, a British keyboardist living in Switzerland who connected me to Soweto Kinch and Alan Weekes — Alex and Soweto were in Ernest’s band too. Michael Blake and I have been playing together for many years. We share the same love for that music. It was all natural for me to ask him to join the band.”

“I have always played and listened to Jamaican music. I used to be a member of a well-known reggae band when I was 16-years-old. Since then I have been a regular session player for several productions with musicians like Spahni the LKJ, Lee Perry and Dennis Bovell drummer. I have always been dreaming about starting such a project but never found the right opportunity.”

“Don Drummond's playing was really unique and his music is still very mysterious to my ears full of imagination and tradition. What an incredible sound: Slightly out of tune; great lines and ideas; super melodic. Voted best trombone by Downbeat in the 1950s. Don himself used to think he was the best trombonist on earth although he never really travelled outside of Jamaica. Trombonists like JJ Johnson did travel to Kingston to hear him. I am not sure it’s true but I like to think that way.”

“Right before moving to New York in 2005, a friend of mine in Switzerland gave me a tape and told me to listen carefully to Don D. I didn’t know who he was back then. Since then I have been listening to that tape a thousand times and I am still discovering new stuff in there. It’s amazing how rich this music is. To my knowledge I don’t think anyone else has really paid tribute to the trombonist except for Rico Rodriguez and that was right after Don Drummond's death. Rico, who was one of Don’s protégés and whom I unfortunately met only once, used to travel to my hometown very often — his dentist was there. He used to play with local bands too.”

“What actually interests me is to personalise Don’s music with the talent of my band members and deliver a different vision/approach. The sound is still in my head. I need to sit down and take the time to imagine the music. I am also considering including other people music like Count Ossie (Don D was going to the Wareika Hills to play drums with him) from an album called Tales Of Mozambique. Alex Wilson will be helping me to build a nice programme!”

Samuel Blaser photo, Alex Troesch.