Commentary on Current Music Criticism
Bill Shoemaker
Deep-Seated Needs

There is no artist who has emerged in the past five years that has been lauded in more serious tones by jazz critics than Vijay Iyer. And, rightly so. His music is consistently riveting; but, that alone does not explain why Iyer has such ardent support from the press. Few artists have Iyer’s incisive clarity when elucidating the aesthetic, cultural and political implications of their music. His point of view, however, is due only in part to a sterling academic background, topped off with a Berkeley PhD in the cognitive science of music, and it is a blunder to think that Iyer’s work reflects his experiences on campus instead of the street. More importantly, even fewer artists can walk the walk, musically, with the rigor and passion Iyer has brought to recordings like Panoptic Modes (Red Giant) and Blood Sutra (Artists House). Bottom line: Vijay Iyer is great copy.

Eventually, however, the honeymoon is over, and a backlash ensues, if only nominally. There are glimpses of how Iyer may be second-guessed in Thomas Conrad’s review of Reimagining (Savoy Jazz) in the June issue of JazzTimes. He leads with potentially double-edged puffery: “There may never have been a more intellectually rarefied, more profoundly academic jazz musician than Vijay Iyer...” Yet, after brief mention of Iyer’s academic record, Conrad blunts his lead with the first of several dubious statements about Iyer and his music: “His forbidding, complex, austere creations might be described as jazz for nerds.” It’s a toss-up whether Conrad is more clueless about Iyer’s music or nerds.

It goes quickly downhill for Conrad, who usually avoids preposterous statements like Iyer “possesses the infinite free choices of the autodidact.” Yet, Conrad manages to squeeze out a rough diamond: “Iyer’s music fulfills a deep-seated need of many improvised music fans: to hear what has never been heard before.” Never mind that Iyer’s music is far afield of what is generally considered improvised music. Or that Iyer has many discernable influences; it’s hard to listen to his recordings and not catch glints of Steve Coleman and Andrew Hill, among others. Definitely, Iyer’s music has the shock of the new, but it mostly operates in relatively familiar areas.

Still, Conrad has lurched upon the truth. For many, improvised music is the final frontier, the last large blank space on the musical map. In a word, discovery is the deep-seated need that is fulfilled for many by improvised music. Often, it is a need previously met by other forms of music, before they became, after sufficient exposure, familiar, then predictable, and, ultimately, product. The irony is that improvised music is not completely immune from the expectations and fickleness of consumers. People come back and again to improvised music because they have developed a taste for it. They know in general terms what to expect, and their evaluation of the music depends on how those expectations are met, or are supplanted by something truly unexpected and startling. The saving grace of improvised music is it is fated to remain on the fringe. The idea of having improvised music out there, way out there in the unmarketable wild, also fulfills a deep-seated need of many improvised music fans.

June 5, 2005

Raising The Standard

John Murph respects musicians. It’s obvious in everything he writes, which is saying something, given his output. His liner essay for veteran alto saxophonist Frank Morgan’s fine club recording, Raising The Standard: Live At The Jazz Standard Vol. 2 (High Note), identifies Murph as “a regular contributor to JazzTimes, Down Beat, The Washington Post Express and The Washington City Paper;” but, his reviews and reportage also have several other occasional outlets. It is a workload that some critics and journalists only maintain with a cookie cutter. However, Murph’s love for the music is his only template; additionally, he usually gets it right and says it well.

Back in the day, Murph was the Membership Director of the DC-based National Jazz Services Organization, and his proximity to big-league arts funding in his formative years, professionally, seems to have contributed to an occasional bias in his writing favoring institutions like Jazz @ Lincoln Center and The Kennedy Center. It’s understandable. The programming of these institutions tend to be the most star-loaded and the most historically significant in the country; but, it is programming that, especially in the case of Kennedy Center, attracts a largely older, well-off, if not well-connected audience, which goes some distance to explain Dr. Billy Taylor’s long bucolic tenure there.

So, when Murph leads his essay with a description of a stereotypical mid-century club environment, only to conclude that for “someone of Morgan’s stature, places like Jazz@Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center are more befitting,” it is not totally surprising, even though he’s writing about a club recording. Though Murph deftly pivots his point of view, and gives The Jazz Standard ample props throughout the rest of the piece, his initial bow to elite institutions reverberates even after listening to Morgan’s frequently spellbinding performances.

Stipulated: A high profile in these cultural institutions is necessary for jazz, and that these venues offer jazz artists the dignity, prestige and pay days they deserve. Further: The arts and media are weathering an ongoing assault by the Republican-controlled Federal Government, the latest salvo being Congress’ threat of massive cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the umbrella for both PBS and NPR (where Murph was an Online Associate Producer from 1999 to 2003, when he became a Web Producer for BET Jazz/BET Interactive), jazz’s best conduits to a national audience.

It may seem counterintuitive or just plain contrary to suggest that these are the very reasons why the press should not give these institutions knee-jerk huzzahs and, instead, rigorously scrutinize them. Increasingly, these institutions are the stewards of jazz’s present articulation and its future legacy. Their policies and performance are fair game, whether or not they are under siege. Arguably, how they perform when political and financial pressures are the most severe is a good indicator of how they will perform in better times, if there’s still such a thing as a business cycle.

Cynics may say we already know how these institutions operate in good times, Wynton Marsalis’ tenure at J@LC being Exhibit 1: They are hot houses for cronyism. But, that’s what you do to consolidate power, which is what the Jazz Wars were really about, not aesthetic purity. However, keeping power, especially when money is tight, requires a different politics, one of inclusion and transparency. This is the test going forward for a host of institutions if they are to retain the confidence of jazz’s citizenry, who deserve a press that holds powerful interests to account.

Does the jazz press have the ability and will to do so? That’s a problematic open question.

June 12, 2005

Two Little Words

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff. On June 14th, Ratliff received the Helen Dance-Robert Palmer Award for Excellence in Newspaper, Magazine or Online Writing at the 2005 Jazz Awards and then was savaged by his peers for his dismissive preview of the JVC Jazz Festival-New York that ran in the Times on the very same day.

There are two ironies to this sequence of events. The first is that one of the elder statesmen of American jazz criticism, Dan Morgenstern, both presented Ratliff’s Jazz Award and then threw the first stone in the form of a Letter to the Editor and an email blast when Ratliff’s JVC piece hit newsstands and the Web.

The second irony is that Ratliff was honored for a body of work that has too few equals in American newspapers, an accomplishment that was all but mitigated by two little words in his JVC piece: “How boring.” That’s how Ratliff blew off “a concert blurrily called Piano Masters Salute Piano Legends, with four different pianists playing Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk.”

The problem is that Ratliff failed to inform his readers that the performers were Geri Allen, Kenny Barron, Uri Caine and Randy Weston. It is hard to believe that Ratliff would give these esteemed artists an upturned nose. This omission therefore suggests lapses in research and fact checking, making what is at first glance a petulant snipe seem more like an odious mistake.

Regardless, this single-handedly undid Ratliff’s substantive comparison of the JVC’s New York fest and its Newport counterpart. It also negated several points that deserve serious discussion, and not just in regards to JVC’s fests: approaches to venues and ticketing; the prominence of tribute events, the ghettoizing of new music; etc. These issues should be on every responsible critic’s radar because jazz festivals – and the marketing of jazz festivals – have an arguably disproportionate impact on how Americans assess the state of the art.

This is a necessary discussion from which, at least for the time being, Ben Ratliff has disqualified himself. How unfortunate.

June 22, 2005

Typo Of The Year?

Jazz Review is a feisty, independent minded UK bi-monthly edited by Richard Cook, co-author of The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD. It is a magazine to which I proudly contribute, as it puts me in the company of Cook, his co-author Brian Morton, and a host of other smart, often sharply tongued critics. Anyone outside the UK should consider their e-mail subscription offer. It’s a good value. Contact:

The July issue contains a front-runner for Typo of the Year honors. It’s not a revealing Freudian slip; it’s not even in the copy. The typo is in the Editor’s Choice listings at the top of the CD Reviews section. This month’s picks typically reflect Cook’s catholic tastes, including albums from such diverse artists as Tommy Flanagan and Paul Rutherford. But, the first pick caused an almost neck-snapping double-take. Not because it was a Ruby Braff disc. Even among better-known advocates of the avant-garde, Braff is highly regarded for what reviewer Rick Finlay calls “cerebral fireworks.”

The reason the listing was so shocking was the label cited: Emanem. For anyone who has completely ignored European improvised music for the past thirty-plus years, Emanem is the label of record of the London scene. Its catalog spans the gloried days of the Little Theatre Club, where the circle of musicians around the late drummer John Stevens staked out their aesthetic turf in the mid to late 1960s, to the present. The label’s annual samplers from the Freedom of the City festival are recommended as barometers of the current London scene.

The listing incited a flood of wild speculations about how Braff and Emanem boss Martin Davidson hooked up. A chance meeting, perhaps through the good offices of an improviser with mainstream credentials. like Tony Coe or Kenny Wheeler? Or did Braff simply stumble into Conway Hall, home of Freedom of the City, and sit in with The London Improvisers Orchestra? Better still, had Braff been a closet free improviser for decades and finally decided to come out?

Upon eagerly turning the page to the review, the disappointment hit hard. Braff’s You Brought A New Kind Of Love was in fact issued by Arbors Jazz, a well-regarded mainstream imprint. Instead of Stevens et al, Braff is supported by the likes of Bill Charlap and Bucky Pizzarelli. History remains intact.

July 8, 2005

A Conflict Of Interest

Technically, I can’t review horn_ bill, a collection of solo improvisations recorded at a London concert by clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski and saxophonists John Butcher, Nathaniel Catchpole, Lou Gare, Evan Parker and Seymour Wright. It would be deemed a conflict of interest by most editors and critics, and they would be right in doing so. My name is on the back cover of the 2-CD collection, released on AMM percussionist Eddie Prevost’s Matchless imprint, crediting me with a section of the sleeve notes. But, it is a fairly roundabout story about how an excerpt from the introduction of my 2000 JazzTimes feature, “Solo Flights,” ended up in a CD booklet five years later.

The bulk of the article was comprised of interview “footage” with four practitioners of improvised solo saxophone music: Jackie McLean, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton and John Butcher. Two or three years after the article ran, Butcher asked me if he could post the introduction and his interview on his Web site, and I e-mailed him the file. I had previously done the same for other musicians; in one instance, it was the first opportunity for an article about drummer Gerry Hemingway, which I had written for the first incarnation of Point of Departure in Cuadernos de Jazz, to appear in English.

Earlier this year, Butcher gave solo concerts in Baltimore and Washington, a welcomed opportunity to hear him on consecutive nights and to talk shop. He filled me in on the horn_bill concert, mentioning that Wright had seen the excepted JazzTimes piece on Butcher’s site (, incorporated part of the introduction into the program notes, and that the plan was to reproduce them in the CD booklet. Sounded good to me. Soon thereafter, Wright e-mailed me, asking permission to include the excerpt. I agreed, mentioning that items like Lee Konitz’s Lone Lee, a great late ‘70s solo album for Steeplechase, and Roscoe Mitchell’s way-ahead-of-the-curve “Solo” from 1967 now loomed larger in my thinking on the subject than in 2000.

Now that the CD is out, I’m stuck on the sidelines, an unwanted vantage. Don’t get me wrong -- I welcome an association with an important project like horn_bill. But, the fact remains: I’m disqualified from reviewing an album that I think is generally excellent and, in the case of Prevost’s former AMM colleague Lou Gare’s tenor solo, “Saxophony,” revelatory. Even though a copy of the CD is my only material compensation, and even though the excerpt of my article is literally a footnote to the program/sleeve notes, it would be a conflict of interest for me to review it. So, I won’t.

July 21, 2005