Commentary on Current Music Criticism
Bill Shoemaker
Old Weirdness vs. New Weirdness

The August issue of The Wire, the London-based arbiter of what’s ahead of the curve, features what is at first glance a review of this year’s Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, by Byron Coley. However, by the end of the first paragraph, it is obvious that Coley, an ardent supporter of many forms of uncompromising music, had dived headfirst into the type of fantasy-as-journalism that would make Hunter S. Thompson raise his glass. The scene, as imagined by Coley: Anthony Braxton’s sextet set at Victo is crashed by John Olson, the lead noisemaker of the neo-punk band Wolf Eyes, who, as any of their fans will put it to you, fucking rule! A white-haired, goateed codger (the perfect thumbnail of Braxton’s demographic) tries to pull Olson offstage. Mayhem ensues, spilling out into the parking lot, where cars burst into flame and doom is imminent; that is, until the alto wielding Braxton arrives. Revealing his Wolf Eyes Fucking Rule T-shirt, Braxton saves Olson from the mob, restores order, and goes inside to finish his set.

The facts were almost as strange as the fiction. Braxton not only performed with Wolf Eyes, playing with what Coley called “the focus and intensity you expect from (Braxton),” but extolled their virtues with his usual, effusive use of opaque polyglot terms at a Victo press conference. Coley’s account also includes factoids ranging from Braxton’s purchase of the complete Wolf Eyes merchandise line last fall at a festival in Sweden, to his presence during the Victo festival at such off-site events as pancake eating and rum gurgling contests. These snapshots are the polar opposite of the dominant image of the composer/multi-instrumentalist over the past twenty years or so, that of the courtly mannered, faintly avuncular professor wearing rimless specs and button-down sweaters.

Coley’s musings and anecdotes lay the groundwork for an intriguing construct of Old Weirdness, of which Braxton is implicitly emblematic, and New Weirdness, whose poster boy is Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, a guest curator at this year’s Victo festival. According to Coley, New Weirdness “is based on a kind of post-hardcore, pan-generic form-gobbling.” Assuming that “gobbling” means rapid consumption instead of imitating a turkey, it fairly describes the appetites of a twentysomething audience that has made its presence known since back in the day when John Zorn began to fucking rule!  Coley never directly personifies Old Weirdness; in fact, the term only crops up once in Coley’s text, and only three paragraphs from the end: “Here’s the New Weirdness, same as the Old Weirdness, I guess.”

This is where Coley’s thread unravels. Represented by Victo’s “outright jazz shows” – after all, jazz is now the music of codgers – Old Weirdness is anything but uniform among its constituents, let alone synonymous with the New. Certainly, artists like Peter Brotzmann and William Parker collaborate in a variety of settings; but, the fact remains that their respective moorings – Brotzmann’s in the unlikely mix of Albert Ayler and Joseph Beuys; Parker’s in the Black Arts Movement – speaks convincingly to the diversity within the Old Weirdness. Any competent paleoweirdologist will tell you that Braxton is alone among his AACM contemporaries in being so profoundly influenced by Paul Desmond and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Surely, lumping all of the New together is as futile as generalizing the Old, except on the basis of age. And, where does that get us?

August 15, 2005

The New Coda

I picked up the July/August issue of Coda at Guelph Jazz Festival. I heard much about the tumult at the venerable Canadian magazine, and wanted to assess the self-inflicted damage that ensued from the sacking of Stuart Broomer, the handpicked successor of founder John Norris and long-time editor, Bill Smith, early this year. The present owners, Warwick Publications, installed their advertising manager, Daryl Angier, into the breach, who promptly made things worse by issuing ill-advised, and subsequently widely circulated, emails. In these emails, Angier detailed dubious strategies like placing attractive female musicians on the cover, and distributing the magazine at Starbucks, one of the more despised symbols of American cultural and economic hegemony in Canada. A walkout by several contributors followed, creating something approximating an ideological division between those who left and those who stayed to hold down the fort. Since the May/June issue was Broomer’s last, I surmised that the July/August issue would be an indicator of how fast and how much Coda would change.

At first glance, there seemed to be few changes. There are reviews by old hands like Art Lange, former associate editor David Lee and John Litweiler, who helped shaped Coda’s editorial profile over the decades. Canadian stalwarts like Mike Chamberlain and Marc Chenard continue to fill sizeable holes in the book. The cover and four pages are devoted to Canadian saxophonist Don Palmer, who in no way, shape or form resembles an attractive female. And, with few exceptions, the CDs reviewed are titles Broomer would have assigned himself, if in fact he did not. Ads from Verge distribution and the Ayler and Drimala labels further suggested that Coda’s avant-garde constituency was at least taking a wait and see attitude.

However, closer scrutiny reveals real causes for concern, particularly in terms of space allocations. Prominent among the questionable calls is devoting almost two-thirds of a page for the personnel and track listings of Monk’s Casino in Mark Chenard’s extensive review of the 3-CD package. In text-intensive magazines like Jazz Review, less than two pages would have accommodated Chenard’s data-rich review of the Alexander von Schlippenbach-led marathon, instead of 3 1/2. (When he gets out from under the history, Chenard offers spot-on observations, like comparing trumpeter Axel Dorner and bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall to Booker Little and Eric Dolphy) Given this issue ran only 38 pages in total, the padding of this package (with the type of information the magazine does not as a rule provide readers in their regular CD reviews) raises the possibility that the defections are already making an impact. Another strange page that supports this notion is the front end of Andrew Bartlett’s 1 1/2-page feature review of the Free America reissue series. Almost a half-page is consumed by cover scans of three of the 15 titles, which is more space than is given to the actual reviews.

But, the bigger, more portentous problem is Bartlett himself, who actually uses the phrase “all-killer” to describe the performances on Emergency’s Homage to Peace. On The Gap, Steve Lacy’s “small band is a pulsating giant.” Perhaps it was Angier’s call that the bulk of his piece was devoted to an interview with the project’s director, who waxes on and on about the importance of his series. But, more egregious than his dutiful reporting of the spin, however, is Bartlett’s hackneyed lead paragraph:

In a time when the U.S. has kicked off the 21st century’s (sic) first major war and military occupation, it gives pause at the very least to see the ambitious, 15-volume Free America series emerge. After all, the whole notion of “free” jazz has always begged and baited the question of musical and political freedom in one fell swoop, and this is the biggest international CD release of vintage avant-garde jazz and improvisation.

If a bunch of CDs gives Bartlett pause, then news footage of Darfur and the tsunami aftermath, let alone Iraq and New Orleans, must send him to bed for days at a time. It is this type of nonsense that will sink Coda as faster as sax-touting cover girls. Before they can expand their readership, Angier and Warwick must satisfy their core constituency, which has about as much use for bad writing as it does for a jazz magazine with a babe on the cover.

September 12, 2005

Liner Notes

Liner notes used to be a fairly straight-up propo-sition. Tell the consumer who the musicians are, how they came up, and what they’re playing. While those fundamentals remain at the core of more wide-ranging essays included with CDs today, there are now writers who use the platform to create a new type of text, using a post-Charles Olson projective verse. This approach may not tell you much about the who, what, where, when and how of a recording, but it sometimes gets to the why of it in a unique manner.

Among the leading voices of this approach is NYC-based poet steve dalachinski (the lower case is intentional) and Alexandre Pierrepont, a Paris based critic with an extensive academic background in anthropology. dalachinski and Pierrepont are also part of The Weavers, whose slender pamphlets of “creative writing about creative music” moves this approach a step away than the implicit product endorsement of liner notes. (For further information about The Weavers, contact:

The two writers recently created a text for the Roscoe Mitchell Quintet’s Turn (Rogueart ROG-003). Beyond its summit meeting-like quality – dalachinski’s work often seems singed by fire and brimstone, while Pierrepont’s has a gentler hallucinogenic quality – the text speaks to the collaborative implications of such work. These possibilities emanate from the practitioners’ belief in the spiritual agenda of the music as articulated by Coltrane, Ayler and their successors. Driven by the equation of music with ritual, their work thoroughly refutes the kitsch-infested tenets of post-modernism.

Still, their work is an acquired taste, and is best encountered on its own, without the added stimulus of Mitchell’s music, which demands one’s full attention. Their text employs a lot of eye-crossing typographical pyrotechnics: “This Forest-of-a-Treeful-Shakin-Leaves-a-Changin-Unifyin-Shape-Shiftin (a) MAZE (in) … Turn.” There are also large of dollops of indigestible onomatopoeia: “a firewall avulacrum minahhhshum.” But, there are equal amounts of unadorned poetry:

“There are new angles to every object you may want to hold and it has nothing to do with perception. This table does start on your right, goes through your flesh and flows out in the tarn where next the person you will meet used to bathe when he or she was ageless. Your head is a salt mine and your ears are owls.”

Subsequently, this is an approach that merits further discussion, even debate.

September 24, 2005

Coda’s Makeover

You only have to leaf through the Sept/Oct Coda to ascertain the makeover dreaded by the magazine’s core constituency is in full swing. The cover photograph of pianist Michelle Grégoire seems better suited for a Wiccan journal than a jazz magazine. She gazes slightly downward into her left hand, while she holds her right hand, palm away from her, just above her head. It looks like she’s giving herself a palmreading while warding off evil. The headline -- “Michelle Grégoire/Reaching the national stage with her debut disc” -- seems to bounce off her right hand. Below it: “Denny Zeitlin/Psychiatry and solo piano.”

The feature spreads offer a more detailed juxtaposition between the airbrushed allure of Grégoire and the ascot-sporting Dr. Zeitlin. Grégoire is photographed in a white suit, sitting in a lotus position on a piano bench. Her hair is backlit, her eyes are closed, and her head is tilted back just enough that it is softly focused. The headline reads: “Time Regained: Going Deep with Michelle Grégoire.” Her breasts just happen to be precisely centered on the page.

In stark contrast, Dr. Zeitlin is photographed in his home studio -- one hand on a keyboard, the other on a computer mouse -- and in repose in his garden, replete with gurgling stream, lichen-covered rocks and sub-tropical plants. The really strange thing about the presentation of Zeitlin is this breakout quote next to the garden shot:

I am a major protagonist as a performing musician. In my other pursuit, I’m a more receptive person, though certainly interactive, but the major protagonist is my patient.

Even though avant-garde jazz and improvised music continue to get an appreciable amount of ink in the newest Coda, the makeover campaign spares no one, even veteran contributor Marc Chenard, whose “Out There” column makes its debut. The accompanying small photo of Chenard finds him peering around a corner, which cuts across his face from his right eye to his left cheekbone. Though in person he has a most amiable countenance, Chenard looks like Willem Dafoe in a slasher movie here.

This mash of images begs the question: Who is the targeted audience? Or more pointedly: Who is going to buy this issue off the stands?

October 1, 2005

Seductive Power

As the editor of JazzTimes, Christopher Porter has a determinative role in the planet-wide discourse about jazz and related forms of music. What few outside the Washington, DC area know is that Porter also contributes to the Washington City Paper and The Washington Post. It is in these local outlets where Porter reveals aspects of his personality that usually surface in the pages of JazzTimes. Generally, it is boyish enthusiasm and common pique that distinguishes these pieces. He once slammed the seats in the aging Lisner Auditorium in a Post concert review.  Sometimes, there seems to more to it. In a review of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Coming Home Jamaica (Atlantic; Dreyfus) that contain a version of the AEC’s set-closer, “Odwalla,” Porter went stunningly out of his way to dredge up the Odwalla Juice contamination scandal. Additionally, contrary to the facts, Porter said the juice company inspired the composition, which made avatars of Great Black Music out to be mere shills.

In this regard, Porter’s extensive review of this year’s Umbria Jazz Festival, posted on’s concert reviews section, is worth a close reading. Mixing in gushy references to the glories of Perugia, Porter establishes a saccharine tone in the opening paragraphs. “The music was good, natch…” “I saw many hot shows at the Teatro Moriachhi…” Even his self-examinations of bias are frothy; upon being surprised by teenage saxophonist Francesco Cafiso, he declared: “How wrong I was.” And, by Lizz Wright, prompting Porter to ask: “Why no Nora-like love for Lizz? She would kill at Starbucks (and I mean that as a compliment).” Porter’s mood was also buoyed by the likes of Diana Ross (“hella fun”) and the “legendary” Niles Rodgers and Chic (“whose music I love, prov (ing) once and for all that disco does not suck – but it sure can be corny”).

Alas, Porter’s glow could not be sustained, despite the Umbria Festival’s famously generous hospitality. It was not always “Goose-bump time” for Porter. About 30% of his word count was devoted to “Not so niceties.” His mood was so soured that he didn’t noticed that he used “bland” in successive short paragraphs to describe Madeleine Peyroux and McCoy Tyner’s All-Stars. Perhaps it was the set by Groundtruther (Bobby Previte, Charlie Hunter and Greg Osby), which “was just a mess of noise and electronic effects … (a) surprisingly ugly show.” Or the Eumir Deodato gig: “A total time warp to 1970s cheese.”

Based on the few concerts Porter heard at Umbria that prompted more than a glib zinger, it follows that he would review a new, substantive hometown festival like the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival somewhere, or at least assign a review to one of JazzTimes’ several DC area-based contributors. The DEJF certainly met important criteria shared by major jazz festivals like Umbria. It presented a bona fide jazz icon in Dave Brubeck. Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra gave world premiere performances at the historic Lincoln Theater. The club bookings included world-class artists like Larry Coryell, and musicians from as far away as Turkey and Venezuela. And, there was an extraordinary culminating free event on the National Mall with Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Wallace Roney’s “Mystikal” band, vocalist Sunny Sumter, Wayne Shorter’s Quartet, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Go-Go godfather Chuck Brown.

But, Porter did not review any festival event, nor, to date, has any review been posted on JazzTimes’ site. It’s not that Porter was off on another junket. Porter was in town and on the beat that weekend, covering Brazilian Girls’ set at the 9:30 club for The Washington Post. Here is the opening paragraph of Porter’s review, which ran in the Pop Music column of The Post’s October 3rd edition:

You’ll have to forgive me for not remembering much about Brazilian Girls’ first song at the packed 9:30 club on Saturday. I was too busy trying to figure out if singer Sabina Sciubba was naked save for the expertly placed censor bars over her private parts (and one over her eyes). It wasn’t until later in the set, and a thorough journalistic investigation, that I determined that she was wearing a flesh-colored bodysuit. Still, when the black bar covering Sciubba’s chest finally fell off I nearly fainted – along with the rest of the audience. Such is the seductive power of Brazilian Girls, none of whom are from that country and only one of whom is a woman.

Arguably, Porter apologized to the wrong constituency.

October 5 & 24, 2005