What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Chris Kelsey, an Upstate New York-based saxophonist, composer, writer and editor. Kelsey first started working in New York in the early 1990s with musicians affiliated with the Improvisers Collective. Between 1996 and 2006, Kelsey recorded a series of albums for CIMP and Cadence Jazz Records, including a solo soprano disc, a duo album with Steve Swell and trio and quartet dates with Dominic Duval, Jay Rosen and others; he released his latest album, Not Cool, on his own Tzazz Krytyk label. Kelsey has written for Jazz Times and jazz.com, which he also edits. For more information, consult: www.chriskelsey.com.
Bill Smith, a British Columbia-based musician, writer, editor, graphic designer, photographer, and record and film producer. With John Norris , Smith co-produced the Canadian jazz periodical Coda Magazine, Sackville Recordings and its subsidiary label Onari Records from 1976 until 2001. Smith was a founder of a succession of Toronto-based groups integral to the Canadian improvised music community in the 1970s, including Canadian Creative Music Collective, and New Art Music Ensemble. The latter became the Bill Smith Ensemble in 1980; they recorded five albums, including collaborations with Joe McPhee and Wadada Leo Smith that are now available on Boxholder. Smith has also recorded with, among others, Birdyak, Wolfgang Fuchs and The Six Winds. Smith initiated a series of projects with the title “Imagine the Sound” in the ‘80s, including a book of his writings and photography and the acclaimed documentary film directed by Ron Mann. Now residing on Hornby Island, Smith currently works with Arthur Bull and Tony Wilson, and is writing a biographic novel titled Rant & Dawdle. For more information, visit: www.vancouverjazz.com/bsmith.
Dan Warburton, a Paris-based musician, writer and editor. As a violinist and pianist, Warburton is perhaps most widely known as a member of The Return of the New Thing, a quartet with alto saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet, bassist François Fuchs and percussionist Edward Perraud that has released albums on Leo, Ayler and Not Two. His discography also includes recordings with, among others, Arthur Doyle, Tomas Korber and Nikos Veliotis. Since 1995, Warburton has been Editor-in-Chief of the online Paris Transatlantic Magazine (www.paristransatlantic.com/magazine); he also contributes to All Music Guide, Signal to Noise and The Wire. For additional information, go to: www.paristransatlantic.com/warburton/danbio.
Bill Shoemaker: Musicians and writers both strive for an individual voice. Has the pursuit of your voice as a musician been relatively discrete from developing your voice as a journalist and/or critic, or are they fundamentally joined at the hip?
Dan Warburton: Shackled to each other might be a more appropriate metaphor. Music journalism – which started for me in the mid ‘90s with the Paris New Music Review (which eventually morphed into the Paris Transatlantic website) – has inevitably influenced my own development as a performer, since several musicians I've interviewed and written about over the years have also ended up, more by accident than design, as occasional playing partners (John Butcher, Arthur Doyle, Radu Malfatti) or people I've collaborated with in compositional projects (Nikos Veliotis, Tomas Korber, Ralf Wehowsky).
With reference to that first sentence, I'm not sure I can speak of a voice, either – several, maybe. There's a world of difference between a free jazz blowout with Return Of The New Thing (with François Fuchs, Jean-Luc Guionnet and Edward Perraud) and a lowercase improv date with PoGo (another quartet I play in with Pascal Battus, Frédéric Blondy and Bertrand Gauguet); the technical skills required to tackle a microtonal Radu Malfatti composition don't come into play at all if I'm mucking about with my own field recordings. Similarly, the way I write about music also depends who I'm writing for – if it's something for The Wire it's likely to be more "serious" than the stuff I write to amuse myself (notably, the PT website).
The most obvious consequence though is the sheer volume of music that comes my way as a journalist – upwards of 500 albums a year. Being able to isolate myself and concentrate solely on my own projects without listening to someone else's music is a luxury I can only really afford if I cut down on the writing. Hence my decision a couple of years ago to take a break from PT to complete the Compendium Maleficarum III project with Fred Goodwin.
Bill Smith: Coda Magazine's editor John Norris was the first person who offered me the opportunity to express my opinions about jazz in print. In 1965 I reviewed seven different events, four taking place at the then legendary Town Tavern in Toronto – (Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan – A Contrast In Baritones; Wes Montgomery; Shirley Scott and Stanley Turrentine; Buddy De Franco and Jimmy Guiffre – Two Clarinets); an overview of a visit to New York City, and a review of a television program featuring the MJQ and Laurindo Almeida. At that time there was no thought beyond the excitement of seeing my opinions fixed on a page. Checking my files I discover that very same year two of my photographs (Sonny Greenwich and Marion Brown) appeared on the cover. My fate was sealed.
In my youth, back in England, I had played drums in a trio, but there was never any serious intention to develop a career as a musician, and had it not been for a series of events leading up to the appearance of Jimmy Guiffre at the Town Tavern, my life may well have taken a completely different path.
In the aforementioned overview of my New York visit I had written:
A new thing, I do not understand, followed; lack of emotion, program music, prepared cleverness (under the guise of Jazz?), they do not call it anything (frustrating for a writer). Presented first the Jimmy Guiffre trio with Joe Chambers and Richard Davis (everywhere), both great and reading frantically (blurred dots?), and Guiffre emitting strange sounds seemingly in no sequence or pattern (is this the freedom they mean?).
The Don Heckman (another critic) - Ed Summerlin group, continued with the same calculated FREEDOM, but with more people involved, Steve Kuhn throwing money into the piano (making wishes?). I don’t doubt their musical ability, just their intentions.
When Mr. Guiffre arrived in Toronto he sought me out. Being a gentleman there was no physical retribution, instead he asked simply what instrument I played. Two days later I purchased my first saxophone; a slightly beat-up ancient Buescher Aristocrat tenor, the faded lacquer and well worn mother-of-pearl keys instigating daydreams of future renditions of Big Ben’s “In a Mellow Tone.”
And so it began, a life where I've attempted to include every element of the music: writing, playing, producing… whatever, anything at all that could make the music go forward. I created for myself the rather grand character of "music artist.” So I will go with "joined at the hip".
Chris Kelsey: “Voice?” I have a “voice?” You flatter me, sir...
At the risk of going way beyond the scope of your question, I'm not sure I'm on board with the “striving” part. I think the most interesting musicians are those for whom developing a voice happens more or less organically. Often when artists “strive,” they're trying to be the next big thing, or at least call attention to themselves. Bird and Coltrane and Cecil didn’t strive primarily to find a voice; they were motivated by an innate sense of discovery. They were explorers. The development of their voices was a byproduct of their intrepidness.
There was a time when I was in my 20s when I was very concerned about finding my own 'voice' as an improviser—getting rid of the Charlie Parker influence and other overtly derivative aspects of my playing, and keeping only what I thought I could call my own. There's more than a smidgen of immaturity inherent to that sort of attitude, I think—a bit of reinventing the wheel, as well as the nurturing of an ego that, if anything, needed to be deflated (or at least painted a new color). It wasn't without positive effect, in that it set me on the path toward ultimately finding myself, creatively. But that happened only after I stopped forcing the issue. After awhile, I found it more productive to cease thinking about developing a “voice,” and just trust my sense of adventure. I didn't need think about it, anymore than an adult in full possession of his faculties needs to think about how he's going to take his next step. I just put one foot in front of the other and enjoy the hike.
In contrast, I never forced the issue as a writer, perhaps because I began writing for mostly utilitarian reasons. When I was in my mid 30s living in New York, I began to feel that the music I cared most about—free jazz, essentially—wasn't getting a fair shake in the jazz press and I wanted to do something to counter that. A couple of high-profile New York writers during the '90s made it their business to bash free jazz at every opportunity. I felt something like an obligation to add a voice (however obscure, especially at first) in opposition.
I'd always been able to write, though it wasn't something I'd pursued, nor was it something I especially enjoyed, to be frank (although I now enjoy it very much). But I felt I had something to contribute, an insight on the music that a non-musician writer might lack. I never had any grand literary aspirations, because I thought of myself as a musician, first and foremost. A happy consequence is that my writing developed naturally. If I have a voice as a writer, it's come from doing it day-in-day-out for years, and letting curiosity be my guide.
So … to finally answer the question you asked and not the one I decided to answer, I'll say that, like Bill Smith, I play and write about music that interests me. So in that respect, they are joined at the hip. I also feel certain parallels in the physical, mental, and emotional acts of writing and playing. I'm aware of timbre when choosing words, for instance, and rhythm when constructing sentences. I think I relate sentences to one another when composing paragraphs in the same way I connect (or disconnect) musical phrases in an improvisation. And I think I intuit form similarly in both areas. I don’t want to make any ludicrous claims for myself; I'm not a poet. But my writing does have a musical component, and if there were a machine that could measure such things, it would probably detect some cross-discipline consistency.
Shoemaker: Journalism idealizes objectivity; yet so much journalism and criticism about jazz and other forms of experimental is agenda-ridden; the writer has a cause he or she wants to advance through their writing. Bill’s desire to “make the music go forward” encapsulates this well. The problem is that the way ahead shifts over the years. Certainly, the horizon in front of me when I first started writing about music in the late ‘70s is now but a dot in the rear-view mirror. How have your agendas changed over the years, and how are they reflected in both your music and your writing?
Smith: In the latter half of the sixties when I initially imagined a future in music, my living was made firstly in engineering as a draughtsman and then as a photographer for a city magazine, so jazz music was little more than a delightful hobby. Although I had already formed serious opinions regarding the "new" music of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor – my two favorite pioneers, I was never altogether enamored by John Coltrane, who had already achieved fame with Miles Davis and his own quartets; his music not seeming to be a radical departure.
Once again it's because of Coda Magazine that I progress to the next stage of American history. Physically assembling the magazine was a social gathering of friends around a table with piles of pages and staple guns. John Norris had an enormous record collection covering two walls of his apartment, and one of the compensations for our work was to choose a recording from his vast selection. Stuart Broomer, at that time a rather precocious young man, chose one of Albert Ayler's ESP recordings. Two weeks later I headed for New York City to investigate this amazing music. Fortunately he was appearing everywhere: The Astor Playhouse, Slugs, The Dom, and the Lincoln Center as a guest of John Coltrane at the "The Titans of the Tenor" concert. He would become my standard bearer. There was obviously no looking back.
By the end of that decade I had returned to England on an engineering contract and while there again came in contact with Albert's music; a BBC-TV recording (that was erased and never shown) – which I reviewed in the Melody Maker. On the same journey I hung out with Chris McGregor and the expatriated South Africans in London, and Jeanne Lee, Ran Blake and Don Cherry in Paris. The very same Beuscher tenor saxophone accompanied me on this journey and I was very fortunate to receive casual lessons from Ronnie Beer. A most auspicious entry into the world of the "avant garde".
Here, forty-odd years on, Albert Ayler is still my guiding light, a joyous ritual in which to regularly luxuriate, my constant connection with the unfolding history that I've been privileged to witness. Of course along the way there have been numerous discoveries and musical influences, the likes of Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Joe McPhee, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble… the list go on.
I've lived out here on Hornby Island for twenty years, removed from the focused energy of improvising forms, no longer editing Coda Magazine (which seems not to exist) or indulging often in extreme music. It has softened my requirements, led me backwards to the music I abandoned in my enthusiasm for the new, returned me to listening to recordings of my youthful loves: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Benny Golson and Lee Morgan, Tubby Hayes, Earl Bostic's funky bands, Fats Domino … Miles, Mingus and Monk of course; even early MJQ and George Shearing. Currently I'm the drummer in a swing duo that plays songs our mothers taught us and a Celtic/blues trio.
As for my writing – since becoming a Senior Citizen back in 2002 I've mostly concentrated on a fictional memoir, adding material to my web page, and writing the odd liner note.
Warburton: I think one of the major differences between music journalism as I see it (i.e. the stuff I write: album reviews, the odd extended feature on a particular individual / group / genre / trend) and musicology / music theory (across the Atlantic they still differentiate between the two) is that the former can't possibly be objective, no matter how hard it tries. I can produce a perfectly satisfactory set theory analysis of a Milton Babbitt song and show how it works (or doesn't) without ever having to say whether I like it or not. I don't think what I write is very objective ("not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased" to quote my online dictionary) at all. Part of that is due to the simple raison d'être of album reviews – necessarily we're reviewing things which are "hot off the press", and we're therefore less able (or maybe not able at all) to see how they might fit into some bigger picture, or canon. It's also due to the fact that I tend to choose myself what I review rather than be told what to review, and as a result try to avoid hatchet jobs, which tend to result in acrimonious bunfights in online discussion forums that end up discussing the proclivities of the journalist more than the work at hand (Chris will no doubt recall the hoo-hah that erupted over at Bagatellen after his OFN of Bertrand Gauguet's etwa..). I guess I strive for objectivity knowing all the while I'm doomed to fail – I'll happily acknowledge that the first Polwechsel album has probably had more influence on the subsequent development of improvised music than Dafeldecker's later album Absinth with Hautzinger, Tilbury and Sachiko M, but I'll take Absinth with me to my desert island without a moment's hesitation.
I'm certainly not aware of any particular "cause" I want to advance. Sure, from time to time you come across someone whose work is not getting as much attention as you think it deserves, and try to put that right – a few years ago nobody was talking about Paul Flaherty, which is happily no longer the case (I'm waiting for similar exposure for Wally Shoup and Marco Eneidi) – but I think we overestimate our importance if we think we can single-handedly change the course of musical history. Maybe we can if our article appears in a trendsetting publication like The Wire and gets enthusiastically quoted by other writers contributing to the same publication (witness David Keenan's New Weird America piece a while back).
As for "the way ahead," I have not the slightest idea where we're going. Right now I'm inclined to be rather pessimistic about the areas of music I care most about – free jazz, improvised music, contemporary classical, electronica (and don't push me for definitions of those!) – but I'm sure it won't be long before something comes along the road that will cause me to change direction once again.
Kelsey: I share Dan's dislike of “hatchet jobs.” I'm not squeamish about writing negative reviews, however, which I don't necessarily equate with the term. I've never been a blogger, except about politics (although that could change soon); until recently, I've always written for other publications and reviewed what I was assigned. When I write about what's put on my plate, I'm bound to get things I don't like from time to time. When that happens—surprise! Out pops a negative review.
(Dan seems to imply that my review of his friend Mr. Gauguet's album was a hatchet job. I strongly disagree, but I imagine it's still posted on One Final Note for interested parties to read and decide for themselves. As for the accompanying uproar at Bagatellen, I must've missed that. I remember reading something Dan wrote calling my review “misguided,” but I think that was on his site. I could be wrong. Anyway, my big dust-up at Bags happened some time prior, after which I seldom visited the place.)
As for objectivity and having an agenda … the word 'agenda' seems to have a negative connotation, often connected with self-interest (of course, peel away enough layers and ultimately everything boils down to that, but that's a conversation for another day). I prefer to use the word 'enthusiasm.' I'm a man of many, passionate enthusiasms, and they have indeed changed over the years.
As I touched upon earlier in this exchange, during the late '80s and early '90s in NYC, certain NYC jazz writers prided themselves on their Know-Nothingness (I'm glad to say that their days of defiling the prideful local arts pages are mercifully long past). These guys seemed to glean an unnatural joy from trashing any jazz that diverged from the One True Path. Talk about an agenda … Christ! Those guys thought they were on a mission from God. Anyway, I eventually got sufficiently pissed-off and inspired to write about the leftward-leaning jazz from a positive perspective. I wanted everyone to love what I loved. That was my 'agenda,' Pollyanna-ish as it might sound.
Between then and now, however, I've moved away from being an unalloyed advocate for a particular genre or idiom or artist. There's good and bad in all of 'em. These days, when writing about music or anything else, I hope my primary agenda will be to express my thoughts as honestly and interestingly as possible (also sounds Pollyanna-ish, but true).
Not that I stopped liking or supporting free jazz and improv, but after awhile it dawned on me—duh!—that for it to be taken seriously, it should be subjected to serious criticism. That meant when I reviewed music, it shouldn't be enough for the artist to simply attempt something interesting; the final product had to work, at least according to my personal value system. The ends needed to live up to the means, as it were. I wasn't doing anyone any favors by awarding E's for effort. While I'm certainly not averse to giving private words of encouragement to developing musicians, it's an abdication of my professional responsibilities to do that for general consumption.
I think my evolution has created some confusion among the musicians I cover (I'm often stunned and saddened to discover how intensely I'm disliked in certain musical circles). That's understandable. But screw it. I'd had enough of throwing good money after bad. By trying to support it—by pursuing an agenda—I'd unwittingly condescended to the experimental music community by being less discriminating than I should've been. That was misguided, as far as I was concerned. I now felt obliged to move away from being a general advocate for the music I cared about, and toward being someone who drew a distinction—necessarily personal, of course—between mediocrity and excellence. By doing that, I better serve everyone, especially readers, who (it goes without saying) are my most important constituency. This way, even someone who thinks my values are messed-up can read one of my reviews and say to him- or herself, “If Kelsey thinks it sucks, it must be good!” (Of course, they need to keep up with me, because my personal aesthetic is fluid. What I think sucks today, I may love ten years from now. It doesn't happen often, but I don't preclude the possibility.) For me, an overarching agenda gets in the way of creativity. It sets artificial boundaries, forces me to live in a static universe. Of course, others may feel differently, which is fine, too. But it's not for me.
As for where I am now, my first impulse is to deny having an agenda, but I realize that's not true, because I find myself in thrall of a different subject every time I sit down to write. These days I'm writing many more essays than reviews. When I do that, I almost always advocate one idea or aesthetic stance over another. And therein lay my answer to the aspect of your question regarding 'objectivity.' When writing news or profiles, I have no problem being objective, but when writing opinion and/or criticism … well, objectivity doesn't apply. I'm writing what I think and feel, right? Hence, my embrace of the word “enthusiasm” over agenda. I'm enthusiastic about many things.
Musically, my enthusiasms evolve slower over a longer period of time, primarily because I'm dealing with the same subject—my creative 'vision' if you will. It's an accretive process.
Shoemaker: Regardless of where we are going, most journalists want to get there ahead of the others. The same holds true for musicians. The Internet has radically shortened the time span between a journalist receiving a CD and the publishing of the review. I now regularly see reviews of CDs running on sites a day or two after I get them in the mail. There are bands that record their performances, make CD-Rs of it the next day, and then sell them at the gig that night. Speed of delivery is great if the writing or the music is solid. But if it is not, this is where editorial standards kick in. How do your editorial standards as musicians and journalists overlap, and are these standards being met, generally, in Web-based journalism about jazz and other forms of experimental music?
Warburton: The race to be the first site / mag to review the album is one I decided to opt out of when I stopped doing monthly issues of the PT site (now it's quarterly, well sort of). It's mighty frustrating to pitch something to a magazine barely a couple of months after receiving it and be told you're too late. I'm also suspicious of reviews that appear too quickly, and wonder how and how many times the writer has listened to the album before committing pen to paper, as it were. I know that with the volume of stuff we get, knee jerk reactions sometimes have to pass as considered responses, but it's not something I feel all that happy with. In answer to your last question, Bill, I wouldn't really know, as I don't spend all that much time reading other sites – my own keeps me busy enough, along with a couple of discussion forums. The only magazines I read regularly are The Wire and Signal To Noise.
Kelsey: I'm indifferent to being the first critic on my block to review any particular CD. In fact, I've been writing mostly for Jazz.com recently, which essentially aims to review at least a track or two from every jazz album ever recorded. When its editor, Ted Gioia, remarked that he would like to have more reviews of AACM-type stuff – most of which is older – I volunteered. So in the last year or so I've mostly been reviewing free jazz stuff from the '70s and '80s. Not the way to make yourself a contemporary taste-maker.
The term 'editorial standards' implies the presence of an editor, and so many of the sites that review these CDs are one-person operations. That's not to say they don't often have something interesting to say. Sometimes those kinds of unmediated responses are interesting. I don't think being quick with a review necessarily negates its value. I listen to a CD exactly as many times as it takes to get a handle on it and write the review. If that's once, fine. If it's a dozen times, that's ok, too, although I usually don’t see the point in subjecting music created spontaneously to hours and hours of exhaustive listening. More often than not, it only takes me a couple of turns.
I can't possibly say if other writers agree with my approach – I know some guys on certain jazz discussion sites think it's important to listen to a CD a jillion times before you publish a review. That's fine for them. Different strokes. As you might suspect, all of the musicians I play with agree on the spontaneous approach to music-making.
Smith: Nope - I've never wanted to get there ahead of the others with my writing or music. One of the problems with "jazz" journalism is that it has fallen prey to pop mentality, where first across the line means a winner. Ironically Dan's reply to each question arrives in my mail box at the same time as the question itself.
Recently I've been researching – via the internet – the area of Toronto where most of our musical adventures took place in the late seventies and early eighties, and find that the hip blurbs pertaining to the district, written mostly by young men who were not yet born when the revolution was in full swing, do not mention the activities of the improvisers, dancers, poets, film-makers etc.; dismiss us with twaddle: "…some individual fusions that still defy categorization". It appears more important that Jack Nicholson and the Rolling Stones hung out there drinking grande double-double low-fat decaf chai latte. When in fact we were introducing to a rather conventional boring city new ways of thinking. Again not in a hurry.
Judging from the few Canadian newspapers and magazines I see, there appears to be no critical analysis of any music outside of Billboard's "popular" top ten. And who cares about that? Not I. PoD (web based) and Signal to Noise (print media), my two sources, provide ample information. So I rarely have the need to search elsewhere. On occasion I'm sent a periodical that has used one of my photographs.
I think back to the attitudes of important musicians regarding the production of CDs and their relevance. Mark Helias once told me that nowadays when everything was instantaneous that the CD had taken on the role of the business card; and Derek Bailey always treated them as documentation of his ongoing process. After all no creative artists are thinking that they will have a "hit", that's terminology invented by record companies, flimflam generated by perfumed PR ladies.
Me, I'm more inclined toward the message from The Smashing Pumpkins...
Sorry about that, I'll just go and put John Cage’s "Two4" (Wergo WER 6617-2) on the machine – a really slow cello and accordion duet. Five Stars. Highly Recommended.
Shoemaker: Is there a music critic, past or present, who has influenced you both as a musician and a writer?
Warburton: Oh, several. Depends which area of music we're talking of course. If "critic" can also mean "musicologist", I can think of several classical composers whose words have influenced me just as much as their music: Berlioz, Busoni, Ives, Debussy, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Cardew, Feldman, Nyman and my own Cambridge professor Robin Holloway. I was going to add Kyle Gann, but I think he's much better at writing about music than he is at actually composing it. Jazz musicians – think Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, George Russell, Alan Silva – are better at inventing theoretical systems to underpin their own musical practice than they are at explaining them, at least in print. (If anyone out there knows what "harmolodic" really means, drop me a line. After twenty odd years I'm still trying to figure out the harmolodic guitar clefs in Blood Ulmer's Tales Of Captain Black.)
But I guess you're not talking Music Theory 101 here, Bill. In the, erm, less academic domain there are several musicians who write very well and entertainingly about other people's music, and, oddly enough, many of them seem to be guitarists: Noël Akchoté, Michel Henritzi, Alan Licht and Bruce Russell. Bruce and Alan also write for The Wire, as you know. So our list should also include Clive Bell and David Toop too. Then again, much as I enjoy their reviews, I can't say I feel I've been influenced directly myself by them – as a writer, that is – in the same way that I have by someone like Robin Holloway.
Smith: Digging back into the dusty recesses I find only Jack Kerouac and Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones). So none.
Kelsey: Maybe Rafi Zabor. Some of his stuff in Musician magazine in the late '70s and early '80s hipped me to the free jazz of the day – Arthur Blythe, David Murray, cats like that – and I liked his writing style, which I think rubbed-off on me. There might be others, although none come to mind. I do remember listening to an LP that Bill (Smith) did with Stuart Broomer back in the day, and being floored when I realized he played and wrote so well. I don't remember clearly -- that was long before I started writing – but I'm sure that must've served as something of an impetus for me to do the same. So I guess I could add Bill to the short list!