The Uh Uh Uhs

Commentaries on Current Music Criticism
by
Bill Shoemaker

 

Paris Train Wreck

It’s a fact of life: artists occasionally shoot off letters to editors about negative reviews that should stay in a drawer or on the desktop overnight, and then trashed. It’s their right, albeit one that should be rarely exercised. And, it’s an editor’s right to pass the letter on to the writer in question, get a response, and place both of them in a letters column. However, that should only be done when the issues rise above “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and “Yes, I do.” In the absence of a substantive issue, the correct way for an editor to deal with such a letter is to send the artist a respectful acknowledgement of the complaint and conclude with the suggestion that we all can’t agree on everything all of the time.

Unfortunately, Dan Warburton, the editor of Paris Transatlantic Magazine, one of the more erudite Webzines covering uncompromising music of various stripes, made the wrong call in passing on a complaint from guitarist/bassist Joe Morris to reviewer Nate Dorward. Here’s the exchange (granted, a generous application of the term), as it appeared in the January PTM:

Joe Morris writes:

Has Nate Dorward heard all of the recordings I've made on guitar? Going all the way back to 1983. Does he know what might have influenced my playing when it is fast or dense? Has he heard me play a ballad? Has he ever heard me live? I doubt it. Writing "his guitar work tends toward verbosity" (as he did in his review of Rob Brown's "Radiant Pools" Dec. 2005) suggests that he has decided that about all of my work, knows all about me, and knows why it is the way it is in every setting. Critics used to have an obligation to back up their claims before they expressed their opinions in print. After 30 years or performing and more than 20 years of recording, my work on guitar deserves to be fully investigated before it is all described with one phrase.

(Nate Dorward’s reply)

"Has Nate Dorward heard all of the recordings I've made on guitar?" No. Perhaps you thought the answer would be yes? I've seen you play twice: once with the Antennae trio, once with the Many Rings quartet. We talked after the quartet gig, or, rather, I asked a question or two and got a nonstop 40-minute verbal torrent in response. I remember it as containing a lot of discussion of the influence of Cecil Taylor and African music on your playing; you also expression (sic) frustration at critics' (sic) linking your name with Derek Bailey, and much to my surprise pooh-poohed your (fine) records with Hession/Wilkinson/Fell and the Maneris. (Your recent testy exchanges on Bagatellen [.com] concerning the Maneris did not come as a surprise to me.) I admire your passion, articulacy (sic) and knowledge, and sometimes admire your music (though I found the Many Rings group and CD rather hard going), but also find that, both in your music and in your verbal/online exchanges, there is, yes, a certain verbosity.
I have not heard your early work (the 1980s LPs on Riti). Like most listeners, I suspect, I came to it via the Leo releases in the 1990s (Illuminate and No Vertigo). More recently I reviewed two Riti releases which feature you on guitar and banjouke, and gave a detailed account of my impression of your playing. Since your abilities as a mindreader seem poor, let me recommend Google as a more reliable alternative: typing in "joe morris nate dorward" will turn up the review in question: http://www.ndorward.com/music/dickey_prophet.htm. Having discussed your work at length there, I did not see the need to summarize it in the review of the Brown disc for the sake of a passing comment. If you seem to expect vast acquaintance with your recorded work is required before anyone's entitled to an opinion about it, I think I can expect you to pay more attention to your press cuttings before you start suggesting I'm talking through my hat. In my career as a book and music reviewer I can't recall receiving a letter in response to a review as thin-skinned as yours. "His guitar work...tends to verbosity": it's not exactly flattering, but as criticisms go it's pretty mild. Is this how you always respond to criticism? - ND

There’s no other explanation for such a barrage other than that, at some point, it got really personal with Dorward. Most likely, the catalyst was the after-gig encounter with Morris, which Dorward recounts indignantly. Dorward’s dismissal of Morris’ mindreading abilities and his suggestion that Morris Google their two names together is beyond patronizing. And, Doward’s expectation of Morris to pay more attention to his “press cuttings” is downright creepy, since Dorward has kept abnormally close tabs on prior Morris postings on other sites. This is not an act of giant slaying, an occasionally smart tactic for an ambitious critic like Dorward, who fancies having a career as a reviewer. This is a punk pissing on an artist’s shoes over an easily ignored letter.

Ordinarily, Warburton would be afforded some slack. He’s an incisive, committed critic and editor who gave into the temptation of staging a train wreck, nothing a few Hail Mortys won’t absolve. But, there are so many flashing red lights in Dorward’s response that, for no other reason, Warburton should have resisted the temptation to publish the letters to protect his colleague’s credibility, which has been reduced to wreckage.

5 January, 2006

The Dean

Mark Miller is often called “the dean of Canadian jazz critics.” It’s an appellation that makes the truly modest Miller wince, but it’s no overstatement. Though he is the author of several books, all of which flesh out Canadian jazz history, Miller is best known as the jazz critic at The Globe and Mail. Miller retired at year’s end after 27 years with the Canadian national daily to write books full-time. It was a remarkable run, not just for its length, but because of the Toronto-based Miller’s scarily consistent excellence. He never skimped on specificity or subtlety because of the ever-pressing space considerations of a daily. In the process, he made brevity a virtue with streamlined prose and a matter of fact tone.

Miller’s national audience not only made him the best-known jazz critic in Canada, but the most closely scrutinized, as well. Fortunately for his newspaper and his readers, Miller was a rarity among newspaper jazz critics, because he’s better the closer you read him. Rarely is there even a nit to pick with Miller’s assessments, because of his command of the facts and his correct and sparing use of musical terms and jargon.

Miller’s best quality, however, is his ability to gain and hold a reader’s interest in a subject that seems less than scintillating at first glance. Conventional wisdom suggests this is more easily achieved with a newspaper article than with a book, which requires a far greater commitment from the reader.

Yet, the assets that make Miller’s journalism so absorbing convey intact to his books and his sixth and newest volume exemplifies this. Some Hustling This!: Taking Jazz to the World 1914 – 1929 (The Mercury Press; Toronto), traces the first steps towards the internationalization of jazz through the narratives of Johnny Appleseed-like American musicians working abroad. It is a most unlikely page-turner. OK: This is partially due to the fact that Miller favors very short chapters. But, it’s mainly craftsmanship that propels the reader through the book.

What remains to be seen is how frequently Miller can publish new books now that he is no longer tied down with a day job. I’m ready for the next one.

19 January

Star Power

In a letter printed in the March issue of Down Beat, Palmetto Records owner Matt Balitsaris points out some startling stats culled from DB’s Best CDs of 2005 list, printed in the January issue. Only one new release received a five-star rating in Down Beat in 2005, while nine reissues, compilations and previously unissued archival recordings got the top rating. Of the CDs garnering four and a half stars, two-thirds were reissues or compilations. Baltisaris was disturbed by “the implication that there were virtually no significant jazz records made by any living person in the last year.” The implicit message that today’s listeners are a generation late, Baltisaris argued, reinforces “the trend in which jazz is becoming an artifact in our culture, one that people put on like a suit and tie and evokes a specific mood or period in time in an act of cultural nostalgia.”

The emotional truth of Balitsaris’ observations notwithstanding, the reason for the ratings imbalance has more to do with DB’s somewhat recent adjustments to its rating system and increased editorial oversight. Historically, five stars meant a recording was “Excellent.” The rating is now reserved for a “Masterpiece.” Four stars used to signify “Very Good.” It has been upgraded to “Excellent.” Additionally, in recent years, DB’s editors have scrutinized reviews for what could be called “star inflation.” Occasionally, editors will telephone or email a contributor when they detect irrational exuberance in a review. All of this exerts a moderating influence upon DB’s reviewers, at least when it comes to new releases.

A partial list of the non-new releases receiving five stars in DB last year includes recently unearthed gems like the 1945 concert by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and the ’57 performance by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, both of which substantially expanded our understanding of these history-making collaborations. The list also included the 2-CD set of Coltrane’s Quartet at the Half Note, the expanded, 20th anniversary edition of Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman’s Song X, and the illuminating Bert Williams anthology. All are truly Historical, and therefore much easier to proclaim as Masterpieces.

Heralding a new release as a Masterpiece, on the other hand, is a far riskier proposition. Looking over my own DB five-star reviews from the 1980s and ‘90s, there are more that fall short of Masterpiece status than recordings like John Carter’s Castles Of Ghana and Anthony Davis’ Episteme that make the cut. Enthusiasm for a recording can be fleeting, but five-star ratings last forever.

Still, Balitsaris’ point that jazz’s past is currently more valued than its present should give pause to all concerned. Given that this dilemma is more than 20 years in the making, it will take a lot more than five-star reviews to begin to turn it around.

7 February

 

HighNote

 

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