The Uh Uh Uhs

Commentaries on Current Music Criticism
Bill Shoemaker

Going Inside the Numbers

The August issue of Down Beat contains the results of its 54th Annual Critics Poll. At first glance, there were few surprises and a lot of the usual suspects. Still, it was gratifying that the late great Jackie McLean was inducted into DB’s Hall of Fame. Ditto for Sonny Rollins, whose triumphant 9.11 concert recording was largely responsible for him winning both the Jazz Artist of the Year and Tenor Saxophone categories, and for Andrew Hill, whose Time Lines was voted Jazz Album of the Year.

Going inside the poll numbers leads to some interesting inferences. As editor Jason Koransky mentions in his First Take column, 121 critics submitted ballots. A review of the list printed at the end of the results indicated that 27 of them are not Americans, a little over 22%. Of the 58 categories, Americans musicians and record labels won 50, about 85%. Most of the non-American winners – including Elvis Costello, Dave Holland, Luciana Souza, Toots Thielemans and Joe Zawinul – have a substantial fan base among US critics, which accounts for their decisive margins of victory. Only Rising Star trombonist Gianluca Petrella and harmonica player Gergoire Maret, who won the Rising Star Miscellaneous Instrument category, could conceivably be considered to be exponents of Euro Jazz. Well, unless you want to include Jamie Cullum, who won Rising Star Male Vocalist.

It’s important to note that voters had 10 points for each category, which could be divided between three artists, with no more than 5 points going to a single artist. Therefore, if you had a block of voters – say 27 – who each gave 5 points to a single artist, that artist would have 135 votes just from that block. The only European that won with that number of votes, approximately, was Petrella, who garnered 120. Holland, Thielemans and Zawinul each received over 200 votes, which suggests they received a substantial number of votes from American critics.

Conversely, Callum, Costello, Maret and Souza and 23 Americans won with less than 120 votes. This means that non-American voters could have had a significant impact on all of the results if there was consensus among them. They could have denied McLean entry into the Hall of Fame, and taken away Jazz Artist of the Year award from Rollins and Best Jazz Album from Hill, for starters. Such a block could have put EST and Bugge Wesseltoft on top for Jazz Group and Rising Star Keyboard/Synthesizer honors, respectively, and put Jan Garbarek into the Hall of Fame.

But, they didn’t. In fact, Garbarek received only 11 votes in the soprano saxophone category, and was not on the tenor list, meaning he got less than Fred Anderson’s 24 votes. Wesseltoft got only 18 in the Rising Star Keyboard/Synthesizer tally. EST fared better, getting 50 votes and placing second (behind the SF Jazz Collective) in the Rising Star Jazz Group balloting, though that’s arguably an underachievement for a group that’s been on the cover of DB and most commercial jazz magazines in North America and Europe.

Instead, non-American critics appear to have voted as individuals, not as members of a block. The same can be said of the Americans who submitted ballots. This is best perceived when looking at the top ten in any category. Not only do non-Americans have a greater representation, but the styles represented in these broader samples are impressively wide, as well. If this year’s poll yields anything beyond a snapshot of who’s hot and who’s not, it is that pluralism is alive and well in the international community of jazz critics.

July 10


Presumptions of Innocence

The uproar over David R. Adler’s “The Trial of Tarik Shah,” which ran as a Solo guest column in the May issue of JazzTimes continued in the letters column of their August issue. For the most part, Adler’s account of the bassist’s arrest, arraignment and hearings on charges of conspiracy to aid al-Qaeda, as well as the lengthy, legally dubious holding of Shah in solitary confinement, was even handed, painstakingly so at times.

However, Adler led his concluding paragraph with an astoundingly ill-considered sentence: “One thing is certain: This is a poor way for a jazz bassist to make headlines.” JT’s layout pumped the chum with steroids by using the sentence to lead a breakout quote, deleting the words prior to the colon. The magazine also misspelled the bassist’s name on the cover, which compounded the insult felt by Shah supporters, who weighed in not only with JT, but also with Adler’s Letterhead blog site.

On his site, Adler did well in countering his critics, many of who articulated the issues and argued them in a way that could generously be characterized as haphazard. Unfortunately, however, Adler’s response in JT to jazz activist Margaret Davis’ letter only threw gasoline on the fire. Davis concluded commenting on the “poor way” sentence:

I find that sentence and its implications inexcusable: “Why worry, folks? This is just a giant publicity stunt.”

Adler took the bait and got hooked. He opened his response by taking on Davis’ assertion:

It is false and outrageous for anyone to argue that I likened Shah’s support campaign to a “giant publicity stunt.” I wrote: “This is a poor way for jazz bassist to make headlines” – in other words, it is regrettable that Shah is now better known for his legal plights than for his playing. Nowhere did I impugn Ms. Davis’ motives.

Adler’s response begs the question: If that’s what he meant, why didn’t he just say so in the original column? Wording like “it is regrettable that Shah is now better known for his legal plights than for his playing” is far more appropriate. By putting this wording in the same sentence as the original wording, Adler’s response only reinforced reader Rick Theis’ complaint about the “flippant way” in which Adler discussed the case.

Let’s presume Adler to be innocent, that he made his point in a poor way in the column, but without malice. Why, then, would he in essence stand by his original wording? Given all the indiscriminate incoming Adler took on his site, shell shock is a plausible explanation.

Certainly, that doesn’t get him off the hook for the original wording. But, Shah’s supporters make a fundamental error in singling out Adler. Not only did the editorial process fail to rule the wording out of hand; it endorsed the original wording by using it in the breakout quote. And, this didn’t occur on the spur of the moment. It took hours, most probably over the course of days, to copy edit the piece, lay it out with the breakout quote, and finally clear it for publication. Indicting Adler alone is therefore wrong.

July 22

High Zero Festival

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