Friday, November 28, 2008

Witness For The Defence

I've been stewing for awhile about a blog posting that attracted no little attention for its strident stance on the state of jazz journalism. Time to respond.

Need I even take the bandwidth to state my bias in this dispute? Obviously, as a leading contributor to DownBeat – one of the two main targets of the original blog post – and vice-president of the Jazz Journalists Association, which represents +400 writers, broadcasters and photographers around the world, I have a point of view about the current state of jazz writing.

My intention is not to debate the anonymous (funny, that) poster – though I'd love to if any festival producer or radio station wants to set it up – on a point-by-point basis, though I will state that the fact that he/she "(has) no idea who (Jason Koransky) is, or how he came to be editor of DownBeat" says more about the poster than it does about Jason. Rather, I want to point out something interesting about the "Golden Age" theory that the poster subscribes to.

Like so many things from the past that are based largely on our memories, it's a myth.

Last year, when Rolling Stone released its collected back issues on CD-ROM, I was excited because it meant having ready access to the works of some of my favourite music writers: the magazine's co-founder Ralph J. Gleason, Robert Palmer, Greil Marcus, I was anxious to re-read some of the work that had influenced me as a wannabe writer in my teens. Imagine my surprise when I found that – with the notable exception of the mighty triumvirate just listed – much of the writing was fatuous and sloppy. The use of adjectives was a major issue (why didn't I remember how often "heavy" was used to describe guitar playing?) and so was the obvious lack of knowledge about how music is created and recorded.

I don't have to wait for DownBeat to issue a set of CD-ROMs – though, hey, Frank Alkyer, it's a great idea – to go through the same exercise. I have a stack of old back issues, as I'm sure many of you do, and I've gone back to check things, and been just as surprised at how the memory plays tricks. Guess what? Some of our jazz journalism heroes had feet of clay, too. And I don't even have to go to the old DownBeats; I can turn to my own clipping files and find things I'm embarrassed to see my name attached to from decades past. As humans – as professionals – we strive to improve, or hopefully, we don't progress far in our chosen fields of endeavour.

Obviously, just like the music we criticize, the quality of jazz journalism is highly subjective, but I simply do not buy the idea that today's jazz writers are somehow genetically inferior to our poster's heroes (Morgenstern, Gitler, Hentoff, Based on dozens and dozens of articles read, I would put Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, Mark Miller, Stuart Broomer or Bob Blumenthal up against any mid-career journalist of a previous generation you care to name. And just so I'm not accused of naming only those writers who I tend to agree with critically, let me add Stanley Crouch to that list (if you think Crouch can't write because you disagree with his generally neo-con stance, go read his profile of Sonny Rollins in The New Yorker or dig up some of his pro-avant gut bucket pieces from The Village Voice). I'm also encouraged by the commitment, passion, style and breadth of knowledge that a number of my younger peers – Nate Chinen, David Adler, Larry Blumenfeld spring to mind – are bringing to our trade. The future looks bright.

All of this is not to say that our business is without fault. Far from it. To be sure, there are lazy, style-deprived and narrow-minded jazz journalists, and they deserve to be called out whenever possible. But they've been called out with far more force and effectiveness than this anonymous blog post has done. If you want to read some insightful criticism of jazz criticism – words that have helped me shape how I've approached the craft over the years – I heartily recommend Orrin Keepnews' blunt 1987 essay, 'A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed...', available in his collected works, The View From Within: Jazz Writings 1948-1987 (Oxford University Press). The fact that Orrin was writing critically of jazz journalism more than 20 years ago – and shooting with deadly aim at some of the same icons that the current blogger lauds as leading lights of the Golden Age – speaks volumes.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Another One Bites...

Okay, this is threatening to turn into a recurring feature called Jazz Death Watch.

Thanks to my old buddy Calvin Wilson, news comes of the death of the St. Louis Jazz and Heritage Festival. The festival's presenter, Cultural Festivals, has announced that it's withdrawing its support. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch blog Culture Club, Calvin reports that there's a possibility that Sheldon Concert Hall and Jazz St. Louis will join forces to resurrect the festival, but it's dead for now.

Here in Ottawa, all of our festivals – including the well-established TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival and the world's largest chamber music festival – are threatened by the city government's pending motion to withdraw all funding. The funding itself doesn't amount to that much of the individual festivals' budgets, but as the festival organizers point out, municipal funding is a gateway – maybe cornerstone is a better metaphor – to other funding. If your own government isn't behind you, goes the thinking, why should other funders get onboard?

This death watch is getting depressing. Yes, times are tough, but why is jazz – and culture in general – such an easy target?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

RIP Mitch Mitchell

For skinny white guys like myself, Mitch Mitchell – who was found dead today in his Portland, Oregon, hotel room – provided hope that we could one day too sound like something approaching Elvin Jones.

Even next to the perpetually emaciated-looking Jimi Hendrix Mitchell looked slight, but what a sound he produced. He was to Hendrix what Keith Moon was to Pete Townshend, but unlike Moon Mitchell seemed to be in complete control at all times. In fact, he may have been the most in-control rocker of the time – perhaps just as well given Hendrix's manic nature and bassist Noel Redding's chip-on-his-shoulder edge. Without Mitchell's calming influence the Experience may not have lasted to see 1968.

The fact remains that Mitchell was the only musician who recorded – officially – with Hendrix who could hold a candle to him musically, but unfortunately he seemed completely without direction or ambition after the guitarist's death.

A sadder death than some, then. At 62, he should have still been in his prime instead of a somewhat-forgotten figure deep within Hendrix's lengthy shadow.

Sing on, brother. Play on, drummer.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

2008 Top 10 Mk. 1

I'm always a bit hesitant to draw a line on new releases midway through November, but since I've just submitted my first list to a publication – AllAboutJazz Los Angeles – I can't delay posting here any longer.

Even as I post I've just listened to Ben Ratliff's intriguing audio review of the new Rudresh Mahanthappa CD, which I don't have yet, and I have a new Alex Cline sitting on my desk that looks very promising.

So, with the proviso that this may still change...

1. Mary Halvorson Trio – Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12)
2. Anthony Braxton – Quartet (Moscow) 2008 (Leo)
3. Donny McCaslin Trio – Recommended Tools (Greenleaf)
4. Vijay Iyer – Tragicomic (Sunnyside)
5. Bennie Maupin Quartet – Early Reflections (Cryptogramophone)
6. Anthony Braxton – Trio (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo)
7. Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6 – The Pond (hatOLOGY)
8. Jane Ira Bloom – Mental Weather (Outline)
9. Charles Lloyd Quartet – Rabo De Nube (ECM)
10. Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet – Tabligh (Cuneiform)

Two Braxtons? I easily could've stretched it to three by including the big band set that Victo released this year, and of course there's the entire Arista reissue set to consider if one includes historical recordings in the top 10, but that's it for now.

All in all, a very good year. Lots of other things that could've/should've made the list, but I tried to stick to my approach of "nominating" things as I heard them and not re-thinking the decisions.

[UPDATE 20.11.08: Well, my instincts about the Alex Cline recording were right; it's killing, and jumps onto the list around the #7 spot.]

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Thoughts For Mark Turner

Send some love and good thoughts to musician Mark Turner. The brilliant young saxophonist was badly injured in a power saw accident and is undergoing surgery to repair damage sustained by several fingers.

If you're in the New York City area, stay tuned to your regular sources for news of upcoming benefits to help offset his medical expenses.

And if you want to hear Mark at his best, pick up the new Francisco Mela CD Cirio, a live recording by the Cuban drummer with Turner, Jason Moran, Larry Grenadier and Lionel Loueke.

[UPDATE]: Reports are that Mark Turner's hand surgery went as well as could be expected and there's a chance that he could regain the full use of his fingers. Here's hoping.