Monday, January 26, 2009

Star Power

When I was a fledgling jazz fan around 1970 and just discovering DownBeat magazine I was torn on the question of the five-star rating system, which has been in place since 1952. On one hand there was the consumer-friendly nature of it; on the other was the problematic reduction of art to an apparently arbitrary number of stars.

Some things never change. Opinion on the star system – whether in DB or any number of other publications and blogs that use it for recordings, films, books and restaurants – continues to be divided. Even some critics dislike assigning stars (or film reels, forks, etc.) but submit to their publishers' demands. Mindful of my own dichotomous feelings from 40 years ago, I've always remembered that some consumers depend on them, and hopefully, most don't skip the 300-odd words in the review and just look at the stars.

In the 10 years that I've been writing CD reviews for DownBeat – some 200-odd reviews, I reckon – I've allotted five stars to five recordings. The latest is Continuation by drummer Alex Cline, released on the Cryptogramophone label. So, what makes it a five-star recording? Officially, DB editor Jason Koransky sets out the following criteria for five-star reviews: "...great conception, definitive solos, memorable compositions, high-quality production—and will be talked about for years to come...."

Obviously, critics can't guess whether any given CD will reach enough listeners to be talked about for years, but the other elements are readily apparent on truly great recordings. The path to determining what is a five-star recording is always a bit different, but with the Cline it was a two-step process.

As an aside, I approach the recordings I'm reviewing any number of ways: they might start off as my "road" music as soon as they're assigned, or might jump immediately into my computer for listening while I go about my early-morning office chores. I try to listen to the recordings I'm reviewing in as many situations as possible, to attempt to mimic all the ways that consumers actually experience the music they buy. Regardless of how many different ways I first listen, every CD I review ends up on my primary stereo system, where I give it a critical appraisal on both headphones and speakers. At some point in the process, I generally reach a decision where on the five-star scale the recording is going to fall. Half-stars are usually determined as I peruse the detailed notes I make in those final couple of listening sessions, and might be determined by something as simple as "value" (I routinely dock a CD a half-star for falling under the 50-minute mark, unless it's marketed – and priced – as an EP).

The Cline recording first attracted my attention for its personnel: cellist Peggy Lee and pianist Myra Melford are two of my favourite musicians, based on years of hearing them play in many different settings. An advance copy of the CD sat on my desk for several days while I addressed some other things, and I didn't actually spin it for the first time until I was assigned the review. It became one of those early-morning office spins, which often don't yield any kind of critical judgment. I'm in and out of my office, which is in the front room of my house – often tending to my aged golden retriever or re-filling my coffee – and occasionally a phone call will disrupt these initial listenings. Continuation is one of those recordings that rewards close attention, and it can't be rushed, so it didn't really register on my consciousness until an explosive eruption of Melford's piano on "On The Bones Of The Homegoing Thunder," which, until that point, had been filled with long tones from Lee and violinist Jeff Gauthier. It was one of those moments out of the old Maxell tape ads, where the listener's hair is blown back by sound. I put away whatever I was working on, took the CD over to my stereo and sat down with my attention riveted.

Immediately, it became clear this was a superior recording, and then the tough work began. Did it have the depth, the sustaining power, the emotional clout to make it a five-star review?

Those aren't easy questions, and perhaps the answers remain ethereal and subjective enough to reinforce your dismissal of the rating system, but using indisputably classic recordings as my guide, I'm convinced that making those kinds of value judgments are worthwhile – given that the stars are only an indicator of the critical evaluation that's expressed in the review itself.

My review of Alex Cline's Continuation can be found in the February 2009 issue of DownBeat.


tim said...

Hi James, I guess you would have docked all the Led Zeppelin albums half a star too? (except the double ones?)

Are Riopelle's smaller paintings any less brilliant.

James Hale said...

Tim: Remember that my half-star penalty is for short CDs, and only if there is no price differential from a "standard-length" (ie, 50+ minutes) CD.

It's not a reflection on the artistic merit, and the comparison to visual art is not really apt; after all, you don't spend less time looking at the "Mona Lisa" than a big Jackson Pollock, to mix styles. Is the 40-odd minute "Kind Of Blue" artistically inferior to Alex Cline's 75-minute disc? Clearly not, but from the consumer's standpoint – when a buying decision is being made – it's only half the value per dollar. It's up to the record label to ensure that consumers are getting fair value.

In the end, it's a consumer service we're doing, and part of the reviewer's duty is to give buying advice to the potential consumer.

David said...

"Continuation" is on Emusic, which speaks well for Emusic's jazz orientation, I think.

I know the Wilco Cline's work better than Alex's, and I don't know Peggy Lee's work, but I know some of Myra Melford's, so I'm downloading....Should be interesting. Thanks for the tip.