Mama Mea Culpa: The Critics Eat Their Words
When George Bernard Shaw was confronted with contradictory opinions he had published years apart, he responded with perhaps the only sensible defense: ”I‘m wiser now.” Wiser, too, are many of our critics who herewith confess their greatest sins and seek forgiveness.
Better Then: Headhunters
I remember being absolutely awestruck by Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters when it debuted in the winter of ’73. I had just turned 19 and my tastes were gradually shifting from pure rock to jazz, and this platter was pivotal in my conversion. Of course, it was the funky repetitive synth bass vamp at the intro to “Chameleon” that first captivated me (and thousands of other born-and-bred rock fans and would-be jazz initiates). How cool, I thought. How utterly, earth-shatteringly original. What a genius! The connections to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book and Innervisions, which had both come out earlier that year, were clearly there. But the rest of this brand new music (particularly the ethereal/burning “Sly” and the mesmerizing bolero “Vein Melter”) was far more mysterious, more alluring, more exciting and challenging, more dangerous sounding to my naive ears than anything Stevie had done. I presumed this to be Herbie’s ultimate statement as a composer and player. Imagine my revelation when, some years later, I discovered Maiden Voyage. Ever since that door was opened, the funky vamp intro to “Chameleon” has sounded like Chinese water torture to me.
Better Now: Herbie Mann
Never had any use for Herbie Mann. Being totally unaware of his bebop-oriented phase with Savoy in the ’50s, I assumed he was merely a Pied Piper of jazz lite who paved the way for Kenny G and his whole insipidly smooth ilk. Through the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, Mann strategically crossed over with bogus bossas, ersatz reggae, lame disco and limp funk, and I cautiously avoided it all. Only now, 30 years after the fact, have I come to appreciate Memphis Underground, his startling 1969 offering on Atlantic. Nothing about Mann’s flute playing on that particular album changed my opinion of him. But the sheer audacity of unleashing Sonny Sharrock, of all people, in the middle of an otherwise mediocre cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming” gave me newfound respect for the Mann. After solos by Mann, Roy Ayers and Larry Coryell, Sharrock enters ferociously, splooges all over the track with his “shards-of-splintered-glass” aesthetic and exits without apology. Listening to his solo here is like witnessing a bad accident on a dull stretch of highway. The sheer tumult of that righteously subversive moment is precisely what Sonic Youth aspires to in 1999.
Better Then: McCoy Tyner, Double Trios
Tyner’s density, intensity and energy made him the ideal pianist for John Coltrane and a powerful influence on instrumentalists who were oriented toward modal playing. Through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties he concentrated those attributes in music whose ratio of specific gravity kept increasing. Continuing to admire Tyner sometimes became hard work when he was at the apogee of his furious, hypnotic creativity. Dynamic distinctions often disappeared in waves of voluminous modality and the listener found himself awash in unrelenting tides of music. In Double Trios, Tyner lightened up a little. He didn’t become Count Basie, but he held his formidable pianism more in check. I thought that this was an album I would keep listening to. But I find myself bypassing Double Trios and nearly everything else he has recorded in the past 25 years. I go back to his Impulse! albums of the early Sixties—Inception, Reaching Fourth, Plays Ellington, Live At Newport, Today and Tomorrow, and his Blue Notes—The Real McCoy, Tender Moments. He swung just as hard then, but there was more air and sunshine in his work.
Better Now: Cal Tjader & Eddie Palmieri, el sonido nuevo
When I first heard el sonido nuevo in 1966, it seemed pleasant enough. I had admired Tjader’s Latin work for years, but detected nothing extraordinary in his collaboration with Palmieri and his band, Conjunto La Perfecta. Although I gave it a favorable short review, the album’s importance eluded me. Then, el sonido nuevo began to sneak up on me. The more I heard the LP, the more I slapped my forehead and wondered why I hadn’t been drawn into the album’s rhythmic fabrics and daring harmonies the first time around. Fortunately, others picked up on them immediately. el sonido nuevo has been enormously influential in the thinking of Latin jazz musicians for more than three decades. Tjader, Palmieri, trombonist Barry Rogers, bassist Bobby Rodriguez, drummer Manny Oquendo and the others had marvelous individual moments, but it was those rich chords and the patterns upon patterns of the collective rhythms that made this a new sound. A companion Tjader-Palmieri album from the same period, Bamboleate (Tico CD SLP 1150), has more of their extraordinary music.
Joel E. Siegel
Better Then: Sarah Vaughan
Elinor Wylie begins a sonnet “Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones/There's something in this richness that I hate.” Change “hate” to “resist” and those lines express my current feelings about my youthful idol Sarah Vaughan. Forty-five years ago, I boarded a bus—I was too young to drive—for an hour ride to Pittsburgh to attend Vaughan’s Saturday matinee at the Copa. I vividly recall the songs she sang, her brilliant trio (Jimmy Jones, Joe Benjamin, Roy Haynes), the ringing telephone that interrupted her in the middle of a ballad, and the heady extravagance of sipping dollar cokes at the bar. Subsequently, I collected all of her records and memorized each note. But as I grow older, I find myself listening to her less and less. Like a chocolate decadence dessert that cloys after several bites, her sumptuous voice now strikes me as excessively rich and her wide-wale vibrato distracting. Her emphasis on vocal pyrotechnics at the expense of emotional expression palls, and her indifference to lyrics—exemplified by her recording of a Gershwin song on which she sings “chaperone” as “chapter one”—exposes her limitations as a storyteller. Vaughan’s finest work—the Emarcy album with Clifford Brown, the Roulette voice-guitar-bass After Hours, the Mainstream LP with Jimmy Rowles—still thrills me, but nowadays I prefer singers with fewer chops and more feeling.
Better Now: Mildred Bailey
When I was 9, my parents purchased our first television set and, like all of my friends, I avidly watched every program, even the test pattern. One evening, on the Paul Whiteman Show, the bandleader introduced a portly middle-aged woman who, seated, sang about her rocking chair. My father told me that she was one of the greatest singers who ever lived, but, growing up in an era of telegenic songbirds, I couldn't get past her looks. In 1962, when Columbia released the three-LP retrospective, Mildred Bailey—Her Greatest Performances, I began to understand what he was talking about, but still subscribed to the conventional wisdom that she was a lesser artist than her contemporaries Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. CD reissues of Bailey's work have now convinced me that she’s a nonpareil jazz singer. Her limpid voice is as refreshing as spring water, and her resourceful melodic embellishments and infallible sense of swing are unrivaled. No jazz vocalist I can think of has successfully interpreted such a broad spectrum of material—blues, ballads, novelty tunes, jive numbers, Broadway and Hollywood standards. Should Sony/Legacy or Mosaic decide to issue a Mildred Bailey box, I suspect histories of jazz singing will have to be rewritten.
Better Then: The Joe Harriott Double Quintet, Indo-Jazz Suite
Blame it on my youth. When Indo-Jazz Suite was originally issued in 1966 by Atlantic, I thought it was really cool. And, by virtue of its timely amalgamation of modal jazz and authentic Indian scales and rhythms, the untimely demise of alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, and its decades-long unavailability, it quietly became a coveted collector’s item. This is reflected by its surprisingly early release in Koch’s well-curated Atlantic reissue program. Still, this is a recording that has not aged particularly well; while its underlying aesthetic proposition has been upheld with the passage of time, its fashion sense has, on several counts, deteriorated into kitsch.
On the basis of his short discography, it is fair to surmise that had Harriott, whose Ornette-related explorations made him one of mid-’60 London’s most potent players, controlled the proceedings, the results would have possessed a harder edge. However, musical director John Mayer, a violinist who had primarily composed concert works for orchestra prior to this project, favored a tepid exposition of his thorough knowledge of Indian scales and rhythmic sub-divisions. Additionally, Mayer’s dated use of sitar and harpsichord, and an admirably uncluttered use of Indian percussion that today’s World Music-literate audiences may find a bit simplistic, occasionally triggers images of Swinging Londoners in Nehru jackets and love beads.
Still, the cult status of Indo-Jazz Suite is deserved. The well-honed trumpet solos of Kenny Wheeler are particularly noteworthy given that the date was contemporaneous with his first recordings with drummer John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble. And, any opportunity to hear Harriott should be taken, even in a somewhat contrived setting as this, where his distinctive sound and highly individualistic take on contemporary currents are offered in relatively small portions.
Better Now: John Lewis, Private Concert
It’s shocking, but it’s true: I’ve always taken John Lewis for granted. In large measure, it is a function of an image of the Modern Jazz Quartet as an ossified institution, and the composer-pianist’s infrequent forays outside of it doing little to crack the facade. And, there is the nagging sense that Lewis’ additions to the jazz lexicon are something of a parenthetical sidebar with little relevancy to a rapidly evolving jazz scene. So, it’s not surprising that Private Concert got past me upon its release in 1991; after all, more blues in counterpoint, right?
Luckily, the recent release of Evolution prompted a comparison; Private Concert wins hands down. The elegance and wisdom of Lewis’ music simply emanates from every note of the earlier solo program. Whether he is reverently building a blues-infused fugue, or taking a carefree stroll on “Saint-Germain-Des-Pres,” Lewis’ concision is thoroughly absorbing. He not only speaks volumes with every phrase he plays, but with every phrase he doesn’t play. This is particularly the case with his reworking of Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and his own “Milano.” On the former, he takes subtle but substantial liberties, especially in the introduction, and on the latter, he grants himself greater melodic and harmonic freedoms, while constraining the dynamic range of the piece. In both cases, he sheds ample new light on well-known works.
Unusually high production values play a strong supporting role; Lewis’ own Steinway was installed in New York’s Church of the Ascension for the recording, allowing his intimate knowledge of the instrument to be heard in an optimum acoustical environment. The resulting sound conveys the details of Lewis’ attack and pedaling with long, luminous decays.
Despite the engineering excellence, it is Lewis’ mastery that resonates most vividly, long after the disc is over.
Better Then: Last Exit
Last Exit (Enemy) I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for hard core free jazz. And while I regularly revisit the work of late Coltrane, Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill, Ornette, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra, I find myself growing increasingly impatient with the rote “avant garde” gestures of those improvisers who swing mightily in the pages of jazz journals, but seldom cohere worth a damn on the bandstand. Which is why I suppose I gave Last Exit a free ride the first time through; I was a long-time fan of guitarist Sonny Sharrock’s electro-skronk and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Afrocentric/Parade ground-inflected polyrhythms. Ditto for Bill Laswell’s funk bass playing and production work, but he lacks the collective improv insights necessary to create a semblance of form on the fly—not while faux primitivist Peter Brotzmann is farting all over the music. The bass saxophonist’s proclivity for tossing aural custard pies comes at the expense of music, and he never actually plays with his bandmates, only against them, which is why I lack the patience to tip toe around his steaming piles of sonic discharge in search of the odd golden nugget.
Better Now: Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard
This is the sound of three men discovering a new improvisational language in a burst of inspiration, and while the contrapuntal complexity and supple rhythmic fire of this trio’s collective haiku was apparent to me on first exposure, as a tadpole improviser trying to play “hip” melodic lines on the guitar and generate rhythmic “excitement” on the drums, there was nothing I could readily glean from the harmonically sophisticated Mr. Evans. I was searching for practical inspiration, and for all his lyric elegance and supple swing, the technical aspects of his voice-leading and those elusive, ambiguous chordal inversions were well beyond me—Evans and bassist Scotty LaFaro might just as well have been conversing in ancient Sumerian. Which goes to show you how youth can be wasted on the young. These days I’ll listen to these sessions for weeks at a time without break, reveling in the heroic understatement of Paul Motian’s drumming as he sculpts away in silence, opening up vast vistas of space for Evans and LaFaro to freely converse, as they stand all notions of foreground and background, soloist and accompanist, melody and pure color on its head.
Better Then: Sonny Stitt’s “Koko”
Learning about jazz by working one’s way through the music forward from the beginning strikes me as totally unnatural. On the other hand, a time-line approach avoids the fairly common confusion listeners encounter when hearing exceptional second-generation creations. Lester Young and one of his tenor disciples are often involved, although my case in point involves Sonny Stitt (in his guise as alto saxophonist) and Charlie Parker. I heard Stitt’s 1958 recording of “Ko Ko,” originally released on the Argo LP Burnin’, before I heard any Charlie Parker, and well before I came across the original 1945 Parker recording on the Savoy LP with those incredible John Mehegan liner notes. For a time, I couldn’t understand why everyone worshipped Bird. Wasn’t Stitt just as fast and complex, with cleaner execution to boot? The fresh-minted urgency of Parker’s monumental original eventually sunk in, as it will for anyone taking the time to listen; but it was not immediately evident. I still love Stitt’s alto playing, though it is clear to me now that he was no Charlie Parker.
Better Now: George Adams & Don Pullen
George Adams & Don Pullen—I once had a favorite phrase, “the push-button avant garde,” to describe musicians who would veer between inside and outside playing on a moment’s notice. This struck me as the height of insincerity in the early ’70s, and George Adams and Don Pullen were two of the primary offenders. My attitude began to change when they had the chance to interpret Charles Mingus’ music, and had done a complete 180 by the time the Adams-Pullen Quartet with Cameron Brown and Dannie Richmond began recording in 1979. By then, their mix of accessibility and extremism sounded like an honest celebration of jazz’s many possibilities. Shifting to another metaphorical terrain, I began to think of Adams and Pullen as the musical counterpart of fast-breaking, slam-dunking, in-your-face basketball, and their band as a model of what teamwork could produce, and in a perfect world what should have been topping the “contemporary” jazz charts.
Better Then: Miles Davis, In a Silent Way
When I first ran across this extended tone poem, recorded in 1968, it floored me. I was 19 years old and fairly new to jazz, but little in the way of previous jazz or life experience would have prepared me—or anyone else, as it turned out—for In a Silent Way. With this album, Miles jogged up to the corner he would turn on Bitches Brew. He broke completely with traditional jazz song-form in creating two sidelong excursions into dreamy sonic landscapes that still constitute one of the most purely sensuous albums ever recorded. To do this, he gathered for the only time the four musicians—guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul—who would spin off to lead their own highly influential fusion outfits.
So as I prepared to write The Playboy Guide to Jazz, I assumed that In a Silent Way would be one of the 20 fusion discs I’d recommend as essential to understanding the idiom; imagine my surprise to find that the album hadn’t aged as well as I’d hoped. It remains a magical, mysterious survey of new colors and rhythms; but in the light of subsequent developments, you can hear that Miles and company had to spread the sparse melodic content awfully thin to cover an entire album. In this case, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s just less there.
Better Now: Astor Piazzolla & Gary Burton, The New Tango
The music of the nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla uses its strongly defined structures and gloriously florid ornamentation in the service of a simmering emotionalism. Those same qualities drive Gary Burton’s music; so this collaboration between Burton and Piazzolla’s conjunto, recorded at the 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival, made all the sense in the world. Inspired by Burton’s interest, Piazzolla wrote six stirring new songs and combined them into an ambitious “Suite for Vibraphone and New Tango Quintet,” which features relatively little improvisation; much of the music’s strength derives from the yin-and-yang between Piazzolla’s reedy bandoneon and Burton’s crystalline vibes. (As if to prove the concept’s viability, Burton has twice recorded and toured with these musicians since Piazzolla’s death in 1992.)
Not that I felt this way when I first heard the music, which was at the concert this album documents. The set didn’t start till after 11 PM, and from my seat in the main concert hall in Montreux, I thought the music sounded precise and competent but not much more. I chalked it up to a good idea undone by circumstance and mentioned that opinion to Burton. When the album arrived the following year, I dutifully put it on—only to wonder if in fact it was the same concert I had attended. It sounded terrific. I was dead wrong, and Burton has never let me forget it.
Better Then: Wynton Marsalis
Like just about everyone who was covering jazz in the early ’80s, I was initially enchanted by Wynton Marsalis. His precision, his ability to advocate for the music’s building blocks, his absolute poise on record and in performance made him nearly irresistable. And for a while after that, Marsalis made interesting music: I will never forget hearing him in the Jazz Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the early ’90s, shuffling old King Oliver and Count Basie blue catcalls into something indisputably vital—equal parts history lesson and vision quest, held together with the gris-gris of his storied hometown. Then he got on that runaway tribute train. And while some of his compositional initiatives have been provocative, all that time with the pen has rendered him far less compelling when he picks up the horn. Consider the current Monk record: It’s a parade of look-at-me gimmicks, solos that lack even a shred of Monk spirit, and mechanistic, technically polished arrangements that render Monk as an utterly bloodless founding father. Anything but an inspiration.
Better Now: Grant Green
One trap of jazz education: It tends to emphasize harmony and theory at the expense of explorations of the fundamental groove. As a student learning the vocabulary, I dismissed (or, more accurately) avoided those who leaned on the blues scale and what some well-meaning teachers considered “basic” harmony. Ever in pursuit of the next brain-teasing serpentine chord sequence, I thus completely missed Grant Green, the master of blue understatement whose stark, forthright approach to improvisation might be called “thinking man’s grits-and-gravy.” Well before his late crossover-minded Blue Note titles, Green took the guitar-based small group into unusual directions—his In the Spirit stands as one of the most masterful interpretations of gospel by a jazz artist, while his treatments of standards taught nightly lessons in the use of crisp articulation to make every phrase pop, and sting. Green transformed shopworn.
Better Then: ‘60s Avant Garde
Rock music may have been in the spotlight in the ’60s, but jazz was passing through an equally transformative decade—one that had a powerful impact upon the music the followed. I experienced the period both as a player and, writing in Down Beat, Metronome, The Saturday Review and other periodicals, I was a strong advocate for virtually every new sound coming down the pike, from Ornette Coleman to Albert Ayler. In retrospect, I was probably so much a part of the process that my perspective became a bit skewed in favor of the new music. That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty to support. Coleman and Eric Dolphy were invaluable boundary breakers; Coltrane’s contributions are now firmly memorialized; Sun Ra, the A.A.C.M., the Jazz Composers Orchestra, Charles Mingus and others were expanding the palette of the jazz ensemble; Cecil Taylor was, well, Cecil Taylor. But (as some of the Impulse! Reissues reveal) there also were many New Thingers who lacked basic jazz skills. I justified my support with the thought (a legacy of classes with John Cage) that the spontaneous expression of the musical moment was what really mattered. And it did. But it wasn’t enough. Skill, talent and imagination are qualities that can’t be faked, even in a free jazz universe.
Better Now: Duke Ellington
The first Ellington music that I really paid attention was probably the score for Anatomy of A Murder. Sure, I’d played stock arrangements of Ellington tunes in high school bands, and I’d heard some of the early recordings. But the Kenton band—especially the early ’50s outfit with Lee Konitz, et al playing Bill Holman charts—was my favorite at the time. When I actually saw the film and listened to the music I was amazed. And, even now, I’m embarrassed to say that to my ears (at the time) the Ellington orchestra sounded muddy and often out of tune. So, for a while, I simply excised Ellington from my listening experience. No problem there—not until I started writing about jazz. Initially, I simply avoided reviewing Ellington albums and performances. I knew that wouldn’t work for long, but then two nearly simultaneous events took place. First, Martin Williams insisted that I listen—closely, very closely—to the recordings of the 1941 Ellington band (with Jimmy Blanton, Ben Webster, et al). I did. Second, I heard the Ellington perform live (don’t recall where). The combination was irresistible. And my ears finally opened to some of the most ravishing music of the 20th century.
Better Then: Red Rodney
We all have the tendency to over-value our little discoveries, whether it’s an unknown musician heard in a club or a record bought on impulse of someone with whom we’re not familiar. I can’t remember waxing ecstatic in print over someone that I later realized was not that great, but part of being a critic is a willingness to voice one’s opinion, and I’ve had my share of half-baked ones. One that I remember involves a record I found in a cut-out bin in the early ’70s, which was probably a good dozen years old at the time, called Red Rodney Returns. This was, of course, long before the return that kept Rodney in the public eye during his last years. In fact it’s probably one of his best two records (with The Red Arrow) and is a perfectly enjoyable, well above average modern jazz record. But it is certainly not “as good as Clifford Brown” as I have a painful memory of telling a friend, who didn’t believe it for a minute. I’m not sure what Clifford I had heard—I hadn’t really “heard” any, of course—but my friend was a Brownie fan and he soon put me straight.
Better Now: Kenny Drew
Like most writers, I was still in my twenties when I began reviewing records, which meant that there were substantial areas that I just hadn’t really fathomed. I liked the avant garde and early styles of the music from ragtime up to the big band era, and I liked small-group swing and bebop. But most hard-bop and cool jazz sounded relatively flat to my uninformed ears, which makes me smile now because I can’t get enough of it. I was fortunate that my editors at Coda, Bill Smith and John Norris, steered things towards me that I could relate to, and when I wrote things that were really idiotic, they didn’t usually get printed. One notable exception occurred in a review that dealt with several releases by the late Kenny Drew. I praised the records, especially the solo “Everything I Love”, but began by saying that I had not been a great fan, having associated Drew with dates like Coltrane’s Blue Trane and Clifford Brown’s West Coast Jazz, where the sidemen all played long, boring solos, as if intent on proving what separated them from the leaders. Ahem. All I can say through the egg on my face is that I’ll be delighted to hear soloists as “boring” as Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller on a review record any time.
Better Then: Wynton Marsalis
There comes a time when music styles have been explored to the point where they’re wrung dry, exhausted. Then artists who want to play with originality and creativity, as opposed to those who are into recreation rather than creation, must abandon them. When Wynton Marsalis made his first album in 1980, I, along with many others, thought that he might become a great musician. The fact that he was a superb technician and classical player caught the attention of a number of fans. And his initial Columbia LP was pretty hip. Marsalis’ playing and group concept then owed a great deal to Miles Davis and his ’65 to ’67 band. But that was OK, since Davis’ quintet, like Young, had a belated influence. It wasn’t going over well-trodden ground. When I first heard it, I thought Marsalis had a shot at greatness. But after making more nice Miles-like LPs, Marsalis began to evolve backward. His music became heavily influenced by Duke Ellington, his playing became eclectic; sometimes it resembled Clark Terry’s. Marsalis has gotten plenty of acclaim from the general audience since, but he’s done nothing original or creative. The people at Time dig his work because it’s accessible. Great early promise is not always fulfilled.
Better Now: Gerry Mulligan, Original Quartet
For as long as I’ve been interested in jazz I’ve believed that the greatest artists were innovators. That’s still my belief, but now I have a lot more respect for the mainstream musicians who developed their own variants of the innovator’s styles. For a long time I felt a slight contempt for the cool West Coast jazzmen, whose playing owed more to Lester Young and less to Charlie Parker than did that of the post boppers. I underrated musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, feeling that their solos were too conservative or even reactionary. Now I realize that, though Young had influenced a few men, (Charlie Christian, Budd Johnson, Jerry Jerome), his impact wasn’t fully felt until the mid-’40s. At that time large numbers of musicians were not only marked by Prez, but synthesized his ideas with those derived from others. Thus a large Young school came into being. Mulligan’s adaptation of Young’s style to baritone sax and Baker’s to trumpet, Chet’s work also resembling Miles Davis’ was laudable, and they deserve a great deal of credit for doing it. While conservative in some ways, their solos were fresh and melodic. We need innovators to push the boundaries of art further, but we also need musicians to develop their own takes on what the innovators have done.
Better Then: Miles Davis, On the Corner
Just when I get out, they drag me back in. Hard as it was to find and reverse a past “thumbs-down”, doing the same for a confidently-filed away “thumbs-up” was a far more difficult task. Like neurosurgeons, the music critic’s ego won’t allow him/her to acknowledge lapses in judgment (witness the critics who conveniently forget that back in the day, they panned the same electric Miles Davis albums they now praise as reissues). We critics live in our own self-inflated bubbles of absolute certitude and judgmental infallibility (a record is bad/great ’cause we know more than you do).
That said, it’s time to ’fess up: I was wrong about On The Corner. After a recent listening session, my reaction was what was I thinking? The audio mix is wack (percussion too-bright, trumpet- guitars-bass-keyboards-saxes muddy), the four “tunes” are really one long meandering jam that never quite goes anywhere. I realize now that my thumbs-up owed more to externals—the cool blakocentric cartoon people cover, the freaky crew I hung out with, illegal substances, white critics put it down, Miles’ outlaw mystique—than the actual music.
At the end of the day, On The Corner’s greatness stems from its future influences on jazz, recording technology (loops, samples, effects) and hip hop/electronica. As great music, it falls way short.
Better Now: Andy Bey
Initially, this assignment was a piece of cake. I mean, for years misjudged albums have come back to haunt me through my friends’ home stereos. Since I’ve been a freelancer, the constant pressures of tons of promos and overlapping multi-deadlines have only accelerated the bingeing ’n’ purging madness.
By the time I finished running through 4,000 or so LPs/CDs, deadline was a week past. In the midst of a panic-attack, blessed relief came unexpectedly when I played Koch Jazz’s CD reissue of Andy Bey’s Experience And Judgment on the box.
I’ve been on Andy’s jock from the ’70s on up to his ’98 solo meisterwerk Shades Of Bey, but as the first turtle-slow funk-poppin bass/wah-wah guitar notes of Experience And Judgment opening track “Celestial Blues” fell from the speakers, a long-forgotten spell of Bey-doubt deja vu-ed. I remembered my rigid dismissal of the album (the wack cover artwork of Bey’s head-as-Saturn-ringed-planet and the trendy R&B-funk-blues-jazz-lite fusion) as a “sell-out.”
Re-hearing the Curtis Mayfield-avant soul of “Judgment”, the proto-acid jazz groove vonce of “Tune Up”, the neo-soul slow drag prophecy of “Rosemary Blue” (penned by Neil Sedaka!) 25 years later, I know now that I totally slept on a most seminal pop vocal album. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.
Better Then: Tito Puente and India, Jazzin’
Admitting that I overpraised the Tito Puente/India release Jazzin’ is painful because Tito Puente is arguably my favorite jazz artist and arranger and the mistake I made when reviewing Jazzin’ was to approach it with high expectations instead of the blank slate on which opinion should be written. If neutrality is a prerequisite when reviewing, how much more so when treating an artist one favors. I wrote of “exhilirating” arrangements, referred to India’s talent as “huge,” called a vibes solo “winner-take-all,” and finished by calling the release “extraordinary.” I have learned over time that a moderate appreciation or a cautious criticism are preferable to the rave or the pan. Time has a way of correcting initial enthusiasms and aversions. Furthermore, a reviewer’s opinion often says more about the reviewer than the release. I now opine less and describe more, with the idea that the interested listener can draw his own judgements, for or against, if I have done the job of conveying what the CD is about. If I had limited myself to providing a thorough description of the musical material, without gushing, I would not now be retracting my review of Jazzin’.
Better Now: Havana Flute Summit
Six months ago I purchased the disc Havana Flute Summit, convinced that I was going to love a 60-minute-plus release that had been recorded at the famed Egrem Studios in Havana, and featured Richard Egues, Orlando “Maraca” Valle, Jane Bunnett, and Celine Valle on flutes, Hilario Duran on piano, Oscar Rodriguez on bass, and a trio of top Cuban percussionists. Well, I listened to it a few times and, except for a tune or two, didn’t like it much at all. More recently, I decided to give it another try, listening with greater attention, and now I find that I hear it straight through, marvelling at every tune and baffled by my initial impression. It was a case, however, of the well-known saying that if an ass peers into a mirror you can’t expect an angel to peer back. Simply put, it was over my head. The art of reviewing is the lucky convergence of reviewer and CD at the right moment. Timing is everything, but so too is the realization that good music is demanding and rarely yields its treasures after one or two hearings. To make demands on the listener is ultimately to engage that listener in a more profound way; the effort expended adds value in a way that a too easy appreciation never can.
Better Then: Jazz West Coast/Hollywood Jazz
Not so long ago that I shouldn't have known better, I once filed a hastily prepared, ill-considered review of a three-volume set on Savoy of a July 1948 concert called Jazz West Coast/Hollywood Jazz. The concert in question featured two of my teen-years favorites, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, as well as Howard McGhee, Trummy Young, and Sonny Criss, players whose names and sounds had already filtered through my consciousness well before graduation day. This was the time of both Bird & Diz and the J.A.T.P. concerts, and the distinctions between their different approaches to jazz had not yet sufficiently impressed my adolescent mind. Like most kids, then and now, I was turned on by excitement and not particularly given to reflection or analysis. Not that I later recalled owning this particular music from my 78-buying years, but when I ultimately did receive a review set of the Hollywood concert on CD, I slipped gears, reverted back in time, and lost my long acquired cool. Disregarding everything that I had learned over the ensuing period, I reacted with all of the seasoned discernment of a 17-year-old. However, on relistening to the concert recently, I realized that, except for Wardell, the whole thing was little more than an exercise in grandstanding, and so typical of the times. Ah, brief candle of youth!
Better Now: Sonny Rollins
Back in the late 1970s, after years of having resented the intrusion of electric pianos, synthesizers, over-amped Fender basses, and Latin/rock-tinged rhythms into jazz, I was sorely distressed to note that my favorite hard bop tenorman of the ’50s, Sonny Rollins, had also bought into this pop approach on his Milestone LPs. What with Miles, Freddie, Chick, and Herbie doing different kinds of fusion, Byrd doing Motown, and so many others reverting to this or that kind of simplified groove/funk music, where was jazz going? A dispiriting period for most jazzmen with roots in swinging 4/4, the disco- and rock-oriented ’70s certainly took its toll. As a reviewer, I took every opportunity to express my disappointment over the seeming sell-out that these departures from hot, blues-based creative jazz represented. Although by no means oblivious to Rollins’ continued mastery of inspired story-telling, I was turned off by both his newly adopted wheezing sonority and the mediocrity of his horn’s settings. However, with the release of Silver City (Milestone 2MCD-2501), a collection of 19 carefully selected tracks from 1972 to 1995, I was quickly reminded to revise my earlier blanket statements. This time, a “Best Of” anthology worked, and my review of this reissue reflected my changed evaluation.
Better Then: Ottmar Liebert, Nouveau Flamenco
Back in 1990 I, along with some other music student friends, waited outside a Phoenix concert hall for headliner Basia to emerge. Rookie artiste Ottmar Liebert, the opening act on the bill that evening, emerged first–and much to our surprise briskly and flatly waved off our enthusiastic (but entirely non-threatening) request for an autograph, or even a chance to congratulate the guitarist on the show. Listening to Liebert’s debut New Age tome Nouveau Flamenco today reminds me of that evening nearly a decade ago. The music which at first listen opened the door to exotic classically-styled flamenco music, now seems distant and cold–like a pose; skillfully executed to be sure, but distant–and much more of a nod to the wispy atmospheres of the then emerging New Age movement than the fiery roots of the great Spanish masters.
These second thoughts come after exposure to other players drawing from similar musical traditions and beyond. The precisely faithful rhythmic tributes of Richie Zellon, and rich, complex guitarscapes of Marc Antoine are examples of old world-meets-new world creativity which also mines an involving emotional ground. The plucky, catchy strains of hit track “Barcelona Nights” now feels more like relaxing background music than the precursor to an exciting wave of neo-traditionalism. Liebert’s work has stretched considerably over the course of several albums (hopefully his self-important attitude towards audiences has changed as well)–but Nouveau Flamenco, which may still stand as his single best-seller, today stands as only a soft hint at richer uses of the genre.
Better Now: Khani Cole, Places
In this era of Extreme Singers—pop divas who can only pummel the stuffing out of a song or wispy-voiced, ultra-precious (and equally annoying) warblers, it’s increasingly rare for an impressive and original voice to emerge, in contemporary jazz or any other genre, for that matter. Khani Cole’s authoritative alto impressed me immediately on her heart-rending self-titled indie debut. Cole–recalling Anita Baker in her ability to make subtle vocal movements into emotionally-charged particles—held the listener in breathless empathy on a range of haunted pieces.
A somewhat unfair, initial visceral reaction ensued upon first listen to her more stylized, genre-driven follow-up, Places, on which the moody, soul-searching depths had been supplanted by happier lyrics in more layered, rhythm-tracked modern arrangements. The mere idea of those arrangements pulled my focus from the strength of the album—Cole’s vocals. Later spins gave a greater appreciation for her phrasing—which remained strong even in a greater variety of settings. From a decidedly modern take on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” which grows increasingly personal through the refrains, to the sparse bluesy show-stopper "Call My Job," Cole emerges as a remarkably adaptable, versatile interpreter—even when traveling to more popular Places.
Originally published in October 1999