Who's overrated? Who's Underrated?
The critics sound off
How many jazz critics does it take to form a consensus? One. Any more than that and you’re asking for trouble. As JazzTimes editor, I’m keenly aware of how seldom reviewers agree with each other. If one argues the world is round, you can rest assured another will proclaim it to be as flat as last year’s record sales. It’s the sport of contrarians.
Of course, the views expressed in the music press don’t always reflect that fact. For one reason or another—timidity? insecurity? the desire for an uninterrupted flow of free recordings? dare we mention good manners?—critics often temper their appraisals in print, leaving you to read between the lines.
But not this time around. So readers can better judge their tastes and expertise—or lack thereof—we’ve placed 13 of our writers on the spot, asking them to rate, in no particular order, 10 jazz musicians who they feel are either overrated or underrated. In other words, 10 musicians who’ve received more—or less—recognition than they deserve. We asked our writers to keep their responses to 50 words per choice, knowing full well that most of them would exceed the limit by half.
We were right on that score, but what we didn’t expect was the high number of unguarded responses, not to mention the frequently surprising, even mind boggling choices. We don’t expect you to agree with the critics—in fact, we welcome your own lists—but after reading the following pages, we know you’ll be better informed about where our critics stand.
Sure, there’s Sorcerer and E.S.P and Nefertiti. I’ll give it up to the big guy for his contribution on those classic works. But his own post-Miles work has been lackluster at best. And what about recent travesties like Meets Bach and his sad interpretation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto? Too bad there isn’t a producer around with the guts to confront this sacred cow with a simple question: “Hey Ron, you wanna check your intonation?”
He blew his wad in the late ’70s and has been whining ever since. The Sun Bear Concerts was the height of arrogance (ten records of boogie woogie vamping waiting to get to one little epiphany). And his recent boxed set of Live From the Blue Note was bloated, too precious and not really as happening as his legions of latte/decaf espresso drinking bootlickers would have you believe. And don’t get me started about his horrible mewling. While hordes of adoring fans are lining up to touch the hem of his garment, I say the emperor has no clothes.
Rock critics were ready to proclaim him some kind of god after hearing the live Cream album Wheels Of Fire (which included the excruciatingly ponderous drum solo on “Toad”). I’ve always considered him ham-fisted, plodding and somewhat corny behind the kit…sort of a drug-ravaged Sandy Nelson. This was revealed in no uncertain terms on Ginger’s recent attempts to swing and play Monk music.
The Four Seasons. I rest my case.
Classy, elegant, refined, graceful, full of urbane panache and all that…yet ultimately too gentile, a tad too ‘Republican’ for my tastes.
His playing on recent gigs and recordings with Eddie Palmieri, Phil Woods and Conrad Herwig has been on a consistently higher level than his over publicized, less gifted peers. Few trumpeters can really get to the essence of hard bop and salsa with as much conviction and daring as this former Blakeyite.
The guitarist burns with a provocative, post-Pat Martino edge on his own outré project, The X Field (MusicMasters), then gets knee deep into the blues on Houston Person’s latest, The Opening Round (High Note). Meanwhile, he’s holding down the guitar chair on TV’s popular “Rosie O’Donnell Show.” A versatile cat indeed.
His latest Clayton Brothers project, Expressions (Qwest/Warner Bros.), doesn’t begin to capture the sheer burn and Cannonball-esque energy of this ebullient, fiery alto player in a live setting. Since he’s been based on the West Coast most of his career, chauvinistic New York critics tend to pay him no mind. Now that he’s migrated to Brooklyn, Jeff is bound to get more attention and respect.
A top player for the past three decades, he hasn’t garnered the attention of lesser, younger trumpeters, in spite of his brilliant playing on recent recordings by Marc Copland, Don Braden, the Mingus Big Band and Chartbusters.
This graduate of the Buddy Rich band and the Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra is a highly potent tenor saxophonist who demonstrates a strong Trane-Rollins influence along with an urgent, risk-taking quality on a series of fine small label releases (like his latest, Night Lights on Double Time Records).
Innovations, like revolutions, are not necessarily beneficial. “The Birth of the Cool,” so aptly dismissed by Stanley Crouch as “primers for television writing,” and the ultimate mongrelization with rock, were like bookends to an aberrant career. The tone admirers found “poignant” still falls sourly on ears familiar with those of Davis’ great predecessors.
Anything eccentric is grist to the publicity mills, but Taylor’s rise to iconhood was much assisted by would-be-hip critics. The public, however, resisted his virtuosic use of “palms, fists, elbows and forearms” (see Grove). His 1977 duets with Mary Lou Williams remain unforgivable.
I liked Stan Kenton personally, but invariably found his music too grandiose and heavy to swing. It was no surprise when he made a Wagner album. Teutonic ambitions having cost me friends and relatives in two world wars, I was doubly prejudiced against such contra-jazz ventures.
Piano is my favorite instrument and I think it the healthiest instrument in jazz today. But beginning with Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett, there are a lot of overrated players like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans whose popularity is a deep mystery.
When Ornette descended upon New York and critics rose up to approve his music, I went originally with three well-known musicians to hear it. They didn’t like it at all and I found it retrogressive. The language Armstrong established never needed Ebonics.
There are as many underrated as overrated jazzmen. Johnny Hodges is today one of the former, his music and memory having been swamped in the adulation of Charlie Parker. For beauty of tone and, as Ellington said, “pure artistry,” he has had no equal. “Great blues player, too,” Dizzy insisted.
No music can be taken seriously if its greatest artists, like women’s clothes and automobile chrome, are victims of fickle fashion. A style-setter in the ’20s and a major influence throughout the ’30s, Earl Hines constantly grew for 50 years as a master of genuine improvisation.
“Flying Home” was 1942 and full of youthful impetuosity. Half a century later, at the head of a big band, Illinois Jacquet is a wonderful musician in the tradition of Coleman Hawkins and Herschel Evans, of whom the present generation needs to be reminded.
Today’s outstanding clarinetist, in my opinion, Kenny Davern represents here a whole corps of underrated white musicians like Ruby Braff, Dick Hyman, Bob Wilber, Ralph Sutton, Bob Haggart, Dan Barrett and Johnny Varro, who play much of the time at virtually segregated jazz parties.
Harold Ashby’s individual style reflects to some extent his close friendship with Ben Webster, whom he eventually succeeded in the Ellington band. His knowledge of jazz basics and adherence to its truths have been sources of strength in consistently maintaining a high artistic level.
Charlie Haden’s canonization in the ’90s is a bit like an actor receiving a long overdue Oscar for the wrong movie. Haden hasn’t made a compelling album since ’90’s Dream Keeper (Blue Note) (Verve’s fine Montreal Tapes series was recorded in ’89). With Quartet West, he has replaced probity with nostalgia; his duo albums with Hank Jones and Pat Metheny are curios.
Wynton Marsalis the Composer
Most of Wynton Marsalis’ efforts at large-canvas composition are lacking. Blue Interlude is a blunt object posing as programmatic music, while Blood on the Fields is pedantic next to John Carter’s expressionistic, and much more harrowing, suites.
Medeski Martin & Wood
Touted as neo-groovemeisters supreme, Medeski Martin & Wood are a triumph of style over substance. If you like your funk uncut, you’ll find their work flaccid. But they’ve got enough teen appeal to land a series on Fox.
Winston Churchill’s quip about socialism seems applicable to Pharaoh Sanders, whose once inspired utterances have devolved into blather: if you didn’t like him when you were 20, you had no soul; if you still like him at 40, you have no brain.
Sure, it takes a certain marketing savvy to update both Roberta Flack and the Vargas girls, but when critics take Cassandra Wilson’s remake of a Monkees ditty seriously, you have to wonder if they’re really listening to the music, or just looking at the pictures.
A. Spencer Barefield
A. Spencer Barefield is the best guitarist ignored by the U.S. jazz industry. He melds the techniques of Segovia and Jimi Hendrix into a startling jazz lexicon. The Detroit-based Barefield’s ensembles have included the likes of James Carter, Andrew Cyrille and Richard Davis, and his compositions have made bold use of string quartets. Yet, his discography is sadly limited to a few imports and self-produced discs.
The Gary Burton Quartet with Larry Coryell
For those who think Miles created fusion single-handedly, guess again. By the time he waxed Filles de Kilimanjaro in ’68, vibist Gary Burton’s quartet with guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Steve Swallow and, successively, drummers Roy Haynes and Bob Moses, had recorded four RCA albums that put strategic first cracks in the wall dividing jazz and rock. It’s mystifying that this important body of work isn’t available on domestic CDs.
Primarily known for his work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Joseph Jarman is the odd man out in discussions of first-wave AACM saxophonists, composers, and bandleaders. It’s time for folks to revisit Jarman’s early Delmarks, which have passed the test of time with flying colors. And, given the paucity of his own albums in recent years, it’s way past time for someone to get Jarman into the studio.
Somehow, history has relegated tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley to hard bop’s also-rans. Yet a survey of the various sub-genres recorded by Blue Note through the ’50s and ’60s would show Mobley playing a notable, if not a major role in most of them. Maybe it’s just that his career was too prolific and far-ranging to fit neatly into an affordable box set.
Great organists from Lou Bennett to Jeff Palmer don’t get their due, so Melvin Rhyne has a lot of worthy company. Yet, at a time when US labels are releasing organ dates at a brisk pace, it’s mind-boggling that the legendary Wes Montgomery associate only records once every few years for a small Dutch label.
Virtuosity, virtuosity, virtuosity… Sheer virtuosity alone can sometimes be an empty room.
According to recently published reports, now the groaner lays claim to be an arbiter of who can and cannot play the blues? Is this the same man who told a certain magazine a couple of years ago that he often found it convenient to pass for black? Puleeeeeze…
Pyrotechnics, pyrotechnics, pyrotechnics…Sheer pyrotechnics do not place one in the company of Ellington, Basie, Lunceford, Henderson, Herman, et al.
It takes more than an active imagination to achieve the exalted status of this guy—don’t believe the hype!
Still resting on his ’70s laurels—considerable laurels at the time—but a ’96 concert sighting revealed that he’s been coasting on those laurels for an awfully long time. He’s another example of someone with a carload of chops who contributes little beyond sheer acumen on his instrument.
Woody still has not gotten his due as our last great trumpet stylist. There has been no one since he left the planet who has actually forged such a unique approach to the trumpet. Since the mid-’80s we’ve been blessed with a number of fine trumpet players: Wynton, Roy, Nicholas, Ron Miles (he’s coming close), Dave Douglas, et al.—but no one has evolved a true style on the horn since Woody checked out.
The year Joshua Redman was anointed with the Monk competition holy grail, there were two significant challengers who gave him a run for his money: Chris Potter (who, were it not for his recent spate of recordings might make this list) and Tim Warfield. Check out Christian McBride’s band for this guy, he’s brilliant, yet none of the stateside record companies seem to know it.
Tommy (or Tom) Williams
Here’s another very promising young player who has been overlooked by the record companies. He can hang with just about any trumpeters in the business. Why are folks sleeping on this cat?
This alto saxophonist-flutist has been Randy Weston’s right hand man for well over a decade now. Go to any Weston concert and come away thoroughly impressed. Go down to Sweet Basil on Monday nights and hear how he energizes the Spirit Of Life Ensemble. Yet another player the major record companies have slept on.
Has, through sheer stalwart energy and an admirable will to stay the course, become a formidable saxophonist and composer; yet few seem to notice. On clarinet, particularly in terms of imagination and ability to dance the cutting edge, he has few peers save for Mr. Byron.
The fresh singing of her early Columbia, Peacock and ABC Paramount albums long ago disappeared in a cloud of mannerisms and exaggerations. Why would someone who used to sing in tune, sing out of tune?
Legends are one thing; evidence is another. Johnson may have been a brilliant trumpet soloist in his prime. All we can go by are the recordings that he made after a team of traditional revivalists reinvented him in the early 1940s. At best, the records place him in the lower second rank of trumpeters of his generation.
Murray’s robust tenor saxophone sound and omnipresence have led a cabal of New York critics to promote him as a latter-day Ben Webster. Webster was meticulous in musicianship and taste. He would not be flattered to be compared with a player to whom harmonic changes are distant acquaintances and who commands attention by grandstanding.
Miller was a businessman who discovered a popular formula from which he allowed little departure. A disproportionate ratio of nostalgia to substance keeps his music alive.This is what led Pepper Adams to observe that it was too bad that Miller couldn’t have lived and his music died.
Original Dixieland Jazz Band
The ODJB made the first jazz records. For that reason, their importance cannot be overestimated. Their quality can. The band had vitality, but their rhythm was hidebound and they distorted jazz values to showboat and gain popular appeal. They weren’t the only ones to do that, merely the first to put it on record.
The warmth and airiness of Baker’s tone, the lyricism of his conception, his unexpected turns of phrase, exquisite taste and perfect time made him a favorite of his fellow Ellingtonians and their boss. You can hear his essence in the introduction to the third part of “Black, Brown and Beige” in the 1958 Columbia recording.
Broadbent’s growth in the Bud Powell-Bill Evans tradition has manifested itself in a thrilling mastery of jazz piano. His arranging is getting a good deal of attention, and deserves it. But playing like that on his duo CD with Gary Foster and his own trio albums should get him rave reviews and at least a mention in the polls.
Big Sid was the perfect drummer for whoever he played with, from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie. He embodied an astonishing combination of power and subtlety. Catlett was not underrated in his prime, but the last couple of generations of drummers don’t know about him, nor do younger listeners. It’s their loss.
There was no element of any chord that Dorham didn’t understand down to its most unlikely inversion. He played trumpet like an angel, and nearly every year of his professional life he had to work a civilian gig to get by. The young lions have discovered his compositions, but there is little evidence that they comprehend his harmonic example.
He underrates himself. His ear for harmony and mastery of time are among the best-kept secrets in jazz because all these years he has chosen to stick with the repertoire and sidemen that make him comfortable. I’d like to kidnap Fountain and lock him in a recording studio with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Victor Lewis. He would surprise himself.
It has become more and more common to put Ornette Coleman’s name in the same sentence with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Give me a break. Ornette’s first burst was marked by fresh themes and a strong blues sensibility but his improvising language contained as many, if not more, personal clichés as anyone. To the cadre of avant garde critics, however, only beboppers play clichés. Anything Ornette does, even playing amateurishly on violin and trumpet, is sacrosanct. When jazz musicians were bashed for playing fusion, Ornette’s Prime Time was not. Perhaps this is because so many of the critics who came to jazz in the ’70s and beyond emerged from under the rock experience and listen to jazz through that prism.
A polemicist who delighted in bashing “honky” liberals, Shepp bullied his way to an inflated reputation. He couldn’t play when he first blew at Cafe Wha in Greenwich Village but kept trying to learn how to bebop on the job. The training wheels never came off. “But he sounds like Ben Webster on ballads” was always part of his apologists’ defense.
Murray has a bigger and better sound on ballads than Shepp but is a one-trick pony. After a chorus or two he invariably resorts to screeching and grating in the upper reaches of the tenor in lieu of ideas. He received his come uppance in a Lincoln Center Battle Royale at the hands of George Coleman, Joshua Redman and Don Braden a couple of years ago.
He built his reputation with a height-of-pretension recording—solo alto saxophone on both sides of a 12-inch LP. It won a Prix du Disque but, after all, the French also think Jerry Lewis is a genius. Most of the time he really isn’t involved with jazz but when he records things such as In The Tradition as testimony to his jazz credentials, it winds up proving the opposite.
She has had no need to prove her abilities to me ever since I heard her sing Gail Brockman’s solo on King Pleasure’s recording of Red Top, and she is still one of the very few singers who knows how to scat, but her deconstruction of great standards is over the top. When you mutilate the essence that makes these songs attractive vehicles for interpretation in the first place, why bother doing them at all?
I could begin with two who, despite being giants, are still underrated—Lester Young and Mary Lou Williams—but, since they are in the pantheon…
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
A classic case of underrated, Rahsaan should have been judged on what was heard rather than what was seen, although the latter certainly was entertaining. No matter what instrument, or instruments, he was playing, Rahsaan was the music—total music.
Even if his chops had not quit on him Little Benny may not have reached greatness as a trumpeter, but as a writer he has not been merely underrated but grossly overlooked. It is always “Charlie Parker’s Ornithology” although Benny used only the opening bars of Bird’s “Jumpin’ Blues” solo as his runway. And what about “Wahoo,” his line on “Perdido,” for which he is rarely credited; or “Reets and I;” and “Little Benny” which you may know better as “Crazeology” or “Bud’s Bubble,” where the writers are listed, respectively, as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.
Kenny Dorham/Hank Mobley
K.D. and Hank are an entry—5 & 5a—although each is a distinctive stylist who deserves a niche of his own. Kenny had to contend with some heavy trumpeters in his time and Hank was up against Rollins and Coltrane. Both were harmonically sophisticated players and writers, appreciated by their peers. While one wing of the music was going outside they were going inside to the convolutions that dwell at the core. Many young musicians of the last 15 years have become aware of their playing and compositions.
When Johnny Griffin consistently makes you his first call pianist when touring in the States you have been strongly validated. Weiss can ideate and articulate at the astronautic tempos Griffin favors. He can also play ballads and, as he showed with his own sextet at Smalls, write with thought-provoking originality in the tradition. Criss Cross has recorded him and recently he taped for a Japanese label but no U.S. company has shown any prescience. He’s not a Young Lion but he’s still young and seasoned—and he can roar.
JOEL E. SIEGEL
Yes, her early recordings (especially Inside Betty Carter) are wonderful and she has schooled several generations of talented young musicians. But Carter’s current singing, with its slovenly intonation and doltish delivery of lyrics, borders on the grotesque. There are enough ugly sounds to endure in this world without Carter’s contributing to them.
This decade’s Harry Connick Jr., Krall is popping up everywhere these days at festivals, in clubs and on CD sales and airplay charts. An adequate pianist, she’s a tentative, dry-voiced vocalist whose torpid, sorority-girl versions of classic songs barely measure up to hotel piano bar standards. Her eminence must seem like a slap in the face to vastly more gifted and creative singers, like Rebecca Parris and Ian Shaw.
Unaccountably hailed as an insightful interpreter of golden-age American popular song, Whitfield has the depth and vitality of a sheet music demonstrator. Her coarse voice, awkward phrasing and oblivious approach to lyrics ill-serve her exacting repertoire.
As booker Joe Glaser once observed, unjustly, of Anita O’Day, “A million dollars’ worth of talent and no class.” Schuur’s evident musicianship-strong chops and solid time are consistently undermined by ear-shattering screeching and over-the-top theatrics. If someone could muzzle her, she might yet be capable of making a mature artistic statement.
A promising Billie Holiday- influenced singer in the early ’80s, McCorkle has grown excessively mannered and contrived. Her efforts at improvisation betray the poverty of her musical instincts, and her attempts to venture beyond standards to blues and novelty tunes are embarrassingly misguided.
Despite three first-rate albums, Owen inexplicably remains the best-kept secret in vocal jazz. She has everything—a bracing, distinctive sound, rock-steady time at all tempos, and an instrumentalist’s flair for inspired, uninhibited improvisation. This Midwesterner’s liberation from the Holiday Inn circuit is long overdue.
Dorough has been spreading joy since his 1956 Bethlehem debut album, yet he remains a cult artist. (Kids raised on the ABC-TV Schoolhouse Rock cartoon series know his music, if not his name.) An appealingly idiosyncratic vocalist, accomplished pianist and inventive composer and lyricist, he’s the most ebullient jazz-oriented performer since Louis Armstrong.
Bey’s vibrant baritone, blended with the voices of his sisters Salome and Geraldine, was one of the richest sounds of the early ’60s. Since then, his appearances have been confined to guest spots on recordings by other leaders (Horace Silver, Gary Bartz, Fred Hersch) and little-publicized concert and club appearances. His recent solo CD, Ballads, Blues & Bey should finally win him the recognition he deserves.
For decades, King’s superlative scat singing and resourceful reworkings of jazz tones and standards have been hailed by Pacific Northwest musicians. Three eclectic duo albums with bassist Glen Moore have attracted national attention, and her remarkable new CD, Straight Into Your Heart, backed by pianist Steve Christofferson and Holland’s Metropole Orchestra establishes her as a peerless vocal improviser.
Last December, at age 33, singer-guitarist Cassidy succumbed to cancer, just a few months after the release of her first solo CD, Live At Blues Alley. Her pure, powerful voice, fluent guitar accompaniments, and deeply affecting lyric interpretations embrace a wide-ranging repertoire—blues, standards, gospel and folk music. An unclassifiable and inspiring musician, she left a legacy of two forthcoming studio albums which should secure her a niche in the pantheon of American popular music.
Yeah, yeah, I know he’s a critical dahling, but he ain’t all that. Now, the brother is good, but I can name four other tenor cats in his peer group (both signed and unsigned) who can smoke him today and more than likely render him dust tomorrow. Perhaps Joshua should spend less time checking Mammon and more time studying (Gene) Ammons.
Puh-leeeese! Save for his The Big Gundown and that album with Albert Collins, John Zorn is an empty horn full of white noise (last time I saw him, I suffered from a slight case of inner ear disorientation and b.s. overload).
Once upon a time, Clarke was a promising composer, acoustic bassist and prodigious innovator of the electric bass, a force to be reckoned with. Today, he’s a regular boffin, creating ersatz pop records, facile soundtracks and lightweight “jazz” records. Stanley, wha’ppen?
Maybe someday this singer/pianist will walk in the Valley of Shirley Horn and feel no evil—in the meantime she’s gotta learn to feel the burn of a deep lyric and to let her heart, not her fingers, caress those 88s.
Jarrett’s greatest recording triumphs (Expectations, 1972; The Koln Concert, 1975; Fort Yahweh, 1978) were a looong time ago. In the interim, he has become a petulant, arrogant, egomaniacal, self-proclaimed “artiste” who dabbles wanly in classical shallows, can’t swing, grunts/contorts grotesquely and has a vendetta with the Marsalis brothers. In short, he is a boor who needs to get a life.
Read my lips: in Steve Turre’s/the Shell Choir’s hands, the seashells ain’t miscellaneous oddities, they are instruments. Not only is he the finest ’bone man since J.J., Benny Powell and Curtis Fuller, he’s a deep composer and uncanny arranger. Oh yeah, all of his albums are future classics now.
What this blood does with just a snare and a cymbal simply hasn’t been done since Baby Dodds and Papa Jo Jones. Parker’s feel for funk n’ swing n’ Latin n’ ting is uniquely his and his alone. Expect him to enter the elite pantheon of drummers sometime early in the next millennium.
Personally, I’m tired of pop/R&B/cabaret young women calling themselves “jazz singers”—they drug me. That is, all except one: San Francisco’s Ann Dyer. Her debut, Ann Dyer No Good Time Fairies (Mr. Brown Records) is an audaciously manic, hypnotic blend of drama, irony, humor carried by the off-kilter rhythms of the Fairies band and Dyer’s smoky, mercurial vocal improvisations. Her appearance with the Fairies at ’96’s “What Is Jazz Festival” proved that Ann Dyer is The Rill Thing.
How come after he co-invented ska, midwifed reggae, arranged and played on “My Boy Lollipop,” toured globally and recorded frequently with Monty Alexander and recorded Below The Bassline (Island Jamaica Jazz), the best guitar jazz record of ’96, you still don’t know the genius that is Ernest Ranglin? Ignorance of the quan (see Jerry Maguire) is no excuse—go to your room and do your homework.
All you sleepers: Wake up! Pianist/composer Rodney Kendrick is The Cat. Check it out—four albums on Verve as a leader in three years—all of ’em different, all of ’em drenched in the jelly-roll souls of Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston as well the funk n’ hip hop. grooves pulse of Kendrick. Eugene Holley Jr. calls Kendrick’s music “nappy-head swing;” I heartily concur.
His recordings of the ’50s remain as pliant, compact, and evocative as ever. And the naked pathos of his later years has few correlatives in jazz. Yet the Spectrum Guide lists nearly 100 Baker CDs in print—including plenty of repetitive and questionable performances—which offer testament to his near-divinity stature among the jazz public. He’s great. But is he THAT great?
I think of Ron Carter as an obviously accomplished bassist, but I remain mystified by the totemic stature he has achieved. Doesn’t anyone else notice the meandering solos that almost always last a chorus or three too long? How about the cloying fulsomeness of his tone? And if you need a definition of artistic hubris, try his most recent album (and his latest attempt at the classics), Brandenburg Concerto. Maybe you just can’t bring Miles Bach.
When people talk of Lincoln as one of the all-time greats, they somehow manage to ignore the inconsistencies of timbre and her questionable vocal effects. But I have an even bigger beef with the songs she writes. Her songs divide into two camps: uptempo moralistic tales set to a diatonic nursery-rhyme melody, and those minor-key dirges that pass as ballads. Lincoln performs dozens of her own compositions, but they all come down to these two tunes—and neither of them do her voice much justice.
He made a great album in Blues & The Abstract Truth, but most of his reputation lies with his arrangements for large ensemble. These range from mildly pedestrian to wildly off-base (his big-band treatments of Monk tunes), so you can see the problem. Yet I know some musicians who absolutely venerate him—as if his writing had the least relevance past the year it first appeared. I defy them to tell me why.
This has more to do with the music press than the musician himself. Although Redman’s quick descent into formulaic solos and crowd-pleasing musical shenanigans are a source of worry (J.A.T.P., anyone?) I still hope he’ll come out of it and start burrowing deeper into his art. But to read his notices, you’d think that he had really added something to the discussion. He hasn’t, yet; if he believes his press, he probably never will.
Probably because he came along just as the clarinet was fading as a jazz staple, DeFranco gets overlooked when the discussion turns to either (a) his instrument or (b) his metier, bebop—an idiom not known for producing great clarinet players. But he just might be the finest improvising clarinetist in jazz history, blessed with great harmonic knowledge, technical wizardry, and a meaty and expressive tone.
Harris made it easy for people to write him off as a serious artist, with his pop successes (“Exodus,” “Compared To What”), his experimentation with electronics, and his silly funk numbers. But he had a conservatory technique that allowed him to create a unique and virtuosic tenor style, as well as the mathematically precise melody lines that distinguish his compositions. And only a few jazz artists of his ability have maintained such a comfortable relationship with the populist branch of black American culture.
Sir Roland Hanna
Before the glut of solo-piano performances began in the ’70s, Hanna’s album Sir Elf displayed a command of the idiom more astute and imaginative than most—plus a multi-textured technique, all the more devastating for his refusal to waste it on mere flash. All he’s done since then is continue to play just that strongly and imaginatively, in a variety of contexts, while relatively few people notice.
His few recorded appearances—one album of his own, some polite accompaniment on Diane Krall’s last album—lead unsuspecting audiences to the conclusion that Malone is just another wannabebop guitarist. Then he cuts loose in person to leave listeners gasping at his ferocious technique and history-spanning concept. The next great jazz guitarist is already here, just waiting for a contract.
Underrated? With four Grammy awards and a steady stream of albums and a band now in its 23rd year? Well, yes: Woods still gets short shrift from critics who fixate on his middle period, when bebop conventions became annoying clichés. But he long ago shed that albatross, and he remains (with Jackie McLean and Cannonball Adderley) one of three altoists to further the innovations of Charlie Parker in the ’50s. Give him his due, already.
There is a valid question as to where G fits in this picture: as a player almost universally dismissed as a musical non-entity who makes no rightful claim to jazz in the first place. Yet it could be that he’s underrated. With his cheez wiz tone, bastardization of circular breathing and dearth of anything musical to say, he serves a noble purpose by offering musicians a paradigm of what NOT to do. To be sure, he fits one category: Overpaid.
Early promise, 20 and more years ago, as a bassist with a new vision was traded in on empty pyrotechnics and excess pentatonics. He landed in Hollywood and has splashed reasonably good scores on flicks, but seems lost to the jazz impulse that begat him.
Flute in hand, he was one of the first to make a mint tootling jazz-like sounds over simple structures, leading many to believe that jazz was as much a lifestyle accessory as a thinking, evolving art form.
You’ve heard him in dentist offices and bistros everywhere, dumbing down flamenco, taking out the passion and replacing it with generic feelgoodness. It’s not exactly his fault that it caught on so rabidly: like George Winston, he struck a marketable chord with his fierce pleasantry.
Ever since the pop hits started rolling in, Benson has squelched his voice as a formidable jazz guitarist. These days, a Benson show is one of the more schizo live experiences around, with teasing glimpses of his fluid jazz eloquence mixed in with soul-pop suavity.
From his trio inventions with Air on through his Sextet, the Very Very Circus, and beyond, Threadgill has doggedly maintained that jazz is a living, evolving art form. All around him, fine musicians have fallen into retro traps and preached misguided purism: Composer-rethinker Threadgill is the most forward-leaning one out there doing it, in and out of record deals and damning—or ignoring—the naysayers.
Horvitz is a half a generation behind the current crop of acid jazzers, but, as a veteran of Naked City, the President, and other groove-fueled units, he’s a hero to that crowd. But he also has helped to define a new avant garde sensibility with his distinctive pianisms, a doppleganger persona to the roustabout in him. Take his two current projects—the brainy BBQ-sauced organ band Zony Mash and a smashing, cerebral outfit with trombonist Julian Priester. Head, heart and nervous system are united—a pact true to the jazz ethos.
Jane Ira Bloom
It would be easy to say that soprano saxist Bloom is a victim of her gender, in a man’s world, etc., but there’s more to the story. Her capacity for creating new forms and blending ideas, as a composer and improviser, has never landed squarely in either the conservative or avant camps, or as a straight acoustic or strictly electronic musician. Gender issue aside, it’s hard getting noticed when you live in the margins, no matter how comfortably you’ve carved out your niche.
Guitarists can tend to be loud, or have loud reputations that speak more brashly than their worth, but the gently twisted, ever imaginative Abercrombie just keeps quietly contributing to a quarter century-long legacy of work on his axe. His sizable discography on ECM, up to recent Gateway Trio work and his organ trio recordings, add up to an impressive chronicle of a jazz guitarist who’s hardly garden variety.
Speaking of musicians from, and around, the ECM camp, Swedish pianist Stenson is one of those powerhouses in the periphery, who finally released a solo album last year after not officially recording for them for 25 years. His deft, organic improvisations and classically-colored wisdom, on his own and as pianist for Charles Lloyd, demand that we listen up.
Adamant about his aversion to swinging, Kenton rigorously pursued a vision that ultimately led to an emotionally frigid, rhythmically vapid, pseudo-symphonic melange he called “Progressive Jazz.” Although he employed a vast array of talented composers, arrangers, and jazz soloists over the years, the net result of his efforts has come to no more than a display of pompous intellectualism and over-reaching ego.
Perhaps the most egregious example of Kenton’s encouragement of glitter and gloss at the expense of meaningful content, this flamboyant exhibitionist has long made a career out of exploiting his phenomenal range on the trumpet at the cost of both swing and musical taste. To his credit, though, he did hire talented sidemen to do the creative work.
Without doubt the most innovative trumpeter of the ’50s and early ’60s, when Miles sold out jazz for heavily amplified pop/rock, he did far more to destroy the music he had helped shape than he added to its language. In his attempt to reach a younger audience, he not only alienated most of his older fans, but, even worse, he used his mystique to confuse the uninformed as to what jazz is all about.
Despite his background in blues and bop, Coleman never learned how to produce more than a rudimentary sound on any of his various instruments. He did succeed in opening the gates to freer improvisation, but his later involvements with rock and fusion rhythms continue to belie the faith held in him by his early supporters.
Although it was not Coltrane’s intention that so many of his disciples would follow his every changing direction, what his clones failed to realize was that when he abandoned song-form harmony to explore the possibilities of modes, non-western musical techniques, multiphonics, and range extension, he was not stating his final position but only marking another step in his journey toward self-discovery. Self-admitted confusion is not divine prophecy.
Though usually dismissed by modernists as a “dixielander,” Freeman was actually one of the first swing tenormen, indeed the only one in the late 1920s to create a style completely independent of Coleman Hawkins. A Chicagoan who had learned directly from Louis and Bix, he was a major figure in the ’30s and ’40s, his rhythmically heated, serpentine lines and emotion-laden vibrato heard on scores of recordings with Goodman, Dorsey, Condon, and his own combos. An early model for Lester Young, he was still a dynamic force in the ’70s.
A paragon of the Creole style of clarinet playing, Nicholas worked and recorded with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Luis Russell from the mid-1920s through the ’30s. His crystalline tone, impeccable technique, and command of the blues finally came to widespread attention during the New Orleans’ revival movement of the mid-’40s. Had he not spent his last 20 years in Europe, where he was almost as famous as Sidney Bechet, he would undoubtedly have been better known in America.
The most dramatic and emotionally compelling white jazz trumpet player of the 1930s, Berigan is best remembered for his “I Can’t Get Started With You” and the many inspired solos he recorded with Goodman and Dorsey. Primarily noted for his brilliant, soaring sound in the upper register, he could also swoop down suddenly to dark, bluesy caverns in the lower, all the while improvising with structural lucidity and memorable lyricism.
While Henderson’s arrangements are now receiving some belated credit for the success of the 1930s Goodman band, it is seldom remembered that his own orchestras, from the 1920s through 1936, were among the most swinging and advanced on the scene. Sparked by such pacesetting soloists as Louis, Hawk, Buster, Rex, Carter, Webster, Chu and Roy, his bands provided both the grammar and vocabulary of the Swing Era.
Pee Wee Russell
A genius to those who value originality, Russell had always been a controversial clarinetist. He was uniformly respected by Louis, Bix, Teagarden, Freeman and the Condon gang, but he was also derided by others who failed to understand his obstinate nonconformity. His highly personal sound, replete with growling rasps and wistful mutterings, coupled with his advanced harmonic sense and angular phrasing, combined to form a style unique in jazz history.
Once hailed as a cutting-edge innovator, this gifted keyboardist has in recent years become the musical equivalent of a fashion victim, buying into R&B/pop trends and leaving much of his creativity behind.
Ensconced in his “smooth jazz” comfy chair, Earl Klugh hasn’t varied from the sunny, mid-tempo jazz chorus-sweetened sound in ages. The guitarist’s sheer speed and laid back, charming style go a long way—but when the songs become virtually indistinguishable, maybe it’s time to take a different approach.
The Rippingtons have become another band-in-a-rut over a string of recent releases (including the recent Sahara) populated by grossly over-synthesized arrangements. Their concerts are increasingly marked by really, really long Russ Freeman solos, leading many to wonder whether a Gloria Estefan name-above-the-band strategy can be far behind.
The market is so flooded with saxophonists that it would be easy to pick on any number of Kenny G clones—but Gerald Albright makes the over-rated list for his extensive use of the pop/R&B cliché on albums like Smooth and Just Between Us.
Like Paul Hardcastle, David Benoit appears here not because of any lack of talent, but because of a creative fall (or hopefully just a dry spell). His talent for subtle phrasing (especially on the acoustic piano) has lately taken the back seat to commercially-driven, heavy handed (and heavy synthesizer) arrangements.
He sits atop the short list of the finest blues/rock guitarists around, but Robben Ford is also an uncommonly innovative songwriter and bandleader—evidenced on a string of fine, jazz-laced efforts with his tight band, The Blue Line. As the producer of tenor saxophonist Bob Malach’s solid recent release, The Searcher, Ford showed a subtle side, touching on gospel, rockin’ soul and classic ’50s-styled sounds. His talents stretch well beyond the blues that made him famous.
Though she’s known primarily as the strong alto quarter of vocal group The Manhattan Transfer, Janis Siegel has to her credit several absorbing solo albums which show the emotion and subtlety in her elastic-ranged voice to great effect. Her Short Stories (with solo piano accompaniment by the wonderful Fred Hersch), ranks among the most graceful, thoroughly heartbreaking efforts of the modern era, thanks to her rich, emotive vocals.
Though Charlie Hunter’s band has grown from album to album (trio, quartet—and now, quintet), the core of his uniquely gritty, dusky sound remains with his eight-string guitar technique. Picking up bass lines, ringing chordings and needling solos on one instrument, Hunter drives the live sound and ebb-and-flow swing and dynamics of his sometimes twisted compositions.
True, her hook-filled albums have reigned over adult contemporary charts—but close listening to Polish vocalist Basia’s efforts reveal something much more. Check out the intoxicating (and reverently executed) Brazilbeat rhythms, blossoming vocal harmonies and active, precise arrangements (utilizing elements like traditional percussions, full live brass sections, accordion and acoustic piano and guitars) and learn that Basia and partner Danny White are spinning good music that’s also good for you.
Many contemporary jazz artists try to utilize trendy hip-hop elements in their work, sloppily throwing a plodding click-track into the mix, or tacking on a pointless toasting rap vocal—but Mark Antoine succeeds where others have failed, incorporating an urban feel into his broad-sweeping, acoustic guitar-based compositions.
Shadow’s a terrific producer, with good ideas, but his work needs to be read in context, i.e. he’s not the only one doing what he’s doing.
Solid player, though hasn’t quite lived up to the promise of his early projects.
A lot of people dig this group’s well-studied retro soul stylings. I prefer the teachers.
An example of how close “acid jazz” is to the “smooth jazz” aesthetic. Pleasant, but ultimately disposable.
Formidable pop/jazz chops, but could use a little more fire.
The true “alternative soul diva.”
If Saints and Sinners and Blackadelic Blu spend another year as import-only items, it’ll be a shame.
Ivan “Boogaloo Joe” Jones
Wide recognition somehow eluded this well-recorded stringsman during the ’60s and ’70s. Pick up Black Whip for a dose of soul-jazz guitar mania.
The Frank Lloyd Wright of post-JB funk, who still hasn’t gotten his complete due.
Someone needs to find Jones, release African Spacecraft Stateside and get him on MTV.
Originally published in September 1997