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. —Mike Joyce
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 (HighNote). 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. 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 singlehandedly, 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 subgenres 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 U.S. 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 now 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.