Category Archives: Uncategorized

What’s in a critic?

Last week, esteemed music writer Ted Gioia unleashed a screed on The Daily Beast about the nature of music criticism today. Gioia writes:

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

It’s a fair point, and not an uncommon one (see n+1 magazine’s takedown of Pitchfork) but Gioia overlooks the fact that the issue of celebrity navel gazing masquerading as arts criticism is as old as criticism itself. If you go back to the earliest examples of British theater criticism in the late 18th century, the writers are definitely more interested in the spectacle of the gathering than what’s actually going on on stage.¹ However, Gioia’s article brings up an issue that’s at the heart of the meaning and purpose of arts criticism – is criticism a technical analysis of art, or is it about what the art means to the society at large? It’s great that Gioia’s piece has started a healthy debate on this topic on the interwebs.

Certainly the condemnations of Gioia’s piece have come hard and fast – it does indeed come off as pretentious and lumps really great cultural criticism (writers like Ann Powers and Jon Caramanica come to mind) in with cheap celebrity gossip pieces. But there have been plenty of people piggybacking on Gioia’s ideas. Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic for New York Magazine, wrote a piece on his blog about how writing about the form and construction of a film should be just as important as talking about the plot. Slate published a former Facebook post by sometime-Arcade Fire member and Oscar-nominated composer Owen Pallett that involved him analyzing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in a technical, music-theoretical manner in a way that was intended to be widely understandable.

As a music practitioner, I certainly appreciate Seitz’s argument and Pallett’s analysis. I would love critics to care enough to devote time and space to describe the inner workings of a piece I wrote, like how the form works, or how improvisation and pre-conceived material interact, or how the textures are constructed. But as a music listener and a regular reader of criticism, I feel that in-depth technical description of the type that Seitz and Pallet articulate isn’t particularly important, or rather, I don’t think that a good piece of criticism needs to focus on describing the sound and design of the music at the expense of everything else.

I feel that the most important role of a critic is to translate the feeling of experiencing a work of art, a point hammered home by film critic Bob Mondello during a class I took with him in undergrad. When I’m trying to review an album or a movie or a piece of theater, I think about what the performance made me feel and think about, and what aspects of the artwork elicited that response. For music, I don’t run to I-V-I or “sonata form” for an explanation, but more intuitive aspects, like tone-color and character. Certainly a magical moment like the deceptive cadence about 11 minutes into the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth can be explained away with Roman Numeral analysis and a Schenkerian graph, but I feel that the sense of that moment can be more adequately described in metaphorical language. In an ideal situation, the beauty of the critic’s description can elicit a similar emotion in the reader as the piece itself (theater critic Walter Kerr was a master at this. Ben Ratliff is quite good too). Sometimes, when a piece of art explicitly plays with form and technique (like say a Wes Anderson film), it’s great to have a vocabulary with which to discuss them in order to get to the crux of how the art works and affects the experiencer, but not all works require technical descriptions to describe their essence.

One’s experience of a piece of art, however, isn’t just mediated by the art itself. Certainly Kanye West’s outsized personality colors the way we experience his music, and it’s important for a critic to talk about things like that—to talk about the nature of celebrity and authenticity and class and so on. The problem is when a critic becomes so in love with their own social insight that they forget to differentiate between what the music makes them feel and what the extra-musical elements associated with it make them think. Reviews like this become pieces of hollow cultural punditry, rather than real arts criticism, which Gioia justly criticizes.

Nevertheless, Gioia’s doom and gloom take on the state of music criticism as a whole does a great disservice to modern readers. I feel that very few people would enjoy a Pitchfork-style review more obsessed with explicating the reason for an artist’s celebrity than describing the music more than a review that genuinely attempts to translate the experience of the music into words and bring the reader along for a ride. There have always been and always will be vapid criticism and click bait and tabloids, just as there have always been and always will be Kenneth Tynans and Ellen Willises and Pauline Kaels. The difference between good and bad criticism isn’t good technical description vs. a lack thereof, as Gioia or Seitz contend. The difference has to do with the writer—will they be vulnerable enough to be honest about their experience of the art and emotionally perceptive enough to describe it, or will they be more in love with their erudition and opt for cheap takedowns?

—————————————————-

1. I read reviews to that effect in a theater class in college, but can’t find links anywhere online. Just trust me on this, I guess.

Leave a comment

March 25, 2014 · 5:10 pm

A New Tune

Without going into too much detail, I present a brand new big band arrangement of “Where or When,” the lovely earworm from the Rodgers & Hart show Babes in Arms. Enjoy!

The track is performed by the Stony Brook University Blowage under the direction of Ray Anderson, and features Tzvia Pinkhasov on voice and Peter Gustafson on trombone.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What a little producer can do…

While the “Young Lions” movement of young musicians playing swinging tunes in Brooks Brothers suits has faded into jazz history (or shall I say has become the institutional jazz status quo), I feel the jazz world still has a penchant for “Young Lions” syndrome. Every year it seems belongs to another “it” person – someone under the age of 27 who puts out a record on a major label, or just won/placed in the Thelonious Monk competition, or both. When I was getting excited about current jazz my sophomore year in high school, the “it” person was fresh-faced pianist Taylor Eigsti, with a sharp and erudite debut album on Concord. The baton has since been passed on to the likes of pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Ben Williams, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and vocalist Gretchen Parlatto – all of whom did 2nd or better at the Monk competition their year. These musicians get a lion-share of the limited jazz media attention (pardon the pun, I had to), and the ability to be involved with one of the few groups that can actively tour outside the New York metro area (for instance this year, Akinmusire has been criss-crossing the country with a supergroup produced by the Monterrey Jazz Festival. Parlatto toured with Herbie Hancock. Clayton with trumpeter Roy Hargrove). While all of these musicians are prodigiously talented – there’s a reason they stood out from their peers – I usually find the music that gets made during this “it” person period feels labored and easily categorized. It almost always is produced to remove any rough edges and risk, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of listeners who still get their jazz from local radio stations and bigger label albums, rather than the basement clubs where new ideas develop.

However, the spotlight always moves on to new people, and it’s always curious to see what kind of music these artists produce after their 15 minutes. Some players fade into careers as steady sidemen and teachers, never stealing the headlines again. Others use their new anonymity to break new artistic ground, reemerging as a mature and unique voice a couple years down the road. Mr. Eigsti, for instance, moved to New York and instead of acting like the big man on campus, sought new collaborations and riskier projects. Instead of being the big-name solo artist, he’s a vital member of the young jazz sub-community that is searching for new sounds through engagement with hip-hop and indie rock. When Eigsti gets written about, it’s not because he’s the wunderkind of the moment, it’s because his music itself is worth writing about.

So as I am wont to do, I have once again buried the lede – this post is not about Mr. Eigsti or any of the other aforementioned players. It is about this year’s “it” person, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and yes she is a Monk Competition winner and has a new record called “WomanChild” out this year on Mack Avenue (which is pretty big as jazz labels go). She’s gotten tons of press and now has quite the busy touring schedule over the next several months with both her own group and with bigger names like Jacky Terrasson and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. 

So what is her music actually like you say? Well the esteemed New York Times jazz writer Ben Ratliff compared her to pianist Jason Moran in his “WomanChild” review, and I think that’s a good jumping-off point. Like Moran, Salvant would never be mistaken for a “crossover” musician – her style is firmly rooted in the jazz vocal tradition of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and so forth. The pure timbre of her voice is quite close to Holiday, which makes her success in capturing the attention of traditional jazz listeners understandable. But while her tone is quite traditional, Salvant has a vocal flexibility much more reminiscent of boundary-pushing singers like Jeanne Lee and Jay Clayton. She pulls and prods phrases to their breaking point, sculpting her vowels into multidimensional oblong shapes. Salvant, like Moran, likes to push the boundaries of the tradition, not necessarily through bringing in sounds and performance practices from other genres, but by abstracting sound, form, and song material, attempting to reclaim old music for her modern purposes. On “WomanChild,” she has the guts to take a song whose lyrics are long past politically correct (“You Bring out the Savage in Me”) and turn it into a bravura performance of re-appropriation. And she has the pure vocal chops to turn the simple “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” into sonic fireworks, the words abstracted into shimmering tones from a previously-unheard instrument.

It’s an ambitious and impressive debut to be sure, but it’s also all over the place aesthetically. There are unadorned blues duets with guitarist James Chirillo, followed by pristine and measured songbook material, followed by blazing, abstract post-bop, followed by funkified folk tunes. While the band, spearheaded by young pianist Aaron Diehl (man can he play stride), admirably follows Salvant through every twist and turn, there were more than a few times when I wanted to hear some riskier and more idiosyncratic accompaniment.

Because Salvant’s interests are so wide-ranging, I felt that this record was the “best of” of several different albums, all thrown together out of economic necessity. But after this year of being the “it” person, after the tours and the press and the major label albums, Salvant will be able to try new things, explore her different personalities with musicians perfectly suited to the task. Below, I have played a bit of fantasy jazz producing and have planned out Salvant’s next five albums based on tracks I heard on her debut. 

1. Inspired by “Baby Have Pity on Me,” a spare and jangly blues album with Marc Ribot

I’m thinking Marc Ribot’s stunning solo album “Saints,” now with some singing. Salvant has shown a great affinity for the repertoire of Bessie Smith, but pairing her with an iconoclast like Ribot will stretch the material in some hair-raising directions. In the meantime, you can listen to Fay Victor’s “Exposed Blues Duo” with guitarist Anders Nilsson.

2. Inspired by “You Bring out the Savage in Me,” an exploration of African exotica and blaxploitation with Don Byron

Byron is the king of jazz concept albums – he’s explored everything from klezmer, to motown, to gospel, to Raymond Scott’s Looney Tunes jazz, to German lieder, to… you get the point. With Salvant in the mix, a potent singer and risk-taker after his own heart, certainly sparks will fly. There will be curious and uncomfortable source material, but the assuredness of the performance (I’m thinking Uri Caine on piano/keyboards, David Gilmore on guitar, Brad Jones on bass, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) will make it impossible to turn away.

3. Inspired by “John Henry,” a folk-jazz hybrid album with lots of big names from the Americana world

The past few years have seen some really great jazz and folk hybrids – Jeremy Udden’s “Plainville,” Dave Douglas’ “Be Still” with Aoife O’Donovan, and the work of Becca Stevens. Working from a list of Old Time tunes, Salvant teams up with a rotating cast of folk and jazz virtuosos to bring them new life. I’m thinking Bill Frisell, Chris Thile, Michael Davies, Brandon Seabrook, Abigail Washburn, Dave Easley, Brian Blade, Jenny Scheinman, Doveman… Let’s stop before I get carried away here. Oh, and it would be produced by Hal Wilner and/or Tucker Martine. It might be a bit bloated yes, but isn’t that the point of fantasy music?

4. Inspired by “Jitterbug Waltz,” an album of songbook standards with a rotating cast of piano accompanists

One of the current musical projects of any genre that I’ve been digging most right now is this project “Liaisons” by the classical pianist Anthony DaMare. He’s commissioned a ton of great contemporary composers to write arrangements of favorite Sondheim songs and the results have been quite fascinating – Steve Reich’s minimalism works surprisingly well on “Finishing the Hat” for instance.

The idea for this album would be to pair Salvant up with several different pianists, who would arrange a favorite standard in their own way. There would be no rehearsal, just a quick and dirty session to see what would happen. My preliminary list includes Fred Hersch doing “So In Love,” ” Ethan Iverson doing “All the Things You Are,” Aaron Diehl doing “Let Yourself Go,” Gerald Clayton doing “Where or When,” Vijay Iyer doing “But Beautiful,” Craig Taborn doing “The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” Joey Calderazzo doing “Pennies from Heaven,” and Myra Melford doing “I Loves You Porgy.” Matt Mitchell and Dan Tepfer will likely also end up in there somewhere. Two volumes may be in order. Think of it as a reverse “Piano Jazz” with Marian McPartland.

5. Inspired by “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” a free-wheeling album featuring Jason Moran’s Bandwagon

Come on. This one was too easy. I think everyone’s been thinking it since Ben Ratliff made the comparison. I have no other concept in mind than to just get Salvant, Moran, Taurus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits in the same room together for a few days. And maybe JD Allen or Mark Turner to sit in on a couple of tracks. Good things will happen.

Have any better ideas? Let’s start a Fantasy Jazz league in the comments section.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Improvisation Workshop!

The illustrious young saxophonist Kevin Sun (he of the great blog “A Horizontal Search”) and I are giving an improvisation workshop at Montgomery High School in Skillman, NJ this Thursday afternoon at 5:30 PM. It’s geared toward members of the high school’s jazz program, but any interested musicians are welcome to come! We’ll be attempting to take the fright and mystery out of improvisation, a subject that usually takes a back seat in school big band rehearsals to issues of rhythmic interpretation, blend, balance, all that stuff. Whether you’re an experienced improviser or a someone who’s new to jazz, you’ll be sure to get some great stuff out of it.

Check out the Facebook event listing at here! And to get you thinking about the process of improvisation in the mean time, check out these 10 illuminating thoughts about improvising from drumming/composing/improvising master Bobby Previte.

ImageYay improv!

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

For Elliott Carter

It has been reported by the BBC, among others, that American composer Eliott Carter died today, just a month shy of his 104th birthday. He wrote a huge variety of music, from large orchestral works, to vocal music, to real classics of the modern chamber music repertoire. While in some ways he was a quintessential American modernist, his music had a liveliness that exploded out of its hard edges.

Back in the fall of 2008, I saw a New York Philharmonic concert that was part of a series celebrating composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 90th birthday, who had died 18 years earlier. The concert not only featured Bernstein’s 1st Symphony, but also works by other American composers including Copland, Christopher Rouse, and Carter. The real kicker was that Carter himself was there and was interviewed beforehand, on the eve of his 100th birthday, still writing music.

For me, Carter was an important gateway drug into a lot of mid-20th century American classical music, mostly because he was the only composer to ever write serious and good solos for timpani. Just about every percussionist will learn Carter’s “March” from that set at some point in their lives. It’s a show-stopper, complete with stick flips, and very clearly demonstrates Carter’s sophisticated use of metric modulation – changing tempos based on different mathematical proportions of the original tempo. I learned the piece for a 20th century chamber music class at Princeton, and now present my own humble recording here. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Carter’s music is all about. Take a look through twitter to see what other favorite pieces people are posting just to get a sense of how prolific he was.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Musical Soul Search – 6 Songs of Me

Last week, London’s Guardian newspaper created a new web project called “6 Songs of Me,” encouraging participants to write their musical memoir in six songs in specific categories. The good folks at NPR Music picked up the story and in the last week it’s become a bit of a fad. Like the 6-word memoirs popularized by Smith Magazine several years ago, these 6-song bios can be both revealing and beguiling – like one person’s list included “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music, choral music by Eric Whitacre, and a Radiohead finale (I’ll let you figure out what that all means). In the spirit of good fun, I’ve added my own list to this Dewar’s Profile-esque project here.

1. First song I ever bought: “All For You” – Sister Hazel

Does it count if it was bought with money from my Grandma? I’m still considering it a major moment because it was the first time I picked out a CD myself. Up until that point, every song I wanted was something my older brother already had. Here’s to the first step in asserting my musical independence. I got it at the long-defunct Encore Books in the Princeton Shopping Center. It definitely has a Counting Crows-ish vibe, but nearly as annoying. That point when all the instruments drop out at the bridge is pretty cool too.

2. Song that always gets me dancing: “Superstition” – Stevie Wonder

I mean, come on. This is a no brainer. There has never been a fatter groove ever committed to tape.¹ When I represented Barack Obama in a school-wide mock presidential debate in high school, I walked into the auditorium to this. It’s got swag to last another couple millenia.

3. Song that reminds me of childhood: “One Week” – Barenaked Ladies

I was so into this song in elementary school. I even lip-synched it in front of my 3rd grade class. I apparently was convincing enough that they thought I knew all of the words (confession: I still don’t). Listening back to it now, I’m very impressed by the slick production on it, and the fact that the Barenaked Ladies had not one but two really good distinctive singers. It’s not all that much of a stretch that they were on the same record label as Wilco at that time.²

4. Perfect love song (tie): “I Carry Your Heart With Me” – Kate McGarry & “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” – The Decemberists

I Carry Your Heart

The first is a poem by e.e. cummings that expresses quite possibly the most beautiful sentiment a human being can have for another, set with swirling counterpoint reminiscent of Marc Chagalls floating, intertwined lovers. The second may be a bit of a downer (the lovers drown after all), but giving up one’s life for another is quite possibly the most beautiful thing a human being can do for another.

5. Song played at my funeral: “Requiem – Introitus” – Manuel Cardoso

The opening gambit of this Portuguese, Renaissance-era requiem is quite possibly the most gorgeous 23 seconds of music ever composed.

6. Song that makes me, well, me – “A Blessing” – John Hollenbeck

A sentiment that I try to take with me every day. To whom much is given, much is expected. Pay it forward.

But doing this list is only so much fun alone. So I have also gathered my sister’s list.

1. First song bought: “See You Again” – Miley Cyrus

Can’t say it’s any worse than “All for You”

2. Dancing song: “Gangsta” – tUnE-yArDs

She’s way too cool for me.

3. Song of childhood: “Katie” – Tom Paxton

A staple of long car rides.

4. Perfect love song: “You Are Mine” – David Haas

Who says that these gotta be eros songs. She goes all agape here.

5. Song at funeral: “In My Life” – The Beatles

No argument. Actually, can I add that to my funeral set list too?

6. Song that makes her, her: “Powerhouse” – Raymond Scott, as performed by Don Byron

The inside of a young person’s brain, instrumental-fied.

—————————————————————————–

1. Noted musical psychologist Daniel Levitin said this is true, so it is. Scientifically.

2. Okay. Maybe it is.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Welcome to the New Digs

Hello everyone, and welcome to my brand new website.

This site is the new clearinghouse for all of my musical activities. Here, you can listen to my tunes, read my writings, and find out when I’m performing next.

Stay tuned for the inaugural blog post next week – 5 things Jazz folk would love about Sondheim.

Make yourself at home around the new place and happy browsing.

Cheers,

Kevin

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized