Wednesday, February 13. 2008
My Jazz Consumer Guide column appeared in the Village Voice this week. This is the 15th such column, going back to July 2004, covering a total of 459 records. Historically, they've been running every three months. The previous one came out on October 23, so this time it's been a little over three months. I have a lot of stuff left over, and should make it a point not to take so long next time. Certainly, there's no shortage of worthwhile jazz records, and no need to take so long to get to them. Many of the records this time have been out close to a year, and have been languishing in my files for much of that time. I really should push to speed up the columns. If we can get them up to a 2-month schedule instead of what we've been doing, the time delays would significantly lessen. As it is, I already have a full column's worth of A-list records piled up (not that I have them all written up yet). The following are A-list leftovers (not secrets if you've been reading my Jazz Prospecting blog):
That's actually more than I can fit into a column, plus I'm already finding more A-list items in this cycle (a couple of these are scoops, as they are part of next week's Jazz Prospecting):
In the cycle for this week's column, I wrote up Jazz Prospecting notes for 259 albums (down from 269 the previous cycle). These notes are collected here.
I don't have the surplus file done yet, but will soon go through my leftovers and cut them back to more reasonable dimensions. Then I'll put up a post and note some of the cuts. The big problem, as always, is space and time -- not enough of either. But there's also a small problem, which is that I always seem to be hurting for pick hits and, especially, duds. Pick hits are probably just a matter of time: I don't spend enough time with good records to get to really love them -- I don't think I've played a record daily for a month since the Pet Shop Boys' Very. The only reason I wound up playing the Chris Byars more than any other last year (by a pretty big margin, in fact) was that I had so much trouble knocking out my short review. That it held up to all those plays is certainly a point in its favor, but in the end I couldn't quite nudge it over the line to a full A. That's really the standard I look for in pick hits, and I haven't been finding it. On the other hand, I've set some pretty strict standards for the grade, which are easy enough to check out by looking at my database Jazz A/A+ List. One thing that went into them is the notion of standing the test of time, which is hard for a new record to assuredly do.
The problem with duds is much knottier. The first problem is that I don't find that I get many bad or even mediocre jazz albums. In 2006 I wound up giving B- or lower grades to 41 out of 502 records, 8.1%. In 2007 I got a bit meaner, picking on 44 out of 511 records, 8.6%. Even if you throw in the grade B records (85 in 2006, 96 in 2007) you only get 25.0% and 27.8%. Due to some psychological quirks, I'm probably better than most people at seeing other people's points of view, and as such in finding merit in things I'm not especially attracted to -- as such I hand out a lot of low but polite B+(*) grades which someone more harshly judgmental might downgrade. It may also be the case that some bad records have been avoiding me. But I'm also convinced that there's not a lot of bad jazz albums out there, probably because there's not enough money to be made on them -- aside from pop jazz, which does do a pretty good job of avoiding me.
But even within this small sliver of records that I think are really not much good, most are by unknowns and are hardly worth writing about. I toyed with dudding Ed Johnson's album just because it's so bad, but wound up not caring. But the effect of weeding out records by people hardly anyone has ever heard of is that the dud slot becomes a big game hunt. I wind up looking for off albums by artists who most folks regard as major figures. I find a few, but there aren't many. Here's the featured dud list to date:
That list pretty much does what I aimed for, and looking back the grades and comments still seem on the mark. Carter, Lovano, Vaché, and Potter have also scored JCG A-list records. Liebman, Corea, both Marsalis brothers (the LCJO dud was for Wynton), Jackson, and Hancock all have A-list records further back in my database. Brecker doesn't, but he got an HM for Pilgrimage, and almost everyone but me regards him as a titan, some as a god. G and Botti are bestselling pop jazz icons. Eigsti, Savage, and Kinch were small fries with a lot of hype, and they each represented something bigger than themselves: Eigsti the Concord marketing machine, which was trying to fashion jazz star breakthroughs like the mainstream pop world does; Savage the notion of genius in the form of child prodigies; Kinch some form of hip-hop fusion. The Turtle Islanders cover a multitude of sins: overdogs with their Grammys, pop panderers, plus they took on some of the sacred texts of jazz repertoire and made a godawful mess of them.
Actually, the success of this list is one of the things that make it so daunting. Would it be de trop to pick on Hancock (The River) or Corea (his Bela Fleck collaboration) again? Mark Murphy's record was truly horrible, but it's not like I've ever liked his work. Maria Schneider has become big enough game, but is that in itself reason enough to go after her? I don't much like any of her albums, but I don't much dislike them either: for me they're just kind of bland and uninteresting, a reaction at odds with what pretty much everyone else seems to be having. Until I have something worth saying, I don't feel up to taking her on -- maybe I'm even a bit gunshy around her. (Francis Davis told me he was "shocked" when I put Concert in the Garden on an extra duds list.)
One thing for sure is that three of the last four Duds were unhappy picks. Vaché and Potter both play well against backgrounds I dislike, Potter especially so. Kinch is a guy I hope will get it together and do well. Looking forward, there's not much I want to get into. Aside from Schneider, Eric Alexander and David Hazeltine have a pair of records that are well off their usual standards, but when I played Alexander I came up empty. I thought about Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble: an overwrought B by a talented and charismatic young musician on a weak instrument. She's likely to emerge as a Regina Carter-level star sometime soon, but it's premature to hold that against her. The Kurt Elling record is probably down to my standards, but no worse than anything else he's done -- may even be his best. Sean Jones? Matt Shulman? I've already moved Fathead Newman's latest to the "flush" file, figuring as bad as it is, it's still better than the last one I dudded.
While writing this, I came up with an idea for restructuring the column, and kicked if off to the Voice. Get rid of the big review "dud of the month" and expand what I write in the "duds" list, including grades so the difference between a B and a D is clear. We'll see what they think of the idea. When Robert Christgau first came out with this format circa 1990 he called his idea for the revamped Consumer Guide "The A List" -- the whole point was to spend full time finding good records, which he felt he wasn't getting to because he was having to spend so much time listening to crap. The "Dud of the Month" was added later, at Eric Weisbard's insistence. Weisbard figured that critics should get nasty at least some of the time, if for no other reason than to show they don't fall for everything. Of course, Christgau never had the problems I'm laying out here. I assure you that if I was covering hard rock, singer-songwriters, rap, and Nashville I wouldn't either.
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