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Q and A
These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.
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June 25, 2020
[Q] I read the latest Xgau Sez column where he talks about books on jazz and popular music. While I have closely followed his writing since the Village Voice days, I don't find his reviews on jazz, books or music, to be particularly insightful. So, I want to ask you, as a deep jazz guy, about some books on jazz that you see as important or have recently read.
I've read quite a few things on jazz and black music. The earliest were Samuel Charters, Country Blues; Amiri Baraka, Blues People; A.B. Spellman, Four Lives in the Bebop Business. The titles I've really thought impressive: So What by John Szwed; Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch; Thelonious Monk by Robin Kelley. -- Tom Viti, Westwood, MA [2020-06-19]
[A] You're probably better read than I am. I'm a slow and awkward reader, but make up for it by persistence and having a pretty fair memory (or at least used to). I also cheat by poking around in reference books. I developed a system for reading history books by limiting myself to the front and back matter plus the footnotes, which is where proper historians would bury their personal opinions. Also, since 2001 I've prioritized reading about politics, economics, and history over music, science, technology, and other subjects I read extensively in earlier.
Most of what I know about jazz comes from record guides: The Penguin Guide (I have all eight editions) stands out, Gramophone Jazz Good CD Guide was pretty reliable, as was Tom Piazza's The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz. I have several shelves of such things, mostly from the previous century -- production has really fallen off in this one. Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz: The First Century is very good. (I own, but haven't read, his later Jazz written with Scott DeVeaux.) Whitney Balliett's American Musicians II is on my nearest shelf -- his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 looks familiar, but I'm not seeing a copy nearby. Philip Larkin's All What Jazz: A Record Diary was a personal favorite (not least because he indulged my then-current doubts about bebop). I can also recommend Allen Lowe's books, especially That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950. One more book I greatly enjoyed was Geoff Dyer's fictionalized But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.
My reading in non-jazz is similar but even older. Two important books are Francis Davis' The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People, and Ned Sublette: Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.
[Q] I have two questions for you. One may be harder than the other.
1: What has become of James Carter? When The Real Quiet Storm came out I thought he was going to conquer the world. The show I attended when he was supporting Conversin' With the Elders remains one of the greatest concert experiences of my life. After that he put out recordings with varying degrees of interest and success until 2011 and then nothing until a live recording put out in 2019 that retraces previously covered ground. I miss him and could really use some fresh James Carter these days.
2: I was born in '62 and have clear memories of protests, social movements, uprisings, and riots from the late sixties on. Every decade since then has been filled with bias, inequality, injustice, and hatred and each time the social unrest has been called unprecedented with youth being singled out as the difference. Given humankind's history of inhumanity towards one another why should I believe it's different this time? -- Benjamin Barnes, Seattle, Wa, USA [2020-06-17]
[A] I saw Carter about the same time, and was duly impressed, although I doubt that particular show was anywhere near his peak. (For one thing, he spent an awful lot of time fussing with reeds.) His run from 1994's JC on the Set through the twin 2000 releases (Chasin' the Gypsy and Layin' in the Cut) was so brash, at once rooted in the tradition and bristling with fresh ideas, that I speculated at the time about how much more he might have done had he recorded for small labels like David Murray instead of majors like Atlantic. (Carter's first two albums were on DIW, but picked up for US distribution by Columbia, as were a couple -- but only a couple -- albums by Murray and David S. Ware.) He then went to Columbia, and after three years turned out a Billie Holiday concept album that was my first Jazz CG Dud of the Month, and he's rarely been heard from since. I don't really know what happened, but it seems like he's only to play for major labels -- he did manage three 2008-11 albums for Universal, and his only album since then appeared on Blue Note in 2019 -- and he's sworn off anything avant, touring mostly with organ. His side credits are also way down, although I recommend two records he did with the Dutch group De Nazaten: Skratyology (2009) and For Now (2011). One last note is that Craig Taborn, the pianist in his extraordinary 1990s quartet, is by now probably better known now than Carter is.
The second question is presumably meant as the harder one, but I'll give you a softer answer. I was born in 1950, so I grew up in a world where every movie and TV show led to a happy ending. It was a world when America's wealth even extended to humble working folk like my parents, who still had the Great Depression in memory. Before Lyndon Johnson Americanized the Vietnam War in 1965-66, the the 1960s movement (at least as viewed by well-heeled liberals) aimed to help lift both black and white Americans out of poverty, which necessarily meant ending the legal discrimination of Jim Crow. This might have ended happily with Johnson's "War on Poverty." One could also claim success stories for women and the environment, but Johnson's other war was ended not by enlightened liberal decision but by bitter defeat on the battle field. The new right grew out of denial of that debacle, first by blaming the antiwar protesters, then by expanding their culture war while loosening all restraints against the greed of the rich.
The protest movements from the late-1950s into the mid-1970s won all of their issues in principle, but failed to convert their intellectual victories into stable political power. This was largely due to distrust of unions -- who decided to give up organizing workers (especially in the South) after Taft-Hartley reduced their bargaining power -- and Cold War liberals, who had supported American effort to crush the working class abroad (and to start by purging American unions of so-called communists). Decades of Cold War propaganda promoting capitalism and religion eventually paid off for the right, and their power further eroded the social fabric of the nation, which leads us to now.
I see three major differences between protesters today and those in the 1960s: aside from the thin upper crust, America is in much worse shape today, with inequality even greater than before the New Deal, and grift and dishonesty at previously unimagined levels; the protesters today are campaigning for themselves, whereas in the 1960s many protesters were altruistic, hoping to help other people; Cold War ideology is bankrupt, having lost its threat and fear -- sure, the right's hysteria hasn't skipped a beat, but the reforms they so dread are practices western Europe and the US have long enjoyed (like Social Security and Medicare). I'm tempted to add a fourth one: that racism, while certainly still existing and not uncommon, is far less entrenched than it was in the 1960s, which is making it harder for Trump to orchestrate any sort of backlash than it was for Nixon and Reagan.
Most convincing to me is that it's clear to me that doubling down on the right only makes life worse -- directly for many, but indirectly even for the supposed winners. It may well be too late to reverse global warming, but nothing constructive can happen until the power of the right is broken. But then I grew up in a world that believed in happy endings. Young people who started out with stories like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad may have a darker view of their prospects. But at my age, this current reality isn't my problem much longer. It's theirs, and up to them to do something about it.
[Q] From his consistently high ratings, it would appear that David Murray is one of your favorite saxophonists. I do appreciate his attempt to combine older playing styles with the avant-garde, his many fusion experiments over the years as well as his prolific output in multiple aggregrations. I was wondering what about his output/playing makes him such a consistent standout in your rating system? -- Eugene Haston, Atlanta, GA [2020-06-17]
[A] Fair question, but one I'm not sure I can answer. I am aware that my favorite instrument is tenor sax, and not just for jazz. I loved the sax parts of early r&b records (and X-Ray Spex), and I've noted how artists like Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard used it to add a classic flair to their bands. The tenor is the horn which most closely matches the human voice, but with a richness of tone not even Sarah Vaughan can approximate. If I had to pick a pantheon of tenor saxophonists, it would probably go: Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, David Murray, Lester Young, Stan Getz, and while I could try to pick from three or four dozen more worthies, let's end with Albert Ayler for historical import. Murray is the youngest player on that list, which makes him the one who had the most opportunity to form his style as a synthesis of his forebears (although perhaps no more so than Rollins and Webster followed Hawkins, or Getz picked up from Young). Murray can be thought of as a synthesis of Webster and Ayler for an age where the avant-garde had become part of the tradition. Webster is best remembered today for his quaking vibrato on late ballads, but early on he was a brawler, nicknamed The Brute, and the main thing he did to Hawkins was to muscle it up. Murray is the most muscular player on the list. His only real rival in that regard was David S. Ware, who trailed Murray by a decade, despite being six years older. The connection to Ayler was even more obvious. Murray grew up in church, and Ayler was his epiphany, as "Flowers for Albert" made clear.
The other thing that should be mentioned is that Murray cut a lot of records. In my Guide, I list 78 records under Murray, plus 62 side credits (including 21 in World Saxophone Quartet). That's more than Rollins (76), Coltrane (63), Hawkins (49), Getz (46), or Dexter Gordon (42), and much more than anyone else on the list. Major American jazz labels had collapsed in the late 1960s, leaving avant-garde artists few outlets. Murray was one of the first to find outlets in Europe (Black Saint) and Japan (DIW), and those labels encouraged him to record a lot (21 Black Saint releases from 1978-93, 25 DIW 1988-98). This wasn't unprecedented -- Prestige in the late 1950s cranked out titles as quickly, which is why Rollins and Coltrane come close -- but the improvisational nature of free jazz added to interest in each unique encounter. (Ken Vandermark is the only tenor saxophonist in my database with more rated records than Murray: 117; Peter Brötzmann trails at 52, Evan Parker 38, but I've missed many more records by each).
Murray's recorded much less frequently since moving to Justin Time (1998-2009), and his records have more often depended on concepts, such as his albums with African and Caribbean musicians. The torrent slowed further in the last decade, just 4 albums on Motéma (2011-18). But he's still a commanding performer, with an instantly recognizable sound. At least he was in 2015's Perfection. He was less imposing but still terrific on this year's Kahil El'Zabar's Spirit Groove.
One last point: From the early 1970s on, most tenor saxophonists, especially in America, have sought to emulate Coltrane, and Murray was one of the few to buck that trend. One easy way to measure their influence is to note all the tenor players who have picked up soprano sax as a second instrument. Murray, on the other hand, went with the bass clarinet, which gave him a way to soften his sound.
June 10, 2020
[Q] As one of the (few?) individuals who Robert Christgau relies on for jazz recommendations and critical opinions on the subject of jazz music, which he rightly admits is not his own expertise, are there any classic jazz albums or artists that you have tried to get him to like with no success? For example, he once wrote that Art Pepper and Lee Konitz, both big favorites of yours I believe, were two purveyors of cool jazz that he meant to check out if he was "feeling adventurous." And conversely, what classics did you hip him to that he did like? -- Joe Yanosik, NY [2020-06-08]
[A] This is really a question for Christgau. He introduced me to a number of classic jazz albums back in the 1970s, when I moved to New York, and knew damn little about jazz, but I also got tips from other writers, and sometimes bought things just because I liked the label or thought the record looked interesting (like most of JCOA and Arista Freedom). I didn't get into many of the "classics" until the mid-1990s, when I started really scouring the record guides, and I didn't hear a lot of new jazz until I started writing my Jazz Consumer Guide column for the Voice in 2004 -- although Christgau regarded me as some kind of expert a few years earlier.
Christgau reviewed scattered jazz albums in the 1970s and 1980s, but cut back in the 1990s when, overwhelmed by the flow of records in his key areas, he decided to focus and skip everything else. I know that wasn't an easy decision, especially given his long love for jazz. He did continue to edit Gary Giddins, and when Giddins left the Voice, he figured it would take three writers to fill the gap: he brought in and edited Francis Davis to write features, my Consumer Guide for bulk, and Nate Chinen for live reports (as neither of us I lived in the City).
I gather Christgau reads me regularly, though probably not for jazz prospecting. He doesn't seem to have any interest (by which I mean time, not taste) for postbop or avant any more, and he's never cared for the retro forms I'm particularly fond of. I mention things on occasion that I think he might like (most recently Heroes Are Gang Leaders and Mark Lomax), but they rarely seem to pan out for him (if he checks them out, or can -- all critics are limited by what they have access to, even him). I accept that our tastes have diverged -- indeed, many of his semipop picks don't engage my interest, although I'm thankful for the ones that do. As for Konitz and Pepper, I doubt he's given either much of a chance -- he naturally prefers east coast hard bop (mostly) blacks vs. west coast cool jazz (mostly) whites, although he has written favorably about Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck -- but why not ask him?
You can look at my pretty extensive grade lists for Konitz, Pepper; also Baker, Brubeck, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, or anyone else (some lesser names I think of as quintessentially cool include Herb Geller, Bud Shank, and (at least At the Blackhawk) Shelly Manne). I think of cool jazz as a stepping stone to postbop, which roughly speaking is what happens when bebop goes to college and picks up some music theory including tricks for incorporating innovations like those of George Russell and Ornette Coleman. That makes postbop much broader than cool, but even there one is more struck by differences than commonalities. Pepper, like many cool brethren, got his start in Stan Kenton's orchestra (the other great source was Woody Herman, and everyone on Birth of the Cool got stuck with the tag). But Pepper's later work is more marked by his passion -- not something you think of as a cool trait. Konitz was very different, almost opposite: an early follower of Lennie Tristano, he reveled in abstraction, which could seem aloof but was intensely, cerebrally engaged.
May 27, 2020
[Q] Combining two of your interests, music and politics (maybe next time for food), is a Geoffrey Himes column about how songs about blue collar life are ignored. or misinterpreted, by the audience they depict. "Born In The USA", possibly the most egregious example, may not need to be listed but I do wonder how you interpret this music/audience disconnect. It's weird, don't you think? -- Gregory Morton, Caldwell, ID [2020-05-25]
[A] I'm not sure I think anything about this, other than that stereotypes are worse than worthless, and generalizations leave out all meaningful detail by definition. Songwriters start with what they know and feel, which includes class and race and sex and a lot more, and it rarely reduces to just one thing. Their cohort may recognize themselves in such art, or not, just as other people may relate to it, or not. Add politics to the mix if you dare. Unfortunately, many people tend to straitjacket themselves to only like or dislike things they perceive as politically correct, and lose touch with the muddle we call life. I've known more people like this on the left than on the right, but I know more people on the left, and people like this on the right stay away from me, so it'd be wrong to generalize. What I can say is that when John Prine died, outpourings of grief came from all across the political spectrum -- even though you and I know he was one of us. One of my pro-gun, anti-abortion, Trump-loving relatives forwarded my link to my review of Fair & Square, even though I could hardly have been more explicit about both my and Prine's politics. Perhaps she didn't understood me? Or perhaps she misunderstands her own politics? Regardless, I love her, and politics has nothing to do with that.
[Q] Do you listen to music differently when you are trying to "grade" an album, trying to figure out whether it's any good or not? If so, do you find that type of listening enjoyable? How much of your listening is done trying to suss out the merits of a work, as opposed to just enjoying it?
Those came out as very specific questions, but my question is broader than that, but I'm not sure how to ask it. Which is to say, if you answer this, feel free to take it broadly. -- Matt Crawford, Pacifica, CA [2020-05-19]
[A] I don't do anything special for grading, or listen any differently when I know I'm going to grade a record. Grades are always provisional, just a note to myself, a crude of measure of how much I enjoyed a record, and not much else. I don't have any fixed aesthetic standards. Bad execution and/or lack of inspiration may count against it, but that's mostly because such things detract from enjoying a record.
Back when I was writing assigned reviews, I took more extensive notes, looking for details I could use in a review, and I kept playing a record until I finished writing. That's a lot of work, and I rarely put that much into a record any more. If I had to write at greater depth, I wouldn't be able to get to nearly as many records, and my sense of comparative value would suffer. The downside is that I regard most of words I do wind up publishing as crap: not exactly useless, but lacking in insight and craft. Probably why I tend to denigrate my skills as a reviewer.
I started grading just as a memory aid. I was very familiar with Robert Christgau's grading scale, so that gave me a framework with a few thousand data points. But whereas he insists that "grading is hard work," and has minimal standards of how many times he has to play a record before grading it, for me it's just data -- necessarily approximate at first, better considered over time, not that I have any way of making that distinction. (I toyed with the idea of using two numbers for grades: one for level and a second fraction or degree of certainty, but decided that would be way too much trouble.)
[Q] Found you by looking up who made the Robert Christgau website. I love it! It really captures the internet in the '90s. Was curious, did you make all of the websites you have linked here, or are these just things are recommended? i.e. did you make the original website for FiveThirtyEight and Glenn Greenwald?
Thanks! Also wanted to add that I love this website: http://carolcooper.org/-- Naif Alrayes, San Francisco [2020-05-19]
[A] I built the Robert Christgau's website in 2001, and Carol Cooper's a bit later. I had the idea of creating a portal toolkit for music writers based on a more generalized revision of the Christgau website code. Several writers expressed interest, but Cooper signed up first, so I rushed a site together for her, and when I didn't develop my proposal further, her prototype stuck. I've done several other websites, including one for Carola Dibbell, but not the ones you mentioned, or anything else in the "Links" list on most of my pages. ("Local Links" directs you to various spots in my own website; "My Other Websites" points you to other websites I maintain, although the current version of Wichita Peace was designed by someone else -- I built an earlier one using Drupal.) Hullworks was intended for other people's data, but mostly contains my Jazz Critics Poll pages.
I suppose the "Links" list is also attributable to me being stuck with a 1990s web aesthetic. I used to have a whole "Links" section, but found it impossible to maintain, and got increasingly annoyed when website maintainers wrote me begging to get included. On the other hand, I've never gotten into the habit of using my browser's bookmarks, or for that matter a RSS reader, so the links still help me get around.
[Q] You obviously listen to a lot of music and read a lot books on politics, but I wondered if you also read a lot of music books. For instance, Rolling Stone just published a list with The 50 greatest rock memoirs of all time: are there many on it you have read? As for myself I am specially fond of books with references to other records, like the Questlove book. Speaking of Questlove: he published a list last year with his favorite albums. I was pleased to see Coltrane Plays the Blues on it, a personal favorite. But I also noticed some jazz albums you haven't graded as far as I know (by Ahmad Jamal and Max Roach), something I didn't think was possible for some one with such an jazz affliction. -- Ziggy, Amsterdam, Netherlands [2020-05-13]
[A] I'm not a very fast reader, but I've read steadily since I quit high school in 1966, and keep plugging away at it. After losing my tech job in 2001, I thought I'd focus on writing, and figured the subject I knew the most about, and had the most to contribute to, would be political philosophy -- a pursuit my wife, who's always been a political obsessive, encouraged. Ever since then I've focused almost exclusively on political topics, as you can see from my list here. As fate would have it, I've written a lot more about music during this period -- even made a little bit of money off it -- but I really haven't read many books on music. In particular, I haven't read a single one of Rob Sheffield's The 50 Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time. The only one I've even been tempted by was Patti Smith's Just Kids. The Questlove book does look promising, and Luke Haines' Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Role in Its Downfall might be fun. The one music memoir that I did read recently was Ani DiFranco's No Walls and the Recurring Dream, which surely belongs on Sheffield's list. I've written a good deal about DiFranco before, and I had a personal interest, in that I have family in Buffalo who knew her growing up. Indeed, for me the later music/career parts were less interesting than her childhood and emancipation.
The Questlove list appears here. Should be easy to see how I've missed some jazz albums. I don't have any real idea how many jazz albums have been released. My first swag was 100,000, which would be 1,448 per year since 1950. Then I thought I'd try Discogs, which comes up with the number 1,159,285, but that includes reissues and singles. Hard to extrapolate from that, but it certainly doesn't suggest that my swag is too high. I currently have 17,966 jazz records (including pop vocals) rated, so that's what? 12-18%? I've made several attempts to come up with a sample size over the years. Even with promos and streaming in recent years, I doubt if I've ever heard more than 25% of all the new jazz being released. Looking at my 2020 music tracking file, I've heard about 40% of all the jazz I've taken the trouble to list. I've omitted at least as many jazz albums as I've listed, reducing my share to 20% or less.
So far, I've heard 11 Ahmad Jamal records (2 A-), out of 24 in my database (but he's released more like 80). I've heard 9 Max Roach records (1 A-), out of 31 in my database (that's just records which list Roach as leader; I have 10 more rated with Roach as co-leader, including 5 at A/A-; with co-leader records he's released close to 100 records, plus side credits on another 100+, some as monumental as The Amazing Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus). I'm not a big fan of piano trio or drum ensembles, but those are major artists, and I'll check out more of their work when I can. But there are lots of jazz musicians I've barely sampled (if at all). That's just inevitable.
 I listened to a bunch of Roach records in the following week, so the numbers above have roughly doubled.
[Q] Your reception to Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and Whipsmart mirrored that of the critical establishment at the time, but something changed for you circa Juvenilia, and you outrightly panned Whitechocolatespaceegg despite Christgau's positive reception to both albums (A- and A respectively). What changed for you, especially as it relates to Whitechocolatespaceegg which Christgau treated as a comeback of sorts? -- David [2020-05-06]
[A] Those albums date from 1995 and 1998. I wasn't writing about music then -- at least not in any systematic way -- and I wrote nothing about Liz Phair until Funstyle in 2010 (which I liked much more than Christgau did: A- vs. *). I vaguely remember Juvenilia as being short and rough, a step back, so I'm not surprised I found it wanting. Those tracks are probably all in the 3-CD box The Girly Sound Tapes (2018), which I graded more generously (***), but 25 years after her masterpiece, it probably sets somewhat differently in my mind. I don't remember the other album, or for that matter her 2003 Liz Phair (a B+ which Christgau graded A), at all. I did start to stream White*egg after this question, and shut it down three tracks in. Maybe it's a tad better than B-, but not so much I felt I needed to figure it out.
You previously asked me this same question about two other records: Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Robert Cray's Strong Persuader. Those I remembered, not only the records but the exact point when I decided I couldn't stand them any more. I suppose the reason I can remember them so vividly is that I quickly grasped their appeal, before something else turned me off. I won't go into what -- one thing I never want to do is to spoil a record that you like just because I don't, and you should never let me. But part of the story thers is that I've always had an anti-hype reflex. (I don't recall much hype behind the Cray or Phair albums, but they sold well and the former won a Grammy, so must have had hype beyond Christgau.) It's not that I don't like Dylan, but I've often been out of sync with whatever the critical consensus is on him. The best known cases where my initial reaction was heavily influenced by anti-hype are Bruce Springsteen and Charlie Parker. I've since made my peace with both, although at a lower level than they are generally accorded.
But back to the Phair album(s). Christgau wrote not just capsules but feature reviews of White*egg and Liz Phair. I don't know whether he did that because he initially thought them important, or thought them newsworthy and wound up deciding that he really liked them, but either way he spent a lot of time with the records, whereas I played them once or twice and decided I had wasted my money. Maybe I played them more -- I often do that with records I initially panned that Christgau came to like (most don't move much, but one that really did was Randy Newman's Harps & Angels).