flattered and bemused

The resident blogger is flattered that so many readers stick up for the rights of reviewers to do what they do. He’s also amused at one reader’s suggestion that John Zorn regards professional opinions so highly he’d prefer to suppress them.

There may be no upside to well-known composer/performers suffering reviews of their work from journalistic critics — that seemed to be what John Zorn was saying by asking for no reviews of his season-premiering performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse, and that seems to be what the bulk of commentators to my previous posting about this strange request assumed. If there’s a benefit resulting from reviews, it’s for the reader, who may be a future or actual audience member, anticipating hearing a given artist or evaluating their persona experience of music against the published/posted report.
The report itself is evidently assumed by some musicians to be filled with words words words — words that cannot adequately represent the music or intentions behind the music they seek to make. Zorn doesn’t say that outright — he has some interest and belief in words, having published two interesting volumes titled Arcana, essays by musicians on music.
The case for disdain of words, especially those accumulating around the keyword “jazz,” was voiced most recently by saxophonist Tim Berne, who at a Portland jazz festival panel inveighed against “jazz” (and especially its variant “free jazz”) as terminology that keeps away people who might actually like what he plays, because they expect it to be old-fashioned “ching-chingaling” pre-bop. Trumpeter Cuong Vu chimed in on this discussion, insisting that swing — which he characterized similarly as that “ching-chingaling” rhythm — has no place in his band, and that he tells his drummers if he hears them “swinging,” he’ll fire them. I felt compelled to point out that Cuong had swung like mad the night before in his rampant phrasing over the hard-driving (swinging?) Be Bread band, sort of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as reconceived by composer-keyboardist Myra Melford.
Tim Berne, throughout his panel discourse, used some words loosely, in particular vulgarities which he could have consciously curtailed had he been thinking about the panel’s potential broadcast audience and a few little kids in the crowd. He would not have been so casual about notes he’d use in a composition or solo. Cuong Vu, I think, accepts too limited a definition of words like “swing” and “jazz.” I take those both as liberating, not imprisoning, concepts, and think if the terms have been co-opted by invidious traditionalist forces, it’s up to advocates of jazz-beyond-jazz to reclaim them as our own. Butch Morris, as I mentioned in a previous post, agrees. From what I heard on that Portland panel, so do the members of the Bad Plus (of course, they can speak for themselves, as they do on their blog Do The Math.
Please understand: I do not expect composer/performers to embrace what I’ve said in reviews about their efforts, though I’m gratified if they do. It pleases me if they think I’ve described something they’ve done accurately or insightfully, if they personally get something out of what I’ve said, and if they happen to think it’s advisable to adjust their work in line with my judgments (that has happened very rarely if ever, and I try to review the show I hear, not the one I imagine and can’t myself create). What music reviewers may be doing (if they’re doing their job well) Is constructing a history of performance from the perspective of the time and place where it’s unfolded. We witness what happened, and try to place it. It is our mission and compulsion, as it is the musicians’ to make music. I quite agree with Joe Foley, who writes: “Musicians play/reviewers review.” What else would I do?
I am indeed disposed to admire John Zorn’s music, and I seldom write anything very toxic even about the most insufferable b.s. That’s just the kind of critic I am, the kind kind. I don’t think of his reluctance to be reviewed as a First Amendment issue (no law’s involved, it’s a request, he’s not censoring me, more like asking for my indulgence), but instead as a projection of profound shyness trumping defensive attitudinizing. There is something strong about artists willing to countenance the response of the people they create for — not that artists have to or ever should bend to others’ points of view. I typically ask for free tickets so I can experience something that I hope to be able to and want to write about. That’s why I got into this business (sic: business) — not for the free tickets but for the experiences I might want to write about. I ask for the professional courtesy because I’m covering a beat that I’d go broke fast paying my way into (I’ve gone broke, regardless). I cover it as if the performance of music is news. A musician wants me to hear something, but not write about it — it’s like being a scientist asked to observe an experiment but not think about its complexities.
I’m holding to the agreement (though Nate Chinen, in the New York Times, wrote a very generous music review). About Zorn’s music at St. Ann’s: not a hint of my opinion.
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