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Play that thing! (again, please)

March 15, 2017
tags: ,

Had a nice evening last week meeting other contributors to LondonJazzNews. So (navel-gazing alert) here’s a post about writing – but also about music.

There are plenty of interestingly difficult things about criticism, and music criticism in particular. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. (Don’t know who first said that but I like to think it was Frank Zappa who spread it about). And every time I review a CD I’m asking whether I can say anything that goes beyond, “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like” or “this thing is quite good of its kind”. (Usually I can’t, really).

A slightly different question comes up, though. It turned out some of the people I was chatting to puzzled over it as well: how does writing about a gig differ from reviewing a recording? I’m sure it does, but it’s not easy to say exactly why. Both need that effort to find words for something not expressed in that mode. Both call for some way of sharing an experience of listening. Usually writers describe sounds as like those made by someone else, or by some other sound generator. We claim they evoke some mood or emotion, or we strive for some adjectival inspiration that seems to fit.

The contextual information – personal, technical, historical, genre-related – can cover much the same range for live and recorded music, too. One old live bugbear, sound balance, is less of an issue at most gigs than it used to be (cloth-eared mixers who only understand rock-music are rarer; the quality of venues’ kit generally better; the main outstanding issue is drummers who can’t adjust to small spaces).

But still, writing something that might illuminate a recording feels different from recounting a gig. It could be because the CD reviewer’s imagined reader is someone who may now buy it. That invites suggestions of what to listen for, accentuating the positive. The live show is gone, in the air, but also shared (often with just a few people if it’s a jazz gig, but more likely then that you talk to them about it, perhaps). You can just try and describe an immediate response – and maybe indicate if it seemed to be a communal one.

My comments as reviewer on CDs are probably more positive, overall. That’s not because I prefer them. But if I can’t find anything good to say about a recording, I’ll probably just keep quiet because, really, why would anyone care? If an artist I value puts out something that doesn’t quite seem to work, I’ll say so. I’ll comment on lyrics sometimes – ‘cos I do words. Otherwise, musicians should do whatever they feel like, and seek listeners if they want them. If I like the result, I’ll try and help that along. If not, I’ll just take it that it’s not my business. I’m more likely to say if a gig didn’t do it for me, and try and explain why, but will make sure to mention if others obviously enjoy it. I’d hate to put anyone off if the gig is part of a tour that continues – which does sometimes make live reviewing seem more pointful. Otherwise, I treat live reviews mainly as a way of setting down something about a moment I might enjoy remembering myself one day.

The other difference, which matters only to the writer, is that reviewing a CD takes more work. I heard a superb live session from saxophonist Tim Armacost’s trio the other week, and could happily have come back and written a review about how how the evening went. In the event, I ended up reviewing the CD that features the pieces played that night instead – and yes, that took longer.

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Why? Well, a new CD  has gone through a process where the artist and/or producer have laboured to show the work at its absolute best, so they deserve the best attention I can give. That demands more than one play. Then, how to tell when to stop? There’s always a temptation to have one more go – to fill out the notes, to delay starting to write, or to check what you’ve already said. Sometimes, that’s because the thing is so good I want to enjoy it again, knowing it’ll get less play once the review is done. But the main motive is to convince myself I’ve done justice to the music in all its detail.

Live, that’s not possible, so all words can do is convey a selection of immediate impressions. I hardly ever check a live review against a later broadcast, though the chance comes round quite often. This is a music of immediacy, that either works in the moment, or not at all. There might be different moments on a second listening, but (assuming you already have  a jazz-trained ear at all) if a show doesn’t grab you in some way first time, there’s probably something lacking. But then that’s true of a recording, too.

Reviewing it, like playing jazz I guess, is stuck with a modern curiosity*. It is a time-based art that succeeds best by being different each time, but recording allows us to have (part of) the experience over and over. The real puzzle is then why, while I am always drawn to music with an element of improvisation, I enjoy hearing some improvised moments repeated until the record wears out.

71wdH4aciWL._SL1500_.jpgIt works for musicians, too. And not just so they can justify that moment near the end of every gig when they tell you that if you like what you hear you can take home a CD. There’s a nice piece in the latest Jazzwise where Arun Ghosh, explaining why Miles’ In A Silent Way was important to him, marvels how Tony Williams’ much delayed drum explosion, after nearly two vinyl sides of simply keeping time, does it for him every time. “The hit that gives me whenever I listen to it is pure joy”. Everyone who loves jazz, or just music, collects moments like that, and revisits them when they can. That ain’t “the sound of surprise”. You know exactly, second by second, what’s going to happen. But is the pleasure the same, or different? I’ve been wondering about that for a lot longer than I’ve been reviewing. I don’t have an answer, but still enjoy confronting the question. Excuse me while I revisit Ornette in 1961, or Rollins in 1986, or …

*I first wrote paradox, but last time I said that word in public a mathematician very nicely pointed out that I was wrong, in a logical/technical sense, so he’s scared me off using it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2017 5:25 pm

    Lovely stuff, Jon. I’m sorry I missed that part of the conversation… I must have been down the other end of the room by then, seeking unopened packets of crisps to soak up the wine. So thank you for putting it down here.
    The “dancing about architecture” quote comes from a comic singer called Martin Mull. An earlier phrase which was used to highlight the same daft notion – writing about music – is “singing about economics” which was used in New Republic on 9 February 1918. At least that was as far as my quick Google research went while preparing a talk about music writing and blogging to journalism students a couple of years back.

  2. March 15, 2017 6:48 pm

    Thanks Peter.

    I’ve seen that attribution, but it still always makes me think of FZ 🙂

  3. March 15, 2017 7:14 pm

    Nice piece Jon, I was very sorry to miss the London Jazz News do myself. Don’t suppose you have any bootlegs/recordings of Sonny Rollins in ’86? Have I missed an album?

  4. March 16, 2017 8:58 am

    Hi Mark, thanks, and funny you ask… BBC recorded Sonny at Fairfield Hall in ’86 (re-broadcast in 2000 or thereabouts, I think). Very good show, which I remember because we were there & my wife was around 8.5 months pregnant – we decided it’s never too early to begin musical education 🙂
    I had a tape, which seems to have vanished, but grabbed MP3s a while back. I imagine they’re still out there on the net somewhere. There’s one song on YouTube, at least.
    There’s also one live cut from 1986 on Roadshows, Vol 1., and the film (and CD) G-Man dates from same year… That has Smitty Smith on drums, who I prefer to Tommy Campbell (& the bit where Sonny jumps down off the apron while playing and breaks his ankle)

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