You haven’t heard from me because I took up another keyboard – the piano. I started with classical study to improve my chops.
Thanks to everyone who’s read my posts so far.
You haven’t heard from me because I took up another keyboard – the piano. I started with classical study to improve my chops.
Thanks to everyone who’s read my posts so far.
Since I may never again share a forum with the likes of Stanley Crouch, Ben Ratliff, Nate Chinen, Ted Gioia (and now for the musicians) Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Marcus Roberts and Dominique Eade, I thought I would answer the question “Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?”.
But first of all, what prompted the question? I’d been listening to jazz, loving it, and in the end writing about it, but I wanted to get “inside” the music, from the player’s perspective. What were those (mostly) guys doing up there on the bandstand? Sure, I had my ears, and was constantly working to improve them, just as a musician does, because the ears are the real tools we have to work with musically, whether we play or not. But I felt I’d hear more, understand more, if I learned the language myself, which it turns out is the position of Stanley Crouch. Also, I wanted to know what experienced people thought, to help me improve. As Dave Liebman aptly noted in his remarks, the learning curve of a critic is steep, and if I were to climb it, I wanted pointers from the best ones.
Secondly, why did the discussion catch people’s attention? I think it’s because it sat at the crux of the tension between artist and critic, historically a hot point whatever the art form. Only one contributing critic (Larry Appelbaum) explicitly defined the critic’s function as evaluative. Among the musicians, Helen Sung started off with a classic definition,(“Webster’s defines ‘critic’ as ‘one who engages, often professionally, in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art…’”), while Dave Liebman admonished, “please no value judgments.” Liebman seemed to echo Randy Sandke, writer and musician, who liked critics to “keep their opinions on merit in check as much as possible.” Nicholas Payton, going further, would fire them all. (“To me, the bigger question is: are critics necessary?”)
No, Mr. Payton, let them keep their jobs, assuming they love the music, don’t write from buried animus or envy, and have a deep knowledge of the discography, history, and culture of jazz. Mostly, a critic needs to listen and learn with open ears. You have to be aware of your own biases. But a critic’s only human, this you should understand. She’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood, just like a…musician. Critics, like everyone else, operate within the limitations of their own paradigms. Witness, for example, how John Tynan in a 1961 Downbeat review raked John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy over the coals for playing “anti-jazz,” after which Leonard Feather jumped on the bandwagon. And they were talking about Coltrane and Dolphy! In a culture where music itself is an endangered species, serious jazz needs good critics to discuss the merits of a performance. If critics are wrong, then time, the listening public, and their colleagues, will ultimately correct them.
Finally, while not essential, if a critic plays or has played at one point, I think it also does deepen appreciation of and empathy for musicians. It develops the ear. Also, the critic will add authority, respect, and ultimately humility to his or her reviews, whether by laboring in the practice room for tone, intonation, and speed, or by being onstage to experience that “velocity of thought” that Stanley Crouch describes as the conversation that is jazz.
When the bostonjazzblog asked several jazz critics whether playing an axe would make them more proficient with their pens, the answers varied from “not at all” to “absolutely.” Here, we share musicians’ responses to the same question.
I think it is more important that critics listen well whether they play jazz or not. With the amount of music available we need trusted ears who have clocked in all those hours with recorded and live music more than ever.
I think the question should be “Do jazz critics need to know how to listen to jazz?” To be a frustrated jazz musician turned critic could be a true nightmare for everybody. Musicians and critics alike have various degrees of experience playing, listening and studying the history of the music and the people that create it. They either have no roots, shallow roots, substantial roots or deep roots. As a serious musician I love and live the music day and night. A serious jazz critic should as well, so his or her viewpoints will be informative, clear and honest.
As a musician, I am not sure that I can truly say what a critic should know, but even so I’ll share my opinion here. I think that a good jazz critic should first of all love and treasure jazz music. He or she should have a working and ever-developing knowledge of the history of the music, and what has been achieved since its inception.
To me, one of the most important characteristics of a jazz critic is an objective ear, and by that I mean that rather than comment on what he/she likes or dislikes, give the reader a clear sense of what musical events took place. Write about the artist’s musical style, rhythmic approach, swing, blues, texture, dynamic range, relationships of melody to harmony, philosophy of soloists, how the rhythm section interacted, and whether the music moved the audience.
I happen to be a big NFL football fan. Would I be comfortable being a sports critic? No. Would I feel comfortable analyzing a scientific paper on diabetes or cancer? No. That doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about these topics. It just means that I lack the expertise to give a proper analysis.
So, I think the more expert the knowledge jazz critic has, the better the “criticism” will be. If playing jazz is part of what creates that state, that’s great, but I’m not sure that it’s essential. Obviously, the more you understand the science underlying a language of communication, the more effectively you can articulate a coherent and accurate description of it, without resorting to personal feelings, opinions, and judgments.
The jazz critic has an important role in the future of our music. So I hope that this discussion will result a greater appreciation of that fact and ultimately bring more people into jazz (and out to shows) rather than drive them from it.
Obviously it is nice and a bit more honest when someone who is commenting on one’s work knows what you are doing to some extent. Of course a critic should be conversant with at least a minimum of knowledge concerning the technical aspects that the people he is critiquing are dealing with. This means speaking the language to some degree….it goes without saying. On the other hand, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing and when someone is an “arm-chair quarterback” (sports expression), there is an inherent danger of thinking FOR the subject: ” I would’ve, could’ve, might’ve played this at that point in the piece, etc., etc…” This is not right.
To be fair, shedding light on how an interested, experienced, non-musician listener reacts to one’s art can be of definite value. I tell students to put themselves in the audience (what theater people call the fourth wall) when they present something…meaning how is what you played perceived “out there?”
I believe in review, not criticism, meaning information, comment, elucidation, historical precedent, stylistic considerations, etc., but please no value judgments. We (the performer) know better than anyone what is going on. No one but us knows the real deal, so let’s keep things nice and clean concerning the role of a critic. Dan Morgenstern, Whitney Balliett, Leonard Feather were models in the jazz world…Alex Ross at present for classical, etc., etc. The problem is money. If a magazine or whomever pays low, they get low. Translation…non-experienced, not ready for prime time writers who aren’t qualified or experienced enough yet and who in a lot of cases need to learn how to write decent prose. Being a “critic” is a serious job with a big learning curve. Done well, what we call criticism has an important role in the history of an art form. It places everything in the scheme of things, historically and contemporaneously when done well.
My experience has been that it is important for jazz critics to be educated and articulate in the jazz vernacular, not necessarily to know how to play jazz. They should: 1) know the basics of musical terminology and possibly have played an instrument; 2) have a firm grasp of the history of the music; and 3) more fundamentally, be able to recognize proper instrumentation on a song and/or album. I have read articles that have misquoted the instruments and other pertinent information, which was a direct reflection of the critics having a lack of knowledge on basic terminology. Furthermore, if a critic does not take the time out to gather proper information about the album, that alone is enough to discredit the validity of the criticism.
In addition, it does not take a critic who has played jazz to recognize a great jazz artist, or album. Just be well-versed enough in one’s terminology to intelligently discuss one’s opinion of the album and to draw historical parallels between the album and historically great jazz albums and/or time periods.
All in all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And in most cases, if a critic is a jazz musician, he or she is most likely going to be reviewing some music or shedding themselves, instead of writing an article on someone else’s music.
I’ve been playing concerts, making albums, and monitoring the public response since 1995, and to be honest, I have found that some of the coldest, most unpleasant reviews have come from critics who are (frustrated?) musicians. People who have received musical training in the west tend to hear music analytically and not emotionally. But most listeners respond primarily to music’s visceral, emotional, and spiritual content.
I feel that music critics should be several things:
(1) Great writers. If I’m going to read it, I want to feel that spark of expression: a personal voice, a passion for ideas, and creativity with language.
(2) Madly in love with music. Most people are, but too many critics are not. If you ever stop loving music, then you should stop writing about it in public.
(3) Perpetual students. Keep learning – about the music’s history, about its inner dynamics, about the political and economic forces that continue to shape it, about its place in the world, about how it came to be and how you came to hear it.
(4) Diverse. As Amiri Baraka famously observed almost half a century ago, “Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been.” We could still benefit from a wider range of informed perspectives. That is not to say that any white male critic cannot possibly be great, but simply that we ought to encourage others to weigh in as well.
(5) Humble. None of us has all the answers. Let’s all strive to respect the symbiotic relationship between musicians and critics, to be vigilant about our assumptions and biases, and to acknowledge the limits of our expertise.
Terri Lyne Carrington:
I am a bit on the fence with this question, but basically I lean toward feeling that yes, they should know how to play in some way. I am not suggesting they be totally proficient on an instrument, but just that they know first hand about the discipline, dedication, creativity, intelligence and even physical ability it takes to play an instrument. It is sometimes hard to accept criticism from someone that really does not know all that goes into this kind of mastery. On the other hand, there is something refreshing about hearing what people think or feel about any given music without knowing anything technical about it because we are communicating on many levels and to touch OR offend someone without them knowing exactly what it is we are doing is quite powerful… My issue or problem is when it feels like a frustrated musician is talking about a successful musician with animosity or envy, then it’s not cool and that’s when artist and critics butt heads… I am happy when the criticism really seems like the critic knows what the heck he or she is talking about whether complimentary or not.
Webster’s defines “critic” as “one who engages, often professionally, in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances.” Oxford American Dictionary: “a person who judges the merits of literary, artistic, or musical works, especially one who does so professionally.”
I think it’s best if jazz critics have some sort of experience playing jazz, to have some practical understanding of what musicians do onstage and in the practice room, what they aim for in their music and performance – without this, I don’t see how critics can write about anything other than their personal emotional response and/or opinion and preference. Not that those things aren’t valid, but someone whose opinions and preferences are put into print, often perceived by the general public as “truth,” hopefully would respect (and dare I say, love) jazz enough to have at least some “objective” knowledge. This encompasses mostly technical aspects: for example, a musician’s prowess on their instrument(s); expertise in their writing/composing/arranging/etc., in their improvising; band concept, cohesiveness, interplay, etc. It is possible to “judge” these aspects of a musical performance – the rest is opinion and personal taste. Ideally, the subjective should be balanced by the objective.
With no malice intended here, there is not now, nor has there ever been a critic able to converse with me on exactly what makes Ahmad Jamal a genius. This goes especially for the arrogant penholders that dismissed him as a “cocktail pianist”; that alone makes me leery of the average critic. Unless we can have a detailed exchange about Mr. Jamal’s brilliant pianistic virtuosity and how he developed it, combined with his usage of key modulations, meter and tempo shifts, riffs, interludes, grooves and the like – there should be abject silence. Ostensibly, this goes for discussion of any artist of a diverse nature as Jamal (and there ain’t many, I assure you.)
In order to assess an individual’s work objectively, you must have a keen insight into what they are actually doing and what they are attempting to do. Disparagement is rarely justified because, unlike in pop music, the impetus is not to appeal to the masses. Jazz criticism is akin to forming an opinion about an individual’s nose or ears, not to mention, there’s a general tendency to resort to antiquated quips like “not groundbreaking” or “innovative” (when, in fact, it almost never is.) Let “the people” decide – not five or six writers who have deemed themselves experts with no time in the trenches.
Finally, not only should a critic know how to legitimately play instruments – he should probably spend some time ensconced in Black culture.
You had a choice at 2:15 on September 24 if you were in Boston’s South End that afternoon for the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. You could go to Wally’s, a streetcar-long jazz institution in a brownstone, where folks listen to straight-ahead musicians every Saturday afternoon. Or if you were washing down jambalaya with Poland Springs in the humid heat, you could check out pianist Tim Ray and cellist Eugene Friesen doing an hour of eclectic improvisation at the far stage.
But front and center at the Berklee Stage, right after the barricades at Columbus and Mass. Ave., amps were piled high for Jazz Urbane, a collaboration of Berklee faculty and students. If what you wanted was an hour of feel-good, get-down music, you had come to the right place. Banfield’s group got the outdoor crowd going with the occasional musings of a rapper, featured guest Grace Kelly on sax, and a lineup of stunning female singers with strong voices who stepped out for solo numbers when they weren’t supporting male vocalist Joey Blake.
A smooth jazz/funk fusion groove permeated the set, with tight drumming laying down the groove, a sparse and booming electric bass with funky lines, and bright fills on keyboard. Everything was built around the vocals on mostly original songs and two blockbuster 1972 hits. Blake’s air-percussion slid into “Use Me” (Bill Withers), and Jamie Woods’s clear, poised delivery led “People Make the World Go Round” (The Stylistics). To keep the show moving in this carefully rehearsed show, the female singers rotated the long, emotive phrases of love songs with tighter, funkier numbers.
Banfield, grinning widely, seemed to be having a ball. He waved his guitar over his head in rhythm to the music when he wasn’t playing rhythm with effects, and took only one volume-building solo, during which he began dancing, and finished by unstrapping his guitar, holding it at his side while the crowd applauded.
Grace Kelly’s funk solos were solid, nicely built, with control and fire. Although Kelly’s PR machine may originally have run rampant promoting her way before she was ready, she has been steadily growing as a musician, and that’s good news.
A final question – did this act “belong” in a jazz festival? Isn’t smooth jazz, which would not appeal to most serious jazz aficionados, more “smooth” than “jazz”? Or are we splitting hairs here over a concert that never pretended to be more than a good time?
Until jazz became increasingly intellectualized, and then found refuge in academia as the number of bandstands dwindled, it was meant, first and foremost, as entertainment.
This question has intrigued me for a while, and I thought I’d pose it to several jazz writers for their thoughts on the subject. Their responses ran the gamut from “no” to “it helps” to “it’s essential,” and I’ve arranged their quotes in that order. Let’s see what they have to say.
“I’ve always taken the position that, unless music is created exclusively for those who know how to play music, the reactions of those who don’t know how to play, when informed with historical perspective, intelligence and taste, have value. Also, given that instrumental music is at a particular disadvantage (no visual or literary references for listeners to fall back on), it is worthwhile attempting to articulate how music impacts the passionate listener – and the critic should be nothing if not passionate about music.”
“Knowing how to play jazz certainly can’t hurt one’s endeavor to write cogently about the idiom. But, as I don’t play an instrument, I compensate in several ways. For one thing, I try to operate more as a journalist than a critic. I want to be able to transcend (though not ignore) my personal taste, to contextualize, to describe intentions. Why do musicians make the aesthetic choices they make? What’s their influence tree? Who comprised their circle of associates in formative years? Where does their recorded history or stylistic approach fit into the larger picture? Hopefully, I can base my opinions on one or more personal conversations with the artist (I’ve written 400 or so liner notes and perhaps an equal number of articles for magazines, newspapers and zines over the years, not to mention various bios; during my 23 years as a programmer on WKCR, I also conducted hundreds of unpublished interviews and listened to huge chunks of the recorded canon) or from secondary sources not generated by me. I’ve read and transcribed much oral history, and read numerous published biographies, histories of urban America in the 19th and 20th centuries, African-American history, cultural history, Caribbean and South American history. I also have a certain amount of life experience and, hopefully, perceive human nature and psychology in ways that make sense. Hopefully, these disparate information flows coalesce into a sensibility that allows me to say something meaningful about the many streams that define 21st century jazz and improvised music.”
“Musical ability, to say nothing of musical experience, should not be a prerequisite for jazz critics — any more than expertise in the kitchen should be a must for food critics. Having said that, it’s undeniable that firsthand knowledge of any art form will produce a more authoritative critic, and quite possibly a more insightful one. And of course, musicians tend to confer more trust and respect on someone with that knowledge.”
“I’m less concerned with how well various critics can play music, and more interested in how well they can hear what is happening in a performance. My uncle couldn’t play an instrument, but he could look at an orchestral score, and hear it in his head. He owned hundreds of books of scores — the complete works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and others — and would read them for enjoyment and relaxation. He couldn’t play the music, but no one would have dared challenge his comprehension of it.
Different jazz critics are at different levels in their ability to hear and understand what is happening in a jazz performance. Those who don’t have big ears are operating with a disadvantage. But even they can be useful critics, if they have good judgment and don’t falsify their emotional responses to the music. Some non-musicians are better critics than even highly skilled musicians for that reason. But this is more the exception than the rule.
The worst kind of critic, in my opinion, is the one who lacks musical expertise, and tries to compensate by jumping on every new bandwagon, embracing the flavor of the month with a grim determination to impress people with a shallow kind of hipness. Given their zeal to stay fashionable, such critics are virtually forced to falsify their own emotional responses to the music. They are thus very poor guides to their readers. I wish I could say that this is a very rare state of affairs, but I believe that it is actually quite common.”
“Strictly speaking, a critic is anyone who expresses a value judgment, though I’m reminded of Whitney Balliett’s definition of a music critic as ‘a bundle of biases held loosely together by a sense of taste.’ These days, social media and the blogosphere democratizes access and allows anyone a platform. And while the marketplace for music and ideas may have changed, some standards hopefully still apply. A good critic still needs to have insight, an informed opinion, analytic skills and the ability to communicate ideas in a clear, coherent manner.
A film critic doesn’t need to be a director, cinematographer or actor to write about film. And while it can be useful for a jazz critic to have experience on the bandstand, it’s not absolutely essential for them to be able to play the blues in all keys, navigate II-V-I progressions, or transpose at will. But any jazz critic worth their salt must at least have a grasp of music history and literature (not just jazz), as well as knowledge of form, rhythm, harmony and the ability to recognize originality vs. patterns or clichés. All this helps to provide context and meaning, in addition to interpreting the codes and quotes that musicians express in the moment.
John Gennari has written a landmark study of how critics have approached jazz over time (“Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics,” University of Chicago Press, 2006). It would be interesting to see this work updated and try to measure the impact of jazz critics today beyond publicity or promotion. If everyone now has their own blog or social media platform, are we getting closer to the time when a jazz critic is, as Norman Granz once said, anyone who gets free records from the label?”
“I would say no, but it helps. I think a good working knowledge of the fundamentals of music is important, but good ears and an open mind are the most essential attributes.
A good critic needs to have a healthy appreciation for technique, but just like one needn’t be an artist to be an art critic, or playwright to judge plays, playing jazz is not an absolute prerequisite for being a good jazz critic. It all depends on the individual. No one critic will get everything right anyhow, just as no musician plays a perfect solo every time. We’re too close to the music of our time to judge it properly. (It took four hundred years for art historians to finally acknowledge Vermeer’s genius.) That’s why I prefer critics who try to describe what the musician is doing as accurately as possible (not an easy feat in itself), and keep their opinions on merit in check as much as possible. I think, in our little world of jazz, we need more critics who are on the musicians’ side, and who promote a fuller understanding of the music, rather than promoting themselves by belittling others. The best critics make me want to check out the music for myself, or listen to it again with fresh ears. And I prefer those critics who concentrate on the music, rather than the back-story.”
“I am wary of overspecialization and have never considered myself only a jazz critic, so I would say only that it benefits a music critic to know how to play music. Whether you can improvise on changes through ‘Cherokee’ is less important than knowing something about playing with other people, performing for an audience, and making a recording.”
“Jazz critics needn’t necessarily play jazz, but I see no reason why they can’t play a musical instrument with at least elemental facility. I’ve heard Howard Mandel play the flute, for example. He’s no pro, as he would be the first to admit, but I respect that he’s put some time in to learn an instrument. I’m sure that that experience has a bearing on his writing and listening.
I also see no reason why jazz critics can’t acquire at least a basic knowledge of music theory. It’s not rocket science. If that happened more often, we’d see fewer gaffes on the order of critics saying ‘harmonics’ when they actually mean ‘harmonies,’ or ‘riffs’ when they mean ‘lines.’ Those are things that make jazz musicians like me laugh and cringe.”
“Yes, I do think a jazz critic should have at least some working knowledge of the nuts and bolts of jazz, of how the music is put together and how it functions on a technical level. I don’t think a critic should necessarily be a great player (though that would be nice!), but they should know something about form and structure and have at least dabbled in the music at some point. If you take the example of a literary critic – most literary critics would not have published novels of their own, but they do know how to spell and are aware of the rules of grammar, and like all of us, they will have at least written essays in their time – even if it was only in school or college. So they will of course have a working knowledge of language.
Most classical critics (at least high level ones) have studied music up to a reasonable level too – however I think jazz music has suffered a lot from poor criticism being delivered by writers who don’t have the first idea about how the music works. As far as jazz criticism is concerned, I think a little learning is NOT a dangerous thing!”
Stanley Crouch, who was interviewed for this article, feels that the critic who plays jazz benefits by hearing the quality of what individual musicians are playing, and how that relates to what they do [with the band as an ensemble]. Playing enables the critic to discern how many things one hears in the middle of a performance, or, as Crouch says, to pick up on “the velocity of thought” in the interplay on the bandstand. “If critics are interested in understanding the music a bit better by playing, it helps,” he says. “We live in a period where music has been so debased that the idea of singing or playing is an extreme challenge.”
“I’m sure there are jazz writers who do good work despite not being players to some degree. My Ottawa Citizen colleague Doug Fischer is one example. But for my part, if I were to somehow subtract my playing experience and knowledge, I would have no idea how I’d be writing about jazz.
I say this even though I’ve been very much a generalist in my journalistic career, reporting on everything from the courts to city hall to education to the high-tech sector, despite never having been a lawyer, politician, teacher or software engineer. I suppose because I’ve been trying to play jazz for many more years than I’ve been writing about jazz, and because jazz means as much as it does to me, jazz journalism seems to require a greater degree of specialized knowledge that most naturally comes from having played jazz.
Good jazz writing is accurate, well-informed, clear, insightful and, I’d contend, passionate. Having my modest but, I’d contend, significant background as a jazz pianist provides me with a vital grounding in most, if not all, of these respects, I feel.
When I read some jazz criticism that I think falls short, it’s sometimes painfully apparent that the writer doesn’t play — never mind the quality of the writing. Sometimes the descriptions and observations regarding the music are so off the mark. Other times the critical assumptions are to me strikingly out of touch with what goes on in the minds of artists, or with a fully fledged understanding of jazz history.
All this said, the point of writing about jazz for me is not to write for musicians, or get into the nuts and bolts of the music as some musicians might. I’m simply trying to convey to fans and jazz newcomers alike, be they musicians or non-musicians, just what makes jazz and the artists who dedicate their lives to it so compelling, interesting and meaningful.”
“In all things, knowledge is power. To write authoritatively about a subject, the writer must have a significant measure of experience and knowledge. This is true for any discipline, but I believe that intelligent analysis of jazz depends upon a solid understanding of its history, its practice and its spirit. I don’t know that the successful writer needs to be a pro-level musician, woodshedding and jamming for hours per week. But, at the very least, the writer must truly know the music’s core mechanics and the heart of what is being written about. Detachment is the writer’s enemy; serious jazz fans can smell a phony a mile away, onstage or on the page.”
bostonjazzblog.com is deeply grateful to the contributing writers quoted in this article.
Harvard Square must be the place for which the French wrote “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” and that’s never truer than on a summer evening like last Monday, July 11. I got off the Red Line that night and walked toward the Charles, past legions of cyclists, girls strumming acoustic guitars, and a foreign film title on the Brattle marquee. Passing Charlie’s Kitchen, I crossed Mt. Auburn St. to the Charles Hotel.
And I found a special little gem of a concert there by the Zac Zinger Group in the courtyard of the Regattabar. It’s one of many student events hosted by Berklee in its “Summer in the City” series. The series has spread to pockets all over town (and offshore on the Boston Harbor Islands and Martha’s Vineyard). The concept evolved over the last several years, Berklee’s Vice President for External Affairs Tom Riley told me. It’s a win-win for Berklee students who need venues, and listeners who want to hear students’ music.
Sponsored by Natixis Global Asset Management, the series now extends beyond Boston, with bookings as far west as Hawaii and as far north as Toronto. Equally wide is its scope of musical genres, including bluegrass, singer/songwriters, world music and other styles. According to Michael Borgida, who manages the Boston concerts, the most popular shows here are Harborwalk Sounds at ICA and the Tito Puente Latin Music Series. Last year’s Tito Puente concert at City Hall Plaza had an estimated audience of 25,000. (Mention that to the folks who eliminated the Latin Jazz category from the Grammies this year.)
But to get back to the Zac Zinger Group concert that kicked off the Regattabar series – it filled the hotel’s courtyard under cooperative skies with a crowd of babyboomers, babes, and babies who stayed for the whole show. Zinger, ably supported by Kellan Thomas on fretless bass and drummer Alex Melcher, played a clean alto sax with good tone. His all-original sets were largely funk, with some lyrical ballads on which he played EWI. Zinger has potential in composition, and is also a fine band leader with a sure sense of dynamics, which his group follows carefully. A guest appearance by Clay Lyons on tenor sax shows how much Zinger will grow as he adds other horn players for trades, solos and scored lines.
Keep an eye on keyboardist Abraham Olivo. He is already a very accomplished pianist with fluidity, speed, understanding of stylistic nuance and strong musicality. And he has so much fun playing that instrument! Olivo finished each run lifting his fingers off the keys with a smile. If he hasn’t already played for Danilo Perez at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, he might want to do that one day soon.
When the concert ended, the musicians quickly made their way to the burger grill, in that time-honored tradition of grabbing a free meal at the gig as soon as you can. On the way to the chow line, bassist Kellan Thomas mused on what their plans were, individually and collectively. It’s a pretty open agenda. “See what develops here, or New York, whatever comes along,” he said. For now, it’s playing in Boston, in the summer, in the city. http://www.berklee.edu/events/summer/
With disciplined sticks and steady power, soft-spoken drummer Adam Cruz led his band in a tight, satisfying set on June 21 at Scullers. Cruz and his sidemen breathed a large amount of life into the tunes from his debut album, “Milestone,” with post bop solos and arrangements that grouped voices or split them apart into free jazz.
It was immediately apparent, as Cruz took the opening tune “Crepuscular” into a solo transitioning to “Secret Life,” what a wonderful drummer he is. With impeccable dynamics, mastery of his set, and subtle Latin echoes, he established a steady beat that carried and pushed the band through the whole evening.
Cruz’s compositions, open structures that set up modal drones, are clearly Coltrane-influenced, but they are colored differently, sometimes with an ECM feel, or with a smart rhythmic hook. At certain points diatonic call and response or free jazz freefall is interjected into the arrangements. As a leader, Cruz has chosen his sidemen well. Guitarist Steve Cardenas switched comfortably between diatonic lyricism and angular lines, often developing successive lines out of previous phrases. Bassist Matt Brewer, unobtrusive but strong, played conversational, melodic solos on the thoughtful ballads “Bird of Paradise” and “Resonance.” Eli Degibri and Steve Wilson added meaty statements of their own on tenor and alto saxophones, respectively. Wilson occasionally changed to soprano saxophone, as he had in the album. If Cruz, deservedly one of the top drummers in jazz today, was the star of the show, pianist Kevin Hays was the set’s unsung hero. Playing the music for the first time, he used inventive voicings and lines and took chances in the moment, leading at one point into a dark solo piano monologue on “Emjé.”
The buzz for awhile has been about alto saxophonist Grace Kelly, who has moved quickly to national and international stages. I’m sure you’ll agree that a young player like Ms. Kelly, just developing her talent, will want to learn all she can. Some of the best lessons she can learn are from listening to seasoned musicians in this town. The ones who’ve paid their dues, and honed their talent, over the decades. One such musician is Jim Repa.
A well-respected veteran reeds multi-instrumentalist, Repa appeared with the Mark Snyder Quartet at Ryles on May 31. He shared the bandstand with electric bassist Mark Snyder, drummer Rick Klane, and guitarist Andy Sohlberg. Repa, who played alto and soprano sax and flute that evening, understands how to “place” each horn for best effect, and how to say something with it. He is a contained, disciplined musician, a calm, professorial presence who just happens to get up and wail. In “Eiderdown,” his bebop lines were fluent. Switching to measured, meditative flute phrases for a Mark Snyder original, Repa’s sound was clean and bright. The funk in Repa’s “Red Dot Trail” in 7/4 used displacement for a quirky line that separated each solo. Here, he weaved complex statements on his soprano sax. He chose that instrument, too, for a Donegal-meets-Detroit tune that opened with a demanding Celtic-sounding line and relaxed to funk for the solos. Yet, in this all-electric setting, Repa was misplaced.
Luckily, it’s easy to hear Repa to perfect advantage – on his CD Destinations, engineered by Peter Kontrimas at PBS Studios. In a line-up of brass and reeds, what stands out is Repa’s solid craftsmanship, clarity, and thoughtfulness. Musical, improvisationally flowing, with fine tone, Repa’s good technique frees him to say what’s on his musical mind. He leads the band with a deft touch, switching from flute to alto, soprano, and piccolo. There’s a “just-so” feeling in this album, as if every detail – arrangements, personnel, and material - has been carefully plotted out. Released in 2009, it features excellent local musicians, several of them Berklee instructors, including Rick DiMuzio (tenor sax), Ken Cervenka (trumpet and flugelhorn), John Pierce (trombone), Doug Johnson (piano), Keala Kaumeheiwa (bass), John Baboian (guitar), Steve Langone (drums), and Anita Quinto (percussion). Bassist Bob Sinicrope plays on Eastern Dreams.
Stylistically diverse, the CD adroitly celebrates several - well, musical destinations. From the opening playful lead of Red Dot Trail, this well-rehearsed, well-engineered album makes for good listening. In Los Legartos, a tight, satisfying Latin arrangement with smart trumpet and piano solos is spiced up by Anita Quinto’s percussion. Off to South Africa next, and Repa plays Pan in a joyous fanfare dedicated to young musicians in Capetown. A delicate arrangement of singer-composer Mili Bermejo’s “Como Hacemos;” a quick tribute to Spain in 5/4 with some nice, lyrical work on bass; an homage to Africa and the Middle East; and a kicky mambo, all give the album, at least by reading the titles, a “world music” descriptor.
But that does a disservice to the music, whose titles include the fractious “Monkfish,” as well as a bossa reading of “Giant Steps” changes. There are also two standards. One of them, “Oliver,” ends the album quietly as a jazz/sax duo in 11/8, switching in and out of introduction, head, solos, and counterpoint.
So, yes, I’d be pleasantly surprised to find Miss Kelly in the audience at Jim Repa’s gigs. He has a lot to say with that horn.
Scarlatti, what was a nice Italian composer like you doing in a room like Scullers on April 29 going into a hard-driving funk groove with Afro-Cuban overlay? Don’t worry, you were in good hands.
Donal Fox’s eclecticism and widely-recognized piano mastery were in full force that night. Compositions combining genres have been a career-long joy for Fox. He has constantly answered the question, “What is jazz?” with another question. “What is music, if not jazz and other elements?” Fox has consistently combined influences, training, and styles, with interesting end results. As early as 1991, his improvisations with Eric Thomas on “Duetto for Clarinet” blurred the line between scored music and spontaneous creation. Fox’s score for Boston Ballet’s “Gone City” similarly combined improvised contemporary accompaniments with scored effects.
The evening’s tunes at Scullers were tightly arranged, and the quartet – including John Lockwood (bass), Warren Wolf (vibraphone) and Dafnis Prieto (drums) moved between sections with grace and power. The complex charts had quick switches from scored to improvised music, kicks, and full-band stops that musicians of lesser caliber wouldn’t have been able to handle. Besides the personnel, this group works well because its tunes, despite their complexity, have accessible forms. The tangos, funk, blues, and classical elements are appealing. Finally, there’s the instrumentation, a formula used so successfully by the Modern Jazz Quartet. (Fox dedicated a Tanglewood concert of his to the MJQ.)
Like Fox, John Lewis wrote arrangements incorporating classical pieces, or based on them. Beyond that, however, the differences between these two quartets outweigh the similarities. MJQ was understated, and drew on bebop – remember, they were Diz’s original rhythm section. They went for a lighter sound and a soft swing.
Although Fox’s quartet had delicate moments when I heard them, like English Renaissance composer John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” every statement, even if restrained, was strong. There was deep, sensual beauty, too, in an arrangement of Piazzolla’s “Ausencias,” with its, spare, mournful vibraphone lines. But from the elegant arrangement of a Spanish baroque theme morphing into the grooves of the galloping original “Firefly,” or the solemnity of Scarlatti’s Aria K.32 leading to “Inventions in Blue” with a fine solo by Warren Wolf, the intensity never wavered. Speaking of intensity, Wolf symbolically fanned Prieto during an explosive drum solo that the audience loved.
I loved it, too. Cuban-trained Prieto’s spontaneity and creativity enhance this music. Moreover I find him a better fit for the material than Terri Lyne Carrington, a great instrumentalist herself who added so much to Fox’s “The Scarlatti Suite Project” but has a more laid-back feel. What didn’t enhance the evening at Scullers, and was not needed, were two microphones over the drum set. In Carnegie Hall (where, by the way, Fox’s “Hear De Lambs A-Cryin” had its New York Premiere on May 10), you need to mike drums. Not at Scullers. I hope both the club and musicians will keep that in mind.
“People often say to me,” Fox noted as he opened his set, “you have all this music on your piano, but you never look at it.” He confided to the audience, “It’s all for show.”
“Every time I sing this song I feel like I just ran the Marathon,” Neha Jiwrajka said. It was April 18, the whole city of Boston had just finished watching that famous race, and Jiwrajka was opening her set with Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne.” She and eight other highly talented vocalists were about to do some musical sprinting of their own in a well played program that evening at NEC’s Pierce Hall. The three ensembles in the program each enjoyed solid support from their own rhythm sections of guitar, piano, bass, and drums.
Free and open to the public, these concerts in Pierce Hall on St. Botolph Street are important. You will see tomorrow’s, and sometimes today’s, professional jazz musicians, not just for Boston, but for the national and international stage. (Remember a young lady named Rachael Price?) You learn who these young artists are, and what’s more, you see them developing. You hear good jazz and can support it – by listening. In an elite school like NEC, that’s not bad for a cheap night out.
Eade, a graduate of NEC and well-known jazz vocalist herself, works hard with her ensembles, all of whose members audition for and are grouped by her and NEC jazz chair Ken Schaphorst. Each group of three vocalists and generally four instrumentalists usually has one singer fronting the band at a time, acting as leader, selecting the material and directing the ensemble. Arrangements may also be written for a group of singers.
But the musical aims are deeper, Eade says. “One of the goals is to open up the conversation between the singers and the rhythm section, and between the individuals in the rhythm section. As everyone learns more about each other and the instruments they play, better musical choices are made and new ideas can come from any corner.”
Eade is also careful to coach with a balance of direction and just letting things develop. “I’ve learned a lot from watching people rehearse their groups. It’s an art in itself,” she feels. “No one wants to feel micromanaged, but it can also be numbing to continue when people have a sense it isn’t clicking.”
And things were clicking at the April 18th concert. Some examples of the fine performances:
The bright, rich bite of Akenya Seymour’s voice punched up her original arrangements. “Just Friends” opened over a light piano riff before she swung the tune. Seymour chose a New Orleans fatback to pump some juice into “Ole Devil Moon,” using off center tight, dramatic kicks to keep up the intensity. After a percussive scat solo, she led the band into a quiet ending.
In Kim Mayo’s rendition of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” a full, mature voice joined with clean diction and tasteful vibrato to convey the meaning of the song. She had the right balance of both connecting with the audience, and looking inward for a deeper interpretation. Mayo ended with a trance reharmonization of “The Very Thought of You” which was all about the groove.
Then, take a young jazz male vocalist. He says to himself, ‘‘Let’s find something interesting for genre. How about a French ballad in three, like Django’s ‘Melodie au Crepuscule?’ Ah, but the intro. Maybe a sax transcription. Of course, the James Carter solo on the tune.” And, voilà, Tommy Boynton let loose on the transcription, and then led the band into French cabaret style accompaniment, exploiting his range from baritone to falsetto. In stylistic and historical contrast, he closed with Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song,” a nice opportunity for guitarist Matthew Delligatti to wail.
Hee Jin Kim used an original arrangement of “Get Happy,” scatting a well-arched solo over a two-chord vamp that drove home the song’s message. She ended with Kurt Weill’s prayerful “Lost Out Here in the Stars,” delivered with solid technique and musicianship, and mature commitment to the song.
There were also good original compositions. Three vocalists added color to the mood piece “A Tree” by drummer Nicholas Neuberg. Shaped by brushes and shifting meters, its impressionistic piano fills and melodic bass solo gave it a floating feeling. Michael Mayo’s spiritual “Echoes of Ulaanbaatar,” begun last year when he was a senior in high school, had the maturity of composers twice his age. Mayo’s vocal lines, both scored and improvised, were interesting and sophisticated.
I wondered how it felt to Eade to watch her students perform in literally the same place she started out. Things have changed a lot, she responded. “At the time I was a student there was no situation like this for vocalists at NEC. I was lucky to be singing in groups with older musicians at the time, people like Alan Dawson and Mick Goodrick, when I was younger,” Eade remembers. “They taught me a lot. It feels great to provide an open environment for people to learn and share their musical ideas like this because the professional world does not always afford this luxury. And you can really tell when the music gets better.”