By Beppe Colli
Jan. 1, 2016
About fifteen years ago, the movie Almost Famous was shown in most
countries of the Western world. In this movie, U.S. director Cameron Crowe -
who also wrote the script - revisited the exciting, adventurous early days of
his first profession: "rock journalist". Crowe's career as a music
writer had been quite remarkable: a fast start at the tender age of fifteen,
Crowe soon became a star writing for the magazine that at the time - 1973 - was
the undisputed #1 rock magazine in the world: U.S. bi-weekly Rolling Stone, a
paper that successfully managed to combine high sales and strong credibility.
Or did it? It was exactly this point -
friend of the reader or friend of the enemy? ready to tell it like it is or
tongue-for-hire in exchange for well-paid ads? - that soon became a battlefield
for reviewers on both sides of the pond, who were also confronted with a
difficult problem: the way the movie presented legendary rock critic Lester
Bangs, who in the movie acts as a kind of "critical conscience" in a
world of corruption, and whose early death in real life had made him even more
legendary in his role of prized ally in the eternal struggle between
"us" and "them".
While this part of the movie totally
escaped reviewers not familiar with this background, it soon became a highly
controversial topic in an year that, totally by chance, saw the appearance of
three books related to those issues: a Lester Bangs biography and two
anthologies featuring works by Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches. Both friends
of Bangs, they had been filed as best specimens of "honest
criticism", and later labeled alongside Bangs as "the noise
"The Dean of American Rock
Critics" Robert Christgau opened fire with an article that appeared in the
pages of prestigious New York weekly The Village Voice - a magazine where
Christgau was the main rock critic - in a review titled Impolite Discourse -
The Noise Boys Ride Again. Famous, respected movie critic J. Hoberman reviewed Crowe's
film for The Voice, under the title Generational Tastes. From the pages of the
alternative paper in San Diego, Meltzer himself spoke in a vitriolic article
titled Third Spud From The Sun: Cameron Crowe Then And Now. While in the course
of a long interview by Scott Woods which appeared in the indispensable
"Web anthology" called Rock Critics under the title Kicks Just Keep
Getting Harder To Find, Meltzer managed to reply to those arguments put forward
by Christgau in his aforementioned Voice piece.
Meanwhile, a "polemic with tact"
appeared in print form. Under the title A Tale Of Two Rock Critics, on October
20, 2000, U.K. daily newspaper The Guardian featured two pieces about the way
things had been: one by Crowe himself, the other by renowned rock critic
Charles Shaar Murray, who in 1973, aged 21, started writing for what at the
time was considered to be the most irreverent and incorruptible U.K. weekly,
The New Musical Express.
Looking back, I have the strong feeling that time elapsed between
years 2000 and 2015 is quite longer than time elapsed between 1973 - and, more
in general, what was once regarded as "rock's golden age" - and the
Though the financial prosperity of print
magazines is bound to change in time, at times quite dramatically, I believe
that while those who in the year 2000 looked back at 1973 saw something they
could understand, the same is not necessarily true for those who right now turn
back to look at the year 2000.
It's been a few years since Christgau and
Hoberman stopped writing for The Village Voice, and for some time now The
Village Voice has not been what it once was. But it appears that both Christgau
and Hoberman have not managed to find a comparable position, for the simple
reason that jobs like those don't exist anymore. And what about the
indispensable - and quite entertaining - Rock Critics? It looks like the
website is in "suspended animation", and with good reason: if in the
age of the Web we are all "rock critics", who's a "rock
Let's pay attention to what's at stake! In
the present condition, what does it mean "to be an accomplice of record
companies"? And "acting as a megaphone" in the interest of a
third party? Who can be regarded as being "on the side of readers"?
Do readers have any point of view about this? Are there still readers out
there? Has listening by now turned into a state of "automatic
perception" that doesn't involve verbalization anymore?
Has technology - through the invention of
the Net, and nowadays fast, cheap access for everybody - acted as a kind of
"turbo engine" for this change in audience perspective?
In June, 2001 Rock Critics published an interesting interview by
Steven Ward. The man being interviewed was Glenn McDonald, who at the time had
a blog titled The War Against Silence. Writing for the most part about rock
music, on Wednesday nights, McDonald - in real life, a software designer -
wrote for free without help from ads nor freebies from record companies.
When asked about the future of his role as
a reviewer, McDonald spoke thus: "The thing that threatens to render this
whole field of endeavor obsolete, however, is that if you're on the Net you now
don't really need to have music described for you." (...) "At that
point, detailed written descriptions of music are superfluous and
McDonald appeared to anticipate the
objection that crossed my mind while I was reading the interview, and this is
what he said:
"Of course, there's still the other
traditional role of the "critic" (as opposed to the "reviewer")
which is to try to place the work in some sort of larger context, and/or
analyze it in a deeper way than a casual, under-informed listener is prepared
or willing to, and thus get at some notion of artistic merit." (...)
"This can be done with music, but a) almost no popular music criticism
actually amounts to this, and b) I don't even think it would be very
interesting if it did."
Let's suppose - here I'm summarizing
McDonald's opinion - that a certain number of very knowledgeable critics reach
a consensus about the high quality of, say, The Joshua Tree by U2. How could
their argument be the final word when it comes to listeners' perception?
Anybody could say something like "That's your opinion, but I still don't
So, what's left of criticism? According to
McDonald, the only thing that a critic can do is talk about the relationship
between himself and what he listens to.
It was the end of October when - in one of my futile attempts to
bridge the gap between what I manage to listen to and what's released - I paid
a visit to one of the last record shops still in existence in the town I live
in. When I entered the shop, I was greeted by a loud cacophony, a
horrible-sounding mix of vocals, strings, and reeds that stunned me. I thought
that this music sounded perfect as the soundtrack for the scene when the
Pharaoh and his army are swallowed by the Red Sea, which closes over them - a
scene that I remember from the time I watched The Ten Commandments, which I saw
thanks to a school trip at the time when I still attended elementary school.
"Tacky" is the word that came to me upon listening to this musical
passages, I'm sure readers will find the most appropriate expression in their
I asked what it was, the shop owner replied
that I was listening to one of the most lauded albums in recent times: The
Epic, a double CD and a triple LP, by Kamasi Washington. It was at this point
that a piano solo started: the language was quite old - forty or fifty years
old - but the performance sounded fresh and lively. "This Kamasi is quite
good", I said after listening to the solo for a few minutes. "That's
not Kamasi", he said, "Kamasi plays the saxophone". It was at
this moment that a trumpet solo started. Well, it was like a Freddie Hubbard
solo from way back, but in a way conscious of what was to come later - or
something. Then - those horrible orchestral parts still appearing here and
there - came the time for the tenor solo. After a few minutes I was certain I
was confronted with something I dislike a lot: saxophone players who run out of
ideas a lot earlier than they run out of breath. I'm sure that I listened to
the album for about half an hour, so I asked the owner to play something else
"Who will like this shit?", I
asked. "Those who don't listen to jazz", was the answer. Which in a
way sounds logical: those who listen to jazz will immediately notice that this
music is quite old - on first listening, I was reminded of Azar Lawrence, whose
records I haven't listened to in a long, long while. But I was quite skeptical
that in the present condition, in the age of multi-tasking, there could be many
people who are willing to put the effort to listen to this music with the
degree of attention it deserves. I wondered how many of those who bought the
hype will still listen to this monstrosity a few months after the purchase.
I'll be clear. At the time I bought the
Frank Zappa album titled Uncle Meat my maturity as a listener was just a few
degrees above zero (I was 15). But the general conditions of the era helped me
in my evolution as a listener (but it took me more than a few years in order to
overcome certain obstacles).
Since I had been told that the album had been out for a few months, I
had a look on the Web. A lot of rave reviews, and names were dropped without
much logic (a lot of influences, though, for such a "new, innovative"
album): The Jazz Composers Orchestra, Liberation Music Orchestra, Sun Ra, John
Coltrane, Albert Ayler, other stuff I don't remember. A couple people mentioned
Pharoah Sanders, nobody mentioned early-70s Impulse. And no Azar Lawrence.
At the time I developed a real interest in
jazz, the "new music" was that of The Art Ensemble of Chicago and
Anthony Braxton. The "Coltrane search" was a thing of the past.
Looking back at what came before, my personal taste made me investigate people
like Monk, Mingus, and Coleman, not really John Coltrane. Something which
didn't rule out - to give readers a for instance - listening long and hard to
Ascension, and investigating the implications featured on such albums as the
one released by Rova (plus guests) thirty years after the original release
(Ascension, 1995) and the electric version (Electric Ascension, 2003) released
by a large line-up under the name Rova::Orchestrova. From David Murray to David
Ware, the "torrential tenor player" has never been my favourite
But here we are talking about something
completely different. Calling something old, new. Which doesn't equal, of
course, negating people the right to listen to this music, saying "Well, I
I thought the situation reminded me of the
scene in the movie Annie Hall when the character portrayed by Woody Allen,
waiting in line to buy tickets in a cinema foyer, listens to people saying
silly, inaccurate things about Marshall McLuhan. With a fantastic coup de
théatre, Allen has McLuhan himself appearing from behind a billboard, the
philosopher agreeing with him, saying (I'm quoting from memory) "This
young man is right, you have totally misunderstood my ideas". At this
point, Woody Allen looks into the camera and says (again, I'm quoting from
memory): "Why real life ain't like this?".
I had seen nothing yet. Right before Christmas, I decided to have a
look at those Top Of The Year lists posted by the critics of The New York
Times, and I saw that Ben Ratliff - the jazz critic at the paper - had The Epic
at #1. Now, I have to confess that when I think about a jazz critic I think
about Francis Davis, not Ben Ratliff. But here I thought that considerations about
"trends" and the like could be at work - I've seen a lot of
bandwagons starting, from the M-Base collective to the David Ware mania, maybe
this placement could be linked to the intention on the part of the critics not
to scare away those who have just started listening to jazz thanks to this
After a few days - I wanted to check some
end-of-year opinions - I had a look at Do The Math, Ethan Iverson's (he's the
piano player in the jazz trio The Bad Plus) website which I've mentioned a few
times in the last few yeas. I saw a post dated 12/12/2015 with this title:
That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man.
And this is what I read:
"I've been thinking about critical
opinion and the long view of history as Kamasi Washington's The Epic keeps
being so successful. At least three diverse and well-informed critics, Ben
Ratliff, Ted Gioia, and Phil Freeman, have named it a top album of the year
(Ratliff and Gioia #1, Freeman #2)."
"In light of this consensus I went
back and looked my appraisal of The Epic from several months ago. I stand by my
"I wonder what Azar Lawrence,
Billy Harper, and Gary Bartz make of the buzz. They played this style when it
was fresh - hell, they helped invent the style."
"The reason to celebrate Washington is
probably mostly extra-musical". (...) "Maybe Washington is 'making
jazz relevant again'."
At this point I searched for what Iverson
had written on 05/20/2015:
(The John Coltrane album) "Africa
Brass lurks in the background of any sort of large group Afrocentric jazz
featuring modal chords and vamps. The latest take is getting a lot of
attention: Kamasi Washington's The Epic."
"Indeed, the very first thing we hear
at the top of the first tune, Change Of The Guard, is essentially a McCoy Tyner
quote. The pianist also gets the first solo. It's burning in full post-McCoy
style. Well done."
(...) (the style of The Epic) "is
actually retro (compare, say, Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Harper or Gary
Bartz records from the early 70s."
A few days ago, just before bedtime, I told myself: wonder what
Francis Davis thinks of The Epic. "Google is your friend!", of
course. I typed "Francis Davis" and "Kamasi Washington",
and here it was: the jazz critics 2015 poll curated by Francis Davis for NPR
(National Public Radio). The Epic stood at #4.
Let's see what Francis Davis had to say
about the album:
(The Epic) "is being talked about by
its more fervent admirers as if it were jazz like we've never heard it before.
It's not, though. Strings, voices, cosmic graphics, Washington's dashiki and
all, it's merely jazz like we haven't heard it in a while - an intentional
throwback to those "spiritual", early '70s Impulse, Black Jazz and
Strata-East LPs whose greatest appeal might be to listeners too young to remember
the dead end for jazz this sort of thing led to back then."
Interested readers will have no trouble
accessing the whole thing, including the part where Francis Davis makes a list
of those traits shared by those who voted The Epic as their album of the year.
Here I'd like to stress the intellectual
honesty of this critic at the time when - at least, this is what I was told a
couple years ago - total jazz sales fell for the first time below those sales
of classical music (1.4%). Crumbs, really.
At long last, here we are at the end of this piece.
Walking through the streets of the city I
live in, I happen to meet a lot of tourists. I tell everybody to try the lemon
granita. It's not a suggestion that can be rationally demonstrated. I like
lemon granita, and I think other people could like it, too. I have no horse in
this race, I don't own a bar, and I don't direct people towards a bar owned by
a friend or a relative of mine.
I don't believe that telling people to
consume lemon granita is the same as suggesting that they listen to a
particular album, which to me is the end of a long process.
What I see instead is that many listeners
today regard sources - especially online, but let's not kid ourselves:
believing that today paper still means quality, attention, and competence is at
best naive, at worst, a sign of bad faith - with the same attitude tourists I
meet show when accepting my suggestion to try lemon granita. Like it's
"From me to you."
But in spite of their "sweatshop"
work conditions, the miserable web that in the end suggests that we buy this or
that album is not that far from the state of complicity and collusion that
Lester Bangs saw in a magazine like Rolling Stone. Sure, nowadays an
under-qualified workforce has to use pre-cooked texts, lest they come up with
something really terrible (which sometimes they do: say, a saxophone player who
resembles both John Coltrane and Albert Ayler).
At this point, it's entirely possible that
somebody asks me this: But if I like it anyway, why all the fuss about what
those reviews say? Right. But do we really believe that reading about "a
planetary consensus" about an album that's "innovative and
revolutionary" and in the mold of - here comes a long list of names
assembled without any logic whatsoever, but with an eye in the general
direction of what's hip - has no real effect when it comes to one's decision
about what to buy?
© Beppe Colli 2016
CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 1, 2016