Are jazz critics too kind?

Could British jazz take it from these critical bakers? Or would its resolve crumble?

I don’t normally watch this kind of thing but the other day I stumbled across The Great British Bake Off. The task for those taking part was to cook three desserts. Mary Berry and the bearded bloke were not shy in saying what they found wrong with the results. This one had been a mistake from the start – “you just can’t do that with strawberries without them turing to mush” – some of them had come a cropper in the cooking process – “to leave out a whole ingredient is unforgiveable”. Those having judgment passed upon them weren’t professionals, they were just ordinary people who happened to like baking. And the critics were practitioners of the highest order. Baking gurus, to be sure.

Now, this got me to thinking about the practice of jazz and the commenting thereon. Imagine a jazz great commenting upon the efforts of someone just starting out. There would be a lot of supporting words, a lot of encouragement, any criticisms couched in qualifications, and probably very little straight talking. Of course, there are exceptions. I was privileged to attend a workshop during the Cheltenham Jazz Festival a few years back when veteran saxophonist Lee Konitz failed to mince his  words when assessing the guinea pig students who had been submitted for his workshop. He wasn’t being mean; he was just being Lee.

But that really is an exception, and there was some discomfort I seem to remember from the organisers that perhaps Konitz had been a little harsh.

But now let’s turn to jazz journalism and reviewing. “Reviewer” is the word I have always preferred, avoiding “critic” as too harsh (so there is the first wimp-out on my part), and it’s one I have applied to myself since I first started reviewing rock music and cinema in the late 1970s. I also very early on realised that, having done something of a hatchet job on a film or two (maybe something of a pointless exercise when the makers are big shots in Hollywood and you are writing for a small city paper at the bottom of Africa, but, hey, I was writing for my readers and helping them to spend their money wisely), that that kind of clever critical panning is far too easy. What is much harder is trying eloquently to express what is good about something and why it might be worthwhile.

But there is a balance to be achieved in all things, and it’s one that I am not sure has been maintained in jazz reviewing or criticism or whatever you want to call it.

The reasons to be kind are clear. Jazz, no matter how many stats we may trot out about it having as many devotees as opera in this country and all that, and despite the occasional success of a jazz musician  (like Jamie Cullum for example) is, let us face the truth, a minority art form. And so the jazz journalists see themselves as protectors of an endangered species. The result is that to say anything critical of any jazz practitioner is to betray the jazz cause, is to side with those outside jazz who neither care about nor understand music we, the “enlightened”, love so much.

In some cases there might be another factor here. Take that Great British Bake Off – those were expert bakers critiquing amateur bakers. In the arts world it is often the case that critics are themselves not practitioners, or certainly not expert ones, and there are very few practitioners who are prepared to be critics. I don’t want to go into the old Artist v Critic debate as it is far too well worn and irresolvable.

What I am intrigued by is, specifically, jazz reviewing in this country right now. I looked through the September issue of Jazzwise. No CDs reviewed get five stars (“landmark recording”), and neither do any get one star (“disappointing”). I think you will find it’s much the same in the Guardian week after week. The worst that anything can be is “average”. Now maybe it’s true that the worst our players can be is average, but maybe it’s also true that the reviewers don’t really want to rock the boat too much.

I am not by any means pleading not guilty myself – I may have jettisoned the star system on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I am any less mealy-mouthed in what I write. Like all those other writers I choose not to review the music I think is weak rather than slate it; like them I care too much about jazz in this country to say anything terribly nasty about any of it. But is that a good thing? Is there an argument for “tough love” in jazz criticism, rather than this slavish devotion to the nice and the encouraging and the positive? Is all this back-slapping by the jazz journos helping to make British jazz better? Or just more self-satisfied? No, that’s not quite right, because I can’t remember ever having met a self-satisfied jazz musician. Though I have met a few self-satisfied jazz writers… oh dear, this seems like a tributary not worth taking.

To get back to the point, I really don’t know the right answer to all this, which is why I am writing this. I once was urged by a young singer to review her debut CD. I wrote, on this blog, what I thought was a reasonable and balanced assessment of the disc’s plusses and its minuses. Shortly afterwards I received a stricken email from the singer explaining that the only review that appeared when her name was googled was mine and that as it wasn’t wholly complimentary it was rather upsetting for her and might hinder her career. I offered to take it off my site and she seemed relieved. Did I do the right thing? Or was I a wus?

So, having confessed to being a pretty wimpy jazz advocate rather than a fully fledged critic, I would be really interested in your views out there.

  • Are you a musician? Would you rather get an honest and objective assessment of your gig? Or are you happy to avoid the hurt and have your ego massaged instead? Have you ever played a blinder and then received an unenthusiastic review; alternatively, have you ever had an off night and then read a glowing review of it?
  • Are you a journalist/reviewer/critic and do you feel you pull your punches too often? Or not often enough? Is jazz reviewing getting blander? What would Philip Larkin have thought of modern jazz criticism?
  • Are you a jazz fan that has been tempted to see someone on the strength of a five-star review only to be disappointed? Or have you had your favourite band panned by some cloth ear with a pen and a pad?

I hope for a (critical!) response or two.

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23 replies

  1. I have always felt that Jazzwise was a tad lacking in bite (downright toothless) and wonder if it is perhaps due to a reluctance to alienate potential advertisers.
    Your suggestion of being cruel to be kind is, I suspect, more appropriate in some circumstances than others; having been to THE big name jazz concert in the Edinburgh International Festival and found it to be absolutely dreadful, it would maybe do the untouchables of the jazz establishment some good to get a panning once in a while. On the other hand, it seems largely pointless to slate a group which does not command a significant reputation, and is more akin to Konitz’s bullishness in purpose than to serve as legitimate (and guiding) criticism. In these cases it costs nothing to just not print the review.

  2. Peter a quick thought from a fellow-advocate-traveller.

    In Britain that 1980’s case of Myskow v Cornwell – the alleged big bum of, and prosecution of a newspaper by, the latter – still cast its shadow, encourages us to seek out the shadows.

    A classical reviewer once told me to look out for phrases like “appeared to be having intonation difficulties,” as being the nearest they would ever get to describe the completely insufferable.

    But in 2010 we receive comments. Yes, they can be simple, from the hip, inane, whatever. But they do bring diversity of perspective. The single-voiced review without the comments can even seem incomplete now. George Bernard Shaw’s time has gone.

    Check out a recent review I did of Richard Godwin (can’t provide the link – Blogger is blocked here in China). It was the first time I had heard him: I was kind, constructive.

    The first commenter took out the slagging sledging heavy hammer, and applied it both to the performance and to my review. But what gradually emerged, as the comments accumulated, was a fair perspective.

    And what’s wrong with that?

  3. I’m just a fan, for nearly fifty years. Large cd collection. Regular subscriber to jazz magazines but just down to Jazzwise now. These days I primarily regard reviews as a way of gathering information on what’s available.

    Yes, a bad or indifferent review would put me off (because of the reluctance to criticise noted above – I assume the cd is worse, in reality).

    If the review was average/3 star (which the bell curve says most things must be) or good/great then I’ll look for other reviews to cross-check. I find All About Jazz reliable and use customer’s comments on Amazon.

    With regard to critics, or reviewers (can’t see the difference) I wonder if, in this country, they are too close to ‘the scene’. You go to gigs, know the musicians or their friends, get the free cds etc. Human nature says you are not going to be too critical. Critics need distance. In your case this means that where I have followed up something you like, it it from a non-UK artist.

    • Good to hear the fan’s reaction, and perceptive, of course. I’m intrigued by your last sentence, Richard. Am I more critical, or at least objective, about non-UK artists? I’m not so sure. I’m not actually close to UK musicians, preferring to keep a little distance to avoid exactly the problem you identify. If anything I think I tend to avoid non-UK stuff I don’t like, whereas that is less of an option for things happening here, so I probably cover a wider range. I do follow a philosophy of trying to find the good in things, though – I hold my hand up to that.

  4. I’m not a musician but I’m inclined to think that musicians deserve an honest and objective assessment of their performance — whether they actually want it or not!

    It’s perfectly legitimate for an individual reviewer to restrict him/herself to writing about music that he/she enjoys. I don’t see why anyone should be obliged to spend a lot of time on something that doesn’t give him/her much pleasure. A magazine like Jazzwise is in a different position, as it has to make a credible attempt to cover the whole field. If the writers that it assigns to particular jobs are ones who don’t want to write about music they dislike, an impression of toothlessness is almost bound to result.

    As a reader, you get to know what the reviewer’s taste is, and to what extent you can rely on it. At least, I think you do — it’s possible that I’ve been missing some great music because I systematically discount a given reviewer’s opinion, on the basis of one misleading review several years ago.

  5. Interesting discussion! I think that young musicians do need honest and critical feedback on their performances and one of the aspects of my work that I most enjoy is running the Performance Platform class for the jazz students at Birmingham Conservatoire with Jeremy Price and Hans Koller. In these sessions the bands play a 30 min set and then receive feedback from the tutors and their peers, both on the music and the presentation, including announcements. This can on occasions be very critical, but students seem to want a straightforward and no-holds-barred evaluation of their performance. They also take the criticisms in good spirit.

    So I suppose the implication is that reviews of both concerts and recordings should receive the honest and objective evaluation discussed here. Promoters should also make comments, not when the band has just come off the stage when the players are likely to be feeling at their most sensitive, but over time, possible through post concert emails.

    • I think a distinction needs to be drawn between feedback and critique in an educational (and private) context and reviews/criticism in the media – two related but ultimately very different things.

  6. As a jazz fan, and one who has been seeking more contemporary jazz after having spent years listening to the likes of Coltrane, Miles, and Monk, I am often tempted to investigate a musician further after reading a positive endorsement on one of the forums at All About Jazz or after reading a positive review at this website or All About Jazz. Recently, I encountered high praise for Diego Barber’s Calima but haven’t yet found the same degree of satisfaction after several listenings. I discovered Food after reading a positive review of their Quiet Inlet on this website and have since discovered their Molecular Gastronomy, both of which are quite exciting at certain times of day. I would have preferred seeing a more glowing review of Matthew Halsall’s Colour Yes on this website. It seems as if Matthew Halsall and Nat Birchal have gotten more positive praise in America than in the UK, at least judging from this particular website. Overall, I thank this website for introducing me to Food, Mats Eilertsen, and Ketil Bjornstad.

  7. Very rarely look inside Jazzwise – it always looks like a glossy promo mag – any serious criticism might result in biting off the hand that feeds. The Wire still has serious reviews (ie pretentious) but rarely of jazz these days, and increasingly some of the reviewers come over as too young to have any historical perspective. But if you read enough reviews by the same writers for long enough, you begin to know whether their tastes coincide with yours, and thus whether you want to trust their judgements, and how likely they are to be swayed by record company hype. In the case of the Guardian, there are so few reviews each week that it would be a shame to spend too much time writing about mediocre releases, though one might wonder how John Fordham makes his choices. John H Walters was always a much more reliable guide (ie closer to my own tastes/prejudices). Conclusion: a critical approach to the critics is necessary!

  8. Studying with jazz critic Ben Ratliff this summer, I was reviewing one jazz concert a week. Now, I can say that I enjoyed each show I saw. And I didn’t give bad reviews. But I never thought that my review should serve as a vessel for jazz advocacy–just for the advocacy of my point.

    I think your post brings up another important question: how influential is jazz criticism? It might be unlikely that someone uninterested in jazz will read a jazz CD or concert review. I came to love jazz criticism not because critics could tell me what was good, but because the critics I came to respect–chief among them, Nat Hentoff, Ben Ratliff, and Whitney Balliett–could express their views about jazz so eloquently and so beautifully that it rendered criticism, in my mind, a viable form of literature.

  9. Album reviews have pretty much become a joke in jazz music. Most of the time they are just a vague description of the music, the writer too often just describing the solo orders but never really letting you know if the music moved them in any way. I would much rather read a review that really ripped into the musician rather than a review that seems to say nothing. Every record can’t be average. Giving records terrible reviews and great ones alike will only help jazz in the long run. The point of reviews in the first place is to let the consumers know which albums or artists are worth spending their money on, and if everyone is average then why spend money on them?
    Nobody wants to hear bad things about the art they make, but it needs to be said so they can take their art to the next level.
    i am a musician and I would much rather read a bad a review then a neutral one. A bad review should be inspiring to a true artist, it will give them something to prove the next time around.

  10. I’m a journalist and a blogger, passionate about jazz and Blues and trying to get some experience in the music journalist scene.
    with that being said it’s difficult for me to learn anything from current reviewers because they all seem so….bland and kind, like they don’t want shake the boat too much. What it’s sad
    Sometimes I read reviews to Cds that got 3stars but really deserves 1/2 a star maximum.
    Ok that reviews are a tad bit subjective but quality is universal. Is impossible to listen to a 1star Cd and not recognised it but journalist and bloggers are just afraid of telling the truth because jazz is still some sort of dangerous species.
    Sad but truth

  11. I think that in part there is an automatic self-selection of what you review, especially for CDs where you have a choice. When space (and time to listen) is limited, you might as well recommend albums that you think people should be listening to and say why properly. By exclusion, the others might as well be disregarded – the bad and the indifferent both being bracketed together.
    Unless an album is “important”, where the world is waiting and has to have an evaluation by an expert. So, for example, it is right to give a bad review about a bigger jazz name where there is a lot of hype.
    I, for example, have been surprised when one journalist, who seems to have a vendetta against the Led Bib/Acoustic Ladyland end of jazz, wants always to give these albums bad reviews. When there is space for one jazz album in a week’s review section, why not just review something that he feels ought to be owned?
    Of course, a good quality bad review is fine and it’s right in magazines such as Jazzwise where they have the space to be more comprehensive in terms of albums reviewed. I know someone who is now a great fan of Billy Jenkins because Billy once got such a negative write-up in The Wire that he had to listen to the album!
    I have also enjoyed recently hearing someone analyse in detail a tune by Chick Corea in an attempt to try and prove its popularity and why he himself doesn’t find it satisfying. It makes me want to return to the album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.
    So, in general, review what you feel we ought to own and say why. There are lots of bad/indifferent albums out there.
    Gigs are a different matter of course, as Tony DE pointed out. Bad reviews/critiques are correct.

  12. At JazzUK magazine our CD pages are loosely referred to as a review section, but what actually appears is effectively an annotated list of recommendations selected from the discs made available in the eight weeks prior to press day, not a bunch of reviews.

    I take the line that in any given period a jazz listener is going to have a long list of recordings that they *aren’t* going to listen to, for any number of reasons – budgetary discipline, don’t like the style, never heard (or heard of) the artist, don’t even know the disc exists, only have time to listen to a certain amount of new material etc.

    Now, if the magazine had all the space it needed, all the competent, literate writers it could ever use (and the money to pay them) and an infallible means of ensuring it had every single eligible disc to hand, there’d be a sound argument for presenting the rough with the smooth and the result would be a perfect critical snapshot of the state of recorded jazz during that period. In this case pointing out who’s not lived up to expectations, whose standards have slipped or whose debut recording should never have been released into the wild would be a valid and valuable counterbalance to awarding plaudits to the good stuff.

    However, take away that utopia and you end up with the realisation that all negative coverage does is add to that list of recordings that people *aren’t* going to listen to (just add ‘critical disapproval’ to the list of reasons) which is pointless. Let’s face it, jazz criticism is aimed at listeners; it isn’t a kind of text-based masterclass for musicians and I doubt if any jazz performers decide they need to do this or that better next time on the basis of what some hack happens to think, so rather than waste space and energy un-recommending something, isn’t it better to use that space to positively recommend something else instead? If not, it’s a bit like devoting space to publishing a recipe with the caveat that the dish isn’t in fact very nice and that you don’t recommend that anyone actually cooks it and eats it.

    Gig reviews are also strange animals. They owe their existence to musical theatre, where performances tended to be seasons or residencies (‘One night only!’ was exceptional and would be advertised as such), so the critics would descend on the first night and their opinions would encourage or discourage subsequent audiences. This approach seems a bit redundant in the case of artists who appear in the UK once a year if you’re lucky.

    Again, I can only speak for JazzUK, but our gig reviews are also recommendations rather than critical SWOT analyses. We prefer to write about indigenous regulars on the UK circuit, so that if one of our writers gets a good impression of an artist they hear in Swanage it’ll mean something to audiences in Swindon when the artist arrives there. I’ll sneak in a free plug at this point and suggest you download the latest issue (it’s free) from here:

    This is an interesting and important topic. Big up Peter for raising it and thanks to Seb for directing me to it via his London blog.

    • I think for JazzUK that’s a really sound policy, since I see it primarily as advocacy for the music. And I enjoy reading some of the recommendations from there too; they’re not too proselytizing and highlight a wide range across the scene.

      But some gig reviews in papers and on-line are quite frankly weird. I recall one review years ago of a band I was in where the journalist didn’t stay for the whole gig, yet amazingly wrote a review as if he had.

      It wasn’t complimentary, which is fine: but the thing that irked was that he’d actually got his facts completely wrong about the audience – he thought they’d walked out after the first half, but actually they have a habit of heading across the road in the interval to the pub that serves nice ale!

      I’ve met other musicians talking of occasions where they’ve spotted the journalist leaving after 15 minutes or so, only to read a review of the whole gig a few days later… I think Else Stockdale’s point is very right and fair, but to do that the reviewer needs to actually stay for the gig!

  13. Since very little is wholly perfect and very little is wholly imperfect, why can the reviewer not tell us what he/she found satisfactory about a gig or a CD and what he/she found to be less than satisfactory ? That’s all I need from a reviewer. That’s all the musician in question needs from a reviewer. If I can judge from that whether or not I want to buy a CD or attend another performance by that musician, so can everyone else. Of course, if the reviewer wants to rhapsodize a little, that’s all right. I’ll take that into consideration as well. Equally, if the reviewer suffered inordinately, a brief mention of it is all right too. Just don’t try to tell me what I should like and what I shouldn’t like. I already know what I like and don’t like. I am grateful, though, to be alerted to musicians I may not have heard and whom I should probably be paying attention.

  14. I wrote a brief response to the post on the LondonJazz blog that brought me here, that as a blogger, reviewing some gigs I go to for the love of it (and paying for all those gigs and CDs!), I actually start off with a positive approach: I only go to gigs I want to go to (and pay for!), those which I expect to enjoy. If I don’t enjoy a gig, I’m unlikely to write about it (although exceptions).

    I expect critics to be more objective, to have more knowledge and experience: it is not something they do for love, but as a profession. (I’m sure they do all love the music too!)

    I can’t always explain why a gig works or doesn’t – and I can’t always find the words to describe it, anyway. Critics are (I presume) educated in the music, know what works and what doesn’t. They also get access to musicians which most bloggers (the amateurs!) don’t.

    Not sure where this get us – but it is my pennyworth!

  15. Its a difficult question. As a jazz singer, I am constantly caught between two opposing forces – to create music which inspires other musicians or to please an audience. There is incredible pressure in jazz to chose interesting notes or pick interesting melodic lines – and far too often the music is intellectualised and the emotion is lost. I would sooner obtain a review from an audience member than a jazz critic, because I believe anyone who is passionate about music can distinguish a moving performance from a dead one and surely this is the whole point of music? The moment you start to intellectualise music, emotional delivery can get lost. Sadly the jazz audience is on the decline and I wonder how much of this has to do with the jazz police and resulting pressures on musicians

  16. Hmmm… very interesting debate. It seems that in a way everyone agrees that given the restrictions in the press, giving space to ‘recommended’ albums is the way to go. I have no idea what the ratio is but I assume there is a lot more stuff out there that one shouldn’t bother with than the other way round. So not getting a review is a bad review in itself.

    As a singer, what I hate beyond a bad review is being patronised. There’s a good girl, you sang a whole song in the right key, with all the notes in the right order – well done. Now I don’t know any musician who wouldn’t like to hear praise alone, however, as someone pointed out, how are you going to learn and grow without a little pain?

    I think a reviewer/critic owes it to the artist to be as honest as possible. This truth needs to be qualified however. As a professional, a reviewer/critic is under the same pressure as a musician to be good at their job. They shouldn’t make random statements or air opinions without having an intelligent or heartfelt reasoning behind it.

    Thankfully I have my mother who thinks that everything I do is wonderful but then I do live with my best friend who, frankly, is unmoved by my music. Which one do I believe?

    And one more thing… the jazz industry is a lot stronger than people make out. I wish we would stop acting like victims and cultivate some balls!

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