Friday, February 01, 2008

Reading Habits II: Criticizing Critics

I dislike Fridays. I am hard-pressed by time, and I generally dislike that. I especially dislike it because I would like to take the time to deliver some good stuff on this blog, but I always feel like I have one eye on the clock. My posts today will be somewhat different, but reading Giddins has put my mind in motion (no jokes please) and so I think it may just serve as a preface, or perhaps introduction, to a series of posts. You will see as you read on.

Last year, on a whim on a day off, I took Lisa to Woodstock, IL, which, for those not in the know, is where the movie Groundhog Day was filmed. It is only 20 miles away, and it is quite something to walk around that square where Bill Murray was stuck on the same day for years.

There is a wonderful little independent book shop next to a coffee shop, and those things are like magnets for both of us. As we wandered, I came across Gary Giddins' collection of critical essays, Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century and didn't look back. For those who may not know, Giddins is the jazz critic for The Village Voice. I found him to be an always informative, if occasionally annoying, source on Ken Burns' Jazz documentary (but the same went for most of the non-musician critics, and even one or two of the performers), and I see he manages to translate that dual propensity for being both engaging and annoying in print. It must be who he is.

One thing is clear from reading his review essays - his love for the music about which he writes is as deep and profound as one's attachment to a lover. His familiarity with the lingo of jazz - choruses and 16- versus 12-bar blues changes, heads, books, leads, and all the rest - is delivered in a way with which I am familiar. That is to say, he tosses off such words and phrases with the easy, but probably misguided assumption that the reader knows what he is talking about. After all, he knows what he is talking about. There just doesn't seem to be a need to put in a little glossary for those not familiar with the terminology (for the record, I do know what he's talking about; but assumptions are bad things for any writer to make, especially when dealing with such writing as this).

He also knows the history and genealogy of jazz. He understands how influences work, hears little nods and even bows from a later generation to a previous one; who jammed with whom in some club somewhere late at night and took those beer- and gin-soaked lessons with them as they passed to the next level; keeps the canon of who is, and who is not, jazz as if it is written in stone (he disses, on several occasions, one of my favorite guitarists, Wes Montgomery; I do hope that is not because he orchestrated some of his songs . . .)

Yet, even as I am enjoying Giddins pretty rigid view of jazz, and his childlike delight in the music, I find myself wondering about the benefits, not so much of writing about music in general, but of criticism as a necessary part of the dance of art. We are, after all, dealing with one art form - the written word - standing in judgment over another - music. We are taking a step back from the emotive core that produces the best melodies and harmonies and trying to rationally assess what is irrational; we are attempting to fix in time what is both ephemeral and timeless, and give it some kind of permanence it is not, by its very nature, supposed to have.

This is a kind of Platonic temptation. I once called it an ideology, in reference to the late rock critic Lester Bangs. I think it is more than that, though. More than simple ideology - although ideology functions as a part of the overall approach - it is a philosophical preference to see "music" as something that exists outside the agency of the musicians who perform it. For Bangs, the best music was the MC5, the early Stooges, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music - music that spoke of rebellion, of a break with tradition, perhaps even a bit of danger. There is nothing wrong with having one's own favorites (how can one not?), turning those personal choices in to a transcendent canon against which to measure each and every musical act to float down the music industry pipeline is a recipe not only for disappointment, but for a certain myopia.

Giddins suffers from the same critical ocular dysfunction. The fixed stars of his firmament are Louis Armstrong, a collection of whose early recordings Giddins encountered early, and was a formative influence on his appreciation and acceptance of jazz; Duke Ellington, the greatest composer of American music, who transcends category; and, interestingly, Giddins has a fondness for, and understanding of, Cecil Taylor's avante adventures. He also understands the struggle between honoring tradition and the desire to create that exists in jazz, and pays homage to both the endlessly-repeated songs, and the new creations of both young and mold musicians who wish to add to the library of great songs.

He occasionally makes what I consider a category mistake, invoking classical composers - Mozart and Bartok, Bach (who lends himself to such comparisons) and Brahms - when attempting to convey what a musician is attempting. My problem with this approach is that classical music is both historically and stylistically removed from jazz as a musical form. Why not take the music on its own terms, and attempt to convey what a musician is doing on its own terms, rather than seek an analogy outside the grammar, vocabulary, and even library of jazz?

Also, why slight musicians who attempt to draw in influences from other popular musics - rock, particularly blues-influenced rock in particular - and give it a place to breathe and even grow in jazz? I know that there are many traditionalists who still disdain fusion for precisely this reason; by bringing in electric instruments, and larger musical forms, the intimacy of jazz - a few guys and gals on a club stage blowing and banging away with the audience within kissing distance - is lost. Yet, this is to take just one way of making the music and making it a standard by which it is to be judged, and found wanting, rather than appreciating what the performer is attempting on its own terms. I know that The Mahavishnu Orchestra is jazz, even though they had closer affinities to such diverse groups as The Allman Brothers Band (who were heavily influence by both Miles Davis and John Coltrane), King Crimson (Fripp added a violinist to the line-up in 1973, just as McLaughlin has one), and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

I am enjoying Giddins because he is a smart, occasionally witty, sometimes scathing writer (especially of other critics of jazz whom he seems to dismiss too casually) whose deep, abiding love for the music comes through even as his attempt to convey with words runs up against the reality that it cannot be so conveyed. Critical writing about jazz, in the end, is a bit like writing about the wind, or a snowflake. We do not see wind; we feel it. Each snowflake, like each jazz performance, is unique, fragile, easily destroyed by too close an attempt to understand it. I think that, when writing about music, we should always remember that we are in the presence of what is, in the end, outside our ability to rationally comprehend. Any critical reflection on art diminishes not the art, but ultimately the critical reflection, A writer about music looks small compared to the person who is actually performing the music.

It is like trying to convey to another person why one is in love. In the end, music, like love, is some kind of strange, irrational, ephemeral event, to be what it is rather than a subject for too-meticulous analysis.

Having said that, I do believe that I am going to write about music. . .

Virtual Tin Cup

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