What Do Critics Want, Anyway?

What Do Critics Want, Anyway?

by Paul de Barros
Copyright © 1998 Paul de Barros

Everyone has opinions about jazz - usually very strong ones, at that - but for more than 30 years I have been in the privileged, and occasionally uncomfortable, position of seeing mine in print.

One of the questions I get asked most often, particularly by musicians, is, "What are you looking for, anyway?" Over the years, I have come to realize that the answer to this question is simpler than I used to think it was: Basically, when I go out to a concert or a club, or sit in my house listening to a recording, I'm looking for something to happen. That may sound so simple that it seems stupid, but that's really where I start. Is this music making me feel something? Is it making me think? Is it reaching me in some way?

Oddly, the qualities we usually associate with criticism - discrimination, comparison, evaluation - are not helpful in answering this fundamental question. In fact, they often get in the way. If you're looking for something to reach you, you have to start with an open mind and an open heart, and in a certain sense leave yourself vulnerable. The most important qualities a critic can bring to a performance, then, are alertness and receptivity. None of the finer points of criticism mean a thing if you are mentally "asleep."

Tracking the effect that music has on you while it's happening is a species of self-monitoring - a yoga, if you like - that you get better at, the more you do it. It involves a dual process, of being both receptive and watchful at the same time. If there's nothing happening to you as a listener, there really isn't much to write about.

Once I've determined whether something is happening, then I can go on to consider more refined questions. For example, does this music speak in its own voice? Jazz thrives on distinctive, individual voices, even within traditional forms. Is the music I'm hearing particular to this performer, or have I heard these tunes, this arranging style - these licks - already, from someone else? Like most people, I enjoy familiar friends, but I also like surprises; either way, I prefer personal messages with a signature over form letters signed "anonymous."

Every piece of music, and every musician, has a "song." By this I don't mean notes, or melody, but the way a piece flows at a subterranean level - through variations in pressure, shape and pulse. Music that is well-conceived and well-played moves with the formal clarity of a perfect transmission. This may sound mystical, but anyone who has watched Ken Griffey, Jr. connect for a home run into the upper deck in right field knows exactly what I am talking about. (Apologies to Mark Maguire and Sammy Sosa: I live in Seattle.) In fact, I think most people respond to music at this level, even if they are not necessarily aware of it, and rarely talk about it except in the vaguest of terms ("Awesome, man"). I try to listen at this level, and to judge music by the presence or absence of obstacles that come between the artist and the audience.

Technical mastery can be entertaining, though I don't value it as highly as what I call the "authority" in a player's delivery, the feeling that the music I'm hearing was made by someone in control of their materials and that they mean what they play. Tony Williams was a great illustration of this. No matter how fast or how complicated he played, every note seemed to land where he meant it to. (Obviously, certain kinds of chance music don't apply here.)

In straight-ahead jazz, the rhythm section is key. But even in a group without a traditional rhythm section, it is very important that players are listening to each other. Is this group of musicians having a conversation, or did they "phone in" their parts?

Other, less global questions are important, too. Are the musicians (particularly singers) playing in tune? Do the tempos work? Is anyone making obvious mistakes - chords right? soloist lost? cue missed? Is the repertoire hackneyed? The arrangements? How is the pacing? Did someone go on one chorus too long (or too short?) How do these original compositions stand up to what's come before? Do they have a place in the history of the music? Would I want to hear this group (or disc) again? Has the band rehearsed, or does it sound like everyone is reading the parts for the first time? Usually, none of these issues, in and of themselves, can make or break a show, but they all can be important.

Since music gets presented in batches, the shape of the show itself takes on a lot of weight. A good performance should pace its emotional arc, lifting the audience, holding it there, then moving it higher, or letting it down slowly. Nothing is worse than having a great show suddenly drop pressure.

Of course, all of this polite talk begs the unceremonious question most asked of critics, which is - Who asked you, anyway? Back in 1877, the British art critic John Ruskin, in a scathing review of a painting by James Whistler, wrote, "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Incensed, Whistler sued, contending that the review had sabotaged his reputation and thereby curtailed his ability to earn income.

The outcome was interesting. Whistler was awarded damages - of one farthing! - and Ruskin's right to say what he pleased about an artist's work was upheld under the doctrine of fair comment, which had been established in Britain as early as 1808. The doctrine of fair comment says that if you put yourself on stage for the public - whether you are an artist, a politician or a plain wanker - you have made yourself (with some important distinctions) a willing - and legal - target for public criticism. In effect, we have agreed as a civil society that it is in the public interest to protect critical free speech, even when that speech may harm the odd individual.

The notion that arts critics protect the public interest may sound laughably self-righteous, but this is the underlying assumption behind arts criticism. It's the public, after all, who is shelling out money (often big money) for the concerts and recordings musicians and promoters are selling. The idea that it might be helpful to have a knowledgeable, skeptical and inquiring person refereeing this process is part of having a free press, even if the question of whether Kenny G is good saxophone player will never be quite as burning a public issue as whether NATO should be expanded.

That the primary constituency of critics is the public is not widely understood. If it were, critics wouldn't hear so often from artists that negative reviews were "unfair" or from promoters that they were "bad for the jazz scene." The public trusts critics to say what they think. The moment a critic starts writing what artists or promoters want to hear, the public will cry foul - and rightly so, with betrayal in its voice: "Hey, I bought this and it was lousy. You lied!"

That's why, when I am writing a review, I often ask, "What would I say tomorrow morning to my next door neighbor if she asked, "Hey, how was the show?" It's tempting to run on in a review about pentatonic scales or substitute chords, but the most obvious thing everyone wants to know - whatever their level of knowlege - is "Should I go?" or "Was it any good?"

But wait a minute, you say. Hold the phone. Why should the public take your word for it? Who made you the judge?

Good question, and there probably never will be a satisfactory answer to it. Personally, I write about music because I love to write and have been passionately involved in music all of my life. When all is said and done, though, people probably read reviews - and newspapers and magazines probably print them - because they are damn good entertainment. For example, I read Charles Krauthammer, the conservative columnist, every week, just to see how red in the face he'll make me. Every once in a while, I even find myself agreeing with him, or at least seeing how he got to the conclusion he did. He's become a sort of pal, whom I can depend on to disagree with. On the other hand, I almost can be certain that if the my colleague, John Hartl, the film critic at the Seattle Times, gives a film four or five stars, I'll like it.

But critics' verdicts are not really as important as how they arrived at them. Maybe they've read a book I don't know about, or heard music that I haven't, which helps them hear in a way that I don't. Certainly my own love of world music and avant-garde classical music makes me value emotional directness and simplicity, as well as work that I don't fully comprehend on first hearing, in a way that other jazz listeners might not. This means that I bring a particular way of seeing the world to everything that I review. That, ultimately, is what I think serious criticism is about. The literary critic R.P. Blackmur put it best, when he said that what the critic does in telling about art is the same thing that the artist does in telling about the world. You let yourself take in experience, you think about it - categorize it, analyze it, re-organize it in some way - and give it back. The hope is that the reader, in following your trail, will have something revealed that is useful or pleasant.


Paul de Barros is the jazz columnist for the Seattle Times, a contributor to Down Beat magazine and the author of Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle.

E-mail: debarros@wolfenet.com


C o m m e n t s

Critics 1 of 1
Tom Smith, Pfeiffer University January 19, 99

Critics want love and acceptance. There was probably a time years ago when they actually had a true purpose. However, those days have long since passed. Jazz musician/scholars now provide a definitive alternative to the vast majoity of trivial neophytes who call themselves jazz critics. Gene Lees, Owen Cordle, Scott Yanow and Gary Giddins excepted.

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