Friday, July 03, 2015


Here, in alphabetical order, are 20 jazz albums I like from the first half of 2015. It was only when I started making this list that I realized there were that many. I feel like I've been listening to a lot more old jazz than new. But this is a pretty impressive list.

JD Allen, Graffiti (HighNote)
David Chesky/Jazz in the New Harmonic, Primal Scream (Chesky)
Duane Eubanks, Things of That Particular Nature (Sunnyside)
Ghost Train Orchestra, Hot Town (Accurate)
Stephen Haynes, Pomegranate (New Atlantis)
Albert “Tootie” Heath, Philadelphia Beat (Sunnyside)
Eddie Henderson, Collective Portrait (Smoke Sessions)
Jeremy Pelt, Tales, Musings and Other Reveries (HighNote)
Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities (ECM)
Nate Radley, Morphoses (Fresh Sound New Talent)
John Raymond, Foreign Territory (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Matana Roberts, always. (Relative Pitch)
Matthew Shipp Chamber Ensemble, The Gospel According to Matthew and Michael (Relative Pitch)
Alex Sipiagin, Balance 38-58 (Criss Cross)
Jim Snidero, Main Street (Savant)
Terell Stafford, Brotherlee Love (Capri)
Dayna Stephens, Reminiscent (Criss Cross)
Tom Tallitsch, All Together Now (Posi-Tone)
Tim Warfield, Spherical (Criss Cross)
Doug Webb, Triple Play (Posi-Tone)

Sunday, August 03, 2014


On July 31, the New Yorker published a piece called "Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words," by Django Gold. It followed the format of articles like Esquire's long-running "What I've Learned" series, in which cultural eminences (Merv GriffinRachel HunterJohn McCainWayne Newton, etc.) share the wisdom they've gathered throughout the course of their lives.

The Rollins "interview" begins: "I started playing the saxophone when I was thirteen years old. There were some other kids on my block who had taken it up, and I thought that it might be fun. I later learned that these guys’ parents had forced them into it." It continues along the bleak path suggested by that introduction, including observations like, "Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it."

"Rollins" tells stories about other jazz greats, too: "I remember Dexter Gordon was doing a gig at the 3 Deuces, and at one point he leaned into the microphone and said, 'I could sell this suit and this saxophone and get far away from here.' The crowd laughed." and "Once I played the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland, with Miles Davis. I walked in on him smoking cigarettes and staring at his horn for what must have been fifteen minutes, like it was a poisonous snake and he wasn’t sure if it was dead. Finally Miles stood up, turned to his band, and said, 'All right, let’s get through this, and then we’ll go to the airport.' He looked like he was about to cry."

The piece's final paragraph? "I released fifty-odd albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and played on God knows how many session dates. Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life."

I've been listening to jazz since I was 14 or 15 years old—close to 30 years at this point. I have something like two dozen Sonny Rollins albums in my iPod right now. I've seen him in concert multiple times, and interviewed him (twice). And I laughed harder at this piece than I've ever laughed at anything published in the New Yorker. It's a hilarious, biting look at the dark side of the artistic temperament and the dismal fate awaiting most artists in a capitalist society.

Mine seems to be a minority opinion, though, at least if Facebook and Twitter can be believed. Comments like "This piece is listed as humor in The New Yorker, but it doesn't seem all that funny" and "I expect better from The New Yorker. But I won't in the future." and "I hope Rollins sues them for this." and the like are littering social media. A few bloggers have weighed in, too, of course; Philip Booth writes, in part, "[S]ome who casually stumble across the piece online might mistake it for the real thing, and wonder why Rollins is being so wacky" (because, you know, anyone who's not already a Rollins fan must be an imbecile too dumb to spot the "humor" tag at the top of the page), while Howard Mandel thinks it "turns on the seed of punkish resentment sophisticates presumably harbor against the music" (because "sophisticates," whoever they are, resent jazz's...what? Vast commercial success? Public prominence?).

Here's what I find interesting about the whole outcry: It's all coming from old school jazz critics and Rollins' publicist (who I consider a friend and have worked with quite amiably for years). The jazz musicians I know have mostly remained silent. (A notable exception would be Nick Hempton, who tweeted, "I'M SO OUTRAGED AT SOMETHING I READ ON THE INTERNET, I'M THROWING MY COMPUTER OUT THE WINDOW!" with the hashtags #JazzIsSerious #RespectMe.)

Hempton gets it. Why don't these writers?

I suspect it's because they've devoted even more decades than I have to listening to jazz, learning its history, interviewing the players, and writing about it, and they've done so from the perspective common to most jazz critics: that the music they like is great art, much more than mere entertainment, and deserves the highest honors our culture can bestow, all the time. It should certainly never be poked fun at or satirized—that's for performers they think of as lesser, like Miley Cyrus or whichever other pop figure they happen to have somehow heard of. (Your average jazz critic's unfamiliarity with contemporary pop culture would make a normal person weep with baffled laughter. Especially when the jazz critic goes on an intemperate Facebook rant about something pop-related—like, say, the use of Autotune on pop singers—from a position of near-total ignorance regarding modern production methods, technology in general, or what a given audience might actually want from its entertainers.)

Here's what I think: Jazz is entertainment. Now, 99 or so percent of America's (and the world's) population fails to find it entertaining, but that's not because they're stupid, or uncultured. It's because most of the time the music isn't entertaining—it's overly complicated, and presented like homework, like you're a spiritually shriveled asshole if you don't want to hear hookless melodies barely punctuating long passages of squawking, clattering and clanging, all while paying substantially more than you'd pay to hear a rock band that might actually play something you could dance or bang your head to. There are many, many exceptions, bands that swing hard as hell, play tunes that actually sound like something and solos that actually go somewhere. But you've got to know what you're looking for—and looking on the covers of jazz magazines won't help, because it's the critics' darlings who wind up there, and for the most part jazz critics like jazz that makes them feel smarter for liking it.

People who do like jazz aren't smarter than people who don't. But people who think jazz musicians are precious flowers who must be protected from cruel japery because their art form is insufficiently appreciated by the lumpen are fucking idiots.

I remember reading something a long time ago to the effect that you could tell when an ethnic group had successfully begun the process of assimilating into American society when they started to become the subject of jokes in movies. Not hostile, racist, dehumanizing jokes, but jokes poking welcoming fun at these new people and their weird folkways.

Jazz fans should welcome jokes about their music's unlistenability and dismal commercial status. Why? Because it proves people still give enough of a fuck about jazz to make fun of it. Do you think they would have written a satirical interview with Jimmy Sturr, complaining about how awful the accordion sounds and how much he hates polka? Do you think anyone would have read it if they had?

Another important thing to remember is that good satire is about "punching up." Culturally speaking, a shot at jazz is exactly that. It may be dead from a record-sales and gig-attendance standpoint, but on the cultural ladder, jazz is several rungs above rock and pop. It's considered important music. Of course, that's helped doom its sales, because nothing sends albums flying off the shelves like guilting people into listening to something that's supposed to be good for them...but congratulations, jazz critics, you won the battle for prestige. The music you love has been 100% accepted by the elite. It's the soundtrack to arts benefits, awards shows (the Oscars still big-band up the music from the previous year's releases), and any scene in a film or TV show where someone needs to be portrayed as classy...or old.

It's just too bad nobody else gives a shit. But maybe this fit of public foot-stomping will be just the thing that turns jazz's decades-long cultural disappearing act around! Maybe acting like petulant children ("How dare you say something mean about Sonny Rollins! You take that back right now!") will be what leads all those people you think are idiots, too dumb to tell whether an interview is real or fake, to appreciate the awesomeness of his music. (And it is awesome.) Because as noted Twitter philosopher JazzIsTheWorst put it, "People don't enjoy jazz, they 'appreciate' it...and nothing sells records like music people can really 'appreciate.'"

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Here are two reviews recently killed by editors. No, I won't tell you which magazines rejected them. Enjoy!

Texas-based metalcore squad Memphis May Fire have never been the most creative band around. On their last album, 2012’s Challenger, they brought in a pair of guests—Asking Alexandria’s Danny Worsnop and Sleeping With SirensKellin Quinn—whose powerful personalities only served to make their hosts seem faceless by comparison. For Unconditional, the band have kept the same producer (Cameron Mitchell) as on Challenger, but there are no ringers this time; they’re standing or falling on their own merits. And while that’s admirable, it would have been wise of them to write better songs. Chugging riffs, pop-punkish choruses, gang vocals, digital stuttering, one-finger synth melodies—all the ingredients for a circa-2014 metalcore album are here, including drums so hilariously triggered it’s amazing they keep the drummer on the payroll at all. But here’s the thing: for a piece of music to qualify as a song rather than just a loose pile of sort-of-cool parts, it’s got to stick in your head once it’s over. There’s exactly one track here that passes that test with flying colors: “Possibilities” rides a wave of positive energy and catchiness, with more than enough melody to keep a listener interested. (And OK, “The Answer” has a pretty solid chorus, too.) On the other hand, the ballads (“Need To Be” and “Speechless”) are a slog, and only Matty MullinsClaudio Sanchez-esque* vocals make the other songs recognizable as the work of Memphis May Fire rather than any one of literally dozens of other bands.

Important Picnic
Do you need a new shambling, half-assed noise-rock album in your life? Or do you already have six thousand of them left over from the '80s and '90s? Well, just in case you feel insufficiently flush with discs offering indecipherably howled vocals, guitar that sounds more like sheet metal being torn apart by robot claws than a musical instrument, minimalist bass lines a one-armed monkey could play, and drums that are all clattering snare and washes of cymbal, Gang Wizard are here to help you out. For nearly two decades, they’ve been bashing out one-take jams that live in a territory somewhere between Les Rallizes Dénudes, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Half Japanese and a teenaged garage band trying and failing to learn a song from Nuggets.
Most of the tracks on this album actually have some song-like qualities, but Gang Wizard are so committed to their half-assed/fidelity-is-for-chumps aesthetic that only those listeners who share their enthusiasm for rock as outsider art are going to be even slightly enticed. For every “Dog’s Share” (a rocking instrumental with plenty of guitar skronk), there’s a “The Fiasco,” an 11-minute fumble-jam that lives up to its name and then some. If there was a “single” on this album, it’d be “Ugly American,” which sounds like a bootleg of an ultra-early Pere Ubu rehearsal. But pretty much everything else here is half-formed, unambitious like that’s a thing to be proud of, and thoroughly inessential.

*Claudio Sanchez = singer for Coheed and Cambria, known for his extremely high-pitched vocals.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


Every once in a while, I have to hit Shuffle on my iPod just to remind myself of some of the shit that's on there. This is exactly what came up this morning, no skipping.

Foghat, "Slow Ride (Live)"
Dale Hawkins, "Susie Q"
The Lawrence Amavi Group, "Money That's What I Want"
The Lazy Cowgirls, "Jungle Song (Live)"
Cypress Hill, "Legalize It"
Converge, "Wishing Well"
The Chemical Brothers, "Elektrobank (Live)"
Natalia Lafourcade, "Let's Get Out"
Wormrot, "Why We Fight"
Coleman Hawkins, "Lover Come Back to Me"
The Sisters of Mercy, "Floorshow"
Krisiun, "Hateful Nature"
Witchman, "N.Y.23"
Ted Nugent, "I Won't Go Away"
Ancestors, "A Friend"
Airbourne, "Hellfire"
AC/DC, "Safe in New York City"
The Thing with Joe McPhee, "Baby Talk"
Godflesh, "Life is Easy"
Closer Musik, "One Two Three No Gravity (Dettinger Remix)"

Saturday, October 19, 2013


[The title of this post is something my father once said about the city of London.]

Chris Molanphy (the Nate Silver of pop music criticism—not just because of his ability to parse stats, but because of his ability to upturn conventional wisdom in the process) has written an excellent piece on how, and why, bands/acts get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or don't. Go read it if you want some insight into the mindset of the Nominating Committee, and how it diverges from the tastes of the voters, of whom there are many more.

I don't care who's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not anymore. The execution has been so flawed virtually from Day One that it's pretty much a pointless joke, albeit one that keeps getting re-told every year. Yes, my beef with it boils down to who's in it and who's not, but from a stricter definitional standpoint than most complainers, who just want to see their favorite bands inducted and bands they don't like shut out. (Over on Facebook, some maniac is kicking up a storm about the snubbing of Chicago. No, really.) What this boils down to, for me, is whether you believe rock 'n' roll is a style of music, or a marketing buzzword. And I believe a lot of music writers (who are the people I see getting all wee-wee'd up over the annual list of nominations) are in the latter category.

To me, rock 'n' roll is a form of music, and it has boundaries and prerequisites. For one thing, it is primarily a small group form, though strings and other embellishments can be brought into play as needed. The foundation is more or less the same as Chicago blues: guitar, bass, drums, piano, maybe a horn or two. It's blues-based, though the degree to which that's true is highly elastic. To pick an obvious example, Elvis Presley sang ballads, country songs, show tunes and hunks of indescribable weirdness, but remained a rock 'n' roll singer. It's a song form—there's room for improvisation, but it cannot be totally improvised unless that improvisation takes the form of variations on existing tunes (an extended blues jam, for example). It's also the result of organic interaction between musicians, meaning it should be reproducible onstage and more or less "live" in the studio. Having a band with a steady lineup goes a long way toward making this latter condition possible.

So given my definition of rock 'n' roll, here's how the nominees for the Class of 2014 shake out:

• The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: The name says it all, really. They were an electric blues band who, because of the era in which they operated, incorporated other sounds—funk, rock, Indian music—into their music. Because, as I say above, Chicago blues is one of the foundations of rock 'n' roll, and because rock fans were the ones buying their albums, they merit nomination, if not necessarily inclusion.

• Chic: Chic were not a rock 'n' roll band. Chic were a funk/disco band, and a very good one. They should not be nominated, and they should not be voted in.

• Deep Purple: Deep Purple definitely merit inclusion. They were a highly successful (commercially and artistically), musically assured band that, despite going through multiple lineup changes, maintained a signature sound rooted in blues and hard rock but with room for extended instrumental soloing. Unlike the Butterfield Blues Band, who shifted members in and out on every album, Deep Purple had a strong core roster that lasted several years, during which time the band did its best and most revered work. They deserve nomination, and inclusion.

• Peter Gabriel: The band Genesis, for whom Gabriel sang, is already in the Hall of Fame; as a solo artist, he's never made music I would call rock 'n' roll. He's a kind of theatrical art-pop performer, and shouldn't be nominated or included.

• Hall and Oates: Again, not rock 'n' roll—Hall and Oates were a pop/R&B/soul vocal duo.

• Kiss: Kiss are a rock 'n' roll band. I don't like their music—most of their songs, including their big hits, are melodically weak, and the production on their records is frequently underpowered (Destroyer is the major exception here)—but mine is a minority opinion. They've sold millions of records, their tours do absurdly well, and their merchandising empire is legendary for a reason. This being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they should absolutely be in it.

• LL Cool J: LL Cool J should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No rappers should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. People who say that rap/hip-hop is "rock and roll" mean it in the sense that an advertising executive uses the term: to signify generic rebellion. (Also, people who say this are mostly 40 and older, and, I suspect, never understood what rock 'n' roll is.)

• The Meters: The Meters played funk, and were amazing at it. They should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

• Nirvana: Nirvana were a terrible band. Sloppy, and self-conscious to the point of self-sabotage (personal and musical), they were nevertheless commercially successful and served as a bridge between the underground and the mainstream—literally; their best-known song pushed the riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling" through an arrangement based on earlier work by the Pixies—and, most importantly of all, they were a guitar-bass-drums power trio. Definitely rock 'n' roll, and Hall of Fame-worthy, despite my own feelings about their meager artistic achievements.

• N.W.A.: See LL Cool J.

• The Replacements: Like Nirvana, the Replacements were not a very good band; they were basically the Georgia Satellites of the Upper Midwest. There are several dozen bands like this active at all times, in all corners of the country—the Gaslight Anthem are their present-day equivalent. But they knew their history (as they proved every time one of their shows devolved into a round of drunken covers), and quite self-consciously sought to place themselves in rock history. They played by the rules, maintaining a fairly steady lineup (only one change during their recording years) and growing artistically from album to album. They didn't sell very many records, but a lot of music critics like them. They were a rock 'n' roll band, so from that standpoint if no other they're justifiable nominees, but I don't think they should be in the Hall of Fame.

• Linda Ronstadt: Linda Ronstadt was a pop singer who covered rock 'n' roll songs at times. She didn't maintain a working band for studio albums, which sets her apart from, say, Pat Benatar, who I would say absolutely merits Hall of Fame inclusion.

• Cat Stevens: See Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, and/or Linda Ronstadt.

• Link Wray: As a pioneer of the guitar sound and style that defined early rock 'n' roll, Link Wray is not only a worthy but necessary inclusion into the Hall of Fame.

• Yes: Despite their extended, occasionally meandering compositions, Yes were absolutely a rock band, maintaining a simple five-piece lineup (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass, drums) and significantly cranking up the power of their music live—check Yessongs out sometime, if you haven't. Massively successful and influential, they are absolutely Hall of Fame material.

• The Zombies: While they only had a few hits, they maintained the same lineup for their original creative lifespan, and as far as 1960s pop goes, they're OK. Like many other bands, their critical reputation is inflated relative to their status in the memory of the general public. I wouldn't nominate them, or vote for them, for the Hall of Fame, though they are undeniably a rock 'n' roll band.

The reason the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is so fucked up is that in many ways it's the only game in town. Sure, there's a Country Music Hall of Fame, but country knows how to patrol its borders—they're never gonna induct Nelly just 'cause he had Tim McGraw sing on a track. What's really needed is 1) a Pop Music Hall of Fame, which would enable all the hip-hop, disco, and other non-rock 'n' roll acts currently in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to have a home they could be proud of; and 2) a better understanding, culturally, of what rock 'n' roll really is. Acceptance of the idea that it is a fairly specific thing—an organic, small group music made with guitars, bass, and drums, sometimes keyboards, occasionally horns, even less frequently other instruments—would quiet down a lot of bullshit cultural debate. Because musicians know the score. People who are actually in rock 'n' roll bands know exactly who they are and what they're doing. It's critics who fuck everything up by trying to shoehorn their favorite songs and performers into categories where they don't belong—something even the performers in question would cheerfully admit. Go ahead and ask LL Cool J, on or off the record, if he thinks of himself as a rock 'n' roll artist.

Of course, it should be obvious that saying that a given band (or, more likely, solo performer) should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not the same thing as saying that band or artist makes bad music. It's just saying that categories matter. Pop music is music that's popular, whatever that happens to be in a given year. Rock 'n' roll, though, is a traditional form of music—a folk form. It should be celebrated as such.

Of course, it's too late now. Mine is a minority opinion, and has been for decades: most people have long since subscribed to the ad-exec definition of "rock and roll." So fuck it. Thanks for reading.