Thursday, September 18, 2008
If you're wondering why this blog has been so inactive lately, the answer is simple. I've been in the process of setting up and publishing a new replacement blog that will encompass everything I'd hoped to do with Notes From the Left Coast, while expanding to a far larger perspective.
The new blog is titled The International Review of Music, and it can be reached by clicking on the name or at this address: http://irom.wordpress.com. As the title suggests, we aim to look at music from a world view, one that encompasses jazz, pop, classical, country, world music and all stops in between and beyond. Our goal is to fill in the growing gaps caused by the rapid reduction in music review space in major newspapers and periodicals. My partner is a former Los Angeles Times writer, Casey Dolan.
Although we are both based in Los Angeles, we arel gradually adding contributors from other U.S. areas, as well as various parts of the world. At the moment, we are still ramping up, establishing our graphics look and building content. But we urge you to check us out. Be sure to click on the Mission Statement, which will give you some idea of our goals. As well as the Picks of the Week, which are our selections from various cities in the U.S. and elsewhere. And you might want to take a look at my blog within a blog -- Here, There and Elsewhere -- especially the entry in which I discuss the situation regarding jazz coverage at the los Angeles Times. Click here to go there directly: Here, There and Elsewhere: The Times
I welcome all feedback, comments, rants, whatever. Best place to reach me is at my regular email address: email@example.com .
Thursday, August 21, 2008
There’s a generally accepted belief that the most illuminating way to hear a song is in a performance by its creator. And plenty of singer-songwriters – from Lennon & McCartney to Amy Winehouse – affirm the general accuracy of that belief. But when it comes down to plain old non-performing songwriters, things get a little more skewed. And there are (and have been) some songwriters whom -- trust me – you would not want to hear singing their own tunes, or anyone else’s.
All of which leads me to a Michael Feinstein appearance last night at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, in a performance devoted to songs with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. That’s a pretty inviting idea in itself – one of the contemporary music world’s gifted interpreters of song working with a superlative catalog of music.
But what gave the evening a quality that moved the songs beyond interpretation and into transformation was the guest artist presence of Alan Bergman, the sine qua non of non-performing songwriters. (Yes, I know that Bergman shows up from time to time to offer his inimitable take on his and other songs; but his gigs are few and far between.) And it would be hard to imagine anyone who could bring every phrase, every subtle nuance, every internal rhyme, every sly, inside joke, to life the way Bergman did.
He only sang a few songs, peaking with stunning readings of “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” Before the performance he whispered to me that he was going to have to use a cheat sheet to get all the lyrics of “Windmills” right. “It’s hard,” he said, “to remember an old song, when you’re working on a new one.” As he and Marilyn are now doing with composer Marvin Hamlisch. But no problem. Like Antonio Carlos Jobim’s rendering of his “Waters of March,” Bergman’s gorgeous musical narration of “Windmills” was a journey through the primal elements of life, itself.
Before he sang “What Are You Doing…” he explained the origin of the song, written for the film “The Happy Ending” (and nominated for an Academy Award). The instruction the Bergmans received from the director, Richard Brooks, was to write a song that would sound appropriate at the start of a relationship, and at its ending, without changing a word. And Bergman’s rendering found – in the same words -- both the tender romance of the former and the sardonic irony of the latter.
To Feinstein’s credit, his own versions of Bergman material – some of it less familiar – had its own special cachet, enhanced by his unique ability to find the inner heartbeat of everything he sings. And his capacity to defer to Alan Bergman and the Bergman songs, while doing his own thing, and enhancing the evening with wit and humor, was the action of a confident and skillful performer.
Feinstein and Bergman were accompanied, in this constantly entertaining evening, by the superb accompaniment of Alan Broadbent and his Quintet.
Feinstein and Bergman perform tonight (Thursday, August 22) through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill, 6725 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-2210.
Monday, June 23, 2008
I did, however, come to one conclusion after seeing the results of the JJA awards -- the thought that maybe it's actually a little too soon for me to be receiving a lifetime award of any sort. The final verse from Carl Sandburg's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" has been quoted far too many times. But it's been running through my mind a lot over the last few days:
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."
Monday, June 9, 2008
"Proud" because the recognition comes from associates and colleagues who deal with the same problems and fight the same battles that I do in our mutual quest to acknowledge the importance of America's greatest musical contribution to the world. "Surprised" because I've been working on the West coast for the past thirty years (two thirds of that time at the Los Angeles Times), away from the East Coast jazz mainstream. It's true that I was busily active in New York in the '60s and '70s, covering pop music for the New York Times, writing a column for the Village Voice, doing dozens of articles for Down Beat, Metronome, the Jazz Review, etc., and writing liner notes for the likes of Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Andrew Hill. But that was a long time ago.
And the truth is that I'm delighted to be acknowledged with a nomination, especially in a category that also includes Stanley Crouch, Doug Ramsey, Larry Kart and Alyn Shipton. I was talking to Herbie Hancock last week about his reaction when his album, "River: The Joni Letters" was nominated for a Grammy Album of the Year award. And we both agreed that the standard line -- "Oh, I'm just happy to be nominated" -- may sound like emotional boilerplate, but the funny thing is that it's really true.
Of course, Herbie then began to chant three hours a day, and wound winning the award. I don't expect to be doing many "nam myoho renge kyos " over this. And of course I'll be thrilled if the award makes its way out to the Left Coast.
But either way, it's been, as I said, a proud surprise.
Here's the Jazz Journalists Association address for the full list of nominees:
Saturday, June 7, 2008
A month after the collapse of the International Association for Jazz Education (I.A.J.E.), the genre’s prime center for education and advocacy, the repercussions are still being considered around the jazz world. The announcement on April 19 by I.A.J.E. President Chuck Owen that the Association’s Board of Directors had “voted to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the Federal Bankruptcy Law” startled the organization’s 8,000 members, as well as jazz fans, many of whom viewed I.A.J.E. as a stabilizing influence, at a time when jazz, like the rest of the music business, is dealing with a changing marketplace, new delivery systems and lowered expectations.
In retrospect, the demise of I.A.J.E. raised two questions. The first was simply, “What went wrong, and was it a manifestation of the state of jazz, or the state of the I.A.J.E?”
Start with a list by Alan Bergman, the organization’s attorney, of a series of problems that impacted the organization financially, some the result of circumstance, some the product of managerial decisions. “The budget,” he said, “got up to around $3.5 million , and that worked pretty well for a while. But we were dealing with three very unreliable sources of income: the annual Conventions, the dues and the ads from the journal.”
In addition to serving as a primary source of revenue, the Conventions offered the most visible I.A.J.E. presence to the jazz community.
“They provided stimulating and inspiring learning experiences for everybody involved,” said guitarist Kenny Burrell, Director of Jazz Studies at U.C.L.A. “a very optimistic attitude about what the future might be for jazz.”Don Lucoff, whose DL Media company is one of the primary jazz publicity organizations, agreed. "The IAJE convention was basically Mecca. It was ground zero for jazz education. " But the Conventions began to offer disappointing financial returns in the 2002 event, which was held a few months after 9/11. Succeeding Conventions either produced losses or marginal profits, and the January 2008 Convention, held in Toronto, drew half the attendance that normally shows up when the event is held in New York City or other domestic venues. Faced with liabilities in the $1 million range, the I.A.J.E. made a plea to its membership for support. The request, according to the Bergman, “asked for a contribution of $25. It produced a 4% return – around $12,000.”
He also insisted that there had been no evidence of malfeasance on the part of any of the I.A.J.E. officers or Board of Directors, adding that “The Board acted upon the basis of the information given to them. It was accurate information, but it may not necessarily have been in the form which the Board could really use to make an informed judgment about the seriousness of the financial condition of this organization.”
So the short answer to the first question would appear to be that the I.A.J.E. downfall had far less to do with the 21st century condition of jazz than it did with the internal financial machinations of the organization itself.
Which leads to the second, broader question: Can jazz flourish and remain relevant – with or without I.A.J.E. – in today’s rapidly shifting creative and economic climate?
Although it hasn’t always been visible on the wider view screen, jazz has nonetheless been demonstrating surprising vitality in many areas recently.
A few weeks ago, for example, saw the announcement of the First International Jazz Award program, scheduled to be televised globally from the Beverly Hilton Hotel on June 29. The show, says creator and executive producer Kitty Sears, “…salutes jazz in its many forms, its influence on all types of artists” with awards in 24 categories. Tribute segments will honor the jazz contributions of Lena Horne, Count Basie, Clint Eastwood, George and Ira Gershwin and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
At the 2008 Grammy Awards, Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” received the Album of the Year award, the first, and the only other, jazz album to do so since 1964’s “Getz/Gilberto.” And, even though overall jazz record sales are down, some individual artists – singers Diana Krall and Michael Buble, trumpeter Chris Botti, to name a few – are consistently producing albums with sales reaching toward, and even beyond, the million mark.
Botti’s success, like that of Krall and Buble, reflects a reviving connection with one of jazz’s primal elements. “Chris,” says his producer, Bobby Colomby, “works to capture the romantic elements of jazz; he tries to play to his listeners, not at them.”
Boutique jazz record labels such as Mack Avenue Jazz, MaxJazz, Cryptogramophone,((cq)) Anzic((cq)) Records, Double Dave Music and the Artistry Music Group – often oriented toward specific styles -- are making it possible for talented artists to have their work released, at a time when limited signings are being made by major jazz labels. “With what’s happening in the record business,” says George Klabin, founder of the recently opened Los Angeles company, Resonance Records, “I believe we’re going to see a landscape of small labels with the capability and the desire to release a more diverse and interesting range of music.”
On the club front, traditionally the night-at-the-office workplace for jazz musicians, the opening in 2007 of two major new venues – Yoshi’s in San Francisco and Anthology in San Diego -- make it more likely that major jazz names such as Pat Metheny, Arturo Sandoval, Ahmad Jamal and others – can make more frequent West Coast tour appearances.
One could also mention the frequent presence of jazz samples and rhythms in rap and hip-hop music reaching back to the work of Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest and US3, as well as its use to establish atmosphere and style in commercials, television series and feature films.
All of which suggests that the answer to the second question is that jazz is indeed finding its own unique way to flourish and remain relevant in the climate of the new century. Which is not surprising when one considers that jazz has been doing precisely that for nearly a century, evolving artistically through the Jazz Age of the ‘20s, the Swing Years of the Depression and World War II, the post-War bebop era, cool jazz, avant-garde, jazz rock, fusion, crossover, smooth jazz and beyond, maintaining its position as America’s prime artistic contribution to the music of the world.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
It's no mystery that Konitz was one of the few saxophonists -- and, specifically, alto saxophonists -- who escaped the omnipresent influence of Charlie Parker when he was coming up in the '40s and '50s. Cool where Bird was hot, line-driven melodically where Bird spoke the blues in almost everything he played, rhythmically disjunct where Bird's time was energized by the the flow of bebop, Konitz was his own man. And he paid a price for it, usually via reviews and commentary describing him as cold, intellectual and non-swinging.
I could never understand that perspective on his playing. Yes, his early work with Tristano glistened with the sheen of carefully controlled improvising, and Tristano (and his students) tended to prefer rhythm sections that literally "kept the time." But, even then, Konitz's tone had a subtle warmth, and his off-center, bar line-ignoring phrases nonetheless were delivered with an inherent, if subtle, sense of swing.
Although he had some reed problems in his opening night at the Bakery, Konitz with reed problems is still more fascinating to hear than most alto saxophonists with perfectly functioning reeds. He played "Solar," after pointing out that, although the tune is usually credited to Miles Davis, the reportedly real composer was guitarist Chuck Wayne. And he took a close look at a pair of familiar standards, "What's New" and "Just Friends."
In each case, Konitz illustrated his mastery of the art of using harmonic patterns -- often very familiar harmonic patterns -- as the launching platform for the invention of constantly compelling rhythmic melodies. One of Konitz's teaching techniques was the assignment of phrases that were to be played from every starting point -- on downbeat and upbeat -- in a measure. It's challenging and I never quite got it under control. But in Konitz's hands, it was magical: bar lines seemed to disappear, phrases appeared to move into other meters; yet the fundamental rhythmic structure remained.
He was joined for the last two numbers in the set by Gary Foster, a superb altoist in his own right, who has taken a style clearly influenced by Konitz, and transformed it into his own unique improvisational voice. They were particularly impressive together -- powerfully reminiscent of the classic Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh combination -- in a happy romp through "Subconscious Lee," Konitz's tricky melodic variation on the chord changes of "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
After the program, I hung out for a while with Konitz and the others. Although he turned 80 last October, his youthfulness, vitality and sense of humor are undimmed. When someone asked what kind of saxophone player I'd been when I was studying with him, Konitz replied, with a chuckle, "Oh, he was good. But he didn't like to practice." That got a laugh, and an even bigger one followed when he added, "and then Don found out he could make more money writing than he could with his saxophone."
Not exactly true, but a good line, anyhow. And a warm conclusion to one of those rare evenings affirming the importance of jazz, and the infinite value of those players -- like Konitz -- who have given their lives to its perpetuation.
Monday, April 28, 2008
And equal testimony to the loving care provided by Juanita, his artist wife of 47 years. A mutual friend emailed me the next day, saying that Juanita had told her a few years ago that "there was no way she was going to take him away from their home and allow others to care for him." And she didn't.
The last time I saw (and heard) Giuffre was in 1994, when he performed in a duo setting with pianist Paul Bley. In the review I wrote for the LA Times, I described it as a courageous effort. But his playing clearly had been affected by the disease.
The obituary I wrote for the paper on Monday included all the applicable biographical information, an overview of his creative progression and a few applicable quotes from the files. What it couldn't include was my personal reaction to the passing of an individual who still hasn't been properly acknowledged for the significance of his creative breakthroughs. It's hard to think of many artists who traveled a journey as far ranging as Giuffre's trip from "Four Brothers" and the Woody Herman big band to the limitless improvisational spontaneity of his trio with Bley and bassist Steve Swallow.
The saxophone instrumentation he used in "Four Brothers" -- three tenors and a baritone -- had been tried earlier, by Gene Roland in his mid-'40s band and by Ralph Burns in "Summer Sequence" and "Early Autumn" for the Herman band. But Giuffre's high spirited bebop line was the perfect vehicle for the instrumentation's warm-toned timbres. No wonder it became the trademark sound of all the Herman Herds that followed.
Giuffre's move from that kind of big band scoring to the folk jazz intimacy of his '50s trios -- first with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena, then with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and Hall -- was an extraordinary musical transition. And, like "Four Brothers," it was driven by a different timbre -- in this case, the sound of his clarinet. Prior to Giuffre, most clarinetists had enthusiastically explored the instrument's nearly four octaves of range, roving freely across its three distinct registers. Giuffre focused instead on the chalumeau register-- the lowest octave and a half, with its intimate, airy sounding, woody qualities. He may have been influenced by Lester Young's recordings on clarinet, which also emphasized the warm, lower register sounds. But, as always with Giuffre, he made the style his own.
A few years later, when the jazz world was buzzing with the adventurous forays of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Charle Mingus, John Coltrane, George Russell and others, his trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow took free improvisation concepts into areas in which the dividing lines between jazz and concert music disappeared. Sadly, that remarkable trio was largely ignored at the time, and it wasn't until their recordings were reissued in the '90s that their work slowly began to receive the recognition it deserved.
Giuffre was always receptive to new ideas. When I was playing with composer and mentor John Benson Brooks in the '60s, searching for improvisational possibilities in twelve note rows, he and Brooks went back and forth on whether such improvisation could be viable without losing touch with the essential qualities of jazz. And, when I was producing the jazz events in the annual New York Avant-Garde Jazz Festivals, Giuffre agreed to play on a couple of occasions, never receiving any more recompense than the minimal (or non-existent) payments that the other jazz players received. (One of those performances, by the way, was an intriguing Giuffre trio that included bassist Richard Davis and drummer Joe Chambers. And a professional recording of that performance, produced by engineer George Klabin, exists.)
Giuffre left the planet slowly, largely silenced musically for the last decade of his life. But the recordings remain, and -- if there's any justice in this world -- his achievements will eventually find their way into the consciousness of new, young players, guiding them toward the adventurous creative territories he worked so hard to reveal.
Monday, April 21, 2008
You can always count on UCLA Live to do intriguing programming. But last weekend’s tribute to a classic Los Angeles performance venue – “The Ash Grove 50th Anniversary” – was exceptional, even by UCLA Live’s high standards.
The premise was the golden anniversary of the opening of the Ash Grove, a now legendary Southern California venue that was, in the ‘60s, both a launching pad for the careers of performers such as Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, the Byrds and dozens of others, as well as a platform for the unfettered expression of the decade’s stunningly disparate musical currents. Among the room’s many headliners: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs, as well as Lightning Hopkins, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson..
Cooder was there to celebrate; so was Taj Mahal, along with the likes of John Hammond, Barbara Dane, Bernie Pearl, Michelle Shocked and numerous others. But the real star was the memory of a place in which so much music, so many ideas, and so many attitudes had the opportunity to come to full fruition. Like New York City’s Bitter End, Village Gate and Gerde’s Folk City, like the Fillmores East and West, like L.A.’s Troubadour – to mention only a few – the folk and rock music venues of the ‘60s were transformative places. On any given night, they offered the possibility of experiencing new, startlingly talented young performers and – perhaps more importantly – the opportunity to feel part of a generational movement.
But, sitting in the audience at Royce on Saturday night, feeling the sense of camaraderie in the crowd as the Freedom Singers delivered one spirited gospel song after another, I kept wondering. Was it all -- as in the Bergmans’ lyrics for “The Way We Were” -- just “Scattered pictures, of the smiles we left behind?” just another form of nostalgic reminiscence? It could easily have seemed that way, especially given the grey hair so liberally sprinkled throughout the crowd, and the memories that were being evoked by one performer after another.
But when Bernie Pearl and Taj Mahal reminded us of the classic blues that was so present in the Ash Grove’s early years, when Barbara Dane sang with a forthrightness that made us want to take to the streets again, when Bernice Reagon & the Freedom Singers vividly brought to life the most significant crusade of the decade, it was far more than nostalgia.
It was an unswerving reminder of a time when music meant something more than fast-cut videos, repetitious rhythm loops, concerts saturated with special effects and amateur hour television contests. It was a recollection of the power of song to bring about change. Above all, and at the same time the most distressing of all, it provided a compelling perspective on how much that power has been missed over the past few decades and, especially, over the past five years.
So here's a thanks to Ed Pearl, founder of the Ash Grove and producer of the concerts, to UCLA Live's David Sefton, and to the planning committee for the Ash Grove 50th Festival. A thanks for a pair of too-brief evenings in which the Ash Grove, and everything it stood for, came alive -- if far too briefly -- all over again.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
I wondered (1) why Alpert would insist that there be no reviews, especially since the superb singing talents of Hall have been heard so rarely over the past few decades. And (2) why REDCAT would agree to refuse to allow reviews.
A few days later the Associated Press published the following:
LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Institute of the Arts is naming its music school after Herb Alpert following a new $15 million donation from the Grammy-winning trumpeter.The grant will pay for three faculty chairs, student scholarships and music programs — including a student-run record label — at the newly minted Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts.
It didn't answer question (1), but it certainly explained question (2). Just to underline the point again, REDCAT is the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theatre -- a venue included in Disney Concert Hall as the result of Roy Disney's desire to have a CalArts presence in the complex. And, of course, $15 million is $15 million.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Jazz musicians often use the phrase “He [or she] really had something to say” when referring favorably to a player’s improvised solo. The premise, of course, is that the solo possesses meaningful content. But it’s a meaning that has far less literal specificity than, say, a short story, play, a film or, for matter, a political speech.
Jazz improvisations, obviously, aren’t based on words or phrases. (With the possible exception of their very fascinating spontaneous use by vocal artists such as Bobby McFerrin, J.D. Walter, Rhiannon and others.) The only reference point for the listener is a sequence of chords or, perhaps, a set of modal phrases that provide a kind of subliminal feeling of pattern and structure. In so-called “free jazz,” where neither chords nor modes are present, the player’s “something to say” can flounder amid disjunct rhythms and flurries of seemingly disconnected notes.
But it seems to me that there also are other aspects to what jazz artists communicate. Other stories they have to tell.
And a trio of programs I heard over the past week and a half underscored both the elusiveness and the significance of those stories. The performers were three iconic jazz artists: tenor saxophone/flute player Charles Lloyd; tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins; and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Lloyd and Hubbard, performing a week apart at Catalina Bar & Grill, were celebrating their 70th birthdays. The subtexts for each player’s story included issues of both maturity and mortality, impacting what they had “to say” at this point in lengthy careers that now find them decades beyond their salad years.Rollins, 77, making one of his rare stops in Southern California via an appearance at the Cerritos Center, had a particularly compelling narrative. Many of the extraordinary powers of his youth – a gorgeous, rich tone, an assertive articulateness, a constantly shifting approach to the links between melody and harmony – were clearly reduced in intensity. But, declining to compensate by choosing the reductive methods of, say, late Picasso drawings, with their diminution of grand ideas to minimalist lines, Rollins’ playing often reached into startlingly expansive exploration.
Setting aside the tonal and thematic orientation that characterized his playing of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he often revealed an improvisational vision that embraced the free flying methods more closely associated with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. It didn’t always work, but when it did, Rollins’ story was an enthusiastic expression of his belief in the wide open “try it, you might like it” opportunities in what the French call Le Troisieme Age.
Lloyd’s story had more pastoral qualities. His playing – reaching back to the floating lyricism of “Desert Flower” – has always emphasized muted, pastel tones, even during his most aggressive, envelope-stretching periods. And this time out, he took a laid-back, pater familias approach, turning over much of the improvisational space to his gifted band – pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers.
When Lloyd soloed, it was with clarity and maturity. In the setting of his younger, vigorously inventive players, his story was that of a confident master, spreading his wings over a busily seeking flock of successors.
Hubbard’s tale, on the other hand, was touched with poignancy. The packed house crowd at Catalina’s was obviously filled with long-time Hubbard fans. Most were surely aware of the various physical and personal maladies that have afflicted Hubbard, and darkly impacted his music, over the past two decades.
After the band -- a version of the New Jazz Composers Octet -- played an opening number, the moment for Hubbard’s first instrumental appearance arrived. What story would it have to tell? Its narrative unfolded quickly – a perils-of-the-flesh struggle between Hubbard’s damaged lips and the hard metal mouthpiece of his flugelhorn. It was a struggle that Hubbard lost, at least in a musically explicit sense. But it also was an admirable display of both courage and accomplishment. Like the later performances of Frank Sinatra, Hubbard celebrated – through the essence of his phrasing and the emotions of his musical thrust – the presence of the still feral musical lion that prowls through his creative imagination.
Stories to tell, all different, all worth hearing, all examples of the capacity of jazz improvisers to create experiences that reach beyond notes, harmonies and rhythms and into the heart of life, itself.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
- Why every solo by every musician (and singer) is applauded? Granted that musicians deserve response from their listeners, why can't it wait until the end of the piece? At which time, the leader -- after the applause -- can give meaningful recognition to the soloists. The added benefit of that approach would be an opportunity to hear the subtle connections that good musicians make between solo passages -- a repeated riff, a variation on the previous player's concluding phrase. Good stuff, and most of it missed in the rush to clap, cheer, hoot and whistle.
- Why, if we're going to have so much applause, we can't also have some mass audience hissing directed at the fools who can't wait until the last note fades before they establish their presence with a whoop, a holler or an insightful, "Yeah!"
- Why the drum solo always has to wait until the last number? It's become like clockwork -- here comes the Dreaded Drum Solo and the intermission is next. Don't drummers deserve something better than a pro forma appearance as a kind of last minute afterthought?
Friday, April 4, 2008
It’s a challenge every week to decide what performances to cover with my reviews in the Los Angeles Times – given the wide number of choices. I’m well aware of the significance that coverage in a major periodical can have, even if it’s not completely positive. Every critic has seen the only laudatory words in an otherwise negative review resurfacing -- in bold face and 16 point type – in a press agent’s release.
But I’m also aware of the emotional impact that reviews can have, of the importance to a performer of “getting” what they do. I recently wrote, in celebratory fashion, about a performance by the great, veteran jazz singer, Ernie Andrews. And when I saw him a few weeks later, he was very nearly in tears as he thanked me for the sort of words that he should have received decades ago.
All thoughtful reviewers recognize the potential for that sort of impact, and the attendant responsibility that goes along with it. Every performance, after all, is a cliff-hanging experience for the artist, the risks and fears of crashing to the ground juxtaposed against the possibility of soaring weightlessly across the sky. Every plastic CD box I receive is packed with dreams and hopes and anticipations – with the irrepressible thought that this might be the time to actually catch lightning in a bottle (or a plastic box).
But what about the established performers – those whose CD sales are counted in the six figures and beyond, or whose iconic reputations are so well established as to place them beyond the perils of critical evaluation? Are they impervious to negative or positive remarks?
The fact is that I’ve seen every kind of reaction, from those who tell me they never read reviews to those who seem to have instant recall for every word I’ve ever written about them – dating back for decades. One of the most honest, and most whimsical responses I’ve had was from songwriter Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Pippin,” “Wicked,” etc.).
“I actually don’t remember the good reviews for very long,” Schwartz told me. “But with the bad ones, it feels as though every word is written in blazing lights on my forehead.”
(It wasn’t hard for me to relate to that, having once received a, shall we say, less than laudatory review for an off-Broadway musical I wrote. The critic, who will be nameless, writing in a New York weekly newspaper, which will also be nameless, described the show as “Shakespeare without poetry, Wagner without music.” Funny thing was that I actually thought the line was so cool that we should use it in the advertising. The producer demurred.)
All of which leads me to another slant on the “To Review or Not To Review” perspective -- something that happened just this week, in one of my more unusual review, or perhaps I should say non-review, experiences.
After receiving a press release from the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theatre (REDCAT) announcing a two night booking by Herb Alpert and Lani Hall, I immediately added their first night’s performance to my review schedule. I’ve always respected Alpert’s commitment to the sustenance of fine music (he recently donated $30 million to the UCLA School of Music, which is now named the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music). And I’ve long felt that Lani Hall, his wife, was one of the underrated vocalists of the last few decades.
I scheduled the review, however, with a question lingering in the back of my mind. A few months ago, Alpert and Hall also performed for two nights at Vibrato – the Bel Air restaurant and jazz club Alpert has been financially supporting. But when I called the club’s music director to make a reservation, I was told that the room was completely sold out, primarily to Alpert’s friends and acquaintances.
So when I contacted REDCAT to arrange my coverage for this performance, and was informed that no reviews would be allowed for the shows “at Herb’s request,” I wasn’t especially surprised. At least not by the announcement, that is. But I was surprised that REDCAT would accept such a limitation. And even more startled that Alpert and Hall -- whom I’ve known and written about for decades – would be so resistant to a performance review. What, I wondered, were they afraid of?
But then I remembered that Alpert is one of that very select group that has sold records – as noted above – in six and even seven or eight figures (back in the days of the Tijuana Brass, that is). And who parlayed his early performing successes into the much larger successes of A & M Records, eventually selling the company for a reported $500 million dollars to Polygram.
Does that give him the option of refusing to allow reviews? Apparently it does. And since the show was reportedly sold out, I was unable to do what any good journalist would do – buy a ticket and show up to do a review, anyhow, with or without permission. Alpert and Hall are scheduled to perform in May at venues such as Joe’s Pub in New York City, Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. and Yoshi’s in San Francisco. Will they attempt to stifle reviews in those rooms, as well? And if they do, will they manage to control the situation effectively enough to prevent an enterprising writer from finding a way to reveal what it is that the Alperts prefer not to expose to critical review?
I hope not. And I look forward to reading the informed commentary of my esteemed East Coast or Bay area colleagues.