31 December 2011

Flavor of the (Final) Month

Year-end retrospectives are everywhere, and jazz critics in particular seem to love them some list making this time of year. It always gets me thinking: how many times have they actually spun each of these records? Did they audit them on $1000 speakers or in the car on the freeway? And how many other new releases have they spun this year? How many times? Where?

Musicians are prone to wondering these things when it comes to questions of critical authority, but I wonder also out of a bit of insecurity. I haven't acquired or listened to a single record that was released this calendar year. It's quite rare for me to do so any given year, and has been forever. Real or imagined professional obligation as a player, composer, teacher and thinker has compelled me to spend an awful lot of time catching up on things that happened before I was born, and only secondarily on staying "up to date" with the latest developments. Whether I'm winning the battle or not, this is slowly changing: I've acquired many more records released in the 2000's over the last couple of years than I did during the years they were actually released. There's plenty going on today that interests me; it's just so hard to find that it's easier to wait a while and see what people are still talking about at the end of next year. I've learned the hard way that it's safe, nay, essential to ignore flavors of the month during the month in question. That goes for the final month of the year as much as any other.

As for the authority question, I can't imagine putting out a list of my own even if I had done more work. I've found that I need 3 listens to settle on a general thumbs-up or thumbs-down. My opinion changes frequently before that point and almost never beyond it. But to rate a group of albums empirically against each other would require several more hearings of each. And of course, I'm not talking about listening in the car or while making dinner; the music needs to be the sole object of your attention if you're going to claim any authority whatsoever, even to yourself. (When I say "empirically," of course I don't mean "for everyone for all time," but I think that within your own aesthetic, you can certainly be clinical in going about this kind of thing. If you don't, you end up fooled.) This is not at all to say that you are not listening for pleasure or that you are otherwise contriving some foreign mode of perception; indeed, distracted listening is the most unfulfilling and foreign mode for me. I recommend the opposite.

So, have these critics sampled even several hundred of the several thousand new jazz records that have come out this year? Have they devoted ca. 5 hours of calm listening time to each? That's getting into the thousands of hours already, an average of 3-4 hours every single day of the year, and you figure at some point for work or play they will want to listen to something from last year or earlier as well. I doubt that all of these numbers are nearly this high, though one or two of them might be (just a hunch, but I suspect it's the total number of records that's high and the number of spins that's low). I think lists which are constructed with authority are entertaining and sometimes even highly informative, but I have to be suspicious of the year-enders. Even if the critics themselves are authorities, the task they've chosen is one which under present conditions simply cannot be achieved authoritatively.

Classical music is, of course, a different and much more difficult situation. Maybe I really am living in the dark, but I've long been struck by the differences between how jazz and classical musicians go about their business. I think classical music badly needs an "underground" scene. I think classically trained players need to stop taking as a given that it's only a matter of time before they land a $200,000 a year gig playing in a top 5 orchestra. I think they then need to be willing to get to work building something better without the promise of an immediate union scale paycheck. String quartets playing Metallica covers in a classical style for coffee shop yuppies is not "underground." Jazz, its precarious condition notwithstanding, still has an underground. There are still compelling jazz performances and records being made in places and by people that the NEA and the yuppie DINKs they survey can't wrap their heads around. Can you say that about classical music? I can't. I see the same slick coating as the jazz world without the underground bearings that have kept it alive in contravention of so many professional listmakers' dire predictions. And I see a clear and simple explanation for this in the petit bourgeois self-importance of so many classical musicians. Jazz players collectively are not perfect, they are not saints, and of course they are getting more bourgeois by the day and will surely have to face this issue soon enough, but right this minute, their tradition is alive because they go underground and eat ramen when they have to. Meanwhile, the classical brats are floating higher and away, sipping merlot in a hot air balloon that's on fire. So I applaud the jazz critics' for including in their year-end lists music that was actually created this year! That means someone thought to make it, found a way to realize it, and got it into their hands. We should try it, classical folk. Grab your flannel shirts and PBR and let's get the fuck down to business already.

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