An "Epic" confusion
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 1, 2016

About fifteen years ago, the movie Almost Famous was shown in most countries of the Western world. In this movie, U.S. director Cameron Crowe - who also wrote the script - revisited the exciting, adventurous early days of his first profession: "rock journalist". Crowe's career as a music writer had been quite remarkable: a fast start at the tender age of fifteen, Crowe soon became a star writing for the magazine that at the time - 1973 - was the undisputed #1 rock magazine in the world: U.S. bi-weekly Rolling Stone, a paper that successfully managed to combine high sales and strong credibility.

Or did it? It was exactly this point - friend of the reader or friend of the enemy? ready to tell it like it is or tongue-for-hire in exchange for well-paid ads? - that soon became a battlefield for reviewers on both sides of the pond, who were also confronted with a difficult problem: the way the movie presented legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, who in the movie acts as a kind of "critical conscience" in a world of corruption, and whose early death in real life had made him even more legendary in his role of prized ally in the eternal struggle between "us" and "them".

While this part of the movie totally escaped reviewers not familiar with this background, it soon became a highly controversial topic in an year that, totally by chance, saw the appearance of three books related to those issues: a Lester Bangs biography and two anthologies featuring works by Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches. Both friends of Bangs, they had been filed as best specimens of "honest criticism", and later labeled alongside Bangs as "the noise boys".

"The Dean of American Rock Critics" Robert Christgau opened fire with an article that appeared in the pages of prestigious New York weekly The Village Voice - a magazine where Christgau was the main rock critic - in a review titled Impolite Discourse - The Noise Boys Ride Again. Famous, respected movie critic J. Hoberman reviewed Crowe's film for The Voice, under the title Generational Tastes. From the pages of the alternative paper in San Diego, Meltzer himself spoke in a vitriolic article titled Third Spud From The Sun: Cameron Crowe Then And Now. While in the course of a long interview by Scott Woods which appeared in the indispensable "Web anthology" called Rock Critics under the title Kicks Just Keep Getting Harder To Find, Meltzer managed to reply to those arguments put forward by Christgau in his aforementioned Voice piece.

Meanwhile, a "polemic with tact" appeared in print form. Under the title A Tale Of Two Rock Critics, on October 20, 2000, U.K. daily newspaper The Guardian featured two pieces about the way things had been: one by Crowe himself, the other by renowned rock critic Charles Shaar Murray, who in 1973, aged 21, started writing for what at the time was considered to be the most irreverent and incorruptible U.K. weekly, The New Musical Express.

Looking back, I have the strong feeling that time elapsed between years 2000 and 2015 is quite longer than time elapsed between 1973 - and, more in general, what was once regarded as "rock's golden age" - and the year 2000.

Though the financial prosperity of print magazines is bound to change in time, at times quite dramatically, I believe that while those who in the year 2000 looked back at 1973 saw something they could understand, the same is not necessarily true for those who right now turn back to look at the year 2000.

It's been a few years since Christgau and Hoberman stopped writing for The Village Voice, and for some time now The Village Voice has not been what it once was. But it appears that both Christgau and Hoberman have not managed to find a comparable position, for the simple reason that jobs like those don't exist anymore. And what about the indispensable - and quite entertaining - Rock Critics? It looks like the website is in "suspended animation", and with good reason: if in the age of the Web we are all "rock critics", who's a "rock critic"?

Let's pay attention to what's at stake! In the present condition, what does it mean "to be an accomplice of record companies"? And "acting as a megaphone" in the interest of a third party? Who can be regarded as being "on the side of readers"? Do readers have any point of view about this? Are there still readers out there? Has listening by now turned into a state of "automatic perception" that doesn't involve verbalization anymore?

Has technology - through the invention of the Net, and nowadays fast, cheap access for everybody - acted as a kind of "turbo engine" for this change in audience perspective?

In June, 2001 Rock Critics published an interesting interview by Steven Ward. The man being interviewed was Glenn McDonald, who at the time had a blog titled The War Against Silence. Writing for the most part about rock music, on Wednesday nights, McDonald - in real life, a software designer - wrote for free without help from ads nor freebies from record companies.

When asked about the future of his role as a reviewer, McDonald spoke thus: "The thing that threatens to render this whole field of endeavor obsolete, however, is that if you're on the Net you now don't really need to have music described for you." (...) "At that point, detailed written descriptions of music are superfluous and anachronistic."

McDonald appeared to anticipate the objection that crossed my mind while I was reading the interview, and this is what he said:

"Of course, there's still the other traditional role of the "critic" (as opposed to the "reviewer") which is to try to place the work in some sort of larger context, and/or analyze it in a deeper way than a casual, under-informed listener is prepared or willing to,  and thus get at some notion of artistic merit." (...) "This can be done with music, but a) almost no popular music criticism actually amounts to this, and b) I don't even think it would be very interesting if it did."

Let's suppose - here I'm summarizing McDonald's opinion - that a certain number of very knowledgeable critics reach a consensus about the high quality of, say, The Joshua Tree by U2. How could their argument be the final word when it comes to listeners' perception? Anybody could say something like "That's your opinion, but I still don't like it".

So, what's left of criticism? According to McDonald, the only thing that a critic can do is talk about the relationship between himself and what he listens to.

It was the end of October when - in one of my futile attempts to bridge the gap between what I manage to listen to and what's released - I paid a visit to one of the last record shops still in existence in the town I live in. When I entered the shop, I was greeted by a loud cacophony, a horrible-sounding mix of vocals, strings, and reeds that stunned me. I thought that this music sounded perfect as the soundtrack for the scene when the Pharaoh and his army are swallowed by the Red Sea, which closes over them - a scene that I remember from the time I watched The Ten Commandments, which I saw thanks to a school trip at the time when I still attended elementary school. "Tacky" is the word that came to me upon listening to this musical passages, I'm sure readers will find the most appropriate expression in their native language.

I asked what it was, the shop owner replied that I was listening to one of the most lauded albums in recent times: The Epic, a double CD and a triple LP, by Kamasi Washington. It was at this point that a piano solo started: the language was quite old - forty or fifty years old - but the performance sounded fresh and lively. "This Kamasi is quite good", I said after listening to the solo for a few minutes. "That's not Kamasi", he said, "Kamasi plays the saxophone". It was at this moment that a trumpet solo started. Well, it was like a Freddie Hubbard solo from way back, but in a way conscious of what was to come later - or something. Then - those horrible orchestral parts still appearing here and there - came the time for the tenor solo. After a few minutes I was certain I was confronted with something I dislike a lot: saxophone players who run out of ideas a lot earlier than they run out of breath. I'm sure that I listened to the album for about half an hour, so I asked the owner to play something else for me.

"Who will like this shit?", I asked. "Those who don't listen to jazz", was the answer. Which in a way sounds logical: those who listen to jazz will immediately notice that this music is quite old - on first listening, I was reminded of Azar Lawrence, whose records I haven't listened to in a long, long while. But I was quite skeptical that in the present condition, in the age of multi-tasking, there could be many people who are willing to put the effort to listen to this music with the degree of attention it deserves. I wondered how many of those who bought the hype will still listen to this monstrosity a few months after the purchase.

I'll be clear. At the time I bought the Frank Zappa album titled Uncle Meat my maturity as a listener was just a few degrees above zero (I was 15). But the general conditions of the era helped me in my evolution as a listener (but it took me more than a few years in order to overcome certain obstacles).

Since I had been told that the album had been out for a few months, I had a look on the Web. A lot of rave reviews, and names were dropped without much logic (a lot of influences, though, for such a "new, innovative" album): The Jazz Composers Orchestra, Liberation Music Orchestra, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, other stuff I don't remember. A couple people mentioned Pharoah Sanders, nobody mentioned early-70s Impulse. And no Azar Lawrence.

At the time I developed a real interest in jazz, the "new music" was that of The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton. The "Coltrane search" was a thing of the past. Looking back at what came before, my personal taste made me investigate people like Monk, Mingus, and Coleman, not really John Coltrane. Something which didn't rule out - to give readers a for instance - listening long and hard to Ascension, and investigating the implications featured on such albums as the one released by Rova (plus guests) thirty years after the original release (Ascension, 1995) and the electric version (Electric Ascension, 2003) released by a large line-up under the name Rova::Orchestrova. From David Murray to David Ware, the "torrential tenor player" has never been my favourite musical setting.

But here we are talking about something completely different. Calling something old, new. Which doesn't equal, of course, negating people the right to listen to this music, saying "Well, I like it".

I thought the situation reminded me of the scene in the movie Annie Hall when the character portrayed by Woody Allen, waiting in line to buy tickets in a cinema foyer, listens to people saying silly, inaccurate things about Marshall McLuhan. With a fantastic coup de théatre, Allen has McLuhan himself appearing from behind a billboard, the philosopher agreeing with him, saying (I'm quoting from memory) "This young man is right, you have totally misunderstood my ideas". At this point, Woody Allen looks into the camera and says (again, I'm quoting from memory): "Why real life ain't like this?".

I had seen nothing yet. Right before Christmas, I decided to have a look at those Top Of The Year lists posted by the critics of The New York Times, and I saw that Ben Ratliff - the jazz critic at the paper - had The Epic at #1. Now, I have to confess that when I think about a jazz critic I think about Francis Davis, not Ben Ratliff. But here I thought that considerations about "trends" and the like could be at work - I've seen a lot of bandwagons starting, from the M-Base collective to the David Ware mania, maybe this placement could be linked to the intention on the part of the critics not to scare away those who have just started listening to jazz thanks to this album?

After a few days - I wanted to check some end-of-year opinions - I had a look at Do The Math, Ethan Iverson's (he's the piano player in the jazz trio The Bad Plus) website which I've mentioned a few times in the last few yeas. I saw a post dated 12/12/2015 with this title:

You Know,
That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man.

And this is what I read:

"I've been thinking about critical opinion and the long view of history as Kamasi Washington's The Epic keeps being so successful. At least three diverse and well-informed critics, Ben Ratliff, Ted Gioia, and Phil Freeman, have named it a top album of the year (Ratliff and Gioia #1, Freeman #2)."

"In light of this consensus I went back and looked my appraisal of The Epic from several months ago. I stand by my assessment."

 "I wonder what Azar Lawrence, Billy Harper, and Gary Bartz make of the buzz. They played this style when it was fresh - hell, they helped invent the style."

"The reason to celebrate Washington is probably mostly extra-musical". (...) "Maybe Washington is 'making jazz relevant again'."

At this point I searched for what Iverson had written on 05/20/2015:

(The John Coltrane album) "Africa Brass lurks in the background of any sort of large group Afrocentric jazz featuring modal chords and vamps. The latest take is getting a lot of attention: Kamasi Washington's The Epic."

"Indeed, the very first thing we hear at the top of the first tune, Change Of The Guard, is essentially a McCoy Tyner quote. The pianist also gets the first solo. It's burning in full post-McCoy style. Well done."

(...) (the style of The Epic) "is actually retro (compare, say, Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Harper or Gary Bartz records from the early 70s."

A few days ago, just before bedtime, I told myself: wonder what Francis Davis thinks of The Epic. "Google is your friend!", of course. I typed "Francis Davis" and "Kamasi Washington", and here it was: the jazz critics 2015 poll curated by Francis Davis for NPR (National Public Radio). The Epic stood at #4.

Let's see what Francis Davis had to say about the album:

(The Epic) "is being talked about by its more fervent admirers as if it were jazz like we've never heard it before. It's not, though. Strings, voices, cosmic graphics, Washington's dashiki and all, it's merely jazz like we haven't heard it in a while - an intentional throwback to those "spiritual", early '70s Impulse, Black Jazz and Strata-East LPs whose greatest appeal might be to listeners too young to remember the dead end for jazz this sort of thing led to back then."

Interested readers will have no trouble accessing the whole thing, including the part where Francis Davis makes a list of those traits shared by those who voted The Epic as their album of the year.

Here I'd like to stress the intellectual honesty of this critic at the time when - at least, this is what I was told a couple years ago - total jazz sales fell for the first time below those sales of classical music (1.4%). Crumbs, really.

At long last, here we are at the end of this piece.

Walking through the streets of the city I live in, I happen to meet a lot of tourists. I tell everybody to try the lemon granita. It's not a suggestion that can be rationally demonstrated. I like lemon granita, and I think other people could like it, too. I have no horse in this race, I don't own a bar, and I don't direct people towards a bar owned by a friend or a relative of mine.

I don't believe that telling people to consume lemon granita is the same as suggesting that they listen to a particular album, which to me is the end of a long process.

What I see instead is that many listeners today regard sources - especially online, but let's not kid ourselves: believing that today paper still means quality, attention, and competence is at best naive, at worst, a sign of bad faith - with the same attitude tourists I meet show when accepting my suggestion to try lemon granita. Like it's "From me to you."

But in spite of their "sweatshop" work conditions, the miserable web that in the end suggests that we buy this or that album is not that far from the state of complicity and collusion that Lester Bangs saw in a magazine like Rolling Stone. Sure, nowadays an under-qualified workforce has to use pre-cooked texts, lest they come up with something really terrible (which sometimes they do: say, a saxophone player who resembles both John Coltrane and Albert Ayler).

At this point, it's entirely possible that somebody asks me this: But if I like it anyway, why all the fuss about what those reviews say? Right. But do we really believe that reading about "a planetary consensus" about an album that's "innovative and revolutionary" and in the mold of - here comes a long list of names assembled without any logic whatsoever, but with an eye in the general direction of what's hip - has no real effect when it comes to one's decision about what to buy?

© Beppe Colli 2016 | Jan. 1, 2016