The Trouble With Top 10 Lists; Also, in the Voice: a Wrongheaded “Greatest Jazz Albums” List

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

‘Tis the season. Yes, it’s that time of year when arts and entertainment critics desperately attempt to remember all that they’ve seen, heard or read over the past 12 months, and come up with lists ranking the best.

Having contributed more than a few jazz, rock and film critics’ lists over the years (including some published in the Village Voice, JazzTimes, Jazziz, downbeat and various newspapers), it’s a task I’m  accustomed to completing.

I look forward to it, too. While a bit of a chore, it can also be fun, and illuminating. It’s a relatively painless way to review the best and worst of the past year’s releases, and take a second look at anything that might have been unfairly overlooked.

That said, “best-of” list making remains an imperfect method for honoring significant work, and raises all sorts of questions.

At the risk of adding to the Top 10 clutter, here are my Top 10 questions about critics’ Top 10 lists:

  1. Is it really possible to determine “the best” when each recording, film, book, TV show or play often is a universe unto itself, in terms of being so vastly varied in approach, intent, structure (and other areas related to content) and even medium that comparisons are absurd? Is Ang Lee’s sumptuous, colorful 3D epic “Life of Pi” even of the same species as Tim Burton’s black-and-white animated stop-motion film “Frankenweenie”?
  2. Shouldn’t each artist, ideally, be pursuing creative work against a standard of that artist’s making, rather than a standard tied to what everyone else is doing?
  3. Related to the above, doesn’t it do a disservice to the art at hand to nudge artists in the direction of open competition, ala athletic bouts? Isn’t the sheer number of units sold beside the point? Must there always be “winners” and “losers” in the creative arts? (Obviously, here I’m not talking about entertainment — like, say, the latest CD from boy band One Direction — that’s specifically contrived as commercial product, overproduced to every inch of its life, targeted to a very specific demographic, and designed to sell the maximum to the most).
  4. Is it possible for a critic to fully absorb or even have access to every high-quality representation of any particular art? In 2011, in the United States alone, 610 feature films were released in theaters (MPAA), 76,875 albums that sold at least one copy were released (Nielsen Soundscan), and three million books were published. Try keeping up.
  5. Given that evaluating everything, much less catching it all, is not humanly possible, wouldn’t it be more honest to refer to any given list as “the best (fill in the blank) that I caught this year” or something similar but less unwieldy? Why pretend to have a macro view when one’s view is actually quite limited?
  6. Does the average critic typically assemble a “best-of” list based on what he or she ACTUALLY LIKES, as opposed to a list designed to appeal to other critics and the highfalutin segment of the readership?
  7. Related to the above, should the trendy — the new, the innovative, the bold, the provocative, the young — by default be rewarded over the outstanding, or even the great? And should critics emphasize diversity for diversity’s sake? For a jazz list, should a critic pointedly include solo works as well as large ensemble recordings and everything in between, and strive to ensure that there’s equitable representation of multiple sub-genres as well as gender, race, and country of national origin? Or should the focus always be on the work that strikes the critic as being highest in quality?
  8. Should critics, as sometimes happens, highlight work by lesser-known artists merely in order to bring needed attention to those folks? Good intentions, yes, but they come with unintended consequences (see below).
  9. Likewise, should critics, as sometimes happens, NOT include works by well-known artists merely because those artists are deemed already to have received enough attention? For example, should a film as accomplished as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” go underappreciated by critics at year’s end simply because it was directed by (arguably) the world’s most famous filmmaker? Should anything by a Marsalis — whether saxophonist Branford, trumpeter/impresario Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, drummer Jason, or piano-playing dad Ellis — be discounted because their family name is omnipresent in jazz? Should the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham be overlooked just because those guys sell books by the truckloads?
  10. At the same time, should popularity, which of course directly reflects on how an artist resonates with the public, be ignored altogether when deciding whether a work ought to be included on a list?

So many questions. Too few answers. Onward to the Top 10 task(s) at hand.

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Lists make good filler for publications, even if and when those lists are obvious, redundant, pointless, or ridiculously incomplete.

With apologies to the story’s author, “Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die,” in the Village Voice, hits all the above marks. It’s one of the most generic jazz pieces published in a major publication in recent memory.

Nothing wrong with including the usual suspects, like Miles, Coltrane and Monk, because they’re the usual suspects for good reason. But as someone remarked on Twitter, it’s the kind of list that could have been predicted even before it was published.

Worst of all, the piece suggests that must-hear jazz was released only in the period beginning in 1959 (Miles’ “Kind of Blue,” Mingus’s “Mingus Ah Um,” Ornette’s “Shape of Jazz to Come”) and ending in 1973 with Herbie’s “Headhunters.” Seriously?

Missing from the list: Ellington, Charlie Parker, early Louis, big bands, Latin jazz, loads more.

Also MIA: Any developments in jazz since the heyday of fusion. It’s nearly another reiteration of the Ken Burns argument — you know,  jazz is all but dead. And it’s wrongheaded.

A simple fix: Retitle the piece “My Favorite Jazz, 1959-1973.”  That’d be an honest “bucket” to put it in, at least.

Jazz Legends: New Dual Biography of Miles and Coltrane

What defines a musical legend?

Tricky question to answer.

When it comes to jazz, my list of legendary artists, those whose playing, compositions and band leadership had a significant and unique impact on the music would have to include — d’oh! — Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The musical careers, and lives, of both, are examined in a recently published dual biography, Clawing at the Limits of Cool.

My review of the book was published in today’s St. Petersburg Times. Click here to go directly to the story, or read it below:

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There’s no shortage of books addressing the work of jazz giants Miles Davis and John Coltrane, either individually or as separate chapters in larger histories. Two top-shelf recent examples are Howard Mandel’s Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz and Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, both penned by music journalists and published last year.

Unlike its predecessors, Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever goes for something new: a dual biography. It’s an entirely sensible approach, given the titular musicians’ collaboration on trumpeter Davis’ blockbuster album Kind of Blue, released in 1959, and the impact these players had on each other, as instrumentalists, composers and bandleaders.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University literature professor, and saxophonist and Brooklyn College music professor Salim Washington mostly fulfill expectations, capably weaving together the story lines of these artists’ remarkable lives, offering valuable insight into how and why they connected, and sizing up the seismic results.

The co-authors also turn in generally well-informed musical analysis, some of which is sure to go over the heads of nonmusicians; readers would have been well served if the publisher had opted to include a CD or offer free downloads of a few key tunes — Milestones, Straight, No Chaser, Flamenco Sketches discussed here.

In a recording age marked by digital downloads of instantly disposable hip-hop, tween pop and country hat acts, it’s easy to forget the centrality once held by jazz art and commerce, particularly in the black community. Davis, born the son of a dentist in a Chicago suburb in May 1926 and raised middle class in East St. Louis, Ill., and saxophonist Coltrane, born four months later, son of a tailor in small-town North Carolina, were creative artists who made jazz their professional and spiritual home.

They spent their lives pursuing their art. In doing so, Davis and Coltrane changed the music’s architecture, as Griffin and Washington point out, although critics and other listeners might argue with their first-page suggestion that the two “were the last major innovators in jazz.”

Few serious jazz trumpeters or saxophonists alive can honestly say that they haven’t been influenced by Davis’ use of space in his solos or his muted playing on ballads, or by Coltrane’s note-spraying sheets of sound. Their contrasting personality types — the trumpeter brash, flashy and sometimes arrogant, the saxophonist quiet, unassuming and usually gentle — have also been emulated by subsequent generations of musicians.

The authors touch on a related irony: “However, these qualities are reversed in their playing. When the two men came together in the mid ’50s, Coltrane’s style already displayed a ferocity not evident in his personality, whereas Miles possessed an extraordinarily tender, lyrical approach to his instrument.”

Still, trumping their work as instrumentalists were their achievements as bandleaders, redefining the limits to which groups could take jazz-rooted ensemble work — variously, bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion.

Griffin and Washington, of course, focus on the musicians’ work together, in the Miles Davis Quintet and later, from 1958 to 1961, the Miles Davis Sextet. The latter group, which Coltrane joined after quitting heroin cold turkey and playing and studying with pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, was responsible for the groundbreaking Milestones album and, with a different lineup, the vastly influential Kind of Blue.

Davis, and Coltrane on tenor saxophone, proved ideal foils for one another on such now-standard pieces as Freddie Freeloader and All Blues. Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb added indelibly to an understated but subtly intense album cited as the bestselling jazz recording of all time. It’s an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible if the paths of these two “cultural icons,” as the co-authors call them, had not crossed.

Times correspondent Philip Booth writes about music for Down Beat, Billboard, Jazziz and other publications, and plays bass with Tampa jazz group Trio Vibe. He played with ”Kind of Blue” drummer Jimmy Cobb in a Nat Adderley tribute concert in 2000.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever

By Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington

Thomas Dunne Books, 294 pages, $24.95

Roger Ebert: The Perils of the CelebCult Virus

Roger Ebert, in a Nov. 26 column, wrote, “The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it.”

He’s referring to the loss of film critics, and the death of film criticism, but the same lamentation applies to music critics and music criticism, particularly at daily newspapers (yes, there are exceptions to the rule, starting with the New York Times).

Classical critics, of course, are disappearing as fast as the unemployed ranks of former Clinton Administration staffers. That’s a sad enough story.

But at the moment, I’m talking about music whose beats typically include — or should include, in the name of diversity of coverage — rock, pop, rap and country, as well as jazz, blues, Americana, world music and other genres.

Pop music critics, thus far, aren’t being eliminated en masse, although the space given to music coverage has shrunk substantially.

But too many of them over-emphasize celeb-centric coverage and teenypop, writing endlessly about “American Idol” claptrap and the Jonas Brothers and Cyrus Miley; the latest “comebacks” of Madonna and Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey; the fates of various boy-band reunions; and whether Amy Winehouse, Scott Weiland, Axl Rose, etc., are still losing the war with their personal demons.

Who cares about that stuff? Yes, go ahead, label me a music snob. I’ve been called worse.

The guilty parties at some newspapers around the country tend to treat everything in a snarky, showbizzy fashion — think the “Hit List” in Entertainment Weekly — and give actual musical analysis, even the most basic analysis, the status of second-class citizen. For these writers, musical criticism is an afterthought, at best; irrelevant, at worst.

Call it another sign of the literate-culture Apocalypse.

Even worse for the financial health of music critics, they take the gossip-driven approach at the risk to their own livelihoods: the more that they and their newspapers emphasize celebrity news and de-emphasize information and analysis of substance, the less they appeal to the people who still care about reading newspapers in print.

So they’re trying to appeal to the folks who have already abandoned print newspapers for online sources of information, and simultaneously pissing off the newspaper loyalists.

News operations can, and probably do, attract millions of readers to newspaper-affiliated web sites. But so far, newspapers have yet to figure out how to fund a news operation solely on revenues made online.

So turning the whole thing into celeb/gossip central isn’t quite the smartest strategy, huh?