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02 September 2011


ronan guilfoyle

Very nice piece Eric – but as a musician, and one who contributed to the original article, I must say that while I don’t believe a critic should be able to play well enough to even do a gig, I do think they should know enough to understand things like form and structure and some rudimentary elements about how the music they’re writing about works. Like it or not, the jazz critic IS writing about something that is complex in nature – the audience does not need to know about this complexity at all, but the person who is writing about it, and is acting as some kind of interpreter/intermediary/booster/detractor (or whatever), does in my opinion need to know something of the basic building blocks of what it is they are writing about.

As a musician I don’t think it’s the audience’s business to know about the nuts and bolts of the music – unless they’re interested to learn about it. But if someone is going to write about it in some kind of medium where their opinion will be given serious consideration by an audience, then it is incumbent upon that writer to know something about how the music he or she is writing about works. In my opinion it’s very difficult to get into the depth necessary to write knowledgably about the music if you can’t recognise a 12 bar blues form when you hear it. Or simple song structure – AABA – etc. A jazz critic should be able to hear basic stuff like that in my opinion. They should be able to hear the difference between a modal piece and one that uses changes – they don’t have to know what those changes are, but they should know whether they’re being used as a basis for improvisation or not. This is basic stuff - form, structure, the different concerns of players coming from different areas of the music. A player using changes in the swing idiom as a basis for improvising has different concerns and aims than someone playing in a straight 8s idiom over two chords. The critic should be able to identify those basic elements immediately. The success or failure of the music is of course subjective, but a good jazz writer should be able to express their opinion on that success or failure from a standpoint of an understanding of the basic structure of what it is they’re writing about.

If I read two reviews of the same concert by two different critics – one of whom maybe played bit of piano and had dabbled a bit in the music, and the other by one who couldn’t even recognise 12 bar form when they heard it, I know which critic I’d pay more attention to. And most musicians would feel the same. If you’re going to write about whether you think something is any good or not, you should at least know the foundation of your subject – that has to be your starting point. After that your insight, your writing ability, your storytelling, your ability to engage the reader comes into play. As a musician I don’t want to be publicly critiqued, in a public forum, by someone who hasn’t got ANY idea about what I’m doing, or attempting to do. As I said in my contribution to that article – in the case of jazz criticism, a little learning is not a dangerous thing........

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