Sunday, November 17, 2013

Picking On Down Beat / In Defense of Francesco Cataldo and European Artists

It is rather rare that a critic will take the time to go after another critic or even a main stream media publication. Having long established the fact that I hold no sacred cows in this business this particular piece should not come as a huge surprise. Improvisational music or "jazz" in the United States is in trouble. When religious music outsells jazz almost two to one there is a problem and writers that are more concerned with ego and preconceived notions of just where the cultural keys to the kingdom are found are doing far more damage to the business than one may think.

As a journalist and independent critic I am fortunate enough to have a rather elaborate network of sources. I also do the unthinkable by actually reading the liner notes and when in doubt while working a release, I speak to the artist. Earlier this year I had the pleasure to review Francesco Cataldo's Spaces. Francesco received a five star review here and subsequently similar reviews from other publications. Next month Down Beat magazine is publishing a 2.5 star review on the same artist.

Taste is subjective, I get that. The flip side is if four out of five critics are loving something then a logical trend has been established that the same percentage of passive listeners will in all likelihood have the same experience. Nothing is absolute but if you are familiar with elementary statistics the numbers simply don't lie. I have great respect for the history and tradition of Down Beat. I will also state my opinion which is held by many artists I have spoken with that the bloom has long since fell off this rose with the only mantle of respectability now being included on their readers poll. Good reviews from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Jazziz are just as highly coveted as a nice mention from Down Beat.

I am going to take just a couple of selections from this review in hopes to lay the ground work for my conclusion which follows.

Critic Alain Drouot stated:
"The CD's stretched notes, aerial atmosphere and preference for moods over beats and rhythms point to the ECM aesthetic, and John Abercrombie's influence in particular."

Brent Black's rebuttal:
There is no singular ECM aesthetic as the label is broken down into three primary subdivisions.
1.) hard bop that borders on free jazz i.e. Tim Bierne or Mark Turner
2.) jazz merging with world music i.e. Dino Saluzzi
3.) jazz with a more classical influence i.e. Tord Gustavsen

The liner notes clearly state that the intent of this release was to take sounds from the Mediterranean and fuse them with a form and function more closely designed or created for the palette of the listener in the west. In short, this is a hybrid release and in a conversation I had with Cataldo he credits a post ECM Pat Metheny influence. Cataldo certainly acknowledges the importance of the work of John Abercrombie but clearly his influence was NOT a guiding force behind this release. For further questions on the ECM aesthetic I would point you to the ECM film Sounds and Silence which clearly demonstrates the ECM aesthetic is as varied as the artist and it is the artfully manipulation of these sounds and silence that created this so called "aesthetic" to which Drouot refers.

Drouot's drivel continues:
"Despite the obvious European influence - quite a few Mediterranean locales show up in the song titles...Cataldo enrolled a crew of top notch local musicians."

Brent Black's rebuttal:
Song titles? We are now passing critical review on song titles? I won't even get into the geography lesson that is desperately needed here. The European influence is once again spelled out in the liner notes that I would doubt Drouot even opened. Bassist Scott Colley has recorded and toured with such luminaries as Pat Metheny and Bob James, Colley is not some local schmuck working his entire career as a member of the musicians local while killing time in the orchestra pit on Broadway. Clarence Penn is a similar critically acclaimed talent and one of the finest drummers in the world, not some "local talent."

Finally Drouot concludes:
"...Produces homogeneous results and does so at the expense of originality."

Brent Black's rebuttal:
ECM releases are for the most part culturally based depending upon the country of origin of the artist in question. Cataldo has created his own hybrid bridging the gap between Europe and the United States which by very definition is highly original. ECM artists (the very label he holds as an example) have no predominant track record of doing this.

Main stream jazz media in the United States is incredibly biased against independent artists, contemporary instrumental artists and finally unless you do record for ECM, a European artist has little chance of making even a dent in the American marketplace. A contact with Jazziz told me point blank, "We don't like smooth jazz so we stay away from it whenever possible, if you want to review it that is your right." O.K. I think 50% of smooth jazz is a mind numbing waste of time, talent and plastic but this is a clear example of the incredible bias of the major publications.

Down Beat has also shifted over the last few years including other genres of music and while they have not gone the way of the blog on steroids approach that All About Jazz has taken they may be running a close second.

Just remember, taste is subjective but tone deaf lasts forever.

***Note - Cataldo's name is spelled incorrectly in the first sentence. So much for credibility.