Peter Slavid on rave reviews

An opinion piece from Peter Slavid, who asks critics to be more critical, and to stop giving out five stars to everything:

I’m getting a bit fed up with reading all the superlative reviews from London Jazz Festival. (and most other places for that matter).

Is everyone too polite to write anything other than “brilliant” (this blog review of Branford Marsalis’ concert was a notable exception which at least made an effort at genuine criticism.)

Do critics and bloggers only go to gigs they know they are going to like? Or do they not bother to write about gigs they didn’t enjoy? Doesn’t anyone else go to see someone they haven’t seen before and come away wondering what all the fuss was about? Or someone they have seen before only to find they were much better last time?

Surely if everyone gets rave ***** reviews then the critical currency is totally devalued. In any case the gig will never be repeated – its not like theatre criticism where the critic can ruin the finances of a play – all the jazz critic can do is express an opinion about a performance on the night.

Theatre critics have no problem commenting on good performances in a bad play, or vice versa – surely jazz critics can recognise quality musicians who don’t gel on the night – or average musicians who have a storming gig – we can’t always see brilliant musicians playing at their peak every night – life’s not like that!

Interestingly critics seem more inclined to give lower ratings to CDs – where they actually can impact sales. (The cynic might think that’s because lots of people will hear the same thing and can form their own opinion)

Anyway – I for one would welcome a bit more light and shade in criticism – I’d like to know which of the artists that I didn’t see are genuinely worth a special effort to see next time, which ones were good, and which ones failed to live up to their reputations.

Is it just me?

Categories: miscellaneous

16 replies »

  1. Ooh, interesting commentary! Since I'm not a critic, I tend to be of the philosoph,y “if you don't have anythign nice to say, don't say anything at all” (especially if one knows the artists)! Sometimes I might write something less positive, but I try not to be mean – after all, I'm not a professional musician, so who am I to criticise?

    So if you see me write something that's not overly full of five star praise, it's probably because I wasn't so keen on it, but then, it's all personal preference – doesn't mean the artist wasn't good *g*.

  2. The other bad thing is when you get too many reviews which get 3 stars – neither here nor there. Surely the best is to eliminate the star ratings and trust the quality of the writing?

  3. Really good discussion point this.
    A few observations from one who reviews both live and recorded music:
    One of the reasons live reviews often get more enthusiastic and positive reviews than recorded music is that often the reviewer has opted to go to see something they like. This is because for many journalists it is an after-hours addition to their regular work; in the case of regional journalists it might be that they get paid very little indeed, or more recently, nothing at all, no, not even expenses, to review a gig. So, tell me, non reviewers, what would you choose to go and see.
    Then there is the fact that when you go to a live gig the band has more of a chance of getting you on their side than if you are listening in the more removed environment of your own living room. You are more likely to end up wanting to encourage the band for trying rather than rip them to pieces in critical outrage.
    As for star ratings – yes, they are hugely problematic, I think. Which is why I jettisoned them a while back. There was a selfish reason for this, too. I wanted you to read my reviews. Who can honestly say that, even with a built-in suspicion of star ratings, they still have a tendency to skip reading any but the five or four star ones, having dismissed an awful lot of good music which perhaps didn't suit the reviewer's taste or mood.
    There is also the feeling that jazz is such a small enclave of music and always under threat from the more established and moneyed world of classical music on one side, and more popular and moneyed world of pop on the other. The temptation therefore is to all stick together and be as supportive and generously uncritical of each other as possible.
    Overall, I think Peter is right, though. There may be all sorts of understandable reasons (like those above) but in the end, a wider range of critical reviews of jazz would show it to be a really grown up and robust art form. The question is – would the artists who were being criticised more severely (and their fans) see it that way…

  4. As a blogger who sometimes writes about the gigs I go to – and who pays to go to the gigs – I tend to go to the gigs which I expect to enjoy. Time and money are in short supply, so I seek out gigs that I think will have the wow! factor.

    I enjoy jazz. Going to see a live band is generally a fun experience. I am rarely disappointed.

    Should I be more critical? Possibly. It is generally easier to be negative about a performance – it is easier, I think, to spot what I didn't like (bland bass, drums too loud, bad sound mixing, the audience trying to clap along…) than what it is I actually enjoy: it is hard to describe how the sound of musicians improvising around a theme actually makes me feel and why it can be so affecting.

    I think this comes out then in being overly effusive, as a way to try to express why good gigs are good.

    There's something else, too: I am enthusiastic about jazz. I think every jazz fan has something of the evangelist about them. So perhaps I don't bother writing about the gigs I don't like, especially when I seem to have enough to write about that I do like. This may not be good criticism, but – well, isn't that what we have journalists for?

    One last thing: in isolation, it is easy to see all gigs as good. It is only when comparing one gig to another that it is possible rank gigs. So I can easily say tHE SponTANeoUS CosMic Rawxtra > London Jazz Orchestra > Guildhall Jazz Orchestra, because I saw them one after another. In the LJF, the Lost Chords > John Surman & Jack DeJohnette > Branford Marsalis and so on. But I enjoyed them all; and I wasn't writing about how they compared.

    OK, I'm meandering now… But I hope you get my point! Whatever that was…!

  5. I've yet to see review of anything, anywhere that actually talks about the nuts & bolts of the music. Rather, they're usually vague allusion to “what-else-it-sounds-a-bit-like”, what so-and-so was wearing, etc.

  6. I think it's the role primarily of the critic to 'critique' a show, to make an analysis and assessment of a performer. So, being critical should be part of that. But inevitably, a critic will also give a personal response to a performance and this is more likely to be the case with 'non-professional' critics i.e. the punters, who will often provide more of a commentary from a fan's perspective than a critique. There's room for both.

  7. I suppose that as a member of the public I want two things from a critic. First I want to know WHAT I would hear if I went to see someone that I don't know. I dislike labels as much as anyone, but I need some indication to help me judge whether its the sort of music I may like.

    Secondly I want to know if it meets expectations. So if its a well known artist – are they on form, are they going through the motons, did they do anything surprising, is the current band up to scratch etc.

    Most readers have to pay for their own tickets, which means that they have to make judgements between gigs, they have to decide which tickets to buy and I think the critic should be trying to help them make those judgements.

  8. Peter's onto something here. It comes from the reasonable and well-meaning attitude that jazz needs all the help it can get, and ends up with almost no jazz artist ever getting a bad review, which leads to a general loss of value in jazz criticism and journalism. Difficult to get the balance right, mind you …

  9. An interesting debate. While I am sympathetic to Peter's opinion, I think that most reviewers, especially in a context like the London Jazz Festival with so many gigs, will only be able to select one or two gigs for review and they are likely to be the most interesting around and also likely to feature a band that is really 'nailing it' at that particular time. So a very positive review is not that surprising. I also think that there is so much good jazz around with high standards of both performance and presentation that the generally positive nature of reviews is merited.

  10. I'm interested in the expression within the music, I'm not interested in the expression/opinion of the reviewer beyond what positives can be accentuated. Just list the positives,the great things, conjour the wonderful, pass on the good word. If it's a great gig there is lots to say, if it's a good gig then why? if it's not then let it just pass by with a few words. I'll judge the quality of the reviewer on what kind of positves are found and if there are none then remember it could be that the reviewer just didn't hear it ……….

  11. Great subject for debate. I agree with the people above who said if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all. If you like a live performance, write about it. If you hate it, well… maybe don't. There could be any number of reasons why — the musician is having an off night due to illness or exhaustion, or their best friend just died/got a terminal diagnosis, or the reviewer had a fight with his/her wife or was in a really bad mood, or had overly high expectations, or there was a bad sound system. Take my own LondonJazz review of Sheila Jordan's performance. I was writing from the vantage point of a good seat (second row) and an emotional connection to the artist. Some other person (sitting at the back) commented that they'd had to leave because they couldn't hear, and what they could hear was muffled. I once read an entire review completely panning Diana Krall when she was starting to hit. Did it hurt her career? No. Could that same amount of space been used to turn us all on to someone the reviewer DID like? In my opinion, yes. What's great about the London jazz blogspot reviews is that they're almost like being pinned to the couch by a friend and being played their favorite tracks. You can't always win someone over. I played Coltrane's 'Wise One' for a friend, with my heart practically jumping out of my chest, it was so moving. To me. Afterwards my friend turned to me and said: “I don't get it!” Which doesn't mean it wasn't there, only that he didn't (as the previous commenter said) hear it. But imagine being pinned to the couch to listen to someone's least favorite tracks. Why? Let me be turned on to something new and wonderful!

  12. It seems that jazz is massively under-represented in the media these days. There is no presence on television and hardly any on fm radio, so in a sense, the criticism for artists tends to be on whether the can actually get a review or not, (rather than how many stars they get) as there are so many good jazz bands and so little outlet for writing or hearing about them. Many newspapers can only write one review a week (which has to account for the whole world, not just jazz in the uk) and so the scene could do with a lot more enthusiastic reviewers to represent how many enthusiastic audience members there are! Maybe then we would get some coverage! I can't see the difference between 'professional' and 'non-professional' reviewer. Everybody can understand and relate to music on different levels and in totally different and unique ways, and so every review (which is written without an agenda) is of some value (and also of none for the same reasons). For me I can understand the high ratings, as people go to see what they want to see in a festival as big as the LJF. I cant see this as anything other than positive. I don't think the standard of the music suffers in any way and awareness of the art form increases. It seems that everybody that reviewed just really enjoyed the festival, which is great.

  13. Jazz music is so marginalised by the media, so if reporters starts to criticise a musician for having a bad night, the horse-in-the-corner-that-has-had-the-shit-kicked-out-of-him will end up in the knacker's yard.hmmm, I'm probably mixing metaphors but you get my point. I disagree that live gigs always get 4 stars aswell. And the truth of the matter is that there are going to be lots of good gigs happening because there are loads and loads of great musicians in London. So, as some people say, this could be a “golden age” of British jazz. The perennial problem is that jazz is not a sufficiently apposite word to describe the richly diverse music that it has become since it was christened. Also certain types of jazz are reviewed by the “journalistic specialist” in the particular field of jazz in which an artist is working, so it's hardly surprising if he or she enjoys the gig.

    I wrote this quickly so apologies if it's a bit rough

  14. I wrote about the ‘star system’ for the Guardian a while ago, http://bit.ly/6bxzoy

    Criticism is about much more than star ratings – which are probably most useful for browsers and the time-poor.

    As the first Anonymous said, it’s about the writing, and if you’re familiar with the critic, you can quickly ‘calibrate’ their verdict.

    John L Walters

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