Saturday, August 06, 2016

Keeping it real: Thank you, Ben Ratliff

A little over five years ago, when I was employed at Time Out New York, I received an IM from my friend and music-department colleague there, Steve Smith, about a Ben Ratliff review of a Paul Motian performance at the Village Vanguard that had just gone live on the Times website. Steve and I were both avowed Ratliff fans, but this latest dispatch was, I remember him suggesting, a textbook example of this most unusual and potent critic in his element. There's a section early in the piece that says this of the group in question, a sort of oblique Modern Jazz Quartet tribute unit with Motian, Steve Nelson, Craig Taborn and Thomas Morgan:

"It instructs without directly teaching you a thing. It’s tense and mysterious and completely exemplary. It runs through Sunday night. You ought to hear it."

Anyone who has followed jazz in New York during Ben Ratliff's tenure at the Times knows these sorts of exhortations. When a band was playing at the Vanguard and Ratliff went early in the week and wrote about it — positively, yes, but not just that; also probingly, intriguingly, alluringly and, very often, just plain oddly — it had a way, for me, at least, and I think for a lot of others who have had some sort of stake in this music in this city at this time, of turning that band's weeklong residency into a sort of instant cultural happening. Not just a "see and be seen" thing, though during certain residencies, you'd often go and see all the "jazz people" there. No, it was much deeper than that: upon publication of the right kind of Ratliff review, the ones where he not only loved the band in question but seemed to sort of vibe with it, when, as he discussed yesterday on a special edition of the NYT Podcast (timed to the announcement that he's leaving the paper after 20 great years) his critical-brain "window" or "third ear" was fully open and receptive, and those sensations it registered made it to the page intact, a kind of rare aesthetic eclipse occurred, wherein the interests and passions of an entire community of receptive listeners in a certain city during a certain week aligned with the truest and most sincere and most profound impulses of the musicians, and what resulted was a kind of sustained bliss.

If you were smart and had the time, you did as Ratliff said and you went to hear the band, and you shared in that sensation. He wasn't telling you what to think about the music; it was more that he was saying, "This is what happened to me" and simply recommending that you enter that space, in the company of those geniuses, with that kind of complete openness. He seemed to be cultivating in his audience a receptivity to musical wonder. And for those of us already inclined toward listening in that state, it was a marvel and a gift to have that kind of almost mystical faith in the power of listening, and in the power of a certain sort of oracular, iconic musician like Paul Motian (Taborn and Morgan were also favorites, as were Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, Masabumi Kikuchi — I must have read this beautiful piece something like 15 times — and other artists who embodied that sort of probing quality, the holy mystery at the core of certain strains of jazz), expressed in what all understand to be the Paper of Record.

He wasn't a cheerleader, but he was, I believe, rooting for jazz in general, and for NYC jazz in particular. At his best, Ben Ratliff wasn't writing reviews; he was writing benedictions. When he praised an up-and-coming artist (Kris Davis, for instance), it felt like New York as a whole, "the scene," as it were, was welcoming that musician into the pantheon.

And to have that sphere of influence begin to extend out to another area of music that I hold dear (metal and related styles; see this Greg Fox benediction, analogous to the Davis one above) was more than I or anyone else who happened to share that dual affinity could have asked for, to find yourself reading about Cynic or Liturgy or Salome or freakin' Eyehategod in the New York Times, for chrissakes. (I remember standing outside Europa with Ben and some others after this show, savoring what we'd just heard and beaming with disbelief.) Frankly, it was also a bit intimidating, to be a music writer who happened to specialize in jazz and metal working in NYC during the Ratliff Years. Writing is not, as I see it, a competition, but there was a certain standard being set, or rather a bar constantly being raised, during this period, and you wanted to show up and be present and do right by the art, and the artists, and the community. That was one way Ben Ratliff influenced me, by demonstrating that you can really "get there" with writing, not meaning that you could reach a lot of people and influence public opinion about a certain artist or record or performance, but that you could bottle up some kind of borderline religious experience you'd had while listening to music, which is really what we're always after, and share it and point others that way and record it as a kind of memento of the wonderful time you'd had and how it felt. (That last part is really all I've ever hoped to do with particular blog.)

But it wasn't about genre, as Ratliff's new book, Every Song Ever, posits. You were listening past style and into the realm of pure quality. That now-clich├ęd but ultimately perfectly true Duke Ellington thing about "two kinds of music: good and bad," he really understood that. So when he wrote about, say, Manuel Agujetas and penned a line like this, you sat bolt upright and you damn well listened: "If you have any interest in the void, Manuel Agujetas is your man." Ratliff basically wrote about that late flamenco singer as if he were a metal artist, and my God did I regret that I'd missed that show. But the piece inspired me to look deep into Agujetas's work and I feel profoundly grateful that Ben led me there.

And then when he wrote about musicians you already loved but wanted to know more about, well, forget about it. Reading The Jazz Ear (a book that began life as a series of Times pieces), which I have done in full three or four times and piecemeal many, many more, I am in a state of pure delight. I've held different opinions at different times, but at this moment, and not just because of the occasion, I feel absolutely at ease calling this my favorite music book. As Ethan Iverson suggests in his elegant Ratliff tribute, the Motian profile here is beyond definitive — it goes so deep and with such a light touch and even humor to boot. It is simply the resource on the man and his mystery. The Metheny piece, the Shorter piece, the Andrew Hill piece, the Bob Brookmeyer piece. There is just so goddamn much humanity and perception and wisdom and fun in that book. It is the perfect confluence of writer and subject, and it is relatively brief and readable and it is profound.

Ratliff in the Podcast linked above takes issue with the word "criticism," a term I also can't stand and avoid using whenever possible. For me I would define what I do when working in this field as simply writing passionately and (hopefully) intelligently about music I love, and, when I'm lucky, doing that in conjunction with actually conversing with the artists behind that music. It's not "criticism"; it's a state of gratitude and perception and bliss — it's the writer returning the favor, repaying the spiritual debt the music has brought about in him or her via conversation (see also these great interviews with Bill Callahan and Jim O'Rourke, the rock-world equivalents of the jazz eccentrics he so treasured) and written reflection — and that state, that exchange, is documented so purely in The Jazz Ear, precisely because we not only get to hear what Ratliff hears in the work of these musicians, but because the book itself is based on the idea of interviewing-as-shared-listening we get to hear the musicians listening and reacting in turn.

Existing with and responding to and questioning and, as Ratliff puts it, really getting inside music is joy. That's the lesson that his work taught time and again. It isn't about being right or having "good taste"; it isn't about judging things; it's about going there, for yourself first and foremost, and then trying to bring back a little bit of what you found and put it on the page so that others can get a flavor of it and, ideally, be enticed to go experience it for themselves.

Of course there's so much we have learned and can still earn from his style, his stubborn idiosyncrasy, pithiness and often just plain weirdness (I will always treasure the WTF quality of this line in a Zs review: "These pieces are all brain-benders; they’re conceptual art objects that set form and content against each other — like, say, a perfect birthday cake made out of sawdust, or a perfect hammer made out of bird feathers.") I know I will miss that "voice" as well as his actual voice on the Popcasts, which I love. But what I will miss most is just that sense that Ben Ratliff is out there, on the beat, keeping it real and teaching by example.

I will also say on a personal note that I appreciate enormously Ben's encouragement and positivity re: my own work, during the handful of times that our paths have crossed. He was kind enough, for example, to let me know that he enjoyed the liner notes I'd written for the Henry Threadgill box set on Mosaic, and to mention the craw project in the 2015 NYT box set round-up.

And so mainly I just want to say what a pleasure it's been to share, as it were, airspace, with this singular talent. Thanks, Ben Ratliff, for doing not just the week-in/week-out work that was asked of you at the NYT but for responding to a higher calling, your own need to "get inside" the music, for drowning out the deafening noise of the online opinion machine and using your forum at the most respected news outlet in the world to go somewhere disarmingly personal. Whatever you publish from here on out, I'll be reading, and I'll be learning from the back catalog for a long time to come.


*Definitely read Nate Chinen — who gives us all the assurance that NYT jazz coverage will remain in the very best of hands — on Ben Ratliff on Twitter.

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