Friday, June 22, 2018

The Music vs. the Moment: On "Criticism" and attempting to get a clear look at Kamasi Washington's 'Heaven and Earth'

I have written before on this blog about my ambivalence toward that thing we call Criticism, and counting myself among those people we call Critics. Those mixed feeling have been swirling around again in light of the new Kamasi Washington album, Heaven and Earth, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.

If you follow Jazz or simply Music Discourse on the Internet, you will already know that this record is having one hell of a Moment, much as its predecessor, a highly acclaimed triple album called The Epic, did back in 2015. I did not engage deeply with that album at that time, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it just didn't draw me in after several listens.

This sort of tepid response put me in the minority among my fellow writers-about-jazz, or writers-about-music period. The album was showered with effusive praise, and suddenly Kamasi Washington became something more than just an artist with a new album; he seemed to transform into a Moment, a condition that's exceedingly rare in jazz.

With jazz, I'm used to sort of moving through the music in an intuitive way, hearing as much as I can, reserving special attention for the music that really grabs me, and setting aside the rest, not in a dismissive kind of way but in a straightforward there-are-only-so-many-hours-in-the-day one. Looking back at my best-jazz-of-2015 ballot (scroll down alphabetically here), I see some records I've gone back to here and there since (Jack DeJohnette's Made in Chicago; Henry Threadgill's In for a Penny, in for a Pound; The Bad Plus Joshua Redman) and some that, frankly, I forgot even existed. So it is with listmaking, and with music — we in this general line of work hear a lot of albums every year, and very few of them, as much as they might impress us at the time, really end up finding a home in our collections and/our brains/hearts the way our Actual Favorite Music does. That's just the way things go.

I've gotten a bit off track here, but what I mean to say, really, is that, of the hundreds (thousands?) of jazz records that came out that year, it just so happened that the album that had become a Moment, or was part of a larger one that orbited around Kendrick Lamar's excellent To Pimp a Butterfly, wasn't one that ended up meaning a whole lot to me. And that, in the end, should be no big whoop. As is almost always the case, I felt very little need to weigh in either way: I am vastly more comfortable and content writing about things I like, or, ideally, love, than about things I dislike or feel iffy about. The world does not need another "takedown" or even meh opinion, at least from me.

But this year, I find myself in a different position — frankly one I feel very privileged to be in — namely that I'm writing about jazz (and other music too, I should add) regularly for the publication where I work, which is Rolling Stone, a publication where reviews have been part of the lifeblood of the magazine/website for decades now. Criticism is still alive and well at RS, which is honestly great. But since I am in some respect The Jazz Guy there at this moment in time, or at least A Jazz Guy, and since RS focuses on artists who are impacting the mainstream of American culture in some way, it was perhaps inevitable that at some point I would no longer have the luxury of taking a polite "no comment" stance on artist like Kamasi Washington.

So I took on the assignment. And... what do you know? I liked some parts of album a whole lot! I liked other parts less. And I attempted to explain why, yielding what some might call a Mixed Review — interestingly, according to Metacritic the only less-than-effusively-positive review the album has received thus far. (And to be very clear, my review did not even remotely resemble any kind of "pan"; to give just one example, I labeled the album's strongest moments "truly transcendent.") Here's a sampling of what others had to say:

"A series of near-overwhelming musical epiphanies." —Mojo

"Despite the sheer weight of material on offer you’ll struggle to find an inch of fat." —Record Collector

"An exceptional record from one of the music world's brightest talents. " —No Ripcord
In short, rapture. Such that, a review like mine, which is generally positive but not breathlessly so, becomes almost irrelevant. Due to the phenomenon of Kamasi, his harmony with the zeitgeist, his having become a Moment, there is basically only one way to receive him now: as a kind of savior figure (a concept that Ted Gioia's review grapples with a bit).

Listen, I get it. I can easily see how the sheer scale and ambition of his art — and the flashes of true brilliance therein, as well as the fact that regardless of quality, pretty much everything on his records just sounds really damn good — could inspire such fervor. It's just that it leaves one in a somewhat strange position if one happens to feel not exactly that level of ecstatic enthusiasm for what he does. If you're not a zealous booster, in other words, you can start to feel like a hater. That's the weird, unnatural, frankly suspect binary condition that these Moments tend to create. You're either riding on the bandwagon, or you're standing to the side with your arms crossed. (There's an obvious political dimension here too: Obviously the overall message and intent of Kamasi's music, and by extension, Kendrick's and this entire wave of new black art, is immensely appealing and energizing and impactful, especially given the State of Things, and in expressing even the slightest reservations about the actual music, or its reception, one would never want to be seen as taking some kind of fucked-up Wrong Side of History stance.) Again, I reiterate: I got a lot of joy out of this record. But simply because I didn't feel compelled to anoint it as some borderline-holy instant classic, I worry that I'm tsk-tsk-ing or being the insufferable "Actually..." guy. (There's also the question of what to do with, you know, the fact of having loved / written about jazz since well before Kamasi came along, and finding a way to bring that knowledge to the table without being all Comic Book Store Guy about it.)

For many writers, feeling this way is probably not something they'd even mind; it might even be something they'd relish or take pride in. But I guess so much of this just has to do with my own attitude toward what this profession / calling / what have you. To me, it's simply, writing-about-music is simply a channel for my often overwhelming, insatiable enthusiasm for the topic, period. I have very little interest or investment in some kind detached idea of "where music is going." If music doesn't excite me, I tend to ignore it, or to engage with it only insofar as it affects my day job.

But I realize that sometimes, now being one of them, when an artist associated with a genre that one happens to specialize in attains a certain level of acclaim and/or media saturation, the Critic's role is to Weigh In. And honestly, in this case, especially since I didn't really comment publicly on the Kamasi-wave the first time around, a part of me was happy to share my thoughts.

But, maybe because of the principle outlined above, the fact that I'm a writer guided ultimately by passion, and not by some abstract Critical Impulse, I in some ways had a better time reading coverage of the new Kamasi album by other writers who seemed to enjoy it more I did (writers who I respect, and who had very insightful things to say about the album, among them Marcus J. Moore, Phil Freeman, Nate Chinen and Giovanni Russonello) than I did writing about it myself. In terms of my own review, I couldn't help but feel that I was writing more about, or reacting more to, the Moment than the music. Which I think is weird and probably somewhat unhealthy.

But let's be real for a second: How, exactly, are you supposed to strip that all away? Especially when one of the points I was making — this idea that Kamasi's Kendrick / Flying Lotus affiliations seem to somehow obscure what his own music actually sounds like (an idea that the ever-sharp Seth Colter Walls was onto right from the get-go), and the fact that the one name on his résumé that seems so fundamental to understanding where he's coming from, Gerald Wilson, is the one that never seems to get mentioned — seems to me like a pretty fundamental matter to clear up before giving the music a clear, fair listen. In other words, there's the Moment, and all these sort of buzzwords and received notions that build up around a given artist, and then there's the Music, and the two can start to seem hopelessly intertwined to the point that, especially on a tight deadline, you're not even sure which you're writing about anymore.

Am I overthinking all this? Of course! But that's because this whole business, this idea of somehow objectively evaluating music, rather than simply putting into words why I love it, or telling an artist's story using their words and mine, feels fundamentally odd to me. I will probably never be comfortable with this concept, that I have any kind of authority to "judge" music. Have I spent a good portion of my life listening to and learning about music? Absolutely. Does that qualify me to write and speak about it with some authority? Sure. But that is not the same as some sort of credential of correctness. I would never, ever want a review published under my name to read as anything other than my opinion, inherently compromised by tastes, knowledge gaps, time constraints and a million other factors that can come between a listener and a clear view of the music in question.

I remember tying myself in knots a bit when Frank Ocean's Channel Orange came out. The situation wasn't identical but it was somewhat similar: I had turned in a mixed first-day review, and then the raves started pouring in. And either because I felt like I had rushed my process, or felt self-conscious that I was seemingly the only one who was feeling anything other than breathless enthusiasm for the album, I actually revised my review in time for the TONY print edition and presented a more positive take. Am I feeling like I would do that here given the chance? Probably not. A record review is simply a snapshot of a moment in time; in this case my Kamasi review was the clearest, most honest reflection of my feelings about the album (and, yes, to some degree, my feelings about the Moment) that I could pull together at that juncture. Maybe I'll spend more time with the record and start to dig it a whole lot more — possibly because I won't have the Critical Task hanging over my head, a circumstance that can be a real vibe-killer, especially if you're not simply being carried along by native enthusiasm for the topic at hand — or less; or maybe I'll continue to dig the aspects of it that I already think are great; or maybe I won't return to it all and will instead continue to fixate on some of the records, jazz or otherwise, that have already emerged, for me, as strong year-end-list contenders, one of them being the Bad Plus' Never Stop II.

Whatever the case, I'm pretty sure the world will keep turning! So much of the above is really just an attempt to work through, or even just air, these notions for my own benefit, a kind of dialogue with myself about what it is that I do, a weighing of the enormous privilege of writing about music in a professional capacity versus the occasional difficulties that can arise when what you do for the love of it mingles with what you do for a living. Make no mistake, I couldn't be happier with where I'm at as regards to any of it. I'm just looking for a way to navigate these Moments that feels honest and wholesome, for a way to say what it is that I think, and to engage with others' opinions or with an overall Critical Consensus, without coming across as bitter or close-minded. I'm aware that it's all a work in progress, and honestly I'm glad that there are no easy answers here.

And now, I think I'll shut up and throw on my favorite track from Heaven and Earth, "The Space Travelers Lullaby," because that shit is just plain gorgeous...

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