Better to be understood than glorified: Jazz artists respond to good reviews
Laura Dubin Jazz

The little-known Reverend H. H. Williams, Bishop of Carlyle in the 1800s, once said, “Furious activity is no substitute for understanding.” Words to a sermon, they might as well apply to the sentiment of many jazz artists, if not all, about a good review.

Jazz is particularly difficult to review for the layman without a grasp of sight-reading, charts, notes, harmonic scales, and meters in one of the most complex of the musical arts — second to, perhaps, classical and Afro-Cuban music. Jazz musicians tend to not to suffer fools gladly either, generally preferring the feedback of fellow musicians, or even better, a legend in their field, which further isolates the artist from the audience.

Not necessarily. While it may sound counter-intuitive to put so much importance on a jazz review by a civilian who can’t sing or play a note, that’s exactly what happens. Artists in general appreciate people taking the time to listen to their music, regardless of jazz credentials. If one person gets what they’re trying to do, grasps the feel, even if much of the technical stuff goes over his head, they’re happy.

Rochester, New York, pianist Laura Dubin, 24, is just starting out, but she plays beautifully, fluid and forceful on the keys as if she’s been doing it for many lifetimes, perhaps as a reincarnated jazz legend from the 1950s-1960s. As soon as she found Charlie Parker’s Talkin’ Bird amongst her parents’ records — at age 10 — that was it, jazz was hers. She recently came out with a debut album, Introducing The Laura Dubin Trio, which is starting to make the rounds of the critics corner online. AXS recommended the recording July 24 as one of the summer’s best to groove on. The favorable mini-review made an impact on Dubin.

“Having my album reviewed in a major publication for the first time gave me a huge burst of confidence, especially due to the fact that it landed the #1 spot in an article titled ‘Top five 2014 summer releases to groove on.’ I truly put my heart into the music on this album, all the way from the composition to the performance, so I'm thrilled to know that it's starting to get the recognition it deserves,” Dubin shared, July 28.

Also starting out very young, vocalist Alex Pangman survived lung disease and a double-lung transplant to pursue her dream of swinging 1930s ragtime like nobody’s business. She does just that on her 2011 and 2013 releases, 33 and Have A Little Fun, with guest guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli — both albums receiving five stars from Examiner. As an aspiring jazz artist, Pangman hasn’t really suffered from many slings and arrows in the public eye. However, she already has a healthy attitude about both kinds of reviews.

“We haven’t reached that part of fame where people want to tear you down. I’ve certainly had lots of reviews of records and it makes me feel really great when someone gets it,” she detailed, August 3. “That being said, there have been one or two zingers in my career, and they do sting. But you must realize, it is impossible to please everyone all the time, so you must keep this in mind, and be happy and proud of your work regardless.”

Afro-soul vocalist and songwriter Somi is fast becoming an international star with her blend of East African influences and a poetic speak-easy jazz found tucked away in the intimate spaces of a multi-cultural metropolis. The Lagos Music Salon — a resplendent, multi-artisanal travelogue of Lagos, Nigeria — came out last Tuesday to glowing reviews, including a preview from AXS. She recorded her impressions of the Nigerian community with recorded samples of her arrival at the local airport and casual conversation in a village, amazingly descriptive, on-the-beat haiku-like poetry about the villagers in easily the most engaging hit, “Shine Your Eye,” and smoothly transformative, integral pieces of spoken word and music with special guest stars Angelique Kidjo and Common.

For Somi, who was inspired to live in Lagos and write The Lagos Music Salon after losing her beloved father, a good review is understanding. “As tough as it is, I try not to focus on whether a review is positive or negative, but more so whether the writer actually understood my artistic vision and/or chosen aesthetic,” she explained on July 31. “Obviously, I’m delighted when writers have good things to say about the music because one hopes that that translates into a wider audience and album sales. But when a writer understands what you set out to say in the first place, it affirms that the creative process — no matter how arduous, winding, or long — was not in vain.”

When AXS gave Cyrille Aimée a very good review July 24 for her debut Mack Avenue album, the bright, bubbly, and brilliant, It’s A Good Day, it made the gypsy jazz recording artist’s father cry. But it also touched Aimée, because she felt — there’s that word again — understood. “I’m always very humbled when I read a good review about an album I spent a lot of time working on. I think the ones that touch me the most are the ones where you can really tell that the person listened to the album carefully,” she elaborated, August 6. “We recorded It’s A Good Day two years ago and it was hard to wait that long until we heard the first feedback. I also like reviews that talk about a different side of my music, or the album, than all the other ones. I guess, every review in general makes me happy!”

Lua Hadar also greatly appreciates reviewers who get where she’s coming from and what she’s trying to convey with her multi-cultural, world music. Based in the Bay area, Hadar has an expressive reach beyond her shores, bringing as much music from other countries as possible — to go deeper than a pleasant melody and a tight band. It’s what she calls cosmopolitan jazz, and she translates it well in her past works. Her Indie-nominated, November 2012 CD/DVD release, Like A Bridge, conveys her United Nations ideal quite well, as it has her singing seven languages with a global band.

Her brand of music may not be for everyone pressed in the pop-house genre of easy-listening Muzak. So when Hadar finds a kindred spirit in a reviewer, it’s everything. She’s not in the music business for the business aspect, but the art and the art’s universal outreach, which places her strictly in the niche factor. “I make music — fundamentally — to express and communicate my vision for the world: how our common humanity, if we become aware of it, can serve to bring us together,” she explained, July 31. “Singing makes me joyful, and I always seek to share that joy with my audiences, live or virtual. It has always been challenging for me to fit my musical tastes into one clearly defined genre, and I’ve become — sort of by default — a self-producing indie artist. A vast number of musicians who are self-producing — and even those working with larger labels — are attempting to express their individual style and statement, for what we sing in a large way expresses who we are. Imagine my delight and validation when someone writes about my music and gets me. Being understood is all I’ve ever wanted.”

New Orleans guitarist Jimmy Robinson is a legend in his hometown, always going out boldly and brazen, damned the consequences. He’s not one of those big names everybody buzzes about on a Grammy reflex, but he should be. He’s opened for and backed numerous big names, heroes who “changed music for me,” including John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Allan Holdsworth, Tuck and Patty, Jeff Beck, Dr. Hook, and the Steve Morse Band. With his own various bands or as a solo artist, he more than commands the stage, almost literally transforming the DNA of a room by permuting his six- and 12-strings. A consummate performer, a musician’s musician, and a fan’s dream — he leaves payment for his CDs up to them, Robinson tries to be fairly philosophical about good and bad reviews. Tries to be.

“To be honest, I have only had maybe three unfavorable reviews, maybe two in Europe for my solo stuff, and one or two in the U.S. for Woodenhead, and, I have to say, they really stuck with me,” he expounded, July 29. “I mean, I know, it is one (hopefully informed and knowledgeable) person’s opinion, but, er... It doth sting.”

To keep it all in perspective, Robinson’s Woodenhead band borrowed an idea from a Ramones poster interspersing the insults with the praise. “We had a press quote page for Woodenhead that I still use when we play, that includes about 100 press and fan quotes, and about every 10 is a real negative comment. I got the idea from a big Ramones poster that you used to see in record stores where alternating lines would be things like, ‘The future of rock and roll,’ and then, ‘Someone should put these guys out of their misery.’ It was really funny, and I loved the way they really didn’t seem to give a crap one way or the other.”

The Rippingtons’ bassist Rico Belled seems to be, on the surface, one of those serious jazz musicians who don’t really give much of a crap what anyone thinks, unless it’s someone who gets off on a 5/8 to 4/4 time signature difference (“Five Of Eight,” XR7). Oh but he does care. A frequent sideman, the session player ventured out on his own with his well-received experimental-electronic fusion album, XR7, in 2012. Named after his 1973 ride, the album is a clever, if outlandish, concoction of the L.A.-based, multi-instrumentalist’s favorite styles — ‘70s S.W.A.T. theme, Latin beats, robot raps, smooth-pop crossovers — in a well-intentioned, if obsessive, examination of man versus robot.

A good review for Belled is a mixed bag, with a healthy dose of audience appreciation. He doesn’t like to write songs without a certain innate groove, or an emotional payoff. So if a person feels some kind of way from his music, he’s good. If that person also grasps the underlying mechanics of the reason for the music’s goodness, even better. He doesn’t even mind criticism pointing out the gaps, faults, and misses. It shows that the person’s awake, alive, and kicking, not phoning it in. A positive review has to be about more than stroking the ego. Anyone can lay it on thick with generic, impersonal superlatives, like, You rock! That’s tight! Frickin’ awesome, dude! — aka, furious activity. But not everyone can back up the smoke with the fire of inspired comprehension.

“As far as nice reviews go: you know, it feels great when my music seems to have touched someone positively; it certainly makes me happy, when I’m making it. If it doesn't, or at least evoke some emotion, I scrap it,” he explained, August 3. “For a review to really matter to me though, it has to show some understanding of the music; just positivity without comprehension is so common in these parts, and just like the empty smiles at Best Buy, it kinda rubs me the wrong way. I do appreciate the attention, but in the end, true art — and jazz is nothing if not that — is not populist and thus not dependent on the opinions of others. Keep in mind, I’m strictly talking about jazz; if I were to make a pop album, I fully realize the important of reviews, and would welcome any with the slightest hint of positivity with open arms!”

Back to you, Reverend.