I’ve Got Mail: A Valid Question

I recently posted a link to a young German guitarist and commented that I found his audio clips “intriguing.” A reader has written to ask:

What does that mean, please? What is intriguing about them? Is that a positive or negative stance?

It’s not only a valid question, but one that I myself would be likely to ask. In fact, back in July I took Don Heckman to task for the same ambiguity. Here’s an excerpt (you can read the whole thing here):

He describes Lesa Terry’s solos as “briskly swinging, jazz-driven” and mentions Cheryl Keyes “inventive flute soloing and dark-toned vocal,” but does that mean they were good? Lori Andrews “demonstrated a remarkable capacity to produce blues-bent improvised lines,” but to what end? Phyllis Battle may have been ebullient, but was she in good voice?

My reader’s question deserves an answer. It’s true that if I had loved it, if I thought it was the greatest music I had ever heard, I would have said so, probably with exclamatiuon marks. I might even have gushed as I have done on rare occassion, such as a review I wrote of Lynne Arriale Trio: Live at The Montreux Jazz Festival for Jazz Improv a few years back. You can read the whole review if you’d like, but here’s a taste of me gushing:

The bossa-tinged ballad “Estate” has all of the complexity and delicacy of a spider web. From the beginning to the end of this nine-minute track, goose bumps ripple through my soul and I am caught in this perfectly formed, beautiful trap. After Ms Arriale proves once again that a beautiful melody can stand alone, she adds layers while twisting and turning the lines as if reflected through a prism. The beautiful melodic bass solo is laden with pregnant notes and again, as is true throughout, Davis’s percussive contributions are so tasteful and delicate at times that I feel I must call your attention to the lyricism in his playing.

Conversely, I don’t like to write bad reviews, so if I had thought the music was really awful I would not have even mentioned it, let alone posted a link to the musician’s web site.

Now you’re still wondering what I thought, and the truth is that I was intrigued because I wasn’t really sure what I thought. The clips are short and without context, but snippets of what I heard were atmospheric, aural paintings evoking a mood. That’s good, and if I were to hear a whole piece, to hear the shape in it’s entirety and take the journey from beginning to end, I might have a clearer opinion…pro or con. But in all likelihood, this is music I would not have “reviewed” because I don’t have a feel for it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it may be beyond my comfort zone.

My personal tastes are not very adventurous — I like to be able to identify the melody and follow the harmonic changes. Rhythmically, I like to be able to feel “one” and when I get lost, finding it again makes me smile. That’s the joy of listening to a master improviser like Sonny Rollins (or my dad, for that matter) — they take you on trips and if you get lost, they’ll eventually bring you back home. Perhaps my ears are not big enough to adequately follow this young man’s music; I can’t follow Ornette Coleman, either. No, I’m not equating the two, just trying to say that I don’t believe it fair to pass judgement on things I don’t yet understand. But bottom line: to me, intriguing is a good thing. If you arouse my interest and capture my attention, you’ve accomplished something.