“Jazz on a String”

About a month ago, I shared an email from Los Angeles Times writer Don Heckman. In part, he wrote:

…writing an attack is easy, and sometimes it’s the appropriate thing to do. But writing something which points out problems with possible solutions is much harder and, I believe, demands more of one’s writing skill.

I admire his position, but there are times when I feel the public would be better served by his powers of critical thinking and his years of musical experience. Monday was one such time. Don and I both attended the sixth annual Instrumental Women’s show, “Jazz on a String” this past Saturday at the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, and as my husband put it, “you two must have seen different shows.”

Don’s review opens with “An array of first-rate talent showed up…” but he never mentions that they could not be properly heard due to poor sound (a deficiency either of the sound system or the engineers) that turned the 18-piece string section into mud. And perhaps it was the chilled night air that troubled the strings’ ability to stay in tune. 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?

The two performances that he found “most intriguing” were Nedra Wheeler and the string octet from the Pasadena Young Musicians Orchestra. They were my favorites, too. I’ve written about Nedra before, and one of the things I love about her is that she embodies the music, she is jazz, and it comes through her playing and vocals, as well as her stage presence. The eight pretty high school violinists have a long way to go, but they played well on Lesa Terry’s arrangement of Horace Silver’s “The Preacher.”

Don’s only serious criticism was “the far too many announcements and introductions,” and he concludes, “It was, in sum, a fine evening of music.” I feel that while it was an entertaining evening, musically it was far from excellent.

Duke Ellington used to say that there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. Arts education is virtually nonexistant in our schools, so it is up to the critics to inform John Q Audience that musical pyrotechniques do not mean that the music is good. Contrary to popular opinion as observed in myriad audience responses — opinion I suspect is largely based in ignorance — playing fast, bending notes, and changing keys does not make a musician a virtuoso. And singers who use over-the-top vocal tricks, growling and shouting, have forsaken the art of the song. A concert may be entertaining, and there is value in that, but does that mean the music was good? I think not.