Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Jazz Annual

Periodically, about once a year, I confess my continued fondness for jazz. I say confess because it invariably happens that after I do people who know--they always know, these people: so sure of themselves!--that jazz is Better than rock, instead of assuming (as they ordinarily do) that I am an ignoramus, which doesn't bother me much, assume for a while that I am a hype-ocrite, which does. The question being: having heard the light, Mr. Critic, having felt the dazzling vibrations of Tony Williams and thrilled to the brilliant sonorities of Pharoah Sanders, why do you continue to push that second-rate shit? I could offer some snotty reply--for cheap money and fleeting fame--but that would only serve to obscure the not especially shameful truth, which is that I don't write about jazz because I don't have much to say about it. I agree that a lot of rock is second-rate shit, especially semi-improvised rock, and I'm sure my dissatisfaction is a function of prolonged exposure to melodic improvisers like Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk, not to mention rhythmists like Paul Chambers and Charlie Haden and Elvin Jones. But although I have the faith in my own taste that is everybody's birthright, I believe I like the jazz I do for technical reasons that are beyond my ability to comprehend concretely or specifically and hence express, having to do with polyrhythms and harmonics a writer as knowledgeable as Whitney Balliett, the New Yorker's catholic and eloquent jazz critic, is hard-pressed to render. Rock has its own complexities, but these occur largely on a social level which any intelligent observer can get at. Jazz is mostly music.

I like music sometimes, however, and even during my most apostate pro-rock periods I have returned to jazz occasionally--once a month, say--when I felt in need of something a little subtler than my usual meat and brown rice, and over the past six months it has become regular fare again, for the first time in five or six years. Two lps, both featuring drummer Tony Williams, helped me get back: Miles Davis's In a Silent Way and Williams's own Emergency! These records diverge in feeling and intent--the former pretends to be background music, almost in the manner of Sketches of Spain, which in 1960 catapulted Davis into the favor of the kind of man who reads Playboy and initiated in me one phase of the disillusionment with jazz that resulted in my return to rock and roll, while the latter is a frank extrapolation on the most raucous qualities of new thing jazz and wah-wah mannerist rock--but after repeated listenings at all levels of consciousness I came to feel they shared traits which I could relate to rock and which boded well for jazz. Well, maybe and maybe not: now each man has come out with a second lp, and I'm sorry to report that while I like these records, I'm not absolutely sure those of you who have no predilection for jazz will find them very beguiling.

Where I differ with all those Better Than folks is that I don't think it's anyone's responsibility to try. To hell with evangelism. Just as I can believe Homer is groovy in the original without feeling any inclination to learn Greek, I know it's quite possible to lead a rich and enlightened life without getting into jazz--or any other music, for that matter. Despite my jazz experience, it took me a long time to begin digging Davis's new one, Bitches Brew, and I didn't turn on to Williams's Turn It Over right away, either. Disinterested friends seem less excited by these lps than by their predecessors and records do cost money, so I'm hesitant to make unequivocal recommendations. On the other hand, you all like rock, and I suspect that for many of you these albums--not to mention In a Silent Way and Emergency!--will be worth some work. In fact, I'm sure of it.

The most common jazz/rock synthesis attaches a heavy (-handed) beat to big-band vital arrangements and fills it out with insulting-cum-uninteresting solo rip-offs on John Coltrane/Don Cherry/Roswell Rudd. This approach is synthetic and second-hand, but it does counteract the rhythmic super-sophistication and non-existent singing which are clearly two reasons for the decline of jazz. The solos, of course, are another matter, the usual self-indulgence by unoriginal musicians, but since the same is true of all those mediocre but successful rock guitarists and organists, that doesn't explain why only one band, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, has achieved major commercial (never mind artistic) success with this formula. I suspect the success of BS&T, admittedly the most facile if not the most energetic of rock's "big bands"--overlooking the Mothers, who however vain their pretensions do create their own category--is due as much to gimmick value as to musical virtuosity. I have nothing against gimmicks, but I do suspect that one reason this one hasn't had more general success is that rock audiences are not fully comfortable with horns, especially solo horns. Rock is not only big-beat music and vocal music, it is electric music, and rock fans crave the decibels and distortion that implies whether they know it or not. Davis (implicitly) and Williams (explicitly) recognize this.

High-volume electronic distortion is one of the few rock usages that hasn't been stolen, or "borrowed" from black music. Black musicians like B.B. King and Jimmy Smith can be credited with electronic innovations, but at least at their inception these always approximated acoustic effects. It wasn't until the Yardbird rave-up and the Who destructo and psychedelic feedback and noise boxes that amplifiers were loved for themselves. So it is significant that both Williams and Davis employ the same white English guitarist, John McLaughlin, who tours and records with Williams and also appears on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. McLaughlin is known as a jazz musician in England but came to be associated with the English demi-Janis, Jools Driscoll, in the States. Symbolically, he straddles jazz and pop (though that isn't why Davis and Williams use him: they use him because he's one of the best guitarists in the world) and the breadth of his playing--from the most percussive and arbitrary amp stuff to straight blues and jazz improvisation, though, as a young black musician remarked to me recently, he does tend to be a little abstract even when he's trying to be funky--is an indicator (and probably a determinant) of the kind of jazz Davis and Williams are making. This is not to imply that Davis and Williams are into the same thing, only that each is trying to solve the same problem in his own way, and that the solutions share a key element: electronics.

Davis's concentration on electric instruments (the new lp also features Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea on electric piano and rock session man Harvey Brooks on Fender bass) is one more step in the continuing evolution of the most protean figure in jazz history. Only Coleman Hawkins (who began as a big-band saxophonist and ended playing creditable new-thing jazz) ever went through as many changes as Miles (who dates back to bebop and has been through everything since) without surrendering his own voice, and Miles has done it with an important difference: he is a commercial business. His records and concerts reach what is probably the largest audience any serious jazzman has had since the 30s. Miles is coy about this. He explains his switch to electronics not in terms of public appeal but of audibility--call it the conceit of the amplifier--and passes off his recent appearances at the Fillmores East and West as a favor to Clive Davis. This is all no doubt true. Certainly, Miles's own tone is almost as understated as ever, anything but "rock-oriented," and the other horn men on Bitches Brew--especially Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, Benny Maupin's bass clarinet does sound passing weird--also work, tonally, in a recognizable jazz context. Nevertheless, the new music would seem to be far more accessible to the rock-trained listener than that which preceded it. As I hear it, there is something new (or new/old) going on rhythmically in both of Davis's most recent lps, a kind of compelling drive provided not by the drummers (it is some kind of tribute to Williams that Davis has seen fit to replace him with three percussionists on Bitches Brew) but by repeated melodic riffs. This is especially true of the modal tune (I think that's what Miles said it was) around which the "Shhh/Peaceful" side of "In a Silent Way" is structured. It is less true of a forthcoming album tentatively entitled Zonked. Davis will continue to go his own way, one of the few admirable (because he is almost completely above snobbishness) examples of intelligent artistic integrity available to us. I think a few adventurous rock fans would be well-advised to try and trail behind.

Philosophically, Tony Williams is a somewhat different case. Williams, as precocious as the old man himself, started drumming for Davis when he was 17. He is now 24, having left Davis over a year ago in a personal squabble since patched over. Williams is such an overwhelming musician that if he weren't black he would demolish the reputation of a speedy super-freak like Ginger Baker almost instantly, and I think he can do it anyway. He is a true contemporary. He admires Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, black men who have conquered the white audience, mostly for their intensity but also for their outreach. He would love to keep 20,000 people on their feet for two hours, and without Sly's heavy (and white) beat, but if he digs the sheer clamoring presence of rock he also digs the longevity of a genius like Miles. He calls his group the Tony Williams Lifetime, and his ambition is to combine the Hendrix impact with the Davis integrity. He never wants to be where Hendrix finds himself now, on tour with music three years old because that's all his fans want to hear. He wants to take the fans along with him for a decade, or two.

The Lifetime was originally a trio--Williams, McLaughlin, and Larry Young, whose jarring, unromantic energy is especially remarkable because he plays organ, which most musicians find as irresistible as a titty magazine. Recently, the three have been joined by Jack Bruce, who tours with the group and plays on Turn It Over. Promoters like to make Bruce the headliner. To my crass mind that seems like just the come-on to seduce all the Ginger Baker fans, but Williams figures that in the long run it's better to leave his own name on top. It's also more accurate. Bruce has a lot to learn before he can play with the others, although he does add a vocalist. Up until now Williams has been the group's voice man, speaking quavering, enigmatic lines that work well musically--easing the rush in an attractive counterpoint--but not lyrically, and it would be interesting to hear what the group might do with traditional song structures.

The Lifetime achieves what Williams intends--there is no more intense music anywhere. But it should be added that this intensity is of a peculiar type, sometimes more compelling aurally than physically. Perhaps it is misleading to report that after hearing Turn It Over a few times I played Led Zeppelin II and felt something of the same effect, infinitely more cumbrous and stupid but similar nevetheless. Of course, John Bonham insists on his solo, breaking the mood in the most stultifying way imaginable, while Williams, who could probably play Bonham's solo with one hand, just keeps on rocking, improvising all the time like any good jazz drummer but not afraid to play a simpler beat than is ordinarily respectable among jazz purists. There is also a good deal of the rhythmic riffing I noted in Davis's new music, more so on Emergency! than on Turn It Over. When Young, McLaughlin, and Williams are featured, the music has a remarkably uniform texture--not that it is smooth, just that there is no way of distinguishing between front and back or melody and rhythm. The result is a collective improvisation that almost rocks.

Williams refuses to refer to his music as jazz. Jazz bores him, even the jazz he likes: it's all too quiet, too conventional, too--can it be?--commercial. So call the Tony Williams Lifetime an "electric music quartet." I think the group might just make it, if not to Sly Stone heights then further than any music of such ambitious self-dedication has gone before, and if it does it will be because Williams doesn't worry about what he's Better Than. A few months ago I attended a concert at the Fillmore that featured Jack Bruce and Mountain. Bruce was with Larry Coryell, who I then considered the finest guitarist in this creation (that excluded Jerry Garcia, who isn't human except when the fancy strikes him); Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix's old/new drummer; and a nondescript organist with zippy credentials named, if I remember, Mike Mandel. I was expecting quite a bit from this group, and I was brought down. Oh, Coryell got in some unbelievable licks, and Bruce was pretty fluid, but Mitchell wasn't equal to the music and Mandel was another jerk-off. They played what amounted to half a dozen rather lengthy rave-ups--much Better Than that, I suppose, but I couldn't listen. Then Mountain came on. We all know Mountain is a hype, the original Cremora, Leslie West never made up a line in his life, Pappalardi's a freak, and who are the other two anyway? Well, they were great. They were great because they were good to look at--the famous skinny/fat counterpoint of Felix and Leslie--and because they knew how to pace a set, hard ones and soft ones and originals and golden oldies, and because Pappalardi lays down a nice bass line and Corky Laing, that's the drummer, keeps a beat. He also takes a solo, but I don't feel obliged to sit through those any more. I left well-satisfied.

You tell me which of those groups was Better. And then I'll tell you that Tony Williams and Miles Davis, if you just give your ears and your head some time, are Just as Good--because they're dramatic and intelligent and they put on their own show. They also happen to play good music that's very much like jazz and something like rock. That's their privilege, and my pleasure.

Village Voice, May 21, 1970