The Jazz.com Blog
January 22, 2008 · 1 comment
The role of the jazz critic has been greatly complicated in recent years by the proliferation of self-produced CDs. For a musician these days, a CD is like a business card, and every jazz player is expected to have a recent recording to hand out. No matter who you are – a grungy garage band guitarist or a seasoned veteran of the big band era – you must have an up-to-date disk to validate your music-making.
On a recent day, I received ten self-produced CDs in the mail. My task might be a simple one if I could assume that self-produced recordings were inferior products. But only a small percent of these home-made recordings are demonstrably bad. Most reveal a fairly high level of proficiency and professionalism, and a few are outstanding. Indeed, I often find self-produced artists who are markedly superior to the “name” players with record contracts.
Of course, the big name labels have other worries these days than just picking the best music to release. In truth, musical considerations sometimes seem to be toward the bottom of their priority list. In a forthcoming essay on jazz singers – which I hope to publish on jazz.com this spring– I will talk about the strange coincidence in which only drop-dead gorgeous youngsters get record deals. Of course, we know this is only a coincidence. A&R execs at the big labels certainly wouldn’t be so foolish as to try to sell CDs – where, after all, you can’t see the singer – on the basis of looks! If the record industry did that, it would eventually lead to declining sales, reduced fan loyalty and a series of one-hit wonders without staying power.
Oh, have I mentioned that the record industry is beset by declining sales, reduced fan loyalty and a series of one-hit wonders without staying power?
What is really going on here?
"The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content," David Geffen recently told an interviewer. "Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it's no longer about making music, it's all about how to sell music.”
These are very astute words, and they get to the heart of the crisis that is shaking the foundations of the recording industry. Geffen's quote comes from an extraordinarily frank article published a few months ago in The New York Times Magazine. The article focused on Rick Rubin -- who recently was called in to “fix” Columbia Records, despite his insistence that he wouldn’t tale the job unless his “ridiculous demands” were met. These included various ground rules – e.g., Rubin would (1) never wear a suit, (2) never travel, and (3) never go to an office, etc. But what Rubin does bring to the party is a love of good music, and a passion for the artistry involved in making it.
Rubin amplifies on the same points that Geffen raises: “So many of the decisions at these companies have not been about the music. They sign artists for the wrong reasons — because they think somebody else wants them or if they need to have a record out by a certain date.”
Rubin continues: “There was a time when if you had something that wasn't so good, through muscle and lack of other choices, you could push that not very good product through those channels. And that's how the music business functioned for 50 years. Well, the world has changed. And the industry has not."
Of course, the industry will be forced to change now. But can it really reclaim the artistry of its lost youth, after decades during which it willfully forgot the difference between a good record and a bad record?
It is sobering to compare 2008 with 1938. In 1938, the most successful commercial music artist in America was Benny Goodman. But Goodman was not constructed by the recording industry, he was the real deal. In addition to his virtuosity as a jazz clarinetist, Goodman could also sit in with classical ensembles and play Mozart or Copland – indeed, he commissioned the famous Copland clarinet concerto – or lead one of the hottest big bands ever to play a swing chart. Seventy years ago this week, Goodman brought his great band to Carnegie Hall, where its musicianship was not out of place. And he got there the old fashioned way, just as in the old joke, through "practice, practice, practice."
Could we imagine someone like that becoming the most successful pop music artist today? Not a chance. Talent has been so separated from marketing and 'packaging' in the music industry, that we can’t even envision someone with Goodman’s pedigree and abilities rising to the top of heap. You might as well wait for Britney Spears to perform the Mozart clarinet concerto at the Philharmonic.
Artists who don’t have a deal with a strong label rely on a number of techniques to get visibility for their work. One of the most proven approaches is to bring in a well known guest artist to play on your session.
Vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin has done just that. Indeed, even though it is only January, I think she has already out-done everyone else this year, by putting out a CD with Duke Ellington backing her up on piano.
Yes, the Duke Ellington, who participates on two tracks on Benjamin’s new A Morning in Paris CD. And the pianists on the other tracks aren’t so shabby: Billy Strayhorn and Abudallah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand).
(By the way, Benjamin will be celebrating the release of this CD Wednesday evening - January 23 - at New York’s Sweet Rhythm jazz club.)
The story behind this release is a fascinating one. It starts in February of 1963, when South African Beattie Benjamin (Johnny Dyani would later give her the name Sathima), then living in Zurich, convinces Ellington to come hear her boyfriend’s piano trio. Ellington agrees, and is impressed not only by the boyfriend, then known as Dollar Brand (later as Abudllah Ibrahim), but also by Benjamin’s own singing. Ellington arranges for both to record in Paris, with hopes that the music would be released by Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label.
The Dollar Brand recording soon came out, and helped boost that musician to a prominent position in the jazz world. But Benjamin’s vocal tracks were never issued, most likely because Sinatra did not think the work sufficiently commercial. The tapes were believed to be lost, until writer David Hajdu secured a copy while undertaking the research for his Billy Strayhorn biography Lush Life. Now, 45 years after the session, Sathima Bea Benjamin’s studio encounter with Ellington and Strayhorn has finally been released.
Fans may listen to these tracks because of Ellington, but they will walk away impressed by Benjamin. Ellington plays a modest role as accompanist, and does not seek to feature his own solo skills in this setting. But one can hear what he found so appealing in this singer. One critic has reportedly noted that Benjamin sings standards as though "she has never heard anyone else perform them." Listening to her versions of “Solitude” (today's Song of the Day at jazz.com) or “I Got It Bad,” I have a similar reaction. I am impressed by her ability to cut through to the essence of these songs, almost as if they had just been composed to match her mood on that February morning in Paris.
Her deep immersion into the emotional state of this music is perhaps even more remarkable when one considers the temptation to try to impress Duke with something new or different or unusual. But Benjamin eschews all the fancy trappings that often weigh down a jazz vocal performance with unnecessary glitter and gloss. She sings these songs from the heart, and for that very reason this 45 year old release doesn’t sound the least bit dated.
This blog entry was posted by Ted Gioia.