Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

I don't exactly feel suicidal, that was John Lennon's affliction, but it's bad enough. Never in eight years of compulsive record-checking have I been less interested in the music I get in the mail. For a few weeks, I stopped Consumer-Guiding altogether, letting recent stuff pile up or playing music I expected little of just to get it out of the way. Then I decided that since the predictability of rock and roll was depressing me anyway I might as well pay attention to jazz releases. So far, the results have been less than a revelation, although I'm sure there'll be more results in the months to come. At least I've had something to think about.

Basic conclusion: especially in phonographic terms, there are patterns in jazz remarkably similar to those in rock. Maybe this indicates that these patterns are fundamentally economic, or maybe aesthetic parallels are at work. Probably both. But the same kinds of shortcomings can be perceived. The market can be pursued honestly (Grover Washington) or disgustingly (Stanley Turrentine) or boringly (Joe Henderson). There are young artists with more ideas than they can handle (Anthony Braxton) and older artists who have outgrown the inspiration of their own concept (Dizzy Gillespie). (A major advantage of jazz skill is that an artist like Gillespie can make vital music 25 years after his greatest conceptual peak, a feat not too many rock performers are likely to pull off.)

I have always favored black jazz over white, but that's not why no white jazz records happen to be featured here. That's just the way they came up; any decision was unconscious. I'm trying to write about jazz as a lay listener: My knowledge of the music is entirely non-technical and very incomplete. Since neither kind of ignorance has ever staunched my interest, I figure it's worth trying to describe what I hear. Pardon the inevitable gaffes.

No, this is no farewell to rock and roll. But if you've been feeling bored with the stuff lately, you could do worse than check out the jazz acts featured in Voice Choices or give one or two records a try.


JOAN BAEZ: Diamonds and Rust (A&M) Recently, one of her lilting legions accused us non-lilters of being emotionally deaf. The other possibility is that she's emotionally dumb. C

ANTHONY BRAXTON: New York, Fall 1974 (Arista) Braxton's music is classified as jazz because Braxton is a black saxophonist who often plays with jazzmen, but that hardly covers it. The feeling is closer to eccentricity than it is to spontaneity, and just as I was starting to dig the cerebral exercises on side two--one cut features new-music synthesizer minimalist Richard Teitelbaum--I noticed that even the wildest of the new-jazz james on side one was sounding cerebral. Don't get me wrong--my cerebrum really got a buzz on. But this is often a little stiff. B PLUS

DR. HOOK: Bankrupt (Capitol) It must mean something that the only new rock record I've really enjoyed recently is a joke, but maybe it's only that their sense of humor is improving. Any band that can dress up in glitter and get booed off the stage as its own opening act is obviously delving aesthetic possibilities unknown to ordinary rock and roll hustlers. B PLUS [Later]

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: That's the Way of the World (Columbia) This unit can do so many things that it qualifies as the one-man band of black music even though it has nine members. Terrific tricks, no kidding. But I am struck by the fact that this album is billed as a movie soundtrack. B MINUS [Later: B+]

DIZZY GILLESPIE: The Giant (Prestige) It's gratifying to hear how little the performing vitality of one of the creators of bebop has diminished over three decades; he's still making satisfying records. Personally, I prefer this twofer (a 1973 Paris session that features Johnny Griffin, Kenny Drew and Kenny Clarke) to the more recent Dizzy Gillespie Big 4 (done for Pablo Records with Joe Pass, Ray Brown, and Mickey Roker) because it stresses raunch and rhythm. But both albums are survivor's music: loose and quick-witted, almost untouched by the fierce inward turning that drove so many beboppers into one dead end or another. And that's probably just the reason that both lack the sense of conceptual urgency that hooked me on bebop. B PLUS

JOE HENDERSON: Canyon Lady (Milestone) Professional ambition and product-conscious mediocrity can vitiate any music. Henderson was a promising tenor player whose economical, full-toned solos were a major attraction of Horace Silver's late 60's group. Now he fronts his own band, stretching his talent over multi-percussive tracks that last eight or nine minutes and adding some tasteful brass for aesthetic panache. The result is far from offensive. But it's pointless. C PLUS

BILL HORWITZ: Lies, Lies, Lies (ESP-Disk') Like most topical singer-songwriters, Horwitz succumbs to the obvious (calling him Henry Kiss-of-Death isn't much of a punch line), the rhetorical (the word "bosses" in "Father," which almost manages to bridge the generation gap through class feeling, suggests the Daily Worker rather than a daily worker), and the simplistic (equating the Army Corps of Engineers with the Czar's cossacks does injustice to both). But unlike most topical songwriters, Horwitz also has brushed with wisdom (the post-utopian revolutionary commitment of "Sadness"); he sounds fresh because he is. As an anticapitalist, Horwitz figured taking his tapes to the big record companies would be a waste of time, so I can't fulminate about why this is on ESP Disk' while Richie Lecea is with RCA and Myles & Lenny record for CBS. But given the courage of the record companies in these ledger-conscious times, he was probably right. B MINUS

IAN HUNTER (Columbia) It's a mighty long way down rock and roll--as your name gets hot your heart gets cold. Then your name gets cold. B MINUS [Later: B]

KEITH JARRETT: Death and the Flower (Impulse) Jarrett has the kind of gift that is labeled genius because it's so hard to put down. But for a genius, he makes an awful lot of music that can best be described as pleasant. Granted that its pleasantness is substantial and sensual and spirited all at once. Granted too that the accomplishment of this album is more reliable than that of his last group effort, Treasure Island. I still expect more from a genius. B

ELTON JOHN: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (MCA) Says B.T. as E.J.: "I once wrote such childish words for you." Do they feel guilty about it? Have they put away childish things? What's happening to our children when a concept album about the hard times of a songwriting team hits number one on all charts the week it's released? Does it matter that the five good songs on this one aren't as catchy as the five good songs on the last one? Probably not. B

THE KINKS: Soap Opera (RCA Victor) Maybe because it works so perfectly in the theater, this doesn't seem to work too well anywhere else. If you want a memento of the show, so be it. Otherwise avoid. C PLUS

KISS: Dressed to Kill (Casablanca) I feel schizy about this record. It rocks with a brutal, uncompromising force that's very impressive--sort of a slicked-down, tightened-up, heavied-out MC-5. But its lyrics recall the liberal fantasy of rock concert as Nuremberg rally, equating sex with victimization in a display of male supremacism that glints, with humor only at its cruelest--e.g. song titles like "Room Service" and "Ladies in Waiting." In this context, the band's refusal to bare the faces that lie beneath the clown make-up becomes ominous, and you know damn well that if they didn't have both eyes on what's commercial they'd call themselves Blow Job. B [Later]

HERBIE MANN: Discotheque (Atlantic) "You know what that is?" said Carola, looking up from her book in astonishment. "That's an easy-listening version of 'Pick Up the Pieces.'" Almost. The disco people seem to like this, but what do they know? After all, if the Chinese hordes were to overrun our nation, Herbie would be on the racks in a month with an LP called Little Red Book, and Chou might well like that one. D PLUS

JON MARK: Songs for a Friend (Columbia) In which jazz-rock (what? you don't remember Mark-Almond, the supergroup?) get back at Rod McKuen. The inner sleeve lists the name of 41 string players and 11 businessmen. The subtitle is "Bird With a Broken Wing Suite." And the first side ends with the singer threatening to quit on his boss, a Mr. Rosenfeld. Mark's business manager is named Michael Rosenfeld. Couldn't hurt, Jon--but I bet you'd never get anywhere in that boat. D MINUS [Later]

HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES: To Be True (Philadelphia International) The problem with Gamble-Huff is that production tends to subsume vocals, and like a good organization man, Theodore Pendergrass, the powerful voice of this veteran up-and-coming group, accedes to the process, tailoring his instrument to the insistent demands of the dancing beat. The result is much more anonymous than it has to be. C PLUS [Later: B+]

THE METERS: Cissy Strut (Island) The secret of the Meters is: listen to Ziggy Modeliste. He plays more off-beats and syncopations and odd patterns than any soul drummer you ever heard, all within the spare, clever riffing of New Orleans's answer to the MG's. The Meters make dance music, all right, but it's not disco and it's not jazz-type dance music either; the group suggests vital body rhythms without doing what is usually called swinging. Their albums on Reprise deserve only cult status--not tight enough. This hangs out. A MINUS [Later]

ELLIOTT MURPHY: Lost Generation (RCA Victor) The mistake is Paul Rothschild's production, too tasty and anonymous to support the innocence that made Murphy's basically tinny voice and underachieved rock and roll convincing. Deprived of the benefit of the doubt, Murphy's awkward literary-ness starts to stick out. You wonder whether his lost generation was really shaped with a "technicolor carving knife." You wonder just how much he knows about "The Love Song of Eva Braun." You wonder why the two strongest cuts on the record--the love songs on side one--are the ones you notice last. And in the end you acknowledge that even on this evidence he's a prodigious talent, and hope the next record makes it. B [Later]

THE ROLLING STONES: Metamorphosis (Abkco) Flowers it ain't, but Jamming With Edward it ain't either. There's only one good side (two), sound quality is rough and thin throughout, and most of the arrangements were obviously given up in the middle (remember One Plus One?), sometimes because the songs were worth giving up on. But this is still mid- and late-'60s Stones, the greatest rock an droll band in history, and even second-rate and half-assed they demand to be played over and over again. B PLUS [Later]

STANLEY TURRENTINE: In the Pocket (Fantasy) This is the soundtrack for a romantic comedy featuring Henry "Hank" Aaron as a bank vice-president whose hobby is private investigation. While "digging" into billiard-licensing payoffs, he falls for a lady eight-ball hustler (Leslie Uggams) who happens to be the daughter of Mr. Big, played by Barry White. Aaron decides to go crooked, but you know he'll never achieve the power or vulgarity of his father-in-law. Neither will Gene Page, who arranged this claptrap for Turrentine, a saxophonist whose fat, self-indulgent tone demands the worst. D PLUS [Later]

GROVER WASHINGTON JR.: Mister Magic (Motown) For the best-selling jazz album in the country, this isn't bad. Washington plays a warm tenor in the pop jazz tradition of Gene Ammons, but the rhythm section percolates danceably, and the result is sexy background music only superficially marred by Bob James's strings. Functional. B MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Close attention to reissues has assuaged my indifference to current product. They sure made good music back in the good old days. For starters, I actually prefer the Beach Boys' Spirit of America to last year's blockbuster, Endless Summer. The new set contains enough familiar material (in live or "party" versions) to keep you oriented, but also contains wonderful examples of those mythical songs--like the title cut, or "Drive-In"--that only Beach Boys freaks who own all their cut-out Capitol albums have ever heard. A treasure. As is the Tampa Red album, "Guitar Wizard," on RCA's Bluebird series. My favorite pop blues singer has always been Washboard Sam, but after hearing Tampa Red's "Stockyard Fire" I know there's more to pop blues than "Let Me Play Your Seeburg." Among jazz reissues, the Horace Silver set on Blue Note was a revelation to someone who was too snobbish to appreciate Horace during his heyday, and my investigations into Dizzy Gillespie have reintroduced me to the first Prestige Gillespie twofer, In the Beginning, as essential a jazz record as I've ever heard. Finaly, A&M's Best of Free has enabled me to relegate four Free albums to the auxiliary collection, two miles away in a friend's loft. . . .

Glory glory hallelujah: John Denver has been named to the President's advisory commission on Vietnam refugees. . . .

The lineup at this year's Schaefer Festival is the most impressive in years. For schedules: F. & M. Schaefer Brewing, Promition Department, 430 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211.

Village Voice, June 16, 1975


May 12, 1975 July 21, 1975