The jazz world is abuzz this week, naturally, about Herbie Hancock winning the Album of the Year Grammy for River: The Joni Letters (see my note about the album in BPB’s “Best of 2007” coverage). A chunk of that buzz, however, is responding to Ben Ratliff‘s piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, explaining why jazz fans shouldn’t get too excited.
“Inasmuch as it is a jazz album, it is precisely the kind of jazz album that would win this award,” Ratliff says. “It is soft-edged and literate and respectable. It seems, at least, intended as an audience bridger.”
In other words, it’s not really jazz enough to count.
The authenticity debate never dies (Thanks, Wynton), but come on. The musicians who’ve made this “soft-edged,” crossover-friendly album include Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and Vinnie Colaiuta (not a big name, but a musician’s musician—cited by Modern Drummer as “the most important drummer of our time”). You couldn’t get a higher pedigree if you resurrected John Coltrane.
More to the point, Ratliff seems to join the Lincoln Center movement that insists on a very rigid definition of jazz, as evidenced by his peculiar attack on Colaiuta’s brushwork: “the drums sound chastened. (When a jazz record with really assertive, swinging rhythm wins album of the year, then jazz enthusiasts can feel smug. ‘Good taste’ — an idea that means quite a lot in this category of the Grammys — can be telegraphed quickly by reducing the role of the drums.)” Apparently, neither Kind of Blue, anything by Bill Evans, nor any record heavy on ballads are substantial jazz, and God forbid we should hope that they find a mainstream audience.
Finally, Ratliff complains about the singer-songwriter aspect of River: only certain material is allowed in jazz, too. As if it’s new for jazz to borrow pop songs? As if “I Got Rhythm” was some bebop obscurity?
None of that matters, though. At bottom, music made by a handful of jazz’s best practitioners gets acclaim from colleagues and attention from a mass audience. Why this isn’t something for jazz fans to celebrate is beyond me.