Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


At Robert Christgau’s site I read an old piece of his (1978), with this great quote:

“rock and roll orthodoxy offends me at least as much as the other kinds”.

I’ve always dug the religious connotations of the “Ism” in Rockism; Christgau nails it.

Christgau described himself then as “basically a rock and roller” in defense of his history of having seen the B-52’s more times in the past year (again, 1978) than he had John Prine and Sonny Rollins combined ever. Very cool -- stating where he stands.

Christgau’s stuff engages me & often shows sharp insight. But his defensiveness about rock’s “dumbness” bums me out. He says, regarding his preference for Fred & Cindy & Kate’s campy, funny, *brilliant* new wave dance band from Athens, “Not that I think that the B-52s are better than Prine or Rollins, who are geniuses.” No reason to be defensive here. The B-52’s had great freshness and originality in song structure and great verve in ensemble playing -- more interesting composers than either Prine or Rollins, and better ensemble players too (excepting Rollins of the ‘50s and early ‘60s). Yes, Rollins is a king improviser, but since he stopped playing with the likes of Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, and Don Cherry, his sideman have often been background-men, to the detriment of his music-as-a-whole.

I’ve been chatting on and off with Franklin Bruno about this, who pointed out that Western musicology traditionally has downplayed the roles of rhythm and timbre in music. Jazz critics brought rhythm to the center of the discussion, and rock critics (pop too, I suppose) have started to bring timbre to the central place where it belongs. (As the late American modernist composer Dane Rudhyar would agree -- he wrote a book called “The Magic of Tone.”)

Another matter which is central to the experience of music, and even more elusive than timbre: Sense of Ensemble. The B-52s have it, greatly (on record -- I can’t vouch for them live, never having seen them). Rahsaan Roland Kirk had it as a bandleader, big time. To my ears, Sonny Rollins often lacks it as a bandleader, often going for un-surprising, convention-sticking groups that serve as backdrops for his titanic explorations. (Not true in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when his sidemen were his peers in stature.)

Don’t mean to pick on Christgau here -- jazz and rock criticism in general are weak on this point. Classical criticism is ahead of rockcrit and jazzcrit in considering Sense of Ensemble.
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