It all went down around four years ago now – it was my regular bread’n’butter gig – the International Arts Festival – and in 2010 there were a lot of musical acts; not all of them great, but you didn’t know that until you got to see them. You always hoped it would be good. I was asked to review The Yellowjackets and I’d read enough issues of Modern Drummer back in a former life so I was kinda of interested to see Will Kennedy do his thing. And I knew about the Yellowjackets, knew about Bob Mintzer and the gang…
So I turned up to give it a go.
Good lord it was fucking awful. Like, horrendous. Embarrassing. I mean yes, these guys could play – of course they could. But could they say anything? Not anything worth hearing. Fuck it was hopeless. And hideous.
So, I went home and wrote my review in that crawl-space of 10-15 minutes. Here’s what I wrote:
There is a reason jazz has a bad name with a lot of listeners – finally I know why. It is because of groups like The Yellowjackets; a quartet perpetuating the myths that talent means good and safe is best.
The first sign of real trouble appeared during the second piece, essentially a continuation of the opening waft-fest. Bob Mintzer parked his saxophone and stood like a cricket umpire listening to Jimmy Haslip’s bass solo. Softly mumbling and burring in and around Will Kennedy’s slinky cymbal grooves it all felt flawless and void of vitality.
The Yellowjackets, a Californian group that has now been playing in, presumably, the world’s largest elevators for 30 years, serve up so many musical clichés, such as the quirky EWI (or electronic wind instrument) that Mintzer tortured the audience with, that the band’s performance deserves to be described in clichés.
So: the aural equivalent of soft-pornography, songs that bleed in to one another with a snatch of faux-bop or light-groove here, remnants from a lost soundtrack to an erotic thriller there.
Dizzying bass runs from Haslip, mirrored the sax and piano lines and seemed to coax the audience in to that old mousetrap of appreciation; the cheesy technique proving irresistible –the delicate dance of Russell Ferrante’s piano was ineffectual, often forced to compete with Kennedy’s clattering of drums. Four great players do not instantly make a quartet worth listening to.
For music so obviously innocuous, destined for dinner-parties, it was presented as jazz in the face. But I certainly wasn’t swallowing it. Saxophone solos that wouldn’t be out of place on Dire Straits albums and ensemble playing that seemed to be missing Sting appropriating Shakespearean sonnets for lyrics apparently passes for jazz fusion – and gets a pass mark
because the players can perform it well. I might have been in a minority but I like my music to mean something.
Boy, Wellington’s self-appointed Jazz Police sure made themselves known. They hit the newspaper hard with letters. Angry, angry letters. They started a Facebook page. It was a dude from the local Jazz School – but he set up a fake profile to run the page from.
Yellowjackets to go around Yellowbellies apparently…
They were up in arms – and a few of them even agreed that the gig was nothing special – but the truth, or one reviewer’s version of it, shouldn’t get in the way, you see these people live for industry-discount tickets on the day of the event, so they can say they’ve seen one of the footnotes of the genre they have dedicated their life to – these doormats for the footnotes.
The campaign got a bit heavy – even though a lot of people joined the Facebook page purely to mock it.
Next thing I’m banned from reviewing jazz gigs. You see, it doesn’t matter how bad the act might be, how underwhelming, the idea among Wellington’s Jazz Police is not to ever say anything bad – unless of course you can mix it up with the Mixolydian mode yourself. Hell no. Don’t say anything bad. So what if Herbie Hancock wasn’t actually that great when he played here – he’s a legend and we want more legends to visit. Must have more legends!
The end result in the minds of the Jazz Police – based on this one review that caused so much butthurt – was that I hate jazz. Never mind the ten years of reviewing all manner of gigs, including loads of jazz gigs, where I’d raved. Say one bad thing and the Jazz Police were not at all happy.
Next thing I have to hand back my tickets to Branford Marsalis (playing later in the same festival) and since then – pretty much – no more jazz gigs for me.
I realised that some of the citizens on parade within the Jazz Police gang were trying extra hard when, on my daily blog, one of the vocal whiners tried to have a go at me for writing about Buddy Rich’s autobiography. “Nice review”, he said, – but, crushingly, and wait for the burn, he added, “a bit late, why review this book now!?!” A whack with a rolled up phone-book. Man that hurt. Clearly he had never heard of the idea of a blog – and the difference between that and a review – and that, too, was likely my fault.
The Facebook page they set upwas called Stop Reviewing Jazz Gigs (it even had a stop sign for the profile pic). I suggested they change the vowels in the last two words of the title; I’d already got away with talking about jazz in the face and not swallowing in the review, so perhaps I should be thankful to this so-pleased-with-themselves Jazz Police Facebook patrol group. It gave me the chance to self-referentially pun. Any wannabe writer-schmuck such as myself would almost pay for the chance.
I say almost. Because of course I now have to save any money from the pittance I make reviewing the other gigs to pay for the jazz gigs.