Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Existential Bix: A Good and Proper Review of Yves Francois

Here’s an existential question for an artist—would you prefer a really good review from someone who totally doesn’t get what you’re doing, or a bad review from someone who gets what you’re doing, but points out that you didn’t do a good job of getting it done? Of course the answer is that you want the good review since that will generate more money—oh wait, I’ve just compromised the art. Okay, it’s a tough question, rent be damned.

I only ask this because someone showed me a good review of a CD by Yves Francois, a trumpet player walking along the pathway of Bix Beiderbecke. It was a good review, I don’t know who wrote it, the only thing I know is that the reviewer didn’t know a damn thing about jazz. I’ll insert some of it here:

"In the early '80s, the young trumpeter Yves Francois, who had only been playing his horn for a few years, decided that it was long overdue for saxophonists Eddie Johnson and Franz Jackson to be recorded in a freewheeling setting. He organized and recorded four sessions during 1981-1986, some of which was released on scarce LPs on Jackson's Pinnacle label. Now all of the music is available on one CD. The basic tunes allow the musicians to play swing, bits of Dixieland, 1950s-style R&B, and touches of more modern jazz. The spirit is certainly there and the rollicking feel and the spontaneity are quite appealing. There are missteps, mistakes, and brief lost moments along the way, but this CD succeeds as good-time music. Fortunately both Johnson and Jackson have recorded more extensively since this time and Francois has improved as a trumpeter. But even with its flaws, this is certainly a fun set."

Ah well, that is very comforting. He or she is reviewing jazz, and they find the joy and spontaneity appealing. Thank goodness for that. But doesn’t it seem like the reviewer might still like the music, but be put off by the spontaneity? Turns out that’s exactly what happens in the next sentence. The musicians make mistakes. Well we can’t all be Kenny G now, can we? But this is what happens when jazz is recorded in many takes with many tracks, with lots of dubbing, when it moves and has moved too far from its roots of stick a microphone in the middle of a room and let the guys and gals play. I wish I didn’t have to point this out, but years of highly produced overdubbed music, including jazz, has spoiled listeners so much that real music isn’t real enough anymore. It seems like this reviewer couldn’t recognize heart while watching an autopsy. And regarding soul, well, medical examiners don’t find that either.

Live music is living music. Live music, good music, is alive. Seems simple enough, but that fact is becoming more and more elusive. Popular music has many purposes—even after you get by the main function, which is to encourage sex. And really, it’s no accident that the word ‘jazz’ used to be a euphemism for sex. Of course, sex isn’t just sex either—you know, there are emotions that go with it, that, like it or not, just can’t be avoided. It’s emotions that get you into bed, it’s emotions that are happening during bed, and there are emotions that remain after it’s over. And sometimes, after nine months, there are children and a whole ‘nother set of emotions emerge that you never dreamed possible, if you take your sex seriously—joy and spontaneity that make all music sound shallow by comparison. But it started with music.

I’ve said it before, musicians need to become militant when it comes to emotions. That is, musicians need to fight with psychologists in the quest to define emotions. Emotions should be defined by music, not words. Words are too vague, music is very specific. And different kinds of music create different emotional universes. Louis Armstrong’s emotional universe is different than John Coltrane’s, whose emotional universe is different than Jimmy Forrest’s. In fact, creating an emotional universe is the hallmark of great music. If you listen deeply to Sinatra, there is so much more than just a song.

Yves Francois is a keeper of the flame, the transcendent universe of Bix Beiderbecke. If you read about the life of Bix, there was no other place the music could go but to transcend the daily agony of life. It’s all there with Bix, like a rocket anchored to the ground, ready to take off, and then it takes off. Mistakes do not matter. The spark that ignites the rocket can be a mistake, or not, because it’s the ensuing fire that matters. Yves Francois succeeds in creating that universe that is on the verge of being forgotten. Many people play jazz, enroll in jazz programs, and study Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke as quaint historical figures. They listen like the medical examiner, and choose to play like Miles Davis or John Coltrane whether they feel that way or not. They don’t explore their feelings, so wrapped up in their theory and degree, and peer pressure more than anything. Imagine, jazz squeezed to death from peer pressure. Young Louis and Bix couldn’t have thought such a thing was possible.

But for a musician to listen to someone and fall in love with the music, to fall into their universe and continue to create that universe—that’s a real musician. Here is some Yves, which will speak for itself.

And here's his channel:

Enjoy--oh, there is spontaneity. Consider yourself warned.


Scott Yanow said...

Hi Bob,

I just read your very intriguing analysis of an unknown reviewer and his or her lack of comprehension of classic jazz. Your ideas and assumptions are fascinating, but it is a pity that they are completely inaccurate.

I am the reviewer of the Yves Francois CD. I have nothing against spontaneity. Coleman Hawkins once said that it can't be jazz if there are no mistakes. I love early jazz, whether it is called dixieland, New Orleans or classic jazz. In fact, I wrote a book by the latter name. I have been listening to, writing about, and even playing in that idiom of music for 35 years.

Whether I know anything about jazz is of course open to one's opinion. Critics are not above being criticized. But I do prefer that criticism (whether of critics or of musicians) include at least a little bit of reality.

Yves Francois is a fine trumpeter and his playing always has the chancetaking spirit of the best jazz. However the CD in question includes some performances that are more important historically than they are musically. There are obvious mistakes and lost moments heard along the way, not just an occasional missed note, and a few of the selections probably should not have been released. The music is fun and has its enjoyable moments, but it is full of flaws.

Yves has since told me that he likes my writing and my understanding of early jazz. That is good enough for me.

In the future, when you criticize a review, do a little bit of research first. Perhaps you should actually listen to the music in question before criticizing the critic.


Scott Yanow

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Jamaica said...

I'm a little puzzled, Yves doesn't play in the Bix style. He's a friend of mine, and in fact, I shot this video. Yves can really tear it up, and definitely has spontaneity, and spirit, but certainly not in the style of Bix, maybe more towards the Bubber Miley, vein - exuberant, sassy, humorous. The guy playing a Conn Victor cornet in the video, Andy Schumm, definitely plays in the Bix style, though - understated, elegant, with unexpected bursts of fire. In any case, glad you enjoyed the video. It was a great time!

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Chris Albertson said...

I think the reason why Mr. Yanow's writing often is so shallow is that he has set for himself a goal to listen to every jazz recording ever issued. He also seems to opt for quantity rather than substance, which, I believe, is why his bios—often inaccurate—are all over the internet. It is the Leslie Gourse approach to jazz writing, and it never really works.