Thursday, October 29, 2009

No one dances in New York

Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein

So I’ve had numerous requests to respond in some way to Nate Chinen’s NYT review of our much-ballyhooed Bell House hit, which occurred a week ago last Monday. Initially, I wasn’t sure there was anything I wanted to say about it at all. And besides, it’s not like I didn’t have a million other things to obsess about while we were still on the road.

Since returning to civilian life, of course, all that has changed. I have discovered that, surprisingly, I do have some thoughts on the review after all. Unfortunately, they are not the sort of revenge-fantasy thoughts that some seem to be expecting from me. I merely feel like a few things need to be clarified, is all.

Let me say up front that I don't expect everyone to like our music. But if someone is going to dislike it, I want them to at least dislike it for the right reasons. I do not particularly want them to dislike it by ascribing intentions to it that are not actually there.

And that's really the only part of this that irks me a little. Someone who hadn't attended the "Big Band Bonanza" could come away from Mr. Chinen's review with the impression that we were there solely for the purpose of shitting on what was otherwise a beautiful evening. And that strikes me as wildly unfair, and a gross misreading of what actually went down.

So, for what it's worth: my corrective.

* * * * *

As you probably already know, there was a glaring error in the original piece. The second of two paragraphs that were devoted to the IJG (neither of which actually addressed our music, BTW) asserted that we were somehow responsible for the baritone sax attack that occurred at the end of the show. Here’s the bit:

Naturally the band had to have the last word. After an encore by the Secret Society, a handful of players from the Industrial Jazz Group sprang an ambush, maniacally braying and honking their way through the crowd. They soon spilled out onto the street, filling the night air with their noise: a symphony of self-satisfaction.

In reality, I was as surprised by the “ambush” as everyone else, and so you can bet I was even more surprised to read this description of what happened. A day or so later, the paper ran a correction:

A music review on Wednesday about the Brooklyn Big Band Bonanza, at the Bell House, misidentified the group of musicians who “sprang an ambush, manically braying and honking their way through the crowd” after an encore by the Secret Society. It was Stefan Zeniuk’s Baritone Army, not some of the players from the Industrial Jazz Group.

Which was at least closer to the truth. For the record: out of the six or seven baritone sax players who participated in the army, one was Secret Society member Josh Sinton (who was onstage with Darcy as the Zeniuk sweep began, and joined the melee in full view of the audience), and another was Gabriel Sundy, a member of the IJG, who had been recruited by Zeniuk’s crew sometime after our set. The others were unknown to me, but presumably they were all New York-based baritone saxophonists.

Incidentally, if you've never seen or heard the Baritone Army, here's a little taste:

Anyway, I of course appreciated the NYT's willingness to run the correction, but what I still don't get is how the gaffe occurred in the first place, unless Mr. Chinen was so extremely irritated at our show that he wasn't even considering the logistical headache it would have been for us to dream up and execute the Baritone Army event all on our own. To wit: there is only one baritone sax chair in my group, which means that in order to create a baritone saxophone flashmob of the requisite dimensions, the rest of the IJG sax section (plus one player from elsewhere in the band?) would had to have brought their own baritone saxophones on the tour. In addition to their regular horns. All for about four minutes of music.

May I respectfully suggest how improbable and impractical that would have been, especially for those traveling from the west coast? And even more especially for those who didn't even own a baritone saxophone?

* * * * *

Sadly, the unexamined annoyance that prompted the IJG-as-Baritone-Army mixup seemed to inform the rest of the IJG portion of the review as well:

By contrast, the Industrial Jazz Group, based in Portland, Ore., and led by the composer Andrew Durkin, injects novelty into every corner of its aesthetic. Performing with a pair of shrill, scenery-chewing singers, Tany Ling and Jill Knapp, the band pursued an archly absurdist ideal, cribbing a move or two from Charles Mingus and quite a few others from Frank Zappa. Ultimately it was a showy mess, rendered sour by a slick of smugness. (There was a shirtless dancing bassist in a Roman centurion helmet, and a trombonist in a pair of skimpy briefs. It was understood that you were supposed to find this subversive and hilarious.)

The one thing I will grant here is that the show was a bit sloppier than I would have liked -- certainly in juxtaposition with the carefully-aligned tightness of the Bjorkestra and Secret Society. I of course accept full responsibility for that. Still -- I don’t want to make excuses, but it’s possible that we were already a little road-weary. I’ll have more to say about the extreme stressors that beset this tour -- which included but were not limited to the swine flu -- in another post, but for now suffice it to say that it would have been nice to have Mr. Chinen at least recognize that we were in the middle of a pretty insane 10-day feat, and that the unusual, triathalon-like demands of said insane 10-day feat at least ran the risk of influencing our performance from time to time. (Sadly, there was no masseuse on our tour bus. In fact, there wasn't even a tour bus.)

In any case, I’ll admit again that it was an off night for us. But “smug”? Really?

Whatever you think of the IJG’s music, our whole aesthetic flies in the face of the heroic, individual-driven, Romantic ideal of most jazz precisely because we are the exact opposite of smug. (Please understand that I don’t have a problem with the aforementioned ideal -- it’s just not what we do.)

I don’t even know how it is possible to be "smug" while you are making fun of yourself. And I don’t even know how someone could fail to discern that we are making fun of ourselves. Sample lyric:

He’s a jazz-pop jerkoff
She’s a jazz-pop jerkoff
We’re all jazz-pop jerkoffs
Jerkoff, jerkoff, jerkoff, jerkoff!

This sort of thing permeates the show. Whatever fun we’re poking at the sacred cows of jazz culture, we’re also highlighting our own ridiculousness. Our whole goddamned introductory tune is devoted to establishing a context of self-deprecation. (Do I really have to go over this again?)

Oh crap, here we go
It’s another IJG show
I’ve heard this band, they blow
You never really know how low they will go

These were the opening words of our set. The very first sounds we made. I honestly don’t know how to make our self-critique any clearer than that, short of giving people their money back and gently suggesting that they may as well go home.

Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein

It’s also a big leap to posit that the purpose of all of this was to help the audience perceive us as “subversive.” I certainly don’t expect Mr. Chinen to be a regular reader of my blog, but if he had taken the time to poke around even a few of the more recent posts, he would probably have noticed something I wrote called “The Impossibility of the Avant Garde,” in which I posited that

[Artists] have that impulse toward innovation still, but what's the upshot? It doesn't even matter whether "everything has been done before" (the big complaint of young artists). When the raw power of anything can be instantly appropriated by the people who have the budgets, and the products to sell […] there has to be some other reason to make art. 

As artists, we may find this or that aesthetic approach tiresome, and we may go after something different in the process of escaping what we already know (that's part of the fun) -- but nowadays, that's ultimately a personal journey, never a broadly groundbreaking act of artistic rebellion.

Which is maybe how it should be -- and maybe how it's always been, under the surface of our mass media economy. There really is no "mainstream" or "avant-garde." No "in" or "out." Art wants to be de-centered, despite all our attempts to organize and rank it. Art wants to be local (and not strictly in a geographical sense). And critical categories ("hip" / "square," "cutting edge" / "predictable") may make sense in the context of a particular microcosm, but beyond that, who really knows? Or cares?

So: “subversive”? Give me a break. I don’t even think it’s possible. If I was really trying to be subversive with this band, do you think I’d be as willing to indulge my proclivity for melody, when “texture” is supposed to be where all the cool kids are hanging out these days? I may be crazy, but I’m not an idiot. I know what is likely to be considered hip and what isn’t. Let me tell ya, nothing about the IJG is likely to be considered hip. We don't play that game. We’re just trying to make good music.

Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein

The near-nudity that Mr. Chinen highlights was supposed to be hilarious, I'll give him that. But, if I may get philosophical about this for a moment, that near-nudity, as well as the costumes, the gyrations, the choreography, the references to biological processes, etc., were also there because our music attempts to foreground the body in a way that has not been typical in jazz for a long time.

You know the gist of this argument, right? Jazz, some say, gestated in the rathskellers, the burlesque joints, the bars, the streets, the basements -- as music for dancing, marching, celebrating, cavorting, pitching woo, and so on. Which is not the same thing as saying it was (or should be) an anti-intellectual music. I'm not interested in essentializing it one way or the other. But it's clear that the body -- the sweaty physicality of performance; the vocalized sound of a horn; the grunts, groans, shouts, claps that happen during an inspired passage; and, above all, the expressive movement of dance, either of a performer or of an audience -- is currently (at best) circumscribed and (at worst) denied in this music by all sorts of performance conventions derived from the western concert tradition. We all know what that's about: it's a method to help distill the rarefied, intellectual, or spiritual qualities of the music.

Which is great for music that is explicitly designed to work that way. But what about music that is explicitly designed to work both ways?

* * * * *


Shortly before the show, I was chatting with Adam Schatz, from Search and Restore, the great organization that promoted the evening's festivities. Gazing across the huge open Bell House floor that stretched out before the stage, I remarked that it was cool that there would be room for dancing. Adam told me that "No one dances in New York." I don't believe that's really true (and I don't think Adam meant it literally), but man, I found it to be a depressing sentiment in any case. And now perhaps even moreso.

Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein

I will of course have much more to say about the tour very soon. Just had to get that off my chest first.

For two other, more generous takes on the Bell House show, see composer Kelly Fenton, and Tim Wilkins.

[Big thanks to Lindsay Beyerstein for the fantastic photos that graced this post.]


d0nnatr0y said...

Andrew- I'm really glad you wrote this rebuttal. I was completely shocked after reading Nate Chinen's review and have been waiting for your response, which I think is very even handed. I really do hope I get to hear you guys in your natural habitat, sans tour. I know I'll enjoy it- and maybe even dance a little! ;)

Jason Crane said...

Nicely written, Andrew. I was very surprised by the harsh tone of the NYT piece. And I'm thrilled to have had a chance to see the band on the tour.

All the best,


mrG said...

here's something he got right: "cribbing a move or two from Charles Mingus and quite a few others from Frank Zappa" -- that 'move or two' being the ability to totally confound the easy-way critics and thereby gain a cult-status as a band the 'nice' papers never liked until long after the cult-following underscored their place in the pantheon, upon which they then universally turn around to say they somehow 'discovered' them first by running thoughtless reviews like that one.

Whatever happened to the Susan Sontag School of Reviewers? You know, the one's that just said what it was and what they heard and saw? Nonetheless, though, it is still a major achievement that a road-weary gaggle of hamthraxed jazz-pop jerkoffs from Portland could grace the pages of the lofty NYT on their first ever national tour. That's worth framing all by itself ;)

David Ocker said...

Is it no longer true that the first (and only) rule of getting reviewed is to ask whether your name was spelled correctly? Possibly that is now changed in the time of Internet and meaninglessness.

If that video is typical of the Baritone Army then I lament the waste of some magnificent instruments. I dug out my Tokyo-chutei-iki album and played it really LOUD as an antidote. (If you're put off by the pop nature of that clip, skip to the last 30 seconds)

Chris Kelsey said...


Sometimes there's a tragic, unbridgeable incompatibility between a good reviewer and a good musician. That seems to have happened in this case. Don't let it mess you up.

I enjoy your blog!


Chris Kelsey

Anonymous said...

I dug your show, and was a little surprised that Nate picked on you in his review. But I agree with Chris -- you and him came into the evening with a different set of assumptions which prevented him from digging what you had to offer.
Having grown up in Portland, I have to say that the East Coast probably isn't the best environment for what you do. Not just the "nobody dances in New York" issue (a valid point, by the way) but the fact that I think the kind of person who'd come see a show of yours in P-town isn't quite the same kind of person who'd come see a show at the Bell House. Bjorkestra and Secret Society were better suited for the audience, and I think that's what Nate was expecting from you guys as well.
In any case, congrats on the tour and I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to chat with you more in person at or after the show!

Shrill Jill said...

Gabriel (IJG's fab bari player for this tour, for those of you who don't know) forwarded me this "helmet-cam" video of the Bari Army's ambush from The Bell House.

Scroll to :33 and you'll hear the camera-person invite Josh (from Darcy's band) to step down off the stage and run around with the other players. Josh conveeeeeniently had a camo army hat handy-- these are not part of the a standard Secret Society dress code. (Go, Josh, go!)

You might also notice some people SMILING. Good heavens... people actually enjoyed themselves that evening!

Oh crud. Am I coming off as too smug?

Tany Ling said...

I've already exhausted my mental prowess for the day, so I'd just like to say That Is One Hot Picture Of Our Shirtless Dancing Bassist!!

And, maybe the New Yorkers weren't dancing (unlike the Vermonters), but they certainly didn't walk out on us, either. I seem to remember a few of them sporting their six-way mustaches.

Thanks for the rebuttal, Andrew.

me (see above)

Henry Powderly said...

The biggest problem here, is the reviewer obviously backed away from trying to understand where you guys are coming from. Critics often go on the idea that the intention of the artist is moot. But in this case, where you guys wear your satire on your sleeves, it seems he deliberately omitted your point of view so it wouldn't get in the way of his goal to bash you for not entertaining him.

And that's garbage.

Andrew Durkin said...

Thanks, everyone, for weighing in.

Having done some music reviewing myself, I know full well what a weird experience it is to be confronted with something that bears no relation to the evaluative criteria you regularly work from. It's pretty hard to write about something like that in a way that is actually interesting. So I don't envy NC that task at all.

Anyway, this review is not the end of the world. All I wanted to do with this post was provide the other side of the story. So thanks for reading!