How do we choose the records that we buy, especially in terms of new releases? Well of course we can sample the sounds over the internet, or from the radio, iTunes or Spotify, though often the samples are of limited duration. But they may be enough to wet our appetite and allow us to form a judgement about the merits of a particular artist, encouraging us to part with ready cash so we can put the disc into our CD player or onto a turntable. However, in many cases we are dependent on what we read in a newspaper or monthly magazine. Newspaper reviews seem to be limited to around 150 or 250 words, whilst those in magazines are often even smaller. And of course they are shaped by the tastes and interests of the reviewer or critic. In the case of jazz, these reviewers have included such people as the poet Phillip Larkin or the historian E P Thomson. The former was a devotee of traditional sounds who found it difficult to come to terms with bebop or later music, try as he might. Newspapers like The Guardian or Observer employ well known critics such as Dave Gelly or John Fordham, whilst (jazz) magazines have a whole panel of reviewers/critics considering some 50 or more records a month, perhaps awarding each disc a star score of 1 to 5 – let it be said that most records end up with a 3 or 4 star rating. Whilst some have musical training and playing experience, many do not – making an assessment of their views even trickier. And of course one has one’s own ‘favourites’ or pre-dispositions favouring a particular style, artist or whatever.
All of this helps with well established artists playing in reasonably well set fashion. But how do we judge newcomers? This task is particularly difficult with jazz musicians, especially given the number coming out of the various music programmes of universities, colleges, conservatoires, worldwide. The task is especially difficult if one has not been able to hear the artist or group live: word of mouth helps, but here we probably depend more on what the critics have to say than would be the case with established musicians. And we would probably like to see more than one review in order to gain a broader view of the record concerned… and this is not always possible. At this time of year magazine critics are invited to list their top ten records of the year, awarding a score to each one: most list some re-issues, then discs by old favourites, with only a minority listing newcomers. Where more than one critic lists a newcomer, at least we have some guidance that this person may well be worth following up. Otherwise it is a question of ‘suck it and see’ – a process which still makes it difficult for newcomers to achieve the break that might well help them to become well established. Mike Goldsmith.