This last semester I worked as an intern at Jazz 90.1, one of the only remaining 24-hour Jazz radio stations in the country. Every week they receive countless CDs from artists who want airplay, and part of my job was to take a stack home and “grade” them. Over time, I noticed that there were very specific musical qualities that made one CD a “yes” and another a “no.” Below are a few things that I believe make a group sound professional, mature, and effective:
1) Sound quality. Do the artists on the recording get a good sound out of their instrument? Do they demonstrate technical proficiency, good intonation, and dynamic range? Do they articulate clearly and blend well with the other players? All of these things are part of what I consider an overall “sound concept.” Having a well-mastered recording helps clarify that vision, but there’s no way to hide an artist who isn’t acutely aware of how to make sound on their instrument.
2) Rhythm. A lot of musicians now record with a click-track in the studio, editing entrances and releases during the production process. Still, there’s no way to hide how someone inflects their eighth notes, or compensate for a feel that isn’t quite locking in with the other players. If the rhythmic intention isn’t there from the very beginning, I’m tempted to move on to the next track.
3) Compositional coherance. There are a lot of truly great players out there who can improvise over anything and make it sound great. However, if the tune itself doesn’t hang together as an effective tune, I’m tempted to skip over the whole track to find something a little catchier. Often also, I find that the mood dictated by the opening theme has nothing to do with the improvising, even if they share the same chord changes. The most effective soloists to me are always those who link their statements somehow to the concept of the tune. If it’s a bebop head, engage with bebop at first. If it’s a more intervallic melody, at least start by exploring some of the intervals in the melody. I’m all for exploring other characters and concepts through the course of a piece, but I think it’s most effective to at least start your solo as a continuation of the head.
4) Artistic identity. This is kind of a broad, catch-all category, but it comes down to a few simple questions for me. Among them are: why would I want to listen to this artist instead of any other artist? Does this group have a specific sound that is somehow different from other ensembles? Does the artist demonstrate an awareness and engagement with the larger Jazz tradition? There are a lot of well-done albums out there, but there aren’t all that many that answer those questions for me. Even though most high-level albums get airtime, the ones that best answer these questions often get far more attention.
I hope some of these observations are clarifying for some of you as you practice, rehearse, and record your own ensembles. As always, I would love to hear your reactions and opinions. What types of albums do you find most effective as a musician and casual listener?