January 9, 2008. Posted by Michael Bourne.
I don't know how Gary Walker does it.
Contrary to the rumours that jazz is dead, or that the record industry is dead, and that soon there won't be any more CDs, we get hundreds of new jazz and blues CDs in the mail every year, plus almost that many more re-issues. Somehow, as the WBGO music director, Walker must face the Herculean labour of listening through the CDs that come every week.
I'll walk by his office, look in to grunt hello, and Walker will have 4 or 5 or more towers of CDs on his desk. He'll be listening on his headphones. He'll be, quite often, scowling. I'll grunt and head back to the studio.
There, on a wooden shelf, are the CDs that we're playing in the "new" slots on the WBGO music format clock. Usually, more than a hundred new CDs. Which is more or less 100 hours of music. Which is more or less four days of listening. Non-stop sleepless listening. Which is why I actually hear very little of the new music I play before I actually play it.
I trust in Walker's judgment, and, if he's considered these CDs to be WBGO-worthy, I can play these CDs. I can also depend on my own 35 years of playing records on the radio to have an immediate instinct about which records I can play day after day. I know the musicians, or at least most of them. I know the tunes, or I can get a feeling of the whole track listening to the first few seconds. Which is why I always tell musicians, and especially singers who want my advice about recording, to show me what you've got right from the jump. No 40-second vamps before the music kicks in on the first track. I might not listen beyond the first 40 seconds. Which is discouraging for some musicians I've talked with, but that's reality.
"Reality is..." is what Wylie Rollins, the WBGO program director who hired Walker and me, always said as a preamble to bad news. Reality is there's never enough time to listen. Which is annoying to all the musicians who send me CDs and then e-mail or call me a week after and want to know what I think, only to be told that I have not listened yet and might never have time to listen. I'm not kidding that I have dozens of CDs, including some I got more than a year ago, including some by artists I love, including some CDs I actually bought, that I have not yet played.
All of that said, I do listen to music from time to time, more often to music that I very much like already, which is a whole other blog. Herewith, in the meantime, and I don't mean to sound mean, is what I listen for when I listen to a new album or artist, especially singers:
Repertoire ... I want to hear some tunes I haven't heard so often that I can't stand hearing them again. If it's something that's been done countlessly, do it like it's never been done before. If it's something new, do it brightly.
Arrangement .. I want to hear something new in even the oldest tunes. And, again, in tunes old and new, I want to hear melodies and harmonies and rhythms done so brightly that the music grabs me by the ears.
Talent ... Some singers I've heard can't come close to singing in tune. Some singers I've heard think that singing oodles of highly emoted but meaningless notes is exciting. When there's nothing that gets to me more deeply than someone who can sing one true note.
Showbiz ... I come from the theatre. I want to see someone on stage with presence, someone who connects with the audience. I believe that art ought to be entertaining.
I realized when I first blathered these points at greater length that the first letters of the four words -- Repertoire, Arrangements, Talent, Showbiz -- spell RATS. Unless you turn the letters around ...
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