Friday, March 16, 2018


Critics usually aren't masters of the thing they're criticizing. Great violinists and film directors tend to play violin and direct films, rather than write about it. So you can imagine the contempt many creative people feel for critics, who can seem like the most annoying sort of hangers-on.

I'm in a unique position, having worked creatively in several fields in addition to my critical work. Even before I was a critic, my perspective was unusual. If a critic would write about some technical thing I'd done ("interesting use of tritone substitution in an otherwise modal passage!"), or try to figure out which players had influenced me, I'd need to repress the urge to slap them. Even if they were right! Because that's all just stagecraft. It has nothing to do with my aim, which is to engage and move listeners. If you're poking at me and measuring me - analyzing how I do what I do - you're not paying attention to what I'm actually up there to do. Were you moved? Did you feel anything; were you taken anywhere? Was any spell cast?

Whenever a listener tells me they "don't understand jazz", that means they've heard crappy jazz. Jazz isn't supposed to be about jazz. It's a medium for expression, and if expression doesn't express, that's the performer's fault. I prefer not to play for jazz experts. Absorbed by stagecraft, they're the worst listeners.

For my entire career as a restaurant critic, I couldn't cook a damned thing (I've since learned). And I caught grief for it. But I always considered my naiveté a super power. When a puppeteer attends a puppet show, he keeps his eyes on the strings, not on the puppets. Who do you want to read for puppet show recommendations: someone for whom the puppets were alive and magical, or someone bent on explaining how the mouth gestures were derivative and sloppily calibrated?

Of course, you don't want a critic to be a complete shnook; a tabula rasa. Critics need enough experience to recognize when something's special and when it's a bust. But while a chef might gauge the evenness of the slicing, I gauge the likeliness you'll say "Mmmm!" (most chefs have forgotten that "Mmmm!" is even a thing).

To chefs, this makes me look ingenuous. I seem to be reading all sorts of capriciousness into the food. A very long time ago I wrote this about Sal and Carmine's Pizza:
Sauce and crust are merely adequate (though they proof their dough the old fashioned way, in wooden drawers), but they are carefully, exactingly designed and crafted to superbly support the cheese. Crust doesn’t distract, but provides the canvas for this artistic study in cheese. Sauce binds and activates entirely behind the scenes, providing a subliminal buoying catalyst for the slice as a whole. When eating at Sal and Carmine’s, one must remember to eat (conceptually) from the CHEESE DOWN, not from the crust up!
They'd taped the review up on the wall, and I asked Sal (or was it Carmine?) what he thought of it, without telling him I'd written it. His immortal reply was one of the unforgettable highlights of my career: "I don't know what the fuck the guy's talkin' about!"

To chefs, who spend their time occupied with slicing the damned tomatoes and shepherding the right dishes to the right table at the right time, my dreamy conceptualization can seem like utter ditzy indulgence.

I get it. A chef is perpetually occupied with the nuts and bolts of producing food, only unconsciously imbuing it with personal touch via innumerable micro-decisions (ideally aligned via the magical combination of experience and love). But my domain is the opposite end of that process, where diligently packed pyrotechnics erupt into splendor. It's my job to dream about it! But what artist wouldn't want to inspire dreaming?

No comments:

Blog Archive