Roar of Approval: Sholto Byrnes Exposes a Conspiracy of Niceness among the Critics. (Jazz)
Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)
What is the collective noun for a group of critics? It ought to be something like a "spike", a word conveying the relish with which the critic should pierce shoddy material and lay bare the reality behind the poster gloss. Alas, I'm not sure that that would be the right word to describe my fellow jazz critics when they descended upon the Cheltenham Jazz Festival at the beginning of this month. Too many of them seem to find it really rather awkward to say anything unpleasant about the artists they review. The disobliging word does not even stick in their throats, let alone spring from their lips like a dart; instead, it remains a sad little thought, quickly displaced by brighter, shinier blandishments.
I first noticed this tendency when I went to review Dave Brubeck's 80th-birthday concert at the Barbican in London. There was nothing wrong with his playing, but two of his sons (all four were on stage with him) left a lot to be desired. There was no getting round it -- they were duff musicians. So I said so. For good measure, I also described one of the sons, who kept jiggling around in an irritating manner, as looking like "a sack of potatoes preparing to take off from a diving board".
It wasn't kind, but if his mother hadn't been strict enough to tell him to sit still and stop fidgeting as a child, it was high time someone did now. He should probably cut down on the hamburgers, too.
So it was with some surprise that I later read a review of the same concert in the Daily Telegraph. At first I wondered whether it was really supposed to be a feature, as it seemed to be a resume of Brubeck's career, not a review. Then it became clear: the critic, whose blushes I shall spare, just could not bear to say anything nasty about the concert. He had to write something, so he filled most of the space with background and then said what a jolly time everyone had when Brubeck's old hits were wheeled out. …