Village Voice Culture critic is sharpest on music

January 04, 1993|By Scott Eyman | Scott Eyman,Cox News Service

Gary Giddins is more than good, but not great, not yet.

"Faces in the Crowd" is a collection of Mr. Giddins' critical articles, mostly from the Village Voice, where he's been ensconced for years.

He's stronger on writing and music -- he may be the best jazz critic in the country -- than he is on film; his report on Clint Eastwood's "Bird" is ingenuously condescending, as if he had to pinch himself that Dirty Harry had the brains, not just to appreciate Charlie Parker, but to make a film of integrity about him. Like, wow!

Yet Mr. Giddins can comfortably encompass most other artists who strike a personal chord, even if they work in a discipline that's not his strength. Like, for instance, the great, inimitable Jack Benny: "No matter the humiliations he had to endure, his self-esteem remained untouched; like cartoon characters who fall off cliffs, are momentarily flattened, and quickly recover, Benny and his vanity were emboldened by adversity. The better the audience knew that, the less he had to do for a laugh. He was the laugh."

When it comes to music, Mr. Giddins goes from strength to strength; he's superior even to the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett, who seems slightly denatured and coy by comparison. Writing about music is particularly difficult, if only because listening to music is an abstract experience, and what one person perceives may not be the same thing someone else hears. The writer usually opts for either the metaphorical or the analytical/textual.

Mr. Giddins does both. Writing about Hoagy Carmichael, he says: "His homegrown genius for melody and harmony was at the service of a reliably unpretentious ear, so that while he could be memorably innocuous . . . he was never showy. Even in songs that are virtually impossible for amateurs to sing, such as the verse to "Star Dust" or the bridge to "Skylark," he gives the illusion of a natural melodic flow. You can sing him in your mind's ear, even if you can't get the notes out."

Stylistically, Mr. Giddins seems to owe something, but not much, to the colloquial rhythms of Pauline Kael, with maybe a little Nat Hentoff thrown in. Perhaps because he never stoops to the sloppy casualness that Ms. Kael did, Mr. Giddins can be surprisingly prissy, like a retired English teacher, about reflexive language. He takes Scott Berg's biography of Sam Goldwyn to task for phrases redolent of "Hollywood smarm" like "tribal chieftains" and (for Lindbergh) "a shy Minnesotan in his flying crate."

Mr. Giddins' enthusiasms are not always mine. He worships at the shrine of Sarah Vaughan, who always struck me as an impossibly mannered show-off, a jazz Streisand. He thinks Oscar Levant's 1940 recording of "Rhapsody in Blue" is the best, and I've always thought of it as one of the worst.

But you don't have to agree with a critic as long as he makes you think. "Faces in the Crowd" is consistently provocative and, considering that most of the pieces were written on journalistic deadlines, extremely well-written.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Faces in the Crowd."

Author: Gary Giddins.

Publisher: Oxford Press.

Length, price: 278 pages, $23.

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