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On Being "Tasteful"

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Gaius46, Dec 8, 2012.

  1. Gaius46


    Dec 15, 2010
    This entry from jazz bassist Ronan Guilfoyle's blog struck a note with me. I couldn't agree more with his sentiments.

    Friday, November 9, 2012, 10:00
    Tasteful? What's in a Word?
    Mostly music
    noreply@blogger.com (Ronan Guilfoyle)

    I just read a review of an album in which the critic described the rhythm section's playing as 'tasteful' I really hate when critics use that description of someone's playing, because to me it denotes several things.

    First of all, when the word tasteful is used to describe the playing of the rhythm section, either individually or collectively, it tells me that the writer probably has no idea what to say about the them, and probably doesn't have enough knowledge of the intricacies of rhythm section playing to venture anything other than this bland phrase. It's a cop-out on the writer's part - a one-size-fits-all phrase to use when you've no idea how to differentiate the playing of one rhythm section player from another. It also implies an under-appreciation of how important the rhythm section is - the kind of writer who will apply the 'tasteful' soubriquet to the rhythm section will usually have written extensively about the soloists in previous paragraphs and then, feeling they have to say something about the rhythm section, will describe their playing as tasteful. It's the same kind of lazy writing that trots out cliches like 'getting up close and personal with......' to describe an interview with someone.

    If the rhythm section have had the good manners not to distract the writer from listening to the soloists, whom (ahem), after all are the most important members of any group, the critic will describe them as tasteful. Which brings me to my second point.

    'Tasteful' can often be freely substituted by the word bland..... The kind of rhythm sections that are described as tasteful often are units that plod along, playing the right changes, keeping the time in an efficient way, doing nothing to frighten the horses. They have no identity and fulfill a function - they don't get in the way. Like good children, they are seen and not heard. Anonymous. In short, they are a terrible rhythm section. A rhythm section should always be adding to the music, not staying out of the way of it. This doesn't meant that they have to be incredibly active all the time in terms of amount of notes played (it depends on the context), but it does mean that whatever they're doing should be vital to the sound of the band, to the energy of the rhythm, to the forward motion of the music. It should be vital, not tasteful.

    If a critic says that a rhythm section is 'tasteful' it usually means one of three things: 1) The critic has no idea about rhythm sections, how they work, or what to say about them. 2) The critic likes his or her rhythm sections to be of the 'seen and not heard/servant of soloists/Bebopper's Labourer kind. Or 3) The rhythm section is crap.

    A final point in this mini-rant. What does 'tasteful' even mean in this context? Does it mean played with good taste? A subjective judgement if ever there was one...... Does it mean polite and well mannered? Or does it mean, appropriate to the music? For my money, the latter is the true definition of tastefulness. If a musician is playing in a way that is apposite to the requirements of the music he or she is being tasteful. Elvin Jones, rampaging through 'Transition' with Coltrane is the epitome of tasteful playing. Ron Carter, rhythmically and harmonically nudging and bossing Miles' band is tastefulness personified. Monk's comping behind Coltrane is an object lesson in good taste. Good taste is about doing the right thing in any musical situation, it is not necessarily only about being polite and self-effacing.

    Poor Bill Evans is always burdened with that cliche by critics who see things in a very simplistic way. Because his music is lyrical and often on the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum, his playing is often thought to be 'tasteful' in the same way that a restaurant pianist's playing could be described as being tasteful. Quiet, not getting in the way, not drawing attention to itself. Well mannered. This does such a disservice to the depth and complexity of Evans' playing. Whenever I see a critic describe Evans' music as tasteful, I just can't take anything else they say seriously. This is a surface listener, a lazy writer, someone who really doesn't have the equipment to talk about the music in any depth.

    If you are a jazz writer, please don't use this vapid cliche when describing someone's playing - do a bit of research instead, listen a little harder, tell us something worth knowing about the music you're describing instead of giving us some bland bromide that fulfills your word count but means nothing.

    In my opinion, describing someone's playing as tasteful is in the worst possible taste..........
  2. It kind of makes you wonder what "tasteless" would be? :confused:
  3. SirMjac28

    SirMjac28 Patiently Waiting For The Next British Invasion

    Aug 25, 2010
    The Great Midwest
    I agree with him.
  4. I see his point, but the world needs *some* way to say "plays well without sticking obtrusively out of the song". If "tasteful" isn't the right word for that concept, what's a good replacement?

  5. LiquidMidnight


    Dec 25, 2000
    I have to disagree with the author. First, it may be true that critics and music writers are using that term because they can't think of any other good adjectives. But honestly, it's difficult to get that phenomenological about what's going on in critics' heads without actually asking them what they mean when they use a term. I think the author may be projecting when he makes that argument.

    Second, I have never seen "tasteful" as being a synonym for bland or unadventurous - quite the opposite actually. I've always seen tasteful as a musical quality that actually takes time and thought to appreciate. Anyone can listen to a soloist ripping some crazy melody at lighting speed and say, "Wow, that's totally awesome." However, the most tasteful players require mature ears to appreciate. I've always considered Christian McBride's playing on Diana Kralls's Love Scenes album as some of the most tasteful bass playing I've ever heard, double-bass, electric bass, or otherwise. There's all kinds of hidden complexity to what he's doing on that record, but none of it is done in a wanky, "look at what I can do!" kind of way. The most tasteful players that I know are also some of the cats with the most chops. They understand the craft of music and how holding back makes the flashy stuff when they pull it out stand out even more. I've always considered "taste" to be one of the signs of an experienced musician. Young drummers and bass players in particular have a tendency to shoot their loads constantly on everything they play. Musicians who have been playing a while often get that out of their systems and then start "playing for the song" as they say. I always figured that my definition of "tasteful" was pretty much the general accepted definition of what that word means with regard to music, but apparently not.

    While I admire players like Billy Sheehan and Adami Nitti, if I could be any bass player in the world, I'd want to be Hutch Hutchinson. :meh:
  6. elgecko


    Apr 30, 2007
    Anasleim, CA
    That's why I use "tasty". It doesn't carry the samme baggage. :p
  7. jmattbassplaya

    jmattbassplaya Supporting Member

    Jan 13, 2008
    Tampa, FL.
    Great thread!

    This line of thinking has recently wormed its way into my psyche over the past several months. I play in an original group myself, and I've recently been thinking of ways to help make our music stand out above all the other groups looking to 'make it'. Talkbass has had a way of making me think that it's really only proper bass playing to stay deep in the pocket and to perform more of a supporting role in my group. This actually isn't a bad direction to take given the amazing chops of my guitarist and energy of my singer (both who have the ability to really steal the show on any given night if they want to).

    That said, it has often left our rhythm section somewhat overlooked. Back when I used to go nuts with my playing I had just as many people come up to me after a show to brandish the rhythm section with compliments; these days, not so much. While there is little doubt that being a pocket player and serving the greater good of the band is a viable option, I can't help but think of bands like Tool, RHCP, Muse, Weather Report, Chic, Bela Fleck, etc... and notice one thing they all have in common (ie. amazingly upfront and prominent bassists/rhythm sections).

    It seems obvious that people genuinely do like the rhythm sections of bands, and they enjoy those that really stand out and add to the music rather than sit back and support the more traditional 'front guys'. I can't help but read this particular article and think that we as rhythm players tend to get lazy, and rather than trying to do something unique and original we take the easy route, label it as the more 'noble' option, and just sit on the root of whatever chord our guitarist might be wanking on while remaining ominous in the shadows of whatever stage we're playing.

    Of course, that's not to say that there's never a time or place to keep things reeled back and in pocket, but, personally, I think I'm going to begin taking my playing to newer, more exciting levels, and hopefully give my own group the edge of having a truly exceptional and standout rhythm section that isn't afraid to be in the spotlight.
  8. I don't agree. It seems that he has a personal negative connotation with the word.
  9. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC
    As is the case with most of Ronan's blog posts this one is quite thought provoking. "Tasteful" is like "nice" in that it doesn't describe anything other than an all too vague potential positive. For a for a professional wordsmith to be using it is a terrible cop-out and insultingly dismissive. Did you mean subtle? Attentive? Understated? Stylistically appropriate unadventurous shyte?
  10. HaMMerHeD


    May 20, 2005
    Norman, OK, USA
    Why not "plays well without sticking obtrusively out of the song"?

    Seems easy enough to understand, no?

    Why people want to assign what they see as clever, educated metaphors to simple concepts is beyond me.
  11. Gaius46


    Dec 15, 2010
    Exactly. It's dismissive. A reviewer might go on for paragraphs about a soloist but the entirety of the review of the rhythm section is reduced to a single, vague word. It's like the thought process is "I have to say SOMETHING so I'll say they're tasteful and move on"
  12. At first I was all, "Yeah!," but now I'm like, "Sour grapes?"
  13. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC
    Sour grapes? What makes you think that?
  14. Clef_de_fa


    Dec 25, 2011
    I always hated the word "Tasteful" to describe what someone do ...

    It is so shallow, empty of any meaning. Most people who seems to like tasteful player like player who are seen and not heard, in the background who only make the wall rumble but you don't hear any tone, you feel it and it is so boring ...

    Tasteful sound like a superstar infront and the rest of the band are only there because it will be silly if the superstar would be alone on the stage.

    I prefer music where every instrument work together to make surprising things.
  15. Kinda wordy. I mean, it depends on the context, but what's wrong with wanting a one-word summary of a fairly common concept that takes eight words to express in detail?

    Hmm, the word "tasteful" doesn't have that baggage for me at all. YMMV and all that.

  16. Anonymatt


    Jan 3, 2009
    Brooklyn, NY
    People say "nice" when they mean "bland". I only trot out "taste" when I say something is "not my taste".

    "Tasteful" is for describing things that might otherwise easily be tasteless.

    "Tasteful" by itself is not a very good descriptor of music unless everybody knows what everybody else is talking about.

    EDIT: Just re-reading my post... TASTE is one of those words that stops making sense once you say it a few times!!
  17. I would certainly take "tasteful" as a compliment; what's this guy's point? I consider Clapton or Gilmour to be tasteful guitar players, in that their phrasing, choice of notes and sense of timing is well-chosen/thoughtful. Seems to me this guy has a bug up his ass about writers not using enough adjectives to describe bass players.
  18. HaMMerHeD


    May 20, 2005
    Norman, OK, USA
    My favorite term for describing music is "musical". Talk about your meaningless adjectives.
  19. Winemule

    Winemule Guest

    Feb 27, 2005
    I'm reminded of Garry Tallent's line: "Nobody knows what I'm doing until I stop doing it."
  20. I hope the worst thing anyone ever says about my bass playing is that it is "tasteful".