The art of the adjective

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There are all kinds of ways to describe music — some combination of metaphor, technical detail, tempo, instrumentation — but there’s probably nothing more helpful, or more difficult to find, than a precise adjective. As someone who writes about music, I’m always struggling to come up with something more helpful to the reader than “wonderful,” “superb,” “excellent” or hackneyed vernacular like “killer” or “smoking.” Not that I’ve never never used those or wouldn’t use them again. (I think I have, however, been able thus far to avoid “mind-bending.”)

So I was cheered to see this from Nate Chinen’s review of the Helen Sung album in the Times:
“….Helen Sung, who trained as a classical pianist before turning to jazz, and has released a decade’s worth of crisp, conscientious and decorous albums.”

Not fancy words, and not even especially specific. But those generalizing accolades are the hardest, and these are suggestive in just the right way.

Chinen goes on to give other details about the content of the album, including the basics about personnel, songs, and composers. And he offers some dandy adjective-verb combinations in his descriptions of the performances of particular pieces:  “buoyant lyricism,”
“scrambling intensity,” “brisk textural intrigue.”

And there’s the now standard x-meets-y comparison, but done especially well: the song “Brother Thelonious” suggests “a Monkish idyll as envisioned by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, sometime in the 1980s.” I’m not exactly sure what he means, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. And if you’ve listened to a lot of ´80s Blakey, you probably know exactly what he means. Or maybe just listening to “Brother Thelonious” would do it.

But it was those opening adjectives that caught my eye and made me curious. They raised expectations in a way that “wonderful,” “excellent,” and “superb” might have dampened them.

You might not agree with Chinen’s assessment of the album. But it’s pretty clear at least what he heard.

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