Monday, November 28. 2005
After seven weeks of rather intense work to come up with my seventh Jazz Consumer Guide column, I'm done. The column will appear in issue #50, which I figure to be the Dec. 14-20 issue. As usual, I wrote 50% more than I needed, so much will be cut back and held over. We'll know what when it runs, but that should be old hat to readers of these posts. The first section here is for new records -- at this point, these are impressions on first spins. The purpose here is rather narrow -- to decide whether a record has a chance of making a column, for which it must either be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. I don't have the time to figure out fine gradations among items that don't seem to be either, so they get short shrift. Brackets indicate that further play is in order, so current notes are tentative. B+ grades are subdivided with 1-3 stars, the more the better. Second section has final grades for records previously put back. These notes have made it significantly easier to sort through the incoming material and, importantly for me, to close out the column. Next time I'll be prospecting for JCG #8.
Lots of reissues in the following. It broke this way mostly because at this point I've decided what goes in and nothing more will fit, and because I have a Recycled Goods just around the corner.
Jackie McLean: Consequence (1965 , Blue Note): McLean made dramatic advances toward the avant-garde during his tenure with Blue Note, but he also cut straight hard bop sessions like this one. One key is the lineup: Lee Morgan, Harold Mabern, Herbie Lewis, Billy Higgins. Another is a first song called "Bluesanova" -- more blues than nova, of course. A minor album in McLean's discography, not released until a housecleaning in 1979. Still, fans of Mabern and Morgan will be pleased. B+(*)
Hank Mobley: Reach Out! (1968 , Blue Note): Something of a straight pop move, with the Four Tops' anthem as the lead song, and the infectious "Goin' Out of My Head" as what would have been the lead of the second side. This is a sextet, with Woddy Shaw sharing the front line, and George Benson's slinky-sweet guitar. On pianist Lamont Johnson's "Beverly" they work up a most pleasing groove. Mobley sounds fine, but the program isn't all that interesting. B
Blue Mitchell: Down With It! (1965 , Blue Note): This is lightweight but otherwise a terrific hard bop set. Al Foster and Gene Taylor keep the pot bubbling, young Chick Corea has some fine stretches on piano, journeyman Junior Cook muscles up on tenor sax, and Mitchell's trumpet is clear and bright. A-
Stanley Turrentine: That's Where It's At (1962 , Blue Note): Mr. T's robust tenor is in full swing, especially when pianist Les McCann picks up the pace, which is most of the time; on the other hand, the ballads drag a bit compared to T's more typical organ-based soul jazz, but not enough to dampen spirits. B+(***)
Elmo Hope: Trio and Quintet (1953-57 , Blue Note): This combines two early 10-inch LPs -- one a trio, the other a quintet with Freeman Lee on trumpet and Frank Foster on tenor sax -- plus three tracks from a later quintet with Stu Williamson and Harold Land. Hope was a fine bebop pianist, best heard on the sparkling trios, but interesting throughout, even when he takes a back seat to Foster's swinging leads. Land, of course, is more boppish, but less compelling. B+(***)
Ike Quebec: The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions (1959-62 , Blue Note, 2CD): A mainstream tenor saxophonist with a large tone and graceful swing, Quebec recorded a bit in the '40s -- his work on Thelonious Monk's early records was almost comically inept, but he had a jukebox hit in "Blue Harlem." After a hiatus -- drugs, the common cold of the bebop era -- he hooked up again with Blue Note in the late '50s, recording a series of blues and ballads albums that framed him well before he died at age 44 in 1963 -- Blue and Sentimental is a good example. Aside from the albums, Quebec cut singles aimed at recapitulating his early jukebox success. The 26 cuts here are all small groups with organ, sometimes guitar and/or bass, and drums. The sidemen are little known and mostly inconspicuous, and he sticks closely to what he does best: blues, simple romps, beautifully articulated ballads. A-
Andrew Hill: Andrew!!! (1964 , Blue Note): Bobby Hutcherson!! John Gilmore! That's roughly the pecking order here, with Richard Davis and Joe Chambers rounding out the quintet. Blue Note founder Alfred Lion recognized in Hill a successor to Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols and recorded him extensively from 1963-70, but the records were erratically released -- this one didn't appear until 1968, many of the later sessions have only appeared recently, and many more are still out of print. After 1970, Hill mostly recorded obscure solo and trio sessions for European labels before returning to the limelight with larger groups since 1999's Dusk (Palmetto). This quintet fits somewhere between his small and large group moves: Hutcherson's vibes reinforce the angularity of Hill's piano, while Gilmore's single horn riffs along, again leaving the piano central. These dynamics make this an exceptional record for focusing on Hill's art. A-
Booker Ervin: Tex Book Tenor (1968 , Blue Note): I doubt that any jazz musician has worked his name into more titles than Ervin: The Book Cooks, The Song Book, The Blues Book, and so on. Lee Konitz, maybe, but Konitz was born three years before Ervin, and continues to work 35 years after Ervin died. Ervin has that big Texas tone, which after years with Mingus he learned to push exceptionally hard. This made him one of the '60s most vigorous tenor saxophonists. This is in many ways a typical hard bop quintet, distinguished by Ervin's fiercely muscular play, but also by two younger players who threaten to steal the show: Woody Shaw and Kenny Barron. B+(***)
Don Cherry: Where Is Brooklyn? (1966 , Blue Note): My favorite jazz format this year has been two horn (one brass, one reed), bass and drums quartets, preferably with heavy hitters like William Parker and Hamid Drake in the back. With no piano or guitar to gum up the works, the horns fly off at odd tangents, so while Gerry Mulligan pioneered the lineup, it took off only with the avant-garde. This long lost record is a prime example: up front is Cherry on cornet and Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax; out back is Henry Grimes on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. While that gives us half of Ornette Coleman's pioneering quartet, Grimes roughs up the rhythm, and Sanders brings on the noise. A-
Pharoah Sanders: Elevation (1973 , Impulse): The 18-minute title piece is a rough retread on "A Love Supreme" -- the constant reference inevitably detracts from its originality. The next two pieces find Sanders without horn -- the pieces are built around Joe Bonner's piano and myriad percussion, the latter a piece of Nigerian juju with Sanders' vocal striving to keep up with Bonner's piano. The last two pieces are rather shapeless, the psychedelic percussion winning out in the end. B-
Yusef Lateef: Psychicemotus (1965 , Impulse): There is something odd about Lateef's world music -- in some ways he's ahead of the times, but in others it feels like he found his exotica in old National Geographics. Here he hops about the globe from flute to bamboo flute, never settling anywhere long enough to get comfortable, neglecting the tenor sax which is his true calling. Pianist George Arvanitas gets the last cut for a solo. He's earned it, but not necessarily here. B
Gato Barbieri: Chapter Four: Alive in New York (1975 , Impulse): Like many live performances, this one picks up speed as it progresses, eventually delivering on its Coltrane to cha-cha-cha promises. Like many live performances, it's also thinner sounding than its studio predecessors. B+(*)
Oliver Nelson's Big Band: Live From Los Angeles (1967 , Impulse): Four trumpets, four trombones, six saxes (counting Nelson on soprano), piano, bass, drums, guitar on two cuts -- your basic big band brass orgy, staffed by west coast stalwarts who checked their cool at the door. Not much of a swingfest, but the brass pyrotechnics are thrilling. B+(***)
Gabor Szabo: Spellbinder (1966 , Impulse): A jazz guitarist from Hungary -- left the country just before the 1956 crackdown -- offers clean metallic picking over the latin beats of Willie Bobo and Victor Pantoja, with Ron Carter and Chico Hamilton steadying the light swing. His deadpan "Bang Bang" vocal works as a novelty. Not certain about how much his folk music background plays into this mild exotica, but he's much affected by the gypsy jazz masters like Django Reinhardt. B+(**)
Albert Ayler: New Grass (1968 , Impulse): This was Ayler's r&b move, heralded as revelation by Ayler himself in the opening "Message From Albert," hated by pretty much everyone else. One thing it's not is a sellout. Pretty Purdie and Bill Folwell may keep strict 4/4 time, but Ayler plays as furiously and as ugly as ever -- the juxtaposition is the most pleasing thing here. On the other hand, it does cede a lot of ground to girlfriend Mary Parks, aka Mary Maria, whose vocals dominate the second side. Another record along these lines, Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, followed before Ayler's untimely and rather mysterious death. I regard this as one of many experiments at the time to form a bridge between avant-jazz and black power street politics. As the '70s wore on, that movement faded into oblivion, but when this was cut it was just gathering steam. B+(*)
Michael White: The Land of Spirit and Light (1973 , Impulse): A violinist, born 1933, recorded quite a bit in the '70s -- five albums on Impulse, two each on Capitol and Elektra -- and hardly at all before or since. This one is his consensus pick -- AMG calls it "a spiritual jazz classic," whatever that means. Impulse in the '60s was best known as John Coltrane's label, but after his death in 1967 the ship steered increasingly toward widow Alice's otherworldly concerns, and this sort of fits. So this is a clash of styles, with White's violin weaving between Bob King's guitar and Prince Lasha's woodwinds and various percussionists, achieving a form of world fusion rooted in no place in particular. It gets most interesting when Cecil McBee's bass picks up the groove and the odds and ends flow together. B+(*)
Steve Kuhn: Trance (1974 , ECM): Credits Sue Evans with percussion, but it's unclear how much of a mark she really makes. Otherwise, this is a piano trio, with Kuhn playing electric as well as acoustic piano, Steve Swallow on electric bass, and Jack DeJohnette. Most pieces are built on top of a light and sprightly rhythm, where the electric bass and piano mesh productively. The acoustic piano pieces are more complex, more labored -- more conventional. B+(**)
Julian Priester Pepo Mtoto: Love, Love (1974 , ECM): A Chicago-born trombonist, Priester has played on over 200 albums from 1954 until health problems recently slowed him down, but has few albums under his own name. He started with Sun Ra and Max Roach, backed Dinah Washington and Ray Charles, worked with Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane in the early '60s, did a short stretch with Duke Ellington at the end of the decade. He's played everything from his hometown blues to avant-garde, including a foray into fusion in the early-'70s with Herbie Hancock. The two LP-side medleys here fuse synths, guitar, bass and percussion into long riddim romps, with smears of trombone adding depth and personality. A-
David Holland/Barre Phillips: Music From Two Basses (1971 , ECM): Just what the title says, with two of the great masters of the postbop era plucking and plying a versatile but difficult instrument. B+(**)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back the first time around. Not a lot of change here, although some inched upwards.
Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2005, Hear Music): This time Downbeat put my Dud of the Month on the cover before I called the shot. In some ways it's unfair: this is not a jazz record by any stretch of the imagination. Hancock has been overrated since 1973 (Headhunters) or maybe even since he left Miles (1968), and hasn't produced an A-list record (that I know of, and I know of a dozen that aren't) since Empyrean Isles in 1964. Of the has-beens and wannabes on the cover -- how much did that cost 'em? -- the worst are back-loaded (Damien Rice & Lisa Hannigan, Raul Midón, Trey Anastasio), but only slightly worse than the mid-section stars (Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, Sting). Jonny Lang & Joss Stone are kinda cute, but Christina Aguilera singing Leon Russell takes has-been wannabe-ism to highly improbable levels. Some facts from the Downbeat article: over 9,200 Starbucks stores, sold over 750,000 copies of Ray Charles Genius Loves Company (out of 5-6 million worldwide, as I recall), with a customer rate over 33 million. The stores are mostly small, the music kiosks smaller. Not sure how many titles they carry -- two dozen seems a stretch. Clearly, the multiple names thing, a variation on the duets thing, means cross-marketing. It's business, and it's probably not the end of music, but it bodes ill anyway. And while I keep wanting to write that it's not awful -- what I really mean is that Hancock's not awful -- it does suck. C
Dianne Reeves: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, Concord): "Music by and inspired by the motion picture," which she had a small part in -- nothing plotwise, just atmosphere. The inspiration expands five songs into fifteen, picking up a broad swath of '50s pop, played not for nostalgia but for context and atmosphere. The decade of American triumphalism was still haunted by ghosts past and present, where the deepest of TV journalism struggled heroically to just barely scratch the surface. I'm still ticked off at the bowdlerized "TV Is the Thing This Year," but even it is good, and "How High the Moon," "Pretend," "Solitude" (maybe the best version I've ever heard), and "One for My Baby" are considerably better than that. Also adore Matt Catingub's tenor sax on the instrumental "When I Fall in Love." Still barely above the cusp. Sometimes I slip an A- album into the Honorable Mentions, and that's what I plan to do here. Partly because I mentioned Reeves in my Mary Stallings piece -- they are similar singers, and I give Stallings the edge for reasons that illuminate the contrast -- and partly because I say what I want to say in the short context. A-
Amina Figarova: September Suite (2005, Munich): Haven't gotten much more out of this. The suite is heartfelt, soberly executed; the musicianship dutiful. She's better at "Numb" and "Emptyness" than "Rage" -- which is good in a human, but not necessarily in an artist. B+(*)
Anders Aarum Trio: Absence in Mind (2002-03 , Jazzaway): Norwegian piano trio. Aarum has shown up on several albums lately, and he always make a good impression. One thing I've learned is that good piano trios are trios: the bass and drums matter in a way that is more/less as important as the piano. They prop each other up, and the successful ones work as a unit. Much of the most effective work here comes with the drummer in the lead -- stretched out, very abstract, exceptionally interesting. The drummer is Thomas Stønen, another name to keep on file. The bassist is Mats Eilertsen -- don't recall him from elsewhere, but he holds up his end as well. B+(***)
Enrico Rava: Tati (2004 , ECM): Ranks about midway in a longish list of the trumpeter's albums over the last two years, all of which are various shades of B+ albums. Tops is Full of Life (CAM Jazz), then La Dolce Vita (with Giovanni Tommaso, also CAM Jazz), Easy Living (ECM), this one, Salvatore Bonafede's Journey to Donnafugata (CAM Jazz). This is the most inauspicious, with pianist Stefano Bollani taking more of a lead role, and Paul Motian dithering what passes for rhythm. Lovely, but very understated. B+(**)
Friday, November 25. 2005
Two fairly major stories have come out of the Middle East in the last week, although it will take a while before the world catches up to their significance. (Meanwhile, we should thank Juan Cole for reporting on them.) One comes from the Cairo national reconciliation conference, attended by major Iraqi political factions looking for support in the Arab world. The other comes from Ariel Sharon.
The key agreement in Cairo was to "demand the withdrawal of foreign forces in accordance with a timetable, and the establishment of a national and immediate program for rebulding the armed forces through drills, preparation and being armed, on a sound basis that will allow it to guard Iraq's borders and to get control of the security situation." In other words, the US forces leave and the Iraqi government, with the support of other Arab governments, is left to clean up the mess. The wording sounds enough like Bush's "we'll stand down as the Iraqis stand up" to be spun as some sort of satisfaction, but the timetable is critical. For one thing, it's possible to manage to a date: dates come around, whereas results are open-ended. The other is that the American occupation itself is the major cause of, as well as a major contributor to, the civil war in Iraq.
If the timetable point wasn't clear enough, a second resolution spells it all out. As Cole writes, "The other surprise of the Cairo conference is that the negotiators accepted the right for Iraqi groups to mount an armed resistance against the foreign troops." In other words, the timetable doesn't depend on any weakening of the resistance, since the resistance is legitimate -- against the US, anyway; attacks on Iraqi non-combatants were condemned. The timetable only depends on the strengthening of Iraq's own army, which provides leverage for negotiation after the foreign forces -- that's the US and the "coalition of the willing" -- leave.
This is one more step toward the inevitable conclusion of the war: the more/less democratic government of Iraq tells the US to get out because it recognizes that the US causes much more trouble than it's worth. The Bush regime has done its best to forestall that day. It hasn't happened yet for a number of reasons, but those reasons are running out, while the civil war toll piles up. The tipping point is probably shortly after the December elections, which most likely will install a more legitimate government that shifts slightly against the US -- more SCIRI, more Sadrists, more Sunnis, no Chalabi. Meanwhile, US will is weakening: the military has been drawing up its own redeployment plans, Murtha has floated his more radical plan, and Bush's polls are in the toilet.
The irony, of course, is that Bush and the hawks still control the effective political debate on the war here, where they are relatively isolated from reality and well clothed in rhetoric. Even with Murtha's position -- which is not by any means a real peace stance -- the Democrats are mortgaged so deeply in Iraq and the broader war on terrorism fantasy they can't see their way clear. But while no opposition in the US has the clout to force Bush to withdraw, the real meaning of the sinking polls is that when all is said and done most Americans will never forgive him for bringing this disaster upon us. Even rhetoric-wise he can't sustain the war once his sovereign Iraqis tell him to get out. The news from the Cairo conference is that exit is on the way, just a short timetable away.
The news from Israel is harder to forecast. Sharon's resignation from the Likud is the other shoe falling. The first shoe dropped when the Likud rejected Sharon's Gaza disengagement, leading to a series of Likudnik resignations from Sharon's government. In the interrim the Labor party had shored up Sharon's flank, but once the disengagement became history Labor broke ranks, leaving Sharon floating with neither left nor right to prop him up. Opposed by both left and right, the common analysis is that Sharon has now become a centrist. I don't buy that, but it is tempting to add Sharon to the list of Israeli expansionists who too late in their careers came to see expansion as fruitless -- David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan are the prime examples, and it's also tempting to point out that any spectrum with Sharon at its center is way beyond redemption. But Sharon's real problem has nothing to do with his ideology -- it's that Sharon's been advancing a real (and despicable) solution to real problems, within real limits mostly imposed by Israel's dependence on the US. By contrast, Likud lives in the fantasy world of political rhetoric, where Israel is omnipotent, and any concession to reality smacks of defeatism.
While early polls favor Sharon, especially over Likud, this seems unlikely to hold. Sharon's appeal to Israel isn't as a moderate -- even less as "a man of peace," as Bush notoriously described him. (It takes none to know nothing.) As he titled his autobiography, Sharon's a Warrior, which was exactly what Israel was in the mood for following the Barak-Clinton con job that killed Oslo and ignited intifada in 2000. But five years later the thrill of wrecking Arafat's compound and crushing the Palestinian Authority has left the PA with more international support than ever -- not least of all in the Bush White House. Meanwhile, the Warrior withdrew from Gaza and hides behind his Great Wall through the West Bank, pursuing a Final Solution that neither left nor right nor few in between much care for, that the Americans don't understand -- thereby forcing unplanned revisions, like having to open the Rafah border to Egypt -- and much of the rest of the world recognizes as criminal. That his balancing act is faltering should be less surprising than that he ever got away with it in the first place.
But it seems unlikely that his polls will hold up. History in American elections suggests that when a charismatic centrist candidate runs against his own party he starts fast and comes up short. The obvious analogue is Teddy Roosevelt, who split the dominant Republican party in 1912 running against incumbent President Taft and wound up losing badly to Woodrow Wilson. Like Roosevelt, Sharon becomes fair game for snipers on both sides, and the party machinery in Israel is at least as heavily armed and deeply committed to self-preservation as the old-time US parties. Moreover, Sharon's a pretty big target -- his egotism may merely be on a par with Roosevelt's, but he's long been dogged by corruption charges which have already started to resurface. Where the analogy breaks down is that Israel doesn't have a two-party system, so the elections are less likely to tip than to dissolved into an indecisive mess.
That's why the forecast is so unclear. Richard Ben Cramer has argued that the reason Israel has continued the occupation and its attendant strugles is that it's the only thing that holds the country together. The best proof of this is that Sharon has been able to rule as a consensus leader. But that consensus is cracked now, and it's unlikely to ever be put back together again. It's easy to see some of the reasons: Arafat's dead; the Israel-loving neocons in Washington got their lunch eaten in Iraq; and Sharon broke with the fanatics over Gaza. These things don't add up to peace, let alone justice, but they do give one reason to hope at least that Sharon's plan to turn Israel into an impregnable and vindictive fortress state will fail. Peace and justice aren't even hopes unless it does fail.
Monday, November 21. 2005
This is the sixth week's log of Jazz Consumer Guide prospecting. Finally got to the bottom of the new pile. Not all that interested in the old music pile given how much new music there is to report on, and given that I can always shunt the old music off to Recycled Goods, but some will start appearing here. Following will be final grades/notes on albums I had put back first time. Any grades in brackets are tentative. B+ grades are broken down by 1-3 stars. Three stars mean a probable Honorable Mention; two stars maybe; one star is a good record I'm pretty much done with because I'm never going to have Jazz CG space to note them all. That's too bad, but anyone seriously interested can dig the notes out here. Should have the column finished by next week -- deadline is December 1, to run mid-December. Gettin' there.
KTU: 8 Armed Monkey (2004 , Thirsty Ear): K is for Kluster -- Kimmo Pohjonen on accordion and voice, Samuli Kosminen manipulating samples thereof. TU is another duo, formed by Trey Gunn on guitar and Pat Mastelotto on "rhythmic devices." Gunn and Mastelotto also have late King Crimson on their resumes, plus a good deal more. Not part of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, where the jazz credentials are stronger. Somewhere on the edge betwen jazz and rock and electronica, the vocal samples have no great import, the beat is fierce. B+(**)
Mixed Media Series: Basquiat Salutes Jazz (1948-74 , Prestige): A Concord publicist called me up shortly after this dropped to get my reaction -- seems like they're envisioning a series of painter-themed jazz comps. Conceptually I think it's a crock, but I rather admire their dilligence, and respect their desperation, in trying to come up with new ways to market old jazz. My painter literacy pretty much ends around 1970. The only reason I've heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) is because he was the subject of a movie -- which I haven't seen, so I appreciate the lavish artwork and packaging all the more. He strikes me as a cross between Robert Rauschenberg's structure and Larry Rivers' color, but I suspect the artwork shows here is selected largely based on his jazz references. No real surprise when painters are found to be jazz fans. When Basquiat died of heroin overdose -- what Greil Marcus has called "the common cold of rock death" -- he left behind some three thousand "mostly jazz" LPs. It's possible that Concord's mapping of Basquiat's collection to Fantasy's catalog distorts the painter's interests, but the curious thing about the mapping is that every song save one dates back before Basquiat outgrew diapers. (The exception isn't: it's a 1974 Dizzy Gillespie recording of "Be Bop," the song that gave the music its name. The reason, of course, is that Fantasy didn't own an earlier version.) In other words, once you get past the packaging, what you get is a typical bebop comp. And while there's some pretty classic stuff here -- a 1950 Sonny Stitt "Cherokee," a marvelous Monk "'Round Midnight," vintage Fats Navarro -- there's also things you can nitpick -- an inferior live Mingus "Haitian Fight Song," live Bird including a slice from that horrid St. Nick's bootleg. Part of the problem here is that Fantasy's bebop catalog isn't all that classic -- especially regarding Parker and Gillespie. On the other hand, tying Basquiat to Bird strikes me as necrophilia. Maybe it was true, but after Bird died most of the other famous junkies cleaned up and went on to notable careers -- Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, McLean, Getz, eventually even Art Pepper (sort of). If Basquiat was locked into that culture, it doesn't seem like much to celebrate. Ornette Coleman could have saved his pitiful life. B+(**)
Mark Whitecage & the Bi-Coastal Orchestra: BushWacked: A Spoken Opera (2005, Acoustics): When I requested this, Rozanne Levine wrote back, "judging by your blog I think you will dig this CD." Sure, I'm a soft touch when it comes to Bush bashing. But what impresses me isn't the quality of analysis -- the spoken parts come from "The Nation, Harper's, The Progressive Populist, and a few others not afraid to speak Truth to Power"; in other words, sources that are easy to find and reveal little you don't know already -- but the music. The east coast part of the Bi-Coastal Orchestra is Whitecage and Levine (alto sax and clarinets), from Boonton NJ, for many years the northern terminus of I-287. The west coast part are three musicians from Portland OR: Scott Steele (guitar), Bill Larimer (piano), and Robert Mahaffay (drums). The spoken parts aren't credited except for Larimer on "Who's the War For?": words by the late Jeanne Lee, who added them to a 1990 Whitecage piece, then titled "BushWacked" -- yes, we've been down this cul de sac before. The music is wide-ranging, discordant, tough. In "0 for 5000" -- the reference is to the conviction rate of Ashcroft's "terrorist" detainees -- Larimer starts with harsh block chords, then slips into a little boogie woogie, then deconstructs that. In "Follow the Money," Steele's guitar provides a coarse steel backdrop for Whitecage's alto sax. Whitecage and Levine build up a powerful polyphony on "Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me." Mingus used to figure the least he could do was to put his message across in his titles, like "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" and "Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi U.S.A." But the words do too add something to this fresh, compelling music, and one thought I'm taking home here is from "Jesus": "the fairness doctrine would spell the end of Christian radio as we know it." [A-]
James Brown: Gettin' Down to It (1968-69 , Verve): Like the slightly later Soul on Top, this is a big band album of Brown singing and grunting his way through standards. I was blown away by the later album, judging it on par with another soul singer who scored with big band workouts of standards: Ray Charles. But this record reminds us that such magic depends not only on the singer and the band, but also on the song. Soul on Top's songs were solid: "That's My Desire," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "It's Magic," "September Song," "For Once in My Life," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," like that, plus two of his own signatures. But the songs on this album fit so poorly that one wonders whether they weren't done tongue-in-cheek: "Sunny," "That's Life," "Strangers in the Night," "Willow Weep for Me." That's just the first four; after he gives us a break with "Cold Sweat," he dives back into his Sinatra records -- "Chicago," "For Sentimental Reasons," "Time After Time," "All the Way," "It Had to Be You." First time through, this seemed like a sure shot for the Duds list. Now I'm not so sure: play it enough and even corn like this turns sweet. B
Susie Arioli Band Featuring Jordan Officer: Learn to Smile Again (2005, Justin Time): She's an interpretive singer with no particular stylistic affinities -- AMG lists her styles as: blues, western swing, swing, mainstream jazz, standards. This album, her fourth, is built around six Roger Miller songs -- not the ones you know, just sad little gems: "Less and Less," "Husbands and Wives," "Half a Mind," "A Million Years or So," "A World I Can't Live In," "Don't We All Have the Right." Officer accompanies her on guitar, a simple but elegant foil, emphasized in two instrumentals. Other people appear in the credits, but they work modestly in the background. Don't know her other albums, which presumably swing harder. This one mostly lilts, touchingly with Miller, majestically on Naomi Neville's "Ruler of My Heart" (a big hit for Irma Thomas). B+(**)
The Heckler by Juan Pablo Balcazar Quartet: Heckler City (2005, Fresh Sound New Talent): Another confusing attribution -- could be read several ways, but Balcazar is key: plays bass, wrote all the pieces. The quartet fleshes out with tenor sax, guitar and drums. The guitarist, Alejandro Mingot, fleshes out the melody and keeps the music on the sweet side, a bias that helps saxophonist Miguel Villar "Pintxo" sound more like Lester Young than he might otherwise. Overall, this feels composed, rather tightly controlled by a bass line that isn't conspicuous except for the ordering. The premium then is on atmosphere. An extra saxophone joins in on the final cut, cruising deep into the night. Impressive work, even if I don't know what it means. [B+(***)]
Zucchero & Co. (1988-2003 , Concord/Hear Music): Silly me. I had filed this in my jazz prospects list because that's my first guess for unfamiliar artists on jazz labels, but this isn't jazz, nothing close. And, following AMG, I had filed the listing under Latin, but Zucchero, né Adelmo Fornaciari, comes from Italy, which may claim on a technicality, but I won't sustain it. In any case, he mostly sings in English, and the few possible Latin songs are mucked up beyond classification. I also figured this as new, but he starts off singing with a dead guy. Depending on how you read the booklet, the dates are 2001-04 or 1988-2003, with the latter most plausible, given that it intersects with Miles Davis' lifespan. About the only thing I got right was to leave it on the shelf 4-5 months before playing it. Don't expect to ever play it again, either. C-
David Murray 4tet & Strings: Waltz Again (2002 , Justin Time): The rate of Murray releases has slowed down since the late '80s when he could knock out three or four brilliant ones in a couple of days, but part of that is because the scope of his ambitions has grown. He's worked with large groups based in Guadeloupe and Senegal. He's fronted a huge Latin Big Band. Here he engages a large string section with his 26-minute "Pushkin Suite #1," followed by four more pieces in the 10-minute range. My first reaction was that Murray is as brilliant as ever, the quartet is fine, and the strings come from the nether reaches of hell. The latter are largely contained in the smaller pieces, but dominate the suite. They are less succinctly modernist than the strings in Stan Getz' Focus -- that is, there modernism is more evocative of late classical music (Stravinsky, perhaps) than the more abstract modernism that followed. (The booklet describes Pushkin as "the iconic Russian writer of African descent." More details from Wikipedia: "his mother's grandfather was Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, an African (possibly from Ethiopia or Chad) who was abducted when he was a child and ended up in Russia and became a great military leader, engineer and nobleman after his adoption by Peter the Great." Further details under Gannibal's entry, a fascinating story.) The strings tend to merge more into the background on the other pieces, and they can, at times, be appealing. My reactions started to warm a bit on the third play, and it's possible this will move into B+ territory, much as his own commanding presence finally overcame my reservations and pushed Octet Plays Trane and Now Is Another Time into A- land. Still, for me the best album he's done in the last 6-8 years was the simplest, the quartet Like a Kiss That Never Ends. Would love to hear this quartet -- Lafayette Gilchrist, Jaribu Shahid, and Hamid Drake -- without all the muck. Francis Davis has promised a piece in the Voice on this one. Won't do anything rash until I hear (and read) further. [B-]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back the first time around. Not a lot of change here, although some inched upwards.
Herb Geller/Rein de Graaf: Delightful Duets 2 (2002 , Blue Jack Jazz): One of the senior statesmen of west coast cool squares off with a fine Dutch pianist. Delightful? Of course. Fairly predictable fare, too: "Lady Be Good," "Melancholy Baby," "Ornithology," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "Perdido," "Embraceable You," "Cheryl," "Cherokee." Nothing wrong with that, not to mention nothing earthshaking. B+(**)
The Onus: Triphony (2003 , Hipnotic): Darryl Harper's clarinet trio has grown on me. First I thought it sounded terrific, then overly long, but with patience I am struck by its pace, its moderation, its maturity. He searches but doesn't rush. B+(***)
Cedar Walton: Underground Memoirs (2005, High Note): Solo piano, one original, the rest standard jazz pieces from the generation Walton grew up to. I'm duly impressed, but it's hard for me to get much excited by solo piano. I suspect I'm selling him short, but this has plateaued for me. B+(**)
Sonido Isleño: ¡Vive Jazz! (2005, Tresero): Regardless of how many people play here, the leader is guitarist Benjamin Lapidus, and he cuts an interesting figure. It would take some much more expert than I to disentangle the various Latin strains here, but Afro-Cuban percussion seems to be the dominant one -- albeit somewhat subdued. The grooves are more compelling than the vocals, but the spoken one offsets nicely against the riddims. B+(***)
George Colligan's Mad Science: Realization (2004 , Sirocco Music): Like Uri Caine's Bedrock, this is a trio with guitar-drums led by a first rate pianist on electric keybs. Still, it's more retro. Colligan plays more organ than synth, and Rodney Holmes sticks with his drumkit instead of beat machines. That leaves Tom Guarna in the role of Grant Green -- he doesn't have Green's lyrical touch, but gets the job done. B+(***)
Groundtruther: Longitude (2004 , Thirsty Ear): Still not as consistent as I'd like, but this is a pretty impressive showcase for Charlie Hunter's guitar fusion. Bobby Previte is the other hand of Groundtruther, a fine drummer well suited for this kind of music. As with their previous album, this one has a guest star. DJ Logic inserts some turntable twists, but they complement rather than compete with the lead. B+(***)
Michaël Attias: Renku (2005, Playscape): With John Hebert and Satoshi Takeishi, who more than hold up their end of this studiously avant sax trio. Attias plays soprano, alto and baritone -- the latter, perhaps because it's relatively rare, or perhaps because it weighs so much more, makes for the most interesting parts. Perhaps the variety loosens the focus, but loose and open-ended is the idea. B+(**)
Loren Stillman: It Could Be Anything (2005, Fresh Sound New Talent): Young alto saxist, started mainstream, but he's quickly developing into a distinctive, inventive stylist, and this piano-bass-drums quartet has some zip to it. Not inconceivable that he could develop into a major player, and if he does this one will be viewed as a stepping stone. But for now he's skilled, sure footed, and working in a niche overloaded with competitive talent. B+(**)
Mat Maneri: Pentagon (2004 , Thirsty Ear): I could push this back forever, but it's never gonna get far enough over the B+ threshold to make a publishable HM list, nor is it likely to sink far enough to make the Duds list -- best shot might be for "Howl in My Head/Motherless Child," with its oddly misplaced vocal, as a Choice Cut. The random walk down "An Angel Passes By" is also appealing, also in odd ways. As is the weepy, skewed "America" (as in "the beautiful"). The rest sounds more like Industrial than anything else, a fusion move I haven't seen anyone else tackle, but I'm not sure that's the point. Not sure what the point is. B
Gerry Hemingway Quintet: Double Blues Crossing (2002 , Between the Lines): Whereas Hemingway's Quartet on The Whimbler hums along with a steady beat and playful expression from the two horns, this one is darker in mood, lighter in sound, and stranger in the mix. The two horns are pitched farther apart, with Frank Gratkowski on clarinets and alto sax and Walter Wierbos on trombone. Kermit Driscoll has less pulse at bass, even though, like Mark Helias, he plays both acoustic and electric. The fifth instrument here is Amit Sen's cello, an unusual choice. The songs, especially five-part title suite, tend to come apart in spacious abstraction, but they don't all stay there, and several patches cook furiously. B+(**)
Friday, November 18. 2005
Here's the dumbest thing I've read in a US newspaper in God knows how long. It's a Knight-Ridder piece by Leila Fadel and Mohammed Al Dulaimy that appeared in the Wichita Eagle yesterday. It's not so much the piece itself, which is bad enough, but the headline -- "U.S. gains ground with Sunnis" -- and lede: "With the discovery of 173 secretly jailed men, the Sunni minority is more positive about December elections." OK, explain this to me: The U.S. attacks your country in 1991, destroying much civilian infrastructure, then imposes economic sanctions reducing one of the better off countries in the third world -- at least if you're Sunni, which is who we're talking about here -- to one of the poorest; then after twelve years of this, the U.S. invades and occupies the country, which in turn collapses into chaos, rampant criminality, and a rebellion that attracts all manner of foreign jihadi terrorists; the U.S. tries to suppress the rebellion and terror by detaining thousands of young Sunnis, torturing many in Abu Ghraib, and destroying whole cities like Fallujah; the U.S. installs a government dominated by the old regime's Shia and Kurdish victims, who in turn detain and torture Sunnis; and now the U.S. uncovers one of its clients' torture chambers, so now we're the savior of the Sunnis?
Here's what the writers say:
Further down, the article continues:
Bazzaz is certainly right that this tarnishes the Shia-dominated Jaafari government, who no doubt see such tactics as fair turnaround for what Saddam Hussein's regime did. Beyond that, the quotes and the article smell more like jiving massa. Reminds me of the first days after Baghdad fell when all those grateful Iraqis promised to name their next sons after George Bush. Hope none of them actually did, because these days a boy would be better off named Sue.
Today's paper had a piece called "Experts, military differ over when to leave Iraq." This was mostly about Murtha, whose call for immediate withdrawal appears to have been taken as the military position. (He was identified as "a hawkish Marine Corps veteran" and "a Vietnam veteran"; the only other "expert" identified as military was former NSC director, Lt. Gen. William Odom, who's been calling for withdrawal almost from day one.) The "expert" who insists on sticking it out is Andrew Krepinevich, who said, "What began as a war of choice has now become a war of necessity." Also:
Somewhere in the Green Zone, Saddam Hussein must be waving his hands frantically, yelling, "Hey! Me! Pick me!"
Meanwhile, the Americans admitted using phosphorus shells in last fall's siege of Fallujah -- presumably the model test case for Krepinevich's strategy. But then as soon as the siege began revolts erupted in other cities, like Mosul. And Fallujah remained secure only as long as it was unpopulated. Fallujah had maybe 5% of the Sunni population in Iraq. The prospects of scaling that approach up to cover the whole country are nil. For an indication why, see the other short articles on the same page: "Army nixes plan to call up inactive soldiers" and "Military falls far short in recruiting, re-enlisting."
Thursday, November 17. 2005
I heard some of Rep. John Murtha's press conference today. Murtha is an ex-Marine, ranking Democrat on the House Defense Committee, and has a pro-military record second to none. If he's ever opposed a US war I must have blinked, but he's sure fed up with this one. Talked a lot about severely disabled US soldiers coming back from Iraq. Says that the US military has done all they can do there -- resolved the WMD questions, deposed Saddam Hussein -- but that the US has no business taking sides in a civil war there, and that staying there just makes us targets for no good reason. Demanded immediate exit, by which he meant as quickly as could be safely done -- could take six months, but it's not a position that allows anyone to twiddle their thumbs for six months before making up their minds. He has some scheme that would position Marines to go quickly back in to attack a terrorist base if that becomes necessary. Perhaps the most impressive thing he said was in response to a question -- wish I had a transcript here, but I don't, so I'm paraphrasing: how do you respond to the troops who say they want to stay in Iraq to complete their mission? His answer: of course they say that, they will always defend their mission and their comrades, they can't say otherwise; so that's why we [Congress, or maybe just people like Murtha] have to speak for them. Given his speech -- the many details of disabled veterans, his reading between the lines when he speaks to the military in Iraq (and don't for a moment doubt that he has extensive connections there) -- it seems likely that he's as close as we're ever going to get to an honest report from the front lines.
The thing about career hawks like Murtha is that they don't turn easily but they're consistent when they do. John Kerry made another mealy-mouthed statement on Iraq today, reinforcing his stance as America's most passive-aggressive hawk-dove -- a position like the ones Murtha curtly dismissed as pure rhetoric today.
Monday, November 14. 2005
This is the fourth week's log of Jazz Consumer Guide prospecting. These aren't all first spins, but increasingly so. I've gotten pretty far through the stack of new jazz records, but haven't paid much attention to old ones. Grades in brackets are tentative. Three-star B+ grades are probable Honorable Mentions; two-stars maybes. Duds start at B- (unless they win a Grammy). This is the end of the big catch-up push: don't think I have more than ten new jazz records left on the shelf, and that includes several Xmas-themed things that I have no interest in. New this week, toward the end, are final notes on records that I put back for further play. Don't know whether it makes sense to keep doing this weekly. I suppose doing so might be useful, and would help me keep up to date.
Alex Bugnon: Free (2005, Narada): Bugnon plays a happy piano, and the snappy beat of the title cut and a few more is down right infectious. However, this slips a notch on occasion when the electronics of his sidekick Phil Davis get the upper hand. Then it merely sounds like what it's spozed to: smooth jazz, just a knick better than average. B
Susan Tedeschi: Hope and Desire (2005, Verve Forecast): She's a blues singer, one of a flock of white girls to find a niche there since the early '90s. She used to have something of a rep as a guitarist too, but the guitar credits here are all in the capable hands of Doyle Bramhall and Derek Trucks. She used to sing blues songs too, but Jagger-Richards, Dylan, Redding, DeMent, Stevie Wonder, even Percy Mayfield and Dorsey Burnette are at least one step removed. Joe Henry produced. One suspects he had something to do with the song choices, and most everything else. She's a strong but indistinct singer. Which adds up to an intelligent but pointless roots rock album. Not much of a stretch, either for Henry or Tedeschi. B-
Luciana Souza: Duos II (2005, Sunnyside): Brazilian songs, just voice and guitar, the latter divvied up between four guitarists. In many ways this is the core of Brazilian jazz, but it's so stripped down it's hard to find the groove. Which probably isn't the point. I doubt that I'll really warm up to this, but another listen is advisable. [B]
Soulive: Break Out (2004 , Concord): The core group is brothers Neal and Alan Evans, keyboards and drums respectively, and guitarist Eric Krasno. File them under "acid jazz," which seems to be the generic term for the funky side of smooth jazz. But the core just provides the pulse: add horns and vocalists -- Ivan Neville, Chaka Khan, Reggie Watts, Corey Glover -- and, what the hell, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph. The result is not-quite-contemporary r&b turned inside-out. The "not-quite" is because the funk sounds leftover from the post-disco '80s rut. The "inside-out" is because the interchangeable vocals are just piecework, meant to accentuate the riffs, as opposed to the normal practice of getting the anonymous studio musicians to puff up the singers. I thought this sounded wretched the first time through, but can't recover that thread now. What I hear now is competent but unpersonable. C+
Herb Geller/Rein de Graaff: Delightful Duets 2 (2002 , Blue Jack Jazz): No great surprises here. Geller sounds fine, working through standards he's no doubt played many times. De Graaff complements nicely on piano. Delightful, for sure. Will keep it around to see whether anything more emerges. [B+(**)]
Lee Konitz: Jonquil (2003 , Blue Jack Jazz): "Have sax, will travel" could be Konitz' motto. He is a brilliant alto saxophonist, absolutely unique, continuing to work in whatever configuration will have him more than fifty years after he first emerged in the Miles Davis "birth of the cool" nonet and weaned himself from Lennie Tristano's tutelage. This particular outing finds him working with two combined groups: the Marco Kegel/Axel Hagen Quartet and the Gustav Klimt String-Quartet. The strings fill the background unmemorably, but Hagen's guitar stands out, providing much of the shape and feel of the pieces. Kegel plays flute, alto and tenor sax, but I suspect his main job here is to make way for the master. Konitz repays the deference whenever he come to the fore with tightly reasoned eloquence. The excess, even the strings, doesn't do any real damage, but makes one wonder what a tighter group organized around Hagen and Konitz might do. I only rarely manage to get hold of recent Konitz records, so the chance to hear him play like this is always a treat, but frequently one winds up wondering whether there aren't even better examples out there somewhere. B+(**)
Red Rodney/Herman Schoonderwalt Quintet: Scrapple From the Apple (1975 , Blue Jack Jazz): A live radio shot from 1975, with Charlie Parker's trumpeter "Albino Red" joining a Dutch quartet led by reedist Schoonderwalt. The program leans on Parker's songbook, with long pieces and generous solos. Aside from Red, pianist Nico Bunink is most impressive. Terrific lead-off "On Green Dolphin Street," but very solid throughout. B+(***)
Slide Hampton Meets Two Tenor Case: Callitwhachawana (2002 , Blue Jack Jazz): The two tenor saxists are Sjoerd Dukhuizen and Simon Rigter -- don't mean anything to me, nor have I heard of the rest of the Dutch band. This is a set recorded live at the Pannonica jazz club in the Hague. Hampton is best known for his big band arrangements, but this is basic bebop, lingua franca for jazz musicians everywhere. Fine stuff -- especially nice to hear Hampton let it all hang out. B+(**)
Joe Locke: Rev-elation (2005, Sharp Nine): Front cover attributes this to Joe Locke and the Milt Jackson Tribute Band, and names the rest of the group: Mike LeDonne, Bob Cranshaw, Mickey Roker. Spine just lists Locke. Booklet explains that the "driving force" behind the band was ex-Jackson pianist LeDonne. AMG only lists one Jackson album that LeDonne appeared on: 1997's Sa Va Bella, one of the vibes master's last -- although the Penguin Guide says that LeDonne played with Jackson "for many years." The booklet says that LeDonne, Cranshaw and Roker played with Jackson for a decade. In any case, this is LeDonne's second Jackson tribute, following 2001's Bags Groove, on Double-Time, with Steve Nelson working the mallets, along with Cranshaw, Roker, and four horn players. The list of eight songs includes one by Jackson, LeDonne, and Locke, plus five covers that no doubt showed up somewhere on Jackson's hundred-plus albums, including one by Ray Brown called "Used to Be Jackson." I'm beating around the bush here because I don't quite get the point. My ear isn't sharp enough to readily pick out differences between vibraphonists, but two things stick in my mind about Jackson: one was that the main thing that he brought to his own records was his effervescent swing, which was one thing that made his records with Basie so memorable; the other was his ability to accentuate the rhythmic sense of his pianists, starting with his amazing work with Monk. I don't feel either of those senses here, although Locke has done similar things with more modern pianists, like Kenny Barron. Of course, shorn of its concept, this is a fine sounding, if somewhat backward looking, piano-vibes quartet album. B+(*)
Wayne Shorter Quartet: Beyond the Sound Barrier (2004-04 , Verve): The booklet just gives an 18 month range for the dates, citing three continents, so these were carefully picked performances. Shorter's main work came from 1959-68, in a series of solo albums and perhaps more importantly in his work with two of the most important groups of the period: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet. After that he played in Weather Report, a fusion band I've never cared for, and cut a few indifferent solo albums. But since 2001 he's enjoyed a major comeback, winning polls and much acclaim. I've long been skeptical, late to recognize how vital his contribution was especially to some of Blakey's finest albums, only slowly warming to his early Blue Note albums, softening but never reversing my disdain for Weather Report. But I found it hard to quibble over Footprints Live!, his hugely acclaimed 2002 album. And I find this one, with the same group a year or two further down the line, even more impressive. The group is key, of course, especially Danilo Perez, a Monk-inspired pianist who has never sounded so vibrant and risky on his own records. But the biggest surprise for me has been how much soprano sax Shorter plays here, and how distinct it is. That strips away yet another illusion I had, my belief that Shorter is indeed a fine tenor saxist but vastly overrated on the soprano. On the other hand, these pieces have been carefully culled from 18 months of performances. A-
Mario Adnet & Zé Nogueira Present Moacir Santos: Choros & Alegria (2005, Adventure Music): Pushing 80, Santos is a legendary arranger and saxophonist in Brazil. But he only appears here with a few vocals, by far the least appealing aspect of an album of subtly orchestrated pieces based on Santos arrangements dating as far back as 1942. Much of this is very appealing. B+(**)
Mingus Big Band/Orchestra/Dynasty: I Am Three (2004 , Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside): The three Mingus legacy groups are similar instrumentally, all heavy with brass. The seven piece Dynasty is the most conventional, with piano-bass-drums for rhythm, two brass, two winds. The ten piece Orchestra has guitar instead of piano, and more exotic horns (french horn, bass clarinet, bassoon). The Big Band is a scaled up version of Dynasty. Sue Mingus continues to ride herd, and brought them all together for her latest label. The songbook, of course, is magnificent, with "Wednesday Prayer Meeting" and "Tensions" especially resplendent with all the power. Still, after nearly a dozen such albums, one has to start wondering why bother. Mingus wrote many compositions with big band in the back of his mind -- that's no doubt why they scale so readily -- but his own groups were most often medium-sized combos, 4-6 pieces, which he then whipped up to big band volume through sheer will power (not to mention the omnipresent threat of violence). What's always been lacking in the Mingus legacy bands is the leader's mad temper. Sure, it must be fun to play Mingus. And sure, the songs deserve to be aired out. But isn't there something else one can do with them? B+(*)
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Don't Be Afraid . . . The Music of Charles Mingus (2003 , Palmetto): Gee, and to think I thought Sue was draining the life out of the Mingus corpus. The only thing that keeps this off the Duds list is the unorthodox song selection, plus my admiration for the great man's wondrous music. But then if I put it back and play it again I may overcome my reservations. It's worth noting that there are only two viable models for big band jazz these days: one is when some institution lays some money out; the other is when a ragtag bunch of musicians get together to indulge one of their own's fantasies as an arranger. Both approaches have their successes and failures, but Lincoln Center's investments have yielded very little. One big problem with institutional jazz is that it's relatively vulnerable to political scams. [B]
Marty Ehrlich: News on the Rail (2005, Palmetto): I don't have a good feel for this one yet, in part because the multiple sound approaches don't quite cohere. Six piece group, three horns plus piano-bass-drums. The horns shift -- Ehrlich between alto sax and clarinet; James Zollar between trumpet and flugelhorn; Howard Johnson between tuba, baritone sax and bass clarinet. The clarinet line-up on "Light in the Morning" is loose and spacious, quite appealing, but the brass-heavy "Enough Enough" is too much already. Some good stuff here, but I doubt that it's going to win out. [B+(*)]
Mark Dresser: Unveil (2003-04 , Clean Feed): Solo bass, always a difficult proposal, since it often boils down to stupid bass tricks. Just beginning to get my bearings here, but some passages have strong rhythmic appeal. [B+(*)]
Arthur Kell Quartet: Traveller (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Kell is a New York bassist, composer of all the pieces here. The group is an interesting mix, with Steve Cardenas on guitar, Gorka Benitez on tenor sax and flute, and Joe Smith on drums. Benitez is an appealing postmodern saxist, and his flute has some redeeming merit. Cardenas is probably the key, his guitar most active in shaping the tunes. Typical of Fresh Sound's new talent -- with Kell's first album here all four have albums on the label; perhaps slightly better than typical. I'll let this one simmer. [B+(**)]
MI3: We Will Make a Home for You (2002-03 , Clean Feed): Three musicians from the Boston end of the Vandermark connection, holding court without the reedist. Not a piano trio either, as Pandelis Karayorgis plays Fender Rhodes this time, assuming a range from chintzy electric piano to something more guitar-like. With Karayorgis going electric, bassist Nate McBride sticks to acoustic, mixed up loud enough to assume a major role. Curt Newton drums. The program is mostly Monk, and these guys wear "Ugly Beauty" on their sleeves. Avant-fusion, hooray. B+(***)
In the Country: This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat (2004 , Rune Grammofon): Piano trio from Norway, with Morten Qvenild on piano, Roger Arntzen on bass, and Pål Hausken on drums, slipping in some extra keybs and percussion here and there. Starts deliberate, the sort of slow free thing ECM likes, but roughens up the edges a bit, adding some noise. B+(**)
Kjeril Møster/Per Zanussi/Kjell Nordeson: MZN3 (2005, Jazzaway): Deciphering the artist and title isn't easy, but this makes more sense than the cover does. The booklet says that this was reorded "April 26 & 27" but doesn't specify what year. The band is from Norway. No one I've heard of before other than executive producer Jon Klette, who runs the label. But this seems to be typical, both of Norway and Scandinavia in general: aggressive free improv with hard, rockish beats. Møster's credit is just "saxes," but either he plays a lot of baritone or he's sneaking in some bass clarinet. Heavy, tough, good fun, but typical, both for the label and for that whole neck of the woods. B+(*)
Sonny Simmons: The Traveller (2004-05 , Jazzaway): Sonny goes to Norway, hooks up with Anders Aarum's piano trio, a string quartet, and veteran reedist Vidar Johansen, who limits himself to flute and conducting. So at first glance this is one of those sax with strings things where the strings just provide a schmeer of background tapestry for a saxophonist. The recent Lee Konitz Jonquil album is typical of the sort, where you wish someone would just lop off the strings and let the man play. I'm not much more impressed with the strings this time, but still they seem to have put Simmons in a particularly fine mood. He has rarely played so clear and cogently -- seems like he's spent most of his career jousting with a second saxophone in bare-bones trios, like his marvelous 1996 Transcendence, so maybe there's something to be said for letting him bask in the glory of a tasteful string section. Kudos also for Aarum, who solos adroitly and provides consistently solid backing. A-
Ray Barretto: Time Was - Time Is (2004 , O+ Music): Time was the time of bebop, the time of jazz's first fling with what much later came to be called world music. Time is is what happens when you get old enough to distinguish it from time was. As bebop-latin fusion, this starts strong, powered by Joe Magnarelli and Myron Walden in the roles of Diz and Bird. As for Chano Pozo, Barretto's played him all his long life long. B+(***)
Roswell Rudd & the Mongolian Buryat Band: Blue Mongol (2005, Sunnyside): The Mongolian Buryat band is a conservatory-trained folk group, playing traditional instruments -- Mongolian variants on bass, fiddle, lute, dulcimer, zither, flute -- and featuring throat singer Battuvshin Baldantseren. Rudd is one of the all-time great jazz trombonists. As Verna Gillis -- founder of the Soundscape multicultural center, and wife to Rudd -- explains in her notes, trombone and throat singing have in common the knack of generating high-pitched overtones on top of a bass fundamental. The pairing makes for deep harmonics, but the record succeeds on more than this one trick. Rudd's Malicool album foundered for lack of a beat, but this time no drums gives the mostly traditional melodies an open, airy feel, as seems fit for the vast steppes of central Asia. Not that this record is devoid of rhythm: Rudd's "Buryat Boogie" starts out copping a line from the Beach Boys. But mostly Rudd works his way into the folk group, adding a welcome growl to the traditional repertoire. A-
Bill Bruford/Michiel Borstlap: Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song (2003-04 , Summerfold): AMG, in one of those mysteries that arise from having too many chimps typing too fast, classifies Dutch pianist Borstlap as R&B/Funk/Fusion, but they also have an entry for him in their classical database. Here he's playing acoustic piano duets with Bill Bruford, who AMG classifies as Rock/Avant-Garde/Fusion/Post-Bop/Canterbury Scene. My guess is that Borstlap comes out of a solid classical background but likes to experiment, which throws him into the jazz realm. Bruford, of course, was prog rock's most famous drummer (except, I guess, for Phil Collins), having worked for Yes, King Crimson, and (replacing Collins) Genesis, but really he's concentrated on jazz ever since he hooked up with Django Bates and Iain Ballamy to form Earthworks in 1986. And this, certainly, is a jazz record, with two razor sharp performers improvising in concert -- meaning, both together and live. One of the more prickly versions of "Bemsha Swing" I've heard recently, with "'Round Midnight" being the only other cover, and the title cut improvised from nothing more than its title. B+(**)
Mitchell Froom: A Thousand Days (2005, Kontextrecords): Well known as a producer and part-time Latin Playboy, this is a sharp change of pace: a short (38:03) solo piano album, original material, moderately paced, modestly done. Nice. Handsome cover. So what? B
Sherrie Maricle & the DIVA Jazz Orchestra: TNT: A Tommy Newsom Tribute (2005, Lightyear): Maricle's all-woman orchestra powers through ten Newsom arrangements. Maricle appeared on Newsom's Octo-Pussycats record, and on an earlier album with Newsom's Tonite Show predecessor, Skitch Henderson -- connections that garnered her an approving blurb from the late Johnny Carson. Band is quite solid, swings hard, has some bright voices. B+(*)
Steve Kuhn Trio: Quiéreme Mucho (2000 , Sunnyside): Gringo piano trio works its way through an all-Latin songbook, including such well known pieces as "Bésame Mucho" and "Duerme." Sharply played, bright sound, but while the melodies are recognizable the "Spanish tinge" is somehow missing. B
Gato Libre: Strange Village (2004 , Onoff): File this one under trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, who wrote all the pieces. His partner Satoko Fujii is also present in the quartet, but playing accordion instead of her usual piano. The difference between the two is that she can get a lot noisier than Tamura -- at times she approaches Cecil Taylor intensity, although that's hardly the only tool in her bag. Tamura, on the other hand, tends to play within himself, drawing out the lyrical quality of his instrument. Fujii's accordion has none of the flash of her piano, but the tones complement Tamura nicely. The other two members of the group are Kazuhiko Tsumura on guitar and Norikatsu Koreyasu on bass, providing a bed of strings for the others. A beguiling recording. B+(**)
Satoko Fujii Four: Live in Japan 2004 (2004 , P.J.L): Fujii is probably the most important active jazz musician in the world who still doesn't have a section in the 7th edition of The Penguin Guide. That's likely to change when the 8th edition rolls off the presses, but the catch-up job will be huge -- more so than when Ken Vandermark made his debut in the 4th edition with eight records. AMG lists 22 records under Fujii's own name, going back to 1995, and they don't have this one listed yet. I've only heard five of those albums (plus another five by her partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura -- two solo, three in groups with Fujii), and the one thing I'm most struck by is how varied they are: the solo Sketches, the intensely composed Illusion Suite, the big band Blueprint, and (my favorite) the avant-fusion Zephyros. This one is mostly a live recap of Illusion Suite -- the title piece fills up 36:28 in the middle here, and the group is the same, with Tamura, Mark Dresser on bass, and Jim Black on drums. There's some impressive stuff here -- Fujii's piano when she cuts loose, Tamura's trumpet swell on "Looking Out of the Window," the whole long sprawling mess of "Illusion Suite." One of these days I'll have to sort out the broader dimensions of her career. Meanwhile, I'm still working on this one. [B+(***)]
Vision Volume 3 (2003 , Arts for Art, CD+DVD): Just played the CD with nine excerpts from the 2003 Vision Festival, an annual showcase for avant-garde music (and dance, I guess) run by Patricia Nicholson (dancer) and her husband William Parker (bassist extraordinaire). Haven't worked through the DVD yet, but unlike most cases this time I intend to. Also got an 80-page book called Vision Festival Peace, a collection of poetry, pictures and manifestos that I also haven't come close to digesting. The nine pieces provide more variety and less continuity than is usually the case with these musicians, which has its good and bad points. Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, and Rob Brown all make impressive splashes. Fred Anderson sounds a bit thin with just bass behind him, and Kidd Jordan is ugly as ever, but only for a manageable 7:25. The big surprise is that three pieces focus on vocals: Thomas Buckner's is the sketchiest; Patricia Nicholson's is the most striking, as she declaims agitprop over Joseph Jarman reeds and Cooper-Moore's bass-like diddley-bo; Parker's Jeanne Lee Project combines four singers and a big band in a piece that threatens to overwhelm everything. Still need to sort this out better, play the DVD, factor in the various tradeoffs, etc. But for those of us who can't get to the Festival this is a most welcome taste. [B+(***)]
Bucketrider: Guignol's Band (1998, Dr. Jim's): This is a rockish avant-jazz band from Australian, led by trombonist James Wilkinson and saxophonists Adam Simmons and Timothy O'Dwyer. They have a half-dozen albums. I've worked through three of them, and they're an interesting, brainy, daring group who make messy records that I can't quite bring myself to love. This starts with a piece of screech, then moves on to some impressive postrock roll. Despite its rough spots, this may be their best record -- at least the best I've heard. Given how old this one is, not a real JCG candidate. B+(***)
Michael Pagán Big Band: Pag's Groove (2004 , Capri): In the category of institutionally supported big bands (cf. my previous note on the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), the largest subcategory are university bands -- and I don't mean the marching bands you see at college football games. There are quite a few such bands, and one label in particular (Sea Breeze) specializes in their output. Not sure that this qualifies, but it was recorded at the University of Northern Colorado, and annotated by a prof at the University of Colorado. I don't recognize any of the musicians here, nor Pagán for that matter. I may just be getting tired as I near the close of this round of prospecting, but all I have to say about this record is: everyone seems to be in fine spirits, doing good work, but this really doesn't do much of anything for me. B
Joel Futterman/Alvin Fielder/Ike Levin Trio: Resolving Doors (2004, Charles Lester Music): Rough, aggressive avant-garde music, with Futterman exploding on piano and Levin racing through the curves on tenor sax or, frequently, bass clarinet. Fielder drums. Don't have a clear take on this yet, but it has potential to move up. [B+(**)]
Richard Bona/Lokua Kanza/Gerald Toto: Toto Bona Lokua (2004 , Sunnyside): Universal is an apt name for the world's largest music business, even though the name came from a movie studio first Bronfman then Vivendi picked up. They're everywhere, but the main office is in France, and Universal France manages to release a lot of music that Universal's many tentacles in the US fail to pick up. Sunnyside is one of the labels that looks for attractive scraps left on Universal France's table, which is where they found this one. It's not jazz, although AMG wasn't being ridiculous when it reminded them of Bobby McFerrin's multitracked vocal projects. I was thinking more in terms of South Africa's mbube, but that's not right either, and not just because Bona plays a wide range of instruments. With all three singing, there's more interplay here, not just layering, which gives it a light feel. Toto and Lokua are from Africa -- Cameroun and Congo (I'm guessing the ex-French colony, not the ex-Belgian one) respectively. Bona was born in Paris with roots in the Caribbean, which means Africa too. B
Simply Red: Simplified (2005, Verve Forecast): AMG describes them as a "British soul-pop band," formed in 1984. This is their tenth album. Don't understand what they're doing on a jazz label, but maybe it's silly these days to regard Verve Forecast as anything of the sort. Mick Hucknall has a pretty voice, soft and somewhat soulful. Some songs are re-recorded from earlier albums, and they appear in various arrangements, like the electro-funk of "Something Got Me Started," the big band (with sax solo) of "Sad Old Red," the string-drenched ballad of "For Your Babies," a standard croon with bare piano and eventually a taste of flugelhorn on "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." B-
Matt Renzi: The Cave (2003 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Basic saxophone trio, the leader playing tenor and clarinet. I know very little about him: born San Francisco, father played flute in the SF Symphony, studied at Berklee with the George Garzone (like, who didn't?); has four records I've never hard. Never heard of bassist and drumer either. Booklet has short note from Renzi: "The music on this recording represents a four-year span of experiences living in Japan, Italy, New York, and India." The most striking thing about this record is how centered it is: Renzi plays difficult music but makes it look easy because he doesn't go in for the stress and force of most avant saxophonists. Not sure where this will land eventually, but for a first play I enjoyed it a lot. [B+(***)]
Loren Stillman: It Could Be Anything (2005, Fresh Sound New Talent): Young alto saxophonist -- says here he's 23, which is pretty young for a guy who cut his first album in 1998. Last time I heard him he was pretty mainstream, but this quartet has some real zip to it. Gary Versace plays piano, Scott Lee bass, Jeff Hirshfield drums. Solid postbop, fast, sure footed. Thick booklet with a series of prints for each song and some actual info I haven't fully read yet. Worth thinking on further. [B+(**)]
The Alon Farber Hagiga Quintet: Exposure (2003 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Looks like "hagiga" is Hebrew for "celebration" -- dumb luck that I figured that out. This is an upbeat, postbop Israeli group, with two saxophones (Farber on soprano and alto, Hagai Amir on alto), guitar, bass and drums, with New York-based Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen guesting on three cuts. They state the music is inspired by Wayne Shorter and Dave Douglas, which sounds close enough, although I'll also note that one song is called "A Chat With Ornette." Complex and fluid, a rich feel, lots of movement. Cohen certainly earns his featured slot. B+(**)
Unexpected: Plays the Blues in Need (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): This is a trio led by Spanish pianist Sergi Sirvent Escué -- the third record I've heard by him, and possibly the best. "Need" is a fairly trivial twist on Monk's "Well, You Needn't," which works as well as the original. Slow pieces poke at the edges; fast ones sharpen them up. A vocal on the final "Waltz for Someone" stretches and breaks in a manner rarely heard since Chet Baker. I have a tough time with piano trios, and this one still gives me slight pause, but I like the pianist, like the group -- Esteban Hernández on bass, Daniel Dominguez on drums. Not so sure about the nudity. B+(***)
Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents: Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert (2005, Blue Note): The problem with these benefit concerts is that everyone wants to get into the act, and that leaves you with a mess. At the concert itself, you're likely to remember the high spots, write the crap off as failed good intentions, and figure it's all for a good cause anyway. On record, it's the crap that stands out. Dianne Reeves' "The House I Live In" is the worst kind of well meaning liberalism turned to God and Country paean. Norah Jones doesn't do much better, and the gospel bookends by Shirley Caesar and Cassandra Wilson are over the top and out the door, respectively. James Taylor brings back memories of Lester Bangs. And somehow Aaron and Art Neville manage to blow "Go to the Mardi Gras." That's a lot of dead weight for any album to carry. Diana Krall, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Jordan Family stick to the literal higher ground and stay safely dry. The only singer to do something interesting here is Bette Midler, asking "Is That All There Is?" and resolving to party on. The instrumental pieces are less likely to sink in the muck. I've yet to notice Marcus Roberts' piece, stuck as an interlude between Reeves and Jones, but Terence Blanchard and especially Joe Lovano are inspired, and Wynton Marsalis can really "play that thing" so long as that thing is "Dippermouth Blues." The highlights here are worth hearing, even if you're unlikely to play the whole thing more than once. The proceeds go to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. C+
Slammin: All-Body Band (2003-04 , Crosspulse): Acapella group, with "beat box" and "body music" -- Keith Terry is the source of the latter. A quote from the website explains: "claps his hands, rubs his palms, finger-pops, stamps his feet, brushes his soles, slaps his butt and belly, pops his cheek, whomps his chest, skips and slides, sings and babbles and coughs, building his music out of a surprisingly varied register of sounds and clever rhythmic variations." Not bad. Not jazz. Not something I find particularly interesting. B
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back the first time around. Thus far the final grades are either the same as originally noted or up a notch. The latter supports the notion that most records, given enough time, will grow on you -- a bit anyhow. Some, of course, develop into major nuissances, but for a critic there's little need or time to let that happen. In theory I like to stop when a record has stopped growing on me. In practice I'm probably a bit harsher, which is a position I can afford given what my shelves look like.
Poncho Sanchez: Do It! (2005, Concord Picante): Holds up solid enough, especially in the instrumentals where the riddim rules. Vocals so-so. B+(*)
Erik Truffaz: Saloua (2005, Blue Note): His jazztronica -- electrobeats topped by trumpet -- is attractive. The vocals, by Tunisian Mounir Troudi and Swiss rapper Nya, work well, especially Mounir, whose sour note cuts against the sweet grain of the beats. B+(***)
Charlie Peacock: Love Press Ex-Curio (2005, Runway): With its synth beats and slick keybs this fits most closely into the pop jazz realm, but that sells it short. The horns, even Kirk Whallum, are left of mainstream, and one thing Joey Baron isn't is a sellout. Still too fancy for my taste, but many people are likely to find this quite pleasing. B+(**)
Luciana Souza: Duos II (2005, Sunnyside): Further listening lets these voice-plus-guitar duos shape up. It's still too minimal and too subtle for me to get enthusiastic, but it makes for attractive background music, with alluring details when one happens to focus. B+(*)
Saturday, November 12. 2005
Belatedly thinking about Veterans Day. The Eagle's editorial cartoonist has been pretty sharp lately, but all he had for the occasion was a US flag with the stars rearranged to spell out "Thank You." It's a cliché that we're free or safe or whatever because of the noble sacrifices of our soldiers -- a broader and more appropriate term, since it includes those who didn't survive long enough to become veterans. Like most clichés, this one is true enough to escape much scrutiny. But when I think it over, I have to wonder how true it really is. Or how useful it is to maintain a special respect for veterans these days. Or who it useful to.
The veterans issue splits into two pieces: the wars fought, and the postwar adjustments needed to return those pressed into war to civilian life. The war that set the standard for how we generally view veterans today was WWII. Over 400,000 Americans died in that war. Some 16 million (13% of the population) served in the armed forces, and everyone else was caught up in the near total mobilization of the economy to support the war effort. All this happened within four years, witnessing vast destruction, and over 50 million deaths, in much of Europe and East Asia, while the US emerged from the Great Depression to become by far the world's eminent economic and military power. The combination of such large numbers of returning veterans, acknowledgment of their sacrifices, and recognition of America's newfound wealth and power made it easy, as well as necessary, for the nation to fête its veterans: the "GI Bill" was passed, the Veterans Administration was built up into a partial welfare state, the "baby boom" ensued.
In postwar America, soldiers and veterans were so esteemed that I can remember my parents frequently stopping to pick up hitchhikers in uniform. Veterans were everywhere, including my father and two of his brothers. (The other brother was too young at the time, but later made a career in the Air Force as a mechanic, including an uneventful tour in Vietnam.) On my mother's side, one uncle and many cousins served in the war. (My mother was ten years older than my father, and her many siblings were older still.) One of my father's brothers was wounded and partly disabled. My mother's brother saw horrific fighting in the Pacific, witnessing the deaths of people on both sides next to him. (He was the one uncle I never knew. Having survived war with Japan, he was killed in a car wreck when I was one.) Other family members went on to fight in Korea and Vietnam, but that gets ahead of my story. The point here is that WWII left a powerful legacy that was felt broadly throughout America all the way to our very different experience of war in Vietnam.
The problem with the cult of veterans following WWII wasn't the war they survived, and it certainly wasn't the very real needs that those veterans returned with. The problem was that America, unlike the aftermaths of all previous wars, failed to disarm. This was partly because the newly perceived threat of the Soviet Union, partly because America's sudden preëminence made the projection of worldwide power seductive, and partly because we were so damn rich relative to everyone else that it seemed like a luxury we could afford. And also because we were so convinced of our fundamental benificence that few people around the world, and hardly anyone here, saw us as a threat. All that would change in due course, although it was not until George W. Bush that the preponderance of world opinion turned against the US.
From the beginnings of the Cold War the veterans cult served to reinforce American militarism. Military might -- the nation that defeated the Axis, the science and technology that split the atom to unleash unimagined horror -- became the symbol of America to the world, and veterans were popular representatives of that might. All that soured in the quagmire of Vietnam -- nothing takes the shine off military brass like defeat -- but the net effect there was to politicize veterandom. All along there had been veterans organizations, and all along they had been populated by those whose experience of let them look back on their soldiering days with pride. But not every soldier had that sort of identity, not to mention the memories. Of all the people in my family who served in WWII and later, I can't think of any who joined the American Legion or VFW. Least of all my father: he escaped grade school on his good attendance scores, and worked nearly forty years in the Boeing factory, but he always insisted that the worst waste of his time ever was the year-plus he spent in the Army. Still, as Vietnam went sour, LBJ found that the only favorable forum he could find for his war apologia was the veterans groups. Those particular vets had taken on a new role: no longer were they just people who had served their country in past wars; henceforth they served as propaganda foils for current and future wars.
Prop veterans are much in vogue today, as another president exploits them for succor in another disastrous war. Of course, they are other veterans who have much a different experience of war. Veterans also played a conspicuous role in opposition to the Vietnam War, a role that is increasingly being replicated by the families of soldiers in today's Bush War. This leads to a sharp political tug-of-war over veterans today -- for instance, Veterans Day has now become an occasion for antiwar protests, which purport to support US soldiers by opposing a war unworthy of their sacrifices.
There are many problems with this. For starters, the nature and logic of war has changed. Since 1945, wars of conquest are out. (Minor exceptions: Israel in 1948 and 1967; Iraq vs. Iran and Kuwait; India, Indonesia and Morocco have annexed European colonies; Argentina tried to annex the Falklands, and failed; Kashmir is disputed between Pakistan and India, one part of the reason for three wars; Korea and Vietnam had aspects of conquest, but also national unification and communist revolution; Turkey and Greece have disputed Cyprus; Armenia and Azerbaijstan have fought over borders; as Yugoslavia collapsed, Serbia and Croatia attempted to carve up Bosnia. None of these comes close to the naked aggression of Japan and Germany in WWII, or the imperial exploits of Western Europe in the previous centuries.) By 1965 the UK and France had given up their overseas empires, bringing the era of imperialism and wars of national liberation to an end. By 1990 the Soviet Union's sphere of influence collapsed, ending a series of military interventions to prop up faltering communist regimes (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan). From 1945 Japan adopted an official policy of pacifism, which helped turn it into the world's most dynamic economy through the 1980's. Europe, the scene of two incredibly devastating wars in the first half of the 20th century, unified its economy and broke down its borders, making war unimaginable and defense forces atavistic. After 1990, the class struggle in Latin America shifted increasingly from war to the ballot box. There is still plenty of war in the poorest parts of the world, especially in Africa, but it's basically at the level of banditry, in states too poor and often too corrupt to control it. In short, war has become obsolete.
For a while, the US sort of understood this. Under Truman: the US changed the War Department's name to the Defense Department; in postwar trials, leaders of Japan and Germany were charged for starting the war, not just for atrocities committed during the war; the UN and other international organizations were founded to resolve disputes and promote economic growth without war. But the US soon found a new enemy in the Soviet Union, and as long as that opposition could be maintained at a "cold war" level it dovetailed nicely with domestic concerns: continued military spending helped to subsidize the economy and promote technology, much as it had saved the economy from the Great Depression; focus on anti-communism helped the Republicans (most prominently Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon) gnaw away at the New Deal and its labor supporters -- which the Democrats, drunk with Wilsonian idealism, were completely inept at countering; the great esteem WWII veterans enjoyed made it possible to continue a peacetime draft, which in turn provided the fodder for wars in Korea and Vietnam; meanwhile America's growing role as worldwide police enforcer provided shelter for corporations (not just American ones) to extend their business throughout the Free World, often by making deals with sordid, corrupt, despotic thugs.
All this changed with Vietnam. Before, American militarism built on WWII triumphalism. After Vietnam, it turned into a grudge match. Truman's anti-Soviet stance was mostly defensive, provoked by Soviet challenges in Berlin and Korea. Eisenhower let the CIA run amok in Guatemala and Iran -- the latter the single dumbest thing the US did since WWII, at least until Bush invaded Iraq. But after Vietnam, Reagan took gleeful pride in invading Grenada and gratuitously bombing Libya, and launched his signature "Star Wars" enterprise: an anti-missle system designed to provide imaginary protection against unimaginable alien attacks. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the last fanciful excuse for fielding a military more powerful that the rest of the world combined should have vanished, but politicos of both parties (though more so the Republicans) frantically searched for new enemies to keep their precious defense machine humming. The best Bush could come up with for an Axis of Evil these days was Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- two war-beaten countries whose aggressive instincts were to snarl like cornered cats, and a bunch of ayatollahs whose idea of world revolution was to put a bounty on Salman Rushdie's head. But thankfully, the militarists prayers were answered on 9/11/2001 by fellow religious bigot Osama bin Laden, begetting the GWOT (Global War on Terror), also test-marketed (unsuccessfully) as World War IV.
The great irony of all this is that the military didn't want any part of any such war. (Well, they'd be happy to bomb any arbitrary spot on the globe, but that's it.) They dragged their feet in Afghanistan until Bin Laden got away. Then they timidly tried to explain that occupying Iraq wasn't a very bright idea, then went in light and clueless, letting the country slip into anarchy and rebellion. Then they griped about not having enough armor, embarrassed themselves at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, and turned most of the police work over to militias more loyal to Iran than America. This could only happen because the politicos and the military have profoundly misunderstood history since 1945.
The critical turning point was Vietnam, and it was critical not just because the US lost that war and pretended otherwise. Up through Vietnam the US military was filled up by the draft. Symbolized by the Uncle Sam "I Want You" posters, the military reached almost randomly into the population, and as such the military was representative of the people -- of a country that would fight when pushed into a corner, but a country that would rather mind its own business. Virtually all Americans selected accepted the call to arms in WWII. My Uncle Allen, for instance, was a month short of the maximum draft age, had a wife and three small children, worked in the critical oil industry and little doubt could have wangled one more deferment, but he went -- never gave it a second thought. Vietnam wasn't anything like that: they didn't attack us; it wasn't a war everyone fought; when our soldiers got there they found they were fighting the same people they were supposedly fighting for, and many soon had more respect for their enemies than for their allies; it was a war founded on lies and political posturing, peppered with domino theories and "better to fight them there than here" rhetoric. And Americans weren't the same people they'd been when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The Great Depression had given way to the extended postwar boom. The frigid order of segregation was under attack from the civil rights movement. The nation was closer to tearing apart than pulling together, and an increasingly futile, wasteful war only made it worse. My next door neighbor, a couple of years older than me, got married right out of high school, had a child, got drafted, sent to Vietnam, blown up. He wasn't a hero; he was a poor schmuck with a teenaged widow and an infant fatherless son. And for what? I had a second cousin in that war, commanding a tank. According to the Army his pistol accidentally went off while he was in the tank, richocheted a couple of times, then pierced the back of his skull, killing him. When his father had the bullet pulled out, it wasn't deformed like the story would have it. Most likely he was fragged.
Vietnam was not the only thing the US lost in that war. The very heart and soul of the military died there, because there was no good reason to make sacrifices like that. Afterwards, the military tried to salvage its honor and respect. The main way they did this was by getting rid of the draft, but the result was that the post-Vietnam military bears no resemblance to the country it supposedly represents. Until Bush came along that didn't much bother anyone. The military offered ordered, secure jobs, education and training, to people who had mediocre prospects. Some of the work was routine, like they'd probably wind up doing in civilian life. And some of it was play acting with guns and explosives. My Uncle James was a career mechanic in the Air Force. When he retired he got the same job at Boeing, and when he retired from there he had two pensions. He got a pretty good deal and could still pretend he was doing it for his country. Lots of military jobs were like that. Moreover, as the right gained political power flounting their superpower rhetoric, they dismantled the civilian welfare state, keeping it for their politically expedient veterans. One result is that the military itself has shifted right-wards, although the more significant fact is that the military has grown more gunshy. Well, not exactly: they don't mind shooting guns, but they sure don't like getting shot at. Hard for me to blame them, but then I refused to serve as a patsy in Vietnam. Hell, I didn't even like the shooting part.
But the problem with gunshy military and the trigger-happy politicos in America isn't just about us. Most of the rest of the world has learned to live perfectly well without war. The best thing that ever happened to Germany and Japan was that they lost WWII, and that they lost it bad enough they never entertained the thought again. (As you'll recall, when Germany lost WWI a bunch of hotheads like Hitler wanted another round, which is what they got.) It's beginning to look like the worst thing that ever happened to America was that we thought we won. The truth is nobody wins wars, and while you may thankfully beat some country that was worse than you at the start, in the nasty brutality of war you become ever more like your enemies. But war isn't obsolescent just because it's gone out of fashion in places like once war-happy Europe. Even the soldiers in the world's one undoubted superpower have lost their taste for war. This even happened in the Soviet Union: the nation that almost single-handedly beat back Nazi Germany was unable to quell a bunch of goatherders and poppy-growers in Afghanistan. That should have been a powerful lesson but we misread it. Just as powerful states, like the Soviets in Afghanistan and the US in Vietnam and Iraq, are increasingly unwilling to sacrifice to conquer other people's lands, the people of those lands are still willing to sacrifice to drive the invaders out. These are the two sides of what Jonathan Schell has called "the unconquerable world" -- the world we live in today, the one that Bush ideologues cavalierly dismiss as "reality-based."
This would all be laughable if so many people didn't buy into the myths. The right has the most at stake: their view of human nature makes enemies inevitable, and their strategy for dealing with those enemies is to intimidate them -- one of their favorite maxims is Machiavelli's "it is better to be feared than loved," so you can see how that leads to the dream of firing lasers from space to instantly smite their foes. Insistence on military might makes them look tough and spends money that liberals might otherwise be tempted to waste on the poor. The military and their business partners appreciate the dole. The scam would end there, except that the right does indeed make enemies, and once in a while one takes a pot shot at us. That's when we finally wonder just how much defense all those billions have bought us. But when you're talking a tightly organized cell of fanatics with homemade bombs, you're talking something at a scale the military can't operate at. Imagine a gnat on a rhino. Imagine entering an Abrams tank in a Formula One race. Still not close. There are only a few things the military knows how to do. Incinerate a billion people in China? Hey, no problem. Flush Osama bin Laden out of a cave in Afghanistan? No way. A rational person would conclude that the military is useless for that task and any other thing we might reasonably want to do, and downright dangerous for all the things it can actually do. But how tough can a politician look arguing the common sense that $500 billion/year buys us nothing worthwhile? Especially when so many soldiers have sacrificed so much to keep us free. The problem with Veterans Day is that the veterans are the designated cheerleaders for this kind of nonsense.
The tragedy of Veterans Day is that many veterans do get run through the ringer. Something like 20% of the soldiers returning from Iraq bring home physical and/or mental wounds. The casualty rates for the brief and, from the American standpoint, almost bloodless Desert Storm war were even higher -- of course, the current war is likely to more than make up the difference as time passes. It's ironic that despite all the photo ops and propaganda ploys, despite the political instincts of many and perhaps most of the soldiers, the antiwar movement is far more concerned with their welfare than the people who cheered them into war. That is largely because the antiwar movement is far more concerned with everyone's welfare. But it's also a seductive concern, in that many of us are tempted to bask in the warm glow that the military and the politicos have spun around veterans. That seduction, for instance, led many Democrats to the foolish notion that a decorated veteran like John Kerry would be an unassailable candidate against Bush's own dubious service record. Kerry lost. So will the vets, unless we come to our senses and figure a way out of these rhetorical traps. Veterans are little different from anyone else, except that some have been put through circumstances that no one should have to experience. They don't need a day, and we don't do them justice by giving them one. Only an end to war corrects the course. And that can't happen as long as we glory in wars past, let alone present.
Thursday, November 10. 2005
In the run-up to Bush's War in Iraq, I remember that the hawks made much about Arab support for the war. This was most evident among the Iraqi exile community in the U.S., who had the same axe to grind as Cubans in Miami, so their faces populated the news in the days before the attack. But I also remember assurances that Jordan and Saudi Arabia were allied with Bush -- indeed, that they were urging Bush to invade. This made no sense at the time, and there is some reason to doubt it ever having been true. But if Jordan and/or Saudi Arabia opposed the war, they did so behind the scenes, taking care to keep their good relations with the war-crazed Americans. Such discretion not only allowed them to be reppresented as American allies, it resulted in the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad being the first major terrorist target of the resistance.
Yesterday, the chickens came home to roost in Amman, where three American hotels were bombed. (Saudi Arabia, long a focus of Al Qaeda, has also been bombed several times since the war began. Egypt, a third key American ally in the region, has also been bombed, and Egypt's ambassador to Iraq was killed.) One of the things we've always warned about was how opening up a war in Iraq might destabilize neighboring countries. After all, the expansion of the Vietnam War to neighboring Cambodia unleashed a series of political struggles that ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of Cambodian lives. The Vietnam War expanded for the same reason the US threatens to expand the Iraq War: the US is struggling with a fluid and resillient guerrilla force that does not respect borders, begging the question whether US acts beyond those borders might tip the war favorably.
The bombings in Amman weren't directly America's doing. The bombings were a crude way of affirming what Bush himself had said following 9/11: "you're either with us or against us." Of course, most Jordanians want no part of either side, but Bush curtailed their options when he launched his war with no clue where it might lead, other than his own MBA cliché, that chaos favors the bold. Chaos in business may yield opportunities, but chaos in war just adds to the destruction. Now that the bombers have expanded the resistance beyond Iraq's borders, Jordan will be hard pressed to hang on to the tightrope it's been forced to walk. Jordan and Syria are sunni-majority countries -- one ruled a the British-installed, US-friendly, Israel-tolerant Hashemite monarchy; the other by a second-generation Allawi/Baathist dictator, hated by the US, Israel, and the sunni Islamists of all stripes. Both, deliberately in one case, incidentally in the other, are likely to be destabilized by the Bush War in Iraq, and in both cases changes are more likely to reinforce the Iraqi resistance than not.
Just as the first Iraqi attack on Jordan's embassy opened a new and deadly chapter in Iraq's resistance to US domination, these new bombings threaten to expand a war that the US has already proven unwinnable even further.
Tuesday, November 8. 2005
Sunday's New York Times had a piece on Bush's summit trip to Argentina, with two pictures at the top of the page. One was of Bush at his lectern. The other showed a man sweeping up broken glass at a bank trashed by anti-summit demonstrators. The two pictures remind us that where Bush goes chaos follows. After what David Remnick called Bush's "hell week," the prospect of a trip to a western hemisphere economic summit must have struck his handlers as downright presidential. But the summit site was in Argentina, one of the big time losers in the globalization scam. When Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona spoke at the counter-summit he said, "I'm proud as an Argentine to repudiate the presence of this human trash, George Bush." Maybe both of the two pictures were of trash?
The routine in Argentina recycles past "free trade" summits and anti-summits, although the level of resistance inside the summit this time appears to be on the rise. Certainly, the star this time wasn't Bush; it was Hugo Chavez, who for once worked both sides of the barricades. Still, the violence -- the broken glass in the picture, who knows what else? -- bothers me. As a reasonable person, it seems to me that there is plenty of middle ground to compromise on. One reason this doesn't happen is that the "first world" winners don't feel any need to accommodate the losers, either back home or in the rest of the world. Bush's own political strategy is to press whatever political clout he can manage as hard as possible. But that's just a cruder version of the stance, which concedes foreign policy to those with the most cash on the line.
As with all conflicts, tactics reflect underlying relations of power. The insiders believe they don't have to so much as acknowledge the outsiders because the outsiders have no power -- I mean, if they did, they'd be insiders (cf. Chavez). Conversely, the outsiders have little to lose by rudely challenging the insiders. It's not as if polite respect is going to gain them entry, much less advance their concerns. Violence regularly rears up as a political tactic when all other options fail. Regardless of how little one approves of such tactics, when violence occurs there is invariably something else rotten. Focusing on the violence is a cheap way to mask the stench. It also plays into authoritarian instincts, the kneejerk reaction against any challenge to the status quo.
The disturbances in France over the last two weeks are a case in point, and a rather troubling one. I have many questions about these events. However, when I look at a left-right blog index like the Daou Report, all the discussion is on the right, where predictably they crank up their anti-muslim (and anti-French) prejudices, reiterate their warnings against immigrants, and call for a crackdown. Every now and then one notes the unemployment, poverty, and isolation of muslims in France, and how those problems have festered under what sounds like a combination of high-handed arrogance and not-so-benign neglect. How France responds to these events is likely to have a significant impact on how the next few decades sort out. I don't know enough to sketch out anything close to a reasonable strategy, but it's easy enough to imagine bad strategies. One fear, of course, is that marginalized French muslims will turn to terrorist groups for a calling. But that, as always, is a mere sideshow. The deeper question is how the powers in rich societies deal with the critical fact of our world today, which is the stagnant poverty both within and beyond their borders.
I fear that "we" will try to solve this problem by building more and more barriers and projecting ever greater intimidation against the people "we" see as barbarians: the outsiders in the globalization scam, of whom more and more actually live inside our national forts. But I can't see this working, at least not in the sense of achieving any sort of stable equilibrium. It's too late to pull the sort of isolationist trick Japan implemented to keep Europe at bay for two hundred years. Bush didn't just go to Argentina to escape "hell week" back home. The masters of capital need Latin America for growth and survival. But it's not that easy. Increasingly, the rest of the world wants to know what's in it for them. If the answer for most of them is nothing, that's not going to sit pretty.
Monday, November 7. 2005
This is the fourth week's log of Jazz Consumer Guide prospecting. These aren't all first spins, but increasingly so. I've gotten pretty far through the stack of new jazz records, but haven't paid much attention to old ones. Grades in brackets are tentative. Three-star B+ grades are probable Honorable Mentions; two-stars maybes. Duds start at B- (unless they win a Grammy). I need to break this off soon and write the column . . . before I have enough material for two, which it's beginning to look like.
The Dan Cray Trio: Save Us! (2005, BluJazz): Good piano trio. Quick out of the box with a Stevie Wonder piece, then "When You Wish Upon a Star," then on to Cole Porter, Tadd Dameron, Monk, Shorter, Silver, ending with an original (or two). Mainstream, good taste, not a deconstructivist. B+(**)
Bill Mays Trio: Live at Jazz Standard (2004 , Palmetto): Mays started out as an accompanist (Sarah Vaughan) and sideman, started recording under his own name around 1982, has piled up a respectable list of credits. He doesn't particularly sound like any other pianist -- I'm tempted to group him with the likes of Walter Norris because they don't sound like anyone else either. Standards here that I know well don't seem so familiar in his hands, any more so than the couple of originals he works in. All that adds up to is that this isn't the sort of thing I feel like I can gauge -- no doubt it's good, much doubt on how to explain it, not enough to inspire me to try. B+(**)
George Colligan: Past-Present-Future (2003 , Criss Cross): This is a sharply played, very lively piano trio. Colligan has recorded quite a bit since the mid-'90s, and he's been consistently praised by the Penguin Guide. This is my first encounter with him, so I'm reluctant to go overboard, especially in a format I have trouble explaining. Will work on it. [B+(***)]
George Colligan's Mad Science: Realization (2004 , Sirocco Jazz): A different kind of trio, with Colligan on Hammond B3 and computer synthesizers, Tom Guarna on guitar, and Rodney Holmes on drums -- although not all that different from Uri Caine's Bedrock group. Organ players tend to be blockier than piano players, perhaps because the organ frequently replaces a bass. Colligan and Caine are both superbly quick-witted pianists, and they lose little velocity on organ. I suspect that Caine has the edge here, but need to delve further. [B+(***)]
The Claudia Quintet: Semi-Formal (2005, Cuneiform): Oh dear, here we go again. Almost every jazz artist fits into some reasonably well recognized framework, and almost every such framework has many examples, some of which are inevitably more skilled, more exemplary, or at least more interesting than others. These are the rules that make it possible to, usually quickly, sort out the vast produce of jazz into relatively manageable bins, and as such to give jazz consumers a break. Personal taste enters into this, of course. I happen to like saxophones more than pianos, especially in the stripped down context of trios, so may skew my grades accordingly (or compensate by skewing them otherwise), but give me a batch of mainstream piano trios and I'll probably sort them out reasonably well. John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet has two problems here: one is that they're unique -- ain't nobody else remotely similar to them, at least not within jazz. On the big map, I suppose they fit somewhere between minimalists like Philip Glass and post-rock experimentalists like Tortoise, but unlike either, like the jazz musicians they undoubtedly are, they not only play in that uncharted space, they improvise in it. The second problem is that unlike most conceptualists they don't refine and reduce their concept -- they muddy the waters, projecting their ideas in multiple directions until you're never sure just what the concept is. One consequence of this is that the albums are, tastewise anyway, maddeningly inconsistent. I sat on I, Claudia for nearly a year before finally deciding that the marvelous parts outweigh the imponderable parts, and I could do the same here, but experience tells me that in the end the marvels will win out. One thing I have a problem with is the mushiness of the instrumentation: the lead instruments are vibes, accordion, clarinet. On the other hand, that only holds true when Ted Reichman's accordion (or keyboards) holds the center. Matt Moran is one of the most interesting vibraphonists working, and he's just as likely to swing to the rhythm side building on John Hollenbeck's beats. Chris Speed mostly plays clarinet, but he switches to tenor sax on several pieces here, and that provides a huge contrast to the dominant pastels -- every time he does he blows me away. I'm not through here, but I figure it would be chickenshit to sit on the rating. One of the most distinct and exhilarating albums I've heard this year -- and, yes, it's jazz, because that's the sort of thing great jazz aims at. But it's also not as convincing as I'd like. A-
Ramsey Lewis: With One Voice (2005, Narada Jazz). Church music. Big church, performed live, with sixty voices in the choir, shaking the rafters on "Oh Happy Day," and guest vocalists Smokie Norful and Darius Brooks leading a song each. The group varies by song, sometimes a dozen or more strong. Kevin Randolph co-wrote several pieces with Lewis, and plays keyboards throughout, but Lewis' piano pokes through as the single most authoritative instrument. I don't expect much from Lewis these days, so the joy and power of the opener caught me by surprise. This plays out as a solid, but hardly transcendent, gospel album. B
The Frank Hewitt Quintet: Four Hundred Saturdays (1999 , Smalls): After missing every opportunity to record during his 66-year life, this is the third posthumous release for Hewitt, the everyday pianist at New York's legendary Smalls after hours club. This one is a live set, with his trio augmented by saxophonists Chris Byars and Mike Mullins. Fine latterday bebop, long solos on four old standbys, plenty of atmosphere. B+(***)
Denny Zeitlin: Solo Voyage (2005, MaxJazz): Five pieces of solo piano, followed by "Solo Voyage," a 29-minute suite that's not quite solo: Zeitlin plays synthesizer with horn voicings then accompanies himself on piano. As always, a thoughtful, elegant pianist. Nice, quiet, meditative. B+(*)
Hugh Masekela: Revival (2005, Heads Up): South Africa's most famous jazz trumpeter returns home to a scene run amok with kwaito -- South Africa's take on hip-hop -- and works through his own twist on South African r&b, singing most of the songs, but making more of a mark with his horn. The more trad "District Six" I recall the title of a Chris McGregor album, but don't recall the significance -- something from the Apartheid era. "Working Underground" is another hardship song, no doubt as felt today as it was back then. B+(**)
Mat Maneri: Pentagon (2004 , Thirsty Ear): I can't recall Maneri ever doing anything remotely like this before. At nine pieces (not counting vocalist Sonja Maneri), this is a large group. Even for ten pieces, it is a loud one. I keep looking through the credits for a guitar, but don't see one -- although there are several synths and keybs, plus Maneri's electric violin and viola. Sounds industrial. With the vocalist, sounds operatic. Sounds like some weird sort of fusion. Hell, I'm not even sure what it sounds like. Nor whether I like it at all, but some parts are intriguing enough that I'll keep it open. [B]
Kerry Politzer Quartet: Labyrinth (2004 , Polisonic): Young pianist, on her third album. Straightforward postbop, makes a strong impression, especially on the opener, "Rhodes Rage," with its percussive block chords. Fourth member is saxophonist Andrew Rathbun, whose leads free Politzer to work out the rhythmic angles. Rathbun plays tenor and soprano -- no surprise that I prefer the tenor. Best known musician in the group is George Colligan, playing drums rather inconspicuously instead of his usual piano. Politzer wrote all the pieces. B+(**)
Positive Knowledge: First Ones (2005, Charles Lester Music): This one is a throwback to the intersection of the avant-garde with the black power renaissance of the late '60s -- or rather, an attempt to move forward again. The tipoff is Ijeoma Thomas' "poetic vocals" -- in the tradition of Linda Sharrock, but more substantial. The evident leader is Oluyemi Thomas, who mostly plays bass clarinet, with C-melody sax, soprano sax, musette, flute, and percussion as the spirit moves him. Or Spirit -- that's the drummer's name. Also present is tenor saxophonist Ike Levin, so mostly this breaks down to two reeds plus drums -- shades of Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha. Plus poetry and percussion. This is still at the interesting level for me. Check back later. [B+(**)]
Gerald Wilson Orchestra: In My Time (2005, Mack Avenue): Big band music, where the sections snap, crackle and pop, and every soloist sounds like a star -- and not just because most are. Wilson has been doing this sort of thing for a long time -- he was 86 when this was recorded, old enough to be famous for how old he is, which puts him into the living legend camp. Big bands since he came into his own in the early '60s have been basket cases: with no economic rationale or prospects, they depend on the generosity of grants and the musicians -- in both cases it no doubt helps to be a living legend. And here it pays off. A-
Dylan van der Schyff: The Definition of a Toy (2003 , Songlines): First album by a Vancouver-based drummer who's been popping up in lots of good places recently. This is not a drummer-as-composer record -- van der Schyff has two co-credits, everything else by other members of the group. This is a quintet, with Michael Moore (reeds), Brad Turner (trumpet), Achim Kaufmann (piano), and Mark Helias (bass). The pieces are lightly colored abstracts, a little thin but cerebral. B+(**)
Bayashi: Rock (2004 , Jazzaway): Sax trio from Norway with a tough free improv sound. Know very little about these guys: a slightly earlier album is out on Ayler; bassist Bjørn Andresen died shortly after this recording; saxophonist (also bass clarinet and flute) Vidar Johansen also plays in Crimetime Orchestra, and evidently has been around a while; no idea where the name comes from, but google suggests Japan. Most good trios depend on an even balance, but the guy who most impresses me here is drummer Thomas Strønen, who I gather is by far the youngest. B+(***)
Michael Blake Trio: Right Before Your Very Ears (2004 , Clean Feed): The ex-Lounge Lizard saxophonist has worked with Ben Allison's Medicine Wheel lately, so here Allison returns the favor, with Jeff Ballard on drums. Starts with a screech, which is soon repeated, but most of the record is well reasoned, tightly wound free jazz, good stuff. B+(**)
The Gift: Live at Sangha: Nov 6, 2004 (2004 , Bmadish): One long piece, no title, just a night of invention at a club in Takoma Park, MD. The group is Roy Campbell (trumpet, flute), William Hooker (drums), and Jason Hwang (violin). Hooker's drumming is central and vital. Campbell is his usual buoyant self on trumpet, and a pleasant surprise on flute -- a bit tentative, perhaps, but his head's in the right place. Hwang is a violinist I've wanted to hear more from, but he seems to fill in more like a bassist here than to take charge like Billy Bang or Leroy Jenkins would do. An interesting night's work. B+(***)
Dianne Reeves: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, Concord): This is being marketed as the soundtrack to the George Clooney movie about Edward R. Murrow and the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s. Judging from the fine print, only six of the songs appear in the movie, including a surprisingly toned down version of Dinah Washington's risqué "TV Is the Thing This Year" -- you can imagine the film segué for that. But rather than fill up the disc with with transitional moods, the producers let Reeves fill it up with period standards. She's so professional, I can't decide whether this is brilliant or just her usual professionalism applied to an exceptionally fine set of songs. Still waiting for the movie to hit town, so I'll hold off until then. [A-]
Robert Glasper: Canvas (2005, Blue Note): Young (27 years old) pianist on a major label -- the inference is that he's the next Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap, Jason Moran, someone like that. Like those, he has a steady trio, with Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. The trio holds its own on six of ten cuts here, with Glasper playing sharp and fleet, and the drummer standing out. Two more cuts feature Mark Turner's snaky tenor sax, making you want to hear more. The other two cuts have Bilal scatting or ululating, making you want to hear less. Don't have a strong feeling one way or another. B
Anders Jormin: Xieyi (1999 , ECM): Mostly a solo bass record, and a rather slow, sedate one at that, but it draws my attention. The exceptions are six short pieces for brass quartet (trumpet or flugelhorn, french horn, trombone, bass trombone), which are slight and elegant. A record this slight could easily slip by without getting proper notice. B+(*)
Arild Andersen Group: Electra (2002-03 , ECM): This sneaks up on you, developing into a fascinating piece of music. In some sense this takes Andersen back to Masqualero, the early '90s group he led with future jazztronica trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, but it also seems quite unprecedented. Andersen's recent albums have stayed within conventional bounds for a major bassist -- piano trios, small groups, rare solos. He composes, but he's never led a ten piece group through an eighteen part suite before. The group is in no way conventional: four members are vocalists, with Savina Yannatou (who has a couple of good ECM records to her credit) and Chrysanthi Douzi taking the leads; three more members work with drums, or four if you count the bassist's drum programming, but the most important is the return of Molvaer. That leaves Eivind Aarset's guitars sculpting textures on top of Andersen's bass, and Arve Henriksen's typically invisible trumpet. I'm guarded, as this is not the sort of thing I often go for, but it definitely merits further attention, and could move up a notch. [B+(***)]
Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Toward the Margins (1996 , ECM): Playing catch-up here. This is the first of three albums by the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, with Parker, Barry Guy, and (mostly) Paul Lytton on the acoustic side, Walter Prati, Marco Vecchi, and (mostly) Philipp Wachsmann on the electro side. This has the static feel of much purely experimental electronic music, a lot of farting around for little evident gain. So, yes, I still don't get it; so, yes, I'm still working on it. New record next. [B]
Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Eleventh Hour (2004 , ECM): In principle I approve. In practice, I still don't get it, but this seems a bit closer to the target. Some of this makes sense as avant-jazz, some fits the postclassical experimentalist mode more, with its premium of sound over structure -- conceptually more complex, for practical purposes weirder. I used to be interested in that mode, but lost track of the threads over the years. Interesting, but unclear. [B+(*)]
Bobo Stenson Trio: Serenity (1999 , ECM, 2CD): Another background disc, or two in this case -- the total doesn't run a lot over 80 minutes, but they decided not to cut it. As noted too often, I've never got the hang of describing piano trios -- what I like, what I don't, and why, but I know one when I hear one, and this one works. Calm, deliberately paced, subtle, refined, stately. None of those attributes can be depended on, but they all work here. One common denominator in all the better piano trio albums is that the bass and drums hold up their ends equally. Anders Jormin is often fascinating here. Jon Christensen, of course, is a given. By the way, Stenson was the leader on my all-time favorite Jan Garbarek album, Witchi-Tai-To. The leader of a close second in the Garbarek sweepstakes was Keith Jarrett, as frantic as Stenson is calm. A-
Bobo Stenson/Anders Jormin/Paul Motian: Goodbye (2004 , ECM): A slight fall-off here, which it's tempting to blame on the legendary but inconspicuous drummer -- Motian has made a career out of working with difficult pianists, going way back to Bill Evans. I suspect, however, that the songbook just doesn't have much lift to it, leaving more empty space, which idles Stenson and lets Jormin and Motian fill up in their own idiosyncratic ways. Still, this rewards close listening; you just have to snuggle up to the speakers more than usual. Given how many slow, meditative piano albums Manfred Eicher's produced in the last few years, maybe he should loosen up a bit and find someone who can play a little boogie woogie. B+(**)
Enrico Rava: Tati (2004 , ECM): Past 60 now, Rava's trumpet has slowed down, but his work schedule seems to have picked up. I've heard half a dozen albums by him in the past two years: all good, none great, mostly indistinguishable. This trio with pianist Stefano Bollani and Paul Motian is on the minimalist end musically, but ratings-wise near the middle of the pack. I'll hold it back for another spin, maybe some comparison listening -- something he's done should be on the HM list. [B+(**)]
Marc Johnson: Shades of Jade (2004 , ECM): Johnson is a bassist with a couple of quite good albums under his own name, and well over 100 sideman appearances. He recalls some favors here, especially from Joe Lovano and John Scofield, who are used lightly but to good effect. More important is Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias: Johnson plays bass in one of her two working trios, and here she co-wrote the songs in addition to holding down the piano. This starts off with Lovano turning in the most gorgeous work of his recent career, then hums along nicely, with Scofield taking a couple of fine turns, Elias consistently wonderful, the leader directing from the back. Joey Baron is on drums, Alain Mallet on organ. Can't quite place the latter, and still have doubts on my rating, although I've played this many times. [A-]
Hank Jones: For My Father (2004 , Justin Time): A delightful little piano trio, with George Mraz and Dennis Mackrel. Light touch, easy swing, not as boppish as he was fifty years ago, but he has no need to prove himself -- enough just to be himself. B+(***)
Sunny Murray: Perles Noires, Vol. I (2002-04 , Eremite): This is the first of two volumes of duos-plus between the veteran free jazz drummer and saxophonist Sabir Mateen. Only one cut is actually a duo. Dave Burrell (piano) joins on four, and his block chording on "Three Is a Crowd" is the best thing here. Louis Belogenis (tenor sax) and Alan Silva (bass) join for two cuts, including a tasty "Lonely Woman." Mateen's thankless job is to riff frantically, while Murray gets to dazzle. A very long trek through rough terrain, worth listening to, but wearing. And this one is only the start. B+(**)
Sunny Murray: Perles Noires, Vol. II (2004 , Eremite): More, much more. Aside from Murray and Sabir Mateen, in their expected roles, the guests are Oluyemi Thomas (bass clarinet and c-melody sax) on four cuts and John Blum (piano) on the other three. Thomas provides a greater contrast as a second horn than Louis Belogensis on the first one. Blum roughly approximates Dave Burrell's performance on the first volume. The two volumes are evenly matched, hard to choose, although I'd rather arbitrarily pick Vol. I for the real Burrell. B+(**)
Sheila Jordan + Cameron Brown: Celebration (2004 , High Note): She's been my favorite jazz vocalist ever since she waltzed away with Roswell Rudd's Flexible Flyer. I saw her once, doing a practicum at Harvard, where she was gracious to students a million miles away from her talent. When she did sing the clarity and resonance of her voice were astonishing, as is her ability to shift the words around to whatever time and mode strikes her fancy. She describes herself as "a little quirky, maybe an acquired taste." But I recall that when I played her for Phil Eder, a friend who had introduced me to plenty great jazz, her voice stopped him dead in his tracks. She came out of a coal town in Pennsylvania to chase Bird, landing his pianist Duke Jordan instead, who left her a name and a daughter. Her first recording was a song for George Russell, followed by Portrait of Sheila, then nothing more for fifteen years. She was close to fifty when she finally got the hang of a vocalist's career, and much of her work since then has been duets with bass only -- Harvie Swartz, then more recently Cameron Brown. This record is a set she sang at the Triad on her 76th birthday -- just her and Brown, plus one brief guest appearance by fellow vocalist Jay Clayton (who really is an acquired taste). The graciousness I saw at Harvard is still here, as is her skill at toying with her songs. The three medleys are the highlights, especially the one where "Fats Meets Bird." A-
Guillermo Klein: Una Nave (2002 , Sunnyside): An interesting bandleader from Argentina -- main instrument is piano, but plays some guitar and sings here as well. But he's mostly worked, as he does here, with large ensembles, at times the size of the band overwhelming. I find this a very mixed bag -- some sections really catch my ear, such as the trumpet intro to "La Ultima"; others strike me as skillful, and some leave me wondering why bother. The latter are often the vocal pieces, but I remain as fascinated by "Fascinating Rhythm" as anyone. Impressive enough to recommend, but not without caveats, and confusing enough I doubt I can do it justice -- whatever that may entail. B+(*)
Guillermo Klein y Los Gauchos: Live in Barcelona (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): A different band, including many Fresh Sound New Talents, far more easily recognized than the Argentines on Una Nave -- Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry, Gorka Benitez, Ben Monder, Jeff Ballard, Carme Canela. But still a big band, still a lot of texture, still an odd if occasionally exhilarating mix, still confusing. I give this one a slight edge, more for consistency than anything else. B+(**)
The Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet: Be Music, Night (2004 , Okka Disk): Ken Vandermark's favorite charity. With a front line of Brötzmann, Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson, Joe McPhee, and Jeb Bishop, they are the heavyweight champs in avant-noise. But this record is different in that it features Mike Pearson's homage to Kenneth Patchen. The noise builds fast and furious to start, but takes several breaks as Pearson recites Patchen's poetry, sometimes alone, often with light comping -- light volume that is, Gustafsson's bari sax not so light in any other regard. The range and mix make this more palatable than most of its predecessors, the spoken word providing a dry counterpoint to the potential overkill. Along the way I noticed a remarkable guitar-like section. No guitar in the cast, so I suspect that was the work of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. B+(**)
Cedar Walton: Underground Memoirs (2005, High Note): Solo piano. One original (the title song), the other pieces more/less standards, a mix of songbook and bop-era pieces like "Milestones" and "Con Alma." Hard for me to gauge, but sounds lovely. Still working on it. [B+(**)]
The Bad Plus: Suspicious Activity? (2005, Columbia): Still impressive in their individual skills, still loud together. Other than that, I'm having a hard time making much sense out of this. "Chariots of Fire" doesn't help, either. I still consider them to be an important group, and will give them more time. It's unlikely that this will ultimately flop, but their previous albums succeeded quickly, and this one doesn't. Do like a couple of the titles: "The Empire Strikes Backwards," "O.G. (Original Gentleman)." Where there's wit there's hope. [B+(*)]
Steve Lacy/Joëlle Léandre: One More Time (2002 , Leo): One of a series of "farewell concerts" that Lacy gave moving back to the US from France -- the farewell made all the more poignant when Lacy passed away. When Lacy picked up the straight soprano sax in the '50s the instrument was identified almost exclusively with Sidney Bechet. Since then, and despite increased competition, it's belonged to Lacy -- all the more remarkable since he has rigorously pursued a career on the edge of the avant-garde, based in Paris, recording numerous albums on widely scattered small labels, often styled as explorations into the apparently inexhaustible inspiration of Thelonious Monk. This one is both typical and exemplary: a duo with bassist Joëlle Léandre, who provides a dense undertow to Lacy's consistent probing. It's basic to his sound, his approach. It's one to remember him by. A-
Joe Giardullo: No Work Today: Nine for Steve Lacy (2004 , Drimala): Seven originals plus two Lacy pieces, all played on solo soprano sax. It's limited conceptually -- solo anything is bound to be marginal, and musically it slipstreams in Lacy's wake. But that may be a too narrow way of looking at what is in its own right a remarkable performance. And now that Lacy has died it may be all the more valuable to recognize that he lives on. [B+(***)]
Paraphrase: Pre-Emptive Denial (2005, Screwgun): Another exercise in how graphic design can obscure even the simplest discographical details. Group name seems to be Paraphrase. (Front cover is ambiguous, but Spine implies that, and back cover exclaims "Meet the Paraphrase.") Alternatively, the artist's own names also grace the front cover -- Tim Berne, Drew Gress, Tom Rainey -- so one could file this under Berne et al. and construe Paraphrase to be part of the title. On the other hand, the record could hardly be more clear. Two long group improvs, distinguished from most such inventions by a relatively steady pulse, with Berne mostly working inside a cage framed by Rainey's drums. The pieces ebb and flow, with minimal sections of solo bass, and maximal power when all three play flat out. I've been slowly warming up to Berne over the years -- a Julius Hemphill disciple who stayed true, in the past he's often made music ambitious beyond his reach, but his recent stretch of records have grown more measured and more focused as a result. This is the best one I've heard, a possible pick hit. A-
Jacob Garchik: Abstracts (2004 , Yestereve): Garchik is a trombonist based in New York, plays in a large number of local groups, including a few I've heard of. This is a trio with Jacob Sacks on piano and Dan Weiss on drums. The eight pieces are designated Abstracts, numbers 1-8. Free jazz, sharply played, the instrumental mix interesting. B+(**)
Aram Shelton: Arrive (2001 , 482 Music): Shelton plays alto sax. Based in Chicago, he fits roughly into the Vandermark orbit, an association underscored by Jason Roebke and Tim Daisy here. This would be a typical avant-sax trio, but it's not: it has a fourth wheel, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, which adds a distinctive twist. Most vibes players, going back to when Lionel Hampton traded his sticks in for mallets, are primarily into rhythm, but one thing Adasiewicz does here is to exploit the instrument's tone to add a harmonic dimension to the trio. B+(**)
David Hazeltine: Modern Standards (2004 , Sharp Nine): Bacharach and Mancini, let alone Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim, don't exactly strike me as Moderns. Nor are the Beatles and Bee Gees and Isley Brothers cutting edge. Nor is the bold march beyond Johnny Mercer necessarily a good thing. But few of these concerns matter much for a pianist as deft as Hazeltine. He's a superb mainstream pianist, and he keeps these songs light and lively. This is one I've been sitting on the fence on for a long time now, and it's still on the cusp. B+(***)
Julius Tolentino: Just the Beginning (2005, Sharp Nine): First album by a young alto saxist who probably likes Jackie McLean's swing records (though not his Ornette records) as much as he digs Bird. He's got a good tone and steady execution. Jeb Patton plays some flashy piano. Five of eight cuts include Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Steve Davis on trombone, and they swing "Domingo" even harder than Benny Golson intended. The closer is an an original, "Letter to Illinois," written after Jacquet's death, played with just piano accompaniment, very nice. He's working in an old style, but this doesn't feel retro, pinched or pinned down. Just feels like his comfort zone. [B+(***)]
Sergi Sirvent: Free Quartet (2003 , Fresh Sound New Talent): More like a piano trio with a double dose of drums. The extra drums accent the angularity of the rhythms, as Sirvent plays an intriguing program with three Ornette Coleman tunes, some originals and group improvs. B+(**)
Rick Germanson: You Tell Me (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Mainstream piano trio, sure of foot, bright, vibrant, richly played. No real complaints, but virtues like that don't go all that far either. B
Bryn Roberts: Ludlow (2003-04 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Another new pianist/composer, placed in a quartet with Seamus Blake on tenor sax, Drew Gress on bass, and Mark Ferber. Blake dominates the sound, playing at his usual level, his scattered runs roughing up the otherwise lush postbop sound. B+(*)
Jackie Coon: The Joys of New Orleans (1993 , Arbors): Cover says, "All sales proceeds donated to the Jazz Foundation of America for the benefit of New Orleans Musicians' relief." Looks like they pulled this old tape off the shelf for just that purpose. Don't know how old Coon is, but he recorded back in the mid-'50s with Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard. Most trumpeters also pack a flugelhorn these days, but Coon is unique among trad jazz players in preferring the larger horn, and he sticks to it here, with Connie Jones complementing him on cornet. Strikes me as ordinary New Orleans fare, regardless of the cause, a good one no doubt. B
Saturday, November 5. 2005
New Recycled Goods posted today on Static Multimedia. Dated November 2005, this is my 25th column, pushing the reviewed album count past 1000. It's a big job -- I barely scratch the surface on all the new old music out there, the particular choices depending more on what I get my hands on than extensive research and careful selection. This column, more than most, feels a bit like a mop-up operation. The Sublime Frequencies records, in particular, have been sitting around for quite a while, not making much sense until Choubi Choubi showed up and made an impression. I generally hold back as long as it takes to get a reliable fix on a record, which for particularly frustrating items -- the Mary Lou Williams is a prime example -- can take a good while. Still, the main reason for the mop-up feel this time comes from the schedule. I entered this cycle with half a column's left over from the previous month, and the leftovers, for obvious reasons, tend to be somewhat weaker records. Then I spent most of the month working on new jazz, until I found myself close to the deadline needing to crunch down. So that's when I scoured the shelves for easy numbers: Herb Alpert, Bill Bruford, the ZE comps, Blue Note's faux disco, the Putumayos. For now, it's back to Jazz Consumer Guide. Hope I get that done by mid-month, so I have enough time for December Recycled Goods to listen to some of those holiday box sets.
By the way, I went with Choubi Choubi over Kirk-Hibbler for the Pick Hit picture because: a) Kirk-Hibbler is an older, all but impossible-to-find import; b) Choubi is the best of the Sublime Frequencies records, which is the biggest block reviewed; c) I felt like it would be good to feature a world record instead of two jazz records; d) I liked the cover better. Of course, it's also possible that there was an: e) don't have a publicist contact for Kirk-Hibbler, whereas I have two for Choubi. There's a whiff of payola in all the reviews I do -- indeed, in all the reviews that almost everyone does. It would be impossible to do this kind of work without the support of the publicists. I don't think that has any effect on the ratings -- the records I buy (8 here, out of 44) grade higher, in large part because I wouldn't buy them if I didn't have reason to expect them to be good records. The much larger role that the publicists play is in selecting what I hear -- why, for instance, I review Putumayo and Narada and Nonesuch but not Rough Guide is something you might want to take up with the latter's publicist.
Friday, November 4. 2005
More news than there is time to sort it out. I won't bother with the widely discussed legal problems of the big cheese Republicans. But I did chuckle when Billmon quoted Frist attacking the Democrats for having no convictions and pointed out that the famed cat surgeon may wind up with one of his own.
I have some more things backed up to write about, but I've been tied up with other projects. Waiting for Recycled Goods to post.
Two postscripts (added Nov. 5):