Wednesday, December 28. 2005
The Village Voice published my year-end top ten jazz list, titled Fractious Solidarity for Troubled Times. This, along with Nate Chinen's list, was published as a sidebar to Francis Davis's featured piece.
This turned out to be a rather awkward list for me to put together. Not a difficult one: I just took 8 of the 9 top jazz albums from my annual list, then tacked on Sirone Bang and the big Vandermark 5 box from only slightly lower down the list than the two I skipped over: Scott Hamilton and Gerry Hemingway. One consequence is that the list is very strongly tilted toward the avant-garde. One reason that was awkward is because I don't normally think of myself as a free jazz partisan -- I like some things in almost every shape and form, and try to keep some balance in the Jazz Consumer Guide, but this year 9 of 10 records were well to the left of mainstream. (The exception is Tommy Smith, doing an exceptionally mainstream set.) So I worry a bit that I'm turning into a shrew here, but having listened to more than 500 new records this year, probably 75% of them jazz, I have to say that this list is where the excitement lies.
The other record I skipped was the Monk/Coltrane At Carnegie Hall, picked #1 by Davis and Chinen and damn near everyone else who's put a jazz record on their list. Aside from the big orchestra at Town Hall, it is probably the best live Monk album ever, and once Coltrane gets a chance to latch onto a standard it ranks as one of the few really satisfying early (pre-Giant Steps) Coltrane performances. So I had no qualms about giving it an A and featuring it in Recycled Goods, but I didn't include it in my list because I didn't get anything new out of it. (That's basically why I skipped over Hamilton, whose album was a more return to form than anything new.)
Beyond Monk, not much consensus in these three lists. Davis and Chinen both included Vijay Iyer's Reimagining, which I would have listed top-30. My only intersection with Davis was Craig Harris, but most of the Davis list is somewhere on my A-list (Monk, Charlie Haden, Randy Sandke, Iyer, Sonny Rollins, Billy Bang, Gerald Wilson, Harris, Roswell Rudd; also in the fine print: Ravi Coltrane, Jim Hall, Ted Nash, Marc Ribot, Triptych Myth, David S. Ware, Dianne Reeves). My A-list currently runs to 63 jazz albums (out of 400 rated).
Tuesday, December 27. 2005
I filed my Pazz & Jop ballot, dividing 100 points among ten 2005 albums:
Didn't file a singles ballot this year. I don't listen to singles except in the context of albums, so don't think of them much. Aside from Rigby and West, I'd be hard pressed to identify any singles on any of these uniformly excellent albums.
The breakdown here is: 3 jazz albums, 4 hip-hop (3 underground), 2 world (Mali and Algeria, although France could claim both), 1 Nashville singer-songwriter. These came from a constantly evolving A-list that currently totals 106 records, and seems likely to grow beyond 130. (The 2004 A-list list totalled 97 records when I made a frozen copy back on Jan. 10, 2005, but subsequent discoveries have extended it to 119 records.) For once, I didn't just use the top ten. To do so would have given me 6 jazz albums, which would be fair inasmuch as that reflects what I've listened to this year -- 63 of this year's 106 A-list albums are jazz. And progressive, given that I believe that jazz should be taken more seriously as popular music. But having just submitted a top ten jazz list to the Voice already, I wanted to list a few things I hadn't mentioned before, even another jazz album -- Granelli, a real delight.
The real problem with these lists is that the short length combined with the fractured growth of the domain they're selected from is making them increasingly arbitrary. Back when I voted in the late-'70s it was relatively easy to pare the list down. But it's not just that there are more records these days, and that they are harder to compare, it's also that I don't live with favorite records like I used to. I've been so rushed this year that aside from Rigby I don't think I've played any record on this list as much as twice between when I initially wrote about it and when I started working on year-end list.
A couple years ago I devised a P&J-like poll for contributors to Robert Christgau's website. I added one wrinkle to the formula, which was to allow voters to list as many records as they felt like. Records #11-20 would get 3 points each; #21-30 get 2 points each; any beyond #30 gets 1 point. The extra points don't have much effect on the standings, but you get many more albums -- most voters came in with 20-30 records, with a few like me approaching 100 -- and you get better data, in large part because you lose the incentive to not list something you like.
I'm working on year-end comments and a round-up Recycled Goods, so more on that soon.
Tuesday, December 20. 2005
Two numbers struck me in reading about the California execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams:
The next guy up on California's death row is Clarence Ray Allen, a 76-year-old blind diabetic convicted of contracting a murder in 1980. I don't want to delve into the question of whether these individuals deserve to die. I don't know the details, haven't weighed the arguments, and don't much care. It's not that I'm indifferent to the crimes, or sympathetic to those convicted of them. Williams was convicted of murdering four people, shotgunned point blank, during commission of two robberies within a couple of weeks -- a ghastly crime. When I say I don't care, what I mean is that capital punishment is a state policy -- to evaluate it you have to look at the state, not at the condemned or their crimes.
That's where these numbers loom large. In California at least capital punishment has become absurd. The 25 years it typically takes to execute someone undercuts the relationship between crime and punishment. In Williams' case it means the person California executed is no longer the gangster who murdered four people -- he's also a children's book author admired by many for the stand he's taken against gang violence. In Allen's case it means the state will wind up executing a sick old man likely to die soon anyway. The net effect is that the executions can be viewed not as consequences of crime but as separate crimes committed by the state in the service of politicians. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has play-killed hundreds of characters in movies, but now he's really killed two people by signing death warrants.
The delays come from several sources. One is due dilligence to make sure the facts have been properly ascertained and the law has been faithfully applied. The legitimacy of the state depends on people accepting that its justice is just, and executing a wrong person is damaging. Another is that we've gradually increased our respect for human life, and decreased our deference to the state. Many nations have given in to the logic of these trends, but in America popular opinion and political opportunism managed to keep capital punishment going.
A few years ago I tried to write an argument for a pro-capital punishment position. I have no real beef with the idea that some people deserve to be put to death -- it's not like I'm "pro-life" -- although most of the examples I can think of come from the world of politics, where it's possible to kill on an extraordinary scale. Given when and where I grew up, the first person I think of as a mass murderer is Richard Nixon, whose cynical prosecution of the Vietnam war, including its extension into Cambodia, killed more or less a million people, not counting the suffering he inflicted here. On the other hand, once he resigned from office he ceased to be threat to the world. And while I would have preferred that he be punished, it's hard to think of any punishment commensurate to his crimes. Politics turns out to be a tricky matter when it comes to great crimes, since political power often decides what crime is, and capital punishment just renders that verdict terminal. More often than not, such power is used to rid nations' rulers of their political opponents -- even in the U.S. one can find an example in the purely political execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Aside from the Rosenbergs, most executions in the U.S. are of common criminals, mostly convicted of murder. Most are poor and had inadequate legal representation. A disproportionate percentage are black, which reinforces the perception that the justice system in America is racially biased. One reason the appeal process is so lengthy is that the initial trials are often dubious. This, as much as anything, is because we depend on an adversarial system to seek justice, but the state's resources far exceed the defendant's. A recent cartoon summed this up thusly: "a jury trial is when twelve jurors listen to both sides and pick the one with the best lawyer." In other words, the courts weigh evidence but don't seek truth on their own. The result is disputation and doubt. We try to compensate in the appeals process, but that's subject to politics where one side seeks to short-circuit the process and the other tries to keep it going indefinitely. Thanks to the politics, the death penalty is applied very inconsistently across the nation, which leads to the sort of absurdity we're seeing in California.
The conclusion I came to was the one that most of Europe and much of the world has come to, which is that capital punishment should be abandoned. The argument that finally convinced me is that it is important that we limit the powers of the state, and the most basic limit is to deny the state the right to kill. It's clear to me that politicians cannot be trusted with such power. Also that politicians who have that power are more likely to use it outside of the legal system -- Bill Clinton and George W. Bush got their first taste of blood as governors approving executions, like Schwarzenegger, before they moved on to greater war crimes.
The death penalty still exists in the U.S. because it's popular in the abstract even though it's absurd in practice. As Todd Snider put it, "in America we like our bad guys dead" -- a logic that not only supports capital punishment at home but favors assassination, torture and war abroad. Getting rid of the death penalty would mean that we learn to manage our bad guys, if necessary by keeping them in jail for the rest of their lives, instead of killing them. It would take the state out of the death business. It would mean that politicians can't show how tough they are by signing death warrants. It would end one obvious proof of racist discrimination. It would clear up many of the appeals that clog up the court system. It would simplify what are now capital cases, making them more likely to seek truth and distancing them from vengeance.
An example of the benefits of discarding the death penalty is the case of Dennis Rader, aka BTK, here in Wichita. Rader killed ten people in 1974-91 before finally being apprehended this year. His crimes are as heinous as those of anyone executed recently. (I suppose you could make a case for Timothy McVeigh on sheer numbers, but McVeigh never knew his victims as intimately as Rader.) But he wasn't tried as a capital case. The trial was short and to the point. He confessed to the crimes, was convicted and will not appeal. He was given ten life terms, and will spend the rest of his life in jail. Case closed.
Rader, and Kansas, lucked out because there was no death penalty law in force when the murders occurred, and the current law has been ruled unconstitutional (although rabid right-wing Attorney General Phill Kline is appealing that ruling; in any case, no one has been executed in Kansas since 1976, although seven people were on death row when the law was overturned).
Monday, December 19. 2005
With the 7th Jazz Consumer Guide now printed by the Village Voice, this starts the prospect search for its successor, JCG #8. Top part are snap judgments, mostly on first impressions. Any grades in brackets are approximate, subject to further listening/revision. Bottom part are final grades based on relistening. Going into this round, I have 35-40 records I've put back for further review, while the shelf of new jazz is relatively bare -- maybe ten, mostly 2006 advances and a couple of holiday things that invariably bring out the bah humbug in me. I'm expecting to do one of these per week until the column closes. May be spotty until after January 1, since I'll be juggling various year-end tasks until then.
Kenny Burrell: Prestige Profiles (1956-63 , Prestige): I still haven't come to grips with Legacy's big guitar box, so perhaps should withhold my generalizations until then. Burrell is one of several second tier guitarists to come out of the bop ferment -- the top tier is Wes Montgomery, and everyone else is arguable (Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel, Mundell Lowe, Grant Green, Joe Pass). The problem here isn't Burrell, whose solos are fluid and imaginative. The problem is Prestige, whose quickie product process did little to help their artists develop. That hardly hurt for artists like Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Lockjaw Davis, Gene Ammons, or others who were already on top of their game. But for Burrell it meant throwing him into the studio with random sets of musicians, including dominant voices like Hawkins and Coltrane. This tries to sort out the mess, latching on to cuts with fine guitar solos, but even selecting for Burrell they're mostly cuts where everyone takes a solo, even the bassists. B+(*)
The Red Garland Quintets Featuring John Coltrane: Prestige Profiles (1957-61 , Prestige): And Donald Byrd, for the quintessential bebop quintet lineup. Except for one piece with a different quintet, with Richard Williams and Oliver Nelson. Starts with "Billie's Bounce," which never sounded more retro. Best thing here is Garland's own "Soul Junction," with a long intro that lets you enjoy the piano, before Coltrane enters like he's easing into a warm bath. B+(**)
Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar (1906-2001 , Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): Guitar has always had a problematic place in jazz. It's been present since the beginning, but hasn't had a consistent role or focus like other instruments. In part this is because technology has transformed the sound of guitar more than any other instrument -- electric amplification, effects devices. But it's also because most guitar developments took place outside of jazz, so jazz guitarists often import musical ideas along with the technology. The idea behind this box is to cover it all, but that's a tough job, especially as one gets into the home stretch. In the early days guitar was almost exclusively a rhythm instrument -- so much so that Eddie Condon and Freddie Green were famous for was never taking solos. The improvisers were more likely to come from elsewhere -- the first disc here widens the net to pick up bluesmen Lonnie Johnson and Casey Bill Weldon, western swingers Leon McAulliffe and Eldon Shamblin, and notables from the far ends of the earth: Sol Hoppii (Hawaii), Oscar Alemán (Argentina), and Django Reinhardt (France). Charlie Christian might have changed everything, but he died in 1942, and his legacy -- bebop-inflected lines cleanly picked on electric guitar -- developed gradually through the '50s, culminating in Wes Montgomery. The second disc here covers this period rather loosely, including Les Paul and Chet Atkins as well as the usual suspects. While the first two discs make for interesting archaeology, the subject gets messier for the other two, and the chronology breaks down. The third disc introduces fusion, again starting with a notable outsider, Jimi Hendrix, followed by John McLaughlin. The fourth disc recasts fusion into smoother groove music, with examples including Eric Gale and Larry Carlton. But neither disc focuses at all tightly. The third includes tastes as varied as George Benson, Sonny Sharrock, Derek Bailey, John Abercrombie, and Ralph Towner, while the fourth has James Ulmer, Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Marc Ribot. So this covers a lot of ground. It's tempting to add that it also misses much, but that's mostly because the raw numbers and stylistic variety of jazz guitarists have exploded in the last twenty years, and it's too soon to figure out what that means. A box of any other instrument would have similar problems, but guitar much more so. All this jumping around limits the box's listenability, especially on Disc 4. But then the box is best viewed as a reference set, and the 144-page booklet is by far the best thing here. B+(***)
Kenny Drew Trio (1956 , Riverside): Bright, sharply etched bebop piano trio with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, buoyed with standards that always stand out, notably "Caravan," "Taking a Chance on Love," "It's Only a Paper Moon." B+(***)
Bill Evans Trio: At Shelly's Manne Hole (1963 , Riverside): The end of Evans' run at Riverside, with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker balancing out the trio. Understated but clever how they inch around standards as well worn as "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and "'Round Midnight" without getting predictable. B+(***)
The Essential Sonny Rollins: The RCA Years (1962-64 , RCA/Legacy, 2CD): Rollins established his reputation in the late '50s, then stopped recording in 1959. He finally returned to the studio three years later with an album called The Bridge, and followed that up with six more LPs in rapid succession. Rollins left RCA for Impulse, where he recorded three more albums up to 1966, then he took another leave, not recording until 1972 when he signed with Milestone. Rollins' RCA recordings have never been accorded much fame, although they've been kept more or less consistently in print, and wrapped up in a 6-CD box with the usual outtakes. The meetings with Don Cherry and Coleman Hawkins reinforced Rollins' status as a loner, but his quartets with Jim Hall showcased some fascinating guitar. Lurking in the background is the haunting question of what Rollins should do viz. the avant-garde -- this was, after all, the period when John Coltrane emerged as his great rival. But there is no answer to that question -- despite the later interest of folks like Ken Vandermark in Rollins' '60s recordings, the great man's own belated answer was to return to form. This is a useful sampler of his RCA work, but what makes it so compelling isn't how well it represents the period -- it's that it consistently finds Rollins' great voice in a rather mixed bag, and as such redeems a body of work we've always been uncertain about. A
Art Pepper: Winter Moon (1980 , Galaxy): Saxophone-with-strings has been a holy grail, sought by many but rarely with any success. The problem has usually been the strings. Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins played majestically against mediocre semiclassical string arrangements. One major exception is Stan Getz's Focus, where Eddie Sauter's arch-modernist strings actually steal the show. But no album combines the lush texturing of strings with saxophone more organically than this one. A+
Marian McPartland: Piano Jazz With Guest Teddy Wilson (1978 , The Jazz Alliance): Of course, it's ridiculous trying to rate records like this. This is one of McPartland's "Piano Jazz" radio programs, where she talks shop with a guest, plays a little piano, has the guest play, does a duet or two -- almost everything is improvised on the spot. She's been doing this since 1978 -- no telling how many of these programs she's done, but AMG lists 32 titles up to 2002. That's when Concord slashed their back catalog. Since then Concord redesigned the artwork and has started reissuing select old titles, like this one, plus a few new ones, like Elvis Costello and Bruce Hornsby. Those numbers suggest that they try to be selective about what they release -- there must be hundreds of interviews to choose from. However, given the format, this is the sort of thing that can be fascinating to hear once, but inevitably becomes distracting to replay. To a large extent, grading records is an attempt to estimate how much future replay pleasure they may hold. How valuable these are depends not just on who the guest is, but on how curious you are about the guest; given how technical the conversation can turn, it may depend on whether your curiosity is also technical. That's the sort of thing I can't evaluate at all, so I tend to grade these things within a relatively narrow band. Turning to this particular show, from McPartland's first season, the obvious point is that Wilson is one of the most important jazz pianists ever, but also that he is a very deliberate and studious performer. He talks a good deal about Benny Carter, who first hired him, and Art Tatum, who he was close to before they both moved to New York. He also talks about John Hammond, Fats Waller, some guy named Horowitz who plays classical music. He doesn't talk about Billie Holiday, whose name currently resides on many records that originally came out under his name, and he doesn't bite on any of the bait McPartland throws out about his skills as an accompanist. All that is interesting, as is the piano. I'm glad I heard it. I'm also glad I didn't have to pay for it, even though at $11.98 list the label meets you part way. And I doubt that I'll play it again, unless I have some specific research to do. B+(*)
Marian McPartland: Piano Jazz With Guest Steely Dan (2002 , The Jazz Alliance): Usual format, but she's a bit out of her league here. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were the most jazz literate of pop stars, so they come off as knowing more about her world than she does of theirs. She compensates for that with shameless flattery. On the other hand, the generation gap is apparent when McPartland reminiscences about Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, mere idols to her guests. Closes with "Chain Lightning" and "Black Friday" -- the Steely Dan pieces include bass and drums, for a full sound. B
Marian McPartland: Piano Jazz With Guest Bruce Hornsby (2003 , The Jazz Alliance): Here I'm at a disadvantage, in that I've never heard Hornsby's records -- got warned off him early, and never ventured there. As a pianist he gets compared to Elton John a lot, but the conversation here revolves more around Powell and Evans. He's very forthright, enthusiastic. His most interesting stories were about playing with the Grateful Dead. On the other hand, I still don't have any real feel for his music, and none of his originals here made much of an impression. Did like his boogie woogie version of "Blue Monk." Grade is pretty arbitrary. B-
Marian McPartland: Piano Jazz With Guest Elvis Costello (2003 , The Jazz Alliance): Costello sings here, playing a tiny bit of piano at the end. Talks about his father, also a singer. Talks about how he wrote "Almost Blue" with Chet Baker in mind, singing it and a couple of Baker's standards. Displays some gratuitous range and operatic flair. McPartland plays well as an accompanist, but she tends to bring out the worst in Costello, and the music never steps beyond slow, gloomy ballads. B
Diana Krall: Christmas Songs (2005, Verve): I've read that Christmas records outsell jazz records, a rather appalling factoid. Hopefully, this record will at least confuse the issue. She's a terrific singer. The songs are mostly crap. The Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra fades away toward the end, but they have a lot of fun with "Jingle Bells" -- enough so that for a while I found myself wondering whether this was the best Xmas album since Ella. But I gave up that notion, and don't consider it a subject for further research. B
Craig Chaquico: Holiday (2005, Higher Octave): The guitar effects sometimes obscure the songs, which are otherwise pretty obvious. Relatively painless compared to what's playing in the malls these days -- but beware that the last song has vocals. C+
Anita Baker: Christmas Fantasy (2005, Blue Note): This closes with the non-traditional "These Foolish Things" for a pleasant note of normalcy after a ride that started by ragging "Frosty the Snowman" and threatened to expire when "O Come, All Ye Faithful" got stung by the Yellow Jackets. This is trite fair for torching, but it doesn't succumb to our greatest fears -- just flirts with the trivial ones. B-
Dr. John and the Lower 911: Sippiana Hericane (2005, Blue Note): Mac Rebennack owes his career to the Big Easy, and here rushes out a quickie to pay a bit back. (Proceeds go to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the Jazz Foundation of America and The Voice of the Wetlands.) The emphasis is on quickie, with the first cut (reprised at the end) little more than an extemporaneous moan, and the bulk of the album filled up by a "Hurricane Suite" that could have been transcribed from CNN. Not much thought went into the title either. Graded leniently. B
Michaël Attias: Credo (1999 , Clean Feed): Brief bio: born Israel 1968, Moroccan parents, grew up in France, played violin as a child before taking up alto sax, moved to New York in 1994, studied with Lee Konitz and Anthony Braxton. Attias has been a steady sideman downtown, composes, released his "first" album early in 2005, a fine trio called Renku with John Hebert and Satoshi Takeishi. Now comes an earlier set, a complex series of trio, quartet and sextet pieces -- where the later album is elegant in its simplicity, this one is as tangled as his roots. He explains these pieces referring to Israel, France and Morocco, but "Hot Mountain Song"'s fiddle reminds me more of the Ozarks, and the Torah-based "Berechit" sounds to me, and perhaps to bassist Chris Lightcap, like old-time Mingus. B+(**)
Zé Eduardo/Jack Walrath Quartet: "Bad Guys" (2004 , Clean Feed): Walrath has had twenty-some records under his own name over the last quartet century, but he's largely faded from sight. A major web retailer only lists four of his records -- none of the ones he cut for Blue Note and Muse, only one since 1996's Hip Gnosis. So my first reaction was a welcome back, but even here, he's on a Portuguese label and the local bassist gets top billing. The quartet fills out with Jesus Santandreu on tenor sax, who complements but doesn't compete with the trumpet, and Marc Miralta on drums -- often the most interesting player here. This quartet lineup has produced some of the year's best albums, but they depend on bounds-stretching performances on all four corners, whereas here the players keep one another in check. Not bad, by any means, but certainly not as bad as they promised. B+(*)
Hard Cell (Berne+Taborn+Rainey): Feign (2005, Screwgun): This came out before the Paraphrase album, but I didn't get it until afterwards. Both are trios, the difference swapping Drew Gress on bass for Craig Taborn on piano. This trio recorded previously on The Shell Game, and on a couple more albums with guitarist Marc Ducret, so this is a group that knows its ins and outs. Still, this strikes me as a typical Berne record rather than an extraordinary one -- it fractures pieces into abstraction rather than pulling them together. Could be I just need to give it a bit more time. [B+(***)]
Deanna Witkowski: Length of Days (2005, ArtistShare): She plays piano and sings, not the other way around. Her piano has a rough hewn adventurousness which seems orthogonal both to the Monk and Ellington pieces here. Her quartet includes saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose first-listed soprano is as artful as his second-listed tenor is robust. On the other hand, her vocals are perplexing, if not downright annoying. The scats are meant more for harmony than for diversion. The songs are more ordinary. B
The Earl May Quartet: Swinging the Blues (2005, Arbors): A nice little swing quartet led by the veteran bassist, with pianist Larry Ham and alto saxist David Glasser contributing a few originals to go with the standards. The title comes from a Count Basie piece. The balance is neither all that bluesy or all that swinging -- the group's moderation is much of its charm -- but Glasser gets to air out his horn on Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" and Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In." Barry Harris spells Lam on two tracks. B+(*)
Bernardo Sassetti Trio˛: Ascent (2005, Clean Feed): My first reaction to this was the relatively useless one, that it is very pretty. On second spin, I recognize that there's more to it, including some rough edges of the Monkish persuasion. The superscript 2 appears to mean two extra players added to the piano trio: cello and vibes. I still don't have any fix on the vibes -- the music is well to the slow side, which doesn't sit well with the instrument. The cello, on the other hand, gets a fair amount of space. Don't know much about any of these people, other than that I've heard that Sassetti is the label's best-seller, and that a previous trio album with the same bass-drums shows up in the Penguin Guide with four stars. I'm impressed, surprised, want to know more. [B+(***)]
Scott Anderson/Nia Quintet: End of Time (2004 , BluJazz): Anderson's name is on the spine, but not the cover. He intends to work his music out within a standing group, but he still seems to be very much the leader. The quintet is your basic bop arrangement, with Anderson on trumpet, Daniel Nicholson on various saxophones and alto flute, piano, bass and drums. Sounds postbop to me, skillfully turned out, mostly upbeat, with a nice slow one to close. [B+(**)]
Joe Fielder Trio: Plays the Music of Albert Mangelsdorff (2003 , Clean Feed): The Penguin Guide describes Mangelsdorff as "the virtual inventor of modern German jazz." Following him, German jazz took a vigorously avant attack in the late '60s -- major figures in German jazz following him include Alexander von Schlippenbach, Peter Brötzmann, and Peter Kowald, their scope extending far beyond Germany. (Schlippenbach's big band was called the Globe Unity Orchestra, and the English avant-garde, in particular, was joined to the Germans.) Still, he's virtually unknown in America, and his discography is in terrible disrepair -- his work in John Lindberg's groups is the easiest to find, and relatively accessible. So this record is most welcome, all the more so because the trombone-bass-drums lineup strips his music down to bare essentials. [B+(***)]
The Crimson Jazz Trio: King Crimson Songbook, Volume One (2005, Voiceprint): Back in the '70s I picked up a double-LP called A Young Person's Guide to King Crimson, but I never made much headway with it, and barely remember it now. Picked up a couple other albums too, and again hardly remember them. A couple of weeks ago I got the two 4-CD boxes of The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, still unplayed on the shelf, but at least they've been elevated to the status of a project. I've long been curious about English prog rock -- back in the '70s it was something I paid a lot of attention to even though it often came up with things I didn't much care for. I didn't realize this at the time, but part of the fascination was how it was associated with jazz fusion. The central enigma of King Crimson may have been how the wretched English pastoralism of lyricist-singers Greg Lake and Pete Sinfield coexisted with instrumental improvisers like Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford. The boxes may shed some light on that, or just tote up the differences. This group -- Joey Nardone on piano, Tim Landers on fretless bass guitar, and Ian Wallace on drums -- is a different way to probe the sources. I don't have my bearings, but I'll note that as piano trios go this one is exceptionally dense and moving. Also, I like the bass sound Landers gets. Looks like a project. [B+(**)]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back the first time around.
Randy Reinhart: As Long as I Live (2004 , Arbors): A trad jazz sideman at least since 1994, playing cornet and trombone alongside the likes of Keith Ingham and Marty Grosz, this is Reinhart's first album as a leader. But really it's a group effort, and this is quite a group. Kenny Davern, Dan Barrett, and John Sheridan each make more of an impression than on their own recent Arbors albums, and guitarist James Chirillo has as many high points -- maybe Arbors should have given him an album too. B+(***)
Dominic Frasca: Deviations (2003 , Cantaloupe/Series Music): Minimalism done on 6- and 10-string guitar, the improv constructed not from notes but from whole looping segments. It's been done before on computers, but is especially attractive with the guitar harmonics. B+(***)
Mark Whitecage & the Bi-Coastal Orchestra: BushWacked: A Spoken Opera (2005, Acoustics): One lyric dates from 1776, addressed to a previous George who also had problems with insurgents; title dates from 1990, a previous Bush who meddled cavalierly in Iraq then left the mess to posterity; the rest are clippings from recent news, including reports on Ashcroft and Jesus; none of which matters as much on record as the anarchic jazz that swirls around the words. A-
Dominic Duval/Mark Whitecage: Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1 (2002 , Drimala): Aside from BushWacked, this is the only other Whitecage album I know, but I suspect it may be a good place to start with him. Accompanied by Duval's bass, Whitecage works through a set of exercises on clarinet, alto and soprano sax that give a good sense of his range and dynamics. He's an interesting player on the postbop left -- reminds me a bit of Jimmy Lyons in how he evolves and extends compositional fragments for improvisation. This is also a good place to hear Duval -- not a virtuoso, but he's been a workhorse, especially for Bob Rusch's CIMP label, and gets the last word here with a bass solo. This has been on my shelf for a while -- I wrote about it in my 2003 round-up, so it was already a bit old when I started my Jazz CG in 2004, but I think it would be useful to include it as an Honorable Mention along with BushWacked. A Vol. 2 came out later, with Joe McPhee in place of Whitecage -- also good, but I prefer this one. A-
Monday, December 12. 2005
The long awaited 7th Jazz Consumer Guide has been posted by the Village Voice. I got off to a slow start on this one, then spent a long time prospecting, so the ellapsed time since the last one is about 3.5 months. Next one will appear in early February, about two months from now. Quite a bit of stuff got pushed back, and my prospecting is well ahead of where it needs to be, so figure the next one is already half-done, maybe more. Next step will be to do a year-end list for the Voice -- strikes me as redundant given how much I've posted thus far, but maybe something surprising will strike this week.
One thing that's happened this round is that I've done a lot of reorganizing how I keep track of everything. The Jazz Consumer Guide master files have been moved to a new directory. The work files have been renamed based on series number, and each new work file when finished will have two adjunct files: one for prospecting, the other surplus. This cycle I wrote up seven batches of prospecting notes, posting a batch each week to the blog. The prospecting forced me to write some notes first time I listened to each new record. If I settled on a grade, I'd note it, otherwise I'd jot down a rough guess and return to the record later. The latter case would eventually generate a new prospect note with a final grade. For this cycle, I made notes on 212 records. Given leftover, I probably considered more than 300 records for this column. Inevitably, some (well, most) didn't make it. Some of those will get another shot next time, but let's get real: by next time I'll have more new records, and the old ones will just get older. Most won't ever make the squeeze, so having a surplus file gives me a way to say a few things about them.
The reviews in the surplus file are generally shorter than my notes: they're meant to sum up and move on. I'll accumulate surplus reviews as each cycle progresses, then post them on my blog when a column runs, pruning back to start the next cycle. Not everything I decide not to use will show up in surplus. If I review something in Recycled Goods, which is the fate of most reissues, there's no need to dupe it in surplus. Also, if I post a prospecting note on a record and feel like that's my final word on it, I also see no need to dupe it in surplus. One consequence of this is that I expect that surplus will get shorter in future cycles -- the main reason it's so long this time is that I'm dumping a lot of albums from before the period when I started prospecting.
This system doesn't make it easy to find any arbitrary record, but it does make a lot of information available for those who are interested enough to look. This will get easier when I come up with a guide on where to look, and easier still when I finally stuff all this data into a database. (Don't expect either soon.) I'm not making progress as fast as I'd like -- probably spending too much time listening and writing. Aside from the short reviews in prospecting and surplus, which are meant to be posted on the blog, my working files have what I call notes, which may be the same text as the reviews or may be different -- longer, shorter, whatever. The notes start out in the working file, then move to a holding file, then eventually get dumped into the notebook. The notebook is where I keep track of stuff. It includes almost everything that goes into the blog plus a lot of other stuff that these days is probably only of interest to me. Under the new scheme, there are three holding files for notes, which I call bk-print (the notes for records in future columns), bk-done (notes on rated records that are still candidates), and bk-flush (notes on rated records that are surplus). When I publish a column, bk-print and bk-flush are emptied (except for hold-overs) into the notebook.
The following are the surplus reviews from Jazz Consumer Guide #7. These are not the reviews held back for the next column. These are records that for one reason or another I'm done with, at least as regards the Jazz Consumer Guide. Space there is limited, and I try to cram in as much as I can. Consequently, I generally do not include records -- even very good ones -- that I've reviewed in Recycled Goods or that have been reviewed in the Village Voice by Francis Davis or others. (I'm one of those others. My Billy Bang piece in the Voice is to blame for the Bang albums below.) In addition to the following, I've dropped other albums from my working list. Some are albums I've already posted something on in my prospecting notes. Others have been reviewed in Recycled Goods. But most are just records that fell through the cracks: not bad or interesting enough for duds, not good and interesting enough for the too-short Honorable Mention list, sometimes just fringe records that got too old. That's unfortunate, but part of the reason I've gone to this much trouble here.
The cull this time netted 112 albums. The "done" file, which lists records rated and still in play, still has 160 albums, at least half of which will be culled next time. And so it goes.
Juhani Aaltonen: Mother Tongue (2002 , TUM): A Finnish saxophonist with a strong reputation from the '70s, Aaltonen had passed retirement age before TUM brought him back for three of their first seven releases. All three were reviewed in the 7th Ed. of the Penguin Guide, which is where I found out about them. I love the deep tone and precision of his tenor sax, but I've never quite come up with the review words and the records have aged further on my shelf. This one, with Finns on bass and drums, I flagged as TUM's "Pick Hit" in my labels piece. A-
Juhani Aaltonen/Reggie Workman/Andrew Cyrille: Reflections (2003 , TUM): This replaces the Finns with two famous Americans, who are worth following anywhere. Aaltonen plays more flute here, which I'm inclined to discount, but he plays it with rare authority. A-
Juhani Aaltonen and Henrik Otto Donner With the Avanti Chamber Orchestra: Strings Revisited (2003, TUM): Also with Workman and Cyrille, recorded at the same time as Reflections but released later. This recreates Aalton's 1976 Strings record. The strings are dark and swirling, casting shadows everywhere. And the sax works hard, like a collie herding sheep. B+(**)
Ahmed Abdullah's Ebonic Tones: Tara's Song (2004 , TUM): The Sun Ra trumpet player convenes a reunion, with Billy Bang among the alumni, and baritone saxist Alex Harding the lone ringer. Terrific fun, even with Abdullah's three vocals -- two goofball Sun Ra lyrics, and a note-perfect "Iko Iko." [Bang review in Voice] A-
Buyu Ambroise: Blues in Red (2004, Justin Time): Interesting tenor saxophonist from Haiti, in tone and dynamics reminds me a bit of Stan Getz. Album is long on piano, courtesy of Frederic La Fargeas, and short on rhythm, although there are guests cited for that sort of thing. One vocal is a distraction. Impressive when it comes together, which isn't often enough. B+(*)
Paul Anka: Rock Swings (2005, Verve): Pop songs of the recent era, which means rock songs, done up in big band arrangements. When Ray Charles did that he was a genius. When Anka does it he's not even Mitch Miller. C+
Peter Apfelbaum & the New York Hieroglyphics: It Is Written (2004 , ACT): While none of the pieces have more than ten musicians, the total roll call comes to twenty-six. Good people, too, which shows that Apfelbaum has taste even when he mostly misuses it. His own contribution ("woodwinds, keyboards, percussion") is hard to discern. B-
Atomic/School Days: Nuclear Assembly Hall (2003 , Okka Disk, 2CD): A mash-up of two bands, joined at their common bass-drums, who play loud on everything from free jazz to heavy metal. Atomic is based in Norway and led by Fredrik Ljungvkist. Ken Vandermark and Jeb Bishop form School Days' front line. Lots of heat but the fusion is incomplete even though they generate brilliant flashes. B+(**)
Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble: Musik (2004, Enja): The German spelling bespeaks old Europe, pre-jazz and pre-rock, a world where cosmopolitanism was unblemished by nationalism, where capitalism hasn't been trivialized into consumption, where socialism still had faith in its future. Atzmon's soprano sax has visceral impact, but the record turns on the vocal pieces, the weirdest about a happy virus. B+(*)
Billy Bang: Vietnam: Reflections (2004 , Justin Time): Fewer demons on Bang's second tour, where he teams with two Vietnamese-Americans and uses several traditional songs. The album lacks the raw power and paranoia of its predecessor, but moving on has ample rewards. [Bang review in Voice] A-
Denys Baptiste: Let Freedom Ring! (2003, Dune): The big band is longer on strings than brass, and while they swing they rarely elevate. Baptiste plays tenor sax, but doesn't stand out much. The four long pieces make political points, and Ben Okri's infrequent bits of poetry are actually a plus, but much as I like good politics, I prefer great music. B+(*)
Cheryl Bentyne: Let Me Off Uptown: The Music of Anita O'Day (2005, Telarc): Not a bad idea -- I'd like to encourage Bentyne's moonlighting, especially given how miserable her day job with Manhattan Transfer must be -- but for those of us who always wanted to hear more O'Day and less Billy May, bringing in Bill Holman doesn't exactly do the trick. B
Erin Bode: Don't Take Your Time (2004, MaxJazz): Her worst photo is on the cover, but better covers are inside: Bill Monroe, Stevie Wonder, Irving Berlin. B+(**)
Anthony Braxton/Matt Bauder: 2 + 2 Compositions (2003 , 482 Music): Both play sax and clarinet. Each contributes two compositions. The pieces tend to be notes with not much to connect them, leaving a puzzle of some interest, but the demands they put on the listener are rarely appreciated. Perhaps because the payoff is so modest. B
Zach Brock and the Coffee Achievers: Chemistry (2005, Secret Fort): Young violinist, trying to find a niche by trying on a little bit of everything. Found this annoying at first, but suspect he has a future, and one that might amount to something. B+(*)
Paul Brody's Sadawi: Beyond Babylon (2004, Tzadik): Post-postmodern klezmer, as Brody takes the works of Ben Goldberg, Frank London, David Krakauer and others as a starting point to push even further afield. Still, it stays closer to the book than many entries in Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series. B+(**)
Bucketrider: Guignol's Band (1998, Dr. Jim's): This was a research project that didn't quite pan out: a rockish avant-jazz band from Australia, led by trombonist James Wilkinson and saxophonists Adam Simmons and Timothy O'Dwyer. The have a half-dozen albums -- I've heard three. They're smart and clever, have some education, know some French, probably read Guy Debord, like toys. This is the most satisfying one I've heard: all have their rough spots and occasional patches of brilliance. B+(***)
Bucketrider: Le Baphomet (2001, Dr. Jim's): Similar in tone and construction to Guignol's Band, but the peaks are less amazing. B+(*)
Bucketrider: L'Événements (2004, Dr. Jim's): The booklet doesn't explain much more than that the events referred to date from May-June 1968 -- presumably the student-worker revolt. Constructed like a soundtrack, the pieces switch between soft scratches that do little and harsh noisefests that also do little. Still an interesting group, but not their best outting. B
Bull Fonda Duo: Cup of Joe, No Bull (2005, Corn Hill Indie): Katie Bull takes risks as a singer, but they don't often pay off. Her previous album, Love Spook, sat on my possible duds list until I decided it didn't matter any more. One reason is that this one, stripped down to a duo with bassist Joe Fonda, and larded with standards that provide more cover for her originals, presents her better. B+(*)
Greg Burk Trio: Nothing, Knowing (2003 , 482 Music): One of too many piano trios that please and impress me while leaving me speechless. He's young and knowledgeable. He plays dense chords and difficult changes, and the group is tightly wound with veterans Steve Swallow and Bob Moses, who in particular seems to be having a ball. Also on the shelf is an earlier quartet, Carpe Momentum (Soul Note), with the inimitable Jerry Bergonzi on board -- a tasty record that also left me tongue-tied. B+(**)
François Carrier Trio: Play (2000 , 482 Music): Nothing fancy, just a Canadian alto sax trio, rough and ready, out on the road. This is a record that appealed to me instantly, but when I never managed to write anything useful about it I started to have doubts, wondering whether it's just that I'm a sucker for rough, avant-ish sax trios. B+(***)
Bill Charlap: Plays George Gershwin The American Soul (2005, Blue Note): The four horns are as dapper as Charlap's trio, but the extra calories just slow down and soften the piano. The songbook, of course, has been done to death, so perhaps extreme measures are called for. But Charlap is anything but extreme. He reworks pieces extensively, then neatly tucks them back within themselves. Nothing wrong with this, nor with the horns. They're good for a mild sugar buzz, and a sweet smile. B+(*)
Bill Cole/William Parker: Two Masters: Live at the Prism (2004 , Boxholder): Cole has made a specialty out of playing odd wind instruments -- didgeridoo, shenai, sona, shenai, nagaswaram, hojok, various flutes -- and at least once turned his exotic interests into a really fine jazz album: Seasoning the Greens (Boxholder). However, two previous volumes of Duets & Solos wound up sounding thin and experimental. Parker is one of the world's great bassists, but he too has a fondness for exotic instruments, and is far less masterful when he indulges. The results are mixed -- one, called "Election Funeral Dance," sounds like the work of two snakes who've disposed of their charmers, but others are more agreeable and/or interesting. B+(*)
Ravi Coltrane: In Flux (2005, Savoy Jazz): He tracks the father he never knew as assiduously as Hank Williams Jr., but he keeps better company. His two albums thus far are so solidly crafted it's hard to nitpick, and it would be churlish to point out that he'll never be the genius his father was. [FD in Voice] A-
Eric Comstock: No One Knows (2005, Harbinger): At first he sounds like he the next Sinatra-wannabe, then you notice he's aiming more at Pizzarelli. A patch of three Strayhorn/Ellington pieces shows you how carefully he navigates, but also how cautious he can be. And he continues pulling his punches to the end -- must be a stylistic trait. Smart as far as it goes, and he does have impeccable taste in musicians. B+(**)
Harry Connick Jr.: Occasion: Connick on Piano 2 (2005, Marsalis Music/Rounder): No vocals, just Connick on piano duetting with his label boss, the barely credited Branford Marsalis. Both players are competent, but neither makes up for not having a bassist. B
Rita Coolidge: And So Is Love (2005, Concord): Another of the label's rehab projects as they strive to reinvent Adult Contemporary with a jazz twist. Sounds professional: she doesn't wreck the good songs, and doesn't salvage the not-so-good ones. B
Dave's True Story: Nature (2005, BePop): Dave is presumably guitarist Dave Cantor, who writes the songs and plays along with bassist-producer Jeff Eyrich and extra studio hands. Kelly Flint sings -- the centerpiece of a straight but warm and comfortable jazz framework. B+(*)
Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble: Mean Ameen (2004, Delmark): The title cut is a tribute to trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, with Maurice Brown handling the key instrument. With Dawkins' alto or tenor sax and Steve Berry's trombone the group is thick with brass and raucous. B+(*)
Whit Dickey: In a Heartbeat (2004 , Clean Feed): The David S. Ware Quartet's first drummer puts together a solid avant-leaning quintet with Roy Campbell and Rob Brown up front, and Joe Morris on guitar -- he pitches a few knuckleballs, but his abstract comping is the highlight here. Nothing wrong, but don't we expect the chemistry to burn a little brighter? B+(*)
Sasha Dobson: The Darkling Thrush (2004, Smalls): There are dozens of movies with this setting: a smoky nightclub, a singer on stage with a distinct edge but nobody's paying attention. Dobson could be that singer. She's got a band (Chris Byars' Octet) good enough to find work on their own. She lets the songs to most of the work, zipping through "I'm Beginning to See the Light," struggling a bit with "Sophisticated Lady." B+(*)
Down to the Bone: Spread Love Like Wildfire (2005, Narada Jazz): Smooth, sure, but this time the groove is hard to deny. B+(*)
Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio: Live at the River East Art Center (2004 , Delmark): Features guest Billy Bang, who spars good naturedly with tenor saxist Ari Brown on an outing still haunted by bassist Malachi Favors' death -- "a big man"? No doubt. El'Zabar's philosophizing on precious life annoys me, but his humanity comes through his drums. [Bang review in Voice] B+(**)
Avram Fefer/Bobby Few: Kindred Spirits (2004 , Boxholder): Few is a pianist who worked with Steve Lacy for many years, so on this mostly-Monk program it's tempting to view Fefer as a substitute, but he's more scattered -- plays tenor as well as soprano sax, and throws in a little clarinet. The originals are less shapely. B+(**)
Avram Fefer/Bobby Few: Heavenly Places (2004-05 , Boxholder): This one is free improv, long and unstructured, with good spots here and there. B
Eric Felten: Meets the Dek-Tette (2004, VSOP): This was conceived as a tribute to Mel Tormé and cool jazz arranger Marty Paich, and it exceeds expectations -- certainly mine. Felten doesn't have the sweetness in his voice that Tormé had, but he makes a strong impression. The band, with old pros like Herb Geller and Jack Sheldon, comes off even stronger, while Brent Wallarab's new arrangements have a crispness that wouldn't be evident if all they did was recycle Paich's originals. B+(**)
Renée Fleming: Haunted Heart (2005, Decca): She's a famous opera singer, as her voice testifies: she dwells in the deep end of an extraordinary range, has remarkable diction, and can turn on and modulate a vibrato like no one I've ever heard. Her accompanists are Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell -- together on two cuts, just one or the other on the rest. Hersch is as perfect as I've ever heard him, while Frisell is a model of economy and elegance. So I'm duly impressed, but otherwise unmoved. B
Charles Gayle: Shout! (2003 , Clean Feed): A typical Gayle album, right down to the change up he plays on piano. He's no more awkward on piano than on tenor sax, but he keeps his sax on a shorter leash these days, while he can cut loose on piano without the ceiling crashing down. B+(**)
Terry Gibbs: Feelin' Good (2005, Mack Avenue): Easy swinging date for the veteran vibraphonist, with guests Eric Alexander and Joey DeFrancesco doing most of the heavy lifting. B+(*)
Dennis González NY Quartet: NY Midnight Suite (2003 , Clean Feed): González usually works with other horns, and tenor saxist Ellery Eskelin fills in admirably here. Very solid post-avant group, but much as I admire it I've never come up with a review line, and now it's been eclipsed by more recent work. B+(***)
Gush: Norrköping (2003 , Atavistic): Mats Gustofsson's baritone sax is as muscular as ever, but the piano has a rinky-dink feel. One result is that the quiet spots are more annoying than the squalls. B
Julie Hardy: A Moment's Glance (2005, Fresh Sound New Talent): Mild singer, likes to scat, but doesn't quite have the lungs for it. Backup is mainstream, supportive, but no more. B
Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Thought Trains (1996 , Sons of Sound): A NYC-based big band of convenience, including a few well known players working for the relatively unknown pianist/composer/arranger. One of the better big band outtings I've heard, but I've never found space for it, and now it's slipping out of memory. B+(**)
Dick Hyman and Tom Pletcher: If Bix Played Gershwin (2004, Arbors): The sort of thought experiment Hyman is uniquely qualified to work on, with Pletcher helping out on cornet. B+(*)
Dick Hyman and Randy Sandke: Now and Again (2005, Arbors): Sandke's three new albums probe modernism in various ways, but here he's back on familiar turf, working up Armstrong and Morton classics, Porter and Mercer standards, an original by Hyman that could have been their title, "Thinking About Bix." B+(**)
Vijay Iyer: Reimagining (2004 , Savoy Jazz): Iyer's such a domineering pianist that there's no doubt who the leader is even when he's working with a saxophonist -- in this case, Rudresh Mahanthappa. I got to this late, working backwards after making Iyer's Fieldwork album a Pick Hit. This one is more intricate, measured, and polished, but lacks the other's physical punch. Clearly a major talent. [FD] A-
Keith Jarrett: Radiance (2002 , ECM, 2CD): Solo piano. He did a lot of that early on, and freakishly sold a few million copies of The Köln Concert, so every few years he does another -- varies the flow of his trio releases. This is similar in how he turns small movements over to create large ones, but feels less olympic, less a feat of endurance and athleticism, more meditate. Guess he's getting on. B+(*)
Billy Jenkins: Still . . . Sounds Like Bromley (1995 , Babel): This is a strange record, at times filling me with awe, at others freaking me out. The huge and diverse lineup wreaks intense playfulness, sounding like the ultimate psychedelic circus. One suspects satire at points, but satire without irony is impossible, and this seems way too naive to be ironic. Rather, it's mania at play. A-
Billy Jenkins: Suburbia (1999, Babel): The credits include screaming kids, lawn mowers, and the kitchen sink. The kids, at least, appear in a piece called "Coke Cans in Yet Garden," with Jenkins' electric guitar soaring around them. This starts with a cryptic, broken blues piece, and ends with an r&b sendup that concludes suburbia is "a place to come from." Intermittently amazing, as usual, just a little more intermittent than some of his others. B+(***)
Antonio Carlos Jobim: Symphonic Jobim (2002 , Adventure Music, 2CD): Short on beat, stuffed and mounted by Paulo Jobim and Mario Adnet with members of the Orquestra Sinfónico do Estado do Săo Paulo, conducted by Roberto Minczuk. B-
Sean Jones: Gemini (2005, Mack Avenue): Young trumpeter, looks toward Marsalis for direction. He can kick up his heels, which is attractive in small groups, just him and rhythm, but the producers have bigger things in mind, unfortunately. B
Jumala Quintet: Turtle Crossing (2000 , Clean Feed): One of those pure improv things that often seems on the edge between self-indulgence and self-discovery, with three horns -- Paul Flaherty, Joe McPhee, and Steve Swell -- to scatter the focus, delight and/or confound. B+(*)
Kammerflimmer Kollektief: Absencen (2005, Staubgold): Kraut rock as rhythmic base for scratchy sax improv. The synths tend to be dreamy, with one track kicking up the reverb to sound like Hawaiian pedal steel. B+(*)
Peter Kenagy: Little Machines (2003 , Fresh Sound New Talent): A thoughtful but slow moving program, led by a young Boston-based trumpeter in a sextet with two saxes and guitar. B+(*)
Soweto Kinch: Conversations With the Unseen (2003 , Dune): Kinch plays saxophone with a combination of r&b excitement and Coltrane-ish expansiveness. He could be a Gene Ammons for our times, but he aims more for Courtney Pine stardom, maybe even a bit more -- why else would he mix in three rap pieces? His pop prospects are strictly U.K., but Ben Ratliff touted this on a ten-best list. I'm neither convinced nor satisfied, but dig the effort, and the man can blow. B+(**)
Ilona Knopfler: Live the Life (2005, Mack Avenue): Hyped for her "clear, powerful voice" -- sounds light to me, and I'm surprised to say that I find the French half of the songlist annoying. The band, which plays thick but lacks any real punch, doesn't help much either. B-
Lee Konitz With Alan Broadbent: More Live-Lee (2000 , Milestone): A second helping of duets from this date, much like the first, with Konitz searching deliberately and thoughtfully, and Broadbent egging him on. No drop off; if anything it's a wee bit stronger. B+(**)
Simone Kopmajer: Romance (2005, Zoho): A singer, her precise touch is just nuanced enough to draw you in close. The band, a piano trio plus Eric Alexander, is impeccable. The songs are standards, with two takes of Bill Withers' "Whatever Happens" adapted for torching. B+(*)
Kathy Kosins: Vintage (2005, Mahogany Jazz/Lightyear): Her voice commands attention, and her band rewards it. She looks for songs that haven't been beat to death. The most famous one here is the rarely jazzed "These Boots Are Made for Walkin," which she doesn't resolve into recognizable until the chorus, then wanders into a rap on boots and walkin that cites Bootsy Collins. Will Friedwald likens her phrasing to Tony Bennett, which is true enough, but she's hipper than Bennett (not to mention Friedwald), even though her cover photo looks like a scrap from the '40s. B+(**)
Bradley Leighton: Groove Yard (2003, Pacific Coast Jazz): Pretty decent rhythm section, working on standards including two Jobims and the title cut from Wes Montgomery. File under flutes. B
Charles Lloyd: Jumping the Creek (2004 , ECM): Typically fine album for Lloyd these days, with Geri Allen. B+(*)
Pedro Madaleno: The Sound of Places (2003 , Clean Feed): Portuguese guitarist, subtle but elegant, in a quartet with saxophonist Wolfang Fuhr, also subtle, but able to draw out the highlights on the louder instrument. B+(*)
René Marie: Serenade Renegade (2004, MaxJazz): A skillful, authoritative singer, or singer-songwriter, as she wrote all but two songs here. For the covers, she struggles a bit with "A Hard Day's Night" but aces "Lover Man." B+(**)
Wynton Marsalis: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004, Blue Note): He's overrated as the new Miles Davis and ridiculous as the new Duke Ellington, but he's got a knack for Jelly Roll Morton. As soundtrack music this provides historical background rather than aesthetic development. Like soundtrack music, the bits are clipped and shaded for mood, including the inevitable doom and gloom for the subject's decline and fall. B+(**)
Wynton Marsalis: Amongst the People: Live at the House of Tribes (2002 , Blue Note): A fair barometer of his skills these days: he runs a first rate band, plays first rate trumpet, has enough fun to be infectious. He's only dangerous when he lets Stanley Crouch do his thinking for him, of which the liner notes provide the usual example. B+(**)
Pat Metheny Group: The Way Up (2005, Nonesuch): This album climbed the Contemporary Jazz charts, stalling just shy of Kenny G, remarkable popular success considering it adheres to none of the usual conventions -- no cheese, no vocals, no songs. It's a suite, an opening and three parts, each running past the 15 minute mark. The texturing feels organic, and Cuong Vu's trumpet adds color. It's not compelling enough for an artistic breakthrough, but it's not complacent or formulaic either. B+(*)
Hendrik Meurkens: Amazon River (2005, Blue Toucan): Meurkens plays Brazilian jazz. His first instrument was vibes, but here he has mostly shifted over to harmonia, which tends to thicken the sound. Two vocals each by Oscar Castro-Neves and, especially, Dori Caymmi make it murkier. B
Wolfgang Mitterer: Radio Fractal/Beat Music: Live at Donaueschingen 2002 (, Hatology): Two discs, nearly two hours, built around a computer track, assembled mostly from found sounds -- the most recognizable are saws and planes, and of course there are voices. Extra sounds are added via electronics and a turntablist, as well as conventional instruments. The second disc is shorter and more beatwise, a plus. B+(***)
Barbara Montgomery: Trinity (2005, Mr. Bean and Bumpy): Slower and heavier than her previous one, the likable Little Sunflower, which suits two Leonard Cohen songs just fine, but leaves Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison in limbo, and is rough on her originals. B
Sarah Morrow & the American All Stars in Paris (2005, O+ Music): The best known of the all stars is Hal Singer, who had a jukebox hit during the Korean War and cut a couple of those r&b-ish alto sax albums that Charlie Parker fans turned their noses up. The only others I even recognize are Rhoda Scott and John Betsch. Morrow is a young trombonist, and she has a ball. B+(**)
Mushroom: Glazed Popems (2004, Black Beauty, 2CD): This San Francisco group tries to make old music new again by reworking old ideas you probably never heard of anyway. First disc is "London" -- meant to evoke the '60s when English folk and jazz intersected in the likes of Bert Jansch. Second disc is "Oakland" -- meant to be funky, but the receptor cells will more likely be found in your mind than your ass. B+(*)
Nanette Natal: It's Only a Tune (2004, Benyo Music): Definitely a jazz singer, she mostly works at ballad tempi and projects deep noir. The instrumentation is supportive, decorating without overly obtruding. B+(*)
Meshell Ndegeocello Presents: The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel (2003 , Shanachie): This feels like an experiment in progress, evolving much like the leader's name (most lately, Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur). She doesn't sing, nor even play bass on most tracks. Stars come and go, with only Michael Cain appearing on a majority of tracks. Strip away the singers (Sabina, Cassandra Wilson, Lalah Hathaway) and the horns and what you have left are soft funk grooves, little more than background music. But the one horn earning its keep is Oliver Lake's alto sax. Choice cut: "Luqman." B+(**)
David "Fathead" Newman: I Remember Brother Ray (2005, High Note): A soulful tenor saxophonist often spotlighted in Charles' primetime orchestra, Newman's as entitled to cash in as anyone. He takes the usual songs at a leisurely pace, like a hearse heading to drop off its load. Thankfully, there's no loss of decorum -- no vocals, no guest stars, no bullshit. John Hicks and Steve Nelson help out. B+(**)
Organissimo: This Is the Place (2005, Big "O"): Tasty little organ-guitar-drums trio, plus guests on one song. I'm most impressed by guitarist Joe Gloss. I'm most surprised how many organ trios -- a lineup that flowered and mostly died in the '60s -- have popped up recently with nothing new to say. B
Eddie Palmieri: Listen Here! (2005, Concord): He's still a research project for me, but this one seems more ordinary than its predecessor. The hot spots here go to the big name horn players, while his piano is mostly tucked out of sight. B+(**)
Mario Pavone: Boom (2003 , Playscape): He played bass with Thomas Chapin for many years, and Chapin continues to have a strong presence in his work. The group here -- a quartet with Tony Malaby, Peter Madsen and Matt Wilson -- has terrific balance, much as Pavone's music tries to balance risk and reward, adventure and beauty. B+(**)
Danilo Perez: Live at the Jazz Showcase (2003 , ArtistShare): The label is a marketing group for self-released albums, the latest twist on ESP-Disk's slogan about how only the artist decides what you hear. One effect of that is that the brand means nothing. Perez is a good pianist with a special fondness for Monk, but lately he's been more impressive on Wayne Shorter's albums than on his own. I suspect this is just a spare tape used to test the marketing concept. Nothing special about it. B
John Pizzarelli: Knowing You (2005, Telarc): A big improvement over Bossa Nova, but that's merely a return to form, achieved by returning to his home turf. Support includes Larry Goldings, Harry Allen, Ken Peplowski, and his old man, none of whom stand out. B
Pip Pyle's Bash!: Belle Illusion (2002-03 , Cuneiform): Mostly a jam band, led by drummer Pyle, with organ, guitar and bass keeping the groove rolling. Guitarist Patrice Meyer has some sharp moves. Elton Dean drops in for two cuts, and adds a lot. B+(*)
Rader Schwarz Group: The Spirit Inside Us (1998, Timbre): The big draw here is neither drummer Abbey Rader, who developed in the SoHo loft scene before heading to Germany, nor tenor saxist Gunter Schwarz, otherwise unknown, though both play well. It's violinist Billy Bang, who contributes but mostly minds his place. B+(*)
Abbey Rader & Billy Bang: Echoes (1999, Abray): Rader gets top billing because this came out on his label, but his drums help to pace and steady Bang. Still, the violinist wrote all but one of the songs, leads throughout, even recites his poem for Dennis Charles. B+(**)
Abbey Rader & Dave Liebman: Cosmos (2001 , Cadence Jazz): Rader's aplomb in these duo frameworks remains impressive. Liebman's a guy I've been worried about lately, especially since he's made the soprano sax his primary instrument. It helps that he plays more of his gruff, puckish tenor sax here, but even the soprano retains its tartness. B+(*)
Phil Ranelin: Inspiration (2004, Wide Hive): The Tribe is back in business again. Founder Ranelin is a trombonist who likes big bands because they feel like big families. He's got nine pieces here, not counting the guests, and plenty of them play horns. B+(**)
Marc Ribot: Spiritual Unity (2004 , Pi): Henry Grimes came back just in time to get in on the Ayler revival. This is one more step, an Ayler tribute band much like Yo! Miles. Ribot is effectively the leader, his guitar filling in for the great man's tenor sax, with Roy Campbell in brother Donald's trumpet role, Chad Taylor on drums, and Grimes on bass. Ribot aims more to rekindle the process than to recreate the music, and the process gets clearer with the guitar eliminating the overblow, plus Campbell has chops Donald couldn't imagine. [FD] A-
Tim Ries: The Rolling Stones Project (2002-04 , Concord): Each Jagger-Richards song gets its own treatment -- err, "Honky Tonk Women" gets two -- so the 25 guests are scattered about, the most persistent being drummer Charlie Watts. This struck me as a bad idea from the start, and the lineup of singers -- Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Claudia Acuńa, and three times Lisa Fischer -- doesn't help one's confidence. Still, this doesn't come off so badly. The songbook holds up, especially less obvious songs like "Slippin' Away" and "Waiting on a Friend." The guitar list is critical: John Scofield, Ben Monder, and Bill Frisell, with the latter taking "Ruby Tuesday" in a near-solo. Norah Jones' "Wild Horses" is choice. And the drummer's really something. B+(**)
Adam Rogers: Apparitions (2004 , Criss Cross): An guitarist who doesn't fit any of the niche styles I associate with the instrument, and he's by far the most interesting player here. But the record itself is busied up with Chris Potter and Edward Simon flashing their undoubted skills to negligible effect. B+(*)
Sonny Rollins: Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (2001 , Milestone): Rollins was too modest in picking these 73 minutes from a 2:40 concert in Boston four days after the World Trace Center met its maker, giving lots of space to trombonist Clifton Anderson and pianist Stephen Scott while shortchanging himself. As he says in his introduction, "music is one of the beautiful things in life." But when he cuts loose, especially on "Global Warming," his music is much more: an overpowering life force, even in the wake of so much death. Exxon may not believe the science, but they'd be fools to argue with him. [FD, RG] A-
ROVA/Orkestrova: Electric Ascension 2003 (2003 , Atavistic): ROVA compensates for their shortage of saxophones by adding a "rhythm & noise" section plus strings they could have counted under noise. Coltrane's "Ascension" always struck me as too chaotic for repertoire, but this is the fourth version I've heard and they all sound so consistent they must be repertoire. I'd be more impressed if I liked the original. B
Randy Sandke and the Inside Out Band: Outside In (2005, Evening Star): Formerly the Inside Out Collective, the name change reflecting Sandke's increased dominance, with the writing credits from the outside end of the band down to two -- one each from Ray Anderson and Marty Ehrlich. The band still sparkles, but the easy blues cops from the previous record give way to Sandke's harmonic theories. In other words, this one's a tad less fun -- except, that is, for a spoken word thing called "Mobius Trip" consisting of a series of "I went to X" set-ups and "someone said" punch lines: "I went to Birdland and someone said, 'jazz will never die as long as people can listen to it with their feet.'" A-
Randy Sandke and the Metatonal Band: The Mystic Trumpeter (2003-04 , Evening Star): Small group, but with three front-line horns this moves like a big band. Sandke has written a book on harmonic theory, and this seems to be his testing laboratory. Even though this group is, roughly speaking, the inside half of the Inside Out band, he breaks ground here as a modernist. B+(*)
The Randy Sandke Quartet: Trumpet After Dark (2005, Evening Star): Subtitled "jazz in a meditative mood," but just as useful as quiet storm make-out music. B+(*)
Arturo Sandoval: Live at the Blue Note (2004 , Half Note): More moderate than usual for a Cuban trumpet who tends to go over the top, but still messy -- some fertile patches, but lots of weeds, too. B
Sangha Quartet: Fear of Roaming (2003 , Fresh Sound New Talent): These guys have been around much longer than the norm for "new talent": Seamus Blake, Kevin Hays, Larry Grenadier, Bill Stewart. Blake and Hays split the writing and arranging credits. Hays works mostly on Fender Rhodes, providing cushy support for Blake's tenor sax. B+(*)
John Scofield: That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles (2005, Verve): Another entry in the Ray Charles Sweepstakes -- oh, the things that a bestselling album, a hit motion picture, and dying (in no particular order) does for a franchise! Might be interesting if Scofield had an original idea about Charles, but he just hands the keys to half-a-dozen singers, of whom only John Mayer is good for a passable imitation. Larry Goldings is indispensible on the instrumental half, where Scofield shines as usual. B+(*)
Sirone Bang Ensemble: Configuration (2004 , Silkheart): Live from CBGB's, sound thin and hollow, applause rather perplexed. The leaders' strings are supplemented by Charles Gayle, whose primal force is matched by Bang, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who has a blast. [Bang review in Voice] A-
Jim Snidero: Close Up (2004, Milestone): Solid mainstream album with a bright, boppish flair. Eric Alexander joins on five cuts, doubling the sax appeal. B+(*)
The Stryker/Slagle Band: Live at the Jazz Standard (2005, Zoho): Guitarist Dave Stryker, alto/soprano saxophonist Steve Slagle -- both recorded consistently solid albums for Steeplechase in the '80s. They fit together nicely, and have recorded another one here. B+(*)
Tierney Sutton: I'm With the Band (2005, Telarc): I take it as a brave move that she identifies with the band instead of the spotlight, but it would be smarter if she had a better band. They go with the flow, but rarely set it. Also brave to tear at these chestnuts, but her voice doesn't get much traction on them, even if technically she does all you'd expect. B
Steve Swell/Perry Robinson: Invisible Cities (2004, Drimala): A trombone-clarinet duo, with no rhythm, no bottom, no filler, nothing chordal -- nothing to push it along, to fluff it up, to put it over, which makes it tough going, even though it features two impressive musicians. Drimala has made a specialty of this sort of minimal adventurism. B+(*)
Gebhard Ullmann/Chris Dahlgren/Peter Herbert: Bass3X (2004, Drimala): The most successful of a parcel of three Ullmann records that showed up last year, probably because it places the clarinetist in a small, if rather unconventional group -- a trio with two bassists. B+(*)
Introducing the Javier Vercher Trio (2003 , Fresh Sound New Talent): A young Spanish tenor saxist, based in New York, studied with Bob Moses, leads off with Ornette Coleman. He is feisty, willing to get bruised up a bit for his art, but hasn't quite figured out what art that is. Derivative but fun. B+(*)
David Weiss: The Mirror (2004, Fresh Sound New Talent): This is a largish group with a lot of horn power -- the leader plays trumpet, which is only the start. Crackling hot postbop, with the horn charts laying the harmonics on thick. I'm impressed by the thought and craft that went into it, and acknowledge the beauty of the voicings. B+(*)
Ezra Weiss: Persephone (2005, Umoja): I like him quite a bit when I can hear his piano, but there's a lot going on here -- he puts most of his weight on roles like composer and arranger, and while the result isn't exactly clutter he does throw up a lot of stuff that strikes me as excessive. So I'm not a fan, but maybe an admirer. B+(*)
Björn Wennĺs: Static (2004 , Beartones): Young Swedish guitarist, based in Boston. Phil Grenadier's trumpet provides a contrasting voice, and singer Carmen Marsico scats her way around four songs, but the guitar's the most promising thing here. B
Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts: Wake Up! (To What's Happening) (2004, Palmetto): An eclectic mix of recycled tunes, each going its own peculiar way, assembled in admiration of the carefree naivete of his children. Terrell Stafford shines, and the drummer holds it together. B+(**)
Mike Wofford: Live at Atheneum Jazz (2004, Capri): Good mainstream piano album, with Peter Washington and Victor Lewis filling out the trio on a not-very-familiar standards program. B+(***)
Sunday, December 11. 2005
Diane Wahto, of Wichita's Peace and Social Justice Center, asked for someone to respond to Rep. Todd Tiahrt's op-ed column in the Wichita Eagle today. I wrote the following back to her mailing list. The Eagle doesn't publish any of my letters, and this one is certainly too long, but the points are worth registering here:
I hadn't thought much about the analogies to Vietnam before, but it occurs to me now that the anti-Diem coup was one of the most utterly arrogant things that the U.S. ever did. The message there was that our mission of fighting communism is more important than the interests of the people we were supposedly fighting for. Tiahrt's letter is full of the same arrogance, especially when he talks about terrorism. Some excerpts:
First point is that the al-Zawahiri letter is almost certainly a forgery. When this letter first appeared, Juan Cole noted several phrases that were inconsistent with Arabic that al-Zawahiri would have used. In any case, the destruction of western civilization has never been an al-Qaeda goal -- they're more modestly concerned with saving Islamic civilization. They view their struggle as a defensive jihad -- that means, in defense against enemies of Islam who over the last two centuries have attacked and occupied Islamic lands, in many cases installing quislings to do our bidding. One thing that's relatively distinctive about Bin Laden and Zawahiri is that they dare to attack the "far enemy" (the U.S. and narrowly defined allies) as well as the "near enemy."
When the U.S. invaded Iraq we did two things that played straight into Al-Qaeda's hands: we took down Saddam Hussein's secular Baathist regime, which had been one of Al-Qaeda's most effective near enemies, and we put ourselves in their place. In other words, we promoted ourselves from "far enemy" to "near enemy" -- the argument that we're fighting them there instead of here is a matter of perspective. Try looking at it from their side: we've just served them up 160,000 prime targets, that they can attack without having to travel half way around the world, learn English, wangle visas, etc. Moreover, we've turned 25 million Iraqis into targets, as we make them choose: either they're with us, in which case Al-Qaeda tries to kill them, or they're against us, in which case we try to kill them. Subsequently, we've proven that we can't protect Iraqis who choose, and that we have so little skills for distinguishing among Iraqis that we often detain, torture, and/or kill Iraqis who aren't necessarily against us.
As a script, this is too stupid to take seriously, yet it's what the Bush administration has done. One clue is that most of these arguments are recycled from Vietnam, another war we fought there so we wouldn't have to fight here, another war aginst fanatics out to destroy our way of life. No one seems to have thought of the counterargument that had we waited to fight the war here we would have won. Given that the U.S. cannot successfully subdue Vietnam or Iraq, what are the odds that Vietnam or Iraq could successfully invade and occupy America?
Of course, that was never really the issue. The problem is that Americans have no clue what their government really does abroad. Al-Qaeda never fingered Sweden or Switzerland as the far enemy, even though they are if anything more civilized western nations than the U.S. Until Al-Qaeda, Americans at home never had to pay any price for what the U.S. did abroad, which is a big part of the reason Americans are so convinced of their innocence, indeed of their benevolence. 9/11 should have been a wake-up call, an occasion for Americans to take a hard, close look for whatever it was that the U.S. government had done that may have led Al-Qaeda to decide that their attack on us was just. But it wasn't -- it just became an excuse to make matters worse.
The other thing that the argument about fighting there instead of here says is that their lives don't matter like our lives do. There's nothing terribly surprising about believing this -- most people do -- but it is the height of arrogance to act on it, and off the scale of hypocrisy to assert that we're killing them to help them achieve freedom. When Bush talks of victory in Iraq, I have no idea what he means because it's impossible to resolve all the contradictions in his rhetoric. This, again, is not new. The quintessential Vietnam moment was when an American officer explained how we had to destroy the village in order to save it. This isn't irony. This is madness. America's unwillingness to look in the mirror and make amends leaves us blindly striking out at the world. 9/11 was too short to wake us up, too easily blamed on others. Iraq, on the other hand, was clearly a war of our own chosing. If it doesn't lead us to change our ways, we are truly lost.
Saturday, December 10. 2005
Juan Cole raised a bit of a stink when he launched an attack on what he called "the looney left" in his posting on Howard Dean's comments on Iraq -- which Cole dubbed "winning smart in Iraq." I don't have the exact quote, since after receiving quite a bit of heat from his readers, Cole subsequently edited his comments. But early in the debate, he explained:
There is a fundamental misunderstanding here -- either that or a fundamental disagreement. But first, let's dispose of two pieces of toxic rhetoric. First, "looney left" is a phrase that the right uses, mostly to dispense with the whole left. One reason they use it is that it has a ring to it -- the "l" words flow evenly, but also because "looney" suggests that what the left strives for is unrealistic, impossible even, and that reiterates the right's core position: that human nature and socio-economic stratification are immutable conditions, and that any effort to change is foolish, mischievous, and bound to fail and lead to misery. But also it leaves the user an out. When challenged with obvious examples of sober, responsible leftists, one can always refine the definition and argue that one only attacked a subset of leftists -- you know, the looney ones. Cole's usage is a self-serving variant on the latter. As a self-described "man of the left" he only means to tar a subset of the left, but he's using the right's slur to do it. This is what he got chewed out for, and what he apologized for, and that's all there is to say about it.
The other piece of toxic rhetoric is the word "evil" -- another key item in the right's toolkit. I'm not against using the word ever, but it has the effect of slamming the door on further discussion. In this context, Cole's assertion -- "Their premise is apparently that any US use of force is always evil" -- conceals his own premise: that anyone who rejects the idea that US force could be used beneficially must be looney. I want to argue that this point isn't a premise. It's a rather generalized form of a carefully considered conclusion, and it deserves to be taken seriously. I'd go even further and claim that any leftist who doesn't take these arguments seriously is bound to get lost.
The argument consists of four pieces:
The first three points are specific to the US. While they are deeper and most likely longer lasting than George W. Bush's presidency, Bush represents a uniquely dangerous alliance of capital, the military, and the ideological right, as we've seen from the very beginnings (pre-9/11) of the administration. The fourth point is universal: recognizing the horrors and futility of war, committed to justice and human rights, many leftists regard war as wrong, but also as unworkable. (The latter point is one that can be elaborated at much greater length than I wish to do here. One finds, for instance, that revolutions tend to be more self-destructive the more they are born in violence. One finds that the communist regimes of the cold war era were more likely to collapse peacefully the less stringently they were challenged by the US.)
Leftists who understood these points -- the general one about the dangers of war and the three interrelated ones about the constitution of American military power -- instinctively recognized that the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq would be bad for the left and for all we stand for. They are therefore the people Cole called "looney" -- I'd argue that more accurate terms are sound, sensible, right. I've tried to argue this mostly from principles, but one can also make the same argument from history. US foreign policy has had a dreadful track record ever since the cold war doctrine began to expand from minimal containment (e.g., the Korean War), despite the fact that the US has long had a relatively strong record (with a couple of major blemishes) of supporting freedom and human rights at home.
None of this depends much on the specifics of Iraq, but of course the specifics matter as well. The specifics make the difference between a war that is wrong and bad for us and a war that is disastrous for everyone involved. Cole is an expert in this history, and to his credit found reason enough to oppose the war before the fact. It should also be noted that he has always argued to reduce and resolve the conflict, and that even his proposals that countenance the use of US air power are intended as nothing more than a hedge against a reasonable fear of greater bloodshed in its absence. (I find those proposals to be rather fanciful in that they presume that US air power can be used impartially -- something that I'd argue is impossible given present orientations of US political and military power -- and without too much collateral damage. I also suspect that the likelihood of greater civil war once the US leaves is somewhat less than Cole evidently expects, but I can't argue that based on expertise -- it's more of an intuition of how politics works.)
My four pieces of the argument can be developed much more extensively. I don't, for instance, argue that capital is the sole director of US foreign policy, and I especially don't believe that the capitalists' interests are homogeneous. In particular, most international business would be better off with less war -- even the armaments companies are likely to enjoy the treat of war more than the real thing. Similarly, while international business and the ideological right overlap, they are by no means the same. Many businessmen are liberals, and in many ways liberalism suits their interests much better than the right does. Also, I believe that Bush, Cheney, et al. belong not to capital -- the top two have proven to be astonishingly bad businessmen -- or to the military or even to the right, but instead are political sceamers who have taken charge of the right's political machinery and miscalculated their way into Iraq and other disasters. (Ronald Reagan was easily as misguided and deluded as Bush, but at least was inept enough not to shoot himself.)
My point here is that the "looney left" isn't looney at all. Our distrust in Bush and Cheney was justified. Our distrust in the US military was justified. Our expectation that Iraqis would resist US occupation was justified, as was our expectation that their resistance would provoke the US to make matters worse. Our expectation that the US military, and eventually the American people, would grow weary of this pointlessly tragic war was justified. Our expectation that when the US finally quits Iraq we will do so with the same bitterness and disdain we showed in leaving Vietnam may well be justified as well. Admittedly, it was easy for us to see these things, because we know all too well that George W. Bush isn't our president, and that the army he sent to Iraq isn't our army. We know in fact that Washington DC is occupied by an alien government that doesn't represent us and isn't dedicated to our welfare and freedom. So we don't have any big problems understanding what's going on, because we already understood it.
Not everyone on the left has been able to see clearly through this war. This usually means that the leftist still buys into some part of the deal. This could be a residual faith in the benevolence of the US government, or it could be sympathy with some segment of the Iraqi people, or it could be the belief that Salafi-Jihadists like Al-Qaeda are such enemies to human rights that aligning with Bush is preferable. The latter position, which includes people like Christopher Hitchens, is pretty easy to dismiss: it starts with an unrealistic estimate of the threat, based more on Islamophobia than anything else, then aligns with forces only capable of turning their fears into self-fulfilling prophecy. The overwhelming majority of Muslims want war no more than anyone else does. It's only the presence of foreign occupiesr who give the Salafi-Jihadists any credible claim to defend Islamic world.
The other positions are naďve but otherwise hard to dismiss. Any leftist working within the US political system necessarily invests some faith in that system. This has much to do with why Democratic politicians have had such trouble formulating any sort of opposition to Bush's war. It's easy for someone like me, with no power and no responsibility, to advocate a clean break from the conflict, but it's real hard for someone trying to establish a credible claim to lead the country -- someone like Howard Dean or John Kerry -- to argue that US policy should be changed to recognize the clear fact that the US government cannot be trusted in Iraq. (There's a big rat hole we could go down here relating to what the Democrats' anti-war strategy should be. On the other hand, the actual strategy -- what Dean referred to as an emerging consensus -- is likely to be based on the Murtha resolution, which means to salvage the military and the Al-Qaeda focus of the War on Terror. I think that misses all the big points, but it still may be good tactics. At least, Murtha would pull the frying pan away from the fire.)
I have less sympathy for the sympathizers -- the soft-hearted liberals who make up most of the left -- not so much because I disapprove as because I find it embarrassing how easily they can be taken for suckers. Iraqis have had problems for a long time now, and Saddam Hussein has been responsible for many of those problems. But Bush is singularly unqualified to be of any help. His attitude toward democracy should have been clear from the 2000 Florida recount, following his record-setting attempt to buy the election. His view of freedom is clear from the USA PATRIOT Act, his gulags, his torture edicts. His commitment to women's rights takes a back seat to his membership in the anti-abortion jihad. His own sympathy for human suffering? Even when faced with events as apolitical as natural disasters, he's never been moved by the news -- only by the polls afterwards, and the opportunity for reconstruction graft. The Bush war and occupation in Iraq has been one false step after another, fueled by hidden agendas, spun by outrageous lies. How anyone could fall for this is beyond me, especially given that the right has a telling term for liberal suckers -- "useful idiots."
Of course, the real reason Bush gets away with his faux concern act is that those well-meaning liberals let their hopes get ahead of their heads. They see the tragedy, and they don't see any other relief, so they cling to hopes that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the US might ultimately have some use in holding still worse events at bay. Cole is a good example of someone caught in this trap, all the more so because he knows too much to just hope for the best. He fears that the sectarian tensions that the US so exacerbated will, once the US withdraws, flare up into a genocidal civil war, and he could well be right about that. (I doubt this, but then compared to him who am I?) So he looks for some agency that can maintain a modicum of control, and while he would much prefer the UN he'd settle for the US air force. My problem here is that the US is still the US, Bush is still Bush, and Bush is still president of the US. The US can't stay in Iraq and become a neutral moderator because Bush cannot be neutral -- in general terms, you can't implement a policy of disinterest, which is what any "honest broker" policy requires, based on a system devoted to the pursuit of self-interests.
(We could go down another rat hole here and talk about the general problem many liberals have in thinking that they ought to solve other people's problems for them. My own view is that people have to solve their own problems. Maybe sometimes you can intervene and point out or enable some solution, but in the end that only works if the people themselves embrace and implement it. On the other hand, many problems are created and/or exploited by outsiders, and can get worse when the outsiders think they're trying to make things better. In most cases, I'd argue, it would be better to get out and leave the mess to those who have to live in it, sad as that may seem. The "you broke it, you fix it" line fails two critical tests: if you can't fix it, you'll only make it worse; and once you break something, most people are sensibly wary of your continuing interest.)
To recap, the people Cole has dubbed "the looney left" are the part of the left which understood from the beginning that the Bush war in Iraq could come to no good. We understood that US occupation would not be received as benign. We understood that it would be resisted, and America's response to resistance would be to stiffen it. We understood that America's obsession with killing terrorists, combined with America's ignorance, would lead to killing others. We understood that nothing could be reconstructed as long as the war rages on, and that no amount of hardship imposed on the Iraqi people would make it stop. We understood that the Iraqis we used would be viewed as collaborators, and that the longer we stayed the more people would be tainted. We understood that in the end the US would have to leave Iraq, and won't be fondly remembered for its stay. What has happened to Iraq is truly tragic, not least because it was so easy to predict.
We also understand that the big question isn't what should be done about the future of Iraq -- not least because we understand that we can have no positive effect there. Our position is "out now" because that's a clear, simple, uncompromised position: it offers a clean separation between the Iraq problem and the rather larger and more daunting America problem. Iraq may get worse or better after the US leaves, but at least America won't continue to be the cause. But any sort of effective disengagement is a step in the right direction. The American people want out. The US military wants out. The Iraqi people want the US out. It is only a matter of time before even someone as stubborn as Bush cuts his losses and tries to spin some sort of victory storyline out of retreat. Since "out" is the end state of whatever course we're trying to stay, "out now" isn't looney -- it's pragmatic.
The other position we could take is "impeach Bush" -- clearly, nothing the US might attempt to do in Iraq can have any credibility as long as Bush, so totally identified with the war and its tragic consequences, remains in power. Dump Bush and Cheney, replace them with someone new and untainted by the war, and then maybe we can talk about the US taking positive steps to stabilize Iraq. I have my doubts -- real reform would have to go far deeper, but maybe there is a path that points us in the right direction, much like "redeployment" would point the US military out of Iraq. But at this point there really isn't much other than leaving that the US can offer Iraq: we've failed at securing the peace, we've failed at reconstruction, we've failed at building any sort of economy. For a nation whose foreign policy ideologues since the early '90s have been deliriously drunk on their unipolar superpower status, Iraq has been a bitter come down. The world has in turn learned lessons about the limits of power, the delusions of arrogance, and the vulnerability of civilization to revenge against injustice. We saw this coming from far back. The rest of the left should give us some credit, and stop throwing insults at us. Now who's looney?
Friday, December 9. 2005
Sometimes you wonder whether even the people who write newspaper articles comprehend what they're writing. The following appeared in the Wichita Eagle today:
In other words, the guy lied to avoid torture, and he got away with it because he correctly intuited what his interrogators wanted to hear. But that's not what the writer concluded. The article continues:
In other words, if only al-Libi had been tortured by American professionals we would have correctly concluded that when he said what we wanted to hear he was lying. Other interpretations are possible. One is that torture doesn't really work all that well. Another is that violating the rule of law -- rendition is, after all, just a euphemism for kidnapping, and torture is criminal assault -- doesn't pay. But the problems don't stop with what the U.S. did to al-Libi. Anyone the least bit interested in truth would have regarded al-Libi's testimony as suspect and tried to falsify it. But in the Bushworld politics trumps truth -- that is, after all, the real meaning of taunting the "reality-based" community.
Congress is currently debating an extension of the USA PATRIOT Act, which is meant to give the U.S. federal government extraordinary powers at the expense of our customary liberties. Maybe in some circumstances some of these powers can be justified, but only if you believe that the government is firmly in the hands of people who seek truth, who respect liberty, and who are sensitive to injustice and abuse of power. As long as George W. Bush is in power that is certainly not the case.
Thursday, December 8. 2005
Static Multimedia has posted my Recycled Goods column for December 2005. Nothing unusual about this one: a little bit of everything I cover, with a little more than a few jazz reissues down in Briefly Noted and Additional Consumer News. The most pleasant surprise was Blue Note's latest Connoisseur batch -- I even held a couple of those back for a snowy February, including an A- for Ike Quebec. In comparison, Verve's recent batch of Impulse LPRs, mostly from the '70s, are period oddities -- interesting, obscure, good to have in print, but not on the same level.
This column came out a few days late. I got jammed working on Jazz Consumer Guide, then had to scramble this time. One consequence was that I shied away from box sets -- traditional Xmas gift items. I can note that Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar is nicely done, but more educational than entertaining, and that the delayed-release Miles Davis Cellar Door Sessions is much more Live Evil. In other words, both sets are attractive to those already attracted. The one box I did get to is Cameo Parkway. It should be noted somewhere that the box has been followed by a bunch of individual artist best-ofs, but I don't have them and haven't heard them. My guess is that they gain in consistency but I wonder how many of the artists really have the catalog depth.
Recycled Goods in January will be a one-shot round up of 2005 new releases. I've managed to cover new jazz pretty effectively this year, although there are still avant-garde labels, especially in Europe, that do worthwhile work but haven't shared with me. On the other hand, my coverage of new non-jazz is at something of an all-time low this year -- I'm trying to catch up, but like most people not in the loop, I'm sure there are lots of things I won't hear about until everyone else's lists are compiled. So if you know about something I really should find out about, pleas let me know. Old stuff returns to Recycled Goods in February. Last month I complained about my backlog getting short, but three of the four majors pitched in. Still would like to hook up with more independents -- especially those dealing with African music -- but I manage to get more than I have time, so shouldn't complain.
Tuesday, December 6. 2005
Haven't seen many movies lately, but haven't written about the few I've seen, so here's some catching up:
Movie: Lord of War. The opening sequence sums the movie up more economically than the rest does. It starts in a factory with the manufacture of a bullet -- stamped, assembled, inspected, packed, shipped, received, unpacked, loaded, fired into the skull of a teenaged boy, probably in Liberia or Sierra Leone. The subject here is the arms trade -- especially the arms from the defunct Soviet empire that flooded into Africa. Nicolas Cage plays a dealer from New York's Little Odessa with an uncle in the Ukraine Army -- as I understand it he's a composite of five real arms dealers. (Ethan Hawke plays a composite of even more Interpol agents, always on Cage's tail.) Told in flashbacks highlighting Cage's close scrapes over the years, the seduction of his wife and the destruction of his brother, whatever action occurs is anomalous -- an inadvertent breakdown of everyday business, which on rare occasions gives us a glimpse of the destruction such business facilitates. The dearth of feeling is both the film's power and weakness -- there is no human interest here, even of the victims. The visuals, on the other hand, can be interesting -- aerial shots of Africa, the remarkable disassembly of an airplane. B+
Movie: Broken Flowers. Also starts with an opening sequence, this time tracing the path of a letter through the USPS. Bill Murray plays a retired computer executive, who in response to the letter and prodding from nosy neighbor Jeffrey Wright is sent on a search for four old girlfriends who might have sent the letter -- anonymously, warning of an unknown son assumed to be seeking Murray out. The four women run the range of possible reactions, almost stereotypically. More satisfying for its nuances than storyline. B+
Movie: A History of Violence. One thing you got to give Hollywood is that they can make violence more attractive than it ever is in real life. Cafe owner Viggo Mortensen gets pushed too far three times, and responds with breathtaking accuracy and economy. Of course, he's got experience, but his son levels a bully with the same effectiveness. These are dream sequences, and it helps that they happen quicker than anyone can signal. This is classified as a "thriller," but unlike all the others it doesn't dwell on the omens -- it cuts to the chase. Maria Bello has a very tough role as Mortensen's wife. She handles it well, and thankfully doesn't have to kill anyone. Ed Harris and William Hurt get the easy roles as villains, and add something anyway. Peter MacNeill, as a smalltown sheriff, should be remembered for Supporting Actor come Oscar time, but won't. A
Movie: Good Night, and Good Luck. Shot in black and white, interweaved with newsreel footage of Sen. Joe McCarthy doing his thing. David Strathairn is note-perfect as Edward R. Murrow, but his role as McCarthy's nemesis is hard to judge. The self-importance of the backstage news production always threatens to overwhelm the story, so merely showing it runs the risk of exposing the hubris the networks are famous for. In fact, CBS has become such a kick toy for the right these days that it's hard not to see what's coming when you watch this. So parallels between then and now cut both ways. One thing I was struck by was how emphatically Murrow could defend his own anti-communism -- something that Don Hollenbeck, a newsman hounded to suicide, could not do. Given how discredited McCarthy is these days, I came away wondering when someone would come up with the guts to mount a sympathetic movie in defense of real communists. Like Ethel and, especially, Julius Rosenberg. A-
Movie: Capote. Despite growing up in Kansas at the time, I have no memories of the Clutter Family killing -- only the occasional references back to the crime, which became vastly more famous once Truman Capote published In Cold Blood. On the other hand, I remember Capote's appearances on the Tonight show rather well -- his voice, his hands, his haughty insistence that his sympathies were with the victims. Never read the book, but much later I saw the movie, which covers the killers enough. So, at least personally, this this movie, by concentrating on a writer far more enigmatic than his subjects, closes the circle. Philip Seymour Hoffman has a tough job doing Capote -- he gets the mannerisms close enough, but is so large compared to Capote that he comes off as an ungainly monster whereas Capote was more like a dilletantish dwarf, his mannerisms projected from his body rather than trapped inside. Moreover, Capote's crippling self-obsession as the execution looms doesn't quite jive with my remembrance of him after the book's publication, but perhaps there's something to it -- as the movie points out, Capote never wrote another book. Catherine Keener as Harper Lee helps out immensely. Yet despite the unease I felt at the time, this movie continues to gain stature in my memory. Saw the trailer for it again later, and it added to the depth of the movie. A-
Movie: Paradise Now. A film by Hany Abu-Assad, who previously did Rana's Wedding. He has a sharp eye for the everyday hardships of Palestinians under occupation, but he's not heavy-handed about it, and he's at least as interested in how life goes on despite the hardships. But this time the problem he tackles is how to fight back. On one side, there is a woman, the daughter of a local "martyr," who argues that violence surrenders the moral high ground. On the other, underground political operatives plot their response to a previous attack by setting up a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv. In between are two young Palestinian men, the designated bombers, who get a second chance to think it over when the original plans go awry. One, Khaled, is caught in the usual economic trap. The other, Said, is haunted by his father's history as a collaborator -- a "weakness," for which he was killed. Said gives a tightly argued speech on why he intends to go through with the plan -- the key point is to make them feel the pain we feel. The operatives may be more cynical, or more manipulative, but one senses they understand the difficulties of the choice all too well. In the end the screen fades to white -- the focus is on intentions, not on consequences. Similarly, the Israelis are mere faces without words -- this is a debate in and of the Palestinians. While those are fair artistic choices, they are blind politically, in large part because no possible choice works. Kind of like the trap Israel has set for the Palestinians. B+
Monday, December 5. 2005
For the last seven weeks running I've been posting "Jazz Prospecting" notes each week as I was working on the seventh installment of my Jazz Consumer Guide column. Over those seven weeks I've slogged through 212 albums looking for items of interest. Found a few -- more than I can use, actually, so it's good to at least give them some exposure in my weekly blog postings. But no posting this week, and maybe none next week. Jazz Consumer Guide #7 is done, edited, scheduled to appear on or near Dec. 14. Last week I shifted gears to work on the December Recycled Goods column -- late, but real close to done now and should be up later this week -- so wouldn't have much to report on this week anyway.
I've also put off updating the website for another week or so, as I restructure the Jazz Consumer Guide files. Aside for the blog posts, the rest of the website is batch-updated, which is trouble when things are up in the air. Music writing continues to suck up nearly every available cycle. I was hoping that after RG I'd get a chance to work on the book project, but coming up over the next two months: a year-end jazz top ten for the Voice, a year-end special new record roundup for Recycled Goods in January, my annual Pazz & Jop ballot and screed, a piece on Sheila Jordan for the Voice, yet another Jazz Consumer Guide, and a return to reissues for Recycled Goods in February. The only good news is that I have about half of the latter two columns done at this point.