Monday, February 27. 2006
There's been a lot of civil war talk since last week's bombing of the Askariyah Shrine in Samarra. Since then Shiite militias or mobs have attacked more than a hundred Sunni mosques, with steady bloodshed despite daytime curfews. The prospect of civil war has long lurked in shadow discussions, especially among Iraq sympathasizers who may not have wanted the US to invade but who fear even worse should the US exit. But even more in the shadows, especially this week, has been whatever the US has been doing. Civil war is a two-edged sword in Iraq, and the US is ambivalent about it.
I suspect this is because the US has always thought that a little civil war would be good for America's position. The US did much to promote sectarian conflict in Iraq from the anti-Saddam revolts in the wake of the first Gulf War to the invasion in the second. The Kurds and the Shiites became America's proxies in the fight against Saddam; as such, they were the bulwark of popular support for the American occupation -- at least while there was any. US popularity collapsed quite quickly, but as the predominantly Sunni resistance grew, Kurdish and Shiite politicians have had to stick close to America's skirts for protection. So again, America's precarious political position has been enhanced by sectarian schism. On the other hand, when it comes to civil war, even for the US there can be too much of a good thing.
A clue to how this plays out was visible in spring 2004 when Najaf and other Shiite cities erupted in revolt while the US was tied down trying to punish the Sunni revolt in Fallujah. At that time, the US risked losing the entire country, so had to back off and work out temporary political deals on both fronts. To defuse the Shiites, this involved bringing Moqtada al-Sadr into politics. As for Fallujah, once Shiite opposition was co-opted and the US election was safely in the bag, Bush proceded to raze the city, inflaming the resistance all the further. Meanwhile, Sadr remains a vocal critic of the occupation, and his political strength in the dominant Shiite coalition has only grown. The resistance must realize that as long as Sunnis are seen as a marginal minority, they cannot win against the Americans. On the other hand, the majority Shiites increasingly have the power to tell the US to leave. The question, then, is how can the resistance drive the Shiites to act against the Americans.
The answer is civil war, and the attack in Samarra seems to be the proof of concept. You may be wondering how Sunnis attacking Shiites will lead to the latter expelling the Americans instead of making them more dependent than ever on American allies. The answer depends on splits in both the Sunni and Shiite camps. To see the Shiite split you have to look no further than Sadr's condemnation of the Americans for the Samarra attack. Of course, the Americans didn't actually blow up the shrine, but by invading and occupying Iraq, the US is the ultimate if not the proximate cause of all the turmoil and destruction that ensued. The Shiites need to recognize that the civil war will continue as long as US forces remain, but have hope that it will abate once the US leaves. But the Sunni resistance has the pefect scapegoat in Al-Qaeda, whose presence they only tolerate as long as it helps fight the Americans: get the US out, and responsible Sunnis will purge the anti-Shiite foreign jihadis and work out a power-sharing arrangement.
And that's how the table sits right now. The US position in Iraq is deteriorating almost daily -- both in Iraq and in the US, where more and more conservatives, at least ones with some appreciation for reality, are jumping ship. Meanwhile, Iraq has gone 74 days, and will no doubt go many more, without forming a government following the latest elections. Perhaps it will be impossible to form the requisite supermajority government. Or perhaps a government can only be formed around the consensus of expelling the Americans. Perhaps Bush will finally decide to duck out before the slamming door hits him. Hard to say, but as we approach the third anniversary of the invasion, it looks more and more like the Americans won't be there for the fourth.
The civil war strategy is both desperate and vicious -- one analogy is to a trapped animal that gnaws its own leg off. It seems clear that the resistance is willing to destroy Iraq to save it from the Americans. How long the Americans stay depends on the same willingness to destroy Iraq to save it. Thus far that's exactly the course Bush has stayed with. If he persists, it just means all that more destruction. Both sides have entered into a compact to burn down the house.
Sunday, February 26. 2006
I'd like to add another note on the Abba Eban "never missed an opportunity" quote. Much of the staying power of this quote derives from a couple of facts about shifting Arab positions viz. Israel. In 1947, Great Britain dropped the problem of its League of Nations mandate over Palestine into the lap of the United Nations. The UN then, after heavy lobbying by David Ben-Gurion and representatives of the Zionist settlement in Palestine, approved a plan to partition Palestine. The plan was approved by the UN, which gave Israel a fig leaf of international legitimacy -- one they've reminded us of on every possible occasion ever since. Partition was rejected by all Arab groups, both inside and outside Palestine, and for good reason. At the time, Jews made up little more than 30% of the population, and owned a much smaller percentage of the land. Partition proposed to split the territory into two pieces, one with over 50% of the land and a small Jewish majority; the other with the rest except for an international area around Jerusalem and virtually no Jewish population. If, as happened in Turkey, and was to happen in India, partition resulted in mass migration, it would only be Arabs who would be forced to migrate. Israelis like to suggest that if only the Palestinians had agreed to partition in 1947, civil war and the resulting refugee problem would have been averted. Moreover, Israelis argue that the reason Arabs rejected partition was belief that through war they would be able to drive all the Jews from the entire land. It was only as a consequence of the Arab war against Israel was that Israel wound up expanding its territory far beyond the UN partition plan.
The history is actually a good deal more complex -- Israel never accepted the UN borders, which they aggressively overran, and they conspired with the British and its client state of Transjordan to prevent any Palestinian state from forming; Israel also rejected all subsequent UN and American efforts to secure agreeable borders, going so far as to assassinate UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte. But the Arabs subsequently gave credence to the "missed opportunity" myth by falling back on the UN partition borders as the basis for all of their peace proposals up to the 1967 war. After 1967, the Arabs again retreated, henceforth basing their proposals on the pre-1967 armistice borders (the "green line"), that they had not accepted before 1967. This set up the second "missed opportunity" myth: that had the Arabs accepted the armistice borders there would have been no 1967 war, therefore no expansion and no occupation.
This argument is disingenuous in several critical respects. The first is that just as Israel did not feel constrained by the borders of the UN partition plan they nominally accepted, Israel never felt constrained by the 1949 armistice borders. Israel rejected all Arab efforts to negotiate peace treaties, repeatedly violated the borders with skirmishes and punitive raids, and launched pre-emptive wars in 1956 and 1967 with flimsy excuses. The UN resolutions following the 1967 war set up the "land for peace" exchange that Israel supposedly wanted before the war, but Israel immediately made it clear that it wanted land, not peace, by annexing Jerusalem and starting to build first outposts then settlements in the illicitly acquired, soon to be occupied territories. The only concession that Israel has made to date to the "land for peace" framework was the 1979 treaty with Egypt -- eight years after Anwar Sadat proposed the deal, achieved only under intense American pressure as the US sought to turn Egypt against the Soviet Union. Israel's aggression continued with its invasion and 18-year occupation of Lebanon, arbitrary "reprisal" raids, and a sustained program of assassination and terror aimed at Palestinian refugees.
In fairness, Arabs haven't consistently pursued peace with Israel over the years. They've snapped back and forth, at times violently rejectionist, at times conciliatory -- the failure of each approach leading to the false hopes of the other. But to say that the Arabs have missed opportunities implies that there were finite moments in time when Israel was amenable to peace. One scours the historical record looking for such points, but it's hard to find anything that remotely resembles one. On the other hand, there have been many points when various Arab factions were ready to settle, often on terms that Israel had previously touted, and Israel has rejected nearly all of them.
The reason for this is that Israel was conceived in sin. Some early Zionists had noble dreams, that the oppressed Jewish masses could emigrate to Palestine, buy land, and through their industry raise the living standards of all. But that's not how it worked, and not just because the Jews that followed within Britain's colonialist framework lacked such nobility. The Zionists never meant to integrate into Palestine -- they meant to dominate, paving the way for more and more Jews to take over more and more land. Labor Zionists took the lead by building organizations designed to exclude Palestinians, including the militias that let Israelis take by force what they had been unable to buy: the land and property of 700,000 refugees. Since 1949, Israeli policy has had two prime goals: to deny the refugees' right of return, and to legitimize the usurpation. Just as Israel was forged in a war of conquest, Israel has had to keep the hostilities simmering in order to avoid facing the facts of their founding. They've done just that -- masterfully at first, but as time marched on, as their "facts on the ground" set in, their ingrown militarism has gotten the best of them. Israel has by now clearly won the right to exist in its pre-1967 borders, and to deny return of the refugees (although they remain someone else's problem). But they persist in fighting for more, and not even the facts on the ground support that. The occupation of Lebanon has been abandoned. The settlements in Gaza failed so badly they've already been withdrawn. The settlements in the West Bank have also failed -- they exist only as heavily barricaded military encampments. Maybe they can salvage a little something in Jerusalem, but at what cost? They continue to plow a fortune into their war machine, while their international standing -- so important to their early leaders, including the dazzling Abba Eban -- sinks lower and lower. They've won so often they've never learned their own limits. So they keep fighting, and they keep lying.
Friday, February 24. 2006
Yesterday the Wichita Eagle published yet another letter from Judy Press, the Israel lobby's designated publicist for these parts. I've responded to her propaganda in the past, but didn't bother with her last one, which harped on Iranian president Ahmadinejad's recent anti-Israel rhetoric. I might not have bothered with her party line on Hamas either, but I'm really sick and tired of people citing that Abba Eban witicism as if it held even a kernel of truth. So I wrote the following and sent it to the paper.
Several thread run through this letter. It would take a lot more space to disentangle them and to document my assertions. I won't try to do that here: the history itself is an open and shut case, a point that is powerfully reinforced by Richard Ben Cramer's How Israel Lost (looking at Israel's current socio-political landscape) and Michael Neumann's The Case Against Israel (examining the logic and moral framework of Zionism). That a more/less just peace can be had if (and only if) the Israelis willed it has been demonstrated by numerous viable ad hoc peace plans (my own plan, the Geneva Accords, the Saudi plan; hell, even the Quartet Roadmap would work if Israel got earnestly behind it). And more and more people are coming to realize this. For instance, this from Jennifer Loewenstein at Counterpunch:
The other thread of note is how the US is recapitulating Israeli militarism for no good reason whatsoever. The US is a pluralist society. We haven't always lived up to our ideals, but we did finally get to the point where the solution to the Indian problem and the solution to the slavery-segregation problem was inclusion: Indians and Afro-Americans are full-fledged American citizens. Israel could do the same, but refuses, so why should we support them in taking such an un-American stand?
And the traditional US relationship to the rest of the world is that we'd like to see freedom spread and we'd like to do business with everyone, but (again, with a couple of embarrassing exceptions) we don't have any desire to rule over other people. Israel could do the same, but refuses, so why should we support them in taking yet another un-American stand? In its blind support of Israel, the US is betting our reputation in the world on a losing proposition for principles hardly any of us believe in. And unfortunately it's not just the Bush regime that's stuck in this rut: Congress's knee-jerk reaction to the Hamas election was to vote almost unanimously to prohibit any aid from going to the Palestinians, whose economy is choked off within Israel's barricaded ghettos.
We have lots of problems that are intrinsically difficult to deal with. This isn't one of them. This one is easy. All it really takes is a little effort to get past the nonsense Israel's advocates try to drown us in and the resolve to do the right thing.
Wednesday, February 22. 2006
The controversy over the deal whereby Dubai Ports World will take over management of six major U.S. ports (New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Miami) provides us with a quick check on how little most Americans -- at least the politico-talking class -- know about how the world works. Oddly enough, the only politician thus far who has managed to keep his positions straight on this one is GW Bush. He may not know much, but at least he knows that the princes of the United Arab Emirates got enough cash to be kowtowed to. And he understands that his administration's prime directive is to kowtow to whoever's got the cash, regardless of silly old-fashioned ideas like nationalism, racism, or Christian bigotry. If the Republican masses are confused now, that's largely because they had rallied to Bush around just those ideas. Many Democrats are similarly confused, and at least as irate given that they've tried to make an issue out of port security back in 2004.
The key fact is this: the capitalist class today is international, and its members have much more in common with each other than any of them have with their nominal countrymen. In effect, they form a single world-wide political party, with a program that calls for the unlimited movement of capital and profits across national borders. (Conversely, labor movements, which once aspired to internationalism, have been effectively locked up within national borders, and disempowered as a result.) The capitalist class dominates the politics of many countries, including Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oligarchies, but its most important stranglehold is the United States. What this means is that when one speaks of a unipolar world with a single superpower, the real identity of that superpower is the capitalist class. And as its capo, Bush owes much more to the princes of Dubai World Ports than he does to his rank and file gun nuts and sex phobics.
The real issue here has little to do with security, terrorism, etc., here. It's about money and control. The deal is that Dubai Ports World is buying these ports from a British company called P&O for $6.8 billion. Like all prices, this is important information. What it tells us is that some fairly savvy capitalists think that there's enough money in managing these ports to recoup a nice profit on $6.8 billion. Those profits will be sucked out of the US and into the UAE, although some may eventually find their way back here to buy up more of America. Of course, in this case the investment mostly goes to the English, who bought the business from Americans sometime in the past, so this deal isn't even one that helps balance the trade deficit.
On the other hand, this raises a long lost issue, which is how the ports got privatized in the first place. This seems like one case where public ownership would make a lot of sense. That's basically because the sole purpose of private companies is to extract the maximum profit possible from the property, which in the case of a port would be some substantial degree of monopoly. On the other hand, the public would have every reason to run the ports as efficiently as possible in order to pass the cost savings on to, well, the public. (Of course, you do run the risk that a bureaucrat like Robert Moses will come up with some rather strange ways of serving the public.)
I remember that back in the '80s there was quite some discussion about how foreigners were buying up large chunks of America, but in the '90s that topic faded, even though the phenomenon never abated. One reason was that the US kept running trade deficits. In order to finance such deficits, the money has to come back somehow -- buying government debt is one way, but buying property is another. I'd like to see a study of how much of America (or what we think to be America, like US-based publicly-held corporations) is owned by non-Americans. Not that it matters much in terms of how things work -- as I said, American capitalists are very much like capitalists anywhere -- but it starts to provide some ammunition for a nationalist (i.e., patriotic) critique of international capitalism. Another study I'd like to see is a survey of capital ownership in the Arab world. It's clear to me that the main reason Bush is so interested in Arab oil isn't so that Americans can burn it up in SUV's. The real reason is more like that the US and the Arabs are the main (only?) countries that recognize oil as private property, and that's the basis of their kindred capitalist classes. As long as the oil profits remain private, it doesn't much matter who burns the oil. What matters to the likes of Bush is that the profits and capital circulate and grow among the capitalists. From their viewpoint, all national interests are anathema. (Had Saddam Hussein invested wisely in US ports instead of building up his nation's army and threatening our buddies in Kuwait he'd be dining on barbecue at the Bush ranch as we speak.)
Tuesday, February 21. 2006
My 8th Jazz Consumer Guide column was posted by the Village Voice today. Actually, the post date was Feb. 17, but in their rush to get done before the three-day weekend, they inadvertently posted the entire edited column, including all the items that got cut from the print version (out today or tomorrow). For the record, the cuts were:
Most of these will appear in the next Jazz CG column, but some may be relegated to surplus. Walden, DeSare, and Blake have slipped twice thus far. They're getting old, and while they're good albums, there's too much competition to keep slipping them into the end of the list. Miles Davis will appear in a Recycled Goods, which may be where it winds up. Francis Davis has already written about it in the Voice -- another reason not to reuse it, even though it was written to nitpick. But the others are a leg up on next time.
They didn't cut any of the duds, which is where I would have started. I don't really get many jazz duds, and rarely feel like picking on those I do get. Do you really need me to tell you that Acoustic Alchemy and the Yellowjackets suck? Or that Debby Boone bears more resemblance to her father than her mother-in-law? Or that the reason Jamie Cullum doesn't measure up to Harry Connick Jr is Mark Bolan brain damage? But the Voice insists on such human sacrifices. But maybe it is of interest that I can't handle the strings on the latest album by David Murray -- otherwise my favorite living saxophonist. (Check my database for 30-40 Murray albums I do recommend. And check the prospecting notes for more details, which may make all the difference in the world.)
The schedule on this column has been revised several times, moving it back, then suddenly moving it forward. One casualty of this is that I don't have my surplus notes worked out. I'll try to get them posted in a week or two. I currently have 188 albums in the "done" file -- competing with the ten leftovers, the pending shelves, and whatever else shows up for 25-30 slots next time, so I need to get real and move half of the "done" file into surplus. I've started prospecting again, but probably won't post any for a couple of weeks until I can get back into the swing of it.
Wednesday, February 15. 2006
The sea change in the media coverage of Dick Cheney's little hunting accident just proves that what goes around comes around. Cheney was the guy who insisted on going full bore ahead on the Republicans' agenda after they squeaked through the tainted 2000 presidential election. His cynical exploitation of ill-gotten power was unprecedented in its scope and depravity. (Not only had Bush taken office under a cloud, compare what he said during the campaign to what they did afterwards to get a glimpse of how disengenuous they were before power corrupted them further. And just as secrets and lies got them into office, secrets and lies followed them everywhere.) Although Cheney hasn't exactly gotten a free ride for all he's done, he's gotten a lot of slack -- the media's customary deference to the powerful, who are often (and this is important) the ones who feed them the spin they report as news. I'm tempted to suggest that the real reason they've turned on Cheney so hard is that he denied them the scoop, but at least part of their bite comes from resentment at having been lied to over and over. The media has a bad case of "kiss up, kick down" (to borrow a phrase used to describe John Bolton), so now that Cheney has gotten himself into a pickle, they can finally show their love.
A couple days ago I wrote about the Wichita Eagle's first tortured, apologetic report on Cheney's safari. Now even the Eagle has swung around. Yesterday's paper had two front page articles: "Kansas hunters criticize Cheney" and "Vice president, host slow to reveal details." That was followed today by "Man shot by Cheney has heart attack." This is mostly stuff you've read elsewhere, but the hunters piece quotes local experts, including education coordinator Wayne Doyle of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, who says, "Ultimately, the trigger-puller is always at fault." The sections on accident rates are worth quoting:
The story also explains how Kansas hunters are required to have completed safety classes, and that since those classes were required hunting accidents have declined significantly. This provides some context for evaluating Cheney's accident. One shouldn't fall for the argument that this was the sort of accident that could happen to anyone. It's very rare, especially for experienced, responsible hunters. Cheney is certainly experienced, but he has some pretty large problems with responsibility, as does his Administration. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Cheney's handling of this mishap turns out to be a useful prism for looking at how he's handled all his other mishaps.
This is why the way the story leaked out is about more than how mediafolk can get their noses bent out of shape. As far as we know at this point, Cheney's immediate reaction was stunned inaction, same as his (and Bush's) reaction to 9/11. Even with Cheney ducking for cover, you'd expect his flunkies to step into the void. I mean, a guy who travels with the Secret Service and his own medical crew should have someone on call skilled at remedying common ailments like foot-in-mouth or head-up-ass, don't you think? So how come they send Katharine Armstrong out to meet the press with her cockamamie "peppered him good" story? Do they think she's got more experience or clout with the press than the Veep's own staff?
Well, maybe she has more credibility. Cheney has so little these days that any hint of candor would be suspect. But nothing less had a chance to stem the deluge. NBC's report was scathing, including a shot of a newspaper headline: "Duck, It's Dick!" Wichita's own mild-mannered Richard Crowson came up with cartoons two days in a row: the first showed body-armored gents preparing to go hunting with Cheney; the second depicts Cheney as a gangsta rapper:
This sort of thing is likely to go on for a while now. The attempts to shift the blame from Cheney to Whittington failed. The attempts to pooh-pooh the severity of the wound were wiped out by Whittington's "heart attack" (actually he has one or more shot pellets wedged into the heart wall). Even if Whittington makes it out of the hospital, when he does eventually die the name you're gonna remember is Cheney. Fox likes to deprecate the birdshot as BB's, but a BB guns are air-powered, pack much less force, and fire a single pellet; the shot (perhaps as many as 150) that ripped into Whittington's flesh is smaller, heavier, and harder. Questions about drinking and drugs will linger.
But this may not be so bad for Cheney -- at least if it takes the press off the Plame case, which was headed straight home, and numerous other scandals [see below]. It may even give the Republicans an opportunity to move Cheney out to pasture, eliminating one of the administration's biggest liabilities and letting them set up an orderly transition for 2008. (Even before the recent news opened up, Cheney's approval ratings were down around 17%. He's headed for single digits now.)
As for the scandals, Matt Taibbi has a piece in Rolling Stone on the Enron trial, where he explains:
Well, at least with Cheney we have an else whose falling we can care about -- because he's so close to the root of everyone else. It's too rare that bad things happen to bad people, which is why so many are relishing this story now.
Tuesday, February 14. 2006
I have a rather large pile of books that I've read that I want to write something about. In fact, they're piling up around my desk, starting to look impatient and forlorn. But the most urgent is Matt Taibbi's Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season, for no better reason than that I checked it out from the library, and couldn't put it down once I started to read. And that certainly wasn't because I had any desire to relive the 2004 election. It's more like because it sums up the disgust that I always suspected that election deserved, even while clinging to some glimmer of hope that Tweedle-dee-Kerry might edge out Tweedle-dum-Bush. I've already noticed bits of Taibbi's cynicism and scorn making themselves at home in my own prose. I'm tempted to quote vast stretches of this book, but time doesn't permit. But let's at least preserve the following:
OK, he got a little soft-headed in that last line. But look at it this way: some things, like winning an election, can only happen once you've achieved a mass consensus; but other things are individual, and not falling for all those lies is one of them. That's something each of us can do for ourselves. It may not make you any happier, but at least you'll stop feeling like someone's pulled a fast one on you when something awful happens. And awful things happen all the time.
Taibbi's book was stitched together from lots of small articles, a technique that sometimes cramps his flow. But it's probably not the real reason he doesn't give us the sort of big, sweeping view of the campaigns. He prefers to look at the campaign from the bottom up, even going so far as to miss staged photo-ops because he's out looking for ghettoes to contrast their indifference to the canned, processed optimism he's fed. Later on he goes underground, working as a Bush-Cheney volunteer in Orlando. Then he joins a group called Protest Warrior, which organizes counter-protests at demos:
Taibbi gets very down on demonstrations after that, arguing that in the '50s and early '60s protests had some threat because they suggested that we were individuals, willing to break with confirmity. But now the system has become immune to protest. Individuals can do whatever they want, but they can't matter. He suggests that the only thing that might make a difference is organization, but that too may just be a hot flash of ungrounded optimism.
In the final section, he runs a paired-elimination contest like a tennis match searching to find the most vapid journalist covering the last days of the election. He calls this contest Wimblehack, and the section is as sharp as media criticism gets. To make a long story short, the winner is Elisabeth Bumiller of New Pravda, edging out Newsweek's Howard Fineman.
Published by New Press. Wish the book had an index.
Monday, February 13. 2006
This is the final week's prospecting for this particular Jazz Consumer Guide. I chopped this week off mid-Friday and sent in the complete draft. Still quite a few prospected but still pending items on the shelf, as well as a pile of ESP-Disk reissues and a few other items still awaiting first play: deadlines are arbitrary, but I more than bagged my limit this time. The JCG has been edited, but I'm not sure when it will run: two or three weeks, I'm told, without a great deal of certainty. As predicted, more finals here than prospects. The surprise was that two climbed onto the A-list, given that most re-listens end up where I thought they began.
Terje Rypdal: Vossabrygg (2003 , ECM): With two drummers, four people on various synths and samples, bass, and the leader's guitar, this is a sprawling mess, rooted in fusion but tempered by the self-effacing requirements of the Nordic sound. At least that's one way of scoring. Another is to point out that one of the synth dabblers actually spends more time on trumpet, and to recall that Palle Mikkelborg is a dedicated and skilled musician whose main claim to fame has been his work with Miles Davis and George Russell -- not so much the roots of this work as its godfathers. So it's not such a surprise that there's much of interest in this mess. Nor that it will take some time to sort out. [B+(**)]
Carl Maguire: Floriculture (2002 , Between the Lines): Leader plays piano and composed the pieces, played by a quartet with Chris Mannigan's alto sax making the most noise. Opens up roughly avant, where the piano chimes brightly, but the quieter spots interest me more, like the brief duet between bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Dan Weiss in a piece dedicated to Mark Dresser, or spots where Mannigan plays softly behind the bass. Impressive first album. [B+(***)]
Manuel Valera Group: Melancolía (2004, Mavo): Young Cuban pianist, presumably -- judging from a band that includes Seamus Blake and Ben Street -- not Cuba based. He has a rich, flowing style, and favors complex arrangements, combining a quintet (Antonio Sanchez on drums, Lusito Quintero on percussion) with a string quartet here. His two non-originals here are, no kidding, by Rachmaninoff and Silvio Rodriguez. Shows you he's well schooled, dilligent, hard working, and possibly talented. Not my thing, the aspirations even more so than the accomplishment. And it's long. But it's likely that some people will go gaga over this, and he may turn out to have an impressive career. I'm tempted to hold this back for another play, but I'm also tempted to move on. If it's any consolation, I already like him more than I do Arturo O'Farrill. B
Ahleuchatistas: What You Will (2005 , Cuneiform): Guitar-bass-drums trio. Hype sheet says "file under: rock/post-punk"; publicist says "non-jazz CD with lots of jazz references." It's all instrumental, and that it mostly has a regular beat doesn't disqualify it in my book. Moreover, the group name, combining a famous Charlie Parker title with a suffix commonly used by latino revolutionaries, is jazzworthy unless you think that jazz is only what you find in museums and Ken Burns documentaries. Guns on the back cover, and the song titles recall Mingus -- e.g., "Remember Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib." Don't have a firm opinion yet. Maybe the genre confusion persists in their heads. Maybe the guns aren't loaded. [B+(*)]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Edsel Gomez: Cubist Music (2005 , Zoho): He's a well travelled, well connected Puerto Rican pianist, on his first album, where he writes all of the pieces except for a short one by his producer, Don Byron, at the end. The music and piano are fine, but most of the interest here will center on the group, with its Drew Gress-Bruce Cox rhythm section, and an all-star tag team of reed players: David Sanchez, Miguel Zenon, Steve Wilson, Greg Tardy, and Byron. B+(**)
Joe Fielder Trio: Plays the Music of Albert Mangelsdorff (2005, Clean Feed): Most tributes are poor substitutes for the originals, but this one is a much needed clarification. Mangelsdorff was both a pathbreaker -- one of the essential inventors of European avant-garde jazz -- and a virtuosic trombonist, and the two aspects of his playing tended to confound our ability to get a grasp on him. This elemental trio -- just trombone, bass and drums -- concentrates on his melodies, perhaps the least appreciated aspect of his craft. Much appreciated. B+(***)
Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Toward the Margins (1996 , ECM): Just background for the more recent album (see below, I hope). Simple enough in concept: the Parker Trio (Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, you know) meet violinist-electronics buff Philipp Wachsmann and two more knobmen for discrete pleasures. I kept expecting more from the trio, although it's likely that Guy's bass merges into the strings base and Parker's soprano sax burrows into the electronics. Slow, textural. Just let it be and it starts to sweep you away, not unlike a glacier. B+(*)
Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Eleventh Hour (2004 , ECM): The electro brigade is larger than ever, although the acoustic side has grown a bit as well, with Agustí Fernandez on more/less prepared piano to go along with the strings (Philip Wachsmann on violin, Adam Linson on double-bass) and Parker's soprano sax. The one piece in five parts has many effects but little shape, and the flow is once again glacial. It wouldn't be hard to conclude that there's nothing much here, and it can be argued that thinking otherwise is just wishful thinking. But I think otherwise, even if I'm not real sure of myself. The effects are the show. B+(**)
Arthur Kell Quartet: Traveller (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Tight bassist-led quartet with three more musicians already established on the Fresh Sound label: Gorka Benitez (tenor sax, flute), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Joe Smith (drums). Kell's bass firmly anchors his tunes, and he's the critical focal point, but both Cardenas and Benitez excel. A-
Julius Tolentino: Just the Beginning (2005, Sharp Nine): First album by a young alto saxophonist working a mainstream vein. Inlfuences name check Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, Kenny Garrett, with McLean a personal connection. Title cut is an original, fast and boppish. On five cuts he picks up extra brass from Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) and Steve Davis (trombone). Jeb Patton plays flashy, hard bop piano, and he's an asset throughout. Final cut is another original, a duo with Patton lamenting the late Illinois Jacquet. A class move. B+(***)
Mark Dresser: Unveil (2003-04 , Clean Feed): Solo bass -- the very idea will leave all but a few of you cold. I've heard maybe a dozen such albums, all on the avant edge, where the idea of totally unfettered whatever holds its strongest appeal. This is more attractive than most, primarily because some passages have strong rhythmic appeal, but also because it rarely goes arco and never stoops to stupid bass tricks. B+(**)
The Heckler by Juan Pablo Balcazar Quartet: Heckler City (2005, Fresh Sound New Talent): Very similar to the Arthur Kell disc -- a tenor sax-guitar-bass-drums group led by the bassist, but a little sweeter all around, especially in the guitar (Alejandro Mingot). The saxophonist is Miguel Villar "Pintxo" -- the quoted part presumably a nickname, like "Lockjaw" (maybe an influence; for all the Basque I know it could even be a translation). B+(***)
Hilary Noble & Rebecca Cline: Enclave (2004 , Zoho): Good students. Noble studied sax with George Garzone and Yusef Lateef, and did extra credit in Afro-Cuban percussion. Cline picked up her piano from Joanne Brackeen and Chucho Valdés, and she delivers the whole package. But they have moved beyond the humble respect most students pay to their masters. They cross borders and upset conventions, whether they're skewering Cole Porter or serenading Paulo Freire. Sounded like a bunch of neat tricks at first, but there's just too many of them to dismiss. Noble's most likely the conceptualist here, but Cline blows me away: I can't remember the last time I've been so impressed by someone I've never heard of before. A-
Hard Cell (Berne+Taborn+Rainey): Feign (2005, Screwgun): Two-thirds of the Paraphrase lineup, with pianist Craig Taborn replacing bassist Drew Gress. My preference for the latest Paraphrase album most likely has little to do with the change -- the other album just caught one of those moments when everything clicked. Nonetheless, this isn't far off the mark. Taborn is very engaged, and he is worth focusing on. B+(***)
Satoko Fujii Four: Live in Japan 2004 (2004 , P.J.L): Not to be confused with the Satoko Fujii Quartet, which has two Japanese musicians on bass-drums and takes more of a fusion slant. This group has Mark Dresser on bass and Jim Black on drums for a more avant pairing. The four pieces include the 36:28 "Illusion Suite," recently on an album of that name, by the same group minus trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Lots of good parts. I'm especially impressed by Black this time around. B+(**)
Hamid Drake & Assif Tsahar: Live at Glenn Miller Café (2002 , Ayler): This is volume 2 to an earlier (2001) date released as Soul Bodies. I don't have a particularly good take on Tsahar: he sounds a little bit like everyone, at least going back to Ayler, and maybe to Rollins -- he does 1:25 of "St. Thomas" to close the set, lest the point be missed. But here he's in full bore avant-honk mode, which seems to be his most agreeable speed. Sounds like Drake only has his kit to play with, which limits his options, although he still impresses. B+(***)
Matt Renzi: The Cave (2003 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Simple trio, the leader playing tenor sax and clarinet near equally. A student of George Garzone, Renzi tries to work four years living in scattered spots on three continents into his mix, and the result is thoughtful, almost contemplative, very centered. B+(***)
Mike Tucker: Collage (2005 , www.tuckerjazz.com): Young tenor saxophonist with chops working mainstream postbop. Cites Michael Brecker as an influence, but he also studied with Garzone. Leo Genovese is in the quartet, playing more Fender Rhodes than piano. Fast ones, a slow one, a mambo, something called a suite. Fine record. I can't make up my mind whether people like him are the scourge of the industry or its salvation, probably because the answer is neither. B+(**)
Chris Gestrin/Ben Monder/Dylan van der Schyff: The Distance (2004 , Songlines): Piano-guitar-drums trio, so lightly recorded it's very hard to follow, or is it so abstract? Maybe there's something here, but at some point incomprehension gives way to indifference, and that dictates its own rating. I'm still unsure how low it should go, but these guys usually have more to offer. B-
Bob Rockwell Quartet Featuring Ben Sidran: Bob's Ben: A Tribute to Ben Webster (2004 , Stunt): This one's too easy, but it's an undeniable pleasure. Rockwell's a mainstream tenor saxman who moved to Copenhagen in 1983, two decades after Webster, and settled into a respected if unspectacular career. He has the broad tone but none of Webster's vibrato, so he keeps a respectful distance while luxuriating in a dozen Webster ballads. I thought I never wanted to hear "Danny Boy" again, but I was wrong. A-
Sam Rivers/Ben Street/Kresten Osgood: Violet Violets (2004 , Stunt): This is one of those old masters goes to Europe and gets roped into a studio things. (Street is presumably American, but he mostly records on European labels. Osgood is Danish.) The pieces include a couple by Osgood, a couple by Rivers, some group improv, and other odds and ends (Ornette Coleman, Lucky Thompson). Still, this is remarkable for how good Rivers sounds, and how neatly this links back to his early work. B+(***)
Joshua Redman Elastic Band: Momentum (2005, Nonesuch): I wrote this up as an A- shortly after I got it, but it missed the cut the first time out, then I held it back a second time. Christgau told me he thought it was a dud -- made the point that it was the first time he really disagreed with my jazz picks -- but he hasn't flagged it as such in his Consumer Guide. Also I never managed to pick up a copy of Redman's previous Elastic Band album, which meant I was missing a key context. (Of course, if that was critical, I'd never be able to review anything.) I gave it a spin last JCG time and it still seemed to hold up. Gave it another spin this time and I'm starting to have my own doubts. The guitarists don't just not stand out -- they're kinda mushy. And the leader doesn't just play along -- he's still perfecting the saxophone equivalent of anorexia. And the record is getting old, which wouldn't matter so much for a relative unknown, but he's on a major label and has (or had) a major rep. Still, I do like Sam Yahel's funk organ, and Nicholas Payton aces his guest spot. And I've never doubted that funk is its own reward. So I haven't turned to the point I think this is a dud. But I am going to let it slip quietly into oblivion. Just too much other stuff to squeeze into the space. B+(**)
Joe Giardullo: No Work Today: Nine for Steve Lacy (2004 , Drimala): From John Szwed's liner notes: "God forbid, you run out of breath, and the audience may hear it has running out of ideas." That happens a couple of times here. There's no margin for error, no cover for a slip up or the least bit of sloppiness. Solo saxophone (soprano, no less) requires total concentration by the musician, and little less by the listener. Lacy recorded solo a number of times, but even though I have about 25 of his albums, I don't have a solo one (there are at least five) available for comparison. It's tough to do, and its appeal is limited, so it's all the more remarkable how gracefully Giardullo pulls this off. B+(***)
Headline in Wichita Eagle today, below the fold, below the "Parents iffy on Tasers at School" article, below the Olympics US Medal Count: "Cheney's gunshot hits, injures hunting partner." Note the subject is gunshot, not Cheney. The NRA should be upset, given how wasted all the effort they made to teach us that it isn't the guns that kill, it's just the people who fire them. "Cheney shoots hunting partner" would have been more to the point -- "injures," after all, is redundant after "shoots." The piece, assembled by "Eagle news services" from a wide range of wire services, is a textbook example of evasive writing:
Again, they work backwards, reassuring us that the victim is doing alright before fingering the trigger man. It's a bit surprising that Whittington would be held in an intensive care unit for observation. Maybe that's a Texas millionaire thing.
So it was Whittington's fault for sneaking up behind Cheney. But if he was behind Cheney, that means that Cheney had to turn around to shoot him. Most hunters have the presence of mind to hold their fire whenever another person enters their field of vision. But then it was Whittington who got in Cheney's line of fire. And "peppered pretty good" is a much more amusing verb phrase than "shot in the face."
So Whittington was 30 yards behind Cheney, who turned while tracking a flying quail -- a pretty small bird, about the size of a fist -- 180 degrees before firing on a line close enough to the horizon to hit another person. Most likely the bird was closer than Whittington -- seems like it would be a pretty tough shot to hit a flying bird that small at 30 yards or more, so Cheney may have had trouble focusing both on the bird and the other hunter, but then that's why hunters wear orange: you don't have to focus to see orange, and when you see orange you hold your fire. At least that's the way it's supposed to work. I don't know the range or scatter at 30 yards -- 28-gaurge is a small shotgun, and the shot are pretty small, but evidently the pattern is still tight enough that Whittington was hit by quite a number of shot.
Then Cheney's medical team treated Whittington, before flying him by helicopter to Corpus Christi for observation in the ICU. It was 24 hours before the press picked up the story:
Of course, no one has suggested that they spent the time trying to get their stories straight, and not just because they don't add up. Armstrong was a $100,000-level Bush-Cheney Pioneer fundraiser, so the deference was mutual:
So no big deal. Any resemblance between this "accident" and any of the other Cheney Administration accidents is pure coincidence.
Actually, Cheney's hunting sorties show up in the news with some regularity. He seems to hunt more than any American politician since Teddy Roosevelt. I come from a family of hunters, so I'm reluctant to take pot shots at the sport, even though I pesonally have no taste or interest in ever hunting again. But Cheney's obsession with hunting is particularly appropriate to his political megalomania. He reminds me of Nicolae Ceaucescu, whose bear hunting exploits are documented by David Quammen in Monster of God.
Another story in the Eagle caught my eye. This one is "Man FBI labels terrorist says he was investigating," by Alfred Lubrano and John Shiffman of the Philadelphia Enquirer. I have many times argued that the War on Terror is a crock, but this story makes it sound more like a snark hunt. (Back in Boy Scouts we were sent on a hunt for the non-existent snark. Needless to say, the only thing anyone found was poison ivy.)
With all these patriots going around trapping each other it's a good thing there aren't any real threats out there. But you have to wonder about all the poison ivy they're running into. Bush has set up a system that is ludicrously adept at snagging only the stupidest, most incompetent terrorist wannabes in the world. Just look at the people they've charged -- these are mortal threats to our freedom and way of life? And we get this service for just a few hundreds of billions of dollars -- money that we can't afford to spend on real problems.
Sunday, February 12. 2006
The local paper was full of bad news today, starting with prairie fires north of town that wiped out thousands of acres, and extending as far afield as bird flu in Nigeria. One of the low points was a cartoon from the usually reliable Mike Lukovich that just adds fire to the Islamic caricature furor. And there seems to be a backroom deal on the PATRIOT Act that has snookered Harry Reid, who also seems to be the only politician the media has any interest in linking to Jack Abramoff. But let's start with this item, titled "Republicans' strategy: Portray Dems as weak":
There's no doubt that the Democrats are weak: the Republicans have controlled the White House for six years (or 18 of the last 26, or 26 of the last 38), Congress for twelve, the Supreme Court for longer than that. Of course, that's not what Mehlman had in mind. But it says much that after an extended period in power the most promising issue the Republicans have is distrust in their unproven, mostly powerless opponents. But they their own record is less something to run on than to run away from. So, they must be figuring, why not go with what worked before?
Portraying the Democrats as weak works, but it actually has nothing to do with "protecting the country" -- at least as far as terrorism is concerned, where the Democrats have, if anything, been as eager to fight and less prone to falling asleep at the ranch than Bush. No, the Democrats come off as weak because their constituency includes the poor, and they tend to make excuses for poor people -- racism, exploitation, lack of opportunity, maybe even injustice. They even sympathize with the poor abroad. The Republicans know better. They know that poverty is moral failure, and if that isn't punishment enough, they're willing to mete out more. That their arguments play well with the rich isn't much of a surprise, but they've also gotten good mileage out those among the non-rich who are secure in their moral righteousness even as their incomes and safety nets crumble. As long as those people can manage to hang on by their own strength they will continue to despise those who can't -- the weak, the Democrats.
Unfortunately, the Democrats' game plan is to play straight into the Republicans' lone strength. They will leave no stone unturned to show voters that when it comes to terrorism they're every bit as badass as the Republicans. They'll wave the flag and support the troops. They'll do homeland security right. And they're badass on crime too: they'll hire more cops, lengthen sentences, build more jails. And the net effect of all their enthusiasms will be to reinforce the Republicans' arguments, because in the end the people who have bought into the silly idea that Bush is a tower of strength still known deep down that the Democrats are just a bunch of crooked wusses anyway.
Of course, the Democrats will try to campaign on other issues, especially the relatively safe subject of corruption. They may score some cheap points on gas prices, given that the Republicans are even softer on the oil companies than the Democrats are on the poor. But their reluctance to take on the giant bugaboo of terrorism is what lets the Republicans off the hook. Militarism is the handmaiden of the right because the stress of war, even phony ones like the GWOT, reinforces the state's role as the enforcer of order under the rich and powerful and diminishes the state's ability to help out everyone else. The only way the left -- the hell the Democrats have been consigned to even though they did nothing to deserve it and scarcely have a clue what it means -- can even the playing field is to attack the war machine head on.
Mehlman is daring the Democrats to campaign on the war question. He's gambling that they're too chickenshit to make the case for breaking the cycle of war and terrorism, to show that the only way out is peace with justice. It's a pretty safe bet, because they sure haven't shown they stand for much of anything yet. He's also gambling that voters won't notice how little they've gotten from decades of Republican misrule, but what else can he do? His hedge there may be the bit about "bypassing the mainstream media" -- even though the Republicans own that media, the fear is that it's still too reality-bound to be trusted. The Republicans need voters who know nothing beyond their own upwelling spite, which again is an emotion built on division and war, not healing and peace.
The Republicans need war because they have nothing else to stand on. Democrats unwilling to take a stand on war consign themselves to irrelevancy and failure. Meanwhile, there are serious problems coming that won't be addressed because the two parties can overcome the problems they themselves have created.
Wednesday, February 8. 2006
I've been wanting to write something on "cartoongate" -- the fire and fury over a set of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper last September, which has recently resulted in numerous loud, and in some cases violent, protests. This strikes me as a prism through which a lot of important issues can be viewed, but getting a handle on how to approach it is difficult. Rather than thrash on this, let me just throw these points out in no particular order:
This will likely be an interesting story for some time. Just to follow the story around the world could provide a good deal of insight into the struggle between the Western powers and the Islamic world, but only if one puts this controversy into a context that goes back as far as Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, and picks up speed with the Balfour Declaration, the meeting of FDR and King Saud, the CIA coup against Mossadegh, the Six Day War of 1967, the oil crisis of 1973, the CIA funding of mujahideen in Afghanistan, and 9/11/2001. Otherwise all this brouhaha over cartoons will just seem silly. Otherwise much more destructive nonsense is sure to come.
Postscript: The following is a fragment of my first draft. I include it here because it talks about first impressions, which often matter when talking about the news. And because I wasn't able to work the discussion of indifference back into the above. One of the most powerful emotions I feel about the current Bush regime is the utter frustration and hopelessness of achieving anything through the political system. We need to ask why that is. This is my theory. Unfortunately, this particular thread didn't go where I hoped. Here it's just an orphan, but likely to be adopted some day.
Monday, February 6. 2006
The February 2006 Recycled Goods has been posted at Static Multimedia. This one was kind of a rush job -- a mix of leftovers and easy marks, long on jazz reissues which I had been prospecting anyway, and short on world music. The obvious pick hit would have been the Art Pepper album -- the perfect gem from a 16-CD Galaxy box set I adore stem to stern -- but it's just a moderately enhanced reissue of an already famous, long in-print album, and I fancied the idea of stacking those two folkie albums. I don't go into folk music very often, and indeed I can argue that these two came to me. Go Contrary, Go Sing was a complete, unsolicited suprise, showing up sometime last summer along with a punk rock disc by the Deacons which turned out to be equally attractive. Snider I've known for a while, and I recommend his last two Oh Boy albums as strongly as this useful early summary, but I also found songs here I didn't know before, including a couple of essential ones. After you've been doing this for a while, surprise counts for something.
Some other little notes. One is that I got around to requesting Capitol's Las Vegas series too late to get the whole series, so no Frank, no Dean, no Elvis. (They didn't send me Wayne either, but I scrounged up a copy elsewhere.) Another is that I've never quite been able to make up my mind whether latin jazz qualifies as world music, so I have no hard and fast rules there. Luis Mario Ochoa struck me as more pop than jazz, but the line is rarely clear or even meaningful. I get quite a bit of latin jazz, and rarely know what to do with it. Finally, the Hank Williams review was written up before Robert Christgau made this set his year-end archival Pick Hit. When I heard about it I was rather shocked -- it's usually he who criticizes me for going soft on poorly organized or redundant compilations of undeniably great music.
Hopefully, March won't be such a rush job. After Jazz CG wraps up later this week, I'm looking forward to some time free of deadline pressure. Maybe I'll get around to playing that Faces box I bought over a year ago and haven't even played yet.
Another relatively ineffective week of jazz prospecting. My indecision slump continues, so the play-it-again shelf continues to pile up. Deadline on this Jazz CG is this coming Friday, so this is make or break week. Time to buckle down.
Incognito: Eleven (2006, Narada Jazz): Not a jazz group by any stretch of the imagination -- even by the delirious standards of Smooth Jazz. Rather, they are an old-fashioned disco group, working a deliberately anonymous groove -- think of Chic, then tune the bass and funk down to where it's barely perceptible. As one who considers anonymity a plus in disco I rather like them, but not as much as I'd like them if they moved me. B
Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: Sacred Music of Duke Ellington (2001-05 , Origin, 2CD): Co-directed by Clarence Acox and Michael Brockman, featuring vocalists Dee Daniels, James Caddell, and Nichol Eskridge, with a snappy big band and an armada of choir singers, and even a credit for tap dancer Tim Hickey. I've never liked Ellington's sacred music, always thinking that the words were overly literal and the melodies forced to the words. He did most of this late in life, and while I don't wish to doubt his sincerity, its awkwardness always smelled of a death-bed conversion. Given all that, I certainly didn't expect much of a small town repertory group, but they make more of it than I imagined possible. The band has some snap to it, and the singers get that gospel feel. And the music is split into two blessedly short discs, instead of one insufferably long one. B+(*)
Joel Harrison: Harrison on Harrison (2005, High Note): The other Harrison is Beatle George, like Joel a guitarist first, a composer second, and a vocalist last. One problem with covering rock songs is that they come with lyrics, so they tempt one to sing, and that tends to keep them locked down as rock songs. Four of eleven songs here have vocals, one by guest Jen Chapin. The other pieces open up more, and on a couple of occasions pianist Uri Caine and/or saxophonists David Liebman and David Binney threaten to run away with them. This leaves us with a rather uncomfortable and inconsistent sense of the guitarist. Some interesting stuff here, but I don't see how it adds up. B
Ingrid Jensen: At Sea (2005 , ArtistShare): One of these I need to figure out what people mean when they say something is post-bop. Even without a precise definition this seems to be what they have in mind. Actually, I'm not sure it's related to bop at all, but Jensen is by reputation a follower of Woody Shaw and Art Farmer, who fit squarely into the hard bop tradition. But this is intricate, composerly music, stretched out to long forms that don't necessarily feel improvised. She plays the only horn, but there are lots of little things going on: keyboards, bass, guitar (on two cuts), percussion (some Latin, some African). The trumpet is strong and distinctive. Interesting record, not that I know what to make of it. [B+(***)]
William Parker: Long Hidden: The Olmec Series (1993-2005 , AUM Fidelity): The mesoamerican-inspired Olmec Group joins four young merengue players with older avant-gardists, with Todd Nicholson playing bass and Parker doson ngoni -- a Malian lute he picked up from Don Cherry and has used on several other records. They only appear on four of ten cuts, creating a low-keyed, rather indecisive rhythmic vamp with no particular melodic development, although one piece has a vocal incantation. Parker fills the album out with three solo pieces each on bass and doson ngoni, including the intense bass solo of "Compassion Seizes Bed-Stuy" and patiently marked doson ngoni theme of the almost closing "Long Hidden Part One." I say almost because the album contains a bonus cut, a 14:09 bass solo from an obscure album self-released in 1993. It makes for a fitting coda, although it reminds you that for all his fiddling with exotica, Parker's true claim to fame is on the bass. No doubt that this is intriguing in pieces, but I'm not sure how well it fits together. [B+(**)]
Hamid Drake & Assif Tsahar: Live at Glenn Miller Café (2002 , Ayler): Two thirds of Lost Brother, which is still the leading candidate for the second Pick Hit slot. The missing third is diddley-bow wizard Cooper-Moore, who makes a difference. I also think Drake has more going on in the trio album, probably because he has more tools there. But I like Tsahar best in avant-honk mode, and that's where he's at here. Certainly a high HM. [B+(***)]
Vinny Golia Quartet: Sfumato (2003 , Clean Feed): He's a multi-reed player I respect but don't know very well, with most of a huge catalog on his own Nine Winds label. I put this on as soon as I got it, but had to leave the room and mostly heard random noise, so it took a while for me to get back to it. Whatever I heard then isn't much in evidence now. This is a reeds-trumpet-bass-drums quartet, the basic two-headed powerhouse that has worked so well in avant-leaning circles over the last few years. Golia mostly plays clarinets, high saxes (soprano, sopranino) and low flutes (G, contrabass). Bobby Bradford provides the trumpet, with Ken Filiano and Alex Cline out back. Interesting music, covering a wide range of sounds and textures. Looking forward to getting back to it soon. [B+(***)]
Ulf Wakenius: Notes From the Heart (2005 , ACT): Songs by Keith Jarrett, played soft and acoustic by the Swedish guitarist plus bass and drums. Low key, but quite likable. [B+(**)]
Kevin Hays: Open Range (2004 , ACT): This is number III in the label's Piano Works series -- the first two were by Joachim Kühn and George Gruntz. Solo piano, with a vocal or two, including the one non-original, "You Are My Sunshine." The titles reflect the open spaces around Hays' Santa Fe home. Music is slow and spacious. Want to play it again. [B+(*)]
Nils Landgren & Joe Sample: Creole Love Call (2005 , ACT): Most tourists come (or came) to New Orleans to hear music, but you can understand the impulse of this Swedish trombonist-vocalist and all around funk fan to make some. I don't think this works, but parts are charming enough I'm going to keep the tab open. Sample plays keyboards, and while he's not exactly James Booker (or even Dr. John), he holds his own. Landgren is a slight-voiced crooner -- the softness in his voice has a sort of amateurish appeal, but he's so outclassed by duet partners Ray Parker Jr. and Charmaine Neville it isn't funny. And you'd have to come from as far afield as Sweden to confuse the songbook with New Orleans -- especially "Dock of the Bay," "Nightlife," "Love the One You're With." But it does pick up a bit toward the end, with much needed extra brass on Sample's "Same Old Story," and Ellington's title tune done as an instrumental -- would much rather hear his trombone than his Adelaide Hall impression. [B]
Pat Martino: Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery (2006, Blue Note): Montgomery is the major figure in the history of jazz guitar. Probably half of the jazz guitarists working today look straight back to him, and any of them would be happy to dedicate a tribute on a major label. I've never been much of a jazz guitar fan, and while there are items in Montgomery's folder that I enjoy, I very rarely find any of his followers to be of interest. Martino is a well regarded guitarist, but I've never paid him any attention. (This is the first album under his name that I've heard.) He started in soul jazz groups, was knocked out of action by illness, and made a much publicized, rather heroic comeback, establishing himself as one of the better known guitarists in jazz. But as far as I know, he's never been associated with Montgomery before. He doesn't much sound like Montgomery, but he plays the standard pieces with skill, so let's say he's a second order follower -- an admirer, but not a devotee. That's probably for the best here, since we can always listen to the real thing. Montgomery didn't play with many pianists, but some of his most notable work was with Wynton Kelly, whose long, loopy bop lines were often interchangeable with Montgomery's. David Kikoski fills the Kelly role here, and is more convincing than Martino. This is a pleasant little album, essentially a marketing idea as most tributes are. Scheduled for release April 4, so I guess I can wait. [B+(*)]
Satoko Fujii Quartet: Angelona (2004 , Libra): Fujii and her trumpeter-husband Natsuki Tamura are very prolific, working in a wide range of groups including several quartets. This one reprises Zephyros, easily my favorite of the ten or so albums I've heard thus far, in large part because electric bassist Takeharu Hayakawa kept the propulsion in high gear. Hayakawa is far less central here -- in fact, the rhythm section doesn't particularly distinguish itself in any way this time. Fortunately, this is where Tamura, who had previously struck me as by far the more conservative stylist, steps up big time. Fujii also impresses, especially on the Tayloresque splashes that rough up the opener. The result is an album that flirts with greatness but doesn't quite deliver it. That's about par as far as I've managed to figure out. B+(**)
Thomas Strønen: Pohlitz (2006, Rune Grammofon): He is a drummer I've noticed on three or four recent Scandinavian albums -- some rockish, some avant, and he's often been the most impressive player. This is something else: solo percussion and electronics, in some ways closer to minimalism than to jazz. I'm still impressed. [B+(***)]
Zu: The Way of the Animal Powers (2005, Xeng): This Italian group is a bass-drums-sax (mostly baritone) trio, sometimes (as here) using the common last name of Zu, bound to an ideology called Zuism, no unrelated to anarchism. They make alliances with similar-minded groups like the Ex, and have done match-up albums with Ken Vandermark (Spaceways Inc.) and Mats Gustafsson. Here they're joined by cellist Fred Londberg-Holm. I like the deep rumble and edgy rhythms here, and the spoken piece at the end acts as a fine coda. Short: 25:47. B+(***)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Eric Darius: Just Getting Started (2006, Narada Jazz): Alright, there are no fine points here. Just a steady beat and a golden toned, ebullient alto sax running through those sure shot rising riffs that have lifte r&b records since the '40s. Which means that there are hundreds, nay thousands, of comparable examples. Many with real drummers. B
Jason Miles: What's Going On? Songs of Marvin Gaye (2006, Narada Jazz): His trivialization of Gaye is less offensive than his trivialization of Miles Davis. But if I had time to listen to Marvin Gaye's songs, I'd rather listen to Marvin Gaye. B-
Jean-Marc Foltz/Bruno Chevillon: Cette Opacité (2003 , Clean Feed): When I was researching the jazz labels piece, Clean Feed's Pedro Costa told me that he has no set style concept of what he releases -- he just releases whatever he likes. This deep, abstract, cautious but moving clarinet-bass duet had been circulating as a CD-R before Costa picked it up. Neither of the players are in any sense bankable, and the music itself has a distinctly limited appeal, but it evidently struck Costa's fancy, so he ran with it. B+(*)
Marty Ehrlich: News on the Rail (2005, Palmetto): Francis Davis praised this in a Voice sidebar, which gives me an excuse to duck the issue. The sextet, with James Zollar's brass complementing Ehrlich's reeds and Howard Johnson swinging both ways in the lower registers, plus a piano-bass-drums rhythm section, provides many options for harmonic complexity. I don't doubt that Ehrlich takes advantage of this ambitiously. I just find it hard to focus my interest here with any consistency. It does have its moments, like on "Hear You Say" where the three horns split into separate threads and it sounds like the pianist has switched to melodica, temporarily producing a fourth thread. If I stuck with this it might inch up the HM list, bit I don't have any new insights to add, doubt that I might find any, and have other fish to fry. B+(**)
Kevin Norton's Bauhaus Quartet: Time-Space Modulator (2003-04 , Barking Hoop): Trumpet (Dave Ballou), tenor/soprano sax (Tony Malaby), bass (John Lindberg), drums/marimba (Norton), mostly working through small changes in a rather abstract vein. It's hard to get a handle on this, but I've kicked it back to the pending queue too many times by now. B+(**)
I haven't enabled comments here, but I got the following note from Luke Kaven (Smalls Records) regarding a previous posting on the first of several archival releases of Omer Avital's group, a 1996 recording with four saxophonists (Mark Turner, Greg Tardy, Myron Walden, Charles Owens), who I described as "working out their bebop moves." I thought the note worth sharing.
I think this raises two questions. One is what is the historical importance of Smalls -- especially to the extent that there is any sort of consistent aesthetic centered on the club. I wasn't there, and don't know. My impression is that the records on the Smalls label are similar to much of what I've heard on Palmetto and Fresh Sound (New York subset) -- i.e., the sort of thing that often gets called postbop. The other question is what is postbop? I've expressed my confusion on this before -- my best guess is that it's the middle ground left over once all the distinct styles have been carved off. One reason I was thinking of "bebop moves" was Walden, who is as narrowly boppish as any young saxophonist I've heard. Turner certainly has more in his toolkit, and had a couple of good records out by the time this set was recorded.
Thursday, February 2. 2006
A lot of strange stuff is happening these days. I don't have time to dig very deep into it right now, but I have a couple of points that should be mentioned.
The US and Israel have moved to cut financial aid to the Palestinian Authority now that Hamas is in the driver's seat. The rationale here is that both previously named Hamas as a terrorist organization, and the US and Israel are committed not to fund terrorist organizations, so they have to halt their funding, lest some of it go to financing terrorism. Most critics respond to this by pointing out how hypocritical it is -- the US is the world's major exporter of arms and promoter of violence around the world, and more/less inadvertently terrorism's prime raison d'être, and Israel isn't far behind -- or how it's just another example of collective punishment (a war crime, by the way), in this case punishing the Palestinian people for voting wrong in democratic elections we had insisted on. Pragmatists may also note that cutting off the spigot kills the only hope for rendering Hamas as corrupt and ineffective as Fatah.
What's happened here is that the US and Israel have gotten trapped in their own rhetoric. Politicians do this all the time. It's not just a substitute for thinking -- it's a way of policing thought so that no meaningful changes can slip through. If they did give the matter any thought, they'd realize that starving Palestine because they bought into the idea of democracy is a lose-lose-lose proposition, regardless of whatever their real goals are. They should simply recognize that when people freely elect an individual or a party, that person or party can no longer be judged by outsiders on their own specific merits. By election that person/party becomes a representative of the nation, and you can't judge and punish a nation the same way you can individuals who only represent themselves. There is, by the way, a relevant precedence for this: when Israel elected Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister, the World Court had to shelve their war crimes investigation of him. The same courtesy should be shown Hamas.
Another item of interest is Bush's flip-flop on oil addiction. I hadn't paid a lot of attention to that part of the disunion speech, even though it was the lead headline in the Eagle here, because, well, everything he says is misleading and misintended even in the rare cases when it's not a flat-out lie. In fact, I suspect that the reasoning behind this particular ruse was to rationalize not doing anything about Exxon-Mobil's $36 billion annual profit based on $70/barrel oil and Bush's anti-competitive pro-trust policy. And indeed in the follow-up Bush explained that the profits were due to the market and that's just the way markets work, and there's nothing he can do about that. Well, that's only true in the sense that nothing he ever does ever works, but there are a few things that a different kind of political leader could do.
It's true that the rise in oil prices is mostly due to the Bush war in Iraq's constriction of market supply, and to a lesser extent exacerbated by growing demand in China funded by the US trade deficit and the export of US capital and jobs. It's also true that the long term trend is toward rising prices because the long term trend is toward depletion of all oil resources. But it doesn't necessarily follow from this that oil companies should be able to lard higher oil prices with ever increasing profits. In 1973, the US response to the sudden spike in oil prices caused by OPEC was to pass a windfall profits tax. Something like that could easily be done now, except that Bush belongs to the oil companies. A more general approach would be to levy a progressive tax on corporate profits, which would serve as a check both on company size and excessive profit margins caused by lack of competition. The Exxon-Mobil merger largely reversed the original break up of the Standard Oil Company back in the 1910s -- Exxon and Mobil were the two largest pieces of Standard. Undoing the recent Bush-approved mergers and breaking up the conglomerates would be a step toward restoring competition in the industry.
I'd be inclined to restructure even further, in large part because the individuals who profit from the oil industry have so often proven to be so dangerous politically. But I have another reason for believing that all nations should nationalize their crude oil resources: that's the only way to exert political control over the rate of depletion. I mostly accept the argument that private ownership is more efficient at producing than public ownership, but in the case of finite natural resources, that translates to rapid and careless exhaustion. Most likely even under the best of circumstances most crude oil will be used up over the course of the next century, but the rate will be much faster in private hands.
The other subtext of Bush's plea for the oil industry is the idea that the best way to develop non-petroleum energy resources is to incentivize the oil industry to develop the innovative technology that will be needed -- in other words, that they need the profits more than we do. Anyone who knows anything about the history of business can show you that this has never been true -- e.g., the railroads never became multifaceted transportation companies. Exxon actually has shown more clearly than anyone the folly of the notion that an oil company can diversify and innovate outside of the oil business: just look at their numerous investments in the '70s when they bought up electronics companies willy nilly, every one a bust.
What gave the Bush quote such a prominent airing in the press is that it's part true -- America is addicted to oil -- and it ties right into the conventional bullshit -- cf. Kerry's 2004 campaign plans to develop alternative energy sources and cut dependence on Mideast oil. This is a case of the one thing that cannot be abided in American political discourse: a problem with no easy, painless solution. Until now, Bush's stock line has always been: hey, no problem here. But somehow one of his speechwriters got their scams crossed and reached for the wrong cliché, so of course he had to take it back. He's not Liar in Chief for nothing.
Wednesday, February 1. 2006
The Liar in Chief gave his State of the Disunion speech last night. As usual, he was too modest about his accomplishments over the last five years, in large part because he was so anxious to show what more he can do in the rest of his term. But before we move into the future, let's pause a minute to give him credit where credit is due. Despite his personal awkwardness, his administration has been astonishingly effective. He took a country that had grown fat and dumb on illusions of peace and prosperity and showed us the truth: that our happiness depends on our unrelenting efforts to intimidate and exploit the world's teaming masses, including those Americans who merely work for a living. And the Bush administration has used every tool at its disposal to defend and advance the interests of the American people -- or more specifically, the people who, to use Tom Carson's formulation, America is for.
Unfortunately, the people Bush's America is for most likely don't include you. Hell, they don't even include me: a middle-aged white male red stater with positive net worth. But clearly there are some people who do benefit, at least as far as they can see while counting their money, from Bush's vigilance. For instance, Exxon-Mobil broke all corporate records with their $36 billion profit for 2005. That's double what Bush budgeted for rebuilding Iraq. That would be a third of the whole tab for cleaning up after Katrina. And that's just one company. Bush hasn't been making money for every company, but he sure helps his friends in the oil industry, and much the same can be said for companies in other favored industries: defense, chemicals, mining, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness -- just about any company that could benefit from lax environmental and safety regulations, cheaper labor, tax breaks, subsidies, or a little make work.
Of course, not everything Bush has tried has worked out exactly according to plan. But it's hard to tell given that the real plans have always been secret, and that the administration and its pliant, co-opted media have consistently been able to put their spin over. Maybe Iraq was intended to be a cakewalk that would deliver us a steady source of cheap oil, but the worst case scenario -- that Iraqi oil falls off the market, constricting supplies and driving prices up -- works just as well for Bush, and better still for Exxon-Mobil. Maybe John ("no carrot") Bolton's non-proliferation diplomacy was intended to pacify Kim Jong Il, but a nuclear-armed North Korea is just the sort of threat that keeps Japan in line and helps sell anti-missile defense systems. Maybe Bush actually wanted to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, but the latter's taunts are always good for a bump in the polls. Win-win scenarios like those encourage boldness by insulating Bush from the consequences of screwing up. If Herbert Hoover had been able to spin like Bush, America wouldn't have had that New Deal for the Republicans to try to repeal.
The fact is that most Americans are worse off than they were five years ago. Real wages are down. The real cost of living is up, with energy and health care, education and housing leading the way. Fewer people have jobs; those who do work longer hours for less benefits. Productivity is up, but all of the benefits have gone to management. More people live in poverty. Fewer have health insurance, so more skip non-emergency care. Many people have compensated for their declining incomes by borrowing more, so savings is down and debt is up. The federal budget has gone from a surplus to record deficits. Trade deficits have also hit new record levels. This has been temporarily covered by foreign funds, which own more and more of America's capital and debt. The portion of federal spending on such non-productive expenses as defense, security, and prisons has grown considerably, in turn starving social services and infrastructure investments. Where state and local governments have tried to compensate for loss of federal funds, their tax increases have often swallowed up the federal cuts. Meanwhile, safety nets have been reduced, not least under the guise of tort reform and bankruptcy reform. Environmental protections have been slashed, and the Super Fund clean-up system is defunct. Much of the federal government has been turned into a super-police agency, the Dept. of Homeland Security -- the domestic equivalent of the Dept. of Imperial Security (formerly the Dept. of Defense). The right to privacy (i.e., the right to be secure in one's home and person) has been attacked from every angle: through new laws like the USA PATRIOT Act, through blatantly extralegal acts like NSA spying, through Bush's packing of the courts with right-wing extremists. And on all fronts, whatever competency government once had has diminished as the civil service system has been turned into a major new system of political patronage.
The key idea here is not just that the Republicans are crooks (cf. Jack Abramoff) or scoundrels (cf. Scooter Libby) or both (cf. Tom DeLay): it's that they're building a political machine to perpetuate their control, a brutally efficient Tamany Hall that straddles the entire globe. It's a spectacular vision, but it's already -- long before such new space weapons as the Rods from God come on-line -- showing signs of overreach. The Iraq war may be good for Exxon-Mobil, maybe even for Halliburton, but it's been rough on the US Army, stretched now to the breaking point. And the longer a few thousand insurgents in Iraq are able to tie the US down, the more defiant others become. The Muslim world is still mostly tied down in crony dictatorships, but when democratization comes they won't be so easy to push around. For an example of how this works, cf. Latin America, where anti-US politicos have won every election recently. Moreover, Bush's domestic programs weaken the US economy in nearly every way, making any number of economic disasters possible, on top of the long term rot caused by the right's political attacks on science and education, the closing of opportunities, and the increasing tolerance of graft.
Nonetheless, you have to give it to the Liar in Chief. Against such overwhelming evidence, even Clinton would have conceded by now that he supposes he could see how you might think that maybe a blow job is sort of a kind of sexual relations. But Bush hasn't given an inch. He's every bit the leader that America wanted. Too bad he's pointed in exactly the wrong direction.