Friday, March 31. 2006
Michael Schwartz has an important piece on Iraq at TomDispatch. Although the title is "Does the Media Have It Right on the War?" the upshot is that far more than the media have it wrong. The common wisdom media position Schwartz debunks is the notion that US failures were linked to not committing enough troops to secure Iraq in the aftermath of the major military phase and/or that the policy of disbanding the Iraqi army.
While those decisions may have hurt, opposite decisions wouldn't have helped much. The reasoning on those points is pretty simple. More troops wouldn't have helped much because the US military has no effective policing capability. This is basically because the US military was for the most part designed to provide defense by deterrence -- i.e., to intimidate any would be attacker. The two functions are completely different, which is why -- please excuse the example; just can't think of a clearer one -- Hitler had two separate organizations when he invaded other countries: the regular military just fought against other armies, while the SS took on the nasty job of policing conquered peoples. US policy is more benign, more naïve anyhow, than Hitler's, so the DOD has never planned its own SS ahead of time. (Of course, when pressed in Vietnam and now in Iraq, the US improvised something much like the SS. Whether such efforts failed because they happened too late, were implemented with too much restraint, or were just a bad idea is subject to debate, but irrelevant here.)
Keeping the Iraqi military intact was problematical because the Iraqi government itself never surrendered -- it just sort of melted away, leaving the triumphant US with a mess of goo. Without top-down hierarchy, the US would have had no way to command the troops, much less assure their loyalty. As Schwartz points out, the principal advantage of keeping the Iraqi army intact wouldn't have been to provide the US occupiers with their missing police state -- that had already failed before the army was disbanded -- but to lessen the economic collapse caused by putting hundreds of thousands of young men out of work. Given that the whole war was deliberately run on the cheap, you can see how little appeal that held for the war planners.
Besides, the US had worse things in mind for Iraq's economy: the extreme shock treatment of privatizing Iraq's dominant state sector, effectively auctioning the country off, at firesale prices, to foreign investors. This ignited a temporary boom as new products like cell phones rushed into the newly opened market, but it led very quickly to a general collapse of the economy, which was made all the worse by the political favoritism and graft of the CPA. Schwartz argues that this economic collapse, more than anything else -- and admittedly there were several elses -- led first to non-violent protests and eventually to widespread armed resistance. It's easy to forget now what wild stories Bush's flacks spun about their planned economic renaissance for Iraq -- the initial euphoria has proven to be as misguided as the WMD case and all the other lies used to sell the war, and Iraq itself has become poison for any business not in the business of selling security.
The following quotes are essential, especially for how the US turned an economic disaster into a security disaster:
The instinct to respond to protest with repression is typical of Bush's strain of Republicanism, or should I say Americanism? We can find many examples of this in the way politicians inexorably escalate their wars on crime, drugs, illegal immigration. Once they added terrorism to that list, Bush et al. immediately became rabid about "taking the gloves off" and smiting down evil-doers. In Iraq, with no effective government and no international law to restrain them, they simply went wild. (Wasn't it Eugene McCarthy who characterized them as behaving like Lord of the Flies?)
Schwartz's explanation is going to have some trouble sinking in. We've failed thus far to come to grips with an understanding of why textbook neoliberal economic policies fare so poorly -- the issues there are complex and subtle. (I can't say that I understand them myself, and I've been working on that.) One problem is that we tend to assume that our government works in good faith toward some sort of public interest, even though the working theory is explicit that only self-interest matters. Also that when we're talking about our government, we're not necessarily talking about us or anything that serves our interests in any way. Bush, more starkly than any other president ever, has made it clear that he only works for certain interests -- the ones who backed him, which is a much smaller set than those foolish enough to vote for him.
Other aspects of the problem of how neoliberal economics have affected Iraq are simply beyond our experience or imagination. We routinely deny, for instance, that poverty leads to crime, because we have little grip on either, even here in the US. How much worse can it be in a country with 30-60% unemployment, no government safety net, and no effective system of public order? Maybe in the US we can find neighborhoods a third that poor, but nothing even remotely beyond the reach of law -- even so, people who routinely deny that poverty correlates with crime don't dare venture there.
Schwartz's article doesn't actually focus on media coverage of the war. Orville Schell's New York Review of Books piece explains how physically limited western journalists are in Iraq. The Bushist propaganda line that the media only reports the bad news in Iraq may be because it takes a really big bang to get noticed from the reporters' barricaded hotels. The mental limits are harder to get a handle on, but there certainly are many, and they influence -- sometimes flagrantly, more often subtly -- what we hear and see. For instance, Martha Radatz filed a report on the third anniversary of the invasion, her tenth trip to Iraq, which consisted both of footage now and from past reports. In the old footage she always appeared in body armor, but for the current report she didn't. The unstated visual clue suggests that it's safer now, but look closer and you can see that the old footage was shot in the streets, but the new only occurred in secure army compounds.
The December elections are a good example of the good vs. bad news bias problem. They were uniformly hyped as a milestone when they happened, but 106 days later the elections haven't produced a new government, which suggests a serious failure somewhere -- one that effectively negates the good news of the elections. The post-election story hasn't been totally unreported. It is, after all, a political story -- the sort of thing the press is used to handling, a conflict among the power brokers who feed them -- and it takes place within the relatively secure Green Zone. But more importantly, it's a "why" story, and that's something the media seems to be congenitally incapable of. There are at least two levels of why to this story. One is the structural obstacle of the two-thirds supermajority required to select a President who in turn selects a Prime Minister and forms a government. This is a system that can be manipulated behind the scenes and is biased toward failure, which can only benefit the de facto undemocratic power. The other level is deliberate interference by the US that has lately come out from behind the curtains, as US Ambassador Khalilzad and others (Bush, Rice) have promoted the need for a "unity" government while working to exclude UIA Prime Minister designate Ibrahim Jaafari. The media tells us that these things are happening, but it doesn't tell us why.
One clue is Bush's recent statement that the question of when US troops might leave Iraq won't be addressed until 2009, when Bush's term expires. Clearly, he thinks he can prevent a scenario whereby Iraq's "sovereign" government directs the US to leave. The main purpose of Khalilzad's post-election shenanigans appears to be to reduce the influence of Moqtada al-Sadr -- the one major operator within the political system to demand US withdrawal (although polls show that to be the position of 80% of Iraqis). Jaafari has suddenly become suspect because Sadr backed him in the UIA. A "unity" government would further dilute Sadr and the UIA, while allowing Bush to claim that Iraqis of all sectarian groups are united in their opposition to the resistance. These are perilous times for Bush's misadventure, which is why they're acting so desperate.
Still, the significance of this stalemate is lost in the US, in large part because we've never been clear why Bush started this war, nor what are his true criteria for success. A big part of that problem is that Congress never insisted that Bush explain what he wants out of Iraq or why. Aside from a vague authorization to use force, Bush has been unconstrained in how he's gone about waging the war, or in any of the policies that he's implemented in Iraq. And he's taken advantage of this carte blanche in ways that few if any members of Congress could have imagined before the war. Much of what has gone so terribly wrong in Iraq has come from, or been made much worse by, Bush's ad hoc policies. In many of thse cases, the policies could not have passed deliberation in the US Congress, much less a democratically constituted Iraqi parliament, yet they've become inextricable parts of what "we're fighting for" in Iraq.
The antiwar movement has mostly focused on disengaging from Iraq, and at least at the party political level has been stymied by the lack of good alternatives should the US precipitously withdraw. It might be better to open a debate on how the war can be constrained to some sort of agreed upon principles -- at the very least doing so will make clear some of the differences between what Bush has been doing in Iraq and what the American public thinks should be done. Some enterprising Senator should consider citing the Constitution's advise and consent section on foreign policy and propose a resolution which includes the following:
The wording needs some work, but the basic points are ones that most Americans would have no trouble agreeing with. The economic policies that were implemented in the early days of the occupation should be subject to change by the Iraqi government, and no doubt will be. I'd be tempted to add a plank about US forces being subject to Iraqi law as well as international law, but that gets into touchy areas, and becomes irrelevant once the US leaves. Non-interference could be strengthened to include things like propaganda, but that's probably unnecessary as well. It may be sufficient just to provide transparency in US-Iraqi interactions: i.e., Khalilzad can say whatever he wants to Iraqis, but only in public.
One way to sort out the good vs. bad news problem is to ask yourself, when new news appears, is it more consistent with the good or bad news views of the past. It also pays to recognize who has been most consistently right or wrong, and to consider those people's interests and intellectual frameworks. Given the lack of reliable information about Iraq and the bounty of noise, it's been hard to develop a realistic and practical understanding of what's happened there and why. I know that I've had to make many adjustments along the way, which in my case started with a set of predictions that Bush and company were up to no good and were bound to meet fierce resistance -- both correct calls, as far as they went. Until I read this Schwartz piece, my best theory was that the US strategy was to wreck Iraq if it couldn't be easily captured. That theory fits the evidence well enough but it seems unlikely that the conquerors had any clue as to the destructive potential of their economic reforms. It's not that nobody could have predicted this -- neoliberalism has failed all around the world -- but those ideas are deeply mired in ideological sorcery, an unquestioned faith, a religion. Surely had Bush just meant to raze Iraq he would have chosen cruder tools -- the US had plenty of those.
So, the thinking evolves, and with it the lessons. But you can't draw correct lessons unless you consider the reasons and intents of the war as well as its prosecution. The Bush Administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep all that secret, and has gone further to cover itself with misinformation. Rumsfeld tipped us off on this when, on Sept. 25, 2001, he quoted Churchill as saying "sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." The media should have paid more attention.
Tuesday, March 28. 2006
The big story on last night's news was that Zacarias Moussaoui committed suicide by court. The so-called Dept. of Justice had managed to botch almost every aspect of their death penalty case, but Moussaoui came to their rescue -- as he had previously done in entering his guilty plea in the first case -- by concocting a fantasy story that only the DOJ, the mainstream media, and (most likely) the jurors could believe: that had he not gotten arrested he would have hijacked a fifth plane on 9/11 along with fellow fuck-up Richard Reid and crash it into the White House. While no one doubts that Moussaoui has a deep desire to martyr himself, it's pathetic that Bush et al. should help him do so. Just goes to show how much Bush and Al Qaeda need each other.
The Moussaoui story kicked Iraq out of the opening slot on the network news shows. The news over there was that the US "advised" one of its Iraqi death squads to bust into a Sadr City mosque and kill 20 worshippers, including an 80-year-old imam. This follows several days of the US trying to make a course correction, arguing now that their real opponent in Iraq is no longer those Baathist dead-enders and Zarqawi-led foreign jihadis who control most of Sunni Iraq; nope, the real enemy is now the Shiite militias and their presumed masters in Iran. Meanwhile, the old resistance kills 40 up near the much touted success story at Tal Afar.
John Robb wrote an analysis of this that seems accurate to a point, but Iraq may have moved beyond that point. Robb writes, "The US is now caught between the militias and the guerillas and the situation will deteriorate quickly." But what the latest killings suggest is that the US is more actively involved in militia activities from more than one side. When people talk about a Civil War that is or is not happening in Iraq, they usually mean Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence to which the US is a mere bystander. But clearly at least some of the Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni militias are under direction of the US military, so the US can kill anyone it wants and blame it on whoever's convenient. Most likely the CIA, and possibly other "black ops" groups, has more informal, less official ways of operating as well. Given all of these options, it's likely that all the US factions aren't totally on the same page here.
Back in the 1980s the US had a policy of sustaining the war between Iraq and Iran by supporting whoever was down. Early on the US funnelled arms to Iran through Israel to repel the Iraqi attack. Later on, when Iran started to show some strength, the US recognized Iraq and started supplying Saddam Hussein directly. The two channels provided enough control that the war extended to eight years, producing immense devastation on both sides. So it's hard to say that the US has a moral problem with playing both sides off against each other. Whether this was the plan in Iraq from the get go isn't clear, but once it became clear that the fantasy of a subservient pro-US Iraqi state wasn't in the long-term cards, the US had little more to lose by selectively feeding the violence. If the bottom line is that Iraq is turned into a permanent wasteland, that scenario has some attraction to at least some US factions.
But the real plus in all this, especially to Bush, has been time. Had the resistance not appeared, a stable Iraq would quickly have voted the US out of the country. But a resistance limited to the Sunnis had the advantage of convincing Kurdish and Shiite parties that a continued US presence was necessary for their protection. That the resistance would merge, at least in the US public's mind, with Al Qaeda, also fit Bush's Global War on Terror leader concept, which proved so useful in the 2004 elections. (The elder Bush, in concluding his Iraq war, was vulnerable on the economy, a mistake that the younger Bush, stuck with a far worse economic performance, was fortunate enough not to repeat.) The US must have seen Sunni opposition as a manageable problem, but the Shiites are far more capable of sending the US packing -- they are a majority of the population, so should be able to do so by democratic edict. That hasn't happened yet in large part due to US manipulation of Iraqi election law. How much longer this can continue is hard to say, but polls showing that 80% of all Iraqis want the US to leave real soon now.
There are many problems for the US here, but the big one is that the troops the US "stands up" have no loyalty to the US. There are lots of reasons for this -- the US lies and manipulates them, the US distrusts them, the US treats them like scum -- but the most important are that nobody expects the US to stick in Iraq, and most people recognize that whatever the Americans' true goals may be, the US has no real interest in the everyday welfare of Iraqis.
The other piece of Iraq news was release of another pre-invasion war council memo showing that Bush and Blair were dead set on war months before invasion regardless of what the UN did or weapons inspectors found out. This isn't news, in the sense that anyone who was paying attention at the time could have surmised as much, but it is consistent with everything else we know. Indeed, it's one more piece in a puzzle which now strongly appears to indicate that the Bush team was hankering at least as early as 2000, before their man had even weaseled his way into the White House, to seize on any excuse to invade Iraq. It should have been a clue when Bush staffed so many top defense and foreign policy positions with PNAC supporters. It should have been a clue when US planes bombed Iraq less than 24 hours after Bush's inauguration.
This all fits into one of the most vexing problems the public has had in understanding Bush's adventure in Iraq: how can we sort out the real reasons for the war, as opposed to the mere excuses? WMD, 9/11, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein's numerous human rights crimes, all those things are more like excuses than reasons. Israel too -- at best they played along, which helped line up hardcore Israelphiles, but nobody in Israel considered Iraq a threat. Democracy? That one's so putrid by now you can smell it half way across the globe. Oil? Can't count that one out -- not with these guys -- but the real payoff has been in the profits that came from taking Iraqi oil off the market, constricting supply and running up prices. If someone could prove that they foresaw that happening, that would be news. But clearly there is one lesson we can draw from the whole story: never believe a god damn thing this administration says.
Tony Karon has a piece on Iraq that is worth reading. I want to single out two quotes here.
As I recall, one of Israel's hawks (Moshe Ahrens?) used Albright's line to argue for the invasion of Lebanon back in 1982. That attempt to crush the last vestiges of PLO power and install a friendly fascist government threw away Israel's dominance in the 1967 and 1973 wars for eighteen years of Hizbullah target practice, an uprising that in turn inspired the Palestinian intifadas -- the second occurring just months after Israel's ignominious retreat from Lebanon.
The one thing that most closely bonds Israel's hawks and America's neocons is the belief that with complete military dominance you can dictate any self-serving policy you want. There's never been any empirical evidence for this -- unless you want to cite such two-bit examples as Saddam Hussein's domination of Iraq, but even there we are belatedly coming to recognize that there's more to ruling a country than just being a vicious motherfucker. But to the extent that Bush's plan for "complete victory" means anything at all, it means that he's a committed Leviathan.
Karon's final paragraph may be prophetic:
Monday, March 27. 2006
Jazz prospecting continues. This has been a slow, confused week, and this following week isn't likely to be much better. In the chaos, I did a better job of keeping up with the incoming than making up my mind on the records I've held back for replay. Grades in brackets are tentative, subject to further listening. No brackets means I've made up my mind, at least for Jazz CG purposes.
Eric Alexander: It's All in the Game (2005 , HighNote): Same hand he's played all along, this time in a quartet with no other horn to crowd his tenor sax. Harold Mabern and Joe Farnsworth have been steady accompanists for quite a while, both fitting comfortably into Alexander's mainstream band, along with new bassist Nat Reeves. It's all Straight Up, completely Solid, if not quite Dead Center. Know what I mean? B+(**)
Harvie S: Funky Cha (2005 , Zoho): The name change of the bassist formerly known as Harvie Swartz -- I recall him best from his duets with Sheila Jordan -- seems to have followed a quasi-religious conversion to latin music. Not sure just how this unfolded -- he played with Paquito D'Rivera in 1991, but a trip to Cuba in 1996 appears to have been pivotal, with the name change appearing on a 2001 record called New Beginning. This one strikes me as well studied and evenly balanced, with Daniel Kelly's piano and Jay Collins' reeds carrying the vibe, and the percussion up to snuff. B+(**)
Dafnis Prieto: Absolute Quintet (2005 , Zoho): Cuban percussionist, made it to New York in 1999 and he's been the hot kid on the block ever since. I've been impressed by him as a sideman, but I wound up disliking his previous album, About the Monks, quite strongly. I've held it in my active file as a possible dud, but never felt sure enough of myself to post it. Not sure of this one either, but it's not a dud. It may be too broadly conceived, and Prieto's interest in the impact of European concert music on Cuba may wander into territory I don't find all that interesting, but it's hard to knock a guy for ambitions when he's successful this often. So this will take some acclimation, possibly including a revisit to the prior album. Meanwhile, "The Stutterer" is as exciting as any latin jazz piece I've heard since SLF, with Yosvany Terry powering his way through an exceedingly tricky rhythmic chicane. Henry Threadgill guests on the more moderate, lovely even, "Afrotango." "One Day Suite" gets attacked by violins, which I'm less sure about, but "Innocent Bird" seems to synthesize the concert music angle with the Afro percussion in a way that sums up Cuba. Stay tuned. [B+(**)]
Shot x Shot (2005 , High Two): Young quartet from Philadelphia, with two saxes, bass and drums. AMG doesn't list any credits for any of them, but I recognize alto saxophonist Dan Scofield and bassist Matt Engle from Sonic Liberation Front. The other sax is tenor man Bryan Rogers, and drummer Dan Capecchi completes the group. The liner notes -- a big thumbs up from fellow Philadelphian Francis Davis -- start with an exercise in name dropping, trying to find some historical framework to fit these unknowns: Lee Konitz vs. Warne Marsh, John Coltrane vs. Pharoah Sanders, "let's split the difference." Seems much more postmodern to me -- maybe Chris Cheek vs. Tony Malaby, a match up that should sell more records than it does. The five pieces are mid-tempo, the saxes tightly intertwined -- as opposed to the flaring more typical of pianoless quartets -- and the drummer definitely plays with the band. [B+(***)]
Rolf Lislevand: Nuove Musiche (2004 , ECM): Sounds old to me, but that's a risk one takes in ever labelling a music New or Modern or Contemporary or whatever. The sources are historical, dating from 1604-1650, early baroque. Lislevand plays archlute, baroque guitar and theorboe, and others play comparable antiques. They may or may not improvise on this. Not jazz in any sense I recognize -- part of ECM's "New Series" -- but it works nicely as instrumental music. B+(*)
Monk's Music Trio: Monk's Bones (2004 , CMB): The trio -- veterans Si Perkoff on piano and Chuck Bernstein on drums, and young Sam Bevan on bass -- is perhaps too respectful to uncover anything truly new, but they handle the repertoire skillfully enough, and Monk continues to be an inexhaustible fount of inspiration. But the attraction here comes from the 'bones: Si's son Max, who gets to play alongside superguest Roswell Rudd, who has earned enough esteem that he can roughen up Monk any time he feels like. B+(**)
David Sills: Down the Line (2005 , Origin): Sumptuous mainstream album, with Sills' tenor sax fleshed out by Gary Foster's alto, while guitarist Larry Koonse and pianist Alan Broadbent add to the plushness. [B+(***)]
Keith Oxman: Dues in Progress (2005 , Capri): Another solid mainstream album. Oxman plays tenor sax. In the past -- this is his sixth album on Colorado-based Capri -- he's played in a quartet that is the core here, but this time he has extra brass, including featured name trombonist Curtis Fuller, and at least one cut has a stray oboe. Pianist Chip Stephens also gets his name in larger type on the front cover, recognition of his steady hand. Bassist Ken Walker is another strong contributor. Everything here strikes me as well done, but no more -- e.g., a Joe Henderson song sounds a lot like Joe Henderson, even though Oxman otherwise doesn't particularly recall Henderson. B+(*)
Art Lillard's Heavenly Band: Reasons to Be Thankful (2000 , Summit): Don't know anything about the drummer who leads this big band. One source notes that Lillard has led his group for 18 years, but this six year old session is the only item in his discography. It starts off marvelously with a distinct Latin vibe, but that seems to be just one of many things they can do. The instrumentals mix vibrant detail with a light touch. Six vocal pieces, with three lead singers, are harder to get a grip on. [B+(**)]
Colin Stranahan: Transformation (2005 , Capri): Sounds very postbop, not least in its preoccupation with intricately elaborated harmony -- something I generally consider to be a turnoff. Led by the drummer, but the writing credits are pretty evenly distributed throughout the group, including two pairs of brothers. Will hold it back for another spin, partly because I was distracted while listening to this, partly because when I did manage to focus it seemed rather well done. [B]
Next Order: Live-Powered Nexus (2005, Lolo): This is a Japanese group with a rock lineup: two electric guitars (Yuji Moto and Takumi Seino), electric bass (Atsutomo Ishigaki) and drums (Hiroshi "Gori" Matsuda). Any temptation to classify this as instrumental rock or fusion even is belied by the structure of the pieces and their improvisational content. As jazz goes, this still has a hard surface, and the drumming is less flexible than the guitars, but it moves with admirable economy. B+(*)
Rabih Abou-Khalil/Joachim Kühn: Journey to the Centre of an Egg (2004 , Enja/Justin Time): The third musician here is percussionist Jarrod Cagwin, whose name is on the front cover but not the spine. Kühn tends to be in a support mode here -- his piano is less angular, less explosive than often the case, plus he plays a bit of alto sax adding a lonesome aura to the oud. Cagwin plays frame drums as well as the usual kit. A very attractive record. [A-]
Virginia Mayhew: Sandan Shuffle (2005 , Renma): The early going here, where the Latin-oriented rhythm section gets its head, reminds me of those Latin-inflected hard bop records that guys like Kenny Dorham cut in the '60s. Mayhew plays tenor sax with that same sort of well squared off solidity. But then the album, as these things so often do, wanders into other territory, including a bouncy "In Walked Bud" and a slow, sly "I Get Along Without You Very Well" with Mayhew switching to soprano. Kenny Wessel plays soft-edged guitar. Nice middle-of-the-road album. Info on karate in the liner notes. B+(**)
Mike Melvoin Presents Dan Jaffe: Playing the Word (2005 , City Light): Jaffe reads poems from his book of the same name, subtitled "Jazz Poems," while Melvoin plays piano. The latter includes originals as well as pieces by Ellington, Parker, and a Frank Smith I can't identify for sure. The poems focus on Kansas City, where this was recorded, with a bit of Basie and a whole mess of Parker -- by far the longest piece is the 12:24 of "Bird Talk." The music is background, but the words have some bite. B+(*)
Ari Roland: Sketches From a Bassist's Album (2005 , Smalls): Quartet with Chris Byars on tenor sax, Sacha Perry on piano, Phil Stewart on drums. Roland plays bass, nicely featured here; also wrote seven of ten pieces. Roland has been a stalwart sideman on this label, particularly in Frank Hewitt's groups. This one works the well-worn bop idiom with a bit more swing than usual, a most comfortable and enjoyable outing. B+(**)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Ray Russell: Goodbye Svengali (2005 , Cuneiform): Don't have recording dates, so I'm going with the liner notes. In any case I wouldn't count the old tape of Gil Evans piano that Russell overdubs. In this guitarist's tribute to Evans, I'm reminded that Evans himself made a project of arranging Jimi Hendrix for big band, but Russell wasn't Hendrix or similarly inspired -- Larry Coryell is much more to the point, and (of course) McLaughlin. But I don't know Russell's work -- mostly fusion dates going back to the late '60s, but he had more with Evans than the dining relationship mentioned in the notes here. So I suspect he had some insight into an Evans interest in guitar that informs this exceptionally fruitful tribute. B+(***)
Kathy Hull, my sister, got her picture in the Eagle today -- front page of Section B, title "Painted with pride." Or rather pictures, as she's holding up the plan for a mural she designed for a 40-foot wall in a predominantly Mexican section of north Wichita, while standing in front of the recently started painting. The print image is much larger than the scrawny one I lifted from the web: in print the image is clear down to the lettering, and you can even read the word on Kathy's t-shirt ("Unitarian Universalism: Affirming the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person"). The design is based on Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration.
Coincidentally, the bottom of the same page featured a story titled "Kansan became 'a Socialist agitator'" -- an installment in the series "To the Stars: The Story of Kansas." The Kansan was Kate Richards O'Hare (1877-1948). As a teen O'Hare did missionary work for the homeless, but after her family's farm was foreclosed, she worked as a machinist, joining the union and the Socialist Party, becoming an organizer and agitator. She campaigned for equal rights ("for all races"), and opposed Woodrow Wilson's Great War, for which she was imprisoned -- prison reform became another of her issues. The blurb quote has an amusing twist: "So many people have marveled that I should have traveled all over the country telling the truth, as I saw it. I was simply more dangerous to the capitalists, the war profiteers and the Democratic Party . . ."
Sunday, March 26. 2006
I ran across the following quote in Ned Sublette's Cuba and Its Music (pp. 34-36). I had picked up some of this around the 500th anniversary of 1492, but I hadn't dug very deep, so much of this is new to me.
As far as I know, Spain never made a move towards Jerusalem, despite pocketing unimagined riches in gold from the Americas. So it's not clear how how much weight to put on their proposed Crusade. As an idea, it probably made sense as an extension of the long war against Muslims and Jews in Andalus, but that would have meant tangling with the Ottoman Empire at a point when it was still expanding. Instead, Spain launched its Inquisition to blot out all traces of Islam and Judaism. While the Inquisition worked to unite most of the peninsula, excepting Portugal, it cast a dark spell over what had just a few centuries earlier been the brightest and most fertile intellectual grounds in Europe. Within a century, Spain lost the advantages its discovery and early conquests in Americas had provided, and was well on the way toward becoming a benighted backwater in Europe. As this happened, the religious idea of the Crusades faded, but that didn't stop European powers from demanding capitulations from the Ottomans in the 19th century, citing a need to protect various Christian churches in the Holy Land, nor England from adopting the Zionist movement to colonize Palestine.
Saturday, March 25. 2006
It's worth interjecting here that Rep. Todd Tiahrt's perceived ability to direct defense spending to the Wichita area is far and away his strongest political card. Wichita has an Air Force base, a lot of aerospace industry -- mostly general aviation, but damn near every company here has a small slice of the defense pie -- and other defense-related businesses. The net value of all that to Wichita's economy is easily overrated, but taking it away would have an effect.
Johnson talks about Randy Cunningham, a congressman with a reputation very much like Tiahrt's, at least until he got busted and run out of Congress.
We've gotten into a state where the politicians easily corrupted by businesses and special interests in large part because the voters are so easily corrupted themselves. Every politician has his pet pork list because that's such an easy way to get reelected. And it keeps working because it's almost never challenged -- exceptions like Sen. William Proxmire and Rep. H.R. Gross were extremely popular for their opposition, but they weren't trendsetters. The defense industry gets a free ride here because it worked once -- total mobilization for WWII pulled the US out of the Great Depression -- and since then it's found ideological cover, especially among conservatives whose real gripe about government spending is when it's meant to help the poor. In the past, at least some defense-related spending did manage to produce useful technologies -- the interstate highway system and the Internet were the most productive examples. But since the early '80s when "Star Wars" took over it's hard to think of anything useful that military spending has produced.
The costs, on the other hand, have risen enormously, a consequence of three things: 1) self-fulfilling logic -- inexhaustible appetite for defense spending combined with a rhetorical arms race, the idea that lavish support for defense proves that one is strong on defense, and that any criticism of defense spending shows weakness; 2) that a large and extravagant military tends to create arrogance at home and enemies abroad in a positive cycle; 3) right-wing political agendas benefit from a preoccupation with military strength for a wide range of reasons. I've explained the latter before, but Johnson makes the same point, then moves into the question of costs:
Johnson has more to say on bankruptcy as well as non-economic costs, like the damage military stress inflicts on our constitutional system of government. One thing I find especially baffling is the notion that "the military is now the only American institution that appears to work." Granted that competency seems to be a growing problem in many arenas of American life, but it's hard to imagine a more dysfunctional organization than the US military. Perhaps we are seduced by form over substance: the military can manage to look sharp, but what they do is hard to measure, hard to validate, often based on dubious assumptions, with incomplete or flat-out wrong intelligence, clouded by secrecy, manipulated by a bloated and politicized bureaucracy, granted close to a free reign by the ideological blinders of their supporters. In real theatres like Afghanistan and Iraq they repeatedly screw up, and are rarely disciplined for their failures. Even far away from combat it's not unusual for them to sink a boat of Japanese tourists or rip out an Italian ski lift, let alone shoot down an Iranian airliner or blow up a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan.
Rational people would attempt to match the resources to the needs, and verify that what they got in turn was worthwhile. America is an intrinsically impossible country to attack, and no nation has a serious desire to do so. Defending America itself is practically a no-op. It would make sense to provide some resources that can be quickly deployed to deal with local emergencies, like natural disasters, and there's a case for border patrol and some police work, but not much more. For our own "defense" purposes we spend something like $700 billion for no good return and much bad. Simply taking that away would leave something of a void in terms of economic stimulus and international peacekeeping, but doing those things under the guise of "defense" is a warped and rather sick way to achieve those goals. We could, after all, force feed the economy to build things that are actually worth something. And international peacekeeping would be more effective if the international community did it in accordance with general human rights principles, instead of the the narrow and rather perverted viewpoint of the richest and most selfishly self-interested nation on earth.
Friday, March 24. 2006
Most days I get up sometime before noon, put some music on, read the paper, and spend the rest of the day parked at the computer, putting more music on, writing notes, looking things up, etc. If I do that steady for a week, I manage to work my way through some thirty records, and get three to five blog posts up. Maybe get some reading done too, working around the edges of the routine. I have my doubts about how worthwhile this routine is, but I do get the satisfaction of producing something, even if its economic value is trivial. Over time the notes accumulate. Maybe some day it will amount to something.
But this week isn't working out that way. For one thing, five days into the week, I only have six records bagged, plus two jazz prospects with tentative grades. The main reason is distraction: my nephew Mike and some friends have been in town. I cooked chicken and dumplings Monday afternoon, and pizza on Tuesday. Spent more time working at my brother's house -- actually the house I grew up in -- trying to help Mike on some projects. So I thought I'd do this post as a slice-of-life thing. This is more or less how Thursday went:
Got up shortly after 9. Laura tells me the CPT hostages in Iraq had been found. Went back to bed, and slept thinking about writing something about Cal Thomas. I don't normally read the little shit, but the Eagle publishes him regularly, and three recent columns caught my eye. The latest opined that Republicans deserve to lose in 2006 because of their free-spending lapse of principle. Seems like he's trying to retrench -- he sees Bush losing ground and wants to pretend that's because Bush strayed from the true right cause. In another column he tried to plug another leak in his crusade, attacking evangelical Christians for straying from their assigned duty on "culture of life" to take up the environment as a worthy cause. In between, he took pot shots at CPT, ranting that peace can only be achieved by vanquishing evil -- not by actually acting peaceful. Evil, for me as well as Thomas, is a notation of convenience, a way of summing up a cluster of traits one considers nefarious. As far as I'm concerned, Cal Thomas is the very personification of evil.
But when I finally did get up, I ate breakfast, read the paper, checked email, but had no time to write. Had to go to the dentist for a cleaning and check up. Gums bled, hurt more than it had in several years, so the lesson there is that I'm slipping. Dentist found a cracked filling and a new cavity. Ugh. Stopped at what used to be a lumber yard afterwards, but couldn't find any lumber. I hadn't stopped at Star Lumber since their facelift last year, but what they've done is turned most of the store into a showcase for high-end home design/decoration services -- none of the DIY you find at Home Depot. A lot of very nice stuff, but the most striking thing was the swarm of salesfolk. Just to reconnoiter the joint I declined help from 5-6 of them. With all that sales overhead, it must cost a fortune to get them to do anything. Presumably there's a second mortgage angle to help finance it; otherwise they're just chasing upscale. Walked out without buying anything.
When I got to my brother's, Mike already had the bathtub walls up, and was finishing assembly of the fixtures, so I didn't have much to do. Mike's little sister Kirsten fixed breakfast -- waffles, bacon, eggs. First time I've ever seen her cook, but she went about it with a quiet efficiency that reminded me of, well, me. Mike and Kirsten then went off to work on Mac Welch's movie -- he's shooting it, and she's Assistant Director, so I came home. Read some, took a nap, ate dinner. Played Shot x Shot, accidentally hitting the repeat button so it went on and on and on before I figured out what had happened. Once I stopped that, the machine started playing Moondance, so I had to let that play.
Read Gary Wills' New York Review of Books review of Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King Jr. Sounds like all three books are worth reading, but I can't imagine finding time for another 3000 pages any time soon. I'm reading Ned Sublette's Cuban Music at the moment -- while it's fascinating and actually worthwhile for my music writing, I look at the 400 pages I have left and wonder whether I shouldn't put it aside for something more immediately relevant to my dissection of the Bush disease. But even there I found an excerpt I want to post to the blog -- got a pile of these I haven't gotten to yet. Wills' review brings many thoughts to mind. The foremost is the extreme hypocrisy of so much of the Republican orthodoxy in flattering themselves for the accomplishments of a movement they in fact fought tooth and nail. The civil rights movement was an appeal to the rule of law bound to a notion of justice that was rooted in the highest ideals of America. Without that notion of justice non-violence could not have worked. But the right's agenda today is dead set against that any such idea of justice, and for that matter is explicitly contemptuous of law. Under such a regime, the struggle for civil rights would have been beaten down into a futile and sporadically violent quest -- little different than what the Palestinians have experienced from Israel.
Finished the evening working on some boring list management tasks for the website -- the scaffolding that keeps me somewhat on top of what's happening in the music world. Ordered another pile of books: Cobra II on the invasion and occupation of Iraq; American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips' critique of oil and religion; The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery on global warming; an older book on development economics called The Elusive Quest for Growth; John Storm Roberts' The Latin Tinge, one of those books that should have had already; the first two volumes of Taylor Branch's trilogy, for now just for reference.
I found out today that George Christgau died yesterday, at age 90. He was the father of two long-time friends, Robert and Georgia Christgau. I don't know much about him, but I did meet him twice: once in the mid-'70s at his house in Douglaston (Queens), and once in the late-'80s at Georgia's house in Hunter. The latter meeting was particularly fortunate for me. He and his wife, who survives him albeit not in good health, must have been about 70 at the time. But they were remarkably vital then, and I remember being quite pleased to see them doing so well. This was a year or so after Rebecca died, so it was a transitional period in my life. One thing that came out of that period was a new concern on my part for the elders -- my own parents, parents of friends, aunts and uncles. Since then many of those elders have passed on, and with them a wealth of experience and knowledge and understanding. One thing that struck me in Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead was her focus on the loss of knowledge transmitted through families as a harbinger of dark ages. I resisted that notion at first as some sort of crypto-conservative fetishism, but wound up thinking of too many examples of things that my parents must have known that I never will.
Back to my brother's/parents' house today. We pulled all the junk out of the garage, installed two large shelving units, then put almost all of it back in a somewhat more organized state. The shelving helped -- at least now there is a clear walking path from one end to the other. That chewed up the whole afternoon, and the much larger problem of the attic awaits.
Played some more jazz records tonight, working through the backlog and feeling none too decisive, even as nothing sounds all that promising. So it goes.
Monday, March 20. 2006
Trying to keep up with the inflow here, while also putting some time into Recycled Goods, the blog, and so forth. Finally got around to a package from the Swiss label Intakt, and found three definite winners there -- no big surprise about Monk's Casino, which scored high on many 2005 year-end lists. Draft is currently at 800 words, about 50% of a column, but I have enough prospected that I could finish it fast. Done count is 124. Pending count is 109. As usual, grades in brackets are tentative. Don't have a dud yet. Guess I can always pick on Kenny G.
The Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet: Hey, Look Me Over (2004 , Arbors): Cohn is Al's son. He plays guitar, setting the pace but not taking a lot of spotlight. Allen plays retro tenor sax, a throwback to the swing era with Coleman Hawkins his main man, but Al Cohn and Zoot Sims are major touchstones. Indeed, Cohn looms over this particular disc, penning three songs and influencing others. Allen plays wonderfully here -- mostly upbeat standards, with a slow original near the end followed by a vigorous "Pick Yourself Up." A pure delight. Grade here is minimal; could be Pick Hit. A-
Dom Minasi: The Vampire's Revenge (2005 , CDM, 2CD): Minasi is a 62-year-old guitarist who recorded two fusion albums with Blue Note back in their dog days and only recently revived his career with a series of self-released albums. My only prior experience with him suggested he's one of those mild-mannered bop-influenced pickers -- a family I trace back mostly to Tal Farlow -- although his interest in 12-string marks him as a bit fancier than most. On the basis of this album, we can chuck that theory. Turns out he has a darker side. Also that he's able to call on an interesting circle of friends. In addition to his trio, he taps 18 guests here, many for a single cut, the rest for sets of related pieces. The list itself would fill up a review, but here's a taste, the subset with one feature cut each: Perry Robinson, Joe Giardullo, Matthew Shipp, Mark Whitecage, Borah Bergman, Sabir Mateen, Blaise Siwula. These are not the sort of folks who show up to add a little texture and color. For that he's got section players, but even so, the strings are Jason Kao Hwang and Tomas Ulrich, the brass Herb Robertson and Steve Swell. The vampire theme is one I could do without, and it's unavoidable here. Nothing here is ambivalent enough for soundtrack, so stash that fear. But one piece is built around a recitation so heavily that the only word for it is opera. Two more pieces feature vocalist Carol Mennie, and while they're more scat than words they too fit into the opera framework. Doesn't sound like a good concept to me, but everything else here is remarkable. [A-]
The Dutch Jazz Orchestra: The Lady Who Swings the Band: Rediscovered Music of Mary Lou Williams (2005 , Challenge): Williams started in Kansas City with Andy Kirk's big band, and quickly distinguished herself both as a pianist and an arranger. The Dutch Jazz Orchestra made a minor industry out of mining obscure history, including four albums dedicated to Billy Strayhorn's works. This album starts off with a piece Williams submitted to Duke Ellington shortly after Strayhorn's death, and it's spot on. Almost everything here follows in that spirit: snappy, hard swinging arrangements delivered with panache. Not sure yet how it all balances out: both immediate pleasures and historical interest are evident. [B+(***)]
The Mary Lou Williams Collective: Zodiac Suite: Revisited (2000-03 , Mary): The Collective is Geri Allen, Buster Williams and either Andrew Cyrille (two cuts) or Billy Hart (the rest), so this is a piano trio. Most of the album is taken up by Mary Lou Williams' 12-part "Zodiac Suite," with three more pieces -- the two with Cyrille were written by Herbie Nichols and Allen, respectively. I've played this through and, well, thus far I have no idea what to make of it. [B]
Christian Scott: Rewind That (2005 , Concord): An auspicious debut for a young New Orleans trumpeter, nephew of guest alto saxist Donald Harrison. This compares to '60s hard bop much like '90s r&b compared to Stax soul -- softer, creamier, more texture and less emotion. It's almost like we're witnessing the reinvention of cool. B+(*)
The Derek Trucks Band: Songlines (2006, Columbia): I was surprised to see this presumed blues album as the lead review in the March 2006 Downbeat. Never heard Trucks before, but I gather he has a week sense of genre, which makes him unconventional as a bluesman. AMG cites Buddy Guy, Elmore James and Duane Allman as influences, but also John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sun Ra. After this record they can tack Rahsaan Roland Kirk onto that list -- first number here is a short "Volunteered Slavery." But I hear more traces of the world's musics here, and not just covers of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Toots Hibbert. Don't have a fix on it yet. One problem is that the bandleader just plays guitar and dobro, while everyone else sings, especially someone named Mike Mattison. [B+(***)]
Bonnie Bramlett and Mr. Groove Band: Roots, Blues & Jazz (2005 , Zoho Roots): I feel bad panning this. It really is good hearing her voice again -- thicker and heavier, to be sure, but it still has that gospel lift. And to be sure, she brings more conviction to "Love the One You're With" than I thought possible these days. But that's a big part of the problem: the song selection is way too catholic for someone with such specific talents. And her new friends don't have the touch her old Friends had, either. B
Theo Bleckmann/Fumio Yasuda: Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne (2005 , Winter & Winter): Third credit is Bernd Ruf and the Kammerorchester Basel. Spine just has the title, so any number of credits are possible. Kammerorchester is a huge classical outfit -- oboes and bassoons, banks of violins, timpani and harp, the whole kit and kaboodle. Yasuda plays piano and arranges, for the most part sparingly. Bleckmann sings. I've run into him before, usually in spots where I'd rather not hear a singer. But I've never heard him at length before, and my, what a sweet, charming voice. Aside from the title prologue and epilogue, the songs are show tunes -- light, plucky ones like "Chim Chim Cheree" and "My Favorite Things" are exceptionally beguiling, as is "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." What any of this has to do with Las Vegas isn't obvious to this Kansan, but I've talked enough with Europeans about Las Vegas to recognize that there's a peculiarly European (and most likely Japanese) view that Las Vegas exemplifies America -- certainly in its garish overindulgence, but also in a certain sweet innocence. Walter Benjamin wrote a book about Paris: The Capital of the 19th Century. I have little doubt that if he were alive today he'd be writing about Las Vegas. [B+(***)]
Bebo Valdés: Bebo de Cuba (2002 , Calle 54, 2CD): At age 84, this caps the return of a prominent '50s Cuban bandleader who faded from view after he settled into Stockholm in 1963. In the meantime, his son Chucho -- an astonishing pianist and bandleader in his own right -- elevated the name. But in the '90s Bebo resumed work, including a reunion with Cachao and a marvelous record with flamenco singer Dieguito El Cigala. The first disc here is the large canvas "Suite Cubana"; the second is a smaller group retrospective "El Solar de Bebo." Both feel like they return to a rather idealized version of '50s Cuba -- free of strife, resplendent in their luxury. A-
Peter Madsen: Prevue of Tomorrow (2005 , Playscape): Solo piano. Madsen plays ten pieces which provide an interesting survey of modernists from the '50s and '60s -- the earliest sources are Lenny Tristano, Herbie Nichols, and Dick Twardzik; the furthest out is an early Cecil Taylor piece; the others are Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Hassan Ibn Ali, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sun Ra, and Randy Weston. Interesting exercise. B+(**)
Dr. John: Right Place, Right Time (1989 , Skinji Brim/Hyena): Second installment in the Doc's series of private tapes, following the self-explanatory All By Hisself with a set at Tipitina's on a Mardi Gras night with a searing hot band adding much volume but little light. B
Maximum Joy: Unlimited (1979-83 , Crippled Dick Hot Wax): Not normally considered a jazz group, but there's a definitive jazz vibe here to go with the Jamaican rhythms and the jerky post-punk bass/guitar lines, and not just because Tony Wrafter plays sax and trumpet while singer Janine Rainforth adds bits on violin and clarinet. This Bristol UK group was formed from fragments of the Glaxo Babies and the Pop Group; other splinters of the latter went off to form Pigbag, which gravitated toward Latin jazz and James Brown funk, and Rip Rig + Panic, named for a Rahsaan Roland Kirk song. This group is so obscure they didn't even get a mention in the Trouser Press Guides. It's rare that such archaeology pays off, but it does here. A-
Don Braden: Workin' (2005 , HighNote): Braden strikes me as a rather fancy saxophonist to get stuck in a simple organ trio. That he does two pieces solo indicates he concurs, but his previous record was little different: the same group plus a trombone. Braden's a flashy mainstream player -- nice tone, lots of moves, a pleasure to listen to. He shows all that here, but he's shown it many times before, and there's nothing special this time. B+(*)
Vincent Herring: Ends and Means (2005 , HighNote): He's out to please here, sticking within comfortable mainstream boundaries, playing bright and cheery, both on his mainstay alto sax and on soprano. Half the album is done as a quartet. The other half adds trumpeter Jeremy Pelt for a second horn. Pelt has much the same virtues as Herring, making for a comfortable pairing. B+(**)
Paul Shapiro: It's in the Twilight (2005 , Tzadik): Part of Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series. Shapiro's website says: "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Paul Shapiro's music. But it helps to have a heart." So Jewish is a big part of Shapiro's identity, all the more clear from the booklet, but had you blindfolded me I would have missed it. Radical too, but I might have picked the name of a band he founded in the '90s, but I've never heard: Brooklyn Funk Essentials. And the big heart theme is clear. Shapiro plays tenor sax, but he sound here is thickened with a second tenor sax (Peter Apfelbaum) and trumpet (Steve Bernstein), giving the record a fat, vibrant sound. Two songs have vocal bits, which pop up informally for a social feel. If I was doing Choice Cuts, one I particularly like is Shapiro's Ribs & Brisket tune, "Oy Veys Mir" -- starts out like "Flat Foot Floogie" and takes a boogie woogie piano break. B+(**)
Carol Robbins: Jazz Play (2005, Jazzcats): Robbins plays harp. She came up through the usual classical steps, but studied under Dorothy Ashby, who until recently was pretty much the beginning and end of the list of jazz harpists. Harp isn't a very imposing instrument. Here she mostly fills up the spaces at the end of lines, adding a shimmering texture to the other five musicians, who carry most of the music. Guitarist Larry Koonse and bassist Darek Oles provide the strings that complement the harp's sound. Bob Sheppard plays tenor and soprano sax, matched with Steve Huffstetet on trumpet or flugelhorn. Perhaps to keep from blowing the leader away, they all play what we might call neo-cool: light, measured, rather delicate post-bop. It makes for an intriguing little album. B+(*)
Johnnie Valentino: Stingy Brim (2004 , Omnitone): Hmm, Bob Sheppard again -- surprised to see him on two straight records picked at random off the shelf. Noticed him on a slow one here called "Where When & How" where his tenor sax adds an essential soulful wail. Valentino is a guitarist, originally from Philadelphia. Not sure where this will wind up, but several pieces impressed me first time through -- the herky jerk of "4M2," the patient lead and loopy climax of "Coyote Bowboy." Mark Rossi plays organ, Sheppard also plays clarinet, Mark Ferber drums, and Randy Jones anchors the bottom on tuba. The tuba seems to be the point of the album, the antipode to the old-fashioned hat. Not done. [B+(***)]
Alexander von Schlippenbach/Axel Dörner/Rudi Mahall/Jan Roder/Uli Jennessen: Monk's Casino: The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk (2003-04 , Intakt, 3CD): Surprising at first that everything Monk wrote can be squeezed onto three discs, but Monk's well started to dry up not far into his career and his later discs are mostly reworkings of his earlier songs. Some of these do run short -- "Crepuscle With Nellie" 2:17, "Pannonica" 1:36, "Stuffy Turkey" 0:44 -- but "Misterioso" stretches to 10:05. Some are straight renditions of the compositions, but work around the themes, much as Monk himself did. Trumpet and bass clarinet recapitulate Monk's own preference for working with horns, but they vary enough from the usual tenor saxmen to illuminate new edges and quirks in Monk's work, much like Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd did. Schlippenbach himself is less like himself, content to lay back and direct like Monk often did. Still, in total this is a remarkable, and quite marvelous, de/reconstruction. A-
Irène Schweizer: Portrait (1984-2004 , Intakt): One disc in a slipcase with a thick booklet, packed with excerpts from fourteen albums, by a Swiss pianist I've never heard before, although I've certainly heard of. Nothing in this year's bumper crop of solo piano strikes me as anywhere near as robust as the three solo pieces here. Even better are the duos, mostly with drummers, but two saxophonists I've also never heard of, Omri Ziegele and Co Streiff, also stand out, and the 10:13 "First Meeting" with trombonist George Lewis is riveting from stem to stern. Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake are tight enough that their trio combines the virtues of the duos. That leaves two pieces with Joëlle Léandre and Maggie Nicols, where the latter's artsong vocals would normally turn me off, but somehow here they slip past as high camp. This does what few samplers manage to do: make me want to hear all of the albums they come from. A
Zentralquartett: 11 Songs - Aus Teutschen Landen (2005 , Intakt): Two songs are original compositions by pianist Ulrich Gumpert, but they fit stylistically with the nine Volkslieder -- German folk songs, all attributed to Trad. The songs provide the safe, bouncy melodic lines that the group frequently returns to, but the group also kicks them out of shape, tears them apart, twists them into strange shapes. Two horns, Conrad Bauer's trombone and Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky's reeds (alto sax, flutes, clarinet), lead the mayhem, while Gumpert and drummer Günter Sommer get in their licks. A-
Fred Frith/Carla Kihlstedt/Stevie Wishart: The Compass, Log, and Lead (2003 , Intakt): Wishart plays hurdy-gurdy, a contraption that makes sounds by cranking a wheel against a string, with keys to peck out a melody and extra strings droning rhythmically. It's presumably the source of the drone that underlies Frith's guitar and Kihlstedt's violin, although Wishart's credits also include electronics, which could be anything. The pieces are pure improv, melanges of string sounds with curious curves and haphazard shapes, more interesting for their sonic overlap than structure, although I can't say there is none. B+(**)
Barry Guy New Orchestra: Oort-Entropy (2004 , Intakt): This is the slightly slimmed-down successor to Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra -- a major arena for Europe's avant-garde for nearly thirty years. The group here has the leader's bass, piano, three reeds, three brass, and two percussionists. They can make a good deal of noise, and frequently do, sometimes disconcertingly so. I've never known what to make of such groups -- Schlippenbach and Brötzmann, Vandermark and William Parker have led similar ones -- in that mode, nor have I ever figured out how composition and improv interact in Guy's work: it's quite daunting on the one hand, and not terribly rewarding on the other. What does impress me here are the quieter moments where the dark matter of the cosmos appears more intricately structured than expected. B+(*)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Paul Motian Band: Garden of Eden (2004 , ECM): The further evolution of the Electric Bebop Band, but still anchored with covers of Mingus and Parker. Still, this is mostly texture, with saxophonists Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby reined in, and Motian as slippery as ever. B+(**)
Mat Maneri: Pentagon (2004 , Thirsty Ear): The avant violinist has a large and rather nasty sounding group here, heavy on industrial grade keyboards with Ben Gerstein's trombone the only horn. The latter is an interesting touch, and worth focusing on. The thickly layered backdrop has some interest as well. B+(*)
Nils Landgren & Joe Sample: Creole Love Call (2005 , ACT): Landgren's a Swedish trombonist turned singer, and this is his fun in New Orleans album -- sure, the title's an Ellington song, and an instrumental to boot, but from Stockholm the association is close enough, as is (evidently) "Dock of the Bay," "Night Life," and "Love the One You're With." Sample, the band, and guests who can outsing Landgren even wearing a sky mask humor him. Hard not to. B
One more short note related to nuclear power in Iran, India, and elsewhere. Part of the problem is that Bush wears several hats. On the one hand, he presides over the military-industrial complex's fantasy of "full spectrum dominance" over the entire globe. Their strongest sales pitch is fear, and in that regard nothing works to their advantage more than the prospect of WMD falling into the hands of purely evil terrorist fanatics. WMD itself has always been code for nuclear weapons, although slipping chemical and biological weapons into the bag makes it easier to pin on minor threats like Saddam Hussein.
On the other hand, another hat Bush wears is head shill for the global energy industry, and that includes long mothballed nuclear as well as "clean coal" and good old fashioned oil. The argument behind nuclear is that it's safe and clean and, as oil runs short and prices climb, will be cheap in the long run. That's an argument Bush sells when he gets the chance, as in India, ignoring the fact that the US nuclear industry is moribund, with no new starts in over two decades, while the US sinks deeper into nuclear waste with no better plan than to bury some of it, sooner or later, in a mountain in Nevada and hope it doesn't leak much in the next 50,000 years. Still, for nations whose development futures are at risk because of rising energy prices, it's easy to buy the hype. And don't look to Bush to point out the downside risks -- even the obvious danger of what terrorists could do to nuclear power plants. After all, he's on the payroll, bought and paid for. And if India, say, turns into a nuclear sewer, that's no skin off Westinghouse's nose.
I accept that nuclear power will, should even, be a growing part of the energy resource mix over the next century. But what history to date shows is that it can't just be blundered into with the mix of Defense-related subsidies and sugar pills that the US nuclear industry was built around, let alone the schizophrenia of a President who pushes nukes both to build alliances and to start wars. But until the fundamental problems with nuclear power are faced and resolved, it would be most sensible just to hold back. In order for nuclear power to be valuable we need to solve some more basic problems: war and terrorism, for starters. That, of course, goes for countries like Iran and India, whose entry into the nuclear club stands to make matters worse rather. But so does discriminating against them, which reinforces a more basic problem still: inequity.
I don't have any inside information here, but working off what is publicly known and what seems logical I'd say that there is a very real, but probably less than 50-50, chance that the US will take military action against Iran within the next twelve months. The action would consist of an extensive aerial bombardment of sites suspected of involvement with Iran's nuclear programs. No effort would be made to invade or occupy Iran. There would be a propaganda program encouraging Iranians to overthrow the Islamic regime, but I doubt that there would (or more precisely, could) be any substantial or effective clandestine support to would-be subversive groups within Iran. (Iranian exiles obviously don't count for much here.) The bombardment would be intense but brief, intended to do some damage, but more importantly to serve as a warning of future attacks if Iran doesn't give up its ambitions. The act would be unilateral: Israel can't do the job alone, and wouldn't provide the US with any cover of deniability, nor would UK participation provide any legitimacy. Bush would not go to Congress or the UN for approval. Bush has already asserted his right as Commander in Chief to order such attacks, and can point to such precedents as Reagan in Libya and Clinton in Afghanistan and the Sudan.
The most likely time framework for such an attack is after the Nov. 2006 US elections and before the next Congress meets in Jan. 2007. There will be much sabre rattling before the elections, but the political risks of actually launching such an attack before the election are considerable: the consequences are unpredictable, and in any case the attacks would reinforce a war-weary public's perception of Bush as a reckless warmonger. The Fallujah assault similarly took place right after the 2004 elections. The election results, whatever they are, can be argued either way -- e.g., if the Democrats win big, an Iran attack would put Bush right back in the spotlight.
It also makes little difference whether the UN Security Council approves sanctions against Iran: Bush could argue that sanctions legitimize US charges against Iran but fall short of the necessary level of force, or that the failure of sanctions leaves the US no recourse except to act alone. But the exercise of seeking sanctions gives Bush the cover of having tried diplomacy, and it stretches the process out, allowing the propaganda to sink in and frustration to build while waiting for the elections to clear. More time will also help clarify the predicament in Iraq -- increasingly a lost cause.
What holds the odds under 50-50 is that such an attack would be one of the stupidest things that the US could possibly do. (Outright invasion, of course, would be even stupider, but seems to be beyond possible at this point.) It would be stupid in several dimensions. Any attack, even the threat of attack, will cause Iran to dig in its heels, polarizing public opinion both in Iran and elsewhere where anyone might identify or sympathize with Iran -- given the moral isolation of the US, that's most of the world, if not necessarily most of the world's current political leaders. This polarization reinforces the most militantly nationalistic factions within Iran -- also in the US, which is why Bush takes such hard lines, and why there's been so much symbiosis between Bush and his designated enemies. Iran, in turn, will take an attack as a reason -- indeed, as a requirement -- to persevere and, subject to whatever prudence they can muster, to escalate and possibly even strike back. We've already seen examples of this: the easily demonizable Ahmadinejad came to power after Bush cast Iran's reform-minded democratic government as part of the Axis of Evil.
Iran has several reasonable things to gain from development of nuclear technology. The most obvious one is prestige. A second one is a source of electricity which would allow Iran to develop with less impact on its oil exports -- an understandable move given the long-term trends in the oil market. A third is deterrence: no nation armed with nuclear weapons has been directly attacked by another state ever, but Iran has been attacked by Iraq, and repeatedly threatened by the UK, Russia, the US, and now Israel. In terms of deterrence it may very well be suffice for Iran to show that it has the technical capability of developing nuclear weapons without having to actually build and test them. But one thing that Iran would not get from building nuclear weapons is a viable option to use them aggressively against other nations -- least of all the US, which successfully deterred the incomparably more powerful Soviet Union.
The inescapable fact is that since World War II, or at least since the Soviets countered the US monopoly in nuclear weapons, such weapons have become useless -- unthinkable to use either for offense or defense, expensive to develop, horribly dangerous even to have. Recognition of that uselessness was at the heart of the treaties on Non-Proliferation and Anti-Ballastic Missiles, but since those treaties were signed one nation has had a change of heart: the US. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US with no enemies that could in any way challenge its conventional military forces, let alone that had any desire to do so. At that time it would have been possible to put the United Nations back on the track that the Cold War had derailed, to provide a civil forum and joint authority to maintain peace and justice around the world. But the US instead stuck to the concept of a single superpower, a unipolar world, in which the US committed itself to maintain absolute military dominance over any conceivable threat. This led the US back to developing nuclear weapons with purely offensive purposes, to discarding the ABM treaty, to cynically reinterpreting the NPT. It is only in the context of US policy, summed up in Bush's pre-emptive war policy, that Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons can be viewed as a threat to anyone.
In other words, the only reason Bush is willing to seriously consider a pre-emptive strike against Iran -- a blatant, unprovoked act of war, certain to kill many Iranians regardless of how precise the bombardment is -- is that the US has a policy of guaranteeing its unchallenged nuclear intimidation over the entire world. Not that the US actually follows such a policy, given that every nation that actually has nuclear weapons seems to get a pass -- even the latest club member, North Korea. Given these exceptions, one has to wonder why Iran matters one way or another. The answer is projection. We assume that Iran would act the way we think we would act if another country had treated us the way the US has treated Iran. In other words, we assume that Iran hates us so virulently that the nation and its leaders are willing to sacrifice their well being, vast numbers of their population, just to exact some small measure of revenge on us.
To see this, we first must list what the US has done to Iran in order to elicit such hatred. Although many little things could be added here, the short list of US crimes against Iran is as follows:
Evidence of Iran's hostility to the US during the period since the Shah was deposed is scanty, relatively minor, and mostly limited to the early days of the revolution. Iranian students, under direction of Ayatollah Khomeini, seized the US embassy and held several hundred Americans hostage there for over a year -- a political embarrassment to President Carter, but the hostages were released after Reagan was elected. During the 1980s Iran supported several challenges to Saudi leadership of the muslim world, provided some support for Shiites in Lebanon following Israel's 1982 invasion, and notoriously posted a reward for killing author Salman Rushdie. However, also during the '80s, while the war with Iraq was continuing, Israel sold arms to Iran, and Reagan got in on the action in a back door effort to illegally fund the Contras in Nicaragua -- the Iran-Contra affair. Since Ayatollah Khomeini died, it's hard to identify anything that Iran has done against the US, yet US politicians still bear smoldering resentment against Iran, leading to the current crisis. (Ironically, Iran supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which the US later backed. Iran also supported SCIRI and Dawa, the two major Shiite groups opposed to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which figured prominently among the exiles that the US brought to nominal power in Iraq.)
Bush's fanatic opposition to Iran is the work of paranoia and projection. The dispute over Iran's nuclear program is a rerun of the similar paranoid claims made regarding Iraq. The goal is the same, although the results that we have seen in Iraq suggest that no such thing should be desired. There is no reason to think that Iran, a much larger and at this point stronger country, has any less resolve to fight back against a Bush attack: Iran does, after all, have a long history of being victimized by the US and its imperialist predecessors. Invasion and occupation, indeed regime change by any means, seem out of the question. Any attack against Iran could also trigger a sympathetic Shiite revolt in Iraq, which could prove to be the end of the US stand there. So Bush and his people are playing a very risky game here, and a very foolish one. But what remains to be seem is when the media, when the world, when the paltry excuse for an opposition party here in the US, will recognize how distorted and dangerous Bush's foreign policy is. And stand up and do something about it.
Friday, March 17. 2006
The third anniversary of the Bush invasion of Iraq is upon us. My post three years ago made a point of laying out Saddam Hussein's role in setting up the rationalizations behind the war, but the final judgment was:
Three years later, we have a clearer picture of the crime. The US has spent some $400 billion and lost over 2300 soldiers with no clear end in sight to achieve nothing worthwhile. A tenacious resistance has taken a steady toll, both on the US and on every effort the US has made to stabilize a client regime. The US has effective control of its bases and the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, but little more. The so-called Iraqi Government has been in limbo since the December election. Local areas are effectively controlled by sectarian militias -- some deemed enemies by the US, some deemed friendly, but none subservient, and most hostile to each other. Crime is rife -- even in the Green Zone, where millions or billions of dollars go unaccounted for. Reconstruction is virtually impossible. Even the oil industry has progressively shut down, leading to shortages and price gouging worldwide. Nobody knows how many Iraqis have died -- the US, figuring there's no good news to be found, makes no attempt to count -- but the numbers are very likely in six figures and the rate seems to be climbing as the warlords inch into a civil war that the US did much to promote and has no ability to stop. Some of this violence comes from a stream of non-Iraqi jihadis -- Bush always said he'd rather fight the "terrorists" there than here, and by baiting the trap with American soldiers he's managed to bring 'em on. But these days Iraq seems to be exporting plenty of terrorists as well, especially to Afghanistan, where the broader-based NATO occupation had been relatively benign.
With so little to show for this effort, American public opinion has turned on Bush. I found Jim Lehrer's interview with a pollster interesting tonight, especially when the pollster explained that the downturn in war support was caused by reports of Iraqi deaths. Lehrer tried to correct him -- surely he meant American deaths -- but the pollster remained firm. Nobody thinks that the American people are showing a sudden surge of empathy here. What they recognize is that the avalanche of reports of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence show two things: that any prospect for success is lost, and that Bush's denials have no credibility any more. Murtha's position -- that the US military has done all it can do, but can't remain in the midst of a civil war -- resonates with what people are learning.
This turn in public opinion has happened with little encouragement by the so-called opposition party. While rank-and-file Democrats are solidly against the war, their party's political establishment has frozen. The simple explanation is that they're still stuck in a mind set that sees the US as having a vast and aggressive role throughout the world -- both militarily and diplomatically. Few other nations have any such delusions, either that the world's many problems are their own concern, or that the way to deal with them is overwhelming military force. Yet prominent Democrats continue to mouth nostrums like we can't afford to fail and grouch that the only problem with invading and occupying Iraq has been Bush incompetency. Those are the same people likely to fall for the Iran war drums that Bush et al. have taken to pounding, perhaps in hope of drowning out the din of Iraq.
Three years ago, I ended: "The only way to have peace is to be peaceable." Still true today.
One more note: One of the things that pro-war pundits said three years ago was that when people who had opposed Bush going to war in Iraq saw how successfully it would turn out, they -- especially the unwilling allies -- would flock to America's side. One measurement of the war is how many people have changed positions. There are a handful of former opponents like Madelyn Albright who now support the war, but I don't know of any who concede that they had been wrong to oppose it in the first place.
Nonetheless, far too little credit has been given to those who had the insight or simply the decency to oppose this war from the very beginning.
Thursday, March 16. 2006
Tony Pugh wrote a Knight-Ridder piece in the Wichita Eagle today. Title is "U.S. medical care found uniformly mediocre." The piece deserves to be quoted in full:
The operative word is "small" here. Later down it notes that blacks and Hispanics fared slightly better than whites. That could just be noise given the sample size. Also, the difference between insured and uninsured isn't fully accounted for, since what is being examined is the quality of treatment given. Those who don't get treatment at all miss out on this 55% chance of getting treated properly.
Paul Krugman's New York Review of Books piece on health care also talks about fragmentation and also singles out the VA as a model that provides better than normal service. It's interesting that Krugman was primarily concerned with cost, not quality. Of course, the two are related: botched treatments often cost more in the long run. But we usually think that if we pay a bit more people will do a better job, so what's up here?
Lots of things, but two stand out. One is that the health care system has no responsibility for the long term health care of the individuals who use it. The VA is the exception there, and much of the differential can e traced to its ability to consistently track the health care of clients who stay within the system all their lives. The rest of the system just bills for services, so if they mess up and miss something now, chances are they'll make more off it later.
The other is that there isn't much immediate feedback on health care decisions, so neither doctors nor patients are much good at catching mistakes. Most of this is information deficit: doctors never know much about your body, and most likely you don't know much about medicine either. Some other major factors are that the insurance companies are constantly on the doctors to cut costs, and the health care businesses are constantly on the doctors to speed up and bring in more billable revenue.
These factors are exacerbated not just by "fragmentation" but by the profit directive. On the other hand, the fact that the they can't detect any qualitative differences due to things like good vs. bad insurance means that conventional market concepts like smarter shopping and premium spending won't help. Studies on malpractice argue that with few exceptions major errors are also randomly distributed. Again, smarter shopping isn't really possible because you never know enough, and premium spending is merely a windfall for its recipient.
A lot of people are aware of the extravagant cost of health care in the US but figure at least the system provides some dividend in quality for all that money -- at least for those who can afford it. Statistics don't confirm this. I can come up with numerous examples of errors or omissions in cases I'm aware of, and every time I talk to others about health care they have similar stories. The truth behind the myth is that progress in science and technology have improved many treatments compared to the past, but we also see some of those improvements traded off -- e.g., hospital stays have been cut back, sometimes inadvisably.
While cost problems are serious, quality is the real weakness of the US system. Any cost-saving change to the system needs to satisfy the quality question. What this study shows is that it's not hard to improve quality -- the bar there is embarrassingly low. It's also not hard to improve on cost. The remarkable thing is that in many cases you can do both at the same time.
Krugman's article tries to stay on very safe ground. He makes a big deal out of progress in economic analysis of the health care system that has occurred since Clinton's foolish 1993 bill. What he has to say is right as far as it goes, but he doesn't look very far into the question of how costs increase, and therefore how costs can be managed or reduced while maintaining or improving quality. He attributes most cost increases to new technology that often broadens what health care provides can offer. That's right, and the high prices have shown our willingness to pay more every chance we find for improvement.
But most of these new costs have been inflated toward the point of indifference -- which as we've seen is a very high point -- by monopoly grants tied to patents. The obvious way to cut back on those costs is to end the monopolies and open up competition in manufacturing. This would reduce the companies' incentive to fund new r&d, but that funding could easily be replaced from public sources, and there would be qualitative as well as cost advantages in doing so. For starters, information could be public at every stage in the development process. Researchers could build on each others' work. Tests could be coordinated worldwide. Systems could be developed to provide doctors with unbiased information.
Many more things could be done to raise quality and lower costs. A single insurance pool that follows you from birth to death is only the most obvious. Among other things, this would eliminate a lot of costs that are scattered inequitably through systems that try to account for health costs, like auto insurance, worker's compensation, malpractice and other torts. A single, standard, open source format for personal health records. Public funding to increase competition, ensure adequate distribution of resources, and maintain standards of quality -- even to get to a point where there is enough surplus capacity to handle disasters.
There's a lot that can be done to straighten out the Health Care Mess, but first we have to get past the vested interests and the ideological muddle. The realization that health care as we practice it in the US is not too expensive so much as it is inadequate and dysfunctional is a necessary starting point.
Haven't put anything in the blog in a few days. Meanwhile, the news and outrage pile up. As is often the case, it's hard to know where to start, let alone find a place to stop. Some quick items:
Much more to write about, and much more slipping through the cracks. One thing I wanted to mention was an exceptional run of pieces in last two issues of The New York Review of Books:
Monday, March 13. 2006
Second (officially speaking) week of jazz prospecting. The records have been piling up, but I've finally started to get into the flow of this. The following are first pass notes -- often first play, but sometimes I spin it again. Grades in brackets are not final: I intend to return to those records again.
Ellis Marsalis: Ruminations in New York (2003 , ESP-Disk): The problem is that when the artist alone decides what goes on the disc, you need artists with something to say. The first new production of the famously ferocious '60s label -- home to Albert Ayler and the Holy Modal Rounders -- is a relentlessly nice piece of solo piano from the patriarch of the Marsalis mob. Nice. Awful nice, in fact. B
Albert Ayler Trio: Spiritual Unity (1964 , ESP-Disk): One of the landmarks of the '60s avant-garde -- Ayler's defining moment, but also a high point in the careers of trio mates Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, who never falter and never intrude on Ayler's rapid-fire inspiration; "Ghosts" rises with a memorable head, then rises again at the end in a second variation; short at 29:21, uncluttered by filler. A
Albert Ayler: Bells/Prophecy (1964-65 , ESP-Disk): Prophecy was recorded a month before Spiritual Unity, with same trio and same songs, for all intents a dry run; Bells, recorded a year later with extra fire-power in Donald Ayler's trumpet and Charles Tyler's, was originally issued as a 19:54 one-sided LP, a relatively clean glimpse of the brothers' future groups. A-
Albert Ayler: Slugs' Saloon (1966 , ESP-Disk, 2CD): A quintet, with the Ayler brothers in powerful form and Michel Samson's violin for contrast and complexity; the big pieces are rough hewn, playful, disorderly, subversive, and rather tough going, which is about par for this stage. B+(*)
Sonny Simmons: The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings (1966 , ESP-Disk, 2CD): Simmons was past 30 when he cut his first two albums. Both feature his wife Barbara Donald on trumpet, the first in a quintet with a young John Hicks on piano, the second a sextet with Michael Cohen on piano and Bert Wilson on tenor sax. Before arriving in New York, Simmons had played alto sax mostly in r&b bands, but he had an exceptional sense of the connections between Parker, Coleman and Dolphy, and he sums them up with fierce logic and cunning, even advancing the state of the art a bit. A few years later he returned to the West Coast, fell on hard times, lost his family, became a homeless junkie, scratching for change playing on the streets. He finally got a gig from someone who remembered these albums, cleaned up and came back with a vengeance, turning in his finest work at an age when most people hope to be retired. Both discs are padded with interviews, but the man's got history. A-
Patty Waters: The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings (1965-66 , ESP-Disk): Two albums, Sings and College Tour, squeezed onto one disc. I just have a CDR with no extra info, so can't comment on packaging, documentation, etc. First album has one side of minimal piano with voice and a 13:56 rant of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" on the other side. The live second splits the difference. She takes chances pushing her vocals to the outer limits of emotion, but I don't hear much more than effect -- a cult item with hints of interest. B
Joe Chambers: The Outlaw (2005 , Savant): I know him as a key drummer for Blue Note back in the '60s, but I'm not familiar with his own albums. This one features his vibes and marimba, combined with programmed beats and Bobby Sanabria's percussion for a slick and slippery rhythmic complex, with piano (often electric) and Logen Richardson's soft, exotic soprano sax for coloring. It comes off weird at first, then sort of sneaks up on you. Nicola Guiland sings one song, and gets a voice credit on another. [B+(**)]
Cecil Brooks III: Double Exposure (2000 , Savant): A drums-organ duo seems like an odd thing to do, but the liner notes point to a 1978 precedent that paired up Joe Chambers and Larry Young. I haven't heard that one, but it seems fair to say that the organist this time, Gene Ludwig, is no Larry Young. Brooks may not compare all that well to Chambers either, but that's harder to say. Actually, putting aside those questions, this pairing has some charm and interest. But it's still a pretty limited framework. B
Donny McCaslin: Soar (2005 , Sunnyside): A tenor saxophonist, he's made a strong impression as a sideman in recent years, and he's consistently impressive here, even when he switches to flute. The small set pieces are clear and logical, dominated by his warm tone and the rhythm's latin accent. I'm not so sure about the vocal frosting -- in the lead piece it rises from a marvelous sax-drums duo like a mushroom cloud, although that's not really the right metaphor. Two pieces toward the end add extra brass for harmonic backfill. He's trying out various things. We'll see how they all sort out. [B+(***)]
Pamela Luss: There's Something About You I Don't Know (2006, Savant): Don't have recording dates, or a breakdown of who plays what on each track. The collective personnel lists 23 musicians, most well known names, and that doesn't count the background singers (with their own producer) and whoever plays David O'Rourke's string arrangements. Don't know much about her -- her website bio is just a reprint of Ray Osnato's revelation-free liner notes. Her voice is distinctive -- not conventionally pretty or fashionably heavy, but serviceable with a pastel tint. The songs are the usual standards. Vincent Herring produced like a kid in a candy store, the range of effects so broad and detailed that one's ears glaze over. I was prepared to shrug my shoulders and give it a middling rating, but near the end the Brazilian sway on "Waters of March" caught my ear, then the over-the-top orchestration on "My Funny Valentine" struck me as a unique take on a song that is usually whispered. So there's something here. I'm skeptical, but will keep it open. [B+(*)]
Wallace Roney: Mystikal (2005, HighNote): The previous one, with the same general concept of family postbop plus turntables, was called Prototype. Perhaps the new title signifies that the development process has gotten sidetracked. (Certainly can't be a nod to the rapper.) At least, the project hasn't jelled yet: the electronics and acoustics separate out pretty cleanly. I like Val Jeanty's turntable work here -- both the scratches and the samples -- but they're still scarce enough that they're background rather than base. The Roney brothers do a fine job of splitting the difference between solid and slick -- Antoine, in particular, is gaining ground, but the best musician in the house remains Geri Allen, so doesn't steal the album so much as keep it propped up. But we're still waiting to see what comes of these parts. B+(**)
Houston Person: All Soul (2005, HighNote): First time through this felt like he was phoning it in, but near the end "Please Send Me Someone to Love" turned magesterial, and the upbeat closer "Put It Right There" finally provided some payoff from the band. So I spun it again and noticed a slow but gorgeous "Let It Be Me" -- but the rest of the album, overpopulated by a sextet, only improved marginally. B+(**)
Monty Alexander: Concrete Jungle: The Music of Bob Marley (2005 , Telarc): This looked certain to be a disaster, and not just because his last Jamaican effort, Rocksteady, was so awful. Marley stikes me as tough to jazz up, much like Stevie Wonder. Tossing a lot of guests and vocalists into the mix isn't promising either -- in particular, it runs a strong risk of turning into second-hand easy listening. Some of this does, and the three vocal tracks are especially lame, but there are points where this connects. Usually, these are the simplest cuts, like the piano-bass-drums on "Forever Lovin' Jah." Even better is the piano-trombone juxtaposition on "Simmer Down," with Delfeayo Marsalis. B
Béla Fleck & the Flecktones: The Hidden Land (2006, Columbia): The only other Fleck album I've heard didn't sound like much of anything, but this does -- it's just hard to place. Fleck's various antique banjos don't have much speed or drive, just a steel sound that adds a mechanical texture to the world fusion on the bass-drums. That much is neither here nor there -- what provides the interest here is Jeff Coffin, whose reeds provide low-key exotica. I'm still skeptical that this will pan out, but there does seem to be something here. [B]
Miguel Zenón: Jíbaro (2004 , Marsalis Music/Rounder): The first I heard of him was when he won Downbeat's poll for alto sax, TDWR division, a couple of years ago. I got hold of Ceremonial, his then current album, where he impressed me more than the record -- bit fancy for my taste -- but the record could easily have been a HM. Since then he's been showing up everywhere, never disappointing even when the records do. I read a blindfold test with him recently, and he absolutely nailed everything they threw at him. Smart guy, knows his craft inside and out. I should have gotten this record when it came out last summer -- thought I did, but searched all over the place and couldn't find any trace of it. This is his Puerto Rican roots record -- jíbaro is a rural folk-pop style, Edwin Colon Zayas calls it his "country music" -- but Zenón aim for roots. Rather, he writes new pieces mapping the style onto a standard acoustic sax-piano-bass-drums jazz quartet -- no cuatro, guiro, bongo, vocals. The result is jazz centered on jíbaro roots, rather than jazzed up jíbaro or some kind of fusion. It's exceptionally clean and clear, beguiling music. A-
Jaco Pastorius Big Band: The Word Is Out (2006, Heads Up): I'm way behind the learning curve here -- haven't heard the first JP Big Band record, don't even have a fix on JP himself: two records in the database (one B+, one B), don't know his stuff with Pat Metheny, don't recall him with Weather Report (never was a fan of them; three B, one B+ records in the database), haven't heard his Rhino comp. So the first thing I don't get here is the point. What I do hear are splashy big band arrangements, mostly of Pastorius originals, with one Metheny, one Joe Zawinul, one Herbie Hancock, and a "Blackbird" that especially sticks in my craw. As big band bombast, this ain't half bad; as fusion, it just ain't; as Pastorius, beats me. Still, I figure it's time to cut my losses. B
Herbie Hancock: The Essential Herbie Hancock (1962-98 , Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Most of the cuts here are Columbias but it's hard to argue that they're not representative given the task of covering his full career. They're also the most useful -- if you don't know Hancock's legendary '60s work, the six cuts here only shame you into seeking out more. The fusion-heavy Columbias, on the other hand, need condensation, and this does a valiant and useful job of sifting. Hancock's problem with fusion was that he was always too urbane to rock -- only the machine-funk albums of the '80s begin to bring the noise -- but he found new ways to play jazz on electric keyboards. B+(**)
Billy Martin & Grant Calvin Weston: Live at Houston Hall (2002 , Amulet): Martin is best known for playing drums with Messrs. Medeski et Wood, but he runs a label on the side where he's dumped out more than a dozen albums worth of solo or duo drums or percussion samples or remixes coming and going. They're all what you might call specialty items. I've heard half a dozen or so, and this is the first one that's seriously kicked my pulse up. Two drummers, sometimes a bit of extra noise -- Weston also plays a bit of trumpet. First impression is that it kicks ass. [B+(***)]
Billy Martin: Solo Live Tonic 2002 (2002 , Amulet): Solo drums, percussion, some whistles and birdcalls. The drum pieces are tightly packed, and the range of percussion sounds provides some variety -- the metallic ones are the most ear-catching. A couple of spoken interludes are hard to hear: one about Black Elk, another about Burundi, both intros. B+(*)
Moncef Genoud: Aqua (2004 , Savoy Jazz): Blind pianist, born in Tunisia, raised in Switzerland -- don't know a lot more. His trio includes Scott Colley and Bill Stewart. Guest Michael Brecker plays on three cuts. The last track, "Lush Life," was cut with a different trio and Dee Dee Bridgewater singing. It's all very impressive. Brecker's features -- one fast, one slow, one just right -- are spaced out and just rise up from the mix, which itself is as bright and imaginative as you'd dare hope for. The finale is from another world -- tough song for anyone to handle, and Bridgewater is faultless. Don't quite believe it all myself. [A-]
George Cotsirilos: On the Rebop (2005 , OA2): Guitar trio, with a slightly dull tone to the guitar, and a mildly boppish vibe overall -- most tellingly on "Anthropology." Nice but rather slight. B
Dave Frishberg: Retromania: At the Jazz Bakery (2005 , Arbors): Plays piano and sings, and that's all there is to it, more or less familiar songs he wrote as far back as 1970. Both piano and voice aren't much more than demo-worthy, but the clever songs are worth hearing just that way. A series of seven, plus patter, in the middle are based on baseball, and they date back quite a ways, to Christy Matthewson, Hal Chase and the Black Sox scandal, and his namefest starring Van Lingle Mungo. I know enough about that history that I recognize every Mungo-era star he lists; enough even to get choked up over "Matty," and not just because I recall a point Frishberg doesn't include, about how a whiff of poison gas in what we now call World War I pointed the great pitcher to an early grave. B+(***)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Exploding Customer: Live at Tampere Jazz Happening (2004 , Ayler): Swedish freebop quartet, led by alto/tenor saxman Martin Küchen, with Tomas Hallonsten on trumpet for a two horn, no piano lineup. They have all the usual virtues: a rockish undertow, no qualms about getting noisy, a flexible bassist in Martin Quigley, and a terrific drummer in Kjell Nordeson. The two horns flare apart as usual, but they're exceptional when they band together, often on fast loops like a flashy circus act. B+(***)
Jeff Arnal, Seth Misterka, Reuben Radding, Nate Wooley: Transit (2001 , Clean Feed): Group name seems to be Transit. Percussionist Arnal seems to be the leader, but the artist names are listed alphabetically, and the compositions are credited to all four, so the group is even balanced. Still, it makes sense to focus on Arnal, who provides a dependable anchor for the mischief, and whose drum sound is the most distinctive thing here. At first approximation, this is loose and rather hoary free improv -- at times exciting, galvanizing even, at times a bit much, then interesting again. B+(*)
Larry Willis Trio: The Big Push (2005 , HighNote): Bright, substantial mainstream piano trio with Buster Williams and Al Foster, old pros all. B+(**)
Paal Nilssen-Love: Townorchestrahouse (2005, Clean Feed): Three long group improvs, run together in the title. There's no real reason the Norwegian drummer should get top billing here, other than that he's quite a drummer, fast building a reputation that might lead one to seek out an album under his name. Otherwise, this would have been released under Evan Parker's name: he has the lead instrument, sets the pace, and is the guy you focus on. B+(***)
Vinny Golia Quartet: Sfumato (2003 , Clean Feed): Pianoless quartet, with Bobby Bradford on trumpet and Golia playing clarinets, high saxes and low flutes for a wide range of sounds. Interesting music, a wide range of sounds and textures, solid backing from Ken Filiano and Alex Cline. B+(**)
Joe Morris Quartet: Beautiful Existence (2004 , Clean Feed): Jim Hobbs is bound to turn some ears with his alto sax here, both with his punchy free runs and his deft support of the guitarist's tricky single-note lines. Bassist Timo Shanko and drummer Luther Gray also pitch in -- never before have I heard Morris so confident or his music fleshed out so completely. A-
Andrew Hill: Time Lines (2005 , Blue Note): Francis Davis wrote about this record in the Voice recently, which gives me an excuse for ducking it in JCG. I'm rather perplexed by it, at least in the sense that while I admire it quite a bit, I'm not all that happy with it. Hill cut his classic work for Blue Note back in the '60s, then wandered for a couple decades with scant output on small European labels, returned to Blue Note for two albums, wandered some more, recorded a couple of albums for Palmetto, and now is back home on Blue Note. As Davis notes, in all this time there's been very little change in Hill's work -- I'd add that in many ways this new record is perfectly typical of everything he's done over the last forty years. Like Monk, he writes mostly for horns, slipping in things you don't expect, but somehow they work anyway. Of course, he's subtler than Monk, but more importantly, he juggles more elements. His quintet here rolls along slightly out of whack yet remarkably together, and the feat is plenty impressive. But it also feels like it was just cut to order, and that's something I'm not so sure what to make of. B+(***)
James Carter/Cyrus Chestnut/Ali Jackson/Reginald Veal: Gold Sounds (2004 , Brown Brothers): Alan Suback writes: "This album sprang from one question: what album would we want to buy which doesn't exist?" In other words, the record was commissioned to support a promoter's concept that sounded good on paper. That concept is Pavement goes jazz, with James Carter ("simply John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler rolled into one") honking. Movies have been pitched with no more detailed fantasy, but not good ones. Same here. Pavement's music is skewed enough that it's going to take more than these mainstreamers to tease something out of it. Chestnut is a particularly uninspired choice, but even Carter misses more than he hits. Two cuts get something going -- "Stereo" and "Here" -- but most go nowhere, or worse: "Cut Your Hair" erupts into nonsense vocals, "Platform Blues" gives Carter a chance to wear out his contrabass sousaphone, and "Trigger Cut" leaves Chestnut home alone. B-
The Bad Plus: Suspicious Activity? (2005, Columbia): When Francis Davis proposed writing about this for the Voice last year, he said something about taking the opportunity to sort out his misgivings over the group. He wound up hanging this on his year-end list. I really dug their previous three albums, but didn't connect to this one at all. Finally figured out why: this is where Iverson finally got to turn the tables and go classical on his grunge-head trio mates -- if not quite Rachmaninoff, at least Uri Caine with extra muscle on bass and drums. Davis likes classical music. I don't. B
George Colligan Trio: Past-Present-Future (2003 , Criss Cross): This piano trio has a lot of kick to it. Mostly standards, mostly upbeat, quite a bit of fun. Wish I had a better handle on explaining it. I'm still more certain that I know a good piano trio when I hear one than that I know how to explain why it is so, except by resorting to crude physical metaphors. But then this is very physical. That fits in with the factoid that when Colligan produced pianist Kerry Politzer's record he wound up playing drums. B+(***)
Kevin Hays: Piano Works III: Open Range (2004 , ACT): First new album in a while for a New York pianist transplanted to New Mexico, taking the open spaces as a theme for a solo album with some samples and singing of sorts. The vocals at best add a homespun quaintness, but the slow-paced, meditative piano is quite charming. B+(*)
Saturday, March 11. 2006
One thing that I learned from Michael Schwartz's TomDispatch piece on Disintegrating Iraqi Sovereignty is that the Iraqi security forces -- army and police -- that are supposedly "standing up" are strictly controlled by the US military command. I should have suspected as much, but the sleight of hand that created Iraq's "sovereign" government led me to presume that that government would have at least nominal control over its security forces. Without any power to enforce its laws, the Iraqi government, and the democratic will that more/less legitimized it, is meaningless. But this bit of information helps make sense of lots of things, like why nobody much cares that the latest elected assembly has been unable to form a government for 86 days (and counting): if it doesn't matter, it can't be that urgent.
Of course, this information raises questions as well. One concerns the assassination squads, evidently made up of Iraqi security forces, that have been operating for some time now. Are these squads actually directed by US military, or tolerated, or what shade in between? The existence of such squads isn't a big surprise. The strategy has been much discussed as the "Salvador option," but the same concept goes back to Vietnam's Operation Phoenix. There are people in the military who still believe that had the US stuck with Phoenix and Vietnamization the Vietnam War could have been won. Such people have set themselves up for similar delusions regarding Iraq. Secret assassination programs are inherently sloppy. They depend on often faulty intelligence, so they often kill the wrong people. They are easily corrupted, as when someone slips in a personal vendetta, but also because they cannot be policed: because they are secret, they are in a continual state of denial and coverup. They can easily be spoofed, as when the Resistance dons their uniforms and adds to the killing. And since it's never fully clear who killed whom, blame eventually finds it way back to the one undoubted original cause: the Bush invasion.
The only doubt we can harbor about the assassination programs is that most members of the Iraqi security forces have loyalties other than to the US -- e.g., to the Peshmerga or the Badr Brigades. We also know that many in the Iraqi security forces are unwilling to engage in military operations against their own people -- to some extent the US has compensated for this by depending on Kurds and Shi'a for operations against Sunnis and Turkmen, much as the British used Sikhs against Hindus in India, and used Indians against Arabs in Iraq. The soundbite about American troops standing down as Iraqi troops stand up does not promise any change in policy: it's merely a question of establishing that "Iraqi face" Rumsfeld used to talk about; in other words, getting Iraqis to do our own dirty work. That they have little motivation to do so should bring US policies into question, but the Iraqi Legion's failures are usually cast as blights on their characters.
Schwartz's revelation calls into question an argument I have made several times: that the Iraqi government will before long come to its senses and tell the US to get out. Without having a security force loyal to the national government, such a government has little or no negotiating position viz. the resistance and the sectarian militias, let alone the US. So the elected assembly has been paralyzed on two counts: the two-thirds rule prevents the majority UIA from simply forming a government, giving the Shi'a a more/less legitimate base to negotiate from; and the threat of civil war, constantly stirred up both by the US directly and through its Iraqi proxies, keeps the elected assembly hostage, dependent on the US for any security at all. The US, meanwhile, is pushing for a "unity" government as the only alternative to the sectarian strife that lets the US cling to a faint hope of, as Bush put it, "complete victory."
It's never been all that clear what the US plan was for Iraq. Most likely there never really was one. Rather, there were a range of scenarios that somehow got evaluated as a win-win propositions. On the upside, had Iraq bent over and assumed the position of a faithful US puppet-ally, that would have been a bonanza for US and allied business interests salivating over all that oil. On the other hand, if Iraq fought back, we could show the world what US force is capable of, even if in the bitter end that meant the wholesale destruction of the country. That, too, could be seen as a win, although now that it's coming to pass it's not all so pretty at all. How far this process of destruction goes depends on how long the Bushist dead-enders hold out. What we've seen so far is that their determination -- their willingness to torture, to bomb, to terrorize, everything short of taking casualties -- has matched that of the resistance. The result is what's likely to eventually be recognized as the dirtiest, most deceitful war in American history.
There's a TV news feature where US military killed in Iraq are featured as "fallen heroes." Each one no doubt has his or her own unique story, and I don't mean to demean them -- for the most part, I figure them to be honest and earnest people who foolishly got caught up in Bush's cynical political ploy and unfortunately found themselves in the wrong spot at the wrong time. But America, and the world, lost a real hero when Tom Fox was killed in Iraq. He worked with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, trying to build bonds of peaceful resolution and cooperation despite the efforts of the US occupation. We don't know who fired the bullets or why, but we can be sure that the ultimate cause of his death, like the deaths and injuries of so many others, is on George W. Bush's hands.
In another news report today, Slobodan Milosevic was found dead in his cell in the Hague. Milosevic's political machinations, as cynical and as deadly as Bush's, tore Yugoslavia apart, killing vast numbers, and leaving the country deeply scarred today. His death isn't mourned. Indeed, it opens up a cell for Bush.