Thursday, June 29. 2006
Here's the key quote from Gary Kamiya's Salon review of Ron Suskind's The One Percent Solution, on the question of why Bush decided to invade Iraq:
That explanation relegates the decision to primal attitudes rather than rational interests. Sounds like the don't-spare-the-rod theory of raising children, which fits in nicely with all those training wheels metaphors -- but how many parents still follow that approach? Even so, the idea that whole nations are powerless children or dumb animals -- after all, that's where most behaviorist notions were developed -- is a grossly inappropriate analogy. Makes you wonder where they came up with such a theory. Oh yeah, Israel. The architects of Bush's GWOT aren't allies so much as unabashed admirers of Israel. Still makes you wonder why they think it works.
Wednesday, June 28. 2006
Israel didn't invent collective punishment. The Israelis learned most of the fundamentals, and inherited many of the legal tricks, from the British, who used it effectively against Palestinians in 1937, Iraqis in 1920, and Indians in 1857. The British learned it from the long history of warfare, but especially from the Romans, whose ancient empire held a warm spot in the British heart. Of course, the British could just have well cited the Mongols, who have recently been touted as models for American managers, but that never quite fit their self-image.
But the Israelis seem to have missed one subtle point in the British model: once you win, back off a bit. After the British crushed the 1937 revolt, they issued the famous White Paper which cut Jewish immigration to Palestine way back. In doing so, they conceded the main issue behind the revolt, all the while keeping their hands on the levers of power. The Israelis, by conceding nothing, keep having to fight the Palestinians again and again. You'd think they never learn, but obviously they love the fight too much. They've just launched another blitzkrieg into Gaza. The flimsy excuse is to rescue an Israeli soldier captured by a renegade Palestinian group and held hostage somewhere in the territory. The effect of their tanks and aircraft will be to damage much property and to kill or injure many people. Israel's justification for doing this is their belief in collective responsibility: any time any Palestinian attacks them, they feel justified in punishing any or all Palestinians.
A few years back there was a big uproar when some people asserted that Zionism was a form of racism. To parse this assertion you need to consider what it is that makes racism a problem. It's not simple existence of racial differences. (That such differences turn out to be a confused scientific problem does not matter here. Racists were happy to construct their theories on fantasy as on fact.) No, the big problem with racism is that it identifies arbitrary groups and justifies members of one such group in their discrimination against and domination over some other group or groups. In other words, the problem with racism is that it justifies collective punishment.
That the grouping methodology may be something other than race suggests that "racism" may not be the clearest, most comprehensive term to describe the phenomenon behind what's wrong with racism, but that's mere wordplay to evade the point. Racism leads to collective punishment. If Zionism also leads to collective punishment, then Zionism shares the most essential characteristic of racism. Maybe there are some Zionists who don't share this trait, and who don't support collective punishment of others, in which case it would be unfair to tar them with this brush. But based on what the Israel's current political leaders are doing in Gaza, you have to conclude that Israel is acting as a racist state. Or if you must quibble with words, pick another word that has the same function in this context as racist. (In my household the most popular such word is Nazi, but my wife is Jewish, so that's what pops into her mind first when she thinks of collective punishment.)
Israel's collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza is nothing new. It became everyday practice in 1967 when Israel set up its military occupation regime, but it effectively goes back to 1948: most people in Gaza are Palestinian exiles from Israeli territory or their descendents, so the first collective punishment was Israel's denial of their repatriation. The root, then as now, was the Zionist notion that Israel should be a Jewish State: collective punishment of the other is the flipside of collective promotion of one group. Israelis have rationalized this in many ways, but their only point has been to obscure the basic fact: the only thing that promoting one group at the expense of others ensures is constant struggle, for the other group has no options but to struggle or succumb. This is what Israel has done ever since 1948, and that is why Palestinians struggle. Blaming the Palestinians for this is dishonest: Israel's own actions suffice to cause this struggle.
The kidnapping of the Israeli soldier isn't collective punishment. It is, rather, collective punishment's poor cousin: an attack on a purely arbitrary representative of the other side. This is a consequence of the same grouping logic that Israel practices, but the scale is different, because the imbalance of power is extreme. If Palestinians had the same power Israelis have, they would be able to engage in precision bombing of targets within Israel, and they would be able to punish Israeli imprisonment of their soldiers by driving tanks into Israeli territory. Palestinian leaders would be able to enforce curfews and checkpoints in Israeli territory. They would be able to demolish houses. They would be able to prevent Israel from trading with other countries. But Palestinians have no such power. Without power, how can Palestinian leaders be responsible?
The kidnapping of that Israeli soldier is tragic, but it's not a cause for what Israel is doing. Even if Israel manages to save the soldier, they will wind up doing harm to many people who had nothing to do with the kidnapping -- whose only offense is the one thing they cannot change: that they're Palestinian. And Israel will have demonstrated to the world how brutal and how racist (or substitute your word) they are. The former will result in more struggle against them, regardless of how desperate or vain. The latter should result in universal opprobrium, but probably won't: if it did, it should have happened already, but Israel's leaders feel secure enough that they don't feel any need to worry about world opinion.
Still, why does Israel behave like this? The obvious answer is that they think they're winning, that it's only a matter of time before the Palestinians have to give up. Either the Palestinians fight or surrender. If they fight, they give Israel an excuse to crush them. If they don't, Israel has no need to recognize them. Winning matters to Israel because it saves them from looking back at what they've done and what they've become. But winning is a rut, one you're stuck in until that dread moment in the future when it ends. Losing WWII was the best thing that ever happened to Japan and Germany. Had they not lost they'd still be fighting. Having lost, they've prospered as normal nations, unable to do anything but get along with their neighbors. Losing Vietnam was the best thing for the US; otherwise we'd still be in the middle of that fight. Winning WWII set the US and the Soviet Union up to struggle further, bringing us all to the brink of catastrophe. And the US has been even more deranged ever since we thought we won that Cold War.
Israel won't change, and therefore won't free its people from the prison of racism (or whatever) and militarism, until it loses. Nothing the Palestinians can do can effect this change. The only hope is that world opinion, including American opinion, starts to recognize that Israel's perpetual collective punishment of the Palestinians is a real problem -- is nothing less than an attack on world civility. Then maybe Israel will realize that such acts have consequences for Israelis too. Then maybe Israel will change its behavior to lessen the struggle instead of intensifying it. Then maybe we can reach some compromise that lets all parties get on with their lives in peace.
So the only good that can possibly come out of Israel's latest escalation of their prickly little war with Occupied Palestine would be for world opinion to turn on them, to denounce them without equivocation for increasing the strife, to deny any of their excuses. Because what we know from long and painful experience is that collective punishment in any possible guise -- racism, colonialism, Nazism -- cannot be excused.
Tuesday, June 27. 2006
The Dias de los Muertos mural at 25th and Arkansas in Wichita KS has been completed. My sister, Kathy Hull, designed the mural and directed its painting, which involved doing an awful lot of it herself. It's on the side of a laundromat which previously had been tagged repeatedly with graffiti. The building owner will host a reception to officially unveil it this Friday, June 30, 7-9 pm. Here's a picture, cropped and scaled down, a little dark -- shot with shade cover, a little off-center.
Will try to get some better pictures. Meanwhile a larger image is here.
The evening news last night was dominated by the announcement that Warren Buffett would donate $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One newscaster was clearly flabbergasted, wondering whether viewers have any idea how much money that is. Well, sure, I do. That's what about four months worth of Bush war in Iraq costs, using cash accounting -- factor in asset losses and liabilities incurred and you probably couldn't get two months of war for it. Still, that comparison reflects more on Bush than on Buffett. But let's keep that contrast in mind. America's two richest guys, Buffett and Gates, have committed $60-plus billion to charity this year -- admittedly their charity, and admittedly I don't care for Gates at all -- at the same time Bush's crew are trying to kill off federal estate and gift taxes. Most of America's best-known foundations -- Rockefeller, Ford, Pew -- were established long ago, as tax dodges back when estate taxes had some teeth to them. Gates and Buffett don't need such shelters. They could just as well pass their fortunes on to untold generations of Richard Mellon Scaifes. But Buffett keeps arguing that inheritance is un-American -- that says something about Bush, doesn't it?
On the other hand, this movement of at least some of the ultra-rich toward charity -- Ted Turner and George Soros are two more names that come to mind -- dovetails nicely with the right-wing destruction of government-funded safety nets. One reason the Gates Foundation looms so large is that the US government itself has shrunk so small. Added bonus is that it argues that all that untaxed wealth shift to the rich just helps fund philanthropies. The problems with this should be obvious: concentrating wealth concentrates political power in private hands, free from democratic determination of public needs. Once in a rare while, that may result in something good -- such as the Rockefeller Foundation's work to control hookworm. But as policy it is an excuse for ignoring problems, for doing nothing, in large part because it abdicates responsibility. Private investors do well at scratching their own itches, but counting on them to take care of others has never worked out. The rich got that way by working to their own benefit, and few feel any obligation to pay anything back.
The campaign against estate taxes (the "death tax") has succeeded largely because few people seem to understand what's at stake. It has little if anything to do with balancing the budget, or even with how reducing estate taxes favors the rich. The core issue is whether the rich should have to earn their wealth. In other words, it's whether the rich in any way deserve their wealth. Clearly, different people produce different amounts, and most produce more when fortune favors it, so the variation in labor productivity is one source of inequal wealth. Within some limits, this seems fair and just: if you want more, produce more. But inheritance works against the value of labor by providing an unearned path to wealth. There's no real way to keep children from being favored by their parents, but establishing a high estate tax starts to establish the principle: that everyone should have the same opportunities, that labor matters, that we recognize that inheritance-driven aristocracy is inherently corrupt and unjust. Bush is just one of many examples.
Monday, June 26. 2006
I've filed blog pieces every day for at least two weeks. I suspect that's one reason why I neither got enough prospecting done this week to keep up nor, perhaps more importantly, never got back to the replay queue. As the week closed I needed to switch gears and work on the July Recycled Goods column. Still have several more days to work on that, and I usually try to sustain my momentum to get a leg up on the following month. So I don't expect much prospecting next week. But by the following week I'll be trying to close this column out. Still not real clear how it shapes up.
Maurice El Médioni Meets Roberto Rodriguez: Descarga Oriental: The New York Sessions (2005 , Piranha): Superficially, this is Cuban music sung in French and maybe a little Arabic, the meeting of an Algerian pianist (Jewish, based in France, a figure of some importance in the development of raï) and a Cuban percussionist (Judeophile, passed through Miami to New York, where he records for Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series). El Médioni traces his family tree back to al-Andalus, where Jews and Arabs created Spanish music, roots that not even Torquemada could stamp out. That Arab-Sephardic music lay at the base of Cuban music, augmented by much from Africa, waiting to be unpacked in meetings such as this inspired jam session. A-
Ab Baars Quartet: Kinda Dukish (2005, Wig): The idea here is to take Ellington songs and rough them up, unhinge them, turn them into free-ish improvs. "Caravan" becomes "Kinda Caravan"; "Jack the Bear" becomes "Kinda Jack." Baars, a mainstay of the Dutch avant-garde, plays clarinet and tenor sax. The others play trombone, bass and drums. First impression is that it's too ragged to be real, but then it's not the sort of thing you'd expect to reveal itself all at once. [B+(*)]
Available Jelly: Bilbao Song (2004 , Ramboy): This is at least the fifth album since 1984 for this group. Michael Moore is the constant and mainstay, with cornetist Eric Boeren also contributing songs. The group's signature is many horns playing in free orbits. Four is the number this time, with Toby Delius joining Moore on various saxes and clarinest while Wolter Wierbos adds his trombone to Boeren's cornet. Frequent Moore collaborators Ernst Glerum and Michael Vatcher fill out the group, on bass and drums respectively. Too much going on here for me to get good focus on it yet, but I especially like the parts where the rhythm coheres, and the feature for Wierbos. [B+(**)]
Michael Moore Quintet: Osiris (2005 , Ramboy): Only one previous Moore Quintet album in the catalog, cut in 1988 with a crew of Americans who read like an all-star team right now (Robertson, Hersch, Helias, Hemingway). This has the same instrument lineup, but mostly Dutch musicians -- trumpeter Eric Vloeimans is the best known, followed by pianist Marc van Roon. The lineup suggests hard bop, but this plays more like chamber music, mostly soft and silky. Not sure what to make of it. [B]
Pete Malinverni: Joyful! (2005 , ArtistShare): A gospel album, built around the pianist's quintet with Steve Wilson and Joe Magnarelli doing notable work on alto sax and trumpet, but dominated by a full-blown choir, the Devoe Street Baptist Church Choir, and narrated by the Reverend Frederick C. Ernette, Sr. As long as it stays traditional its joy packs a punch, but when the words stray from the old themes, you start to wonder. Or I do, anyway. Like is it true that Christians have gotten so much dumber even in my own lifetime? Or is it just that what used to be personal faith has become a social and political plague? Hard to see the joy in all that. B
Buck Hill: Relax (2006, Severn): Haven't heard from the longtime DC mailman for a while -- he recorded for Steeplechase from 1978-83 and later for Muse from 1989-92, but only has a 2000 live album since then. Pushing 80, he's still sounding pretty good: a broad tone on tenor sax, a fondness for blues licks, a typical soul jazz backup group with organ and guitar. Nothing anyway near remarkable here, but it welcomes us back home. B+(**)
Chris Cheek: Blues Cruise (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Most of the new talent debuts on Jordi Pujol's showcase label move on to other venues -- like Brad Mehldau, who returns with his piano trio here -- or they fade back into obscurity. Saxophonist Cheek has hung on for six albums now. (His website claims four -- he omits two live albums co-credited to Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Jorge Rossy, but normally filed under his first-appearing name.) The new one is so relaxed he might have forgotten it too. But the group works at a high level of professionalism, and the results are unfailingly pleasant, maybe better. I guess if you're on a cruise, the last thing you want is for someone to rock the boat. [B+(**)]
Klemens Marktl: Ocean Avenue (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Young drummer from Austria. Followed his studies from there to Holland and New York. His resume cites a long list of drummers he's studied under, headed by Lewis Nash -- a mainstream master who rarely stands out but invariably makes whoever he's playing with sound better. Marktl doesn't stand out either, but he's got a good pianist here in Aaron Goldberg and he's got Chris Cheek on his various saxes, and they work together to create a seamless piece of postmodern cool. B+(**)
Samo Salamon Quartet: Two Hours (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): The leader is a young guitarist from Slovenia, who worked his way through Austria to New York where he moved in with John Scofield. Doesn't sound much like Scofield, nor like Bill Frisell -- to whom he dedicates a tune -- nor to anyone else I can think of. But then I'm having some trouble hearing him around the other three-quarters of his quartet. That's because they're, well, it should suffice just to list them: Tony Malaby, Mark Helias, Tom Rainey. Awesome was the word I was fumbling with, but I need to sort this out further before I go that far. [B+(***)]
Ramón Díaz: Diàleg (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): When I see a sax-trumpet-piano-bass-drums quintet, I figure it's either a throwback to the classic hard bop lineup of 1955-65 or some slick postmodernist with a bag of advanced harmonic ideas up his sleeve. This one is neither, exactly. Unlike the harmonists, the instruments are separated out, each to its own calling -- for the piano that means slipping in a little Horace Silver or Bobby Timmons boogie and blues. But it's not stuck in a time warp either: less a throwback than a straightforward evolution forward. Never heard of any of these guys, but everyone pulls their own. Led by the drummer: guess we should call him the Art Blakey of the Canary Islands. A-
Junk Box: Fragment (2004 , Libra): Another Satoko Fujii album -- she's working at a rate that rivals Vandermark or Braxton back in the '70s. This one is a trio with sidekick Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and John Hollenbeck on drums, but the pianist wrote all the pieces. Most are pounded out in thick chords, with trumpet for tension and growl -- the drummer is there mainly for accents. Nothing lets up even when they slow down. [B+(***)]
NOW Orchestra & Marilyn Crispell: Pola (2004 , Victo): NOW stands for New Orchestra Workshop, not that that helps much. Based in Vancouver under baritone saxophonist Coat Cooke's artistic direction, they've been around in some form or other since 1987 (or maybe 1977). With 14 musicians, including a vocalist used mostly for sound, they're a large, potentially ungainly, group, but I'm more struck by how they pull together. Their recordings seem to be tied to guest opportunities -- Barry Guy, René Lussier, George Lewis -- and Crispell fills that role here. In fact, she's worth concentrating on. Especially if you thought her ECM albums have been a bit tame lately, she gets plenty rough here. [B+(***)]
Oliver Lake/Reggie Workman/Andrew Cyrille: Trio 3: Time Being (2005 , Intakt): Another album cover parsing problem: is Trio 3 the group name, or part of the title, or just some flotsam collecting on the spine? The musicians' names appear as well: they're recognizable as individuals and self-explanatory in combination. First impression is: pretty much what you'd expect. If Lake doesn't overwhelm, that's because the others are constantly on his case. [B+(***)]
Pierre Favre/Yang Jing: Two in One (2005 , Intakt): Yang Jing plays pipa, a Chinese lute-type instrument with four strings. She was a soloist in the Chinese National Orchestra for twelve years -- no doubt she knows her stuff, but I'm having some trouble following it. Favre is a veteran drummer, adept in avant-garde contexts but also a long-time dabbler in exotica. His contribution is less clear here. I suspect that this will wind up in the category of sound environments, but it's probably worth a closer listen. [B]
Harry Miller's Isipingo: Which Way Now (1975 , Cuneiform): A South African bassist who moved to England in the early '60s, Miller was the glue that held together an unusual juncture of English avant-gardists and South African exiles. Here the former are Keith Tippett, Mike Osborne and Nick Evans, while Mongezi Feza and Louis Moholo fill out the band. In other groups, the range expands to Elton Dean on one end and Dudu Pukwana on the other -- Miller plays on the latter's In the Townships, the quintessential township jazz album. Despite founding Ogun Records, very little of Miller's own work came out before he died in 1983. A couple years ago Cuneiform delved into this circle and recovered some old radio tapes of Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, where township jive and avant-thrash seemed to be locked in a death struggle. In this group they tend to cancel each other out, resulting in a surprisingly mainstream flow. Still, it has much of interest -- especially Tippett's piano and Feza's trumpet. [B+(***)]
The Ed Palermo Big Band: Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance (2006, Cuneiform): I put this on without looking at who, what, when or how -- just figured the day was about done, so I'd get a taste of it before I went to bed and play it again in the morning. Loud and brassy at first, then it gets stranger, then I notice rockish guitar, then some guy comes on and sings absolute crap. Impatiently waiting for it to end, and no it don't get no second chance in the morning -- no telling how low the grade can really go, I'll just take a guess and be done with it. Record's over, so I pick it up and proceed with my paperwork. Turns out there's a simple reason why it's so awful: all compositions by Frank Zappa. So it's not just crap; it's secondhand crap. C-
Soft Machine: Grides (1970-71 , Cuneiform, CD+DVD): Back in the '70s I had most of Soft Machine's studio albums, but I don't recall them very well. First one (or maybe two) was led by Kevin Ayers, so they were mostly short, amusing songs, things like "Joy of a Toy" and "Plus Belle Qu'une Poubelle." Third was a double-LP with Ayers gone and the four remaining musicians each doing one side-long song, but the only side I ever played much was Robert Wyatt's spacey, loopy "The Moon in June." The remaining albums, Fourth through Seven, have become a blur -- all I recall is noodling synth pop instrumentals, sublimation into the machine. Somewhere along that series drummer-vocalist Wyatt fell out a window and was paralyzed from the waist down. He bounced back with a cover of "I'm a Believer" and followed it up with a couple of brilliant albums -- Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard is one of my all-time favorites; also notable are his vocals on Michael Mantler's The Hapless Child and Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports (actually an undercover Carla Bley album) -- and many more idiosyncratic ones. Saxophonist Elton Dean went on to establish a reputation in avant-garde jazz before he died last year -- have only heard a couple of his records, so he remains a project. Don't know what happened to Hugh Hopper or Mike Ratledge -- presumably the main guys behind the blur. The band broke up in 1976. Recently, quite a few of their live tapes have appeared, but this Amsterdam concert is the only one I've heard. It was recorded in 1970, which locates it between Third and Fourth. It remains predictably rockish, especially in Wyatt's drumming, but also in the keyboards and bass. Still, Ratledge manages to vary the keyboards enough to keep interest as well as momentum, and thereby provides a dandy springboard for Dean to break loose, which he does, raising the temperature throughout the show. Package also includes a DVD, which I haven't seen yet, or maybe ever. Priced extra for it too, which is a shame. Wonder what else I've missed. A-
Mujician: There's No Going Back Now (2005 , Cuneiform): This group dates back to 1988, with seven albums now. Pianist Keith Tippett and saxophonist Paul Dunmall are prolific in their own rights, especially Dunmall. Paul Rogers plays a 7-string bass that looks like a monstrous lute. Tony Levin is the drummer. There's one piece here, long, untitled, evidently made up on the spot. Strikes me as underrecorded and/or underdeveloped -- fades out in at least one moment that strikes me as indecision -- but parts are interesting enough to demand further play. [B+(*)]
Marc Cary: Focus (2006, Motema Music): When I looked at Cary's website, the emphasis was on his Fender Rhodes work and the music playing was a cut above the usual smooth jazz jive. Digging around I found out that he has a couple of groups called Rhodes Ahead and Indigenous People -- his heritage is part Native American -- and that he produces dance music under the name Marco Polo. But this is an acoustic piano trio, not far out of the postbop mainstream, except it's faster and louder than usual, and drummer Sameer Gupta works in a little tabla. Also found out he worked his way through Betty Carter's boot camp. Also his side credits include two albums for Abraham Burton that blew me away. Still open on this one. [B+(**)]
Larry Vuckovich Trio: Street Scene (2005 , Tetrachord): Pianist, born Yugoslavia 1936, moved to US in 1951, settled in San Francisco, studied under Vince Guaraldi, worked for Cal Tjader, spent a good deal of time as the house pianist at the Keystone Korner, worked in New York for much of the '90s, is now back in California. I know all those things because the guy wouldn't try to bullshit anyone. His motto is "straight ahead," and that's how he plays it. This sounds like a piano trio ought to sound like: the slow ones articulate, the fast ones swing, a hint of blues when called for. He does cheat a bit by bringing in Hector Lugo's congas for extra percussion on four numbers, but they slip by without incident. Doesn't do any of the Balkan folk stuff he's most famous for. B+(***)
Susi Hyldgaard: Blush (2004 , Enja/Justin Time): Danish singer with four albums. Sings in English. Has no jazz moves that I can recognize, nor any rock moves, so this album feels rather sedentary. She plays piano. Some cuts have bass and drums; others strings and/or vocal backup. Two cuts are remixes. The beats on the last one help. C+
Ray Barretto: Standards Rican-ditioned (2005 , Zoho): According to the notes, all but one track had been completed before Barretto died in January. That track has a scat vocal marking where he intended to add a congo solo, as well as some overdubbed conga by his son Chris. It feels more unfinished than that, but I have no real sense of Barretto's career work -- no doubt a major shortfall in my own learning. The pianist-arranger I know somewhat better, and it turns out that he too has passed from the scene: so this may serve as a double remembrance. Hilton Ruiz is the steady center here. Maybe too steady, but it wasn't meant to be his show. B+(*)
Harri Stojka: A Tribute to Gypsy Swing (2004 , Zoho): A set of fast-paced guitar-heavy instrumentals, more gypsy than swing, but "Swanee River" is neither. Occasional references to Django Reinhardt and four cuts with violin don't make this the Hot Club, even out here in Cowtown. B-
Carla White: A Voice in the Night (2005 , Bright Moon): Singer. Been around a while, with eight albums going back to 1983. Open, breathy, straightforward voice; not all that jazzy, but she sings with authority, maintaining her presence on the slow ones. Has a complimentary set of musicians here, with John Hart's guitar and Claudio Roditi's trumpet and flugelhorn always welcome. B+(**)
Sunday, June 25. 2006
A while back I had the idea of doing a blog entry on books I had no intention of ever reading. There are many categories of such books: books by morons and/or well-meaning fools; books that pimp nonsense; books on topics that strike me as unimportant -- terrorist threats and motives are a prime example; books that seem unlikely to add much to what I already know; first-person books by figure more likely to cover up than reveal -- I would like to know what Paul Bremer was thinking, but not enough to try reconstructing it from his own memoir; popularizations and trivializations. There are also issues of priority: I'm a slow reader and have trouble finding the time, so I need to pick and choose. I also prefer paperbacks to hardcovers -- cost, of course, but also convenience and storage -- so postponed is an option. Tony Judt's Postwar is one I want to read but can wait a few months on. George Packer's The Assassins' Gate has slipped into that category, although it started out in the morons and fools class.
I hadn't put Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts on the "no read" list, although he has serious conceptual and analytic problems, and his topic -- travels with America's imperial foot soldiers -- is certain to bring out the worst in him. But I have read all of his previous books, except for the recent and paperback-postponed Mediterranean Winter (now out but not yet purchased), and generally found him useful. My take on him is that he provides a useful set of eyes on the ground in places rarely reported, has skill at distilling relevant history, and is quite readable. On the other hand, his attraction to war and empire is dangerous: whenever he breaks out of his narrative with a line about "that got me to thinking" you know he's gonna take a dump. His short essay books, The Coming Anarchy and Warrior Politics, are primarily in that mode. The other books I like least are the ones where is he is most intimately involved with soldiers: Soldiers of God, his Valentine to the Afghan mujahideen, and Surrender or Starve, his cri de coeur for US intervention in Ethiopia. Chances are that Imperial Grunts combines the worst of both, but even so it is no doubt well written and likely to shed light on a subject I don't know much about, nor much care for: the military mind.
However, I've deprioritized Kaplan's book a bit further after reading Tom Bissell's long, furious assault not just on Imperial Grunts but on the entire Kaplan oeuvre. To be fair, there is something personal about this spat. Bissell wrote Chasing the Sea, a book about his travels in Uzbekistan, so he has some firsthand basis for checking on Kaplan's travels and history. But he also has added incentive: the Publishers Weekly review of his book starts by rolling Bissell and Kaplan into the same bag: "The format of the ensuing travelogue-cum-history lesson resembles that of itinerant political commentators like Robert Kaplan, right down to the repulsively exotic cuisine (e.g., boiled lamb's head) and digressionary mini-essays on the history of European imperialism in Central Asia." But while some of what Bissell says is specious -- e.g., nitpicking complaints about Kaplan's writing style -- he does land a few punches. I don't dislike An Empire Wilderness as much as Bissell does -- it's certainly not "even worse" than Warrior Politics, because at least he travels and sees and describes real things there instead of merely contemplating the metaphysics of world salvation through world war. And I dislike the early journalism far more -- Bissell, perhaps due to his own expertise in the wreckage of the Soviet empire, seems to go along with anti-communist dogma too readily. But his examples of Kaplan's casual, everyday bigotry are on the mark. Also important is how Bissell draws out the contradictions between Kaplan's class bitterness and current exalted status as neocon policy wonk. No doubt he's also right about Kaplan's abuse of literature, but that's something I've always been able to skip over.
Lots of good lines in this long piece, but the following quote stands out:
One more quote that needs to be saved here is the leader from George F. Kennan's Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, originally published in 1961, and damned prophetic:
It should be noted that Kennan's comment is not just prescient observation. It's also painfully learned experience. Kennan more than anyone else was the founder of the anti-Soviet propaganda that drove the Cold War to the brink of global destruction. That wasn't exactly what he had in mind, but that can be what happens when one writes to flatter rather than to oppose power. Kaplan's limited value was as an outsider, a free agent on the fringes of the world. But his fault is that he reveres power, and the closer he gets to it the more dangerous he becomes. Still, I've always wondered whether he really was a free agent. Born in the US, he migrated to Israel to serve in the IDF. His relationship with the US military goes back at last as far as An Empire Wilderness, which starts with him consulting at Ft. Leavenworth. In another book he drops by an old friend's house in Pakistan: Hamid Karzai. Even as a free agent he keeps suspicious company.
Saturday, June 24. 2006
This item from the Wichita Eagle's page one non-news section caught me a bit by surprise. It's by Ely Portillo, called "Why are we losing friends?":
Further down they speculated a bit on reasons:
This trend has been going on all my life. It's easy to think back to the '50s and '60s when people actually worried about this -- you don't hear much about alienation any more, but it was so much on the mind that existentialism was invented to salve it. The arch trends all date back to the '50s: the move to the suburbs, the envelopment of passive entertainment, the time demands of careerism. More recent is the notion of Quality Time, another time encroachment that has come about as parenting has been shaped by the career ethic. Another factor is fear: the threat of nuclear destruction dates back to the '50s, but everyday fear of your neighbors has built up slowly over time. (The current obsession with tracking "sex offenders" is a good example.) But then fear may also be a consequence of having fewer friends: as you lose the knack of making friends the rest of the world becomes unapproachable.
The consequences of this for politics are almost too obvious to point out. The more isolated and self-contained people's lives are, the less appreciation people have for others not like them. Passive intake of news and information leaves you vulnerable to manipulation -- especially the sort of manipulation that's become the stock and trade of the new right in America. Most of this nonsense would fall apart at the first dissent, but if you avoid anyone who might think differently, you can wind up convincing yourself of any fool thing.
Aside from the politics, this isn't all for the worse. It is much easier nowadays to sustain long-distance or virtual friendships. Personal support networks seem to be less critical as long as there are public resources -- government, other charities, businesses if you can afford them -- that pick up the slack. (Of course, politics hurt here, especially the Right's preference that one have to look to the churches for relief.) Greater mobility makes it possible to meet more people, so those who take advantage can experience a much greater diversity of people. Such relationships are more superficial than friendships, but they may satisfy the same needs.
The trick to progress is to recognize the costs as well as the benefits, and find the proper balance. This scarcity of friends indicates that we haven't yet found ways to balance its underlying trends. The sour politics of the new right is likely to make this worse, but it's less a cause than, more ominously, a consequence.
Friday, June 23. 2006
One reason we're always stuck in a hopeless, hapless mess in foreign policy is that the people the Democrats hire to staff those positions are for all intents and purposes the same pinheaded warrior wannabes as the ones the Republicans hire. Until today, the prime example was Clinton's first CIA Director was James Woolsey -- not that his second one, George Tenet, was much of an improvement. But now Woolsey has been bumped aside by former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry. What moved Perry to the top of the heap was an op-ed piece Perry and Ashton Carter, a Clinton DOD Undersecretary, wrote urging Bush to preemptively fire cruise missiles at North Korea's missile test site.
Now, generally speaking, when you fire cruise missiles into a country, that's what we call an act of war. That's what Bush did on the eve of invading Iraq. Admittedly, the US has fired cruise missiles at a few other countries without actually invading them, but they were countries like the Sudan that didn't have any real defense posture, let alone the ability to strike back. North Korea has some pretty serious missiles, even discounting this untested one, and probably has a few fission bombs. But even before all that, North Korea had a pretty daunting deterrent to our attacking them: they have thousands of pieces of heavy artillery aimed at South Korea, giving them almost instant ability to devastate Seoul, a city of more than five million. They've had this capability for quite some time. They haven't used it, or threatened to use it, except defensively in response to US attack. It may be, as Perry and Carter argue, that they would not use it even if the US blows up their test missile site. But doing so would be a provocation far in excess of anything the US has done to North Korea in more than fifty years. Perry and Carter would take us into totally unchartered territory.
This whole argument is fraught with contradictions. Perry and Carter are arguing that Kim Jong Il is crazy enough to attack the US with nuclear weapons, but sane enough not to respond to the US attacking his territory, destroying his technology, and killing his people. So he would attack us without provocation but won't hit back if we attack him first? Perry and Carter depend on Kim understanding a whole set of special factors: that the US attack would be limited, that South Korea and Japan -- the nations the US is ostensibly in the region to protect -- should not be held responsible, etc. They say, "Though war is unlikely, it would be prudent for the United States to enhance deterrence by introducing US air and naval forces into the region at the same time it made its threat to strike the Taepodong [missile]." They don't consider what happens to North Korea's deterrence if they let the US get away with such a strike.
One skill that Americans in or near power seem to have lost, if indeed they ever had, is the ability to imagine what other people think. In Vienna just this week Bush snapped "that's absurd" when asked about a poll of Europeans that found many consider the US a threat to global stability. But Bush's threats against North Korea are only slightly more subtle than what Perry and Carter argue for. Does anybody wonder what this must look like to folks in Pyongyang? They fought a war with the US which ground to a bloody stalemate over fifty years ago. Eisenhower finally accepted that stalemate, but the US never got over the affront. We've kept troops on their border, and kept them locked down as much as possible, isolated from the rest of the world, unable to trade, often on the brink of starvation. Fifty years, and they still haven't buckled. Instead, they dug in, paranoid, fearing the day when America resumes the war. They haven't exactly helped themselves with their own embittered aggressiveness. But America's default Korea policy has been locked into autopilot. They've learned that the only way to even get our attention is to rattle our cage, which nowadays -- look who's the paranoid one now! -- can be dangerous.
Bush's position is that he refuses direct talks -- he insists on a "six power" charade where he can tell China to tell North Korea to dissolve itself and all China can do is shrug. Even Churchill knew that there were worse things than "jaw jaw," but Bush seems to be incapable of conceiving that North Korea represents actual human beings. This inability to face them is only the first obstacle on the way to defusing this problem. James Carroll is fond of quoting Henry L. Stimson, the US Secretary of War both under Wilson and Roosevelt: "The chief lesson I've learned in a long life is that the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him." Unlike Perry and Carter, I don't think Bush wants to take on this fight at this time. But as long as he's unwilling to start defusing the tinderbox the nuts will keep pushing their reckless arguments.
Of course, another possibility is that Perry and Carter are just running a bluff in collusion with the administration. You can think of this as bad cop/good cop, i.e. an attempt to make Bush seem to be reasonable. Or maybe it's a variant on Nixon's madman ploy, when he scrambled America's nuclear bomber fleet to try to put pressure on North Vietnam at some point in the Paris negotiations. Like the Nixon incident, this is a case where we are the ones acting crazy, and peace appears to depend on the relative sanity of the Communists. It's a ploy that isn't embarrassing only because we've totally lost the capacity to look at ourselves as others see us.
On the other hand, this just underscores that the Democrats' reliance on establishment wonks like Perry and Carter, Woolsey, and don't forget Madeleine (I wouldn't have been so stupid as to invade Iraq, but now that we're there we can't afford to look like we're losing) Albright and Dennis Ross and even Zbigniew Brzezinski (who must be slipping because he's starting to make sense), means that there has been no serious debate on US foreign policy since Henry Wallace got run out of Truman's cabinet. With two war parties in a two-party system, it's no wonder we have no peace.
Gavan McCormack's Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe (2004, Nation Books) provides a useful, clear-eyed review of the relevant history up to the early "six power" talks. The question of perspectives is addressed in this quote [pp. 159-160]:
Lots more background in that book, including a pretty harrowing portrait of life in North Korea. It seems obvious that the way out for the Korean people is through reconciliation and eventual reunion with South Korea. There is political will to do that in South Korea, but the US and Japan seem to prefer keeping the hostility and threat level simmering. One should give some thought to the fact that the only remaining Communist states are the ones the US has fought wars against: North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and China (which fought us in Korea, although we've cut them a lot more slack, especially now that they're bankrolling Bush's national debt). The persistence of US antipathy towards North Korea indicates that we've never stopped fighting the Cold War, even fifteen years after the Russians gave up and got on with their lives. Indeed, just this week, Bush made a trip to Hungary to gloat about how America stood up to the Soviet threat. (The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Hungary's revolt, which as all Hungarians know the US sensibly sidestepped, allowing the Soviets to crush the opposition.) But then the Cold War wasn't just about Soviet expansionism; it was perhaps more importantly about the class struggle. The Soviets are no longer of interest, but class war is still very much alive in the Bush administration. It's the one they think they're winning.
Another source on the current Korea situation is Robert Koehler's blog, The Marmot's Hole. He follows the South Korean press, and has a number of interesting posts on this. He figures that North Korea is indeed unlikely to start a doomsday war over an attack on their missile, but that such an attack would play very badly in South Korea -- it would make clear how cavalierly we'd be willing to risk their lives for a tiny boost to our own imagined security.
Thursday, June 22. 2006
Sudden attack of actual news on page 3A of the Wichita Eagle today. The big article was by Nancy A. Youssef, called "Recording the dead":
One question this raises is whether casualties from US air strikes are counted yet, and if so what the trend is there. Most reports are that air strikes have escalated. Counting itself is significant; if you don't bother to count, you're basically giving a green light to the soldiers to do whatever they feel like. Also looks like they've started to go beyond counting and actually investigate when and how and why US soldiers kill civilians. This is still likely to be too little, too late: from a PR standpoint, the counts and their details are a lose-lose proposition. But this does show that the military brass in the field are trying to get a handle on what they're doing and what effect they're having.
Above that, the story was "U.S. removing equipment from Iraq":
In other words, the military is working towards extricating itself from Iraq even while the politicians insist on Staying the Course. One can argue that a smaller US footprint will be better for security, and Chiarelli's data should support that position.
The big story at the bottom of the page is titled "Bush defends policies to European critics," but the picture here speaks louder: a mass of protestors with four clearly legible signs in the foreground with Bush's picture and the words "WORLD'S #1 TERRORIST."
And then there were small stories around the edge of the page:
The minimum wage vote was 52-46 in favor of a higher minimum wage, but that wasn't enough to overcome the Republican fillibuster. Guess the days when Republicans stood for up-and-down votes are over.
Wednesday, June 21. 2006
Another day in Iraq brought more killings, including one of Saddam Hussein's lawyers, more kidnappings, and more Americans charged with murder. Those stories at least made the TV news. Of evident less interest were a suicide bomber in Basra, US airstrikes in Baqubah that killed 13, and "16 corpses in various parts of Iraq." Another day.
Back in Congress Democrats divided over redeployment amendments while the Republicans clung firm to their clichés. It continues to dismay me that people whose business is debate can't seem to get their minds around the core concepts here. Stay what course? Where does that course go? Victory? Can you be a little more specific? The Democrats need to be attacking the goals of the war, but they can't do that because they've never been stated, and they've never bothered to ask. Only once you know what they're selling can you start a meaningful discussion of whether the price is worth paying. Or whether the product is even attainable.
Still, what's most disturbing about the debate there isn't that the Democrats are too confused or cowardly to challenge the war. It's that the right is already setting antiwar critics up for the fall when the war fails. It's like they know they lost this one, but want to make sure nobody learns any lessons from their failure. In this, as in the war itself, they're rerunning playbook from Vietnam. It's sad to think we're going to have to go through all this time and again just because nobody can see that empire works against the interests of most Americans.
Still, confusion is rampant. Robert Dreyfus wrote a weird piece called "Permanent War?" at TomDispatch, where he's changed his mind and decided that the US can persevere in Iraq. This assumes three things: that the US can continue to afford running 50-100k troops there indefinitely; that US political opinion will tolerate this; and that the Iraqi government will tolerate this. Each is a pretty iffy proposition, and loss of any of the three would end the game. He argues that we should go back to arguing the basic criminality of the war, instead of betting on its failure. But it looks to me like failure isn't a future proposition -- the war has already failed in so many ways that its future prospects for turning even worse are almost beside the point.
The real question looking ahead is whether we'll learn anything from this folly. The fundamental nature of our political system suggests not: the pro-war party will survive this war and agitate for its return to power, while the antiwar movement always seems to appear too late and amount to too little. War is an interest group; peace is just something we enjoy when we can. The confusion that the Democrats have is rooted in their well-conditioned nose for servicing interest groups. This leads them to want to isolate the fiasco in Iraq from their abiding enthusiasm for a smarter War on Terror and their blind allegiance to Israel. Until they see how the three are linked, parts of a cluster of other interests that ultimately do them more harm than good, they won't be able to find their way out.
Tuesday, June 20. 2006
Three small points about Iraq before something else happens there:
Here's a project for someone: go back through all the predictions people made about Iraq, Afghanistan, the whole War on Terrorism, and see how they stack up against the actual history. You could throw in Israel as well. I recall Dennis Ross talking about how Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza would be a step for peace, at the same time I was predicting that it was just being done to open up a clear line of fire. Who called that one?
I wrote a little bit about Andrew O'Hehir's Salon review of Peter Beinart's The Good Fight recently, but wasn't able to work in what I found to be the most interesting bit of the review:
As one who opposed the US war in Afghanistan, and for that matter any sort of extralegal -- an evasive euphemism for illegal -- pursuit of Al Qaeda, I'm so used to being on the short side of the polling stick there that I hadn't noticed such a change of opinion. In fact, my own position has moderated to the point where I don't care much one way or another whether or when the US pulls out of Afghanistan. It's not that I've changed my mind, or that I see the US presence as in any way benign. It's just that as problems go, this one has been overwhelmed by the one it led to: Iraq.
It is certainly a healthy sign when rank and file Democrats come to the realization that the War on Terror isn't a fight that works for them in any way. It is a cover for many things -- not least a class war at home. It's a misdirection scam: first they get you to look in the distance, then they pick your pocket. If you complain, they try to guilt trip you for not caring about women and children on the far side of the world. Eventually you realize you've been had. Why should you feel bad about women and children in Afghanistan when they could care less about women and children here? Moreover, it's not like what they're doing in your name over there actually does any good. But you don't notice this sort of opinion shift because it's not the sort of thing people talk about. You talk about things you want to do, things you care about. Nobody makes a point of talking about, well, I think I'll just get back to my own life now.
Ahmed Rashid wrote a recent piece in The New York Review of Books on the state of Afghanistan. Although there are positive stories here and there, the bottom line is that reconstruction hasn't and security isn't and neither seems likely to change any way but for the worse. The Karzai government controls most of Kabul, but little beyond; warlords operate with impunity throughout most of the country; the Taliban controls all but the cities in the south and much of the Pakistani border; the only real economy is based on opium. The US has just started a new offensive to retake the southern provinces -- an admission that they failed to hold them the last time they took them. This time isn't likely to work any better than last time: the US forces are still much better at making enemies than vanquishing them, let alone winning them over. More ominously, the Taliban backs into havens in Pakistan, where they are too popularly ensconced to be attacked -- even by Pakistan's central government. This reminds us that the nightmare scenario wasn't just that Bush would get so cocky over Afghanistan that he'd invade Iraq; bad as that proved to be, the real nightmare is that fighting the Taliban might push their ISI allies into seizing power in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Rashid attributes much of the US failure to the US moving on to Iraq -- a position that most Democrat wonks agree with. Iraq undercut the effort in Afghanistan by drawing resources and focus away -- also by setting a model that inspires and informs the Afghan resistance. Still, Afghanistan would have been a tough project in any case. We know very little about how to build robust economies and successful civil societies in the underdeveloped world -- not that it's clear that we've tried very hard. Bush's own disinterest in the subject was made clear when he decried "nation building" when he ran for office -- that he's engaged in it at all is only because he found it useful for propaganda and cronyism. You can't point to any cases where he's actually achieved much -- even in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. But Afghanistan's problems run far deeper.
Thirty years ago, when the King was first deposed, Afghanistan was one of the poorest, most backward countries on the face of the earth. A series of coups led to establishment of a weak Communist government, which caught the attention of the US security cabal, spoiling for a revenge match against the Soviet Union. After the US started supplying arms to anti-Communist Mujahedin, the Soviets sent troops in to shore up the Kabul government. This led to greater resistance and a massive escalation in arms shipped by the US via Pakistan. The result was 22 years of internecine civil war, killing hundreds of thousands, driving millions out of their homes. The Taliban -- the word means students -- were mostly children who grew up under this civil war, who learned nothing but a few slogans from the Koran and how to kill their supposed enemies. The US never cared one whit about Afghanistan. All we wanted was to humiliate the Soviets, so once they withdrew, we withdrew, leaving nothing but ruins and scars in our wake. This was the wound that nurtured Al Qaeda, and 9/11 was our partial payback for what we had done there.
Of course, that's not the only payback we've gotten. We've also seen one armed intervention after another go sour. The idea that we're spreading freedom or democracy or prosperity or fairness or rights or anything positive is sorely lacking for examples. All evidence suggests that old fashioned American isolationism would do the world, and especially the Middle East, less harm, and us as well.
Monday, June 19. 2006
Another week. Spent 4-5 days working through the unplayed new jazz, but did manage to take some time out play some non-jazz, including some new records that finally provide some non-jazz balance to my fledging 2006 list: Public Enemy, Rebirth of a Nation (currently #1); Ghostface Killah, Fishscale (#7); The Streets, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (#16); Prince, 3121 (#24). Then I decided I needed to pull some pending records off the replay shelf, so I'd have something to report there, too. Incoming queue looks no less daunting than a couple of weeks ago, so I expect next week will be much like the last two -- at least until July Recycled Goods takes over my attention. At this point I think the crush period for Jazz CG will be the first two weeks of July. I have about a third of the column done now, another third rated but unwritten, a few promising records on the replay shelf, and a couple of new things I haven't played but have hopes for. Don't have a dud yet. Don't care to pick on the smoothies, but I still haven't yet played the Yellowjackets' self-tribute to a quarter century of mediocrity. And there's always the ultimate fall-back, The Essential Kenny G.
One more note: I've kept a ratings database for a long time now. It originally started as a list of what I owned. Then I tacked a letter grade to the things I could remember well enough as a sort of rough sort reminder; e.g., if someone wants a recommendation on a Grant Green record, I could look it up and point to Born to Be Blue or Idle Moments. Although the grades are more useful to me than to you -- they don't say much, and they say as much about me as about the records -- I posted them when I set up the Ocston website, and I've kept plugging more data into them. Anyhow, I mention this because the rated just just hit 12,000 records this week. That's still short of Robert Christgau's tally (currently 13,184), but it approaches the same order of magnitude. More jazz; correspondingly less of everything else.
The Miles Donahue Quintet: In the Pocket (1999 , Amerigo): Donahue was born in 1944, but didn't start recording until 1995. He's produced quite a bit since then, but I've only heard these two examples. Plays alto sax, tenor sax and trumpet; also gets credit for keyboards, but the pianist you notice here is most certainly Fred Hersch. The tenor sax is most likely Jerry Bergonzi, but no other trumpet players are listed, and I like the trumpet here as much as anything else. Not sure how the Quintet is actually aligned. Credits list eight musicians, with three singled out as "featuring": Hersch, Bergonzi, and Kurt Rosenwinkle [sic]. Looks like Hersch and Bergonzi are in, but the guitarist is an add-on for four tracks. The record is the sort of postbop that I find annoyingly pointless: it sounds just like jazz, as opposed to something of its own creation. That isn't very well expressed: a rather vague idea, but "just like jazz" is a placeholder for something missing -- doesn't matter what that is, just that it's not there. What is there breaks down into separate pieces, most of which are impressive on their own. The stars -- Hersch, Bergonzi, Rosenwinkel -- are easily recognized for their signatures, which show how warranted their stardom is. Donahue's trumpet stands out more than his alto sax, but he makes an impression on both. B+(*)
Michael Donahue: Bounce (2004 , Amerigo): Two sessions with less starpower than In the Pocket -- the names here are Adam Nussbaum on one, John Patitucci on the other, Joey Calderazzo on both. Half the tracks have guitar (Norm Zocher), others bass clarinet (Ernie Sola). All of this fits the usual bright, bouncy, slinky postbop mold. B
Mold: Rotten in Rødby (2005 , ILK): No relation to the '90s rock group of the same name. This is a group with three Danes and a German, formed in 2000 when they met up in New York. Two horn quartet -- Anders Banke on saxes and clarinets, Stephan Meinberg on trumpets -- with Mark Solborg's guitars and electronics instead of bass. Interesting group, more free than anything else. Need to play them again. [PS: Original CD was unplayable, but somehow I managed to burn a viable copy.] [B+(**)]
Carneyball Johnson (2006, Akron Cracker): Led by Tin Huey saxophonist Ralph Carney, guitarist Kimo Ball and drummer Scott Johnson contribute parts of their names, while Allen Whitman just offers up his bass. For those who missed it, Tin Huey was one of a half-dozen or so new wave bands to come out of Akron in the late '70s -- Pere Ubu and Devo were better known; the Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels, and the Numbers Band were more obscure; the Waitresses were a spin-off from Tin Huey's Chris Butler -- with a 1979 album fondly remembered for the Ubu-ish "I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts" (cf. Alfred Jarry's plays more so than the band). I hear they still play together. Haven't heard Carney's other albums, but saxophonists tend toward jazz -- after all, that's where the models come from. He plays Monk and Sun Ra here, which I haven't digested yet. But the loose and trashy pop singalongs based on the Yardbirds and Demond Dekker grabbed me immediately. [B+(**)]
Bill Carrothers: Shine Ball (2003-04 , Fresh Sound New Talent): A shine ball is a pitch where a foreign substance has been applied to a baseball to give it an unexpected curve. The idea applies here because Carrothers plays a prepared piano in a trio setting. The preparation isn't extreme, but given that the pieces are improvised on the spot, it's likely that the precise sounds weren't fully anticipated; also that the range of temperaments was meant to generate as much surprise as possible. This sort of thing has been illegal, but not unheard of, in baseball since the 1920s. Whitey Ford was reputed to have a dandy. Not sure about Carrothers' near namesake, the 19th century pitcher Bob Caruthers, who rivals Ford for all-time career winning percentage. [B+(***)]
Ismael Dueñas: Mirage (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Spanish piano trio, damn good one, even if I'm at a loss of words to describe them. Same thing happened with Dueñas's previous album, La Tiranía de la Cosa. [B+(**)]
Ron Horton: Everything in a Dream (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Horton comes out of New York's Jazz Composers Collective, a circle that includes Ben Allison, Frank Kimbrough, and others. On a map of the jazz universe they'd fit on the seam between academically respectable postbop and the more formal segments of the avant-garde. In other words, they are serious cats, seeking to advance the state of the art within an acknowledged formal framework. This record here is nothing if not ambitious, and there is much to admire in it. Horton's own trumpet and flugelhorn are joined by two saxes, piano, drums, and two basses. The saxes are John O'Gallagher (alto) and Tony Malaby (tenor), both superb. All of the players have excellent parts, including featured bass solos for Masa Kamaguchi and John Hebert. I'm less pleased with how they come together. There's something sour in the sax-trumpet harmony I find a real turnoff. Maybe there's some new-fangled harmonic theory at work here? -- I've hade the same reaction to dozens of albums from this same milieu. Still, it's hard not to admire what he's done here, even if I can't quite bring myself to like it. B+(*)
Aaron Irwin Group: Into the Light (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Irwin plays alto sax in a quartet with guitar, bass and drums. Tenor saxist Rich Perry also appears on five of eight tracks. Moderate postbop, not much distinguished, although guitarist Ryan Scott has some nice moments, and Perry makes himself heard. B
Casually Introducing Walter Smith III (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): The artwork, especially the type on the back, recalls Blue Note's '60s work, most explicitly Sam Rivers' debut, Fuschia Swing Song -- a record that also contributes the first song here. Beyond that the relationship stretches thin, as does the tone of Smith's tenor sax. (He also plays soprano, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out which is which.) Still, there's something likable about this record. The keyboard work stands out -- mostly Aaron Parks, but Robert Glasper takes the cake for his Fender Rhodes cheese whiz on "Kate Song." The Mingus piece is lovely as usual. And the saxophonist finally connects with his "Blues" routine, even if it's a bit textbook. Smith's still young enough -- born in the '80s as near as I can tell -- that his resume's still in pursuit of his education. Don't think this is very good, but I do feel like hearing it again. [B+(*)]
Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet: Husky (2004 , Hyena): Don't know Skerik's full or real name, where he came from (a sensible guess is Seattle), how old he is, or anything else beyond the public record: he plays tenor sax and has recorded since 1991, usually in rockish groups -- Sadhappy, Tuatara, Critters Buggin', Mylab, and Garage a Trois. That gives him two out of something like two, maybe three, fusion-ish jazz albums I've A-listed in nine Jazz CGs. This is his second Syncopated Taint Septet album -- haven't heard the first. The name comes from longtime federal narc chief Harry J. Anslinger, who derided jazz as "syncopated taint" as part of his campaign against the evils of marijuana. I'm not quite as taken by this one as I was by Mylab and Garage a Trois, probably because those are beat albums, whereas Skerik is a horn man. He runs five horns here -- three saxes, trumpet and trombone -- but while that thickens up the brass, if also cuts his own impact down a bit. Still, an interesting album, in a style that has yet to be pigeonholed with a name. Maybe I'll think of one next spin. [B+(**)]
Winard Harper Sextet: Make It Happen (2006, Piadrum): The way I parse the credits sheet, the Sextet seems to have eight members, including three percussionists not counting a leader who plays balafon as well as drums. Another five musicians show up for several tracks, including quasi-stars Antonio Hart and Wycliffe Gordon; also Abdou Mboup and his talking drum. Over fifteen tracks running 77:56 they cover a lot of ground, starting with Charlie Parker and working their way through pieces by six band members -- OK, maybe that's the Sextet? Too many different things going on here to make a coherent album, but lots of good things in the details: the African percussion pieces are notable; guest pianist Sean Higgins romps on Ray Bryant's "Reflection"; guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon brings down the house in "After Hours"; probably more. Harper's having a ball. B+(**)
Helen Sung Trio: Helenistique (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Another good piano trio, with Derrick Hodge on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. Sung composes one piece, starting with it and reprising it at the end. In between she arranges a wide range of more or less standard fare, ranging from James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" to Prince's "Alphabet Street, including the inevitable Ellington and Monk pieces, the less obvious Kenny Barron. A slow, stretched, bass-centric "Where or When" is especially refreshing. [B+(***)]
Jamie Stewardson: Jhaptal (2003 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Guitarist, first attracted to rock, then to John McLaughlin. Moved from Colorado to Boston in 1984 to attend Berklee. Later studied with John Abercrombie, Joe Maneri, Mick Goodrick. Doesn't have much of a discography: as far as I can tell, this is first album, with one other appearance. He wrote all of the songs here, but first time through here his guitar is relatively invisible -- at least compared to Alexei Tsiganov's vibes and Tony Malaby's tenor sax. Quintet also includes John Hebert and George Schuller -- all things considered, a terrific band. Need to go back again more closely and focus on the guitar. [B+(**)]
Jordi Matas Quintet: Racons (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Spanish guitarist, based in Barcelona. Quintet includes saxophonist Marti Serra and pianist Jorge Rossy, as well as bass and drums. His guitar is more up front than Stewardson's, so it's easy to follow his clean, lean lines. Serra complements him ably, but doesn't stand out like Malaby. Nice record. B+(*)
Philip Dizack: Beyond a Dream (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): If you're interested in auspicious debuts, here's one: Dizack was 19 when he cut this one, mostly with bandmates from the Manhattan School of Music -- Greg Tardy is the ringer, the only name here I recognize. Dizack plays trumpet, credits Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard as influences -- wow, that's young! Chopswise I'd say he's in their league already. My main caveats are that he tries to too many things at once -- a common complaint I have about well-schooled debut albums -- and that the messy two-sax sextet crowds his trumpet. I reckon we'll be hearing more from pianist Miro Sprague also. B+(**)
Andrew Rathbun/George Colligan: Renderings: The Art of the Duo (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): "Art of the Duo" is a phrase that's been batted around by several labels -- I'm not sure if it's a regular feature with FSNT, but Concord had such a series, and I recall an Albert Mangelsdorff album of that title. Dave Liebman, who's done a few duos himself, wrote the liner notes here. Like Liebman, Rathbun plays tenor and soprano sax. Colligan plays piano. This is effectively chamber music. It starts with a piece by Ravel, then runs through a seven-part 25:46 suite. Later, along with a couple more originals, there's a 22:08 piece by Spanish composer Federico Mompou. So overall, it feels more like classical than jazz -- the piano plump, the sax shading. I don't really get it, but find much of it appealing. B+(*)
Sam Bardfeld: Periodic Trespasses (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Aka "The Saul Cycle": Bardfeld narrates Saul's story in seven chapters, with pieces of music in between, the structure reminding me "Peter and the Wolf" -- I'm most familiar with Eno's version, but there's also a variant called Pincus and the Pig. I don't have the story straight, so that will take some further investigation. The group features Bardfeld's violin, Ron Horton's trumpet, and Tom Beckham's vibes, with Sean Conly and Satoshi Takeishi rounding up the rhythm. The violin has a little boogie in it; the trumpet is further out, and the combination is more than a little askew. Still working on it. [B+(**)]
Jason Rigby: Translucent Space (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): More postbop complexity here: nine musicians, although I doubt that more than the core quartet -- Rigby, Mike Holober on piano, Cameron Brown on bass, Mark Ferber on drums -- play all that much. Rigby plays three weights of sax, bass clarinet and wood flute. I think this is his debut, although he's been on a half dozen or so other people's albums, including one by Kris Davis I rated an Honorable Mention. With virtually all new jazz composers coming up through the academy, I suppose the attraction of postbop is that it provides the sort of framework for emotional articulation that classical music provided way back when. I could care less about the degree of difficulty here, but I am impressed that how well he holds it all together. Also impressed, once again, by Holober. [B+(**)]
Dave Burrell/Billy Martin: Consequences (2005 , Amulet): A remarkable albeit rather limited meeting. Martin doesn't drum along, because Burrell doesn't give him anything to drum along with. He plays Tayloresque pianistics, if anything more abstract. Despite its tuning and variable decay, on some level the piano is just another percussion instrument, so why not think of this as a percussion duet? It's rather arbitrary whether I make this a low A- or a high B+, but for now I like it as an Honorable Mention because I got a one-liner for it: Old pianist shows young drummer what real percussion sounds like. B+(***)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
The Crimson Jazz Trio: The King Crimson Songbook: Volume One (2005, Voiceprint): Drummer Ian Wallace put this group together after a tour with Frippless Crimson spinoff group 21st Century Schizoid Band. Nothing in Wallace's background suggests that he would come up with such a straightforward jazz group -- his resume includes Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, David Lindley, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, Warren Zevon, Keith Emerson, Crosby Stills and Nash, and so forth. Fretless bassist Tim Landers is another studio/tour pro with mostly rock acts on his list, although he can cite Gil Evans, Billy Cobham, Don Grolnick, and the Breckers. That leaves pianist Jody Nardone as the only certifiable jazz guy, but working out of Nashville he's got some mud on his flaps too. King Crimson was, and more or less still is, an English prog rock group led by non-singer guitarist Robert Fripp. Although it had some jazz threads, that doesn't appear to matter much here. What matters here is that the songs have enough structure to give Nardone something to nibble on, and he rearranges them enough to make it hard for someone as superificially acquainted with them as me to connect the dots. Where Crimson does approach the surface is in the undertow of Landers' bass. Otherwise, this is just a conventional piano trio that gets a lot of mileage out of songs that haven't entered the jazz canon. B+(***)
Roy Nathanson: Sotto Voce (2005 , AUM Fidelity): The first song reminds me of an Annette Peacock song. The second is a sickly pop hit that Billy Jenkins got to first. In other words, both are good, but remind me of better. The music throughout reminds me of the Jazz Passengers, not surprising given that Nathanson was their leader and Curtis Fowlkes is also on board here, but the music takes a back seat to the words, and therein lies the rub. After the first two songs this gets drab, starting with a riff on "Motherless Child" and quickly descending into Brechtian territory, or do I mean Tom Waits? Interesting ideas here, but too many allusions make me think it should be better. B+(*)
Thomas Storrs and Sarpolas: Time Share (2005 , Louie): Rob Thomas justly gets top billing here, even if doing so leads to confusion. He is the latest in the series of violinists to work in the String Trio of New York, and he sets the tone here. Dave Storrs is a drummer based in Oregon or thereabouts. I've noticed him elsewhere as a guy who plays with the band, and he adds a lot to the violin here. Dick Sarpola plays bass; George Sarpola adds some extra percussion, hence the Sarpolas. B+(***)
Stefano Battaglia: Raccolto (2003 , ECM, 2CD): The first disc is a piano-bass-drums trio, slow and free, fascinating as it tiptoes around the edges of chaos without ever taking the plunge. Second disc replaces the bass with Dominique Pifarély's violin, which upsets the sonic balance, moving the piano back a notch. B+(**)
Theo Bleckmann/Fumio Yasuda: Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne (2005 , Winter & Winter): As Americans we're much too close to Las Vegas to appreciate how strangely, definitively American the place can seem to foreigners. Fumio Yasuda orchestrates these songs not as show business so much as transcendental fantasy, inflating fluff like "Teacher's Pet" and "The Gal in Calico," but also playing "My Favorite Things" as light heartedly as "Chim Chim Cheree." Bleckmann sings, so sweet you feel faint. Bernd Ruf and the Kammerorchester Basel play their parts. B+(***)
Gebhard Ullmann/Chris Dahlgren/Jay Rosen: Cut It Out (2000 , Leo): With Ullmann playing bass clarinet and bass flute, this is pitched low enough it may take a seismograph to fully sort it out. I find it shifts in and out. Like what I hear when I hear it, both the hard-earned lines and the residual rumble. B+(*)
Sunday, June 18. 2006
Movie: Thank You for Smoking. The local theatre chain has been opening their shows with a "voice of the announcer" chortling about how Summer is coming and that's when Hollywood brings out their finest products. The net result of this is that the actual number of films showing here in Wichita is down about 25% from the dull days of winter, mostly because the same mega-crap is being shown in multiple theatres. We've been hard up for anything to get us out of the house. Went to see this one on the rumor that it might be funny. It is, mostly, although the smart aleck son seems likely to turn into a major public nuissance. B+
Movie: The DaVinci Code. Didn't know anything about this going in -- haven't read the book, but have read several of the reviews about how deadly dull the film is. Turns out it's not deadly dull; more like ordinarily dull. Turns out it's not about much of anything either, other than the notion that a genetic line of descent actually means anything after 2000 years -- an issue that could be cleared up with a whiff of numeracy. I thought the flashback scenes to the middle ages were an interesting effect, as if there's another movie lurking somewhere trying to get out. But content-wise those images could have been clearer about what vile motherfuckers the Crusaders were (and for that matter still are). As it is, they leave the vileness to the principals in the present age, who take this nonsense way too seriously. B-
A Prairie Home Companion. Again, I approach a movie from a strong position of ignorance about what it's about, except that's not really true: I have some idea about Garrison Keillor even though I've never listened to more than accidental moments of his show, and I know a good deal more about Robert Altman, the top dozen or so actors here, and the music they draw on. All of these elements are completely marvelous. Even the side story with Guy Noir and the lady in white rain wouldn't touch weave in nicely -- Kevin Kline hasn't been this funny since A Fish Named Wanda. Saw it on a huge screen in a theatre packed for a first matinee and loved every moment of it. Note that it's the only screen in town showing this movie. Must not be one of Hollywood's Best. A
Saturday, June 17. 2006
William Grimes' New York Times review of James Carroll's House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power is a weaselly piece of writing. Laura wanted me to write a rejoinder, but everywhere I try to nail him down turns out to be hollow. Most of what he has to say is an episodic list of notes, recapitulating the book without connecting it together. He complains, for instance, that it's not really a biography of the Pentagon, missing that the massive building is in fact a physical metaphor for the permanent, self-perpetuating war machine that it headquarters. He derides the book as "impassioned, tendentious, morally incoherent," totally missing the exceptionally rigorous moral theme of Carroll's carefully considered antiwar stance. He laments, "It is hard, really, to understand what Mr. Carroll wants from the United States, since he detests the very notion that it has power and sometimes seems to be suggesting that the wrong side came out on top in the cold war." Carroll shows how the desire to dominate escalated the US-Soviet rivalry to the brink of world devastating war. No side won, or could win, such a war: the "evil empire" Soviet Union backed out, while the US continued to build its arsenal as it sought out new enemies to justify continued beligerence. In the end, Grimes falls back on the canard: "The cold war was a dreadful time but perhaps not as dreadful as the years 1914 to 1918 or 1939 to 1945. If you don't like it cold, try it hot." The implication here is that the Cold War as it turned out was the best of all possible outcomes -- a pathetic, self-aggrandizing "just so" reading of history.
History, of course, cannot be changed. The reason one asks questions about choices in the past is not to pretend they can be changed, or to retroactively make moral judgments about their actors, but to open up the range of options for the present. I suspect this is one reason Carroll pays so much more attention to aerial bombing and nuclear weapons strategies than he does to the not-so-cold wars in Korea and Vietnam: aerial bombing and nuclear weapons are still very much part of US war policy, and past ideas about their efficacy, their utility, and their morality distort current policy. In this regard, Carroll repeatedly returns to Henry Stimson's 1945 initiative to defuse the likelihood of "a rather desperate arms race" with the Soviet Union by sharing the secrets of nuclear weapons. Stimson's main opponent at that time was Navy Secretary James Forrestal, whose paranoia -- certainly a part of his extreme anti-communism -- was soon to lead to his suicide. For those who grew up with the Cold War as natural fact, it may well be surprising that such a momentous decision in US history should turn on two personalities, let alone that the victory should go to the psychotic one.
Of course, Forrestal won the day not because he was mad but because he was in tune with momentous decisions made in the early days of World War II. Carroll identifies four key decisions and intimately links them through their dates: the building of the Pentagon; the proclamation of unconditional surrender as the war goal; the adoption of a bombing policy that became increasingly indiscriminate as the war progressed; and the start of the atom bomb project. The latter three points may be thought of as the ideal of total war, the psychological and moral distance that lets total war be fought, and the weapon that consumates total war. All three connected fatefully and spectacularly at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, setting the tone for all future wars. This could have been the moment to recognize that war had become something that mankind could never again afford, but others were loathe to give up the war economy, the martial spirit, or the pinnacle of American power. The Pentagon was their headquarters, their icon.
The story that follows is one of creating a foe out of the real and imagined threats posed by the Soviet Union and Communists all around the world, and building a military force powerful enough to defend against and ideally roll back that threat. Events like the Berlin blockade and the Korean war helped paint the enemy. Soviet development of nuclear bombs and ICBMs accelerated the arms race. Over time America's belief in the inherent evil of the Communist enemy became so deep-seated that when Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet Union he was widely disbelieved. Even with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, America's military juggernaut proved to be unstoppable, at least until it became mired in Iraq. This conditioning still dominates our thinking: we fear tiny groups of jihadist Muslims because we fear what they could do if they somehow obtained the bomb we grew up fearing, and because we so fear them, we fight them so desperately -- as should be clear by now, so foolishly. But we do so because we have been conditioned to feed the Pentagon.
Carroll's book is idiosyncratic in several ways. He draws numerous connections by coincidental dates, including his birth date the week the Pentagon was dedicated, and he makes much more of these dates than anyone reasonably should. More significantly, he also weaves his own personal experiences into the story, which provide unique twists on the story. His father was a Lieutenant General in the Air Force -- through most of the '60s head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Needless to say, that gives him an unusual perspective. I doubt that any other antiwar activist can say his next door neighbor was Curtis Lemay. Others may have had their fathers warn them of impending nuclear attacks during the Cuban missile crisis, but Carroll's experience stands out there as exceptionally vivid. Carroll's subsequent passage through the Catholic priesthood and his relationship with the Catholic peace movement also loom large and personal. The result is a book that only he could have written. Not all of it is equally useful, but it clearly fits together in his own mind: the notion that it is "morally incoherent" is beyond laughable.
I've already quoted the book on a couple of topics: on issues of the corruptibility of intelligence, and on the Pentagon's revolt against Clinton over gays in the military. There is much more here, including especially good capsule summaries of Iran-Contra, Panama, and Kosovo. The biggest surprise to me was his interpretation of how Reagan's loony case for Star Wars led him to agree to limiting nukes over the objections of his warmongering staff. Carroll's ability to speak with people like Robert McNamara, who granted the interview because of his "great admiration" for Carroll's father, is unusual. But then it should be noted that Carroll is unusually sympathetic to his Pentagon subjects. This book is no laundry list of American atrocities. That it finally comes off as damning is due to its hard won integrity.
Here are a few more quotes I noted. Obviously, one thing that fed the arms race was interservice rivalry (p. 107):
After WWII US armed forces quickly demobilized, as they had after every previous US war. The Cold War started later, as Soviet and other Communist -- France and Italy had substantial, independent Communist parties coming out of the war, largely due to the leadership role they had taken in the anti-Nazi resistance -- political acts came to be interpreted through a narrow ideological lens. George Kennan's 1946 "long telegram" was instrumental here, especially as promoted by Forrestal (p. 132-133):
In 1950, after the Soviets had tested their first A-bomb, Paul Nitze wrote a document called "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security," henceforth referred to as NSC-68. This was the foundation document of US Cold War policy (pp. 183-184):
Within this framework, the Korean war was viewed as an act of Soviet aggression, not as the local event it initially was (p. 191):
Truman later moderated his stance, resisting numerous proposals by the military to use nuclear weapons in the conflict. MacArthur advocated attacking China with bombing and blockades; he was finally relieved of his command. Another incident (p. 193):
After he took office in 1953, Eisenhower again threatened to use nuclear weapons: an exercise in atomic diplomacy aimed at bullying the Soviets into signing the war-ending armistice. Nixon went even further during the Vietnam War, actually sending bombers into the Arctic. Kennedy came closest to launching nuclear war during the Cuba missile crisis, defused by the Soviet Union backing down. The Soviets never once readied their nukes for use, although their existence certainly gave US leaders reason to moderate numerous proposals by trigger-happy generals and defense intellectuals. The Soviets had announced a "no first use" policy as far back as Brezhnev. That policy has since been rescinded by the post-Soviet Russian leader Vladimir Putin, perhaps in response to Bush's plans for a new generation of "tactical" nukes. The Bush regime is second to no post-WWII administration in viewing the world in Manichean, us-versus-evil terms, only now the Crusade is aimed once again at Islam.
William Grimes's next New York Times book review took a look at Peter Beinart's The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. This one is equally sloppy, but happier: evidently Beinart's enthusiasm for "the good fight" against Islamic totalitarianism strikes a positive chord in Grimes. Grimes quotes Beinart as arguing that Liberals must recognize that "there is no contradiction between recognizing that our enemies are not intrinsically evil, and recognizing that they must be fought, just as there is no contradiction between recognizing that although we are not intrinsically good, we must fight them." Now, that sounds like a pretty good example of "morally incoherent" to me. Andrew O'Hehir's review of the same book in Salon describes Beinhart's confusion this way:
One striking point from both reviews is how Beinart characterizes the Salafi-Jihadism of Al-Qaeda as totalitarian. That's one of those isms that should instantly set of alarm bells, because it is a word that no one ever claimed to believe it. Totalitarianism is a sleight of hand originally meant to lump Hitler and Stalin -- Nazism and Communism -- into the same stinky bag, tainting each with the other, rendering both as the evil other opposed to good ole us. The first casualty of this concept was that it let us forget that Nazism was invented as the antipode to Communism, that the Soviet Union was the main target of Germany's WWII aggression, and that most of the actual fight against the Nazis, and a big chunk of the fight against Imperial Japan, was done by Communists. But the main point of the term was to characterize Communism as an inherently alien, evil, implacable foe of everything we believe in -- to make it impossible to respect, compromise with, or achieve any sort of modus vivendi with Communists. Stalin, Mao and others did things that made it easy to taint Communism like that, but even there it was a massive distortion of reality, done purely for propaganda. Applying that same brush to any strain of political Islam, as Liberal warmonger Paul Berman does, obscures reality even worse. The only reason to do this is to invoke the precedence of the "good fight" against Fascism and/or Communism as a model for war against Islam. To do so offers no enlightenment, no insight, and most importantly no common ground that might let us live together. The absolute evil we abhor is nothing more than the projection of the absolute self-righteous we have become.
Evidently, Beinhart has made some progress at recognizing that his initial support for Bush's Iraq fiasco was misguided. But he still has some learning to do. Hopefully he won't have to learn it all the hard way, as he has with Bush and Iraq.