Monday, July 31. 2006
The Voice has my tenth Jazz Consumer Guide column now. It's been edited, and is ready to go. Don't have a publication date yet -- sometime in August, I've been told. Started to do some prospecting for next time, but I had to shift gears to fill out the August Recycled Goods column, and that's reflected here.
Stephen Stubbs: Teatro Lirico (2004 , ECM New Series): Actually classical music -- sonatas and dances from 17th century Italy and Slovakia -- but as long as ECM sends these I'll take a shot at prospecting them. Stubbs plays baroque guitar and chitarrone in a quartet with violin, viola and harp, or at least period variations on those instruments. I'm finding this quite lovely, although the calm veneer and lack of beat -- or should I say, the stately pulse? -- eventually dull my interest a bit. B+(***)
Nancy Wilson: Turned to Blue (2005-06 , MCG Jazz): The first thing to say is that she is in fine voice. That isn't new, but it's rarely been sufficient. The second thing is that the arrangements, except for the closer with Dr. Billy Taylor and a gaggle of strings, are pretty clean and unobtrusive -- even the All Star Big Band, which swings three cuts. Each of the cuts have featured soloists, mostly making their only appearance. By far the best combination is James Moody and the big band on "Taking a Chance on Love," but Tom Scott has a good turn as well. The title cut was stitched together from a Dr. Maya Angelou poem -- the honorific makes a nice bookend with Dr. Billy -- but it's of below average interest. Toyed with the idea of leaving this open, but realistically it's never gonna lift those strings very high, nor that poetry, and if Tom Scott's a plus the average ain't all that high. But she does sound good, and checking my database -- not all that deep on her -- this is her best record yet. B
Tania Maria: Intimidade (2004 , Blue Note): A Brazilian jazz singer-pianist with roots in the bossa nova of the '60s, I'm struck first by the depth of her voice -- don't know how much is age as she approaches sixty -- then by the lithe ease of the percussion. Hard to tell at this point what distinguishes her, as this fits the expectations so nicely. B+(**)
Wesla Whitfield: Livin' on Love (2005-06 , High Note): Standards singer, has recorded extensively since 1987. This was recorded in two sessions, one with an octet, the other with a quartet, both arranged and led by longtime collaborator Mike Greensill, both featuring Gary Foster on various saxes and flutes. The difference between the two groups is a set of four French horns. I think she's a good singer, and I like Foster, at least on tenor sax, but I don't see much value here -- although the only real annoyance is the hoked up version of "Alfie" with all the French horns. B
Freddy Cole: Because of You: Freddy Cole Sings Tony Bennett (2006, High Note): Nat's little brother, 14 years younger, but seems like another generation 40 years after Nat's death. His voice bears a family resemblance, but is far from a carbon copy. Since it's hard to describe him without reference to Nat, he inevitably gets the short end of the stick. Comparing him to Bennett may or may not help: Tony has a lushness to his voice that Freddy can't match, but Freddy can handle the phrasing well enough. The songs avoid the most obvious ones -- I'm not at all expert on Bennett, so that's all that my lack of recognition reveals. The band, of course, is much better than Bennett's usual backing, with Peter and Kenny Washington on bass and drums and Houston Person on tenor sax. B+(*)
Frank Morgan: Reflections (2005 , High Note): I suppose if I was real conscientious about this, I'd revisit his discography and try to ascertain whether this is an exceptionally good record for him or a merely typically good one. But I don't have either the records or the time for that. In the pecking order of Bird's children, Morgan ranks somewhere above Lou Donaldson but way below Jackie McLean, and very likely below Phil Woods as well. Where that puts him viz. Gigi Gryce is a question that requires more precision than I can muster. But on its own terms, this is an exceptionally elegant and mature slice of the bop -- not frantic like in the '50s, but Morgan's past 70 now, more than entitled to slow down and smell them roses. Nice, brisk start on "Walkin'"; two Monk songs that he wouldn't have tackled in the old days; gorgeous closer on "Out of Nowhere." Quartet with Ronnie Mathews on piano, Essiet Essiet on bass, and Billy Hart on drums. Lovely tone throughout. B+(***)
Billy Hart: Quartet (2005 , High Note): Hart's a drummer with a handful of albums under his own name and something like 500 working for other people. I won't bore you with a list, other than to note that it starts with Jimmy Smith in 1963, and while it's more mainstream than not, the range is pretty wide. Hart wrote four songs here, but he's more the honored leader than the auteur here. The frontline players are saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson, and this album has their sound(s) and sense(s) all over it. Obviously some significant talent here, but I'm not quickly tuning into the postbop whatever. Francis Davis will review this for the Voice. I'm holding off. [B+(**)]
Houston Person/Bill Charlap: You Taught My Heart to Sing (2004 , High Note): Naked duets. I keep wishing a bass would enter and scurry these two along a bit, but when I focus I don't mind so much. Need to focus more, but it's safe to say that the individual talents you expect are present and accounted for, and both musicians are mature enough to work together. Person continues to sound fabulous. [B+(***)]
Cedar Walton: One Flight Down (2006, High Note): One thing that throws me off here is starting with two quartet tracks with Vincent Herring on tenor sax, then dropping down to a trio for the remainder. Liner note scribe Thomas Conrad tries to work his way around this: "It is rare for an album to lose a hot tenor saxophonist and become a piano trio date and immediately escalate in intensity." Can't say as I noticed that shift -- maybe it's not as intense as advertised -- but contrary to my prejudices the trio strikes me as sharper. Still, this feels like two ideas for albums shotgunned together. B+(**)
Note: The Impulse Story is a series of eight single-artist samplers from the Impulse Records story, plus a best-of and a 4-CD box -- although I didn't get the latter. There's also a book, The House That Trane Built, by Ashley Kahn. Don't have it either, but I've thumbed through it in the bookstore, like the discography, and generally figure it to be useful but inessential. In the following reviews, sometimes I name an "alt-choice": this is an A- or better album, on Impulse if not listed otherwise, which I offer as an alternate choice to the compilation. Recycled Goods will also have an "Other Impulses" section, listing recommended records not by compilation artists.
Albert Ayler: The Impulse Story (1965-69 , Impulse): The patron saint of the avant-garde, a fearsome saxophonist invoking the holy ghost. Earlier work on ESP, like Spiritual Unity, is essential. This is for the curious a useful sampler into his last scattered years, including his discoveries of bagpipes and the healing force of the universe. B+(**)
Gato Barbieri: The Impulse Story (1973-75 , Impulse): Argentine tenor saxophonist, emerged in the '60s on ESP and Flying Dutchman, which has some classic examples of his whirling dervish style. This excerpts four albums of Coltrane-ish powerhouse sax over roiling Latin beats. Alt-choice: Latino America (1973-74 , 2CD), his first two chapters. B+(***)
Alice Coltrane: The Impulse Story (1968-2000 , Impulse): Née Alice MacLeod, plays piano and harp, married the tenor sax great in 1965, recorded seven albums 1968-73 after her husband's death, then a comeback with son Ravi Coltrane after a long hiatus, developed a major interest in Eastern spirituality that themed her music. Two trio pieces with Rashied Ali -- one on harp, the other on piano -- are most striking here, with her larger groups spacier, and a slab of Stravinsky a little heavy-handed. Don't know her albums, other than the comeback, but this seems like a useful sampler, with subjects for further research. B+(*)
John Coltrane: The Impulse Story (1961-67 , Impulse): So influential we might as well call the last forty years the post-Coltrane era, but far less so before he moved to Impulse -- his earlier Atlantics are respected, as are his sessions with Miles and Monk, but a lot of his early work is so-so. This has to cover a lot of ground, some pretty far out, most worth exploring as much greater length. Alt-choices: The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions (1961, 2CD); The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1961, 4CD); Ballads (1962); Live at Birdland (1963); Crescent (1964); A Love Supreme (1964); Plays (1965); the complete quartet studio recordings are also in the giant The Classic Quartet (1961-68, 8CD). A-
Keith Jarrett: The Impulse Story (1973-76 , Impulse): The most productive years of Jarrett's career, with eight albums by his American quartet -- Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian -- on Impulse, plus his European quartet and marathon solos on ECM. This sampler should provide a useful distillation given that most of the Impulses are only available on two boxes adding up to nine CDs, but a better one would focus more squarely on the tenor saxophonist, who sounds great when he gets the chance. B+(***)
Charles Mingus: The Impulse Story (1963 , Impulse): A case of doing what you can with what you got, which ain't much; Mingus cut three albums for Impulse in 1963: one was difficult and challenging but brilliant, another was typically first rate, and one solo piano -- not bad if you're curious. This gives you a bit of each, making it useless. Alt-choices: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963); Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963). B-
Sonny Rollins: The Impulse Story (1965-66 , Impulse): Another slim slice from an all-time great, three albums in the gap between his sporadic '60s work at RCA and his long tenure with Milestone, but useful -- two good albums not real high on the pecking order, and 25 minutes of East Broadway Run Down, his most avant album ever; alt-choices: On Impulse (1965), and the Oliver Nelson-arranged Alfie (1966), where a relatively large band lets Newk call all the shots. A-
Pharoah Sanders: The Impulse Story (1963-73 , Impulse): Coltrane's first important disciple, reflected in sound and style, but more importantly in direction, which deflected from out only to orbit the earth, taking particular interest in Africa and Asia. Four cuts may not seem like much of a selection, but "The Creator Has a Master Plan," all 32:45, the ugly along with the transcendent, is in better company here than on Karma. A-
Archie Shepp: The Impulse Story (1964-72 , Impulse): Aside from Coltrane, Shepp was the most important figure to emerge on Impulse. More orthodox than Pharoah Sanders, possessing an authoritative but unpretty tone, he worked the inside of the avant-garde, and cultivated a black power consciousness leading to attempts to bridge gospel, soul and free jazz; the best disc in this series, because it pulls his disparate pieces together as a whole in a way that the albums don't. Alt-coices: Four for Trane (1964); Fire Music (1965), Attica Blues (1972). A-
McCoy Tyner: The Impulse Story (1962-64 , Impulse): The pianist was 21 when he joined Coltrane, shortly before Coltrane signed with Impulse. His first records under his own name were the piano trios that figure large here, but this is also fleshed out with cuts from other folks' records -- Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey. Not all that well balanced, but it has some moments, including quite a bit of piano. B+(*)
The House That Trane Built: The Best of Impulse Records (1961-76 , Impulse): I don't know how to rate something like this, where the choices are so broad and arbitrary one might as well be listening to the radio; nine songs, all also on the 4-CD box, five also on the artist comps, two more on my Other Impulses list (Oliver Nelson, Earl Hines), which leaves nice work by Art Blakey and John Handy -- the latter funktoon is actually a clever finale. Don't have the box, or the book, but just reading the credits suggests that it's somewhat more mainstream than the artist comps. Also looks to be chronological, which won't help the flow of the music even if it does benefit the book. A-
Note: All of the Milestone Profiles come with a second "bonus disc," a 44:57 various artists label sampler -- same one with each package. As far as I'm concerned, it's worthless, but with the packages priced at $11.98 list it arguably costs nothing -- assuming, of course, that a $10.98 or less list price is inconceivable, even though such a price is obviously possible given the label's costs in packaging this excess. So I'm simply ignoring it below -- not even marking the packages as 2CD.
Sonny Rollins: Milestone Profiles (1972-2001 , Milestone): The first half of Newk's career was turbulent, with several gaps when he broke off and regrouped, including six years from when he left Impulse to his signing with Milestone. He spent the second half touring, where he was notoriously hot and cold -- breathtaking one night, unsettled the next. His albums, roughly one per year, were quickly tossed off, inconsistent with flashes of brilliance. Gary Giddins tried to point these out in a review of a mix tape he imagined. Milestone wanted to release a set to honor Rollins' 25th anniversary with the label, so they compiled Giddins' list as Silver City -- as magnificent as Saxophone Colossus or Way Out West or any of his other classics. Which should make this single redundant, but Rollins never rests on his past: three of nine songs appeared in the decade after Silver City, and they fit in seamlessly. No surprise really. Rollins is easy to anthologize: his sound is unique but consistent across decades, he totally dominates everyone he plays with, and his refuses to fall back on himself, so he never slips to cliché. A
McCoy Tyner: Milestone Profiles (1972-80 , Milestone): This was his third label period, following stints on Impulse and Blue Note, the '70s consolidated his reputation both as a star pianist and as a composer with broad interests. What's most striking here is how hard the piano sounds -- one solo and two trio pieces are crashingly loud, while the horns on the rest are hard pressed to keep up, even when they go into late-Coltrane overload. It's like he's trying not to do fusion but to beat it to death. B+(*)
Jimmy Smith: Milestone Profiles (1981-93 , Milestone): His Blue Notes, starting in 1956, made the Hammond B3 the fulcrum of soul jazz, as well as setting the standard against which Larry Young and others would develop. But he settled into a groove which sustained him at Verve, later at Milestone, and on to the day he died. Nothing new here, most songs are live remakes of earlier hits, some even with Stanley Turrentine and Kenny Burrell. B+(*)
Joe Henderson: Milestone Profiles (1967-75 , Milestone): One of the all-time great tenor sax soloists, Henderson is famed for his early Blue Notes and his big comeback on Verve in the '90s, but he wasn't marking time in between. His Milestone records may have been inconsistent -- haven't checked the 8-CD box, but surely it's de trop -- but he's in top form on this wide-ranging selection. A-
Jimmy Scott: Milestone Profiles (2000-01 , Milestone): The little guy still sounds weird to me -- why is it that male jazz singers, soul men and blues shouters excepted, always sound so mannered? -- but the four albums he cut in this 75-year-old comeback burst are gorgeously appointed -- the musicians include Fathead Newman, Hank Crawford, Eric Alexander, Grégoire Maret, Cyrus Chestnut, and Wynton Marsalis (one cut only). B+(*)
Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane: The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings (1957 , Riverside, 2CD): The recently discovered 1957 Monk with Coltrane At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) swept nearly all jazz critics lists of 2005's best records. Previously known recordings of the two together were limited to a cruddy Live at the Five Spot tape (released by Blue Note) and parts of three studio albums on Riverside. This reshuffles the Riversides to cash in on the interest, weeding out cuts without Coltrane, adding false starts and a beside-the-point Gigi Gryce blues with Coltrane, sprucing up the documentation. Whether this is a good idea may depend on your level of interest. The June 25-26 septet sessions appear on Monk's Music, an indispensible item in Monk's catalog -- more impressive as was than split up over two discs here, larded with less essential music. Most of the extra previously appeared well after the fact as Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane, while the trio version of "Monk's Mood" previously ended the otherwise solo Monk Himself. I'm ambivalent myself, but it's hard to dock the music. A-
Re-Bop: The Savoy Remixes (1945-59 , Savoy Jazz): Seems like every major jazz catalog company has set up deals with DJs to reprocess their wares -- I guess Fantasy (err, Concord) is the holdout, but they packaged all the old soul jazz they could find as The Roots of Acid Jazz, so I wouldn't bet against they following this trend. Whether this works or not depends more on the DJs than on the venerable master sources, and any time you mix a dozen of each you're likely to get hits and misses. (Which contrasts to matching Jazzanova with the Mizell Brothers, pretty much guaranteed to miss all the time.) The simplest approach here is to take a sample -- a bit of Dizzy Gillespie trumpet or Milt Jackson vibes -- and rep it until you can dance to it. Slightly more complicated is gussying up Sarah Vaughan's "Lover Man" or rewiring Charlie Parker's "Koko." Still, what's preserved from the jazz is incidental: my favorite here is Boots Riley's cartoonish remix of "Shaw 'Nuff," even though it leaves out one of Parker's all-time great solos. B+(**)
Re-Bop: The Savoy Originals (1945-59 , Savoy Jazz): Existing only for neophytes to map the remixes back, these songs were selected for their parts, which makes them an exceptionally arbitrary label sampler -- how else do you explain two cuts from a Curtis Fuller album, or three cuts with mallets? Still, the selections can surprise, as when Herbie Mann turns out to be Phil Woods, or when Dizzy Gillespie gives way to Stuff Smith. B
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Maurice Hines: To Nat "King" Cole With Love (2005 , Arbors): Gregory's big brother comes close enough to the mark to beg the question, why pick this over originals that still sound as great as ever. Hines is a smooth, agile singer, but can't touch Cole's voice. But the band consistently spans Cole's career, with more muscle than the Trio and none of the dross of Cole's orchestras. And the songs live on: Cole was the hippest of the pre-rock pop stars, by a margin that has only grown since. A-
Harry Miller's Isipingo: Which Way Now (1975 , Cuneiform): A sextet, half South African exiles including the leader-bassist, half English avant-gardists, with neither half playing to type on this 75-minute Radio Bremen air shot. Rather, they play like a more mainstream jazz band, but uncommonly full of fire and spirit as they stretch out on four long tracks. Trombinist Nick Evans is especially noteworthy: he comes first in the alphabetical credits, but earns top billing throughout, frequently battling number two man, trumpeter Mongezi Feza. Keith Tippett's piano also gets a good hearing. But most of the interest here will be focused on Miller and Feza -- both died tragically young, leaving only a few intriguing recordings. This is a significant discovery for both. A-
Sunday, July 30. 2006
The Israeli government admits that they made a mistake today, in that they bombed a building in Qana, Lebanon, killing sixty-some people, many children, who had taken shelter in that building. I'm not aware of them explaining just what the mistake was there. They had, after all, already killed ten times that many people in Lebanon, a country they were supposedly trying to pressure into turning on itself, so it's hard to believe that the number of dead bothered them greatly. After all, Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz had warned them: "Nothing is safe [in Lebanon], as simple as that." Maybe the mistake was that this particular incident of mass murder occurred in a small Lebanese town, Qana, that had suffered another incident of mass murder during Israel's Grapes of Wrath operation in 1996. When lightning strikes the same spot twice, it sticks in your mind. Or maybe the mistake is that this incident seems like the straw that breaks the camel's back, finally spurring critical people to seeing through Israel's propaganda nonsense. One piece of collateral damage was that Rice's anti-ceasefire diplomatic mission was suddently unwelcome in Beirut.
For anyone who's been paying attention lately, Israel has been making a lot of mistakes. In fact, Israel has a very long history of making mistakes. But the curious thing is that when most of us make mistakes, we try to recognize some fault that he made, and we express some remorse for what our actions or inactions caused. We also make some effort to prevent such mistakes from happening again, and often others in our society make their own efforts. Some such mistakes are even punished by stripping privileges, like driving or owning guns, or even by incarceration. Yet when Israel admits a mistake, that seems to end the issue, at least as far as Israelis are concerned. Admitting a mistake has become a sort of "get out of jail free" card. Sure, sometimes it isn't quite free -- sometimes they have to run an investigation, but that's rarely more than a ruse to wait until the outrage calms down, or moves on to another mistake. This lack of consequences helps explain why Israelis keep making the same mistakes over and over again. They never learn, because there's no one with the legal authority to discipline them, or the moral authority to teach them.
There was a day when the US government would at least recognize the occasional Israeli mistake, and therefore provide some check against repetition, even though over time the US proved to be a remarkably forgiving father figure. But that was before the Bush regime took power and gave Israel the green light to pursue its own vision of moral clarity. The result of that license is that now, when Israel commits an atrocity like Qana, the US automatically shares a substantial share of the blame. How much is still hard to tell. We know, for instance, that Israel had detailed plans for attacking Hezbollah long before the latter group offered them an excuse to implement them. We don't know, however, to what extent those plans were shared with, vetted and approved by the US. We do know that the US is at least as intimately involved in Israel's operation as Iran and/or Syria are with Hezbollah -- that much is established merely by the flow of weapons and cash. We also know that the US NSA provides signals intelligence to Israel -- that is discussed at some length in the Suskind book. We've seen that Israel has what looks like satellite imagery of Lebanon -- helps them with targeting precision -- which would also come from the US. And clearly there has been extensive collaboration on the anti-diplomatic front. But what about the war plans?
I've come to suspect that expanding the War on Terrorism into Lebanon was actively encouraged by Bush, Cheney, or whoever calls the shots on this. The conventional wisdom has long been that Israel was useless in the War on Terror because an active Israel alliance would be poison on the Arab "hearts and minds" front. However, it's easy to imagine someone saying, what's the point of having this superb military ally right in the region if we can't use them to help our cause? Given the situation in Iraq, the US has worse problems than hypothetical "hearts and minds": open a second (actually, more like third and fourth) front and maybe some of the jihadis will flock elsewhere, taking pressure off Baghdad. Expanding the war effectively gives the US a quick injection of manpower and firepower. Also puts Syria and Iran on edge, hopefully on their best behavior, making the consequences of offending us all the more palpable.
That this now looks like a superdumb losing strategy doesn't prove that it wasn't pushed before the fact. The neocons have been so optimistic before -- even if the US military disappointed them, their admiration for Israel is, or was, untarnished. More points can be established to support this thesis, starting with the inclusion of Hamas and Hezbollah on the terrorism list, and including the diplomatic pressure that drove Syria out of the country, leaving Lebanon relatively defenseless -- or so they thought. Maybe that's the real mistake, and the murder at Qana is just a cover-up for public consumption. Nobody's going to pay for that, anyway.
Saturday, July 29. 2006
Before we were so rudely interrupted, I read and was going to comment on Ron Suskind's The One Percent Solution. This book is an account of the War on Terror, from a quasi-insider perspective, where the insider view closely resembles that of George Tenet at the CIA. A reviewer at the New York Times called the book a "quarter Woodward" -- meaning an insider account like those Bob Woodward does, but with far fewer sources. The similarity may be true, but it also means far fewer deals and compromises with his sources. Suskind certainly makes an effort at rehabilitating Tenet, stressing his interpersonal talents and work ethic, but he's not interested in apologia so much as getting to what happened, and what went wrong.
I've quoted what for me were the most revealing quotes in the book in a post already: Bush's Israel policy -- "We're going to tilt back toward Israel" -- and encouraging words for Ariel Sharon, Bush's belief that, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." We've seen just how that policy and those words have played out in the last few weeks. It's useful to be able to link them back to Bush's pre-crisis outburst.
The rest of this post will be more sections I marked while reading the book. The first is on the genesis and scope of the War on Terror (p. 19):
Since the list of terrorist groups soon came to include Hamas and Hezbollah, this suggests that the plan to vanquish Israel's enemies was part of Bush's program from the very start. The first heady days of Israel's pounding of Hezbollah may have looked like the belated opening of another major front of the War on Terror, to go with the much touted "central front" in Iraq. But in doing so, the War on Terror became a joint US-Israeli production, with the US picking up all of Israel's liabilities in the bargain. Given how Iraq has gone, the Bush braintrust may have figured that Israel is the only route forward. Not limiting the scope at the start opened the door for Iraq, for Palestine, for Lebanon, for Syria, for Iran, for the neocon's whole shopping list. It also ensured the tragic failure of endless war. Of course, that was part of the point -- they just thought they'd do better at it, in large part because they viewed Israel's ability to stretch their wars out from 1947 or 1937 to the present as a measure of success.
I marked the part where Suskind quotes Bush from the "axis of evil" speech (pp. 80-81):
This gives the speech a church revival air, with the applause at the end erupting as spontaneous self-congratulation for taking such a staunch stand against sin. But the effect is that Bush deliberately tied his hands to avoid any temptation to shortchange the good fight. Concentrating on the enemy's evilness left whatever we might have done unexamined and irrelevant. But revivals are far more impressive to those who participate than to outsiders, who easily see through the chest-thumping. Like so many accomplishments of the Bush reign, this one was a chimerical victory of rhetoric over reality.
One merit of the Suskind book is that it marches us back through events with a little added information, albeit with a CIA slant. On Afghanistan (pp. 96-99):
Reality construction has been a major concern of the Bush cabal from the beginning, so this is just one example. On to Iraq (p. 123):
Again, the belief that force would clarify things. Bush shaped both policy and information in peculiar ways, as evidenced by this quote about CIA executive briefings (p. 182):
There are many stories in the book about instances where Bush presses for operational details on various suspects or threats or, mostly, unsubstantiated rumors. His preference for action over analysis is singular. But one thing he never asks is why someone would engage in terror or, for that matter, opposition to the US. That question was answered a priori, by faith. Again on Iraq, but really on the underlying precepts (pp. 214-215):
One thing that Suskind is relatively sharp at is in drawing out the connections between Bush's personality and policy. The book has many stories about people identified as terrorists and captured or missed. One was Yusef al-Ayeri, a Saudi known as "Swift Sword" (p. 235):
Of course, we don't need to take al Qaeda's word that the Iraq war played right into their hands. One question no one has addressed so far is who, if anyone, in the US government made an effort to seriously raise the question. Given that CIA al Qaeda experts like Michael Scheuer have opposed the Iraq war, you'd think that they'd take the lead, but their usual critique stops with misdirection of resources. But then they were as committed to violence against their targets as Cheney and Rumsfeld were against Iraq. As far as I know, only antiwar leftists raised the issue.
Suskind quotes Rumsfeld's Oct. 16, 2003 memo with questions about how to measure success in the Global War on Terrorism. Two that strike me as particularly interesting are: "How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools?"; and "Should we create a private foundation to entice radical madrasses to a more moderate course?" Such abiding faith in the power of propaganda to manipulate people, and so little interest in addressing any real issues that may be bothering people, and that would continue to bother people even after massive investments in propaganda! Suskind comments (pp. 276-277):
Well, "catalytic" wasn't the right word, and Suskind as well as Rumsfeld is hung up on those madrassas -- they're basically the equivalent of Christian home schooling over here, where the big problem isn't the bad stuff they teach but the ignorance they don't seek to overcome. But the memo does indicate that even Rumsfeld is beginning to there's something more going on beyond his precepts. Another interesting quote, following the Madrid bombings (p. 303):
Of course, this wasn't publicized (pp. 304-305):
And far be it from someone like Kerry to question this and risk breaching national security, opening America up to another 9/11 attack. Also unpublicized was the CIA's analysis of how bin Laden's pre-election message served Bush's interests -- a story that has been widely quoted from the book.
The book winds down with a few pages on the post-Tenet CIA and Porter Goss (pp. 334-335):
I reading this book I have to admit that sometimes I found what the CIA was doing to be reasonable and useful, even though most of the effort ranged from wasted to counterproductive. But the core problem at CIA and everywhere else was, and still is, the notion that you can fix the problem of terrorism by some combination of intelligence gathering, force, and propaganda, without ever having to consider, let alone change, any of the behavior that inspired terrorists in the first place. That falls back to first assumptions not just of Bush but the whole right wing in America.
Friday, July 28. 2006
Another good letter appeared in the Wichita Eagle a couple of days ago. The writer is Dick Williams, of Wichita -- don't know him. The title is "Overstated case":
This may be the most sensible thing I've read in the last 2-3 weeks. It certainly cuts right through the cant Bush, Blair and Rice have been spouting about not wanting a ceasefire because it might be broken some time in the future.
Thursday, July 27. 2006
Some reading on Israel that I've found useful:
There's probably a lot more to cite: Billmon's been particularly sharp on this, Juan Cole less so but still useful and still mostly tied down with Iraq, while Helena Cobban -- as knowledgeable as anyone on Lebanon -- is off in Uganda. Looked at some others -- quite a bit at Counterpunch, including Uri Avnery and Robert Fisk; War in Context; Abu Aardvark.
One old fact that struck me here was that the excuse for the 1982 war was the attempted assassination of Israel's ambassador to Great Britain. Clearly, the relationship there of stimulus to response was completely arbitrary: it could have been anything, and it was bound to be something. In some ways this wasn't as big a stretch as in 1982, but clearly Israel was spoiling for a fight, and leapt at the opportunity. One thing that we don't know is to what extent this contingency had been discussed with the Bush regime. Clearly, the decision to launch the attack on Lebanon was made so hastily that the Washington bureaucracy -- e.g., the State Department -- couldn't have been in that loop, although some point-person at the top could have signed off and lined up support. The US never blinked on this war, and the US has stood so staunchly by Israel's side all along that nobody thinks this isn't America's war as much as Israel's. The whole Rice diplomacy charade, along with the rush to resupply Israel, could hardly be more blatant. I wonder how long it's going to be before the world's leaders, including 6/8 of the G8, get over their initial shock and start actually working to undercut and marginalize Bush.
Wednesday, July 26. 2006
Billmon has a post called "War by Tantrum" that cites two quotes I want to comment on. The first is from the Jerusalem Post:
As Billmon notes, the Romans had rules like that. As he doesn't note, so did the Nazis. All three reflect blind faith in absolute violence, the belief that any problem can be solved by beating it to death. There are lots of problems with this. It shows the world that you have no scruples, but perhaps more importantly it shows that you don't know who your enemy is, so you're blindly flailing. The result is that you almost never actually hit anything that might do you some good, even if the theory worked, which mostly it doesn't. For example, in 2001-02, Israel blamed all suicide bombers on Yassir Arafat. Hamas would blow something up, so Israel would take it out on Arafat. That hardly discouraged Hamas, at least until they saw that every time Israel kicked Arafat his popularity went up.
We keep reading about behaviorism -- the idea that you can train a dog or a child to behave by hitting him when he misbehaves. Well, sometimes that works, but sometimes it just makes him scared or skittish or plain mean, and sometimes if he's big and clever enough he'll learn to hit you back, maybe even when you're not looking. But it never works if all you do is hit someone else. And the fact that you can't tell the difference or don't care isn't something he's going to compensate for.
Second quote comes from Ha'aretz:
This quote followed a discussion of military tactics which breaks down to who's more willing to risk their lives to achieve their goals -- or, as Billmon puts it, "whether a more affluent, less mobilized Israeli society can still absorb the kind of punishment required to slug it out on the ground with Hezbollah." The irony in all this is that the neocons got snookered worse than anyone in thinking of Israel as the model the American military should aspire to. The fact is that Israel hasn't had anything resembling a clean military victory since 1967. The War of Attrition with Egypt was exactly that. 1973 was a draw perceived as a psychological defeat. Lebanon was a bloody, pointless mess from the very start, dragged out to 18 years only to give Hezbollah training. The counter-intifadas were like trying to fight roaches by pummelling them with garbage.
To be fair, America hasn't done any better, unless you're still excited by Grenada. Korea was a draw. Vietnam was a flat-out loss. The Cuba invasion never got off the beach. Panama was good for one kidnapping then a hasty retreat. Kuwait left Iraq as an open sore, then you know what happened when they opened that one up again. Afghanistan is a slow burn. The War on Terrorism has left its Most Wanteds at large. The War on Drugs hasn't made a dent. The War on Poverty was quietly abandoned, at least until Bush revised the semantics. The last winner we had was WWII, and that was won by manufacturing, logistics and engineering -- as Billmon points out, not by the will to fight, which the Germans and Russians were far more effective at mustering.
The neocons, both American and Israeli, don't understand a lot of things, but at the top of their list is that, while we like everyone else will fight for our homes, we don't really want to go somewhere else and fight to take or crush someone else's homes, especially when they're willing to fight back, and we might get killed or maimed. The only way the US can staff its military is by promising folks that their tours will be virtually riskless -- which thanks to the neocons is getting tougher and tougher, and it shows. Israel still has universal military draft -- well, nearly universal, except for the Arabs they don't trust and the ultra orthodox who get a pass -- but even they are so used to riskless conflict that the real thing is shocking. The fact is, very few people these days want anything to do with war. The destruction is extraordinary and mutual, the chances of gain are negligible. Why do these war mongers even exist?
Heard a quote attributed to Hezbollah today that said that they hadn't realized that their little kidnapping caper would elicit the massive reaction that it has. Think about what that quote means: First of all, it means that even Hezbollah underestimated Israel's inhumanity.
I'm afraid that I've underestimated Israel as well. It's been clear for some time now that their lunatic fringe has started to flirt with the idea of genocide. But Israel's plan to create a security zone in southern Lebanon begins to look like the real thing. They've dropped leaflets warning the people who live there to leave. Given the terror bombing and the cutoff of supplies most of those people have indeed become refugees. Israel has further decided that anyone who doesn't heed their warning is ipso facto a Hezbollah terrorist -- such people are deemed valid targets, to be killed during the invasion. The goal, in other words, is to totally clear south Lebanon of its people. To keep them from returning, everything will be destroyed, rendering the land as uninhabitable as possible. Systemmatically clearing a land and eradicating its population: maybe that's not the exact definition of genocide, but it's morally equivalent.
At least, this is what Israel has started to do, and it's what Israel insists is its plan and desire for south Lebanon. Whether it happens or not depends on several factors: how much time the Bush cabal can buy with Rice's diplomatic charade, directed at everyone but the cause of this crisis; how long and how fiercely Hezbollah manages to hold out; how much stomach Israel really has for continuing their war crimes. What Israel is doing is hard to grasp because it is so vile and so stupid. Even if Israel at first looks successful, Hezbollah will infiltrate back into the area, because that's their home. And they will bring their weapons and their memories, including the lessons Israel teaches them: that borders are meaningless, that nothing matters but force.
It's very rare in one's life when you witness an event and know that it changes everything. I didn't recognize that moment on 9/11 because I didn't realize how utterly deranged the US response would be: and not just the Bush response; he had plenty of help, but his blind, stupid rage amplified America's basest emotions when what was urgently needed was a sanity check. But Israel's senseless destruction of Lebanon is clearly just such a turning point. These are the images that will forever be associated with the Jewish State, and that will forever condemn it among the rogues of history. I always thought that a sensible accommodation between Israel and its Arab neighbors and residents could be easily achieved with just a little good will. But all that's been put behind us now. I blame Bush, who based his Israel policy on the idiotic notion that, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." It sure has.
Tuesday, July 25. 2006
Tony Karon's post on "Six Fallacies of the U.S. Hizballah Campaign" is well worth reading. His six fallacies are:
Before getting to the fallacies, Karon addresses the question of whether Iran is driving the conflict. He argues no, for reasons I've already gone into plus a few more. He also quotes Mark Perry ("a U.S. analyst involved in ongoing talks with Hizballah") on how this all started:
This is a perfectly plausible story. Once this small incident broke, everything else raced up the chain of command. Israel had just responded massively to a similar incident in Gaza, and had long planned for the same in Lebanon, so their instinct was to respond exactly the same way -- except that in attacking a much more heavily armed Hizballah they quickly bit off a much larger war. Still, the circumstances that let the incident blow up were largely constructed by Israel -- in particular, the "iron wall" doctrine, which arguably worked to bring stability against the independent Arab states, but drops the threshhold for violence so low that non-state actors can easily trip it.
On the other hand, Hizballah -- still following Karon's spelling here, at least the third different one I've used in the last week; so sorry about that -- amassed its weapons cache as a deterrent. A sensible Israeli government would have been deterred, lest they just encourage a further arms race, but another facet of the "iron wall" doctrine is that Israel cannot be deterred -- Israel must be fearless in crushing its opponents, otherwise it will be vulnerable to them. Hard to say whether the psychology of the Holocaust feeds into this -- the idea that the world would do anything just to kill Jews -- or is merely a convenient cloak for plain old fashioned bullying.
It's worth noting that Hizballah didn't use its missile arsenal on Israel until Israel started bombing Lebanon. Of course, once the bombing started, Hizballah had no choice -- at least under the logic of deterrence -- except to return fire. Otherwise, Israel will never show them any respect. The only fault in this logic is that Israel didn't fear Hizballah enough to hold back. Rather, they plunged in whole hog, inviting Hizballah to hit them with everything they had. If both sides respected each other's power, this war would not have happened. But when one side thinks it's too powerful to be deterred by the other, that creates an unstable situation where any small incident can escalate to war. In the case of Gaza, Israel never had much to fear -- in large part that's why that story has disappeared. But with Lebanon, Israel is finally getting a taste of its own medicine. In such a situation it's cold comfort to know that you're inflicting more damage than you're sustaining -- any damage at all argues that Israel's political leaders have failed in their promise to protect the security of the Israeli people.
The political upshot of all this remains to be seen, but several points should be obvious: Israel's unilateralist policies are simply unable to cower either the Palestinians or other Arabs into submission, and therefore are unable to provide Israel with security; Israel's hair-trigger escalation to massive collective punishment only shows the world how brutally racist Israel has become; Israel's political leadership has backed into an untenable position, where reinforcing their threats only discredits them further, with no hope of attaining goals that when tested are unobtainable. The US is complicit in this, not so much because of the historical alliance as because the Bush regime has been seduced by the same dream of superpowerdom -- which, it's worth noting, they mostly learned from Israel. Sooner or later this should cause both regimes to fall under the dead weight of their delusions, but as we've seen they are capable of truly dreadful things before that happens.
It's worth emphasizing that this war is the result of bad ideas foolishly pursued by people too enamored with their presumed great powers. The old saw that absolute power corrupts absolutely is once again much in evidence.
The Wichita Eagle published a letter by Laura Tillem today, under the title "Israel's choke hold is unrelenting":
We had a demonstration against the war here in Wichita Saturday evening. Had at least 100 people marching, counting a few small kids, a couple in strollers.
Monday, July 24. 2006
I'm going to call this the official end of prospecting for Jazz Consumer Guide #10. Not quite done with the draft -- 1628 words at the moment, which is about what will ultimately run, but I still have two critical reviews to write: the second Pick Hit, and the all-important Dud of the Month. Once I get those written I'll have more than will fit, so that will be that. I figure I'll be able to get the draft to the editor by Wednesday. Indications are that it will be edited within a week, and that it will run sometime -- no date yet -- in August.
Update: Got the two key missing reviews in the bag, plus some more, bringing word count to 2315, record count to 43 (20 graded, 23 additional). This still may change before I send the draft in, and some of the above won't fit. Also updated the prospecting file. The total number of records prospected for this round is 244. If you follow the blog regularly, you know about all of them. Those who only read the Voice just get the executive summary.
Mike Stern: Who Let the Cats Out? (2006, Heads Up): Pretty ugly cats, if you ask me. Stern's guitar is only half ugly, which is the least he can do for what's basically a fusion album: lots of electric bass, some gratuitous sax from Bob Franceschini, two dishes of Roy Hargrove trumpet, two more of Gregoire Maret harmonica, the usual keybs. Only thing that bothers me much is Richard Bona's vocals: don't see any point, even as scat, which is sort of the fallback position once you realize you've nothing to say. Not sure this is worth a Dud slot, but he did get his mug on the cover of Downbeat. B-
John McLaughlin: Industrial Zen (2006, Verve): I was originally scheduled to write up an entry on McLaughlin for the Rolling Stone Guide, but it got scrubbed when we ran into a disagreement about some early records I hadn't been able to dig up. I did manage to get all of his Verve records, which carry on from 1986, but in the rush I never got around to playing, much less digesting, all of them. This one makes me wish I had those records under my belt, but I'm not sure it's going to inspire me to do the research. I'm also not sure they'd help much. Despite a couple of nods to India -- specifically, two vocals by Shankar Mahadevan that actually seem a bit out of place, and two more cuts with Zakir Hussain on tabla -- this is a heavy-duty fusion album, much heavier than anything I've heard him do since the early '70s. The difference from the '70s is more programming, and I'm not sure that that's a plus. Nor does the spot sax from Bill Evans and Ada Rovatti, mostly soprano, help much. When he cranks it up it sounds good but not all that interesting. That's always been a risk with fusion. [B]
D.D. Jackson: Serenity Song (2006, Justin Time): The core trio here looks promising, with bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Dafnis Prieto joining the pianist. Jackson was a student of Don Pullen, and every now and then you hear something that only comes out of Pullen's bag -- rare and welcome sounds. But most of the pieces have something more: Sam Newsome's soprano sax on four, Christian Howes's violin on five, Dana Leong's trombone on one and cello on two, with some duplicates along the way. I'm never one to complain about trombone, but the others are mixed blessings. The strings add little more than a glistening thickener, but the sax takes over -- once to impressive effect, but I'm less sure about the others. [B+(**)]
World Saxophone Quartet: Political Blues (2006, Justin Time): Jaleel Shaw is the fourth sax these days, but only one cut here sticks to the original Quartet conception, and even that one just adds a curtain of harmony to a David Murray solo. I've never much liked Julius Hemphill's original concept even though my admiration for the individuals (Hemphill included) is nearly boundless. So the fact that the rest of the cuts have bass and drums is welcome -- the springboard, I think, so some of the most glorious honking in the three mainstay's careers. The political themes are less incisive than I'd like -- David Murray's line, "the Republican Party is not very nice," may be the first understatement in his career. (He was trying to come up with a rhyme for Rice, like "screws you twice" or "sucks like lice" or "pulls a heist.") Oliver Lake rants on the New Orleans smackdown. Hamiet Bluiett comes up with the sharpest concept, "Amazin' Disgrace," but winds up short for words. One guest who does have the words is Craig Harris, who takes his home turf's neocons on in "Bluocracy." Blood Ulmer also sings one, but the best he can come up with is "Mannish Boy" -- good enough you won't mind, even if you have to wonder. Americans hate politics, and with all due respect to Mingus, so do these guys. But when they get their blood up, they sure can blow. A
Adam Lane's Full Throttle Orchestra: New Musical Kingdom (2001-04 , Clean Feed): Looks like Lane's a guy worth keeping tabs on. This is one of several groups/configurations he runs -- the only one I've heard before is a trio with Vinny Golia, but their first record has made my A-list, and I'm ticked off that CIMP didn't send the follow-up as well. This particular group appears to be six pieces, more or less: trumpet, two saxes, electric guitar, bass and drums. They have a previous album on Cadence called No(w) Music, which I haven't heard. This one was pieced together from two sets of sessions, with Lynn Johnston's baritone sax replacing Jeff Chan's tenor sax on the latter. Lane plays bass, and it's safe to say he's studied his Mingus -- for his bass, of course, but also for his compositional approach, and perhaps even more importantly for his skill at taking a mid-sized group and making them sound monstrous. One play doesn't begin to reveal everything that's going on here -- thus far the only track that's sunk in is the last one, something called "The Schnube." Will get back to it in due course. [B+(**)]
Terra Hazelton: Anybody's Baby (2004, HealyOPhonic): Jeff Healey's sometime singer, she has more growl than purr in her voice, which probably suits her more for rockabilly like "Long As I'm Movin'" than the trad jazz her band, with guest spots from Marty Grosz, plays so well. No complaints about the band, but the most touching thing here is the closer, a country-ish thing she sings over nothing but her own strummed guitar. B+(***)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Fattigfolket: Le Chien et la Fille (2005 , ILK): Four musicians from Norway and Sweden. Recorded in France. Released in Denmark. Trumpet, sax, bass and drums -- gives them two leads, some harmonic options, no chords to tie them down. Mostly mid-tempo or slower, graceful, elegant, but parts kick in above the ECM line. B+(**)
Pierre Dørge & New Jungle Orchestra: Negra Tigra (2005 , ILK): Herb Robertson adds to a lineup that is already heavy on brass and pushes them uncomfortably close to the brink. Crowding ten musicians onto two microphones also adds to the raw edge of the sound. The pieces demonstate that the this time the jungle is in Vietnam, although they don't integrate eastern sounds nearly as well as Billy Bang has done. But the five "Negra Tigra" fragments that frame the pieces take "Tiger Rag" into the scrappy jungle of the avant-garde, and that's what they do best. B+(**)
Mold: Rotten in Rødby (2005 , ILK): Another two horn quartet -- Anders Banke on saxes and clarinets, Stephan Meinberg on trumpets -- only with Mark Solborg's guitars and gadgets instead of bass. Can play dense and rockish or loose and free. Don't know much about the group: three Danes, one German, met in New York, one previous album, they like to muck around with capitalization, usually spelling the group name moLd. There must be a dozen more or less comparable groups in Scandinavia -- would be a project to sort them out, and may become worth tackling before too long. B+(**)
Ab Baars Quartet: Kinda Dukish (2005 , Wig): Ten Ellington pieces, played more than loose -- in most cases only snatches of the familiar themes emerge unscathed. Baars plays clarinet more than tenor sax, so the heft added by trombonist Joost Buis is essential. B+(**)
The Bennie Maupin Ensemble: Penumbra (2003 , Cryptogramophone): I know very little by Maupin -- certainly nothing that sounds like this. Looked him up on AMG and their Similar Artists list starts: Branford Marsalis, David Murray, Howard Johnson, Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson. Can't imagine what they have in common, much less in common with Maupin. Chico Freeman is the next guy on the list (maybe he's plausible) then Marty Ehrlich and George Coleman -- huh? Maupin's main instrument here is bass clarinet, followed by tenor and soprano sax, alto flute, and piano. The Ensemble adds bass, drums, percussion, working around whatever Maupin brings front and center. Mostly he brings an attractive, loose, low key album, that does little to resolve his stylistic affinities. Maybe he doesn't have any. B+(*)
Carl Maguire: Floriculture (2002 , Between the Lines): This recalls Monk's quartet, both in lineup and in the trickiness of the compositions: the leader plays piano while alto saxophonist Chris Mannigan tries to negotiate the unexpected changes. But whereas Monk mostly found odd notes that somehow worked, Maguire is more devious in his twists and inversions. It's a credit to the band that they hold it all together -- especially bassist Trevor Dunn, who gets the added challenge of a tribute to Mark Dresser. B+(***)
Johnnie Valentino: Stingy Brim (2004 , Omnitone): What's immediately striking here is the instrumentation. Three-fifths of the group would make an organ-guitar-drums trio, but their music eschews groove for shifty postmodernist patterns. The other two-fifths are horns, but they're meant to provide an old sound: Bob Sheppard favors clarinet over tenor sax, and Randy Jones plays tuba in its ancient bass mode. Organist Mick Rossi also plays harmonium, mixing a little Italian roots music into the New Orleans mud. The leader plays guitar. The promo sheet says he "grew up in the '60s and '70s in a predominantly Italian South Philadelphia neighborhood filled with musicians, including guitarists Eddie Lang and Pat Martino." Lang died in 1933, so that's a faux pas, even if he's a certain influence. Martino was more direct, but Valentino's heady mix of old and new moves well beyond his mentors. B+(***)
Avishai Cohen: Continuo (2005 , RazDaz/Sunnyside): Bassist-led piano trio, with Amos Hoffman's oud added on half of the cuts to heighten the Middle Eastern influences. No political statement, but my considerable distance the continuum between Israeli and Lebanese music is more pronounced than its disjunction. The cover depicts a man, back turned to the camera, walking up a barren hill -- reminds me of sunburnt badlands in Wyoming at the end of summer, but could be Israel, or Lebanon, or points east like Syria or Jordan. Without idiots running around with guns it's hard to tell, and pleasing not to care. I do have some reservations about Cohen's fondness for classical music, which show up most prominently on "Arava." But the two electric bass pieces at the end more than make up for it. B+(***)
Jessica Williams: Billy's Theme: A Tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor (2006, Origin): Two caveats here. One is that I'm not familiar enough with Taylor to figure out how these pieces -- all Williams originals, so most certainly not even in Taylor's songbook -- link up. The other is that I'm rarely smitten by solo piano, and when it does happen it's usually someone with enough left hand to keep a whole rhythm section running. This is not one of those moments -- the record is patient and introspective, but I'm drawn into it anyway. Nor is this the first time she's overcome my prejudices. B+(***)
Marc Cary: Focus (2006, Motema Music): Looks like Cary's main business -- can't say about interests -- is in taking his Fender Rhodes into funkier territory than the usual smooth jazz jive, but this is a conventional acoustic piano trio and the fare is respectable postbop, a bit faster and louder than usual. Cary has some impressive credentials, including a stint working for Betty Carter, and can clearly go anywhere he wants. David Ewell plays bass and Samir Gupta drums plus a little tabla -- nice touch, he might be another name to remember. B+(**)
Metta Quintet: Subway Songs (2005 , Sunnyside): From "Morning Rush" to "Evening Rush," most pieces start with a bit of subway noise then flower into delicate, exquisitely detailed postbop. Only five pieces, with Mark Gross's alto sax offset by Marcus Strickland on tenor, soprano and bass clarinet; Helen Sung's tart piano, Joshua Ginsberg's bass, and H. Benjamin Schuman's drums. Schuman founded an educational outfit, JazzReach, which this group is tied with. Makes some sense that they all teach, given how close to the state of the art their music feels. I usually like it a little rougher, but this is so slick my druthers can't get much traction. B+(**)
Helen Sung Trio: Helenistique (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Don't know when or where she was born, but her "Chinese heritage" was tempered by growing up in Houston, and she got a couple of music degrees in Austin before switching to jazz, following the not-unusual track of study in Boston and career in New York. Plays piano. Has a quote on her website from a similar pianist named Kenny Barron, something about "her flawless technique, great imagination, great harmonic conception and real understanding of the language of jazz." As a critic, I probably would have fudged that a bit, but he's basically right on the money. One original here, "H*Town," leads off and reprised at the end, a vamp with some bite. It holds up as well as everything else -- pop standards, jazz standards including a Monk-Ellington-James P. Johnson sequence, Prince's "Alphabet Street" -- and there's something interesting going on in all of them. Comes with the Lewis Nash seal of approval. B+(***)
Bill Carrothers: Shine Ball (2003-04 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Was wondering whether I hadn't graded Helen Sung's piano trio too conservatively when I put this piano trio album on. Turns out conservatively is right. Sung builds on the tradition, but here Carrothers goes somewhere else. It's not just that he plays a prepared piano -- not sure what "foreign substances" were applied where, but the piano rarely sounds like anything other than a normal piano, while the occasional metallic noises sound like they may just as well be coming off Gordon Johnson's bass or Dave King's drum set. The analogy to the banned baseball pitch is that Carrothers also applied foreign substance to his piano. The idea is to surprise the batter, or listener, with an unpredictable break, but as with the pitch the real trick is control. As with many spitballers, the prepared piano may itself be a feint -- mostly the piano comes through clear and sharp, while the improvs sneak past. A-
Cuong Vu: It's Mostly Residual (2005, ArtistShare): I've heard Vu in interesting contexts before, and this got some play in last year's year-end lists, so I tracked it down. Mostly rather noisy fusion work built on Stomu Takeishi's bass riffs, with Ted Poor on drums and the leader on trumpet. I usually like Takeishi's work, but don't get much out of him here. More interesting is "Patchwork," which at least starts quiet and measured, where "recruited guest" Bill Frisell is conspicuously in the mix, then stretches out and breaks up a bit. B
Liberty Ellman: Ophiuchus Butterfly (2005 , Pi): English guitarist, hangs in avant circles in downtown New York. Leads a six piece group here, often just directing traffic between the three horns -- Steve Lehman on alto sax, Mark Shim on tenor sax, and Jose Davila on tuba -- which is all the trickier because the rhythms are so hacked up: "body-moving" is what he aims for, but that doesn't seem to mean all the body moving in the same direction. Don't think it quite comes together, but there's no shortage of interesting ideas here. B+(**)
Dave Liebman/Steve Swallow/Adam Nussbaum: We Three: Three for All (2005 , Challenge): I think they intended We Three for a group name, but I'm annoyed enough with the extra bookkeeping of dealing with ad hoc groups that I'll stick with the artists-first listing. The news here is that Liebman has finally turned in a good album after three or four duds in the time I've been doing Jazz CG. It helps that he's playing more tenor, but his soprano has something this time, and -- well, I didn't notice the flutes, so they must not be too bad. The bigger help is probably that he's got a rhythm section that keeps him on his game. Not exactly a breakthrough. Just very solid all around. B+(**)
Martin Speake: Change of Heart (2002 , ECM): English alto saxist. Don't know his other work, but this quartet with Bob Stenson on piano, Mick Hutton on bass, and Paul Motian on drums plays out thoughtfully. Stenson is probably the focal point. This is a good example of his work, and of Motian as well. The sax runs laconic and/or wistful -- nice, but alto seems a shade too bright for this music. B+(**)
"Killer" Ray Appleton/Melvin Rhyne: Latin Dreams (2004 , Lineage): Russian guitarist Ilya Lushtak honors his heroes by recording with them. On the Hank Jones/Frank Wess album, he mostly took a back seat, but on this organ trio plus congas -- Latin, get it? -- he fills a more critical role. May be too early to dub him the new Grant Green, but how about the new Billy Butler? B+(**)
Michael Musillami's Dialect: Fragile Forms (2006, Playscape): The guitarist's songs might not seem so fragile if pianist Michael Madsen treated them more gently, but that would miss the point, not to mention some terrific piano. Drew Gress and Matt Wilson square off the quartet, firming up the bottom. The only problem with focusing on the fractures is that is slights the Ellingtonian elegance of something like "Emmett Spencer." B+(***)
Shot x Shot (2005 , High Two): Philadelphia quartet, two saxes, bass and drums. Two of the guys, alto saxist Dan Scofield and bassist Matt Engle, also work with Sonic Liberation Front, but nothing Cuban here. I suspect that the effective leader is drummer Dan Capecchi, who wrote the first two pieces and sets the tone throughout. Mostly mid-tempo, with intertwined saxes and a lot of internal tension. B+(***)
Thomas Strønen: Parish (2005 , ECM): Norwegian drummer, the founder of Food, generally classified as a post-rock band, often dabbles in electronics. But this one is a straight acoustic jazz quartet firmly planted into ECM's old age Nordic aesthetic -- some irregularities in the percussion pop up here and there, but mostly the drummer goes with the mild flow set by Bobo Stenson's piano, Fredrik Ljungkvist's clarinet or tenor sax, and Mats Eilertsen's bass. Well done, especially for Stenson, and another facet to a musician worth watching. B+(**)
Thomas Strønen: Pohlitz (2006, Rune Grammofon): Norwegian drummer goes solo, jazz cred evidently secured by improvising it all live. The credits suffice as an outline: "beatable items, live electronic treatments, music." Not sure whether the latter is meant as a discreet input or the sum of the parts. Sounds a bit like Harry Partch to me, with chime-type objects but no strings. But he shows his jazz cred by swinging some. Been on the fence over this one for a good while -- it's rather slight, but in the end it's too fascinating to skip over. A-
Paul Motian: On Broadway Vol. 4 (2005 , Winter & Winter): Fifty years after he came of age in the Bill Evans Trio, Motian may still be the busiest drummer in jazz, with a dozen or more new albums over the last two years. But not he hardest working drummer. His secret is economy: no flash, nothing so tedious as keeping a beat, just a bare minimum to keep everyone on edge. He's stingy enough with this Trio + One that we won't let his two guests play on the same cut. Pianist Masabumi Kikuchi warms his spots up, while singer Rebecca Martin cuts hers back to a hushed stroll. In both cases the songs do the work, and Chris Potter's sax fills out the space. A-
Pierre Favre/Yang Jing: Two in One (2005 , Intakt): Primarily the work of Yang Jing, who plays pipa, a four-stringed lute-like instrument. She mastered it as a soloist in the Chinese National Orchestra. Takes a while, but it grows on you. Favre is a Swiss drummer, works mostly in avant-garde circles but his interests are pretty broad. His effect here is much less obvious, but at the very least he deserves credit for making this happen, and probably a good deal more. B+(**)
Michael Bates' Outside Sources: A Fine Balance (2004 , Between the Lines): Second album by this group -- the first was called Outside Sources and attributed to Michael Bates. But not really the same group -- this one expands from three to four, adding a trumpet to make your basic pianoless avant quartet. Up front are Kevin Turcotte on trumpet and Quinsin Nachoff on reeds. The leader plays bass and composes all the pieces, while Mark Timmermans drums. Lately quite a few groups have been structured like this: the format offers the two horns lots of options, but it also lets the bass run the pulse, which sets everything else up. Perhaps as many as a half dozen of my favorite albums over the last couple of years were set up this way. The difference between them and this one was that they usually featured great musicians, especially in the rhythm section -- William Parker and Hamid Drake, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway. I don't mean to knock Bates, who is a capable guy doing very interesting work here, but his group hasn't pushed itself to the forefront yet. B+(**)
Mujician: There's No Going Back Now (2005 , Cuneiform): This stalwart Anglo-improv quartet goes back to 1990, maybe earlier -- pianist Keith Tippett used the name in 1981 on a solo album, so how do you count that? The Penguin Guide files the group albums under saxophonist Paul Dunmall's name these days -- he's certainly the one who brings the noise. The others are Paul Rogers on bass and Tony Levin on drums. They are less prominent as leaders but have extensive discographies as well. Their circle is one that I've never really penetrated: I've heard five out of thirty albums Penguin Guide lists under Tippett and Dunmall, but can't say as I've made much sense out of them. This one doesn't help much either. There are moments of bracing sax, but they seem few and far between. There are moments when the piano or bass threatens to do something interesting, but they soon fade. Every now and then the record sort of drops into the subsonic realm, but only one piece is listed. Seems short, but 45:30 should be plenty to get your point across, if you have one. B
Trio 3 (Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille): Time Being (2005 , Intakt): Turns out that this group has at least three more albums under the Trio 3 name, so I've changed my attribution and filing here. The musicians' names figure large on the cover, as well they should, so we'll keep them up front here, in parens. Otherwise I'd just have to name them in the review body, then point out that what they do is pretty much what you'd expect them to do, given what they've each done, together and apart, over their collective hundred-plus man-years on jazz's leading edge. B+(***)
Eri Yamamoto: Cobalt Blue (2006, Thirsty Ear): This picks up nicely from her piano trio performance on William Parker's Luc's Lantern -- except, of course, bassist David Ambrosio doesn't make nearly as much of an impression as Parker. But most of this is upbeat, where she shows a strong left hand, and her touch is fine on the chillout closer. Covers of Porter, Gershwin, and a Japanese folk song, plus a batch of originals. B+(**)
NOW Orchestra & Marilyn Crispell: Pola (2004 , Victo): A large free jazz orchestra, led by Coat Cooke, based in Vancouver, provincial enough that they still feel the need to keep their anarchy intact. They've been around a long time -- at least since 1987, maybe longer -- but they only record when they get a guest, and Crispell is a dandy. I don't think she's ever recorded in a group like this -- one's tempted to compare them with Alex von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra, but the Germans are far more violent even if their pianist isn't. Crispell's solos are the gems here, but the ensemble work impresses more often than not. Could be I should hold this back in case it convinces me to slide it up a notch, but working near the deadline the best way to get it in is as what it certainly is, an honorable mention. B+(***)
Sunday, July 23. 2006
One reason for suspecting the US of suspect motives in Israel's rampage is that it's been so successful at pushing Iraq off the front of the news programs. While you were so distracted, Iraq has had one of the worst weeks since the occupation began. Still, that's not all a plus for the Bush regime: the Iraq timeslot has been so compressed there's no space at all for those countervailing "good news" stories you always hear that nobody is telling about. For instance, Dexter Filkins of New Pravda managed to find an Iraqi Sunni to come forward and beg the US to stay. Not that that's unadulterated good news. It's certainly not if anyone thinks the Shia militias are more dangerous than the Americans.
Israel's rampage has had another perverse effect on the news media: now they're counting days since the start of the war with Lebanon -- or Hezbollah, as they like to put it, but Hezbollah is very much a real part of Lebanon, and Israel doesn't make much of a distinction anyway. What's been lost in the coverage is what Israel's doing in the Occupied Territories these days. It was also lost in the day counter: evidently that stage of Israel's rampage doesn't count, even though it was the best war Israel could drum up until Hezbollah struck. In some ways this is the old story of the invisibility of the Palestinians. But it also emphasizes the main difference between the Palestinian and Lebanese stages of this war: Hezbollah matters more because only Hezbollah is capable of killing Israelis within Israel proper. So what this proves is what we should have realized by now: that Israeli lives count for much more than Lebanese lives, who in turn count for much more than Palestinian lives, at least as understood by our media.
I've added Robert Fisk's book on Israel's old war in Lebanon, Pity the Nation, to the reading sidebar. I actually read the book a couple of years ago, so it's not really current reading, but it's as good a place as any to start with to catch up with the past. Not that it covers everything: the book was originally published in 1990, which is basically where it ends, although the Nation Books paperback edition includes a preface written in 2002. Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World covers the outline of the war, at least from an Israeli viewpoint. It doesn't have the visceral impact of Fisk's book, but is critical enough to be useful. I bought but haven't tackled Fisk's more recent The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East -- at 1136 pages, it's far more than I want to tackle, but I have at least pulled it off the shelf, and may at least poke around in it.
Actually, probably the best historical outline I know of on Lebanon is a videotaped lecture by Ahmad Dallal, which was part of A Jewish Voice for Peace's 2002 series How Did We Get Here?. The main problem is that the sound quality on the tape is atrocious -- so bad that we skipped over the tape when we showed the rest of the series here in Wichita a couple of years ago. But I did write a handout to go with the lecture, and this provides a useful chronology. Wish I had a transcript of the lecture. (The link to the videotapes is broken, and I can't find another link at this point, so this plug may be for nought.) Wouldn't be a bad idea to dig out that videotape and show it, warts and all. Would be an even better idea for someone competent to film a new lecture by Dallal.
The Tanya Reinhardt book is another that I had read some time ago, but dug out based on relevance to current events. I pulled it out for a quote on Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, which neither settled the old war nor foreclosed a new one. I'll add books like this to the sidebar as events unfold and I see fit. Meanwhile, I'm reading about future disasters, even while distracted by current ones.
Saturday, July 22. 2006
There's a commonplace saying that goes: everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. Yet when people debate various aspects of Israel's current, as yet unnamed, war, one thing that should be obvious to all now is that we do not have a single authoritative set of facts to refer to. This is largely because most of the decisions that directed, provoked and/or escalated this war were made in secrecy, and no one has yet been able to debrief those actors and build up a coherent narrative of who did what, when, where, and why. But this is also because the Israeli and US governments and allied organizations have worked hard at pushing a particular story line that suits their political interests, and thus far this story line has been largely accepted at face value by the US media and its band of merry helpers, the organized punditry. Yet much of this official story line makes little sense. The likelihood that it is true as stated is very low. Indeed, we can look back at past story lines that came from the same sources and see a very poor track record -- not that many people have managed to straighten out the lies and innuendos they were originally told. The people who spin out these stories have a lot of experience with what works -- at least what they can get away with, at least well enough to suit their purposes. That is a large part of the reason Israel has been so successful in the propaganda war. There, at least, they are battling an enemy they know well, one they've repeatedly been able to subdue: the American people.
In theory, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran could be waging their own propaganda war as well. They are, however, at a considerable disadvantage. After all, the first two are officially outlawed, so anyone willing to help them could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting terrorists. They also have communications problems, given that the NSA is likely to feed any electronic surveillance they come across to Israel for bombing. Syria and Iran have no better standing, even if they have more resources. Moreover, each of these organizations has propaganda interests that distinctly differ from the US public: they need first of all to reinforce their support in their own communities, then to obtain support from sympathetic communities. The US public is clearly a prize they can't win and a luxury they can't afford. One consequence of this is that if we want to get to the bottom of this story -- to understand what has happened and what is likely to happen -- we have to approach what we've been told, which almost all comes from one very biased party, with skepticism and seek out countervailing facts wherever possible. To make sense of the story, we first of all have to make it make sense.
As I see it, there are several key questions for which we have no real answers -- at least beyond what the official story line implausibly tells us. These are (in bold below):
Did the elected Hamas officials in Palestine choose to initiate hostilities by tunnelling under that border post and kidnapping that Israeli soldier? It's probably safe to assume that Israel's retaliation was predictable, and therefore a consequence of the Palestinian action. (This is not to say that the retaliation was what Israel should have done -- just what it was going to do, and that Hamas had every reason to expect Israel to do just that. I don't know this for a fact, but I strongly suspect that Hamas has a pretty accurate understanding of how Israel behaves.) So the question is whether provoking this assault was a strategic move on the part of Hamas. If so, we would then need to understand why. But I suspect that the incident was not directed by Hamas political leadership, and therefore had no strategic meaning. At the time, Israel was hard pressed to establish any such connection, blaming a Hamas splinter group working with non-Hamas groups and some possible connection to a Hamas factional leadership in Syria -- and therefore implying some sort of official Syrian connection.
If Hamas didn't direct the raid that captured the Israeli soldier, who did? And why? I imagine that there are a number of small groups that could have chosen independently to mount this operation, but the sophistication of the attack -- tunnelling under the border -- and the evident intent to negotiate a prisoner exchange suggest that this had some degree of organization with external communications. In other words, while the operation may not have been directed by Hamas, it was also not a totally ad hoc event -- although it's worth noting that the way Israel positioned itself could have made it possible for a single madman to trigger the whole massive retaliation. Presumably the options for who include Islamic Jihad and various disaffected factions of Hamas and Fatah: what they have in common is a belief that there is no viable political path to securing Palestinian rights from Israel -- in other words, that the only way to get Israel to change is to apply force. (This is, as far as it goes, a sobering analysis. Israel certainly has a lot of faith in the efficacy of force, and that lesson has not been lost on many Palestinians.) Other options include agents of other governments: Syria and Iran are the ones the official line wants to implicate, but it is very unlikely that either operational capability in Gaza. A far more likely agency would be Israel. They certainly have intelligence operatives in Gaza. They have a long, albeit only spottily documented, history of subversive operations. And they have a fairly good motive, given their extensive war plans. I don't want to go overboard pursuing this line -- never cared for conspiracy theories, and this one is almost reflexive in some quarters -- but the fact is that nothing Israel does in this area is transparent, and it can't be ruled out on grounds of scruples.
The why question needs to be delimited lest we drag in the whole history of the conflict, which is, of course, the real why. We need to focus on Israel's predictable response, who benefits from that, and why. This rules out one common war rationale, at least from the Palestinian side: the idea that you're strong enough to press your advantage. The Palestinians had no credible advantage, no way to force Israel to do anything, so no hope of conventional success in starting this. So the question from their standpoint boils down to: did they somehow conclude that getting pounded by Israel would be preferable to the status quo? The usual answer to that question is that the Palestinian militants feel that it is necessary to remind Israel that they won't just lie down and submit to Israeli force -- in effect, that no matter what Israel throws at them, they shall persevere, fight back as best they can, and press on. A variation is that by fighting back they return at least some of the pain they received, reminding Israel that their acts have costs. In order to gauge how realistic such a position is, you have to look at what Israel was doing before the incident, and ask whether Palestinians could afford to stand by defenseless without replying somehow.
Did Hezbollah leadership, specifically Sheikh Nasrallah, direct the raid on Israel's northern border outpost that resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers? And if so, what was the strategy? Again, I think it's fair to assume that Hezbollah leadership could have anticipated what Israel would do in response to such an attack. (In fact, they took the trouble of setting up an ambush in case Israeli soldiers stormed over the border following the attack. The soldiers obliged, and four more were killed, so you'd have to say that they thought the attack through at least that far.) Again, I don't know, but it does seem likely that Nasrallah and Hezbollah knew what they were doing and acted deliberately for some form of strategic reasoning. Just what that was is hard to say, but it is very likely that the following figured into the calculation: a long list of outstanding complaints against Israel including the Shaba Farms border dispute and numerous Lebanese held in Israeli prisons; substantial international pressure that persuaded Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and that sought to disarm Hezbollah, which would leave them defenseless against future Israeli attacks; their ability to amass a rather substantial quantity of weapons, which at least for now put them in a relative position of strength; various aspects of events in Gaza, including solidarity with Palestinians including Hamas, and the perception that Israel may be weakening itself, at least in terms of public relations, by the brutality of their attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. Most decisions to start a war are based on a complicated calculus of pluses and minuses over time. Hezbollah may have been willing to risk war if they thought that war with Israel was inevitable sooner or later and that they were stronger now than they might be in the future. In this regard, success of US and Israeli efforts to marginalize Hezbollah and its principal weapons suppliers in Syria and Iran would only have served to precipitate a Hezbollah decision to go to war.
The next question is whether the governments of Syria and/or Iran had anything to do with directing the initial events in Gaza and Lebanon that triggered this war. The relationship of both countries to whatever groups may have been responsible for the Gaza event does not seem to have been very large: moral support, asylum for refugees, not much more. Palestinians have very little in the way of arms, and Israel seems to be pretty effective at controlling the flow of money into the Occupied Territories. As such, it seems unlikely that the Gaza event was directed from outside the country. Hezbollah is a different story. Clearly, Hezbollah has a substantial arms stash, and a good deal of that must have come from outside Lebanon, which makes Syria and/or Iran likely suspects. Providing arms may have been a prerequisite to Hezbollah undertaking war with Israel. However, providing arms is not the same thing as controlling when and how those arms are used. Clearly, the arms providers have some moral responsibility here, and have shown some moral indifference -- the same statements can be made about the US providing arms to Israel, for the exact same reasons. I suspect that Hezbollah's relationship to its arms suppliers is the same as Israel's. As Moshe Dayan once said [something like], "The Americans give us arms, money, and advice. We take the arms and money, and ignore the advice." Just as the Americans have their own reasons for arming an Israel that they cannot control or direct -- or chose not to try -- so have Syria and Iran their own reasons for supporting Hezbollah.
However, beyond that point we need to understand that Syria and Iran are different countries, with different interests and needs. Syria is a small, poor Arab country, ruled by a secular political party, which is in turn ruled by a family that belongs to a small religious minority -- Allawites, a group that has some affinity to Shiites, but is distinct, and in any case faces a large Sunni majority. Syria has fought several wars with Israel, and generally done poorly, losing the still-occupied Golan Heights in 1967. Syria has also had problems with Turkey and Iraq, and has a separatist-minded Kurdish minority. Syria has a complicated history with Lebanon, ever since the French carved Lebanon off from Syria in order to create a predominantly Christian client state. After Lebanon broke into civil war, Syria was invited in with support of the US and Israel to restore order. Syria maintained a longterm presence based on shifting alliances -- at various times Christian, Druze, PLO, Sunni, and/or Shiite -- until the US engineered their ouster recently. The Lebanese occupation was important to Syria primarily for economic reasons. There is little if any evidence that Syria looks forward to further hostilities with Israel, even though they are nominal enemies, and Syria is willing to provide comfort to opponents of Israel. On the other hand, Israel and the US have actively villified Syria as an enemy -- a position that they have the luxury of taking as major powers, and that Syria is unable and unwilling to reciprocate.
Iran is a much larger, much wealthier country, non-Arab, with a large Shiite majority. The nation is effectively ruled by the Shiite clergy although it also has democratic institutions which help establish the legitimacy of the government. The US considers Iran an enemy due to the 1979 revolution which deposed the Shah -- a longtime, much hated agent installed by the CIA in a coup in 1953 that led to US oil companies taking over most Iranian oil -- and subsequent events, including an embarrassing year-long crisis when US embassy workers were held hostage by Iranian students. Following the revolution Iran's clerics made an effort to project their power throughout the Middle East, which included a challenge to Saudi Arabia's stewardship of the Muslim holy sites and support for Shiite militias in Lebanon and Iraq -- the hated Hezbollah on the one hand, the SCIRI and Dawa parties of the US-backed Iraqi regime on the other. The US pursued its grudge against Iran by backing Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran in the '80s. Israel, on the other hand, favored Iran over Iraq, sold weapons to Iran, and bombed Iraq's nuclear research facility at Iran's behest. So it's fair to say that recent sabre rattling between Israel and Iran is more a matter of momentary political convenience than a longstanding conflict.
Recent history shows that the US has repeatedly threatened both Syria and Iran -- especially Iran, designated by Bush along with Iraq and North Korea as an Axis of Evil. Also that Syria and Iran have done very little to challenge or threaten the US, although both are no doubt worried about US threats, and Iran has clearly made efforts to build up its defenses against possible US attack. (Whether Iran's nuclear program has anything to do with those defenses is an open question, but the prospect of nuclear arms is the main public focus of US efforts to isolate and undermine Iran.) As with Syria, there is very little sound reason for Iran to reciprocate America's threats. Iran is not as weak as Syria, but is in no shape to take on the US or Israel. The only reason either state might have to aggressively risk war would be if they were convinced that the US and/or Israel had plans that made war inevitable. Neither appears to be the case right now, although Israel feels free to harass Syria and the US has leaked plans to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. Syria, in fact, has been so averse to war that when Israel bombed a Syrian site a couple of years ago, supposedly in response for a suicide bombing within Israel, Syria did nothing more than complain to the UN, resulting in a US veto of a resolution condemning Israel. So the answer to this question, contrary to the propaganda line, is almost certainly no.
To what extent has the US been involved in, and approved of, Israel's military escalations in Gaza and Lebanon? It's quite possible that the answers here is none -- that Bush's policy of giving Israel a blank check means no consultation is necessary. On the other hand, there clearly has been collaboration on the marginalization of Hamas and Hezbollah, the unilateral removal of settlements from Gaza and US support for the West Bank wall, the sealing off and starvation of the Occupied Territories, the presure to remove Syrian forces from Lebanon, and the general strategic position of Israel vs. Iran. Those are all policies that lead more or less directly to the events that triggered this war. The US also continues to provide Israel with extraordinary quantities of cash and weapons, and the US automatically vetoes any attempt to balance or settle the conflict through the UN. It's also clear that the US is consulting with Israel on undermining, or at least postponing, international demands for a cease fire. Therefore, it's fair to say that the US and Israel are working toward the same strategic goals, and therefore are complicit in each other's actions.
There are many additional questions that we still have little in the way of answers to. Judging from reports in the US media -- at least the claims of the US State Department -- the G8 leaders unanimously endorsed the US-Israeli position that Syria and Iran are responsible for these events. So how did that agreement come about (assuming that the reports were even right)? What is the real reaction and involvement of other Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia? (Again, it is widely reported that those nations endorse Israel's efforts to crush Hezbollah. Also that Al Qaeda's anti-Shiites are supporting Israel on this one.)
Sooner or later it will be very interesting, at least for those of us safe on the sidelines, to find out just how these particular historical events have unfolded. But for now, we don't know much more than that much of what we are being told, especially by Israel and Bush and their political and media allies, is certainly wrong.
Friday, July 21. 2006
The heatwave broke today in Wichita, following four or five days with high temperatures in the 106-109F range, including at least two all-time records. When I went out to a movie last night, after sundown around 9PM, it was still 102. Got up this morning and it was overcast and near 80. Forecast was for 98, but it looks like it only got to 83. Didn't even get the thunderstorms predicted.
In honor of the weather, we'll take a day off from the war -- a luxury we still have in Kansas, but one not available everywhere. In particular, I'm reminded that Gaza is if anything hotter, with no electric power available for air conditioning even for those few normally able to afford it. Much the same is true in Baghdad, which in three years has never managed to restore appreciable electric power. Trying to get some work done here, writing my Jazz Consumer Guide -- finally making some progress there -- and reading about peak oil. More on all that later. Meanwhile, let's take care of some movies.
Movie: The Notorious Bettie Page. Mary Harron's movie on America in the '50s and the nation's mass confusion over female skin -- one hesitates to say sex, although not for lack of confusion. The film was mostly shot in black and white: there are many strange and rather perverse things about the '50s, but one is surely that cinematographers feel obligated to use black and white. One wonders whether this will change once moviemakers are young enough not to remember the era's primitive television. I suppose one could also point to the prevalence of black and white photography in the light porn magazines of the day, before Playboy caught on as some sort of class act. Page was a fairly light, shallow character, which may be why she reflects the era so well. B
Movie: Don't Come Knocking. Wim Wenders movie of a Sam Shepard script about a cowboy actor who goes AWOL from a movie set to get away from who know what and/or in search of who knows what. Still, if it shows anything, it's that motivations are overrated. Far more interesting what he finds than what he might have been looking for, and it scarcely matters that Shepard's character himself may have no clue at the end as to what he found -- the idea behind watching is that we get to see. Terrific small parts: Eva Marie Saint as his bemused mother; Jessica Lange as a fling who bore an unknown son; Gabriel Mann as the surly, confused son; Fairuza Balk as the son's flapper girlfriend; Sarah Polley as the mystery presence who puts it all together; Tim Roth as a bounty hunter hired to track Shepard down. Fine scenery. Just gets richer and richer as it all adds up. A-
Movie: Water. Deepa Mehta's movie, set in India (Rawalpindi?) in 1938, a point of disjunction between old ways bound up in religion and caste and the coming revolution led by Gandhi. Reportedly the third installment in a trilogy -- haven't seen either of the others, so no idea how they fit. In this one, a 7- or 8-year-old child bride is packed off to an ashram after her unmet husband dies, to live a life of forced denial until she too dies. The ashram has other women of different ages but same fates, and four or five figure largely in the movie -- especially an attractive, fair-skinned young widow who is pimped to support the ashram. The child attaches herself to the woman, the woman is courted by a young Brahmin lawyer who himself is a follower of Gandhi; tragedy follows, ultimately providing a breakthrough for the child. It's all a remarkable thing to watch. Needless to say, between the river and the monsoon, there's no lack of water. The class sketches and religious binds are laid out precisely and elegantly. A-
Thursday, July 20. 2006
The Wichita Eagle decided that today would be the day to show Israel some love. First up was a "reader view" from Judy Press, d AIPAC's hall monitor for south-central Kansas. She signs her letters Executive Director, Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation. Her letters never fail to appear whenever Israel feels pressed by events to remind us that Israel only wants peace and security, but once again has been forced to defend itself by fanatical terrorists. She starts disingenuously, as usual:
I shouldn't have to pick stuff like this apart -- the assumed level of ignorance is staggering. All Israel did was pull its settlers out, which cut their maintenance and security costs while making it easy to punish Palestinians with all-night-long sonic booms. Israel kept the borders sealed, maintaining a choke hold of Gaza's economy. Hamas had only won their elections after an 18-month unilateral ceasefire. If Israel had any interest in peace, they could have welcomed Hamas's embrace of non-violence. Instead, they shut off civil and humanitarian aid to the democratically elected Palestinian Authority and shelled Gaza until they provoked the incident they used to justify a massive escalation of collective punishment.
Press then tries to construct a similar story for Lebanon, most conveniently starting "since 2000." She does slip up once: "Israel made sacrifices for peace, withdrawing from territory that it won in wars of aggression and exercising restraint when being shelled and bombed." Emphasis added -- most Israeli propagandists try to present Israel's many wars as defensive maneouvres. Then she uncorks a mind-boggling analogy:
Presumably she just made this up to switch the subject, although it's amusing to consider analogies to Pancho Villa, who did conduct a "terrorist" raid on an outpost in New Mexico, and General Pershing, whose retaliatory raid deep into Mexico proved completely pointless and more than a little embarrassing. Rather, the real sleight of hand occurs at the end, where the unstated assumption is that Israel's actions are meant to protect its citizens. Israel's escalation, on top of a long history of Israeli "wars of aggression" has put their citizens at risk for no possible gain. Punishment only exacerbates the wounds, breeding more resistance; only through respect, justice and peace can old wounds heal.
As if Press wasn't enough, the Eagle also published a column by their "Christian music" critic and pet evangelical orifice, Brent Castillo, explaining "Why are evangelicals supportive of Israel?" I have to admit, this piece wasn't as bad as I feared. Castillo offers "two primary reasons":
I'm not sure whether he's being circumspect here or merely naive. My evangelical grandfather was cheered by Israel for old fashioned reasons: he thought that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land prefigured the second coming of Christ and the end of times. That was an idea shared by David Lloyd George, who actually did something about it, signing the Balfour Declaration which established Britain's sponsorship of the Zionist project. Nor has the idea gone away: Tim LaHaye's series of Left Behind books on the theme have sold some fifty million copies, making LaHaye a major player on the Christian right. Yet premillennial dispensationalism, Armageddon, and all that don't seem to have made it into the talking points lists that guide how the right speaks to the public. Suppose they have some polling that suggests it's not a good time to talk about the end of the world?
In fact, Castillo equivocates all over the place -- proving, no doubt, that he's not ready for Cal Thomas big time punditry:
There are worse things Christians can do than pray for peace, like provide blind support for war. Clearly, Castillo has no idea why he's taken the stand he has -- his factual assertions are mostly wrong, most not even up to Press's standard of half-truths. So why does he, and so many other evangelicals, come out so emphatically in support of a belligerent foreign country they don't begin to understand? The clue is in the first paragraphs of his column:
The simple reason is that the leaders of the political cult that Castillo confuses with his religion have decided on their dogma, and that's all the marching orders evangelicals need. With faith like that, who needs understanding?
Wednesday, July 19. 2006
Got a note from one of my jazz publicists offering "thanks for your lucid and perceptive analysis of the current mess in the Middle East." I don't really expect that, and often wonder whether I should have two blogs, one for music and the other for political matters. Actually, the original plan was to have three: Terminal Zone for music, Notes on Everyday Life for politics, and Tom Hull for brief pointers every which way and personal notes. The websites exist, but the they're not as usable as I'd like, and it's tough enough trying to keep one at all fresh.
But I'd like to point out that Deborah Gordon is the person in these parts who works the hardest to keep me up to date on Israel and Palestine, and what I know or think would be much poorer were it not for her. (Laura Tillem, of course, is the other one who keeps me going.) Gordon teaches Women's Studies at Wichita State and has done extensive research on Palestinian women under the occupation. She somehow managed to get a letter printed in the Wichita Eagle yesterday, so I thought I would record it here. Title was "Balance missing":
I think it's obvious that who one knows has an affect on how one responds to such news. Wichita has a rather large and influential Lebanese community, so when the war spread into Lebanon it became impossible to pretend that this was only a matter of concern for Israelis and their political fans here -- for practical purposes, the latter are more commonly Christian zealots and warmongers than Jews, who at least sympathize with real people in Israel, as opposed to religious and ideological abstractions. The propaganda barrage that has so dominated the airwaves in the last few weeks depends on us not knowing or caring about anyone on the receiving end of Israel's collective punishment -- again, we're not just talking about the hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese who have been killed; those affected include hundreds of thousands without electricity, with water and sewage systems damaged, with food and essential supplies cut off or obstructed by destruction of civilian infrastructure. That kind of collective punishment has nothing to do with the provocations. It is not proportional and it is not productive; it's just petty and vindictive, an effort to poison any future prospect of peace. Yet most Americans, having no connection to the people and no knowledge of the history, seem happy to buy Israel's story line.
People with a real connection to what's happening do better because they know better. I'm not sure that I count myself among them, although I am lucky to know people like Deborah who know people. But early on I seem to have picked up a pretty sensitive bullshit detector, to use a term from a book by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I also worked my way through Hegel's master-slave dialectic, which shows how slavery damages the master as profoundly as the slave. And even though I prefer nonfiction, I have enough literary sense to be able to imagine other people's point of view. Those are all skills and experiences that are sadly uncommon in America today, which is why they can get away with such propaganda. But I wonder how long they can keep the connections hidden.
Tuesday, July 18. 2006
Regarding Israel's belligerent attacks on Lebanon, or as it's viewed here, Hizbullah's unprovoked act of war against Israel, I'm reminded of a section that Tanya Reinhart wrote in her book Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948. The book was published in 2002, but in it she quotes a column she wrote in 2000, at the time of Barak's unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon (pp. 84-86; quotes are from the second edition, 2005):
It's worth noting here that the PLO leaders involved in the "final status" negotiations with Barak had objected to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon on the grounds that withdrawing without an agreement would make it look like Hizbullah had been successful in driving Israel out. Such a view, which became commonplace once the Camp David talks failed and especially after the second Intifada started, would reinforce the militant position that negotiation is bound to fail and only a show of force can move Israel to recognize Palestinian rights.
As it turns out, Israel did not soon reinvade Lebanon or attack Syria. Most likely the main reason for this was that longtime Syrian strong man Hafez Assad died two weeks after the withdrawal, leading to his weaker and more moderate son Bashir Assad's rise to power. Barak's two major peace initiatives -- negotiations first with Syria then with the PLO -- both failed, with Barak offering less than the UN resolutions required, then unilaterally pulling the plug on further negotiations. Barak facilitated Sharon's notorious demonstration at the Temple Mount, and his Chief of Staff, Shaul Moffaz (later Sharon's Minister of Defense) reacted violently to Palestinian demonstrations, igniting the Intifada. Barak lost the election to his old boss and comrade Sharon, then before leaving office withdrew all of his rejected peace offers, clearing the way for Sharon's heavy-handed destruction of the PA and the last shards of the Oslo Peace Process -- which, by the way, Barak had opposed at its inception.
Still, by not settling with Lebanon and Syria, by building up Hizbullah's reputation for driving Israel out, and by leaving the border contested and vulnerable, Israel left the bomb that blew up last week. Reinhart, writing in 2002, explains (pp. 86-87):
Indeed, we've seen periodic hostilities over the Shaba Farms strip, which have been instrumental in Israel getting the US to put Hizbullah on its list of terrorist organizations. That listing, as well as the listing of Hamas, is a good part of the basis for Bush's unconditional support of Israel in this round of wars. One may criticize Hizbullah and Hamas for playing into Israel's hand, but we should be clear that Israel has wanted these wars for a long time: they have been carefully planned, and the plans have been executed without hardly any attention to the situations that nominally triggered them.
The next big question is whether Israel will extend the war to Syria. By blaming Syria both for Hamas and Hizbullah they have set up a logic that would seem to make such an escalation inevitable -- certainly if Syria does anything the least bit provocative, and perhaps in any case. On the other hand, the prospects there should be sobering. Israel may have little trouble with the Syrian army, but Syria would be if anything a more difficult country to occupy than Lebanon proved to be. And while the Assad regime at this point may be little missed in Syria, the probable successor is militant Sunni Islamism. Sunnis have long chafed under rule by the secular Baathists and the Assad family's Shia-leaning religious creed. A militant Sunni Islamist Syria would abut Anbar province of Iraq, which the US has had virtually no success in controlling, so the net effect would be to double the resistance, joining Israel and the US even more tightly as occupiers and oppressors.
The other culprit blamed for Israel's wars now is Iran, which is tightly tied to Iraq's Shia militias -- not yet in open revolt against the US given how busy they are killing Sunnis, but capable of turning decisively against Bush in Iraq. So while Israel's wars could provide cover for the US to launch its much planned, widely leaked attack on Iran, the risks of such an opperation boggle the mind. Of course, the wars could also provide cover for Israel to launch its own attack -- a difficult logistical proposition, far less likely of success than a US attack, and unlikely to provide the US with any cover beyond the gullible US press.
The odds against these escalations only seem stiff because we assume that sooner or later some shred of rationality has to prevail. But it's hard to see evidence of sanity in what Israel and/or the US have done recently.