Tuesday, October 31. 2006
I'm pleased to see that Billmon is ticked off at being attacked as a liberal:
As I've repeatedly tried to explain, I've been down that same road. Liberalism started out as the ideology of progressive capitalism -- i.e., of capitalists who want to change the world to fit their view, which is presumed to be in the world's interest as well as theirs. But when push came to shove, as it did when Marxists came up with a more universal idea of progress, the liberals took their ideals home and joined the right-wing attack on the left. That they kept their high-faluting rhetoric just marked them as hypocrites, which is how those of us who were attracted to the new left first experienced them -- although several decades later we can point to an endless series of confusion and compromise that have left them bankrupt intellectually as well as morally. Nowadays they try to present themselves as noble centrists, opposed to the extremes of right and left, always ready to compromise the principles they insist they're defending -- not least of which is their eagerness to wage war for peace and human rights, which to them are little more than approved rhetoric.
But that's not a distinction the right troubles itself with. Back when liberals had some power it worked to tar them as soft on the left, not least because doing so provoked the liberals to show that they weren't. Nowadays, attacking leftists as liberals just implies that we're as pathetic as the liberals. Some may be tempted to defend liberalism, as if the bourgeois revolution -- including some genuinely progressive results -- wasn't fait accompli. Others, like Billmon and me, kneejerk the other way. Either way, it's hard to see a downside for the right, except perhaps in terms of lost intellecutal honesty -- uh, that's a joke.
I don't know who Billmon is or where he came from or what he went through, but clearly we have a lot of common ground -- and a few differences that matter little these days. I'm less "ex-" than he is today -- certainly not a borderline nihilist -- and what probably means I was less revolutionary back in the day. Also, I've never viewed Marx as anything but a bourgeois thinker, so I never took his post-revolution speculations seriously. And favoring Kant over Hegel, I reckoned his Aufhebungstheorie to be more poetry than logic. Given that grounding, I never had much trouble identifying the trouble with hucksters from Lenin through Castro, which may be why I never judged them as harshly as Orwell or Koestler: no gods died on my watch, because none were permitted.
The only idol I've seen fall was my Boy Scout faith in God and Country, which the liars and demagogues who promoted the Vietnam War managed to whack up pretty severely. That drove me to examine a lot of alternatives. Marx and his fellow travelers were among the ones who helped me make sense of the world, but they certainly weren't the only ones. A small number of tenets of Christianity and American patriotism even managed to survive. I've even kept some ideas of classical liberalism -- but then, so has the right, at least in its rhetoric. For a long while I identified with the left, much as one would favor the underdog, but I'm reluctant to do that now. It's not so much that I find the company unsavory -- at least we're not talking about the right or the self-important middle -- but the ideas often seem slightly off the point. I like to think of myself as centered -- focused squarely on the problems, not on the left-right spectrum. The latter is buried in its own baggage, but more importantly I think the problems are pressing in ways that promise a rather bleak and nasty future. The only way I see to deal with these problems is to develop a culture of reason and cooperation -- a recognition that we're all in this together, we all have a lot to lose (and those who don't need to get some quick), and that matters more than our little zero-sum games.
Given the relative invisiblity of the left these days, it's possible I'm not alone in my reprioritization. The big immediate problem is that the right just won't let it go. They insist on only learning lessons the hard way, and most are so dumb it's going to have to be real hard. Needless to say, that's not my project here. I'm content to try to reason with the world, and occasionally wag my finger and remind you all I told you so. Hopefully there's a rational recourse. But I'll concede that becoming a near-nihilist like Billmon isn't an unrealistic strategy.
Billmon has another post worth noting: "The 51% Solution," on Karl Rove's strategy to keep his winning margins as low as possible, figuring that any consensus majority would weaken and ultimately lose the hardcore base. This fits in with Gary Wills' argument about the fringe domination of both the Republican Party and the Catholic Church. (Can't find the New York Review of Books article, probably because it's been spun off as a book: Bush's Fringe Government.) The problem with cutting those margins so thin is that a little bad luck is all it takes to fall flat. I don't have enough faith in the voters to say that it's going to happen next week, but he sure is living on the edge.
Monday, October 30. 2006
The 11th Jazz Consumer Guide is closed. The final draft has 21 graded albums (including two pick hits and one featured dud), 22 ungraded (20 honorable mentions, 2 duds). Total comes up to 2094 words, so expect 20-25% to be held back, assuming everything goes according to past practices. I have no idea whether this will in fact happen. I've had very little contact with the Village Voice since they fired Robert Christgau, my editor and mentor there. I do have Christgau's blessing to continue publishing Jazz Consumer Guides at the Voice, not that that carries any weight these days. The Voice has at least continued to publish Francis Davis, and my column complements his nicely, filling out the breadth beyond what he covers in depth.
No first impressions this week. I spent the whole week picking things off the replay shelves and writing up things I had graded but only had notes on. I got a lot of good stuff late, including a few major prospects I haven't gotten to yet. I've also found myself grading rather harshly in the stretch, to some extent as a means of coping with the glut.
I'm starting to work now on setting up the framework for the next cycle, which among everything else includes the usual purge. I probably won't do a Jazz Prospecting post next week. Instead, I'll do something of a wrap-up on this column, as well as posting any relevant news. If the Voice publishes this column, I want to push to get a more regular -- preferably every other month -- schedule. If not, I'll look elsewhere. Despite my occasional tardiness, the writing is only a small part of the work here. It would be nice to get more publishable words out of all this listening, especially given that there's no shortage of good records to write about. It would be nice to write reviews of especially interesting B+ records instead of squeezing the odd A- into the honorable mentions, as I've done in the past and once this time.
No first impressions this time, but these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City: Live at Iridium (2004 , Pi, 2CD): Continuing on after the deaths of Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. The replacements are trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Shahid. They won't be a ghost band as long as Roscoe Mitchell is ticking. He seems more than ever the dominant player here -- the newcomers may have the chops to move in here, but they aren't shaking things up. I never had a very good feel for this group, but this strikes me as about par. B+(*)
So Percussion: Amid the Noise (2002-06 , Canteloupe): Group name has a macron accent over 'o' in "So" -- don't know what that's meant to signify. Maybe it's an omen that I need to move from ISO-8859-1 to Unicode. It wouldn't be the first time I found myself stuck on the losing side of a technology divide. The group consists of three guys who play percussion and synths. An earlier record tackled Steve Reich's Drumming, which gives you some context, but the minimalism here is much less dense, and the percussion is less dependably rhythmic. Didn't sound like much at first, but it's grown on me a bit. B+(*)
Trio East: Best Bets (2005 , Origin): Trumpet-bass-drums trio, not a lot of those out there, with those that do exist tending toward avant-obscurity. Clay Jenkins plays the trumpet, making him the presumed leader, so going with the group name advances him toward his own kind of obscurity. What he gets for it is an exceptionally well-balanced group effort. They did an equally good album called Stop-Start (Sons of Sound) last year, which languished on the cusp of the HM list until this one arrived to take its place. B+(**)
Nels Cline: New Monastery: A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill (2006, Cryptogramophone): This takes Hill's compositions and substitutes Cline's guitar for Hill's piano, giving them a steely resonance and more of a rock kick -- which pays off especially well on the closing "Compulsion." But Hill himself rarely wrote just for piano, so Cline augments his usual trio -- Devin Hoff on bass, Scott Amendola on drums -- with cornet (Bobby Bradford), clarinet (Ben Goldberg), and accordion (Andrea Parkins). Each of these have their moments when you think it's all coming together, but overall this is a mixed bag, interesting ideas that are hard to sort out. B+(**)
Pete McCann: Most Folks (2005 , Omnitone): A guitarist who has a knack of showing up on good albums but not showing off, McCann delivers a lesson on what he can do ("straight-ahead jazz, post-bop, Latin, and creative improvised music") and how he can do it ("gentle nylon acoustic guitar sounds to sinewy and intricate jazz guitar runs to roots-of-grunge Jimi Hendrix-inspired hooting"). Even so, he often yields the spotlight to his band, especially saxophonist John O'Gallagher and pianist Mike Holober -- also sidemen skilled at making their leaders look good. The only nick is that the eclecticism leaves you without a thematic thread or a good sense of where he wants to go -- although that assumption may merely be our problem. B+(***)
Fred Fried: The Wisdom of the Notes (2006, Ballet Tree): He plays a nylon 7-string guitar, folowing the model of George Van Eps. Just bass and drums serves him well, delivering an elegant low key guitar album. B+(**)
Stephan Crump: Rosetta (2005 , Papillon Sounds): Another low key guitar album -- even more so because the leader plays bass, and nobody plays drums. The guitar is acoustic by Liberty Ellman and/or electric by Jamie Fox. B+(*)
John Taylor: Angel of the Presence (2004 , CAM Jazz): Piano trio, with Palle Danielsson and Martin France. I associate Taylor with Kenny Wheeler -- they both have played extensively with the British avant-garde, but tend toward more moderate engagements on their own, or together. This one struck me as exemplary on first listen, but shaded back a bit into the ordinary at spots. B+(***)
Lynne Arriale Trio: Live (2005 , In+Out/Motema): Of all the recent piano trios I like -- Anders Aarum, Dave Burrell, Frank Hewitt, Enrico Pieranunzi, John Taylor, I'm probably leaving someone out -- this strikes me as the strongest crossover prospect. Part of this is that she picks standards that are recognizable and easy to hook into: "Iko Iko" and "Come Together" are two pop songs here, with "Bemsha Swing" and "Seven Steps to Heaven" working the jazz tradition the same way. Her originals, at least here, tend to be genre studies -- "Braziliana," "Flamenco." And she plays with them much like you expect jazz to work, tearing the songs down, rearranging them, teasing new melodies offset from the old. Or I should say they: Jay Anderson and Steve Davis have played in this trio for over a decade now, and the tightness pays off. Recorded at a jazz festival in Germany, with a matching DVD for the audio CD. I actually watched -- or mostly listened to -- the DVD for once. One thing I was struck by was how often all three played with eyes closed. B+(***)
Vision Volume 3 (2003 , Arts for Art): Excerpts from the 2003 Vision Festival, which William Parker and Patricia Nicholson organize each year. I've had this on the shelf a long time, figuring that this was one case where I wanted to take a look at the DVD before signing off on the CD, but never finding the time or inclination to do so. Finally took a look at it today. It's poorly shot and badly edited, with lots of double exposure shots. The sound is sometimes out of sync, and there is a formatting problem that keeps it from returning to the menu after playing a section. On the other hand, the dance pieces by Nicholson and Maria Mitchell (accompanied by Kali Z. Fasteau) lose out otherwise, and seeing helps explain Joseph Jarman's two-horn act. Otherwise, a mixed bag: the experiments at best suggest directions to follow further, and the variety ends them as quickly as it moves past ones that are less interesting. B+(**)
Kali Z. Fasteau/Kidd Jordan: People of the Ninth: New Orleans and the Hurricane 2005 (2005 , Flying Note): Presumably Jordan makes his living trad jazz back home in New Orleans, but driven away by the flood, he's become the Crescent City's unofficial ambassador to New York's jazz underground. A good record with familiar faces William Parker and Hamid Drake resulted -- the Kidd was on his best behavior and the tag team was typically brilliant. Here Jordan helps to steady Kali Z's inveterate eclecticism, providing a consistent sonic center for her piano, cello, and soprano sax. Drummer Michael T.A. Thompson's name didn't fit the spine, but he referees here, and switches to balafon for a duet with Kali's nai flute -- the most attractive cut here. B+(**)
Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: Out Louder (2006, Indirecto): MMW did a credible job of updating '60s soul jazz organ combos to the techno era, but after a decade-plus they wandered off into spinoffs and solo projects, letting their main ride coast. Scofield's done his share of coasting as well, adding bright splashes of guitar to other folks' albums while his own grow empty and listless. So this seems like an ideal pairing, a useful jolt for all concerned. And to some extent it is, but I wonder about their Beatles cover, "Julia" -- is it an off note, or a necessary change of pace that just comes too late? B+(*)
Billy Stein Trio: Hybrids (2005 , Barking Hoop): He's a guitarist no one would have ever heard of had Kevin Norton not urged him into the studio. He played with Norton and Sam Furnace back in the '70s, but with endless refinement this is his debut. He works in subtle harmonic shadings rather than the melodic lines that dominate the craft, so this tends to vanish in its subtleties. But he gets exceptionally sympathetic support from drummer Rashid Bakr and bassist Reuben Radding -- the latter a near-perfect match. B+(***)
Frank Hewitt: Fresh From the Cooler (1996 , Smalls): Hewitt was a bebop pianist who almost slipped through 66 years of life without leaving a trace. But he built a cult during an eight year residency at Smalls jazz club, inspiring a label to no small degree dedicated to his legacy. This makes four posthumous albums, with more on the shelf -- at least one more from this date, a trio with Ari Roland and Jimmy Lovelace. The songs are jazz standards, but there's nothing overly familiar about them -- even "Cherokee" and "Monk's Mood" skirt the melodies for hidden nuances. A-
Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar): Nothing for ten years, then he repeats a scam he pulled twenty years ago with Opening the Caravan of Dreams: launching a new label with a live album named for the label, or vice versa. Seems cheap, but when sounding like no one else has been your shtick for fifty years, absence makes his returns sound even fresher, and live heightens the suspense of his inventions. Actually, he's changed little over the years, still pouring out the same sour, shrill, piercing notes. What's new here is his use of two bassists, which keeps the contrast between Greg Cohen plucking and Tony Falanga bowing in the same register. It also doubles the chaos, which is what Ornette thrives on. A
Florian Weber/Jeff Denson/Ziv Ravitz: Minsarah (2006, Enja/Justin Time): A piano trio, a bit more conventional than E.S.T., but similar in touch, feel, dynamics. Minsarah is probably meant as a group name -- i.e., it will probably recur on subsequent records. Bassist Denson and drummer Ravitz write, only slightly outnumbered by the pianist's compositions. B+(**)
Bang on a Can/Don Byron: A Ballad for Many (2004-06 , Cantaloupe): Effectively, this is Bang on a Can plays Byron, with the clarinettist supervising but only making only a brief cameo. There is still some clarinet, by Evan Ziporyn, but piano and strings are more dominant, and they give the compositions a chunky, clunky feel. "Eugene" was written for a silent Ernie Kovacs piece. "The Red-Tailed Angels" was a soundtrack for a documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen. Both lose their utilitarianism in this chamber music setting. On the other hand, the band sharpens up the angles, giving this an edge that would be obtrustive for a soundtrack. Still, it sounds euroclassical to me, a sort of third stream backwash, where conservatory-trained jazz musicians return to the roost. B
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya: Maru (2006, Bakamo): Probably the pick of the four Fujii big bands, even though she only conducts, leaving the orchestra without her explosive piano. But the arrangements gain along the way. The mountains of brass move nimbly, the soloists squawk amiably, and guitarist Yasuhiro Usul gets some well-used space. Much good humor, almost corny in spots. In many ways this is more remarkable than the Junk Box record, which I picked over it -- not least because it was easier to grasp and I settled on it first. If Basie's big band was atomic, this one's thermonuclear. B+(***)
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe: Kobe Yee!! (2006, Crab Apple): Comparably loud to the Nagoya outfit, especially with Fujii playing piano here, and similar in other respects, but not as consistently interesting or as humorous. I wonder whether the horn blares in the second cut cry out "Batman!" in Japan like they do here -- at least for reviews of a certain age. B+(*)
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo: Live!! (2006, Libra): I hate to admit this -- it runs counter to my sense of how the world should work, and especially to how I want to do my job -- but the DVD saved the bacon here. It helps to be able to map sounds to the fifteen faces squeezed onto a small-looking stage. The sheer amount of paper on the stands in front of all the musicians and their concentration in following it all speaks volumes about how all this noise is assembled. It also let me note some uncredited flute-like instruments Kunihiro Izumi used for a solo, and seeing often helps clarify bass and drums. But one shouldn't get carried away: the music itself is often on a cusp between interesting and annoying. While focus helps tilt it over the top, I can't get all that excited about music that makes me work so hard. But I did find the DVD take of "Bennie's Waltz" exhilarating, and most of the time I had my head turned the other way. B+(*)
Territory Band-5: New Horse for the White House (2005 , Okka Disk, 3CD): The third disc is a live concert at Donaueschingen of the first two discs' music. Given a little more budget, the logical thing would have been to provide it as a DVD, which might be as useful as the Fujii Tokyo one. I imagine the group more spread out and less tightly scripted, but with 12 musicians there tends to be a lot going on. Somehow I missed out on Territory Band-4, but the series as a whole has struck me out more often than not. This one strikes me as relatively solid, and offers some hope that the electronics will eventually pan out. Plenty of hot spots, just hard to follow, and there's a lot of it. B+(*)
Sunday, October 29. 2006
Stephen Labaton, in a front page Oct. 29 New York Times article ("Businesses Seek New Protection From Litigation") writes:
The first thing that struck me here is how prevalent the defense impulse is among the rich and powerful. No sooner had the Busheviks seized power than they started barricading themselves against the long reach of international law. Back in early 2001 the prospect of having their sorry asses hauled forth to the Hague had much the same hypothetical air, but five years later one thing we can say for sure is that exemption from ICC review hasn't made us less likely to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. The threat of prosecution may not be the ideal way to encourage good behavior, but replacing it with indemnity -- all other factors remaining equal -- is damn sure likely to have the opposite effect.
My second thought was how typical this approach seems in an era where appearance is valued way above reality -- mostly because it's so much easier to fake appearance. What Enron and WorldCom did was actually something almost universal in the corporate world: they attempted to construct a façade that appeared even more successful than they actually were. Everyone does that, and it works as long as nobody looks too close at what's being covered up. So the idea here is to make it harder to look, to reduce the motivations for looking, and to reduce the risks if anyone still bothers. Only in a world where appearances are everything would anyone even suggest such a thing. But that's increasingly the world corporate titans and politicians live in, along with their market researchers, PR flacks, lobbyists and lawyers.
My third thought concerns victims. Corporate fraud is not a victimless crime. The best you can say is that in most cases all the victims lose is money, but it's hard to argue that money is a matter of little importance to them. They are, after all, the investors who provide the capital that capitalism depends on. Laws against corporate fraud and malfeasance aren't generally intended to harrass corporate management, except insofar as they ensure that management is responsible to the investors. So this is not a question of the rich screwing the poor -- investors include more of the middle class than used to be the case, but as a class they are anything but poor. No doubt the Busheviks like this because they have the same relationship to the voters as the corporate managers have to the investors, including a relish for whatever they can get away with. But take away the control that protect investors and eventually you'll hollow out the whole system. Much like Bush's abuse of trust has hollowed out America's democracy.
None of this means that the regulatory expense of trying to keep publically traded corporations honest and forthright isn't a burden on business. But if it is so, it may be because we got off on the wrong foot by requiring that corporations hire the auditors who certify their accounts. The obvious alternative is for the government to hire the auditors, which would establish that they work for the public, not for the corporation. Such a case would eliminate the temptation on both sides to fudge the books -- accounting firms lose the incentive, and corporations lose the opportunity. The audits could then be further reviewed, with practices standardized in an open and transparent process, which would greatly improve the quality of information provided to investors. Better information should, in turn, lead to more productive investments, which ought to be a plus for the entire economy.
For many years this wasn't much of a problem, mostly because accounting firms were isolated from other business relationships and regarded their integrity as important. I recall reading a study back in the early 1980s that ranked professions according to integrity vs. corruption: accountants had by far the highest rating, and lawyers by far the lowest. This changed primarily because of deregulation of financial services combined with lax antitrust enforcement that allowed for industry consolidation. Those things happened because the lobbyists pushing them weighed in far more strongly than common sense that might have given us pause -- and because the politicians of all stripes learned to follow the money.
These new proposals are so contrary to what we know about the behavior of corporate management that they should be laughed all the way back to K Street. But the system is so totally corrupt that you can't be sure that anything ridiculous won't find a way to slip through the cracks. Still, there's more wrong here than mere corruption. Much as we've lost grip on the notion that there is a public interest distinct from some weighted sum of private interests, we've lost our to distinguish between systems and actors. Capitalism depends on accurate investment and price information and competitive markets, but corporations often gain their advantages by subverting just those things. The SEC exists to protect capitalism from corporations, but we've gotten more and more confused on this point, in large part because we assume that the corporations are capitalism. Similarly, we assume that the actors in top management are the corporations.
Same thing happens when we assume that the executive branch is the government, and that the president is the executive branch. This sort of association shifts power to the top, not least by weakening checks and balances everywhere else. That may seem to work if you have someone at the top who looks out for all the other interests in the system. That more or less happens some of the time -- more so in the business world where competition has a sobering effect. But we have many other examples of what happens when that sort of power is handed to scam artists -- just think of Enron under Ken Lay, and the US preidency under George W. Bush.
Saturday, October 28. 2006
I expected to be able to announce another F5 Record Report yesterday, but it hasn't appeared on the website yet. The usual link still gives you the October 19 column. In fact, the old issue cover is still up as well. I've written the editor, but haven't heard back. Nor have I dropped in on any of the usual places to check out the paper edition. Most likely just a temporary glitch, but I thought I'd be optimistic and file this notice anyway. Worse comes to worse you can still find the piece in my archives.
This week's lineup:
Thirsty Ear got a cluster of interesting albums in. The late Freddy Fender deserved a notice, and Doug Sahm is worth remembering too. Ska Bonanza and Stoican are recycled favorites. Allison intersected with my Jazz CG work, which has been dominating my time.
Handed another one in yesterday. As long as I'm stuck in jazz mode the F5 columns are stuck with retreads, although some of my recycling comes from drafts of future columns. That will start to change when I get past this Jazz CG cycle -- any day now.
PS: Turns out the numbering on the website column and in some past dispatches had slipped a notch. This is the 13th column.
Friday, October 27. 2006
Speaking yesterday of where conservatives went wrong, I thought I'd follow that up with a note on what happened to the liberals. Part of the incentive there was a Tony Judt piece called Bush's Useful Idiots, about the liberals who lined up in support of Bush's little war in Iraq and long war against Terror -- i.e., against anyone who rubs us the wrong way, and seems like easy pickings.
Judt is right to criticize those people, but I think he's a little confused about who they are, what they're up to, and why they're increasingly irrelevant. It's a common confusion, the consequence of a marriage of convenience between liberals and labor in the 1930s, which was remarkably successful for the Democrats -- the liberals much more so than labor or the left -- up to 1968. Since then both have faded, giving ground to the Republican alliance of potentially antagonistic right-wingers and a whole lot of apathy. The notion that liberal = left has been hammered home so hard by the right that most folks accept it even though it has little historical or ideological basis.
The key idea behind liberalism is belief in progress, which follows several vectors: toward individual liberty, scientific rationality, economic growth, internationalism, and globalization. Historically, conservatism was rooted in the aristocracy, while liberalism was the ideology of bourgeois revolution, although as history moves on conservatism adjusts to incorporate whoever's on top and wants to keep it that way. The left differs from liberalism in being more committed to equality and more inclined to act collectively, whereas liberalism is about individuals -- equal opportunity may be an ideal, but redistribution isn't of much interest to them, and is often seen as counterproductive.
The liberals' self-characterization as occupying a noble middle ground between left and right comes from their self-awareness that they are different from the left. The right, on the other hand, has no need for such distinctions, since both are seen as enemies -- especially once the right has co-opted a sizable chunk of liberal foreign policy. If you look back in American history, one thing you'll notice is that liberals have often been more aggressive in their foreign policy than conservatives -- the exceptions were the slaveholding South and the recent convergence of neoconservatives, militarists, and Christian crusaders. So it shouldn't be surprising that there is a segment of liberals willing and eager to promote the Bush agenda: these are people who see the projection of American power abroad as a progressive, rationalizing, liberalizing force, oblivious to whatever death and destruction is caused along the way. Such people are useful to Bush because they help camouflage the everyday corruption with high-minded rhetoric. Such people are idiots because war undermines liberty at home, which presumably is something that they as liberals are interested in as well.
On the other hand, as Judt points out, liberalism is slipping. There are many reasons for this, but the deepest is that the mass benefit of progress is diminishing and for many turning negative. The classic metaphor is that a rising tide lifts all boats -- that growth benefits most people even without attempting to equalize it. That assumes that there is more growth than inequality can usurp, and that's basically been untrue, at least in the US since around 1970. Without more growth liberalism can't deliver the material gains it depends on for popular support. That leaves it with a threadbare ideology -- the promise of something that it can't deliver. Of course, liberalism has other problems -- a reflexive distaste for the masses and a fondness for the use of force head up the list. And of course it's unfair: all conservatives have to do is keep the present system of inequity intact -- even though recently they've been paying dividends -- whereas progressives actually have to show some headway. But that's the deal they bit off back when it seemed to work.
The alternative to liberalism is a resurgence of the left. That's tough, given that at present the left is in even worse shape, at least in terms of popular political discourse, than liberalism is. But maybe a better answer can be found in some sort of synthesis of individual liberty and collective responsibility. Given the right these days, the rest of us are stuck in the same boat, so we have the need to form a common defense. But those liberals who cling to their faith in progressive war have no part to play. To Bush they may be merely useful idiots; to us they're remarkably dangerous morons.
Thursday, October 26. 2006
David Brooks' sycophantic New York Times review of Andrew Sullivan's book The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back has a background quote from Sullivan: "The conservatism I grew up around was a combination of lower taxes, less government spending, freer trade, freer markets, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and a strong anti-Communist foreign policy." The interesting thing is that one item on that list doesn't fit with all the rest: that strong anti-Communist foreign policy. It's not that the rest of the list isn't opposed to Communism. It's that the rest of the list concerns local issues, with a strong bias toward individuals that limits the power of government.
The problem isn't opposition to Communism, which never was a domestic threat. The problem was taking that opposition worldwide: assuming that Communism anywhere in the world threatened us and our vital interests, and assuming that we had the right, responsibility, and power to defend all, or nearly all, other people against their own domestic threat of Communism. The latter, not without justice, was seen as a continuation of the Age of Empire that fitfully self-destructed in two world wars. Before WWII the US policy of isolationism -- which meant no military engagements abroad, not no business or diplomatic relationships -- was widely respected, but after the war, we changed, establishing for the first time a massive permanent military with global reach, capable of interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. The Communists who had fought alongside us in WWII became our first enemies, followed by leftists of all stripes, independent nationalists, eventually even devout Muslims -- anyone who feared loss of their self-determination in a global culture of aggressive US capitalism. Ironically, all those enemies just fed the fear that made it possible for the US war machine to keep itself going -- even after the Communist bloc self-destructed, ceasing to be any sort of threat.
But that only begins to assess the impact of Sullivan's beloved "strong anti-Communist foreign policy": for every war abroad, there is a corresponding war at home. From the beginning we've been told that the only way we can lose in Iraq is if we lose our unity and will at home: that dissent is the enemy as much as the resistance in Iraq, that those who warned against wasting our soldiers' lives will be the ones responsible for their dying in vain. This coercive patriotism attacks our freedom more directly than our so-called enemies ever could. It builds up the repressive state against our personal interests. It costs us wealth, wastes our productivity, returns us the greater risks of living in a more hostile world.
It's worth noting that there are conservatives who believe in everything on Sullivan's list except the foreign policy -- the Libertarian Party, Republicans like Rep. Ron Paul, scholars like Andrew Bacevich. This list started with people who don't trust even right-thinking states -- who understand that power always attacks freedom. I can't tell from the review whether Sullivan -- early on an enthusiastic Iraq warmonger -- has even started to lose his faith in war, let alone the political force of repression, but he has at least come to recognize that Bush and his war have empowered some strange bedfellows for those conservatives naive enough to buy Bush's folk-art: specifically, a religious right that supports war abroad as part of a crusade to enforce moral order at home.
One thing that remains poorly understood is that anti-Communism doesn't just mean that you don't like Communism. Anti-Communism is an ideology in its own right: a weapon of the rich against the poor, the religious against the rational, the militarist against civil society. Those are the three prongs of Republican Party dogma, and have been so effectively sold that the so-called opposition party hardly ever questions any of them. So it's not surprising that a gasbag like Sullivan fell for the Party line. The question is whether he ultimately follows his hero Orwell into opposition against the new Stalinists. It sounds like thus far all he's trying to do is to offer them a new deal -- one they'll certainly refuse.
Wednesday, October 25. 2006
Today's a break from the norm. Still listening to jazz records that may or may not be pick hit prospects, but not really trying to write about them today. I'll spend most of today cooking a rather extravagant dinner. The centerpiece is a rather ugly looking duck with head and toes intact. It's been drying out for a couple of days, and will go into the oven late this afternoon -- hopefully emerging as something resembling Peking Duck. Thought it would be nice to serve an elegant but simple Shark's Fin Soup with it, but I balked at $49 for the dried fin shreds. I've never done the duck before, but I've made the soup before, using canned shark fin that cost less than $10. Got some imitation shark fin -- a strange gelatin concoction -- but I'm not sure if it's worth using. Will have a few appetizers, ribs, wings, rice, eggplant and broccoli dishes, as well as the usual pancakes -- the one part of the spread that has me worried -- and a prefab cake for dessert.
This is the 2006 version of my birthday dinner. The first one I can recall was the night Bill Buckner blew the Series, but it really didn't become a tradition until a few years later. After I left Contex, I got together regularly with a couple of friends there. We often talked about food, and when my birthday came around I offered that the present that would make me happiest would be if I could cook for them. I cooked Chinese that night -- no longer recall just what, but it was a good deal more than tonight. Then each year after that, at least as long as I was in Boston, I did the same. I tried my hand at Indian and Turkish. The year I moved to New Jersey I did Indian again. Since moving back to Wichita, I've missed a couple of years, but have done Spanish and Thai. Last year I made feijoada -- one big dish rather than a lot of little ones. This year just started with the duck -- everything else is insurance if I screw that up.
Had to break to actually cook that dinner, so this part is afterwards. Didn't do the broccoli, which proved to be too much to handle too late. Did make something I forgot to list above: a salad with pork kidneys, tree ears and cucumber in a sesame sauce. Everything came out quite well, except for the frozen coconut cake -- my mother made a fabulous one, which I can do a pretty fair approximation of, but didn't want to put in the work this time. Probably a reasonable decision, given how much wear and tear everything else was. One thing that aging does is to test your faith in progress.
So another day, another year. This makes 56. It's been a rough one. But one thing I like about the birthday dinner ritual is that it shows it's still possible to accomplish something extraordinary, even if just for a moment.
Tuesday, October 24. 2006
The Wichita Eagle has an article today -- curiously not on the website -- about the White House's latest course correction ("Bush alters rhetoric on Iraq"):
Don't know whether to laugh or cry here. "Stay the course" was never more than a rhetorical weapon, underscoring Bush's constancy, purposefulness, moral clarity, blah blah blah, while tweaking the Democrats for their fickleness. It worked well enough, but it did have one flaw: it suggested that Bush knew where he was going, and that steadfastness would get him there. Well, so much for that -- another slogan mark smashed on the rocks of reality.
Still, it's unlikely that the new paradigm will square all that well either. One speechwriter's "dynamism" could just as well be described as squirming. And as any Republican could tell you, flexibility isn't something the US government is all that good at. But when you're groping for terms to describe cluelessness and chaos, it may be the best you can do. This is pseudo-news in that it doesn't seem to reflect any actual changes in US policies in Iraq. But it is portentous, or at least suggestive, that some sort of change is in the works. And that would be ominous, for as bad as they've been, flexibility in the service of desperate avoidance of defeat can lead to even worse things -- Cambodia is one example.
As it happens, after reading this piece, I went back to my current book, Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming, and found this little gem. This is in a discussion of the Dover PA school board's creationism. Goldberg is interviewing a local Baptist preacher and his wife, and they wind up defending their anti-Darwin position to pointing to the Iraq controversy -- don't know when this interview took place, but obviously it was after Bush invaded and well before now (p. 105):
As Goldberg concludes: "You can't argue with that kind of logic."
Monday, October 23. 2006
Lots of disruptions last week -- some expected, some surprises, but the bottom line was that I got nothing done on this for three days. That undid my certainty that I would get this Jazz Consumer Guide column finished this week. I did come close -- so close that I seriously considered keeping this open another day, or at least into the late hours, to see if I could finish it. Or at least to settle the last prospecting questions. But it's possible that my time is going to be mostly wrecked through Wednesday, so I figure it's best to run one more week and get it all tightened down.
One thing that did happen this past week was that I got hit with a lot of exceptionally good records. I haven't settled on my pick hits yet, but I have way too many A-list records for one column, as well as the usual surplus of honorable mentions. Should have closed down a month ago when this was more manageable. Still don't know what happens when I hand this in, but we'll open that bottle when it's ready. One more week and that's it, I swear.
The David S. Ware Quartet: BalladWare (1999 , Thirsty Ear): This was recorded in summer 1999, after Ware. Don't know what the details were, why it's being released now, why it wasn't released then, but it fits in between Surrendered and the two albums Ware released on AUM Fidelity. Seven songs: three standards, four originals, including "Dao" and "Godspelized" -- album title songs from Ware's earthshaking DIW period. These are measured only by Ware's previous standards -- muffled perhaps, never pushed to extremes, but still embroiled in deep tension. Pianist Matthew Shipp is notable throughout, especially on "Godspelized." [A-]
Rudresh Mahanthappa: Codebook (2006, Pi): Whereas Mother Tongue looked to natural languages for tricks of transformation, this one moves on to ciphers and encodings, as when the group members sign their names in Morse code. Either way, the alto saxophonist's true Rosetta Stone is John Coltrane, and what lifts him above dozens of others is his association with pianist Vijay Iyer, who starkly frames his music, and who picks up the place when he lays out. Still, if that was all it took, you'd expect more from Raw Materials, a duo album from earlier this year that never quite stuck together. A-
John Taylor: Angel of the Presence (2004 , CAM Jazz): English pianist. Been around since 1969, but mostly in the background, working with the likes of John Surman (contributes a quote on the back cover), Kenny Wheeler (wrote two songs), Jan Garbarek, and Norma Winstone. Always seemed like a good guy, but I never checked out his own records before. So this piano trio, with Palle Danielsson on bass and Martin France on drums, caught me by surprise. Fully engaged, relentlessly pushing both the instrument and the ideas. [A-]
Joan Hickey: Between the Lines (2006, Origin): Despite the song selection -- I can't say as I've ever wanted to hear "Black Magic Woman" or "Bridge Over Troubled Water" again -- this is an exceptionally engaging middle-of-the-road jazz album. She's a Chicago pianist, working since 1980, but as far as I can tell only has one previous album. This drops down to a trio, as on the Bud Powell closer, which she explains thus: "Everybody got to play some bebop!" But most cuts are amply filled out with Tito Carillo's trumpet and/or John Wojciechowski's sax. [B+(***)]
Mike Holober: Wish List (2004-05 , Sons of Sound): A pianist I've been consistently impressed by, although I'm a little slow on the uptake here. Wolfgang Muthspiel's guitar gives this a shiny allure -- always good to hear him. I'm less sure about Tim Ries, credited with "saxophones" -- something for further study. [B+(*)]
Scotty Hard's Radical Reconstructive Surgery (2004 , Thirsty Ear): AMG files him under rap, but most of the credits on Scott Harding's resume are for producer, engineer, and/or mixing. His credit here is for drum machines, samplers, optigan, and percussion. Keyboardits John Medeski and Matthew Shipp get second billing, followed by William Parker, Nasheet Waits, DJ Olive, and Mauricio Takara. Basically, this is what you get when you shuffle Shipp's jazztronica with Medeski's organ grind. [B+(**)]
One More: The Summary: Music of Thad Jones, Vol. 2 (2006, IPO): Another one, with the same all-star band as the first round: brother Hank on piano; Jimmy Owens on Thad's trumpet; John Mosca on trombone; Benny Golson, James Moody, Frank Wess, and Eddie Daniels on sax, flute and/or clarinet; Richard Davis on bass; Kenny Washington on drums. These aren't session scraps. They were recorded in a second session three months after the first, but as is often the case with volume twos, the concept has lost a bit of its edge, and the songbook may have slipped a bit. Thad was a bebopper who nonetheless thought that big bands were the natural forum for the music, so this nine-piece group is about right. After I played this, I noticed that the street date isn't until Feb. 13, 2007, so I guess I jumped the gun on this one. B+(**)
Boxhead Ensemble: Nocturnes (2006, Atavistic): Don't know much about this group, other than that the central figure is guitarist Michael Krassner. The other figure above the "with" is cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Below the "with," as best I can make out given the badly registered pink type on the tan background, is someone on prepared piano and someone else on percussion -- both limited contributions, but plusses nonetheless. Sonic wallpaper -- tasteful, fractally intriguing, barely on the substantial side of ambient. B+(**)
Sonny Rollins: Sonny, Please (2005 , Doxy): Having played out his contract at Milestone, Rollins is a free agent now, which for jazz legends these days means he's rolling out his own label. He's been selling this on his website for a while, so presumably that's where to go. Press release says it's been licensed to JVC in Japan and Universal in US and Europe, and they'll roll out their "traditional CD release" on Jan. 23, 2007, but will have a digital release on Nov. 21. The album holds no real surprises: the six piece band is more help than he needs but not good enough to compete, although there's nothing wrong with spots of Bobby Broom guitar or swashes of Clifton Anderson trombone; on the other hand, Rollins sounds fabulous, which is all you really need to know. A-
Steve Lacy Quintet: Esteem (1975 , Atavistic): Following Lacy's death, his widow Irene Aebi started sorting through over 300 private recordings for a series called "The Leap: Steve Lacy Cassette Archives." This is Volume 1, and it's easy to see why it leapt to the head of the list. It is raw and deliciously noisy, old sounding, yet so far out it's more shocking now than when it came out. Steve Potts' alto sax provides a second horn. Kent Carter's bass is plug ugly, and Kenneth Tyler is credited with percussion because he's hitting things beyond his drum kit. But the revelation is Aebi herself. I can't stand her singing -- if you go through my database you may notice that Lacy's records get docked about a notch for each song she sings on -- but she sticks to cello and violin here, and you can hear why he fell in love with her. The notes say "The Uh Uh Uh" was Lacy's tribute to Jimi Hendrix. I'll have to listen again to see what that means. A-
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Patricia Barber: Mythologies (2006, Blue Note): Most of the song titles I recognize from Greek mythology, not that I know or care much about that. "Whiteworld" has been to fit the series, and remains most striking. Other than "The Hours" at the end, which the chorus runs away with, the music is striking, and the vocals distinctive. Don't know what it means. B+(**)
Dave Holland Quintet: Critical Mass (2005 , Dare2/Sunnyside): My idea of doing a bass special with Allison and Lane as pick hits and Holland bring up the rear is officially dead: this has managed to escape the dudhouse. Holland just has too much firepower and too many options in his book to completely slip up. Two cuts are choice here, excepting the closing bars of the latter -- "Lucky Seven" and "Full Circle" -- and it's Robin Eubanks on trombone who put them over the top, although he couldn't have done it without the leader's bass moving things along. You don't hear much trombone period these days, let alone a guy who can run off with the lead without even cheating like J.J. used to do. Vibraphonist Steven Nelson is another guy here who plays a strong hand from a weak suit. Drummer Nate Smith can jump in and out of time with the best of them. And Chris Potter wouldn't be so overrated if he wasn't so damn talented. What threw me off at first is shrinking, but still present -- little bits that seem off color or out of place, plus the suspicion that this is just too damn fancy. But I guess those who can like to flaunt it. B+(***)
Club D'Elf: Now I Understand (1998-2006 , Accurate): Never did manage to figure out who's who and what's what, other than that bassist Mike Rivard is at the center of this amorphuous group and that damn near anyone is likely to show up as a guest. The machine beats recall Nils Petter Molvaer circa Khmer, but conventional drums also appear, probably Erik Kerr. While Rivard's bass grooves are critical, they tend to be thickened up with keyboards -- mostly John Medeski -- and turntables -- someone d/b/a Mister Rourke. Plenty of guitars, too. There's also a strain of mostly middle eastern exotica, which oudist Brahim Fribgane has something to do with. Several songs have vocals -- Jennifer Jackson's "A Toy for a Boy" is a marginal novelty, but the kiddie sample reggae romp "Just Kiddin'" is on my first ever year-end song list. There are also skits and raps, and if MF Doom isn't in the house, his doppelganger ist. If none of this sounds much like jazz, that's just too bad. It doesn't sound like world-techno-fusion either, because they fuck with it like jazzbos junk up pop songs. Besides, Mat Maneri's on the guest list. A-
Meredith d'Ambrosio: Wishing on the Moon (2004 , Sunnyside): Seems like a fine example of what a jazz singer should be -- her voice fine tuned and personable, an innate musicality to everything she does, presence, nuance, the skill and control to play, the discipline not to get off on pointless tangents. All that puts her ahead of about 85% of the field without breaking a sweat. She has a dozen-plus albums, but this is the only one I've heard. I'd be surprised if it wasn't typical. B+(**)
George Lewis: Sequel (For Lester Bowie) (2004 , Intakt): The most common instrument here is "laptop," followed by "electronics," with an assist from DJ Mutamassik's turntables. It's hard to listen to this sort of thing without thinking back to George Russell's electronic sonatas, in part because the random drift they share leaves one's mind plenty of time to wander. Lewis is a trombonist and I'd love to hear him play some -- it's the best part of this album, although the percussive later parts of the 33:46 title piece are marvelous. This doesn't strike me as any closer to Bowie than Homage to Charles Parker was to Bird -- in particular, it lacks the trumpeter's exuberance and folly. On the other hand, if you can give it the attention it doesn't demand, like Russell at his most abstract this offers some remarkable collages of sound. B+(***)
The Vandermark 5: A Discontinuous Line (2005 , Atavistic): The initial effect of Fred Lonberg-Holm's cello replacing Jeb Bishop's trombone is to move the group from tight horn arrangements back into rough and ready free jazz. The other change is that the saxes have moved down a notch -- Dave Rempis to tenor and Ken Vandermark to baritone -- filling the bottom Bishop vacated while kicking up the dirt. The result is a slimmed down, fired up Territory Band, a wild west bar band for bruised brains. A-
Marcus Strickland: Quartets: Twi-Life (2005-06, Strick Muzik, 2CD): Minor bookkeeping change here: I've decided to treat "Quartets" at part of the title, not part of the artist designation. Makes more sense that way, even though the typography suggests otherwise. Two discs, two distinct quartets. Both have Marcus on tenor and soprano sax and his twin E.J. on drums. One has piano and acoustic bass, the other guitar and electric bass. The latter has two advantages: one is that guitarist Lage Lund makes much more of a contribution than pianist Robert Glasper; the other is that the electric bass seems to free up the sax, although Marcus is voluble and pungent on both discs. He's one of the brightest mainstream tenor men I've heard in years, and his brother is equally terrific. Grade tracks the weaker disc, which is in the ground rules, but the stronger one isn't all that far ahead. B+(***)
Junk Box: Fragment (2004 , Libra): Satoko Fujii's four new big band albums, like Ken Vandermark's recent pair of two-disc Territory Band sets, are overwhelming: in such big universes, anything can happen, everything does, and fatigue sets in long before one can sort out so many marginal treats. At least with this trio you can keep the players straight. She pounds out thick piano chords, while sidekick Natsuki Tamura's surly trumpet adds tension and growl, and drummer John Hollenbeck referees. This is basic Fujii -- everything else is elaboration. A-
The Andy Biskin Quartet: Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster (2000 , Strudelmedia): The old melodies benefit from oldish instrumentation -- despite its recent comeback, Biskin's clarinet still sounds like a refugee from the depression, especially when paired with trombone or tuba; guitarist Pete McCann resorts to banjo on occasion, and drummer John Hollenbeck takes the most diehard Foster melody on jingly bells. Still, everything here is more than a little bent. No point making a jazz record unless you take some liberties. B+(***)
Andy Biskin: Trio Tragico (2005 , Strudelmdia): Biskin's clarinet is paired with Dave Ballou's trumpet, more often in unison than not, which keeps the focus on the tricky compositions. The third member is bassist Drew Gress, who adds depth without having much effect on the general drift. This lack of democracy can get tedious over the long haul, and this does run long. But it's interesting when it's working. B+(*)
Geri Allen: Timeless Portraits and Dreams (2006, Telarc, 2CD): Here she moves beyond her initial interest in Mary Lou Williams to something like the court historian of Afro-American musical culture. She pays tribute to Charlie Parker, Billy Holiday, and Louis Armstrong's better half, but the center of gravity falls on gospel, with Carmen Lundy, George Shirley, and the Atlanta Jazz Chorus providing most of the dead weight. This isn't all old or backwards, but seeking respectability traces just one thread in a struggle for freedom and equality that contributed much else to both. She has great skill and learning, considerable pride in her accomplishments. In some ways it's a mark of her success that I find this so thoroughly uninteresting. The thick frosting of sanctimoniousness doesn't help either. B-
Sathima Bea Benjamin: Song Spirit (1963-2002 , Ekapa): Forty years and an extraordinary run of pianists for the South African singer, more at home in the jazz tradition -- "Lush Life" and "Careless Love" are choice cuts -- than in her Africa-themed originals, which tend to be anthemic. Anyone tempted by Madeleine Peyroux should give her a chance. B+(***)
Saturday, October 21. 2006
Michael Schwartz had a piece at TomDispatch describing some sort of US military analysis, published in Military Review, of what went wrong in Iraq. The analysis listed nine "paradoxes" of counterinsurgency. For more details, see the piece; for here I'll just list them, and add a comment at the end.
Some of these are oddly phrased -- #3 might make as much sense if it started "the more successful insurgency is," while the point of #7 is not so much that workable tactics will fail in the future as that they cannot be expected to continue to work. Still, these are paradoxes only if you assume that force is somehow a decisive strategy. The situation becomes much clearer if you recognize the following:
The assumption here is that the utter destruction of the insurgency is either impossible or politically unacceptable. An exception might be a small group of foreign insurgents with no local support -- Zarqawi might have qualified had there been no other insurgency in Iraq, but that was never the case. Once an insurgency does become established with widespread popular support, its utter destruction approaches an act of genocide, which at present is still politically unacceptable.
Put these points together and what you find is that the US political struggle was lost once a fledgling Iraqi resistance was able to goad the US military into flagrant and reckless repression. Nir Rosen's In the Belly of the Green Bird provides an account of exactly that when a small group in Anbar province attacked US forces with the intent of becoming martyrs. The US was susceptible to such provocations for two reasons: one was that Bush's political aims in Iraq didn't allow for a political compromise acceptable to the Iraqi people; the other was that the US for many reasons was biased to respond to any attack with overwhelming force.
By resorting to force, the US showed that its interests would not be favorable to the Iraqi people. The US lost its moral standing, and lost any chance of establishing political favor. The only recourse at that time would have been to advance a more generous compromise, but instead Bush clung to his "course," calculating that more force might do the trick. That, too, failed, and further iterations have continued to fail, ever worse.
I've been reading Mark Kurlansky's remarkable book, Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea, so its lessons are especially fresh in my mind. One of those lessons is:
Admittedly, no one would ever argue that the US military occupation of Iraq was ever nonviolent, but many of its articulated goals were. In attempting to counter the insurgency by escalating its violence, the US turned those goals into lies, which finished them off, leaving no moral cloak, just brute force. That in and of itself might have been no worse than what Saddam Hussein had done, but the US had the further advantage of being an alien power assaulting people in their own homes. It should be easy to see why that didn't work.
Friday, October 20. 2006
The F5 posts are making me dizzy, given that I have to turn next week's in about about the same time I have last week's posting to report. One thing that strikes me as curious is the Google ad box, which reads: "Cool Jewish Music/Kabbalah Music/Jewish Blues/3rd Stream Music/Avant Garde Music." Someone's inference engine is flipping out. But then I got a note from Risa Mickenberg, the Jesus H Christ chanteuse, who looked at my columns and wrote, "From F5, Wichita looks like a very nice place." Always good to confound expectations.
This week's lineup:
Three Steven Bernstein records this week. Had I been faster on the uptake, I could have included Baby Loves Jazz (Verve), which is a solid B+ -- maybe better if you aren't as settled in adulthood as I've become.
Thursday, October 19. 2006
I saw Richard Haass -- currently of the Council on Foreign Relations ("a bipartisan think tank"), formerly of the Bush and Clinton State Departments, before that on the previous Bush's National Security Council -- interviewed on one of last night's news programs. He was saying that the current situation in Iraq was a total disaster, and that the only path left for the US was to try to extricate ourselves from the country. He said that everyone who knows anything -- it's still easy to come up with a list not covered by that qualification, but never mind -- agrees. But when he was asked why Iraq had come to this sorry state, he retreated and mumbled something about how Iraq is such a fractious, divided society. But that's true about many nations. What's unique about Iraq is the US occupation. The occupation kills people directly, and kills more people through a armed resistance that it justifies. Moreover, the violence of the occupation and resistance provides cover and opportunity for much more Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.
I suppose Haass may have a problem admitting this because he had a small role in creating it. But he needs to recognize that by not facing up to the facts, he's helping to keep the killing going by letting us continue to think that we're something other than responsible. The truly blind may even conclude that we can still help fix things. Billmon is at least more forthright:
I'm reluctant to use the word genocide myself, partly because the word implies a deliberate plan to kill a population carried out on a wide scale by a competent authority. Rather, what we have is a civil war with at least four sides and possibly more, resulting in incidents of small-scale genocidal targeting among much broader relatively indiscriminate slaughter. The numbers add up -- the Lancet figure of 650,000 comes to 2.6% of Iraq's population. But it doesn't have to be genocide to get numbers like that: old fashioned war suffices, and is reason enough to stand for stopping it. And whatever it is, this point is key: to stop it you have to start by disengaging the force that started it in the first place. That should be relatively easy because the US has no business being there in the first place.
William Pfaff has a short piece in the Oct. 19, 2006 New York Review of Books that explains what the US did after 9/11 and why it has been so disastrous.
In other words, Bush and his supporters eschewed understanding on the suspicion that it might have warned them against satisfying their emotional commitment to action. They were disinterested in reasons and oblivious to consequences. It turns out that repeating history is not the worst that can come from ignorance of history. They got away with this, for a short time anyway, because decisive action struck a responsive chord in the American public. I suspect that's a human trait that goes back to prehistoric times: when attacked, rally around the guy who acts decisively, like he knows what he's doing. With the proper prep, Bush is very good at acting like that. Too bad he's clueless. Too bad he's a jerk.
All that should have been obvious by noon on 9/11, but we let ourselves be prodded and bullied into a self-sustaining war frenzy. I remember watching people slog across Grand Army Plaza -- shocked, annoyed, but calm, knowing that they had seen the worst and were now safely out of its range. So why were people panicking in Paducah? We were not only prodded to war; we were bullied against reason. Increasingly you can see how poorly those instincts served us. But Billmon is right to point out that our folly has served the Iraqis even worse. He quotes Riverbend on the Lancet study, as "she curtly eviscerates the conservative Holocaust deniers":
Remember, the buck started here.
Wednesday, October 18. 2006
PopMatters has posted a new interview with Robert Christgau. This does a pretty good job of positioning him: against balkanization and canonization; sympathetic to past monoculture, not that it was paradise; for popular culture, not least because it's popular but even when it's not; against "phenomenal narrowness" and "unwarranted arrogance"; for good writing, or at least good editing; painfully limited by time available yet still making the most of it. The title quoted him: "My tastes don't evolve; they broaden."
That reminds me how consistent he has been, even going back to his late '60s reviews. I look back at my early writings and barely recognize that person, but his early work stands up -- subsequent explorations into reggae, Africa, the Balkans, and later developments in punk, hip hop, etc., just supplement his core attitudes. What's evolved is his writing, which is denser, deeper, and wiser than it was. As far as the interview's impression of him as "arrogant and opinionated," I see that as coming from other traits: he is very efficient about managing his time, which leads him to jettison anything that doesn't strike him as productive -- including whole genres of music; he recognizes that emphatic writing reads better than wishy-washy, which leads him to sharpen contrasts even in a badly blurred world; and he has a high ethical standard of certainty -- his line is "I don't write about things until I know what I think of them" -- and that's what backs up his assertions.
By the way, in singling out those traits, I'm also highlighting where we differ. I frequently review things I'm unsure of, seeing each iteration as an approximation rather than a secure truth. I often go down inefficient and unproductive rat holes. And I tend to be diffident to a fault -- although Christgau has worked hard to wring that out of my writing. Other differences have more to do with background and experience, but we share some common ground, as when he explains, "because I am blessed with a very healthy appetite for music, and because I am more interested in breadth and variety than I am in having intensive aesthetic experiences."
As it turns out, I found this link from a notice in Christopher Monsen's blog, which didn't mention Christgau but offered this quote: "I think Theodore Adorno was profoundly ignorant." Christgau goes on: "I think even Adorno's fans think he was bad at understanding popular music. He thought it was all jazz. I will give it up to those who say Adorno was very smart, but he based certain aspects of his theories on the assumption that the pop aesthetic was a priori bad, which it isn't." It's been about thirty years since I last read Adorno, so I'm a bit rusty here, but this seems off base. Adorno was profoundly disturbed by Nazism, which he saw not as an aberration in western culture but as some sort of apotheosis derived from the Enlightenment, the domination of nature, and the driving force of capitalism -- forces which brought us the culture industry. He was an expert in modern classical music -- a fan of Schönberg and a critic of Stravinsky -- but he didn't have much to say about jazz, other than he thought that improv was self-deluding: that any effort to spontaneously invent new music would be doomed to repeating the subconscious. He had a very low opinion of intuition. The only way he saw to overcome the forces behind fascism was cold, hard, critical thinking. The music he favored demanded just that; the rest didn't much interest him. Ironically, when he died in 1969 most of the music that might have interested him was coming from jazz quarters, by then the most unpopular of popular musics.
Back around 1975 I burned out on critical theory, and I've found it pretty much impossible to read ever since. I still have a massively marked up copy of Dialectic of Enlightenment -- and for that matter an unmarked Dialektik der Aufklarung -- that I thumbed through tonight, hardly recognizing anything. Once I reached the point where I could identify the bourgeois nature of everything, additional details and examples mattered little. That's when I started reading rock crit, which at least lived in my world, rather than merely railing against it. I'm not sure that Adorno has anything useful to say about popular music in America, but mapping him onto a highbrow/lowbrow spat that these days mostly shows our age is certainly wrong. He was from another time and place, maybe another planet. Wonder what he would have made of Sun Ra.
Tuesday, October 17. 2006
I started reading Tamara Draut's Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead (Doubleday), but didn't have time to get through it before the library due date came up. No surprises here, but it's one of the major economic stories of our era -- an era that will eventually be recognized as a significant downturn on the welfare of most Americans. The pivotal date was roughly 1970, a fateful date for several reasons: it's when the US trade balance went negative, when US domestic oil production peaked and started to decline, when deficits started to grow, when growth slowed down and turned into what was called stagflation. It occurred in the long stuck course of a disastrous war in Vietnam, and was marked by a political turn to the right, which effectively channeled what gains there were to ever greater concentration among the rich. That this effect has been masked so long is an interesting story in its own right. But this is the only world that Draut's young adults have known, and it's increasingly hard for them to see how they reach, let alone exceed, the living standards of their parents.
I noted a couple of quotes in the introduction, which give the gist of the argument (pp. 4-5):
As Draut notes elsewhere, the "government had your back" angle wasn't exactly universal. There was both official and unofficial discrimination, especially racial, also sexual. One recent book describes post-WWII public aid as "when affirmative action was white"; it seems far from coincidental that the right was able to kill off or undermine such programs once it became impossible to deny those benefits to non-whites. The Republican ascendency was built on just that racism, augmented by post-defeat military bravado, and funded by an upper class determined not to let their yachts sink with the falling tide.
The description of how the world changed strikes me as weaker. The economy didn't shift to service jobs so much as service jobs took up the slack from the decline of manufacturing. The latter had two engines: technology and automation which shifted jobs to machines from people, and the capital flight that sought growth markets and lower wages abroad. Stronger labor unions might have mitigated both factors, ideally by converting productivity gains into shorter workweeks for more workers. But the political shift to the right cut the legs out from under the unions, displacing workers to the lower end of the service sector.
The other thing is that it hasn't become impossible or even all that much harder to join the middle class. It's more that the middle class isn't what it used to be, or that it's long been cracked up to be. The middle class was once imagined to be the core of a relatively egalitarian democracy, a sign that we share the same responsibilities and aspirations. Nowadays, middle class means you're just a slip away from falling into poverty, but miles and miles away from the true rich who set the standards you aspire to, but can never reach. The more society splits into rich and poor, the desperate the middle class become.
Draut sums up today (p. 6):
One major cause of this is that Draut describes as "the new brand of capitalism" (pp. 19-20):
I skipped over the parts about WalMart, as you might well guess. Final conclusion to the introduction (p. 26):
An optimist after all. Some day I hope to get back to the book and find out why. Draut runs an Economic Opportunity Program at a think tank named Demos, and she has some straightforward ideas on how to fix this. I'm not so optimistic, and not just because her young adults haven't run into the health care meatgrinder yet. But it's a good book, full of basic info and credible stories.
Monday, October 16. 2006
Another week of indecision and procrastination, but then sometimes "stuff happens" and this seems to have been the week. I'm maybe four paragraph reviews away from closing this Jazz CG, and have fourteen A- rated and note-written albums to choose from. Unfortunately, the two pick hits and the dud du jour are among the four needed reviews. I have candidates for the pick hits, but no real idea about the dud, in part because I've been discarding the crap as fast as I find it. Maybe I'm too picky about those things? Maybe even too nice? One thing I have to say is that there's just not enough money in jazz to elicit the mass of crap that you find in rock, country and rap. Almost everyone is competent, earnest, and has some distinct angle on some piece of the puzzle. There's stuff I don't much care for, but not much I flat out don't respect. Still, someone's gotta pay. If you have an idea who and why, I'd like to know.
Some current stats: 240 albums prospected; 99 in the pending queue (45 prospected, 54 not); 123 in the done file with a shot, however slim, of making the cut; 130 in this cycle's flush file. Barring another disaster, should finish this week. Despite all the kvetching, this is still pretty close to my original, and historical, schedule.
Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (2005 , Sound Grammar): The publicity writeup has three pages of bio, as if Ornette wasn't recognizable by the second note. But it doesn't begin to answer the basic questions: why this, and why now? It's been ten years since Coleman's deal with Verve netted four quick albums, and eighteen since Virgin Beauty, his one-shot on Portrait, appeared. This one's just a live set recorded in Germany last year, with Denardo and two bassists. All but two of the songs are new, but how big a deal is that? After all, he's had a decade or two to work on them. One effect of recording as rarely as he does is that I don't get back to him as often as I should. This sounds utterly brilliant, but how does it stack up against his past? Against, say, In All Languages, Of Human Feelings, Dancing in Your Head, At the Golden Circle, The Shape of Jazz to Come? Those are reference points I should know well enough to poll them in my mind. It's going to be fun answering those questions. But in the meantime: the bassists are busy beavers, worth focusing on; doubling them up keeps the rhythm shifting without sacrificing their harmonic undertow; Coleman's typically sour and shrill alto sax is rendered all the more so by the extremely bright live sound; he's also credited with violin and trumpet, which I haven't noticed yet, although there is quite a bit of arco which I initially attributed to the basses. [A]
Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: Out Louder (2006, Indirecto): Although he's no doubt capable of interesting straight jazz guitar, as on 1996's Quiet, Scofield's best records have often been groove jobs -- 1994's Groove Elation is one that stands out. Here at least he's in the right company for that sort of thing, and he contributes. However, first pass through the beats seem a little squarish, and the "Julia" cover is an odd change of pace. [B+(*)]
Lisbon Improvisation Players: Spiritualized (2006, Clean Feed): No booklet. Not even a goddam PDF. So here's what I know: The leader is alto/baritone saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, who loves Ornette and set this group up for pure improv, often with whatever guests are in town and up for the sport. This is the second LIP album. Bassist Pedro Gonçalves was also on the first, and he makes a strong impression here. Drummer Bruno Pedroso is new, but probably part of the core group. The trumpet is Dennis González is a guest, although this isn't his first meeting with Amado. He adds a low-key lyricism, stabilizing Amado's tendencies to go over the deep end. The title cut, like everything else, is jointly accredited, but seems very much his thing -- measured, meditative, lovely but not in the conventional ways. Cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff is another guest, limited to the last two cuts. Wish I knew more. [A-]
Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Quintet: ONJQ Live in Lisbon (2004 , Clean Feed): One thing I don't know much about is Japanese noise bands -- the few I've heard have been such an automatic turnoff that I've had no interest in making marginal distinctions. Another is Kaoru Abe, a legendary Japanese alto saxophonist who died young in 1978, but I imagine that Tsugami Kenta here has some if not all of Abe's records. Yoshihide plays electric guitar, which can be a powerful noisemaker in its own right. Two more Japanese names play bass and drums, suggesting that ONJQ is normally a quartet. But the saxes are dominant here, with the margin coming from guest Mats Gustafsson. He's a slowly acquired taste, but at least I have some practice there, and his baritone is hard to mistake. Starts with a "Song for Che" that's hard to recognize. Ends with "Eureka," a Jim O'Rourke song also on their previous OJNQ Live (2002, DIW). The latter almost starts to make sense, suggesting that further study may help. But I'd rather cut them some slack on the grade and cut my losses. B
Elliott Sharp: Plays the Music of Thelonious Monk (2004 , Clean Feed): Solo guitar. Don't know whether that's normal for him -- he's put out several dozen albums, but this is my first. But the cover art raises questions, with four lines, punctuation significant: "Sharp?/Monk?/Shark!/Monk!" Actually, it's pretty straightforward, with the familiar melodies at their familiar paces, the guitar not far removed from solo piano, or more like solo prepared piano. He makes it look difficult, which it no doubt is. B+(*)
Charles Gayle Trio: Consider the Lilies . . . (2005 , Clean Feed): Gayle sounds like no one else. But he sounds so much like himself that his albums melt together into an indistinguishable mass. It makes little difference whether he plays alto sax, as he does here and on Live at Glenn Miller Café (Ayler; released earlier but recorded later), or tenor, as on Shout! (his previous Clean Feed release). Only his solo piano album Time Zones is off in a different world -- he's a distinctive and rather remarkable pianist, but not even Cecil Taylor can pound a piano with the fury and urgency of Gayle blowing sax. As his trio albums go, this one strikes me as better than average: more in control, perhaps because the alto is easier to handle; his one cut piano break fits in nicely, without losing much of the energy level; and Jay Rosen makes a heroic contribution on drums. B+(**)
Adam Lane Trio: Music Degree Zero (2005 , CIMP): The other half of the two-day sessions that previously yielded Zero Degree Music (CIMP), one of my favorite records this year. Both have bassist Lane writing and arranging for drummer Vijay Anderson and soprano/tenor saxophonist Vinny Golia. This doesn't quite measure up. The first one picked the pieces with the most powerful pulse, in turn propelling Golia to some of the most inspired work of his long career. The leftovers are more complex, more varied, more typical. B+(***)
Lou Grassi's PoBand: Infinite POtential (2005 , CIMP): Avant quintet, with three horns up front -- Herb Robertson's trumpet, David Taylor's bass trombone, Perry Robinson's clarinet -- with Adam Lane's bass all led by the drummer. Don't have a good fix on this yet, but the drums strike me as central, heavy pummelling that lifts up the brass. [B+(**)]
David Taylor-Steve Swell Quintet: Not Just . . . (2005 , CIMP): Interesting instrumentation: two trombones, from the leaders with Taylor playing bass, plus three strings: Ken Filiano's bass, Tomas Ulrich's cello, and Billy Bang's violin. But I'm not sure what's going on here, possibly because I haven't been able to focus through the label's notorious acoustics, but it may just be that no one steps up to the plate. [B]
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (Verve Forecast): Peddled as a soundtrack to Lian Lunson's film, actually just a Hal Wilner-produced tribute album, recorded live at festivals in Brighton and Sydney. Wilner's Monk, Mingus and Kurt Weill albums offered fresh perspectives by crossing lines -- mostly by turning rockers loose outside their genre. Here he has less to work with: Cohen's grip on his songs is more secure, and the performers are narrowly cast, with McGarrigles and Wainwrights out in force, and the range no wider than Antony to Nick Cave. Messages: the future is murder, and by its omission I guess we have to conclude that democracy is no longer coming to the USA. Steven Bernstein leads the band. Cohen appears on one song to close, sounding more worn than ever. B+(*)
Brazilian Girls: Talk to La Bomb (2006, Verve Forecast): Not sure what this is. When singer Sabina Sciubba breaks into German she reminds me of Kid Creole, but that's on the superficial side -- I'm also reminded of a bull session in my college German Department, when one grad student asked what good a German degree might be, and another replied that he could become a German factory worker. On the other hand, they do get an enjoyably angular beat out of their continent-hip-hopping, and I've always been a sucker for Deutschsprechen, even if my own skills are hopelessly stunted. B+(*)
Tomasz Stanko: Chameleon (2006, TC Music): Recorded in Athens, no date given, in a trio heavily biased toward synthesizers: Janusz Skowron plays keyboards, while Apostolis Anthimos switches between drums, guitar, and their electronic equivalents. That works only a small fraction of the time, and some of the keyboards are so cheesy they'd take Chick Corea aback. The trumpeter does his best, triumphing here and there. B-
Dave Burrell: Momentum (2005 , High Two): Piano trio with Michael Formanek on bass and Guillermo E. Brown on drums. One thing I've long loved about Burrell is how hard he plays, especially with his left hand -- Pete Johnson was once described as having the left hand of God, and Burrell fits in that tradition. Formanek also puts a lot of muscle into his bass, and Brown managed to hold his own in David S. Ware's Quartet for a few years. First cut, "Downfall," comes roaring out of the box, all rough angles and flying gears. The slower pieces following don't compress as firmly, but I'm still working on them. [B+(***)]
Paul Jackson: Funk on a Stick (2005, Backdoor): Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock bassist. Funk is its own reward, and pretty much the limits of this album's ambitions. Calls in a few chits, even getting Hancock to guest on one track, and Ernie Watts on another. Sings some, not great, but okay. Tony Adamo isn't much better. Someone named Jorge Guerrero raps on two cuts. Miscellaneous credits include Char, Shakara, and Big Boy -- allusions to folks you may have heard of purely coincidental, I'm sure. B+(*)
Jivin' Javon Jackson: Now (2006, Palmetto): I slammed him with the featured dud spot last time, and here he bounces back with the exact same God damn album. Mediocre soul vocalist Lisa Fischer repeats. So does Dr. Lonnie and funk bassist Kenny Davis. The new guitarist and drummer make no appreciable difference. Lame funk. Lazy soul. Clearly, that's all he intends to do with his talent. C
Wayne Horvitz: Whispers, Hymns and a Murmur: Music for a String Quartet (2006, Tzadik): Limited info from a CDR -- cf. previous gripes about Tzadik for whys and wherefores. Horvitz has a sideline in classical chamber music, which is what this is, more or less. Not much I can do about it. I learned from an early age to hate the sound of violins, viola and cello. While I can think of exceptions -- Bob Wills, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, Billy Bang, John Cale, Charlie Burnham -- it's usually because they play alone rather than in consort. This isn't an exception -- the sound grates on me, but the stately music isn't without its charms. Your mileage is likely to vary. B-
Geoff Farina/Luther Gray/Nate McBride: Out Trios Volume Four (2004 , Atavistic): Electric guitar, drums, acoustic bass, respectively. Not as far out as I figured, but I haven't heard any of Atavistic's Out series. A tight, chunky, rhythmic section is particularly appealing, while the slower, sparser sections are merely suggestive. B+(*)
Baby Loves Jazz (2006, Verve): This looks like the first installment of a series that has Baby Loves Disco and Baby Loves Hip Hop on its tail, and Baby Loves Reggae somewhere in the pipeline, as well as a book deal with Penguin. I have no idea what the intended audience might think of this -- looks to me like Sex Mob trying to corrupt the youth of tomorrow, and I wish them the best of luck. In addition to Steven Bernstein's crew, we have John Medeski's keyboards, Lonnie Plaxico helping out on bass, and vocals by Sharon Jones and Babi Floyd. The vocals are prominent -- maybe loud is the more apt term. The songs are mostly standards, widely recognized by the age of 10 if not necessarily 3 -- "Old MacDonald" isn't all that jazzable, but "Banana Boat Song" is a treat. Includes a "Lullabye" to chill down after the workout. B+(**)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Charles Mingus: At UCLA 1965 (1965 , Sunnyside, 2CD): Mingus wrote some new music for the Monterey festival, but got stiffed, and wound up performing it a week later at UCLA. "Played live in its entirety," as the cover says, this feels like a workshop, with Mingus moving musicians in and out, lecturing, and hectoring. Not all of the music is new -- he covers his own "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too," and rips loose on "Muskrat Ramble." The group has three trumpets, french horn and tuba, versus just Charles McPherson on alto sax, so it's brassy, but also a bit ornate. Historically valuable, of course. B+(*)
Mingus Big Band: Live in Tokyo (2005 , Sunnyside): My usual complaint is that the big band sounds puny compared to Mingus' own much smaller groups, but this starts off in such good spirits that maybe I should give that line a rest. The music must be great fun to play, and that much comes through here. The ending of "Ecclusiastics" calls forth the great man's spirit as emphatically as the band has done in quite a while. Still, I wonder what he would have thought of them chopping off that last half of the title to "Free Cell Block F" -- never has it been more valid to point out, "'Tis Nazi USA." B+(*)
Enrico Pieranunzi/Marc Johnson/Joey Baron: Ballads (2004 , CAM Jazz): I suppose one could carp, something to the effect of why on earth would anyone need another straight piano trio rendition of "These Foolish Things" -- let alone "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" -- but obviousness isn't a crime, or even a sin when it's done this tastefully. B+(***)
Edward Simon: Unicity (2006, CAM Jazz): This is a hard piano trio for me to pin down, but in the end it's either too subtle for me to appreciate or too lackluster for me to care. Simon plays with expertise and finesse, but little surprise. John Patitucci and Brian Blade provide competent support, but don't manage any heavy lifting. B
Sebastian Noelle Quartet: Across the River (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Two quartets, actually. Bassist Ben Street and drummer Ari Hoenig are constants, but the tenor sax spot is split evenly between Javier Vercher and Donny McCaslin. Noelle's guitar shapes the compositions, but either way your ear gravitates toward the sax. While Vercher tends to play within the guitar lines, McCaslin can easily jump the rails. B+(**)
Mark Helias' Open Loose: Atomic Clock (2004 , Radio Legs Music): Bassist-led sax trio, with Tony Malaby taking charge, and Tom Rainey on the drums. Not sure how much to credit the composition here, since the hard chargers are the ones that work best. B+(***)
Samo Salamon Quartet: Two Hours (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Easily the best of a fairly sizable crop of guitarist-sax quartets this year, and it's easy to explain why: the other three players work regularly as Mark Helias' Open Loose trio. They're more avant than the norm for this label -- rougher, more muscular, but then so is the Slovenian guitarist, who has an edge here he couldn't have learned from mentors John Scofield or Bill Frisell. B+(***)
Walter Smith III: Casually Introducing (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): A young second-generation tenor saxophonist looks back to Sam Rivers' Fuschia Swing Song for artwork but he's more postmodern than that -- plays soprano too, like damn near everyone since Coltrane and Shorter, while his pianists double on Fender Rhodes; shuttles musicians in and out; recycles classics that seemed like a good idea, while writing and borrowing originals that reach out to Africa. In short, this dwells more on his breadth than his depth, which he hasn't reached yet. But there's something to be said for breadth. B+(*)
Irène Schweizer: First Choice: Piano Solo KKL Luzern (2005 , Intakt): Solo piano -- not something I care all that much for, but this is thoughtful, cautiously elaborate, at times bracing. After Portrait I hoped to be blown away, but I'm hard pressed to think of any solo piano albums that move me that way -- even Art Tatum or Cecil Taylor. Solo piano isn't as limited as one hand clapping, but it's missing something, even when it's as thoughtful, vigorous, and inventive as this. B+(**)
Bob Reynolds: Can't Wait for Perfect (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): I have a few nits to pick: I wish he'd lose the soprano sax (one cut), and don't care much for his synth programming (two cuts). What makes them minor blemishes on this debut album is that his tone and poise on tenor sax is so superb you wonder why he'd try to dilute it. Youth, I guess. He projects to earn his place in the Budd Johnson-Ben Webster line, which among other things means he very likely has a great ballad album in his future. We remember those guys from when they were old and slow, but once they were young, and Webster wasn't called "the brute" only because he started out in boxing. Reynolds' band is rooted in funk not swing, and that seems fair to me. One he shouldn't lose is drummer Eric Harland. A-
Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: MTO Volume 1 (Sunnyside): Robert Altman's film Kansas City made you want to know more about the city's jazz and less about its mobsters. The featured music stars got a package tour out of the deal before returning to contemporary postbop, but lowly associate music producer Bernstein actually put his research to work. He takes the idea of barnstorming territory bands and time travels to and from his home base in downtown New York, treating Prince and Stevie Wonder songs to 1928-style arrangements, while adding postmodern quirks to Count Basie staples. It works not because the transformations are clever, but because he's one of the few who believe that jazz can become popular again by making it fun rather without dumbing it down. The first album by a group that has been playing regularly since 1999, an incubation period that roughly matches Basie in Kansas City. Coincidence? [Francis Davis just reviewed this in the Voice] A-
Tomasz Stanko Quartet: Lontano (2005 , ECM): I'm not if I've ever seen an ECM album cover look so bleak and featureless, even though such landscapes seem to be the art director's default. The music is neither bleak nor featureless, but it is slow and subtly arranged -- haunting and lovely, but it does take its toll in attention. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski is a master of understatement, one more trait he's picked up from the leader. B+(***)
Kenny Wheeler: It Takes Two! (2005 , CAM Jazz): Not a duo. Actually a quartet with two guitars -- John Abercrombie and John Parricelli. The fourth is bassist Anders Jormin, all of which suggests a low key album. The guitarist work out most of the pleasing textures, to which Wheeler's flugelhorn adds highlights. Can't say much about it, but I'm struck by how consistent Abercrombie has become. B+(**)
Anders Aarum Trio: First Communion (2005 , Jazzaway): I'm convinced that this Norwegian is a terrific pianist, but I can't find the words to say why. Fans of ECM piano should check him out -- he even vocalizes a bit like Keith Jarrett, and that's not the only thing they have in common. At least worth an honorable mention, if not quite a tour de force. Good title: "Let's Put Fun Back in Fundamentalism." Maybe I can use that. B+(***)
Wayne Horvitz Grativas Quartet: Way Out East (2005 , Songlines): Horvitz has been gravitating toward classical music for a while now, and this comes close without going over the deep end line his string quartets. The pieces exhibit swingless chamber music, often with sudden shifts of time -- "Ladies and Gentleman" is an extreme example -- or with simple rhythmic motifs that provide a backdrop for shmears of sound -- see "Berlin 1914," which is the piece that ultimately won me over. The instrumentation is unusual: bassoon for the bottom, trumpet for the top, cello for the meat, piano for the dressing, electronics for the hell of it. It's not the sort of thing I normally like, which may mean it's even better than I think. B+(***)
Postscript (2006-10-17 13:22): Two readers wrote in to point out that the Ornette Coleman has three -- not two -- older songs. The third is "Sleep Talking," reworked from "Sleep Talk" on Of Human Feelings. And yes, the press release missed that, which is why so many reviewers went astray. One reason it's fair to point that out is that "Turnaround" is similarly renamed and reworked from "Turnabout" on Tomorrow Is the Question, and that's in the press release.