Thursday, November 30. 2006
Maybe it's the engineer in me, but I find the debate over what to do next in Iraq maddening. Engineers figure out how to do practical projects based on a set of desired deliverables (the "requirements"), a set of economic constraints, and the basic rules of science and logic. Sometimes you're able to nail a project plan down so tightly you can predict its delivery with a high degree of certainty. Most of the time there's some uncertainty -- things you have to learn or invent, things that go wrong for innumerable reasons, things you discover you didn't really understand until it's too late. Of all the things that can go wrong, one of the worst is when you have some group actively sabotaging your project. There's a vast amount of literature and lore on complex engineering projects, and there's still a fair amount of art to managing them, as well as a lot of science. Given all we know about large, complex projects, you'd think that anyone undertaking one would try to make use of that expertise.
Invading and occupying Iraq is one of the most complex and difficult projects that anyone has undertaken. All projects have something called a "life cycle" -- a series of stages that start with the initial rough concept and proceed through more detailed planning through implementation and testing, delivery of a final product, and what is often a long maintenance phase. The better you understand all of this, the more accurately you can calculate costs and benefits -- and therefore determine whether a project is doing in the first place. When you don't know enough early on in a project, you run a risk that problems will develop -- even to the point that the whole project will fail. For most projects, problems force us to consider trade-offs: spend more and/or cut back on the requirements. And some projects fail completely.
Iraq appears to be just such a complete failure, but there is a problem proving that. The problem is that we never established what the project's requirements actually are. The Bush junta blew lots of smoke about "weapons of mass destruction," "global war on terror," freedom, democracy, remaking the Middle East, etc., but they never narrowed this down to something an engineer could base a plan on. On the other hand, they appear to have had some hidden agendas. You can try to sort out what they really intended to do by what they actually tried to do, but it's hard to do much more than speculate, given how their much incompetence and corruption obscures their acts. For instance, Mark Danner's recent New York Review of Books piece on "Bush's Fantasy War" shows Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld, and NSC's Steven Hadley all passing the buck on the CPA's fateful de-Baathification order, which seems to have popped out unreviewed from some unnamed someone's hind quarters. If there had been a clear set of requirements, and a clear-headed review process, such an order could not have been given, at least without additional provisions for the probable consequences. As critics like Danner dig through the decision-making process, some things become clear.
One is that the Bush Administration achieved consensus on going to war, but not on why, how, what outcome they expected, or even what outcome they wanted. As Danner puts this:
As Danner points out, even before 9/11 the Bush Administration had sought to break down most of the processes that might stand as obstacles to their ability to act. But he doesn't turn over those rocks to see what may have motivated what has turned out to be a deliberate blinding, self-lobotomization even, of government. The clearest examples I know of are in environmental regulation. Many construction projects require environmental impact studies. These cost money, take time, and sometimes derail projects. Like almost everything else in America, they are done adversarially, and that tends to blind both developers and regulators to the merits of the other side. Bush's election (or whatever it was) tilted power to the side of the anti-regulators, consistent with their bias for action vs. review. That works for a little while, as long as nothing really bad happens that review might have anticipated. Like Iraq.
Such intentional blindness is consistent with a dimming of the public mind -- what we see as the coming of a new dark age. This takes many forms: eschewing science and reason, covering up or denying facts, limiting and filtering public speech, promoting myths based on faith. The Bush Administration has been remarkably successful at each of these, and their very success is that has left them so untethered to reality. But they're not inventing their policies from whole cloth. They're working with trends that have been in force for a while now -- Reagan's restoration of the rich and the martial being the major turning point, built on an erosion of the New Deal that began with America's superpower triumph in WWII and set up the global class war, aka the Cold War.
Now that Iraq has unspinnably fallen apart, the temptation for the various pro-war factions, in the Administration and out, is to remind us of their differences, as each difference provides an excuse for their common failure. Rumsfeld, given his central role and natural arrogance has provided a particularly good target, especially among those inclined to let the buck stop short of Bush. However, the worst problem is the one belief they held in common: namely, that war, invasion, and occupation would provide a viable method to achieve their various aims. All that war achieved in Iraq was to break a nation, which had already suffered immensely, into a fractured, fratricidal, chaotic shell, while showing the US and its allies to be cynical, brutal, utterly careless except for their own concerns. It is by no means certain that there were no factions in the pro-war camp who wanted to achieve just that. There is, after all, a very similar strain in Israeli foreign policy, as evidenced both in the '80s and recently by their sieges in Lebanon. For those people there is a correlation between means and ends.
For everyone else, Iraq has been a massive failure to understand what war actually does. An honest planning process, making an earnest attempt to match means to well-defined and agreed-upon ends, would more than help -- it's well nigh impossible to achieve what we want without such a process. But we are a long ways from any such thing. We are divided in our goals -- mostly we seem incapable of grasping that we are all in this world together. And we are divided in our understanding of how means work -- especially armed force, which so many of us tend to romanticize, even though vast experience should have taught us otherwise.
Another quote from Danner's article -- a long review of Bob Woodward's State of Denial, Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, and James Risen's State of War -- on the process question:
I've read Suskind's book, but not Woodward or Risen. One of the most striking things about Suskind's book is that there is no hint of an effort to develop a reasoned risk assessment of terrorism. This is in stark contrast to a flood, say, which engineers quickly know how to evaluate as a 1-in-100 year or 1-in-1000 year event -- terms that can feed directly into a reasoned evaluation of risks and countermeasures. You can understand why politicians didn't want to get into that sort of dispassionate analysis, but by not doing so -- and by not allowing anyone who worked for them to do so -- they repeatedly flew off the handle at even the most marginal and in some cases dubious threats. In Suskind's book this happens dozens and dozens of times; it's so common it becomes the overarching theme of the book, represented by Cheney's dictum that any threat with a one percent chance of happening has to be responded to as if it were a certainty. (That dictum has only the most superficial relationship to real risk assessment, a superficiality that proves deep lack of understanding.)
Several places Danner refers to a classified pre-invasion document on objectives and procedures. So maybe they had a set of requirements, but by classifying them they were useless for evaluating the policies that followed, or indeed for deciding whether the program was worth the costs and risks of implementation. Evidently, much of what the US did in Iraq was improvised on the spot, with scarcely a nod to prewar intentions. Danner summarizes where this chain of errors, deceptions, and malfeasances have brought us:
Still, watching excerpts of Bush and Maliki in Amman today, I'm struck by how tenaciously Bush continues to resist reality. In doing so, he ignores some of the most predictable effects of war: that the longer war drags on, the more damage, both physical and psychic, to all sides, and the greater the risk of further war. He still clings to the idea that he can pull some sort of victory out of the debacle, as if his victory is all that matters. After doing so much damage, the least he could do is to admit that he screwed up. Unfortunately, he seems incapable of even that decency.
Wednesday, November 29. 2006
From the New York Times, Nov. 28, David Cay Johnston, a piece called "'04 Income In U.S. Was Below 2000 Level":
A White House spokesman blamed the 2000 stock market bubble for distorting the figures. That's unlikely to impress anyone who didn't benefit from owning stock then, and for that matter isn't likely to please anyone who did own stock and got hosed. These are aggregate figures, so they ignore any zero-sum shift from poor to rich -- of which there seems to be quite a bit. But even if you buy the line that a rising tide raises all boats, the corollary is that with a sinking boat everyone gets wet.
Tuesday, November 28. 2006
Louise Richardson's book, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat (2006, Random House, 312 pp.) provides an uncommon amount of common sense as well as comprehensive research on terrorism and Bush's misbegotten war. She grew up in an Irish community disposed to support the IRA, before breaking away into academia, where she became an expert at comparing and generalizing from the entire range of terrorist movements. I've collected a lot of quotes from this book, which follow. In a future post I'll try to develop my own views. So for now, this is mostly background info. I've tended to pull out conclusions. The book itself has numerous examples, of which the current Islamist focus of Bush's War is just one.
She starts off with a definition (pp. 4-6):
Some sort of definition is a necessary starting point, especially if you're trying to develop a comparison set. This one works, although it reflects a subtle bias: it takes the state's view that terrorism is something others do, ignoring the fact that states often do as bad or worse. But it is more limited than most states' charges, which are quick to brand every violent political act against the state as an act of terrorism. Another bias is to exclude non-violent disruptions, such as sabotaging computer networks ("cyberterrorism"). The latter is helpful is that by excluding nonviolent resistance this makes the threshold of interest to be violence itself. The distinction between terrorism and guerrilla warfare matters less, as both are based on violence, on applying force against government power. In point of fact, those distinctions are ultimately so hard to make as to become meaningless. Even the most disciplined military operation results in unplanned, if not unforseeable, violence against noncombatants. Trying to justify such operations takes you over a moral line.
First, a basic rule (p. 40):
On the frequency of terrorism (pp. 40-41):
On the psychology of terrorism (p. 41):
On the question of state sponsors of terrorism (pp. 51-52):
Richardson messes up after this quote with some needless and unuseful equivocations. The key point here is that terror groups are invariably local based, even when they are able to attract material support from foreign states. The states have their own reasons for backing such groups -- usually some form of weakness, including lack of popular domestic support which leads even a strong nation to seek deniability. The reasons why states act in this way are outside the scope of study here, but it is worth noting that one reason terrorist groups exist is that they serve the interests of states acting outside the limits of international law. As such, stronger international law would help curb terrorism.
On the expectations of terrorists (p. 98):
Summarizing, Richardson writes, "So long as there is a reaction, therefore, the terrorist purpose is served." She continues (p. 100):
Maybe "not reacting is hardly an option," but how you react is the real issue. What feeds the terrorists isn't reaction per se but bad reaction. If political leaders can't resist the demands, often amplified by the media but really rooted in political culture, for revenge, they're letting the terrorists push their buttons. It may be that democracy is particularly susceptible to demagoguery here, but political leaders can be effective arguing both with and against the wind. To take the specific case of Bush on 9/11, he chose a path to war not just because the wind blew that way, but because he saw political opportunities in that direction.
On suicide bombers (pp. 128-129):
On the fear of WMD attacks by terrorists (p. 165):
On America's response to 9/11 (p. 168):
On the concept of a Global War on Terror (p. 176-177):
Again (p. 179):
On Bin Laden and Bush (p. 194):
Again (p. 195):
Under "What Is to Be Done?" Richardson offers six rules for counteracting terrorism (pp. 203-233):
These are mostly self-explanatory. Somewhere between #2 and #3 there should be a "know thyself" -- which is clearly an American affliction. A couple of quotes from these sections. From Rule 3 (p. 213):
From Rule 4 (p. 216):
Again from Rule 4 (p. 219):
One reason I quoted this book so extensively is that I was reading a copy from the library, so don't have the book to refer to. There is a section where she argues that a major obstacle to international law regarding terrorism is that too many nations tend to interpret terrorism in the context of their own political agendas. For example, the US likes to make a distinction between "good" terrorists (the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen, the anti-Sandinista contras) and "bad" terrorists (e.g., the anti-American Afghan mujahideen). I don't have a quote on that, but she argues that all terrorism, given her definition, is always terrorism. That seems right to me, but it's worth noting that that argument leads to a pacifist position. That's alright with me, too.
But if we take the acts of terrorism as definitive, then we have to provide some accounting for equivalent acts by the state. Such acts are in fact contrary to human rights as commonly defined, so it's not necessary to define them as terrorism in order to condemn them. Moreover, it seems to me that there is a moral equivalence between terrorism and state acts of terror, unless you want to argue that states, by dint of their presumed responsibilities, are even more immoral.
Another point I missed quoting is where she argues that one of the great missed opportunities of the Bush War on Terror was how it failed to consolidate near-universal outrage over the 9/11 attacks into a great strengthening of international law over terrorism. This didn't happen primarily because Bush et al., as rulers of the world's presumed sole hyperpower, intended to settle all scores on its own. That this sounds like something from a Mafia opera isn't coincidental. Bush isn't merely the ruler of a rogue nation; he's the scion of one of the world's great crime families.
Monday, November 27. 2006
Nothing new to report on the still unpublished 11th Jazz Consumer Guide. I still expect the Voice will publish it in early December, but don't have a date, and haven't seen the promised edit. I've mostly been working on December's Recycled Goods column, so not a lot to report below. I'm looking at a few more days of that, then I guess the next thing is to think of year-end lists. At present, my 2006 list has 82 A-records, that is still well short of 2005's 133. No doubt I'm way behind on non-jazz at this point. Some of this I can blame on the Voice's firing of Robert Christgau, whose Consumer Guide has been MIA since July. This will change shortly: Christgau has a deal with MSN Music to publish a bimonthly CG, and the first one will be posted shortly after December 1. I'll have more details later this week, as will Christgau's website once I get an update together.
My January Recycled Goods column will be a year-end review, so sometime in the next four weeks I need to get a much better handle on what I've missed thus far. I'd welcome any lists-in-progress that readers have, and may try to compile them into some kind of metacritic summary. Francis Davis has decided to conduct his own year-end jazz poll which he'll work into his Voice column. That one is due Dec. 13, and will survey 40 NYC-centered critics. I'll post my ballot when I get it together, but looking at my working list, the top ten run from Ornette Coleman to Nik Bärtsch's Ronin or Joe Morris depending on whether Steve Lacy is new or old, with Steven Bernstein and Vandermark 5 just off the cusp.
The other poll I'm likely to contribute to is the Voice's first post-Christgau Pazz & Jop tally. It will be strange this time around.
Pärson Sound (1966-68 , Anthology, 2CD): Well, actually this isn't a CD, let alone two, at all. Anthology Recordings is a label that only sells downloads -- I just happen to have gotten the album on two CDs because the publicist figured (correctly in my case) that some of us would only respond to CDs. I don't like the business model. I've never paid for mere bits, and doubt that I ever will. On the other hand, I mention this here because it is sort-of jazzlike -- mostly instrumental, with saxophones in the lead -- and because it's pretty good. Mostly instrumental, built from thick layers of guitar, cello and sax with hard rock beats punctuating dirgelike repetitive drones -- at its lightest just guitar over bird twitter; mistaken for psychedelia at the time, this owes more to LaMonte Young, parallels the Velvet Underground and Soft Machine, and runs far ahead of hardcore bands like Flipper, but sounds to me most like a jazz fusion road not taken. (Looks like it's still in print in Sweden on Subliminal Sounds. More on Anthology in the next Recycled Goods, due early December.) A-
Bill Anschell: More to the Ear Than Meets the Eye Seattle-based pianist, worked with Nnenna Freelon for several years, has several albums under his own name, dating back to 1994. This one, a mix of five standards and six originals, is built around two trios, with sax or trumpet added on half. Elegant postbop, flowing piano, horns a mixed blessing. B+(*)
Liam Sillery With the David Sills Quartet: On the Fly (2005 , OA2): Sills is a mainstream tenor saxophonist, who did an album earlier this year that I rather liked (Down the Line). His quartet includes organ and guitar, so it takes off from soul jazz mainstream. Sillery plays trumpet and flugelhorn. Sax-trumpet quintets normally spell hard bop, but the bottom is weak here, and the top is rather flighty, the horns harmonizing more than dicing. The result is a sort of elegant postbop I find almost totally uninteresting. B-
Phil Kelly & the SW Santa Ana Winds: My Museum (2006, Origin): Los Angeles-based big band, including a bank of strings and some featured soloists of note -- Wayne Begeron, Pete Christlieb, Bill Cunliffe, Grant Geissman, Jay Thomas are names I recognize. Kelly wrote five of nine pieces and arranged the rest, including "Body & Soul" and "Daydream." Kelly has also worked with a Seattle-based group called the Northwest Prevailing Winds. Nicely done, with some inspired moments, but sometimes I wonder why anyone puts so much effort into projects of such limited potential. B
JC and the Jazz Hoppers: Chillin' at Home (2004 , Jazz-Hop): JC is Jason Campbell, guitarist. The Jazz Hoppers are Colin Nolan and Andrew Dickeson, who play organ and drums, respectively. Don't know anything about Campbell -- his website has Flash but no substance -- but the record was recorded in Australia, which isn't what you'd call an international jazz destination. So, guitar-organ-drums: been done. Chillin'? That too. Sounds like Grant Green? Sort of, but if that's the point, not enough. B-
Mike Marshall/Hamilton de Holanda: New Worlds/Novas Palavras (2005 , Adventure Music, CD+DVD): Mandolins aren't exactly choice dueling instruments, but the point here is more likely to see what can come together than how American and Brazilian mandolinists stack up. The match isn't exactly equal: de Holanda plays 10-string bandolim and Irish bouzouki, both close matches to Marshall's mandolin. Marshall also drops down a bit with mandocello and tenor guitar. This struck me as the label owner's indulgence at first, but it works better than expected. Sounds to my ears somewhat like one of those plucky mediaeval dance things, but more tightly wound -- a plus. DVD has three songs: that's the owner's indulgence, but he wants you to see how happy he is. B+(*)
The Microscopic Septet: Seven Men in Neckties: History of the Micros Volume One (1982-90 , Cuneiform, 2CD): Breakdown here is four saxes, piano, bass (or tuba), drums. Soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston, most recently heard from in the Captain Beefheart tribute band Fast 'N' Bulbous (also on Cuneiform), is the evident leader, although pianist Joel Forrester writes nearly as much. Dave Sewelson (baritone sax), David Hofstra (bass, tuba), and Richard Dworkin (drums) were constants, with the alto and tenor sax chairs revolving over ten years and four albums. This collects their first two albums: Take the Z Train (1983) and the live Let's Flip (1985), with a few extra tracks thrown in, including a brief take of Forrester's theme for NPR's Fresh Air. Hard to know what to make of this: it's basically swing done by NYC's downtown fringe without any obviously ironic affectations -- sort of the premillennial version of Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra. Live record gets dicier. They can approach the marvelous at times, but don't make a habit of it. [B+(**)]
The Microscopic Septet: Surrealistic Swing: History of the Micros Volume Two (1981-90 , Cuneiform, 2CD): Two more albums -- Off Beat Glory (1986) and Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) (1988) -- and they're done, with a couple of cuts from an early session with John Zorn and John Hagen and more "Fresh Air Theme" stretching the dates. Offhand, I'd say the 1986 album slips a notch, but the 1988 one makes up the lost ground. Thought I heard an attractive tango on the latter, but the title claims it's a waltz. Oh, well. [B+(**)]
Frank Wright: Unity (1974 , ESP-Disk): Wright's a tenor saxophonist from Albert Ayler's generation -- he had a year on Ayler, two on Archie Shepp, five on Pharoah Sanders. He started in r&b bands before leaping to the avant fringe. Didn't record much -- a couple of mid-'60s albums on ESP, a 1970 Free America album, a bit with Cecil Taylor in the '80s. One I like a lot is Last Set, a live set from 1984 under Raphe Malik's name that just appeared a couple of years ago. This seems to be another live discovery: a quartet from the Moers Festival with Bobby Few on piano, Alan Silva on bass, and a drummer I don't recognize named Muhammad Ali. Two pieces -- one 27:28, the other 29:00 -- with the usual solo shots, but Wright is a power house, Few and Silva have strong moments, and they all hit a groove at end end that really rocks the house. [B+(***)]
Cheryl Bentyne: The Book of Love (2006, Telarc): She's enough of a pro that she delivers a perfectly good rendition of perfectly good songs -- a "You Don't Know Me," a "Cry Me a River," anything by Cole Porter. But she's not great enough to get anything out of a song that isn't already there, and the musicians aren't any help at all -- least of all the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra Strings, who might as well serenade Brezhnev. And the title cut gets turned to ethereal fluff by Take 6. Twice. Concepts aren't a strong suit either. C-
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Bridge 61: Journal (2005 , Atavistic): You know about Ken Vandermark, Nate McBride, and Tim Daisy by now. The fourth wheel here is Jason Stein on bass clarinet -- Vandermark plays tenor sax, baritone sax, and clarinet. He was born 1976, grew up on Long Island, bounced around through Central America and Montana and Vermont and Michigan and wound up in Chicago. I'm not so sure what he's doing here. This is advertised as an evenly balanced cooperative, but the distribution of compositions is: Vandermark 4, McBride 2, Daisy 2, Stein 0. I don't hear much that sounds like bass clarinet either -- a couple of muffled solos, a fair amount of comping. As for the others, Daisy and McBride continue to develop, and Vandermark closes with a very strong piece for Sonny Sharrock. B+(*)
Sound in Action Trio: Gate (2003 , Atavistic): Two drummers: Robert Barry, from Sun Ra Arkestra, and Tim Daisy, from Triage and numerous Ken Vandermark projects, including the flagship 5. One horn, Vandermark, constantly on the spot. Half originals, all dedicated to drummers; half modern jazz pieces, with Dolphy offering a clarinet feature, and Coltrane setting up some extraordinary tenor sax. A-
Mike Holober: Wish List (2004-05 , Sons of Sound): I don't get the sense that Holober is an exceptional pianist, but I have noticed that he often shows up in good places, and that he is one of the main factors in that success. That may mean he's a better follower than leader. That this record makes such a soft impression may be that his lead players never take charge. Tim Rees adds little more than color with his saxophones; Wolfgang Muthspiel is even more evanescent on guitar. B
Sunday, November 26. 2006
Probably due to the Thanksgiving holiday, this week's F5 Record Report hasn't been posted yet. The usual link will probably work sooner or later. Meanwhile, you can find my draft here. This one was another rush job, in this case occasioned by an early deadline, so I rumaged through the recyclings. The lineup is:
Figured we might as well kick off the shopping season with some good records. Two more anomalies are: only six records, which is the bottom end of my 6-8 target range, and only three labels, all majors.
Turned another column in, this one with some new stuff. Should have posted this on Friday at the usual time, since I have no more to report now. But I've been laid low by the holiday weekend as well -- fixed salmon teriyaki and various Japanese-themed dishes Thursday, and more to round out the leftovers on Friday, but that was about all the energy I could muster.
Thursday, November 23. 2006
Saw this in the Wichita Eagle today, from Elizabeth Williamson of the Washington Post:
This is a relatively trivial example, but reminds us that for the Bush administration, all problems are PR problems, and the only thing it ever takes to fix them is better PR.
On the other hand, I'm not sure that hunger is the right term. Everyone gets hungry, but most of us have little or no trouble finding some kind of food. What we're talking about is persistent hunger, but is the sensation there still hunger? Or is it more like malnutrition? Hunger is a message from your stomach saying fill me up. That's very straightforward, whereas malnutrition doesn't have such an unambiguous signal: your body feels weak, deprived, damaged, but it's harder to tell why or how. That's probably the real problem, but it's a more complicated one: a combination of "low food security," miseducation, possibly a shortfall of motivation, and inadequate health care. Reducing all that down to "hunger" causes a disconnect with most Americans, who are more likely to have a problem with too much food than with too little. And who, if they're at all fortunate, take the rest of the equation for granted.
On the other hand, there's no reason to doubt that the PR solution is politically motivated. That's the Bush solution to everything.
Tuesday, November 21. 2006
The Wichita Eagle has a little feature every Tuesday listing select new DVD releases. Seems a strange sense of priorities that they don't do anything similar for CD releases, but never mind. The thing that struck me today was that two of the movies I've seen but haven't gotten around to noting here are now out on DVD. I don't see a lot of movies, but I haven't written anything in this slot since July 21. So at least I need to stub this, even if I don't have much to say.
Movie: An Inconvenient Truth. In the end, Al Gore reminded me why I like him so little, but also impressed me with an earnestness lacking in other patrician politicians we can name -- more so in reference to the world than in terms of his own ego. The images are particularly striking. The science seems sound, and the facts accumulate. I have a friend who saw this and started making plans to leave the country. Evidently, he's not betting that we'll take Gore's remedies to heart. Or that they'll work. A-
Movie: The Devil Wore Prada. More entertaining than it has any right to be. B+
Movie: Scoop. Back to funny movies, even if Allen's not done with Britain's tiresome upper crust. A-
Movie: Little Miss Sunshine. Spent too much of the movie wanting it to move differently. In retrospect, all those missteps seems to work out anyway. A-
Movie: The Illusionist. Makes me think we could do with more movies about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and fewer about magicians. B
Movie: The Black Dahlia. Not just overdetermined; downright overresolved. Thought the two female leads were miscast, but the boxer-cops did well enough. B
Movie: The Departed. Another case where the plot was problematic -- especially the extreme body count at the end. But near great, especially Leonardo DiCaprio, who had the toughest role. A-
Movie: Half Nelson. The big problem with drugs is watching other people on them, especially in movies. Couldn't much relate to the dialectics nonsense either, but there is a payoff in the end. B+
Movie: Infamous. The box office loser of the Capote sweepstakes -- gayer and weirder, but slightly off. The New York social trivia is more fun than Capote, perhaps because it plays up the artifice; but that approach is rough on Kansas, especially given the harsh light and rough surfaces given the killers. Sandra Bullock is fine, but Catherine Keener is a natural; Toby Miller matches Capotes physically, but Hoffman gets the anguish right. So acting wins out. B+
Movie: Catch a Fire. After the Americans in Iraq, the biggest surprise is how good South Africa's intelligence was on this case. Not so surprising is that it didn't matter. B+
Movie: Marie Antoinette. The ahistorical music and attitude was expected, but the most striking thing was how the set overwhelmed the story. It's like the rare opportunity to shoot in Versailles demanded such deferential treatment. B
Movie: The Queen. This makes two Elizabeths for Helen Mirren, neither worthy of Prime Suspect. B+
News of Robert Altman's death today. His A Prairie Home Companion is still my top movie this year.
Monday, November 20. 2006
Don't have a schedule yet for when the Village Voice will publish my 11th Jazz Consumer Guide -- understand the editor there is busy through Thanksgiving, but will get back to me with an edit. Early December seems likely. Meanwhile, we'll start prospecting for #12, even though I'm still decompressing. Spent most of last week on a pile of box sets, mostly from Sony/BMG. The Buddy Guy and Waylon Jennings are low A-. I'm not a big fan of either, but they gain through accumulation.
John Bunch: At the Nola Penthouse: Salutes Jimmy Van Heusen (2006, Arbors): The label likes to do these double titles. I'm following the spine, except for adding a colon. Doesn't read right to me, but don't know what else to do. The subject for both clauses is pianist Bunch, who will turn 85 later this year. He's been a dependable name for a long time now. Follows in Teddy Wilson's footsteps, and doesn't wander far from there. Dave Green and Steve Brown complete the trio, neither making much of an impression. Nor does Bunch, really -- this is quiet and respectful, lovely when you focus, but a bit too modest to listen to. B
George Colligan Trio: Blood Pressure (2006, Ultimatum): Trio suggests a group with a fixed lineup, which isn't the case here. Josh Ginsberg is replaced or joined on bass by Boris Kozlov. Jonathan Blake yields the drumset to EJ Strickland and Vanderlai Pereira. Two more cuts have extras: Jamie Baum's flute on one, Meg Okura's violin on the other. Colligan plays synths as well as piano, so there are various electronic blips as well as the usual soft tones. I find it all very confusing, although the straight acoustic piano trio is superb, as usual, and the other stuff is interesting. One thing that is clear is the message to "Mr. Cheney" in the tray photo. B+(*)
Sonny Stitt: Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings, 1949-1952 (, Prestige, 3CD): Stitt always claimed that he developed his style independently of Charlie Parker, sort of like Alfred Russel Wallace's discovery of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. But Parker was four years older, got his records out first, and established his case more persuasively. Stitt's early records on Prestige came out when bebop was in full swing -- indeed, Jay Jay Johnson headlined the first set here, and Bud Powell co-led the second. And as he moved from tenor sax to alto, he almost begged comparison to Bird. More than anything else, Stitt was a working musician -- a guy who cranked out hundreds of albums, often on the flimsiest of premises. Most of the sessions here were jousts with Gene Ammons, and the best are when they're both flying high. But including everything drags their faint r&b vocal sides in. B+(**)
Weather Report: Forecast: Tomorrow (1969-85 , Columbia/Legacy, 3CD+DVD): The jazz-rock fusion of the early '70s was less a movement than a family franchise. It started with Miles Davis, then spread with his departing employees: most importantly, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and this Wayne Shorter-Joe Zawinul joint venture. Hardly anyone without a connection to Davis mattered, but the preponderance of keyboards set the music adrift -- the rhythms and textures thickening, the atmosphere clouding up. At least that's what I always thought, but this box had me wondering for a while. The first disc gets a running start by including three pre-group cuts, starting with the Davis take of Zawinul's "In a Silent Way." Then it leans heavily on the first album and live cuts where the jazz whiskers come out. But it gets spottier as they go on, especially when Shorter tries to fit in rather than stand out. The DVD offers a 1978 concert at the band's popular peak with Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine going shirtless in what must be a Cheap Trick homage. B+(**)
Janice Borla: From Every Angle (2006, Blujazz): Jazz singer from Chicago. Her website lists three albums over the last ten years, but also mentions a first album (Whatever We Imagine) that dates back at least 20, as does her "leading role in vocal jazz education." She's not a cabaret singer -- the songs here come from the bop era with assists from Jon Hendricks and Bobby McFerrin. She can scat. She gets respectful, tasteful backup. In fact, this is expert enough that I feel kind of bad that I don't respond to it more. Professionalism doesn't come easy. Nor does reviewing it. B
Dominique Eade/Jed Wilson: Open (2004-05 , Jazz Project): Jazz singer, teamed here in minimal duets with pianist Wilson. She has a USAF father, Swiss mother, born London, grew up mostly in Germany; attended Vassar, Berklee, New England Conservatory, the latter keeping her on to teach. Five albums, including a tribute to June Christy and Chris Connor. Writes most of the songs here, although Leonard Cohen's "In My Secret Life" is the one that stands out. Way too spartan for my taste, but striking nonetheless. B+(*)
Diane Delin: Offerings for a Peaceable Season (2005 , Blujazz): Violinist with five albums going back to 1997. Don't know anything more, but clearly she's fond of Grappelli. Starts off with "My Favorite Things" and "Baby It's Cold Outside" before toppling into unavoidable Xmas songs, recasting the meaning of those not normally so tainted. By the end of the year this rant is likely to get old, but I have no interest whatsoever in holiday music. Didn't even like it before I read the factoid that it outsells jazz. This one snuck in on the peace train, so I'll let it off with a mild reprimand. The others I'm saving for a real bah humbug day. B-
Muhal Richard Abrams/George Lewis/Roscoe Mitchell: Streaming (2005 , Pi): These guys look serious in the booklet photos -- only Abrams manages to crack a smile, and then only when he isn't working. Lewis plays enough trombone to remind you how much you wish he'd play more, but his main instrument these days is laptop -- presumably the source of the hums and buzzes, not to mention the birdsong effects. Mitchell is probably responsible for most of the percussion, even though his first credits are soprano and alto sax. Still, Abrams is the center here, the reason for this universe's existence. This reminds me of his early work. The toys are different, but the creative impulse is the same. [B+(***)]
Sonic Liberation Front: Change Over Time (2006, High Two): This follows the same lines, and has many of the same wonders, as the their two previous albums, including my fave from 2004, Ashé a Go-Go. But it hasn't quite kicked in yet -- not sure what it is, but I don't get the same rise from the sax, and the vocal pieces don't take on unexpected lives. That leaves the bata drums, which may still be the point. [B+(***)]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Al Di Meola: Consequence of Chaos (2006, Telarc): Fusion guitarist from New Jersey. Made his reputation in Chick Corea's Return to Forever, with Corea returning the favor here. Some of this is pleasantly grooveful. Some is sparely elegant. Some of it is Corea-style fusion. B
Saborit: Que Linda Es Mi Cuba (2006, Tumi Music): I suppose it's pure coincidence that the guitars in this East Cuban group remind me of nothing so much as Guitar Paradise of East Africa. Cuba's Oriente is typically less Afro and more Spanish than the urban jungle of Havana, but for country music this builds on pretty complex riddims. Modestly named for guaracha legend Eduardo Saborit, they've played together for twenty-plus years before piling onto a tractor and heading cross-country for their first studio date. That may make them hicks, but they were right to take the chance. A-
Stanton Moore: III (2006, Telarc): Not sure what you'd call Moore's strain of jazz-funk fusion. It shares some ground with MM&W, looking back to soul jazz organ (Robert Walter is the guy here), guitar (Will Bernard), and sax (Skerik). Garage A Trois's Outre Mer, which Moore had a big hand in, is my favorite example -- it just seems to click together right. This is spottier, especially on the more straightforward funk toons. Two slower pieces toward the end -- Abdullah Ibrahim's "Water From an Ancient Well" and trad.'s "I Shall Not Be Moved" -- are exceptional, curiously sandwiched around a Led Zep blues, "When the Levee Breaks." B+(*)
Sunday, November 19. 2006
Not being a news junkie, and not being able to stomach more than a few nanoseconds of the Bush administration bigwigs at a time, I've only picked up fragmentary reports on the Dauphin's visit to Vietnam. (Sorry, just saw Marie Antoinette and The Queen this weekend, so the stunted progeny of royalty are fresh on my mind.) I've been looking for a coherent summary, but haven't found one yet. (Seems like this one's right up Tom Engelhardt's alley.) Part of the reason has got to be that the whole thing is strange beyond belief -- even before Condoleezza Rice went on record urging the Iraqis to follow Vietnam's example. One thing we know, even if it seems incredible, is that neocon America has memories of Vietnam so bizarre you have to wonder if they've been implanted in some supersecret CIA program. Bush clings to the notion that the only reason the US lost in Vietnam was that we quit the fight -- an analogy he likes to make to Iraq, even though the corrolary is that if we hadn't quit we'd still be fighting in Vietnam. That such distortions persist in the neocon mind is a big part of the reason they marched so blindly into Iraq. But after several years of trying to deny similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, it's especially disturbing that now they find hope in that analogy.
Still, this leaves open the question of why they went to Vietnam in the first place. The only idea I can come up with is that someone figured it might be useful to show Bush that surrendering might not turn out so bad in the long run. But clearly the point is lost on him. One report is that he toured a memorial to victims of the US bombing of Hanoi, and responded that it was one-sided. Well, of course, there are two sides: those who are bombed rarely look at it the same way as those who drop the bombs. On the other hand, it's a bit like complaining that the future 9/11 memorial doesn't have a wing explaining Bin Laden's side of the story.
Saturday, November 18. 2006
War in Context quotes Shmuel Rosner of Haaretz:
We're already seeing signs of the bloodletting to come on the far fringes of the US right as they seek to distance themselves from Bush. Before building a monument to the man, it might be a good idea to see how far he's likely to sink. Israelis are usually much shrewder at reading American public opinion -- especially given that American Jews voted against Bush's party in 2006 by a 6-to-1 margin.
Moreover, it's far from clear that Bush's obeisance to Israel's diehard hawks will be regarded as much of a favor in the long term. Even in the short term, it's not like Bush's support gave them much comfort in Lebanon, or that either is likely to get much satisfaction from their sabre rattling over Iran. More than ever I'm struck by how far some Israelis have turned their backs on decency. They show us who the real self-haters are.
Friday, November 17. 2006
This week's F5 Record Report made it to the website. Find it with the usual link. Only cribbed one review from a previous column this time. Thought I needed some jazz, which I'm on some sort of break from, and I thought WSQ could use another plug. The lineup is:
Next week's column had to be handed in early for Thanksgiving. I've been playing box sets this week -- unproductive in terms of pumping up my rated count, but I try to deal with what I get, and Legacy's been pretty generous lately. Figured I finally had the time, then got caught short, so next week's F5 column is all oldies, all A- or above. As anyone who's studied statistics knows, it only evens out in the end, more or less.
Thursday, November 16. 2006
In my post-9/11 reading, I've skipped past virtually every one of the dozens of books on terrorists and counterterrorism -- partial exceptions are Michael Scheuer's Hubris and Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, both about the CIA operations and views, and Gilles Kepel's books on political Islam, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam and The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West. The books I picked provide the broader context in which the War on Terrorism occurs. The terrorists themselves don't much interest me, and further abstraction of the concept strikes me as wrong-headed.
On the other hand, Louise Richardson's What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat strikes me as an exceptionally level-headed comparative survey and analysis of the subject. I've only glanced through it, but Max Rodenbeck has a review at New York Review of Books which summarizes the book rather rigorously. Rodenbeck reduces her book to a dozen points. I'm going to reduce them even further here (bold quotes from Rodenbeck; mostly there were followed with historical examples):
Richardson draws on examples as far back as the Jewish Zealots who opposed the Roman Empire and draws from a wide range of examples, including the Irish IRA she grew up with and was attracted to. As far as I know, She doesn't discuss much the causes claimed by the various groups who resort to terror, which leads her to generalize. However, her discussion of counterterrorists focuses sharply on the Bush administration's response to 9/11. Rodenbeck writes:
The latter was a preconceived program: America's militarists have been searching for a global enemy ever since the Soviet Union's collapse deprived them of their Cold War raison d'être. But they miscalculated severely in deciding to lash out at an abstract noun. The US military wasn't built or oriented for such conflicts, and the political leaders were deaf to how their bombing, invasions, and occupation would play out. Both White House and Pentagon conceived the War on Terrorism in familiar terms, as wars they could fight with the tools they favored. The only thing surprising about their missing the target is how many more targets popped up. But then they missed them too.
Started reading Richardson's book. I'll have more to say on it in due course. One thing that strikes me is that she is rigorous in her definitions, and unwilling to let any non-state terrorism slip by under any other name. She doesn't take a pacifist position, but her stance is compatible with one. As for the states, that should be the subject for another book. She does point out that "state sponsors of terrorism" -- states that back foreign groups that practice terror -- don't create terrorist groups, even though they facilitate them. As for states that directly employ terror in the course of war, it is fair to say that the psychology and motivation is different -- the old adages about "following orders" and "the banality of evil" hold up. It should also be stated that the scale of terror is different too: modern military forces can do things that terrorist groups can only fantasize about. We'll see whether Richardson gets into that at all. She does mention that the trend among terrorists to target random civilians arose alongside world wars where civilians were the primary targets. The obvious conclusion is that if you want to undercut terrorism a first step would be to take away the reference model of interstate warfare.
Wednesday, November 15. 2006
Now that we're no longer "staying the course" in Iraq, everyone's coming forth to push their favorite new trajectories. On election night, Fox's armchair quarterbacks William Kristol and Juan Williams were calling for more troops and the kind of serious victory campaign that Bush was too wimpy to pursue with an election pending. They did hold out an olive branch to the "victory Democrats" -- the silver lining they saw in an election where so many Americans were cuddling up with terrorists. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman have also been pushing for more troops. And then there are the "real men" -- the ones still angling for Tehran.
On the other hand, George McGovern and William Polk have written a book with their "blueprint" for leaving Iraq. I've read the executive summary, and it seems like a reasonable proposal. It's based on two insights: that the US presence in Iraq is the source of a conflict that can only abate after the US exits, and that the US needs to pay reparations and invest in reconstruction in order to stabilize and legitimize an independent Iraqi government. Most of the article is spent itemizing reconstruction budgets, which they calculate in units matching the amount the US spends per day to keep the war running: $246 million. The total bill they come up with is about $17.25 billion -- about ten weeks at the current burn rate.
The weak link in the plan is that the transition from American withdrawal to stabilization is far from certain. They waive this by with a statement that seems basically right but simplistic:
Of course, it's more complicated than that. When the Americans leave, there will be a power vacuum, and there is no shortage of groups that might aspire to fill it. The extant Iraqi government has limited and tainted legitimacy. They could gain legitimacy by accommodating presently excluded groups, or they could try to keep power by force. In the latter case, the insurgency will continue with a new focus. Nor is the anti-US insurgency the only militia that could challenge the central government, or each other. The reasonable thing to do would be for these forces to concentrate their power locally while sharing in an inclusive central umbrella that would largely exist for divvying up reconstruction funds and oil revenues. But that won't happen if some groups think they have a chance of taking it all. Such hopes could be fostered by support of any foreign government. That indeed is a big part of America's problem in Iraq, but would also be true of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and each of those nations has its own preferred reordering of Iraq's fractures.
To some extent, McGovern and Polk brush this aside because they truly respect post-withdrawal Iraq's independence. They recognize that Iraqis will only accept a resolution that they arrive at on their own. That is, after all, what independence means, and what the American presence has made impossible. US withdrawal is the one thing that can be tightly scheduled -- they have it starting by the end of 2006 and complete six months later. Beyond that the plan's recommendations are subject to Iraqi control. For practical purposes, that means they depend on the Iraqis getting their system together. Security and reconstruction aid are resources and incentives. For instance:
This attitude of respect for Iraqi independence is what makes the plan practicable. However, it has real political problems. First, it runs against the basic American attitude to foreign aid, which is that if we don't own it, we won't pay for it. That it costs us far more to keep the fighting going is a rational argument. Another is that leaving Iraq as an open sore with a failed government puts the whole region at serious risk. But we didn't pay a dime for wrecking Vietnam, and deep down it's going to be hard for many Americans to swallow having to pay people after they rejected us.
An even bigger political problem is that such a resolution casts doubts on our whole foreign policy in the region -- our unremitting hostility to Iran and Syria, our unquestioning support of the most dangerous factions of Israeli militarism, our holy war against what we've taken to calling Islamofascism. If, say, we do what McGovern and Polk propose, and the result is a stable, rebuilding Iraq that does not export terrorism, that limits its opposition to Israel to diplomacy, and that gets top dollar for its oil, where does that leave the War on Terror? And if the neverending War on Terror dies, where does that leave Bush?
It may be that McGovern and Polk don't much care about those issues, but one thing we can be sure of is that James Baker does think about those things. His Congressionally-mandated bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report is much anticipated, although for now its main utility has been to put off trying to solve the problem. The Iraq Study Group's expertise in Iraq and the Middle East is almost nil, but the one thing they do understand is Washington politics. Just look at the membership: James Baker, Lee Hamilton, Lawrence Eagleburger (replacing Robert Gates), Vernon Jordan, Ed Meese, Sandra Day O'Connor, Leon Panetta, William Perry, Charles Robb, Alan Simpson. There's not a lot of potential conflict here -- the Democrats are the sort who remain loyal opposition even under Bush and Rove. The one curious thing about this group is that I don't see any obvious Israeli lobbyists among them. That doesn't make them any less pro-Israeli than the norm for politicians of their standing. But it does raise a slight glimmer that they may recognize that Israel has become the rotten root of America's problems in the region.
Tony Blair has been in the press lately with his own thinking about regional strategy, and he sees the connection between Iraq and Israel, even if he's not very effective at acting upon it. (The UK abstained from the UNSC resolution against Israel's invasion of Gaza; the US vetoed the resolution.) Meanwhile, Bush has started his own policy review group. As Robin Wright wrote in the Washington Post:
Don't have any names associated with the Bush review. But a lot of Pentagon brass have stepped forward to brag about their recent successes. As I recall, the last time Bush's people studied the question, they came up with research showing that the preferred solution to the problem was "complete victory." I can't imagine how they'll improve on that.
Tuesday, November 14. 2006
One thing Bush's "thumpin'" in the elections hasn't done is to settle him down. First we saw a report that Democracy Boy signed an executive order to permit US military training to resume in Latin America. The explanation had something to do with the growing threat of the left down there. Since the left has been winning democratic elections, and the training is meant to help align right-leaning military forces with US interests, the most likely conclusion is that Bush is looking for military coups to do his bidding. That was exactly what happened during the heyday of US training from the '50s well into the '70s, when nearly every nation in the region experienced military rule at one point or another.
Such training had been suspended by Bush in cases where he was trying to badger nations into signing bilateral treaties that would protect US citizens from the International Criminal Court. On the other hand, Bush seems to have no qualms about foreign courts charging his favorite betes noires. From a Reurters report (via warincontext.org):
Hundreds? 1994? I don't wish to belittle that, but right now, in the context of Bush in Iraq, that's a rather long and desperate stretch for political points. The histeria over Iran has cranked up again following the elections, with Olmert visiting Washington to make the case, and Netanyahu pushing his favorite analogy (reported by Peter Hirschberg in Haaretz):
Someone should advise Netanyahu on Godwin's Law. At least, he's out of the government -- just a cheerleader for genocide --but the even more extremist Avigdor Lieberman has joined Olmert with a portfolio that specifically includes dealing with Iran. It seems that Israel is anxious to egg the US into a military confrontation with Iran, much as Bush was so pleased with Israel taking over the news cycle by attacking Lebanon. By the time that misadventure ended, Olmert was the political equivalent of dead meat, so you can understand his desperation -- even though the last thing most Israelis need is a polarizing war.
This leads us back to the question of whether Bush will attack Iran. Most observers believe not, citing a long list of reasons why doing so would top invading Iraq as the dumbest thing he's ever done. I figured he at least wouldn't do it before the election. At the very least doing so would reinforce the notion that he's a very dangerous loose cannon, and beyond that any number of repercussions could redound against him -- at the very least, the oil markets and gas prices would panic. On the other hand, he celebrated the 2004 elections by launching an offensive against Falluja, and the 2002 elections led to the Iraq war. Nothing in his character makes me think his response would be more measured just because he lost this one. He is, after all, still president, and one way to remind us of that is to start another war.
One problem with tough talk is that it starts to box you in, making it all the more likely that you'll have to act tough to keep face. Bush's whole Middle East policy has turned into a poison pill. But it's still not clear how much damage he'll do before it kills him.
Monday, November 13. 2006
Once again, I don't have enough jazz prospecting to report. Looking back, I'm not sure what happened to last week. Don't have much to show for it. Maybe I did need a break. Didn't get much in the mail either. The only thing I do have to report is that I did hear back from Rob Harvilla at the Village Voice. He says he'll run Jazz Consumer Guide late November or early December: "after publishing this one i'd like to reassess . . . let's talk more before you start laying the groundwork for the next." Of course, I've already started with the usual transition work. Still, good news so far.
Not sure how this coming week will work out, but it's probable that I will have some prospecting notes to post next week -- starting with catching up on the recycled jazz I skipped toward the end of the last column.