Monday, April 30. 2007
Don't have much jazz prospecting to show for last week. As expected, I spent most of the work on May's Recycled Goods column, which is done and in the pipeline. Didn't even have much in the way of jazz reissues: Mosaic, Blue Note, and Concord haven't responded, and I haven't looked up Verve in a while. Also short on major label reissues, so I've been catching up on world music. Two good ones in the upcoming column are Papa Noel's Café Noir (Tumi) and Tinariwen's Aman Iman: Water Is Life (World Village). Meanwhile, incoming jazz is piling up. I should start closing out the column in the next two weeks. I'm still finding it all rather overwhelming.
Slavic Soul Party! Technochek Collision (2007, Barbès): I had this on the world shelf until I read the fine print, discovering that this Gypsy brass band is firmly rooted in the five boroughs of New York, and that the names I recognize are downtown jazzers, starting with leader Matt Moran. He's better known in these parts as the vibraphonist with John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, but here he sticks to drums and composes everything not credited to Trad. or Toussaint. A-
Bebel Gilberto: Momento (2007, Ziriguiboom/Six Degrees): Bossa nova royalty, daughter of João but not Astrud -- mother is another singer, Miúcha, sister of Chico Buarque. Where her first album looked forward with electrobeats, this one feels old fashioned, especially on the delicately fractured "Night and Day." B+(*)
Vusi Mahlasela: Guiding Star (2007, ATO): He's a guitarist, singer, songwriter -- fellow South African Dave Matthews calls him "a voice during the revolution, a voice of hope, like a Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan of South Africa." Matthews owns the label introducing Mahlasela to the US, and guests, as does Derek Trucks, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and others. All told, they pull enough tricks out of the bag you wind up with a whirlwind tour of South African music from mbaqanga to mbube but no real sense of where Mahlasela fits into it. Perhaps everywhere. B+(**)
Secret Oyster: Sea Son (1974 , The Laser's Edge): Danish instrumental group, not sure whether they intended to play fusion or progressive rock, but they're so upbeat they they missed the boat on krautrock -- probably too busy partying. B+(*)
Nino Rota: Fellini & Rota (1952-2003 , CAM Jazz): From 1952 until his death in 1979 Rota composed music for Federico Fellini's movies. This is presumably the original music, as collected in a 1996 compilation, with a more recent coda by pianist Enrico Pieranunzi. As with so many soundtracks, the logic remains on screen, and the selections -- some quite marvelous -- don't flow so much has hop all over the map. I've somehow missed most of Fellini's famous films, but recognize the circus atmosphere of several of these pieces. Rota was less innovative than Ennio Morricone in using electronics, but otherwise worked from a similar pallette. B+ [May 8]
The Jazz O'Maniacs: Sunset Cafe Stomp (2005 , Delmark): The group is a German trad jazz band, founded in 1966 by then-18-year-old cornet player Roland Pilz. He had Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke on his mind, but the group name derives from a 1924-27 group led by trumpeter Charles Creath. Eight-piece band, with sax, banjo, tuba, and washboard, as well as the more standard cornet, clarinet, trombone, piano. Pilz sings a bit, in a style blatantly patterned on Armstrong, his accent more pointed in the introductions. Much fun. I don't get anything from the several labels that specialize in trad jazz these days, so it's hard to compare beyond that. B+(**)
Chicago Underground Trio: Chronicle (2006 , Delmark): The groups vary between duos, trios, and quartets, so I just file their records under Chicago Underground. The constants are Rob Mazurek on cornet and Chad Taylor on drums. They're joined here by bassist Jason Ajemian, who I know primarily from Triage, a group with Vandermark 5 members Dave Rempis and Tim Daisy. The bass takes the lead early on, setting up recurring patterns that resemble minimalism but with more fractal chaos. Mazurek continues his computer work, but that seems more incidental here than on recent records -- you don't much notice him until he pulls out the cornet, when he drives the record home. [B+(**)]
Contemporary America: Another Center (2007, Adventure Music): A meeting of musicians from seven South American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela. I don't quite know what to think about it: sounds more European than what I think of as Latin, a music for us more centered in the Caribbean, and therefore more Afro. Most pieces have vocals, and they can gum up the works, but not always. In any case, it pays to focus on the details, where the individual musicians register their diversity, and their virtuosity. B+(*)
Sunday, April 29. 2007
Sometime back in September or October of 2006 I came home from a browse at the bookstore and started to put together a list of the more/less promising, interesting, and/or appalling books I noticed crowding the politics, current affairs, and history shelves. I spent several weeks coming up with most of what follows, before it got out of hand and I lost track. I've finally decided I might as well post this on the blog before it becomes a mere history snapshot. I've made a couple of quick passes to clean it up and add a few new items, but it's nowhere near up to date. Since then, I've made substantial changes to my books section, and will keep working on this in that area. The old section was sketched out but never populated. Since then I've made quite a few comments in the blog on various books. I've now gone back through the blog and a few other sources and copied that information to the books section.
The main organizing model here is the shopping list: things that look to be really worthwhile reading, things that look good but may not be necessary, things that are probably good but not in my interest area at the moment, things that look like stuff I already know, things that I know better than, things that don't look like much of anything, etc. During the course of this I read some of the things near the top, and I kept running things I had already read, so those are in a list at the bottom.
Almost all of these books were released since June 2006, including paperback reissues of earlier books. The lists are far from comprehensive, but give a rough idea of how much good, bad, and ugly reading has appeared recently. This strikes me as a tremendous increase over the last five years. That in itself is a measure of growing problems. Whether one should be optimistic about their recognition remains to be seen.
As I rebuild the books section, I'll try reorganizing these lists more topically, although I'll probably keep the shopping list breakdown within categories.
These are recent books of prime interest. I'd say that the chances I'll eventually read any book on this list is greater than 50%. Some I've already bought.
These are books that I wish I had time to read, but I probably won't get around to. Some could move up, especially if my interest shifts in their direction.
These are books that pique my interest, but are in an area where there is no practical chance I can get to them given everything else I need to read. In other words, these are books that look like they should be on one of the above lists, but got arbitrarily moved out.
These books look to be worthwhile for one reason or another, but unless I develop a narrow research interest I doubt that I'll ever get to them.
These books also look to be worthwhile, but are outside of my interest areas or likely to be redundant.
These are items that might be worth having for reference purposes, but aren't likely to be recommended for interpretive insights.
These are books that could go up or could go down. Some I haven't really looked at yet; others are simply unclear, compromised, or oddly constructed.
There are lots of books I have no interest in. So many, in fact, that it's necessary to subdivide them. In many cases they're just wrong-headed. Some may have value, but look to be too personal, at too small a scale to be very useful to me. (Of course, some books like that turn out to be exceptions.)
My "no interest" lists continued in the extended body.
Continue reading "Books"
Tuesday, April 24. 2007
I marked a couple of quotes in the April 26, 2007 issue of The New York Review of Books. The first two come from Amos Elon's review of Sari Nusseibeh's memoir, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life. The first is on the first Intifada, from 1986-93, which Nusseibeh played a prominent role in coordinating:
The Israelis arrested Nusseibeh, and tried to plea bargain him into exile. When he refused they dropped the charges rather than risk a public trial. The Israelis always denied that the Palestinians offered a partner for peace, which is one reason they didn't want to draw attention to Nusseibeh.
The second quote concerns Arafat and the Palestinian Authority the Israelis put in place to end the Intifada:
Arafat's legacy of corruption is linked in the minds of many Palestinians with his failure to deliver anything out of the Oslo accords -- the combination has much to do with the recent electoral success of Hamas. It's tempting to argue that Israel anticipated and planned on Arafat's failure. Most likely they weren't that clever, but there were plenty of Israelis who wanted Arafat to fail and who contributed at every opportunity.
The second set of quotes comes from William Dalrymple's review of two books on the British empire in India: Nicholas B. Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: Indian and the Creation of Imperial Britain, and David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj. The first quote reminds us how easy it is to think of Bush's Iraq war as just another stab at old-fashioned imperialism:
Dirks paints a nasty picture of the British in India. Gilmour pushes the usual pro-British line, which remains suspect:
One of the arguments that the US and UK should hasten a clean exit from Iraq is that they uncritically inherit this long history of damaging third world countries, whether in the name of empire or other supposedly noble intents. Given such a past, a little isolationism would be a step in the right direction.
Monday, April 23. 2007
Another week. No snow, unlike the previous two. Some of the trees are bouncing back, but some still look disgusted. First baby ducks on the river. Guess it's spring. This last week has been something of a daze, as I've been trying to juggle too many projects, and taking frequent breaks to chill out. Keep playing stuff, but haven't been able to concentrate all that much. I think I played the Ralph Alessi record five times before making up my mind: the clincher was when I went back and only played the cuts with Ravi Coltrane -- I had been wondering what he contributed, and the answer's not much. But I still didn't get the little HM squib written. I figure the home projects will keep me distracted for a couple more weeks. Second computer is assembled but hasn't been smoke tested yet, let alone loaded and configured and all that. Looks good, but will take some time to get it all sorted out.
Schedule looks like this: I need to focus on Recycled Goods this week. I'm actually far enough ahead there I could coast this month (58 records done, 10 in top section), but I need to keep moving on it or I'll get trapped later. Following week I want to start closing out Jazz Consumer Guide. It looks to me like I have more than enough records for a column, without even dipping far into the 162 -- count 'em -- in the pending file. Also need to get back to working on the Robert Christgau website, which has remained unchanged for a couple of months now. And then there's my other writing interests. Maybe I'll start feeling better about music if I make some progress elsewhere.
Minor bookkeeping note: starting this week I'm filing my weekly reports in the notebook under Monday's date instead of Sunday. That way the blog and notebook line up better. For those who don't know, the notebook is sort of a superset of the blog -- i.e., drafts of stuff that appears in the blog plus other things that don't, mostly because there's little reason for anyone else to care about them. But some people did read it in pre-blog days. Don't know about now. One little thing I've added to the weekly reports is an "unpacking" list of records received. I don't at present see any need to put that up here.
Graham Collier's Hoarded Dreams (1983 , Cuneiform): A bassist and well-regarded composer who started out in the late '60s, a protean period when Britain's modern jazz musicians could still span avant-garde and fusion, where there was little distance between music abstractly composed and explosively improvised. This particular piece was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for performance at the Bracknell Jazz Festival. Collier conducts a large group: 5 reeds, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 guitars, piano, bass, drums, including many recognizable names, both local (John Surman, Kenny Wheeler) and from far afield (Ted Curson, Tomasz Stanko, Juhanni Aaltonen). Framed for solos, some quite rivetting, but mostly loud and a bit ugly for my taste. B+(*)
Hugh Hopper: Hopper Tunity Box (1976 , Cuneiform): Long before I had any particular interest, much less expertise, in jazz, I developed a peculiar fondness for Anglo prog-rock -- the sort of thing British art school grads did, as opposed to the much more common dropouts. At one point I had all seven Soft Machine albums, enjoying the first two for Kevin Ayers' loopy songs, and Third for Robert Wyatt's loopier "Moon in June," but not getting much out of the later work. But the recently released live album Grides makes a pretty good case for them as a jazz group, as does Elton Dean's subsequent career. Hugh Hopper was the bassist. This was his first solo after the group folded, using several shuffles of musicians. Mostly soft-edged fusion things, although the two saxophonists have some edge when they get the chance: Elton Dean on 3 cuts, and especially Gary Windo on 4. B+(*)
KCP 5: Many Ways (2005 , Challenge): KCP stands for Karnataka College of Percussion. Based in Bangalore, they are a trio: two percussionists on mridangam, kanjira, morsing, ghatam, udu; and vocalist R.A. Ramamani. The latter is the dominant presence, her voice stretching and swaying in the classical Indian manner, but more often than not hurried along by the rhythm. 5 stands for two western musicians: pianist Mike Herting, who comps with or without the rhythm, and 82-year-old Charlie Mariano, whose unmistakable alto sax is positively angelic. B+(**)
The Leaders: Spirits Alike (2006 , Challenge): The group name appeared on four albums from 1986-89, counting one as The Leaders Trio. The latter was just the rhythm section: pianist Kirk Lightsey, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Don Moye. The whole group added Lester Bowie on trumpet, Arthur Blythe on alto sax, and Chico Freeman on tenor or soprano or clarinet or flute, whatever. Bowie and Moye came out of the Art Ensemble of Chicago; Freeman and Blythe were building up substantial catalogues, including a few records together; Lightsey and McBee were guys you'd recognize if you ever read album credits. So they were a credible group, and Mudfoot (1986, Blackhawk) was a fine album, with a particularly delightful spin on Sam Cooke's "Cupid." Twenty years later, only two Leaders remain -- McBee and Freeman -- and the Replacements are more firmly perched in the mainstream: Bobby Watson (for Blythe), Eddie Henderson (for Bowie), Billy Hart (for Moye), and Fred Harris (for Lightsey). Harris lacks credentials as a leader, but acquits himself well enough. But that's about all anyone does here. Sure, this is elegant, intricate postbop, crafted by genuine talents. I suppose if I hadn't expected more I'd be less disappointed. B
Bob French: Marsalis Music Honors Bob French (2006 , Marsalis Music/Rounder): Veteran New Orleans drummer, in 1977 took over his father's group, the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, which in turn dates back to Oscar "Papa" Celestin in 1910. AMG lists only this album under French's name plus a dozen-plus sideman credits, starting with a Snooks Eaglin date in 1977 -- the latter underreported, no doubt. Musicians here include Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., who hog "Take a Closer Walk With Thee." Everything else is trad New Orleans if not necessarily trad jazz. French sings "Bourbon Street Parade," "You Are My Sunshine," and "Do You Know What It Means (to Miss New Orleans)" -- the latter joined by Ellen Smith, who also sings "Basin Street Blues." Seems like standard fare, but this is as much fun as any New Orleans tribute in the post-Katrina era. [B+(***)]
Alvin Batiste: Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste (2006 , Marsalis Music/Rounder): First non-drummer in the series; second New Orleans denizen. I never doubted the good intentions behind this series, but it seemed to me that the first batch (Michael Carvin, Jimmy Cobb) steered them too far into the mainstream to be of much interest. But that doesn't matter with the second batch: the party in New Orleans is meant to be accessible, and Branford Marsalis just works to heat it up even more. Batiste is a clarinetist, born 1937, with just a handful of albums, including one on India Navigation I heard and didn't think much of. This one takes a while to engage, but it seems like each of Edward Perkins' four vocals kicks in a higher gear, so by the end Batiste is soaring. An honor indeed. B+(**)
Matt Lavelle Trio: Spiritual Power (2006 , Silkheart): Plays trumpet, flugelhorn, bass clarinet -- 1, 3, and 3 cuts respectively here. Born 1970, turned on by Louis Armstrong, studied with a Sir Hildred Humphries, who had direct links to Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie. Evolved through what he calls "the 'Smalls' thing" before joining William Parker's Little Huey Orchestra. Has a previous album on CIMP and a group called Eye Contact with one record. This one's a trio with bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson, both contributing big time. Avant like it's meant to be: sharp, shocking, bursting with creative ideas. The liner notes cite Roy Campbell as a model, but Lavelle adds a level of difficulty and sonic surprise with his emphasis on flugelhorn and bass clarinet. Took me a while to even recognize the latter. A-
David S. Ware Quartet: Renunciation (2006 , AUM Fidelity): Allegedly "the last ever U.S. performance by David S. Ware's revered Quartet" -- not sure whether that's a statement about Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and the drummer du jour (in this case Guillermo E. Brown) or about the U.S. The Quartet goes back to 1990, when Parker was established as Cecil Taylor's bassist and the others were practically unknown. For a while it was tempting to compare them to the Coltrane Quartet, but by now they've lasted three times as long. Recorded live, this adds one more slice to Live in the World, its immediate spontaneity compensating for the fact that they break no major ground. Ware is mesmerizing, Parker magnificent, and Shipp one of the few pianists who can hold his own in this company. A-
William Parker & Hamid Drake: First Communion + Piercing the Veil (2000 , AUM Fidelity, 2CD): Not missing a marketing angle, this is subtitled "Volume 1 Complete," with a new Parker-Drake duo album, Summer Snow, sporting a "Volume 2" note. Volume 1 is what Universal would call a Deluxe Edition or Sony/BMG a Legacy Edition, where the 2001 release of Percing the Veil is now padded out to fill two discs. The padding in this case is a live tape from two days before the studio date. It is the sort of broader context that adds depth to a classic album even when the filler isn't on the same level -- rarely in this case. It pays to focus on Drake here. Parker spend a fair amount of time off-bass -- especially in the studio sessions, where he indulges in exotic wind instruments (bombarde, shakuhachi) and percussion -- but that just gives Drake more variations to respond to. But he's so attentive that he provides a prism for interpreting Parker. And he shows you his whole range, including tabla and frame drum. A-
William Parker & Hamid Drake: Summer Snow (2005 , AUM Fidelity): A "volume 2" five years after their previous duo, Piercing the Veil. The bass and drums sets are much the same, with Parker perhaps a bit more grooveful, but the exotica is harder to follow, perhaps because their growing expertise is making it more exotic. It's also making it subtler, quieter, and harder to follow. Also possible that the drummer who had so much to prove first time has grown comfortable with his laurels, or is merely letting Parker set the pace instead of meeting him more than half way. B+(**)
Rob Brown Trio: Sounds (2006 , Clean Feed): Actually, not sure of the date: notes say it was recorded on November 23, but don't bother with the year. The title piece debuted at the 2005 Vision Festival, so 2005 is also possible. Brown's an alto saxophonist I've mostly encountered on William Parker albums. He has everything you'd want in that role, but has had trouble establishing himself on his own. It's hard to find fault with this: he breaks the usual sax-bass-drums trio format with Daniel Levin's cello and Satoshi Takeishi's taiko drums and percussion; he varies the free jazz mix with a ballad and a Tibetan folk song. It's almost a tour de force, but not quite, lacking something you can't prescribe until it hits you. B+(**)
Henri Salvador: Révérence (2007, Circular Moves): Born 1917 in French Guiana, still alive and active, no recording dates, but presumably this is recent: French chanson so natural, so lithe, so effortlessly swinging you have to wonder what's up. For one thing Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil make appearances, and there are jazz cats mixed in with the frogs. Salvador's discography goes back at least to the '40s. I've never heard him before, so have no idea where this stands in his oeuvre. A-
Juliette Greco: Le Temps D'Une Chanson (2006 , Sunnyside): French actress, doesn't sing so much as talk her way through songs with genuine dramatic flair. Born 1927, associated with Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Vian, Miles Davis. Backed here by orchestra and guests -- Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano the best known, accordionist Gil Goldstein the most effective. Non-French songs I know, like "Volare," seem hokey, but fare like "Les mains d'or" make an impression. Like Salvador, a legend first heard at the tail end of a long career, so hard to judge. B
Enrico Pieranunzi/Marc Johnson/Joey Baron: Live in Japan (2004 , CAM Jazz, 2CD): Just simply a real good piano trio. I'm not sure what makes this work so well, what to say about them, why it works, or why it even matters. Will hold this back until I get some answers. [B+(***)] [May 22]
Joel Frahm: We Used to Dance (2006 , Anzic): Mainstream saxophonist, plays both alto and tenor, but not specified which here -- pictures show tenor. Born 1969 in Wisconsin, studied at Manhattan School of Music. Three previous albums on Palmetto, 4-8 sideman credits per year since 1997, many with singers -- he's exceptionally skillful in that role. He's playing with a group here previously associated with Stan Getz: pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Victor Lewis. Doesn't sound like this has much to do with Getz, but it's a good group for Frahm, and he plays a strong game. [B+(**)] [May 1]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Wynton Marsalis: From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (2006 , Blue Note): My wife expressed interest in this album, telling me that she had read a rave review in Counterpunch. I chased down Ron Jacobs' review anyway, but couldn't get past the third line: "It's just enough bop and bebop so it doesn't put one to sleep like a Kenny G solo, but it's not a Coltrane avalanche of sound like those from Coltrane's thundering Ascension, either." Now, there's no information there: Marsalis has recorded 40-50 albums since 1981, and he has never once risked comparison to Kenny G or Ascension. He started off reminding Art Blakey what narrowly construed hard bop sounds like. If he's picked up any tricks since then, they've been old ones, like extending his trumpet mastery from Woody Shaw back to Freddie Keppard, and fumbling to imitate composers like Ellington. I had figured this album for his move into Mingus agitprop, but that doesn't pan out on several levels. He's more song-oriented, but has less in the way of message, and his hired singer handles his hokey lines with cool detachment. On the other hand, the music shows he's working in soundtrack mode: each piece is accompanied by a formal description -- modern habanera; alternating 2-beat country groove, soca, cumbia, swing; walking ballad; etc. -- and he's more inspired as a musicologist than as a polemicist. Indeed, if you could skip past the words this might be one of his more enjoyable albums. But if he meant for you to just enjoy the music, he would have left the words out, right? For one, I find the plantation-to-penitentiary arc narrow, condescending, and disturbing. It's not that there's no truth to it, but it's such a cliché I don't see what you can do with it. I suppose his use of stereotypes is meant to convey some irony, but in an album that's more scold than rant it's hard to be sure. "I ain't your bitch and I ain't your ho" comes off as awkward from him as if Don Imus said it. And speaking of awkward, the closing rap makes Buckshot Lefonque sound real. (But I doubt that when he goes to dis "Camus readers" he's really thinking of George W.) I thought about pitching this for a standalone piece in the Voice, but Francis Davis beat me to it. I don't feel mean enough to single this out as a dud. If he had a smarter, hipper lyricist able to work on a human rather than mythic scale, he might be onto something. But he persists in surrounding himself with ideological flatterers like Stanley Crouch, so this is what he gets. B
Ralph Alessi & This Against That: Look (2005 , Between the Lines): One of those group names that comes from the previous album title, although the only musician both times, aside from the leader, is bassist Drew Gress. The quartet this time is filled out with Andy Milne on piano and Mark Ferber on drums, plus Ravi Coltrane appears on four cuts. Coltrane isn't much help -- he provides shadings on slow pieces that at best are atmospheric, but are filler compared to the fast ones. Let loose, the rhythm section is terrific, and setting Alessi's tart trumpet free. B+(***)
Saturday, April 21. 2007
Note: The Books section is currently in partial disarray as I'm in the middle of breaking up the hardwired index page and replacing it with a bunch of subject headings driven off a rather hacked approximation of a database. But I've rushed ahead to update the website because the Carter book page also collects a couple of earlier posts relating to the book. The following post is just the new section. Another option would be to just post a link here. I don't have a compelling reason one way or another, but I'm inclined to keep dumping my book reports out initially in the blog, even when they are backed up elsewhere. I expect that there will be quite a few of these in the following weeks as I try to file big piles of recently read books.
I doubt that there is anything more terrifying about the power of the right-wing media in America than the extent to which Jimmy Carter has been and continues to be villified in public. One obvious, even if petty, example is Bernard Goldberg's ranking Carter high on his list of "101 People Who Are Screwing Up America." It's easy enough to see why Carter was voted out of office in 1980, although even there a sober assessment of history shows that he made some hard, unpopular calls that have largely been vindicated. He managed to break the spiral of inflation even though the short term economic cost was extreme. He recognized the long-term threat of rising oil costs even though he was unable to do much about it. And he made virtually the only significant contribution to peace in the Middle East by any American in the last fifty years. He staked a strong claim to always telling the truth, in contrast to his predecessor Nixon and, for that matter, every President who followed him.
But even if it is debatable how good, or great, a President he was, his service as an ex-President is impossible to fault, unless you have a particularly bloody political axe to grind. Yet this short, simple, logical, humane solution to a grave problem that has been rendered intractable by sheer demagoguery has elicited an almost unprecedented torrent of character assassination from Israel's apologists and propagandists. Brings to mind the saying, methinks they doth protest too much. After all, there is no sound basis for arguing with the solution: it's been laid out again and again, in the series of UN resolutions, in the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel which Carter himself negotiated, and in many other forms. What's strange is the contortions so many go through to deny the obvious. What's bizarre is that there's been no solution. Carter's too kind to explain why that is; he simply wants to put us back on the right path. It is in fact the path he's always been on -- a point he makes by sketching out his own personal experience with Israel.
Carter talking about his first visit to Israel in 1973, when he was governor of Georgia, contemplating his run for president (p. 30):
Eban's great skill was his ability to play to the prejudices of West: the patronizing colonialism that once honored itself as the "white man's burden" and now establishes common ground between Israel and the West; the matter-of-fact racism of the "incompatibility" of colonizers and natives; the "repressive procedures" that necessarily follow. What the quote shows is that Israelis in high positions knew what they were getting into, even if they underestimated how many Jewish immigrés they could attract and how many Palestinians they could cajole into exile.
When Carter was president, in 1978, working toward the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (pp. 44-45):
It's worth noting that this same pattern recurred in 1982 and in 2006, and in both of those cases US presidents (Reagan and Bush) gave Israel the green light to invade. Both invasions resulted in immense damage to Lebanon. They also turned out to be major public relations disasters for Israel and the US. Carter wasn't the first US president to reign in Israeli excess -- Eisenhower put an end to the 1956 Suez War -- but he may have been the last. Carter may have been the only US president to view peace between Israel and the Arabs as more valuable than Israel's alignment with US military interests in the region. (Curiously, the main thing the US military needed in the region to promote its presence was enemies, which Israel was uniquely able to provoke. As such, the US often wound up promoting Israeli aggression.)
Carter provides a rather oblique history of the founding of Israel (pp. 65-66):
This is a rather muddled account, hiding many significant details. The Zionist movement started in Russia in the 1880s. Palestine at that time was part of the Ottoman Empire, a conglomerate which recognized rights of many linguistic and religious groups. The Ottomans had welcomed most of the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain during the Inquisition, but few had actually settled in Palestine. The Zionist movement was different, because it aimed specifically at Palestine with nationalist overtones and perhaps more importantly because it occurred at a time when European powers were tearing at the Empire by demanding capitulations -- grants of special rights within the Empire (e.g., France wanted to "represent" Maronite Christians in Lebanon; Russia laid similar claim to Orthodox Christians; the best Germany could argue for was the Jews). The Ottomans went back and forth on this, allowing immigration over two brief periods, which may have increased the Jewish population in Palestine from 5% to as much as 10%, but it had no real effect until the British took over. And this is where Carter loses the ball.
Great Britain, in 1917, before it had any claim or presence in Palestine, issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring their intent to turn Palestine into a "Jewish homeland." Their aim in doing so was to establish a British territory secured by Jewish colonists, who would depend on the British for protection against the locals. The Palestinians, in turn, were manipulated much as the British had been doing from Egypt to India, with favors to local elites -- such as the Husseini clan, one of whom was appointed the Mufti of Jerusalem. Like most British plans, it didn't really work out all that well. After major Zionist immigration in the 1920s, Palestinian revolts in 1929 led to restrictions, which were eased in the 1930s to allow an influx of German Jews, which in turn led to the revolt of 1937-39 and further restrictions -- needless to say, at a time when European Jews were most desperately in need of sanctuary from Nazi aggression. The British were so tone-deaf in this regard that they rounded up all the German Jews who managed to reach their shores and shipped them off to Australia and Canada to be jailed as enemy aliens. On the other hand, the Zionists lobbied against allowing Jews to emigrate anywhere but Palestine, so nobody comes off looking very good here.
Carter gives the British a relatively free ride here. The problem with that is not just that the British deserve a large share of the blame -- they did, after all, try the same partition trick in Ireland and India, with disastrous results in both cases -- but that it obscures the fundamental reason the Palestinians had a problem with the Zionists in the first place: the Jews came as instruments of British colonialism, they built a society and an economy separate from and in destructive competition with the existing society and economy, and they intended to use their growing power to phase the British out and complete their redemption of the land and their marginalization of its people. The same project in various guises was attempted many times, succeeding in Australia and the United States, failing after a long and violent struggle in places like Algeria and South Africa. In Israel it has succeeded only in the sense that its failure continues to be unresolved.
Carter also excuses the British in discussing the Arab side. The final service Great Britain did for the Zionists was to mismanage the Arab response to Israel's declaration of independence. Nobody seems to remember this, but at the time Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq were barely independent British puppet states, ruled by monarchs that Britain had set up. The Jordanian army was actually run by British officers. The "contention among themselves" that Carter mentions was really Britain's confusion about fighting in a war it professed neutrality over.
There's actually a lot more that can be said about these three paragraphs, like we could go into the whole question about the world's alleged "need to acknowledge the Zionist movement": the Zionist movement had very little Jewish support until the British adopted it and the Americans shut down the preferred destination for most Jewish emigrés -- a situation that Zionists worked hard to perpetuate, both to exclude having to compete for Jewish immigrants, to cement the public identity between Israel and the Jews, and ultimately to capitalize on the victimhood of the Holocaust.
But ultimately these misunderstandings have little impact on Carter's understanding of what should be done now. This is because Carter, even though he doesn't recognize the historical effect that colonialism and racism have had in forging the intertwined histories of Israel and Palestine, doesn't accept and perpetuate the racist prejudices of the colonial era. By recognizing that Palestinians today should be entitled to the full range of human rights that all other human beings deserve, he moves out from the shadow of Zionist propaganda.
Carter visited Israel in 1983 and found the nation profoundly changed from his initial 1973 impressions (pp. 108-109):
Shamir's background was as the head of LEHI (aka the Stern Gang), the terrorist militia responsible for, among many other atrocities, the assassination of the UN's first envoy sent to help resolve the 1948 war. He went on to become Prime Minister, as did Sharon. This quote does a good job of showing their mindsets before they moved up and learned to speak more circumspectly -- not that Shamir, in particular, was ever what you'd call nuanced.
Another little case in selective fact-checking (p. 147):
The fact that didn't get checked is that the suicide bombings were in response to an assassination that Peres foolishly ordered. The target was a Hamas official. Hamas had no stake in the peace process, so no reason not to send out the bombers except for lack of a specific justification, which Peres provided. Had Oslo been an honest effort to engage the Palestinian people in constructive peacemaking, Israel would have made an effort to include Hamas in the process, instead of cutting a side deal with the PLO against Hamas -- a deal that ultimately delivered the Palestinians little if anything. Whether Peres intended to shoot himself isn't clear. Most likely he was a victim of the prevailing double-think that claimed one can kill terrorists and still make peace.
Carter makes a big point of interpreting the Bush "Roadmap" as continuing in the tradition of UN Security Council Resolution 242, even though it was worded in ways that made it ineffective (pp. 159-160):
With the Roadmap and all other peace initiatives, like the Geneva Accords and the Saudi proposal backed by the Arab League, stalled, Israel is free to unilaterally implement their own isolation of the Palestinians, most palpably evidenced by the wall they are building to squeeze in the West Bank (pp. 189-190):
Actually, I can't think of a more accurate word, especially given its resonance with the American experience, for this than "racism" -- at least in English. People are reluctant to apply the term to Israel because the discrimination there is not based on our old-fashioned conventional notions of race, but that's superficial. Whether discrimination is based on skin color or some other arbitrary dividing line, its potency derives from the common desire to separate "us" from "them," to grant "us" rights and privileges that we in turn deny to "them," and back that system up with force; in the end, we feel our own pain but not the pain of the others, and we side with our own even when we doubt our righteousness -- which happens less and less frequently as we master the art of ascribing our sins to their faults. Details, like dividing criteria, may differ from one racist system to another, but the fundamentals are the same. The system starts with a statement like Abba Eban's "Arabs and Jews were inherently incompatible and would ultimately have to be separated."
Where it ends is primarily a function of how much power the dominant side has, and how little value the other side has to offer up. Segregation in America and Apartheid in South Africa at least offer the separation, admittedly inequal, would be a satisfactory end state. A more extreme endstate is annihilation, the practice of genocide, where the dominant side is saying that the live of the others have no value whatsoever, and the dominant side has the power to make that happen. One reason the US and South Africa never crossed all the way over to genocide is that their economies were always largely dependent on black labor. The biggest difference between the US and South Africa on the one hand and Israel on the other is the extent to which Israel has freed itself from any dependence on Palestinian labor -- a process which, by the way, was adopted by the Zionist labor movement back in the 1920s. This does not mean that Israel is on the verge of committing genocide. It merely means that one reason that has restrained other racist systems is not present with Israel. That still leaves other reasons, including what's left of human decency in Israel -- which judging from the quotes of Shamir and Sharon isn't a very strong thread to hang on.
Carter's religious beliefs infuse the book, as they do so much of his life and work. He frequently refers to the Holy Land, an old phrase that all sides have learned to avoid. I find it redolent of the Crusades, but also reminiscent of Sunday School, which is no doubt his point of reference. On the other hand, in his hands it takes on the significance of saying that respecting this land has deeper historical import than the mere question of who controls it now. He also frequently reiterates the point that Palestinian Arabs include Christians as well as Muslim, and that Israel discriminates against both. That's another point one rarely hears. One wonders whether the pro-Zionist Christian right has any sense of the plight of their co-religionists -- something they are very conscious of in places like Sudan where Muslims, rather than Jews, can be blamed.
I find myself shying away from such points. For one thing, I know the history well enough to be leery of any suggestion that we in the West should look out for the interests of Christians in the Holy Land -- a tactic which actually had little to do with the Crusades, but offered much camouflage for imperial encroachments from 1800-1948, before the job was subcontracted to Israel. I'm also sensitive to anything reminiscent of ye olde antisemitism, which includes a long and often ridiculous set of myths about Jews oppressing Christians. But it's easy for me to steer clear of such rhetoric: I have no affinity for any religious groups, and find the very notion of a Holy Land nonsensical. I don't know whether Carter has been branded antisemitic on these grounds -- his opposition to Israeli human rights abuses is all the grounds his most vociferous critics think they need.
Of course, the assertion that Carter is antisemitic is patently ridiculous. The worst you can say of him is that sometimes, especially when his faith is on the line, he speaks plainly without considering all the possible ramifications. I'm reminded of the Playboy interview in 1976 where Carter admitted feelings of lust when he sees pretty women. Now clearly, Bill Clinton wouldn't have made that blunder, but Carter could and did precisely because he had nothing to hide. Same thing here.
Friday, April 20. 2007
Just got the news that Andrew Hill passed away this morning. Age 75, lung cancer, which he's struggled with for several years. (Many sources give his birth date as 1937, evidently an error.) One of the most important jazz pianists to emerge in the 1960s, he was uniquely skilled at advancing jazz in ways that at once seemed rigorously conservative and daringly avant-garde. Alfred Lion was a big fan, recording Hill extensively for Blue Note, including much that has only recently surfaced. In the early '70s Blue Note pretty much collapsed, leaving Hill with few opportunities, mostly for obscure European labels. One of those records, the piano trio Shades (1986, Soul Note), won me over and sent me back in search of the oldies -- a difficult task, given that only Point of Departure has been reliably in print. But Hill made a remarkable comeback starting with two 2000-02 records on Palmetto and capped by his return to Blue Note for the much praised Time Lines (2006). The later albums turned on Hill's considerable skills as a composer and arranger. At the time I semi-dismissed the latter as "perfectly typical of everything he's done over the last forty years" -- most likely the same reason many critics cited it as their record of the year.
One result of Hill's comeback is that his Blue Note catalog has largely been returned to print, including a treasure trove of previously unreleased material passed on to Mosaic. For what it's worth, I've pulled the following data on what I've heard. Like most of what's in the database, this list was assembled over time with evolving criteria. At some point it would be nice to go back and spend a few days reviewing the whole set. I wonder now whether the legendary Point of Departure and/or the solo Verona Rag -- the first two records I encountered below -- might not fare better.
Among the A- records, I've been plugging Pax recently. But for a real taste of Hill's piano, seek out Shades.
Postscript (8:30 pm): I heard about Hill on the same day he died, thanks to Blue Note's publicist. Later today I read that Leroy Jenkins died back on Feb. 24, age 74, also of lung cancer. Jenkins was a jazz giant comparable to Hill, but never had a major label -- aside from one Revolutionary Ensemble album in A&M in 1975 -- and often had no label at all. He single-handedly invented avant-jazz violin -- had the field totally to himself until Billy Bang came along. He was an AACM founder. Early on he worked with Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane, Alan Silva, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Grachan Moncur III, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis. I actually discovered Jenkins long before I tuned in to Hill. Some items from the database, with the same caveats -- although I replayed the first two tonight.
Thursday, April 19. 2007
A quote from Tom Engelhardt lines up Virginia Tech and Baghdad:
The point is obvious enough it hardly seems worth repeating, but it obviously bears repeating. One thing that makes Bush's war in Iraq possible is Americans' ability to disconnect from everyday violence there.
Postscript (10:30 pm): Had the Engelhardt piece on my screen for a day or two, and hadn't noticed that between the Virginia Tech shootings and when I wrote my note Iraq had its own rather notable day: the death toll for Wednesday, April 18, was reported as nearly 300, with a series of suicide bombings and the discovery of 50 or more bodies in Baghdad and Ramadi. Looking back, reported deaths on Tuesday were at 85, including 25 bodies found with evidence of torture.
Juan Cole continues to report the daily slaughter. On Tuesday he wrote:
Wednesday, April 18. 2007
Like so many startling news events, the mass murder at Virginia Tech on Monday often brings observers to reassert what they believed in the first place. Consider the following quotes on gun control, in an article by Fred Mann in the Wichita Eagle:
That last line caught my attention, because a lot of Americans seem to be gravitating in that direction. But I've never seen anyone bring it up in a context that suggests they're looking forward to the day. Israel's perpetual war against their neighbors, including millions more/less under occupation, has left Israelis with a horrible bunker mentality, all the more fevered given the long history of atrocities against Jews.
The article goes on to quote Don Holman, owner of a shooting range called the Bullet Stop. A reliable local gun nut, he nonetheless manages a more sober assessment: "Guns in the right hands may have helped, but not in everybody's hands."
Another story in the Wichita Eagle this morning:
Obviously, this situation could have turned out much uglier than it did, and probably would have had the police not shown credible sympathy for the soldier. That was possible because on some level most of us recognize that what American soldiers experience in war can cause deep psychological trauma -- in some cases erupting in violence, against oneself and/or others. In some sense, we even recognize this as a cost of war, although it's remarkable how little consideration we give such costs until they blow back on us. Not only are they unanticipated, they are often hard to account for. I'd say that Timothy McVeigh more than doubled the number of American deaths attributable to the 1991 Gulf War. Few Americans will ever wind up scoring it that way, let alone factoring in all the causal links between that war and this one, or between America's use of armed force and covert operations to pursue its "interests" in the Middle East and the blowback it has caused.
My own view is that this culture of force, pushed so hard by the highest powers in government, and elevated to art in the media and through much of our culture, frames the acts of desperate individuals, like the shooter in Virginia and the would-be shooter in Kansas. But then that's what I thought before these events, if you will, proved me right.
Tuesday, April 17. 2007
One of the persistent questions about life under Bush is what does it take before one awakens to the realization that something is going on here that goes way beyond the usual run of belligerent, jingoist rant that passes for everyday politics in America. Turns out that different folks respond to different stimuli. For "constitutional lawyer" Glenn Greenwald, the revenge war on Afghanistan was hunky dory, but the US vs. Jose Padilla was a cause for concern, and the NSA evasion of FISA limits on spying on US citizens was a major outrage. He started a blog called Unclaimed Territory to elaborate on his concerns, and boiled them down to a slim book called How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values From a President Run Amok (2006, Working Assets paperback).
I haven't paid much attention to his issues, probably because I find them unsurprising that when you have massive, secretive organizations like the CIA, NSA, FBI, etc., of course they're going to spy on you, and of course they'll treat any governing law -- especially one as subject to interpretation as the constitution -- as mere cosmetic nuissance. That is, after all, what they've done time and again, going back at least as far as the campaign that put so many WWI opponents in jail. Still, this is a big part of what Bush has done, and I shouldn't be insensitive to it, least of all because I'm too cynical. But it does take someone more naive to bring out the outrage, and Greenwald both fills that bill and offers expertise to boot. I've looked at his blog on occasion, and sometimes found it useful. The book is short, a good primer.
Quotes follow, starting with the set up (pp. 9-11):
This leads in to a discussion of the USA PATRIOT Act, passed overwhelmingly in October 2001. As Greenwald points out, there was near-unanimous support to change the law to whatever the circumstances seemed to require, but during this same period, and contrary to public statements, Bush had already launched a secret, illegal NSA wiretap program. Greenwald never even gets into what might be wrong about the USA PATRIOT Act, let alone the "national unity" politics that effectively surrendered the government to Bush. He has trouble enough just keeping up with the blatantly illegal shit.
As someone well outside that 90% consensus, these pages make for painful reading. It's not surprising that the Democrats caved in completely, since they had bought into the myths that shroud America's haphazard imperialism. But even they should have known that nothing Bush did in his first eight-plus months warranted any measure of political trust. Bush took the Democrats' words and deeds as surrender, and ruthlessly took advantage of them. Bush continued using this surrender against the Democrats through the 2004 election campaign, where we saw Kerry complimenting Bush on his post-9/11 leadership only to prove his own fickleness.
On executive "commander in chief" powers (p. 68):
Democracy is a formal compromise that limits how government is constituted and what government can do. The effect is to limit and tame government, to make it subject to the people, rather than the other way around. The details vary from case to case, and over history they are often amended in favor of further restricting government. The strength is American democracy is not our complex, corruptible system of elections; it is the Bill of Rights that limits what government can do to us. Bush's claim to extraordinary executive power attempts to reverse the balance of power between people and government, and as such is an attack on democracy. That the model for his claims is commander in chief in a theatre of war makes his intents all the more ominous. He is claiming a right to wage war on the American people -- in theory the subset that he finds most troubling, but the chance of abuse there is extreme. He may try to justify this in terms of specific targets, but the net effect is to undermine the whole system (p. 73):
Following extensive quotes from conservatives Bruce Fein, George Will, and Bob Barr (p. 76):
From a chapter called "Fear as a Weapon," a section called "Be Very Afraid" (pp. 93-94):
Anyone doubting the fear of terrorism is seen as abetting it (p. 96):
More on fear (p. 97):
On fear and "the American character" (p. 104):
Greenwald's stance as a wholesome defender of America's traditional ideals may be overstated for dramatic effect, but his is a plausible, credible position, providing a relatively fixed point by which we can judge how far away from those ideals the government has drifted under the Bush Administration. Greenwald, meantime, has moved his blog to Salon, and keeps finding more and more that gets under his skin.
Monday, April 16. 2007
Didn't write much last week, but I did get a few things accomplished. Spent the better part of two, maybe three days, building one computer, shopping for another, and sorting out various household tasks. During that time I played a bunch of things not noted below. The current reading column includes two big books that relate to the computer tasks. I'll write more about them later, but the bottom line on the computer is that despite all my fretting about possible incompatibilities, it all just worked right out of the box -- at least after I figured out where all the wires plug together. Working on it now, and it feels completely solid. I expect it will take several weeks to move in -- especially to get mail working the way I want it.
Still feeling pretty overwhelmed. I've neglected Robert Christgau's website for a couple of months now, and need to get back to that. On my own website, I did get quite a bit done in the books section, but still have a lot more to do there. I also have a scheme for rebuilding the recipe section, and can once again take a shot at indexing vast numbers of music reviews/notes/listings. But most important, I'd say, would be restarting the book project. All that leaves me ambivalent about my current music writings, which inevitably take up so much of my time. Still, slog on.
Jeff Newell's New-Trad Octet: Brownstone (2007, BluJazz): Alto saxophonist, educated in Nebraska, relocated to New York. Studied under Dave Liebman, teaches at Brooklyn Music School, moonlights as Coordinator of Music and Worship at New Baptist Church. Presumably knows his way around the moderns, but cultivates the old, starting with three Sousa pieces and ending with "Amazing Grace" and a self-penned, vocals included, piece called "Fill the Temple" which easily counts as the best new gospel I've heard in more years than I can reckon. In between, he offers a set of formal exercises ("March," "Bolero," "Waltz," etc.) collectively titled "Hymn Pan Alley." The Octet includes tuba as well as bass, guitar as well as keyboards. [B+(***)]
Gilad Barkan: Live Sessions (2004-06 , New Step, 2CD): Boston-based pianist, born in England, raised in Israel. Second album, preceded by Modulation, same trio as the first disc here. Second disc here changes bassists and adds Amir Milstein on flute. The trio strikes me as sharp, intricate postbop, something that deserves to be taken seriously but doesn't quite inspire me to do so. Far easier to dismiss the flute, even though it is pleasantly boppish. B
Brad Leali Jazz Orchestra: Maria Juanez (2004 , TCB): Alto saxophonist, born Denver, attended University of North Texas, worked for Harry Connick Jr, moved into a featured spot in the ghostly Count Basie Orchestra, currently Director of Jazz Studies at Texas Tech in Lubbock. Three or four previous albums, small groups (I think). But this one is a cracking big band, with Derrick Gardner conducting from the trumpet section, and some names like Jon Faddis on board. Not as much Spanish tinge as the title suggests, but a lot of Basie crisp, a slick "Pink Panther," a tolerable flute feature, runs a bit thin near the end. Needs one more play. [B+(**)]
Lauren Hooker: Right Where I Belong (2006 , Musical Legends): Jazz singer. Dates her career from 1984, but this is her first album. It's also pretty impressive. Her voice spices '50s cool with a dash of Sheila Jordan and a knack for scat. She arranges three standards, writes four originals, and adds words to six more, including five jazz instrumentals, from Mingus, Monk, Waller, Waldron, and Shorter. B+(***)
Judy Niemack: Blue Nights (2007, BluJazz): Playing this after Lauren Hooker provides an interesting contrast between experience and ambition. Niemack's a real pro. She cut her first album in 1978, her second in 1988, then one every few years after that: this is her ninth. In many ways it's just another, but she finds an easy, comfortable groove even working in a vein cluttered with vocalese. She also commands a more formidable band: guitarist Jean-François Prins is the only one I'm unfamiliar with, and he does a lovely job, as does Jim McNeely and Gary Bartz, in particular. If in the end I prefer Hooker, it's more because I like what she's trying to do. Maybe someday she'll do it as well as Niemack. B+(**)
New York Electric Piano: Blues in Full Moon (2007, Buffalo Puppy): Piano trio, with Pat Daugherty leading on a Fender Rhodes electric. The soft edge to the piano is distinctive, not as cheesy as you might expect -- especially when interacting with Tim Givens' bass. So New York it was recorded in the Catskills. B
Wayne Escoffery: Veneration (2006 , Savant): Tenor saxophonist, with one obligatory cut on soprano. Last time I heard him I flagged his Intuition (Nagel Heyer) as a dud. I got some mail questioning that call, not based on the record but based on a high estimation of his chops. No doubt he has the chops, but he strikes me as a guy who, like Charlie Parker, is a bit too impressed by speed. This one is a definite improvement. I'm still not sure how much he has to offer beyond fierceness and speed, but he doesn't fall flat when he does slow down, and the band -- Joe Locke on vibes, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Lewis Nash on drums -- is a good one, with Locke a fleet match. [B+(**)]
Sammy Figueroa & His Latin Jazz Explosion: The Magician (2007, Savant): Bronx-born percussionist. Main instrument appears to be congas. The album doesn't specify; his website mentions ZenDrum (a MIDI sampler) and "unusual steel pans." His side discography is pretty thick from the mid-'70s starting with the Brecker Bros., but this is only his second album with his name up front. All pieces are by sextets, but the sax-trumpet-piano-bass-drums players vary, the most consistent being Alex Norris on trumpet. This mostly sounds fine, but rather generic. B
Mark Sherman: Family First (2006 , MHP/City Hall): Vibraphonist, Bronx-born, studied tympani at Juilliard but may have learned more from Elvin Jones. Six albums to date. First I heard was previous one, which I liked. Impossible not to like this one either. He has the natural swing mainstreamers aspire to, and gets ample support from pianist Allen Farnham and, especially, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli. B+(*)
Kahil El'Zabar's Infinity Orchestra: Transmigration (2005 , Delmark): Infinity Orchestra is a 39-piece big band based in Bordeaux: the 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, and 7 saxes don't seem all that extravagant, and indeed they don't sound as brassy as units half their size. Much of the bulk comes from a 12-person percussion section -- 7 on djembe and balafon. There are also two DJs, two singers, and two rappers. El'Zabar's involvement began with an appearance at the Bordeaux Jazz Festival in 1980. Since then he has kept coming back, teaching two-month workshops each year, touring. In 2000 he was inaugurated as Master of the annual Carnival. The featured musicians here are El'Zabar, Ernest Dawkins on alto sax, and Joseph Bowie on trombone -- a group otherwise known as Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and in many ways this is the album of their dreams. Dawkins (presumably) has some terrific sax runs, and El'Zabar gets all the percussion he wants. The big band fleshes the group out with innumerable details. For example, it took me a while to realize that the wobbly rhythm at the start came from turntables. And that the harmony that fills in behind the sax was a lot more than Bowie's trombone. A-
Amy Cervini Quartet: Famous Blue (2007, Orange Grove Jazz): Singer, in front of a piano trio. No bio on her website, although drummer Ernesto Cervini grew up in Toronto and works in New York, with degrees from both. Album cover is very attractive: pastel blue-green sky over sea, washed out, the lettering fuzzy. The music is like that too, which isn't a plus. Ordinary songs, voice, arrangements. I go up and down on "Don't Fence Me In" -- that there's a down at all isn't a good sign. B-
Dmitri Kolesnik: Five Corners (2006 , Challenge): Bassist, based in New York but probably from Russia, as is his collaborator pianist Andrei Kondakov. Kolesnik wrote 8 of 10 songs; Kondakov the other two. The other musicians are well known: Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Alex Sipiagin (on two cuts), and Lenny White. Strikes me as a smart, well crafted but very mainstream outing; well done, but not much that catches my interest. Could gain ground if I had the time to give it. B
Matthew Herbert: Score (1997-2006 , !K7): AMG files him, dba Herbert, under Electronica, with eight styles listed, few in evidence in this collection of soundtrack pieces. His website promises: "Crucially, in most cases, you can also dance to it. Matthew Herbert's records are true weapons of mass seduction." Website also mentions political content: "witty culinary metaphors to attack not just giant food companies but also the death penalty, body fascism and war in Iraq." Based on this, I can't vouch for any of that. What is clear is that he brings a wide range of tools to the soundtrack business, ranging from string-driven chamber music to a big band "Singing in the Rain" as well as the usual ambient filler. Which leaves us with the usual problems: pieces that don't fit together, stripped of the visual clues that they were built for. B
Towner Galaher: Panorama (2005 , Towner Galaher Music): Drummer, looks like he's been around, or at least in New York, for a while but this is his first album. Leads a quintet, reminiscent of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, with two extras on percussion. His pieces run the usual gamut, with the upbeat "Midtown Shuffle" leading off and slower stuff to close, and three non-originals in the middle. The most obvious one is "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," given a respectful reading that sounds fabulous. The horns are Mark Shim on tenor sax and Maurice Brown on trumpet, both superb. Onaje Allen Gumbs' piano and Charles Fambrough's bass fill in expertly. Drummer isn't as hard as Blakey, and this isn't really a throwback, just fine old-fashioned postmodernism. Official release date is a ways off, but it seems to be available at CDBaby. B+(**) [June 1]
The Neil Cowley Trio: Displaced (2005 , Hide Inside): I just have a CDR with a low-res copy of the cover artwork. Artist has a website implemented in Flash with a minimum of actual information. My notes have release date as Mar. 20, but AMG puts it at May 29, 2006. Evidently it's been out in the UK for a while, as the website has laudatory quotes from the British press, including a "debut of the year" from Mojo. Cowley plays piano, with Richard Sadler on double bass and Evan Jenkins on drums. Haven't heard of any of them. Presumably they're British -- seems to be where they live and work. Cowley likes simple rhythmic vamps, some chord-heavy, a few almost dainty; some get more complex, but he keeps his lines short and punctuates them strongly. Somewhere between EST and the Bad Plus. [A-]
Joe Lovano & Hank Jones: Kids: Duets Live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola (2006 , Blue Note): Two recent quartet albums with Lovano and Jones were, respectively, more and less disappointing. But really, these two don't need bass and drums to swing or bop or diddle around. The duets are simply delightful from beginning to end. A- [May 8]
Bill Charlap Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (2007, Blue Note): The promo sheet reads as if the Village Vanguard is the real star here, citing a long list of famous musicians to have recorded there -- and by the way, omitting the only one I was ever present for: Dexter Gordon's famous 1976 homecoming. In the end, though, this is just a record, a sample of an exceptionally vital piano trio. The advance provides no info on who wrote what or when it was recorded, although there are songs I recognize -- "The Lady Is a Tramp" really jumps out. [B+(***)] [May 22]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Miles Okazaki: Mirror (2006 , CDBaby): Plays guitar, but also did the graphics on and in the package, which provide a nice analog to the music, which suggests new age and/or fusion without ever falling into either rut. Also suggests jazz with his reliance on reeds: Christof Knoche is a steady presence on bass clarinet, alto and soprano sax, and harmonica, complemented by guest stars David Binney, Miguel Zenon, and Chris Potter. B+(**)
Sean Noonan Brewed by Noon: Stories to Tell (2006 , Songlines): Drummer-led group with a lot of electricity -- three guitars, bass, and Mat Maneri's amped viola -- and some African percussion. Could be an awesome fusion group, but they break the pace with four vocal songs. Abdoulaye Diabaté's griot grates on me, and Susan McKeown's duet doesn't go anywhere, but Dawn Padmore's jazz ballad is a nice change of pace. B+(*)
Sunday, April 15. 2007
Here's a quote from Tony Karon apropos of my last post:
Emphasis in original. Not sure what David Rieff has to do with this, and don't really want to know. But this makes clear the basic conceptual leap that those who've come to oppose, or at least regret, Bush's Iraq war have to make in order to prevent further wars. And Iran is just the beginning here: the war plans there are so similar to what we went through in Iraq that even the most rudimentary pattern-matching skills should be able to see clear through it. From Iran there is another leap to where Brezinski is on the War on Terror. I happen to be reading Bill Bradley's book, so I can report that he hasn't made that leap yet -- he doesn't discuss Iran, but from what he says about Iraq it seems pretty unlikely that he would repeat a mistake he didn't make in the first place. And there are further leaps beyond Brezinski: not only is the War on Terror a crock, so is the prefix War. And once you understand that war isn't politics by other means -- it's the failure of politics by any and all means -- then you have to doubt those acts which prepare and enable it, and ultimately the emotions that fuel them.
That may be asking too much, especially of a politician stuck in a media world that allows so little for rational discourse. But if you don't start from a firm conviction that war is something to be avoided if at all possible, you set yourself up for rhetorical ambush by everyone more bloodthirsty than yourself. You can think of this as an arms race: the choices are either don't participate or jump in whole hog and win -- any in-between position fails. One of the big problems that Democrats have is that they think moderate, centrist positions work because most people really are moderate centrists. But in politics they don't work, because all of the good rhetoric comes from the fringes, and that's what ultimately registers in people's minds. So even if philosophically you have doubts about pacifism, there's good political reasons to stand up against Bush-Cheney warmongering in the strongest possible terms, to question what makes them think that war ever works. I don't see how they can answer that.
Saturday, April 14. 2007
The Wichita Eagle published a piece today by Peter Baker of Washington Post on a Dick Cheney speech:
Cheney goes on to attack Nancy Pelosi, in case you're wondering how far out you have to be to look "hard-left" to Cheney. It also ends with a balancing quote from a Harry Reid spokesman: "It's interesting that the vice president would make a reference to the 1970s because, just like Nixon, President Bush is isolated and hunkered down in the White House while his administration is under investigation and top officials are withholding key evidence."
There's the usual bit of preaching to the choir in Cheney's speech, but it's significant because the 1972 election has long been held by the Democratic Party nomenklatura to have proven the disaster that awaits any form of left-deviationism in the Party's ranks. Cheney's speech reminds them that any stray step toward the left will be punished savagely -- pretty much the same message the DLC and their fellow travellers have beat to death since 1972.
On the other hand, I saw Scott McClellan on Bill Maher last night, pushing a carrot version of the same message: he argued that we went to war in 2003 with bipartisan support, and that the President needs continued bipartisan support to see the war through to a successful conclusion -- over and over, he argued that we just need to give it a little more time. He left unsaid the conclusion: the Democrats, in backing out of bipartisan war consensus, will assume responsibility for the war's failure. Few assertions could be more ridiculous, the the Republicans have been so successful at pushing their superficial talking points for so long that they've left the Democrats dazed and confused. One thing this goes to show is how useful it was that so many Democrats voted for the war; another is how little good it did them -- John Kerry being the prime example.
This general drift has been building up since it became obvious even to diehard insiders that the Republicans were going to have to find someone to blame their Iraq disaster on. For at least that long Democrats have been leering nervously, like Thanksgiving turkeys. But I have to wonder two things: 1) what did the 1972 election really mean? and 2) can the Republicans get away with mythologizing Iraq the way they did Vietnam?
One thing people forget about the 1972 presidential election is that it wasn't nearly as focused on Vietnam as it should have been. Toward the close of the campaign, McGovern focused almost exclusively on Watergate, which was in the news but hadn't sunk in yet. Early on, he focused on issues like a guaranteed annual income that never got much traction. He may have decided that the war wasn't the issue to campaign on because the votes on that issue could already be counted. In that I think he was wrong: while antiwar Democrats had no illusions about where Nixon stood, non-Democrats and those ambivalent about the war were more inclined to trust Nixon, who had, after all, actually reduced American ground forces and casualties while pursuing talks with North Vietnam aimed at something called "peace with honor." A real antiwar campaign would have exposed what Nixon had actually done in the war: expanding the war into Cambodia, intensifying the air war, using covert death squads, scrambling SAC bombers to bluff a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and pointing out the deceit of promising a plan to end the war in 1968 and the fact that he was stretching it out indefinitely.
There are many similarities between Nixon and Bush viz. their wars, but there are two differences that may be critical: 1) Bush started his war, whereas Nixon took over a war that was already seen to be a major failure, so Nixon was never blamed for a war of choice (even if he was blamed for choosing to perpetuate it); 2) both were still significantly engaged in war after four years, but Nixon had reduced our costs while aiming at a settlement, whereas Bush is more engaged, and more tied down, than ever. There are other differences: Nixon's domestic policies enjoyed broad bipartisan support, whereas Bush's have been starkly divisive. (In some ways that increases support for the war, inasmuch as people who support Bush for other reasons feel they have to defend his war to keep him in power.)
The historical context is also vastly different. Clearly, McGovern was beat by a backlash of some sort, but his opposition to the very unpopular Vietnam war was a minor piece of a backlash that was more potently fueled by race and sex. Nixon's strategy was to invent a "silent majority" firmly rooted in "middle America" -- a card which he played cannily to pick up virtually all of the 1968 George Wallace vote, a sum roughly equal to his margin over McGovern. Also working in Nixon's favor was a Democratic Party establishment threatened by McGovern's promotion of democracy within the party -- in effect, they hung their nominee out to dry, figuring it better to lose an election than lose the party. (Much the same thing happened in 1896: William Jennings Bryan was nominated and lost when Grover Cleveland's east coast backers shied away.)
The characterization of McGovern as a left-wing loony was something that came after the fact, by talking heads in both parties, each with an axe to grind. The Republican right saw Nixon's win as vindication of their own agenda; old school Democrats parlayed McGovern's loss into a lesson on what happens when the party abandons their own centrism. Both moved the political debate to the right, weakening whatever it was that Democrats used to stand for. Indeed, the Democratic split over Vietnam was a fissure of confusion that never really healed. It actually goes back to the sacking of Henry Wallace, which committed the Democratic Party to anti-communist liberalism with its corrosive lack of support for labor. The Cold War was also a class war. The Democrats squandered their advantage by purging their own base.
There are a couple of ways the 1968-72 Nixon elections pair up with the 2000-04 Bush elections. In both cases, the first was settled by a very narrow margin with the Republican candidate keeping much of his real agenda under wraps while the Democrats were divided or at least ambivalent about their guy -- in both cases a vice president following a mixed bag presidency. In both cases the second involved re-electing a sitting president in war time, and both played all the advantages of incumbency to the hilt. One difference is that where Nixon won big, Bush barely squeaked by. The reason for that may be that 1968-72 was the start of a realignment where the Republicans moved strongly into suburbia and the white South, whereas 2000-04 marks the end of that shift, unless we see more traditional Republicans leave the party.
But the more important difference is that the US is much weaker now than we were in 1968-74: the nation's economic clout has declined under deficits and debt, real standards of living have declined, our sense of equality and common commitment has diminished; standards of education have declined, while traditional arts and industries have faded. Even our vaunted military power is suspect, given how poorly we've fared against the scattered resistence of Afghanistan and Iraq. (Comparatively, Vietnam, which successfully repelled China as well as the US, was a much larger engagement, a level that today's US military cannot conceive of.) Moreover, Vietnam could be viewed as a marginal sideshow in a larger struggle, so failure there didn't force a reassessment of the whole anti-communist project. But Iraq is failing in a way that threatens to call into question our whole self-conception as the world's sole superpower.
Chalmers Johnson, in Nemesis, makes the point that the UK more/less voluntarily chose to give up its empire rather than lose its democracy. He doesn't bring up the Soviet Union, which made a similar decision to forsake empire in order to seek democracy. Bush has brought the US toward a similar point, where his determination to pursue empire is matched to his scheming to subvert democracy at home. He has pursued both projects to an unprecedented degree, but both seem destined to fail, not least because they are way beyond the level of competency his administration can muster. Bush has created a world where failure is a fact, not an option.
In order for Cheney's line to work we have to believe that the failure he seeks to avoid is worse than the failure we experience. As long as the Democrats buy that premise the administration gets to blunder on without serious opposition. But what happens when/if we back off and stop making matters worse? Any sign of improvement at that point starts to unravel the whole delusion. Sooner or later, some future administration will start to disengage from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from the entire Middle East, if for no better reason than because, like the UK 50-60 years ago, we can no longer justify the costs by our gains. When that happens we will finally find how little all that imperialism brought us.
Given the magnitude of Cheney's accomplishments, the lesson we should take from his speech is that we owe George McGovern, and for that matter what passes through Cheney's fevered mind as the "far-left platform," a reevaluation. The fact is that McGovern was right on Vietnam and on Watergate. And for that matter McGovern has written a little book on Iraq which offers a graceful exit strategy from a quagmire that so many well-placed minds find completely intractable.
Wednesday, April 11. 2007
Andrew Bacevich, in a book review in The Nation, digs up "semiwar" as an old term for the early cold warriors. He's talking about the state of being at war in theory and principle, but not so much so that everyone notices the mobilization. The effect is that war becomes the province of specialists: something a few elites care about a great deal, and are able to indulge in because the population in general doesn't care much one way or another. Full-scale wars in American history are brutal affairs, but are relatively short, the Civil War and WWII done in about four years, WWI more like two. Semiwars, on the other hand, can go on forever.
I suspect that the reason they called the Cold War a semiwar was that it came so fast upon the heels of the full-scale WWII, which left us with a sense that war means total commitment and mobilization. By then most Americans had internalized the notion of total war, and had largely put out of mind America's numerous small wars and frontier conflicts -- e.g., with Indians up to 1890, and in and around the Caribbean from 1898 on. Such small wars are normal costs of imperialism. Indeed, it's possible that England never had a peaceful year from their late 16th-century victory over the Spanish Armada until they left Africa in the mid-1960s. The US has likewise engaged in perpetual wars since 1945, many not only out of the public's fickle mind but intentionally clandestine. You know about Iraq and Afghanistan, and you may worry about Iran, but how many Americans realize that Bush has managed to check Lebanon and Somalia off his GWOT target list this year?
Bacevich explains, starting with the first DoD secretary, James Forrestal:
Congress's inability to check and balance Bush's folly in Iraq is a consequence of this long process of deferring to security elites, who've set an agenda that mostly works to perpetuate themselves -- in large part by stoking the crises they urgently warn against. I suspect that this deference can be traced to the excess gratitude given the armed services for WWII -- even now most of us credit the military with a degree of competency they don't begin to justify. And who knows about the even more secretive CIA, other than that they're even less accountable?
Chalmers Johnson's book Nemesis covers this same territory with a focus on how America's semi-empire corrodes democracy. James Carroll's House of War finds the semi-empire's roots in the WWII concept of total war, the Manhattan Project's search for the ultimate weapon, and the building of the Pentagon, the embodiment of a will to dominate the world. Neither book is about a speculative future: you can how the cults of war, empire, and secrecy cripple democracy just by watching Congress try to cope with Iraq.
It's hard to tell at this point whether the Democrats' modest attempts to poke their beaks out of the national security shell should be counted as bravery or cowardice. But there's evidence that Bush's tactics are making them bolder: the failure of their non-binding resolution led to reconsideration of defunding; and who could conceive of Nancy Pelosi meeting with Syria six months ago? Whether the struggle against Bush's war leads them to turn against the whole neo-imperial program is a future question, but it seems clear that this particular exercise in neocon empire building is going to leave a very bitter taste. It's getting to where even semiwar may be too much.
Tuesday, April 10. 2007
Recycled Goods #42, April 2007, has been posted at Static Multimedia. Catching up from January's 2006 wrap-up and March's mishap. I had most of this done early, but I kept putting off the research into Universal's Gold series, which I wanted to tie to the Buddy Holly Definitive Collection. Otherwise, I had (and still have) a lot of backlog, which puts me in good shape for May.
I keep vacillating between wanting to do more on Recycled Goods and wanting to do less. The result is that I tend to be rather passive: handling what comes in, but not making much of an effort to track down items of potential interest. My preliminary work on designing a web-based repository got wiped out, not that I had much to lose there. The Recycled Goods archives are up to 1783 albums, so restarting that still seems worthwhile, but it's not real high on my priority list. Maybe if I can slough through a few more months like this one, I'll catch up enough elsewhere to make this interesting again.
Monday, April 9. 2007
Judging from the demonstration in Najaf today, it looks like the Surge is finally working. US targeting of the Mahdi militia seems to have finally brought Moqtada al-Sadr's mind back into focusing on who the real purveyors of violence in Iraq are. All along he's been in a unique position to rally both Shia and Sunni Arabs against the occupation -- he lacks the taint of the SCIRI and Dawa exiles, while commanding a large grass roots following. But he backed down from full-scale revolt in May 2004, bought off with the political spoils system, letting the US play on his hatred of both Baathists and Al Qaeda to hatch full-scale civil war. But that alliance was bound to fail: American hawks have been howling for Sadr's hide ever since the 2004 revolt, and few Iraqis have seen any reason to forgive or reconcile with the US. And both sides can see the writing on the wall: the Surge is the hawks' last-chance offensive against impending political collapse at home, their Battle of the Bulge. On the other hand, few Americans think it has a prayer of working, so what must the Iraqis think? Sadr may be the first rat to leave the sinking ship, but that makes sense: he has the least to lose, and the most to gain. Whether he, too, is too tainted is an open question. But he never had a future in a condo in Palm Springs. He may even have a taste for martyrdom, which plays well in his family.
I've been saying all along that the occupation will end when a sufficient number of Iraqis -- specifically the Shia majority -- demand it. The US has played a game of diminishing returns, siding with Shia over Sunni, manipulating both, dealing behind the scenes to stoke each groups fears, cultivating the myth that both groups need the US for security against each other. But in doing so, the US has had to yield strategic ground, especially to the appearance of democratic government. While the "sovereign state" is far from representative, it offers the prospect of a tipping point that the US cannot deny -- either on the ground in Iraq or in the political theater in the US. It's still an open question when Iraq will flip, but that it will is increasingly obvious. Maybe Sadr isn't enough to pull the plug now, but he polarizes the Shia choice, raising the ultimate question to all of Iraq's supposed leaders: who do you work for, the Americans or the Iraqis?
Compared to ground events, the American political debate over Iraq pokes along lamely. We just don't seem to have the concepts that might illuminate the problem or the solution. We can't grasp either the ineptness or the malevolence of our military. In fact, we can't fault ourselves at all, which leaves the Iraqis to blame. But clearly most Americans realize that there's nothing good to come from the war. The only argument against cutting our losses is that there's no telling how badly Bush will fuck that up too. That argues for impeachment, which is "off the table" because the numbers don't support it. But anything short of that is bound to fail, either by vote or by implementation. I can't think of any president who's been more tenacious as frustrating popular will than Bush. That may prove to be his legacy and epitaph, resulting in even more ideological coarsening of political discourse. It will be very hard to undo the damage he has wrought, especially given how much trouble we have in even conceiving of it.
Still, when Iraq flips, who will have the will to fight on?