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?
Enough jazz below to report, even though the week has been as much of a drag as expected. Other accomplishments include Recycled Goods done (although not yet posted), a pass through the entire notebook to populate the new/revised books section, and ordering the parts to my much needed replacement computer. Next week looks to be every bit as full of annoyances, obligations, and outright problems, but should see some progress as well. Falling behind on the incoming jazz, so that will be a focus.
Ben Bowen King: Sidewalk Saints: Roots Gospel Guitar (2007, Talking Taco Music): An antidote to the dumbing down of gospel: instrumentals, featuring venerable songs in old style, plucked out on what King calls a resonator/slide guitar -- built for volume in the streets, sounds like it's mostly built from steel. King cites Blind Willie Johnson and Dock Boggs as influences, credits "Amazing Grace" to Fred McDowell and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" to Pops Staples. Covita Moroney helps out on percussion and the occasional moan. B+(***)
Coyote Poets of the Universe: Unmistakable Evidence! (2004-05 , Square Shaped): Denver group, although I only see one poet, with all words attributed to Andy O'Leary (or Andy O'Blivion, as he appears on their website). Gary Hoover (aka Gary 7) helps out with the music, with both playing guitar and a few other instruments. Others help out too. The music is fractured guitar jazz, interesting in its own right, but usually gives way to the spoken words. The latter have their moments as well, but nothing here impresses me nearly as much as Jerry Granelli's Sandhills Reunion did a couple of years ago. B+(*)
The Puppini Sisters: Betcha Bottom Dollar (2006 , Verve): A vocal trio, modelled on the Andrews Sisters down to a good chunk of their songbook, reportedly inspired by The Triplets of Belleville, which as far as I can tell they had nothing to do with. Only one Puppini too: Marcella, an Italian-born, London-based cabaret singer. The other two are Kate Mullins and Stephanie Brown. The frothy sound works best on proven material, but seems more awkward when they try more modern fare, even though songs like "Wuthering Heights," "Heart of Glass," and "I Will Survive" have strengths of their own. [B] [May 1]
Norah Jones: Not Too Late (2007, Blue Note): I've had friends play me their tapes, and more often than not I've panned them, pointing out that regardless of craft most lack the sort of distinguishing that would make them stand out in a field where craft and skill are mere minimums required. I'd probably say the same about Jones, and evidently in her case be wrong, but I still can't say why. Perhaps it's because she's turned ordinariness into a public virtue, and maybe we crave some sense of a comforting center given the sensory overkill that everyone else exercises to get our attention. That she can do it -- that she's the one we chose for this role -- depends on our understanding that she's not really ordinary: her voice, her piano, the elegant melodies, the unobvious words, the sensible arrangements, all serve to establish her worthiness through their subtlety. That's my theory, anyway. I still prefer my comforts less enigmatic, so I can't quite attest to whatever it is that others hear in her. B+(*)
Phil Bodner: The Clarinet Virtuosity of Phil Bodner: Once More With Feeling (1960s-70s , Arbors): The booklet here credits Bodner with two '60s albums on Camden. AMG doesn't list those, but starts with two 1980 albums on Stash. Not much more follows, but when you look up his credits, AMG's list goes on for five screens. He played eleven instruments, including alto sax with Benny Goodman, oboe with Coleman Hawkins, clarinet and flute with Gil Evans and Miles Davis, and English horn with Milt Jackson and Luiz Bonfá. In the '70s he starts showing up on pop albums -- the Bee Gees, Carly Simon, Chaka Khan, Phoebe Snow, Bette Midler, Bob James; actually, he may have started earlier, like the '50s, as he gets credits on compilations of LaVern Baker, Jackie Wilson, and the "Bear Family Single Disc" of "Cry" by Johnnie Ray. Scott Yanow suggests that you probably have "dozens if not hundreds" of records with Bodner playing something or other. This new one is cobbled together from six undated sessions sometime in the '60s or '70s, each featuring Bodner on clarinet. The first four cuts put him in front of a trio with Hank Jones on piano. The next five are duos with guitarist Gene Bertoncini. Later we get four cuts with Dick Hyman on organ. Milt Hinton plays bass on those, then sings one. That's followed by three cuts with Derek Smith on keyboards and Vinny Bell on guitar. Mostly swing era standards, clean and sharp and, well, swinging. [B+(***)]
Bucky & John Pizzarelli: Generations (2006 , Arbors): The better known son is a crooner stuck between his Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra tributes, but he started off as a pretty sharp guitarist, a chip off the old Bucky, as it were. The father never ventured far from swing, a graceful rhythm guitarist but not a great soloist. Father and son previously waxed duos in the early '80s, collected as The Complete Guitar Duos (The Stash Sessions), as well as a 1998 album Contrasts (Arbors) -- both well-regarded, but I haven't heard either. This this one is tasteful, modestly intricate and intimate. B+(**)
Frank Vignola: Vignola Plays Gershwin (2006 , Mel Bay): Guitarist, heard of late in the Frank and Joe Show, although I first noticed him in an old timey/trad jazz group called Travelin' Light. Actually, Joe [Ascione] is on board here as well. Vignola does standard stuff with a lot of zip and presence, and takes no chances on formula here: he doubles up the guitar by adding Corey Christiansen, and doesn't bother with any obscurities or feints. So there's not much to it, but it sounds terrific. B+(***)
Dept. of Good and Evil Feat. Rachel Z (2007, Savoy Jazz): Rachel Z is a pianist originally named Rachel Nicolazzo. She has at least 9 albums since 1992, but I've missed her until now -- my only encounter was the time when I was accidentally caught Mary McPartland toasting her on "Piano Jazz," where she made a favorable impression. AMG lists Wayne Shorter as a "similar artist" -- she recorded a Shorter tribute album, but that hardly makes her similar; "influences" are Joanne Brackeen, John Hicks, and George Garzone -- latter just means she's lived in Boston, where Garzone has taught everyone; "see also" includes Najee, although I certainly don't recommend following up there; "styles" include Crossover Jazz, which she's pretty much managed to crossover from. She's got a couple of cheesecake album covers in the past, but this isn't one. I can't say as I hear much Brackeen or Hicks in her piano, but I couldn't argue strongly against Hancock and/or Tyner. The mod touches here include a couple of rock songs (Sting, Joy Division) and a couple of unclaimed weak vocals on originals. Judging from the typography, the group is a piano trio plus guests Tony Levin on electric bass and Erik Naslund on trumpet. Seems more middle brow than mainstream. Probably of minor interest, but shouldn't be easily dismissed. [B+(*)]
Kenny Werner: Lawn Chair Society (2007, Blue Note): I should have written this up first time I played the release. At least that way my confusion could seem resolvable through further experience. As it is, I've played this 6-8 times -- often at times I didn't expect to be able to concentrate on anything but I thought I'd give it a chance to connect. Bottom line is: it hasn't, but I can't tell you why. Chris Potter has moments at peak form. Trumpet player is no slouch either: Dave Douglas. Brian Blade and Scott Colley navigate the undertow, never more authoritatively than when they break free. Werner's a good pianist, and I don't mind when he dabbles in electronics except when it gets slow and gloomy. I don't know Werner's other work, but that may not matter given how strong the horns are. Come to think of it, Douglas and Potter have often confused me in the past. I have no doubt that they are brilliant musicians, and there are stretches here as elsewhere to underscore the point, but this isn't the first time they've managed to throw me. B+(*)
David Torn: Prezens (2005 , ECM): AMG's entire biography reads: "Hard-edged fusion guitarist with aura of mystery. Influenced by Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Terje Rypdal, and Robert Fripp." I can imagine Wire playing him those in one of their Invisible Jukebox interviews. Wikipedia is more forthcoming: born 1953; studied with Leonard Bernstein, John Abercrombie, and Pat Martino; cousin of Rip Torn, Geraldine Page, and Sissy Spacek; survived a brain tumor that left him deaf in right ear; since then about half of his credits have been for mixing and/or producing. Four cuts are solo things with Torn mixing guitar and electronics. One more adds drummer Matt Chamberlain. The other seven tracks backs Torn with Tim Berne's Hard Cell trio -- Craig Taborn on keyboards and Tom Rainey on drums -- although one could just as well view the group as Berne's Science Friction quartet with Torn replacing guitarist Marc Ducret. In the latter case Torn is a heavier, more rockish guitarist, into broad tonal assaults rather than noted lines. He threatens to turn the album into structure, but Rainey is too quick to let him get away with that. This fits nicely into the great wave of guitar albums of late. I might prefer to hear Torn supporting Berne rather than the other way around. Haven't heard Torn's early albums. His previous tour on ECM produced the well-regarded 1986 album Cloud Over Mercury, with a lineup that included Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, and Mark Isham. I haven't heard any of his previous records, but the group shift must be notable. I do know that Torn has mixed most of Berne's recent albums, so he certainly knew what he was getting into. [B+(**)] [Apr 17]
Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano: Time and Time Again (2006 , ECM): One Rodgers/Hammerstein, one Monk, one by Lovano, the rest by Motian. Lovano and Frisell play soft and disjointed, kind of like Motian drums. There's a certain integrity to that, but it's hard to get excited about. Frisell sounds especially uninspired. B
Hal Galper/Jeff Johnson/John Bishop: Furious Rubato (2006 , Origin): Galper is a veteran pianist who has impressed me in the past; Johnson and Bishop are Seattle's go-to rhythm section. Two Miles Davis pieces, one by Coltrane, one by Johnson, the rest Galper originals. Strikes me as dense and busy. I'm keeping it open because I've been distracted during two plays -- don't expect much at this point, but not quite sure. [B]
Joe Beck/Santi Debriano/Thierry Arpino: Trio 7 (2007, Whaling City Sound): Guitarist. Been around at least since the '70s, when he worked with Esther Phillips. AMG says he had a "big hit with David Sanborn in 1975" -- there's an album from then called Beck & Sanborn, but I missed it. Actually, I missed all of 20+ records Beck's recorded since 1969 -- even the Phillips records, but the name rings a bell. This is pleasant, soft-toned, with a little Brazilian seasoning but no nylon. I find myself focusing on the bassist, who's worth the attention. Note that Debriano's name is misspelled on the cover. B+(*)
Allen Lowe: Jews in Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation (2004-06 , Spaceout, 2CD): Actually, the title goes on: Or: All the Blues You Could Play By Now If Stanley Crouch Was Your Uncle; and on: Or: Dance of the Creative Economy: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Space Gallery and Love the Music Business. Lowe wrote in suggesting that if I made this a Dud he could market around that. I doubt that he'll get that particular wish, although the record is a huge mess, a lot of things that fit oddly if at all. Next step is RTFM: Lowe may not be much of a musician -- his alto sax is fine, but he mostly plays guitar here along with banjo, bass, and synth -- and he certainly isn't much of a singer -- but he's a good writer and an exceptional musicologist, and the manual (err, booklet) looks to be as important a part of the package as the discs. All I can really say thus far is that this shatters expectations. [B]
(((Powerhouse Sound))): Oslo/Chicago Breaks (2005-06 , Atavistic, 2CD): I've never been sure what some Ken Vandermark group names really mean -- Territory Band, Free Fall, FME all suggest something more/less different from reality -- but this one couldn't be more literal. Vandermark has a batch of songs, half dedicated to JA stars (Burning Spear, Lee Perry, Coxsonne Dodd, King Tubby), half to others distinguished mostly by hardness (Miles Davis, Bernie Worrell, Hank Shocklee, the Stooges). He took them to Oslo to record with his School Days crew (Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, Paal Nilssen-Love), Lasse Marhaug's electronics, and doubled up on the bass by bringing Nate McBride along -- both bassists play electric. Then he returned to Chicago with McBride and added Jeff Parker on guitar and John Herndon on drums for more/less the same set. Vandermark sticks to tenor sax, and is the sole horn on both, a setup that by now promises powerhouse avant-honk. He's on spot almost as much as with Sound in Action Trio, or for that matter the McBride-driven Triple Play, although there's more going on here -- particularly with Parker. Not done with this yet, but grade is minimal. Could be a Pick Hit. A-
Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio: Terminal Valentine (2006 , Atavistic): Chicago-based cellist, recently joined Vandermark 5 replacing trombonist Jeb Bishop. The initial problem here is that there isn't a lot of sonic variety to a cello-bass-drums trio, so it's hard to tell what's going on without paying close attention. As background this flows agreeably, with some edge that may pan out, but I'll have to return to it later. Another open question is why do so many FLH albums involve valentines? [B+(*)]
Nicole Mitchell/Harrison Bankhead/Hamid Drake: Indigo Trio: Live in Montreal (Paperback Series Vol. 3) (2005 , Greenleaf Music): Website says: "The Paperback Series is a revolutionary new way of making rare recordings available. This is music that the artists have long wanted to release, in a new format that now makes it possible. The CDs are packaged in a distinctive cardboard sleeve with full credits and information and offered at a special low price, exclusively from Greenleaf Music through our store, musicstem.com." I guess revolutions aren't what they used to be -- there's nothing even remotely impressive about the website pricing. I haven't heard the first two volumes, which are live sets by label proprietor Dave Douglas. Chicago musicians. Drake and Bankhead play often when Fred Anderson -- Bankhead is a dependable bassist, Drake is brilliant and then some. Mitchell plays with Bankhead in Frequency. Her instrument is flute, something I'm rarely impressed by, but the rhythm Bankhead and Drake throw up is so alive that a thin layer of frosting works. She also sings, or chants, one, with a thin, airy voice not unlike her flute, and that works as well. [B+(***)]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Roger Powell: Fossil Poets (2006, Inner Knot): Powell's "retro-future" suggests that there must have been such a thing as pre-postmodernism, only we were fortunate enough not to recognize it as such at the time. Powell's resume isn't promising: even if we discount Bat Out of Hell as a fluke, he played the synths that drove Todd Rundgren's Utopia over the deep end. The only jazz credit I find on his CV is a Charlie Rouse album. This one is marginal genrewise, synth-driven instrumentals with a steady beat, eschewing both funk and spaciness -- too square for jazz, too soft for fusion, too old-fashioned for experimental rock, too much fun for new age. Comes to a nice soft landing with what sounds like a real piano. I've refiled this under Pop Jazz, but the smoothies won't like it either. B+(**)
Nicolas Masson: Yellow (A Little Orange) (2004 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Two-horn quartet, Masson playing tenor sax and bass clarinet, Russ Johnson trumpet, with Eivind Opsvik on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. More postbop than avant; both horns have good broken field runs and the jousts generate some heat, but the harmonizing bogs down a bit. B+(*)
Scotty Hard's Radical Reconstructive Surgery (2004 , Thirsty Ear): Hard is credited with drum machines and samplers, but he's working on top of Mauricio Takara's drums and DJ Olive's turntables, so it's hard to say how much is his. The two sets of keyboards are easier to unravel, and far more central to the record, even though both John Medeski and Matthew Shipp are credited variously with organ, wurlitzer, and piano -- Medeski also on mellotron and clavinet. Typical Blue Series jam. I'd be more impressed had it come earlier in the series. B+(**)