Tuesday, March 31. 2009
At least with George W. Bush you could be sure that a clean break from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be the best policy, because you knew that from top to bottom the US was incapable of doing anything right or decent in the region. That didn't mean that it was impossible to imagine some hypothetical US administration that might be able to stage a more graceful exit, maintaining diplomatic and perhaps some non-military relationships that might actually do some good. At first glance you wonder whether Obama might be able to implement that sort of change, but we're not seeing much evidence of it, or even any sort of fresh thinking. With Gates, Petraeus, et al., still ensconced, the change of administrations doesn't go very deep. Nor is it all that clear that Obama himself has changed the way he thinks about war, let alone shifted any thinking anywhere else. Throughout his campaign, Obama saw being hawkish on Afghanistan and Pakistan as cover for his dovish stands on Iraq. He no doubt senses that politically at least we live in a war culture, something he can't afford to appear alien to -- any more than he can offend our free enterprise belief system by actually facing up to the bankers.
Obama's made a series of announcements regarding his plans for Afghanistan (and Pakistan), starting with ordering 17,000 more troops into the region and appointing the ever-dangerous Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy. He's also stepped up cross-border drone attacks in Pakistan, resulting in inevitable civilian deaths and protests by troubled Pakistanis. He's cavalierly dabbled in internal politics in the two countries. He's shown he's still a mental prisoner of the two most debilitating obsessions of past US administrations: Al-Qaeda and the suppressing the narcotics trade. He's shown similar inability to buck the conventional wisdom on Iran and Israel -- two areas where the conventional wisdom is especially deranged.
Tony Karon: From Obama, a guide for avoiding defeat in Afghanistan. Cites the conventional wisdom in Washington as believing that the US needs more troops in Afghanistan not to defeat the Taliban but to stop losing to them -- to show enough strength and persistence to bring at least parts of the Taliban to the negotiating table. (Doesn't go into the obvious analogies with Nixon negotiating in Paris while escalating in and around Vietnam to provide cover for his withdrawal, which all things considered wasn't a very successful strategy.) Then explains why this stuff won't work: because Pakistan -- specifically the Pakistani army, the real institutional power in the country -- sees the Taliban as a durable ally in the region, long after the US tires and quits.
Gareth Porter: Some Strategists Cast Doubt on Afghan War Rationale. For instance, is an Al-Qaeda sanctuary in the Hindu Kush really any sort of threat? It makes a good place to hide in, but not much of a base to attack from. Do the drone attacks hurt more than they help? (Do they in fact help at all? Or do they just show the frustration facing an overreaching superpower?) Does the US even have any "vital interests" in the region?
Tom Engelhardt: The Great Afghan Bailout. Looks at the tab being run up in Afghanistan, or what he's started to call (evidently following the DOD) the Af-Pak War. The accounting is still riddled with unknowns -- one DOD estimate is that Iraq War costs will go up as Obama withdraws troops from there, and certainly nobody knows who all's going to have to be paid off to keep Pakistan from exploding in our faces. Still seems early in the game, but the moves so far are so stuck in the past that Engelhardt is ready to write Obama's epitaph:
Italics mine: that is the crux of the problem, the one thing the pundits can't conceive of -- that the problem we need to fix is us. Obama's failure to understand this and/or inability to act on it makes him one more prisoner of war.
Juan Cole: Obama's domino theory. One more I found right after posting the above.
We're starting to see that.
Monday, March 30. 2009
Electricians returned on Tuesday, promising to get the upstairs rewiring done this week. They left on Friday: I wouldn't say defeated, but worn down and out. Should return later this week with new switches, hoping that that'll fix it. Did a little work on kitchen each day, but not much. Cut out the wood for a little cabinet extension that will wind up holding my spice racks, but didn't get it joined or assembled, much less installed and painted. Need to figure out how to match my router to an incompatible router table. Did manage to get a gaping hole in the ceiling plugged, but still have to skim the edges and sand and paint. Did paint a bunch of loose shelves and the bathroom vanity cabinet, and put a new medicine cabinet up on the wall: cheap thing we bought then repainted; don't particularly like it, but for now it will do. Got hit by a substantial blizzard. A few miles west of here it dumped over two feet of snow, but our official count was 7 inches, since it started here as rain, then sleet and ice pellets before turning to snow overnight. Power went out, late at night when I was painting. Tried to finish up by flashlight. I usually figure it's good to cook when we're snowed in, but didn't have much available. I did pull a slab of salmon from the freezer, marinated it in sake/soy/sugar, and shoved it under the gas infrared broiler -- first time I had used the oven in the new Capital range. Fried up some frozen gyoza on the range at the same time -- big complaint about the old KitchenAid was that you couldn't use oven and stove top at same time. Salmon teriyaki was crispier on top without overcooking. Gyoza came out a bit too crispy, and my dipping sauce could have used fresh ginger and scallion, but it all worked out pretty well. Once we get organized it'll go smoother. Still need to get the stainless steel counter around the range built, plus the nearby pull-out pantry units. The big south-wall cabinets need to be secured and wired, plus another coat of paint. The corner pantry needs its cover door. Dropped ceiling needs a few more panels. I need to upgrade some outlets to GFCI. Shades are still on order. Floor has a lot of stray paint which will be a pain to remove. At the present rate it could take 3-4 weeks to get those things all worked out, but it's coming around.
Meanwhile, I listened to a little jazz this week. Every now and then I write up an honorable mention or a dud. Draft needs a week to finish, but I haven't had one lately, so it keeps growing. Need to get to it. Meanwhile, I try to keep from falling too far behind.
Greg Diamond: Dançando Com Ale (2007 , Chasm): Guitarist, b. 1977 in New York, has one Colombian parent (other Jewish), spent at least part of his early life in Bogotá, Colombia. Debut album. Looks mostly Brazilian to me, although he covers "Libertango" (Astor Piazzolla) and "Sofrito" (Mongo Santamaria). Wrote 5 of 10 songs, none with English titles. Band features Seamus Blake on tenor sax, a smart move. Nicely percolating "All or Nothing" to close. One vocal, by a Vanessa Diamond, with a voice I really dislike. B+(*)
Bridge Quartet: Night (2007 , Origin): Second album from this group, which was pulled together by drummer Alan Jones on a break back home in Portland, OR, from his usual haunts in Europe. They're basically a small time bar band, playing covers of pieces like "Green Dolphin Street" and "Bemsha Swing." Thing is, they're really good at it -- maybe because Jones recruited a couple of ringers. Pianist Darrell Grant has a substantial catalog, and saxophonist Phil Dwyer came all the way from Toronto. He holds his own on Sonny Rollins' "Strode Rode," and does a mean Charlie Parker on Victor Feldman's "A Face Like Yours." He doesn't have a lot out under his own name, but has an intriguing sideline: the Phil Dwyer Academy of Musical and Culinary Arts. He's cookin' here. B+(***)
Ben Markley: Second Introduction (2008 , OA2): Pianist, from Longmont, CO, leads a standard bop quintet, with Greg Gisbert on trumpet and Jim Pisano on tenor sax. Nothing much wrong with it -- lots of energy, some postbop innovation -- but nothing that strikes me as out of the ordinary, either. B
Hal Galper/Reggie Workman/Rashied Ali: Art-Work (2008 , Origin): Subtitle: "Live at the Jazz Room/William Patterson University." Piano trio, of course. No excuse for any jazz fan not to recognize all three names, but Galper certainly deserves more recognition. He has a couple dozen albums since 1971, including a couple on my A-list (Portrait from 1989; Just Us from 1993). Influenced by Bud Powell. Taught by Jaki Byard. This was cut shortly before his 70th birthday, and he sounds superb at high speed, even better when he slows it down a bit. He cut a good album for Origin a couple of years ago using the home team rhythm section (Jeff Johnson and John Bishop) -- competent as they are Workman and Ali are in a whole nuther league. (I don't catch much live jazz, but quite a while back I caught Workman with Mal Waldron and spent the whole set fixated on him: totally changed the way I hear bass.) [A-]
John Stowell: Solitary Tales (2008 , Origin): Guitarist, based in Portland, OR, has a career stretching back to the 1970s but most of his dozen or so recordings are since 2000. This one is solo, picked out on a nylon-stringed guitar built by Mike Doolin, who recorded this at home. One song each from Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman; rest are originals. Steady, assured, expert; not stuck in any of the obvious jazz guitar ruts. B+(**)
Matt Blostein/Vinnie Sperrazza: Ursa Minor (2006 , Envoi): Front cover lists drummer Sperrazza first; everywhere else, including spine, lists alto saxophonist Blostein first. Google swings both ways. CDBaby has Blostein first, so that won out. First, and thus far only, record for both/either -- a couple of years old, but Blostein sent it after I complimented him for Liam Sillery's Outskirts. Alto sax has a light tone, searching, thoughtful, intricately postbop, even when complemented by Mike McGinnis on tenor sax (2 cuts) or clarinet (1 cut). Most cuts also include Khabu Young on guitar, Jacob Sacks on piano, and Thomas Morgan on bass. Most interesting when they wander into free territory. B+(*)
Al Hood: Just a Little Taste: Al Hood Plays the Writing of Dave Hanson (2008 , CDBaby): Trumpeter, originally from upstate New York, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Clifford Brown, teaches at University of Denver since 1999. Don't know what else he's done, other than play in Phil Collins' big band. This seems to be his first record, although he's probably well past 50. Hanson is harder to sort out from the Google chaff. Pianist, based in Denver, plays here, arranges and conducts. Only wrote 4 of 12 pieces, so the "writing" Hood plays is mostly his arrangements. The small group stuff is real solid: Hood has a broad, commanding tone; stands out cleanly amid the orchestral muck -- the high-rent district of the woodwind section -- Pam Endsley on flute, Lisa Martin on oboe, Susan McCullough on horn -- and/or a shitload of strings. I suppose that makes the arranger feel like he's earning his dime. B
Matt Renzi: Lunch Special (2007 , Three P's): Plays tenor sax and clarinet. Not very forthcoming on biography: father played flute in SF Symphony; studied at Berklee with George Garzone (like, who didn't?), and in India with R.A. Ramamani; has een all around the world; sixth album since 1998. Only other one I've heard, The Cave (on Fresh Sound New Talent), made my HM list. I described it as "centered," adding that "Renzi plays difficult music but makes it looks easy because he doesn't go in for the stress and force of most avant saxophonists." Don't have much more to add on this trio with Dave Ambrosio (bass) and Russ Meissner (drums) yet. [B+(**)]
Diana Krall: Quiet Nights (2009, Verve): Pretty simple concept, almost inevitable given Krall's market profile: ballads with some light Brazilian froth (two Jobim standards, Paulinho da Costa's percussion), swimming in Claus Ogerman's soft-toned arrangements backed by a massive string orchestra whose main job is to swoon gently in the background. Can't think of anyone else who could pull it off. I'm not sure this will hold up, but it's been a sheer delight ever since I popped it and heard "Where or When." It's not the commanding performance From This Moment On was -- more Bennett than Sinatra. [A-]
Branford Marsalis Quartet: Metamorphosen (2008 , Marsalis Music): I've long thought that the first brother was lucky to get to pick tenor sax first, because it gave him a broader and more open model (Coltrane) than the second could do on trumpet (Davis). Despite their fame, both have stayed within their bounds: it's just that Branford gives you the sense that he really enjoys where he is, whereas Wynton won't be satisfied until he turns into Napoleon. One indication of Branford's comfort zone is that this quartet -- Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass, Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums -- has been together for 10 years now. Their first album, Requiem (for Calderazzo's predecessor, Kenny Kirkland), is still my pick from the series, perhaps because the solemn occasion brought them together, but they've almost always made solid albums, and this is one more. Everyone in the group writes -- Branford himself is down to one song plus "Rhythm-A-Ning" -- creating a bit of a jumble, but Revis's "Sphere" (following the Monk cover) and Watts's "Samo" are first rate. I've never like Calderazzo on his own, but he fills in admirably here. And Branford has mostly switched to soprano sax, which pace my instincts may be a good thing. All of Coltrane's children thought they had to master the second horn, but damn few did -- Marsalis is about as good on it as Wayne Shorter is, which is saying something. B+(***)
Miles Okazaki: Generations (2008 , Sunnyside): Guitarist, from Washington state, based in New York. Does his own graphic art, which gives his two albums -- Mirror came out in 2007 -- a common brand look. Another thing the two albums share is powerhouse saxophone -- Miguel Zenón, David Binney, and Christof Knoche appear on both; the first album also had Chris Potter on one cut. New this time is vocalist Jen Shyu. Okazaki trends toward fusion, but mostly flows in and out around the frontliners. The saxophonists make a strong impression. On the other hand, I don't care for Shyu at all: something hymnal to her voice, trying to add a luminous aura to the melodic lines. B [Apr. 7]
Ben Wendel: Simple Song (2007 , Sunnyside): Credit reads: saxophones, bassoon, melodica. Cover shows a tenor sax. Born Vancouver, raised in Los Angeles, attended Eastman School of Music, based in Santa Monica, CA. First album, but has piled up a couple dozen side credits since 2002. Mostly originals, plus covers from Coltrane and Strayhorn ("A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing"). With Larry Koonse on guitar, Darek Oleskiewicz on bass, Nate Wood on drums, and any of three pianists, the best known Taylor Eigsti. Postbop, nicely done, probably more substance than I'm giving it credit for, but nothing much grabbed me -- not even Koonse, who has sent me to the credit sheets the last half-dozen or so albums he's been on. B
Marc Copland: New York Trio Recordings, Vol. 3: Night Whispers (2008 , Pirouet): Same trio as Vol. 1 back in 2006: Drew Gress on bass, Bill Stewart on drums. (Vol. 2 went with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian.) Actually, Copland's most common trio. Not leftovers, but it starts slow -- the first of three takes of "Emily" -- and is relatively difficult to hear clearly. Includes some intriguing stuff, but not the place to start. B+(*)
Pirouet Jazz Compilation, Vol. 1: The Best Is Yet to Come (1992-2008 , Pirouet): Then, like, why not wait until you get it before issuing a label compilation? German postbop label, a home for underappreciated Americans like Marc Copland and Bill Carrothers, plus copasetic Germans most likely also underappreciated. The latter include clarinettist John Ruocco, tenor saxophonist Jason Seizer, and pianists Pablo Held, Achim Kaufmann, Walter Lang, and John Schröder -- piano is a big thing with this label. The latter are new to me -- evidently the label/publicist are only pushing American names over here. Lang's duet with Lee Konitz is choice. The only pre-2006 cut is from Carrothers' rediscovered debut. B+(*)
Sarah DeLeo: I'm in Heaven Tonight (2008 , Sweet Sassy Music): Singer. Second album. Does standards. "Rockin' Robin" is a strong first move, but the only thing like that -- "On the Street Where You Live" and "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" are more typical. Backed with guitar, organ, occasional horns -- Jay Collins works some nice sax in. Not sure about the voice or delivery, which have a few quirks but limited interest. B
Iron City: Put the Flavor on It (2008 , Carlo Music): Had artist on this in my queue as Charlie Apicella & Iron City, but don't see any reason from the package -- my filing system is hopeless right now, so the odds of finding the hype sheet are slim to none. Guitarist Apicella is clearly the leader, writing 5 songs vs. 4 covers -- "Walk On By," "Hey Western Union Man," "And Satisfy," and one from Apicella's mentor Dave Stryker. Group includes Beau Sasser on organ, Alan Korzin on drums. Don't know where the name comes from -- group itself is from Amherst, MA. Light funk. Mostly harmless. B- [Apr. 7]
Bob Rodriguez: Portraits (1994 , Art of Life): Pianist, originally from Cleveland, moved to New York in 1989 to study with Richie Beirach. Cut a 1994 album on Nine Winds; a couple more since then. This is an old/early session, solo. A little slow, thoughtful, in very rich sound. Not bad if you like that sort of thing. B
The Thing: Now and Forever (2000-05 , Smalltown Superjazz, 3CD+DVD): An acoustic jazz trio from Norway, badder than the Bad Plus in every sense of the word. Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten grew up in rock bands before venturing into free jazz not least because it was noisier and more abrasive. They're best known in the US for Ken Vandermark projects like School Days. The third wheel is Mats Gustafsson, who early on invited Vandermark to gig with his Aaly Trio, and later joined him and Peter Brötzmann in Sonore. He plays tenor sax when he wants to rip at alto speeds, but these days mostly blows heavy metal baritone. Gustafsson comes from the snorting beasts school of post-Ayler sax -- chances are you either love him or hate him. The group name comes from a song by Scandinavian folk hero Don Cherry. Their first (and best) album is all Cherry, except for a couple of short improvs. It's included here along with a follow-up made with Joe McPhee mostly playing pocket trumpet, adding a contrasting tone and a more human touch. The third disc here is a DVD of the group playing an outdoor concert at Øya in Sweden, with Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore joining in for one non-song -- really just a noise rant. Key thing to watch here is Flaten doing everything to his bass but chewing it up and gargling. Over time, the Cherry repertoire gives way to rock tunes -- PJ Harvey, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs: it helps a lot to start with a beat before you rip it to shreds. But they're just as likely to start with nothing, as on the previously unreleased single-piece fourth disc, something called "Gluttony" because it's meant to gross you out. B+(**)
Anthony Braxton/Kyle Brenders: Toronto (Duets) 2007 (2007 , Barnyard, 2CD): Two discs, two compositions; two reed players -- Braxton plays sopranino, soprano, and alto sax; Brenders clarinet, soprano and tenor sax -- tracking each other closely, with occasional give-and-take, slightly more so on "Composition 356" (the second disc). Not much dissonance, nor much range or color -- the soprano/sopranino dominate, but don't squeak much. Little things count. B+(**)
Martin & Haynes: Freedman (2008, Barnyard): Drummer Jean Martin, credited here with "suitcase." Guitarist Justin Haynes, credited here with ukulele. Title references Myk Freedman, a Canadian lap steel player who wrote (almost) all of the 17 songs here -- titles lke "Zombies Love Dancin' to This Number," "My Technical Difficulties Led to Rhythmical Complexities," and "Where the Tulips Blow in My Imaginary Orchestra." One of those ideas that never amounts to much: hard to be John Fahey on a ukulele, or Rashied Ali on a suitcase. Still, it eventually settles into enough of a vibe to show that the idea wasn't totally crocked. B
Meryl Romer: So Sure (2008 , Lady Pearl Music): Singer, based in Boulder, CO; b. 1951, started her jazz career in 2002, and dedicates this album "to all those who have waited long enough." Took it seriously when she started, studying with Casey Collins (producer here, and co-author with Eric Moon of three originals) and Erik Deutsch (pianist here, arranger), and sought out further pointers from Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. Attractive voice, best on songs with a little wit like "Lady Is a Tramp" and "Big Spender," and her "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" is touching. Band fits well. Hard not to root for her. B+(**)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.
Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:
Sunday, March 29. 2009
Ahmed Rashid: Descent Into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008, Viking)
I checked Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos out from the library back in August, collected a large number of quotes. I probably meant to write more -- intro, comments, etc., but all those ambitions got wiped out. In a nutshell, it's the single most important book to come out on Afghanistan and Pakistan since Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, which covered US sponsorship of the Afghani jihad up to 9/11, and Rashid's own Taliban, again ending before 9/11. (I've also read Tariq Ali's The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, which has more insights to offer, especially on the Benazir Bhutto assassination -- that book page is forthcoming.)
Since I collected these quotes, Obama became president and started shifting US troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, putting even more pressure on the fragile fracture lines in the region. I don't pretend to understand Obama's thinking there. Indeed, recent administration announcements of their goals read like so much gibberish to me. That should become more clear when we see what they do. Meanwhile, everyone should take a closer look at the history. It's a cautionary experience.
Go to the book page for more quotes.
Paul Krugman: The Market Mystique. Geithner dropped Obama's widely-panned toxic assets plan off on Monday. Watching Lawrence Summers defend it at least gave me some idea why they thought it worthwhile. Krugman appeared on PBS later in the news show and mostly looked glum, without having a lot to say. This column is, I think, the explanation he was looking for. The magical utility (or as Krugman puts it: mystique) of markets is one of the great memes of the last 20-30 years: an idea so widely accepted some people think they can pass any madcap scheme off if they can call it a market. The worst case scenario occurred when Douglas Feith tried to create a futures market for terrorist attacks so he could feed the "wisdom of the markets" into DOD intelligence gathering. Faring much better is the idea of "cap and trade" pollution markets -- they at least represent a step forward in putting some skin on externalities that hitherto only the public paid for, and that in uncertain terms. They also are less disruptive to industries than heavy-handed regulation, so offer a compromise needed to make some progress on major problems. However, that doesn't mean that anything can be turned into a market, let alone a problem that a market can solve. The toxic assets market has several problems built right in. The first is that the real market for such assets exists but has collapsed: there is so much supply and so little demand that there is no trading, hence no more market. Obama's people think (or hope) all they have to do is inject some money to get that market going again, but that's kind of like driving on a flat tire: you may get a little temporary relief pumping it up, but that doesn't solve the leak, and if the leak is big enough -- and I'd argue that if you can't get banks to buy bad assets they have to be really bad -- it won't even work in the short term. But even if pumping the market up with government money got some trading going, the immediate effect would be to distort the market. Obama's people think that once the market gets moving it will give us more accurate prices for assets, but artificially pumping money into the market guarantees inaccurate prices.
But the problem neither starts nor stops there. Obama's people think that if they can get asset markets up to looking like they're working that will get people to thinking the economy's recovering, and that a little psychological boost is just what the economy needs to get moving. It may be that Keynes is the inspiration here: his famous comment that the Great Depression was just suffering from "magneto trouble" -- i.e., not enough demand to get what was otherwise a pretty sound economy humming again. I have my doubts about the overall economy -- a subject big enough for many future posts -- but it also doesn't look like the Obama plan will be much of a test. One thing about markets is that when you start one you lose control of it: the good thing is that it brings lots of independent actors into play, who think of things that central planners cannot possibly think of; the bad thing is that the thing they are best at thinking up is how to scam the system. As Krugman points out, the finance industry essentially doubled from 4 to 8% of GDP from 1980 to the present. As we now know, they did this mostly by scamming everyone. The Obama plan will throw a lot of money at investors, who will use it for anything they can get away with, regardless of whether it impacts the present crisis. It would be much easier just to pick out the few big zombie banks, wipe out their equity, write down their losses, bust them up and put smaller but viable banks back on the market. But Obama's people are stuck in this mental rut: markets good, government regulators bad, public interest irrelevant.
To give you an idea of the last point, virtually all of Obama's leftist critics are happy to return the scrubbed up banks to the private sector. But it seems to me that one can make a real good case that banks should be reorganized, perhaps as a mix of public institutions and private non-profits. This has actually been done in the past in the US; e.g., when the government created Fannie Mae to promote home ownership. When Fannie Mae went private, it didn't get more efficient; it just got more crooked. (There are dozens or hundreds of similar examples; e.g., in health care, where 30+ years ago most hospitals and Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance plans were non-profit.) One lesson we should have learned by now is that banking is too important to be left to bankers. It would be a short step to building real policies around that insight, were it not for the market madness rut so many of our brains are stuck in.
Wednesday, March 25. 2009
Sometime in the last six months I started forgetting to remember to post announcements of my copious book notes. Just looked at the master file and there is quite a bit in the pending column. I'll start kicking these out over the next week -- maybe even gang a few up. In terms of its current relevance, the obvious place to start is Charles Morris's slender little guide to what was when he was writing it starting to happen in the economy. Little that has transpired since then has rendered his book obsolete -- the biggest change is that he tacked another trillion bucks onto the bill.
This is a short book that was started as various events in 2007 revealed various problems in the financial sector, especially due to the collapse of the real estate bubble and the discovery of rampant subprime mortgage risks. The book covers events into late 2007, and was rushed out in March 2008. Since then, the bad news keeps coming: the Bear Stearns bailout, the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac problems. There is still debate on whether we're in a recession, but it is very technical -- the Fed has been very proactive in fighting the financial breakdown. Not covered here is the run-up in oil prices and the resulting inflationary pressures. There has been some talk of the return of 1970s "stagflation" -- one thing the two periods have in common is that inflation is to a large extent the reflection of a significantly weakened dollar, which is one (though by no means the only) cause of escalating oil prices.
One thing Morris is very good at is explaining the financial "innovations" that led to the crisis, especially collateralized debt vehicles (CMO, CLO, CDO) and their tranching to suit the risk appetites of investors. He also has some novel ideas about macrohistory, especially the role of demographics in the recent bust and that of the 1970s which undermined the New Deal-to-Great Society liberal era.
PS: Since I originally wrote these notes, Morris's book has been reissued in paperback, the title changed to: The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash (paperback, 2009, Public Affairs). Most likely he's still being too conservative, but the title change at least keeps up with the trendline. The first draft of the exercise by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes to calculate the true cost of the Iraq war settled on the then-outlandish trillion dollar mark. By the time they checked their math and published the work in book form, it came out as The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. I wouldn't be surprised if Morris's subject adds up to five trillion or so. In any case, we're getting used to dealing in numbers that were unheard of even ten years ago. I'm old enough to remember Sen. Everett Dirksen quipping, "a billions dollars here, a billion dollars there, pretty soon you're talking real money."
All the quotes that follow come from the original edition.
Tuesday, March 24. 2009
Philip Weiss: 'Why do you single out Israel?' The latest of several posts on what Weiss calls the "Dershowitzian question," with various answers by readers. Despite the volume I've written on it lately, it's not something I'm inclined to get into. I don't have any immediate stake in the issue, and don't have any strongly held views on how it should be settled. I've never claimed to be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. I believe that all people should be able to peacefully coexist, and that the key to this is mutual respect, which starts with equal rights. Anyone who believes that and has even a bare understanding of the history will realize that Israel has gravely offended that principle, and not just in their frequent and spectacular military operations but in their everyday law and administration. So the simplest answer to the question is that what Israel does as a matter of government policy violates my most deeply held beliefs on how people should behave.
Still, the art of the question is that is is relative. It glosses over the question of whether what Israel does is wrong and asks why of all the wrongs in the world Israel is the one you single out. One thing that makes Dershowitz an effective lawyer is that his questions are meant to draw out answers that build his case. The big thing about Israel is that it is a Jewish state, and we have been conditioned to think that any outside focus on Jews is antisemitic. Therefore focusing on Israel's wrongs, as opposed to anyone else's wrongs, is most likely antisemitism, with all that implies. The fallacy here is immediately clear if you reverse the logic: Dershowitz is really arguing that Jews should be immune from judgment, no matter what they do, because doing so puts one on the slippery slope to the Holocaust.
Such arguments are patently ridiculous and worse, not least because by discriminating for Jews they are inviting others to discriminate against Jews. But another weak link in the chain of reasoning is the equation of Israel with all Jews. The fact is that most Jews do not live in Israel, and Jews outside of Israel are very different from Jews inside Israel. For instance, at least in the US, most Jews have a strong record working for equal rights and mutual respect -- precisely the things that I believe in, and precisely the things that Israel violates day in and day out. That difference is a problem: clearly it cannot be because of anything intrinsic in being Jewish. It must be something different between the two environments: who holds power, what are the limits on that power, what is the legacy of conflict.
I think you can break the Dershowitz question down to two pieces: 1) why focus on Israel's conflicts as opposed to any other conflicts in the world? 2) why focus on Israel as opposed to other parties conflicting with Israel? The answer to the second question is really quite simple: it is because Israel, and Israel alone, holds effective power to change or resolve the conflict. Curiously, this part is the one that partisans of Israel like to focus on: they constantly point to suicide bombers, rocket attacks, the abduction of Gilad Shalit, odd planks in old documents "denying Israel's right to exist" -- each assertion implicitly insinuating that dismantling the discriminatory Jewish state of Israel would doom the Jewish population to extermination. This plays on the indisputable fact that many things that Palestinians have done in trying to stand up for their rights have been deplorable. It ignores the fact that such things never made any difference -- they just gave Israel something to harp about.
But the real power equation has long been tilted decisively to Israel's side. Palestinians can't set up checkpoints for Israelis, can't restrict Israeli travel, can't detain Israelis with no charges, can't require building permits and demolish homes, can't direct Israel's airspace, can't set up blockades to prohibit food from getting into Israel. You won't see any Palestinian tanks breaking through borders, or Palestinian F-16s assassinating Israeli notables. Israel could do simple things like extending legal rights with the stroke of a pen; no Palestinian could do any such thing. Israelis would like you to believe that Palestinian anti-semitism is DNA -- that Palestinians oppose Israeli settlers not because of the loss of political and economic rights, nor because of the fetish Israel inherited from the British for collective punishment, but simply because Israelis are Jews. It's a colossal conceit, but really nobody believes it: if Israel did believe it, they could fix the problem simply by dispensing with all of the injustices. If they were right, that wouldn't solve anti-Israeli violence, but it would strip the violent Palestinians of every shred of sympathy in the world.
The reasons for focusing on Israel's conflicts instead of some other conflicts are more numerous and less compelling. The fact is that there are other conflicts that are also of significant importance. My personal lists includes the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing tension between Pakistan and India. Behind them are many other candidates, mostly out of mind because they are out of sight, and therefore less prone to generate comment. But for reasons I'll list below, the sheer human toll of something like the Congo wars concerns me less than the relatively paltry body count chalked up by Israel; likewise the civil rights routinely violated by nations like China and Saudi Arabia. The reasons I want to focus on are, in no particular order:
There may be more reasons, like the intrinsic interest of the history, or the peculiar complexities of the psychologies involved, that make this an intriguing puzzle. On the other hand, there is at least one negative reason for not getting worked up about many other conflicts (e.g., the rights of Buddhists and Muslims in China; the sad isolation of Myanmar; the clerical cloistering of Iran), which is the flip-side of my first point above: I want to see as little intervention of the US in other countries' affairs as possible, not just because we do a bad job of it but because we (and the world) need to break our bad habits. Every time a liberal interventionist reaches for a gun any pretense of humanitarianism goes out the window. So the bottom line is that we choose which issues to struggle for, and let other worthy issues go to other concerned people, bless them.
Oh, one more reason:
So add practicality to the list of principles. We have so many problems these days, it would be nice to get this one behind us. Unforunately, that means offending some hypersensitive Israelis and their American champions, because they don't see that they've become the problem. They could also become the solution, once they see the problem. On some level, that's happening, which is part of what keeps spooking the Israeli right.
Monday, March 23. 2009
Upgrading the old software packages seems like a no brainer, but will take some brains given how far the packages have diverged. I'll do that when I find time, including some breathing room to repair whatever breaks along the way. Those things are what Rumsfeld called "known unknowns." What I'm most interested in comments on are the "unknown unknowns." For instance, I've seen a Google thing called Burn Feed, which offers some services that may or may not be useful, like the option to sign up for email digests of the blog. It also promises to make my RDF feeds more effective. One thing I wonder about is whether anyone uses the RDF currently available, or for that matter whether it works -- if not, does that have anything to do with what I take to be lack of interest in the site? Another thing I see but don't know anything about is hooks into things like Digg and Del.icio.us. Since I don't use them I tend to group them into things I don't want to get into, like MySpace and Facebook. Am I missing anything I should actually hook up to?
Finally, the most technically demanding question concerns sendmail. I have a dedicated server (and as such can virtual host websites), but it is swamped in mail trash, mostly "MAILER-DAEMON" messages from my own machine. (Just checked, found, and deleted 1883 such messages, accumulated since Mar. 4, so figure about 100 per day.) I'm at a complete loss to fix this problem, which has in turn kept me from setting up useful mail lists. I'm pretty good at Unix/Linux systems in general, but something about mail simply addles my brain. Any ideas/help there would be much appreciated.
Any lessons I pick up here could conceivably be worked into other websites I work on; e.g. Robert Christgau.
Went to bed last night thinking I really screwed up this week: that I spent way too much time on computer, where I filed a blog post each day, and listening to too much jazz (see below). Thought I should declare a formal hiatus until I got my kitchen more/less done. Got up this morning, and for the first time thought it looks more/less done. Lots of little things to do, but the construction is pretty much all in place. A lot of stuff is painted, and the "to do" list is getting short. So I don't know what I'll do this coming week: probably a little bit of both. The raw count will certainly go down, if only because the electricians are getting back from vacation to finish the upstairs wiring, and that will take some of my time.
Should be wrapping the column up at this time, but haven't changed gears yet. Did revisit a couple of albums just because I thought they'd be easier. Here's what I listened to this week:
Will Sellenraad: Balance (2007 , Beeswax): Guitarist, from New York. Third album since 2000. Haven't heard the first two, but they seem to have a soul jazz focus. This quartet is advanced bop, with drum master Victor Lewis managing the beat, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa pushing a relentless groove, the guitarist drawing that out into long postbop lines, and alto saxophonist Abraham Burton building on all that. I've always been real impressed with Burton, and he's in his usual fine form here. B+(***)
Fareed Haque + the Flat Earth Ensemble: Flat Planet (2009, Owl Studios): Guitarist, b. 1963, don't know where but father is Pakistani, mother Chilean; lived in both parents' countries, plus Spain, France, Iran, and US, studying at North Texas State and Northwestern. Seventh album since 1988. Sounds like south Indian folk grooves -- most of the guests come from that direction -- spiced up with a bit of fusion. Wonder whether he got the group/title concept from Thomas Friedman. It certainly doesn't make sense in such well rounded, universally appealing music. B+(**)
Bipolar: Euphrates, Me Jane (2009, CDBaby): Quintet (swapping drummers), led by trumpeter Jed Feuer: b. 1948, grew up in Los Angeles, played piano early on, grounded in classical music, mostly has soundtrack work on his resume, is working on an opera based on Slaughterhouse Five. Wrote 4 of 14 songs here, with one more from pianist Craig Swanson. Rest are arrangements (one Swanson, rest Feuer) of classics (Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy, Faure) and a couple of pop songs (Bill Withers, Beatles, one from the Frank Sinatra songbook). Pretty light and sprightly, almost camp. Aside from the Faure, none of the classical pieces trigger my kneejerk reaction, and the Beatles' "And I Love Her" is rather pretty, despite the flute. B [May 5]
Linda Presgrave: Inspiration (2008 , Metropolitan): Pianist, b. 1951, worked in St. Louis until 1998 when she moved to New York and started recording -- this is her third album since 2000. Piano trio with Harvie S on bass, Allison Miller on drums, plus extra sax on 5 of 10 cuts -- 4 with Stan Chovnick on soprano, 2 with Todd Herbert on tenor (1 of those with both). Mainstream postbop, mostly upbeat, with impressive command. Herbert makes the most of his time. B+(**)
Mark Masters Ensemble: Farewell Walter Dewey Redman (2006 , Capri): Big band arranger, b. 1957, started playing trumpet, learned his craft under Stan Kenton. Eighth album since 1984 -- others include Jimmy Knepper Songbook, The Clifford Brown Project, and Porgy and Bess: Redefined. This one is dedicated to the late Dewey Redman, mostly featuring his songs, with one from Masters, two from the group, and "My One and Only Love." Arrangements are crisp and detailed, as you'd expect, but the main point is the solo space, and what makes it work is that Oliver Lake is the main focal point. B+(**)
Charles Tolliver Big Band: Emperor March (2008 , Half Note): Trumpeter, emerged on the avant-garde (or maybe just the far postbop fringe) in the late 1960s, but faded into obscurity in the 1980s, making a minor comeback on the coattails of Andrew Hill's fin de millennium resurgence. I've long admired his 1969 album The Ringer, and hoped to hear more. He finally came back big time in 2007 with a big band album jointly released by Mosaic and Blue Note. I thought it was loud and sloppy, and tagged it as a dud. This live shot with pretty much the same group is also loud, but what seemed sloppy then seems more like rough and tough now. Tenor saxmen Billy Harper and Marcus Strickland stand out among the cast. Not sure what I really think yet, so I'll keep it open. [B+(**)]
Teddy Charles: Dances With Bulls (2008 , Smalls): Vibraphonist, b. 1928 (Theodore Charles Cohen); got his first break on piano playing for Coleman Hawkins as an emergency replacement for Thelonious Monk; cut a pile of records 1951-63, five called New Directions, another the legendary Tentet; then retired, moving to the Caribbean, opening up a sailing business; eventually returned to New York, where he still sails. This is his first studio album since: sextet, with Chris Byars on alto sax/flute, John Mosca on trombone, Harold Danko on piano, Ari Roland on bass, Stefan Schatz on drums. One Mingus tune -- Charles' resume includes Jazz Workshop work with Mingus -- the rest originals. The vibes can swing, bop, or just tinkle, and are most mesmerizing at high speed. The young horns are a little slick, happy to be here. Danko is one of those well-regarded pianists I've been meaning to get to but still have no feel for. B+(**)
Israel: Naranjas Sobre la Nieve (2007 , Sunnyside): Been blogging about Israel the country today, which isn't really responsible for my annoyance with Israel Fernández the flamenco singer: the fact is the booklet contents are buried in a PDF file on the CD, inaccessible while I'm playing it, and the website is contentless without the acursed Flash plugin. Also my filing system has turned into a large dump heap, so finding the hype sheet is beyond my patience. On the other hand, if I liked anything about the record I might find some patience. Eighteen years old. Pictured at the piano on the front cover, but not exactly playing it, and I don't hear much of it on the album. Can't sing for shit, which may be a flamenco trademark -- not all that different from El Cigala, except that the latter makes an impression. Has a pretty good guitarist, at least in terms of flamenco-ish dramaturgy. C+
Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway: A Duet of One: Live at the Bakery (2005 , IPO): Clarinet and piano, respectively; veterans who shouldn't need an introduction but probably do. Title suggests they go beyond intimacy to find some sort of unity. Sometimes, but most of the time one or the other is soloing, at a comfortable pace, on well worn standards. Has its moments, and Kellaway is one of the more dependable solo pianists around. B+(*)
Brothers of the Southland (2009, Zoho Roots): Southern rock demi-supergroup, produced by D Scott Miller, released on the blues subsidiary of a jazz label that gives me good service. Back cover sez the album showcases "the great Southern Rock singers Bo Dice (American Idol 2005), Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie, Jeff Beck, Hank Williams Jr.) and Henry Paul (Outlaws, Blackhawk) with Dan Toler (Allman Brothers Band, Dickie Betts), Jay Boy Adams (ZZ Top, The Band), Steve Grisham (The Outlaws, Gretchen Wilson, Charlie Daniels), Mike Brignardello (Faith Hill, Dolly Parton) and Steve Gorman (Black Crowes, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, John Corbett)." The only one of those names that registers in my mental rolodex is Hall, who has a previous Zoho Roots album, although I remember the Outlaws -- the target of one of the high points of my early rockcrit career (cf. Let's String Up the Outlaws). Still, I can't say that Faith Hill's bassist or a trip to American Idol is much to brag about. Nor is the album, although it's competent and derivative enough the Outlaws would have been proud to put their logo on it. Hall's sax is a plus, and Adams' emulation of the guitar greats is almost perfect. B [June 9]
Kendra Shank Quartet: Mosaic (2008 , Challenge): Sextet, actually: saxophonist Billy Drewes and guitarist Ben Monder get "feat." credit on front cover. Shank is a singer, b. 1958, has five albums since 1992, most recently an Abbey Lincoln tribute. Quartet includes Frank Kimbrough on piano, Dean Johnson on bass, and Tony Moreno on drums. Album gives you a sense of how difficult it is to do new and interesting things in the generally retro jazz vocal niche, especially for someone who doesn't write much and doesn't want to be cast as a cabaret singer. She taps Carole King for the intro, juxtaposes songs like "Laughing at Life" and "Smile," works in some Rumi poems, grabs scattered lyrics to Bill Evans and Cedar Walton. Clear, clean voice; masterful control, with the restraint not to bury herself in scat; a band that fits tightly without being obtrusive. Nicely done, but nothing here I find myself caring about -- not even "All of You." B
Radam Schwartz: Blues Citizens (2006 , Savant): Hammond B-3 player, from New York, third album since 1995's Organ-ized (on Savant-predecessor Muse). Mostly blues licks, fleshed out with two saxophones (Bill Saxton on tenor, Bruce Williams on alto), guitar, and drums. Someone named Kice contributes a jiveass money sermon on "Pay Up." B+(*)
Scott Reeves Quintet: Shape Shifter: Live at Cecil's (2008 , Miles High): Trombonist, has taught since 1976, currently at City College of New York and Juilliard, not to be confused with the actor and sometime country singer of the same name. Plays alto flugelhorn and alto valve trombone here, with Rich Perry on tenor sax, Jim Ridl on piano, Mike McGuirk on bass, and Andy Watson on drums. Cecil's Jazz Club is in West Orange, NJ; evidently named for drummer Cecil Brooks III. Postbop, I guess. Reeves' brass shadings are interesting, and Perry and Ridl provide strong support. B+(*)
Antti Sarpila Quartet: We'd Like New York . . . in June! (2008 , Arbors): Not sure what business anyone from Finland has complaining about the winters in New York. The other three in this "truly international quartet" have been sighted frequently in each others' company lately: pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Nicki Parrott, and drummer Ed Metz Jr. They are masters of light swing, perfectly adequate backup for any Bob Wilber protégé. Sarpila plays clarinet, soprano sax, and tenor sax -- the latter a pleasant surprise. Draws some on Chopin, but this group can swing anything. B+(**)
Dave Bennett: Celebrates 100 Years of Benny (2006-08 , Arbors): Clarinettist, b. 1984 in Michigan, all of 2 years old when Benny Goodman died, has two previous albums: Dave Bennett's Salute to Benny Goodman and Remembering Benny -- not sure if that's a niche or just a rut. This album is pieced together from three groups: a sextet that opens up on "I Got Rhythm" and "Stompin' at the Savoy"; a trio with Dick Hyman and Ed Metz Jr; another, quieter, trio with Bucky Pizzarelli and Jerry Bruno. Hyman and Pizzarelli get special guest billing, but both seem slightly out of character -- Hyman too heavy, Pizzarelli too light. The shifts between the groups confuse the flow. Did enjoy the closer, "Sing Sing Sing," natch, even if Metz is a bantamweight compared to Krupa, who still owns the song. B
Jon Hassell: Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (2008 , ECM): But did it really happen if no one was conscious enough to notice? Violin, guitar, bass, keyb, "live sampling" (Jan Bang, Dino J.A. Deane), some cuts have drums credits (not that I recall any), with a light schmear of trumpet, all toned down and slowed down, even past Hassell's usual standards of fourth world ambience. B-
Nicole Herzog Septet: Time Will Tell (2007 , TCB): Feat. Adrian Mears, trombonist, who wrote 3 of 8 pieces and is credited with arrangements. Herzog sings. B. 1983, Winterthur, Switzerland (near Zurich). Website in German only, but songs are in English and Portuguese (Jobim's "Agua de Beber"; she also does "One Note Samba"). First album, I think -- her website also refers to The Latin Side of Life, but I haven't figured out what that is. Mears is from Australia -- plays didgeridoo as well as trombone. He moved to Munich in 1992, his credits including a stretch with Vienna Art Orchestra. With two saxes, trumpet and trombone, the septet has a rich brassy sound, interesting in its own right. Less impressed by the singer, and the songs: obvious and unnecessary -- two Jobims, "The Man I Love," "Afro Blue," Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell." Mears' songs at least don't beg comparison, but "While My Baby Sleeps" is rather awkward. Still, he does have some talent for arranging the brass, and the rhythm section swings. B
Derrick Gardner & the Jazz Prophets + 2: Echoes of Ethnicity (2009, Owl Studios): Loud brass band, led by the trumpeter and his trombonist brother Vincent, the original sextet fortified with two extra saxophonists in Brad Leali and Jason Marshall, plus uncounted "disciples" on bass and percussion. Not bad when you just get one horn -- e.g., Vincent Gardner's trombone -- riffing over Afro-Cuban riddim, but the massed horns really rub me the wrong way, and it gets worse when they slow down. Don't have a technical explanation, so I'll just blame it on postbop, or too much ambition, or the misjudgments of euphoria. First album I've seen offering "very special thanks" to "Barack H. Obama for his inspiration and symbolism of hope for all of humanity." Easy to trip up on that phrase, "symbolism of hope." C+
Matt Lavelle and Morcilla: The Manifestation Drama (2008 , KMB Jazz): Starts off with an ugly, arresting bass clarinet riff, followed by fractured piano and conga, with Lavelle soon switching back to trumpet (or more likely flugelhorn). It's a thrilling piece -- "God Love Sex" is the title -- but when he's done he's off to something else. Not all of the ugly turns sublime, and not all of the pieces to ugly. There's some simple bass/trumpet stuff that's haunting, and François Grillot's bass solo is a gem. Pianist Chris Forbes does a crashingly good Cecil Taylor bit, but can comp gently as well. Andre Martinez's congas give the record a tribal feel. Lavelle has been studying with Ornette Coleman, who's pushing him to find his own sound grammar. Not sure what that means. Feels like a work in progress. B+(***)
Bob Sneider & Joe Locke [Film Noir Project]: Nocturne for Ava (2007 , Origin): Attribution parsing problems here: spine says "Bob Sneider & Joe Locke"; front cover has Sneider and Locke in relatively bright type, "Film Noir Project" in smaller and more obscure type. Locke is one of the 3-4 best known vibes players around. Sneider is less well known: a guitarist, teaches at Eastman School of Music in Rochester (Locke's home town), has 4 previous albums since 2001, including a Film Noir Project called Fallen Angel. I can't think of any recent movie music albums I've liked, but this one is quite nice, with contributions by John Sneider on trumpet, Grant Stewart on tenor sax, and Paul Hofmann on piano, plus Luisito Quintero's extra percussion on top of bass (Martin Wind) and drums (Tim Horner). Subtle. Will keep it open and see what develops. [B+(***)]
Bill Wimmer: Project Omaha (2008 , Wimjazz): Saxophonist, from Lincoln, NE. Reportedly put this group together using musicians from Omaha, although two -- guitarist Dave Stryker and drummer Victor Lewis -- are known far and wide. Covers, ranging from Rogers and Hart to Tony Williams with the obligatory Jobim and one from Stryker. Rhythm section likes latin. Keyboardist Tony Gulizia likes to sing, and does a decent job with "I Thought About You" and "Cherry Red." B+(*) [Apr. 7]
Shawn Maxwell: Originals II (2008 , Dangerous Curve): Also saxophonist (also flute and clarinet), b. 1976, from Aurora, IL. Second album, debut was called Originals. Leads a quartet with piano/keyboards, bass, drums. Postbop, given to high wails and fast runs on alto sax; impressive enough, but nothing much catches my ear. On the other hand, his flute feature ("Year Three") is dreadful, and the clarinet isn't much better. Adds guest guitar and trombone on one track each. The latter, by Johanna Mahmud on "Working Dog," is the best thing here. B-
Jim McAuley: The Ultimate Frog (2002-07 , Drip Audio, 2CD): Skipped this over many times, not feeling up to a double CD, and not realizing who was on this other than the to-me-unknown guitarist. The one that should have done the trick for me was the late violinist Leroy Jenkins. Best known for his 1970s string trio Revolutionary Ensemble, Jenkins put violin onto the avant-jazz map almost single-handedly -- Billy Bang came later, and now there are a dozen or so good jazz violinists, notably including Jesse Zubot, who I mention because he runs the label that released this. McAuley turns out to be an enigmatic character, b. 1946 on a farm in Kansas, based in Los Angeles, with a previous record on Nine Winds from 2005 and a credit in Acoustic Guitar Trio, a 2001 album with Nels Cline and Rod Poole on Derek Bailey's Incus label. Reviewers tend to liken him to Bailey, which strikes me as convergence -- all solo avant guitarists are inevitably bound to overlap -- but then I can't claim to know or understand much about Bailey. In an interview I found, McAuley talks about John Fahey, which make sense, and recounts playing with John Carter and Horace Tapscott in LA, which also fits. The two discs include 23 duets plus a solo, "For Rod Poole." Seven duets with Jenkins date from 2002, the names just "Improvisation" with a number. They are slight, but the violin is bracing, the guitar gently picking around the edges. The other duos -- with guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Ken Filiano, and percussionist Alex Cline -- date from 2006-07, fleshing out the album refocusing it on the guitarist. Haven't really sorted out the guitarists, but the drum counterpoint is especially vivid, and Filiano is always invaluable. I almost never fall for abstract, minimalist, avant guitar, but there always seems to be an exception to every rule, and this is it. A-
Bill Henderson: Beautiful Memory: Bill Henderson Live at the Vic (2007 , Ahuh): Live appearance, on the occasion of Henderson's 81st birthday. He was one of the major male jazz singers of the 1950s, coming in just after the vocalese fad. Doesn't do much of that now: just his generation's version of what Louis Armstrong used to call the "good ole good 'uns" -- "You Are My Sunshine," "Old Black Magic," "Song Is You" -- plus an unnecessary Elton John song. I never was a fan, so can't credit much sentimental value. B
Sound Assembly: Edge of the Mind (2005 , Beauport Jazz): Big band, led by David Schumacher and JC Sanford, who split composing/conducting duties. Neither play here, but elsewhere Schumacher plays sax and Sanford trombone. Both appear to be relatively young for this sort of thing, with careers starting in the mid-1990s; evidently they met at New England Conservatory, where both studied under George Russell. Band includes a few names I recognize: Dan Willis (alto sax), Alan Ferber (trombone), Deanna Witkowski (piano), John Hollenbeck (drums), Kate McGarry (voice, one song). Impressively complex, but not much fun. B+(*)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Hiromi's Sonicbloom: Beyond Standard (2008, Telarc): Sort of an American EST, less original -- that would be Bad Plus -- but a healthy mix of popular ambition and chops. Standards, aside from one remake of one of her own -- can't bedrudge her that -- and an unfamiliar Japanese title that you'll recognize as "Sukiyaki" (assuming you were conscious in the 1960s). Best taken with a dash of soy sauce: "My Favorite Things" and "Caravan" are amusing, and she runs through "I Got Rhythm" at record pace. Dave Fiuczynski's guitar is featured. B+(**)
Billy Harper: Blueprints of Jazz, Vol. 2 (2006 , Talking House): Amiri Baraka talks his way through the first two pieces, then returns at the end with another story of Africa, the blues people, and the evolution of the music. Worth listening to, or even studying if you're not hip to the story. Harper vamps memorably along the way, then blasts open when he gets the chance -- throw in Keyon Harold's trumpet and Charles McNeal's alto sax and this sounds like a big band even though the musician count is six or seven (two bassists, not on all the tracks together). Harper sounds great on tenor sax; OK singing "Amazing Grace." Probably not the best place to hear him. B+(**)
Fernando Huergo: Provinciano (2006 , Sunnyside): Argentine bassist swings both ways, making first rate postbop with Andrew Rathbun's sax and Mike Pohjola's piano leading the way, plus some curious tango featuring Yulia Musayelyan's flute and Franco Pinna's drums. B+(*)
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.
Sunday, March 22. 2009
John Cole: The Geithner Plan. Sums it up pretty succinctly:
James K Galbraith: No Return to Normal. Where the above notes are quick reactions to recently published leaks in Tim Geithner's to-be-announced-next-week plan, this is a long, very thoughtful article, which understands the plan in almost exactly the same terms. The one article to read, even if you're only reading one. Nearly every paragraph is quotable. I singled out the following one because I haven't seen it made so succinctly -- for proof, just look at last week's AIG bonus brouhaha, an example of just this looting.
The points about social security and medicare are also well taken. I hadn't really thought of them as an asset, but if you take them away you're left with the requirement to save enough to cover your income and health care cost shortfalls from retirement until you die. The number of people who can do that in today's job market is vanishingly small. On the other hand, expanding those benefits takes a lot of the pressure off to save for old age. You might be tempted to think of that as a moral lapse, but really it isn't. It's a burden, especially given the inherent uncertainty in future investment value. Few people, even a couple of years ago, could have anticipated the drops in their retirement savings that have become commonplace -- and even if they had anticipated it, fewer still could have done anything about it. The idea of saving for old age is one of those things that's nice in normal times for individuals to do, but is impossible across the whole of society. This is, quite simply, because retirement expenses will depend on future costs, not on present savings. About the best you can do is pay-as-you-go, and if future wage earners are too cheap to support their elders, that would speak very poorly of their sense of civilization.
Matt Taibbi: The Big Takeover. The AIG story, minus outrage over the bonuses that dominated news last week -- bet they now wished they'd scheduled it a week or two later. So add your own outrage. Plenty of fuel for it here. Taibbi does a reasonably good job of explaining credit default swaps and all that, but his real contribution is to illustrate how befuddled everyone involved is over the whole affair, not least by pointing out how little change Obama brought in by replacing Hank Paulson with Tim Geithner.
Michael Lewis: Mass Hysteria Over AIG Obscures Simple Truths. Another view of the AIG bonus brouhaha. He's right that most of AIG's employees had little to do with the disaster, but that's also been true of all the companies I've worked in that have gone belly up, and without exception the best of them went down with the ship (while many of the truly guilty parties bailed early, knowing what was going to happen). Even if AIG was contractually required to pay the bonuses -- in which case would they really be bonuses? -- if AIG was simply in bankruptcy those owed bonuses would have to line up in court like everyone else. Cleaner handling by the government would have made that clearer, but the feds remain confused on what they want to do with AIG. As for the "entire political system," at least the bonuses are something they can understand (or think they do). The rest of it, which is Lewis's major complaint, is mind-boggling, and nobody's risen to the challenge yet.
Saturday, March 21. 2009
Andrew Leonard: Real socialists know how to execute a stimulus. On China's new $600 billion economic stimulus program. Leonard quotes Keith Bradsher from the New York Times:
In other words, they're not just shovelling money; they're making strategic economic bets to better position the country for the long run. Just what the US should be doing, but while Obama seems to be thinking in that direction, his administration is dithering, watering down the stimulus with useless tax cuts, mostly because of political flack from an opposition party (and some ignorant fools in his own party) that would prefer dead to red. China isn't even the only example of a country where socialists do a better job of running a capitalist economy -- cf. France under Mitterand. Too bad socialists aren't much good at socialism.
Douglas Rushkoff: Let It Die. One reason socialists feel the need to save capitalism from itself is that they have a social conscience -- they don't like to see people hurt, and they recognize that in the collapse of capitalism, no matter how deserved, lots of ordinary people are going to get hurt. So to protect everyone else, they wind up saving the capitalists. (Of course, there was that bolshevik faction, but they didn't exactly set a good example.) Rushkoff, who wrote a book on Judaism I found interesting (Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism) tries to make out the case for tough love. In some sense he's write. Certainly it is true that most people only learn things the hard way. Also that there are some pretty fundamental things wrong with today's capitalism. Also that some sort of radical correction does seem in order -- he suggests that a 70% drop in the stock market and a 70% cull of the banking industry would go a long ways toward setting things right.
That much seems true, as does:
Rushkoff thinks that the banking collapse will open up alternatives to our current assumptions -- e.g., he mentions "community supported farmers" instead of corporate supermarkets. I doubt that will happen soon, but I also think the banking collapse is going to keep sinking deeper into the real economy, not so much because we need bankers and can't live without them as because I don't see resources for growth holding up as the most basic conceit of capitalism crashes into reality.
Of course, some socialism would soften the crash -- indeed, most leftists are preoccupied with saving the system. Most of the people cheering on the crash are on the right, where ignorance is bliss. Unfortunately, Obama is wedged in the middle: wishing to avoid the socialist tag, he's come up with a banking scheme to recapitalize banks by guaranteeing the losses of private investors. This notion that only the private sector can work is just pathetic when the private sector not only failed in the first place, but has to be bribed even to pretend to try again.
Free markets have a useful function in balancing inputs and outputs of a wide variety of products and services in normal times -- e.g., in times when credit is readily available -- but whenever you want something specific done as a matter of public policy, it's easier and usually much more efficient to just do it. Socialists understand this, which is why capitalism can't survive without them.
Friday, March 20. 2009
I'm way behind in compiling these brief notes on new/recent books, but more immediately I'm way behind in posting what I have compiled. My rule is to do 40 in a batch, plus starting this time I'll throw some paperback reissues of previously mentioned books in as a bonus. (Don't expect me to catch all of them.) I have about 100 in the file now, and just opened up a notebook compiled last fall in Detroit, so the list is growing.
Liaquat Ahamed: Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (2009, Penguin): Actually, a history featuring four bankers from the 1920s, leading up to the 1929 Crash and Depression, and how the central banks bungled the crisis. Still, this appears at a time when the sequel is being acted out. Even if the analogies aren't obvious, the penchant for arrogance and error is still all too evident. Most likely the spookiest part will be Germany, given what happened there.
George A Akerlof/Robert J Shiller: Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (2009, Princeton University Press): A look at how psychological factors impact economic decisions -- presumably a corrective to the ultra-rationalism most economists assume to simplify their equations. Title, I believe, comes from Keynes. Schiller previously wrote Irrational Exuberance, about the stock bubble (second edition in 2006), and The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened and What to Do About It.
Gar Alperovitz/Lew Daly: Unjust Deserts: How The Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back (2008, New Press): Been meaning to read Alperovitz's America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy for a long time, and now I'm even further behind. Daly wrote a short book, God and the Welfare State, on Bush's faith-based initiative. Not sure what their analysis is, but my own take is that the rich are mostly lucky beneficiaries of market imperfections -- unwanted inefficiencies. They may be impossible to eliminate, but basing a social system on their self-perpetuation is a formula for disaster.
Dean Baker: Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy (paperback, 2009, Polipoint Press): Short (170 pp) essay on the financial debacle, from one of the few critics who clearly saw it coming.
Russ Baker: Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put It in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America (2008, Bloomsbury Press): Not what you'd call timely: who, after all, wants to think, much less read 592 pages, about the Bushes anymore. Not sure what all is in here, but one big thread is that GHW Bush had worked for the CIA before he became director under Nixon, and that somehow links him to the JFK assassination.
Will Bunch: Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future (2009, Free Press): Has there ever been any US president more deliberately mythologized for political purposes? A shill who fronted the most corrupt administration in American history, turning the federal government into an incubator for the far-right fanatics who have since done even more damage to the republic. A necessary book, but unlikely that Bunch goes anywhere near far enough.
Jimmy Carter: We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work (2009, Simon & Schuster): Most likely another sane and sensible book on the conflict, giving Israel way too much credit while Carter has become the favorite whipping boy of the Dershowitz mob.
Daniel Cohen: Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society (2008, MIT Press): Short (108 pages). Cohen wrote one of the better globalization books I've read (Globalization and Its Enemies), plus another short big picture synopsis, Our Modern Times: The Nature of Capitalism in the Information Age. Sharp, balanced, able to get to the point.
Juan Cole: Engaging the Muslim World (2009, Palgrave Macmillan): Cole's long been the first person you check for news on Iraq and analysis thereof, so anything he has to say is likely to be of interest.
Carlo D'Este: Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 (2008, Harper): A lot of wars here, a lot to chew on, not obviously overblown even at 864 pages, but it does cut Churchill short, before he could get the Cold War off to its proper start, or goad the US into salvaging BP's bacon by staging a coup against the government of Iran in 1953 -- the start of a conflict that smolders even today. Indeed, it's hard to think of a war from the 1890s up to the decade after Churchill's death that he didn't have a substantial hand in, with the "troubles" in Ireland, the three Indo-Pakistani wars, and Israel's endless warmaking prominent among his legacies. I doubt that D'Este is anywhere near critical enough, or maybe even critical at all -- he previously wrote a book called Patton: A Genius for War. But no figure in the 20th century more deserves to be taken down a few notches, shown for the monster that he truly was.
Gregory Feifer: The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (2009, Harper Collins): Big surprise here is an American journalist writing an account of the Afghanistan war that is sympathetic to the Russians. That was taboo for many years, but the shoe's on the other foot now -- an indication of how far the US position has deteriorated. Still, what else can you do? Certainly not write a hagiography of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as Afghanistan's George Washington.
Dexter Filkins: The Forever War (2008, Knopf): By the New York Times' forever war correspondent, who never failed to swallow the government's propaganda whole. Now, he adds his own extensions and elaborations, a little self-fulfilling job security. Book has received extensive praise, including from a few critics of the war, so it may have some value in its details.
Paul Fitzgerald/Elizabeth Gould: Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story (paperback, 2009, City Lights): Journalists, not sure how deep they go into history, but there is plenty of recent travail to report in America's haphazard, half-assed occupation.
John Bellamy Foster/Fred Magdoff: The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (paperback, 2009, Monthly Review Press): Short (160 pp) Marxian analysis of how capitalism's tendencies toward stagnation led to the current crisis.
Lawrence Freedman: A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East (2008, Public Affairs): Big picture history of the US in the Middle East (640 pages), the sort of thing reviewers like to call "magisterial." Starts with Carter, so figure the muck up in Iran looms large.
Peter W Galbraith: Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies (2008, Simon & Schuster): A shrewd observer of the Iraq war, except for the one blind eye he turns toward the Kurds -- a group he advises on the side, and roots for coming and going, leading him to push for the break-up of Iraq into more/less independent sectarian states. He also has a background as a diplomat, which may give him a sense of "America's enemies" that isn't obvious to most Americans. Nonetheless, when he's clear of his entanglements he can be quite sharp.
Gordon M Goldstein: Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (2008, Times Books): Views Bundy's persistent role advancing the war somewhat tragically, which may be easier than for Walt Rostow. The fact is that the two of them were always on the front lines derailing any attempt to rethink the mess the US had gotten into. One lesson should concern the power that ideologically committed aparatchiks have to control or limit the agendas of the politicians who supposedly outrank them. (A similar book on Rostow appeared recently: David Milne: America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War.)
Richard N Haass/Martin S Indyk/et al: Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President (paperback, 2008, Brookings Institution Press): Papers from the Saban Center, the first two names being veteran diplomats, with Indyk in particular guilty of much of the imbalance that needs correction. (Indyk has his own disingenuous book out: Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East.)
Robert G Kaiser: So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government (2009, Knopf): Washington Post reporter, been around long enough he could write this book many times over. This take evidently focuses on one lobbyist, Gerald Cassidy, who started out in 1969 and got bigger and richer over the decades.
Rashid Khalidi: Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Hegemony in the Middle East (2009, Beacon Press): It almost goes without saying that the US approached the Middle East as much or more through the prism of its Cold War obsession with the Soviet threat as for any other reason -- oil and empathy for Israel two more obvious concerns. One reason the Cold War is worth reviewing at this time is that it was the policy concern least connected to reality, and most distorting of reality. Not sure how far Khalidi goes with this -- his specialty is Israel/Palestine and their Arab neighbours but Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are big pieces of the picture, and there are more little pieces.
Yasmin Khan: The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (paperback, 2008, Yale University Press): Relatively short (288 pp) history of one of the most traumatic events of the post-WWII era: responsible for a million deaths, 10-15 million exiles or displaced, three subsequent wars and countless lesser acts of violence, posing two nuclear-armed nations at each other's throats. Not to mention the stunning indifference of Britain to all the misery they caused. I'm tempted to pick this up, or Alex von Tunzelman's Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, or maybe Narendra Singh Sarila's The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition. Stanley Wolpert's Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire might also add something, but strikes me as far too sympathetic to the British.
Ben Kiernan: Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (paperback, 2009, Yale University Press): Big comparative history (756 pp), filling in a lot of prehistorical slaughter to the 20th century concept of genocide.
William Kleinknecht: The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America (2009, Nation Books): Another attempt to put Reagan back into focus, this time focusing on the Middle America Reagan was supposed to champion, and what his political legacy has done to them.
Daniel C Kurtzer/Scott B Lasensky: Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East (paperback, 2008, United States Institute of Peace Press): Kurtzer was rumored to be a prime Obama appointment for sorting out the Israel/Palestine mess, and seemed at least to be a better candidate than Martin Indyk or Dennis Ross.
Robert Kuttner: Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (paperback, 2009, Chelsea Green): Quickie book dressing up Obama as a future Lincoln or Roosevelt (or Johnson, except for that mess in Vietnam, or do I mean Afghanistan?), based on crudely applying Doris Kearns Goodwin to his otherwise solid economic critique.
Minqi Li: The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World (paperback, 2009, Monthly Review Press): Interesting contrast here, as if the two major events were related, as if China's Communists figured out the way to really destroy the capitalist system was to join and master it.
Sean L Malloy: Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (2008, Cornell University Press): Secretary of War during WWII, Stimson was one of the more thoughtful people deeply involved in the whole affair, so should make an interesting prism for examining what did and did not happen.
Mahmood Mamdani: Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (2009, Pantheon): This will likely move to the forefront of our understanding of the Darfur crisis -- both what it is and what interests various groups have in making it out to be. Mamdani has written both about Rwanda (When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda) and one of the better books on political Islam (Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror).
Kenneth R Miller: Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul (2008, Viking): I suppose he's right, but the anti-Darwin stance strikes me as so silly it's hard to take it seriously. (Even though I just saw a bit on Steve Colbert where he complimented the Kansas Board of Education as the only one seeing eye-to-eye with him on some variant of this.) Author previously wrote Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.
Matt Miller: The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity (2009, Times Books): As Matthew Miller wrote a book called The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love, one of those big idea books that looks too good to be true. It's not so much that one can't come up with simple, sensible fixes -- schools and health care could easily be better and cheaper at the same time, as indeed almost everyone else in the world manages to do. It's just that these relatively technical issues get wrapped up in the real things conservatives and their opponents fight over -- like equality.
Giles Milton: Paradise Lost: Smyrna, 1922 (2008, Basic Books): The end of the war between Greece and Turkey, where the British egged Greece into invading Turkey, and the debacle resulted in the triumph of Mustafa Kemal's nationalist forces and the forced expulsion of virtually all Greeks from Turkey. Reading Taner Akçam's book (A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility) has left me wanting to know more about the Turkish-Greek population transfer in and after the war. This is a part of the story, but looks like it's been juiced up to focus on one side. Curious choice of title, too. One more general book on the transfer is Renée Hirschon, ed: Crossing the Aegean: An Appraisal of the 1923 Compulsory Population Exchange Between Greece and Turkey. Of course, there were plenty of atrocities before 1923, and not just by the Turks. (Hirschon also wrote Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus.)
James J O'Donnell: The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (2008, Ecco): An old story, presumably with some new twists.
Nicholas Ostler: Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (paperback, 2008, Walker): Tempting to see what (if anything) I can recall from that 9th grade Latin course, but rather long (400 pp) for such a marginal interest. I still haven't gotten into Ostler's Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, which I bought a while back and probably has plenty on Latin for my purposes.
Rick Perlstein: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (paperback, 2009, Nation Books): The prequel to Perlstein's Nixonland -- actually, an earlier book, from 2001, providing a similarly encyclopedic history of the nascent conservative movement and the Goldwater campaign.
Gerard Prunier: Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (2008, Oxford University Press): Author has previous books on Rwanda and Darfur that are generally regarded as balanced and nuanced. Neither of those well-publicized massacres add up to the numbers killed in Congo, often with the Rwandan Tutsi-Hutu roles reversed. This looks like the first major attempt to put this conflict into context.
Thomas E Ricks: The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (2009, Penguin Press): Author of the useful corrective to his own prior journalism, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Aside from Fiasco, Ricks has always been a dependable mouthpiece for the military. In fact, Fiasco introduced the theme of Petraeus as the unappreciated genius of the invasion, so the brown-nosing here is likely to be boundless.
Linda Robinson: Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (2008, Public Affairs): The Iraq Surge has slopped over into the publishing industry, with a wave of books shoring up the pro-war line, like this one wrapped around a biography of the much hyped general. Conversely, there has been a shortage of critical assessments.
Andrew J Rotter: Hiroshima: The World's Bomb (2008, Oxford University Press): Reviews the decision to drop the world's first atomic bomb, and the ramifications of that decision ever since. Don't know how much of this is actually about what happened to Hiroshima.
Anthony Seldon/Peter Snowdon/Daniel Collings: Blair Unbound (2008, Simon & Schuster): Big biography. I suppose it's possibly just an update of Seldon's earlier Blair. Also ran across an ominous sounding book by Ivo H Daalder/James M Lindsay: America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Maybe "unbound" is British for "unhinged"?
Bing West: The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq (2008, Random House): Author of a previous war book on the 2004 destruction of Fallujah. New theory is that the US military is just one of many tribes in Iraq, but can operate successfully as the strongest tribe -- the old colonialist notion that all we have to do to rule is to cower the people with displays of savagery. That should make for a very long war (cf. Dexter Filkins).
Previously mentioned books, new in paperback:
Karen Armstrong: The Bible: A Biography (2007, Grove/Atlantic; paperback, 2008, Grove): Short discourse on how the book came to be.
Drew Gilpin Faust: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008, Knopf; paperback, 2009, Vintage): Civil war history, focusing on death.
Chris Hedges/Laila Al-Arian: Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians (2008; paperback, 2009, Nation Books): Atrocity stories, from soldiers on the spot.
Aaron David Miller: The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (2008; paperback, 2008, Bantam): Peace Process insider dirt/recrimination/regrets.
Charles R Morris: The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash (2008; revised, paperback, 2009, Public Affairs): One of the first really useful books out on the subprime mortgage crisis and how the contagion was likely to spread. And as such, instantly out of date. Hence the revision, which includes bumping the title up -- originally The Trillion Dollar Meltdown.
Gérard Prunier: Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide (2005; 2007; third edition, paperback, 2008, Cornell University Press): Useful book on Darfur: while it doesn't deny charges of genocide, it doesn't overhype them either. Basically a story of a weak but nasty central government, troublesome neighbors, and risky revolutionaries against a rather bleak backdrop.
Dani Rodrik: One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth (2007; paperback, 2009, Princeton University Press): Development economics, sees no single path, many things that more or less work here and there.
Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008; paperback, 2009, Penguin): On internet-based social tools; sharp thinker, good book.
Robin Wright: Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (2008; paperback, 2009, Penguin Press): Middle East survey, by a correspondent who knows her way around.
I'm also way behind on book notes/quotes -- collecting them, which is to be understood given how my time has been diverted, but I also have a lot of material I did do but didn't post, so I'll try to get around to them in the next few days/weeks.
Thursday, March 19. 2009
Sorry to keep harping on this, but here's two more reports from Mondoweiss that illustrate the increasing bloodlust Israelis are feeling:
I might also add this one, which isn't about what Israelis want to do. It's about what they just did:
The idea that you can just kill anyone you don't like, or more imaginatively kill everyone you don't like, isn't a universal human trait. It arises in specific historical circumstances, where figures in authority -- role models, if you will -- pave the way, first by promoting hatred, then by exemplifying violence, then by excusing it. I could provide many examples. One that sticks in my mind is the bloviating politicians of the Jim Crow south who provided cover for KKK lynchings, virtually none of which were ever prosecuted, a problem that scarcely bothered political and social leaders who considered themselves above such behavior. What made all of this violence possible was the prior acceptance of discrimination and segregation, sanctified by law, routinely accepted by otherwise decent people.
The problem with Israel today isn't that they're on a course that could end in acts of genocide against the Palestinians (or Iranians or whoever else offends them). It's that they started down that slope by putting themselves apart and above everyone else, resolving to grind anyone who differs and objects into utter defeat. It's the checkpoints, the permits, the travel restrictions, the house demolitions, the arbitrary detentions, the spy system that makes everyone distrustful of their neighbors, the everyday deprivations and demeaning that fuels this conflict -- the culture that makes atrocities inevitable, then ordinary.
The Nazis, after all, started with yellow arm bands. Bad as what came later was, the arm bands themselves should have been sufficient to outrage world opinion. Had that happened, who knows how history might have been changed.
Wednesday, March 18. 2009
Paul Woodward: Uzi Arad: "It is territory we want to preserve, but populations we wand to rid ourselves of" Introducing Uzi Arad, Israeli Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu's right-hand man for formulating war strategy. The title quote is about as explicit as any Israeli official gets about designs for (should I say further?) ethnic cleansing, but it's hardly the only point of interest. Arad advocates massive bombing of Iran -- not just nuclear program targets, but "everything and anything of value."
Force transfer of the Palestinians is an old story -- two steps forward in 1948, one step back in 1967, an ambiguous legacy since then where Israel makes life miserable and Palestinians stand up to the deprivations to show Israel they won't back down (again). But it has rarely been talked about so glibly, especially in terms of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Still, they mostly phrase this in terms of wishful thinking. The IDF is too disciplined to produce atrocities on, say, the Srebrenica level, which they could easily have done during their recent siege of Gaza. My point isn't so much that Israel is likely to commit genocide. It's quite enough that they've moved the issue past the realm of the unthinkable.
It's harder to tell how serious they are about Iran. Whereas Israel could easily slaughter tens or hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, they'd have to unsheath their nuclear weapons to produce a comparable impact on Iran -- especially comparable in terms of the size of the target. Short of that, they'd just make Iran very mad, which is more likely to be bad news for the US than for Israel. There's some evidence that the US has in fact kept Israel on a fairly tight leash viz. Iran, so the fighting words are more likely for show than for real. If so they are no less disturbing, because they reveal a very peculiar slant on the nation's psychology. The worst case scenario, after all, is that Iran develops a few dozen nuclear weapons and puts them on the shelf for retaliation in case some nation (like Israel or the US) launches a war against Iran. There's really nothing else any nation can do with nuclear weapons -- aside from committing suicide, which doesn't seem at all likely for Iran. The effect would be to stabilize the relationship between Iran and Israel: both would have effective deterrents against aggression by the other, so they could negotiate or not, but in any case it would put an end to this insane warmongering. (None of this, by the way, is original thought -- Israeli defense theoretician Martin Van Creveld has written about this.)
So if that's the worst, why is Israel getting so worked up over the Iranian threat? The charitable theory is that Israel has gone insane, with even the leadership falling victim to the paranoia they've so relentlessly inculcated in their populace. (The Judea Pearl piece I cited yesterday is a good example: instantly assuming that Gazan rockets threaten Israel's very existence, even when a sober counting of the exchange shows one Israeli killed by Gazan rocket fire vs. 1300 Gazans killed by the IDF.) Less charitable is the idea that Israel has become the stalking horse for the US Neocons -- currently out of favor after their Iraq disaster, but plotting their comeback via Tehran. As you'll recall, the Neocon argument in a nutshell is that we should become so powerful that no other force can even threaten to hurt us much less defeat us. Mutual deterrence has always been anathema to the Neocons, who recognize that anything that limits our scope of action -- like the possibility that the Soviet Union might respond in kind to a preemptive nuclear attack -- exposes our unacceptable weakness.
The Neocons worshipped Israel for the way they lorded it over the Palestinians, kicking Arab ass time and again. They used to joke that "real men go to Tehran" -- evidently that's still on their itinerary. They're hoping Israel will take them there. Figures like Uzi Arad are more than happy to get the ball rolling. The question is whether the Obama administration, which is certainly wise to our Neocons, will let Israel's push them into an unnecessary and perilous fight. So far all they've done is play rope-a-dope, to put it charitably.
Tuesday, March 17. 2009
Ben Ehrenreich: Zionism is the problem. A rare opinion piece that cuts to the heart of Israel's problem, which is how can you reconcile a commitment to justice with a national identity movement based on injustice to others. The debate is not new among Jews, but rarely heard here:
Actually there are many ways Israel has carried its apartheid policies to greater extremes than South Africa ever imagined. The most basic has been the virtual exclusion of Palestinian labor from the Israeli economy, especially since the first Intifada. By making Palestinians economically superfluous, Israel has gone well down the road toward reconciling themselves with genocide.
As the rightward drift in Israel's elections shows, political discourse there has become so isolated and self-centered that there appears to be no hope of reconciliation. The proof is not so much the rise of outright fascists like Avigdor Lieberman as the eagerness of the so-called peace block to rush to war on such thin pretext as the latest onslaught on Gaza. Moreover, Israel has been effective enough that they can most likely continue their level of occupation indefinitely -- at least as long as their supporters in America can stomach their complicity. Israel's warrior caste recognize this, which is why they stake so much on shutting down any sort of debate here -- on keeping critics like Chas Freeman out of government, and Joel Kovel and Norman Finkelstein out of academia. And that's why it's so important to smear any hint of anti-Zionism with the stain of anti-semitism.
Still, their efforts at thought control are faltering, not least because what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians is so utterly at odds with the principles of nearly all Jews in the diaspora. Ehrenreich concludes:
Judea Pearl: Is anti-Zionism hate? Of course, the Los Angeles Times had to run a "balance" piece to Ben Ehrenreich's column cited above. Typical quote:
The first irony here is that Israel used to be billed as the world's only safe haven for Jews. Now it's the most vulnerable outpost, so what went wrong? The short answer is sixty years of increasingly pointless and sadistic wars against Israel's neighbors and a substantial portion of Israel's own people. (Unwanted people, to be sure, but all nations have minorities and are expected to treat them decently and to respect their civil and human rights, which Israel has repeatedly failed to do.) With nary a single generous initiative to seek peace: the 1949 armistice agreements established Israel's borders, but Israel refused to follow them up with peace agreements; the one agreement Israel did consent to was with Egypt, based on Egyptian initiatives begrudgingly accepted given that they were strongly supported by the US -- Jordan, which has always dealt underhandedly with Israel against the Palestinian people, scarcely counts, while the so-called Oslo Peace Process was a fraud repeatedly undermined by Israel; the PLO has recognized Israel since the mid-1980s, and the Arab League has agreed on a proposal to recognize Israel in accord with UN resolutions 232/338; even Hamas has offered to respect Israel's borders long-term. The worst case scenario for Israel from any Arab peace proposal is that Israel should have to recognize the right of the people they drove out of the country in 1948 to return to their homeland -- a right Israel already reserves for every Jew in the diaspora -- and the obligation to respect equal rights for everyone living in Israel. The only "genocidal designs" there are in the fevered imaginations of Israelis.
It should be understood that there are some Zionists who favor peace and think they can accomplish that with a Jewish State, and there are other people who are anti-Zionists, who believe states should represent all citizens equally, therefore that a state that favors Jews over all others is an obstacle to justice and peace. The former, including most of the so-called Israeli peace camp, have been remarkably ineffective, not least because when push comes to shove, they reflexively side with Israel against peace. (They often come to think better of it, but how many peace campers who initially supported the 2006 war against Lebanon knew better than to back the 2008 war against Gaza?)
The two state scenario may be a practical solution, but it is hardly sacrosanct. The forced partition of Palestine into Israel, Gaza (under Egypt), and West Bank (under Jordan) was the original sin. It was never a good idea, but now at least has been firmly etched as a "fact on the ground." Still, it's not the only way out. A single state with everyone enjoying equal rights seems at least as desirable, but Zionists still cling to the two state notion in order to assure Jewish demographic dominance in their part of Palestine. In other words, it is a sop to Zionist bigotry.
Still, the problem with Israel isn't the peace camp. It is the war camp, who here at least are holding the peace camp hostage to protect their dirty wars. I don't really mean to pick on anyone who thinks they can reconcile Zionism with peaceful coexistence -- indeed, there have been numerous honorable people who have tried to think their way through that conundrum. However, the issue isn't whether it is conceivable that Zionism can be rescued. The problem is the actual Zionist state in Israel, which has proven to be a disaster -- really for Jews as well as Palestinians, and by complicity for Americans as well.
Philip Weiss: Memo to Jews. The anti-Zionist argument here goes beyond ethics:
I'm not sure this is true, but the argument is attractive. One thing that is true is that there has been a new Jewish diaspora as something in excess of 700,000 Israelis are now living abroad. One thing I've tried to turn over in my head is the distribution of Israeli jazz musicians -- at least, it's the one area of Israeli intellectual life that I actually know something about. Over the last ten years, there has been a literal explosion in the number of Israeli jazz musicians that have established at least some international recognition. Prominent names include: Anat Cohen, the two Avishai Cohens, Michel Attias, Assif Tsahar, Gilad Atzmon, Ari Hoenig, Omer Avital, Anat Fort -- those are just off the top of my head; I could probably scrounge up two dozen more with a little digging. Thing is, virtually all of those named are based in the diaspora -- for one reason or another, part of Israel's brain drain. Of course, selection has something to do with this, and it's impossible to know how much: I don't get CDs from any Israeli labels, so the Israelis I hear are on US and European labels, which favor US- and Europe-based artists.
Still, there's no doubt that Israel is producing numbers of jazz musicians comparable to small European countries -- e.g., Norway, Switzerland, Portugal, the Netherlands. They just don't seem to be sticking around, which could have several reasons, including the discomfort of playing in a militarist society.
Gideon Levy: Has anyone in Israel asked why the Swedes hate us? A tennis match in Sweden shows how far public support for Israel has declined, most recently in reaction to Israel's savage attack on Gaza. Probably more significant was the turnaround of longtime ally Turkey (a nation which, like Israel, was founded in shameful ethnic cleansing, not that that was the basis of their relationship -- unlike Israel's cozy relationship with the French while they were in Algeria or the Afrikaners at the height of apartheid).
For whatever it's worth, I've opened a project directory to file notes toward a possible book on Israel/Palestine. I can't guarantee I'll do much with it, but I think I have a somewhat distinctive angle on the problem and solution, and there are certain themes I'd like to explore further. The rough outline breaks down to four parts:
Somewhere along the way I want to work in a study of comparative colonialism, which separates cases that failed (Algeria, South Africa) from those that succeeded (United States, Australia): I see Israel in between the two groups, remarkably effective, but so hard pressed they are likely to ultimately fail. (The key is demography, which has increasingly become an Israeli obsession.) I imagine that there is a lot of interesting research one can do on Israeli's evaluations of other colonial movements -- especially Algeria and South Africa, which Israel supported, and also Nazi Germany's colonization of the east, an object of Jewish horror.
One thing that should be clear by now is that the conflict is a prisoner of its history. The way out is to break the bonds of that history -- to see both sides of what happened, and to see how easily one can choose to do otherwise. It seems clear that no side will be able to force a solution. The only hope comes from the prospect that people on both sides will want peace enough to change.
Seems to me like there is quite a bit to write about there. Just as a bit of an example, I recently read the following in Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A History (p. 169):
As Armstrong points out, the Sephardic exile from Spain led directly to the development and widespread popularity of Lurianic Kabbala, which among other things reinterpreted the Genesis creation story in light of exile. The trauma of the destruction of the two temples and their subsequent exiles had many similar effects, both making Judaism more general and effective in the diaspora and creating a romance for the lost temple that would ultimately be exploited by Zionism.
Another interesting quote (pp. 176-177):
This doesn't explain America's steadfast support for Israel, but it is in line with it. It also makes me wonder how modern Israelis view the way American settlers handled their native problem.
Monday, March 16. 2009
I feel a little better, and a little more optimistic, than I did last week, but not enough to cheer anyone up. House work is going slow, but generally in the right direction. Listening to a few CDs along the way, but not many. Did pull some second-round items off the shelf, partly because I thought they'd be easy. Next Jazz CG column is essentially written by now. Just need a couple of weeks to clean off the rough edges, settle on a pick hit, find a dud to join the Bad Plus. Don't know when I'll be able to do that. Meanwhile, the queue keeps filling up.
Garvin Bushell and Friends: One Steady Roll (1982 , Delmark): One thing I run across a lot when looking up musicians is the list of famous people one has played with. I usually skip over this, figuring it's a small world and pretty much anyone can sit in with anyone else if they happen to overlap the same small circles. Still, Bushell's list is worth sharing: James P Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Gil Evans, King Curtis. B. 1902, died 1991, wrote an autobiography in 1988 called Jazz From the Beginning; plays clarinet and bassoon. Has no albums as a leader. This one comes from a session led by soprano saxophonist Richard Hadlock, who also wrote the liner notes. Trad jazz, silkier than the norm -- Leon Oakley's cornet is the only brass, and only on three tracks. Barbara Lashley sings three pieces -- competent, but not much of a plus. B+(*)
Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber: Making Love in the Dark Ages (2008 , Live Wired): Critic Greg Tate's music thing, billed as "a territory band, a neo-tribal thang, a community hang, a society music guild aspiring to the condition of all that is molten, glacial, racial, spacial, oceanic, mythic, antiphonal and telepathic." Ten or so albums since 2001, mostly molten, glacial, racial, spacial, etc., crafted with Butch Morris-style conduction, full of smart ideas, long on mood, short on solos, hard to get much of a handle on. Starts with a three-part gospel-inflected slavery epic; ends with the two-part title thing, largely based on a minor baritone sax riff from "Moist" Paula Henderson, just ugly enough it doesn't lull you into stupor. B+(***)
Martial Solal: Live at the Village Vanguard: I Can't Give You Anything but Love (2007 , CAM Jazz): Past 80 now, the great French pianist whose early recordings date to 1953 is finally getting some recognition in the US, especially for last year's trio album, Longitude. This one is solo, the logical but necessarily more limited follow up. In the intro he points out that this set is being recorded, "so I have to be good." He doesn't get good until the fourth cut, which he picks apart in all sorts of interesting ways, turning it into the title cut. Similar things happen several more times -- infrequently enough you're not sure he knows what he's going to find at the start of each song. This process of discovery is much of what live jazz is about, but it's still hit and miss in recorded jazz. B+(*)
Claudio Roditi: Braziliance X4 (2008 , Resonance): Brazilian trumpeter, actually plays flugelhorn more, b. 1946, came to US in 1970, has a couple dozen albums plus a lot of side work; a very dependable mainstream jazz musician, plus he knows his way around Brazilian music. This is mostly the latter, with a high-powered quartet: Helio Alves on piano, Leonardo Cioglia on bass, Duduka Da Fonseca on drums. Nothing surprising here, just solid with with no frills other than the lustrous tone of Roditi's horn. B+(**)
Maybe Monday: Unsquare (2006 , Intakt): The group proper consists of Fred Frith on electric guitar, Miya Masaoka on 25 string koto and electronics, and Larry Ochs on sopranino and tenor saxes. The "special guests" are: Gerry Hemingway (drums, percussion), Carla Kihlstedt (electric and acoustic violins), Ikue Mori (electronics), and Zeena Parkins (electric harp and electronics). Seems like a jazz analogue to musique concrète, making me wonder whether anyone had discussed le jazz concrète -- found one reference to George Russell's Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (1969), an interesting choice but simple in comparison. Avant-chamber music, no swing or even much progression, but it all swirls around uncertain points as the musicians pick up on each other's cues. Despite all the electronics, instrumental tones predominate -- I started to say acoustic, but Frith and Kihlstedt have their acoustic instruments plugged in. B+(***)
Nathan Eklund: Trip to the Casbah (2008 , Jazz Excursion): Trumpeter, b. 1978 near Seattle, studied in New Jersey, based in Bloomfield, NJ, close to New York. Second album. Album photos show him marching fast, flugelhorn in tow. Postbop quintet, with impressive support from guitarist John Hart, even more so from tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who comes close to stealing the whole show. Eklund is hard pressed to keep up, but does manage a nice duet with bassist Bill Moring. B+(***)
George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band: Pourqoi Pas? Why Not? (2007 , TCB): Swiss pianist, past age 75, has run his big band since early 1970s, currently fortified with a good deal of American star power -- the tenor sax solo in the first song sent me to the credit sheet, where I found Donny McCaslin. Album has several strong spots like that. B+(*)
Dave Frank: Turning It Loose! (2007-08 , Jazzheads): Pianist, moved from Boston to New York, where he runs The Dave Frank School of Jazz. Third album. Solo, which seems to be his preference. Three originals; covers ranging from "You Stepped Out of a Dream" to "A Night in Tunisia." Loose enough, but I found myself losing interest on the second play. You know how it is with solo piano. B
Chuck Bernstein: Delta Berimbau Blues (2007-08 , CMB): Drummer, b. 1940, otherwise best known for leading a group called Monk's Music Trio. First album under his own name, something focused on the berimbau, described herein as a Brazilian diddley bow -- one string, plucked or bowed, tied to a bow with a sphere at the bottom of the bow that may add some resonance or just be used for incidental percussion. Reminds Bernstein of delta blues, which he explores with occasional guests in a series of very spare pieces -- mostly duos with a little extra guitar, bass, or drums. One piece has tenor sax, a couple vocals, one with trombone from Roswell Rudd, who adds his blessing ("every track raises the bar for World Music"). Strikes me as a novelty, but that may just mean it's unique. [B+(***)]
Helge Lien Trio: Hello Troll (2008, Ozella): Norwegian pianist. Has one solo and six trio albums since 2000, plus a trio project with two horns called Tri O 'Trang. Trio adds Frode Berg on bass, Knut Aalefjær on drums. Mostly upbeat melodic postbop, like they wouldn't mind being grouped with the late EST. B+(**)
Steve Elson: Mott & Broome (2008 , Lips & Fingers Music): Saxophonist, lists soprano first but probably plays tenor more, also some baritone, and clarinet. Based in New York. Third album since 1994. Fairly mainstream trio with Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Scott Latzky on drums, Pete Smith adding guitar on one track (a plus), and Jennifer Griffith singing several (neither here nor there). CDBaby recommends if you like Gene Ammons and/or Stan Getz. I don't hear that, but you got to start somewhere. Choice cut: "Rara Avis." B+(*) [Apr. 28]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Francisco Mela: Cirio: Live at the Blue Note (2007 , Half Note): Dedicated to the Mela's late father, Cirio, who founded El Club de Trovadores de la música Cibana in Bayamo, Cuba. The young drummer moves far on his second record, picking up an all-star band -- Mark Turner, Jason Moran, Lionel Loueke, Larry Grenadier -- each adding something to the jerky Afro-Cuban rhythms. A-
The John Bunch Trio: Plays the Music of Irving Berlin (Except One) (2008, Arbors): The piano trio itself is delightful -- the songs impeccable, the pianist expert, bassist John Webber a fountain of swing, and Frank Vignola's slinky, snakey guitar more than makes up for the lack of a drummer. I'm less pleased with six guest spots for Frank Wess on flute. Wess has done a better job than most of translating his sax swing to flute, but there's not enough here to bring the lightness down to earth. B+(**)
Brazilian Trio: Forests (2008, Zoho): Helio Alves on piano, Nilson Matta on bass, Duduka Da Fonseca on drums: names that needn't hide behind a flag, not least becuase their energetic piano jazz doesn't betray a single Brazilian cliché. Note that two-thirds were tapped for Claudio Roditi's recent quartet, which is more clearly rooted in Brazil, but gives less space to Alves -- a world class jazz pianist hardly anyone recognizes. B+(***)
Adrian Iaies Trio + Michael Zisman: Vals de la 81st & Columbus (2008, Sunnyside): Possibly a victim of my method, as this stuck in my player for six spins, the first three ascending to A-list candidacy, the next three slightly wearing me down. Argentine piano trio plus bandoneon (plus trumpet on two cuts). Mostly tango, of course, even on standards by Monk and Shorter. Iaies' piano does the prancing, with Pablo Aslan's bass close to the ground, while Zisman's bandoneon fills the room with lush, soulful sound. B+(***)
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.