Sunday, May 31. 2009
Most likely someone is already busy collecting the ridiculous things Republicans are saying about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. The volume of venting is approaching book length, and seems likely to run into multiple volumes by the time this is finally voted on. I just ran across this post by Kieran Healy from early on which does a nice job of summing it all up:
Sure, Healy didn't anticipate charges that Sotomayor is racist, let alone the David Duke comparison (from Rush Limbaugh -- Eric Kleefeld asks then, "so why isn't he supporting her?"), or Gordon Liddy worrying about her "menstruating at key Supreme Court conferences." But then clowns will be clowns, even if they can't come up with anything amusing. I'm rather taken aback by the vehemence, but the right has been obsessed with the courts ever since Brown vs BOE, and their absolutist, "take no prisoners," "defeat is not an option" creed drives them to wail against any jurist who's not a card carrying conservative. It's a strategy that has worked often enough that there are now four certifiably extremist right-wing ideologues on the court, a near-majority that would allow the very sort of judicial activism that has been part of the right's slander tool kit.
For a dose of reality, see Cass Sunstein's The Myth of a Balanced Court. Sunstein's assessment of the left-right balance of the Court just goes to show how successful the right's persistent ranting has been, not least of all in how Democrats like Clinton sought nominees who would blend in. The same thing seems to have happened with Sotomayor: anticipating the hue and cry of the right, Obama looked first for a candidate who would be able to weather the storm. In this regard, comparing Sotomayor's precise career track to Alito must have been irresistible.
Not the best way to pick a supreme court justice, but we often have to settle for what we can get, and hope that in the future even a dubious-looking nominee (like Hugo Black or Earl Warren or Harry Blackmun or David Souter) will grow into the role. Meanwhile, Limbaugh is making me feel better about Sotomayor. In fact, he's been a veritable fountain of optimism since Obama took office. Without his pointing it out, I wouldn't have realized that we're living under socialism already. I used to think that would take a revolution, but it turns out it only takes a turn toward sanity.
Friday, May 29. 2009
Atul Gawande: The Cost Conundrum. Medicare spend more money per patient in McAllen/Hidalgo County, Texas than anywhere else in the US -- about twice as much as in El Paso, which is otherwise a nearly identical metropolitan area (size, income, minority population, etc.). Gawande went there to figure out why. Start out with the comparison to El Paso:
One thing to consider here is that this didn't result in better health results. Indeed, the only correlation anyone has ever found between health expenses and results is that more is worse.
Gawande talked to some doctors and hospital administrators about why McAllen is so expensive and learned almost nothing. Most in fact were surprised to find out.
This partly explains why doctors seem to move in lockstep pushing costs up in some areas but not others. Part of it is peer pressure. Part is seeing what other doctors are getting away with. If everyone else is doing it, you start to feel dumb not getting in on the scam. But until someone sets the model, other factors hold doctor's ambitions in check -- quality care, for instance. Mayo Clinic is one of the highest quality, lowest cost health centers in the country.
Mayo replicated its success in establishing campuses in Florida ("one of our most expensive states for health care") and in Arizona.
In a list that long, the fact that all of these examples are non-profits is surely not coincidence. Growth in health care costs as a fraction of GDP and growth in maximum profit seeking companies as a fraction of the health care industry must correlate closely.
Gawande argues that as far as costs are concerned, it makes no difference who pays for health care costs -- private insurance companies or government (single payer). I think that is wrong, in that private insurance companies have their own profit-seeking logic: while sometimes that works to reduce costs -- negotiating discounts, imposing limits, sacrificing coverage -- the long-term trend has been for insurance companies to get their share of the explosion in costs. Gawande skips through several of the arguments, including one he attributes to economists about having "consumers pay with their own dollars, mak[ing] sure that they have some 'skin in the game'" -- note that most of those "economists" turn out to be Republicans. He runs this by one McAllen doctor, a Dr. Dyke:
Dyke had previously joined Gawande in arguing that increasing the government role, by expanding Medicare/Medicaid, wouldn't make any difference, but he was pretty curt when Gawande suggested doing the opposite and increasing the role of private insurance companies: "What good would that do?"
Gawande concludes by pointing out that all of the incentives in the current system influence health care providers to become more rapacious, like the norm in McAllen. If left unchecked, the result will be pretty much like we've already seen over the last 20-30 years, as the cost of health care in the US has grown from about 10% of GDP to over 16%, while the US has dropped notch after notch in worldwide health results. The sales pitch today isn't much different from the highwaymen of yore: your money or your life.
Pinning this on the "culture of money" is a good start, but we need first to recognize that the health care industry didn't create the culture of money. It's a big part of American history, basically an idealization of the rags-to-riches myth that became so useful politically during the Reagan-to-Bush era when American politicians took flight from reality. Health care is especially sensitive to this extortion because health is one of the few things Americans still value more than money. But that very point, which allows the industry to rip us off every which way, shows why complaining about costs cannot win the argument for change. The problem with the US health care industry isn't how scandalously expensive it is; the real indictment is the shoddy results and gross unfairness of the system. That's why the Mayo example is so powerful: by seeking a better quality system they incidentally came up with one that is less costly. Gawande doesn't mention it, but the V.A. provides another example, where the drive toward better quality results is paying off in reduced costs. Free software is another case where an initial goal of better software pays off in much reduced costs.
All of this would be easier if we were able to undermine the social instinct toward personal greed. This is a self-conflict that most occupations have -- only businessmen are expected to always choose maximizing profit over whatever value their goods or services may have. Professionals, like doctors, are usually limited by their professional standards. In times when there was relatively less inequality -- e.g., from the New Deal into the 1970s, when top marginal tax rates were confiscatory (our way as a society of saying "enough is enough") -- it was much easier to hold professionals to standards and ethics. In a laissez-faire world not even the rich are ever rich enough, so traditionally responsible professionals are sorely tempted to corruption. That's what we're really seeing in McAllen, which is why part of the solution is to change our political and social view of wealth: we needn't go so far as to treat wealth as proof of vileness, but we do need to reduce its valuation below the threshold of corruption. A more equitable society is less prone to conniving, deceit, dishonesty; it is one where people act more responsibly because responsibility is more esteemed. It is one where "your money or your life" is treated as the reprehensible notion it is.
Wednesday, May 27. 2009
Adam Horowitz: Israel wants to keep the settlements, PA says they can stay as Palestinian citizens. After some Israeli teeth-gnashing over the settlements, Horowitz quotes Ahmed Qureia saying: "residents of Ma'aleh Adumim or Ariel who would rather stay in their homes could live under Palestinian rule and law, just like the Israeli Arabs who live among you." In other words, the Palestinians would have no problem with Israeli settlers continuing to live in their present homes after Israel ceded the West Bank to an independent Palestinian state, provided the settlers accepted the rule of Palestinian law. In other words, the removal of Israeli settlers is not a prerequisite or obstacle to a two state solution along the Green Line border, as envisioned by the UN in 1967 and by the recent Arab League proposal.
Actually, we've been through this same debate before: in Gaza, Abbas made the same offer, but Sharon insisted not just on forcibly removing all Israeli settlers but on physically destroying their buildings to prevent them from becoming occupied by Palestinians. It's an idea that is worth pursuing further, because it gets at the heart of Zionism, its destructiveness and dysfunctionality. I wrote the following as a comment:
Normally I wouldn't argue that any group should get special consideration, but lately Israeli phobias have been running amuck, with disastrous consequences for Palestinians, and considerable ill will all around -- consider how Israeli government figures keep talking about the need for preemptive war against Iran, or the recent reports from Sudan where Israeli airstrikes have killed over 100 people (some allegedly smuggling supplies into blockaded Gaza). Now we find the Knesset entertaining laws to prohibit all reference to what Palestinians call the Nakba, to criminalize any criticism of Israel as a Jewish state, and to require Palestinian citizens of Israel to take loyalty oaths. In a later post, Horowitz quotes MK Zevulun Orlev: "Many intellectuals in the academia who talk about a country belonging to all its citizens belong in prison." Israel's right-wing ruling claque are sure leaving a lot of moral high ground open. Hopefully, the Palestinians will claim it. I can imagine a whole nonviolent campaign based on embracing the Jewish legacy and distinguishing it from what Zionists have been doing for decades now, but especially lately. This may sound condescending, and it may lead to a bit of self-righteousness, but the world isn't that sophisticated. It's a simple approach, like conversion. You don't wait for the sinner to repent and be forgiven; you forgive, then shame the sinner for not repenting.
Adam Horowitz: Is this getting stabbed in the back or the front? Looks like Obama's (or is it Clinton's) Iran consigliere Dennis Ross has a new book out, including a chapter called "Linkage: The Mother of All Myths." Linkage is the notion that solving the Israel/Palestine conflict will help solve other problems the US has in the Middle East. In other words, Ross is arguing that America's slavish support for Israel's occupation in all its brutality and persistent efforts to intimidate neighboring countries -- its 2006 war against Lebanon, its occasional bombing runs in Syria and Sudan, its constant ranting about Iran -- have absolutely no effect on American interests in the Middle East. In other words, America has no business second-guessing Israel's frantic, fanatic little rogue terror state. Who could think otherwise? Well, Obama, for one. Maybe Ross should check up on who's signing his paychecks. I suppose he could argue that this one was in press while he was still flacking for Israel, but it looks bad right now. If he backpedals, it shows he's a whore; if he sticks to his guns, it proves he's a mole. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett had an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday called Have we already lost Iran?, which puts a lot of blame on Obama's failure to make any headway with Iran squarely on the shoulders of his envoy . . . Dennis Ross.
Tuesday, May 26. 2009
Tom Hull: Jazz Consumer Guide: My long-awaited 19th Jazz Consumer Guide column has been posted by The Village Voice. Presumably hard copy is available on the streets of New York City. Haven't seen the latter, and don't know whether the two match. I had asked that the Voice go ahead and post any cuts that they had to make to fit the page, figuring that I have too much stuff left over for next time anyway, and in most cases the cuts are records that have already been out pretty long. Could just be that the first shot is sucked up from the print files and any adds will have to be worked in manually after the fact. More on that later.
Monday, May 25. 2009
The Village Voice should finally run my 19th Jazz Consumer Guide this week: should be on the streets of New York come Wednesday, and most likely on their website then too. Seeing as how far behind I am, especially on honorable mentions, I asked the editor to put all the honorable mentions that don't fit in the paper up on the website anyway. That will save me trying to work them in next time. Even with no carry over next time is pretty solidly booked by now.
Meanwhile, jazz prospecting:
Ton Trio: The Way (2008 , Singlespeed Music): Sax-bass-drums trio, more/less based in Oakland, CA. Led by Aram Shelton on alto sax and bass clarinet, with Kurt Kotheimer on bass and Sam Ospovat on drums. Shelton moved to Oakland in 2005 from Chicago, about the time he released the only album under his own name, Arrive (482 Music). Has a couple dozen credits since 2001, some with Chicagoans I recognize, most with groups under my radar, some of which he seems to run. Plays free; has some ideas, interesting but not compelling yet. Bass clarinet has more appeal, probably because it's more unusual, hence distinctive. B+(**)
John Scofield: Piety Street (2009, Emarcy): AMG describes him as one of the "big three" jazz guitarists, along with Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny. He has released 30-plus albums since 1977, but still strikes me as an underachiever -- his best records simple jams like Groove Elation (1994) although his change of pace Quiet (1996) made a good case that he can play. The new record is reminiscent of his 2005 Ray Charles tribute -- I missed a couple records in between, so this seems like even more of a slumming slump. The Charles record relied on guests, especially vocalists, and got by on the songs and sentiment, but just barely. Here he goes into gospel, picking immaculate songs -- Dorsey, Cleveland, Bartlett, Hank Williams, Dorothy Love Coates, trad. -- backing them with a blues-oriented band, and using two singers: Jon Cleary, a nonentity from England, and John Boutté, not much better from New Orleans. In the end, the paleness they bring to Afro-American gospel is a saving grace -- no one's going to compete with Coates, or even Williams, so why try? Not much from the guitarist, although his work on "The Angel of Death" suggests he could contribute if he wanted to. B
John Stetch: TV Trio (2007 , Brux): Pianist, b. 1968, has a dozen albums since 1992, this the first I've heard, although I gather from the titles -- Carpathian Blues, Kolomeyka Fantasy, Ukranianism -- that he has some sort of Eastern European interest. This is a trio with Doug Weiss and Rodney Green, running through a dozen TV theme songs, dropping down to solo for "All My Children." Can't say as I recognized a single one of them. Not sure if that's a plus or a minus. B-
Ximo Tebar & Ivam Jazz Ensemble: Steps (2007 , Omix/Sunnyside): Spanish guitarist, b. 1963, seventh album since 1995 (according to AMG, which may be short). I figure him for a Wes Montgomery acolyte, which is reinforced by an original called "Four on Six for Wes." This zips along at Montgomery speeds, but is cluttered by double-dosed keyboards from Orrin Evans and Santi Navalón. Bass alternates between Alex Blake on acoustic and Boris Kozlov on electric. Adds some horns for the opening "Pink Panther," which is kinda cute. B
The Rocco John Group: Devotion (2008 , Coalition of Creative Artists): Pianoless quartet, based in New York, led by Rocco John Iacovone (alto sax, soprano sax), with Michael Irwin spinning off on trumpet. Freebop with some kick to it. Group's previous album, Don't Wait Too Long, made my HM list, although it languished in my files a long time. This is another one at pretty much the same level -- deserves some recognition, but probably won't get it. [Found my HM line on his website, and it still applies: "Iacovone plays alto sax, cut his teeth in '70s lofts, cooled his heels in Alaska, returns as gray-haired demon."] B+(**)
Arvo Pärt: In Principio (2007-08 , ECM New Series): This release marks the 25th anniversary of ECM's more or less classical sublabel, ECM New Series, launched in 1984 with Pärt's Tabula Rasa. Seemed like an event worth noting, and Pärt is a name that I noticed around then but never managed to get to. Back in the 1970s I took an interest in what I prefer to call postclassical music -- seems premature to be call it classical, ahistorical as contemporary composition, too pointed as avant-garde. I grew up despising Euroclassical music -- everything from Bach to Mahler, and a good deal before and after -- but took a deep interest in Theodor Adorno, who in turn was very much devoted to the 12-tone music Schönberg and Webern. I found I could handle it -- even got to where I liked Pierrot Lunaire -- and I checked out some of the newer stuff, especially with electronics (Babbitt, Berio, Crumb, Wuorinen, Stockhausen, Cage, Cardew, Glass, Reich). I lost track in the 1980s, especially after Tom Johnson left The Voice, and never managed to pick it up again -- one reason, perhaps, being that the avant fringes of jazz are usually more interesting. Pärt doesn't seem to be much of a modernist at all. Born 1935 in Estonia, left the Soviet Union for Vienna in 1980, then moved on to Berlin. This is a scattered set of pieces originating 1999-2006, recorded back in Estonia by Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. The choral pieces are based on scriptures. The ensemble work is dominated by the violins. Feels quasi-medieval to me, not a distinction I'm in any way expert on. Certainly not my thing, but tolerable, even in spots haunting. B+(*)
Alfred Schnittke: Symphony No. 9 / Alexander Raskatov: Nunc Dimittis (2008 , ECM New Series): Schnittke was a Russian composer, 1934-1998. This was the last of his nine symphonies, the manuscript reconstructed by Raskatov, given an initial recording by the Dresdner Philharmonie, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. It sounds like . . . a symphony. (What can I say? Masses of violins. Lots of ups and downs, with quiet spots that may mean something in a perfect acoustic environment. Raskatov is a younger Russian composer, b. 1953. don't know much more. His piece fills out the last 16:10 of the record. It's built around texts by Joseph Brodsky and Starets Siluan, with mezzo-soprano Elena Vassilieva and the Hilliard Ensemble joining the orchestra. The vocals do even less for me -- they seem very mixed down, but that could just mean I should turn it up. Quite a bit of documentation with this set -- evidently the label sees it as a big deal. Feels wasted on me. B-
Dave Siebels With Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band (2008 , PBGL): Siebels' home page is titled "Dave's Film Music, Inc." Claims: composer, arranger, keyboardist, producer; arranged and produced 25 albums, scored 35 films, scored 9 TV series, conducted 65 musical variety TV shows; musical director/arranger for 2 musical variety TV specials. Liner notes give special thanks to Pat Boone "for making this album possible" -- indeed, Siebels' chief claim to fame was his concept and production of Boone's In a Metal Mood. All that sounds like work. He may be moonlighting here, but this sounds like fun. The Phat Band is hot and greasy. Siebels composed 7 of 10 songs -- Neil Hefti's "Girl Talk," Stevie Wonder's "I Wish," and Lalo Schifrin's "The Cat" are the covers -- and plays Hammond B3. He rests the band on "Girl Talk" -- just organ, guitar, and drums -- and on two others with Roy Wiegand's trumpet added, providing a break from the blare, but that isn't always a help. B+(**)
Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra: Secrets of the Sun (1962 , Atavistic Unheard Music Series): A six-track album originally released on Ra's Saturn Records in 1965 and skipped over in previous reissue passes, plus a previously unreleased 17:35 originally promised to be the B-side of a never-released album (catalog number 547). Recorded shortly after Ra and his Arkestra landed in New York, feels rough and scattered, with shifting lineups (the young Eddie Gale is a surprise), even the regulars rotating instruments (John Gilmore variously plays tenor sax, bass clarinet, and percussion, his credits also including space drums and space bird sounds, while Marshall Allen plays more flute than alto sax), while Ra's piano jumps hither and yon. B+(**)
Sun Ra & His Astro-Infinity Arkestra: Strange Strings (1966-67 , Atavistic Unheard Music Series): You can't help but do a double take when the man from Saturn finds anything strange. The string instruments played by nearly everyone in the band -- rotating with their more/less normal instruments, although Marshall Allen's first credit is oboe, and the rhythm section mostly consists of log drums and tympani -- are unidentified but seem to include odd lutes and zithers from around the world. Seem, because they're pretty much unidentifiable: undulating waves of metallic bowed and plucked sounds crashing against the shore. The pieces move from "Worlds Approaching" to "Strings Strange" to "Strange Strange": the first is remarkable, especially for the drums, while the later pieces unravel a bit. One of Ra's many self-issued low-run LPs, augmented with a bonus track called "Door Squeak" -- an improv based on Ra repeatedly opening and closing a squeaky door. B+(***)
Marcus Roberts Trio: New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 (2007 , J-Master Music): Pianist; b. 1963 Jacksonville, FL; blind since youth; studied and teaches at Florida State. Joined Wynton Marsalis's group in 1985. Has 15 albums since 1988, mostly tributes to other pianists plus several Gershwin sets. This one, with Roland Guerin on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, pulls 11 songs from Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk, then tacks on an original called "Searching for the Blues" (actually, another stride tune, until he slows it down). That about sums up his range, and as long as he sticks to what he knows he does nicely. When he wanders, as on the first half of "Honeysuckle Rose" (misattributed to Jelly Roll Morton on the hype sheet), he gets lost fast. First record on his own label. Got a lot of florid press in advance of this, but when it came to put up or shut up all I got was a crappy CDR. B+(*) [advance]
J.D. Allen Trio: Shine! (2008 , Sunnyside): Tenor saxophonist. Wikipedia lists him as J.D. Allen III, b. 1972, Detroit. Fourth album since 1996, plus a dozen-plus side credits, usually making a big impression. Trio includes Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Played this last night while on my way to bed, then twice this morning while reading. Not sure whether it's just a real solid freebop outing or he's breaking loose as a major voice. Latter seems likely to happen sooner or later. [B+(***)]
Sean Noonan's Brewed by Noon: Boxing Dreams (2007-08 , Songlines): Drummer, from Brockton, MA, graduated from Berklee. Formed Brewed by Noon in 2004, leading to a 2007 record, Stories to Tell -- also a "live" record on Innova I haven't heard. Similar lineup, with Aram Bajakian and Marc Ribot (electric guitar), Mat Maneri (viola), Thierno Camara (electric bass), Thiokho Diagne (percussion), Susan McKeown and Abdoulaye Diabaté (vocals) on both. This one adds Jamaldeen Tacuma on electric bass, dropping some extra guitar, percussion, and vocals. Package teases: "A Potent Brew: Tribal Rhythms by an Irish Griot." The Afro-Celtic fusion is palpable, but the vocals don't mesh very well -- Diabaté runs roughshod over the album, but isn't anywhere near the next Salif Keita. Still, Ribot and Maneri make a powerful team, and the mixed-bag percussion is interesting. B+(*)
Susie Meissner: I'll Remember April (2008 , Lydian Jazz): Standards singer, based in Philadelphia, started out in a dinner theatre in the mid-1970s. First album. The usual Berlin ("How Deep Is the Ocean"), Porter ("You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"), Rodgers/Hart ("There's a Small Hotel"). Two Jobims, both in English. Band swings a little, and she can reach those troublesome high notes. Still, the only reason to bother is "special guest" Brian Lynch, who bursts forth with fireworks we he gets the shot. B- [June 1]
Chris Morrissey: The Morning World (2008 , Sunnyside): Bassist, b. 1980, from Minneapolis/St. Paul area, now based in Brooklyn. First album. Side credits since 2004 with Mason Jennings, Andrew Bird, Haley Bonar, and Ben Kweller -- those I recognize are rockers (more/less), and AMG misfiled this as Pop/Rock. With Michael Lewis (all kinds of saxes) and David King (drums) this is virtually a Happy Apple record. Piano is split between Peter Schimke (5 cuts) and Bryan Nichols (3). Chris Thomson adds another sax to one cut. Record doesn't specify electric or acoustic bass, but Morrissey's MySpace page shows him pretty juiced up. He wrote all of the pieces here, mostly propulsive bass lines which King emphatically pushes along. That may not sound like much, but Lewis does a terrific job of exploring the jazz angles tangential to the grooves, and he can wax eloquent even when he doesn't have much to go on. Record doesn't specify which sax he plays when, but they tend toward higher registers -- alto, probably a lot of soprano too. Working behind his group name and on the side like this he's way underrecognized. A-
Magos Herrera: Distancia (2008 , Sunnyside): Vocalist, from Mexico City, based in New York since 2007. Sixth or seventh album since 1998, although AMG and Sunnyside both count this as her fourth. Group includes Aaron Goldberg on piano, Lionel Loueke on guitar. Produced by Tim Ries. Hype says "her repertoire is filled with romance, intimacy and enchantment," but that's lost to my woeful ear for Spanish, but two songs in English don't catch my ear either; her "Mexican and Cuban sones and boleros, and sultry, languid samba-bossa nova beats" should cut the language barrier, but I'm not so sure about them either. Brazil is a big part of her mix, with her reworking a Nascimento song and closing with "Dindi." B
E.J. Strickland Quintet: In This Day (2008 , Strick Muzik): Twin brother of saxophonist Marcus Strickland, plays drums, has been an asset since 1999 in his brother's groups as well as with Eric Person, Vincent Davis, Xavier Davis, David Weiss, Ravi Coltrane, Russell Malone, Tom Guarna, and George Colligan. First album, produced by Coltrane, with Jaleel Shaw and Marcus Strickland on saxes, Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and the occasional guest here and there -- Tia Fuller flute, David Gilmore guitars, Pedro Martinez congas, Brandee Younger harp, Cheray O'Neal spoken word, and Yosvany Terry as if they needed another tenor sax. At a moderate pace the saxes melt into that slick postbop harmony I never cared for, but when they break loose even the ace Latin rhythm section is hard pressed to keep up. None of the guest touches strike me as good ideas, except maybe the congas. B+(*)
Bob Albanese Trio with Ira Sullivan: One Way/Detour (2008 , Zoho): Piano trio plus spare wheel -- Sullivan plays tenor sax on three cuts, soprano sax on one, alto flute on one, and percussion on one more, leaving the trio to their own devices on 4 of 10. Albanese is a pianist, based in New York since 1980 -- don't know how old he is, or where he came from. First album; not many side credits -- first AMG lists is 1991. Mainstream bebopper -- one review I've seen likens him to Red Garland, and I'm not going to try to improve on that. Wrote 7 of 10 pieces, with one from Monk, one from Hampton, and one called "Yesterday's Gardenias" by guys I don't recognize. Sullivan goes back further: in the liner notes, Ira Gitler talks about hearing Sullivan blow trumpet in 1949. AMG has a picture of a fairly young Sullivan with trumpet, but his main axe has long been tenor sax. Cut a couple records in the 1950s, a Bird Lives! in 1962, a fairly productive stretch from 1975-82, not much since. He helps out here, especially on tenor sax. B+(**)
The Joel LaRue Smith Trio: September's Child (2007 , Joel LaRue Smith): Piano trio, with Fernando Huergo on bass, Renato Malavasi on drums. Don't know much about pianist Smith, except that he studied at Manhattan School of Music under Jaki Byard and Barry Harris, and teaches at Tufts, directing their Jazz Orchestra. Debut record. Wrote 7 of 11 pieces, with a strong Afro-Cuban accent, and does an impressive job of carrying it off. Some of the quirkiness of Afro-Cuban jazz is inevitably lost in reducing it to straight piano trio, but he nails it pretty well. B+(***)
Bill Anschell/Brent Jensen: We Couldn't Agree More (2008 , Origin): Duets, Anschell playing piano, Jensen soprano sax. Anschell is a Seattle pianist with a half dozen or so albums since 1997. Jensen teaches in Idaho; started out on alto, but has played more soprano recently, exclusively on his last couple of albums. The latest, a quartet with Anschell called One More Mile, made my A-list. This is less flush, of course, but the strong points are still here. Ends with a remarkably schematic take on "Sunny Side of the Street." B+(***)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band: Act Your Age (2008, Immergent, CD+DVD): Big band, eighteen-strong plus some guests, fast, slick, packs a wallop, seems like a fun group. Goodwin plays piano, tenor sax, and soprano sax. Came up with Louie Bellson, continuing in that vein. Never got to the DVD. B+(**)
Ridd Quartet: Fiction Avalanche (2005 , Clean Feed): The all-Davis half of the Kris Davis Quartet -- that means drummer Jeff Davis -- with a couple of New Yorkers who, in theory at least, push the Davises a bit further out towards left field: alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, best known for Mostly Other People Do the Killing, and bassist Reuben Radding. A bit rougher and less settled: maybe because no one is calling the shots, or it's a relatively old tape that Radding remastered and the others are moving on. B+(**)
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.
Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:
Sunday, May 24. 2009
The June 11, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books has a roundtable on "The Crisis and How to Deal with It": Jeff Madrick moderating, with Bill Bradley, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, George Soros, and Robin Wells. Several good points here, including a particularly lucid explanation by Krugman on the "global savings glut" at the heart of the collapse. The argument there is that with net worth falling, those who can afford to want to save more and spend less to build back their asset levels. However, they lack investment opportunities, because there is already a lot of excess productive capacity and no real demand for more:
He doesn't go any further in unpacking why this is the case, but I believe that it is based on the growing efficiency of the rich in politically exploiting their advantages vs. everyone else; i.e., it's the consequence of growing inequality. Moreover, this trend goes back well before it turned into crisis, with much of the transfer shunted into asset bubbles. Indeed, it's tempting to say that the whole rich-get-richer process has been illusory, at least to the extent that it's been based in leveraging credit to inflate the asset prices that we now see collapsing. On the other hand, the complementary poor-get-poorer process is all too real. This process has been masked by technological gains, by credit growth compensating for wage stagnation, and by a largely unaccounted for risk shift. However, as the system collapses, debts become unserviceable and risks increasingly become real, reducing demand and dragging the real economy down.
The other important quote here is from Robin Wells:
China-vs-America is just one example, but it provides a very good example of the problem. China uses its trade advantage to grow its real economy, while the US uses the capital returns to grow its imaginary economy -- basically, to inflate the assets of the rich, whose inordinate political clout sustains it. This cycle depresses working wages in the US, which one way or another come back to the rich in the US, if not as lower costs than as capital flows. So one immediate effect is greater inequality in the US, but the longer term effect is less productivity in the US (and more in China), so there is ultimately less real wealth here (and more there).
Turning this around is going to take a massive political shift in the US, much more so than the Bush-to-Obama shift.
Update: Turns out the piece referred to above is online here. Also see Brad DeLong's analysis here. I didn't pay a lot of attention to what Niall Ferguson said -- because I pretty much never pay attention to what Ferguson says. (And why does Amazon keep sticking his books in my recommended list?) But one thing I did notice that bugged me was his comment that in aiming to stave off a repeat of the 1930s we might wind up with a repeat of the 1970s. Aside from Dick Nixon, what's so bad about that? The inflation created a mixed bag of losers and winners, whereas the depression hurt virtually everyone -- as did, for that matter, the Volcker recession of 1979-82, widely credited for breaking the back of inflation, mostly by cutting the labor movement off at the kneecaps. Add all that up and, sure, the 1970s were a raw deal, but to get there you have to assume that inflation inevitably gave us Reagan. That's pretty much like saying Germany's 1920s inflation gave them Hitler -- sure, there's a connection there, but it's not a necessary one. More like a lot of capitalist and militarist grumbling and the bad luck to get their wishes fulfilled.
Tuesday, May 19. 2009
A sudden cluster of posts look back on the ancien regime. It's not that anyone misses it, but we still haven't quite come to face with its full horror.
Frank Rich: Obama Can't Turn the Page on Bush: Sooner or later, we have to take full account of the Bush regime's eight-year ransacking of the federal government and the many disastrous obsessions of their frenzied true believers. If Obama and the Democrats don't take the lead, at least some journalists and historians will step into the breach. The Democrats may wish to avoid the appearance of a partisan grudge, but their failure leaves them increasingly tarnished with the same brush -- Obama's flip-flops on the torture photos and military tribunals are cases in point. Rich points to several recent pieces, and calls for a tribunal. It isn't enough that Republicans get voted out of office. We need to understand how thoroughly wrongheaded their whole administration was.
Robert Draper: And He Shall Be Judged. One of the articles cited by Rich above, about Donald Rumsfeld's mismanagement of the Pentagon and trench warfare in the executive branch. Some of this, like the Bible-inscribed cover sheet exec summaries prepared for the Bible-imbibing decider, are new and if not exactly devastating at least embarrassing. Goes into some depth on Rumsfeld's bureaucratic war tactics -- about the only war he actually showed much promise at. And, of course, there are plenty of rhetorical flourishes and prevarication. He was quite a piece of work.
David Rose: Heads in the Sand. Principle revelation here is that the Sunni Awakening movement -- the real reason people think the Surge worked -- had a deal on the table as early as 2004, but the neocons killed it because they preferred a dominant, sectarian Shiite power base. At one point, Wolfowitz dismisses a proposal by ranting, "they are Nazis."
Col. Lawrence B Wilkerson: The Truth about Richard Bruce Cheney. Colin Powell's State Department chief of staff reflects on Cheney's heyday as lord of the dark side. One thing he points out is that Cheney's torture fetish was abandoned after the embarrassment of the Abu Ghraib disclosures. One thing that strikes me is that the eagerness of someone like Cheney to continue to be identified with torture assumes that there is a political gain in the deal -- i.e., that the Republican base likes the idea of torturing bad guys, regardless of whether there's any information gain or loss from it. Same thing happened with some of the massive eavesdropping programs: when found out, the Bush administration acted like they were proud of the fact. They certainly wouldn't have done that without good polling data, so this not only reflects poorly on their own ethics but on that of a sizable segment of America.
Marcy Wheeler: The 13 people who made torture possible. List piece, but often it helps to keep a scorecard. The list, in order: Dick Cheney, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, James Mitchell, George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, William "Jim" Haynes, Donald Rumsfeld, John Rizzo, Steven Bradbury, and George W Bush.
I've started reading Jane Mayer's The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, just out in paperback. I've generally avoided the broad set of legal issues ranging from arbitrary detentions to torture, figuring that concern over the abuse of "American ideals" required a degree of historical naïveté that I lost long ago. On the other hand, the set of issues isn't going away any time soon, so I Mayer's book might be a good way to catch up. It also gets me back into thinking about the Bush regime -- still the focal point of that book I need to get back to writing. You know: the one about how conservative brain rot has been leading us to a new dark age. And that is what is most striking about the first pages of Mayer's book: how puerile and downright inept Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Ashcroft, and all of them were in the wake of 9/11/2001. (In fact, I almost dropped Ashcroft -- as certifiable a nut case as any of them -- from the list as relatively mature, although it may just be that as the only lawyer on that list he was the only one with a clue what the constitution said or meant.) To a surprising degree, Bush's inner circle was not just philosophically shackled, they suffered from deep psychological delusions. Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine captures a lot of this, from when Bush decides a "show of force" is what Israel/Palestine needs to Cheney's title concept, which basically insisted that we treat every conceivable threat as a fait accompli. In past administrations, psychology helps explain little quirks (well, in Nixon's case, big quirks), but I've never seen so much come down to psychology. Even Reagan, who spent eight years sleepwalking through his dreamworld -- at least he had pleasant dreams, unlike Cheney.
Monday, May 18. 2009
No word yet on when the Village Voice will run the Jazz Consumer Guide I sent in about a month ago. Probably won't know until the week before it runs, which must not be this week. Meanwhile, I have a big pile of things to work through, even after taking a healthy bite out below. Still working on my kitchen, which makes it hard to focus -- I've tended to avoid avant jazz for that reason, so it's a big chunk of what I need to get to. Kitchen stuff should start to wind down soon. I expect to pick up the tarps and move the dining room table back to the dining room this week. It's taken much longer and cost much more than I expected, but it's coming together.
One thing I'll throw out: if anyone has any good ideas about a possible publisher for Recycled Goods, please let me know. Thanks.
Charles Evans: The King of All Instruments (2007-08 , Hot Cup): Baritone saxophonist, b. 1978 somewhere in PA, a childhood friend of bassist Moppa Elliott. Studied with Dave Liebman. Moved to New York. Elliott introduced him to trumpeter Peter Evans, leading to a joint album called No Relation. The latter Evans brought influences like Anthony Braxton into play, but this solo album is no analog to Braxton's For Alto. For one thing, Charles is still enamored with Gerry Mulligan (name-checked in one song title here). For another, this is overlayed, which lets him build up a bit of sax choir sound. In the liner notes, Evans says: "It was created during a period of musical isolation, introspection, and poor health." Makes sense. B+(**)
Jermaine Landsberger: Gettin' Blazed (2009, Resonance): Organ player, from Germany, of Sinti heritage, claims to have "made many albums as a jazz pianist under his own name" -- AMG counts four since 2000. Group includes Gary Meek (tenor sax, soprano sax, flute), Andreas Öberg (guitar, with Pat Martino added on three cuts), James Genus (bass), Harvey Mason (drums), and a second keyboard player, Kuno Schmid. Covers one Django Reinhardt song, but also picks on Richard Galliano, Stevie Wonder, Horace Silver, and some Brazilians. Played it twice while trying to write something and didn't notice it much one way or the other. B
Claudia Acuña: Es Este Momento (2007 , Marsalis Music): Singer, from Chile, b. 1971, moved to New York in 1995. Fourth album, or fifth counting the one with Arturo O'Farrill's name out front. Liner notes argue that this record, with its flow between Spanish and English (often in the same song), "stands as the truest reflection of both her and her band to date." That may be true, but it doesn't amount to much. Her voice is as thin as a frill, and when the band picks up the pace she has trouble keeping up. If her Spanish harbors any depth, it's not disclosed in English -- probably helps that this is her most heavily Spanish-tilted album. The band can't be blamed: Jason Lindner, Omer Avital, Clarence Penn, and a guitarist named Juancho Herrera. Label mogul Branford Marsalis drops in for a soprano sax solo, a high point. B-
Omar Sosa: Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm & Ancestry (2008 , Half Note): Cuban pianist; moved to Ecuador in 1993, then San Francisco, then Barcelona in 1999. Has a dozen or more records since then, but this is the first I've heard, and it's thrown me for a loop. Nothing especially Afro-Cuban to it, even though Roman Diaz dubbed bata drums, congas, and cajon after the fact. Tim Eriksen, with a rather unnotable voice, sings four tracks, with gospel themes and slave roots: "Promised Land," "Gabriel's Trumpet," "Sugar Baby Blues," "Night of the Four Songs." The slow, atmospheric closer, "Ancestors," adds some more talk, not very clear. The other stuff muddles through more than ambles on. Exotic instruments come and go -- kalimba, chigovia, caxixis, chinese flute -- and who knows what's coming out of Sosa's samplers. The cool moodiness strikes me as more appropriate than anything in Wynton Marsalis's slave epics, but still leaves me uncertain and uneasy. B+(*)
Hugh Masekela: Phola (2009, 4Q/Times Square): South African, b. 1939, plays flugelhorn these days and sings somewhat awkwardly; joined the Jazz Epistles with the future Abdullah Ibrahim in 1959, and left the country soon after the Sharpeville Massacre. Recorded more or less steadily since the mid-1960s, working his way through jazz, fusion, funk, disco, and pop, more often than not working a bit of his homeland in. A good summary is his 2007 live album, Live at Market Theatre, marking his return to South Africa. This follows up nicely, his flugelhorn riding an easy groove with complex beats; a couple of songs, like "Sonnyboy," strike me as overly ripe, but the emotion is palpable. B+(**)
Jennifer Lee: Quiet Joy (2008 , SBE): Singer, from San Francisco; MySpace page says she's 43, if that's her -- I'm suspicious of any musician with only 5 friends. Google came up with a lot of Jennifer Lees, most unlikely. This one has two albums, with guitarist Peter Sprague and bassist Bob Magnusson among her band. Three originals, a mix of standards and Brazilian tunes. Surprisingly, the Brazilians are the best things here -- "O Pato" caught my attention, mostly because it doesn't melt in the sun like so many sambas. A bit of Gershwin merged into "Amor Certinho" also works like a charm, especially leading into "Pennies From Heaven." B
The Kevin Hays Trio: You've Got a Friend (2007 , Jazz Eyes): Piano trio, with Doug Weiss on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. Pianist Hays comes from Connecticut, b. 1968, has 10 albums since 1994 when he broke through on Blue Note -- several earlier ones back to 1991 then appeared on Steeplechase in Denmark. Starts with three pop/rock tunes -- Carole King's title track, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Fool on the Hill" -- offering little but avoiding my tendency to gag on Simon's tune. Then moves back to the jazz repertoire, with Monk and Parker bracketing "Sweet and Lovely" and Bob Dorough's "Nothing Like You" -- more substance in all of those. One of those pianists I respect a lot but never get excited about. Stewart does a lot of this sort of thing, and show you why he's so in demand. B+(*)
Arve Henriksen: Cartography (2006-08 , ECM): Trumpeter, from Norway, b. 1968. AMG classifies him as Avant-Garde, presumably factoring in his classical training, fascination with Japanese shakuhachi, use of electronics, and utter lack of swing. Fourth album since 2001, the first three on Rune Grammofon. The music is mostly built on samples -- quiet, peaceful, ethereal -- mostly by Jan Bang, with tiny bits of guitar (Eivind Aarset on 2 cuts), bass (Lars Danielsson on 1 cut), synth (Erik Honoré on 4 cuts), and drums (Audun Kleive on 1 cut, percussion on 2 more), and David Sylvain spoken words (2 cuts). So subtle it could slip by unheard, which would be a shame. B+(***)
Cyminology: As Ney (2008 , ECM): Piano trio -- Benedikt Jahnel, Ralf Schwarz, Ketan Bhatti -- backing vocalist Cymin Samawatie, b. 1976 in Braunschweig, Germany, of Iranian parents. Fourth album. Songs based on Iranian models, including the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, in Farsi with English trots in the oversized booklet. I find her voice hymnal, which isn't usually a good thing, although it helps when the piano gets out in front. B
Rainbow Jimmies: The Music of John Hollenbeck (2007-08 , GPE): Might as well file this under Hollenbeck, even though he subcontracts several cuts to various artists. The first seven pieces are collectively titled "Gray Cottage Study": they were written for violinist Todd Reynolds, with Hollenbeck on drums and/or Matt Moran on vibes occasionally helping out. Fairly static chamber music, not a lot of beat to them, unlike the others: two Claudia Quintet cuts, a 12:51 piece by the Youngstown Percussion Collective and Saxophone Quartet ("oh yeah") and another 12:02 by Ethos Percussion Group. Hollenbeck's beatwise pieces are irresistible -- he is first and foremost a drummer -- but his impressionistic chamber music hangs in there too. What could be a scattered collection keeps catching your ear. B+(***)
Steve Haines Quintet with Jimmy Cobb: Stickadiboom (2007 , Zoho): Bassist, teaches in North Carolina (Director of the Miles Davis Program in Jazz Studies at UNC Greensboro). Quintet is a solid hard bop unit, with drummer Thomas Taylor making way for Cobb, who must feel right at home. Trumpeter Rob Smith makes more of an impression than tenor saxophonist David Lown or pianist Chip Crawford, but all are sharp enough, and a couple of bass solos by the leader are spot on. B+(**)
Frank Wess Nonet: Once Is Not Enough (2008 , Labeth Music): Born 1922, one of jazz's most senior citizens, still going pretty strong. He might not be as well known as he is had he not played more and better flute than any other saxophonist of his generation (which basically means James Moody), or any subsequent generation (except Yusef Lateef, maybe). The flute has made him a consistent poll winner, although I'd take his tenor sax any day -- and submit "Lush Life" here as proof. Still, his real claim to fame was as one of Count Basie's New Testament arrangers, something he reminded us of in 1989 when Concord gave him a new lease and he responded with Dear Mr. Basie -- also credited to Sweets Edison, who provided the Old Testament fire and brimstone. He's still recycling here, but the Nonet is a nice fit for a crack arranger, and being a legend he gets folks like Terrell Stafford, Steve Turre, Ted Nash, and Scott Robinson lining up to play with him. He even has to slide Peter Washington aside to give Rufus Reid a couple of cuts on bass. Plays more sax than flute this time, too. B+(**)
Rob Thorsen: Lasting Impression (2008 , Pacific Coast Jazz): As I scan through Thorsen's web bio, I'm growing impatient, flashing on Jack Webb, wanting to say: "just the facts, ma'am." Bassist, based in San Diego, spent some time in San Francisco. Old enough he's a little short on top. Website lists four albums, including one attributed to Cross Border Trio, but not including this one. No dates on those. Album rotates musicians in and out, splitting piano between Geoffrey Keezer and Josh Nelson, with Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet/flugelhorn and/or Ben Wendel on tenor sax/bassoon on most cuts. Mostly bebop tunes -- two from Parker, one from McLean, "Giant Steps" from Coltrane -- plus "Smile," "The Man I Love," and four originals that fit in nicely. Bass is noticeable and makes a fine impression -- check his solo on "Cigarones." Castellanos also stands out. B+(**)
Blink.: The Epidemic of Ideas (2008, Thirsty Ear): Chicago group, evidently they prefer lower case with a period at the end, but the typographer (not to mention the database architect) in me rebels. No one I'm familiar with: Jeff Greene (bass, sample, harmonium), Quin Kirchner (drums, percussion, glockenspiel), Dave Miller (guitar, effects), Greg Ward (alto sax). Don't know if there's any sort of pecking order there, although Greene is front and center in the group photo over at MySpace. Got an advance on this last summer and it fell through the cracks. Greene seems happy enough with rock grooves, while Ward plays a fairly aggressive freebop. Haven't paid enough attention to the drummer, who should be decisive. Maybe I can get a real copy. [B+(***)] [advance]
Rob Mazurek Quintet: Sound Is (2009, Delmark): Cornet player, based in Chicago, the mainstay behind Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/Quartet and Exploding Star Orchestra. Quintet picks up drummer and bass guitarist with more rock credits than anything else -- Matthew Lux on bass guitar, John Herndon on drums -- along with two common names in the Chicago underground: Josh Abrams on acoustic bass and Jason Adasiewicz on vibes. There is a lot of stuff to like here, but too much that I find annoying -- mostly having to do with lots of ringing bells. Even the bits that I like -- cornet, stretches of oddly accented free rhythm -- I can't make much of a case for. Played it four times in a row today, and want to move on, and don't particularly care to come back to it. B
Todd Bishop's Pop Art 4: Plays the Music of Serge Gainsbourg: 69 Année Érotique (2008 , Origin): Not a bad idea, but done so roughly you figure that's part of their concept. Bishop is a drummer from Portland; does some visual art; has a gig on a Columbia River cruise ship; sells some merchandise; has been on a couple of group albums as Flatland and Lower Monumental. Group includes Richard Cole on woodwinds (i.e., not the much better known Richie Cole, although I'm pretty sure I've run across this one before), Steve Moore on keyboards, and Geoff Harper on bass, plus occasional guests. Casey Scott sings "Initials B.B." and "Je T'Aime . . . Moi Non Plus" -- crudely, of course. B
Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones (2009, Rounder): Nice French name, but she was born 1974 in Athens GA, grew up in New York and Southern California, but moved to Paris with her mother after her parents divorced, and was discovered there. She was slotted as a jazz singer because she sounds like Billie Holiday -- not that anyone really does, but she was one of the few who begged comparison. (Holiday wasn't necessarily a jazz singer either, but she hung with jazz musicians, sung on their records, employed them on hers, and was so great that no one quibbled about her style.) Peyroux's earlier records paraded various songbook items which heightened the comparison, but she has her name on every song here -- mostly co-credits with bassist-producer Larry Klein. Several are striking -- "Love and Treachery," "Our Lady of Pigalle" -- but none are what you would call jazzy. The band is mostly guitar and keyboards -- several credits on Estey, a brand name that could be a piano but is probably an old pump organ -- with a bit of violin by Carla Kihlstedt. Peyroux herself plays acoustic guitar. B+(**)
Duke Heitger and Bernd Lhotzky: Doin' the Voom Voom (2008 , Arbors): Heitger is a trumpet player from Toledo, based in New Orleans; plays trad jazz. Has a fairly lengthy credits list since 1993, including Jacques Gauthé, Silver Leaf Jazz Band, Squirrel Nut Zippers, various John Gill groups (Dixieland Serenaders, Yerba Buena Stompers); also a couple of albums under his own name, like Duke Heitger's Steamboat Stompers and Duke Heitger's Big Four. Lhotzky is a German pianist who is especially fond of James P. Johnson. He showed up on one of those Arbors Piano Series records a few years back: Piano Portrait. Still, not much stomping going on here, just polite, often charming, duets on classic themes. B+(*)
Béla Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart: Tales From the Acoustic Planet Vol. 3: Africa Sessions (2009, Rounder): Although the banjo reportedly came from Africa, it doesn't seem inevitable that Fleck would trek back to the mother continent to situate his banjo in such ancestral music. But a tape of Mali's Oumou Sangare got him started on a project that wound up recording 40 pieces of music and recording some 250 hours of film. This CD has 18 songs. Not sure of the dates and locations, but it looks like he cut chunks in Mali, Gambia, Uganda, and Tanzania -- those four nations account for almost everyone involved here, the principal exceptions being D'Gary (from Malagasy) and Vusi Mahlasela (South Africa). (One piece called "D'Gary Jam" also credits musicians from Senegal and Cameroon, but it was actually cut in Nashville.) The African music is more folk than pop or jazz -- it almost has the feel of field recordings -- with the banjo running steadily through it. This will ultimately succeed or fail based on the African music, which at first has the feel of novelty about it. But Africans made a mensch out of Paul Simon, even. They certainly put a new spin on Fleck. [B+(***)]
Gabriel Espinosa: From Yucatan to Rio (2009, Zoho): Mexican bassist, starts with his arrangement of Jobim, adds a bunch of originals straddling his title, including two from vocalist Alison Wedding. It's OK as long as the sinuous grooves hold out, with Brazilian pianist Helio Alves setting the pace, and Brazilians Romero Lubambo (guitar) and Claudio Roditi (trumpet/flugelhorn) adding their skills. The drummers alternate between Brazilian Adriano Santos and Mexican Antonio Sanchez. It's less than OK when the singers chime in -- not just Wedding but also Darmon Meader and Kim Nazarian. Anat Cohen gets a lot of billing for one clarinet solo that I didn't notice. B-
Irene Atman: New York Rendezvous (2009, no label): Vocalist, from Toronto. Evidently sung a little when she was young -- "twenty years ago, while working on a forgettable cruise ship, I met a piano player . . . Frank Kimbrough" -- then did something else for a couple of decades before coming back with a record, and now her second. A New York group set up by Kimbrough, with Jay Anderson on bass, Matt Wilson on drums, and Joel Frahm on sax -- not that I noticed. Voice has some character, band is solid, but nothing special in the songs. Shows her range with one in Spanish, "Somos Novios" -- better choice than an obligatory Jobim. B [June 1]
Sarah Brooks and Graceful Soul: Under the Bones of the Great Blue Whale (2006 , Whaling City Sound): Recorded live at The New Bedford Whaling Museum. Hard to read any of the tiny-blue-type-on-black-background: couldn't find the credits at first, or the venue, or the date, all of which eventually revealed themselves under an illuminated magnifying glass. Still haven't tackled Neal Weiss's liner notes. Brooks has one previous album, What My Heart Is For, unless she has a side-business recording things like Give Yourself Permission to Relax (CDBaby) -- seems unlikely for someone whose first impression is that she's a Janis Joplin wannabe. Of course, that comes through more loud and clear on songs that fit ("Bring It On Home to Me," "Chain of Fools," "At Last") than on songs that don't (e.g., "Look of Love"). Two guitar band, with an alto sax. Ends with an "instrumental version" of "Amazing Grace," which seems to add a second sax -- by far the best thing on the record. B
East West Quintet: Vast (2007 , Native Language Music): Brooklyn group -- even on their website they say "don't be fooled by the name." Members: Dylan Heaney (saxes), Simon Kafka (guitars), Mike Cassedy (keys), Ben Campbell (bass), Jordan Perlson (drums). Kafka and Cassedy have most of the writing credits -- four each, compared to one each for Campbell and Heaney. Reportedly originated as a Cannonball Adderley-style hard bop group, but evolved to be more rockish. Works best when the saxophonist breaks free of the rhythmic thrash; worst when the thrash turns to sludge. C+ [June 23]
Steve Lehman Octet: Travail, Transformation, and Flow (2008 , Pi): Alto saxophonist, don't see a birthdate anywhere, but he studied under Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean, has six or more albums under his own name since 2001, plus two with Vijay Iyer as Fieldwork. His recent press has been playing up his Downbeat Rising Star votes (finished #5 last year), which seems more or less right -- although you could argue that Downbeat's critics aren't his natural constituency, given that they left McLean off their Hall of Fame ballot until after he died, and that they still haven't considered Braxton. (On the other hand, Lehman records for more critic-friendly labels than Braxton, at least in the last 20 years.) As with Braxton, Lehman's technique is slowed by his compositions, which are difficult little pieces that play against your expectations. I've found that they work best in small groups, as on his Demian as Posthuman. Scaling them up to octet strength is tricky, but he does a good job of keeping the five horns (Mark Shim on tenor sax, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Tim Albright on trombone, and Jose Davila on Tuba) distinct, and Chris Dingman's vibes fly against the grain -- not that there is much of a grain with Drew Gress on bass and, especially, Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Don't have it sussed out adequately. Nor do I recognize the last piece, the only one Lehman didn't write -- evidently comes from somewhere in the Wu-Tang empire. [B+(***)]
Mike Clinco: Neon (2008 , Whaling City Sound): Guitarist, b. 1954, lives in Sherman Oaks, CA. Toured with Henry Mancini 1980; did some (maybe a lot) of film work from 1981 on. First album. Wrote everything on it except for "Charade" by Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Lined up a good band, with a couple of CA names I recognize -- Darek Oleskiewicz on bass; Bob Sheppard on tenor sax, alto sax, and alto flute. The others -- ex-Mother Walt Fowler on flugelhorn, electric bassist Jimmy Johnson, and drummer/percussionist Jimmy Branly -- have been around. Nice little postbop album. Probably had it in him for decades. B+(*)
Rick Germanson Trio: Off the Cuff (2009, Owl Studios): First album I recall seeing thus far this year with an honest 2009 recording date: January 6-7. I probably have some more in the queue, and more are sure to follow soon, since it no longer takes much to turn this product out. Pianist, b. 1972, Milwaukee, based in New York, has two previous 2003-05 Fresh Sound New Talent albums plus a couple dozen side credits since 1999 -- Brian Lynch, Jeremy Pelt, Wayne Escoffery, George Gee, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Brad Leali, Louis Hayes & the Cannonball Legacy Band. Hayes is the drummer here, along with bassist Gerald Cannon. Originals slightly outnumber covers -- "Up Jumped Spring," "This Time the Dream's on Me," "Wives and Lovers," "Autumn in New York." B+(*)
Shelly Berg: The Nearness of You (2008 , Arbors): Pianist, b. 1955, from Cleveland, studied in Houston, taught in Texas and, since 1991, at USC. Father played trumpet -- Jay Berg, doesn't ring a bell. Sixth album since 1995, including an Oscar Peterson tribute. This is solo, Volume 19 in Arbors Piano Series. A couple of medleys from "My Fair Lady" and "Guys and Dolls"; standards like the title cut and "Where or When" and "My One and Only Love," with "Con Alma" for a taste of bebop. I don't get much out of this sort of thing. Dr. Judith Schlesinger, in the liner notes, describes it as "inherently relaxing," but I don't even get that. It takes a lot to sustain interest in solo piano -- a Ran Blake or Paul Bley or Dave Burrell, maybe, or better still, a Cecil Taylor or Earl Hines or Art Tatum. B-
Thomas Marriott: Flexicon (2008 , Origin): Seattle-based trumpeter. Fourth album since 2005, plus a couple dozen side credits, almost all on Origin. Core group is a quartet with Bill Anschell on piano, Jeff Johnson on bass, and Matt Jorgensen on drums. Five cuts add Mark Taylor on sax; two cuts feature Joe Locke on vibes. The first, with all six, is a Freddie Hubbard barn burner, turned out messy. Locke's other piece is John Barry's "You Only Live Twice," turned out nicely. Otherwise, a mix of originals and covers, wobbling uncertainly between hard bop and postbop. B-
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Diana Krall: Quiet Nights (2009, Verve): Claus Ogerman's strings are soft and cushy, but they do the job, whether adding to the grandeur of a "Where or When" or setting up a little holiday to Brazil to check out "The Boy From Ipanema" and imagine that "So Nice" is something one could ever hope for. The concept is artistically marginal, commercially obvious, and a little bit demeaning. I especially hate the dysfunctional evening gown and all the make up that's meant to glamorize the plainest face in show business. But she sings every song superbly, especially the two so-called bonus tracks, and plays a little piano. She's always been willing to do what it takes to be a star, because deep down she is one. A-
Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:
Sunday, May 17. 2009
Robert Haddick: This Week at War, No. 16: Two parts to this post, subtitled "What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal": the first on McChrystal replacing McKiernan in Afghanistan; the second on the antiwar movement. On the former:
This has usually been reported as "McKiernan did nothing wrong," which is sort of credible in the by-the-book world of the military bureaucracy. But if you scratch deeper, virtually every time the military's playbook meets the real world things go wrong. In fact, Afghanistan offers seven years of examples of things going wrong, horribly, practically day by day. The idea that "nothing went wrong" under McKiernan's watch in Afghanistan is absurd: not only did lot of little things go wrong, the whole strategic picture went from bad to worse. Maybe McChrystal won't respond to these problems any better than McKiernan did, but you can hardly argue that whatever it was that McKiernan was doing was working.
McKiernan, by contrast, was out of the office, far away in Afghanistan, unable to schmooze as efficiently as McChrystal and Rodriguez. No doubt there's some truth to that. But more important was hat any armchair quarterbacking McChrystal had to offer in the meeting rooms of the Pentagon wouldn't be tested by reality in Afghanistan. It's always easier to suggest better ways of dealing with problems when you don't actually have to go to all of the trouble and mess of implementing them: simplifications are inevitable, troublesome details are easily swept aside, and unknowns are undiscovered. Given how bad Afghanistan has gone, and given the growing split between the counterinsurgency buffs and the old-line, there must have been a lot of second guessing in the Pentagon. The change of command is a way of saying "put up or shut up."
We can take this argument even further. When the wars started in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military was built for major operations. McKiernan epitomized this in his mad rush to Baghdad, but that was the last such operation of the Long War -- unless you count the levelling of several Iraqi towns, like Fallujah. Since then the US has primarily been doing counterinsurgency, and ambitious officers, like Petraeus and McChrystal, have seen that as their ticket to the top and made that their specialty. I could argue that this is a good thing because it shows up how obsolete and useless the bloated military bureaucracy really is. On the other hand, the doomsday crap deterring the Russians was never likely to actually be used, whereas counterinsurgency is something that, if it doesn't fail totally, is tempting to be deployed in dozens of backwaters all over the world from now until the end of time: it could, in other words, be the ticket the military needs to remain fundable for decades.
The trick there is "if it doesn't fail totally": after all, the reason counterinsurgency became passé post-Vietnam was that it did fail totally. In fact, it's never much worked, because it always concludes that you have to get the politics right, and foreign occupiers pretty much by definition can't do that. We've seen that repeatedly everywhere, and Afghanistan shows up in the casebooks not only as a US failure, but also as a Russian and a British failure. So if there's good news to the McKiernan sacking, it's that we're moving slowly, fitfully, toward the truth. The bad news is that it gives the war a new lease on life, and it's likely to get nastier before anything else.
Haddick makes two more points: 1) that McKiernan's experience managing the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq and NATO both in Europe and Afghanistan gives him a lot of diplomatic expertise that McChrystal lacks. He forgets here about Holbrooke, who is a real diplomat and who isn't mired in the military's worldview (even if he is inordinately fond of violence). It's never been clear to me that any of the military's potentates were worth a damn diplomatically -- even ones like Wesley Clark who thought they were. And 2) "Gates and Mullen may have picked McChrystal because man-hunting is exactly what they want. Perhaps success will soon be defined not by vague notions of nation-building but by the acquisition of a few "high value" scalps. With McChrystal in charge, this definition of victory may be easier to achieve." Of course, McChrystal could have been given that mission under McKiernan, but that would have left McKiernan with a broader portfolio. Putting McChrystal in charge narrows the military mission to something more achievable, and leaves Holbrooke to sort out the political mess. Ideally, McChrystal buries Bin Laden and Zawahiri and closes the book on Al Qaeda, while Holbrooke negotiates some sort of federalized power-sharing with a sanitized "moderate Taliban" and we can all go home and sleep soundly. If that happens Obama will be very lucky. But at least he's starting to put some bounds on the problem.
Haddick's other part is called "Can an antiwar movement stop the Long War?" He quotes Gen. James Mattis -- Marine Corps, widely touted as an intellectual because he has a big library (but so does Douglas Feith, the only person Tommy Franks was ever right about) -- on how future wars won't have clearly defined beginnings and ends. (I think he means terminations here, but reading "ends" as goals is more revealing.) Then he quotes Michele Flournoy, who holds Feith's old job, on five challenges and five trends that promise to keep the shooting and bombing going indefinitely. Finally, he quotes Tom Hayden on why all this madness should stop, and wonders whether he can organize an effective antiwar movement (using Vietnam as a comparison):
There are three things I want to say about this:
One more thing the antiwar movement can do is to establish a credible record of dissent from the bad things the government does, and to put some principles on the table for avoiding such acts in the future, and maybe even doing some good. The antiwar movement has been right about every war this country has been involved in since WWII. It's about time we start getting some respect and credit for that.
Saturday, May 16. 2009
Martin Van Creveld: Do Like Jimmy Carter. Written by a prominent Israeli military strategist and historian -- no dove, but realistic enough. A long list of American presidents dutifully delivered arms, money, and advice to Israel -- as Moshe Dayan said: we take the arms, we take the money, and we ignore the advice -- Carter was the only one to actually solve any of Israel's problems. He did so by standing up to Menachem Begin, who quite frankly was a tough dude to stand up to. But he also got Egypt to accept a deal that offered no guarantees of solving the Palestinian's major complaints -- one that divided the previously united Arab world against Israel, one that led directly to the assassination of Anwar Sadat, one with vague wording about Palestinian "autonomy" that Begin never had any intention of giving meaningful implementation to. For his trouble, Carter is widely reviled by Israel boosters like Alan Dershowitz, who singles Carter out in his The Case Against Israel's Enemies. Van Creveld tries to set up a set of analogies -- between Carter and Obama, Begin and Netanyahu, the likelihood that the Knesset opposition (then Labor, now Kadima) would back a US-sponsored peace deal, even if the right coalition in power were to split on it. He notably doesn't flatter Netanyahu in the deal:
Maybe, but the price is likely to be high. He has, after all, learned that the one path to power that works in Israel is to keep turning right. And he's managed to go so far down that path it's hard to imagine him returning to reality. So Obama has a tough job ahead of him, assuming even that he's up to it. Carter had a rough time of it, and still doesn't get the respect he deserves, least of all in Israel.
Friday, May 15. 2009
Lead front page article in The Wichita Eagle today is titled "Prison cuts hurt El Dorado." Joe Rodriguez writes:
Just an idea, but they might consider hiring people in the free labor market. But even in the midst of a depression where unemployment is surging, the costs are troubling:
Prisons have long been a source of cheap labor in America -- a fact that is little recognized, especially of late since the world's largest gulag has become a voracious sink for government funds. In the post-Reconstruction deep south prison labor was exploited so shamelessly you had to figure it was social revenge for the Union's ending the "peculiar institution" of slavery. At their worst, those prisons had morality rates rivalling Soviet and Nazi slave labor camps. The El Dorado deal sounds relatively benign, but the idea that you can strip people of their rights and force them to work for virtually nothing isn't much different.
The bottom-right corner of the front page also has a McClatchy article: "$96.7 billion war funding bill easily clears House." A big chunk of the article has to do with $50 million allocated to close a much larger and more notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay. Evidently several states have passed laws or resolutions against transferring those "dangerous" prisoners -- not convicted, not even formally charged -- to their states. Still, I'd bet that if if those so-called terrorists were willing to do yardwork and a little welding for $1.05 per day, they'd be welcome at El Dorado State Park.
Conspicuously missing from the article, and most likely from the House deliberations, was any mention of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Page 3 of The Wichita Eagle leads off with an Associated Press article titled "Pope, Israeli PM discuss Iran." The eleven paragraph article barely alluded to the Pope's criticism of Israel's occupation:
The pope not only called for a renewed peace process and a Palestinian state; he visited a Palestinian refugee camp to make his point. As Paul Woodward points out:
I don't put much stock in the pope as an effective advocate for peace or human rights, but he's eminent enough that even Netanyahu is compelled to put on a show and dance to ignore him.
Thursday, May 14. 2009
Fred Kaplan: It's Obama's War Now: There is little thus far to distinguish Obama's handling of the war in Iraq from what he inherited, but he's moved rather aggressively to remake the Afghanistan (or more pointedly 'Af-Pak') war in his image: appointing Richard Holbrooke to line up the ducks in Kabul and Islamabad, ordering a substantial troop surge, pressing Pakistan into action during his summit, and now sacking "old army" Gen. David McKiernan -- the guy who led the "Mission Accomplished" phase in Iraq and wrangled another assignment before anyone could point out otherwise -- in favor of special ops Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has a trail of "harsh interrogations" under his command that would surely warm Dick Cheney's cold, cold heart.
Anatol Lieven: Mistrust of the West is stronger in Pakistan than fear of the Taleban. Although Pakistan's offensive against the Taliban lines up neatly with the Obama-Zardari-Karzai summit, Lieven shows that Pakistan's military leaders, as always, have their own take on what to do and what not. Indeed, the timing probably suits them, because it makes it look like they're going to war at Washington's beckon. As such, the inevitable collateral damage can conveniently be added to Washington's bill. This seems about right:
Tony Karon: The Writing on the Wall for Obama's 'Af-Pak' Vietnam. Similar take, going further to press the point that: "Pakistan's turmoil is unlikely to end before the U.S. winds down its campaign next door." This is, of course, because the U.S. is the alien force in the region, qualitatively different even from Pakistan's scheming and meddling in Afghanistan.
If, for the sake of argument, we concede that Obama will do a much more effective job of managing the forces that he can manage -- replacing McKiernan with McChrystal is one such step, and lining up Zardari and Karzai for a joint show of solidarity is another -- there is still a lot that is totally out of his control: especially the fact that Americans will keep killing ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis, but also that all those the US thinks of as part of the solution have their own more/less askew agendas which more/less undermine the whole project. It's also that Afghans and Pakistanis have all along been justified in their cynicism about US intentions in the region. Even if Obama isn't as mendacious as Bush was you can be assured that of the real reasons he's pursuing this war -- and I for one sure can't tell you what they are -- any concern for the Afghan or Pakistani people is way down the list. That's what, in the end, will get him; on the other hand, if it were otherwise, he wouldn't be pursuing this war in the first place.
Monday, May 11. 2009
A relatively good week for Jazz Prospecting on all counts. Rated album count hit 30 for the week, which is about as productive as I ever get. Not all of those were jazz -- Glasvegas and Clipse Presents Re-Up Gang: The Saga Continues were easy picks in other genres. Five A- records below, with Shipp and maybe Fully Celebrated due for more possible pick hit listening. A couple of records held back for further play. The others more or less summarily resolved. Some of those I must admit I'm not really so firm on, but decided wasn't likely to be worth pursuing further. That sort of thing is necessary in order to get through as much as I do. The other thing that is necessary is that some of the notes just end abruptly with no real conclusion other than the grade. That's because I need to move on and I can't think of anything useful to say at the moment. Were I writing a CG review I'd have to tighten that up and round it off, but here that's less important, and often impossible.
Nothing new on the (to me) old Jazz CG column. Presumably it's scheduled and the Voice folks will notice it when the time comes. Too early to work on finishing the next Jazz CG column, so I'm mostly just running through the incoming box as fast as possible. Still working on kitchen, but it's winding down a bit. Need to build eight drawers and four slide-out pantry stack things this week, put some doors on some cabinets, and finish up some wiring. Ordered a bunch of slides and hinges, which will probably take a week to get here. Good chance we can return the dining table to its rightful place this week. Fair chance it will all be done in two weeks. Looks amazing. Wish my dad were around to see it. (But then he would have wrapped it up three months ago.)
Lisa Sokolov: A Quiet Thing (2008 , Laughing Horse): Singer, musical therapist, lay cantor, acompanies herself on piano when working alone. Moved to New York in 1977 -- doesn't mention anything before that. Fourth album since 1993. An audacious, astonishing interpreter: she tears "Ol' Man River" apart line by line to magnify its emotional impact -- her "fear of dying" has never been more palpable; nor has "Lush Life" ever come across as fully felt, the comfort but also the ennui. The group cuts smooth her out, and Todd Reynolds' violin is a plus. But she's most effective solo, and the intensity can be wearing. (Look for "Ol' Man River" on YouTube.) A-
Roy Nathanson: Subway Moon (2009, Yellow Bird/Enja): A follow up to Nathanson's vocal-dominated 2006 Sotto Voce -- the front cover and booklet have "sottovoce" in small print to the left of Nathanson's name and to the left and above the title, so there is some temptation to work that in somehow. Nathanson plays alto and soprano sax, and has a vocals credit along with several others here. He came out of the Jazz Passengers with Curtis Fowlkes (also here, on trombone). Most of the vocals are spoken word, poems over slippery jazz grooves, presumably Nathanson himself, but the album starts off with a cover of Gamble and Huff's "Love Train" with Tim Kiah taking the lead. Nathanson's albums often pick a pop song and play it close enough to cash in on its hooks but loose enough to make you think they could do anything with it. Haven't sussed out all of the poetry yet -- some is in the booklet, but not all. But the music between the lines is full of delights, not least Sam Bardfeld's violin, Bill Ware's vibes, and Marcus Rojas's tuba. A-
Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra: Live at Jazz Standard (2008 , Sunnyside): Not much of an orchestra: just the pianist, percussionist Richie Barshay, and an alternating choice of vocalist Jo Lawry or trumpeter Ralph Alessi. I'd take Alessi any day, and his first shot, on the appropriately named "Stuttering," had me thinking I'd picked up my third straight A-list record. Lawry will take more time to get used to, but she has a serviceable voice and offers some energetic scat. Barshay has really wound Hersch up. Always an elegant stylist, I've never heard him play with such vigor. [B+(***)]
Seamus Blake Quartet: Live in Italy (2007 , Jazz Eyes, 2CD): Tenor saxophonist, born 1969 in England, raised in Canada (Vancouver), studied in Boston (Berklee), lives in New York. Ninth album since 1993, fairly large number of side credits, where he always sounds good. Quartet includes David Kikoski, a first-rate pianist. The live cuts range from 8:10 to 17:07, cherry picked from at least three shows: open, wide-ranging, vigorous. B+(**)
Venissa Santi: Bienvenida (2006 , Sunnyside): Singer, b. 1978, Cuban-American, family left Cuba in 1961; raised in Ithaca NY, based in Philadelphia; first album. She takes her Cuban heritage seriously, with three expats in her band, and more second-generation Cuban-Americans. Most impressive when the rhythms are most authentic, but she's also more than credible on standards like "Embraceable You," and wrote one called "Wish You Well" that if anything reminds me of Leon Russell's "Song for You." B+(**)
Aaron J Johnson: Songs of Our Fathers (2007 , Bubble-Sun): Plays trombone and shells here, bass trombone and tuba elsewhere. B. 1958, from Washington DC, studied at Carnegie Mellon, degree in electronic engineering and economics; lives in Irvington NJ, works in/around New York City, mostly working in big bands. First record, all originals (despite the title), a mainstream quintet with Salim Washington on tenor sax (also flute and oboe), Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano, Robert Sabin on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. Old fashioned -- I've seen this referred to as hard bop, but Lewis is too subtle to fall for that. Washington is underrated, Gumbs is overly fancy but spices this up, and the trombonist holds it together. B+(**)
Eryan Katsenelenbogen: 88 Fingers (2006-07 , Eyran): Israeli pianist, b. 1965, teaches at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston; has a bunch of records since 1989 -- AMG lists 6, Wikipedia (swallowing his press bio whole) has 15. Solo piano, a lot of familiar tunes -- Weill, Berlin, Gillespie, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" -- as well as a couple of improvs based on classical themes (Chopin, Mussorgsky). Nicely done. B
Jeremy Udden: Plainville (2008 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Saxophonist, plays alto and soprano, from Plainville MA (the source of this title), based in Brooklyn. Second album. Starts out in a sly groove, using Brandon Seabrook's banjo and guitar and Pete Rende's pedal steel to hint at country music. Rende also plays pump organ and Fender Rhodes, a layering that Udden's sax builds on -- at least until he breaks loose on "Big Lick," which is set up by RJ Miller's razor-sharp drums. B+(***)
Clay Giberson: Spaceton's Approach (2007-08 , Origin): Pianist, based in Portland OR, teaches at Clackamas Community College, has a couple of good records out as Upper Left Trio. This is another piano trio, with David Ambrosio on bass and Matt Garrity on drums. Two covers ("It Might as Well Be Spring," "Solar"), five originals. Mainstream postbop, nicely done, probably better than most such records, but so firmly embedded in its flow you tend not to notice the well-crafted details. B+(*)
Rakalam Bob Moses: Father's Day B'hash (2006 , Sunnyside): Percussionist. Broke in while still a teenager with Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1964-65), and eventually figured he needed a cool moniker as well. Has a dozen or so albums since 1975. Has long taught at New England Conservatory of Music, where he recruited most of this mostly unknown band. Some small rhythmic bits are interesting, but most of the band came armed with horns, which they tend to play loud and at the same time, which isn't to say in unison. "Pollack Springs" splashes sound as chaotically as Pollack poured paint. I find it can get to be very annoying, although a little control -- as on "A Pure and Simple Being" -- can make all the difference. B-
Corey Wilkes & Abstrakt Pulse: Cries From Tha Ghetto (2008 , Pi): Hot young trumpet player from Chicago, leading a quintet -- or sextet if you count tap dancer Jumaane Taylor -- with Kevin Nabors on tenor sax, Scott Hesse on guitar, Junius Paul on bass, and Isaiah Spencer on drums. Wilkes is developing into a very strong performer -- paying some interest back on those Freddie Hubbard comparisons. A lot going on here, much of it impressive on the surface, but it's not adding up for me. Neither hint from the group name nor from the title sheds much light here. He could just as well claim an Organic Pulse, and the Cries certainly aren't of anguish, although maybe there's some anger there, or maybe he just hasn't found himself, at least not like he's found his horn. B+(*)
Fire Room: Broken Music (2005 , Atavistic): Trio, another Ken Vandermark project, with Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, and Lasse Marhaug doing something with electronics. The electronics include low-pitched buzzes and warbles, and can get loud and ugly, although Vandermark -- playing tenor and baritone saxes here -- is more than his match. Don't have a settled sense of this yet, other than that the drummer is very much in the game. [B+(*)]
Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone: Thin Air (2008 , Thirsty Ear): First time I heard the vocals here I flashed on the thought that this might be a jazz analogue to anti-folk -- much more learned, of course, but something meant to upset the cart. Second time through I heard echoes of Syd Barrett. But by then Halvorson's guitar and Pavone's violin had started to come into their own and the occasional words seem to matter less. Halvorson's developed a critical cult in the last couple of years. B. 1980 in Boston, studied enough at Wesleyan to get associated with Braxton, moved on to Brooklyn. I haven't heard her Dragon's Head record, which finished strong in 2008 year-end polls, and only caught a previous duo with Pavone, On and Off on Rhapsody, with one play not making much sense of it. Pavone is from New York, a few years older, attended University of Hartford, and was drawn into Braxton's orbit at Wesleyan, and of course returned to New York. (She is evidently not related to the great bassist Mario Pavone, who also has a Braxton connection.) This will take some time to sort out, if indeed I ever do. Note that Halvorson and Pavone are on the current cover of Signal to Noise, whose eds. are no doubt pleased with the contrast that Diana Krall is on the cover of Downbeat. [B+(***)]
The Matthew Shipp Trio: Harmonic Disorder (2008 , Thirsty Ear): I assume this was recorded in '08. Booklet doesn't say, which is par for this label -- I thought about complimenting them for including the record date in the Halvorson/Pavone, as it seemed a breakthrough. This is actually an earlier release. It got lost in the mail and had to be resent, or so the story goes -- actually, same thing happened with Shipp's previous record, Piano Vortex, which I got to so late I wound up skipping, despite the fact that it is a very good record. In any case, this one may be better. Joe Morris on bass and Whit Dickey on drums both stand out, but Shipp does it all, from the simple pacing of "Mel Chi 2" to the rollicking combustion of "Zo Number 2." I often bemoan my difficulties grasping piano trios, but this one just jumps up and grabs you. Not done with it, but figure this grade as a baseline. A-
Marianne Faithfull: Easy Come Easy Go (2008 , Decca): Not a jazz singer of any recognition, but interpreting a bunch of songs -- only "Solitude" counts as a standard, with "Ooh Baby Baby" (Smokey Robinson) comparably famous and not much more than "Sing Me Back Home" (Merle Haggard) easy to place (title song was part of Bessie Smith's repertoire) -- with Hal Willner producing more than qualifies. Willner's worked effectively with Faithfull before, producing her 1987 record Strange Weather -- a candidate for the last record she's done this good, although it's possible you'll have to go back to 1979's Broken English, not that I'd totally discount 1997's Twentieth Century Blues -- and perhaps more importantly turned her loose on Kurt Weill on the Willner's wondrous Lost in the Stars (1985). Willner brings several things, starting with networking. The only guest vocalist I find actively annoying is Antony (on "Ooh Baby Baby"), but Nick Cave, Sean Lennon, Chan Marshall, and Rufus Wainwright aren't even on my B-list -- Teddy Thompson and Keith Richard might be. But the revolving band is superb: horns include Steven Bernstein, Marty Ehrlich, Ken Peplowski, Lenny Pickett, and Doug Wieselman; Marc Ribot and Barry Reynolds on guitar; Rob Burger, Gil Goldstein, and Steve Weisberg on various keyboards; Greg Cohen on bass and Jim White on drums; and a string quartet on five cuts, never too conspicuous. Leads off with Dolly Parton's "Down From Dover" which Faithfull's accent moves from Tennessee and her gravitas lifts from pity to tragedy. Nothing else is transformed so powerfully, but it's all worth pondering. Can't think of many real jazz singers who can do that. A-
Refuge Trio (2008 , Winter & Winter): This would be Theo Bleckmann (vocals, live electronic processing), Gary Versace (piano, accordion, keyboards), and John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion, crotales, vibraphone, glockenspiel). Group name seems to be tied into the 1:09 intro version of Joni Mitchell's "Refuge of the Roads" -- otherwise it's not at all clear what it means. Hollenbeck is always doing interesting things, and Versace is a pretty dependable double threat. Bleckmann, on the other hand, is a difficult case. I find his voice has little appeal, although he clearly is a fountain of clever ideas -- it's hard to think of any male vocalist who's pushed so many boundaries over the last five years. I wish I liked him more. B+(*)
Theo Bleckmann/Kneebody: Twelve Songs by Charles Ives (2008 , Winter & Winter): On paper this looks dicier than The Refuge Trio, but it comes off better. Ives' songs suck up enough Americana to contain their artiness, and his fondness for juxtaposing things provides a bit of edge. Kneebody has some names I barely recognize (Ben Wendel on tenor sax, Adam Benjamin on piano, Shane Endsley on trumpet) and others I don't (Kaveh Rastegar on bass, Nate Wood on drums). Bleckmann's voice fits the songs nicely, only rarely slipping into his angelic upper register. B+(**)
The Fully Celebrated: Drunk on the Blood of the Holy Ones (2008 , AUM Fidelity): Boston group, a trio with Jim Hobbs on alto sax, Timo Shanko on bass, and Django Carranza on drums. Not familiar with the latter two, but Hobbs had a couple of albums in 1993 (Babadita and Peace & Pig Grease) then largely disappeared. I noticed him when he appeared on Joe Morris's Beautiful Existence and flat-out stole the show. There is a 2002 album by a slightly larger group (add Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet) billed as The Fully Celebrated Orchestra: Marriage of Heaven and Earth. Same lineup also appears on a 2005 album, Lapis Exilis, as Jim Hobbs & the Fully Celebrated Orchestra. Don't know what the mythology signifies, but it strikes me as a ruse. Most of the cuts here start with basic funk or blues grooves and lay on deceptively simple sax melodies, just shy of honking, but thoughtfully close to the edge. The odd tune out is "Conotocarius," where they run free and thrash -- it can get a bit tedious. A- [May 26]
Charlie Kohlhase's Explorer's Club: Adventures (2007 , Boxholder): Boston-based saxophonist (alto, tenor, baritone, listed in that order, although his website shows him playing baritone), leads a group with a couple more horns (Matt Langley on tenor and soprano sax, Jeff Galindo on trombone), guitar (Eric Hofbauer), bass (Jef Charland), and drums (Miki Matsuki and Chris Punis). Kohlhase once released an album with the title Play Free or Die, and that seems to be his motto. Such freedom produces a certain amount of wreckage, especially given the weight of the horns. B+(*)
Steven Bernstein/Marcus Rojas/Kresten Osgood: Tattoos and Mushrooms (2008 , ILK): Osgood is a Danish drummer, b. 1976, doesn't have much under his own name, partly because he hasn't bothered to push his name up front in multi-artist credits. He's showed up on several good records recently -- Scott DuBois' Banshees, Michael Blake's Control This. He probably should be considered the leader here: the original material has one group credit, one shared with Bernstein, three more just Osgood, including a terrific closer called "The Beat Up Blues"; moreover, he's on his home turf here. Rojas plays tuba, starting off burying a Charles Brackeen piece deep under, and he provides a dependable bottom to Bernstein's trumpet and slide trumpet. Also covered are pieces by Monk and Mingus, and a deep, slow, lovely run through Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." B+(***)
Ramana Vieira: Lágrimas de Rainha / Tears of a Queen (2008 , Pacific Coast Jazz): Portuguese-American fado vocalist, born in San Leandro, CA, now based in or near San Francisco. Grew up listening to classics like Amália Rodrigues -- strikes me as more deeply traditional than recent Portguese fadistas like Mariza, but part of that is my instinctive reaction to opera. That turned me off from this at first, but she hangs in there, and the group for once sounds utterly authentic. (San Francisco seems to have become a melting pot of truly mediocre world music, hence the "for once.") Wrote five songs, the last two in English: her anthemic "This Is My Fado" and one called "United in Love" that could be retooled for Nashville. B+(*)
Adam Shulman: Patterns of Change (2008 , Kabocha): Pianist, from San Francisco, presumably not the same Adam Shulman seen acting in The Dukes of Hazzard and dating Anne Hathaway, although from pictures on the web they don't look that different -- the pianist, I guess, looks a little glummer. Second album, expanding from quartet to quintet with the addition of Mike Olmos on trumpet/flugelhorn, alongside Dayna Stephens on tenor sax. Mainstream postbop, swings a little, horns have some kick to them. I keep hearing bits of "Dat Dere" in "4th Street Strut." One called "Chopinesque" isn't particularly. B+(*)
Gian Tornatore: Fall (2007 , Sound Spiral): Tenor saxophonist, plays a little soprano but not as well. Has a couple of good albums on Fresh Sound New Talent, the first struck me especially favorably (Sink or Swim). This, a quintet with both guitar and piano, less so, although I still like his tone and command. B+(*)
Margie Notte: Just You, Just Me & Friends: Live at Cecil's (2008 , Gnote): Singer, from Orange, NJ, no published age -- one hint is that her mother had five brothers who served in WWII. Studied with Carla Wood and Roseanna Vitro. First album. Standards, mostly associated with the 1950s: "Too Close for Comfort," "Cry Me a River," "You Go to My Head," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "I Thought About You." Cecil's owner Cecil Brooks III is the house drummer. Jason Teborek handles the piano, and Tom Di Carlo bass. Don Braden plays warm tenor sax and a little flute. I like her voice and poise, and the songs are hard to miss with. She nails them all. B+(**)
Coyote Poets of the Universe: Callin' You Home (2008 , Square Shaped): Denver group, fourth album since 2004 (second I've heard). AMG files them under Pop/Rock, which is evidently their default genre. They call it FolkaDelic. Multiple vocalists, mostly female judging from the credits, with Melissa Ingalls the most prominently mentioned, but starts off with a male spoken word poems about coyotes -- may be bassist Andy O'Blivion, who may in turn once have been Andy O'Leary. Music trends countryish with fiddle and banjo, but also includes a congalero. Sort of an inward-bound Pink Martini. Choice cut: "I Don't Know Birds"; followed by "Canonization," which is pretty good too, and covers their range. B+(***)
Julian Lage: Sounding Point (2009, Emarcy/Decca): Guitarist. First record. Twelve paragraphs of "bio" on his webpage disclose hardly anything: he's "Bay Area-based" and/or "Boston-based" (sure, I know about Boston Bay); he is (or was) 21; he's played on albums with Gary Burton, Marian McPartland, Nnenna Freelon, and Taylor Eigsti. Two solo cuts. Other small combinations weave in and out: two duos with Eigsti; three trios with Béla Fleck on banjo and Chris Thile on mandolin; five cuts with Ben Norseth on sax, one a duo, the others with Tupac Mantilla percussion, two also with Aristedes Rivas on cello. They flow nicely because the distinctive guitar is rarely out of the spotlight, and everyone else (well, except Eigsti) makes him sound better. B+(**)
Tim Davies Big Band: Dialmentia (2007 , Origin): Credits list 8 reeds, 7 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 guitars, 2 keyboards, 2 basses, drums, percussion, and 5 extra guest soloists. Davies is the drummer. He's Australian, based in Los Angeles, aims to add hip-hop and death metal to the usual big band fare. One cut features an MC named Aloe Blacc ("Hanging by a Thread"). Another ("Pythagatha") breaks some interesting jazztronic ground with an electric piano solo (Alan Steinberger, who also has an organ solo later on). The massed horns are less surprising, but they're there for sheer punching power. B+(**)
Jentsch Group Large: Cycles Suite (2008 , Fleur de Son): Composed and produced by guitarist Chris Jentsch, leading a conventionally sized big band: 5 reeds, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 4 rhythm (guitar, piano, bass, drums). Darcy James Argue conducts, and Mike Kaupa gets a "featuring" credit with solos in 4 of 6 movements (trumpet section; photographs show him with a flugelhorn). This flows very smoothly, the large group tightly disciplined to groove, the solos elevating the themes as opposed to breaking out of them. B+(*)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Some corrections and further notes on recent prospecting:
Joel Harrison: Urban Myths (2009, High Note): Chris Di Giorolamo informs me that he works for Harrison, not High Note, so this doesn't represent a change in High Note's service. My service from High Note has been shakey lately, so I just flew off the handle. Arguably, the promo was a favor, but the fact is that promo copies do me little good: I don't have advance deadlines, so I tend to file them away, then they almost invariably get lost. I still have advances listed in my active file from 3-4 years ago -- presumably they're still around here somewhere, but they're not doing anyone any good. Of course, I'd rather hear a promo than nothing at all, but they don't put me in a good mood, and they don't feel quite honest: even if the music is the same, they're not really the same product I'm supposed to be reviewing.
Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:
Sunday, May 10. 2009
Another quick round of books, about a month after the last batch of 40. They seem to be accumulating pretty fast, partly because researching them provides the same sort of mental comfort that I've always gotten from browsing bookstores.
Sina Aksin: Turkey: From Empire to Revolutionary Republic: The Emergence of the Turkish Nation From 1789 to Present (paperback, 2007, NYU Press): General history of an important nation that we tend to know little and understand less about.
Ali A Allawi: The Crisis of Islamic Civilization (2009, Yale University Press). Author was a minor functionary in the post-Bremer Iraqi government, a role he described usefully in The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. This looks at the larger picture, going back to the impact of European colonialism on Muslim nations and the complex and often inadequate response.
Tamim Ansary: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009, Public Affairs): Previously wrote West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan-American Story. Looks like a fairly straightforward history of Islam, occasionally glancing out at the other world, which becomes more problematic when the other world encroaches.
Reza Aslan: How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror (2009, Random House): Author previously wrote No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, one of the best general books on the history of Islam. Not sure how that plays out here where Jihadism is one aspect both of Islam and politics, and the US anti-terror warriors have trouble understanding either.
John C Bogle: Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life (2008, Wiley): Big shot financial tycoon, made a fortune pursuing more; now that it's collapsing, maybe the time to take a philsophical turn and contemplate how much is enough. Seems like a good idea even for folks who don't have enough (as opposed to those who merely think they don't). Bogle has previously written books like The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns.
Gary Braasch: Earth under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World (2007; updated edition, paperback, 2009, University of California Press): Photojournalist, previously wrote Photographing the Patterns of Nature.
Robert F Bruner/Sean D Carr: The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market's Perfect Storm (2008; paperback, 2009, Wiley): One of those depressions from back in the good old days when the federal government was powerless as well as uninterested in doing anything about it. Fortunately, the bankers could appeal to a higher authority: J Pierpont Morgan.
Bryan Burrough: The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes (2009, Penguin): Big history of Texas oil men starting with Spindletop in 1901, continuing through their ultra-right-wing dynastic politics. Author recently wrote Public Enemies: The True Story of America's Greatest Crime Wave, which seems relevant, but is even better known as co-author of Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, one of the big business scandals of the 1980s.
William D Cohan: House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street (2009, Doubleday): Focuses on ten days around the collapse of Bear Stearns, the beginning of the 2008 financial meltdown. Book has been described as novelistic, which I don't find very reassuring. Bigger issues like why and what it all means get lost in immediate details, but not nearly enough bankers flung themselves out of windows to make those details do.
Robert D Crews/Amin Tarzi, eds: The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (2008; paperback, 2009, Harvard University Press): Eight essays on various aspects of the Taliban, totalling 448 pp.
Kirstin Downey: The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (2009, Nan A Talese): Perkins was identified as one of the five key New Dealers in Adam Cohen's Nothing to Fear, and possibly the one furthest to the left. Focusing on her is a good place to start re-examining the New Deal.
James Fallows: Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China (paperback, 2008, Vintage): A collection of pieces, mostly published in The Atlantic, on various aspects of life and business in China. Seems to be a fairly wide-ranging journalist, with a suggestive book called Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, a book on Iraq and a previous book loosely related here: Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System.
Richard Fortey: Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum (2008, Knopf): A longtime denizen of the Natural History Museum; likely to be an interesting book.
Eduardo Galeano: Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1972; 25th anniversary edition, paperback, 1997, Monthly Review Press): Suddenly shot up to bestseller status after Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez gave Obama a copy. This is a classic account of how the US and its corporations have plundered Latin America. Amazon's reviews are divided, with 59 5-star, 49 1-star, 19 2/3/4-star. Typical 1-star review: "Now, I simply won't read it on principle. I'm tired of the blame game on America." How easy it is for some people to dismiss history by calling blame a game.
Michelle Goldberg: The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (2009, Penguin Press): Author previously wrote Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. In other words, Goldberg is following up her fearful investigation of right-wing Christianity by delving into what those same Christians are most fearful of: sex. That's a welcome change from the moderate tendency to backpeddle whenever confronted, a tendency that has as much as conceded this issue, forgetting how critical it really is.
Mark Green/Michele Jolin, eds: Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President (paperback, 2009, Basic Books): The standard, inevitable collection of slightly leftish wonk briefs, a hefty 704 pages, published a mere two months after Obama's election. I have a similar book on the shelf in front of me, also edited by Green, called Changing America: Blueprints for the New Administration. It was published in 1992. I doubt that much as changed, despite Bill Clinton's stated enthusiasm for both volumes.
Dave Hickey: The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty (1993; revised and expanded, 2009, University of Chicago Press): I think of him as a rock critic, the author of Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, but his interests are broader. Something of a manifesto.
William J Holstein: Why GM Matters: Inside the Race to Transform an American Icon (2009, Walker): A timely subject, given that the US government is likely to wind up owning about 50% of the formerly huge automaker, and few people (if anyone) have a clue to do about it. Looks like this has more to do with the size and economic relationships that GM has than the details of car making.
Jamie Jensen: Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America's Two-Lane Highways (paperback, 2006, Avalon Travel Publishing): Looks like an attractive road book, the main problem being that it is organized around no more than 11 cross-country treks, whereas I'd think that shorter stretches of 2-lane roads would be more select. For example, Readers Digest has two competing books, but they're larger format, hardcover: The Most Scenic Drives in America: 120 Spectacular Road Trips and Off the Beaten Path. In the smaller format, National Geographic has: Guide to Scenic Highways & Byways: The 275 Best Drives in the US.
Tim Judah: Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know (paperback, 2008, Oxford University Press): Brief history, not much liked by Serbophiles. That in itself may not be such a problem, but there should be more angles on the matter. For one thing, it looked an awful lot like a make-work project to promote NATO, a dubious proposition on the face of it. Judah also wrote Kosovo: War and Revenge. Another book on Kosovo is: Iain King/Whit Mason: Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo.
Seth Kantner: Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska (2008, Milkweed Editions): Born in an igloo, grew up on the tundra, wrote a previous book, Ordinary Wolves. Lots of photographs.
John Kelly: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (paperback, 2006, Harper Perennial): Specifically focuses on the plagues that swept Europe in the 1340s, killing a third or more of the total population. A number of books available on this.
Richard C Koo: The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics: Lessons from Japan's Great Recession (2009, Wiley): Back in the 1980s wags were writing books about how Japan was taking over the world. That ended with the recession in Japan that started in 1992 and ended when? -- says 2007 here, but isn't that about when the worldwide depression started to overwhelm local recessions? Krugman's been pushing the line that the US is likely to wind up recovering as meagerly as Japan did. Cause of Japan's recession? As I recall, it was the real estate bubble.
Neil MacFarquhar: The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East (2009, Public Affairs): Around the Middle East, talking to plain folks, humoring the self-important powers, looking for change, thankful for whatever he finds.
John Micklethwait/Adrian Wooldridge: God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (2009, Penguin Press): Authors write for The Economist, where they celebrate the capitalist world with just enough British distance to be palatable. Best known for The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, one of those books about how the right has become the "party of ideas" in America. (The book is currently available at a remainder discount at Amazon.) Other tomes include: The Witch Doctors: What Management Gurus Are Saying, Why It Matters, and How to Make Sense of It (1997); A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization (2001); and i>The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea. They're about the only writers around gullible enough to see the spread of fanatical religion as progress.
Lawrence Mishel/Jared Bernstein/Heidi Shierholz: The State of Working America, 2008-2009 (paperback, 2009, Cornell University Press): From the Economic Policy Institute, 440 pages of sobering data, revised (most likely downward) from their previous The State of Working America, 2006-2007.
Mark Monmonier: Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change (2008, University of Chicago Press): Geography book, explores facets of mapping coast lines, from history to present concerns such as environmental factors. Author previously wrote: From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name and Inflame; Spying with Maps: Surveillance Technologies and the Future of Privacy; Bushmanders and Bullwinkles: How Politicians Manipulate Electronic Maps and Census Data to Win Elections; Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather; Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Hazards in America; Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences; and the ever popular How to Lie With Maps.
Nandan Nilekani: Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation (2009, Penguin Press): A portrait of India as a capitalist paradise, written by the head of a company called Infosys, with a foreword by Thomas Friedman.
Darrin Nordahl: My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America (2009, Center for American Places): Proposes "that the experience of public transit and the quality of the ride are pivotal to the success of public transit." As opposed, say, to the desperate lack of any alternative.
Jay Parini: Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America (2008, Doubleday): List-based book, running from The Federalist Papers to On the Road, with Dale Carnegie and Benjamin Spock among the eminently sensible choices. Appendix offers a longer list.
Richard A Posner: A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression (2009, Harvard University Press): The federal judge who knows and writes about everything weighs in on the economy. Reviewers are struck that someone deeply embued in Chicago School economics winds up promoting regulation as the necessary answer. Liberal economists already know that, so the main prospect here is the matter of discovery.
Jedediah Purdy: A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom (2009, Knopf): Iconoclastic social/political thinker, made a splash in 1999 when he published For Common Things, a book which blamed all of our social and political problems on irony -- this was pre-Bush, and arguably was the only problem Bush actually solved (assuming, of course, you regarded it as a problem). After 9/11, traveled to Egypt and wrote Being America, as if he were. He's moved on now, got a job teaching law, learned how to construct a title that isn't ridiculous at first glance.
Darius Rejali: Torture and Democracy (2007, Princeton University Press): Long (880 pp), aims to be definitive. Recommended by people who want to prove torture is ineffective and corrupting -- a position I'll take on instinct.
Charles Seife: Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking (2008, Viking): A history of various schemes to generate usable energy from hydrogen fusion: always seemed like a great idea, never came close to working.
Cass R Sunstein: A Constitution of Many Minds: Why the Founding Document Doesn't Mean What It Meant Before (2009, Princeton University Press): A counterargument against the doctrine of originalism that right-wing supreme court justices like Scalia push as cover for their ideological work. Sunstein argues that not only is the constitution subject to interpretation, it is always necessary to interpret it in light of changing situations. I'm reminded of an old Islamic matter, where in the middle ages it was argued that the "gates of ijtihad" had closed, after which is was no longer possible to reinterpret the sacred texts of Islam. It's now clear that that point marked the beginning of the decline of Islam as a progressive force in the world. Originalism will likely do the same for the US.
Stephen Tanner: Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban (2002; revised, paperback, 2009, Da Capo): 2500 years of war, although the period from when Russia invaded and the US infiltrated in 1979 to the present is conspicuous.
Gavin Weightman: Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World 1776-1914 (2009, Grove Press): Big subject for 432 pages. Author has a number of books on English history (London's Thames: The River That Shaped a Nation) and business technology (Signor Marconi's Magic Box: The Most Remarkable Invention of the 19th Century & the Inventor Whose Genius Sparked a Revolution).
Andrew Wheatcroft: The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe (2009, Basic Books): In 1683 the Ottoman Empire approached its maximum limits with its failed siege of Vienna. Author previously wrote The Ottomans: Dissolving Images, The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire, and Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, so this seems to the summation of most of what he knows.
Evan Wright: Hella Nation: Looking for Happy Meals in Kandahar, Rocking the Side Pipe, Wingnut's War Against the GAP, and Other Adventures with the Totally Lost Tribes of America (2009, Putnam): Rolling Stone correspondent, author of the remarkable Generation Kill on the Marines fucking up Iraq. More stuff, evidently scattered pieces about comparably deranged Americans, most not as well armed as his Marine killers, but all out, in one way or another, to get some.
Tom Zoellner: Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World (2009, Viking): History through the prism of a coveted mineral. Author previously wrote a similar book on diamonds: The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire.
Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:
Ha-Joon Chang: Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism (2007; paperback, 2008, Bloomsbury Press): A Korean economist, student of Joseph Stiglitz, take a very critical look at the neoliberal theories of economic growth, and how they've virtually never worked in either the third world or the developed world. [book page]
Steve Coll: The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008; paperback, 2009, Penguin): Coll's Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 is the basic book on the CIA's first misadventure in Afghanistan -- its no doubt more farcical sequel is yet to be written. While this count as useful background for Osama Bin Laden, the thing I'm more curious about is the other paths taken by the numerous siblings.
Barbara Ehrenreich: This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation (2008; paperback, 2009, Holt): Another collection of short column pieces, zipping by at a considerable clip, each with something to say. [book page]
Robert Kuttner: The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity (2007; paperback, 2008, Vintage): One of the better accounts lately on how America's political and economic systems have been undermining the working people who built this country. [book page]
Jane Mayer: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (2008; paperback, 2009, Anchor): Seems likely to be the standard book on the torture cult festering in and under the Bush White House. I've given this subject short shrift in the past, but more and more it seems to be an essential part of their psyches. Torture has always been more about power than intelligence. Cheney et al. don't just crave power in theory. They want to feel it in their loins.
Kevin Phillips: Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (2008; paperback, 2009, Penguin): A fairly quick I-told-you-so following up his more expansive American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. Of course, now even more predictions are history. [book page]
The New Yorker (May 11, 2009) has a Briefly Noted review of Reza Aslan's book, How to Win a Cosmic War, cited above:
Most likely an interesting book. Given Aslan's previous book on the history and worldly state of Islam (No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam) I would hope that Aslan sorts out the theological underpinnings and limits of Al Qaeda, making the appropriate contrasts with other strains of Islamist politics. I also think it's too early to count on Obama undoing Bush's Global War on Terror shtick: he is still stuck in two wars (one of which he's actively expanding), he still is stuck with popular fealty to Israel and against Iran, he hasn't rocked any boats since becoming CinC of the world's largest imperial gendarmerie. Moreover, one shouldn't go around giving Bush credit for democracy -- something he showed no real grasp of, having picked up what little he knew from Natan Sharansky and Karl Rove. The real case for democracy is simpler and more universal: you don't want to exclude anyone from a peaceable political system, least of all groups who would resort to disruptive violence. Most Islamists would be quite happy with a democratic stake. Moreover, the fear that they might win and turn undemocratic is tied to things that could be changed: one would be to allow secular parties, especially on the left, to develop; another would be for the parties in power to do an effective job of policing their own corruption, which is usually the Islamists' strongest issue. The US has inadvertently become the biggest promoter of Islamism in the Arab world, primarily by working so hard to cripple the left.
Saturday, May 9. 2009
I haven't seen Richard Holbrooke's name in the press much lately, but it was his job to set up the high-level meetings between Obama, Karzai and Zardari that have coincided with a major Pakistani advance into Taliban-controlled tribal areas. Obama gave Holbrooke his mission at the same time he sent George Mitchell off to try to bring peace to the Israel/Palestine conflict. At the time it seemed ominous that Holbrooke's mission made no mention of peace. For some reason, Obama has long had the hots for escalating the war on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Holbrooke was his advance man, and he's delivered. We've already seen reports of shelling of villages, creating a wave of a million or so refugees.
I'm generally opposed to any war, and I'm not dead set opposed to the Taliban, but this may not be such a bad thing. It depends on two things: how quickly Pakistan's military can establish control, and what kind of administration they establish. Pakistan's offensive should be seen in context, where the alternatives -- the Taliban's own military expansionism, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and America's entanglement and disastrous bombing campaigns -- are as bad and far less likely to reach any sort of conclusion. It's quite possible that the Taliban will melt away when faced with force, much as they did in 2001 in Afghanistan, figuring they can always come back in more opportune times. (To the extent that the Taliban work for Pakistan's ISI, they may even be helped into hiding, as they were in 2001, making the rout all the easier.) But if they stick and fight, this will turn nasty fast and the area -- as we've seen in Afghanistan -- may never recover. So what really matters is what happens next.
For better or worse, that's when you'll start hearing Holbrooke's name. His big claim to fame was negotiating the Dayton Accords that ended the Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian war. People forget that while the shooting stopped, little else got better. He's unlikely to have any better grasp of the Pashtun tribal lands. Moreover, the incentives he could deliver to Zardari and the Pakistani military, and to Karzai, are not necessarily things that will help anyone in the bombed out territories. (Karzai's reputation for corruption if anything pales compared to "Mr. Ten Percent," and the military/ISI are mostly into guns, which is the last thing the locals need.) The only thing an optimist has to hang onto here is Obama himself, who is far more likely to realize these things than Clinton -- let alone Bush, for whom corruption was a desirable end, grease for crony capitalism. Still, micromanaging Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to prove more unwieldly and tiring than the difficulties with his not inconsiderable domestic agenda. This still seems to me like a losing bet, and I'd hate to see it portrayed as anything but a very long shot.
Update: Fred Kaplan: The AfPak Puzzle: Subtitle: "The good news: Obama understands what's wrong in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The bad news: He can't fix it." Similar to what I was saying yesterday and today, except I'm not sure how much anyone really understands, nor would I leave you thinking that the US shortfall can be made up with more allies -- even India and Iran, both could help, but only to a point.