Wednesday, September 30. 2009
Stephen Walt: David Brooks on Afghanistan: Caveat Lector! I don't normally read Brooks's columns, but somehow stumbled onto his The Afghan Imperative and was appalled. The thing that got me was that Brooks was able to construct his case for the necessity of wandering ever deeper into the Afghan morass by quoting no one but Obama, as in:
It isn't often that right wing hacks cite Obama as a trustworthy authority. But then it isn't often the case that Obama is so wrong. Even so, I suspect some contextual distortion. After all, everything else in Brooks's post is distorted. Walt provides more details on the line that "counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time." Other claims, like "Only 6 percent of Afghans want a Taliban return" would be intrinsically suspect even if Brooks had cited a source; the counter that "NATO is viewed with surprising favor" means what? Seven percent would surprise me, unless the poll takers had a NATO military escort, in which case even more surprising numbers are possible. Polling means very little in Afghanistan because almost no one has no reason not to tell the truth. I've rarely read a piece so artful at distorting every reference. On the other hand, every now and then you catch Brooks in an outright lie, like this whopper:
Call him on this and he'll probably cite the 1979 revolution in Iran which the US did oppose through various meaningless gestures. But nothing else in the article refers to Iran, and the immediately previous line refers to the Taliban, whose direct antecedents we started financing and arming in . . . 1979. In fact, the biggest recipient of US aid back then was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, currently second only to Mullah Omar as the most notorious Taliban warlord operating today.
Still, Brooks' logic is even slippier, as when he writes:
That may be the doctrine, but how can you see this working? The US military doesn't even build their own bases, much less schools and roads. They haven't been able to provide security in relatively safe Kabul, much less way out in the overwhelmingly rural country. When they do go out, they're targets, which makes them defensive; being heavily armed and so inclined, that makes them offensive as well. It's hard to change the doctrine against basic training, or against the reasons the soldiers volunteered in the first place. The inescapable fact is that the US military simply doesn't have the necessary skills to provide Afghans with government so popular that the Taliban will give up their arms and rally around our flag. That's not going to happen, less because the Taliban are a hard sell (although they certainly are) than because we simply don't have that kind of empathy and generosity in our veins.
Still, Brooks's "all in" or "all out" dichotomy is just another of his straw man arguments meant to stack the deck. We could, for instance, do what the Russians did in 1989, which is to take out troops off the ground and out of the country but keep giving aid. The Najibullah government, which is surely no more popular than the Karzai government, held out against the Pakistan-supported mujahideen for three years after that, and would have held out longer had the Soviet Union not collapsed. One could also improve those odds: by diplomatically keeping Pakistan and anyone else from backing the Taliban; by leaving a thin umbrella of air power in place which could stop aggressive Taliban formations but not be used for supporting government aggression, much less backing US or NATO troops; by providing reconstruction aid tied to the Kabul government's track record of using it constructively. Most of this is real simple: get rid of US/NATO troops and you get rid of the stink of occupation; cut back the big money aid and you cut back the waste through corruption; send a message that the Afghans have to figure this out and make it happen on their own, and suddenly cronyism doesn't pay. You need to get everyone from Iran to India on board, which is a lot easier to do once US troops are gone. I can think of minor ways to improve on this, but there's really an advantage to letting the Afghans work it out themselves.
On the other hand, if you have to do "all in" or "all out," the latter would be far better. Colin Powell may think that if you corral a bull in a china shop the bull assumes responsibility for everything he breaks, but Powell ain't much of a farmer, and he sure don't know much about bulls. Most people understand that the only viable course of action is to get the bull out of the shop, alive or dead. The US is as much a creature of its size, strength, brains and brawn as that bull is. Getting it out is the minimal desire, but also a much more realistic one than it is to hope the bull can turn into something else and repair its damage.
The metaphor -- or should I say picture? -- holds up for some more points as well. For one thing, what happens to the bull in the china shop? May not get seriously hurt, but the sharp edges of all that flying crystal are going to take their nicks. And then there's the trauma of getting trapped. And assuming the bull didn't really mean to simply destroy everything, the realization has got to be a nasty psychic blow. The bull's likely to wind up needing some serious counseling, but in America these days all you get are drugs, lectures, and church. Then some politician comes along and ships you off to another china shop and it starts all over again. The US has been playing bad cop to the world for a long time now, and getting worse and worse at it. And since it's mostly to fight back against the blowback from the last time we blew it, this has all turned into a death spiral. You can argue both ways whether Afghans might be better off with or without an American commitment, but one thing should be real damn clear by now, and that's that America is worse off for getting tied up in places like Afghanistan, no matter what the provocation or reasoning.
Sometime in the 1940s US foreign policy got perverted. With Europe's colonial regimes in ruins, the Soviet Union on a military roll, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist resistance movements in full flower all across Europe and Asia and possibly elsewhere, and the US filthy rich compared to the rest of a broken world, the US refashioned its foreign policy to represent not its own people but the international capitalist class. That led to all sorts of weird behavior, ranging from recruiting dictators to liquidating our own working class. Along the way they've built a self-perpetuating foreign policy establishment that makes it impossible to public consider how perverse US policy has become. When everyone from Brooks to Obama proclaim Afghanistan a "war of necessity" they're really saying we don't want to talk about how we managed to get ourselves into a fix where we know we have to build roads and schools in the poorest country in the world, but can't because nobody there wants the roads, schools, or for that matter us. If we thought about this war for a moment we'd realize what an utter waste it is, but then most wars are like that.
Matthew Yglesias has another take on Brooks, focusing on the alleged risk to nuclear-armed Pakistan of failing to stop the Taliban. No one -- properly discounting warmongers like Brooks -- thinks the Taliban have any chance at overthrowing or even significantly destabilizing Pakistan. The risk is pushing Pakistan back into a box where they feel the need to support the Taliban against their fear of an Indian proxy in Afghanistan -- specifically, Hamid Karzai. That's what happened in 2003-06 when Bush was asleep at the wheel, and that's a big part of the reason the Taliban came back. There's a lot Americans don't seem to be capable of understanding about this conflict, but the weird psychological games between India and Pakistan are surely near the top of the list.
Steve Coll: Ink Spots: Compared to this piece, Brooks is even more delusional than you can imagine. For starters, Coll points out that there is no "all in" strategy. He gives a figure of 500,000 troops to implement an effort to secure all of Afghanistan, and points out that even if Obama had the will, the Army doesn't have that many usable troops. He also points out that McChrystal's actual proposal is for a version of the oft-cited, rarely successful "ink spot" strategy: secure a few small ink spots on the map, build them up until they are stable, then incrementally expand and link up those secure spots. In theory you wind up covering the map. In practice is a messier story, but as Coll points out, you don't have to extrapolate from models as diverse as Vietnam: McChrystal's ink spot theory has already been tried in Afghanistan, by the Soviets in 1986-92. The good news is that it sort of worked, at least in terms of postponing collapse. The bad news is that collapse still came, after the Soviet Union itself collapsed and its Russian mafia heirs stopped helping at all. Of course, the US wouldn't do that, except that the US did just that to Afghanistan once before, and has treated all of its other foreign policy failures -- North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, where else? -- with various combinations of spite and disdain.
Tuesday, September 29. 2009
In my recent books post, I noted several new paperback editions of books that I had read over the last year, but hadn't managed to get my quotes/notes pages together on. I've hustled a bit and finally gotten that done:
I didn't manage to add a lot of analysis or critique to these notes. I've never been much for liberalism, which is one reason I so appreciate Ali, but Frank, Galbraith, and Krugman make a pretty solid case for it, and not just given the recent alternative.
Monday, September 28. 2009
Well, I have a few things I could post, but not many: eight isn't much of a week. I've also played a dozen or so records without taking time to write down first impressions -- mostly things I couldn't so easily dismiss, so they've gone straight to the replay pile. Also don't have my mail bookkeeping done. It's not that I haven't been working hard. Yesterday's Rhapsody post took a look at 34 records. Also there will be a Recycled Goods out in a day or two. It's pretty much done now except for an intro and some technical issues. A big thing I've done there is to look at Verve's 118-deep "Originals" reissue series. I got so carried away there I wound up splitting it into two installments. Still don't have a new home for Recycled Goods, so I'm sort of floating there. Don't have the clout to swing such obvious targets as the Beatles reissue box(es), the Big Star box, the Hip-O Select and Rhino Handmade completism, or dozens of other things that seem worthy of comment.
The Jazz Consumer Guide game plan looks like this: one more week of (possibly spotty) prospecting from the incoming queues, then one or two weeks to finish off the draft. I have more than enough material for that draft, so I'm mostly looking to round off what I have, tie together some related packages, decide what to do with the older entries, settle on two pick hits -- don't have obvious choices yet, although Rova and Fully Celebrated are the current front-runners -- and find some duds. Still have house work to do, and need to travel a bit in the next two weeks, so that may impact this one way or another. But I'd like to have column done mid-October, hopefully to run sometime November.
Sunday, September 27. 2009
This is a bit late coming, but I've been bouncing back and forth without much of a plan, not noticing how many of these notes have piled up.
These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on August 18. Past reviews and more information are available here.
Metric: Fantasies (2009, Metric International): Canadian rock band, first of three albums I've heard. Group is led (or fronted) by Emily Haines, daughter of poet Paul Haines, recalled primarily for his libretto to Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill. Haines also plays keybs, providing a little synth plastic over the guitar grind. Catchy, muscular, smart. What more do you want? A-
Heartless Bastards: The Mountain (2009, Fat Possum): AMG describes their first two albums as the work of a power trio -- indie rock, garage punk -- but this group has been retooled around guitarist-vocalist Erika Wennerstrom with a fair amount of spare fiddle, pedal steel, mandolin, and banjo. Gives it a dark country feel, which is striking for instrumental stretches. Wennerstrom's voice is presumably an acquired taste. I haven't gotten that far yet. B
Björk: Voltaic (2007 , Nonesuch): Live record, presumably based on Volta which was new at the time. I never much cared for her, but she's developed some electro-industrial thrash that strikes me as inadvertently amusing, and it holds up most of the time here. Probably comes with a DVD. B+(*)
Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (2009, Strut): Ethiopian, b. 1943; studied in London, New York, and Boston (Berklee), learning to mix jazz and Latin into trad Ethiopian music. Not sure what he plays. Éthiopiques, Vol. 4 collected his 1969-74 "Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumentale." This is a collaboration with a London "Psyche-Jazz" group, the Heliocentrics, taking some old music and adding new things to it. They have an album of their own, Out There (2007, Now Again) -- might be worth a spin. Here they remind me more of dub, but not much echo. A-
Alchemist: Chemical Warfare (2009, Koch): Alan Maman, producer, sometimes credited as The Alchemist, dates back to Soul Assassins, Cypress Hill, House of Pain, Mobb Deep, Dilated Peoples, a quasi-underground vibe. Not a rapper himself, he imports them by the boatload: Kool G Rap, Snoop Dogg, Jadakiss, Eminem, KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Juvenile, Three 6 Mafia, Prodigy, Fabolous, Oh No. It has its moments (e.g., KRS-One) and its underlying sound; also too many skits. B+(**)
Chris Knight: Heart of Stone (2008, Drifter's Church): Singer-songwriter from the mines of Kentucky, has all the tools for country but writes grittier songs, especially ones carrying a chip on his shoulder over class -- "Crooked Road" is one of his best, in part because he slows it down and lets the words hit home. Could use more songs like that, but producer Dan Baird (ex-Georgia Satellites) and/or Knight decided to rock the first half of the album harder. Evidently helped them sell some records, but took the edge of this one. B+(***)
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009, Glassnote): French rock group, several albums since 2000, sings in English, has a nice synthy beat and pop sense that that doesn't take their classical references -- album title, leadoff song called "Lisztomania" -- too seriously. B+(*)
Asher Roth: Asleep in the Bread Aisle (2009, SRC/Universal Motown): White rapper, makes no claim to street cred, other than admitting some people confuse his accent with Eminem. Includes his novelty hit "I Love College," which is meant to be funny but isn't funny enough. Seems to go serious toward the end, but it's not clear that works any better. B
UGK: UGK 4 Life (2009, Jive/Zomba): Below the logo, front cover also identifies them as Underground Kingz. Duo, from Port Arthur, TX, one guy Bun B, the other Pimp C. Presumably this was mostly in the can before 2007 when Pimp C died -- something about codeine syrup and sleep apnea. ("Sippin' on Some Syrup" was one of their signatures.) Beats are robust and samples catchy, lyrics a dirty south thang. I could see going up or down on it. B+(***)
Swamp Dogg: Give 'Em as Little as You Can . . . as Often as You Have to . . . or . . . a Tribute to Rock 'n' Roll (2009, S-Curve): Oldies covers: Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Beatles, Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Swamp Dogg. This took virtually no conceptual effort, either to select the songs or to arrange them. Most are just thrashed. The only one where Jerry Williams' voice does something is Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," but even the extras detract. "Total Destruction to Your Mind" is worthy in this set, but also sloppy. C
Röyksopp: Junior (2009, Astralwerks): Norwegian synth-pop band, has a good beat, seems innocuous enough, fun even. Used to have a trip hop rep, but they seem to have gotten over it. B+(**)
Buraka Som Sistema: Black Diamond (2008 , Fabric): DJ group from Portugal. I wound up filing them under Africa, since some or all of the group come from Angola where they're rooted in something called kuduro. They're fairly far removed from their roots -- comparable, say, to The Bug from reggae -- but I wouldn't be surprised to find similar things bouncing back from Africa, much like Nigeria's 1970s regurgitation of psychedelic rock. Besides, you can't keep a good beat down. B+(***)
Busdriver: Jhelli Beam (2009, Anti-): Motormouth rapper, claims that "conscious rap failed us" so now he's trying to drive home subliminally. Works best when you can follow him enough to catch the humor, or at least the cleverness, but sometimes you just have to settle for the helium. B+(**)
Busdriver: Fear of a Black Tangent (2005, Mush): Running out of things in my meta-ratings file that I particularly want to listen to, and this handy older record I had missed was easily accessible. Easier paced, less frenetic than the new one, which gives his beats a chance to develop some complex flavors, and gives you a chance to catch some of his wit and mystery and, most likely, bullshit. A-
Otis Taylor: Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs (2009, Telarc): A bluesman with moderate tastes, which keep him from digging deep but also keep him from exhibiting any flash. The only song that sounds like he's really got the blues has to do with losing his guitar. A couple of songs feature his daughter Cassie Taylor's vocals. She manages to hit his same vocal tone, only perhaps a bit less skillfully. B+(*)
Bruce Springsteen: Working on a Dream (2009, Columbia): A rather mixed bag, with simple pieces like the title song strong and eloquent, other stuff chilled out in the E Street cold locker, and a series of songs toward the end ("Life Itself," "Kingdom of Days," and especially "Surprise, Surprise") overripe and overorchestrated. B
Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel (2009, Bismeaux): After all the weird and sometimes bizarre meet ups Lost Highway arranged for Nelson, this one is a natural, unforced, practically sublime. Asleep at the Wheel has been working on this for a long time. Their 1993 Bob Wills tribute was still rather anemic, but they figured it out for 1999's Ride With Bob, all except the part of who would sing. Needless to say, Nelson is perfect. A
Willie Nelson: American Classic (2009, Blue Note): Nominally a jazz standards album, given the label, the band, the guest stars, and Nelson's own masterful vocals. Nelson has done this sort of thing before, most notably on 1978's Stardust album, which had the advantage of being totally unexpected. He's often at his best on such occasions, but showing that he can do it doesn't prove that he can do it repeatedly. A lot of things seem to be good ideas here but don't quite work out. I'm confused about credits: looks like some cuts were made with Jeffs Clayton and Hamilton, but Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Anthony Wilson, and Joe Sample also show up among the credits. Two guest duets, one with Norah Jones, the other with Diana Krall -- both first call singers, neither much help here. Of course, it doesn't fall flat. B+(*)
Deer Tick: Born on Flag Day (2009, Partisan): Alias for someone named John Joseph McCauley III, not to be confused with all those other Deer-names. Claims his roots-rock credentials by the throat, although looking at the AMG review's comps, I'd say he leans more toward Tom Petty than John Prine. Rhapsody refused to play a song in the middle, which is one reason I'm sticking to my reservation. But they bury a good take of "Goodnight Irene" after a pause following the closer. B+(***)
The Bottle Rockets: Lean Forward (2009, Bloodshot): Simple, straightforward, neoclassic rock and roll group, moves along but nothing much stands out or sticks to the mind. B+(*)
Bobby Pinson: Songs for Somebody (2007, Cash Daddy): Country singer, cut one very good album for RCA (Man Like Me) who then dumped him. This has many of the same virtues -- detailed slice-of-life songs, a sense of self that's not overblown, lived-in country licks -- but not as many great songs. Happens a lot with sophomore albums, but this one is still pretty solid. A-
Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (2009, Nonesuch): A group (or is it singer-songwriter?) I've never cared enough about to figure out -- went with the hype on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot although I can't for the life of me tell you why. This is ill-served on Rhapsody, and not just because the song marked as the single won't play at all. Christgau thinks it's their best. I doubt that I'll ever find out, especially if it is. B+(**)
Dave Alvin: Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women (2008 , Yep Roc): Another live album, good for recycling songs when as long as the old ones are better than the new ones, although as far as I can tell he goes both ways. He attributed a 2002 album, Out in California, to Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men. Gimmick this time is female backup singers -- possibly an all-female band. Works often enough. B+(**)
Hank Williams III: Damn Right, Rebel Proud (2008, Sidewalk): Seems to be going as Hank III these days. Still a determined lowlife, even if he doesn't sound like he lives the life he boasts about -- at least he gives it a cartoonish thrill. Voice seems less distinct than it used to, but still strong as anyone with his genes. B+(***)
Tanya Tucker: My Turn (2009, Saguaro Road): Teenage jailbait country singer, past 50 now, hasn't done much lately, turns in a covers album here. Threw me a first because I didn't recognize "Wine Me Up" from Faron Young, but none of the other songs slipped past me, and "I Love You a Thousand Ways" (Lefty Frizzell), "Walk Through This World With Me" (a George Jones hit we played at my mother's funeral), and "Oh, Lonesome Me" (Don Gibson) cinched it. Great songs ("Wine Me Up" included), she nails them all. A-
Kitty, Daisy & Lewis (2008 , DH/Mercer Street): British rockabilly band, three siblings, mostly in the teenage range, whose mother is Raincoats drummer Ingrid Weiss -- their last name is Durham, after father-guitarist Graeme Durham. Sound is a little thin even by 1950s standards, but that may be their trademark. Reissue has 3 bonus cuts, the first with sax and xylophone (I think). B+(***)
Rodney Carrington: El Niño Loco (2009, Capitol Nashville): Nashville comic, previous albums include Morning Wood, Nut Sack, and King of the Mountains -- hint, check the covers. This one is reportedly the first all-song release, mostly along the lines of "Drink More Beer" and "Wish She Would Have Left Me Quicker," but the music is so solid you can sneak it on and wait for the reactions. B+(**)
John Anderson: Bigger Hands (2009, Country Crossing): His voice is one of the more dependable ones in country music, so the albums rise or fall on the songs. Beer songs are always solid filler, and there's three or four of them. But there's more here, including a Wall Street/Main Street contrast called "Shuttin' Detroit Down" that's the first song I've put on my Songs list this year. A-
Aaron Tippin: In Overdrive (2009, Country Crossing): The Working Man's PhD never met a trucker song he didn't like, covering Haggard and Loggins and John Anderson's "Chicken Truck" and Jay Huguely's "White Knight" as well as a big swath of the Dave Dudley songbook. He burns a lot of diesel along the way, so he chooses to end with "Drill Here, Drill Now." Think he knows that more dry holes have been drilled in the USA than in the rest of the world combined? Some day this will be great folk music, a paean to a world long lost. B+(**)
Zac Brown Band: The Foundation (2008, Home Grown/ROAR/Big Picture/Atlantic): A couple of obvious Jimmy Buffett rips tag Brown as a slight iconoclast, which in turn helps loosen up the more ordinary country ruts he is prone to stumble into. Fiddle helps, as do chickens -- check out the closer, "Sic 'em on a Chicken." B+(*)
Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (2009, Anti-): Seems like she should be better than she ever sounds, which makes me wonder if she's really that good. Second play showed the songs gaining force but didn't entice me into giving it a third. B
The Dead Weather: Horehound (2008-09 , Third Man/Warner Brothers): Jack White group. He is almost unique in how loosely tethered is to his main meal ticket, the White Stripes, so he can indulge other musicians whenever the itch occurs. This is certainly better than the Raconteurs. Kills' Alison Mosshart's vocals are gloomy in a comfy way, Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita springs loose from heavy metal trappings. A-
Ian Hunter: Man Overboard (2009, New West): Always regarded as a Dylan-immitator, it's sobering to realize that he's actually older than Dylan, now 70. Also notable that the Dylan he echoes today is today is the Dylan of today, grizzled, satisfied with a sense of grace. Still, there are echoes of Mott the Hoople as well, not the young dudes band self-conscious decline, which also achieves a certain grace here. B+(**)
Arctic Monkeys: Humbug (2009, Domino): Third album. Thought they sounded fresh and punkish first time, fell off a bit the second. First half of this sounds anything but crisp, with its tricky time changes and neatly coiffed layering. Gets a bit better after that, with "Dance Little Liar" flashing some muscle. B
Thursday, September 24. 2009
Ahmed Rashid: The Afghanistan Impasse. I just read two books on Afghanistan, and was pleased to see this, nominally a review of two more books that I had only dimly been aware of and conveniently found in the library. Turns out it has little to do with Nicholas Schmidle's To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (Henry Holt) and Gretchen Peters's Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's). I'll thumb through those books later and let you know what I find. Rashid is the venerable Pakistani journalist whose Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia is the standard source on the rise of the Taliban, and whose 2008 book, Descent Into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia is the best available book on what happened to the region since the US got took an interest in late 2001. (See my book page for extensive quotes.) He is, in short, both a guy who knows what he's talking about. However, he seems to have gotten too wound up in his subject, which is turning him from a fine journalist to a muddled pundit. Consider the following two paragraphs:
Pretty much everyone agrees that the security situation has deteriorated progressively ever since winter 2001/2002 -- the time period when Rory Stewart was able to walk across much of the country (see The Places in Between [book page]. This has happened in almost perfect correlation with the increase of US and NATO troops, the "training" of "Afghan forces," and the spending (or wasting) of vast sums of development money. The two may not be causally linked, but it's clear that involvement of the sort that the US has engaged in for eight years now has had little benefit either to Afghanistan or to the US and now seems to be returning less and less value. I'm convinced that the problem is endemic both to Afghanistan and to the US, and that the combination simply doesn't work. As polls indicate, a majority of Americans (and a supermajority of Democrats) have come to the same conclusion, even if they're unlikely to phrase it my way. (Most are less tempted to blame the Americans than the Afghans.) We're a nation that prides itself on good business sense, and quite frankly any business that reviews returns like these will quickly move to cut their losses. There may be some room for debating how to do that, but it should be clear that our best efforts have failed and that some sort of reduction is clearly in order.
Rashid, however, has bought into the occupation to such an extent that his second paragraph is full of doom alarms meant to cower us. Although the Taliban can do damage in Afghanistan, there is no reason to think they could take over Kabul without significant foreign support, which is very unlikely. Similar predictions were made when the Soviets withdrew, but the rump government held its positions against US- and Pakistani-funded mujahideen for three years, until the Soviet Union collapsed and ended all aid. The notion that Pakistan would fall to the Taliban is even more far fetched. Pakistan may tolerate the Taliban in the small and marginal (to it) FATA, but Pakistan's military easily routed the Taliban in the Swat Valley. No one thinks the Taliban has any prospects beyond the Pashtun belt, which as Pakistan goes is thin and marginal.
One thing that's happened in the last year is that the honeymoon between Pakistan and the Taliban is finally over. It's hard to see either side putting that relationship back together again. Pakistan has a problem with India, but the solution there is diplomatic. That is something the US can and should work on. Afghanistan has a lot of problems, and no easy solutions. Most of all they need to develop a viable state and a viable economy. I doubt that either has ever happened under foreign occupation. They certainly haven't happened while there was a major insurrection against foreign occupation. The US and NATO need to reduce their footprint and chokehold considerably, preferably completely. Aid needs to be managed better -- now it's mostly soaked up in graft, doing virtually no one any good. There are plenty of smarter ways to do this, but the one thing we know will be disastrous would be to keep pumping troops in until we grind the Afghans into submission. We don't have the troops, time, or money, and the human toll on the ground would be devastating.
Rashid's threats turn out to be the same threats that Gen. McChrystal made in his leaked report about what would happen if he didn't get his extra 40,000 troops. Such threats play on the ignorance of politicians, who can easily imagine them being turned into told-you-so's if they don't cover their ass and go along. In other words, they're bully bluffs. The real question to ask McChrystal is what difference 40,000 troops would make. The obvious answer is that they'll provide the Taliban with more targets, so more American troops will get killed and maimed; and they'll kill a few more Taliban and a lot more ordinary Afghans, as well as turn more of the latter into Taliban. In other words, they will perpetuate the violence, which is really the last thing we should want.
Rashid writes a bit about the elections. One thing I have to say about this is that it would have been good for Karzai to have lost -- not because he's corrupt or inept or whatever, but because it would have shown Afghans that it is possible to change leaders without using bullets. That would have been a good lesson to learn. It would even give the Taliban reason to run for office rather than try to shoot their way in.
Tom Engelhardt: Measuring Success in Afghanistan. Checking the numbers, plus a thought on why "their Afghans" are so effective fighting and "our Afghans" aren't:
The way to level the field between "our Afghans" and "their Afghans" is to bring the US troops home. Then all each will have to fight for is their own freedom from control by other Afghans -- where the Taliban have a pretty nasty track record, as do the warlords in different ways. They can pick their poison, or compromise. But now the choice is between fighting for or against us, which isn't a choice that favors us.
Tom Engelhardt: How to Trap a President in a Losing War: On the McChrystal memo. Sees Petraeus behind it, "the most political general to come down the pike since, in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur said his goodbyes to Congress after being cashiered by President Truman for insubordination -- for, in effect, wanting to run his own war and the foreign policy that went with it." Also makes frequent reference to "the Surgettes": the pundits who, having got lucky in Iraq, now see surges as the answers to each and every military failure. The Surge worked in Iraq because it was preceded by a series of deals that were the real cause for the reduction in violence. (By the way, the drop was masked for nearly a by the additional violence the extra troops brought with them. The reduction only became evident when the troops were throttled to keep the whole strategem from failing.) For lots of reasons the same strategy cannot work in Afghanistan.
Helene Cooper: GOP Support May Be Vital to Obama on Afghan War. A good reason to think about whether he really wants to fight to keep the Afghan war going. One big reason why Clinton lost his health care reform program in 1993-94 was that he pushed NAFTA out ahead of it. He passed NAFTA, but only with Republican support, while crippling the union efforts he needed for health care. Why didn't he make NAFTA contingent on getting health care passed? Why not make Afghanistan contingent on health care reform now? It's not like the Republicans are cutting him any slack for being out front with in their war -- and really, all wars benefit the Republicans because they burn tax money and distract from reform at home. Not that the political calculus is what you want to base your Afghanistan policy on. But it's safe to say the Republicans do just that, and if they see a way to burn Obama they'll do it.
I read two books on Afghanistan last week, collecting extensive notes on them.
Gregory Feifer's The Great Gamble covers the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-89, with a bit on the Najibullah regime that remained in power until 1992. It's drawn mostly from the personal stories of Soviet soldiers, with a fairly brief summary of the high-level politics in the Kremlin. The decision to "invade" seems to have been made almost accidentally, like the Politburo was trying to follow procedures for 1956 Hungary and 1967 Czechoslovakia but couldn't remember the details and were too embarrassed to look them up or test whether they were relevant to Afghanistan. They weren't. The Soviets had installed communist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and owned them lock, stock and barrel. Moreover, they were lined up behind an Iron Curtain where NATO threatened the Soviet Union on one side, but where the Soviet Union was free to act on the other. The communist government in Afghanistan was the result of a local coup -- and was riven by factions (Khalq and Parcham) actively involved in killing each other off. The Kabul government had very little control over the countryside -- in fact, less and less every day. The only thing the Soviets actually decided was to dive in and kill off the Parcham leader, Hafizullah Amin (who had recently killed off the Khalq leader, Mohammed Taraki). The troops were sent in to back up the assassination, having already failed once so ineptly that Amin was unawares. Soviet invasion instantly undermined the Kabul government, rather than fortifying it, leaving the invaders with an utter mess. From there on, well, you know the drill: stay the course, we can't afford to lose, giving up would invite disaster, blah blah blah. The Soviet Union had declined miserably by the 1980s, such that the soldiers were ill-equipped and ill-supported. They provisioned themselves by looting, and defended themselves by indiscriminate slaughter. The US, China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia poured billions of dollars in weapons to prop up mujahideen warlords, who barely made a dent against the Soviet war machine, but did incredible damage to Afghanistan. The Soviet Union lost fewer than 15,000 soldiers in the war (although the injuries and trauma were far greater). More than a million Afghans died, and seven million were displaced. In other words, the Americans (primarily the Reagan administration) cheerfully sacrificed 70 Afghans for every Soviet they killed. They utterly destroyed the Afghan state and economy, and they prevented a whole generation of Afghans from learning and developing normal skills, while training a generation of murderers and thieves. The result was civil war that continues to this day, exemplified by the Taliban rule in the late 1990s, one of the most barbarous and incompetent regimes since WWII. Nor were the scars restricted to Afghanistan. Returning Soviet soldiers turned into violent criminals, which practically became the norm in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Mujahideen warlords Reagan praised as like our founding fathers took jihad on the road, leading to scores of terrorist atrocities from Bali to the World Trade Center in New York. And after 2001, the Americans returned to wreak even more havoc in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, becoming not only the world's superpower but its most dangerous rogue nation.
For more on Feifer's book, see the book page.
Jones is a RAND Corp. political scientist, based in Washington DC. His resume includes visiting Afghanistan "over a dozen times since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks." His book promises to be the first comprehensive history of the first 7 years of the US occupation of Afghanistan. It's fairly spotty in that regard: neither a military history nor a political history; despite a few first-person stories, not what you'd call journalism either. He throws in a few pages on Alexander and Tamerlane and Babur and Rudyard Kipling, but he doesn't offer much depth. He does offer some sociological concepts, and sketches out a comparative set of insurgency studies. And he winds up with a few prescriptions that never once call into question the premises of the problem. In a nutshell, this is what passes for analytical thinking in DC these days. Lord help us.
For more on Jones' book, see the book page.
At the end of Jones' book, he makes a set of recommendations for turning the war around. He argues that at least some Americans have always understood Afghanistan (ambassadors Zalmay Khalilzad and Ronald Neumann are his examples) and that the problems were caused by political leaders who didn't listen to good advise (no names, but I know a Bush when I smell one). Then he blames the insurgency on "too little outside support for the Afghan government and too much support for insurgents." That led me to comment:
He then proposed to fix this by building up a non-corrupt government, working more with local institutions than with national ones, and persuading Pakistan to shut down the safe havens the Taliban are using in Pakistani territory. For comments on those, follow the link above.
Wednesday, September 23. 2009
Tried to collect the more timely, more pointedly political items this time, after dumping most of my lesser-interest titles yesterday. Part of this involved doing more research, so the well is still pretty full. Could even do a third part, but will probably wait a while, since this is chewing up a lot of time I don't really have available. I couldn't resist picking up the Maass book below, something I hope to get to soon.
Matthew Alexander/John Bruning: How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq (2008, Free Press): Alexander is evidently a pseudonym for an Air Force interrogator who worked on the intelligence that caught up with Zarqawi. Reviews claim this reads like a thriller, but the key point is that it works as an indictment of Cheney's torture methods.
Tariq Ali: The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom: And Other Essays (2009, Verso): Title essay takes off from a Proust quote: if Zionism seeks a biblical homeland for the Jews on the basis of persecution, why not also look for a biblical homeland for gays and lesbians? More pieces on literature and politics.
Glenn Beck: Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government (2009, Threshold Editions): I thumbed through this incoherent comic book last night, finding it virtually impossible to read. Back cover is covered with critical attacks on Beck, mostly pegging him as a vile moron. It says something about his niche marketing that he figures they're good for sales. Looks like his readers are the idiots, and the point of argument is to work up fury. Haven't looked at his other new bestseller, Glenn Beck's Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine, let alone such earlier efforts as America's March to Socialism: Why We're One Step Closer to Giant Missile Parades.
Wendell Berry: Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food (2009, Counterpoint): A collection of old essays from over 30 years, with a new introduction by Michael Pollan. Probably leans more toward farming, which is Berry's passion.
Max Blumenthal: Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party (2009, Nation Books): Attempts to show that the movers and shakers of the Republican right wing are scum at a personal level, as well as ignorant and vile politically. Came up with enough examples to write 416 pages. Given how the post-Bush right has broken down, he may be right.
Harold H Bruff: Bad Advice: Bush's Lawyers in the War on Terror (2009, University Press of Kansas): That's putting it, uh, thoughtfully. John Yoo's book title, War By Other Means: An Insider's Account of the War on Terror, suggests that he wasn't even trying to be a lawyer. David Addington was always a guy who wrapped the law around his politics. Bush had no training in law: the only point he grasped was that as long as you could get away with it the law didn't apply. He hired lawyers to defend that insight. But then he also thought the only point of democracy was winning.
Paul Davidson: The Keynes Solution: The Path to Global Economic Prosperity (2009, Palgrave Macmillan): A short book of economic policy prescription, based on the immemorial question, what would John Maynard Keynes say now?
John Diamond: The CIA and the Culture of Failure: US Intelligence from the End of the Cold War to the Invasion of Iraq (2008, Stanford Security Studies): Another book on the CIA's uncanny ability to screw up everything it touches. I've recently read Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, which dishes the dirt from the beginning. This starts with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and covers the rudderless years in more detail.
Richard J Evans: The Third Reich at War (2009, Penguin Press): Third volume following The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power, presumably the end of a trilogy, unless he wants to do a The Third Reich in Myth and History, which would itself be interesting, but a change of pace. Long (944 pages), stuff that's been covered a lot -- and continues to be; cf. Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe. Don't know how good they are. I bought the first on a whim, thinking it might be interesting to note parallels between the emergent Nazis and the Bush fascists, but never actually got to the book.
Bradley Graham: By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld (2009, Public Affairs): Big (832 pp), more than I want to know about him, plenty of room for his many idiosyncrasies to get so annoying you lose track of how he fit into the military-industrial complex as well as how he wrecked it.
Alan Hart: Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews, Volume One: The False Messiah (paperback, 2009, Clarity Press): One should be able to make a strong case for the title. Evidently a second volume is planned.
Godfrey Hodgson: The Myth of American Exceptionalism (2009, Yale University Press): One of those ideas that keeps popping up no matter how many times you try to kill it. Not necessarily a good thing either. One Amazon review points out: "In the last third of the book, Hodgson details the areas where America truly is exceptional among industrial nations: last in health care, near last in educational achievement, first in incarceration rates, first in violent crime, last in intercity train service and public transit, first in income inequality, first in the amount spent on the military, first in allowing lobbyists and money to influence the democratic process." Probably helps that Hodgson is British. He's written a number of books on the US, including The World Turned Right Side Up: A History of the Conservative Movement in America.
David E Hoffman: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race & Its Dangerous Legacy (2009, Doubleday): Looks like a major book, based on research on both sides of the Cold War divide. Early on, at least some US military planners saw the arms race as a way to bankrupt the Soviet Union. That led to ever more fanciful schemes, which still possess the "best and brightest" minds of the Pentagon. That arms race almost immediately led to scenarios of apocalyptic destruction. It also caused a persistent unraveling of America's sense of democracy, a moral rot that time and again sided us with despotic regimes in a desperate totalitarian pursuit of gamesmanship. If this book doesn't spell all that out, it should.
Susan Jacoby: Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (2009, Yale University Press): After writing such sweeping books as Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and The Age of American Unreason, here's one short and specific, part of a series, "Icons of America." Hiss is, well, iconic because people read more into him than there ever was -- something that I must say I never understood. I can, for instance, recall Nixon ranting that the real reason liberals opposed him on Vietnam was that they could never forgive him for what he did to Hiss, as if a couple million dead in Vietnam and Cambodia mattered less than the fate of an Ivy League commie. That's the sort of exaggeration Jacoby gets to work with -- if only anyone cares anymore.
Dahr Jamail: The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (2009, Haymarket): Another scoop for a freelance reporter who went further and dug deeper into the Iraq war than just about anyone else. Forward by Chris Hedges.
Seth G Jones: In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (2009, WW Norton): RAND Corp. analyst looks back, second guesses, offers some more guesses. [PS: After reading this book, note seems about right.]
Anne Karpf/Brian Klug/Jacqueline Rose/Barbara Rosenbaum, eds.: A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity (paperback, 2008, Verso): Pieces from a British group called Independent Jewish Voices.
Ichiro Kawachi/Bruce P Kennedy: The Health of Nations: Why Inequality is Harmful to Your Health (paperback, 2006, New Press): Linked from Richard Wilkinson's The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier, this seems to be even more specifically focused on health care. As you know, the US has worse health outcomes than any other rich country despite spending twice or more as much per capita. Lots of reasons are possible, including that overtreatment isn't necessarily a good thing, but inequality seems to have far more to do with it: both in the denial of essential services and in the jealous protectionism of those who think they're better off for it.
Jon Krakauer: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (2009, Doubleday): I've probably read all of Krakauer's books -- mountain climbing is one of my odder side interests, and Mormonism is another -- still this doesn't seem like a very promising combination. The only lesson I draw from Tillman is the utter waste of America's war in Afghanistan, and more generally America's passion for war. People are tempted to think that Tillman did something remarkable leaving the NFL for Afghanistan, but the two are so foolishly intertwined that it was merely pathetic.
Mark LeVine: Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (2009, Zed): The years in question start with the Intifada, follow through the Oslo accords and the revival of Israel's rejectionist right under Ariel Sharon. The Intifada marked a shift in how Israel saw its Palestinian problem: before it was external, led by the PLO, characterized by terrorism; after, it was homegrown, an indictment of Israeli occupation. Short book has a lot of ground to cover.
William A Link: Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (2008, St Martin's Press): Obviously way too sympathetic, which in this case makes you question the whole project. A better title would have been Blustering Bigot.
Peter Maass: Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (2009, Knopf): There is no doubt but that the world is going to run out of oil sooner or later. The world economy grew almost linearly with the extraction of oil, so its decline seems inevitable as well. This can happen more or less violently, but if the oil industry itself is any indication, the future looks pretty bleak.
Michelle Malkin: Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies (2009, Regnery Press): Chart-topping bestseller, which raises the question: why didn't anyone use this title when Bush was president? I mean, other than that it would have been impossible to squeeze it all into 256 pages. I especially love the bit about Michelle Obama and Joe Biden being "nepotism beneficiaries."
David N Myers: Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz (2008, Brandeis): Rawidowicz died in 1957, having established himself as a notable scholar and written some essays critical of the Zionists' failure to protect Arabs during the 1947-49 war, a source not only of future conflict but of the deep-seated moral crisis within Zionism.
Shuja Nawaz: Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within (2008, Oxford University Press): Looking back at the Musharraf years, it seems pretty obvious now that the Bush administration understood virtually nothing about Pakistan's army and its view of the state and the world. This big (600 pp) book comes late but might help, especially since it's not clear that Obama gets it either.
David Neiwert: The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (paperback, 2009, Polipoint Press): Takes on the tendency in the right to seek the elimination of their enemies, as opposed to any of the wussier approaches favored by liberals, like trying to argue a case on points. Covers the obvious suspects, with Lou Dobbs mixed in with the neo-fascists.
Trevor Paglen: Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World (2009, Dutton): Author is described as "a scholar in geography, an artist, and a provocateur." Book attempts to expose a number of DOD and CIA "black ops" sites, helping you to get some notion of the bizarre things the security state is up to. Previously wrote: Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights. A similar book is Harry Helms: Top Secret Tourism: Your Travel Guide to Germ Warfare Laboratories, Clandestine Aircraft Bases and Other Places in the United States You're Not Supposed to Know About.
Charles P Pierce: Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (2009, Doubleday): Inspired by the Terry Schiavo case and the Creation Museum, which are as good as anywhere to start, but pretty low-lying fruit. I'm still ambivalent about the Dark Ages scenario -- there seems to be a lot of pull in both directions -- and would like to go beyond the mere cataloguing of contemporary stupidity. So the key question here is "how" this happened. Part of it is certainly that stupidity has been in the political interests of the right, but it's also been accommodated by politicians of the not-so-right. Businesses too. Where does that leave us?
Nomi Prins: It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street (2009, Wiley): Former Goldman Sachs managing director turned muckraking journalist, argues that the pillage had less to do with subprime mortgages than "a financial system that rewards people who move money instead of people who make things, operates outside of the media's gaze, is sheltered from governmental supervision, and uses leverage to turn risky deals into insanely risky deals." Seems about right. Previously wrote Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and Jacked: How "Conservatives" Are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted for Them or Not).
TR Reid: The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care (2009, Penguin Press): A comparative study of health care systems around the world, perhaps the easiest way to show how skewed, deranged, and wrong-minded the US "system" is. Previously wrote The United States of Europe.
Donald E Schmidt: The Folly of War: America's Foreign Policy, 1895-2005 (paperback, 2005, Algora): Traces America's war tendencies to the militant idealism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson along with a belief in American Exceptionalism.
James Scott: The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a US Spy Ship (2009, Simon & Schuster): An old story which has generally been kept under wraps. Much smaller events have been blown up into excuses for war, but Israel wasn't a country we were keen on tangling with. So why did it happen? And why didn't it matter? And is the appearance of a new book on the subject an indication that we're having second thoughts about unconditional support for a country that sometimes treats us as badly as they treat everyone else?
Robert Skidelsky: Keynes: The Return of the Master (2009, Public Affairs): Keynes biographer, his multi-volume series reissued abridged in 2005 to a mere 1056 pages. This reminder comes in at 240 pages. It seems to me that Keynes' disappearance has been greatly exaggerated, but there's nothing like a huge worldwide financial crisis to bring people back to the essential books. Also see: Peter Clarke: Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist.
Rebecca Solnit: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009, Viking): Looks at how natural and manmade disasters break the run of everyday life and trigger community-building: various earthquakes, Katrina, etc.
David Swanson: Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union (paperback, 2009, Seven Stories Press): Law and order guy, thinks Bush and Cheney and various accomplices should stand trial for their numerous crimes. Makes a good case, I'm sure.
Sam Tanenhaus: The Death of Conservatism (2009, Random House): An acolyte/biographer of Whitaker Chambers, he tries to defend his conservative idealism from reality by arguing that real conservatism died and has been replaced by an impostor. I doubt that he identifies the impostor as fascism, but someone acould write such a book.
Nicholas Thompson: The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War (2009, Henry Holt): The contrast is one way to look at the Cold War, but Kennan went through his hawkish phase too, and he's far better remembered for his "long telegram" rant than for all the reservations and caveats he offered later.
Marcy Wheeler: Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy (paperback, 2007, Vaster Books): A short brief on two interrelated subjects, tied together by the media that abets them. The Iraq propaganda story has been covered at great length elsewhere; the Valerie Plame outing less so.
Richard Wilkinson: The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier (paperback, 2006, New Press): Ran across this because Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have a new book coming out in December (already out in UK) called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. The focus strikes me as right: inequality poisons personal relationships in ways both subtle and profound, and those redound throughout society. Conversely, social cohesion depends on the fundamental sense that we're all basically alike, and therefore we're all in this together.
Richard Wolffe: Renegade: The Making of a President (2009, Crown): The most conspicuous (at least in bookstores right now) of a pile of quickie books on Obama's election win. Others include: Gwin Ifill: The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama; David Plouffe: The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory; Larry J Sabato: The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House; Chuck Todd: How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election; Greg Mitchell: Why Obama Won: The Making of a President 2008; Evan Thomas: "A Long Time Coming": The Inspiring, Combative 2008 Campaign and the Historic Election of Barack Obama.
Previously mentioned books new in paperback (book pages noted where available; some are stubs or have brief notes without quotes; eventually all will have quotes and comments):
Tariq Ali: The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008; paperback, 2009, Scribner): A personal, rather idiosyncratic history of Pakistan willingly but not necessarily all that constructively under America's imperial thumb. [book page: note]
Thomas Frank: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation (2008; paperback, 2009, Holt): A pretty accurate summary of the Republicans' run of ruin in Washington. Paperback added something to the subtitle; not sure if the book has been updated. [book page: stub]
James K Galbraith: The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (2008; paperback, 2009, Free Press): Give corporations the keys to the state and they'll turn it into a system for preying on people, the exact opposite of what a democratic state should do. One of the better political books to appear in the last couple of years. I need to go back and pick up my quotes. [book page: stub]
Paul Krugman: The Conscience of a Liberal (2007; paperback, 2009, WW Norton): Part political manifesto, but cooly delivered because he wants to work a macro view of US history in, from the Long Gilded Age through the New Deal-inspired levelling and back to a return of Gilded Age inequality. [book page]
Paul Krugman: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (2008; paperback, 2009, WW Norton): Revised a year ago from the 1999 original, written then in response to the East Asian collapse of 1997, which bears many of the same traits as the current boom/bust. [book page: note]
Ahmed Rashid: Descent Into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008; paperback, 2009, Penguin): Probably the single best book out on America's post-2001 Af-Pak fiasco, although it still leaves plenty of questions unanswered and even unraised. [book page]
Tuesday, September 22. 2009
I have enough book notes piled up that I'm going to do two posts in quick succession to clean up the excess -- second part will most likely appear tomorrow. When I do these things I usually pick the most urgent and important titles from my accumulated notes, but this time my plan is to save those for tomorrow and clear out as much of the old stuff I've been skipping over as possible. So skim lightly, but these are books I thought had some interest. I've adopted the convention of limiting these posts to 40 books each, but this one runs a little long. Otherwise I'd wind up doing this again.
Daniel J Barrett: MediaWiki (Wikipedia and Beyond) (paperback, 2008, O'Reilly): Large book on the free software package that underlies Wikipedia. I've been meaning to use MediaWiki for a couple of projects, so this is of special interest to me. On the other hand, I've been accumulating books on Wikipedia without yet getting to the point of using them. Won't have a real opinion on them until I do.
Robert H Bates: When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa (paperback, 2008, Cambridge University Press): Failed states consume economies in chaos, corruption, and predation, but what causes states to fail? One suggestion here is that globalization, especially backed by IMF policies, undermined efforts to build stable, adequately financed state organizations.
Derek Bickerton: Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages (paperback, 2009, Hill and Wang): A book about creoles and pidgins, part memoir of a lifetime's study.
David Blumenthal/James Morone: The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office (2009, University of California Press): New history of the politics of health care policy.
Paul Buhle, ed: The Beats: A Graphic History (2009, Hill and Wang): Text by Harvey Pekar and others; art by Ed Piskor and others. Not sure who all the others are. Short, celebratory, maybe a little critical when it comes to sexism. Stuff I used to care a lot about, not just when I read Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti but also when I followed Buhle's comics jones in Radical America.
Kathleen Burk: Old World, New World: Great Britain and America from the Beginning (2008, Atlantic Monthly Press): Big book (848 pages), tries to straddle the Atlantic from 1497 on.
Lisa Chamberlain: Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction (2008, Da Capo Press): Portrait of Gen X (those born in the mid-1960s through '70s) as pioneering entrepreneurs; one review tags this "gushing, anecdotal" -- not very useful attributes.
Mike Chinoy: Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis (2008, St Martin's Press): Author is an ex-CNN reporter, which doesn't really make this an "inside" account -- but then you really wouldn't want to read a book on this by the likes of John Bolton.
Gregory Cochran/Henry Harpending: The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (2009, Basic Books): Argues for genetic evolution within the last 10,000 years, contrary to the more common expectation of genetic stability in large populations.
Jennet Conant: The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008, Simon & Schuster): Third book by Conant as she digs around WWII for interesting stories. I'm not much for spy stories, but the other two books looked like they might be interesting: Tuxedo Park : A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II and 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos.
Philip J Cunningham: Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989 (2009, Rowman & Littlefield): Evidently the author was there, was friends with various protesters, and kept a day-by-day account of the events. Seems a little dated for that kind of detail, but maybe not.
Michael C Desch: Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism (2008, Johns Hopkins University Press): Dissects the argument, going back to 1815, that Democratic states are inherently more likely to prevail in wars.
Marq de Villiers: The End: Natural Disasters, Manmade Catastrophes, and the Future of Human Survival (2008, Thomas Dunne): Global warming, of course, but also volcanoes, meteors, massive tsunamis, noxious gases, plagues and pandemics, mass extinctions: stuff that happens all the time.
Bart D Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) (2009, Harper One): Basic historical deconstruction of the New Testament -- the outline I've seen is mostly stuff I know about, but probably not at this detail. Evidently, Ehrman has been doing this for a while now. Previous books include: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1996); Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It Into the New Testament (2003); Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (2003); Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005); The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (2006).
Jon Entine: Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (2007, Grand Central Publishing): Research into the genetic angle of Jewish history, a subject more succinctly covered in David B Goldstein: Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History (2008, Yale University Press). This may be one of the few areas where anyone's still talking about races, but then Entine, who draws a paycheck at American Enterprise Institute, previously wrote: Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.
Randy Charles Epping: The 21st Century Economy: A Beginner's Guide (paperback, 2009, Vintage): Author of the very similar A Beginner's Guide to the World Economy, originally dating from 1992, with a 1995 revised edition and a 2001 reprint. Most likely this title is basically another revision. Elementary, of course.
Douglas Farah/Stephen Braun: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible (paperback, 2008, Wiley): Exposé of Russian arms dealer Victor Bout. Certainly not the only one, and a piker compared to the US Government.
Stephen Fender: 50 Facts That Should Change The USA (paperback, 2008, The Disinformation Company): A sequel to Jessica Williams: 50 Facts That Should Change the World, reissued in 2007 in a 2.0 Edition. The emphasis is on facts that are non-obvious, counterintuitive even, but Americans are so ignorant -- one, or maybe several, of the facts -- that that isn't too hard.
Ann Finkbeiner: The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite (2006, Viking; paperback, 2007, Penguin): A history of elite scientists consulting with the Defense Department, especially after the Sputnik craze in 1958.
Leonard M Fleck: Just Caring: Health Care Rationing and Democracy (2009, Oxford University Press): Takes rationing as a serious ethical issue, insisting that "no one has a moral right to impose rationing decisions on others if they are unwilling to impose those same rationing decisions on themselves in the same medical circumstances."
Tom Gjelten: Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause (2008, Viking): A portrait of the rum barons as benevolent capitalists in the old Cuba, cast by Castro out of their country to exile in Miami, whereupon they started financing the good fight against the bad revolution.
Adrian Goldsworthy: How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (2009, Yale University Press): A venerable topic, of course, always more so when one's own sense of superpowership is well nigh keeling over.
Adam Gopnik: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009, Knopf): Coincidentally, both Lincoln and Darwin were born on 12 February 1809, the first link in this attempt to draw both in to a common narrative of 19th century progress.
Colin Gordon: Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (paperback, 2009, University of Pennsylvania Press): Having lived in St. Louis, I can certainly buy it as a case example for urban decline.
Ronnie Greene: Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, and Margie Richard's Fight to Save Her Town (2008, Amistad): The town is Norco, LA, located in what's variously called Chemical Corridor and/or Cancer Alley. The poison air comes from Shell Oil, one of the real big ones. Greene's a Miami Herald reporter, who gets to report for once.
Stephen P Halbrook: The Founders' Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms (2008, Ivan R Dee): Fundamental research into the why and wherefore of the second amendment. Argues that an individual right was seen as a way to check the abusive power of a standing army. Author previously wrote The Swiss and the Nazis: How the Alpine Republic Survived in the Shadow of the Third Reich, which is probably another brief in favor of broad gun ownership.
Harry Helms: Top Secret Tourism: Your Travel Guide to Germ Warfare Laboratories, Clandestine Aircraft Bases and Other Places in the United States You're Not Supposed to Know About (paperback, 2007, Feral House): Not much of a travel guide, and evidently not all that complete -- e.g., no Fort Detrick, the evident source of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, at the very least enabled by your tax dollars.
Tom Holland: The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West (2009, Doubleday): A history of Europe's 1K crisis -- the apocalyptic expectations surrounding the year 1000. Don't know how far this goes, but it certainly sets the stage for the Crusades beginning in 1095. Holland has written a couple of books on earlier history: Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic and Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. I found Rubicon to be a very useful introduction to a subject I knew little of.
Thomas Homer-Dixon, ed: Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future (2009, Random House Canada): Smart guy, likes big questions with a lot of weight on the future. This is one of those questions, but he's just editing, pulling together six Canadian experts, including William Marsden, author of a title worth repeating: Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn't Seem to Care).
Brooks Jackson/Kathleen Hall Jamieson: unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation (paperback, 2007, Random House): Tough job for a short (208 pp) book, more likely to drown in examples than draw lessons beyond the usual don't believe most (or damn near anything) that you hear. Focuses on politics and advertising, pretty low lying fruit.
Flora Jessop/Paul T Brown: Church of Lies (2009, Jossey-Bass): On the polygamist Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, by a woman who grew up there, broke away, and works against them.
Steven Johnson: The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2008, Riverhead): On Joseph Priestley, focusing more on his political interests in emigrating to America and advising Thomas Jefferson than on his notable work in chemistry.
Frank Levy/Richard J Murnane: The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market (paperback, 2005, Princeton University Press): On the shifting shape of the job market, driven largely by the increased use of computers, and what this means for a generally ill-prepared workforce.
Andrew Lih: The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia (2009, Hyperion): One of the major developments in world civilization in the last ten years of so. Not quite the "greatest story ever told," but along those lines.
Eugene Linden: The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations (paperback, 2007, Simon & Schuster): Global warming book, with historical examples similar to Jared Diamond's Collapse -- Greenland, Mayan, etc.
William Lobdell: Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America -- and Found Unexpected Peace (2009, Harper Collins): Memoir, following the writer through the maze of American religion, first as someone seeking help, then as a journalist covering the beat, then finally as someone seeking help. Seems like honest confusion, and modest enlightenment.
Cody Lundin: When All Hell Breaks Loose (paperback, 2007, Gibbs Smith): A survival guide of some sort, predicated on the notion that our world is going to hell. Not sure whether it helps, but most survival guides give you plenty of reason to try to never have to use them.
G Calvin Mackenzie/Robert Weisbrot: The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s (2008, Penguin Press): An overview history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s. I think this fills in a slot in Penguin's multi-volume US history.
Jennifer Hooper McCarty/Tim Foecke: What Really Sank the Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries (2008; paperback, 2009, Citadel): A technical mystery revisited.
John McWhorter: All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America (2008, Gotham): Of course it can't, but with plaudits from Shelby Steele and Stanley Crouch one might easily be tempted to believe the opposite. McWhorter has written several books on language which look interesting (e.g., Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English), and several books on black culture and politics which don't (e.g., Doing Our Own Thing: The Degeneration of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care).
Richard John Neuhaus: American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (2009, Basic Books): Catholic theologian, died earlier this year. Had a strong hand in moving at least part of the Catholic church into alignment with the Republican right. In particular, he was often cited by Bush for his guidance on issues like stem-cell research. Given that sort of insider connection, it seems a little precious to describe himself as an exile.
Richard E Nisbett: Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count (2009, WW Norton): A nature/nurture rehash, leaning strongly to the notion that good schools make all the difference when it comes to IQ.
Karen Page/Andrew Dornenburg: The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs (2008, Little Brown): The idea here is to build up a map of what ingredients enhance what flavors. Many, of course, are things that we already know about from past experience, but one might learn something.
Gregory Alonso Pirio: The African Jihad: Bin Laden's quest for the Horn of Africa (paperback, 2007, Red Sea Press): An attempt to sort out the complex political machinations in and near Somalia, especially the inevitable Jihad card, and the shadowy connections with former-Sudan resident Bin Laden.
Charles Postel: The Populist Vision (2007; paperback, 2009, Oxford University Press): Big new history of the late 19th century populist movement.
Guido Giacomo Preparata: Conjuring Hitler: How Britain and America Made the Third Reich (paperback, 2005, Pluto Press): I figure this argument is skewed and more than a little paranoid, but wouldn't mind seeing some exposure of US and UK business interests backing their German colleagues' support of Hitler. Multinational business interests go back a long ways -- shared class interests all the more so. Didn't work out so well in this case, which is why it's illustrative even if not typical.
John Reader: Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent (2009, Yale University Press): Domesticated in Peru some 8,000 years ago, imported to Europe in the 1500s where it had a huge demographic impact -- especially in Ireland and in Eastern Europe, which are by now inconceivable without it.
Thomas C Reed/Danny B Stillman: The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation (2009, Zenith Press): Ambitious subject scope, probably a bit skimpy at 393 pages (cf. Richard Rhodes' three volumes, which still don't cover a lot of the smaller proliferation cases). Authors are nuke designers, which should add some technical interest.
Marcus Reeves: Somebody Scream!: Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power (paperback, 2009, Faber & Faber): Historian, tries to link put draw out the context rap artists work out of, from Grandmaster Flash to Jay-Z and Eminem.
Melissa Rossi: What Every American Should Know About the Middle East (paperback, 2008, Plume): Author is Italian, which evidently gives her a leg up on her readers -- she's done several of these books: What Every American Should Know About Who's Really Running the World, What Every American Should Know About Europe, What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World, What Every American Should Know About Who's Really Running America. Seems like I have one of those, although I've never really looked through it. I have a limited fascination with remedial education books, like the old Cultural Literacy books -- not so much because I'm likely to learn something as I find it interesting what other people think you should know.
Michael Ruhlman: Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (2009, Scribner): Writer turned chef still writing. I'm still waiting for his The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen to come out in paperback. This goes deeper into one part of that: the ratios that work in recipes. Seems like a useful idea. Wonder why it's not adequately covered in the previous book.
Lisa Sanders: Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis (2009, Broadway): How doctors figure out diagnoses, and perhaps more importantly, how they screw up, and what happens when they do.
Peter Senge: The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (2008, Doubleday): Senge seems to be some kind of management guru -- a previous book is called The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. Has four co-authors here, listed in much smaller type: Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, Sara Schley. Looks like a business primer, which means it looks like sustainability is moving up from radical concept to something someone can make money off of. That's kind of notable in its own right.
David Shippy/Mickie Phipps: The Race for a New Game Machine: Creating the Chips Inside the XBox 360 and the Playstation 3 (2009, Citadel): Reminiscent of Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, which doesn't bring the book up to snuff -- most of the reviews I've seen aren't very promising. The technology itself could be fascinating, but the game machine culture has pretty much completely turned me off.
Alyn Shipton: A New History of Jazz (2nd revised updated ed, paperback, 2008, Continuum): Big (804 pp) book on a big subject, originally published 2001 (an even bigger 965 pp). Original cover looks semi-familiar, but I don't see it anywhere handy.
Lee Siegel: Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob (2008, Spiegel & Grau): A lament on how the internet affects culture and social life. Author has written Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination and Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; also some novels.
Keith Cameron Smith: The Top 10 Distinctions Between Millionaires and the Middle Class (2007, Ballantine): Short self-help book, 10 points in 128 pages, presumably simple enough anyone can follow it. Cheap if that's all it takes to rake in millions.
Neil de Grasse Tyson: The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet (2009, WW Norton): Astronomy writer, has several previous books. This one surveys the late, not-so-great ninth planet, its checkered history and controversy. That Americans are exceptionally fond of it is curious, I suppose.
Steven T Wax: Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror: A Public Defender's Inside Account (2008, Other Press): Lawyer for several cases, including Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer who was nabbed for the Madrid train bombings based on a botched fingerprint analysis.
Peter S Wells: Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered (2008, WW Norton): A revisionist argument on how dark the Dark Ages were, based on archaeological data, after dismissing contemporary accounts as Roman-biased.
Jenna Woginrich: Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life (2008, Storey Publishing): A memoir of attempting to lead a self-sufficient life: raising food, making clothing, being satisifed with simplicity. A whole growing genre here, like William Coperthwaite: A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity.
James Wood: How Fiction Works (2008, Farrar Straus and Giroux): I hardly ever read fiction -- used to average about one book per year, but the only novel I've read post-2001 was Tom Carson's Gilligan's Wake (just couldn't resist) -- but I used to have a weakness for metafiction, ever since I discovered how much more fun it was to read Leslie Fieldler on Nathaniel Hawthorne than to read Hawthorne himself. This is getting some hype.
Paperback reprints will wait until Part 2, which will have more political books.
Monday, September 21. 2009
Matthew Yglesias: Fiscal Responsibility: This post bummed me out as much as anything I've seen in recent weeks. Even Yglesias, framing estate tax breaks as a fiscal responsibility issue, misses the point. If people recognized the most basic point I learned as a young child -- that America is a land where each person can achieve according to their own efforts -- the necessity of high estate taxes would be common sense. America was founded in revolt against aristocracy, yet 233 years later politicians trip over each other trying to feather the nests of the born-rich. After eight years of a disastrous Republican president elected largely on his inherited name you'd think that Democrats (if that's what you call Lincoln and Bayh) would be especially alert to this. Of course, Bayh is a second generation senator, a Democrat only because he was born one, like he was born rich, dumb, and entitled. Yglesias gives us Paris Hilton as his illustration of the born-rich, but that's too kind. She at least has a sense of humor about her upbringing.
Enough here to dump out, although I hardly feel like it. Been in a terrible mood, and it's affecting my writing. Actually listened to a good deal more this past week, but moved nine more records to the relisten shelf without writing down my first impressions.
Digital Primitives: Hum Crackle & Pop: (2007-09 , Hopscotch): Trio: Cooper-Moore (vocal, banjo, twinger, diddley-bow, mouth bow, flute), Assif Tsahar (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Chad Taylor (drums, m'bira, percussion). Previous album together was called Digital Primitives, so this is another band in the wake of an album. Acoustic group, with Cooper-Moore's homemade instruments definitively a primitive one. Early on Tsahar struck me as a guy who'd just screech when he ran of ideas, but the only time that happens here is when it's the right thing to do. I caught a couple of YouTube videos of Cooper-Moore, which make me realize I should revise my view of him as a hermit. He's the life of the party here, and Taylor rounds him out into a terrific rhythm section. His one vocal is a bit trite, but he no doubt means it as profound. A-
Donny McCaslin: Declaration (2009, Sunnyside): Tenor saxophonist, you know that. I've always been impressed by his chops. He's one guy who can show up at a session and run away with it. But his albums always left me lukewarm, at least until last year's Recommended Tools, where he cut the complexity down to a bare-bones trio and just blew: my review line was, "like he's strayed from Chris Potter's footsteps to chase after Sonny Rollins." Well, he's back to Potter-ville here (or Douglas-ton) with a piano-guitar quintet -- Edward Simon, Ben Monder, Scott Colley, Antonio Sanchez -- plus a brass choir on 5 of 8 songs. Fancy postbop arranging, slinky harmonies, less emphasis on sheer virtuosity. Sounded better the second play than the first, so I'll keep it open. [B+(**)]
George Colligan: Come Together (2008 , Sunnyside): Piano trio, one of the most consistently impressive pianists of his generation (b. 1970), but I've yet to hear a full record I really like -- admittedly, I missed a skein of well-regarded albums on Steeplechase. Liner notes advise: "It might take 2 listens to hear our lifetimes of musical development." Having played this 5 or 6 times, I'm sure it takes more. I don't have any complaints or insights. I do have a long-established pet peeve against covering Beatles songs -- maybe I know them too well as originals, or maybe they're just such protean rock they're unjazzable -- but they nail the title tune about as well as I can imagine. B+(**)
Melissa Walker: In the Middle of It All (2009, Sunnyside): Vocalist, b. 1964, graduated from Brown, fourth album since 1997, after three on Enja. Standards, more or less: only "Where or When" has been done a lot; title cut is from Arthur Alexander, a soul singer who's basically a cult item; second song comes from Peter Gabriel; the one that most struck me was "Mr. Bojangles," drawn out nicely with her exaggerated loops. Arranged by Clarence Penn and Christian McBride, with Adam Rogers and Keith Ganz on guitar, Aaron Goldberg on piano and (most significantly) Fender Rhodes, and most valuably Gregoire Maret on harmonica. B+(**)
Hemispheres: Crossroads (2008-09 , Sunnyside): Group led by percussionist Ian Dogole, who has one previous Hemispheres album, one by Ian Dogole & Global Fusion, a couple under his own name, some earlier work in a group called Ancient Future. AMG lists him as New Age, which doesn't seem quite fair. Two solo pieces here -- one on kalimba, the other on hang -- are basic but intriguing. The other pieces are fleshed out with Sheldon Brown and Paul McCandless on various reeds/horns, Frank Martin on piano, and Bill Douglass on bass. McCandless's presence suggests Oregon, but doubling up on the wind instruments gives us something lusher, which is not necessarily a good thing -- clarinet and English horn, piccolo and soprano sax, like that. Final cut adds Hussein Massoudi tombak and vocals on a Persian piece. For once the vocal helps concentrate and clarify. Cover is a satellite image of Istanbul straddling the Bosphorus. As good a place to start as any. B+(*)
Jim Beard: Revolutions (2005-07 , Sunnyside): Full credit: With Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orchestra. Three cuts from a 2005 session, the other 7 from 2007. Former has 54 musician credits, latter 51, about half strings in each case, most of the names strike me as Dutch. Keyboardist, b. 1960, fifth album since 1990, the first a large group on CTI, Song of the Sun. Substantial list of side credits, many on synthesizer, also as a producer. Mostly bright, fanciful, the strings neatly tucked in, the horns tame, a little extra percussion. B+(*)
Jason Marsalis: Music Update (2009, ELM): Another Marsalis brother, b. 1977, plays vibes. Third album, a quartet with piano-bass-drums. Mostly light groove pieces, a couple of which build up into something, most of which are pleasant enough. B
Emily Jane White: Dark Undercoat (2008 , Important): Singer-songwriter, AMG considers her Rock and I concur, not that she rocks very hard. Rather gloomy, in fact. Also plays guitar and piano, with bass and drums for backing, plus cello on one cut. Leaves a haunting effect; not sure of its literary merit. B+(**)
Rogério Bicudo/Sean Bergin: Mixing It (2008 , Pingo): Title is a misnomer: these duets don't really mix. Rather, the ex-Brazilian guitarist and ex-South African saxophonist, both now based in the Netherlands, play their own parts in each other's presence. Imagine Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfa in the studio, playing show and tell, trying to figure each other out, without the percussion and all the other stuff that smooth things over. Of course, Bergin's not as smooth as Getz, and Bicudo isn't as slick as Bonfa -- and when he sings Jobim, he reminds me of Astrud Gilberto, affectless, only clunkier, as males tend to be. Bergin's attempt to mix in a bit of Abdullah Ibrahim does little to change the focus on Brazil. Still, I find this charming. B+(**)
Edward Simon Trio: Poesia (2008 , CAM Jazz): Pianist, from Venezuela, moved to New York 1989, 8th album since 1993. Piano trio with John Patitucci on bass (acoustic and electric), Brian Blade on drums. Never impressed me much before, but I like his repeating rhythmic riffing that drives most of these pieces. Seems like fans of the late EST would get off on this. B+(***)
John Abercrombie: Wait Till You See Her (2008 , ECM): Guitarist, a steady producer since the early 1970s, in a quartet with Mark Feldman (violin), Thomas Morgan (bass), and Joey Baron (drums). Feldman, who's perhaps the least swinging violinist in jazz, dominates the sound, so it takes some effort to locate the guitar and note how neatly it fits in. B+(**)
Dave Rivello Ensemble: Facing the Mirror (2002 , Allora): Composer, conductor, teaches at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, founded this 12-piece ensemble in 1993. Studied under Bob Brookmeyer, who wrote the liner notes here. Elaborate postbop shadings, impressive at first but turn out to be of limited interest. B
As If 3: Klinkklaar (2008 , Casco): Dutch piano trio, pianist is Frank Van Bommel, who has a couple of previous albums since 1995. Raoul Van Der Weide plays bass, and Wim Janssen drums. Claims Mal Waldron and Misha Mengelberg as influences -- I can at least hear Waldron. Sharp work; good rhythmic sense and invention. B+(**)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:
Sunday, September 20. 2009
Picked up the newspapers this morning. The Wichita Eagle had better things in it than the New York Times. First, Richard Crowson's editorial cartoon:
The cartoon was also reinforced by a letter from Chris Darnell, titled "What Choice?":
They also have a long piece by Les Blumenthal of McClatchy, Tanker bid rhetoric heats up in Congress. This is the $35 billion boondoggle contract to build new tankers for the Air Force, a scam that was originally cooked up by Boeing to extend the life of their obsolete 767 airliner assembly line, which has now turned into a political tussle between Boeing and Northrup, the latter the US front for Airbus. Kansas politicians have always dutifully lined up behind Boeing and its promise of 500 (originally 1000) jobs for Wichita. (I mean, where else can you get a jobs program for only $70 million per job, a feat so awesome even Republicans get stimulated.) Each side has their bought representatives -- Sen. Richard Shelby the most vocal for Northrup, while Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Boeing employee until he was elected to Congress, is so obsessive about Boeing tankers that Bush nicknamed him Tanker Todd. On the other hand, Tiahrt's stock at Boeing seems to be dropping: recently Boeing announced that if they get the contract they may do the work somewhere else than in Wichita -- depends on where they find the political clout to land the deal. In that case the jobs payola for Wichita will probably turn out to be negative: once the Air Force decomissions its aging KC-135 tankers (and even older B-52 bombers), there will be no reason to keep Wichita's McConnell Air Force Base going. No one here seems to grasp the jobs-value of keeping old planes flying where the only skills to do that are here, versus buying a bunch of unneeded new planes that can be built and serviced somewhere else.
Still, nobody's asking the real question, which is why do we need or want a new generation of tankers in the first place? The main thing they do is make it easier to get involved in foreign wars. You would think that a president who promised to change the way we think about war would start by changing the way he thinks about subsidizing the war machine.
Speaking of which, the New York Times has an op-ed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, A Better Missile Defense for a Safer Europe. The tanker deal is small potatoes compared to missile defense, the grandaddy of all war industry scams. It has been a bad idea ever since Melvin Laird put it on the Republican agenda: insanely expensive, brazenly aggressive, and flat-out unworkable. Obama could have killed it off once and for all, but instead he merely scaled it back and tried selling that as "smarter missile defense." Gates, who's done his share over the years to keep it going, puts it this way:
He then goes on to hype the Iran threat, at a time when the usual hawks are clamoring again for bombing Tehran. While many progressives are elated that Obama cancelled installation of missiles and radars in Poland and Czechoslovakia that Bush had planned for little purpose other than to irritate Russia, I find Obama's relatively sane plan disappointing. Strategic missile defense is one of the weakest pillars of US defense posture, a clearcut case where one can explain that the technology cannot and will not work, and that the only viable options are non-military. In playing along with this game, Obama is missing a prime opportunity to effect the sort of change he was elected for promising. Plus c'est le même chose, jamais change.
Monday, September 14. 2009
Not a lot to report this week, but enough to bother with a post. Still trying to get some other things done, and still frustrated in how little I'm accomplishing. A few records from Rhapsody this time. They are mostly things I wanted to check out following the Downbeat critics poll post. If anyone reads this, Mary Halvorson is probably not doing herself a favor in not sending me records. On the other hand, I'm just as happy not having to find somewhere to store Christian Scott. So it goes. I expect that prospecting will remain light for the next two weeks, then I'll go into a crunch period and finish off a column that I have something like 150% of my space already filled up.
One side project I should note is that I've been digging through Verve's Originals reissue series, which is the successor to their LP Reproductions -- i.e., reproduce original LP order and artwork with no extras (maybe better sound), so many wind up close to 30 minutes. I've identified 138 albums in the series. I haven't seen the packaging yet -- too bad I live in a town with no record stores, but almost all are on Rhapsody. First one I noticed was Satchmo at Pasadena, which turns out to be a small part of the utterly wonderful The California Concerts 4-CD box. I thought I'd sample a few items I'd previously missed and stuff them into Recycled Goods, but I've wound up listening to most of them, even predictably bad pop albums (although thus far I've only hit 2 of 8 Roy Ayers joints). Some finds (all A-):
The Ferguson and Washington were surprises -- I've been through all of the other Washingtons and nothing else comes close. Not listed are things I've long owned in previous editions, including nearly all of Coltrane's Impulse catalog, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (an all-time favorite), Gil Evans' Out of the Cool, Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth, the Oscar Peterson/Clark Terry Trio + One, Gato Barbieri's first two chapters (which I know as Latino America), Johnny Hodges' Used to Be Duke, Stan Getz's Sweet Rain, Sonny Rollins' On Impulse. A full report one of these days.
Dafnis Prieto Si o Si Quartet: Live at Jazz Standard NYC (2009, Dafnison Music): Cuban drummer, has pretty much blown everyone away since arriving in New York. There is a style of Afro-Cuban jazz marked by extreme start-stop rhythmic shifts, overlaid by other time shifts in dazzling complexity. Prieto does all that, and he's really quite amazing. His quartet tries to scale those shifts up. They're a bit less convincing, mostly because none of them can maneuver as fast as Prieto. Peter Apfelbaum plays tenor sax, soprano sax, bass melodica; Manuel Valera piano, keyboard, melodica; Charles Flores acoustic and electric bass. B+(**)
Art Pepper: The Art History Project (1950-82 , Widow's Taste, 3CD): Three discs, designated "Pure Art (1951-1960)," "Hard Art (1960-1968)," and "Consummate Art (1972-1982)." The gaps account for prison time, which would have been clearer had whoever put this together been better at dates: the first disc actually goes from a Stan Kenton cut in 1950 up to 1957. Another gap between 1960 and 1968 is buried in the prison-hardened second disc, and the third doesn't actually get going until 1977. Still, the eras are roughly correct. Aside from the Kenton, the first disc -- a best-of picked from a string of superb albums -- has a bright, fresh, clean sound with no extra lines or baggage, just virtuoso alto sax over impeccable west coast rhythm. The later material is more weathered and less choice. Most of the second disc comes from a previously unreleased set with pianist Frank Strazzeri -- rough stuff, Pepper fiercely determined to make up for lost time. The third disc adds a little angst to his extensively documented final period -- cf. the 16-CD Galaxy box, the 9-CD Complete Village Vanguard Sessions, scattered more/less legit live shots -- when everything he did seemed magical. A-
Joe Morris Quartet: Today on Earth (2009, AUM Fidelity): After several records on bass, Morris returns to his main instrument, guitar. The net effect is that he competes for lead time with alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs, each interesting in his own right, but neither runs away with the show. That's a bit of a letdown for Hobbs, who's made a big impression both with Morris on bass and in his own group, the Fully Celebrated, with Timo Shinko on bass, as he is here. B+(***)
Darius Jones Trio: Man'ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing) (2009, AUM Fidelity): Alto saxophonist, based in Brooklyn, has previously appeared with Tanakh and Little Women, not sure in any capacity other than playing alto sax. Rounding out the trio: Cooper-Moore (piano, diddley-bo) and Rakalam Bob Moses (drums). This has been stuck indecisively in my box for several days now, neither improving nor slipping, so I want to move on. Good to hear Cooper-Moore play some piano these days, but it's mostly buried under the sax, where it may not be the best support. [B+(***)]
Yaala Ballin: Travlin' Alone (2009, Smalls): Singer, b. 1983, from Israel, based in New York, debut album. Nice voice, soft curves wrapped around songs like "I Remember You," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "The Gypsy." Good group, including Ari Roland, Sacha Perry, and Chris Byars, who should be on the short list for singers looking for saxophone support. B+(**)
Stacy Dillard: One (2008 , Smalls): Saxophonist (mostly tenor, some soprano), from Michigan, 32 (presumably b. 1976 or 1977). Website lists 4 albums since 2006, but this is the only one on a label I've heard of. Wrote all the pieces. Quintet with fender rhodes, guitar, bass, and drums -- no one I recognize. Dillard gives a bravura performance, fierce at high speeds, soulful when he slows down. B+(***)
Led Bib: Sensible Shoes (2008 , Cuneiform): English group, led by drummer Mark Holub, with two saxophones (Pete Grogan and Chris Williams, who wrote 2 of 9 pieces), keyboards (Toby McLaren), and bass (Laran Donin). Third album since 2005, the previous ones on Slam and Babel (English avant-garde labels with virtually no US presence). It's tempting to slot this has a fusion group, mostly because they're loud, sometimes melting down into chaos, but then they'll throw you something that isn't. I've played this too many times; doubt that I'll ever put it together. B+(**)
Rez Abbasi: Things to Come (2008-09 , Sunnyside): Pakistani-American guitarist, did a record a few years back that I liked quite a bit, Snake Charmer. Lately he's joined Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition, and here he expands that group to include pianist Vijay Iyer. So this should be a major album, but I'm not feeling it -- perhaps with all this talent I'm expecting something with a strong South Asian vibe and that's missing. (Note that Dan Weiss, who is a superb tabla player, is only credited with drums.) I could take the easy way out and blame it on Kiran Ahluwalia's vocals (4 of 8 tracks) -- I can think of many more cases where the wife singing bogged down a record -- but I'm not sure that's it either. Will keep it open, noting that the three principals have strong solo spots, and that it's sounding better while typing this than it did before I sat down. [B+(*)]
These are some even quicker notes based on downloading or streaming records. I don't have the packaging here, don't have the official hype, often don't have much information to go on. I have a couple of extra rules here: everything gets reviewed/graded in one shot (sometimes with a second play), even when I'm still guessing on a grade; the records go into my flush file (i.e., no Jazz CG entry, unless I make an exception for an obvious dud). If/when I get an actual copy I'll reconsider the record.
Dee Alexander: Wondrous Fascination (2006-07 , no label): She won Downbeat's Rising Star Female Vocalists poll, so I figured I should check her out. This is the only thing Rhapsody has: a pop gospel album with The Christ Community Worship Team. She's not an over-the-top gospel diva -- her voice only barely emerges above the crowd. Not a lick of jazz either. Sounds awful at first, but over the course develops a humdrum routine catchiness. The record I still want to find is Wild Is the Wind (Blujazz). C- [Rhapsody]
Christian Scott: Live at Newport (2008, Concord, CD+DVD): Cool young mainstream trumpet player, Downbeat's Rising Star, has two previous albums on Concord, neither made much of an impression on me. Sextet, with Walter Smith III on tenor, both piano and guitar as well as bass and drums. This starts out sounding funereal, and rarely picks up the place, although the rhythm is competently complex and Smith cuts a few strong solos. Can't see DVDs via Rhapsody, not that I'd want to. B [Rhapsody]
Mary Halvorson/Jessica Pavone/Devin Hoff/Ches Smith: Calling All Portraits (2008, Skycap): Starts on something of a false note with a title scream, a feint toward punk or antifolk followed by a hard left into something else. Halvorson's guitar has the least presence here. Hoff's bass, on the other hand, is amped up to the point where he's the evident leader, while Pavone's violin slices through everything without the slightest hint of sweetness. Mostly odd groove music with a lot of sharp edges. Hard to say what it all means, but the bass and drums provide balance and diversity that the duo lacks. Maybe humor too. B+(***) [Rhapsody]
Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon's Head (2008, Firehouse 12): Away from Jessica Pavone, this finally provides some sense of what Halvorson's guitar sounds like, although the answer isn't simple. Trio includes John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums. As much fun as Devin Hoff was on Calling All Portraits, Hebert is a relief here, totally engaged in whatever's happening, as supportive as a bassist can be. Halvorson does a number of interesting things here, including some surprising heavy metal crunch, but mostly a lot of poking and prodding, small figures that stay far clear from ye olde bebop lines. This got a lot of poll votes last year. Seems like it is the sort of record an artist can build a reputation on. A- [Rhapsody]
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.
Unpacking: Found in the mail this week (and last):
Sunday, September 13. 2009
Some other books that I've noted in my book prospecting notes but (generally) haven't explored further. Listed alphabetically by author. A couple go beyond the politics of health care to get into the practice, but I usually drew the line short of there. Some deal with suspicious public health issues, and some of those are suspicious in their own right. Some push right-wing or status quo-ist agendas, some ideologically (e.g., Cato Institute) but most with a financial stake in their scheme. A small number of more general political books are listed where they seem to be especially relevant (e.g., Rahm Emanuel's The Plan), but not many. I've skipped over most books published before 2001, except when they seem to have historical value. There were a rash of books that appeared during 1992-94 that are presumed hopelessly dated. There was a slight uptick around 2004, and again from 2006 on when it started to look like a Democrat might be elected president in 2008 -- although more than a few of those books were meant to ward off Republican agendas like HSAs and CDHC.
I've added notes to some where I thought helpful, but have let most explain themselves through their titles. Several books have book page links. I've eliminated all of the superfluous titles (mostly MD) on author names.
The more I look, the more such books I find, although many of them seem outside the bounds of good taste or immediate relevance. Selecting a short reading list is impossible. I have only read 3 of these (the Bradley and Hacker links, and the first Atul Gawande), plus 7 of the 9 books I reported on yesterday (1 link was based on a review, one more on an excerpt). And I have a few more books on hand if/when I get time for them: Brownlee, Mahar, Starr, the second Gawande, Groopman; and I have Kawachi/Kennedy and the first Wilkinson on order. Reid's new book looks promising, and Rothman is a historian I've long admired tackling an important subject. Hardly makes me an expert, but it does suffice to cover much of the story. It also helps that I've read quite a bit of the background history and theory; also that I have more personal experience that I really want to think about. I've been thinking that health care would make a good subject for a case analysis in my book on how to think about public policy. The exercise of dredging up all these books makes me realize that there's an even bigger gap here for a book that can triangulate between the practice of health care, the business and politics around it, the social and philosophical concerns of patients, and the technology. Will have to think more about that.
Saturday, September 12. 2009
I overheard most of Obama's health care speech the other night. I usually duck political speeches, but it came on during a break in the music, and I wasn't much enjoying the music. Seems like he made the basic case clearly, although he didn't go very deep, in large part because he's not trying to fix very much. I heard one peculiar round of boos, but didn't catch what occasioned it -- maybe that Rep. Joe Wilson flap. And I heard three or four more boos, clearly coming from Laura in the TV room. I agree with her that the only way to actually fix the system is to wring the profit incentives out of it and to restore a professional ethic of care giving, and that the first step should be to institute single-payer insurance. Obama's credentials as a progressive and for that matter his reputation as someone with a grip on reality were tarnished by his eagerness to make light of single-payer. He also came up short on two other key points: one is whether government can run programs that serve the people, which is really a key article of faith for anyone who professes belief in democracy; the other is deficits question, where the right answer is: we'll spend what we need to spend to provide everyone with quality health care, and if that's more than is in the current budget we'll raise taxes to cover it. But then, as I said, Obama wasn't trying to fix very much. And if he manages to make it possible for someone like me who can afford to buy health insurance but can't find any insurance company willing to sell me a policy, I at least will be pleased. On the other hand, lots of other people will remain disappointed. One thing for sure is that Obama won't be the last president to attempt to reform the health care system. Even if he delivers what he's promised, he'll leave plenty more to be done.
Over the last few weeks, I read three health care books I found at the library. I've read more over the last few years, and have more on tap. The books are:
Some older books that I read and commented on earlier:
Malcolm Gladwell: The Moral-Hazard Myth. An article published in 2005, in part a review of the Uninsured in America book cited above. When I originally posted a quote from the article, I didn't bother tracking down the URL, but now I've found the piece online. Part of the quote deserves reiteration (the only thing that has dated it is that the costs are even more outrageous now):
I started assembling a list of miscellaneous books related to health care policy issues, starting with my previous book prospecting blogs. Wound up with a pretty long list, which probably needs a few more notes, so I decided to hold it back. Tomorrow, maybe.
Friday, September 11. 2009
September 11 kind of snuck up on me unawares this year. That seems like a good thing: after seven-plus years of Bush playing it up as carte blanche for warmongering, it's finally succumbing to a decent burial in history, where it will quickly be forgotten -- like almost everything else in American history. I'm not necessarily in favor of forgetting history, but it beats misremembering it for malign purposes, which is about all there was to the official 9/11 legacy. No one at the time was allowed to suggest that the US might have done something to have provoked the attack. Susan Sontag was villified for as much as suggesting that Bush's characterization of the attackers as "cowardly" wasn't quite correct. Since then the US has used 9/11 to rationalize war after war, resulting in thousands of muslims killed from Somalia to Pakistan's frontier territories. So forgetting the initial pain seems like a good first step toward dismantling the reign of terror that the US subsequently instituted.
I was reminded of this recently in an odd passage from Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventures in Early America. His research brought Horwitz to Santo Domingo, where he toured the Faro, a museum and lighthouse built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's New World discovery (pp. 82-83).
The "wall of shame" refers to a wall built to shield visitors to the Faro from catching a glimpse of Santo Domingo's slums. But the wall of 9/11 does something different. It exposes the demented underside of the American psyche. It shows the world that we are incapable of showing concern for anyone else. Only one other country wears its scars so prominently on its sleeve, and that's Israel -- one of the things that binds the two countries together. But even Israel softens their PR a bit, showing beaches and oranges along with ancient ruins. Or so I'd guess. Horwitz doesn't mention an Israeli exhibit at the Faro.
Opening the mail, I glanced at the hype sheet in one package, and found myself reading a desperate cry for help. From Luke Kaven, at Smalls Records:
Now, I'm in no position to audit Smalls Records or any other label. I do know that the number of small labels like Smalls has actually grown since the mid-1990s, as has the number of working jazz musicians. I don't doubt that most are marginal as businesses, fueled more by passion for the art than greed. At least some are subsidized by other jobs. But when I look at the bottom line for my little writing business, Kaven's letter strikes me as whiney. Still, it's worth noting that the forty-some records Smalls has released since 2004 include quite a few gems and only one dud I'm aware of, and that most of these records would never have been released but for the efforts of Kaven. The most obvious example is Frank Hewitt, a pianist who died in 2002 with nothing under his name. Kaven's released five albums of old Hewitt tapes, all pretty good. He coaxed Teddy Charles back into the studio after a 50-year absence. He released a couple of records by a saxophonist who immediately left New York for the greener pastures of Armenia. Again, there are other labels doing the same sorts of things. If Kaven has a handicap it's that he focuses on the subtlest details of mainstream postbop, territory that most others have beat to death. On the other hand, anyone with a taste for 1950s bebop, which is still the mother lode of jazz (other claims from New Orleans to Norway notwithstanding) will be comfortable here.
Anyhow, one thing I can do is to pull out the Jazz Consumer Guide archive of Smalls Records. Since July 2004 Smalls has placed five records in the A-section, including one pick hit (Chris Byars: Photos in Black, White and Gray), plus two Honorable Mentions. Below you'll find all of them plus a bit more: Zaid Nasser and Fat Cat Big Band have two records each that didn't make my space cut last time, so are planned for the next Jazz CG. I've also included the "off list": records I've prospected but haven't yet reviewed in Jazz Consumer Guide.
Omer Avital: The Ancient Art of Giving (Smalls) The second installment in Avital's archives, Room to Grow, starts to make the case for the Israeli bassist as a catalyst for cutting edge postbop in the late '90s, but this is the album where the payoff comes clear. His quintet is structured for hard bop, but he lets the rhythm slosh around, and once they get warmed up, Mark Turner's tenor sax and Avishai Cohen's trumpet, break loose. A-
Chris Byars: Photos in Black, White and Gray (Smalls) Referencing Gigi Gryce's alto sax and Lucky Thompson's tenor, Byars finds new niches in bebop, picking up threads from the 1950s that got pummeled by hard bop, discarded altogether by the avant-garde, then buried under whatever passes for postbop these days. Much as bebop developed underground in places like Minton's where musicians gathered to play for each other, the same dynamic developed at Smalls in the '90s, connecting a new generation to unreconstructed veterans like Frank Hewitt and through them to the foundations of modern jazz. Tapping into the process, Byars sounds fresh even working in such a well-worn form. A-
Frank Hewitt: We Loved You (2001, Smalls) Hewitt was one of countless guys who spent their lives playing in obscure dives, never lucking or bulling into the spotlight. For nine years up to his death in 2002 he worked and sometimes lived at Smalls, an after-hours club in NYC, garnering fans like Luke Kaven, who founded this label to right the wrong that Hewitt had never released a record. It's easy enough to guess why biz pros passed: Their ideal pianist is a young guy with a distinct edge -- a Brad Mehldau or a Jason Moran. Hewitt sounds warm and comfy, like someone you'd cast for atmosphere before cutting back to the plot. But because he never gets corny or sentimental, he cuts himself a distinctive niche after all. A-
Frank Hewitt: Fresh From the Cooler (1996, Smalls) A bebop pianist who almost slipped through 66 years of life without leaving a trace, Hewitt built enough of a cult during his Smalls residency to inspire a label in no small part dedicated to his legacy. His fourth posthumous release features a trio that steps gingerly around jazz standards such as "Cherokee" and "Monk's Mood" -- nothing fancy, just a rare touch with for melodic nuance. A-
Ari Hoenig: The Painter (Smalls) Led by the drummer, but Guadeloupean Jacques Schwarz-Bart could write a book on state-of-the-art tenor sax, and French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc can dazzle even when he's dutifully helping out. Recorded live at Fat Cat, it sneaks up on you, like the realization that you've just had a real good time. A-
Zaid Nasser: Escape From New York (Smalls) An alto saxophonist who risks sounding like Charlie Parker and winds up showing how it should be done. He taps Ellington for two tunes, wails through "Chinatown My Chinatown," plucks a barnburner from oldtime bebop pianist George Wallington, strings them together with a couple of originals, including one from pianist Sacha Perry. Not a tribute. More like 55th Street is back in business. A-
Ari Roland: And So I Lived in Old New York . . . (Smalls) The Chris Byars Quartet, bass-ackwards. [A-]
Zaid Nasser: Off Minor (Smalls) Classical bebopper, smoother and slicker than Bird, not in such a hurry. [A-]
Harry Whitaker: One Who Sees All Things (1981-82, Smalls) Avant-fusion, reverting to the true radicalism of bebop. [B+(***)]
Fat Cat Big Band: Meditations on the War for Whose Great God Is the Most High You Are God / Angels Praying for Freedom (Smalls) Two separate discs, crossing Ellington and Mingus for postbop swing and back-to-the-future politics. [B+(**)]
These are other Smalls records I prospected and rated but didn't write CG reviews of -- although a couple are still in play, and the U items I haven't gotten to yet. This is pretty close to the complete catalog (exceptions I'm aware of: Omer Klein: Heart Beats; Neal Miner: Evening Sound; Sacha Perry: Eretik). Recording dates provided. I just alphabetized them within grade slots, and didn't try to figure out where the pre-star B+ items rank.