November 2003 Notebook
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Sunday, November 30, 2003

Music: Initial count 8654 rated (+17), 957 unrated (unchanged). Didn't get much Recycled Goods done last week -- had to do a rewrite on Vandermark, and there were other disruptions, Thanksgiving, etc. This week, for sure.

  • The Allman Brothers Band: Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival: July 3 & 5, 1970 (1970 [2003], Epic/Legacy, 2CD). Haven't listened to them in donkeys years, and I didn't bother to try to get the much touted "Deluxe Edition" of their 1971 concert, At Fillmore East. This is the original band lineup, with Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, just two albums into a career that took a nose dive when Oakley and brother Duane died, leaving the band in the competent but less exciting hands of brother Gregg and Dickey Betts. I doubt that their period shows really varied that much. Even here, the two verions of "Whipping Post" run 14:47 and 14:23, which without close analysis suggests that they are just set pieces. The two "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed"s vary a bit more; the second "Mountain Jam" went on for 28:20, while the first was broken into two parts separated by the announcer's "Rain Delay." Back in the day those long-winded jams felt like inadventent admissions that they just didn't have any tight songs, but these days they seem more like their true metier. B+
  • The Big Horn (1942-52 [2003], Proper, 4CD). Subtitled: The History of the Honkin' & Screamin' Saxophone.
    • Disc One: Flying Home. Starts with Illinois Jacquet playing "Flying Home" with Lionel Hampton's Orchestra, then we get Jacquet playing "Blues" at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert -- the first candidate record in the book posing the question of what was the first rock & roll record. Other multiple cut artists: Big Jim Wynn, Arnett Cobb, Morris Lane, Wild Bill Moore, Paul Williams. A single-cut standout is "Screaming Boogie," by Dick Davis with Sonny Thompson on piano. Wild Bill Moore's "We're Gonna Rock, We're Gonna Roll" gets as close to being a rock & roll song as Bill Haley ever got -- the vocal chant makes the point, and the sax vamps do the rolling. Moore's "Balancing With Bill" is another classic riff piece.
    • Disc Two: Blow Your Brains Out. Hal Singer, John Hardee, Little Willie Jackson, Eddie Chamblee, Red Prysock, Earl Bostic, Joe Thomas, plus a cut at the end by bebopper Harold Land, but with an r&b vocal -- that sort of thing happens at several points in this box. Singer's first three cuts are joint deals with Tom Archia; the first two have Wynonie Harris vocals. Best things on this disc come from Earl Bostic.
    • Disc Three: Boogie's the Thing. Starts with six cuts by Big Jay McNeely, who's probably the exemplar of honker style. More from Frank Culley, Freddie Mitchell, Lee Allen, Sam Taylor. Several cuts here are things I know from other r&b comps -- "Mountain Oysters" (credited to Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, with Bill Doggett on organ), "Big Fat Mamas Are Back in Style Again" (Sam Taylor, although Bullmoose Jackson sang and led the group), and "Safronia B" (Maxwell Davis, with vocal by Calvin Boze).
    • Disc Four: More Bounce to the Ounce. Starts with six cuts by Willis Jackson. Also Charlie Singleton, Lynn Hope, Julian Dash, Buddy Tate, Plas Johnson, Al Sears, Fats Noel, Jimmy Jackson, Paul Jackson, Joe Houston, Jimmy Forrest, and David Brooks reprising "Flying Home."
    A-
  • Everything I Own: The Best of Ken Boothe (1968-78 [2003], Sanctuary/Trojan). With only two duplicate title from Heartbeat's excellent A Man and His Hits ("Artibella," "You're No Good"), this can't quite be Boothe's best. His C.S. Dodd Studio 1 hits on A Man and His Hits rock steadier. Most of these cuts have minimal beats and lots of soft soul. Mixed bag: the dupes are classics; "Freedom Street" and "Ain't No Sunshine" are nearly as good. B+
  • Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba ([2003], Honest Jons). The accompanying hype claims that these cuts are reissues of rare, almost impossible to find singles, but doesn't provide a clue as to when/where they were recorded. Here's a few things I've found out: Brooks was born in 1943 in Kingston, Jamaica. He learned to play clarinet, adding tenor saxophone and flute in his late teens. He teamed up with trumpet David Madden to cut a series of instrumentals for Coxsone Dodd in 1968, released as Im and David. He had several solo singles in the early '70s (titles?). He started working with Count Ossie in 1970, releasing several singles as Im and Count Ossie, and forming the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari to record Grounation (1973), perhaps the key nyahbinghi album. In 1974 Brooks formed the Light of Saba -- adding guitars, more of a reggae sound. As Cedric and the Divine Light, he recorded an album, From Mento to Reggae to Third World Music. Then, "their superb The Light of Saba included reworkings of Peanut Vendor and Horace Silver's Song to My Father, but consisted mostly of original Rastafarian songs and instruments." Don't have a date (between 1974 and 1977), but this sounds like at least part of this set ("Song for My Father" is here, but not "Peanut Vendor"). A second album was called The Light of Saba in Reggae ("an even stronger collection of original material"; "Outcry" is from this album), but Brooks left shortly thereafter, and did not appear on the third Light of Saba album, Sadebe. In 1977 Studio One issued a Brooks solo (evidently instrumental) album, Im Flash Forward -- "Brooks's tenor playing on the album is beautifully restrained, and has a meditative quality that evokes a sublime, spiritual atmosphere. In 1978 Brooks assembled a large ensemble of percussionists and horns for United Africa, which went beyond reggae and nyahbinghi to use African and Caribbean forms. [Link]. He's played with the Skatalites as early as 1983, and has now been playing with them regularly since 1999. His interview by Honest Jons, included in the album, leaves a hole of 20+ years. One more recent project I've seen mention of is Journey to Africa Heritage Showcase (JAHS). Aside from that, about the only thing I've found is his "Mun-Dun-Go" cut on Studio One Scorchers (Soul Jazz), which is terrific. The Rough Guide to Reggae gives 1978 as the date for the single "Lambs Bread Collie," which is on the album. A
  • Junior Byles: Beat Down Babylon: The Upsetter Years (1970-74 [2003], Sanctuary/Trojan). Dates are approximate. The original Beat Down Babylon album, which is the core of this 23-cut set, came out in 1973 (or maybe 1972). The first cuts don't make much of an impression, but the title cut rides a classic organ vamp, and "A Place Called Africa" is a good vehicle for his sweet voice. Lee Perry's signature scratches crop up here and there, but the strongest impression comes from the unassuming singer, who makes small songs precious. And he makes something more of "Fever." A-
  • Susan Cadogan: Hurt So Good (1972-75 [2003], Sanctuary/Trojan). This adds eight bonus cuts to Cadogan's one-and-only 1975 album. The bonus cuts have more to do with her producer, one Lee Perry. The only obvious connection is to follow Cadogan's version of "Fever" with Junior Byles' superb one. The opening "In the Ghetto" sounds promising, but "Hurt So Good" itself is masochistic in more ways than one. The album's best track is another cover, "Shame Shame Shame." Aside from the covers, the bonus tracks are better than the album tracks, with pride of place to Milton Henry's "This World." B-
  • Miles Davis: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (1970 [2003], Columbia/Legacy, 5CD). Back in the early '70s we used to listen to Bitches Brew as late night chill-out music -- about the only jazz I ran into at the time. A Tribute to Jack Johnson never achieved that measure of utility, in large part because it rocked so hard. The addition of funk bassist Michael Henderson helped propel the roiling rhythms, but above all the record was a tour de force by guitarist John McLaughlin, and Miles shaped his sizzling trumpet work to complement the guitar. But just how this masterpiece came about was less than clear: the finished record consisted of two side-long suites pieced together from 16 weeks of studio jams with a revolving cast adding to the confusion. This box sheds a lot of light on the creation. The final edited version closes the 5th disc here, closing like the album with its powerful epitaph. The rest of the box chronicles the sessions leading up to the record. In principle this should only interest specialists, but the first two discs are some of the strongest electric Miles on record, and the next two fill in the gaps, including some utilitarian chill-out from Hermeto Pascoal on the fourth. That these jams were never intended to be released is clear from their lack of structure -- especially the abrupt starts and stops. Anyone not yet converted to electric Miles might be better off starting with Live-Evil or Dark Magus -- live albums that unroll organically -- or wait for the inevitable re-release of the remastered Jack Johnson. But aficionados will love this. A-
  • Desmond Dekker: Rudy Got Soul (1963-68 [2003], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). Dekker was perhaps the first Jamaican star to break an international hit, "Israelites" (1968). It's not clear why it's not included here -- like everything here, it was produced by Leslie Kong and released on Beverley's. Rhino's Rockin' Steady: The Best of Desmond Dekker continues to track Dekker up to 1973 -- 9 of its 20 cuts postdate this collection. Sanctuary has two comps that overlap this heavily, the single-CD Israelites: The Best of Desmond Dekker, and the double-CD Israelites: The Anthology. The weak spots here are some doo-wop and soul that don't distinguish themselves from their American models, particularly a 4-5 song stretch on the second disc with "To Sir With Love" as its nadir. It's possible that either of the latters might be the better buy, but Dekker's prime period didn't extend much beyond 1970's "Licking Stick." B+
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live at Berkeley (1970 [2003], Experience Hendrix). Berkeley Community Theatre, Saturday May 30, 1970, 2nd Show, 10PM. Featuring Billy Cox & Mitch Mitchell. It seems like I have 3-5 live Hendrix albums, and can't begin to tell you why any one is better or worse than any other. But the strengths of this one are succinctness (just one CD, with 11 songs and not much bullshit), the only "Star Spangled Banner" I've heard in years that doesn't make me want to wretch, and a "Voodoo Child" closer that is as awesome as his reputation deserves. A-
  • High Explosion: DJ Sounds From 1970 to 1976 ([2003], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). From the early '60s Jamaican music was propagated through the sound systems -- portable equipment for playing records in public places. The early producers -- Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid -- were sound system operators at first: they needed records to play, so got into producing. At first, DJs just played records; soon DJs were talking and singing over the records, and eventually their performances were recorded too. A good example here is Junior Byles' sweet "A Place Called Africa," which is served here in two versions, one with Winston Prince rapping over it, the other with Dennis Alcapone. As the DJs caught on, the producers started turning out dub plates for the DJs to rap over. It was (and is) a system that favors good, functional grooves over pop genius, so it very rarely shows up on the major compilations of Jamaican music, and the DJ stars themselves -- most prominently here: Alcapone, Big Youth, U-Roy, I-Roy -- are little known. Dancehall came out of here; less obviously, so did hip-hop. This comp of early '70s tracks is critical history, if you're into that sort of thing, but it's also endlessly listenable and often amazing. A
  • Honk! Honk! Honk! (1952-58 [2000], Ace). This material picks up where The Big Horn left off. The saxophone play is much the same, but the music is more specialized -- not just instrument-heavy, but instrumentals (with a few exceptions). The records come from the Duotone label. This starts with six Chuck Higgins cuts, then six from Joe Houston, and a bunch by Jack McVea. Higgins' "Pachuko Hop" is a first-rate start; Houston's "All Night Long" is a high point of the style. "Shuckin' 'n' a Jivin'" is a New Orleans shuffle rhythm with a whistle theme, but the sax break is all muscle. This is jammed with 30 cuts. All of them rip. Few seem especially important. I'm a sucker for shit like this. But it also wears me out. So who knows? B+
  • Leadbelly: Bourgeois Blues (Leadbelly Legacy, Vol. 2) (1940-48 [1997], Smithsonian/Folkways). Leadbelly never did it for me as a blues singer, probably because he wasn't a blues singer. He was a folksinger, with a loud, clear voice, and an emphatic guitar strum. Neither was fancy, nor slick. I don't know where he got his folksongs, but I'd wager he got more of them from the folksong archivists he hung with than he ever picked up in prison. There are several series of his work available, and most of his classic songs show up on most of them. This particular series sorts through the recordings he made for Moses Asch in the '40s, and seems to be distinct from the Library of Congress Recordings series, six volumes also on Smithsonian/Folkways. Or maybe it's a subset? But the first Leadbelly Legacy volume, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, was the first Leadbelly album I liked enough to grade A-; this one follows in its tracks. B+
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd: Thyrty: The 30th Anniversary Collection (1970-2002 [2003], UTV, 2CD). The booklet starts off by writing about them opening for the Who in San Francisco, which provides an obvious (regardless of whether it was intentional) corrollary: the Who titled their big box set 30 Years of Maximum R&B. But do the math: My Generation came out in 1965; Who's Next came out in 1971, which makes for six (maybe seven) years. Quadrophenia, from 1973 (8-9 years down the road), was still a pretty good album, but even then they were winding down and what was maximum about it sure wasn't r&b. After that they did nothing worthwhile, and after Keith Moon died nobody expected them to. Lynyrd Skynyrd's first album came out in 1973 (there's an early cut here from 1970), and their last Ronnie Van Zant album, Street Survivors, came out in 1977. Van Zant's death hit them so hard it took them ten years before opportunism led them to regroup, and now they're little more than a touring brand name. At least that's my impression: I did love the first two helpings, but didn't even pick up the last Van Zant albums, let alone the regrouping. So let's short this sucker out, first from the Van Zant albums:
    • Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd (1973): "I Ain't the One"; "Tuesday's Gone"; "Gimme Three Steps"; "Free Bird"
    • Second Helping (1974): "Sweet Home Alabama"; "Working for MCA"; "Call Me the Breeze"
    • Nuthin' Fancy (1975): "Saturday Night Special"
    • Gimme Back My Bullets (1976):
    • One More From the Road (1976): "Whiskey Rock-a-Roller"
    • Street Survivors (1977): "What's Your Name"; "That Smell"; "I Know a Little"; "You Got That Right"
    Then from the others (*Ronnie Van Zant writing credit):
    • Southern By the Grace of God (1987): "Comin' Home"*; "Swamp Music"*; "Gimme Back My Bullets"*;
    • Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991 (1991): "Smokestack Lightnin'";
    • The Last Rebel (1993): "The Last Rebel";
    • Endangered Species (1994): "Things Goin' On"* -- acoustic version, terrific, very pointed;
    • Twenty (1997): "Talked Myself Right Into It";
    • Lyve (1998): "We Ain't Much Different";
    • Edge of Forever (1999): "Workin'" -- hard crunching working class anthem, bless 'em
    • Vicious Cycle (2002): "Mad Hatter"
    • Miscellaneous early songs: "Need All My Friends"* (1970); "Blues Medley"* (1970); "Down South Jukin'"* (1972); "Was I Right or Wrong?"* (1972); "All I Can Do Is Write About It"* (1975); "Simple Man"* (1976)
    The classic albums -- certainly the first two, maybe Street Survivors (which I've never heard) -- are on average better, but the first disc-plus is monumental; the later material is haunted by the former, which at least provides some principles to try to live up to. B+
  • David Murray Quartet: Live at the Village Vanguard (1995 [2003], 441 Records). Originally released by Sound Hills in Japan. The quartet consists of Murray, Hilton Ruiz (piano), Kelly Roberty (bass), and Pheroan Aklaf (Drums). Seems a little faint/underrecorded, although it's possible that that's because I'm working off a bootleg copy (courtesy of the label, I might add). Without being able to read the liner notes in Japanese, it's hard to guess just why this particular show got released -- there is very little live Murray from the '90s, so it may just have been opportunistic. This begins and ends with Butch Murray pieces ("Red Car," "Obe"), sandwiching three Murray pieces ("The Desegregation of Our Children," "Acoustic Octofunk," "Hope/Scope" -- the first appeared on Jug-a-Lug from the same period, the other two are older pieces that show up often in Murray's repertoire). According to AMG, at least, this is the only time Ruiz recorded with Murray. Same for Roberty; Aklaf has one other credit, but I would have guessed that there were more. Turning the volume up compensates for the sound loss, so I assume that's an artifact of this particular copy. Good playing from everyone -- Murray's bass clarinet piece in particular. B+
  • Lou Reed: NYC Man: The Collection (1967-2002 [2003], RCA/BMG Heritage, 2CD). This starts with an unreleased take of a song written for The Raven, "Who Am I? (Tripitena's Song)" -- one of those broken up, shifting songs that I imagine he could write in his sleep -- his voice heavy, the introspection heavier. Reed today, which makes the transition to "Sweet Jane" startling -- Reed then, back in 1970. "Rock & Roll" follows suit, then "I'm Waiting for the Man" from the 1967 VU album. All three of those sound great. But "White Light, White Heat" is given in the 1974 Rock 'N' Roll Animal version, all pumped up with Steve Hunter's stratospheric arena guitar. Then comes the three movements of "Street Hassle" -- the little violin rhythm effectively breaking the momentum, setting up the flow into three slices of Berlin. Which sets up "Walk on the Wild Side" just fine. Then comes his Oreo sequence: "Kill Your Sons" (live from 1984), "Vicious" (the white creamy shit in the middle); and "The Blue Mask": the first slice of guitar heavy and plodding, the second transcendent. Live, late "I'll Be Your Mirror"; a slice from Magic and Loss; title cut from Ecstasy -- the disc ends slowly and didactically; obviously, Reed loves this stuff much more than you or I do, so he's trying (perhaps too hard) to weave it in. Disc two starts with a live run-up to "I Wanna Be Black," which is buried in the mix. But the segue to "Temporary Thing" is terrific -- a slight song buried on one of Reed's weakest albums, but it is a tower of strength here. Much the same can be said about "Shooting Star," though the upbeat music and vocal drive is less elegant. Then we get the great "Legendary Hearts" -- oddly enough, the three songs fit, the little rise in the final song echoing the incessant rises in the former. Live "Heroin" (from 1984), done without much finesse; maybe this version was picked because it is shorter than most. Then "Coney Island Baby" -- the slow build-up to Reed's torcher. Another good mid-career highlight in "The Last Shot," then the long title cut to The Bells -- heavy-handed atmospherics, with Don Cherry riffing in the background, not something I much care for (no fault to Cherry). "Perfect Day" is one of his vintage little songs. "Sally Can't Dance" is tricked up and clumsy, but is lighter than the album. "Satellite of Love" is another Transformer song -- that makes four. "NYC Man" is good for the title, from an album I've already forgotten. "Dirty Blvd." complements it, coming from New York. "Rock Minuet" is another from Ecstasy, a little fussy. Then this closes with "Pale Blue Eyes" -- which is something like the greatest song from the greatest album ever. This is far from a best-of -- most obviously, there's nothing from New Sensations. The main selling point is, in fact, the sequencing -- he's telling us a story, or at least pleading a case. And it's convincing enough that I'm going to grade it higher than it on-average deserves. That is, after all, what art seeks to accomplish. A-
  • Charlie Rouse: Bossa Nova Bacchanal (1962-65 [2003], Blue Note). The album proper is from 1962, with Kenny Burrell and Chauncey Westbrook on guitar, Larry Gales on bass, Willie Bobo on drums, Patato Valdes on conga, and Garvin Masseaux on chekere. Bossa nova albums were dime-a-dozen in the early '60s -- Stan Getz was just the most successful. On the first five cuts Rouse has an unusually robust sound; on the sixth, "Meci Bon Dieu," his sound changes to something more typical for him, a slightly open, underblown, airy style. The rhythm also shifts -- the song comes from Haiti, and has a more primitive feel. "In Martinique" sort of splits the difference. B+
  • Pee Wee Russell: Ask Me Now! (1965 [2003], Impulse). A quartet with Marshall Brown on valve trombone and bass trumpet, plus bass (Russell George) and drums (Ronnie Bedford). The contrast between Russell's clarinet and Brown's low brass is what makes this album special. Time and again it sets Russell up to show off his pied piper act, a delightful dance of notes that antedates swing yet remains timeless. A-
  • Russendisko: Hits ([2003], Trikont). The music is Russian, but Russendisko itself is a Berlin disco. That's a plus, because it means that this music has already been tested on people who don't understand the words -- all the better to weed out the hypersensitive poets. That leaves what we want from world music: beats. The approach here is the same one Dave Edmunds used when he rocked out "The Sabre Dance" -- just play it faster, and louder. Of course, there's more horns and accordions than the norm for garage rockers, but don't discount the Russian language's ability to convey raw grunge. The unfashionably named Leningrad's oustanding cut is a dupe from Globalista, but Sveta Kolibaba, Leonid Soybelman, and the Red Elvises come close. Even when they go klezmer on you they rock out. That's why they're called Hits. A-
  • Tanz! With Dave Tarras and the Musiker Brothers (1955 [2002], Epic/Legacy). The Musiker Brothers were Sam and Ramon (Ray) -- real names, going back to Minsk through at least three generations of musicians -- and it was Sam Musiker who conceived of and orchestrated this jazz-klezmer fusion LP, and who shares clarinet features roughly equally with Tarras, his father-in-law and mentor. The back cover describes Tarras as "The Jewish Benny Goodman," which no doubt would be news to BG's mother. Also credited are a trumpet, three reeds (including Ramon Musiker), accordion, piano, string bass, drums, and "Contractor," but this is dominated by the soaring clarinets -- as if meant to flatter Tarras -- backed by booming brass and circus drumming. You can think of it as big band klezmer. A-
  • Jack Teagarden and His Sextet: Mis'ry and the Blues (1961 [2003], Verve). Pretty much what you'd expect: Tea sings and plays trombone on familiar songs like "Basin Street Blues" -- a lovely rendition, in fact, leisurely, with a beautiful Henry Cuesta clarinet solo, and solos by Don Goldie (trumpet) and Don Ewell (piano) nearly as sublime. B+
  • Jack Teagarden, Family & Friends: A Hundred Years From Today (1963, Grudge). A sentimental occasion -- not because it turned out to be Teagarden's last album, but because it was a reunion with family (two siblings and his mother play; the latter, he tells us, is 74 -- she was 16 when she had Jack -- and plays a pretty decent rag) and friends (including Pee Wee Russell, who shared top billing with Teagarden on their best album ever, cut back in 1938-40). Also showing up is Gerry Mulligan, who shares "Pee Wee's and Gerry's Blues." "Basin Street Blues" is done dixieland-style, and "Sweet Georgia Brown" even more so. Lots of between-song intros slow things down, but on occasions such as these that has its charm. B
  • This Is Ska Too! ([1997], Music Club). The first This Is Ska! was the best single-CD ska comp ever -- excepting, of course, the first disc of Tougher Than Tough. This sequel starts promisingly with "Liquidator," with the Maytals and Desmond Dekker following. But they looked more for rarities this time out -- most of the cuts I don't recognize, and of the ones I do "Bonanza Ska" could have been done without (even though it does have some camp value). Best thing here is "It Mek" by Desmond Dekker. Second best thing is "Get Up Edina," also by Desmond Dekker. Hint: both are on Dekker's Rudy Got Soul. Don't have dates here, but 1962-70 is a good guess. B+
  • Trojan Box Set: Ganja Reggae (1970-85 [2003], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD). Organ riff. Deep inhale. Slow exhale. Ahhh! This starts with King Stitt & Andy Capp, "Herbsman," and that's about all it has to say. Bob Marley's "Kaya" seems rather wooden here. Max Romeo's "My Jamaican Collie" is nauseating. One thing you can't say about ganja is that it sharpens your lyrics. B-
  • Watch How the People Dancing: Unity Sounds From the London Dancehall, 1986-1989 ([2002], Honest Jons). Jamaican music happens everywhere there are Jamaicans, so it's not surprising to find dancehall evolving in England. England had its sound systems, its DJs, its dancehalls. The book here contains a long interview with Ribs (Robert Fearon), who was already in love with Jamaica's sound systems when he came to England at age nine; in England he apprenticed, working his way through low-level jobs until he became a DJ himself, working the Unity sound system. With Ranks and Red Eye at Unity, he produced these dance mixes with singers like Kenny Knots and Mikey Murka. Even experts are unlikely to know who these people are, yet this collection is marvelously coherent: its ambitions simple, its groove steady, the lack of a egomaniacal toaster if anything a plus. This just goes to show that the tightest feedback loop in the music business is between DJ and dancer. A-

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Watched a bit of a TV news roundtable thing the other night -- Laura follows shit like that, but I only occasionally wander into the room, get sick and/or outraged, and leave. The thing I was struck by most was how one quarter's GDP and Productivity numbers -- a 2% growth spurt, which automatically got extrapolated into an 8% year -- mean that the economy has become Bush's strong suit. (The weak suit, of course, is you-know-where, but our roundtable agreed that Bush's Thanksgiving PR photo-op -- how many millions of dollars did that dinner cost? -- was playing beautifully all across the USA.) I might be more impressed with the economy if I knew more people who were finding jobs than who are getting layed off. (My brother, after 23 years at Boeing, is one of the latter.)

I think that the basic fact is that the US economy wants to get moving again. There's plenty of reason to be skeptical that this will happen: in particular, the recession has been mitigated by extraordinarily low interest rates, which have kept consumer demand strong despite growing debt, yet as unemployment remains high and safety nets unravel -- we're still in a period of extending unemployment benefits for local aircraft workers, who are unlikely ever to get their jobs back -- I have to wonder how long those props will hold out. Then, of course, there's the matter of public debt -- the huge federal deficit and the future deficits promised by current policy -- all of which looms on the horizon as future drag on the economy. And those costs are just the ones that are easy to account for: who knows what it will cost to clean up the environmental degradation that Bush has promoted, or the next round of terrorism and repression that Bush has made all but inevitable, or the "natural disasters" that are increasingly likely to befall us -- some attributable to the global warming that one might conceivably have done something to slow down, some just plate tectonics that are made worse by developing on ground that is not as solid as it appears. And you never know what else might happen. Just this week, for instance, we've found out that this year's batch of flu shots doesn't guard against this year's batch of flu. Now they're predicting that 36,000 Americans will die this year because of flu -- twelve times as many as perished in the 9/11 disaster, about 100 times as many Americans as have died to date in Iraq. This says something about perspective, both how the politicians and the media view the world. To say that it is myopic is a gross understatement.

Friday, November 28, 2003

I haven't written about any movies recently, mostly because, well, why bother? Haven't seen many, but I have seen some since The Secret Life of Dentists, which is what this log last noted.

Movie: The School of Rock. The rock and roll aesthetic here isn't retro so much as it is retarded. Even at the time, nobody regarded Led Zeppelin as liberatory, let alone Yes. Which is not to deny that you can pull the wool over the eyes of 10-year-olds, but the 10-year-olds aren't the problem here -- Jack Black is. In small doses, as in High Fidelity, he's OK. But here he's asked to carry the movie, which as long as he's on the screen is a trist between dumb and dumberer. Still, the movie does redeem itself in small bits. I actually liked the villain, Black's roommate's carpy girlfriend, who gets credit for humaneness because she wasn't as rude or as shrill to Black as I felt he deserved. Joan Cusack also has a good turn, at least once you get past the implausability of her closet Stevie Nicks cultdom. And the kids are alright -- even though the guitarist never comes close to cutting loose. Back when American Psycho tried to put over Huey Lewis the idea was to be ironical. This isn't hip enough to see through that. B

Movie: Mystic River. Over the last few years I've found myself praising disparaged novel-based movies for their bookishness, but here I find this overly praised novel-based movie deficient for much the same reason. After all, only in a novel could one concoct such a plotline -- the three pre-teen street hockey kids who grow up to become cop, crook, and misunderstood psycho. This fundamental impausability eats away at this otherwise skillful movie until it is little more than bones and scraps. Still, what I'm most struck by here is the movie's overriding fear of truth. Nobody here is the least bit honest, because nobody here can trust anyone else with the truth. That is, perhaps, the point of the movie -- certainly it is its essential moral fact. But the coda offers no lesson, nor prospect for change. If there is a sequel, it will just be more of the same -- more waiting for someone's avoidance of the truth to trip them up. Given that essential failure, everything else that comes out of this movie is tainted. B+

Movie: Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Having established himself as a major director, Quentin Tarrantino here avoids the how-do-I-top-this trap by reatreating into what, careerwise, should have been a prequel. Despite its lavish budget, this is, after all, purely a cult movie. It has no redeeming value, just cartoonish style. Chopped up into two presumably symmetrical halves, it doesn't even give you the cheap satisfaction of some sort of resolution -- it just ends midway through the Bride's laundry list. It also gives you no rhyme nor reason. And in its reshuffling of time it tries to play tricks on you. Still, it reinforces its basic point about Tarrantino. In the hands of a lesser talent, this movie wouldn't even make it to disgusting. But somehow he crafts this nothingness into a movie of utter antiseptic style, a testimony to his genius in all its uselessness. I'm impressed. But I'll still feel better when it has an ending. B+

Movie: Lost in Translation. A sleepless fish out of water tale, less useful as a Tokyo travelogue than as a testament to the dislocation of a world which is everywhere pretty much the same. Bill Murray isn't convincing as an aging action hero, nor is Scarlet Johanson as a bored housewife, but they are better characters for who they are than who they were meant to be. And that's what keeps their relationship unclichéd. The pleasures here are mostly verbal. And the lack of any real resolution is no doubt a blessing. A-

Movie: Winged Migration. Not much storyline. And at times the cinematography gets gawky. But looking into the blank eyes of these avian actors gets you thinking -- how much determination it must take to get the plump body of a goose into flight, compared to how little it takes for some of the more gracile cranes. This is one of those rare movies which changes the way you look at the world, because it focuses in on things you can see but usually don't. A-

Monday, November 24, 2003

My brother and I spent the weekend in Oklahoma, visiting some kin who we haven't seen in ages. No reason to think they aren't typical of the sort of citizens who have endowed Oklahoma with one of the worst state governments in the country, and some of our vilest politicians. I don't make a point of talking politics with most of my relatives, but one cousin did bring up the subject of Iraq, saying that it was as bad an adventures as he had expected, and that the U.S. should simply withdraw, because "they just don't want us there." One interesting credential: this cousin served twice in the army: in the occupation of Japan right after WWII, and again in Korea.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Music: Initial count 8637 rated (+12), 957 unrated (-2). Handed the Vandermark piece into the Voice. That doesn't mean that I've dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's -- expect a longer piece CG-style one of these days. But first I need to crank out another Recycled Goods.

  • The Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection (1971-91 [1996], Alligator, 2CD). Label comps are usually self-indulgent, and anniversaries are all the more occasion. But Alligator has more reason than most to indulge itself: with the blues on the wane in the early '70s, the label fought a valliant rearguard action to keep the old-timers in business. Over this 25 year stretch, I've picked up 30+ of their albums, which amounts to more than 20% of the new blues that I've bought from that period. No other blues label has gotten so much of my attention in that period -- Rounder (including Bullseye) is probably second at close to 20. Hound Dog Taylor was a find; Albert Collins was a pretty successful rehabilitation, and others like Koko Taylor just carried on. They released my all-time favorite Professor Longhair album (Crawfish Fiesta), and reissued lost work from the not-so-distant past by Sonny Boy Williamson and Sippie Wallace. They discovered Corey Harris. They also released two of my favorite reggae albums -- Joe Higgs' Triumph, and Pablo Moses' Into the Future -- but this comp sticks to their standard issue blues. As such, it might work for a period compilation, but given that the period's (and the label's) main claim to fame was keeping the blues from fading into oblivion, this isn't as purposive as one might hope. (Haven't yet rated their 20th Anniversary Collection, which Robert Santelli listed #98 on his 100 blues albums list; my catalog system tells me it's around here somewhere. I've heard but don't own their 30th, which sounds like more of the same.) B
  • Anthony Braxton: Three Compositions of New Jazz (1968 [1991], Delmark). This is one of Braxton's first recorded works. Two of the compositions have the sort of diagrammatic titles like he used back then; the third is called "The Bell." The other musicians are Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith, and Muhal Richard Abrams. All four players were quite young at the time, with Abrams being the only one who was even moderately established. All four players play their usual instruments plus lots more -- with all but Abrams dabbling in what little percussion there is -- bells and bottles, xylophone. The instrument switches have a candy store feel to them -- musette and mellophone, harmonica and kazoo, little snatches of sound inserted into an open-ended tableau. All this farting around doesn't amount to much, but the solo work embedded in this matrix is often first rate -- particularly Smith. I don't think this quite works, but over the next decade Braxton did get similar strategies to pay big dividends. And this glimpse back into the formative years of such major players is worth pondering. B
  • Dave Douglas: The Tiny Bell Trio (1993, Songlines). With Brad Schoeppach (guitar) and Jim Black (drums). Douglas has some interesting similarities to Ken Vandermark: he works in many band configurations, often parallel to each other; he works both in and out of many traditions; he keeps a relatively even balance between his compositional efforts and his interest in improvisation; he is a superb player; and least importantly, he is white, which tends to come up indirectly because his bands tend to have a lot of white guys in them. Both were born in 1964, and both for most purposes cut their first albums in 1993. Their discographies are comparable in length and depth, with Douglas perhaps having more sideman work, and more traditional sideman work -- Vandermark's bit parts are more likely to be buried in underground rock albums. There are differences, of course. Douglas is, relatively speaking, a big name in the mainstream jazz world -- he regularly tops polls in Downbeat and Jazz Times, whereas Vandermark hardly gets a notice there. Douglas records for bigger, better distributed labels, now including RCA Bluebird. Douglas also has deeper roots in euroclassical music, which I don't particularly consider a plus, but it seems to make his work more accessible, at least to anti-punkrockers (which is no doubt a large slice of the jazz market these days). I've planned on doing a CG-type rundown of Douglas' works -- the idea was to do a background check following a review of his latest album, but that's nearly a year old by now, and was something of a mishmash anyway -- so I've been accumulating slices of Douglas' oeuvre whenever the opportunity presents itself. The Tiny Bell Trio is one of Douglas' early configurations, and has several albums -- a live record that I've never liked, and Constellations, an out-of-print Hat Art album that I think is just super. This is their first, and it's a fine start. Schoeppach's guitar has a distinctly European feel to it -- partly euroclassical, but just as rooted in eurofolk, and these songs (the covers that comprise half the album, and the originals built to fit) have folkish roots. Douglas is superb against such minimal backing -- in general, where Douglas' albums run into trouble is when he lets the band get too big and soupy, for his own playing is rarely anything other than precise and thoughtful. A Kurt Weill tune is par for this course. The closer is a traditional Hungarian piece, "Czardas," which has a circus flair to it. Smart work. B+
  • Dave Douglas: Five (1995 [1996], Soul Note). A quintet, natch, but heavy on the strings: Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Drew Gress (bass), Michael Sarin (drums). I've never noticed this before, but most of his originals (there are also covers of Monk and Roland Kirk) are subtitled "for X" -- dedications like Vandermark does -- where X includes Steve Lacy, Wayne Shorter, Mark Dresser, Woody Shaw, John Cage, and John Zorn. I also notice an unusual name among the "special thanks" list: Noam Chomsky. Douglas has used this lineup several times, and I usually find it to be tough going. This may be the best of the series, in part because the strings come off as more modern, in the sense that cubism was more modern. Abstract, that is. I'm sure there's a wealth of detail here if you can stick to it. B+
  • Dave Douglas: Convergence (1998, Soul Note). With Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Drew Gress (bass), and Michael Sarin (drums) -- same lineup as Five. Like so many of Douglas's collaborations with Feldman (the exceptions being the Masada albums, where klezmer is favored and John Zorn keeps discipline) this quickly wanders into semipseudoclassical territory. This matters little on the short, sharp opener, but before long Feldman gets solo space, which stretches my patience. The bigger neoclassical problem is the interference with the pulse, but this is somewhat ameliorated by interesting drumwork from Sarin. Douglas also plays superbly. This is another puzzler in the Douglas catalogue -- rich, complex, inventive, brilliant in spots, annoying in others, something you can spend a lot of time trying to sort out and still come up inconclusive. B+
  • Dave Douglas: Leap of Faith (1998 [1999], Arabesque). A quartet, with Chris Potter (tenor sax), James Genus (bass) and Ben Perowsky (drums). The first cut, promisingly called "Caterwaul," doesn't cohere at all, but the second, the title cut, starts to plot out some agreeable avant-garde terrain. The Penguin Guide called this "stunningly good modern jazz," but I'm having trouble getting past the "stunned" -- this seems to wander a lot, and it's hard to focus on. Will take some work. The second horn (Potter) is one thing that causes some clutter here -- it breaks down the unifying voice that his trumpet has even with his complicated string groups. On the other hand, this one never gets mired in the strings. There is, once again, a lot to chew on here. B
  • Kenny Drew Jr. Trio: Secrets (1995, TCB). With Lynn Seaton (bass) and Marvin Smith (drums). Drew's father I've found to be underrated -- a fine but unflashy bebop pianist who fit in nicely and shored up whatever group he found himself in. Jr.'s a lot flashier, a lot more cosmopolitan, a lot more clasically schooled. Still, this is a top-drawer piano-bass-drums trio, and everything he touches here is fresh and beautifully executed; it swings, it rocks, it's delightful. A-
  • Dexter Gordon: The Classic Blue Note Recordings (1961-65 [2003], Blue Note, 2CD). Gordon's earlier work established him as one of the major saxophonists of the postwar period, with cuts like "The Chase" firmly ensconced in the bebop canon. Still, Gordon's early '60s Blue Note records have long had the feel of being his prime: stylistically, they represent a mellowing of his bop-based style, neither mainstream nor avant-garde. They are also his easiest-to-find records -- the individual albums consistently in print, a big "complete" box available, and now this smartly-chosen 2-CD sampler. Gordon's later Steeplechase albums follow much the same formula -- by then Gordon was enough of a legend that you just let him play, his distinctive sound and timing carrying him through pick-up bands and off-the-shelf material. This isn't the revelation that the similar Wayne Shorter set was -- partly because Gordon's source records are more straightforward, and by this point Gordon wasn't doing the sort of sideman work that Shorter was doing. (Joe Henderson is another example: his Blue Note collection is actually mostly sideman work.) A-
  • Bennie Green: Soul Stirrin' (1958 [1997], Blue Note). The trombone player, in a sextet with two saxophones (Gene Ammons and Billy Root -- the latter played with Gillespie and Kenton), piano (Sonny Clark), bass (Ike Isaacs), and drums (Elvin Jones). They can kick up a storm, as on "We Wanna Cook." But the first real standout cut is "That's All," done at a snail's pace with a long trombone solo to start, then a gorgeous Gene Ammons sax solo. The bonus mono take to the title cut is another fine Ammons showcase, a bluesy take on a Babs Gonzales piece. B+
  • Skip James: Rare and Unreleased Studio Sessions (1967 [2003], Vanguard). James' falsetto is one of the eeriest sounds in blues history: it sounds forced, artificial, not like something that can be sung in, and James' range is nothing to brag about. but the voice makes up in poignancy what it lacks in power, and it packs more punch than you see coming. James' guitar is classic delta, sharply picked and stung, but he also plays piano in highly functional barrelhouse style that is genuinely blusey. His early records are marred by atrocious sound, but he got a second shot in the mid-'60s, and recorded a notable album for Vanguard called Devil Got My Woman. These are presumably outtakes from that album -- 19 cuts, fully developed solo performances, perhaps a bit long on gospel material like "I Want to Be More Like Jesus" and "Somebody Gonna Wish They Had Religion." I'm reluctant to grade this higher without having first checked out what they bothered to release. I have Devil Got My Woman (rated #45 by Santelli, A- by me), but not Today (rated #32 by Santelli), and I haven't heard the Blues From the Delta comp which combines most of those two albums. I also have She Lyin' (Genes), and Shout!'s Heroes of the Blues, which I haven't gotten to yet (probably the 1964 sessions on Biograph). And (of course) his famous 1930 (1931?) recordings, which (at least in Yazoo's package) sound so bad I don't think they're worth the effort (pace Santelli, who rates it #10). He's got a cult, but I figure him to be a minor, if occasionally remarkable, figure; an acquired taste, a SFFR. B+
  • Spike Robinson: Reminiscin (1991 [1992], Capri). With Mundell Lowe (guitar), Monty Budwig (bass), and Jake Hanna (drums). Robinson would have been a "young fogie" had he been younger when he started recording (in 1984, at age 54). As it is, he plays a lot like Scott Hamilton, rather than the other way around. Budwig, who died in 1992, shortly after this session, gets the dedication. Nothing very substantial here, but Lowe's guitar swings nicely, and Robinson's sax play is lovely. B+
  • My Girl: The Very Best of the Temptations (1962-2001 [2002], Motown/UTV, 2CD). Their first Greatest Hits album, limited to 1964-66, was the most perfect of all Motown albums. I picked up a copy when a friend abandoned his LP collection: pressed in red semi-transparent plastic, with Chinese titles and no jacket. I picked up a plain black jacket for it, and still treasure it -- even though I've also picked up the CD version, for more practical purposes. It's probably my favorite album of all time, and it's managed to make all subsequent Temptations compilations seem stretched and diluted. That, of course, is unfair. They lasted way beyond 1966, and did amazing work at least into the '70s; it's not that I dislike "I Wish It Would Rain" or "Cloud Nine" or "Psychedelic Shack" or "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" -- I'm just too delirious after hearing "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep" to shift gears like that. This comp is meant to supersede Anthology, a 2-CD set released in 1995 that covered them up to 1986. This one tacks five newer songs onto the end, which it makes room for by skipping more of their original greatest hits than ever. Anthology's second disc started with "Cloud Nine"; this one starts with "Psychedelic Shack" -- song #6 Anthology's second disc. As these comps thin out their greatest period, their value rests more and more on the endgame. And this really comes down to those five newer songs, since the other twelve second disc songs on the new comp are also on Anthology. And those five songs are no big deal -- not bad, a little more contemporary in the mix, but nothing special. And arguably "Some Enchantged Evening" is a cheap shot. Nice booklet. Obviously, would rate better if better alternatives didn't exist. B+
  • Gary Thomas: Till We Have Faces (1992, JMT). With Pat Metheny (guitar), Tim Murphy (piano), Anthony Cox (bass), Terri Lyne Carrington (drums); sometimes Ed Howard subs on bass, and Steve Moss adds percussion. Thomas switches between tenor and soprano sax, and plays a bit of flute. I've never had a good sense of Thomas' playing, and the horn switching doesn't help. This has a somewhat slick feel, a sort of rolling stream of sound, rich and sumptuous, with few/any rough edges. That's a style that seems to take a lot of skill yet it doesn't leave a very distinct impression. Could be better than I know, but it doesn't grab me enough to make me really want to find out. B
  • Junior Vasquez: Earth Music (2002, Tommy Boy). In electronica's conceptual jungle, he's considered to be House, New York House, or Classic New York House. This mixes a dozen-plus pieces that remind me a bit of Tricky but rock a lot harder. That may just go to show that I don't know what I'm talking about here -- most of the fine distinctions under the big tent of electronica escape me. This gets better as it goes along, peaking with Deborah Cox, "Absolutely Not" -- a post-girl group song for the working woman. But it does take a long time to get up to speed. B

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Music: Initial count 8625 rated (+13), 959 unrated (+23). The Vandermark notes are proceeding in their own time warp. Got a finished copy of Buck 65's Talkin' Honky Blues, which helpfully includes lyrics in the booklet -- the things people to to commercialize art, first they make him give titles to his pieces, now they make him print the lyrics. But they're endlessly quotable, which at least makes my job easier. It's still an A+, still the record of the year (by a huge margin). I hear it will be out in the US next spring, but I advise smuggling a copy in from Canada right now. Got to finish Vandermark this week, then get on to Recycled Goods, which has taken a back seat while we wait for the last one to see the light of day.

  • The Henry Allen Collection, Vol. 6 (1941-46 [1997], Collector's Classics). Seven cuts from a 1941 group with J.C. Higginbotham and Edmond Hall; seven more from a 1944 group with Higginbotham and Don Stovall; eight more from a similar 1946 group. Allen's heyday was c. 1930-32, when he was second only to Louis Armstrong at bringing New Orleans trumpet into the swing age. He continued to play in that vein, Dixieland-tinged swing, the rest of his life (d. 1967), often spectacularly, as on 1957's World on a String. Still, these sessions can be viewed as transitional. In 1932 Allen was state of the art; by 1957 he was a glorious antique. In the 1940's he was still dogging the changing times, with occasional ventures into bebop (cf. "Dark Eyes") and more frequently into gutbucket r&b and jukebox jive. Allen sings on 8 of these 22 cuts, including most of the 1946 cuts. Allen himself is consistently superb; my only reservation is that the jive isn't funny enough, and the r&b isn't raw enough, or ripe enough, to compete with the standard-setters. B+
  • Brian Blade: Fellowship (1998, Blue Note). Blade is a young drummer who's does a lot of fairly mainstream work, mostly on Blue Note. This is his first album, a fairly lavish affair produced by Daniel Lanois. He's a classy drummer. Of the other musicians here saxophonists Melvin Butler and Myron Walden make the most impact. Neither is a household name, even here, but both seem competent. I'm less certain about Lanois, who I blame for turning cuts like the 8:00 closer "Loving Without Asking" to sonic mush. Music this lush has to have some real panache to work (cf. Gil Evans), but this doesn't. B-
  • Claude Bolling/Maurice André: Toot Suite (1981, CBS). Guy Pedersen (bass) and Daniel Humair (drums) are a real jazz rhythm section, but Bolling is really a light classicist who happens to be fond of Ellington and Hines, and André is nothing more than a trumpet player who crawled out of a symphony orchestra. The combination, and the score, raises my anti-classical hackles. Not awful -- it usually takes a violin section to make classical music awful, at least for me -- but not something I ever care to hear again, either. C+
  • The Prime of Dennis Brown: 16 Cuts From the Crown Prince of Reggae (1972-95 [1998], Music Club). "Money in My Pocket," joined by Big Youth, is Brown at his best; "Black Magic Woman," on the other hand, is expendable. "Westbound Train" is a classic; "I Am the Conqueror" is close. "Never Never Never" casts Brown as Jamaica's answer to Frank Sinatra, or was that Vic Damone? "Yagga Yagga" is another crooner throwback. "So Long" is ragga. Brown has been a major artist from his first teenage hits in the early '70s up to his death in 1999. During tha time he seems to have been adaptable enough that it may be difficult summing up just what he did or even what he sounded like. But on closer inspection, at least one thing about this comp is suspect: the songs either come from 1972-74 (9) or 1993-95 (7), leaving a gap of nearly 20 years unaccounted for. AMG credits Brown with 36 albums during the missing period -- the overwhelming majority of his work. Also worth noting that while the best things here are from the early period, so are some of the big misses. It's going to be tough to really straighten him out. B
  • The Crusaders: Rural Renewal (2003, PRA/Verve). Long-term light jazz staples, at their best they're moderately funky and make for decent background. I've heard them mostly on the radio -- forget what the format was called, but effectively it was Crusaders every 3-5 songs. It's about the only style of jazz that I have really neglected, but then, hell, I haven't even played all of my Sun Ra records, let alone understood them. At least I have hopes for Sun Ra. The great hopes here go by names like "Shotgun House Groove," "Greasy Spoon," and "Viva de Funk." However, first you have to wade through two Eric Clapton guest guitar shots -- hard to believe that Clapton's presence has helped sell any records since Delaney & Bonnie, but these guys are desperate. Then we get two Donnie McClurkin vocals, which unlike Clapton do actual damage to the tracks. As for the funk pieces, they wouldn't even impress Sir Nose. Come back, Brother Jack. C
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Whisper Not (1966 [2002], Verve). With Marty Paich and his Orchestra -- a better big band than I would've figured, perhaps because the personnel listing includes Harry Edison, Jimmy Rowles, and either Louis Bellson or Shelly Manne on drums. In any case, the singer is center-stage, and the orchestra is there for her -- adding and filling, occasionally flexing their muscles when it makes sense to reinforce Ella's brassiness with real brass. B+
  • Haul & Pull Up Selecta: Heavy Weight Dancehall (1979-82 [2003], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). Most of these cuts are extended 12-inchers. The artists are second tier -- Ken Boothe, Barrington Levy, Don Carlos, Linval Thompson, Prince Jammy, Scientist -- and more obscure than that, often fitting more into the dub genre. First cut is Ken Boothe & Prince Jammy, "You're No Good," a stretched out classic. The rest of the first disc rarely flags, but doesn't rise out of the background either. Play it over and over again, and the endless skank, where Barry Brown's "Living as a Brother" suffices as a highlight, turns this into the real Jamaican trip-hop. B+
  • Joe and Marcia Together: Roots Combination (1995, Macola). Joe is reggae legend Higgs; Marcia isn't the semifamous Griffiths, who did a similar act with Bob Andy as Bob & Marcia. Rather, Marcia is Mrs. Higgs. Since Triumph (1985, Alligator) Higgs has had problems in making his Marley-inspiring (check your history books) agitprop clear and simple enough -- platitudinizing is not in and of itself either bad or awful, but it is direly in need of a compelling beat. The problem with this album is lack of clarity -- no need for the listener to have to work to dig out such noble sentiments, and this feels cluttered. But "For All Mankind" starts to emerge from the murk, and "Singing the Same Song," done three times here, starts to get up a head of steam on the second try. "For All Mankind" also makes three appearances. So figure this as a maxi-single: understated, grooveful, obscure, unimportant. B
  • Israel Vibration: IV (1993, RAS). A long-running vocal trio, going back to 1978 (or 1969) and still working, although evidently there have been hiatuses. AMG has this has their ninth album, but the booklet sort-of explains, "IV is, obviously, the fourth outing of the reformed trinity." First song I really noticed was "Reggae Rock and Roll" (the third song on the album), which set up an infectious bubble under the riddims, although the refrain is an old one. "Racial Injustice" has much the same groove, and a little more substance. Nothing else quite that good, but the band is vibrant, and the singers engaging, and nothing falls off much either. Group is something to research further. Meanwhile: B+
  • More Intensified! Original Ska 1963-67, Vol. 2 ([1980], Mango). Chris Blackwell brought reggae to the US in the mid-'70s, and as a footnote compiled some earlier ska hits as Intensified. This second volume still had plenty of primo ore left to mine, but only two of these 16 cuts were subsequently put into Tougher Than Tough -- "Six and Seven Books of Moses" (Maytals) and "Man in the Street" (Don Drummond). The Skatalites are heavily represented in the remainder. Most cuts evince the pumping organ most characteristic of ska, and everything here is worthwhile. But with the plethora of first rate ska compilations that has come out since this series, at this time this comes off as anticlimactic. The best one ever is still the first disc of Tougher Than Tough. This Is Ska! (Music Club) is damn close. And the 2-CD Rough and Tough (Sanctuary/Trojan) is also superb. B+
  • The Ivo Perelman Quartet: Sieiro (1998, Leo). With Thomas Ulrich (cello), Dominic Duval (bass), Jay Rosen (drums). Ivo Perelman is a rather extreme free jazz saxophonist, and this has some wrenching moments. After some initial squealing, the first (title) cut settles down into a strangely convoluted Brazilian melody. "Rush Hour" then starts out with a comic motif -- a low note, then some high shit, repeated and played with until the high shit smears. It's a promising beginning, but the piece goes to hell before it's done. Next two cuts settle down a bit, and on "Arcos" the cello emerges in the lead for a bit, while Perelman comps behind it. "The Vermicello" is a short piece with a lot of healthy thrashing. Last piece is more of the same. Talented guy. Tough listening. B
  • Chris Potter: Moving In (1996, Concord). Potter is a tenor saxophonist (also plays soprano on two tracks and bass clarinet on one) who's a little bit left of mainstream -- he plays frequently with Dave Douglas and Dave Holland. He's a very solid, Coltrane-ish player, although I often find his tone a little thin and metallic for my taste. His group here consists of Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), and Billy Hart (drums) -- similar-minded players, first rate, very solid.


Got an email from company called Fanatic Promotions, which handles promotion on the Vandermark Free Fall record that I am reviewing. They pitched this as an invitation to take another look at their clients' records for building up end-of-year lists, but what struck me most was the fact that I hadn't heard of any act on the list. Still, what are notebooks for but to take notes? Here's the list, and my notes.

  • The Afflictions: Janet Style (Trophy Buck/Kill Deer): album not in AMG; Chicago-based punk band; has a sax player.
  • The Appleseed Cast: Two Conversations (Tiger Style): Lawrence KS band; America's answer to Radiohead?
  • Aqueduct: Power Ballads (Popular Music): AMG sez "heartbreaking, melodious songwriting."
  • At the Spine: The Curriculum Is Never Neutral (Global Seepej): not in AMG.
  • The Autumn Rhythm: Secret Songs (Midriff): not in AMG.
  • Black Lipstick: Converted Thieves (Peek-A-Boo): Austin TX band.
  • The Books: Lemon of Pink (Tomlab): "combines experimental collage technique with an organic, folky mixture of banjo, guitar, violin, simple vocal melodies, and snippets of conversation."
  • Books on Tape: Sings the Blues (Greyday): sampled-up electronica, "good chopped-up, jerky, yet very sleek fun."
  • The Cansecos: Cansecos (Upper Class): not in AMG.
  • Casiotone for the Painfully Alone: Twinkle Echo (Tomlab): Portland OR singer-songwriter Owen Ashworth, who AMG compares to Stephin Merritt, Bright Eyes, and the Mountain Goats.
  • Dame Darcy: Greatest Hits (Bop Tart/Action Driver): as a title for a first album this might be ironic, but think hits as in corpses: 28 short folk/country songs.
  • Driver of The Year: Some Girls Would Say . . . (Future Appletree): not in AMG.
  • Paul Duncan: To an Ambient Hollywood (Hometapes): not in AMG. From what may be the auteur's website, "is about the subtle ridiculousness of modern existence, a collective waking dream told in song." Sounds like existentialism.
  • Jared Eggers: Fluorescent Twilight (United Kingdom of America): not in AMG; nothing elsewhere either, other than a couple of listings and non-reviews.
  • Evolution Control Committee: Plagiarythm Nation (Seeland): actually, I have heard of this -- a couple of Choice Cuts in a recent Christgau CG; also they did "Rebel Without a Pause" -- the Public Enemey/Herb Alpert mashup that was my favorite track on the Best Bootlegs comp. I gather this is mostly Negativland-like paste-up.
  • Flim: Helio (Tomlab): in AMG, but no info; classified as "chamber pop." What the fuck is that?
  • Fonica: Ripple (Tomlab): not in AMG; got an 8.3 in Pitchfork, who inform us that Fonica is a Japanese boy/girl duo. State of the art web criticism: "As someone who spends a lot of a time listening to music, and trying to somehow assess its value, it's important to acknowledge that I have certain auditory sweet spots that exist independent of logic and reason." Good thing, given that logic and reason don't seem to be in this writer's toolkit.
  • Frog Eyes: The Golden River (Animal World): no info in AMG; Canadian band with a taste for cabaret.
  • Girls Are Short: Early North American (Upper Class): two guys, Al and Dan.
  • Grand Buffet: Cigarette Beach (Grand Buffet): rap EP, probably underground by necessity, but reports are that they dig the west coast hiphop sound.
  • Jeff Hanson: Son (Kill Rock Stars): yet another singer-songwriter being compared to Bright Eyes; sings falsetto.
  • Head of Femur: Ringodom or Proctor (Greyday Productions): a Nebraska band, with "such diverse influences as the Zombies, the Talking Heads, the Flaming Lips and Brian Eno." Oh, and Bright Eyes.
  • Irving: I Hope You're Feeling Better Now (Eenie Meenie): EP from a CA band, with "an affinity for '60s dreamy pop" (e.g., Zombies).
  • Seth Knappen: Leaving Sound (Future Appletree): no info in AMG; label website describes this as "shapeshifting, mood drifting blend of synth ambience and singer/songwriter craftsmanship . . . lush, organic textures with expressive arrangements . . . multilayered soundscapes to create a sense of transforming space, drawing pictures in sound with mood and melody."
  • Mantissa: Building A Working Model (Lazyline): not in AMG; Atlanta band, according to label website, "offers calm amidst chaos . . . built upon spidery minimalism and occasionally atypical percussion."
  • Mantler: Sadisfaction (Tomlab): singer-songwriter Chris Cummings, "stylish drum machine beats . . . downbeat mood . . . blue mood . . . dour tone . . . depressed tones."
  • The Marlboro Chorus: Good Luck (Future Appletree): not in AMG; Davenport IA band, more mood rock, one reviewer proposed "Elliott Smith meets Pavement doing the Beach Boys."
  • Martin's Folly: From Hope (Johnson's Wax): Brooklyn country-rock group, with a cameo by Ian Hunter.
  • Midwest Product: World Series of Love (Ghostly International): Ann Arbor MI group, cerebral electronica, compared to Tortoise. AMG likes their previous album, Specifics.
  • Myracle Brah: Treblemaker (Rainbow Quartz): solo project by Andy Bopp (Love Nut); sixth album; AMG classifies as "Pop Underground," comparing group to Posies and Fountains of Wayne, Badfinger and the Raspberries, and compares Bopp's voice to John Lennon. I don't have a clue what it would take to make power pop underground -- rap goes underground when it shies away from the boasts, bloodshed and bullshit that have taken over the mainstream.
  • My Favorite: The Happiest Days of Our Lives (Double Agent): AMG calls them "Retro-futurists," which is something to ponder; roots include OMD, Psychedelic Furs, Cure, Smiths, Joy Division; and raves about their debut Love at Absolute Zero. AMG lists 30 not-short tracks, so this is probably a double.
  • New Constitution: On 4 (Audello): more pop underground; "jammed full of power, pop, and fun." AMG calls them the American Sloan; given my druthers where it comes to hot Halifaxen, I'd rather find out who is the American Buck 65. AMG gives this ****(*), which (I haven't been keeping track, but I think) is the first such grade on this list.
  • Tujiko Noriko: From Tokyo . . . (Tomlab): AMG on the only one of her albums listed (credited as her third): "Her blend of Japanese pop seduction, modern-day electronica, and avant-gardist arrangements (both vocal and instrumental) gives the music a highly personal flavor, even though you might feel like you've heard it before."
  • Palaxy Tracks: Cedarland (Peek-A-Boo): Austin TX band; AMG classifies them as "Rock."
  • The Phenonmenological Boys: Melody, Melody, and More Melody (Tomlab): same with this band, although the reviewer also compares them to the Shaggs, which surely demands more detailed qualification. Group comes from Somerville MA. From the label's website: "Perfectionists who can read an intricate scoring at sight, they also improvise with the best of the swinging ensembles and the cool cats."
  • The Robot Ate Me: They Ate Themselves (Swim Slowly): just the album cover and song list in AMG; I like the album cover, anyhow. Got a 7.6 from Pitchfork, but I can't force myself to read the review. Tangmonkey gave them a 7.9 and describes them as the missing link between Lou Barlow and the Flaming Lips -- who knew that there even was such a thing?
  • The Russian Futurists: Let's Get Ready To Crumble (Upper Class): no AMG; 8.6 in Pitchfork; played "the official Upper Class 60 second sample of the album," which was mushed together and useless. Note that the would-be futurists in Russia called themselves constructivists, not least of all because the real futurists in Italy leaned toward fascism.
  • The Salteens: Let Go of Your Bad Days (Drive-In): Vancouver BC band; second album; "Tracks like 'Turnpike' recall the acoustic psychedelics of Elf Power, while tracks led by bassist Megan Bradfield (who has since left the band), like "Time You Have Been Wasting," take on a vaguely Motown feel in spite of her flat delivery." Then there's "the Zombies-sounding finale."
  • Saxon Shore: Four Months of Darkness (Burnt Toast Vinyl): looks to be EP-length.
  • Seksu Roba: Pleasure Vibrations (Eenie Meenie): Trip-hop duo, a Japanese vocalist and Korean thereminist, "exotic, retro-futurist synth duo . . . roughly translated, 'Sex Donkey.'"
  • The Singles: Better Than Before (Rainbow Quartz): another AMG-classified Pop Underground band, from Detroit, inspired by everyone from Buddy Holly to the Flamin' Groovies and the Stooges.
  • Starflyer 59: Old (Tooth & Nail): shoegaze band founded by Jason Martin in 1993, with 8 or more records out. I had to look up the term "shoegaze," which AMG explains was "named after the bands' motionless performing style, where they stood on stage and stared at the floor while they played." My Bloody Valentine is the main influence.
  • Sufjan Stevens: Michigan (Sounds Familyre/Asthmatic Kitty): singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, originally in Marzuki, a folk-rock band from Holland MI. Album is a set of homages to Michigan, with song titles like "Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)" and "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!"
  • Themselves: The No Music of Aiff's The No Music Remixed (Anticon): seems to be a remix of the previous year's album; nice cat on the cover; underground rap group; played a couple of samples, which aren't bad as remixes but have no real authority as raps.
  • Three 4 Tens: Taking Northern Liberties (Rainbow Quartz): Philadelphia PA band, "garage rock throwbacks" according to AMG, "they play '60s psychedelic garage rock like it's, well, the '60s."
  • Rafael Toral: Electric Babyland (Tomlab): AMG files him under electronica, but he plays guitar; has half a dozen albums, but this one isn't listed.
  • The Trouble With Sweeney: I Know You Destroy (Burnt Toast Vinyl): AMG calls this Chamber Pop -- "drawing heavily from the lush, orchestrated work of performers including Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, and Lee Hazlewood, Chamber Pop arose largely as a reaction to the lo-fi aesthetic dominant throughout much of the 1990s alternative music community. Inspired in part by the lounge-music revival but with a complete absence of irony or kitsch, chamber pop placed a renewed emphasis on melody an dproduction, as artists layered their baroque, ornate songs with richly textured orchestral strings and horns, all the while virtually denying the very existence of grunge, electronica, and concurrent musical movements." Examples include Belle & Sebastian and Lambchop.
  • Unwed Sailor: The Marionette and The Music Box (Burnt Toast Vinyl): seems to be an instrumental album, "delicately arranged orchestration."
  • Voltaire Brothers: I Sing the Booty Electric (Fall of Rome): seems to be EP-length electronica; press excerpts on website suggest this is funky.
  • Denison Witmer: Recovered (Fugitive): AMG sez, "Tagged by many music journalists as one of the most likely songwriters to fill the void left by Elliott Smith in the acoustic indie singer/songwriter movement"; just in the nick of time, right? This is his fifth album; in fact, the inevitable covers album: Nash, McVie, Young, Chilton, Browne, Parsons, King, Robertson, Cohen, Browne. Cf. John Lennon's covers album, or David Bowie's. Then imagine what kind of person would do two Jackson Browne songs.
  • Woven Hand: Woven Hand (Sounds Familyre): spinoff from a group called 16 Horsepower, which I hadn't heard of either. AMG sez: "incendiary gospel, hallowed folk and mordant tones infused with a high, dark theatricality worthy of Nick Cave." This particular record they describe as "bluegrass gothic."
  • Xerophonics: Copying Machine Music (Seeland): "The art-noise joke here is that these 13 brief tracks are created by subtly altering field recordings of various types of copying machines.
  • Ikebana: Merzbow's Amlux Rebuilt, Reused, Recycled (Important, 2CD): remix of a Merzbow album, with Chicks on Speed, DJ Spooky, Mouse on Mars, and others.
  • Idol Tryouts (Ghostly International): a "mix of IDM, abstract hip-hop, pulverizing industrial-electro, and minimal tech-house."
  • Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish: A Tribute to Captain Beefheart (Animal World): album cover is a takeoff on Trout Mask Replica, only with an octopus over the beak. I recognize few of the tribute-payers (Mike Watt, Jad Fair, Thurston Moore, Nels Cline).
  • Par Avion: Global Indie Clubpop! (Eenie Meenie): dance comp, nobody I recognize, nothing I've heard, not in AMG.

Not in the main body of the list, but noted in the signature are several other albums (mostly listed by artist, so I don't necessarily know the albums):

  • Consafos: Such Is the Way of Things (Greyday): Album title is translation of group name. From Los Angeles CA and Omaha NE.
  • The Fitness: Call Me for Together (Control Group): some kind of rock album.
  • Paula Frazer: A Place Where I Know (Birdman): a Nick Cave fan from Georgia/Arkansas, from a band I've only heard of, Tarnation.
  • Free Fall: Furnace (Wobbly Rail): this is Vandermark's clarinet trio, named after the Jimmy Giuffre album. I have this, and this is how I got involved with these people.
  • Susie Ibarra & Mark Dresser: Tone Time (Wobby Rail): drums-bass duets, two avant-garde players I find interesting.
  • Skullflower: band recorded a number of things from 1988-96, but doesn't seem to have anything out since.
  • Still Life: The Incredible Sinking Feeling (Greyday): LA-based hardcore/emo band.
  • Tenki: not in AMG; popmatters has a reference to a musician, but not much info; google mostly turns up Japanese pages.
  • Volcano, I'm Still Excited!!: have an eponymous album slated for Jan. 20, 2004.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Quote from John McCain: "We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight . . ." Come on! We lost the will to fight because we lost the fucking war. Throughout history, that's about the only thing that has ever stifled the will to fight. He goes on, ". . . because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal." Not sure what he thinks the "nature of the war" was, but the following clause suggests that we could have won if only we had used nuclear weapons. Was there anything else we didn't use in Vietnam? In Vietnam we destroyed villages in order to save them. Is McCain saying that our failure in Vietnam was that we didn't kill them all?

Vietnam was first and last a war about America's self-image as a world power. At first, it was about the US checking communist revolution and expansionism, which in the eyes of a great power was naturally attributed to the machinations of other great powers, e.g. the Soviet Union. In the end, it was about how the US might salvage, in the wake of defeat, its status as a world power, so that it might be able to check further communist revolutions and expansionism. In between, American politicians uttered a lot of hooey about freedom and helping the Vietnamese and so forth, but in cold hard fact that war was always about us.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Since I'm working on Vandermark, let's just put all of the Vandermark record notes under this one date. Don't know how long I'll be digging through these. This pulls some things forward, and other things are/will be written later. But at least they're together.

  • NRG Ensemble: Calling All Mothers (1993, Quinnah). Hal Russell died in 1992, leaving this band without its leader. He was a free jazz renaissance man -- much revered by many, but thus far a complete mystery to me. The band as constituted at this point was: Mars Williams (tenor/alto/soprano sax), Ken Vandermark (tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Brian Sandstrom (guitar, trumpet, bass), Kent Kessler (bass, bass guitar, didgeridoo), Steve Hunt (drums, vibraphone, marimba, didgeridoo). This group went on to produce two more albums: This Is My House (1996, Delmark) and Bejazzo Gets a Facelift (1998, Atavistic). B+
  • Ken Vandermark/Barrage Double Trio: Utility Hitter (1995 [1996], Quinnah). Two drummers (Hamid Drake, Curt Newton); two bassists (Nate McBride, Kent Kessler); two reed players (Vandermark, Mars Williams); organized as the left-channel Chicago Trio (Drake, Kessler, Williams) and the right-channel Boston Trio (McBride, Newton, Vandermark). Vandermark wrote six of the pieces, which have dedications and not-so-obscure reference to famous musical antecedents. The other five pieces are shorter improvisations, with descriptive titles like "Bass Duo," "Drum Duo," "Chicago Trio," can you guess the rest? The composed pieces are notably effective, even if the one dedicated to Albert Ayler cheats by descending into a massive screeching slugfest. The opener, "Over and Both," is the sort of good natured tenor duel that Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin should inspire. The closer, "Polarity," is less obviously dedicated to Andrew Hill, keyed by an irresistible Drake rhythm and put over the top by Vandermark. The pieces for Mingus, Ornette, and Don Cherry are also fascinating. Even the "Bass Duo" is interesting. Strong stuff. Useful liner notes, too. A-
  • Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Kurt Kessler: A Meeting in Chicago (1996 [1998], Okkadisk). From John Corbett's liner notes: "There weren't more than six of us in the audience that night, nor the next, but among the few others to brave the storm was Ken Vandermark's father. Stu Vandermark has long been one of Beantown's most astute listeners and a dedicated free-music gadfly. In fact, I met him long before I did his son, though Ken and I are roughly the same age. Ken first heard McPhee through his dad, who hipped him to the superb solo record Tenor . . . That music had a transformative influence on Vandermark-the-younger; Ken was awed by McPhee's ability to sustain free-flowing, hard-blowing energy and at the same time effectively deal with elegance, lyricism and melodicism -- a seemingly incompatible compound of materials." I quote this because I hadn't read anything like this before -- although I've read an essay by Stu Vandermark on the Okkadisk website, which fits this quote to a tee. Also because I think fathers, family, and childhood friends sort of set some parameters that limit or extend one's own adult options -- and without going down other ratholes, this sort of explains KV's relationship to the free jazz tradition, which has elements of awe and humility in addition to its usual historical-pedagogic value. As for this particular meeting, it took place 11 years after Corbett's hurricane. The Penguin Guide regards this as "extraordinary," but I've never been very comfortable with it. The thirteen pieces here are parcelled out: three trios, McPhee solo, Vandermark/Kessler, Kessler solo, McPhee/Vandermark (twice), three trios, Vandermark solo, McPhee/Kessler.
  • The Crown Royals: All Night Burner (1995-97, Estrus). This is the first of two records by a funk instrumental quartet that featured Ken Vandermark on tenor sax. The other band members are: Jeff BBQ (drums), Mark Blade (bass), Pete Nathan (guitar). [B/B+]
  • Joe Morris, Ken Vandermark, Hans Poppel: Like Rays (1998, Knitting Factory Works). Poppel plays piano; Vandermark plays clarinet and bass clarinet; Morris plays electric guitar. The compositions are jointly credited, which may mean that they were improvised on the spot. Limiting himself to the clarinets keeps Vandermark on the quiet side, which in turn keeps him from overwhelming the ever-delicate Morris. Morris tends to build his music around single note lines, which at his best gives him a bebop quality. Still, nothing he does here comes off so fluently; here he tends to play little fragments, which Vandermark extends, and Poppel tarts up, but it never breaks out of the fragmentary. B-
  • The Vandermark 5: Single Piece Flow (1996 [1997], Atavistic). This was the first V5 record, albeit the last one for me to get to. The band includes: Jeb Bishop (trombone, guitar), Kent Kessler (bass), Tim Mulvenna (drums), Vandermark (reeds), and Mars Williams (reeds). All compositions by Vandermark. I've changed the title format below so that it follows later practice. (At this time, Vandermark's dedications were listed in the booklet in yellow type as "TITLE is dedicated to PERSON.") Songs: "Careen (for Jackie Chan)" (starts off with saxes careening, just like the action movie motif; then a stretch of Jeb Bishop guitar, then more horns); "Momentum (for Alan Dawson)" (the drummer, a major figure in the Boston jazz scene; a similar piece, except perhaps for the drum pattern, which is regular and propulsive; includes some major riffing by Vandermark); "Fence (for Robert Hendry)" (hmm, don't know who this is; this is a change of pace piece, sounds like bass clarinet with an atmospheric bass-drums backdrop); "Dark Janitor (for Jim Baker)" (presumably not the Bush family crony; there is a Jim Baker who plays piano and has recorded with several Vandermark groups -- Caffeine, Steam, Witches & Devils -- as well as Fred Anderson and Cornelius Cardew; this is built around unison horn refrains that punch up the tempo; trombone solo; more horns, with one breaking out of unison, then a rather impressive, squealing, careening saxophone solo); "The Mark Inside (for Johnny Hodges)" (Ellington's main man, the world's greatest alto saxophonist; has some characteristic Hodges tone colors, more than anything else); "Wood Skin Metal (for Jerry Deupree, Chris Bowman and Lawrence Cook)" (Deupree is a drummer, associated with Either/Orchestra, Morphine, and Joe Morris; Bowman is a jazz guitarist, based in Dayton OH, but doesn't have much of a portfolio; most likely Cook is a drummer who has worked with Bill Dixon, Alan Silva, Jemeel Moondoc, and Thurston Moore -- listed in AMG as "Laurence Cook"; there are several other musicians, plus an actor, none of which seem more likely); "Billboard (for Bill Barron)" (the saxophonist, brother of pianist Kenny Barron, who worked with Cecil Taylor early on, Ted Curson, Philly Joe Jones; opens with about 10 seconds of head before Vandermark cuts loose on his solo, with funk drums clearing the way; the saxes get funky too, the notes flying off at angles that point back to the drums); "Limited Edition (for Gil Evans)" (the arranger, best known for his work with Miles Davis; opens with a bass solo, then edges into a quiet theme, which slowly mutates and fractures; Bishop gets to do his best Derek Bailey bits on guitar, then rocks out a bit, with bass/drums pushing him on, then the saxes come back to finish the record off). A-
  • Fred Anderson/DKV Trio (1996 [1997], Okkadisk). Anderson is a Chicago jazz legend, a founder of the AACM, but aside from a couple of albums cut c. 1980 he didn't start getting his name up front until he hit 65 -- although he's recorded a dozen or so albums in the decade since. This one pairs him with Chicago's younger generation of avant-jazzists: DKV stands for Hamid Drake (drums), Kent Kessler (bass), and Ken Vandermark (reeds). I haven't heard a lot of Anderson, but I've generally had a lot of trouble with him in the past -- he blows ugly, and it's hard to make rhyme or reason out of his work. Vandermark, of course, can blow pretty ugly too, and that's where this session heads out quickly on "Planet E" -- my guess is that that one is mostly Anderson's fault. But the Drake/Kessler rhythm section is a marvel, and over the course the reeds settle down a bit, with a stretch of cooing overtones at one place. And at least one piece of saxophone nastiness does make some sense to me -- I credit Vandermark with that one, although there's no notes here to disillusion or enlighten me. [B+/B]
  • The Crown Royals: All Night Burner (1995-97, Estrus). This is a quartet, with Jeff BBQ (drums), Mark Blade (bass), and Pete Nathan (guitar), as well as Vandermark.
  • The Vandermark 5: Target or Flag (1997 [1998], Atavistic). Songs: "Sucker Punch (for Phelps [Catfish] Collins)" (starts off with a smashing riff, sustained with regular rhythm); "Attempted, Not Known (for Derek Bailey and George Lewis)" (dawdles a bit at first, with a little bit of hard-to-hear prepared guitar, probably Jeb Bishop, probably the nod to Bailey; a little clarinet, then Bishop on trombone, his real axe; Vandermark returns on tenor, launching into a marvelous solo, the sort of thing he's made a career out of; Bishop chips in more trombone); "The Start of Something (for Ellen Major)" (Vandermark's wife since 1996, a pediatrician); "Super Opaque (for Cecil Taylor)" (); "Last Call (for Eddie Hazel)" (again, the funk quotient shoots through the roof); "New Luggage (for Shelly Manne)" (); "8K (for Peter Brötzmann)" (); "Fever Dream (for Dan Grzeca)" (a painter, a friend of Vandermark's; like the opener, this is built around an anthemic riff). A
  • Jeb Bishop: 98 Duets (1998, Wobbly Rail).
  • AALY Trio + Ken Vandermark: Stumble (1998, Wobbly Rail). B-
  • Tripleplay (Ken Vandermark, Nate McBride, Curt Newton): Expansion Slang (1998 [2000], Boxholder). A-
  • The Crown Royals: Funky-Do (1998 [1999], Estrus). The second (and last) album with this quartet. This immediately sounds sharper, like the band has gotten their shit together. It's also a bit more varied, able to slow down a bit and keep their balance.
  • Ken Vandermark's Joe Harriott Project: Straight Lines (1998 [1999], Atavistic). A-
  • The Vandermark 5: Simpatico (1998 [1999], Atavistic). I gave this a B first time around. The Penguin Guide rates it at 4-stars. So let's try to figure out who's right. But first, note that Mars Williams has been replaced with Dave Rempis on alto sax. Not to take anything away from Repis, but Williams, being older and long established with Hal Russell, was a more equal partner to Vandermark. Songs: "Vent (for Glenn Spearman)" (this one starts off real ugly, and doesn't straighten out much by the end); "Fact and Fiction (for Curtis Counce)" (precise and somewhat delicate, sort of the hallmarks of Counce's west coast style); "Full Deck (for Jack Montrose)" (this feels like a real saxophonist's piece -- it rips without wandering too far out); "Anywhere Else (for Sheila Major)" (slows it down, patiently plots out complex shapes; don't know who Sheila Major is -- found a web page and some mail for an August GA lady of that name, but no further info; AMG suggests Sheila Jordan and Major Holley); "STHLM (for Mats Gustafsson)" (feels like a big band piece, with a lot of unison playing behind the ripping saxophone; Vandermark's solo breaks are fast and pressurized; Gustafsson is a guy who Vandermark has played with quite a bit, so it's not surprising that he should have him down pat); "Cover to Cover (for Frank Butler)" (presumably we're talking about FB the jazz drummer [1928-84], who recorded two records on Xanadu, and played with Miles Davis, Harold Land, Art Pepper, John Coltrane, Curtis Counce, and others -- as opposed to, say, FB the evangelist; again, this is a long piece with a lot of interesting work in it); "Point Blank (for Frank Rosolino)" (the trombonist, of course, although this seems like a pretty far out piece for such a mainstream player; this remind me instead of some of Roswell Rudd's avant-garde wrecks); "Encino (for John Carter)" (the clarinetist, although this piece seems to have more trombone and saxophone than clarinet; again, this is slow, awkward, high pressure stuff; many of these pieces meander, in a way they remind me of Mingus at his most unfocused and gnarly). Cook/Morton write about this one, "this supercharged and superbly focused set is surely the group's best to date." But I can't say that my own contrary view has changed much. There pieces here that are indeed impressive (the Montrose and Gustafsson are my favorites), but as a whole it doesn't quite come through. Interesting, though, that so much of the dedication is toward west coast players from the cool jazz period. B
  • Ken Vandermark's Sound in Action Trio: Design in Time (1999, Delmark). Another formal experiment: the gimmick here is to match Vandermark up with two drummers: Sun Ra-veteran Robert Barry and frequent collaborator Tim Mulvenna. Vandermark wrote 4 of the 11 pieces; the others come from Ornette Coleman (3), Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, and Thelonious Monk. Songs: "Law Years" (Ornette Coleman); "Sounds and Something Else" (Sun Ra); "One More Once" (Vandermark); "Well Suited" (Vandermark); "Cut to Fit" (Vandermark); "Angels" (Albert Ayler); "Feet Music" (Ornette Coleman); "The Thing" (Don Cherry); "Top Shelf" (Vandermark); "Green Chimneys" (Thelonious Monk; theme-solo-theme, just like Charlie Parker would have done it, except that Vandermark flexes more muscle on tenor sax); "Peace" (Ornette Coleman; clarinet here). A-
  • Pandelis Karayorgis, Nate McBride, Ken Vandermark: No Such Thing (1999 [2001], Boxholder). Karayorgis plays abstract avant-garde piano; he has recorded half a dozen albums, mostly for Leo (the UK label that specializes in Russian avant-gardists like the Ganelin Trio). McBride plays bass, and is a frequent Vandermark collaborator. Songs: "Skid Into the Turn (for Andrew Hill)" (starts off with some stark piano, quickly supplanted by Vandermark, probably on clarinet, who jumps off in various wild tangents); "27 Valentine" (McBride; a more measured piece, the bass central, with piano comping and little figures and vamps from Vandermark, and more bass solo); "Summer" (Karayorgis; a rather quiet piece, with clarinet tones, bass, occasional piano); "Disambiguation" (Karayorgis; mostly piano, inching along to no overly obvious purpose, paced by the bass; Vandermark's saxophone barely raises the volume, but he plays similarly abstract runs, giving the piece the feel of slightly organized randomness; Karayorgis has an album of the same name, with a longer version of this piece, joined by Mat Maneri); "Let Me Know (for Lee Konitz)" (starts with sax moving through changes that sound like slightly less accented Monk; Vandermark's play here does have some of the delicacy that characterizes Konitz' solos, although I picture Konitz with a more voluble pianist like Paul Bley -- Karayorgis plays more like Konitz, or like Monk; one of the best things here); "Pending" (McBride; starts quiet, then a long high-pitched drone of a note, possibly on clarinet; more stealthy feeling-around; this winds up being the longest piece on the album, yet in its plodding movement never really gets anywhere, just lots of mild-mannered noodling); "SBL" (Karayorgis); "Tripothetical" (Karayorgis; another slow, delicate, abstract one); "Taken (for Jimmy Giuffre)" (unusual to close an album with a piece that is just barely there, but this goes way beyond Giuffre into evanescence; slo-mo bass, a random tinkle of piano, little swatches of saxophone -- not clarinet, nothing so easy in this oblique strategy; ends on damn near nothing). This is certainly a minor album, which is not to say that Karayorgis and McBride don't contribute in interesting ways. The album effectively slows down and spreads out as it goes. [B]
  • The Vandermark 5: Burn the Incline (1999, Atavistic). Songs: "Distance (for Joe Morris)" (the Boston-based guitarist, whose path has no doubt crossed Vandermark's; starts unconventionally with a bass solo; drums and alto sax [that would be Rempis] come in, picking up the pace; 5:40 in this stops and changes direction, with Jeb Bishop's guitar most prominent, perhaps recapitulating the earlier sax; around 7:45 it stops and shifts again, with both guitar and sax [Vandermark] getting funkier; don't know what this has to do with Morris); "The Cooler (for Pandelis Karayorgis)" (the pianist, who has worked with Vandermark elsewhere; this, of course, has no piano, so the mapping is harder to discern; however, it is a spacious piece, a fairly steady rhythm with Vandermark on bass clarinet and Rempis adding the decoration); "Late Night Wait Around (for Ab Baars)" (the Dutch clarinetist, perhaps best known for his work with the ICP Orchestra, although he's crossed paths with Vandermark several times; this piece is quiet, toneful, a bit too fragmentary to pass for beautiful); "Roulette (for Nate McBride)" (Vandermark's Boston-based bassist and furniture maker; this wakes things up quickly, with Bishop's trombone especially prominent); "Accident Happening (for William Parker)" (the bass player; as far as I know, he only times Vandermark and Parker have played together have been in Peter Brötzmann's big band; this starts off with a rough, fevered sax solo, in a style not far removed from Charles Gayle; after awhile, this breaks down to bass and drums, with the drum sound dulled, like a frame drum; rough saxophone returns, again suggesting Gayle, or perhaps Ivo Perelman; closes on a crashing note); "In Focus (for Per Henrik Wallin)" (the Swedish pianist; something a bit bop-ish, with Bishop's guitar filling in behind the saxophone; this winds up being, I think, a typical example of what makes this group so strong: the Kessler-Mulvenna rhythm section can keep an interesting beat, and Vandermark in particular can weave his solos any way he wants); "The Trouble Is (for Misha Mengelberg)" (the Ukraine-born, Dutch-based pianist, a major figure in Europe's avant-garde; again, this has one of those extended, pastoral feels, which doesn't quite jive with what I know about Mengelberg); "Ground (for The Ex)" (the Ex were/are a Dutch rock group -- sometimes described as post-punk, sometimes as just experimental -- featuring a guitarist named Terrie Ex, who has in turn recorded duets with Ab Baars and Han Bennink; rough again; a lot of trombone). B+
  • Spaceways Incorporated: Thirteen Cosmic Standards by Sun Ra & Funkadelic (2000, Atavistic). Drummer Hamid Drake has worked in funk and reggae bands, and has those moves down as solidly as he has his Don Cherry/Ed Blackwell roots. Nate McBride plays electric as well as acoustic bass, and leans toward the electric. The two of them make for a much more talented rhythm section than the Crown Royals did. Songs: "Tapestry From an Asteroid" (Sun Ra); "Alice in My Fantasies/Comic Slop" (Clinton/Hazel; starts off with some explosive sax, working through some changes before seguing into "Cosmic Slop"); "Street Named Hell" (Sun Ra); "Trash A-Go-Go" (Clinton); "Bassism" (Sun Ra); "Red Ot Mama/Super Stupid" (Clinton/Hazel/Nelson/Ross/Worrell); "El Is a Sound of Joy" (Ra); "Future" (Sun Ra); "You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks/Hit It" (Clinton/Haskins/Jones/Nelson/Shila/Worrell); "We Travel the Spaeways" (Sun Ra).
  • School Days: Crossing Division (2000, Okkadisk).
  • The Vandermark 5: Acoustic Machine (2001, Atavistic). Songs: "Hbf 4, 2, 3, 1, 5 (for Morton Feldman)" (); "Auto Topography (for Archie Shepp)" (needless to say, this is a loud one); "Fall to Grace (for Elvin Jones)" (looser, nice populsive little groove, with Vandermark switching off to bass clarinet, contrasting nicely with Dave Rempis' alto sax and Jeb Bishop's trombone; one of the best things they've done; fun piece for Mulvenna, too); "License Complete (for Julius Hemphill)" (starts off with a heavy beat and the feel of gutbucket blues, the hard beat and blues wallop continuing to the end); "Coast to Coast (for Stan Getz)" (); "Close Enough (for Robert Capa)" (); "Wind Out (for William Klein)" (); "Stranger Blues (for Lester Young)" (). A-
  • The Vandermark 5: Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 & 2 (2000-01 [2002], Atavistic, 2CD). Just played this one more time, and was so blown away that I bumped the grade up. Should break it down song-by-song; should dig up the originals, at least where I have them. But offhand none are familiar (except maybe Sun Ra's "Saturn," originally on his landmark Jazz in Silhouette, and maybe Ornette Coleman's "Happy House," from his Science Friction sessions, but one of the few pieces here that has been redone with any frequency), and this really turns on the band, which plays free jazz like the Rolling Stones play rock and roll -- they make it sound classic, and at the same time they make it sound bigger than ever before. A
  • Spaceways Inc.: Version Soul (2002, Atavistic). Songs: "Back of a Cab (for Jackie Mittoo)" (); "Reasonable Hour (for Serge Chaloff)" (a nice little change-of-pace vamp piece, on baritone of course); "Size Large (for Larry Graham)" (Sly's family bassist, starts with funk licks and cymbal splash; I think this is baritone again); "Journeyman" (McBride; starts with a lengthy bass solo, which expands into some exceptionally funk improv); "She Just Got Here" (McBride); "Clocked (for Joseph 'Zigaboo' Modeliste)" (); "Rothko Sideways (for Mark Rothko)" (a slow, moody piece, stretched out too long, perhaps, but Drake adds helpful little decorations to the torpor); "Force at a Distance (for Frank Wright)" (a little-known '60s avant-garde saxophonist, with a couple of ESP albums, who had started out playing bass in r&b bands; don't know Wright, but this piece starts out in high gear, with roaring saxophone, and moves on to a first-class free bass-drums duo, before Vandermark returns in full fury); "All Frequencies" (McBride). A
  • Paal Nilssen-Love/Ken Vandermark: Dual Pleasure (2002 [2003], Smalltown Supersound). I've already graded this, and I don't expect that to change: A-, and it's toward the high end of that range. But this will wind up being the key album in my Vandermark review, so here's some notes. The compositions are all attributed to both, with none of Vandermark's characteristic dedications, so it's tempting to suggest that these were improvved on the spot. Songs: "Flashpoint" (this comes out of the gate cranking, with both musicians in high gear; later on it straightens out a bit and grows, and I notice that Vandermark is playing baritone); "Anno 1240" (even more than the previous piece, this one feels like the drummer is center-stage, and Vandermark is playing around Nilssen-Love; the drumwork here strikes me as circular, like he is working his way around the kit, softly at first, then more aggressively; Vandermark paces himself accordingly; drum solo follows; later on the drummer knocks out a repeated series of snare trills for Vandermark to blow around, then he goes back into his dervish thing as Vandermark lays out); "Closed Doors, Open Windows" (short, played it twice and missed it both times); "Storefront Materials" (Vandermark switches to clarinet here; the piece is looser and airier); "Jean S." (Vandermark plays tenor on this one; it is a bit slowish, with long notes and drums for accents rather than for time); "Dual Fiction" (back to the trenches: this one rocks hard, the drummer driving and Vandermark screeching the tires; about 15 minutes in there is a particularly arresting section, where Nilssen-Love gets a deep drum sound [like bass drum, but a bit faster than you'd expect for that], while Vandermark riffs; it then shifts into something faster, more drums, more sax). A-
  • Ken Vandermark: Furniture Music (2002 [2003], Okkadisk). So this is Vandermark's inevitable solo album. Thirteen studio pieces, followed by five live. So at least they're short. Studio pieces: "Resistance (for Evan Parker)" (starts off on a nasty, shrill note; what else did you expect? b-flat clarinet, circular breathing, warbling tone, pretty much nails him); "Horizontal Weight (for Peter Brotzmann)" (deep, sounds like baritone; defter than his model); "So Is This (for Michael Snow)" (deep listening here; isolated low notes with deep resonance; Snow is a filmmaker); "Lines (for Lennie Tristano)" (tenor; long boppish lines, relatively light touch -- although he ups the volume at spots; feels smart [actually this was done on baritone sax, which probably explains why something so boppish was done relatively slow]); "Immediate Action (for Jackson Pollack)" (also tenor, but a louder, more forthright sound, a little avant muscle without going overboard); "Panels (for Piet Mondrian and Erik Satie)" (thin, hollow tones, sounds like some sort of clarinet, though not bass clarinet; notes scattered loosely on the wind); "Color Fields to Darkness (for Mark Rothko)" (this is bass clarinet; deep, open tones, stretched for maximum resonance, albeit at the expense of any action); "Would a Proud Man Rather Break Than Bend (for Mississippi Fred McDowell)" (blue improv, allegedly modelled on McDowell's guitar licks; effected by loud notes at the start of each line, filled out with quieter notes); "Beck and Fall (for Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman)" (not that different from the previous -- louder peaks, less flow, clicks, shrill peaks [tenor sax]); "Melodica (for Joe McPhee)" (is this another clarinet? "construction of a sequence of 'pure' melodies in the time of performance"; definitely a clarinet; what purifies the melodies is the absence of rhythmic and acoustic effects common in saxophone play); "Indeterminate Action (for John Cage)" (sounds like tenor sax; not a surprise that the notes seem isolated and without line, yet they yield some flow anyway); "Leaves (for Michelangelo Antononioni)" (what is this? at the start it sounds like muted blowing across a non-resonating, i.e. dysfunctional, instrument; not rhythmic enough for breathing, not continuous enough for wind; this is interposed with little clicks and pops [clarinet]); "(brüllt) after Jaap Blonk" (probably baritone, but it sounds more like a foghorn, with ungawdly resonances and slurs -- an amazing sound with little musical merit; inspired by a dadaist poem; your sense of humor may vary). The five live pieces reprise from the above -- alternate performances from a solo concert. After writing the above, I noticed that the notes do specify the horns: clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax, and tenor sax [see bracketed comments above]. In the live set "Immediate Action" was done much faster, the Cageian indeterminacy smooshed together into lines of boppish ferocity. "Horizontal Weight" also shuffles along a bit faster, its baritone sax starting to approximate a Brotzmannian degree of ugliness. In this context, any attempt to grade something this extraordinary and unlistenable is futile. B+
  • The Vandermark 5: Airports for Light (2002 [2003], Atavistic). This witnesses the second personnel change in six albums: substitute Triage drummer Tim Daisy for Tim Mulvenna. (Triage is a trio including Dave Rampis, the second saxophonist here.) Songs: "Cruz Campo (for Gerhard Richter)" (that would be the German painter; this kicks up a bit of a storm, flashing most of the usual talents we find in this group; the unison riff at the start opens up into contrapuntal jousts by the horns -- delightful interplay, especially from Bishop, whose trombone carries the most weight here); "Staircase (for John Cassavetes)" (the filmmaker, of course; one of those noirish ballads that AMG complains about -- all the better to hear the bass and drums, my dear, with the horns painting in the background; exceptionally nice piece); "7 Plus 5" (for Fredrik Ljungkvist)" (the young Swedish saxophonist, who has played with Vandermark in the Territory Band, and has other connections [Mats Gustafsson, Per Henrik Wallin]; this feels like one of those chance pieces, random sounds, rather disconnected, yet not totally absurd); "Money Down (for Rahsaan Roland Kirk)" (upbeat, tightly orchestrated intro, followed by a rigorous, rapid-fire deconstructive solo; this flies by fast, with a trombone-drums stretch with little sax toots for emphasis -- wonderful work, then more earthshaking sax; I don't really care for the figure, but the solo/duo work here is the peak of the album); "Both Sides (for Budd Johnson)" (the great tenor saxophonist from Earl Hines' bands; this has a lounge feel, the saxophone slighter than anything Johnson ever played; another fine performance from Bishop, who solos against a growing backdrop of saxophone tones); "Initials (for Jean Tinguely)" (the artist -- I have a big book of Tinguely's work, which goes way beyond painting to include mechanical contraptions, which is what this abstract and somewhat random piece sounds like); "Other Cuts (for Curtis Mayfield)" (this actually has a noirish soundtrack feel to it, r&b drums and bass, punctuated by horn toots a bit like "Shaft"; Vandermark cuts a remarkably precise solo against this backdrop; over the course of its 11:12 this builds up, again turning into one of the highlights of the album); "Long Term Fool (for Otis Redding)" (tough one to figure out; the music moves slowly, sometimes just on a bass solo, then with a little clarinet for tonal variation); "Confluence (for Sonny Rollins)" (not what you would expect either: starts with a unison theme that reminds you how rarely Rollins has played with other saxophonists -- I have a late '50s big band date on Verve which is a rare exception; then it breaks into a multi-horn cacophony, a flurry of aggressive sax hacking that again has never been Rollins' thing; the solos also aren't reminiscent of Rollins -- the great man clearly has the chops to reach like Vandermark does, but usually does so in a much more conventionally rooted melodic sense; still, the rush of the piece is exhilarating). This is one of those records that doesn't work to add up or to average out. On the one hand, it has a bit of the feel of, hey folks, we need another record to push; on the other, Vandermark and the band are such extraordinary performers that even their slightest ideas can mushroom in the studio into something really spectacular. That happens with the Kirk and Mayfield pieces here, and most of the others are fascinating to listen to and think about, even if they don't fully cohere. It seems to me like Vandermark is running some sort of race between his ideas and his execution -- he keeps pushing the ideas further and further out, then tackles how to solve them. The effect is to make this perhaps the most writerly of all of his albums, yet when you hear it the performances are what blows you away. Hard to say that's not quite an accomplishment. A-
  • Free Fall (Ken Vandermark, Ingebright Hĺker Flaten, Hĺvard Wilk): Furnace (2002 [2003], Wobbly Rail). Like School Days, this Vandermark aggregation takes its name from a legendary album, Jimmy Giuffre's Free Fall (1962 [1998], Columbia/Legacy). Giuffre's trio was completed by Paul Bley (piano) and Steve Swallow (bass) -- major players in their own right, who worked off/on with Giuffre from 1961-96 (cf. Conversations With a Goose), although most intensively in the early '60s. As the liner notes point out, this isn't a tribute band. The repertoire includes no Giuffre pieces. It also isn't just a Vandermark thing, given that Wiik writes three pieces, and Flaten one. Songs: "Inside Out (for Paul Bley)" (the great pianist, who was part of Giuffre's famous group; starts with piano, to which Vandermark adds sharp little stabs of clarinet; the angular spread between piano and clarinet is rather wide -- less clear how the bass fits in, but it may be off on its own tangent as well); "The Spell of Introspection" (by Wiik; more conventional, soft jazz where piano and clarinet engage politely); "Hopscotch (for Merce Cunningham)" (the dancer; a lighter, airier piece, with prominent bass and little piano runs, with the clarinet mostly adding color); "Furnace (for Frank O'Hara)" (the painter, not that that helps; this opens much more aggressively with a flurry from all three members, then breaks into an inventive bass solo, supplemented by piano; still, the most distinctive playing here belongs to Vandermark, who gets a lower-than-usual tone from his clarinet, and supplements that with a saxman's clicks and pops, something rarely heard coming out of clarinet); "Into the Air (for Eric Dolphy)" (quiet bass intro, a few tinkles of piano); "Half Past Soon (for Bill Evans)" (another delicate little piece); "Momento" (by Wiik; this opens with cautiously with piano, the clarinet adding a little tone); "Halfway" (by Flaten); "Emergency" (by Wiik; more upbeat, better rounded, even though it has a bit of the feel that the three musicians are running in their own discrete directions). B+

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Music: Initial count 8612 rated (+18), 936 unrated (-7).

  • All That Jive: Jazz Classics With a Swinging Sense of Humor (1945-53 [2003], Savoy Jazz). Like all label comps, this one is a prisoner of its catalogue. The great jive vocalists of the trans-WWII era were: Cab Calloway, Leo Watson, Louis Jordan, Slim Gaillard. There may have been more -- I still haven't managed to meet up with Harry the Hipster, who I hear isn't anywhere near their league. But aside from one Gaillard cut ("Flat Foot Floogie") that you should have heard elsewhere by now, these guys are second tier at best (Billy Eckstine, Jackie Paris, Joe Carroll, Eddie Jefferson, Annie Ross, Babs Gonzales). The two Eckstine pieces have the whomp of his bebop-infiltrated big band. The two Paris pieces are off pace, but "The Old Master Painter" is silly enough to slide by. Dizzy Gillespie's Pops impression doesn't pass muster, but his "Oo-Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee" and "Oh! Lady Be Good," both with Carroll vocals, are classic. Jefferson's vocalese leave me cold, but Ross' "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" is just fine -- she was a terrific singer, rarely recorded. Emitt Slay's "Trio Male Call" is a sick joke. Babs Gonzales closes out with two jumpy pieces -- the second a gloss on "Ornithology." B
  • Amy Allison: Sad Girl (2001, Diesel Only). AMG writes of "the plaintive timbre in her odd little voice." Actually, her odd little voice is quite serviceable, sounding almost like a nice country drawl, even though her pedigree doesn't merit it. The plaintive timbre is mere attitude: she's taken "sad girl" as a challenge and identity, and she probably prefers it that way. This little album would be filed as country if country hadn't been pickled in plastic from Branson to Dollywood. Her ballads have flavor and feeling, "Sad Girl" is as anthemic as it ought to be, and in "Sad State of Affairs" she has a honky tonk classic as definitive as anything on Gary Stewart's Out of Hand. A-
  • Asleep at the Wheel: Remembers the Alamo (2003, Shout). Last time out they did a guest-star-laden Bob Wills tribute, Ride With Bob -- actually their second stab at a Wills tribute, but this one really clicked. This time they tackle another Texas icon, although fetish might be more like it. Leaving aside for the moment the political thrust (if there is one), the first obvious problem is that the Alamo simply hasn't established the sort of musical legacy that Bob Wills did. The middle of this album is so desperate for material that they do "Ballad of Davy Crocket," "Yellow Rose of Texas," and "New San Antonio Rose." The latter, of course, has nothing to do with the Alamo -- it's just a classic Bob Wills song, easily the best thing on this album. But the other two are stale and embarrassing. "Eighth of January" is a nice little instrumental, which will be instantly recognized by anyone familiar with Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" -- close enough for these guys. "Across the Alley From the Alamo" is another steal from the Bob Wills songbook. After that they get serious again: "Stout and High" at least namechecks Santa Ana; "Don't Go There" is an original about Ozzy Osbourne pissing on the Alamo wall -- now there's something to remember; and "Soldier's Joy" is another little fiddle tune. When I went to see the Alamo back in the '60s it was a cruddy, dilapidated tourist trop. I hear it's snazzier now -- at least that it has air conditioning. Its political significance has dimmed even further: do we really need to be reminded how many brave, foolish adventurers died to make Texas safe for slavery? For that matter, its function as a rallying cry to drive the Mexicans out of Texas in favor of the Anglos is moving progressively into the realm of irony. But aside from the intro deciated to Colonel Travis, this has damn little history, and even less musical legacy, to offer. On the other hand, that bar across the street is probably good for a beer. B-
  • Brigitte DeMeyer: Nothing Comes Free (2003, BDM). This is the second album by a countryish singer-songwriter, although this is the only one I've heard. This hasn't made any sort of splash, probably because there's nothing splashy about this record. "Another You," the first song, is expertly crafted. Similar care pervades this record. "Brother of Mine" has some nice bluesy slides, and her vocal edges up a bit. "Big Boss Man" is a blues cover, so that demands a bit more vocal muscle. "Ain't the One" is a simple little rocker, a good song. Then she does another cover, Lowell George's "Roll 'Em Easy" -- says something about influences. Album closes with an unlisted solo acoustic take on the Beatles' "Oh! Darling" -- real nice. In the Lucinda-wannabe mini-niche, I like her a lot. She doesn't have the voice of a Kasey Chambers, or the gestalt of an Amy Allison (or for that matter Gillian Welch), so it's harder to get a grip on just what makes her distinctive, but I suspect that there's more to her than, oh, Laura Cantrell, not to mention this year's big Lucinda-wannabe-hype, Kathleen Edwards. B+ [Later: A-]
  • Dillinger: Ultimate Collection (1974-80 [2003], Hip-O/Island). This has been sitting in my queue for a long time, a tough grading call even if it is an easy album to simply enjoy. One thing that raises doubts in my mind is that there is a competing compilation from the evidently defunct Music Club, The Prime of Dillinger: Gangster, Prankster and Rasta, which duplicates six of the most obvious of these 22 tracks. I don't have that comp, so can't comment on its 9 (or 8, one is a dub piece in two versions) shared tracks, which may or may not be better than what we have here. This one is longer, which in itself isn't necessarily better. Dillinger was a transitional figure. Earlier dub stars were still denizens of their rhythms, but Dillinger's dub was headed toward dancehall, and his toasting was headed toward hip-hop. Yellowman is perhaps the better example -- indeed it is hard to listen to Dillinger now and not think of Yellowman, who debuted in 1982, after the last of these cuts. All you want; more than you need, but vital history nonetheless. A-
  • First Steps: First Recordings From the Creators of Modern Jazz (1944-53 [2003], Savoy Jazz). When you contrast this to Charly's The Birth of BeBop, this actually starts pretty late in the day. It also has the disadvantage of being a label-only comp -- not that Savoy had a small role in the evolution of bebop, but it necessarily lacks the sort of comprehensiveness that Rhino came up with on Masters of Jazz, Vol. 2: Bebop's Greatest Hits. But starting with "Red Cross" and "Shaw 'Nuff" really jumps to the heart of the matter, or to be more explicit, to Charlie Parker. Although those pieces were recorded under other names (Tiny Grimes, Dizzy Gillespie), they are Parker's first two really great performances, and they set the pattern for his career. In contrast, the following pieces by Ike Quebec and Erroll Garner slip by without notice. Dexter Gordon, of course, you do notice. The rest of the album vacillates between those two poles -- Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Fats Navarro all get in their fast bebop licks. Serge Chaloff is more conventional and beautiful. George Shearing does a fine boppish piano piece. Harold Land does an uncharacteristic ballad. Milt Jackson is brilliant, and Art Pepper closes on a sublime note. Maybe the theme here is that even out of the tussle and turmoil of bebop beautiful music emerged. Not as historically important or as educational as the other comps mentioned above, but a good period sampler, notable perhaps more when it goes against the grain than with. A-
  • Russian Songwriter: A Collection From Boris Grebenshikov ([2003], Naxos World). The booklet provides the lyrics in Russian and in translation to English, French and German -- in small print and negligible contrast, enough to deter me from reading. That's OK: I would just as soon let these songs stand on their musicality, without confusing the actual listening experience by words so easily ignored. On the other hand, I would have appreciated some dates and background -- Grebenshikov's work goes back to the 1970's, but I have no way of dating these pieces. The back cover note lists this as "FOLK/ROCK"; inside Grebenshikov is described as a "singer-songwriter." Elswehere I've seen him compared to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and touted as the most popular rock artist in Russia, but listening to these songs I flash more on Cat Stevens, and I'm tempted to add Serge Gainsbourg for good measure: split the distance, and throw in a little balalaika and you about get it. These songs fade in and out of the zone of interest -- the harder he rocks the sharper his Russian, but he clearly prefers the ballads, and his rock isn't much more than the commercialization of his folk music. There are renowned singer-songwriters the world over who can't elicit in foreigners anything near the sort of impact they obviously have at home -- Silvio Rodriguez and Caetano Veloso are two (although Veloso realizes that when he records for the Yanks he has to crank up the rhythm, which we appreciate). Grebenshikov may be one of those. Or he may not. B
  • Hugh Masekela: Grrr (1966 [2003], Verve). South African jazz from the trumpet player and a bunch of unidentified cohorts. This feels slightly out of kilter, although it's hard to put your finger on exactly what isn't right here -- maybe it's just that my expectations run toward the saxophonists, or Abdulah Ibrahim. The pianist here plays competent boogie-woogie, but that doesn't really support the township rhythms that are the trumpeter's bread and butter. But it does pick up a bit as it goes along: "'Kwa-Blaney" has that real township feel, and the bass player on "Mra" has the right idea (even the pianist gets his two chords right), which lets Masekela get off his best playing on the album. B+
  • Paal Nilssen-Love/Hĺkon Kornstad: Schlinger (2000 [2003], Smalltown Supersound). Another duo with the Norgwegian drummer who I at least know best for his work with Ken Vandermark's School Days -- this one appears to have been recorded earlier than the ones with Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark, but released later. Like them, the drums take center stage here, which helps even things out, given how easily a saxophone can dominate accompanying drums. Kornstad is a guy I don't know at all -- he has one album in his own name, and a couple as a member of a group called No Spaghetti Edition, which I also hadn't heard of, and appears in other obscure groups: Tri Dim, Wibutee. Hard to really judge from this, but Kornstad plays out very competently, and while the music here is adventurous little (if any) of it is disagreeable. And my admiration for Nilssen-Love just keeps growing. B+
  • Paal Nilssen-Love/Mats Gustafsson: I Love It When You Snore (2001 [2002], Smalltown Supersound). Mats is probably the best regarded Scandinavian saxophonist to emerge since the the late '80s. He holds fort at the AALY Trio and in a group called Gush; he's played with Vandermark and Brötzmann, and has quite a bit of work under his own name. I know very little of this, and what I have heard I haven't fallen in love with: he is out, loud, and pretty ugly. Still, what he does here is interesting. He plays baritone, which is probably his main sax, but plays doesn't begin to describe what he does here. He conjures up little snatches of sound, a few notes slurred quickly together, without much articulation let alone melody, and he compounds those slurs with lots of pops and clicks. Nilssen-Love is credited with "percussion" -- and indeed this is an album of studied percussion, and very little else. In transforming the big saxophone into a percussion toy, Gustafsson has done an intriguing job of minimizing it, and the fit is quite interesting. Not something to play for background during Sunday dinner, but a nice little amusement, as well as an impressive outing for the drummer. B+
  • Glenn Spearman: Blues for Falasha (1998 [1999], Tzadik). This album opens with a tremendous blast of deep sound, and in a sense it unveils itself in the echo of that blast. The unveiling is slow. The group has two drummers, who dominate long stretches; with bassist Lisle Ellis adding to the bottom, this sometimes feels like a percussionist's record. Chris Brown plays piano -- infrequently, tinkling up and down the scales, nothing special. The saxophone work, from Larry Ochs as well as Spearman, is generally subdued -- in an avant-jazz mode, for sure, but not especially aggressive. This was cut shortly before Spearman's death, and has a feel that is meditative and ruminative, but it also feels unpolished and not quite finished. B
  • Clark Terry & Max Roach: Friendship (2002 [2003], Eighty-Eights/Columbia). Roach is closing in on his 80th birthday. He was one of the most important drummers in the early history of bebop; his band with Clifford Brown was the quintessential jazz group of the early '50s; his 1960 Freedom Now Suite says all you need to know about the transition from the '50s to '60s; in the '70s and '80s he stayed ahead of the game, playing with avant-gardists like Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton; his 1989 duo Max + Dizzy closed out Gillespie's career on a high note. Terry's done did 80; there may be an older active jazzman somewhere (there is -- Dave Brubeck is eight days older), but in many ways he's a living link to the past: an alumnus of both the Basie and Ellington bands, an important collaborator with Thelonious Monk. This starts with a Roach solo, then Terry enters with a muted roar. They call this short duet "Statements," which is apt. Roach is more abstract than any bebop-era drummer, and his solo work here is very striking. Terry was mostly a mainstream swing guy, but he cut some of his most notable work with Monk. After their opening statements, they're joined by bass (Marcus McLaurine) and piano (Don Friedman); they play a Monk tune, then a couple of Terry's tunes, then Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford" and Roach's "Lil Max." The group work swings; the individual efforts are more pungent. A-

Friday, November 07, 2003

From TomDispatch, a quote from Noam Chomsky:

I spoke recently to a high official of one of the main NGOs, with plenty of experience all over the world's horror stories. He had just come back from several months in Baghdad, and said he had never seen such a combination of "arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence" as in the US command -- the civilian authorities. He was also shocked at the failure.

Those three words go far toward characterizing the Bush administration: arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence. Someone could write a pamphlet, a book even, around those themes.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Music: Initial count 8594 rated (+7), 943 unrated (+7). Need to work on Vandermark this week.

  • Johnny Cash: America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song (1972 [2001], Columbia/Legacy). This is a concept album that would be crap in any other hands, but Cash's voice is so deeply musical that his spoken narration can rivet you as much as his singing. The history, of course, is received -- the struggle for liberty at the Alamo is hard not to wince at. But "The Road to Kaintuck" recalls a period when Manifest Destiny wasn't such a sure bet. Cash gives "The Battle of New Orleans" more gravitas than Johnny Horton ever could, turning a novelty into a hymn. This gets sloppier and more sentimental as it moves on -- "Lorena" is mild for the Civil war, and "Come Take a Trip in My Airship" and "These Are My People" gloss over a lot, but while "The Big Battle" may not be anti-war it doesn't paint a very pretty picture either. Cash makes magic of this hash; I don't advise Toby Keith to try to top him. B+
  • June Carter Cash: Wildwood Flower (2003, Dualtone). Some of these sessions were filmed on Sept. 18-29, 2002. More sessions occurred in March 2003, before June's death on May 15. This album was released on Sept. 9, 2003, and it bears the marks of having been framed as a memorial -- most obviously the use of old snippets from the Carter Girls, dating back to the '50s. The cover itself is a memorial. Her voice took a beating in old age, but she was born to sing, and carried on steadfastly. The songs are straight out of the Carter family songbook, including her own "The Road to Kaintuck," with an assist by her ailing husband, the still unmistakable Johnny Cash. The music of the Carter Family was as plain as the nose on your face, but for all that they were absolutely unique in the history of American music -- nobody else ever sounded so natural in such material. Being born into that family was a weird sort of privilege and responsibility: you could think of it as an aristocracy, yet there was nothing aristocratic about it. It was a family built around music as discourse, and it was impossible to just communicate in such a family without singing. For June it is easy to imagine that as both curse and calling; for us it is both beyond experience and easy to imagine. On the other hand, something impossible to imagine would be the Carter Family being pretentious, lazy, or capricious. In someone else's hands this album could be all three, but perish the thought. There is a powerful symmetry here: this album is not so much about the life and death of June Carter Cash, as this album is what she lived and died for. And that's more than I ever got out of Jesus. A-
  • Eddie Condon and His Band, Featuring Fats Waller, Joe Bushkin, and Joe Sullivan, Pianos: "Ballin the Jack" (1939-42 [1989], Commodore). Plus Pee Wee Russell, Max Kaminski, Marty Marsala, Brad Gowans, George Brunis, Artie Shapiro and George Wettling. Condon is known as the jazz guitarist who never took a solo, but as rhythm guitarists go pencil him in as the Keith Richards of the '30s, not just for his string work but because he could throw a party like none other, and wherever he went the bands just rose to the occasion. These sessions are both typical and superb. They remind you that dixieland jazz remained vibrant in the hands of white Chicagoans long after it faded from memory in New Orleans. A-
  • Coon-Sanders' Original Nighthawk Orchestra: Volume Three (1928-29 [1998], Old Masters). This is the only one I've heard of this admirable 4-volume archival effort. The Coon-Sanders Nighthawks played in Chicago from 1921-32. This was a white danceband built around drummer Carleton Coon and pianist Joe Sanders. (Don't know if Coon, who died in 1932, was any relation to the infamous anthropologist of the same name, who nowadays is regarded as the perhaps the last significant figure to try to spin a web of science around simplistic race studies.) Still, these are interesting recordings. They have a decided archaic feel to them -- pre-swing, not really dixieland either, they sort of fit into what we now think of as the pseudo-jazz of the Jazz Age -- music hall vaudeville with a little spritz, less pretentious than, say, Paul Whiteman, and more fun too. B+
  • Paul Desmond/Gerry Mulligan: Two of a Mind (1962 [2003], Bluebird). In its original edition this was one of the best things that either principal ever did. Mulligan could get a light, spritely sound even on the usually heavyweight baritone sax, and few musicians in jazz history have been so attentive to their fellows, especially to other saxophonists. Desmond had a beautiful tone on alto, a marvelous light touch, and an outstanding sense of how to fit in harmonically. Mulligan was perhaps best known for his work with the mercurial Chet Baker, while Desmond is often regarded as an extra appendage to Dave Brubeck -- in both cases they seem to have been the anchor that kept their partners in line. Playing together must have been a delight: their 1957 Verve Quartet is superb, and this later meeting is, if anything, even more delightful. Bluebird has let an earlier, budget edition of these sessions lapse from their catalog. This one is fluffed out with five bonus tracks, almost doubling the length, and, unfortunately, the price is also ratched up. The bonus cuts are just more of a good thing. A
  • DJ Wally: Nothing Stays the Same (2003, Thirsty Ear). Keef Destefano, dba DJ Wally, has several albums that I haven't heard. I got this one because of the Matthew Shipp/Thirsty Ear connection. It's one of half-a-dozen such records, where various guest DJs trick up music by avant-jazzers like Shipp. I think it's probably the best of the bunch, although it's hard to explain just why. Consider this sequence as an example, since I backed up to cut #7 to check out David S. Ware's one contribution. Couldn't find it -- you'd think Ware would be instantly recognizable by now -- but what I did find was a lot of Peter Gordon flute on a spacious dancebeat flow; next is Shipp's solo interlude, a crunching piece of acoustic piano; then comes a William Parker bass workout, which DJ Wally wraps up in synthesized zings. The pieces move along nicely, wrapping up fragments of forthright jazz with beats and atmospherics. A-
  • Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, Steve Swallow: Conversations With a Goose (1996, Soul Note). Although Giuffre may forever be best known for having penned "Four Brothers," the balance of his career has been far removed from Woody Herman's big band bombast. Since the late '50s he's been making delicate but difficult music, mostly on clarinet, usually in small groups, frequently accompanied by Bley and Swallow. Their 1961 trio recordings are considered landmarks, the pinnacle of Giuffre's career. This 35-year reunion effort is of a piece with their early works -- the cover picture of the three gray-hairs doesn't make this music any easier to decipher, although what does help is how it breaks down into solo work: Bley's piano patiently working through similar but more accessible runs, Swallow's electric bass sometimes sounding like guitar. I've never really gotten Giuffre, and this one is no exception, but I find this one relatively entertaining. David Ogilvy used to advise to cultivate your idiosyncrasies when you're young, otherwise people will think you've gone bonkers when you get old. Thirty-five years down the line I still don't understand Giuffre, but more and more he sounds like himself, and we're finally getting used to that. B+
  • Hank Mobley: A Slice of the Top (1966 [1995], Blue Note). A largish band here: James Spaulding (alto sax), Lee Morgan (trumpet, of course), Kiane Zawadi (euphonium), Howard Johnson (tuba), plus a rhythm section of McCoy Tyner (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), and Billy Higgins (drums). The third cut ("Cute 'n Pretty") sounds like it has flute on it -- don't know whether a euophonium can do that, but Spaulding has been known to play quite a bit of flute. Sounds like hard bop on the back end, but a bit too much up front. B
  • Gerry Mulligan-Paul Desmond Quartet (1957, Verve). Really lovely work -- the two horns weave in and out, both light and sweet in tone. Perhaps less consistent than their later Two of a Mind, but really delightful. A-
  • The Strokes: Room on Fire (2003, RCA). The press is out in force on this one; haven't seen so much hype since, well, the White Stripes -- not all that long ago, for sure, but it seems like it. What can I tell you? This sounds pretty much like the last one, at least as far as I can remember it, which was, what, two years ago? (Hard to believe that it's only been two years since the dawning of the modern American apocalypse -- the event-cum-era that rather overshadowed the Strokes' debut and Aaliyah's demise -- but then I guess time doesn't exactly fly when you're ducking for cover.) Needless to say, they get a nice jangly sound out of their guitars -- sounds anything but unprecedented, even if I can't quite put my finger on the authoritative antecedent. (Marshall Crenshaw would be one such reference, but the Strokes got more guitars, not to mention fewer songs.) Haven't noticed a lyric yet, nor do I expect to. If, after all, they are the perfect band for our newfangled bunkers, they wouldn't be hankering for attention. Too bad their publicists don't understand their appeal. B+

Saturday, November 01, 2003

It is impossible to know what is really going on in Iraq, at least in terms of assessing the "progress" and prospects for the U.S. occupation. Most news reports depict a level of resistance that is sufficient to seriously disrupt American plans. Moreover, it seems likely that this level of resistance can be sustained indefinitely -- at least as long as the U.S. is a convenient target. On the other hand, U.S. officialdom is strenuously trying to paint a rosier picture. But, then, the credibility of U.S. officialdom has been strained so severely that even mainstream media, which usually devours whatever is fed them, is looking askance. Or maybe they just smell blood; they are, after all, good at that.

To some extent this is one of those half-empty/half-full divisions. What is generally agreed on is that the current state -- the "half" if you will -- is unstable and transitional. The disagreement is on where it is going. Your half-fulls here figure that when the occupation is able to get Iraq into some sort of functional state -- once the infrastructure works and the oil flows and the economy starts moving and ordinary Iraqis start to see some tangible improvement in their lives -- the resistance will fade away. On the other hand, your half-empties will argue that the resistance will keep most or all of those things from happening, and that by doing so it will harvest enough resentment against the occupation that it will sustain itself, until eventually the U.S. gives up and leaves.

This division has less to do with the available facts than with a pair of perceptions. The half-fulls believe that the resistance is the work of a small and finite number of intractable evil-doers, who merely need to be drawn out and dispatched; the half-empties believe that the resistance is the inevitable fruit of occupation, and that any efforts to suppress the resistance will only deepen it. The half-fulls also believe that the U.S. has the skills and good will and generosity to make the occupation work for the betterment of the Iraqi people; the half-empties have grave doubts about those very skills, not to mention what all that American good will and generosity did for ordinary Iraqi people even before the invasion. The half-fulls, of course, believe that even if their optimism has been a bit excessive, there is no choice but for America to "stay the course" until a better Iraq emerges, and see withdrawal as not only callous but ultimately as tragic for the Iraqi people. The half-empties, on the other hand, figure that even as bad as the occupation has already proved itself to be, continuing it is only going to make it worse, and that even though immediate U.S. withdrawal would probably lead to short-term chaos and possibly to long-term tyranny, those risks are preferable to the certain failure of occupation.

Needless to say, I've been with the half-empties as long as Iraq has been on Bush's todo list, and for that matter I was a half-empty on Afghanistan as well. Thus far, all my efforts have gotten me is an awfully long list of I-told-you-sos, which doesn't show me to be prescient so much as it shows you that I have a steady sense of who not to trust. But for the purposes of this thought-experiment, let me switch sides. What I want to do below is to show you how easily Bush et al. might be able to get some sort of positive results from their Iraq debacle: something that conforms to and at least partly justifies at least some of their rhetoric.

The first thing that must be done is for the U.S. to scale its goals back to something that can realistically be achieved. Such goals have to fit two requirements: 1) they have to be things that the U.S. and whatever allies the U.S. can muster are capable of and willing to do; and 2) they have to be things that will be favorably received and embraced by the majority of the Iraqi people. Some facets of the Bush agenda clearly fail to meet these criteria. For example, the favoritism in awarding lucrative reconstruction contracts to Bush's corporate sponsors works to the detriment of virtually all Iraqis. The fantasy of privatizing Iraq's economy is only likely to benefit a tiny elite. The prospect of permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq promises to cast a long shadow over whatever form of democracy Bush has in mind or Iraq, especially given how easily Americans tend to demonize all Arabs. On the other hand, reforms which offer freedom, security, and opportunity to all Iraqis are likely to gain broad-based support among a people who have historically been denied everything.

A small subset of Bush's goals -- at least as expressed in the rhetoric of the administration -- would seem to be achievable. The easiest of these goals is to assure that Iraq does not have and is not engaged in developing Weapons of Mass Destruction. (After all, there are no such things.) The task of rounding up a short list of Saddam Hussein and his top henchmen to bring them to justice for their numerous crimes, mostly against fellow Iraqis, is also a matter that few Iraqis will dispute. Another worthwhile goal would be to prevent post-Saddam Iraq from falling into civil war, with its bloodshed and turmoil, leading to the likely prospect of another tyranny. The U.S. has made a clear verbal commitment to establishing and protecting democratic self-government in Iraq, which would certainly fail if any faction in Iraq were to resort to force to secure power -- but what faction would bother raising a militia knowing that it would have to defeat the U.S. military before it could finish subduing Iraq?

But the U.S. faces a dilemma here: it cannot stay to protect Iraqi democracy unless it can extricate itself from being the target of Iraq's anti-imperialist resistance. To do that the U.S. desperately needs two things: 1) a viable Iraqi democracy in place, which receives increasing support from the Iraqi people; and 2) enough isolation to keep U.S. troops and civilians from being viewed as occupiers and imperialists. The current U.S. program in Iraq is failing because it does neither of these things: the U.S. promises Iraqi empowerment in the future, but right now it insists on its own complete control, which leaves Iraqis as disempowered as ever. This obsession with control taints everything, making any Iraqis who collaborate with the U.S. look like puppets, in the long term promising Iraq not empowerment but government by U.S. subterfuge. To break this cycle, the U.S. must put a viable independent Iraqi government in place, and the U.S. must for almost all intents and purposes get the hell out of the way.

The first part, putting a viable independent Iraqi government together, is the hard part, but it gets easier if you think first about making it independent, then work on viable. Start with a constitution: just pick a relatively simple, straightforward one, and clean it up a bit. The U.S. occupation of Japan wrote a constitution for Japan which has proved to be reasonably successful, so that may be a good start. The constitution has to establish extensive rights for individuals which limit what the government can do -- freedom of religion, speech, assembly, equal rights, due process, etc. You need a strong, independent court system to prevent government encroachment on these rights. You should have a broad-based legislative branch, and a relatively weak executive branch -- Iraq has had too many strong men already. Such a constitution should just be written and vetted to get as much consensus as is possible as quickly as possible -- there's no need for a constitutional convention since that would just delay implementation and add controversy. Of course, it should be possible for the Iraqis to amend the constitution at any time down the line.

Under that constitution hold a quick set of elections -- no more than 30 days of campaigning, no political parties, just try to encourage the Iraqi people to elect the best candidates possible. The quicker this can be done, the better. Then turn everything over to that government, including the power to negotiate with foreign governments, the United Nations, and NGOs for whatever assistance might be forthcoming. Most importantly, at least from the U.S.'s standpoint, the new government gets complete control over the security problem. This is a gamble -- in particular, we're gambling that the real cause of armed resistance in Iraq is the U.S. itself, as opposed to Iraq's own famous factionalism. But if the resistance has proven anything thus far it is that the U.S. is not competent to quell it. A makeshift Iraqi government might seem even less competent, but there is a real chance that resistance will simply fade when it no longer has the U.S. to rally against. The key to making this work, of course, is to convince the Iraqi people that the new government is their government, a reflection of their will and interest, completely independent from U.S. direction and domination.

This does not mean that the U.S. has to pack up and leave right away. It merely means that the U.S. has to let Iraq call the shots, and has to get out of the way. The latter is simple enough: move the U.S. forces to a handful of isolated, defensible military bases, and keep them out of sight and harm's way. The U.S. can still pursue its unfinished business -- cleaning up the WMD controversy, tracking down its short list of war criminals -- provided it can do so discreetly, with all due respect to the new Iraqi government. More importantly, keeping a U.S. military presence provides a check limit on potential escalation of civil conflict in Iraq. This is, in fact, what the U.S. actually is competent at: blowing to hell anything that looks like an enemy militia. It is almost axiomatic that terrorists cannot conquer anything -- all they can do is to disrupt, sow fear, wreak havoc, but it takes a significant militia to conquer and occupy any area. Continued U.S. presence cannot protect a democratic Iraq against acts of terrorism -- that has to be done through dilligent policework and through popular appeal, which is something that the Iraqis should be far better at than the U.S. can ever be -- but the U.S. can prevent a democratic Iraq from descending into factional civil war by presenting an overwhelming deterrent force against any faction who might think of civil war as an option. Iraqi democracy can survive as long as no independent militias are allowed to form and as long as no inside strongman can take control of the government.

Needless to say, the U.S. will need far fewer troops in Iraq once there is a functioning Iraqi democracy, and once the U.S. is out of the security hot seat. That in turn starts to significantly reduce the cost of being there, both politically and financially. The down side -- if you're so inclined -- is that the U.S. has to give up its delusions, its pork barrel favoritism to U.S. corporations, and whatever designs it has on Iraq's vast oil reserves. Most importantly, it has to give up Bush's cherished War on Terrorism -- the idea that the world (or at least the U.S., which is the same thing in some minds) can be made safe from the acts of terrorists by waging war. As we can clearly see in Iraq, war is much too crude and much too unjust a tool to grapple with terrorists who dwell in the interstices of civil society. (Or we can look at Palestine, which differs from Iraq in that Israel has no illusions of itself as a benefactor to the Palestinian people, yet despite using every method of repression short of genocide has only managed to make its resistance more tenacious and treacherous.)

The third step in this plan is to write off all of Iraq's debts and reparations. If this isn't done, Iraqis will spend decades stewing in penury, adding to their resentment and sense of injustice. If this isn't done, the new government will be subservient not to its people but to Saddam's creditors, and the U.S. forces stationed nearby will be seen not as protecting Iraq's democracy but as protecting Saddam's creditors. Do this, and the Iraqi people and their fledgling democracy get a fresh start and a fair shake. And make new credit available, on reasonable terms. Iraq's oil reserves do not in and of themselves guarantee the Iraqi people a prosperous future, but they are assets, making much easier for Iraq to finance its own reconstruction -- one which the Iraqi people can control for themselves. A quick glance at the history of Germany should convince anyone of this point: compare what happened after the two World Wars, the first ending with a Germany saddled with huge reparations, the second ending with no reparations and reconstruction financing available through the Marshall Plan. (As for the U.S. actually paying reparations to Iraq for what we broke, dream on. The U.S. is such a debtor state now that it can't really afford the bombs that it used to wreck Iraq, much less the tab to put it all back together again.)

In some ways what I've proposed thus far resembles what the U.S. says it plans on doing: the big difference is the timetable, and the degree of independence permitted to Iraq's future democracy. The up side here is that this approach lets the U.S. disengage while saving face. Bush can tout this as a success: an Iraq free of WMD, free of Saddam and his thugs, well on its path to a modern, peaceable, maybe even prosperous democracy, one that could conceivably be seen as a model and hope for the Arab world and beyond. It's also worth noting that I've said nothing about the United Nations here -- this is really just about the U.S. and Iraq. If Iraq wants the U.N. to get involved, that's their business, but the fact is that the U.N.'s long history in Iraq exposes it as a transparent tool for the U.S., which is precisely what makes it an ineffective alternative to the U.S. But this also cuts Bush a little rhetorical slack: he can argue that the U.N. has long failed to resolve the Iraq problem, and that this failure has had tragic consequences for the people of Iraq. (But don't expect him to point out that the U.N.'s greatest failure here has been its inability to stand up to the U.S.) If the U.S. does what I propose, and if it works anywhere near reasonable expectations, Bush can shamelessly claim to have defused a longstanding threat to the peace and security of the world, and to have delivered freedom from tyranny to the Iraqi people. Given the mess that he's blundered into that's about as rosy an outcome as anyone could hope for.

Of course, I don't expect Bush to do anything of the sort. I don't have a real explanation why, in large part because I've never understood just what the real reason was why Bush led the U.S. into Iraq in the first place. It's hard, for instance, to give much creedance to WMD, the evil Saddam, or the thrill of establishing democracy in Iraq, becuase those reasons have been plied so cynically, but if/when Bush fails to do what I've proposed above, you can definitively cross those reasons off the list. It's also unlikely that he's so hard up for terrorists to war against that he had to invade and occupy a country which already had plenty of reasons to hate us. If the idea is to project American power, to remind the world not to mess with the World's Only Superpower, it runs a real risk of exposing that Superpower as deeply flawed, foolish, and ultimately self-defeating. And if it really does have something to do with all that oil underfoot, well, that's just too silly to dignify. For all I know, maybe Bush's been boning up on his "end of times" theology, and he decided that invading Iraq would help advance God's Plan. If doing this for oil is silly, I'd have to say that promoting the "end of times" is downright bonkers, but then look at the rest of what his administration is up to and try to calculate how much future Bush expects us to have.

More likely, though, Bush won't do it because he figures that if he could lie his way into the war, he can lie his way out of it. He's staked his political reputation on being tough and aggressive against "evil-doers" -- in effect he's all stick, no carrot, and he (or his advisors) think that plays best with the voters in the U.S. He's afraid that backing down in Iraq would make him seem weak. It might even be taken as signifying that he realizes that he made a huge, stupid blunder -- one that has thus far cost hundreds of American lives and billions of American dollars. And, let's face it, it's not like he can point to successes in anything else he's done as President. So he's hemmed in, by his own mendacity; by his corrupt, self-serving advisors and sponsors; by his narrow, self-important worldview. In other words, by things that would work against this proposal even if he were to belatedly move in this direction. In order for the U.S. to successfully extricate itself from Iraq, it is important not only that the U.S. let the Iraqi people take control of their own government, that the U.S. forces move to the sidelines and out of the way, it would also be a big help to admit that we screwed up. Bush, or whoever follows him as President, should simply say so, and should go further and clean house of his subordinates most responsible for this fiasco: the list starts with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell, and goes on and on. And he should also take a look in the mirror: if George W. Bush has an ounce of patriotism in him, the best thing he could do for the country right now is take the fall for screwing up, and resign. That won't make a believer out of me, but it might help cut America some slack in Iraq, and elsewhere.

For those of us who are not in a position to influence U.S. policy -- which includes virtually everyone in the U.S. -- there is an element of fantasy to plans like this one. But there is also little reason to worry about salvaging the good reputation of the U.S. leaders. So I'd just as soon see a simpler plan: just have the U.S. pack up and leave. While the simpler plan might lead to at bit more chaos, in the short term anyhow, I doubt that the long term would work out any different. WMD is clearly a false issue in Iraq. And even if the U.S. forces were to unceremoniously slip out of the country, I really doubt that Saddam Hussein will be making public appearances any time soon. The one good thing that the U.S. has accomplished in Iraq was to topple Sadam Hussein from his pedestal, and there's obviously very little sentiment for bringing him back. (Much as there's very little sentiment in Iraq for subjugating themselves to U.S. neocolonialism.) I also believe that in the absence of foreign interference Iraqis will plot their own path embracing democracy, otherwise they would consign themselves to the further tyranny of clique of one minority over all the others. Democracy is a simple system for compromising on power rather than risk tyranny, and has generally resulted in stable political systems where all parties benefit. Iraq has plenty of people who know and understand this concept. What Iraq has long lacked has been the chance for its people to assert democracy, and this has mostly been because foreign powers have perverted the political system. That so many Iraqis fear as much from the U.S. strikes me, at least, as quite percpetive. After all, even in America George W. Bush doesn't make much of a poster boy for liberal democracy, for freedom, for equality, for opportunity, for all those things that we used to think of as the American Way of Life.


Send the above to a writer/publisher with the following note:

Partly in response to your RFC on immediate US withdrawal from Iraq, I jotted down the piece below. This is one of those thought-experiments -- take a hypothesis (like what if Bush had any brains) and see how far you can run with it. It's not as sharp as I would like, but that's basically because it turns over several rocks without sorting out everything that crawls out underneath. In particular, I think one can argue from such an experiment that any reason for going to war that could be salvaged by the sort of withdrawal tactics that I suggest isn't one of the real reasons Bush went to war. (Of course, other conclusions are possible, including that Bush has grits for brains.) Of course, there is much more that could be written about. In particular, I don't think that what we're seeing in Iraq right now is anywhere near the worst case scenario that is possible and, given the way the administration plays this, probable. The most obvious point is that the Shias don't want an US occupation any more than the Sunnis, but for now they have the luxury of playing a waiting game -- let the Sunnis shoot and get shot at, wearing the US down. But they can't afford to let the Sunnis get too successful; at some point they have to weigh in to preserve their own credibility. Same thing is no doubt true with the Kurds, too. If we assume that the US cannot suppress the Sunni rebels, and I don't see how they can -- they simply don't have the competency, let alone the resources -- the Shias and Kurds have to join in and turn against the US. Another recent twist is your reports of how the US is seeking to remake Iraq in the image of Texas, which resonates powerfully with recent critiques of Bush policy in the US (e.g., Molly Ivins). All through the Taliban and Saddam Hussein adventures, Bush enjoyed the luxury of attacking people who his opponents here couldn't stand, but now that the operative power in Iraq is the same Bush as here, it is possible that a small faction here will start to find common cause with violent anti-US resistance in Iraq, and a smaller faction of them might opt to give Bush a present in the form of terrorist actions here. As in Iraq, it wouldn't take much to get real ugly.


Oct 2003 Dec 2003