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Friday, March 26, 2004

Music: Initial count 9042 rated (+34), 896 unrated (-20). Another week of more cleaning up than writing, mostly because I have been trying to concentrate on web development projects. First time the unrated list has dropped below 900 in quite a while -- probably since Wherehouse went bankrupt and the local stores dumped their inventory (still have some things I bought then that I haven't got around to playing yet). Web projects are in super crisis mode right now, so I'm not sure when I'll get back to writing, music or otherwise. Finished reading Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire, and I need to say a few things about that. Also want to talk a bit about Richard Clarke -- much present these days, although I seriously doubt that I'll bother reading his book. Also two major events in the news, both ominous. Israel has been aiming at Sheikh Yassin for a while now, so their assassination of him isn't really new policy, but its fact is an escalation that just adds to the fervor against peace -- on both sides. Moreover, Bush's failure to criticize Sharon in this case just goes to remind the world that he is not a solution, just part of the problem. (Of course he couldn't criticize; he's too jealous.) The other is Al Qaeda's counteroffensive in Pakistan, campaigning for revolt to overthrow Musharaf. In both cases the worst has yet to happen. But meanwhile, back to music. (As usual, each Sunday I pull the unfinished notes from the previous week forward. The last few weeks I've been commenting them out when I post them, but since I'm using more comments inside the notes, it's more awkward to do that from now on. So we'll try starting off with the unfinished notes here. Come back next week, and maybe they'll be done.)

  • The Beatles: Let It Be . . . Naked (1970 [2003], Apple/Capitol). Stripped of its Phil Spector overproduction, and why not? -- Spector was a has-been even then. Still, the significance of the difference is mostly lost on me. While everything that the lads recorded up through Sgt. Pepper at least, maybe even through Abbey Road, is so deeply etched in my mind that listening has become redundant, this swansong I've never payed much attention to. Sure, I know "Get Back" and "The Long and Winding Road" and "Don't Let Me Down" and "Across the Universe" and "Let It Be," but the other songs barely sound familiar. "Two of Us" maybe -- not bad. But "I've Got a Feeling" has got to be in the running for the worst Beatles song ever. Probably better this way, which means that the old version of the album, with its gunky strings, was even worse than we thought. Stripped down like this, it feels like a retro move. Not sure what the breakdown is on who did what, but this one feels mostly like Paul. John cut a solo album within a year that he must have been hoarding songs for; Paul could have used a few of these on his solo album. B+
  • Danger Mouse Presents: The Grey Album (2004, bootleg). EMI sued to keep this bootleg off the market, but it's been reviewed all over the major media anyway (Entertainment Weekly proclaimed it "a startlingly, shockingly wonderful piece of pop art"). EMI's legal interest is the music that Danger Mouse set Jay-Z's Black Album raps to has been clipped from the Beatles' "white album": black mixed with white gives us grey, get it? Actually, Jay-Z has more to fret about here than EMI does -- nobody will take this as a substitute for The Beatles, but this is a straight alternative to his legit album. But then the Beatles are the most jealously guarded recorded music in the industry. Obviously, it's not sacrilege to muck with their music, as EMI did with Let It Be, but it's a matter of turf. Whether you ever see this in a store depends on the lawyers and bean counters. But while the chop job on the music is rather interesting, it's merely cute that he's using the Beatles for the backdrop. It could just as well be something else, and it could be better. B+
  • Charles Lloyd: Notes From Big Sur (1991 [1992], ECM). Quartet, with Bobo Stenson (piano), Anders Jormin (bass), Ralph Peterson (drums). Lloyd was a prominent player from 1964 up to roughly 1974, recording with Columbia, Atlantic, and A&M, but then mostly dropped from sight until ECM picked him up in 1989. This was his second ECM album, and there's been half-a-dozen or more since then -- including the wonderful Voice in the Night. This one, however, is so low key it's hard to get any grip on it. Thoughtful, pretty, some good piano by Stenson. B
  • Randy Sandke: The Chase (1994 [1995], Concord). This starts off with a startling boppish burst, and throughout seems to be a lot more modern than one expects from Sandke. The band here includes Ray Anderson and Chris Potter, which is part of the reason. The guests include Michael Brecker, another modernist, and Scott Robinson, who's not. The whole thing has that glitzy feel that I've come to associate with Potter -- more brass just adds to the metallic aftertaste of the sacharine. B-
  • Randy Sandke: Calling All Cats (1995 [1996], Concord). A more typical set from Sandke. The band is similar in size to The Chase, but the hot dogs are gone, so even though there's still a lot of horns -- Scott Robinson (three saxes), Joel Helleny (trombone), Chuck Wilson (alto sax on 4 tracks), Gary Keller (tenor sax on the same 4 tracks) -- it gives Sandke more room to play his trumpet (plus one track of piano and another of guitar, although the tasty guitar belongs to Howard Alden). Nice, relaxed record, with lots of trumpet. B+
  • Sun Ra: Sun Song (1956 [1990], Delmark). Evidently this was Sun Ra's first album. Not sure who all the musicians are, but the booklet includes pictures of John Gilmore and Julian Priester. The music here seems mostly rooted in big band swing, but it already he was already on a distinct tangent. While the band voicings came out of the big band era, and Ra's piano had a bit of stride in it, both were slightly off in unprecedented ways. Whereas Gillespie and Parker pushed big band swing into the modern age by fetishizing the soloists, making the band just a platform for high speed improvisation, Ra gets a similar modernist effect by pushing the group ever further out. Pioneering music here, a bit crude and haphazard, but on its way. A-
  • Sun Ra: Sound Sun Pleasure (1953-60 [1991], Evidence). The second half here comes from Sun Ra's earliest (1953-55) recordings, collected and released on the LP Deep Purple in 1973. The first half was issued under the present title from recordings made in 1958-60. The music is typical of Ra's early period -- big band swing with its consciousness raised to some far corner of the universe. "Enlightenment," with its astonishing Cuban trumpet crescendo, is reprised from Jazz in Silhouette, probably the best thing Ra did in the period (or maybe ever). The opening "'Round Midnight" is better than most, but Monk's most famous song always leaves me wondering what people hear in it. While the music here is superb, the vocals (Hatty Randolph, Clyde Williams) are barely amateur (especially Randolph) -- they're tolerable only because they're so corny. B+
  • Sun-Ra and His Astro-Infinity Arkestra: Atlantis (1967-69 [1993], Evidence). No guitar is credited, so it must be Ra's Hohner Clavinet that eeks out a first track that sounds like something Derek Bailey ought to have done. The second track is more of the same, the guitar suggestion less pronounced, with slight percussion and some John Gilmore comping along with the oddball rhythm. This is all interesting enough, except for the long title cut, where Ra switches to "Solar Sound Organ (Gibson Kalamazoo organ)" and things get ugly. The piece threatens to turn into one of those endless mind-numbing space extravaganzas that Pink Floyd fell back into during their rudderless post-Barrett period. It's better than that, and also (if this matters) was done half-a-decade earlier. B
  • Sun Ra: Greatest Hits: Easy Listening for Intergalactic Travel (1956-73 [2000], Evidence). The title, of course, is a joke -- maybe several jokes. Although Ra cut a couple dozen singles, and even more albums, most were released in editions of 500 or so, and were sold mostly by the band at concerts. It's likely that no one has ever recorded more while staying further away from a hit. Nor was this really a problem with distribution: while most of this music is very listenable, none of it hooks like a hit. Still, this is a fairly painless introduction to one of the geniuses of modern jazz. And with 18 pieces, the longest at 7:10 and most in the 3-4 minute range, it moves along quite nicely. A-

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Demonstrations yesterday marked the first anniversary of the Bush War in Iraq. Many observers and pundits have marked this anniversary by trying to sum up what the war has accomplished or wrought. This is, of course, difficult to do, not least of all because the war is nowhere near over, but also because we have so little reliable information about what has happened, or why. We are still deluged with spin: the hawks are as hawkish as ever, the doves are as dovish as ever, and an awful lot of what has happened can be taken to vindicate whatever predispositions you have. That's certainly true from where I peer out at the world. And you've no doubt already heard what Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer and Richard Perle and their ilk are saying about the subject.

A year ago I wrote quite a bit on the onset of the war. That's still posted in this notebook, so it's public record. Looking back I don't see much I'd be tempted to revise, but the following stands out (from 18-March-2003):

As I write this, we cannot even remotely predict how this war will play out, how many people will die or have their lives tragically transfigured, how much property will be destroyed, how much damage will be done to the environment, what the long-term effects of this war will be on the economy and the civilization, both regionally and throughout the world. In lauching his war, Bush is marching blithely into the unknown, and dragging the world with him.

We have some answers to those questions now, but even though we can cite precise figures for Americans sacrificed and much rougher figures for Iraqis, the only thing that we can really be sure of is that today's figures will be short tomorrow. The fact is that Bush is still marching blithely into the unknown, and he's dragging us with him. I don't have anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the state of the war and its impact on the world today. But I will jot down a few quick observations:

  1. However bad what's happened is, it comes up far short of the worst case projections. This doesn't mean that the war isn't so bad; it just means that it could have been a lot worse. And it doesn't mean that the people who worried about worst case scenarios were misguided; it mostly means that the perpetrators of this war have had some good luck. Iraq's total lack of WMD has proven embarrassing for the war planners, but it would have been worse had they actually existed and been used, and especially had they been redeployed through international terrorist networks -- the danger being not merely the damage that WMD can do, but also the inevitable escalation of retaliation. Iraq was in fact completely incapable of extending the war outside its own borders, so the scenario where Iraq might try to recast the war by lobbing a few WMD-filled missiles at an apoplectic, nuclear-armed Israel never came close to materializing. Iraq's defense was very undisciplined, making virtually no use of sabotage to amplify the damage attributable to the invaders or to deny them resources. The post-occupation resistance has also been less extensive and less popular than it might have been, while more Iraqis than might have been expected have been supportive or at least tolerant of US occupation. (This observation is relative to expectations: the proposition that the US liberators would be welcomed with flowers was at least as far off base, and while the resistance could have been much worse, it's thus far been sufficient to isolate and destabilize the occupation.) About the only thing that did follow a worst case scenario was the post-liberation looting, which severly tarnished the US occupation from the very start. The main reason that things didn't turn out worse than they did is that Saddam Hussein's regime has proven to be much weaker and much more inept than anyone expected.

  2. It appears likely that the standard of living of many of the Iraqi may have improved slightly over pre-invasion, at least as measured by consumer goods spending. (How much improvement, for how many people, is an open question.) This is primarily attributable to the ending of the sanctions imposed on Iraq. Other pluses are the elimination of taxes effectively imposed by Saddam Hussein's regime, and an influx of money for reconstruction, but these are more than offset by the destruction of the war itself (which continues) and massive unemployment. It goes without saying (and in fact I've never heard this said) that a greater improvement in the Iraqi standard of living would have occurred simply by relaxing the sanctions while leaving Saddam Hussein in power. So this doesn't amount to a very good reason for going to war.

  3. It is clear now that the US/UK case for going to war against Iraq was founded on little more than arrogance and ignorance, and presented as nothing more than a blatant list of lies. It is clear that this happened because the US/UK had decided on a course of war for other reasons, and that they single-mindedly marshalled their case to support their predispositions. Especially revealing here is the Bush administration's unwillingness to credit the UN WMD inspections process or to consider any of the efforts to resolve the crisis diplomatically. (It is less clear what those other reasons were, in large part because the suppositions make so little sense. I'm almost inclined to think that the real reason is that the US likes instability and poverty in the region, which are the main things that this war has accomplished -- although it's still more credible to believe that the Bush administration is simply run by evil idiots.)

  4. The US occupation of Iraq has been remarkably incompetent. Planning for the occupation was somewhere between non-existent and delusional. The initial chaos that allowed extensive looting shattered any prospect that the US might be powerful enough to conduct an orderly transformation of Iraq's political economy. For political reasons, the US also chose not to do the obvious thing, which was to keep existing Iraqi governmental agencies intact and rule through them. Abolishing the army and police forces fed the resistance, while belatedly forcing the US to reconstruct its own Iraqi army and police forces. The resistance itself soon attained a sufficient level of activity to force the US occupiers to hide behind their security barricades, disconnecting from the people they allegedly came to liberate. By failing to hold elections, the US never made an effort to establish a legitimate Iraqi political presence. (Presumably this was because they realized that such a political body would soon ask them to leave.)

  5. I suspect that if you go back and look at the figures, you'll find that there have been more significant terrorism events outside of Iraq in the past year (especially the past six months) than in the year before the Iraq invasion. It is at least arguable that US preoccupation with Iraq has allowed Al Qaeda to regroup. It also seems likely that the US invasion of Iraq has been a boon to Jihadist recruiting. And this is just looking at events outside of Iraq. Obviously, the amount of terror in Iraq has increased substantially. It's not clear how much of that is attributable to non-Iraqi Arabs flocking to the new opportunity to kill Americans on home turf. Nowadays Bush administration mouthpieces usually defend the invasion and occupation of Iraq as the "front line in the war against terrorism." They created a "front line" where none existed before, and what they've created is totally additional to what exists elsewhere.

  6. It is arguable that Bush's eagerness to savage Iraq over suspected WMD proliferation has contributed to diplomatic agreements with Libya and Iran to dismantle their nuclear weapons programs. It's also possible that diplomatic efforts that didn't involve the threat of invasion may have had the same effect. No such deal has been forthcoming with North Korea, perhaps because Bush likes to keep Japan feeling like a hostage. (Or perhaps because Bush is a dolt. One thing that is clear though is that the US military doesn't relish the prospect of invading North Korea, regardless of the Bush doctrine on preëmptive wars.)

  7. The idea that building a vibrant Iraqi Democracy would revolutionize the Middle East is still pretty much in the wings, since no such thing exists. And it's likely to stay there, given that Democracy is not one of Bush's stronger subjects. The idea that US military success in Iraq will embolden us to tackle terrorist-friendly rogue states like Syria and Iran is also in the wings, since even with Saddam Hussein's evident decrepitude the US military has already bit off more than it can chew.

  8. The prewar powwow in the Azores between the US, UK, and Spain, where they made their joint declaration against Iraq, also promised renewed efforts at a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine along the lines of the "Road Map." Aside from some early photo-ops, this has led exactly nowhere, not least of all because the Bush administration has done exactly nothing to prod Sharon toward a settlement.

  9. Although the polls offer somewhat confused and contradictory data, overall the Iraq War has not played well in the US politically. Despite constant media trumpeting of administration story lines and "feel good" stories, most Americans seem to feel that something is fundamentally wrong with this war. The WMD issue has become fair game, and it clearly exposes how cynically the Bush administration sold this war. The body count continues to inch upward. The cost continues to climb, at a time when the economy is at best stagnant and for many people has tanked, while the deficit mushrooms. The elections in Spain have defied the common assumption that terror attacks = right-wing victories, but one reason for that is that so many people see Iraq as a totally separate issue from Al Qaeda-style terrorism. The one political bump that Bush got was from the capture of Saddam Hussein, but that's old news now. At this point even the Bush administration seems to want to shift the focus back to Afghanistan and Al Qaeda to get away from Iraq, hoping no doubt that they can pull Osama Bin Laden out of a hat just in time for the election. To which, I'm sure, Kerry will respond, "What took you so long? Could it have been Iraq?"

  10. Conversely to the first point, almost nothing that has happened in Iraq during the past year has happened according to the plans of the perpetrators of the war. It is not unusual for people to guess wrong about the future, but it is rare for so many people to be so totally off base. The principals in the Bush administration cling to a set of assumptions -- above all the invincibility and rectitude of American power -- that are simply invalid, and consequently they find themselves constantly struggling against the real trends in the world today. Not least of which is that few people outside of the US's imperial theorists have much taste these days for war as a method of resolving conflicts. (Even within the US military the prospect of getting shot at seems to be more than most people think they've signed up for.)

Still, one year is a short time, and only a tiny percentage of all of the ultimate consequences of Bush's wars have emerged. Just to take one example, in the 1990 Iraq war far fewer US soldiers were killed than this year, but the set of longer term illnesses and maladies that ultimately afflicted US soldiers in that war has now taken its toll on something in excess of 20%, and we've also seen huge increases in the cancer rate among Iraqis. We have no comparable data on that now, but the same depleted uranium munitions were used this time, and as the years go by we will be hearing more and more about such things. For another example, we now know that most of the fighters for the Taliban, which we now hate so much, started off as young children in refugee camps that were created as a result of our proxy war against the Soviet Union, which ravaged Afghanistan for ten years, and continued for thirteen more before we jumped back in and are still fighting there. We have no idea now what will eventually happen to the children of the US occupation in Iraq, but the likelihood that some will come back to haunt us sooner or later is fairly strong.

Given all that the US has done in the Islamic world, the thing that I find most remarkable is that there is so little anti-US activism (as opposed to sentiment or mere opinion). There are, I'm sure, lots of reasons for that, not least of which is that Jihadism isn't a very attractive use of one's life. Any political movement that depends on its adherents being willing to undertake suicide missions is bound to burn itself out, unless by some colossal act of stupidity some force continuously drives more and more people to extreme desperation. We've seen that especially with Israel, and it's clear that the US is doing the same thing in Iraq.

But, and again we can look to Israel for plentiful examples, what we do in Iraq also affects who we are in the US. We are now a country so drunk with our own power that we have become insensitive to how we lash out and hurt others. And this will become worse before it can possibly become better, in large part because Bush is now facing an increasingly desperate political campaign to gain a second term despite the cauldron of lies and cruelties that his administration has brewed. He will pursue this with the largest advertising budget ever assembled for a political election, and more dangerously he will pursue it with the full power of the US Presidency -- with his ability to take action and create news. Moreover, he has a near-fanatic cadre of supporters, who have established that they have little respect for the freedom or rights or others, or for democracy in general, and they will only become more militant as this election unfolds. So, of course, will his opponents. This promises to be the most divisive election in the US since 1860. There's much more at stake, of course, but the wedge that drives this division is Iraq. And it raises a question which still isn't really part of the political dialogue in America, which is whether we are really capable of being a benevolent superpower -- indeed, of whether we are really benevolent, or even a superpower. I think that the answer to that is obvious. What's not clear is when, and how, the day of reckoning comes.


Music: Initial count 9008 rated (+42), 916 unrated (-6). Probably knocked off more records last week than any other week ever, partly because I shifted items that I had already thought about, partly because I made snap judgments to move items from one shelf set to another. I described the shelving reorganization in an earlier entry. One thing I didn't do last week was to work on anything that I actually needed to write about for the reissue columns, so it's time to do just that. Note that the rated list topped 9000 records this past week. This is up almost 1000 from this time last year (23-Mar-2003 rated count was 8067, so the actual number is +941 for 364 days). I don't know whether to be impressed with this number or just accept it as an exercise in foolishness. In the same year it is safe to say that the world has released another 40,000 titles, so any hope of catching up is plainly absurd. Even assuming that most are disposable crap, this looks like a losing game.

By the way, as of this week I've started another convention in trying to refine these weekly installments. Sometimes in the past I would descend into extreme notebook mode and just jot down a list of songs with cryptic song-by-song notes -- a very stream-of-consciousness thing which when formatted becomes unreadable. Such notes are really intended for me only, and look like gibberish on your browser. Still, it's useful for me to keep such notes in these files (where else?), so what I've started to do is to bury them inside HTML comments. If you're really nosey you can use the "View Source" option on your browser to look at them, much like the way I look at them. But rest assured that if I'm not showing you anything, it's probably because it's not worth looking at.

  • Albert Ayler: Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe (1969 [2003], Verve/Impulse). This is a weird one, but it also fits loosely with a trend which would include Eddie Gale's Blue Note albums (recently reissued on Water -- more on them soon) and such Archie Shepp work as Attica Blues and The Cry of My People. All five of these albums came out between 1968-72, which was a tumultuous period especially in Afroamerican history -- strongly reflected in black pop, which at the time became much more sharply political (cf. There's a Riot Goin' On, What's Going On, many others in the pop arena, and of course the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, etc. -- Trikont's Black & Proud comps tune in on that). The avant-garde move that dominated early '60s jazz had also largely played itself out, with the deaths of Dolphy and Coltrane looming especially large. Albert Ayler was a huge force in the avant-garde, and would himself die mysteriously a year after this session (apparently his last; outtakes from this session were released as Last Album). All six song credits (one with co-credits to two band members, not Ayler) belong to Mary Parks, who also sings three songs under the name Mary Maria, including the gospel-based title cut, and a riff on "you're gonna reap what you sow" called "Island Harvest," done in a Brit (Scotch?) accent. Ayler has a vocal too. The closing instrumental, "Drudgery," is a gutbucket jump blues kicked off by electric bass and guitar, with pianist Bobby Few in boogie woogie mode. I really love the piece: I've always been a sucker for honking, and let's face it, no one from Illinois Jacquet to Red Holloway ever sounded half as nasty as Ayler. The other instrumental finds Ayler switching to bagpipes, which he plays with the same passionate primitivism he always brought to tenor sax. B+
  • Brother Ali: Shadows on the Sun (2003, Rhymesayers Entertainment). [No time to write now, but a good, sincere, smart rap album. Dude's a muslim, so his intro account of the decay of the ghetto is a bit received.] A-
  • Clifford Brown With Strings (1955 [1997], Emarcy). The strings are yucky, of course. (Although you could do worse than Neil Hefti.) The trumpet is magnificent, also of course. Sentimentalists love this record, and it's hard to begrudge them. Myself, I find it soporific. B+
  • Abraham Burton: Closest to the Sun (1994, Enja). Wow! Burton is a very young (22 or 23 when this, his first album, was cut) alto saxophonist with a vibrant sound and extraordinary dynamics. He studied under Jackie McLean, and it shows. This quartet (Marc Cary, piano; Billy Johnson, bass; Eric McPherson, drums) album has some rough edges, but Burton is so rich and tuneful and vigorous that it's undeniable. The follow-up (see below) is even better, but this is one of the most impressive debuts of the '90s. A-
  • Abraham Burton: The Magician (1995, Enja). Same quartet as last time: I'm particularly impressed by Marc Cary (piano), but Billy Johnson (bass) and Eric McPherson (drums) do no wrong either. Burton is in extraordinary form here. He has a fine touch on ballads, and he can really let it rip. "Gnossienne #1" is just bursting with intense energy. I bought these two CDs through a cutout vendor, and as far as I know he only has one more since 1995. Not many sideman dates either, although I greatly admire at least two: Dusko Goykovich: Bebop City (1995, Enja), and Horace Tapscott, Aiee! The Phantom (1995, Arabesque). A
  • Bill Charlap Trio: Written in the Stars (2000, Blue Note). With Peter Washington (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums). This is mainstream stuff -- standards by Porter, Mercer, Arlen, Berlin, Rodgers/Hart, Loesser -- nothing adventurous, nothing postmodern, nothing deconstructed. But Charlap is a dreamboat pianist, bringing a deft touch and elegant precision to these pieces. The Washingtons add a lot too, particularly Peter's bass. A-
  • Miles Davis at Newport 1958 (1958 [2001], Columbia/Legacy). The group is the same that cut Kind of Blue in 1959, but the sound is more akin to 1958's Milestones -- the changes being that Bill Evans replaced Red Garland, and Jimmy Cobb replaced Philly Joe Jones. Kind of Blue marked the discovery of modal improvisations, which became a Coltrane signature, and launched him into a second and far more notable phase of his career. Milestones, on the other hand, was one of Davis' most boppish sets. Many regard it as a major work, but the last time I played it was near the height of my anti-bop phase, and I pegged it at B+. That's no doubt something to revisit one of these days. But this live date sounds more like how I remember Milestones. The bop heritage is obvious as the first piece is Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha," followed by Monk's "Straight, No Chaser." While the former is obviously Parker's work, the latter is less evidently Monk's. A Davis piece, "Fran-Dance," follows, starting with a trumpet theme over a more relaxed beat, followed by a particularly lucid Coltrane solo. It's the best thing here, but the next cut is a Dizzy Gillespie credit, and we're back to the races. Still, I think that the problem here isn't the horns -- Davis and Coltrane grew up on this shit, even if they were never all that good at it. Rather, it's the drummer, whose banging rarely hits the beat. "Bye Bye Blackbird" gives Davis and especially Coltrane a better chance to improvise, and Evans takes an interesting but more subdued solo. A Davis-composed "Theme" follows, short and hard to distinugish. The entire set weighs in just over 40 minutes, including introductions. Davis cut some great records around this time, but this is a mixed bag at best. B
  • Duke Ellington: Masterpieces by Ellington (1950-51 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Cut in 1950 at the dawn of the LP era, the core album here featured new, significantly longer takes of four of Ellington's tunes: "Mood Indigo" (AMG counts 717 versions, but their list ends in the B's; originally recorded 1930; 15:26, massively stretched out, with rich textures, clarinet features, with and without deep plunger trombone, a brief vocal, a lovely piano solo); "Sophisticated Lady" (AMG count here is 811, but song dates from 1993; starts off with a piano solo, augmented first by Harry Carney on baritone, in terms of pace and texture continues from the previous piece, a bit more brass, another vocal by Yvonne Lanauze [a bit longer this time], more piano); "The Tattooed Bride" (AMG count 19, all by Ellington, so this is the one non-standard here; debuted at the 1948 Carnegie Hall concert, but the booklet says this only date to 1950; a faster piece, with rich work from the brass section; about 3:15 in fractures into shards of piano, before the trombones pick up a swing rhythm, which the trumpets add to, then there is a tenor sax lead -- probably Gonzalves, although the booklet describes the piece as a feature for Jimmy Hamilton; the clarinet that dominates the latter third of the piece is more likely Hamilton); "Solitude" (AMG count 801, song from 1934). The three bonus cuts come from 1951 sessions, after Johnny Hodges left, taking several other band members; Ellington's replacements included Willie Smith and Louis Bellson. The three pieces are more upbeat, but with similar orchestral intensity. A-
  • Duke Ellington: Ellington Uptown (1947-52 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). The stock line on Ellington is that his career had three peaks: the 1927-29 period that produced early signature tunes like "East St. Louis Toodle-Loo," the 1939-44 period associated with Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster and witnessing the arrival of Billy Strayhorn, and the period from his 1956 triumph at Newport on to, well, if it doesn't include The Far East Suite (1966) and His Mother Called Him Bill (1967) something's seriously amiss. The '30s, especially following the death of Ellington's mother, are considered relatively fallow, and his work then is only available in French imports. That's a stretch I don't know well, mostly because of its unavailability here, but I can attest that Classics' sampler of the period, which sets mid-'30s Ellington in the midst of a lot of Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford and Chick Webb -- the great bands of the period -- and by far the best thing there is Ellington. As for Ellington's 1950-55 period, the simple explanation is the absence of Johnny Hodges, who from his arrival in 1927 up to his death in 1970 was Ellington's crown jewel. Ellington Uptown was cut without Hodges' services, and of course he is missed. But it was also cut against the backdrop of the bebop revolution which threatened to make swing obsolete, and against a shift in Ellington's interests toward longer pieces. By the late '40s the world had begun to think of Ellington as America's greatest living composer, and he had begun to indulge them, moving toward longer pieces -- his suites. One of those, "The Liberian Suite," was cut in 1947 and has been tacked onto this album. It's built in six pieces, runs 24:42, and includes Hodges in the orchestra. More about it later. Ellington Uptown itself includes "A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Harlem Suite)" (13:47), one of the richest and most complex pieces that Ellington ever wrote. Hodges' alto saxophone role was filled by Willie Smith, a major voice on the instrument (he was in Jimmie Lunceford's crack orchestra, and later distinguished himself with Harry James), but Ellington avoided him somewhat, giving choice parts to the clarinets (Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, with Harry Carney on bass clarinet), and enveloping the piece in resonant layers of brass. The piece weaves many motifs into a complex tapestry, shifting and turning from one to another in a way that's difficult to follow. As if to compensate for all this complexity, Ellington wrapped the suite up with three of his most famous/most accessible pieces: "The Mooche," "Perdido," and "Take the A Train." But the three pieces were performed with exceptional vigor, as if to compensate for the loss of the sublime Hodges with an extra charge of energy. Much of that energy came from Ellington's new drummer, Louis Bellson, who puts a Krupa-esque charge especially into "Perdido." Betty Roche's bebop-influenced, almost vocalese attack on "Take the A Train" is another stab at keeping with the times. And the other piece, Bellson's "Skin Deep," is a tour de force by the drummer. But for this reissue Legacy has steered the package toward more suites. "The Controversial Suite" had been included in the 1991 reissue: the first movement, "Before My Time," is one of the most joyful things that Ellington ever composed; the second, "Later," is harder worn, with rich brass voicings. A short but wonderful set. But the major addition to this reissue is "The Liberian Suite." It starts with a song called "I Like the Sunrise," with a stately but firm vocal by Al Hibbler, then moves through five numbered "Dance" sequences. A
  • Duke Ellington: Festival Session (1959 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). The album is still trying to cash in on Ellington's 1956 Newport triumph. Starts with a take on "Perdido" -- one of his classic jam session riff pieces, which doesn't develop much here. More successful is "Copout Extension," which features an extended tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves, with Sam Woodyard on drums like at Newport, but with the brass kicking in every now and then to shout "amen." Next comes two three-part pieces. The first, "Duael Fuel," is built around two drummers (Woodyard and Jimmy Johnson). This is a minor piece in Ellington's discography, but it's hard not to be awestruck anyway. A-
  • The Ex & Guests: Instant (1995, Ex, 2CD). Got this from the library, which means that I'm not going to be able to spend as much time with it as I'd like, but as I write this it's on its second play, and that's not likely to be the last. The Ex is a Dutch rock group going back to 1980 (at least), led by guitarist Terrie Ex. The guests include saxophonist Ab Baars and Han Bennink, who hits things -- Bennink's percussion so frequently strays away from his kit that it's pointless to call him a drummer any more. The barely legible inner packaging refers to this as "The Ex's most political record yet." Then they quote Raoul Veneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life -- shit, that's a book I haven't even thought of in over 20 years. (Wonder whether I still have it. As I recall, it was published as a special edition by Radical America -- the English translation, that is.) The blurb goes on: "Connections between a punk band and improvised music are clear then: refusal of authority, interrogation of traditionally lauded standards, investigation of creativity outside the strictures of commercial salability. Not instant coffee, not instant breakfast, not instant cash -- INSTANT INSTANTS." Then they quote Misha Mengelberg, another famous Dutch revolutionary. Each disc has 16 pieces, each very short. The two-CD set could have fit onto a single CD, but that would make it tiring, no? A few of the pieces rock, a few are aleatoric, and most are somewhere in between -- melodic fragments or sound snatches but probably not both. The guests dominate the soundscape here: there are no lyrics, not much vocalizing (some hums, that sort of thing), so the instrumental mix is basically jazz. But the aesthetic comes from a combination of punk rock and Another Green World -- it's a bit like listening to Half Japanese if Half Japanese knew some really outré jazz musicians. Still too obscure to convince the uninterested, but I'm finding this really fascinating. This group will be a project. This is just the first paydirt. A-
  • The Ex: Aural Guerrilla (1988, Fist Puppet). An earlier album, evidently before they discovered their comrades in the free jazz world. Let's call this free punk. The rhythm bangs, but sometimes it doesn't do much more. Sometimes this sounds a bit like Sonic Youth; sometimes it sounds industrial. Still, it holds together reasonably well, and hints of something far greater. The same sort of hints we once heard in early Liliput, which turn out to have paid off quite well. B+
  • Burton Greene: Burton Greene Quartet (1965, ESP). Greene is a pianist who dove straight into free jazz from his first recordings in 1964, recorded occasionally over the '70s and '80s and '90s, and seems to be making a comeback now -- he's had a couple of recent recordings on CIMP, has a new one announced by Drimala, and there's a feature article on him in Signal to Noise. His two ESP albums popped up recently at the local used store; I took this as a sign, and picked up this one -- partly because I couldn't hear the trio over the ambient noise in the store, mostly because I could hear Marion Brown here, and he sounds great. The bassist is Henry Grimes, of Ayler fame. The quartet is rounded out with a percussionist: Dave Grant on two cuts, Tom Price on the other two. (Price seems to be the official quartet member.) There's also an extra sax on the fourth cut, someone named Frank Smith. (The notes are uncommonly good here, and even they don't know who Smith is, but they've heard that he died.) Grimes gets in a very nice arco solo, but most of the action is between Brown and Greene. Been a long time since I've heard Brown, and I don't remember him being quite this far out, but he seems to be in total command, able to leap registers, slur, squawk, and shout nimbly and precisely. Greene's piano is similarly adventurous. It may be premature to rate this, given that I have a sizable chunk of Jimmy Lyons and Cecil Taylor to re-listen to, but I'm impressed. A-
  • Buck Hill: I'm Beginning to See the Light (1991, Muse). A tenor saxophonist from Washington, DC, Hill had played with Charlie Byrd and Shirley Scott in the '50s, but was past 50 before he got his own to record the first one under his own name. He cut several for Steeplechase, then four for Muse. This one was produced by Houston Person, who is a similar player. Some radiant piano here by Jon Ozment. A lot of fine, mellow, perfectly mainstream saxophone. B+
  • John Lee Hooker: The Real Folk Blues / More Real Folk Blues (1966 [2002], MCA/Chess). Back in 1965-66, Chess tried to recast its Chicago-based, electric blues catalog as "real folk blues," issuing comps by that name featuring Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim, and John Lee Hooker. All except Memphis Slim got a follow-up More Real Folk Blues album, although Hooker had to wait until 1991 for his "missing album." The Memphis Slim album is rather mediocre. The Waters-Wolf-Williamson sets are as good as any of Chess' many other exploitations of their astonishing work. The Hooker sets are the anomaly: Hooker had recorded a bit for Chess in 1950-54, but those recordings were overshadowed by his Flair recordings of the same period, and he didn't return to Chess until he knocked off these 18 cuts in 1966. There's nothing much new here -- in fact, a few songs like "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" are remade -- but the record sounds pretty great. The band is first rate, giving him more support than he typically had during the '60s. Hooker sounds as ancient as the hills, as grizzled as their bears. The more obscure second half ("the missing album") is especially strong. A-
  • Bobby Hutcherson: Mirage (1991, Landmark). Vibes, piano (Tommy Flanagan), bass (Peter Washington), drums (Billy Drummond), a book of old songs (including two by Hutcherson, one by Flanagan). This is polite and pretty, but not all that interesting. The best vibes-piano examples I can think of are cases where the vibes accents the idiosyncrasies of the pianist (think Milt Jackson with Thelonious Monk) or where they push each other to the brink (think Joe Locke with Kenny Barron). Flanagan isn't that kind of pianist, especially with bass and drums to fall back on. Hutcherson's duo album with McCoy Tyner, Manhattan Moods (1993), is closer to the mark. B
  • Susie Ibarra Trio: Radiance (1999, Hopscotch). With Charles Burnham (the violinist who succeeded Billy Bang in the String Trio of New york and lit up James Blood Ulmer's Odyssey) and Cooper-Moore (the pianist from William Parker's In Order to Survive quartet). Ibarra was the drummer during David S. Ware's peak period: not that the other three drummers were chopped liver, and not that Ware's later albums aren't easier to get into and more rewarding, but as drummers go she was the tops. The trio itself is a brilliant idea: the little heard Cooper-Moore is one of my favorite pianists, comparable I think to the late, brilliant Horace Tapscott. Ibarra's drum solos are thoughtful and dynamic. The compositions do diddle a bit, and Burnham carries most of the melodic weight, but he also gives the whole proceedings a slightly acidic tone. A-
  • Joe McPhee Po Music: Linear B (1990 [1991], Hat Art). McPhee is one of the most rigorous and inventive voices in free jazz. This is a fascinating session, mostly fractured yet here and there it comes together with elegance and/or beauty (as in the final "Voices"). McPhee dabbles with electronics, plays soprano sax, and quite a bit of flugelhorn or pocket trumpet, a nice change which works especially well given that he has two compatible reed players on hand, Urs Leimgruber and most significantly André Jaume. Two guitarists as well: Jaume's sidekick Raymond Boni and the always interesting Christy Doran; plus bass (Leon Francioli) and drums (Fritz Hauser). A-
  • New Millennium Rock 'n' Roll Party (1954-59 [2000], Rhino). The way I originally parsed the title I thought that it would be a second volume to the old or plain Millennium Rock 'n' Roll Party, but given how obvious these songs are I couldn't quite imagine what would have preceded them on a first volume. But I can't find a predecessor. How obvious are these? First five songs: "Rock Around the Clock," "At the Hop," "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "That'll Be the Day," "Lucille." Then comes the only song among the 20 here that I didn't recognize (until I heard it, how dumb was that?), Santo & Johnny's "Sleep Walk." After that it's a cakewalk: "Great Balls of Fire," "Yakety Yak," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Johnny B. Goode," "Cantilly Lace," "Splish Splash," "Be-Bop-a-Lula," "Poor Little Fool" (that's Ricky Nelson), "Ain't That a Shame," "Wake Up Little Susie," "A Teenager in Love," "Tequila," "Kansas City," "Do You Wanna Dance." By my count 12 of these 20 artists have single-artist comps that everyone should own -- Ricky Nelson is the only one of those 12 that's likely to raise any argument, and I didn't count merely good comps by Bill Haley or Bobby Darin. Sure, there's a lot that this misses -- even factoring out the artists on the matching New Millennium Doo Wop Party (the Coasters made both), there's Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Lloyd Price, Chuck Willis, and lots more groups like the 5 Royales and the Spaniels. Useful for people who don't know any of this; amusing for people who grew up on it. A
  • The Walter Norris Duo: Hues of Blues (1995, Concord). Featuring George Mraz, the bassist. Just piano and bass isn't likely to do much for me, but it's hard to find fault with either, and the least bit of attention is amply rewarded. A-
  • Liz Phair: Juvenilia (1995, Matador). Eight song EP, came out after her second album fizzled. Presumably this is earlier, mostly pre-Exile in Guyville material, but the first cut, "Jealousy," comes from Whip Smart. "Turning Japanese" sounds like she had been listening to Graham Parker. "California" does sound really juvenile -- something about "fucking cows" -- and "South Dakota" is even more so -- again, something about "fucking cows." From the third song on these are all just acoustic guitar and voice; i.e., demos. The best one, by far, is the last, "Easy." No documentation. B
  • Radiohead: Amnesiac (2001, Capitol). Two songs in and all I can think of is: what fucking bores! Seven songs in, which is "Knives Out" and the whine climbs up a notch while the music slips into lullaby land. And then it plods on. In theory I like the texture mapping, but in practice the singer annoys me, and I doubt that the words are worth sussing out. This is a big popular group -- the one major UK group that seems to have an equivalent fanbase here in the USA -- and they have a strong critical following. Such things usually mean that they have something going for them, but I haven't figured out what it is yet. B-
  • Time Peace: The Rascals' Greatest Hits (1966-68, Atlantic). Originally the Young Rascals, they got old fast. Roughly half way into a career that lasted until 1972 they got the greatest hits treatment: after three years, four albums, eight chart singles, including two #1s ("Good Lovin'," "Groovin'") and two more top-tens ("How Can I Be Sure," "A Beautiful Morning" -- the only cut here not on a previous album). That still leaves them needing six pieces of filler for this 14-cut album, and there they reach for the familiar, in other folks' hits like "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour." "Good Lovin'" was garage rock, a step short of punk. "Groovin'" was something else, their light-as-a-feather entry into the white soul arena. It's a great song, and "Lonely Too Long" (#16 in 1967) and "A Girl Like You" (#10 in 1967) are close behind -- it's easy to imagine the latter done by Brinsley Schwarz (as well) or the Beach Boys (better). Even at this stage they were starting to get arty, which hurt them more than their horn charts and Wilson Pickett moves. Better, I think, than the broader The Very Best of the Rascals, but not much. B+
  • Dewey Redman: In London (1996 [1997], Palmetto). With Cameron Brown (bass), Rita Marcotulli (piano), and Matt Wilson (drums). I remember reading a blindfold test where Joshua Redman was played a piece by Dewey Redman (possibly from this album), and immediately responded, "doesn't Dad sound great?" Sure does. In particular, he's got a Shepp-ish low register that Joshua lost long ago. B+
  • Django Reinhardt: Djangology (1949 [2002], Bluebird). A reissue of Reinhardt recordings cut in Rome in 1949 with Stephane Grappelli, Gianni Safred (piano), Carlo Pecori (bass), and Aurelio De Carolis (drums), in the resuscitated Bluebird's new style, which means that it's been stuffed up to the 75 minute mark. The booklet talks about how a "wise" RCA exec discovered these tape well after the fact and bought the masters. How long I don't know, but they've been re-released several times in the past, including the single CD Djangology 1949 and the double CD The Indispensable Django Reinhardt. While there's some nice stuff here, I've yet to find anything Reinhardt did postwar that has the bounce of his prewar work. Reinhardt died in 1953, just 43 years old. Grappelli was two years older, and survived Reinhardt by 44 years, so in a sense his career was just coming into his own. B+
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of Central America ([2001], World Music Network). More heavily Indian (Native American?) than Mexico or the Caribbean, which manifests itself in a surfeit of drums. No names that I recognize, but then the only one missing that I can think of is Ruben Blades, who hasn't been in Panama much despite the early rumors that he was aiming at the presidency there. Sorting this out is hard, especially for music this marginal. I usually get these Rough Guides out of the library, spin them a couple of times, and scratch my head. It's getting to be annoying since I rarely have any idea how well they are selected, and the mishmash of the music rarely sorts itself out in the allotted time. Plus the documentation is generally miserable, which is pathetic considering that these records are put out by a book publisher. (Part of the problem with the doc is that they insist on printing brown on green and similar crap like that.) This isn't bad. Some of it is probably interesting. But I hardly know which is which, and I'm getting to where I hardly care any more. (Maybe that would change if the publicist -- hint, hint -- would start sending me some, so I don't have to wait a year for the library to get around to them, and don't have to check them back in tout de suite.) B+
  • Saucy Calpysos ([2003], Ice). Don't know when these were cut: obviously the three Lord Kitchener cuts predate his death in 2000, and weren't recorded before his career got underway c. 1946. Mighty Sparrow and Duke also get 3 cuts each; King Fighter 2; Mighty Terror, Mighty Bomber, and Lord Canary 1 each. The music is saucy enough -- Ice has a lock on classic calypso, so even though they haven't released a Volume Two yet there's no doubt that they could -- but the double entendres take a bit too much entendre for my taste. B+
  • Mark Shim: Turbulent Flow (1999, Blue Note). Quintet with Stefon Harris (vibes), Edward Simon (piano), Drew Gress (bass), Eric Harland (drums). Seems like yet another perfectly solid outing in the post-bop, post-avant style du jour. B+
  • The Sound of Jazz (1957 [2000], Columbia/Legacy). This was originally the soundtrack to a TV show, part of a series called "The Seven Lively Arts." It tries to cover too much ground, but that only means that it could have been much longer without losing a drop of interest. Nine tracks, six or seven lineups, many configured as "all star" groups with shared musicians. There are two vocal tracks, showcases for Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rushing. Henry "Red" Allen leads a trad jazz band that includes Rex Stewart, Vic Dickenson, Pee Wee Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Nat Pierce, and Jo Jones. Count Basie swings with a group including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Harry Carney, Roy Eldridge, Dickenson, Jones, and Freddie Green, with Rushing on one cut. Holiday is backed by Mal Waldron and three saxes: Young, Hawkins, and Ben Webster. More modern jazz is provided by Jimmy Giuffre's trio, with Jim Hall on guitar, and by Waldron, playing solo. The remaining track is the most unclassifiable of the bunch: "Blues," with Giuffre, Russell, Jones, and Danny Barker on guitar. The pairing of Holiday and Young was the high point of the show -- I've seen that clip several times. The parts I find most fascinating are the cuts with Giuffre, since I'm not normally taken by him. Bonus alternate take of "Wild Man Blues" by Allen's group, which brings things around to a nice close. A-
  • Tricky: Vulnerable (2003, Sanctuary). The guy on the covers looks like he's been spending more time in the gym, and possibly more time in the tattoo parlor (although maybe not more time shopping for clothes) than he's put into the studio. What's missing here are really great songs -- as I recall, Blowback had half a dozen of them. Still, give it a chance and the beats bounce. And it's less "bleak, brooding, druggy" (to pick three terms from AMG's "tones" list) than his past fare, which is good musically and probably good otherwise. B+
  • Volcano Suns: The Bright Orange Years (1985, Homestead). Founded by Peter Prescott, ex-drummer from Mission of Burma -- probably one of the most important rock bands of the '80s that I never listened to. Prescott writes and, I guess, sings most of these songs. Lots of guitar, but they tend to overlap and thrash, and there's nothing elemental about the rhythm. Better songs than the follow-up, but still not very good. Presumably the attraction is the guitar drone, but by the time this hit the stands Zen Arcade was already out. No wonder this got lost. B-
  • Volcano Suns: All Night Lotus Party (1986, Homestead). Thick, as opposed to dense, guitar group. I've seen them compared to Husker Du, but the latter usually managed to keep their shit straight, whereas these guys are all over each other. C+
  • Steve Wilson: Soulful Song (2003, MaxJazz). Wilson has a very clean, vibrant sound on alto saxophone, and it's always a pleasure to hear him play. However, the concept here is vocals -- about half of the tracks, divvied up between Carla Cook, Philip Manuel, and René Marie. All are competent singers, but none of them especially distinguishes this album. B+
  • Wire: Send (2003, Pink Flag). Their hardest rocker since Pink Flag, and if you want to get technical probably harder than that one too. I'm not sure it becomes them: the intro to "99.9" is more my speed, like something out of, oh, Chairs Missing, but then they bust out the hard stuff and we're back to Pink Flag, except that this one is 7:42, whereas nothing they did back then was. B+

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Haven't written much this week, aside from pushing a lot of records through the mill. (I'm currently sitting at +35 for the week, which puts me just over the 9000 mark.) The explanation is that I've spent much of this week building a new CD case which holds about 1000 of the things, plus some major reorganization of how everything else is shelved. I was literally sitting in a sea of old cardboard boxes full of random selections of mostly new CDs (relatively speaking; many were things I bought when Wherehouse went bust a year ago, many still unplayed), with four neighboring book shelves full of a random selection of old CDs, many forgotten except for the tracking system. Others were stacked on desks and other nearby shelves, and a bunch were in travel cases. Interleaved with all this mess were piles of papers and stacks of books. Now it's almost all sorted out. The new shelf, in the back room, holds what may be deemed the A collection (somewhat skewed to Laura's taste). My work area has four ordered collections: the unrated queue (subdivided into; jazz priorities, other priorities, deep backlog), the recently rated set (all genres merged -- year end lists would come from here), the B collection (genre split: jazz, rock, roots, world, rap/techno), and a couple of bookshelves of rated things that I haven't filed yet. Upstairs has more genre sorted collections (call them C, noting that we're not talking about grades here). The workflow would be: when I get a new CD, it goes into one of the unrated queues; when rated it goes into the recently rated set; when the recently rated set fills up, I can move things to the A, B, or C collections. That gives me, in theory at least, five places where any given CD can be, which is way down from the dozens of unsorted boxes and collections I had.

At least that's the goal. There are still some problems. The stuff in the rated bookshelf can probably fit elsewhere, but the shelves may be needed for something else. The deep backlog unrated doesn't fit in the big shelf unit planned for it, so it's split into two independently sorted units, and there's still unrated stuff in the C collection. The prioritized unrated sets don't fit their allotted space: I have a stack of about 20 CDs on the desk that I need to write something about and need to find space for, plus a second pile of advances. I'll go to those piles first to fill space as I rate things. There's also a pile of unrateables -- promos that don't correspond to real albums, freebies with Mojo and Wire, shit like that. There's a pile of dupes -- things I have more than one copy of. Large format boxes are scattered all over the place. There are several shelves of unfiled items upstairs. And there is still one more box left: shit my nephew left here when he moved. I'm also not sure how to handle real new stuff before I decide how to prioritize it. I also need a little space to keep material for artist-specific projects -- one that I have now is to CG Ken Vandermark's records, of which I have 40-50, and the rated/unrated split there doesn't much matter. I see a little more space here where I might be able to slip in another shelf, so that's likely to happen.

The previous situation was getting to be a huge drag, so this effort to sort it out should make a big difference.


Movie: The Fog of War. Didn't get here very fast, and not likely to stay long. (Eight people in the audience for the 2nd afternoon show today: four couples, all about our age. On the other hand, we did have exceptionally nice weather today.) This is the Erroll Morris film built around Robert McNamara's mea (not quite) culpas. The eleven lessons don't amount to much -- some are obvious, most are dubious. I'm reminded in watching this how easy it was for people of McNamara's generation to sell their souls to the government war machine -- something I noticed time and again in reading about the atomic scientists (in particular, cf. Louis Alvarez and Richard Feynman). The segments on McNamara's WWII work -- statistical analyses aimed at improving the efficiency of US bombing of Japan -- show that he had already developed a special knack for compartmentalizing his work to keep it safe from its effects. Even now, when he looks back on hundreds of thousands of Japanese killed in the firestorms he modelled, the best he can do is recite some platitudes about having to engage in a bit of evil in order to do good. His handling of Vietnam is even more abstract: he invariably says one thing in private, another in public, knowing in both cases that a slight jiggering of the variables offers convincing proof of his position. He exhibits an amazing combination of arrogance and modesty, as if he devoutly believes not only in his own staggering intelligence but in his civic obligation to devote his brains to the service of any political hack fortunate enough to be President. Still, in the end he invariably debases what little integrity he still thinks he had to flatter those Presidents, which is easy for him to do because in the end the world of other people doesn't matter much to him. (A small comment I found to be especially revealing was when he says that his wife developed ulcers which ultimately killed her during his years as Secretary of Defense, but those were still the best years of their lives. That reminds me of the quip in the recent TV docudrama where Alec Baldwin played McNamara: someone points out that "everybody's having Bob McNamara's ulcer but Bob.") The section on the Cuban missile crisis is simpler and cleaner, perhaps because McNamara didn't have all that much to do with it -- or more specifically, because the result didn't turn on McNamara's judgment. This film should be a warning about people like McNamara, and it does give us a sense of what McNamara wrought -- the mapping of bombed Japanese cities to equivalent US cities is a useful touch, and the aerial photography is stunning, but the recurring focus on skies full of bombs is just arty. But it gives us little of the world that so warped McNamara's senses -- the bit about how shocked he and Kennedy were to find out that Diem had been overthrown and killed merely hints at this world, because they were supposedly the people in charge of the country that orchestrated the coup. And so the bigger game -- how the US learned to love the bomb, and how the anticommunist currency could be twisted to justify anything -- gets away. As does McNamara's golden parachute job at the World Bank, more of the best years of a long life that left little but devastation in its wake. B+

Sunday, March 14, 2004

We heard last night that Bob Ashley died. He was a good friend from my years in Boston. A close friend and longtime comrade of Laura's, he was one of the first people I met in Jamaica Plain, and one of the first people I developed much of a relationship with on my own -- no doubt because he was such a dedicated music fan. It seems like I mostly ran into him on the streets, where he was always eager to strike up a conversation. In some non-stereotypical ways he seemed like a street person, although without the sense of desperation that people who are left to the streets exude. Obviously, because he wasn't abandoned, he wasn't alone: he had a comfortable home; he had a long, stable marriage, and is survived by his wife Louise; he raised a son, who was a young young teenager when I first met him; and he had vast numbers of friends, who will no doubt miss him dearly, as we do. But he also had a longterm debilitating illness (kidney failure), which in the end killed him, but even when I met him over fifteen years ago the illness undercut his ability to hold a steady job, leaving him economically marginal. So when he could, he took to the streets, where coming and going he always met friends and found time to chat. Jamaica Plain won't be the same ever again.


Music: Initial count 8966 rated (+26), 922 unrated (-10). Mostly working on website projects, so much of what I rated last week was old jazz rather than material that I should be writing about. Need to finish Recycled Goods this week, but the website projects are probably higher priority. Getting very little in the way of promos these days. The near collapse (or impending collapse?) of Static is making it hard to see much future in reviewing records.

  • Reid Anderson: Abolish Bad Architecture (1999, Fresh Sound New Talent). The Bad Plus bass player, working in a quartet with Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, and Jeff Ballard on drums. It's a very solid group. This is more borderline than The Vastness of Space. The latter has a lot of fresh meat rhythmically, whereas this is more conventional. Iverson and the bassist are superb. Turner is a bit of a question: a terrific player in the post-Coltrane thread that dominates jazz saxophone these days, he makes a strong impression at times, but doesn't do anything particularly new. Still, I've played this well over a dozen times, and it's a rock solid slice of contemporary post-everything jazz. Hard to complain about that. A-
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass (1970 [1990], Musidisc). Starts with a bit chunk of percussion, before Bass chimes in. Usual rinky-dink avant moves, with scattered soulful moaning. Not a bad combination, but also not their best work. B
  • The Best of Excello Records, Vol. 1: Sound of the Swamp (1956-65 [1990], Rhino). Vol. 2: Southern Rhythm 'n' Rock, with the Gladiolas ("Little Darlin'") and Marigolds ("Rolling Stone") and less florid group which could have passed as the Dirty South of Doo Wop (Ray Batts' "Stealin' Sugar") peaked higher (the Blues Rockers' "Calling All Cows" is my favorite), but Excello's meat and potatoes came from its "swamp blues" Louisianians: Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown, Lightnin' Slim ("Rooster Blues" is the best thing here, the one song that ranks with those I listed above). AVI put both sides together for a longer The Best of Excello Records, but I think that the split here works even better. (For the record, the two Rhino comps have 18 songs each, 36 total. The AVI has 30 cuts, only one not on the Rhinos: "Chicken Hearted Woman" by Clarence Samuels. Sound of the Swamp only has one song not on the AVI: "Prisoner Song" by Warren Storm. Southern Rhythm 'n' Rock has six songs not on the AVI: "Stealin' Sugar" by Ray Batts, "I'm Out" by the Surf Riders, "Oh, Julie" by the Crescendos, "Mama Doll" by Roy Teo, "Trying to Please" by Jerry McCain & his Upstarts, "You Know Baby" by the Meloaires. The first two songs sound country, the third is doo wop, the rest are hard rockers; the common denominator may be that they sound a bit white, but they're all good songs, and "Trying to Please" is the joke that lifts up the tail end of the album. I'm bumping Vol. 2 up to A.) Even the blues best-of has some pretty straightforward rock 'n' roll -- e.g., Johnny Jano's "Havin' a Whole Lot of Fun." A-
  • Brötzmann/Van Hove/Bennink: FMP 130 (1973 [2003], Atavistic). Starts with a screech, then gets noisier. Then, come the fourth cut ("Wir haben uns folgendes überlegt"), Van Hove breaks out some boogie woogie, which then gets destructed by what sounds like a wild animal -- Bennink, no doubt. More chaos ensues; while his collaborators are no doubt capable of being culpable, when things go crash you always suspect Bennink first. Especially on "Gere Bij," the one title in apparent Dutch. (Actually, that's credited to Van Hove; the Dutchmen both have credits to title in German as well.) Brötzmann's early work is so full of fire and fury that it's always hard to listen to, but in small snatches I'm getting to where I find this rather amusing. B
  • The Bug: Pressure (2003, Meow). Hard-edged dub, so much so that it's nearly incomprehensible. But the hard-edged beats make me not care. And later on, when it smoothes out a bit, that's damn good too. A-
  • Dave Burrell: Windward Passages (1979 [1994], Hat Art). An avant-gardist, or perhaps just a postmodernist, with deep roots in old jazz forms -- cf. The Jelly Roll Joys -- Burrell is on the short list of pianists who can hold my attention and even impart a sense of wonder when I hear them play solo. He recut this work (or at least this title) later as a duo with David Murray, and I may still prefer that version -- no amount of pianistics (at least none short of Don Pullen) can compete with Murray, but this is a delight all the way through. A-
  • Porky Cohen With Roomful of Blues & Special Guests: Rhythm & Bones (1996, Bullseye Blues). Cohen plays trombone, inspired by Jack Teagarden. He took lessons from Miff Mole, and played in big bands for Charlie Barnet, the Casa Loma Orchestra, Lucky Millinder, Tommy Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn, and Artie Shaw. When they faded, he played dixieland, then wound up in Roomful of Blues. He was 72 when this, the only record ever issued under his inimitable name, was cut. AMG files this as blues, but I prefer Cohen's jazz credentials. Plus this is mostly instrumental -- the two exceptions being Sugar Ray Norcia on "Sent For You Yesterday" (Jimmy Rushing has nothing to worry about) and Michelle Wilson on "Trombone Porky" -- a tribute piece. Excellent booklet, laid out like a tribute to the veteran journeyman. Nothing really special on the album, but I do love trombone, and appreciate that it's featured here. B+
  • Bruce Ditmas: What If (1994 [1995], Postcards). Ditmas is a drummer with a relatively slim resume -- early '70s work with Gil Evans, Jaco Pastorius, and Paul Bley; some '80s work with Enrico Rava; a couple of '90s albums with Paul Bley. This seems to be the only record issued under his own name, and he owns or shares all of the composition credits here. Yet this turns out to be a pretty remarkable album. The three big-name members of the band are major factors in this, but unknown bassist Dominic Richards is equally prominent, and makes a major contribution. And the big names aren't ones that you normally expect to fit together: John Abercrombie (guitar), Paul Bley (piano/synth), and Sam Rivers (tenor/soprano sax). Bley and Rivers show up from time to time, and are very much themselves, major league in this or any other context. But the guy who really glues this together is Abercrombie, who doesn't sound like the airy ECM artist he's become -- he sounds like the next Mahavishnu he was headed towards when he started out. A-
  • Dizzee Rascal: Boy in Da Corner (2003 [2004], Matador). I've heard that he's been stabbed five times, which sounds like proof positive that he's the Brit 50 Cent. His record is better, but the rhythm is so hard and so disjointed that he's hard to follow, and hard to really like. Still, you get the sense that this is one of the very few really new things out there. A-
  • The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (1974-75 [2002], Bluebird). I guess this actually predates the Kronos Quartet's excursion into the Hendrix oeuvre, but it just goes to show that Hendrix is fair game. Evans deploys three guitarists here (Keith Loving, John Abercrombie, Ryo Kawasaki), but they're mostly here to add funk bottom; Evans would rather map the monster riffs to his horn section, especially since he has Billy Harper on the job. The other key player is Marvin Peterson ("Hannibal"), playing trumpet and taking two vocals. Evans' famous little touches are evident throughout, but his main accomplishment here is to crank a 18-piece orchestra up to such a pitch that they begin to compete with Hendrix' trio. Not being one inclined to worship at the Hendrix shrine, I find these divarications diverting, but I also think that they do honor to both auteurs: Evans in his command of big band arranging, his ability to coax little nuances out of huge curtains of sound; but also Hendrix, whose structural primitivism holds Evans' excess in check. Most people figure that Hendrix was all guitar, but he couldn't have showed off so spectacularly if he hadn't had a band that could keep out of the way, and the secret to getting that band was to keep everything but the guitar dumbass simple. (That's pretty much what Sonny Rollins did a bit earlier, to similar effect.) Evans' showing off isn't equal to Hendrix, but it's pretty remarkable in its own right. The bonus cuts don't add much, especially to the flow. B+
  • Fire Down Below: Scorchers From Studio One ([1990], Heartbeat). Cut in the late '60s/early '70s, which would make it later than Ska Bonanza. The title cut is by Burning Spear. The only other name act here is the Heptones, although most of the musicians are famous in their own right: Leroy Sibbles, Ernest Ranglin, Jackie Mittoo, Roland Alphonso, Cedric 'Im Brooks. Marlene Webber's intro seems stilted until the band kicks in. That's one of the few soft spots here (another is the overly familiar "Rainy Night in Georgia" -- done here about as well as one can). 'Im and Dave's instrumental "Nite Ride" is a highlight, with Brooks' sublime saxophone. A little short, both on disc and in the doc, but otherwise terrific. A-
  • Ricky Ford: Tenor Madness Too! (1992, Muse). I got into Ford through his connection to Abdullah Ibrahim, and followed him fairly closely back in my "pre-jazz" days. Still got some old LPs that I don't remember clearly enough to rate, so one of these days I'll have to go back and sort him out. This is more recent: a quintet with a second saxophone (Antoine Roney, who dat? [uh, Wallace's Branford]), and a piano-bass-drums section of Donald Brown, Peter Washington, and Louis Hayes (no need to look those guys up). No real madness here: the two saxophones often play in synch, which I'm not much fond of, although the solo play is impressive. The pieces are half standards -- "Con Alma," "Soul Eyes," "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," that sort of thing, and half Ford compositions. Ford's pieces tend to run free, with Hayes helping out. Brown and Washington are always tasteful. The one cut built out of two-sax traded lines is Ford's "Rollin' and Strollin'," which works as well as any. The ballad "Soul Eyes" is done nicely, and the long sax intro to the Ellington is quite good. B+
  • Frank Foster/Frank Wess: Two for the Blues (1983 [1993], Pablo OJC). With Kenny Barron (piano), Rufus Reid (bass), Marvin Smith (drums). Foster and Wess were the mainstays of Count Basie's saxophone section during the '50s and well beyond. This is basically a set of blues moves, and everyone here knows what they're doing. My only complaint is that it's just too easy. B
  • Herb Geller and His Sextet: That Geller Feller (1957 [2003], Fresh Sound). This has long been high on my search list -- a Penguin Guide 4-star album, by a left coast cool jazz swinger whose much later work impressed me highly. The rhythm section is what you'd expect (or hope for): Lou Levy, Ray Brown, and Lawrence Marable. The front line is a little overpopulated with Kenny Dorham and Harold Land joining Geller. Cool, elegant swing; a little more heavily arranged than the fine albums he started recording in the '90s, but a delight anyway. A-
  • Intensified! Original Ska 1962-1966 ([1979], Mango). Chris Blackwell jumped into the business well after ska gave way to rocksteady and reggae, but as Jamaica's self-appointed ambassador to the world, he took a shot at putting together a classic ska anthology. Turns out it's not nearly as great as, say, the first disc to Tougher Than Tough, but at the time it sounded pretty good, and it still does. A-
  • Island 40, Vol. 1: Ska's the Limit (1959-64 [1997], Island). Part of their 40th anniversary retrospective, this covers a good slice of major ska hits, from "Boogie in My Bones" to "King of Kings" and "Six and Seven Books" and on to "My Boy Lollipop." A slight diversion, for better or worse, comes in the form of a couple calypsos from Lord Creator ("Independent Jamaica") and Lord Kitchener. Nothing particularly wrong with it, but it's been done so many times now that it's hard to get excited about it, either. Intensified! and The King Kong Compilation have slightly tighter focus, and carry a little more weight because they came out so early -- they define much of what we (at least in the US) first heard; This Is Ska! is even better as a pure hit compilation, and the first disc to Tougher Than Tough is even better, not to mention quite a bit longer. Rough and Tough is deeper still -- 2 CDs full of Trojan hits and, well, more hits. And then there's the Studio One recordings -- I need to dig deeper into those myself. Good calypso comps are harder to find, but there are several alternatives there too. None of which says that if this is the only ska comp you get you won't enjoy it. B+
  • Liquid Soul (1996, Ark 21). Acid jazz band, founded by Mars Williams (Chicago-based saxophonist, previously in Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble and in the Vandermark 5), with DJ Jesse De La Pena on turntables, and the balance is more/less a jazz band: trumpet/flugerhorn, keyboards, drums, guitar, bass. As a jazz band they don't have much going their way: the brass is loud, the beats regular, their takes on standards (Coltrane's "Equinox" and Shorter's "Footprints") neither here nor there. The raps, the turntablism, the effects are a bit more interesting. B-
  • Liquid Soul: Here's the Deal (2000, Shanachie). Third album, same basic mix of players, with DJ Ajax on turntables, and Mars Williams on saxes and toys. A couple of indistinguished rappers, a singer who seems to be related to Nina Simone. Compared to their first album, there's a broad improvement in the music, and especially in Williams' sax, which shows some reach and dynamics this time out. They still sound more like a hot r&b section than a jazz group, let alone something out of the electronica jungle. B
  • Live at the 1990 Concord Jazz Festival: Second Set (1990 [1991], Concord). I file this under Frank Wess, the first name listed on the back cover, as "leader, tenor saxophone, flute." The rest of the band: Marshal Royal (alto sax), Rick Wilkins (tenor sax), Pete Minger (fluelhorn), Gerry Wiggins (piano), Lynn Seaton (bass, vocal), Harold Jones (drums). This time the songbook leans toward Ellington ("Lush Life," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Just Squeeze Me" -- the latter with Seaton's one vocal, a masterpiece of mumbling somewhere beyond Clark Terry and Moms Mabley). Really fine work. B+
  • The Pete Minger Quartet: Minger Painting (1983 [1991], Jazz Alliance). The only date visible here is 1991, but this seems to have been originally released as Straight From the Source in 1983. Don't recognize the others: Keter Betts (bass), Bobby Durham (drums), Dolph Castellano (piano). Minger is a mainstream trumpet player who mostly played in the Basie band. He has very little else in his own name, but is a nice, clean player, and this is enjoyable, relaxing jazz. B
  • Tony Oxley: The Baptised Traveler (1969 [1999], Columbia). UK import, doesn't sound like anything Wynton Marsalis' label would release. Granted crown status by The Penguin Guide. Oxley is one of Europe's top avant-garde drummers. His mates here include Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey, and Jeff Cline (bass -- only Cline needs any introduction). While all of the pieces are impeccably free, the first long one is most strident, while the second long one hangs back for more melodic texture, as does the third short one. Although it's taken a while to sink in, I like the chemistry between Parker and Wheeler, and I've gotten to where I find the racked of the first cut invigorating. The second piece, one written by Charlie Mariano, is more atmospheric, with Parker in particular doing some nice tone work. This seems a bit slight to be a "crown" album -- not to mention short at 38:41 -- but it is interesting work, and the drummer gives you quite a bit to think about. Not sure about Bailey. B+
  • Paris Washboard: Love for Sale (1996, Stomp Off). Four piece trad jazz band from France, with trombone and clarinet for horns, barrelhouse piano, and washboard for percussion. Sometimes they add a tuba, but this "10ème anniversaire" album is just the four of them. It's really quite a combination: the trombone carries much of the weight, and also provides the brass tones; the contrast to the clarinet is about as straightforward as can be; the piano provides a change of location (I started to write pace, but the pace here is uniformly pretty fast); and the washboard adds an air of trashiness to the whole thing. Probably too long (73:32), but it never flags. A-
  • Ann Peebles: Part Time Love (1970 [1994], Hi/The Right Stuff). Producer: Willie Mitchell. Engineer: Willie Mitchell. Re-mix Engineer: Willie Mitchell. Rhythm: Willie Mitchell's house band. Album is short: 10 cuts, only two top 3:00, the longest at 3:13. It's a very solid soul album; she's got a strong, gritty voice, and the band supports her every aspiration. A-
  • Ann Peebles: Straight From the Heart (1972 [1993], Hi/The Right Stuff). Same deal as the previous album, perhaps not quite as consistent, but "99 Pounds" makes up any deficit. A-
  • Chuck Prophet: The Hurting Business (2000, Hightone). Singer-songwriter, originally from the group Green on Red, which produced some good albums back in the '80s. He's got a loose, rootsy feel. The title cut is catchy. "Apology" is even better, with an easy loping beat. "Diamond Jim" starts with a turntable scratch and a harder rock beat. "Dyin' All Young" is a ballad with a backing chorus that sounds much like a rap record -- the best of several real good things on this album. "La Paloma" is sung in a whispered echo, like something that might have crawled out of John Cale. "Shore Patrol" is another thing that reminds me of Cale (remember "Ski Patrol"?). The other comparison that come to mind is Sean Tyla -- Prophet's roots connection has a similar feel, easily won yet distantly admired. At this stage, I'm not sure whether the temptation to make comparisons is because the artist is derivative or because he's unique and the critic's instinct is to pigeonhole him. The songs in the middle sag a little, but I'm impressed anyway. A-
  • Rock 'n Roll: The Best of Red Prysock (1954-57 [1996], AVI). Prysock was an r&b honker in the early '50s. In one piece here he's invited to blow over a shuffle beat, and complains that he can't play that slow. He stops the beat, then rips off what may be the best solo here. There's too much of the same thing here, but he can be a lot of fun when he's on, which is most of the time. B+
  • Red Prysock: Swingsation (1951-61 [1999], Polygram). Much more of the same thing, although this one is a bit more varied: covers a longer stretch, and even throws in a ballad, on which he's not as inept as he thinks -- he gets a beautiful tone out of his tenor sax. He's certainly not important enough that you need both sets. This one is shorter, probably cheaper, probably easier to find, more diverse, more representative, and not quite as good, but none of those differences make all that much difference. B
  • Ragga Ragga Ragga! 2003 (2003, Greensleeves). New guys (Beenie Man, Sean Paul, Elephant Man, Bounty Killer, Buju Banton, others I don't recognize), presumably new music. Allegedly risque, although I can't hardly follow any of it, and can't tell you what the over-the-top "Fuck U Sign" actually means. I like it, but I'm not quite sure how much. B+
  • Wallace Roney: Seth Air (1991, Muse). Nothing exceptionally special here, but Roney's tone is so bright he's undeniable, and the group, including brother Antoine, pianist Jacky Terrasson, and the omnipresent Peter Washington are richly supportive. B+
  • Shirley and Lee: The Legendary Master Series, Vol. 1 (1952-58 [1990], EMI). Twenty cuts, none over 2:50, only 5 over 2:30. Two great songs (cf. every comp in the neighborhood: "Let the Good Times Roll" and "I Feel Good"). The early cuts are give-and-take blues duets, with Lee giving more than he takes. The later cuts are rock 'n' roll, and better for that. I suspect that a better compilation is possible. It depends, I suppose, on how much more there is after 1958, which is something I don't know. Ace's Let the Good Times Roll comp has 30 cuts, eight after the closer here, "Everybody's Rockin'" (although there's no guarantee that they're chronological). The Bear Family box has 112 cuts, and "Everybody's Rockin'" comes in #53. As far as I know there never was a Vol. 2 in this series. B+
  • Ska Bonanza: The Studio One Ska Years (1961-65 [1991], Heartbeat, 2CD). Not sure how representative this is of Studio One -- I've been up to my ears in Trojan ska, and most of this I don't recall hearing before (obvious exceptions: "Arte Bella" [Ken Boothe], "Simmer Down" [Bob Marley], the Skatalites; I'm sure there's more had I been paying closer attention). Nonetheless, this comp keeps a steady groove at a high level of pleasure. A-
  • Lew Soloff: Little Wing (1991, Sweet Basil). Soloff is a trumpeter who does a lot of sideman work, especially with big bands where his high clear tone is especially welcome. He dates back to Blood, Sweat & Tears -- a pretty good group of jazz musicians worked there, regardless of what you think of the overall concept. He has half-a-dozen albums under his own name, of which this is the only one I've heard. And it's a lively one, with a little extra percussion for those funky latino things, and Ray Anderson's mighty trombone stirring up the alligators. The title cut is the Hendrix song -- Soloff was a regular with Gil Evans, and appeared on Evans' Hendrix album. B+
  • Benny Spellman: Fortune Teller ([1988], Collectables). The title song is great, and "Lipstick Traces" is even greater, but that's what compilations are for. The question here is whether he's has anything else -- not comparable, but interesting enough. The answer is that he's a pretty decent everyday New Orleans rocker. B+
  • The Very Best of Booker T. and the MG's (1962-71 [1994], Rhino). Just think: if they had had a few more tracks as funky as "Green Onions" up their sleeve, they would have been the Skatalites of Memphis Soul. Judging from this, I'm not sure that they even rank as the Harry J & the Liquidators. B
  • Irma Thomas: Time Is on My Side (1962-66 [1996], Kent). I've had trouble parsing her in the past, and while I think I get it this time that too may be an illusion. But this comes closer to justifying her reputation than anything I've heard in the past. A-
  • Sarah Vaughan: ¡Viva! Vaughan (1964 [2001], Verve). Four sessions from August 1964, with big bands directed and produced by Quincy Jones. The bands favor latin rhythms, underscored from the start with a pretty good take on "The Boy From Ipanema," followed by a bouncy "Fascinating Rhythm." "Fever" is done with congas, her lines reinforced by the horns, and her voice does some amazing things -- this reminds me that even though I've rarely liked her records, I've always had to admire her control. The main thing I've disliked about Vaughan over the years has been the torch songs, which are few but present here: she had a truly extraordinary voice, but often put it in service of truly awful music, or more precisely put it on a pedestal to be worshipped by inevitably awful music. This one, at least, is more interesting than not. B+
  • Sarah Vaughan: Copacabana (1979 [1988], Pablo). Cut in Brazil, with guitarist Helio Delmiro and various other uncredited singers and musicians, though much of this comes off as intimate. This was well into her career. It's not clear whether her voice just wasn't as limber as earlier, but she's always been much too proper and precise to fit comfortably with such light and fluffy music, and I think that's where this record doesn't quite work. Not that the misfit is gross; she tries, and sometimes that's good enough. But sometimes not. B-
  • Bennie Wallace: Mystic Bridge (1982 [1987], Enja). With Chick Corea (piano), Eddie Gomez (bass), and Dannie Richmond (drums), all names prominent on the front cover -- they are, after all, all names to brag about. This record is early and, by subsequent standards, a bit adventurous. Later on he has turned out to be a smooth ballad player, but here he stretches out, with ideas tied to his previous work on Monk, as well as his take on Rollins and Coltrane. Some nice work by Corea -- evidently this album was originally known as Bennie Wallace Trio & Chick Corea. B+
  • The George Wallington Trios (1952-53 [1990], Prestige OJC). Eight cuts from 1952, seven from 1953. The bassists change, but they're all serious names and play big: Charles Mingus (4 cuts), Oscar Pettiford (5 cuts), Curly Russell (6 cuts). The drummer is Max Roach. Wallington was an early bop pianist, born in Sicily in 1924 (original name: Giacinto Figlia), moved to New York as a baby. Good player, although I'm not sure that I quite get him. B+
  • Dinah Washington: Mellow Mama (1945 [1992], Delmark). Three early sessions for Apollo Records, with a group of then-unknowns (except maybe Lee Young, Lester's drummer brother), but history would soon recognize Lucky Thompson (tenor sax), Milt Jackson (vibes), and Charles Mingus (bass). Most of the songs have "Blues" in the title; two others have "Voot" and the only one left is called "My Lovin' Papa," so there's nothing out of the ordinary here. She sings fine, and handles the double entendres with aplomb. Thompson really sounds great, and Jackson swings as always. This was about the time she cut "Blow Top Blues" and the like; nothing here is that good, but all of it is very similar. A-
  • Dinah Washington: The Best in Blues (1943-53, Verve). She could (and did) sing everything, but the core of her work are her "blues" -- more a matter of form than content, since the content usually reveals a firmly centered woman, more than a little risqué. Picked from the major period of her work, this includes several classics: "Evil Gal Blues," "Baby, Get Lost," "Trouble in Mind," "Salty Papa Blues," "New Blowtop Blues," and especially the topical "TV Is the Thing This Year." The bonus cuts are redundant. A-
  • The Best of Mary Wells (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (1961-64 [1999], Motown). Close to the minimal essential set, which is quite essential. A
  • Tony Williams: Life Time (1964, Blue Note). Williams' first album, three cuts with Sam Rivers (tenor sax), and Richard Davis or Gary Peacock (bass); one with Bobby Hutcherson (vibes) and Herbie Hancock (piano); the last with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter (bass). The pieces with Rivers can be viewed as a continuation (or prelude -- I think that's the way the dates line up) to Rivers' remarkable debut, Fuscia Swing Song, the lack of a pianist perhaps allowing Rivers to stray a bit more into the avant. The piece with Hutcherson is much more abstract, with Williams adding percussion -- wood block, maracas, triangle -- to complement the vibes/marimba. The finale even simpler. The different groupings leave one feeling a bit unfilled -- especially a thirst for more from Rivers -- but the pieces themselves are each fascinating. Williams was still a teenager when he cut this, which makes it all the more amazing. A-
  • Tony Williams: Spring (1965 [1987], Blue Note). Front cover says Anthony Williams, but back cover and spine say Tony. All of the song credits are Anthony. The second cut is a 5:00 drum solo. Sam Rivers (tenor sax) and Gary Peacock (bass) play on all other cuts; Wayne Shorter (tenor sax) and Herbie Hancock (piano) play on three cuts each. Much like the previous album, yet something seems just a bit off -- I suspected Shorter at first, but according to the notes it's Rivers playing tenor sax on the somewhat wispy "Love Song," with little of his usual bite. B+
  • Claude Williamson Trio: 'Round Midnight (1956 [1996], Bethlehem). Piano trio, with Red Mitchell (bass) and Mel Lewis (drums). Another pianist in the bop chain, Williamson shows up mostly in the company of west coast (cool jazz) artists: Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, June Christy, Howard Rumsey, Bud Shank. These are all standards, many show tunes: "Stella by Starlight," "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "Tea for Two," "Stompin' at the Savoy," "Just One of Those Things," "The Song Is You," the title cut, etc. Good takes. Good rhythm section. You'd think there must be a million records like this, but I doubt that there's more than a few dozen anywhere near as good. B+

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Movie: The Statement. From the Brian Moore novel, which I'm told is extraordinary. The movie, however, feels like it's missing a few threads -- particularly spotty are the connections between the Uncle and the Vichy collaborators, and between the factions within the church -- one feeding incriminating info to the investigators, the other harboring the murderer. Another loose end is the significance of being a Vichy collaborator in modern France, which I feel I more/less understand, but suspect may be lost on most of the audience here. One non-problem is the casting of the movie with reputable British actors -- probably because they work with American accents, and we're so accustomed to that that we accept it as the natural order of things. Good acting, especially a short part by Charlotte Rampling, and a steady performance by Jeremy Northam. B+

Friday, March 12, 2004

I've been reading Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, about the 1953 coup which overthrew the Mossadegh government in Iran, restoring Mohamed Reza Shah for 25 years of savage tyranny. The roots of the coup lie in Mossadegh's nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had exploited a monopoly concession that a Qajjar dynasty monarch granted many years before. This and other deals effectively surrendered much of Iran's sovereignty to the British Empire, which treated Iran with the same colonial contempt that they had honed all over the world. When Iran revolted, voting in the Majlis (their constitutional parliament) to nationalize Anglo-Iranian, Britain responded by, among other things, blockading Iran, hijacking tankers that attempted to transport Iranian oil, and blacklisting any skilled oil workers or companies that tried to work with Iran. Some powerful figures in the UK, including Winston Churchill (who became Prime Minister after the nationalization, but before the coup), wanted to invade Iran and overthrow the government. The US, under President Harry Truman until Jan. 1953, tried to mediate the dispute, but once Eisenhower took office, the CIA took over the lead role in organizing and implementing the coup. John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles were key in this. The argument, of course, was by that time that Iran was descending into chaos and threatening to fall into communist hands. Mossadegh was in fact strongly anticommunist -- a nationalist liberal, of aristocratic birth, and largely educated in Switzerland -- and it never seems to have occurred to him to seek help from the Soviet Union. (One reason why this makes sense is that Russia had long been Britain's rival for colonial control of Iran.)

I want to quote a section from the book (pp. 162-163), which is a description of the coup plan, as envisioned by CIA agent Donald Wilber and British agent Norman Darbyshire:

  • Through a variety of means, covert agents would manipulate public opinion and turn as many Iranians as possible against Mossadegh. This effort, for which $150,000 was budgeted, would "create, extend and enhance public hostility and distrust and fear of Mossadegh and his government." It would portray Mossadegh as corrupt, pro-communist, hostile to Islam, and bent on destroying the morale and readiness of the armed forces.

  • While Iranian agents spread these lies, thugs would be paid to launch "staged attacks" on religious leaders and make it appear that they were ordered by Mossadegh or his supporters.

  • Meanwhile, General Zahedi would persuade and bribe as many of his fellow officers as possible to stand ready for whatever military action was necessary to carry out the coup. He was to be given $60,000, later increased to $135,000, to "win additional friends" and "influence key people."

  • A similar effort, for which $11,000 per week was budgeted, would be launched to suborn members of the Majlis.

  • On the morning of "coup day," thousands of paid demonstrators would stage a massive antigovernment rally. The well-prepared Majlis would respond with a "quasi-legal" vote to dismiss Mossadegh. If he resisted, army units under Zahedi's control would arrest him and his key supporters, and then seize military command posts, police stations, telephone and telegraph offices, radio stations, and the national bank.

The actual coup was a little messier (and a lot more expensive) than that, but that's roughly what happened. (Zahedi, by the way, was a Nazi collaborator during WWII. The British had in fact arrested and interned him for the duration of the war, but for this occasion they let bygones be bygone.) In reading this I'm especially struck not merely by the deviousness and cynicism evident here, but by the misdirection: it is clear here that the plotters understood clearly that in order to get a strong rightist reaction they had to fake a leftist revolt -- i.e., they had to increase the threat of chaos and terror to a point where there is sufficient demand for order as to overcome the normal legal and moral inhibitions against overthrowing one's government.

Given that those people understood those dynamics so well fifty years ago, how can we possibly be so naive as to think that they aren't still practicing tactics like that now? As the coup in Iran was being carried out it was impossible for anyone in Iran other than the plotters to comprehend what was happening -- indeed, the book makes clear that even Mossadegh's view was way off base (for one thing he didn't suspect the US of participating), and the press afterwards was equally clueless. So in light of this sort of history, how can we make sense of what is actually happening in Iraq right now? Or regarding anything that falls under the rubric of terrorism, like the bombs in Spain? Or what was the story with overthrowing Aristide? These are events of great political moment, yet they cannot really be known, and the people we depend on for reporting and understanding are at best compromised by their naivete, at worse on someone's payroll.

One lesson we should learn from this is that since the kneejerk reaction to terror is to move right to restore order, the only real beneficiary of terror is the political right -- regardless of whether we believe that they are/were immediately responsible, the principle of self-interest implicates them. Few people learn this lesson, because it runs against our assumptions about people, especially people in elevated office. Who, after all, would have believed that someone like Ike Eisenhower would have conspired to overthrow a liberal, democratic leader like Mossadegh in order to install a monomaniacal militarist like Mohamed Reza Shah for 25 years of brutal tyranny, so vile that it was followed by revolution and another 25 years of theocratic tyranny, over something so paltry as a little oil? But he did. (Winston Churchill, of course, is a lot easier to believe -- as 20th century rogues go, Hitler did more intensive evil in a much shorter slice of time, but nobody fucked over more countries over more time than Churchill, even if you don't give him full credit for the not-so-Cold War.)

Kinzer's book is very useful, especially for its brief but thorough background on Iranian history under the Qajjars and Reza Shah, the Constitutional Revolt, and the ins and outs of Mossadegh's political career. The main focus is on the diplomacy and politics of 1951-53 (nationalization, aftermath, the machinations of the coup itself). One interesting aspect of this is how reluctant Truman and his staff were to take action against Iran, especially compared to Britain's racist, colonialist beligerence. This reminds me that while Truman had moved decisively into a cold war anticommunism, he was still capable of sympathasizing with the anti-imperialist aspirations of the third world, and consequently he was still capable of caring whether he was doing the right thing. The Eisenhower administration dispensed with such concerns, moving decisively to overthrow leftist (defined as anti-imperialist) governments for the mere reason of lining up firm opposition to communism.

This leads me to the idea that in the see-sawing between Democratic and Republican presidencies, the Democrats have always to some extent been cognizant that US foreign policy must recognize that people around the world have legitimate aspirations regardless of US political interests, while the Republicans have always reacted against any such recognition. This is probably because the Democrats have the idea that successful politics flows from a consensus of the people, whereas the Republicans believe that successful politics comes from the deft manipulation of the populace. But that's an ovestatement, probably because both parties have become more manipulative over time, but the relative shifts are still rather clear: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy/Johnson, Nixon/Ford, Carter, Reagan/Bush, Clinton, Bush. What happened with each Republican transition is that US foreign policy became harder: more aggressive, more cynical, more manipulative. Truman's cold war was primarily defensive (e.g., Berlin, Korea; Greece was something of an exception, but with a strong UK influence); Eisenhower overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, planted future military dictators all over Latin America, and plotted the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. Kennedy largely pursued Eisenhower's foreign policy, but backed off from full invasion of Cuba, and backed off from various coups in Latin America. Johnson, of course, was worse, supporting the coup in Brazil and escalating Vietnam into a major conflict. But Johnson's war in Vietnam still had a figleaf of ill-considered support for the Vietnamese people; with Nixon that disappeared completely, as he escalated the bombing, extending the war into Cambodia, while pursuing a much more aggressive geopolitical assault on the Soviet Union. Carter actually escalated the anti-Soviet war, especially in Afghanistan, but he waffled on third world revolts, ceding the Canal Zone to Panama, and allowing the Sandinistas to come to power in Nicaragua. Reagan managed to combine Eisenhower's active subversion (e.g., in Nicaragua) with Nixon's global realpolitik and an ever escalating rhetoric, another hard swing to the right. (Bush, in turn, talked less, but shot more; on balance that proved to be worse, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union had eliminated the rationale for the past 45 years of shooting.) Clinton continued Bush's post-cold-war foreign policy, aimed at justifying American empire as the necessary defense against "rogue states," but he also made serious efforts at achieving peace in Northern Ireland, Haiti, and Bosnia (and a not-so-serious one in Israel/Palestine). The second Bush, on the other hand, well you know about him. That makes four D-R transitions, each of which propelled the US into a much more imperialistic posture vs. the world.

The great worry that we have about Kerry as the next Democratic US President is that he is so wed to the past verities of US imperial foreign policy that he will -- like Clinton, Carter, Johnson, and Kennedy before him -- continue the same vicious policies, albeit just a shade less maniacally than G.W. Bush. That continuity has always happened because the rhetoric has always favored the tough guys -- the badass Republicans. (Reality is another thing: although Reagan based much of his 1980 campaign on attacking Carter for giving away the Canal Zone, when Bush finally did invade Panama he didn't make a move to reclaim the Canal Zone. Reagan's charges were merely that Carter was soft; Bush's non-action just shows us that Carter made a concession that realistically had to be made, and that no amount of obtuseness could reverse.) It seems obvious that Bush has finally proven just how bankrupt those policies are, but Kerry seems to feel that the real problem is not Bush's arrogance or ignorance, but his incompetence. After all, incompetence has long been the Achilles heel of Republican foreign policy, but if that's all you attack them for, you can never break out of their rhetorical straightjacket. It's clear that Kerry hasn't: instead of attacking the very idea of a "war on terrorism" he attacks Bush's bungling execution of it. Sure, there's lots to attack there, but if the very project is intrinsically flawed -- and it is -- no amount of competence can fix it. Only a new worldview can do that.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Music: Initial count 8940 rated (+17), 932 unrated (-5). Vitous piece written. Jimmy Lyons is probably my top writing priority now, but I also need to finish a Recycled Goods -- half done a couple of weeks ago, when I lost my thread, but then the last one still hasn't been posted. Also need to work on unrelated website projects, and on unrelated home improvement projects (unless building more CD cases counts as related).

  • Reid Anderson: The Vastness of Space (2000, Fresh Sound New Talent). The Bad Plus bass player, working with what at first seems to be an overly complicated group: Andrew D'Angelo (alto sax), Bill McHenry (tenor sax), Ben Monder (guitar), Marlon Browden (drums). But soon the horns manage to separate out, often riffing in ways that add to the total rhythmic mix, rather than just adding to the harmonic mix. The compositions are vigorous and interesting, the sound distinctive. A-
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago: Tribute to Lester (2003, ECM). Now just a trio, with Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Moghostut, and Famoudou Don Moye. And needless to say, this sounds a lot like Roscoe: especially on "As Clear as the Sun" Mitchell's continuous warbling wedded to Moye's scattered beats is a wonder to behold. The opening "Sangaredi" (Moye) starts off with a fine rhythm, a hollow Africanish sound to the drums, with glass-like chimes, although the inevitable acceleration is less charming. Mitchell's "Suite for Lester" is the shortest piece here (5:22). Mitchell's playing is rather straightforward on Lester Bowie's "Zero/Alternate Line" -- a lovely piece. The final cut is mostly percussion, which leaves it feeling unfinished. As a tribute to Bowie, the main thing that's missing is the humor. B+
  • Jaki Byard: Freedom Together! (1966 [1997], Prestige OJC). Just a trio, with Richar Davis (bass) and Alan Dawson (drums), but not a piano trio: Byard switches off to celeste, electric piano, vibes, tenor saxophone, and drums, while Davis plays a little cello, and Dawson also plays vibes. Also, Junior Parker sings two songs, and gets credit for lagerophone (a homemade Australian instrument, usually a stick with beer bottle tops loosely tacked to the end) on another. The first/title cut is 11:23, mostly bass and vibes, loosely structured, with a bit of sax toward the end. Byard's saxophone work is actually pretty impressive. "Getting to Know You" starts with a little cello, then Parker slowly winds his way through the vocal. "Ode to Prez" has Byard on saxophone against a backdrop of Dawson on tympani, in a simple, eloquent piece. "Nocturne for Contrabass" is self-descriptive. Parker's vocal on "Night Leaves" is slow and ponderous -- another occasion for Dawson to beat on the tympani, and the piece winds down with more vibes, more bass, more odd sounds. No doubt but that this is a group with brains, but sometimes brains do strange things. One thing obviously given short shrift here is Byard's piano, although the short coda ("Young at Heart") is a nice way to close. B
  • Love & Rapture: The Best of Peabo Bryson (1990-94 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). One of those slick soul guys I've never tuned into before. The odds that this slice is the best are pretty slim: he recorded for Capitol from 1978-83, for Elektra from 1984-88, back to Capitol for a 1989 album, then to Columbia for this stretch, then to Private Music for a couple of later albums. Elektra has a new, competing best-of, called Bedroom Classics, Vol. 2 (Teddy Pendergrass got Vol. 1); Capitol has a series of best-ofs. Fine singer, rich voice, some tendency to overkill, a guy who could sink or swim on the arrangements, which are borderline between ripe and too ripe. "Never Saw a Miracle" is about as good as this gets, an awestruck love song which supports its conceit. Half of this is nearly as good; the other half is not quite as good. B
  • Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition: Album Album (1984, ECM). Horn-heavy quintet, with John Purcell (alto/soprano sax), David Murray (tenor sax), Howard Johnson (tuba/baritone sax), and Rufus Reid (acoustic/electric bass). On the downside I find that I don't like the sax section playing at all -- Purcell's smaller saxes sound tinny, and Johnson's bottom washes out, but Murray's solos are pretty impressive. There's just not enough of them to put the album album over. B
  • De La Soul: Timeless: The Singles Collection (1988-2001 [2003], Tommy Boy/Elektra). I've been slow on the uptake with this group: their first album, the much admired Three Feet High and Rising, had a couple of undeniable tunes, but soured for me on a skit, and felt shapeless due to its looseness. Their next two albums didn't appeal at all, although I've since gone back to Buhloone Mindstate and warmed a bit to it. The first thing they did that I really liked was Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, and the second AOI album was nearly as good. This best-of does what it should do with six albums -- the "singles" angle providing an inconsequential bit of marginal differentiation. A
  • Champion Jack Dupree: Jivin' With Jack (1966 [2002], Jasmine, 2CD). Recorded live in Manchester, UK, 28 May 1966. Solid 100 minute show, the choice of songs typical ("How Long Blues," "Big Legged Mama," "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer," "Stack-O-Lee," "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," etc.), the extensive between-song patter typical as well. But that's why we love the guy, isn't it? B+
  • The Very Best of Césaria Évora (1991-2002 [2002], Bluebird). From Cape Verde, the Portuguese connection seems to tie this closer to Brazil than to neighboring Africa, but the African connection helps. Beautiful record, a very satisfying compilation. A-
  • The Ethan Iverson Trio: The Minor Passions (1999, Fresh Sound New Talent). With Reid Anderson (bass) and Billy Hart (drums), making this two-thirds of the Bad Plus. Some extraordinary work here -- I love the rolling rhythms that seem to gain velocity, and find their "Where or When" exceptionally beautiful. Best piano trio I've heard in a while. A-
  • John Lindberg, Albert Mangelsdorff, Eric Watson: Dodging Bullets (1992, Black Saint). One of several records this trio has put together -- Resurrection of a Dormant Soul, with drummer Ed Thigpen added, is a favorite. This one is more low key, with the workload evenly divided and a lot of space between them. Lindberg is one of the most important bassists to have emerged since 1980. Watson is mostly known through his work with Steve Lacy. Mangelsdorff is one of the all-time legends on trombone -- here he gives us relatively straight play, which is expressive but doesn't go overboard (as he's been known to do). B+
  • Merzbow: Dharma (2000-01, 2XHNI). The first thing I've heard from Masami Akita, the prolific Japanese noise architect. AMG files this under "avant-garde," but it doesn't sound like much of anything to me. The first two pieces are made up of loud electronic static. The third, called "Piano Space for Marimo Kitty," has a little diddly rhythm floating in the background; cute, but eventually it gets buried in static too. The fourth/last piece, "Frozen Guitars and Sunloop/7E" stretches to 31:51, which is about 30 minutes more than it has ideas for. That seems to be the general problem: not only is the noise nearly unlistenable, there's nothing much going on. No idea how representative this is, but it does fit the usual descriptions roughly. The trick with virtually all noise artists -- certainly from punk and hardcore and jazz -- has been to slip something musical into the din. This partially succeeds for one short cut, but that's about it. D+
  • Ramiro Musotto: Sudaka (2003, Fast Horse). From Argentina or Brazil or somewhere in the ether, dance beats and samples, only vaguely latino. I've seen this compared to Gaby Kerpel, but I find this much easier to follow, a good deal less strange. A-
  • The Oliver Mtukudzi Collection (1999-2002 [2003], Putumayo). Five cuts from three previous albums on Putumayo; four cuts from two albums on Sheer Sound. Mtukudzi is a singer-guitarist from Zimbabwe, which puts him somewhere in Thomas Mapfumo's wake. Seems like a good guy, but nothing here makes me want to figure out how good. B
  • Pauline Oliveros: Crone Music (1989 [1990], Lovely Music). Accordion and electronics, in very minimal rises and fades of tone. Written as background to a performance of "Lear," it unwinds in one long sequence. Only occasionally does the accordion, normally processed through various electronics, emerge as itself; when it does, interest in the piece inches up a bit. This is rather nice, but there's not a lot here. B
  • Jimmy Raney: A (1954-55 [1991], OJC). Three sessions: one in 1954 with piano-bass-drums, two in 1955 with trumpet (John Wilson) added. Pianist Hall Overton shows up on some early Stan Getz and Teddy Charles records, and arranged Monk's big band concerts. Bassist Teddy Kotick worked with Charlie Parker, as well as Getz and Charles and various others. Art Mardigan plays drums on the first session; Nick Stabulas on the last two. Mardigan has connections to Getz, Dextor Gordon, Wardell Gray. Stabulas strikes me as a more familiar name, probably because he played with Konitz on Motion. Raney played with Getz early on too, so that's the obvious connection between the band, and why this feels west coast cool even though it was recorded in NJ. As a guitarist, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what separates Raney from Tal Farlow or Mundell Lowe. (For one thing, he followed Farlow in the Red Norvo Trio.) Raney's an interesting guitarist, and his work with Overton here more than bears that out. Wilson, on the other hand, kind of gets in the way: he's good here, but not great, and the instrument's prominence takes a bit away from our ability to hear Raney. Nothing terribly wrong with that, but it makes me suspect that the place to hear Raney is somewhere else. B+
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of the Indian Ocean ([2002], World Music Network). Songs: 1. Tarika, "Koba" (Madagascar, the only big name group here, good cut); 2. Denis Azor, "Ala Li Lá" (Mauritius, good beat, accordion, chants, another good cut); 3. Danyel Waro, "Bayoun" (2000, Réunion, simpler, more primitive cut, drums and chants); 4. Feo-Gasy, "Maria" (Madagascar, sounds like slightly overwrought norteño, with Mexican guitar and choir, kind of campy); 5. Françoise Guimbert, "Sak la Point" (Réunion); 6. Ricky Randimbiarison, "Zaza Mitomany" (Madagascar); 7. Culture Musical Club, "Wacha Yakufike" (Zanzibar, a bit of Arab influence here); 8. M'Toro Chamou el les Watoro, "Oh! La" (Mayotte); 9. Jean-Noël, "Neni Baba" (Madagascar); 10. Baster, "Ti Koné Mi Yinm Sa Baba" (Réunion); 11. Kaya, "Sensé" (Mauritius); 12. Seychelles String Band, "Polka" (Seychelles, yes, it's a polka); 13. Tam-Tam Des Cools, "Pa Bezoin Zot' la Pèr" (Réunion, starts off like hip-hop, with a deep-voiced muffled rap, followed by a woman singsonging, then the rapper returns -- ragga, I guess); 14. René Lacaille/Bob Brozman, "Lang Là" (Réunion/USA); 15. Seychelles All Stars, "Anmenn Mwan Dan Lakour" (Seychelles); 16. Belle Lumière, "Dzinyo" (Grande Comore); 17. Kaskavel, "Mo Mari Ô" (Rodrigues); 18. Lego, "Mamandrako" (Madagascar). Almost all of these songs have bouncy rhythms, vocal chants, slightly exotic instruments; they are interesting, but rather hard to place -- as likely to bring up a hint of Mexico, the Balkans, or Cajun Louisiana as anywhere else. Madagascar is by far the dominant island, but it isn't allowed to dominate here. The Indian Ocean islands, except for Zanzibar, tended to be inhabited by seafarers from Indonesia, but there isn't much connection here with Indonesian music. Zanzibar itself is close to Africa, but long existed as an Arab trade post. One suspects that many of these musical traditions were imported as part of the colonial experience. Interesting stuff. B+
  • Oumou Sangare: Ko Sira (1993, World Circuit). The woman from Mali; strong voice, arrangements cohere, good record. B+
  • Frank Sinatra: Come Swing With Me! (1961 [1991], Capitol). The conventional wisdom seems to be that Sinatra's last album for Capitol was rather rote. I've never been much of a fan myself, and I've often singled out Billy May's bands for my opprobrium -- I can't begin to fault Songs for Swingin' Lovers, but even there I wound up giving much of the credit to Nelson Riddle, turning even that into a backhanded swipe at May. Still, five cuts into this and I haven't heard anything to suggest that he's not one of the all-time great singers, working in front of one real sharp orch. "Yes Indeed" is actually resplendent in its brassiness. They're maybe a little lighter than they ought to be with "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "That Old Black Magic" -- great songs that hold up to almost any abuse, and the delicacy here is far from abuse. Beyond that it doesn't quite sustain, and no, he isn't really licensed for "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." But he's sure gotta right to sing. A-
  • Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits! (1964-67 [1968], Reprise). Twelve cut best-of assembled in 1968, from Reprise albums: Softly as I Leave You (FS-1013, 1964), September of My Years (FS-1014, 1965), Strangers in the Night (FS-1017, 1966), The World We Knew (FS-1022, 1967), Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits FS-1025, 1967), Sinatra 65 (FS-6167, 1963-65). Songs: 1. "Strangers in the Night" (1966, big hit, extraordinary song -- one of his few post-Capitol signatures -- from the very fine Nelson Riddle album of the same name); 2. "Summer Wind" (1966, good song [Johnny Mercer], easy swinging performance, from the same Riddle album); 3. "It Was a Very Good Year" (1965, unbecoming nostalgia standard, swathed in strings); 4. "Somewhere in Your Heart" (1964, fat orchestra, dripping vocal chorus, magnificent despite all); 5. "Forget Domani" (1965, fake Italian, almost a tango; I can not only imagine Dino singing it, I can imagine him singing it better); 6. "Somethin' Stupid" (1967, with Nancy Sinatra, meant as a trifle, which he probably figured would suit her; novelty hit); 7. "That's Life" (1966, big band, big belter, sounds live); 8. "Tell Her (You Love Her Each Day)" (1965, string-drenched orchestra, chorus, borderline awful, although the singer is pretty darned good); 9. "The World We Knew (Over and Over)" (1967, strings, melodrama, dark mood, utter crap); 10. "When Somebody Loves You" (1965, big orchestra, sappy song, oversung, strings, vocal chorus, too long even at 1:54); 11. "This Town" (1967, a fitting finale to his other great "town" songs, dramatic reading, flaring brass, huge orchestra, extra percussion, cops the hook from "Downtown" without succumbing to it, great song); 12. "Softly As I Leave You" (1964, big symphonic build-up to a rather slight ballad, tarted up with further strings and horseshit). Curiously, this skips past the early Reprise period, with nothing from 1961-63. Still a great singer. Still has a penchant for awful orchestras. To some extent he was trying to cope with rock's hegemony, but the best stuff comes when he falls back, especially on Nelson Riddle. I figure 4-6 of these songs to be keepers; maybe half of the remainder work OK as filler. The albums these cuts come from are likely to be even worse, but the only one I know, Strangers in the Night, is quite good. I would imagine that a better Reprise comp is possible, but it doesn't seem all that likely that it actually exists. Given that, I'm tempted to grade this one leniently. B+
  • Mark Turner: Yam Yam (1994 [1995], Criss Cross). I dug this well regarded (**** in Penguin Guide) record out when I was trying to figure out whether Turner was the weak spot on Reid Anderson's Abolish Bad Architecture. Turner's later (major label) records haven't impressed me much (Ballad Session is still sitting on the shelf as I write this). He seems, in fact, to have been going through the same sort of major label softening that has afflicted Joshua Redman lately -- the two are roughly comparable talents, with roughly comparable styles. Still not sure about Anderson's record, but this one sure lives up to its reputation. With Brad Mehldau's razor sharp trio (Larry Grenadier on bass, Jorge Rossy on drums), and Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar) for some extra color. A-
  • Mark Turner: Ballad Session (2000, Warner Brothers). With Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Kevin Hays (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), and Brian Blade (drums). Very pretty, of course. Hays is a less interesting pianist than Iverson or Mehldau, but he's superb on this sort of thing. I still haven't heard much from Rosenwinkel, who just adds a bit of texture here -- nothing that involves stretching. Still, I like very pretty. B+
  • 2Pac: Better Dayz (2002, Interscope). Dead in 1996; you'd think he'd be done by now. I have no idea how much of this was in the can when he was cut down, but certainly it's been cleaned up and augmented. This is something like the 5th posthumous album, after 4 albums in his short, ridiculous life. Until now, I've managed to miss them all. Hard beats. Thug themes. "Changed Man" has been orchestrated into something not bad. "Street Fame" has an irresistible little synth doodle behind the horseshit pathos. There are other examples -- I didn't jot them down, so I'm not gonna drag them out. Basically, this is a fairly top notch piece of production -- nothing brilliant, but it sounds B+ as long as you don't catch the rhymes. The rhymes, though, wear thin. As thugism this sounds second-rate, uninteresting. It was, after all, hard enough to give a fuck about him when he was alive; he's six years under now. Even mummies start to look and sound a little frayed by then. And he's not so timeless that he can expect a better shelf life. B-
  • Collin Walcott / Don Cherry / Nana Vasconcelos: Codona (1978, ECM). The first of three albums this trio recorded, all under the Codona name. I haven't heard the later ones. Walcott is an American who, having studied with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, plays sitar and tabla, and is best known for his role in Oregon. Cherry is a trumpet player who first rose to fame in Ornette Coleman's classic group; in later years he travelled extensively, cultivating eclectic pan-world interests. He is one of the most important figures in post-1960 jazz. Vasconcelos is a Brazillian percussionist. I haven't heard much by him, but his 1979 album Saudades is regarded highly. The first cut is a Walcott composition, which lets him stretch out on sitar, with Cherry joining in on flute. Cherry also plays flute on the low-key title cut. Both cuts are surpassingly mild. Cherry's trumpet comes out on the third cut, a short medley of two Ornette Coleman pieces leading to Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke"; the medley also features interesting work by Vasconcelos. After that, the music opens up a bit. While this is an interesting experiment, I don't think that it comes together as well as it ought to. B
  • Jack Walrath: I Am the Walrath (1979-92 [2000], 32 Jazz). Walrath plays trumpet. I tend to associate him with Charles Mingus: he played on several late period Mingus albums, and has been a regular contributor to the Mingus Big Band and its predecessor, the Mingus Dynasty. The most striking things about his music are his humor and a sprightly edginess to his play. Those are, of course, Mingus trademarks, but you can also think of him as a Lester Bowie without a race card up his sleeve. This is a compilation picked mostly from albums Walrath recorded for Muse, plus a couple of cuts from his first LP, 1979's Demons in Pursuit. The Muse albums include some dandies, like Out of the Tradition (1990) and Serious Hang. This, of course, slides around a lot, but it's always interesting and frequently great. Walrath selected the cuts and produced the comp himself. A-
  • Cedar Walton: Manhattan Afternoon (1992 [1994], Criss Cross). Piano trio, with David Williams (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). Bright, sharp, everything you could ask for, including a couple of great covers that really wake you up: "St. Thomas" (Sonny Rollins) and "I Mean You" (Thelonious Monk). A-

Saturday, March 06, 2004

For various reasons I didn't actually tackle any news or political subjects this past week: mostly baecause I was trying to force myself to get some other work done. Here just a few things quickly:

  • The most memorable headline of the week was the front page article in the Wichita Eagle on Thursday, called "Middle-age suicides soar." The raw numbers for Sedgwick County were 11 in 2002, 26 in 2003. The age group definition was 40-59. The number of suicides in all other age categories decreased. I'm reluctant to read much into this, but it should be obvious that people like that here (uh, like me) are under a lot of economic stress these days.

  • I don't have much to say about Democratic nominee apparent John Kerry, nor do I expect to. He does seem to have a very weak and sloppy record regarding the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq, but there are people with much clearer/better records on the subject who seem to have no qualms about supporting him. I don't really know why his primary campaign turned out so successfully -- he seems to have access to money and organization, and that is probably a big part of the story. One interesting thing to watch in the future will be how much money Kerry is able to attract. One thing for certain is that many segments of US business were much better off when Clinton was in the White House. Business has been very reluctant so far to criticize Bush, but I have to wonder what will happen when the election draws close. I could see that breaking either way.

  • I suppose I need to write something about the gay marriage issue. I don't much like the subject, and I'm not an advocate. However, the way the debate has been shaping up, it's hard to be an opponent either -- especially given the company. One point that hardly anyone mentions is that one of the main reasons why gay marriage has become an issue is that the US has both deliberately and inadvertently made pro-marriage discrimination the law and custom of the land. The single most obvious instance of this is that private health plans generally permit spouses to enroll, while they don't extend to non-married partners. This kind of discrimination applies both to gay and straight couples, but straight couples can rather easily avoid it by getting married. The right solution to this particular form of discrimination isn't to sanction gay marriage; it's universal health care. There are lots of issues like that, and they effectively discriminate as much (or maybe worse) against single parents. Again, gay marriage won't help single parents, or single non-parents, at all. So one of the problems with gay marriage advocacy is that is winds up reinforcing pro-marriage discrimination. On the other hand, thus far opposition to gay marriage has not come from singles advocates; it's come from gay bashers. This serves to remind us that one of the few forms of bigotry that is still conspicuous -- indeed, that is loudly and proudly proclaimed -- in the US is homophobia. Gay marriage has long been viewed by gay rights activists as a milestone in establishing fair and equal rights for gays. My personal view has long been that it isn't a really good milestone, and in any case it isn't an issue that strikes me as a very high political priority. But the way the issue is playing out is that the opposition more than the advocates are pushing to make it a priority, in large part by turning the issue into a referendum on anti-gay bigotry. Whereas someone like myself has no interest in advocating gay marriage, I'm now finding that the actual issue has been redefined as anti-gay discrimination with the usual overtones of hatred and violence, and of course I'm opposed to that. Moreover, now I can blame George Bush et al. for forcing me to make a stand.

  • Aside from its obvious tragedy, the news from Haiti has been frustratingly difficult to parse. It's not clear what Aristide has or has not done. It's not clear who the "rebels" are, who is backing them, and why. (Or at least it wasn't until the US swept Aristide out of the country.) But one thing that is clear is that Clinton's "nation building" exercise in Haiti -- the one that Republicans, including Bush, attacked at every opportunity, and which we haven't heard a peep of since Bush took office -- hasn't accomplished much. I'm sure that there are lots of reasons for this, but the contempt that Bush obviously holds for impoverished nations, is clearly one.

  • I finished Bernard Wasserstein's Israelis and Palestinians: Why Do They Fight? Can They Stop?. The questions in the title are a bit misleading. What he concentrates on are a set of issues which should be impelling reasonable people on both sides to resolve their differences -- demography, economics, environmental impact. In fact, they lead to the sort of resolution that we find in the Geneva Accords. (Wasserstein doesn't discuss Geneva, but does spend some time on Taba.) Much more could be said about these issues, and especially about the impediments, but this is a useful book, and has a few things (especially on environment) that are new (at least to me). I might also mention that recent events in Israel/Palestine have been difficult to parse, too. Sharon's approval ratings are reportedly at an all-time low. I wonder whether he's beginning to melt down. As I recall, what wrecked Netanyahu's government wasn't his derailing of the Oslo Peace Process; it was a garden variety scandal, much like Sharon has stumbled into. Not that his wobbling on settlements and the wall are making him look like he's playing with a full deck. On the other hand, part of this rudderlessness may be attributed to the Bush administration, which seems to have forgotten that the problem even exists, much less that they had ever made any sort of commitment to work on it. (Now if they can only forget Iraq.)

  • Seymour Hersh has a piece in The New Yorker about some deal allegedly made between Bush and Musharaf, where the US will look the other way on Pakistan's nuclear arms proliferation, in exchange for which Pakistan will let the US hunt Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan's frontier territories as part of the upcoming "spring offensive." Ever since Bush hatched his war plans in the wake of 2001-09-11 the weak link in the strategy chain has been Pakistan. Much of what the US has in fact achieved in the War on Terrorism has in fact been made possible by Pakistan -- the routing of the Taliban, the capture of various Al Qaeda bigwigs in Pakistan -- but there have always been limits to how much the US could demand of Musharaf. In particular, nobody knows how Pakistan might break if Musharaf falls (e.g., is killed), and there's no especially good reason to think that a successor would be as, let alone more, pliant. If the US enters Pakistan and starts shooting the place up, it is inevitable that there will be collateral damage, and it's hard to imagine that Pakistanis will just smile and look the other way.

  • I usually have something to say about the Oscars, but having missed most of the winners and contenders there is very little to say. The music was typically dreadful -- that a song from A Mighty Wind, which was plainly intended as a parody of a bad folk song, was nominated should have been taken as a sign; the only exception was the song from Triplets of Belleville, which should have won hands down. Of the movies that I did see, the only winner that I agreed with was Sophia Coppola for her screenplay. We'll see about The Fog of War, which finally arrived here the week after winning.


Feb 2004 Apr 2004