May 2004 Notebook
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Sunday, May 30, 2004

Music: Initial count 9243 rated (+15), 1004 unrated (+10). First Jazz Consumer Guide is almost done, although I have a lot more music in hand than I've been able to cover. All in all, it's a rather scary exercise.

  • Monty Alexander/Ernest Ranglin: Rocksteady (2003 [2004], Telarc). Back to Jamaica for two natives whose minds sometimes wander. This is a catalog of instrumentals to classic Jamaican pop hits -- the two exceptions are Augustus Pablo's originally instrumental "East of the River Nile," "Pressure Drop" (which Toots sings), and one of Alexander's own pieces. The latter has the advantage of being better organized for piano. Everything else here pretty much turns to mush. Alexander is a fancier pianist than Jackie Mittoo -- he is, after all, a jazz musician, a superior form of being -- but the effect is to gum up the rhythm with all this extra gunk. Ranglin is the most famous of all the Jamaican guitarists, but he too is a victim of his own jazzifying -- in fact, he's the main problem here. C-
  • Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson (1926-36 [2004], Yazoo). U
  • Ed Blackwell: Ed Blackwell Project, Vol. II: What It Be Like? (1992 [1994], Enja). Graham Haynes (cornet), Carlos Ward (alto sax, flute), Mark Helias (bass), Ed Blackwell (drums), special guest: Don Cherry (trumpet, on "Lito Pt. 2" only). Cut shortly before Blackwell died; release shortly afterwards. Blackwell had few records in his own name, but was a key drummer in the avant-garde transitional years: most famously with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, and in the Coleman-inspired Old and New Dreams band, but he also played with Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Mal Waldron, David Murray, Joe Lovano, and a few others. A little underrecorded to start, but it comes into better definition with some volume. Interesting work, not least because of the drummer. B+
  • The Chemical Brothers: Singles 93-03 (1993-2003, Astralwerks, 2CD). Finally threw in the towel on this one, and wrote a near-nothing Brief Note -- the bottom line is that I can't tell the difference between their albums, let alone between album and single versions of songs that don't much distinugish themselves from the non-singles. It's all pretty good. Had they reduced it to a single CD I'd have to accept it as a "best of" -- what else could it be? But completism demands some sort of caveat, and this doesn't inspire me enough to overcome my instinct to hedge. Maybe someday I'll sort it out. B+
  • Duke Ellington: The Bubber Miley Era: 1924-1929 ([2003], Jazz Legends). I've taken every opportunity I've had to remind people that RCA's neglect of their Early Ellington legacy is criminal, so consider yourself reminded once again. Then show them who's boss by buying this $9.99 list, 21-song, 67:03 miracle. In 1929 Ellington wasn't yet the greatest composer in American history, and his band wasn't yet the sublime Duesenburg of the late '30s, let alone the sumptuous Rolls of the '50s or the dashing Ferrari of the '60s -- no, it was merely the hottest club in Harlem. Bubber Miley was his ill-fated star -- his muted trumpet the yang to Louis Armstrong's resounding ying. A+
  • The Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis Quintet: Tough Tenors (1960 [2004], Jazzland OJC). The first of a series, which went on to include Toughest Tenors, Tough Tenor Favorites, Tough Tenor Back Again, Tough Tenors Again 'n Again, Toughness Tenors, who knows what else -- one of the best was The Tenor Scene, which lists Davis first. B+
  • Sir Roland Hanna: Everything I Love (2002, IPO). The first of three excellent records on IPO, recorded shortly before the Detroit pianist died. This, like many of his records, is solo. The songbook is broad, the selection erudite, the playing thoughtful. In other words, it's a typical example of his work. B+
  • Sir Roland Hanna: Tributaries: Reflections on Tommy Flanagan (2002 [2003], IPO). Flanagan died shortly before this was cut; Hanna died shortly thereafter. Both were Detroit pianists; both were meticulous craftsmen, and were especially adroit accompanists. This is solo, of course. The subject and the extra care raise it a bit above Hanna's usual high standard. A-
  • Gregory Isaacs: Greatest Love Songs (1973-80 [2003], Hip-O/Island). I normally hate the "love song" concept, but for the fresh prince of Lovers Rock this is really just another best-of. All of his best-ofs are more/less great, and this one is no exception. You don't need all of them; any of them would suffice. Even this one. A-
  • Michael Jackson: Number Ones (1979-2001 [2003], Epic). A-
  • Jimmy Eat World (1998, Fueled by Ramen). Alt-rock group with a pretty good reputation. This is the only thing I've heard from them -- picked it up at the library, and it turns out it's only a 5-song EP, although that's good for a little more than 20 minutes. Sounds good enough, but doesn't do a lot for me. Last song is a bit saccharine. B-
  • The Best of Kiss (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection) (1974-79 [2003], Mercury/Chronicles). A generation grew up on them and seems to have thought that they were as good as my own generation thought the Monkees was. I was on Casablanca's mailing list during their heyday, and filed their albums without ever bothering to listen to them -- never gave them a second thought until the Replacements covered "Black Diamond." Most of this is completely ordinary hard rock. One exception is "Hard Luck Woman" -- some sort of Rod Stewart-type ballad move, which needless to say doesn't work very well. In general, the first half is crisper. Helps not to watch. Not awful. B-
  • Lyambiko: Shades of Delight (2002 [2003], Nagel Heyer). An Afro-German who sings perfectly nuanced English, surrounded by an eponymous band of determinedly optimistic Übermenschen, they show their good taste and smarts many times over. The songlist ranges from Irving Berlin to Mose Allison and Oscar Brown Jr. to Van Morrison. They do Strayhorn for drama rather than beauty, and Jobim for subtlety instead of beat, the work a little bossa into "Morning" just to show that they can. She even gets to explore her real or imagined roots in a couple of traditional African pieces -- one woven into a "Savannah Suite" that starts with a jungle rhythm called "Drum and Bass and Bananas." A-
  • Brian Lynch Meets Bill Charlap (2003 [2004], Sharp Nine). This has turned into a tough album to rate, not so much because stylistically it exhibits what you might call hard bop recidivism, but because the level of professionalism is so high it's almost automatic to start taking it for granted. Lynch leads forthrightly through the whole album -- a couple of originals, a few standards, a latin piece, a minor Charlie Parker gem. Charlap provides impeccable backup, but doesn't lead much. The bass (Dwayne Burno) and drums (Jon Farnsworth) are first rate, and Marc Edelman gets an astonishingly natural sound out of the group. I'm duly impressed, but I can't bring myself to love it. And not because Lee Morgan has done better; more likely because Lynch, Charlap, Edelman, et al., aim lower. B+
  • Pete Malinverni: The Tempest (2003 [2004], Reservoir). Good record, rock solid piano trio, goes through the mainstream motions with aplomb. I could play this another dozen times, enjoy each time, and still not be able to tell you why this is better than a dozen other similar trios. So that doesn't say much for me as a jazz critic, now does it? But it helps nail down the grade, because the very fact that I can't tell you why says that it must not be all that great. So that's where we stand. B+
  • The Yoko Miwa Trio: Fadeless Flower (2002 [2004], PJL). Sounds brilliant at first, a piano with a rich, luscious sound working in what is basically a mainstream groove. She's very skillful, technically impressive; the whole thing comes off as delicately arranged, artful, even though there's nothing new or particularly interesting here. Does fade a bit in the second half. B+
  • Tisziji Muńoz: Divine Radiance (2001 [2003], Dreyfus). According to his website, Muńoz was born in Brooklyn in 1946. He plays guitar and synth, and bills himself as an astrologer. He has recorded a dozen or more albums on his own Anami Music label, but this is the first one to get outside distribution (e.g., it's the only one listed on AMG). The lineup is impressive: Pharoah Sanders (sax), Ravi Coltrane (sax), Rashied Ali (drums), Paul Shaffer (piano, organ, synth), Don Pate (bass), Cecil McBee (bass). That's a lot of overkill, and much of this turns into a free jazz bash of '60s dimensions (pretensions?). Energetic, powerful, cathartic, possibly full of shit. I downloaded an audio sample from his 1997 album Present Without a Trace, which was a much clearer example of his guitar, and liked it quite a bit. (Rashied Ali was the drummer there, too.) His discography goes back to a 1976 record with Pharoah Sanders on India Navigation, and includes records from 1994 featuring Dave Liebman and Nick Brignola, so this lineup didn't just happen. B+
  • John Pizzarelli: Bossa Nova (2003 [2004], Telarc). An album so full of bad ideas that it's surprising that it's not worse than it is. The explanation, of course, is that at least a third of these songs are unsinkable -- at least as long as you keep it light and breezy, and hire some pros to handle the percussion, and you know that Pizzarelli has too much taste to screw up on that level. On the other hand, another third of the songs have nothing much going for them, and Pizzarelli still has too much taste to rough them up either. Obvious bad ideas like the string quartet and the flute quartet don't cause too much trouble. Harry Allen, of course, is a plus, but he's deployed rather sparely. Pizzarelli sings OK, even in Portuguese; again, no surprise, but not much comfort. The real weak spot is his guitar, which has both atrophied from underuse and never really gets the hang of this material. Makes you suspect that Charlie Byrd actually knew what he was doing. B-
  • Putumayo Presents Brazilian Groove (1997-2003, Putumayo World Music). B+
  • Putumayo Presents French Café ([2003], Putumayo World Music). Deliberately atmospheric, meant more to enchant the tourists than to explicate the natives, or the immigres. B
  • Putumayo Presents Nuevo Latino ([2004], Putumayo World Music). B+
  • Putumayo Presents Sahara Lounge ([2004], Putumayo World Music). B+
  • Putumayo Presents Women of Africa ([2004], Putumayo World Music). Little star power (the big names are Angelique Kidjo and Dorothy Masuka, but Dobet Gnahoré and Khadja Nin score highest here), nothing from Congo or Mali or Egypt or Ethiopia or Senegal; it's a big place, and they should be able to do better. B-
  • Putumayo Presents World Reggae ([2004], Putumayo World Music). Not the Jamaican diaspora, nor the Africans on the other end of the Black Star Liner (although Alpha Blondy and Majek Fashek show up); just the International Bob Marley Fan Club, but this makes me curious about an Algerian named Intik. B
  • The Essential Simon & Garfunkel (1964-75 [2003], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). They've reunited so frequently and so opportunistically (albeit never for long) that it's clear that they speak to a sizable market niche, which I would estimate is mid-upper 50s, middle class, college educated, liberal arts, liberal in most things, yet also quietly conformist. I just missed being part of that niche on almost every count, but not by such a margin that I could ignore it. Like Simon, I could have said that "I've got my books and my poetry to protect me." But the only time my books actually protected me was then I used them as shields to block rocks from neighborhood bullies. And poetry? Well, my brother got expelled from school over a poetry notebook I helped him assemble. (I guess Wichita just wasn't ready for Wichita Vortex Sutra.) I grew up hating "I Am a Rock" -- more precisely, I felt like one, and hated that. And there are other pieces from Simon's songbook that provoke the same visceral reaction in me -- "My Little Town" is the most obvious one here. So I'm not a fair judge here, but I'll tell you what I think I would say if I was one: First, they have nothing to do with folk-rock; Simon was born too late for Tin Pan Alley, but that's where he came from and always belonged, and like many of the greats there he was best when he was stealing ideas from other genres (as he notably did on his two good solo albums: Paul Simon and Graceland). Garfinkel was at best a foil, but his harmony was deployed brilliantly on a few occasions, and rarely is the problem even when he's helpless (which is most of the time). There are something like 9-10 good songs among the 33 here, and the good songs are often upbeat and almost always marked by undeniable pop hooks, which Simon has a knack for. On the other hand, at least that many of these songs are just plain lame. That Simon was so amenable to lame songs suggests that he fell in love with his lyrics, or that he just didn't care. B-
  • Pipi Skid: Funny Farm (2004, Peanuts & Corn). Another Canadian rapper, this one from Winnipeg, working with Vancouver product McEnroe. Reminds me of Buck 65, not just in his accent -- in his beats as well, although the production is perhaps a bit more mainstream hip hop. Political too: "from Columbus to the War on Terror, you can count me out." Takes it hard to Bush, too; better than anything on Fat Wreck's comp. A-
  • Spring Heel Jack: The Sweetness of the Water (2004, Thirsty Ear). John Coxon and Ashley Wales continue to indulge their dreams in working with world class avant-garde jazz musicians, but the musicians seem to be losing interest in working with them. We're down to four now, with John Edwards and Mark Sanders replacing William Parker and Han Bennink, although I'm not sure that even Edwards and Sanders will put this one down on their resume. The front line is holdover Evan Parker plus now second billed Wadada Leo Smith, and they don't contribute a lot either: Smith does some little figures and occasionally rips off a high note, while Parker presumably has something to do with the occasional warbling. The rest of the sounds presumably come from Coxon & Wales, who do seem to be more active this time (Wales even claims some of the trumpet), but the musical fabric here is tattered and often barren. Isolated spots still hold some interest, especially the electronic swell that launches "Autumn" (topped by the mother of all Smith high notes). B-
  • Tomasz Stanko: Suspended Night (2002 [2004], ECM). As the jazz scene developed in Poland in the '60s, Stanko filled a role similar to Kenny Wheeler in the U.K.: while most frequently heard in avant-garde contexts, his own records were so modestly attired that he sounded if not mainstream at least fashionably post-bop. Now in his own 60s, he's attracted what's always described as his "young Polish quartet" (the missing names are Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz, and Miskiewicz), and this is their second album (after The Soul of Things). Both albums are built from series of unobvious variations -- think of them as settings for the gemlike clarity of Stanko's trumpet. A-
  • Craig Taborn: Junk Magic (2004, Thirsty Ear). Taborn got his start in James Carter's original quartet, but as Carter moved ever more mainstream Taborn went downtown, lining up with Tim Berne. Taborn's been fascinated with electronics for a while now, and he did Berne a world of good, giving him a more diverse and interesting background which may also have smoothed out some of Berne's rants. I missed Taborn's first Blue Series album, but this one is very deep into the electronics, with bit parts from Mat Maneri (viola) and Aaron Stewart (tenor sax), and little obvious from David King (drums). Several cuts have some fascination ("Prismatica" and "Stalagmite" are helped out a lot by having some beats), others seem like rough sketches, or maybe just sonic dabbling. My problem with it is that it's just not as listenable as I'd like. B
  • Bennie Wallace: The Nearness of You (2003 [2004], Enja/Justin Time). With a comely young model draped over him and his saxphone erect, this is the most blatant make out record he's ever recorded, but he's been evolving into an old smoothie for a decade or more: since The Old Songs he's explored sax balladry more intensively than anyone since Ben Webster. While he lacks Webster's fat vibrato, he gets a distinctive tingle from his hard earned modernism. The albums are remarkably consistent, differentiated mostly by the pianists. This time it's Kenny Barron, who shepherded Stan Getz through his own late ballad phase. A-

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

I read Peter Galbraith's New York Review of Books article on How to Get Out of Iraq, but somehow I missed the part where we get out of Iraq. It's safe to say that he know a good deal more about the history and political situation in Kurdish Iraq than I do. And it's certainly the case that his assertions about Kurdish political aspirations cast a dark cloud over the prospects for any sort of united democratic Iraq once the country has been freed from U.S. occupation. But to what extent is this predicament really true? Alternatively, to what extent is it colored by Galbraith's own sense of a preferred solution? (Which is, roughly speaking, to turn Iraq into a loose federation, modelled on whatever's left of Yugoslavia.)

Of course, I don't a lot more about Sunni Iraq or Shi'a Iraq, but I don't find that Galbraith's assertions there make any sense. All along there have been debates over whether Iraq would come together or fall apart given the absence of a political strongman, and those debate have cut across positions on whether the U.S. should have invaded. I've generally leaned toward the conclusion that if all Iraqis had the chance they'd compromise and maintain a single, united Iraq. The corrollary to this is that the factors that civil war mongers bring up are meant to subvert any real democracy in Iraq.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Music: Initial count 9228 rated (+20), 994 unrated (+7). Finished what I understand to be the last Rearview Mirror column, on three Hip-O box sets of varying quality. Back to work full time (almost) on jazz, although it would be nice to finish the almost finished next Recycled Goods while there's still some May left to publish it in.

  • Atlantic Rhythm and Blues, Volume 3 (1955-58 [1985], Atlantic). Picked this up at a store closing sale. This series came out at the start of the CD era, and has been long out of print. Atlantic's role in the development of R&B is no secret, and the whole series is pretty much guaranteed to please -- I don't have much of it. Only thing here I don't recognize is the Cookies' "In Paradise" -- pretty good song. Beyond that the only cuts here that come from artists who don't merit a single artist comp are the Bobbettes ("Mr. Lee") and Ivory Joe Hunter ("Since I Met You Baby" and "Empty Arms"; don't recall the latter, but I do already have a Hunter comp, so it's probably on it). Aside from that: Drifters, Joe Turner, Clovers, Ray Charles, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Willis, Ruth Brown, Coasters. Any questions? A
  • Atlantic Rhythm and Blues, Volume 1 (1947-52 [1985], Atlantic). Cleaning up now. Atlantic's earliest period starts off with Joe Morris and Tiny Grimes, neither of whom will knock you dead. The early Professor Longhair is early, too -- as I recall those were released under Roy Byrd's own moniker. They did come up with a hit with Stick McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," then they came up with Ruth Brown, the Clovers, the Cardinals, Willis Jackson, and Ray Charles. Tough call, but the best stuff here is available elsewhere, and the rest is of relatively marginal value. But Atlantic was definitely on its way. Don't have Vol. 2, but it should be better, just a shade less than Vol. 3. B+
  • Atlantic Rhythm and Blues, Volume 6 (1966-1969 [1985], Atlantic). Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd ("Knock on Wood"), Otis Redding, Pickett again, Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley ("Sweet Soul Music"), more Sam & Dave, seven cuts of Aretha Franklin, two Joe Tex, King Curtis, more Otis Redding, Archie Bell & the Drells ("Tighten Up"), Clarence Carter, closes with Brook Benton ("Rainy Night in Georgia"), pretty much a no-brainer. Two cuts near the end are suspicious: Roberta Flack ("The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face") and R.B. Greaves ("Take a Letter, Maria"). Flack is OK, which is fine in this limited dose; Greaves is a bit better than that. A peak period. A
  • Sir Roland Hanna/Carrie Smith: I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues: The Songs of Harold Arlen (2002, IPO). Smith has such dramatic presence that it's easy to see why she's been more successful on stage than in the studio. And when she turns loose on Arlen's flightier fare, like "It's Only a Paper Moon," it's clear that whatever her rights to the blues may be, she's first and foremost a showgirl. Hanna often records alone, but unlike so many other pianists there's nothing showy about his solos. He's a model of economy and precision, and that serves him especially well as the sole accompanist here. His leads frame these famous songs lucidly, then he lets her do her thing. A-
  • Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins: Which Way Is East (2001 [2004], ECM, 2CD). Recorded in a living room -- at least that's what the pictures suggest; the notes only identify Montecito, California, which would be Lloyd's Big Sur turf -- shortly before Higgins died. Organized as a set of clusters (or something somewhat less organized than suites), each with 3-5 fragments, ranging from "What Is Man?" to "Desire," "Devotion," and "Surrender." A bit less than half of this features Lloyd on sax (alto or tenor) and Higgins on drums -- i.e., doing what they do best -- while the other half has them switching off to other instruments, often with vocals. The former makes for the sort of intimate sax/drums duo that often works well: here Lloyd's long Coltraneish lines and thick tenor tone emerge sharply. The other half is more amateur, which cuts the intensity of the sax and is rather fun in its own right. Lloyd's piano is more pecked than played, and Higgins guitar is barely strummed, although on "Blues Tinge" it adequately supports a straight blues vocal. Higgins other vocals tend toward African chants, and he gets a vibrant sound out of his guimbri. Lloyd also deploys a variety of flutes and exotic reed instruments, and Higgins tries out various hand drums. Similar types of things have been done elsewhere -- Bill Cole and Kali Fasteau are two who regularly work along these lines, but their records feel more like work; this one feels more like play, and its homespun nature puts it over the top. A-
  • Michiko Ogawa Trio: . . . It's All About Love! (2003, Arbors). She plays old-fashioned piano and sings old songs as expertly as anyone I've heard in years, but she's so in love with her "special guest" saxophonist that she holds back, only singing five of fourteen here. Harry Allen is a big thing in Japan, but his major label (BMG) doesn't bother to release his records here. That's a shame, but her arrangements show him off more adroitly than his own albums. When people note that he plays like he's never heard Coltrane, they mean that he never shows stress, that he never feels the need to search. He leads with the confident swagger of Coleman Hawkins, and fills in with the finnesse of Paul Gonsalves, and he's satisfied with that. A-
  • Quartet B: Crystal Mountain (2003, Fonó). Sometimes they switch to tarogato and bouzouki, even bring in a guest cimbalom player, but it's hard to see these Hungarians as folkies. It just seems to be part of their good Communist education, like the classics. Leader Mihály Borbély also plays in the folk group Vujisics, but in this context he sounds as clear and spacious on soprano sax as Jan Garbarek. And his bouzouki player spends far more time on guitar, which he plays with the studied eclecticism of a Bill Frisell. A-
  • Eric Reed: Happiness (2000 [2001], Nagel Heyer). Stanley Crouch loves this guy, but we shouldn't hold that against him. Nor his (not unrelated) association with Wynton Marsalis. All those things prove is that Reed is slightly to the right of mainstream. The one previous album that I have heard didn't strike me as offering anything of interest, but this one is ebullient, to say the least. This is a label that likes to have fun with its old fashioned music, and the lineup can do a lot: Marcus Printup (trumpet), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Wayne Escoffery (tenor/soprano sax), Wessell Anderson (alto sax), plus bass, drums, and a few extra guests. "Suite Sisters: Crazy Red" is about as ebullient a piece of music as I've heard in a long time. B+
  • Randy Sandke: Cliffhanger (1999 [2003], Nagel Heyer). Another old fashioned trumpeter, who cut a series of bright, fun, but less than spectacular albums for Concord, and has now moved on to the German label. I haven't heard The Re-Discovered Louis and Bix (4-star rated in the Penguin Guide), but this is by far the best one I have heard. The band is superb -- especially the Washingtons, which you expect by now, but also Mulgrew Miller and Harry Allen, both of whom prefer to run flat out. The ballad features focus more on Sandke, and he acquits himself well there. B+
  • Jenny Scheinman: Shalagaster (2004, Tzadik). The klezmer one expects of a violinist on John Zorn's label is just one of many touchstones of this transworld jazz. Hints of India and Brazil also appear, but she isn't rooted anywhere except in the sound of her group. With Myra Melford playing harmonium, Scheinman's violin and Russ Johnson's muted trumpet build up thick layers of sound. When Melford switches to piano, the options become more rhythmic. And that's what Scheinman sees in the world: lots of options. A-
  • Zu & Spaceways Inc.: Radiale (2003 [2004], Atavistic). The delta between the impeccably free jazz DKV Trio and Spaceways Inc. is in the bass players: the latter group's Nate McBride favors hard funk rhythms, which are food for thought for Ken Vandermark and Hamid Drake. The first Spaceways album covered Funkadelic and Sun Ra, while the second was built from Vandermark originals with the same vibe. Zu is a trio from Italy, dominated by the baritone sax of Luca T. Mai. They showed up in Chicago a few years back and cut an album, Igneo for punk avatar Steve Albini, which Vandermark guested on. The first half of this album is just Zu and Vandermark, improvising around simple twists, the two saxes looming heavily. The second half brings in the rest of Spaceways for a double trio, which rips through pieces by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra, and rocks out on two Funkadelic grooves. A-

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Book: Raja Shehadeh: Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine (Penguin Books)

Aziz Shehadeh was a prominent lawyer in Jaffa up to 1948, when Britain relinquished control of Palestine and Israel was born. He was an Anglican Christian. His wife's family was well to do, owning a hotel in Jaffa, and a summer house in Ramallah. Like most residents of Jaffa, they fled under fire by the Irgun. In their case, they were able to go to the summer house in Ramallah instead of having to flee to a refugee camp. (The British shipped a great many residents of Jaffa to refugee camps in Beirut, which have since had particularly sad stories.) Raja Shehadeh was born into this Ramallah exile. He grew up much like his father, but also different -- a generation difference marked by exile and occupation. He followed his father into law, studying in Beirut and London before returning to work in his father's law practice in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. Both father and son are notable, in their own rather distinct ways, for the moderation of their political views -- in particular for their strong belief in the essential rule of law. I'll return to the father's own efforts to promote peace, but first we need to pay some attention to the son's efforts to promote the rule of law.

Although not central to this book, it seems to me that Raja Shehadeh has done two especially noteworthy things during the period of this book. One is to have patiently and meticulously documented the everyday overhead of Israel's occupation on the West Bank. The other is how he, again patiently and meticulously, has worked out the legal underpinnings of the occupation (aside from its much more famous extralegal operations). That neither of these were done in a conventional political framework only adds to their impact -- in particular, it doesn't allow them to be easily ignored. This is not the same as saying that he comes to no political conclusions, but he is clearly outside and well distanced from the dominant political frameworks. What he does ask is that we take the rule of law as a fundamental requirement for any civilized society, and he does a very effective job of showing how the rule of law has been subverted by the politics of occupation (and, for that matter, of resistance).

Given recent events, one particular description seems especially worth quoting at length. This came from an interview with a young man, Khalid, whose had been detained and whose mother had hired him to help out. From pp. 153-154:

"After my arrest," Khalid told me, "I was blindfolded, thrown into a jeep, and brought to the Tegart [Israeli prison, originally built by the British]. It was late at night. I was brought before interrogators who concentrated their blows on my face and chest. I was asked to confess. I said I had nothing to confess. But they said they knew everything about me. I said if this was the case why are you asking. They did not like this and continued to beat me until the early hours of the morning when I was returned to my cell. I then heard an electric motor, which I eventually realied was turned on every morning at daybreak. This became my way to keep track of time, because my cell did not get any light. Part of the strategy was to disorient me by depriving me of sleep and food.

"'If you don't want to confess,' I was told, 'we will keep you here until you change your mind.' But they didn't know who they were dealing with. Judging by the times I heard the motor turned on, two days and two nights had passed before I was given food. Then they shoved me into a dirty toilet with shit smeared on the walls and floor and there I was made to eat my miserly meal. I did, anyway, because I was very hungry. I had hardly finished when I was taken to another room and subjected to a cold shower. While still wet I was put under a fan. I tried not to shiver; I did not want to give them the pleasure of seeing me suffer. But I could not control my body. It shivered, like a leaf, as it had never done before."

"'Now will you talk?' they said.

"'What about?' I answered.

"'You think you are too smart for us,' they said, 'we shall see who will have his way at the end.' They dragged me to a corridor where other prisoners were handcuffed and hung by the hands to a peg in the wall with a coarse stinky burlap bag placed over their heads. I joined their line and became another suffering body denied light and clean air, concerned only with the excruciating pain in my limbs. At one point I called the guard and asked to use the toilet. I got no response. Eventually I could not control my kidneys and the urine trickled down my dirty trousers making me stink. When it splashed on the floor I was slapped and cursed and called a filthy animal."

At this point Khalid turned to me and asked: "How long have I been at the Tegart?"

"Eighteen days," I said.

"It feels like months. After the first week I lost count. I had thought I was in for months. But you say it's only been eighteen days?"

I'm not sure when this occurred (late '70s or early '80s seems likely), but it reads like yesterday's newspapers. We hear much these days about how U.S. MPs in Iraq were inadequately trained, but from this it sounds like they hadn't missed a trick. One of the more peculiar things about the U.S. occupation of Iraq is how, as the occupation sours and we are ever more desperate for good will from Arabs, Bush has moved even more stringly to embrace Sharon. Any remotely sober analysis of Israel's occupation techniques must by now conclude that brutal policies of dominance have undermined Israel's security and welfare while spoiling its few victories. So the notion that the U.S. has anything to learn from Israel is delusional.

The other quote that I want to register is the description of Aziz Shehadeh in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, as he pushed a peace plan that nowadays seems remarkably astute. From pp. 49-52:

My father listed the names of forty Palestinians from different parts of the occupied territories. He believed that these forty dignitaties should convene and declare the establishment of the provisional government of the state of Palestine. They would declare their willingness to sign a peace treaty with the state of Israel on the grounds of mutual recognition and the immediate cessation of all acts of hostility. Negotiations would then immediately begin to resolve all aspects of the Palestinian problem. This would silence the Arab states, which never saved us from the disasters that befell us. If this was the will of the largest concentration of Palestinians, what was left for others to say? We, the Palestinaisn, who lost our lands in 1948 and remained in this part of Palestine despite the misery and deprivation. We, who were now resolved to come to terms with our history and to determine our future life in peace and reconciliation with our bitterest enemy. What right would any of the Arab states have to denounce such an action taken by the Palestinians themselves?

The legal foundation for the initiative would be United Nations Resolution 181, which had called for the partition of Palestine into two states: one for the Arabs and another for the Jews. This was how my father thought the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis would end.

It was a simple plan, one that he had worked out in full and believed must be implemented immediately if it were to succeed. The two Israelis carried his proposal and wrote their own memorandum, which they presented to the Israeli coalition government headed by Levi Eshkol.

[ . . . ]

But in 1967 he was 55 years old. While others were paralyzed with fear, he was clear headed. He saw this misfortune as a repeat of an earlier round. In 1948 he had abandoned his fate to the Arab armies and ended up on the other side of the border having lost everything, defeated and destitute. Once again he had counted on the Arab armies to fight his war in 1967, and again the result was defeat as well as the occupation of the rest of Palestine. Now was the time, he thought, for the Palestinians to draw the correct conclusions, to take their fate in their own hands.

Those who did not want a Palestinian state, he believed, included the Arab countries. They wanted to keep the Palestinians in bondage and continue to have the threat of war as a justification for not making long-overdue political changes within their own countries. He knew the odds were not in favor of the Palestinians' actions. He predicted that this defeat would be followed by stirred emotions and bravado. And then people would wait for the next round of war, which would decidedly be another futile war, because he now believed that war was not the way Palestinians would achieve their national aspirations.

He also believed that Israel must be concerned about the prospect of controlling the million Palestinians now under its jurisdiction. He did not think that there would be any meaningful resistance by the Palestinians in the West Bank, but Israeli apprehensions of possible civil disobedience -- or worse, street fighting in the narrow lanes of the old Palestinian cities -- could be used as a factor to persuade Israel to agree to the final politial resolution he was now proposing. For all these reasons time was of the essence. It had to happen now if it were to happen at all.

He seemed to have found an answer that satisfied him and he did not look back. He was a decisive man who hated hesitation. He was brave to the point of recklessness. He took no precautions. He published several articles in local and international journals statin gthat the only resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was through the peaceful establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. He made himself available to journalists and gave interviews to the many who flocked to our house. But most important, he drafted the declaration for the establishment of the Palestinian state, which he circulated to other Palestinian leaders in the area and then presented to the Israeli leadership. He knew that if he could garner enough support for his ideas among both Palestinians and Israelis, history could be changed. He believed this was a unique opportunity.

But the Israeli government leaders to whom the plan was presented didn't even respond. They just let it pass. They, and we, missed another opportunity for peace.

Dan [Bavely, one of the two Israelis mentioned above] wrote a book called Missed Opportunities and Dreams. Talking to Dan helped me see the events of that time in their proper historical perspective. I told him that I didn't believe my father was a politician. He was instead a visionary. A politician assesses events and takes what actions he thinks he can get away with. How could my father have possibly thought he could get away with this one?

Dan disagreed: "Aziz was a strategist. He was shrewd and meticulous and had thought of every angle: the legal, the political, the economic."

"But do you really believe it could have worked?" I asked.

"Yes," he said emphatically.

"And what about the PLO?"

"It was not until 1968 that the organization came into prominence, after the battle of Karameh. At the time your father made his proposal, the PLO was not in the picture."

"And Jordan?"

"Jordan wanted the whole thing back. In Israel we had no interest in returning the territories to Jordan."

"Was East Jerusalem to be included in the Palestinian state?"

Jerusalem was not a problem then. Everything that you hear now about Jerusalem and the way it is presented as a central issue that is among the most difficult to resolve did not feature then. Yes, Jerusalem was part of the deal."

I said, "You were willing to agree to a full Palestinian state."

"A full Palestinian state."

Obviously, this proposal didn't fail only on the Palestinian side. In particular, it was just a matter of days until Israel annexed East Jerusalem. It's harder to read just what the situation with Jordan was. In 1947-48 Israeli leaders negotiated with King Abdullah of Jordan to cede large parts of the West Bank rather than allow them to become part of an independent Palestinian state (Golda Meir, who soon replaced Eshkol as Prime Minister, was personally involved in those negotiations), and the "Jordan option" remained a favorite of Shimon Peres (also a prominent figure in the Israeli government of the time) until King Hussein eventually killed the idea. The coalition government also included people like Menachem Begin, whose idea of Israel's proper borders didn't stop at the Jordan River.

Still, the prediction that time was of the essence -- that such a proposal had to be moved on quickly in order to make it successful -- was clearly correct. One thing that I think that proposals like this do is to show, by their very reasonableness, that Israel's oft-stated desire for peace was less than met the ear. Israel accepted the initial U.N. partition proposal, but didn't implement its proposed borders, and rejected every subsequent mediation proposal -- going so far as to assassinate the U.N.'s first mediator. It's easy now to fault the Arab committee's rejection of partition, but it should be recalled that the rejection took place before the nakba -- the refugee crisis -- at a time when many Arabs lived in areas allocated to the Jewish partitions; also that Britain itself did nothing to implement the U.N. partition boundaries, and conspired to bring Transjordan into the West Bank. Israel consistently refused to negotiate peace treaties following the U.N. brokered armistice agreements. Over the next 20 years Israel provoked many border disputes, especially with Syria, as well as attacking positions in Gaza and the West Bank (e.g., the Sharon-led attack on Qibya in 1953, generally cited as his first major atrocity). Israel waged aggressive wars in 1956 and 1967, and has continued to occupy territory seized in 1967 to today. One can cite many more examples, especially regarding the Palestinians.

It is worth noting that even under the many insults and injustices of military rule in the occupied territories, it took 20 years before the Palestinians inside the West Bank and Gaza raised a significant level of resistance. Therefore, it's hard to see that there would have been a problem forming a Palestinian state in 1967 that would have recognized Israel, and it's clear that that would have undercut any anti-Israel positions among Arabs elsewhere. There would still have been the refugee crisis to resolve, and that would have been thorny, but it doesn't appear to have been a precondition. It is likely that the resolution then, as now, would have been for the refugees to move to the Palestinian state, and that would have been easier done then, with much less longlasting damage. Moreover, with the Palestinians happy, about all that Egypt and Syria could have done was to sue for peace, with Israel returning the conquered lands in exchange for demilitarization and normalization of relations. On the other hand, what did Israel gain by ignoring this proposal? More wars, much hatred, a legacy of imperialism, and a thoroughly militarized society increasingly dominated by religious maniacs, increasingly ostracized by the rest of the world.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

One more note on the Korean War: Following WWII three countries were partitioned between the U.S. and the Soviet Union: Germany, Austria, and Korea. Germany and Austria also had British and French partitions; Korea just had Soviet and U.S. partitions. Each of these was ultimately handled differently, and there were different reasons for each. The one we forget about is Austria, for the simple reason that it was peacefully reconstituted as a whole nation, and thereafter it never caused trouble for anyone. The agreement there was that Austria had to remain neutral between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and that neutrality served Austria very well.

The differences between Austria and Germany were that Austria was a much smaller country and, more importantly, wasn't blamed for WWII. After two world wars, Stalin wanted to throttle Germany, and keeping it divided and weak made it less likely to rise up again. Korea was like Austria in that it had no culpability for the war, but several things got in the way of an Austrian-style solution. The single most important thing to understand is that what the U.S. viewed as Soviet expansionism following WWII was in fact two separate things: 1) Stalin installed a number of puppet regimes in eastern Europe (Poland and East Germany being the purest examples), led by exiles who had no political base in those countries; 2) other countries were seized by indigenous resistance movements led by Communists (China, Yugoslavia, Albania) that allied with Stalin but weren't really controlled by him. The former were established under a "sphere of influence" concept that was largely defensive in intent -- WWII had been immensely damaging to the Soviet Union, and Stalin wanted buffers to protect Russia from a recurrence. (These spheres of influence were actually negotiated between Stalin and Churchill; one consequence of this was that the Greek resistance that had fought Hitler was crushed by the U.K./U.S.)

The U.S. soon conflated these two, and the effect of this was to expand a regional power struggle into a worldwide Cold War -- although in its initial conception there was little cold about it. The tendency of Communist parties worldwide to supplicate to Stalin and the Soviet Union made them look more united than they ever were. Conversely, as the leader of the worldwide workers' revolution, Stalin gave lip service to revolutions that he never actually supported -- and in many cases wound up sabotaging. The effect of this conflation was that the U.S. soon became the patron of anticommunist fascists and militarists and plain old crooks worldwide.

Korea differed from Austria in several critical respects. Timing mattered: by the time Japan was defeated the level of U.S./Soviet hostility in Europe was already rising, which was exploited by right-wingers in the U.S. to push an anticommunist agenda. At the time Japan surrendered Soviet forces already occupied parts of Korea, leaving them in a position to install a postwar government. (The U.S. had no troops in Korea, but nonetheless convinced the Soviets to withdraw to north of the 38th parallel, allowing the U.S. to install the dictator Syngman Rhee.) Also, Kim Il Sung had distinguished himself in Korea's resistance to Japan, which gave him an indigenous power base in Korea. The American view of Korea further degenerated as Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-Tung drove the Nationalist Chinese from the mainland, setting up the domino metaphor that so clouded U.S. thinking later, especially regarding Vietnam. Faced with perceived Soviet expansionism both in Europe and in East Asia, losing its nuclear weapons monopoly, the U.S. started leaning toward a policy of "rollback" -- viewing war with the Soviet menace as inevitable, this was the original preemptive war strategy. When war did break out in Korea -- one way to look at this is that Kim Il Sung saw the writing on the wall so he decided to preempt first -- the U.S. didn't just stop the North Korean advance; the U.S. pushed the war lines almost to the China border, prompting China's entrance into the war, and the long, ugly, vicious stalemate that followed.

The consequences of the Korean War turned out to be immense. The basic doctrine of Cold War came from the Korean stalemate. Because the U.S. viewed Korea as just one instance in a much broader struggle, the U.S. showed no willingness to move toward peace in Korea -- they figured that peace there would jeopardize U.S. interests elsewhere. The U.N. had failed to prevent or (more importantly) resolve war in Korea. the U.N. had in fact become an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and it was never able to regain its legitimacy. Japan was soon recruited as an ally of the U.S. in the Cold War, compromising its unique pacifist status. The partitioning of Germany hardened along Cold War lines. The U.S. reversed its demilitarization, creatin a military-industrial alliance that dominates U.S. politics even today. Korea also had a critical effect on U.S. policy in the Middle East: in order to secure British support for the U.S. in Korea, the U.K. was able to get the U.S. to overthrow the government of Iran, restoring a good piece of Anglo-Persian's oil monopoly and empowering Shah Pahlavi, leading to the Iranian Revolution.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Book: Gavan McCormack: Target North Korea (Nation Books, 2004).

Since it took office, the Bush administration has worked steadily at slow roasting North Korea. They started by ditching a near agreement that promised to stabilize the region; then they released various Bush quotes about how disgusted he found Kim Jong Il, and stoked the fires further by inducting North Korea into the "Axis of Evil." The preemptive war strategy was aimed mostly at justifying war against Iraq, but North Korea felt like a target, and they responded with a series of moves that made Bush look like a hypocrite for attacking Iraq first. Possession of WMD was much more credible by North Korea than by Iraq. Moreover, North Korea had an active industry exporting weapons -- especially missiles -- whereas Iraq was building drones out of balsa wood. But Bush just cut back the heat on North Korea a bit, scheduling a series of meetings where we refused to negotiate anything, but at least that bought time while preserving the status quo. Despite all the hot talk, the status quo is pretty much all that the U.S. really wants. After all, the status quo barely costs us at all: just means we have to rattle some sabres, while North Korea sinks deeper into an economic abyss, Japan clings closely to U.S. promises of defense against the red menace, and South Korea has to make concessions to the U.S. just to keep the American wrecking ball sheathed.

The latter is the most interesting part of this dynamic: on the one hand, North Korea's real deterrent against U.S. attack doesn't have anything to do with nuclear weapons -- it's that they possess enough conventional firepower to level Seoul in a matter of minutes. Yet the majority of South Koreans fear the U.S. more than North Korea. The more democratic South Korea has become, the more it has opened up to the idea of living with and reconciling with North Korea. They are, after all, one rather tightly knit people, and the division that tore the country apart had much more to do with politics in Washington and Moscow than anything intrisic to Korea. One would think that if the U.S. had the slightest interest in regional peace we would defer to South Korea to help make this happen. But we don't defer. If anything we deliberately work to exacerbate the problem. We've contained North Korea behind crippling economic sanctions for 50 years now, leading to damage as severe as mass starvation. It shouldn't be surprising that the effect has been to make North Korea the most paranoid nation on earth, and as such one of the most dangerous.

So why do we do it? Continuing punishment for the Korean War stalemate is a possible reason, but 50 years is a long time for grudges. Perpetuation of the American military mission is a more current reason: North Korea is, after all, the sort of nasty threat that fuels our need for an insane defense posture. More pertinent is the effect is has on our ability to control Japan. Japan has its own longstanding grudges with Korea (South as well as North), and we've been able to push Japan's buttons by manipulating the North Korea threat. One of the big puzzles of the last 20 years has been why Japan is so subservient to U.S. imperial policy. If you go back further it makes more sense: Japan built up its economy on free trade with the U.S., and buying defense services helped to keep the free trade doors open. But as Japan became more powerful in the '80s they had less reason to do so; in the '90s, the collapse of the Soviet Union removed a big excuse, and economic doldrums cut back on Japan's capacity for largesse. Modern Japan was conceived of as a pacifist state, and that unique standing could have given Japan a unique role and status in the post-Cold War world. Yet it doesn't seem like Japan ever considered the prospect. As the U.S. redeployed its war machine against new enemies -- rogue states, drug smugglers, and now terrorists -- Japan just tagged along. I don't understand Japanese politics, and I don't have a clue why things happened this way, but I find it really hard to believe that Japan fears North Korea so much that it willingly submits to U.S. military domination. That just doesn't make sense.

These are just a few of the thoughts that come from reading Gavan McCormack's immensely useful book. There is much more detail on the culture and ideology of North Korea, including a strong argument that its leadership cult resembles Imperial Japan much more than any Communist political system. There's also a basic but very useful chapter on the Korean War, which leaves no side looking the least bit pretty. The story of Syngman Rhee, in particular, reminds us that whatever it was that the U.S. was fighting for in Korea it wasn't freedom, equality, or justice. Both sides committed atrocities, but it cannot be denied that what "our" side did was extraordinarily vile. Nor that the negotiations leading to the armistice were unnecessarily protracted, resulting in many more casualties. Nor that "our" unwillingness to turn the armistice into a secure peace treaty has caused further suffering on a huge scale.

One more thought I have is that if the U.S. has been so callous and so indifferent, indeed downright opposed, to peace in Korea, why should we think that U.S. policy regarding Israel has been any better? The results, including staggering human costs that have been stretched over half a century, are much the same.


I haven't had much to say about the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib, mostly because that's the sort of thing that I expect from the U.S. military and intelligence outfits. That sort of thing has happened in one form or another throughout the recorded history of war, which is one of many reasons to stop going to war. What did surprise me a bit was how strongly the upper echelons came out condemning the acts (if only the ones that had been disclosed). The normal reaction among such people is to deny and cover up -- while someone high up might have recalled that it was the cover up and not the scandal that sunk the Nixon regime, the Bush people have rarely if ever displayed anything remotely resembling alacrity. I wondered whether this sudden drift of the administration toward acknowledging its crimes was part of a broader shift toward exit, as full disclosure of these crimes makes the U.S. occupation of Iraq all the more untenable.

Since then, the picture has been getting both clearer and muddier. It is clear that Abu Ghraib is not an isolated case: we're seeing reports of similar crimes in Afghanistan and Guantanamo and all over Iraq, and much of this has been linked back to CIA interrogation policies going back to '50s and taught to many generation of School of the Americas graduates. Moreover, it's also clearly linked to political policies announced by at least as high up as Rumsfeld. But that doesn't mean that the buck is going to stop where Harry Truman said it must stop. Today's paper headline is "Top officials deny role in Iraqi abuse." So the denial has started to set back in, and with it deliberate efforts to muddy as much water as possible. The predictable bottom-up defense is that we were following orders. The predicatable top-down defense is more like we didn't realize that we had given exactly those orders, and in any case that's not what we meant. Meanwhile, the right wing hate machine is gearing up to defend every atrocity, and in the usual symbiotic alliance Al Qaeda has helped them out with videos of their own.

Anyone surprised by all this was just being naive. In civil life we develop norms of behavior that keep almost everyone civil, but those norms are inevitably suspended by war. After all, once killing is permissible, once it's reinforced by one's social order as the correct thing to do, what difference does a little rape and torture make? You'd think that the very word "war," which merges all of these evils into one discrete noun, would be enough to make us cringe. But we live in a country that celebrates war and warriors, and that normally refuses to look at or consider the consequences. Abu Ghraib may have briefly opened some eyes, but the inevitable fruits of this war have been all around us since the very start. And that's due not merely to the errant soldiers or their deluded leaders, but to the very nature of their mission.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Music: Initial count 9208 rated (+25), 987 unrated (-9). I'm starting to get a handle on the Jazz Consumer Guide, which will be the main focus this coming week -- although I also need to knock off one more Rearview Mirror, and I'm closing in on another Recycled Goods. The new jazz stuff is being done elsewhere, and will only show up here once it's settled. I've also started to build a directory of notes by artist -- nothing really in it right now, but as I was working on Dave Holland's ECM comp I started to collect some discographical info that I wanted to keep sorted. (Holland has 15-20 records under his own name, but he has played on over 200 records, and I wanted to see what the pattern of his sideman appearances might suggest. One thing that I've noticed along the way is that he is often on only one or two records per artist, but they are often high points in the artist's discography -- take a look at the Penguin Guide ratings some time.) I haven't started moving notes on Holland's various records up there, but I imagine that's where that section is going. I'll probably do the same for the other ECM comp artists that I have.

  • Rabih Abou-Khalil: Morton's Foot (Enja/Justin Time). The Lebanese oud master's many albums are rooted in the improvisational tradition of Arab music, but vary according to the jazz musicians he works with. The more traditional Tarab, with Selim Kusur's nay in the lead, and the more modern Blue Camel, with Charlie Mariano's vibrant alto sax, indicate his range. This mostly Italian band adds to his depth: with accordion, tuba and clarinet it sounds gypsy (in the original sense of the word, as opposed to ethnic roma), while Gavino Murgia's vibrating bass vocals (evidently a farmous Sardinian tradition) reminded me first of doo wop. One more note: his records have long been famous for their distinctive packaging, a cardboard flip-open with glued tray, but with lovely metal foil embossed designs. This one has changed to a trifold with just a slit for the CD, which makes it feel less substantial (although the foil is still used). A-
  • The Bad Plus: Give (2004, Columbia). Everything you read about them is true, more or less. They're an acoustic jazz piano trio, but amplifiers give them all the volume they want, and they can amplify themselves by playing together, as they usually do. Their hard rock covers are a commercial gimmick, but they also like them because they are built to flex muscle, and because improvising on pop hits is as old as Charlie Parker. They're the next big thing in jazz, but anything in jazz that looks outward and gets noticed looks big. This album is even denser, deeper, brighter, and more complex than the first two. All true, more or less. A-
  • Terence Blanchard: The Billie Holiday Songbook (1993 [1994], Columbia). Ugh! Strings! I bought this thinking it might provide a point of comparison to James Carter's Gardenias for Lady Day, but the first aperçu seems to be that maybe Columbia writes the requirement for a Holiday tribute into their standard jazz contract. The strings are not credited, at least on the back cover. Five cuts have vocals by Jeanie Bryson, who isn't the second coming of Billie Holiday, but she's an agreeable enough fill-in -- sort of has the small voice, but she's sweeter, and of course doesn't have the heavy phrasing (who else does?). Unlike Carter's record, this one at least sticks to the songbook. Like Carter's record, that includes "Strange Fruit" -- done dirgelike with mostly spoken vocal. Blanchard is a fine trumpeter, and his arranging skills are normally superb. But I really don't get why otherwise intelligent people insist on doing her up in strings. Unless I missed something, Holiday's only association with strings was the embalming job of Lady in Satin, a really terrible album. B-
  • The British Invasion 1963-1967 (1961-67 [2004] Hip-O, 3CD). Done a lot of research on this scattered elsewhere, and wrote two other notes. For the record, the Beatles thing was cut in 1961 and released in 1964. The booklet mostly cites UK charting dates, because 12 of these 54 songs didn't chart in the U.S. That's also why the start date is 1963 instead of 1964, when the British Invasion actually invaded. I tried to track down as much chart info as possible (see link). I couldn't find any Brits charting U.S. singles in 1963 ("Telstar" hit in December 1962, so it was on the charts into March or so, 1963, but that's the last one I found before you-know-who's "I Want to Hold Your Hand"). In 1964 I count 46 Brit singles in the U.S. top 20, which is about as dramatic a shift as you can find. The number goes up to around 50 in 1965, then declines back toward 40 in 1967, and presumably continues to decline until Oasis can't buy a U.S. hit, but that's SFFR. I've said many times that the important thing about the '60s British rock bands is how they worked to reacquaint American rockers with important American pre-rock music (especially blues), and that's true. Another important thing is that it really opened the door for a transatlantic dialogue which at least one more time (punk) kicked U.S. rock up a notch and many times added to the music. However, for those who lived through it the real impact of the British Invasion was evident in most of all in its trash. This comp has next to nothing of the major UK bands of the period (two klassic Kinks cuts, one Zombies, three from the Who, who for U.S. purposes really came later). It also misses important founts of trash: most importantly the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits. The occasional trivia is exceptionally bad, and the 1967 material that fills out the third disc is ultra-lame -- bad psychedelia, artrock moves (the great "A Whiter Shade of Pale," but also the Moody Blues, bad Traffic, two Cat Stevens cuts. Nobody's ever made a good British Invasion comp, and this is no exception. B
  • James Carter: Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge (2001 [2004], Warner Brothers). Cut in Detroit on a night meant to celebrate four generations of Detroit saxophonists, this is basically a good natured free for all -- which after the crass deliberation of Carter's Gardenias for Lady Day is very welcome relief. Franz Jackson is the oldest, and he sings (a bluesy "I Can't Get Started") as well as plays; then comes Johnny Griffin and David Murray. Griffin barely gets a toot in edgewise; Murray is more voluble and impressive. And, of course, Carter is overwhelming. A-
  • Marilyn Crispell: Contrasts: Live at Yoshi's 27 June 1995 (1995 [1996], Music & Arts). Solo piano, highly touted in the Penguin Guide: "The Yoshi's gig from the club in Oakland is interesting in being more obviously jazz-based than anything she has released in recent years. That bill Evans remains a constant presence, perhaps more important to her now than either coltrane or Braxton were in past years, seems obvious. That she has assimilated his work and taken it on a step is equally clear. What is intriguing about numbers like "Flutter" and "Ruthie's Song" is how straightforward and full-hearted they seem. Gone for the time being at least are the dense, dark washes and the battering-ram tonality. Crispell has found the courage to be simple, and it becomes her wonderfully well." The following year she started recording for ECM, where simple is a watchword. Here she does an Annette Peacock piece (anticipating her first ECM), two Evans pieces, one by Mark Helias, and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," as well as her own work. A-
  • Cursor Miner Plays God (2004, Lo). Electro beats. English accent. Don't know where this came from, or why I got it, but the lead cut, "War Machine," grabbed me instantly -- reminds me a bit of OMD's "Electricity." Of course, that level isn't sustained, but song #5, electronica that actually swings, has a treated comic voice and is called "I Want to Be a Foetus" -- talk about sub-juvenile. "Me and My Clone" sustains the joke. The wit gets a bit carried away toward the end, with a set of distorted instrumentals that sometimes sound like your stereo gear is melting into an ugly blob. But this record is one pretty brilliant surprise. A-
  • The Best of Wayne Fontana & the Minebenders (The Millennium Collection) (1965-68 [2004], Mercury). That should be "and/or," with 3 songs here attributed to all, 7 just to the Mindbenders, and 1 to Fontana. Graham Gouldman (of "Bus Stop" and 10cc fame) wrote the last two songs, and played on one. They had two hits ("Game of Love" with Fontana; "A Groovy Kind of Love" without), the former hard junk, the latter slick candy. The only other item here that catches the ear is Gouldman's "Schoolgirl," which is well on its way to 10cc la-la land. B-
  • The Hip Hop Box (1979-2003 [2004], Hip-O, 4CD). A-
  • The Jones Brothers: Keepin' Up With the Joneses (1958 [1999], Verve). The Jones Brothers are Hank, Thad, and Elvin. Each is a major figure in postwar jazz. The band is filled out with Eddie Jones, not a brother but at least a Jones, on bass. The album cover proclaims "playing the music of Thad Jones and Isham Jones." Isham is another non-brother brought in by the all-Jones concept. He played tenor sax, composed, and led an orchestra that was taken over by Woody Herman. When this was cut Elvin was 21, not the major figure he soon became. (I'm writing this a couple of days after he died, at which point it's safe to say that he was one of the all-time greats.) Hank and Thad are both prominent here, but Thad's somewhat fragile tone and idiosyncratic play makes the strongest impression. Some lovely work here. B+
  • Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (2004, Interscope). The last of her A+ rated 20 Greatest Hits was cut in 1981; the last of her A- rated box set came out in 1988. She's a bit short of 70 now, so anything notable runs the risk of being dubbed a comeback. And now she's been adopted by Mr. Jack White Stripes and run through his hype machine. Unlike Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash, she still writes her own songs, and doesn't depend on her bare voice to put them across -- although one suspects that when White wanders off Rubin could do worse than to move in. The songs are nothing special, but the cheatin' (or, more explicitly, cheated on) songs have some spine, and the self-explanatory "Story of My Life" is fine. But the difference here is that White deploys a vastly varied musical palette, unlike anything ever heard in Nashville. "High on a Mountain Top" is the bluegrass move, while "This Old House" and others are wrapped in steel guitar, but other songs flash rock moves, and "Have Mercy" doesn't have much else. Nor are the rock moves all the same -- some crunched chords, some stretched out guitar. "Miss Being Mrs." is just done over sharply stung acoustic guitar. "Little Red Shoes" sounds like a spoken tape, Lynn telling a rushed, slightly confused story, with White sprucing it up with flaring little guitar lines. Unless "God Makes No Mistakes" is meant to be ironical (and you can't prove that by me) it's self-contradictory. The maudlin "Women's Prison" has nothing to do with anything so mundane as prison: it's a cheatin', killin', death row thing, sure to show up on Vol. 4 of The Executioner's Last Songs. Anything you're likely to read about this is likely to be swathed in hyperbole, but the bottom line is that she's a legend, he's a smartass, and this is the novelty album of the year. Best thing here is "Mrs. Leroy Brown," an outrageous rockin' cheatin' bloody revenge song. Weighs in around 39 minutes -- it's so over the top we're lucky they knew when to quit. A-
  • Prince: Musicology (2004, Columbia). Here's my first approximation: sounds like a perfectly average Prince album. Wish I had time to refine that further. Just looking back over his plentiful discography it strikes me that my reticence to sort this out is not just a reflection of present workload -- there have been lots of Prince albums that I've played enough to admire but not enough to learn why some are better than others, or why I should care. His first record came out 25 years ago, so we can start to consider his longevity on top of everything else. While nothing since Sign O' the Times has seemed like an advance, he still has chops aplenty. The funk up front is just what's needed to set the table. "What Do U Want Me 2 Do?" is a ballad that holds up. "Dear Mr. Man" is a protest thing that doesn't lose its grip. Pretty good record, even if just how good remains to be seen. A-
  • Pulp: Hits (1992-2002 [2003], Island/Chronicles). One of those British pop groups that are intrinsically incomprehensible to Americans -- myself included, although I have no problem conceding that "Common People" was one of the greatest pop anthems of the '90s. The fact that it and "Disco 2000" are on Different Class makes it a highly recommendable album.
  • The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll 1946-1954 (1946-54 [2004], Hip-O, 3CD). The roots go deeper than 1946, but starting then gives them 4-5 songs per year to start, and more toward 1953-54. But the issue isn't really secondary to rock 'n' roll -- this music more than stands on its own. In fact, if anything early rock 'n' roll just started with a grossly simplified subset of what was already there, and periodically returned to the well to feed and grow. I could nitpick a few of the selections, but that would only be nitpicking. Some serious brains with good ears put this together -- Andy McKaie is the producer/compiler, but in compiling this he also credits Billy Altman and Peter Grendysa. The latter was one of the authors of The Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings, and he clearly knows his shit. Altman is a well known rock critic of my generation, and he put together some really superb compilations for RCA Bluebird, becoming Exhibit A in my case that rock critics do it better. A
  • Pharoah Sanders: Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong (1987, CBS Special Products). Leon Thomas sings the title song, with some splendiferous saxophone blowing around the words. Next up is "Equinox": a Coltrane piece with pounded percussion and sax screech. Sanders has a unique sound that stretches, strives, pulls itself apart. This has both an electric piano (Donald Smith) and an acoustic one (William S. Henderson III). A rather beautiful "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" follows, then Thomas comes back for a blues, "If It Wasn't for a Woman." "Clear Out of This World" is a heavy-handed blowout piece; while Sanders often sounds terrific, the piano is not much better than pro forma, and the rhythm is positively dull. Finally, Thomas finishes with another blues, "Next Time You See Me," done hot and heavy. B+
  • Get Yer Boots On: The Best of Slade (1971-84 [2004], Shout Factory). Part of England's early '70s glam/glitter rock movement, best known for their reliance on overwhelming volume. I missed them at the time, so this best-of fills in a small gap in my education. Like most glam rockers, they were into simple riffs played loud. Typical titles: "Gudbuy T'Jane," "Cum On Feel the Noize," "Shweeze Me, Pleeze Me," "Bangin' Man." Those are all pretty good songs, as is "My Oh My," but strangely enough I had to turn the volume down to figure that out. The one called "How Does It Feel" is utter crap, but maybe if you play it loud enough you won't care. B+
  • Strata Institute: Cipher Syntax (1988 [1989], JMT). Steve Coleman/Greg Osby group, with electric guitar. Sort of a disjointed fusion funk thang. The full band strikes me as excessively slinky -- mostly a sound that I don't much care for, although the skewed beat also figures into that. But a cut with just the two horns seems to work fine. B
  • The Best of the Troggs (The Millennium Collection) (1966-68 [2004], Mercury). Remembered today as the apotheosis of really dumb rock 'n' roll, they had a huge hit with Chip Taylor's "Wild Thing" b/w with the charting "With a Girl Like You," and had a second top-ten hit with "Love Is All Around." They recorded a couple of memorably dumb albums in the '70s, but this comp limits itself to their '60s heyday. Aside from "Wild Thing" all of their songs were written by vocalist Reg Presley. The minor hits are OK, but they're also in Hip-O's British Invasion box. The tough early songs like "From Home" and "I Want You" are OK too, but their "As Tears Go By" move ("Little Girl") misses. They weren't cut out to be sensitive balladeers; they were cut out to be England's answer to the Stooges, but they hadn't heard the question yet. Length: 29:48. B
  • Alan Vaché Big Four: Revisited! (1997 [1998], Nagel Heyer). With David Jones (cornet), Bob Leary (guitar), Phil Flanagan (bass); no drums, but for this kind of music they don't have much trouble keeping a steady rhythm going. While the cornet makes for a nice contrast on the hotter numbers, the key here is Vaché's clarinet -- beautiful tone, marvelous facility. There's little to fault here, but little to get excited about either. Compare, for instance, his "Panama" to the one Chris Barber cut on the album of the same name: this one is just fine, but Barber blew the house down. Leary's vocal on "She's Just Perfect for Me" is a plus. B+
  • Allan Vaché and Friends: Ballads, Burners and Blues (2003 [2004], Arbors). Give him an A for the ballads, except maybe for an overly reverent "Danny Boy" -- he gets a beautiful tone from his clarinet, controls it impeccably, never gets hurried or flustered; A- for the burners, where Ed Polcer's cornet plays second fiddle, flying off in classic polyphony; more like a B for the blues, which smolder enough to make you think he really wants to burn. "Besame Mucho" doesn't really fit any of those categories; he gives it a respectable performance, his lead glowing, but the rest of the band doesn't help much. He never pushes the music much beyond showing off his considerable chops, so his albums aren't likely to break out beyond his niche. But he's probably the best trad clarinetist working today -- maybe the best since George Lewis or Artie Shaw, depending on how you order those guys. B+

Friday, May 14, 2004

Looking at The Nation's "How to Get Out of Iraq: A Forum," one thing I've noticed is that none of the participants actually get down to the mundane question, how. That the U.S. should get out of Iraq -- i.e., that prolonging the occupation does no net good either for the Iraqi or the American people -- can be conceded, at least in this audience. But as long as the U.S. leaves, does it make any difference how the U.S. leaves? I think so.

There are several common fears about what might happen following a quick U.S. withdrawal, and while these are commonly given as excuses not to face facts, they have their kernels of truth. The most commonly aired one is that U.S. withdrawal will leave a power vacuum which will lead to civil war. Iraq is, after all, severely factionalized, and most of those factions are well armed. Another is that a U.S. exit under fire will show weakness, lack of resolve, and an unwillingness to take responsibility for our actions. It is further argued that any signs of weakness will be taken as a victory by our terrorist enemies, and that this defeat will in the long run come back to haunt us. The former has the convenient property that it suggests that our dilemma is a flaw inherent in the very design of Iraq, but the latter is more to the point. Anyone who thinks that War on Terrorism matters (not me, maybe not you, but nonetheless an overwhelming majority of the political voices in the U.S.) understands that the stakes are high, and the cost of defeat is likely to be severe.

The problem, as is so often the case, with this logic is reality. Regardless of whether the problem was intractable from the start or whether it was merely screwed up by the Bushmen, the facts on the ground have made it impossible to achieve the initial goals behind the war. And it's important to understand that the set of options for dealing with this fiasco are narrowing. Iraqi good will has almost vanished, and the prospect that a generous reconstruction may win them over isn't even a prospect. American unity cannot be rebuilt at this point, and without it a major influx of additional resources is impossible. And don't even think about other nations, or the U.N., throwing good money after bad just to save our sorry asses.

But let's get real here. Sooner or later, Iraq will be run by Iraqis, and the later that is the more the U.S. will be blamed for everything that goes wrong in the meantime. In fact, it's already too late for the U.S. to escape blame. The best that the U.S. can hope for from here on out is to minimize the damage. A quick exit would do this, but it would leave Iraq at the mercy of its many militias, and would leave the U.S. without a shred of justification for the war -- and while I (and probably you) could care less about the U.S. saving face here, that is a very big concern among the people who would have to order the withdrawal, either in the Bush administration or its successor. So is there a way that the U.S. can save face without incurring and causing a lot of damage?

Sort of. Here's the way it goes. First the U.S. implements a unilateral cessation of all offensive operations, and retreats to its bases, turning over whatever governments or other institutions to whichever local leaders seem most legitimate. The U.S. announces a new set of rules of engagement, which permits U.S. forces to return fire when U.S. bases are attacked, and permits U.S. forces to counterattack any Iraqi militias that attempt to seize power by force. The U.S. agrees to be strictly non-partisan with regard to internal Iraqi affairs, and to that end halts all propaganda activities, all subsidies and payments to Iraqis, including all reconstruction projects, and the U.S. pledges to work through diplomatic channels to ensure that no other nation interferes in internal Iraqi affairs. The U.S. also announces its intent to completely dismantle its bases and exit Iraq completely when a duly constituted Iraqi government asks it to, but no later than two years. The U.S. then starts to draw down its forces stationed in Iraq to show good faith.

The first thing this does is to significantly reduce the footprint that makes Americans targets for Iraqi resistance. As long as the U.S. does not interfere in Iraqi affairs, there is little benefit, and much cost, for Iraqis to attack. This means fewer American casualties and many fewer Iraqi casualties, so it goes far toward breaking the current cycles of violence. The provision that allows the U.S. to counterattack violence from militias also helps put a damper on potential violence, since any militia tempted to advance its cause violently would wind up paying a severe cost. The net effect of this policy is to take militia strength out of the political equation in Iraq. Iraq is a nation of minority factions. As long as none can dominate by force, their only recourse is to negotiate with one another, which will tend to drive them toward democracy and civil rights. This is in fact the justification that the U.S. leadership is so desperately looking for, and may very well be the only way that it can be achieved.

However, this can only be accomplished if the U.S. agrees to sacrifice any ulterior motives, especially based on pursuit of national (or multinational business) interests. That will be a very hard pill for Bush or Kerry to swallow, given that our whole political system as we know it is based on advancing private interests through political power. Still, it is a reckoning that needs to come: Iraq is just one of many disasters that await a nation so arrogant as to pursue only its own narrow interests all around the world, and the sooner we face up to the need to do the right thing the better off we and they will be in the long run.

This leaves the whole question of what kind of government Iraq will have completely open, because the answer to that question is not something that the U.S. can dictate nor is it something that the U.S. should try to influence. The U.S. is poison in Iraq, and we have to recognize that, and what it means. Whether Iraq can form a viable democracy is something that can only come from the Iraqi people. The only things that we can do are to strive against outside interference (including us), and to make it impossible for any faction to impose tyranny by force. Fortunately in this case, the latter is one of the few things that the U.S. military is actually competent at (and perhaps more important when it comes to deterrence, credible). Still, if you look at Iraq's history, the single biggest obstacle to building democracy there has been foreign interference -- indeed, what's made Iraq's factionalism so destructive is when factions see external alliances as the key to power.

This is an approach which lets the U.S. save some face -- we don't "cut and run," we "stay the course" -- but it also doesn't try to do what we now know to be impossible. Indeed, it goes further toward realizing Operation Iraqi Freedom than the Bush regime intended. We are now facing not only abject failure in Iraq, we're facing an endless, debilitating War on Terror all around the world. On the other hand, if this works, we might finally start to turn the corner from empire to world citizen. So the plan is not merely how to get out of Iraq. It's how to start the post-Iraq healing process.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

The news got burried under the other scandals, but Bush picked another war this week, when the U.S. announced that it was unilaterally imposing a wide range of sanctions on Syria, including freezing Syrian assets held in U.S. banks. The reason given was inadequate vigilance by Syria in terms of preventing "foreign fighters" from infiltrating Iraq. (I still bet that more than 95% of the foreign fighters in Iraq come from the U.S./U.K.) But it is a clear escalation of the rhetoric of demonization that the U.S. lays in advance of hotter wars. There are prominent neocons who make no secret about their desire to take the war to Syria, so this is a victory for them. It also aids Sharon in that it is one more excuse (as if he needed any) to ignore the requirement that Israel withdraw from Syrian lands occupied since 1967. Cooperation between Bush and Israel over Syria was demonstrated most clearly when the U.S. applauded after Israel bombed Syria last summer, in alleged retalliation for a suicide bombing that had nothing whatsoever to do with Syria.

Economic sanctions are a better way of opposing nations that are behaving badly than sporadic bombings -- a weapon that the U.S. and Israel have used many times -- let alone invasion and occupation. Nonetheless the imposition of sanctions is a proximate act of war: it is meant to undermine not just the offending government but the welfare and human rights of an entire country. It should also be clear by now that sanctions, especially against non-democratic countries, have been shown to have had a very poor track record of doing anything other than reinforcing the nation's current power structure, often at the expense of the people. Well known examples of U.S.-imposed sanctions include North Korea (50 years), Cuba (40 years), Iran (25 years), Iraq (12 years, followed by invasion and occupation). Perhaps the U.S. has been emboldened by their one recent sanctions "success" -- extorting over $1 billion from Libya plus dismantlement of a nuclear weapons program that wasn't going anywhere anyway. Syria now has the choice of negotiating its way out of the Bush bombsights, or hunkering down. If they do the latter this will be another black eye for the U.S. in the Arab world.

Like all acts of war, sanctions are a failure of diplomacy. As the U.S. occupation of Iraq has soured, the U.S. finds itself driven to ever more desperate acts, and those acts can only serve to isolate, embitter, and impoverish us further.


I saw Rashid Khalidi on Charlie Rose last night, and I thought he made several serious mistakes in how he answered various questions. I don't have any transcripts to go off of, so take these points with a grain of salt.

  • Khalidi criticized the U.S. for dropping its sanctions against Libya. The point Khalidi wanted to make was that the U.S. has no real sincere regard for democracy in the middle east, which is fair enough. The U.S. dropped its sanctions against Libya without Libya making any movement toward democracy, so Khalidi took this as proof that the U.S. wasn't really interested in democracy in Libya -- that all the U.S. actually cared about was opening up capital markets. The problem with this example is that sanctions are tantamount to war. Khalidi would certainly not argue that the U.S. should go to war with every nation that is undemocratic, or that has a bad human rights record. So why should we impose sanctions (a form of warfare) on those countries? There are, in fact, strong reasons why we should not -- they have little history of working, and they are themselves crimes against humanity. The U.S. dropping its sanctions against Libya isn't in itself an endorsement of Libya's political system -- in itself, all it does is to halt an ongoing war. Moreover, his argument left Khalidi unable to bring up the U.S. escalation against Syria -- an escalation with a very real threat that it may further escalate beyond the level of sanctions.

  • Rose pressed Khalidi to endorse what is evidently a strawman argument in Khalidi's recent book, which basically posits a very different set of conditions and assumptions about the U.S. invasion of Iraq which might have had the effect of achieving certain limited U.S. goals (WMD disarmament, deposing Saddam Hussein, creating a viable democracy in Iraq, but not maintaining any permanent U.S. occupation or presence and not altering Iraq's economic system) without a crippling level of resistance. I can imagine a program like that -- although I cannot imagine the U.S. implementing it. But Rose asked Khalidi whether, given such a fantasy, he would have supported the war, and Khalidi said yes. I would still have said no, and at bottom (remember, in this argument we're no longer talking about the real United States) I think that the reason is because war in itself is such a crude and unpredictable instrument that it's impossible to be assured that nothing disastrous will happen.

  • Rose tried to make the point that whatever's wrong with U.S. policy in Iraq could simply be changed by changing U.S. administrations in the next election. I don't recall Khalidi's reaction, but obviously that not only depends on having a new administration with a new set of goals (which Kerry has thus far failed to even hint at), it depends on them being credible to the Iraqi people and to the internationals. To take just the most obvious of points, the people who think that the U.N. is the solution forget that the U.N. launched the 1991 war, that the U.N. managed the sanctions policy, that the U.N. failed to confirm that Iraq had given up its WMD programs, etc. The U.N. is a thoroughly discredited organization in Iraq. The U.S. is thoroughly discredited. Changing presidents will help, but a lot more has to be done.

  • Khalidi made a couple of comments on the Israel/Palestine situation that I thought were slightly off-base. He said that he thought that the latest Sharon/Bush pact may have made any two-state resolution impossible. The more important point is that Sharon/Bush gives up the very idea of resolution: there will be no agreement, therefore no mutual recognition, therefore no resolution. Israel will continue to dominate and terrorize the occupied territories; the Palestinians will continue to resist as best they can. Sharon may think that eventually they will give up, or he may not think that but he's so convinced of his strength that he don't think that it will ever matter.

One more comment: It seems like lots of people who are critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East get a perverse thrill out of criticizing Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royals are corrupt, the regime is despotic, the clerics are repressive, many are tied to terrorists, some are tied to the Bushes, and so on. This is all substantially true, but some other questions arise: Who are we to talk? Why does it matter to us? The thing I find most interesting about the Saudis is that they seem to perch outside and above the usual political dialogue, and as such they're relatively immune to its straitjacket. The one thing the Saudis really believe in stability, which gives them a strong desire to mediate and compromise all disputes. That's a lot more constructive than anything our ideologists -- left or right -- have to offer. Maybe we should cut them some slack on that account. Same for the Mubaraks, Khadafis, Assads, Hashemites. In all of those cases their own subjects no doubt have valid issues to redress, but we're in no position to judge them. At least as long as every criticism we utter can be taken as a threat of war.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Music: Initial count 9183 rated (+59), 996 unrated (+33). The rated count was boosted by a quick stroll down memory lane, adding 37 grades to records I haven't heard in decades. Since those weren't previously counted among the unrated, that didn't help the unrated count any. The latter has continued to climb as new jazz comes in. I'm pretty sure that as of now I have more than enough good records queued up to knock out my first Jazz Consumer Guide. I'm also relieved to note that a delayed Rearview Mirror column has finally appeared, and that my procrastinated (originally February, now rechristened April) Recycled Goods column is also up. Also my even longer procrastinated Jimmy Lyons Box Set review (a draft anyway, still have a bit of work to do there) is also done. The other publishing news of note is that my jazz/world fusion piece for the Village Voice Jazz Supplement got scratched in one of those miscommunication fits that partially explain why I didn't write about music in the '80s and '90s. The good news there is that it clears the deck of a time-consuming synthesis piece. Making a living doing this is inconceivable anyway; at this point my plate has been reduced to: one more Rearview Mirror, which will be on three Hip-O boxes; a May Recycled Goods, which is mostly written and old news for readers of this notebook; and the Jazz CG.

  • Rabih Abou-Khalil: Tarab (1992, Enja). Oud, with Selim Kumar (nay), Glen Moore (bass), Nabil Khaiat (frame drum), Ramesh Shotham (South Indian drums). His records are exotic enough that they stand out as a unique category, and so consistent that they sort of blend into each other. You can think of the oud as a guitar -- it can play lead lines, but more often than not it slides back into the rhythm. The nay (as it's spelled here; ney is the spelling I most often run across) is somewhere between an end-blown flute and a clarinet -- a frontline instrument, but not an especially strong one. Very appealing record, although much of it runs together. One cut that stands out is "Orange Fields," but its successor hangs in there too. The final cut, "Arabian Waltz," climaxes. A-
  • Rabih Abou-Khalil: The Sultan's Picnic (1994, Enja). A larger group this time: Howard Levy (harmonica), Kenny Wheeler (trumpet, flugelhorn), Charlie Mariano (alto sax), Michel Godard (tuba, serpent), Steve Swallow (bass), Mark Nauseef (drums), Milton Cardona (conga), Nabil Khaiat (frame drums). The extra musicians can make this more complex, but they don't change the fundamental equations. The more western instrumentation has mixed results -- the big loss is the subtlety of the ney. But Mariano gets in some good solos, and I never complain about tubas. Overall, a shade less interesting than Tarab or Blue Camel, but that's a rather marginal distinction. B+
  • Big Black: Ethnic Fusion (1982 [2001], Mutable Music). Not the hardcore rock band, nor any of several other Big Blacks I've run across. This one is Danny Ray, and he shows up on odd jobs every now and then, usually credited with percussion. Here he plays tumbas and bongos, and is joined by Anthony Wheaton on guitar. It's pretty minimal -- I like the rhythm, I like the guitar, I'm just not sure how much there really is here. B
  • Anthony Brown's Asian American Orchestra: Far East Suite (1999, Asian Improv). The idea here is to transplant Far East Suite back to the far east, adding some distinctive Asian instruments -- Brown (gong), Mark Izu (Chinese mouth organ), Qi Chao Liu (Chinese mouth organ, reed trumpet, bamboo flutes), Hafez Modirzadeh (Persian end-blown flute [ney], double reed instruments and frame drum) -- to a conventionally largish band: Brown (drums), Louis Fasman (trumpet, fluegelhorn), Izu (bass), Jon Jang (piano), Melecio Magdaluyo (alto/baritone sax), Dave Martell (trombone), Modirzadeh (tenor/alto sax, alto clarinet), Jim Norton (clarinet, alto/baritone sax, bassoon, piccolo), Wayne Wallace (trombone), Francis Wong (tenor sax, flute, clarinet), John Worley (trumpet, fluegelhorn). Along the way they stretch Ellington's 45-minute suite up to 62:22. Aside from the stretch and minor alterations of tone, this follows the original rather closely -- although Worley's trumpet on "Amad" doesn't sound anything like Cat Anderson, and Brown finishes that piece with a first rate drum solo. "Ad Lib on Nippon" is bigger than ever, and sometimes the music is so magnificent I come close to being convinced. But I miss the sleek, lean lines of the original, for whatever they may have lacked in local color they made up for in pure Ellingtonia. B+
  • Anthony Brown's Asian American Orchestra: Monk's Moods (2000 [2002], Water Baby). Brown can be obvious: Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire told the story of young Nisei musicians in love with Glenn Miller. On Far East Suite, he steered his big band through Ellington's Asian travelogue, adding local instruments without undercutting the magic. Here he moves on to Monk, and he practically cheats: cribbing from Hall Overton's Town Hall arrangements, and importing none other than Steve Lacy as his guest soloist, while replacing Monk's piano with Yang Qin Zhao's Chinese dulcimer. Yet it works, most of all in the subtle details: the dulcimer on "Brilliant Corners" mysteriously turning into a horn section, Brown's drum breaks bridging time shifts, the funny little curve on "Hackensack"'s two-note punctuation. A-
  • Johnny Cash: Hymns by Johnny Cash (1959 [2002], Columbia/Legacy). This showed up in a lot of lists that accompanied Cash's obituaries. It was deemed especially significant because Sam Phillips wouldn't record any gospel music by Cash, and that was given as one of the reasons Cash left for Columbia. (Couldn't have been money, after all.) Short, with just one bonus track (a reprise of "It Was Jesus"). Also short on rhythm, although his "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" impresses, and his own "He'll Be a Friend" is good old testament storytelling. B+
  • Bill Cole and the Untempered Ensemble: Duets & Solos, Volume 1 (1999-2000, Boxholder). Not much of an ensemble here: this begins and ends with solo pieces, one on bamboo flute, the other on shenai (an Indian double reed instrument, a little more shrill than an oboe). In between are duets with Cooper-Moore (on his homemade instruments, not his piano), Warren Smith (gongs and drums), and William Parker (bass), while Cole rotates through a series of exotic instruments. Interesting conceptually, performed expertly, just not much buoyancy or something like that -- something that compels one to listen beyond the exotica. B
  • Bill Cole and the Untempered Ensemble: Duets & Solos, Volume 2 (1999-2000 [2001], Boxholder). Same basic deal as Volume 1, starting and ending solo, with duets sandwiched in between. These tend more toward pairing Cole and his menagerie of instruments with other horns -- alto sax, tuba, flute, "baritone horn" -- but the most successful pairing is again with William Parker. Cole's interest in exotic double reed instruments achieves an apotheosis of sorts when he tackles the hojok, a Korean contraption that ranges from a warbling low end not far removed from bagpipes to a high end somewhat like a trumpet. The closing solo is also on hojok, but more tentative, no doubt because he doesn't have Parker to guide him. All in all, a little better than the first one, but not as much fun as his marvelous Seasoning the Greens, cut with a full group. B+
  • Woody Guthrie: Muleskinner Blues: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 2 (1944 [1997], Smithsonian Folkways). Classic stuff, but Cisco Houston sings harmony on almost everything here, and I find that the two voices lose the simplicity and focus and steadfastness that I associate with Guthrie, regadless of his pluses and minuses as a singer. Can't complain about Sonny Terry's harp playing. B
  • Woody Guthrie: Buffalo Skinners: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 4 (1944-45 [1999], Smithsonian Folkways). Sounds like they saved all the cowboy songs for this one. I find these songs fit him well. A-
  • Roy Hargrove Presents the RH Factor: Hard Groove (2003, Verve). With three keyboard players, two saxophones, two guitars, two basses, and two drummers, the RH Factor here can kick up a plenty hard groove, as on the title cut here -- at least until it fizzles out. But there's also a raft of guest stars. Common raps out "Common Free Style," with some tasty trumpet and catfish guitar. Next song comes from Clinton-Hazel, with D'Angelo the lead funkateer, simmered down to a gritty moan. Q-Tip does a rap, with Erykah Badu chiming in. Stephanie McKay is another guest -- guess she comes from Brooklyn Funk Essentials (a band I don't know). Steve Coleman plays on a couple of cuts -- one wound up and funky, the other relaxed. Anthony Hamilton sings, a lugubrious ballad. "The Stroke" is a lounge thing, slow, make-out music. This has been a tough record to make my mind up about: I suspect this will boil the blood of the purists, but I don't care about them -- the concept of finding a ground which subsumes hip-hop and jazz is fine with me; and while I'm generally leery of guest stars on big label jazz albums -- it's not like I can point to any good jazz records with, say, 3+ single-cut guests on them -- and for that matter don't think much of them on hip-hop records (although there are exceptions there), it makes sense that sooner or later someone is going to pull it off. The raps here are decent, but they're not great. The P-Funk rocks. The trumpet player is a good one. But several times they snatch failure from the jaws of success, and too many times they don't even do that. B
  • Dave Holland Quartet: Dream of the Elders (1995 (1996), ECM). In the generation of bassists between Mingus and Parker, the only one who rivals Holland is Charlie Haden. Both have been famous names for a long while, their names often appearing above the line in duos and trios. In the '90s both started to move more firmly as group leaders: Haden with his Quartet West, and Holland with this Quartet and his later Quintet. Having started in the avant-garde, both moved slightly retro in doing so: Haden toward west coast cool, Holland into a postbop variant that could be called euro-cool. Overall this album feels transitional (especially now that we know that better ones came later), but the lead cut ("The Winding Way") is powerfully suggestive -- a sinuous melody, a prominent bass groove, effective solos from Steve Nelson (vibes, marimba) and Eric Person (soprano sax here; he also plays alto). The band plays with delicate and judicious interaction, but the ideas do sort of thin out. The closer, "Equality," is particularly lovely; the first half closes with the same song, with Cassandra Wilson singing a lyric from a Maya Angelou poem, an effective and tasteful statement. B+
  • Jon Jang Sextet: Two Flowers on a Stem (1995, Soul Note). Jang's melodies are rooted in Chinese music, but the real oriental feel comes from Chen Jiebing's erhu -- a string instrument likened to a cello. The only other oriental instrument is the gong that bassist Santi Debriano uses. The rest of the group: Billy Hart (drums), James Newton (flute), David Murray (tenor sax, bass clarinet). The early sections here tend to favor newton, his flute providing an arch airiness. On rarely does the music here lapse into the stateliness I associate with Chinese music -- the bottom line is that Jang swings too much for that. The latter half is increasingly turned over to Murray, who rips off an astonishing solo on "Variation on a Sorrow Song of Mengjiang Nu." B+
  • The World's Greatest Jazzband of Yank Lawson & Bob Haggart Live (1970 [1988], Atlantic). The front cover title continues: "with Billy Butterfield, Vic Dickenson, Bud Freeman, Gus Johnson, Jr., Lou McGarrity, Ralph Sutton, Bob Wilber." Lawson played for Ben Pollack, Bob Crosby, and Tommy Dorsey during the '30s, and Benny Goodman in the '40s. By the '50s he was classic enough to play King Oliver's parts on Louis Armstrong's A Musical Autobiography. The rest of the band is more/less as legendary (Dickenson and Freeman are on the more side). The world's greatest? I wouldn't rate them favorites in a battle of the bands with Chick Webb, let alone Count Basie or Duke Ellington, but as trad groups go they got a lot of talent and feel for the music. B+
  • Jimmy Lyons: The Box Set (1972-85 [2003], Ayler, 5CD). I've written much about this elsewhere -- an entry for Recycled Goods, a moderately long piece for the Village Voice. I got into this because I had written about a couple of other albums on this label, so when I passed on the news I rumaged through the website, noticed this recently minted set, and sheepishly suggested that they might send me a copy. I knew who Lyons was -- even had one of his records (a duo with Andrew Cyrille which I didn't expect much out of, but was pleasantly surprised), as well as the usual pile of Cecil Taylor rants -- but I didn't know much about him, certainly didn't have any sort of feel for him. The main thing I did know was the lead-in to the Penguin Guide, a tantalizing comparison to Charlie Parker. Most of the time when I ask for something I get it or I don't get it, but this time we entered into a prolonged stretch of negotiation. The upshot was I'd get a copy if I could promise a Village Voice review. To my surprise, the Voice bought that. But after I got the thing it took me forever to get the hang of it -- well, six months, anyway. It's not really all that hard -- the booklet gives you everything you need to crib a review. But the basic problem is that I didn't like it as much as I was supposed to like it, and I find this kind of music to be so difficult that I'm rarely sure of myself. Now, the first part isn't really a problem: there's lots of shit that other people hype to the rafters that I don't get or just don't care about, and that's just part of the deal. The second part is the problem: the fact is that I do respond to the music of Cecil Taylor and/or Jimmy Lyons -- just not in the terms, and not in the measure, of the critics who dote on this music, and rather than write up my true gut reactions I just let things simmer, a long time. The other reviews of this set (and I've probably read all of the ones in English, and in atrocious automated translation many that weren't) are without exception blindly adulatory. Most likely what's happened here is that I'm the most mainstream critic who's managed to take a crack at the set -- partly because one has to have had a lot of interest just to go fishing for it, plus the negotiations, etc., plus the time it takes for someone who doesn't live and breathe Cecil Taylor to sort it out. This is all very difficult, and it worries me a bit -- you know, that someone who likes my taste in Scott Hamilton and Bill Charlap is going to take a flier on this and hate me forever. Admittedly, I'm not worried a lot, because $100 isn't an impulse purchase -- at least not where I live. But will they really hate it? I think the first disc is actually broadly appealing -- obviously we're not talking Benny Carter or Phil Woods here, but someone who digs Jackie McLean ought to really get off on this. The other discs are less thoroughly appealing, but each adds something to the story, and I have to respect that this time the additions add up to more than the sum of their parts. I probably have 150+ career-spanning compilations of notable jazz musicians, and while some are better musically, few come close to sizing up their subjects. A-
  • Albert Mangelsdorff Quartet: Live in Tokyo (1971 [1972], Enja). With Heinz Sauer (tenor sax), Günter Lenz (bass), and Ralph Hübner (drums). Cover has two alternate titles: "Diggin'" and "Live at Dug, Tokyo," but the spine prevails. Mangelsdorff is one of the legends in the German avant-garde, in European jazz more generally, and in the history of the trombone regardless of locale. What little I've heard of his early '70s work, when he was most prolific, tends to thrash about wildly, making for tough listening. This one isn't so bad, but it still has the flavor of how pungent his trombone can be. Also, his sense of sound, as on the second cut where he lays out long tones against which the sax cuts. B+
  • Thelonious Monk: Monk (1965 [2002], Columbia/Legacy). I missed this one when it was reissued in 2002, but after a spate of Monk reissues in 2003, Robert Christgau singled this one out as his favorite (at least from the Columbia period). My own preference has long been It's Monk's Time, but this is the same group, same sound, same songbook. Monk was past his invention stage, settling into a stretch of just enjoying his music. The group's rapport is terrific, with Charlie Rouse sounding particularly fine. The retake of "Pannonica" stands out. A-
  • Jemeel Moondoc & William Parker: New World Pygmies (1998, Eremite). Moondoc hung around Cecil Taylor during his college phase, then settled in New York and put together a group called Ensemble Muntu with Parker, Roy Campbell, and Rashid Bakr. Parker worked with Muntu up to around 1986, but then not again until this meeting. Three of the six pieces here are credited to Parker, one to Moondoc, two (including the title cut) jointly, so perhaps Parker has a home field advantage. Rumors that Moondoc is in scream mode are exaggerated, if not downright false. He plays with precision and logic, and much of this is quite pleasing if not downright lovely. Parker is rock solid, of course -- worth the effort of listening to even when Moondoc is playing. A drummer might have been a plus -- for at least part of a second (two years later) volume Hamid Drake joins. The three of them also play on Live at the Glenn Miller Café, which is looser and jauntier than this one, both easier listening and more thrills. But this may pay more dividends if you take the trouble to listen to it. A-
  • Emily Remler: Retrospective, Vol. 1: Standards (1981-88 [1991], Concord). Died young (32, heart attack, evidently heroin isn't good for that), shortly before Concord distilled her five albums into two compilations. She was into Wes Montgomery, although she also duetted with Larry Coryell. Like many comps, this sounds inconsistent; like most lite guitar, a horn runs roughshod over her. Like most breakdowns between standards and originals, the standards are easier to analyze and offer her more range. The jaunty "Daahoud" (cut with Hank Jones and first-rate bass/drums) is a strong start. Her unaccompanied take on "Afro Blue" is probably the best thing here. B+
  • Archie Shepp: The Cry of My People (1972 [2004], Impulse). Following Attica Blues, Shepp goes overboard in his black church gospel schtick. As an impressario, his choirs and strings and conductors and arrangers and conspiracy with the almighty go so far over the top that it's almost campy. As a musician, Shepp is far and away the best thing here -- his few tenor solos are remarkably phrased, completely cogent, and his soprano solo on "African Drum Suite" is tricky and a little scary but effective. Shepp only wrote two songs here, but they're the best ones, in large part because they are the most joyous. (Ellington's "Come Sunday" is sunk under Jon Lee Wilson's vocal -- the liner notes compare him to Billy Eckstine, which in my book is faint praise, to which I'd add "not even"; Shepp doesn't sing, but we now know that he's better than Wilson -- though maybe not Eckstine.) B
  • Steve Turre: Right There (1991, Antilles). There can be no doubt that Turre is one of the most impressive trombonists of our times. But I've never been so sure about the shells, which make an early appearance here. As do strings, the vocals of Akua Dixon Turre (not bad, but she seems to throw the band into slimy swing mode), congas, timbales, flute, and guest stars like Wynton Marsalis and Benny Golson. I just wish he'd play his horn more, as he does to excellent effect with virtually no accompaniment on "Echoes of Harlem." B
  • Fred Wesley: Comme Ci Comme Ça (1991, Antilles). The great JB trombonist, with Maceo Parker, Karl Denson, Hugh Ragin, Rodney Jones, Peter Madsen, Anthony Cox, Bill Stewart, and Teresa Carroll -- just the names but no instruments were listed on the back cover, but aside from Carroll (vocals) I'd have no problems filling them in. Madsen, Cox and Stewart are first rate jazz pros, but Jones (guitar) has never impressed me, and the horns don't promise much. Ragin gets in a decent solo, but not enough trombone, not enough grit, not funky enough. And the singer is unknown for a reason. B-

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

One thing worth noting about Michael Ignatieff's piece in last weekend's New York Times Magazine is the title creep. The cover asks the question, "Could We Lose the War on Terror?" However, the article inside is called "Lesser Evils" and the subtitle is "What it will cost us to succeed in the war on terror." I don't know what caused this creep -- is it possible that the cover editor read the article? (Actually, it was a rhetorical question at the end of the first paragraph.) These shadings are significant. The actual subtitle implies that success against terror is a matter of budgeting, but there's nothing in the article that even remotely looks like a recipe for success. But then even its staunchest advocates see war on terror as an exercise in constant vigilance, not as something that might ever come to a resolution. Strip the subtitle of the dubious word "success" and you wind up with something like "What the war on terror will cost us" -- now we're getting closer to the heart of the article, although we also need to look at the word "cost." The costs in Ignatieff's article aren't budgetary: what he is really worried about is how much damage we democratic, freedom-loving people do to ourselves by waging war on terrorism. He has proposals meant to minimize the damage, some of which at least have the redeeming value of being better than current (Bush) practices. Still, they are based on a foundation of delusion. What I want to do below is to give you some excerpts, and comment on them.

Consider the consequences of a second major attack on the mainland United States -- the detonation of a radiological or dirty bomb, perhaps, or a low-yield nuclear device or a chemical strike in a subway. Any of these events could cause death, devastation and panic on a scale that would make 9/11 seem like a pale prelude. After such an attack, a pall of mourning, melancholy, anger and fear would hang over our public life for a generation.

Let's start by thinking about the unthinkable. It should be obvious that this, a cornerstone in Ignatieff's manifesto, is hyperbole. The attacks of 9/11 killed approx. 3000 people, and resulted in direct monetary damages of several billion dollars. (I don't have a good figure for the latter, but I only mean to include the costs of rebuilding and dislocation, not the costs of things the U.S. voluntarily did after the events, like tightening airport security or invading Iraq.) Aside from the nuclear bomb scenario, those attacks aren't a "prelude": they're damn close to being the worst case scenario. What made the attacks so efficient was the fact that the WTC concentrated so many people so high above ground level. Nowadays, there's no building in the U.S. that comes close to its profile, and while one can imagine denser crowds of people (e.g., the Super Bowl) such aggregations tend to be harder to hit and more easily defensible.

Even more obvious is the "chemical strike in a subway" scenario. That's been done, in Tokyo, in 1995. It killed less than a dozen people. It could have been worse, of course, but we're talking 250 times worse to reach par with 9/11. The more conventional bombs in Madrid killed approx. 200; you'd need 15 of those to compete with 9/11. Chemical and radiological weapons are very scary -- I don't mean to make light of them, but they don't have much potential to wreak significant (even 9/11-scale) damage.

Nuclear devices ("low-yield" or not) are another story, but thus far they've exclusively been the province of intrastate war. They are very difficult to produce, and very jealously guarded, and thus far there is no evidence that potential terrorists have ever managed to get hold of one. But the potential devastation of such a device has been clearly demonstrated (the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima killed 70000 immediately, plus another 70000 died within five years due to radiation exposure, plus others developed cancers beyond five years), so it is easy to imagine scenarios far in excess of 9/11. However, it is also easy to provide effective controls to prevent any such event from happening in the future: the critical step is worldwide nuclear disarmament.

But big problem with terrorist acts isn't the immediate damage. It's fear. It's often said that terrorism is theater designed to instill fear. But while fear of such acts is rational to a point, the real problem occurs when fear is ramped up to such a level that it starts to irrationally warp policy. Japan's brush with sarin in the subway didn't do that. Japan calmly fixed its problems and soon returned to life as normal. The same thing happened in the Oklahoma City bombing -- next to 9/11 the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. What made 9/11 different was only partly the scale of the event: the fear was hugely amplified, first through the media (the TV networks called their coverage "America under attack") and very quickly by political opportunists. (It was a day full of Pearl Harbor analogies, without a President like FDR to remind us that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself.") But the amplification of fear wasn't just conspiratorial: one key reason we were so afraid was that we knew, deep down, that we (the U.S. government) had done things that led to this attack. That's why the attack was not an isolated incident; that's why there would be more attacks. That's also why the opportunists, the politicians and their ideologues were so quick to bury any discussion (even from someone as clueless as Pat Robertson) of possible American culpability.

A democracy can allow its leaders one fatal mistake -- and that's what 9/11 looks like to many observers -- but Americans will not forgive a second one. A succession of large-scale attacks would pull at the already-fragile tissue of trust that binds us to our leadership and destroy the trust we have in one another. Once the zones of devastation were cordoned off and the bodies buried, we might find ourselves, in short order, living in a national-security state on continuous alert, with sealed borders, constant identity checks and permanent detention camps for dissidents and aliens. Our constitutional rights might disappear from our courts, while torture might reappear in our interrogation cells. The worst of it is that government would not have to impose tyranny on a cowed populace. We would demand it for our own protection. . . . This is what defeat in a war on terror looks like. We would survive, but we would no longer recognize ourselves. We would endure, but we would lose our identity as free peoples.

And this scenario will be triggered by another terrorist attack? From where I stand, it looks like 9/11, as exploited by George W. Bush's political machine, has pretty much done the trick. Maybe we can argue over how many political dissidents are in which jails. Certainly the scenario for native-born U.S. citizens could get a lot worse. But everything Ignatieff threatens is in the works, but that's not because of terrorism -- it's because certain interests have found it profitable to exploit the fear that terrorism feeds. And this, needless to say, is not just Bush work; Ignatieff would not be able to publish articles like this were it not for this fear, which makes him (like Bush) a war profiteer.

The very phrase "war on terror" should have been the giveaway. Two simple rules should be etched on everyone's brain, because they are inarguably true:

  • It is impossible to win a war. Both sides in every war suffer irretrievable, irredeemable losses, and incur shock and trauma that haunt them the rest of their days.

  • War is proof of failure. Since loss is inevitable, we all have the utmost responsibility to prevent any conflict from degenerating into war, and the more power one holds, the greater that responsibility.

The key to breaking this cycle is to not wage war, not even war on terror. This is not a concession to terror. This is the only way to reject terror, the only way not to let terror devour us. Ignatieff is right in recognizing that war against terror threatens is as real a threat against our own way of life as terror is. Where is he wrong is in thinking that his "lesser evils" are lesser, and that this excuses their evil.

Even if Al Qaeda no longer has command and control of its terrorist network, that may not hinder its cause. After 9/11, Islamic terrorism may have metastatized into a cancer of independent terrorist cells that, while claiming inspiration from Al Qaeda, no longer require its direction, finance or advice. These cells have given us Madrid. Before that, they gave us Istanbul, and before that, Bali. There is no shortage of safe places in which they can grow.

To the extent that this is true, this merely proves that the strategy of attacking the enemy head has failed, or maybe it was always irrelevant. The notion that Osama Bin Laden is the superstar of Islamic terrorism is mutually beneficial to him and to certain factions in the U.S. government: the villain and the villifiers. We like the idea of a villain because it is simple, tangible, finite; we especially like it because it's someone else. He probably likes the deal too: it flatters him, and lets him flaunt his notoriety just by hiding, while others do the dirty work. The problem isn't the figurehead; it's that there are others who have their own reasons to do the dirty work.

The cancer metaphor implies that the problem starts in one place, then spreads -- and at some critical point becomes systemic and ineradicable. The history of Jihadist Islamism is very different. It arose in many different places, under many different but usually local conditions, and was only loosely aligned by common reference to convenient interpretations of Islam. Al Qaeda played a small role in aligning local Islamist currents, mostly by providing financing and training, using channels that the U.S. pioneered in its Jihad against Communism in Afghanistan. The U.S. war on terrorism played a much greater role, elevating all local terrorism into an assault on the U.S. By defending injustice everywhere the U.S. has become a target everywhere.

Civil libertarians don't want to think about lesser evils. Security is as much a right as liberty, but civil libertarians haven't wanted to ask which freedoms we might have to trade in order to keep secure.

Security isn't a right, no matter how much one might desire it. It is the result of living under the rule of justice. Where justice fails to redress grievances, security is meaningless, ultimately impossible.

Justice is not a right either. It is imperative of any government that claims to be of, by, and for the people. The legitimacy of government depends on the people's understanding that it provides justice. All of our rights, our freedoms, our responsibilities depend on that legitimacy.

But thinking about lesser evils is unavoidable. Sticking too firmly to the rule of law simply allows terrorists too much leeway to exploit our freedoms. Abandoning the rule of law altogether betrays our most valued institutions. To defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war. These are evils because each strays from national and international law and because they kill people or deprive them of freedom without due process. They can be justified only because they prevent the greater evil. The question is not whether we should be trafficking in lesser evils but whether we can keep lesser evils under the control of free institutions. If we can't, any victories we gain in the war on terror will be Pyrrhic ones.

Oh ye of little faith! One assumption here is that evil works -- in fact, that it's the only thing that works. Underlying this is the deep notion that we and they have irreconcilably different interests and worldviews, so conflict is inevitable -- that we have and always will have enemies. Views like these are usually held by people who hold positions of undeserved privilege and/or people whose judgment of human nature is nasty and brutish. One common aspect of such views is the belief that our enemies only respect force, and that therefore we can only show that face to them. This is a self-realizing function: since enemies are inevitable, we treat them in such a way as to ensure their opposition. The net effect is to give them no choice except to fight us.

One should remember that this same sort of cycle is not new. It has a long history in Europe and America, although at home we have mostly gotten over that. This was done primarily by limiting the powers of government -- by establishing rights for individuals against potential abuse by government. Those rights, in turn, have given people non-violent means to redress grievances and challenge injustice. We have also in many cases (and the U.S. is hardly a leader in this regard) used the power of government to provide a safety net which supports the young, the old, the disabled, the indigent, and provides opportunities and hope for all. In nations like ours there are few if any terrorist acts, at least among the people who are integrated into the mainstream life of the nation.

The key innovation of American government was the system of checks and balances. The founders required the executive branch to justify coercive measures before Congress, and later Justice Marshall in Marbury v. Madison established the principle of judicial review. This system of "adversarial justification" is what keeps us free.

The system of checks and balances was designed to deal with overgrasping individuals (would-be kings), but it fails in the case of a party which is able to project and exercise consistent power throughout all three branches of government. We've essentially had a mixed party government from 1980-2000 (or really 1968-2000), and the mixed nature has prevented the worst possible abuses of power (not that there haven't been some tough scrapes). What's happened since 2000 is that the Republicans have seized power in all three branches of government, even though their margins in each are, well, marginal. This combination, along with powerful alignments with business, the media, and the military, and a dangerously activist rank-and-file, has allowed the Republicans to advance a dangerous political agenda -- much of which has been accomplished under a fog of war that they very much advanced.

This is why terrorism's chief impact on democracy -- not just in the United States but also in every other free society and especially in Spain and Britain -- has been to strengthen the power of presidents and prime ministers at the expense of legislatures and the courts and to increase the exercise of secret government. Much of the war against terror has to be fought in secret, and the killing, interrogating and bribing are done in the shadows. This is democracy's dark secret -- the men and women who defend us with a bodyguard of lies and an armory of deadly weapons -- and because it is our dark secret, it can also be democracy's nemesis.

Another way to look at this is that the executives have used the threat of terrorism as a means for advancing their own power. In Bush's case, in particular, war made it possible to push much of his program through a previously reluctant Congress, even though it had little to do with any wartime activities. Britain and Spain would not have entered into the Iraq war if their governments had followed the views of their citizens. Especially in those cases, terrorism didn't strengthen the executives so much as headstrong executives blundered their countries into war.

Torture will thrive wherever detainees are held in secret. Conduct disgracing the United States is inevitable if suspects are detained beyond the reach of the law.

Just in time, that quote was.

The dilemmas here are best illustrated by looking closely at pre-emptive war. It is a lesser evil because, according to our traditional understanding of war, the only justified resort to war is a response to actual aggression. But those standards are outdated. They were conceived for wars against states and their armies, not for wars against terrorists and suicide bombers. Against this kind of enemy, everyone can see that instead of waiting for terrorists to hit us, it makes sense to get our retaliation in first.

As I stated above, war is failure. As such, pre-emptive war is deliberate failure. One can imagine desperate scenarios where there is no alternative but to fight, but the act of pre-emption is the act that terminates the search for a peaceful resolution. Give this some thought and you'll soon realize that the only war that you ultimately have to fight is the defensive war against pre-emptive attack. Pre-emptive war is always wrong.

The second issue here is whether war is an appropriate response to terrorism. Given war as it exists now and in the forseeable future I think the answer is clearly no. Terrorism is by definition an act of individuals. There is no way that war can be waged with sufficient discrimination to limit its effects to the individuals involved, and as such war inevitably creates problems beyond what it solves. Trying to balance off the problems solved with the problems created is a hopeless endeavor: no matter how much you calculate, you can never know. And deliberate acts -- and what could be more deliberate than war? -- have to be based on what you do know, and only what you know.

Even those -- like me -- who supported the Iraq war because it might bring freedom and democracy to people who had been gassed, tortured and killed for 30 years had better admit that if our grounds for war had been squarely put to the American people, they probably would have voted to stay home. Worse still, Congress failed to put the president's case for war to adversarial scrutiny and debate. The news media allowed itself to be managed and browbeaten. The war may or may not bring democracy to Iraq eventually, but it hasn't done democracy any good at home.

The Bush administration only gave the people of the U.S. one option, take it or leave it, then manipulated information about Iraq, hiding their own motivations and plans (if you call them that), until they got the result that they wanted. I agree that a fair and open debate on the war would not have approved it. Ignatieff erred severely in thinking that a secret plan constructed by an administration that has shown nothing but contempt for democracy even inside the U.S. might have promoted any such thing in Iraq.

The difference between us and terrorists is supposed to be that we play by these rules, even if they don't. No, I haven't forgotten Hiroshima and My Lai. The American way of war has often been brutal, but at least our warriors are supposed to fight with honor and can be punished if they don't. There is no warriors's honor among terrorists.

Like the Americans were punished at Hiroshima and My Lai? What about Wounded Knee? There's nothing in U.S. military history or culture to think that the U.S. conducts its wars any more honorably than anyone else. This is not to deny that there are differences between the U.S. military and terrorists: the U.S. has vastly more devastating armaments, which can be controlled with much greater precision; the U.S. has a vast system of organizations to support its war efforts; above all the U.S. is able to kill with impunity, with very little chance of personal consequences. A suicide bomber can only kill by dying. That certainty of severe punishment is a powerful inhibition against committing a criminal act of war. On the other hand, the U.S. soldier risks next-to-nothing to commit the same crime.

The real moral hazard in a war on terror emerges precisely here, in the fact that no moral contract, no expectation of reciprocity, binds us to our enemy. Indeed, the whole logic of terrorism is to exploit the rules, to turn them to their own advantage. If we hesitate to strike a mosque because the rules of war designate it as a protected place, then the smart thing for a terrorist to do is to store weapons and suicide belts there. If our forces start from the presumption that civilian women should be treated as noncombatants, then terrorists will train women to be suicide bombers. If all existing codes of warriors' honor forbid the desecration of bodies, then it is not just mindless brutality but actually a sound terrorist tactic to drag contractors from a car in Falluja, set them alight and display their severed and burned limbs from a bridge. Such provocations are intended to drag us down to their level.

This misses the asymetry of terrorism, which is that the terrorist works in a world where it is impossible to work on the level of the forces in power. The terrorist doesn't have military resources to challenge power. The terrorist doesn't have legal resources. The terrorist has to improvise. If exploiting the sanctity of a mosque helps, the terrorist can only be thankful for small blessings. It's not my intent here to defend, let alone justify, terrorists. That I believe that most terrorists act because of a deeply felt sense of injustice that they can find no other way to redress is only a generalization -- it's quite possible that some are deranged, that some are sadistic, that some are hopelessly evil. And I think that it is true that in committing acts of terrorism they have failed, just like those who wage war have failed, to find a constructive way out of their dilemma. But I also believe that people who hold positions of power have a greater responsibility to act properly, because they have more options and opportunities to do so.

What Ignatieff is doing here, and elsewhere, is constructing elaborate rationalizations to justify behavior that he should know better than. By attacking the honor of people he has decided are hopeless enemies he hopes to redeem the honor of his allies, even though the latter do exactly the same things as the former. This alienation of the enemy is an essential ingredient in every recipe for atrocity.

Taunting us until we let the dogs slip is any canny terrorist's best hope of success. The Algerian terrorists who fought the French colonial occupation in the 1950's had no hope of defeating the armies of France in pitched battle. Their only chance of victory lay in provoking the French in to a downward spiral of reprisals, indiscriminate killings and torture so that the Algerian masses would rsie in hatred and the French metropolitan population would throw up its hands in disgust. The tactic worked. Terror won in Algeria because France lost its nerve and lost its control of counterterror.

And after France quit Algeria, France became a much better place. What did France really benefit from all those decades of racism, exploitation, colonialism, repression, torture, slaughter? Sure, some people benefitted, but for France as a whole the experience was negative, and exiting was a relief. On the other hand, Algeria has struggled, and continues to struggle. France got over the war because it was unnecessary and tangential to real life in France; Algeria didn't, because it was fought in their homes, and France made them pay -- a relentless punishment that still traumatizes Algeria today. Imperialism was like that all over. The U.K. was better off when its lost its colonies. The U.S. was done a favor by being driven out of Vietnam. Germany and Japan have been the great post-WWII development stories because they were freed not only of their empires -- they were freed from the need to fund their militaries, and further blessed by having had their generals and admirals discredited. The best thing that can possibly happen to the U.S. would be to dismantle the whole farflung worldwide "empire of bases." That will in due course happen, because not even the U.S. can sustain such unproductive, debilitating overhead. The only question is how much we punish the world for our sins, and how long it takes them to get over us.

In Iraq, we had better remember the French lesson: we cannot hope to win a war of occupation with harshness alone. We need a political strategy that undermines the terrorist claim that they are fighting a just war against military occupation. We need to turn the place back to Iraqis quickly or we will just have created another losing front in the war on terror.

Too late. And too little. The war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the alliance with Ariel Sharon in Israel, longstanding grudges over Syria and Iran, Bush has managed to turn the "war on terror" into Huntington's "clash of civilizations." No matter how many American "hearts and minds" he still holds sway over, he's managed to bite off more trouble in the Middle East than he can dig out from under. People who supported the Iraq war, like Ignatieff, may see this as flawed tactics or bad execution. People who opposed the Iraq war but who supported the war in Afghanistan, like Howard Dean or Richard Clarke, will see this as misplaced priorities, a more strategic flaw. I see it as deeply embedded in the very idea of a war on terror -- the idea that war is an answer to terror, whereas everything we've seen shows plainly that all it is is an escalation of terror. Until we start to understand that, all we're going to do is to thrash in our own arrogance and ignorance, treating the world with disrespect and insensitivity that lead to inhumanity and atrocity.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Music: Initial count 9124 rated (+27), 963 unrated (+55). Three weeks ago I started desperately searching for new jazz records for a Village Voice Jazz Consumer Guide. This week is when the inflow got totally out of control. While I can still imagine catching up with the new jazz, the backlog that I had started to whittle down under the 900 level now appears destined to, if anything, grow. Earnest work on new jazz will probably start this week. The only thing I can say from the few records that I have been able to sample thus far is that many are good, but few are likely to be great. Last week was taken up finishing off the Rolling Stone updates, and knocking out a Seattle Weekly column. I've heard that Rearview Mirror will be suspended there -- I have one more on order. The latest Recycled Goods is still now up, so it may be that my reissues "business" will be fading.

  • Aesop Quartet: Fables for a New Millennium (1999, 8th Harmonic). Very little info on this one, but back cover says: "CW: Hamid, Ernest, Jeff, Rollo." Let's see: Hamid Drake (drums), Ernest Dawkins (reeds), Jeff Parker (guitar), Rollo Radford (electric bass). Drake is probably the best drummer to emerge in the last 10-20 years, and his work here is as sure-footed as we've come to expect. Dawkins is an AACM guy, plays with Kahil El'Zabar in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, leads the New Horizons Ensemble. Parker also plays in New Horizons. Radford has Sun Ra on his resume. The WPL copy I have is short on credits, but I understand that Reggie Gibson sings "Jamila's Song" and raps on "Graph-ti-fi-ca-tion," and Rob Swift does some turntable work. Dawkins is the leader -- at least he's credited with all of the songs. Parker does some exceptionally nice work here. Some rough edges, but this sounds like a tour de force to me. Also seems to be a one-shot, since Dawkins has moved on to New Horizons, and Drake is so in-demand that his group commitments are fraying all around. A-
  • Toshiko Akiyoshi: Finesse (1978, Concord). Rather straightforward trio with mainstreamers Monty Budwig (bass) and Jake Hanna (drums). Ranges from "Mr. Jelly Lord" to Edvard Grieg's "Solveig's Song," sounding much the same -- her Bud Powell influence is definitely there, but the rhythm section would rather swing, and she accommodates them. B
  • Franck Amsallem: Another Time (1990 [1997], A Records). Algerian-born French pianist, in a trio with Gary Peacock (bass) and Bill Stewart (drums). Originally released as Out a Day, his first. I've played this a bunch and I'm having a lot of trouble getting a handle on it. I don't dislike it, and I'm hard pressed to pick faults with it, but I expect a record this well regarded, with this good a rhythm section, to make me pay attention, and this doesn't do that. B
  • Asian American Jazz Orchestra: Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire (1998, Asian Improv). This is drummer Anthony Brown's orchestra, which attempts to bridge between east Asian musical ideas and jazz (not sure how specific the Asian; Brown is half-Japanese, but the orchestra also includes Jon Jang, who is Chinese-American, and a major figure in Asian jazz fusion in his own right). The title comes from the sequence "Last Dance," which is a set of big band swing pieces narrated in the framework of the WWII camps where the US detained Japanese-Americans lest they be a subversive force -- the irony is the musicians' love of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, "and a little Basie." The other pieces will take more work to figure out, but they're interesting and pleasing exotics. A-
  • Chris Barber: Chris Barber's Blues Book Volume One/Good Mornin' Blues (1961-65 [1997], BGO). The two records here both feature singer Ottilie Patterson, aka Mrs. Chris Barber. The CD is packed with 26 songs, mostly blues or r&b hits, plus a handful of songs credited to Patterson, and a few trad pieces arranged by Barber. She's a good singer -- rather affectless, but with a clear voice and some gumption. Barber is one of the greats of British trad jazz, and I always get a kick out of his trombone. Still, this doesn't strike me as an especially good outing for them. My main complaint is that the songs are too short, the compression giving the band no room to wiggle or shout. Also, a few pieces have group vocals, which work much less well than Patterson's features. B
  • Hamiett Bluiett: . . . If You Have to Ask . . . You Don't Need to Know (1991, Tutu). With Fred Hopkins (bass), Michael Carvin (drums), Okyerema Asante (percussion, vocals, 4 tracks), Thomas Ebow Ansah (guitar, lead vocals, 1 track). The two Africans don't add much, but the trio has a good sense of their Africanism -- particularly Carvin, but Hopkins is typically first rate too. Love the sound of Bluiett's baritone, too, although the more open sound must be coming from his alto flute. B+
  • The Best of James Brown (The Millennium Collection) (1958-72 [1999], Polydor). Eleven cuts, ten singles versions ranging from 2:06 ("Papa's Got a Brand New Bag") to 3:34 ("Get on the Good Foot, Pt. 1"), plus 7:25 of "Cold Sweat." Total time: 36:15. While Brown has never let his ideas stretch out as far as Fela Kuti, brevity is not one of his typical characteristics. Thing is, even though I know and love most of these songs in longer versions, they deliver so much in their short time slices that they never leave you feeling cheated. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" is fully formed at 2:06; "Night Train" is glorious at 3:30. Who remembers that "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" only runs 2:46? Songs like that stop time. "Try Me" (2:31) just reminds you that Brown would be remembered as one of the great singers of the '50s if he had perished in Buddy Holly's plane crash. "America Is My Home" is all the patriotism I need to hear, but it's also the patriotism I believe. The only cut not quite as great as the rest is "Prisoner of Love." There are lots of other choices with Brown, but even if you've gone whole hog for Star Time (his superb 4CD box, from 1991), you'll get something extra out of this one. You don't need it, but it's there. A
  • Cabaret Voltaire: Conform to Deform '82/'90: Archive (1982-90 [2003], Virgin, 3CD). One of the luxuries of writing about reissues is that I usually know the music already, and know quite a bit about the context it took shape in. That's not true in this case -- before getting acquainted with this set I had only heard (and dismissed) one of their early albums. The usual lists of roots and influences (Throbbing Gristle, Suicide, Can), similar artists (Chrome, Einstürzende Neubauten, the Durutti Column), and followers (A Certain Ratio, Front 242, KMFDM) don't help much. On hearing this I could suggest others (Wire, New Order, Pet Shop Boys), but compared to those referents this seems determinedly obscure. Yet the booklet here is full of praise from sources I do recognize (Meat Beat Manifesto, Chemical Brothers, and Kraftwerk, whose Ralf Hütter describes them as "Brüder [brethren] der industriellen Volksmusik!" -- pardon the German, but it suggests a tantalizing range of meanings, from "industrial folk music" to "the industrial people's music"). The consensus is that Cabaret Voltaire were pioneers on the path from raw electronics to a vast array of contemporary electronica, from hip hop to trip hop, from techno to noise, from industrial to ambient. As with most pioneers what I hear here is neither fully formed for ghettoized. The surplus of three discs also helps: "Conform" finds them on their best behavior, a disc that anyone with a fondness for the Pet Shop Boys, say, can take pleasure in; "Deform" is tougher going, a set of techniques for deconstruction; "Liveform" is a synthesis in its necessarily more limited (ergo simpler) world. Whereas any single disc would have been partial, the whole set starts to make sense. And reminds us that even today's avant-garde is likely to become tomorrow's folk music. A-
  • Ornette Coleman: New York Is Now (1968 [1989], Blue Note). He was the first jazz musician I really fell for, and my first few moments with this record brought all that back. I don't remember the last time I played anything by him (been busy, you know), but he does sound great, and I'm reminded of many little signatures of his work elsewhere. The group is impressive too: especially when Jimmy Garrison goes arco on bass. Elvin Jones drums, and Dewey Redman joins in on tenor sax. Evidently Ornette plays a little bit of his trumpet (the credits are kind of messed up there, for the avant "We Now Interrupt for a Commercial" is certainly one case). Still, the music is rather messy, and the way this particular reissue is put together (the alternate version of "Broad Way Blues" follows the released version immediately) is odd. But it starts awfully strong, and the later stuff starts to make sense when you realie that the sax is Dewey Redman, and Ornette's just providing the funny trumpet smears. A-
  • Kahil El'Zabar With David Murray: One World Family (2000, CIMP 220). The duo's record on Delmark is easier to grasp, probably because the sound is much more upfront. CIMP likes to give the listener as much dynamic range as possible, which means that the quieter parts tend to drop out -- at least unless you have a billion dollar stereo system and the patience to use it. The title cut is a prime example of this, with a big hole all the way to the end. There's some prime Murray here, but there's lots of prime Murray all over the place. B+
  • Four Bitchin' Babes: Beyond Bitchin' (2000, Shanachie). I filed their first one under ringleader Christine Lavin, but with five records out they surely deserve their own file. Especially since Lavin and Patti Larkin have been replaced with Camille West and Debi Smith. Like the earlier Gabby Road, this has a faux-Beatles cover. The lost of Lavin hurts in the humor department, but after three mostly pretty songs replacement Camille West goes "Toe to Toe With the HMO," about her purple, festering toe -- "as for my coverage they say no/this is a pre-existing toe . . . so if I want the claim approved/the toe will have to be removed . . this makes my doctor quite irate/why should he have to amputate? . . . managed care is managing/to make me hostile/you've put me off far too long/I'll fix your ass; I'll write a song/about a nine-toed woman/who goes postal." Debi Smith wrote "My Kinda Man," about the guy who cooks for her. Nothing else quite matches those (certainly not "Viagra in the Waters"). B
  • Abdullah Ibrahim: Banyana: The Children of Africa (1976, Enja). Piano trio with Cecil McBee (bass) and Roy Brooks (drums), although Ibrahim chants and plays soprano sax on "Ishmael" -- at 15:09 the long piece here (runner up a second bonus take of the same piece, also with chant and saxophone). His saxophone is used for slow, moody pieces, haunting but not especially interesting. The middle pieces are more interesting, where he knuckles down with dense chord clusters while McBee provides solid support. This doesn't strike me as one of his better records, but he is a major talent and always has something to add. B
  • Annie Lennox: Bare (2003, J). I've long regretted having ever used the word "diva" in a review, even though I swear I meant the word ironically (among other things I was referring to a male, and not even a singer). Long the bane of opera, divas have not become the bane of pop music. What made the Eurythmics mostly OK (faint praise, and that's what I mean) was that the electronics were cool enough to chill the vocals. However, when Lennox went solo it was inevitable that the spotlight would shine all the brighter on her. But it wasn't inevitable that she'd call her album Diva -- that was her choice. Despite one lyric about being "frozen still," this mostly feels overwarm. Only when she reaches for the desolation depicted on the cover, as she does on the aforementioned lyric, does this say much. "The Saddest Song I've Got" starts promisingly, but -- hey, what's the opposite of wimps out? And what is the opposite of trip hop? B-
  • Raphé Malik Quintet With Glenn Spearman: Sirens Sweet & Slow (1994, Out Sounds/Mapleshade). Malik plays trumpet. He was a Cecil Taylor protege going back to Antioch college days, and has a tremendously strong contribution on the first (1972) disc of the Jimmy Lyons Box Set. He recorded several time with Taylor later, and is hyped here as "Cecil Taylor's trumpet-player explores avant-garde lyricism." Still, the first piece here is mostly Spearman's doing, and I wax and wane with him. Next two pieces are trumpet duos, so Malik gets to let loose there. I like him a lot. B+
  • The Best of the Mamas and the Papas (The Millennium Collection) (1966-69 [1999], MCA). I don't doubt that they were the quintessential L.A. pop-rock group of the pre-Eagles, pre-Fleetwood Mac era, but I've never much liked them -- certainly beyond a handful of singles, and even there I have my doubts. The advantage of this, as opposed to Greatest Hits, is that it's short. Not short enough -- I'd drop "Dancing Bear," if not Mama Cass' "Make Your Own Kind of Music" (the only cut here not already on Greatest Hits. B
  • Sunny Murray With Sabir Mateen: We Are Not at the Opera (1998, Eremite). And amen to that. Mateen plays alto and tenor sax plus a little flute, in the time-honored free jazz tradition. Murray is one of the legends in that same tradition, and the duo format gives them all the space they need to ply their craft. And it is a craft: I've only recently started to get the hang of free drumming, which mostly involves stripping away a lot of assumptions about how the world should work, and letting it take you where it wants to go. Could, I suppose, be called zen drumming, except it's a lot noisier than that term implies. This one is terrific. A-
  • Pop Will Eat Itself: Box Frenzy (1987-88 [2003], Sanctuary/Castle). Minor UK rock group; reminds me a bit of XTC and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, not quite as pop as the former, not quite as hard and strong as the latter. Tended to go by initials, which is never a good sign. They started off as Buzzcocks fans, wound up defining "grebo," which is sort of like punk without the social or political or artistic ambitions. Industrial is more refined; they were satisfied just to manufacture junk. B
  • The Pop-O-Pies: Pop-O-Anthology (1984-93 [2003], www.pop-o-pie.com). Joe, who has some sort of relationship to Faith No More (another band I've never listened to) put out an EP called The White EP that Christgau liked in 1982. I never found it, but bought Joe's Second Record instead. I forget what (if anything) I thought of it, but looked through Christgau's files and found where he pronounced it "not funny." That seems overly harsh -- "not funny enough" would have been more like it. Besides, then he could have saved "not funny" for Joe's Third Record. This seems to have everything the band did except for The White EP, and throws in two previously unissued songs for any fans who need a bit of extra motivation to buy it all again. Too smart for hardcore; too dumb for new wave; too white for rap; too old school for industrial; not singular enough for anything. Which is not to say it's not good -- the band has a solid bottom, and the guitar raves are competent, giving it has a consistency of sound even if it doesn't have coherence of purpose. B
  • Taraf de Haďdouks (1999, Elektra/Nonesuch). From Romania, same group followed up with the equally good Band of Gypsies. Not sure which is better. B+
  • Cecil Taylor: Fondation Maeght Nights (Vol. 1) (1969, Jazz View). Parts of this concert were previously released as Nuits de la Fondation Maeght and The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor. In this current set of "historical masters" (don't know when they were reissued) there are three volumes. This one has one 40:23 piece. The group: Taylor, Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Sam Rivers (tenor/soprano sax), Andrew Cyrille (drums; name misspelled as "Cirille" on cover). Sound seems rather attenuated. Otherwise this seems rather typical of this group in this period. B
  • Cecil Taylor Unit: Spring of Two Blue J's (1973, Jazz View). Two takes of the title piece. The first runs 16:19, and is Taylor solo. The second runs 21:29, and is done by the quartet -- Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Sirone (bass), Andrew Cyrille (drums, again misspelled "Cirille"). One good thing about this doubling up is that it helps illuminate Taylor's always difficult music. Still, after playing this I went back to Unit Structures, which I had long ago dismissed with a B-, and, well, maybe I've learned a thing or two since then. B+
  • Cecil Taylor Ensemble: Always a Pleasure (1993 [1996], A rare post-Lyons larger group for Taylor: Longineu Parsons (trumpet), Harri Sjostrom (soprano sax), Charles Gayle (tenor sax), Tristan Honsinger (cello), Sirone (bass), Rashid Bakr (drums). The Penguin Guide panned this, mostly for the ill fit of the saxophonists, but I hardly noticed them. The bits that repeatedly caught my ear were from the cellist, strongly backed by Sirone. Taylor's compositions seem more drawn out than usual, more leisurely, and that allows his extraordinary piano to dwell in relative pleasure. Still, I'm hedging a bit -- on some level this also sounds like every other Cecil Taylor record, and it's tough to make real fine distinctions there when you got other things to do with your life. B+

Some more items from the unlisted list. Beware that I haven't listened to these for many years: some are graded from early notes, others from distant memory.

  • Amazing Rhythm Aces: Too Stuffed to Jump (1976, ABC) B
  • Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs (1970, Harvest) B
  • Syd Barrett: Barrett (1970, Harvest) C
  • Richard Betts: Highway Call (1974, Capricorn) C-
  • Blue Oyster Cult: On Your Feet or on Your Knees (Columbia) C-
  • Jackson Browne: Late for the Sky (1974, Asylum) B
  • J.J. Cale: Okie (1974, Mercury) C+
  • Can: Soon Over Babaluma (1974, United Artists) B
  • Harry Chapin: Verities and Balderdash (1974, Elektra) D
  • Vassar Clements: Hillbilly Jazz (1975, Flying Fish) B
  • Jimmy Cliff: Music Maker (1974, Reprise) B-
  • Alice Cooper: Killer (1971, Warner Brothers) B
  • Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969, Atlantic) B-
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Deja Vu (1970, Atlantic) B-
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: So Far ([1974], Atlantic) C
  • Fleetwood Mac: Then Play On (1969, Reprise) B+
  • Steve Forbert: Alive on Arrival (1978, Nemperor) B
  • Fumble: Poetry in Lotion (1975) B
  • Jefferson Airplane: Volunteers (1969, RCA) B+
  • Sarah Kernochan: Beat Around the Bush (1974, RCA) C+
  • Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co. (1973) B
  • Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co.: Like a Duck to Water (1976) B+
  • The Move: Split Ends (1972) B+
  • Ohio Players: Honey (1975) B+
  • The Pasadena Roof Orchestra (1974, Island) B [I'm hedging here. In 1974 I graded this A-, knowing nothing at all about the sources of this retro music, but digging it for its camp appeal. Another listen at this point would be a very different experience.]
  • The Pursuit of Happiness: Love Junk (1988, Capitol) B
  • Jess Roden Band: You Can Keep Your Hat On (1976) B
  • Leon Russell: Stop All That Jazz (1974, Shelter) D+
  • Sham 69: Tell Us the Truth (1978, Sire) B
  • Simon & Garfunkel: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966, Columbia) B-
  • The Souther-Hillman-Furray Band (1974, Asylum) C
  • T. Rex: Light of Love (1974, Casablanca) D
  • Traffic: When the Eagle Flies (1974, Island) C-
  • West, Bruce & Laing: Live 'n' Kickin' (1974, Windfall) E+
  • Wet Willie: Keep on Smilin' (1974, Capricorn)
  • The Who: Quadrophenia (1973) B
  • Brian Wilson (1988, Sire) B-

Saturday, May 01, 2004

John Prine played Wichita's Orpheum Theater tonight. I was planning on passing, mostly sticker shock due to the $42 tickets, but a friend called me up and offered two comp tickets. I had seen Prine once before -- an outdoor afternoon show at some fair in Portland, ME, in the late '80s. He played an unaccompanied set then, and was terrific: his songs and his vocal delivery have such natural rhythm they don't need much accompaniment, and he can be genuinely funny. Since then a lot of water has rolled over the dam: he soon released his two best post-Atlantic albums (The Missing Years, and even better Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings); he got throat cancer, nearly died, lost much of his voice; he bounced back with a remarkable album of covers, old country male/female duets (In Spite of Ourselves), offloading much of the vocal duty, most notably to Iris Dement -- one of the best things he ever did; he had hip replacement surgery. With the medical problems, he hasn't released an album of original songs since 1995, and it's unlikely that he can sing them like he could before, and I don't much like live music anyway, and, well, $42 times 2 is a lot of money.

Still, it was quite a concert. For a guy who still is just 57, he looks like he's seen a lot of wear. He's put on quite a bit of weight, and he looks robotic when he moves -- the hip, no doubt. His hair is grayed but not solid, and looks like it shoots straight out of his head, like a stubby paintbrush. His voice is harsh, and at one point it momentarily failed him, but even though it was strained it was always clearly his voice singing his songs. He ran through two hours of his songbook, including two new songs that sounded fine. He had two musicians with him: David Jacques (acoustic and electric bass), and Jason Wilber (electric guitar, mandolin). He used three guitars -- an electric for a couple of songs, including the set closer "Lake Marie," and two acoustics. He appeared alone for the middle part of the set, which was the part I enjoyed most. Part of the reason it worked better is that the acoustics of the old theater were generating a lot of reverb on the louder songs. Also his mike may have been mixed a bit low, or perhaps he just had trouble singing clearly over the extra instrumentation. But it's also true that the songs don't need much help, and he's so used to doing them alone that they feel more natural that way. (I don't mean to knock them here; Jacques and Wilber seem to be very competent musicians: they usually added meaningful detail, and their few brief solos were fine.)

The second song was "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven"; Prine introduced it as an old song that had been stuffed and mounted on the wall, "but the President wrote me a letter and asked that I bring it back." Several other war songs appeared in due course. When he finally got to "Illegal Smile" (third of four songs in the encore) he substituted Ashcroft for Hoffman. "Illegal Smile," notably, was turned into a singalong, with the crowd handling the last chorus. The Orpheum was nearly packed (at least the main level, which seats 678; not sure about the balcony, which seats 382), and many people were quicker to recognize songs than I was. The crowd seemed to be mostly in their fifties, and they were definitely his crowd. Prine has sort of a chipmunk smile, which became increasingly evident as the show went on.

Todd Snider opened with a 40-minute set that covered about half of his fine live album, including a couple of stories. He was barefoot, awkward, gawky, funny too. He was well received, and got in a quick encore ("Beer Run").


Apr 2004 Jun 2004