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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

My Jazz Consumer Guide appeared in the Village Voice. The way I do this is that I start out collecting notes -- players, songs, etc. -- in a file in a HTML comments section, then when I make my mind up write up a rough draft paragraph review. In some cases this gets transcribed into the column draft; in others the column draft just gets a one-liner, or for Duds the record just gets listed. Then I take the review/notes block and move it to a "done" file, where it's out of the way but not lost. I may subsequently rewrite parts or all of the rough review; in any case they get edited by Robert Christgau, usually resulting in a much sharper, tighter review. What follows are the rough review blocks from my "done" file -- now that the column is published, I don't need them in the "done" file anymore, so I thought I'd dump them out here (where most of the other junk reviews are). (Notes: a lot more details are in the comments, which you can see using the "page source" option on your browser, not that you'll want to; some of the these have been brought forward from previous notebooks, where they had been dumped before I came up with this system.)

  • Arild Andersen With Vassilis Tsabropoulos and John Marshall: The Triangle (2004, ECM). The problem with a piano trio led by a bassist is that the pianist is the guy you naturally focus on. To some extent the billing here is a marketing decision, given that the same three players previously appeared on an album called Achirana, where the pianist got top billing. Andersen is by far the better known figure, at least in Europe where he has appeared on numerous ECM releases as well as in the group Masqualero. He writes three songs here, compared to Tsabropoulos' four (plus an arrangement of Ravel; the other track has all three members' names on it). Focusing on the bassist reminds you how good he is, but his role is still mostly supportive; the pianist is thoughtful, the music full of subtle delights. B+
  • Fred Anderson: Back at the Velvet Lounge (2002 [2003], Delmark). Five longish pieces, including one conventional enough to be called "Job Market Blues." Anderson must be feeling comfortable back at home, with some of the younger generation of Chicago jazzers. The standout here is guitarist Jeff Parker. But Anderson sounds clear and robust, and the whole thing kicks ass. A-
  • Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake: Back Together Again (2003 [2004], Thrill Jockey). Anderson worked with the AACM in the '70s, recorded a bit, but soon settled into life as a club owner. Sometimes he would played his tenor sax in the club, and when he hit 65 he resumed recording -- just in time for a renaissance in Chicago jazz. This duo album came out close to his 75th birthday, and it feels like he's finally finding whatever it was that he used to search for. Drake is key: he keeps the rhythms bubbling, getting a robust but subdued sound from his frame drums that keeps Anderson on an even keel without panicking him. And when Drake sings the African chant at the end, he snuggles up. Comes with a "bonus" CDROM, with some videos. Haven't seen those, because Apple's Quicktime doesn't run on decent computers. A-
  • George Benson: Irreplaceable (2004, GRP). The three instrumentals are minor groove pieces for uninspired guitar and synth beats, but at least they don't have to carry the exceptionally lame lyrics of the other seven songs. The songs come with neatly groomed layered voices. We tend to classify this sort of soul fluff as easy listening, but easy playing is more like it. It's not like anyone can actually listen. C-
  • Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman: Saxophone Summit: Gathering of Spirits (2004, Telarc). Three great saxophonists (more or less), in front of a pretty solid rhythm section. If I felt like sorting this out I'd probably come up with a Dud of the Month. The first turn-off is their tendency to play the heads in unison (more or less) before passing the solos around. They wind up playing together quite a lot, especially on "India" (where they all pull out their flutes for some pointless warbling) and on the title track (layered like a sax choir). This is a problem because they don't actually sound very good together. It's also a problem because they wander a lot. And while I suppose the avant tics that dominate the second half may be reassuring to those who figure them for sell-outs, I find them depressing. FWIW, Brecker plays on the right channel, Lovano on the left, and Liebman (mostly on soprano) somewhere in between. B-
  • James Brown: Soul on Top (1969 [2004], Verve). This clones Ray Charles' great concept, with Brown reinventing standards -- e.g., "That's My Desire," "September Song," "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" -- in front of Louie Bellson's big band. Oliver Nelson arranges and conducts, but barely manages to discipline a band caught up in the singer's excitement. Compare "Your Cheatin' Heart": proof positive of Charles' genius, proof here as to who was really the hardest working man in show business. A
  • Bill Bruford's Earthworks Featuring Tim Garland: Random Acts of Happiness (Summerfold). Tim Garland, with 4-5 albums under his own name, has gotten big enough to get his name on the cover. He plays tenor and soprano sax, flute, and bass clarinet here, and is the voice you hear most: he has a clear, sharp tone on both saxes and enough dynamics to keep you on edge. The flute piece works nicely too, but the key there is Bruford, who shows special fondness for latin rhythms here. Pianist Steve Hamilton is also conspicuous, his specialty being lush filler. Enjoyable, enough edge to keep you from dozing off, but unthreatening -- a taste of the good life. B+
  • Dave Burrell Full-Blown Trio: Expansion (2003 [2004], High Two). Burrell's seems to be rooted not just in Jelly Roll Morton and ragtime, but even more in the mechanics of the player pianos that captured much of their work. Even when he shifts time signatures radically, as on the first cut here, or just dabbles in free time, as on the second cut, he tends to stab and poke at the piano as much as to play it. As is often the case with the avant-garde, his methods are clearest when applied to a standard: he treats us to Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful" and comes up with an interpretation that is skeletal yet lets us peer deep into Berlin's roots. No two pieces here follow the same musical game plan, again leaving us with mechanics. The help helps too: only idea I have why he calls the trio "Full Blown" is that he was blown away by working with William Parker and Andrew Cyrille. Both do their usual superb job, with Parker's kora on "In the Balance" a special treat. B+
  • Marilyn Crispell Trio: Storyteller (2003 [2004], ECM) After two decades of comparisons to Cecil Taylor, her third ECM record is deliberate, cautious, pretty even. Credit for taming the shrew may go to Paul Motian, who evidently brings out the Bill Evans in her, but Motian's drumming is subtly free and almost orthogonal to Crispell's piano -- it's hard to see him determining anything, even though he's credited with most of the songs. Rather, at such slack paces she has an astonishing knack for sequencing one right note after another. A-
  • Kris Davis: Lifespan (2003 (2004), Fresh Sound). She's a young pianist, came from Canada, studied under Jim McNeely. The group here works as a piano trio for two of eight cuts. For the other six cuts they are joined by three horns -- Tony Malaby and Jason Rigby on saxophones, Russ Johnson on trumpet and flugelhorn. The horns predominate, of course, but they do her bidding carefully and efficiently: there's no clutter here, no showboating, the horn lines make sense in terms of the music coming out of the piano -- all Davis originals. B+
  • Marty Ehrlich: Line on Love (2002-03 [2003], Palmetto). As accessible as avant-garde gets, partly because Ehrlich's originals rarely shift out of ballad gear, but also because he has mastered the musical space the avant-garde opened up nearly half a century ago so thoroughly that he finds fresh, unpredictable music everywhere he looks. A-
  • El-P/The Blue Series Continuum: High Water (2004, Thirsty Ear). This is the third album in less than a year for the Blue Series Continuum, each with a different guest producer. The band is named for Thirsty Ear's avant-jazz series, which has wandered deep into DJ territory, and it's staffed by the series' Artistic Director, Matthew Shipp, and his usual crew. *The Good and Evil Sessions* was more of an upbeat groove album. The more abstract *Sorcerer Sessions* tried to exploit Shipp's avant-classical tendencies. But this one has more meat visible, perhaps because El-P frames what the band gives him rather than smoothering it in sauce. A-
  • Wayne Escoffery: Intuition (2003 [2004], Nagel Heyer). Escoffery is a young fashion plate who plays tenor sax when he isn't modelling or acting. He's joined here by Downbeat's "Rising Star" trumpeter Jeremy Pelt for a bout of searing, splashy hard bop. While it's impossible to fault either for technical command, the sound of the two horns together gets under my skin and irritates as long as they're on. Both consistently play over the top, and drummer Ralph Peterson often tries to top them. Not the sort of thing I'm inclined to pick on, but then I've rarely been so annoyed by such a skillful album. Possible Dud of the Month. B-
  • Fourplay: Journey (2004, Bluebird). The old white guys (pianist Bob James, guitarist Larry Coryell) here haven't stretched out in decades, but toss off better licks than your average smooth jazz setup; the not-so-old black guys in the so-called rhythm section have some explaining to do. C
  • Lafayette Gilchrist: The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist (2004, Hyena). Gilchrist frames his piano improvisations with clomping drumbeats and galloping bass lines, touched up by horns that owe more to Stax than to Parker. That may seem to hem him in, but freedom is relative to where you start from, and Gilchrist starts from a huge pillar of energy. That means he has to play fast, which is fine with me. I've seen this classified as acid jazz, but the beats aren't meant for dance. The beats are there because funk is its own reward. And while the horns mostly riff, they do break out on occasion, making this a good deal more adventurous than any acid jazz I can think of. This may have been cobbled together from two previous releases I've seen on CDBaby -- all of the songs come from Asphalt Revolt (1999) and Collagic Dreams (2000), and the musicians mostly line up with the roll call of Gilchrist's New Volcanoes band. B+
  • Antonio Hart: All We Need (2004, Downtown Sound/Chiaroscuro). Bracketed by two "X Is All We Need" vocals that almost sing themselves, Hart tries to sell out but mostly flops. He gets half way into the synth groove sound of crossover, then falls back on his Coltrane licks. He does the latter reasonably well, although it can be strange to hear it with free drums over an organ grinder, as in "Auditory Illusion." Two tracks with Jimmy Heath explore sax harmony, one of which winds up sounding like big band section work. Something simple like "Crystal" still works, but overall this is a mess. C+
  • Roy Haynes: Fountain of Youth (2002 [2004], Dreyfus). Haynes stays young (76 when this was recorded) by playing with much younger musicians -- the key player here is multireedist Marcus Strickland (two albums under his own name, in Fresh Sound's New Talent series), who learned "Greensleeves" from his Coltrane records, and tackles three Monk compositions like they're easy. Also notable is pianist Martin Bejerano. Solid, swinging, luminous hard bop, but then it was only 45 years ago when Haynes played much the same thing with the original Monk and Coltrane. B+
  • Percy Heath: A Love Song (2002 [2004], Daddy Jazz). He's the ultimate team player: played on 300-some albums, but never before cut one under his own name. But at 79 the sole survivor of the Modern Jazz Quartet is entitled. He's got some compositions. He's got some ideas on arranging them -- in particular, he brought in the redoubtable Peter Washington on second bass, which beefs up the sound and lets him switch off to cello for a blues lead. And he's got a young piano player he wants to show off: a Sir Roland Hanna protege named Jeb Patton. The whole thing works beautifully. A-
  • Ian Hendrickson-Smith: Up in Smoke (2003, Sharp Nine). This was cut live, but has the feel of a late '50s blowing session: a mainstream sax player tackling swinging standards ("The Best Things in Life Are Free"), ballads ("Chelsea Bridge"), bebop ("Segment"), something latin ("Curaçao"), some blues (title cut, an original). From the liner notes: "Hendrickson-Smith just wanted to show how he played jazz: straight-ahead with a blues feeling, showcasing tunes that are easy to get with." Rarely has so little ambition been accomplished so gracefully. A-
  • Hiromi: Brain (2004, Telarc). Hiromi Uehara came from Japan to Berklee, where she picked up good habits from the likes of Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, and Ahmad Jamal. Her skills are undeniable, and they lift what would otherwise be an exercise in eclectic postmodernism, a brief for fashion over style. She tries on lots of fashions here -- the most promising being an interest in electronics that seems stereotypically rooted in manga. The brightest such song is the opener, "Kung-Fu World Champion," which she dedicates to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for all their inspiration. I take that as a joke, although she probably doesn't. B+
  • Henry Kaiser & Wadada Leo Smith: Yo Miles! Sky Garden (2004, Cuneiform, 2CD). One curious thing is that nobody else ever really managed to follow through on the electric jazz fusion that Miles Davis pioneered in the early '70s. Sure, lots of people (including most of his bands) diddled with fusion, but none of them came close enough to Miles' sound to do anything with it. That's because Miles' music left a lot of space open, whereas other fusion just gets filled up with jam. With so much space, each note of the trumpet rings clear. Which suggests that if one does want to go back to the Davis legacy, one ought to be a trumpeter. Enter Wadada Leo Smith. Once you get past the sonic similarities, the differences in the trumpeters are subtle but worth pondering. Would be better, of course, if Henry Kaiser were a guitarist worthy of following John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock. B+
  • Joe Locke & 4 Walls of Freedom: Dear Life (2003 [2004], Sirocco). Looking back over his career, it seems that Locke's mastery of the vibes comes out most clearly in his smallest groups. Give him a saxophone player and he slips into the background -- even when he is as sharp as ever you have to go fishing for him. Give him Tommy Smith and he's really outshone, which is the case for the first two-thirds of this album. The latter third wanes a bit, as Smith tries to make nice. The group is very solid, and the combination of Smith and Locke potent. B+
  • David Murray & the Gwo-Ka Masters Featuring Pharoah Sanders: Gwotet (2003 [2004], Justin Time). David Murray's third Guadeloupe album -- the cast continues to rotate, with Klod Kiavue and François Ladrezeau (the gwo-ka drummers) the only constants on the Guadeloupean side, and Murray the sole constant on the American side. Murray brought Jaribu Shahid (bass), Hamid Drake (drums), and Pharoah Sanders along from the US, plus a smattering of his Latin Big Band guys. A
  • Michel Portal, Stephen Kent, Mino Cinelu: Burundi (2000 [2004], PAO). Kent's didgeridoo provides the varying hums that place this record in the outer reaches of exotica. Cinelu's percussion and occasional yelp or bark drive it rhythmically. Portal improvises on soprano sax and bass clarinet -- instruments that add to the otherworldly sound. A-
  • Keith Rowe/Axel Dörner/Franz Hautzinger: A View From the Window (Erstwhile). Without doubt the quietest album ever recorded with two trumpet players. Or one. Or maybe zero, excepting Kim Fowley's notorious blank LP. Two cuts: first is 36:25 and consists of a few clicks of static; second is a mere 21:09 and mostly just buzzes. Fowley's concept was "fuck you." Presumably these guys answer to a higher calling. Hence I'm cutting them some slack on the grade. D
  • Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls: Breeding Resistance (2003 [2004], Delmark). Sirota wears his politics on his sleeve, but like Mingus there's more to his music than his titles. By all means read the booklet to explain the titles: remember Fred Hampton? Ken Saro-Wiwa? Don Cherry? Still, when you get to the music it doesn't matter that the stately "For Martyrs" is generic while the lovely "Elegy" is personal. Sure, oppression breeds resistance, but neither make music. Thoughtful, passionate musicians do. A-
  • Sonic Liberation Front: Ashé a Go-Go (2004, High Two). Like David Murray's gwo-ka, Kevin Diehl finds his inspiration in the relict rhythms that kept Africa alive in the Caribbean. But Diehl, a drummer who studied with Sunny Murray, does more than build postbop jazz around Cuban bata drums: he messes with the rhythms, at times losing the pulse and wandering free. Same for the tenor sax -- like Ayler, Terry Lawson starts with simple folk melodies and pushes them into frenzy. But three vocals tie the free jazz down to the Lukumi roots -- the most striking also the simplest, with Chuckie Joseph singing over nothing but his own strummed guitar. This finally pays dividends on the '60s avant-garde's fascination with pan-Africana. A
  • Spyro Gyra: The Deep End (2004, Heads Up). Spry funk, thick layers of guitar-keyb-sax that never let up, occasional tidbits of exotica, they don't aim for pablum, but they don't take risks either, so in the end they're as predictable as formula. B-
  • Ignasi Terraza Trio: IT's Coming (2004, TCB). One thing that makes this mainstream piano trio better than most is that the bassist, Pierre Boussaguet, is always in the middle of the mix, so it sounds like a trio. More originals than covers, both arranged to fit neatly. B+
  • Ken Vandermark / Brian Dibblee: Duets (2002-03 [2003], Future Reference). Bassist Dibblee composed these pieces, and he keeps them quiet and thoughtful. Vandermark plays bass clarinet, which both provides a nice contrast to the bass and throttles his own instincts toward burning the house down. In fact, he puts on a comprehensive clinic in the instrument, not just working with its characteristic bass toots but showing remarkable prowess up the scales. B+
  • The Vandermark Five: Elements of Style . . . Exercises in Surprise (2003 [2004], Atavistic). Most of Ken Vandermark's groups are forums where musicians get together and kick shit around, but his flagship group exists just for him. With Jeb Bishop on trombone and Dave Rempis adding a second saxophone -- often the lead with Vandermark switching off to big or small clarinet -- the Five has has one of the most potent horn sections in jazz. Indeed, the most striking thing here is how smoothly they play in unison, how smartly they play in contrast, and how sharply they can stop and spin on a dime. The first six pieces each pursue distinct ideas, and the other -- the 20:10 "Six of One" -- marshalls at least as many. For once, the risks and daring of free jazz are arranged as perfectly as in a crack big band. A

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Music: Initial count 9689 rated (+33), 1064 unrated (-13). Jazz Consumer Guide will appear in the Village Voice this Tuesday. Static is rebuilding (moving to Zope) and redesigning, which has left my Recycled Goods column in limbo for nearly a month now -- one delay that wasn't my fault. Just trying to keep my head above water, so figure I'll be writing up a bit of everything this week.

  • Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown, Marisa Monte: Tribalistas (2002, Metro Blue). Brazilian pop of a relatively high order -- how high is hard to say given that Brazilian pop rarely bites hard enough to make itself felt across the language barrier. Monte produces, and seems to be the leader, but Antunes sings as much. Brown is the instrument man, the groove master. B+
  • Borah Bergman/Oliver Lake: A New Organization (1997 [1999], Soul Note). Duo, recorded live at the Knitting Factory, most likely improvved on the spot. It's tempting to just concentrate on Bergman's piano, especially since Lake can't be tuned out anyway. Bergman is a formidable pianist, and he's very much in the thick of this. B+
  • Break Bread (Gruf, McEnroe, Pipi Skid, Yy, John Smith, Hunnicutt): Break Break EP (2004, Peanuts & Corn). I hear that this is a supergroup ("collectively these six individuals are responsible for over 25 albums and EPs in the last ten years"; I guess that's more than Crosby Stills & Nash could have counted when they got together, but the only ones I had heard of were Pipi Skid and the undercapitalized ringleader "mcenroe"). "Each MC was responsible for a concept on one song, and the others were to stick to that concept." Which doesn't quite add up either, what with six MCs and only five songs, one of which features a seventh MC, someone billed as Birdapres. Without a map I can't tell you which is which: just a bunch of white guys in baseball hats, but then they're Canadian so at least they have an excuse. Those five songs make up a manifesto for underground old style. The beats are endlessly listenable -- in fact, they threw in five "Bonus Instrumentals" so you can check for yourself. The concepts aren't much (e.g., "No Other MC"), but they trade rhymes fine. Wish I had a transcript of who said what, but then I'd just wind up quoting something. B+
  • Michael Brecker Quindectet: Wide Angles (2003, Verve). Brecker is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential tenor saxophonists of the last twenty years. Beats me why, but I've read that over and over again, often enough that at some point one has to concede that there must be some truth in it somewhere. Beats me where, but one thing this record does convince me of is that Brecker can blow so fast and furious that the other fourteen musicians he rounded up here are no match for him. But then the other fourteen are merely here for background. Brecker plays 80% or more of the time, and no other front line instruments emerge. He also wrote nine of the ten pieces, so this should be a good opportunity to take his measure. What it shows, I think, is an impressive technician who offers us very little to care about. I started warming to this in the latin-tinged "Timbuktu," then remembered Gato Barbieri's Latino America, a similar case of a rambunctious tenor sax overwhelming a roiling orchestra. Except that Barbieri had an emotional edge to his playing, and that his band had a much stronger lock on the latin beat. This is one of those records that makes a strong first impression yet will never lure you back to listen further. B-
  • Café Tacuba: Cuatro Caminos (2003, MCA). Rock en español group, widely regarded as a major one. My first taste of them, and I'm finding myself indifferent. Reminds me that rock is a fairly basic musical framework for words. Replace the words with something you don't understand and it's hard to say that this is any better or worse than anything else. The music is pretty straight rock, the sort of thing we get from singer-songwriters working under the cover of bands. Makes me suspect that there's an auteur here too, but I'm just too dense to figure it out. Or too busy to care. YMMV. B
  • Cowboy Jack Clement: Guess Things Happen That Way (2004, Dualtone). Born 1931. Recorded his first album 25 years ago, and his second now. Has a history working as a producer first for Sam Phillips in Memphis then for Chet Atkins in Nashville. Belongs to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and indeed the songs you'll recognize here bear his John Henry, including the wonderful title track and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" -- if you need any help placing that one note that the backup vocalist is Johnny Cash. So I guess you can chalk this up as belonging to the Otis Blackwell tradition, but it's better than anything Blackwell ever recorded. Not a great record, but an oddly wonderful one. B+
  • Fennesz: Venice (2004, Touch). Electronic music, not much beat, more like industrial-ambient. Interesting mix of sounds, not much like anything I've wandered into. Which leaves me confused and ambivalent. B
  • Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (1979 [2004], Warner Bros., 2CD). The follow-up to two huge albums, the prospects of topping themselves a third time seeming ever grimmer, they released an album not of hits but filler, masqueraded by aggressive drums. The single "Tusk" is exhibit A; "Sisters of the Moon" is exhibit B. The best stuff here is weirder than you'd expect from a band that mainstreamed so effectively; the rest sounds like trivia. The extra disc of "demos, roughs and outtakes" is, of course, even more trivial. B Album proper: B+
  • Serge Gainsbourg: Du Jazz Dans le Ravin (1958-64 [1996], Philips/Mercury). Relatively early, relatively jazzy, plus a touch of Weill. As jazz goes this is pretty lightweight stuff, but one might give it more credit as hip Parisian chanson. Might. B
  • David Hazeltine: The Classic Trio (1996, Sharp Nine). Very straight, very conventional, but in all respects just about the perfect mainstream piano trio session. Hazeltine is bright, sharp, always inventive. And Louis Hayes and especially Peter Washington are the perfect supporting cast -- indeed, it's hard to overpraise Washington: he's the Oscar Pettiford of our times, except better. The minus is less because of slight flaws than because perfect is terminal; progress comes from imperfections, but craftsmanship is worth celebrating too. A-
  • K.D. Lang: Hymns of the 49th Parallel (2004, Nonesuch). Her tribute to her native Canada, with two songs each by fellow Canadians Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Jane Siberry, and one each by Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith, and K.D. Lang. The decision to file Lang as Country came from her Owen Bradley obsession. If it wasn't clear before (and it should have been), this album finally tips us to what she saw in Bradley: a producer who could turn even genuine hillbillies into schmaltz. That's basically what Lang does for her fellow Canadians. She has a voice as clear as the frosty Canadian air, and when paired with Teddy Borowiecki's piano she makes a fine nightclub act. What works for her best is simple, but she rarely leaves well enough alone. In particular, she loves them strings, and piles them on thick for much of this. Even that works for Mitchel's "Jericho," but Mitchell has gone there before. The first conclusion we have to draw is that when it comes to nightclub schmaltz, the songs make all the difference in the world. Lang's on solid ground with Mitchell and Young and Cohen's "Bird on a Wire," but the others aren't up to that level, and even there (especially with Mitchell) she just points you back to the original. The second conclusion is that this is just one of those things she can do because she is who she is: a celebrity, a Canadian, a nightclub singer. None of those are compelling reasons to follow her anywhere. B-
  • Phil Ranelin: The Time Is Now! (1973-74 [2001], Hefty). The avant-garde didn't actually disappear in the early '70s, although it effectively went underground. Ayler, Coltrane and Dolphy died. Coleman got into a snit with his record companies and kept to himself. Taylor tried his hand at teaching. Russell went into exile. Labels like Blue Note and Impulse basically imploded. Later on new labels like Soul Note/Black Saint, Enja, and DIW picked up the slack, but those were almost all based in Europe and Japan; expensive, with little distribution here. Homegrown labels were even more obscure, like Detroit's Tribe Records. Ranelin recorded two early '70s albums for Tribe, so obscure that when I received a new record by "the legendary Phil Ranelin" I had never heard of him. Turns out that the two were reissued by another tiny label in 2001. This is the first one, and it feels like the missing link between the '60s avants and the loft scene that emerged in the late '70s: they are very much products of the time, but so unheard that we never had a true picture of that time. Ranelin plays trombone, prominent here, but the front line is shared with other horns -- Wendell Harrison (tenor sax), Marcus Belgrave (flugelhorn), Charles Moore (trumpet), Haroun El Nil (alto sax) -- plus piano, bass drums, and extra percussion -- everyone is credited with some of that. The rhythm is usually built around simple repetitive figures, mostly from bass or piano with the drums swinging free. The horns weave in and out, making up occasional layers when they meet. The effect is deep, serious, complex. A-
  • Phil Ranelin: Vibes From the Tribe (1976 [2001], Hefty). Two great groove pieces to start, and an 18-minute avant powerhouse to close, but they bracket two pieces where Ranelin sings -- one a marriage proposal, the other a paean to future children. I suppose we can cut him slack for sentiment, but his singing is pretty awful, and the music deforms to accommodate him. CD adds bonus takes of the first two groove pieces. B+
  • Sentimental Journey: Pop Vocal Classics, Vol. 1 (1942-1946) (1942-46 [1993], Rhino). This series of four discs, bracketed by years up to 1959, is documented by Will Friedwald. It provides a useful survey of American pop music in the uncertain period between jazz and rock. Pop singers came to dominate the big jazz bands of the late '30s, to the point that they increasingly displaced the bandleaders as stars. This first volume has the unenviable task of sorting out the new pop style from its jazz matrix, but its operating principle seems to be separation: nothing here is likely to ever be called jazz. This also pays a price in segregation: even though four of the singers (counting the Mills Brothers as one) are black, they are mostly colorless and relatively undistinguished. A better period comp is possible, as is a more interesting conceptual comp. B
  • Percy Sledge: Shining Through the Rain (2004, Varèse Sarabande). With one towering hit you might figure Sledge to have been as marginal a '60s soul singer as Gene Chandler (you know, the "Duke of Earl"). But if you go back to any good collection of his '60s work you'll be surprised by how consistently great he was. (The one I have is The Ultimate Collection, released by Atlantic in 1990, but Rhino released another in 1992, and The Very Best of Percy Sledge in 1998, and they should do just as well.) He's only recorded rarely since 1969 -- one in 1974, another in 1994, this one in 2004. Now that Solomon Burke's made a comeback, and Howard Tate's been rediscovered, why not Sledge? First thing you notice is the voice, still one of the most recognizable in the history of soul music, although as deeply country as soul. The arrangements are conventionally old-fashioned. The songs are other peoples', and not all of them hit. "My Old Friend the Blues" is typically comfy. "Big Blue Diamond" has some genuine lustre. And "Change My Mind" belongs on his next Greatest Hits collection. B+
  • Patti Smith: Land (1975-2002) (1974-2002, Arista, 2CD). The first disc quickly dispenses with the obvious highlights of her career: "Gloria" and "Free Money" from Horses, "People Have the Power" and "Paths That Cross" from Dream of Life, "Pissing in a River" from Radio Ethiopia, "Because the Night" from Easter, and adds a new "When Doves Cry" that spotlights everything that is right about her latterday straight-as-an-arrow rock 'n' roll period. The second disc wanders more, with early demos (including the aboriginal "Piss Factory"), outtakes, and mostly recent live cuts. Both discs form an unified matrix, the early/late split unified by the gravity of her voice, the hits/misses split nullified because she's always taken risks. A-
  • Patti Smith: Trampin' (2003 [2004], Columbia). "Boots that tramped from track to track worn down to the sole one road was paved with gold and one road was just a road." Not a lyric (although I may have missed it), just some words in the inner circle around the hub that holds the disc. Slightly uneven, but part of that is because "Radio Baghdad" is one of her all-time great pieces -- "they're robbing the cradle of civilization," shouted, chanted, revealed, the music pumps up, spreads out, contemplates itself. Then finishes with the title cut, a simple gospel lament over bare piano. A-
  • Brian Wilson: Presents Smile (2004, Nonesuch). Thirty-seven years in the waiting, rebuilt from scratch because, well, why the hell not? The key pieces are well known -- not just "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations" but "Cabin Essence" and "Surf's Up" and "Vega-Tables" and even "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" and "Wind Chimes." What's new is that they're stitched together into a coherent flow, even if some of the stitching comes off awfully corny. What's better is that this '60s prog fantasy is now so inescapably retro that the future it beholds is one that we've already survived. And that's something to smile about. It's almost like getting your youth back once you're old enough to appreciate it. A

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Finished reading Laura Flanders, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species (Verso). Has useful background chapters on Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Ann Veneman, Elaine Chao, Gale Norton, and Christine Todd Whitman, plus a chapter called "Sisters" which touches on Lynne Cheney and Laura Bush. Aside from Whitman and Cheney, I can't say as I had noticed any of these names before the Bush II regime took power, so the first thing I'm struck by is how they had all (except Laura Bush) worked their way through the Reagan/Bush I power structure. Given Bush II's intentions, one cannot argue that any of these women haven't earned their posts, nor that they have failed their appointed tasks. Flanders argues that much of their effectiveness has come from the fact that they are women -- that the media wants to glorify them as progressive icons even though they've bought into Bush II whole hog and done equivalent damage to Bush-Cheney's good old boy network. This is all true, and just goes to show that anyone can cast their lot with the rich and powerful -- compiling similar lists among other groups ill served by Bush-Cheney isn't hard either. While most of these woman are little more than willing servants of power (smart, dedicated and hard-working as they certainly are), Karen Hughes seems to be in a class all her own. I found her chapter to be downright shocking: part because I recognized the crime scenes but had never identified her as the perp, but also because I believe that the single worst thing that George W. Bush has been responsible for is the corruption and destruction of civil political discourse in America. Much of the dirty work there was done by Hughes.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Put together the website for Fifth Column Films, the video/filmmaking company that my nephew, Mike Hull, and Axel Foley have formed in Jersey City, NJ. I got some money invested in them (and they owe me more than that), but I'm impressed with the work I've seen them do. Their film, Smokers, is a textbook case of how to work cheap and produce something that doesn't just look cheap. Mike learned those ropes working with Wichita's own Jason Bailey, whose Films on Consignment has put out half-a-dozen feature length films for next-to-nothing.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Music: Initial count 9656 rated (+38), 1077 unrated (-17). Jazz Consumer Guide should be published Sept. 28. Stil waiting for Static to post Recycled Goods, and have another one done except for an introduction. I need a better place to publish that column; the current one is nearly useless. Meanwhile, moving a lot of product through the sieve.

  • Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber: That Depends on What You Know: The Sirens Return/Keep It Real 'Till It Flatlines (2002, Trugroid). The second of three CDs from these sessions. Title cut most impressive, built around a lot of adventurous guitar leading into a rap, "if you have problems, just say fuck it." Again, the guitars and rhythm take over the final piece. There's a great album buried in these sessions, but I guess Greg Tate decided he'd rather have three good ones. B+
  • Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber: That Depends on What You Know: The Crepescularium (2002, Trugroid). More of the same, this time with more vocals than usual, which doesn't necessarily help. B
  • Jacques Gauthé & the Creole Rice Jazz Band: Echoes of Sidney Bechet (1997, Good Time Jazz). Straight out of Bechet's book, beautifully realized, but nothing new. B+
  • P.J. Harvey: Uh Huh Her (2004, Island). Her fans are generally bummed about this one -- evidently she is too -- but it sounds like her sound, toned down and muddied a bit, which is ok with this nonfan. As for her love life, well, who cares? B+
  • Chris Jonas' the Sun Spits Cherries: The Vermilion (2000, Hopscotch). Jonas plays soprano sax, somewhat reminiscent of Steve Lacy, although often more fragmentary and dissociated. The group matches him against two trombones and percussion, and Myra Melford joins on piano. While the juxtapositions, especially with the trombones, are interesting, the overall effect is slow and fractured, the lack of rhythm just short of falling apart. B-
  • Michele Rosewoman Quartet: The Source (1983 [1984], Soul Note). Quartet with Baikida Carroll (trumpet, flugelhorn), Roberto Miranda (bass, Pheeroan AkLaff (drums), from early in the pianist's career. B+
  • Renee Rosnes: With a Little Help From My Friends (1988-99 [2001], Blue Note). A retrospective, with four previously unreleased tracks, mostly alternates or live versions. The title comes from the Lennon-McCartney song, a tough nut to jazz, and the long list of friends on the cover are sparsely represented in a series of mostly small groups. Especially impressive are the sax players: Joe Henderson, Walt Weiskopf, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter. Moreover, she does a fine job of holding them together. Enough of these pieces stand out to make this worthwhile. B+
  • Sizzla: Rise to the Occasion (2003, Greensleeves). AMG lists 24 main albums for this Jamaican star, starting in 1995, including 8 on VP and 5 on Greensleeves. That seems like too much. This is the only one I've heard, and lack of context makes me a bit leery in evaluating it. I hear a mix of ragga and roots; a thin and somewhat arch voice reminiscent of Eek-a-Mouse and that generation of motormouthed toasters. B
  • Bill Stewart: Telepathy (1996 [1997], Blue Note). This is a drummer's record, and as usual it pays to concentrate there, but with piano (Bill Carrothers), bass (Larry Grenadier), and two saxophones (Steve Wilson and Seamus Blake) there's much more going on. Maybe too much. There's no doubt that Stewart knows his craft -- I recall a "blindfold test" where he nailed every drummer thrown out at him. I'm impressed by the details. All of the players are first rate, and they have plenty to do. But I'm less clear on where it's all meant to go. Maybe nowhere. B+
  • String Trio of New York: First String (1979, Black Saint). First recording by long-time group, at this point consisting of Billy Bang (violin), James Emery (guitar), John Lindberg (bass). Three pieces timed for LP: "The East Side Suite" (Lindberg, 19:55) for the first side; "Subway Ride With Giuseppi Logan" (Bang, 8:00) and "Catharsis in Real Time" (Emery, 9:03) for the second. This strikes me as still exploratory: lots of little interactions more interesting in their details than in some big picture. B+
  • Henri Texier: Colonel Skopje (1988 [1995], Evidence). Presumably this is the same record Penguin Guide lists as Label Bleu LBLC 6523. It reads that way: "a ragbag, too various to hang together convincingly, although Abercrombie's presence guarantees some interesting moments, as always." There is some interesting guitar here. Harder to figure out is just what Steve Swallow (electric bass to Texier's acoustic) and Joe Lovano (on flute as well as saxophones, the latter unspecified but only the tenor notable) are doing. Last piece is quite nice. B
  • Keith Tippett: The Dartington Concert (1990 [1992], E.G.). Solo piano, one piece, 47:49 long, called "One for You, Dudu." A lot of intricate rocking back and forth, some interesting moves. Pretty good. B+

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Movie: Hero. Noun, a word I hope I never hear again, as long as I live. Presumably the subject here is something about the mechanization and institutionalization of violence in the forming of national states, and how even the learned and independent submit to some idea of national good that seems rarely justified by the national rulers. Something like that. Or maybe it's just that the only good hero is a dead hero. C


I finished reading Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. I should take some time and write up something more substantial about this book. Phillips has dug deep enough into the family history to start to make sense out of things that just seemed weird before, like the Bush family association with the CIA and the decision to transform from Connecticut yankees to West Texas cowboys. Phillips' discussions of the Stuarts and Bourbons don't add much here: their restorations were done under force, whereas the Bushes were knowingly (more or less) re-elected (more or less). I suspect that the real story of the Bush political machine is even tawdrier than Phillips draws it. The one thing that Phillips seems to have missed is the Rockefeller dynastic legacy, in particular the connection between the Rockefellers and evangelical protestantism (including the ubiquitous Billy Graham, who does appear here) as traced out in Thy Will Be Done. The Bushes were more directly connected to the Harrimans, but the Harrimans were tied up with the Rockefellers as well, and the interconnections of both with the spy agencies, the military-industrial complex, and oil are significant.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Three years after the terrible attacks of 11 September 2001 I find myself wondering whether anyone ever is so shocked by an unexpected event that they reconsider and change course. The horror that we felt that morning watching the World Trade Center burn and collapse was not just for the victims. Every bit as horrifying was the expectation of what would come: not what further attacks might come, but what the U.S. would do in reaction. To call what happened afterwards revenge would be to give it more purpose and sense than history demonstrates. All Osama bin Laden actually did on that day was to poke a giant and stir it into fitful action. He soon went into hiding and has been irrelevant ever since, but the U.S. reaction has continued to rail blindly against the world. In the three years since, the U.S. has laid waste to two countries, killing at least ten times as many people as died on that fateful day, perhaps twenty times, sacrificing another thousand Americans in the process. The U.S. burned up over $200 billion prosecuting those wars, now just hopeless sinkholes, festering pools of hate. And three years out we're nowhere near closure.

That no good would come of America's reaction was clear from the first day. The problem was no doubt made worse because the President was a deceitful cynic who saw a ready chance to cover himself with the glory of war, and because his administration was chock full of liars and crooks and ideological megalomaniacs. But the U.S. had long been cocked for this sort of reaction, much as, say, the world of 1914 plunged into World War following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Consider these reasons:

  1. Americans have been able to maintain a perfect sense of their own innocence and beneficence despite much reason to think otherwise. The land was after all taken from its aboriginal inhabitants by force and/or plague, reducing the few surviving Native Americans to abject poverty. Much of that land was tilled by slaves kidnapped from Africa; when the U.S. finally abolished slavery, following the most deadly war fought to that time, those freed were segregated by law and terrorized by lynching. The nation expanded through imperialist wars against Mexico and Spain, and attacked Latin American countries dozens of times to install or protect favorable regimes. During WWII the U.S. developed and used nuclear weapons -- the only country ever to do so -- and killed even more by indiscriminately firebombing Japanese cities. Following WWII the U.S. fought a desperate and unscrupulous worldwide "cold war" against communism, including limited but vicious wars in Korea and Vietnam. During this time the U.S. backed murderous regimes it thought to be allies, fomented rebellions and overthrew governments (some democratic) that it disliked, and tried to strangle economically countries it couldn't defeat politically or economically.

  2. Especially during and after WWII the U.S. developed a huge and self-sustaining complex of military, industrial and security interests, dovetailing with the global interests of multinational corporations. This growth was politically autonomous, fed both by fear of the other (first communism, now terrorism) and by fear of apparent weakness, ultimately expanding to straddle the entire world without peer or challenge -- or purpose other than its self-perpetuation.

  3. For most Americans the defining events of the 20th century were WWII and Vietnam. WWII came to be seen as the "good war" -- as the triumph of freedom, democracy, all things American over the evils of fascism and nationalistic imperialism, which conveniently left the U.S. (isolated from the destruction of the war itself) by far the richest and most glorious country in the world. Vietnam, on the other hand, left the U.S. humiliated by a backwater third world conspiracy. Ever since the American people have been in denial, facilitated by a lurch to the political right which puts a high value both on toughness and righteousness.

Convinced of their own righteousness and innocence, conditioned by the cold war to villify as an enemy anyone who thinks otherwise, Americans had no way to question themselves on 9/11. The only reaction they considered was to lash out, and this was overwhelmingly bipartisan, almost universal -- I know a number of good people who were swept up in just this reaction, even people who know just what America's war machine has done over the last half century. So the reaction was not a conspiracy, not a peccadillo of the illegitimate Bush cult. It was the conditioned response of America.

Still, three years out the reaction has taken the shape given to it by Bush. It is easy to second guess the tactics, and even John Kerry has done some of that. Many, perhaps most, Americans don't buy the strategy of tossing Iraq on top of the still hot embers of Afghanistan, and even some who did have given up on the costs. But the fundamental problem is still the very idea of a War on Terrorism. For one thing it mixes together many distinct political movements targeting distinct real (or imagined) injustices. For another it makes the U.S. the unwitting ally in repressing each case, as we join and legitimize India in Kashmir, Russia in Chechnya, Israel in Palestine, and anti-Islamist rulers from the Philippines to Morocco -- an international sweep that makes Al Qaeda seem prescient. But the real problem is that it posits that the solution to terrorism is war -- convenient given that we have the world's premier war machine.

But three years of fitful reactions later the U.S. war machine has failed utterly. What this should do is to trigger something deep in the dark recesses of our memory: that the mighty U.S. war machine, backed by all that American benificence and righteousness, has failed before -- in Vietnam. We've never faced up to why the U.S. failed in Vietnam, for much the same reasons we've never faced up to much of anything: because we were in the wrong. And the core reason why we were in the wrong wasn't that what we think of as right isn't really right for us; it's that it isn't necessarily right for others. Until we learn to respect other people and do right by them -- to help when we can but never to impose -- we will continue to hurt ourselves by waging unconscionable, ineffective wars. We will continue to delude ourselves, to inflict misery, to make enemies, to show the world that we are unworthy of respect.

Three years ago, even after the 9/11 attacks, we were still better off than we are today. What has happened since then has been our fault -- pretty much our fault alone -- and we have no one to blame for that other than ourselves. If you want to blame George W. Bush for that, well, that's a good place to start. But the real causes go much deeper than Bush, deeper than the Republicans, deeper than the Reagan reaction. Nothing really changes until we take a good look at ourselves, admit what we have done, and resolve, one day at a time, to do right.


As we know now, when the airplanes crashed on 11 September 2001 George W. Bush was dumbfounded. He did nothing, then was packed away to hide. Dick Cheney also went into hiding. Yet before the day was out the media had declared war, proclaiming that America was under attack -- a message that inevitably mutated to America strikes back. The propaganda offensive began almost spontaneously, the first pre-emptive attacks of the War on Terror. The first to be attacked were pacifists, anyone with the instinct not to shoot first and ask questions later. Then came the "Blame America First" crowd: anyone who suspected that maybe the U.S. had actually done something that might have motivated people to be willing to die just to punish us. Even Pat Robertson got caught up in that snare: his assertion that God had punished America for coddling homosexuals was more finger-pointing than America was willing to endure. Then came out the flags, and it was nothing but stupid season. With no idea why we had been attacked, with nothing permitted to moderate our response, with the world's largest military straddling the globe, George W. Bush had no alternative but to plunge the nation into war -- not that he had the guts or the brains to make any effort to stem the tide.

Rather, the problem with Bush is that he fell in love with war, and especially with being Commander in Chief. His polls soared. His sponsors grinned. When the Taliban had been flushed from the major cities in Afghanistan he was ginned up for the next war -- perhaps the one he had wanted in the first place, Iraq. One of the most interesting things about the Iraq war was that it wasn't automatic: it took considerable will from the Bush administration to make it happen. They rolled out a massive propaganda campaign, they went to Congress and the U.N., they tried to round up allies, and when nobody much supported them they just went ahead and did it anyway. Maybe Iraq had the smell of Vietnam from the start. Maybe there's something subtler about the American tribal code of revenge than Bush recognized. Maybe it's just that the moment for insanity had passed.

The attacks of 11 September 2001 should have been a moment for sober reflection, but it wasn't. The collapse of the Soviet Union should have been a time for healing, but it wasn't. Throughout history there have been few cases where victors have been gracious, and fewer still where nations have changed their ways without having been forced to by catastrophe. That anyone believes that Bush has a clue how to proceed from here tells us both that we're not very smart about ourselves and the world and that, disastrous as the War on Terror has been, we still haven't fallen hard enough yet. Kerry's nomination and campaign are scarcely more encouraging: he has a bad record for rushing into wars, but at least has some capacity for learning from his mistakes. Bush's supporters are blind to those mistakes, otherwise they'd recognize that he is the necessary sacrifice in order to start to set things right.


I've written very little above about the terrorists -- about the so-called enemies of America, who invariably turn out to be muslims. This is mostly because the War on Terror isn't really about them. It's about us, how we see ourselves, how we see the world, and how we don't give a shit how they see us. Perhaps the hardest aspect of the War on Terror for Americans to understand is that the focus of groups like Al Qaeda isn't really on us. What Islamists like Osama bin Laden want more than anything else is to militarize the faithful, to overthrow the corrupt (often but not always secular) rulers of the Islamic world -- especially the House of Saud in the Arabian peninsula. The U.S. is a useful foil in their struggle -- a global boogeyman that lurks behind and ties together all of their real targets -- but all they actually need from us is to behave badly. And in behaving badly Bush has obliged them to an absurd degree.

War does several things. It targets coarsely, making it impossible to isolate real enemies from neighbors, and this ultimately binds the enemies and neighbors together. It creates atrocities, which alienate people of good will and reinforce the beliefs of anyone inclined against us. It also makes us more callous, more distant, less human. And often it blows back against us. Because of its fitful reaction three years ago, the U.S. has now moved well down the path of making enemies of all muslims and of making most of the rest of the world and many of our own people wary and distrustful of U.S. power and intentions. It should be obvious by now that the end of this path is disaster, but still that realization eludes most of us.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Panel discussion: What Is the Political Status of African Americans? (Saint Mark United Methodist Church, Wichita, KS) Panel: Don Betts Jr. (KS State Senator, District 29), Gretchen Eick (Professor of History, Friends University), Kevin Myles (Wichita NAACP), Junius Dotson (Senior Pastor, Saint Mark UMC). Just a few scattered thoughts:

  1. Is it really still true that African Americans have political interests that are (a) monolithic and (b) distinct from non-African Americans? In the pre-Civil Rights era that was very much the case -- matter of fact, it was strictly enforced by law. In a hypothetically integrated future it should be false. The present is somewhere in between: one can argue over where, but the long-term trend is for African Americans to wither as a monolithic political block.

  2. Such withering is clear when you look at the black leadership that one panelist presented. Colin Powell came in #2, and Condeleza Rice registered a ways back: neither identify with issues that are popular let alone definitive for African Americans. They are leaders who happen to be African Americans, not African American leaders -- at least not in the sense of Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. When you think about it, Al Sharpton is less an inferior African American leader than a leader with less challenge and resonance because his issues are less clear-cut.

  3. Nonetheless, African Americans still vote overwhelmingly to one side -- the figured cited was 90% for Gore -- which makes them look like a monolithic block, and therefore makes it look like nothing much has changed. I believe that the change is real, but there are three reasons why the numbers haven't changed: (a) many African Americans still have significant common causes with white Democrats, mostly on issues rooted in class; (b) the Republican alternative has little if anything to offer most African Americans, economically or otherwise, and many Republican issues are indifferent or hurtful; (c) it is still remembered how the Republicans built their current political ascendancy by recoding past racism; even if the Republicans were to change their tune they would by now have a lot of inertia to overcome.

  4. Several speakers argued that African Americans should leverage their block voting power by not automatically siding with the Democrats. This assumes a couple of things that probably aren't true: (a) that African Americans are truly a distinct block with distinct interests and indifference to other issues that separate the parties; and (b) that satisfying those interests is acceptable to the Republicans and not acceptable to the Democrats. If not (a) there isn't anything to leverage. If not (b) there's no option, especially since the Democrats merely have to be no worse than the Republicans in order to keep their margin.

  5. The Republicans give lip service to the potential leverage of bipartisanship by African Americans, but there's no evidence that they will compromise their agenda to satisfy African Americans. There is nothing to distinguish the African Americans who have joined the Republicans from white Republicans other than their skin color. That this has happened at all is evidence that old racist barriers have eroded, but not that the Republicans have anything beyond war and hard times to offer to the not-so-rich -- white as well as people of color, although religious whites have proven to be much more gullible.

  6. There are, of course, factors other than racism and economics that bind African Americans together: shared history and culture. As a music critic, I'm more impressed by the effects of empowerment in post-'60s African American music and how that has continued to drive innovation than the integrationist tendencies (which actually go back so far that virtually no popular music in America can deny African American roots), but I can also point to arenas where race has become meaningless (e.g., avant jazz).

  7. One should recognize that to a large degree the debilitating effects of racism are much the same as the debilitating effects of class, and that the latter is what remains as racism fades away. Kevin Myles' story about the elite student who aspires to work in a day care center is commonplace among poor whites, and I can cite similar stories from my own family. (E.g., my own: I made it into Washington University, awash with the filthy rich, and posted an outstanding academic record which should have led to a Ph.D. and a professorship, but I got flustered and dropped out; had I the means and advisors the sensible thing would have been to take a year off and bum around Europe, then return refreshed and finish up. Instead I got a dead-end job typesetting.)

  8. The claim that the African American political block has the power to elect the President is bogus. The Republicans have elected several Presidents with virtually no African American support, and those Democrats who won with a minority of the white vote have been more beholden to their marginal white supporters than to the African Americans who form their base. Democracy in the U.S. is majoritarian, which makes it possible for form a viable whites-only coalition, and impossible for African Americans to expand beyond a few concentrated areas without gaining significant white support.

  9. When I was a teenager I used to make political maps similar to those Kevin Phillips made for The Emerging Republican Majority. Among the most revelatory was a precinct-by-precinct map of Wichita, which showed that the Democratic vote in my own all-white section of Wichita was only exceeded by the Democratic votes in African American neighborhoods, while the Republican votes correlated precisely with my estimation of house values. Before that I hadn't considered myself as poor (my parents grew up on farms and my father worked in a factory), much less that I had common cause with African Americans, but the map was vivid and the conclusion inescapable.

  10. Affirmative action failed not because it wasn't needed or did no good but because it was conceived falsely -- on the idea that one could fix racial discrimination while leaving class discrimination intact. As it was reduced to a system of quotas, affirmative action unjustly excluded whites who were handicapped by the same problem that handicapped so many African Americans: poverty. There is a real need for an affirmative action based on the real problem, poverty and its attendant class discrimination, which seeks to build real, durable skills in an economy of expanding opportunity. This is an issue of much importance to African Americans, but it is also an issue which bridges to poor whites, an issue on which a broader coalition can be formed. We are living in a time when Republicans are seeking to ossify the class system -- to disempower workers in favor of business owners, to concentrate wealth in hereditary estates, to limit access to education and opportunity -- and those programs work against the interests of a large majority of Americans.

  11. I believe that we are entering an era where African American political leaders can gain unprecedented levels of support among whites, provided that they can make the leap from narrow block interest group issues to issues that can build broad coalitions. Barack Obama appears to be one politician who can do that. A big opportunity exists here in Wichita to get behind Michael Kinard and defeat Todd Tiahrt. I don't know whether either Kinard or Wichita is up to this, but nobody deserves defeat more than Tiahrt. (Well, Bush of course, but only because he's in a position to do damage Tiahrt only fantasizes about.)

  12. Re Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, the discussion there of how the radical right has attempted to usurp Kansas' legacy of abolitionism is fascinating in its own right, but is relatively peculiar to Kansas. Had Frank done a parallel analysis of Missouri -- and he grew up on the border, so that's not a far-fetched request -- he would have found a different, more blatantly racist Republican takeover model, one much more typical of the country as a whole. But one thing this discussion shows is that the legacy of the civil rights movement, the advocacy of freedom and equality in opposition to hatred and atrocity, even when the latter are sheathed in the cloak of law and order, is still an immensely powerful idea and rhetoric. It is something that African American leaders taught America, and something that African American leaders can run with like no one else.

  13. Much of the discussion predictably centered on electoral politics, where the goal is to influence government to intervene in ways that improve the lot of African Americans. That is tough to do because government is majoritarian, bureaucratic, corrupt, and often downright stupid. The Republicans work hard to make government even more dysfunctional: both by defunding it and by hampering it from working for anyone other than their sponsors. But there is another important front for political activity, which is to build up private sector organizations to provide immediate help to the community, and this has the advantage of being something that can be done without having to wait for an election. One of the most successful private efforts at community development over the last twenty years has been the free software movement, which has managed to free some of us from ever having to pay Microsoft a dime, giving us better, more reliable, more useful software. African Americans have a substantial history of developing private self-help organizations, going back at least as far as Booker T. Washington.

  14. Finally, I want to point out that a considerable number of people who attended this panel came from local peace and justice groups: those people are both very sympathetic to the interests of African Americans and are constantly engaged in broader struggles for peace and justice. Those people are good prospects for allies, and their work is worthy in its own right.

Anyhow, that's what was running through my mind, back in the cheap seats.


Movie: Collateral. More overtime for killers in America, but at least this time it makes for a fast paced, sharply worded, suspenseful and often surprising ride. Plus, the cops come out dumb, and the FBI dumber. Too bad the hero has to kill, too, not so much to survive as to gain some higher level of redemption (which may or may not include getting the girl). Too bad about all the dead people, too, but we're used to that. A-


Music: Initial count 9618 rated (+32), 1094 unrated (-6). Mostly been trying to work through the jazz reissues, but starting to get into some new jazz as well.

  • Ab & Terrie: Hef (2002, Atavistic). Two Dutchmen, saxophonist Ab Baars and guitarist Terrie Ex (of the eponymous group, the Ex). Scratchy avant-garde guitar and skronky avant-garde sax, raw patches of sound in conflict. That may sound horrible -- what the hell, it does -- but I find myself enjoying every minute of it. I get more out of Terrie than I do Derek Bailey, perhaps because he's still a rocker at heart. And I'd say that Ab is a lot more fun than, oh, Peter Brötzmann, let alone Evan Parker. Your mileage may vary. B+
  • Lynne Arriale Trio: Inspiration (2000, TCB). With Jay Anderson and Steve Davis, a fine piano trio. Working with a broad-based songbook, I'm impressed that she gets as much out of "Blackbird" as she does with "Bemsha Swing." B+
  • Erykah Badu: World Wide Underground (2003, Motown). Achieves a dense groovefulness that is hard to fathom, hard to shake, hard to embrace. B+
  • Biosphere: Autour de la Lune (2004, Touch). Electronic music from Norwegian Geir Jenssen. Not much more than a series of slightly differentiated electronic drones, barely audible, so slight that ambient hardly begins to characterize it. When Eno started to explore this sort of territory it was interesting at first, but soon the novelty wore off. Not totally devoid of interest, but there are long stretches that are so quiet I start thinking I should put a record on. C+
  • Cabaret Voltaire: The Original Sound of Sheffield '83/'87: The Best of the Virgin/EMI Years (1983-87 [2003], Superfecta). Their early albums laid the foundation for the genre that came to be called industrial, which meant that they were long, dull, and full of random noises. As such, never thought of them as a singles group, or even as transitional post-disco, but here it is. "Just Fascination" and "Crackdown" are endless grooves built around few more words than the titles. "I Want You" cranks this up yet another notch, with two grooves competing for attention, both undeniable: even if you slipped it into a New Order best-of you'd think, wow! A
  • Future Soundtrack for America (2004, Barsuk). Profits go to Move On, who are doing good work with them. We got this copy free after buying a box of antiwar stickers, which trail us like bread crumbs. More alt than I like, and not as political as I hoped -- good pieces by R.E.M., Fountains of Wayne, Ben Kweller, maybe a few more, but the best moves were Laura Cantrell's take on John Prine's "Sam Stone" and Mike Doughty's "Move On" theme song. Most of the sequences work nicely. Wish someone had remembered the "don't want to die by Bush command" song on Sly & Robbie's Silent Assassin. B+
  • Jan Garbarek/Anouar Brahem/Shaukat Hussain: Madar (1992 [1994], ECM). Braham plays oud, Hussain tabla, providing a background texture for Garbarek's tenor and soprano saxophones. Actually, Garbarek lays out for much of the record, letting the rhythm and texture build up before he adds his touch. B+
  • The Very Best of the Grateful Dead (1967-87 [2003], Warner Bros./Rhino). Mostly studio work; just one live cut from Europe '72. Not surprisingly, 6 of the other 16 cuts come from their two 1970 albums, American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. After that their albums got progressively wimpier, with only 1987's In the Dark contributing songs here (two) after 1978. I've never been much of a fan, but then I never saw them live, nor have I seen their concert films. Their live albums do show that they could stretch out more creatively than most rock bands. I dont' think that they're important enough -- at least not as music -- to need much more than a primer, but it seems like the more you try to cover the weaker they get. B
  • Hip Hop 101 (2000, Tommy Boy). De La Soul started soft but got hard as they progressed -- their AOI albums hardly seem to be the same group that started Three Feet High and Rising. They get Executive Producer credit here, and nobody else here except Talib Kweli even registers on my radar, but this is the distilled essence of their hard beat, everything on the one. Despite the title, this isn't a primer, just a reduction to fundamentals. A-
  • The Hives: Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004, Interscope). Short, fast, hard. Nothing wrong with that. Not a helluva lot to show for it either. B+
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim: Finest Hour (1963-86 [2000], Verve). An important songwriter, a fairly decent pianist, not a very distinctive performer, although the latter is hard to tell for sure. This starts with three cuts from Getz/Gilberto, for which see the whole albums (for that matter, don't flinch from Getz' The Bossa Nova Years, where more just keeps growing grander). The other Jobim recordings have been hit-and-miss, and I don't have a good handle on them. This seems like an OK introduction. B+
  • Steve Lacy/Michael Smith: Sidelines (1976 [1992], Improvising Artists). Piano and soprano sax duets. Even at its simplest, with Smith hacking a chord and Lacy working scales, it can be ingenious. But it does fall apart somewhat on the last track, something called "Worms": atonal, arhythmic, contrasting blocks of sound, clashing even. B
  • Livin', Lovin', Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers (2003, Universal). Another tribute, featuring the usual suspects and also rans, tackling relatively ordinary songs -- nothing weird like "The Great Atomic Power" and nothing evil like "Satan Is Real." At several points they sneak in vocal patter from the Brothers. As you'd expect, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Del McCoury fare OK, while Glen Campbell and Vince Gill don't amount to much. Listenable, but nothing much worthwhile here. B-
  • Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Warming By the Devil's Fire (1924-2002 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Charles Burnett directed this video, meant to dig deep back in his childhood, in reality deeper than that. Only one cut more recent than 1966, an old-sounding gospel piece, but even the '60s cuts were throwbacks: Son House from 1965 and Mississippi John Hurt from 1928 could have been swapped without changing a thing. He picks a particularly gnarly 1958 Billie Holiday to go with his 1924 Ma Rainey, and lets W.C. Handy sing his own song from 30 years earlier. Stars are rarely exhibited at peak brightness -- Elmore James on "Dust My Broom" is about as close to an exception as we have here -- and minor players often outshine them (e.g., Tommy McClennan). The usual problems with soundtracks apply here: just because something works with video doesn't make it sound good alone; connection to the story line makes the soundtrack broader than a comp should be. Still, this is tightly argued and interesting, making it better than most of this series. B+
  • Tommy McCook: Blazing Horns/Tenor in Roots (1978-80 [2003], Blood & Fire). The most famous of all Jamaican saxophonists, McCook was a mainstay of the Skatalites and a studio workhorse. These cuts come from sessions produced by Yabby You, Glenmore Brown, and (one cut) Striker Lee, and have been mixed by King Tubby. The first batch (for Yabby You) include Sly and Robbie, Albert Griffiths and Ansel Collins; don't know about the others. All instrumentals, most with that distinctive dub sound. The titles leave something to be desired: nothing blazing here, just insouciant grooves; not roots either, just state-of-the-art dub. B+
  • Wayne McGhie and the Sounds of Joy (1969 [2004], Light in the Attic). This is funk archaeology, a young Jamaican in Toronto covers country songs and writes his own soul ballads and funk toons, a little bit of everything, but nothing distinct enough to make his name; it went nowhere, and McGhie never cut another, but Kevin Howes loved it enough to track him down, perhaps because history still matters. B+
  • Morrissey: You Are the Quarry (2004, Attack). An ambitious album: first he tackles America ("America/your head's too big/because America/your belly's too big"), then Britain ("I've been dreaming ofa time when/the English are sick to death of Labour and Tories/and spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell/and denounce the royal line that still salute him/and will salute him forever"), then Jesus (one where the music finally rises to the words). Finally he works his way up to himself ("I'm Not Sorry," "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores," "How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?"). He even has something to say about you ("I Like You," although the reason is "you're not right in the head"). Some of the music is overpumped for my taste, and he's, well, a bit peculiar. B+
  • Willie Nelson: The Troublemaker (1973-74 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). His oft-lost gospel album, cut for Arif Mardin at Atlantic in 1973, repeatedly postponed until he wound up taking it with him when he moved to Columbia, which finally released it in 1976. "Uncloudy Day" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" became staples of his live show, the former deservedly. He was a great singer by then, but not yet a great interpretive singer -- that milestone was reached by Stardust. Of course, he has no real trouble with the genre, and scores with a touching "In the Garden" and a sprightly "Where the Soul Never Dies." Four live cuts tacked on, three from the album plus a straggling "Amazing Grace." B+
  • Non-Prophets: Hope (2003, Lex). Like the beats. Not enough time for the words, but those that come through deliver. Doubt that this is major, but good minor's good too. B+
  • Northern State: All City (2004, Columbia). Not having worked through the lyrics here -- booklet at least has them, albeit small print -- and I have to admit that not much stands out in that department. Still, seems to be a minor point, and possibly not even a minus. The beats are denser and more deft than before -- can't peg them so easily as the Beastie Girls, which is fine with me. Another one to sort out further later on. A-
  • Michel Petrucciani: 100 Hearts (1983 [2002], Blue Note). To appreciate solo piano you have to be in some sort of zone. I rarely am, and rarely do, but then again it's possible that most solo piano comes up short regardless of how intently you listen. Petrucciani was a freak: tiny legs, puffy body, long arms. He was built like an airplane, and if you closed you eyes you could imagine him strafing the keyboard, darting in and out of dogfights. But there wasn't anything freakish about his playing. He was methodical, laying out rhythmic lines, building counterpoints and harmonies on top. This was early in his short career, long out of print and only belatedly recovered (along with his wonderful trio album, Live at the Village Vanguard). A-
  • The Essential Redbone (1969-74 [2003], Epic/Legacy). They dress up as Indians, which I guess is their prerogative. But they sound like Procul Harum -- not better, but not much worse either. Sort of a neat trick, just not good for much. Last cut is a stereotypical Indian chant, which needs something more. B-
  • Sidestepper: 3am (In Beats We Trust) (2003, Palm). English DJ, Colombian salsa, Jamaican dub. But it does soften up a bit toward the end. B+
  • Wadada Leo Smith: Tao-Njia (1993, Tzadik). Smith's trumpet cuts like a bright beacon through the stillness of the night, but these long ambling pieces are long on night, and little is ever illuminated. The drums are of interest: frame drums, timpani, others. The strings less so, the poetry less than that. B
  • Chris Smither: Honeysuckle Dog (2004, Okra-Tone). He's usually reckoned as a folk singer, but his roots are more in old country blues, but not so resolutely that he gets filed there. Here he does a nice Mississippi John Hurt imitation, as he's done before, and closes with one from Bessie Smith, but he also works Randy Newman's "Guilty" into the mix. Through what is now a lengthy career he's usually recorded with just his guitar. This time half of the songs are done with groups, including for one song each Robin Kenyatta on flute and Perry Robinson on clarinet. However, the other half is more arresting, and the transitions don't help much. I've heard a couple of his earlier albums and never fell for him, so while I find him likable here I doubt that this is the place to start. B
  • The Very Best of the Spaniels, Volume 1: Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight (1953-60 [2000], Collectables). One of the greatest vocal groups of the '50s, but this decision to spread the singles from their Vee Jay heyday out onto two CDs doesn't lose a thing. More is more. A-
  • The Very Best of the Spaniels, Volume 2: Stormy Weather (1953-60 [2000], Collectables). OK, the leftovers thin out a bit, but "A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening" sure is. B+
  • The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop 1979-1983 (1979-83 [2004], Stones Throw). Hot on the heels of the Bronx breakout, too early to find much of a market beyond Mr. Magic's New Haven disco, this is old style from the crucible, spry beats, deft samples, lots of first person, fun and fresh. A-
  • Wheedle's Groove: Seattle's Finest in Funk & Soul 1965-1975 (1965-2003 [2004], Light in the Attic). Two recent ringers explain the date discrepancies: both are primitive funk instrumentals, old sounding but more disciplined than the matrix. The booklet is superb, devoted and dilligent. Like the folks at Now Again/Stones Throw they're on a mission, and an honorable one. Presumably they picked wisely, and this is a bit better than a random taste. (One band shows up three times, a few others twice.) But by all evidence the scene was marginal, and the acts get more mileage out of their enthusiasm than their chops. Organs/keyboards are almost ubiquitous. Vocals often enter the overkill range. Songs as obvious as "Louie Louie," "Hey Jude," and "Auld Lang Syne" are plumbed. B
  • Bobby Womack: Anthology (1967-76 [2003], Capitol/The Right Stuff, 2CD). Womack was a second-tier r&b star, best known for that song the Rolling Stones covered ("It's All Over Now"). He came up in Sam Cooke's wake, recorded for Minit after their golden period, co-wrote "I'm a Midnight Mover" with Wilson Pickett. After the period covered here he had several comebacks. He could preach, woo, raise the rafters, get down on the dancefloor, but he couldn't make you forget Wilson Pickett. But then who could? B+
  • Lee Ann Womack: Greatest Hits (1997-2004, MCA Nashville). Four albums (not counting an Xmas one, which doesn't appear here), dating back to 1997, plus two apparently new ones, plus a Willie Nelson duet from the latter's album. I've only heard one of her four, I Hope You Dance, which merits four here, including the two ballads that make you think maybe she's got something more than neotrad spunk. But she doesn't write much (just one of the new ones, and not the better one), and the follow-up "Something Worth Leaving Behind" fails both on sentiment and on facts: Elvis actually was pretty famous before he died -- she may have been too young to have known that, but it shouldn't have been hard to look up. The early cuts show some promise, but the closers mark this as a holding pattern. B

Thursday, September 09, 2004

The U.S. death roll in Iraq has officially passed the 1000 mark. The rate at which Americans die in Iraq has spiked again, prompting renewed assertions from Donald Rumsfeld that this just proves how desperate the Iraqi insurgents are. The raw count of anti-U.S. attacks has shot way up, as have attacks against oil pipelines. Major cities in the Sunni Triangle are now "no go zones" for U.S. forces, and other area, like Baghdad's Sadr City, are fiercely contested. The U.S. has, in turn, escalated air bombardment, and is threatening renewed ground offensives to recapture lost cities. Nobody knows how many Iraqis have died as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation, the consequent resistance, and the general chaos that has ensued. The iraqbodycount.net website has counted between 11800-13800 deaths, but their methodology depends on multiple press reports, and there is very little press coverage in much of Iraq these days. The U.S. regularly reports that its operations have killed 40, 60, 100, even 400 Iraqis.

Despite the rosy picture painted by Rumsfeld and Bush in his campaign speeches, most reports out of Iraq are astonishingly bleak. Two military consultants on Lehrer last night, clearly connected to the war and in daily contact with military people in Iraq, viewed the U.S. position as hopeless. One went so far as to report that his military contacts in Baghdad were telling him that the U.S. presence was only making things worse. Later Charlie Rose interviewed Dexter Filkins, who as we know has rarely failed to fall for U.S. propaganda, but Filkins reported that U.S. acts only have the effect of driving Iraqis into the arms of the resistance. He cited an interview with a Sunni Sheikh to show how leaders of the resistance have become completely cynical about anything the U.S. says, including the promise of elections.

It has never been clearer that the U.S. has utterly lost the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq, and as such has failed in the neocon campaign to turn Iraq into a showcase of U.S. cronyism. As such, the U.S. has lost the war, and final withdrawal is only a matter of time. Given this, the real question is why is the U.S. launching offensives at this time, which only serve to increase casualties on both sides, to intensify Iraqi hatred for the U.S., and to put the war back onto the front pages of U.S. media. Most likely the reason is the election, the only battle for hearts and minds that ever really mattered. Of all the lousy issues that Bush has to run on, he may figure that igniting Iraq is his best bet. He's gambling that voters will rally behind the Commander in Chief in the heat of war. He's also exploiting Kerry's sloppiness on the issue, figuring to gain either if Kerry falls in line or flip-flops to criticize, i.e. to give aid and comfort to the enemy. Bush may also figure that a strong military offense now will postpone the inevitable political collapse until after the election. Moreover, he's expecting that no one in the media will recognize how cynical and vicious his political strategy is.

It's important to understand that while the U.S. can't shut the resistance down, it can downplay Iraq by holding its troops back and quietly conceding the inevitable. The resistance is winning a patient war of attrition. The real flare-ups, on the other hand, are always the consequences of U.S. offensives. So in a loose sense the U.S. can control the level of visible violence in Iraq, and we've seen that several times this year. Thus far the U.S. has usually dialed back its offensives when the political cost gets too high. But what happens when there's no political cost to pay? (When you've finally lost all the goodwill you ever had?) Sensible people would pack up and leave. Bush can't afford that politically, especially now. The only thing that holds the U.S. back from the sort of scorched earth repression that, e.g., Russia tried and failed in Afghanistan and Chechnya is the moral sensitivities of the American voters -- which thus far hasn't amounted to much, especially when Bush's main concern is to pump up his base.

One of the talking heads last night dismissed the 1000 U.S. deaths figure by quoting Stalin, that one death in a car accident is a tragedy, but 1000 is just a statistic. That's the first time I've heard Stalin being cited to defend U.S. policy, but it may be a trend. In the past few days we've heard Russians grumble that no terrorism like Beslan occurred on Stalin's watch. It makes you wonder when the U.S. will be desperate enough for victory to play that Ace of Spades in the hole.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Movie: Vanity Fair. Never having read William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, I'm no doubt easily impressed by how much storyline there is here, and even more ignorant of how much got left out. The latter is likely quite a bit: there is a lot of room for development between the brief appearance of heroine Becky Sharp as a girl and her emergence from adolescent servitude, and again for various stretches of time later. I also gather that the story has been tidied up a bit, mostly to make Sharp less dislikable. The great subject, of course, is the English class system: how the poor yearn to ascend, how the rich fear falling, and how the latter have created a vast wasteland for both. Director Mira Nair introduces the backdrop of Anglo-ruled India, but doesn't do much with it. Reese Witherspoon is hardly ideal as Sharp, but her typical grin suggests the appropriate mischief. B+

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Music: Initial count 9586 rated (+31), 1100 unrated (-9). Jazz CG is mostly edited; not sure when it will appear. Recycled Goods is edited and handed in; not sure when it will appear. Been working on a little bit of everything, with some emphasis on jazz reissues. Recent reissues from Blue Note and Verve haven't been very good, as they scrape the barrell ever deeper.

  • Bobby Bare Jr's Young Criminals' Starvation League: From the End of Your Leash (2004, Bloodshot). Some good stuff here, but I'm having trouble sussing it out. Record ends memorably, although not necessarily sensibly. B+
  • Roger Creager: Live Across Texas (2004, Dualtone). Good old fashioned West Texas rock 'n' roll, with some fiddle, accordion, appropriate nods to Tex-Mex. Long at over 72 minutes, larded with lavish audience applause, hot as a 4th of July barbecue. None of which matters much, although I'm glad I've heard "Mother's a Redneck, Too" and have to note that he made Guy Clark's "L.A. Freeway" sound like something out of the Bruce Springsteen songbook. B
  • Marianne Faithfull: Kissin Time (2002, Virgin). The beats are more electro, but "Sex With Strangers" sounds like a return to Broken English, although not as clear, not as loud, not as brazen. Aside from "Sliding Through Life on Charm" ("everyone wants to kiss my snatch"), one can say the same of the other songs. But "Song for Nico" is touching and appropriate, and "I'm Into Something Good" is transcendent. B+
  • Hazard, Fennesz, Biosphere: Light (2001 [2004], Touch). Four short tracks by three artists (whole thing is EP-length at 23:26, although there's no indication of that on the package): 1. Hazard, "Meteosat": dense electronic fog, opens up a bit. 2. Fennesz, "C-Street": equally dense, less foggy; a ringing sound, reportedly from guitar. 3. Biosphere, "When I Leave (Finely Tuned Version)": starts with voices, indecipherable; picks up a three beat pattern, not fast, emphasis on the third; doesn't really go anywhere. 4. Biosphere, "Algae & Fungi (Candelaria Version)": another three beat figure, on guitar, percussion (maraccas?), synth; again doesn't really go anywhere. The Hazard and Fennesz pieces are short, minor exercises in ambient sound not meant for easy listening. Given how short they are, they work as a prelude for the more beatwise Biosphere. This is one of those odd little things that are pleasant and interesting for the brief time they appear, then leave you wondering why. B
  • Lisa Marie Presley: To Whom It May Concern (2003, Capitol). Sorry, I don't normally cover heavy metal albums, but I didn't know. Oh well. She has co-writing credits on all of the songs, mostly with Glen Ballard and/or Clif Magness, sometimes others; some specify that she wrote the lyrics. And it's not really heavy metal, like osmium or rhenium or something similarly toxic. More like iron, with the ordinary ferrous oxide coating you expect of something that's been left out in the weather too long. B-
  • Man of Constant Sorrow and Other Timeless Mountain Ballads ([2002], Yazoo). A quickie meant to cash in on the O Brother soundtrack smash, but Yazoo has such a lock on this material that putting together a fine representative sampler was a no-brainer. Too bad they didn't put more effort into the history -- the only such note here is that Emry Arthur's 1929 recording of "Man of Constant Sorrow" was the first ever. B+
  • Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004, Epic). "Horn Intro" isn't the intro I expect, but this quickly reverts to arch herky-jerk, an alt-rock that still feels at home in the underground. Later on they raise important theological questions. Not everything works, and it seems to drag a bit toward the end. A-
  • The Reputation: To Force a Fate (2004, Lookout). Slower than the previous album, perhaps more lyrical. Hard to say since I've found nothing to concentrate on. B
  • Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous (2004, Brute/Beaute). I figure that in order for something to qualify for a straight A rating a record has to hold up superbly over many playings and some time. Due to my own listening load, I haven't managed to put enough time into anything this year other than a few jazz releases, and it shows in this year's list in the clusters of jazz-only above the A/A- line and non-jazz just below the line. Any of those records could still move up: Pipi Skid, Jon Langford, Drive-By Truckers, Todd Snider, Mountain Goats, Youssou N'Dour, Beastie Boys. Some have minor caveats, but most I just haven't spent the time with. I'm four plays into this one, and it's clearly at that level. The songs are clicking in: "Portions for Foxes" even before I read the lyric sheet to "It's a Hit"; and now the sequence "I Never," "The Absence of God," "Accidental Deth," and when "More Adventurous" at first seems less there comes a bit of harmonica to throw it over the top. Come year end I'll have to go back and sort out the rest of the list, see what makes it and what just misses. For now I'll take the plunge here. This reminds me most of the two great Chills albums, but that's just color and shape. Singer Jenny Lewis adds a bit more. A
  • Shrimp Boat: Something Grand (1985-93 [2004], Aum Fidelity, 3CD). Just as flowers yearn for sunlight, rock groups seek popularity. The aesthetics of rock has always been grounded in giving the people what they want. Even bands that never had the slightest commercial success sounded like they were trying. But eventually some bands, like this one from Chicago, figured the odds against superstardom and kept to obscurity with all eyes open. The effect is even more exaggerated because superfan Stephen Joerg didn't do the obvious thing and re-release Shrimp Boat's actual albums or cherry pick them to make an appealing best-of. No, he filled up three CDs with marginalia. The early band favored post-Velvets alt-country grooves, sometimes adding banjo. The later band picked up a couple of sax players and dabbled in free jazz over fixed beats. In between they dabble, sometimes wonderfully: "Ollie's Song" is built around a sample of Oliver North's Iran-Contra perjury; "Limerick Dub" just flows and flows amidst little blips of horns and guitar and electronics; "Rocks Are Oil" and "Honeyside" have grooves that can bear comparison to the Feelies (or, for newbies, the Strokes). But they also thrash and squeal and fart around -- as appealing to fans as mischievous children to grandparents. A-
  • Todd Snider: East Nashville Skyline (2004, Oh Boy). This has a booklet with enough words in it you'd think they'd be the lyrics to the songs, especially when you go looking for the one that starts "too old now to die young." But Snider likes writing so much he wrote shit he didn't even get around to singing, like this one explaining the title: "i live in east nashville./ east nashville is the part of town people leave/ so their kids won't have to go to shitty schools./ it's where some parents smoke joints in front of their kids . . . / we're not proud of it, we just do it. / where all the musicians who make our living on the circuit live / the part of town where we like and support queers . . . / we like about everybody / we fist fight a little but that ain't about disliking each other. / we've kinda given up on the vice president position over at work / we just pray for work . . . / we love each other and look after each other / and we all cried at skip's funeral. / east nashville is the little chunk of world i live in / probably a little like your chunk. / unless you're rich." He didn't write "Enjoy Yourself," but it works just fine as his big philosophical statement. "Conservative, Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males" works as well for politics. A-
  • Peter Stampfel & the Bottlecaps: The Jig Is Up (1984-99 [2004], Blue Navigator). Old songs and weird songs, but you'll need the booklet for hints about which is which, and you'll probably wind up second guessing anyway. For instance, "New White House Blues" and "New Riley the Furniture Man" will be recognized by folks who know of Charlie Poole and the Georgia Crackers, but they've been refashioned. There are two Irish jigs, one dating back to Shay's Rebellion, the other an original called "Song of Man." The one about jigging squid came from Hank Snow, but turns into something else when sung with Stampfel's voice. Stephen Foster's "Old Dog Tray" returns in more sentimental original. Evidently these were outtakes from the Bottlecaps' heyday, which somehow missed appearing on their two albums -- probably because the Bottlecaps were something of a rock move. This is closer in spirit to Stampfel's You Must Remember This, except when it turns into the Holy Modal Rounders. A-
  • John Surman: Coruscating (1999 [2000], ECM). In effect, all this does vs. most of Surman's other ECM recordings is to use a bass + string quartet as the sonic backdrop for his reeds -- soprano and baritone sax, bass and contrabass clarinet. The strings are quietly pretty but mostly just there as the backdrop for his improvs, which are tasteful as usual. Lovely album. Of course, he does it all the time. B+
  • John Surman: Road to Saint Ives (1990, ECM). This one was done with Surman overdubbing his own synth tracks. The latter tend to be string-like backdrops, minimalist sheets of sound rather than beats, and he moves cautiously over them, creating a thoughtful, almost meditative tableau. B+
  • Ralph Towner: Old Friends, New Friends (1979, ECM 1153). With Kenny Wheeler (trumpet, flugelhorn), David Darling (cello), Eddie Gomez (bass), and Michael DiPasqua (drums), the tendency is to be thick with strings, with tasteful decoration from Wheeler. Towner's preference for 12-string guitar reinforces that, although he also switches off to piano and French horn. This runs a bit too loose and too soft for my taste, although that's still where the more interesting pieces lie. B
  • Ralph Towner: Diary (1973 [1974], ECM 1032). Solo, 12-string and classical guitar, piano, gongs. This was playing along innocuously enough when the fourth cut ("Icarus") caught my ear. Finally paying attention, I quickly surmised that the reason was that he didn't merely find another twelve strings for his guitar: he picked up 88 on the piano, dubbing over the overstringed guitar. It's a gorgeous, striking piece, but the extra instrumentation really helps. The real solo guitar is often eloquent, but is inevitably less, even with the gongs. B+
  • Ralph Towner: Solo Concert (1979 [1980], ECM). Without the added support of his multitracked piano, this may be the best example of his naked guitar. B+

Friday, September 03, 2004

Two days ago desperate and/or foolish Chechens took over a school in Beslan, a town in North Ossetia, a province (or whatever they're called these days; they used to be ASSRs) of Russia in the Caucusus near Chechnya. Today more than 300 people died in that school, mostly children who are rightly regarded as innocent of whatever issues occasioned the tragedy. Immediate responsibility, of course, belongs to the Chechens who took the school and the children hostage. This particular tragedy would not have happened had they not acted, and no possible rationale or justification can lessen that blame. If you don't see that much, you might wind up thinking nonsense like that it was Saddam Hussein's fault that the U.S. invaded Iraq, killing thousands of Iraqis -- most of whom hated Hussein before they died for his sins.

However, this tiny group of Chechens didn't act without cognizance of history. Nor did the Russians, whose tactical handling of the crisis may well have made the outcome worse. (The way Russia handled a similar hostage event in a Moscow theatre must have made the Chechens more nervous and more suicidal. The Russians flooded the theatre with a debilitating gas, which itself killed quite a few hostages, then summarily shot the Chechens. At the time that was viewed as a lesson for the terrorists, as it no doubt was.) The relationship between the Chechens and Russians goes back to the very early 1800's when the tsar's imperial forces displaced the Ottomans.

Since then the Chechens have been in almost continual revolt against first the Tsar, then the Soviets, then the post-Communist Russians -- all of which have treated the Chechens much the same. Karl E. Meyer wrote a bit about Russia and Chechnya in his book The Dust of Empire. Some relevant quotes: the first sums up Russia's attitude under the Tsars (p. 148):

In a circular letter to his embassies in 1864, [Prince Alexander] Gorchakov explained Russia's forward policy in cadences that reflected the spirit of an expansionist age. Russia's position, he said, was the same as that of all civilized societies "brought into contact with half-savage, nomad populations." In such cases, he maintained, "it always happens that the more civilised State is forced, in the interest of the security of its frontiers and its commercial relations to exercise a certain ascendancy" over neighbors of a turbulent and unsettled character. "First there are raids and acts of pillage to put down," he went on. "To put a stop to them, the tribes on the frontier have to be reduced to a state of more or less perfect submission. . . . It is a peculiarity of Asiatics to respect nothing but visible and palpable force. . . . Such has been the fate of every country which has found itself in a similar situation. The United States in America, France in Algeria, Holland in her colonies, England in India -- all have been irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward movement, where it is difficult to know where to stop." . . .

Conspicuously unaddressed in this circular was Russia's reliance on Cossacks, a separate estate of warrior-farmers serving as colonizers of Russia's borderlands. "Moderation" was not a term that would normally apply to Cossack hosts. Moreover, in contrast with the other countries he listed, Gorchakov's government was answerable only to the tsar under an absolutist system sans constitution, parliament, elections, free press or independent judiciary -- how else to explain popular passivity during fifty years of bloodletting in the Caucasus?

Moving on to Stalin, well into the 20th century, Meyer writes (p. 153-154):

This strategic deportation anticipated the massive and brutal ethnic surgery perpetrated by Stalin during World War II. Confirming Communism's distrust of Islamic peoples, the Soviet dictator ordered the wholesale deportation from November 1943 to June 1944 of four Caucasian nationalities -- Chechens, Ingush, Karachai and Balkars -- together with Crimean Tatars, on the claim they had "collaborated massively with the Nazi occupier." In December 1944, Stalin followed up by expelling other nationalities whose loyalty was doubted: the Greeks, Bulgars and Armenians from the Crimea, the Meskhetian Turks, Kurds and Khemshins from the Caucasus. One can hardly overstate the suffering and bitterness resulting from these deportations, mostly to Central Asia and carried out with heavy casualties on suffocating freight trains or cattle trucks. . . .

Most obdurate of all were the Chechens, who rebelled repeatedly against tsarist and Soviet authority. As early as 1828, General Alexei Yermolov tried to teach the Chechens a lesson once and for all. He dispatched six companies from his best regiment together with seven hundred Cossacks to wipe out a thriving and populous aul or village above the banks of the Terek, the river forming Caucasia's recognized boundary. As artillery and muskets poured shells point-blank into the village, the Chechens fought with a stubbornness the Russians had not experienced before. When it ended, only 14 men and 140 women and children of the aul still lived. The village was then totally demolished. "Such were Yermóloff's methods," relates [John F.] Baddeley [in 1908], "and it cannot be denied that, as in the present case, they were immediately effective. The remaining villages of the clan were deserted, the inhabitants seeking refuge in Tchetchnia proper. But they took a bloody revenge during the next thirty years, and it is strange that Russian writers, so far, fail to see any connection between the vaunted 'Yermóloff system' and the Murid war [an uprising by Imam Shamil of Daghestan from the 1820s to 1859]."

More than a century later, on February 24-28, 1944, 194 convoys of 64 trucks each deported 521,247 Chechens and Ingush, an operation carried out by 119,000 agents of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB [later run by Vladimir Putin]. A detailed NKVD report noted with satisfaction (and with a precision Eichmann might have admired), "We now put 45 people into each cattle truck as opposed to the previous 40. By placing the people together with their possessions, we also cut down on the number of trucks required, thus saving 37,548 meters of planks, 11,834 buckets, and 3,400 stoves."

Many Chechens wound up in labor camps in Kazakhstan, where they especially impressed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. "I would say that of all the special settlers," he writes in the third volume of The Gulag Archipelago (1976), "the Chechens never sought to please, to ingratiate themselves with the bosses; their attitude was always haughty and openly hostile. . . . As far as they were concerned, the local inhabitants and those exiles who submitted so readily, belonged more or less to the same breed as the bosses. They respected only rebels. And here is the extraordinary thing -- everyone was afraid of them. No one could stop them from living as they did. The regime which had ruled the land for thirty years could not force them to respect its laws."

And this is what Meyer has to say about more recent events (p. 154-155):

Those who know this history find it easier to understand the implacability of Russia's recent wars with Chechnya (in 1994-1996 and from 1999 on). With hindsight, one can appreciate the pragmatic wisdom of imperial Britain's self-restraint after provoking two bad wars with Afghanistan, a comparable Islamic borderland inhabited by no less warlike mountaineers. Twice the British sought to impose their candidate as emir in Kabul (1839-1842; 1878-1881), and twice they were compelled to recognize a ruler acceptable to the Afghans. After the second Afghan War, its acclaimed British hero, Major General Sir Frederick Roberts, supplied its best epitaph in a letter to a friend: "It may not be very flattering to our amour propre, but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us. Should Russia in future years attempt to conquer Afghanistan, or invade India through it, we should have a better chance of attaching the Afghans to our interests if we avoid all interference with them in the meantime." . . . In retrospect, Russia would have been far wiser to treat the Caucasus as a neutral buffer between its territories and those of the Turks and Persia. Militating against this self-denying strategy, however, was the existence of two Christian communities in the South Caucasus, whose leaders viewed Russia as an Orthodox ally, albeit not always trustworthy or easy to live with.

When the Soviet Union broke up, it was only a bad accident of geography that Chechnya didn't achieve independence. The Soviet Union was built out of fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics, which mostly owed their separate existence to stages in the Civil War with the Whites from 1919-21 and from the restoration of the pre-1914 western border when the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic states and Moldavia. While fourteen of the SSRs correspond (not especially well) to major ethnic groups, the Russian Federation was home to well over a hundred ethnic groups, many organized into ASSRs or Oblasts. As Mikhail Gorbachev started to lose his grip on the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin's used his position as head of the Russian Federation to force a break-up along SSR lines -- which aligned him with secessionist-minded SSRs in the Baltic, Georgia and Armenia. But when Chechnya, too, tried to break away, Yeltsin drew the line and waged war to crush any further losses from the Russian Federation. Had Chechnya merely been a SSR it would have gained independence and the terrorism that has dogged Russia, including today's tragedy, would never have happened.

But while Yeltsin could afford to lose the SSRs that he never really had anyway, he knew that doing so exacted a toll in Russia's prestige and self-esteem. Russia had its origins c. 1300 in a patch of land that barely extended beyond Muscovy's city limits. From there the Russian Empire expanded to cover the eastern third of Europe and the northern third of Asia. Then the Soviet Union took charge of the world communist movement, rivalling the U.S. among world superpowers. The break-up of the Soviet Union chopped off big chunks of the country, and little Chechnya threatened to unravel even more. Yeltsin faced right-wing baiting if he failed to put down the Chechens -- isn't that always the case? -- and Putin built a big chunk of his credentials as a strong Russian leader on Chechen blood.

But that's only the Russian viewpoint. As far as the Chechens were concerned, Yeltsin and Putin only reinforced what they already knew about the Russians -- what they had learned from Stalin, from Gorchakov, from Potemkin. I don't mean to try to defend the Chechens here, but I do think that it's important first to understand where they're coming from, why they've taken their struggle toward such horrifying acts, and perhaps most important why we have so much trouble understanding those things.

I see three main reasons why Americans have so much trouble understanding what is going on in Russia:

  1. America did manage to utterly defeat its indigenous tribes, and did so well over a hundred years ago, so we've forgotten what that struggle was like. We live in a nice multicultural society where what little is left of Native America has packed off to museums while the people have been assimilated into a mostly complacent underclass. We have whitewashed the genocide that our country was built on, so much so that we don't understand why other civilized countries (like Russia and Israel) haven't been able to duplicate our success, let alone why their natives continue to be so foolish as to resist.
  2. We not only can't see disputes through other people's eyes, we habitually redefine them in terms of our own preoccupations. At the moment, this means that we see the Chechens as an extension of al-Qaeda and therefore the Russians as being in the same boat as us. This despite the fact that the Chechen revolt against Russia predates al-Qaeda by almost 200 years. (On the other hand, had the Soviet Union not fallen, we would most likely be hailing them as freedom fighters and showering them with arms.)
  3. We have learned to reflexively see any form of misbehavior as requiring punishment to restore order, and we have learned to deny that any such misbehavior is symptomatic of any other problem. This has been the law-and-order mantra going back in the U.S. at least to Nixon, and it has been an effective political platform for the ascendency of the political right. One effect of this is to disallow any connection between poverty and crime; therefore, crime prevention is not considered a valid reason to try to reduce poverty. Another is that we succumb to an ever escalating logic of punishment: persistence of misbehavior leads to harsher punishments. Terrorism is misbehavior so egregious that we soon shuck our inhibitions against punishing it: we readily inflict indiscriminate collective punishments, and even sacrifice our own civil rights. And right-wing politicos, so expert in denying their own responsibility for the roots of terrorism, rush to do the dirty work.

The recent surge of Chechen terrorism -- trains blown up, planes blown up, Russia's crony "Chechen President" assassinated, now this despicable school hostage tragedy -- may be seen as a strengthening of Chechen resistance or as utter desperation, but in either case the events should signal a wake-up call. Same for the latest wave of bus bombings in Israel. Few countries have worked so hard and so harshly to stamp out terrorism as Russia and Israel, yet it persists. Terrorism isn't a normal thing. There are many instances of gross injustices that don't produce terrorism, but once a people starts on a path of armed resistance and that resistance becomes deeply embedded in the culture harsher repression rarely (if ever) works. Moreover, the repression itself changes the people who do it. That may work to elect every more right-wing politicos -- Israel is no doubt the clearest example of this -- but the right-wingers who promise security while projecting vengeance do little more than increase everyone's misery.

On the long list of people to blame not for the Chechens taking and destroying the school but for the Russians being such implacable opponents of normal Chechen aspirations is our own George W. Bush. He took a series of terrorist incidents directed at the U.S. and made them the excuse for a global War on Terror, and his broad definition encouraged right-wingers in countries from Israel to India, from Russia to the Philippines, to align their own quite specific problems with minority Muslim political movements along U.S. lines. The unleashing of the U.S. War on Terror immediately led to escalation of every one of these conflicts, making them each a theatre in a global struggle between superpower U.S. and Islamists all over the world.

Bush was recently quoted as saying that the War on Terror cannot be won -- a piece of candor that he soon recanted. But consider what winning such a war, in the absence of any real effort to redress grievances and right injustices, really means. It is much like Gorchakov said above, where all of the enemies of civilization must be "reduced to a state of more or less perfect submission." Even if that were possible it wouldn't make for a very attractive world.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Concert: Willie Nelson/Bob Dylan: Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, Wichita, KS. Wasn't looking forward to this: I've never been to a stadium-sized open-air concert, and hadn't been to Lawrence Stadium since Dumont butted in. But I'd also never seen Nelson live, so didn't resist very hard. We had seen Dylan in 2001 at Century II, an ok place for tractor brawls but terrible accoustically for music: too distant to see, too cluttered to hear. When we got to New York a month later friends were raving about his new record, which we had probably heard most of without really hearing it at all. The ballpark was set up with the stage on second base. We sat 2/3 of the way up directly behind home plate, peering over the control tent at the distant stage. The sightlines were interrupted by the foul ball screen, but the good thing was that hardly anyone was near us: for once it was nice to have some elbow room. However, the acoustics were dreadful: anything spoken from the stage was hopelessly garbled. The opening act was the Hot Club of Cowtown: a trio with violin, guitar and acoustic bass, with violinist Elana Fremerman doing most of the singing. I thought I heard her say that she originally came from Wichita, which reminded me that I had made various references to Cowtown while I was growing up here -- most notably in my manifesto for the Cowtown Liberation Front. (Website says she's from Prairie Village, KS, which is a suburb of Kansas City -- not the same thing at all.) Mostly played standards over slap bass, including a surprisingly slow and discreet "'Deed I Do." Willie joined for the set-closer, a nice touch. Great way to start the evening. Nelson started his set with "Promised Land," backdropped with a huge American flag, which was then quickly covered up (or blown up) with an equally huge Texas flag (Texas being so big that there's only room for one star and one pair of stripes -- Ernest Tubb would have approved). He had nine people huddled on stage, hard to see drummer Paul English, harder still to see sister Bobbie tucked behind the grand piano. Couldn't make out the guitarist to the left of Nelson who sang Merle Haggard's part on "Pancho and Lefty" then drove the point home by singing another Haggard standard, but Laura claims it was Dylan. Low point was a dreadful medley of early hits, or maybe just a version of "Nite Life" with other songs interpolated. I had no problem recognizing every song in his set, even though I couldn't make out a word he said. Dylan's set was stripped down and pumped up. He played keyb the whole time, except when he wandered around the stage somewhat dancing, like he thought he was Thelonious Monk. Two or three guitarists (one wandered in from the corners in mid-set; one switched off to pedal steel and something that looked like a big lute), bass (sometimes acoustic), and drums; they played almost everything fast and hard, and with the words hopelessly garbled I only recognized two songs: one Nelson came out for, from one of Nelson's records, and something about Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Two song encore: a roughhouse "Like a Rolling Stone" and an extremely loud "All Along the Watchtower." Maybe this is a sign that Dylan has a new record in the works, and maybe it'll be great, but I couldn't tell anything from the not-so-cheap seats. I kept thinking that I could have stayed home and actually listened to some music. But the weather was pretty nice -- this has been the fairest August in Wichita that I can remember -- and the crowd had some interesting sights. And now I can say that I've seen Nelson, after I've listened to 50-60 of his albums.


Aug 2004 Oct 2004