Sunday, February 27, 2005
Music: Initial count 10281  rated (+25), 900  unrated (-6).
Picked up the pace a bit last week, including a pile of Brazilian music.
Jazz CG in, pending edit. Maybe I'll finish Recycled Goods (nominally
February) this week. Also have a "smooth jazz" project, and quite a bit
of that piled up. Some partial entries in the notebook below that I had
meant to write more on. Been working on the website redesign (following
the blog design -- the key there isn't the design per se but getting all
the files to follow it), which is coming along slowly.
- Antologia de Música Electrónica Portuguesa (1972-97
, Tomlab/Plancton). 15 short pieces by 15 experimenters hitherto
unknown to me, some pieces happy just to coax novel sounds from their
gadgets, others expand those sounds into fascinating tapestries; not
being an expert I can only report that I find this pleasingly old
fashioned in its celebration of the new. B+
- Ray Charles: The Early Years (1949-52 , King).
Early stuff, before he developed any sort of signature sound. Sounds
pretty good, but not familiar, and not major. Note the blues, "Sitting
on Top of the World"; note the country song, "You Always Miss the
Water (When the Well Goes Dry)." On his way. B+
- The Doo Wop Box (1948-87 , Rhino, 4CD).
Big box, extensive booklet. More is more, at least this far.
- Ronny Jordan: A Brighter Day (1999 , Blue
Note). AMG refers to him as "one of the acid jazz movement's most
prominent guitarists." Never knew what acid jazz was; he strikes
me as a pleasantly funky guitarist working in the synth-dominated
smooth jazz field. But it's worth noting that when he wants vibes
he brings in Roy Ayers or Stefon Harris, when he wants a flute he
goes to Steve Wilson, and for a guest piano spot he taps Onaje
Allen Gumbs. Finally, he brings in Mos Def for a remix. With such
talent you'd expect this to be, like, not bad. Wish it were that
- The Only Doo-Wop Collection You'll Ever Need
(1954-65 , Shout! Factory, 2CD).
The title is presumptuous and argumentative: it asserts that 37 songs
exhaust your interest in the subject, and that these are the 37 songs.
One can quibble about the selection, but if I had to pick 37 I'd pick
two-thirds of these, and feel bad about the ones I cut. Your interest
level, of course, is your own damn business, but there is an awful
lot more where they came from, even if one keeps the usual limits,
excluding early groups like the Ravens and 5 Royales, later groups
groups like the Shirelles (girl groups), the Miracles (Motown), the
Four Seasons and the Beach Boys (post-Dion), and major '50s groups
like the Drifters, Clovers, and Coasters. For practical purposes,
doo wop tends to be limited to one-shot singles groups. Rhino's 1989
The Best of Doo Wop Ballds and The Best of Doo Wop Uptempo
set the pattern -- with two discs and 38 songs they've long been my
idea of the doo wop canon. But is that enough? Rhino didn't think so
when they came out with their 4-CD The Doo Wop Box, then did
it again. Neither of the Rhino boxes are what I'd call essential, but
they stretch the field out a bit, hit often enough to remind you that
there's more worth exploring, and well documented. The music here is
beyond reproach, but the box is docked a notch for arrogance. On the
other hand, had they called it Doo Wop 101 it would have been
docked a notch for its paltry documentation.
- Putumayo Presents: Acoustic Brazil (1979-2004 ,
Putumayo World Music). Maybe a bit folkier than average, certainly a
lean towards tropicalia, but the guitars that dominate mainstream
Brazilian pop have always been acoustic -- often with nylon strings
for a less metallic sound -- so "acoustic" means little here; a mix
of some famous names and some possible comers, fine as far as it
- The Rough Guide to the Music of Brazil: Bahia
(, World Music Network). As far as I can tell there's
nothing here before the '90s. Up the coast from Rio, south of
the easternmost tip at Pernambuco, Bahia was the core of the old
Brazil -- the Brazil of sugar and slavery, its people uprooted
but not far removed from Africa. Compared to the sambas of the
southern cities, the beat is harsher, the harmonics more obscure,
as if in pursuit of a primitivism that Africa gave up long ago.
The exception is Edson Gomes' sambafied reggae, my favorite track
here. That suggests I'm not getting it all -- always had trouble
with tropicalia, especially Tom Zé; axé is easier to latch onto.
Friday, February 25, 2005
Another event tonight: "Peacemaking in Palestine: An Evening With
Joe Carr." Carr is a young (age 23) activist who has worked with the
International Solidarity Movement and Christian Peacemaker Teams in
Palestinian occupied territories. He was working with ISM in Rafah
when Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall were killed. More recently he
has worked with CPT in the West Bank south of Hebron.
The idea of ISM is that the presence of Internationals (anyone
not Israeli and not Palestinian) will inhibit Israelis from acts
of violence against Palestinians. Often that works, but sometimes
it doesn't. In many cases we're talking about violence by Israeli
settlers against Palestinians, which seems to be largely tolerated
by the Israeli military and judiciary. Carr detailed several cases
where CPT members escorting children on their way to school had been
attacked and injured severely enough to require hospitalization. How
common this is across the occupied territories is hard to assess,
but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that it exists and in some
areas at least is rather common. Hebron is particularly notorious,
which is one reason CPT was drawn there.
Carr had a rather polished presentation, including several points
where he broke to dramatically recite poetry or play guitar and sing
songs that he had written. I lost my taste for poetry and folk music
agitprop long ago, so we'll skip over that part. He had a good set
of maps, including good deal of detail on the Rafah and Hebron areas,
the current/projected "security fence" path, and a set of four maps
detailing how Palestinian land control shrank from 1946. Interestingly,
he had a corresponding set of four maps of how American Indian territory
shrank from 1850 on. (Of course, maps from 1650 would have shown even
He had, I think, a somewhat oversimplified sense of the big picture:
quick to condemn the U.S., quick to ascribe American positions to racism
and/or capitalist greed, a tendency to view Israel as subordinate to
U.S. whims, that sort of thing. He said very little about Israelis,
although he did praise the peace movement there -- especially those
who demonstrated at the wall -- and, in q&a, he said that he
thought that most Israelis were very sheltered from news of the sort
of violence his groups faced everyday. But the value of his talk was
in the small picture: that looking up at the bulldozers, the walls,
the gun towers, the settlements that devour your land, the army that
protects those settlers and elevates them above the laws of any civil
There are a lot of things about economics that I don't understand.
For instance, economists are obsessively concerned with savings, and
they promote any government policy that promises to promote savings.
This was just pointed out by Alan Greenspan in advocating a national
sales tax, but you also run into it from economists as far away from
Greenspan as Paul Krugman. (For instance, in his New York Review
piece on "The Social Security Scam" Krugman defends the wisdom of
building up a Trust Fund as a hedge against the impending retirement
of the Baby Boomers, and goes on to recommend more of the same as a
prudent hedge against expected increases in Medicare costs.)
But the first confusing thing here is the word "savings" -- what
does that really mean? If I put my pennies in a piggy bank I'm saving
them for future use -- at least as long as I don't get robbed, and I
don't forget where I put them -- but that isn't what they're talking
about. Simply taking money out of circulation doesn't do anything for
the economy; if anything, delaying or foregoing consumption reduces
demand, which slows growth, puts a damper on prices and profits, and
ultimately puts people out of work. That may be good for the ecosystem,
but that's hardly something that excites economists.
What economists really mean by savings is more like what the word
"investment" means: giving your money to a business, in exchange for
a promised rate of return or a future claim on profits, so that the
business can spend the money on things businesses spend money for.
If nothing goes wrong, you can expect your savings/investment to
appreciate in value, so that you can consume more (or better yet,
save/invest more) in the future. Meanwhile, all that really happens
is that you transfer your spending to a business who, economists
believe, will spend it more wisely. This leads us to a couple of
Do businesses really spend their money more wisely than
individual consumers do?
Even where businesses do spend their money more wisely, is
this the most efficient way to do so?
The first, at least, should be an empirical question: something
that we can go out and measure and answer more/less definitively.
(Admittedly, the word "wisely" calls for some subjective judgment;
"productively" is a word that economists might prefer, or better
than that, "profitably" -- turn the problem into one of counting
money, but the story of Midas is just one cautionary tale about
such a reduction. Moreover, "profitably" raises more questions:
profitable to whom?) I can't answer this, but I can point out that
many instances of household expense are not mere consumption: some
save other expenses, some may appreciate in value, some make life
easier or more productive or more rewarding. Greenspan talked about
savings leading to "capital formation," but household spending on
durable items like appliances, computers, vehicles, tools, etc.,
is also capital formation. On the other hand, there are many cases
where business spending does not lead to capital formation, or
(more basically) to the employment of productive labor. When a
company builds a factory and employees workers to produce useful
things, that adds meaningfully to our gross product. But when a
company merely buys another company it doesn't produce anything,
and may actually reduce gross product by laying people off and
closing plants, while reducing value by eliminating competition.
Clearly, there are useful things that companies can do that
households don't do, such as building factories. The question
that I'm raising is how much savings/investment actually goes
into making such useful things possible and how much doesn't?
I don't know the answer there, but I'd be real surprised if it
worked out to be more than 20%. (My first guess was more like
10%, but I hedged because a lot of business expenses are hard
to classify. But note that it is very rare when buying stock
actually increases the working capital of a company -- in most
cases you are just buying from other speculators.) A big part
of the reason private investment is so inefficient is that each
investor and business only seek to maximize their own gains,
and many opportunities to do so are at the expense of other
investors and businesses -- or, an even bigger problem, at
the expense of labor. From a big picture point of view this
doesn't seem to be very efficient -- especially compared to
public sector investment. The public sector manages to spend
virtually 100% of its funds. The only question there is how
wise/productive/profitable its spending is.
In the U.S. at least, government spending has a reputation for
being grossly unwise/unproductive/etc. Whether that reputation is
deserved is something we can argue about. Certainly there are
plenty of instances where the charge is true, but there are also
exceptions -- the management of health insurance is one such
case. Governments also spend heavily in areas where there is no
viable private sector business strategy, such as building roads,
maintaining waterways, providing disaster relief. But there is
reason to think that regardless of how efficient or not public
investment has been historically, it could be made much more
effective if guided by better principles. In particular, one
of the major problems with public spending at present is the
extraordinary level of corruption throughout the U.S. political
I'm not advocating a wholesale shift from private sector to
public sector business finance, but it seems obvious that there
are areas where such a shift would be beneficial. (I also think
that we should look into reforming policies that tend to make
private sector investment ineffective -- a big topic I can't go
into here.) But the current political drift is moving the other
direction, toward more and more privatization. This sounds like
another pet theory of economists I don't understand, but in one
critical respect it fits in perfectly: just as savings is a scheme
to transfer money to business, so is privatization. It shouldn't
be hard to figure out what all these businesses, sucking up private
savings and public expenses, have in common: they are the province
of the rich.
One begins to suspect that economists are just apologists for
the rich. The political program of the rich is get all the money,
and they pursue this program with methodical desperation because
they compete not with the poor but with their fellow rich. Most
economists, especially the ones you're likely to run into on TV
or in the press, happily rationalize this program, often spouting
utter nonsense as scientific truth. (An astounding example of this
is the assertion that it didn't matter who took control of Russia's
businesses, just as long as they were privately owned. Most soon
fell into the hands of Russian mafiosi, who proceeded to destroy
over a third of Russia's GDP.) At least that's my best theory to
account for most of what I don't undersatnd about economics.
When I started this piece, I meant to comment on Paul Krugman's
piece on Social Security. By the time I wrote it Alan Greenspan
had taken over the news, arguing for slashing Social Security
benefits and proposing a national sales tax while decrying the
budget deficits that he help create in supporting Bush's tax cuts.
Three more points I want to make about Krugman's piece (which
otherwise is level-headed and reasonable):
Regardless of its merits (or, I think, lack of) the Social
Security trust fund dating back to the 1980s set a very unfortunate
political precedent, which was to reinforce the public's idea that
Social Security is some sort of trust fund as opposed to a pay-as-you-go
welfare commitment. The idea that Social Security could go bankrupt,
which is the stick driving the Bush program, depends on the notion
that it is funded in advance. (The carrot is the equally fallacious
idea that private accounts would generate more benefits.) Without
this principle of advance funding: (a) there is nothing to invest
(i.e., to feed the rich), and (b) the idea that sometime in the
distant future America's voters will decide to stop supporting the
welfare of the old and infirm is mere speculation. So I believe that
this was a political mistake even if it made economic sense.
Krugman has two levels of defense for the trust fund. One is
the idea that we should save for the future, which I think is sound
policy for individuals -- that at least is the way my mother raised
me -- but dubious for the nation as a whole. But the other idea is
that we should prepare for forseeable future liabilities by getting
our affairs in better order today: in particular, by paying off as
much government debt as possible in order to make it easier to face
up to future burdens. I don't have a problem with that.
Krugman argues that the increase in medical expenses is due
to the continuous addition of new medical services, and that this
will continue for the forseeable future, thereby increasing the
share of GDP that goes to health care and adding to the burden of
health insurance programs like Medicare. That's true as far as it
goes, but within this macro picture there are systemic distortions
of cost and quality of service (mostly denial), and those problems
are critical. The only thing Krugman proposes is another trust fund.
Much more needs to be done, not the least of which is transparent
public funding of medical research replacing the current system of
Greenspan's proposal for a national sales tax is nothing more
than an attempt to shift the tax burden away from profits (aka the
rich) and onto everyone else. He justified this, of course, by
claiming that it would encourage savings and capital formation.
It isn't clear to me why he thinks we don't have enough capital,
but the more fundamental issue there is whether the rich have
enough money, which of course they don't -- they never do. The
rationale behind this scheme is that if consumption becomes more
expensive (as it does when taxed) people will have more incentive
to save instead of consume. That assumes that their consumption
is optional, that it can be refactored as savings, and that the
difference is significant enough to lead people to change their
behavior. But it should be obvious, even to a sheltered banker
like Greenspan, that much of what most people spend their money
on isn't really optional -- it goes for things like food, shelter,
utilities, transportation, communication, basic necessities, most
of which instantly become more expensive, if anything leaving
less money for savings. Secondly, even among the middle classes,
who could afford to save more if they lived more spartanly, there
is little eagerness to do so. On the contrary, most of them are
deep in debt, and a higher tax burden isn't likely to get them to
rethink their lifestyles. That leaves the only beneficiary of this
bit of wishful thinking to be, duh, the rich.
Actually, I think that there is a case that could be made for
a national sales tax (probably in the form of a VAT, although I
would do it differently than in Europe). But that would be as one
part of a tax strategy that would be more progressive elsewhere,
especially in taxing estates. But that's another story, and it's
safe to say that that's not what Greenspan has in mind.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
The second of the two lectures intended to supplement the Emily
Jacir exhibit at WSU was held tonight. The lecture was given by
Issam Nassar, a history professor at Bradley University. The talk
was called "Palestine at the Crossroads: From al-Nakba to the
Aftermath of the Peace Process." The lecture was attended by a
crowd which overflowed the allotted 80 seats.
Nassar recounted a pretty straightforward conflict history from
1948 to the present. Two significant parts of the lecture help to
provide essential background for Jacir's artwork (which he did not
address directly). The first was by emphasizing the pivotal role
of 1948 in forming Palestinian identity -- al-Nakba, the loss of
land, community, home. The second was the evolution of legal status
for Palestinians by locality, especially after 1967 and again after
Oslo, which is reflected in the travel restrictions that are the
basis for Jacir's exhibit. (This restriction of Palestinian rights
contrasts starkly with Israel's extension of citizenship rights to
foreign Jews under the Law of Return.)
The q of the q&a was pointedly partisan. One question pointedly
invited Nassar to identify Sharon as the person responsible for the
Sabra and Shatila massacres; he declined to answer. Another pointed
to the Arab armies massed as Israel's borders in 1947 and 1967, the
terrorism and suicide bombing of later years, then asserted that Israel
has only tried to defend itself and that there would be peace if only
the anti-Israel violence would stop. Nassar responded by discussing
the wall, which is being built less for Israeli security than to pin
the Palestinians down into smaller cages. Another question had to do
with Palestinian textbooks not showing maps that recognized Israel,
and Palestinian schoolchildren being taught to seek martyrdom. Nassar
explained that he had studied the textbooks issue and that much of the
problem is that Israel has preserved the pre-1967 Jordanian texts --
part of this is tied to international law. He also said that he had
never seen or heard of any instance of Palestinian authorities training
children for martyrdom, and that he couldn't imagine why Palestinian
parents, or any other parents, would want anything other than future
health and well-being for their children.
A more open-ended question asked about the Camp David accords and
Barak's allegedly generous offer. Nassar explained this reasonably
well, and pointed out the progress made in subsequent talks at Taba,
then he sharply criticized the incoming Bush administration for lack
of interest in continuing the talks. This I thought was noteworthy
because nobody really talks about it. We tend to assume that the
Peace Process was doomed before Bush took over, but one could make
the case that Bush's inaction was in fact a signal to Israel to go
ahead and elect Sharon. The Bush/Sharon elections not only put an
end to all negotiation in the Peace Process, they led to an enormous
increase in the level of violence: in the first three years under
Sharon more Palestinians and more Israelis were killed than in the
whole period since 1967. One thing Nassar did not point out is the
unofficial negotiations that followed, leading to the Geneva Accords.
Nobody talks about Geneva these days, but the fact is that there is
a comprehensive peace agreement signed by key members of Barak's and
Arafat's negotiating teams waiting for the powers in Jerusalem and
Washington to take an interest. Which says as much as one needs to
know about Sharon and Bush -- not that we don't know so much more.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Found in the Wichita Eagle "Opinion Line" (a good source of wise
cracks and insane rants): "What a complete joke that Hillary Clinton
is, quoting the Bible in her speeches." One reason I note this is that
she has been getting a lot of flack on a local mail list I subscribe
to for her murky position on abortion rights and her hawkishness on
Iraq and any other potential cruise missile target you'd care to name.
Juan Cole reports that she's also managed to tick off the presumptive
next Prime Minister of Iraq. Clearly she's launched her campaign, but
I have to wonder what her prospects are with an increasingly polarized
public where both ends of the spectrum can't stand her. Maybe that
would have worked to her advantage in the '90s when few cared about
issues and most distrusted those who did.
I remember listening to a radio interview with her back in '93 or
'94 when she was asked what her reaction would be if her health care
reform was rejected, and she said that would be a shame. That might
have been savvy had she been sure of winning, but when her plan went
down is was just aloof. It was worse than a shame -- it was tragic,
not so much what her lousy plan lost as that she blew a huge amount
of political capital on something that wouldn't have solved the
problem in the first place, that substituted for a serious plan,
and that by failing cut the Republicans loose to do all the damage
they've done since 1994. That health plan was the same sort of too
clever straddle-the-middle tactic she's building her campaign on.
I'm hoping that someone will take her to task in the NY Democratic
primary in 2006 and knock her out.
The Boeing plant in Wichita KS, where my father worked for over
35 years, and my brother worked for 23 years before his layoff last
year (he's back now), has been sold to a Canadian company called
Onex. This illustrates various things, including the return of the
U.S. trade deficit in exchange for another chunk of property here.
For the short term Boeing will buy parts from Onex, which will allow
the plant to continue operating as before. But Boeing expects those
parts to cost less than when it owned the plant, and in any case can
be expected to shop around for even cheaper parts. Onex, in turn,
will have to run the plant more efficiently than Boeing did -- not
a tough goal, according to my brother, but one that will pressure
workers on all fronts, most likely including pay and benefits. The
possible upside is that Onex can search out other customers, but
the overall prospects for U.S. manufacturing aren't good.
Boeing's constant whining about how it has to reduce costs in
order to compete with Airbus makes little sense when you consider
that the dollar has lost something like 40% against the Euro in
the last four years. Meanwhile, Boeing has lost market share, and
stands to lose more as long as the 7E7 is vaporware. The latter
is a problem because Boeing prematurely announced the 7E7 in order
to pursue what's become its primary business: auctioning aviation
jobs to local and foreign governments. The state of Kansas coughed
up $500 million to secure some of the work in Wichita. The city of
Tulsa OK chipped in another $350 million -- their Boeing plant has
also been peddled off to Onex. China and Japan also get big chunks
of work. In past years Boeing always insisted that it wouldn't make
any difference if it farmed out fuselage work because the critical
component of their business is the wing, but now Japan will build
the wings. Meanwhile, Airbus has opened an engineering group here
in Wichita to design wings, and they're looking for a manufacturing
facility somewhere in the U.S. -- presumably to undercut Boeing's
already undercut American-built pitch, although the cheaper labor
may be a factor, too.
Boeing is keeping some of their military business here -- nobody's
sure just what the facilities split is. Much of the Boeing plant here
was actually built by the U.S. government during WWII, where a series
of legendary bombers were built: B-17, B-29, B-47, B-52. Wichita
nearly doubled in size during the 1940s when farmers like my father
moved to town to build airplanes. Boeing is much smaller here now,
but still by far the largest employer in town. For my father's
generation it was good work. Today Boeing is a hopelessly corrupt
deadbeat company that survives through inertia and political scams.
(Another Boeing executive just went off to jail.) I'm tempted to
say good riddance, but it's more likely to be a long, agonizing
decline. Reminds me that a big part of the reason I left Wichita
27 years ago was my recognition that the local businessfolk were
too dumb to stand working for.
Monday, February 21, 2005
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Obviously, I'm not qualified for this job, nor am I particularly
anxious to move to New York, but I thought it would be interesting
to write something about how I would approach it.
Stand by . . .
Gary Giddins finally wrote up a year-end list. It appeared in his
"Cadenza" Jazz Times column. No numbers. He broke the list out
into loose categories like "big band" and "boudoir break." I've been
collecting year-end lists in my notebook, but this time I thought I'd
take his list and hang my own comments on it. Everyone comes to the
table with slightly different experiences and orientations and agendas,
so this juxtaposes two. The grades refer back to my CGs or notes, with
? indicating undecided.
- Percy Heath: A Love Song (Daddy): Lovely album, a modest
but fitting statement after all these years. [A-]
- Don Byron: Ivey-Divey (Blue Note): Everybody loves this;
me too, although I was a bit slow getting to it. [A-]
- Clark Terry: Porgy and Bess (Americana): I hated this
at first; warmed a bit, then cooled. Giddins points out that Gil Evans
and Miles Davis did this way back when. But they were inventing something
which stretched the use of the studio, at least as far as jazz was
concerned. This is just sentimental repetory. [B-]
- Steve Turre: The Spirits Up Above (HighNote): Haven't
heard this one, but I shouldn't have missed a Kirk tribute with James
- Alice Coltrane: Translinear Light (Verve): Don't think
this was organized very well or thought through, but her piano carries
the record further than I would have expected. [B+]
- Marc Copland/Greg Osby: Night Call (Nagel Heyer):
Don't have it. I've never heard Copland, although I've read good things
about him, and I need to check him out. Osby's a better sideman than
leader, which is to say that his chops are better than his concepts.
Note that Vincent Herring's guest shot on Nagel Heyer was a lot better
than his own album on HighNote.
- Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins: Which Way Is East (ECM):
Home recordings, intimate and crude, a wonderful set. [A-]
- Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake: Back Together Again (Thrill
Jockey): Good match; best I've heard from Anderson, a guy I've had trouble
- Houston Person: To Etta With Love (HighNote): Don't
have. Quality soul jazz guy, especially on ballads.
- Arthur Blythe: Ace (Midlantic): Didn't even know this
exists. His previous albums with David Eyges are good.
- Cecil Taylor: The Owner of the River Bank (Enja/Justin
Time): With the Italian Instabile Orchestra, who I don't know despite
several attempts to track them down. Missed this one, too.
- Andrew Hill: The Day the World Stood Still (Stunt):
Don't have. I'm not a fan of Hill's recent large band records, but
he's a great pianist.
- Madeleine Peyroux: Careless Love (Rounder): I found
this off-putting, although I don't doubt her appeal, and there's
probably a choice cut or two. Giddins cites Abbey Lincoln as an
influence, as well as the obvious Billie Holiday. I've tried hard
to like Lincoln, but never made it. [B]
- Andy Bey: American Song (Savoy): Another singer
I've never much liked, although I've softened a bit in the last
- Joe Lovano: I'm All for You (Blue Note): Ballad
album; the musicians are so talented they manage to keep it from
capsizing, but it really doesn't work for me. I don't think he has
any feel for ballads, and ballads are mostly about feeling. His
new album with Motian and Frisell is comparably slow, but they're
up to something else there, and it works better. [B]
- Kenny Davern: At the Mill Hill Playhouse (Arbors):
Fine record, lots of fun, but didn't strike me as having enough of
an edge to really stand out. [B+]
- Great Piano Trio: Someday My Prince Will Come
(Eighty-Eight's/Columbia): Good piano trio, anyway, plus a sympathy
vote for Elvin Jones. [B+]
- Jessica Williams: Live at Yoshi's, Volume One
(MaxJazz): She's very good, but she records a lot, and they all
tend to blur together. [B+]
- Mulgrew Miller: Live at Yoshi's, Volume One
(MaxJazz): He's very good too, but he looks so much like McCoy
Tyner he might be advised to try playing like someone else. [B]
- Keith Jarrett: The Out-of-Towners (ECM): It's
been more than 20 years since he put this trio together, and
great as they all are in some respects he's just punching the
- Dave Burrell: Expansion (High Two): He's one
piano player who never punches the clock, but the time signatures
get so weird here that I just can't follow them. In many respects
this is an amazing record, but it's pretty strange too. [B+]
- Geri Allen: The Life of a Song (Telarc): Sounds
great, with big assists from Holland and DeJohnette. [A-]
One comment I will make on Giddins' picks is that they're less
avant than in previous years, and note that the exceptions are all
well into their 60s. (Taylor will be 75 this year.)
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Music: Initial count 10256  rated (+16), 906  unrated (+1).
Been trying to get Jazz Consumer Guide done, but seem to be word-tied on
the critical pick hits and dud of the month, so I've been picking around
the edges. Got no non-jazz backlog done at all this past week, and lowest
newly-rated count in years.
- Brizzi do Brazil (2004, Amiata). Aldo Brizzi is an
Italian, reported a modern classical composer. This is effectively a
tribute album, done by Brazilian stars like Gilberto Gil, Caetano
Veloso, Virginia Rodrigues, Carlinhos Brown, Arnaldo Antunes, Tom
Zé. The new wave rhythms are exciting, but the vocals are rooted
in the classical tradition -- not operatic so much as churchy. I
find this to be a very mixed bag.
- Splish Splash: The Best of Bobby Darin Volume One
(1958-71 , Atco). The held back "Mack the Knife," "Beyond the
Sea," "Clementine," and others to salt a second volume, although the
division is stylistic as well. This one has Darin's more rockish
things -- "Splish Splash," "Dream Lover," various things deriving
from Ray Charles. All but the last three cuts here date from 1958-61,
after which Darin moved on to Capitol. Darin was a talented singer,
but these things don't cohere into much -- "Dream Lover," especially,
sounds like a perfect Ricky Nelson hit, but nothing else does. This
one charts better than Volume Two: 16 chart songs, 6 top ten, vs. 6
and 2 on Volume Two. But Atlantic was a great rock label, so that's
the direction hey steered him towards -- not necessarily where he
wanted to go. B
- Mack the Knife: The Best of Bobby Darin Volume Two
(1958-61 , Atco). After Darin went to Capitol he tried his hand
as a swinging big band singer -- the trade of idols like Sinatra, but
a declining proposition in the '60s. These are early steps in that
direction, including his biggest hit ("Mack the Knife"), the signature
song Kevin Spacey tapped for his biopic title ("Beyond the Sea"), and
a bunch of hard-swinging standards -- "Clementine" and "Artificial
Flowers" are particularly effective, and even "Bill Bailey Won't You
Please Come Home" works. This seems to be more his thing. B+
- The Legendary Bobby Darin (1962-73 , Capitol).
Past his initial rock hits (some reprised live, some very briefly), he
croons competently in front of anonymous big bands and covers trifling
pop songs of the day. B+
- Celine Dion: The Collector's Series, Volume One
(1990-99 , Epic/550 Music). A Quebecois pop singer filed under
rock for no discernible reason, a substantial star, but one I've
hitherto managed to avoid. Don't know how this fits her "Greatest
Hits" profile -- I gather that the French and Spanish songs weren't
meant for Middle America, while the citation for "The Power of the
Dream" is "performed at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta
Olympic Games." The music is thick and schmaltzy, the voice faux
operatic, the lyrics, well, better in Spanish. (Perhaps they'd be
better still in Finnish?) Still, this isn't quite as appalling as
it all sounds -- well, except for the duet with Andrea Bocelli.
I'm a bit of a sucker for the French, and occasionally enjoy the
grand gesture. C-
- Gerry Hemingway: Electro-Acoustic Solo Works 1984-95
(, Random Acoustics). Experimentation, scratchy noise, little
blips and fades and whatnot. It's OK, but don't know what for. B
- Jazz Satellites, Vol. 1: Electrification (1968-96
, Virgin, 2CD). I tracked down about half the dates here,
with most dating from 1968-73. Most of the rest (by names like
Divine Styler, Fat, UI, Bedouin Ascent, 16-17, Slab) are likely to
be remixes. So this is some sort of post-fusion beat down. It don't
make much sense to me, and I'm not sure that I like it, like at
all. But it's not without interest, and it was plenty hard to find.
Could be better documented.
- Magic Moments: The Best of '50s Pop (1950-59 ,
Shout! Factory, 3CD).
This was the adult music of my childhood, the grand pop synthesis
that survived the decline of the big bands. I remember it mostly
from television (Perry Como, Dean Martin, Nat Cole, Andy Williams)
and movies (Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds); indeed, its cross-media
dominance reminds you that monopoly power over culture was at its
peak then, even as minority musics proliferated on the margins of
the industry. I hated this music when I was growing up, although
not without exception, and I still have a low opinion of the
anonymous bands, the omnivorous strings, and the operatics. But
there are glorious moments here, songs like "The Tennessee Waltz,"
"The Wayward Wind," "Que Sera Sera," "Singing the Blues." Rhino's
Sentimental Journey series surveyed much of this: 18 of the
60 songs here are repeats. This ranges a bit broader, picking up
some novelty songs, a little mambo influence, more stultifying
orchestras, convergence from the Platters, and a couple of my own
first favorite songs -- "Sixteen Tons" (Ernie Ford, not Merle
Travis) and "Mack the Knife" (Bobby Darin, not Lotte Lenya).
- Mario Pavone: Toulon Days (1991 , New World).
With Thomas Chapin (alto sax), Joshua Redman (tenor sax), Steve
Davis (trombone), Hotep Idris Galeta (piano), Steve Johns (drums),
Marty Ehrlich (clarinet and flute, two cuts). Pavone plays bass; I
regard him as an important player. This is earlier than his other
albums I'm familiar with. Recently he's been reliving his experience
with Chapin, so this points in that direction. B+
- Preservation Hall Jazz Band: New Orleans, Vol. II
(1981 , CBS). Trad jazz group from New Orleans, where they no
doubt served an important tourist function. AMG rates their first
as a five-star classic, then disparages this one. I haven't heard
the first one, so I'm tempted to go cautious on this one. Key
player is trumpeter/vocalist Percy Humphrey. The songs are old,
tried and true. The rhythm a bit clunky. B
- Pure Brazil: Bossa4Two: Great Duets for Great Moments
(1963-97 , Universal Latino). Elis and Tom, Tom and Chico, Toquinho
and Chico, Toquinho and Vinicius, Tom and Astrud, Astrud and João, Ivan
and Beth, Tom and Dorival, and so forth; Jobim is at the center of most
of these duos (some plus, including Stan Getz on you know what), writing
as well as performing.
- Pure Brazil: Bossa4Two Vol 2: Great Duets for Great Moments
(1977-2002 , Universal Latino). Younger, more recent than Vol. 1;
also less consistent. Caetano Veloso is the most frequent appearance here,
but the others bear little relationship to him, so that seems to just be
an accident of programming.
- Pure Brazil: Feijoada: 14 Delicious Sambas (1963-2000
, Universal Latino).
Perhaps the best thing here is "Alguem Me Avisou," attributed to Maria
Bethania but dominated by guests Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. The
beat is an idealized strolling down the beach in Rio with nothing else
to do -- nothing conveys the good life as effortlessly as samba. There
are variations on this -- mostly a bit faster, one a piece of solo
guitar that provides a nice break from the vocals. Most of the pieces
come from the '70s, but you'd need the notes to figure out which is
which. The album is named for the national dish of Brazil: a rich
stew of black beans and pork parts. Brazilian food is like Brazilian
music: not bland, but as subtle as you can get without getting bland.
- Pure Brazil: The Girls From Ipanema: From Astrud to Bebel
(1963-2000 , Univesal Latino). Actually, the years are 1963-75 except
for one song at the end by Bebel Gilberto, daughter of first song sing
- Pure Brazil: The Girls From Ipanema Vol. 2: From Astrud to
Bebel (1963-2003 , Universal Latino). Despite the common
end points most of this is more recent than Vol. 1, more obscure, more
idiosyncratic, but that doesn't make it any better or worse.
- Pure Brazil: Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars: Bossa Nova Sung
in English (1965-2001 , Universal Latino). The problem
here isn't that singing in English loses the mystique of Brazil, or
that the lyrics leave something to be desired. No, the real problem
is the belief that Yanks love swill, especially wrapped in strings.
Even if they have marketing data to prove it, that's no reason to
buy. Nor is Sergio Mendes.
- Pure Brazil: Samba Social Club: The Masters Sing Their
Best (1974-2002 , Universal Latino). Presumably the
title reference is to Buena Vista Social Club -- the concept a
bunch of old guys keeping the music going. The best known of these
"masters" is Martinho da Vila, b. 1938, which doesn't quite make
him a geezer. Don't have ages for the others, but their discographies
suggest that they are younger. The recording dates are mostly '70s,
although at least a third are recent, which suggests that their
folkish, purportedly pre-samba sound is mere Braziliana. Still,
even if the introduction of old-sounding instruments like banjo
is recent, this adds another dimension to the music.
- Pure Brazil: Samba Soul Groove (1969-2001 ,
Universal Latino). What differentiates this? The soul horns are a
giveaway. The guitar is a little straighter, the nylon string sound
giving way to good old fashioned steel. Os Mutantes even throws in
an organ riff -- they're often touted as psychedelia, but "She's My
Shoo Shoo" sounds more like bubblegum to me. Jorge Ben gets more
space here; Gilberto Gil gets one song, and Caetano Veloso is absent.
- Vernon Reid: Mistaken Identity (1996, 550 Music/Epic).
Pre-Yohimbe Brothers. Minus a brother. An important one. B
- The Rough Guide to Mambo (1948-2003 , World Music
Network). Years are uncertain: Noro Morales comes from a 1948-51 comp;
Xavier Cugat from 1950-52; Cal Tjader is from 1954; Perez Prado from a
1956 album; Tito Puentes from sometime in the '50s. I don't think that
anything here is earlier. Eddie Palmieri is from a 2003 album, so that's
probably the latest. As usual, they rarely give dates, and often the
albums they cite are compilations that don't help much. I like the
endpoints (Morales, Fruko) for their simple formalism, and the track
that speaks most directly to me, "I Don't Speak Spanish (But I Understand
Everything When I'm Dancing)."
- Jimmy Smith: Organ Grinder Swing (1965, Verve).
Featuring Kenny Burrell and Grady Tate. Produced by Creed Taylor.
Mostly blues riffs, nice take on "Satin Doll." Nothing much wrong
with it, but he did a lot of albums like this, many better. B
- Tenacious D (2001, Epic). Bad taste in heavy rock.
Ineptly played. Liberally salted with bad jokes. Ineptly told. I
spoze this could be satire, but don't you have to give a shit in
order for satire to work? C-
Book: Max Boot: The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the
Rise of American Power (2002; paperback: Basic Books, 2003).
This, along with Kevin Pollack's The Gathering Storm, is one
of the books that bears some blame for Bush's Iraq misadventure. For his
part, Pollack added a voice putatively outside the Bush administration
that willingly pushed the WMD claims that were supposedly the casus
belli. Boot's contribution was his argument that the Powell Doctrine
unreasonably inhibited America's willingness to rush into small wars
to defend American interests and promote American values and, as needed,
punish transgressors. To make his case, Boot catalogued dozens of small
wars going back to the shores of Tripoli, albeit skipping over the halls
of Montezuma. The lesson Boot draws from his survey is that small wars,
often with little planning, unclear directives, improvised campaigns,
and no clue to an exit strategy, have mostly worked out for the best
anyway. Or at least worked out better than the big war approach to
counterinsurgency that was such a fiasco in Vietnam.
Boot's lesson for Iraq was go in light and don't worry about the
consequences. As such he weighed in on the Rumsfeld-Feith side, as
opposed to Gen. Shinseki and others who argued that 120,000 soldiers
weren't nearly enough. I haven't followed Boot's prolific columns
since the war began, but I suspect that he'd argue that the fiasco
in Iraq, much like the one in Vietnam, had nothing to do with how
many troops were put in play; rather, it depended on how quickly
the U.S. could stabilize the situation, build ties with the people,
and win their support. In such a scenario, all a big footprint does
is to step on unnecessary toes. America's overwhelming firepower,
utter dominance from the air, massive logistic requirements, and
phobic obsession with its own soldiers' safety did nothing more
than create new enemies while keeping potential allies at bay. On
the other hand, just adding more of what the military was already
doing would have multiplied the problems without adding much of a
solution. As far as this critique goes, it makes a lot of sense.
But bad as the approach taken was, that doesn't mean that there
was an alternative that would have worked. One might fantasize
about Special Forces with the right language skills and cultural
experiences, but getting them on a scale to pacify Iraq wasn't
in the cards for a six month run-up to war -- or, for that matter,
One of the big problems with the political debate leading to the
Iraq war, and for that matter the one in Afghanistan, was that we
mostly talked about the faults of the enemies and almost never took
consideration of our own limits. One of Rumsfeld's famous quips was
that you go to war with the arms you got. He could have extended
this line to include the army you got, the intelligence services,
the political prejudices, the ethics and morals of the Commander
in Chief. All of those were inappropriate, often grossly so, for
the tasks at hand -- chief among which was convincing the Iraqis
(and Afghans) that they would be better off with us than against
us. As it were, the only real credible argument they heard not to
be against us is the destruction we'd wreak otherwise -- in many
cases the destruction we senselessly delivered anyway.
This gets us to the core problem with Boot's thesis. Actually,
there are two of them:
The belief that an American foreign policy based on the pursuit
of American interests aligns closely enough with the desires (long
term, at least) of the people whose countries we intervene in that
those people can be persuaded to support out interventions.
The more basic notion that war can ever be used to solve a
problem without creating more, and possibly worse, problems.
As a conservative, Boot would reject the way I phrased these two
points. In particular, he defends the need for punitive wars, which
almost by definition show nothing but contempt for the punished. He
also refers back fondly to the British tradition (although he cites
American examples) of "butcher and bolt" operations, which had no
purpose other than intimidation. More generally, Boot assumes that
wars are a necessary thing -- that there are always people out to
take away your freedom and your property, and that the only thing
that deters them is vigilance and punishment. Toward the end of the
book he goes through all the usual rationales, including quoting
Vegetius in Latin (translation: "let him who desires peace prepare
But for all his stuborn insistence, the chronology he tracks is
one that shows that war, even as practiced by the enlightened rulers
of the United States, has become increasingly useless and debilitating.
The costs of war, both to wage and to defend, go up and up; benefits
decline. The risks of global conflagration necessarily limited the
scope of wars in Korea and Vietnam, precluding direct wars with
Russia and China. With the goals of war so limited, and the risks
to the nation similarly limited, the costs one was willing to bear
declined: after the total warfare of WWII we became increasingly
protective of our own soldiers through Vietnam and Iraq, fighting
a war in Kosovo where our chief claim to fame was zero casualties.
A similar trend was evident in the Soviet Union: after sacrificing
vast numbers of soldiers and citizens in WWII the Russians became
very unwilling to sacrifice themselves in Afghanistan, ensuring their
defeat. Modern armies are able to project truly horrifying firepower,
but do so at ever greater distances, where indiscriminate injustice
becomes inevitable. The increasing incidence of suicide bombers shows
an asymetry of desire to match the asymetry of power. But the most
such desire can accomplish is to prolong the struggle.
It is time that we realize that war isn't a last resort. It's a
fundamental failure in the political process. That we arrive there
so commonly shows how little our political leaders have learned, how
poor they are at spotting trouble, and how indifferent they are to
the consequences of their acts. In the U.S. that may be because we
haven't suffered from war like we've made others suffer. Of course,
that only gets worse when you have a President and Administration
that so shamelessly represents the interests of the most sheltered,
privileged, and demented sector of the country. They like Max Boot
because his advice reinforces their presumptions, at least to the
paltry extent that they understand it. They bought his Iraq war,
then went off and fought their own.
Speaking of Pollack, he has a new book out, this time on Iran
(The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America,
2004, Random House). I've read quite a bit on Iran, so I doubt that
Pollack has much more to offer -- I suspect that, despite reports
that he doesn't think it's a good idea to invade this time, he's
likely to be more nonsense than anything else. (For the key story
of the 1953 CIA coup, see Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men:
An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror [2003,
Wiley]; nothing much about the terror angle there, which was just
the publisher's way of trying to hype the book.) But Reza Aslan's
review in The Nation has a paragraph that suggests that my
own reservations were too mild:
In truth, Pollack's book is less analysis than psychoanalysis. He
begins it by casting the Unitd States and Iran as "former lovers who
went through a messy divorce" and concludes with the assertion that
until Iran comes to grips with its "emotional baggage" and its
"unresolved pathologies," it is simply not "psychologically ready" to
have a "meaningful relationship with the United States."
It's not so much that what he's saying is invalid as that it's
so absurdly unreflexive -- you think Iran has "emotional
baggage" and "unresolved pathologies"? Take a look at America,
please! (Still, I have huge reservations about the usefulness of
psychologizing interpersonal relationships, let alone relationships
Saturday, February 19, 2005
Movie: Million Dollar Baby. I know a businessman
here whose email signature reads: "Lottery (noun): A stupidity tax."
I've had him explain to me how he expects to turn his business into
millions of dollars, and I don't doubt that he will. He's a smart guy,
but more than that he has an angle. Still, when I notice people buying
lottery tickets it's more clear that they don't have the angle than
that they don't have the brains. One could rephrase: "Lottery (noun):
A tax on hopelessness." Or more precisely: "A tax on the hopes of the
hopeless." Boxing may be the sport of the stupid, but this movie makes
a case that it is the sport of dreams of the hopeless. That much sums
up the boxers in this movie, a point driven home with stark economy
in the two scenes where Hillary Swank faces her family. That doesn't
sum up the fans, whose bloodlust frames the fight scenes. And that
doesn't sum up the old guys -- the one-eyed ex-boxer Morgan Freeman,
who's found a certain nirvana beyond stupidity and dreams, and a
methodical but uneasy Clint Eastwood, who perhaps reaches his peace
after the movie ends. Or perhaps not. Eastwood's struggle with his
distrust of his religion makes for an interesting subplot -- never
quite explained so it can never be judged. Along the way we get an
intro to sweet science philosophy and technique, often the opposite
of the initial instinct to fight. Triumph and tragedy follow, but
they're hardly the point -- just the pace quickening and slowing
down so the end can play out in its own time. I lost my stomach
for boxing long ago -- never had the belligerent drive, and soured
on the notion that something so primal could be redeemed as sport --
so none of that appealed to me. But the film has remarkably fine
detail, keystone performances, economy and grace. It earns its
Friday, February 18, 2005
Max Boot, in The Savage Wars of Peace, lapses into a bit
of fantasy discussing the "lost opportunity" of the U.S. intervention
in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution (p. 229):
Given how close the outnumbered and outsupplied Whites got to
victory on their own, it is hardly outlandish to assume that, with a
little nudge from the Allies at one of these crucial junctures, the
Russian Civil War might have had a different outcome. If the Bolshevik
Revolution had been strangled in its crib, there would likely have
been no Stalinist terror, no great famine in Russia, no Cold War, no
Communist takeovers in China or Eastern Europe -- and quite possibly
no World War II, since if Russia had not had a Soviet government, it
might have joined with the West to nip Nazi expansionism in the bud
(no Molotov-Ribbentrop pact). Tens of millions of people might have
been spared an early death. This is only speculation, but there is
little doubt that the Bolshevik hold on power was precarious and that
concerted foreign intervention might have made the
difference. Instead, Britain and America sent just enough soldiers to
allow Lenin to claim that the Bolsheviks were fighting foreign
aggression -- but not enough to win. The story of the Anglo-American
expedition to Russia in 1918, then, is the story of one of the great
lost opportunities of history.
It's interesting how these inferences leap about. What gives them
such vitality is that they conveniently ignore underlying reality,
and that they idealize the hypothetical alternate routes. The weakest
of these is the idea that a non-Soviet Russia might have stopped Nazi
Germany before 1939 where the West alone had failed. The idea that a
non-Soviet Russia wouldn't have created Communist buffer states in
Eastern Europe makes some sense, but that there would have been no
Communist revolution in China doesn't follow. The ascension to power
of Lenin in 1917 and of Stalin following Lenin's death is, of course,
highly contingent, and those individuals imposed a highly arbitrary
shape on the Soviet Union. But they didn't do it alone, and in many
ways they were typical products of the Tsarist police state. There
were hundreds of like-minded leaders, thousands of militants, millions
of oppressed cadres, and deep tears in the politico-economic fabric of
the country -- the empire, really, since Russian dominance was built
on the backs of hundreds of subjugated peoples. Even had the Whites
broken the Revolution, they would have had to deal with the mess that
the Tsars created -- in many ways they would have had to do what the
Soviets did just to pull the fractured empire back into order.
The idea that all subsequent history changes from this one
contingency is a convenient way of ignoring the deeper truth that
Bolshevism (Communism, Marxism) was itself the inevitable offspring
of the contradictions appearing with the triumph of capitalism.
Suppressing it never made the problem go away, and therefore never
eliminated the potential of revolution. The one thing that did
work was the reform of capitalism, which more or less happened in
the U.S. and Europe. Where communists did manage to seize power was
in the backwaters of imperialism, where there had been no bourgeois
revolution, where liberalism was weak but radicals were worldly and
desperate, where most people were still locked in feudalism, where
foreign imperialists and/or local oligarchs ruled viciously. In
such cases, Communists more often than not came to recapitulate
their oppressors, making a poor case for their ideals.
But if we want to indulge in "what if," we should at least take
a look at what happened in the most similar case: what happened to
Hungary after the Whites put down Bela Kun's revolution. Like Russia,
Hungary had been an absolute monarchy, with no liberal traditions,
even though it sported a much more developed capitalist economy.
Having defeated the Reds, Hungary turned to fascism, becoming an
ally of Hitler in WWII. Given this, why would anyone expect that
a triumphant White Russia would have allied with the West? On the
contrary, a fascist Russia allied with Germany and Japan would have
been the West's greatest nightmare.
A more interesting "what if" question is what would have happened
had Kerensky abandoned the war after the March Revolution. The war
had put a huge strain on Russia, leading to the fractures that
eventually allowed the Bolsheviks to triumph. Had the liberals
and moderate socialists worked directly on healing those wounds
instead of prolonging a senselessly destructive war they might
have kept the more extreme Bolsheviks at bay. This didn't happen
for a number of reasons, including that Kerensky's potential allies
in the West were themselves committed to the war -- in fact, as
Boot points out, much of the rationale behind the Anglo-American
intervention was to try to steer Russia back into the war. But
this sort of speculation isn't likely to enter Boot's mind, for
the simple reason that is believes that war is a force for positive
change. In America's "small wars" he sees what George Bush nowadays
calls "democracy on the march." That's why Boot was such a staunch
advocate of another small war in Iraq.
Which makes one wonder what might have happened differently if
interventionist ideologues like Max Boot had managed to keep both
feet grounded in reality.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
I have a new
Recycled Goods column posted today. This is the seventeenth
such column I've written since Feb. 2003. The current format is to
write a brief introduction, ten paragraph-sized reviews, a bunch of
single-line (Briefly Noted) reviews (a record 46 this time), and some
additional one-liners on notable records recently reissued where I
haven't scored a copy of the reissue. My original plan was to split
the coverage up roughly one quarter each between: jazz, rock, roots
(blues, country, folk), and world. The breakdown this time is:
jazz = 27 (47%), rock = 12 (21%), roots = 8 (14%), world = 10 (17%),
plus, well, I don't know what the hell Jim Nabors is. Bottom line
is that regardless of how I'd like to split it up I get more jazz
reissues than anything else, so that's what I wind up reviewing.
Over the 17 columns I've now covered 581 records.
The columns have been growing in length. The paragraph reviews
have been getting longer and the "one-liners" often string together
two or three distinct thoughts. Without getting trivial or pedantic,
it seems to me that most albums can be summed up in three sentences
or less, and Briefly Noted does that in almost haiku-like form. The
grades are one more thought. While the form can only conjure up
unpleasant memories, they save me from having to weigh adjectives
and make it clear whether and how much I actually like the record.
There's no other way to say so much so succinctly.
I have enough backlog written up already for my next column. I'd
like to get back onto a regular monthly schedule, which was tough
to do in 2004 because of various publishing glitches. Wouldn't hurt
to make it a bit shorter, I suppose.
The following is a quote from a new book by Fred Anderson and Andrew
Cayton, The Dominion of War, a long look at empire, freedom, and
militarism in North America from the 17th century to Colin Powell. The
subject is the Philippine rebellion that followed that "splendid little
war" of 1898, better known as the Spanish-American War (p. 339):
President Roosevelt declared the insurrection at an end on July 4,
1902, but resistance continued among the Moro people, Muslims of the
southern islands, until 1913. The costs were high. At least 20,000
insurgents lost their lives between 1899 and 1902, along with perhaps
180,000 of their countrymen, most of whom succumbed to starvation.
The United States spent $400 million -- the equivalent of perhaps
$30 billion today -- to suppress the insurgency. More than a thousand
Americans were killed in combat and more than 2,800 were wounded, and
roughly 3,000 men died from disease or other causes. Some 125,000
Americans intervened in the Philippines to promote civilization,
democracy, and the rule of law as well as to secure the interests
of the United States and its citizens. They would exercise dominion
over the islands until the people they had liberated proved capable
of governing themselves; that is, until a sufficient number of
Filipino leaders could overcome what American deemed the ignorance
and recalcitrance of a primitive race, accept American values and
institutions, and rule their society in ways acceptable to the
The most immediately striking thing is the similarity in the raw
numbers between then and Iraq now. Of course, losses due to disease
are down -- American losses, anyhow -- and starvation hasn't been
noted, not that the media noted it then. The costs of waging war
have gone up too, although part of the difference is that the U.S.
had fewer forces in the Philippines then. Max Boot, who also wrote
about the Philippines in The Savage Wars of Peace, puts the
maximum U.S. troop count at any one time at 69,000. There are many
other differences: Boot attributes the U.S. "success" in quelling
the rebellion to the U.S. soldiers' experience at counterinsurgency
campaigns -- most of the U.S. officers had experience in the Indian
wars -- and to their ability to develop viable intelligence. There is
little evidence of either in the occupation of Iraq. Other points are
that U.S. motives, such as establishing naval bases, were relatively
benign in the Philippines, and that the U.S. was inclined to be more
generous to Filipinos who bow to American wishes. Over time the U.S.
did manage to build a more honest and equitable political order in
the Philippines than the previous Spanish occupation, but desire for
independence remained, and there remains a century later quite a bit
of anti-Ameican feeling there.
Still, the big difference may be to come: the cumulative effect
of losing vs. winning. The more the U.S. was able to suppress the
Filipino rebellion the more leeway the U.S. had to disarm it -- to
secure territory and rebuild, to recruit its leaders, etc. On the
other hand, the more the U.S. has to fight in Iraq the less it can
do to win allegiance. The recent elections there provide a measure
of how little grip U.S. hegemony has on the country. The problem
is not just that the Sunni minority didn't participate, or that
the crony Iyad Allawi slate lost badly. It's also a problem that
the Kurdish and Shiite sectors retreated into the shells of their
respective sectionalisms. Instead of propagating an open, inclusive
political culture such as is idealized in the United States, Iraq
has turned into an embattered and embittered set of enclaves. How
far this has progressed can be measured by the turn to religion,
always a shelter in a storm.
When the U.S. decided to "de-Baathify" Iraq, it cut the legs
out from under the single most popular, most broadly supported
secular party in the region. Of course, other secular parties,
like the communists or socialists, are anathema to the U.S. as
well. The religious parties became the compromise-of-choice, as
indeed they have often been for the U.S. in the Middle East, and
the increasing hardships of war and occupation drove many Iraqis
who in peaceful times would have been secularists into the arms
of the clergy. This was easy enough to predict. The question is:
was this intended?
Dominion of War is largely a book about how Americans
have repeatedly manipulated the rhetoric of freedom and human
rights to bring about empire. For most of American history this
has had a measure of truth to it, but that changed during or
immediately after World War II. The promise of Americanism was
largely the promise of the bourgeois revolution: free men and
free markets, which produced vast wealth distributed equitably
enough to raise almost everyone's standard of living. But it
never quite worked that way -- the corruptions of power and
fortune all too often siphoned off more than their fare share.
Communism was an alternate theory of how to achieve the fairness
that bourgeois revolutions lacked, and as such it was a challenge
to Americanism. But rather than let the two models compete, the
U.S. gave in to the dark side of its empire and waged a tenacious
war (sometimes military, sometimes economic) against communism
and all it stood for -- much of which Americanism had once (if
imperfectly) stood for as well. This became the struggle of the
powerful for their prerogatives, of capital over labor on the
global stage -- the containment of the Soviet Union abroad was
paralleled by the diminution of the AFL-CIO at home. Along the
way the right, the party of the rich and mighty, gained ground,
eventually turning into the Bush Administration -- a cabal so
cynical and jaded that they would poison the environment and
wreck the Social Security program which keeps so many elderly
and infirm Americans out of the grips of poverty. This was all
done while continuing to use the same rhetoric that Americanism
had always used. And they're very good at the words these days --
so good they've stripped them of all meaning.
A century ago America still held some promise to places like
the Philippines, and that was decisive in persuading people to
give up their own instincts for autonomy. America today offers
no such promise to the world -- at least not a credible one. Few
if any Iraqis believe that the U.S. has any intention of helping
them. Despite its rhetoric, the Bush Administration must know
that, otherwise they wouldn't have obfuscated the elections so
completely. (That the elections were held at all was to validate
the occupation for Americans who do need to believe, and to give
the Shiites reason not to join the revolt yet.) It remains to be
seen whether the elected Iraqis will be able to peaceably free
Iraq from America's grip.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
North Korea's announcement that they possess nuclear weapons was
met first by some incoherent bluster by Condoleezza Rice, then by
a marginally more thoughtful U.S. threat: let's see if they can eat
their nukes. This is hardly America's first attempt to win hearts and
minds through empty stomachs. During the Korean War the U.S. bombed
dams to ravage Korean farmland. The many years of crippling economic
sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on North Korea ever since then
have resulted in chronic malnutrition and starvation. Now the idea
is to tighten up the sanctions even more. It's not really clear how
that can be done, but if it can be done one net effect will be to
punish a people even more for their misfortune in leaders. Another
will be to remind the world of how callous and cruel the U.S. can
Following WWII the U.S. established a reputation as being a
gracious victor, but the stalemate at the end of the Korean War
left a sour taste in the mouth of American triumphalism. Since
then the U.S. has responded to each occasion where its will was
rejected with the petty vindictiveness of a sore loser: Korea,
Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq. After the shooting stopped in Korea
the U.S. proceded to punish North Korea with every weapon short
of invasion. North Korea's response was to internalize the threat,
developing a defensive posture that makes invasion a very risky
proposition and a deterence capability that could devastate the
South Korean city of Seoul, while occasionally making aggressive,
grimacing gestures. More recently, North Korea has made overtures
to normalize relations, especially with South Korea -- that seems
like the one way to escape America's death grip isolation. But the
obstacle to normalization is the U.S., especially the factions in
control of the Bush Administration -- for whom North Korea is most
useful as a threatening enemy: especially as a rationale for their
"missile defense" boondoggle, although one also suspects that they
find North Korea's threat useful for keeping Japan in line.
Whether North Korea actually possesses nuclear weapons or not
matters little. If they do and use them they risk utter devastation.
Otherwise they are just one more deterrent against an attack that
is already too risky to contemplate. Common sense should recognize
that regardless of what's wrong with the North Korean government
war isn't an option -- indeed, war hasn't been a viable option
for more than fifty years now. But the U.S. persists in thinking
that starvation is an option, and that starvation doesn't run the
risk of being interpreted as an act of war. No country has used
nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed foe. As such, so despite
their terrible risks (and the eternally ominous Murphy's Law)
nuclear proliferation has actually led to a more stable world.
But this depends on recognizing the dangers, and on overcoming
the temptation to settle matters by war. The Bush Administration,
with its pre-emptive war doctrine, has proven to be singularly
dense in this regard. Convinced of its overwhelming power and
righteousness, Bush identified three nations as an "axis of evil,"
then proceded to wage war on what was by far the weakest of the
trio, while continuing to villify and threaten the other two.
In Iraq, a nation with virtually no military resources and a
severely divided populace, Bush has already bit off more than
the U.S. military can chew. Provoking additional strife in Iran
and North Korea cannot possibly work out better, yet Bush knows
nothing but his blind faith in the civilizing power of punishment.
And if that leads him to escalate what is already a severe and
insensitive regimen of punishment on the North Korean people, it
is possible that his hubris will blow up on him.
Monday, February 14, 2005
Derek Penslar, of the University of Toronto, gave a lecture at WSU
tonight. This was sponsored by the Ulrich Museum at part of their
nervousness over the Emily Jacir exhibit, which they've conflated to
"Two Peoples, One Land: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." Penslar's
lecture was called "Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism: A Historical
Assessment." The lecture was given in one of the Museum exhibit
halls, and the crowd exceeded the available seating. The lecture
was even-handed and historically accurate, although some things that
he touched on could have been developed further. He didn't betray
much of a political position, although at one point he seemed to
embrace the desirability of a Jewish state, at another he criticized
several Mideast Area professors for letting their politics get ahead
of their academic responsibiities, and finally he criticized the
current U.S. administration for not taking a more active role to
bring about peace.
Penslar started by outlining a recent document attributing many
events from the JFK assassination to 9/11 to a Jewish conspiracy --
the idea was to illustrate the paranoid dimension that animates so
much anti-semitic propaganda. He then made a distinction between
what he called "classic" anti-semitism and more recent anti-zionist
anti-semitism. The former he likened to a psychosomatic illness,
the latter to an allergic overreaction. The difference is that the
latter is actually based on something real -- the political struggle
over Israel-Palestine -- whereas the former is purely in the mind
of the fantasists. He then went on to show instances where various
anti-zionists have confounded their arguments with conspiracies
borrowed from classic anti-semitism, most notoriously "Protocols
of the Elders of Zion."
The key point there is that anti-zionism and anti-semitism,
despite their occasional conflation, are two different things,
and he pointed out numerous examples where they remain distinct.
Where he was most useful was in pointing out a wide range of
Arab reactions to zionism and placing them in their contingent
context, especially in terms of the Arab experience of European
imperialism and colonialism. He concluded with a thought experiment
which asked us to imagine a world where WWI did not end in the
breakup of the Ottomon Empire and the creation of the British
mandate of Palestine. In such a world it is extremely unlikely
that zionism would have succeeded in creating a Jewish state.
And in such a world it is very unlikely that we would witness
the sort of anti-semitism that tends to erupt in Arab countries
Penslar pointed out that incidents of anti-semitic violence
have become more frequent, especially in Britain and France, over
the last 5-6 years -- although he emphasized that the level is
still nowhere comparable to the '30s, and he pretty much dismissed
Phyllis Chesler's alarmist book. He could have added that the the
last 5-6 years coincide with the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process
and the violent repression of the Intifada under Barak and Sharon,
but he preferred to generalize.
He could have said more about zionism and anti-zionism. He did
point out that many Jews were/are opposed to zionism -- communists
and many socialists as well as most orthodox Jews. He didn't bring
up more recent debates like the idea of post-zionism. He started
to say something about anti-semites who might embrace zionism, but
the sources he cited were French and German and the point he drew
from them was that anti-semites in the pre-WWII period didn't take
zionism seriously -- if anything, they considered it yet another
semitic trick. Not discussed were British anti-semites, probably
because they were less interesting as ideologists, but to a large
extent it was British anti-semites, most notably Balfour and Lloyd
George, who actually sponsored the zionist project. Also important
for now would be a discussion of the protestant fundamentalists
who provide much of America's political support for the Israeli
None of this is, or should be, controversial. The real question
is why does anti-semitism matter, at least as opposed to any other
form of paranoid and/or politically expedient bigotry -- of which
there are many other current examples, including anti-Arab bigotry,
especially in Israel and America. Part of the reason is that the
Holocaust is such a horrendous historical proof of how much damage
bigotry can cause. Another reason is that anti-semitism is not merely
a description -- it's a brand name, coined by an ideologue who feared
and hated Jews at the height of an age when racism was promoted as
a cover for imperialism, and marketed by demagogic politicians to
disastrous ends. But the fashions that made anti-semitism such a
deadly force in the past have eclipsed. Yet the idea is kept alive,
partly by memory, but more forcefully as a ruse to obfuscate a real
current conflict that is related only through the Jewish identity
of the Israeli state. It is, in other words, a shield: something
meant to deflect a critical view of Israel today -- both how the
state behaves, and how its people think of themselves.
I suspect that it would have been more interesting to explore
what anti-semitism has in common with other bigotries, not least
because we know from other cases how one group's bigotry becomes
another group's revenge. But more than that, we need to figure
out how anti-semitism created zionism and why zionism seems to
need anti-semitism in order to survive. Then we might be able to
show how Arabs have to discard their anti-semitic tendencies in
order to overcome the inequities of zionism.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Music: Initial count 10240  rated (+21), 905  unrated (+2).
Completely horrible week. Been down with what's mostly a cold, and just
haven't felt like working. [This is embarrassing, not to finish the week
with anything on this list. Did some jazz during the week, elsewhere.]
This is another purge from the Jazz Consumer Guide "done" file.
This is basically a holding pen for notes/reviews of records that
have been considered for JCG. However, the file has bloated to well
over three hundred records. Given that I was only able to work 29
records into JCG #3, a lot of records (including some rather good
ones) have no chance of making the cut. This is a quick culling,
including some pretty good records, a lot of average ones, plus
a few bad ones. There are few hard and fast rules about what gets
covered and what doesn't, but in general:
- I tend to skip records that have been covered by other Voice
writers, especially Francis Davis.
- I tend to avoid reissues except when I find them exceptionally
interesting. I do, however, cover a lot of reissues in Recycled
- It looks like I'll never have Honorable Mention space for about
half of my new B+ records. Until now I've held onto all of these,
but the space has gotten just too tight. The ones that drop off
tend toward the bottom of the range, but they also include things
that are very proficient but not especially interesting, and they
may also include things that I rarely have much to say about (like
- The B records are neither good enough nor bad enough to bother
- Sub-B records are possible Duds. I prefer to list Duds that
are serious failures rather than just non-starters or things that
I dislike for more personal reasons, so the latter are more likely
to get flushed out here.
- In general, the longer something sits around without getting
included, the more likely it should be dropped.
With all that in mind, here goes. This cuts the "done" file by
- John Abercrombie: Class Trip (2003 , ECM).
Equally prominent is Mark Feldman's violin, which Abercrombie likes
to duck under and weave around rather than put in its place. Superb
rhythm section (Marc Johnson, Joey Baron), too. When this all comes
together (as on "Descending Grace" and "Illinoise") one is impressed
by the potential power as well as the intricate control of the whole
ensemble. When it doesn't come together it tends toward atmospherics.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- John Abercrombie/Jarek Smietana: Speak Easy (1999, PAO).
Smietana is a Polish jazz guitarist, a leader of several groups and
co-leader of the Namyslowski-Smietana Quartet (which may not mean
much to you, but I consider Zbigniew Namyslowski's Winobranie
to be one of the outstanding avant-garde jazz albums of the '70s).
Abercrombie, of course, is a household name by now. The two guitar
line-up (plus bass and drums) works like a charm here: both have
sensible things to say, and they fill in nicely around each other.
- Claudia Acuña: Luna (2004, MaxJazz).
There's always a danger when you face something different that your
expectations are so off base that you'll just miss whatever's going
on. So I have some doubts about my judgment on this Chilean singer's
third U.S. album, but I don't find this very impressive or likable.
The music has a bit of latin percussion but nothing I particularly
recognize -- no salsa or son or, what the hell, mariachi or polka;
it feels stiff, devoid of any of that limberness we expect in jazz,
and short of groove as well. And the singer is starchy -- most of
all when she tries to sing in English, but the Spanish doesn't make
for much either. I'm probably missing something, but I don't think
it'll make much difference.
- Noël Akchoté: Cabaret Modern: A Night at the Magic Mirror
Tent (2003, Winter & Winter).
Polyglot Eurosong, rooted in cabaret ancien, but not stuck there.
Singers come and go, some in French, some in German, some in Italian,
some in English. Some songs as new as Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity"
and Lou Reed's "All Tomorrow's Parties" sound as old as "Bella
Ciao" -- a labor anthem reportedly done per the original. The
crowd is never far off, nor the tinkling of their glasses nor
the sounds of the workers. Still, it comes off a tad quaint, not
folkie but still völkisch.
- Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel: Buzz (2003 ,
The rating is just an impression that this is a pretty good example of
postmodern group composition these days, even though I'm hard pressed
to identify who's doing what, let alone why. Allison plays bass and
wrote four of seven tracks -- the others come from Lennon-McCartney,
Andrew Hill, and one of two sax players here, Michael Blake. Allison
is not strongly evident, detracting a bit from comparisons between
him and Mingus. The saxes (Blake, Ted Nash) and trombone (Clark Gayton)
tend to be tightly arranged, which seems likely to be Allison's doing.
If this were split into a two-sided LP, the first side would be faster
and more idiosyncratic, especially rhythmically, while the second side
would be the chill-down one. Don't have any idea whether it was
intended that way. Mysterious record.
- The Jimmy Amadie Trio: Live at Red Rock Studio: A Tribute to
Tony Bennett (2003, TPRecordings).
Personally, I don't associate any of these songs with Bennett, but what
do I know? No doubt he did sing "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To,"
"Stella by Starlight," "The Very Thought of You," "Come Rain or Come
Shine," etc., (well, maybe not "Fill the Woods With Music"), but the
substitute here, "special guest" Phil Woods, is more to my taste
- Arild Andersen: Rarum XIX: Selected Recordings
(1975-99 , ECM).
Jazz in Scandinavia took a fateful turn when George Russell arrived,
putting aside earlier bebop influences to evolve something more avant
yet distinctively nordic. The most directly influenced were Jan Garbarek
(saxophones), Terje Rypdal (guitar), Arild Andersen (bass) and Jon
Christensen (drums), and to a huge extent Manfred Eicher built the
ECM label and the ECM sound around their work. Andersen has recorded
over a dozen albums under his own name or that of his late '80s band
Masqualero, which featured pianist Jon Balke and introduced trumpeter
Nils Petter Molvaer. The Rarum series often runs into trouble
trying to mix and match pieces that don't fit well, but by focusing
sharply on the bass, this one manages the shifts between quiet and
dynamic, simple and complex.
- Noah Baerman: Patch Kit (2004, Lemel).
Good, rather conventional piano trio, with famous rhythm section of
Ron Carter and Ben Riley, who help out a lot.
- Anita Baker: My Everything (2004, Blue Note).
Not a jazz record by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, the same
could be said for Al Green and Van Morrison, but they at least were
the greatest, most visionary, most transcendent singers of our
lifetimes, and they deserve to keep doing it till they drop. Baker
was an overrated torcher who gets new makeup as a soft soul queen.
Not terrible, but not very interesting either.
- Chet Baker: Prince of Cool: The Pacific Jazz Years
(1952-57 , Pacific Jazz, 3CD).
Lots of people adore Chet Baker, but I don't. I've always found his
trumpet work anemic, even while conceding that his logic is beyond
fault. He didn't play fast or high, and he rarely showed a shred of
emotion -- at least any of the warm and fuzzy ones. But his vocals
were even more affectless, and that's what his fans really fell for.
He had been cajoled into singing as a teenager and developed a style
that engaged the songs as minimally as possible. I suspect that the
root of my problem with him is that I find his style embarrassing,
but he managed to persevere, turning embarrassment into disinterest,
which could easily be taken for vulnerability. Nobody else sang like
that, and the fragility of his singing soon infected his trumpet.
With the swing bands on the wane and the beboppers flaunting their
virtuosity, Baker's extreme contrast epitomized something else: cool.
From his emergence as a leader around 1952 to his death in 1978 his
career waxed and waned but his music was remarkably consistent --
the only change being that as he accumulated the wear and tear of
a rough life his indifference became even more poignant. Baker's
early work for Pacific Jazz has been sliced and diced many times
over -- the booklet here shows the covers of no less than 20 other
albums or compilations, many redundant. This one splits him three
ways: "Chet Sings," "Chet Plays," and "Chet & Friends" -- the
most conspicuous friends were Art Pepper and Gerry Mulligan, with
Baker's modest formality a fine complement for his voluble partners.
Still, I'm not sure that "best of" is a concept that fits Baker well:
his aesthetic is so convoluted and so personal that there's little if
any common ground for evaluating him. So this winds up being just
another slice and dice job.
- Chet Baker: Ensemble (1953 , Pacific Jazz).
The group here has Baker, three saxophones, piano, bass and drums. The
saxophones are rich enough that Jack Montrose is credited with arranging.
The arrangements are straightforward enough. But even this early in his
career Baker's trumpet sounds a bit dull; certainly not able to pierce
through the dense fog of his ensemble. But from its birth cool jazz was
an arranger's art, and Montrose at least breathes some life into it
- Chet Baker: Sings and Plays (1955 , Pacific Jazz).
Cover adds: with Bud Shank, Russ Freeman and strings. Actually, Shank
and the four cellos only covers about half the disc. The transitions
between the two groups/sessions are actually fairly seamless, as the
cellos add pleasantly to the background. The other notable thing here
is how clear Baker sounds. "Let's Get Lost" and "I Remember You" are
especially good; a few others are awkward, as usual, but this may be
his most consistent vocal album.
- Chet Baker: Big Band (1956 , Pacific Jazz).
Two sessions, both in October 1956, with slightly different bands, ten
or eleven members. The constants were Phil Urso, Bobby Timmons, and
Jimmy Bond. The arrangements are credited to Urso, Pierre Michelot or
Christian Chevallier. All pretty much standard fore for the time and
place, meaning that they are light and snappy, but that's about it.
The nominal leader's role is harder than usual to make out, especially
given that they didn't even put his picture on the cover.
- Chet Baker: Sextet (1954-57 , Pacific Jazz).
As the front cover notes, the sextet features Bud Shank, Bob Brookmeyer
and Russ Freeman, which doesn't leave a helluva lot of room for the
self-effacing nominal leader. Jack Montrose, Johnny Mandel, and Bill
Holman each arrange a couple of tracks, turning this into a miniature
- Chet Baker: Love Songs (1953-74 , Columbia/Legacy).
Slim pickings: five cuts from the 1953-54 Chet Baker & Strings,
which like all period jazz star + strings outings is saddled with a
dreadful classics-drenched string orchestra, although occasionally the
jazz musicians (including in this case, Zoot Sims, Bud Shank, and Jack
Montrose) have something worthwhile to contribute. The rest comes from
1974 recordings for Creed Taylor: more anonymous big bands, even more
strings. Very slight work, so far from prime it's tempting to deprecate
- Chet Baker: The Last Great Concert: My Favorite Songs, Vol. 1
& 2 (1988 , Enja/Justin Time, 2CD).
This concert was recorded two weeks before Baker, 59 and looking a good
deal older, fell to his death (or was pushed) from a window in Paris.
It was recorded with the NDR Big Band and the Radio Orchestra Hannover,
although some songs were cut with smaller groups, including Herb Geller
and Walter Norris. It reruns Baker's usual songbook, featuring his limp
trumpet and barely cohesive vocals -- the trumpet sorely eroded with
age, the voice lapsing into a bored beauty. He's one of the few major
jazz figures I've never come around on, and this clearly isn't the
place to start. Great only if you're already in love with him, but
occasionally pretty nonetheless.
- Jon Balke & Magnetic North Orchestra: Diverted Travels
(2003 , ECM).
This oscilates between Miles Davis-like stretches of rhythmic tension
with embellishments, the usual ECM atmospherics, and Per Jørgensen's
folkish-operatic vocals. The vocals I could do without, but Jørgensen's
trumpet is a real plus here. So is Balke when he kicks the rhythm up.
But that just leaves us with a mix of attractive bits and other stuff,
and while the other stuff isn't uninteresting, it isn't that interesting
- Danny Barrett: Indian Summer (2004, Danny Barrett).
His voice is a deep, rich baritone, the sort of thing people used to go
ga-ga over in the '40s, something so resplendent of testosterone that he
doesn't lose a shred of masculinity even when he sings "Blue Gardenia."
In other words, it is a voice that I find fundamentally unlistenable,
and my initial reaction was so negative that I can only begrudgingly
admit that he is pretty smooth and facile with it, and that "It Might
As Well Be Spring" in the closing medley is something of a marvel. The
other piece worth noting here is "Baseball Interlude (I Once Knew a
Man)," his only credit if not exactly original: sandwiched between
slow choruses of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" he gives a eulogy for
Jackie Robinson and invites everyone to come to Cooperstown.
- Count Basie: The Count Basie Story (1957-59 ,
The new testament band reprises their favorite stories from
the old testament, from "Moten Swing" to "Red Bank Boogie"; the
atomic precision is a marvel to behold, but the retrospective begs
comparison with the swaggering territory band Basie moved to New
York, reminding one how much "Lester Leaps In" depends on Lester.
- Count Basie & Friends: 100th Birthday Bash
(1957-62 , Roulette, 2CD)
This is a pseudo-event imagined 100 years after Basie's 1904 birth,
long after most of its participants have passed on; an excuse to
gather up a pastiche of atomic-era Basie with guest stars, including
Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett
and Sarah Vaughan; of these, only Vaughan adds much to the band's
- Cheryl Bentyne: Talk of the Town (2003, Telarc).
Big budget solo album for the cute redhead in Manhattan Transfer, this
makes the usual tour through the classic songbook, with a side of mambo
and two shots of vocalese. The songs come off with a delicacy and taste
that the parent group often lacked, in part because the budget was
wisely spent on a superb quartet of musicians, led by Kenny Barron,
plus a few strategic guest shots, including Fathead Newman. But also
because the singer never overreaches (except a bit in the Barron-less
finale); she just works the nuances, a wink here, a slight grin there,
nothing too clever or too dramatic.
- David Berger & the Sultans of Swing: Marlowe
(2004, Such Sweet Thunder).
The label name signals an aim to sound Ellingtonian. Berger and his
orchestra accomplish the incidental details expertly enough, but
they miss out on much of what matters. I hear things that could fit
in an Ellington suite, but I don't hear that ineffable something
that distinguished a suite as by Ellington. That is partly because
among the five reeds and seven brass I don't hear a soloist with
the presence of Tricky Sam Nanton, much less Johnny Hodges. But it
also bespeaks a shortfall of swing -- not that it doesn't go through
the motions, it just doesn't feel them in its bones. Or make you
feel them. So at its best this is clever, but I don't feel much more
from it. Nice packaging.
- The David Berkman Quartet: Start Here . . . Finish There
I'm sure this record is [just] an Honorable Mention, but hard pressed to
explain why. Berkman is a smart writer, and there's a lot of ideas afloat
here. Oatts is a skilled player, and he sounds fine articulating them.
The piano breaks are sharply detailed.
- Andy Bey: American Song (2003 , Savoy Jazz).
Four of ten songs comes from Ellington and/or Strayhorn, so one thing
that he has no trouble establishing is that he's a better singer than
Herb Jeffries. He's actually more comparable to Jimmy Scott, except
he eschews the tricky moves, or Billy Eckstine, except that he never
quite goes that smooth. Those are all (well, except Jeffries) major
singers, but theirs is a style that has never appealed to me, and
it's going to take something more to convince me. More vocal meat
in the songs, maybe. The band, especially Geri Allen, is flawless,
so they don't put this over either.
- Birdbrain: I Fly (2004, Persian Cardinal).
Clever concept: singer Yvette Perez bops along with two saxes and a
trombone on ten short songs. It's startling at first, but by the end
you realize they just front-loaded the album.
- Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: 'S Make It
(1964 , Verve).
Blakey recorded mostly for Blue Note from 1954 (A Night at Birdland)
to 1964 (Free for All and Indestructible), and it's possible
that he never made a bad album during that stretch. He built a series of
outstanding bands which virtually invented and certainly defined the East
Coast's hard bop sound. Then from 1965 he pretty much drops off the map,
resurfacing around 1978 with bands that featured Bobby Watson and/or the
Marsalis brothers. This is the first post-Blue Note album, one of four
issued on Limelight from 1964-66. It's still basically a continuation of
the 1964 group, with Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller up front, John Gilmore
guesting on tenor sax, and a young John Hicks replacing Cedar Walton on
piano. Hicks was yet another feather in Blakey's cap. But the preponderance
of ballad material, along with the squishy opener, doesn't give anyone much
chance to stand out, least of all the drummer. Morgan still has a lovely
tone on the ballads, but little fire. Fuller and Hicks do good work. Not
bad, but the force wasn't with them.
- Carla Bley: Rarum Vol. 15: Selected Recordings
(1961-99 , ECM).
Some things about Carla Bley: she's been married to three major jazz
musicians (Paul Bley, Michael Mantler, Steve Swallow), yet she is
more famous and arguably more important than any of them -- the
arguable exception is Paul Bley, a more prodigious and imposing
pianist; she wrote the first avant-jazz opera, the wonderful and
sometimes horrible Escalator Over the Hill; with Michael
Mantler, she organized the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association
(JCOA) to perform large scale works by avant-jazz composers who
couldn't otherwise afford to work on that scale, Watt Records to
release albums by her and/or Mantler, and the New Music Distribution
Service (NMDS) to distribute Watt and other labels; she had enough
cachet that when Mick Taylor left the Rolling Stones to form a new
(never realized) supergroup with Jack Bruce she was to be the secret
ingredient; my favorite of all her albums is still Nick Mason's
Fictitious Sports, a daft and hilarious thing with Bley's songs
and Robert Wyatt's vocals released under the Pink Floyd drummer's
name in hopes of sharing the unwary; the only album under her own
name that I have listed at A- or better is Looking for America
(2003, ECM). The last point may be because I've lost track of some
of her early '70s records where she first impressed me, but it also
points out that she's become a very adept big band arranger -- that's
always been an interest, but the recent album is the first one I've
noticed that really pays off. But they it seems that I haven't been
paying enough attention: "On the Stage in Cages," from 1993's Big
Band Theory, is every bit as sharp -- probably the best thing in
this compilation. The :rarum series as a whole suffers from
the inconsistencies of cherry picking from varying groups and phases,
and that tends to be more so when the featured musician plays a
rhythm instrument, or is a composer. Bley is one of the few major
figures of our age who counts more as composer than musician --
this is perhaps tipped off when she closes with a piece that she
wrote but didn't play. This one has to straddle her big bands with
small groups, down to a duo with Swallow, and it does manage to
flow reasonably well. But it doesn't cohere as well as I'd like.
For one thing, the last-in-first-out ordering is a strange twist.
- Bley/Sheppard/Swallow/Drummond: The Lost Chords
Carla Bley is being too modest in the attribution here: these are
her songs, her arrangements, her musicians, her mode that they play
in. Her piano is also the central instrument. Andy Sheppard can be
voluble and eloquent in his own work, but he mostly steps around
Bley here. Still, this feels both abstract and tentative, and none
of it really comes together -- at least until the final, three-part
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Arthur Blythe: Exhale (2003, Savant).
Blythe's quartet is anchored by Bob Stewart's tuba: not just an
alternative to bass, a whole 'nother dimension for the bottom,
more metallic, more resonant. Stewart's a master -- not so much
a question of control and virtuosity as that he understands and
eploits the humor at the base of the instrument. Blythe has
used Stewart on a string of marvelous albums now, most notably
Focus and Spirits in the Field. Here, however,
he seems to be scratching for ideas, roping in pieces from
Ellington, Coltrane, and Miles, "Night Train" and "Straighten
Up and Fly Right." The Coltranes are the highlight, particularly
- Lenny Breau/Don Francks/Eon Henstridge: At the Purple Onion
(1962 , Art of Life).
Francks is a singer who sounds like he learned his craft at the feet of
Lenny Bruce. His "A Gentile Sings the Blues" is way over the top, while
"A New Electric Chair" is mostly monologue. Given this, you can imagine
how puerile "Tea for Two" sounds. Breau is a guitarist who died too young.
He has a reputation but I've never managed to sort him out. He plays a
bit here; sounds interesting when he does. Joey Hollingsworth joints for
the last three cuts, starting with "Work Song." He tap dances, which
given the lyric turns this back into a minstrel show.
- Dave Brubeck: Private Brubeck Remembers (2004, Telarc,
The first disc is an interview, where Brubeck recounts his experiences
in Europe during WWII. Brubeck worked, or lucked, his way into a band
called the Wolfpack, which under the patronage of a General managed to
stay just behind the front lines -- at least as long as the front lines
stayed somewhat orderly, which broke down during the Battle of the Bulge.
Brubeck recounts an army policy where wounded soldiers who had musical
backgrounds would be reassigned to bands, so most of the Wolfpack were
combat veterans, and they would wear their Purple Hearts when they played,
which helped establish a rapport with the soldiers they played for. The
interview is conducted by Walter Cronkite, who had the added insight of
having been there. The second disc is solo piano, including a number of
songs mentioned in the interview. It's almost beside the point: the
pieces are lovely, and one is impressed that the octogenarian Brubeck
still has so much control over the piano, but they aren't all that
interesting as jazz.
- Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware (1948-66 ,
Shout! Factory, 6CD).
I wonder how many people born after Bruce's death in 1966 have any
idea who he was. Can't be many: comics don't have much of a shelf
life, especially ones with no tv exposure. Older generations will
know the name, even though few actually saw him perform, heard his
LPs, or read his book. No, he was famous for getting busted -- 15
times in two years, mostly for saying bad words. Bruce was one of
those Jews who adopted a goyische stage name to start his career,
then spent nearly every moment on stage reminding you that he was
Jewish: he savaged Barry Goldwater for changing his religion and
not his name; he ran through lists of entertainers ("the Mills
Brothers were goy; Coleman Hawkins was a Jew; Ben Webster was so
Jewish, he was an orthodox Jew"); he poured so much Yiddish into
his act the box includes a dictionary. Most of his shtick has
dated: even with the biographical notes you had to have lived
through Lawrence Welk and the Lone Ranger to get those bits. He
barely touches politics -- nothing on Vietnam or Israel, but lots
on race and homosexuals and the hypocrisies of the pious and the
merely liberal. And by featuring mostly unreleased tapes the box
aims to flesh out a portrait that only his devoted fans can fully
dig. But excessive and peculiar as it is, those fans fear it may
become timely again. America in the '50s was a cloistered society
of deeply repressed people, and Bruce sliced through all that
false consciousness, with an innocent's faith in simple justice
and a mischievous glee. He didn't live to enjoy the liberating
lifeforce of the '60s, but he had something to do with making
it possible -- in death as much as in life. For most of the years
since he's just been history, but some bits here do seem to be
coming back to life: take his "Religions, Inc." and substitute
Jerry Falwell for Oral Roberts, or let him quote Will Rogers
again, "I never met a dyke I didn't like." So maybe it is time
to resurrect him; after all, Jesus wasn't the only Jew who died
for our sins.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber: Black Sex Y'All: Liberation
& Blood Random Violets (2003, Trugroid, 2CD).
The cup runneth over. By my count, 37 musicians contributed to two long
discs here, usually in subsets of 5-8 members. Nobody appears with any
consistency, not even oblique strategist Greg Tate, the nominal leader.
So perhaps it's not surprising that so much of this sounds so anonymous.
Some pieces are grooveful ("Funky Rich Medina," "Moonchile"), others are
atmospheric; some are built out of conventional instruments, but most
are slicked out or tripped up with electronics. And while voices appear
all over the lot, the only one that articulates a message is Max Roach's
"Driva Man/Freedom Day" -- written, I suspect, before the majority of
this crowd was born. I don't have a problem with this in principle, but
over the course of two long hours I find damn little to care about in
- Don Byron: Ivey-Divey (2004, Blue Note).
Byron continues to invent a role for the clarinet in the modern jazz
[NB: reviewed by Larry Blumenfeld in Voice. I included it in my
year-end top ten. I should have written more, but I was slow getting
to it. This was probably the consensus jazz record of the year.]
- Uri Caine Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (2004,
Winter & Winter).
Played this for the first time right after writing up Bad Plus, so
I was struck first by how conventional this sounds, then by how
dazzling it sounds for a conventional jazz piano trio. Starts with
Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti," reflects on Irving Berlin, ends with
an original called "BushWack" which I take as the right sentiment
and wish was more vicious. Caine can do pretty much anything he
wants to do on the piano. Here he mostly wants to play fast and
put on a good show, which he did.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Candido Camero: Candido (1956 , Verve).
Joe Puma's guitar adds as much latin flavor as Candido's congas, but
in the end all the salsa just sets up Cohn's genteel mainstream sax.
It feel slight, but it's hard to get to much of Cohn swinging out the
likes of "Perdido" and "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Cheek to Cheek."
- Canela & Vidal: Univers Miles (2002 ,
Carme Canela's not a bad singer, but she's handicapped by very limited
accompaniment -- just Lluis Vidal's piano -- and she doesn't do anything
interesting enough with these standards to lift this album out of its
self-made rut. When I listen carefully I like the little nuances of her
work, but they're so subtle they take a lot of attention to fish out.
- Bill Charlap Trio: Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein
(2004, Blue Note).
Charlap is one of the most important young pianists working today, and
his particular strength is in working within and against the standards
songbooks. Bernstein is a composer who hasn't been given much attention,
so there's reason to hope that Charlap can draw something interesting
out of the songbook. But something just doesn't click here: the songs,
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Peter Cincotti: On the Moon (2004, Concord).
He's very young, but one of the most impressive singer-pianists to
come down the pike lately. On his first album he kept everything simple,
scoring on a wide range of interpretive material. This time they go
for more complex arrangements, including strings on five cuts, and
a full horn section for a big band blast that sounds like Sinatra.
His interpretations are interesting, the material far ranging. He
is especially effective in introducing a song vocally, as on "Some
Kind of Wonderful" and "You Don't Know Me." But the progress from
his first, eponymous album in 2003 moves him more from hip small
combo jazzbo to big-time interpreter. And his songwriting doesn't
measure up to his other skills. A step forwards, backwards, and
maybe two sideways. He's yet to find himself, but he's got a pretty
good grasp of the rest of the world.
- The Colors of Latin Jazz: Música Romántica (1982-2003
1982-2003 , Concord).
More plunder from Concord's Latin catalog, never a strong starting
place, but these appear to have been selected for their exceptional
lameness. Only one I like is Tito Puente's "Sophisticated Lady" --
a song I rarely care for, done with a breeziness rarely attempted.
How low can you go is demonstrated by the closers: Gato Barbieri
on barbitruates, and Eddie Palmieri strangling himself in strings.
- Alice Coltrane: Translinear Light (2004, Impulse).
I don't know about her records from 1968-78: they looked suspiciously
mystagogic at the time, and I've never trusted their reputation (such
as it was), suspecting favoritism or at least sentiment for her late,
very great husband. Probably unfair; definitely one of those "subjects
for further research." This is her first record since 1978, enabled
by son Ravi Coltrane, who inherited more than genes from the father
he never actually knew. This one is a mixed bag, with suspect spots
coming both from her vedantic interests and the Coltrane songbook,
but I'm reluctant to call them weak spots. They just aren't worked
into a coherent whole, like the whole thing is a bit misconceived
and a little undercooked. On the other hand, her piano and organ
make an impression, and the strongest and clearest parts here are
the ones which feature her.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Dylan Cramer: Bumpin' on Sunset (2003, Nagel Heyer).
Cramer goes out of his way to play pieces by Stevie Wonder and Vangelis
for the same reasons he plays Jobim and "Until the Real Thing Comes
Along" -- because he thinks they're pretty. And they are: he gets a
lovely tone from his alto sax, and he enjoys swing rhythms and nice
little bop things (two from Wes Montgomery here). This is a sumptuous
recording, but Ron Johnston spends more time on synth than on piano,
making it a little cheesy as well.
- The Kenny Davern Quartet at the Mill Hill Playhouse
Davern started playing professionally at age 16 in 1954, so that's
(roughly) where you get the subtitle, "Celebrating Fifty Years of
Recording." Records under his own name started coming out around
1977, and they've come steadily ever since. He played old-time
swing music from the start -- primarily on clarinet, but he also
joined up with Bob Wilber for Soprano Summit, a pairing that has
periodically reappeared to keep Sidney Bechet's legacy alive. This
is a lovely quartet, with James Chirillo adding tasty chops and
rhythm on guitar, Greg Cohen on bass, and Tony DeNicola on drums.
It strikes me as a thoroughly typical Davern outing: old songs,
old-fashioned swing, distinctive clarinet.
- Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis
1963-1964 (, Columbia/Legacy, 7CD).
Seven discs, starting with a nondescript L.A. studio session released
as Seven Steps to Heaven, stepping through a series of live recordings
including the date in Berlin when Wayne Shorter completed the Quintet,
the most famous Davis group of all. As the pieces come together -- Ron
Carter from the start, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams to finish the
studio album in New York -- the band starts to sizzle and Davis plays
as imaginatively as ever. In retrospect one likes to see this period
as transitional, but the one disc with Shorter is anticlimactic. One
thing this box should do is give George Coleman, who plays tenor sax
on five discs here, some well deserved respect. Even more intriguing is
the road not taken: Sam Rivers lights up the stage in Tokyo, prodding
Davis to play as far out as he ever got. All but six cuts are previously
released, but only the studio album has been in print recently. When/if
this gets cut up, look first for the Antibes and Japan sets.
- Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1964 ,
Carved from the Seven Steps box and rushed to the Lovers
Market (Valentine's Day, get it?), this was the Philharmonic Hall
concert where four-fifths of the future Miles Davis Quintet got
it together -- the other fifth being George Coleman, also in fine
- Devorah Day & Dominic Duval: Standard (2003
Bass-and-voice duos are always tough, even when we're talking Sheila
Jordan and Harvie Swartz. CIMP's recording methodology makes it all
the tougher -- I routinely have to kick the volume up on their CDs
just to keep huge low volume holes from opening up, and the bass in
particular rarely registers. Duval, who has turned into CIMP's first
call bassist (this is his 38th record with them), is not necessarily
the ideal partner, either -- certainly he doesn't have the fat tone
that Swartz gets. So I didn't expect much here, and I'm still not so
sure what I've found. Day has a high, somewhat smoky voice -- when
she out of her narrow band it sounds like someone else butted in.
The songs are all standards (more or less), so it is clear enough
how she works the songs -- slow, patient, methodical, but sometimes
to surprising effect (as in "Ain't Misbehavin'"). Still, it's a
- Deep Blue Organ Trio: Deep Blue Bruise (2004, Delmark).
Organ trio, with Bobby Broom on guitar and Chris Foreman on the Hammond
B3. Also drummer Greg Rockingham, who learned the ropes working with
Charles Earland. The novelty here is an odd choice of songs, ranging
from "These Foolish Dreams" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" on the one
hand to "Light My Fire" and "Raspberry Beret" on the other. Best thing
is their own thing, something called "Deep Blue Bruise," where they
do what soul jazzers always did: take a blues and boogaloo it. Nothing
wrong with that, but nothing new either.
- DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid: Celestial Mechanix
(2004, Thirsty Ear, 2CD).
Two sets of remixes of various Thirsty Ear Blue Series beats and blips,
some passed through the remix mill previously. The source music is
often magnificent, but its familiarity doesn't distinguish the mix.
A minor, relatively unimportant exercise, though enjoyable.
- Dr. Macaroni Brass Band: Cum Laude (2004, TCB).
With three weights of sax, three of brass, and separate drummers for
snare and bass, they look like an oom-pah band.
- Christy Doran: Corporate Art (1991 ,
Winter & Winter).
Doran plays electric guitar. He's joined on electric bass by Mark Helias,
who is a major avant acoustic bass player, but I've never seen him on
electric elsewhere. Bobby Previte plays drums -- an ideal choice for
an electric lineup. Gary Thomas plays tenor sax -- I'm not a big fan.
Too bad I didn't take notes on this record.
- Bob Dorough: Sunday at Iridium (2004, Arbors).
He has a weaselly little voice, but he lives by his wits. Which he's
more likely to concentrate in a studio album; the live album is just
too informal. Guest stars don't add much, but the two pieces with
the Bobettes (cf. Ray Charles' Raylettes) work best. He did a couple
of good albums for Blue Note on his comeback, but this just marks
time, and he isn't witty enough for that.
- Christiana Drapkin & Charles Sibirsky: Songs About You
Good singer, some interesting songs. I don't dislike this in any way, but
don't think it amounts to much either.
- Ismael Dueñas Trio: La Tiranía de la Cosa (2003 ,
Piano trio, very conventional but first rate, with sharp sound from the
piano and solid bass/drums support. Seems like there must be hundreds
of equivalent albums, but there are merely dozens.
- Paul Dunmall Moksha Big Band: I Wish You Peace (2003
Dunmall is impressive on tenor sax, and his leads here are effective
and powerful. The big band is big and loud, but doesn't do much other
than provide a platform for Dunmall. The record consists of the single
title piece, broken down into three parts, a total of about 53 minutes.
- Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers, Kevin Norton: Go Forth Duck
(2003 , CIMP).
Rogers' A.I.L. bass gives this record a broader range of sound effects
than you'd expect -- it's a bass with extra strings likened to a sitar.
Still, they're little more than sound effects, and that is the basic
problem here. While Dunmall's tenor sax is a force to be reckoned with,
his soprano sax and bagpipes are more just sound effects.
- Duke Ellington: Blues in Orbit (1958-59 ,
This was some sort of an answer to the age of Sputnik, done quick by
harnessing blues forms (including a couple of older pieces, like "C
Jam Blues" and "In a Mellotone"), but the execution is pure Ellington.
And the result was one of Ellington's finest period albums. The bonus
tracks are mostly alternate takes, so the remastered album goes out
with a slight excess of reprise.
- Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: The Jaywalker (1966-67
Previously unreleased recordings from Ellington's "stockpile" -- the
orchdestra is magnificent, as you'd expect, but the program isn't as
distinctive as one might hope. How much Ellington does one need?
Quite a bit, but the line falls well short of this. How much can
one truly enjoy? Lots more.
- Sergi Sirvent Escué: 9 Muses (2004, Fresh Sound, 2CD).
Ambitious extra-long work by a Spanish pianist previously unknown to
me. This weaves in and out of consciousness, impressive in small bits
(especially the tenor sax on the first disc, which may be Fredrik
Carlquist and/or Miguel "Pintxo" Villar), but ultimately hard to
keep track of. Someone less harried might enjoy this more.
- Kali Z. Fasteau: Making Waves (2000-04 ,
Kali has managed to cut back both on her cornucopia of exotic instruments
and on her tendency to fragment her albums into lots of irreconcilable
pieces, but both tendencies persist. What unifies the sound here is the
presence of Kidd Jordan on 12 of 15 tracks. Jordan plays tenor sax in
the Ayler-Gayle tradition, where every piece is an uphill trudge, and
redemption is few and far between.
- Marco Figueira: Brazilliance (2004, Blue Toucan).
The difference between this Brazillian jazz and your ordinary run
of the mill Brazillian pop is too subtle for me to discern. Figueira
plays guitar and sings. Paulo André Tavares arranges, and the band
consists of Brazilians and sympaticos. This doesn't move me one way
or the other: competent, maybe better, certainly sharper than what
I consider the baseline to be.
- Five Play . . . Plus (2004, Arbors).
All-female swing band, led by Dr. Sherri Maricle, who drums and also
runs the even larger DIVA Jazz Orchestra. The bassist and pianist
come from Japan. One saxophonist is from Israel, the other from
Austria. The "plus" are a pair of trumpeters, Americans with Masters
Degrees. The whole band sports educational credentials. They do a
lot of things here, and some of it is duly impressive. I particularly
like Anat Cohen's clarinet on "That Old Feeling" and enjoy her tenor
sax on Hank Mobley's "Funk in a Deep Freeze," set off with a splash
of brass. There are lots of moments like that, so I'm a bit puzzled
that I find the band so disinteresting. Obviously, I can't hear the
monosex, but I suspect that if that's the point they're aiming too
low. Proficiency's fine, necessary even, but what else do you have
- Joel Frahm/Brad Mehldau: Don't Explain (2004, Palmetto).
Sax/piano duo, patiently working their way through a rather eclectic
songbook. As such, this tends to sound sparse, especially when one or
the other finds himself playing alone. But it also sounds thoughtful,
each statement a carefully considered response to the previous.
- Von Freeman: The Great Divide (2003 ,
As he's sailed past his 80th birthday, Von Freeman has suddenly become
so prolific that he risks overshadowing his once more famous son, Chico.
He's always been very distinctive on tenor saxophone. His tone sounds
pinched, almost strangled, but the effect gives him an eery lightness:
imagine Lester Young levitating Sam Rivers.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Ghazal: The Rain (2001 , ECM).
Kayhan Kalhor comes from Iran and is a master of the kamancheh, a
four-stringed ancestor of the fiddle. Shujat Husain Khan plays sitar,
a family craft for seven generations. Sandeep Das plays tabla (hand
drums). Their "Persian and Indian improvisations" are subtle but
gradually build up a fine-tuned tension -- almost one dimensional
but remarkable nonetheless. This was recorded live in Switzerland.
Seems like a good sample but not quite a compelling case.
- Globe Unity Orchestra & the Choir of the NDR-Broadcast:
Hamburg '74 (1974, Atavistic).
The tight discipline of the choir is poignantly absurd in the midst of
all these anarchist horns, where the idea of bringing down the house
is more like blowing it up.
- Wycliffe Gordon: Joyride (2000 , Nagel Heyer).
He's definitely got chops; grits too, and an extra helping of cornpone.
Primarily a trombonist, he also plays (overdubs?) trumpet and tuba
here, plus he sings or scats on three cuts, and takes the closing
gospel "Blessed" on piano, with perhaps a bit too much stride. The
blues pieces are the strongest, and Farid Barron's piano adds a lot
to them. "The Island Boy" is a Jamaican throwaway. "Wishing Well"
sounds more like lounge jazz, with Victor Goines (who contributes
solidly on tenor sax) switching off to clarinet.
- Sean Grace: New Frontier (2003, NCA).
Back cover says, "Smooth Jazz - New Age - Celtic." Flute album, but not
too tweety. Nice groove. Not a lot of substance, but quite a bit of
glitz and a little too much bombast. Not many vocals, but they don't
- Benny Green & Russell Malone: Bluebird (2004,
Piano-guitar duo, from the best known of the young Montgomery acolytes
and a pretty good mainstream pianist. Green is fortunate in having the
more versatile instrument: he can hold down the bass line ("Reunion
Blues"), sketch out the melody ("Love for Sale"), and comp behind Malone's
guitar. Malone's guitar can shade a bit behind Green, or plot out the
long hornlike lines that are bebop's legacy, but his tone is thinner
than any horn (something I've been noticing with other guitarists,
like Joshua Breakstone), and it doesn't seem to have any compensating
merits. One consequence of this is that Malone's solo piece just sort
of flops over without making any mark.
- Burton Greene: Live at Grasland (2002 , Drimala).
Greene says that these pieces were selected from a large amount of
material because they "breathe in and out." This seems like an apt
description. This is solo piano, nowhere near as bracing as his
mid-'60s work on ESP, but not chopped liver either. His output
twixt then and now has been sporadic, picking up the pace a bit
in the '90s with albums on the Dutch label BVHaast (mostly as
Klezmokum) and various arms of the Cadence empire. Several of
these cuts also show up on one of the BVHaast albums, attributed
to Burton Greene's Klez-Thetics (which I haven't heard, like
everything else he's done since 1965). I'm not sure that my
ambivalence about this one isn't just my disinterest in solo
piano, but then once I breathe in and breathe out, I'm ready
to put something else on.
- Johnny Griffin Quartet (1956 , Verve).
Eight songs, the longest clocking in at 3:52, the whole album a very
quick 26:15. Three Griffin originals, a piece from bassist Wilbur Ware,
and four standards. Griffin sounds uncharacteristically mainstream as
opposed to pure bebop, and doesn't improvise much in such limited
space, but his tone and reflexes are tops, and he gets good support
from Ware and Junior Mance. I'm not generally inclined to dock a CD
because it's too short, but this one is.
- Groundtruther: Latitude (2004, Thirsty Ear).
The marquee order here is Bobby Previte and Charlie Hunter, in that
order, above the Groundtruther line, with Greg Osby listed as "special
guest" below the line. That's the way I hear it, too, although the
expected pecking order would be saxophone, then guitar, then drums.
The piece titles work from "North Pole" and "Arctic Circle" through
"Horse Latitudes North" and "Equator" down to "Antarctic Circle" and
"South Pole," but they assure us that it's all improvised. Key to
everything is Previte's drums and electronics, and pieces like "40th
Parallel" and "Tropic of Cancer" are predominantly pulse, with Hunter
bulking up the rhythm, and Osby filling in. But when Previte lets up
ambiance or fatigue take over, especially at the South Pole. Maybe
snow-blindness is a concept too?
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Guaranteed Swahili: Three More Years (2002 ,
With two saxopohonists on the front line, bass, drums, no piano, this
fits the classic mold of pianoless quartets. Alto saxophonist Eric
Rasmussen seems to be the main mover here -- he holds all of the
writing credits except for one song contributed by Jason Hunter,
the other saxophonist (tenor, soprano). This is one of a bunch of
nouveau mainstream albums that make for perfectly good music but
can't convince me that they have a good reason to exist. Retro is
easier, because at least it remembers the past fondly; avant is
easier because it attempts to do something new. In between there's
a vast range of things that try to be state-of-the-art, and that's
a tough challenge: even when you are we wonder why. I go up and down
on this album -- don't much like the two-horn harmony, think either
alone is just fine (Rasmussen seems to have the edge there, but then
they're mostly his songs and he sticks to alto so has a consistent
voice), think the rhythm is competent, songs ok. Don't know what
else to say.
- Charlie Haden/Joe Henderson/Al Foster: The Montreal Tapes
(1989 , Verve).
In Montreal in 1989 Charlie Haden played a series of eight concerts with
musicians from various stages of his life. Five were released in 1997-99,
and a duo with Egberto Gismonti came out in 2001. This is the seventh to
be released, leaving only the one with Pat Metheny and Jack DeJohnette.
Not clear why this one has been released now, nor why it wasn't released
with the others -- although the performances weren't exceptional by any
measure. Now it's styled as a "Tribute to Joe Henderson," and that's
fair enough. Maybe three years after Henderson's death they miss the
- Herbie Hancock: V.S.O.P.: Live Under the Sky
(1979 , Columbia/Legacy, 2CD).
Not great jazz, but these live-in-Tokyo sets are still fun;
after all, great jazz musicians can fake it at the drop of a hat, and
all five superstars have their moments, especially Ron Carter and Tony
Williams; the second set is previously unreleased, repeating the same
set list to more scattered effect.
- Happy Birthday Newport! 50 Swinging Years (1955-76
, Columbia/Legacy, 3CD).
Duke Ellington was born again at Newport in 1956. Johnny Hodges had
just returned to the fold, but it was Paul Gonsalves who rocked the
house with one of the most famous solos in jazz history. "Diminuendo
in Blue" is the centerpiece of the first disc here, and arguably the
one key performance that George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival on the
map. But you can (and should) go to the Ellington section of your
favorite record vendor for that story, now available in two glorious
CDs. The festival has hung on now for fifty years, much of it mere
inertia from its heyday in the late '50s. This box is welcome, but
marginal. Newport's recording legacy is spotty, and this selection
limits itself to eight years (1955-58, 1960, 1963, 1973, 1976).
Aside from Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" and Hancock's "Maiden
Voyage," and sidetracks by Muddy Waters and Mahalia Jackson, this
is a nice, loose snapshot of the jazz legends of '50s. The booklet
provides some of Wein's reminiscences, but little history.
- Donald Harrison: Heroes (2002 , Nagel Heyer)
Impending death may focus the mind, but standing alone in front of
Ron Carter and Billy Cobham focuses the pressure too. Harrison has
to stretch like we've never seen before.
- Kees Hazevoet Quartet: Pleasure (1970 , Atavistic).
The ringer here in this group of Dutch unknowns is Louis Moholo, the
famed South African drummer. Part of Atavistic's Unheard Music Series
(original release run was 250 copies), editor Jon Corbett quotes Kees
Hazevoet on the importance of choosing a good drummer. As it happened,
Moholo was in town when Hazevoet had the studio booked, and he more
than fit the bill. Hazevoet bangs on the piano, plays some interesting
clarinet, and dabbles a bit on trumpet; Kris Wanders struggles with
the alto sax, and Arjen Gorter rounds out the lineup on bass. This is
ye olde European Free Jazz as we know and mostly can't stand it, but
at its best it pricks your nerves and makes your hair stand on end,
and the catharsis can feel sublime afterwards.
- Vincent Herring: Mr. Wizard (2004, High Note).
This is a quintet in the standard mode of Charlie Parker and so many
hard bop progeny, with Herring's greased lightning alto sax and emerging
trumpet superstar Jeremy Pelt up front, piano-bass-drums in the back.
They swing their way through "All God's Children Got Rhythm" to start,
but left to their own devices (four band members contribute songs,
plus there are two more less obvious covers) they fall back on their
chops. And they got chops to spare, but ideas are something else.
- Hil St. Soul: Copasetik & Cool (2004, Shanachie).
Shanachie markets this as jazz, but it's actually very straight R&B,
with only a slight distance in the accent, softness in the beats, and
lack of gospel roots separating it from mainstream fare. But then it's
from England, where such differences are par for the course. The group
consists of producer Victor Redwood-Sawyer (keybs, programming) and
Zambia-born singer Hilary Mwelwa.
- Ron Horton: Subtextures (2002 , Fresh Sound).
This kind of postmodernism is starting to get to me: avant enough to
scare off the masses, too unspecific for me to get a handle on. Horton
has played with Andrew Hill and in the Herbie Nichols Project, and he
works in something called the Jazz Composers Collective, along with
his better known bandmates (Frank Kimbrough, Ben Allison, Matt Wilson).
These are all impeccable credentials, so why am I not impressed? Not
sure, but when I start wondering whether I'm missing shit because I
don't have the requisite technical grasp, I tend to retort that good
music shouldn't depend on technical grasp -- that what we're hoping
for is somethat that makes a visceral connection, rather than just an
intellectual one. One cut which I believe he plays on flugelhorn (the
register is lower than usual), "Mutability," starts to do that. Maybe
others will kick in.
- Bobby Hutcherson: Now! (1978 , Blue Note).
The earlier pieces have lyrics and vocals by Gene McDaniels plus
backing chorus, a silly mix of hipster crooning and black power, only
intermittently relieved by Harold Land's tenor sax; the later pieces
revive the earlier ones with no vocals but the supremely unswinging
L.A. Philharmonic; buried deep are patches of brilliant vibes play
and some fascinating rhythm.
- Weber Iago: Os Filhos do Vento (Children of the Wind)
(2004, Adventure Music).
Brazilian pianist. The title comes from the 32-minute suite that ends
the disc. Aside from reeds and/or English horn from Paul McCandless on
two tracks, the lead instruments here are flutes: the basic line-up
is flute(s), piano, bass/cello, percussion. I like the piano solos
quite a bit, appreciate the percussion, have some doubts about the
flutes. The core problem for me is that Iago stretches his pieces
out into long more/less euroclassical suites, and I've never been
able to relate to that. Ends strong. Too much orchestral texture
- Jon Jang/David Murray: River of Life (1998-2001 ,
A mixed bag. Murray is frequently outstanding in duo frameworks, so the
surprise here is that he seems to be the source of the trouble. He feels
awkward on several of these pieces, probably because they don't have a
lot of melodic flow. Nor is this problem all Jang's fault: Murray takes
another shot at his "Requiem for Julius," which is as difficult as
anything Julius ever wrote. Also the bass clarinet doesn't seem to fit
a couple of pieces. On the other hand, when he's hot he's hot. This
starts strong, and ends stronger. The other high point is Jang's arrangement
of a Chinese piece. Jang actually is interesting throughout. Like I said,
a mixed bag.
- Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra: Celebration of the Spirit
(2003 , CIMP).
This takes some volume to get going, but I'm impressed by how robust the
group sounds. The multiple composers add some variety. Nothing here has
the piling-on effect of so many large-scale free orchestras; rather,
there's a lot going on but it all seems well thought-out and orderly,
but none to oconventional.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Jazz for Couch Potatoes! (2004, Shanachie).
Done by the Couch Potato All-Stars, but I don't think we'll need to
file their name in the artist database. The main mover here is guitarist
Chuck Loeb, with additional help from much of Shanachie's roster -- the
good (Eric Alexander), the bad (Kim Waters), and the ugly (David Mann),
plus various extras. Light but tasteful arrangements, clever to downright
mediocre tunes (e.g., Bob James' theme for "Taxi"). Not that tasteful
goes very far with such obvious fare: I can imagine pretty much what
Charlie Parker would have done with the chord changes from the head
to "Gilligan's Island," and had he made the session he would've landed
a Choice Cut. But Mann seems to have fainted from the head alone, so
Loeb took the solo. As it is, the only legit jazz solos here are from
Alexander on "Bewitched" and Loeb on "The Andy Griffith Show," but
it could have been much worse.
- Jazz Moods: Sounds of Autumn (1977-2003 , Concord).
More catalog plunder, topically organized as follows: songs with autumn
in the title: 5; September songs: 3; October songs: 2; which leaves the
leaves ("Lullaby of the Leaves"). Yes, "September Song" is one of the
September songs, although by the time Gene Harris gets through with it
you can barely recognize it, and can't care less. Songs with singers:
6 (Karrin Allyson, Mel Tormé, Mary Stallings, Tony Bennett, Carol Sloane,
Diane Schuur). Best thing here is Steve Wilson's saxophone on Charlie
Byrd's "Autumn in New York." Worst are the singers, excepting Allyson.
This is approximately the 20th album in this series. Thank the venture
capitalists who bought Concord: they deleted 300+ albums, at least a
third B+ or better, easily the world's great catalog of whatever you'd
call the white folks' version of soul jazz (not quite fair, since only
80% or so of Concord's artists are actually white -- Harris, Stallings
and Wilson are the exceptions here, although Wilson isn't a leader in
the catalog); instead, now we get repackagings like this.
- Jazz Moods: Twilight in Rio (1982-99 , Concord).
This series is nothing but catalog plunder, but this one is relatively
useful. Concord's Brazilian catalog is a mix of soft exotics like
Manfredo Fest and Hendrik Meurkens and tourists like Karrin Allyson
and (not present here) Susannah McCorkle, but Charlie Byrd looms
large here, both leading off and closing. Byrd was the guy who fed
Stan Getz his samba beat. In later years Concord practically cornered
the market for mild-mannered guitarists, and Byrd was one of many.
He's not terribly interesting in his own right, but can be delightful
in small doses, and matching him up with Ken Peplowski was a smart
- Hank Jones: The Talented Touch/Porgy and Bess (1958-59
Two quartet albums from the late '50s, with guitar but no horns. Nothing
remarkable about either, at least if you accept Jones' usual level of
expert touch as your norm.
- Sheila Jordan: Little Song (2003, High Note).
Not sure whether to get into this or not, given its age, but it finds
Jordan is good voice and good company.
- Frank Kimbrough: Lullabluebye (2003 , Palmetto).
All three members of this piano trio show up in each others' groups,
all spinoffs of the Jazz Composers Collective. They also show up
in the Herbie Nichols Project, which might be relevant here --
Nichols like Kimbrough being a pianist. If so, I can't quite make
the connection. This seems smart and careful, but nothing here
really jumps out and calls attention to itself. The notes say:
"There are no arrangements per se -- we try to let the music
happen in an organic way, so that each time we play, it's different.
My main objective as a composer is to give each player something to
work with as an improviser, so that we make music that's honest,
interactive, and in the moment." That's evident, but it also strikes
me as lazy, prone to self-indulgence, and unlikely to produce much
of anything worthwhile.
- Steve Kuhn With Strings: Promises Kept (2004, ECM).
Just piano and bass in front of a large string orchestra, Kuhn described
this project as "a life's dream." I feel like I should be more sympatetic:
Kuhn's delicately crafted melodies unwind slowly, and their loveliness is
heightened by the string backdrop, even though the string arrangements
have little interest in their own right. The effect is, indeed, often
undeniably gorgeous. But over the course of a whole album all this lushness
makes me woozy. Still, I can't be harsh either: it's not so much that I
respect his "life's dream" as that I have to acknowledge that Kuhn's piano
has rarely sounded more erudite.
- Steve Lehman Quintet: Artificial Light (2003 ,
Lehman plays alto saxophone, and he's leading a quintet here with a second
saxophone (Mark Shim, on tenor), vibes, bass and drums. Several motifs
(or maybe they're just tricks) dominate this album: he plays long boppish
solos with some facility, but he also tends to build up songs in discrete
toots, effectively stopping the music on each note (this can be used to
sketch out a melody, or more commonly to set up a rhythm); then there's
the vibes, all over the place. The opening track is really just a vibes
solo over a tooted rhythm; the last track is mammothly choppy, a mess
of rhythms flying off at odd tangents, although it ends with another,
more emphatic, horn-based rhythm, with a drum solo on top. At its best
this has a certain weird appeal; at its worst it annoys me.
- George Lewis: Ice Cream (1953 , Delmark).
Among ancient New Orleans trumpeters, Buddy Bolden was an unrecorded
legend and Freddie Keppard barely got his cup of coffee, but once
Bunk Johnson got a new set of teeth in 1942, his comeback kicked off
a revival of classic New Orleans jazz. The chief beneficiary of the
revival was Johnson's clarinet player, the thin, unassuming George
Lewis. Never more than a sideman in the old days, Lewis toured the
world and recorded dozens of albums from the mid-'40s to his death
in 1968. His was a music that had been frozen in time since Louis
Armstrong's revolution, but that hardly detracts from the eloquence
of his clarinet or the rousing good cheer of his band. With so many
records so fundamentally similar distinctions are subtle. This one
was cut by Lewis' most typical group, and is a fine introduction to
their art. Better still is The Beverly Caverns Sessions (Good
Time Jazz), cut a month earlier with the same group: the clarinet
a bit lighter, the trombone a bit heavier, the trumpet a bit more
shiny, fewer vocals, marginal distinctions that somehow add up.
- Ramsey Lewis: Love Songs (1972-88 , Columbia/Legacy).
Without vocals how do you know they're love songs? With Nancy Wilson,
why should you care? Excepting a simple trio take on "Please Send Me
Someone to Love," this offers nothing but tinkling piano in a sea of
- Pete Malinverni: The Tempest (2003 , Reservoir).
Good record, rock solid piano trio, goes through the mainstream motions
with aplomb. I could play this another dozen times, enjoy each time,
and still not be able to tell you why this is better than a dozen other
similar trios. So that doesn't say much for me as a jazz critic, now
does it? But it helps nail down the grade, because the very fact that
I can't tell you why says that it must not be all that great. So that's
where we stand.
- Shelly Manne: Steps to the Desert (1962 ,
Subtitled "modern jazz versions of favorite Jewish and Israeli songs,"
the jazz isn't all that impressive, nor are the songs. Teddy Edwards
and Victor Feldman (at least on vibes) play competently enough, but
one suspects a general lack of purpose, or lackadaisicalness.
- Nancy Marano: You're Nearer (2004, Munich).
She's a veteran jazz singer, but little known after seven albums.
The booklet here, and her website there, try too hard in pushing
the laudatory quotes from critics and musicians who regard her
highly. Their praise isn't unfounded: she has a luxurious voice,
and has the discipline to sing skillfully at any speed. Her intro
to "Detour Ahead," sung/spoken against the barest accompaniment,
is nothing short of astonishing. With a fine Dutch band, she can
swing through the fast ones, and her guitarist doesn't embarrass
her on Jobim either. My problem is with the slow torchers, which
she handles capably but still for me they drain the pleasure out
of one of oh-so-many standards albums.
- A Proper Introduction to Dodo Marmarosa: Dodo's Dance
(1946-48 , Proper).
A fair selection of work by a minor pianist of the bebop era, which
elevate a notch when joined by tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson.
- Branford Marsalis: Steep Anthology (1983-98 ,
He's less ambitious, and more fun than his famous little brother,
perhaps because the legacy of respected (PC) sax is broader and more
adventurous than for trumpet. Also because he can switch off to
soprano, getting a distinct sound which he does little with other
than to invokes Bechet. In his early years he didn't do much to
justify his big label contract, but he kept plugging at it, even
taking on difficult trio spots, and he eventually turned himself
into a pretty solid player. Still, this comp is rather randomly
selected from his wide range of albums, with most of the threads
cancelling each other out. In particular, his boppish trysts sound
lame; and while the Bechet shots are fun, they pretty much stand
outside the real body of his work. Part of the problem is endemic
in jazz comps -- trying to force a "greatest hits" out of a form
that tends to run long and differentiate subtly -- but much of
it is just poor selection. He's got a better comp in him; got
some better records, too.
- Billy Martin: The Turntable Sessions, Volume 1
(2001-03 , Amulet).
Divers DJ encounters, mostly with DJ Olive spinning around Martin's beat
stock, recorded live and "currated." Mixed bag with a couple of choice
cuts: "Marty," named for and starring Marty Ehrlich, with Matt Moran on
vibes; "Ramblin' Man," with Mike Ill singing the Hank Williams song,
making it darker and more godforsaken than even Williams was wont to.
A following vocal (Dean Bowman on "Giliad") is similar but somewhat
- Billy Martin/Grant Calvin Weston/DJ Logic: For No One in
Particular (2003, Amulet).
Two drummers plus a turntablist -- the latter not just outmanned but
outgunned as well. Interesting, as far as that goes, but only one cut
comes together strongly enough to make you listen, an extra effort to
listen elsewhere pays off only modestly. Choice cut, with gratified
but gratuitous applause: "Hustling Raindrops."
- Billy Martin: Illy B Eats, Volume 2 (2004, Amulet).
After all is said and done, these are just drum fragments. They may
be useful to DJs, mixers, students, whatever, but they don't offer
much consistency or dynamics or perversity just for listening.
- Rebecca Martin: People Behave Like Ballads (2004,
Miscast as a jazz singer, she's really a singer-songwriter: she wrote
everything here, plays guitar, and keeps the arrangements absolutely
simple. As such, it all centers on the songs, which are so plainspoken
they rarely rhyme -- not that close listening discerns much content.
But then, if the songs turn out to be word-encrusted voids, maybe she
is a jazz singer after all? Too subtle for me.
- Jack McDuff: The Prestige Years (1960-65 ,
Dependably funky on the Hammond B3, Brother Jack cranked out 23
albums in a six year stretch with Prestige. Nothing extraordinary
here, but he was one of the workhorses of the soul jazz era. He
was usually paired with a guitarist (Kenny Burrell, George Benson)
and/or saxophone (Gene Ammons, Jimmy Forrest, Red Holloway, Harold
Vick), and his high points often depended on his partners. My own
favorite is Kirk's Work, with a young Roland Kirk (not yet
Rahsaan), but that's another label.
- Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath: Bremen to
Bridgewater (1971-75 , Cuneiform, 2CD).
Following the earlier (2001) release of Travelling Somewhere, this
is much more: three more radio performances, with variable lineups of
Europeans joining McGregor's South African core. The predecessor has an
edge because the South African roots are more evident: while the horns
play plenty free, the rhythm keeps moving like they were playing a dance.
Here, everything is freer and more cacophonous, so you have to work harder
to sort it all out. Not that it isn't worthwhile, or fun.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Jackie McLean: Action (1964 , Blue Note).
A minor masterpiece from McLean's Blue Note years, which were full
of them. This one features young (22) Charles Tolliver and (23)
Bobby Hutcherson. Tolliver wrote two of the songs, and his trumpet
solos match up well with McLean.
- Metz'n Around: A Late Night Party With the Metz Family
Ed Metz, Jr. is a drummer who plays on quite a few Arbors releases.
This is meant as a family showcase, especially for Ed Metz Sr., who
plays pretty respectable stride piano. Brother Tim plays bass, and
mother Joey, coming off as a gray haired floozy, sings four cuts.
Two extra Arbors hands play trombone and tenor sax -- possibly the
best thing here is Teddy Myers' sax on "Old Folks." Other points of
interest include Ed Sr.'s uncommonly light touch on James P. Johnson's
"You Can't Lose a Broken Heart" and Joey's surprising "I Ain't Gonna
Give Nobody None O' This Jelly Roll."
- The Mulgrew Miller Trio: Live at Yoshi's, Volume One
His speed and touch recall Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner, and as a
first approximation he evenly splits the differences between those
two. This might be taken as criticism, the expectation being that
the younger player would try to advance beyond Tyner, whereas in
fact he's a tad more conservative -- although the two are uncannily
similar when backing other horn players. In a straightforward trio
session Miller does pretty much what you'd expect: he puts mostly
standards through their paces, picking up speed on the opener until
it smokes, then slowing down a bit toward the end. Speed, touch,
perfectly enjoyable, what more do you want? Ideas?
- Dom Minasi's DDT + 2: Time Will Tell (2004, CDM).
Minasi is a guitarist in the pleasant swing tradition, but Thomas
Ulrich gives this record a bit more bite with his cello, and Ken
Filiano thickens the sauce on bass. The "+ 2" are drums and singer,
although the singer in particular doesn't get a lot of work.
- Blue Mitchell: The Thing to Do (1964 , Blue Note).
Good showcase for Horace Silver's trumpet man, with Junior Cook and
Chick Corea kicking out the hard bop. Starts loose, with a calypso.
- Thelonious Monk: Monk 'Round the World (1961-65 ,
The second of who knows how many CDs (and DVDs) of live Monk, featuring
Charlie Rouse playing the same songs you've heard them play again and
again and again. How much of this anyone needs is an open question, but
it's hard to fault the music. As for the video, the B&W footage
just proves that Monk's piano looks as odd as it sounds.
- Bill O'Connell: Latin Jazz Fantasy (2003 ,
Not really a latin jazz record, even in its fantasies. O'Connell is
a skilled pianist who wants to be a great arranger, and he's a pretty
good one. But his arrangements, especially for full-blown orchestra
(five horns and eight strings here) don't do much for me, except for
"Barcelona," where he gets a tight, dark, roiling storm of sound.
His smaller group settings make more of his musicianship, and in
this he is much helped by tenor saxophonist Bob Malach.
- Anita O'Day and Billy May: Swing Rodgers and Hart
(1960 , Verve).
Similar to their better known Cole Porter album. The songs you know,
the orchestra a little top-heavy, the singer fine but overmatched.
May did similar work with Frank Sinatra, but he was a more imposing
singer. This works best when they work together, as on "Ten Cents
a Dance" and the macabre "To Keep My Love Alive." Four cuts with an
anonymous string section replacing the horns are as lame as you'd
- Orquestra Popular de Camara (2004, Adventure Music).
World music, not just from our own peculiar vantage point but from
Brazil's own peculiar vantage point -- the giveaway is that they
start with a song from Turkmenistan, cribbed off Peter Gabriel's
label. I'm sure that wherever they come from they are progressives,
but that makes them doubly difficult. There are things that I like
here. There is little that I understand.
- Greg Osby: Public (2004, Blue Note).
Cut live like his best-ever Banned in New York -- the simplicity
befits him, while the studio tempts him to get over-slick. On the other
hand, he sounds kind of scraggly live, and guest trumpeter Nicholas
Payton keeps this from getting simple enough. Osby's best performance
in in "Equalatogram," for just these reasons. Still, if he can reel
off such long, scraggly Coltrane-isms at will why do they matter? He
comes no closer to Parker on "Shaw Nuff" than Payton does Gillespie,
and the shortfall sounds more like chops than concept. But I do rather
like the vocal on "Lover Man," by Joan Osborne of all people. She may
have a future career in cabaret somewhere, and if her pop muse doesn't
return she'll need it.
- Eddie Palmieri: Ritmo Caliente (2004, Concord).
One of my objectives on my trip to New York City before deciding to
move there was to check out the local salsa music. I came home with
two LPs that I never quite got the hang of -- one was Palmieri's
Unfinished Masterpiece -- and I never got up the courage or
fortitude to explore much further. But I did pick up Palmieri's
Palmas (1994) and was duly impressed, and this one seems
roughly on that same level. For all I know this could be his usual
level, with dozens of comparable albums. What I do know is that the
big band is always in gear, and it pays to listen for the pianist.
[NB: CG by Robert Christgau in Voice.]
- Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Memory/Vision
Dedicated to philosopher Charles Arthur Musès (1919-2000), whose ideas
about "chronotopology and resonance" had something to do with the
inspiration behind this record. Hard to figure out just what; harder
still to decide whether it matters. This feels like quite a bit of
the electronic musique concrete that has dribbled out of the academy
over the last forty-or-so years: not much obvious impact from Parker
or his usual cohorts (Barry Guy, Paul Lytton), although there are
moments when they gain notice. The piano is more notable, and the
little blocks of electro-noise are more common -- the main building
blocks to this work. I'm impressed by the conceptual seriousness of
the whole effort. If only it were more enjoyable.
- Bucky Pizzarelli: Flashes: Solo 7-String Guitar, Volume 3
The spoken intros set this up as a stroll down memory lane, but don't
do what they need to do to hold up, which is to be more interesting
than the music. Moreover, they break up the music, which never achieves
the intensity or flair that it needs to sustain interest. Not that it
isn't lovely. He's a lovely player, no doubt a lovely person. We all
- Positive Flow: Can U Feel It? (2004, Shanachie).
Donna Gardier sings. Jesse Reuben Wilson writes the songs, arranges,
produces, plays keybs, concocts the beats. At its best, as on the
lead track ("hit single") "The City Streets," this is innocuous soul
lite, where clever little beats distract you from the contentlessness
of the lyrics. Still, even the hit isn't clever enough to keep up the
ruse for its full length, much less for the two remixes tacked onto
the end as "bonus cuts." The worst, as in "Sunflower" or "Positivity,"
doesn't begin to cover its tracks.
- Bud Powell: Bebop (1948-64 , Pablo).
This is the third installment in Pablo's repackaging of the tapes that
Francis Paudras assembled and released on his Mythic Sound label. Most
of the material comes from late in Powell's career, after Powell moved
to Paris and was befriended by Paudras -- by now a well known story,
loosely the basis of the movie 'Round Midnight. But this one
starts with a live broadcast from the Royal Roost in 1948, MCed by
Leonard Feather: typical bebop, play a head and let the solo fly, with
Max Roach keeping things honest; also typical live bebop, with thin,
- The PrimeTime Sublime Community Orchestra: A Life in a Day
of a Microorganism (Corporate Blob).
The title cut is a three-part "pseudo science education film soundtrack
(c. 1960) for extraterrestrial adolescents." Narrated by Bob Schumucklehead
over a light classical orchestra populated mostly by musicians who show
up in clown makeup and bright hair, it explores a day in the life of a
stereotypical family, starting with mom dreaming of Tupperware and dad
dreaming of silk stockings. With harp by Jane Parker Fruitcake and
percussion by Fred & Ethel Merz, well, no point spoiling the story.
Elsewhere on the album are pastiches of electronics, samples, more light
classical, and a piano solo by Tony Macaroni. Reminds me of Joe Byrd &
the Field Hippies, but Byrd was close enough to the '50s to convey dread
as well as amusement. This one is updated to the era of Billionaires for
Bush, who might consider "Fashion Flag for a Part-time Patriot" as a
possible theme song.
- Hugh Ragin: Revelation (2004, Justin Time)
It is tempting just to sit back and listen to the bass and drums --
the marvelous duo of William Parker and Hamid Drake -- but the two
horns, Ragin on trumpet and Assif Tsahar on tenor sax or bass clarinet,
are impossible to ignore. Both are aggressive avant-gardists, and
together they can peel paint, but individually they offer a lot to
listen to. A bit too aggressive to recommend broadly, but sharp
enough that even when I disapprove I'm impressed.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Edward Ratliff: Barcelona in 48 Hours (2002, Strudelmedia).
In the final analysis, smart but ordinary soundtrack music.
- The Revolutionary Ensemble: And Now . . . (2004, Pi).
The 27 years between the last Revolutionary Ensemble album and this one
are a vast stretch of time not least because we've heard so little from
these three along the way. Leroy Jenkins was at one time the only name
who might come to mind when you tried to think of avant-garde violin,
and he's continued to work with some frequency since then. Sirone and
Jerome Cooper were busy in the '70s but infrequently employed since
then. That they have survived and reunited is a blessing. That they
are older is obvious: the bass and drums are tighter, Jenkins' violin
more melodic and more textural. This makes not just for a welcome album,
it's a lovely one.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Sam Rivers: Contours (1965 , Blue Note).
For Rivers' second album, Blue Note parked him in the middle of a
simulation of the Miles Davis quintet, with Rivers reprising the
job he lost to Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard doing his usual
Miles-in-disguise bit. Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter are on hand,
but Joe Chambers replaces Tony Williams, and that hurts. I suspect
that what others like about this is that it gives Rivers a chance
to expand his arrangements to bigger and presumably better heights.
But I much prefer his debut, Fuschia Swing Song, because it
really shows off Rivers' compressed, frantic tenor sax, whereas
he is often buried here. (Especially when he switches to flute.)
But also because Williams was not only a far superior drummer --
he had grown up working with Rivers and they had a chemistry that
is missing here.
- Linda Ronstadt: Hummin' to Myself (2004, Verve).
She's almost frighteningly credible as a jazz standards singer. The
big voice you know about, but her control over minor shifts in speed
and nuance reminds me of Sarah Vaughan, and when she turns it on,
well, not even Vaughan could light up like that. (Ella could, and
Ella could swing Ronstadt into cardiac arrest, but she didn't have
that up-on-a-pedestal voice.) She also has access to some first rate
jazz musicians, and especially on the cuts with Alan Broadbent, Bob
Mann, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, the musicians more than hold
their own. The record has four of them, and by the time she aces
"Cry Me a River" and the title cut you're thinking tour de force,
but wondering about "Miss Otis Regrets." She finesses that one as
a slow torcher with a couple of weepy strings, a sigh of relief,
but she stays in torch mode for the rest of the album, a victim
of too many cooks and too little brains.
- Hironobu Saito: The Remaining 2% (2003 ,
Walter Smith's tenor sax and Darren Barrett's trumpet make their marks,
establishing this as somewhat to the left of mainstream, but their moves
don't differentiate easily from dozens of others. Besides, this is the
guitarist's record, and the horns in that respect are distracting. It
doesn't help that the guitarist has little to add on top of the usual
Montgomery-influenced lines. But I can't be certain: I'd like to hear
him in a context which focuses more on him, or I'd like to hear him
with a better saxophonist.
- Jody Sandhaus: A Fine Spring Morning (2004, CAP).
Not bad, but not very interesting either. She has a thin voice, which
can turn interesting in something like the noirish "Whatever Lola
Wants," but mostly doesn't grab you. Just done with piano-bass-drums,
including the excellent Peter Malinverni on piano.
- Moacir Santos: Ouro Negro (1965-92 , Adventure
It's tempting to think of Santos as some sort of Brazilian Quincy
Jones, although he certainly doesn't have Q's business skills. But
Santos is best known as as an arranger, composer and conductor,
usually working behind more luminous stars -- Milton Nascimento,
Gilberto Gil, João Bosco, and others sing a track each here. Santos
plays tenor sax, but rarely draws attention to himself. (In fact,
most of the sax here is played by others.) His own compositions are
typically titled "Thing #N" (with some number for N) and they are
remarkable for their simple and elegant texture -- the arranger's
art, viewed in its own right instead of as a means to the usual
ends of cranking out hits. This is all very mainstream music, but
outsiders rarely get a chance to see so clearly how it works.
- Basya Schechter: Queen's Dominion (2004, Tzadik).
She plays oud, Alan Kushan santur, Meg Okura violin, Jarrod Gagwin
percussion. The instrumentation is oriental, but the music itself
strikes me as a bit stiff, more European, as in Bach.
- Ben Schwendener/Marc Rossi: Living Geometry II Volumes
1 & 2 (2003 , Gravity, 2CD).
Aside from horns (Joe Maneri, Uwe Steinmetz) added to the last four
cuts, these two discs are banged out with two grand pianos. The two
pianos strike me as quasi-classical in their leanings, and the mesh
of such comparable sounds and styles doesn't much appeal to me.
Maneri's own style is closely connected to avant-classical ideas,
such as the use of serialist microtones, giving him a tightly
stuttering effect that I've always found to be a marginal pleasure
at best. I'm somewhat loathe to pan something I understand so
poorly, but I'm also disinclined to study it more carefully, other
than to note that some of it sounds possibly interesting.
- Tony Scott (1967 , Verve).
The clarinetist on a mission to seek out the future in the past,
exploring old jazz standards like Ellington and "My Funny Valentine"
and trans-Asian exotica with oud, dumbek and sitar. The repertoire
is split between two groups, one conventional, the other exotic;
as such it is tempted to fall into two parts, but the clarinet
binds them together, the search made palpable.
- Archie Shepp: I Know About the Life (1981 ,
- Archie Shepp: St. Louis Blues (1998 , PAO).
He sings on two covers, briefly, creakily, toward the end. He
plays everything slow, and his tone seems a bit fragile, like he's
getting old. Murray and Davis rarely emerge, although Davis' arco
solo on "Total Package" makes for some interesting interplay. The
record moves progressively into avant-garde territory, much like
he's intent on recapitulating the whole history of jazz, or at
least the flow that matters most to him.
- Shirim Klezmer Orchestra: Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer
Tale (2004, Tzadik).
Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" rendered as klezmer, narrated by Maurice
Sendak, performed by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra. Don't know whether to
laugh or cry here. The narration is full of explosive Yiddish, which
breaks the flow of the music. The music is further complicated by a
mapping scheme of instrument to character, where the tuba and trombone
have to double up in unison to pick up a straggler. Oy! Following the
tale is a job. But the story runs out after 11 cuts, leaving four
pieces of nicely orchestrated klezmer, with the same instruments,
presumably not with the same characters.
- James Silberstein: Song for Micaela (2004, CAP).
This is a fairly conservative post-bop guitar album, with Silberstein
making fast, elegant horn-like runs over spry rhythm, with friendly
guests like Randy Brecker and Eric Alexander, plus Carla Cook for a
vocal. This is Silberstein's first album. Don't know anything about
him, but this is consistently enjoyable.
- Yotam Silberstein Trio: The Arrival (2003 ,
Gilad Abro (bass) and Doron Tirosh (drums) also get billing on the
album cover, but the picture is centered on the young guitarist
leader. After months of complaining about Wes Montgomery-influenced
jazz guitarists, I have to admit that I like this one. Hard to say
just why: perhaps it has as much to do with the good cheer of his
cohorts as his own lean, delicate lines.
- Horace Silver: The United States of Mind (1970-72 ,
Blue Note, 2CD).
He always sounds like he's just come from church, but this time he
brought the choir with him, preaching and signifying, hell bent on
raising the race not to mention the rafters; focus on the words and
you're bound to lose faith, but your ass knows better.
- Sonny Simmons: Jewels (1991 , Boxholder).
The problem is that solo saxophone is inherently unlistenable. It just
produces one tone, and there's nothing to fill in or carry past the
breaks in the breathing. Bobby Watson got around these limitations by
doing a lot of short, melodic pieces. Anthony Braxton did the opposite,
to mixed reviews. Jimmy Lyons sounded much like he was practicing.
Simmons sounds like an average of those approaches: melodic fragments
embedded in pieces ranging from 8:40 to 19:00.
- Nina Simone: For Lovers (1964-87 , Verve).
As absurb a concept as awarding Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize,
but they still should have been able to come up with something more
amorous than "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" -- nor does piling the
strings on help.
- Zoot Sims With the Joe Castro Trio: Live at Falcon Lair
(1956 , Pablo).
Seems strange to hear Sims playing alto sax. In his hands the horn is
lighter and airier, devoid of the bright shine of someone like Art
Pepper. However, in the end Sims' tremendous sense of swing comes
- Jimmy Smith: Home Cookin' (1959 , Blue Note).
Same old chitlins, cornbread and collard greens, but a rare guest
appearance from r&b saxophonist Percy France (the "5" Royales,
Bill Doggett) is as fine as sweet potato pie.
- Joe Smith: Melodic Workshop (2003 , Fresh Sound).
Drummer led, with a second drummer (Jorge Rossy), two quality saxophones,
keyboards and electric bass, this fits the "workshop" concept by trying
to be a little bit of everything. Smartly conceived postbop, for the
most part, but sandwiched inside are slower, more densely harmonic
experiments, which I find less satisfying. Last song adds a vocal
group, again to thicken the harmony -- again, who cares?
- Doctor Lonnie Smith: Too Damn Hot! (2004, Palmetto).
Not really: too damn cool is closer to the mark, even on the title song.
Smith's organ is agreeably funky without getting into the grease. He's
joined by two guitarists, with Rodney Jones getting the backseat "rhythm"
credit and Peter Bernstein the leads. Drums too, split evenly between
Greg Hutchinson and Fukushi Tainaka.
- Stuff Smith: Cat on a Hot Fiddle (1959 , Verve).
Jaunty violin leads over swing tunes -- seven (of eleven) of them
vintage Gershwins. Two vocals that barely register. Impeccable, of
course, but the degree of difficulty is near zero.
- Wadada Leo Smith: Kabell Years 1971-1979 (,
From Albert Ayler to Pharoah Sanders to Peter Brötzmann, the avant-garde
in the '60s was enthralled by the idea of pushing limits, of generating
a louder and more discordant sound than ever before. They proved their
point, leaving the next generation with a big problem: now what? Free
jazz no longer a goal in the '70s; it was an assumption, but thus far
its meaning could only be defined by what it was not. Into this void
came the theoreticians -- the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Muhal Richard
Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins. Smith came out of those same
circles, working with Braxton and Jenkins as the Creative Construction
Company, recording with Abrams and Marion Brown. During the '70s Smith's
own work appeared on his Kabell Recods, his own label. Only now has a
sizable chunk of it appeared on CD. Of the four CDs, two are solo
works or trumpet and/or percussion, the other two small groups -- one
with Oliver Lake on flute and sax, both with Anthony Davis on piano.
The solo works are shot full of holes, silence being part of Smith's
rhythmic arsenal. The groups are more expansive. Nothing here is
particularly fun to play, but often it is fascinating to listen to.
Smith's later records, even the solo Red Sulphur Sky (2001,
Tzadik), have grown more lyrical, and he's added another dimension
to his work with projects like Yo Miles! But this is one of the key
documents of the gestation of what they could only call creative
- Magali Souriau Trio: Petite Promenade (2003 ,
Soft set, with piano, bass, and tenor/soprano sax. Souriau is credited
with vocals on four tracks, but she doesn't sing much -- the vocals are
more like ad-libs, only slightly more coherent than Keith Jarrett's
grunts. The originals seem tentative and underdone, but it doesn't
hurt to listen closely. Interspersed are pieces by Monk, Ellington,
Satie, and others, which are more overtly shaped -- although it is
interesting that "Caravan" comes off sounding more like one of Monk's.
Chris Cheek plays sax, and mostly keeps it in the background. The
word of the day here is subtle.
- Michael Jefry Stevens & Michael Rabinowitz: Play
Drimala's releases recently have mostly been duets, a meeting ground
for a pair of avant-gardists to improvise in a polite, intimate setting.
This is a pretty self-limiting process, limiting both risk and reward.
Occasionally something snaps together and works nicely, but not often.
Still, the intimacy is a blessing -- a chance to listen and learn. I
have heard of but don't otherwise know these two musicians. Rabinowitz
is one of only two jazz musicians I'm aware of who tries to make his
living off bassoon. Stevens is a British pianist, well regarded by
the Penguin Guide even though they dropped him from the latest
edition. Reminds me a bit of Borah Bergman at his most introspective,
but (here at least) that's about all of his game that he shows. The
bassoon has never made it as a jazz instrument. I don't know what to
make of Rabinowitz, but he doesn't put it on the map here. A pleasant,
sort of noodling, record.
- Robert Stewart: Heaven and Earth (2003 ,
Bill Norwood's vocals on a little less than half the cuts here aren't
much of a blessing. He sings in an old-fashioned '50s style: a strong,
masculine baritone, a little musclebound in the larynx. When he takes
on a song from the Luther Vandross songbook he reminds you how much
more supple and sexy Vandross is. Stewart's tenor saxophone is also
a throwback to the '50s: reminds me of someone like Bill Perkins, a
west coast guy with a similarly buttery tone. Stewart's backup to the
vocals is expert; his solos are close enough to sublime that it's
impossible to get too agitated. There were far worse singers back
in the '50s.
- Sticks and Stones: Shed Grace (2004, Thrill Jockey).
The weak link in this Chicago trio is Matana Roberts, whose alto sax
as well as clarinet feel like they've been piped in from down the hall.
Josh Abrams has a solid showing on bass, and Chad Taylor has a field
day on drums. It's like they're aiming for something transworld like
the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, but their chops keep dragging them back
to the avant-garde. Still, sometimes Roberts' frailness pays off, as
in his shrunken head version of "Isfahan."
- Joan Stiles: Love Call (1998-2002 , Zoho).
An album of arrangements for standards, barely tipping into the bop
era with Clifford Brown's "Daahoud" and her one original, the
Monk-inspired "Spherical," featuring her piano and various guest
horns -- notably Clark Terry or Warren Vaché on trumpet, Frank
West on tenor sax. Everything is nicely done, and Stiles' piano
is rich and vibrant, but the arrangements break so little ground
that you wind up wondering why bother?
- Loren Stillman Quartet: How Sweet It Is (2001 ,
Stillman's alto sax has a rather eery, hollow sound, more like clarinet
than the bright sonorities that we are used to. His songs extend that
sound, sometimes darkly ("Chicken"), sometimes delicately (title song).
He makes ambitious postmodern jazz -- not avant, not bop, not anything
I particularly recognize, which may mean that he's trying to orchestrate
this more along classical music lines (something I know nothing about).
I find it all daunting and confusing; perhaps that's why I'm still
uncomfortable and a bit unpleased with what appears to be a rather
high level of accomplishment.
- Rick Stone: Samba de Novembro (2004, Jazzand).
The title samba is a lovely piece, lilting guitar over a rhythm section
including Tardo Hammer on piano. In fact, it's all quite nice, but what
if that's all there is to it?
- John Surman: Rarum Vol. XIII: Selected Recordings
(1976-99 , ECM).
Surman's early career is notable here in its absence, although one
cut from Barre Phillips' Mountainscapes, the earliest piece
here, provides a taste. That early work remains only fitfully in
print (aside from John McLaughlin's Extrapolation), but his
trio (err, The Trio) with Phillips and Stu Martin was exemplary.
When he got to ECM he toned down quite a bit, and sometimes his
work feels like it's in a rut. Several pieces here are just
rudimentary synth tracks that he laid down and plays over, and
one dispenses with the synth altogether. Still, Surman is a
master on baritone and soprano sax and bass clarinet, and he's
distinctive and innovative on each. Still, his own work here
feels almost clinical, and more ambitious settings with brass
band or string quartet don't amount to much more than backdrops.
It's worth noting that the two pieces from other people's albums
are among the best, and that there's a lot more when they came
from. He's a major player, but he's tough to digest.
- Tierney Sutton: Dancing in the Dark (2004, Telarc).
A stroll through Frank Sinatra's songbook, a serious undertaking with
a lot of gravitas, not to mention dead weight. The singer's voice
carries a good deal of that weight, the piano-bass-drums combo does
little to lift it, and the string-heavy orchestra paves over any
open spaces they find with quick setting concrete. None of this is
enough to destroy songs as indelible as "All the Way" or "Where or
When," but "Only the Lonely" has never sounded drearier, and that's
more typical. One brief ray of hope here is a "Fly Me to the Moon"
that seems to suit her.
- Natsuki Tamura: Ko Ko Ko Ke (2003 , NatSat).
Solo trumpet, most of which plays soft and slow, interspersed with
vocal bits. I suspect that someone who understands the Japanese
might take these as koans wrapped in trumpet, whereas "interspersed"
is the necessary description of one who cannot fathom a word. The
slow pacing undercuts any drama in the music itself, and gives
little opportunity to exhibit technique -- tone is about it. So
this is particularly hard to judge, its redemption mostly in the
contemplative spirit that seems to suffuse it.
- Giulia Valle Group: Colorista (2004, Fresh Sound).
Intermittently interesting album, but it runs into what's become one
of my pet peeves: twin saxophone leads, almost always playing lines
matched for harmonic effect. Valle plays bass and composed everything
here but an Ornette Coleman tune.
- Sarah Vaughan: Love Songs (1949-53 ,
Her Columbia recordings, with their lush but utterly swingless
orchestration, were her pedestal period: she was the perfect singer
("a startlingly pure contralto with a four-octave range") bathed in
adulation like decadent royalty; I can't stand those records, but this
one is short and ends with two cuts caressed by Miles Davis' trumpet.
- The Ben Waltzer Trio: One Hundred Dreams Ago (2003
, Fresh Sound).
Waltzer is a good, sensible pianist, and this trio recording is solid
and inventive and impressive from stem to stern. The original "Our
Rhythm" kicks off quickly; he slows down quite a bit for "Hymn and
the Blues Up High," which gets by on lyricism. I noticed that Waltzer
wrote a long and very fine piece on Ahmad Jamal, evidently for the
N.Y. Times, and that seems to slot Waltzer reasonably well.
This is his fourth album in Fresh Sound's New Talent series.
- Ben Webster: For Lovers (1954-64 , Verve).
The slowest songs they could find, which except for the one with
strings are little more than the big man breathing, sighing, wooing
through his horn, with a vibrato as thick and luxurious as mink.
- Doug Wieselman: Dimly Lit: Collected Soundtracks 1996-2002
Soundtrack-type stuff, little melodic fragments, mood pieces, odds and ends.
Wieselman is credited with "all instruments" except for a short list; his
main instruments seem to be guitar and clarinet. Nice stuff, but I find
it becoming less interesting over time, as is often the case with
- Jack Wilson: Easterly Winds (1967 , Blue Note).
Hard bop, the three horns tending to blend together, with only Lee
Morgan making much of an impression. But then it's the pianist's album.
Reminds me of similar work by Duke Pearson and Horace Parlan, not to
mention Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. All of those guys recorded
piano-based, horn-drenched hard bop albums for Blue Note in the '60s.
Wilson is a good pianist, but doesn't quite have the distinctive touch
of the others, and the horns make the distinctions even more marginal.
Unless, that is, they carry the day, which here they don't.
- Nancy Wilson: R.S.V.P. (2004, MCG Jazz).
With featured one-shot guests on eight or nine of twelve cuts -- depends
on how you count, and I'm not counting the "All-Star Big Band," where
the only stars I recognize are Rufus Reid and Lewis Nash; the quibble
involves Phil Woods, who appears twice, once with the Big Band and once
with Toots Thielemans -- this is contemporary marketing at work. Still,
it's surprising how little impression the guests leave: Gary Burton
doesn't even get a solo, Paquito D'Rivera's song is so slow that anyone
could have played his clarinet, every line Ivan Lins sings gets topped
instantly. George Shearing and Phil Woods fare a little better, and the
big band is rock solid, but the focus is tight on Wilson. She sings
exceptionally well here, for what that's worth. Most of the songs are
excruciatingly slow, and she endows them with remarkable nuance and
feeling. Moreover, the songs don't do much other than to showcase
Wilson's technique. I'm impressed, but not much pleased.
- World Saxophone Quartet: Experience (2004, Justin Time).
If Hendrix's songs were just scaffolds for great guitar, why not great
sax? The group has been fleshed out here with drums (Gene Lake), bass
guitar (Matthew Garrison), violin (Billy Bang) and trombone (Craig
Harris, also credited with didgeridoo and spoken word, which mostly
amounts to "foxy lady"). That gives them what they've always needed,
with is a bottom, a beat, and some sonic differentiation. (Otherwise,
the saxes, even given the richness of the interplay, often seem much
too much the same color.) Not a complete success, in part because it
too complicated for Hendrix's songs, which worked just fine in the
simplest of trios.
[NB: reviewed by Francis Davis in Voice.]
- Yohimbe Brothers: The Tao of Yo (2004, Thirsty Ear).
Not clearly marked as part of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, although you
have to figure that Matthew Shipp digs it. Vernon Reid and DJ Logic,
plus the good and evil folks at GoodandEvil (Christian Castagno, Danny
Blume). Perhaps less striking than the first Yohimbe Bros. album, but
more pointed politically: "Party people in the place to be. We going
broke to the sounds of the GOP. Starting to feel it in the streets
cocaine prices higher than Cheech. You know it's bad when drug dealers
can't eat." Some pieces like "30 Spokes" are just instrumental minis.
They take a latin twist on "Pistolas," of which they have none. And
they got the line on TV: "Got my TV! That's all I Need! Got My TV!
I Don't need to read! . . . I got my TV and a big old chair! Got my
TV! I don't care."
[NB: CG by Robert Christgau in Voice.]
- Denny Zeitlin: Slickrock (2004, MaxJazz).
Seems like a real solid, albeit conventional, piano trio. Fast, sure
action. Real good rhythm section.
Friday, February 11, 2005
Poking my way through Pazz & Jop ballots, running across some
possibly interesting people:
- David Adler: all jazz, 2-3 I like, 4 I haven't heard: Craig
Taborn, Andrew Hill, Fly, Steve Lehman, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Nels Cline,
Louis Sclavis, Geri Allen, John McNeil, Claudia Acuna.
- Don Allred: eclectic but mostly old: Haunted Weather,
Steinski, Arthur Russell, Albert Ayler, DNA, Notekillers, Nicky Siano;
makes me wonder about Texas Terri Bomb.
- A.D. Amorosi: all over: Tinariwen, Notekillers, Orchestra
Del Sierto, DFA, Albert Ayler, Diplo, Lady Saw, Nancy Sinatra.
- Larry Blumenfeld: mostly jazz: Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins,
Andy Bey, Bebo & Cigala, Moacir Santos, Don Byron, Joe Lovano,
Alice Coltrane; also: Youssou N'Dour, Bjork, Carl Hancock Rux.
- Jon Caramanica: mostly hip-hop, some country (Julie Roberts,
- Jeff Chang: mostly underground (excepting Jill Scott and
Joni Mitchell), including Build an Ark, Danger Mouse, DFA, DJ Nuts,
Konomo No. 1, Maroons; two old obscures: Lif Up Yuh Leg An Trample,
- Samuel Chennault: all rap, left to underground: Madvillain,
Nas, Ghostface, Cam'ron, De La Soul, Mos Def, Murs, Dizzee Rascal,
Wiley, Third Unheard.
- Nate Chinen: jazz writer, but no jazz on pretty mainstream
list: Brian Wilson, Nellie McKay, Kanye West, Franz Ferdinand, Bjork,
TV on the Radio, Shins, Dizzee Rascal, Modest Mouse, Rilo Kiley. How
mainstream? Ranks #15 on McDonald list.
- Steve Dollar: mostly jazz (Cooper-Moore, Jenny Scheinman,
Tony Malaby, Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins, Steven Bernstein, Dave
Burrell), plus Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Jolie Holland, Youssou N'Dour.
- Banning Eyre: all African (as far as I know): Youssou N'Dour,
Shiyani Ngcobo, Ba Cissoko, Daara J, Eva Ayllon, Gangbe Brass Band,
Lobi Traore, Tinariwen, Mory Kante, Papa Wemba.
- Lee Froehlich: mix of jazz (Vandermark 5, Jenny Scheinman)
and country (Alan Jackson, Stanley Brothers), plus Nas and stuff I
- Jesse Fuchs: mostly CG picks, with extra credit for Magnetic
Fields and the Naysayer, but #1 is Harmonix: Karaoke Revolution
Vol. 3, which as far as I can tell belongs on some kind of game
- Lee Hildebrand: two trad jazz picks (Wynton Marsalis, Dr.
Michael White), Blind Boys of Alabama, Duke Robillard, Mavis Staples,
bad fusion (Jing Chi).
- Christian Hoard: for a guy who reviews a lot of hip-hop
for Rolling Stone, it's interesting that all he picks here are Kanye
West, Madvillain and Dizzee Rascal. Ranked #79 on McDonald list,
below RS's higher editors (#26 Nathan Brackett, #40 Joe Levy), but
above RS's designated outer-bounds scout (#176 David Fricke).
- Eugene Holley Jr: all jazz, mostly world-ish: Alice Coltrane,
Matthew Shipp, Moacir Santos, Bebo & Cigala, Conrag Herwig, Buyu
Ambroise, Soweto Kinch, David Sanchez, Joe Sample, Great Jazz Trio.
- Dave Hucker: mostly afro-latin: Ruben Blades, Ska Cubano,
Orchestra Bembeya, Sur Caribe, Riba Dempel, Ray Santiago, Los
Van Van, Tirso Duarte, Puerto Rican Masters, Edwin Bonilla.
- Edd Hurt: two Archeophone albums, old Howard Tate, James
Brown Soul on Top; Montgomery Gentry?
- Robin James: mostly jazz, mostly stuff I missed but didn't
worry about: Bill Banfield, Diego Urcola, Eric Alexander, Fay Victor,
Frank Kimbrough, Lafayette Gilchrist, Queen Latifah, Russell Gunn,
Stefon Harris, Wynton Marsalis.
- Mark Jenkins: some African (Youssou N'Dour, Tinariwen,
Daby Toure, Rokia Traoré; should we count Richard Crandell: Mbira
Magic?); the Ex (a record I like a lot), the Libertines (didn't
like the first one), things I don't know but might be interesting:
the Delays, Q and Not U, Wiley.
- Robert Kaye: tied for bottom of McDonald's critical consensus
list, which means he picks shit nobody else likes -- in this case mostly
Eurocentric jazz fusion (Bill Bruford, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin,
Jeff Berlin, Trilok Gurtu, Renaud Garcia-Fons), some stuff I don't
recognize (Piloto & Klimax, Ostblocket). He's tied with Ethan
Padgett (hip-hop, some as well known as Ja Rule and Silkk the Shocker)
and Aurora Flores (latin, never heard of any of them). Jeffrey Morgan
missed the bottom by 0.1, and offhand I can't tell you why -- never
heard of anyone on his ballot, and can't even discern a genre pattern.
- Glenn Kenny: half-old: DNA, Notekillers, Albert Ayler,
Fripp & Eno, Red Krayola, Arthur Russell; more mainstream: Brian
Wilson, Madvillain, Sonic Youth, Franz Ferdinand.
- Marty Lipp: wide world: Ojos de Brujo, Ozomatli, Angelique
Kidjo, Omara Portuondo, Radio Tarifa, Sharon Shannon, Youssou N'Dour,
Mercan Dede, Asteriskos, Rokia Traore.
- Cameron MacDonald: electronica (Fennesz, Bizz Circuits,
Soft Pink Truth, DJ Olive, Ultra-Red), more exotic things (Haunted
Weather, Cambodian Cassette Archives).
- Jim Macnie: jazz writer (Louis Perdomo, Magali Souriau,
Keren Ann, Bad Plus, Jenny Scheinman); Rilo Kiley, Brian Wilson,
Youssou N'Dour, Loretta Lynn, Nellie McKay.
- Michaelangelo Matos: eclectic list, less than half in his
usual electronica field (United State of Electronica, DFA, Streets).
- Greil Marcus: a guy who believes in ballot stuffing, I
think he's always given his #1 record the maximum 30 points; this
year it's the Mendoza Line. I get the reference, which is one
reason why it's never inspired me to investigate further.
- Milo Miles: wide-ranging: J.U.F., Tinariwen, De La Soul,
Drive-By Truckers, Mastodon, Nellie McKay, Maria Schneider, Beautiful
Dreamer, Buddy Miller, Elliott Smith.
- Seth Mnookin: some jazz (Don Byron, Brad Mehldau, Masada
String Trio); Talking Heads reissue.
- Sonia Murray: mostly soul (Van Hunt, Usher, Jill Scott,
John Legend, Isley Brothers; close to Roots, Saul Williams); also
- Dan Ouellette: mostly jazz, mixed bag including that awful
Saxophone Summit album; non-jazz choices: Jonatha Brooke, Citizen Cope.
- Nate Patrin: interesting mix of underground rap and dance
things: RJD2, Devin the Dude, Dizzee Rascal, MF Doom, Sonic Youth,
Ghostface, M.I.A./Diplo, Dungen, Jason Forrest, Hold Steady; shades
of Matos here.
- Steve Pick: one jazz album: Charlie Haden (the year's most
lovely); mostly Americana (or Canadiana, as the case may be).
- Daniel Piotrowski: presumably the head of High Two records,
but didn't push any of his own albums, not even the one I had at #1,
or any jazz for that matter; looks to mostly be alt-rock (Modest
Mouse, Clinic, Loretta Lynn, same thing this year).
- Michael Point: not-very-inteesting jazz (Kahil El'Zaber/David
Murray, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Keith Jarrett, Roy Hargrove, Medeski
et al.), blues, Tom Waits, Los Lonely Boys.
- Derk Richardson: some jazz (Patricia Barber, Miles Davis,
Nels Cline), African (Rokia Traoré), Jon Langford, Sam Phillips,
Ghost, Devendra Banhart, who is Kathryn Williams?
- Matt Rogers: African (Antibalas, Rokia Traore, Youssou
N'Dour), latin (Johnny Colon, Pucho), jazz (Build an Ark), old soul
(Wheedle's Grove, Baby Huey Story), Roots.
- Jody Beth Rosen: four picks from Sublime Frequencies, plus
Unclassics (Environ), Popular Electronics (Basta), Volga
Select: So Young But So Cold (Tigersushi); nothing more mainstream
than Fiery Furnaces and Walkmen.
- Mike Rubin: Masada String Trio, Arthur Russell, Joanna
Newsom, !!!, Devendra Banhart (twice), Ada; Sami Koivikko?
- Gene Seymour: all jazz, pretty mainstream: Maria Schneider,
Geri Allen, Don Byron, Chris Potter, Madeleine Peyroux, Nellie McKay,
Luciana Souza, Branford Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Alice Coltrane.
- Tom Smucker: max votes for Smile, no surprise there;
Souad Massi, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Iris DeMent, Maria Rita, Gretchen Wilson,
Bonnie Koloc, Paula Morelenbaum, Ben Harper, Ruben Blades; Smith and
Morelenbaum are good albums that I didn't think interesting enough to
take seriously, but I like it that someone connected with them.
- Eric Snider: half jazz (Dave Douglas Strange Liberation,
Bill Frisell, Greg Osby, Steven Bernstein), two Fat Possums, otherwise
- Jeremy Tepper: mostly Americana (Wilco, Elvis C. the biggest
stretches; Gretchen Wilson, Loretta Lynn, Steve Earle, Drive-By Truckers
are all fair game), including Jack Clement and tributes to Johnny
Paycheck and Wanda Jackson.
- K. Leander Williams: Jon Langford, Todd Snider, Tinariwen,
Bebo & Cigala, Youssou N'Dour, Mekons, Buddy Miller, Nellie McKay,
Dave Douglas (Bow River Falls), Super Mama Djombo; the eight
I know are A-list (sure, I have McKay at B+, but chances are I've
underrated her), the other two are Christgau A-list African albums
I haven't gotten to yet; the two non-Christgau A-list albums are
on mine; one of the few ballots which lifts everything listed.
Some records I ought to find out more about:
- Bizz Circuits: Intifada Offspring, Vol. 1 (Mille Plateaux Media)
- Chamillionaire: King Koopa: The Mixtape Messiah (Chamilitary)
- DJ Nuts: Cultura Copia (Mochilla/Wax Poetics)
- Dogs Die in Hot Cars: Please Describe Yourself (V2)
- Jolie Holland: Escondida (Anti-)
- Monk Hughes & the Outer Realm: A Tribute to Brother Weldon (Stones Throw)
- Sami Koivikko: Salmiakki (Shitkatapult)
- Texas Terri Bomb!: Your Lips . . . My Ass! (TKO)
I want to reiterate and extend one of my comments that was printed,
rather off topic, in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop comments:
One problem is that even trying to fix various problems is likely
to, at least in the short term, make them worse. And it's hard not to
get blamed for that. A big case is fairly simple: the US is able to
run consistent long-term trade deficits, because the world likes
dollars, and capitalists around the world find it attractive to
reinvest those dollars mostly in the US, mostly because the US is
regarded as a safe and lucrative place for capitalist investment. Any
effort we make to change tax and regulatory policy will reduce the
capital inflows that make up for the trade deficits. If that happens
US trade preferences will suffer, and credit status (the US is the
world's largest debtor nation) may get hit even worse. These cycles
are so deeply embedded that they would crash the US economy. On the
other hand surrendering control over public policy to the capitalists
causes all sorts of other problems, including long-term impoverishment
that will eventually lead to violence and rampant criminality. In the
long term those are, I think, bigger problems, but how do you campaign
on a program of short-term pain?
What I should have added to this is to point out the example set
by the music industry. Something close to 80% of the records sold in
the U.S. come from "the majors" -- now just four companies, with the
merger of Sony and BMG. None of these four companies are what you'd
think of as American owned. The largest, Universal, is part of Vivendi,
which is headquartered in France. Sony is Japanese and BMG is German,
so the merged company is something like that, with Sony most likely
the dominant partner. EMI is English. WEA was carved off from
AOL/Time-Warner and sold for several billion dollars to one of
the Bronfmanns, so that makes the controlling interest Canadian.
Each of these has sucked up dozens of previously independent labels,
building up huge portfolios of copyrights. The U.S. movie industry
is similarly under foreign ownership.
Not that U.S. ownership would make any real difference to you or
me, but it does have an effect when it comes to repatriating profits.
For many years U.S. companies have invested a lot of money in the
rest of the world, and have brought home a lot of profits from those
investments. (Although they've also parked a lot of them in the
Bahamas and elsewhere.) As foreign companies buy up assets in the
U.S., they expect to do the same -- i.e., to suck money back out of
the country. Everyone involved has every reason to try to keep these
processes relatively stable, which is why it's in their interest to
keep the money going in and going out relatively balanced, but if
the ship starts listing it'll be every capitalist for himself --
It's probably more correct to view these capital flows as between
classes instead of between nations -- the dominant flow is to the
rich from everyone else, which is clearly shown by the eagnerness
of the U.S. Congress to extend copyright grants that nowadays mostly
benefit foreign proprietors. But the national flows are still worth
looking at, because they imply great risks to those people who work
within a nation, as opposed to the capitalists who've largely escaped
national limits. The news today is that the U.S. trade deficit rose
24.4% in 2004, to an all-time high of $617.7 billion. That's three
straight record-setting years for the Bush administration.
The Associated Press article attributed this to "soaring oil
prices and Americans' insatiable appetite for everything foreign,
from cars to toys to food." The latter point strikes me as pretty
dubious: only by looking at the fine print does one realize that
most of what's on sale at WalMart is foreign-made, and that the
share is increasing year-by-year. The deficit with China is up
30.5% to $162 billion, which includes no oil and no big ticket
items like cars or heavy machinery, but includes an awful lot of
WalMart. It's also worth noting that these trade surpluses are
occurring at the same time as the dollar is sinking to new lows.
That, of course, is part of the problem, in that it makes foreign
goods cost more, but all we hear from economists is how the low
dollar helps American exports. It probably would help, if American
business was trying to export, but most businesses still find it
cheaper to replace their manufacturing with imports.
As I stated in my quote, reversing these trends is likely to
be painful. Which most likely will be cause for denial now, and
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Serious lapse in my ability to get any writing done. Down with a sore
throat last week. Feels more like a nasty head cold right now, lots of
sinous agony. Couldn't get into doctor's office on Friday, so had to wait
until Monday, during which time things got worse. Even then diagnosis was
just a guess: throat looks red, exposed to strept throat, ergo prescribe
amoxycillin. Got a belated flue shot since I was there and they had a
surplus. Perhaps there's some weird interaction, if not there then with
something else, since I've been miserable ever since.
Needed to set up some new software on webserver yesterday, which was
incompatible with rev level of other software on server, and impossible
for me to fix. Spent yesterday and all day today struggling with that.
Websites up and more/less working, but mail still broken. New operating
system rev uses postfix instead of sendmail -- not that I ever really
understood sendmail, but postfix is totally new.
Jimmy Smith died today. About time I finally played Retrospective,
the 4CD set Blue Note released last year.
The Village Voice's annual "Pazz & Jop" Critics
Poll came out this week. It's the last and biggest of the year-end
pop polls, with 793 critics casting 100 points for ten albums each,
plus a somewhat simpler poll for singles a/k/a songs. I have
connections to this on several levels. Most commonly, I vote in
it. Voters are invited to submit comments, which are then plundered to
fill out the section. Partly because it suits my temperament to sort
things out and sum things up, and partly because it's an opportunity
to push some lines of thought that I don't get to indulge in otherwise
(especially in my other writing for the Voice), I tend to go overboard
in my own comments -- got
four excerpts this year. I'm also connected in that I slurp up parts
of the poll to post on Robert Christgau's website. Finally, this year the
editors finally let me peek at the results ahead of time, which
allowed me to identify a bunch of errors in their initial sort of the
In previous years I've tried my hand at various ways of analyzing
the P&J data. This has become interesting since the Voice started
posting each individual ballot, so we can actually connect records to
voters. Haven't had time to do any of that this year, but some other people
have taken a whack at it. In particular, Glenn McDonald has calculated
alignment rankings again this year. This is designed to sort the
voters by how much in tune they are with the final results (the
critical consensus). I came in #519 (out of 793), which means my
choices ran a bit more esoteric than the average critic. Had I been
able to restrain myself from voting for Brian Wilson and Rilo Kiley I
would have been much closer to the bottom of the list. (I had actually
considered just that -- not to be esoteric but knowing that those
albums would get plenty of votes anyway, I was tempted to at least
register something worthwhile but bound to be passed up.)
To recap my votes, only this time the bracketed number is the total
number of voters for the record:
- Sonic Liberation Front: Ashé a Go-Go (High Two) 
- Le Tigre: This Island (Universal) 
- Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss (Thirsty Ear) 
- Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute) 
- Vandermark 5: Elements of Style . . . Exercises in Surprise (Atavistic) 
- Brian Wilson: SMiLE (Nonesuch) 
- David Murray & the Gwo-Ka Masters: Gwotet (Justin Time) 
- Pipi Skid: Funny Farm (Peanuts & Corn) 
- Todd Snider: East Nashville Skyline (Oh Boy) 
- Capital D: Insomnia (All Natural) 
One thing being able to track back the voters means is that you can
figure out who agrees with you. Ignoring Wilson (which probably
intersects heavily with Rilo Kiley anyway), the following critics had
at least two of my records on their lists: Robert Christgau, Carla
DeSantis, Keith Harris, Dylan Hicks, Danny Hooley, Robert Johnson,
Michael Lach, Craig Marks, Britt Robson, Michael Tatum (3!). I only
know two of these people (Christgau and Tatum), and there's some
connection there -- it probably took both of them to egg me into
buying Rilo Kiley (they also got to Snider and Wilson first, and Tatum
turned me onto Le Tigre, while I turned Tatum onto Vandermark. Still,
these are low-grade statistics, which I believe are mostly due to the
top ten constriction -- an artifact from the '70s origins of the poll,
I'd say. I tried constructing a similar poll for people on the
Christgau website mailing list where I allowed voters to list as many
records as they liked, allotting 3 votes each for #11-20, 2 votes each
for #21-30, and 1 vote each thereafter. Those polls were limited by a
small number of voters, plus most voters were non-critics (the critics
average more than 50 records, while the non-critics, and these are
still serious fans, averaged less than 30). The last time I ran that
poll was 2003 -- you can see the results here.
My actual year-end A-list came to 129 records this year, up from 96
the year before. Big difference is that I listened to a lot more jazz
this time around. That took up so much time that I didn't manage to
hear many albums in the P&J consensus: I've heard 6 of the top 10,
10 of the top 20, 16 of the top 40. Unfortunately, we don't have any
data on how that ranks vs. the rest of the critics -- few of whom, I'm
sure, have heard Pipi Skid or Capital D, Shipp or Vandermark, let
alone SLF. One thing that every such poll measures whether it admits
it or not is how much exposure critics have had to various
records. And that works at several levels, including the distribution
of critics' interests as well as the companies' publicity
largesse. Sure, quality counts for something, but only among records
Monday, February 07, 2005
This from an interview with Michael Pollan reprinted on
He understood that journalism, in this country, is largely licensed
by politicians, by the leadership of the two political parties.
What do you mean by "licensed"?
Sanctioned. I mean that if points of view are not represented in
the circle of mainstream Congressional opinion, they do not have a
Can you give an example?
Look at an issue I know something about, genetic engineering. Why
was its introduction into our food supply not a contested fight in
Over labeling that would say that the food was genetically
About labeling, but also, before that, about whether we should even
approve this technology. The reason there was not a fight is because
both political parties were on board for it. The Republicans were
predictably pro-business and anti-regulation. And the Democrats had
allied themselves with the biotechnology industry, had picked it as
one of the growth industries in the early 1990s. Also, the biotech
industry, in the person of Robert Shapiro, the president of Monsanto,
was very close to Clinton and his administration.
The key moment, when the rules and regulations were being decided
for the industry, came at the end of the first Bush administration and
the beginning of the first Clinton administration. Both parties agreed
that the industry should proceed with as little regulation as
possible. The result was that biotech was introduced with no political
debate and remarkably little journalistic attention.
The larger meaning here is that mainstream journalists simply
cannot talk about things that the two parties agree on; this is the
black hole of American politics. Genetically modified crops were in
the black hole until the Europeans reacted so strongly against them;
then we began to have a little bit of politics around the issue, but
still not very much. The things journalists should pay attention to
are the issues the political leadership agrees on, rather than to
their supposed antagonisms.
War, for one?
War, definitely. Globalization is another example. There's a bit of
a split now in the Democratic Party over free trade. But, essentially,
both parties agreed to sign on to GATT and the WTO and those kinds of
agreements. And you scarcely read a critical word about free trade in
the New York Times during that period of complete collusion.
It's easy to name lots of other issues like this. My big one is
the War on Terror, which I contend is utterly bogus from the git-go,
but nobody questions it because nobody legitimate questions it. On
the other hand, people considered legitimate can stretch the bands
of big media discourse. Bush does this all the time: after all, did
the media get worked up back when Peter G. Peterson was the only one
out there crying about the impending bankruptcy of Social Security?
I suspect that this is all a consequence of reporters chasing
politicians' tails, as opposed to looking for real stories. But
then how does a reporter recognize a real story? Politicians act
as a filter for the news as much as the news filters politicians.
This has some interesting implications for political change: one
is that ideas won't enter the mainstream media unless you can get
politicians or other legitimate leaders to espouse them. Another,
I suspect, is that third parties -- attractive because they have
a low threshhold to run -- can never succeed in putting an idea
into the mainstream media, because they're never recognized as
newsworthy (i.e., legitimate) movements.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Music: Initial count 10219  rated (+36), 903  unrated (+1).
Had a rather unproductive week, but resorted to playing a lot of old
non-work jazz and cleaning up the dregs of the reissues queue -- things
like Jane Olivor and Jim Nabors -- and working all day today, so I
wound up with a pretty high rated count anyway. Finished a Recycled
Goods -- allegedly January's. Most urgent need is to get Jazz Consumer
Guide finished, for which I have a bunch of rated albums that I haven't
written reviews of yet, so that's likely to chew up this week.
- Beequeen: The Bodyshop (2003-04 , Important).
AMG lists them as "dream pop" -- indeed, many of their instrumental
segments have a shimmering, dreamy quality to them. Group is basically
a duo with Frans De Waard (sounds and electronics) and Freek Kinkelaar
(instruments, sounds and electronics). They seem to be from the
Netherlands, and their website lists a discography going back to
1990, but this is only their second album listed at AMG. Interesting,
but the emphasis is on sounds, not music, which makes it a little
too obscurantist for my taste. B
- Big & Rich: Horse of a Different Color (2004,
Warner Bros.). A change of pace in a year when either: a) Nashville
abandoned the common man, or (more likely) b) the common man had his
head stuck ever deeper up his ass. Some of the jokes are great ones,
and there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the attitude. Too bad
not all the songs are up to snuff. B+
- Joanne Brackeen Trio: Power Talk (1994, Turnipseed
Music). With Ira Coleman and Tony Reedus. She's playing fast. Really
- Can: Future Days (1973 , Mute/Spoon). The title
song bears an uncanny resemblance to the Clash's "Lost in the Supermarket":
it came earlier, has the same beat, and the lyrics are buried deep enough
in the mix that you can sing the Clash's song to it. The whole album is
like that, more or less: Holger Czukay's bass sets up tight little riddims
which everyone else fills into -- it would take a geologist to sort the
strata out. Damo Suzuki's vocals are barely there, just another seam of
coal or whatever. B+
- Can: Ege Bamyasi (1972 , Mute/Spoon). Earlier,
a bit more song-oriented, a bit more punk, more rough spots, but otherwise
similar. These are possibly important albums, although at the moment they
seem more transitional: experimental for their times, pathbreaking even,
but we've moved on, haven't we? B+
- The Birth of a Dream: Capitol's Early Hits (1942-49
, Capitol). Released on the 50th anniversary of Capitol Records'
founding, this gives us an interesting baseline for one of America's
most important labels during the 1950's. First hit: "Cow Cow Boogie"
by Ella Mae Morse. Second: Paul Whiteman's "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo."
Third: Tex Ritter's "Jingle Jangle Jingle." The big band records move
on to Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton. The c&w includes Jack Guthrie
("Oklahoma Hills"), Merle Travis, Tex Williams, Jimmy Wakely and
Tennessee Ernie Ford. Johnny Mercer comes in with "G.I. Jive" and is
good for three cuts here. Other pop singers include Jo Stafford, Betty
Hutton, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, and most importantly Nat King Cole, who
appears to be the only black performer here. (Oops, Paul Whiteman's
singeron "Trav'lin' Light" is unmistakably Billie Holiday.) Some
classic stuff here, but mostly a label indulgence. B+
- The Cars Are the Stars: Fragments (2004 , Chez
Moi). Electronica from France, although it could be from anywhere --
most songs have some words, sometimes in French, sometimes in English,
sometimes, well, whatever? Mix of upbeat and trip-hoppy stuff, each
appealing, the fit more problematic.
- I'm Not a Gun: Our Lives on Wednesdays (2005,
City Centre). Instrumental constructions, mostly guitar which sets
the dominant tone, with beats adding to rather than setting the
rhythm. There's a lovely, almost effortless flow to the pieces,
making it feel a lot more organic, natural at least, than, say,
Fripp and Eno. Real nice. A-
- Larsen: Play (2005, Important). AMG has this as
experimental rock, but sounds like electronica to me. Sure, the
Torino-based group uses guitar, bass, drums, accordion, some other
instruments (this one has guests on violin and cello), some vocals,
in addition to the occasional keybs, but the music is made up of
marching riddims (first piece, anyway) and synthy tableaux (almost
everything else) -- somewhat reminiscent of good ole krautrock.
Like the fast stuff more than the slow, but that's always the
case. The slow has a rather classic shape that we don't hear much
of these days, giving it some interest. B+
- Paula Morelenbaum: Beribaum (2004, Universal
Latino). Nice, capable Brazilian samba singer, enjoyable record.
- Mosaïc: Ultimatum Plus . . . (1976-78 ,
Mio): French rock group in a prog vein from King Crimson and Gong,
i.e., long instrumental stretches with violin and thumping bass,
but rougher and heavier, like they're getting antsy for punk to
- Pago Libre: Wake Up Call: Live in Italy (1997 ,
Leo). Group with John Wolf Brennan (piano), Tacho Theissing (violin),
Arkady Shilkloper (french horn, flugelhorn), Daniele Patumi (bass).
I list Brennan first because he's the one name I recognize: he has
been featured glowingly in the Penguin Guide, and Pago Libre albums
were originally listed there under his name. The group goes back to
1990 and has six albums thus far. But Theissing deserves lead credit:
presumably it's him doing the high-pitched plucking that surprises
so in "Toccattacca" -- and he's all over the record. Shilkloper is
a trip too, especially as he tops off "Kabak" after a long rhythmic
run-up. Brennan mostly comps, but without a drummer that means he
mostly drives, and this has some muscle to it. A-
- Putumayo Presents: Blues Lounge (2000-04, Putumayo
World Music). Taking a clue from Moby's gospel samples, this rounds
up a set of electronica remixes of blues songs, giving them a light
patina of rather soothing electronic beats. Includes a cut by Moby,
plus various others unknown to me. Nice. B+
- Ann Zimmerman: Blue Wild Indigo (2004, A-Z Music).
She's a folk singer from Salina KS. I ran across her name when a friend
was trying to rouse up some lobbying to get her a gig at the Kansas
State Fair. I figured this state's small enough I ought to know some
of the musicians in it, so begged a copy of the album. It strikes me
as a bit overarranged, and I didn't quickly take to the high soprano
she lifts the title song with, but those reservations have faded away,
given that there are half-a-dozen or so first rate songs here -- the
choicest being the overly modest "If I Had Been Beautiful." Also
prime are a song for Kansas sufragette Jennie Mitchell Kellogg, the
antiwar anthem "Not Far From Emmanuel," and the gospel-powered "Good
Houses." I also like a little jig with the line, "the wedding was as
June as June." And who can complain about "Elmer's Tune"? In an album
that's nearly half covers it's worth noting that all but one of the
songs I picked out are originals.
Saturday, February 05, 2005
More kvetching today in the Wichita Eagle about the Emily Jacir
art exhibit, this time from David Eichhorn (associate professor of
chemistry, Wichita State University, and vice president, Mid-Kansas
Jewish Federation), complaining that the exhibit doesn't explain
why Israel restricts the travel of Palestinians. He says, "During
the last decade, Palestinian terrorists have injured and murdered
thousands of innocent people in Israel -- attacks carried out
primarily by individuals from the Palestinian territories sponsored
by terrorist groups whose stated aim is the destruction of Israel.
Travel restrictions are an attempt to curtail these terrorist
activities and have been credited with preventing even higher
I wouldn't phrase it that way, but what he says is more/less
correct, as far as it goes, but as usual much is left out. For one
thing, the travel restrictions go back to at least to 1950, way
before there was any terrorist threat. In the early '50s Israel
was much concerned with "infiltrations" -- attempts by refugees
to return to Israel. Such infiltrations were rarely violent, at
least until Israel started making punitive attacks in Gaza and
the West Bank -- Ariel Sharon first made a name for himself in
one such attack. In response, Egypt started organizing fedayeen
raids from Gaza. More restrictions were established in the 1967
occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and annexation of Jerusalem,
but travel within Israeli-controlled territories was limited but
somewhat possible during the period from 1967-89. What changed
then was the outbreak of the Intifada.
Israel's propagandists like to blame all of the restrictions on
Palestinian rights on the Intifada, but that conveniently ignores
the fact that the West Bank and Gaza were under military rule for
22 years before the Intifada broke out. During all this time the
Palestinian economy was strictly regulated by a system of permits;
Palestinians could be arrested and detained without cause, and
could be deported; they had no legal recourse to Israeli civilian
courts. Meanwhile Israel had started building settlements, had
launched a major war in Lebanon, and had elected the right-wing
governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, which had the
cumulative effect of crushing Palestinian hopes for independence.
The Intifada was a reaction to forty years of Israeli domination
and intransigence. Israel's response was to tighten the screws even
further. Palestinians were denied work permits in Israel, damaging
their standard of living. As is so often the case, the pressure led
to more intense resistance. Still, the notion that Israel only did
these things in response to Palestinian terrorism puts the cart
before the horse. It's worth taking a look at the following chart
Archive, which tracks the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians
from year to year:
The number of Palestinians killed by Israelis is much higher.
(For the years 1988-2002, the numbers are 3310 vs. 1069, a ratio
of 3:1; if we stop at 2000, before Sharon came to power and the
second Intifada really took off, the numbers are 1808 vs. 462, a
ratio of 4:1.) But just looking at these tallies is profoundly
misleading: the only aspect of the struggle where there is any
sort of parity is in deaths and injuries. How many Israelis have
been subject to home demolitions? property seizures? arrest and
detainment without legal recourse? curfews? harassment at checkpoints?
travel restrictions? This is, and always has been, an extremely
asymmetrical struggle. The power is overwhelmingly in Israel's
hands. And (again take a look at the chart) what Israel has done
with all that power has mostly been to make matters worse.
Eichhorn concluded his letter with two comments. The first:
"If you view the exhibit, empathize with the Palestinian's plight,
but recognize Israel's obligation to secure its borders, protect
its citizens, and ensure its right to exist." The latter points
seem sensible, but Israel's methods have only made those goals
more elusive. Unfortunately, Eichhorn's instinct to defend Israel
is so strong that he can't bring himself to admit any fault, even
when facts move him to emphasize with Palestinians. His sort of
blank check support only encourages the most reactionary forces
The second: "It is hoped that that recent events, including
Mahmoud Abbas' election as Palestinian leader, can lead to a
comprehensive peace agreement resulting in a Palestinian state
alongside Israel based on mutual trust, security and respect."
But Israel's own actions, including unilateral withdrawal from
Gaza and continuing construction of the "separation fence" argue
otherwise. In order for respect and trust to be mutual, Israel
must participate, and given the power imbalance Israel must
lead. This is, to say the least, a lot to ask: Zionism was
predicated on the belief that the goyim are always out to prey
on the Jews, so Zionists came up with the doctrine of the Iron
Wall. They never expected respect or trust, but by building an
unassailable fortress they hoped to keep their enemies at bay.
This strategy has worked viz. Israel's Arab neighbors, but the
fortress has wound up displacing or trapping too many goyim,
leaving Israel with an intractable identity problem -- the
persistance of people they cannot respect and cannot trust
because they have wronged, much as the goyim have over the
ages wronged the Jews. To question this is to question the
moral basis for Zionism, for Israel, for the Jewish State.
What makes Eichhorn's statement so annoying is its passivity:
"it is hoped," as if all one can do is wait and watch.
Eichhorn is right that respect and trust are central issues
to the conflict. (It is easy to derive security from respect
and trust; the problem, of course, is attaining respect and
trust in the absence of security, but permitting the lack of
security to promote further injustice leaves you in the sort
of hopeless morass Israel/Palestine is in today.) I put respect
first, because that's where it belongs -- once you show people
that you respect them, they can begin to trust you. There is
a lot of work that needs to be done on both sides there, but
it won't get done until people who care about Israel, as
Eichhorn obviously does, step up to the task.
For another reaction to Emily Jacir's exhibit, see Christin Call's
review in F5.
A quote: "Would Americans accept being confined to certain areas without
certain amenities, suffer a myriad of checkpoints just to get to work in
the morning? Considering the amount of road rage exhibited by drivers on
Kellogg between Edgemoor and Rock at present, I would say not."
Friday, February 04, 2005
Someone named Jim Clark (associate director of the Center for
Economic Education and is the associate dean of the Barton School
of Business at Wichita State University) wrote a "My View" piece
in the Wichita Eagle today [Feb. 4], called "Get Facts Straight
on Social Security Reform." I fired off a letter:
The big problem with the Social Security reform facts that
Jim Clark wants to get straight is that they aren't facts yet:
all he's done is speculate about the future. For instance, he
assumes that Americans in the future won't have the moral
backbone to increase taxes if necessary in order to fund the
Social Security needs of the old and infirm, even though ever
since the founding of Social Security they have done whatever
needed to be done. Moreover, he asserts that the federal
government of the future will default on its borrowing of
the excess taxes that workers have paid into Social Security
since the last time the politicians "fixed" it. If this is
true we have much more serious things to worry about than
pensions in the latter half of the 21st century. The only way
Social Security can go bankrupt is if the U.S. government goes
bankrupt first. Given Bush's tax cuts and exorbitant spending
on war and corporate welfare, the trade imbalance and the
sinking dollar -- that's the real threat we need to take
Clark also argued that Bush's privatization scheme wouldn't
lead to telemarketing scams trying to fleece the new private
accounts. He asserted that all of the proposed schemes involve
a small number of options of conservatively managed funds. This
gets into one of the intrinsic contradictions of the anti-Social
Security movement. On the one hand they promise higher returns
than the current fund gets from federal government securities.
On the other hand they need to minimize the appearance of risk,
since most people realize that the stock market can go down as
well as up. But increased management fees will take a cut out
of the returns, so where does that leave us? More importantly,
why should we care? If the point behind greater returns is to
justify benefit cuts, the bottom line is at best a wash, at
worst a disaster.
Thursday, February 03, 2005
Movie: House of Flying Daggers. I'd be curious to
know why Zhang Yimou's Hero got major distribution, a big
opening in lots of theatres, and a big gross, while this one was
limited to one showing per day in the grungiest theatre in town.
Maybe that Hero affirms the hero's sacrifice to let the
villainous Emperor unify the nation, settling for hero status in
death rather than justifying avenger, while the heroes here fight
against the government? Aside from the political overtones, this
is the more straightforward story (although not by much), the more
realistic martial arts fighting (although not by much), the more
poetic cinematography (lots of outdoor scenes, forests and meadows,
amazing bamboo forest scenes vs. the stark interiors and military
encampments of Hero). I don't have much patience for the
genre, but found this one rather pleasing. B+
Movie: Vera Drake. We've been watching the trailer
for this for months now, but it's taken until two weeks ago this film
to show up in what the anti-abortion brigade used to refer to as "the
abortion capitol of the world." Despite its Academy Award nominations,
two weeks is all the run it got. Mike Leigh directed this film about
a British woman in 1950 who "helps young girls" and winds up in jail
for her efforts. It's a remarkably simple film, sketching out the
life of a 50-ish working woman, keeping house for her husband and
two grown children, helping her elderly mother, working at various
housecleaning jobs, and practicing her forbidden craft. One aside
shows how, by contrast, the rich do it: the daughter of one of Drake's
well-to-do housecleaning clients is date-raped and is able to arrange
a clean, straightforward hospital abortion. This contrasts with the
several women Drake helps, where one fearful visit by the reassuring
Drake leads to an unattended miscarriage a day or two later -- except
for the case that goes bad, leading to a hospital visit, inquiries,
an arrest and interrogation and conviction that shakes Drake and her
family. None of the political melodrama that would be inevitable today.
Drake isn't apologetic so much as crushed by the hopelessness of her
situation, and her defense is little more than begging for mercy.
Those were good old days? I put on a comp of hit songs from the '20s,
and was struck by the line from "Ain't We Got Fun?": "the rich get
richer and the poor get children." One of Drake's clients had six
children already, plus a husband who couldn't work. Most were
frightened young girls. They had plenty to fear. A-
George W. Bush claims that Social Security "is on the road to
bankruptcy." When CNN reported this, they noted that "Democrats
say that's an exaggeration of problem." Clueless as ever, those
Democrats. Stuck in that old-fashioned reality-based paradigm.
Bush's statement wasn't an assertion. It was a threat. Here's
how you should read it: Social Security has been overtaxing
workers in order to build up a cushion against future claims.
This excess has been invested in U.S. bonds. When the future
claims catch up with Social Security, all we need to do is to
cash in those bonds. U.S. bonds are normally a safe, dependable
investment, and those savings are sufficient to keep Social
Security viable, even without tax increases, for a long time.
So where's the problem? Well, there's no problem, at least as
long as the U.S. government remains solvent.
The problem here in the Democrats' logic is that they, like
every other financial planner in the world, assume that the U.S.
government will always be able to service its debts. But Bush's
tax policies chop away at the government's ability to remain
solvent. Back in 2000 the U.S. government was running a surplus,
so the excess Social Security tax could have been used to reduce
the government's other debt load, making it easier to refund
Social Security when the flow shifts. But Bush didn't do that:
he used the surplus to fund huge tax cuts for the rich. Every
years since then, even when there was no surplus, Bush pushed
for more tax cuts for the rich. His State of the Union address
this year, coinciding with his warning about the impending
bankruptcy of Social Security, contains yet more tax cuts for
the rich. Exorbitant spending on war and corporate giveaways
hurt too, as does the trade imbalance and the magically deflating
once-almighty dollar, but Bush's tax-cut jones doesn't leave him
any other future: the U.S. government is headed for bankruptcy,
and when it goes, well, Social Security's going down with it.
Bush's Social Security proposal isn't actually meant to fix
this problem. It's more like what you might call a pre-emptive
strike on the future. Moving tax money into private accounts
adds a huge element of risk to the scenario, and that will help
explain to future retirees why they won't receive anything like
the Social Security that pre-Bush retirees have received: good
idea, but bad luck. Of course, it's also a bonanza for Bush's
patrons in the finance business, and it locks up more savings
where the rich can make more money. But mostly it disabuses
ordinary people of the idea that when they get old and infirm
their fellow citizens will look out for them.
The weird thing about Bush's Social Security con game is that
now he's pretending that we owe this to our children, when he's
been totally oblivious about what the growing debt burden might
mean to them. Not to mention other long-term issues, like the
environment. His whole program seems to be built on the notion
that end-times are well nigh upon us, so we never have to save
or preserve anything. He wants to pump all the earth's oil now,
chop down all of nature's tree, mine every profitable mineral.
He's so short-term he leaves no prospect of a viable long-term
untouched. But now we have to slice through all this pompous
rhetoric about the sanctity of our children's retirement.
I've never taken proposals to privatize Social Security all
that seriously, because they are inevitably too crackpot to be
taken seriously. Sure, the poor and the working classes get
screwed all the time, but the pain that bankrupting the U.S.
government would cause doesn't stop there. Nobody gets more
value from the government than the rich, and nobody stands to
lose more in its meltdown. You'd think that they, at least,
would start to put the brakes on their Boy Wonder.
But the other thing that bothers me about Social Security
is that we're losing track of the moral basis of the program.
It used to be a pay-as-you-go program, and the logic there is
simple: we, as a nation, understand that we have an obligation
to support the welfare of those of us too old or infirm to work
and support themselves. Given that understanding, when expenses
rise, we simply have to pony up whatever it takes to cover the
bill. An older demographic may be a challenge to Social Security,
but it cannot be a crisis. The only way Social Security can be
in crisis is if we shirk our moral responsibilities. This, of
course, is the very essence of Bush's political program. He
seeks to convince us that we are never responsible for anyone
other than ourselves, and that by exclusively pursuing our own
interests everything will work out for the best. The patent
fallacy of his worldview is most clearly illustrated by pointing
out what a fine example he has set.
There's something curiously satisfying about the current state of
the Iraq elections. The votes have presumably been cast, but we don't
know the results -- none of that instant denouement that we experience
in the U.S. when the networks proclaim the winners the moment the
polls close. But then we didn't even now who was running before the
votes were cast -- Iraq has given us a whole new definition of "secret
ballot." But the immediate beneficiaries of this blanket of blissful
ignorance are the right-wing pundits, who get to wax eloquent about
how brave the Iraqi people are to have come out in such numbers to
exercise their right to vote. What numbers? Well, we don't know that
yet. Vote for whom? Well, we don't know that either.
The only real questions in Iraq are: 1) when will Iraqis have
enough political power to tell the U.S. to leave? 2) will the U.S. do
so? and 3) how much destruction will the U.S. wreak in the
meantime. There's no doubt but that most Iraqis want the U.S. to
leave. The question is whether the elections will reflect and advance
that position. There is reason to be skeptical: the elections, not to
mention the continuing war and terror, were designed to make it
impossible to articulate an anti-U.S. platform; the siege on the Sunni
triangle disenfranchised a large segment of probable anti-U.S. voters;
the hidden candidate lists and secret deals make it unclear who voted
for what; and the Bush administration has dirty hands in every
election they've touched thus far. The long period between when the
votes were cast and when the results will be announced allows a lot of
elbow room for manipulation.
When Bush gave his big speech last night, he asserted that the
U.S. occupation of Iraq will continue "indefinitely." That could be a
hedgeword, or it could suggest that Bush thinks the fix is in. The
usual meaning of "indefinitely" is "way into the future." If Iraq
actually does enjoy a degree of democratic political power that won't
happen. If they don't, the elections are just another Bush fraud, and
the war will go on and on until eventually we give up and go home.
In short course we'll find out whether these elections did any good
or not: the cloak of ignorance and bliss will drop. Still, we should
recognize that all the machinations that went into this election have
only prolonged Iraq's agony and made the results more dubious. Bush's
political escalation of the conflict has done incalculable damage:
before the war the U.S. proclaimed that it would only seek to punish a
very small number of Saddam Hussein's top henchmen (after all, the
wanted deck only had 52 cards); then they decided the entire Baath
Party had to be routed (excepting a few turncoats like Iyad Allawi);
finally they waged war on the entire Sunni-Arab population. The many
delays before elections were finally held showed bad faith. The
appointment of a crony government, which could and did use force to
buttress its own political position, unfairly biased the
elections. (The U.N. had recommended an apolitical interrim government
to avoid this impression. The U.S. rejected this in order to promote
its henchman.) Real democracies try to be fair and inclusive, and
that's what gives them legitimacy. For Bush the only thing that
matters is winning. And as long as we think ignorance is bliss he'll
make the best of that.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Yesterday my hometown newspaper had an article about how Bush's
health care plans are proceeding at a faster pace than his efforts
to wreck Social Security. We can't quite talk about his plans for
health care is an intent to wreck, because the system itself is in
such ill repair that wrecking it would almost be superfluous. For
a quick overview, take a look at the recent book by Donald L.
Bartlett and James B. Steele, Critical Condition: How Health
Care in America Became Big Business -- and Bad Medicine (2004,
Doubleday). I just finished reading this book -- mostly stuff that
I already knew, but spelled out in detailed case histories that
even I found shocking.
The Bush plans are centered around Health Savings Accounts --
yet another tax-avoidance scheme for the rich -- tied to mandatory
high-deductible catastrophic health insurance. As far as I can tell,
there are two ideas here:
- If you're rich enough, you can finance your own health insurance;
if you're healthy, you'll save some money that way, and if you're not,
you're still covered for worst case scenarios.
- If you run a business, you can push your employees into this sort
of plan, cutting your insurance costs by shifting them to employees.
If they're healthy, they may not notice; if not, they won't be your
The net effect is to force individuals to manage their spending
decisions on health care, much as they decide whether it's worth
the extra money to buy a brand name detergent vs. the store brand.
Economic theory tells us that responsible shopping would wring a
lot of wasteful overtreatment out of the system. The problem is
that health care doesn't work like detergent. With detergent you
go to the store, look at a shelf with 5-20 alternative choices,
look at the prices, read what little info is provided by on the
boxes, and guess which one to buy. If it works, fine; maybe you
can experiment with a lower-priced one, or maybe the potential
savings on the lower-priced one doesn't matter enough to bother.
If it doesn't work -- if, say, it destroys your clothes -- you
throw it out and never buy anything like it again. Worst case is
you have to buy some new clothes. With health care, you know next
to nothing about what's wrong with you or what one doctor vs. any
other doctor might do about it; you don't even know what they'd
charge. You can't even get that information -- if doctors had to
sell you on every detail of their practice and competence they'd
never have any time to treat you. In many cases the doctors would
rather not treat you, so you usually wind up begging and hoping,
and are stuck with whoever will see you. Moreover, the worst
case scenario is you die.
Given this, all that making you spend your own money to get in
the health care door means that those who cannot afford it will
avoid the door as long as they can -- in many cases allowing their
diseases to become critical, in some cases fatal. That this would
happen isn't mere economic theory: we have more than 40 million
people in the U.S. right now who have no insurance, and a great
many more who have inadequate insurance -- including many with
the sort of high deductibles that come with the HSA scheme. Many
of those people are undertreated for their ailments; many die, and
many suffer needlessly. Pushing high-deductible health insurance
means that more people will fail to get necessary health care.
However, the silver lining in Bush's proposals comes in the form
of government-backed catastrophic health insurance. The need for
this was shown in an article in today's newspaper, titled "Bankrupt
cite health bills as a top woe." As you may know, bankruptcies have
increased virtually every year in the last two decades. The article
attributes 50.35% of all bankruptcies to illness or medical debts.
The article also points out that 68% of those filing bankruptcy for
reason of illness or medical debts actually have insurance. The
problem is that many private insurance company plans max out at
some limits -- i.e., they don't really insure you against illness
or injury -- and many more disallow claims for myriad reasons.
Bush's plan won't help anyone lead healthier lives, but it should
at least cut down on some of the bankruptcies. That would be a
good thing, but note who benefits: the creditors, i.e., the health
care industry and the bankers. That, at least, is a constituency
Bush cares about.