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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I covered 34 records in the latest Jazz CG. That leaves 286 records in the "done" files, of which I'll probably use 60 in future Jazz CGs (estimating 30, 20, 10 over the next three columns, 6-9 months). I also have 170 records in the "pending" file, so those will compete for the column slots too. Given this, most of what's in the "done" files might as well be flushed out of the system now. The following are my notes and preliminary drafts on the records I'm cutting now. (Presumably I can find them again once they're in the notebook.) I've gone over the criteria for how I make these decisions many times in the past, so won't repeat that here.


  • Across 7 Street: Made in New York (2004, Smalls). Quintet (tenor sax-trombone-piano-bass-drums), probably led by the saxophonist, Chris Byars, but they play together, often with a loose postbop swing. This sounds unfocused to me, a diffuse vibe with none of the voices distinct or particularly interesting. B-
  • Active Ingredients: Titration (2003, Delmark). Drummer Chad Taylor's band, built around his Chicago Underground Trio (Tom Abbs, Rob Mazurek) with some ringers from New York (Jemeel Moondoc, Steve Swell) thrown in. Taylor grew up on AACM shit and it shows in his writing, but the backbone here is his drumming, which is meant to drive everyone ever forward. The horns leap off from Taylor's base, sometimes explosively, as in the joyous opener "Song for Dyani," the avant-honk on "Slate," and the more melodic "Modern Mythology" -- and those are the strongest cuts here. The drums are helped out by Avreeal Ra on percussion, especially on Taylor's showcase solo. B+
  • The Howard Alden-Dan Barrett Quintet: Live in '95 (1995 [2004], Arbors). The instrumental parts here are really delightful. The back cover claims that the vocals are "a definite plus"; au contraire! They break up the flow, often slowing things down. She's an OK singer, but she puts a bit of a damper on the rest. Barrett's a rather ordinary Kid Ory-influenced trombonist, which means he's a fun player in a limited repertoire. Chuck Wilson is useful on alto sax and clarinet. But the key player here is Alden, a superb guitarist, and he holds this piano-less group together. B+
  • Monty Alexander: Live at the Iridium (2005, Telarc). Piano trio with some extra percussion. Alexander plays fast, especially at first. Real fast. Toward the end it does slow down a bit, which neither helps nor hurts. Nothing much to say about this, except that I've either enjoyed this every time I've played it or (more commonly) lost track of it while it was playing. Not a bad note on it. Haven't noticed the rest of the group either, except that they no doubt make it better. B
  • Rashied Ali/Arthur Rhames: The Dynamic Duo: Remember Trane and Bird (1981 [2004], Ayler, 2CD). Arthur Rhames is one of those guys hardly anyone has ever heard of, but every now and then someone who knew him or saw him will spin him into a story of incredible talent. Rhames was born in Brooklyn in 1957; played guitar, piano, and saxophone, by most accounts with equal poise and power; died at age 32 in 1989, without any records under his name. Jan Ström snapped a picture of Rhames playing alto sax on the street with an unknown drummer in 1980, and that planted the thought for scrounging up this 1981 live tape. Rashied Ali played with Rhames from the late '70s, and brought him to Willisau as the other half of the Dynamic Duo. Ali and Rhames had connected through their devotion to John Coltrane -- Ali is most famous for having played with Coltrane on his final albums -- and this program is a slashing fast excursion through Trane's songbook, including an abridged version of A Love Supreme. Rhames plays tenor sax and piano (no guitar), and is lightning fast and fullsome on both. Coltrane's last music felt not just unfinished but like the start of a new search, and I've never been sure that Ali was up to it -- although by 1991's Touchin' on Trane, with Charles Gayle, he had made up plenty of lost ground. So this feels less like a recapitulation than an attempt to solve the puzzle. They don't, and the improvs on their own two "Extra, Extra" pieces strike me as the best things here. Bird pops up for the encore, a medley, almost an afterthought. B+
  • Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass: Whipped Cream & Other Delights (1965 [2005], Shout! Factory). An album of food songs, more famous for Dolores Erickson's cover pose 'neath a mountain of shaving cream than for the tune that got mashed up with Public Enemy for my favorite bootleg of 2003. B
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago: AEC With Fontella Bass (1970 [2005], Free America/Verve). The gospel singer was meant to pump up the Great Black Music collective with the fear of God. Her appearance does indeed hit hard at the start, but soon enough the group's usual Africanized black power moves take over, and the music flies off at odd tangents. B+
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago: Certain Blacks (1970 [2005], Free America/Verve). Chicago Beau crashes the party as Exhibit A to "Certain Blacks (Do What They Wanna)" and throws the gang off their game. But they bounce right back with an 11:38 Sonny Boy Williamson jam. B
  • William Ash Trio: The Phoenix (2004, Smalls). Very nice guitar trio; boppish material, but not single-line hornlike improvs. Not brilliant; just well done. B+
  • Roni Ben-Hur: Anna's Dance (2000 [2002], Reservoir). Ben-Hur plays guitar in a subtle mainstream groove, an elegant variation of a style similar to Jimmy Raney and Kenny Burrell. This is a lovely, unassuming record, with no one risking a flashy performance, least of all tenor saxophonist Charles Davis. B+
  • Paul Bley: Improvisie (1971, Free America/Verve) Bley sloughs off his strong suit by limiting himself to electric keybs, and then-wife Annette Peacock adds to the synthetic estrangement by doubling on electronics and singing a bit. Still, it's interesting in its own right, and Han Bennink's percussions are remarkable. B+
  • Ruby Braff Trio and Quintet: You Brought a New Kind of Love (2001 [2005], Arbors). One more time, and why not? He finally got old enough he wasn't too young for his old-fashioned tastes. B+
  • Anthony Braxton: Donna Lee (1972 [2005], Free America/Verve). Starts with slurred speed-bop. Then a patient, open-ended abstract exploration. Then two takes on "You Go to My Head." Then another original. An early quartet with Michael Smith on piano, a major talent working out fragments of his kit. B+
  • Anthony Braxton: Saxophone Improvisations Series F (1972 [2005], Free America/Verve, 2CD). Solo alto saxophone, many series of practice runs work out almost minimalist variations, for the most part lighter and less intense than his For Alto breakout from 1968. B+
  • Peter Brötzmann Tentet: Images (2002-03 [2004], Okka Disk). Despite my initial huge misgivings, this is getting to be a rather fun group. The album lists two long pieces, but the CD is broken up into 7 sections. Section 6, in particular, really moves along. B+
  • Maurice Brown: Hip to Bop (2004, Brown). Something of a hard bopper, although he's probably more versatile than that. Bright trumpet voice, upbeat, seems like a talented guy. Enjoyable. None too deep. B+
  • Build an Ark: Peace With Every Step (2004, Plug Research). It's hard to just sing about peace, let alone peace and love, without sounding silly, and it's probably harder still for jazz singers, since their typical affectations border on the silly anyway. Here we find "Peace With Every Step," "Peace and Love," "Love Is Our Nationality," "You've Gotta Have Freedom," and so on. The names I recognize on this ambitious and hopeful project are Adam Randolph and Phil Ranelin. Rudolph's hand drums are a delight. Ranelin's contribution is more limited: a piece called "Vibes From the Tribe," but that's a crucial historical reference. The instrumentals are intriguing -- often just drums and the odd flute, tribal sounds. The vocals sounds like they had fun. Let's leave it at that. B
  • Billy Butterfield Joins Andy Bartha: Take Me to the Land of Jazz (1969 [2005], Delmark). Ten cuts with the ex-Bobcats trumpeter, cornetist Bartha, and a crack trad jazz band from sometime in the early '70s, plus five more with Bartha (but not Butterfield) leading a similar band. The standards are standards -- if you've never heard "Basin Street Blues" or "Millenberg Joys" you're in for a treat, but most likely you've heard them hundreds of times, many better -- but the band isn't much above average in a strictly normative genre, and the vocals are unprepossessing. B
  • Ann Hampton Callaway: Slow (2004, Shanachie). Slow, right. All of the arrangements run slow -- even the irrepressible "Moondance" comes off a bit sluggish. Callaway's voice -- high, sometimes ethereal, with a metallic shimmer and bright shine to it -- might grow on you, but it could just as well turn into a serious annoyance. But given the music's lack of swing or jump or jive or dynamics of any sort, it's unlikely that anyone will sit still long enough to figure her out. C+
  • James Chance: Sax Education (1978-88, Tiger Style, 2CD). The combination of Chance's thin, skronky alto sax with August Darnell's disco beats sounds like state-of-the-art jazztronica but dates from a quarter of a century ago. At the time, Chance's idea was to follow CBGB new wave with something weirder -- a James Brown beat damaged in the larceny; sharp, whiney, yelping proto-punk vocals; toy keybs, guitar drone, girlie choruses. Not sure if it was meant as comedy, but it is: a lot funnier in reality than the idea of Albert Ayler playing disco-punk fusion. First disc contains "the hits"; second is a concert, so he gets to play the hits again. A-
  • Charming Hostess: Sarajevo Blues (2004, Tzadik). The three singers are much earthier than those mysterious Bulgarians, although they do have less of a crowd to lose themselves in. Much of this is just the singers with drums. Most of it is a cycle of songs or screeds set in Sarajevo under siege. The harshness is unsettling, but the critique is crude. In one called "Open Dialogue" one voice asks, "So then what kind of Muslim are you?" to which another answers "white." I don't find this charming at all. Evidently the text comes from Bosnian poet Sem Mehmedinovic, which puts this into the bag of orchestrated poesy, where the music is force fit to the poetry. B-
  • The Nels Cline Singers: Instrumentals (2002, Cryptogramophone). First of all, the Singers don't actually sing, even on albums that aren't called Instrumentals. Cline is an electric guitarist, a significant talent with a lot of tricks up his sleeve, including a dash of heavy metal. B+
  • Johnny Coles: Little Johnny C (1963 [2005], Blue Note). Extra horns in the front line limit this as a showcase for the leader's trumpet, but it's buoyant hard bop smartly done, and Duke Pearson's piano has a gospel ring to it. B+
  • The Contemporary Jazz Quintet: Actions (1966-67 [2005], Atavistic). One of the earliest prime examples of new thing in Europe, influenced by Ayler but with Hugh Steinmetz's trumpet piled thick on top of Franz Beckerlee's alto sax it is denser and richly brassy. B+
  • Billy Crystal Presents: The Milt Gabler Story (1938-64 [2005], Verve). Gabler was Crystal's uncle, but he's better known as the founder of Commodore Records, the producer of Billie Holiday's anti-lynching lament "Strange Fruit," and his long hit-making tenure at Decca. At Commodore he specialized in hot jazz, only lightly sampled here in tracks by Eddie Condon and Wild Bill Davison. Commodore was a small independent, but at Decca he worked with stars like Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong, while cultivating Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and launching two key songs that paved the way for rock and roll: Lionel Hampton's (aka Illinois Jacquet's) "Flying Home" and Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." With so much to choose from, Crystal selected a rich and wildly disparate schmeer of mostly '50s pazz and jop. Irresistible: "The Glow Worm"; marvelous: "Little Things Mean a Lot"; de trop: "Three Coins in the Fountain"; perfect closer snuck in on a technicality, Nat King Cole's "L-O-V-E." A
  • Billie Crystal Remembers Billie Holiday (1939-50 [2005], Verve). Crystal predictably picks from the Commodore and Decca recordings his uncle produced -- not her best-known work, not least because Gabler never gave her the all-star bands that Teddy Wilson (early) and Norman Granz (later) came up with; but if the point is just to hear her sing she has rarely been more gripping, especially on the strings-backed "God Bless the Child." A-
  • Alexis Cuadrado Sextet: Visual (2004, Fresh Sound). That this is the bassist's album shows through in several spots, most pleasurably in his overdubbed bass-only "Te Recuerio Amanda." Otherwise, working with three horns, guitar and drums, there is a lot going on. Probably the best of this batch of Fresh Sound New Talent releases. B+
  • Miles Davis: 'Round About Midnight: The Legacy Edition (1955-56 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). This was the first album Davis delivered to Columbia. When Prestige found out they forced Davis back to the studio where he knocked out four albums in two days to satisfy his contract there. They turned out to be the best, and most famous, albums Davis ever cut for Prestige (Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', Steamin') but this one, playing on Miles' reputation as the coolest cat in bebop, was a mid-tempo marvel: it occupies comfortable middle ground between the east coast drive of hard bop and the west coast elegance of cool jazz, still very much rooted in bebop but not interested in burning down the house. The extra disc is a short live set for Gene Norman plus a Newport take of the title cut with various all-stars. It is inessential -- reminds me a bit of Charlie Parker's Roost recordings, except without Parker. The most memorable moment is when Norman introduces the saxophonist as Johnny Coltrane. B+
  • Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven (1963 [2005], Columbia/Legacy). A restart after a dead spot in Miles' career, with Ron Carter the first tentative step toward a second great quintet. Tentative is the word, with tinny ballads predominating. B
  • Miles Davis: Miles Davis in Europe (1963 [2005], Columbia/Legacy). Herbie Hancock and 17-year-old Tony Williams add two more pieces and get to show their wares, with the whole band cohering on older pieces like "Milestones"; just another good show. B+
  • Miles Davis: "Four" and More (1964 [2005], Columbia/Legacy). Six months later, half of a New York Philharmonic concert that also yielded My Funny Valentine. A much tighter group, practicing state of the art hard bop. A-
  • Miles Davis: Miles in Tokyo (1964 [2005], Columbia/Legacy). George Coleman gave way to Wayne Shorter, but for this one trip Sam Rivers took over the tenor sax slot, giving Davis an experience with a much freer player, an intriguing path not taken; Rivers is on his best behavior, coming up with an attractive performance. A-
  • Miles Davis: Miles in Berlin (1964 [2005], Columbia/Legacy). The arrival of Wayne Shorter marked the emergence of Miles' second great quintet, which went on to produce major albums for the rest of the decade. The band meshes elegantly on the usual songbook here, the chemistry of the rhythm section fully formed, with Miles in particularly fine form. A-
  • Miles Davis: The Best of Seven Steps: The Complete Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964 ([2005], Columbia/Legacy). The inevitable sampler for the 6-CD box set, now (less a couple of alternate takes) also available separately. This was a period of transition when Miles returned to the road from a hiatus and assembled his famous late '60s quintet -- Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, all stars not least due to their association with Miles and each other. The box is a detail study, much of its interest historical, although the music holds up fine, and there's nothing wrong with the sampler except, perhaps, that it blurs the transitions. A-
  • Joey DeFrancesco With Jimmy Smith: Legacy (2005, Concord). DeFrancesco's piano is something of a shock when it first appears on top of Smith's usual organ -- not just a sharper, more percussive instrument, it's played in a grand style. He uses it on three cuts, a synth on another; the rest of the album consists of organ duos, often peppered with guitar and/or extra percussion, once with James Moody's sax. I find the whole thing rather unsettling, though not without pleasure. I'm tempted to cut the late master some slack, even when he sings "I've Got My Mojo Workin'," but I'm less entranced by the heir apparent. B+
  • Stefano di Battista: Parker's Mood (2004 [2005], Blue Note). Four remakes of Charlie Parker songs; six more of songs that were in Parker's songbook, counting two by Dizzy Gillespie and one by Thelonious Monk. The point of the old bebop warhorses escapes me; di Battista plays them well enough, but so did Parker, who added a certain wrecklessness that isn't evident here. The ballads come off much better. Parker's ballads never struck me as distinctive, but di Battista gets a richer tone out of his alto sax and Kenny Barron is one of the finest pianists around for this repertoire, so they shine through with surpassing loveliness. So much so that it's impossible to dislike this record, even if it seems pointless. B+
  • The Best of Eric Dolphy (1960-61 [2004], Prestige). Started late, died young, giving him a carrer span of five years; played bass clarinet or flute as often as alto sax; most famous as a sideman for Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, with few albums under his own name (especially if you weed out the concerts uncovered after his death), but universally recognized as a major figure; this early selection leans to his bop roots, with half the cuts featuring ill-fated trumpeter Booker Little. A-
  • Dave Douglas: Mountain Passages (2004 [2005], Greenleaf Music/Koch). Douglas is still working with Peggy Lee and Dylan van der Schyff, but this time he replaces Louis Sclavis with Michael Moore and Marcus Rojas (tuba), which has two immediate effects: the hornpower increases, and the record has a much less European folk feel. Also contributing to this change is that here Douglas writes all the pieces, whereas on Bow River Falls everyone had a hand -- especially Sclavis. Douglas has a tendency to overwrite and overarrange, and most of the horn parts here are played together, whereas with Sclavis they functioned separately -- which gave Douglas a lot more room to show off his considerable chops. This is still impressive work, just less pleasing, perhaps because it is less surprising. B+
  • Dr. John: The Best of the Parlophone Years (1998-2004 [2005], Blue Note). After his 15 minutes of fame back in the '60s he went back to basics to show us that he had always been a studio pro, earning the right to dabble, to mess around, to coast even, and here to condense four recent records into one about as good as any. B+
  • Harris Eisenstadt Quintet: Jalolu (2004, CIMP). Interesting grouping: the drummer plus baritone sax and three trumpets (counting Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet). Eisenstadt is a Canadian drummer just back from a pilgrimage to the Gambia. His drumming doesn't sound African; rather, he forms the free base from which the trumpets (Roy Campbell, Paul Smoker) shoot off their avant-fireworks. B+
  • Eldar (2005, Sony Classical). The youngster from Kirghizstan (surname: Djangirov) can play. And despite the label name, this is a pretty respectable jazz album. He plays a couple of standards, including an upbeat "Sweet Georgia Brown" and the usual "'Round Midnight." He lets bassist John Patitucci have a solo, and guest saxophonist Michael Brecker (who also gets a production credit) makes a contribution. I'm impressed, but I can't get excited. This is the third foreign piano prodigy I've run across in the last year. This guy is a lot better than the kid from New Guinea, Andrew Choulai, but this record doesn't have the unique sweep of Maksim Mrvica's strafing of the classics. It's just a jazz album, with a pianist out to make an impression, which he does by overplaying. Sure, he might be major someday. More likely, he might be the next Adam Makowicz. But we tend to overrate prodigies, then pay for it later. B
  • Kahil El'Zabar & David Murray: We Is: Live at the Bop Shop (2000 [2004], Delmark). El'Zabar is an important conceptualizer of pan-Africanist world jazz, but he can get to be annoying. He takes two long drum solos here, lots of banging and thrashing, but they never quite come through with whatever it is that drum solos are supposed to deliver. Worse are his chants, grunts, and vocalizations, which only make sense on "One World Family." On the other hand, Murray transcends all that. Give him space to blow and he generates wonders. His tenor sax intros to "Groove Allure" and "Blues Affirmation" are clear, concise, and breathtaking. His plays bass clarinet on "One World Family" and he's simply the all-time master of the instrument. Murray's recorded a number of duos, and the one thing they all have in common is a lot of great Murray. This is his third record with El'Zabar. One World Family (CIMP) came from the same year, covers much the same ground, and has pluses and minuses to this one: the sound here is better, much warmer, at least for Murray -- El'Zabar's vocals are clearer on the CIMP; this one has live crowd noise and a lot more drum solo. I rate the CIMP a tad higher, but they're very close. Better than either is the trio with bassist Fred Hopkins, recorded in 1997 but unreleased until 2002, Love Outside of Dreams (Delmark). B+
  • Emergency: Homage to Peace (1970 [2005], Free America/Verve). Pianist Takashi Kako gets a rare quiet spot on "Kako Tune." Otherwise he pounds chords to keep up with Glenn Spearman's saxophone squall and Boulou Ferret's Hendrix-inspired electric guitar. B+
  • Exuberance: Live at Vision Festival (2003 [2004], Ayler). Pretty much the usual avant-screech, with sax and trumpet up front, bass and drums in the back. I like it just fine. Not sure I'd recommend it, but it's growing on me. Reminds me that Morton and/or Cook once claimed that their idea of easy listening music was Ascension. It's not mine, but this might be. What fun. B+
  • Fast 'N' Bulbous: Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind (2005, Cuneiform). Captain Beefheart's music is itself so quirky that it's a puzzle how one can jazz it up. This project by Gary Lucas (guitar) and Philip Johnston (alto sax) doesn't exactly try. Rather, it arranges the pieces for a seven-piece band with four horns, muscling it up with brass where Beefheart himself tended to be ascetic, letting the music speak for itself. So it sounds first like an instrumental soundtrack to Beefheart, then like a big band blow-up. I doubt that it's meant to be either. Rather, it's mean to be fun, and mostly is. Maybe if this group develops, e.g. like its labelmate Yo Miles, this will seem like a firm foundation. But then history isn't ever resolved until it's too late. B+
  • Mongezi Feza: Free Jam (1972 [2004], Ayler, 2CD). Feza played trumpet in Chris McGregor's Blue Notes, the integrated (i.e., McGregor is white) South African jazz band that went into exile as soon as they started to get noticed, hanging around the avant-fringe of Europe. Like Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, and Louis Moholo, Feza made a name for himself weaving his ancestral township jive into the worldwide stream of post-bop and free jazz, but he didn't make much of a name -- and he died young, in sad shape. I first ran across him on Robert Wyatt's Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, which featured one of his songs as well as his trumpet, and I've been intrigued by him ever since. But very little of his work is available -- an album called Music for Xaba with Dyani and Turkish percussionist Okay Temiz is the only thing I've run across, aside from his work with McGregor and/or Pukwana and sideman appearances with Wyatt, Henry Cow, Gary Windo, and (of all people) Robert Palmer. Still, he's probably better known here than the leader of the quartet he joins here, Bernt Rosengren. That's another shame: Rosengren is one of the finest saxophonists Europe has produced. This belated album helps, albeit mostly to bring these names back into some sort of spotlight. It isn't very typical of either artist -- especially Rosengren, who elsewhere is a remarkably measured and articulate player. But that's mostly becaue the record earns its title: this was hacked out on the spot, with titles like "Theme of the Day" (twice) and "Group Notes" (four times) added after the fact. This tends to get by on energy and good cheer, which it delivers in spades. B+
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook (1963 [2005], Verve). Great singer, pretty good songs, a perfectly adequate orchestra led by the dependable Nelson Riddle; this came late in the songbooks series and is something of a mop-up operation. B+
  • Yves François: Blues for Hawk (1981-82 [2005], Delmark). Easy-going blues-drenched sessions with Chicago legends Franz Jackson and Eddie Johnson joining the then-young trad jazz trumpeter-leader. B+
  • Fred Fried: When Winter Comes (2002 [2004], Ballet Tree). Richard DeRosa's string orchestratation isn't awful, although it starts out in that direction. When the strings back off the trio of Fried (acoustic 7-string guitar) and established pros Steve LaSpina (bass) and Billy Drummond (drums) can be very engaging, and even fun when they pick up the pace. As much as I dislike the strings, it's possible that they frame the trio in some way that enhances them. B
  • Full House: Champagne Taste (2002 [2005], Nagel Heyer). Not sure what this is: part hard bop, part soul jazz, part something else, more rockish, I guess. David Hazeltine plays Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3; he's a hard bop guy, but the electric keyboards slow him down a bit, and cost him some sharpness, so his role is more rhythmic. Greg Skaff plays guitar, but I can't make out a consistent style. The horn is Jim Rotondi's trumpet; not a soul jazz instrument, but that makes for a distinctive touch. The sound is immediate and forceful, caught in a live setting where they made an impression. Rotondi is the interesting player in this context -- the guy who gets to run with the ball. B
  • Curtis Fuller: Keep It Simple (2003 [2005], Savant). Most of what's notable here comes not from the veteran trombonist but from Javon Jackson -- especially a long, lovely solon on Jackson's own "Diane" with Fuller laying out. Still, it's good to hear Fuller chime in after a Jackson solo, and the cuts without Jackson hold up nicely anyway. B+
  • Leo Genovese: Haikus II (2004, Fresh Sound). Authoritative piano trio plus occasional horns, Genovese plays fast and thick, rich feel, lot of action, good touch. One of the better albums in this vein. B+
  • Dizzy Gillespie: Dizzy: The Music of John Birks Gillespie (1950-63 [2005], Verve). Two problems with this compilation: one is that it is a tie-in with Donald L. Maggin's biography of Gillespie, but it only covers one chunk of Gillespie's career, leaving out his breakthrough (and most famous) records on Musicraft, Savoy and RCA, the live concerts on Vogue, the later sessions for Pablo; the other is that it slices the Verve recordings so thin that it never develops any flow. Any attempt to cover Gillespie's breadth would run into the latter problem. We tend to think of bebop, hence Gillespie, as a small group aesthetic -- as an explosion of individualist virtuosity opposed to the previous big band era. Gillespie, of course, could do that, but he grew up in big bands, invented bebop in big bands, and continued to expand the horizons of big bands into the '60s -- indeed, the most scintillating music here is with his big band. If this comp becomes your first encounter, you will be amazed. But be aware that the two poles of his Verve recordings -- the big band on Gillespiana and the jousts on Sonny Side Up are more satisfactory and more amazing as separate discs. And that he was even greater earlier on. B+
  • Dexter Gordon: Mosaic Select 14 (1978-79 [2004], Mosaic, 3CD). Long Tall Dexter was a major voice on the tenor saxophone as far back as the late '40s. John Coltrane, whose legacy has dominated jazz saxophone ever since his death, started out as a Gordon disciple. Gordon's Blue Note recordings from 1961-65 are his best known: they're all in print, individually as well as boxed, with a fine 2-CD sampler for dabblers. In the early '60s, Gordon left the U.S. for Scandinavia, not returning until the late '70s, when he was greeted as a living legend. At first, Mosaic's 3-CD Select series collected works by relatively obscure Blue Note artists who didn't quite fit their larger box set program: Paul Chambers, Benny Green, Carmell Jones, Dizzy Reece, etc. But for Gordon they stayed clear of his '60s work, settling on these late '70s live sets that Blue Note had released, and soon deleted, as Nights at the Keystone. There are many live Gordon dates in print these days, especially on Denmark's Steeplechase label, and this is very typical -- his magisterial tone, his penchant for quirky quotes, the ever-accommodating and often magical George Cables on piano. A-
  • Onaje Allan Gumbs: Remember Their Innocence (2004, Ejano Music). I can't pin down the piano style -- fluid, but a little sweet. Three songs have vocals, the third dragging a bit. Most of the rest have sax or trumpet, adding a voice without having to carry the lyrics. One solo piano piece is relatively clumsy. B+
  • Iro Haarla & Ulf Krokfors: Heart of a Bird (2003, TUM). This is a slow, meditative album. Krokfors, a bassist who shows up on Finnish jazz records with considerable frequency, wrote most of the pieces. He gives himself ample space, and isn't crowded out by Haarla's piano. Both are thoughtful players; neither is exciting. But what kicks this up a notch is guest saxophonistRasmus Korsström, who joins in for four exceptionally lovely cuts. B+
  • Iro Haarla/Ulf Krokfors/Loco Motife: Penguin Beguine (2005, TUM). Haarla and Krokfors did a nice duo album last year. Loco Motife seems to be a big band built around their songwriting. The band opens up various options, which they exploit with such relish that by the end the record looks to me like a giant springworks blown asunder. Anders Bergcrantz's trumpet makes the first big impression. Mikko Iivanainen gets to show off some Hendrix-isms on guitar. Johanna Iivanainen sings two pieces. Any of these might be interesting directions to pursue, but not all at once. B
  • Scott Hamilton & Harry Allen: Heavy Juice (2004, Concord). Too nice. Even more gentlemanly than Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Of course, it's also too lovely to hate. B+
  • Tardo Hammer: Tardo's Tempo (2004, Sharp Nine). Hammer only offers one original in this piano trio recording, the balance almost evenly split between standards and pieces out of the bebop legacy. On first approximation, that marks this as one of so many mainstream trio works, but it has more edge than that. He works to add something distinctive to every piece he touches, and more often than not he succeeds. The point, I suspect, isn't to step out from the bop tradition so much as to find the residual radicalism hidden deep within the orthodoxy. In this he reminds one a bit of Lennie Tristano, who is often cited as a forebear. Sharply recorded. B+
  • Richie Hart: Blues in the Alley (2004, Zoho). Nice, somewhat bluesy guitar record. No big deal, but nothing to sneeze at either. Especially "Well You Needn't," the Monk piece that opens it. B+
  • Alex Heitlinger Sextet: Green Light (2004, Synergy Music). Similar to the hard bop lineups of the '60s, with three horns (sax, trumpet, the leader's trombone) up front, piano, bass and drums out back. Like its prototype, it works best when everyone is loose and the leads rotate their shots. It drags a bit when they get in unison, and loses the appeal of the individual instruments. Nothing much wrong with it, but nothing especially interesting either. B
  • Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez: Italuba (2004, Pimienta). One of the major Cuban drummers, Hernandez played on over 300 albums in Cuba before he emigrated first to Italy then to the U.S. This is his first release as a leader, and he remembers his period in Italy both with the title (a bridge from Italy to Cuba) and by reworking a famous Dizzy Gillespie piece as "A Night in Torino." But everything else is deeply Cuban: the typical high speed piano, piercing trumpet, driving bass. But more than anything else this is a showcase for the drummer. B+
  • The Fred Hess Quartet: The Long and Short of It (2003 [2004], Tapestry). Hess is a tenor saxophonist, based in Colorado, where he founded the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, and continues to reside as some sort of eminence grise (now age 60) in a relatively unknown local scene. His AMG entry tries to draw comparisons between Hess and damn near every saxophonist from Lester Young to Charles Gayle, but he sounds pretty distinctive to me. For this quartet session, he's joined by Ron Miles (trumpet), Ken Filiano (bass), and Matt Wilson (drums). I've been finding sax/trumpet front lines to be a particular source of annoyance recently, but here they sound distinct and sufficient, and when they do play at the same time they often take off on interesting tangents. Miles' most effective leads come in splotchy discrete notes against a chug-a-lug rhythm, making for a comically impressionist effect. Filiano impresses with bass solos that are beautifully thought out and recorded clearly enough that they don't drop out of the music. Solid, interesting work. B+
  • John Heward Trio: Let Them Pass (Laissez-Passer) (2002 [2004], Drimala). The same title is recycled seven times, essentially the same piece improvised seven different ways. Joe Giardullo builds a layer cake here, playing tenor sax on the odd-numbered pieces, other instruments on the even numbers. But it's the drummer's album, and it pays to concentrate on him. B+
  • Andrew Hill: Dance With Death (1968 [2004], Blue Note). This is not the revelation of Hill's nascent arranging that the previously unreleased Passing Ships was. Rather, this was a relatively late (for Hill at Blue Note) small group session with an interesting front line -- Charles Tolliver on trumpet, Joe Farrell on tenor and soprano sax -- that sat on the shelf until 1980. A-
  • Dave Holland Big Band: Overtime (2005, Dare2/Sunnyside). Holland's big band is built around his quintet, the extra muscle being a full set of saxophones and triplets of trumpet and trombone. There is no piano, and Steve Nelson occupies his customary spot on vibes. Plus, as with all bassist's albums, the bass is mixed up, providing a clear and vibrant pulse throughout. The surplus of horns gives him plenty options, but as often as not he merely uses them for luscious brass backdrops. So the most striking thing here is the simplicity of conception. Still, there's a lot of superb solos to go with the immaculate organization. A-
  • ICP Orchestra: Oh, My Dog! (2001, ICP). I like the way they can string out a melodic section, but I don't quite get the rationale behind the long static bits where they just seem to be farting around. B+
  • ICP Orchestra: Aan and Uit (2003, ICP). Big band led by Misha Mengelberg with various other Dutch Masters along for the ride. The good humor is undoubted, but they rarely pull it all together -- even though when they do it can be extraordinary. B+
  • Ilmiliekki Quartet: March of the Alpha Males (2003, TUM). Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola puts a brassy sheen on everything he touches, very elegant. Pianist Tuomo Prattala earns his keep, too. But the most alpha of the alpha males is drummer Olavi Louhivuori, who drives things and sometimes just bangs for the hell of it. He gets a terrific array of sounds out of his kit. When the trumpet enters after a display, you wonder whether it's come to play taps. B+
  • Jazz Jamaica All Stars: Massive (2001, Dune). This has its fun moments, but I don't quite get the point. Basically, it's ska orchestrated for big band, and we do mean big: nine saxes, six trumpets, seven trombone, various others including Juliet Roberts singing two songs ("My Boy Lollipop" and "Walk On By"). Old sawhorses like "Liquidator" and "Al Capone" (perversely medleyed with "[Love Theme From] The Godfather") romp as expected, but then if everything behaves as expected, like, what is the point? It's not like there are no standards for this concept -- instrumentals were a feature of Jamaican music almost from the git-go (that's where dub came from), and nothing here makes me feel like discarding the Skatalites. No doubt it's just meant to be fun. Most likely points are overrated. But that's like saying so are critics. B
  • Billy Jenkins With the Blues Collective: S.A.D. (1996, Babel). Like a Brit Blood Ulmer, an avant-jazz guitarist who likes to sing gravitates to the blues. A pretty straight blues album at that -- even a horn section -- but titles like "Ain't Gonna Play No Jazz No More" and "Jazz Had a Baby (and They Called It Avant-Garde)" betray where he's coming from. Where he's going is harder to tell. The closer, a slab of slide guitar psychedelia called "Goodbye Blues," formally resembles some of his pop-music contortions. B+
  • Randy Johnston: Is It You? (2005, HighNote). Half trio, half quartet with Xavier Davis on piano. Like much jazz guitar this strikes me as light, but the closing "Groovy Samba" makes the best of that, floating off into the ether. B+
  • Anders Jormin: In Winds, in Light (2004, ECM). Album feels alien, out of some Euro tradition, possibly classical. Willemark's voice is static, high-pitched, arty, aloof, dominant. Nelson's "church organ" much more prominent than Crispell's piano, which continues in her slow-mo free jazz mode. Jormin plays bass, always a problem when trying to develop a lead voice. This is not without interest -- Jormin's bass playing is interesting, and Crispell gets in some licks -- it is extremely stiff for my taste: the last cut, to pick just one example, starts with a shrill scream and towering church organ, the stuff of horror films. B-
  • Kalaparush and the Light: Morning Song (2003 [2004], Delmark). Maurice McIntyre goes back to the avant-garde's heyday in the '60s: an associate of Roscoe Mitchell, a founder of the AACM. His occasional records frequently invoke the creator -- cf. the piece here called "I Don't Have an Answer Unless It's God." If that reminds your of Albert Ayler, that's a good start: he's more moderate than Ayler, but both favor the simple as well as the searching. He's joined here by Jesse Dulman on tuba and Ravish Momin on drums: a tenor sax trio only with tuba subbing for bass. The tuba opens up some two-horn possibilities without undue clutter, while providing a more robust, more metallic bottom. B+
  • Steve Lacy: The Gap (1972 [2005], Free America/Verve). Starts scratchy, with both Lacy and Steve Potts on soprano sax and Irene Aebi's cello added to bass and drums, but it levels out a bit with songs dedicated to Johnny Hodges and Sonny Clark. B
  • Dave Liebman & Phil Markowitz: Manhattan Dialogues (2005, Zoho). I suppose this is meant to remind one of Liebman's duo recordings with Richie Bierach, maybe even to carry on from there. But it doesn't make me want to go back and revisit. This feels arbitrary and unhinged -- the two players don't connect well, and aren't especially eloquent on their own. Liebman, at least, is more coherent when he switches to tenor sax. B
  • Maksim: The Piano Player (2003, MBO/EMI). Like Eldar Djangirov, another young East European whose daunting surname (Mrvica) has been suppressed by the marketeers. This one also plays piano, and is even heavier into the grandiose period of euroclassicism: Grieg, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, plus a piece of "Exodus" by Herbert Gold and a lot of Tonci Huljik that fits in seemlessly. Its jazz quotient is close to nil -- reminds me a bit of the recent Keiko Matsui, but even more so of Queen, who unlike ELP or Genesis could steal from the classics with enough good humor to be forgivable. Better than Queen, actually, because we don't have to deal with none of that opera shit. I doubt that I'll ever play it again as anything other than a grand joke, but in one spin it blew me away. That's worth noting. B+
  • Gui Mallon: Live at Montreux (2004, Adventure Music). Brazilian guitar, thickened by strings and percussion, with flute and sax for decoration -- weights not specified, but soprano is the most prominent. Despite initial misgivings, I'm finding this quite charming. Most of the record is filled up by "Brasil, Brazil Suite" -- a dozen or more pieces strung together. One oddment is that it even includes a rap. B+
  • Joe Maneri, Barre Phillips, Mat Maneri: Angles of Repose (2002 [2004], ECM). Dense, abstract album; mostly slow stuff, with a lot of tension. I find the Maneris, especially pere, rather difficult going, so I suppose it means something that this makes for rather interesting background noise. Not fun to listen to, but you get the sense they have something going even if it's not at all clear what it is. B+
  • The Best of Shelly Manne (1953-61 [2004], Contemporary). One of the few drummers to make the transitions from big band swing to bebop to Ornette without the slightest hitch, Manne's drumwork was inconspicuous but his ability to drive a band, keeping them light and fleet but together, was uncanny. With the leader in the background this sampler seems more arbitrary than most, starting points on paths worth pursuing separately, but together a quick glimpse of the diversity of the music Manne was most identified with -- west coast cool. A-
  • Mike Marshall & Choro Famoso (2004, Adventure Music). Brazilian choro music for mandolin, guitar, clarinet and percussion. Sounds like a cross between bluegrass and klezmer, which is roughly the idea: lithe and bouncy. Marshall is a mandolin player from Oakland CA, with a background that covers a lot of bluegrass, but he's been on a Brazilian kick lately, recording a previous Duets album (also choro), and running the Adventure Music label, which is turning into an interesting outlet for Brazilian music. B+
  • Keiko Matsui: Walls of Akendora (2005, Narada Jazz). This reminds me of classical music: not the old stuff that way back in grade school I avoided like the plague, but the stuff that snuck into my cranium through the movies when I was too ignorant to fathom what was going down. The central role of classical music in Hollywood was partly a historical accident, but the customary orchestration of drama was bound to be useful -- contemporary soundtracks follow the same ruts, even when they trade in string orchestras for synths. Matsui borrows more from Morricone than Mozart, but eschews the former's minimalism -- she likes to lay it on thick. I'm surprised it's as effective as it is. B+
  • Kate McGarry: Mercy Streets (2005, Palmetto). She's a singer with a lot of technique but an unimposing, perhaps even self-deprecating, air. I can see how folks might be impressed, but she gets on my nerves. The songs are scattered widely, but the one that both convinces me and turns me off the most is "Trouble of the World" -- a piece of gospel suffering that evokes everything I detest about religion. The dainty "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" is an odd closer, almost a throwaway as if she's embarrassed to be here. This was mostly done with guitar, bass and drums, but the guest pianist on three cuts is Fred Hersch, superb as ever. B
  • Chris McNulty: Dance Delicioso (2004 [2005], Elefant Dreams). A singer with a dusky voice, best matched to blues and slow torch songs, a minor thread in this album. Low point is a Brazilian beat piece which threatens to get her visa revoked, but trying to jazz up Annie Lennox isn't a much better idea. She manages to draw some good musicians -- most valuable is Gary Bartz on four tracks. But one of those is a Cole Porter standard that her voice seems too heavy for. B
  • Marian McPartland & Friends: 85 Candles -- Live in New York (2005, Concord, 2CD). There is some fine music here, but the parade of guest stars makes for a very haphazard performance; especially the singers and the piano duets. McPartland plays on half of the cuts, maybe a bit more. She's a splendid hostess, of course, and she's earned the recognition. But I don't find this parade of stars very appealing. B
  • Meat Beat Manifesto: At the Center (2005, Thirsty Ear). Jack Dangers' beats are splendid, and they keep coming. His "want ads" are odd, both in voice and content, which may or may not be a plus. He also has a text more/less on American imperialism which strikes me as fundamentally sound. Peter Gordon's "Flute Thang" is my favorite piece of flute since Robert Dick. Dave King and Craig Taborn help out. Jazz quotient isn't high, but it's in there somewhere. B+
  • Myra Melford/The Tent: Where the Two Worlds Touch (2004, Arabesque). This is an ugly, sprawling mess. I came close to putting this on the Duds list, and even now don't like it much. Melford is one of the major pianists of our age, and you can hear some of that here. But recently she's taken to playing harmonium, an instrument that sounds somewhere between organ and accordion, and that takes all of the sharpness out of her playing. And she's joined here by Chris Speed and Cuong Vu, who work with similar textures in their Yeah No group, but Melford pushes them to extremes they never risk by themselves. The first problem the album has is in pulling together the piano and harmonium pieces, and that never happens successfully -- maybe she should overdub? But dislikable as it is, it's impossible to hate such vigorous music. B+
  • Pablo Menéndez: Havana Blues Mambo (2005, Zoho). California-born guitarist -- "Cuba domiciled," whatever that means. The Afro-Cuban grooves are tasty enough, and I can't fault the guitar, but the sax and flute don't do anything for me, nor the vocal fills. Seems too cavalier as well as too complicated. Not awful; just falls below the line. B
  • Jason Miles: Miles to Miles: In the Spirit of Miles Davis (2005, Narada). That Jason Miles worked with Marcus Miller and Miles Davis on the latter's late '80s albums from Tutu to Amandla is a connection, but doesn't say much about spirit. Davis' post-'70 work was built around electric bass and guitar with a live drummer, and the keybs, even with Chick Corea, were just cheese sauce. But with Jason the synth beats are central: that's what he does. And despite an impressive array of guest talent that's about all he does. B-
  • Dominic Miller: Third World (2003 [2005], Alula). Mostly solo guitar, with one vocal and small bits of percussion added on a couple of tracks. Nice, in a very minor way. B
  • Miriodor: Parade + Live at Nearfest 2002 (1999-05 [2005], Cuneiform, 2CD). French instrumental rock, mostly keybs, cute at first, never quite annoying but feels less substantial as it piles up. B+
  • Wes Montgomery: Smokin' at the Half Note (1965 [2005], Verve). The front cover shows this as originally credited, with the Wynton Kelly Trio on top, Montgomery on the bottom. The Kelly Trio had its start as the rhythm section of the Miles Davis Quintet, but when Miles decided not to tour in the early '60s Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb set out on their own. Montgomery had done his major work for Riverside up to 1963 before moving to Verve where he mostly cut overly slick and saccharine versions of pop hits, but this date has grown in his canon, regarded by many as one of the essential milestones in jazz guitar. That judgment strikes me as overly generous. The five cuts on the original album -- three actually recut in the studio by Creed Taylor after finding the originals somehow lacking -- were precariously balanced between Kelly and Montgomery, providing tantalizing moments of each. This new edition tilts the balance decisively toward the guitarist with six extra cuts meant for radio, most with MC intros and chatter, but most also with sterling examples of Montgomery's melodic lines. A-
  • Jason Moran: Same Mother (2005, Blue Note). His usual trio, augmented by guitarist Marvin Swell, who wails like a sax on "Jump Up," strings out the Prokofiev piece, and rocks "I'll Play the Blues for You." Moran is at his most impressive in banging out chords on the opening and closing pieces, both with "Gangsterism" in the title. B+
  • Mozayik: Haitian Creole Jazz (2005, Zoho). I would have expected Haitian jazz to conjure up more voodoo or ju ju or something like that, but this group leads off with "Caravan" then makes nice through eleven originals, relying mostly on guitar, bass guitar, and a pretty slick pianist named Welmyr Jean-Pierre. Drums too, subtler than you'd expect, but they come from somewhere off the beaten path. Not much, but the groove is too irresistible for me to object. B+
  • Idris Muhammad: House of the Rising Sun (1976 [2004], CTI/Epic/Legacy). Creed Taylor in extremis, best if you concentrate on the percussion, which is the leader's calling, instead of the curious mix of Meters-style funk and disco that Taylor thought might sell; not that it deconstructs that cleanly, or that funk isn't its own reward. B
  • Michael Musillami Octet: Spirits (2004, Playscape). Like Mario Pavone's album from the same label, this is a remembrance of Thomas Chapin, who wrote all of the songs and whose spirit hovers over the proceedings. But this is a little harder to get a grip on: the larger group spreads the music and thins the musicianship, and Musillami's guitar, which can be lovely, doesn't get much space. At various times vibes, piano, or horns come up front -- Tom Christensen's saxophones come closest to the Chapin model, unsurprisingly. B+
  • Ted Nash and Odeon: La Espada de la Noche (2005, Palmetto). With violin and accordion this might sound like tango even if it didn't follow the familiar twists and turns. Along with Clark Gayton's tuba or trombone and Matt Wilson's drumming they make a fascinating backdrop for Nash's reeds -- mostly tenor sax, in a mode influenced by Lester Young, but also alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, and alto flute. A-
  • Natto Quartet: Thousand Oaks (2004 [2005], 482 Music). This doesn't give you much comfort -- just two Japanese instruments (shakuhachi, koto), electronics and piano. Splotches of sound, with little connective material. Not without interest, but in the end the feel is rather hollow. Most likely their intention. B
  • Negroni's Trio: Piano/Drums/Bass (2004, Universal Latino). Trio from Puerto Rico built around pianist José Negroni. Fast, percussive latin jazz, varied a bit by guest Ed Calle on soprano and tenor sax, one cut each. B+
  • Steve Nelson: Fuller Nelson (1998 [2004], Sunnyside). Nelson has probably been the most successful vibes sideman in jazz over the last twenty years, but he only has half-a-dozen or so recordings under his own name. The best known, Full Nelson, came out in 1989, and this is a reprise, also with Kirk Lightsey (piano) and Ray Drummond (bass). That sort of lineup shows up often on vibes records -- piano is similar in pitch and volume, less dynamic but with a richer sound, so it complements vibes nicely without overwhelming. Lightsey is a particularly good match for Nelson. B+
  • Tommy Newsom and His Octo-Pussycats (2004 [2005], Arbors). Newsom, the former bandleader on the Tonight show (following Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen, if memory serves), is in his mid-70s, and the rest of the band younger, but there are eight musicians, so maybe the group name has something to do with that. Nice, pleasant swing album -- perhaps a bit better than that when he plays Ellington, or when his cornet player gets some space. Cornet player: Warren Vaché. B+
  • Vardan Ovsepian: Akunc (2004, Fresh Sound). Dark, subtle, mostly quiet, voice (Monica Yngvesson) a minor component added obliquely. A quote from the artist sums it up: "After layers of heavy silence each sound appeared as a harmony itself. Then, old and new truths unfolded." B+
  • Afonso Pais: Terranova (2004 [2005], Clean Feed). Lovely little guitar album, in a trio with bass and drums. B+
  • Rick Parker Collective: New York Gravity (2002 [2004], Fresh Sound). Good record, but having played it more than half-a-dozen times it still hasn't made the leap from good record to something better. Parker plays trombone; the Collective adds trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass and drums, for a good deal of complexity. Every piece has lots of things going on; in a smaller or more patient world I might be able to figure them out. B+
  • Annette Peacock: Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook: The Aura Years (1978-82 [2004], Castle). Married first to Gary Peacock then to Paul Bley, she was more of a gadfly and joker than jazz musician, although Bley and Marilyn Crispell wound up recording whole albums of her songs. She started singing as input into the synthesizers that intrigued her and Bley, then cut several more/less rock albums in the '70s -- two collected here, plus some outtakes -- before fading away, as if she never conceived of anything as deliberate as a career. Still, her "rock shit" sounds remarkably like jazz even today. As a vocalist she's often thin and undisciplined, but she takes enormous dramatic risks with the title cut and her "Don't Be Cruel" cover. Elsewhere, as on "Survival," she lapses into softly rapped philosophizing that draws the music, a repetitive theme with improvised curlicues, up around her like a warm blanket. A
  • Luis Perdomo: Focus Point (2005, RKM) Perdomo is a Venezuelan pianist, and his piano forms the central pulse through this series of pieces. Joined by Miguel Zenon on three cuts, Ravi Coltrane on two, Max King (also tenor sax) on one -- just a duo, and possibly my favorite piece here, plus various bassists, Ralph Peterson Jr on drums, and (two cuts) Roberto Quintero on percussion. B+
  • Leslie Pintchik: So Glad to Be Here (2003 [2004], Ambient). Tidy little piano trio. Bright sound on the piano, interesting percussion, pretty good bass player. Much better than average for this sort of thing. B+
  • Putumayo Presents: New Orleans (1956-2004 [2005], Putumayo World Music). Trad jazz has gone through four or five major revivals since Louis Armstrong moved beyond it in the late '20s. This is the latest: the official party music of the New Orleans Tourist Board. The earlier revivals wished to return to the purism of polyphonous interplay; this one means mostly to pump up the brass, and has a broad enough sense of tradition to include hometown heroes Armstrong and Louis Prima, whose out-of-period pieces here are like the statues coming to life, and Dr. John, who reprises "Basin Street Blues" in case you didn't get it the first time, and Deacon Jones' hopped up "Going Back to New Orleans" -- a pop song from another great New Orleans tradition, written by Jimmy Liggins in 1950. This time it's just for fun. B+
  • Putumayo Presents: Kermit Ruffins (1992-2002 [2005], Putumayo World Music). The world according to Louis Armstrong is all this hometowner needs or wants; his "Ain't Misbehavin'" is textbook, while "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" and "When My Dream Boat Comes Home" are cornier and more foursquare than anything Pops did after he left King Oliver, not to mention more inspirational. B+
  • Ike Quebec: Heavy Soul (1961 [2005], Blue Note). A tenor saxophonist with a heavy tone, lumbering through vibratoed ballads, but capable of a soaring honk when the pace picks up, which happens when organist Freddie Roach gets up a full head of steam. Soul, because that is his right. B+
  • Kenneth Rexroth/Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poetry Readings in the Cellar (1957 [2004], Fantasy). The Cellar Jazz Quintet comps loosely behind Rexroth's furious paean to Dylan Thomas, then opens up for Ferlinghetti's autobiographical musings; the jazz is negligible, merely chasing the words, but the words dig deep. B+
  • Hanna Richardson and Phil Flanigan: Simply . . . With Spirit! (2005, Arbors). This seems rather plain at first, but Johnny Frigo gets a long violin solo as a guest on his song, "I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out," and that cracks the ice. By the time "Detour Ahead," the second Frigo song/guest spot, comes around Richardson almost sounds soulful. Those are the high points, but there are no low points. Smart bass, tasteful guitar, two more dashes of Frigo, "They All Laughed," nothing wrong with that. B+
  • Kurt Rosenwinkel: Deep Song (2005, Verve). For all the professionalism here -- Brad Mehldau on piano, Joshua Redman on tenor sax, first-rate bass and drums -- this leaves me unmoved. Rosenwinkel wrote 8 of 10 pieces, only rarely taking full command with his own skillful guitar. B+
  • Roswell Rudd (1965 [2005], Free America/Verve). The great trombonist trades lines with alto saxist John Tchicaď creating a bouncy polyphony that never quite slips into a groove. A radio shot tape, sound quality so-so. B+
  • Jerome Sabbagh: North (2004, Fresh Sound). Another good-not-great album for the series, another new-not-brilliant talent. Sabbagh plays tenor sax, notably sharing space with guitarist Ben Monder. The rhythm is somewhat off-kilter, and the tone of Sabbagh's sax is rather thin and metallic. Like most of Fresh Sound's New Talent series, this is smart, disciplined, and moderate. It's hard to tell them apart, hard to care which ones are a shade better than which others. B+
  • Sakésho: We Want You to Say . . . (2005, Heads Up). Andy Narrell's steel pans function alongside Mario Canonge's piano much like vibes. They have a thinner, higher pitched, soft percussive sound, which layers nicely on top of the piano. The piano-pans combo runs best at a fair gallop, which is the usual pace here. Pleasant enough, but not all that engaging. B
  • Dino Saluzzi/Jon Christensen: Senderos (2002 [2005], ECM). Bandoneon, reduced if anything past the bare bones level -- solo on four cuts, with just a dab of percussion by Chrisenson on the rest. Equally reduced in speed and punch, the aim perhaps to be meditative. Saluzzi can do remarkable things, but the instrument is too cheesy to come off as poignant. B
  • David Sanborn: Closer (2005, Verve). He's been there, done that, put enough money in pockets to get a recording budget and a listen from radio programmers who wouldn't give Bobby Watson or Vincent Herring the time of day. It helps that he has no interest in free time, and that his alto sax is a thing of beauty, and it don't hurt much that he can play the devil out of it. This isn't smooth in any definition, although the James Taylor song with the Lizz Wright vocal would fit the bill. But if they the smooth jazz powers slipped his perky "Tin Tin Deo" into their rotation it would stand out like Madonna on '80s AM. And while his "Capetown Fringe" does nothing that hasn't been done before, one wonders what the masses who never heard it before will think. His covers show good taste, and he doesn't muck them up even on the five tracks with strings. And he wrote the closing ballad, which, strings included, is lovely. B+
  • Martin Sasse Trio: Close Encounter (2003 [2004], Nagel Heyer). The key words on the cover are "featuring Vincent Herring." For the most part, Sasse and company are a high-spirited hard bop trio, which makes them the perfect foil for Herring's lustrous alto sax. When you hear him play you have to wonder how anyone could fall for any of those crossover horns: he's the real thing. (And I might add much better here than on his own record.) For the other part, he switches to flute for a lullaby, cutting his speed and lustre in half. Not bad in its own right, but not his meal ticket either. B+
  • Scanner + Dessy: Play Along (2005, Sub Rosa). Scanner is Robin Rimbaud. Dessy is Jean-Paul Dessy. Two plain electronics pieces don't do much -- relatively static doodling, pleasant enough. The other (first) piece is interesting, with four strings (two violas, two cellos) sawing in and out of tune backed with Scanner's tiny beats. B
  • Mario Schiano: On the Waiting List (1973 [2004], Atavistic). Another obscure flashback, with rich horn voicings popping out of an avant-garde matrix. B+
  • Avery Sharpe Trio: Dragon Fly (2005, JKNM). A bass player associated with McCoy Tyner and Yusef Lateef (who writes some of the booklet), Sharpe has emerged lately as a composer. Still, this is a rather problematic album. In Onaje Allen Gumbs he has a pianist who fits into the Tyner mold, and Winard Harper is a first rate drummer, but rather than working through the trio Sharpe throws them knuckleballs. He switches to 4- and 6-string electric bass, the latter working more like a guitar. He brings in guests: Chico Freeman for "Evolution," Jeri Brown on "Change," both with some background coloration for the swinging "Swingfield." In isolation these pieces are fine -- "Change" may be the best thing here, with only Sharpe's bass backing Brown, with slaps and nicks punctuating her scat -- but the tangents raise more questions than they answer, like where does he really want to go. Good to hear Freeman, even though he doesn't do all that much. Sharpe talks about his childhood fear of dragonflies, then concludes, "Maybe this is a metaphor for life. Fear can cloud rational thought. When one thinks a situation appears one way, something else can actually be the culprit." B+
  • Archie Shepp: Black Gipsy (1969 [2005], Free America/Verve). Two long and one shorter pieces, blues-based although they wander a lot, with one touching base in Rio de Janeiro and Casablanca before landing in Chicago. The landing unleashes Chicago Beauchamp for a blues shout, with most of the fun coming between his lines. Shepp plays soprano sax here, which is indistinct, as is Noah Howard's alto and Clifford Thornton's trumpet, but they harmonize with Leroy Jenkins' viola to keep the vamps coming. Sounds thin and whiney at first but builds. A minor addition to Shepp's soul jazz phase. B+
  • Alan Shorter: Tes Esat (1970 [2005], Free America/Verve). Wayne's trumpet-playing brother is the nominal leader here but in all other respects take a back seat to a pair of South Africans: Gary Windo on tenor sax and Johnny Dyani on bass, piano, various flutes and bells. Dyani is up to all sorts of mischief, including a rather abstractly percussive piano solo, but Windo is just noisy, while Shorter just adds to the blare. The fourth wheel is drummer Rene Augustus, whose free energy thing isn't a problem, nor an answer. C+
  • Wayne Shorter: Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter (1960-2001 [2004], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). Shorter has been a major jazz figure since he recorded Introducing Wayne Shorter in 1959, but he was unusual in his avoidance of the spotlight. His major work early on was in bands led by Art Blakey and Miles Davis, while his own records on Blue Note sort of lurked in the background. He wasn't unnoticed: he was distinctive on tenor sax, and later soprano sax, but he was even more noted as a composer, and his tenures with both Blakey and Davis -- arguably the best periods either ever had -- were built on his writing. But in 1970 he submerged under Joe Zawinul's Weather Report fusion, and he wandered much thereafter, only to emerge as a certifiable Living Legend with his recent string of Verve albums. This particular comp was intended as a supplement to a biography, so it's appropriate that it stradles every facet of his career, but it does so uncomfortably. It ignores his Vee-Jays, short changes his Blue Notes (cf. The Classic Blue Note Recordings, with one disc from his own records and the other from others, and not just Blakey), stoops to session work (Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell), and ends with a mixed bag licensed from Verve, while padding heavily from Legacy's own catalog. As befits a biography, it covers warts and all. But most of us could pass on the warts. B
  • Judi Silvano: Let Yourself Go (2003 [2004], Zoho). A standards repertoire, dedicated to her mum on for her 80th birthday, old songs mostly from the '30s, thick with Arlen, Warren, Rodgers & Hart, Kern & Hammerstein, the Gershwins, above all Cole Porter. She has an authoritative voice, nothing fancy or extreme, but clear and strong, the power to make herself heard. The orchestra, arranged and conducted by pianist Michael Abene, is full of notable soloists: Dick Oatts was one that I noticed. B+
  • The Sound of New York Jazz Underground (2003 [2004], Fresh Sound New Talent, 2CD). Fresh Sound's New Talent series has developed into a major forum for slightly-left-of-center new jazz since its start ten years ago. Now, for their 200th release, they've rounded up a substantial group of their talent to commemorate their anniversary with. The company itself is based in Barcelona, but New York is practically a second home -- the source and gathering place of most of their talent. Still, this is atypical: most of FSNT's records have been small groups, but with so much talent to showcase the "Sound" here is purely big band. There's also a kitchen sink aspect, especially as they work various singers in. Aside from the singers it mostly works: the arrangements are richly textured and nuanced, with lots of razor sharp bits and a few standout solos. (Ben Monder impresses me as MVP, his contribution a bit clearer than most because he's the only guitarist. Chris Cheek and Miguel Zenon are also prominent.) Still, I admire it more than I like it, and I find it starts off too arty and ends up with too much bombast -- risks in any such project. But this does reflect well on the label: rather than going back for the usual rehash they've used the occasion to create something new. And while I'm not a big fan of big bands, it's worth noting that this sort of ad hoc assemblage is one of the few chances musicians these days get to play en masse -- which is something they seem to enjoy. B
  • String Zone: Mystery Bag (2003 [2004], Nagel Heyer). This is a group from Norway with two guitars, violin and bass. They don't swing, at least in the sense of the Reinhardt/Grappelli (or Lang/Venuti) tradition. And they aren't avant, like the Revolutionary Ensemble or the String Trio of New York. If you imagine a diamond with swing at the bottom and avant at the top, the other two corners might be soul jazz and hard bop, which to the best of my knowledge have never been played with this instrumentation -- even Grant Green, who straddles those two corners, never played with a violin or without a drummer. String Zone are smack dab in the middle of that diamond, which means that they don't sound like anything I've ever heard before, and they're also not what you'd call innovative or pathbreaking -- the inevitable suggestion is that the reason why what they do has never been done before must be because it wasn't worth doing. But actually this is a very enjoyable group. Maybe that's the mystery? B+
  • Suhkan Uhka: Suhka (2003, TUM). Big band, led by bassist Antti Hytti, who also composes a little more than half the material. About half of the band members are people I know from other records, so it feels like a who's who of Finnish jazz. Parts of this are impressive, much of it is lovely, some of it is just big. B+
  • Martin Taylor: The Valley (2005, The Guitar Label). Solo guitar, aside from three songs with vocals: Bryn Terfel and Sacha Distel are the sort of vocalists who are likely to be much admired in Welsh pubs. (Well, Terfel is Welsh; Distel is French, and a shade less operatic, so he might not go over so well, but they sound much the same from here.) The vocals took me a while to get over, but Terfel's songs are as square and overblown as he is ("Bridge Over Troubled Water," "God Bless the Child"), and I can't begrudge anyone on "I've Got You Under My Skin." Taylor, of course, is a marvelous guitarist -- never more so than on "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," but nothing else quite lives up to that standard. B+
  • Gebhard Ullmann: The Big Band Project (2004, Soul Note). The NDR Big Band makes for some interesting noise, but this is much too scattered to make a coherent impression. Ullmann is supposedly the leader, but he's severely outnumbered. B
  • Gebhard Ullmann: The Clarinet Trio: Ballads and Related Objects (2003 [2004], Leo). Pretty abstract. Three clarinets, poking around at slow speed, the harmony cancelling one another out, the divergences cancelling out too. Pay close attention and some of it is interesting, but mostly it's over my head, or too little reward for too much work. B
  • Urban Knights: Urban Knights VI (2005, Narada Jazz). Maybe there is funk after life, but that doesn't make it a good thing. When you're dead your done. Why warm it up? C
  • The Johnny Varro Trio: Pure Imagination (2004, Arbors). Delightful piano trio, swings graciously and sometimes hard. I've played it a lot for background, never failed to enjoy it, never suspected that it might rise a notch. B+
  • Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy: Mal Waldron With the Steve Lacy Quintet (1972, Free America/Verve). Waldron and Lacy made some fine duet records later, so the problem here is the busy and rather squeaky Quintet, to which Waldron adds some welcome punch. B
  • Per Henrik Wallin Trio: The Stockholm Tapes (1975-77 [2004], Ayler). Small scale avant trio. I find this kind of thrash refreshing without really being able to explain why. Ulander sounds somewhat like John Tchicai or Jemeel Moondoc or probably a few others: an alto saxophonist who keeps poking and prodding, and he dominates much of the action, making a rather strong showing. Wallin is more in the background, although he's more likely to chime against the grain than comp along. B+
  • Joe Williams: Havin' a Good Time (1965 [2005], Hyena). Smooth as silk and rich as honey, as usual; with Ben Webster to plush things up even more, and Junior Mance to keep the ball rolling. But not a great showcase for Webster, who I figure to be the calling card. B+
  • Pamela Williams: Sweet Saxations (2005, Shanachie). Alto sax, with a tiny boost to her playing which reminds me a bit of old guys like Hal Singer, but the rhythm matrix here is the usual painless groove. The one token vocal piece ululates gospel, but the basic grind is old fashioned r&b. B-
  • Anthony Wonsey Trio: Blues for Hirosh (2004, Sharp Nine). Beautifully recorded hard bop piano trio, typical for this label. Front cover says "Swingin' with the Anthony Wonsey Trio," and "swinging" does it justice. B+
  • Frank Wright: Uhuru Na Umoja (1970 [2005], Free America/Verve). Double-barrelled heavy blowing, with Noah Howard's alto sax reinforcing Wright's earthshaking tenor, the strategy little more than to knock you down and sweep you away in a tidal wave of high energy and unchecked spirit. B+
  • Patrick Zimmerli: Phoenix (2005, Songlines). The musical textures are conjured by a string section with piano, fretless electric bass and drums (or approximations thereof), with Zimmerli adding occasional soprano saxophone. This ranges from chamber music to something semi-industrial where the violins echo old horror movie motifs. I like it best when the beat takes over, or when the sax is otherworldly. B

This drops the "done" file to 142 albums, about half of the original file size.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Village Voice published the latest Jazz Consumer Guide today. This is the fifth column in the series, appearing a year plus/minus a week after the first. The lineup for this JCG is as follows:

  • Pick Hits:
    • William Parker Quartet: Sound Unity (AUM Fidelity)
    • Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock: Symbiosis (Spartacus)
  • A-List:
    • Rez Abbasi: Snake Charmer (Earth Sounds)
    • The Blueprint Project (Creative Nation Music)
    • Brötzmann/Friis Nielsen/Uusklya: Medicina (Atavistic)
    • Avishai Cohen Trio & Ensemble: At Home (RazDaz/Sunnyside)
    • Douglas/Sclavis/Lee/Van Der Schyff: Bow River Falls (Premonition)
    • Dudek/Niebergall/Vesala: Open (1977, Atavistic)
    • FME: Underground (Okka Disk)
    • The Frank and Joe Show: 33 1/3 (Hyena)
    • Scott Hamilton: Back in New York (Concord)
    • Raphe Malik Quartet: Last Set: Live at the 1369 Jazz Club (1984, Boxholder)
    • William Parker: Luc's Lantern (Thirsty Ear)
    • Steve Shapiro and Pat Bergeson: Low Standards (Sons of Sound)
  • Dud du Jour:
    • Chris Botti: When I Fall in Love (Columbia)
  • Honorable Mention:
    • Tony Malaby: Adobe (Sunnyside)
    • Per Henrik Wallin: Burning in Stockholm (1981, Atavistic)
    • Willie Nelson: Nacogdoches (1997, Pedernales)
    • Malik/McPhee/Robinson: Sympathy (Boxholder)
    • John Hagen: Segments (Cadence Jazz)
    • Gian Tornatore: Sink or Swim (Fresh Sound NT)
    • Jeff Parker: The Relatives (Thrill Jockey)
    • Michiel Scheen Quartet: Dance, My Dear? (Data)
    • John Ellis: One Foot in the Swamp (Hyena)
    • Brötzmann Clarinet Project: Berlin Djungle (1984, Atavistic)
    • Ricardo Silveira/Luiz Avellar: Live: Play the Music of Milton Nascimento (Adventure Music)
    • Sonore: No One Ever Works Alone (Okka Disk)
    • Noël Akchoté: Sonny II: The Music of Sonny Sharrock (Winter & Winter)
    • Bobby Watson & Horizon: Horizon Reassembled (Palmetto)
    • Cosmosamatics: Three (Boxholder)
    • Fred Hess Quartet: Crossed Paths (Tapestry)
  • Duds:
    • Steve Cole: Spin (Narada Jazz)
    • The Frank and Joe Show: 66 2/3 (Hyena)
    • Sun Ra: Spaceship Lullaby (1954-60, Atavistic)

When I started this column over a year ago I was worried about not getting enough material to review, but increasingly the problem is how to handle the surfeit. I have no doubt that I could do this six times per year, but the Voice has doubts about the space, and we inevitably run into scheduling conflicts leading to delays. This column was all but done back in April before I had to crunch down on the jazz labels piece, but even so it was finished and edited by the end of May. The next one, which you aren't likely to see until September or October, is mostly set now -- except for Pick Hits and Duds, always the hard items to settle on. Given the surfeit of good records, and the squeeze on space and dealines, the big thing that's happened is that the Honorable Mentions list has started to creep up on my long-established grade curve.

Readers familiar with my record database and my year-in-progress lists will note that the top six Honorable Mentions this month have been graded A-. I pushed these records out as HM this time figuring that it would be better to do so now than to wait until I can find A-list space for them. One consequence is that the bottom half or more of my B+ list is falling short of the HM list. Another is that I opportunistically weed out items I can review elsewhere -- mostly reissues at Recycled Goods -- or items Francis Davis writes about in the Voice. For instance, the next RG will have reviews of two rock-jazz fringe (not fusion) comps that I had originally planned on working into JCG: Annette Peacock, My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook (Castle), and James Chance, Sax Education (Tiger Style).

To give you an idea what my backlog looks like, the following records have been graded A- or better and not CG'ed to date -- some will (perhaps as HMs), and some won't. (Many of the reissues have already appeared in RG, or soon will.)

  • Art Pepper: Mosaic Select (1956-57, Mosaic, 3CD)
  • Billy Crystal Presents the Milt Gabler Story (1938-64, Verve)
  • Annette Peacock: Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook (1978-82, Castle)
  • Sirone Bang Ensemble: Configuration (Silkheart)
  • James Chance: Sax Education (1978-88, Tiger Style, 2CD)
  • James Blood Ulmer: Birthright (Hyena)
  • Tina Brooks: True Blue (1960, Blue Note)
  • Juhani Aaltonen Trio: Mother Tongue (TUM)
  • Anat Cohen: Place & Time (Anzic)
  • Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana: Climbing the Banyan Tree (Clean Feed)
  • The David S. Ware Quartets: Live in the World (1998-2003, Thirsty Ear, 3CD)
  • Larry Young: Of Love and Peace (1966, Blue Note)
  • Miles Davis: Miles in Tokyo (1964, Columbia/Legacy)
  • Houston Person: To Etta With Love (HighNote)
  • Jerry Granelli: Sandhills Reunion (Songlines)
  • Joshua Redman Elastic Band: Momentum (Nonesuch)
  • Ibrahim Electric: Meets Ray Anderson (Stunt)
  • Ted Nash and Odeon: La Espada de la Noche (Palmetto)
  • John Surman: Way Back When (1969, Cuneiform)
  • Sonny Stitt: It's Magic (1969, Delmark)
  • Miles Davis: Miles in Berlin (1964, Columbia/Legacy)
  • Triot With John Tchicai: Sudden Happiness (TUM)
  • Happy Apple: The Peace Between Our Companies (Sunnyside)
  • Benoit Delbecq Unit: Phonetics (Songlines)
  • Tom Christensen: New York School (Playscape)
  • Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio: Other Valentines (Atavistic)
  • Billy Crystal Remembers Billie Holiday (1939-50, Verve)
  • Ravi Coltrane: In Flux (Savoy Jazz)
  • Eric Alexander: Dead Center (HighNote)
  • The Nels Cline Singers: The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone)
  • Ari Hoenig: The Painter (Smalls)
  • Russ Lossing: Phrase 6 (Fresh Sound NT)
  • Wes Montgomery: Smokin' at the Half Note (1965, Verve)
  • Andrew Hill: Dance With Death (1968, Blue Note)
  • Dave Holland Big Band: Overtime (Dare2/Sunnyside)
  • Jim Hall: Magic Meeting (ArtistShare)
  • Graham Collier: Workpoints (1968-75, Cuneiform, 2CD)
  • Pierre Dřrge & New Jungle Orchestra: Dancing Cheek to Cheek (Stunt)
  • Miles Davis: The Best of Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964 (Columbia/Legacy)
  • Dexter Gordon: Mosaic Select (1978-79, Mosaic, 3CD)
  • The Best of Eric Dolphy (1960-61, Prestige)
  • Miles Davis: "Four" and More (1964, Columbia/Legacy)
  • Dave Burrell: After Love (1970, Free America/Verve)
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago: Phase One (1971, Free America/Verve)
  • The Best of Shelly Manne (1953-61, Contemporary)

The backlogged B+ list is even longer and more problematic. Reissues will be noted in RG but probably dropped here. The bottom half is very unlikely to show up in a future JCG, although I have no doubt that these are good records that many people would find quite the treat. (Order is very rough; my bottom HM this time, Fred Hess, was ranked somewhere near Jarrett and Lloyd.)

  • Mike Ladd: Negrophilia [The Album] (Thirsty Ear)
  • Wolfgang Mitterer: Radio Fractal/Beat Music: Live at Donaueschingen 2002 (Hatology, 2CD)
  • Copland/Abercrombie/Wheeler: Brand New (Challenge)
  • James Finn Trio: Plaza de Toros (Clean Feed)
  • Trygve Seim: Sangam (ECM)
  • Motian/Frisell/Lovano: I Have the Room Above Her (ECM)
  • The Fonda/Stevens Group: Forever Real (482 Music)
  • Eugene Chadbourne: The Hills Have Jazz (Boxholder)
  • Gianluigi Trovesi/Gianni Coscia: Round About Weill (ECM)
  • Duo Nueva Finlandia: Short Stories (TUM)
  • The Dave Brubeck Quartet: London Flat London Sharp (Telarc)
  • Jason Moran: Same Mother (Blue Note)
  • Dick Hyman and Randy Sandke: Now and Again (Arbors)
  • Russ Johnson: Save Big (Omnitone)
  • Kenny Wheeler: What Now? (CAM Jazz)
  • Roni Ben-Hur: Anna's Dance (Reservoir)
  • Rosenberg/Baker/Hatwich/Daisy: New Folk, New Blues (482 Music)
  • David "Fathead" Newman: I Remember Brother Ray (HighNote)
  • Miles Davis: 'Round About Midnight (Legacy Edition) (1955-57, Columbia/Legacy, 2CD)
  • Eric Comstock: No One Knows (Harbinger)
  • Charles Gayle: Shout! (Clean Feed)
  • Meat Beat Manifesto: At the Center (Thirsty Ear)
  • Johnny Coles: Little Johnny C (1963, Blue Note)
  • Luis Perdomo: Focus Point (RKM)
  • Iro Haarla & Ulf Krokfors: Heart of a Bird (TUM)
  • John O'Gallagher's Axiom: Line of Sight (Fresh Sound NT)
  • Ian Hendrickson-Smith: Still Smokin' (Sharp Nine)
  • Enrico Pieranunzi/Paul Motian: Doorways (CAM Jazz)
  • Roni Ben-Hur: Signature (Reservoir)
  • François Carrier Trio: Play (482 Music)
  • Ruby Braff: You Brought a New Kind of Love (Arbors)
  • Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Ground (ECM)
  • Putumayo Presents: New Orleans (1956-2004, Putumayo World Music)
  • Dizzy Gillespie: Dizzy: The Music of John Birks Gillespie (1950-63, Verve)
  • Phil Ranelin: Inspiration (Wide Hive)
  • Putumayo Presents: Kermit Ruffins (1992-2002, Putumayo World Music)
  • Dennis González NY Quartet: NY Midnight Suite (Clean Feed)
  • Mike Wofford: Live at Athenaeum Jazz (Capri)
  • Critters Buggin': Stampede (Ropeadope)
  • Mike Marshall & Choro Famoso (Adventure Music)
  • Greg Burk Quartet: Carpe Momentum (Soul Note)
  • Wasilewski/Kurkiewicz/Miskiewicz: Trio (ECM)
  • Eric Felten: Meets the Dek-Tette (VSOP)
  • Marshall Gilkes Quartet: Edenderry (Alternate Side)
  • Mark Masters Ensemble: Porgy & Bess Redefined! (Capri)
  • Trio East: Stop-Start (Sons of Sound)
  • The Ken Walker Sextet: Terra Firma (Synergy Music)
  • Louise Rogers/Rick Strong: Bass-ically Speaking (Rilo)
  • Ernest Ranglin: Surfin' (Tropic/Telarc)
  • Exuberance: Live at Vision Festival (Ayler)
  • Mario Pavone: Boom (Playscape)
  • The Howard Alden-Dan Barrett Quintet: Live in '95 (Arbors)
  • Archie Shepp & Mal Waldron: Left Alone Revisited . . . a Tribute to Billie Holiday (Synergy Music)
  • Ben Schwendener/Uwe Steinmetz: Apfelschaun (Gravity)
  • Cor Fuhler: Corkestra (Data)
  • Wallace Roney: Prototype (HighNote)
  • Marc Copland With Greg Osby: Night Call (Nagel Heyer)
  • Soweto Kinch: Conversations With the Unseen (Dune)
  • Leslie Pintchik: So Glad to Be Here (Ambient)
  • Kenny Wheeler & John Taylor: Where Do We Go From Here? (CAM Jazz)
  • Yves François: Blues for Hawk (1981-82, Delmark)
  • Anthony Braxton: Donna Lee (1972, Free America/Verve)
  • Jim Snidero: Close Up (Milestone)
  • Mongezi Feza: Free Jam (1972, Ayler, 2CD)
  • Industrial Jazz Group: The Star Chamber (Innova)
  • Curtis Fuller: Keep It Simple (Savant)
  • John Scofield: That's What I Say: Plays the Music of Ray Charles (Verve)
  • Kammerflimmer Kollektief: Absencen (Staubgold)
  • Mick Rossi: One Block From Planet Earth (Omnitone)
  • David Sanborn: Closer (Verve)
  • Leo Genovese: Haikus II (Fresh Sound)
  • Anthony Wonsey Trio: Blues for Hiroshi (Sharp Nine)
  • Enrico Pieranunzi: Fellini Jazz (CAM Jazz)
  • Dominic Duval/Joe McPhee: Rules of Engagement, Vol. 2 (Drimala)
  • Afonso Pais: Terranova (Clean Feed)
  • Vardan Ovsepian: Akunc (Fresh Sound NT)
  • The Johnny Varro Trio: Pure Imagination (Arbors)
  • Per Henrik Wallin Trio: The Stockholm Tapes (1975-77, Ayler)
  • Richie Hart: Blues in the Alley (Zoho)
  • Sangha Quartet: Fear of Roaming (Fresh Sound NT)
  • Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble: Mean Ameen (Delmark)
  • Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Thought Trains (Sons of Sound)
  • Monk Hughes & the Outer Realm: A Tribute to Brother Weldon (Stones Throw)
  • Frank Wright: Uhuru Na Umoja (1970, Free America/Verve)
  • Miles Davis: Miles Davis in Europe (1963, Columbia/Legacy)
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago: AEC With Fontella Bass (1970, Free America/Verve)
  • Introducing the Javier Vercher Trio (Fresh Sound NT)
  • Pedro Madaleno: The Sound of Places (Clean Feed)
  • Buyu Ambroise: Blues in Red (Justin Time)
  • René Marie: Serene Renegade (MaxJazz)
  • John Heward Trio: Let Them Pass (Laissez-Passer) (Drimala)
  • Myra Melford/The Tent: Where the Two Worlds Touch (Arabesque)
  • Paul McCandless: Shape Shifter (Synergy Music)
  • Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts: Wake Up! (To What's Happening) (Palmetto)
  • Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble: Musik (Enja)
  • William Ash Trio: The Phoenix (Smalls)
  • Wynton Marsalis: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (Blue Note)
  • Maurice Brown: Hip to Bop (Brown)
  • Nanette Natal: It's Only a Tune (Benyo Music)
  • Paul Brody: Beyond Babylon (Tzadik)
  • Atomic/School Days: Nuclear Assembly Hall (Okka Disk, 2CD)
  • Juhani Aaltonen and Henrik Otto Donner With the Avanti Chamber Orchestra: Strings Revisited (TUM)
  • The Contemporary Jazz Quintet: Actions (1966-67, Atavistic)
  • Roswell Rudd (1965, Free America/Verve)
  • Anthony Braxton: Saxophone Improvisations Series F (1972, Free America/Verve, 2CD)
  • Ike Quebec: Heavy Soul (1961, Blue Note)
  • Martin Sasse Trio: Close Encounter (Nagel Heyer)
  • Gui Mallon: Live at Montreux (Adventure Music)
  • Clifford Thornton: The Panther and the Lash (1970, Free America/Verve)
  • Paul Bley: Improvisie (1971, Free America/Verve)
  • Hank Mobley: High Voltage (1967, Blue Note)
  • Sasha Dobson: The Darkling Thrush (Smalls)
  • Mushroom: Glazed Popems (Black Beauty)
  • Mario Schiano: On the Waiting List (1973, Atavistic)
  • Kenneth Rexroth/Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poetry Readings in the Cellar (1957, Fantasy)
  • Lee Konitz/Alan Broadbent: More Live-Lee (Milestone)
  • Ned Goold Trio: The Flows (Smalls)
  • Jerome Sabbagh: North (Fresh Sound)
  • Denys Baptiste: Let Freedom Ring! (Dune)
  • Negroni's Trio: Piano/Drums/Bass (Universal Latino)
  • Active Ingredients: Titration (Delmark)
  • Judi Silvano: Let Yourself Go (Zoho)
  • Alexis Cuadrado Sextet: Visual (Fresh Sound)
  • Martin Taylor: The Valley (The Guitar Label)
  • Keith Jarrett: Radiance (ECM, 2CD)
  • Charles Lloyd: Jumping the Creek (ECM)
  • The Randy Sandke Quartet: Trumpet After Dark (Evening Star)
  • Dave's True Story: Nature (BePop)
  • Fred Frith: Eleventh Hour (Winter & Winter)
  • Mozayik: Haitian Creole Jazz (Zoho)
  • Fast 'N' Bulbous: Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind (Cuneiform)
  • Keiko Matsui: Walls of Akendora (Narada Jazz)
  • Pat Metheny Group: The Way Up (Nonesuch)
  • Enrico Pieranunzi: Special Encounter (CAM Jazz)
  • Bill Cole/William Parker: Two Masters: Live at the Prism (Boxholder)
  • The Jim Seeley/Arturo O'Farrill Quintet (Zoho)
  • Dave Douglas: Mountain Passages (Greenleaf Music/Koch)
  • String Zone: Mystery Bag (Nagel Heyer)
  • Zach Brock and the Coffee Achievers: Chemistry (Secret Fort)
  • Lea Delaria: Double Standards (Telarc)
  • Vinkeloe/Cremaschi/Masaoka/Robair: Klang. Farbe. Melodie. (482 Music)
  • Stefano Di Battista: Parker's Mood (Blue Note)
  • Salvatore Bonafede: Journey to Donnafugata (CAM Jazz)
  • SF Jazz Collective (Nonesuch)
  • Randy Johnston: Is It You? (HighNote)
  • Joe Williams: Havin' a Good Time (1965, Hyena)
  • Kurt Rosenwinkel: Deep Song (Verve)
  • The Fred Hess Quartet: The Long and Short of It (Tapestry)
  • Dick Hyman and Tom Pletcher: If Bix Played Gershwin (Arbors)
  • David Weiss: The Mirror (Fresh Sound)
  • Scott Hamilton & Harry Allen: Heavy Juice (Concord)
  • Tardo Hammer: Tardo's Tempo (Sharp Nine)
  • Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez: Italuba (Pimienta)
  • Rashied Ali/Arthur Rhames: The Dynamic Duo (1981, Ayler, 2CD)
  • Michael Musillami Octet: Spirits (Playscape)
  • Emergency: Homage to Peace (1970, Free America/Verve)
  • Joey DeFrancesco With Jimmy Smith: Legacy (Concord)
  • Randy Sandke and the Metatonal Band: The Mystic Trumpeter (Evening Star)
  • Billy Jenkins With the Blues Collective: S.A.D. (Babel)
  • Simone Kopmajer: Romance (Zoho)
  • Hanna Richardson and Phil Flanigan: Simply . . . With Spirit! (Arbors)
  • Maneri/Phillips/Maneri: Angles of Repose (ECM)
  • Dr. John: The Best of the Parlophone Years (1998-2004, Blue Note)
  • Onaje Allan Gumbs: Remember Their Innocence (Ejano Music)
  • Erin Bode: Don't Take Your Time (MaxJazz)
  • Rick Parker Collective: New York Gravity (Fresh Sound)
  • Harris Eisenstadt Quintet: Jalolu (CIMP)
  • Kahil El'Zabar & David Murray: We Is: Live at the Bop Shop (Delmark)
  • Satoko Fujii: Sketches (NatSat)
  • Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet: Images (Okka Disk)
  • Ilmiliekki Quartet: March of the Alpha Males (TUM)
  • Kalaparush & the Light: Morning Song (Delmark)
  • Steve Nelson: Fuller Nelson (1998, Sunnyside)
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook (1963, Verve)
  • Maksim: The Piano Player (MBO/EMI)
  • Tommy Newsom and His Octo-Pussycats (Arbors)
  • Suhkan Uhka: Suhka (TUM)
  • Steve Swell/Perry Robinson: Invisible Cities (Drimala)
  • Ullmann/Dahlgren/Herbert: BassX3 (Drimala)
  • Avery Sharpe Trio: Dragon Fly (JKNM)

It would take three columns to work off these two backlog lists, and there are many more unrated records in the queue. And of course many more records are coming down the pike. I'm trying to capture as much of this information as I can. But in many cases I'm running into a time squeeze as well as a space squeeze. I try not to make snap judgments, which are more likely to reflect prejudices than considered views, but many times the good records that sneak up on you lose out because they don't get the chance. That's one of the inevitable pitfalls in tryin to cast a wide net. (Another is that no net is ever wide enough.)

Within the next week or so I'll go back through these lists and flush out about half of the titles, moving the notes to the notebook. Progress on sucking the notes out of the notebook, cleaning them up, and posting them on Terminal Zone is so slow it hardly deserves mentioning, but I still expect that much of this will wind up there eventually. I'm also toying with the idea of doing a "Jazz CG Notebook" column where I can note some of the more interesting bits of the overflow.

At the moment, I'm closing out July's Recycled Goods column. The June column has a whole section on Atavistic's Unheard Music Series, which also figures in this Jazz CG (Dudek, Wallin, Berlin Djungle, Sun Ra). The July column will include a complete rundown of Verve's Free America series, as well as the Peacock and Chase comps, plus much more.

I recently got a letter from a reader complaining about how he has to go back to the pre-'70s period to find good jazz. Actually, there's a vast amount of good jazz produced these days -- more than the c. 1960 peak, probably a lot more. The idea behind the CG column format is to help you find good and interesting music without boring you stiff with a lot of redundant words. I think it's working.


The following are the notes (first drafts) for the records included in Jazz CG (5).

  • Rez Abbasi: Snake Charmer (2005, Earth Sounds). Bill Milkowski's liner notes touts Abbasi as among "the top ranks of today's post-Metheny-Scofield-Frisell-Abercrombie-Stern crop of plectorists." I hear a bit of Abercrombie in his lines and Scofield in his grooves -- his ability to propel his pieces forward. These particular pieces cycle between three complementary voices: Gary Versace's organ, Dave Liebman's soprano sax, and Kiran Ahluwalia's vocals. Liebman, last heard with Vic Juris (Abassi's polar opposite), is doubly delightful. I'm not sure that he plays on more than two cuts, but he nails them. Versace's tends to fill in rather than pump up the volume. The vocals on the last two cuts are meant for color, and the last one sets down so smoothly you hardly know you've landed. A-
  • Noël Akchoté: Sonny II: The Music of Sonny Sharrock (2003 [2004], Winter & Winter). Sonny Sharrock was born in 1940 in Ossining NY, close in time but far in distance from the sharecropper photos that accompany this record. This is but one of many incongruities here. Sharrock's guitar work was most famous for its wild attack, but Akchoté plays everything here as miniaturist fragment. But Sharrock himself wasn't a one trick pony, as proven by the atypically accessible Highlife. B+
  • The Blueprint Project (2004, Creative Nation Music). The core is a threesome -- Jared Sims on sax, Tyson Rogers on piano, and Eric Hofbauer on guitar -- who met in 1997 at New England Conservatory and have now crafted three albums. They write and play in the postbop idiom du jour, not out but broad enough to incorporate much of what once was. However, as a trio the mix of piano, sax and guitar doesn't quite cut it. This time they bulked up with Cecil McBee on bass and Matt Wilson on drums, and the result is a thoughtful, fullsome piece of work. A-
  • Chris Botti: When I Fall in Love (2004, Columbia). His image may remind people of Chet Baker, but if he's the new Baker the original could pass for Fats Navarro. But this album at least breaks out of the smooth jazz formula: no funk, no groove, no beat. With Botti's plaintive trumpet backed by string orchestra, the record can be gorgeous as long as the songs are irresistible, like the title cut. But he can't salvage tripe like "Cinema Paradiso," and three cuts with guest vocalists, including his fairy-godfather Sting, just dull the mood. This was the best selling mostly-instrumental jazz album in recent memory. B-
  • Brötzmann Clarinet Project: Berlin Djungle (1984 [2004], Atavistic). Structurally this is similar to Peter Brötzmann's other big band projects, ranging from Machine Gun (1968) to the recent Chicago Tentet (Plus) projects, the main difference the obvious one: six clarinet players instead of the usual mob of saxophones. The result is also the obvious one: the use of the softer instrument cuts down on the noise squall. As I've noted with his later work, Brötzmann is much easier to parse on clarinet than on saxophone, where he often turns into such a force of nature that one's only reaction is visceral. The music here is not just gripping -- it is something that one can get a grip on. In addition to the clarinets, the band includes a trumpet and two trombones, bass and drums. The brass must be in there somewhere, but they're not conspicuous. But bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley make major contributions. B+
  • Brötzmann/Friis Nielsen/Uuskyla: Medicina (2003 [2004], Atavistic). With a career that started with Machine Gun, the big bang of European free jazz, and unfolded through smaller group efforts with titles like Die Like a Dog, it's tempting to call this Peter Brötzmann's easy listening album, but it's merely easier. His increasing use of clarinet and tarogato does take a little wind out of his sails, but even on tenor sax it's possible to follow his intense yet inventive lines without feeling the need to take cover. It helps that his is the only horn. It also helps that drummer Peeter Uuskyla keeps a fascinating dialogue running. A-
  • Avishai Cohen: At Home (2004 [2005], RazDaz/Sunnyside). Cohen writes that "the main engine driving this record is a trio," but he's being too modest. It's the bassist, and engine is the operative word because Cohen's pieces build around the pulse of his bass. Half are trios with pianist Sam Barsh and drummer Mark Giuliana; the other half add horns for color, most notably Yosvany Terry's saxophones. A-
  • Steve Cole: Spin (2005, Narada Jazz). I wouldn't call this smooth, but it's definitely been processed. Cole mostly plays tenor sax, but lays in some alto sax, keyboards, and acoustic guitar as well -- overtracked and interleaved, the harmonics swamping his individuality. The beat is rock hard, a yoke that doesn't allow much differentiation -- mostly just the rising yelp of stock rock sax. It's not bad at first, but wears out its welcome fast. C+
  • Cosmosamatics: Three (2003-03 [2004], Boxholder). After two albums as a quartet, they've ditched William Parker's bass, leaving them with two horns and drums. Jay Rosen's drums hold it all together, alternating between steady pulse and a flair for commentary that rivals Tony Oxley. The horns provide the salt and pepper. Sonny Simmons on alto sax is the more conventional improviser, a workhorse. Michael Marcus on saxello adds a cosmic allure. But both occasionally switch off, Marcus to the more conventional baritone sax, and Simmons to the more cosmic oboe-like english horn. The lead cut, "Futura," is irresistible, with Marcus' saxello dancing over Rosen's groove; the trailer, "Requiem for Anne Frank," has a fitting Rosen solo. Wanders a bit in between, especially on "Avant Garde Destruct," which may be intended for wit. B+
  • Douglas/Sclavis/Lee/Van der Schyff: Bow River Falls (2004, Premonition). One unusual thing about Douglas is how much of his work is rooted in European folk traditions -- mostly Slavic (Tiny Bell Trio) and Jewish (Masada). This evenly balanced collaboration with French clarinetist Louis Sclavis and the young Canadian cello-drums team continues in this vein. Sclavis is central, the backbone for pieces that spring Douglas loose. This compares favorably to the follow-up, Mountain Passages, where Sclavis is replaced by the extra hornpower of Michael Moore and Marcus Rojas while the all-Douglas program is overly complex. A-
  • Dudek/Niebergall/Vesala: Open (1977 [2004], Atavistic). The records revisited by Atavistic's Unheard Music Series went unheard for mostly good reasons -- it's nice to have Baby Dodds talking and Sun Ra lullabyes in print somewhere, but they're not things that you need to listen to more than once, if that. Old free jazz from Europe in the '70s fares a bit better, but old Brötzmann and Schlippenbach are unlikely to convince non-fans, and extreme rarities from Keith Hazevoet and Mario Schiano will never be more than cult items. But this one is a find. Dudek pursues Coltrane's ghost on two saxophones, flute and shenai -- a double-reed oboe from India, like blowing into a buzzsaw. Bass and drums aren't supporting roles: they add further dimensions to the music. A-
  • John Ellis: One Foot in the Swamp (2005, Hyena). A saxphonist with New Orleans on his mind, his gumbo runs the gamut from blues to funk to a latin/cajun analogue of township jive. Guests John Scofield and Nicholas Payton add their own spices. Last cut starts latin, swing cajun, ends like pennywhistle jive. B+
  • FME: Underground (2003 [2004], Okka Disk). The initials stand for Free Music Ensemble, a nod to the famous FMP label, but if free suggests falling back on your instinctive wits, for Ken Vandermark that means blowing with rock roughness and r&b honk. Especially when the group is built around Nate McBride (Spaceways Inc., Tripleplay) and Paal Nilssen-Love (School Days). A-
  • The Frank and Joe Show: 33 1/3 (2004, Hyena). Took me a while, but I'm sold on this. Structurally it needs a fourth vocal track, but Willie Nelson didn't show up for "Stardust," so they just played it as a lovely denouement, after the Dave Edmunds-style attack on Rimsky-Korsakov. A-
  • The Frank and Joe Show: 66 2/3 (2005, Hyena). Title doesn't mean that it doubles its predecessor; with two guest vocals instead of three -- Dr. John is the non-repeater -- it's more like a percentage, i.e., two-thirds. B
  • John Hagen: Segments (2001-02, Cadence). Hagen recorded these pieces on two dates, both with Denman Maroney on piano, but different bass/drums players. The name players made the first date, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway, but the guys I haven't heard of, Shanir Blumenkranz and Todd Capp, make their mark on the first cut -- especially Blumenkranz, whose bass rings with authority. Over the course of fifteen pieces -- "the segments are melodic lines used as places of departure and arrival in twelve of these improvisations" -- Hagen's abstract lines are played slow and clear, the interactions clear even if off beat and out of sync. Maybe the future of free jazz is slow? A-
  • Scott Hamilton: Back in New York (2004 [2005], Concord). He's looking older on the cover -- face thin, short gray hair around a somewhat receding hairline. He's barely past 50, younger than I am, so it's tempting to assert that all those years in service of an older generation's music has made him prematurely old. Nonetheless, he sounds fabulous: I'd have to go back quite a ways (maybe to 1993's East of the Sun) to find another of his albums that sounds so effortlessly in control. He's resettled in London, the absence no doubt making the homecoming dearer. But his visit also brought out the finest supporting musicians he's ever worked with: the impeccable Bill Charlap on piano, and the Washingtons on bass and drums. A-
  • Fred Hess Quartet: Crossed Paths (2005, Tapestry). Hess is a veteran avant-garde tenor saxophonist based well off the beaten path in Colorado. In his tone and dynamics he reminds me of Von Freeman -- sort of high and scratchy, maybe even a bit wheezy. But surprisingly for a regional player he's working with top notch national players: drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Ken Filiano can play anywhere they want, with anyone they choose. Trumpeter Ron Miles is another important player. Dedicated to Steve Lacy, of whom nothing here is particularly apropos, other than the desire to create new music. B+
  • Tony Malaby: Adobe (2004, Sunnyside). I've noticed Malaby on a half-dozen or more albums in the last year, always a bright spot, often the MVP. But this sax-bass-drums trio is the place to focus on him. A-
  • Raphé Malik: Last Set: Live at the 1369 Jazz Club (1984 [2004], Boxholder). Historically this is interesting as Malik's only available recording between 1979, when he left Cecil Taylor's group, and his renewed work in the '90s. Also because he shares the spotlight with Frank Wright, an important but rarely-heard tenor saxophonist from the avant-'60s. Also because this is one of the earliest recordings where bassist William Parker really flashes his stuff. But history be damned: this is a rare case where the avant-garde gets down and dirty. So much fun that Wright took to singing. So much fun you won't mind that he's no good. A-
  • Raphe Malik, Joe McPhee, Donald Robinson: Sympathy (2002 [2004], Boxholder). Joe McPhee is the better known name, but this is Raphe Malik's record: he wrote the songs, dedicated the album to his late mother, and plays his ass off on trumpet. McPhee accompanies on soprano sax and doubles the brassiness when he switches to pocket trumpet. Donald Robinson's drums keep it stable. This runs long at 75:27, but never gets tired or repetitive. A-
  • Willie Nelson: Nagadoches (1997 [2004], Pedernales). I've heard stories of Picasso paying for lavish dinners by doodling on a napkin. Nelson has sung for the IRS, and now he's dusted off a 1997 tape where he sings songs like "How High the Moon" and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" and palmed it off to the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain as a jazz album. Not since Picasso has art looked easier or laziness more inspired. A-
  • Jeff Parker: The Relatives (2004 [2005], Thrill Jockey). I've been sitting on the fence on this one. Parker is a marvelous guitarist, often adding a sweet filling to underground Chicago affairs (including various Chicago Underground configurations), and sometimes (as in his collaboration with Scott Fields) dabbling in Derek Bailey abstractions (probably more Fields' fault). This is a quartet with Sam Barsheshet on Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric piano; Chris Lopes on various basses, C flute and percussion, and Chad Taylor on drums/percussion. Taylor writes a piece, Lopes three, Parker three (including a co-credit), and there's a Marvin Gaye cover, so this may taken as a group effort rather than an auteurist project. It sounds to me like Parker's trying to work out a framework where everything reinforces the chime sound of the electric guitar. This gives it a rather narrow focus, making it seem like less of an accomplishment than it probably is. The sameyness of the harmonics, the consistency of the groove, the lack of any real sharpness to the guitar -- all those things make me doubt that this is a major album, but it isn't like much of anything else. Hence the uncertainty. B+
  • William Parker: Luc's Lantern (2005, Thirsty Ear). Parker's most notable previous experience with piano trios was in the late '80s when he provided the steady hand that anchored the Feel Trio, while Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley made mayhem. That, of course, was Taylor's trio. Parker's played on a vast number of albums, but piano trios haven't been all that common, and since he started writing more in the mid-'90s he's usually led groups with horns, in a couple of cases with singers, and rather spectacularly his Violin Trio with Billy Bang. Indeed, few bass players have led piano trios -- most famously, Ray Brown in his later years. When they do they tend to turn the bass up a bit, which Parker does here, not that you could ever miss him. The pianist is Eri Yamamoto; the drummer Michael Thompson. As opposed to a more expected pairing, say Matthew Shipp and Hamid Drake, these two do what they are told, but they fit into the framework nicely. A-
  • William Parker Quartet: Sound Unity (2004 [2005], Aum Fidelity). This is what's often referred to as a piano-less quartet: sax and trumpet up front, bass and drums in back, no piano to comp behind the horn solos. The classic example is the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet, but they pop up every now and then. The framework requires two horn players who can take off in complementary or contrasting directions, and gives them a lot of freedom to do so. Rob Brown and Lewis Barnes do just that, but this piano-less quartet is weighted to the rear, where William Parker and Hamid Drake are peerless. It's tempting to concentrate on them: how they can set up a simple pulse that remains taut as a trampoline for the horns, how they can shift time under a solo and skew it even when the horn remains straight. They've done this before, on O'Neal's Porch in 2000. This one is less adventurous, not quite as aggressive when it swings outside. In particular, there's more open space where the horns lay out. A
  • Michiel Scheen Quartet: Dance, My Dear? (2003 [2004], Data). A quartet with a lot of sharp angles, starting perhaps with drummer Han Bennink and bassist Ernst Glerum, veterans of just about any Dutch avant-configuration you can name. Scheen is a pianist who likes sharply percussive chords -- reminds me a bit of Misha Mengelberg and Fred Van Hove, although that may be unfair Dutch type-casting. The fourth hand is played by Ab Baars, on tenor sax and clarinet. B+
  • Steve Shapiro and Pat Bergeson: Low Standards (2005, Sons of Sound). Shapiro's vibes and Bergeson's guitar make a fine lounge act, but on their own that's all they would be. But Annie Sellick has the most pleasing standards voice I've heard in a long time, and she alternates with Scott Kreitzer, who does his vocalizing through a tenor sax. A-
  • Ricardo Silveira/Luiz Avellar: Live: Play the Music of Milton Nascimento (2004, Adventure Music). Freed of Nascimento's baritone, stripped down to guitar (Silveira) and piano (Avellar) plus a little extra percussion (special guest Robertinho Silva), this songs take on a new and refreshing urgency. B+
  • Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock: Symbiosis (2004, Spartacus). Standards like "Cherokee," "Moonlight in Vermont," "Honeysuckle Rose," "You Must Believe in Spring" -- just Kellock's piano and Smith's tenor sax. Smith is really superb, and Kellock's as good as he needs to be. A
  • Sonore: No One Ever Works Alone (2003 [2004], Okka Disk). First point: this ain't no saxophone choir. The idea here isn't harmony. This is just three major avant-garde reed players meeting more or less as equals -- not that I don't suspect that the senior one, Peter Brötzmann, isn't a bit more equal than the others: Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson. Each brought a full arsenal of reed instruments: Vandermark and Brötzmann have clarinets, Brötzmann his tarogato, all have tenor saxes, one alto, two baritones, Brötzmann the bass sax. They definitely like the lower registers, and I suspect that Gustafsson spent most of this session on baritone. You can guess the noise level these three are capable of. I'm thankful for the few quiet minutes, when it's possible to separate the lines of thought out and weave them into conversations. Same basic idea works when they get loud too. I found this appalling at first, and don't advise playing it for dinner guests. Rather, I find it personal, almost meditative. Especially when they ease into a hymn, one they call "Blessed Assurance, Uninsured." Other titles include "Elements of Refusal," "Broken Hymn," "Death Can Only Kill Me Once." The album title comes from Kenneth Patchen. The graphic design by Brötzmann is striking. B+
  • Sun Ra: Spaceship Lullaby (1954-60 [2004], Atavistic). Previously unreleased home-recorded rehearsal tapes of Sun Ra playing piano behind doo-wop groups (the Nu Sounds, the Lintels, and the Cosmic Rays). A few cuts near the end are helped out by Arkestra members, and others benefit from Robert Barry's drums. The vocal groups are, well, awful. It would be tempting to say that they are to the Mills Brothers what Sun Ra's Arkestra was to Count Basie, but the Arkestra's skillset was actually comparable to Basie's bunch -- just working in a different universe. These vocalists would have trouble cracking the local barber shop quartet. Absolutely the last place in Sun Ra's catalog to start at, but weird enough that devotees might dig it anyway. After all, Sun Ra selects for weird. B-
  • Gian Tornatore: Sink or Swim (2003 [2004], Fresh Sound). This takes a while to find its groove, but by the time he gets to "Three's a Crowd" you start to wonder whether you're listening to outtakes from *Crescent* (that's one of Coltrane's greatest albums). The early going is darker and slower; I'll have to listen more closely to see whether it's the Chopin piece that kicks him free, although right now I suspect it's Zach Wallmark's bass. He switches off to soprano sax for a cut; everyone does that these days, ever since Coltrane. A-
  • Per Henrik Wallin/Johnny Dyani/Erik Dahlbäck: Burning in Stockholm (1981 [2004], Atavistic Unheard Music). John Corbett's "Unheard Music Series" has brought dozens of deeply buried, mostly forgotten bits and pieces of avant-garde arcana back to the modern world. While many were interesting, one has to admit that most went unheard because of their extreme marginality. This session, with Johnny Dyani substituting for Wallin's usual bassist Torbjörn Hultcrantz, is a rare exception. For one thing, Wallin's piano rocks, setting up huge rolling cycles of rhythm, much like Keith Jarrett does with Köln Concert, but tougher. Moreover, bass and drums are constantly engaged -- the sort of continuously creative interaction that's supposed to be the hallmark of creative music, but is rarely worth caring about. A-
  • Bobby Watson & Horizon: Horizon Reassembled (2004, Palmetto). Watson has used the Horizon moniker as far back as Post-Motown Bop in 1980, but not since 1993's Midwest Shuffle. The lineups have changed frequently, but drummer Victor Lewis has been a key collaborator since 1988. This particular reassembly matches the 1991-93 lineup, with Terrell Stafford (trumpet, flugelhorn), Edward Simon (piano), and Essiet Essiet (bass). If that sounds like Victor Lewis & the Jazz Messengers, you're on the right track. Watson cut his eye teeth in Art Blakey's band, and if the drum chair hadn't been filled you could bet on Lewis getting his turn. Still, Watson earns his top billing. He gets a beautiful tone here, and is one of the most lyrical saxophonists working today. It's just hard bop, a little fancy for my taste, but the whole band works on a very high order. B+

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Music: Current count 10744 [10718] rated (+26), 909 [923] unrated (-14). Unrateds don't include some unpacking, which will probably wipe out the drop. Working on July Recycled Goods.

  • African Underground Vol. 1: Hip-Hop Senegal (2001-03 [2004], Nomadic Wax). Benny Herson, who created this "Soundbombing of Senegal" tape following up a thesis he wrote at Hampshire College, contrasts the social conscience and political activism of Senegalese hip-hoppers to the crass materialism of their apolitical American counterparts. Still, Herson's liner notes are more explicit than I can gather from the raps -- the ones in English and French anyway (Wolof just sounds like Wolof to me). But what I do hear is a slightly Africanized funk supporting the rappers, not much different than you can find anywhere else -- although Senegal may be more saturated than most places. It's the point in Africa closest to America, and has in the past been the first part of Africa to cycle Afro-American musics back -- salsa is one notable example. A-
  • Jeff Black: Tin Lily (2005, Dualtone). Singer-songwriter from Missouri; resume includes credits with Iris DeMent and Sam Bush, opening act for John Prine and Maria McKee. AMG lists him as folk, but he's more like John Hiatt, only without the weird voice or the weirder sense of humor. Plays guitar and piano, but so do other people on the album. Kate Campbell adds some backing vocals. Clearly, people with smarts and good taste like him. I'm at least moderately impressed, but doubt that I'll invest the time to figure out if he's more than a thoughtful songwriter with a sense of structure. But he's certainly that much. B+
  • Cuadernos de Mexico (2004, Winter & Winter, 3CD). A musical travelogue, not to cut-rate Mexico of NAFTA but to the ancient seat of western civilization, whose modern lineage flows through Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, artists in a vital culture all too aware of its precarious location -- as one leader put it, "so far from God, so close to the United States"; far richer than a similar snapshot of Cuba, but limited by the lack of time that tourists inevitably have to explore. B+
  • Interpol: Turn On the Bright Lights (2002, Matador). The guitar drone is utterly unremarkable -- comparisons to Joy Division miss the latter's melodies, and comparisons to the Strokes miss the latter's harmonies. One of those harsh, dull voices too. Lyrics are unremarkable too, although how much so is a study I don't expect to get around to. C+
  • The Best of Gladys Knight & the Pips (1980-85 [2001], Columbia/Legacy). Discographical info: had her first hit in 1961 ("Every Beat of My Heart"); Motown (1965-73), Buddah (1973-79), Columbia (1979-85), MCA (1988-2000). Knight had recorded a solo album for Columbia in 1979 while the Pips were recording two of their own for Casablanca, but they reunited for 1980's About Love, which is where this starts. So this is late, well past their best known work. Starts off warmed-over disco, evolves into nondescript pop. B-
  • Konono No. 1: Lubuaku (2003 [2004], Terp). Soukous from Kinshasa, but with the usual slick guitars replaced by electrified likembes, a thumb-piano which at first sounds like dissonant steel pans, and the usual slick vocalists supplanted by intense shout choirs. The sound is so dirty that you suspect a new concept in lo-fi, or a devolution back to the jungle. Sponsored by the Ex -- roughly speaking, Holland's answer to the Mekons -- who arranged a tour and opened. They advise playing it loud, where the energy overwhelms the noise. A-
  • Joni Mitchell: Turbulent Indigo (1994, Reprise). "Sex Kills" is a gloomy lyric, less convincing not to mention less hopeful than the one the Roches sang about sex being the life force. But it's also a button-down prime example of her, uh, mature skill at framing a melody. When it's this neat I'm quite fond of that framework. The even preacher "How Do You Stop" loses its potential power to a chorus that doesn't have the good sense to argue with her. "Last Chance Lost" is more formally a downer. I rather like the overall feel of the music, but its lack of differentiation doesn't offer much traction. B
  • Joni Mitchell: Taming the Tiger (1998, Reprise). Her paintings on her albums have become so formalized that she shows them framed. The music is formalized as well, the lyrics studded with clever turns of phrase that don't add up to much. One upbeat song, "Lead Balloon," was flagged as a Pick Hit by Christgau, but it's not all that great. The tiger song isn't all that prophetic either. And while the guitar at the end is nice enough, it doesn't add up to much. B-
  • The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need, Vol. 1 (1996-2002 [2002], Luaka Bop). "Vol. 1" sounds like a hedge, but with no Vol. 2 appearing maybe they're satisfied. These are minimal pieces, herky-jerk beats but little adorned, providing a nice, rather neutral background. B+
  • Primal Scream: Vanishing Point (1997, Reprise). One of those groups I've heard of but had never heard. English art school progressivism, with scattered electronics like Pink Floyd or King Crimson, synth beats like Depeche Mode or Cabaret Voltaire, brit-pop like Blur or Oasis, and a dash of industrial, but songs like "Medication" and "Motorhead" rock harder than any obvious referents, though not the Fall or Motorhead. Actually, this is no less distinctive than any of the bands I've listed, but one has to start somewhere. B+
  • The Rough Guide to Cajun Dance ([2004], World Music Network). It's all dance music, but even if the point is to run with the fast ones -- always a safe bet -- it's worth noting that two slow ones vary the pace and add a note of soulfulness. Probably wouldn't be hard to track down the dates on these non-rarities, mostly licensed from the usual sources: Rounder, Arhoolie, and Swallow. B+
  • Shrimp Boat: Speckly (1989 [2005], Aum Fidelity). The banjo has roots in Earl Scruggs, the soprano sax in John Coltrane, the songs both countryish and jazzy but mostly built in a DIY garage from junk they found in the pop-art dumpster. As their first real album, this is both tighter and less fanciful than their Something Grand trivia box, which seems closer to their lack of aspirations. B+
  • Frank Strozier: Cool, Calm and Collected (1960 [1993], Vee-Jay). Alto saxophonist working briskly in an expansive post-bop mode. Billy Wallace plays piano. Don't recognize the bass and drums. B+
  • Wilco: A Ghost Is Born (2004, Nonesuch). Jeff Tweedy is talented enough that his softish, straightforward songs play gracefully. But his electronics drone piece is more than a little annoying, and seems tacked on rather than part of whatever his aesthetic is these days. This polled well in P&J where the previous one won outright. Indications are that his fans cut him slack, but his doubters didn't. I'm not much of either. B

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Karl Rove has managed to make the Democrats look foolish again. All he had to do was to make a Big Lie speech, where he said: "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." The facts were that the Democrats were second to no one in their 9/11 bloodthirst. (I was in New York at the time, and had to cringe every time Hillary Clinton or Charles Schumer came on the tube.) Ever since Rove's speech offended Democrats have clamored to set the record straight: they were, after all, second to no one in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden's head. (And, by the way, just where is that missing head?)

The problem with that response is that it just reminds us how wrong the Democrats were -- in particular, how their all-but-unanimous votes for the Afghanistan war resolution and the PATRIOT ACT gave Bush a blank check that rode all the way to Baghdad. The tragic idea that the proper response to 9/11 was war was vouchsafed by the lack of any serious opposition among the Democratic political class. This was bad thinking both as analysis and as program. The main analytic failures were: not isolating and limiting the impulse toward revenge; accepting the war metaphor even though their was no conventional enemy; refusing to consider how past American policies contributed to the motivations of the attackers. The programmatic failure was in not anticipating how the Bush administration would take advantage of their submission. The Republicans, after all, didn't merely prepare for war after 9/11 -- they prepared for missile defense systems, for drilling oil in Alaska, for tort reform, for tax breaks for the rich and giveaways to their corporate sponsors, and most of all for reëlection in 2004. Democrats gave them all that because the Democrats didn't have a clue what they wanted or what they were risking -- they just reacted to events, much as now they're reacting to pseudo-events like Rove's speech.


Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin was bullied into making a tearful apology for a comment he made about America's treatment of detainees in Guatanamo. The original quote was: "If I read this [report on Guantanamo] to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners." There is a problem with this quote, but it's not the association of the U.S. with reviled regimes of the past -- it's that this quote suggests that Durbin wasn't aware of what the CIA and the School for the Americas have been doing for decades now. There should be no surprises here: give government the power to abduct and detain anyone it sees as an enemy, with no oversight and no legal recourse, that that government will tend to act like any other unaccountable dictatorship you care to mention -- even the unmentionables.

The media loves these he said/he said controversies, most likely because they're so easy to cover. But the Democrats invariably lose out because they don't have an echo chamber like the right does.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Book: Aaron Glantz, How America Lost Iraq (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005).

There must be dozens of ways to write this book. Glantz is a radio journalist for Pacifica, so his particular tactic was to interview a variety of Iraqis, gauging their reactions to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Glantz made his way to Baghdad shortly after the official war ended, and has been in and out of Iraq, including a couple of trips through Kurdistan, from then until things got too hot in the summer of 2004. By then he had seen enough. His early interviews tended to dwell on Saddam Hussein's crimes, reflecting popular gratitude for deposing the tyrant. But over the year the U.S. managed to wear out its welcome, with the sieges of Fallujah and Najaf and the Abu Ghraib torture revelations capping the story, but the lack of electricity, clean water, the gas lines, the lack of security and the inability of most Iraqis to see reconstruction progress are the constant backdrops.

This isn't a very sophisticated analysis, but its one dimension is fundamental. I suspect that the "gratitude" was always meant to flatter the invaders, but Glantz takes it at face value and sticks to the surface. The book also doesn't cover much ground. For the most part, Glantz was sequestered in Baghdad, finding it hard to get out or even get around. In many cases, when news beaks out in other towns we find him interviewing Sunnis or Shia in Baghdad to get their reactions. I don't think he ever made it as far as Mosul or Basra, but he did get into Fallujah before and after the siege, and got close to Najaf on one occasion -- coming back with a hoary story of Sadrist sheiks executed by Americans in Hilla. Still, his immobililty is itself proof of how far we've lost touch with the realities in Iraq, and how far anyone is from bridging them.

Where the title misleads is the word "how" -- that America lost is clear from the public opinion shifts, especially those who were initially favorable to the US. But most of America's missteps noted in the book weren't likely to have been deliberate policies -- the lack of security, the inability to reconstruct the electric grid, the callous recreation of Saddam's Abu Graib torture chambers. The real story of how all that happened remains to be told, and it's going to take a lot of digging to get down to the real dirt. But Glantz's conclusion -- not just that America lost but that its continuing presence in Iraq only makes matters worse for almost all Iraqis -- is amply supported.

Tom Engelhardt just came out with a piece on the withdrawal debate. In it he cites a list of "paralyzing fantasies" that are commonly offered as excuses why the U.S. cannot pick up and leave Iraq:

  • "A civil war in Iraq resulting in far greater bloodshed than the current conflict, though presumably without further U.S. losses.
  • "The transformation of western Iraq, which is dominated by Sunni Muslims, into a haven for international terrorists from al-Qaida and other groups.
  • "A collapse of U.S. credibility among nations of the Middle East, whose leaders would probably distance themselves from Washington.
  • "A collapse of the Bush administration's push for democracy in the region.
  • "Instability in the Persian Gulf that could lead to steep increases in oil prices, driving the cost of gasoline beyond current record levels."

The problem with these future calamities is that they've already occurred, and the reason they've occurred is the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq. Moreover, they seem to be gaining ground steadily, and nothing the U.S. does offers any promise to turn this juggernaut around. The main problem the U.S. faces is that the resistance has achieved enough popular momentum that the fight will continue at least until the core demand of the resistance is achieved: that the U.S. exit and leave Iraq in Iraqi hands. Once the U.S. leaves, maybe the resistance will fight on in a civil war, or maybe the resistance will make some sort of truce with Iraq's other factions. But until the U.S. leaves it is the one faction in Iraq that will continue to motivate the resistance. If you like Vietnam analogies, one that's easy to grasp is that had we not pulled out of Vietnam in the '70s we'd still be fighting there today. Sure, it's hard to imagine what the country would have looked like after another 30 years of war, but after 35 years of fighting the Japanese, the French, and the Americans, is there any reason to think that the Vietnamese were going to give up if we'd just been a little tougher?

The most key mistake that the U.S. made was in not welcoming all Iraqis into an open tent based on guaranteed human and civil rights to all. Democracy as we know it has less to do with majority rule than with limitating government's ability to oppress minorities and individuals. Iraq was a powder keg of resentments and injustices which the U.S. did nothing to defuse and much to ignite. The U.S. was never in a good position to do right by Iraq: in part because the U.S. had done so much in the past to pick at and take advantage of internal divisions, in part because the U.S. has shown no real interest in justice, peace or democracy anywhere in the Middle East (most clearly in Palestine/Israel). But America had worse problems in Iraq than a bad track record -- it had George W. Bush, who has no scruples about scamming a political system for ideological and personal gain. Bush gambled big in Iraq. He wanted war because he was drunk with American military might, and he has responded to every failure in the only way befitting that might, by escalating the war. Now if he backs down he loses all that he fought for: the myth of American invincibility. On the other hand, that's just one more paralyzing fantasy. We're stuck with one more painful instance of Bush's inability to learn from his mistakes, because he's unable to admit them.

It's easy to go back and see other paths that could have been taken viz. Iraq, but each day that passes makes it all the harder to get back to them. Juan Cole has a scheme for handing the mess over the the U.N., conveniently ignoring the fact that the U.N.'s stock in Iraq has done been poisoned, and that the U.N. itself is really not a peacekeeping (let alone peacemaking) organization. But Cole's biggest problem is, as it's always been, that he feels that Iraq is a problem for the world to solve -- first by getting rid of Saddam Hussein, now by getting rid of the U.S. occupation. I think it's much more the case that Iraq is a problem that the world has created, especially through the endless interference of foreign powers with their own agendas. It's critically important that we learn to let Iraq be -- to let Iraqis sort out their own problems, free of foreign interest or intrigue. This may lead to a bloodbath or to a set of reasonable compromises -- we can't choose which, although we can choose (as we have) to implement the bloodbath option.

I have my own hypothetical plan for a sensible U.S. withdrawal: Back off to neighboring bases (mostly in Kuwait) while issuing a threat to destroy any militia that tries to advance from its natural base, and also a threat against any neighboring country that tries to interfere in Iraq, e.g. by supporting any faction. This limits the U.S. role to the only thing we're competent at -- blowing things up -- but it also means that the U.S. can take no sides. The idea here is that if no faction in Iraq can win, the best option for them is to negotiate a shared state. Once they do that, they can invite in the U.N. (or anyone else) in a non-threatening role to help out. And if they don't sort their differences out, they'll just have a failed warlord state (like Afghanistan).

Of course, my idea is fantasy too. Bush wouldn't do anything like this because he's still drunk on America's military might. He doesn't learn from his mistakes because he refuses to acknowledge them. Or perhaps because he's so narrowly concerned with his own political machine and so blasé about everyone else's tragedies that he doesn't recognize them as anything more than minor annoyances -- like awkward questions at a press conference. Nor is he alone in these delusions. I caught a few minutes of Fox News the other night when Mort Kondracke declared that "we" had won in Iraq. The absurd idea that the neocons are working in tandem with Osama Bin Laden is liable to wind up passing Occam's Razor.

Monday, June 20, 2005

I've spent much of the last week here writing about Israel with occasional breaks for short notes about avant-garde jazz. So I haven't been paying a lot of attention to day-to-day news, but yesterday the air conditioner bit the dust, so right now I'm trying not to overheat. Some news I recall noticing lately:

  • The Onex purchase of Boeing's commercial aircraft plant in Wichita is final now. The Eagle published a nice timeline from rumor to completion. I plan on copying that down and annotating it a bit, so will hold my tongue for now. Looks like my brother may have a job elsewhere -- will be a step back, but not necessarily as bad as the workers who weren't laid off have been hit.

  • Michael Jackson was acquitted of whatever he was charged with. I know nothing about the charges or the case, and don't care to learn anything. My interest is that I expect him to make better records out of jail than he would in jail. I've never been a big fan, but his latest one, Invincible, was pretty good, and his '80s albums peaked as high as anyone's. I've finally gotten past blaming him for MTV, and the stink of money he accrued back in the '80s has mostly faded. Not that it didn't help him with the trial.

  • The Terri Schiavo autopsy confirmed what seemed most likely beforehand: that she was cognizant of nothing and had no prospects of ever recovering.

  • The most commented on "news" story of the last two weeks seems to have been the free-for-all attacks on Howard Dean. This is perfect for the media these days, as all it involves is collecting quotes from people too willing to talk. The Dean quote was: "You think people can work all day and then pick up their kids at child care or wherever and get home and still manage to sandwich in an eight-hour vote? Well Republicans, I guess can do that. Because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives." First thing to note here is that anyone who grew up in a labor family wouldn't have had a bit of trouble parsing that sentence. In the traditional labor use this doesn't strictly mean that Republican capitalists and their cronies are crooks nor does it mean that they are lazy -- just that they get ahead by exploiting the labor of others. That, of course, was a risky thing for Dean to say. People might think he's calling them crooks, especially since more than a few are.

  • Sharon has decided to destroy the housing that Israeli settlers will be vacating in Gaza. I've seen this characterized as a make-work program for the Palestinians, who will be paid to cart the rubble off. I suppose it's fitting that Israel's last official act in Gaza will be one of senseless destruction.

  • It seems like the last couple of weeks have marked a severe change in American reporting about the resistance in Iraq. For a while there we had been regularly assured that the resistance in the post-election period had declined notably, but now we find out that that same resistance has spiked to record levels and have been like that ever since the election. What has also spiked is talk about getting the hell out of there -- much of it coming from people who couldn't conceive of such a thing just a few months ago. Ever since the invasion there's been a steady stream of good news reports and bad news warnings. While one was tempted to average them out, the disturbing pattern was that the "good news" mostly came from flacks while the "bad news" came from working people on the ground.

  • Bush's polls have dropped quite a bit in recent weeks. At the same time people have started talking about impeachment. Personally, I'd settle for an independent special prosecutor. The Downing Street Memos and other tidbits about Iraq war planning leave room for a lot of fleshing out, but that's only one reasonable course of inquiry. I'd still like to know about the anthrax incidents in 2001 that so much added to the post-9/11 paranoia and set in place a tangible fear of Iraq's imaginary WMD.

  • Congress is cutting funding for public television in the US while spending ever more for propaganda media in Iraq. Richard Crowson has a brilliant cartoon in the Eagle today which shows an Army recruiter trying to sign up tots, promising them Sesame Street when they're sent to Iraq.


Tom Engelhardt has a quote from Russ Baker about meetings that writer Mickey Herskowitz had with George W. Bush back in 1999:

"He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. "It was on his mind. He said to me: 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He said, 'If I have a chance to invade, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency.'" . . . According to Herskowitz, who has authored more than 30 books, many of them jointly written autobiographies of famous Americans in politics, sports and media (including that of Reagan adviser Michael Deaver), Bush and his advisers were sold on the idea that it was difficult for a president to accomplish an electoral agenda without the record-high approval numbers that accompany successful if modest wars."

This actually isn't a very original idea. I've read that one of the arguments that Margaret Thatcher used on George H.W. Bush to convince him to go to war with Iraq over Kuwait was to point out how much political favor she had won in the Falklands war. But then that was a much better definition of "successful if modest" than either the Gulf War or the current debacle in Iraq. The idea that a politician would throw a country into war to bolster his polls is monstrous but not all that far fetched. It's inconceivable that Bush and his handlers don't have the polling data. They've seen it work, as when George H.W. Bush's favorable polls surged up to 90% with Gulf War I, and they've seen the risks, as with the same Bush's re-election loss in 1992.

I don't recall the exact quote, but during the 2004 election campaign Kevin Phillips made a comment to Bill Moyers, something to the effect that every President or President's party has lost in elections following the end of a war associated with the President. The corrollary to this was that keeping a war going tends to be worth more politically than ending it. Again, the former Bush is a prime example, and one close to home. So what are the chances that this Bush administration, remembering the political failures of the previous one, and having to face up to the obvious truth that Gulf War II is far from a success, decided to exacerbate the war in order to keep Bush positioned as Commander in Chief (supposedly his strong suit) and to keep the rest of his atrocious record off center stage? This is the sort of question nobody raises because it suggests nothing but monstrous cynicism. Still, it would be blind not to wonder just how domestic political considerations have warped occupation in Iraq. After all, the only hearts and minds that really mattered to Bush in 2004 were the voters he needed for reëlection.

Ray McGovern got a lot of flack recently because he opined that the reasons Bush invaded Iraq were O-I-L -- an acronym of Oil, Israel, and Logistics (American bases, all the better to invade you with). The part he got flack for, of course, was Israel, but really none of those components explain much. Oil was certainly on the warmongers' minds, but in a free trade world it's just a commodity, for sale to whoever wants to buy. The usual assumption -- that Bush did this for cheaper oil -- was ill-fated if not downright looney. Oil supply was slashed by the war, so prices rose -- perhaps not a bad result for Bush's oilmen, but not one to brag about. (By driving the price of crude oil toward $60/barrel we've more than doubled the value of the oil companies' privately held reserves -- quite a windfall.)

Israel approved the war, but didn't need it. The main thing Sharon gets out of it is that it keeps the American people in an anti-Arab frame of mind, and keeps the Bush administration too busy to worry about its lame Road Map commitments. Israel is, however, an indirect cause in one important respect: the neocons who pushed this war are without exception tremendous fans of Israel. In particular, they love the way Israel throws its weight around, with no concern for international niceties. They want the US to act more like Israel -- to be unashamed of its power, to pursue self-interest unabashedly. The bases, of course, are just part of the baggage that goes with globally domineering power -- hardly a cause in their own right.

Still, all this O-I-L is way too ideological for Bush. The core competency of the Bush possee is their skill at pushing buttons -- specifically the ones that drive Americans to the right. Bush was born and bred to serve the rich, and he learned well how to sell that program to enough of the not-so-rich that he could win elections (close enough, anyhow). But aside from a few kneejerk reactions the only thing he believes in is saying whatever it takes to keep his juggernaut rolling. It makes much sense that he should have started and manipulated this war for reasons of naked political ambition; no other reason makes much if any sense. Still, the poignant (and pathetic) part of the Herskowitz quote is about how passing his program would make him a successful president. The program itself is his biggest problem: when everything you try to do is wrong the worst thing that can possibly happen is to get your way. Bush's successes should eventually be his downfall, as indeed his spendid little war demonstrates.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Music: Current count 10718 [10690] rated (+28), 923 [944] unrated (-21).

  • DFA Compilation #2 (2004, DFA, 3CD). Three discs of upbeat electronica, singles and previously unreleased by nine artists -- the only ones I've heard of are the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, but then I don't get into this scene all that often. A couple of versions of LCD Soundsystem's "Yeah" are highlights, the beats carrying the day. B+
  • David Murray Quartet: Skahill's II (1993 [1994], DIW). A follow-up to Shakill's Warior, a 1991 album which also featured Don Pullen on organ, providing an edgy soul jazz groove for Murray's powerful improvisations. A-
  • The Essential Pete Seeger (1941-64 [2005], Columbia/Legacy). He wasn't much of a singer, even less of a banjo player. His songs were utterly square, with their well-meaning and principled politics, without a trace of irony or humor, let alone a beat. He called his music folk in the naive hope that the folk might bond with it, and he remained steadfast in that belief for over half a century. Still, these fifteen songs are utterly familiar, even if the versions -- mostly live, some singalongs -- aren't. They are the true gospel music of America's red diaper babies. A-
  • Subtitle: Young Dangerous Heart (2003-04 [2005], Gold Standard Laboratories). Aka Giovanni Marks. Beats are indescript. Words are worth the listen -- dense, smart, slipped. Guests don't make much difference, but check Aceyalone and Busdriver for the neighborhood map. B+
  • Lucky Thompson: I Offer You (1973 [1997], Beast Retro). There's no information in this package about when this was recorded, but AMG has an entry for an out-of-print LP by the same name released by Groove Merchant in 1973. Thompson gave up recording in 1974, so this may be one of his last records. Thompson plays soprano and tenor sax. The quartet is filled out by Cedar Walton on piano and electric piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums. Thompson sounds great, much as he always does. B+
  • Wide Right: Sleeping on the Couch (2005, Poptop). Straight down the middle rock-n-roll, with a woman singer because she's tougher than the guys, and has something to say as well. Also note the Loretta Lynn cover, "The Pill." A-
  • World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love's a Real Thing (1972-78 [2005], Luaka Bop). African music often takes decades to wash up on American shores. The process is so convoluted and arbitrary that it's impossible to know much about what's really happening in the mother continent from what little shows up here. But there's some reason to think that the '70s, a post-independence high before the worst rot of kleptocracy set in, were something of a golden age of afropop. These twelve cuts come from a swath of West Africa from Cameroun to Gambia. Psychedelia seems to be one of those labels in the deranged minds of beholders -- the two previous volumes featured Os Mutantes and Shuggie Otis -- but the common thread here seems to be a cheesy funk deriving as much from American sources like Sly Stone and the Temptations' own acid trips as native traditions. Ronnie Graham contributes notes, which help but ultimately the music raises more questions than it answers. A-

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Music: Current count 10690 [10666] rated (+24), 944 [939] unrated (+5). Rather quiet week, with most of the new ratings coming from the jazz pile. Feeling rather listless, not to mention overwhelmed, at this point. Too early to panic, but don't have a lot of RG backlog for next month yet. Verve's Free America series is one thing on tap. Thus far the records have not been great, but I've been cautious in dismissing them.

  • Everclear: Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 2: Good Time for a Bad Attitude (2000, Capitol). Playing this for the first time five years after the two volumes were released, I wonder how this might have fared as a standalone release. Compared to Vol. 1, this is slight songwise, but the harder thrash of the first few songs holds up just fine. Slows down a bit toward the end, in part to consummate the concept. B+
  • Kevin Mahogany: My Romance (1998, Warner Brothers). In a very, very, very mellow mood. B+
  • The Moody Blues: Days of Future Passed (1967 [1997], Deram). Having avoided this group all my life, I thought I should give them a critical spin, although I dare say I don't plan on spending the time to nail down just how good or (more likely) bad they really are. This is a concept album, the concept being a set of pieces chronicling the cycle of a single day: begins, dawn, morning, lunch break, afternoon, evening, night. The latter is "Nights in White Satin" -- a song that not even I managed to totally avoid. More tellingly, the album is symphonic, with the usual patches of strings and flutes, full horn sections and bits of triangle, as well as the less usual moogs and moans. The great song crashes at the first hint of criticism, its framing and filligree not so much pretentious as absurd, the spoken poetry at the end just icing on the hollowed out cake. Psychedelia is a peculiarly meaningless term, but all the more so here. This was a pioneering effort to write lite classical music and pawn it off on a pop audience. It succeeded comercially if not artistically, leading to worse bands like Kansas and funnier bands like Queen. That this was neither is hardly a point in its favor. C-
  • The Residents: The Tunes of Two Cities (1982, East Side Digital). A career based on making funny sounds, which don't necessarily become funnier when recontextualized in serious music. B-
  • Spanish Harlem Orchestra: Across 110th Street (2004, Libertad). New York salsa band -- big, brassy, badass, but otherwise hard to distinguish from others I barely know. When I first visited New York I got a kick out of listening to salsa on the radio and on boom boxes down on the lower east side (didn't get uptown much), but I never got the hang of buying records that had the same appeal. Still haven't. B-

Friday, June 10, 2005

Haven't done a news item in a while, so most of this isn't fresh. Most, in fact, is rotten to the core, but here goes:

  • The Onex takeover of Boeing's commercial division here in Wichita continued with the purge of 250 workers from the SPEEA bargaining unit. (This follows a purge of 800 workers from the IAMAW unit.) Purge is the correct word here: no consideration was given to seniority and line managers weren't consulted regarding performance. The decision as to who was purged was based on some other criteria. My brother, who had worked at Boeing for 25 years, was among those not given jobs. It is possible that this was done because he had been active in the union before he was briefly laid off last year. But it's also possible that he was laid off because he is diabetic -- he tells me that four of five diabetics in his department lost their jobs. It's worth noting that Boeing is self-insured, and that Chief Finance Officer Mike Sears, shortly before he was carted off to jail, had complained about the cost of diabetics in Boeing's workforce. Onex, having failed to sign contracts with any of Boeing's unions, is imposing their new terms. This whole episode just underlines how the government's disregard for labor rights costs workers and ultimately whole cities like Wichita. It also points to how "our system" of private health insurance is falling apart.

  • Delta Airlines is eliminating seven daily flights to Wichita, as a way of punishing Wichita for failing to accede to their demands for subsidies matching what the city pays to Airtran. I'm not a fan of the Airtran program, but it was instituted after existing carriers had collectively priced Wichita out of the air traffic market. Since the airlines have had to compete with Airtran's discount fares the volume of air traffic at Wichita's airport has increased over 50%. Delta had brought a case before the FAA complaining that Wichita's subsidies were unfair competition, at the same time they were trying to extort comparable subsidies.

  • The revelation of Mark Felt's role as "Deep Throat" in exposing the Watergate scandal was ironic given that Felt was so up to his neck in his own dirty tricks that only a Ronald Reagan pardon saved him from long jail time. It's hard to regard people like him as heroic in any sense. Still, it's probably the case that many of the most damaging leaks coming out of the Bush administration are from people I'd have little regard for either, but then the Bush administration is so corrupt and deceitful that anyone with the least sense of professional integrity must cringe.

  • The "Downing Street Memo" ties in with a leak that I noticed in my hometown newspaper and commented on back at the time. As I recall, there was nothing else published for several months afterwards -- not until the administration was ready to unveil its "new product." It is clear now that the press failed utterly in uncovering this story when it still might have made a difference.

  • Most discussion about Iraq these days revolves around the so-called Iraq Army and what they can, or mostly cannot, do. The latest twist is that the Shiite and Kurdish political leaders want to fold their militias into the Iraq Army -- in effect they want to take the Army over. Lots of people these days regard the situation in Iraq as pretty hopeless, but I found this proposal especially striking: what does it say about Iraq when its political leaders aspire to turn it into Afghanistan?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Movie: Crash. The overworked metaphor, that Los Angeles is so alienating that crash their cars, or really more than their cars, just for human contact. The instant identification that race provides is every bit as distancing as driving in metalloid shells, and the inevitable crashes there at least as damaging. As a piece of writing, this impresses: a set of arbitrarily interrelated characters, more than a dozen in combos of two to four, crash, regroup, then crash again. Each gets a shot of humiliation, and a shot at redemption, but not necessarily in that order. As withering as the denouements are the grace is gratifying, proving not merely that what goes around comes around, but that it doesn't necessarily have to. But as a movie this isn't especially sharp or slick -- to dark, the lights too bleary, the cold and snow unconvincing. But that doesn't ruin the movie -- any writing that sticks so closely in mind can't be dismissed so easily. A-

Movie: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Afterwards I went back and started to reread the book, just to refresh myself on what came from where, and what got left out. Since this only covers one of the five books, and since they no doubt mean to leave room for the rest of the franchise, the movie leaves out much, but since the books as a whole are so jumbled most of what it leaves out wasn't there in the first place. Actually, the movie cheats and borrows ahead, which is part of why it makes more sense than the first book, and also why it flows better. This helps -- at least it helps make up for the inevitable loss of the unvisual conceptualizing that was the main charm of the books. Aside from the matter of Zaphod Beeblebrox's two heads the visualizations are marvelous -- especially the planet factory, which gives a new and even more disturbing meaning to creationism. If it seems odd that I can't get away from the subject of the books here, it's partly because these are damn near the only novels I've ever read -- it's an angle I never have the opportunity to explore -- but more so because the books were signposts for how I learned to think about life, the universe, and everything: only a small matter of faith prevents me from elevating them to biblical status, but then the main point of them is that even a small matter of faith is a terrible thing to indulge oneself in. A

Movie: Kingdom of God. This one sent me back to the books too -- the encyclopedia, at least. Most of what I knew about the Crusades was Geoffrey Barraclough's theory that the Pope pushed them to try to divert the Normans away from wrecking Europe. But that would have been more like the First Crusade, which wasn't a pretty picture no matter what angle you viewed it from. What Ridley Scott actually focuses on is the fall of Jerusalem before the start of the Third Crusade, roughly 100 years after the Crusaders' initial triumph. That gives us a more moderate, more enlightened Crusader kingdom which is ultimately lost due to the arrogance of incoming Europeans -- I guess you could call them the neocons, the guys who think the enemy is evil and compromise is shameful. Various pieces of history get knocked around to clean up the story -- princess Sibylla makes out the best for the rewrite -- which unsurprisingly doesn't help clarify things. Some prominence is given to Saladin, who evidently has his own neocons to deal with, but that mostly underscores the commercial impossibility of trying to tell this or any story from the other side. Still, it's an awkward story, and the frequent bloodbaths just make it all the drearier. B

Monday, June 06, 2005

The twentieth installment of my Recycled Goods came out this weekend. Ten paragraph-sized reviews, forty five brief notes. One nice thing about this one is that it covers a bit of most of what I've been trying to cover. World music is still underrepresented. Country and blues are unlikely ever to recover to the levels of earlier columns, but the Charlie Poole box is important, and Yazoo has continued their second generation best-ofs. Hip hop is up, although the old music requirement gets fuzzy there with the remakes and remixes. One thing I like about this column is that I get to change the rules.

The total number of records covered by Recycled Goods is now up to 741 -- cf. the Artist Index. I have a little more than two months of backlog on the shelf, which not surprisingly trends toward jazz. One big chunk of jazz records was Atavistic's Unheard Music Series. I've been getting new ones for the last year or so, and buy old ones when I find them, but I kept holding them back, thinking they're more interesting as a series than individually. The new "In Series" section is one way to deal with that. Next time I plan to do the same thing with Verve's Free America series. I have a couple of other series that may be dealt with the same way, or not: they are samplers from major players. Series are a very common thing in the reissues world. Some, like Universal's "20th Century Masters," are easily recycled packaging offered up as brand names. On the other hand, when a series does deserve to be taken as a whole, "In Series" is a useful way of grouping.

Back on a regular schedule these days. A couple of months of backlog in the queue. I haven't been searching far and wide lately, but there are some interesting records coming up in the next couple of issues.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Lurking in the background of my 24 comments is a rather different cluster of thoughts on terrorism, the threat terrorists pose, and how best to deal with that threat. I want to draw out some of these ideas, not least because they seem to way outside the realm of ordinary discourse. One big problem with talking about terrorism is the lack of a clear definition. We seem to be satisfied with the notion that we'll know it when we see it, so why bother with fine points? This arbitrariness fits in well with the U.S. establishment view, which is: terrorism is any form of politically driven violence or threat of violence against the established order. One nice thing about that definition is that the established order cannot be charged with terrorism, even when they engage in the exact same violent tactics. Another is that in our unipolar world where the U.S. is the established order everywhere, so counterterrorism can be postured as a Global War on Terror, or even more fancifully as An End to Evil.

Terrorism has proven to be a useful word for the great powers. The reason it works is that it plugs into our fears in ways that political policies, especially imperial wars, do not. America's military presence in the Persian Gulf is a matter of little or no concern here -- before the invasion of Iraq hardly something that we were even conscious of. Over there, the U.S. military helps to keep a corrupt aristocracy in power, which is good for U.S. capitalists because Arab capitalists reinvest their petrodollars, while it is not so good for the locals, who get trickles at best from their nations' oil resources. Al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11/2001 to make a point, which is that their "far enemy" (the U.S.) should be held accountable for its trespasses just like their "near enemies." But this concept was too subtle for the American people, who viewed the attacks on innocents as coming out of the blue, from an unseen, unanticipated, unimaginedly deranged source, an enemy of civilization, a Force of Evil. Which, of course, is just how the itchy triggers in Washington wanted us to react.

Since 2001 the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which have mostly made those countries, long debilitated by American interference, even more unlivable, while billions more have been spent on "homeland security" -- efforts to protect against further terrorist attacks here. The question nobody asks is how likely are we to get attacked again, and how much (if any) effect does our Homeland Security budget have on that. Extra credit for the question of how much does the Defense budget protect us from war. I suspect the answers are very little -- that in fact we spend a lot of money to get no additional security.


Music: Current count 10666 [10646] rated (+20), 939 [943] unrated (-4). Had a tooth pulled this week, which slowed me down both before and after the event. No pressing deadlines. Recycled Goods should be up real soon. Reading Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command, a refresher course from his New Yorker articles.

  • Broadway Project: The Vessel (2004 [2005], Doubling Cube). Interesting record by Daniel Berridge, sort of art rock with with heavy film music overtones and minor electronica. I gather his/their earlier work is more electronish. This one is song-oriented, smart, well-crafted. Like the light-industrial shit at the end. B+
  • DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid & Dave Lombardo: Present Drums of Death (2005, Thirsty Ear). Spooky can crank his machines up faster than Lombardo can drum, but not much, and not otherwise comparably. Lombardo's drums are the treat here -- fast, deep, mechanical. He comes from Slayer, a metal group I don't know at all. The other treat is Chuck D, who raps as hard as Lombardo drums. Spooky provides the context, and Jack Dangers helps out, especially on the last track. A-
  • The Hold Steady: Almost Killed Me (2004, Frenchkiss). I need to go back and check out Lifter Puller, Craig Finn's previous band. The one that I have heard, Half Dead and Dynamite, sounded good. This one sounds better. Indeed, it almost gets by on sound alone: rugged hard rock, dense guitar sounds with a lot of crunch. There must have been hundreds of Amerindie bands like that, except that there weren't. A-
  • The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday (2005, Frenchkiss). Formally a big advance, which means that instead of revelling in sound, this one tries to vary the sound to let the songs speak for themselves. The more variable sound is mostly more complicated, not necessarily a plus in a band built on a specific sound, but the songs do open up, and are much easier to follow. Not my thing really, unless the songs redeem themselves, which they've started to do. I've noticed a few of the "born again" religious themes that other reviewers dwell on, but haven't put them into any matrix beyond a certain literary realism. But then I don't really have a problem with Christians -- at least not as long as they mind their own fucking business. Which on record here, as far as I can tell so far, they do. This will probably not be the last I have to say about either of these records, but they're good enough to ballpark-grade already. A-
  • Lifter Puller: Half Dead and Dynamite (1997, Restless). This is old, Finn's first group's first album, but in some ways it sounds like the best of each of the Hold Steady albums: the sound of the first and the songs of the second. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. Maybe it's just taken a while to sink in. Don't know whether this shows up on their Soft Rock compilation since I don't have that (yet, anyway). This one I picked up in the junk pile when Wherehouse went out of business, and it's been sitting on the shelf ever since. Amazing some things you don't realize you have yet. A-
  • Nuyorican Soul (1997, GRP). Two producers, Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez and Lil' Louis Vega, aka Masters at Work, try their hand at a Puerto Rican jazz fusion thang, with a wide range of New York talent. Results vary enormously, with two small piano pieces by Eddie Palmieri the high points, followed by Hilton Ruiz's horn arrangements for David Sanchez and Steve Turre, and a bit of George Benson guitar (good enough that it's not ruined by the George Benson vocal). I.e., the jazz side of the fusion is in good hands, but the dance side is a very mixed bag, with a very straight Roy Ayers disco uninteresting but not bad, and some other shit just bad. B
  • The Pointer Sisters: Hits! (1978-86 [2001], RCA). They started earlier, with several albums on Blue Thumb, and cut a couple more later for Motown, but if they did anything notable outside this period with Richard Perry I haven't heard of it. Most of these are pro forma too, the exceptions definitive versions of "Fire" and "Slow Hand" and a pretty credible "I'm So Excited." AMG lists eleven best-of comps for RCA/BMG -- haven't checked, but I bet they intersect massively. B+
  • Kenny White: Symphony in 16 Bars (2005, Wildflower). Singer-songwriter. Don't know where he came from or how he got here, but looks to be in his 50s, with one previous unheard album on his resume. The hype sheet makes references to Randy Newman, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello. Only one I hear is a bit of Costello, but he's really got his own voice, and comes off smarter and simpler, or at least more thoughtful and more plainspoken. On the other hand, Elvis had the Attractions. B+

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I've been meaning to write something about this past season of the TV show 24 ever since I got roped into watching it. It would be a gross exaggeration to pretend that this series represents anyone's current thinking on terrorism, much less that it's likely to have any real lasting cultural, much less political, impact. For one thing, it's ridiculous. And it's not ridiculous is any useful or even particularly amusing way, as in satire. It's ridiculous in the sense that its deep assumptions about its subject have no connection to the real world. This is, of course, true about much fiction, and for all I know it may also be true about most contemporary television programming, but that's beside the point. The ridiculous in popular art is rarely a problem in general, because most of the time we have enough grounding to sort out what is real and what is ridiculous. But when it comes to terrorism most people are at a disadvantage, because what they believe to be the reality of terrorism is as ridiculous as 24.

The show is based on the schema that a team of terrorists can execute a complete series of terror plots, normally building to a climax, over a 24-hour period, and that a team of counterrorists can respond to those events quickly enough to thwart at least the climax event. This schema is in many ways a side-effect of a core concept, which is that the action takes place in real time (with dead spots conveniently spaced for commercials, of course). Real time is an intimation of reality, but by forcing everything to fit in real time everything reduces to action, suspense, momentum. The model isn't derived from literature, where writers usually strive to tie their threads together to attain a coherent story; rather, 24 is a mere video game, where the good guy (Jack Bauer) chases the bad guy (Marwan Habib) through a fast-paced gauntlet, which many side-characters suddenly smashing and vanishing on the sidelines while the rest look completely dumbfounded. In the end the viewer is dumbfounded as well, but the producers are hoping that the sense of exhaustion will predominate. 24 hours is, after all, a long goddam day.

The most obvious problem with all of this is that terrorists never work that way. Terror events occur all of a sudden, then they're done. To suggest the menace of scale, terrorists try to coordinate multiple events, but serializing them takes risks and requires resources often beyond their abilities. 24 tries to get beyond this limit by allocating stupendous resources to the terrorists -- way beyond anything that has ever been hinted at in an alien environment such as the U.S. -- and even there the serialization is their undoing. (So-called terrorists in Iraq can afford to attack frequently because they operate on their own home turf.) But the only way 24 can fill up 24 hours of terror is by vastly inflating the terrorists' resources while at the same time not giving them enough brains to manage their risks.

On the other hand, in order to keep the game going the counterterrorists also have to be allocated ridiculously superior powers -- the list is too long to get into, but my favorite is the ability to get to or from any point in greater Los Angeles in 20 minutes tops. The biggest timesaver is no doubt CTU's ability to decrypt entire hard disks in seconds then instanly identify the one critical clue that keeps them in the game. Even more remarkable is how Jack Bauer is able to get viable information in seconds from suspects he has just shot. But lest these super powers tip the odds excessively in favor of the counterterrorists they also have some exceptional handicaps: in particular, the whole management structure from three presidents down to CTU management are vain, credulous, scheming morons. (The whole Chinese consulate thread is Exhibit A here.)

Like I said, the problem with all this isn't just that it's ridiculous. The problem is that these ridiculous things reflect misconceptions that most of us have about terrorism, counterterrorism and the government. We assume, for instance, that terrorists are much more numerous, powerful, well funded, deeply ensconced, and above all nihilistic than they are. We assume that the counterterrorists' tactics, especially torture but also pervasive surveillance and massive databases, are effective means of fighting terror. But we also assume that noble public servants like Jack Bauer are kept from doing their jobs by incompetent and perfidious politicians and bureaucrats and interfering do-gooders like the "Amnesty Global" lawyer who springs one suspect. The politicians are so fickle that Bauer, after saving his country, has to fake his own death and go underground in order to avoid extradition to China.

Other threads resonate less because they don't register with our cultivated paranoias. Foremost among these is the fact that nearly all of Marwan's schemes involved hijacking dubious technology that the government bought and paid for. Wouldn't the threat of terrorism be much reduced if we didn't have those nuclear plants subject to cyber attack? Or those nuclear bombs circulating through rural Iowa? And what about the thread of the big defense contractor that employed Marwan and covered up for him? Doesn't that say something about our greed-is-good economic ideology? There's also an interesting lesson here on management philosophy: time and again we see managers, both politicians and bureaucrats, whose main qualification for the job seems to be that they can make firm decisions based on a near-absolute lack of valid information. We might also take a look at the effects of nepotism and fucking around on the job here since the writers bothered to put so much of it into the show: is this a case of cultivating clan loyalties, or is it just that everyone here is so estranged from normal life that the only people they can relate to are each other?

The problem with heavy questions is that they take time to sort out. More often than not, I found myself wondering how characters would come to understand what had happened on this fateful day over the following weeks and months. That we'll never know because nobody involved with 24 cares about understanding -- all they crave is action. And in 24 that's all they ever get.


May 2005 Jul 2005