August 2005 Notebook
Index
Latest

2014
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2013
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2012
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2011
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2010
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2009
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2008
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2007
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2006
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2005
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2004
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2003
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2002
  Dec
  Nov
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb
  Jan
2001
  Dec
  Oct
  Sep
  Aug
  Jul
  Jun
  May
  Apr
  Mar
  Feb

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Static Multimedia posted the September 2005 edition of Recycled Goods today. This is the 23rd edition in a series that has now bagged 907 records. This was kind of a rush job after other projects chewed up most of the month, but I think I came up with a good mix of albums. Several are arguably new. Some months back I was having so much trouble getting good world music albums that I just dropped the recycled requirement. I figured that while most world records newly washed up in these parts are really old ones in their native lands, the distinction caused more confusion than it was worth. Two more records are new releases of live jazz concerts not really old enough to be classified as vault material: Sonny Rollins and David S. Ware. But starting short of material, I rather arbitrarily ruled them eligible anyway. I actually wrote them up for the Jazz Consumer Guide, but once the Voice published full reviews they deprioritized and lost out in the inevitable space squeeze. Besides, I could run them here.

We did two album covers this time. Although not identified as such, these are the Pick Hits. In that role Amadou & Mariam was the obvious choice, but I also wanted to show off the Rollins cover. Publisher had no problem with the suggestion, so this will probably be a regular feature. The mad scramble to make deadline partly contributed to the ACN, although I've done this a couple of times before, and as I notice reissues of albums worth pointing out I'll run this section. There's no reason I have to do fifty albums each time, other than that I'm trying to keep up. But it takes a lot of time, and I'm starting to worry that I don't have the time to handle this many properly.

The other frustration is getting enough of the albums that deserve to be reviewed here. This is especially a problem with world music, but the only genre I'm reasonably well supplied with is jazz. After world music, the toughest area to keep up with is recent rock, hip-hop, etc. Looking at the reissues section in Blender this month, I have 6 of 26 records reviewed, but they come from just three labels. One positive thing is the sudden uptick in country music this month, mostly thanks to Universal -- which had been largely absent from the column for the past year (excepting Verve, their jazz label). Would love to see more hip-hop and more dance music. Despite my complaints, this column can be a lot of fun to work on.


Here are the notes for the records included in last week's Jazz Consumer Guide.

  • Eric Alexander: Dead Center (2004, HighNote). An appropriate title, especially since he's already used Solid. His one original is a feisty piece that lets him show off his huge tone and plentiful chops. Then he works through the covers, a range of postbop swing including one by his redoubtable pianist Harold Mabern and a pair by Lerner and Loewe that he takes to the races. The center of the mainstream, but far from dead. A-
  • Scott Amendola Band: Believe (2005, Cryptogramophone). The drummer in the Nels Cline Singers moves up front, with twin guitars (Cline and Jeff Parker, a dream team), John Shifflett's bass, and most importantly Jenny Scheinman's violin. But this turns the Nels Cline Singers on their head, adding Jeff Parker's sweet guitar to Cline's sour guitar, reinforcing the string sound with violin and bass. The leader supplements his drums with electronics, producing groove and textures you'd have to be hard of hearing to take for ambient. A-
  • Eugene Chadbourne: The Hills Have Jazz (2003 [2005], Boxholder). Chadbourne's skewed but bouncing take the Tadd Dameron/Count Basie piece "Good Bait" is so ebullient and good natured I wish he had returned to that mode instead of following avant-gardists Oliver Lake, Eric Dolphy, Roscoe Mitchell, Sun Ra and John Coltrane down the rabbit hole. Not that the latter don't have their interesting moments, but the tendency is to skew sounds there abstracted from their music. But then I also don't share Chadbourne's fascination with horror movies, let alone why he should dedicate this to Wes Craven. B+
  • The Nels Cline Singers: The Giant Pin (2003 [2004], Cryptogramophone). The fast and hard ones deserve to be called heavy metal jazz, although Cline's guitar is less distinctive at that volume than Scott Amendola's free drumming. At more moderate speeds Cline gets a distinctive ring and plays with considerable poise. The slow stuff goes more for electronics and effects -- moods, and nice to catch acoustic bassist Devin Hoff on his own. As on Instrumentals, nobody actually sings. A-
  • Benoît Delbecq Unit: Phonetics (2005, Songlines). This starts with an unlikely rhythmic invention, Delbecq's piano and Emile Biayenda's drums bouncing about out of synch but forming an effortless cascade. Mark Turner's tenor sax and/or Oene Van Geel's viola add color without pumping up the volume. A-
  • Pierre Dørge & New Jungle Orchestra: Dancing Cheek to Cheek (2004, Stunt). Two nods to tin pan alley: "Cheek to Cheek" done Louis/Ella style, except that this Louis is Ray Anderson; and "Body and Soul" slowed to a savory crawl by Josephine Cronholm. The rest of the album is Afro-Danish big band, griots and pennywhistles, references to Mingus and Sun Ra, and a Dukish impression of Jakarta. Dørge, like his Jungle Music idol, plays orchestra, but when the occasion calls for it he also fills in smartly on guitar. A-
  • Duo Nueva Finlandia: Short Stories (2005, TUM). Piano and bass improvisations from two veterans of Finland's free jazz scene, pianist Eero Ojanen and bassist Teppo Hauta-aho. Not exactly household names, but they've played together since 1962, and have played with many important players of the last forty years -- some names that jump out are Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Paul Rutherford. Ojanen's piano has bits of Taylor and Waldron -- concentrated, abstract, ready to jump, especially when the bassist lays down a rhythm. Tight, often lovely, but never sweet. B+
  • Fieldwork: Simulated Progress (2004 [2005], Pi). On first approximation, this is a piano trio with Steve Lehman playing the bass parts on alto and sopranino sax, where they take on a life of their own. Lehman has such a strained, narrow tone that his work tends to duck behind the piano, anchoring the rhythm and painting the background. But then the pianist is Vijay Iyer, who can lead by the sheer force of his percussiveness and has a knack for putting the finishing touches on whatever Lehman and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee throw at him. A-
  • James Finn Trio: Plaza de Toros (2005, Clean Feed). The bullfighting theme shows up in momentary flashes of Spanish bravado, the themes that the improvisations are presumably based on. One can imagine Finn's tenor saxophone center stage, exposed, engaged with an unseen but ominous force, living by his wits, which would relegate the secondary bass and drums (Dominic Duval and Warren Smith) to a role like the fanfare of the crowd. B+
  • Bill Frisell: Richter 858 (2005, Songlines). Unconventional string quartet -- Frisell's guitar joining Jenny Scheinman (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), Hank Roberts (cello). The music is based on a set of abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter. Frisell explains, "The music should not be 'pretty' in the conventional or sentimental way, because the paintings are simply not." Indeed, this starts with a burst of ugliness and it never quite recovers. This is thick with its strings, if not composed through then at least improvised with all on board, so perhaps inevitably it sounds like classical music to me -- my gag reflex kicks in too often to enjoy it much. Interesting booklet. Like the paintings -- mostly smears of oil on aluminum. B-
  • Dennis González's Spirit Meridian: Idle Wild (2004 [2005], Clean Feed). The good doctor's prescription for a country "sick with Bush" is "Bush Medicine" -- a delightful calypso fragment recalling "St. Thomas" with an Ornette twist, but fractured into discrete bits. Small pleasures, take them when you can. Oliver Lake's playfulness enhances González's spiritfulness, while the rhythm section keeps things loose. Of course, Bush Medicine is only a palliative. A cure starts with surgery, and the rehabilitation is likely to be slow and wrenching, with so much damage to be undone, and so much that cannot be undone. A-
  • Jerry Granelli: Sandhills Reunion (2005, Songlines). Granelli's music, constructed from clarinets and baritone sax, guitars and cello, has a spare windswept quality suited to the Nebraska Sandhills. The pictures of these hills can be taken for flat, a vastness of empty space spread out under an even vaster empty sky. They provide a setting for Rinde Eckert's words, spoken in a cautious monotone: tales of crime and loneliness and the meaning of the life as revealed at a strip joint by a singer, "a big fat black woman from Chicago." A-
  • Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Ground (2004 [2005], ECM). Quiet, almost sedentary piano trio. Patient, elegant, quite lovely. Never know what to say about such things. B+
  • Jim Hall: Magic Meeting (2004, ArtistShare). I doubt that there is any other major jazz player that I feel more uncertain, as opposed to ambivalent, about than Hall. He played guitar with Jimmy Giuffre as far back as 1956 and has worked consistently ever since. But aside from his support work for Sonny Rollins in the '60s I've never gotten the hang of him. It's tempting to bracket him with bop-influenced guitarists like Tal Farlow but it's hard to be sure. Is he subtle or shrewd? Enigmatic or just confusing? I'm not sure this record answers any such questions, but it rather neatly spreads the cards out on the table. This is a trio recording, a selection of not especially related pieces from a longer (probably much longer) set of live performances. The anchor is bassist Scott Colley, who also gets a share of the production credit; he seems to be the center of gravity even when he isn't playing (or is practically inaudible). Hall himself appears in various guises: his clean light notes glisten off Colley's contrasting bass notes, but he can also shift into a rhythm mode, and he uses some sort of effects to get a synth-sax sound for the head on Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas." The third leg of the trio is drummer Lewis Nash, who can be as playful and offbeat as Hall. A-
  • Happy Apple: The Peace Between Our Companies (2005, Sunnyside). Not really the Bad Plus reloaded, although common denominator Dave King's drum attack is the distinctive signature here. Eric Fratzke's electric bass doesn't match Reid Anderson's virtuosity, but at least keeps them in the game. And Michael Lewis' saxophones make for a lead voice that is louder, more personable, and more anciently rockish than Ethan Iverson's piano. They alternate between going loud and going soft. In soft mode they go for avant-scratch; in loud mode Lewis shows his command of the Ayler/Coltrane basics, while King knocks your socks off. A-
  • Ari Hoenig: The Painter (2003 [2004], Smalls). Led by the drummer, but Guadeloupean Jacques Schwarz-Bart could write a book on state-of-the-art tenor sax, and French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc can dazzle when he's not merely helping out. Recorded live at Fat Cat, it sneaks up on you, like the realization that you've just had a real good time. A-
  • Ibrahim Electric: Meets Ray Anderson (2004 [2005], Stunt). When they turn up the heat the Danish guitar-organ-drums trio is more rockish than its soul jazz avatars. And when they dial it down they're knee deep in the blues. Neither trait is all that remarkable, but their meeting with the trombone master was inspired. After all, Anderson's first language is gutbucket, so when he growls and groans he delivers the dirt this band needs. But he can improvise on their grind, punching out lightning solos then diving back into the grime. A-
  • Sherman Irby: Faith (2004 [2005], Black Warrior). Irby has a beautiful tone on alto sax, a quick wit and surpassing soulfulness. He cut a marvelous down home record in 1998 called Big Mama's Biscuits, his second Blue Note album, but he's been out of print since then, until founding his own label. This one, built around originals with titles like "Faith," "Hope," and "Charity," comes close: the sound is clean and well structured, and pianist Larry Willis injects a little gospel base. "Fight for Life" is anything but kneejerk. B+
  • Javon Jackson: Have You Heard (2005, Palmetto). A pleasant but laid back funk album, which means it's nowhere near as funky as it ought to be, and is otherwise a big step backwards for a guy who used to make a big impression. Comping behind Lisa Fischer's moaning is a waste of time. Mark Whitfield has some sweet licks on guitar, and Dr. Lonnie Smith is about par. Could be a featured Dud, in which case I might get meaner with the grade. C+
  • Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio: Other Valentines (2005, Atavistic). Lonborg-Holm's cello is the lead instrument, backed by bass and drums. He plays it like a big fiddle. It's not much deeper than violin, just doesn't have the scratchy high end -- solid but mellow. A-
  • Russ Lossing: Phrase 6 (2004, Fresh Sound). This piano trio moves slowly but efficiently, like a team of rock climbers negotiating difficult terrain. The liner notes describe the pieces in technical terms, but the upshot is that Lossing's compositions leave a lot of variables to be resolved on the fly. Hence the teamwork is crucial. A-
  • Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana: Climbing the Banyan Tree (2004 [2005], Clean Feed). Indian percussion, Chinese violin, Middle Eastern oud -- released in Lisbon, but recorded in that old melting pot, Brooklyn. Note that Jason Kao Hwang and Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz are U.S. natives, and the leader is a Hyderabadi student of the north Indian classical tradition who went to Carnegie Mellon. That none of the three are too deeply rooted in their ethnicity lets them join together as a distinctive jazz group rather than limiting them to exotic fusion. A-
  • One More: Music of Thad Jones (2005, IPO). The band members' names are printed in tiny type on the front cover, starting with Bob Brookmeyer and ending with Frank Wess. They are old guys -- Thad Jones' peers, and in the case of the pianist, his brother. This is Hank Jones' second tribute to his brother's work, following Upon Reflection (1993), a trio with little brother Elvin on drums. A touching, poignant record. This one joins it, in a sense completes it by adding the horns missing from the previous album -- Benny Golson, James Moody, and Jimmy Owens as well as Brookmeyer and Wess. Richard Davis and Mickey Roker fill out the group -- the other obvious drummers having passed on. A-
  • Greg Osby: Channel Three (2005, Blue Note). Osby has worked steadily at Blue Note since 1990, and this is his 13th album there (or 14th if you could one with Joe Lovano, or maybe there are more). I regard them as an inconsistent series, but you break them down further: the alto saxist has impressive chops as an improviser, but as a planner his more ambitious ideas rarely pan out. I don't have a good take on most of his albums. I have five of his albums listed at B or below, but don't remember much more than a saccharine sense of harmony, and I have one at B+ (his "live bootleg," or two if you count the one with Lovano). My hypothesis then is that he works best when he keeps it simple, which he does here on this straight sax trio. In the booklet, he sees it differently, arguing that working without a piano is harder -- at least in the sense of making the trio feel whole without the chordal backdrop. So it's possible that he's as ambitious here as elsewhere, but at least here's his ambitions are tightly constrained. He plays with remarkable intelligence and craft, his tone rarely strained, and the support roles of Matt Brewer and especially Jeff Watts are impeccable. Best thing he's done, I'd say. A-
  • Houston Person: To Etta With Love (2004, HighNote). The songbook is loosely associated with Etta James but none are her songs, and pieces like "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You" have been around the block so many times they just seem like songs she would like. These are Person's songs too -- if he hasn't played them before it wasn't because they didn't fit. A veteran soul jazzman, he's always had a way with a ballad, but he's rarely sounded as completely at ease as he does here. A-
  • Rosenberg/Baker/Hatwich/Daisy: New Folk, New Blues (2003 [2005], 482 Music). Free jazz, rough and tumbling. Since it's every man for himself, the one I'm most tempted to praise is drummer Tim Daisy, who really keeps his head in the game. But saxophonist Scott Rosenberg is the one up front, the voice you hear most and most clearly. This could easily fall apart, but manages to engage you all the way through. Don't know what the cover art means, but part of it looks like a factory turned into a ramshackle mosque. Fronted by a parking lot, or more likely a junkyard. One more piece of rust belt saxophone, America picking at its warts. B+
  • Keely Smith: Vegas '58-Today (2004 [2005], Concord). Smith played Dean Martin to Louis Prima's Jerry Lewis, a straight singer in a crooked world. It's her claim to fame, and this run through the old Prima songbook is her chance not just to look back but to have fun with it. The band is sharp, and she takes delight in their brassiness. The songs that work best are the fast and funny ones, even if she's nowhere near as funny as he was. A fun record, and she's entitled. B+
  • Triot With John Tchicai: Sudden Happiness (2004, TUM). Tchicai adds a complementary saxophone or bass clarinet to Mikko Innanen range of saxophones. They play as two separate voices rather than attempting to harmonize, and at speed this approaches the sort of raucous polyphony that hasn't been in style since Dixieland -- most prominently on a piece of township jive written by Johnny Dyani. But more often the tone is somber, gray and ominous. The range and sweep are impressive. A-
  • Steve Turre: The Spirits Up Above (2004, HighNote). One of the risks of a tribute is that it just makes you long more for the original, and that's ultimately the problem with this otherwise excellent album. This is Turre's tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, cut with an impeccable crew of mainstreamers: James Carter (on flute as well as tenor sax), Vincent Herring, Mulgrew Miller, Buster Williams and Winard Harper. I've played this too many times -- a sure sign of sitting on the fence -- and while I've gotten to where I like it quite a bit, I still have reservations. First I thought the problem was the two vocal pieces, but they've grown on me, and "Volunteered Slavery" features a rave-up that almost captures the spirit of the original. Carter's flute piece also connected. B+
  • Doug Wamble: Bluestate (2004 [2005], Marsalis Music/Rounder). Wamble loves to shift meters, which makes for oddly fractured music as long as he just plays his guitar, but too often he tries to sing through the changes and it makes for awkward, painful even, listening. He's a serious young man -- sounds a bit like Mose Allison without a sense of humor. But this isn't all wasted. His awkwardness is touching on a straighter song like Stevie Wonder's "Have a Talk With God." His guitar is distinctive. And a guest solo by producer/bossman Branford Marsalis is a plus. B-

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The first software job I had was working for a guy who habitually referred to computers as "the confusers," and was frequently heard to say: "To err is human. To really screw things up takes a computer." I'm reminded of this because the Village Voice took a week to post my sixth Jazz Consumer Guide after it appeared in print. The reason, I've been told repeatedly, was caused by their transition to new publishing software, something called InCopy. (Looks like it's an Adobe product, wouldn't you know?) Anyhow, after much complaining on my part, it's on the web now. Still has a few mistakes, the worst being that accents in the names of Dennis González and Pierre Dørge chop off their names and any following punctuation. Hopefully, they'll get those fixed.

I managed to squeeze 30 albums in this time. The line-up as published is:

Pick Hits:

  • Fieldwork: Simulated Progress (Pi)
  • Dennis González's Spirit Meridian: Idle Wild (Clean Feed)

A-List:

  • Eric Alexander: Dead Center (HighNote)
  • Steve Amendola Band: Believe (Cryptogramophone)
  • Pierre Dørge & New Jungle Orchestra: Dancing Cheek to Cheek (Stunt)
  • Jerry Granelli: Sandhills Reunion (Songlines)
  • Jim Hall: Magic Meeting (ArtistShare)
  • Happy Apple: The Peace Between Our Companies (Sunnyside)
  • Ari Hoenig: The Painter (Smalls)
  • Ibrahim Electric: Meets Ray Anderson (Stunt)
  • Russ Lossing: Phrase 6 (Fresh Sound New Talent)
  • Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana: Climbing the Banyan Tree (Clean Feed)
  • One More: Music of Thad Jones (IPO)
  • Greg Osby: Channel Three (Blue Note)
  • Houston Person: To Etta With Love (HighNote)

Dud of the Month

  • Javon Jackson: Have You Heard (Palmetto)

Honorable Mention

  • Triot With John Tchicai: Sudden Happiness (TUM)
  • The Nels Cline Singers: The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone)
  • Benoit Delbecq Unit: Phonetics (Songlines)
  • Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio: Other Valentines (Atavistic)
  • Steve Turre: The Spirits Up Above (HighNote)
  • James Finn Trio: Plaza de Toros (Clean Feed)
  • Eugene Chadbourne: The Hills Have Jazz (Boxholder)
  • Sherman Irby: Faith (Black Warrior)
  • Duo Nueva Finlandia: Short Stories (TUM)
  • Keely Smith: Vegas '58-Today (Concord)
  • Rosenberg/Baker/Hatwich/Daisy: New Folk, New Blues (482 Music)
  • Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Ground (ECM)

Duds

  • Bill Frisell: Richter 858 (Songlines)
  • Doug Wamble: Bluestate (Marsalis Music/Rounder)

Several other albums were in the file I submitted for edit, but lost out in the space squeeze:

A-List:

  • Tom Christensen: New York School (Playscape)
  • Anat Cohen: Place & Time (Anzic)
  • Art Pepper: Mosaic Select (1956-57, Mosaic)
  • Joshua Redman Elastic Band: Momentum (Nonesuch)
  • Sonny Rollins: Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (2001, Milestone)
  • Larry Young: Of Love and Peace (1966, Blue Note)

Honorable Mention

  • Mike Ladd: Negrophilia [The Album] (Thirsty Ear)
  • Myron Walden: This Way (Fresh Sound New Talent)
  • Andrew Hill: Mosaic Select (1967-70, Mosaic)
  • François Carrier Trio: Play (482 Music)
  • Tony DeSare: Want You (Telarc)
  • Ron Blake: Sonic Tonic (Mack Avenue)

Duds

  • Debby Boone: Reflections of Rosemary (Concord)

Most of these will show up in future columns, although I've already written about Pepper, Young and Hill in Recycled Goods, and a revised version of Rollins will appear in September's Recycled Goods column -- up in a couple of days. (Also a David S. Ware review I originally wrote for JCG, then never used after Larry Blumenfeld lauded the record in the Voice. Francis Davis has a review of Rollins in this coming week's Voice, to which the only thing I have to add is that the new record isn't really as good as G-Man -- only seems that way when Rollins himself is playing.)

Last few times I published a Jazz CG column I followed it up with details of housecleaning. Despite the week's delay, I don't have that done yet. (Spent all last week working on RG, and the week before blogging.) So it'll be a week or two before I get all that sorted out and start up on the next Jazz CG. Also plan to do a piece on Billy Bang, who otherwise would have loomed large this time. Quite a bit of Ken Vandermark in the queue for next time.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

After a week where I filed blog entries every day, I've gone a week now without posting anything. Two excuses: One is that I've been waiting for the Village Voice to post my Jazz Consumer Guide, so I can pass on the URL. The column is in the print edition, but hasn't been posted. I'm told they're using some new software, and having trouble with it. As a software engineer, that strikes me as a particularly lame excuse. But even if some management twit made a real dumb decision buying bad software, most times workers can go in and fix those problems by hand. Another possibility is that the Voice's labor problems (i.e., management problems) have taken another step toward making the paper dysfunctional. Rumors are that the Voice is up for sale. While the Voice has managed to keep most of its political and cultural values through several changes of ownership in the past, including a stretch under Rupert Murdoch, one always worries that the end is just around the next bend.

The other thing holding me up is that I've fallen behind in getting September's Recycled Goods done, so that's what I've been working on all week long. I should have that done later today, and hope to build up some extras in the next week so I don't get caught short next time like I did this time. I haven't made much of an effort to line up Recycled records, but it's starting to look like I might be running low, of good records, anyway.

Meanwhile, some news items:

  • Iraq's constitution was dead-on-arrival, if indeed it actually ever arrived. This looks real bad for the political maturity of the ruling coalition, but a big part of the problem is the one subject that none of them dare talk about: the Bushist occupation. The one thing that should be clear by now is that the only way anything gets better in Iraq is for the war to end, and the only way that happens is if the resistance becomes a stakeholder in the government. And the only way that can happen is for the U.S. to establish that it is leaving and will no longer interfere in Iraq's internal affairs. That isn't something talked about in the polite circles of the Green Zone, because Bush has a political stake in hanging on -- the "main front of the War on Terror" -- and because most of the Iraqis in power (such as it is) depend on the U.S. for protection. No doubt, this won't be an easy discussion. But if Iraq doesn't become a big enough tent for the resistance to join, it won't work for anyone. (Q: What makes the Kurds think that there's a future in seizing the oil fields near Kirkuk then seceding? How does Kurdistan get oil to the markets? Through Sunni Iraq? Shi'a Iraq? Turkey? Iran? Syria?) It's interesting that the only political figure in Iraq who seems to have his finger on the pulse is Muqtada al-Sadr.

  • We're starting to see some movement among pundits and even a few politicians toward leaving Iraq. A week ago Juan Cole made a complex proposal, presented as something Congress might prevail on Bush to do. It was based on an idea that I've toyed with: that U.S. forces, unable to win in Iraq, at least might be useful to prevent any other faction from winning, thereby enforcing stalemate that would encourage Iraqis to negotiate their own solution. This proposal was shot down almost immediately by Gilbert Achar, writing on Cole's own blog. The problem with this type of proposal (Cole's, or mine) is that Bush can't be neutral, and even if he did try to change his stripes and try to be neutral, nobody would believe him. Achar cited a piece by Andrew Bacevich in the Washington Post arguing that the U.S. has done all it can do in Iraq, so should haul out the "Mission Accomplished" banner and head home. Indeed, he argues the U.S. had done all it could do when the banner first appeared, and that the only thing that's happened since then was tragedy pursuing a pipe dream. The notion that the U.S. is incapable of making things better in Iraq has been a tough one for Americans to grasp, but some are starting to get there. At last one Senator (Feingold) has come out for a fixed time table to get out of Iraq. More will follow.

  • Meanwhile, Bush's polls have continued to fall. His fear of Cindy Sheehan seems to have driven him to take a vacation from his vacation. With Texas inundated by antiwar moms, Bush fled to Utah to try to find war supporters. When he was met by 2000 protestors there, including some sharp words from Salt Lake City's mayor, he retreated to Idaho. I know some folks in Idaho he wouldn't want to talk to either, but they didn't get a crack at him. If he can't even hold Texas, what makes him think he can stay any course in Iraq?

  • The American Legion not only rallied around Bush. They came out attacking war protestors as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The local rant lines have lately turned in the same direction, so most likely there's some marching orders or "talking points" out of the Bush camp prodding this kind of hate on. There hasn't been much of this up to recently -- at least compared to what we went through in early Vietnam days -- but it's a sign that things are going to get nasty. It is, of course, ludicrous to think that jihadis in Anwar are following the peace groups scattered across America for inspiration and hope. But this sets us at each other's throats in a culture war much like Vietnam did. The right figures they won the last one, so they're safe this time too. The antiwar left's increasing tendency to argue on the basis of what the war does to America's soldiers has the risk of narrowing the debate way too far. Not that there's any hope that Americans will respond to what the war is doing to Iraqis -- even the ones who've decided they love Iraqis as much as fetuses. No point trying to get all liberal over this. But the effect on America goes way beyond what's the war has done to the soldiers.

  • Big breaking story: the hurricane that threatens to eat New Orleans. We'll know more tomorrow. As I've said before, I think disaster relief is going to be one of the big political issues in America and the world over the next few decades. And nothing throws this issue into the spotlight like disaster does. The $200 billion plus we've blown up in Iraq might come handy here, but the bill could well be higher: the worst-case scenarios are almost impossible to imagine.


Music: Current count 10963 [10926] rated (+37), 930 [952] unrated (-22).

  • Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche à Bamako (2005, Nonesuch). A small pseudo-sticker on the slipcase points out "Guest Star Manu Chao." Flip it over and the small print reads "Produced by and with Manu Chao." Flip the booklet open and you can count eight songs at least co-credited to Manu Chao, with more that he plays and sings on. Spin the disc and, quelle surprise, it sounds like a new Manu Chao album, especially with its lanky pan-everywhere riddims. The "blind couple from Mali," as they've billed themselves, have always been suspected of borrowing liberally from elsewhere, so hooking up with Europe's one-man melting pot is an economical as well as inspired move. The Malian voices take over on their own songs, the most native sounding called "Gnidjougouya" -- the booklet prints all lyrics in French, even when they aren't. A
  • Ray Charles: Friendship (1984-86 [2005], Columbia/Legacy). An album of country duets refurbished to cash in on the success of Genius Loves Company, but inferior in every respect: songs, partners, arrangements, the attention span of the genius himself -- not that I was all that impressed by Genius Loves Company. The non-country bonuses are a slight plus, even the one with Billy Joel. The George Jones cut is on the expanded My Very Special Friends and, better yet, The Spirit of Country. C+
  • Maria de Barros: Dança Ma Mi (2005, Narada). Born in Dakar of Cape Verdean parents, raised in Mauritania and Rhode Island, based in Los Angeles, sings mostly in Portuguese, another singer adrift in a world where home is nowhere and, just as well, everywhere; so it's not surprising that this pleasantly danceable music sounds like nothing and everything, softened a bit as is so often the case with the pan-Portuguese. B+
  • John Denver: Rhymes & Reasons (1969 [2005], RCA/Legacy). First album by the folksinger who changed his name from Henry John Deutschendorf to become Colorado's official Poet Laureate. Mostly covers, including a fast one from the Beatles, a slow one from Jerry Jeff Walker, and some cornpone country from Mason Williams, plus ballads of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon that say all he has to say in 23 seconds. Incoherent, often oversung, not totally devoid of charm. C
  • John Denver's Greatest Hits (1969-73 [2005], RCA/Legacy). By recycling this 1973 profit-taking exercise, you only get three of his eight top-ten hits, plus one that charted #88, plus his version of the hit he wrote for Peter, Paul & Mary, plus filler. Of the three hits, one was definitively redone by Toots & the Maytals, another beat to death in commercials, and the third's a leading cause of melanoma. When he raises his voice in "The Eagle and the Hawk," is he trying to fly, or just escape the strings? Three period bonus cuts don't help. C+
  • John Denver: Back Home Again (1974 [2005], RCA/Legacy). More hits than Greatest Hits. Better filler too, but not without exception. B-
  • Henri Dikongué: Biso Nawa (2004 [2005], Buda Musique). From Cameroun via Paris, if African music mapped onto rock genres, he'd be a singer-songwriter, with his folkie guitar, plaintive vocals, indifferent beats. Not that it's so simple. B+
  • The Very Best of Bill Doggett: Honky Tonk (1954-59 [2004], Collectables). A-
  • Bill Doggett: The Many Moods of Bill Doggett (1961, King). Actually, nothing on the label or cover (open the "booklet" and all you see is white paper) indicate the date, which I got from AMG (caveat lector). A couple of vocal cuts break his norm, but they're all right, and he keeps pumping. B+
  • The Fugs: Virgin Fugs (1966 [2005], ESP-Disk). ESP's motto was "the artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP Disk," so it's tempting to think they did this on purpose, but the story is more sordid. In liner notes that could only have been written by a lawyer, label owner Bernard Stollman admits he violated his cardinal rule in slapping this together from outtakes he picked up with he bought rights to the Fugs' first album. Fugs Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg sued him over it, and indeed it sounds primitive compared even to the not-so-lofty standards of their other albums. But when you're doing songs like the hyper "New Amphetamine Shriek" and slurpy "Coca Cola Douche" there's no point to getting fancy. Sanders was a shrewd wordsmith, and Kupferberg an inspired jokester, but neither could play much more than tambourine. The musical secret to these demos, if that's what they were, came from Rounders Steve Webber and Peter Stampfel, with the latter's voice as sour as his violin. Caveat emptor: Real short (26:47), and five of eleven songs were bonuses on Fantasy's 1994 edition of The Fugs First Album. A-
  • The Fugs: Electromagnetic Steamboat: The Reprise Recordings (1967-68 [2001], Rhino Handmade, 3CD). The level of musical accomplishment here is a curse as much as a blessing -- Sanders and Kupferberg have always been word people, and that's what you listen for, even if you have to hack through country and doo-wop and power rock and classical strings and hare krishna. This piles up four of the most uncommercial albums ever released on a major label, plus trivia. An invaluable reference for scholars. B+
  • The Essential Jefferson Airplane (1966-72, RCA/Legacy, 2CD). History's ultimate verdict is likely to regard them as the confused adolescent pre-punk precursors of X, a band that built knowingly and skillfully on their folkie noir. Sure, a single disc would meander less, but would run the risk of reducing them to an anthemic pop band. They must have suspected as much when they titled their first compilation The Worst of Jefferson Airplane. B+
  • George Jones: My Very Special Guests (1977-97 [2005], Epic/Legacy, 2CD). This takes the first (and best) of four one-song-per-guest-star albums and packs on 27 more, providing an extensive two-decade document of Jones' duet art. Jones is so skillful and so selfless that he contrasts to and fits in even with generations of male neotrads who grew up in awe of him, but few add up to the sum of their parts, perhaps because they dilute the greatest voice in country music, or because they're just meant to be easy product. B
  • Janis Joplin: Pearl (Legacy Edition) (1970 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). Like Billie Holiday, everything she did for anyone ultimately belongs to her, which is why Legacy was able to craft a 3-CD box, Janis, that sounded unified, complete, and utterly convincing. That left little else to do with her, but commerce carries on. The core album here was a slight disappointment but forgivable as her unfinished last. The extra disc is a Toronto concert that provides a memorable snapshot of what must have been an average night, matching the disappointment of the album, but forgivable nonetheless. Pace the liner notes, she didn't go out on a high note; she died unresolved, never figuring out that the blues are about survival, a lesson she never got old enough to appreciate. A-
  • Patty Loveless: The Definitive Collection (1985-96 [2005], MCA Nashville/Chronicles). Patricia Ramey grew up singing Porter/Dolly duets with her brother Roger, who took her to Nashville, where she hooked up with the Wilburn Brothers, following in Loretta Lynn's footsteps. She married their drummer Terry Lovelace, and when they split she changed her name to an adjective. She caught a break when Tony Brown finally decided there might be a market for country music that actually sounds like country music. Neotraditionalism is what they called it, and she's their poster girl -- she has the right voice and temperament. She cut five albums for MCA from 1987-91, then moved on to Epic where she has nine and counting. If she's ever cut a bad one I've missed it. The six I've heard are so solid and consistent her best-ofs can be programmed at random, which evidently they are. This one samples the MCA albums liberally, tacking on two run-of-the-mill songs from her third Epic album to spread the year-range a bit. Problem is she's rarely great. She doesn't write much, and she keeps trying to make love songs work, even though she's sharper on the loveless ones. For example, "God Will" -- I might have graded this higher had they included it, but they didn't. B+
  • Luomo: The Present Lover (2003 [2004], Kinetic). A soft beat, somewhat muted, piece of electronica, female voice, mostly quite nice. First two pieces start a bit awkward, but it rights itself on the title piece. B+
  • Loretta Lynn: The Definitive Collection (1964-78 [2005], MCA Nashville/Chronicles). This 25-cut comp follows three others on CD, not counting cheapies: 20 Greatest Hits [1988, 20 songs], Country Music Hall of Fame Series [1991, 16], All Time Greatest Hits [2002, 22]. All four fit into multi-artist series: whenever MCA got ginned up for a round of best-ofs, Lynn had to be included. The obvious reason is that Lynn recorded a dozen or so songs of sexual politics so sharply detailed and reasoned that no record collection should be without them. Those songs are the core of the fifteen cuts that appear on three or more of these comps. It's not that Lynn didn't record enough -- she released something like 35 albums in a 15-year span -- but her unique genius towers over a lot of solid professionalism. Examples of the latter include five duets with Conway Twitty and a song that belongs to Patsy Cline. These are all good songs, but they aren't Loretta. As for the others, forget All Time Greatest Hits, which is this record minus "Blue Kentucky Girl," "You're Lookin' at Country," and "The Pill." But the A+ choice is still the Twitty-less out-of-print 20 Greatest Hits. A-
  • Não Wave: Brazil Post Punk (1982-88 [2005], Man): This defies the prevalent, and by now ridiculous, notion that all Brazilian music sounds like bossa nova: Brazil's the second largest music market in the world, and they seem to have a little bit of everything. On the other hand, most of this loud and arty rock is pretty nondescript, lacking the wound-tight tension of most of what we know as post-punk/new wave. B
  • Dolly Parton: The Essential Dolly Parton (1967-2000 [2005], RCA/Legacy, 2CD): the mid-point for two discs is 1977; the first disc starts with 1967's "Dumb Blonde" and the songs are all Parton originals except the first one and a Jimmie Rodgers cover; the second disc is down to six Parton originals, about one every four years; this partly corrects the down trend in Parton comps by splitting her career into complementary hillbilly and Hollywood discs; the only surprise is that the latter isn't as bad as we feared, and that the former isn't as good as we remembered. B+
  • Come On Get Happy! The Very Best of the Partridge Family (1970-72 [2005], Arista/Legacy). I barely recall the twee sitcom, so the most striking thing about this cross-marketing is how adult all the singers sound, including the featured David Cassidy (age 20 when the show debuted); the music end of the business was run by Wes Farrell, a hack with enough budget to hire pros; at best these are amazingly complex confections, far more psychedelica than bubblegum; it's amusing to imagine them recut with a singer broad enough to redeem such kitsch, like Elvis Presley. B
  • Pearls Before Swine: The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings (1967-68 [2005], ESP-Disk). With the biblical name, cover art from Bosch and Breugel, and references back past Vietnam to the pointless slaughter of the Crimean War, Tom Rapp's early recordings have a peculiar braininess and eerie beauty to them. Classifying this as folk or psychedelica or both seems off base, although he's not consistent enough to avoid the confusion. B+
  • The Best of Poi Dog Pondering (The Austin Years) (1989-91 [2005], Columbia/Legacy). A band of eclectics from Hawaii, having established a beachhead in Austin because it's warm and cheap, make a quick dash for next big thing -- or at least encourage the megacorp to think so. A shifting but mostly large group led by Frank Orrall, they're distinguished by groove and erudition, but not much else. B
  • Putumayo Presents: Italian Café (1958-2004 [2005], Putumayo World Music). An analog to the "French Café" idiom of prior comps, this makes for pleasant touristy background, with whispery vocals and lithe, easy-strolling riddims; note that the only cut dominated by accordion comes from Austria. B+
  • Putumayo Presents: Latin Lounge (2000-04 [2005], Putumayo World Music). By "lounge" they mean soft, innocuous synth beats, the constant in five volumes only marginally differentiated by a leading word (World, Euro, Sahara, Blues). Musicians everywhere in damn near every genre and style are turning to cheap, dependable technology like this, so the series is likely to go on indefinitely as long as anyone bothers to buy it. Putumayo's genius is to collect and sequence unthreatening exotica into pleasing packages that give you a sense of received adventure with no risk or thrill. This one is perfectly ordinary, so typical there's nothing to do but write about the whole gestalt. B
  • Putumayo Presents: North African Groove (1996-2004 [2005], Putumayo World Music). Further progress on the raï front, the dance music not evolving so much as spreading across the continent it speaks to, its home base safe from the mullahs and jihadis in secular France. B+
  • Tarika: 10: Beasts, Ghosts & Dancing With History (1994-2002 [2004], Triloka/Artemis). A 10th anniversary compilation from Madagascar's most famous folk-rock group, sounds like nothing else from Africa, and not just because the Malagasy's roots are in Indonesia. The rhythms are light and snappy, the guitar sweet, the voices -- sisters Hanitra Rasoanaivo and Noro Raharimalala in the lead, with males for backup and response -- elated. The remixes may be a sop to the commercial west, but they help. A-
  • Trojan Dub Massive: Chapter One ([2005], Trojan/Sanctuary). Sly and Robbie, King Tubby, Tapper Zukie, Prince Jammy, Scientist, spun by Bill Laswell, who's never quite able to leave well enough alone. B+
  • Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn: The Definitive Collection (1970-88 [2005], MCA Nashville/Chronicles). The love songs remind you that they're Nashville pros, not lovers, but what pros they are -- the proof is in the jokes, like "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly" and "Don't Tell Me You're Sorry (I Know How Sorry You Are)." A-
  • Don Williams: The Definitive Collection (1973-86 [2005], MCA Nashville/Chronicles). Bobby Bare described Williams as a "super-talent with no crutches, no hangups, no problems"; an easy going, soft-spoken country crooner, Williams racked up a long series of hits courting marital bliss, the opposite of Nashville's usual Strum und Drang, but they key was that he never turned sappy or melodramatic, least of all in the music, what "easy listening" ought to mean. A-

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Music: Current count 10926 [10905] rated (+21), 952 [948] unrated (+4). This week mostly went to mopping up new jazz records, stuff left over from Jazz CG. Actually, it mostly went to wrapping up the Israel Peace Plan essay and working in the blog, but while doing that I played a lot of B/B+ level jazz records, which saves me from having to deal with them later. Jazz CG should be out Tuesday more/less.

  • Ted Nash: Still Evolved (2002 [2003], Palmetto). Nash is impresive on tenor sax, and seems likely to emerge as a major player. The Kimbrough-Allison-Wilson rhythm section is tight as you'd expect, certainly up to the job. So let's blame this on the trumpets, a tag team of Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Printup. Not that there's a lot of blame to be shouldered: they're not bad, but they invariably bring this back to hard bop humdrum when the rest of the band hint at moving on. Or maybe we should blame Matt Baltisaris, who seems to think that hard bop orthodoxy still has legs. Nash's next album is much better. Heard good things about the previous one, Sidewalk Meeting, too. B+
  • Rich Perry: At Eastman (2001 [2003], Steeplechase). A conventional hard bop quintet, with Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Harold Danko on piano, Jeff Campbell on bass, Rich Thompson on drums, but very nicely turned out. Perry always struck me as a very solid tenor sax player, but Jenkins is if anything even more impressive here. B+

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Last week I was lurking in a bookstore and noticed a book called 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is #37), by Bernard Goldberg. This week I went back to the bookstore and found the book on sale 30% off, indicating that it's some kind of bestseller. I'm a sucker for lists, so I thumbed through the thing, but most of the names I didn't recognize, and most of those I did recognize seemed like peculiar choices. Then an article from Common Dreams popped up in my mailbox proposing six other people as the ones "Really Screwing Up America" -- seven actually, but Ken Lay managed to make both lists -- and I hadn't heard of half of them either. Someone named Philip Dhingra posted a web page with Goldberg's list and some info on who these people are and why Goldberg hates them, so that helps. I couldn't have told you who runs the ACLU or PETA or the Ford Foundation, but they all made the list.

For balance or confusion, Goldberg picks a few names from the far right -- Jimmy Swaggart, Michael Savage, David Duke. Seems like he could have consolidated those three slots by picking Fred Phelps, but I guess he didn't look too hard. Perhaps that's because he's so busy getting offended by things normal people just laugh off. For instance, Courtney Love leaves him so speechless all he can say is "Ho" -- and after doing that, he's got the balls to dump on Ludacris. One problem is that the list is weak on people who actually have any real power. He's got one billionaire on the list: George Soros, who sure screwed most of Asia but is better known in these parts for his philanthropy. He's got two U.S. Senators (Kennedy and Byrd), and two ex-Senators (Gore and Edwards), one ex-Governor (Dean), and a few U.S. Representatives and lower politicians, mostly black; not a Republican among them, unless you count Duke, who never got past the Louisiana state house. Most of the businessmen are has-beens (Lay, Dennis Kozlowski). He's got a real problem with TV news people and celebrities. According to Dhingra's explanations, slots 12, 13 and 14 were awarded for Dan Rather's Bush National Guard story. To make that screw up -- bad evidence for what was essentially a true, if not terribly important, story -- rank so high requires a lot of forgetting, not least of Colin Powell's U.N. speech, a piece of fraud that cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Rather didn't have any effect on anything, except that he provided the Republicans with an excuse to talk about something other than Bush's record. (So maybe that was catastrophic for America?)

Even given my fondness for lists, I'm not going to nitpick or pose an alternative list. Part of this is that aside from a few obvious politicos, most of whom have been attracted to the Bush administration like flies to shit, I don't know who's screwing up America. Most of the folks on Goldberg's list are symptomatic or representative of ideas or attitudes he just despises: vulgarity, irreverance for America, the notion that minorities and women feel cheated, maybe greed. I question his commitment on the latter point because he rarely employs it except when attacking something else on his list, but also because it's the only thing he dislikes that bothers me much. Were I to put together such a list, no doubt it would be symptomatic and representative as well. The reason for this is that individuals just don't have all that much power; rather, they rise to positions that we call powerful because they represent broader forces. Religion, for instance, is a powerful force in American life. Someone like Ralph Reed isn't a mastermind; he's just particularly adept as exploiting it. He would be on my list, but if he disappeared someone quite like him would quickly take his place. It strikes me as a peculiarly right-wing thing to make a list like this, partly because the right overrates individuals, and partly because the right likes to fantasize about killing off troublemakers.

The other thing I want to point out is that Goldberg obsesses over cultural matters to the relative exclusion of politics and economics, which most of us realize are the real seats of power. This, too, is a right-wing thing, because the right is all about control, and culture is out of control. Mostly: big business has a stranglehold on mass distribution, but there are ways around that, and the shrinking number of huge corporations are still competitive enough that they're a lot more concerned with money than content. The result is that culture is demand-based -- more so now than ever, which in the U.S. at least had never been under much control. Hip-hop, for instance, has found a huge audience even though it often flaunts the verities that politicos of all stripes profess to believe in. It can do this because it, unlike politics, is free from the tyranny of the majority.

But Goldberg doesn't have a clue about culture. If he did, he'd have to worry more about Steven Spielberg (not on the list) than Michael Moore (#1). Rather, he looks for obvious political signs, which leads to his rants about culture celebrities -- actors, musicians, etc. The interesting thing about an actor talking about politics is that actors aren't selected for their politics. Actors are atypical in some ways -- looks, wit, charm, fame, wealth -- but their politics are surprisingly random, much like others who don't belong to the carefully selected political class. Goldberg picks on groups he calls "dumb" and "vicious" (with special opprobrium for Janeanne Garofolo, who he deems to be both). Interesting that these are the two characteristics that never get invited as talking heads -- instead, all of us left of center are stuck with people like Mark Shields and Tom Oliphant supposedly representing us. (Do they even belong to the same species?)

Of course, the most annoying thing about Goldberg is that he couldn't have spent more than a few weeks hacking this bestseller out of his own prejudices and ignorance. I've been trying to write a book for years, and it never occurred to me that it could be done so easily.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Tanya Reinhardt has an interesting piece called How We Left Gaza. She argues that Sharon never actually intended to leave the settlements, but boxed himself into a corner, and ultimately had to follow through because the U.S. held him to the promise. If you look back over the two years from announcement to implementation, you can find lots of evidence to back this view. She quotes a NY Times piece on Middle East Security Coordinator General William Ward: "General Ward, a careful man, confirmed that two weeks ago, American pressure helped stay the Israeli military when it was poised to go into Gaza . . . He predicted that there could be similar pressure should the need arise. 'That scenario is a scenario that none of us would like to see,' he said. 'There is a deep realization on the part of the Israeli leadership, including the military, about the consequences of that type of scenario.'" She doesn't talk about the reasons Israel wanted to send the military in, but obviously had they done so the effect would have been to stir things up, leading to more bloodshed. Neve Gordon, at Counterpunch, cites figure from B'tselem: "in the first ten months after the official decision to dismantle the settlements, Israeli forces killed 563 Palestinians in Gaza, whereas during the previous ten months period 264 were killed."

Reinhardt attributes the change in U.S. tactics to the disaster in Iraq. Bush's initial attitude toward Israel was one of malign neglect: give Sharon a free hand to do things his way. Bush wiggled a bit here and there in the run up to the Iraq war when he was trying to line up allies like the U.K. and Saudi Arabia that had concerns about Israel, but in the wake of what looked like victory the U.S. applauded an unprovoked Israeli air attack on Syria. Since then the U.S. position in Iraq has gone to hell in a handbasket. And while Israel may be America's staunchest ally, it's also America's most helpless and hopeless ally. Reinhardt concludes: "Over the years we have become accustomed to the idea that 'U.S. pressure' means declarations that have no muscle behind them. But suddenly the words have acquired new meaning. When the U.S. really does exert pressure, no Israeli leader would dare defy its injunctions (and certainly not Netanyahu). And so we have pulled out of Gaza. If the U.S. continues to lose ground in Iraq, maybe we will be forced to pull out of the West Bank as well."

Just yesterday, when I posted my peace plan, the idea that the U.S. might support something like that seemed like a pipe dream. But today I find an article from a totally independent source that suggests it may make sense after all.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

I finished the first draft of my Israel Peace Plan. I've researched and tried to understand this conflict ever since the 9/11 events. At the time, I understood that the attacks occurred within the context of a long history between the U.S. and the nations of the Middle East, and that U.S. relationship with Israel was a major piece of this history. I knew the general outline of U.S. history and world history in the 20th century -- the world wars, the Holocaust, the cold war. I was draft bait during the Vietnam War, and that profoundly affected my view of the world. Everything since then I encountered as news, not history. But what I saw in the aftermath of 9/11 was a nation on a warpath that few understood or even knew much about, so I determined to understand this as well as I could. One thing that became clear to me is that the rightward trend in the U.S. following Vietnam and in Israel following the 1973 war with Egypt and Syria -- not really a defeat in the sense of Vietnam but a major scare that cracked Israel's confidence in its founding Labor government -- followed parallel tracks, in both cases the rightwing gained power through the cultivation of fear and war, descending in cycles to ever more fear and war. This spiral is not only destructive of others; it rips at the social and moral fabric of America and perhaps even more intensely of Israel. Unless we change course, it looks like Israel today gives us a glimpse of America in the near future: a nation consumed in fear and hate, lashing out blindly at imaginary demons. Indeed, in some ways the U.S. has overtaken Israel, who have never managed an occupation as ineptly as the U.S. has in Iraq. (Not that Lebanon was anything for Israel to be proud of.)

The peace plan I proposed is a complex and subtle piece of work. I recognize that the Palestinians are incapable of achieving peace, not just because they have a litany of historical complaints that cannot be undone, but because they have no partner in Israel. The Israelis are incapable of achieving peace because they have trapped themselves in a web of myths, which among other things leaves them unable to trust anything the Palestinians might offer. But Israel's most self-deceptive myth is the notion that they are winning -- that their ability to squeeze the hostile Palestinians into ever smaller spaces will result in that ever elusive security. Given that the principals of this conflict cannot come to terms, the only prospect is pressure from outside. There's actually a long history of outside pressure constraining the conflict: the 1949 armistice agreements, the rollback of the 1956 war, the cease fires in 1967 and 1973, the Camp David agreement in 1979, the Madrid conference in 1991 and the subsequent Oslo agreement, the Roadmap. If anything, international interest in resolving the conflict has intensified since 9/11, as it has become ever harder to ignore how the conflict has fed the flames of terrorism in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and throughout the world of Islam. On the other hand, plans like the Roadmap go nowhere. This is partly because the U.S., which everyone agrees is the only party capable of exerting real pressure on Israel, has conflicting motives and sends mixed messages of no consequence to Israel. It is partly because the Roadmap focuses on Palestinian management of the terrorism problem, which Israel can exacerbate at will (and frequently does): as a tactic this ensures that the Palestinians will fail, and therefore there will be no progress; as strategy this treats the symptom without addressing its cause. More generally, by focusing on Israel and the Palestinians the Roadmap pretends that this conflict is local. But it certainly isn't local, either in its roots or in its consequences. On the one hand, Israeli behavior today is deeply rooted in the tragic history of anti-semitism, especially the failure of the world powers to stand up to or provide relief from Nazi Germany and its genocidal slaughter of six million Jews. On the other hand, Palestinian and Arab behavior today is rooted in the struggle against colonialism, which in Palestine was represented by the British Mandate which, among other things, paved the way for Jewish domination. There is so much fault on all sides of this conflict that it is almost pointless to try to untangle it all, but the world powers and their international institutions are as guilty as anyone. But the international community's responsibility to face up to the conflict doesn't come from guilt: it comes from a recognition that a future without international law, without a firm universal commitment to human rights, is a future that will make difficult challenges ever more perilous. Palestine was the first major problem that the U.N. had to face, and still remains the U.N.'s first and most spectacular failure.

This or any other peace plan can only come about through a concerted political movement. How that might happen is something way beyond my competence or even interest. When all is said and done, I'm just a critic. I'm throwing these idea out to show you what's wrong with all the other ideas out there. That they take the shape of a positive plan may be because there's too many dead ends in other people's proposal to track down explicitly. To be practical, the piece itself needs to be restructured. The plan itself should be rewritten with the clarity of law, while the supporting arguments should be moved to other documents. The political strategies in support of the plan need to be developed further for each specific constituency. I don't know how to do any of these things. But here the meme has landed. Carry on.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Probably time for another little news synopsis:

  • Iraq's phony parliament failed to meet the U.S.-imposed deadline for submitting a new constitution to a vote. A one week reprieve was arranged, but most reports are that the committee is deadlocked. Looks like both the Kurdish and Shia lists have decided to pursue narrowly defined group interests which are mutually incompatible. The basic differences are that the Shia, as the majority, want to rule it all (with the extra oomph of having God on their side), while the Kurds want to exempt themselves from Shia rule and go their own way, at least once they've managed to capture the oil fields near Kirkuk. Not clear where the Sunni, the Turkmen, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Baath, the Communists, or anyone else stand on these issues (not least because they're not represented in this government), but the most reasonable guess is that they're opposed to both sectarian parties. These splits do not reflect favorably on the maturity and civic-mindedness of the parties involved, but there are more obvious reasons why democracy is failing in Iraq than the immaturity of the people. For starters, this is the consequence of a profoundly flawed election that turned out to be little more than a census mapped to a set of candidates who had no public standing. The party lists turn out to be heavily dominated by the exiles the U.S. dickered with way back before the war started. In other words, these are people who had no practical roots within Iraqi society, and as such were much dependent on the U.S. for their security and power. Conversely, by driving the entire Baath party out of political life the U.S. killed any significant prospects for a popular secular party, and thereby lost most of the technical competence that the old regime had to offer. And as the resistance rose, the U.S. promoted sectarian division, ultimately driving the entire Sunni population out away from legitimate political life.

    The plain fact is that it's hard to find people anywhere in the world who know less about democracy than the Bush administration. Their election was itself an exercise in utter contempt for the free will of the electorate. They are firm believers in the old adage that winning is the only thing, and there are few things that they are unwilling to do in order to win. What they've done in the U.S. has much more to do with ending democracy than practicing it. This left them peculiarly incompetent at fostering a democracy in a nation that has known nothing but corrupt and autocratic rulers. Democracy has always been a compromise between forces that were incapable of rule alone. In Great Britain, the first compromise was between the king and the feudal lords -- the Magna Carta. Over time the compromises were extended to cover more and more of the population, at each step becoming a shade more democratic. In the U.S. the compromise was between states. Iraq will eventually have to find its own compromises. The most salient effect of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime is that Iraq is now bloodily divided between several forces, none of whom have the power to dominate. But one force, the U.S., won't let these compromises happen, because the people who represent the U.S. believe far more in winning than in getting along. Bush has played the same sort of winner-take-all game that the Shia and Kurds now play. The problem is that other forces have the power to spoil this game, even if not the power to win it outright. As the politicians have deadlocked, Iraq itself slips ever further out of control. Ultimately the politicians will find themselves fighting over nothing.

    Most of the milestones the U.S. has made for Iraq have involved picking arbitrary dates and managing to meet them. This is a common tactic in business management, mostly because dates are clearcut objectives that managers can understand. But the tactic is often disastrous: if the date can't change, the variable becomes product quality, and that can slip to the point where you meet the date with nothing actually working. That's roughly what's happened at every step, going back as far as the ultimatum that launched the war, and certainly including "mission accomplished." Managing by date only works if sufficient resources and understanding exist to achieve the product and the date -- in that case focusing on the date just keeps the mind from wandering. But if you don't know shit about what you're doing, focusing on the date does no good and often much harm. One topic that needs to be explored further is the use and abuse of MBA-type management styles in the Bush administration. In many regards, they do run the government like big corporations run their businesses, and often that is a big part of the problem.

  • Otherwise Iraq continues to be a complete mess. The latest U.S. tactic is blaming Iran for contributing to the insurgency. This is ridiculous on the face of it. It's certainly contrary to the notion of supporting the Iraqi's people's democratically elected sovereign government (try saying that without cracking up). It's hard to know whether this is because the U.S. is just desperate for scapegoats, or it's part of the residual Iran Next movement. The bookstores are flooded now with books about the "nuclear Iran" threat, including such high profile authors as the guy who wrote the anti-Kerry bestseller (Jerome Corsi, Atomic Iran and the guy who wrote the big book on Iraq's WMD threat (Kenneth Pollack, The Persian Puzzle), so the publishing industry, at least, is betting on war. Meanwhile, Iran started back up its nuclear fuel program. My theory is that Iran wants to produce enough fuel that it could assemble bombs, but not to produce the bombs themselves. That would give them some level of deterrence plus whatever prestige goes with being a nuclear power, but wouldn't waste a lot of effort on a useless weapons program, and wouldn't make Iran an immediate nuclear threat. I suspect that lots of countries are in a similar position. The only difference is that Iran has an aggressive sworn enemy painting it as part of the Axis of Evil. About the only good news that has come out of Iraq is the realization that a follow-up war with Iran would be even more disastrous.

  • I've already written some about Sharon's Gaza retrenchment, which is dominating the news these days, so won't belabor that here. This has much the same aura as Barak's unilateral retreat from Lebanon. At the time it was speculated that the retreat was a diplomatic cover that would make it easier for Israel to lash out at Lebanon and Syria in the future without exposing soldiers to the hazards of occupation. Actually, not much happened there. Sure, Hezbollah treated it as a victory for armed resistance, and it probably reinforced the notion among some Palestinians that the only thing Israel understands is violence (actually, a widespread view that Israelis hold about Arabs). But for the most part, Israel let Lebanon be, perhaps not wanting to stir up more trouble. The big problem with unilateral moves is that you don't have a partner to help smooth things out. Gaza was clearly meant to be that way too, but with Arafat's death and Abbas' election, and the somewhat warm feelings that Bush has for Abbas, have given Sharon a partner whether he likes it or not. It's still ugly, and it's still not a real step toward peace, but it's not as ominous as it could have been.

  • A few days back an Israeli settler/soldier from a West Bank settlement opened fire on a bus inside Israel proper, killing four Palestinian citizens of Israel. Sharon was so moved by this event that he denounced the killer as a "Jewish terrorist." This got me to thinking about what the Hebrew word for "terrorist" is, and how it should be translated. The English "terrorist" carries a lot of baggage with it, but Israelis use the word so ubiquitously that they can't possibly mean what we mean by it. But if you look at how they do use it, including this latest case, eventually you realize that there is an English word that fits the bill pretty accurately: "motherfucker." So next time you're stuck listening to an Israeli running off his mouth about "terrorists," just do a little mental editing for clarity, and replace each "terrorist" with "motherfucker." The rant will make more sense.

  • Bush's polls on everything, but especially Iraq, have gone south in a sudden lurch. His Crawford vacation has turned into a big embarrassment, and a healthy piece of the credit there goes to Cindy Sheehan. Bush's refusal to meet with Sheehan may be because he has no real command of his position, or indeed of his administration. He's never been bothered by facts, and never been curious about what he doesn't know (apparently everything). He's not good with words or thinking on his feet. He's basically just a glib asshole, and a lot of people find that a turnoff -- Sheehan is undoubtedly one who won't take a backslap and a dirty joke as charming. The one thing he's had going for years now is that he's President, so he can sort of float above the fray. But with Sheehan that's a lose-lose proposition. If he meets her he's stepping down from his pedestal with no chance of winning her over. If he doesn't, he just looks like a coward. Besides, how busy can he be if he's on vacation?

  • Oh yeah, the price of regular gas in Kansas shot up over $2.60 this week. I'll have more on that one of these days, but meanwhile I want to point out that the Fed has repeatedly raised interest rates this year. The purpose of the latter is to halt inflation, but what happens when these gas prices start to work their way into product prices? Inflation, right? What does the Fed do about that? Raise interest rates. What happens when you raise interest rates too high? Well, you choke the economy and get a recession, or worse. There's a dilemma here, and someone's gonna get hurt as a result.

  • The most obnoxious of Kansas' notorious state school board members, Connie Smith, just got her hands caught in the cookie jar. She got reimbursed for close to $3000 in expenses for a junket to Miami Beach, much of which was padded or phony, much just contrary to state reimbursement policy. When presented with receipts and itineraries, she paid most of the reimbursement back to the state. She's still too small time to work for the CIA. But it's something for the voters to think about.

  • I haven't written anything before about the news story Wichita is most famous for: the BTK serial killings. Criminal cases don't much concern me because for the most part they are just about individuals, and you never know about individuals. In particular, you can't generalize from one individual. It may have been close to inevitable that a serial killer such as BTK would have been a white male church-going suburbanite cop-wannabe, but there's no way you can extrapolate any of those characteristics and come up with a serial murderer. You just never know with individuals. But I do have one thing to say about the legal proceedings, which is that they've gone a lot more smoothly because there never was a legal option for capital punishment in this case. Rader will spend the rest of his days behind bars -- the case for that is open and shut, and the punishment meets our basic requirements. What we've been spared is the debate over whether the state should execute Rader (no), in most cases posed as whether he deserves to die (yes). Without suffering that debate, we can concentrate on what Rader did, which is horrible enough.

Postscript [Aug. 18]: Last item added a day after the rest was posted, but this is where it best fits.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Village Voice published my review of John Prine's latest album, Fair & Square: Back From Fishing. I'm rather pleased with this one, not least because it's the first time since the '70s when the Voice has asked me to write about something other than jazz. I don't know whether they intended for me to jump on the album's politics, but the politics were there for the taking, so I jumped. I'm not in general an advocate of getting rude in political arguments -- much the contrary, I believe that respect is the single most important attribute of any decent person's politics. But sometimes some political figures lose their right to be respected, especially when they take advantage of every courtesy shown them to further their dishonorable goals. George W. Bush is such a figure, a person who deserves the honorific "president" as little as he deserved to be elected in the first place. So when Prine questions his humanity, I say it's about time.


Judy Press wrote an op-ed in the Wichita Eagle today, titled "Israeli disengagement is a bold step." Like most hasbarah, her piece is so full of errors that it defies any attempt to reply. I had trouble getting past the first paragraph:

In May 1967, the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon amassed on Israel's borders in a bid to wipe out Israel. In response, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack and unexpectedly gained control over land including the Gaza Strip (which was part of Egypt) and the West Bank (which was part of Jordan). Israel later gave up about 90 percent of the territory it captured, the Sinai Peninsula, to make peace with Egypt.

Of course, in May 1967 the Arab armies weren't amassed anywhere near Israel. Much of Egypt's army was tied down in the civil war in Yemen. No Arab country expected to "wipe out" Israel. None wanted a war with Israel in any shape or form. There was merely a diplomatic crisis that had occurred with the U.N. removed monitor troops from Egypt, allowing Egypt to shut down Israeli shipping through the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel's pre-emptive attack targeted the prospects for a diplomatic solution as much as it did its Arab neighbors. Israel had been hankering for a border fight ever since the 1949 armistices. Israel tried to provoke a war with Egypt in 1954 when Mossad agents planted bombs in Cairo and Alexandria in what eventually came to be known as the Lavon Affair. Israel did attack Egypt in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, ostensibly to help the U.K. and France topple the Egyptian government and take back the Suez Canal. Israel repeatedly provoked border incidents with Syria, and occasionally attacked towns in the West Bank and Gaza, nominally belonging to Jordan and Egypt. There was nothing surprising about Israel's victory in the 1967 war: Israel destroyed Egypt's air force in the first hours of the war, leaving Egypt's tanks defenseless. Only the campaign to take the Golan Heights from Syria took the full six days. This may have been unexpected to outsiders, but Israel's military had no doubt of its plans or its success.

The Gaza strip was never part of Egypt. It was part of Britain's Palestine Mandate, and was included (along with adjacent lands) as one of the parts of the Arab partition of Palestine proposed by the U.N. in 1947. Egypt held Gaza as a protectorate pending formation of a Palestinian state, which at the time was impossible both due to Israeli opposition and Jordan's annexation of the West Bank. Had Egypt considered Gaza to be part of Egypt, they would have insisted on Gaza as well as Sinai as part of the 1979 peace deal. That Sinai might be 90% of the land area of Sinai plus Gaza is one of those meaningless numbers that propagandists throw out to confuse the issue.

And that's just the first paragraph. They're all like that. The question is how to focus on the main problem without getting lost in all the errors and innuendos.

Here's a draft of a possible response:

Judy Press is right that Israel's "disengagement" from Gaza is a bold step. But where she gets confused is in hoping that it is a step toward peace. Pulling Israel's settlers out of Gaza ought to reduce some of the friction between Gaza's million-plus residents and Israel, but Israel's security forces are hardly disengaging: Israel will still control Gaza's borders, its sea and air space, its economy, and through the Palestinian Authority its political leadership and policing -- as Press notes, Mahmoud Abbas' job is to make the Palestinians behave.

What's bold about Sharon's plan isn't its admission that Gaza doesn't really matter to Israel -- that's hardly news. Israel decided that Gaza was expendable as far back as the initial signing of the Oslo Accords. The numbers speak for themselves: after 35 years of intense effort promoting Jewish settlements in Gaza the total number of settlers comes to a paltry 8,000 -- a number that doesn't remotely justify the costs of their protection. By withdrawing from Gaza, Sharon hopes to solidify Israel's stranglehold on the West Bank, while appearing to make a concession to peace and world opinion. What's bold about the plan is that Sharon has allowed himself to be viciously attacked from Israel's ultra-right -- in fact, he practically campaigned to stir up opposition. The idea here is to make a mere change in tactics look like a Herculean feat of courage, while showing the whole world how gut-wrenching painful it is for Israel to turn out even one settler -- just imagine how much worse it would be to take down Israel's West Bank settlements. (Of course, we can't even talk about how all such settlements are illegal under international law, since their only purpose is to retroactively justify taking land seized by war.)

Still, the idea of trying to boil so much correction down to so few words leaves much unsaid. Blaming the Palestinians for the ill-fated Oslo Peace Process overlooks the doubling of the number of settlers during the period, but just as importantly ignores the fact that the three prime ministers elected after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination had all been opponents of Oslo. How coincidental was it that peace failed on the watch of political leaders sworn to oppose it?

The bottom line is that several million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank live under a military occupation without essential political and human rights, and that several millions more live in exile, unable to return to their homes or to start new lives. This started for complicated reasons where nobody, including the major powers in Europe and America, behaved with much insight or fairness, but it has continued way past the point of any possible reasoning because it suits the political interests of parties in Israel and, sad to say, in the United States. Virtually no Arab these days rejects the right of Israel to exist at peace within its pre-1967 war borders. (The exceptions, I suppose, are the al-Qaeda types, who are enemies of most Arabs and all Arab states.) No Arab state represents even a potential threat to Israel. During the two years when Barak was promising to negotiate a final resolution to the Oslo process there was no anti-Israeli terrorism. Yet most Israelis feel themselves as embattered as ever, in large part because they have been taught to view as their God-given right the power to take the land of from those who have lived on it for many generations and to deprive those people of their rights and dignity.

One thing we should pay careful attention to in the publicity that comes out of the Gaza settlement evacuation is what the settlers have to say about the people who make up 99% of Gaza's population. Many of these statements are profoundly, shockingly racist -- a typical line I heard today was that Arabs were sub-human. In many cases settlers are determined to destroy their property lest it fall into Arab hands -- again, today I saw a clip of a settler torching his house as he left it. Nor are these aberrations: Israel's official policy is to bulldoze all the settlement dwellings, as indeed they did when they withdrew from their Sinai settlements. It speaks much about Israel today that this whole sorry episode (by which I mean the 38-year effort to plant settlers in Gaza) will end in rubble.


Postscript [Aug. 19]: In the August 18 edition, the Eagle published two letters in response to Press' column. I'm reprinting them here:

Blaming is useless

It is one view to describe Israel's partial evacuation of occupied territory as a "painful sacrifice" of those who lived there more than 30 years, as Judy Press termed it ("Israeli disengagement is a bold step," Aug. 16 Opinion). Others describe it as incompletely ending an occupation declared illegal several times by the United Nations.

Her hope that Palestinian leadership can control attacks on Israelis can be countered by a hope that Israel can control settlers' attacks on Palestinians. I was there while Israel defense forces stood by when settlers tore up Palestinian irrigation systems, destroyed crops and shattered windows above the beds of sleeping children. Even now, international observers document uncontrolled settler actions of poisoning sheep, throwing garbage in wells, stoning Palestinian children walking to school and vandalizing vendors' stalls.

There are Jewish Israelis who protest Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian homes of those who have lived there for centuries. These Israelis realize that blaming is useless and that both sides provoke hate and despair. Both sides have people working for nonviolent justice and peace who need our support.

STANLEY BOHN
Newton

Message of peace?

In her commentary, Judy Press blamed the Palestinians for the failure of the Oslo agreement to bring peace. This is dishonest. She failed to mention that after Oslo, Israel doubled the number of settlers, bulldozing thousands of Palestinian houses and orchards and giving the land to the settlers. What were the Palestinians supposed to think about that? In 1994 when the crazy right-wing settler Baruch Goldstein shot 29 Palestinian worshippers to death in Hebron, Israel failed to take the opportunity to remove the rabid settlement he was from. Such a message for peace that was.

LAURA TILLEM
Wichita

I don't know Bohn, but I gather that he's a retired Mennonite minister, and that he's spent considerable time in occupied Palestine as part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams' projects there. I've met several people who have worked with CPT, especially in Hebron, where the Baruch Goldstein incident took place. Even without Goldstein, the Hebron settlement is notorious for its constant attacks on and harrassment of Hebron's Palestinian residents. At the time (Feb. 25, 1994) Goldstein's act shocked most Israelis, leading to calls to dismantle the settlement (Kiryat Arba). When Rabin refused to take action against the settlement, he essentially allowed that the Oslo Accords could be wrecked by Jewish extremists. In 1995 Rabin was assassinated by another Jewish extremist, and Oslo deteriorated from there. Goldstein died in his attack, which in addition to killing 29 injured another hundred. He should be remembered as the first of the suicide bombers. His tombstone reds: "His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God."

Two incidents in recent weeks have followed Goldstein's example, with Jewish settlers opening fire on Palestinian civilians, hoping no doubt to disrupt the "disengagement." These people are on the extreme right-wing fringe of Israeli politics -- so far out that their Kach party has been outlawed. That gives most Israelis an excuse to pretend that the extremists are not representative of Israel, but the fact is that what the extremists do resonates so perfectly with Israel's more mainstream right-wing parties that they have an ability to influence events far beyond their numbers.

These extremists are disproportionately represented among the settlers, especially in settlements like Kiryat Arba that were founded by political movements (as opposed to most settlements, which were founded by the government for some kind of security rationale). But most of Israel's settlers are there for economic reasons -- the settlements are highly subsidized -- and not for ideological reasons. Polls have indicated that more than half of all Israeli settlers would gladly return to Israel with some reasonable compensation, and those numbers have been demonstrated in Gaza. Those people didn't make the news. I suspect that had Sharon not been so ambivalent (or more likely, duplicitous) about removing the Gaza settlements their numbers would have been far greater.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Music: Current count 10905 [10884] rated (+21), 948 [953] unrated (-5). August Recycled Goods posted. I was a little surprised that when I sent out notices I didn't get any response at all. Jazz Consumer Guide is finished and edited. Hasn't been laid out yet, so don't know what the cuts will be. Should be published by Village Voice in two weeks. This is an advance in several respects: cuts the published time interval down by a month, and also lets me work tighter against deadline. For the first time ever, I've reviewed a record from an advance. Almost all of the new ratings are in the Jazz CG files. Even after finishing I've kept the momentum going to try to catch up with the inflow. Soon I'll have to switch to reissues, since I have little backlog written for September Recycled Goods.

  • Benoît Delbecq 5: Pursuit (1999 [2000], Songlines). Picked this up working backwards from Delbecq's latest, which I like quite a lot. This is similar, but not as interestingly turned out: the big difference is two clarinets here (François Houle and Michael Moore, both estimable players) vs. the greater dynamic spread that Mark Turner (tenor sax) and Oene van Geel (viola) provide. Rhythm is key, and Delbecq keeps it interesting. B+

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I ran across an interview with saxophonist Steve Lehman that ended with the following comment:

I just read an interview in the February 2005 issue of the WIRE that Brian Morton did with Anthony Braxton in which Braxton comments that we are headed into a "new Dark Ages" as a global community. I'm sad to say that as a young person living in the United States, almost every aspect of my day-to-day life points to the accuracy of Braxton's statement. My work, and the work of my peers and mentors exist, for the most part, in opposition to the global trends and phenomena evoked by Anthony's comments. In a time period in which almost every aspect of humanity is increasingly defined by its potential connection to a given marketplace, the contributions of these artists has never seemed more vital to me.

Coincidentally, I'm half way through a recent Jane Jacobs book, called Dark Age Ahead. The third of Jacobs' five major signs is the loss or rejection of science as a way of trying to understand the world. On the news tonight, I saw an item about how IMAX theatres in three cities in the U.S. South have refused to show a movie about the sea floor because the movie reflects current scientific ideas about evolution. Just last week G.W. Bush offered the opinion that the teaching of evolution should be "balanced" by also teaching the anti-scientific "intelligent design" theory. People like Bush are already living in a new Dark Age. One can illustrate that in many ways -- one that seems sufficient to me is Bush's ability to utter the words "clean coal" and act like he's describing something real.

As Jacobs points out, the loss of science is matched by damage to all forms of culture -- it's just particularly striking because science is so intimately tied to reason, and because science has exceptionally clearcut standards of truth and integrity. Lehman and Braxton are jazz musicians, so that's where their focus most likely is -- or at least that's where they stake their defense of reason and integrity; also for knowledge of the tradition that they continuously build on. It is unlikely that all that (what for lack of a better term we call civilization) will be completely forgotten, but every day we see it marginalized. One example of this marginality is that two recent sets of Braxton's quartet playing jazz standards were released as limited editions of 1000 copies, on a U.K. label run by a Russian emigré.

But the losses are real and significant. Every day people die, and with them we lose their memories, their knowledge, the talents and skills they developed and honed over a lifetime. Sure, they are replaced with babies, but babies know none of that: they have to relearn everything, a task that is more and more daunting as our history accumulates and our science and technology becomes more complex, and that can only happen under conditions where we can work diligently to perpetuate and extend our culture. Many things undermine those conditions -- ordinary things like ever tightening budgets and schedules, and extraordinary things like wars and natural disasters. In recent years it's been possible to point to failed states and failed cultures, to see significant parts of the world that have become radically improverished within the last few decades. In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, this has happened largely because of the wrath of U.S. warmakers. In much of Africa the causes are less obvious, but the results are every bit as graphic. But it's happening here too, where estimates of life expectancy -- about as basic an indicator as you can find -- have started to fall. One scary thing about Jacobs' book is that most of her examples are from Canada. In that regard, Bush may be as much a symptom as a cause. That's not an encouraging thought.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Static Multimedia has published the August 2005 edition of my Recycled Goods column. This month I decided to clean house, clearing out 56 jazz compilations and reissues. Most of these titles appeared in series where it would make the most sense to group them together, and it would have taken months to get them all out under my "In Series" rubric. Grouping them together like this, I could also add some generalizations. For those, see the introduction.

The biggest problem any reviewer has when dealing with "best of" comps is how to weigh redundancy and completeness. The redundancy problem occurs when the music on this comp is also on others (often many others), or when the music comes from albums worth owning whole. There are many examples here. Louis Armstrong's Jazz Moods: Hot is an example of a good record no Armstrong fan needs because if you know what you're doing you'll already have the masters it is picked from. So why did I give it an A? Usually I try to approach records like this from the standpoint of someone who isn't a fan and doesn't know squat, so I ask myself how would a novice react to this music? In Armstrong's case that's pretty obvious. Elsewhere, it can get pretty difficult. Contemporary's Art Pepper and Blue Note's Horace Silver both reminded me strongly of the whole albums they came from. The difference in the grades was that the Silver collection brought out something that was less clear on the albums: his songwriting. Pepper just reminded me of the albums, which tells me that good as the comp is it will become useless once you move beyond it. Ergo, I graded it down a bit. The Armstrong, on the other hand, won't be useless. It'll just be redundant.

The most contentious review here is probably the Ellington. This was a case where my annoyance got the better of me. It actually is not so redundant because many of the '30s Okehs on the first disc aren't in print, except on European labels like Classics, and in random, comparably annoying Columbia compilations like 16 Most Requested Songs and Reminiscing in Tempo. On the other hand, it's not nearly as good as it could have been -- not even as good as RCA's old Beyond Category. Granted, reducing Ellington to two hours is a fool's errand. When I lived in Boston one of the radio stations there put on an "Ellington orgy" where they tried to play everything in order -- took something like three days around the clock, and while one couldn't possibly listen to it all, there were remarkable things playing every time I tuned in. In terms of scale, no one else rivals Ellington -- he's not just "beyond category" (his term for music that defies pigeonholing), he's also beyond compilation.

Miles Davis may also be beyond compilation. Legacy has released Davis boxes on close to an annual schedule, with the 1970 Cellar Door live recordings on schedule for September. When they do so, they reissue the relevant albums and usually offer a "best of" for anyone curious but sticker-shocked by the whole box. Most of the Davis records this time are breakouts from last year's Seven Steps box, but again I tried to clear my shelves. The boxes are mostly of interest to people who want to hear it all, and the value of that completism varies quite a bit from box to box. Sometimes it makes most sense to stay small, as with Bitches Brew, where the original album towers over the outtakes, but other times there's much to recommend in going large, as with the Plugged Nickel box. Seven Steps breaks down cleanly into discrete albums, and it's marginal enough (as Davis goes) to make it something of a toss-up.

Next month I'll try to get back to my original idea of four even quarters divided between jazz, rock, roots, and world. I have plenty of backlog but don't have much written up yet, so late August is going to be crunch time. (Or maybe I can start to scale a very time-consuming column down a bit.) Meanwhile, working on Jazz Consumer Guide, due late this week.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Aug. 11, 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books has an exceptional number of articles/reviews of political interest:

  • Peter W. Galbraith: Iraq: Bush's Islamic Republic. This is how it works when an anti-democrat like Bush tries to bring democracy to Iraq: you get a state dominated by Islamic clergy with close political and religious ties to "Axis of Evil" charter member Iran. These topics have been covered elsewhere, notably by Juan Cole, so there isn't much new here. One thing I don't understand about the western media in Iraq is that, if they can't get out of their hotels to cover Iraq, why don't they at least try to cover the supposedly secure Green Zone? They pick up stories planted by the U.S. spin squad -- the latest accuses Iran of smuggling shaped explosives (anti-tank weapons) to the Sunni-Islamist resistance, which makes absolutely no sense. But they're unable or unwilling to dig under the surface and figure out what the Americans are really up to. One of the biggest questions in Iraq these days is what the real relationship is between the U.S. and Iraq's so-called sovereign government. But since Bremer skipped out of town, the U.S. has taken a low political profile (although the U.S. military seems to still be unhampered in their program to wreck the place).

  • John Gray: The World Is Round. A review of the Thomas Friedman book. Gray's big point is that Friedman is guilty of crass Marxian technological determinism. That sort of Marx-baiting seems unfair to Friedman, and Marx too for that matter. At this stage in history, it seems to be that if you can't put Marx in context, you're better off leaving well enough alone. Friedman has plenty of his own problems without trying to nail him to an ideological framework. For one thing, he's an idiot. Why anyone should think otherwise is beyond me.

  • Christopher de Bellaigue: New Man in Iran. A profile of Iran's new President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the elections that brought him to power.

  • Tim Flannery: Endgame. A review of six books on environment issues, with a survey by Harvey Blatt (America's Environmental Report Card: Are We Making the Grade?) and a more pointedly anti-Bush tract by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy) the most prominent. The synopsis from the Blatt book is most useful and rather scary. This is probably the best piece in the issue.

  • Brian Urquhart: The New American Century? A review of a book by Richard N. Haass, The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course. Haass is a veteran foreign policy bureaucrat with credentials of having worked under every President from Carter through the latest Bush. His assessment of what the U.S. could and should be doing differently makes for a devastating critique of what Bush is actually doing. Haass, of course, is still wrapped up in the idea that the U.S. is somehow indispensible to the proper function of the world -- a previous book was called The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War. Such ideas will continue to be seductive as long as they are flogged by the likes of Bush (and Bolton, whose subterranean U.N. Ambassador appointment should be considered in view of someone like Haass as an alternative option), but they actually carry a comparable dose of arrogance. There are two basic ideas about elites: one is that reasonable elites are the sane path to reform because they have the interest -- preserving their elite status -- and the power to effect truly necessary reform; the other is that elites aren't reasonable or flexible, and reforms can only be made by moving them out of the way. I sympathize with the former position, mostly because I dislike bloodshed and prefer rational to political argument. But there's little evidence that elites are more rational or less political than anyone else, and their tendency to view reform as a zero-sum loss ensures that most will lean conservative until they fall.

  • Tim Judah: The Waiting Game in the Balkans. A report from another festering trouble spot. It's hard to keep up with them all.

  • Max Rodenbeck: The Truth About Jihad. A review of five books on political Islam with or without terrorists, including one I've read and recommend: Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West. I found this piece annoying at first, but eventually it began to pay off, especially in this quote (discounting the Marxian babble): "Modern jihadists have also borrowed the classic revolutionary idea that the most effective way to rouse the cowed masses is to goad their masters into acting rashly, so revealing the supposedly true, exploitative nature of their relationship. Terrorism forces 'bourgeois' society to strip off its mask, bare its fangs, and thus alert the proletariat -- or in this case the Muslim Ummah or nation -- to the real peril facing it." This is a key point, which we seem to be utterly incapable of grasping: the real purpose of Al-Qaeda's attacks on "the far enemy" is to provoke us into rash and stupid acts. The quote goes on with an amusing example: "In this light, it is interesting that extensive references to Menachem Begin's 1951 autobiography, The Revolt, were found among the computer files captured at an al-Qaeda safe house in Kabul. As leader of the paramilitary Irgun group in the 1940s, the future Israeli prime minister advocated using terror to jump-start politics."

  • Caroline Moorehead: Letter from Darfur. Another trouble spot I know little about, nor care much about, in large part because the U.S. has little to do with it, and therefore it has little to do with us. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are reflected in the U.S. -- in many ways they are reflections of domestic politics here, and they have significant repercussions here. The Israel conflict is another case where the U.S. is heavily involved and invested, and this takes a real toll here: in particular, our attachment to Israel reduces our ability to tell right from wrong, and that loss of judgment hurts us in every aspect of our political lives. Darfur, on the other hand, is just a remote tragedy (one of many in Africa). I wish we had nothing better to do than help out there, but responsibility begins at home, and we have our own problems to sort out first. Until we do, we wouldn't be much help anyway.

  • Michael Kinsley/Mark Danner: The Memo, the Press, and the War: An Exchange. On the Downing Street memos, which Kinsley dismisses as non-news, and Danner regards as significant. They are non-news in the sense that many of us already believed that the Bush administration had lied coming and going to promote its war in Iraq, and that the so-called intelligence on Iraq had been systematically sifted, sorted, and selected to serve those narrow political aims, at considerable expense to the truth. What matters about the Downing Street memos is that they don't disprove this view -- they actually deepen the story. I don't know what to think about Kinsley: I think his "big babies" hypothesis has a lot of truth to it, but his career as a professional liberal talking head never generated much value -- I've thought on occasion that casting him as the voice of liberalism was a dirty trick. Haven't read much by him lately.

I'm a little too busy to do even a news rundown at this point, especially with the Israel news which mostly reminds me that I'm having trouble getting back to my big essay on that conflict. Also backlogged are a couple of movies and many books.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Music: Current count 10884 [10847] rated (+37), 953 [975] unrated (-22). John Prine review done. Working feverishly on Jazz Consumer Guide, which had a deadline this week. Waiting for Recycled Goods to appear. Doesn't seem like I got much last week -- August doldrums, maybe. This isn't the hottest summer we've ever had here, but it's up there, with 5-6 weeks more to go.

  • John Prine: Aimless Love (1984, Oh Boy). Dropped by Atlantic after four brilliant albums. Dropped by Asylum after three more albums that I don't know well enough to judge. Four years later he cut this album for his own label, and 21 years later I'm finally getting around to listening to it. At the time, Christgau gave it a grudging B+, singling out two songs of note: "The Bottomless Lake" and "Maureen, Maureen." But I find myself recognizing other songs, including four I know well from Great Days: "Aimless Love," "The Oldest Baby in the World," "People Puttin' People Down," and "Unwed Fathers." Christgau's right about the two he spotted, but Prine's also right about the four he anthologized. Filler ain't bad either, with only "Only Love" a bit too far on the soft side. That's a lot of real good songs, even if it's nowhere near his record. A-
  • John Prine: Fair & Square (2005, Oh Boy). Read the review when it comes out. A-
  • Randy Sandke and the Inside Out Jazz Collective: Inside Out (2000 [2002], Nagel Heyer). I've been puzzling over Sandke's new Outside In record for several months now, so was delighted to find this earlier one. The "collective" is a meeting of trad-mainstream players like Scott Robinson, Ken Peplowski, Wycliffe Gordon, and Sandke himself, with more left-leaning types like Ray Anderson, Marty Ehrlich, and Uri Caine -- a nine-piece group including bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Dennis Mackrel, whose allegiances I'm not familiar with. Not much to puzzle about with this one: it crackles with excitement. It helps, no doubt, that many of the pieces are blues-based. It it interesting that each musician gets a piece credit, with the extra three pieces going two to Sandke, one for the only cover, Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call." The latter is a standout. A-

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Sixty years ago the United States dropped a uranium fission bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 140,000. Three days later the U.S. dropped a plutonium fission bomb on Nagasaki, killing 80,000 more. Both bombs spread significant radioactive fallout, leading to the premature deaths of many more. These are round numbers currently accepted, but are guesses and generalizations. As such, they obscure the individuals killed: a complete listing would fill four of our Vietnam Wall monuments, and make the point much more emphatically than numbers alone could ever do.

The bombings were both an ordinary continuation of the horrors of the World War and an extraordinary new turn. The continued a policy of bombing Japanese cities which, combined with the ensuing fires, had already killed between one and two million Japanese -- the fire bombing of Tokyo alone killed over 150,000. These were by any sane reckoning atrocities, but they came in the context of so many more atrocities that any effort to list them all became numbing -- round numbers, inadequate as they are, will have to do. The U.S. joined the war late in 1941 after Japan destroyed much of the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, leaving the Phillippines and the rest of the West Pacific open to conquest. Japan had attacked China in 1929, conquering Manchuria and initiating a prolonged invasion of China and East Asia that left millions dead. Nazi Germany was every bit as expansionist, having annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia, then invaded Poland in 1939, then conquered Western Europe from Norway to France, bombed Britain, and finally invaded the Soviet Union. By the time the wars ended, the U.S. had lost three million soldiers, including 50,000 in capturing the Japanese island of Okinawa. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fight against Nazi Germany, with losses exceeding fifteen million. Germany and Japan had lost over ten million each, their wealth expunged and their nations wrecked. Perhaps most horifically, the Nazis' temporary advances allowed them to round up and kill ten million alledged enemies, including six million Jews in the most systematic act of genocide the world has ever known.

To sum up, the wars that ended in 1945 killed over fifty million people. Of this, fewer than one in two hundred died due to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But terrifyingly, most of those deaths occurred within seconds from just two discrete events. When Japan surrendered less than a month later, Emperor Hirohito cited America's "new and cruel weapons." The deaths were the last and most spectacular of a war that had made atrocity an everyday affair. It was not unreasonable to conclude that the bombs had brought the war to an end. That position has been nitpicked since 1945, but remains widely held, and indeed it seems fitting that so much horror should have ended so horribly. One consequence of this is that everyone who grew up in the wake of the war grew up in the shadow of the bomb. The bombs were not just weapons; they were omens. For most of us they made war unthinkable, but that was never translated into policy. Some people learned to think about the unthinkable, and they found steady employment in the U.S. and other militaries.

There are a great many things that can be written about the bomb. The scientific story is immensely fascinating, with Richard Rhodes' two books (The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun) providing the basic overview, to which we can add dozens of memoirs and secondary works. One point that is often missed here is that the science of the bomb, in particular the energy yield, was understood almost immediately by scientists all around the world. In the movie The Day After Trinity, which we showed last night to mark the anniversary, Robert Serber talks about receiving a letter describing uranium fission one morning, then giving a seminar on it that same afternoon. Rhodes' second book talks about bomb projects in Germany, Japan, and Russia during the war, and the successful Soviet project afterwards. What the U.S. Manhattan Project figured out that other projects didn't was the engineering to turn theory into practice. Once the bombs exploded, the only real secret the U.S. had became public knowledge: that such bombs are viable weapons. At the time, the U.S. had captured and sequestered the entire Germany bomb team, including the brilliant theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. It's worth noting that Heisenberg, who had failed to produce any significant results during the war, came up with a correct model of how the bomb worked within a day after news of Hiroshima. It didn't take the Soviets long after the war to produce their own bomb. One thing that makes the scientists' story so interesting is that they alone understood the future of nuclear proliferation.

Far less has been written about the non-scientific aspects of the Manhattan Project and the post-WWII development of nuclear arsenals in the U.S., the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. While the scientists were critical to the conception of the bomb program, they soon lost all control over the potential use of the bombs. Control passed to the military and civilian political leaders, who were highly disposed to see the bomb as just another weapon in an arsenal of power and intimidation. As such, they worked hard to maximize their stockpiles of this power; only gradually did it dawn on them that nuclear weapons would be unusable in the post-WWII world, that the total warfare that had emerged in the Great War of 1914-19 and accelerated in World War II could not be sustained to any practicable effect. One consequence of this is that in the sixty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki no nation, no political power, despite all too often the worst of intentions, has permitted their use. The notion that scientists, first of all Leo Szillard, had that nuclear bombs would make war obsolete has largely proven to be true.

Nonetheless, the sixty years since Hiroshima have seen plenty of wars -- marginal and much limited in comparison to the World Wars, but immensely destructive on any other scale. There can be no doubt that the U.S. bore any responsibility for the World Wars. Woodrow Wilson's late entry into the first left such a sour taste in Americans' mouths that the nation had nothing to do with the unjust settlements that followed and no desire to enter the second until Japan forced the issue. But Americans did not recoil similarly from the second World War. The war rebuilt an economy that had been shattered by the Great Depression and projected American power and ideals to the far corners of the world. And nothing symbolized this newfound power more than the atom bomb. The first half of the 20th century saw an astonishing march of scientific and technological progress, within a single lifetime transforming a horse-and-buggy into one that could unlock the universe's deep secrets and put them to exhilarating (albeit terrifying) use. In this context, the argument that America was obligated to lead the world out of the imperialist hell that had caused so much destruction became utterly seductive. However, that argument soon became perverted by the Cold War. One consequence of this is that since World War II the U.S. has never been free of blame for its subsequent wars, which have occurred with unsettling frequency and have driven the U.S. from a position where we might once have been able to speak for the aspirations of the whole world to a point where we only fight for our own selfish arrogance.

This postwar history reflects back onto the decision to drop atom bombs on Japan. Critics argue that Japan was for all intents and purposes already defeated before the bombs were dropped. They point to messages Japan passed through the Soviet Union seeking to negotiate an end to the war. With the war in Europe over, the Soviet Union, in accordance with promises made to Roosevelt, had declared war on Japan and was moving its armed forces to the East, threatening Japan even further. Japan's cities had been desroyed, and Japan was effectively isolated from most of its armies, still scattered across wide swaths of Asia and area that Allied forces had skipped over, like New Guinea. Japan's suicidal defense of Okinawa had been meant to send a message that Japan itself would also be defended to the last drop of Japanese blood, but Okinawa had fallen, and Japan's leaders could be certain that Japan would fall as well. So why, given that victory was just a short matter of time, did the U.S. attack with such unnecessary cruelty? One possible answer was that the U.S. was already contemplating its postwar rivalry with its ally, the Soviet Union: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were demonstrations, not to the defeated Japanese but to the victorious Soviets.

This argument is certainly wrong, although the Soviets did see the demonstration and they took it as a warning, moving with much haste to build their own nuclear weapons capability. The people who decided to drop the bomb understood very little about it or what it might mean. They had put a lot of money into developing it, in large part because they understood that science could hold the key to winning the war. German scientists had developed new weapons like jet aircraft and rockets. Before the atom bomb, the most significant Allied scientific breakthrough was radar, but there were many more. The atom bomb could be likened to dropping several thousand conventional bombs, and the U.S. had done that many times over without thinking twice. The radioactive fallout that we now recognize as one of the worst effects of nuclear weapons was poorly understood and lightly considered. (It is worth noting that virtually every scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project eventually died of cancer, but in 1945 they were still very much alive.) Meanwhile the lesson of Okinawa sunk into the racist psyches of the U.S. military: that the Japanese would choose death over surrender. The U.S. may have been certain of victory over Japan, but the leaders were so uncertain of the costs that even as the atom bombs were being readied for delivery they were urging the Soviet Union to engage Japan. The reason for that could not have been to give them a better view of the bomb.

Nonetheless, the bomb made the Cold War inevitable. Possession by the U.S. and the even more untrustworthy U.K. (which had folded its own bomb project into the American one, and was thereby able to bring the blueprints home) gave the Soviets much to fear, while it increased the arrogance of anti-Soviet factions in the U.S. -- above all in the military. To understand this it is first necessary to sort out the matrix of conflict. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were two nations of similar size and potential power on opposite sides of the globe, with no real history of conflict and with much buffer space between them. The main difference was that the Soviet Union had been a theatre of war and had seen much devastation, while the U.S. mainland was isolated from the action, which gave the U.S. a huge short-term advantage. But in and of itself, this was not a prescription for conflict. But the U.S. and the Soviet Union were symbols of a second conflict which was indeed worldwide: the class struggle between capitalism and communism. This mattered much more to some Americans than to others.

The Soviet Union was formed when Communists under V.I. Lenin took control of the Russian Revolution in 1917, overthrowing the Czar and taking Russia out of the first World War. Lenin originally saw his revolution as the first step of a worldwide revolution, but in the wake of the War similar revolts in Hungary and Germany were defeated and the Soviets found themselves isolated and locked into a defensive war against counterrevolutionary forces supported by many foreign states. (Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. forces to Russia as part of this effort, but they were given ambiguous orders and were ineffectual.) The Soviet posture following the civil war was defensive, mostly oriented toward quelling internal dissent -- which Stalin did with exceptional brutality. During this period, they managed to use their connections to Communist parties around the world to reinforce their "socialism in one country" policy, which proved to be debilitating for most other socialist and communist movements. During the War, Stalin had discussions with the Allies on establishing post-War zones of influence which could act as defensive buffers against future wars -- a position that the U.K., in particular, agreed to. One result of this was that the Soviet Union looked the other way when the U.K. put down a Communist revolt in Greece, while the Soviet Union was free to establish puppet regimes in Eastern Europe from Poland to Bulgaria. Greece had been one of many nations where Communists had distinugished themselves in resistance against German or Japanese occupiers, and in several of those countries Communists were able to seize power with little or no Soviet support: Albania, Yugoslavia, China in 1949, and Vietnam in 1954. One way to look at this history is to see a plot where the Soviet Union continuously extended its worldwide power through fomenting revolutions led by local Communists. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence of the Soviets undermining socialist and communist movements where it found anti-communist alliances convenient. Even later on, after the Soviets' alliance with the U.S. was irrevocably damaged, the Soviet Union had virtually nothing to do with local revolutions in Cuba and Afghanistan, even though they invested significant resources in those countries after the fact. The Soviet Union's nominal leadership of the worldwide proletarian revolution was a muddled affair, obliging them to support revolutions they had had nothing to do with fomenting.

The U.S. had effectively had a gentle revolution in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal came to power in the wake of the worst depression in American (or for that matter worldwide) history. It was gentle because Roosevelt's reforms were mild, and because the ancien regime of bankers and industrialists kept their seats of power. One effect of this was to significantly empower labor, and while few in the U.S. labor movement were close to the Communists, they weren't hostile to the Soviet Union. So the U.S. under Roosevelt established normal relations with the Soviet Union, and eventually entered the War as an ally. With the end of the War, the U.S. rapidly demobilized, converting wartime industrial capacity into sudden prosperity, which had the effect of moving the country to a more conservative stance, weakening labor and strengthening the anti-communist right. (In 1946 the Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time since 1930, and promptly passed the Taft-Hartley anti-labor bill.) The Truman administration itself was more conservative than Roosevelt had been, especially in terms of foreign policy, where staunch anti-communists like James Byrne had power. So when normal conflicts arose with the Soviet Union and local Communist movements made gains, the conservatives were quick to see a monolithic enemy emerging, urging the U.S. to adopt more confrontational policies. After all, the U.S. retained incredible military power to back up its position. Above all, the U.S. had a monopoly on the atomic bomb.

It should be noted that what came to be called the Cold War did not happen over night, and that the Cold War meant different things at different times. The following is a rough overview of several stages:

  1. Truman's relations with the Soviet Union can be characterized as passive-aggresive. There were elements of cooperation and elements of confrontation -- particularly over Germany and, later, Korea. The Soviet Union was especially worried about the threat of a renascent Germany -- two major wars in thirty years was enough to get Russia's defensive hackles up -- so they used control over their partition to further cripple Germany. Truman responded by a blockade of West Berlin by airlifting supplies, and went further to build up West Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union's domination of Eastern Europe. Mao Tse-Tung's triumph in China greatly increased the Communist footprint, while Kim Il Sung's attempt to forcibly reunite Korea increased the menace. The resulting war was a nasty stalemate, where the U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons was annulled by the Soviet Union's development of their own. George Kennan developed his theory of containment of the Soviet Union early in the Truman period, and it remained the dominant approach, although it was applied rather ad hoc. Others promoted a policy of "rollback" -- especially after China fell -- and a few urged preëmptive war while the U.S. still had a nuclear monopoly.

  2. Eisenhower's period was dominated by the Dulles brothers, who ran the State Department and CIA. While Eisenhower himself was satisfied with circling the Communist block with joint-defense groups -- NATO, CENTO, SEATO -- the Dulles brothers engaged in wreckless rollback in the third world -- most notably using the CIA to overthrow the governments of Iran and Guatemala. The U.S. managed to infiltrate most Latin American militaries, setting the stage for numerous coups over the following decades. This was perhaps the period where American power most dominated the rest of the globe, especially through global business interests which were promoted by U.S. foreign policy. The anti-communist crusade remembered as McCarthyism had been started by Republicans to purge the Truman administration of anyone reluctant to vigilantly oppose the Soviet Union -- in effect, anyone harboring leftist sympathies -- but it achieved hegemony during the Eisenhower years.

  3. Kennedy inherited the poisonous policies of the Dulles years, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco that led to the potential nuclear conflagration known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the Soviet Union backed down, Kennedy recognized nuclear war to be a hopeless stalemate, and took actions to make it less likely. He downplayed civil preparedness and pursued a nuclear test ban treaty. He cut back on CIA adventurism in the third world, but not the growing conflict in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson catered more to the war party he had inherited from Kennedy -- many of whom were Rockefeller associates, an interesting thread particularly regarding Latin America -- leading to a massive escalation in Vietnam which all but destroyed his progressive domestic agenda. Johnson's defeat essentially spelled the end of the New Deal, a victim of Cold War anti-communism.

  4. Under Nixon -- or should we say Henry Kissinger? -- everything else took a second seat to the circumscribed struggle between the two superpowers. A losing war in Vietnam was prolonged to impress the Soviet Union that even when we lose we don't lose easy. Opening up relations with China served to weaken the Chinese-Russian alliance. Support for Israel was meant to counter Soviet influence in the Arab world: even if the U.S. couldn't defeat Communism in Vietnam, U.S. military technology could beat Soviet military technology in the Middle East.

  5. Under Ford and Carter the U.S. had lost Cold War position against the Soviet Union due to Vietnam, but the military and intelligence complexes were determined to recover their prestige and position, and they did this by focusing strongly on the Soviet Union as the one true enemy. Their interest in the third world diminished as the anti-colonial movement which had led to Communist revolutions in Asia had largely subsided -- the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua was a non-event for Carter (although it flared into a major campaign for Reagan). Both parties developed cadres of neoconservative defense intellectuals who rejected Kissinger's acceptance of Soviet permanence and once again argued for the rollback policy -- which became U.S. policy when Carter started shipping arms to Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan.

  6. The Reagan administration offered a mix of anti-Soviet bluster with little to back it up. (The big idea was an anti-missile system, illegal under the Nixon-era ABM treaty, which had it been workable would have encouraged the U.S. to preëmptively the Soviet Union with no fear of nuclear retaliation. The system never came close to working, and was hardly taken seriously by the Soviets, who in any case had more pressing internal problems to worry about.) Meanwhile, Reagan turned his neocons loose to wreak havoc in the third world, notably in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, while the military tried to throw off "Vietnam syndrome" by attacking countries like Grenada and (later, under Bush) Panama.

  7. The Cold War technically ended around 1989 during the first Bush administration. This should have resulted in a significant stand down of U.S. military forces, but it didn't -- the combined Cold War military-intelligence-industrial complexes had grown too powerful, and potential opposition to them had weakened under the long-term political drift to the right that had begun with the end of World War II and the growth of anti-communism. Instead, the era from the first Bush through Clinton and into the second Bush has become a period of wreckless military adventurism, as the U.S. seeks to throw its weight around bullying third- and fourth-rate armies and nefarious concepts like "terrorism." In this era, U.S. nuclear weapons are useless while proliferation is a dire threat -- any country with nuclear arms is dangerous to bully, but the greater fear is that some inept or degenerate nuclear power might let a weapon slip into the hands of a terrorist who could use it without fear of retaliation. (Nonetheless, if a terrorist puts a nuclear weapon on the tip of a missile, that anti-missile defense system might come in handy.)

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki matters because they remind us what nuclear weapons can do. Those two bombs are small yields by the standards of their successors -- hydrogen bombs are typically a thousand times more powerful, a scale that we can begin to imagine both by extrapolating from Hiroshima and by viewing pictures of test shots vaporizing whole islands. Second-guessing the decision to drop those bombs does little good, except that it makes us wonder what kind of people we were then, and perhaps helps us resolve to be better people now. World War II was a horrible trap, not only for the millions who died or were maimed but for anyone who took part. The irony, though, is that the people who struggled through that war came closer to saying "never again" than we are now. They set up worldwide institutions to resolve conflicts without war, and they set up laws to outlaw war -- going so far as to prosecute many of those responsible for World War II. On the other hand, we let that moment slip away, primarily because people in power were able to translate the basic class conflict that occurs everywhere there is capitalism into a conflict between nations. As we now know, class conflict between labor and capital can peacefully be resolved if we elect to work together and become a bit less greedy. If such a fundamental conflict is resolvable, that between nations should be relatively easy. But we're not there yet, not close, and the main reason is that the arrogance of the powerful is undiminished. Nuclear weapons may be the ultimate power but they have turned out to be useless as well as dangerous -- a power to destroy, not least to destroy oneself. The U.S. brought a horrible war to a climactic end with such weapons, but in doing so we now find, sixty years later, that doing so changed our relationship to the world from humble to arrogant, poisoned our own community, and made us feared and distrusted by much of the world.

Japan, meanwhile, by renouncing war and eschewing the nuclear weapons that they are technically competent to produce any time they wanted, has managed to put Hiroshima and Nagasaki behind them. Perhaps in the long run they have suffered less for our sins than we have.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

These are a couple of items that I had written for a Jazz CG but won't be publishing there -- in several cases I moved A- records to Honorable Mention to cut down on the logjam, and several of the HMs got cut because I need the space for better records.

JOHN HAGEN: Segments (Cadence Jazz) Gary Giddins has argued that the best way to get a handle on free jazz is to listen to avant takes on standards, but Hagen offers an even simpler didactic: he plays slow. His "segments" are abstract melodic lines that he meticulously plots out on saxophone, setting up off-beat improvisations from bass, drums, sometimes piano. At this pace the sounds are distinct, the interaction revealing. For once you don't suspect that anyone is just trying to dazzle you with bullshit -- 'cause you could tell. A MINUS

MALIK · MCPHEE · ROBINSON: Sympathy (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 MINUS

WILLIE NELSON: Nacogdoches (1997, Pedernales) I've heard stories of Picasso paying for lavish dinners by doodling on a napkin. Nelson has sung for the IRS, and here he's dusted off a 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 his lost jazz album. Not since Picasso has art looked easier or laziness more inspired. A MINUS

THE DAVID S. WARE QUARTETS: Live in the World (1998-2003, Thirsty Ear) Three discs, three concerts, three drummers. Aside from the drummers, the Ware Quartet is the longest running small group in history. Ware almost never works outside of the group, but his cohorts, William Parker and Matthew Shipp, have distinguished careers in their own right, and their own stardom gets more play in these looser concert gigs than on the studio albums. Looking back, the energy jolt that arrived with Susie Ibarra and the shift to electronics heralded by Guillermo E. Brown may have been side-effects of the maturation of the three mainstays. That the drummers matter less is made clear on the date with the redoubtable Hamid Drake sitting, and merely blending, in. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

ATOMIC/SCHOOL DAYS: Nuclear Assembly Hall (Okka Disk) Ken Vandermark's Norwegian connection rounds up the inlaws for an improv hoedown.

DENNIS GONZÁLEZ NY QUARTET: NY Midnight Suite (Clean Feed) Outsider from Dallas, rooted in Don Cherry, power by Ellery Eskelin.

JUHANI AALTONEN/HENRIK OTTO DONNER/AVANTI CHAMBER ORCHESTRA: Strings Revisited (TUM) Like the Stan Getz classic, Focus, the only other sax-plus-strings record where the strings live up to the sax, but darker all around.

ERIN BODE: Don't Take Your Time (MaxJazz) With her worst photo on the cover, her best covers are inside -- Bill Monroe, Stevie Wonder, Irving Berlin.

I've also started pruning the "done" file down (244 records to start, including many compilations). These go into the "flush" file pending publication of the next Jazz CG, at which point they'll be flushed to the notebook.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Seems like the last couple of years Downbeat has come out with a Critics Poll I've taken the time to second guess them. (I'm not a voter, and I recognize only a few of the names listed.) Early on I did this as a self-check exercise, partly because I didn't recognize some of the winners (at least in the "rising star" division; there are still names lower down the lists that I don't recognize). I'm leaving out a bunch of categories that don't strike me as very useful -- groups, composers, arrangers. I'm reprinting the lists as published, though not the votes. Most categories have a second list for "rising star"; anyone on that list who is also on the main list has an asterisk in front of the name.

Hall of Fame: Steve Lacy, Jimmy Smith, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones, Muhal Richard Abrams, Erroll Garner, Billy Higgins, Lee Konitz, Andrew Hill, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Blanton, Don Cherry, Jo Jones, Oliver Nelson. Every year I complain that Jackie McLean isn't even on the ballot, so note that again. Downbeat's HOF has 103 members going back to Louis Armstrong, and most are beyond question. (Not all: I wouldn't have bothered with Red Rodney or Maynard Ferguson, both of whom I would have taken long before Frank Zappa.) No quarrel at all with Steve Lacy. Of the other finishers, I'd pick (in order): Konitz, Cherry, Hill, Smith, Jones (Thad and Elvin are already in). Many others are worthy -- Mal Waldron and Don Pullen are two who come to mind.

Jazz Album: Maria Schneider Orchestra, Concert in the Garden; Branford Marsalis, Eternal; Don Byron, Ivey-Divey; Alice Coltrane, Translinear Light; Pat Metheny Group, The Way Up; Bill Frisell, Unspeakable; Keith Jarrett, The Out-of-Towners; Joe Lovano, I'm All for You; Dave Douglas, Mountain Passages; Bill Charlap Trio, Somewhere; Geri Allen, Life of a Song; Von Freeman, The Great Divide; Jason Moran, Same Mother; Tomasz Stanko, Suspended Night; Grachan Moncur III Octet, Exploration; John Scofield, En Route. Ugh! The top two records made my duds list, and three more were stuck at B (Lovano, Charlap, Moncur). Two I never heard (Frisell, Scofield). Most were B+, with Byron, Allen, Freeman and Stanko breaking A-, and only Byron in my top ten. I can't fathom Schneider's record, which leaves me constantly doubting my reticence, but I've played it a dozen times and gotten next to nothing out of it. On the other hand, I have no doubt that Branford's album just plain sucks. My own choices have been listed elsewhere, so I won't repeat them here. The best album among the finishers is Byron, which showed up in most critics lists last year. I suspect that raw votes, as opposed to their points system (10 points for 3 choices, 5 point max) which factored in intensity, or permitted ballot stuffing, as the case may be. Schneider also won for Composer and Arranger, which are tough categories to sort out.

Reissue: Miles Davis, Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964; Albert Ayler, Holy Ghost; Andrew Hill, Dance With Death; Woody Herman, The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman 1945-47; James Brown, Soul on Top; Dexter Gordon, The Complete Prestige Recordings; The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions; Duke Ellington, Blues in Orbit; Charles Mingus, The Great Concert of Charles Mingus; Dexter Gordon, Mosaic Select; Coleman Hawkins, The Centennial Collection; Miles Davis, Birdland 1951. Note that there are four single-CDs, one CD+DVD, one two-CD, and six boxes here: now is the time for critics to thank the publicists. I've heard seven of twelve (Davis #1, Hill, Brown, Granz, Ellington, Gordon #2, Davis #2) -- all A- or better (Ellington) except for Birdland 1951, which made my Duds list. I would have voted for Don Pullen, Mosaic Select. But I'm still pissed they didn't send me the Ayler box.

Soprano Saxophone: Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Branford Marsalis, Jane Ira Bloom, Evan Parker, Jane Bunnett, Bob Wilber, Chris Potter, Gary Bartz, Sam Rivers, James Carter, Jan Garbarek, Steve Wilson. I'm sorry, but this is a bullshit list. (Talk about missing Steve Lacy.) Everyone but Bloom and Bunnett play tenor or alto as their first instrument, and of the rest only Parker and Garbarek are particularly notable for the soprano. (Wilber mostly plays it with Kenny Davern, who mostly plays clarinet.) I'd probably vote for Garbarek, then Parker, then maybe Davern. Rising Star: Ravi Coltrane, *Steve Wilson, *Jane Bunnett, *Chris Potter, Michael Blake, Stefano di Battista, *Jane Ira Bloom, Sam Newsome, Joel Frahm, Eric Crystal, Lol Coxhill, Marcus Strickland. Don't really know Coxhill but I gather that soprano is his main axe. Still, given that he's in his 70s already, he's not likely to rise much higher. Don't know a couple of these (Blake, Crystal). Don't have an obvious choice here.

Alto Saxophone: Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Greg Osby, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Garrett, Gary Bartz, Bobby Watson, Charles McPherson, Jackie McLean, Bud Shank, Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, Steve Coleman. The edge that Konitz and Woods have over Ornette and Jackie is that they're working harder these days. Over the long haul the latter are more important than Woods and Shank (another estimable elder statesman), although Konitz is a tougher call. Braxton and Watson are both important players. I love Braxton's standards box, but find his compositions increasingly dry (which by now means Atacamba Desert dry). Not sure who I'd vote for. Rising Star: Miguel Zenón, Dave Binney, Stefano di Battista, *Greg Osby, Antonio Hart, Michael Moore, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Wilson, Soweto Kinch, Myron Walden, Ted Nash, Rosario Giuliani. Moore is an important figure, although I think of him more for his clarinet. Zenón and Nash are impressive. I like Osby's more primitive records, but don't like his more conceptual ones. This suggests that he has impressive chops but muddled ideas.

Tenor Saxophone: Joe Lovano, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter, Von Freeman, Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker, David Murray, Joshua Redman, James Carter, Eric Alexander, Fred Anderson. Ken Vandermark belongs on this list. He's older (41) than several listed (Potter, Redman, Carter, Alexander, but not Branford [45]), but he hasn't achieved the same level of recognition because he's done it his way, voluminously on tiny labels. Murray worked like that also, and is similarly underrated -- Lovano is three years older than Murray, and doesn't come close to Murray's discography, although by any other measure he's a dominating figure. Freeman and Anderson are interesting choices, with most of their recognition appearing after they turned 60. Beyond Vandermark and Murray, my third choice would be David S. Ware, Bennie Wallace, Scott Hamilton, or Tommy Smith. The latter is young enough (38) that I might sneak him into the Rising Star division. Rising Star: *Chris Potter, *Eric Alexander, Seamus Blake, Ravi Coltrane, Harry Allen, Mark Turner, Tony Malaby, Marcus Strickland, Ted Nash, Ken Vandermark, Donny McCaslin, John Ellis, David Sánchez. Aside from McCaslin, who I don't know, this is a good list, to which many more names could be added. Coltrane has two borderline A- records, which is how Joshua Redman started. Allen is a pleasant surprise, given that most of his records are only released in Japan -- Sony/BMG should take note. Everything I've heard by Malaby has impressed me. Some more names: Gilad Atzmon, Abraham Burton, Daniel Carter, Chris Cheek, Ellery Eskelin, Rick Margitza, Chris Speed, Assif Tsahar, Tim Warfield. Charles Gayle is too old to be rising, and too freakish to be a star, but deserves mention nonetheless.

Baritone Saxophone: James Carter, Hamiet Bluiett, Ronnie Cuber, Gary Smulyan, Joe Temperley, John Surman, Vinny Golia, Mats Gustafsson, Scott Robinson, Cecil Payne, Claire Daly, Charles Davis. Not as bad as the soprano list, but close. Most of those listed at least mostly play baritone, but for Carter it's just a sideshow, even if it is something he ought to develop further. Bluiett and Surman are the only major players on the list. Rising Star: *Claire Daly, *Scott Robinson, *Gary Smulyan, Alex Harding, *James Carter, *Joe Temperley, *Vinny Golia, *John Surman, Carlo Actis Dato, *Mats Gustafsson, Roger Rosenberg, Mwata Bowden. Same list, except for Bluiett and Cuber dropping out. Obviously, that's a problem.

Clarinet: Don Byron, Buddy DeFranco, Marty Ehrlich, Paquito D'Rivera, Ken Peplowski, Eddie Daniels, Kenny Davern, Louis Sclavis, Michael Moore, Ben Goldberg, Gianluigi Trovesi, Victor Goines. Byron's lead is huge and deserved, especially coming off the superb Ivey-Divey, not least because he specializes. Most of the rest of the list play other reeds, but Ehrlich, Sclavis and Moore are fairly slotted here. They're part of a tremendous growth in the use of clarinet, especially in the avant-garde. The patron and missing senior citizen here is Jimmy Giuffre, now in his 80s, and not recently productive. I've gotten to like Peter Brötzmann's clarinet and tarogato -- the softer sound makes the harsh music go down easier. Rising Star: Chris Speed, *Louis Sclavis, *Michael Moore, *Marty Ehrlich, *Ken Peplowski, *Gianluigi Trovesi, François Houle, David Krakauer, Anat Cohen, *Paquito D'Rivera, Gebhard Ullmann, *Kenny Davern. Some confusion here, with a lot of guys pushing or past 50 and Davern turning 70. Speed started off on tenor sax but has done some interesting work on clarinet, especially with John Hollenbeck. I think that the trend toward clarinet (and for that matter bass clarinet) will continue.

Flute: Frank Wess, James Newton, James Moody, Lew Tabackin, Jane Bunnett, Sam Rivers, Dave Valentin, Henry Threadgill, Jamie Baum, Robert Dick, Charles Lloyd, Holly Hoffman, Hubert Laws. A lot of dabblers, plus a few specialists. I don't much care for the high sound, and don't think much of the legacy thus far -- Sam Most, Herbie Mann, etc. On the other hand, I think there are two potential areas for development here: the trend toward heavier flutes is positive, even though alto flute isn't heavy enough; also the trend toward exotic flutes. I haven't heard anything lately from Dick, but I love his use of bass flutes. Yusuf Lateef and Roland Kirk pointed the way toward exotica, which continues in the erratic work of Bill Cole and Kali Fasteau. Among the diversifying saxophonists, Wess is one of the few (or maybe the only) who consistently sounds good on flute. Many of the others on the list I don't even associate with the instrument, perhaps because I'm trying to forget. Rising Star: Nicole Mitchell, Anne Drummond, *Jamie Baum, Ali Ryerson, *Jane Bunnett, *Holly Hoffman, *Dave Valentin, *Robert Dick, Karolina Strassmayer, Matthias Ziegler, *Sam Rivers. Several people I don't know here, including Mitchell.

Trumpet: Dave Douglas, Wynton Marsalis, Clark Terry, Nicholas Payton, Wadada Leo Smith, Tomasz Stanko, Roy Hargrove, Tom Harrell, Kenny Wheeler, Enrico Rava, Jon Faddis, Wallace Roney. Douglas over Marsalis is a gimme these days. I'm actually surprised that Wynton hasn't slipped further, but he still has a major label and narrow-minded apologists. Also surprised that Terence Blanchard hasn't made the list, given that he has the same label and caters to the same crowd, and is in any case at least as impressive. But more surprising is the rise of players far from the beaten path: Smith, Stanko, Wheeler and Rava. They've all been important for a long time, but relatively unknown. I might have voted for Douglas, Roy Campbell, and Dennis Gonzalez, but Stanko and Smith are worthy, Rava and Wheeler a shade behind, and there are others past 50 who were overlooked: Jerry Gonzalez, Raphe Malik, Hugh Ragin, Randy Sandke, Paul Smoker, Jack Walrath, and cornetist Warren Vaché. Rising Star: Jeremy Pelt, Ingrid Jensen, Cuong Vu, Steven Bernstein, Terrell Stafford, Brian Lynch, Maurice Brown, Ron Miles, Sean Jones, Irvin Mayfield, Alex Sipiagin, *Tomasz Stanko. I barely know Pelt -- he definitely has chops, but I wouldn't vote for him. Bernstein, Lynch and Miles are impressive. Another young guy I like is Russ Johnson; also cornetist Rob Mazurek.

Trombone: Steve Turre, Robin Eubanks, Wycliffe Gordon, Roswell Rudd, Conrad Herwig, Ray Anderson, Bob Brookmeyer, George Lewis, Curtis Fuller, Slide Hampton, Grachan Moncur III, Frank Lacy. Anderson is my guy, but Rudd used to be. I thought Turre got distracted with the conch shells, but he seems to be playing more 'bone these days, and that's a good thing. Rising Star: Josh Roseman, Steve Davis, *Wycliffe Gordon, *Conrad Herwig, Jeb Bishop, Gianluca Petrella, Curtis Fowlkes, Wolter Wierbos, Nils Landgren, Wayne Wallace, *Robin Eubanks, Marty Wehner. I don't know Eubanks at all well -- I presume he's coasting on Dave Holland's coattails, but could be wrong. Bishop is leaving the Vandermark 5, so presumably we'll start hearing more from him as a leader; I think he's terrific. I haven't heard enough by Steve Swell, but he certainly deserves to make this list.

Acoustic Piano: Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Hank Jones, Brad Mehldau, Kenny Barron, Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Jason Moran, Bill Charlap, Randy Weston, Fred Hersch, Geri Allen, Mulgrew Miller. Nothing wrong with Jarrett, who works steady and always turns out quality product, but I'm not devoted enough to the piano trio or solo to get excited anymore. There are more significant pianists working today than musicians on any other instrument, even if you folded all the saxes together. So it's tough to rack this list, and many fine pianists are missing. I would have voted for Matthew Shipp, Marilyn Crispell and maybe Andrew Hill or Dave Burrell or Misha Mengelberg or Abdullah Ibrahim or Myra Melford. Rising Star: *Jason Moran, *Bill Charlap, Vijay Iyer, Marcin Wasilewski, Frank Kimbrough, Eldar Djangirov, D.D. Jackson, Matthew Shipp, Jean-Michel Pilc, Uri Caine, Tord Gustavsen, Ethan Iverson, Esbjörn Svensson. Shipp (45) and Caine (49) strike me as established, and both are major enough they belong on the main list with Moran and Charlap. Iyer and Pilc are both very impressive, although I don't know either well enough to rank them. Wasilewski and Gustavsen are credits to ECM marketing; they're both good but there are lots of comparable players. Djangirov is pure hype. I don't know who I'd vote for, but Russ Lossing is one I would consider.

Electric Keyboard/Synthesizer: Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John Medeski, Uri Caine, Lyle Mays, Matthew Shipp, Craig Taborn, Wayne Horvitz, Jim Baker, Marc Cary, Gil Goldstein. With three fusion dinosaurs at the top, this is a list in need of a revolution. I think Caine and Shipp are too committed to acoustic to be major factors here, but they point the way. Taborn could be the guy, but I'm not all that impressed yet. Haven't heard Baker on electric -- at least not that I recall. Rising Star: *Uri Caine, *Craig Taborn, *Wayne Horvitz, Django Bates, *Matthew Shipp, Jamie Saft, *Jim Baker, Andrea Parkins, *Gil Goldstein, Jim Beard, *John Medeski, Bugge Wesseltoft, Sam Yahel. Don't know most of the non-asterisk players.

Organ: Joey DeFrancesco, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Larry Goldings, Jimmy Smith, John Medeski, Sam Yahel, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy McGriff, Amina Claudine Myers, Dan Wall. At some point it may make sense to merge this with the electric keyboards, since the new Hammond and the Fender Rhodes seem to be merging, at least being played by the same people. Meanwhile, I'd probably pick Goldings, but I also like what Yahel's been doing with Joshua Redman. The late Jimmy Smith owned this list for decades, but now he's gone. Rising Star: *Sam Yahel, Barbara Dennerlein, Chris Foreman, Tony Monaco, *Larry Goldings, Mike LeDonne, Gary Versace, Wayne Horvitz, *John Medeski, *Dan Wall, Neal Evans, Rhonda Scott. Seems to be fading as a category, but not likely to disappear. Jeppe Tuxen, of Ibrahim Electric, is the most exciting organist I've heard in quite a while. Haven't heard anything from Dennerlein recently, so I'd say her star has faded.

Guitar: Bill Frisell, Jim Hall, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Russell Malone, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, Kenny Burrell, John Abercrombie, Howard Alden, Charlie Hunter, Marc Ribot. Seems to be you could reverse this list and do as well. Frisell is major important but his records are very inconsistent. Scofield is a major underachiever. Metheny is limited by Kyle Mays and confused without him. Hall is obscure. McLaughlin has seen better decades. I don't like Malone at all, and spent most of 2004 cursing Wes Montgomery for every guitar record I suffered through. Abercrombie, on the other hand, is playing better than ever; Alden is the best of the old Concord crowd; Hunter and Ribot have been thinking hard and taking chances. Rising Star: Kurt Rosenwinkel, *Russell Malone, Peter Bernstein, Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, *Marc Ribot, Mimi Fox, Nguyên Le, Anthony Wilson, Adam Rogers, Dom Minasi, Ben Monder. Cline and Parker are definitely rising. Monder I know mostly from sideman roles, where he invariably adds something. James "Blood" Ullmer seems determined to move into blues, but still plays good guitar. Haven't heard anything lately from Wolfgang Muthspiel, but his early-'90s albums impressed me. Two young players I like are Raoul Björkenheim and Kevin O'Neill.

Drums: Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Brian Blade, Paul Motian, Matt Wilson, Lewis Nash, Hamid Drake, Andrew Cyrille, Bill Stewart, Kenny Washington, Herlin Riley. At this point Drake would be my first choice. DeJohnette and Cyrille have long been masters. Wilson and Stewart are younger players who have a lot of smarts. Nash and Washington are superb mainstreamers. Motian is an interesting figure but a rather strange drummer. Haynes has aged well, and survived all his contemporaries. It seems to be tough for avant drummers to make this list: Joey Baron, Han Bennink, Gerry Hemingway, Susie Ibarra, Sunny Murray, Tony Oxley. Rising Star: *Matt Wilson, *Brian Blade, Billy Kilson, Dafnis Prieto, *Hamid Drake, Eric Harland, *Bill Stewart, Jim Black, Terri Lyne Carrington, Dave King, Allison Miller, *Kenny Washington. The least one can say about King is that nobody hits harder; he has been buried in two good groups (Happy Apple, Bad Plus), and he is key to both. Black has done some interesting work. I didn't like Prieto's album, although most critics loved it. Some young drummers I like: John Hollenbeck, Lukas Ligeti, Paal Nilssen-Love, Stefan Pasborg, Roberto Juan Rodriguez, Dylan van der Schyff.

Percussion: Ray Barretto, Poncho Sanchez, Cyro Baptista, Kahil El'Zabar, Trilok Gurtu, Airto Moreira, Don Alias, Giovanni Hidalgo, Han Bennink, Zakir Hussain, Hamid Drake, Bill Summers. A mixed bag, given that these people mostly do different things. Rising Star: *Hamid Drake, Susie Ibarra, *Cyro Baptista, Leon Parker, *Giovanni Hidalgo, John Santos, *Han Bennink, Babatunde Lea, *Kahil El'Zabar, *Zakir Hussain, Satoshi Takeishi, Steve Kroon. This used to be a bongo-conga category, but as jazz sucks up more world music the range of percussion is expanding, which leads to confusion here -- comparing apples to apples is the exception, not the rule.

Acoustic Bass: Dave Holland, Charlie Haden, Christian McBride, William Parker, George Mraz, Ron Carter, John Patitucci, Gary Peacock, Mark Dresser, Percy Heath, Greg Cohen, Barry Guy. Holland's pre-eminance is a curious thing -- he also won Jazz Artist, beating Joe Lovano, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis and Dave Douglas -- but probably derives as much from his group leadership as his bass, not that anyone doubts him as an all-time great. My first choice would be Parker. Some others worth considering: Mark Helias, John Lindberg, Mario Pavone, Reggie Workman. Rising Star: Ben Allison, Avishai Cohen, Scott Colley, Peter Washington, *Christian McBride, Drew Gress, Darek Oles, Reid Anderson, *John Patitucci, Wilbert de Joode, Henry Grimes, Joelle Leandre. The top guys here are first-rate, with Washington perhaps the best mainstream bassist working.

Electric Bass: Steve Swallow, Christian McBride, Richard Bona, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, John Patitucci, Matthew Garrison, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Bob Cranshaw, Stanley Clarke, Tarus Mateen, Victor Bailey, Eberhard Weber. Swallow owns this category, for lack of an obvious alternative. I'm not very familiar with any of the rest, excepting Cranshaw (a frequent sideman with Sonny Rollins, but only a sideman) and Tacuma. Rising Star: *Matthew Garrison, James Genus, *Richard Bona, *Christian McBride, Charnett Moffett, Steuart Liebig, *Victor Wooten, Andy Gonzalez, Skuli Sverrisson, Brian Bromberg, *John Patitucci, Stomu Takeishi. Matthew Garrison has been around a while, but doesn't have any records under his own name; he's the son of Jimmy Garrison, which seems to count for something. In general, this is a rather confused list, with a mix of smooth/funk groovers and guys who play both acoustic and electric. I know that Gonzalez is an important Cuban bassist, but I never knew he played electric. I liked Takeharu Hayakawa's performance on Satoko Fujii's Zephyros, but don't know anything else about him. I'm running across Stomu Takeishi quite a bit lately, but haven't really singled him out.

Violin: Regina Carter, Billy Bang, Mark Feldman, Leroy Jenkins, Johnny Frigo, Jenny Scheinman, Jean-Luc Ponty, Didier Lockwood, Mark O'Connor, Mat Maneri. Really, it's Billy Bang, and nobody else comes close. Carter had a good turn on her cousin's Django record, and did some good work as Bang's successor in String Trio of New York, but her own albums are inconsistent-to-awful. Feldman has destroyed more than a few Dave Douglas albums, but manages to toe the line in Masada. Jenkins is a very important avant-gardist, but records rarely. Frigo is a delight in a trad vein. Scheinman is a rising star -- a sixth place finish after three records shows you both how short the established list is and how fast she's rising. (Her fourth album, by the way, is another real good one.) Rising Star: *Jenny Scheinman, Mat Maneri, Christian Howes, Miri Ben-Ari, *Mark Feldman, Carla Kihlstedt, Jeff Gauthier, Diane Delin, *Mark O'Connor, Zach Brock, Savoir Faire, *Didier Lockwood, Mary Oliver. Scheinman is the clearcut choice. Maneri is a difficult player, but not as difficult as his father. He's 36, but he's accumulated a lot of work by now, so I'd probably rank him behind Bang and Jenkins on the overall list. Another violinist I like is Jason Kao Hwang -- he specializes in Chinese classical music, so hasn't been exposed much. I think we're going to be hearing more jazz violin in the future.

Vibes: Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Stefon Harris, Steve Nelson, Joe Locke, Terry Gibbs, Dave Samuels, Khan Jamal, Mike Mainieri, Kevin Norton. Hutcherson is the career value leader, by a large margin, but hasn't done much lately. Burton is only rarely on the mark. I'm unimpressed by Harris. Nelson is a fine sideman. So Locke would be my first choice, followed by Jamal. Rising Star: *Joe Locke, *Stefon Harris, *Steve Nelson, Matthias Lupri, Bill Ware, Bryan Carrott, Gregg Bendian, *Khan Jamal, Matt Moran, Joe Davel, Charlie Shoemake, Gunter Hampel. Locke is 46, with 15 years of good records, so I think he's graduated. Harris is 32; I just don't care for him. Nelson is 50, but has very little under his own name; an excellent, long-established sideman. Don't know Lupri, and don't know the rest well (excepting Bendian, a drummer, and Jamal, 59), but I like what I've heard by Moran.

Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans (harmonica), Béla Fleck (banjo), Erik Friedlander (cello), Richard Galliano (accordion), David Murray (bass clarinet), Steve Turre (conch shells), Howard Johnson (tuba), Tom Varner (french horn), Scott Robinson (bass sax), Guy Klucevsek (accordion), Rabih Abou-Khalil (oud), Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon). Some good, some not so good. Some just variations on better known instruments, some off the beaten path. Hard to compare. Rising Star: Grégoire Maret (harmonica), Peggy Lee (cello), *Scott Robinson (bass sax), Michael Rabinowitz (bassoon), *Richard Galliano (accordion), *Erik Friedlander (cello), *Tom Varner (french horn), *Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon), Rob Burger (accordion), Paul Hanson (bassoon), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Howard Levy (harmonica). Quite a few people play bass clarinet these days, mostly multi-reedists, although few devote as much time to it as Murray does. It seems like the era of single instrumentalists has passed. Paul McCandless plays oboe and english horn as well as most single-reed instruments. Bill Cole plays didgeridoo, shenai, sona, piri, and various oddball flutes. William Parker is likely to play anything when he hooks up with Cole or Hamid Drake. Many of these cases are just exotica, but for someone like Abou-Khalil or Saluzzi that's bread and butter.

Male Vocalist: Kurt Elling, Andy Bey, Mark Murphy, Tony Bennett, Kevin Mahogany, Jimmy Scott, Bob Dorough, Bobby McFerrin, Freddy Cole, Jon Hendricks, Mose Allison, Ernie Andrews. Pretty dispiriting list. I'm tempted to say I can't stand any of them, but actually it's just Elling I can't stand. The rest (excepting Mahogany, Dorough, and Allison) I merely dislike. Rising Star: Jamie Cullum, Peter Cincotti, Giacomo Gates, Curtis Stigers, Phil Minton, Ian Shaw, John Pizzarelli, Miles Griffith, Michael Bublé, *Andy Bey, *Kevin Mahogany, Kenny Washington. At least here we're getting down to some guys I don't know. I've listened to Pizzarelli quite a bit, and I'm lukewarm on him. I've liked recent albums by Eric Comstock, Tony DeSare, and Eric Felten, all at B+ level. Only male jazz singer I can think of that I like a lot is the great trombonist, Ray Anderson.

Female Vocalist: Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patricia Barber, Diana Krall, Luciana Souza, Sheila Jordan, Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln, Karrin Allyson, Nancy Wilson, Carol Sloane. The sexual differentiation of jazz singers is pretty extreme: many more female singers, much better. I've heard all these except Sloane, but Souza just barely, and Wilson nowhere near as extensively as her position demands. Jordan has long been a favorite, and her last album (a couple of years back now) was one of her best. Barber is quite appealing and interesting. Horn and Reeves can be very effective. I don't care much for Lincoln or Nancy Wilson, and find Allyson less than impressive. One not listed who probably deserves to be is René Marie. Helen Merrill is the most famous singer still working and not listed. Rising Star: *Luciana Souza, Tierney Sutton, Madeleine Peyroux, *Patricia Barber, René Marie, Stacey Kent, *Karrin Allyson, Claudia Acuña, Rebecca Martin, Roberta Gambarini, Lizz Wright, Lisa Sokolov. Not familiar with Gambarini, whom AMG credits with one 1991 album; must be something more there. Nor Stacey Kent, who has six albums and a solid reputation. Souza strikes me as much much better than Acuña. Peyroux has a Billie Holiday inflection that I find rather distracting. Martin is a singer-songwriter with minimal chops. Wright's a misplaced soul singer. Sokolov is in her own universe, an astonishing singer; no one else like her. I get a lot of new records by unknowns in this category. Most are forgettable. Part of the problem is that we're mixing several distinct styles and attitudes here. Jordan and Sokolov are vocal improvisers, going far beyond the broader category of interpretive singers. Cabaret singers are a subset of interpretive singers. There are also a few singer-songwriters mixed in mostly by label association. Also soul and blues singers and others that could be reclassified.

Record Label: Blue Note, ECM, Palmetto, Mosaic, Verve, Sunnyside, ArtistShare, Nonesuch, Delmark, Concord, Telarc/Heads Up, Fantasy. One thing all these labels have in common is good (i.e., generous) publicists -- although I'm a little confused about Nonesuch, and only recently started getting jazz from their publicist. Mosaic sells expensive boxes of reissues in limited editions, so their contribution to new jazz is nil. ArtistShare got a lot of press out of just two 2004 releases -- mostly touting their business model, without pointing out how much promotion they have to do to make it work. I have lots of opinions about labels, but before I spout some of them I thought I'd run through my 2004 record list and count up how many jazz records I got from each label (most, but not all, free to me). I just did new records (including some vault items, and in a couple of cases items of dubious jazz credentials but on jazz labels). I didn't do reissues or comps, so this underestimates the majors, Fantasy, and Mosaic, as well as some more obscure reissue sources. I also assigned weights to the records: 9 for A, 7 for A-, 5 for B+, 4 for B, 3 for B-, 2 for C+, 1 for anything below that, and summed them up in parentheses. So the top labels for me, in 2004, were: Fresh Sound, 29 (139); ECM, 16 (81); Arbors, 14 (68); Telarc/Heads Up/MCG Jazz, 17 (58); Blue Note, 11 (50); Palmetto, 11 (44); Verve/Impulse/GRP, 11 (44); Sunnyside, 8 (47); Thirsty Ear, 8 (47); Tzadik, 8 (42); Nagel Heyer, 8 (37); Concord, 8 (35); MaxJazz, 8 (35); Justin Time, 7 (43); Okka Disk, 7 (39); Smalls, 7 (39); Adventure Music, 7 (30); Narada Jazz/Higher Octave, 7 (23); Delmark, 6 (30); Cadence/CIMP, 6 (28); Columbia, 6 (28); Zoho, 6 (27); HighNote, 5 (28); Ayler, 5 (25); Winter & Winter, 5 (24); Shanachie, 5 (15); Atavistic, 4 (32); Boxholder, 4 (23); Clean Feed, 4 (22); Cuneiform, 4 (21); NatSat, 4 (21); Sharp Nine, 4 (20). If I went back to the Jazz CGs, especially the A-lists, this would settle down quite a bit, with Thirsty Ear, Sunnyside, Tzadik, Justin Time, and ECM doing best, plus a lot of Vandermark et al. on Atavistic and Okka Disk. Fresh Sound mostly fell through the cracks -- a lot of good but not great albums. Palmetto had a similar track record, but was a bit more variable. Telarc had a couple of good records and quite a few bad ones.

I don't know enough about blues these days to go into their blues categories. I've only heard one of their twelve top blues albums: Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company. Q.E.D. On the other hand, I know more about their "beyond" category than they do, even if I've only heard five of eleven records -- it's not like they get very far beyond.


Jul 2005 Sep 2005