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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I've gotten some flack recently over one of my Jazz Consumer Guide reviews. This sort of thing happens often enough that most writers just wind up shrugging their shoulders and getting back to work. I'm researching this out of curiosity, and this is likely to be a rather boring post. But here goes.

This thread appeared in the latinjazz group at Yahoo:

From Willard Jenkins (Feb. 24, 2006; Another gratuitous commentary):

Here's a recent example of some "critical" commentary which I thought members of this group might find rather questionable at best and may warrant a letter to the editor: from this week's edition of the Village Voice "Jazz Consumer Guide" by someone named Tom Hull who always seems to have a certain cultural tint to his commentary and his capsule review of the following disc:

Hilary Noble & Rebecca Cline: Enclave (Zoho)
. . . Whereas most Latin jazz gravitates toward siesta, leave it to a couple of Yanks to shake things up.

Am the only one to whom this suggests something?

From armali69 (note signed Arturo):

Willard Jenkins wrote [ . . . ]

No, to me at worse it is racist, at best it is condescending right out of the Frito Bandito school of writing. I will write a letter to the editor and the writer for his obvious insensitive and ignorant statement. Ahhhh if Tom only knew how African-ized and Latino-ized his so-called "red, white and blue" culture is . . . he might faint from the shock.

From Jimmy Gonzalez:

Isn't The Village Voice supposed to be a pretty hip insitiution?

From luckeyraffy1925 (signed Richie):

They certainly are Jimmy G.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Latin-oriented music, most publications tend to employ writers who miss the boat more often than not and always over-generalize an entire community based on one thing that one individual may have done or practiced. And who feel the need to use words like "Siesta" or "Spicy."

It isn't always just a "white" journalist who's guilty. There's a whole bunch of non-white writers who tend to over-adulate artists based on who they are and what their stature is and not on their current body of work . . .

From Allan Johnston:

Willard Jenkins wrote [ . . . ]

The first part is obvious -- what about the second part of the quote: "leave it to a couple of Yanks to shake things up"? I wonder how Swiss-born Hilary feels about that insensitive statement . . .

From Gary Eisenberg:

Richie, as is usually the case, you're right on target. It's about stereotyping. And we have to be ever-on-the-lookout to correct the problem where we find it.

That's as far as the thread goes. I'm not familiar with Jenkins, but he works with an outfit called Open Sky Jazz -- describes himself as "an arts administrator, producer, presenter, journalist, broadcaster, educator, and consultant." Client list just shows institutions: BET Jazz, Smithsonian, Tribecca Performing Arts Center, Walt Disney Corp., like that. I wrote to Jenkins and asked if he could clarify or elaborate on the "tint" he detected. He replied:

In this case "tint" regards the whiteness of your columns -- often quite absent artists of "color" . . . and when they do appear they are subject to slams (i.e. "Dud" and that ridiculous comment re. "Yanks" concerning the performance of what is otherwise known as Latin Jazz.

This comment did ring a bell, so I looked up Jenkins in Stuart Nicholson's Is Jazz Dead? -- found Jenkins cited for a piece called "Wynton Bites Back: Addresses His Critics." This column's featured Dud was by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by none other than Wynton Marsalis. I guess you can count this flagship orchestra of the culture establishment as one "of color" -- the names I'm sure of include more blacks than whites, but not by a large margin.

I'll return to the "tint" issue in a bit, but I might as well note here that this particular column is exceptionally skewed to White American artists at the top and to Black American artists at the bottom. The only black artist near the top is Cooper-Moore (Triptych Myth), if indeed he is black (I thought so at one time, but I'm not sure anymore), but a couple more were cut in layout -- had I prioritized the cuts differently I could have ensured a more representative balance, but frankly it never occurred to me.

I found out about this when a Voice editor forwarded a letter quoting Arturo's post above. This letter was from Aurora Flores, who in a subsequent communication wrote:

I don't know about that line since I am not a reader of your column, that would be a question for Willard Jenkins who works for the Smithsonian and for BET Jazz, but the inference that everyone on the Latinjazz egroup is talking about is when you say:

. . . Whereas most Latin jazz gravitates toward siesta, leave it to a couple of Yanks to shake things up."

Frankly, you're suggesting that Latinos who want to play jazz need a "yankee" to make it lively. You are also suggesting that you've listened to all the Latin jazz that's out there. These are just some of the things that make me, personally go "hmmmm."

This clearly shows the lack of knowlege of Latinos and their relationship to jazz since its very beginnings. Yes, it is an offensive term. That's what everyone on that group on yahoo was talking about. I suggest you go on the group and talk w/them yourself. But it is the topic of discussion.

Time to unwind a bit here. That's all the data I have on the complaint -- maybe there are other people elsewhere grumbling, but that's all I've found and heard. So "everyone" on the Yahoo latinjazz group comes to six out of more than 1200 subscribers, plus Flores -- the writer of the only letter the Voice forwarded to me. There are two allegedly inflamatory words that I used: "siesta" and "Yanks." There is Flores' assertion that when I said "most Latin jazz" I was asserting that I've listened to all the Latin jazz that has ever been created -- an impossible and ridiculous standard.

I chose the word "most" both as a hedge against what I don't know and as a qualifier because I do know of exceptions. I'm not an expert on Latin jazz, or on any of the hundreds of more or less distinct forms of music that have come out of Latin America, or on the history or geography or economy or politics of the region, but I do know a fair if superficial amount about all of those. I've listened to about 50 Latin jazz albums since I started the Jazz Consumer Guide. That's far from exhaustive, but it strikes me as a pretty fair sample. I'm still getting my bearings there, and I have a natural reluctance to spout off on things I feel I don't understand well enough. But thus far most of what I've heard is underwhelming: a lot of B/low-B+ stuff that seems to pull its punches. Does it "gravitate toward siesta"? That's another hedge phrase, but I like it -- better than "puts you to sleep" or the hoary "bores you stiff" -- because it suggests that exhaustion is a slow, inexorable process. But it also runs counter to what you expect: bright, bouncy, or as Richie put it, spicy. I find that those attributes give so much of the music an indifferent sameness, even when there's much to admire in the rhytmic complexity, the brashness of the brass, etc. Sure, "siesta" may be a cliché, but it's a word that fits the flow of the sentence. And the point of the sentence isn't my summary judgment on Latin jazz. The first clause is just there to set up the discovery of the exception: the record I was reviewing.

This may be a good time to show you the entire review -- not just the line that Jenkins took out of context:

Hilary Noble & Rebecca Cline: Enclave (Zoho) Good students. Noble studied sax with George Garzone and Yusef Lateef, but he also did extra credit in Afro-Cuban percussion, and he puts both to use here. Cline picked up her piano from Joanne Brackeen and Chucho Valdés, and she delivers the whole package--she's impossible to ignore, even in the background. Whereas most Latin jazz gravitates toward siesta, leave it to a couple of Yanks to shake things up. A MINUS

The "siesta" comment may be unfair about Latin jazz in general. It's certainly not my last word on the subject. But "leave it to a couple of Yanks" means nothing more than that's what happened this time, and arrives with a dash of ironic surprise. Flores is way off base on this one: there's no necessity one way or another; it's more a question of whether one is happy to just go with the flow or whether one wants to stir things up. Latins can, and do, go both ways. On the other hand, the few Yanks who have really impressed me in this music -- a list that includes Kevin Diehl and Mark Weinstein as well as Noble and Cline -- invariably have studied under and play with Latins.

"Yanks" is a word with several overloaded meanings, but I like it and use it quite a bit, both negatively and self-descriptively. As a fan of the Bronx Bombers since age six, I'm not bothered by the baseball connection. I've lived in New York and New England, where the Yanks stood up to the British. I was born and raised in Kansas, a state founded to fight against the slaveholders' South. My mother grew up in Arkansas, but her grandfather fought for the Union before moving to the Ozarks, and her family were Republicans until the Republicans sold out to the Dixiecrats. Those are all things to be proud of, but outside the US, especially in Latin America, Yanks have done much harm, and the term has become one of opprobrium and shame. That's us too, and using the term keeps all its meanings in mind. Noble (didn't know he was Swiss-born) and/or Cline may feel differently, but an outside-inside dynamic is at the core of their album, and that's what I tried to convey succinctly. For whatever it's worth, I believe that most of the interesting things happen at margins, that the clash of cultures is the fount of creation.

Noble hasn't posted my review on his website yet, but I hope he does. It's a terrific record, one that should appeal to many folks who, like me, aren't convinced by most Latin jazz.

Since Jenkins raised the issue of a racial "tint" to my column, I decided to take a look at the numbers. There have been eight Jazz Consumer Guides so far, totalling 230 records. I broke them down by rating (pick hits, other A-list, honorable mention, dud of the month, other duds). I then tried to break them down into groups as best I could: US whites, US blacks, Latin Americans, and World (everyone else). In quite a few cases this was hard to do: some I arbitrarily picked a leader for, and some I no doubt got wrong; others I either didn't know or couldn't decide, so they wound up classified Unknown. (The two unknown pick hits were Fieldwork and Sonic Liberation Front.) I summed up the positive ratings as Up and the negatives as Down.

Finally, for reference I did the same thing for a list of 775 new jazz records released in 2005. This gives us a rough baseline to check my numbers against to help identify skews -- or prejudices, although some caution is called for given the small sample sizes and the usual random noise. I used the 2005 list because it was handy and pretty comprehensive. Although I can imagine minor problems with it, I think it provides a fairly accurate picture of the diversity of new jazz today: the ratio of white to black jazz musicians in the US has been rising steadily, as has the ratio of European to American jazz. But before we go further, let's look at the numbers:

Group US-W Pct US-B Pct Latin Pct World Pct Unk
Picks 5 36% 5 36% 1 7% 3 21% 2
A-List 40 53% 14 18% 4 5% 18 24% 6
HM 33 37% 20 22% 2 2% 35 39% 6
DOTM 3 38% 5 63% 0 0% 0 0% 0
Duds 15 58% 7 27% 0 0% 4 15% 2
Up 78 43% 39 22% 7 4% 56 31% 14
Down 18 53% 12 35% 0 0% 4 12% 2
Y2005 266 46% 115 20% 37 6% 164 28% 193

It should be stressed that there's a lot of fuzziness in these numbers, mostly in the determination of which records fit into which columns. Integrated groups, both between white and black and between Americans and others, are very common, perhaps even the rule. The other key point is that randomness itself generates a lot of noise, most likely including most of the noise we see here. On the other hand, if you compare the Up row to the Y2005 row, it will be real hard to conclude that there's any significant skew (or bias) in my ratings. On the other hand, there does appear to be a skew/bias in the Down column: I'm not flagging foreign (including Latin) duds at a representative rate, which in turn elevates the percentages for both whites and blacks.

On the other hand, I didn't need these numbers to identify that bias. My strategy on the positive ratings is to let everyone race and pick whoever wins. The only exceptions to this are that I only rarely cover old music I can review just as well in Recycled Goods and that once Francis Davis writes about something in the Voice I usually decide not to spend my limited space on saying pretty much the same thing. But I cover 5-6 times as many records as Davis, so he would have to have a very severe bias to be reflected in mine. On the other hand, my duds aren't very representative at all of the worst records I hear. I rarely flag a record as a dud merely because it is bad: most are by artists who have some hype going or at least a solid reputation. And since hype and reputation in the US is quite heavily biased toward US artists, there's little reason to bother panning a mediocre or even a rather bad European group.

As for the Latin column, the numbers look plausible, but they're small and easily spoofed. In particular, Dennis González has two of the top ratings. I didn't feel comfortable slotting him under white or black, but the fact is he doesn't play Latin jazz. Noble/Cline and Weinstein are also in the column. But Bryan Lynch isn't -- his HM record is mostly not Latin, even though he plays more Latin jazz than not. Sonic Liberation Front is under Unknown -- the leader is white, the group is half black, and Andy Gonzalez guests, so you tell me. Jerry Gonzalez is in the column, but for an album that is mostly Spanish flamenco. So the only unimpeachable Latino on the A-list is Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

On the other hand, there should be more Honorable Mentions than I've written up. A lot of good records don't get in just because I can't come up with the little squib of text that denotes one in time before the space gets used up. Antonio Arnedo has one I like; Sonido Isleño is another. The late Ray Barretto's Time Was is worth another spin. And I never got Miguel Zenon's latest. But I also haven't been flagging Latin jazz duds, unless you count Maria Schneider's Grammy winner. I don't like Dafnis Prieto's well-regarded record. And I don't like anything I've heard from Arturo O'Farrill, including his Lincoln Center record. (I pulled my punch in not adding that to the Duds list; didn't want it to seem like I was piling on top of Wynton Marsalis, but as Jenkins shows, it doesn't take much to prick their thin skins.) Assuming this doesn't lead to a boycott, I'll have more to say about the music later, as I figure more out.

This has been a lot to write about what was really an insignificant blip. The first I read was Arturo's "if Tom only knew how African-ized and Latino-ized his so-called 'red, white and blue' culture is . . . he might faint from the shock." That really makes for a "say, what?" moment. A previous column was called "The Caribbean Tinge" -- a play on Jelly Roll Morton's famous prescription suggested by pick hits built around Cuban (Sonic Liberation Front) and Guadeloupian (David Murray) drums. My database rates 360 albums from Africa and the Middle East, 254 from Latin America and the Caribbean (not counting 265 from Jamaica). I started as a rock critic and worked my way back to Africa through many paths, including country and bluegrass (773). One can't do the work that I do without developing a profound appreciation of the African roots of so much of what's worthwhile in our culture.

That's a big part of why race has become such a ridiculous concept in jazz today. It's true that racism hasn't vanished from society, and it's true that past racism in addition to present has built up a huge economic and political disadvantage for blacks and others. But strange as it may seem, there really is no racism in jazz any more. I don't think there ever has been much, because almost from the very beginning -- at least from the moment Bix Beiderbecke took up cornet -- any white person who aspired to become a jazz musician did so because of their admiration for the blacks who pioneered the music. And that's still true today, even when over two-thirds of all jazz musicians in America are white. The same thing is true of promoters, writers, fans. Maybe in the Cotton Club days you could still be a racist and like jazz, but it just doesn't work like that any more. Jazz is the antidote to racism. And as jazz spreads around the world it's becoming the antidote to the imperial chauvinism that America has largely fallen prey to. It is light against the coming dark ages. And the critical thing is that jazz is coming from all quarters, and heading everywhere. I'm just trying to do my little part, to shout out when I find something extraordinary. And I don't care who does it or where they come from or what they look like, because all of us need to do the right thing.

Monday, February 27, 2006

There's been a lot of civil war talk since last week's bombing of the Askariyah Shrine in Samarra. Since then Shiite militias or mobs have attacked more than a hundred Sunni mosques, with steady bloodshed despite daytime curfews. The prospect of civil war has long lurked in shadow discussions, especially among Iraq sympathasizers who may not have wanted the US to invade but who fear even worse should the US exit. But even more in the shadows, especially this week, has been whatever the US has been doing. Civil war is a two-edged sword in Iraq, and the US is ambivalent about it.

I suspect this is because the US has always thought that a little civil war would be good for America's position. The US did much to promote sectarian conflict in Iraq from the anti-Saddam revolts in the wake of the first Gulf War to the invasion in the second. The Kurds and the Shiites became America's proxies in the fight against Saddam; as such, they were the bulwark of popular support for the American occupation -- at least while there was any. US popularity collapsed quite quickly, but as the predominantly Sunni resistance grew, Kurdish and Shiite politicians have had to stick close to America's skirts for protection. So again, America's precarious political position has been enhanced by sectarian schism. On the other hand, when it comes to civil war, even for the US there can be too much of a good thing.

A clue to how this plays out was visible in spring 2004 when Najaf and other Shiite cities erupted in revolt while the US was tied down trying to punish the Sunni revolt in Fallujah. At that time, the US risked losing the entire country, so had to back off and work out temporary political deals on both fronts. To defuse the Shiites, this involved bringing Moqtada al-Sadr into politics. As for Fallujah, once Shiite opposition was co-opted and the US election was safely in the bag, Bush proceded to raze the city, inflaming the resistance all the further. Meanwhile, Sadr remains a vocal critic of the occupation, and his political strength in the dominant Shiite coalition has only grown. The resistance must realize that as long as Sunnis are seen as a marginal minority, they cannot win against the Americans. On the other hand, the majority Shiites increasingly have the power to tell the US to leave. The question, then, is how can the resistance drive the Shiites to act against the Americans.

The answer is civil war, and the attack in Samarra seems to be the proof of concept. You may be wondering how Sunnis attacking Shiites will lead to the latter expelling the Americans instead of making them more dependent than ever on American allies. The answer depends on splits in both the Sunni and Shiite camps. To see the Shiite split you have to look no further than Sadr's condemnation of the Americans for the Samarra attack. Of course, the Americans didn't actually blow up the shrine, but by invading and occupying Iraq, the US is the ultimate if not the proximate cause of all the turmoil and destruction that ensued. The Shiites need to recognize that the civil war will continue as long as US forces remain, but have hope that it will abate once the US leaves. But the Sunni resistance has the pefect scapegoat in Al-Qaeda, whose presence they only tolerate as long as it helps fight the Americans: get the US out, and responsible Sunnis will purge the anti-Shiite foreign jihadis and work out a power-sharing arrangement.

And that's how the table sits right now. The US position in Iraq is deteriorating almost daily -- both in Iraq and in the US, where more and more conservatives, at least ones with some appreciation for reality, are jumping ship. Meanwhile, Iraq has gone 74 days, and will no doubt go many more, without forming a government following the latest elections. Perhaps it will be impossible to form the requisite supermajority government. Or perhaps a government can only be formed around the consensus of expelling the Americans. Perhaps Bush will finally decide to duck out before the slamming door hits him. Hard to say, but as we approach the third anniversary of the invasion, it looks more and more like the Americans won't be there for the fourth.

The civil war strategy is both desperate and vicious -- one analogy is to a trapped animal that gnaws its own leg off. It seems clear that the resistance is willing to destroy Iraq to save it from the Americans. How long the Americans stay depends on the same willingness to destroy Iraq to save it. Thus far that's exactly the course Bush has stayed with. If he persists, it just means all that more destruction. Both sides have entered into a compact to burn down the house.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Music: Current count 11621 [11567] rated (+54), 831 [854] unrated (-23). Newly rated count was 24 before I took a look at the unrated list and found a mess of faulty missing paperwork. Cruising throught he oldies this week, including a couple of box sets. March Recycled Goods looks like it's in the bag for once. Made a change in the database by splitting the latin jazz out into its own file. No doubt need some more clean-up there, but the initial breakout has 58 rated, 175 total, a ridiculous 88% metric. The main reason I did this is that I've been getting a lot of latin jazz, but filing some under jazz, some under Latin, some under Brazil, and the latter two were starting to get skewed. After the split my Latin rated list is 90 (50%), Brazil rated 64 (58%). As the metrics indicate, I know much less about the folk and pop music from south of the border than I do about the jazz, which (as I said) I've gotten a lot of lately. As a result of this, I'll probably do some more research and discover more latin jazz I don't know about.

  • Come Get It: The Very Best of Aaron Carter (2000-03 [2006], Jive/Legacy): Teen pop hasn't changed much since the '60s -- still a producer's art, and the teens are still stage props, even if a rare one turns out to be Stevie Wonder; not this one, of course -- check the chronology if you must -- but the fresh party jive surprised me enough to smile along. B+(*)
  • Citay (2005 [2006], Important): Mostly instrumental rockish album -- "to make it kind of watery and lava-lamp-y" is one of the few lines in leader Ezra Feinberg's notes that make sense. Other lines are totally off-base: "When Citay started I had been thinking of acoustic Led Zep and the first 2 Heart albums. Also the drama throughout Queen II, and the trippy/spooky Black Sabbath bongo songs where Ozzy's voice has tone os chorus." Doesn't remind me of any of those things, and I have no doubt but that's a plus. B+(**)
  • Fra Lippo Lippi: Songs (1985 [2005], Rune Arkiv): Norwegian rock band with a Joy Division vibe, but no New Order rhythm section to back it up; this reproduces their third album plus an live set from a year later, where the mystery resolves into kitsch. B-
  • The Go! Team: Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2004 [2005], Columbia): I gather there's a cartoon connection here, or something like that. Mostly instrumental, with the synths sounding loud and rather toy-like, a blare of brass made with plastic. The rise is palpable, but my druthers would be for something a shade cooler. B+(***)
  • Daryl Hall & John Oates: Rock 'n Soul Part 1 (The Hits) (1976-83 [2006], RCA/Legacy): A 1983 best-of with two bonus tracks, including a rote remake of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" in case you missed the blue-eyed soul concept; but their cred working the soul vein has dated poorly, leaving them stranded on the rock side, especially on the later, less genteel cuts. B
  • George Jones: Hits I Missed . . . and One I Didn't (2005, Bandit/BNA): I.e., songs that Jones passed on that others had hits with, starting with "Funny How Time Slips Away." Of cousre, damn near every song in Nashville since the '60s got pitched to Jones at some point, so this is just another songbook album. The better known pieces (exception: "Busted") are superfluous, but Jones makes up for missing "Too Cold at Home" (a hit for Mark Chesnutt). B+(*)
  • Freddie King: Live at the Electric Ballroom, 1974 (1974 [2006], Shout! Factory): Nothing new in the live set, just long runs on standard fare pumped up for a grand night in the dive; but the live set is framed with pieces of an interview and two samples of the famed electric guitarist going acoustic -- whether that's a plus or minus depends on your scholarly interest. B+(*)
  • The Libertines (2004, Rough Trade): I didn't get much out of their first album, and can't remember it at all any more. One consequence is that I'm not sure what expectations I brought to this one, but they weren't the right ones. Soft, tuneful, somewhat elegant even; seems like the sort of thing that someone who cares about this sort of thing might like. But it still seems more likely than not that when/if they release another one I won't recall this one either. B+(*)
  • Lio: 25 Years in Pop: Pop Songs & Ballades (1980-96 [2005], ZE, 2CD): Born Wanda de Vasconcelos in Portugal. Raised in Belgium from age six, then at seventeen scored a hit in France ("Le Banana Split"), taking her stage name from the comic Barbarella. More hits followed, plus film roles, plus a stint as a fashion designer. Unrecognized in the US, she is reportedly a big star in France -- big enough, anyway, that the reconstituted ZE label has latched onto her catalog big time: they've reissued seven albums with bonus tracks, available separately or as Pop Box: 25 Years in Pop with a DVD of video clips, plus these two comps: one fast, the other slow, both new wave more/less danceable synth pop, approximating the niche Madonna pioneered over here. But not so compelling, and I suspect not just because I have trouble following the French. I'm working off a "limited collector edition," but ZE's website shows this material (with one extra pop song) as having been released on two separate comps, so I'm grading the two discs separately. Les Pop Songs: B+(*); Les Ballades: B
  • Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley: Welcome to Jamrock (2005, Universal): I have some doubts -- mostly that the contemporary veneer sounds thin -- but while this lacks the resonance of classic reggae, it's more impressive as a hip-hop album. A-
  • Putumayo Kids Presents: Reggae Playground (1973-2005 [2006], Putumayo World Music): I've been avoiding the Kids series, but perhaps foolishly. While my own childhood favorites included novelties I'm no longer swept away by -- "Puff the Magic Dragon," "The Monster Mash" -- it also included songs I've never had reason to doubt, like "Sixteen Tons" (Ernie Ford's version; Merle Travis came much later). Asheba's "Reggae Lullaby" strikes me as a mistake -- pre-playground, for mothers as much as babies -- and Marty Dread's "Mouse in the House" rubs me the wrong way, but everything else is light and playful and inoffensive, and the closer from Toots is classic. B+(*)
  • A Quiet Revolution: 30 Years of Windham Hill (1980-2005 [2005], Windham Hill/Legacy, 4CD): What do you call non-vocal music that's too static for jazz, too informal for classical, too polite for electro-rock, and too indistinct for world? Someone proposed Contemporary Instrumental Music, but the less descriptive New Age seems to have won out. The attributes I gave above are negative, subtractions from other genres that have leaked into New Age, but some of this music started off as utilitarian, meant to facilitate meditation, relaxation, healing, spiritual discovery -- none of which offer any more promise to alert listeners than the shortcomings. Consequently, I know less about New Age than any other semi-popular form on earth -- excepting CCM, heaven forbid, but that's more a matter of aversion than disinterest. But I do know that Windham Hill was one of the genre's keystone labels, and that it concentrated on small scale acoustic works -- guitarists like Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, and founder William Ackerman; pianists like Liz Story and George Winston. The first three discs here do a fair job of plotting out this low-keyed music, making for pleasant background. The fourth disc ("Excursions") is corporate sprawl -- mostly vocal pieces by old agers who inadvertently got caught up in the label's fly trap -- Janis Ian, Cesaria Evora, Bobby McFerrin, Tuck & Patti. In the booklet but curiously not on disc: Bluesiana Triangle, one of Art Blakey's last records, with Dr. John and Fathead Newman. It's the only Windham Hill album I know and love, but the message doesn't fit so well here -- "I do believe that when you're dead you're done." With New Age you can die and look pretty forever. B-
  • The Righteous Brothers: Retrospective 1963-1974 ([2005], Abkco): Moonglow hawked them as "blue-eyed soul" but Phil Spector was the one who projected their righteousness to celestial spheres; they never reproduced Spector's cavernous sound, but they achieved his grand kitsch at least one more time, on "Soul and Inspiration," and when they regrouped for "Rock and Roll Heaven" you could imagine them ascending; theirs was a thin act, but they laid it on thick, and this covers it well enough. B+(**)
  • Paul Simon: There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973, Warner Bros.): The best songs are on the better Greatest Hits, Etc. The rest threatens to bland out into easy melodicism. B

Saturday, February 25, 2006

I'd like to add another note on the Abba Eban "never missed an opportunity" quote. Much of the staying power of this quote derives from a couple of facts about shifting Arab positions viz. Israel. In 1947, Great Britain dropped the problem of its League of Nations mandate over Palestine into the lap of the United Nations. The UN then, after heavy lobbying by David Ben-Gurion and representatives of the Zionist settlement in Palestine, approved a plan to partition Palestine. The plan was approved by the UN, which gave Israel a fig leaf of international legitimacy -- one they've reminded us of on every possible occasion ever since. Partition was rejected by all Arab groups, both inside and outside Palestine, and for good reason. At the time, Jews made up little more than 30% of the population, and owned a much smaller percentage of the land. Partition proposed to split the territory into two pieces, one with over 50% of the land and a small Jewish majority; the other with the rest except for an international area around Jerusalem and virtually no Jewish population. If, as happened in Turkey, and was to happen in India, partition resulted in mass migration, it would only be Arabs who would be forced to migrate. Israelis like to suggest that if only the Palestinians had agreed to partition in 1947, civil war and the resulting refugee problem would have been averted. Moreover, Israelis argue that the reason Arabs rejected partition was belief that through war they would be able to drive all the Jews from the entire land. It was only as a consequence of the Arab war against Israel was that Israel wound up expanding its territory far beyond the UN partition plan.

The history is actually a good deal more complex -- Israel never accepted the UN borders, which they aggressively overran, and they conspired with the British and its client state of Transjordan to prevent any Palestinian state from forming; Israel also rejected all subsequent UN and American efforts to secure agreeable borders, going so far as to assassinate UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte. But the Arabs subsequently gave credence to the "missed opportunity" myth by falling back on the UN partition borders as the basis for all of their peace proposals up to the 1967 war. After 1967, the Arabs again retreated, henceforth basing their proposals on the pre-1967 armistice borders (the "green line"), that they had not accepted before 1967. This set up the second "missed opportunity" myth: that had the Arabs accepted the armistice borders there would have been no 1967 war, therefore no expansion and no occupation.

This argument is disingenuous in several critical respects. The first is that just as Israel did not feel constrained by the borders of the UN partition plan they nominally accepted, Israel never felt constrained by the 1949 armistice borders. Israel rejected all Arab efforts to negotiate peace treaties, repeatedly violated the borders with skirmishes and punitive raids, and launched pre-emptive wars in 1956 and 1967 with flimsy excuses. The UN resolutions following the 1967 war set up the "land for peace" exchange that Israel supposedly wanted before the war, but Israel immediately made it clear that it wanted land, not peace, by annexing Jerusalem and starting to build first outposts then settlements in the illicitly acquired, soon to be occupied territories. The only concession that Israel has made to date to the "land for peace" framework was the 1979 treaty with Egypt -- eight years after Anwar Sadat proposed the deal, achieved only under intense American pressure as the US sought to turn Egypt against the Soviet Union. Israel's aggression continued with its invasion and 18-year occupation of Lebanon, arbitrary "reprisal" raids, and a sustained program of assassination and terror aimed at Palestinian refugees.

In fairness, Arabs haven't consistently pursued peace with Israel over the years. They've snapped back and forth, at times violently rejectionist, at times conciliatory -- the failure of each approach leading to the false hopes of the other. But to say that the Arabs have missed opportunities implies that there were finite moments in time when Israel was amenable to peace. One scours the historical record looking for such points, but it's hard to find anything that remotely resembles one. On the other hand, there have been many points when various Arab factions were ready to settle, often on terms that Israel had previously touted, and Israel has rejected nearly all of them.

The reason for this is that Israel was conceived in sin. Some early Zionists had noble dreams, that the oppressed Jewish masses could emigrate to Palestine, buy land, and through their industry raise the living standards of all. But that's not how it worked, and not just because the Jews that followed within Britain's colonialist framework lacked such nobility. The Zionists never meant to integrate into Palestine -- they meant to dominate, paving the way for more and more Jews to take over more and more land. Labor Zionists took the lead by building organizations designed to exclude Palestinians, including the militias that let Israelis take by force what they had been unable to buy: the land and property of 700,000 refugees. Since 1949, Israeli policy has had two prime goals: to deny the refugees' right of return, and to legitimize the usurpation. Just as Israel was forged in a war of conquest, Israel has had to keep the hostilities simmering in order to avoid facing the facts of their founding. They've done just that -- masterfully at first, but as time marched on, as their "facts on the ground" set in, their ingrown militarism has gotten the best of them. Israel has by now clearly won the right to exist in its pre-1967 borders, and to deny return of the refugees (although they remain someone else's problem). But they persist in fighting for more, and not even the facts on the ground support that. The occupation of Lebanon has been abandoned. The settlements in Gaza failed so badly they've already been withdrawn. The settlements in the West Bank have also failed -- they exist only as heavily barricaded military encampments. Maybe they can salvage a little something in Jerusalem, but at what cost? They continue to plow a fortune into their war machine, while their international standing -- so important to their early leaders, including the dazzling Abba Eban -- sinks lower and lower. They've won so often they've never learned their own limits. So they keep fighting, and they keep lying.


These are the notes for the records covered in Jazz Consumer Guide

  • Bayashi: Rock (2004 [2005], Jazzaway). Sax trio from Norway with a tough free improv sound. Know very little about these guys: a slightly earlier album is out on Ayler; bassist Bjørn Andresen died shortly after this recording; saxophonist (also bass clarinet and flute) Vidar Johansen also plays in Crimetime Orchestra, and evidently has been around a while; no idea where the name comes from, but google suggests Japan. Most good trios depend on an even balance, but the guy who most impresses me here is drummer Thomas Strønen, who I gather is by far the youngest. B+(***)
  • The Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet: Be Music, Night (2004 [2005], Okka Disk). Ken Vandermark's favorite charity. With a front line of Brötzmann, Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson, Joe McPhee, and Jeb Bishop, they are the heavyweight champs in avant-noise. But this record is different in that it features Mike Pearson's homage to Kenneth Patchen. The noise builds fast and furious to start, but takes several breaks as Pearson recites Patchen's poetry, sometimes alone, often with light comping -- light volume that is, Gustafsson's bari sax not so light in any other regard. The range and mix make this more palatable than most of its predecessors, the spoken word providing a dry counterpoint to the potential overkill. Along the way I noticed a remarkable guitar-like section. No guitar in the cast, so I suspect that was the work of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. B+(**)
  • Uri Caine/Bedrock: Shelf-Life (2004 [2005], Winter & Winter). A very accomplished left-of-mainstream pianist, Caine's side projects have ranged from improvising on Schumann and Mahler to his very old school take on Tin Pan Alley to joining Questlove for The Philadelphia Project and his jazztronica group Bedrock -- a trio with Tim Lefebvre's bass and guitar and Zach Danziger's beats, but most importantly, Caine's electric keyboards. Important acoustic pianists from Chick Corea to Cyrus Chestnut always seem to lose touch when they dabble in electronics, but Caine somehow makes it work -- perhaps because he sticks to the instrument's range, supplementing the beats rather than trying to conquer them. This goes beyond the original 2001 Bedrock album by adding guests, including beat programmers Luke Vibert and DJ Olive, occasional horns, a couple of vocalists even. Closes with Bunny Sigler singing "Sweat" in a rare Philly soul moment that's both classic and futurist. A-
  • George Colligan's Mad Science: Realization (2004 [2005], Sirocco Music). Like Uri Caine's Bedrock, this is a trio with guitar-drums led by a first rate pianist on electric keybs. Still, it's more retro. Colligan plays more organ than synth, and Rodney Holmes sticks with his drumkit instead of beat machines. That leaves Tom Guarna in the role of Grant Green -- he doesn't have Green's lyrical touch, but gets the job done. B+(***)
  • Jamie Cullum: Catching Tales (2005, Verve Forecast). I can think of a half-dozen definitions of what it means to be a jazz singer at this date, but this doesn't fit any of them. Maybe there's a historical explanation -- I didn't bother chasing down his previous album, let alone its obscure predecessors. But what I hear here is: that his vocal chops are genuine and impressive, and adaptable like an actor; this his guitar, keyboards and drum programming are nothing special; that his songwriting is rock-based and prematurely geriatric; that his gimmick for covers is to slow them down, often by breaking their kneecaps; that his arrangements aim for smooth jazz filigree, but rarely achieve it. Covers like "Our Day Will Come" and "I Only Have Eyes for You" play to his strengths, plus they have indelible melodies. His own songs don't, even when Allen Toussaint and Dan Nakamura try to help out. Probable Dud. C+
  • Hamid Drake & Assif Tsahar: Live at Glenn Miller Café (2002 [2006], Ayler). This is volume 2 to an earlier (2001) date released as Soul Bodies. I don't have a particularly good take on Tsahar: he sounds a little bit like everyone, at least going back to Ayler, and maybe to Rollins -- he does 1:25 of "St. Thomas" to close the set, lest the point be missed. But here he's in full bore avant-honk mode, which seems to be his most agreeable speed. Sounds like Drake only has his kit to play with, which limits his options, although he still impresses. B+(***)
  • Dominic Duval/Mark Whitecage: Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1 (2002 [2003], Drimala). Aside from BushWacked, this is the only other Whitecage album I know, but I suspect it may be a good place to start with him. Accompanied by Duval's bass, Whitecage works through a set of exercises on clarinet, alto and soprano sax that give a good sense of his range and dynamics. He's an interesting player on the postbop left -- reminds me a bit of Jimmy Lyons in how he evolves and extends compositional fragments for improvisation. This is also a good place to hear Duval -- not a virtuoso, but he's been a workhorse, especially for Bob Rusch's CIMP label, and gets the last word here with a bass solo. This has been on my shelf for a while -- I wrote about it in my 2003 round-up, so it was already a bit old when I started my Jazz CG in 2004, but I think it would be useful to include it as an Honorable Mention along with BushWacked. A Vol. 2 came out later, with Joe McPhee in place of Whitecage -- also good, but I prefer this one. A-
  • Peter Epstein/Brad Shepik/Matt Kilmer: Lingua Franca (2003 [2005], Songlines). The back cover suggests to file this under "jazz/world fusion" -- a new genre or category to me. There are hints of divers world beats here and there. Epstein studied with Charlie Haden, James Newton and John Carter, which in turn led him to west African, Indian and Balkan musics -- all evident here in miniscule quantities. Shepik worked with Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio, which explored Balkan motifs. The album is lovely but feels slight, like the idea was to suggest much while revealing little. Kilmer is modestly credited with "percussion" but must be using a wide range of hand drums and other devices. Shepik is credited with "guitars" although some of what he plays is sitar-like. Epstein's alto and soprano sax are more straightforward, adding a light voice and bright tone on top of the shuffle. I've played this a lot; wish I understood it better. A-
  • Joe Fielder Trio: Plays the Music of Albert Mangelsdorff (2005, Clean Feed). Most tributes are poor substitutes for the originals, but this one is a much needed clarification. Mangelsdorff was both a pathbreaker -- one of the essential inventors of European avant-garde jazz -- and a virtuosic trombonist, and the two aspects of his playing tended to confound our ability to get a grasp on him. This elemental trio -- just trombone, bass and drums -- concentrates on his melodies, perhaps the least appreciated aspect of his craft. Much appreciated. B+(***)
  • FME: Cuts (2004 [2005], Okka Disk). Ken Vandermark's configurations each have their own name, but the names don't always map well to the music. Free Music Ensemble sounds like a chamber group, with someone like Paul Lovens on drums and a bassist -- well, Kent Kessler would do. But Vandermark went punk instead, with Spaceways Inc./Tripleplay bassist Nate McBride and School Days/Free Fall/Atomic drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Most pieces have both hard and soft parts. The soft ones are free fragments, often with Vandermark on clarinet with minimal counterpoint. But the hard ones burst into some of Vandermark's most roughhouse blowing. Possible pick hit. A-
  • Dominic Frasca: Deviations (2003 [2005], Cantaloupe/Serious Music). Minimalism done on 6- and 10-string guitar, the improv constructed not from notes but from whole looping segments. It's been done before on computers, but is especially attractive with the guitar harmonics. B+(***)
  • Nnenna Freelon: Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday (2005, Concord). Holiday has become so iconic that she's everyone's choice target, but looking at the booklet photos I get the sense Freelon's aiming more at Diana Ross. Her voice is closer to Ross too, but she doesn't want to concede even that -- she wants to show how different, hip, unique she is. In the cases of "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit" -- two songs never associated with anyone else -- her risks pay off. But on covers there's nothing to tie her performances to Holiday's, which makes for a weird kind of tribute. Especially unsettling is her take on "All of Me" -- latin beats, emphasis shifted, no swing. And just to show there's no center here, "Balm in Gilead" goes off over the other deep end. B-
  • Joel Futterman/Alvin Fielder/Ike Levin Trio: Resolving Doors (2004, Charles Lester Music). Futterman plays piano, similar to Cecil Taylor as far as one can go with that. Which doesn't mean that he doesn't have his own distinct style, but this is the only of his two dozen albums I've heard thus far, and it isn't easy to focus on him with Ike Levin in the room. Levin plays tenor sax and bass clarinet -- tough, fearless, rough around the edges, but he gets a sweet tone on the one ballad stretch here. He has connections to Fred Anderson and Kidd Jordan, but reminds me as much of Charles Brackeen. Fielder, the drummer, is an AACM founder, with a long resume starting from Sun Ra. All have Chicago ties, although Futterman moved to Virginia in 1973 -- no doubt part of the reason he's remained so obscure. If you imagine this as a piano-sax brawl, which it sometimes sounds like, it's the drummer who keeps both sides swinging. Of course, there's more to it than that. B+(***)
  • Joe Giardullo: No Work Today: Nine for Steve Lacy (2004 [2005], Drimala). From John Szwed's liner notes: "God forbid, you run out of breath, and the audience may hear it has running out of ideas." That happens a couple of times here. There's no margin for error, no cover for a slip up or the least bit of sloppiness. Solo saxophone (soprano, no less) requires total concentration by the musician, and little less by the listener. Lacy recorded solo a number of times, but even though I have about 25 of his albums, I don't have a solo one (there are at least five) available for comparison. It's tough to do, and its appeal is limited, so it's all the more remarkable how gracefully Giardullo pulls this off. B+(***)
  • Rich Halley Trio: Mountains and Plains (2004 [2005], Louie). I'm so attuned to the sax-bass-drums trio format that I tend to practice reverse discrimination, lest these rather common records take over the CG. Hence, I've been resisting this one, even though, or precisely because, it's right down my alley. Halley is based in Oregon. Has a half-dozen or so well-regarded albums, none of which have crossed my path before. Plays tenor and soprano, mostly tenor. Penguin Guide describes his work as "freebop" -- it's close enough to the tradition for that description to fit. Pieces run fast and slow, and Halley's distinctive both ways. Bassist Clyde Reed and drummer-percussionist Dave Storrs help out -- I especially like a stretch with hand drums. Could hold out for another spin, but this time I think I'll go with my druthers. A-
  • Sheila Jordan + Cameron Brown: Celebration (2004 [2005], High Note). She's been my favorite jazz vocalist ever since she waltzed away with Roswell Rudd's Flexible Flyer. I saw her once, doing a practicum at Harvard, where she was gracious to students a million miles away from her talent. When she did sing the clarity and resonance of her voice were astonishing, as is her ability to shift the words around to whatever time and mode strikes her fancy. She describes herself as "a little quirky, maybe an acquired taste." But I recall that when I played her for Phil Eder, a friend who had introduced me to plenty great jazz, her voice stopped him dead in his tracks. She came out of a coal town in Pennsylvania to chase Bird, landing his pianist Duke Jordan instead, who left her a name and a daughter. Her first recording was a song for George Russell, followed by Portrait of Sheila, then nothing more for fifteen years. She was close to fifty when she finally got the hang of a vocalist's career, and much of her work since then has been duets with bass only -- Harvie Swartz, then more recently Cameron Brown. This record is a set she sang at the Triad on her 76th birthday -- just her and Brown, plus one brief guest appearance by fellow vocalist Jay Clayton (who really is an acquired taste). The graciousness I saw at Harvard is still here, as is her skill at toying with her songs. The three medleys are the highlights, especially the one where "Fats Meets Bird." A-
  • Arthur Kell Quartet: Traveller (2004 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent). Tight bassist-led quartet with three more musicians already established on the Fresh Sound label: Gorka Benitez (tenor sax, flute), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Joe Smith (drums). Kell's bass firmly anchors his tunes, and he's the critical focal point, but both Cardenas and Benitez excel. A-
  • Steve Lacy/Joëlle Léandre: One More Time (2002 [2005], Leo). One of a series of "farewell concerts" that Lacy gave moving back to the US from France -- the farewell made all the more poignant when Lacy passed away. When Lacy picked up the straight soprano sax in the '50s the instrument was identified almost exclusively with Sidney Bechet. Since then, and despite increased competition, it's belonged to Lacy -- all the more remarkable since he has rigorously pursued a career on the edge of the avant-garde, based in Paris, recording numerous albums on widely scattered small labels, often styled as explorations into the apparently inexhaustible inspiration of Thelonious Monk. This one is both typical and exemplary: a duo with bassist Joëlle Léandre, who provides a dense undertow to Lacy's consistent probing. It's basic to his sound, his approach. It's one to remember him by. A-
  • Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Don't Be Afraid . . . The Music of Charles Mingus (2003 [2005], Palmetto). This became inevitable once flacks tried to draw an orchestral line from Ellington to Mingus to Marsalis -- otherwise, wouldn't Mingus be a bit too outré for the upscale crowd? Mingus has yet to develop into a repertory staple, at least outside of the official tribute bands, filled with old Mingus hands, that Sue Mingus rides herd on, and even there recent albums like I Am Three (Sunnyside) suggest they're running on fumes. (The rule of thumb is that the older albums are the better ones, but I haven't rechecked to see whether they're just less redundant, or the memory is fresher, or what.) What's missing from all the remakes is Mingus himself -- the virtuoso bassist, of course, but more importantly the leader who drove small bands to play huge. Here fifteen musicians play small. At the end of the tricky title piece about the clown, they even laugh small. B-
  • Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano: I Have the Room Above Her (2004 [2005], ECM). Motian's long and distinguished career as a sideman has mostly been built accompanying pianists, going back to Bill Evans, but his own groups never include piano. In the late '80s he put together this trio, back before Lovano and Frisell became the eminences they are now recognized as. In returning to this trio he gives his co-stars plenty of room to work with, but the pieces (aside from the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein title track) are Motian's, and they establish a rigorous framework -- a set of constraints that Lovano and Frisell have to work within. The music tends to be slow and abstract, and Motian's role is characteristically oblique -- has there ever been another major jazz drummer who cares so little about keeping time? Lovano's ballads work has been uninspiring, but he shows here that whatever problems he has with ballads have nothing to do with tempo: he is thoughtful and eloquent at slow paces. Frisell's role is more limited: he comps, imparting a sweet aftertaste to Lovano, and takes over with his own thoughtful lines. I've been sitting on the fence on this record for quite a while: play it, enjoy it quite a bit, but doubts linger. Looking back over my ratings database list, I find that that happens a lot with Motian. Some day I'll go back over the dozen-plus albums and try to sort them out better. Until then, some caution is in order. B+(***)
  • David Murray 4tet & Strings: Waltz Again (2002 [2005], Justin Time). Back in 1998 I decided that Murray's Creole was the record of the year. When I praised the record to Christgau, he tersely wrote back that he hates flutes and the record is covered with them. I'm not a flute fan myself, but I was so caught up in the Guadeloupean drums and the master's sax I had hardly noticed. Murray is so monumental he can overpower your prejudices, and he's done so many times -- despite initial reservations I eventually applauded his latin big band and items like Octet Plays Trane. But the strings here are just too much for me. They are as modern and intrusive as those on Stan Getz' Focus, but denser and indecisive -- little swirling maelstroms, they take over the work to such an extent that even Murray has trouble saying his piece. When he does get a word in edgewise, he's magnificent, of course. But there are plenty of other places to hear him to clearer effect. Guess this has to go on the Duds list. B-
  • Hilary Noble & Rebecca Cline: Enclave (2004 [2005], Zoho). A-
  • The Onus: Triphony (2003 [2005], Hipnotic). Darryl Harper's clarinet trio has grown on me. First I thought it sounded terrific, then overly long, but with patience I am struck by its pace, its moderation, its maturity. He searches but doesn't rush. B+(***)
  • Rake-Star: Some Ra (2003 [2004], Spool/Line). The booklet has pictures but no excuses. Funny to watch a bunch of white guys who look like they just came down from Saturn. Impressive how much they sound like their models, too. B+(***)
  • Sam Rivers/Ben Street/Kresten Osgood: Violet Violets (2004 [2005], Stunt). This is one of those old masters goes to Europe and gets roped into a studio things. (Street is presumably American, but he mostly records on European labels. Osgood is Danish.) The pieces include a couple by Osgood, a couple by Rivers, some group improv, and other odds and ends (Ornette Coleman, Lucky Thompson). Still, this is remarkable for how good Rivers sounds, and how neatly this links back to his early work. B+(***)
  • Randy Reinhart: As Long as I Live (2004 [2005], Arbors). A trad jazz sideman at least since 1994, playing cornet and trombone alongside the likes of Keith Ingham and Marty Grosz, this is Reinhart's first album as a leader. But really it's a group effort, and this is quite a group. Kenny Davern, Dan Barrett, and John Sheridan each make more of an impression than on their own recent Arbors albums, and guitarist James Chirillo has as many high points -- maybe Arbors should have given him an album too. B+(***)
  • Trygve Seim: Sangam (2004 [2005], ECM). A large group, long on horns, especially in the lower registers, but no bass, no drums -- a cello, an accordion, strings added part of the way. The only time it gets going it sounds a bit like tango. Doesn't sound like a good formula, but it's remarkably lovely without ever getting gooey. B+(***)
  • Julius Tolentino: Just the Beginning (2005, Sharp Nine). First album by a young alto saxophonist working a mainstream vein. Inlfuences name check Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, Kenny Garrett, with McLean a personal connection. Title cut is an original, fast and boppish. On five cuts he picks up extra brass from Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) and Steve Davis (trombone). Jeb Patton plays flashy, hard bop piano, and he's an asset throughout. Final cut is another original, a duo with Patton lamenting the late Illinois Jacquet. A class move. B+(***)
  • Triptych Myth: The Beautiful (2005, AUM Fidelity). Another second album where a first album title has mutated into a band name. The real artists are Cooper-Moore, Tom Abbs and Chad Taylor. Their previous album on Hopscotch was a coming out party for reclusive pianist Cooper-Moore, especially combined with his mostly piano-less duo album with Assif Tsahar, America. Until then, the only prospect one had of recognizing Cooper-Moore was by checking the fine print on William Parker's In Order to Survive group, or more lately his work with Tsahar's wife, drummer Susie Ibarra. He's a remarkable pianist, roughly similar to Horace Tapscott, who also developed a uniquely expansive style in similar obscurity on the opposite coast. This one is less explosive than its predecessor, so it takes longer to settle in, but it does. A-
  • Assif Tsahar/Cooper-Moore/Hamid Drake: Lost Brother (2005, Hopscotch). No piano from Cooper-Moore this time. He's credited with ashimba, twanger and diddley-bow. Not sure how the first two fit in, but he's turned the latter one-string contraption into a drunken bass; the sound he gets is amazing in its own right, but more remarkably he makes it swing, upifting the whole group. Drake's frame drums are as playful as ever, and with so much good cheer flowing Tsahar opens up in avant-honk mode. I've played this 6-8 times since I got it, working on other things so I've been able to concentrate on it. Could be a pick hit. A-
  • Mark Weinstein: Algo Más (2004 [2005], Jazzheads). Leader plays flute; most tracks have vocals; music is Cuban. None of these things incline me to like this record, but I do. The key, I think, is that the music is so primitive. The Afro-Cuban rhythms are mostly hand drums and are rather muted. The vocals are mostly chants. The flutes include alto and bass, which breathe freely and don't force the pitch up into the stratosphere. B+(**)
  • Mark Whitecage & the Bi-Coastal Orchestra: BushWacked: A Spoken Opera (2005, Acoustics). One lyric dates from 1776, addressed to a previous George who also had problems with insurgents; title dates from 1990, a previous Bush who meddled cavalierly in Iraq then left the mess to posterity; the rest are clippings from recent news, including reports on Ashcroft and Jesus; none of which matters as much on record as the anarchic jazz that swirls around the words. A-

Friday, February 24, 2006

Yesterday the Wichita Eagle published yet another letter from Judy Press, the Israel lobby's designated publicist for these parts. I've responded to her propaganda in the past, but didn't bother with her last one, which harped on Iranian president Ahmadinejad's recent anti-Israel rhetoric. I might not have bothered with her party line on Hamas either, but I'm really sick and tired of people citing that Abba Eban witicism as if it held even a kernel of truth. So I wrote the following and sent it to the paper.

It is fitting that Judy Press, in her letter insisting that "Hamas be isolated," ends by shamelessly quoting Abba Eban's old Big Lie: "The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity [for peace]." When, exactly, did the Palestinians ever have any such opportunity? Press claims that the Palestinians just missed one by "electing a party committed to violence when they could have had peace." But Israel had already refused to deal with the Palestinian Authority in its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and its unilateral carving up of the West Bank. Fateh lost the elections because they couldn't deliver peace, because Israel never offered any such thing.

On the other hand, at this point it is grossly unfair to describe Hamas as "committed to violence." Hamas has unilaterally disengaged from fighting back at Israel for over a year now. Hamas won because Palestinians are disgusted by Fateh's failure to deliver tangible results from Israel, and Hamas at least is committed to not playing along with Israel's efforts to finalize Sharon's solution to the occupation. I don't expect Hamas to fare any better, because only Israel has the power to make peace. And, pace Eban, it is Israel that has never missed an opportunity to concoct excuses to prolong the dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians.

While the history of this conflict is complex and tangled, right now it should be obvious that it could be resolved peacefully in an instant. Our failure to recognize this and our unwillingness to work toward doing the right thing divides the world to our detriment. But in the end, it is up to Israel to make peace. Given their repeated failures to do so, perhaps we should act to isolate them.

Several thread run through this letter. It would take a lot more space to disentangle them and to document my assertions. I won't try to do that here: the history itself is an open and shut case, a point that is powerfully reinforced by Richard Ben Cramer's How Israel Lost (looking at Israel's current socio-political landscape) and Michael Neumann's The Case Against Israel (examining the logic and moral framework of Zionism). That a more/less just peace can be had if (and only if) the Israelis willed it has been demonstrated by numerous viable ad hoc peace plans (my own plan, the Geneva Accords, the Saudi plan; hell, even the Quartet Roadmap would work if Israel got earnestly behind it). And more and more people are coming to realize this. For instance, this from Jennifer Loewenstein at Counterpunch:

For those who haven't noticed, Israel opposes a two-state solution. It also opposes a one-state and a bi-national state, a federated secular state, and the zillion interim-state solutions that have been drawn up and debated and argued over the years. It opposes them because it opposes the presence of another people on land it has claimed as the exclusive patrimony of the Jews.

The other thread of note is how the US is recapitulating Israeli militarism for no good reason whatsoever. The US is a pluralist society. We haven't always lived up to our ideals, but we did finally get to the point where the solution to the Indian problem and the solution to the slavery-segregation problem was inclusion: Indians and Afro-Americans are full-fledged American citizens. Israel could do the same, but refuses, so why should we support them in taking such an un-American stand?

And the traditional US relationship to the rest of the world is that we'd like to see freedom spread and we'd like to do business with everyone, but (again, with a couple of embarrassing exceptions) we don't have any desire to rule over other people. Israel could do the same, but refuses, so why should we support them in taking yet another un-American stand? In its blind support of Israel, the US is betting our reputation in the world on a losing proposition for principles hardly any of us believe in. And unfortunately it's not just the Bush regime that's stuck in this rut: Congress's knee-jerk reaction to the Hamas election was to vote almost unanimously to prohibit any aid from going to the Palestinians, whose economy is choked off within Israel's barricaded ghettos.

We have lots of problems that are intrinsically difficult to deal with. This isn't one of them. This one is easy. All it really takes is a little effort to get past the nonsense Israel's advocates try to drown us in and the resolve to do the right thing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The controversy over the deal whereby Dubai Ports World will take over management of six major U.S. ports (New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Miami) provides us with a quick check on how little most Americans -- at least the politico-talking class -- know about how the world works. Oddly enough, the only politician thus far who has managed to keep his positions straight on this one is GW Bush. He may not know much, but at least he knows that the princes of the United Arab Emirates got enough cash to be kowtowed to. And he understands that his administration's prime directive is to kowtow to whoever's got the cash, regardless of silly old-fashioned ideas like nationalism, racism, or Christian bigotry. If the Republican masses are confused now, that's largely because they had rallied to Bush around just those ideas. Many Democrats are similarly confused, and at least as irate given that they've tried to make an issue out of port security back in 2004.

The key fact is this: the capitalist class today is international, and its members have much more in common with each other than any of them have with their nominal countrymen. In effect, they form a single world-wide political party, with a program that calls for the unlimited movement of capital and profits across national borders. (Conversely, labor movements, which once aspired to internationalism, have been effectively locked up within national borders, and disempowered as a result.) The capitalist class dominates the politics of many countries, including Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oligarchies, but its most important stranglehold is the United States. What this means is that when one speaks of a unipolar world with a single superpower, the real identity of that superpower is the capitalist class. And as its capo, Bush owes much more to the princes of Dubai World Ports than he does to his rank and file gun nuts and sex phobics.

The real issue here has little to do with security, terrorism, etc., here. It's about money and control. The deal is that Dubai Ports World is buying these ports from a British company called P&O for $6.8 billion. Like all prices, this is important information. What it tells us is that some fairly savvy capitalists think that there's enough money in managing these ports to recoup a nice profit on $6.8 billion. Those profits will be sucked out of the US and into the UAE, although some may eventually find their way back here to buy up more of America. Of course, in this case the investment mostly goes to the English, who bought the business from Americans sometime in the past, so this deal isn't even one that helps balance the trade deficit.

On the other hand, this raises a long lost issue, which is how the ports got privatized in the first place. This seems like one case where public ownership would make a lot of sense. That's basically because the sole purpose of private companies is to extract the maximum profit possible from the property, which in the case of a port would be some substantial degree of monopoly. On the other hand, the public would have every reason to run the ports as efficiently as possible in order to pass the cost savings on to, well, the public. (Of course, you do run the risk that a bureaucrat like Robert Moses will come up with some rather strange ways of serving the public.)

I remember that back in the '80s there was quite some discussion about how foreigners were buying up large chunks of America, but in the '90s that topic faded, even though the phenomenon never abated. One reason was that the US kept running trade deficits. In order to finance such deficits, the money has to come back somehow -- buying government debt is one way, but buying property is another. I'd like to see a study of how much of America (or what we think to be America, like US-based publicly-held corporations) is owned by non-Americans. Not that it matters much in terms of how things work -- as I said, American capitalists are very much like capitalists anywhere -- but it starts to provide some ammunition for a nationalist (i.e., patriotic) critique of international capitalism. Another study I'd like to see is a survey of capital ownership in the Arab world. It's clear to me that the main reason Bush is so interested in Arab oil isn't so that Americans can burn it up in SUV's. The real reason is more like that the US and the Arabs are the main (only?) countries that recognize oil as private property, and that's the basis of their kindred capitalist classes. As long as the oil profits remain private, it doesn't much matter who burns the oil. What matters to the likes of Bush is that the profits and capital circulate and grow among the capitalists. From their viewpoint, all national interests are anathema. (Had Saddam Hussein invested wisely in US ports instead of building up his nation's army and threatening our buddies in Kuwait he'd be dining on barbecue at the Bush ranch as we speak.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My 8th Jazz Consumer Guide column was posted by the Village Voice today. Actually, the post date was Feb. 17, but in their rush to get done before the three-day weekend, they inadvertently posted the entire edited column, including all the items that got cut from the print version (out today or tomorrow). For the record, the cuts were:

  • The Claudia Quintet: Semi-Formal (Cuneiform) [A-]
  • Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Columbia/Legacy) [A-]
  • Garage A Trois: Outre Mer (Telarc) [A-]
  • Steve Lehman: Demian as Posthuman (Pi) [A-]
  • Bob Rockwell Quartet: Bob's Ben: A Salute to Ben Webster (Stunt) [A-]
  • Sonny Simmons: The Traveller (Jazzaway) [A-]
  • Brent Jensen: Trios (Origin) [B+]
  • Myron Walden: This Way (Fresh Sound New Talent) [B+]
  • Tony DeSare: Want You (Telarc) [B+]
  • Ron Blake: Sonic Tonic (Mack Avenue) [B+]

Most of these will appear in the next Jazz CG column, but some may be relegated to surplus. Walden, DeSare, and Blake have slipped twice thus far. They're getting old, and while they're good albums, there's too much competition to keep slipping them into the end of the list. Miles Davis will appear in a Recycled Goods, which may be where it winds up. Francis Davis has already written about it in the Voice -- another reason not to reuse it, even though it was written to nitpick. But the others are a leg up on next time.

They didn't cut any of the duds, which is where I would have started. I don't really get many jazz duds, and rarely feel like picking on those I do get. Do you really need me to tell you that Acoustic Alchemy and the Yellowjackets suck? Or that Debby Boone bears more resemblance to her father than her mother-in-law? Or that the reason Jamie Cullum doesn't measure up to Harry Connick Jr is Mark Bolan brain damage? But the Voice insists on such human sacrifices. But maybe it is of interest that I can't handle the strings on the latest album by David Murray -- otherwise my favorite living saxophonist. (Check my database for 30-40 Murray albums I do recommend. And check the prospecting notes for more details, which may make all the difference in the world.)

The schedule on this column has been revised several times, moving it back, then suddenly moving it forward. One casualty of this is that I don't have my surplus notes worked out. I'll try to get them posted in a week or two. I currently have 188 albums in the "done" file -- competing with the ten leftovers, the pending shelves, and whatever else shows up for 25-30 slots next time, so I need to get real and move half of the "done" file into surplus. I've started prospecting again, but probably won't post any for a couple of weeks until I can get back into the swing of it.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Music: Current count 11567 [11537] rated (+30), 854 [864] unrated (-10). Spent this past week (first post-Jazz CG) digging through the recycleds, including a couple of the boxes.

  • American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939) ([2005], Revenant, 2CD): The late John Fahey's label pursues primitivism for its own sake, generalizing the misfit's rather dubious rule that if something's obscure it might be interesting. They brag that the names collected here -- Geeshie Wiley, Elvie Thomas, Nugrape Twins, Homer Quincy Smith, Blues Birdhead -- are "too obscure even for Harry Smith." It's more true that Smith, and Allen Lowe in his even more catholic American Pop, had the whole field open and no qualms about fame one way or another, so they helped themselves to recognized classics, and established a few little-knowns along the way. Dean Blackwood, by digging deeper here, performs a useful service in recovering this lost history -- despite the title dates, only one minstrel song is older than 1926, but the sonic challenges are no less for that. But one reason it holds together better than you'd expect is that while the names are obscure the melodies have much in common with songs you've heard from Smith and Lowe. Maybe these unknowns weren't such misfits after all. A-
  • Luiz Bonfá: Solo in Rio 1959 (1959 [2005], Smithsonian/Folkways): An early solo outing by one of the key figures in Brazilian guitar; mostly lightly sketched originals, a quick course in samba, but his style becomes clearer on his covers, which lean towards Cole Porter; this is much expanded from the original LP, picking up cuts with vocals, something he is not famous for. B+(**)
  • James Chance & the Contortions: Buy (1979 [2004], ZE): Originally attributed to the Contortions, at a time when Chance was beginning to cultivate an alter ego the leader of James White and the Blacks; the Contortions were one of the post-punk New York bands Brian Eno produced for No New York, possibly the last serious attempt to find the new thing on the avant fringe of the old things; the jagged rhythms and skronk sax seem less extreme now than then, but also less developed. B+(***)
  • James Chance & the Contortions: Paris 1980: Live aux Bains Douches (1980 [2004], ZE): Like most live albums, a bit thin and unsteady, but for one who wanders as erratically as Chance, at least some of the lurches here work as improv; self-contortions as usual, plus a James Brown nod on "King Heroin." B
  • Cristina: Doll in the Box (1980 [2004], ZE): She's a disco clone programmed by August Darnell (aka Kid Creole), but no mere coconut; she takes charge with lyrics like "Don't Be Greedy"'s "I won't share you with another mate/I'm not that liberal and you're not that great"; and the bonus tracks include squeaky, breathless covers of "Drive My Car" and "Is That All There Is?" The core LP was originally released here as Cristina, and has long been a favorite. A-
  • Cristina: Sleep It Off (1984 [2004], ZE): For her second (and evidently last) album, Cristina Monet switched to Don Was for an erudite new wavish mix, ranging from the Rotten-like "Don't Mutilate My Mink" to the Reedish "He Dines Out on Death" to the Brecht-Weill "Ballad of Immoral Earnings," with a pumped up cover of Van Morrison's "Blue Money" that should have been a hit. A-
  • Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs & Englishmen (Deluxe Edition) (1970 [2005], A&M, 2CD): 35th anniversary edition, my how time flies! Cocker was a minor English pop singer but not a writer -- an interpreter of others' songs, already a rarity in 1970, at least among artists who got any play. He needed a band for a US tour, so he hooked up with Leon Russell, who assembled a band from a circle also working with Delaney & Bonnie and/or Eric Clapton (dba Derek & the Dominos), including Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, and Bobby Keys. The result was a combination medicine show and gospel revival, captured on film and in a 2-LP soundtrack that was one of the essential documents of the time. It sounds rather dated now, but the "deluxe edition" does right by restoring the full length and glory of the concert, including two Russell leads that bring out his blackface, and the obvious, over-the-top "With a Little Help From My Friends." A-
  • Digable Planets: Beyond the Spectrum: The Creamy Spy Chronicles (1993-94 [2005], Blue Note): This best-of plus four rarities improves on two two decade-old albums by keeping their hipster jones in check with air-light beats and sly words. I've always approved of their concept, but was severely turned off by parts of their first album. Might be a good idea to dig it up again and re-check what bugged me, but this one doesn't begin to suggest the problem. A-
  • Donovan Try for the Sun: The Journey of Donovan (1964-2004 [2005], Epic/Legacy, 3CD): Purple velvet box with discs in thin cardboard slipcovers -- 60 songs, only three cut after 1975; aside from a couple of memorable hits psychedelicized by Mickie Most, he was a folkie without a folk, which was more novel than skiffle or celtic; given that he doesn't have enough material for a solid single-disc best-of, three verges on an academic exercise, but he's really too simple for that. B
  • Eminem: Curtain Call: The Hits (1999-2005, Aftermath): Hard to get excited or outraged about this, which is more consistent than the four albums but less inspired on the rebound; five non-album items (three new, one from 8 Mile, Elton John's "Stan") have opportunity costs -- could have done better, although the gerbil opus "Fack" has redeeming social merit (but not Nate Dogg's "Shake That"). A-
  • Eminem: Curtail Call: The Hits/Stan's Mixtape (1999-2002 [2005], Aftermath): Bundled with The Hits for an extra $4, this is short (33:16) and has nothing new -- not that you'd want to dig into Born Again and Devil's Night to get them all; you didn't really think Stan was playing with a full deck, now did you? B+(*)
  • Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983 [2005], RCA/Legacy): The label only delivered two of this duo's eight reissued albums as promos -- by reputation the two best, which is good enough for my taste; this is their second album, named for an undeniable single, padded out with synths and posing; the six bonus tilt the album further into new wave dance territory, an improvement. B+(*)
  • Eurythmics: Be Yourself Tonight (1985 [2005], RCA/Legacy): As Lennox learns to project some semblance of soul, the synths devolve from artifacts to mere instruments; note that the joint venture with Aretha is also on the latter's superior Who's Zoomin' Who?. B
  • Faces: Five Guys Walk Into a Bar . . . (1969-75 [2004], Rhino, 4CD): When Steve Marriott left Small Faces in 1969 Ron Wood and Rod Stewart moved in and took up the slack; Stewart's solo career, producing his best albums ever, took off at the same time, but the band was his party; this is stitched together as much from live shots and demos as the group's five albums, providing a remarkably consistent picture of a working band good enough and fun enough to yield replacements for the Stones and the Who, a superstar, and the late and much lamented Ronnie Lane. A-
  • Augustus Pablo: King David's Melody (1975-82 [2006], Shanachie): A grabbag of instrumental singles with a little dub back in the bonus track section, especially the title track reminds us how sublimely Pablo's melodica conjured up the rhythmic and melodic essence of Ras Tafari. A-
  • Baden Powell: Live à Bruxelles (1999 [2005], Sunnyside): Like Luiz Bonfá (q.v.), a legendary Brazilian guitarist; also solo with some vocals that aren't his strong point, but at the end of a long career, lending it a gravity that complicates things; very much an insider's album. B+(*)
  • Putumayo Presents: Brazilian Lounge (2000-05 [2006], Putumayo World Music): Another smooth-flowing mix disc where the new samba generation recapitulates the old, proving that newer technology needn't make any significant difference. Most promising artist here: BossaCucaNova. B+(*)
  • The Roots: Home Grown! The Beginners Guide to Understanding the Roots Volume One ([2005], Geffen): A lot of words in the booklet, but not much info to date these scraps. Nice stuff, but not real compelling. There is a second volume, which I didn't buy. (Both were on first week sale. Should have bought both or neither, but my ambivalence came through in buying just one.) B+(*)
  • Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of "The War of the Worlds" (1978 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): This soundtrack sans movie is a remarkable piece of Anglo rock progressivism, from an age when rock seemed poised to swallow the whole of western culture; the sweeping, pumping music has shades of Morricone, but Richard Burton's magnetic narration keeps the music in check; the sung pieces fare less well, and not just because David Essex is no Burton; complete with lavish book and artwork; still, this seems like a job for MF Doom. B+(***)
  • James White and the Blacks: Off White (1979 [2004], ZE): Two more versions of "Contort Yourself," one an August Darnell remix, so think James Chance and the Coconuts, which also works for "(Tropical) Heav Wave"; the balance are black/white goofs ("White Savages," "Bleached Black," "White Devil"); bonus cuts include the 10-minute "Christmas With Satan"; trivia disguised as concept. B+
  • Bill Withers: Just as I Am (1971 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): The first half of his first album was auspicious enough to anticipate the triumph of its successor, Still Bill, without being pushy about it; the second half slows down except for such easy marks as a gospellized "Let It Be." B+(***)
  • Neil Young: Prairie Wind (2005, Reprise): Seems like every few years Young reverts to Harvest mode, another pastoral homage to the Canadian prairie. I can't remember when he's made a prettier album that this one. Or anything quite like his hymn, "When God Made Me." A-

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The sea change in the media coverage of Dick Cheney's little hunting accident just proves that what goes around comes around. Cheney was the guy who insisted on going full bore ahead on the Republicans' agenda after they squeaked through the tainted 2000 presidential election. His cynical exploitation of ill-gotten power was unprecedented in its scope and depravity. (Not only had Bush taken office under a cloud, compare what he said during the campaign to what they did afterwards to get a glimpse of how disengenuous they were before power corrupted them further. And just as secrets and lies got them into office, secrets and lies followed them everywhere.) Although Cheney hasn't exactly gotten a free ride for all he's done, he's gotten a lot of slack -- the media's customary deference to the powerful, who are often (and this is important) the ones who feed them the spin they report as news. I'm tempted to suggest that the real reason they've turned on Cheney so hard is that he denied them the scoop, but at least part of their bite comes from resentment at having been lied to over and over. The media has a bad case of "kiss up, kick down" (to borrow a phrase used to describe John Bolton), so now that Cheney has gotten himself into a pickle, they can finally show their love.

A couple days ago I wrote about the Wichita Eagle's first tortured, apologetic report on Cheney's safari. Now even the Eagle has swung around. Yesterday's paper had two front page articles: "Kansas hunters criticize Cheney" and "Vice president, host slow to reveal details." That was followed today by "Man shot by Cheney has heart attack." This is mostly stuff you've read elsewhere, but the hunters piece quotes local experts, including education coordinator Wayne Doyle of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, who says, "Ultimately, the trigger-puller is always at fault." The sections on accident rates are worth quoting:

Most years, accidents in which hunters swing guns with moving game account for about half of Kansas' hunting accidents.

Doyle said nine of last year's 20 reported accidents were similar to Cheney's incident. [ . . . ]

Doyle is concerned that the Cheney incident could paint hunting as dangerous.

He estimated that Kansas hunters spent the equivalent of 1.5 million days small-game hunting in 2005, with 20 accidents.

"That's an almost insignificant number," he said. "But I guess it's not insignificant if you're the victim or the shooter."

The story also explains how Kansas hunters are required to have completed safety classes, and that since those classes were required hunting accidents have declined significantly. This provides some context for evaluating Cheney's accident. One shouldn't fall for the argument that this was the sort of accident that could happen to anyone. It's very rare, especially for experienced, responsible hunters. Cheney is certainly experienced, but he has some pretty large problems with responsibility, as does his Administration. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Cheney's handling of this mishap turns out to be a useful prism for looking at how he's handled all his other mishaps.

This is why the way the story leaked out is about more than how mediafolk can get their noses bent out of shape. As far as we know at this point, Cheney's immediate reaction was stunned inaction, same as his (and Bush's) reaction to 9/11. Even with Cheney ducking for cover, you'd expect his flunkies to step into the void. I mean, a guy who travels with the Secret Service and his own medical crew should have someone on call skilled at remedying common ailments like foot-in-mouth or head-up-ass, don't you think? So how come they send Katharine Armstrong out to meet the press with her cockamamie "peppered him good" story? Do they think she's got more experience or clout with the press than the Veep's own staff?

Well, maybe she has more credibility. Cheney has so little these days that any hint of candor would be suspect. But nothing less had a chance to stem the deluge. NBC's report was scathing, including a shot of a newspaper headline: "Duck, It's Dick!" Wichita's own mild-mannered Richard Crowson came up with cartoons two days in a row: the first showed body-armored gents preparing to go hunting with Cheney; the second depicts Cheney as a gangsta rapper:

This sort of thing is likely to go on for a while now. The attempts to shift the blame from Cheney to Whittington failed. The attempts to pooh-pooh the severity of the wound were wiped out by Whittington's "heart attack" (actually he has one or more shot pellets wedged into the heart wall). Even if Whittington makes it out of the hospital, when he does eventually die the name you're gonna remember is Cheney. Fox likes to deprecate the birdshot as BB's, but a BB guns are air-powered, pack much less force, and fire a single pellet; the shot (perhaps as many as 150) that ripped into Whittington's flesh is smaller, heavier, and harder. Questions about drinking and drugs will linger.

But this may not be so bad for Cheney -- at least if it takes the press off the Plame case, which was headed straight home, and numerous other scandals [see below]. It may even give the Republicans an opportunity to move Cheney out to pasture, eliminating one of the administration's biggest liabilities and letting them set up an orderly transition for 2008. (Even before the recent news opened up, Cheney's approval ratings were down around 17%. He's headed for single digits now.)

As for the scandals, Matt Taibbi has a piece in Rolling Stone on the Enron trial, where he explains:

By all rights, the trial of former Enron chiefs KenLay and Jeffrey Skilling out to be a benchmark moment in this particular era of America's history, the cathartic burning at the stake of two infamous villains who together flamboyantly represented the tragic character flaw of our fallen society at the turn of the century. [ . . . ] Some three years have passed sine then, and a funny thing has happened in the meantime. Lay and Skilling are finally ascending to the gallows, but no one cares, because the brazen impunity of their particular class of wheeler-dealer con artist is no longer a shock. In fact, in the past three years the national tableau has become positively filthy with wreckage from the high-speed flameouts of similarly hyperenterprising liars and cheaters. The corporate captains, the Rigases and the Kozlowskis, went down first, but then there were others, representing other fields. Jayson Blair and Judy Miller headlined an unpleasantly teeming bunch of lying-ass journalists, and then came Jack Abramoff, and Tom DeLay, and Karl Rove himself, and Scooter Libby, and Bob Ney, and that asshole memoirist Frey . . . and by now, who even cares who else?

Well, at least with Cheney we have an else whose falling we can care about -- because he's so close to the root of everyone else. It's too rare that bad things happen to bad people, which is why so many are relishing this story now.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I have a rather large pile of books that I've read that I want to write something about. In fact, they're piling up around my desk, starting to look impatient and forlorn. But the most urgent is Matt Taibbi's Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season, for no better reason than that I checked it out from the library, and couldn't put it down once I started to read. And that certainly wasn't because I had any desire to relive the 2004 election. It's more like because it sums up the disgust that I always suspected that election deserved, even while clinging to some glimmer of hope that Tweedle-dee-Kerry might edge out Tweedle-dum-Bush. I've already noticed bits of Taibbi's cynicism and scorn making themselves at home in my own prose. I'm tempted to quote vast stretches of this book, but time doesn't permit. But let's at least preserve the following:

In two years of this election season I did not see much that suggested to me that a great groundswell of change is on the way. But I do believe there is a strategy to pursue in the meantime, and that is to refuse to be lied to. That is something that is possible, even in the short term.

The presidential election, as presented by the media, is a great tour de force of lies, and if we get better at disbelieving them, there is a possibility that the liberating truth that we are all looking for will emerge on its own. Much of what is in this book is about those lies, how to identify them, and how properly to disbelieve them.

They are lies about polls, lies about the way politicians are labeled, lies about the concerns of the electorate, lies about the health of the electoral system, lies of word choice in campaign articles, lies of emphasis, lies hidden in the quantity of filed material, lies about the impartiality of the reporters who cover the campaigns, lies about the viability if third-party options, lies about the efficacy of lesser evilness, lies that make wars, lies that close factories, lies told by media companies that are no more American than Kim Jong-il, the Saudi royals, or S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

The election of George Bush was a defeat for America, but the bigger defeat was that the population spent two years allowing itself to be lied to. For two years we allowed this idiotic farce of an election to insult our dignity as human beings. We should all feel sick about it. I do. I feel sick enough to spend the next two years puking my guts out. But maybe if we learned to swallow fewer lies we'll feel less sick the next time. I think it's not unrealistic, at least, to hope for that.

OK, he got a little soft-headed in that last line. But look at it this way: some things, like winning an election, can only happen once you've achieved a mass consensus; but other things are individual, and not falling for all those lies is one of them. That's something each of us can do for ourselves. It may not make you any happier, but at least you'll stop feeling like someone's pulled a fast one on you when something awful happens. And awful things happen all the time.

Taibbi's book was stitched together from lots of small articles, a technique that sometimes cramps his flow. But it's probably not the real reason he doesn't give us the sort of big, sweeping view of the campaigns. He prefers to look at the campaign from the bottom up, even going so far as to miss staged photo-ops because he's out looking for ghettoes to contrast their indifference to the canned, processed optimism he's fed. Later on he goes underground, working as a Bush-Cheney volunteer in Orlando. Then he joins a group called Protest Warrior, which organizes counter-protests at demos:

The leaders of Protest Warrior claim that they are self-sufficient and funded entirely by donations and the sale of paraphernalia. I don't believe it, but whatever. Suffice it to say that their placards all have a clean, professional-design look to them. Virtuallyevery Protest Warrior sign is a direct parody of goofy lefty protest slogans ("Except for slavery, fascism, Nazism, and communism, WAR NEVER SOLVED ANYTHING"; "SAY NO TO WAR -- unless a Democrat is president"). This isn't an accident, just like it isn't an accident that Protest Warrior never has more than a handful of people show up to carry these signs.

What they are parodizing isn't so much the ideology of the anti-Bush protesters as it is the concept of protest itself. They don't have their own slogans because they don't want their own slogans; no slogans is the message. Protest Warrior hates people who take to the streets and sing "Give Peace a Chance" when they should just be sitting on their asses at home and quietly voting to bomb foreign states and build more prisons like all the rest of the grown-ups.

That's why they hate us. They hate us because every time 100,000 smug, sexually viable East Coast kids take to the streets instead of sitting at home like they do, it says to them something about what's inadequate about their lives. That's why the tone of Republican radio and right-wing protests is never idealistic. The underlying emotion is always wounded pride. Don't like my shitty life? Love it or leave it, pal. Love it or leave it.

Taibbi gets very down on demonstrations after that, arguing that in the '50s and early '60s protests had some threat because they suggested that we were individuals, willing to break with confirmity. But now the system has become immune to protest. Individuals can do whatever they want, but they can't matter. He suggests that the only thing that might make a difference is organization, but that too may just be a hot flash of ungrounded optimism.

In the final section, he runs a paired-elimination contest like a tennis match searching to find the most vapid journalist covering the last days of the election. He calls this contest Wimblehack, and the section is as sharp as media criticism gets. To make a long story short, the winner is Elisabeth Bumiller of New Pravda, edging out Newsweek's Howard Fineman.

Published by New Press. Wish the book had an index.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Headline in Wichita Eagle today, below the fold, below the "Parents iffy on Tasers as School" article, below the Olympics US Medal Count: "Cheney's gunshot hits, injures hunting partner." Note the subject is gunshot, not Cheney. The NRA should be upset, given how wasted all the effort they made to teach us that it isn't the guns that kill, it's just the people who fire them. "Cheney shoots hunting partner" would have been more to the point -- "injures," after all, is redundant after "shoots." The piece, assembled by "Eagle news services" from a wide range of wire services, is a textbook example of evasive writing:

A hunting companion of Vice President Dick Cheney is recuperating from shotgun pellet wounds to his face, neck and chest after Cheney accidentally shot the man on a quail-hunting trip Saturday on one of Texas' biggest ranches, according to the ranch owner and the vice president's office.

Harry Whittington, a millionaire lawyer from Austin, was in stable condition Sunday in the intensive care unit of a Corpus Christi hospital. Sally Whittington told the Dallas Morning News that her father was being observed because of swelling from some of the welts on his neck.

Again, they work backwards, reassuring us that the victim is doing alright before fingering the trigger man. It's a bit surprising that Whittington would be held in an intensive care unit for observation. Maybe that's a Texas millionaire thing.

Whittington "came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself," [ranch owner Katharine] Armstrong said."

"The vice president didn't see him," she continued. "The covey flushed and the vice president picked out a bird and was following it and shot. And by god, Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good."

So it was Whittington's fault for sneaking up behind Cheney. But if he was behind Cheney, that means that Cheney had to turn around to shoot him. Most hunters have the presence of mind to hold their fire whenever another person enters their field of vision. But then it was Whittington who got in Cheney's line of fire. And "peppered pretty good" is a much more amusing verb phrase than "shot in the face."

Armstrong said that Cheney was using a 28-gauge shotgun and that Whittington was about 30 yards away when he was hit in the cheek, neck and chest. Each of the hunters was wearing a bright orange vest at the time.

So Whittington was 30 yards behind Cheney, who turned while tracking a flying quail -- a pretty small bird, about the size of a fist -- 180 degrees before firing on a line close enough to the horizon to hit another person. Most likely the bird was closer than Whittington -- seems like it would be a pretty tough shot to hit a flying bird that small at 30 yards or more, so Cheney may have had trouble focusing both on the bird and the other hunter, but then that's why hunters wear orange: you don't have to focus to see orange, and when you see orange you hold your fire. At least that's the way it's supposed to work. I don't know the range or scatter at 30 yards -- 28-gaurge is a small shotgun, and the shot are pretty small, but evidently the pattern is still tight enough that Whittington was hit by quite a number of shot.

"It broke the skin," she said of the shotgun pellets. "It knocked him silly. But he was fine. He was talking. His eyes were open. It didn't get in his eyes or anything like that."

Then Cheney's medical team treated Whittington, before flying him by helicopter to Corpus Christi for observation in the ICU. It was 24 hours before the press picked up the story:

Cheney's spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, said the vice president's office did not tell reporters about the accident Saturday because they were deferring to Armstrong to handle the announcement of what happened on her property.

Of course, no one has suggested that they spent the time trying to get their stories straight, and not just because they don't add up. Armstrong was a $100,000-level Bush-Cheney Pioneer fundraiser, so the deference was mutual:

Armstrong said Cheney visited Whittington on Sunday [in the ICU?] and "they had a great time." The vice president returned to Washington on Sunday night.

Whittington was alert, sitting up, and being talkative Sunday, Armstrong said. "He's sitting up in bed, yakking and cracking jokes," she said.

"It's all OK," she added. "It's not that big a deal. Even Harry will tell you that."

Whittington sent word through a hospital official that he would have no comment on the incident out of respect for Cheney.

So no big deal. Any resemblance between this "accident" and any of the other Cheney Administration accidents is pure coincidence.

Actually, Cheney's hunting sorties show up in the news with some regularity. He seems to hunt more than any American politician since Teddy Roosevelt. I come from a family of hunters, so I'm reluctant to take pot shots at the sport, even though I pesonally have no taste or interest in ever hunting again. But Cheney's obsession with hunting is particularly appropriate to his political megalomania. He reminds me of Nicolae Ceaucescu, whose bear hunting exploits are documented by David Quammen in Monster of God.


Another story in the Eagle caught my eye. This one is "Man FBI labels terrorist says he was investigating," by Alfred Lubrano and John Shiffman of the Philadelphia Enquirer. I have many times argued that the War on Terror is a crock, but this story makes it sound more like a snark hunt. (Back in Boy Scouts we were sent on a hunt for the non-existent snark. Needless to say, the only thing anyone found was poison ivy.)

Michael Curtis Reynolds says he's a patriot. Federal authorities say he's a terrorist.

The FBI believes that the unemployed Wilkes-Barre, Pa., man tried to conspire with al-Qaida to wreck the American economy. Agents say Reyanolds plotted to blow up the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a Pennsylvania pipeline and a New Jersey refinery.

The sensational allegations, disclosed in a federal transcript obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer, reveal a convoluted plot that includes cyberspace intrigue, an elaborate FBI sting and a clandestine money drop on a deserted Idaho road.

The case also involves a municipal judge from Montana who has devoted the past four years to snaring would-be terrorists online.

Reynolds, 47, has not been publicly charged with terrorism. But a federal prosecutor leveled that accusation during a December court hearing, saying that Reynolds attempted to "provide material aid to al-Qaida" and that the case "involves a federal offense of terrorism."

Reynolds has been held without bail since Dec. 5.

In the FBI sting two months ago, Reynolds was drawn to a meeting with a purported al-Qaida operative in Idaho, where he expected to receive $40,000 to finance the alleged plot.

The al-Qaida contact was actually Shannen Rosmiller, a 36-year-old judge who lives in Conrad, Mont. She was working for the FBI. Rossmiller met Reynolds online last fall.

The government said Reynolds tried to disavow any intent to conspire with al-Qaida when he was questioned by FBI agents.

In fact, authorities say, Reynolds told them that he, too, was a patriot and intended to expose an al-Qaida cell inside the United States.

But the prosecutor said that doesn't jibe with Reynolds' e-mails, in which he said he needed to leave the country after the planned attacks, or why he said he needed a fraudulent passport.

With all these patriots going around trapping each other it's a good thing there aren't any real threats out there. But you have to wonder about all the poison ivy they're running into. Bush has set up a system that is ludicrously adept at snagging only the stupidest, most incompetent terrorist wannabes in the world. Just look at the people they've charged -- these are mortal threats to our freedom and way of life? And we get this service for just a few hundreds of billions of dollars -- money that we can't afford to spend on real problems.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Music: Current count 11537 [11506] rated (+31), 864 [867] unrated (-3). Jazz Consumer Guide done, submitted, edited. Hooray! Last month was rough making progress toward it without bungling Recycled Goods. Same for the previous month. Celebrated by working through a pile of library pickings, even coming up with one pleasant surprise: Mary Gauthier. Seems like it's been quite a while since the rated count last hit 30. I have roughly two weeks for the next Recycled Goods, so may try to close out some long pending boxes. But more than that I'm looking forward to doing some work on the book. Made that New Year's resolution, and I've been jammed from then until now.

  • Kenny Chesney: The Road and the Radio (2005, BNA): Country singer, has about ten albums in about as many years, so I figure he must be salable. Wrote two of eleven songs: the title song, which is as ripe a radio cliché as I've ever heard, and one called "Beer in Mexico" which is self-explanatory. This is the first of his I've heard, so no telling how it fits into his oeuvre, if that's what you call it. C+
  • The Robert Cray Band: Twenty (2005, Sanctuary): I figured the title maybe meant his twentieth album -- I'd lost track of how many there were -- but it has to do with a 20-year-old sent to Iraq. It's been touted as "one of the harshest anti-Iraq War songs to date" (AMG), which sounds like a good idea to me, but the song itself has slipped by several times without registering its point, other than "gotta fight the rich man's war." OK, I guess. Last time I complained about Cray, Christgau wrote back and said he's sorry I don't get him. I always thought I got him fine -- I just didn't like him. But this one is harder to dislike, perhaps because it's harder to get a handle on. Or because songs like "Two Steps From the End" just aren't that bad. Perhaps one or both of us are growing up. B
  • Mary Gauthier: Mercy Now (2005, Lost Highway): A weathered, sour voiced country singer, way out on the alt wing, no doubt by mutual agreement. The opener, "Falling Out of Love," is unsung, barely spoken. "I Drink" could hardly be more matter of fact. (Looks like she recycled it from a prior album. This is her fourth, following Dixie Kitchen, Drag Queens in Limousines, Filth & Fire. I can't say as I've ever heard of her, but Lucinda Williams' ex-hubby Gurf Morlix produced, for whatever that's worth.) Two covers, one each from Harlan Howard and Fred Eaglesmith. Inspirational verse: "My church and my country could use a little mercy now/as they sink into a poisoned pit/that's going to take forever to climb out/they carry the weight of the faithful/who follow them down/I love my church and country, and they could use some mercy now." I guess you gotta start somewhere. A-
  • Keane: Hopes and Fears (2004, Interscope): Lush anglo-pop, high-pitched but not exactly falsetto singer, pretty in conventional ways, but rather whiney. As I recall, they got some critic support when this came out. Not undeservedly, but not from any critic I'd put much stock in. B-
  • Bob Marley and the Wailers: African Herbsman (1970-72 [2004], Silverline/Sanctuary): The latest edition of Marley's Jamaican releases, mostly preceding but somewhat overlapping the early Island Wailers records, is a DualDisc, but forget that. (The DVD bonus has one track from 1974. The album itself is short enough that more tracks could have been added to the CD side.) As useful as any of the plethora, mostly dubious, of pre-Island Marley comps, with the "All in One Medley" standing for the Studio One period and a batch of Scratch Perry productions for the second period on Trojan; still, compared to the Islands you know, these feel a bit like demos. A-
  • The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute (2005, Universal): There are things in this album that impress me -- the speed drumming, some of the synth progressions, bits of barren space -- but there's nothing that I much like. It's prog rock with a vengeance, with a real nasty streak. C
  • Paul McCartney: Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005, Capitol): I've heard a couple of his early (i.e., post-Beatles) albums without rating them -- Ram, for sure, McCartney and Wild Life I'm less sure about -- but by and large I've done my best to ignore him, and likely with good cause. I'm struck here first by how recognizable his stylistic hacks are -- I can still hear echoes of "Admiral Halsey" as if that was one of his aesthetic anchors. What I don't hear are "Silly Love Songs" or "Band on the Run" or anything much that goes pop for badder or worse. Closest he comes are some melodic pleasantries. C+
  • Sugar Minott: The Roots Lover (1978-83 [2006], Moll-Selekta, 2CD): A significant figure in the evolution of reggae to dancehall, Minott built on lovers rock, roots radics, and dub; this survey presents him in long form, with 16 extended singles, most in the 6-8 minute range, deepening the echo and stretching out the grooves without quite achieving pop liftoff. B+(***)
  • The Rolling Stones: Rarities 1971-2003 (1971-2003 [2005], Hear Music/Virgin): No revelations, just surplus product for the coffee klatsch set; live takes and remixes of solid hits like "Wild Horses," "Tumbling Dice," "Miss You," plus covers like "Harlem Shuffle" and "Mannish Boy"; you expected something like "Cocksucker Blues"? B
  • Trisha Yearwood: Jasper County (2005, MCA Nashville): Quite a voice. Chances are if you give her a good song and don't fuck up the production too bad she'll drive it home. On the other hand, give her "Georgia Rain" and pile on the strings and she's all wet. "Standing Out in a Crowd" is even worse: the tale of a shy girl who discovers it's not so bad to be a star. Even when she gets some boogie piano to work with the best she can come up with is "It's Alright." Not really. C-


This is the final week's prospecting for this particular Jazz Consumer Guide. I chopped this week off mid-Friday and sent in the complete draft. Still quite a few prospected but still pending items on the shelf, as well as a pile of ESP-Disk reissues and a few other items still awaiting first play: deadlines are arbitrary, but I more than bagged my limit this time. The JCG has been edited, but I'm not sure when it will run: two or three weeks, I'm told, without a great deal of certainty. As predicted, more finals here than prospects. The surprise was that two climbed onto the A-list, given that most re-listens end up where I thought they began.

Terje Rypdal: Vossabrygg (2003 [2006], ECM): With two drummers, four people on various synths and samples, bass, and the leader's guitar, this is a sprawling mess, rooted in fusion but tempered by the self-effacing requirements of the Nordic sound. At least that's one way of scoring. Another is to point out that one of the synth dabblers actually spends more time on trumpet, and to recall that Palle Mikkelborg is a dedicated and skilled musician whose main claim to fame has been his work with Miles Davis and George Russell -- not so much the roots of this work as its godfathers. So it's not such a surprise that there's much of interest in this mess. Nor that it will take some time to sort out. [B+(**)]

Carl Maguire: Floriculture (2002 [2005], Between the Lines): Leader plays piano and composed the pieces, played by a quartet with Chris Mannigan's alto sax making the most noise. Opens up roughly avant, where the piano chimes brightly, but the quieter spots interest me more, like the brief duet between bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Dan Weiss in a piece dedicated to Mark Dresser, or spots where Mannigan plays softly behind the bass. Impressive first album. [B+(***)]

Manuel Valera Group: Melancolía (2004, Mavo): Young Cuban pianist, presumably -- judging from a band that includes Seamus Blake and Ben Street -- not Cuba based. He has a rich, flowing style, and favors complex arrangements, combining a quintet (Antonio Sanchez on drums, Lusito Quintero on percussion) with a string quartet here. His two non-originals here are, no kidding, by Rachmaninoff and Silvio Rodriguez. Shows you he's well schooled, dilligent, hard working, and possibly talented. Not my thing, the aspirations even more so than the accomplishment. And it's long. But it's likely that some people will go gaga over this, and he may turn out to have an impressive career. I'm tempted to hold this back for another play, but I'm also tempted to move on. If it's any consolation, I already like him more than I do Arturo O'Farrill. B

Ahleuchatistas: What You Will (2005 [2006], Cuneiform): Guitar-bass-drums trio. Hype sheet says "file under: rock/post-punk"; publicist says "non-jazz CD with lots of jazz references." It's all instrumental, and that it mostly has a regular beat doesn't disqualify it in my book. Moreover, the group name, combining a famous Charlie Parker title with a suffix commonly used by latino revolutionaries, is jazzworthy unless you think that jazz is only what you find in museums and Ken Burns documentaries. Guns on the back cover, and the song titles recall Mingus -- e.g., "Remember Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib." Don't have a firm opinion yet. Maybe the genre confusion persists in their heads. Maybe the guns aren't loaded. [B+(*)]


And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.

Edsel Gomez: Cubist Music (2005 [2006], Zoho): He's a well travelled, well connected Puerto Rican pianist, on his first album, where he writes all of the pieces except for a short one by his producer, Don Byron, at the end. The music and piano are fine, but most of the interest here will center on the group, with its Drew Gress-Bruce Cox rhythm section, and an all-star tag team of reed players: David Sanchez, Miguel Zenon, Steve Wilson, Greg Tardy, and Byron. B+(**)

Joe Fielder Trio: Plays the Music of Albert Mangelsdorff (2005, Clean Feed): Most tributes are poor substitutes for the originals, but this one is a much needed clarification. Mangelsdorff was both a pathbreaker -- one of the essential inventors of European avant-garde jazz -- and a virtuosic trombonist, and the two aspects of his playing tended to confound our ability to get a grasp on him. This elemental trio -- just trombone, bass and drums -- concentrates on his melodies, perhaps the least appreciated aspect of his craft. Much appreciated. B+(***)

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Toward the Margins (1996 [1997], ECM): Just background for the more recent album (see below, I hope). Simple enough in concept: the Parker Trio (Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, you know) meet violinist-electronics buff Philipp Wachsmann and two more knobmen for discrete pleasures. I kept expecting more from the trio, although it's likely that Guy's bass merges into the strings base and Parker's soprano sax burrows into the electronics. Slow, textural. Just let it be and it starts to sweep you away, not unlike a glacier. B+(*)

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Eleventh Hour (2004 [2005], ECM): The electro brigade is larger than ever, although the acoustic side has grown a bit as well, with Agustí Fernandez on more/less prepared piano to go along with the strings (Philip Wachsmann on violin, Adam Linson on double-bass) and Parker's soprano sax. The one piece in five parts has many effects but little shape, and the flow is once again glacial. It wouldn't be hard to conclude that there's nothing much here, and it can be argued that thinking otherwise is just wishful thinking. But I think otherwise, even if I'm not real sure of myself. The effects are the show. B+(**)

Arthur Kell Quartet: Traveller (2004 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent): Tight bassist-led quartet with three more musicians already established on the Fresh Sound label: Gorka Benitez (tenor sax, flute), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Joe Smith (drums). Kell's bass firmly anchors his tunes, and he's the critical focal point, but both Cardenas and Benitez excel. A-

Julius Tolentino: Just the Beginning (2005, Sharp Nine): First album by a young alto saxophonist working a mainstream vein. Inlfuences name check Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, Kenny Garrett, with McLean a personal connection. Title cut is an original, fast and boppish. On five cuts he picks up extra brass from Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) and Steve Davis (trombone). Jeb Patton plays flashy, hard bop piano, and he's an asset throughout. Final cut is another original, a duo with Patton lamenting the late Illinois Jacquet. A class move. B+(***)

Mark Dresser: Unveil (2003-04 [2005], Clean Feed): Solo bass -- the very idea will leave all but a few of you cold. I've heard maybe a dozen such albums, all on the avant edge, where the idea of totally unfettered whatever holds its strongest appeal. This is more attractive than most, primarily because some passages have strong rhythmic appeal, but also because it rarely goes arco and never stoops to stupid bass tricks. B+(**)

The Heckler by Juan Pablo Balcazar Quartet: Heckler City (2005, Fresh Sound New Talent): Very similar to the Arthur Kell disc -- a tenor sax-guitar-bass-drums group led by the bassist, but a little sweeter all around, especially in the guitar (Alejandro Mingot). The saxophonist is Miguel Villar "Pintxo" -- the quoted part presumably a nickname, like "Lockjaw" (maybe an influence; for all the Basque I know it could even be a translation). B+(***)

Hilary Noble & Rebecca Cline: Enclave (2004 [2005], Zoho): Good students. Noble studied sax with George Garzone and Yusef Lateef, and did extra credit in Afro-Cuban percussion. Cline picked up her piano from Joanne Brackeen and Chucho Valdés, and she delivers the whole package. But they have moved beyond the humble respect most students pay to their masters. They cross borders and upset conventions, whether they're skewering Cole Porter or serenading Paulo Freire. Sounded like a bunch of neat tricks at first, but there's just too many of them to dismiss. Noble's most likely the conceptualist here, but Cline blows me away: I can't remember the last time I've been so impressed by someone I've never heard of before. A-

Hard Cell (Berne+Taborn+Rainey): Feign (2005, Screwgun): Two-thirds of the Paraphrase lineup, with pianist Craig Taborn replacing bassist Drew Gress. My preference for the latest Paraphrase album most likely has little to do with the change -- the other album just caught one of those moments when everything clicked. Nonetheless, this isn't far off the mark. Taborn is very engaged, and he is worth focusing on. B+(***)

Satoko Fujii Four: Live in Japan 2004 (2004 [2005], P.J.L): Not to be confused with the Satoko Fujii Quartet, which has two Japanese musicians on bass-drums and takes more of a fusion slant. This group has Mark Dresser on bass and Jim Black on drums for a more avant pairing. The four pieces include the 36:28 "Illusion Suite," recently on an album of that name, by the same group minus trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Lots of good parts. I'm especially impressed by Black this time around. B+(**)

Hamid Drake & Assif Tsahar: Live at Glenn Miller Café (2002 [2006], Ayler): This is volume 2 to an earlier (2001) date released as Soul Bodies. I don't have a particularly good take on Tsahar: he sounds a little bit like everyone, at least going back to Ayler, and maybe to Rollins -- he does 1:25 of "St. Thomas" to close the set, lest the point be missed. But here he's in full bore avant-honk mode, which seems to be his most agreeable speed. Sounds like Drake only has his kit to play with, which limits his options, although he still impresses. B+(***)

Matt Renzi: The Cave (2003 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent): Simple trio, the leader playing tenor sax and clarinet near equally. A student of George Garzone, Renzi tries to work four years living in scattered spots on three continents into his mix, and the result is thoughtful, almost contemplative, very centered. B+(***)

Mike Tucker: Collage (2005 [2006], www.tuckerjazz.com): Young tenor saxophonist with chops working mainstream postbop. Cites Michael Brecker as an influence, but he also studied with Garzone. Leo Genovese is in the quartet, playing more Fender Rhodes than piano. Fast ones, a slow one, a mambo, something called a suite. Fine record. I can't make up my mind whether people like him are the scourge of the industry or its salvation, probably because the answer is neither. B+(**)

Chris Gestrin/Ben Monder/Dylan van der Schyff: The Distance (2004 [2006], Songlines): Piano-guitar-drums trio, so lightly recorded it's very hard to follow, or is it so abstract? Maybe there's something here, but at some point incomprehension gives way to indifference, and that dictates its own rating. I'm still unsure how low it should go, but these guys usually have more to offer. B-

Bob Rockwell Quartet Featuring Ben Sidran: Bob's Ben: A Tribute to Ben Webster (2004 [2005], Stunt): This one's too easy, but it's an undeniable pleasure. Rockwell's a mainstream tenor saxman who moved to Copenhagen in 1983, two decades after Webster, and settled into a respected if unspectacular career. He has the broad tone but none of Webster's vibrato, so he keeps a respectful distance while luxuriating in a dozen Webster ballads. I thought I never wanted to hear "Danny Boy" again, but I was wrong. A-

Sam Rivers/Ben Street/Kresten Osgood: Violet Violets (2004 [2005], Stunt): This is one of those old masters goes to Europe and gets roped into a studio things. (Street is presumably American, but he mostly records on European labels. Osgood is Danish.) The pieces include a couple by Osgood, a couple by Rivers, some group improv, and other odds and ends (Ornette Coleman, Lucky Thompson). Still, this is remarkable for how good Rivers sounds, and how neatly this links back to his early work. B+(***)

Joshua Redman Elastic Band: Momentum (2005, Nonesuch): I wrote this up as an A- shortly after I got it, but it missed the cut the first time out, then I held it back a second time. Christgau told me he thought it was a dud -- made the point that it was the first time he really disagreed with my jazz picks -- but he hasn't flagged it as such in his Consumer Guide. Also I never managed to pick up a copy of Redman's previous Elastic Band album, which meant I was missing a key context. (Of course, if that was critical, I'd never be able to review anything.) I gave it a spin last JCG time and it still seemed to hold up. Gave it another spin this time and I'm starting to have my own doubts. The guitarists don't just not stand out -- they're kinda mushy. And the leader doesn't just play along -- he's still perfecting the saxophone equivalent of anorexia. And the record is getting old, which wouldn't matter so much for a relative unknown, but he's on a major label and has (or had) a major rep. Still, I do like Sam Yahel's funk organ, and Nicholas Payton aces his guest spot. And I've never doubted that funk is its own reward. So I haven't turned to the point I think this is a dud. But I am going to let it slip quietly into oblivion. Just too much other stuff to squeeze into the space. B+(**)

Joe Giardullo: No Work Today: Nine for Steve Lacy (2004 [2005], Drimala): From John Szwed's liner notes: "God forbid, you run out of breath, and the audience may hear it has running out of ideas." That happens a couple of times here. There's no margin for error, no cover for a slip up or the least bit of sloppiness. Solo saxophone (soprano, no less) requires total concentration by the musician, and little less by the listener. Lacy recorded solo a number of times, but even though I have about 25 of his albums, I don't have a solo one (there are at least five) available for comparison. It's tough to do, and its appeal is limited, so it's all the more remarkable how gracefully Giardullo pulls this off. B+(***)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The local paper was full of bad news today, starting with prairie fires north of town that wiped out thousands of acres, and extending as far afield as bird flu in Nigeria. One of the low points was a cartoon from the usually reliable Mike Lukovich that just adds fire to the Islamic caricature furor. And there seems to be a backroom deal on the PATRIOT Act that has snookered Harry Reid, who also seems to be the only politician the media has any interest in linking to Jack Abramoff. But let's start with this item, titled "Republicans' strategy: Portray Dems as weak":

Republican national chairman Ken Mehlman on Friday outlined a political strategy for 2006 to portray Democrats as too weak to protect the country and to bypass the mainstream media to spread the GOP message.

There's no doubt that the Democrats are weak: the Republicans have controlled the White House for six years (or 18 of the last 26, or 26 of the last 38), Congress for twelve, the Supreme Court for longer than that. Of course, that's not what Mehlman had in mind. But it says much that after an extended period in power the most promising issue the Republicans have is distrust in their unproven, mostly powerless opponents. But they their own record is less something to run on than to run away from. So, they must be figuring, why not go with what worked before?

Portraying the Democrats as weak works, but it actually has nothing to do with "protecting the country" -- at least as far as terrorism is concerned, where the Democrats have, if anything, been as eager to fight and less prone to falling asleep at the ranch than Bush. No, the Democrats come off as weak because their constituency includes the poor, and they tend to make excuses for poor people -- racism, exploitation, lack of opportunity, maybe even injustice. They even sympathize with the poor abroad. The Republicans know better. They know that poverty is moral failure, and if that isn't punishment enough, they're willing to mete out more. That their arguments play well with the rich isn't much of a surprise, but they've also gotten good mileage out those among the non-rich who are secure in their moral righteousness even as their incomes and safety nets crumble. As long as those people can manage to hang on by their own strength they will continue to despise those who can't -- the weak, the Democrats.

Unfortunately, the Democrats' game plan is to play straight into the Republicans' lone strength. They will leave no stone unturned to show voters that when it comes to terrorism they're every bit as badass as the Republicans. They'll wave the flag and support the troops. They'll do homeland security right. And they're badass on crime too: they'll hire more cops, lengthen sentences, build more jails. And the net effect of all their enthusiasms will be to reinforce the Republicans' arguments, because in the end the people who have bought into the silly idea that Bush is a tower of strength still known deep down that the Democrats are just a bunch of crooked wusses anyway.

Of course, the Democrats will try to campaign on other issues, especially the relatively safe subject of corruption. They may score some cheap points on gas prices, given that the Republicans are even softer on the oil companies than the Democrats are on the poor. But their reluctance to take on the giant bugaboo of terrorism is what lets the Republicans off the hook. Militarism is the handmaiden of the right because the stress of war, even phony ones like the GWOT, reinforces the state's role as the enforcer of order under the rich and powerful and diminishes the state's ability to help out everyone else. The only way the left -- the hell the Democrats have been consigned to even though they did nothing to deserve it and scarcely have a clue what it means -- can even the playing field is to attack the war machine head on.

Mehlman is daring the Democrats to campaign on the war question. He's gambling that they're too chickenshit to make the case for breaking the cycle of war and terrorism, to show that the only way out is peace with justice. It's a pretty safe bet, because they sure haven't shown they stand for much of anything yet. He's also gambling that voters won't notice how little they've gotten from decades of Republican misrule, but what else can he do? His hedge there may be the bit about "bypassing the mainstream media" -- even though the Republicans own that media, the fear is that it's still too reality-bound to be trusted. The Republicans need voters who know nothing beyond their own upwelling spite, which again is an emotion built on division and war, not healing and peace.

The Republicans need war because they have nothing else to stand on. Democrats unwilling to take a stand on war consign themselves to irrelevancy and failure. Meanwhile, there are serious problems coming that won't be addressed because the two parties can overcome the problems they themselves have created.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I've been wanting to write something on "cartoongate" -- the fire and fury over a set of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper last September, which has recently resulted in numerous loud, and in some cases violent, protests. This strikes me as a prism through which a lot of important issues can be viewed, but getting a handle on how to approach it is difficult. Rather than thrash on this, let me just throw these points out in no particular order:

  • There is something peculiarly strong about the political impact of cartoons, as was confirmed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff taking aim at Tom Toles over a cartoon that showed Rumsfeld diagnosing a bed-ridden quadriplegic soldier as "battle hardened." It's as if the combination of a crude drawing and a terse bit of text might somehow break through our shells whereas a long-winded essay just glazes our eyes and hazes our brains. Dangerous stuff, otherwise why the focus?

  • There is a real debate as to whether hate speech should be protected as free speech. I have two positions on this: one is that hate speech should be challenged and exposed at every opportunity; the other is that I don't trust the government to do this. I'm not aware of any government efforts to suppress these cartoons, so I don't see how this is a free speech issue.

  • Given that hate speech cannot (and probably should not) be suppressed, it is one of those nuissances of modern life that must be sloughed off. This, of course, has some costs: to a large extent we who live in free speech societies have necessarily learned to become indifferent to speech. This is especially true when we are not direct targets of the hate speech. It shouldn't be surprising that anti-Muslim hate speech riles Muslims more than non-Muslims. Anti-American hate speech bugs Americans too.

  • The tactical purpose of hate speech is to separate and inflame. It's meant to provoke its enemies, and thereby to unify the its supposed allies. But hate speech can't cause hate. Hate speech can only exploit faults that are already perceptible. In order to understand the cartoons as hate speech, and what threat it represents, one has to look at the divisions they're meant to exploit.

  • While Denmark has a reputation as a tolerant and respectful nation, with no history of colonialism other than their control of Greenland, Denmark is part of the European Union, and is more closely allied with the US than most EU members, having contributed troops to the US-led occupation force in Iraq. Like other EU countries, Denmark has a growing right-wing political undercurrent, based on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments. The right-wing is an immediate political threat to Muslims in Denmark, and Denmark is a reasonable, even if not the most obvious, proxy for Europe and the West.

  • Initially the controversy over the caricatures was limited to Denmark. Danish Muslims rightly regarded the caricatures as disrespectful. Respect is the necessary condition for assimilation of any immigrant community -- we can point to many examples in US history, especially the Irish, Italians and Jews, each suffering long periods of vicious stereotyping.

  • The decision of other European publishers to reprint the Danish caricatures in the name of free speech, as opposed to merely illustrating the controversy, is fallacious, because no effort was present to suppress free speech. Rather, all they actually did was to assert a supposed right to promulgate hate speech. In doing so, they significantly broadened the scope of the controversy, furthering the purposes of the hate speech.

  • The protesters in predominantly Muslim nations who then took up this issue did so for a variety of reasons that have little if anything to do with the situation of Danish Muslims, and most likely, by amplifying the divisions, have made matters worse for Muslims in Denmark and Europe in general. One can go country to country and identify specific groups with their own distinct reasons for rallying around this issue. In some cases, these include governments who wish to score easy points for their championship of Islam; in others they represent Islamist opposition groups who wish to score points against their government.

  • In any controversy, each side instinctively looks for high ground to defend. In Europe this was the principle of free speech. For Muslims this became the prohibition, from the Hadith and widely respected by Sunni Muslims, against creating images of prophet. (It has been noted that the Shi'a tend not to follow this prohibition, but that hasn't stopped them from the protests.) It's hard to give the "offends my religion" argument any creedence -- to do so would propagate prohibitions endlessly -- but no doubt it is a powerful refuge for the faithful. One thing we've seen repeatedly, and not just with Muslims, is that stress drives people deeper into their religion. Regardless of the religious issues, this is at root not a question of religion. It's a matter of hate speech layered on top of imperialism and impoverishment.

  • The last point is important enough to reiterate: Islam is the last defense of Muslims against imperialism and impoverishment. The worse situations deteriorate, the more pious Muslims become. (Of course, a big part of this is the lack of a viable alternative, the consequence of how successful the US and its allies have been at destroying the left in predominantly Islamic countries.) Since the people look to Islam for protection and succor, Islamists are all but obligated to fight back.

  • The US, ever the Muslim's best friend (except when Israel or oil are at stake), rushed to condemn the Danish caricatures. This, of course, had no effect on anyone involved, other than to give the folks who watch Fox News more reason to feel good about themselves.

  • If you want to start an office pool, a good short-term issue would be to guess the day when Denmark announces that its troops will leave Iraq. Won't be long.

  • One lesson we should draw from this is that it doesn't take much courage or insight for people in one country to demonstrate against acts in some other country. And therefore it really doesn't mean much -- or worse, it just reinforces the object of its protest, since nobody likes to be hectored by foreigners.

This will likely be an interesting story for some time. Just to follow the story around the world could provide a good deal of insight into the struggle between the Western powers and the Islamic world, but only if one puts this controversy into a context that goes back as far as Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, and picks up speed with the Balfour Declaration, the meeting of FDR and King Saud, the CIA coup against Mossadegh, the Six Day War of 1967, the oil crisis of 1973, the CIA funding of mujahideen in Afghanistan, and 9/11/2001. Otherwise all this brouhaha over cartoons will just seem silly. Otherwise much more destructive nonsense is sure to come.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Postscript: The following is a fragment of my first draft. I include it here because it talks about first impressions, which often matter when talking about the news. And because I wasn't able to work the discussion of indifference back into the above. One of the most powerful emotions I feel about the current Bush regime is the utter frustration and hopelessness of achieving anything through the political system. We need to ask why that is. This is my theory. Unfortunately, this particular thread didn't go where I hoped. Here it's just an orphan, but likely to be adopted some day.

When I first heard the news story about protests across the Muslim world railing against caricatures of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper, my first reaction was just get over it. We're used to defending the right of the press to publish offensive material because they do it all the time, and because the experience of trying to stop them always turns out worse than the offense. In fact, it's impossible for me to watch commercial TV or to read a newspaper like the New York Times without getting offended. And it's quite likely that anything that doesn't offend me in those media would manage to offend someone else. The offensiveness of the media is an everday fact in our world, and we at least have mostly learned to deal with, mostly by building up a protective armor of indifference. This isn't necessarily a good thing -- if anything, indifference seems to be a trait that those in power work to cultivate, as it allows them the luxury of operating in public without anyone really noticing what they're up to.

Faced with such indifference, is there anything else an offended party can do? Indifference is like a shell, easily repelling most efforts to penetrate. Such devices as peaceful protests have only rarely been surprising enough to get noticed, and are habitually dismissed out of hand. Moral suasion is rarely recognized. Tactics which directly approach the powers are rarely available to anyone powerless to start with. So that may leave only one alternative to resignation: violence. The problem here is that violence tends to elicit even more violent repression by the challenged powers, with the ready approval of the otherwise indifferent. Western offenses against Muslims are an old story: we recently ran into protests against American desecration of the Koran in interrogating Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo, and before that we had the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, and before that, well, not even the Crusades have fully slipped from collective memory. So it's not surprising that these latest caricatures quickly escalated not just to protests but to calls for the deaths of the offenders, and indeed for whole nations, as in "death to Denmark." My first reaction was that such outbursts are self-disqualifying. I am, after all, pretty consistent in opposing the resort to violence in political disputes. And unlike, say, the US invasion of Iraq, the caricatures in themselves are not acts of violence, regardless of how offensive one may find them.

On the other hand, it is easy to imagine that this controversy plays out very differently in the West (merely a convenient term to put Europe and America in the same bag) and in the Mideast (a region that for immediate purposes stretches to Indonesia, but may still be a subset of the Islamic World).

Monday, February 06, 2006

The February 2006 Recycled Goods has been posted at Static Multimedia. This one was kind of a rush job -- a mix of leftovers and easy marks, long on jazz reissues which I had been prospecting anyway, and short on world music. The obvious pick hit would have been the Art Pepper album -- the perfect gem from a 16-CD Galaxy box set I adore stem to stern -- but it's just a moderately enhanced reissue of an already famous, long in-print album, and I fancied the idea of stacking those two folkie albums. I don't go into folk music very often, and indeed I can argue that these two came to me. Go Contrary, Go Sing was a complete, unsolicited suprise, showing up sometime last summer along with a punk rock disc by the Deacons which turned out to be equally attractive. Snider I've known for a while, and I recommend his last two Oh Boy albums as strongly as this useful early summary, but I also found songs here I didn't know before, including a couple of essential ones. After you've been doing this for a while, surprise counts for something.

Some other little notes. One is that I got around to requesting Capitol's Las Vegas series too late to get the whole series, so no Frank, no Dean, no Elvis. (They didn't send me Wayne either, but I scrounged up a copy elsewhere.) Another is that I've never quite been able to make up my mind whether latin jazz qualifies as world music, so I have no hard and fast rules there. Luis Mario Ochoa struck me as more pop than jazz, but the line is rarely clear or even meaningful. I get quite a bit of latin jazz, and rarely know what to do with it. Finally, the Hank Williams review was written up before Robert Christgau made this set his year-end archival Pick Hit. When I heard about it I was rather shocked -- it's usually he who criticizes me for going soft on poorly organized or redundant compilations of undeniably great music.

Hopefully, March won't be such a rush job. After Jazz CG wraps up later this week, I'm looking forward to some time free of deadline pressure. Maybe I'll get around to playing that Faces box I bought over a year ago and haven't even played yet.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Music: Current count 11506 [11494] rated (+12), 867 [862] unrated (-5). Another week of slouching towards Jazz Consumer Guide. Recycled Goods for February is done, should be posted momentarily. Next week is the closer for Jazz Consumer Guide. Looking forward to some post-deadline slack after that. These last few weeks have been trying.

  • Bruce Springsteen: Devils and Dust (2005, Columbia): The publicist never sent me that 30th anniversary dress-up of Born to Run, so I never got a chance to relive how appalling I found that album. My hudna with Springsteen didn't come until The River, when the bullshit finally thinned out to let his virtues emerge. The latter mostly center on a rock-and-roll formalism that found a much more modest analogue in the '70s pub rock I so loved. And from there he developed a fair approximation of a more modest working class ethic which became more striking over time because it cut against the grain. This evolution made his albums tolerable, and a couple of them turned out better than that. But unless he's at the top of his game I still don't find I have much interest in him, and even when he is it's more like grudging admiration and genuine appreciation. So I didn't rush into this one, especially given the one-man-band news and the slew of critical references to Nebraska and Tom Joad. But now that I've gotten to it, I find that it's looser and more ingratiating than either of those, and overall the most consistent album he's turned out since Tunnel of Love. But I'll note that his melodies and vocals seem to be slipstreaming recent Dylan these days, and both seem diminished as a result -- not there isn't a lot of working room short of Dylan. Lyrically, I don't know. All things considered, I figure it's a plus when I don't notice his lyrics. A-


Another relatively ineffective week of jazz prospecting. My indecision slump continues, so the play-it-again shelf continues to pile up. Deadline on this Jazz CG is this coming Friday, so this is make or break week. Time to buckle down.

Incognito: Eleven (2006, Narada Jazz): Not a jazz group by any stretch of the imagination -- even by the delirious standards of Smooth Jazz. Rather, they are an old-fashioned disco group, working a deliberately anonymous groove -- think of Chic, then tune the bass and funk down to where it's barely perceptible. As one who considers anonymity a plus in disco I rather like them, but not as much as I'd like them if they moved me. B

Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: Sacred Music of Duke Ellington (2001-05 [2006], Origin, 2CD): Co-directed by Clarence Acox and Michael Brockman, featuring vocalists Dee Daniels, James Caddell, and Nichol Eskridge, with a snappy big band and an armada of choir singers, and even a credit for tap dancer Tim Hickey. I've never liked Ellington's sacred music, always thinking that the words were overly literal and the melodies forced to the words. He did most of this late in life, and while I don't wish to doubt his sincerity, its awkwardness always smelled of a death-bed conversion. Given all that, I certainly didn't expect much of a small town repertory group, but they make more of it than I imagined possible. The band has some snap to it, and the singers get that gospel feel. And the music is split into two blessedly short discs, instead of one insufferably long one. B+(*)

Joel Harrison: Harrison on Harrison (2005, High Note): The other Harrison is Beatle George, like Joel a guitarist first, a composer second, and a vocalist last. One problem with covering rock songs is that they come with lyrics, so they tempt one to sing, and that tends to keep them locked down as rock songs. Four of eleven songs here have vocals, one by guest Jen Chapin. The other pieces open up more, and on a couple of occasions pianist Uri Caine and/or saxophonists David Liebman and David Binney threaten to run away with them. This leaves us with a rather uncomfortable and inconsistent sense of the guitarist. Some interesting stuff here, but I don't see how it adds up. B

Ingrid Jensen: At Sea (2005 [2006], ArtistShare): One of these I need to figure out what people mean when they say something is post-bop. Even without a precise definition this seems to be what they have in mind. Actually, I'm not sure it's related to bop at all, but Jensen is by reputation a follower of Woody Shaw and Art Farmer, who fit squarely into the hard bop tradition. But this is intricate, composerly music, stretched out to long forms that don't necessarily feel improvised. She plays the only horn, but there are lots of little things going on: keyboards, bass, guitar (on two cuts), percussion (some Latin, some African). The trumpet is strong and distinctive. Interesting record, not that I know what to make of it. [B+(***)]

William Parker: Long Hidden: The Olmec Series (1993-2005 [2006], AUM Fidelity): The mesoamerican-inspired Olmec Group joins four young merengue players with older avant-gardists, with Todd Nicholson playing bass and Parker doson ngoni -- a Malian lute he picked up from Don Cherry and has used on several other records. They only appear on four of ten cuts, creating a low-keyed, rather indecisive rhythmic vamp with no particular melodic development, although one piece has a vocal incantation. Parker fills the album out with three solo pieces each on bass and doson ngoni, including the intense bass solo of "Compassion Seizes Bed-Stuy" and patiently marked doson ngoni theme of the almost closing "Long Hidden Part One." I say almost because the album contains a bonus cut, a 14:09 bass solo from an obscure album self-released in 1993. It makes for a fitting coda, although it reminds you that for all his fiddling with exotica, Parker's true claim to fame is on the bass. No doubt that this is intriguing in pieces, but I'm not sure how well it fits together. [B+(**)]

Hamid Drake & Assif Tsahar: Live at Glenn Miller Café (2002 [2006], Ayler): Two thirds of Lost Brother, which is still the leading candidate for the second Pick Hit slot. The missing third is diddley-bow wizard Cooper-Moore, who makes a difference. I also think Drake has more going on in the trio album, probably because he has more tools there. But I like Tsahar best in avant-honk mode, and that's where he's at here. Certainly a high HM. [B+(***)]

Vinny Golia Quartet: Sfumato (2003 [2006], Clean Feed): He's a multi-reed player I respect but don't know very well, with most of a huge catalog on his own Nine Winds label. I put this on as soon as I got it, but had to leave the room and mostly heard random noise, so it took a while for me to get back to it. Whatever I heard then isn't much in evidence now. This is a reeds-trumpet-bass-drums quartet, the basic two-headed powerhouse that has worked so well in avant-leaning circles over the last few years. Golia mostly plays clarinets, high saxes (soprano, sopranino) and low flutes (G, contrabass). Bobby Bradford provides the trumpet, with Ken Filiano and Alex Cline out back. Interesting music, covering a wide range of sounds and textures. Looking forward to getting back to it soon. [B+(***)]

Ulf Wakenius: Notes From the Heart (2005 [2006], ACT): Songs by Keith Jarrett, played soft and acoustic by the Swedish guitarist plus bass and drums. Low key, but quite likable. [B+(**)]

Kevin Hays: Open Range (2004 [2006], ACT): This is number III in the label's Piano Works series -- the first two were by Joachim Kühn and George Gruntz. Solo piano, with a vocal or two, including the one non-original, "You Are My Sunshine." The titles reflect the open spaces around Hays' Santa Fe home. Music is slow and spacious. Want to play it again. [B+(*)]

Nils Landgren & Joe Sample: Creole Love Call (2005 [2006], ACT): Most tourists come (or came) to New Orleans to hear music, but you can understand the impulse of this Swedish trombonist-vocalist and all around funk fan to make some. I don't think this works, but parts are charming enough I'm going to keep the tab open. Sample plays keyboards, and while he's not exactly James Booker (or even Dr. John), he holds his own. Landgren is a slight-voiced crooner -- the softness in his voice has a sort of amateurish appeal, but he's so outclassed by duet partners Ray Parker Jr. and Charmaine Neville it isn't funny. And you'd have to come from as far afield as Sweden to confuse the songbook with New Orleans -- especially "Dock of the Bay," "Nightlife," "Love the One You're With." But it does pick up a bit toward the end, with much needed extra brass on Sample's "Same Old Story," and Ellington's title tune done as an instrumental -- would much rather hear his trombone than his Adelaide Hall impression. [B]

Pat Martino: Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery (2006, Blue Note): Montgomery is the major figure in the history of jazz guitar. Probably half of the jazz guitarists working today look straight back to him, and any of them would be happy to dedicate a tribute on a major label. I've never been much of a jazz guitar fan, and while there are items in Montgomery's folder that I enjoy, I very rarely find any of his followers to be of interest. Martino is a well regarded guitarist, but I've never paid him any attention. (This is the first album under his name that I've heard.) He started in soul jazz groups, was knocked out of action by illness, and made a much publicized, rather heroic comeback, establishing himself as one of the better known guitarists in jazz. But as far as I know, he's never been associated with Montgomery before. He doesn't much sound like Montgomery, but he plays the standard pieces with skill, so let's say he's a second order follower -- an admirer, but not a devotee. That's probably for the best here, since we can always listen to the real thing. Montgomery didn't play with many pianists, but some of his most notable work was with Wynton Kelly, whose long, loopy bop lines were often interchangeable with Montgomery's. David Kikoski fills the Kelly role here, and is more convincing than Martino. This is a pleasant little album, essentially a marketing idea as most tributes are. Scheduled for release April 4, so I guess I can wait. [B+(*)]

Satoko Fujii Quartet: Angelona (2004 [2006], Libra): Fujii and her trumpeter-husband Natsuki Tamura are very prolific, working in a wide range of groups including several quartets. This one reprises Zephyros, easily my favorite of the ten or so albums I've heard thus far, in large part because electric bassist Takeharu Hayakawa kept the propulsion in high gear. Hayakawa is far less central here -- in fact, the rhythm section doesn't particularly distinguish itself in any way this time. Fortunately, this is where Tamura, who had previously struck me as by far the more conservative stylist, steps up big time. Fujii also impresses, especially on the Tayloresque splashes that rough up the opener. The result is an album that flirts with greatness but doesn't quite deliver it. That's about par as far as I've managed to figure out. B+(**)

Thomas Strønen: Pohlitz (2006, Rune Grammofon): He is a drummer I've noticed on three or four recent Scandinavian albums -- some rockish, some avant, and he's often been the most impressive player. This is something else: solo percussion and electronics, in some ways closer to minimalism than to jazz. I'm still impressed. [B+(***)]

Zu: The Way of the Animal Powers (2005, Xeng): This Italian group is a bass-drums-sax (mostly baritone) trio, sometimes (as here) using the common last name of Zu, bound to an ideology called Zuism, no unrelated to anarchism. They make alliances with similar-minded groups like the Ex, and have done match-up albums with Ken Vandermark (Spaceways Inc.) and Mats Gustafsson. Here they're joined by cellist Fred Londberg-Holm. I like the deep rumble and edgy rhythms here, and the spoken piece at the end acts as a fine coda. Short: 25:47. B+(***)


And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.

Eric Darius: Just Getting Started (2006, Narada Jazz): Alright, there are no fine points here. Just a steady beat and a golden toned, ebullient alto sax running through those sure shot rising riffs that have lifte r&b records since the '40s. Which means that there are hundreds, nay thousands, of comparable examples. Many with real drummers. B

Jason Miles: What's Going On? Songs of Marvin Gaye (2006, Narada Jazz): His trivialization of Gaye is less offensive than his trivialization of Miles Davis. But if I had time to listen to Marvin Gaye's songs, I'd rather listen to Marvin Gaye. B-

Jean-Marc Foltz/Bruno Chevillon: Cette Opacité (2003 [2005], Clean Feed): When I was researching the jazz labels piece, Clean Feed's Pedro Costa told me that he has no set style concept of what he releases -- he just releases whatever he likes. This deep, abstract, cautious but moving clarinet-bass duet had been circulating as a CD-R before Costa picked it up. Neither of the players are in any sense bankable, and the music itself has a distinctly limited appeal, but it evidently struck Costa's fancy, so he ran with it. B+(*)

Marty Ehrlich: News on the Rail (2005, Palmetto): Francis Davis praised this in a Voice sidebar, which gives me an excuse to duck the issue. The sextet, with James Zollar's brass complementing Ehrlich's reeds and Howard Johnson swinging both ways in the lower registers, plus a piano-bass-drums rhythm section, provides many options for harmonic complexity. I don't doubt that Ehrlich takes advantage of this ambitiously. I just find it hard to focus my interest here with any consistency. It does have its moments, like on "Hear You Say" where the three horns split into separate threads and it sounds like the pianist has switched to melodica, temporarily producing a fourth thread. If I stuck with this it might inch up the HM list, bit I don't have any new insights to add, doubt that I might find any, and have other fish to fry. B+(**)

Kevin Norton's Bauhaus Quartet: Time-Space Modulator (2003-04 [2004], Barking Hoop): Trumpet (Dave Ballou), tenor/soprano sax (Tony Malaby), bass (John Lindberg), drums/marimba (Norton), mostly working through small changes in a rather abstract vein. It's hard to get a handle on this, but I've kicked it back to the pending queue too many times by now. B+(**)


I haven't enabled comments here, but I got the following note from Luke Kaven (Smalls Records) regarding a previous posting on the first of several archival releases of Omer Avital's group, a 1996 recording with four saxophonists (Mark Turner, Greg Tardy, Myron Walden, Charles Owens), who I described as "working out their bebop moves." I thought the note worth sharing.

Without referring to personal tastes, this record might merit another listening. I mention it because the term "bebop" is among the last I'd apply with this record. I do claim that this recording documents something historically important. The contemporary book was written in large part right in this band there on that stage. This is the band where everyone started picking up Mark Turner's moves, and that includes the players who replaced him. Musicians from all over New York packed the house week after week to catch it. Of all the groups that were playing in New York during those years, this one remains the standout.

I think this raises two questions. One is what is the historical importance of Smalls -- especially to the extent that there is any sort of consistent aesthetic centered on the club. I wasn't there, and don't know. My impression is that the records on the Smalls label are similar to much of what I've heard on Palmetto and Fresh Sound (New York subset) -- i.e., the sort of thing that often gets called postbop. The other question is what is postbop? I've expressed my confusion on this before -- my best guess is that it's the middle ground left over once all the distinct styles have been carved off. One reason I was thinking of "bebop moves" was Walden, who is as narrowly boppish as any young saxophonist I've heard. Turner certainly has more in his toolkit, and had a couple of good records out by the time this set was recorded.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop issue is out. They only picked up two quotes from my comments:

Top Ten Plus

West takes no chances on his own shit, bringing in firepower he hardly needs. He doesn't just sample -- he orchestrates multiple samples, even turning them into something symphonic and getting away with it. But this musical platform would be mere popcraft without his rhymes -- his personality, the one that popped out less artfully when he charged George Bush with not caring about black people. Kanye cares because he knows who he is, where he's come from, and who's in his boat.

Burn Baby Burn

Album sales were down 6 percent in 2005, although some of that has been made up by increased sales of downloads. The idea of reducing prices seems to have passed without any lasting effect. New major label albums hover near the $20 list ceiling, although bestsellers get aggressively discounted, with a handful of first-week titles at Best Buy for $10. Retail channels, Internet excepted, continue to narrow. Wichita doesn't have an independent record store, and it's nearly impossible to find used discs of any sort.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A lot of strange stuff is happening these days. I don't have time to dig very deep into it right now, but I have a couple of points that should be mentioned.

The US and Israel have moved to cut financial aid to the Palestinian Authority now that Hamas is in the driver's seat. The rationale here is that both previously named Hamas as a terrorist organization, and the US and Israel are committed not to fund terrorist organizations, so they have to halt their funding, lest some of it go to financing terrorism. Most critics respond to this by pointing out how hypocritical it is -- the US is the world's major exporter of arms and promoter of violence around the world, and more/less inadvertently terrorism's prime raison d'être, and Israel isn't far behind -- or how it's just another example of collective punishment (a war crime, by the way), in this case punishing the Palestinian people for voting wrong in democratic elections we had insisted on. Pragmatists may also note that cutting off the spigot kills the only hope for rendering Hamas as corrupt and ineffective as Fatah.

What's happened here is that the US and Israel have gotten trapped in their own rhetoric. Politicians do this all the time. It's not just a substitute for thinking -- it's a way of policing thought so that no meaningful changes can slip through. If they did give the matter any thought, they'd realize that starving Palestine because they bought into the idea of democracy is a lose-lose-lose proposition, regardless of whatever their real goals are. They should simply recognize that when people freely elect an individual or a party, that person or party can no longer be judged by outsiders on their own specific merits. By election that person/party becomes a representative of the nation, and you can't judge and punish a nation the same way you can individuals who only represent themselves. There is, by the way, a relevant precedence for this: when Israel elected Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister, the World Court had to shelve their war crimes investigation of him. The same courtesy should be shown Hamas.

Another item of interest is Bush's flip-flop on oil addiction. I hadn't paid a lot of attention to that part of the disunion speech, even though it was the lead headline in the Eagle here, because, well, everything he says is misleading and misintended even in the rare cases when it's not a flat-out lie. In fact, I suspect that the reasoning behind this particular ruse was to rationalize not doing anything about Exxon-Mobil's $36 billion annual profit based on $70/barrel oil and Bush's anti-competitive pro-trust policy. And indeed in the follow-up Bush explained that the profits were due to the market and that's just the way markets work, and there's nothing he can do about that. Well, that's only true in the sense that nothing he ever does ever works, but there are a few things that a different kind of political leader could do.

It's true that the rise in oil prices is mostly due to the Bush war in Iraq's constriction of market supply, and to a lesser extent exacerbated by growing demand in China funded by the US trade deficit and the export of US capital and jobs. It's also true that the long term trend is toward rising prices because the long term trend is toward depletion of all oil resources. But it doesn't necessarily follow from this that oil companies should be able to lard higher oil prices with ever increasing profits. In 1973, the US response to the sudden spike in oil prices caused by OPEC was to pass a windfall profits tax. Something like that could easily be done now, except that Bush belongs to the oil companies. A more general approach would be to levy a progressive tax on corporate profits, which would serve as a check both on company size and excessive profit margins caused by lack of competition. The Exxon-Mobil merger largely reversed the original break up of the Standard Oil Company back in the 1910s -- Exxon and Mobil were the two largest pieces of Standard. Undoing the recent Bush-approved mergers and breaking up the conglomerates would be a step toward restoring competition in the industry.

I'd be inclined to restructure even further, in large part because the individuals who profit from the oil industry have so often proven to be so dangerous politically. But I have another reason for believing that all nations should nationalize their crude oil resources: that's the only way to exert political control over the rate of depletion. I mostly accept the argument that private ownership is more efficient at producing than public ownership, but in the case of finite natural resources, that translates to rapid and careless exhaustion. Most likely even under the best of circumstances most crude oil will be used up over the course of the next century, but the rate will be much faster in private hands.

The other subtext of Bush's plea for the oil industry is the idea that the best way to develop non-petroleum energy resources is to incentivize the oil industry to develop the innovative technology that will be needed -- in other words, that they need the profits more than we do. Anyone who knows anything about the history of business can show you that this has never been true -- e.g., the railroads never became multifaceted transportation companies. Exxon actually has shown more clearly than anyone the folly of the notion that an oil company can diversify and innovate outside of the oil business: just look at their numerous investments in the '70s when they bought up electronics companies willy nilly, every one a bust.

What gave the Bush quote such a prominent airing in the press is that it's part true -- America is addicted to oil -- and it ties right into the conventional bullshit -- cf. Kerry's 2004 campaign plans to develop alternative energy sources and cut dependence on Mideast oil. This is a case of the one thing that cannot be abided in American political discourse: a problem with no easy, painless solution. Until now, Bush's stock line has always been: hey, no problem here. But somehow one of his speechwriters got their scams crossed and reached for the wrong cliché, so of course he had to take it back. He's not Liar in Chief for nothing.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Liar in Chief gave his State of the Disunion speech last night. As usual, he was too modest about his accomplishments over the last five years, in large part because he was so anxious to show what more he can do in the rest of his term. But before we move into the future, let's pause a minute to give him credit where credit is due. Despite his personal awkwardness, his administration has been astonishingly effective. He took a country that had grown fat and dumb on illusions of peace and prosperity and showed us the truth: that our happiness depends on our unrelenting efforts to intimidate and exploit the world's teaming masses, including those Americans who merely work for a living. And the Bush administration has used every tool at its disposal to defend and advance the interests of the American people -- or more specifically, the people who, to use Tom Carson's formulation, America is for.

Unfortunately, the people Bush's America is for most likely don't include you. Hell, they don't even include me: a middle-aged white male red stater with positive net worth. But clearly there are some people who do benefit, at least as far as they can see while counting their money, from Bush's vigilance. For instance, Exxon-Mobil broke all corporate records with their $36 billion profit for 2005. That's double what Bush budgeted for rebuilding Iraq. That would be a third of the whole tab for cleaning up after Katrina. And that's just one company. Bush hasn't been making money for every company, but he sure helps his friends in the oil industry, and much the same can be said for companies in other favored industries: defense, chemicals, mining, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness -- just about any company that could benefit from lax environmental and safety regulations, cheaper labor, tax breaks, subsidies, or a little make work.

Of course, not everything Bush has tried has worked out exactly according to plan. But it's hard to tell given that the real plans have always been secret, and that the administration and its pliant, co-opted media have consistently been able to put their spin over. Maybe Iraq was intended to be a cakewalk that would deliver us a steady source of cheap oil, but the worst case scenario -- that Iraqi oil falls off the market, constricting supplies and driving prices up -- works just as well for Bush, and better still for Exxon-Mobil. Maybe John ("no carrot") Bolton's non-proliferation diplomacy was intended to pacify Kim Jong Il, but a nuclear-armed North Korea is just the sort of threat that keeps Japan in line and helps sell anti-missile defense systems. Maybe Bush actually wanted to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, but the latter's taunts are always good for a bump in the polls. Win-win scenarios like those encourage boldness by insulating Bush from the consequences of screwing up. If Herbert Hoover had been able to spin like Bush, America wouldn't have had that New Deal for the Republicans to try to repeal.

The fact is that most Americans are worse off than they were five years ago. Real wages are down. The real cost of living is up, with energy and health care, education and housing leading the way. Fewer people have jobs; those who do work longer hours for less benefits. Productivity is up, but all of the benefits have gone to management. More people live in poverty. Fewer have health insurance, so more skip non-emergency care. Many people have compensated for their declining incomes by borrowing more, so savings is down and debt is up. The federal budget has gone from a surplus to record deficits. Trade deficits have also hit new record levels. This has been temporarily covered by foreign funds, which own more and more of America's capital and debt. The portion of federal spending on such non-productive expenses as defense, security, and prisons has grown considerably, in turn starving social services and infrastructure investments. Where state and local governments have tried to compensate for loss of federal funds, their tax increases have often swallowed up the federal cuts. Meanwhile, safety nets have been reduced, not least under the guise of tort reform and bankruptcy reform. Environmental protections have been slashed, and the Super Fund clean-up system is defunct. Much of the federal government has been turned into a super-police agency, the Dept. of Homeland Security -- the domestic equivalent of the Dept. of Imperial Security (formerly the Dept. of Defense). The right to privacy (i.e., the right to be secure in one's home and person) has been attacked from every angle: through new laws like the USA PATRIOT Act, through blatantly extralegal acts like NSA spying, through Bush's packing of the courts with right-wing extremists. And on all fronts, whatever competency government once had has diminished as the civil service system has been turned into a major new system of political patronage.

The key idea here is not just that the Republicans are crooks (cf. Jack Abramoff) or scoundrels (cf. Scooter Libby) or both (cf. Tom DeLay): it's that they're building a political machine to perpetuate their control, a brutally efficient Tamany Hall that straddles the entire globe. It's a spectacular vision, but it's already -- long before such new space weapons as the Rods from God come on-line -- showing signs of overreach. The Iraq war may be good for Exxon-Mobil, maybe even for Halliburton, but it's been rough on the US Army, stretched now to the breaking point. And the longer a few thousand insurgents in Iraq are able to tie the US down, the more defiant others become. The Muslim world is still mostly tied down in crony dictatorships, but when democratization comes they won't be so easy to push around. For an example of how this works, cf. Latin America, where anti-US politicos have won every election recently. Moreover, Bush's domestic programs weaken the US economy in nearly every way, making any number of economic disasters possible, on top of the long term rot caused by the right's political attacks on science and education, the closing of opportunities, and the increasing tolerance of graft.

Nonetheless, you have to give it to the Liar in Chief. Against such overwhelming evidence, even Clinton would have conceded by now that he supposes he could see how you might think that maybe a blow job is sort of a kind of sexual relations. But Bush hasn't given an inch. He's every bit the leader that America wanted. Too bad he's pointed in exactly the wrong direction.


Jan 2006 Mar 2006