March 2006 Notebook


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

It's the Economy, Stupid

Michael Schwartz has an important piece on Iraq at TomDispatch. Although the title is "Does the Media Have It Right on the War?" the upshot is that far more than the media have it wrong. The common wisdom media position Schwartz debunks is the notion that US failures were linked to not committing enough troops to secure Iraq in the aftermath of the major military phase and/or that the policy of disbanding the Iraqi army.

While those decisions may have hurt, opposite decisions wouldn't have helped much. The reasoning on those points is pretty simple. More troops wouldn't have helped much because the US military has no effective policing capability. This is basically because the US military was for the most part designed to provide defense by deterence -- i.e., to intimidate any would be attacker. The two functions are completely different, which is why -- please excuse the example; just can't think of a clearer one -- Hitler had two separate organizations when he invaded other countries: the regular military just fought against other armies, while the SS took on the nasty job of policing conquered peoples. US policy is more benign, more naïve anyhow, than Hitler's, so the DOD has never planned its own SS ahead of time. (Of course, when pressed in Vietnam and now in Iraq, the US improvised something much like the SS. Whether such efforts failed because they happened too late, were implemented with too much restraint, or were just a bad idea is subject to debate, but irrelevant here.)

Keeping the Iraqi military intact was problematical because the Iraqi government itself never surrendered -- it just sort of melted away, leaving the triumphant US with a mess of goo. Without top-down hierarchy, the US would have had no way to command the troops, much less assure their loyalty. As Schwartz points out, the principal advantage of keeping the Iraqi army intact wouldn't have been to provide the US occupiers with their missing police state -- that had already failed before the army was disbanded -- but to lessen the economic collapse caused by putting hundreds of thousands of young men out of work. Given that the whole war was deliberately run on the cheap, you can see how little appeal that held for the war planners.

Besides, the US had worse things in mind for Iraq's economy: the extreme shock treatment of privatizing Iraq's dominant state sector, effectively auctioning the country off, at firesale prices, to foreign investors. This ignited a temporary boom as new products like cell phones rushed into the newly opened market, but it led very quickly to a general collapse of the economy, which was made all the worse by the political favoritism and graft of the CPA. Schwartz argues that this economic collapse, more than anything else -- and admittedly there were several elses -- led first to non-violent protests and eventually to widespread armed resistance. It's easy to forget now what wild stories Bush's flacks spun about their planned economic renaissance for Iraq -- the initial euphoria has proven to be as misguided as the WMD case and all the other lies used to sell the war, and Iraq itself has become poison for any business not in the business of selling security.

The following quotes are essential, especially for how the US turned an economic disaster into a security disaster:

At first, many of the protests were peaceful, focusing either on local economic issues, or on general conditions that were worsening, not improving, after months of occupation. Typically, people demanded services and jobs from the CPA. It is now lost to history, but the run-up to the ferocious first battle of Falluja in April, 2004 -- triggered by the mutilation of four private security contractors -- actually began a full year earlier when American troops fired on a peaceful protest organized around a host of local issues, killing 13 Iraqi civilians. It was exactly this sort of ferocious reaction to peaceful protest that made the U.S. military such a factor in the stoking of what would become an ongoing rebellion.

In fact, in 2003, the occupation response to protests was forceful, almost gleeful, repression. Top officials of the CPA and the U.S. military command considered these demonstrations, peaceful or not, the most tangible signs of ongoing Baathist attempts to facilitate a future return to power. They therefore applied the occupation's iron heel on the theory that forceful suppression would soon defeat or demoralize any "dead-enders" intent on restoring the old regime. Protests were met with arrests, beatings, and -- in any circumstances deemed dangerous to U.S. troops -- overwhelming, often lethal military force. Home invasions of people suspected of anti-occupation attitudes or activities became commonplace, resulting in thousands of arrests and numerous firefights. Detention and torture in Abu Ghraib and other American-controlled prisons were just one facet of this larger strategy, fueled by official pressure -- once a low-level rebellion boiled up -- to get quick information for further harsh, repressive strikes. In general, the Iraqi population came to understand that dissent of whatever sort would be met by savage repression.

The instinct to respond to protest with repression is typical of Bush's strain of Republicanism, or should I say Americanism? We can find many examples of this in the way politicians inexorably escalate their wars on crime, drugs, illegal immigration. Once they added terrorism to that list, Bush et al. immediately became rabid about "taking the gloves off" and smiting down evil-doers. In Iraq, with no effective government and no international law to restrain them, they simply went wild. (Wasn't it Eugene McCarthy who characterized them as behaving like Lord of the Flies?)

Schwartz's explanation is going to have some trouble sinking in. We've failed thus far to come to grips with an understanding of why textbook neoliberal economic policies fare so poorly -- the issues there are complex and subtle. (I can't say that I understand them myself, and I've been working on that.) One problem is that we tend to assume that our government works in good faith toward some sort of public interest, even though the working theory is explicit that only self-interest matters. Also that when we're talking about our government, we're not necessarily talking about us or anything that serves our interests in any way. Bush, more starkly than any other president ever, has made it clear that he only works for certain interests -- the ones who backed him, which is a much smaller set than those foolish enough to vote for him.

Other aspects of the problem of how neoliberal economics have affected Iraq are simply beyond our experience or imagination. We routinely deny, for instance, that poverty leads to crime, because we have little grip on either, even here in the US. How much worse can it be in a country with 30-60% unemployment, no government safety net, and no effective system of public order? Maybe in the US we can find neighborhoods a third that poor, but nothing even remotely beyond the reach of law -- even so, people who routinely deny that poverty correlates with crime don't dare venture there.

Schwartz's article doesn't actually focus on media coverage of the war. Orville Schell's New York Review of Books piece explains how physically limited western journalists are in Iraq. The Bushist propaganda line that the media only reports the bad news in Iraq may be because it takes a really big bang to get noticed from the reporters' barricaded hotels. The mental limits are harder to get a handle on, but there certainly are many, and they influence -- sometimes flagrantly, more often subtly -- what we hear and see. For instance, Martha Radatz filed a report on the third anniversary of the invasion, her tenth trip to Iraq, which consisted both of footage now and from past reports. In the old footage she always appeared in body armor, but for the current report she didn't. The unstated visual clue suggests that it's safer now, but look closer and you can see that the old footage was shot in the streets, but the new only occurred in secure army compounds.

The December elections are a good example of the good vs. bad news bias problem. They were uniformly hyped as a milestone when they happened, but 106 days later the elections haven't produced a new government, which suggests a serious failure somewhere -- one that effectively negates the good news of the elections. The post-election story hasn't been totally unreported. It is, after all, a political story -- the sort of thing the press is used to handling, a conflict among the power brokers who feed them -- and it takes place within the relatively secure Green Zone. But more importantly, it's a "why" story, and that's something the media seems to be congenitally incapable of. There are at least two levels of why to this story. One is the structural obstacle of the two-thirds supermajority required to select a President who in turn selects a Prime Minister and forms a government. This is a system that can be manipulated behind the scenes and is biased toward failure, which can only benefit the de facto undemocratic power. The other level is deliberate interference by the US that has lately come out from behind the curtains, as US Ambassador Khalilzad and others (Bush, Rice) have promoted the need for a "unity" government while working to exclude UIA Prime Minister designate Ibrahim Jaafari. The media tells us that these things are happening, but it doesn't tell us why.

One clue is Bush's recent statement that the question of when US troops might leave Iraq won't be addressed until 2009, when Bush's term expires. Clearly, he thinks he can prevent a scenario whereby Iraq's "sovereign" government directs the US to leave. The main purpose of Khalilzad's post-election shenanigans appears to be to reduce the influence of Moqtada al-Sadr -- the one major operator within the political system to demand US withdrawal (although polls show that to be the position of 80% of Iraqis). Jaafari has suddenly become suspect because Sadr backed him in the UIA. A "unity" government would further dilute Sadr and the UIA, while allowing Bush to claim that Iraqis of all sectarian groups are united in their opposition to the resistance. These are perilous times for Bush's misadventure, which is why they're acting so desperate.

Still, the significance of this stalemate is lost in the US, in large part because we've never been clear why Bush started this war, nor what are his true criteria for success. A big part of that problem is that Congress never insisted that Bush explain what he wants out of Iraq or why. Aside from a vague authorization to use force, Bush has been unconstrained in how he's gone about waging the war, or in any of the policies that he's implemented in Iraq. And he's taken advantage of this carte blanche in ways that few if any members of Congress could have imagined before the war. Much of what has gone so terribly wrong in Iraq has come from, or been made much worse by, Bush's ad hoc policies. In many of thse cases, the policies could not have passed deliberation in the US Congress, much less a democratically constituted Iraqi parliament, yet they've become inextricable parts of what "we're fighting for" in Iraq.

The antiwar movement has mostly focused on disengaging from Iraq, and at least at the party political level has been stymied by the lack of good alternatives should the US precipitously withdraw. It might be better to open a debate on how the war can be constrained to some sort of agreed upon principles -- at the very least doing so will make clear some of the differences between what Bush has been doing in Iraq and what the American public thinks should be done. Some enterprising Senator should consider citing the Constitution's advise and consent section on foreign policy and propose a resolution which includes the following:

  1. The US has no intent or desire to maintain permanent ("enduring") bases in Iraq. The US military presence in Iraq is authorized only as long as the government of Iraq requests, and will be withdrawn if and when Iraq decides.

  2. The US respects the right of the Iraqi people to determine their own government in accordance with generally accepted standards for democratic participation and respect for human rights. The US and its agents will not interfere in any way with Iraq's domestic political processes.

  3. Any detainees captured or held by US forces in Iraq will be extradited on demand by the government of Iraq.

  4. The US affirms that it's actions are bound by international law, including the Geneva Conventions and their proscription against torture.

The wording needs some work, but the basic points are ones that most Americans would have no trouble agreeing with. The economic policies that were implemented in the early days of the occupation should be subject to change by the Iraqi government, and no doubt will be. I'd be tempted to add a plank about US forces being subject to Iraqi law as well as international law, but that gets into touchy areas, and becomes irrelevant once the US leaves. Non-interference could be strengthened to include things like propaganda, but that's probably unnecessary as well. It may be sufficient just to provide transparency in US-Iraqi interactions: i.e., Khalilzad can say whatever he wants to Iraqis, but only in public.

One way to sort out the good vs. bad news problem is to ask yourself, when new news appears, is it more consistent with the good or bad news views of the past. It also pays to recognize who has been most consistently right or wrong, and to consider those people's interests and intellectual frameworks. Given the lack of reliable information about Iraq and the bounty of noise, it's been hard to develop a realistic and practical understanding of what's happened there and why. I know that I've had to make many adjustments along the way, which in my case started with a set of predictions that Bush and company were up to no good and were bound to meet fierce resistance -- both correct calls, as far as they went. Until I read this Schwartz piece, my best theory was that the US strategy was to wreck Iraq if it couldn't be easily captured. That theory fits the evidence well enough but it seems unlikely that the conquerors had any clue as to the destructive potential of their economic reforms. It's not that nobody could have predicted this -- neoliberalism has failed all around the world -- but those ideas are deeply mired in ideological sorcery, an unquestioned faith, a religion. Surely had Bush just meant to raze Iraq he would have chosen cruder tools -- the US had plenty of those.

So, the thinking evolves, and with it the lessons. But you can't draw correct lessons unless you consider the reasons and intents of the war as well as its prosecution. The Bush Administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep all that secret, and has gone further to cover itself with misinformation. Rumsfeld tipped us off on this when, on Sept. 25, 2001, he quoted Churchill as saying "sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." The media should have paid more attention.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Iraq In and Out of the News

The big story on last night's news was that Zacarias Moussaoui committed suicide by court. The so-called Dept. of Justice had managed to botch almost every aspect of their death penalty case, but Moussaoui came to their rescue -- as he had previously done in entering his guilty plea in the first case -- by concocting a fantasy story that only the DOJ, the mainstream media, and (most likely) the jurors could believe: that had he not gotten arrested he would have hijacked a fifth plane on 9/11 along with fellow fuck-up Richard Reid and crash it into the White House. While no one doubts that Moussaoui has a deep desire to martyr himself, it's pathetic that Bush et al. should help him do so. Just goes to show how much Bush and Al Qaeda need each other.

The Moussaoui story kicked Iraq out of the opening slot on the network news shows. The news over there was that the US "advised" one of its Iraqi death squads to bust into a Sadr City mosque and kill 20 worshippers, including an 80-year-old imam. This follows several days of the US trying to make a course correction, arguing now that their real opponent in Iraq is no longer those Baathist dead-enders and Zarqawi-led foreign jihadis who control most of Sunni Iraq; nope, the real enemy is now the Shiite militias and their presumed masters in Iran. Meanwhile, the old resistance kills 40 up near the much touted success story at Tal Afar.

John Robb wrote an analysis of this that seems accurate to a point, but Iraq may have moved beyond that point. Robb writes, "The US is now caught between the militias and the guerillas and the situation will deteriorate quickly." But what the latest killings suggest is that the US is more actively involved in militia activities from more than one side. When people talk about a Civil War that is or is not happening in Iraq, they usually mean Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence to which the US is a mere bystander. But clearly at least some of the Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni militias are under direction of the US military, so the US can kill anyone it wants and blame it on whoever's convenient. Most likely the CIA, and possibly other "black ops" groups, has more informal, less official ways of operating as well. Given all of these options, it's likely that all the US factions aren't totally on the same page here.

Back in the 1980s the US had a policy of sustaining the war between Iraq and Iran by supporting whoever was down. Early on the US funnelled arms to Iran through Israel to repel the Iraqi attack. Later on, when Iran started to show some strength, the US recognized Iraq and started supplying Saddam Hussein directly. The two channels provided enough control that the war extended to eight years, producing immense devastation on both sides. So it's hard to say that the US has a moral problem with playing both sides off against each other. Whether this was the plan in Iraq from the get go isn't clear, but once it became clear that the fantasy of a subservient pro-US Iraqi state wasn't in the long-term cards, the US had little more to lose by selectively feeding the violence. If the bottom line is that Iraq is turned into a permanent wasteland, that scenario has some attraction to at least some US factions.

But the real plus in all this, especially to Bush, has been time. Had the resistance not appeared, a stable Iraq would quickly have voted the US out of the country. But a resistance limited to the Sunnis had the advantage of convincing Kurdish and Shiite parties that a continued US presence was necessary for their protection. That the resistance would merge, at least in the US public's mind, with Al Qaeda, also fit Bush's Global War on Terror leader concept, which proved so useful in the 2004 elections. (The elder Bush, in concluding his Iraq war, was vulnerable on the economy, a mistake that the younger Bush, stuck with a far worse economic performance, was fortunate enough not to repeat.) The US must have seen Sunni opposition as a manageable problem, but the Shiites are far more capable of sending the US packing -- they are a majority of the population, so should be able to do so by democratic edict. That hasn't happened yet in large part due to US manipulation of Iraqi election law. How much longer this can continue is hard to say, but polls showing that 80% of all Iraqis want the US to leave real soon now.

There are many problems for the US here, but the big one is that the troops the US "stands up" have no loyalty to the US. There are lots of reasons for this -- the US lies and manipulates them, the US distrusts them, the US treats them like scum -- but the most important are that nobody expects the US to stick in Iraq, and most people recognize that whatever the Americans' true goals may be, the US has no real interest in the everyday welfare of Iraqis.

The other piece of Iraq news was release of another pre-invasion war council memo showing that Bush and Blair were dead set on war months before invasion regardless of what the UN did or weapons inspectors found out. This isn't news, in the sense that anyone who was paying attention at the time could have surmised as much, but it is consistent with everything else we know. Indeed, it's one more piece in a puzzle which now strongly appears to indicate that the Bush team was hankering at least as early as 2000, before their man had even weaseled his way into the White House, to seize on any excuse to invade Iraq. It should have been a clue when Bush staffed so many top defense and foreign policy positions with PNAC supporters. It should have been a clue when US planes bombed Iraq less than 24 hours after Bush's inauguration.

This all fits into one of the most vexing problems the public has had in understanding Bush's adventure in Iraq: how can we sort out the real reasons for the war, as opposed to the mere excuses? WMD, 9/11, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein's numerous human rights crimes, all those things are more like excuses than reasons. Israel too -- at best they played along, which helped line up hardcore Israelphiles, but nobody in Israel considered Iraq a threat. Democracy? That one's so putrid by now you can smell it half way across the globe. Oil? Can't count that one out -- not with these guys -- but the real payoff has been in the profits that came from taking Iraqi oil off the market, constricting supply and running up prices. If someone could prove that they foresaw that happening, that would be news. But clearly there is one lesson we can draw from the whole story: never believe a god damn thing this administration says.

Tony Karon has a piece on Iraq that is worth reading. I want to single out two quotes here.

"What's the use of having this great military if we never use it?" Madeleine Albright once complained when the Joint Chiefs of Staff were warning against getting drawn into the sectarian conflicts of the Balkans. Well, Madeleine, if I may be so presumptuous as to venture an answer to your question, the use of not committing your military to missions impossible is that your adversaries tend to think it more powerful than it really is, and it acts as a deterrent to behavior you don't like. But if you commit your forces and then fail to impose your will, as the U.S. has done in Iraq, your adversaries are emboldened by the limits to your military capability that have become apparent. (Why do you think Iran no longer fears a U.S. invasion?) In short, Iraq has overstretched the U.S. military and left it with plenty of rebuilding to do, and the rest of the world has observed that while the U.S. is capable of destroying any obstacle in its path, as an army of occupation it doesn't do so well -- to borrow Powell's terminology, it's not that good at owning the things it breaks.

As I recall, one of Israel's hawks (Moshe Ahrens?) used Albright's line to argue for the invasion of Lebanon back in 1982. That attempt to crush the last vestiges of PLO power and install a friendly fascist government threw away Israel's dominance in the 1967 and 1973 wars for eighteen years of Hizbullah target practice, an uprising that in turn inspired the Palestinian intifadas -- the second occurring just months after Israel's ignominious retreat from Lebanon.

The one thing that most closely bonds Israel's hawks and America's neocons is the belief that with complete military dominance you can dictate any self-serving policy you want. There's never been any empirical evidence for this -- unless you want to cite such two-bit examples as Saddam Hussein's domination of Iraq, but even there we are belatedly coming to recognize that there's more to ruling a country than just being a vicious motherfucker. But to the extent that Bush's plan for "complete victory" means anything at all, it means that he's a committed Leviathan.

Karon's final paragraph may be prophetic:

Now, we're facing the prospect of tens of thousands of psychologically scarred people [US soldiers] returning home from a place [Iraq] where their physical survival has been predicated on their quickness to violently eliminate potential threats. Inevitably, some of that violence will come home, be it in a domestic context or a wider social one. Many of those vets will be justifiably outraged at what they have experienced, and there's no telling where that outrage will be directed. Hopefully into politics questioning the reasons they were sent to Iraq, and challenging the thinking that allowed it to happen. But I fear that in some instances, it may be a lot uglier. If the Gulf War begat Timothy McVeigh, I shudder to think what Operation Iraqi Freedom may yet have in store for America.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Pride in Kansas

Kathy Hull, my sister, got her picture in the Eagle today -- front page of Section B, title "Painted with pride." Or rather pictures, as she's holding up the plan for a mural she designed for a 40-foot wall in a predominantly Mexican section of north Wichita, while standing in front of the recently started painting. The print image is much larger than the scrawny one I lifted from the web: in print the image is clear down to the lettering, and you can even read the word on Kathy's t-shirt ("Unitarian Universalism: Affirming the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person"). The design is based on Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration.

Coincidentally, the bottom of the same page featured a story titled "Kansan became 'a Socialist agitator'" -- an installment in the series "To the Stars: The Story of Kansas." The Kansan was Kate Richards O'Hare (1877-1948). As a teen O'Hare did missionary work for the homeless, but after her family's farm was foreclosed, she worked as a machinist, joining the union and the Socialist Party, becoming an organizer and agitator. She campaigned for equal rights ("for all races"), and opposed Woodrow Wilson's Great War, for which she was imprisoned -- prison reform became another of her issues. The blurb quote has an amusing twist: "So many people have marveled that I should have traveled all over the country telling the truth, as I saw it. I was simply more dangerous to the capitalists, the war profiteers and the Democratic Party . . ."

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Music: Current count 11727 [11709] rated (+16), 830 [827] unrated (+3). Short week ratingswise -- just a lot of distractions. April Recycled Goods is well above quota, so I just need to do some partitioning there and write an introduction.

  • Does Anybody Know I'm Here? Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1962-1972 ([2005], Ace): A sequel to A Soldier's Sad Story -- haven't heard it, but it got first helpings to the songs, but both volumes are pretty obscure; starts out ambivalent, turns sad and/or bitter, but never jells into political critique; stylistically runs the gamut of a decade of hope and fear and frustration. B+(*)
  • Lee Dorsey: Yes We Can/Night People (1970-78 [2005], Raven): The singles he's most famous for ("Ya Ya," "Ride Your Pony," "Holy Cow," "Working in a Coalmine") were cut for Fury and Amy in the '60s and are periodically recycled for an essential comp -- all I've heard are out of print, but BMG/Camden's The Definitive Collection looks like a carbon copy of Arista's Wheelin' and Dealin'; this usefully collects Dorsey's two widely separated, otherwise out-of-print '70s albums -- false starts career-wise, or afterthoughts, but seductive all the same. A-
  • Billy Joel: The Complete Hits Collection: 1973-1997 ([1997], Columbia, 4CD): A packaging convenience -- the three greatest hits discs, a nice booklet with all the lyrics, and a fourth disc where Joel talks about his work and plays a bit; sums him up, rather well. As a critic, I do appreciate that it breaks apart so cleanly that I can fairly evaluate the constituent Greatest Hits volumes. His career plots out normally: diminishing inspiration, increasing skills, a popular peak when he got his shit together, and a gradual decline into hackdom. But he had enough talent and skill to stretch it out, and enough critical sense that he doesn't push this set beyond B
  • Billy Joel: Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2 (1973-1985) ([1990], Columbia, 2CD): Originally a double LP, timed accordingly, then dumped intact onto two by-then-short CDs with no bait or blubber, as if it's canonical. (The currently in-print 1998 edition added some CD-ROM content, irrelevant here.) The early hits were cleverly self-referential, but his songwriting matured peaking with the classic "Just the Way You Are," which segues to "Movin' Out" and "Only the Good Die Young"; Vol. 2 rocks harder, which is less remarkable. Don't think either of these have ever been released separately. B+(***)
  • Billy Joel: Greatest Hits, Volume III (1986-97 [1997], Columbia): The decline here isn't all that sharp, but he does repeat himself, and the songs feel more forced, not to mention melodramatic; note that this covers 12 years, up from 8 for Vol. 2 and 4 for Vol. 1; also that he gets past 14 songs by tacking on three covers. B
  • Billy Joel: Piano Man (1973, Columbia): Second album, but the first with actual hits: the memorable, stereotyping title song, and the equally self-referential "Captain Jack" -- makes you think he feels like a pimp, which was a sign that turned out better than we expected at the time. On his Q&A disc he credits as inspirations classical music (Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin) and the Beatles. This feels like it's stuck somewhere in between, like the operetta of Gilbert & Sullivan cranked up with a dash of existentialism. B-
  • The Steve Miller Band: Greatest Hits 1974-78 (1974-78 [1978], Capitol): As I recall -- it's not in the AMG bio, and I don't feel like looking further -- Miller was something of a haucer scholar before he found gainful employment as a lightweight pop star. He started earlier than this, and lasted longer, but the period here -- three albums, yielding fourteen songs -- is the only one I can remember anyone paying any heed to him. Four or five of these songs are memorable, albeit dated, and the rest make for fine filler -- light, spacey pop, not much evidence of his blues rep, which isn't much anyway. B+(**)
  • Don Williams With Pozo Seco: The Little Darlin' Sound of Don Williams (1970 [2005], Koch): Following AMG here for attribution and title -- q.v. for explanations. This is actually a straight reissue of Spend Some Time With Me by the Pozo Seco Singers. Williams started his country career right after this, and one is tempted to think to get away from this. He sings less than half of the leads, and while he's a lot better than whoever the chick is -- you expect credits? -- the easy listening mix of songs from the Beatles, Stones, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and others I don't recognize is ridiculous, though hardly comical. D+

Jazz prospecting continues. This has been a slow, confused week, and this following week isn't likely to be much better. In the chaos, I did a better job of keeping up with the incoming than making up my mind on the records I've held back for replay. Grades in brackets are tentative, subject to further listening. No brackets means I've made up my mind, at least for Jazz CG purposes.

Eric Alexander: It's All in the Game (2005 [2006], HighNote): Same hand he's played all along, this time in a quartet with no other horn to crowd his tenor sax. Harold Mabern and Joe Farnsworth have been steady accompanists for quite a while, both fitting comfortably into Alexander's mainstream band, along with new bassist Nat Reeves. It's all Straight Up, completely Solid, if not quite Dead Center. Know what I mean? B+(**)

Harvie S: Funky Cha (2005 [2006], Zoho): The name change of the bassist formerly known as Harvie Swartz -- I recall him best from his duets with Sheila Jordan -- seems to have followed a quasi-religious conversion to latin music. Not sure just how this unfolded -- he played with Paquito D'Rivera in 1991, but a trip to Cuba in 1996 appears to have been pivotal, with the name change appearing on a 2001 record called New Beginning. This one strikes me as well studied and evenly balanced, with Daniel Kelly's piano and Jay Collins' reeds carrying the vibe, and the percussion up to snuff. B+(**)

Dafnis Prieto: Absolute Quintet (2005 [2006], Zoho): Cuban percussionist, made it to New York in 1999 and he's been the hot kid on the block ever since. I've been impressed by him as a sideman, but I wound up disliking his previous album, About the Monks, quite strongly. I've held it in my active file as a possible dud, but never felt sure enough of myself to post it. Not sure of this one either, but it's not a dud. It may be too broadly conceived, and Prieto's interest in the impact of European concert music on Cuba may wander into territory I don't find all that interesting, but it's hard to knock a guy for ambitions when he's successful this often. So this will take some acclimation, possibly including a revisit to the prior album. Meanwhile, "The Stutterer" is as exciting as any latin jazz piece I've heard since SLF, with Yosvany Terry powering his way through an exceedingly tricky rhythmic chicane. Henry Threadgill guests on the more moderate, lovely even, "Afrotango." "One Day Suite" gets attacked by violins, which I'm less sure about, but "Innocent Bird" seems to synthesize the concert music angle with the Afro percussion in a way that sums up Cuba. Stay tuned. [B+(**)]

Shot x Shot (2005 [2006], High Two): Young quartet from Philadelphia, with two saxes, bass and drums. AMG doesn't list any credits for any of them, but I recognize alto saxophonist Dan Scofield and bassist Matt Engle from Sonic Liberation Front. The other sax is tenor man Bryan Rogers, and drummer Dan Capecchi completes the group. The liner notes -- a big thumbs up from fellow Philadelphian Francis Davis -- start with an exercise in name dropping, trying to find some historical framework to fit these unknowns: Lee Konitz vs. Warne Marsh, John Coltrane vs. Pharoah Sanders, "let's split the difference." Seems much more postmodern to me -- maybe Chris Cheek vs. Tony Malaby, a match up that should sell more records than it does. The five pieces are mid-tempo, the saxes tightly intertwined -- as opposed to the flaring more typical of pianoless quartets -- and the drummer definitely plays with the band. [B+(***)]

Rolf Lislevand: Nuove Musiche (2004 [2006], ECM): Sounds old to me, but that's a risk one takes in ever labelling a music New or Modern or Contemporary or whatever. The sources are historical, dating from 1604-1650, early baroque. Lislevand plays archlute, baroque guitar and theorboe, and others play comparable antiques. They may or may not improvise on this. Not jazz in any sense I recognize -- part of ECM's "New Series" -- but it works nicely as instrumental music. B+(*)

Monk's Music Trio: Monk's Bones (2004 [2006], CMB): The trio -- veterans Si Perkoff on piano and Chuck Bernstein on drums, and young Sam Bevan on bass -- is perhaps too respectful to uncover anything truly new, but they handle the repertoire skillfully enough, and Monk continues to be an inexhaustible fount of inspiration. But the attraction here comes from the 'bones: Si's son Max, who gets to play alongside superguest Roswell Rudd, who has earned enough esteem that he can roughen up Monk any time he feels like. B+(**)

David Sills: Down the Line (2005 [2006], Origin): Sumptuous mainstream album, with Sills' tenor sax fleshed out by Gary Foster's alto, while guitarist Larry Koonse and pianist Alan Broadbent add to the plushness. [B+(***)]

Keith Oxman: Dues in Progress (2005 [2006], Capri): Another solid mainstream album. Oxman plays tenor sax. In the past -- this is his sixth album on Colorado-based Capri -- he's played in a quartet that is the core here, but this time he has extra brass, including featured name trombonist Curtis Fuller, and at least one cut has a stray oboe. Pianist Chip Stephens also gets his name in larger type on the front cover, recognition of his steady hand. Bassist Ken Walker is another strong contributor. Everything here strikes me as well done, but no more -- e.g., a Joe Henderson song sounds a lot like Joe Henderson, even though Oxman otherwise doesn't particularly recall Henderson. B+(*)

Art Lillard's Heavenly Band: Reasons to Be Thankful (2000 [2006], Summit): Don't know anything about the drummer who leads this big band. One source notes that Lillard has led his group for 18 years, but this six year old session is the only item in his discography. It starts off marvelously with a distinct Latin vibe, but that seems to be just one of many things they can do. The instrumentals mix vibrant detail with a light touch. Six vocal pieces, with three lead singers, are harder to get a grip on. [B+(**)]

Colin Stranahan: Transformation (2005 [2006], Capri): Sounds very postbop, not least in its preoccupation with intricately elaborated harmony -- something I generally consider to be a turnoff. Led by the drummer, but the writing credits are pretty evenly distributed throughout the group, including two pairs of brothers. Will hold it back for another spin, partly because I was distracted while listening to this, partly because when I did manage to focus it seemed rather well done. [B]

Next Order: Live-Powered Nexus (2005, Lolo): This is a Japanese group with a rock lineup: two electric guitars (Yuji Moto and Takumi Seino), electric bass (Atsutomo Ishigaki) and drums (Hiroshi "Gori" Matsuda). Any temptation to classify this as instrumental rock or fusion even is belied by the structure of the pieces and their improvisational content. As jazz goes, this still has a hard surface, and the drumming is less flexible than the guitars, but it moves with admirable economy. B+(*)

Rabih Abou-Khalil/Joachim Kühn: Journey to the Centre of an Egg (2004 [2006], Enja/Justin Time): The third musician here is percussionist Jarrod Cagwin, whose name is on the front cover but not the spine. Kühn tends to be in a support mode here -- his piano is less angular, less explosive than often the case, plus he plays a bit of alto sax adding a lonesome aura to the oud. Cagwin plays frame drums as well as the usual kit. A very attractive record. [A-]

Virginia Mayhew: Sandan Shuffle (2005 [2006], Renma): The early going here, where the Latin-oriented rhythm section gets its head, reminds me of those Latin-inflected hard bop records that guys like Kenny Dorham cut in the '60s. Mayhew plays tenor sax with that same sort of well squared off solidity. But then the album, as these things so often do, wanders into other territory, including a bouncy "In Walked Bud" and a slow, sly "I Get Along Without You Very Well" with Mayhew switching to soprano. Kenny Wessel plays soft-edged guitar. Nice middle-of-the-road album. Info on karate in the liner notes. B+(**)

Mike Melvoin Presents Dan Jaffe: Playing the Word (2005 [2006], City Light): Jaffe reads poems from his book of the same name, subtitled "Jazz Poems," while Melvoin plays piano. The latter includes originals as well as pieces by Ellington, Parker, and a Frank Smith I can't identify for sure. The poems focus on Kansas City, where this was recorded, with a bit of Basie and a whole mess of Parker -- by far the longest piece is the 12:24 of "Bird Talk." The music is background, but the words have some bite. B+(*)

Ari Roland: Sketches From a Bassist's Album (2005 [2006], Smalls): Quartet with Chris Byars on tenor sax, Sacha Perry on piano, Phil Stewart on drums. Roland plays bass, nicely featured here; also wrote seven of ten pieces. Roland has been a stalwart sideman on this label, particularly in Frank Hewitt's groups. This one works the well-worn bop idiom with a bit more swing than usual, a most comfortable and enjoyable outing. B+(**)

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

Ray Russell: Goodbye Svengali (2005 [2006], Cuneiform): Don't have recording dates, so I'm going with the liner notes. In any case I wouldn't count the old tape of Gil Evans piano that Russell overdubs. In this guitarist's tribute to Evans, I'm reminded that Evans himself made a project of arranging Jimi Hendrix for big band, but Russell wasn't Hendrix or similarly inspired -- Larry Coryell is much more to the point, and (of course) McLaughlin. But I don't know Russell's work -- mostly fusion dates going back to the late '60s, but he had more with Evans than the dining relationship mentioned in the notes here. So I suspect he had some insight into an Evans interest in guitar that informs this exceptionally fruitful tribute. B+(***)

Columbus as Crusader

I ran across the following quote in Ned Sublette's Cuba and Its Music (pp. 34-36). I had picked up some of this around the 500th anniversary of 1492, but I hadn't dug very deep, so much of this is new to me.

It was in the annus mirabilis of 1492, and before Columbus sailed, that Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1444-1522), a Renaissance humanist and Spanish nationalist who had spent nine years at the University of Bologna, published in Salamanca his Gramática de la lengua castellana. Though not the first grammar of a modern European language (that was the Occitan Donatz proensals), it was an innovative work. Formalized grammars at the time were for Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, not for the languages people actually spoke, so Nebrija;s work was a grand declaration of the prestige of the Castilian tongue. Its dedicatory preface to Queen Isabel prophetically asserted: "Language was always the companion of empire."

The impact of Nebrija's work would echo through the centuries. Unlike English, a bastard language notoriously irregular in its spellings and grammatical forms, Nebrija's Castilian was highly regular, following the example of the pedagogies of the classical languages. To this day Spanish -- which has changed less in the last five hundred years than English -- is still, because of that regularity, relatively easy to learn. In presenting the Castilian language as described by a group of rules, Nebrija provided a model for subsequent grammarians in other European languages. In 1495, Nebrija published a Castilian dictionary, more than a hundred years before such a thing existed for English. A great believer in the importanc e of the alphabet, he created a set of uniform spelling rules. So castellano (Castilian) became español (Spanish), and the Castilian language was imposed across the New World the way Arabic had been previously imposed from Kabul to Portugal, and before that the way Latin had been imposed on western Europe.

A far-flung empire united by the one true faith and one language: where had we seen that before? One thing was still lacking: a ready supply of gold.

On April 17, 1492, the royal couple sealed the deal for Columbus's exploration, with a promise from Columbus to use his proceeds from the voyage to retake Jerusalem from the infidels. On September 6, his three ships pushed off from the Canary Islands (off the northwest coast of Africa) on their voyage through the Mar Tenebrosa, the Sea of Darkness.

Among the ninety men Columbus took with him was an Arabic interpreter. When he made landfall five weeks later, he called the people who met him "Indians." On the island that he named La Española (Hispaniola in English), the Indians spoke of Cibao, a place that Columbus believed to the end of his life was Japan.

The Indians were friendly at first. But Columbus treated them in accordance with the way he had seen blacks treated at the Portuguese slave castle off the coast of Ghana; the first model for dealing with the indigenous peoples of the New World was the African slave trade. In 1493, when Columbus made the second of his four voyages, fortune-seekers clamored for a piece of the action, and 1,200 people sailed with him. The history of how they raped and murdered the natives of La Española is too well known to requir ecomment here. On that voyage, Columbus brought to La Española seedlings of sugarcane, which was being successfully cultivated in the Canary Islands.

Columbus was obsessed with his divine mission: finding gold. The discoverer of the New World was an apocalyptic, millennial visionary who calculated -- and wrote to Fernando and Isabel -- that there were only 155 years left until the end of the world, which would occur 7,000 years after the world's creation.

He had plenty of company in his messianic beliefs. Central to the mythology of the Reconquest was the idea that a Spanish king from the line of the Visigoths would drive out the Moors and eventually unite all of Christendom. Columbus believed, as did Juan Ponce de León (the future colonizer of Puerto Rico) and others of his time, that King Fernando was the new David who would retake Jerusalem from the infidels and rebuild the temple at Mount Zion, thus setting the stage for the final battle with the Antichrist, as prophesied in the Book of Revelations.

Columbus was convinced that he had been chosen by God to provide the gold that would make this possible. When on his third voyage he discovered Venezuela's Orinoco River, larger than any in Europe, he realized from its force that he had discovered a continent. Not far up the river, he knew, would be the Garden of Eden. On this continent he would surely find King Solomon's mines, whose gold would finance the campaign to expel the infidel from the Holy Land.

As far as I know, Spain never made a move towards Jerusalem, despite pocketing unimagined riches in gold from the Americas. So it's not clear how how much weight to put on their proposed Crusade. As an idea, it probably made sense as an extension of the long war against Muslims and Jews in Andalus, but that would have meant tangling with the Ottoman Empire at a point when it was still expanding. Instead, Spain launched its Inquisition to blot out all traces of Islam and Judaism. While the Inquisition worked to unite most of the peninsula, excepting Portugal, it cast a dark spell over what had just a few centuries earlier been the brightest and most fertile intellectual grounds in Europe. Within a century, Spain lost the advantages its discovery and early conquests in Americas had provided, and was well on the way toward becoming a benighted backwater in Europe. As this happened, the religious idea of the Crusades faded, but that didn't stop European powers from demanding capitulations from the Ottomans in the 19th century, citing a need to protect various Christian churches in the Holy Land, nor England from adopting the Zionist movement to colonize Palestine.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

An Empire in Love With Itself

Tom Engelhart has posted an interview with Chalmers Johnson (Part 1 and Part 2), delving into the militarization of US society at some length. Some excerpts:

The military budget is starting to bankrupt the country. It's got so much in it that's well beyond any rational military purpose. It equals just less than half of total global military spending. And yet here we are, stymied by two of the smallest, poorest countries on Earth. Iraq before we invaded had a GDP the size of the state of Louisiana and Afghanistan was certainly one of the poorest places on the planet. And yet these two places have stopped us.

Militarily, we've got an incoherent, not very intelligent budget. It becomes less incoherent only when you realize the ways it's being used to fund our industries or that one of the few things we still manufacture reasonably effectively is weapons. It's a huge export business, run not by the companies but by foreign military sales within the Pentagon.

This is not, of course, free enterprise. Four huge manufacturers with only one major customer. This is state socialism and it's keeping the economy running not in the way it's taught in any economics course in any American university. It's closer to what John Maynard Keynes advocated for getting out of the Great Depression -- counter-cyclical governmental expenditures to keep people employed.

The country suffers from a collective anxiety neurosis every time we talk about closing bases and it has nothing to do with politics. [ . . . ] This illustrates what I consider the most insidious aspect of our militarism and our military empire. We can't get off it any more. It's not that we're hooked in a narcotic sense. It's just that we'd collapse as an economy if we let it go and we know it. That's the terrifying thing.

It's worth interjecting here that Rep. Todd Tiahrt's perceived ability to direct defense spending to the Wichita area is far and away his strongest political card. Wichita has an Air Force base, a lot of aerospace industry -- mostly general aviation, but damn near every company here has a small slice of the defense pie -- and other defense-related businesses. The net value of all that to Wichita's economy is easily overrated, but taking it away would have an effect.

Johnson talks about Randy Cunningham, a congressman with a reputation very much like Tiahrt's, at least until he got busted and run out of Congress.

What I don't understand is that the current defense budget and the recent Quadrennial Defense Review (which has no strategy in it at all) are just continuations of everything we did before. Make sure that the couple of hundred military golf courses around the world are well groomed, that the Lear jets are ready to fly the admirals and generals to the Armed Forces ski resort in Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps or the military's two luxury hotels in downtown Seoul and Tokyo.

What I can't explain is what has happened to Congress. Is it just that they're corrupt? That's certainly part of it. I'm sitting here in California's 50th district. This past December, our congressman Randy Cunningham confessed to the largest single bribery case in the history of the U.S. Congress: $2.4 million in trinkets -- a Rolls Royce, some French antiques -- went to him, thanks to his ability as a member of the military subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to add things secretly to the budget. He was doing this for pals of his running small companies. He was adding things even the Department of Defense said it didn't want.

This is bribery and, as somebody said the other day, Congress comes extremely cheap. For $2.4 million, these guys got about $175 million in contracts. It was an easy deal. [ . . . ] I wrote an article well before Cunningham confessed called The Military-Industrial Man in which I identified a lot of what he was doing, but said unfortunately I didn't know how to get rid of him in such a safe district. After it appeared on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page, the paper got a couple of letters to the editor from the 34th district in downtown LA saying, I wish he was my congressman. If he'd bring good jobs here, I wouldn't mind making something that just gets blown up or sunk in the ground like missile defense in Alaska. I mean, we've already spent $100 billion on what amounts to a massive high-tech scarecrow. It couldn't hit a thing. The aiming devices aren't there. The tests fail. It doesn't work. It's certainly a cover for something much more ominous -- the expansion of the Air Force into outer space or "full spectrum dominance," as they like to put it.

We've gotten into a state where the politicians easily corrupted by businesses and special interests in large part because the voters are so easily corrupted themselves. Every politician has his pet pork list because that's such an easy way to get reelected. And it keeps working because it's almost never challenged -- exceptions like Sen. William Proxmire and Rep. H.R. Gross were extremely popular for their opposition, but they weren't trendsetters. The defense industry gets a free ride here because it worked once -- total mobilization for WWII pulled the US out of the Great Depression -- and since then it's found ideological cover, especially among conservatives whose real gripe about government spending is when it's meant to help the poor. In the past, at least some defense-related spending did manage to produce useful technologies -- the interstate highway system and the Internet were the most productive examples. But since the early '80s when "Star Wars" took over it's hard to think of anything useful that military spending has produced.

The costs, on the other hand, have risen enormously, a consequence of three things: 1) self-fulfilling logic -- inexhaustible appetite for defense spending combined with a rhetorical arms race, the idea that lavish support for defense proves that one is strong on defense, and that any criticism of defense spending shows weakness; 2) that a large and extravagant military tends to create arrogance at home and enemies abroad in a positive cycle; 3) right-wing political agendas benefit from a preoccupation with military strength for a wide range of reasons. I've explained the latter before, but Johnson makes the same point, then moves into the question of costs:

From George Bush's point of view, his administration has achieved everything ideologically that he wanted to achieve. Militarism has been advanced powerfully. In the minds of a great many people, the military is now the only American institution that appears to work. He's enriched the ruling classes. He's destroyed the separation of powers as thoroughly as was possible. These are the problems that face us right now. The only way you could begin to rebuild the separation of powers would be to reinvigorate the Congress and I don't know what could shock the American public into doing that. They're the only ones who could do it. The courts can't. The President obviously won't.

The only thing I can think of that might do it would be bankruptcy. Like what happened to Argentina in 2001. The richest country in Latin America became one of the poorest. It collapsed. It lost the ability to borrow money and lost control of its affairs, but a great many Argentines did think about what corrupt presidents had listened to what corrupt advice and done what stupid things during the 1990s. And right now, the country is on its way back.

[TD: So what would it mean for us to go bankrupt?]

It would mean losing control over things. All of a sudden, we would be dependent on the kindness of strangers. looking for handouts. We already have a $725 billion trade deficit; the largest fiscal deficit in our history, now well over 6% of GDP. The defense budgets are off the charts and don't make any sense, and don't forget that $500 billion we've already spent on the Iraq war -- every nickel of it borrowed from people in China and Japan who saved and invested because they would like to have access to this market. Any time they decide they don't want to lend to us, interest rates will go crazy and the stock exchange will collapse.

We pour about $2 billion a day just into servicing the amounts we borrow. The moment people quit lending us that money, we have to get it out of domestic savings and right now we have a negative savings rate in this country. To get Americans to save 20% of their income, you'd have to pay them at least a 20% interest rate and that would produce a truly howling recession. [ . . . ] A depression like that would go on in this country for quite a while. The rest of the world would also have a severe recession, but would probably get over it a lot faster. [ . . . ]

The American economy is big, but there's no reason to believe it's so big the rest of the world couldn't do without us. Moreover, we're kidding ourselves because we already manufacture so little today -- except for weapons.

We could pay a terrible price for not having been more prudent. To have been stupid enough to give up on infrastructure, health care, and education in order to put 8 missiles in the ground at Fort Greeley, Alaska that can't hit anything. In fact, when tested, sometimes they don't even get out of their silos.

Johnson has more to say on bankruptcy as well as non-economic costs, like the damage military stress inflicts on our constitutional system of government. One thing I find especially baffling is the notion that "the military is now the only American institution that appears to work." Granted that competency seems to be a growing problem in many arenas of American life, but it's hard to imagine a more dysfunctional organization than the US military. Perhaps we are seduced by form over substance: the military can manage to look sharp, but what they do is hard to measure, hard to validate, often based on dubious assumptions, with incomplete or flat-out wrong intelligence, clouded by secrecy, manipulated by a bloated and politicized bureaucracy, granted close to a free reign by the ideological blinders of their supporters. In real theatres like Afghanistan and Iraq they repeatedly screw up, and are rarely disciplined for their failures. Even far away from combat it's not unusual for them to sink a boat of Japanese tourists or rip out an Italian ski lift, let alone shoot down an Iranian airliner or blow up a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan.

Rational people would attempt to match the resources to the needs, and verify that what they got in turn was worthwhile. America is an intrinsically impossible country to attack, and no nation has a serious desire to do so. Defending America itself is practically a no-op. It would make sense to provide some resources that can be quickly deployed to deal with local emergencies, like natural disasters, and there's a case for border patrol and some police work, but not much more. For our own "defense" purposes we spend something like $700 billion for no good return and much bad. Simply taking that away would leave something of a void in terms of economic stimulus and international peacekeeping, but doing those things under the guise of "defense" is a warped and rather sick way to achieve those goals. We could, after all, force feed the economy to build things that are actually worth something. And international peacekeeping would be more effective if the international community did it in accordance with general human rights principles, instead of the the narrow and rather perverted viewpoint of the richest and most selfishly self-interested nation on earth.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Day or Two

Most days I get up sometime before noon, put some music on, read the paper, and spend the rest of the day parked at the computer, putting more music on, writing notes, looking things up, etc. If I do that steady for a week, I manage to work my way through some thirty records, and get three to five blog posts up. Maybe get some reading done too, working around the edges of the routine. I have my doubts about how worthwhile this routine is, but I do get the satisfaction of producing something, even if its economic value is trivial. Over time the notes accumulate. Maybe some day it will amount to something.

But this week isn't working out that way. For one thing, five days into the week, I only have six records bagged, plus two jazz prospects with tentative grades. The main reason is distraction: my nephew Mike and some friends have been in town. I cooked chicken and dumplings Monday afternoon, and pizza on Tuesday. Spent more time working at my brother's house -- actually the house I grew up in -- trying to help Mike on some projects. So I thought I'd do this post as a slice-of-life thing. This is more or less how Thursday went:

Got up shortly after 9. Laura tells me the CPT hostages in Iraq had been found. Went back to bed, and slept thinking about writing something about Cal Thomas. I don't normally read the little shit, but the Eagle publishes him regularly, and three recent columns caught my eye. The latest opined that Republicans deserve to lose in 2006 because of their free-spending lapse of principle. Seems like he's trying to retrench -- he sees Bush losing ground and wants to pretend that's because Bush strayed from the true right cause. In another column he tried to plug another leak in his crusade, attacking evangelical Christians for straying from their assigned duty on "culture of life" to take up the environment as a worthy cause. In between, he took pot shots at CPT, ranting that peace can only be achieved by vanquishing evil -- not by actually acting peaceful. Evil, for me as well as Thomas, is a notation of convenience, a way of summing up a cluster of traits one considers nefarious. As far as I'm concerned, Cal Thomas is the very personification of evil.

But when I finally did get up, I ate breakfast, read the paper, checked email, but had no time to write. Had to go to the dentist for a cleaning and check up. Gums bled, hurt more than it had in several years, so the lesson there is that I'm slipping. Dentist found a cracked filling and a new cavity. Ugh. Stopped at what used to be a lumber yard afterwards, but couldn't find any lumber. I hadn't stopped at Star Lumber since their facelift last year, but what they've done is turned most of the store into a showcase for high-end home design/decoration services -- none of the DIY you find at Home Depot. A lot of very nice stuff, but the most striking thing was the swarm of salesfolk. Just to reconnoiter the joint I declined help from 5-6 of them. With all that sales overhead, it must cost a fortune to get them to do anything. Presumably there's a second mortgage angle to help finance it; otherwise they're just chasing upscale. Walked out without buying anything.

When I got to my brother's, Mike already had the bathtub walls up, and was finishing assembly of the fixtures, so I didn't have much to do. Mike's little sister Kirsten fixed breakfast -- waffles, bacon, eggs. First time I've ever seen her cook, but she went about it with a quiet efficiency that reminded me of, well, me. Mike and Kirsten then went off to work on Mac Welch's movie -- he's shooting it, and she's Assistant Director, so I came home. Read some, took a nap, ate dinner. Played Shot x Shot, accidentally hitting the repeat button so it went on and on and on before I figured out what had happened. Once I stopped that, the machine started playing Moondance, so I had to let that play.

Read Gary Wills' New York Review of Books review of Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King Jr. Sounds like all three books are worth reading, but I can't imagine finding time for another 3000 pages any time soon. I'm reading Ned Sublette's Cuban Music at the moment -- while it's fascinating and actually worthwhile for my music writing, I look at the 400 pages I have left and wonder whether I shouldn't put it aside for something more immediately relevant to my dissection of the Bush disease. But even there I found an excerpt I want to post to the blog -- got a pile of these I haven't gotten to yet. Wills' review brings many thoughts to mind. The foremost is the extreme hypocrisy of so much of the Republican orthodoxy in flattering themselves for the accomplishments of a movement they in fact fought tooth and nail. The civil rights movement was an appeal to the rule of law bound to a notion of justice that was rooted in the highest ideals of America. Without that notion of justice non-violence could not have worked. But the right's agenda today is dead set against that any such idea of justice, and for that matter is explicitly contemptuous of law. Under such a regime, the struggle for civil rights would have been beaten down into a futile and sporadically violent quest -- little different than what the Palestinians have experienced from Israel.

Finished the evening working on some boring list management tasks for the website -- the scaffolding that keeps me somewhat on top of what's happening in the music world. Ordered another pile of books: Cobra II on the invasion and occupation of Iraq; American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips' critique of oil and religion; The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery on global warming; an older book on development economics called The Elusive Quest for Growth; John Storm Roberts' The Latin Tinge, one of those books that should have had already; the first two volumes of Taylor Branch's trilogy, for now just for reference.

I found out today that George Christgau died yesterday, at age 90. He was the father of two long-time friends, Robert and Georgia Christgau. I don't know much about him, but I did meet him twice: once in the mid-'70s at his house in Douglaston (Queens), and once in the late-'80s at Georgia's house in Hunter. The latter meeting was particularly fortunate for me. He and his wife, who survives him albeit not in good health, must have been about 70 at the time. But they were remarkably vital then, and I remember being quite pleased to see them doing so well. This was a year or so after Rebecca died, so it was a transitional period in my life. One thing that came out of that period was a new concern on my part for the elders -- my own parents, parents of friends, aunts and uncles. Since then many of those elders have passed on, and with them a wealth of experience and knowledge and understanding. One thing that struck me in Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead was her focus on the loss of knowledge transmitted through families as a harbinger of dark ages. I resisted that notion at first as some sort of crypto-conservative fetishism, but wound up thinking of too many examples of things that my parents must have known that I never will.

Back to my brother's/parents' house today. We pulled all the junk out of the garage, installed two large shelving units, then put almost all of it back in a somewhat more organized state. The shelving helped -- at least now there is a clear walking path from one end to the other. That chewed up the whole afternoon, and the much larger problem of the attic awaits.

Played some more jazz records tonight, working through the backlog and feeling none too decisive, even as nothing sounds all that promising. So it goes.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Nuke Pusher

One more short note related to nuclear power in Iran, India, and elsewhere. Part of the problem is that Bush wears several hats. On the one hand, he presides over the military-industrial complex's fantasy of "full spectrum dominance" over the entire globe. Their strongest sales pitch is fear, and in that regard nothing works to their advantage more than the prospect of WMD falling into the hands of purely evil terrorist fanatics. WMD itself has always been code for nuclear weapons, although slipping chemical and biological weapons into the bag makes it easier to pin on minor threats like Saddam Hussein.

On the other hand, another hat Bush wears is head shill for the global energy industry, and that includes long mothballed nuclear as well as "clean coal" and good old fashioned oil. The argument behind nuclear is that it's safe and clean and, as oil runs short and prices climb, will be cheap in the long run. That's an argument Bush sells when he gets the chance, as in India, ignoring the fact that the US nuclear industry is moribund, with no new starts in over two decades, while the US sinks deeper into nuclear waste with no better plan than to bury some of it, sooner or later, in a mountain in Nevada and hope it doesn't leak much in the next 50,000 years. Still, for nations whose development futures are at risk because of rising energy prices, it's easy to buy the hype. And don't look to Bush to point out the downside risks -- even the obvious danger of what terrorists could do to nuclear power plants. After all, he's on the payroll, bought and paid for. And if India, say, turns into a nuclear sewer, that's no skin off Westinghouse's nose.

I accept that nuclear power will, should even, be a growing part of the energy resource mix over the next century. But what history to date shows is that it can't just be blundered into with the mix of Defense-related subsidies and sugar pills that the US nuclear industry was built around, let alone the schizophrenia of a President who pushes nukes both to build alliances and to start wars. But until the fundamental problems with nuclear power are faced and resolved, it would be most sensible just to hold back. In order for nuclear power to be valuable we need to solve some more basic problems: war and terrorism, for starters. That, of course, goes for countries like Iran and India, whose entry into the nuclear club stands to make matters worse rather. But so does discriminating against them, which reinforces a more basic problem still: inequity.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Bush vs. Iran: Paranoia and Projection

I don't have any inside information here, but working off what is publicly known and what seems logical I'd say that there is a very real, but probably less than 50-50, chance that the US will take military action against Iran within the next twelve months. The action would consist of an extensive aerial bombardment of sites suspected of involvement with Iran's nuclear programs. No effort would be made to invade or occupy Iran. There would be a propaganda program encouraging Iranians to overthrow the Islamic regime, but I doubt that there would (or more precisely, could) be any substantial or effective clandestine support to would-be subversive groups within Iran. (Iranian exiles obviously don't count for much here.) The bombardment would be intense but brief, intended to do some damage, but more importantly to serve as a warning of future attacks if Iran doesn't give up its ambitions. The act would be unilateral: Israel can't do the job alone, and wouldn't provide the US with any cover of deniability, nor would UK participation provide any legitimacy. Bush would not go to Congress or the UN for approval. Bush has already asserted his right as Commander in Chief to order such attacks, and can point to such precedents as Reagan in Libya and Clinton in Afghanistan and the Sudan.

The most likely time framework for such an attack is after the Nov. 2006 US elections and before the next Congress meets in Jan. 2007. There will be much sabre rattling before the elections, but the political risks of actually launching such an attack before the election are considerable: the consequences are unpredictable, and in any case the attacks would reinforce a war-weary public's perception of Bush as a reckless warmonger. The Fallujah assault similarly took place right after the 2004 elections. The election results, whatever they are, can be argued either way -- e.g., if the Democrats win big, an Iran attack would put Bush right back in the spotlight.

It also makes little difference whether the UN Security Council approves sanctions against Iran: Bush could argue that sanctions legitimize US charges against Iran but fall short of the necessary level of force, or that the failure of sanctions leaves the US no recourse except to act alone. But the exercise of seeking sanctions gives Bush the cover of having tried diplomacy, and it stretches the process out, allowing the propaganda to sink in and frustration to build while waiting for the elections to clear. More time will also help clarify the predicament in Iraq -- increasingly a lost cause.

What holds the odds under 50-50 is that such an attack would be one of the stupidest things that the US could possibly do. (Outright invasion, of course, would be even stupider, but seems to be beyond possible at this point.) It would be stupid in several dimensions. Any attack, even the threat of attack, will cause Iran to dig in its heels, polarizing public opinion both in Iran and elsewhere where anyone might identify or sympathize with Iran -- given the moral isolation of the US, that's most of the world, if not necessarily most of the world's current political leaders. This polarization reinforces the most militantly nationalistic factions within Iran -- also in the US, which is why Bush takes such hard lines, and why there's been so much symbiosis between Bush and his designated enemies. Iran, in turn, will take an attack as a reason -- indeed, as a requirement -- to persevere and, subject to whatever prudence they can muster, to escalate and possibly even strike back. We've already seen examples of this: the easily demonizable Ahmadinejad came to power after Bush cast Iran's reform-minded democratic government as part of the Axis of Evil.

Iran has several reasonable things to gain from development of nuclear technology. The most obvious one is prestige. A second one is a source of electricity which would allow Iran to develop with less impact on its oil exports -- an understandable move given the long-term trends in the oil market. A third is deterrence: no nation armed with nuclear weapons has been directly attacked by another state ever, but Iran has been attacked by Iraq, and repeatedly threatened by the UK, Russia, the US, and now Israel. In terms of deterrence it may very well be suffice for Iran to show that it has the technical capability of developing nuclear weapons without having to actually build and test them. But one thing that Iran would not get from building nuclear weapons is a viable option to use them aggressively against other nations -- least of all the US, which successfully deterred the incomparably more powerful Soviet Union.

The inescapable fact is that since World War II, or at least since the Soviets countered the US monopoly in nuclear weapons, such weapons have become useless -- unthinkable to use either for offense or defense, expensive to develop, horribly dangerous even to have. Recognition of that uselessness was at the heart of the treaties on Non-Proliferation and Anti-Ballastic Missiles, but since those treaties were signed one nation has had a change of heart: the US. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US with no enemies that could in any way challenge its conventional military forces, let alone that had any desire to do so. At that time it would have been possible to put the United Nations back on the track that the Cold War had derailed, to provide a civil forum and joint authority to maintain peace and justice around the world. But the US instead stuck to the concept of a single superpower, a unipolar world, in which the US committed itself to maintain absolute military dominance over any conceivable threat. This led the US back to developing nuclear weapons with purely offensive purposes, to discarding the ABM treaty, to cynically reinterpreting the NPT. It is only in the context of US policy, summed up in Bush's pre-emptive war policy, that Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons can be viewed as a threat to anyone.

In other words, the only reason Bush is willing to seriously consider a pre-emptive strike against Iran -- a blatant, unprovoked act of war, certain to kill many Iranians regardless of how precise the bombardment is -- is that the US has a policy of guaranteeing its unchallenged nuclear intimidation over the entire world. Not that the US actually follows such a policy, given that every nation that actually has nuclear weapons seems to get a pass -- even the latest club member, North Korea. Given these exceptions, one has to wonder why Iran matters one way or another. The answer is projection. We assume that Iran would act the way we think we would act if another country had treated us the way the US has treated Iran. In other words, we assume that Iran hates us so virulently that the nation and its leaders are willing to sacrifice their well being, vast numbers of their population, just to exact some small measure of revenge on us.

To see this, we first must list what the US has done to Iran in order to elicit such hatred. Although many little things could be added here, the short list of US crimes against Iran is as follows:

  1. The US CIA orchestrated a coup that overthrew the overwhelmingly popular democratically elected Mossadegh government, which had reversed seventy years of extraordinary exploitation of Iran's oil resources by Anglo-Persian, an oil company owned by the British state. After the coup, Iran's oil industry was returned to foreign ownership, this time to a consortium led by five US oil companies.

  2. The US installed Shah Reza Mohammed as an absolute dictator subservient to US interests. The US trained and supported the Shah's military and security services -- most notoriously the Savak. By the time the Shah was overthrown 25 years later he was hated so widely that the revolution was supported by virtually every sector of the Iranian people. After abdicating, the US gave the Shah and his henchmen shelter.

  3. Shortly after the Iranian Revolution, Iran was attacked by Iraq, which was supported and financed by such US allies as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The war between Iraq and Iran lasted eight years, becoming the most costly and destructive and costly war since the war the US fought in Vietnam. During the course of this war, the US sided with Iraq, selling weapons to Iraq, including components of the poison gas that Iraq used extensively against Iran -- and famously against its own Kurdish citizens. Even after the war, the US continued to impose economic sanctions on Iran, and continues to treat Iran as an enemy (as the Axis of Evil).

Evidence of Iran's hostility to the US during the period since the Shah was deposed is scanty, relatively minor, and mostly limited to the early days of the revolution. Iranian students, under direction of Ayatollah Khomeini, seized the US embassy and held several hundred Americans hostage there for over a year -- a political embarrassment to President Carter, but the hostages were released after Reagan was elected. During the 1980s Iran supported several challenges to Saudi leadership of the muslim world, provided some support for Shiites in Lebanon following Israel's 1982 invasion, and notoriously posted a reward for killing author Salman Rushdie. However, also during the '80s, while the war with Iraq was continuing, Israel sold arms to Iran, and Reagan got in on the action in a back door effort to illegally fund the Contras in Nicaragua -- the Iran-Contra affair. Since Ayatollah Khomeini died, it's hard to identify anything that Iran has done against the US, yet US politicians still bear smoldering resentment against Iran, leading to the current crisis. (Ironically, Iran supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which the US later backed. Iran also supported SCIRI and Dawa, the two major Shiite groups opposed to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which figured prominently among the exiles that the US brought to nominal power in Iraq.)

Bush's fanatic opposition to Iran is the work of paranoia and projection. The dispute over Iran's nuclear program is a rerun of the similar paranoid claims made regarding Iraq. The goal is the same, although the results that we have seen in Iraq suggest that no such thing should be desired. There is no reason to think that Iran, a much larger and at this point stronger country, has any less resolve to fight back against a Bush attack: Iran does, after all, have a long history of being victimized by the US and its imperialist predecessors. Invasion and occupation, indeed regime change by any means, seem out of the question. Any attack against Iran could also trigger a sympathetic Shiite revolt in Iraq, which could prove to be the end of the US stand there. So Bush and his people are playing a very risky game here, and a very foolish one. But what remains to be seem is when the media, when the world, when the paltry excuse for an opposition party here in the US, will recognize how distorted and dangerous Bush's foreign policy is. And stand up and do something about it.

Music: Current count 11709 [11678] rated (+31), 827 [834] unrated (-7). Just cruising along. Some days seem to be jazz days, others go into Recycled Goods. The April edition of the latter currently lists 54 titles, which puts it well over quota, even if a few are stubs. Jazz CG prospecting is moving along nicely as well. This week also marks the first new 2006 non-jazz record to crack the year-end list: a post-samba set from a Brazilian group called Cabruêra.

  • Alabama: Livin' Lovin' Rockin' Rollin': The 25th Anniversary Collection (1980-2000 [2006], RCA/Legacy): Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, and Jeff Cook are cousins. Like the Allmans and the Van Zants they had the nucleus of a southern rock band, but they settled for steady work on the country circuit, where real bands were first a novelty then a niche, and their home state proved to be a viable brand name. They're quite a business story: 42 #1 country hits, 70 million records, Country Music Hall of Fame. But one reason they stuck as a band is that none of them had the talent or ego to stand out. And their hit songs aren't memorable so much as they remind you of others. Indeed, it's hard to think of a Nashville cliché they haven't marched to the top of the charts. Since they faded into the sunset, RCA has made many attempts to sum them up -- mostly parades of hits good for grins and groans. This box substitutes live takes for many of the hits, framing them more as a southern rock band -- an improvement. Still, three discs is a lot for any artist whose success was so superficial. B
  • Cabruêra: Proibido Cochilar: Sambas for Sleepless Nights (2003 [2006], Piranha): More forró than samba, which makes sense given the group's roots in Brazil's torrid northeast. But this rocks harder than any forró I've ever heard, even before they get to the drum 'n' bass remixes at the end. It wasn't too long ago when Brazilian music could be catalogued in a handful of regional styles, but especially in the last decade the world's second largest music market has exploded in a vast round of cross-polination with music all around the world. And not just music: they pick up a lyric here from that legendary Frankfurt team of Horkheimer and Adorno. If the nights are sleepless, it's because there's so much shit going on. A-
  • Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label ([2006], Numero Group): For people of a certain age, like mine, any scrap of '60s soul, no matter how obscure, is likely to sound like manna from heaven. The last few years have seen dozens of excavations into soul strata I missed back in the day and hadn't heard of since, and this is no exception. Deep City was a small Miami label run by Clarence Reid, whose later work with TK records finally put Miami on the map. The label's discoveries include Paul Kelly and Betty Wright -- twelve years old at the time -- but they never had more than local hits, and their only LP was by journeywoman Helene Smith. The music is little more than second-rate Motown, all the way down to a Four Tops clone called the Moovers. And there's nothing eccentric about it. Still, it taps into that moment. B+(*)
  • Maximum Joy: Unlimited (1979-1983) (1979-83 [2005], Crippled Dick Hot Wax): As best I recall -- I no longer have the relevant vinyl to check -- the Pop Group was a post-punk ensemble far better in theory than in praxis. But I guess they were more infamous than the Glaxo Babies, who contributed as many musicians to this group, so the line here is that Maximum Joy, like Pigbag and Rip Rig + Panic, is part of the Pop Group's diaspora. One thing those groups do have in common is a fondness for horns, not just to punch up the sharp angles of their dub-mangled beat, but also to inch into jazz. But only Maximum Joy had Janine Rainforth, who played violin and clarinet, and gave them a voice that suggests a more generous comparison, like one of the Slits singing the Gang of Four. A-
  • Putumayo Kids Presents: French Playground (1997-2004 [2005], Putumayo World Music): From my perch -- two years of schoolboy French, enough to read but too slow to follow a conversation let alone a song -- this is more fun than French Café, looser, lighter, more upbeat, none of that studied Weltschmerz; at least none that I can comprend. B+(*)
  • Putumayo Kids Presents: One World, One Kid ([2005], Putumayo World Music): A six-song, $5.98 list, sampler donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, presented as a mix tape narrated by six year old Skyler Pia. The intros sound scripted but his ad-lib on "Waltzing Matilda" may strike you. Probably has no clue about the tragedy of war that song signifies. B
  • Putumayo Kids Presents: Sing Along With Putumayo (1995-2002 [2004], Putumayo World Music): Arlo Guthrie-folkies and Taj Mahal-bluesmen get silly and corny; way too obvious for adults, although Rosie Flores and Eric Bibb salvage the most obvious of songs. B
  • Putumayo Presents: Turkish Groove (1999-2005 [2006], Putumayo World Music): In Attaturk's nationalism, anyone who spoke Turkish was a Turk, a declaration that kicked all the cosmopolitan diversity of the Ottomans into a modernizing hat; Turkish music remains a mix of Arabic and Balkan influences with Euro pop-beats, especially when you select for groove. B+(*)
  • The Rough Guide to Brazilian Hip-Hop (1996-2003 [2004], World Music Network): Raises more questions than it answers, as usual -- and how long has it been since I complained about those white-on-yellow booklet pages? -- but the straightforward beats are tasty and the vocals varied even if you can't follow the rhymes, most likely a blessing of sorts; researching this, I didn't find half of these artists, but found at least as many more, so this only hints at the whole scene. A-
  • Santana: Santana III (Legacy Edition) (1971 [2006], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): The original rock en español, always better than their rock en inglés, but rarely as good as when they kept it zipped; the original album is more grooveful, as opposed to tuneful, than the first two, but not much one way or another; the bonus tracks are a plus, and the "Live at the Fillmore West" better still, for the usual reason -- more percussion. B+(*)
  • Sound of the World (2000-05 [2005], Wrasse, 2CD). The sixth annual sampler from DJ Charlie Gillett's BBC radio program, a menu of 33 artists from 28 countries; with carte blanche everywhere, almost everything has its fascination, but in the end its points are obvious: it's a big world with a vast range of appealing musics, but they don't necessarily flow, and at this pace no sooner than something catches your ear you're swept off to some other continent. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #9, Part 3)

Trying to keep up with the inflow here, while also putting some time into Recycled Goods, the blog, and so forth. Finally got around to a package from the Swiss label Intakt, and found three definite winners there -- no big surprise about Monk's Casino, which scored high on many 2005 year-end lists. Draft is currently at 800 words, about 50% of a column, but I have enough prospected that I could finish it fast. Done count is 124. Pending count is 109. As usual, grades in brackets are tentative. Don't have a dud yet. Guess I can always pick on Kenny G.

The Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet: Hey, Look Me Over (2004 [2006], Arbors): Cohn is Al's son. He plays guitar, setting the pace but not taking a lot of spotlight. Allen plays retro tenor sax, a throwback to the swing era with Coleman Hawkins his main man, but Al Cohn and Zoot Sims are major touchstones. Indeed, Cohn looms over this particular disc, penning three songs and influencing others. Allen plays wonderfully here -- mostly upbeat standards, with a slow original near the end followed by a vigorous "Pick Yourself Up." A pure delight. Grade here is minimal; could be Pick Hit. A-

Dom Minasi: The Vampire's Revenge (2005 [2006], CDM, 2CD): Minasi is a 62-year-old guitarist who recorded two fusion albums with Blue Note back in their dog days and only recently revived his career with a series of self-released albums. My only prior experience with him suggested he's one of those mild-mannered bop-influenced pickers -- a family I trace back mostly to Tal Farlow -- although his interest in 12-string marks him as a bit fancier than most. On the basis of this album, we can chuck that theory. Turns out he has a darker side. Also that he's able to call on an interesting circle of friends. In addition to his trio, he taps 18 guests here, many for a single cut, the rest for sets of related pieces. The list itself would fill up a review, but here's a taste, the subset with one feature cut each: Perry Robinson, Joe Giardullo, Matthew Shipp, Mark Whitecage, Borah Bergman, Sabir Mateen, Blaise Siwula. These are not the sort of folks who show up to add a little texture and color. For that he's got section players, but even so, the strings are Jason Kao Hwang and Tomas Ulrich, the brass Herb Robertson and Steve Swell. The vampire theme is one I could do without, and it's unavoidable here. Nothing here is ambivalent enough for soundtrack, so stash that fear. But one piece is built around a recitation so heavily that the only word for it is opera. Two more pieces feature vocalist Carol Mennie, and while they're more scat than words they too fit into the opera framework. Doesn't sound like a good concept to me, but everything else here is remarkable. [A-]

The Dutch Jazz Orchestra: The Lady Who Swings the Band: Rediscovered Music of Mary Lou Williams (2005 [2006], Challenge): Williams started in Kansas City with Andy Kirk's big band, and quickly distinguished herself both as a pianist and an arranger. The Dutch Jazz Orchestra made a minor industry out of mining obscure history, including four albums dedicated to Billy Strayhorn's works. This album starts off with a piece Williams submitted to Duke Ellington shortly after Strayhorn's death, and it's spot on. Almost everything here follows in that spirit: snappy, hard swinging arrangements delivered with panache. Not sure yet how it all balances out: both immediate pleasures and historical interest are evident. [B+(***)]

The Mary Lou Williams Collective: Zodiac Suite: Revisited (2000-03 [2006], Mary): The Collective is Geri Allen, Buster Williams and either Andrew Cyrille (two cuts) or Billy Hart (the rest), so this is a piano trio. Most of the album is taken up by Mary Lou Williams' 12-part "Zodiac Suite," with three more pieces -- the two with Cyrille were written by Herbie Nichols and Allen, respectively. I've played this through and, well, thus far I have no idea what to make of it. [B]

Christian Scott: Rewind That (2005 [2006], Concord): An auspicious debut for a young New Orleans trumpeter, nephew of guest alto saxist Donald Harrison. This compares to '60s hard bop much like '90s r&b compared to Stax soul -- softer, creamier, more texture and less emotion. It's almost like we're witnessing the reinvention of cool. B+(*)

The Derek Trucks Band: Songlines (2006, Columbia): I was surprised to see this presumed blues album as the lead review in the March 2006 Downbeat. Never heard Trucks before, but I gather he has a week sense of genre, which makes him unconventional as a bluesman. AMG cites Buddy Guy, Elmore James and Duane Allman as influences, but also John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sun Ra. After this record they can tack Rahsaan Roland Kirk onto that list -- first number here is a short "Volunteered Slavery." But I hear more traces of the world's musics here, and not just covers of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Toots Hibbert. Don't have a fix on it yet. One problem is that the bandleader just plays guitar and dobro, while everyone else sings, especially someone named Mike Mattison. [B+(***)]

Bonnie Bramlett and Mr. Groove Band: Roots, Blues & Jazz (2005 [2006], Zoho Roots): I feel bad panning this. It really is good hearing her voice again -- thicker and heavier, to be sure, but it still has that gospel lift. And to be sure, she brings more conviction to "Love the One You're With" than I thought possible these days. But that's a big part of the problem: the song selection is way too catholic for someone with such specific talents. And her new friends don't have the touch her old Friends had, either. B

Theo Bleckmann/Fumio Yasuda: Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne (2005 [2006], Winter & Winter): Third credit is Bernd Ruf and the Kammerorchester Basel. Spine just has the title, so any number of credits are possible. Kammerorchester is a huge classical outfit -- oboes and bassoons, banks of violins, timpani and harp, the whole kit and kaboodle. Yasuda plays piano and arranges, for the most part sparingly. Bleckmann sings. I've run into him before, usually in spots where I'd rather not hear a singer. But I've never heard him at length before, and my, what a sweet, charming voice. Aside from the title prologue and epilogue, the songs are show tunes -- light, plucky ones like "Chim Chim Cheree" and "My Favorite Things" are exceptionally beguiling, as is "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." What any of this has to do with Las Vegas isn't obvious to this Kansan, but I've talked enough with Europeans about Las Vegas to recognize that there's a peculiarly European (and most likely Japanese) view that Las Vegas exemplifies America -- certainly in its garish overindulgence, but also in a certain sweet innocence. Walter Benjamin wrote a book about Paris: The Capital of the 19th Century. I have little doubt that if he were alive today he'd be writing about Las Vegas. [B+(***)]

Bebo Valdés: Bebo de Cuba (2002 [2005], Calle 54, 2CD): At age 84, this caps the return of a prominent '50s Cuban bandleader who faded from view after he settled into Stockholm in 1963. In the meantime, his son Chucho -- an astonishing pianist and bandleader in his own right -- elevated the name. But in the '90s Bebo resumed work, including a reunion with Cachao and a marvelous record with flamenco singer Dieguito El Cigala. The first disc here is the large canvas "Suite Cubana"; the second is a smaller group retrospective "El Solar de Bebo." Both feel like they return to a rather idealized version of '50s Cuba -- free of strife, resplendent in their luxury. A-

Peter Madsen: Prevue of Tomorrow (2005 [2006], Playscape): Solo piano. Madsen plays ten pieces which provide an interesting survey of modernists from the '50s and '60s -- the earliest sources are Lenny Tristano, Herbie Nichols, and Dick Twardzik; the furthest out is an early Cecil Taylor piece; the others are Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Hassan Ibn Ali, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sun Ra, and Randy Weston. Interesting exercise. B+(**)

Dr. John: Right Place, Right Time (1989 [2006], Skinji Brim/Hyena): Second installment in the Doc's series of private tapes, following the self-explanatory All By Hisself with a set at Tipitina's on a Mardi Gras night with a searing hot band adding much volume but little light. B

Maximum Joy: Unlimited (1979-83 [2005], Crippled Dick Hot Wax): Not normally considered a jazz group, but there's a definitive jazz vibe here to go with the Jamaican rhythms and the jerky post-punk bass/guitar lines, and not just because Tony Wrafter plays sax and trumpet while singer Janine Rainforth adds bits on violin and clarinet. This Bristol UK group was formed from fragments of the Glaxo Babies and the Pop Group; other splinters of the latter went off to form Pigbag, which gravitated toward Latin jazz and James Brown funk, and Rip Rig + Panic, named for a Rahsaan Roland Kirk song. This group is so obscure they didn't even get a mention in the Trouser Press Guides. It's rare that such archaeology pays off, but it does here. A-

Don Braden: Workin' (2005 [2006], HighNote): Braden strikes me as a rather fancy saxophonist to get stuck in a simple organ trio. That he does two pieces solo indicates he concurs, but his previous record was little different: the same group plus a trombone. Braden's a flashy mainstream player -- nice tone, lots of moves, a pleasure to listen to. He shows all that here, but he's shown it many times before, and there's nothing special this time. B+(*)

Vincent Herring: Ends and Means (2005 [2006], HighNote): He's out to please here, sticking within comfortable mainstream boundaries, playing bright and cheery, both on his mainstay alto sax and on soprano. Half the album is done as a quartet. The other half adds trumpeter Jeremy Pelt for a second horn. Pelt has much the same virtues as Herring, making for a comfortable pairing. B+(**)

Paul Shapiro: It's in the Twilight (2005 [2006], Tzadik): Part of Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series. Shapiro's website says: "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Paul Shapiro's music. But it helps to have a heart." So Jewish is a big part of Shapiro's identity, all the more clear from the booklet, but had you blindfolded me I would have missed it. Radical too, but I might have picked the name of a band he founded in the '90s, but I've never heard: Brooklyn Funk Essentials. And the big heart theme is clear. Shapiro plays tenor sax, but he sound here is thickened with a second tenor sax (Peter Apfelbaum) and trumpet (Steve Bernstein), giving the record a fat, vibrant sound. Two songs have vocal bits, which pop up informally for a social feel. If I was doing Choice Cuts, one I particularly like is Shapiro's Ribs & Brisket tune, "Oy Veys Mir" -- starts out like "Flat Foot Floogie" and takes a boogie woogie piano break. B+(**)

Carol Robbins: Jazz Play (2005, Jazzcats): Robbins plays harp. She came up through the usual classical steps, but studied under Dorothy Ashby, who until recently was pretty much the beginning and end of the list of jazz harpists. Harp isn't a very imposing instrument. Here she mostly fills up the spaces at the end of lines, adding a shimmering texture to the other five musicians, who carry most of the music. Guitarist Larry Koonse and bassist Darek Oles provide the strings that complement the harp's sound. Bob Sheppard plays tenor and soprano sax, matched with Steve Huffstetet on trumpet or flugelhorn. Perhaps to keep from blowing the leader away, they all play what we might call neo-cool: light, measured, rather delicate post-bop. It makes for an intriguing little album. B+(*)

Johnnie Valentino: Stingy Brim (2004 [2006], Omnitone): Hmm, Bob Sheppard again -- surprised to see him on two straight records picked at random off the shelf. Noticed him on a slow one here called "Where When & How" where his tenor sax adds an essential soulful wail. Valentino is a guitarist, originally from Philadelphia. Not sure where this will wind up, but several pieces impressed me first time through -- the herky jerk of "4M2," the patient lead and loopy climax of "Coyote Bowboy." Mark Rossi plays organ, Sheppard also plays clarinet, Mark Ferber drums, and Randy Jones anchors the bottom on tuba. The tuba seems to be the point of the album, the antipode to the old-fashioned hat. Not done. [B+(***)]

Alexander von Schlippenbach/Axel Dörner/Rudi Mahall/Jan Roder/Uli Jennessen: Monk's Casino: The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk (2003-04 [2005], Intakt, 3CD): Surprising at first that everything Monk wrote can be squeezed onto three discs, but Monk's well started to dry up not far into his career and his later discs are mostly reworkings of his earlier songs. Some of these do run short -- "Crepuscle With Nellie" 2:17, "Pannonica" 1:36, "Stuffy Turkey" 0:44 -- but "Misterioso" stretches to 10:05. Some are straight renditions of the compositions, but work around the themes, much as Monk himself did. Trumpet and bass clarinet recapitulate Monk's own preference for working with horns, but they vary enough from the usual tenor saxmen to illuminate new edges and quirks in Monk's work, much like Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd did. Schlippenbach himself is less like himself, content to lay back and direct like Monk often did. Still, in total this is a remarkable, and quite marvelous, de/reconstruction. A-

Irène Schweizer: Portrait (1984-2004 [2005], Intakt): One disc in a slipcase with a thick booklet, packed with excerpts from fourteen albums, by a Swiss pianist I've never heard before, although I've certainly heard of. Nothing in this year's bumper crop of solo piano strikes me as anywhere near as robust as the three solo pieces here. Even better are the duos, mostly with drummers, but two saxophonists I've also never heard of, Omri Ziegele and Co Streiff, also stand out, and the 10:13 "First Meeting" with trombonist George Lewis is riveting from stem to stern. Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake are tight enough that their trio combines the virtues of the duos. That leaves two pieces with Joëlle Léandre and Maggie Nicols, where the latter's artsong vocals would normally turn me off, but somehow here they slip past as high camp. This does what few samplers manage to do: make me want to hear all of the albums they come from. A

Zentralquartett: 11 Songs - Aus Teutschen Landen (2005 [2006], Intakt): Two songs are original compositions by pianist Ulrich Gumpert, but they fit stylistically with the nine Volkslieder -- German folk songs, all attributed to Trad. The songs provide the safe, bouncy melodic lines that the group frequently returns to, but the group also kicks them out of shape, tears them apart, twists them into strange shapes. Two horns, Conrad Bauer's trombone and Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky's reeds (alto sax, flutes, clarinet), lead the mayhem, while Gumpert and drummer Günter Sommer get in their licks. A-

Fred Frith/Carla Kihlstedt/Stevie Wishart: The Compass, Log, and Lead (2003 [2006], Intakt): Wishart plays hurdy-gurdy, a contraption that makes sounds by cranking a wheel against a string, with keys to peck out a melody and extra strings droning rhythmically. It's presumably the source of the drone that underlies Frith's guitar and Kihlstedt's violin, although Wishart's credits also include electronics, which could be anything. The pieces are pure improv, melanges of string sounds with curious curves and haphazard shapes, more interesting for their sonic overlap than structure, although I can't say there is none. B+(**)

Barry Guy New Orchestra: Oort-Entropy (2004 [2005], Intakt): This is the slightly slimmed-down successor to Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra -- a major arena for Europe's avant-garde for nearly thirty years. The group here has the leader's bass, piano, three reeds, three brass, and two percussionists. They can make a good deal of noise, and frequently do, sometimes disconcertingly so. I've never known what to make of such groups -- Schlippenbach and Brötzmann, Vandermark and William Parker have led similar ones -- in that mode, nor have I ever figured out how composition and improv interact in Guy's work: it's quite daunting on the one hand, and not terribly rewarding on the other. What does impress me here are the quieter moments where the dark matter of the cosmos appears more intricately structured than expected. B+(*)

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

Paul Motian Band: Garden of Eden (2004 [2006], ECM): The further evolution of the Electric Bebop Band, but still anchored with covers of Mingus and Parker. Still, this is mostly texture, with saxophonists Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby reined in, and Motian as slippery as ever. B+(**)

Mat Maneri: Pentagon (2004 [2005], Thirsty Ear): The avant violinist has a large and rather nasty sounding group here, heavy on industrial grade keyboards with Ben Gerstein's trombone the only horn. The latter is an interesting touch, and worth focusing on. The thickly layered backdrop has some interest as well. B+(*)

Nils Landgren & Joe Sample: Creole Love Call (2005 [2006], ACT): Landgren's a Swedish trombonist turned singer, and this is his fun in New Orleans album -- sure, the title's an Ellington song, and an instrumental to boot, but from Stockholm the association is close enough, as is (evidently) "Dock of the Bay," "Night Life," and "Love the One You're With." Sample, the band, and guests who can outsing Landgren even wearing a sky mask humor him. Hard not to. B

Friday, March 17, 2006

Three Years

The third anniversary of the Bush invasion of Iraq is upon us. My post three years ago made a point of laying out Saddam Hussein's role in setting up the rationalizations behind the war, but the final judgment was:

The actual push to war, the setting of the time table and the issuing of the ultimatum, was squarely the responsibility of George W. Bush. In this act, which he was completely free not to do, Bush has placed his name high on the list of notable war criminals of the last century.

As I write this, we cannot even remotely predict how this war will play out, how many people will die or have their lives tragically transfigured, how much property will be destroyed, how much damage will be done to the environment, what the long-term effects of this war will be on the economy and civilization, both regionally and throughout the world. In launching this war, Bush is marching blithely into the unknown and dragging the world with him.

Three years later, we have a clearer picture of the crime. The US has spent some $400 billion and lost over 2300 soldiers with no clear end in sight to achieve nothing worthwhile. A tenacious resistance has taken a steady toll, both on the US and on every effort the US has made to stabilize a client regime. The US has effective control of its bases and the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, but little more. The so-called Iraqi Government has been in limbo since the December election. Local areas are effectively controlled by sectarian militias -- some deemed enemies by the US, some deemed friendly, but none subservient, and most hostile to each other. Crime is rife -- even in the Green Zone, where millions or billions of dollars go unaccounted for. Reconstruction is virtually impossible. Even the oil industry has progressively shut down, leading to shortages and price gouging worldwide. Nobody knows how many Iraqis have died -- the US, figuring there's no good news to be found, makes no attempt to count -- but the numbers are very likely in six figures and the rate seems to be climbing as the warlords inch into a civil war that the US did much to promote and has no ability to stop. Some of this violence comes from a stream of non-Iraqi jihadis -- Bush always said he'd rather fight the "terrorists" there than here, and by baiting the trap with American soldiers he's managed to bring 'em on. But these days Iraq seems to be exporting plenty of terrorists as well, especially to Afghanistan, where the broader-based NATO occupation had been relatively benign.

With so little to show for this effort, American public opinion has turned on Bush. I found Jim Lehrer's interview with a pollster interesting tonight, especially when the pollster explained that the downturn in war support was caused by reports of Iraqi deaths. Lehrer tried to correct him -- surely he meant American deaths -- but the pollster remained firm. Nobody thinks that the American people are showing a sudden surge of empathy here. What they recognize is that the avalanche of reports of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence show two things: that any prospect for success is lost, and that Bush's denials have no credibility any more. Murtha's position -- that the US military has done all it can do, but can't remain in the midst of a civil war -- resonates with what people are learning.

This turn in public opinion has happened with little encouragement by the so-called opposition party. While rank-and-file Democrats are solidly against the war, their party's political establishment has frozen. The simple explanation is that they're still stuck in a mind set that sees the US as having a vast and aggressive role throughout the world -- both militarily and diplomatically. Few other nations have any such delusions, either that the world's many problems are their own concern, or that the way to deal with them is overwhelming military force. Yet prominent Democrats continue to mouth nostrums like we can't afford to fail and grouch that the only problem with invading and occupying Iraq has been Bush incompetency. Those are the same people likely to fall for the Iran war drums that Bush et al. have taken to pounding, perhaps in hope of drowning out the din of Iraq.

Three years ago, I ended: "The only way to have peace is to be peaceable." Still true today.

One more note: One of the things that pro-war pundits said three years ago was that when people who had opposed Bush going to war in Iraq saw how successfully it would turn out, they -- especially the unwilling allies -- would flock to America's side. One measurement of the war is how many people have changed positions. There are a handful of former opponents like Madelyn Albright who now support the war, but I don't know of any who concede that they had been wrong to oppose it in the first place.

Nonetheless, far too little credit has been given to those who had the insight or simply the decency to oppose this war from the very beginning.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Mediocrity of Dysfunctional Markets

Tony Pugh wrote a Knight-Ridder piece in the Wichita Eagle today. Title is "U.S. medical care found uniformly mediocre." The piece deserves to be quoted in full:

U.S. patients receive proper medical care from doctors and nurses only 55 percent of the time, regardless of their race, income, education or insurance status, according to a national study published today in The New England Journal of Medicine.

A well-functioning health care system should provide recommended levels of care 80 to 90 percent of the time, the study's authors said.

In a performance review of preventive services and care for 30 chronic conditions, including hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, researchers found that it's almost a coin flip as to whether patients get the recommended care from doctors and nurses -- even though the standard treatments are widely known.

The findings show that everyone is at roughly equal risk of inadequate care from medical professionals. However, small differences did occur in the care given male and female patients and those from different racial and ethnic groups.

The operative word is "small" here. Later down it notes that blacks and Hispanics fared slightly better than whites. That could just be noise given the sample size. Also, the difference between insured and uninsured isn't fully accounted for, since what is being examined is the quality of treatment given. Those who don't get treatment at all miss out on this 55% chance of getting treated properly.

"Not only is no place safe, no one is safe from poor quality," said Dr. Steven Asch, the lead author and senior natural scientist at Los Angeles-based RAND Health, the nation's largest independent health policy research organization. "No matter what group we looked at, whether they were black, white, rich or poor, uninsured, insured, educated, uneducated, all of them were receiving mediocre care."

He blamed the nation's "fragmented and chaotic" health care system for making it difficult to deliver quality care. Greater use of computers could improve care by helping doctors track patients' medical histories, he said. In addition, computers could provide electronic reminders about needed tests and appointments. Electronic medical records could log information on other caregivers' thoughts about a patient's condition.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has incorporated some of these improvements, and a study has found that VA patients get proper recommended care about 66 percent of the time.

In addition, the study found that blacks and Hispanics were slightly more likely to get proper levels of care than whites, but only by about 3.5 percentage points.

The RAND study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, used telephone surveys and patient medical records to follow the health care of nearly 7,000 adults in 12 metropolitan areas.

Paul Krugman's New York Review of Books piece on health care also talks about fragmentation and also singles out the VA as a model that provides better than normal service. It's interesting that Krugman was primarily concerned with cost, not quality. Of course, the two are related: botched treatments often cost more in the long run. But we usually think that if we pay a bit more people will do a better job, so what's up here?

Lots of things, but two stand out. One is that the health care system has no responsibility for the long term health care of the individuals who use it. The VA is the exception there, and much of the differential can e traced to its ability to consistently track the health care of clients who stay within the system all their lives. The rest of the system just bills for services, so if they mess up and miss something now, chances are they'll make more off it later.

The other is that there isn't much immediate feedback on health care decisions, so neither doctors nor patients are much good at catching mistakes. Most of this is information deficit: doctors never know much about your body, and most likely you don't know much about medicine either. Some other major factors are that the insurance companies are constantly on the doctors to cut costs, and the health care businesses are constantly on the doctors to speed up and bring in more billable revenue.

These factors are exacerbated not just by "fragmentation" but by the profit directive. On the other hand, the fact that the they can't detect any qualitative differences due to things like good vs. bad insurance means that conventional market concepts like smarter shopping and premium spending won't help. Studies on malpractice argue that with few exceptions major errors are also randomly distributed. Again, smarter shopping isn't really possible because you never know enough, and premium spending is merely a windfall for its recipient.

A lot of people are aware of the extravagant cost of health care in the US but figure at least the system provides some dividend in quality for all that money -- at least for those who can afford it. Statistics don't confirm this. I can come up with numerous examples of errors or omissions in cases I'm aware of, and every time I talk to others about health care they have similar stories. The truth behind the myth is that progress in science and technology have improved many treatments compared to the past, but we also see some of those improvements traded off -- e.g., hospital stays have been cut back, sometimes inadvisably.

While cost problems are serious, quality is the real weakness of the US system. Any cost-saving change to the system needs to satisfy the quality question. What this study shows is that it's not hard to improve quality -- the bar there is embarrassingly low. It's also not hard to improve on cost. The remarkable thing is that in many cases you can do both at the same time.

Krugman's article tries to stay on very safe ground. He makes a big deal out of progress in economic analysis of the health care system that has occurred since Clinton's foolish 1993 bill. What he has to say is right as far as it goes, but he doesn't look very far into the question of how costs increase, and therefore how costs can be managed or reduced while maintaining or improving quality. He attributes most cost increases to new technology that often broadens what health care provides can offer. That's right, and the high prices have shown our willingness to pay more every chance we find for improvement.

But most of these new costs have been inflated toward the point of indifference -- which as we've seen is a very high point -- by monopoly grants tied to patents. The obvious way to cut back on those costs is to end the monopolies and open up competition in manufacturing. This would reduce the companies' incentive to fund new r&d, but that funding could easily be replaced from public sources, and there would be qualitative as well as cost advantages in doing so. For starters, information could be public at every stage in the development process. Researchers could build on each others' work. Tests could be coordinated worldwide. Systems could be developed to provide doctors with unbiased information.

Many more things could be done to raise quality and lower costs. A single insurance pool that follows you from birth to death is only the most obvious. Among other things, this would eliminate a lot of costs that are scattered inequitably through systems that try to account for health costs, like auto insurance, worker's compensation, malpractice and other torts. A single, standard, open source format for personal health records. Public funding to increase competition, ensure adequate distribution of resources, and maintain standards of quality -- even to get to a point where there is enough surplus capacity to handle disasters.

There's a lot that can be done to straighten out the Health Care Mess, but first we have to get past the vested interests and the ideological muddle. The realization that health care as we practice it in the US is not too expensive so much as it is inadequate and dysfunctional is a necessary starting point.

News Real

Haven't put anything in the blog in a few days. Meanwhile, the news and outrage pile up. As is often the case, it's hard to know where to start, let alone find a place to stop. Some quick items:

  • Israel's "prison break" in Jericho reminds us that the "Palestinian Authority" has no authority, let alone sovereignty. It reminds us in many ways that Israel assumes, and the US and UK -- who were complicit in this action -- a broad set of double standards. E.g., ever since the elections that Hamas won we've been hectored on how Hamas has refused to "accept Israel's right to exist," yet it's clear that Israel doesn't accept or respect Palestinian rights. More than that, this act shows the world once again that, regardless of anything they say about democracy and law, the real lesson is that might alone gives Israel and the US the right to do whatever they want.

  • Knight-Ridder finally published a story on the increasing use of aerial bombardment by the US in Iraq: up 50% in the last five months. On the other hand, Knight-Ridder has sold itself to another newspaper chain to be hacked up, absorbed or spun off. As with the Dubai Ports World deal, a big problem here is what the astronomical sale price ($4.5 billion) says about the future exploitation of this resource. Another question is whether anyone able to spend that kind of money can be trusted to provide fair and accurate news.

  • Orville Schell has an important piece at TomDispatch on the conditions journalists work under in Iraq. He actually only covers one part of the problem: the security breakdown and the growth of "hotel journalism" -- journalists media can't cover Iraq in large part because they can't safely travel anywhere in Iraq. But there's more to it. If security was the only issue, you'd think that at least journalists would be able to cover what's happening in the Green Zone: What does the US military really know and think? What is Khalilzad reall up to? Who's siphoning off all that money? What, if anything, do the Iraqi politicos ("faces") do? Of course, the US doesn't want any of these things reported -- look at all the misinformation and spin they pour out, the legions of press handlers and psy-ops flacks they employ. These are inbred problems in journalism these days, and the people who want to manipulate them have lots of experience. The press, after all, scarcely does a better job in Washington, where security is not an issue -- the difference isn't "hotel journalism" per sé, it's mostly just the amount of armor required. But what is different in Iraq is that the unreported news isn't insignificant there. That's why we've been blindsided repeatedly.

  • Bush's polls are running in the 30-40% range, more often toward the low end than the high end. The pundits are doing their best to obfuscate this -- my favorite was the Fox "All Star" who argued that the only thing holding Bush's numbers up is hatred of the Democrats -- but the real reason is real simple: more and more people are realizing that you can't believe a single thing that comes out of the guy's mouth. Iraq and Katrina are the big ticket items, but they all add up. Chris Matthews was dismayed the other night that Bush's "likability" numbers are no better than his "approval" polls -- shoots down his pet theory, that even Americans who dislike his policies at least like the guy. That's history. Bush is a liar, a jerk, a creep. People realize that not because that's what the media tells them -- can't blame the media here -- but because that's the only way to reconcile what little we know about what's happening in the world with Bush's own words and postures.

  • Meanwhile, the drum beat for war against Iran in a virtual re-run of the long march to Baghdad. Given the polls, there's a large dose of "wag the dog" in this, although I haven't seen any pundit uncouth enough to mention it. (I have seen some fooolish enough to make the comparison to Iraq and still argue that this time the case for war is real. It isn't.) The whole idea is stupid beyond belief, but the Busheviks continue to press arguments that serve no purpose other than to box themselves into a position where war looks inevitable -- much like the Germans convinced themselves that they'd be better off starting a World War in 1914 rather than wait and risk being weaker than the war came. One reason why the Administration pushes this line, despite the fact that American opinion has turned decisively against the Iraq war, is that the Democrats haven't been able to articulate a counterposition that shows us how to resolve problems like Iran and Iraq short of war. (This goes back to Israel's example that might makes right. These issues are all closely related, and the Democrats are blindfolded by their kneejerk more-Likud-than-thou posture.)

  • David Sirota wrote an interesting post on the Democrats' fumbling, bumbling reaction to Bush's bad news. He contrasts the D's "culture of weakness" to the R's "culture of corruption," and predicts that if the D's can't grow a spine real fast they'll lose 2006 regardless of how much corruption taints the R's. Spine here means the willingness to stand up to Bush and the R's, who run roughshod over the weak, but get flummoxed any time they have to face reality. Lately the D's have been ducking Feingold's Bush censure resolution, much as they ducked Murtha's plan to redeploy from Iraq. Sure, censure won't pass the Senate, but Bush approval is down to 34%, and they want to be a majority party someday, don't they?

  • Katrina got back in the news around Mardi Gras, and hasn't faded again. One story today was wondering how all those trailer homes FEMA bought will hold up to all the floods, tornados and hurricanes coming their way soon. March has already set a record for tornados, and we're only half way through.

  • Meanwhile, in the real problems department, prairie fires continue to devastate Texas and Oklahoma. The severe warning map stretches from the eastern half of New Mexico across all of Oklahoma and into the Ozarks. We've had a lot of wind lately, including gale-force winds that did a lot of damage around Lawrence KS. We've had a really mild, dry winter, but the forecast is for an exceptionally nasty tornado season. Another report today was that a 100-year-old dam in Hawaii collapsed. Many US dams are old like that; without some dilligence and budget more will collapse. Also, just when we've made some progress opening up Japan's beef markets, another case of mad cow disease.

Much more to write about, and much more slipping through the cracks. One thing I wanted to mention was an exceptional run of pieces in last two issues of The New York Review of Books:

  • Paul Krugman and Robin Wells: The Health Care Crisis and What to Do About It -- Self-explanatory, perfectly reasonable as far as it goes.

  • David Cole: Are We Safer? -- On terrorism books, including a scathing survey of the DOJ's prosecution record on terrorism cases. Also an Epilogue.

  • Peter W. Galbraith: The Mess -- Iraq, of course, the Bremer and Packer books. Good narrative of the run-up and the Bremer period.

  • Tony Judt: A Story to Be Told -- On the cold war, as told by John Lewis Gaddis. As Judt points out, the misunderstanding of the cold war continues to plague us.

  • Hussein Agha and Robert Malley: Hamas: The Perlis of Power -- On the Palestinian elections. Points out that Hamas would have had some advantages by losing and remaining in the opposition, but I don't really buy that.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Music: Current count 11678 [11645] rated (+33), 834 [832] unrated (+2). Just cruising along here: a fair chunk of recycled goods plus a fair chunk of jazz prospecting. At this point the backlog is more on the jazz side.

  • Kevin Hays: Andalucia (1996 [1997], Blue Note): Nice piano trio with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. B+(*)
  • Prince Lasha & Sonny Simmons: Firebirds (1967 [1993], Contemporary OJC): Simmons' post-1994 comeback period has been loaded with two-horn dates, mostly with Michael Marcus, in the footsteps of this early date. While both leaders play alto sax, Lasha switches to flute and alto clarinet, while Simmons switches to English horn, each providing a shade of variation. Still, the really muscular sax is most likely Simmons. The bass-drums, Buster Williams and Charles Moffett, vary the riddims, and Bobby Hutcherson has some standout moments. B+(**)
  • Sunny Murray: Sunny Murray Quintet (1966 [2003], ESP-Disk): Murray's importance as a drummer -- to Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and many others -- is hard to overestimate. This is a rough session, a quintet with trumpet, two alto saxes, bass and drums. One problem is that none of the horns are very distinct or all that interesting, while bassist Alan Silva tends to get buried. That leaves Murray riding herd, sounding more like a frustrated Max Roach than his usual self. As a mid-'60s avant-orgy this has fun moments. B

Second (officially speaking) week of jazz prospecting. The records have been piling up, but I've finally started to get into the flow of this. The following are first pass notes -- often first play, but sometimes I spin it again. Grades in brackets are not final: I intend to return to those records again.

Ellis Marsalis: Ruminations in New York (2003 [2004], ESP-Disk): The problem is that when the artist alone decides what goes on the disc, you need artists with something to say. The first new production of the famously ferocious '60s label -- home to Albert Ayler and the Holy Modal Rounders -- is a relentlessly nice piece of solo piano from the patriarch of the Marsalis mob. Nice. Awful nice, in fact. B

Albert Ayler Trio: Spiritual Unity (1964 [2005], ESP-Disk): One of the landmarks of the '60s avant-garde -- Ayler's defining moment, but also a high point in the careers of trio mates Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, who never falter and never intrude on Ayler's rapid-fire inspiration; "Ghosts" rises with a memorable head, then rises again at the end in a second variation; short at 29:21, uncluttered by filler. A

Albert Ayler: Bells/Prophecy (1964-65 [2005], ESP-Disk): Prophecy was recorded a month before Spiritual Unity, with same trio and same songs, for all intents a dry run; Bells, recorded a year later with extra fire-power in Donald Ayler's trumpet and Charles Tyler's, was originally issued as a 19:54 one-sided LP, a relatively clean glimpse of the brothers' future groups. A-

Albert Ayler: Slugs' Saloon (1966 [2005], ESP-Disk, 2CD): A quintet, with the Ayler brothers in powerful form and Michel Samson's violin for contrast and complexity; the big pieces are rough hewn, playful, disorderly, subversive, and rather tough going, which is about par for this stage. B+(*)

Sonny Simmons: The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings (1966 [2005], ESP-Disk, 2CD): Simmons was past 30 when he cut his first two albums. Both feature his wife Barbara Donald on trumpet, the first in a quintet with a young John Hicks on piano, the second a sextet with Michael Cohen on piano and Bert Wilson on tenor sax. Before arriving in New York, Simmons had played alto sax mostly in r&b bands, but he had an exceptional sense of the connections between Parker, Coleman and Dolphy, and he sums them up with fierce logic and cunning, even advancing the state of the art a bit. A few years later he returned to the West Coast, fell on hard times, lost his family, became a homeless junkie, scratching for change playing on the streets. He finally got a gig from someone who remembered these albums, cleaned up and came back with a vengeance, turning in his finest work at an age when most people hope to be retired. Both discs are padded with interviews, but the man's got history. A-

Patty Waters: The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings (1965-66 [2005], ESP-Disk): Two albums, Sings and College Tour, squeezed onto one disc. I just have a CDR with no extra info, so can't comment on packaging, documentation, etc. First album has one side of minimal piano with voice and a 13:56 rant of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" on the other side. The live second splits the difference. She takes chances pushing her vocals to the outer limits of emotion, but I don't hear much more than effect -- a cult item with hints of interest. B

Joe Chambers: The Outlaw (2005 [2006], Savant): I know him as a key drummer for Blue Note back in the '60s, but I'm not familiar with his own albums. This one features his vibes and marimba, combined with programmed beats and Bobby Sanabria's percussion for a slick and slippery rhythmic complex, with piano (often electric) and Logen Richardson's soft, exotic soprano sax for coloring. It comes off weird at first, then sort of sneaks up on you. Nicola Guiland sings one song, and gets a voice credit on another. [B+(**)]

Cecil Brooks III: Double Exposure (2000 [2005], Savant): A drums-organ duo seems like an odd thing to do, but the liner notes point to a 1978 precedent that paired up Joe Chambers and Larry Young. I haven't heard that one, but it seems fair to say that the organist this time, Gene Ludwig, is no Larry Young. Brooks may not compare all that well to Chambers either, but that's harder to say. Actually, putting aside those questions, this pairing has some charm and interest. But it's still a pretty limited framework. B

Donny McCaslin: Soar (2005 [2006], Sunnyside): A tenor saxophonist, he's made a strong impression as a sideman in recent years, and he's consistently impressive here, even when he switches to flute. The small set pieces are clear and logical, dominated by his warm tone and the rhythm's latin accent. I'm not so sure about the vocal frosting -- in the lead piece it rises from a marvelous sax-drums duo like a mushroom cloud, although that's not really the right metaphor. Two pieces toward the end add extra brass for harmonic backfill. He's trying out various things. We'll see how they all sort out. [B+(***)]

Pamela Luss: There's Something About You I Don't Know (2006, Savant): Don't have recording dates, or a breakdown of who plays what on each track. The collective personnel lists 23 musicians, most well known names, and that doesn't count the background singers (with their own producer) and whoever plays David O'Rourke's string arrangements. Don't know much about her -- her website bio is just a reprint of Ray Osnato's revelation-free liner notes. Her voice is distinctive -- not conventionally pretty or fashionably heavy, but serviceable with a pastel tint. The songs are the usual standards. Vincent Herring produced like a kid in a candy store, the range of effects so broad and detailed that one's ears glaze over. I was prepared to shrug my shoulders and give it a middling rating, but near the end the Brazilian sway on "Waters of March" caught my ear, then the over-the-top orchestration on "My Funny Valentine" struck me as a unique take on a song that is usually whispered. So there's something here. I'm skeptical, but will keep it open. [B+(*)]

Wallace Roney: Mystikal (2005, HighNote): The previous one, with the same general concept of family postbop plus turntables, was called Prototype. Perhaps the new title signifies that the development process has gotten sidetracked. (Certainly can't be a nod to the rapper.) At least, the project hasn't jelled yet: the electronics and acoustics separate out pretty cleanly. I like Val Jeanty's turntable work here -- both the scratches and the samples -- but they're still scarce enough that they're background rather than base. The Roney brothers do a fine job of splitting the difference between solid and slick -- Antoine, in particular, is gaining ground, but the best musician in the house remains Geri Allen, so doesn't steal the album so much as keep it propped up. But we're still waiting to see what comes of these parts. B+(**)

Houston Person: All Soul (2005, HighNote): First time through this felt like he was phoning it in, but near the end "Please Send Me Someone to Love" turned magesterial, and the upbeat closer "Put It Right There" finally provided some payoff from the band. So I spun it again and noticed a slow but gorgeous "Let It Be Me" -- but the rest of the album, overpopulated by a sextet, only improved marginally. B+(**)

Monty Alexander: Concrete Jungle: The Music of Bob Marley (2005 [2006], Telarc): This looked certain to be a disaster, and not just because his last Jamaican effort, Rocksteady, was so awful. Marley stikes me as tough to jazz up, much like Stevie Wonder. Tossing a lot of guests and vocalists into the mix isn't promising either -- in particular, it runs a strong risk of turning into second-hand easy listening. Some of this does, and the three vocal tracks are especially lame, but there are points where this connects. Usually, these are the simplest cuts, like the piano-bass-drums on "Forever Lovin' Jah." Even better is the piano-trombone juxtaposition on "Simmer Down," with Delfeayo Marsalis. B

Béla Fleck & the Flecktones: The Hidden Land (2006, Columbia): The only other Fleck album I've heard didn't sound like much of anything, but this does -- it's just hard to place. Fleck's various antique banjos don't have much speed or drive, just a steel sound that adds a mechanical texture to the world fusion on the bass-drums. That much is neither here nor there -- what provides the interest here is Jeff Coffin, whose reeds provide low-key exotica. I'm still skeptical that this will pan out, but there does seem to be something here. [B]

Miguel Zenón: Jíbaro (2004 [2005], Marsalis Music/Rounder): The first I heard of him was when he won Downbeat's poll for alto sax, TDWR division, a couple of years ago. I got hold of Ceremonial, his then current album, where he impressed me more than the record -- bit fancy for my taste -- but the record could easily have been a HM. Since then he's been showing up everywhere, never disappointing even when the records do. I read a blindfold test with him recently, and he absolutely nailed everything they threw at him. Smart guy, knows his craft inside and out. I should have gotten this record when it came out last summer -- thought I did, but searched all over the place and couldn't find any trace of it. This is his Puerto Rican roots record -- jíbaro is a rural folk-pop style, Edwin Colon Zayas calls it his "country music" -- but Zenón aim for roots. Rather, he writes new pieces mapping the style onto a standard acoustic sax-piano-bass-drums jazz quartet -- no cuatro, guiro, bongo, vocals. The result is jazz centered on jíbaro roots, rather than jazzed up jíbaro or some kind of fusion. It's exceptionally clean and clear, beguiling music. A-

Jaco Pastorius Big Band: The Word Is Out (2006, Heads Up): I'm way behind the learning curve here -- haven't heard the first JP Big Band record, don't even have a fix on JP himself: two records in the database (one B+, one B), don't know his stuff with Pat Metheny, don't recall him with Weather Report (never was a fan of them; three B, one B+ records in the database), haven't heard his Rhino comp. So the first thing I don't get here is the point. What I do hear are splashy big band arrangements, mostly of Pastorius originals, with one Metheny, one Joe Zawinul, one Herbie Hancock, and a "Blackbird" that especially sticks in my craw. As big band bombast, this ain't half bad; as fusion, it just ain't; as Pastorius, beats me. Still, I figure it's time to cut my losses. B

Herbie Hancock: The Essential Herbie Hancock (1962-98 [2006], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Most of the cuts here are Columbias but it's hard to argue that they're not representative given the task of covering his full career. They're also the most useful -- if you don't know Hancock's legendary '60s work, the six cuts here only shame you into seeking out more. The fusion-heavy Columbias, on the other hand, need condensation, and this does a valiant and useful job of sifting. Hancock's problem with fusion was that he was always too urbane to rock -- only the machine-funk albums of the '80s begin to bring the noise -- but he found new ways to play jazz on electric keyboards. B+(**)

Billy Martin & Grant Calvin Weston: Live at Houston Hall (2002 [2006], Amulet): Martin is best known for playing drums with Messrs. Medeski et Wood, but he runs a label on the side where he's dumped out more than a dozen albums worth of solo or duo drums or percussion samples or remixes coming and going. They're all what you might call specialty items. I've heard half a dozen or so, and this is the first one that's seriously kicked my pulse up. Two drummers, sometimes a bit of extra noise -- Weston also plays a bit of trumpet. First impression is that it kicks ass. [B+(***)]

Billy Martin: Solo Live Tonic 2002 (2002 [2005], Amulet): Solo drums, percussion, some whistles and birdcalls. The drum pieces are tightly packed, and the range of percussion sounds provides some variety -- the metallic ones are the most ear-catching. A couple of spoken interludes are hard to hear: one about Black Elk, another about Burundi, both intros. B+(*)

Moncef Genoud: Aqua (2004 [2006], Savoy Jazz): Blind pianist, born in Tunisia, raised in Switzerland -- don't know a lot more. His trio includes Scott Colley and Bill Stewart. Guest Michael Brecker plays on three cuts. The last track, "Lush Life," was cut with a different trio and Dee Dee Bridgewater singing. It's all very impressive. Brecker's features -- one fast, one slow, one just right -- are spaced out and just rise up from the mix, which itself is as bright and imaginative as you'd dare hope for. The finale is from another world -- tough song for anyone to handle, and Bridgewater is faultless. Don't quite believe it all myself. [A-]

George Cotsirilos: On the Rebop (2005 [2006], OA2): Guitar trio, with a slightly dull tone to the guitar, and a mildly boppish vibe overall -- most tellingly on "Anthropology." Nice but rather slight. B

Dave Frishberg: Retromania: At the Jazz Bakery (2005 [2006], Arbors): Plays piano and sings, and that's all there is to it, more or less familiar songs he wrote as far back as 1970. Both piano and voice aren't much more than demo-worthy, but the clever songs are worth hearing just that way. A series of seven, plus patter, in the middle are based on baseball, and they date back quite a ways, to Christy Matthewson, Hal Chase and the Black Sox scandal, and his namefest starring Van Lingle Mungo. I know enough about that history that I recognize every Mungo-era star he lists; enough even to get choked up over "Matty," and not just because I recall a point Frishberg doesn't include, about how a whiff of poison gas in what we now call World War I pointed the great pitcher to an early grave. B+(***)

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

Exploding Customer: Live at Tampere Jazz Happening (2004 [2005], Ayler): Swedish freebop quartet, led by alto/tenor saxman Martin Küchen, with Tomas Hallonsten on trumpet for a two horn, no piano lineup. They have all the usual virtues: a rockish undertow, no qualms about getting noisy, a flexible bassist in Martin Quigley, and a terrific drummer in Kjell Nordeson. The two horns flare apart as usual, but they're exceptional when they band together, often on fast loops like a flashy circus act. B+(***)

Jeff Arnal, Seth Misterka, Reuben Radding, Nate Wooley: Transit (2001 [2006], Clean Feed): Group name seems to be Transit. Percussionist Arnal seems to be the leader, but the artist names are listed alphabetically, and the compositions are credited to all four, so the group is even balanced. Still, it makes sense to focus on Arnal, who provides a dependable anchor for the mischief, and whose drum sound is the most distinctive thing here. At first approximation, this is loose and rather hoary free improv -- at times exciting, galvanizing even, at times a bit much, then interesting again. B+(*)

Larry Willis Trio: The Big Push (2005 [2006], HighNote): Bright, substantial mainstream piano trio with Buster Williams and Al Foster, old pros all. B+(**)

Paal Nilssen-Love: Townorchestrahouse (2005, Clean Feed): Three long group improvs, run together in the title. There's no real reason the Norwegian drummer should get top billing here, other than that he's quite a drummer, fast building a reputation that might lead one to seek out an album under his name. Otherwise, this would have been released under Evan Parker's name: he has the lead instrument, sets the pace, and is the guy you focus on. B+(***)

Vinny Golia Quartet: Sfumato (2003 [2006], Clean Feed): Pianoless quartet, with Bobby Bradford on trumpet and Golia playing clarinets, high saxes and low flutes for a wide range of sounds. Interesting music, a wide range of sounds and textures, solid backing from Ken Filiano and Alex Cline. B+(**)

Joe Morris Quartet: Beautiful Existence (2004 [2006], Clean Feed): Jim Hobbs is bound to turn some ears with his alto sax here, both with his punchy free runs and his deft support of the guitarist's tricky single-note lines. Bassist Timo Shanko and drummer Luther Gray also pitch in -- never before have I heard Morris so confident or his music fleshed out so completely. A-

Andrew Hill: Time Lines (2005 [2006], Blue Note): Francis Davis wrote about this record in the Voice recently, which gives me an excuse for ducking it in JCG. I'm rather perplexed by it, at least in the sense that while I admire it quite a bit, I'm not all that happy with it. Hill cut his classic work for Blue Note back in the '60s, then wandered for a couple decades with scant output on small European labels, returned to Blue Note for two albums, wandered some more, recorded a couple of albums for Palmetto, and now is back home on Blue Note. As Davis notes, in all this time there's been very little change in Hill's work -- I'd add that in many ways this new record is perfectly typical of everything he's done over the last forty years. Like Monk, he writes mostly for horns, slipping in things you don't expect, but somehow they work anyway. Of course, he's subtler than Monk, but more importantly, he juggles more elements. His quintet here rolls along slightly out of whack yet remarkably together, and the feat is plenty impressive. But it also feels like it was just cut to order, and that's something I'm not so sure what to make of. B+(***)

James Carter/Cyrus Chestnut/Ali Jackson/Reginald Veal: Gold Sounds (2004 [2005], Brown Brothers): Alan Suback writes: "This album sprang from one question: what album would we want to buy which doesn't exist?" In other words, the record was commissioned to support a promoter's concept that sounded good on paper. That concept is Pavement goes jazz, with James Carter ("simply John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler rolled into one") honking. Movies have been pitched with no more detailed fantasy, but not good ones. Same here. Pavement's music is skewed enough that it's going to take more than these mainstreamers to tease something out of it. Chestnut is a particularly uninspired choice, but even Carter misses more than he hits. Two cuts get something going -- "Stereo" and "Here" -- but most go nowhere, or worse: "Cut Your Hair" erupts into nonsense vocals, "Platform Blues" gives Carter a chance to wear out his contrabass sousaphone, and "Trigger Cut" leaves Chestnut home alone. B-

The Bad Plus: Suspicious Activity? (2005, Columbia): When Francis Davis proposed writing about this for the Voice last year, he said something about taking the opportunity to sort out his misgivings over the group. He wound up hanging this on his year-end list. I really dug their previous three albums, but didn't connect to this one at all. Finally figured out why: this is where Iverson finally got to turn the tables and go classical on his grunge-head trio mates -- if not quite Rachmaninoff, at least Uri Caine with extra muscle on bass and drums. Davis likes classical music. I don't. B

George Colligan Trio: Past-Present-Future (2003 [2005], Criss Cross): This piano trio has a lot of kick to it. Mostly standards, mostly upbeat, quite a bit of fun. Wish I had a better handle on explaining it. I'm still more certain that I know a good piano trio when I hear one than that I know how to explain why it is so, except by resorting to crude physical metaphors. But then this is very physical. That fits in with the factoid that when Colligan appeared on pianist Kerry Politzer's record he wound up playing drums. B+(***)

Kevin Hays: Piano Works III: Open Range (2004 [2006], ACT): First new album in a while for a New York pianist transplanted to New Mexico, taking the open spaces as a theme for a solo album with some samples and singing of sorts. The vocals at best add a homespun quaintness, but the slow-paced, meditative piano is quite charming. B+(*)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Before and After Oscar

I meant to do a quick movie catch-up before the Oscars, but didn't find time. Here's what we've seen lately:

Movie: Pride & Prejudice. AMG lists no less than eight versions, including a 1995 TV miniseries that I've seen before. One thing this demonstrates is that public utility is enhanced when pieces of literature enter the public domain. Jane Austen has come to rival William Shakespeare as one of Hollywood's prime storytellers. I've argued before that Austen's recent vogue has to do with return to favor of a class system in which fortune depends purely on the inheritance of property. The later Dickens seems to have entertained some doubts about what kind of world that gives us, but with Austen it's just cheerfully assumed. Her real interest was in bright, young, cheerful, witty girls determined to assert control over their love lives -- if successful, of course, they marry into fantastic riches. Back in my grade school days I developed a rather nasty prejudice against all the established literary standards taught there -- the sole exception was Shakespeare, no doubt because the plays were relatively short and I managed to read a couple of complete ones before being taught how great the bowdlerized versions were. I've never read Austen or Dickens or any of that lot, but lately various film and TV versions have never failed to delight me. This one is no exception. Necessarily more compact than the 1995 series, I'm sure it misses threads worth pursuing, but Matthew MacFayden makes a darker and more troubled D'Arcy than Colin Firth ever could, Keira Knightley's adolescent excitability works splendidly, and Donald Sutherland is always welcome. A-

Movie: Walk the Line. "Ray with white people" sums up what is uninteresting in it -- aside from the sheer glory of the music, but we all knew about that -- and misses much of what matters. For starters, black and blind Ray Charles brings more self-confidence to his game than white Johnny Cash, in large part because Charles' mother built him up while Cash's father tore him down. Both the music and the love (or whatever) stories flow out of this security differential -- and in Cash's case this lets June Carter's character emerge as his redemption. (Charles, on the other hand, hardly needed women, even though he was plenty fond of pussy.) On the other hand, the drugs and the tedium of kicking them just seem to be occupational hazzards. This ends with Folsom Prison in 1968 -- a long ways before the story ended in 2003, and there's plenty more in those 35 years that could have been worked up (unlike Charles' same 35 year gap). But that lets them frame this as a love story -- thankfully, they didn't overdo the Nashville royalty angle. One thing I found surprising was that the leads were cast with actors uglier than the people they were playing. Can't remember that ever happening in Hollywood, but Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon did superb acting -- the latter looking more like the young June Carter sounded than like she looked. And neither were as far off base as Shooter Jennings trying to play his dad. A-

Movie: The New World. Terrence Malick picked a tough subject for a movie. We all know about the late 19th-century plains Indians -- at least those of us old enough to have caught the heyday of the postwar western and its genre-busting post-Vietnam denouement. However, before the 1830s and especially before the 1770s the Eastern half of North America was still Indian country, and Europeans treaded lightly on that country, with skill and cunning, but without the overwhelming power that Andrew Jackson and his successors wielded. Malick pokes at a small part of that story: the Virginia expedition of 1607. I don't know whether he does this because he gets to play off the recognition of the Pocahontas-Captain John Smith story, or just because it represents the beginning of the end. But in doing so, he plugs into a framework we find strange -- we have little if any past visual references for comprehending the natives. Moreover, the English and Powhatan's tribe is a simple two-way exchange, not typical of the European conquest. That conquest happened mostly because the Europeans were able to exploit fault lines between the hundreds of Indian tribes in America. (E.g., Samuel Champlain got his toe-hold by allying with one tribe to wage war on another.) Also, by starting so early, Malick misses the profound impact of disease -- which was already prominent a few years later when the Mayflower landed. Whether Malick's vision of America is off or not is hard to tell. On the other hand, when he returns the story to England, he winds up exaggerating the wealth and sophistication, partly because the available period sets are so often castles. The cinematography is, of course, wonderful. The acting is secondary -- or in Colin Farrell's case, tertiary. B+

Movie: Transamerica. I wasn't looking forward to this one: figured it would just be stupid gender tricks. But it's mostly a road movie, done two-lane across some of my favorite parts of the country, where everyone they meet is slightly off center, and few are much the worse for it. Plus it turns out that Stanley/Bree's newly discovered teenaged son is kinkier than he/she is, and he/she's got enough sense not to push the difference between propriety and reality too far. The stopover in Dallas works due to its normality. The only mishap -- a stolen car -- significantly advances the plot. The "meet the parents" scene is much better than anything the Byrnes or the Fokkers could dream up. A

Movie: Match Point. Woody Allen's new Woody-less, New York-less, funny-less picture -- a throwback to Interiors, if you can still recall that dreary thing. It moves slowly, getting us acquainted with people we have no reason to like, then descends into an affair that smells like disaster from the start. Fortunately, by then nobody cares -- we're thankful for any plot we can get. In the end, it does pack a moral message. Not a happy ending, of course: the entire upper class getting garrotted just isn't in the cards. But at least a brief glimmer of conscience and consciousness. And it does lay bare the notion that it's better to be lucky than to be talented. Fact is, it's better to be born with the cards stacked in your favor -- or if you're not, to crawl into bed with someone who is. B+

Movie: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. This at least is a movie about justice, at least in the sense of punishing a wrongdoer just enough to strip him of his illusions and bring him to face his crime. Barry Pepper plays a trigger-happy Border Patrol who shoots a Mexican cowboy (Melquiades Estrada) in a cock-up bad enough that he could have appeared in a buddy movie with Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. The Mexican had been befriended by another cowhand, played by Tommy Lee Jones, leading to a promise to make sure Estrada, if he dies in the US, is buried back near his home in Mexico. When the Border Patrol and the Sheriff ignore the shooting and bury Estrada in an unmarked grave, Jones acts, taking Pepper to do the dirty work. A dusty town, lots of desert, several side stories which all pay out. Very satisfying movie. A-

Watched the Oscars Sunday night. I had no idea how inspired the opening introduction of the MC was until I saw the rest of the show, at which point the most vivid memory was Whoopi Goldberg yelling "Hell! No!" Cintra Wilson at Salon pretty much got it. Sure, she always says it sucks, but she's never been so right. And this isn't about which movies won or lost, although as best I recall everything but Crash beating Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture and Three 6 Mafia beating Dolly Parton for Best Song was pre-ordained. (It's hard to say whether Brokeback Mountain being busted back to two inescapably obvious Oscars was a sudden case of the chickenshits or whether the voters finally succumbed to the studio's classic love story advertising and figured who cares?)

By my count, Jon Stewart only got one relevant shot off: something about how all the socially relevant problems explored by the movies this year had bravely tackled decades-old problems. I've never seen him so dull or uptight before. And while George Clooney's acceptance speech -- the first of the night -- seemed like a modest point in the right direction, it lost whatever courage it suggested when it turned out to be the theme du jour, before they descended into a deep pile of doo about how the industry that gave us Birth of a Nation stood up to racism and how the industry that blacklisted Reds and faintly pink "fellow travelers" stood up to McCarthy. And that was just the content-oriented stuff. The whole thing was so streamlined and buttoned-down they left nothing to chance. The presenters lost half their front time and three-fourths of their jokes. Most of the nominee naming was canned. Many categories were down to three nominees, including the always dreadful songs. Even the normally silly dresses were prim and proper, and nobody had one of those dumb ribbons. The whole thing ran as smooth and fast as Mussolini's trains. You'd think nothing else was happening in the world. Certainly nothing to get alarmed about, with Hollywood steadfast on the job as the conscience of America.

Before the show the big controversy was about why none of the really popular movies released last year got nominations. Nobody talked much about how the nominations themselves are nothing more than niche marketing -- in other words, "good" movies are a mere niche, just like horror and action and teen romance and all those other niches that never get an Oscar marketing budget because they follow a different business model. But within the "good" movie niche, the nominees did pretty damn well, as usual -- eclipsing plenty of other good movies without "good" marketing budgets. The obvious question about the Oscars is why do so many people who never see "good" movies still watch the show. But a better question is how long will people still interested in "good" movies about decades-old problems will waste their time getting bombed out by commercials between which there's nothing but a bunch of stuck up farts congratulating themselves?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Jazz Consumer Guide #8: Surplus

I get many more jazz records than I can possibly fit into the page I'm allocated every few months at the Village Voice for the Jazz Consumer Guide. I've started to deal with this by publishing weekly prospecting notes while I'm working on a column, and a set of surplus reviews once I'm done. The 8th Jazz Consumer Guide was published a couple of weeks ago. This is where the other shoe drops: the surplus file.

By writing short, dense pieces with a lot of Honorable Mentions this time I managed to get 34 albums in. That's probably a record: 25-30 is the normal range. That leaves a lot of records out -- most pretty good. I try to economize by rarely duplicating items that Francis Davis or other have already covered in the Voice. Reissues are always noted in Recycled Goods, and that's usually as far as they get. There are exceptions to these rules, but not many. Still, when I got to the end of the latest CG, my "done" file -- items that I have prospected (mostly) and rated but haven't reviewed or decided not to review -- climbed to 191 records. If I got nothing new, it would take me six columns (something like 12-18 months at current rates) to cover them all. Obviously, most of them aren't going to make it. In culling the surplus below, I've managed to cut the "done" list down to 106 -- not as far as I need to go, but a healthy start. Most at noted below. The rest were written up in Recycled Goods or in the prospecting notes.

Note: Rest of post comes from file.

Here are my notes on the surplus/flush records following Jazz CG #8:

  • Acoustic Alchemy: American/English (2005, Higher Octave Music). The twin guitars still dominate, but they've never sounded less acoustic -- the synth fill oozes up through the cracks and cascades from the edges. Relentlessly bright and bouncy: I think I liked them better when I noticed them less. C
  • Tatsu Aoki: Basser Live II (2004 [2005], Asian Improv). A Taiko drum is like a skin tightened over a small barrel, giving a sound similar to a bass drum but not so crisp. Aoki plays bass here, either alone or in combination with the Taiko drums. This results in a very minimalist palette, even though the bass can produce a wide range of string sounds. Interesting record, but likely to have a very marginal market. B+(*)
  • The Omer Avital Group: Asking No Permission (1996 [2006], Smalls). Subtitled "The Smalls Years: Volume One." Avital is an Israeli bassist who played regularly at Smalls -- Thursdays, according to the notes here, this is one of those Thursdays. His group here includes drummer Ali Jackson and four saxophonists -- Mark Turner, Greg Tardy, Myron Walden, Charles Owens -- working out their bebop moves. B+(*)
  • Anita Baker: Christmas Fantasy (2005, Blue Note). This closes with the non-traditional "These Foolish Things" for a pleasant note of normalcy after a ride that started by ragging "Frosty the Snowman" and threatened to expire when "O Come, All Ye Faithful" got stung by the Yellow Jackets. This is trite fair for torching, but it doesn't succumb to our greatest fears -- just flirts with the trivial ones. B-
  • Carlos Barbosa-Lima: Carioca (2005 [2006], Zoho). Likable Brazilian guitar album, mostly solo with a few less than intrusive guests. Might be more likable without Danny Rivera's three vocals, but maybe they just take some adjustment. B+(*)
  • Kenny Barron Trio: The Perfect Set: Live at Bradley's II (1996 [2005], Sunnyside). With Ray Drummond and Ben Riley, as perfect a modern jazz trio as you can find. Haven't heard the previously released first set, but my inside source tells me this is the better of the two. As befits Riley, this closes with two Monk tunes, and one of Barron's originals is decidedly Monkish. Just what you'd expect, which is to say it merits the faint complaint of "no surprises." B+(**)
  • Ron Blake: Sonic Tonic (2004 [2005], Mack Avenue). Blake's a tough tenor trying to make it in a soft synth world. That may not be the best choice he could make. He leads the fast pieces, but lags on the slow ones, not showing a deep feel for ballads, but hanging in there anyway. I'm tempted to say that the production -- especially the synths and the occasional extra horns just for color -- gets in the way, but producer Meshell Ndegeocello never really craps out: the arrangements aren't dumb or tacky or anything so obvious, but it sounds like two different records depending on when you tune in. My copy has is a limited edition with a bonus disc of remixes. They're neither here nor there. B+(**)
  • Paul Bollenback: Brightness of Being (2005 [2006], Elefant Dreams). Too clever by half, or maybe more. Bollenback's guitar is a sweet and lyrical constant, but his wide range of pop songs and classical pieces, his use of three saxophonists with no common ground (Gary Thomas, Tim Garland, Fathead Newman), and the occasional breathy intrusions of vocalist Christ McNulty make this a major exercise in kitchen sinkism. Choice cut: "You Don't Know Me." B+(*)
  • Salvatore Bonafede: Journey to Donnafugata (2003 [2005], CAM Jazz). Enrico Rava is the best thing here -- better than on his own ECM album last year. John Abercrombie has some sweet spots as well. I'm less certain about pianist Bonafede, who plays a less auspicious, more supportive role. B+(*)
  • Debby Boone: Reflections of Rosemary (2005, Concord). Not a bad idea, but it would have been better had they kept Scott Hamilton around for more than one song. What resurrected Rosemary Clooney's career was not just her "girl singer" sass -- it was also Concord's usual exemplary swing band. Boone's status as Clooney's daughter-in-law doesn't give her the genes to pull the songbook off. Her genes come from the guy who gave the word "cover" such a foul odor in the first place. B-
  • Ruby Braff: Controlled Nonchalance: At the Regattabar, Volume 2 (1993 [2005], Arbors). Archival material, left over for the usual reason -- they had better stuff to release at the time. The band includes Scott Hamilton and Dave McKenna, but you wouldn't know without looking at the booklet. Guitarist Gray Sargent fairs better, and Braff sounds fine, even if more controlled than nonchalant. We miss him. B
  • Cole Broderick: In a Dream (2005, Cole Broderick). My usual complaint about solo piano is that it feels underdressed, but that's hardly the case here. This is elegant mainstream piano -- Broderick cites Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn as influences -- and its simplicity is its charm. B+(*)
  • Brötzmann/Bennink: Schwarzwaldfahrt (1977 [2005], Atavistic, 2CD). This is one of those records that was doubtless more fun to make than to listen to. Brötzmann and Bennink just packed up a bunch of instruments -- the former's usual arsenal of reeds, plus viola and banjo but no drums -- and recording equipment, some wine and food, and went hiking through the Black Forest (hence the title), recording what they found and could make use of. The instrument list includes "wood, trees, sand, land, water, air" -- Bennink is legendary for his ability to make music by hitting damn near anything. Don't know how much they taped, but when they edited it down they came up with more than double what FMP finally released on LP. This reissue adds a second disc with the extra edits. It's de trop, but the first disc isn't much either -- interesting as concept and process, and for its occasional surprises. B
  • James Brown: Gettin' Down to It (1968-69 [2005], Verve). Like the slightly later Soul on Top, this is a big band album of Brown singing and grunting his way through standards. I was blown away by the later album, judging it on par with another soul singer who scored with big band workouts of standards: Ray Charles. But this record reminds us that such magic depends not only on the singer and the band, but also on the song. Soul on Top's songs were solid: "That's My Desire," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "It's Magic," "September Song," "For Once in My Life," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," like that, plus two of his own signatures. But the songs on this album fit so poorly that one wonders whether they weren't done tongue-in-cheek: "Sunny," "That's Life," "Strangers in the Night," "Willow Weep for Me." That's just the first four; after he gives us a break with "Cold Sweat," he dives back into his Sinatra records -- "Chicago," "For Sentimental Reasons," "Time After Time," "All the Way," "It Had to Be You." First time through, this seemed like a sure shot for the Duds list. Now I'm not so sure: play it enough and even corn like this turns sweet. B
  • Craig Chaquico: Holiday (2005, Higher Octave). The guitar effects sometimes obscure the songs, which are otherwise pretty obvious. Relatively painless compared to what's playing in the malls these days. C+
  • Don Cherry: Where Is Brooklyn (1966 [2005], Blue Note). My favorite jazz format this year has been two horn (one brass, one reed), bass and drums quartets, preferably with heavy hitters like William Parker and Hamid Drake in the back. With no piano or guitar to gum up the works, the horns fly off at odd tangents, so while Gerry Mulligan pioneered the lineup, it took off only with the avant-garde. This long lost record is a prime example: up front is Cherry on cornet and Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax; out back is Henry Grimes on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. While that gives us half of Ornette Coleman's pioneering quartet, Grimes roughs up the rhythm, and Sanders brings on the noise. A-
  • Cyrus Chestnut: Genuine Chestnut (2005 [2006], Telarc). Piano trio, plus Russell Malone (guitar) on three cuts, Steven Kroon (extra percussion) on more. Chestnut describes his influences as "jazz, gospel, classical, R&B, etc." and his intentions that they work as "a collective," "not work separately." That sounds to me like a recipe for mud, but they actually do separate out somewhat, and Kroon tosses in a little Latin tinge for good measure. While this strikes me as more likable than the last couple of albums I've heard from Chestnut, little else strikes me any way at all: the fast ones line up, Malone helps a bit, the slow ones disconnect, the gospel at the end barely gets its amen out. B
  • Nick Colionne: Keepin' It Cool (2005 [2006], Narada Jazz). Smooth guitarist, "his Wes Montgomery-inspired style style accented with blues, rock, and R&B." But then who isn't inspired by Montgomery? Colionne is actually better than Montgomery, at least in the latter's pop-pimp phase (which is the germane one), and the funk filler never crowds out the guitar. One vocal piece, a rather nice "Rainy Night in Georgia," in case the radio folks gotta have a vocal. Smooth jazzers never miss a trick. B
  • Marc Copland With Greg Osby: Night Call (2003 [2004], Nagel Heyer). This is the second collaboration between Copland and Osby. Haven't heard the first, but it is probably very similar: like most duos the interaction is limited, and it's hard to find an ideal match between the two distinct instruments. Copland should be a superb pianist for this sort of thing, but I find him often tentative, even on his own pieces. Osby, on the other hand, comes off fully confident. It is interesting that he's so much more effective on other people's albums than on his own, where his imagination often creates more obstacles than it solves. Beautiful closing take on Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," which finally hits the right balance. B+(**)
  • Duduka Da Fonseca: Samba Jazz in Black and White (2005 [2006], Zoho). A Brazilian drummer, Da Fonseca has worked steadily since the late '80s, with two albums under his own name and a couple more as Trio da Paz. This is basic samba, the beat light, with a soft melodic edge from a good quintet including reedist Anat Cohen. A very pleasant record. B+(**)
  • Steve Dalachinsky/Matthew Shipp: Phenomena of Interference (2005, Hopscotch). Another item with limited appeal. Shipp plays piano accompanying Dalachinsky as he reads his poems. The poetry is wordy -- "i look at it like/matter/or what's the matter/or it doesn't matter/for that matter" -- and can be oblique: "an unrehearsed gig with time/yet it ends like/the/rehearsed one." "Trust Fund Babies" is more topical, and "Why NAIMA?" is more cogent. Some pieces are more dramatic, with the performance extending beyond the words. Shipp does a good job of picking up the rhythmic nuances of the words and elaborating them in his lines, but the lines seem reflexively improvised -- only rarely does he get a chance to step forward. B+(*)
  • Daria: Feel the Rhythm (2005, Jazz 'm Up). Stevie Wonder should be a better songwriter for jazz standards than he's proven to date. Daria's take on "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" impresses at first, but she tries to improvise on it and winds up merely oversinging. You can't fault her for lack of ideas, and producer Frank Martin indulges every one, even the strings on Jobim. Tasty instrumental breaks abound. The songs are conveniently labeled: "15/16 partido alto," "6/8/multiple rhythms Afro-Brazilian," "rhumba," "tangoesque" -- Wonder's is "cha-cha-cha with rich jazz harmonies," Sting's is "Brazilian/fusion." B
  • 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
  • The Kenny Davern Quartet: In Concert, Albuquerque, 2004 (2004 [2005], Arbors). The veteran clarinetist with guitar (James Chirillo), bass and drums. About what you'd expect. W.C. Handy's "Ole Miss" sounds quite archaic these days, "Careless Love" only slightly less so. "Summertime" and "These Foolish Things" are hardly innovative let alone needed, but not unwelcome. "Somebody Stole My Gal" and "Royal Garden Blues" soar. So, about what you'd expect. B+(**)
  • Dave's True Story: Simple Twist of Fate: DTS Does Dylan (2005, BePop). One thing that made Michael Moore's Jewels & Binoculars work so well was that Dylan has long been unappreciated as a melodist, so their wordless extrapolations uncovered exceptionally fertile ground. Kelly Flint, however, is just another singer covering well-trod turf. Her voice is appealing, but she backs off from what you already know, rather than pushing further. Second weakness here is the Dave Cantor's band: centered on guitar and bass, like most string bands it takes off when it gets to swing. Which doesn't happen here -- indeed, seems like an impossibility. B
  • Dena DeRose: A Walk in the Park (2005, MaxJazz). Small group, the singer playing piano as well, and good enough that she takes a long solo that I like as much as anything here. The old standards, like "How Deep Is the Ocean," fare better than the newer ones, like "Imagine." B+(**)
  • Tony DeSare: Want You (2005, Telarc). Sounds like Frank Sinatra, especially when he follows the songbook, a comparion which lesser imitators might be tempted to avoid. Plays a little piano, although Tedd Firth steps in for the fast bits on "Just in Time." B+(**)
  • A Dream Come True: The Best of Trudy Desmond (1988-98 [2005], Just a Memory). She was a standards singer (a cabaret singer) who cut four albums before cancer took her life in 1999. Don't know much more than that: when or where she was born, etc. Haven't heard the four albums, but this is probably an apt summary. The four albums are evenly divided into seventeen cuts, then shuffled seamlessly. She has a light touch, and gets solid support, including Bill Charlap on one album. A very sparse take on "I Got Rhythm" is one of the highlights. As usual, the songs make the singer, and Cole Porter does especially well for her. B+(***)
  • Mark Dresser Trio: Aquifer (2001 [2002], Cryptogramophone). An odd and rather difficult album, but gradually the pieces fit together. Dresser is joined by Denman Maroney, credited with "hyperpiano," and by Mathias Ziegler, whose flutes and piccolo go in for some electronic processing. The piano sounds vaguely electronic. B+(**)
  • Mark Dresser/Denman Maroney: Time Changes (2003-04 [2005], Cryptogramophone). Dresser and hyperpianist Maroney make swingless mood music that gently rocks back and forth, with some help from percussionist Michael Sarin. Odder, Alexandra Montano vocalizes in time, in an artsong high soprano that never, to my ears at least, clarifies into recognizable words. Normally, I would hate that, but I don't. I've cycled this around several times, and it just sort of lurks in the background, waiting for you to pay attention. When you do, it does something clever. Not sure how useful that is, but it's something. 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+(**)
  • Kenny Drew Trio (1956 [2005], Riverside). Bright, sharply etched bebop piano trio with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, buoyed with standards that always stand out, notably "Caravan," "Taking a Chance on Love," "It's Only a Paper Moon." B+(***)
  • Dr. John and the Lower 911: Sippiana Hericane (2005, Blue Note). Mac Rebennack owes his career to the Big Easy, and here rushes out a quickie to pay a bit back. (Proceeds go to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the Jazz Foundation of America and The Voice of the Wetlands.) The emphasis is on quickie, with the first cut (reprised at the end) little more than an extemporaneous moan, and the bulk of the album filled up by a "Hurricane Suite" that could have been transcribed from CNN. Not much thought went into the title either. Graded leniently. B
  • Dominic Duval/Joe McPhee: Rules of Engagement, Vol. 2 (2004, Drimala). The label has been thinking duos, producing some rather ungainly match-ups (clarinet/trombone, bassoon/piano). This one has become a series, bass/reeds (so far), with bassist Duval as the constant. For Vol. 1 Duval engaged Mark Whitecage, in what turned out to be an exceptionally clear exhibit of an idiosyncratic artist. However, here the normally more voluble McPhee is in an unusually somber mood, restricting himself to soprano sax, and taking "Amazing Grace" and "While My Lady Sleeps" as slow as a funeral. B+(*)
  • Zé Eduardo/Jack Walrath Quartet: Bad Guys (2004 [2005], Clean Feed). Walrath has had twenty-some records under his own name over the last quartet century, but he's largely faded from sight. A major web retailer only lists four of his records -- none of the ones he cut for Blue Note and Muse, only one since 1996's Hip Gnosis. So my first reaction was a welcome back, but even here, he's on a Portuguese label and the local bassist gets top billing. The quartet fills out with Jesus Santandreu on tenor sax, who complements but doesn't compete with the trumpet, and Marc Miralta on drums -- often the most interesting player here. This quartet lineup has produced some of the year's best albums, but they depend on bounds-stretching performances on all four corners, whereas here the players keep one another in check. Not bad, by any means, but certainly not as bad as they promised. 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+(**)
  • Booker Ervin: Tex Book Tenor (1968 [2005], Blue Note). I doubt that any jazz musician has worked his name into more titles than Ervin: The Book Cooks, The Song Book, The Blues Book, and so on. Lee Konitz, maybe, but Konitz was born three years before Ervin, and continues to work 35 years after Ervin died. Ervin has that big Texas tone, which after years with Mingus he learned to push exceptionally hard. This made him one of the '60s most vigorous tenor saxophonists. This is in many ways a typical hard bop quintet, distinguished by Ervin's fiercely muscular play, but also by two younger players who threaten to steal the show: Woody Shaw and Kenny Barron. B+(***)
  • Bill Evans Trio: At Shelly's Manne Hole (1963 [2005], Riverside). The end of Evans' run at Riverside, with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker balancing out the trio. Understated but clever how they inch around standards as well worn as "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and "'Round Midnight" without getting predictable. B+(***)
  • Agustí Fernandez/Peter Kowald: Sea of Lead (2000 [2005], Hopscotch). This feels more like a show and tell than a collaboration. Fernández plays dense, abstract, vigorous piano in the Cecil Taylor mode, including some stretches of prepared piano. And Kowald, well, the late great has long been the world's grand master of stupid bass tricks. He contributes some vigorous metallic noise, a broad palette of scratching and scraping. The juxtaposition has its rewards, but the appeal will be very limited. 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+(*)
  • Satoko Fujii: Sketches (2004, NatSat). She's recorded a couple dozen albums in the last decade, few of which have been recognized in any sort of jazz press. In particular, she still does not have an entry in The Penguin Guide -- although her husband, Natsuki Tamura, does, and one seems inevitable for the next edition. This is only the third of her many albums that I have heard, and all three are so significantly different that the only thing that is certain is that the views are partial. This is solo piano, nothing particularly extreme, but very thick and rich stuff. B+(*)
  • Satoko Fujii Orchestra: Blueprint (2003 [2004], NatSat). Strong, often wonderful big band record, though it can get heavy at times, and isn't all appealing. Not much piano, but quite a bit of trumpet, especially in Natsuki Tamura's piece (and not just Tamura -- five trumpeters are listed). 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-
  • 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+(**)
  • Euge Groove: Just Feels Right (2005, Narada Jazz). Born Steve Grove, the moniker wishful thinking, or maybe a sly joke. Relentlessly pleasant smooth jazz. B-
  • Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra: Not in Our Name (2004 [2005], Verve). The front cover reprises the first LMO album, recorded way back in 1969. The picture on the back cover of the booklet is modelled after an old Soviet poster, with a man and a woman locked shoulder to shoulder, gazing off into the bright future of the new world. Carla Bley, her face mostly bone, her hair straw, still fits, but Haden, slouching behind sunglasses, looks lost, and soft. It's an ambivalent picture, as is the cover -- between the two veterans all we see are the usual motley crew of musicians, all relatively young, some younger than the first LMO album. I've had a tough time sorting this record out, in no small part because at first blush it's a rehash of Bley's Looking for America. The arrangements could hardly be the work of anyone else, and the tactic of weaving bits of old patriotic songs into the tapestry is repeated. Still, the opening bars of this "America the Beautiful" fills me with sadness -- even though the musicians can't help but rejoin the song's climax. It's been a long, sad retreat from "Song for Ché" to "Not in Our Name" and "This Is Not America" as the positive strengths that once were our assumed baseline we now hopefully cling to like life preservers. In the end we're left with the sheer beauty of the music, and sadness. A-
  • The Fareed Haque Group: Cosmic Hug (2005, Magnatude). A guitar groove album with funk overtones and shades of South Asian music, courtesy of Kaylan Pathak's tabla and Haque's own occasional use of "sitar guitar." He's from Chicago; his parents from Pakistan and Chile. Less impressive are the keyboards. B+(*)
  • Craig Harris: Souls Within the Veil (2003 [2005], Aquastra, 2CD). Composed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk, a book so forward thinking we ain't got there yet. With three brass and four reeds there's a lot of wind in these sails. But the extra percussion Kahil El'Zabar adds to Billy Hart's drums and Cecil McBee's bass helps on the bottom. No piano. Most pieces follow a series of superb solos -- Steve Coleman, Hamiet Bluiett, Don Byron, Hugh Ragin, Graham Haynes, Oliver Lake, and the leader all have spots on the highlight reel. Likely to be upgraded when I get to spend more time with it. Unlikely to be in JCG, this time anyway, given that Francis Davis already praised it to the skies. Otherwise it would be a strong Pick Hit prospect, and may wind up in the year end list. A-
  • 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
  • Ian Hendrickson-Smith: Still Smokin' (2004, Sharp Nine). Recorded live on two consecutive days at Smoke Jazz Club in NYC, with the alto saxophonist's quartet -- the superb David Hazeltine, Peter Washington, and Joe Strasser -- joined by trumpeter Ryan Kisor for some cuts, guitarist Peter Bernstein for others. Hendrickson-Smith swings hard and plays with a lot of dexterity -- a mainstreamer with a lot of confidence. Comparable to his previous album -- I grade it a bit lower because the guests don't add much and his flute feature is just a throw away. B+(**)
  • Fred Hersch: In Amsterdam: Live at the Bimhuis (2003 [2006], Palmetto). One of the best mainstream pianists working, but this one is solo, live, not all that interesting. I should go back to his Maybeck session for comparison -- it's been on the unrated shelf for a long time, still unheard -- but distinctions are likely to be marginal. And I should develop a finer sense of what does and does not work with solo piano. But three plays of this pretty decent one has only convinced me that this isn't the place to start. B
  • The Frank Hewitt Quintet: Four Hundred Saturdays (1999 [2005], Smalls). After missing every opportunity to record during his 66-year life, this is the third posthumous release for Hewitt, the everyday pianist at New York's legendary Smalls after hours club. This one is a live set, with his trio augmented by saxophonists Chris Byars and Mike Mullins. Fine latterday bebop, long solos on four old standbys, plenty of atmosphere. B+(***)
  • Andrew Hill: Andrew!!! (1964 [2005], Blue Note). Bobby Hutcherson!! John Gilmore! That's roughly the pecking order here, with Richard Davis and Joe Chambers rounding out the quintet. Blue Note founder Alfred Lion recognized in Hill a successor to Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols and recorded him extensively from 1963-70, but the records were erratically released -- this one didn't appear until 1968, many of the later sessions have only appeared recently, and many more are still out of print. After 1970, Hill mostly recorded obscure solo and trio sessions for European labels before returning to the limelight with larger groups since 1999's Dusk (Palmetto). This quintet fits somewhere between his small and large group moves: Hutcherson's vibes reinforce the angularity of Hill's piano, while Gilmore's single horn riffs along, again leaving the piano central. These dynamics make this an exceptional record for focusing on Hill's art. A-
  • Warren Hill: Pop Jazz (2005, Native Language). The first cut is about as good a riff as you get in pop jazz. The second is "Come Together," a pretty safe change of pace. After that the ideas run thin. I mean, "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)" has been done already. B-
  • Hiromi: Spiral (2005 [2006], Telarc). I like her straight acoustic piano trio work, and I like her electronics, although the Kung-Fu remix goes a bit over the top. But I don't have any real insights into why I like it, or why I don't rate it even higher. Made the last one an Honorable Mention, and this is pretty close to it, but the curve is probably steeper these days. And the time to figure it out is getting scarcer. B+(**)
  • David Holland/Barre Phillips: Music From Two Basses (1971 [2005], ECM). Just what the title says, with two of the great masters of the postbop era plucking and plying a versatile but difficult instrument. B+(**)
  • Iconoclast: The Dreadful Dance (2005, Fang). The alto sax and drums duets are delightfully twisted, but they carry along a lot of baggage -- electronics, keyboards, violin, kalimba, vocals -- which are merely twisted. B+(*)
  • In the Country: This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat (2004 [2005], Rune Grammofon). Piano trio from Norway, with Morten Qvenild on piano, Roger Arntzen on bass, and Pål Hausken on drums, slipping in some extra keybs and percussion here and there. Starts deliberate, the sort of slow free thing ECM likes, but roughens up the edges a bit, adding some noise. B+(**)
  • 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
  • Industrial Jazz Group: The Star Chamber (2003 [2004], Innova). When rock met "industrial" the music emphasized the machines with their mechanistic rhythms and spurious noise. The industrial era, certainly in the artistic imagination, was marked by the growth of factories and foundries, by the production of steel and the spew of dark smoke. In the U.S. and Europe it took off in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and accelerated so relentlessly we called it progress, up to and through the cataclasm of World War II. Sometime since then we've started to inch into a postindustrial era, one marked by processing of data through electronics and ultrafast communications -- not that the industrial world has faded away, but at least it's been tidied up a bit and nudged out of sight. All of which has nothing to do with this orchestra, but given the misdirection of their name I had to get that out of my system first. The group itself is a nine-piece acoustic jazz orchestra, for all intents and purposes a big band. It is heavy on the horns, with three reeds, three brass, bass-drums-piano, with the piano not prominent -- leader Andrew Durkin holds that chair, but introduces himself first as composer/conductor. It sounds to me like the music is composed throughout, the musicians filling in well-mapped roles, and that may be the nominal concept -- even if the roles require skilled workers, they leave little room for individuals. Moreover, it sounds like it's technically rooted in late euroclassicism -- a music I abhor and have spent most of my life avoiding, but I don't know where else the clustering of trumpets and the interplay of flutes may have come from. But I don't find it cloying -- it's much too cold and clear for that, and that's not a complaint. I've many times quoted Adorno on his preference for ascetic music and lush life vs. the contrary. This music isn't exactly ascetic, but it lives that way. B+(*)
  • Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: The Sameness of Difference (2005, Hyena). Reed Mathis' weird bass effects take a back seat this time, turning this group into a more conventional piano trio. This record is anchored in two jazz standards, one by Mingus, the other by Brubeck. More numerous are the rock songs -- Hendrix, Björk, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Lennon & McCartney -- but they are neatly tucked into the flow, bound together by five originals. B+(**)
  • Jazzanova: Blue Note Trip (1949-75 [2005], Blue Note, 2CD). The mixes don't change the original sources much, so this is almost an oldies compilation, selected by DJs according to DJ logic. This suggests two review approaches: one for its historical (i.e., educational) value, the other utilitarian. In either case, the mix favors early '70s Mizell Brothers fusion material -- i.e., the stuff they put out on their way down after Alfred Lion retired and the founders faded. Then the next layer back comes from hard boppers, especially Horace Silver. Finally, there are a few oddities -- Sam Rivers, Sheila Jordan, Charlie Rouse, the most interesting stuff here. But overall it looks too random for historians, if not for history. Utility is harder to gauge, but it doesn't do much for me. B-
  • Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents: Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert (2005, Blue Note). The problem with these benefit concerts is that everyone wants to get into the act, and that leaves you with a mess. At the concert itself, you're likely to remember the high spots, write the crap off as failed good intentions, and figure it's all for a good cause anyway. On record, it's the crap that stands out. Dianne Reeves' "The House I Live In" is the worst kind of well meaning liberalism turned to God and Country paean. Norah Jones doesn't do much better, and the gospel bookends by Shirley Caesar and Cassandra Wilson are over the top and out the door, respectively. James Taylor brings back memories of Lester Bangs. And somehow Aaron and Art Neville manage to blow "Go to the Mardi Gras." That's a lot of dead weight for any album to carry. Diana Krall, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Jordan Family stick to the literal higher ground and stay safely dry. The only singer to do something interesting here is Bette Midler, asking "Is That All There Is?" and resolving to party on. The instrumental pieces are less likely to sink in the muck. I've yet to notice Marcus Roberts' piece, stuck as an interlude between Reeves and Jones, but Terence Blanchard and especially Joe Lovano are inspired, and Wynton Marsalis can really "play that thing" so long as that thing is "Dippermouth Blues." The highlights here are worth hearing, even if you're unlikely to play the whole thing more than once. The proceeds go to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. C+
  • Guillermo Klein: Una Nave (2002 [2005], Sunnyside). An interesting bandleader from Argentina -- main instrument is piano, but plays some guitar and sings here as well. But he's mostly worked, as he does here, with large ensembles, at times the size of the band overwhelming. I find this a very mixed bag -- some sections really catch my ear, such as the trumpet intro to "La Ultima"; others strike me as skillful, and some leave me wondering why bother. The latter are often the vocal pieces, but I remain as fascinated by "Fascinating Rhythm" as anyone. Impressive enough to recommend, but not without caveats, and confusing enough I doubt I can do it justice -- whatever that may entail. B+(*)
  • Guillermo Klein y los Guachos: Live in Barcelona (2004 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent). A different band, including many Fresh Sound New Talents, far more easily recognized than the Argentines on Una Nave -- Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry, Gorka Benitez, Ben Monder, Jeff Ballard, Carme Canela. But still a big band, still a lot of texture, still an odd if occasionally exhilarating mix, still confusing. I give this one a slight edge, more for consistency than anything else. B+(**)
  • Diana Krall: Christmas Songs (2005, Verve). I've read that Christmas records outsell jazz records, a rather appalling factoid. Hopefully, this record will at least confuse the issue. She's a terrific singer. The songs are mostly crap. The Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra fades away toward the end, but they have a lot of fun with "Jingle Bells" -- enough so that for a while I found myself wondering whether this was the best Xmas album since Ella. But I gave up that notion, and don't consider it a subject for further research. B
  • Steve Kuhn: Trance (1974 [2005], ECM). Credits Sue Evans with percussion, but it's unclear how much of a mark she really makes. Otherwise, this is a piano trio, with Kuhn playing electric as well as acoustic piano, Steve Swallow on electric bass, and Jack DeJohnette. Most pieces are built on top of a light and sprightly rhythm, where the electric bass and piano mesh productively. The acoustic piano pieces are more complex, more labored -- more conventional. B+(**)
  • Peggy Lee Band: Worlds Apart (2004, Spool/Line). The jazz cellist from Vancouver -- I suppose it's one measure that she's established herself that AMG answers a search for her with the choice "Peggy Lee [Cello]" in the same bold type as "Peggy Lee [Vocals]." AMG now credits her with 5 albums and 48 appearances, although a half-dozen or more of those look like mistaken links to the singer's work. This record doesn't parse readily, I suspect because the cello is relatively inconspicuous in a sextet led by trumpet (Brad Turner) and trombone (Jeremy Berkman), whose dithering enhances the abstract expressionism. B+(**)
  • John Lindberg Quartet: Winter Birds (2004 [2005], Between the Lines). One of the most notable bass players of his generation (b. 1959, discography dates back to 1979 with the String Trio of New York, Anthony Braxton, and Jimmy Lyons), perhaps as much so for his compositions and the long string of records in his own name. This one is a pianoless quartet, the two horns being Baikida Carroll's trumpet and Steve Gorn's flutes, soprano sax, and clarinet. Also noteworthy is drummer Susie Ibarra. The horns take interesting tangents, and the rhythm can get exciting, but I don't quite get where the album is going. B+(**)
  • Joe Lovano: Joyous Encounter (2004 [2005], Blue Note). I didn't care for the previous volume from this session, which was billed as a "ballad songbook" - Lovano's many skills don't seem to extend to balladry, which is not to say that he can't play slow and thoughtfully, as he does on the Paul Motian album, but that he doesn't bring out the emotion in ballads. This, on the other hand, is elegant and thoroughly enjoyable. While Hank Jones gets featured type for his support role, George Mraz is most notable among the quartet, while Paul Motian is the most inscrutable. No surprises in any of this. B+(**)
  • Mark Masters Ensemble: Porgy & Bess Redefined! (2005, Capri). If you do feel the need for yet another big band rendition of "Porgy and Bess," let it be this one. The charts are crisp, the horns snap, and Billy Harper has a field day with "Summertime." The band isn't afraid to flash its muscle, and it can spin on the proverbial dime. B+(**)
  • The Earl May Quartet: Swinging the Blues (2005, Arbors). A nice little swing quartet led by the veteran bassist, with pianist Larry Ham and alto saxist David Glasser contributing a few originals to go with the standards. The title comes from a Count Basie piece. The balance is neither all that bluesy or all that swinging -- the group's moderation is much of its charm -- but Glasser gets to air out his horn on Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" and Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In." Barry Harris spells Lam on two tracks. B+(*)
  • Alexander McCabe: The Round (2005, Wamco). First album for a journeyman alto saxist (credits include Ray Charles and Chico O'Farrill big bands, Harold Mabern and Clifford Jordan). Nice tone and use of space on opener, "Floating." Pianist Joe Barbato switches to accordion for the title track, an interesting harmonic effect. The rest ranges from straight bebop to post-bop, somewhat more relaxed and generally quite pleasant. B+(**)
  • Paul McCandless: Shape Shifter (2004, Synergy Music). The title is evocative. McCandless mostly plays saxophone (tenor and soprano) but still manages a slightly exotic sound. Art Lande gives him a few breaks, filling in with piano. Very nice, but for all the shifting not a lot of shape. B+(*)
  • John McNeil: East Coast Cool (2004 [2006], Omnitone). Updates the Mulligan-Baker pianoless quartet frame with east coast panache, but still feels like a small idea, even if nicely executed. B+(*)
  • Marian McPartland/Elvis Costello: Piano Jazz (2003 [2005], Jazz Alliance). Costello sings here, playing a tiny bit of piano at the end. Talks about his father, also a singer. Talks about how he wrote "Almost Blue" with Chet Baker in mind, singing it and a couple of Baker's standards. Displays some gratuitous range and operatic flair. McPartland plays well as an accompanist, but she tends to bring out the worst in Costello, and the music never steps beyond slow, gloomy ballads. B
  • Marian McPartland/Bruce Hornsby: Piano Jazz (2003 [2005], Jazz Alliance). Here I'm at a disadvantage, in that I've never heard Hornsby's records -- got warned off him early, and never ventured there. As a pianist he gets compared to Elton John a lot, but the conversation here revolves more around Powell and Evans. He's very forthright, enthusiastic. His most interesting stories were about playing with the Grateful Dead. On the other hand, I still don't have any real feel for his music, and none of his originals here made much of an impression. Did like his boogie woogie version of "Blue Monk." Grade is pretty arbitrary. B-
  • Marian McPartland/Steely Dan: Piano Jazz (2002 [2005], Jazz Alliance). Usual format, but she's a bit out of her league here. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were the most jazz literate of pop stars, so they come off as knowing more about her world than she does of theirs. She compensates for that with shameless flattery. On the other hand, the generation gap is apparent when McPartland reminiscences about Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, mere idols to her guests. Closes with "Chain Lightning" and "Black Friday" -- the Steely Dan pieces include bass and drums, for a full sound. B
  • Marian McPartland/Teddy Wilson: Piano Jazz (1978 [2005], Jazz Alliance). Of course, it's ridiculous trying to rate records like this. This is one of McPartland's "Piano Jazz" radio programs, where she talks shop with a guest, plays a little piano, has the guest play, does a duet or two -- almost everything is improvised on the spot. She's been doing this since 1978 -- no telling how many of these programs she's done, but AMG lists 32 titles up to 2002. That's when Concord slashed their back catalog. Since then Concord redesigned the artwork and has started reissuing select old titles, like this one, plus a few new ones, like Elvis Costello and Bruce Hornsby. Those numbers suggest that they try to be selective about what they release -- there must be hundreds of interviews to choose from. However, given the format, this is the sort of thing that can be fascinating to hear once, but inevitably becomes distracting to replay. To a large extent, grading records is an attempt to estimate how much future replay pleasure they may hold. How valuable these are depends not just on who the guest is, but on how curious you are about the guest; given how technical the conversation can turn, it may depend on whether your curiosity is also technical. That's the sort of thing I can't evaluate at all, so I tend to grade these things within a relatively narrow band. Turning to this particular show, from McPartland's first season, the obvious point is that Wilson is one of the most important jazz pianists ever, but also that he is a very deliberate and studious performer. He talks a good deal about Benny Carter, who first hired him, and Art Tatum, who he was close to before they both moved to New York. He also talks about John Hammond, Fats Waller, some guy named Horowitz who plays classical music. He doesn't talk about Billie Holiday, whose name currently resides on many records that originally came out under his name, and he doesn't bite on any of the bait McPartland throws out about his skills as an accompanist. All that is interesting, as is the piano. I'm glad I heard it. I'm also glad I didn't have to pay for it, even though at $11.98 list the label meets you part way. And I doubt that I'll play it again, unless I have some specific research to do. B+(*)
  • Joe McPhee/John Snyder: Pieces of Light (1974 [2005], Atavistic). McPhee's earliest records were released by Craig Johnson's CJR Records, in tiny runs, long out of print. John Corbett's Unheard Music Series has rescued several -- Underground Railroad, Nation Time, Trinity -- and this one completes the quartet. This one is probably the most obscure of the series. It is built around Snyder's experimentation with the ARP Synthesizer, the source of various blips and loops and odd sound waves. McPhee, in turn, throws everything he has against it: trumpet, fluegelhorn, e-flat alto horn, pcoket trumpet, tenor sax, flute, various chimes, and a modified nagoya harp, with rather mixed results. Don't know anything more about Snyder, except that he seems not to be the same Snyder who produced jazz albums for CTI and A&M and who now heads Artists House. B+(*)
  • Mingus Big Band/Orchestra/Dynasty: I Am Three (2004 [2005], Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside). The three Mingus legacy groups are similar instrumentally, all heavy with brass. The seven piece Dynasty is the most conventional, with piano-bass-drums for rhythm, two brass, two winds. The ten piece Orchestra has guitar instead of piano, and more exotic horns (french horn, bass clarinet, bassoon). The Big Band is a scaled up version of Dynasty. Sue Mingus continues to ride herd, and brought them all together for her latest label. The songbook, of course, is magnificent, with "Wednesday Prayer Meeting" and "Tensions" especially resplendent with all the power. Still, after nearly a dozen such albums, one has to start wondering why bother. Mingus wrote many compositions with big band in the back of his mind -- that's no doubt why they scale so readily -- but his own groups were most often medium-sized combos, 4-6 pieces, which he then whipped up to big band volume through sheer will power (not to mention the omnipresent threat of violence). What's always been lacking in the Mingus legacy bands is the leader's mad temper. Sure, it must be fun to play Mingus. And sure, the songs deserve to be aired out. But isn't there something else one can do with them? B+(*)
  • Blue Mitchell: Down With It! (1965 [2005], Blue Note). This is a lightweight but otherwise terrific hard bop set. Al Foster and Gene Taylor keep the pot bubbling, young Chick Corea has some fine stretches on piano, journeyman Junior Cook muscles up on tenor sax, and Mitchell's trumpet is clear and bright. A-
  • The Mixed Media Series: Basquiat Salutes Jazz (1948-74 [2005], Prestige). A Concord publicist called me up shortly after this dropped to get my reaction -- seems like they're envisioning a series of painter-themed jazz comps. Conceptually I think it's a crock, but I rather admire their dilligence, and respect their desperation, in trying to come up with new ways to market old jazz. My painter literacy pretty much ends around 1970. The only reason I've heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) is because he was the subject of a movie -- which I haven't seen, so I appreciate the lavish artwork and packaging all the more. He strikes me as a cross between Robert Rauschenberg's structure and Larry Rivers' color, but I suspect the artwork shows here is selected largely based on his jazz references. No real surprise when painters are found to be jazz fans. When Basquiat died of heroin overdose -- what Greil Marcus has called "the common cold of rock death" -- he left behind some three thousand "mostly jazz" LPs. It's possible that Concord's mapping of Basquiat's collection to Fantasy's catalog distorts the painter's interests, but the curious thing about the mapping is that every song save one dates back before Basquiat outgrew diapers. (The exception isn't: it's a 1974 Dizzy Gillespie recording of "Be Bop," the song that gave the music its name. The reason, of course, is that Fantasy didn't own an earlier version.) In other words, once you get past the packaging, what you get is a typical bebop comp. And while there's some pretty classic stuff here -- a 1950 Sonny Stitt "Cherokee," a marvelous Monk "'Round Midnight," vintage Fats Navarro -- there's also things you can nitpick -- an inferior live Mingus "Haitian Fight Song," live Bird including a slice from that horrid St. Nick's bootleg. Part of the problem here is that Fantasy's bebop catalog isn't all that classic -- especially regarding Parker and Gillespie. On the other hand, tying Basquiat to Bird strikes me as necrophilia. Maybe it was true, but after Bird died most of the other famous junkies cleaned up and went on to notable careers -- Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, McLean, Getz, eventually even Art Pepper (sort of). If Basquiat was locked into that culture, it doesn't seem like much to celebrate. Ornette Coleman could have saved his pitiful life. B+(**)
  • Hank Mobley: Reach Out! (1968 [2005], Blue Note). Something of a straight pop move, with the Four Tops' anthem as the lead song, and the infectious "Goin' Out of My Head" as what would have been the lead of the second side. This is a sextet, with Woddy Shaw sharing the front line, and George Benson's slinky-sweet guitar. On pianist Lamont Johnson's "Beverly" they work up a most pleasing groove. Mobley sounds fine, but the program isn't all that interesting. B
  • Kjeril Møster/Per Zanussi/Kjell Nordeson: MZN3 (2005, Jazzaway). Deciphering the artist and title isn't easy, but this makes more sense than the cover does. The booklet says that this was reorded "April 26 & 27" but doesn't specify what year. The band is from Norway. No one I've heard of before other than executive producer Jon Klette, who runs the label. But this seems to be typical, both of Norway and Scandinavia in general: aggressive free improv with hard, rockish beats. Møster's credit is just "saxes," but either he plays a lot of baritone or he's sneaking in some bass clarinet. Heavy, tough, good fun, but typical, both for the label and for that whole neck of the woods. B+(*)
  • Quinsin Nachoff: Magic Numbers (2004 [2006], Songlines). This is a saxophone trio, with Nachoff playing tenor and soprano along with Mark Helias and Jim Black, plus a string quartet. But this isn't one of those sax-with-string albums: the strings carry the load of the complex, quirky music, with the sax melting into the background. I don't find the heavy strings very appealing, but I suspect there's more here than I can work through. B
  • New York for Lovers (1953-95 [2005], Verve). Still stuck in ballad mode, but with instrumentals, including four tenor sax giants, sandwiched between the vocals. New York titles (Manhattan, Bronx, Harlem) and lyrics ("Lonely Town") hold a slight majority, but while there's a "Chelsea" and a "Bridge," Ben Webster's "Chelsea Bridge" is a ringer. B
  • Oz Noy: Ha! (2005, Magnatude). Oz Noy is a heavy riffing electric guitarist working in an upbeat fusion vein. Most of this is slick and rather fun. Don't know what it means. B+(*)
  • Luis Mario Ochoa & Friends: Cimarrón (2005, Cuban Music Productions). Small print on front cover describes this as "Cuban Jazz Fusion." One problem I have with latin jazz is figuring out whether "jazz" in that context means anything useful to me. Ochoa plays guitar, arranges, and sings on half of the tracks. The band includes a strong horn section, piano, electric bass, and several helpings of percussion, with some shuffling of personnel and guests -- Paquito D'Rivera gets a mention on the cover, but only appears on one song. The guitar is worth listening for. The vocals less so, although Ochoa's "spanglish" on "Old Devil Moon" caught my ear. But the obvious jazz spots are rare. B+(*)
  • John O'Gallagher's Axiom: Line of Sight (2004 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent). Two saxophones -- O'Gallagher's alto/soprano, Tony Malaby's tenor with some soprano as well -- on top of bass and drums. The two saxes weave impressively, juxtapose less certainly. Mixed horns has almost become a pet peeve with me, and this is least satisfying when they harmonize, but for the most part it is very sharp. B+(**)
  • Nils Økland: Bris (2003-04 [2005], Rune Grammofon). Norwegian violinist -- his lead instrument is called a hardanger fiddle, which is close enough. Dark and slow, closer to mood music than jazz, where the mood is somber. B
  • Paris for Lovers (1950-92 [2005], Verve). Organizing principle is that either the song title mentions Paris or at least is in French. Extra points if the song is dead-ass slow. And eight of eleven have vocals, six or seven in French (depending on how you count Louis Armstrong murdering "La vie en rose"). Obvious is no problem -- how many times has Verve put Nina Simone's "Ne me quitte pas" on a compilation? It's not even a love song, and they still picked it. For that matter, what's so romantic about "Les feuilles mortes"? And how long did it take them to scrounge through the catalog to find Stéphane Grappelli doing "Nuages"? Or Ella and Louis doing "April in Paris"? Or French titles by Blossom Dearie, Helen Merrill, and Abbey Lincoln? Why do they think that slow songs are romantic? Even when the lead is on flute? 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+(*)
  • Charlie Peacock: Love Press Ex-Curio (2005, Runway). I don't really know anything about Peacock. AMG lists him under CCM, and most of his records on gospel label Sparrow, but this one sez "File Under: Jazz." On hearing it, I don't see why not. Musically it straddles smooth and mainstream, maybe even a bit left of mainstream. Guests range from Kirk Whallum to Ravi Coltrane, with Ralph Alessi on most cuts, and James Genus and Joey Baron on some. Synth beats appear, and are reasonably well integrated. Peacock plays piano, and rarely fails to impress. It's all a little slick and fancy for my taste, but it tries to do a lot, and mostly succeeds. PS: With its synth beats and slick keybs this fits most closely into the pop jazz realm, but that sells it short. The horns, even Kirk Whallum, are left of mainstream, and one thing Joey Baron isn't is a sellout. Still too fancy for my taste, but many people are likely to find this quite pleasing. B+(**)
  • Enrico Pieranunzi: Fellini Jazz (2003 [2004], CAM Jazz). This film music, mostly by Nino Rota, has a gentle wistfulness to it, which Chris Potter and Kenny Wheeler color in rich pastels. B+(*)
  • Enrico Pieranunzi/Paul Motian: Doorways (2004, CAM Jazz). Has any drummer ever played with more, and more important, pianists than Motian? I doubt it, although I suppose I can't rule out Jack DeJohnette without researching the matter. What makes this an interesting question is how oblique Motian is here: he tends to play not in support but off to the side, as if he's mumbling his own tune while Pieranunzi leads. But it works rather well, in part because Pieranunzi is something of a mumbler too. The discourses may not connect, but they do complement. Chris Potter ("special guest") expands the pallette on three cuts, and he does a valiant job of fitting in rather than expounding upon his usual effusive self. Interesting. B+(*)
  • Enrico Pieranunzi: Special Encounter (2003 [2005], CAM Jazz). This time Charlie Haden joins the Pieranunzi/Motian duo, yielding a more conventional framing of much the same charming piano and idiosyncratic drums. Mostly ballads. Lovely, of course. B+(*)
  • Bucky Pizzarelli & Frank Vignola: Moonglow (2005, Hyena). Nothing in the prior work of Pizzarelli or especially Vignola prepared me for how sedate their duets would sound. It's rare that you even get the sense that there are two guitars in play, at least without close listening. I would assume that the leads are Pizzarelli and that Vignola is merely paying his elder due respect. The album's dedication to Les Paul is a further generational nod, although the album cover makes nothing of it. Nonetheless, this is lovely work. B+(*)
  • Positive Knowledge: First Ones (2005, Charles Lester Music). The squeak, skronk, and flat-out noise finally spoiled this pan-African avantism for me -- a surprise, since I initially suspected Ijeoma Thomas' "poetic vocals." She's a taste you may not care to acquire, but she's not full of shit, and she somehow keeps the clash of the two horns -- husband Oluyemi Thomas, who plays everything but favors the bass clarinet, and tenor saxist Ike Levin -- within safe limits, at least when she's present. Interesting conceptually, and promising, but too tough to sled. B
  • Julian Priester Pepo Mtoto: Love, Love (1974 [2005], ECM). A Chicago-born trombonist, Priester has played on over 200 albums from 1954 until health problems recently slowed him down, but has few albums under his own name. He started with Sun Ra and Max Roach, backed Dinah Washington and Ray Charles, worked with Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane in the early '60s, did a short stretch with Duke Ellington at the end of the decade. He's played everything from his hometown blues to avant-garde, including a foray into fusion in the early-'70s with Herbie Hancock. The two LP-side medleys here fuse synths, guitar, bass and percussion into long riddim romps, with smears of trombone adding depth and personality. A-
  • Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar (1906-2001 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 4CD). Guitar has always had a problematic place in jazz. It's been present since the beginning, but hasn't had a consistent role or focus like other instruments. In part this is because technology has transformed the sound of guitar more than any other instrument -- electric amplification, effects devices. But it's also because most guitar developments took place outside of jazz, so jazz guitarists often import musical ideas along with the technology. The idea behind this box is to cover it all, but that's a tough job, especially as one gets into the home stretch. In the early days guitar was almost exclusively a rhythm instrument -- so much so that Eddie Condon and Freddie Green were famous for was never taking solos. The improvisers were more likely to come from elsewhere -- the first disc here widens the net to pick up bluesmen Lonnie Johnson and Casey Bill Weldon, western swingers Leon McAulliffe and Eldon Shamblin, and notables from the far ends of the earth: Sol Hoppii (Hawaii), Oscar Alemán (Argentina), and Django Reinhardt (France). Charlie Christian might have changed everything, but he died in 1942, and his legacy -- bebop-inflected lines cleanly picked on electric guitar -- developed gradually through the '50s, culminating in Wes Montgomery. The second disc here covers this period rather loosely, including Les Paul and Chet Atkins as well as the usual suspects. While the first two discs make for interesting archaeology, the subject gets messier for the other two, and the chronology breaks down. The third disc introduces fusion, again starting with a notable outsider, Jimi Hendrix, followed by John McLaughlin. The fourth disc recasts fusion into smoother groove music, with examples including Eric Gale and Larry Carlton. But neither disc focuses at all tightly. The third includes tastes as varied as George Benson, Sonny Sharrock, Derek Bailey, John Abercrombie, and Ralph Towner, while the fourth has James Ulmer, Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Marc Ribot. So this covers a lot of ground. It's tempting to add that it also misses much, but that's mostly because the raw numbers and stylistic variety of jazz guitarists have exploded in the last twenty years, and it's too soon to figure out what that means. A box of any other instrument would have similar problems, but guitar much more so. All this jumping around limits the box's listenability, especially on Disc 4. But then the box is best viewed as a reference set, and the 144-page booklet is by far the best thing here. B+(***)
  • Flora Purim: Flora's Song (2005, Narada Jazz). This is a pleasant album that doesn't strike me as worth dealing with. It's hard to characterize. The Brazilian groove is languid, the voice somewhat smoky. Neither encourage further exploration, but there is little here to elicit opprobrium either. B
  • Ike Quebec: The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions (1959-62 [2005], Blue Note, 2CD). A mainstream tenor saxophonist with a large tone and graceful swing, Quebec recorded a bit in the '40s -- his work on Thelonious Monk's early records was almost comically inept, but he had a jukebox hit in "Blue Harlem." After a hiatus -- drugs, the common cold of the bebop era -- he hooked up again with Blue Note in the late '50s, recording a series of blues and ballads albums that framed him well before he died at age 44 in 1963 -- Blue and Sentimental is a good example. Aside from the albums, Quebec cut singles aimed at recapitulating his early jukebox success. The 26 cuts here are all small groups with organ, sometimes guitar and/or bass, and drums. The sidemen are little known and mostly inconspicuous, and he sticks closely to what he does best: blues, simple romps, beautifully articulated ballads. A-
  • 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+(**)
  • Louise Rogers/Rick Strong: Bass-ically Speaking (2005, Rilo). Just voice over bass. I've run across this combination several times on the avant-garde (Devorah Day with Dominic Duval, Ellen Christi and Lisa Sokolov with William Parker, and most notably Sheila Jordan with Harvey Swartz), but this is more mainstream. It works because Rogers' voice is so clear and so self-sufficient that she needs little support, although Strong's bass has similar qualities. The material ranges widely, from two famous bop pieces with lyrics added (Annie Ross' "Twisted" based on Wardell Gray, and Oscar Brown's "Dat Dere" based on Bobby Timmons) to a cautious, lovely "Shenandoah." B+(**)
  • The Essential Sonny Rollins: The RCA Years (1962-64 [2005], RCA/Legacy, 2CD). Rollins established his reputation in the late '50s, then stopped recording in 1959. He finally returned to the studio three years later with an album called The Bridge, and followed that up with six more LPs in rapid succession. Rollins left RCA for Impulse, where he recorded three more albums up to 1966, then he took another leave, not recording until 1972 when he signed with Milestone. Rollins' RCA recordings have never been accorded much fame, although they've been kept more or less consistently in print, and wrapped up in a 6-CD box with the usual outtakes. The meetings with Don Cherry and Coleman Hawkins reinforced Rollins' status as a loner, but his quartets with Jim Hall showcased some fascinating guitar. Lurking in the background is the haunting question of what Rollins should do viz. the avant-garde -- this was, after all, the period when John Coltrane emerged as his great rival. But there is no answer to that question -- despite the later interest of folks like Ken Vandermark in Rollins' '60s recordings, the great man's own belated answer was to return to form. This is a useful sampler of his RCA work, but what makes it so compelling isn't how well it represents the period -- it's that it consistently finds Rollins' great voice in a rather mixed bag, and as such redeems a body of work we've always been uncertain about. A
  • Rova/Orkestrova: Electric Ascension 2003 (2003 [2005], Atavistic). Still sounds like Ascension to me. With only four saxophones to the quartet, they make up the deficit by adding a "rhythm & noise" section (guitar, bass, drums, drum machines, turntables, electronics) and a pair of violins that could have been filed under noise as well. The noise can be interesting, but the original never gave me much more than a headache. This is true to form, but not as severe. B
  • Roswell Rudd & the Mongolian Buryat Band: Blue Mongol (2005, Sunnyside). The Mongolian Buryat band is a conservatory-trained folk group, playing traditional instruments -- Mongolian variants on bass, fiddle, lute, dulcimer, zither, flute -- and featuring throat singer Battuvshin Baldantseren. Rudd is one of the all-time great jazz trombonists. As Verna Gillis -- founder of the Soundscape multicultural center, and wife to Rudd -- explains in her notes, trombone and throat singing have in common the knack of generating high-pitched overtones on top of a bass fundamental. The pairing makes for deep harmonics, but the record succeeds on more than this one trick. Rudd's Malicool album foundered for lack of a beat, but this time no drums gives the mostly traditional melodies an open, airy feel, as seems fit for the vast steppes of central Asia. Not that this record is devoid of rhythm: Rudd's "Buryat Boogie" starts out copping a line from the Beach Boys. But mostly Rudd works his way into the folk group, adding a welcome growl to the traditional repertoire. A-
  • Dieter Scherf Trio: Inside-Outside Reflections (1974 [2005], Atavistic). I wonder how impressive this sounded when it first came out. Scherf plays alto and bari sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, and piano, but I've never heard of him, or for that matter bassist Jacek Bednarek -- the only "name" here is drummer Paul Lovens. But Scherf's saxophones are more or less the model for innumerable free blowing sessions to follow. B+(**)
  • Alexander Schimmeroth Trio: Arrival (2004 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent). First album by the German pianist, relocated to New York, which is where Jordi Pugol finds most of the new talent he showcases on his Spanish label. He is quite good. His trio-mates, Matt Penman and Jeff Ballard, are quite good. And this is a very nice album. B+(**)
  • Maria Schneider Orchestra: Days of Wine and Roses: Live at the Jazz Standard (2000 [2005], ArtistShare). Like Schneider's all-but-universally admired Concert in the Garden, this leaves me numb and dumbfounded. When I'm ready to dismiss it, I find a tasty solo or some clever combination of voicings. The seventeen musicians include many familiar, much respected names, and there's little doubt as to the skill or commitment of the orchestra or the conductor. But in the end this doesn't add up to much. And I'm not sure why. Is it that she leads from on top with a wand? (By contrast, Ellington and Basie lead from seats in the rhythm section, so they were always deep in the music.) Is it that she's mostly into filigree when what I look for in a big band is muscle? (Hint: she calls it an orchestra.) Is it my paranoia over euroclassicism creeping into the jazz world? If she gave me some reason to care I might try to figure it out. B
  • Ben Schwendener/Uwe Steinmetz: Apfelschaun (2003 [2004], Gravity). They get an astonishingly rich and lush sound out of piano and sax, plus a few extras (bass and drums on most cuts, trumpet on three, guitar one). Steinmetz plays a range of unspecified saxophones, mostly soprano and alto, judging from the brightness of the sound. (Ah, the insert tells us: soprano sax [sx] on everything but "Folk Dance," which is sopranino sax.) Schwendener plays piano. Is it too sweet? Can't quite decide. 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+(*)
  • The Jim Seeley/Arturo O'Farrill Quintet (2003 [2005], Zoho). Seeley wrote the songs and plays trumpet. O'Farrill plays piano, including a little electric. Jed Levy adds tenor sax or flute, but usually keeps his space from Seeley, so we get contrasting horns instead of unison or divergent mish-mash. The rhythm section leans latin, most notably legendary bassist Andy Gonzalez, but this doesn't have the rhythmic complexity or fervor of this label's other releases. Basically, a nice, smart, decent album. B+(*)
  • Jim Self With Strings: Inner Play (2005, Basset Hound). Self plays tuba and fluba -- the latter a tuba-sized instrument with extra coils like a flugelhorn. Neither instrument registers strongly as a lead, so extra horns, including guests Pete Christlieb and Gary Foster, try to help out. Even without the string the orchestra is on the big side. The strings are, well, strings -- gaggles of them, but they do stay well in the background. Pretty in spots, but ultimately doesn't do much for me. B-
  • Vince Seneri: Street Talk (2005, SenFul). Back in the early '90s I recall some critic arguing that the organ is unique in that it's the only instrument where every significant player going back to the beginning of time has been black. That came out at a time when Barbara Dennerlein and Joey DeFrancesco had begun to assert themselves, so it wasn't even true then, and it's laughable now -- I'm not sure I can identify a black organist who's emerged since then. But more generally, I doubt that race has any meaning at all in jazz these days. Seneri looks to be white from the cover, although for all I know he could just be "light skinned." But he sounds like Charles Earland or Shirley Scott, plays tributes to Ray Charles and Jimmy Smith, and received critical support from Fathead Newman and Houston Person. None of this is remarkable, but it does make for as funky a soul jazz album as I've heard in a few years. B+(**)
  • SF Jazz Collective (2005, Nonesuch). Joshua Redman is the Artistic Director here, but Bobby Hutcherson is the resident genius. Hutcherson dominates the first and last cuts, and he still has an edge on vibes that no one else has matched. In between there's the horn section, which can turn the group into a big band powerhouse: two reeds (Redman and Miguel Zenon), two brass (Nicholas Payton and Josh Roseman). Far less conspicuous are pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Brian Blade. With so much collective talent there's always something going on, but with so much individual talent it doesn't always cohere. B+(*)
  • Bud Shank Quartet w/Phil Woods: Bouncing With Bud & Phil: Live at Yoshi's (2005, Capri). The pictures show the old-timers sitting down, which is fair enough. They start with a snappy "Bouncing With Bud," which Powell wrote for himself, but Shank can enjoy as much as anyone. B+(**)
  • Archie Shepp & Mal Waldron: Left Alone Revisited . . . A Tribute to Billie Holiday (2002 [2005], Synergy Music). Waldron has paid tribute to Billie Holiday many times -- it's what he's best known for, two years at the start of a career that spanned five decades and peaked many times after Holiday's death. At least as relevant is that Waldron played in a number of duos over the years, most notably with Marion Brown and Steve Lacy. Shepp has gone the duo route as well -- two albums with Horace Parlan are perhaps the best he's ever done. So this one has some promise and momentum behind it. But Shepp's a little wobbly here. Well, more than a little: he skids and slides all over the joint, leaving Waldron shaken up and confused. Still, it's a unique performance. B+(**)
  • Mark Sherman: One Step Closer (2005, CAP). This is a good mainstream session featuring the leader's vibes, with Allen Farnham's piano, Joe Magnarelli's trumpet, bass and drums. Joe Lovano shows up for three cuts near the top and comes out breathing fire. B+(**)
  • Wayne Shorter Quartet: Beyond the Sound Barrier (2002-04 [2005], Verve). The booklet just gives an 18 month range for the dates, citing three continents, so these were carefully picked performances. Shorter's main work came from 1959-68, in a series of solo albums and perhaps more importantly in his work with two of the most important groups of the period: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet. After that he played in Weather Report, a fusion band I've never cared for, and cut a few indifferent solo albums. But since 2001 he's enjoyed a major comeback, winning polls and much acclaim. I've long been skeptical, late to recognize how vital his contribution was especially to some of Blakey's finest albums, only slowly warming to his early Blue Note albums, softening but never reversing my disdain for Weather Report. But I found it hard to quibble over Footprints Live!, his hugely acclaimed 2002 album. And I find this one, with the same group a year or two further down the line, even more impressive. The group is key, of course, especially Danilo Perez, a Monk-inspired pianist who has never sounded so vibrant and risky on his own records. But the biggest surprise for me has been how much soprano sax Shorter plays here, and how distinct it is. That strips away yet another illusion I had, my belief that Shorter is indeed a fine tenor saxist but vastly overrated on the soprano. On the other hand, these pieces have been carefully culled from 18 months of performances. A-
  • Soulive: Break Out (2005, Concord). The core group is brothers Neal and Alan Evans, keyboards and drums respectively, and guitarist Eric Krasno. File them under "acid jazz," which seems to be the generic term for the funky side of smooth jazz. But the core just provides the pulse: add horns and vocalists -- Ivan Neville, Chaka Khan, Reggie Watts, Corey Glover -- and, what the hell, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph. The result is not-quite-contemporary r&b turned inside-out. The "not-quite" is because the funk sounds leftover from the post-disco '80s rut. The "inside-out" is because the interchangeable vocals are just piecework, meant to accentuate the riffs, as opposed to the normal practice of getting the anonymous studio musicians to puff up the singers. I thought this sounded wretched the first time through, but can't recover that thread now. What I hear now is competent but unpersonable. C+
  • Robert Stillman: Horses (2004 [2006], Mill Pond). Described as "seven instrumental pieces," this is jazz mostly by being instrumental and led by a saxophonist, but with its gentle, relatively uniform beat and atmospheric milieu it isn't all that far removed from sountrack territory, or even new age. Clarinet, piano or organ, bass, some guitar, various drums. Rather slight, but nice. B+(*)
  • John Tchicai/Garrison Fewell/Tino Tracanna/Paolino Dalla Porta/Massimo Manzi: Big Chief Dreaming (2003 [2005], Soul Note). The two reed players interact constructively, and guitarist Fewell adds rhythmic balance. Well done. B+(**)
  • Clark Terry With the Chicago Jazz Orchestra: Porgy & Bess (2004, A440 Music). This has been compared to Gil Evans' arrangement for Miles Davis, but one big difference is that Evans worked his magic in the studio, whereas the Chicago Jazz Orchestra is trying to wing it. Clark Terry plays gamely enough, but the whole thing feels old and tired to me. Evans may not be the right framework to consider this in, but the alternative is musty old repertory. Even if it's notable there that doesn't count for much. B-
  • Trio da Paz: Somewhere (2005, Blue Toucan). This is a Brazilian guitar-bass-drums trio, led by guitarist Romero Lubambo, with Nilson Matta on bass and Duduka Da Fonseca on drums. The latter two are names I recognize but don't know much about. The guitarist plays acoustic and keeps a mellow profile, working some jazz pieces like "Seven Steps to Heaven" and "Take Five" and standards like "Somewhere" and "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" in along with the expected Jobim and Baden Powell. Simple, elegant, very pleasant. B+(**)
  • Mike Tucker: Collage (2005 [2006], 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+(**)
  • James Blood Ulmer: Birthright (2005, Hyena). This is the third collaboration between Ulmer and Vernon Reid. The first two were tethered to famous studios in Memphis and New York, and as such shackled to tradition -- the studios in effect dictated the terms. This one is just Blood -- no other musicians are cited, and ten of twelve songs are original. He's devolved into a bluesman, the guitar ringing clear but no longer suggesting his jazz status, but his voice has deepened and wearied, more gruff than ever. It's like he's found his own blues, the real and present devil of "White Man's Jail," the clear view of "The Evil One." Blues has always been less about suffering than surviving, and triumph or revenge has never been far out of sight. Last song is called "Devil's Got to Burn." Amen to that. A-
  • 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
  • Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee: Borrowed Time (2004 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent). Another arty mainstream record, led by the bassist who also wrote five of ten songs, with three songs from the group, one each from Duke and Sting. The group has trumpet, sax, piano, bass and drums, deployed well post of postbop. It's not the sort of thing that I usually go for, but it's pretty well done -- the harmony seems well thought out, the counterpoint interesting. Still, the main draw here is Mark Turner, who handles the saxophone role impeccably well, and shines whenever he gets the chance. B+(*)
  • Vinkeloe/Cremaschi/Masaoka/Robair: Klang. Farbe. Melodie (2004, 482 Music). Clicks, pops, thumps, scratches, screeches; short sax lines, string things. Rarely has such junk sounded listenable much less interesting. Of course, it does have its limits. B+(*)
  • The Ken Walker Sextet: Terra Firma (2002 [2005], Synergy Music). Walker, who plays bass, writes about half of the material here. One piece by his pianist, Jeff Jenkins. The rest are covers, including pieces by George Coleman and Eddie Harris. The six pieces include two horns: Al Hood's trumpet/flugelhorn, Peter Sommer's tenor sax; also piano, guitar, bass, drums. Nice balance, open sound, basic hard bop, runs on rather long, but otherwise a fine album. B+(**)
  • Robert Walter: Super Heavy Organ (2005, Magnatude). This one's fun. Walter plays funk organ, which sounds all the better against Tim Green's tenor sax. Only thing I've found on Green cites Coltrane and John Gilmore as influences. Gilmore's a good comparison, even if Walter sounds more like Jack McDuff than Sun Ra, but Green's quick stutterstep lines cut the organ's grease splendidly. B+(**)
  • Carl Weingarten: Local Journeys (2005, Multiphase). Mostly a guitar record, mostly riff atmospherics. I think Weingarten's records are usually filed under Newage, which makes some sense, but his tone is harder and heavier. Nothing much happens here, but it's pleasant and relatively fresh. B
  • Kenny Wheeler & John Taylor: Where Do We Go From Here? (2005, CAM Jazz). One of the better duo albums I've heard lately, perhaps because piano/trumpet is more complementary than most combination, perhaps because these two musicians are tight enough as to suggest that the word "empathic" would not be a cliché here, perhaps because Wheeler has some peculiar insight into making slow trumpet interesting. B+(**)
  • Abram Wilson: Jazz Warrior (2004 [2005], Dune). It's noteworthy that someone like Courtney Pine is not just a jazz player in the U.K.: he's a pop star. This opens up a spectrum of opportunities for crossover jazz in the U.K. that don't exist over here. Wilson's label seems to be focusing on those opportunities, with a roster of Afro-Brits that both play jazz and rechannel the U.K.'s take on soul, r&b, reggae, and maybe a bit of Osibisa. Of the four records I've heard, this is by far the weakest. Half the tracks have vocals, ranging from the Stevie Wonder cover ("Golden Girl") to a falsetto piece ("Take It Forward") to a jaunty freedom ride ("Free Myself"), none of which make for a coherent vision, or even voice. Presumably Wilson takes all those lead vocals, as well as playing a little trumpet. B-
  • Deanna Witkowski: Length of Days (2005, ArtistShare). She plays piano and sings, not the other way around. Her piano has a rough hewn adventurousness which seems orthogonal both to the Monk and Ellington pieces here. Her quartet includes saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose first-listed soprano is as artful as his second-listed tenor is robust. On the other hand, her vocals are perplexing, if not downright annoying. The scats are meant more for harmony than for diversion. The songs are more ordinary. B
  • The Wood Brothers: Ways Not to Lose (2006, Blue Note). One of the Woods is Chris, the bassist in Medeski Martin & Wood. The other is guitarist Oliver. Both are credited with vocals here, but presumably this is Oliver's thang. Despite my expectations from the label and producer John Medeski, this isn't at all close to jazz. AMG classifies them under country, but that isn't much closer. Oliver sounds more like Dr. John than anyone else, at least vocally -- no piano, no gris-gris, no gumbo, but it must have roots somewhere. Not close enough to my calling to worry about, but not bad either. B+(*)
  • Yellowjackets: Altered State (2005, Heads Up). In business since 1981, with Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip still in their original roles 18 albums later, plus relative newcomer Bob Mintzer on reeds -- AMG sez Mintzer gives them "more jazz credibility," but this album doesn't. The groove tracks are exceptionally lifeless, and Mintzer plays along decoratively rather than taking any tangents. The obligatory vocal track is even more lifeless. C

Knee-Jerk Efficiencies

I'm reading Fair Trade for All: How Trade Can Promote Development by Joseph E. Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton. I'm only about a third of the way through, but I thought I'd note one little passage (p. 76, emphasis added):

Many of the costs of, say, agricultural subsidies are borne by the developed countries. Not only are there huge budgetary costs associated with the subsidies, but the subsidies distort production, and thus there is an efficiency loss associated with them. Were developed countries to eliminate their subsidies, they would therefore be among the main beneficiaries.

I don't have a settled view of agricultural subsidies or free trade issues associated with agriculture, so I'm not prepared to argue that issue one way or another. That subsidies "distort production" is no doubt true. One case I can think of is sugar cane in Florida, which without subsidies could not be grown at a cost that is competitive with the world market. Such subsidies also have at least two damaging externalities: the obvious one on the environment, and a less obvious one in how they support one of the most regressive political cliques in America.

But the leap from "distort production" to "efficiency loss" strikes me as pure knee jerk economist-think. If Florida sugar wasn't subsidized, the land and water would most probably go unused. While this may be better overall, especially in terms of eliminating those externalities, it's hard to argue that it's more efficient. But I suspect that there is a more general problem with efficiency in agriculture. There are two main reasons for this: one is that agricultural products are competitive commodities, so their prices fluctuate readily according to supply and demand; the other is that farmers exercise very limited control over their inventory levels, and even less over aggregate supply. One reason for the latter is that farmers don't have fine grain control over major inputs like sun and water -- irrigation is an obvious exception here -- plus they have exposure to pests that may result in considerable loss. All this results in a double-edged sword, where farmers can lose either by not producing enough or by their competitors producing too much.

The US solution to this uncertainty is a system of subsidies, which provide a degree of central planning to limit production while keeping farmers motivated to produce as much as they can from the crops that they plant. Both approaches take much of the sting out of free markets, sheltering farms from price volatility that in the past frequently led to widespread failures. But they also increase efficiency, resulting in the most productive agriculture system in the world. It's hard to see how taking away those subsidies and reverting to market controls would achieve any more efficient use of land or labor. More likely, such a change would lead to more failures and anti-competitive consolidation, and to more cost-shifting externalities.

That the combination of US agricultural subsidies and free trade liberalization causes problems, especially for the least developed countries, is certainly something to explore further. It's also very likely that at least some US subsidies aren't cost-effective and may even be damaging, especially to the environment. (I live in a state where federal support for agribusiness is politically important, so I know for sure that one major distortion in the whole system is Sen. Pat Roberts -- when he's not whitewashing "intellience" failures, agribusiness is what he lives for.) In general, I accept the basic arguments that free markets and free trade increase welfare -- at least in the aggregate, if not necessarily yours or mine. But it doesn't automatically follow, as so many economists insist, that every extension to free trade and free markets is welfare-positive. I also accept that markets generally lead to greater efficiencies, and if there are no other negatives I'm all for efficiency. But it is not the case that all efficiencies are welfare-positive. Nor that free trade and free markets always work. Agriculture may well be one major exception.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Music: Current count 11645 [11621] rated (+24), 832 [831] unrated (+1). March Recycled Goods is done and up. Forward momentum has continued on April, with occasional jazz prospecting and some work on the shelves. Quite a bit new of new jazz has come in, so I'll be looking at that more closely in the next few weeks. No pieces pending, but there will be Recycled Goods for April and May to do. Next Jazz CG will probably be May, but my attitude now is that it'll get done with it gets done.

  • Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra: Hiroshima: Rising From the Abyss (2002 [2003], True Life): Big band, big piece. B+(**)
  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005): They worked so hard to come up with the group name they were too tuckered out to think of a title or a label for their first slab of trebly-guitar alter-rock. A-
  • Do You Love Me Like You Say: The Very Best of Terence Trent D'Arby (The Hits) (1987-95 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Whatever happened to him? Two striking albums, auspicious amalgams of soul and funk and post-Prince rock, then a quick fade; this consolidates him usefully, going beyond the key albums to include covers of Cooke and the Stones that stand on their own. A-
  • DKV Trio: Trigonometry (2001 [2002], Okka Disk, 2CD): DKV stands for Hamid Drake, Kent Kessler, Ken Vandermark. The ordering is probably just alphabetical, but it is true that Drake gets out front quite a bit. But Vandermark invariably drives him home. The program goes heavy on Don Cherry, with McPhee, Ayler, Rollins and Ellington on the side, plus two improvs credited to the group. First rate stuff, but it needs a little volume to bring out the details. B+(***)
  • DKV Trio: Live in Wels and Chicago, 1998 (1998 [1999], Okka Disk, 2CD): Drake-Kessler-Vandermark. Better recorded, loud and clear. The Wels concert runs through Don Cherry's "Complete Communion Suite" and is a tour de force. The Chicago concert is three long improv pieces, slower to get started, and rather hit and miss. B+(***)
  • Gorillaz: Demon Days (2005, Virgin): Music seems OK, the hip-hop preferred over the more blurred tunes, not so bad either. Took a look at the "bonus" DVD, but not much there. Didn't chase down the web extras. B
  • The Guess Who: The Best of the Guess Who (The Hits) (1968-71 [2006], RCA/Legacy): Burton Cummings popcraft and Randy Bachman proto-grunge, good for more than a half-album of still enjoyable hit singles, even if their sound seems hopelessly trapped in a time warp inhabited by Steppenwolf and lesser bands. B+(**)
  • 14 Friendly Abductions: The Best of Nina Hagen (1978-84 [1996], Columbia/Legacy 64790): In principle I approve of a one-woman teutonic trash version of New York Dolls, she fraternizes with the Valkyries too much for my taste. And she could use better songs than "White Punks on Dope. The only one that really works here is her German trot of "Lucky Number," where Lene Lovich met her more than half way. B-
  • Collin Herring: The Other Side of Kindness (2005, Gravestone Picnic): Austin-based singer-songwriter, alt-country division. This is his second album, and it's kind of understated and moody, but may have some depth to it. Without having a strong reason to dig deeper, I'm tempted to nail down a rating now, but this could improve with more work. Wonder whether he'll give us reason to reconsider it. B+(**)
  • Steppin' Out: The Very Best of Joe Jackson (1979-2000 [2001], A&M, 2CD): Evidently the second time A&M has used this title, although the cover of their 1990 single-disc comp reads Stepping Out. Jackson made a strong impression on his 1979 Look Sharp, and its six cuts here still sound plenty sharp. That record appeared at a point when new wave was emerging as the broader pop context opened up by punk, and Jackson shaped his album accordingly. Unlike Graham Parker and Nick Lowe, whose roots were firmly rooted in r&r/r&b, Jackson was a much more broadly versed musician, a real pro, and a real hack, and subsequent efforts wandered broadly over his talent set, for better and mostly worse. (Elvis Costello turns out to be a similar case, but he stuck to his basic act longer.) After the first album, he occasionally comes up with something interesting -- the dub on "Beat Crazy," the faux swing of "Jumpin' Jive," a pretty good cover of "The Harder They Come." But he also comes up with songs that are flat-out awful, like "Biology" -- and the second disc tips the balance. B-
  • Billy Joel: My Lives (1965-2003 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 4CD+DVD). Until this, I've managed to go through life without ever hearing any of his albums, so that's one point of comparison I can't make. Songs, well, I haven't been able to avoid all of those. With "Piano Man" his self-deprecation nailed his shoes to the floor so effectively that he'll never be anything else in my mind. But he went on to put out a few more radio songs that showed him to have a melodic knack -- like Elton John and Paul McCartney he could knock off a fairly clever approximation of his rock and roll roots. There are 6-10 originals here that I recognize, and they're good enough I don't doubt that one could put together a decent compilation. However, this isn't it. This is just trivia and residue -- demos, outtakes, live cuts, songs from soundtracks, and a couple of things called "Opus." The four discs are chronological, more or less. The first, starting with five pre-solo group tracks, is his juvenilia, made all the more so by relying on so many demos. The second covers the '80s, his period of pop expansion. The third moves into the '90s, with the muse ailing and the disc stuffed with live covers. The fourth has more live shots, audio tracks of videos scrounged together for the DVD market. The fifth is a DVD from the "River of Dreams Tour," c. 1996. B-
  • Everything Is Possible: The Very Best of Living Colour (1988-2003 [2006], Epic/Legacy): In principle, this all-black band crashing through the all-white arena rock ceiling should have been a good thing, but I've always suspected them of holding back if not dumbing down, and later work by Vernon Reid and Will Calhoun proves as much; one case where they made something of their concept was the dancing-on-his-grave "Elvis Is Dead." B
  • Nathaniel Merriweather Presents Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By (2001, 75 Ark): Trip hop? Dan the Automator produced, with guest sexperts Prince Paul, Damon Albarn, Afrika Bambaataa, Maseo, Kid Koala, and others. The music is pleasant enough; the skits are plenty dumb. Don't think there's anything here to get excited about. B
  • James McMurtry: Childish Things (2005, Compadre): This would make it on "We Can't Make It Here" alone, a long political song that slams home point after point after point to a spare and bitter backdrop. But it helps that it might make it even without the loss leader. He calls his band the Heartless Bastards. He's literate enough to know and use irony; also that one of its uses is that by standing outside you get a clearer picture inside. Clarity is essential here. A-
  • Muslimgauze: Uzbekistani Bizzare and Souk (1995-96 [2003], Important): This is Bryn Jones, who died rather young in 1999 after mixing dozens of discs worth of fragmented electronics. This is all I've heard -- would like to hear more. B+(***)
  • The Best of Pérez Prado: The Original Mambo No. 5 (The Hits) (1949-59 [2006], RCA/Legacy): The original mambo king played piano and ran the band that kicked off all the other bands in America's short-lived love affair with Cuba; his instrumental hits are clean, sly, sharply etched, almost as crisp as the dilletantish tango; can't complain about the one vocal either, not with Benny Moré singing. A-
  • Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys: Dominos (2005, Rounder): Seems at first like the Average Cajun Band, but they're more trad-minded, and play impeccably; Riley plays accordion, sings in Cajun French, and only challenges the norms when he finds a way to goose up the excitement a bit; more like the archetypal Cajun band. B+(***)
  • Shakira: Oral Fixation Vol. 2 (2005, Epic): Not sure how good this really is -- each time I play it more songs kick in. While the principle is to keep working on it until it levels off, it's hit a high enough plateau to rate. And to make me wonder whether I underrated Vol. 1, but when some of what kicks in are lyrics, the Spanish disc is at a disadvantage -- at least to me. A-
  • Rod Stewart: Thanks for the Memories . . . The Great American Songbook Volume IV (2005, J): Got this from the library, otherwise I'd have to slip it into the jazz list, since he's really a more effective cabaret singer than most of those working the beat. I've only heard one of the previous volumes, an easy no frills B+. At this point he's started to lard the program with guest stars -- Diana Ross and Elton John could wind up in this same bag, but won't be nearly as effective. But the best things here are guest-less, including the only "My Funny Valentine" that ever struck me as just right. B+(**)
  • Tempest: The Double-Cross (2006, Magna Carta): Sez "file under: celtic rock"; means lots of fiddle plus a full drum kit, which really comes together on the instrumental finale, like Scotland's answer to Charlie Daniels. B+(**)
  • War: The Very Best of War (1970-94 [2003], Atlantic/Rhino, 2CD): Journeyman west coast soul group, got their first break (if you call it that) backing Eric Burdon, had a few hits ("The Cisco Kid," "Low Rider") and a lot of pleasing fluff. This stretches them a bit thin, especially on the second disc, but I can't help liking "Peace Sign" and their Drifters rip on "East L.A." which close, extracted from their lowly last album. B+(***)

This is the first installment of prospecting notes for the next Jazz Consumer Guide column. Like last time, I plan to do one of these per week until I'm done. Don't have a schedule or deadline yet. Most likely I'll try to get it done by tax day and hope they can print it in early May, keeping up the quarterly schedule -- seems to work out that way with or without planning. These notes actually started on or around Feb. 6, but I've been holding them back until I got the surplus cull taken care of. Not much here anyway. This starts with reissues because I had held them back from the last CG column, then needed them for Recycled Goods. Meanwhile, I've accumulated a sagging shelf of new releases for future weeks.

Tommy Dorsey: The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing: Centennial Collection (1925-56 [2005], Bluebird/Legacy, 3CD): Born 1905, hence the centennial. Died 1956, a few months after the last cut here, an Ernie Wilkins arrangement of "Heartbreak Hotel" with Elvis Presley singing. Nowadays Dorsey is mainly remembered for another singer, his 1940-42 boy singer, Frank Sinatra. At the time he ran one of the most successful dance bands in America. Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and the Pied Pipers are prominent on the third disc here, built from air shots and sequenced like a radio program -- surely most Americans' perception of him, but it's the least interesting disc, more history than timeless entertainment. The other two discs try to make the case for Dorsey as a jazz musician. The first ransacks the vaults for sideman appearances -- several cuts with his more Dixieland-oriented brother, saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey; groups with Eddie Lang, Red Nichols, and Red Allen; and dates with singers like Ethel Waters, Connie Boswell, Bing Crosby, and Mildred Bailey. Dorsey played trombone, and the disc is a broad sampler of 1925-40 New York jazz. The second disc picks up Dorsey's Orchestra and his small group, the Clambake Seven. It gets notably stronger as the disc progresses, as musicians like Charlie Shavers and Buddy Rich join, and they work in a pair of cuts with Dorsey and Duke Ellington playing with each other's bands. Also welcome cut is "Trombonology," where Dorsey takes a rare, and quite respectable, trombone lead. A-

The Essential Frank Sinatra With the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (1940-42 [2005], RCA/Legacy, 2CD): After breaking in with Harry James' band this is the first significant piece in Sinatra's discography. He was already a remarkably smooth, confident singer, although he would develop himself much further later on. He does, however, bring out the absolute worst in Dorsey, especially on the second disc, where the strings swamp the band. This material has been rehashed ad nauseum: everything from a 5-CD box to the three volumes of The Popular Frank Sinatra to various single discs to this double. The only one that much impressed me is The Popular Frank Sinatra, Vol. 1. This is de trop. B

Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (1961 [2005], Riverside, 3CD): Evans isn't a particularly easy jazz pianist to "get," and I've never been sure that I do get him. I've read about how emotional his playing is, but I've never managed to unpack the music to find its emotional center, if indeed there is one. He's a very introverted stylist, shy with his left hand, but with an undeniable melodic knack. Still, even without any real sense of comprehension, his two live albums recorded on June 25, 1961 struck me as near perfect: Waltz for Debby, and especially Sunday at the Village Vanguard. I don't mean to discount Evans, but equally important here are bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. LaFaro was killed in a car accident ten days later, so this is his testament, and much of his legend. Motian is still working on a long career which includes support for many of the finest pianists of our age -- he's worth focusing on here. This box straightens out the context: five sets, everything in order. Most of what was passed over in the original releases have appeared as bonus tracks, so there's very little new here: a false start, some patter, a third take of "All of You." A-

Carmen McRae: For Lovers (1955-59 [2006], Verve): Standard songbook fare, done with her usual reverent precision, half with soft-stringed orchestras and half with piano trios, neither in any way distinctive even when Ray Bryant tinkles the ivories. Her finest readings -- e.g., the bookends "When I Fall in Love" and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" -- are authoritative, and this isn't a bad way to approach her Decca period if you're inclined towards straight-up divas. After all, no one stood straighter. B

Stan Getz: More Getz for Lovers (1952-91 [2006], Verve): More like it as far as this series goes, but a semi-random selection over four decades provides a style and group scattershot that doesn't sustain a mood even if it keeps finding it again; the two bossa nova cuts are the obvious culprits, but it's otherwise hard to complain about "Desafinado." B+(**)

Stefano Battaglia: Raccolto (2003 [2006], ECM, 2CD): The first disc is a standard piano trio, taken at a snail's pace, but with surprising power. The second disc replaces the bass with Dominique Pifarély's violin, a louder and more commanding instrument. I find the latter unsettling, the discomfort tied to the astringent tone of the instrument. [B+(**)]

Batagraf: Statements (2003-04 [2006], ECM): The leader here is pianist Jon Balke, whose name appears on the front cover (in white on a faint gray background) but not the spine. He's credited with "keyboards, percussion, vocals" which makes him hard to pick out from the mix. Four other musicians are also credited with percussion, and several more with vocals, voices, or text recitals -- distinctions that seem unnecessary. Frode Nymo's alto sax and Arve Henriksen's trumpet complete the lineup, adding scattered riffs, vamps and growls which flesh this out nicely, but for the most part the album is built around manifold percussion and plain-spoken voice -- often just a word or two, stock phrases tuned in from the ether. I find this sort of thing immensely appealing. [A-]

Iro Haarla: Northbound (2004 [2006], ECM): On paper this looks like a piano-led bop quintet, and the line-up looks most promising (Trygve Seim on sax, Mathias Eick on trumpet, Uffe Krokfors on bass, Jon Christensen on drums) but in practice it is just a cut or two above the usual arctic pastoralism: slow, methodical, nicely ornamented, lovely without getting into lush. A giveaway, I suppose, is that Haarla also plays harp here. B+(*)

Peter Eldridge: Decorum (2005, Singer-songwriter -- AMG calls him a "melodic poet" -- but eventually you have to concede him ground as a jazz singer, if for nothing else than the way he forces his words around melodies that don't fit. In fact, he's only a load of scat short of affecting all of the things that annoy me most in male jazz singers. C

Concord Picante: 25th Anniversary Sampler (1980-2003 [2005], Concord): Not a product -- just a promo only sampler from a 4-CD box set. Concord's Latin label became a welcome port for many long established, perhaps even over-the-hill, Latin jazz stars -- names here include Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Poncho Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri. I'm not a big fan of mainstream salsa, label comps, or what I've previously heard on Picante, but this is consistently enjoyable fare. Maybe I'll get a chance to hear the real box some time. B+(*)

Ray Russell: Goodbye Svengali (2006, Cuneiform): Svengali is something more than a nickname for arranger Gil Evans: it's an anagram of Evans' name, attributed to Gerry Mulligan. Evans, who died in 1988, gets a credit here for piano on "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" -- the piece started as an old outtake to which Russell added his guitar. The album built around that piece ranges widely, the common denominator being Russell's silky guitar with occasional synth treatments. He's been around since the '60s, mostly working in fusion groups, with studio work mostly on rock albums, but also a tie into the London Symphony Orchestra. I've never noticed him, but fits in nicely with some of Evans' interests. [B+(**)]

Pharoah Sanders: Pharoah's First (1964 [2005], ESP-Disk): Two long pieces, the first a bit rougher, both close in tone and dynamics to Coltrane and very much up to the moment. The quintet isn't especially distinguished, although Jane "no relation" Getz holds her own on piano. B+(***)

Marion Brown: Marion Brown (1965 [2005], ESP-Disk): Brown's first, previously known as Marion Brown Quartet or Marion Brown Quintet -- you can imagine the confusion -- with not always the same three of these four pieces. The second horn, either Alan Shorter or Bennie Maupin, matters little. Same for the choice of bassists, but drummer Rashied Ali does make a difference. This fixes various errors in previous editions, including all four songs with all six musicians -- even spelling their names right. Remastered, this still sounds fresh, the debut of an important but still relatively unknown avant-garde figure. A-

Sun Ra: Heliocentric Worlds: Volumes 1 and 2 (1965 [2005], ESP-Disk): Two LPs recorded seven months apart, still they fit together. Both are large groups working complex sonic terrain -- the first bursting with tympani, both awash in percussion and an exotic range of instruments including celeste, marimba, tuned bongos, piccolo, flute, and quite a bit of bass clarinet. Still, this doesn't show much swing, or momentum even. B+(***)

Sun Ra: Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 3: The Lost Tapes (1965 [2005], ESP-Disk): An extra, previously unreleased 35:47 from the Nov. 16 session that produced Vol. 2. While the pieces are new, not much else is: they start with horn a blaring, and everyone doubles on percussion, but there is some redeeming piano for hard core devotees. B

Sun Ra: Nothing Is . . . (1966 [2005], ESP-Disk): More space schtick, including some chant-like vocals that are neither here nor there. One piece that stands out is "Exotic Forest," with a lot of percussion in the bush and high-pitched horns popping out of the canopy. The bonus cuts include one that swings, and another that travels the spaceways. B+(**)

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

Manu Katché: Neighbourhood (2004 [2006], ECM): Like many session drummers, he calls in old chits for his own rare albums, then builds his album around his guests. In his ECM 'hood, the chosen neighbors are Jan Garbarek and three-fourths of Tomasz Stanko's quartet. Like many sessions drummers, Katché is adaptive, and here he's managed to write a near-perfect facsimile of the ECM aesthetic -- slow, free, with the horns and, especially, pianist Marcin Wasilewski standing out. A-

Terje Rypdal: Vossabrygg (2003 [2006], ECM): The guitarist was a student of George Russell, and his approach to electronics and fusion bears Russell's stamp. His main collaborator here is trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, also a Russell follower, with several connections to Miles Davis. The electronics, complemented by bass and two drummers, is interesting in spots, and Mikkelborg's trumpet shines. The guitar is harder to sort from the mix. B+(**)

Odyssey the Band: Back in Time (2005 [2006], Pi): I would have been happier without the two vocals here, which break the flow of the music -- a vibrant tension between James Blood Ulmer's guitar, Charles Burnham's violin, and Warren Benbow's drums which somehow flows with the improbability of harmolodics. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with the vocals per sé -- how they would have fit into Ulmer's Hyena albums is hard to say, but that's because the music is so much looser here. Francis Davis has already plugged this in the Voice as the first A-plus record of the year. I'm inclined to be a bit more cautious, and for now doubt that I have two more cents worth the Jazz CG space. Unless I find myself shy a Pick Hit when the next deadline comes around. This could fill that bill. A-

Bernardo Sassetti Trio²: Ascent (2005, Clean Feed): Piano trio from Portugal plus two extra musicians: Ajda Zupancic on cello and Jean-François Lezé on vibes. The vibes aren't conspicuous, but the cello makes a difference, building the soft, luscious texture Sassetti's piano offsets. Not avant-garde or boppish or anything else you can pigeonhole. Just remarkably logical, coherent -- makes perfect sense the way it unfolds. Still don't know how to write about it, but for now, suffice it to say this is the best piano album I've heard since I started doing the Jazz CG. Could be graded higher. Could even be a Pick Hit. A-

Friday, March 03, 2006

Recycled Goods #29: March 2006

The March 2006 Recycled Goods has been posted at Static Multimedia. Pretty typical mix, except more boxes than usual, so my intro talks a bit about box sets. I had planned on doing Miles Davis as part of Jazz Consumer Guide, but it was the last cut there. This one is longer than what I handed into the Voice. Haven't decided whether it makes a Voice review redundant. For a while I was thinking about doing something on New Orleans, but that didn't jell. Also thought about treating a bunch of Sony/BMG Legacy best-ofs as a series because they've been released in wrappers called The Hits. I gave that up when I found out they've done the same thing many times -- over a hundred -- often just changing the packaging.

My record count is slowly creeping down, while the reviews themselves (even the "briefly noted") are getting longer. I used to try to do 10+40; now I'm thinking 8+32 still makes for a solid column. This time I wound up doing 9+35, which still let me hold back most of April's column. Time and backlog are the real parameters. I haven't been begging much lately, so I've been watching the backlog dwindle. That's the main reason why Sony/BMG's Legacy reissue arm is up to about 40% of the column: what comes in goes out.

Two things I can promise for next month are more world music and more obscure rock. Also at least two more boxes, but I can't say they'll be worth waiting for.

Write this comment on Helena Cobban's post quoting Robert Kaplan:

One thing to remember about Kaplan is that he's consistently argued that democracy is not a viable goal for US (or any imperial) foreign policy. His prescription for Iraq was that the US install an authoritarian regime -- possibly another Baathist, another Saddam but on a tighter leash. Allawi would have suited Kaplan fine had it worked, but by the time the US brought Allawi in it was already too late. The US lost the re-use Saddam's systems of control -- the "decapitation" option -- when Bremer dissolved the Iraq army, or you can go further back to the decision to short-staff the invasion force. This meant that the US depended on the Kurds and Shiites to stabilize Iraq after the invasion, and the price of their participation was de-Baathification. Bush also tied his shoelaces together with his liberation/democracy spiel -- while the US actually did very little very slowly to promote democracy (the two-thirds rule is an especially clever poison pill) the idea is still a dangling sword over the head of the occupation.

Kaplan's books are very readable and quite useful, except when he starts "thinking". Even then his "pragmatism" is rigorous and consistent -- to the point that he insists that imperialism needs a "pagan ethos". His big problem is that his ideals and preferred practices are rooted in some other century. That strikes me as a fatal debilitation in a "pragmatist."

On the other hand, recent news does make the rather sobering case that bad as Saddam was, removing him has led to worse. One thing we need to give some serious consideration to is how it might be possible to ameliorate conditions under Saddam-like dictators without plunging entire countries into the hell of war. As far as I can tell, since 1991 all the US ever did viz. Iraq, and for purely domestic political reasons of the basest sort, was try to make conditions there worse.

By the way, has anyone noticed that in Saddam's show trial, he's being charged with ordering fewer executions than Bush signed off on while governor of Texas?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Wimblehack Winner Makes Good

I just noticed the following on Peter Daou's blog. For context, recall that Elisabeth Bumiller beat out some very stiff competition to win Matt Taibbi's Wimblehack competition for the most consistently atrocious coverage of the 2004 elections.

Bush, Bumiller, and the Big Lie: One of the traditional media's leading pro-GOP and anti-Dem narrative-pushers masquerading as a real journalist is Elisabeth Bumiller. There's no transcript posted, but on The Chris Matthews Show several months ago, Bumiller responded to a question about political messaging by asserting that the White House would never lie, they'd only spin. Well, wouldn't you know it . . . Bumiller is off to write Condi's bio and Bush just got caught in a whopper of a lie. Never mind that Bumiller is finally devoting all her time to doing what she does best, i.e. suck up to the administration, the real question here is whether Bush's blatant lie -- not his first -- will result in the kind of manic coverage afforded a missing girl in Aruba (as I write this, MSNBC's Rita Cosby is still discussing Natalee Holloway).

The lie in question has to do with Bush's claim that no one anticipated that the New Orleans levees might breech. As a newly released videotape shows, Bush himself was told that the day before Katrina hit. Daou continues:

Bush's opponents may be heartened by recent poll numbers, but never underestimate the power of narratives to shape conventional wisdom in the right's favor. And never forget that the full-blown sycophancy demonstrated by trusted reporters has not ebbed. Nor will it without a massive effort to change the system by the Democratic establishment, progressive leaders, and the netroots.

This reminds me that the journalist -- don't know his name -- who after Cheney's hunting accident was seen giving Scott McClellan a hard time for being evasive wound up having to apologize. We've known all along that the White House keeps its reporters on a pretty tight leash, but still that's a pretty rough lesson. Taibbi, in his Spaking the Donkey, reminds us that the New York Times was locked out of Bush's Thanksgiving-in-Iraq publicity stunt, but they still ran the pool story with the pool photo of Bush serving turkey on the first page.

I don't normally bother with the Daou Report, but there's so much dirt in the air these days I needed a higher perspective. One story that interests me is that of John Pace, who just left as director of the UN human rights office in Iraq. His parting words provide details that the human rights situation in Iraq is "certainly as bad" as under Saddam Hussein, and "it extends over a much wider section of the population than it did under Saddam." I made the point recently that what Saddam is charged of in his show trial (140 executions) is much less than has happened in Iraq this week (1300 dead). Guess it just goes to show you don't miss your water 'til the well runs dry.

Robert Kaplan has a new piece where he says some things that are relevant here:

Physical security remains the primary human freedom. . . . For the average person who just wants to walk the streets without being brutalized or blown up by criminal gangs, a despotic state that can protect him is more moral and far more useful than a democratic one that cannot.

Kaplan still argues that Saddam was so bad deciding to invade and remove him was "defensible, while not providential." Not sure exactly what he means by that; probably something like "not such a bad idea, but too bad it didn't work out." While Kaplan was a big hawk on Iraq, his preferred strategy was to replace Saddam with a better-behaved dictator, possibly from Saddam's own staff. That didn't happen for a lot of reasons, but it may comfort Kaplan to know that it wasn't his whole program that failed.

Another story is the scheming in Baghdad to deny Jaafari the Prime Minister slot in the next Iraqi government, especially now that it's public knowledge that he admires Noam Chomsky. Supposedly there'll be a coalition of Kurds, Sunnis, and "moderate" Shiites joining together to get around Jaafari. Given the numbers, this involves breaking a sizable chunk of the UIA away from their own leader. One version of this was advocated by Charles Krauthammer on Fox News the other night. His real complaint is Sadr, who has backed Jaafari within the UIA. He described Sadr as "Hitlerian" and as a crony of Iran. Actually, it was SCIRI that was rooted in Iran before Saddam fell, and their candidate who Jaafari beat out. Krauthammer was complaining that the US had made a major mistake in not killing off Sadr back during the 2004 Najaf revolt. He said Bremer wanted to, but the Army backed him down, not wanting to turn Sadr into a martyr. That was one of those "precipice" (see Tom Engelhardt, who has a new piece on that image) events where the US almost lost the whole country. Meanwhile, it's 78 days and counting since the election supposed to create a legitimate Iraqi government, and the US continues to pull these shenanigans in the shadows.

PS: I wrote a comment to Helena Cobban's post quoting Kaplan, where I explain a little more about Kaplan and why his "thinking" doesn't work. I've read all but the last two of Kaplan's books. The travel books are marvelous reads, full of history and information. His political essays are delusionary and dangerous, but then the romantic paeans to Thucydides and Conrad should tip you off. It's worth noting that while he was born and remains a US citizen, he did military service in the IDF. He also has close contacts within the US military -- he starts his travels in An Empire Wilderness at Ft. Leavenworth, and there's no doubt a lot more of that in Imperial Grunts. There's an old joke by Mort Sahl, where he quotes Charlton Hesston saying that he hopes that his children will someday live in a fascist dictatorship. Sahl adds that if Hesston were more perceptive he'd be a happy man. Kaplan has pined to be part of an empire all his life, and he at least is perceptive enough to be happy.

Even Worse Than Imagined?

Events in the Middle East and South Asia are moving so fast that the most dire predictions that any of us offered before the invasion of Iraq may soon be exceeded. Iraq is in the first throes of civil war. The violence has mounted steadily for three years, putting an end to any efforts at reconstruction. The so-called Iraqi government is hopelessly paralyzed. Its so-called security forces are nothing more than fronts for sectarian militias, where they exist at all. The top news story on CBS tonight was rumor of an even larger terrorist attack in the works. That was followed by an interview with a Lebanese jihadi to went to Iraq hoping to become a martyr, but was sent back to Lebanon to organize. That's just more evidence, beyond attacks on a hotel in Amman and a Saudi oil port, that the Bush War is spreading beyond Iraq's borders. The growing sophistication of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan is another.

Meanwhile, Bush was in India today, working out a deal to sell technology that will strengthen India's stance as a nuclear power. Next he goes to see the most critical allies he more/less has in his signature Global War on Terror -- Pakistan, or Gen. Musharaf at any rate. Pakistanis started celebrating Bush's impending visit by blowing up a US consulate in Karachi yesterday -- the least they could do after a US Predator drone blew up one of their villages. No doubt Musharaf, whose rise to power in Pakistan was founded in large part on his militancy against India over Kashmir, would like an equitable helping of that nuclear technology as well. If Bush doesn't offer Pakistan the same deal, the deal with India could be the end of a fabulous friendship.

And how does the India deal (with or without Pakistan) play in Iran? How does it play in Europe, which has had to do most of the heavy lifting in containing Iran? How does it play in China, which is most threatened by a US-India alliance, yet holds more US debt than anyone? How does it play in Russia, our main competitor for India's nuclear business? And speaking of business, the side deals with India just show that Bush is willing to sacrifice US security to help companies like WalMart. Bush has already stuck his neck into a lose-lose game with Dubai Ports World -- which has among other things exposed that 24 of the 25 largest US ports are already under foreign management, and that Dubai already owns CSX (a large freight company) and has more deals in the works.

Meanwhile, Sharon has fallen in Israel, and Hamas has won its election. In fact, Islamists have been winning everywhere, taking all the hot air out of the neocon democracy rhetoric. The obsessive anti-Arab hatred of most American supporters of Israel resonates with War on Terrorism fear-mongering to undermine any effort Bush might make to keep his Arab allies happy: the result is that the only pro-American ally that matters in the Middle East increasingly has to keep its distance and fend for itself. (The idea that Israel is an American ally is ridiculous; Israel's friendship is the kiss of death.) Elsewhere the Darfur crisis nobody could be bothered to deal with has slopped over into Chad.

Juan Cole just reprinted a piece of his from 2003, before the Iraq War started, with a very long and detailed list of projected worse case scenarios. His list is damn near exhausted, and we've started to move into unimagined magnitudes of disaster. A year or so ago Scott Ritter made a stupendous argument that the resistance in Iraq would flat-out defeat the American occupation. He's just reiterated his argument, and doesn't seem far fetched any more. As I argued long ago, the purpose of the War on Terror was to show the world just what a superpower the US is. What's happened has been educational: US military power can't stabilize nations as weak as Afghanistan and Iraq; US economic power can't rebuild them, or even improve their standards of living; US managerial expertise can't even manage its PR. More importantly, Bush has shown himself and his administration to be dishonest and morally bankrupt. Moreover, these effects are not just limited to the empire's far-flung hot spots. As the India deal, and the Dubai deal, both are results of the fundamental economic weakness of the US: the fact we depend on foreign capital and loans to offset our balance of payments, which itself is fueled by our eagerness to export jobs, which in turn is caused by Bush (and so many of his predecessors) catering to the peculiar wishes of the rich.

So instead of demonstrating to the world how powerful we flatter ourselves to think America is, what Bush has actually accomplished is to expose how threadbare the Emperor's New Clothes are, and how vain and arrogant we are to parade around in them. Meanwhile, the chickens come home to roost -- and not just from the Middle East. Mardi Gras week has put Katrina back in the news, too -- probably that's why Bush is traveling around Asia this week.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Headlines from the Wichita Eagle today, mostly buried on page 3A:

  • Intelligence warned of intensifying insurgency: Two-year-old NIE finally released or leaked, too late to affect policy, but hopefully not too late for CYA -- can't afford to be wrong all the time, I guess. Says "insurgency was fueled by local conditions -- not foreign terrorists -- and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops." No shit!

  • Almost 2,000 still listed as missing after Katrina: "But only about 300 of those on the list are thought to have died in the flooding. Many of the rest are adrift in America, having failed, for a variety of reasons, to remain in touch with their own families." Makes them sound as dazed and confused as FEMA.

  • Cat in Germany has bird flu, officials say: "first time the virus has been identified in an animal other than a bird in Europe." Keep pets indoors. Don't eat birds.

  • American soldier killed in fighting in Afghanistan: Wounded two others. "Military officials in Washington and Afghanistan said Tuesday that insurgent attacks rose sharply last year and are likely to worsen in 2006."

  • Bombs kill 76 Iraqis, hurt 179: Two British soldiers killed in "mostly peaceful Shiite south." Says more than 1300 have been killed in reprisal attacks [after Shiite mosque in Samarra bombed]. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein is being tried for 140 executions in 1982. Compared to Bush, that's pretty small potatoes. Hell, Bush executed that many while governor of Texas.

  • Poll: U.S. troops in Iraq favor pullout: Nearly three out of four favor pullout within next year; 29% immediately. 85% thought war was "to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9/11 attacks." Sounds like Fox News is administered intravenously over there.

  • New troubles over ports arise from UAE role in Israel boycott: Just when Bush needs help, his faithful ally pisses all over him.

  • Bush's popularity drops to lowest in his presidency: 34% approval rating, down from 42% in January -- the lowest since he took office in 2001. "A number of problems have dragged Bush down, including the handling of Hurricane Katrina, the ill-fated Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination, the upsurge of violence in Iraq, and the deal to allow a state-owned Arab company to manage terminals at six U.S. ports." Article didn't mention that Cheney's numbers were keeping pace, despite him not having shot anyone in more than a week.

Good thing Wichitans don't want to know the half of it. Otherwise the Eagle might have to spend more than two pages on news. That would take away from "The Coach's Wife: 10 Questions with Ann Turgeon."

Feb 2006 Apr 2006