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Friday, June 30, 2006

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking back it's often possible to think of points when you could have predicted what's happening today. Sometimes you actually did. Sometimes you merely knew enough to. For instance, when Bush became president -- it's still hard to say "got elected" -- you knew it was pretty likely that anyone he wound up appointing to the Supreme Court would start deciding cases like Roberts and Alito have started to do. Alito's Kansas death penalty ruling is going to cost us some millions of dollars in endless litigation just so the state and its "culture of life" fanatics can kill eight pretty unsavory blokes, plus maybe one more on trial right now. Lots of other news events you can roll back too, but some things we just couldn't fathom before they became too late. When Bush took office there was no doubt that corruption would sky rocket, that the environment would get hurt bad, that real wages would stagnate or worse. But while I couldn't think of anything good he might be willing to do in foreign policy, I had no idea how fond he would turn out to be of playing war. That took some while to sink in, but once you took the measure of his policies and attitudes on Israel, Afghanistan, and Iraq, you could see how they were going to play out. At least up to a point. Unfortunately, that point is roughly where we're at right now. It's never been so hard to predict what's going to come next, because we're entering into uncharted territory. More and more of the scenarios that seem possible are things we always considered to be unthinkable, but more and more of what Bush and Olmert do these days is unthinkable. And, to say the least, once you cross that line, we have no way to calculate what the limits of unthinkable really are.

One problem that Bush and Olmert share is that they're nominally tough guys with feet of clay. Olmert likely feels the need to follow in Sharon's footsteps in order to maintain his claim to power, and that puts him on the spot to show how tough he can really be. There is no effective political opposition to the constant demonization of Palestinians in Israel, as shown by the fact that Labor Party leader Peretz has marched in lock step with Olmert. This produces a relentless wave of rhetoric from the extreme right. The logical end of that rhetoric is nothing less than genocide. This should be unthinkable, but it may wind up being merely unthinking. Did, for instance, the IDF bother to think of what the health effects of bombing Gaza's only electric power plant and shutting down its water supplies might be? Either way the answer is grim.

Bush, too, is facing some really major problems because of his policies, and he faces them with very few options because of his commitment to his rhetoric. This much we knew and expected. The scary part is what does he do from here on out. He can't afford to admit that he just totally screwed everything up. He's got to find some faint glimmer of future redemption and squeeze it as hard as he can. He's already flouting the law in cases like NSA wiretapping. His take on the banking records news was to attack the New York Times -- in his salad days his most credulous leak ally. The Supreme Court ruled against his Guantanamo gulag -- suppose he'll pull an Andrew Jackson and taunt the men in robes to go out and enforce their decision? We're still four months away from elections that could turn Congress against him. How dirty, and how desperate, is he going to be in that timeframe? At least with the elections pending, it's unlikely that he'll do anything really insane, but what happens afterwards, when he becomes the lamest of lame ducks? Willing to gamble big, and sensing little to lose, he's likely to become even more dangerous.

With Bush, and for that matter Olmert, predicting disaster was the easy part. Fathoming it is going to be a lot harder.


Chris Shull wrote a piece in the Wichita Eagle on Kathy's mural:

Mural brings Day of the Dead to life

A new mural in north Wichita celebrates the festival and the neighborhood that surrounds the artwork.

BY CHRIS SHULL
The Wichita Eagle

Janiece Baum-Dixon had a good reason to want a mural painted on the side of a building she owns in north Wichita.

"It kept getting tagged (with graffiti), sometimes three times a week," Baum-Dixon said. "So I thought, well, apparently this is a good place for an art project because everybody else seems to like it."

So Baum-Dixon asked artist Kathy Hull to create a mural about the Day of the Dead festival. They enlisted neighborhood teenagers to help paint it.

The mural "Dias de los Muertos" ("Day of the Dead" in Spanish) was painted in three months and completed June 11.

A dedication celebration will take place at the building on the northeast corner of Arkansas and 25th Street North from 7 to 9 p.m. today.

Hull's painting -- 11 feet tall and 40 feet long -- depicts a skeleton family celebrating with a skeleton band.

A skeleton couple is dancing; a skeleton grandmother reaches for her skeleton grandbaby in its skeleton mother's arms. A skeleton child plays with its skeleton pet cat.

"People think it is a monkey," Hull said with a chuckle. "Once you see it up close you'll see the cat is kind of ducking underneath the table to chase a butterfly."

The playful attitudes of the skeletons mirror the celebratory mood of the Day of the Dead.

"The mural is not scary," Hull said. "It is fun and inviting and joyful."

The Day of the Dead honors loved ones who have died. It is celebrated Nov. 1-2, on All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

Hull included many images closely associated with the Day of the Dead in her mural -- not just skulls and animated skeletons, but a graveyard monument, an altar table decorated with marigolds, and colored cut-paper banners.

She added images from Mayan and Aztec religions, whose traditions are echoed in the iconography and rituals of the Day of the Dead.

Volunteers from the Hispanic Youth Leadership program of the El Pueblo Neighborhood Association helped paint it.

Hull and Baum-Dixon hope folks around Wichita will take pride in the mural and the family-oriented community it represents.

"Each of the skeletons have their own personality," Baum-Dixon said. "Anybody who looks at the mural can pick one of the figures and attribute them to their own relatives."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Those Who Don't Spare the Rod

Here's the key quote from Gary Kamiya's Salon review of Ron Suskind's The One Percent Solution, on the question of why Bush decided to invade Iraq:

Many reasons have been advanced for why Bush decided to attack Iraq, a third-rate Arab dictatorship that posed no threat to the United States. Some have argued that Bush and Cheney, old oilmen, wanted to get their hands on Iraq's oil. Others have posited that the neoconservative civilians in the Pentagon, Wolfowitz and Feith, and their offstage guru Richard Perle, were driven by their passionate attachment to Israel. Suskind does not address these arguments, and his own thesis does not rule them out as contributing causes. But he argues persuasively that the war, above all, was a "global experiment in behaviorism": If the U.S. simply hit misbehaving actors in the face again and again, they would eventually change their behavior. "The primary impetus for invading Iraq, according to those attending NSC briefings on the Gulf in this period, was to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States." This doctrine had been enunciated during the administration's first week by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who had written a memo arguing that America must come up with strategies to "dissuade nations abroad from challenging" America. Saddam was chosen simply because he was available, and the Wolfowitz-Feith wing was convinced he was an easy target.

That explanation relegates the decision to primal attitudes rather than rational interests. Sounds like the don't-spare-the-rod theory of raising children, which fits in nicely with all those training wheels metaphors -- but how many parents still follow that approach? Even so, the idea that whole nations are powerless children or dumb animals -- after all, that's where most behaviorist notions were developed -- is a grossly inappropriate analogy. Makes you wonder where they came up with such a theory. Oh yeah, Israel. The architects of Bush's GWOT aren't allies so much as unabashed admirers of Israel. Still makes you wonder why they think it works.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Collective Punishment

Israel didn't invent collective punishment. The Israelis learned most of the fundamentals, and inherited many of the legal tricks, from the British, who used it effectively against Palestinians in 1937, Iraqis in 1920, and Indians in 1857. The British learned it from the long history of warfare, but especially from the Romans, whose ancient empire held a warm spot in the British heart. Of course, the British could just have well cited the Mongols, who have recently been touted as models for American managers, but that never quite fit their self-image.

But the Israelis seem to have missed one subtle point in the British model: once you win, back off a bit. After the British crushed the 1937 revolt, they issued the famous White Paper which cut Jewish immigration to Palestine way back. In doing so, they conceded the main issue behind the revolt, all the while keeping their hands on the levers of power. The Israelis, by conceding nothing, keep having to fight the Palestinians again and again. You'd think they never learn, but obviously they love the fight too much. They've just launched another blitzkrieg into Gaza. The flimsy excuse is to rescue an Israeli soldier captured by a renegade Palestinian group and held hostage somewhere in the territory. The effect of their tanks and aircraft will be to damage much property and to kill or injure many people. Israel's justification for doing this is their belief in collective responsibility: any time any Palestinian attacks them, they feel justified in punishing any or all Palestinians.

A few years back there was a big uproar when some people asserted that Zionism was a form of racism. To parse this assertion you need to consider what it is that makes racism a problem. It's not simple existence of racial differences. (That such differences turn out to be a confused scientific problem does not matter here. Racists were happy to construct their theories on fantasy as on fact.) No, the big problem with racism is that it identifies arbitrary groups and justifies members of one such group in their discrimination against and domination over some other group or groups. In other words, the problem with racism is that it justifies collective punishment.

That the grouping methodology may be something other than race suggests that "racism" may not be the clearest, most comprehensive term to describe the phenomenon behind what's wrong with racism, but that's mere wordplay to evade the point. Racism leads to collective punishment. If Zionism also leads to collective punishment, then Zionism shares the most essential characteristic of racism. Maybe there are some Zionists who don't share this trait, and who don't support collective punishment of others, in which case it would be unfair to tar them with this brush. But based on what the Israel's current political leaders are doing in Gaza, you have to conclude that Israel is acting as a racist state. Or if you must quibble with words, pick another word that has the same function in this context as racist. (In my household the most popular such word is Nazi, but my wife is Jewish, so that's what pops into her mind first when she thinks of collective punishment.)

Israel's collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza is nothing new. It became everyday practice in 1967 when Israel set up its military occupation regime, but it effectively goes back to 1948: most people in Gaza are Palestinian exiles from Israeli territory or their descendents, so the first collective punishment was Israel's denial of their repatriation. The root, then as now, was the Zionist notion that Israel should be a Jewish State: collective punishment of the other is the flipside of collective promotion of one group. Israelis have rationalized this in many ways, but their only point has been to obscure the basic fact: the only thing that promoting one group at the expense of others ensures is constant struggle, for the other group has no options but to struggle or succumb. This is what Israel has done ever since 1948, and that is why Palestinians struggle. Blaming the Palestinians for this is dishonest: Israel's own actions suffice to cause this struggle.

The kidnapping of the Israeli soldier isn't collective punishment. It is, rather, collective punishment's poor cousin: an attack on a purely arbitrary representative of the other side. This is a consequence of the same grouping logic that Israel practices, but the scale is different, because the imbalance of power is extreme. If Palestinians had the same power Israelis have, they would be able to engage in precision bombing of targets within Israel, and they would be able to punish Israeli imprisonment of their soldiers by driving tanks into Israeli territory. Palestinian leaders would be able to enforce curfews and checkpoints in Israeli territory. They would be able to demolish houses. They would be able to prevent Israel from trading with other countries. But Palestinians have no such power. Without power, how can Palestinian leaders be responsible?

The kidnapping of that Israeli soldier is tragic, but it's not a cause for what Israel is doing. Even if Israel manages to save the soldier, they will wind up doing harm to many people who had nothing to do with the kidnapping -- whose only offense is the one thing they cannot change: that they're Palestinian. And Israel will have demonstrated to the world how brutal and how racist (or substitute your word) they are. The former will result in more struggle against them, regardless of how desperate or vain. The latter should result in universal opprobrium, but probably won't: if it did, it should have happened already, but Israel's leaders feel secure enough that they don't feel any need to worry about world opinion.

Still, why does Israel behave like this? The obvious answer is that they think they're winning, that it's only a matter of time before the Palestinians have to give up. Either the Palestinians fight or surrender. If they fight, they give Israel an excuse to crush them. If they don't, Israel has no need to recognize them. Winning matters to Israel because it saves them from looking back at what they've done and what they've become. But winning is a rut, one you're stuck in until that dread moment in the future when it ends. Losing WWII was the best thing that ever happened to Japan and Germany. Had they not lost they'd still be fighting. Having lost, they've prospered as normal nations, unable to do anything but get along with their neighbors. Losing Vietnam was the best thing for the US; otherwise we'd still be in the middle of that fight. Winning WWII set the US and the Soviet Union up to struggle further, bringing us all to the brink of catastrophe. And the US has been even more deranged ever since we thought we won that Cold War.

Israel won't change, and therefore won't free its people from the prison of racism (or whatever) and militarism, until it loses. Nothing the Palestinians can do can effect this change. The only hope is that world opinion, including American opinion, starts to recognize that Israel's perpetual collective punishment of the Palestinians is a real problem -- is nothing less than an attack on world civility. Then maybe Israel will realize that such acts have consequences for Israelis too. Then maybe Israel will change its behavior to lessen the struggle instead of intensifying it. Then maybe we can reach some compromise that lets all parties get on with their lives in peace.

So the only good that can possibly come out of Israel's latest escalation of their prickly little war with Occupied Palestine would be for world opinion to turn on them, to denounce them without equivocation for increasing the strife, to deny any of their excuses. Because what we know from long and painful experience is that collective punishment in any possible guise -- racism, colonialism, Nazism -- cannot be excused.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Kathy's Mural Is Done

The Dias de los Muertos mural at 25th and Arkansas in Wichita KS has been completed. My sister, Kathy Hull, designed the mural and directed its painting, which involved doing an awful lot of it herself. It's on the side of a laundromat which previously had been tagged repeatedly with graffiti. The building owner will host a reception to officially unveil it this Friday, June 30, 7-9 pm. Here's a picture, cropped and scaled down, a little dark -- shot with shade cover, a little off-center.

Will try to get some better pictures. Meanwhile, a larger image is here.


Against Inheritance

The evening news last night was dominated by the announcement that Warren Buffett would donate $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One newscaster was clearly flabbergasted, wondering whether viewers have any idea how much money that is. Well, sure, I do. That's what about four months worth of Bush war in Iraq costs, using cash accounting -- factor in asset losses and liabilities incurred and you probably couldn't get two months of war for it. Still, that comparison reflects more on Bush than on Buffett. But let's keep that contrast in mind. America's two richest guys, Buffett and Gates, have committed $60-plus billion to charity this year -- admittedly their charity, and admittedly I don't care for Gates at all -- at the same time Bush's crew are trying to kill off federal estate and gift taxes. Most of America's best-known foundations -- Rockefeller, Ford, Pew -- were established long ago, as tax dodges back when estate taxes had some teeth to them. Gates and Buffett don't need such shelters. They could just as well pass their fortunes on to untold generations of Richard Mellon Scaifes. But Buffett keeps arguing that inheritance is un-American -- that says something about Bush, doesn't it?

On the other hand, this movement of at least some of the ultra-rich toward charity -- Ted Turner and George Soros are two more names that come to mind -- dovetails nicely with the right-wing destruction of government-funded safety nets. One reason the Gates Foundation looms so large is that the US government itself has shrunk so small. Added bonus is that it argues that all that untaxed wealth shift to the rich just helps fund philanthropies. The problems with this should be obvious: concentrating wealth concentrates political power in private hands, free from democratic determination of public needs. Once in a rare while, that may result in something good -- such as the Rockefeller Foundation's work to control hookworm. But as policy it is an excuse for ignoring problems, for doing nothing, in large part because it abdicates responsibility. Private investors do well at scratching their own itches, but counting on them to take care of others has never worked out. The rich got that way by working to their own benefit, and few feel any obligation to pay anything back.

The campaign against estate taxes (the "death tax") has succeeded largely because few people seem to understand what's at stake. It has little if anything to do with balancing the budget, or even with how reducing estate taxes favors the rich. The core issue is whether the rich should have to earn their wealth. In other words, it's whether the rich in any way deserve their wealth. Clearly, different people produce different amounts, and most produce more when fortune favors it, so the variation in labor productivity is one source of inequal wealth. Within some limits, this seems fair and just: if you want more, produce more. But inheritance works against the value of labor by providing an unearned path to wealth. There's no real way to keep children from being favored by their parents, but establishing a high estate tax starts to establish the principle: that everyone should have the same opportunities, that labor matters, that we recognize that inheritance-driven aristocracy is inherently corrupt and unjust. Bush is just one of many examples.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Music: Current count 12020 [12000] rated (+20), 919 [890] unrated (+29). Jazz prospecting almost all week, with a couple of days starting to cope with July Recycled Goods column. Still indecisive about many prospects, and still haven't got back to the replay queue. Unrated count took a big hike, partly because I finally got around to cataloguing a big box from Verve. I've been over 900 before, but it's been quite a while: probably after one of those long trips with a lot of record stores, or a big closeout here. This time I can't blame my tendency to scavenger: I'm just falling behind. Makes me feel bad about asking for stuff. No, not bad per se, just kind of helpless. Recycled should be done mid-week, then I hit the replays and try to close out Jazz CG. That's the plan. Should knock at least 30 down next week. If the unrated count still goes up, I'm fucked.

  • Johnny Cash: Personal File (1973-82 [2006], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): The title was a label on a box of tapes left over in Cash's studio, mostly from July 1973, with a few later additions. Nothing more than voice and guitar, some original songs but mostly covers -- one a spoken poem, several stories. In form and content they anticipate Cash's endgame, where Rick Rubin pitched songs for no more reason than he wanted to hear Cash sing, and Cash kept singing even past his point of no return because in the end that's all he really was. These cuts have none of the unsteadiness or frailty or heroism of the later records. They are the fruits of middle age, confident both in experience and skills. The compilers split them up into one secular and one sacred side. The latter falters early on, but closes with three great songs so definitively I forget who made them famous. A-
  • Dexter Gordon: Bopland (1947 [2004], Savoy Jazz, 3CD): This July 6, 1947 concert in Los Angeles is remembered as a landmark in the creation of bebop, but it could just as mark one the last days of jazz as popular music. The Elks Club was a dance hall, large enough for two thousand. This particular night featured groups led by Howard McGhee, Al Killian, and Wild Bill Moore, with only McGhee well enough known to make the front cover. His group was retrospectively dubbed the Bopland Boys, and they are the names you're likely to know: Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Sonny Criss, Trummy Young, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel, Red Callender, Roy Porter. The concert is famous for the 18:08 joust between Gordon and Gray called "The Hunt." It's easily the high point here, but placed in the whole night's context I'm less struck by its bop moves than the pitched rhythm and blues rumble that resonates throughout the crowd. For one thing, it reminds me that at first bop had more to do with showboating for the fans than driving them away through artistic overreach. All these guys meant to please, and Dexter merely had more tricks up his sleeve than a blues honker like Moore. Studio records from the period were necessarily short, so it's only in these rarely recorded live concerts that we get a chance to listen to the musicians stretch out. Some of those are legendary: Ellington at Fargo and Newport, Gillespie at Pleyel, the '44 and '46 Jazz at the Philharmonics. This isn't as consistent, but it peaks at that level. A-
  • Impulsive! (2005, Impulse): Eleven remixes by eleven DJs relegates the jazz to the packaging and residuals, with scant flow; choice cuts: Gerardo Frisna v. Dizzy Gillespie, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"; DJ Dolores v. Clark Terry, "Spanish Rice"; Ravi Coltrane and Julie Patton on John Coltrane's poem "At Night." Must to avoid: Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments (Telefon Tel-Aviv Remix)." B
  • Seu Jorge: Cru (2005, Wrasse): From Brazil's favelas to the silver screen -- The Life Aquatic and City of God are two movie credits -- Jorge's "raw" can just as well be cute or clever, a soft touch not uncommon even in the hardest corners of his country; often just sung over his own crudely strummed guitar, he can win you over one moment, then lose you the next. B
  • Kronos Quartet and Asha Bhosle: You've Stolen My Heart: Songs From R.D. Burman's Bollywood (2005, Nonesuch): Have string quartet, will travel, this time through the trove of Bengali film music, with Bollywood chanteuse Asha Bhosle; when in doubt, the strings lean toward tango, but Zakir Hussain's tabla and Wu Man's pipa strive to keep the course correct for Asia; as with the Quartet's Pieces of Africa, the result is neither here nor there, which is probably the point. B+(***)
  • Yungchen Lhamo: Ama (2005 [2006], Real World): From Tibet, she crossed the Himalayas to India in 1989, refined her devotional folk music in refugee camps, then worked her way to Australia and finally New York; haunting vocals with simple string backup and tasteful concessions to the West, like Annie Lennox taking a verse in English. B+(**)
  • Robert Lockwood Jr.: The Complete Trix Recordings (1974-77 [2003], Savoy Jazz, 2CD): Despite his opportunistic Jr. in honor of Robert Johnson, this Robert never sold his soul at the crossroads and never found hell hounds on his tail; his blues was an easy way to make a hard living, and is most pleasing when he keeps it plain -- even the sax can be too much. B

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 8)

I've filed blog pieces every day for at least two weeks. I suspect that's one reason why I neither got enough prospecting done this week to keep up nor, perhaps more importantly, never got back to the replay queue. As the week closed I needed to switch gears and work on the July Recycled Goods column. Still have several more days to work on that, and I usually try to sustain my momentum to get a leg up on the following month. So I don't expect much prospecting next week. But by the following week I'll be trying to close this column out. Still not real clear how it shapes up.


Maurice El Médioni Meets Roberto Rodriguez: Descarga Oriental: The New York Sessions (2005 [2006], Piranha): Superficially, this is Cuban music sung in French and maybe a little Arabic, the meeting of an Algerian pianist (Jewish, based in France, a figure of some importance in the development of raï) and a Cuban percussionist (Judeophile, passed through Miami to New York, where he records for Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series). El Médioni traces his family tree back to al-Andalus, where Jews and Arabs created Spanish music, roots that not even Torquemada could stamp out. That Arab-Sephardic music lay at the base of Cuban music, augmented by much from Africa, waiting to be unpacked in meetings such as this inspired jam session. A-

Ab Baars Quartet: Kinda Dukish (2005, Wig): The idea here is to take Ellington songs and rough them up, unhinge them, turn them into free-ish improvs. "Caravan" becomes "Kinda Caravan"; "Jack the Bear" becomes "Kinda Jack." Baars, a mainstay of the Dutch avant-garde, plays clarinet and tenor sax. The others play trombone, bass and drums. First impression is that it's too ragged to be real, but then it's not the sort of thing you'd expect to reveal itself all at once. [B+(*)]

Available Jelly: Bilbao Song (2004 [2005], Ramboy): This is at least the fifth album since 1984 for this group. Michael Moore is the constant and mainstay, with cornetist Eric Boeren also contributing songs. The group's signature is many horns playing in free orbits. Four is the number this time, with Toby Delius joining Moore on various saxes and clarinest while Wolter Wierbos adds his trombone to Boeren's cornet. Frequent Moore collaborators Ernst Glerum and Michael Vatcher fill out the group, on bass and drums respectively. Too much going on here for me to get good focus on it yet, but I especially like the parts where the rhythm coheres, and the feature for Wierbos. [B+(**)]

Michael Moore Quintet: Osiris (2005 [2006], Ramboy): Only one previous Moore Quintet album in the catalog, cut in 1988 with a crew of Americans who read like an all-star team right now (Robertson, Hersch, Helias, Hemingway). This has the same instrument lineup, but mostly Dutch musicians -- trumpeter Eric Vloeimans is the best known, followed by pianist Marc van Roon. The lineup suggests hard bop, but this plays more like chamber music, mostly soft and silky. Not sure what to make of it. [B]

Pete Malinverni: Joyful! (2005 [2006], ArtistShare): A gospel album, built around the pianist's quintet with Steve Wilson and Joe Magnarelli doing notable work on alto sax and trumpet, but dominated by a full-blown choir, the Devoe Street Baptist Church Choir, and narrated by the Reverend Frederick C. Ernette, Sr. As long as it stays traditional its joy packs a punch, but when the words stray from the old themes, you start to wonder. Or I do, anyway. Like is it true that Christians have gotten so much dumber even in my own lifetime? Or is it just that what used to be personal faith has become a social and political plague? Hard to see the joy in all that. B

Buck Hill: Relax (2006, Severn): Haven't heard from the longtime DC mailman for a while -- he recorded for Steeplechase from 1978-83 and later for Muse from 1989-92, but only has a 2000 live album since then. Pushing 80, he's still sounding pretty good: a broad tone on tenor sax, a fondness for blues licks, a typical soul jazz backup group with organ and guitar. Nothing anyway near remarkable here, but it welcomes us back home. B+(**)

Chris Cheek: Blues Cruise (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Most of the new talent debuts on Jordi Pujol's showcase label move on to other venues -- like Brad Mehldau, who returns with his piano trio here -- or they fade back into obscurity. Saxophonist Cheek has hung on for six albums now. (His website claims four -- he omits two live albums co-credited to Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Jorge Rossy, but normally filed under his first-appearing name.) The new one is so relaxed he might have forgotten it too. But the group works at a high level of professionalism, and the results are unfailingly pleasant, maybe better. I guess if you're on a cruise, the last thing you want is for someone to rock the boat. [B+(**)]

Klemens Marktl: Ocean Avenue (2004 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Young drummer from Austria. Followed his studies from there to Holland and New York. His resume cites a long list of drummers he's studied under, headed by Lewis Nash -- a mainstream master who rarely stands out but invariably makes whoever he's playing with sound better. Marktl doesn't stand out either, but he's got a good pianist here in Aaron Goldberg and he's got Chris Cheek on his various saxes, and they work together to create a seamless piece of postmodern cool. B+(**)

Samo Salamon Quartet: Two Hours (2004 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): The leader is a young guitarist from Slovenia, who worked his way through Austria to New York where he moved in with John Scofield. Doesn't sound much like Scofield, nor like Bill Frisell -- to whom he dedicates a tune -- nor to anyone else I can think of. But then I'm having some trouble hearing him around the other three-quarters of his quartet. That's because they're, well, it should suffice just to list them: Tony Malaby, Mark Helias, Tom Rainey. Awesome was the word I was fumbling with, but I need to sort this out further before I go that far. [B+(***)]

Ramón Díaz: Diàleg (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): When I see a sax-trumpet-piano-bass-drums quintet, I figure it's either a throwback to the classic hard bop lineup of 1955-65 or some slick postmodernist with a bag of advanced harmonic ideas up his sleeve. This one is neither, exactly. Unlike the harmonists, the instruments are separated out, each to its own calling -- for the piano that means slipping in a little Horace Silver or Bobby Timmons boogie and blues. But it's not stuck in a time warp either: less a throwback than a straightforward evolution forward. Never heard of any of these guys, but everyone pulls their own. Led by the drummer: guess we should call him the Art Blakey of the Canary Islands. A-

Junk Box: Fragment (2004 [2006], Libra): Another Satoko Fujii album -- she's working at a rate that rivals Vandermark or Braxton back in the '70s. This one is a trio with sidekick Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and John Hollenbeck on drums, but the pianist wrote all the pieces. Most are pounded out in thick chords, with trumpet for tension and growl -- the drummer is there mainly for accents. Nothing lets up even when they slow down. [B+(***)]

NOW Orchestra & Marilyn Crispell: Pola (2004 [2005], Victo): NOW stands for New Orchestra Workshop, not that that helps much. Based in Vancouver under baritone saxophonist Coat Cooke's artistic direction, they've been around in some form or other since 1987 (or maybe 1977). With 14 musicians, including a vocalist used mostly for sound, they're a large, potentially ungainly, group, but I'm more struck by how they pull together. Their recordings seem to be tied to guest opportunities -- Barry Guy, René Lussier, George Lewis -- and Crispell fills that role here. In fact, she's worth concentrating on. Especially if you thought her ECM albums have been a bit tame lately, she gets plenty rough here. [B+(***)]

Oliver Lake/Reggie Workman/Andrew Cyrille: Trio 3: Time Being (2005 [2006], Intakt): Another album cover parsing problem: is Trio 3 the group name, or part of the title, or just some flotsam collecting on the spine? The musicians' names appear as well: they're recognizable as individuals and self-explanatory in combination. First impression is: pretty much what you'd expect. If Lake doesn't overwhelm, that's because the others are constantly on his case. [B+(***)]

Pierre Favre/Yang Jing: Two in One (2005 [2006], Intakt): Yang Jing plays pipa, a Chinese lute-type instrument with four strings. She was a soloist in the Chinese National Orchestra for twelve years -- no doubt she knows her stuff, but I'm having some trouble following it. Favre is a veteran drummer, adept in avant-garde contexts but also a long-time dabbler in exotica. His contribution is less clear here. I suspect that this will wind up in the category of sound environments, but it's probably worth a closer listen. [B]

Harry Miller's Isipingo: Which Way Now (1975 [2006], Cuneiform): A South African bassist who moved to England in the early '60s, Miller was the glue that held together an unusual juncture of English avant-gardists and South African exiles. Here the former are Keith Tippett, Mike Osborne and Nick Evans, while Mongezi Feza and Louis Moholo fill out the band. In other groups, the range expands to Elton Dean on one end and Dudu Pukwana on the other -- Miller plays on the latter's In the Townships, the quintessential township jazz album. Despite founding Ogun Records, very little of Miller's own work came out before he died in 1983. A couple years ago Cuneiform delved into this circle and recovered some old radio tapes of Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, where township jive and avant-thrash seemed to be locked in a death struggle. In this group they tend to cancel each other out, resulting in a surprisingly mainstream flow. Still, it has much of interest -- especially Tippett's piano and Feza's trumpet. [B+(***)]

The Ed Palermo Big Band: Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance (2006, Cuneiform): I put this on without looking at who, what, when or how -- just figured the day was about done, so I'd get a taste of it before I went to bed and play it again in the morning. Loud and brassy at first, then it gets stranger, then I notice rockish guitar, then some guy comes on and sings absolute crap. Impatiently waiting for it to end, and no it don't get no second chance in the morning -- no telling how low the grade can really go, I'll just take a guess and be done with it. Record's over, so I pick it up and proceed with my paperwork. Turns out there's a simple reason why it's so awful: all compositions by Frank Zappa. So it's not just crap; it's secondhand crap. C-

Soft Machine: Grides (1970-71 [2006], Cuneiform, CD+DVD): Back in the '70s I had most of Soft Machine's studio albums, but I don't recall them very well. First one (or maybe two) was led by Kevin Ayers, so they were mostly short, amusing songs, things like "Joy of a Toy" and "Plus Belle Qu'une Poubelle." Third was a double-LP with Ayers gone and the four remaining musicians each doing one side-long song, but the only side I ever played much was Robert Wyatt's spacey, loopy "The Moon in June." The remaining albums, Fourth through Seven, have become a blur -- all I recall is noodling synth pop instrumentals, sublimation into the machine. Somewhere along that series drummer-vocalist Wyatt fell out a window and was paralyzed from the waist down. He bounced back with a cover of "I'm a Believer" and followed it up with a couple of brilliant albums -- Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard is one of my all-time favorites; also notable are his vocals on Michael Mantler's The Hapless Child and Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports (actually an undercover Carla Bley album) -- and many more idiosyncratic ones. Saxophonist Elton Dean went on to establish a reputation in avant-garde jazz before he died last year -- have only heard a couple of his records, so he remains a project. Don't know what happened to Hugh Hopper or Mike Ratledge -- presumably the main guys behind the blur. The band broke up in 1976. Recently, quite a few of their live tapes have appeared, but this Amsterdam concert is the only one I've heard. It was recorded in 1970, which locates it between Third and Fourth. It remains predictably rockish, especially in Wyatt's drumming, but also in the keyboards and bass. Still, Ratledge manages to vary the keyboards enough to keep interest as well as momentum, and thereby provides a dandy springboard for Dean to break loose, which he does, raising the temperature throughout the show. Package also includes a DVD, which I haven't seen yet, or maybe ever. Priced extra for it too, which is a shame. Wonder what else I've missed. A-

Mujician: There's No Going Back Now (2005 [2006], Cuneiform): This group dates back to 1988, with seven albums now. Pianist Keith Tippett and saxophonist Paul Dunmall are prolific in their own rights, especially Dunmall. Paul Rogers plays a 7-string bass that looks like a monstrous lute. Tony Levin is the drummer. There's one piece here, long, untitled, evidently made up on the spot. Strikes me as underrecorded and/or underdeveloped -- fades out in at least one moment that strikes me as indecision -- but parts are interesting enough to demand further play. [B+(*)]

Marc Cary: Focus (2006, Motema Music): When I looked at Cary's website, the emphasis was on his Fender Rhodes work and the music playing was a cut above the usual smooth jazz jive. Digging around I found out that he has a couple of groups called Rhodes Ahead and Indigenous People -- his heritage is part Native American -- and that he produces dance music under the name Marco Polo. But this is an acoustic piano trio, not far out of the postbop mainstream, except it's faster and louder than usual, and drummer Sameer Gupta works in a little tabla. Also found out he worked his way through Betty Carter's boot camp. Also his side credits include two albums for Abraham Burton that blew me away. Still open on this one. [B+(**)]

Larry Vuckovich Trio: Street Scene (2005 [2006], Tetrachord): Pianist, born Yugoslavia 1936, moved to US in 1951, settled in San Francisco, studied under Vince Guaraldi, worked for Cal Tjader, spent a good deal of time as the house pianist at the Keystone Korner, worked in New York for much of the '90s, is now back in California. I know all those things because the guy wouldn't try to bullshit anyone. His motto is "straight ahead," and that's how he plays it. This sounds like a piano trio ought to sound like: the slow ones articulate, the fast ones swing, a hint of blues when called for. He does cheat a bit by bringing in Hector Lugo's congas for extra percussion on four numbers, but they slip by without incident. Doesn't do any of the Balkan folk stuff he's most famous for. B+(***)

Susi Hyldgaard: Blush (2004 [2006], Enja/Justin Time): Danish singer with four albums. Sings in English. Has no jazz moves that I can recognize, nor any rock moves, so this album feels rather sedentary. She plays piano. Some cuts have bass and drums; others strings and/or vocal backup. Two cuts are remixes. The beats on the last one help. C+

Ray Barretto: Standards Rican-ditioned (2005 [2006], Zoho): According to the notes, all but one track had been completed before Barretto died in January. That track has a scat vocal marking where he intended to add a congo solo, as well as some overdubbed conga by his son Chris. It feels more unfinished than that, but I have no real sense of Barretto's career work -- no doubt a major shortfall in my own learning. The pianist-arranger I know somewhat better, and it turns out that he too has passed from the scene: so this may serve as a double remembrance. Hilton Ruiz is the steady center here. Maybe too steady, but it wasn't meant to be his show. B+(*)

Harri Stojka: A Tribute to Gypsy Swing (2004 [2006], Zoho): A set of fast-paced guitar-heavy instrumentals, more gypsy than swing, but "Swanee River" is neither. Occasional references to Django Reinhardt and four cuts with violin don't make this the Hot Club, even out here in Cowtown. B-

Carla White: A Voice in the Night (2005 [2006], Bright Moon): Singer. Been around a while, with eight albums going back to 1983. Open, breathy, straightforward voice; not all that jazzy, but she sings with authority, maintaining her presence on the slow ones. Has a complimentary set of musicians here, with John Hart's guitar and Claudio Roditi's trumpet and flugelhorn always welcome. B+(**)

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold?

A while back I had the idea of doing a blog entry on books I had no intention of ever reading. There are many categories of such books: books by morons and/or well-meaning fools; books that pimp nonsense; books on topics that strike me as unimportant -- terrorist threats and motives are a prime example; books that seem unlikely to add much to what I already know; first-person books by figure more likely to cover up than reveal -- I would like to know what Paul Bremer was thinking, but not enough to try reconstructing it from his own memoir; popularizations and trivializations. There are also issues of priority: I'm a slow reader and have trouble finding the time, so I need to pick and choose. I also prefer paperbacks to hardcovers -- cost, of course, but also convenience and storage -- so postponed is an option. Tony Judt's Postwar is one I want to read but can wait a few months on. George Packer's The Assassins' Gate has slipped into that category, although it started out in the morons and fools class.

I hadn't put Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts on the "no read" list, although he has serious conceptual and analytic problems, and his topic -- travels with America's imperial foot soldiers -- is certain to bring out the worst in him. But I have read all of his previous books, except for the recent and paperback-postponed Mediterranean Winter (now out but not yet purchased), and generally found him useful. My take on him is that he provides a useful set of eyes on the ground in places rarely reported, has skill at distilling relevant history, and is quite readable. On the other hand, his attraction to war and empire is dangerous: whenever he breaks out of his narrative with a line about "that got me to thinking" you know he's gonna take a dump. His short essay books, The Coming Anarchy and Warrior Politics, are primarily in that mode. The other books I like least are the ones where is he is most intimately involved with soldiers: Soldiers of God, his Valentine to the Afghan mujahideen, and Surrender or Starve, his cri de coeur for US intervention in Ethiopia. Chances are that Imperial Grunts combines the worst of both, but even so it is no doubt well written and likely to shed light on a subject I don't know much about, nor much care for: the military mind.

However, I've deprioritized Kaplan's book a bit further after reading Tom Bissell's long, furious assault not just on Imperial Grunts but on the entire Kaplan oeuvre. To be fair, there is something personal about this spat. Bissell wrote Chasing the Sea, a book about his travels in Uzbekistan, so he has some firsthand basis for checking on Kaplan's travels and history. But he also has added incentive: the Publishers Weekly review of his book starts by rolling Bissell and Kaplan into the same bag: "The format of the ensuing travelogue-cum-history lesson resembles that of itinerant political commentators like Robert Kaplan, right down to the repulsively exotic cuisine (e.g., boiled lamb's head) and digressionary mini-essays on the history of European imperialism in Central Asia." But while some of what Bissell says is specious -- e.g., nitpicking complaints about Kaplan's writing style -- he does land a few punches. I don't dislike An Empire Wilderness as much as Bissell does -- it's certainly not "even worse" than Warrior Politics, because at least he travels and sees and describes real things there instead of merely contemplating the metaphysics of world salvation through world war. And I dislike the early journalism far more -- Bissell, perhaps due to his own expertise in the wreckage of the Soviet empire, seems to go along with anti-communist dogma too readily. But his examples of Kaplan's casual, everyday bigotry are on the mark. Also important is how Bissell draws out the contradictions between Kaplan's class bitterness and current exalted status as neocon policy wonk. No doubt he's also right about Kaplan's abuse of literature, but that's something I've always been able to skip over.

Lots of good lines in this long piece, but the following quote stands out:

Kaplan once believed that something called "amoral self-interest" should be the defining aspect of American foreign policy. His hope for the Clinton administration was that it could "condense" a justification for Balkan intervention "into folksy shorthand," because "speaking and writing for an elite audience is not enough." Robert D. Kaplan, meet George W. Bush. The writer who could once argue that "the world is too vast and its problems too complicated for it to be stabilized by American authority," has found his leader in a man who in the 2000 presidential debates proclaimed that the job of the military was "to fight and win war," not toil as "nation builders." Kaplan is said to have briefed President Bush in 2001, and today finds these protean gentlemen in a surlier and far more interventionist mood. They have fused an apparent personal fondness for strutting machismo with a fetishized idea of simplicity's value. Both have willed into unsteady reality extremely forced senses of personal identification with the common American, whose drooling need for that which is clear and cut trumps all other moral and political considerations. Bush has gone from an isolationist to an interventionist minus the crucial intermediary stage wherein he actually became interested in other places. Kaplan has traveled from the belief that America should only "insert troops where overwhelming moral considerations crosshatch with strategic ones" to arguing that "September 11 had given the U.S. military the justification to go out scouting for trouble, and at the same time to do some good," seemingly without understanding that he has even changed. Doubtless both men would sit any skeptic down and soberly explain that September 11 changed everything. What September 11 changed, however, was not the world itself but their understanding of America's role in the world. For President Bush and Robert D. Kaplan, September 11 primarily means never having to say you're sorry.

One more quote that needs to be saved here is the leader from George F. Kennan's Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, originally published in 1961, and damned prophetic:

[A]n embattled democracy . . . soon becomes the victim of its own war propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision on everything else. Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil. Its own side, on the other hand, is the center of all virtue.

It should be noted that Kennan's comment is not just prescient observation. It's also painfully learned experience. Kennan more than anyone else was the founder of the anti-Soviet propaganda that drove the Cold War to the brink of global destruction. That wasn't exactly what he had in mind, but that can be what happens when one writes to flatter rather than to oppose power. Kaplan's limited value was as an outsider, a free agent on the fringes of the world. But his fault is that he reveres power, and the closer he gets to it the more dangerous he becomes. Still, I've always wondered whether he really was a free agent. Born in the US, he migrated to Israel to serve in the IDF. His relationship with the US military goes back at last as far as An Empire Wilderness, which starts with him consulting at Ft. Leavenworth. In another book he drops by an old friend's house in Pakistan: Hamid Karzai. Even as a free agent he keeps suspicious company.


Why Can't We Be Friends?

This item from the Wichita Eagle's page one non-news section caught me a bit by surprise. It's by Ely Portillo, called "Why are we losing friends?":

Americans, who shocked pollsters in 1985 when they said they had only three close friends, today say they have just two. And the number who say they have no one to discuss important matters with has doubled to 1 in 4, according to a nationwide survey to be released today.

It found that men and women of every race, age and education level reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up in 1985. Their remaining confidants were more ikely to be members of their nuclear family than in 1985, according to the study, but intimacy within families was down, too. The findings are reported in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.

Weaker bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far-reaching effects. Among them: fewer people to turn to for help in crises such as Hurricane Katrina, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients and fewer participants in community groups. The decline, which was greatest in estimates of the number of friends outside the family, also puts added pressure on spouses, families and counselors.

Further down they speculated a bit on reasons:

One explanation for friendship's decline is that adults are working longer hours and socializing less. That includes women, who when they were homemaking tended to have strong community networks. In addition, commutes are longer, and TV viewing and computer use are up. Another factor, Smith-Lovin said, may have been confusion among some of those polled on how to count e-mail friendships.

As connections to neighbors and social clubs decline, Smith-Lovin said, "From a social point of view it means you've got more people isolated in a small network of people who are just like them."

This trend has been going on all my life. It's easy to think back to the '50s and '60s when people actually worried about this -- you don't hear much about alienation any more, but it was so much on the mind that existentialism was invented to salve it. The arch trends all date back to the '50s: the move to the suburbs, the envelopment of passive entertainment, the time demands of careerism. More recent is the notion of Quality Time, another time encroachment that has come about as parenting has been shaped by the career ethic. Another factor is fear: the threat of nuclear destruction dates back to the '50s, but everyday fear of your neighbors has built up slowly over time. (The current obsession with tracking "sex offenders" is a good example.) But then fear may also be a consequence of having fewer friends: as you lose the knack of making friends the rest of the world becomes unapproachable.

The consequences of this for politics are almost too obvious to point out. The more isolated and self-contained people's lives are, the less appreciation people have for others not like them. Passive intake of news and information leaves you vulnerable to manipulation -- especially the sort of manipulation that's become the stock and trade of the new right in America. Most of this nonsense would fall apart at the first dissent, but if you avoid anyone who might think differently, you can wind up convincing yourself of any fool thing.

Aside from the politics, this isn't all for the worse. It is much easier nowadays to sustain long-distance or virtual friendships. Personal support networks seem to be less critical as long as there are public resources -- government, other charities, businesses if you can afford them -- that pick up the slack. (Of course, politics hurt here, especially the Right's preference that one have to look to the churches for relief.) Greater mobility makes it possible to meet more people, so those who take advantage can experience a much greater diversity of people. Such relationships are more superficial than friendships, but they may satisfy the same needs.

The trick to progress is to recognize the costs as well as the benefits, and find the proper balance. This scarcity of friends indicates that we haven't yet found ways to balance its underlying trends. The sour politics of the new right is likely to make this worse, but it's less a cause than, more ominously, a consequence.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Clintonistas for Armageddon

One reason we're always stuck in a hopeless, hapless mess in foreign policy is that the people the Democrats hire to staff those positions are for all intents and purposes the same pinheaded warrior wannabes as the ones the Republicans hire. Until today, the prime example was Clinton's first CIA Director was James Woolsey -- not that his second one, George Tenet, was much of an improvement. But now Woolsey has been bumped aside by former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry. What moved Perry to the top of the heap was an op-ed piece Perry and Ashton Carter, a Clinton DOD Undersecretary, wrote urging Bush to preemptively fire cruise missiles at North Korea's missile test site.

Now, generally speaking, when you fire cruise missiles into a country, that's what we call an act of war. That's what Bush did on the eve of invading Iraq. Admittedly, the US has fired cruise missiles at a few other countries without actually invading them, but they were countries like the Sudan that didn't have any real defense posture, let alone the ability to strike back. North Korea has some pretty serious missiles, even discounting this untested one, and probably has a few fission bombs. But even before all that, North Korea had a pretty daunting deterrent to our attacking them: they have thousands of pieces of heavy artillery aimed at South Korea, giving them almost instant ability to devastate Seoul, a city of more than five million. They've had this capability for quite some time. They haven't used it, or threatened to use it, except defensively in response to US attack. It may be, as Perry and Carter argue, that they would not use it even if the US blows up their test missile site. But doing so would be a provocation far in excess of anything the US has done to North Korea in more than fifty years. Perry and Carter would take us into totally unchartered territory.

This whole argument is fraught with contradictions. Perry and Carter are arguing that Kim Jong Il is crazy enough to attack the US with nuclear weapons, but sane enough not to respond to the US attacking his territory, destroying his technology, and killing his people. So he would attack us without provocation but won't hit back if we attack him first? Perry and Carter depend on Kim understanding a whole set of special factors: that the US attack would be limited, that South Korea and Japan -- the nations the US is ostensibly in the region to protect -- should not be held responsible, etc. They say, "Though war is unlikely, it would be prudent for the United States to enhance deterrence by introducing US air and naval forces into the region at the same time it made its threat to strike the Taepodong [missile]." They don't consider what happens to North Korea's deterrence if they let the US get away with such a strike.

One skill that Americans in or near power seem to have lost, if indeed they ever had, is the ability to imagine what other people think. In Vienna just this week Bush snapped "that's absurd" when asked about a poll of Europeans that found many consider the US a threat to global stability. But Bush's threats against North Korea are only slightly more subtle than what Perry and Carter argue for. Does anybody wonder what this must look like to folks in Pyongyang? They fought a war with the US which ground to a bloody stalemate over fifty years ago. Eisenhower finally accepted that stalemate, but the US never got over the affront. We've kept troops on their border, and kept them locked down as much as possible, isolated from the rest of the world, unable to trade, often on the brink of starvation. Fifty years, and they still haven't buckled. Instead, they dug in, paranoid, fearing the day when America resumes the war. They haven't exactly helped themselves with their own embittered aggressiveness. But America's default Korea policy has been locked into autopilot. They've learned that the only way to even get our attention is to rattle our cage, which nowadays -- look who's the paranoid one now! -- can be dangerous.

Bush's position is that he refuses direct talks -- he insists on a "six power" charade where he can tell China to tell North Korea to dissolve itself and all China can do is shrug. Even Churchill knew that there were worse things than "jaw jaw," but Bush seems to be incapable of conceiving that North Korea represents actual human beings. This inability to face them is only the first obstacle on the way to defusing this problem. James Carroll is fond of quoting Henry L. Stimson, the US Secretary of War both under Wilson and Roosevelt: "The chief lesson I've learned in a long life is that the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him." Unlike Perry and Carter, I don't think Bush wants to take on this fight at this time. But as long as he's unwilling to start defusing the tinderbox the nuts will keep pushing their reckless arguments.

Of course, another possibility is that Perry and Carter are just running a bluff in collusion with the administration. You can think of this as bad cop/good cop, i.e. an attempt to make Bush seem to be reasonable. Or maybe it's a variant on Nixon's madman ploy, when he scrambled America's nuclear bomber fleet to try to put pressure on North Vietnam at some point in the Paris negotiations. Like the Nixon incident, this is a case where we are the ones acting crazy, and peace appears to depend on the relative sanity of the Communists. It's a ploy that isn't embarrassing only because we've totally lost the capacity to look at ourselves as others see us.

On the other hand, this just underscores that the Democrats' reliance on establishment wonks like Perry and Carter, Woolsey, and don't forget Madeleine (I wouldn't have been so stupid as to invade Iraq, but now that we're there we can't afford to look like we're losing) Albright and Dennis Ross and even Zbigniew Brzezinski (who must be slipping because he's starting to make sense), means that there has been no serious debate on US foreign policy since Henry Wallace got run out of Truman's cabinet. With two war parties in a two-party system, it's no wonder we have no peace.


Gavan McCormack's Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe (2004, Nation Books) provides a useful, clear-eyed review of the relevant history up to the early "six power" talks. The question of perspectives is addressed in this quote [pp. 159-160]:

From North Korea's perspective, the world is full of nuclear hypocrisy. Nonnuclear countries are forced to bow to the great powers that possess the bomb. While entry into the "nuclear club" earns the respect of current club members, outsiders who attempt to join it are threatened with annihilation. Washington demands that North Korea disavow any nuclear plans (and substantially cut back on its conventional forces), but the United States retains an actively deployed arsenal of 7,650 nuclear warheads (most of them "strategic" and far more powerful than the one used at Hiroshima) with a further 3,600 in reserve or awaiting dismantling. The U.S. has withdrawn from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Millie Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto Convention on Global Warming. It signals its intent to pursue nuclear hegemony including the domination of space; deploys as "conventional weapons" newly developed weapons of terror and mass destruction including cluster bombs, "daisy cutters," and depleted uranium-tipped shells; and is working to develop a new generation fo nuclear "bunker buster" bombs and a space-based weapons system, enabling it to target anyplace on earth. It proclaims its right to assassinate or launch preemptive war against its enemies and refuses to recognize the jurisdiction of any international court to try its actions or those of its citizens. For three decades it has ignored its obligations under Article 6 of the 1988 Non-Proliferation Treaty to "pursue negotiations in good faith . . . to nuclear disarmament" (and is therefore in "material breach" of the treaty), while insisting that the others honor it strictly. None of this, however, in the eyes of the U.S. is "roguish" or "evil." Pyongyang sees the United States consistently placing itself above the law, reserving to itself the right to employ violence, virtually without restriction, in pursuit of its global interests, while labeling "terroristic" those who oppose it.

Lots more background in that book, including a pretty harrowing portrait of life in North Korea. It seems obvious that the way out for the Korean people is through reconciliation and eventual reunion with South Korea. There is political will to do that in South Korea, but the US and Japan seem to prefer keeping the hostility and threat level simmering. One should give some thought to the fact that the only remaining Communist states are the ones the US has fought wars against: North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and China (which fought us in Korea, although we've cut them a lot more slack, especially now that they're bankrolling Bush's national debt). The persistence of US antipathy towards North Korea indicates that we've never stopped fighting the Cold War, even fifteen years after the Russians gave up and got on with their lives. Indeed, just this week, Bush made a trip to Hungary to gloat about how America stood up to the Soviet threat. (The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Hungary's revolt, which as all Hungarians know the US sensibly sidestepped, allowing the Soviets to crush the opposition.) But then the Cold War wasn't just about Soviet expansionism; it was perhaps more importantly about the class struggle. The Soviets are no longer of interest, but class war is still very much alive in the Bush administration. It's the one they think they're winning.

Another source on the current Korea situation is Robert Koehler's blog, The Marmot's Hole. He follows the South Korean press, and has a number of interesting posts on this. He figures that North Korea is indeed unlikely to start a doomsday war over an attack on their missile, but that such an attack would play very badly in South Korea -- it would make clear how cavalierly we'd be willing to risk their lives for a tiny boost to our own imagined security.


Recording the News

Sudden attack of actual news on page 3A of the Wichita Eagle today. The big article was by Nancy A. Youssef, called "Recording the dead":

The death of civilians at the hands of U.S. troops has fueled the insurgency in Iraq, according to a top-level U.S. military commander, who said U.S. officials began keeping records of these deaths last summer.

Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who as head of the Multi-National Force-Iraq is the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said the number of civilian dead and wounded is an important measurement of how effectively U.S. forces are interacting with the Iraqi people.

"We have people who were on the fence or supported us who in the last two years or three years have in fact decided to strike out against us. And you have to ask: Why is that? And I would argue in many instances we are our own worst enemy," Chiarelli told Knight Ridder.

Chiarelli said he reviews the figures daily. If fewer civiilians are killed, "I think that will make our soldiers safer," Chiarelli said.

U.S. officials previously have said they don't keep track of civilian casualties, and Iraqi officials stopped releasing numbers of U.S.-caused casualties after Knight Ridder reported in September 2004 that the Iraqi Ministry of Health had attributed more than twice as many civilian deaths to the actions of U.S. forces than to "terrorist" attacks during the period from June 2004 to September 2004.

Chiarelli declined to release the numbers, but he said that U.S. soldiers are killing and injuring fewer Iraqi civilians this year in "escalation of force" incidents at checkpoints and near convoys than they did in July of last year, when officials first started tracking the statistics.

One question this raises is whether casualties from US air strikes are counted yet, and if so what the trend is there. Most reports are that air strikes have escalated. Counting itself is significant; if you don't bother to count, you're basically giving a green light to the soldiers to do whatever they feel like. Also looks like they've started to go beyond counting and actually investigate when and how and why US soldiers kill civilians. This is still likely to be too little, too late: from a PR standpoint, the counts and their details are a lose-lose proposition. But this does show that the military brass in the field are trying to get a handle on what they're doing and what effect they're having.

Above that, the story was "U.S. removing equipment from Iraq":

The U.S. military has begun sending thousands of battered Humvees and other war-torn equipment home as more Iraqi units join the fight against insurgents and American units scheduled for Iraq duty have their orders canceled.

In the past four months, the Army has tagged 7,000 Humvees and 17,000 other pieces of equipment to be shipped to the United States and rebuilt.

[ . . . ]

Pentagon officials have said that the 132,000 U.S. troops in Iraq could be reduced to about 100,000 by the end of the year, if security doesn't further deteriorate.

[ . . . ]

"It is much harder to move equipment than it is to move people," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "So if the Army is increasing its movement of equipment out of the country, that may signal that it expects fewer soldiers in Iraq six or 12 months from now."

In other words, the military is working towards extricating itself from Iraq even while the politicians insist on Staying the Course. One can argue that a smaller US footprint will be better for security, and Chiarelli's data should support that position.

The big story at the bottom of the page is titled "Bush defends policies to European critics," but the picture here speaks louder: a mass of protestors with four clearly legible signs in the foreground with Bush's picture and the words "WORLD'S #1 TERRORIST."

And then there were small stories around the edge of the page:

  • "N. Korea wants to talk; U.S. doesn't"

  • "'Significant fighting' ahead in Afghanistan"

  • "Israeli missile misses Gaza target, hits house"

  • "Fires continue to scorch areas of the Southwest"

  • "Senate quashes increase in minimum wage"

  • "Data brokers describe methods"

The minimum wage vote was 52-46 in favor of a higher minimum wage, but that wasn't enough to overcome the Republican fillibuster. Guess the days when Republicans stood for up-and-down votes are over.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Yet Another Day in Iraq

Another day in Iraq brought more killings, including one of Saddam Hussein's lawyers, more kidnappings, and more Americans charged with murder. Those stories at least made the TV news. Of evident less interest were a suicide bomber in Basra, US airstrikes in Baqubah that killed 13, and "16 corpses in various parts of Iraq." Another day.

Back in Congress Democrats divided over redeployment amendments while the Republicans clung firm to their clichés. It continues to dismay me that people whose business is debate can't seem to get their minds around the core concepts here. Stay what course? Where does that course go? Victory? Can you be a little more specific? The Democrats need to be attacking the goals of the war, but they can't do that because they've never been stated, and they've never bothered to ask. Only once you know what they're selling can you start a meaningful discussion of whether the price is worth paying. Or whether the product is even attainable.

Still, what's most disturbing about the debate there isn't that the Democrats are too confused or cowardly to challenge the war. It's that the right is already setting antiwar critics up for the fall when the war fails. It's like they know they lost this one, but want to make sure nobody learns any lessons from their failure. In this, as in the war itself, they're rerunning playbook from Vietnam. It's sad to think we're going to have to go through all this time and again just because nobody can see that empire works against the interests of most Americans.

Still, confusion is rampant. Robert Dreyfus wrote a weird piece called "Permanent War?" at TomDispatch, where he's changed his mind and decided that the US can persevere in Iraq. This assumes three things: that the US can continue to afford running 50-100k troops there indefinitely; that US political opinion will tolerate this; and that the Iraqi government will tolerate this. Each is a pretty iffy proposition, and loss of any of the three would end the game. He argues that we should go back to arguing the basic criminality of the war, instead of betting on its failure. But it looks to me like failure isn't a future proposition -- the war has already failed in so many ways that its future prospects for turning even worse are almost beside the point.

The real question looking ahead is whether we'll learn anything from this folly. The fundamental nature of our political system suggests not: the pro-war party will survive this war and agitate for its return to power, while the antiwar movement always seems to appear too late and amount to too little. War is an interest group; peace is just something we enjoy when we can. The confusion that the Democrats have is rooted in their well-conditioned nose for servicing interest groups. This leads them to want to isolate the fiasco in Iraq from their abiding enthusiasm for a smarter War on Terror and their blind allegiance to Israel. Until they see how the three are linked, parts of a cluster of other interests that ultimately do them more harm than good, they won't be able to find their way out.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Another Day in Iraq

Three small points about Iraq before something else happens there:

  1. The Khalilzad Cable isn't the Pentagon Papers, as Helena Cobban suggested. The Vietnam document was encyclopedic. This one is very narrowly focused on the lives of a few Iraqis working for the US propaganda outfit in Baghdad. However, it testifies very strongly how hopeless the US occupation is in Iraq. This is true because, as Malcolm Gladwell and Rudy Giuliani and God knows how many others have argued, appearances send messages about what behavior is or is not acceptable and proper under the circumstances. The fact that American public affairs employees can't safely identify themselves as such in public shows that the US has no credibility whatsoever outside the Green Zone. None. It's gone. Once lost, credibility is about as hard to regain as virginity.

  2. Two US privates were captured in an attack on a roadblock, hauled off. The US response was to send 8,000 troops out to search for them. That may initially strike you as dedicated and sensitive, but how should that strike the Iraqis, thousands of whom have been kidnapped since the US occupation began? This only serves to show once again the obscene difference between how much Americans value their own lives versus how little they value Iraqi lives, and that's the lesson most Iraqis will draw from this incident. The soldiers were killed gruesomely, their remains left in a field booby-trapped with bombs. Americans will remember how brutal and vicious Iraqis can be, and act with that in mind. Meanwhile, the Jihadis have found yet another way to drive the Americans crazy. Expect them to do it again, and again.

  3. Three US soldiers were charged with premeditated murder of Iraqi detainees today -- further evidence that discipline is on the verge of collapsing and the military is tearing itself apart. One of the charges here was that one soldier threatened to kill another for talking about the killings. This smells to me like we're getting very close to a new round of fragging. Ann Coulter has opened the subject, arguing that John Murtha should be fragged. (A check of the Daou Report suggests that Right Blogistan is all but obsessed with demonizing Murtha these days, so it's not just her.) She got the whole dynamic wrong: the officers who got fragged in Vietnam weren't the ones trying to get their troops home safely; they were the ones who drove their troops into hopeless binds. That includes anyone who thinks they can still salvage something from this tragic mess.

Here's a project for someone: go back through all the predictions people made about Iraq, Afghanistan, the whole War on Terrorism, and see how they stack up against the actual history. You could throw in Israel as well. I recall Dennis Ross talking about how Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza would be a step for peace, at the same time I was predicting that it was just being done to open up a clear line of fire. Who called that one?


Grown Tired of That Good Fight

I wrote a little bit about Andrew O'Hehir's Salon review of Peter Beinart's The Good Fight recently, but wasn't able to work in what I found to be the most interesting bit of the review:

Recent polling data suggests that self-described liberals are far more interested in ending the Iraq war than in pursuing al-Qaida, and that a large proportion of Democrats now oppose not merely the Iraq conflict but also the earlier invasion of Afghanistan. Many American liberals, he concludes, "no longer see the war on terror as their fight."

As one who opposed the US war in Afghanistan, and for that matter any sort of extralegal -- an evasive euphemism for illegal -- pursuit of Al Qaeda, I'm so used to being on the short side of the polling stick there that I hadn't noticed such a change of opinion. In fact, my own position has moderated to the point where I don't care much one way or another whether or when the US pulls out of Afghanistan. It's not that I've changed my mind, or that I see the US presence as in any way benign. It's just that as problems go, this one has been overwhelmed by the one it led to: Iraq.

It is certainly a healthy sign when rank and file Democrats come to the realization that the War on Terror isn't a fight that works for them in any way. It is a cover for many things -- not least a class war at home. It's a misdirection scam: first they get you to look in the distance, then they pick your pocket. If you complain, they try to guilt trip you for not caring about women and children on the far side of the world. Eventually you realize you've been had. Why should you feel bad about women and children in Afghanistan when they could care less about women and children here? Moreover, it's not like what they're doing in your name over there actually does any good. But you don't notice this sort of opinion shift because it's not the sort of thing people talk about. You talk about things you want to do, things you care about. Nobody makes a point of talking about, well, I think I'll just get back to my own life now.

Ahmed Rashid wrote a recent piece in The New York Review of Books on the state of Afghanistan. Although there are positive stories here and there, the bottom line is that reconstruction hasn't and security isn't and neither seems likely to change any way but for the worse. The Karzai government controls most of Kabul, but little beyond; warlords operate with impunity throughout most of the country; the Taliban controls all but the cities in the south and much of the Pakistani border; the only real economy is based on opium. The US has just started a new offensive to retake the southern provinces -- an admission that they failed to hold them the last time they took them. This time isn't likely to work any better than last time: the US forces are still much better at making enemies than vanquishing them, let alone winning them over. More ominously, the Taliban backs into havens in Pakistan, where they are too popularly ensconced to be attacked -- even by Pakistan's central government. This reminds us that the nightmare scenario wasn't just that Bush would get so cocky over Afghanistan that he'd invade Iraq; bad as that proved to be, the real nightmare is that fighting the Taliban might push their ISI allies into seizing power in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Rashid attributes much of the US failure to the US moving on to Iraq -- a position that most Democrat wonks agree with. Iraq undercut the effort in Afghanistan by drawing resources and focus away -- also by setting a model that inspires and informs the Afghan resistance. Still, Afghanistan would have been a tough project in any case. We know very little about how to build robust economies and successful civil societies in the underdeveloped world -- not that it's clear that we've tried very hard. Bush's own disinterest in the subject was made clear when he decried "nation building" when he ran for office -- that he's engaged in it at all is only because he found it useful for propaganda and cronyism. You can't point to any cases where he's actually achieved much -- even in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. But Afghanistan's problems run far deeper.

Thirty years ago, when the King was first deposed, Afghanistan was one of the poorest, most backward countries on the face of the earth. A series of coups led to establishment of a weak Communist government, which caught the attention of the US security cabal, spoiling for a revenge match against the Soviet Union. After the US started supplying arms to anti-Communist Mujahedin, the Soviets sent troops in to shore up the Kabul government. This led to greater resistance and a massive escalation in arms shipped by the US via Pakistan. The result was 22 years of internecine civil war, killing hundreds of thousands, driving millions out of their homes. The Taliban -- the word means students -- were mostly children who grew up under this civil war, who learned nothing but a few slogans from the Koran and how to kill their supposed enemies. The US never cared one whit about Afghanistan. All we wanted was to humiliate the Soviets, so once they withdrew, we withdrew, leaving nothing but ruins and scars in our wake. This was the wound that nurtured Al Qaeda, and 9/11 was our partial payback for what we had done there.

Of course, that's not the only payback we've gotten. We've also seen one armed intervention after another go sour. The idea that we're spreading freedom or democracy or prosperity or fairness or rights or anything positive is sorely lacking for examples. All evidence suggests that old fashioned American isolationism would do the world, and especially the Middle East, less harm, and us as well.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Music: Current count 12000 [11972] rated (+28), 890 [891] unrated (-1). The ratings database hit a round number milestone this week, although like most such steady accumulations -- the deaths we bother to count in Iraq come to mind -- this feels less like accomplishment than the inevitable, unopposable march of time.

  • Louis Armstrong: Now You Has Jazz: Louis Armstrong at M-G-M (1942-65 [1997], Rhino): Scattered songs, brief instrumentals, some outtakes, from various soundtracks: Cabin in the Sky (1943), The Strip (1951), Glory Alley (1952), High Society (1956, with Bing Crosby), and When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965). An interesting facet to the Armstrong legend, even if not really the best way to check him out. Good booklet; text by Will Friedwald. B+(***)
  • Cream: Gold (1966-68 [2005], Polydor/Chronicles, 2CD): British power trio, the obvious link between blues-rock and heavy metal, but Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce were closet jazzmen, as inclined to improvise as to rock out, leaving Eric Clapton to steady the ship; splitting their work into studio and live discs seems like the right idea, but both run slightly thin. B+(***)
  • Fountains of Wayne: Out-of-State Plates (1996-2005, Virgin, 2CD): Two new pop-rockers -- "The Girl I Can't Forget" is the great one, evidently the flipside of "Maureen" -- plus a short decade of throwaways, could almost have fit on one long disc but they're generous enough to give you two short ones; not the first odds and sods comp I've liked better than their studio fare -- for one thing it's more varied, but also their trash is funnier than their cash. A-
  • Ghostface Killah: Fishscale (2006, Def Jam): Killah again. Probably his best ever, but looking back I find that I wasn't nearly so impressed with his first two as Christgau was. Same here, but it's clearer to me that a big part of the difference is my inability to pay attention to the rhyme details. One piece on getting whipped for being bad when he was a kid does touch a nerve. There are probably more, and maybe someday I'll bother to sort them out. No problem with the oft amazing music. A-
  • Stan Kenton: Jazz Profile (1945-67 [1997], Blue Note): A one-disc compilation of Kenton's huge band work, covering most of his career, most of his bands, more or less evenly (at least up to 1961; only one cut after that). The band had some great musicians and some pretty good arrangers, and parts of this explode the way fireworks should; other parts sputter, fizzle, or just go boom. Two vocals -- the one with June Christy is the keeper. I don't know my way around his work very well, but I suspect that he's best approached through original LPs, where the band is more consistent and flow is more of a concern. But that's only a guess. B
  • Mahala Raï Banda (1999-2004 [2005], Crammed Discs): Electro-gypsy from the ghettos around Bucharest, roughly the same general phenomena as Brazil's favela booty beats, but with accordion, cymbalum and and lots of tuba-heavy brass. B+(**)
  • Larry McMurtry: Candyland (1992, Columbia): The second album by a country singer who will always be known as his famous novelist-screenwriter's son, not least because he displays some of the same rough-hewn literacy. Somewhat underrecorded, maybe even underwritten, but the title song stands out. B+(*)
  • Roy Nathanson: Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill (2000, Six Degrees): A concept album about the demise of a bar. I haven't concentrated on the book closely enough to follow, but I'm struck by how smoothly it flows. Charles Earland plays the Mighty Burner, the central character. Deborah Harry plays Carol Ann "Cups" -- "bartender to the masses, lover to the fortunate." Elvis Costello is the key singer. You tend to forget that he could have been a much better crooner than his father, had he not become a rock star first. But he's over that now. B+(***)
  • Prince: 3121 (2006, Universal): Got this from the library. Played it two times. It's been a long time since he's cut a record I've really lived with and cared about, but it hasn't been so long since the last time he cut an unquestionably good one -- e.g., 2002's Musicology. This is on the same level, maybe an edge better, maybe not. As it stands, I don't know any of these songs, but enjoy them all when they're playing. Some day I'll find a cheap copy and play them some more. A-
  • Prince Far I: Heavy Manners: Anthology (1977-83 [2003], Trojan/Sanctuary, 2CD): Born Michael James Williams, a DJ whose gravel voice declaimed rasta righteousness amidst torrents of dub echo; Joe Gibbs produced his breakthrough, starting a run that was stopped by a bullet six years later; this is exhaustive, and in the end transcendent. A-
  • Public Enemy: Rebirth of a Nation (2006, Guerrilla Funk): Featuring Paris, who no doubt makes a difference, but most of what I hear is the contrast between Chuck and Flav. The beats are a given. The rhymes are more up to the moment -- Paris? Make love, fuck war. Emphasis on the latter. A
  • The Streets: The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (2006, Vice/Atlantic): Matos noted he loved this one from the first play, whereas the previous one took time to win him over. Christgau argues that "his skills have leapt a quantum." I found this extremely awkward at first -- not without charms, of course, but hard to track, either following the beats or the words. A half dozen plays later, more sinks in than floats, and sometimes the awkwardness is part of the charm. Sometimes not. Bookkeeping note: I've moved him from techno to rap -- just too many words not to. A-

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 7)

Another week. Spent 4-5 days working through the unplayed new jazz, but did manage to take some time out play some non-jazz, including some new records that finally provide some non-jazz balance to my fledging 2006 list: Public Enemy, Rebirth of a Nation (currently #1); Ghostface Killah, Fishscale (#7); The Streets, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (#16); Prince, 3121 (#24). Then I decided I needed to pull some pending records off the replay shelf, so I'd have something to report there, too. Incoming queue looks no less daunting than a couple of weeks ago, so I expect next week will be much like the last two -- at least until July Recycled Goods takes over my attention. At this point I think the crush period for Jazz CG will be the first two weeks of July. I have about a third of the column done now, another third rated but unwritten, a few promising records on the replay shelf, and a couple of new things I haven't played but have hopes for. Don't have a dud yet. Don't care to pick on the smoothies, but I still haven't yet played the Yellowjackets' self-tribute to a quarter century of mediocrity. And there's always the ultimate fall-back, The Essential Kenny G.

One more note: I've kept a ratings database for a long time now. It originally started as a list of what I owned. Then I tacked a letter grade to the things I could remember well enough as a sort of rough sort reminder; e.g., if someone wants a recommendation on a Grant Green record, I could look it up and point to Born to Be Blue or Idle Moments. Although the grades are more useful to me than to you -- they don't say much, and they say as much about me as about the records -- I posted them when I set up the Ocston website, and I've kept plugging more data into them. Anyhow, I mention this because the rated just just hit 12,000 records this week. That's still short of Robert Christgau's tally (currently 13,184), but it approaches the same order of magnitude. More jazz; correspondingly less of everything else.


The Miles Donahue Quintet: In the Pocket (1999 [2006], Amerigo): Donahue was born in 1944, but didn't start recording until 1995. He's produced quite a bit since then, but I've only heard these two examples. Plays alto sax, tenor sax and trumpet; also gets credit for keyboards, but the pianist you notice here is most certainly Fred Hersch. The tenor sax is most likely Jerry Bergonzi, but no other trumpet players are listed, and I like the trumpet here as much as anything else. Not sure how the Quintet is actually aligned. Credits list eight musicians, with three singled out as "featuring": Hersch, Bergonzi, and Kurt Rosenwinkle [sic]. Looks like Hersch and Bergonzi are in, but the guitarist is an add-on for four tracks. The record is the sort of postbop that I find annoyingly pointless: it sounds just like jazz, as opposed to something of its own creation. That isn't very well expressed: a rather vague idea, but "just like jazz" is a placeholder for something missing -- doesn't matter what that is, just that it's not there. What is there breaks down into separate pieces, most of which are impressive on their own. The stars -- Hersch, Bergonzi, Rosenwinkel -- are easily recognized for their signatures, which show how warranted their stardom is. Donahue's trumpet stands out more than his alto sax, but he makes an impression on both. B+(*)

Michael Donahue: Bounce (2004 [2006], Amerigo): Two sessions with less starpower than In the Pocket -- the names here are Adam Nussbaum on one, John Patitucci on the other, Joey Calderazzo on both. Half the tracks have guitar (Norm Zocher), others bass clarinet (Ernie Sola). All of this fits the usual bright, bouncy, slinky postbop mold. B

Mold: Rotten in Rødby (2005 [2006], ILK): No relation to the '90s rock group of the same name. This is a group with three Danes and a German, formed in 2000 when they met up in New York. Two horn quartet -- Anders Banke on saxes and clarinets, Stephan Meinberg on trumpets -- with Mark Solborg's guitars and electronics instead of bass. Interesting group, more free than anything else. Need to play them again. [PS: Original CD was unplayable, but somehow I managed to burn a viable copy.] [B+(**)]

Carneyball Johnson (2006, Akron Cracker): Led by Tin Huey saxophonist Ralph Carney, guitarist Kimo Ball and drummer Scott Johnson contribute parts of their names, while Allen Whitman just offers up his bass. For those who missed it, Tin Huey was one of a half-dozen or so new wave bands to come out of Akron in the late '70s -- Pere Ubu and Devo were better known; the Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels, and the Numbers Band were more obscure; the Waitresses were a spin-off from Tin Huey's Chris Butler -- with a 1979 album fondly remembered for the Ubu-ish "I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts" (cf. Alfred Jarry's plays more so than the band). I hear they still play together. Haven't heard Carney's other albums, but saxophonists tend toward jazz -- after all, that's where the models come from. He plays Monk and Sun Ra here, which I haven't digested yet. But the loose and trashy pop singalongs based on the Yardbirds and Demond Dekker grabbed me immediately. [B+(**)]

Bill Carrothers: Shine Ball (2003-04 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): A shine ball is a pitch where a foreign substance has been applied to a baseball to give it an unexpected curve. The idea applies here because Carrothers plays a prepared piano in a trio setting. The preparation isn't extreme, but given that the pieces are improvised on the spot, it's likely that the precise sounds weren't fully anticipated; also that the range of temperaments was meant to generate as much surprise as possible. This sort of thing has been illegal, but not unheard of, in baseball since the 1920s. Whitey Ford was reputed to have a dandy. Not sure about Carrothers' near namesake, the 19th century pitcher Bob Caruthers, who rivals Ford for all-time career winning percentage. [B+(***)]

Ismael Dueñas: Mirage (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Spanish piano trio, damn good one, even if I'm at a loss of words to describe them. Same thing happened with Dueñas's previous album, La Tiranía de la Cosa. [B+(**)]

Ron Horton: Everything in a Dream (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Horton comes out of New York's Jazz Composers Collective, a circle that includes Ben Allison, Frank Kimbrough, and others. On a map of the jazz universe they'd fit on the seam between academically respectable postbop and the more formal segments of the avant-garde. In other words, they are serious cats, seeking to advance the state of the art within an acknowledged formal framework. This record here is nothing if not ambitious, and there is much to admire in it. Horton's own trumpet and flugelhorn are joined by two saxes, piano, drums, and two basses. The saxes are John O'Gallagher (alto) and Tony Malaby (tenor), both superb. All of the players have excellent parts, including featured bass solos for Masa Kamaguchi and John Hebert. I'm less pleased with how they come together. There's something sour in the sax-trumpet harmony I find a real turnoff. Maybe there's some new-fangled harmonic theory at work here? -- I've hade the same reaction to dozens of albums from this same milieu. Still, it's hard not to admire what he's done here, even if I can't quite bring myself to like it. B+(*)

Aaron Irwin Group: Into the Light (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Irwin plays alto sax in a quartet with guitar, bass and drums. Tenor saxist Rich Perry also appears on five of eight tracks. Moderate postbop, not much distinguished, although guitarist Ryan Scott has some nice moments, and Perry makes himself heard. B

Casually Introducing Walter Smith III (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): The artwork, especially the type on the back, recalls Blue Note's '60s work, most explicitly Sam Rivers' debut, Fuschia Swing Song -- a record that also contributes the first song here. Beyond that the relationship stretches thin, as does the tone of Smith's tenor sax. (He also plays soprano, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out which is which.) Still, there's something likable about this record. The keyboard work stands out -- mostly Aaron Parks, but Robert Glasper takes the cake for his Fender Rhodes cheese whiz on "Kate Song." The Mingus piece is lovely as usual. And the saxophonist finally connects with his "Blues" routine, even if it's a bit textbook. Smith's still young enough -- born in the '80s as near as I can tell -- that his resume's still in pursuit of his education. Don't think this is very good, but I do feel like hearing it again. [B+(*)]

Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet: Husky (2004 [2005], Hyena): Don't know Skerik's full or real name, where he came from (a sensible guess is Seattle), how old he is, or anything else beyond the public record: he plays tenor sax and has recorded since 1991, usually in rockish groups -- Sadhappy, Tuatara, Critters Buggin', Mylab, and Garage a Trois. That gives him two out of something like two, maybe three, fusion-ish jazz albums I've A-listed in nine Jazz CGs. This is his second Syncopated Taint Septet album -- haven't heard the first. The name comes from longtime federal narc chief Harry J. Anslinger, who derided jazz as "syncopated taint" as part of his campaign against the evils of marijuana. I'm not quite as taken by this one as I was by Mylab and Garage a Trois, probably because those are beat albums, whereas Skerik is a horn man. He runs five horns here -- three saxes, trumpet and trombone -- but while that thickens up the brass, if also cuts his own impact down a bit. Still, an interesting album, in a style that has yet to be pigeonholed with a name. Maybe I'll think of one next spin. [B+(**)]

Winard Harper Sextet: Make It Happen (2006, Piadrum): The way I parse the credits sheet, the Sextet seems to have eight members, including three percussionists not counting a leader who plays balafon as well as drums. Another five musicians show up for several tracks, including quasi-stars Antonio Hart and Wycliffe Gordon; also Abdou Mboup and his talking drum. Over fifteen tracks running 77:56 they cover a lot of ground, starting with Charlie Parker and working their way through pieces by six band members -- OK, maybe that's the Sextet? Too many different things going on here to make a coherent album, but lots of good things in the details: the African percussion pieces are notable; guest pianist Sean Higgins romps on Ray Bryant's "Reflection"; guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon brings down the house in "After Hours"; probably more. Harper's having a ball. B+(**)

Helen Sung Trio: Helenistique (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Another good piano trio, with Derrick Hodge on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. Sung composes one piece, starting with it and reprising it at the end. In between she arranges a wide range of more or less standard fare, ranging from James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" to Prince's "Alphabet Street, including the inevitable Ellington and Monk pieces, the less obvious Kenny Barron. A slow, stretched, bass-centric "Where or When" is especially refreshing. [B+(***)]

Jamie Stewardson: Jhaptal (2003 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Guitarist, first attracted to rock, then to John McLaughlin. Moved from Colorado to Boston in 1984 to attend Berklee. Later studied with John Abercrombie, Joe Maneri, Mick Goodrick. Doesn't have much of a discography: as far as I can tell, this is first album, with one other appearance. He wrote all of the songs here, but first time through here his guitar is relatively invisible -- at least compared to Alexei Tsiganov's vibes and Tony Malaby's tenor sax. Quintet also includes John Hebert and George Schuller -- all things considered, a terrific band. Need to go back again more closely and focus on the guitar. [B+(**)]

Jordi Matas Quintet: Racons (2004 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Spanish guitarist, based in Barcelona. Quintet includes saxophonist Marti Serra and pianist Jorge Rossy, as well as bass and drums. His guitar is more up front than Stewardson's, so it's easy to follow his clean, lean lines. Serra complements him ably, but doesn't stand out like Malaby. Nice record. B+(*)

Philip Dizack: Beyond a Dream (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): If you're interested in auspicious debuts, here's one: Dizack was 19 when he cut this one, mostly with bandmates from the Manhattan School of Music -- Greg Tardy is the ringer, the only name here I recognize. Dizack plays trumpet, credits Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard as influences -- wow, that's young! Chopswise I'd say he's in their league already. My main caveats are that he tries to too many things at once -- a common complaint I have about well-schooled debut albums -- and that the messy two-sax sextet crowds his trumpet. I reckon we'll be hearing more from pianist Miro Sprague also. B+(**)

Andrew Rathbun/George Colligan: Renderings: The Art of the Duo (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): "Art of the Duo" is a phrase that's been batted around by several labels -- I'm not sure if it's a regular feature with FSNT, but Concord had such a series, and I recall an Albert Mangelsdorff album of that title. Dave Liebman, who's done a few duos himself, wrote the liner notes here. Like Liebman, Rathbun plays tenor and soprano sax. Colligan plays piano. This is effectively chamber music. It starts with a piece by Ravel, then runs through a seven-part 25:46 suite. Later, along with a couple more originals, there's a 22:08 piece by Spanish composer Federico Mompou. So overall, it feels more like classical than jazz -- the piano plump, the sax shading. I don't really get it, but find much of it appealing. B+(*)

Sam Bardfeld: Periodic Trespasses (2004 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Aka "The Saul Cycle": Bardfeld narrates Saul's story in seven chapters, with pieces of music in between, the structure reminding me "Peter and the Wolf" -- I'm most familiar with Eno's version, but there's also a variant called Pincus and the Pig. I don't have the story straight, so that will take some further investigation. The group features Bardfeld's violin, Ron Horton's trumpet, and Tom Beckham's vibes, with Sean Conly and Satoshi Takeishi rounding up the rhythm. The violin has a little boogie in it; the trumpet is further out, and the combination is more than a little askew. Still working on it. [B+(**)]

Jason Rigby: Translucent Space (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): More postbop complexity here: nine musicians, although I doubt that more than the core quartet -- Rigby, Mike Holober on piano, Cameron Brown on bass, Mark Ferber on drums -- play all that much. Rigby plays three weights of sax, bass clarinet and wood flute. I think this is his debut, although he's been on a half dozen or so other people's albums, including one by Kris Davis I rated an Honorable Mention. With virtually all new jazz composers coming up through the academy, I suppose the attraction of postbop is that it provides the sort of framework for emotional articulation that classical music provided way back when. I could care less about the degree of difficulty here, but I am impressed that how well he holds it all together. Also impressed, once again, by Holober. [B+(**)]

Dave Burrell/Billy Martin: Consequences (2005 [2006], Amulet): A remarkable albeit rather limited meeting. Martin doesn't drum along, because Burrell doesn't give him anything to drum along with. He plays Tayloresque pianistics, if anything more abstract. Despite its tuning and variable decay, on some level the piano is just another percussion instrument, so why not think of this as a percussion duet? It's rather arbitrary whether I make this a low A- or a high B+, but for now I like it as an Honorable Mention because I got a one-liner for it: Old pianist shows young drummer what real percussion sounds like. B+(***)


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

The Crimson Jazz Trio: The King Crimson Songbook: Volume One (2005, Voiceprint): Drummer Ian Wallace put this group together after a tour with Frippless Crimson spinoff group 21st Century Schizoid Band. Nothing in Wallace's background suggests that he would come up with such a straightforward jazz group -- his resume includes Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, David Lindley, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, Warren Zevon, Keith Emerson, Crosby Stills and Nash, and so forth. Fretless bassist Tim Landers is another studio/tour pro with mostly rock acts on his list, although he can cite Gil Evans, Billy Cobham, Don Grolnick, and the Breckers. That leaves pianist Jody Nardone as the only certifiable jazz guy, but working out of Nashville he's got some mud on his flaps too. King Crimson was, and more or less still is, an English prog rock group led by non-singer guitarist Robert Fripp. Although it had some jazz threads, that doesn't appear to matter much here. What matters here is that the songs have enough structure to give Nardone something to nibble on, and he rearranges them enough to make it hard for someone as superificially acquainted with them as me to connect the dots. Where Crimson does approach the surface is in the undertow of Landers' bass. Otherwise, this is just a conventional piano trio that gets a lot of mileage out of songs that haven't entered the jazz canon. B+(***)

Roy Nathanson: Sotto Voce (2005 [2006], AUM Fidelity): The first song reminds me of an Annette Peacock song. The second is a sickly pop hit that Billy Jenkins got to first. In other words, both are good, but remind me of better. The music throughout reminds me of the Jazz Passengers, not surprising given that Nathanson was their leader and Curtis Fowlkes is also on board here, but the music takes a back seat to the words, and therein lies the rub. After the first two songs this gets drab, starting with a riff on "Motherless Child" and quickly descending into Brechtian territory, or do I mean Tom Waits? Interesting ideas here, but too many allusions make me think it should be better. B+(*)

Thomas Storrs and Sarpolas: Time Share (2005 [2006], Louie): Rob Thomas justly gets top billing here, even if doing so leads to confusion. He is the latest in the series of violinists to work in the String Trio of New York, and he sets the tone here. Dave Storrs is a drummer based in Oregon or thereabouts. I've noticed him elsewhere as a guy who plays with the band, and he adds a lot to the violin here. Dick Sarpola plays bass; George Sarpola adds some extra percussion, hence the Sarpolas. B+(***)

Stefano Battaglia: Raccolto (2003 [2006], ECM, 2CD): The first disc is a piano-bass-drums trio, slow and free, fascinating as it tiptoes around the edges of chaos without ever taking the plunge. Second disc replaces the bass with Dominique Pifarély's violin, which upsets the sonic balance, moving the piano back a notch. B+(**)

Theo Bleckmann/Fumio Yasuda: Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne (2005 [2006], Winter & Winter): As Americans we're much too close to Las Vegas to appreciate how strangely, definitively American the place can seem to foreigners. Fumio Yasuda orchestrates these songs not as show business so much as transcendental fantasy, inflating fluff like "Teacher's Pet" and "The Gal in Calico," but also playing "My Favorite Things" as light heartedly as "Chim Chim Cheree." Bleckmann sings, so sweet you feel faint. Bernd Ruf and the Kammerorchester Basel play their parts. B+(***)

Gebhard Ullmann/Chris Dahlgren/Jay Rosen: Cut It Out (2000 [2006], Leo): With Ullmann playing bass clarinet and bass flute, this is pitched low enough it may take a seismograph to fully sort it out. I find it shifts in and out. Like what I hear when I hear it, both the hard-earned lines and the residual rumble. B+(*)

The Summer Movie Season

Movie: Thank You for Smoking. The local theatre chain has been opening their shows with a "voice of the announcer" chortling about how Summer is coming and that's when Hollywood brings out their finest products. The net result of this is that the actual number of films showing here in Wichita is down about 25% from the dull days of winter, mostly because the same mega-crap is being shown in multiple theatres. We've been hard up for anything to get us out of the house. Went to see this one on the rumor that it might be funny. It is, mostly, although the smart aleck son seems likely to turn into a major public nuissance. B+

Movie: The DaVinci Code. Didn't know anything about this going in -- haven't read the book, but have read several of the reviews about how deadly dull the film is. Turns out it's not deadly dull; more like ordinarily dull. Turns out it's not about much of anything either, other than the notion that a genetic line of descent actually means anything after 2000 years -- an issue that could be cleared up with a whiff of numeracy. I thought the flashback scenes to the middle ages were an interesting effect, as if there's another movie lurking somewhere trying to get out. But content-wise those images could have been clearer about what vile motherfuckers the Crusaders were (and for that matter still are). As it is, they leave the vileness to the principals in the present age, who take this nonsense way too seriously. B-

A Prairie Home Companion. Again, I approach a movie from a strong position of ignorance about what it's about, except that's not really true: I have some idea about Garrison Keillor even though I've never listened to more than accidental moments of his show, and I know a good deal more about Robert Altman, the top dozen or so actors here, and the music they draw on. All of these elements are completely marvelous. Even the side story with Guy Noir and the lady in white rain wouldn't touch weave in nicely -- Kevin Kline hasn't been this funny since A Fish Named Wanda. Saw it on a huge screen in a theatre packed for a first matinee and loved every moment of it. Note that it's the only screen in town showing this movie. Must not be one of Hollywood's Best. A

Saturday, June 17, 2006

House of War

William Grimes' New York Times review of James Carroll's House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power is a weaselly piece of writing. Laura wanted me to write a rejoinder, but everywhere I try to nail him down turns out to be hollow. Most of what he has to say is an episodic list of notes, recapitulating the book without connecting it together. He complains, for instance, that it's not really a biography of the Pentagon, missing that the massive building is in fact a physical metaphor for the permanent, self-perpetuating war machine that it headquarters. He derides the book as "impassioned, tendentious, morally incoherent," totally missing the exceptionally rigorous moral theme of Carroll's carefully considered antiwar stance. He laments, "It is hard, really, to understand what Mr. Carroll wants from the United States, since he detests the very notion that it has power and sometimes seems to be suggesting that the wrong side came out on top in the cold war." Carroll shows how the desire to dominate escalated the US-Soviet rivalry to the brink of world devastating war. No side won, or could win, such a war: the "evil empire" Soviet Union backed out, while the US continued to build its arsenal as it sought out new enemies to justify continued beligerence. In the end, Grimes falls back on the canard: "The cold war was a dreadful time but perhaps not as dreadful as the years 1914 to 1918 or 1939 to 1945. If you don't like it cold, try it hot." The implication here is that the Cold War as it turned out was the best of all possible outcomes -- a pathetic, self-aggrandizing "just so" reading of history.

History, of course, cannot be changed. The reason one asks questions about choices in the past is not to pretend they can be changed, or to retroactively make moral judgments about their actors, but to open up the range of options for the present. I suspect this is one reason Carroll pays so much more attention to aerial bombing and nuclear weapons strategies than he does to the not-so-cold wars in Korea and Vietnam: aerial bombing and nuclear weapons are still very much part of US war policy, and past ideas about their efficacy, their utility, and their morality distort current policy. In this regard, Carroll repeatedly returns to Henry Stimson's 1945 initiative to defuse the likelihood of "a rather desperate arms race" with the Soviet Union by sharing the secrets of nuclear weapons. Stimson's main opponent at that time was Navy Secretary James Forrestal, whose paranoia -- certainly a part of his extreme anti-communism -- was soon to lead to his suicide. For those who grew up with the Cold War as natural fact, it may well be surprising that such a momentous decision in US history should turn on two personalities, let alone that the victory should go to the psychotic one.

Of course, Forrestal won the day not because he was mad but because he was in tune with momentous decisions made in the early days of World War II. Carroll identifies four key decisions and intimately links them through their dates: the building of the Pentagon; the proclamation of unconditional surrender as the war goal; the adoption of a bombing policy that became increasingly indiscriminate as the war progressed; and the start of the atom bomb project. The latter three points may be thought of as the ideal of total war, the psychological and moral distance that lets total war be fought, and the weapon that consumates total war. All three connected fatefully and spectacularly at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, setting the tone for all future wars. This could have been the moment to recognize that war had become something that mankind could never again afford, but others were loathe to give up the war economy, the martial spirit, or the pinnacle of American power. The Pentagon was their headquarters, their icon.

The story that follows is one of creating a foe out of the real and imagined threats posed by the Soviet Union and Communists all around the world, and building a military force powerful enough to defend against and ideally roll back that threat. Events like the Berlin blockade and the Korean war helped paint the enemy. Soviet development of nuclear bombs and ICBMs accelerated the arms race. Over time America's belief in the inherent evil of the Communist enemy became so deep-seated that when Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet Union he was widely disbelieved. Even with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, America's military juggernaut proved to be unstoppable, at least until it became mired in Iraq. This conditioning still dominates our thinking: we fear tiny groups of jihadist Muslims because we fear what they could do if they somehow obtained the bomb we grew up fearing, and because we so fear them, we fight them so desperately -- as should be clear by now, so foolishly. But we do so because we have been conditioned to feed the Pentagon.

Carroll's book is idiosyncratic in several ways. He draws numerous connections by coincidental dates, including his birth date the week the Pentagon was dedicated, and he makes much more of these dates than anyone reasonably should. More significantly, he also weaves his own personal experiences into the story, which provide unique twists on the story. His father was a Lieutenant General in the Air Force -- through most of the '60s head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Needless to say, that gives him an unusual perspective. I doubt that any other antiwar activist can say his next door neighbor was Curtis Lemay. Others may have had their fathers warn them of impending nuclear attacks during the Cuban missile crisis, but Carroll's experience stands out there as exceptionally vivid. Carroll's subsequent passage through the Catholic priesthood and his relationship with the Catholic peace movement also loom large and personal. The result is a book that only he could have written. Not all of it is equally useful, but it clearly fits together in his own mind: the notion that it is "morally incoherent" is beyond laughable.

I've already quoted the book on a couple of topics: on issues of the corruptibility of intelligence, and on the Pentagon's revolt against Clinton over gays in the military. There is much more here, including especially good capsule summaries of Iran-Contra, Panama, and Kosovo. The biggest surprise to me was his interpretation of how Reagan's loony case for Star Wars led him to agree to limiting nukes over the objections of his warmongering staff. Carroll's ability to speak with people like Robert McNamara, who granted the interview because of his "great admiration" for Carroll's father, is unusual. But then it should be noted that Carroll is unusually sympathetic to his Pentagon subjects. This book is no laundry list of American atrocities. That it finally comes off as damning is due to its hard won integrity.

Here are a few more quotes I noted. Obviously, one thing that fed the arms race was interservice rivalry (p. 107):

As was true of Air Force advocates, Forrestal had been quick to see the usefulness of a Soviet threat in making a case that Navy budgets had to be protected. This dovetailed with his long-standing attitude, for as much as Forrestal loved the Navy, he loathed Communism, had for years. And now that hostility meshed with his parochial resentment of the upstart Air Force. As debates over the new structure of the combined military establishment continued, Forrestal shamelessly protected Navy turf, but he did so by arguing from highflying idealism.

After WWII US armed forces quickly demobilized, as they had after every previous US war. The Cold War started later, as Soviet and other Communist -- France and Italy had substantial, independent Communist parties coming out of the war, largely due to the leadership role they had taken in the anti-Nazi resistance -- political acts came to be interpreted through a narrow ideological lens. George Kennan's 1946 "long telegram" was instrumental here, especially as promoted by Forrestal (p. 132-133):

But it was the Unitd States, more than the Soviet Union, that militarized that political conflict, making it far more dangerous and costly than it needed to be.

This development began to unfold first in the mind of James Forrestal. In his perception, at a time of massive demobilization, the urgent military need was paramount,a nd the article by "X" [George Kennan] was read to support that. [ . . . ]

Truman then circulated among his top officials a 100,000-word statement of his own thinking, composed by his most trusted aide, Clark Clifford, and a colleague. Called "American Relations with the Soviet Union," and drawing directly on the Long Telegram, the document showed that the Forrestal thesis was now policy; "The language of military power politics is the only language which the disciples of power [in Moscow] understand . . . . Therefore, in order to maintain our strength at a level which will be effective in restraining the Soviet Union, the United States must be prepared to wage atomic and biological warfare."

In 1950, after the Soviets had tested their first A-bomb, Paul Nitze wrote a document called "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security," henceforth referred to as NSC-68. This was the foundation document of US Cold War policy (pp. 183-184):

The stark bipolarity of NSC-68 would be one stout pillar of America's Cold War perceptions. It was set firmly in the foundation of unconscious assumptions that had long organized the perceptions of the West and that had now come to dominate the mindset of, for example, Nitze's sponsor Dean Acheson. "The threat to Western Europe," he wrote in his memoir, regarding his view in 1950, "seemed to me singularly like that which Islam had posed centuries before, with its combination of ideological zeal and fighting power." Recalling the Crusades and bringing its lessons of strategic alliance forward, Acheson added, "Then it had taken the same combination to meet it: Germanic power in the east and Frankish in Spain. This time it would need the added power and energy of America, for the drama was now played on a world stage.

Western civilization had come into its own by defining itself in opposition to an ememy in the East. The Russian imagination might drift back to those seventeenth-century invasions, but the inner clock of Western Europe, an dits American offspring, had been set running in the eleventh century. The anti-Islamic wars of resistance and reconquista, dominating politics and culture for nearly three centuries, depended on messianic mysticism, apocalyptic fervor, and millenial dread. The crusading world was divided between good and evil, the faithful and the infidel, with the pope himself consecrating the "War of the Cross." The alliance with God was certain. For the first time in the history of Christendom, violence was there defined as a sacred act, and anyone who took up the fight was promised salvation: "God wills it!" Instead of Urban II and the rallying sermon in Clermont, the American crusade had Paul Nitze and NSC-68.

Within this framework, the Korean war was viewed as an act of Soviet aggression, not as the local event it initially was (p. 191):

On November 30 at a Washington press conference, with the morityfing rout still under way, Truman said that the Korean conflict, even with the Chinese intervention, was the result of Russian Communist aggression, the source of a new world crisis. Moscow was the enemy. Korea was only Moscow's forward line. The president declared his intention to hold that line, "to halt this aggression in Korea." He promised to take "whatever steps are necessary." Did that include the atomic bomb? a reporter asked. "That includes every weapon we have," Truman answered, and then added, about the bomb, "There has always been active consideration of its use."

Truman later moderated his stance, resisting numerous proposals by the military to use nuclear weapons in the conflict. MacArthur advocated attacking China with bombing and blockades; he was finally relieved of his command. Another incident (p. 193):

Stuart Symington, who as secretary of the Air Force had done so much to empower LeMay and SAC (and my father), was now the chairman of the National Security Resources Board, an adjunct to the National Security Council. Symington was Truman's Missouri friend, and it was he who, in early January 1951, presented NSC-100, which recommended sending LeMay's atomic bombers against China, with a simultaneous warning to the Soviet Union that it would be attacked, too, for any "aggression." Again Truman said no.

After he took office in 1953, Eisenhower again threatened to use nuclear weapons: an exercise in atomic diplomacy aimed at bullying the Soviets into signing the war-ending armistice. Nixon went even further during the Vietnam War, actually sending bombers into the Arctic. Kennedy came closest to launching nuclear war during the Cuba missile crisis, defused by the Soviet Union backing down. The Soviets never once readied their nukes for use, although their existence certainly gave US leaders reason to moderate numerous proposals by trigger-happy generals and defense intellectuals. The Soviets had announced a "no first use" policy as far back as Brezhnev. That policy has since been rescinded by the post-Soviet Russian leader Vladimir Putin, perhaps in response to Bush's plans for a new generation of "tactical" nukes. The Bush regime is second to no post-WWII administration in viewing the world in Manichean, us-versus-evil terms, only now the Crusade is aimed once again at Islam.


William Grimes's next New York Times book review took a look at Peter Beinart's The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. This one is equally sloppy, but happier: evidently Beinart's enthusiasm for "the good fight" against Islamic totalitarianism strikes a positive chord in Grimes. Grimes quotes Beinart as arguing that Liberals must recognize that "there is no contradiction between recognizing that our enemies are not intrinsically evil, and recognizing that they must be fought, just as there is no contradiction between recognizing that although we are not intrinsically good, we must fight them." Now, that sounds like a pretty good example of "morally incoherent" to me. Andrew O'Hehir's review of the same book in Salon describes Beinhart's confusion this way:

Still, Beinart's opening confession creates a problem that echoes throughout the length and breadth of The Good Fight. He is defending a political ideology that, as he admits, led him to support an arrogant and ill-fated military adventure. The same political ideology, as he also admits, led an earlier generation of liberal hawks into a different arrogant and ill-fated military adventure, in Southeast Asia. (Earlier still, the same ideology led too many American liberals to equivocate from the sidelines for too long while Joe McCarthy persecuted suspected Communists and their families.) Perhaps only a liberal could find himself so consistently behind the eight ball, admitting his own team's flaws and hypocrisies while still arguing for its moral rightness.

One striking point from both reviews is how Beinart characterizes the Salafi-Jihadism of Al-Qaeda as totalitarian. That's one of those isms that should instantly set of alarm bells, because it is a word that no one ever claimed to believe it. Totalitarianism is a sleight of hand originally meant to lump Hitler and Stalin -- Nazism and Communism -- into the same stinky bag, tainting each with the other, rendering both as the evil other opposed to good ole us. The first casualty of this concept was that it let us forget that Nazism was invented as the antipode to Communism, that the Soviet Union was the main target of Germany's WWII aggression, and that most of the actual fight against the Nazis, and a big chunk of the fight against Imperial Japan, was done by Communists. But the main point of the term was to characterize Communism as an inherently alien, evil, implacable foe of everything we believe in -- to make it impossible to respect, compromise with, or achieve any sort of modus vivendi with Communists. Stalin, Mao and others did things that made it easy to taint Communism like that, but even there it was a massive distortion of reality, done purely for propaganda. Applying that same brush to any strain of political Islam, as Liberal warmonger Paul Berman does, obscures reality even worse. The only reason to do this is to invoke the precedence of the "good fight" against Fascism and/or Communism as a model for war against Islam. To do so offers no enlightenment, no insight, and most importantly no common ground that might let us live together. The absolute evil we abhor is nothing more than the projection of the absolute self-righteous we have become.

Evidently, Beinhart has made some progress at recognizing that his initial support for Bush's Iraq fiasco was misguided. But he still has some learning to do. Hopefully he won't have to learn it all the hard way, as he has with Bush and Iraq.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Rove's War

Following their takedown of the thug they shamelessly hyped as the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Bush Administration has escalated their offensive on the only battleground where they have any chance of success: the Democrats in Congress. Helena Cobban quotes David Sanger and Jim Reutenberg as writing in the New York Times:

[The Baghdad meeting] came as Republicans began a new effort to use last week's events to turn the war to their political advantage after months of anxiety, and to sharpen attacks against Democrats. On Monday night, the president's top political strategist, Karl Rove, told supporters in New Hampshire that if the Democrats had their way, Iraq would fall to terrorists and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would not have been killed.

"When it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party's old pattern of cutting and running," Mr. Rove said at a state Republican Party gathering in Manchester.

This reminds me of how Bob Dole used to rag the Democrats as the war party. The history there is that the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam all started while Democrats occupied the White House. The first two were clear victories under Democrat command. The latter two didn't end until Republicans took over the White House, who proceded to negotiate Korea to a stalemate while turning Vietnam into a staggering loss. It's hard to argue from this history that the Democrats are congenitally weak in war. If anything, history shows that Democrats have been more committed to their war goals and more competent at executing those wars than the Republicans. I'm not saying that this has been a good thing -- in Vietnam it certainly wasn't -- but to the extent that you can draw any such lessons from history, that's how it stacks up.

The only example of a war started by a Republican and ended with a Democrat cutting and running was Somalia. That one was a poison pill concocted by lame duck GHW Bush for no more obvious reason than to embarrass his successor. Clinton's withdrawal was no more hasty or unreasonable than Reagan's retreat from Beirut. Both misadventures have since been seen as admissions that the US could be beat back by Islamist terror, but their real strategic weakness was that they were conceived for no good reason -- by trigger-happy Republicans.

One item in the news this week is that the US is planning a new offensive in Afghanistan to take back the Pushtun areas in the south, once again under Taliban control. Virtually every Democrat in Congress supported the US going to war in Afghanistan. Can anyone doubt that the Afghanistan war would have been more effectively commanded by a Democrat? Any likely Democrat -- Clinton, Gore, Kerry -- would have understood that merely chasing the Taliban into the hills wouldn't do the trick. How successful they might have been is hard to tell, but the only successful occupations in US history were Germany and Japan, under Democrats.

As for Iraq, the Republicans sure left a lot of room for improvement there too, and often by doing stereotypically Republican things, like pissing all over the UN framework, privatizing an economy that was overwhelmingly state run, and delegating all the reconstruction funds to their no show political cronies. Still, the problem with Iraq has never been mere competency: it was the original decision to invade and occupy the country. Would a Democrat have made such a fateful mistake? Probably not. There was virtually no support for such a war beyond the Republican-Neocon cabal, and they wouldn't have been nearly so effective without being able to manipulate the levers of presidential power.

Still, I don't take any comfort in knowing that the Democrats are more competent than the Republicans at war. War is so destructive, not just of the physical world but also of civility and morality, that it's hard to imagine any real world situation that justifies it. Indeed, the reason the Democrats are more effective at war is that they are generally less eager to plunge into it. (An exception was Woodrow Wilson, but he takes us back a ways; further back, in fact, than the distance between Wilson and such early Democratic hawks as Andrew Jackson and James Polk.) That reluctance is one of the main reasons the Republicans can get away with such goading. By exposing conflict and indecision in the Democrats, this makes the Democrats appear weak, and conversely the Republicans strong. Under threat, people instinctively flock to strong and decisive leaders; in our case forsaking smart and savvy ones.

Republican attacks have worked so far, but one wonders how long folks will continue to favor instinct over experience. One answer is as long as the Democrats cower under such attacks. Most of the people who vote Democrat in no way benefit from or favor continuing Bush's occupation of Iraq, yet only six Democrats supported their constituents in the meaningless straw vote the Republicans forced. The purpose of that vote is to show the Democratic base how feckless their leaders are. That, too, is an old and tired story. For instance, Kevin Phillips (American Theocracy, p. x) writes:

But the national Democrats have their own complicity. Their lack of understanding and moxie has contributed to the mutation of the GOP. Without that weak and muddled opposition, both before and after September 11, the Republican transformation would have been impolitic and perhaps impossible.

At some point Democrats need to recognize that war hurts them bad enough to stand up against it. But even so, muddled is nowhere near so bad as fearlessly, fanatically wrong. If I have to fly, I'd much rather have a pilot who knows how to land than one who only knows how to take off.

A Timeline to the Crusade

When I finished reading James Caroll's big book on the Pentagon, House of War, I was psyched up enough to pull his previously unread Crusade off the shelf. The latter is much shorter -- 286 pages vs. 516, not counting notes and index -- but turns out to be a tougher read. The reason is that it's stitched together from newspaper columns -- in other words, consistently sized chunks of then-current musings without much flow. Still, Crusade has its merits. In particular, it provides a chronology from Sept. 11, 2001 through Mar. 16, 2004, the one year anniversary of Bush's Iraq misadventure. As such, it gives contemporary significance to events that have since been blurred: the unsolved anthrax attacks, the nuclear showdown between India and Pakistan, the DC sniper attacks, major Defense Dept. policy documents, etc. It has some personal specialties, opening with a discussion of the Crusades, closing with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- Carroll was at one point a Roman Catholic priest, and he's written a book on antisemitism in the Christian church, so those are issues that especially touch his nerves. It also has what read like rough drafts for the Pentagon book -- certainly less interesting after the fact.

I didn't mark up much in the book, but here's a quote from July 8, 2003 (p. 210, "Ridding the World of Evil"):

But there's the problem with President Bush. It is not the moral immaturity of the texts he reads. Like his callow statement in the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, they are written by someone else. When the president speaks, unscripted, from his own moral center, what shows itself is a bottomless void. To address concerns about the savage violence engulfing "postwar" Iraq with a cocksure "Bring 'em on!" (as he did last week) is to display an absence of imagination shocking in a man of such authority. It showed a lack of capacity to identify either with enraged Iraqis who must rise to such a taunt, or with young GIs who must now answer for it. Even in relationship to his own soldiesr, there is nothing at the core of this man but visceral meanness.

No human being with a minimal self-knowledge could speak of evil as he does, but there is no self-knowledge without a self. Even this short "distance of history" shows George W. Bush to be, in that sense, the selfless president, which is not a compliment. It's a warning.

This one is notable for its date, Sept. 2, 2003 (p. 219, "The War Is Lost"):

The war is lost. By most measures of what the Bush administration forecast for its adventure in Iraq, it is already a failure. The war was going to make the Middle East a more peaceful place. It was going to undercut terrorism. It was going to show the evil dictators of the world that American power is not to be resisted. It was going to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. It was going to stabilize oil markets. The American army was going to be greeted with flowers.

None of that happened. The most radical elements of various fascist movements in the Arab world have been energized by the terrorists. Instead of undermining extremism, Washington has sponsored its next phase, and now moderates in every Arab society are more on the defensive than ever. Before the war, the threat of America's overwhelming military dominance could intimidate, but now that force has been shown to be extremely limited in what it can actually accomplish. For the sake of regime change, the Unitd States brought a sledgehamnmer down on Iraq, only to profess surprise that, even as Saddam Hussein remained at large, the structures of the nation's civil society were in ruins.

Finally, closing the book one year after launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mar. 16, 2004 (pp. 274-276):

The situation hardly needs rehearshing. In Iraq, many thousands are dead, including 564 Americans. Civil war threatens. Afghanistan, meanwhile, is choked by drug-running warlords. Islamic jihadists have been empowered. The nuclear profiteering of Pakistan has been exposed but not necessarily stopped. Al Qaeda's elusiveness has reinforced its mythic malevolence. The Atlantic alliance is in ruins. The United States has never been more isolated. A pattern of deception has destroyed its credibility abroad and at home. Disorder spreads from Washington to Israel to Haiti to Spain. Whether the concern is subduing resistance fighters far away or making Americans feel safer, the Pentagon's unprecedented military dominance, the costs of which stifle the U.S. economy, is shown to be essentially impotent. [ . . . ] Whatever happens from this week forward in Iraq, the main outcome of the war, for the United States is clear. We have defeated ourselves.

A little over two years later, most of the changes have merely been quantitative. Just this week, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq topped 2,500.

I'll have more to say about House of War in a future post.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Flag Wavers

Front page news in the Wichita Eagle today: Senator Sam Brownback supports the American flag. Also the pledge of allegiance -- he really likes the "under God" part. All the other national and world news, starting with Bush's joyride to Baghdad, got filed on page four. At least, all that fit. Also in the paper today was a report on the net worth of the Kansas Congressional delegation. Brownback took honors in that piece as well: he's far and away the richest. Of course, he got his money the really old fashioned way: he inherited it.

As for Senator Pat Roberts, considering how much money he funnels to agribusiness, his net worth at a million-plus-change must give him one of the best ROIs in Congress. Poor Jim Ryun brought up the rear, confirming reports that he's too dumb to steal, even. That's what he gets for giving it all away.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Truce Ends

The acid question for pacifists has always been: but what do you do when you face a foe who who persists in attacking you violently? This question is usually intended to separate the near-pacifists -- those who will fight back once sufficiently cornered -- from the pure, presumably foolish, martyrs. It is intended to show that pacifism is unrealistic, because the existence of such persistent malefactors is assumed. Examples from the more/less distant past, starting of course with the Nazis, are trotted out.

I didn't bring this up to preface a disquisition on pacifism. I just want to point out a more timely example of a group that insists on repaying non-violent resistance with fresh violence: Israel. The bare bones outline is thus: a few years ago the Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas is a long-time pragmatic opponent of Palestinian violence against Israel. Israel's response to Abbas was to shun him, to show the Palestinians that electing a non-violent leader would get them nothing, would do no good. Sixteen months ago Hamas, an Islamic opposition group with a past history of anti-Israeli violence, declared a unilateral truce, ceasing all attacks against Israel. Israel's response to this truce was to continue its frequent bombardment of Palestinian territories, again reminding Palestinians that nonviolence gets them nothing. Nonetheless, Hamas was able to parlay its new statesmanship into victory in democratic elections in Palestine. This time Israel's response was not merely to shun Hamas but to cut off desperately needed humanitarian aid. In other words, when the Palestinians tried to democratically replace one non-violent party that Israel had done nothing for with another non-violent party, Israel's response was to punish all Palestinians with starvation. But that was not all: Israel continued to shell and bomb Palestinian territories, assassinating a high official in the new Hamas government and numerous others who were no threat to Israel.

The upshot of all this is that Hamas finally rescinded its truce. Presumably this will lead to what Israel obviously wants: a dramatic escalation in the level of anti-Israeli violence, and an even more dramatic escalation of Israel's collective punishment of Palestinians. Of course, no good will come of this -- except perhaps in how all the bloodshed might turn world public opinion as it becomes more and more obvious how monstrous Israel's 39-year-old occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has become. But even there it is more likely that opinions will polarize rather than turn. Israel has only been able to punish Hamas like this because the US and, most embarrassingly, Europe have backed Israel, reforming the colonialist alliance that backed Israel against the Palestinians in 1947, creating this long-running tragedy. The message they have delivered is plain -- not just to Palestinians but to all Arabs, all Muslims, and anyone else who cares: nonviolence gets you nowhere with us; and if you don't like them shakes, bring it on.

This will be a tough time for pacifists, near-pacifists, anyone who wonders why we can't get along. We at least understand that violence, whether it seems to work for one's advantage or not, in the end takes a horrible toll from its perpetrators as well as its victims. We should also understand that when two sides fight they are not necessarily equally at fault. The worst by far is the side that has the power to do otherwise, that uses its power against justice, and that relentlessly chooses violence. Right now, Israel is the exemplar of all three faults. I'm not saying that this in any way justifies anti-Israeli violence. But I am saying that if you don't expect all people at all times to be faithful pacifists -- if you think there's ever a case when it's necessary to fight back with force -- then you have to recognize that any anti-Israeli violence that does occur is the fault of those who provoked it: Israel. At least until such time as Israel radically changes its policies, its attitude to the Palestinians, and its belief that overwhelming force justifies everything.

Meanwhile, we should be clear that America's rejection of the results of the Palestinian elections puts the lie to everything Bush and others -- Thomas Friedman, for one -- have said about the desirability and blessings of democracy for the Arab world. As in Iraq, what Bush is really saying is that elections are only valid when our guys win. Of course, that's Bush's position on elections in America as well.


Speaking of Bush, PBS aired much too much of his press conference last night. I almost never watch him any more, so the thing I was most struck by is how closely he mimicks his caricatures. In fact, I didn't realize before how understated those caricatures are. Every question I felt like I was watching Saturday Night Live pushing the envelope of credulity.

As for substance, all Bush had to say was that the war in Iraq is nothing more than a struggle of willpower; that his own willpower is unshakeable, regardless of how low his polls go, so no point in even bothering to try to change his mind; and that he thinks the Iraqis he met with and their Unity Government are on board with that too, but if they falter the failure will be all their fault. He emphasized that Iraq is the war on Al Qaeda -- good thing they belatedly showed up, don't you think? And he used the word "succeed" an awful lot, although a couple of times it sounded more like "secede" -- making me wonder if Plan B is just to turn the Green Zone into an island state, like the Vatican in Rome. It sounds like the next step is to secure Baghdad like they secured Fallujah, but he didn't explain the logistics of herding five million people into tents in the desert while they level 75% of the city, or what would happen when the insurgents they flush out take over the rest of the country.

He did offer one ray of hope when he said that US troops would leave whenever the Iraqi government tells them to. Most Iraqis have wanted that for a long time now, but the nominal masters of the Green Zone follow a more complicated calculus. On the one hand, they need the Americans for personal protection, and some find the US useful for beating down their political opponents. On the other hand, the Americans are offering less and wrecking more, and at some point their liabilities tip over whatever benefits alliance with the US seems to offer.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"My Heart Hurts for Them"

The June 12, 2006 issue of The New Yorker takes "Living in War" as its theme. I haven't read much of it -- I've had quite enough of war, thank you -- but I did notice this bit of email from Captain Lisa R. Blackman, a clinical psychologist stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in October 2004:

Lately, I have had a string of combat-trauma evaluations. Several have been Army troops passing through for R. and R. -- they come her for a bit and then go back to Iraq or Afghanistan. As if this is a glamorous vacation site. But they are grateful to be someplace safe (and someplace with alcohol, which I will surely complain about at a later date). Anyway, each one presented with a different complaint. One guy wasn't sleeping, one gal was angry about "sexual harassment" in her unit, one gal was depressed, one guy just wanted to go home. Standard stuff.

I had no initial clue that the problems were combat-related and no idea that I should be assessing for acute stress disorder or P.T.S.D. None of these guys or gals said "I was in combat" or "I saw someone die." None connected these experiences to their symptoms. It was as if they didn't remember how hard and unusual it is to be at war. They're used to the danger. They've been out here too long. Why would a war mess with your mood, right?

Each evaluation started with the typical questions: "What brought you in today?" "When did the problem start?" "Have you ever experienced these symptoms before?" "How's your sleep?" etc., etc., etc. I kept asking questions and thinking that the symptoms did not add up. Something wasn't right. I wasn't getting the right reactions. Stories were incomplete. Affect was blunted. Level of distress did not match presenting complaint. Alarm red, people, alarm red.

At home I ask people if they have ever experienced or witnessed a traumatic event or abuse. But out here I ask, "Have you ever been in combat?" Apparently, this is a question with the power to unglue, because all four of these troops burst into tears at the mention of the word "combat."

And when I say burst, I mean splatter -- tears running, snot flowing, and I literally had to mop my floor after one two-hour session. In other words, I mean sobbing for minutes on end, unable to speak, flat-out grief by an otherwise healthy, strong, manly guy who watches football on the weekends and never puts the toilet seat down.

Each time, I sit there with not a clue what to say . . . offering tissues . . . saying i'm sorry . . . trying to normalize . . . trying to say, "It was not your fault that so-and-so-died" and "If you could have done differently, you would have" and "You had a right to be scared." And, even worse, "You had to shoot back," and "Yes, you killed someone, and you still deserve to go back to your family and live your life."

Next time you are hanging out with a friend, think about what you would do if he turned to you and said, "My boss made me kill someone, and I know I'm going to Hell for it, so why bother?" What would you say to "normalize" that?

I've been writing a post about Haditha, and is growing ugly as I try to a few basic points: that war is counter to and incompatible with how we, and everyone else, want to live their lives; that the US military, pre-Rumsfeld any way, was geared against going to war, and was broken from the moment Bush pushed them into harm's way; that the Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the results of a strictly political delusion about power and warmaking; that the Pentagon was unable to resist the politicians' warpath because the military had itself become politicized, allying itself with the war party -- initially bipartisan, but increasingly Republican -- in order to preserve their bureaucracy after the end of the Cold War rendered them obsolete; but no matter how the politicians try to deny the fruitlessness of resolving differences by armed force, the dysfunctionality of the military betrays them.

This quote helps to pinpoint some of the human cost of this or any war -- in this case the unaccounted baggage US soldiers bring back with them. This particular cost occurs because most American soldiers never conceived of being put into a war like this, or any war. They bought the argument that by training for war they would keep us safe from attack, and they failed to grasp the idea that by committing themselves to protect America they would be shipped half way around the globe to attack someone else's country just because a bunch of megalomaniacs in Washington got a hard on for some oil wells. And even if they didn't mind the grab in theory, nothing in their background prepared them for the experience.

That's basically because nothing in American life resembles war. I was in Brooklyn when the World Trade Center fell on 9/11/2001 -- a tenth floor apartment, close enough we could see the burning towers, at least until they fell. As CNN's tagling kept repeating "America under attack" I tried to imagine what being under attack must have really felt like, and how this stacked up. I thumbed through a book of photos that summed up The 20th Century, a stretch of time marked by horrific wars. I thought in particular about Sarajevo -- under longterm siege from Serbian artillery fired down into the city from nearby hills -- and concluded that this was nothing like that. One way one could tell was to check the expressions of the people on the streets, trekking home on foot from their jobs in Manhattan: they were shocked by what had happened, by what they had seen, but three miles from ground zero they were no longer afraid. They may have been attacked, but they weren't under attack. We have no real concept of what it means to live inside a war zone, and that helps us underestimate the effects of the wars we inflict on others.

Least of all are we able to see what those wars do to ourselves. The common line on Haditha is that the Marines there "snapped" -- that they channeled their psychic trauma into wholesale slaughter. One argues that incidents like that rare, the exception to the norm, but what makes them rare is the complex combination of events that leads them one way versus many others. The psychic trauma is far more common -- the rare event is just the most undeniable proof of how widespread it is. More typical is what the quote above shows. The message ends as follows:

I can't stop thinking about the fact that these folks have lost something that they will never get back -- innocence (and a life free of guilt). My heart hurts for them.

Points on Haditha

Tom Engelhardt has written a useful summary on the Haditha incident, aka massacre. I have three points to add:

  1. The Marines went door to door and killed everyone they found: women, children, babies, the old, the infirm, everyone. There's a word reserved for those rare cases when a government, an army, and/or its agents kill everyone: genocide. The difference between Haditha and the Holocaust is quantitative, not qualitative. It's a matter of scale, not of process, and certainly not of law.

  2. The US Marine Corps has to take this "incident" seriously. If they don't separate and prosecute those responsible, they become complicit in the act. And in doing so, they green light similar acts by more Marines, turning what may well be an aberation into policy. But they have more to worry about here than whatever the legal penalties may be for genocide, complicity in genocide, and conspiracy to cover up genocide. If genocide is not their policy -- presumably it is not, at least at this point -- permitting their soldiers to do it and not be fully punished will destroy their chain of command, and as such their ability to act as instruments of US policy. A Marine Corps that cannot discipline itself is a security risk of the highest order, and should be abolished. This applies equally to the US military command in Iraq, and to Centcom, of which the Marines in Iraq are a significant part.

  3. On the other hand, I have little doubt that the US public -- especially that part which has in the past voted for George W. Bush -- has no qualms whatsoever about the genocide at Haditha and will be opposed to punishing in any way the Marines who carried out those killings. Consequently, there will be political pressure to exonerate the killers. One test of the integrity of the Marine Corps is whether they will bend to that political pressure. Another test of integrity is whether they follow the chain of command upwards to identify and correct errors of ommission or commision that may have enabled or facilitated such an act of genocide. In this, too, they will face intense political pressure, although less so from the American people than from the administration responsible for the war in the first place. The problem here is however much the Bushmen like to play war they're only real interest is politics, and their only skill at that is pandering to their increasingly rabid base. The questions are: will they destroy the military to feed their base, and will the military let them?

Of course, this will take a while to play out, but the logic of self-destruction is clear. A while back Martin van Creveld compared the Bush invasion of Iraq to the disastrous Roman invasion of Germany in 9 BCE when Augustus marched his legions into a swamp, losing them all. The question to think about here is what such "disaster" might actually look like. It certainly won't mean that US forces will be butchered to the last man like the Roman legions were. But it may well mean that the US military will have to give up on the Middle East, never to threaten again. If so, there are two components to this story: one is the dysfunctionality and utter ineptness of the US military at doing anything constructive in the Middle East; the other is growing domestic recognition of the costs of supporting such a useless, parasitic organization.

The US military was built during the Cold War in opposition to the Soviet Union. Up through the Vietnam War the military was built to counter and roll back communist revolution. Nuclear intimidation was a big part of this, but the military also engaged in peripheral wars like Korea and Vietnam, numerous smaller counterinsurgencies (often through proxies), subversion of undesired regimes, aid for friendly dictators, and ubiquitous propaganda. As such, the battle lines were drawn on two axes: geographically, where the aim was to isolate the Soviet Block, and economically, where the US universally supported capital vs. labor.

After Vietnam, the US military made a strategic retrenchment: magnifying the Soviet threat, they focused on nuclear deterrence while shying away from ground wars in any way similar to Vietnam. The Army was restructured to depend on Reserves for ground wars, making it politically more difficult to commit troops. The Powell Doctrine insisted on overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy. The effect was to make all but the easiest wars unwageable: the threshhold was topped in invasions of Grenada, Panama, and Kuwait, all of which were routs. But more important than the overwhelming force employed was the fact that US invaders left as quickly as they came. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, they stuck around long enough to wear out their welcome.

The thing we should be clear about is that the US military was built to avoid wars, not to fight them -- and least of all were they meant to manage an imperial outpost over a hostile civilian population. In other words, the military isn't fit for purpose: it has no function other than bureaucratic self-preservation. On the other hand, that didn't matter much because nobody actually wanted to attack the US. Nor were post-Vietnam US presidents all that trigger happy, at least until the Russia backed out of the Cold War. The military's problem should have been obvious: how do you justify spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a toy-filled lifestyle that serves no useful purpose? How they did this gets off the point, and should be familiar anyway, but one piece of the story does need to be emphasized here: the military's survival mission was fought mostly in Congress, backed by their corporate lobbyists and the media. In this struggle they formed a fateful pro-war political alliance -- initially bipartisan, but inreasingly bound up with the agendas of the Republican Right. One consequence of this was that the military itself became politicized, and that has proven to be profoundly corrupting.

We see this especially in Rumsfeld promoting yes men as generals, but it's been going on a lot longer than that. Up through WWII every American war was followed by massive cutbacks, but since the 1947 Cold War build-up the Pentagon has established itself as permanent -- a fact that has depended on political blessings all along the line. The idea that defense is only needed in times of real hostility has been replaced by fear of such permanent threats as class struggle and islam. This relationship between the military and their political supporters would be a mere scam except for one thing: the military build-up and the arrogance of power it feeds elicits resistance, a positive feedback since it increases the threat that the military is promoted to defend against. The War on Terror carries this fear and threat cycle to especially absurd dimensions precisely because the military is so scared, so inept, and so reckless.

But increasingly the whole scam is at risk. The costs of running an endless global war on terrorism pile up while the benefits are less and less clear. And that's where true distaster for the war party, military and their political supporters alike, lies. If we wise up to the idea that they are our own worst enemy, the days of their self-serving wars will be numbered. That hasn't happened yet, and judging from the lack of mainstream political articulation of these points we have a ways to go. But embarrassments like Haditha, like Abu Ghraib, like Guantanamo, like the CIA secret prisons and kidnappings, like the NSA wiretapping, like the growing air war, like the civil war the US has promoted as divide and conquer -- all those things add up, and as they do more folks conclude that something in this whole scheme isn't right. And one way all this takes a toll short of a political sea change is in the volunteer staffing of the military itself -- down steadily since the Iraq war started, and headed further down.

Haditha reminds us that war creates atrocities, even genocide. It puts soldiers into a bind where their options are limited to kill or be killed, and so they kill. The distinctions between when such behavior is authorized and when it is proscribed break down under the pressure to achieve victory or to avoid defeat. And as they break down, the political and military command breaks down, making those soldiers useless -- dangerous even -- for implementing policy. Policy itself breaks down, becoming schizophrenic. This schizophrenia unhinges military discipline, ultimately destroying policy credibility. The idea that the US can possibly do any good in Iraq is constantly belied by such atrocities.

What makes this problem intractable for the military is that there is popular political support in the US for such atrocities. Moreover, the military has become so politicized and so politically savvy that it can't help but reflect that support. Popular backing for the war was fed by fear and galvanized into hatred -- the idea that we invaded Iraq not to conquer but to liberate is as much a sick joke here in America as in Baghdad. War is us versus them, and us are our soldiers on the ground, and if in the heat of battle those soldiers kill everyone in sight, who are we to judge them? They are, after all, us, and if we were in their shoes, we'd most likely do the same thing. Moreover, those who would seek to discipline our soldiers don't have such clean hands either: the killing of non-combatants by air strikes is so common it has to be calculated into the command decision, which makes it policy.

Of course, we've been through all this before, back in Vietnam. We should have learned these lessons then, but they were artfully swept under the rug. The main way this happened was that the focus of the war was shifted from Vietnam to the US: the war became a purely political issue, played out for the domestic vote where the symbols of nationalism could be knee-jerked for the right. The war itself was a lost cause, but failure could be protracted indefinitely with negotiation ploys and bombing escalations, while troop withdrawals seemed to lighten the burden. The turning point in Vietnam was probably the Tet Offensive in 1968, with everything after that a political sham of one sort or another. Iraq's turning point was the May 2004 uprisings in Fallujah and Najaf, which set off a furious round of spin control in the Rove campaign. Thus far it's sort of worked, but the intrinsic problems remain close to the surface. You can't kill for peace, torture for freedom, raze a nation to make it prosperous. You can't defend a nation by terrifying your neighbors. And it's not just what you do to others that hurts; doing it hurts yourself in kind.


An unfinished fragment from an early draft of the above post:

  1. The decision to restructure the military so that large wars can only be fought by calling up Reserves was intended to make it impossible for the US to fight counterguerrila wars like Vietnam. The Reserves have neither the training nor the temperament for such wars -- for them, war must be brief and exit secure. Ignoring these limits resulted in numerous mistakes which compounded to worsen the occupation while building political pressure to withdraw. One more consequence of the misapplication of the Reserves is that they will wither away.

  2. The post-Vietnam professional military was developed as a deterrent force: its purpose was to intimidate the Soviet Union and whoever else to make sure that no one was stupid enough to attack us. It was never meant to be used, and least of all to be used as in an imperial occupation. It is not even clear how fit the military was to its original purpose, since all it had to do was deter countries who had no desire to attack us anyway. This created a false sense of security that was instantly panicked by throwing the military into a real war. That they would overkill and overreact was inevitable.

  3. The entire war program was predicated on a political will that required that the military ignore the real risks of war -- indeed, forget the hard-learned lessons of Vietnam. Acknowledgment of those risks would have shown that the project was doomed, or at least too expensive to entertain. This was only possible because the military brass itself had become corrupted by participation in politics, including alliance with a bipartisan but increasingly Republican war party. The run-up to the Iraq war went further than ignoring risks and not planning for contingencies; it permitted strategies that predictably undermined US authority in the postwar period. (One such example is using the Kurdish Peshmerga to occupy Kirkuk.) Moreover, as the war ground on Rumsfeld has continued to politicize the military. This politicization exposes them to real political opposition for the first time in the post-WWII period -- while it hasn't happened yet, as the deceits and failures come clear it is very much in the cards.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Finally, the following are the Jazz CG notes for the Jazz CG #9 surplus file:

  1. Anders Aarum Trio: Absence in Mind (2002-03 [2004], Jazzaway). Norwegian piano trio. Aarum has shown up on several albums lately, and he always make a good impression. One thing I've learned is that good piano trios are trios: the bass and drums matter in a way that is more/less as important as the piano. They prop each other up, and the successful ones work as a unit. Much of the most effective work here comes with the drummer in the lead -- stretched out, very abstract, exceptionally interesting. The drummer is Thomas Stønen, another name to keep on file. The bassist is Mats Eilertsen -- don't recall him from elsewhere, but he holds up his end as well. B+(***)
  2. Mario Adnet & Zé Nogueira Present Moacir Santos: Choros & Alegria (2005, Adventure Music). Pushing 80, Santos is a legendary arranger and saxophonist in Brazil. But he only appears here with a few vocals, by far the least appealing aspect of an album of subtly orchestrated pieces based on Santos arrangements dating as far back as 1942. Much of this is very appealing. B+(**)
  3. Ahleuchatistas: What You Will (2005 [2006], Cuneiform). Punk rockers who listen to Charlie Parker too much -- check the name -- and evidently don't know anyone up for singing. I'm not much for vocals either, but when you lay out titles like "Remember Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib," "Ho Chi Minh Is Gonna Win!" (reality check: he did), "Last Spark From God," "What Are You Gonna Do?" -- these could use some more development. B+(*)
  4. 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
  5. Marcos Amorim: Sete Capelas (Seven Chapels) (2005 [2006], Adventure Music). One thing that makes Brazilian guitarists sound so much alike is the soft chime of nylon strings; matched with bass, drums and flutes, this veers close to stereotypical samba, a mild seasoning that disguises its cleverness with innuendo. It does help when the pace picks up a bit. B+(**)
  6. Scott Anderson/Nia Quintet: End of Time (2004 [2005], BluJazz). Skillfully executed postbop in the classic quintet format with Daniel Nicholson's saxophones and Tom Vaitsas' piano complementing the leader's trumpet. Mostly upbeat, sometimes soaring, with a nice ballad to close. Those with mainstream tastes will find much to enjoy here. Those looking for some edge will doubt it, but such albums are rarer than you'd think. B+(**)
  7. Ernie Andrews: How About Me (2005, [2006], High Note). Veteran blues-based crooner, goes down easy, especially with producer Houston Person joining in on tenor sax. Slow ones drag a bit. B+(**)
  8. Susie Arioli Band Featuring Jordan Officer: Learn to Smile Again (2005, Justin Time). She's an interpretive singer with no particular stylistic affinities -- AMG lists her styles as: blues, western swing, swing, mainstream jazz, standards. This album, her fourth, is built around six Roger Miller songs -- not the ones you know, just sad little gems: "Less and Less," "Husbands and Wives," "Half a Mind," "A Million Years or So," "A World I Can't Live In," "Don't We All Have the Right." Officer accompanies her on guitar, a simple but elegant foil, emphasized in two instrumentals. Other people appear in the credits, but they work modestly in the background. Don't know her other albums, which presumably swing harder. This one mostly lilts, touchingly with Miller, majestically on Naomi Neville's "Ruler of My Heart" (a big hit for Irma Thomas). B+(**)
  9. 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+(*)
  10. Michaël Attias: Credo (1999 [2005], Clean Feed). Brief bio: born Israel 1968, Moroccan parents, grew up in France, played violin as a child before taking up alto sax, moved to New York in 1994, studied with Lee Konitz and Anthony Braxton. Attias has been a steady sideman downtown, composes, released his "first" album early in 2005, a fine trio called Renku with John Hebert and Satoshi Takeishi. Now comes an earlier set, a complex series of trio, quartet and sextet pieces -- where the later album is elegant in its simplicity, this one is as tangled as his roots. He explains these pieces referring to Israel, France and Morocco, but "Hot Mountain Song"'s fiddle reminds me more of the Ozarks, and the Torah-based "Berechit" sounds to me, and perhaps to bassist Chris Lightcap, like old-time Mingus. B+(**)
  11. Michaël Attias: Renku (2005, Playscape). With John Hebert and Satoshi Takeishi, who more than hold up their end of this studiously avant sax trio. Attias plays soprano, alto and baritone -- the latter, perhaps because it's relatively rare, or perhaps because it weighs so much more, makes for the most interesting parts. Perhaps the variety loosens the focus, but loose and open-ended is the idea. B+(**)
  12. Albert Ayler: 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
  13. 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-
  14. 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+(*)
  15. 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
  16. Roni Ben-Hur: Signature (2004 [2005], Reservoir). Like its predecessor, an elegant mainstream guitar album. No saxophone this time, leaving more space for pianist John Hicks. B+(**)
  17. Sathima Bea Benjamin: Musical Echoes (2002 [2006], Ekapa). A set of carefully measured standards sung by the South African vocalist, in a return to Capetown after a long exile. The pianist and co-producer is Stephen Scott, in fine form. The others are South Africans: bassist Basil Moses, whose clear pulse is one of the highlights, and drummer Lulu Gontsana. Well done, and welcome to anyone who remembers her early work with the former Dollar Brand and their surprise mentor, someone named Ellington. B+(*)
  18. Will Bernard Trio: Directions to My House (2004 [2005], Direct to Disk). Guitar-bass-drums, with a couple of guest shots that don't make much of a difference. Bernard's an interesting guitar player -- very electric. B+(**)
  19. John Bishop: Nothing If Not Something (2004 [2006], Origin). This is a trio with Rick Mandyck on alto sax, Jeff Johnson on bass, and Bishop on drums. Aside from one group credit, Mandyck has four songs, Johnson two, and Bishop zero. But Bishop owns the label, which counts for something. Origin was founded in Seattle in 1997 to give Bishop's home town jazz scene an outlet, and now has something like 85 records, plus more on their co-op OA2 label. Until they started mailing to me, I doubt that I've heard of as many as five artists on their roster. Obviously, as jazz scenes go, New York is in a class by itself. The second tier definitely includes Chicago, maybe a couple more (Philadelphia? Detroit? San Francisco-Oakland? Boston?), and aside from New Orleans, where jazz had become a tourist business, that's about where national consciousness stops. Beyond that there are probably a dozen cities comparable to Seattle, virtually unknown to anyone who doesn't live there. Portland and Vancouver are two I know a bit about. Seattle is new to me, but this is a good start. Mandyck has a clear, cutting tone, and interesting postbop ideas. Johnson and Bishop are solid supporters, and their solos hold up. I doubt that any of them would blow folks away in New York, but they more than hold their own here. B+(**)
  20. Terence Blanchard: Flow (2004 [2005], Blue Note). This is an ambitious and complex album. At bottom it's built out of synth programming, with more conventional instruments twisting upward to Blanchard's bright trumpet. This gives it more ebb than flow, the former employed for dramatic effect. Indeed, few jazz composers put more into shaping their music into drama. In the end this pays off impressively, but there are many false starts along the way, the most annoying of which are Lionel Loueke's mumbo jumbo vocals. B
  21. Karen Blixt: Spin This (2006, Hi-Fli). This album contrasts rather sharply with the Erin Boheme one. The similarities include a shuttling in and out of guests and a few originals (with co-writers) slipped in amongst the standards. Also a fairly generous booklet with a lot of photography. On the other hand, the hair, makeup and photography budgets are far removed. Boheme has the more intriguing voice, but it's clear that her corporate sponsors selected her as much for her looks, which became the focus of their marketing campaign. I wouldn't describe Blixt as ugly, but plain isn't far off the mark, and her voice isn't much above that. But she also appears much happier in her photos, and that carries through to the album. Her guests are more fun, too -- especially organist Joey DeFrancesco, who also takes a duet vocal on a cheery "When You're Smiling." It also helps that the covers are old friends -- it's not like we need another "Night and Day," but it's always welcome. B+(**)
  22. Erin Boheme: What Love Is (2006, Concord). She could become a substantial star, but at this point you can still see the price tags on the fancy packaging. Credits include Hair & Makeup, Stylist, Art Direction, and Package Design. Nominally a jazz singer, this is roughly half standards, half originals, the latter co-credits. Musicians come and go, including four pianists, two guitarists, four bassists, four drummers, and three conductors for countless strings. Horns only appear for the lightest of blush, with young stablemate Christian Scott on trumpet for four cuts and old studio hack Tom Scott on sax for two. She has a distinctive voice, girlish and coquettish. B
  23. 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+(*)
  24. Anouar Brahem: Le Voyage de Sahar (2005 [2006], ECM). The Tunisian's oud is less engaging and more atmospheric than the Lebanese Rabih Abou-Khalil. The easy explanation might be producer Manfred Eicher, who does tend to soften and blur, but I suspect that Abou-Khalil frames his work more thoroughly in the improvisatory tradition of Arabic music, which leads him to look for similar qualities in his European collaborators. Brahem, on the other hand, fits more snugly into European frameworks -- here working with piano and accordion from Provence, for a light, folkish, but smooth mix. It is, at least, quite attractive. B+(*)
  25. 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
  26. Cecil Brooks III: Double Exposure (2000 [2006], 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
  27. 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-
  28. Bill Bruford/Michiel Borstlap: Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song (2003-04 [2004], Summerfold). AMG, in one of those mysteries that arise from having too many chimps typing too fast, classifies Dutch pianist Borstlap as R&B/Funk/Fusion, but they also have an entry for him in their classical database. Here he's playing acoustic piano duets with Bill Bruford, who AMG classifies as Rock/Avant-Garde/Fusion/Post-Bop/Canterbury Scene. My guess is that Borstlap comes out of a solid classical background but likes to experiment, which throws him into the jazz realm. Bruford, of course, was prog rock's most famous drummer (except, I guess, for Phil Collins), having worked for Yes, King Crimson, and (replacing Collins) Genesis, but really he's concentrated on jazz ever since he hooked up with Django Bates and Iain Ballamy to form Earthworks in 1986. And this, certainly, is a jazz record, with two razor sharp performers improvising in concert -- meaning, both together and live. One of the more prickly versions of "Bemsha Swing" I've heard recently, with "'Round Midnight" being the only other cover, and the title cut improvised from nothing more than its title. B+(**)
  29. Bill Bruford/Tim Garland: Earthworks Underground Orchestra (2005 [2006], Summerfold). A 20th anniversary shindig for Bruford's "particularly British sort of institution, this takes Earthworks pieces from the first through last albums and scales them up to a largish group of nine pieces, or ten when Robin Eubanks adds a second trombone. Bruford strikes me as a supremely adaptable drummer -- before moving into jazz he held down the drum seats in what seems like most of the UK's famous prog rock outfits, but his jazz groups have little or no fusion feel, and the groups with Iain Ballamy and Django Bates veered toward the avant-garde. But this one builds around Garland, such a slick, loquacious reedist-flautist that he's managed to get featured billing. This one is fast and lush -- not my favorite combination, but impressive when it all comes together. B+(*)
  30. James Carter Organ Trio: Out of Nowhere (2004 [2005], Half Note). On reading first reports that Carter was working with an organ trio I imagined a postmodern synthesis of Gene Ammons, Willis Jackson and Stanley Turrentine, able to go hard or soft, fast or slow, and to throw in more than a few of his trademark pops and clicks along the way. This doesn't deliver on my expectations, but it makes amends when guests James "Blood" Ulmer and Hamiett Bluiett show up. Ulmer sings "Little Red Rooster," but his guitar is even more welcome. Bluiett caps the show. B+(**)
  31. Michael Carvin: Marsalis Music Honors Michael Carvin (2005 [2006], Marsalis Music/Rounder). This is one of two new albums Branford Marsalis has produced featuring important but relatively unheralded drummers. (The other one is Jimmy Cobb.) Presumably this launches a series. Certainly there's no shortage of musicians who could use the commercial clout Marsalis brings to the party. But the decision to frame both albums as quartets (sax, piano, bass, drums) takes the focus away from the honored drummers, fudging the presumed point. Carvin has been working steadily since 1970, with six previous albums under his own name, plus many appearances. (How many isn't clear. His website claims "over 150," but I only count 34 on AMG's credits list.) I know him mostly for a 1974 duo album with Jackie McLean where he pulled out all the stops and played up a storm. But this one is mild mainstream, with "In Walked Bud" the most upbeat and a long, slow "You Go to My Head" getting no more than a light brush treatment. Marcus Strickland plays sax. B
  32. Oscar Castro-Neves: All One (2006, Mack Avenue). A veteran Brazilian guitarist -- his credits go back to the '60s, including a song "Morrer de Amor" written in 1965 and reprised here with Luciana Souza singing. This album takes a grand tour through his life and work, but it is never more engaging than when his guitar is out front. Gary Meek adds the flighty flutes, clarinets and saxes you expect. Souza sings two pieces, but his own rough vocal on "The Very Thought of You" is more touching. B+(**)
  33. 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+(*)
  34. 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
  35. Critters Buggin': Stampede (2004, Ropeadope). Electro-funk stretched in various directions, including out when Skerik gets down on his tenor sax, and Moroccan when Bachir and Mustafa Attar pump up the jajouka on the closer. I could go for more sax, but even when Skerik switches to keyboards the funk isn't faked -- it isn't even on the one. B+(**)
  36. The Eddie Daniels Quartet: Mean What You Say (2005 [2006], IPO). Plays clarinet and tenor sax. I'm not familiar with his work, which goes back to a 1966 album and includes a stretch with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He appears to have had some pop items in his closet, but this one is solidly mainstream, benefitting from a rhythm section that guarantees its interest: Hank Jones on piano, Richard Davis on bass, Kenny Washington on drums. Starts with a Thad Jones piece, continuing with a range of bop-to-swing standards and one original. Solid playing throughout. B+(*)
  37. Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (1970 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 6CD). Following the Blackhawk and Plugged Nickel boxes, another attempt to find hidden insights and fungibles by filling in missing pieces to a well-worn live record. *Live/Evil* was edited from the last night of Davis's four-day Cellar Door stand, with John McLaughlin providing extra juice. The last two discs here present the unedited sets, but they're pretty much interchangeable with the ones you already know. The first four are sets from the previous three nights. Without McLaughlin, the young band -- Birdophile Gary Bartz was the oldest at 30 and funk bassist Michael Henderson the youngest at 19 -- was even looser and friskier, with Keith Jarrett's toy keybs the most revelatory. In general, I find vault gems less interesting than new fare, but this hard-assed jazz-funk is a strain that no one else ever developed further, so even its old scraps still seem new. A-
  38. Delirium: Eclexistence (2005, TUM). Two horns (Mikko Innanen on various saxes and Kasper Tranberg on cornet), no piano, bass and drums. Drummer Stefan Pasborg also plays in the rockish organ trio Ibrahim Electric. Pasborg and Innanen also play in Triot, which has another excellent album on TUM. The booklet compares this group to quartets by Ornette Coleman and Tomasz Stanko/Edward Vesala. B+(**)
  39. 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
  40. 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 moves on to Dorsey's Orchestra and his Clambake Seven small group, and it gets stronger as the disc progresses, as he picks up musicians like Charlie Shavers and Buddy Rich. They also work in a pair of cuts with Dorsey and Duke Ellington playing with each other's bands, but the most welcome cut is "Trombonology," where he takes a rare, and pretty solid, trombone lead. A-
  41. Dave Douglas: Keystone (2005, Greenleaf Music). I held this back, figuring I should watch the DVD to see the 1916 Fatty Arbuckle film that Douglas wrote this music for. Didn't help me a whole lot, but it's an interesting piece of silent slapstick. The music suffers from the usual soundtrack taint, but DJ Olive pushes the beats, Marcus Strickland can wail, and the most upbeat material sweeps you away like Fatty and Mabel's cabin. B+(***)
  42. Dave Douglas: Meaning and Mystery (2006, Greenleaf Music). This is the sort of record I don't much like, done by folks too good to dismiss out of hand. Reportedly the third album by "this quintet" -- Donny McCaslin replaces Chris Potter from The Infinite (2002), but I'm not sure what the other one is, unless he's counting the Bill Frisell-enriched Strange Liberation (2003 -- one of the few Douglas albums I've missed). Uri Caine plays Fender Rhodes, a bit like a Formula One driver whipping a monster truck around, a skill that few have let alone make something of. James Genus and Clarence Penn round out the line-up. As a composer, Douglas works in his most complex, convoluted mode, which puts it way beyond what I can follow, much less comprehend. As a trumpeter he is without peer, as usual. McCaslin is, if anything, even slicker than Potter. So it's a fucking tour de force. So what? B+(*)
  43. The Dutch Jazz Orchestra: The Lady Who Swings the Band: Rediscovered Music of Mary Lou Williams (2005 [2006], Challenge). Historically notable as an effort to put unrecorded charts to music. If it sounds exceptionally Ellington-esque, one reason may be that the Dutch Jazz Orchestra has made a cottage industry out of Billy Strayhorn. Another is that Williams wrote several of these arrangements for Ellington right after Strayhorn died. Not sure this transcends its historical significance, but it sometimes comes close. Francis Davis wrote about this and the Zodiac Suite album in the Voice. B+(**)
  44. Peter Eldridge: Decorum (2005, www.petereldridge.com). 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
  45. 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-
  46. The Alon Farber Hagiga Quintet: Exposure (2003 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent). Looks like "hagiga" is Hebrew for "celebration" -- dumb luck that I figured that out. This is an upbeat, postbop Israeli group, with two saxophones (Farber on soprano and alto, Hagai Amir on alto), guitar, bass and drums, with New York-based Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen guesting on three cuts. They state the music is inspired by Wayne Shorter and Dave Douglas, which sounds close enough, although I'll also note that one song is called "A Chat With Ornette." Complex and fluid, a rich feel, lots of movement. Cohen certainly earns his featured slot. B+(**)
  47. Béla Fleck & the Flecktones: The Hidden Land (2006, Columbia). Jeff Coffin tips this over into jazz and maybe even jazz-world fusion territory with a cornucopia of reeds and flutes signifying as marginal exotica. Fleck's antique banjos aren't really flexible enough to make his mark in bebop, so he falls back into the rhythm section, which is where banjo belongs. The rhythm is interesting too, but the achievement still leaves me with doubts, about where they've come from, where they're going, and why it matters. A pretty good album from a group I've never really trusted. B+(*)
  48. Free Fall: Amsterdam Funk (2004 [2005], Smalltown Superjazz). This is Ken Vandermark's clone of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio (named for Giuffre's most famous album), so the lineup is clarinet, piano (Håvard Wiik for Paul Bley) and bass (Ingebrigt Håker Flaten for Steve Swallow). I've played this several times but haven't made much sense out of it -- possibly because the mappings are off, and possibly because I've never gotten much out of Guiffre's trio. This has spots of interest -- mostly when they pick up the pace and Wiik pounds out some rhythm. It also has quiet spots which develop into austere atmospherics. B+(*)
  49. 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+(**)
  50. Cor Fuhler: Corkestra (2004, Data). Large (nine-piece) group of Dutch avantists, this at times has a comic touch that seems to be an especially Dutch trait. Fuhler plays organ, clavinet and piano -- lists them in that order. Ab Baars plays tenor sax and clarinet, and is worth listening for. The rest of the group does not include Han Bennink, although it's a safe bet that Michael Vatcher has studies some of the master's mischief. I especially like a piece called "Rockpool" which relentlessly builds to a crescendo that never comes about. B+(**)
  51. Satoko Fujii Quartet: Angelona (2004 [2006], Libra). Fujii and her trumpeter-husband Natsuki Tamura are very prolific, working in a wide range of groups including several quartets. This one reprises Zephyros, easily my favorite of the ten or so albums I've heard thus far, in large part because electric bassist Takeharu Hayakawa kept the propulsion in high gear. Hayakawa is far less central here -- in fact, the rhythm section doesn't particularly distinguish itself in any way this time. Fortunately, this is where Tamura, who had previously struck me as by far the more conservative stylist, steps up big time. Fujii also impresses, especially on the Tayloresque splashes that rough up the opener. The result is an album that flirts with greatness but doesn't quite deliver it. That's about par as far as I've managed to figure out. B+(**)
  52. Satoko Fujii Four: Live in Japan 2004 (2004 [2005], P.J.L). Not to be confused with the Satoko Fujii Quartet, which has two Japanese musicians on bass-drums and takes more of a fusion slant. This group has Mark Dresser on bass and Jim Black on drums for a more avant pairing. The four pieces include the 36:28 "Illusion Suite," recently on an album of that name, by the same group minus trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Lots of good parts. I'm especially impressed by Black this time around. B+(**)
  53. Jacob Garchik: Abstracts (2004 [2005], Yestereve). Garchik is a trombonist based in New York, plays in a large number of local groups, including a few I've heard of. This is a trio with Jacob Sacks on piano and Dan Weiss on drums. The eight pieces are designated Abstracts, numbers 1-8. Free jazz, sharply played, the instrumental mix interesting. B+(**)
  54. Gato Libre: Strange Village (2004 [2005], Onoff). File this one under trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, who wrote all the pieces. His partner Satoko Fujii is also present in the quartet, but playing accordion instead of her usual piano. The difference between the two is that she can get a lot noisier than Tamura -- at times she approaches Cecil Taylor intensity, although that's hardly the only tool in her bag. Tamura, on the other hand, tends to play within himself, drawing out the lyrical quality of his instrument. Fujii's accordion has none of the flash of her piano, but the tones complement Tamura nicely. The other two members of the group are Kazuhiko Tsumura on guitar and Norikatsu Koreyasu on bass, providing a bed of strings for the others. A beguiling recording. B+(**)
  55. The Jeff Gauthier Goatette: One and the Same (2005 [2006], Cryptogramophone). Gauthier plays violin, often electric with effects. Guitar (Nels Cline) and bass (Joel Hamilton) add to the string resonances, while keyboards (David Witham) and drums (Alex Cline) don't overwhelm them. The tempos tend to race, but there's little density, and the violin never tightens up the way someone like Billy Bang plays. So this doesn't sound like a lot is happening, but it's appealing nonetheless. B+(*)
  56. 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+(**)
  57. Marshall Gilkes Quartet: Edenderry (2005, Alternate Side). Very attractive postbop trombone-plus-piano-trio, the pianist being Jon Cowherd, the trombonist Gilkes. B+(**)
  58. Robert Glasper: Canvas (2005, Blue Note). Young (27 years old) pianist on a major label -- the inference is that he's the next Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap, Jason Moran, someone like that. Like those, he has a steady trio, with Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. The trio holds its own on six of ten cuts here, with Glasper playing sharp and fleet, and the drummer standing out. Two more cuts feature Mark Turner's snaky tenor sax, making you want to hear more. The other two cuts have Bilal scatting or ululating, making you want to hear less. Don't have a strong feeling one way or another. B
  59. Aaron Goldberg: Worlds (2003 [2006], Sunnyside). Piano trio, plus guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel on one cut, vocalist Luciana Souza on another. The latter I would find distracting even if I didn't find it annoying. As for the rest, the world he seems to like best is Brazil, and he makes us comfortable and more than a little amused in that world. B+(**)
  60. Ned Goold Trio: The Flows (2004, Smalls). Supposedly Goold has a system for building new compositions out of old sets of chord changes. Don't know what that is, but he makes it look easy, especially as he rarely cranks the speed up. Good tone, but not a lot of depth, let alone vibrato; works in a bop framework that neither sounds dated nor forced, that manages to stay interesting without wandering far afield. Rhythm section is elementary, but does the job. These cuts were selected from many hours of live tapes so there's some variation in sound quality and interaction with the crowd. Next to last cut has him introducing the band on a vamp out, adding "stay tuned for the big show." B+(*)
  61. Mats Gustafsson & David Stackenås: Blues (2003 [2005], Atavistic). In his liner notes, Ken Vandermark argues that the main difference between American and European jazz musicians is that the former string time together whereas the latter deconstruct it. What makes these blues unrecognizable as blues is that they have no rhythm at all. That leaves us with sounds that erupt rather than flow: electronics from Stackenås' guitar, faint approximations of bass and drums from Gustafsson's bari sax. As an American I find it all rather peculiar, but as a low-key, swingless noise album it's not without interest. B+(*)
  62. Gutbucket: Sludge Test (2005 [2006], Cantaloupe). I like the concept -- an electric guitar-bass-drums-sax quartet that's racks up dense riffs and isn't afraid to get noisy -- but I wonder whether they're too fancy, especially in the shifty time dynamics that seem to be their main vector of idiosyncrasy. Reminds me of ye olde prog rock when the least we can expect these days, especially given the noise, is post-punk. B
  63. 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+(*)
  64. 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+(*)
  65. Jim Hall/Geoffrey Keezer: Free Association (2005, ArtistShare). Guitar-piano duets. A venerable item in Hall's catalog is Undercurrent, his duo with Bill Evans. I've never warmed much to that album, always suspecting that Hall is too subtle and intricate to hold his own against a piano, even when manned by as subtle and intricate as Evans. Keezer I don't know very well, but try as he can he strikes me as a mismatch. So we get an understated piano squeezing out an understated guitar. Doesn't leave much. B
  66. Slide Hampton Meets Two Tenor Case: Callitwhatchawana (2002 [2005], Blue Jack Jazz). The two tenor saxists are Sjoerd Dukhuizen and Simon Rigter -- don't mean anything to me, nor have I heard of the rest of the Dutch band. This is a set recorded live at the Pannonica jazz club in the Hague. Hampton is best known for his big band arrangements, but this is basic bebop, lingua franca for jazz musicians everywhere. Fine stuff -- especially nice to hear Hampton let it all hang out. B+(**)
  67. 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+(**)
  68. Kevin Hays: 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+(*)
  69. The Skip Heller Trio: Liberal Dose (2006, Skyeways). Recorded live at the Flying Monkey, Huntsville, AL, but when? Don't know. My copy is a black cardboard sleeve with a light blue label wrapped around the spine. Reminds me of old Folkways LP covers, which may be the point -- first song here is a tribute to Pete Seeger. Other tributes include Dave Alvin, Emily Remler, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Also a dedication to Tom DeLay -- Mahler's "Funeral March" played on the morning DeLay got indicted. So I like the note sheet, but have some trouble mapping it to the music. I suspect the Chris Spies' organ, which neither leads nor follows nor gets out of the way. But when Heller's guitar overpowers the organ on the Watson piece, I wonder why he didn't do that sooner. Don't suppose I'll stick with this long enough to figure that out. B
  70. Nachito Herrera: Bembé En Mi Casa (2005, FS Music). All bembé, no siesta here -- this is Afro-Cuban jazz at its most aggressive. The first piece in particular, called "Song in F" and described as Latin jazz, goes way beyond my ability to parse or track or make any sense of. It's built from multiple rhythm motifs, overlayed in ways that make no sense to me. Other pieces are built around traditional styles -- danzón, bolero, guaguanco, guaracha, cha-cha -- making them simpler, easier to follow. Herrera plays piano. The group is a sextet with electric bass, sax, trumpet, and percussion -- congas, timbales, drums. A lot of action for a relatively small group. Too much? B+(**)
  71. 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+(***)
  72. Reuben Hoch and Time: Of Recent Time (2006, Naim). Recorded in a church in Florida by Ken Christianson, who seems to have a reputation in audiophile circles. I know very little about Hoch, the drummer and leader here, except that he has another group called the Chassidic Jazz Project. This group is a piano trio with Don Friedman and Ed Schuller. Hoch and Friedman wrote one tune each, the others coming from post-'60s jazz stalwarts, on average a bit left of center. Friedman has a strong reputation going back to the early '60s when he was on Riverside's roster with Bill Evans. This one sounds good, moves smartly. B+(**)
  73. John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble: A Blessing (2005, Omnitone). Hollenbeck's status as a jazz musician is somewhat suspect. His small group, the Claudia Quintet, is rocksteady albeit in a microtonal mode; his large ensemble is as post-classical as his small one is post-rock. I rather dislike the vocal pieces with Theo Bleckmann, which feel more like choral pieces than opera, although the opera of Ashley and Adams isn't far off the horizon. The instrumental pieces etch complex patterns from a plush repertoire of winds and brass, but Matt Moran's mallets are perhaps most distinctive. B+(**)
  74. Sarah Hommel: A Sarah Hommel Drum All (2003 [2006], Sahara Ford). Six percussionists, counting Bill Ware's vibes, marimba and xylophone, doing pieces written or arranged by Hommel. Like all drum orgy records, this must have been more fun to perform than to listen to. The live sound strikes me as a bit subdued, especially at a couple of points when someone -- presumably Hommel -- sings along. But the vocals give it a little lift at the end, justifying the applause. B+(*)
  75. Monk Hughes & the Outer Realm: A Tribute to Brother Weldon (2004, Stones Throw). A tribute to jazz-funk keyboardist Weldon Irvine, although it doesn't follow any of Irvine's music: these are new pieces in the "inspired by" category, mostly written by bassist Hughes, keyboardist Joe McDuphrey, and drummer Otis Jackson Jr. The group also includes a second keyboard player, Morgan Adams III, mostly on organ. Madlib produced, aiming for dense improv patterns whirling around synth-sounding instruments, the reverse of the usual approach which moves to synths for more regularity. The long closer moves further into free jazz territory, losing the beat, then compensating with chaos. An interesting convolution. B+(*)
  76. Russ Johnson: Save Big (2004 [2005], Omnitone). Pianoless quartet, with Russ Johnson's trumpet and John O'Gallagher's alto sax up front. The framework is supposed to free up the leaders to interact more spontaneously without the rhythmic constraints of the piano, and that's pretty much what happens -- "Constantinople" is an especially good example of this. B+(**)
  77. Jeannette Lambert: Sand Underfoot (2004 [2006], Jazz From Rant). Lambert describes herself as a "jazz vocalist/poet" -- I figure the poet came first, but she's worked hard on the jazz end, and it pays off on one piece where she scats a bit. Her husband, Michel Lambert, is a drummer, on the free end of the spectrum, and consistently interesting here. Far better known are bassist Barre Phillips and pianist Paul Bley, each doing characteristic -- which of course means excellent -- work here. So there is much of interest here, but it is partitioned out rather discretely: most cuts are duos or trios -- only one cut features all four -- with the vocalist herself appearing on only seven of thirteen pieces. B+(**)
  78. 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
  79. Bernd Lhotzky: Piano Portrait (2005 [2006], Arbors). Solo piano from a young guy who seems to be Germany's answer to Dick Hyman. He plays stride and swing with some authority and a particular fondness for Willie "The Lion" Smith. This is volume 15 in the Arbors Piano Series. I haven't managed to come up with a complete list of those volumes, but all appear to be solo piano, with John Bunch and Johnny Varro launching the series. Not as adventurous as Concord's Maybeck Hall series -- which started with Joanne Brackeen, but has at least two intersections in Eddie Higgins and Dave McKenna -- but it does serve to underscore that Arbors picked up the ball Concord's VC's fumbled. B+(*)
  80. 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+(*)
  81. Joe Locke & Charles Rafalides: Van Gogh by Numbers (2005 [2006], Wire Walker). Seems like a very limited concept at first: duets between vibes and marimba. But while the sonic palette is narrow, especially with the marimba setting the pace, and this takes a while to get in gera, it does develop into a pleasing complexity. B+(*)
  82. Carmen Lundy: Jazz and the New Songbook: Live at the Madrid (2005, Afrasia Productions, 2CD). Don't know her work, but she seems like a strong, straight jazz interpreter in the Carmen McRae tradition. The songs don't register all that strongly here, but the band and the singer are impeccable. B+(*)
  83. 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+(**)
  84. The Chad Makela Quartet: Flicker (2004 [2005], Cellar Live). First thing that stood out here was trumpeter Brad Turner -- already noticed him as perhaps the strongest link in the Ugetsu group. Makela plays baritone sax, a less flashy instrument, but even within that context he isn't a particularly aggressive player -- not to say he doesn't deliver in the end. The back end, bassist Paul Rushka and drummer Jesse Cahill, also contribute, providing steady propulsion that keeps the horns afloat. B+(*)
  85. Pete Malinverni: Theme & Variations (2005 [2006], Reservoir). He's a pianist I have a high regard for. This is a solo album, which for me at least is always a problem. It's also a virtual clinic in the art, and it never loses interest or the ability to please. B+(*)
  86. 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+(*)
  87. Ray Marchica: In the Ring (2005, Sons of Sound). No doubt but this is the drummer's record -- Marchica's two originals don't amount to much, but his drums are the center everything else is framed around. But the interesting thing is how Rodney Jones' guitar and Teodross Avery's tenor sax exceed expectations -- both are deployed modestly but tastefully, forming two vectors from the drums into a fair range of repertoire. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico holds his own, too. B+(**)
  88. 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
  89. Billy Martin: Solo Live Tonic 2002 (2002 [2006], 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+(*)
  90. Billy Martin and Socket: January 14 & 15, 2005 (2005, Amulet). Recorded live at Tonic over two nights, the listing credits nine musicians and vocalists, but the results are both more and less. Five are credited with various manner of percussion, including the leader, so this is definitely an album driven by the sound of things banging. Three are credited with voice, of whom Shelley Hirsch is first and no doubt foremost. Eyvind Kang plays the more conventional instruments, although his first choice is violin. Shahzad Ismaily helps out on bass, guitar and banjo when he's not banging on things. This works best at extremes: in the shallow water, a tiny beat with a little violin and hiccups of trumpet; in the deep end, total cacophony. B+(**)
  91. Pat Martino: Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery (2005 [2006], Blue Note). I go back and forth on Montgomery, without caring much which way I lean at any given moment. Like Charlie Parker, he was an innovator and an individualist who loomed so large over his instrument that he became a standard for emulation -- so much so he sometimes seems like a plague. If anything Montgomery is even more ubiquitous today than Parker -- and while secondhand Parker amuses me, secondhand Montgomery just seems like a shortage of ideas. This one is especially devoid of ideas -- semi-famous veteran guitarist plays a bunch of tunes associated with legendary dead guitarist and if anyone wonders why it's just like the model, well, that's what a tribute is, isn't it? This is hardly news, but the originals were better. The saving grace here is that Dave Kikoski gets to pretend he's Wynton Kelly. Kelly was better too, but Kikoski gets to enjoy himself more. B
  92. Virginia Mayhew: Sandan Shuffle (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+(**)
  93. Bill Mays Trio: Live at Jazz Standard (2004 [2005], Palmetto). Mays started out as an accompanist (Sarah Vaughan) and sideman, started recording under his own name around 1982, has piled up a respectable list of credits. He doesn't particularly sound like any other pianist -- I'm tempted to group him with the likes of Walter Norris because they don't sound like anyone else either. Standards here that I know well don't seem so familiar in his hands, any more so than the couple of originals he works in. All that adds up to is that this isn't the sort of thing I feel like I can gauge -- no doubt it's good, much doubt on how to explain it, not enough to inspire me to try. B+(**)
  94. 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
  95. 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+(*)
  96. Red Mitchell/George Cables: Live at Port Townsend (1992 [2005], Challenge). Seems like an odd little piece to dig up these days, but bassist Mitchell and pianist Cables make a fine pair. But perhaps it's meant as a memorial -- Mitchell died shortly after, so it may be his last recording. Mitchell's vocal is a throwaway, and that's its charm. B+(**)
  97. Modern Traditions Ensemble: New Old Music (2003 [2005], Adventure Music). New versions of Brazilian choro classics, done by a five piece group led by pianist Benjamin Taubkin, with guitar, mandolin, soprano sax/clarinet, and percussion. Nice. B+(**)
  98. 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+(**)
  99. Jovino Santos Neto: Roda Carioca (Rio Circle) (2005 [2006], Adventure Music). Perhaps it's the northeast roots or the 12 years he's lived in Seattle, but this is one Brazilian record that doesn't pull its punches. Neto plays piano, melodica, flutes, and accordion -- the latter on the exuberantly Tango-ish "Coco Na Roda" is what kicks the album into overdrive. B+(***)
  100. Arturo O'Farrill: Live in Brooklyn (2005, Zoho). With Andy Gonzalez and Dafnis Prieto, this should be a solid, heavily latin-tinged piano trio outing, but only the closing Monk piece gets my attention. B
  101. 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+(*)
  102. 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+(*)
  103. Francisco Pais: Not Afraid of Color (2004 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent). It took a while to get the feel of this complex postmodern cool or whatever. Pais plays guitar, layered intricately with Leo Genovese's keyboards and Chris Cheek's reeds. One cut I noticed each time through was "Transfiguration," partly because the pace picks up a bit, but mostly due to Ferenc Nemeth's drums. B+(*)
  104. 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
  105. Houston Person: All Soul (2005, High Note). 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+(**)
  106. Kerry Politzer Quartet: Labyrinth (2004 [2005], Polisonic). Young pianist, on her third album. Straightforward postbop, makes a strong impression, especially on the opener, "Rhodes Rage," with its percussive block chords. Fourth member is saxophonist Andrew Rathbun, whose leads free Politzer to work out the rhythmic angles. Rathbun plays tenor and soprano -- no surprise that I prefer the tenor. Best known musician in the group is George Colligan, playing drums rather inconspicuously instead of his usual piano. Politzer wrote all the pieces. B+(**)
  107. Odean Pope Saxophone Choir: Locked & Loaded: Live at the Blue Note (2004 [2006], Half Note). Pope's choir is more like a big band with nine saxes and no brass -- the key being that the group is anchored by a piano-bass-drums rhythm section. The saxes do their best to harmonize, but for this gig they get outgunned by the guests: Michael Brecker on two cuts, Joe Lovano on two, and James Carter on the finale. Brecker stands out as the soloist on a hot night, but Carter works the group harder, making "Mantu Chant" the choice cut. B+(**)
  108. Chris Potter: Underground (2005 [2006], Sunnyside). Title piece isn't all that deep underground, but it's a good example of how powerfully he can blow, and it gives guitarist Wayne Krantz some space to boot. Then the record closes with "Yesterday" -- slow almost to the point of unrecognizability, but it marks the return of that thin pot-metal tone I've never cared for. The earlier tracks are similarly mixed. B+(**)
  109. Shaynee Rainbolt: At Home (2006, 33 Jazz). Standards singer. Don't know much about her, other than that this is her second album. Lee Musiker, who works with Tony Bennett, plays piano and arranged the torchier pieces, so that may provide a hint as to orientation and ambition. I was much more struck by the more uptempo items, including some delectable guitar -- Gene Bertoncini, of course. B+(*)
  110. Enrico Rava: Tati (2004 [2005], ECM). Ranks about midway in a longish list of the trumpeter's albums over the last two years, all of which are various shades of B+ albums. Tops is Full of Life (CAM Jazz), then La Dolce Vita (with Giovanni Tommaso, also CAM Jazz), Easy Living (ECM), this one, Salvatore Bonafede's Journey to Donnafugata (CAM Jazz). This is the most inauspicious, with pianist Stefano Bollani taking more of a lead role, and Paul Motian dithering what passes for rhythm. Lovely, but very understated. B+(**)
  111. Herb Robertson NY Downtown Allstars: Elaboration (2004 [2005], Clean Feed). Since they're "allstars" we might as well start by listing them: Robertson (trumpet, cornet), Tim Berne (alto sax), Sylvie Courvoisier (piano), Mark Dresser (bass), Tom Rainey (drums). Courvoisier is a new one to me, but a quick check reveals my bad. AMG lists six albums plus ten more credits, and she's mostly worked with people I do recognize. Album contains one 48:28 piece. Starts slow, builds to something quite impressive, fades out, just like it should. I'm duly impressed, but I doubt that this would make much sense to a neophyte. Will make a note to pay more attention for Courvoisier. B+(**)
  112. Duke Robillard: Guitar Groove-A-Rama (2006, Stony Plain). For some reason jazz magazines from Downbeat to Cadence have a side-interest in blues, establishing an affinity that hasn't really existed over the last 30-40 years -- not since blues shouters like Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon and Jimmy Rushing fronted jazz bands. Since then the blues genre has narrowed down into a main stream of guitar slingers who make up a narrow, conservative genre under rock, plus a couple of creeks off to the side for folkie-musicologists like Taj Mahal and soul holdovers like Etta James and Solomon Burke. I've wondered whether about slipping a straight blues record into my jazz guide, and actually did once, with Billy Jenkins' When the Crowds Have Gone. But that was pretty far out in left field. James Blood Ulmer's Birthright tempted me -- like Jenkins, Ulmer's catalog is for the most part solidly positioned as jazz. I don't get much blues, but I figure when I do get something there's no harm in at least prospecting it, even if it's unlikely it will qualify for the jazz guide. Robillard is a comfortable mainstream guitar slinger. He paid his dues with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Roomful of Blues before going solo. He's got nothing much to say, but he's happy to be here, happy to be the end of the title cut's jukebox history of the blues, which started with his best Muddy Waters impersonation and worked its way down the ages. B+(*)
  113. 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+(*)
  114. Wallace Roney: Prototype (2004, HighNote). The extended family is dependable, and I've rarely heard Antoine sounding so robust -- his saxophone threatens to run away with the show. The DJ Logic electronics experiment is OK too, but limited to three tracks, where it mostly provides a funky backdrop rather than trying to set the pace. But it's hardly a tour de force for the trumpeter, just a series of sketches that start out promising and wind up a bit unfulfilled. B+(**)
  115. 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+(**)
  116. Mick Rossi: One Block From Planet Earth (2004 [2005], Omnitone). A small group with a lot of options, centered on Rossi's piano but with two horns, drums, and a virtuosic performance by Mark Dresser on bass. The horns are Andy Laster (reeds) and Russ Johnson (trumpet). This runs toward the abstract side, deliberately paced, with odd spurts from all sides. I like it fine, but don't feel it sweeping me away or dazzling like it should to move up a level. B+(*)
  117. 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+(**)
  118. Pharoah Sanders Quintet: 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+(***)
  119. 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+(*)
  120. Aram Shelton: Arrive (2001 [2005], 482 Music). Shelton plays alto sax. Based in Chicago, he fits roughly into the Vandermark orbit, an association underscored by Jason Roebke and Tim Daisy here. This would be a typical avant-sax trio, but it's not: it has a fourth wheel, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, which adds a distinctive twist. Most vibes players, going back to when Lionel Hampton traded his sticks in for mallets, are primarily into rhythm, but one thing Adasiewicz does here is to exploit the instrument's tone to add a harmonic dimension to the trio. B+(**)
  121. John Sheridan's Dream Band: Easy as It Gets (2005, Arbors). Sheridan is a fine stride pianist, rooted in the old swing styles he encountered as a child on Benny Goodman records. He calls his band "the dream band" -- you would too if you stepped into his shoes. The seven instrumental cuts swing lightly but definitively, with the title piece the choicest of cuts. Ron Hockett's clarinet stands out, but everyone contributes, and the band hangs together to properly sum up its parts. The other eight cuts feature singer Rebecca Kilgore, who fits nicely into the swing, but is almost a distraction in this company. But she does ace the closer, "I'm Sitting on Top of the World." B+(***)
  122. Janis Siegel: A Thousand Beautiful Things (2006, Telarc). The band is solidly Latin -- Edsel Gomez (piano), John Benitez (bass), Steve Hass (drums), Lusito Quintero (percussion), with Colombian Edmar Castañeda playing "Columbian harp" and Brian Lynch's brass on two cuts. The songs with one or two exceptions start elsewhere -- Björk, Stevie Wonder, Anne Lennox, Raul Midón, Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon -- so the gimmick is to Latinize them, although you can only be sure when Quintero is on the case, at which point it becomes obvious. The harp is interesting. The singer is proficient, but the songs don't amount to much. B
  123. Nine Simone: The Soul of Nina Simone (1963-87 [2005], RCA/Legacy). Aside from one much later Verve track thrown in for no obvious reason, this is a rather arbitrary selection of her '60s tracks, with no discernible theme except that life is hard but she's hard too; half of the tracks are remarkable, and not even the "Porgy and Bess Medley" sucks, so figure this to be one of her more consistent comps. B+(*)
  124. Nina Simone: Sings the Blues (1966-69 [2006], RCA/Legacy). She has the pipes to be a great blues singer, and she can play a little blues piano, but rather than submit to the program, she fusses around to mixed effect; "Backlash Blues" belongs on her message tape, "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" on her hits, "Since I Fell for You" is a good cover with a little harmonica. B
  125. Nina Simone: Silk & Soul (1967-69 [2006], RCA/Legacy): It's hard to convey just how awful her "Cherish" is, but how much can you penalize an album for one song? Depends on whether there's anything else on it you'd ever want to hear again. Most of this is in her average range, which means that most of it is listenable but not quite as good as you'd wish for. C
  126. Nina Simone: Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit (1967-69 [2006], RCA/Legacy): She was meant to sing her secular civil rights hymns, but "Backlash Blues" and "Mississippi Goddam" slip a bit in live versions, so the only song here that delivers all she can do is "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free"; filler from Dylan, the Byrds, and Hair don't cut it, and two takes of the title song have been permanently scorched by Bob & Marcia's ska version. B
  127. 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
  128. Daniel Smith: Bebop Bassoon (2004 [2006], Zah Zah). As advertised, no more, no less. Smith is well known in the classical catalogue, but this is his first attempt to tackle a jazz program. Starts with the jaunty "Killer Joe," then gets a bit tricker with "Anthropology" and "Blue Monk." All ten songs are well known. The bassoon gives them an odd sound, split by the double reeds. Seems like a chore just to play, much less improvise in. B
  129. Bob Sneider & Paul Hofmann: Escapade (2004 [2006], Sons of Sound). It's not much clearer what's going on in this duo, but my working theory is not a whole lot. Pianist Hofmann has the upper hand in everything but billing order. More listening might help to sort out Sneider's guitar, but I doubt that it will make much of a difference. B
  130. Loren Stillman: It Could Be Anything (2005, Fresh Sound New Talent). Young alto saxist, started mainstream, but he's quickly developing into a distinctive, inventive stylist, and this piano-bass-drums quartet has some zip to it. Not inconceivable that he could develop into a major player, and if he does this one will be viewed as a stepping stone. But for now he's skilled, sure footed, and working in a niche overloaded with competitive talent. B+(**)
  131. 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+(***)
  132. 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
  133. 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+(**)
  134. Tamura + Sharp + Kato + Fujii: In the Tank (2005, Libra). Free improv conjures up a dark, smoky aura of ominous sounds, with Natsuki Tamura's trumpet prominent early on and Satoko Fujii's piano definitive in the end, Takayuki Kato's guitar filling up much of the middle. Elliott Sharp is less conclusively present, perhaps because I'm not distinguishing his guitar, or maybe even his soprano sax. B+(**)
  135. Tommaso-Rava Quartet: La Dolce Vita (1999 [2005], CAM Jazz). CAM Jazz's main business is in soundtracks, which has led to an unusual concentration of movie-themed jazz albums. This isn't a soundtrack for the Fellini movie. It pulls pieces from a wide range of Italian movies, with the Nino Rota-pened "La Dolce Vita" floating to the top over "Il Postino" and "L'Avventura" and the rest. The quartet rounds out with pianist Stefano Bollani and drummer Roberto Gatto, veterans at least as well established as bassist Giovanni Tommaso, if not necessarily as internationally known as Enrico Rava. Lovely work by all. B+(***)
  136. Ralph Towner: Time Line (2005 [2006], ECM). Yet another solo guitar album. That makes five going back to 1973's Diary, or more going back to 1972's Trios/Solos. On first approximation, sounds much like all the rest. He does, after all, do this for a reason. B+(*)
  137. The Derek Trucks Band: Songlines (2006, Columbia). Enough interesting idea here to make me think an interesting album is possible, even if not necessarily in the works. Pieces by Roland Kirk, Toots Hibbert, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as well as some trad blues. The vocals wander some -- the leader doesn't sing, but several band members do, making for a curious eclecticism. B+(***)
  138. Assif Tsahar: Solitude (2005, Hopscotch). Something new in terms of sax with strings -- largely because this stark, abrasive string quartet does most of the work, setting the tone and the sandpaper texture. Tsahar's reeds and Tatsuya Nakatani's percussion play free patterns counter to the strings. Or sometimes the strings go pizzicato and join in. Difficult music. B+(*)
  139. Ugetsu: Live at the Cellar (2005 [2006], Cellar Live). The Cellar is a jazz club in Vancouver -- as they put it, "often compared to the Village Vanguard for its ambience and acoustics." The group name appears to derive from a 1963 Art Blakey album title, although a famous 1953 Japanese movie lurks somewhere in the background. This particular group is led by drummer Bernie Arai and alto saxist Jon Bentley and is part of a strong Vancouver jazz scene. But it is completely distinct from another Blakey-inspired Ugetsu, based in Europe and led by bassist Martin Zenker and trumpeter Valery Ponomarev. The latter group has four albums, including globetrotting stops in Shanghai and Cape Town, so the potential for confusion is manifest. Group is a sextet, with trumpet, trombone, piano and bass joining the leaders. It's a nice group, making pleasant, enjoyable MOR jazz. B
  140. Upper Left Trio: Sell Your Soul Side (2005 [2006], Origin). Piano trio, probably from Seattle, with Clay Giberson in the hot seat, Jeff Leonard on bass and Charlie Doggett on drums. Don't know any of them, but the album is sharply reasoned and deftly executed. Picture on the back cover reminds me of E.S.T. -- young white guys against a bleak background. Music is similar too, but no electronics. B+(**)
  141. Roseanna Vitro: Live at the Kennedy Center (2005 [2006], Challenge). I like her Ray Charles record quite a bit, but this one doesn't make something out of a well worn chestnut until "Black Coffee" comes around, and then it's over. Playing at the Kennedy Center must have brought out her good intentions -- the main song sequences includes things like "Please Do Something," "Commitment," "Tryin' Times." B
  142. Chris Walden Big Band: Winter Games (2006, Origin, EP). Actually just a 3:52 single ("full version"), followed by a 3:10 "radio edit." The theme is attractive enough, but the orchestration is neither as clean nor as dirty as I'd like, and it's all section work -- no individual development. If I had to deal with a full album like this I'd probably bury it with a middling grade -- unless it got to be really annoying. But given my system singles are annoying by definition. C
  143. Myron Walden: This Way (2005, Fresh Sount New Talent). Walden won a Charlie Parker competition in 1993, and he's developed from there. Jimmy Greene's tenor adds to the saxiness. B+(**)
  144. Cedar Walton: Underground Memoirs (2005, High Note). Solo piano, one original, the rest standard jazz pieces from the generation Walton grew up to. I'm duly impressed, but it's hard for me to get much excited by solo piano. I suspect I'm selling him short, but this has plateaued for me. B+(**)
  145. 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
  146. Dave Weckl Band: Multiplicity (2005, Stretch). Mostly a fusion band in ye olde Weather Report mode, which means the bass groove (Tom Kennedy), keybs (Steve Weingart) and sax (Gary Meek, balancing soprano and tenor, plus alto flute and bass clarinet) are layered on thick. The difference is drummer Weckl, who as leader gets to show off. The only time this record distinguishes itself is when he does -- although the groove is pleasant enough. B
  147. The Mary Lou Williams Collective: Zodiac Suite: Revisited (2000-03 [2006], Mary). Williams bridges the swing and post-bop eras, not conceptually but as someone who's been there, done that. The Zodiac Suite itself dates from 1945, and was part of a movement from danceband jazz toward "America's classical music," very much in parallel with Ellington's initial interest in suites. Arranged for piano trio, this suite makes for engaging chamber music -- people like Fred Hersch do this sort of thing nowadays, but Williams was decades ahead of anyone else. Without recourse to the original, I'd guess that the main thing Geri Allen and Buster Williams add here is state of the art sonic presence. The whole project is too humble to expect much more. B+(*)
  148. Larry Willis Trio: The Big Push (2005 [2006], HighNote). Bright, substantial mainstream piano trio with Buster Williams and Al Foster, old pros all. B+(**)
  149. Gerald Wilson Orchestra: In My Time (2005, Mack Avenue). Big band music, where the sections snap, crackle and pop, and every soloist sounds like a star -- and not just because most are. Wilson has been doing this sort of thing for a long time -- he was 86 when this was recorded, old enough to be famous for how old he is, which puts him into the living legend camp. Big bands since he came into his own in the early '60s have been basket cases: with no economic rationale or prospects, they depend on the generosity of grants and the musicians -- in both cases it no doubt helps to be a living legend. And here it pays off. A-
  150. Anthony Wonsey: The Thang (2005, Sharp Nine). He's a sharp mainstream pianist, but the album is neither fish nor fowl. On four cuts tenor saxist Eric Alexander sits in and takes over, making a big impression while Wonsey fades into the background. The other four cuts are piano trio. Either way could be worth pursuing, but split like this limits the spoils. B+(**)
  151. World Drummers Ensemble: A Coat of Many Colors (1996-2005 [2006], Summerfold). Four drummers -- Bill Bruford and Chad Wackerman from the rock-jazz fusion world, Doudou N'Diaye Rose from Senegal, Luis Conte from Cuba -- make a small subset of the world, and one rather biased towards the north at that. Nonetheless, N'Diaye seems to have the edge here, although Conte also contributes to the hand drums. The trap drummers, on the other hand, start out with a few ideas but eventually devolve into martial beats. B

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Music: Current count 11972 [11950] rated (+22), 891 [871] unrated (+20). Mostly jazz prospecting this week, but it seems like I haven't made much of a dent in the backlog. For one thing, got a scary amount of new stuff in the mail. For a while I thought I was going to get the urnated count down under 800, but now over 900 looks more likely.

  • Kasey Chambers: Wayward Angel (2004, Warner Bros.): Still a formidable voice. A few more good songs. Could use a few more still. B+(**)
  • Jackie-O Motherfucker: Flags of the Sacred Harp (2005, ATP): Sonically they sound like the Cowboy Junkies should have sounded had they not been so smacked out or untalented or whatever their problem was. Alternatively, they sound like Sonic Youth grown old and sedentary, sitting on the porch as dragonflies visit from the marsh. Doesn't seem like so much, but I've played this a dozen times or more, and it's come to feel like an old friend. A couple of tracks are basically instrumental. Hidden bit at the end has them playing "Limbo Rock" for about a minute, loose and scattered, very playful. A-
  • John Mayer Trio: Try! (2005, Aware/Columbia): Drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino get cover credit in what looks format-wise like it might be a jazz group. Mayer is a singer-songwriter with some blues licks and a crimped Van Morrison imitation. Live keeps it loose. Extra fun: "I Got a Woman," where Mayer aims for Jamie Foxx territory and, as my dad used to like to say, comes close enough for government work. B+(**)
  • Van Morrison: Pay the Devil (2006, Lost Highway): One of the world's all-time great singers. A batch of certifiably classic country songs (plus one ringer). What can go wrong? Well, the usual Nashville production, for one thing -- an inchoate mix of steel guitar and violins. Van's own song isn't a letdown here: it swings easy, fits his phrasing, exudes Celtic soul. He could still write his own album. Some of the country songs are pretty great, too. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 6)

Another week, another week of jazz prospecting. Despite all the work below, in the Sisyphean nature of this job the new record backlog actually grew last week. Still not clear how or when this is going to shape up. Most of the real prospects are still on the replay shelf, but I have at least another week of unplayed to check out, and there will probably be more still at the end of the week. Meanwhile, I've decided that the surplus cull from the last round is done. The notes were posted in the previous blog entry. More needs to be done there: the done list is currently at 95, about three JCGs worth, while the unrated list is at 131, four more. Finally, the prospecting notes on the surplus records have been moved to the notebook -- all 151.


Louie Bellson: The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and the Jazz Ballet (2000 [2005], Percussion Power): So the former Ellington drummer follows in his master's footsteps in making an earnest offering before meeting his maker. I don't recall Bellson ever writing lyrics before, but it's a good thing he didn't try to make a career out of it. Having studiously avoided CCM, I can't say whether his words here achieve an unprecedented level in the dumbing down of Christianity or whether they're just par for the times -- the latter, I suspect. For example: "Throw the blues away/come and live God's way/you will then rejoice/'cause you made the choice/He is the one and only one/He's the Lord." USC's student choir are overkill here -- the effect could be camp, but I doubt it. USC's string orchestra are no better, but Bellson brought in a couple of ringers to beef up the Jazz Orchestra, with Bobby Shew and/or John Thomas cranking the trumpet up to, well, Bellsonian levels. In such moments, you can remember why Bellson could title albums Hot and Inferno and get credit for understatement. C+

Pete Zimmer Quintet: Burnin' Live at the Jazz Standard (2006, Tippin'): This is almost exactly what most people think of as jazz these days: standard forms -- a blues, a waltz, some pop themes, but all originals -- stretched out over 7-13 minutes with solos rotated between trumpet/flugelhorn, tenor sax, piano, bass and drums, all of which are articulate and swing hard. The live setting is appropriate -- we all know that the essence of jazz is its continuous invention, on stage, before an audience. Zimmer is a young drummer, well schooled, hard working, and he's got a perfectly solid group here -- Joel Frahm is the biggest name and probably the senior citizen, but everyone does their job. Only problem is that when it comes to recorded jazz, this level of professionalism is the norm and therefore not all that noteworthy. B+(*)

Ray Mantilla: Good Vibrations (2006, Savant): A while back I made a survey through my database trying to figure out who the most legendary jazz musician was who I still didn't have any records by. As I recall, the answer I came up with was Cal Tjader, a vibes player who recorded dozens of Latin-tinged albums from 1951 up to his death in 1982. I suppose one thing this illustrates is that I've never held out much hope for Latino vibes powerhouses, and I mention it now because I never imagined them bowling me over like the first two cuts here -- Lionel Hampton's two most famous showstoppers, with Mike Freeman on vibes and percussion all around coming from Mantilla, Bill Elder and Steve Berrios. The record softens out after that, as Hampton is displaced by polite boleros and Enrique Fernández joins in on flute. But the closer bounces back, not least because Fernández goes heavy on baritone sax. Think I'll give it another shot. [B+(**)]

Melvin Sparks: Groove On Up (2005 [2006], Savant): This comes out of the gate like gangbusters -- organ and flashpick guitar, the cut is "MyKia's Dance" -- but this cools off quickly, and not just because such a narrow concept of groove needs a change of pace. That's what the two guest vocals are for. B-

Jerry Bergonzi: Tenor of the Times (2006, Savant): He has a couple of albums with his name shortened to Gonz in the title. It fits: he has a huge tenor sound and plays with a lot of muscular action -- even the ballad-tempo piece feels thick, dense, rock solid. He's backed by piano-bass-drums, but rarely out of the spotlight: an old fashioned saxophone colossus. Sure, it's been done, and better, but not all that often. B+(**)

Jason Kao Hwang: Edge (2005 [2006], Asian Improv): I've played this several times, going up and down on it, which makes me think it's a record that rewards careful listening but doesn't emerge clearly from the background. The lead instruments are the leader's violin and Taylor Ho Bynum's cornet, a nice combination. The quartet is filled out by Andrew Drury and Ken Filiano. Still working on it. [B+(**)]

Pete McCann: Most Folks (2005 [2006], Omnitone): Guitarist, with two previous albums on Palmetto and sideman credits going back to 1990 -- the booklet claims fifty albums, but AMG only lists about half that. I didn't recognize the name, but I've heard two of his credits, both A- albums: Tom Varner's The Window Up Above and Matt Wilson's Going Once, Going Twice. His website plays up his flexibility: "Pete's playing encompasses a wide variety of musical styles and genres -- Straight-ahead, Post-Bop, Avant-Garde, Latin, Jazz-Rock Fusion." The booklet puts it this way: "From gentle nylon acoustic guitar sounds to sinewy and intricate jazz guitar runs to roots-of-grunge Jimi Hendrix inspired hooting." I'll have to listen further to see if I can sort out this variety, but this strikes me as tight and focused -- whatever the opposite of eclectic is. The most immediate appeal is John O'Gallagher, whose alto sax is always on edge. But McCann plays distinctively around the sax, and holds the focus on his own, even when the going gets quiet. Also on board are bass-drums I trust -- John Hebert, Mark Ferber -- and pianist Mike Holober, who I only know from one of the better big band records I've heard in the last few years. [A-]

Kidd Jordan/Hamid Drake/William Parker: Palm of Soul (2005 [2006], AUM Fidelity): The lonesome legend of the New Orleans underground finally gets a fair hearing. I've heard Jordan a couple of times before without ever managing to get past the caterwaul, but he seems calm and thoughtful here. Drake and Parker indulge in their usual bag of tricks -- guimbri and gongs, tablas and frame drum, Hamid chants along with one -- as well as their usual genius. [B+(**)]

Charles Gayle Trio: Live at Glenn Miller Café (2006, Ayler): After all his attempts at diversification -- piano, violin, solo piano album, can Gayle with strings be far behind? -- it's a pleasure just to hear him blow and his trio-mates, Gerald Benson and Michael Wimberly, bang. Doesn't hurt that he sticks with his more moderate alto instead of unleashing his full fury tenor. Helps that he mostly goes with standards -- gives you an easy frame of reference, even if his "Cherokee" is pretty far afield. B+(***)

Gebhard Ullmann/Chris Dahlgren/Jay Rosen: Cut It Out (2000 [2006], Leo): Not sure what's going on here. Ullmann plays bass clarinet and bass flute, which with bass and drums keeps everything down in the seismology range. [B]

Mimi Fox: Perpetually Hip (2005 [2006], Favored Nations, 2CD): Jazz guitarist, on her seventh album since 1987. Nickname is Fast Fingers -- she doesn't strike me as particularly fast or fancy, but she does pick out a strong line and she keeps her balance rhythmically. First disc is a small group -- piano, bass, drums, extra percussion on two cuts -- and it hums along nicely. Second disc is solo, and it holds together as well. Don't know her earlier work, and I'm not quite sure what to make of this, but won't mind studying it further. [B+(**)]

Michy Mano: The Cool Side of the Pillow (2003 [2005], Enja/Justin Time): Mano is a Moroccan DJ, working in Norway since "his early twenties" -- however long that is. Sings, plays sentir, works up a mix of gnawa roots with electrobeats and scattered exotics from the Oslo melting pot -- Madagascar, India, not sure where else, but the guitarist is named Niklai Bielenberg Ivanovich and the beatmaster is named Paolo Vinaccia. The producer is Norwegian jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, also providing keyboards and programming. One piece is a rap -- sounds like French but the intro is probably Arabic. Others may be folk songs, with chant vocals as much in the background as fore. Jazz content is minor, but Bendikt Hofseth's tenor sax carresses the vocals. B+(***)

Sonando: Tres (2006, Origin): More gringos. Fred Hoadley took his Berklee education to Seattle and founded a salsa band in 1983, Bochinche, then moved on to Afro-Cuban with the founding of Sonando in 1990. He plays piano and tres guitar, and looks like the leader here. Tom Bergersen studied conga at Stanford. Chris Stromquist went all the way to Cuba for six weeks of bata instruction. Ben Verdier (bass), Chris Stover (trombone), and Jim Coile (saxphones, flute) are also regulars, but the record employs quite a few extras. The group has the basics down, and Hoadley's tres is particularly elegant. But compared to the model music I've heard out of Cuba, they keep it simple and moderate, easy to follow and enjoy. That's no knock: I'd rather hear them push the limits of their second language, which they do, than hear someone else water down their first, even though both can be useful bridges. B+(**)

Bill Coon/Oliver Gannon: Two Much Guitar (2004 [2005], Cellar Live): I don't know, maybe I'm just getting soft on guitar at long last. Two Vancouver-based guitarists aided by bass and drums. Some of this is clearly electric, but most is subtly picked out, a steady flow that's hard to resist. Coon has been playing for twenty years, since 1995 in Vancouver. He has a previous trio album with the same bass-drums as here. Gannon is somewhat older -- why is it nobody bothers to put when they were born on their websites? -- with scattered credits going back to 1978, but only one record (as far as I've been able to find out) under his own name. B+(**)

Jon Faddis: Teranga (2005 [2006], Koch): Back in 1974-75 Norman Granz had Oscar Peterson do a series of Trumpet Kings records -- Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison, not sure who else -- which turned out to be mostly disappointing, but the surprise, for me at least, there was one with Jon Faddis. He was barely past 21 at the time, an electrifying player, but he's had what seems like a nondescript career ever since then. For instance, the current Penguin Guide doesn't even give him an entry, and past editions have only credited him with one 3.5-star album. This comes down to career choices, and the choices Faddis made didn't produce much of a recorded legacy -- nine records in thirty years. Charlie Shavers used to have an act where he'd riff through the trumpet tradition, doing his impersonations of Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and others, but those guys were Shavers' contemporaries -- he was saying, hey no big deal, I can do this shit too. Faddis grew up in awe of those guys, learned to imitate them, and that's where he got pigeonholed. He was so good at it Dizzy Gillespie kept him on hand for years as backup and for relief. Reminds me of the story where a cat was dismissed for merely copying Charlie Parker; he then shoved his alto sax at the detractor and said, "here, let's see you copy Charlie Parker." Faddis also worked in the shadows of big bands, filled in on studio dates; finally he moved into the big money institutions, directing the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. This is roughly the same career path that Wynton Marsalis, eight years younger than Faddis, took, but Marsalis did a better job of separating himself from his idols, wrote and recorded more, and got a lot more hype -- in other words, the main difference between Faddis and Marsalis is modesty vs. arrogance. For proof of that, see Faddis's new album. He rips into some high note stuff like you rarely hear these days and it's not obvious where it comes from -- must be his own. But mostly you notice that he slots his trumpet into the rhythmic roil rather than soaring beyond it: no showboat virtuosity here, just serious chops. Most of the album is quartet, and the rhythm section is exceptional: David Hazeltine is superb as usual on piano, but unexpected muscle comes from bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Dion Parson. Then there are guests. On most albums these days, guest shots are diversions, breaking the flow, but Senegalese drums, Frank Wess flute and Gary Smulyan baritone, one song each, are seamlessly integrated. Two diversions in the middle are something else. One is a duet with guitarist Russell Malone, a relative quiet spot. The other brings in Clark Terry for a second trumpet and a dish of verbal chop suey, with Faddis joining in. Breaks in the flow like that are plusses. Another play or two and I may have a Pick Hit. A-

The Uptown Quintet: Live in New York (2004 [2006], Cellar Live): A departure for the label, both in featuring non-Canadians and in presenting something not recorded in Vancouver's Cellar. File the group under pianist Spike Wilner, who wrote three of seven songs, but also note front line Ryan Kisor (trumpet) and Ian Hendrickson-Smith (alto sax), who add strong voices and a song apiece. As the names show, this is a strong, mainstream, blues-swinging group. The atmosphere is relaxed, they're comfortable, this is what they do. B+(*)

Guillaume de Chassy/Daniel Yvinec: Wonderful World (2004-05 [2006], Sunnyside): Piano and bass, respectively, although they mostly fill in around a set of voice samples "recorded on a cheap machine on the streets of New York City." Those include half-spoken, half-sung takes on "What a Wonderful World," "It Could Happen to You," and so forth, as well as song introductions and commentaries. A slight concept, but appealingly offhanded. B+(*)

Elliott Caine Quintet: Blues From Mars (2005 [2006], EJC Music): Standard issue hard bop quintet, led by the trumpeter, with a few extra frills: vibes (DJ Bonebrake) on three cuts, congas on three more for a little Latin tinge, and theremin for the space effects on the title track. Bright, blues-based, swings; probably fun live, but at home you're more likely to reach for Lee Morgan. B

Nils Petter Molvaer: An American Compilation (2001-06 [2006], Thirsty Ear): There are precedents for trumpet over beats: Miles Davis's funk fusion, Jon Hassell's fourth world exotica. More recently: Russell Gunn, Erik Truffaz, and to some extent Dave Douglas, Nicholas Payton, Wallace Roney. I'm not sure when Norwegian trumpeter Molvaer tapped into this vein: certainly by 1996 when he started work on Khmer (ECM), but earlier idea probably appear with his Masqualero group, which dates back the the mid-'80s. Khmer was dominated by synth beats, a relentless chug-a-lug like a toy engine that pulled everything forward. The follow-up, Solid Ether (ECM) was more varied, with a more expansive soundscape. The earlier title suggested an interest in Hassell, but nothing musically connected the work to Southeast Asia, and Molvaer's subsequent work feels more Nordic than ever. After the ECM records, Molvaer's discography gets messy, especially for Americans. A new studio album (np3) and some remixes (Recoloured, Remakes) came out on Universal subsidiaries somewhere in Europe. A live album (Live: Steamer) and another studio album (er) came out on Molvaer's Sula label. The latter two albums will get a US release later this year on Thirsty Ear's Blue Series -- already long on smart jazztronica thanks to Matthew Shipp's avant-DJ convergence. But first, at a matter of introduction, we get this primer. I wish I knew better where these pieces came from -- looks like about half come from np3, although different mixes are always a possibility. It's less immediately striking than the previous studio albums -- more atmospheric, less machine-like -- so it takes a while for the picture to flesh out. Perhaps most striking of all is a closing ballad sung by Sidsel Endresen, "Only These Things Count." A-

Trio Beyond (Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, John Scofield): Saudades (2004 [2006], ECM, 2CD): The concept here was to do a Tony Williams Lifetime thing -- cf. Emergency!, a 1969 album with Williams on drums, John McLaughlin on guitar, and Larry Young on organ. DeJohnette is a fair match for Williams, but Scofield and Goldings twist the dial away from Young and McLaughlin's more outré fusion back toward soul jazz. Nothing much wrong with that, especially with them playing hotter than they have in years, but nothing much new with it either. B+(*)

John Tchicai/Charlie Kohlhase/Garrison Fewell: Good Night Songs (2003 [2006], Boxholder, 2CD): Both Tchicai and Kohlhase play various reeds -- bass clarinet and various saxes -- while Fewell plays guitar. The former are milder than usual, and the latter blends in, making this subtler and more atmospheric than I expected. [B+(*)]

Frank Kimbrough: Play (2005 [2006], Palmetto): Piano trio, with bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Paul Motian -- for more than forty years now the pianist's best friend. Moderate, tasteful postbop. If anything, too moderate, too tasteful. B

Toby Koenigsberg Trio: Sense (2005 [2006], Origin): Piano trio, young guys who grew up together, based in Seattle. After Kimbrough, I'm immediately struck by how much livelier this is -- not just that it goes faster but slow spots develop in more interesting ways. Some of this is repertoire: a couple of Bud Powell pieces, a couple of variations on "Stella by Starlight." B+(**)


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

Planet Jazz: In Orbit (2005 [2006], Sharp Nine): This is a tribute band to little known drummer Johnny Ellis, who died in 1999 at age 44. Ellis wrote most of the songs, commonly playing the others -- pieces by Charlie Shavers, Hampton Hawes, Duke Ellington-Johnny Hodges. In fact, so many Ellis alumni are on board that this could be considered his ghost band. Pianist Spike Wilner is the main mover here, and he's pulled together a solid mainstream band -- saxophonist Grant Stewart, trumpeter Joe Mangarelli, guitarist Peter Berstein. The covers take off, but the Ellis originals -- nonsense like "The Cow Is Now" and "The Lemur Is a Dreamer" -- don't quite make it. B

David Berger & the Sultans of Swing: Hindustan (2005 [2006], Such Sweet Thunder): The title here is à propos of nothing -- it may put you in mind of The Far East Suite, but the record offers nothing Ellingtonian beyond the instrumentation of the big band. The gem-like arrangements do have some allure, and Aria Hendricks's few vocals have some charm, but the Sultans come up short of swing, and you know what that means. B

Fred Anderson: Timeless: Live at the Velvet Lounge (2005 [2006], Delmark): The weak spot here is Hamid Drake's vocal, but that's just something you put up with to hear his drumming. I can't say as I ever got into Anderson before Back at the Velvet Lounge (2002 [2003], Delmark), but he's been on a streak ever since then: Back Together Again, a duo with Hamid Drake; Blue Winter, a trio with Drake and William Parker; and now this trio with Drake and Harrison Bankhead. I resisted at first, figuring the records have little differentiation, and I shouldn't keep pushing the same thing over and over. But critical consensus seems to be that this is the winner, and I can hear that. Bankhead helps fill things out like a good bassist should but isn't tempted to crowd in like Parker. Also this one is a single. A-


Jazz Consumer Guide #9: Surplus

One task I face every time I finish a Jazz Consumer Guide is to sort through the long list of records I didn't review and trim them back. I try to make realistic assessments. I can cover thirty or so records each Jazz Consumer Guide. At the end of the ninth round I had 150 rated but unused records. I've cut them back by about half, although new records keep pushing the raw numbers back up. Most of the records that survived this cut still won't make it.

Starting with Jazz Consumer Guide #7 I've written prospecting notes as I've gone along. In most cases the prospecting notes, or reviews I've separately published in Recycled Goods, suffice, but one part of this exercise is to write brief reviews/notes on at least some of the surplus records. The surplus notes follow. For the complete list of surplus cuts this round, see the surplus file.

The main reason behind these cuts is lack of space. As I've explained before, I make these choices for all sorts of reasons. Some of these records, for instance, were reviewed more or less satisfactorily by others in the Village Voice, especially Francis Davis. In some cases I've just never found the words for them, so they've gotten old and I've decided to stop looking at them. Often a new record will push an old record off the list. In cases like these the cut may have little to do with quality or rating: good records get pushed out. In fact, except for a few records I hang on to as possible duds, the surplus records are better than average, sometimes much so.


[Copy text to post from surplus file.]

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Season Finale of the Abu Zarqawi Hour

A couple of days ago I pointed out that the best response to the news that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been killed, or indeed to any of the news reports that seem fleetingly positive for the Bush project, is to ask, Now, can we go home? Of course, the response of most commentators, stuck in the rut of the obvious, was to remind us that the war would grind on -- that there are no shortage of salafi-jihadis willing to step into Zarqawi's shoes, even with martyrdom their almost certain fate. But what makes that so obviously true is the assumption that the US occupation of Iraq is permanent -- something we accept as immovable, inevitable, endless. My question seeks to get us out of that box. If we can't go home now, why? If we have to "stay the course," just where does that course go? Are we in fact on the course we think we're on? Or are we just wandering around aimlessly, refusing to ask directions?

These are basic questions, in that they help expose the basic void in our thinking about Iraq. Why are we there? What do we hope to accomplish? Nobody knows the answers to those questions. All we know for sure is that the reasons we've been given are false. Lately they don't even bother to feed us false reasons. We seem to have entered some kind of weird "don't ask, don't tell" zone: nobody asks why we are in Iraq, so nobody has to listen to whatever cracked absurdities they might come up with. One consequence of not having trackable goals, analyzable plans, or any fucking clue, is that we miss opportunities to do the only sane thing possible, which is to get the hell out of there. Can we come home, now?

Think about it for just a minute. Let's say for the sake of argument that the problem with Iraq is the Resistance, which creates chaos and disorder, fear and violence, death and destruction, all bad things. So how do you get rid of the Resistance? The only sure way to get rid of Resistance is to remove what it's resisting against, and that's the US occupation forces. I shouldn't have to explain why or how the US causes this resistance, but two points are especially important: resistance started the moment US forces invaded Iraq; and everything bad that the US has done in Iraq, deliberately or otherwise, has been amplified -- made to appear worse -- by the resistance. In other words, resistance is a function of US occupation, and it generates positive feedback -- everything the US does in Iraq to try to fight the resistance makes it worse. The physics analogies are imperfect but approximately correct: the only thing the US can do to reduce the damage caused by Resistance is to unplug it. To do that, we must go home. Nothing else works.

Unfortunately, Bush, his warriors, and his fan club don't begin to understand this. They believe in killing bad guys. They believe that if they can just kill enough of them they'll win. They believe that social order is based on fear of power, and once the people of Iraq fear them enough they'll be secure in their power. Zarqawi to them is a high value target: not just a dead bad guy, but an example to all those who would oppose him. So to them this is a bit of momentum to drive harder -- not a rare chance to extricate themselves from a hopeless disaster and still save a little face.


One question is how much good does it do to kill or take out the leader of a guerrilla war. Clearly there are some cases where taking out the leader brought movements to an end. A couple of examples are Che Guevara in Bolivia and the Abimael Guzman (Shining Path) in Peru. But those cases had far less traction than what we see in Iraq, and were often the work of irreplaceably charismatic leaders. Whether Zarqawi was such a leader is unclear, but one has to be suspicious of how useful he was to US propagandists both in characterizing the resistance as non-Iraqi (he was Jordanian) and linked to Al Qaeda (thereby retroactively establishing a War on Terror purpose). Nir Rosen addresses these questions in a CNN Interview:

PHILLIPS: First reaction to the capture of Zarqawi. From what I understand, you think we're going a bit overboard with this coverage and he's not as big a fish as everyone is making him out to be?

ROSEN: He certainly was a symbol. However, Zarqawi was, in a way -- the myth of Zarqawi was an American creation. In the beginning of the insurgency, the American's government, the American military, wanted to create the impression that the insurgency was foreign-dominated, was not a popular Iraqi movement. So they blamed almost every attack on Zarqawi, creating this myth of Zarqawi that then encouraged Arabs throughout the region to go join his cause.

But, in truth, Zarqawi and his group of foreign fighters were a very small proportion of the resistance of the insurgency. They were, of course, responsible for some terrible attacks. But the dynamics in Iraq and the civil war is going to persist no matter who is killed, because this is conflict between the Shia government, the Shia population, and the Sunni population at this point.

PHILLIPS: So you're saying that even though he was an exceptionally cruel person, he was -- we knew that he had beheaded innocent individuals. He was behind a number of bombings. You don't think this will make an impact at all on the insurgency?

ROSEN: I think, if anything, this is, in an way, an advertisement. Zarqawi's death, ironically enough, might be an advertisement for his cause. Zarqawi came to Iraq to fight the infidels and obtain martyrdom. Well, he did. And now, this is just -- proves to aspiring jihadis around the world Iraq is the place to go avenge Zarqawi's death, to fight infidels and become a martyr and go to paradise just like Zarqawi did.

I think what we're going to see is some new unit. It will be called the Zarqawi brigade, the Zarqawi battalion, and they're going to claim responsibility for some very important attack against a Shia leader or a Shia mosque or Shia civilians. And the dynamics of the civil war will continue, regardless of any particular individual.

So you can hash the charisma argument many ways, but the more important point is that Zarqawi was the leader of just one of many factions in the Resistance -- arguably one much more important to the US for its propaganda value than to the Resistance in general, especially given Zarqawi's evident role in promoting sectarian civil war. Others will no doubt take up Zarqawi's sword, but for much of the Resistance his death resolves an embarrassment: they can honor him for fighting the Americans without having to continue his divisive terror against the Shiites. Meanwhile, US propaganda has to go on without its poster boy. As Gen. Mark Kimmitt said, "The Zarqawi PSYOP program is the most successful information campaign to date."

An article in the New York Times today admits that there are many unresolved questions surrounding Zarqawi. Like: given that two 500 lb. bombs vaporized the walls of Zarqawi's "safe house," how come they were able to photograph his dead body completely intact? Makes you wonder, too, how they got those outtakes from Zarqawi's propaganda film showing him mishandling his gun. The long history of US deceit on all things Iraq, as well as the general practice of operating in secret, gives Official Spokesmen very little credibility these any more. The US press has dutifully reported what Billmon called "[The Pentagon Channel's] long-running reality TV series, The Abu Zarqawi Hour, but it's never been clear how much was fact and how much was fiction.

In particular, while Zarqawi fit American expectations of how an indescribably evil terrorist acts, some Iraqis had their doubts. Two quotes from Wikipedia illustrate this. Muqtada al-Sadr said this of Zarqawi: "I believe he is fictitious. He is a knife or a pistol in the hands of the occupier. I believe that all three -- the occupation, the takfir supporters, and the Saddam supporters -- stem from the same source, because the takfir supporters and the Saddam supporters are a weapon in the hands of America. America pins its crimes on them." A Sunni insurgent leader said: "Zarqawi is an American, Israeli and Iranian agent who is trying to keep out country unstable so that the Sunnis will keep facing occupation."

Those two quotes strike me as evasive, based on embarrassment over Zarqawi's anti-Americanism. Both speakers no doubt understand that Zarqawi's war attacks America primarily to legitimize itself in order to further its real aim: to purge Islam of all who do not adhere to their strict, militant salafism -- i.e., all Shiites, most Sunnis. Zarqawi's effect, then, has been to divide and weaken the resistance, allowing the US occupation to blunder forward. Given the way this has actually played out, it's easy to see how Bush and Bin Laden complement each other. Both feed on fear and hatred, each the antipodal evil that justifies the other.

If Bush had had the foresight to script his presidency, he couldn't have done better than to have invented some nemesis like Bin Laden. When all the dirty laundry eventually comes clean, I can't help but wonder if we'll find out that the US had in fact invented Zarqawi.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Now, Can We Go Home?

Back when Saddam Hussein was captured in his spider hole near Tikrit, Howard Dean was the frontrunner for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. The statement he made then started to unravel his campaign. He said that capturing Saddam had not made Americans any safer. Strictly speaking, what he said was not false. It was just irrelevant. It was like saying that capturing Saddam had not made Americans taller, or fatter. One way to check that such statements were irrelevant would have been to assert their opposites: did capturing Saddam make us slimmer? shorter? more at risk? Clearly not. Arguing that capturing Saddam had anything to do with whether we were safer or not betrayed a simple mistake on Dean's part. He was thinking about terrorism, but Saddam had nothing to do with terrorism. He should have been thinking about something that Saddam had something to do with: Iraq.

What Dean should have said was: Great! Hooray! I have to admit, I had my doubts, but that George W. Bush pulled it off! He did it! Accomplished all his goals! I mean, now we got Saddam and killed off his idiot sons. And we've cleared up all that WMD misunderstanding, so that's no longer hanging over us. So all that takes care of all of our goals over there, except for leaving, but that'll be the easy part. And that'll show all those skeptics that we actually did come as liberators, and not as occupiers. Right? We're leaving now, aren't we? We are liberators, aren't we? Bush didn't really have some hidden agenda, now did he?

In fact, that's what Dean and every other responsible politician should have said at each and every "milestone" and "turning point" in the war. It's that simple: now, can we go home? Try it yourself. It's not that hard, is it? Now, can we go home? Today was another of those turning points, as officials announced that arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed today. Good news, that is. All together: Now, can we go home?

Zarqawi's death isn't the obvious turning point that Dean so fumbled, but at least it's a short respite, a brief chance to claim something and get the hell out -- like before we create another comparable menace. Zarqawi had no role in whatever Bush's initial intentions were. Basically, he was such a small fry that nobody worried about him. Hell, Saddam didn't even worry about him, and Saddam was one paranoid motherfucker! The only thing that could turn someone like Zarqawi into a real monster was an occupier -- an alien force of arrogance, ignorance and ineptitude, which is exactly what Bush's crusaders shown themselves to be. At this point Zarqawi's resistance will hardly miss a beat, but it will take months before the US is able to hype another face up to the point where he can fill Zarqawi's wanted poster. During tha time the resistance will enjoy a certain anonymity which would make it easier to walk away from. If Bush had any sense, he should do just that -- who knows when the next "turning point" will look so good? Encourage him: Now, can we go home?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

David Murray Genius Guide

The Village Voice's annual Jazz Supplement seems to be out, or at least it's up on the web. Or most of it -- don't see the introduction that I heard supplement editor Robert Christgau wrote. The cover title is "The Genius Guide to Jazz." Needless to say, the insides don't live up to that claim, but "A Guide to Five Jazz Geniuses" would be hard to argue with. My bit was to write up a guide to David Murray. The other four guides are:

Garrett Shelton wrote in to thank me for writing about a living jazz musician. The other four are long gone, with Sun Ra the last to depart in 1993. I can't say as I thought of it that way, and I doubt that Christgau noticed it either, but it's a matter of some sensitivity, understandably so. There have been two big nosedives in the popularity of jazz. The first occurred in the 1940s when swing hit a fork and bebop took the high road into virtuosic art music -- a path that only got steeper with later revolts of the avant-garde -- while everyone else took the low road into pop, r&b, and rock and roll. The second came in the 1970s as a critical mass of undisputed jazz legends died off or faded from sight, taking a big chunk of the industry with them. Few jazz musicians who came up in the '70s or later -- well, even the '60s -- got the sort of exposure that would turn them into legends in the public mind. (Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy may seem like partial exceptions, but their discographies start around 1956-57.)

This probably comes from having a sociology background and being a baseball history expert, but I'm an inveterate ranker. (Can't be that I harbor a closet preference for hierarchical social orders.) So here's one, my all-time tenor saxophone list: Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, David Murray, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Ben Webster, Lester Young, uhh, at this point you hit a thick crowd with guys like Gene Ammons, Don Byas, Joe Henderson, Roland Kirk, Sam Rivers, and Lucky Thompson, with Ken Vandermark the most likely to advance. Other people would juggle this top seven around a bit -- probably moving Coltrane and/or Young up -- but anybody who leaves Murray off that list just hasn't been paying attention. Unfortunately, most people, and that includes most jazz critics -- just look at Downbeat's polls -- have missed Murray. In fact, those people have missed most of what's happened in jazz in the last thirty-some years, and they're still missing what's happening today.

Same basic thing has happened all across the board. Anthony Braxton is about as good an example as Murray, although he's a little more difficult for most people to get into. (I'd put him Coleman and Art Pepper; ahead of Benny Carter, Lee Konitz, and Charlie Parker.) But the more examples I throw out, the further we get away from the point: if we don't write about musicians while they're still alive, we're suffocating the art. The point is well taken, but it's also off the point here. Legends tend to be old, and old people sooner or later wind up dead. What Robert Christgau wanted to do with this Jazz Supplement was to create something that he felt wasn't readily available: a good, short, expert but accessible primer on several key figures. The idea, as I understand it, came from some work, which I haven't seen, that Farah Jasmine Griffin had done on Billie Holiday, so she got slotted first. The other four pages were mix-and-match given the usual writers and what would be relatively easy for them to do. Francis Davis is working on a Coltrane book. John Szwed published a book on Sun Ra a while back; assigning him to do a guide filled out a need. Monk is a touchstone figure for Christgau, so I don't know whether he or Blumenfeld came up with that idea. The last piece was originally supposed to be on Ray Barretto, but that turned out to be a stretch for the assigned writer, so Christgau called me up and was desperate, offering to let me do anyone. Two names he quickly mentioned were Webster and Vandermark, but he was sold the moment I named Murray. He's followed Murray a long time -- a benefit of editing Gary Giddins. In fact, he's the one who turned me on to Low Class Conspiracy back in the late '70s.

It'll be interesting to see what he response is. This is a pretty simple way of doing the Jazz Supplement -- more fun and less sweat than trying to write major essays, and possibly more useful. But another idea might be to do critic-selected multiple artist guides limited to living musicians. Plenty to choose from there, too.


When I wrote the Murray Guide, I also wrote up a "Postscript and Disclaimer" which provided a little more context for what I selected as well as established the limits of what I haven't been able to evaluate. I offered to let the Voice post this on their website, and maybe they still will. But I haven't heard anything more about it, so it would be most useful to post it here:

I've read reports that Murray's recorded 200-300 records. The figures above (90 + 90) are all I've been able to verify, but those numbers are most likely somewhat short. The division between leader and sideman is somewhat arbitrary. His records are hard to find. I've gone out of my way to follow him, and still I've only heard heard 60 + 40 of them. No doubt I've missed some real good ones. I haven't heard 3D Family (1978, Hat Art), which he's kept as the name of his company. I've missed a bunch of the DIWs -- Remembrances (1991) has an especially strong reputation.

A lot of Murray records didn't miss the above list by much. Here's a quick rundown, plus a few comments:

Flowers for Albert: The Complete Concert (1976, India Navigation) is the only early live album I've heard. Several others have made it to CD: Flowers for Albert (1977, West Wind); Live at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club (1977, Indian Navigation); The London Concert (1978, Cadillac).

Home (1981, Black Saint) and Murray's Steps (1982, Black Saint): further adventures with the Octet, a group that returns for Octet Plays Trane (1999, Justin Time).

I Want to Talk About You (1986, Black Saint): A live trio that ties this period together.

Special Quartet (1990, DIW): With McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, not to mention Fred Hopkins.

Body and Soul (1993, Black Saint): Another twist on the Hawkins classic.

The Tip and Jug-a-Lug (1994, DIW): Two upbeat sets with organ and electric guitars, one with "Sex Machine."

Other notable DIWs: Fast Life (1991), For Aunt Louise (1993), With Ray Anderson and Anthony Davis (1994).

Other piano duos: Dave Burrell's In Concert (1991, Victo) and Windward Passages (1993, Black Saint) are strongest, followed closely by Aki Takase's Blue Monk (1991, Enja).

Murray has also recorded drum duos with Kahil El'Zabar, but Love Outside of Dreams (1997, Delmark) has something extra -- one of Fred Hopkins's last performances.

I don't like the strings on Waltz Again (2002, Justin Time), but the saxophone is magnificent.

With 20 albums to date, Murray's longest-running side-project is the World Saxophone Quartet, formed in 1977 with Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett. Hemphill was the main arranger until illness sidelined him in 1990. His records, with four saxes and nothing else, follow a purism I've never enjoyed and often found tedious. The later records are more eclectic, often with extra musicians as well as whoever they could find for Hemphill's slot. One of the best is the African drums-enhanced Selim Sivad: A Tribute to Miles Davis (1998, Justin Time).

One of the best sideman albums is Kip Hanrahan's Conjure, Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed (1983, American Clavé), eventually followed by Bad Mouth (2005, American Clavé).

Also: D.D. Jackson, Peace-Song (1994, Justin Time).

Murray has never had a box set, a best-of, a compilation of any sort. He did get a role in Robert Altman's Kansas City, as Ben Webster. Also played on the Roots, Illadelph Halflife (1996, DGC).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Hit Me One More Time

Looks like Bush has finally been able to take some time away from all the real issues he's been avoiding to concentrate on something important merely to himself: the campaign to save the Republican congress in 2006. Months of meticulously scientific polling must have gone into the identification of the one key issue the Republicans can run on: a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. For reaction out here in Kansas, see Richard Crowson's Wichita Eagle cartoon:

Regardless of what you think about gay marriage, the idea of changing the constitution to take rights away from people or states doesn't seem to have much appeal. Reports are that only one Senate Democrat -- ever lost Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- would support it would doom it even if no Republicans had second thoughts. So from a practical standpoint, this is much ado about nothing. But maybe that's the best alternative the Republicans have to everything?

Homosexuality has been very good for the Republicans. Their ability to link state constitutional referendums on gay marriage to the 2004 presidential election helped them rally their most foolish supporters. Relentless pounding on that issue managed to force Kerry and Edwards awkwardly off topic, and when they tried to dish some back by pointing out just who among the candidates actually has homosexual offspring, all they managed was to do was to win sympathy for the Cheneys for standing by their poor dyke daughter.

But an even bigger bonanza for the Republicans was the way the "gays in the military" fiasco undermined Clinton's authority to stand up to the Pentagon, and therefore to the whole military-industrial megastate. James Carroll discusses this in House of War, providing a lot more background and detail than I can go into here, but here are a few summary quotes:

In truth, to his [Clinton's] opponents in the Pentagon, the question of gays in the military was a deliverance, another version of the Korean War and the Gulf War as unexpected sources of reinforcement for the martial ethos. "The high priests of the nuclear age," General Butler told me in the 1990s, "are having great difficulty letting go" of their status and the weapons on which their status depends. Because of the galvanizing issue of homosexuality, they would not have to. [p. 459]

Colin Powell first met with President-elect Clinton on November 19, 1992. By his own account, Powell says that it was he, not Clinton, who brought up the subject of homosexuals in the military. And it was the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in their first meeting with the new president, on January 25, 1993, five days after his swearing in, who did the same. Clinton did not bring up the issue. In his memoir, Clinton says the Chiefs expressed an "urgent" concern about it. They pushed the question to the top of his agenda. Whether consciously or not, the brass were cooperating with a wily Republican ploy, led by Senator Robert Dole, who became an early foe of Clinton's. Because of the strong showing of the third-party candidate H. Ross Perot, Clinton had been elected with a paltry 43 percent of the vote, which made him vulnerable to Republican opposition. Picking up on what had been merely one of a dozen hot-button campaign issues, Dole threw the gays-in-the-military question onto the tracks in front of the new administration, hoping for derailment. It worked. But the derailment assumed an all but overt threat from the Joint Chiefs, including the chairman, that they would not carry out an order from Clinton lifting the ban. [p. 459-460]

We have seen that in debates after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Powell had opposed President Bush on launching the Gulf War, yet once Bush had decided to commit, Powell had saluted, obeyed, and made it happen. He had done the same thing late in the Bush term, when the president ordered Operation Restore Hope, the humanitarian mission to Somalia. But on the question of gays, put to him by Bill Clinton, there was to be only opposition, and no salute.

Powell, of course, denies that. "My life would have been easier if he [Clinton] had simply lifted the ban by executive order. The military would have said, 'Yes, Sir.' But, as Les Aspin knew, almost immediately Congress would have enacted a ban as a matter of law, forcing the President to veto it, and confronting him with an almost certain veto override. What makes this explanation disingenuous is the fact that congressional opposition was firmly braced by the prior, well-known opposition of the military Chiefs, especially their chairman. And the Chiefs, confronted at the start with Aspin's surrender, were given no reason to mitigate their opposition. The Clinton administration, that is, came into office showing that it expected not to exercise authority over the military on this question. [p. 461]

In September 1993, three months after Clinton instituted the policy, an act approving "Don't ask, don't tell" was passed by Congress, which elevated the policy from the relatively lowly realm of military regulations to a law of the land. This was a disaster for gay people and for the honor of the military, since the policy was based on universal deception. But what compounded the disaster was the way the controversy destroyed Clinton's authority with the Pentagon, and therefore his ability to shape an alternative approach to security in the post-Cold War world.

Powell's responsibility for all this was enormous. It was no coincidence that the six-month "study" period coincided with the months remaining in Powell's term as chairman. Rather than confront Powell on the question or risk the political fallout if he resigned early, Clinton let it ride. As Powell knew, that ducking of the decision itself gave him his victory, for, on an issue that, however peripheral, had taken on enormous cultural and political significance, the president of the United States deferred to the open dissent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. After that, no wonder the sailor aboard the Theodore Roosevelt felt free to refuse to salute his commander in chief. But the president's exercise of authority on gays in the military could have gone another way, and indeed, on an equivalent issue forty years before, presidential authority had. [p. 462]

Carroll then reviews Harry Truman's order to desegregate the US military:

The Colin Powell of the day, General Omar Bradley, did not like Truman's stated intention to change things, any more than Powell liked Clinton's. Bradley told an interviewer that he understood Trumans' order to require not integration of blacks but a military version of "separate but equal." Truman publicly rebuked Bradley, Bradley publicly apologized, and that was the end of that. Integration, full and complete, was the expectation. As the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Bradley went on to preside over the most successful social revolution of the day, with the result that the military was the first American institution to be authentically integrated. [p. 463-464]

However:

The military authority Clinton inherited, that is, was hollow compared to what Truman had taken for granted. This was also a matter of the power that accrued to Truman from the rise of the Soviet threat; in Clinton's case, presidential pwoer had slipped as that threat disappeared. Questions about Clinton's draft record and about gays in the military only exposed that hollowness for all to see, including those behind the one-way windows across the river. [ . . . ] With Clinton, the Pentagon would not even pretend to salute, especially once his self-destructive promiscuity undermined what little moral authority he had, but draft dodging and gays together formed a cloak of pretense over what actually mattered most. As the (to them) frighteningly unreliable Bill Clinton entered office, the power the Pentagon was dead serious about maintaining was over nuclear weapons, not over the sexual activities of soldiers. In the odd dispensation of the warrior ethos, however, the two things soon came to be related. Routing Clinton on gays at the beginning of his administration was a harbinger of the Pentagon's total defeat of every attempt to step back from Cold War arsenals and attitudes.

"Don't ask, don't tell" was, in fact, an apt metaphor for the Pentagon's message to the American public about its own fetish with nuclear weapons, which, like the traditional ban on gays, no longer had any national security justification. The furor over homosexuality early in Clinton's term, in other words, had far more significance than is usually realized. [p. 465-466]

Carroll had previously discussed Clinton's draft record, which reappears in the gays fiasco to establish a pattern of vacilation. So let's go back to that quote:

First, there was the matter of Clinton's self-styled status as an avatar of the sixties, which, in the Building, remained code for a decadent culture of self-indulgence, the opposite of martial virtue. After the institutional crisis of Vietnam, the Pentagon threw up walls abainst all that seemed to have made it possible, ironically becoming its own version of a counterculture, a center of "traditional" values. It did not matter that Clinton's achievement -- his life's journey from an impoverished, broken family in the Ozarks to the White House -- was, despite the junk food, a triumph of self-discipline worthy of a great general. Clinton was the first president since Franklin Roosevelt not to have served in uniform (though never in uniform, FDR had been assistant secretary of the Navy before being stricken with polio).

Worse, Clinton's Republican opponents had come close to sticking him with the label "draft dodger," although most voters, remembering the complexities of Vietnam, had concluded that was unfair. Indeed, for many of his generation, the choices Clinton had made regarding his military service in the late 1960s felt quite familiar. If there was a mystery about Clinton's record, it was why he seemed to agree with Republicans that it was something to be ashamed of. After all, history's verdict on Vietnam was already in. Clinton had recognized it as a mistaken, even an immoral, war, and had declined to serve. Clinton had been right about Vietnam.

Perhaps military people would not have held his avoidance of Vietnam against him if only he had forthrightly taken responsibility for his choices. But he never did -- not during the election and not in the early months of his presidency. Clinton's apparent obfuscations about his use of an ROTC appointment to avoid the draft (he was to do his ROTC service at the University of Arkansas while in law school, after Oxford) and then his abrupt withdrawal from the ROTC appointment when he subsequently drew a high number in the Selective Service lottery (enabling his preferred track to Yale Law School) were infuriating. Why can't this guy say that he did everything he legally could to avoid fighting in an immoral war, and that he's proud of it?

But there was a problem, Clinton was palpably not proud, which made it impossible for him to be forthright. [ . . . ] Over the years Clinton may have been confused about these obscure but crucial points of timing and regulation, but as a presidential candidate he seemed only to be dissembling. [ . . . ] Clinton's 1992 obfuscations to the reporter who had done the most to ferret out the story were missed by a good part of the electorate, but they became "a cornerstone" of distrust to journalists who knew the record. If certain (though far from all) members of the press took careful notice of how Clinton dealt with this issue, their scrutiny -- and judgmentalism -- was nothing compared to that of members of the military. The dishonor was not in what he had done as a young man, but in what he was doing now. [p. 455-457]

Clinton looked weak because he was weak: his relentless climb to the top was built on his great skill at ingratiating himself with the powerful, a pursuit that left him with no claim to principle -- least of all a principle that would challenge military orthodoxy. But he also looked weak because he got attacked, and once the thugs learned they could get away with it, they attacked him again and again and again. Objectively, his draft dodge record wasn't much better or worse than what Bush, Cheney, or other chickenhawks had done. But the latter were never attacked like Clinton was because they weren't outsiders -- they worked for the War Party. (Then, of course, being mired in the reality-based community, the Democrats nominate a guy who's objectively safe from any such threats, and he gets attacked even worse. The sole basis for those attacks is that they're code for who backs the military vs. who's suspected of thinking independently.)

It this shows anything, it's the folly of letting the right set the agenda. Clinton couldn't duck the issue, and he wouldn't fight it, so he was just hung out to dry, looking both unprincipled and impractical. He lost a few issues like that, then lost Democratic control of Congress, then spent the rest of his two terms coping inside the cage constructed by the Republicans, the military, and the media. Maybe he could, as Carroll suggests, have just buckled down and ordered the end of anti-gay discrimination and forced that through like Truman did desegregation. Congress would have been hard pressed to override a veto had he put his argument together and twisted some arms. And the brass might have reconsidered had he been willing to go beyond gays and start cutting some serious money from their budgets -- missile defense, submarines, tanks in Europe, nukes, shit that had no practical use with the Soviet Union dismembered.

Had Clinton won the gays-in-the-army issue he would have been perceived as something more than a punching bag, but so would gay bashing. As it was, Republicans came to see it first and foremost as a successful club for bashing Democrats: it reinforced the basic idea of prohibitionism (not to mention fascism) that anything you disapprove of should be criminalized; it made Democrats look queasy as well as guilty because they mostly disapproved as well; and it ultimately turned them into lawyers arguing for abstract legal principles against emphatically held moral tenets. But had the club failed -- and the military was pretty workable ground for that, as we've seen with segregation -- they'd be much less prone to reach for it again, and it'd be less likely to work. And the Democrats wouldn't be facing the same crap over and over again.

On the other hand, the other thing Clinton could have done was to slough off the gays issue -- back off on issuing a presidential order and hand it over to the Chiefs to get back with a plan when they figure out how to do it -- and assert his leadership on some other issue, like killing missile defense. Had the post-Cold War military shrunk under Clinton instead of expanding, it would have been a lot harder for Bush to fly off the handle and invade Iraq -- if indeed he even had the chance, given that whatever peace dividend Clinton could scrape out of the military's budget could have been put to better use helping Americans. In fact, Clinton could have solved Iraq by simply making an honest WMD accounting and dropping sanctions, but he found it politically useful to keep an open sore there as a reminder that the first Bush didn't have the balls to go to Baghdad.

On the other hand, the good news from all the bad news is that never before have the emperor's new clothes looked so tawdry. If the best Boy Genius can think of to salvage the reign is a constitutional amendment to pick on Massachusetts, the dirty tricks cupboard looks pretty barren. And with credibility the Republicans' main liability, they're likely to get less and less mileage out of their carefully honed talking points, no matter how many times we have to suffer through them from here to election day.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Music: Current count 11950 [11919] rated (+31), 871 [860] unrated (+11). Jazz CG (#9) finally up. Recycled Goods (#32) up. Did tons of jazz prospecting. Got more shit in the mail than I managed to listen to. Still don't have the jazz surplus culled. Need to work on that.

  • Johnny Cash: All Aboard the Blue Train (1955-58 [2003], Varèse Sarabande): First 12 tracks are an album Sun threw together in 1962, well after Cash left for Columbia, where he cut a concept album, Ride This Train, relevant here. Not sure how much to credit this album for classics like "Rock Island Line," "Hey Porter," "Folson Prison Blues," "There You Go," "Give My Love to Rose," etc., all of which must have been on previous Sun albums. Terrific version of "The Wreck of Old '97." Six bonus tracks, mostly alternate versions. B+(**)
  • Johnny Cash: Now, There Was a Song! (1960 [1994], Columbia/Legacy): A short (26:19) album of covers, subtitled "Memories From the Past," released as Columbia was first trying to figure out how to stretch their hot new country act. Of course, Cash is in remarkable voice, handling songs from Hank Williams and George Jones without risking complaint. Band is also just right. Not sure why I'm holding back on the grade, other than the brevity, the obviousness, and the fact that "Transfusion Blues" is too close to Cash's own, although I'm not sure the details. B+(***)
  • Keb' Mo': Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues (1994-2003 [2003], Okeh/Epic/Legacy): The ringer in this reissues series -- i.e., the guy the record company likes even though he has squat to do with the series. Kevin Moore emerged by tapping into a Robert Johnson vein at a time when every run-of-the-mill bluesman hooked firmly into Albert Collins. But aside from some learning, I can't say that he has all that much to offer -- at his best he sounds like he might pass for Guy Davis, who has some learning as well, not to mention better sense. Still, this concentrates on his more trad vein, avoiding tripe like Big Wide Grin. Useful for that, but minor. B
  • Los de Abajo: LDA v the Lunatics (2006, Real World): I suppose rock en español runs much the same stylistic and qualitative gamut as rock in English, which makes me dread Journey or Genesis en español, but this is much closer to the Clash, or at least to the Specials -- the source of the album title; but note that the English version of "The Lunatics," with Neville Staples on board, rocks much harder than the Spanish. A-
  • On the Town With the Oscar Peterson Trio (1958 [2001], Verve): Piano trio with Herb Ellis (guitar) and Ray Brown (bass) -- no drums, which cuts down on the force but not the swing. B+(**)
  • Preservation Hall Jazz Band: Shake That Thing (2001 [2004], Preservation Hall): Jazz as it's remembered in storybook New Orleans, which is not quite the way Kid Ory and George Lewis played it, let alone King Oliver and Johnny Dodds, but close enough to satisfy the tourists. For one thing, the repertoire now includes Huey Smith's "Little Liza Jane." Can't complain about that. B+(**)
  • Bonnie Raitt: Souls Alike (2005, Capitol): Haven't given this much time. I suspect that someone more dedicated than I am could find something to latch onto here -- I was intrigued by a bare bones piece with a little tinkling piano. But as she moves away from her roots romance, her singer-songwriter focus loses interest. No reaction from Christgau yet on this one. He at least used to care more about her than I ever did, so that's a sign this one is neither here nor there. B
  • The Rough Guide to Boogaloo (1964-74 [2005], World Music Network): Salsa, but historically specific, not least because it was intended as trashy sell out -- why else drop so much of it in English? actually, it brings back early '60s dance craze for an extra shot of rhythm and silliness. A-
  • Bessie Smith: Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues (1923-33 [2003], Columbia/Legacy): At fifteen cuts, this isn't very generous, but it hits the obvious points and works fine as an intro. I've never gotten any deeper than the 2-CD Essential Bessie Smith ([1997], Columbia/Legacy), and don't even own that. To my ears, she doesn't have a lot of range, but the power of a voice built to work without a microphone is obvious. Some day I need to listen further, but for normal purposes this gives you the basic idea. A-
  • Neil Young: Greatest Hits (1969-91 [2004], Reprise): "Greatest hits inclusion based on original record sales, airplay, and known download history." Fair enough, even if that means that eleven of sixteen songs date from 1969-71, before he started to get really interesting. I haven't played those early albums in ages, so I'm all the more struck by how precise they sound. As for the voice and the guitar, you know them instantly, and you know that he's managed to turn those objectively flawed, somewhat weird, instruments into things of extraordinary beauty. He did that all himself. Only one song here since 1979, but trust me, he's still doing it. A

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 5)

Jazz CG (#9) finally came out last week. I still haven't seen the print edition of the Village Voice, but I understand that the main section sort order was as screwed up as the web posting originally was. Don't know why they did it that way -- maybe some widows and orphans thing? In any case, the order wasn't based on rank or any logic I provided. The Honorable Mentions are in rank order, to the extent any such thing is possible. The Duds are just alphabetized. Rank order is never more than an arbitrary slotting -- few records are so comparable as to make sort order clear. But those who are really curious can always look at the year-to-date lists, such as the one in progress for 2006.

This is the fifth week of prospecting for the next Jazz CG, but the last four weeks have just been picking around the edges. This week I finally dived into the big pile of new stuff -- zeroing in on the obscure stuff, with a day-plus dedicated to singers. Didn't find much, but that's part of the job. Next week should be much the same, but probably with more revists to previously noted but still pending albums.


Mark Elf: Liftoff (2005 [2006], Jen Bay): He's a bop-influenced mainstream guitarist with a fairly soft tone and some speed, especially on the alternate take to the title piece, which does indeed lift off. Reminds me more of Herb Ellis than Wes Montgomery; may have some affinity to Pat Martino, but that goes beyond my area of expertise. It also helps that he works with a dream band here: David Hazeltine, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash. Tight, clean, professional; just what you'd expect. B+(*)

Liberty Ellman: Ophiuchus Butterfly (2005 [2006], Pi): Another guitar album, but Ellman works more as an intermediary and facilitator, mostly for the three horns -- Steve Lehman's alto sax, Mark Shim's tenor sax, and Jose Davila's tuba -- as they stutter step in and out of phase. They maintain a fascinating indeterminacy, unwilling to cohere even when they occasionally pull in roughly the same direction. [B+(***)]

Toph-E & the Pussycats: Live in Detroit (2004 [2006], CD Baby): No evidence of a label name, so I'll go with the e-retailer. The leader is drummer Chris Parker, who also produced and painted the cover art. The band includes David Mann (tenor sax, soprano sax), Clifford Carter (piano, synth), Will Lee (bass, vocals), and Ralph MacDonald (percussion). Don't know any of the, but I'd say, and the photo doesn't disprove me, they've been around. The booklet puts it this way: "a Who's Who of the greatest Jazz Funk Soul and Rock session players on the planet." In other words, journeymen, but damn good ones. Only one piece here originated in the band, but they stretch out delightfully on Miles Davis and Don Grolnick. Lee sings two -- one each from Bill Withers and Gene McDaniels -- and nails both. He's also the source of the DigiTech vox on "Rockin' in Rhythm" -- less impressive, but a hot warm-up. B+(**)

Lisa B: What's New Pussycat? Tunes & Tales About Cool Cats (2006, Piece of Pie): As a rock critic, I'm used to taking voices as they come, but sometimes you get one that's so annoying nothing else much matters. This is one such voice. The songs with their overstretched conceptual ties are another problem, although I do sort of like the lullaby "When Malika Sleeps." C-

Tom Lellis: Avenue of the Americas (2004-05 [2006], Beamtide): Jazz singer, male; AMG reports that his influences include Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks. Likes to write lyrics to Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett songs. Plays a little piano and guitar, but gets help here from Gary Fisher, Dave Kikoski, Kenny Werner, and Toninho Horta. I've never cared for Hendricks' hipsterism or Murphy's slick affectations, but Lellis doesn't register high on either's horseshit scale. Doesn't register on much of any scale, probably because he has more obvious problems. Like which is worse: the Beatles suite or the bossa nova import? C

Anne Ducros: Piano, Piano (2004 [2006], Dreyfus): Her website proclaims her "de la diva du jazz vocal" -- reflecting perhaps a background steeped in classical music. I like her voice, her moves, even her scat, and how she handles many of her tried and true standards. On the other hand, she keeps her French pieces -- a Jacques Prévert song and a piece by Erik Satie -- outside of my grasp. And I don't think the multiple pianist concept works: two or three songs each by five pianists -- Chick Corea, Jacky Terrasson, René Urtreger, Enrico Pieranunzi, and Benoît de Mesmay -- doesn't sort out cleanly. But for the record, I did find myself looking up one pianist each time out: Pieranunzi. B

Nancy Kelly: Born to Swing (2005 [2006], Amherst): I wish artist's websites would provide such basic info as when and where one was born. Age in singers doesn't matter as much as it does with baseball players, but every little bit of info helps. This is Kelly's third album. The two previous ones, on the same label, came out in 1988 and 1997, so she's, uh, pacing herself in nice nine year intervals. Her website claims a "thirty-plus year career," but also notes that she started at age four, so she could be no older than Jack Benny. Standards stuff, swings heartily, like her voice and poise, and especially like her saxophone player: Houston Person. B+(**)

Stevie Holland: More Than Words Can Say (2006, 150 Music): Art song seems like the right term here: standards, plus a couple of originals, played for dramatic effect -- slow, articulate, drenched in strings, torchers by aroma if not by attitude. There are at least half a dozen distinct strains competing under the general rubric of vocal jazz. This is one that has little appeal to me -- despite a couple of pianists I admire, the music has no connection to the jazz tradition, nor does the very talented singer. This just reminds me that had Barbra Streisand grown up on cabaret instead of Broadway musicals she'd be touted as a jazz singer too. B+(*)

Patricia Barber: Mythologies (2006, Blue Note): Advance, not out unti Aug. 15, but after a string of vocalists I thought I'd play one I might like. (Never got the Cassandra Wilson, but maybe they knew better?) This is a song cycle based on Greek mythology, with a bit of "Whiteworld" stuffed into "Oedipus." Back when I was a philosophy major the main thing I learned was that every dumb idea in western civilization was first thought up by one damn fool Greek or another. Played this once while working on other stuff, but all I discovered is that it doesn't register unless you're listening. Then there's something to it: rousing sax, a little hip-hop, a mess of background vocals from the ominously named Choral Thunder. Some pluses and minuses -- might come together, but I have my doubts about the chorus. [B+(*)]

Michael Bolton: Bolton Swings Sinatra (2006, Concord): First song is arranged for just strings; second for a big band with horns. Score that battle of the bands for the horns. The band here is slicker than Billy May's and hotter than Nelson Riddle's, which means on average it isn't quite up to either. But the rael problem, of course, is that what matters is the singer, not the song. If not, Pat Boone would be Little Richard. Q.E.D. C+

Amanda Ford: On Fire (2006, Alanna): A pianist-singer-songwriter with little in the way of jazz connections -- probably unfair to consider her here, but it's usually a safe bet for me to slot under jazz any unknown female vocalist who's not clearly from Nashville or Austin. She's from Pittsburgh. The cover poses her in an evening gown, sitting at a piano, with a candle on top. There's a whole category these days of singer-songwriters marketed as jazz for no better reason than that's their label's niche -- they're no different from others marketed as folk, country, alt-rock, etc. This is thoughtful, elegant, unexciting. Probably deserves another listen now that I know what it isn't. Wish I thought I had time. B

Fay Claassen: Sings Two Portrait of Chet Baker (2005 [2006], Jazz 'N Pulz, 2CD): Recorded by a Dutch singer and group in remembrance of what would have been Baker's 75th birthday -- Baker spent his last years in Europe, dying in Amsterdam when he fell, or was pushed, out of a window. The second disc/portrait is the most straightforward, with Claassen singing from Baker's songbook with Jan Wessels' trumpet and Karel Boehlee's piano the key accompaniment. She's a more conventional singer than Baker, but captures some of his brittleness. The first disc refers back to Baker's legendary quartet with Gerry Mulligan, with Jan Menu playing baritone sax, and the singer scatting around where the trumpet might have been. Don't have much of a feel for that part yet. [B+(*)]

Heernt: Locked in a Basement (2005 [2006], RazDaz/Sunnyside): Trio, led by drummer Tom Guiliana, who also dabbles in electronics. With electric bass (Neal Persiani) and tenor sax (Zac Colwell, who also employs alto, clarinet, flute, keyboards, guitar and whatnot) this is an oblique groove album with some rough edges -- the sort of thing I tend to fall for, but not the most compelling example. Last piece is a dirge, "Brawling on Epic Landforms" -- good title, but a downer. B+(*)

Avishai Cohen: Continuo (2005 [2006], RazDaz/Sunnyside): Bassist-led piano trio -- the pianist is Sam Barsh and the drummer is Mark Guiliana -- with extra oud on half of the cuts, adding string resonance to the dominantly mixed bass. The liner notes how tight the trio has become. A more neutral word is dense, and until I figure it out that will have to do. Cohen switches to electric for the last two cuts, which I definitely like. [B+(**)]

Jessica Williams: Billy's Theme: A Tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor (2006, Origin): She does a lot of solo piano -- one measure is that 9 of 22 albums listed in the current Penguin Guide are solo. Her website claims she's done 40 albums, and certainly there are more solos among them. She does them, of course, because she can -- I can't think of a mainstream pianist more consistently satisfying. Well, maybe Art Tatum -- one connection Williams and Taylor share is admiration for Tatum. Beyond that I don't know: Williams wrote and/or improvised all the pieces here, and I don't know Taylor well enough to map any of the connections. [B+(**)]

Rossano Sportiello: Heart and Soul (2005 [2006], Arbors): Volume 14 of the Arbors Piano Series, solo piano recorded at the Old Church in Bowsil, Switzerland. Whereas Concord's Maybeck Hall Series went for relatively name pianists, including some who are a little bit out there -- Joanne Brackeen was an early one -- Arbors seems to be grooming the next generation of Dick Hymans. This one is distinguished by an exceptionally light touch, bringing a nice swing to everything he plays. B+(*)

Marty Grosz and His Hot Combination (2005 [2006], Arbors): For some reason I hadn't put together that Marty is the son of German artist-satirist Georg Grosz. I knew that Marty was born in Berlin in 1930, but it's not all that rare for Europeans to latch onto prewar American jazz styles. In one of the stories here he identifies himself as American, which makes sense -- he came over with his father in 1932. Still, he sings the first verse of "Just a Gigolo" in German, after a 6-minute historical intro. That sets up a 10-minute explication of "English Blues." Those stories are interesting, but they're not all that replayable. On the other hand, the music pieces are delightful: he plays Condon guitar, and sings like Waller, but less convinced of his genius. Good band, too, including Ken Peplowski, Scott Robinson and James Dapogny -- all stars in a style that never loses its charm. B+(**)

John Moulder: Trinity (2005 [2006], Origin): This sounds more like that vaguest of categories, soundtrack music, than jazz. It is expansive, richly orchestrated, wears its emotions on its sleeve. Moulder composed, plays guitar, and keeps it flowing, with a lot of help from friends -- Laurence Hobgood piano, atmospheric horns (including Paul McCandless), various percussionists. Impressive but not all that interesting. B

Brian Owen: Unmei (2005 [2006], OA2): First album by a young (age 23) Seattle-based trumpeter. Basic hard bop quintet format, with tenor sax (Jay Thomas), piano (John Hansen), bass and drums, but it's more advanced than that, with elaborate flows and intricate work. One of the more impressive debuts I've heard lately, but I should note that the parts that most caught my ear turned out to be the work of the veteran saxman. B+(*)

Ben Adams Quintet: Old Thoughts for a New Day (2005 [2006], Lunar Module): Leader plays vibes, with trumpet and tenor sax up front, bass and drums out back. Didn't sound like much at first, but then some of the trumpet (Erik Jekabson) and more of the sax (Mitch Marcus) started to grab my attention. I've faded in and out, which isn't a good sign, but suspect it deserves another spin. [B+(*)]

Jerry Vivino: Walkin' With the Wazmo (2006, Zoho): A fixture in Conan O'Brien's late night orchestra, Vivino credits Louis Prima and Louis Jordan, not to mention Louis Armstrong, as inspirations. The title jump blues shows some connection to Prima, at least, but his humor deficit leaves Jordan's "Knock Me a Kiss" a little on the sweet side, and his third vocal doesn't even try. His tenor sax has some growl to it, but he takes half the album here on flute, and when he does that he gives away a lot of weight. B

David Bixler: Call It a Good Deal (2005 [2006], Zoho): An in-betweener, not quite free jazz, but a good deal dicier than the hard bop orthodoxy or your run-of-the-mill postbop. Bixler plays alto sax. His main credit is working in Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, which is a skill he doesn't make much use of here. This is a quintet, with Scott Wendholt's trumpet the other horn, and John Hart's guitar the chordal instrument. Both take liberties with time, as does bass-drums, and that gives this record an odd stutter that keeps it interesting. I'm not used to Hart doing this sort of thing; he acquits himself well. B+(*)

Bobby Zankel & the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound: Ceremonies of Forgiveness (2005 [2006], Dreambox Media): A large band with an even larger sound, this gets in your face from the get go, and rarely lets up. Most of the solos jump out, including Zankel's alto sax, Elliot Levin's tenor sax, and Tom Lawton's piano. Their sound at least flirts with wonderfulness, but it also wears down a bit -- maybe I mean wears you down. B+(**)

Michael Bates' Outside Sources: A Fine Balance (2004 [2006], Between the Lines): Bates' previous album was called Outside Sources, so this fits into the unfortunately common pattern of an album generating a group name -- unfortunate, I say, because it makes a mess of trying to keep things in discographical order. There's also a disconnect in that the previous album, which I haven't heard, was a trio -- bassist Bates, drummer Mark Timmermans, and reedist Quinsin Nachoff -- but here expands to a quartet with the addition of trumpeter Kevin Turcotte. (Evidently replaced by Kevin Johnson as the band plays on.) Interesting music here, but I don't really have a handle on it yet. The two horns don't run as free as in similar lineups, suggesting that this is more thoroughly composed, or maybe just more limited. One piece was based on Prokofiev. [B+(**)]

Dave Liebman/Steve Swallow/Adam Nussbaum: We Three: Three for All (2005 [2006], Challenge): The packaging here is thoroughly confusing. The front cover, from top to bottom, says Three for All in small bold print, then much larger but thinner We Three, then below that the name musicians. The spine just says Three for All. This could be parsed all sorts of ways, and I've changed my mind several times thus far. Regardless of collective intents, the record necessarily turns on the saxophonist-flautist. In all the time I've been doing Jazz CG, no musician has been more consistently disappointing than Liebman: a featured dud for his Saxophone Summit with Brecker and Lovano, but that was only the most flagrant of three or four albums I discretely buried. I tended to blame this on his growing fondness for the soprano sax, so I took it as a favorable sign that he opens here on tenor, and held together quite nicely. Of course, he does bring his soprano out, along with his flutes, but nothing goes terribly awry here. I need to focus more on Swallow, who's somewhat hard to hear, but Nussbaum is a big part of what holds this together. Maybe Liebman just needs to be nudged back into his zone. [B+(***)]

Joe Lovano: Streams of Expression (2006, Blue Note): Advance copy, store date Aug. 1, so no urgent need to sweat details like two of the piece-sets being called "Steams of Expression Suite" -- probably just a typo. Or how many of ten hornsmen are used how often. Or why three groups of pieces are blocked out as suites, leaving three other pieces as stragglers. Or what Gunther Schuller is doing here -- why he's involved in "The Birth of the Cool Suite" and not the others. Or how much of the piano is provided by the late great John Hicks. Later for all that. For now, note that there's an awful lot going on here, and that some of it is quite remarkable. I've always preferred Lovano as the sole horn in small groups, and I haven't cared for his previous work with Schuller, especially Rush Hour, but this can't be dismissed out of hand. Could rise or fall, but this is likely to wind up on quite a few critics' year end lists. [B+(***)]

Randy Brecker w/Michael Brecker: Some Skunk Funk (2003 [2006], Telarc): A partial reunion of the Brecker Brothers. Scanning through the credits lists the only member of this band, aside from the brothers, who was an alumni of their old fusion group is Will Lee. But the new group isn't decisive here. This overheated concert tape from Germany, "live at Leverkusener Jazztage," is dominated by the WDR Big Band Köln, who manage to obliterate any sharp edge or crisp beat the band throws their way. It's not that big bands can't play funk -- cf. James Brown -- but this one can't. Can't play fusion either. And it's rather sad to include an applause track on music this mediocre. C

Monsieur Dubois: Ruff (2004 [2006], Challenge): This Dutch group bills itself as "danceable hard jazz." Reminds me of a scene in Running on Empty when the music teacher asks what's the difference between samples of Madonna and Beethoven, and River Phoenix answers that you can't dance to Beethoven. The reason is that shifting rhythm confounds dance. This group can force its hard jazz to be danceable by straitjacketing the beat, but is it still jazz? Seems like it could be, but it's tough to see how. Rock solid 4/4 is no more common in jazz these days than rhymed couplets in poetry. This isn't accidental: lack of formula, of predictability, keys our interest in jazz. The result is that I spent most of the first spin here wondering when something was going to happen, oblivious to all their hard work. I suppose it is to their credit that this didn't immediately register as smooth jazz either. It's more like dance funk played by a standard issue jazz quintet -- plus extra percussion, so it's actually a sextet. Acid jazz, I guess. B

Shawn Glyde: Alternate Rhythm (2006, Imuso): The idea here was to start with an interesting rhythmic concept, then flesh it out. Glyde recorded the drum parts first, lots of time signatures like 13/16 and 19/16, but however alt they may be, they still stick within fairly rigid grooves. The melodies and harmonic layering was added later, with keyboarders Jason Galuten and Brad French and fusion bassist Jimmy Haslip sharing credits. Other mix-ins include sax (more soprano than tenor), guitar, and Meghan McKown's scat (two tracks). Glyde describes this as "constructed backwards," but what he's backed into is a semi-smooth fusion album. Still, he hasn't drained it of interest -- credit the oblique strategies. B+(*)

Mindi Abair: Life Less Ordinary (2006, GRP): Only got the advance on this, which has been out since April. In fact, I don't get much pop jazz anymore, even though I prospect it dutifully, and even wrote a Voice piece on it a while back. The bottom line is that the good stuff is far from great -- more like disco than anything in the jazz tradition -- and the bad stuff is pretty awful: a range that in my experience goes from low B+ to C- and may well get worse. This one is well above average. Abair has a nice, rich, blues-tinged tone on alto sax -- reminds me a bit of someone like Earl Bostic -- and she plays comfortably on top of Matthew Hager's uncluttered synth beats. She also sings every other cut or so -- a plain and cool voice that exudes no particular sexiness. On the other hand, most people trust their eyes more than their ears in that regard, and that's worked in her favor. Like most pop records, the hook song -- "Do You Miss Me" -- comes first. B


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

The RH Factor: Distractions (2005 [2006], Verve): Let's pretend there are two distinct concepts here, instead of just one mess. On the one hand, we have four instrumentals -- two very brief -- where Hargrove and Fathead Newman riff over contemporary funk grooves. If he wanted to run with that, he could crank up the heat a bit and aim for a state of the art update on Roy Eldridge -- that could be a lot of fun. On the other hand, he brings on a rehash of the post-'90s r&b swamp with its cluttered vamps and turgid grooves and muddled vocals, not even leaving much room for his horn. I don't see much hope there, although I do dig the one blatant P-Funk retread here ("A Place"). B

Roy Hargrove: Nothing Serious (2005 [2006], Verve): The advance copy was attributed to the Roy Hargrove Quintet, but the final backs down to the leader, the cover showing the musician in dark portrait, the business end of his flugelhorn down on his chest, the background all blurry. He looks confused, lost, or maybe just sad -- which explains nothing about the bright, brassy music inside, least of all how serious to take it. If one insists on taking it seriously, one has to wonder why he overreaches just to come up with clichés. If not, why does he make going through the motions seem like so much work? Don't know about him, but I'm confused, lost, and maybe sad here. Only things I'm sure about: the unison harmony sounds awful; Slide Hampton's guest spots are a plus; further play is more likely to send this down than up. B


Recycled Goods #32: June 2006

June's Recycled Goods column has been posted up at Static Multimedia. This one starts with a rant about reissue compilers who don't bother to document where the music comes from. The two Pick Hits are better than average in this regard -- well, Good for What Ails You is better than that, one of the best pieces of historical musicology I've seen as well as damn fine music. If I could pick three, the third would have been Ardecore. I don't quite understand what all's going on there -- the doc and all of the reviews I managed to google are in Italian, and the mechanical trots are faulty enough that they identify the singer as Giampaolo Happy. I only got the record because I chased down Zu for a recent jazz release -- a too short but interesting thing called The Way of the Animal Powers -- and they took the initiative of sending it along. I do a fairly good job of covering and filtering most of the jazz universe, but all Recycled Goods can do is roll with the punches. Some labels and publicists feed me a steady stream of discs; others do OK when I keep after them; some take some browbeating, which I rarely feel up to; and some, like World Music Network -- home of the Rough Guides -- are recalcitrant. The two Rough Guides this time were records I bought, and gave me another example of lousy documentation -- although I should note that the new booklet format at least gets rid of the unreadable green-on-red pages. I should also note that the Lee Dorsey and Louis Jordan records were borrowed. I do what I can, based on what I can get my hands on. But at 40-50 records per month, I seem to be getting my hands on about all I can handle, so I don't have much incentive to browbeat. I just keep cruising: this is Recycled Goods #32.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Veil of Ignorance

This rather long quote comes from James Carroll, House of War (pp. 255-257). As the book shows early on, the cold war arms race was less between the US and the Soviet Union than between the service branches of the US Defense Department. Those arms races were based on projections of the growth of Soviet power that had some occasional base in fact -- the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons, missiles, etc., almost always in response to US developments -- and were then inflated by assertions of Manichean Soviet malevolence. The basis of these claims was intelligence that was easily tailored to fit the purposes of its advocates. One such argument was the "missile gap" that Kennedy pummeled Nixon with in the 1960 presidential election -- a tip that came from then-Senator, formerly Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington. The quote:

Since Kennedy's own election campaign had made the missle gap the nation's burning question, McNamara knew he had to deal with it at once. If the Soviet Union was far ahead of the United States in rocket manufacture and deployment, the kind of turnaround McNamara would have to orchestrate in the Pentagon was clear. If, as some hold, Kennedy was disingenuous in warning of the missile gap, McNamara would establish that, too. He had to know what the facts were and how they were arrived at. "So I went up to the Air Force on that first day," he said.

He had no reason to know that the day he was referring to was the one I had come to regard as the Pentagon's eighteenth birthday. "I went to A-2 [the chief of air intelligence]. I can't think of his name. He was a major general, very nice guy. I said I want to see the basis of your study, the underlying data. So he got out photographs and everything. Well, the photographs were U-2 photographs and were very, very limited, in the sense that you couldn't be sure -- at least I couldn't be sure -- what the hell we were looking at. The A-2 seemed to be quite certain, but as it turned out, he was looking at them through Air Force glasses."

McNamara compared the U-2 photographs with those from the new reconnaissance satellite Discoverer, and what he found was not only that the missile gap charge was false -- Arthur Schlesinger, not an uninterested observer, later wrote that it was "in good faith overstated" -- but that the intelligence system on which he and the president had to depend was a shambles.

Each of the five services had its own intelligence operation. When McNamara asked the Army for its estimate of deployed and ready Soviet missiles as of January 1961, he was told ten; the Navy put the number at less than half that. The Air Force set the figure at more than fifty, and perhaps as high as two hundred. Within the Air Force, the Strategic Air Command had yet another, independent intelligence operation, and it insisted on higher numbers yet. And there were equivalent disparities on projections of the gap in the future. The Air Force had been the main source of all missile gap alerts, beginning in 1957 with the Gaither Committee's and including Stuart Symington's warning that the Soviet Union by the early 1960s would have three thousand ICBMs. When McNamara demanded that Air Force intelligence officers justify their estimates in light of the Discoverer photographs, they could not. "Even Air Force analysts were embarrassed by the pictures," the historian Fred Kaplan wrote. "The images starkly rebutted the estimates of Air Force intelligence." Soon it would be "discovered" that the actual number of deployed Soviet ICBMs was four.

McNamara saw what was happening, what had by then become a regular feature of Pentagon information gathering. Of the Air Force intelligence chief, McNamara said to me, "I'm absolutey certain he was not trying to mislead anybody -- the Air Force chief of staff, the president, or the secretary of state, or anybody." In fact, it was worse than mere deception. As we have seen again and again, each service branch assessed enemy capacities based less on objective readings of Soviet arsenals than on the branch's own procurement wishes. Thus what Navy intelligence emphasized were sonar soundings that showed a dangerous growth in the Soviet submarine force. The Army saw the Red Army's drastic expansion of conventional divisions and tank brigades on the edge of Europe and the prospect of Communist aggression in brushfire wars in the Third World. And the Air Force saw everything through the lens of its plans for the new B-70 bomber and for the ten thousand Minuteman missiles a worst-case reading of missile gap required.

As McNamara indicates, none of this is to indict intelligence agencies for outright dishonesty. Intelligence assessments moving up a chain of command have a way of confirming presuppositions at the top. We saw how, during World War II, Allied bomber generals wanted to believe an air war against cities would destroy enemy morale, and British intelligence assessments (disputed by some Americans) said it would be so. In the late 1940s, Harry Truman wanted to believe in a long-term American nuclear monopoly so that he could berate Moscow -- and Leslie Groves and then the CIA assured him it would be so. The same pattern would be repeated when Lyndon Johnson was told what he wanted to hear about Vietnam, and when Ronald Reagan's obsession with the "evil empire" drew support from intelligence that missed the significance of nonviolent democracy movements -- the opposite of "evil" -- behind the Iron Curtain.

McNamara was unusual among Secretaries of Defense in wanting to get his hands on unvarnished facts. McNamara attempted to get past the service biases of intelligence by creating his own intelligence agency: the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The DIA is now famous as Donald Rumsfeld's stovepipe, where useful bits of propaganda masked as intelligence are sucked up into the political sphere. But it turns out that the DIA has been corrupted by the political needs of Defense Secretaries going back to Melvin Laird in 1969. McNamara had picked Lt. Gen. Joseph Carroll -- the author's father -- as the first head of the DIA. Laird fired Carroll when the latter refused to remove a statement from an intelligence estimate that said that the Soviet Union wasn't pursuing a first strike capability. Laird did so because he needed intelligence to back up his campaign for an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system.

Of course, you needn't wonder what the CIA was doing back then. They had been responsible for the "intelligence" that showed how the Cuban masses would rise to support the Bay of Pigs invasion against Fidel Castro. They followed that up with numerous attempts to ply prostitutes to try to seduce Castro into smoking an exploding cigar. As the Dusty Foggo scandal indicates, they haven't exactly made a lot of progress in the last forty-five years.

One thing to note above is how the service intelligence branches backed down when presented with a common set of data. Politicization of intelligence is something that depends less on one's viewpoint -- although that is always a factor -- than on the ability to keep data private. If everyone has their own data, or their own non-data -- in the dark who knows? -- every conclusion is possible. When forced to show each other their data, as opposed to being allowed to just argue their interpretations, intelligence will generally converge on one or a small number of tightly constrained conclusions. Multiple conclusions can be further refined by obtaining further data. This, of course, is how science works -- indeed, it is why science works. However, the instinct to keep intelligence secret subverts and corrupts it, and that's what we've seen time and again in the so-called Intelligence Community.

The idea of establishing an umbrella National Intelligence director is a bit like McNamara's invention of the DIA. But it's not much like it because instead of assigning to it someone interested in truth Bush approinted John Negroponte, the ultimate political hack. We won't have to wait a few years for it to become corrupted, because it was born in original sin. An administration that has no interest in, or respect for, truth cannot be trusted to have departments that work in secret -- let alone forty-some billion dollars worth of them. The only thing that keeps this from being a recipe for disaster is the ample evidence that just such disasters have already occurred.


May 2006 Jul 2006