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Monday, July 31, 2006

Press Scam

Monday's Wichita Eagle had a front page story which obliquely mentioned Israel's attack on Qana, Lebanon, that killed "at least 56 Lebanese, almost all of them women and children." The headline was "No truce, but Israel suspends airstrikes." Evidently, someone put out a press release that Israel would suspend air attacks for 48 hours while they "investigated" the "mistake." The follow-up article in Tuesday's newspaper was buried on page four, titled, "Israel's leader: There will not be cease-fire." Key quote:

[Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's] Security Cabinet approved widening the ground offensive.

Early today, Israeli warplanes struck deep inside Lebanon, hitting an area that is a stronghold of Hezbollah guerrillas, witnesses said.

Evidently that press release didn't get to Israel's cabinet or the IDF, even though the Wichita Eagle managed to get on top of it. As a piece of press control, it was remarkable: bumping the atrocity off the front page with a totally fake peace gesture. Funny thing is, Hezbollah got the press release too. For all of Monday, they responded by not firing a single rocket into northern Israel. Gwen Ifill commented on PBS, "Nobody knows what that means." Well, I'd draw two conclusions from it: Hezbollah is the only party in this fight that is willing to step back and maintain a real cease fire; and Israel and the US are being duplicitous about what they're up to and why.

For instance, Billmon quotes Bush, following the Qana massacre, as saying:

Today's actions in the Middle East remind us that the United States and friends and allies must work for a sustainable peace, particularly for the sake of children.

The cognitive dissonance here is clearly addling some brains. The only way to sustain peace is to start by being peaceable, which means putting an immediate halt to the violence that only begets more violence. First establish unconditional ceasefire, then start to work through the differences. What this particular episode shows is that there is at least one party to the conflict that is capable of acting with discipline and responsibility -- Hezbollah. We should also take note that neither Syria nor Iran have responded belligerently to taunts and provocations by Israel and the US. The cognitive problem we have here in America is that most of us have been convinced that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are fanatics who only have one thing on their mind: the killing of Jews and Crusaders. But the news reports, even biased as they are, don't bear that out. Rather, what we're seeing is that the side that attacks most indiscriminately, that clearly cares the least about civilians, that seems most emphatically dedicated to eradicating its opponents, is the side of Israel and the US. It's going to be hard to wrap our brains around this reality, but it's hard to deny once you consider the possibility.


We got the following question from Diane Wahto, in response to a proposal that the Peace and Social Justice Center here issue a call for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire: "One more question--how do we answer questions about the avowed intent of both Hezzbollah and Hamas to wipe Israel off the map?" I wrote, well, more than I really needed to in response:

I'm not sure what the whole history of this assertion is, but regardless of whether there is a kernel of truth in it somewhere, this is more myth than anything else, propagated to imply that any opposition to Israel is an existential threat, with overtones of the Holocaust. That abject horror, in turn, serves to justify any act on the part of Israel to defend itself.

You will recall a big brouhaha over Iran's president Ahmadinejad's threats "to wipe Israel off the map." Juan Cole posted several blog pieces where he went back to the original Farsi and showed how Ahmadinejad had said no such thing. Even so, Ahmadinejad recanted his comments, but you probably didn't hear much about that.

The traditional anti-Israeli rejectionist position is couched in rather abstract terms. Israel is referred to as "the Zionist entity", which actually refers back to the pre-Israeli Yishuv (Hebrew for settlement, but it was more like a corporation that functioned as a state within the state), although I expect that the meaning is more abstract. Today the term "Jewish state" suffices. If Israel is a real nation with both Jewish and Arab citizens -- we tend to think of nations as geographic entities with diverse citizenships -- the Jewish State is an abstraction that signifies inequality and the dominance of Jews over Arabs. The point of the rejectionist position is to reject the legitimacy of the Jewish State a/k/a the Zionist Entity. If one is precise about such distinctions, one can oppose the Jewish State/Zionist Entity without threatening any Jews. In practice this is hard to do because the Zionists are armed and aggressive. The primary evidence for this is the 1947-49 Nakba -- Arabic for disaster, the result of the Zionist War for Independence -- when the Zionist militias committed a number of atrocities and drove some 700,000 Palestinians into exile. History since then repeatedly reinforces this perception.

Early on there was some talk about "driving the Jews into the sea" -- the other great, endlessly repeated cliche of the conflict -- but such talk effectively ceased with the Arab defeat in 1967. From that point on, neighboring Arab countries embraced the UN position: that Israel must return the lands took in the war, and that the other nations must recognize and peacefully coexist with Israel. The main holdout at that point were Palestinian organizations like the PLO whose right of return was still in contention. Even so, the PLO offered to recognize Israel in the mid-'80s, leading eventually to the whole Oslo travesty. Hamas took the position that the PLO recognition of Israel without Israel's recognition of the legitimate rights of Palestinians leads nowhere -- which certainly looks like a position that has been vindicated by history. On the other hand, especially since winning the elections, Hamas has been moving toward a long-term rapprochement with Israel within its legitimate, pre-1967 borders. Israel effectively quashed this movement by strangling the Palestinian Authority of funds and supplies, by repeatedly shelling the territories, and by military invasion the moment they were given a provocative incident.

As a practical matter, Hamas has no capability to drive Israel out of Gaza, let alone Israel proper. The "threat" of Hamas withholding its recognition of Israel's legitimacy should be evaluated in terms of what Hamas is practically capable of doing about it, which for all intents and purposes is nothing. Israel, on the other hand, is at least as guilty of refusing to recognize Palestinian rights, and as we've all seen, Israel is capable of inflicting massive violence whenever it wishes. Both views may be equivalent in some abstract moral sense, but as a practical matter the difference is huge. I would also argue that in real moral terms the difference is also huge: Israel, with its far greater power, is capable of acting in ways that reduce conflict and move toward reconciliation, whereas Hamas, with very little power and active resistance and disruption from Israel, has no such option. In this sense, at least, Israel is responsible for continuation of the conflict, regardless of who was responsible for starting it.

As for Hezbollah, I think it's pretty clear that their concerns are focused within Lebanon, which they seek to defend from Israel, and not on Israel proper. Before this phase of the conflict erupted, Israel still occupied a small sliver of Lebanese territory, and Israel still detained several hundred Lebanese prisoners. Israel had invaded Lebanon several times, including an 18-year occupation from 1982-2000, and threatened to do so again. Israel recognizes neither the government of Lebanon or its borders, and feel free to fly over Lebanon, to fire into Lebanon, to stage commando raids to abduct Lebanese, and to threaten massive assaults. Hezbollah attempted to deter Israeli attacks by building up a sizable cache of weapons, including rockets that could be fired into Israel to at least partially counter Israel's firepower. Obviously, they don't have nearly enough such weapons to actually deter Israel.

As far as I can tell, Hezbollah's position on Israel is simply the reflection of Israel's position on Hezbollah. If Israel were to make peace with Lebanon and settle their differences -- borders, prisoners, the Palestinian refugees' right of return (many are in Lebanon, where they are denied citizenship), and the overall threat to Lebanon's security -- Hezbollah's militia would cease to have any rationale to exist. That may be a tall order, but there's nothing on this list that shouldn't be done in principle. Meanwhile, all evidence indicates that Hezbollah is pragmatic: their military force is positioned defensively at Israel, and not offensively, so a peaceful Israel has no reason to feel itself threatened. It's also noteworthy that Hezbollah's political aims are sought within Lebanon's democratic system and not through the militia. This is sensible -- Hezbollah is by far the strongest militia in the country, but if they tried to exploit that edge they'd plunge Lebanon back into civil war, which would weaken their ability to defend against Israel. Tolerance of and support for Hezbollah within Lebanon is therefore dependent on their ability to control their appetites. That's a rare trait for a supposed terrorist group.

I've run on quite a bit here, so let me try to boil this down to an answer: Until Israel learns to respects its neighboring nations, their people, and the people who live under Israel's own control, Israel is not entitled to demand that those people regard Israeli power as legitimate.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Music: Current count 12183 [12141] rated (+42), 891 [900] unrated (-9). Moved off Jazz Consumer Guide onto Recycled Goods, making a hard push there, as well as rushing through a pile of stuff from the library, so I've worked through a huge pile of material without doing much better than treading water. Recycled Goods is off to the editor now, so should be up by the end of the week. Got enough left over that September is damn near done. Also turned in an initial column for F5 -- more on that later.

  • Beck: Guero (2005, Interscope): This sounds more like Mellow Gold than any of his more recent albums, but lacks anything like "Loser" that actually makes you notice or care. B+(**)
  • Bloc Party: Silent Alarm (2005, Vice): Consistently listenable English alt-rock group, maybe post-punk, if you consider Wire punk. Don't have any sense of lyrics; Christgau's one-liner suggests some dubious politics or whatever, which I'll have to reserve judgment on. Many other critics put this record on their year-end lists, and their position is equally plausible. Don't have time for a real answer, hence the hedge. B+(***)
  • Delaney & Bonnie: Home (1968-69 [2006], Stax): The original Americana group, coming up with a mature synthesis of blues, country, gospel, and rock 'n' roll with amiable husband-and-wife voices and a growing cadre of friends; this was recorded before but released after their more polished The Original Delaney & Bonnie: Accept No Substitute (Elektra, reissued on Collectors' Choice), and shows some of the usual growing pains, aggravated by six "bonus" cuts. B+(**)
  • Ani DiFranco: Knuckle Down (2005, Righteous Babe): Strikes me as a partial comeback after a string of albums not ready for prime time yet -- reads more Joni-introspective than ever, but with her more distinctive guitar work, hence her sound. B+(*)
  • Allen Ginsberg: First Blues (1971-81 [2006], Water, 2 CD): One of the few people I can fairly describe as a hero in my teenage years: I had a poster of him that I pasted up above the stairs, so securely that when I moved away from home my mother, who only knew that she hated the beard, could only paint over it. I read all of his poetry -- "Howl" was my imagined life, but "Wichita Vortex Sutra" hit particularly close to home, not least for its local detail. But somehow I never knew that he recorded music -- sung even. I knew he recorded records, and I knew of other poets who ventured into music -- thinking here more of Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg than Leonard Cohen or Rod McKuen, but that was my taste in poetry. So I found this even more startling than you will. The first surprise is that the main singer on the 1971 sessions sounds an awful lot like Bob Dylan. But Ginsberg takes over a few cuts in, and while the music comes from many places, the words could hardly be anyone else -- good example: "CIA Dope Calypso." Some of this is dated, although a better word is historical. And some, like "Gay Lib Rag," seems still pitched far in the future. The booklet provides vital notes and photos. A-
  • Allen Ginsberg: Kaddish (1964 [2006], Water): More like I expected a Ginsberg record to be: the poet reading one of his longest poems, a hard-eyed, rough-tongued elegy for his late mother Naomi; a writer, not an actor, it takes a while for Ginsberg to find a voice that works, his occasional attempts at dramatization hit and miss; but the words never let up, even running long at 63:45. B+(**)
  • David J: Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh (1985 [2006], Plain): Former leader of gothic rock band Bauhaus, later leader of mainstream rock band Love and Rockets, here just an English singer-songwriter working in a mildly folkish mode, with little adornment. B
  • David J: On Glass: The Singles (1983-85 [2006], Plain): At least he understands that singles need a little more punch, which moves him closer to David Bowie than to Nick Drake -- an improvement, I'd say; "Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh" is much clearer and sharper here, but "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend" makes me wonder whether his ballad phase wasn't another trailing of John Cale. B+(*)
  • Alicia Keys: The Diary of Alicia Keys (2001, J): Second album, after the widely admired Songs in A Minor, got a mixed reception. Sounds OK by me. B+(*)
  • Los Lobos: The Ride (2004, Hollywood/Mammoth): I saw them in New York shortly after this came out. The joint was hot. The band was loud. I spent most of the time lurking back in the hall, trying to escape. Not that I thought that they were so bad. Just reminded me how little appeal live music has for me. In the course of the concert, there were songs I recognized and songs I didn't. These sound like the ones I didn't. Heard at more moderate volume in the comfort of my room they're not bad. But I couldn't really have heard this there because most of the songs have featured guests. This didn't really sink in until I heard one that sounded too much like Richard Thompson. Then Elvis Costello singing "Matter of Time" -- not a good sign that the best thing here isn't new, but not a bad way to keep going either. B+(**)
  • Boban Markovic Orkestar feat. Marko Markovic: The Promise (2005 [2006], Piranha): Subtitled "the king of Balkan brass" -- not sure if that refers to the band, which counts eight horns, its reigning trumpet master Boban, or his son, the featured 18-year-old Marko; in any case, the sheer brass power and virtuosic flights are hard to argue with, but the Gypsy swing was more evident on the previous Boban I Marko, or maybe that was just the element of surprise. B+(***)
  • A Use Guide to They Might Be Giants (1986-2002 [2005], Elektra/Rhino): Taking their name from a too-clever-by-half George C. Scott movie, probably because it is so clever, John Flansburgh and John Linnell popped up in 1986 with their eponymous album: eighteen songs, each a brilliant tooling of some small hook with a clever twist. It was a barrel of wit, a tour de force. Never again did they wait long enough to come up with such a consistently amazing set, but that's what best-ofs are for. Three songs here from that first album still stand out, but 26 more from the better part of two decades hence sidle in beside them, most equally clever, some quite astonishing. Choice cut: a science lecture set to cartoon music, "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)." A
  • U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004, Interscope): I've never been a fan -- I bought their early albums in recognition of producer Brian Eno, who otherwise had been pretty reliable. I've heard maybe half of their records -- none more than a couple of spins, even those I own and am rather fond of, like Rattle and Hum. This is from the library. Gave it a single spin, and like it enough that I wouldn't mind another. B+(**)
  • Tom Waits: Real Gone (2004, Anti-): Hard sometimes, especially in the one-shot prospecting I often do with stuff scrounged from the library, to distinguish between his usual shtick and his transcendent shtick, but the clue here is how memorable the closing sequence of songs are, especially "Make It Rain." I'm still hedging here, but this could go higher. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #11, Part 1)

The Voice has my tenth Jazz Consumer Guide column now. It's been edited, and is ready to go. Don't have a publication date yet -- sometime in August, I've been told. Started to do some prospecting for next time, but I had to shift gears to fill out the August Recycled Goods column, and that's reflected here.


Stephen Stubbs: Teatro Lirico (2004 [2006], ECM New Series): Actually classical music -- sonatas and dances from 17th century Italy and Slovakia -- but as long as ECM sends these I'll take a shot at prospecting them. Stubbs plays baroque guitar and chitarrone in a quartet with violin, viola and harp, or at least period variations on those instruments. I'm finding this quite lovely, although the calm veneer and lack of beat -- or should I say, the stately pulse? -- eventually dull my interest a bit. B+(***)

Nancy Wilson: Turned to Blue (2005-06 [2006], MCG Jazz): The first thing to say is that she is in fine voice. That isn't new, but it's rarely been sufficient. The second thing is that the arrangements, except for the closer with Dr. Billy Taylor and a gaggle of strings, are pretty clean and unobtrusive -- even the All Star Big Band, which swings three cuts. Each of the cuts have featured soloists, mostly making their only appearance. By far the best combination is James Moody and the big band on "Taking a Chance on Love," but Tom Scott has a good turn as well. The title cut was stitched together from a Dr. Maya Angelou poem -- the honorific makes a nice bookend with Dr. Billy -- but it's of below average interest. Toyed with the idea of leaving this open, but realistically it's never gonna lift those strings very high, nor that poetry, and if Tom Scott's a plus the average ain't all that high. But she does sound good, and checking my database -- not all that deep on her -- this is her best record yet. B

Tania Maria: Intimidade (2004 [2006], Blue Note): A Brazilian jazz singer-pianist with roots in the bossa nova of the '60s, I'm struck first by the depth of her voice -- don't know how much is age as she approaches sixty -- then by the lithe ease of the percussion. Hard to tell at this point what distinguishes her, as this fits the expectations so nicely. B+(**)

Wesla Whitfield: Livin' on Love (2005-06 [2006], High Note): Standards singer, has recorded extensively since 1987. This was recorded in two sessions, one with an octet, the other with a quartet, both arranged and led by longtime collaborator Mike Greensill, both featuring Gary Foster on various saxes and flutes. The difference between the two groups is a set of four French horns. I think she's a good singer, and I like Foster, at least on tenor sax, but I don't see much value here -- although the only real annoyance is the hoked up version of "Alfie" with all the French horns. B

Freddy Cole: Because of You: Freddy Cole Sings Tony Bennett (2006, High Note): Nat's little brother, 14 years younger, but seems like another generation 40 years after Nat's death. His voice bears a family resemblance, but is far from a carbon copy. Since it's hard to describe him without reference to Nat, he inevitably gets the short end of the stick. Comparing him to Bennett may or may not help: Tony has a lushness to his voice that Freddy can't match, but Freddy can handle the phrasing well enough. The songs avoid the most obvious ones -- I'm not at all expert on Bennett, so that's all that my lack of recognition reveals. The band, of course, is much better than Bennett's usual backing, with Peter and Kenny Washington on bass and drums and Houston Person on tenor sax. B+(*)

Frank Morgan: Reflections (2005 [2006], High Note): I suppose if I was real conscientious about this, I'd revisit his discography and try to ascertain whether this is an exceptionally good record for him or a merely typically good one. But I don't have either the records or the time for that. In the pecking order of Bird's children, Morgan ranks somewhere above Lou Donaldson but way below Jackie McLean, and very likely below Phil Woods as well. Where that puts him viz. Gigi Gryce is a question that requires more precision than I can muster. But on its own terms, this is an exceptionally elegant and mature slice of the bop -- not frantic like in the '50s, but Morgan's past 70 now, more than entitled to slow down and smell them roses. Nice, brisk start on "Walkin'"; two Monk songs that he wouldn't have tackled in the old days; gorgeous closer on "Out of Nowhere." Quartet with Ronnie Mathews on piano, Essiet Essiet on bass, and Billy Hart on drums. Lovely tone throughout. B+(***)

Billy Hart: Quartet (2005 [2006], High Note): Hart's a drummer with a handful of albums under his own name and something like 500 working for other people. I won't bore you with a list, other than to note that it starts with Jimmy Smith in 1963, and while it's more mainstream than not, the range is pretty wide. Hart wrote four songs here, but he's more the honored leader than the auteur here. The frontline players are saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson, and this album has their sound(s) and sense(s) all over it. Obviously some significant talent here, but I'm not quickly tuning into the postbop whatever. Francis Davis will review this for the Voice. I'm holding off. [B+(**)]

Houston Person/Bill Charlap: You Taught My Heart to Sing (2004 [2006], High Note): Naked duets. I keep wishing a bass would enter and scurry these two along a bit, but when I focus I don't mind so much. Need to focus more, but it's safe to say that the individual talents you expect are present and accounted for, and both musicians are mature enough to work together. Person continues to sound fabulous. [B+(***)]

Cedar Walton: One Flight Down (2006, High Note): One thing that throws me off here is starting with two quartet tracks with Vincent Herring on tenor sax, then dropping down to a trio for the remainder. Liner note scribe Thomas Conrad tries to work his way around this: "It is rare for an album to lose a hot tenor saxophonist and become a piano trio date and immediately escalate in intensity." Can't say as I noticed that shift -- maybe it's not as intense as advertised -- but contrary to my prejudices the trio strikes me as sharper. Still, this feels like two ideas for albums shotgunned together. B+(**)

Note: The Impulse Story is a series of eight single-artist samplers from the Impulse Records story, plus a best-of and a 4-CD box -- although I didn't get the latter. There's also a book, The House That Trane Built, by Ashley Kahn. Don't have it either, but I've thumbed through it in the bookstore, like the discography, and generally figure it to be useful but inessential. In the following reviews, sometimes I name an "alt-choice": this is an A- or better album, on Impulse if not listed otherwise, which I offer as an alternate choice to the compilation. Recycled Goods will also have an "Other Impulses" section, listing recommended records not by compilation artists.

Albert Ayler: The Impulse Story (1965-69 [2006], Impulse): The patron saint of the avant-garde, a fearsome saxophonist invoking the holy ghost. Earlier work on ESP, like Spiritual Unity, is essential. This is for the curious a useful sampler into his last scattered years, including his discoveries of bagpipes and the healing force of the universe. B+(**)

Gato Barbieri: The Impulse Story (1973-75 [2006], Impulse): Argentine tenor saxophonist, emerged in the '60s on ESP and Flying Dutchman, which has some classic examples of his whirling dervish style. This excerpts four albums of Coltrane-ish powerhouse sax over roiling Latin beats. Alt-choice: Latino America (1973-74 [1997], 2CD), his first two chapters. B+(***)

Alice Coltrane: The Impulse Story (1968-2000 [2006], Impulse): Née Alice MacLeod, plays piano and harp, married the tenor sax great in 1965, recorded seven albums 1968-73 after her husband's death, then a comeback with son Ravi Coltrane after a long hiatus, developed a major interest in Eastern spirituality that themed her music. Two trio pieces with Rashied Ali -- one on harp, the other on piano -- are most striking here, with her larger groups spacier, and a slab of Stravinsky a little heavy-handed. Don't know her albums, other than the comeback, but this seems like a useful sampler, with subjects for further research. B+(*)

John Coltrane: The Impulse Story (1961-67 [2006], Impulse): So influential we might as well call the last forty years the post-Coltrane era, but far less so before he moved to Impulse -- his earlier Atlantics are respected, as are his sessions with Miles and Monk, but a lot of his early work is so-so. This has to cover a lot of ground, some pretty far out, most worth exploring as much greater length. Alt-choices: The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions (1961, 2CD); The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1961, 4CD); Ballads (1962); Live at Birdland (1963); Crescent (1964); A Love Supreme (1964); Plays (1965); the complete quartet studio recordings are also in the giant The Classic Quartet (1961-68, 8CD). A-

Keith Jarrett: The Impulse Story (1973-76 [2006], Impulse): The most productive years of Jarrett's career, with eight albums by his American quartet -- Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian -- on Impulse, plus his European quartet and marathon solos on ECM. This sampler should provide a useful distillation given that most of the Impulses are only available on two boxes adding up to nine CDs, but a better one would focus more squarely on the tenor saxophonist, who sounds great when he gets the chance. B+(***)

Charles Mingus: The Impulse Story (1963 [2006], Impulse): A case of doing what you can with what you got, which ain't much; Mingus cut three albums for Impulse in 1963: one was difficult and challenging but brilliant, another was typically first rate, and one solo piano -- not bad if you're curious. This gives you a bit of each, making it useless. Alt-choices: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963); Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963). B-

Sonny Rollins: The Impulse Story (1965-66 [2006], Impulse): Another slim slice from an all-time great, three albums in the gap between his sporadic '60s work at RCA and his long tenure with Milestone, but useful -- two good albums not real high on the pecking order, and 25 minutes of East Broadway Run Down, his most avant album ever; alt-choices: On Impulse (1965), and the Oliver Nelson-arranged Alfie (1966), where a relatively large band lets Newk call all the shots. A-

Pharoah Sanders: The Impulse Story (1963-73 [2006], Impulse): Coltrane's first important disciple, reflected in sound and style, but more importantly in direction, which deflected from out only to orbit the earth, taking particular interest in Africa and Asia. Four cuts may not seem like much of a selection, but "The Creator Has a Master Plan," all 32:45, the ugly along with the transcendent, is in better company here than on Karma. A-

Archie Shepp: The Impulse Story (1964-72 [2006], Impulse): Aside from Coltrane, Shepp was the most important figure to emerge on Impulse. More orthodox than Pharoah Sanders, possessing an authoritative but unpretty tone, he worked the inside of the avant-garde, and cultivated a black power consciousness leading to attempts to bridge gospel, soul and free jazz; the best disc in this series, because it pulls his disparate pieces together as a whole in a way that the albums don't. Alt-coices: Four for Trane (1964); Fire Music (1965), Attica Blues (1972). A-

McCoy Tyner: The Impulse Story (1962-64 [2006], Impulse): The pianist was 21 when he joined Coltrane, shortly before Coltrane signed with Impulse. His first records under his own name were the piano trios that figure large here, but this is also fleshed out with cuts from other folks' records -- Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey. Not all that well balanced, but it has some moments, including quite a bit of piano. B+(*)

The House That Trane Built: The Best of Impulse Records (1961-76 [2006], Impulse): I don't know how to rate something like this, where the choices are so broad and arbitrary one might as well be listening to the radio; nine songs, all also on the 4-CD box, five also on the artist comps, two more on my Other Impulses list (Oliver Nelson, Earl Hines), which leaves nice work by Art Blakey and John Handy -- the latter funktoon is actually a clever finale. Don't have the box, or the book, but just reading the credits suggests that it's somewhat more mainstream than the artist comps. Also looks to be chronological, which won't help the flow of the music even if it does benefit the book. A-

Note: All of the Milestone Profiles come with a second "bonus disc," a 44:57 various artists label sampler -- same one with each package. As far as I'm concerned, it's worthless, but with the packages priced at $11.98 list it arguably costs nothing -- assuming, of course, that a $10.98 or less list price is inconceivable, even though such a price is obviously possible given the label's costs in packaging this excess. So I'm simply ignoring it below -- not even marking the packages as 2CD.

Sonny Rollins: Milestone Profiles (1972-2001 [2006], Milestone): The first half of Newk's career was turbulent, with several gaps when he broke off and regrouped, including six years from when he left Impulse to his signing with Milestone. He spent the second half touring, where he was notoriously hot and cold -- breathtaking one night, unsettled the next. His albums, roughly one per year, were quickly tossed off, inconsistent with flashes of brilliance. Gary Giddins tried to point these out in a review of a mix tape he imagined. Milestone wanted to release a set to honor Rollins' 25th anniversary with the label, so they compiled Giddins' list as Silver City -- as magnificent as Saxophone Colossus or Way Out West or any of his other classics. Which should make this single redundant, but Rollins never rests on his past: three of nine songs appeared in the decade after Silver City, and they fit in seamlessly. No surprise really. Rollins is easy to anthologize: his sound is unique but consistent across decades, he totally dominates everyone he plays with, and his refuses to fall back on himself, so he never slips to cliché. A

McCoy Tyner: Milestone Profiles (1972-80 [2006], Milestone): This was his third label period, following stints on Impulse and Blue Note, the '70s consolidated his reputation both as a star pianist and as a composer with broad interests. What's most striking here is how hard the piano sounds -- one solo and two trio pieces are crashingly loud, while the horns on the rest are hard pressed to keep up, even when they go into late-Coltrane overload. It's like he's trying not to do fusion but to beat it to death. B+(*)

Jimmy Smith: Milestone Profiles (1981-93 [2006], Milestone): His Blue Notes, starting in 1956, made the Hammond B3 the fulcrum of soul jazz, as well as setting the standard against which Larry Young and others would develop. But he settled into a groove which sustained him at Verve, later at Milestone, and on to the day he died. Nothing new here, most songs are live remakes of earlier hits, some even with Stanley Turrentine and Kenny Burrell. B+(*)

Joe Henderson: Milestone Profiles (1967-75 [2006], Milestone): One of the all-time great tenor sax soloists, Henderson is famed for his early Blue Notes and his big comeback on Verve in the '90s, but he wasn't marking time in between. His Milestone records may have been inconsistent -- haven't checked the 8-CD box, but surely it's de trop -- but he's in top form on this wide-ranging selection. A-

Jimmy Scott: Milestone Profiles (2000-01 [2006], Milestone): The little guy still sounds weird to me -- why is it that male jazz singers, soul men and blues shouters excepted, always sound so mannered? -- but the four albums he cut in this 75-year-old comeback burst are gorgeously appointed -- the musicians include Fathead Newman, Hank Crawford, Eric Alexander, Grégoire Maret, Cyrus Chestnut, and Wynton Marsalis (one cut only). B+(*)

Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane: The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings (1957 [2006], Riverside, 2CD): The recently discovered 1957 Monk with Coltrane At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) swept nearly all jazz critics lists of 2005's best records. Previously known recordings of the two together were limited to a cruddy Live at the Five Spot tape (released by Blue Note) and parts of three studio albums on Riverside. This reshuffles the Riversides to cash in on the interest, weeding out cuts without Coltrane, adding false starts and a beside-the-point Gigi Gryce blues with Coltrane, sprucing up the documentation. Whether this is a good idea may depend on your level of interest. The June 25-26 septet sessions appear on Monk's Music, an indispensible item in Monk's catalog -- more impressive as was than split up over two discs here, larded with less essential music. Most of the extra previously appeared well after the fact as Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane, while the trio version of "Monk's Mood" previously ended the otherwise solo Monk Himself. I'm ambivalent myself, but it's hard to dock the music. A-

Re-Bop: The Savoy Remixes (1945-59 [2006], Savoy Jazz): Seems like every major jazz catalog company has set up deals with DJs to reprocess their wares -- I guess Fantasy (err, Concord) is the holdout, but they packaged all the old soul jazz they could find as The Roots of Acid Jazz, so I wouldn't bet against they following this trend. Whether this works or not depends more on the DJs than on the venerable master sources, and any time you mix a dozen of each you're likely to get hits and misses. (Which contrasts to matching Jazzanova with the Mizell Brothers, pretty much guaranteed to miss all the time.) The simplest approach here is to take a sample -- a bit of Dizzy Gillespie trumpet or Milt Jackson vibes -- and rep it until you can dance to it. Slightly more complicated is gussying up Sarah Vaughan's "Lover Man" or rewiring Charlie Parker's "Koko." Still, what's preserved from the jazz is incidental: my favorite here is Boots Riley's cartoonish remix of "Shaw 'Nuff," even though it leaves out one of Parker's all-time great solos. B+(**)

Re-Bop: The Savoy Originals (1945-59 [2006], Savoy Jazz): Existing only for neophytes to map the remixes back, these songs were selected for their parts, which makes them an exceptionally arbitrary label sampler -- how else do you explain two cuts from a Curtis Fuller album, or three cuts with mallets? Still, the selections can surprise, as when Herbie Mann turns out to be Phil Woods, or when Dizzy Gillespie gives way to Stuff Smith. B


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

Maurice Hines: To Nat "King" Cole With Love (2005 [2006], Arbors): Gregory's big brother comes close enough to the mark to beg the question, why pick this over originals that still sound as great as ever. Hines is a smooth, agile singer, but can't touch Cole's voice. But the band consistently spans Cole's career, with more muscle than the Trio and none of the dross of Cole's orchestras. And the songs live on: Cole was the hippest of the pre-rock pop stars, by a margin that has only grown since. A-

Harry Miller's Isipingo: Which Way Now (1975 [2006], Cuneiform): A sextet, half South African exiles including the leader-bassist, half English avant-gardists, with neither half playing to type on this 75-minute Radio Bremen air shot. Rather, they play like a more mainstream jazz band, but uncommonly full of fire and spirit as they stretch out on four long tracks. Trombinist Nick Evans is especially noteworthy: he comes first in the alphabetical credits, but earns top billing throughout, frequently battling number two man, trumpeter Mongezi Feza. Keith Tippett's piano also gets a good hearing. But most of the interest here will be focused on Miller and Feza -- both died tragically young, leaving only a few intriguing recordings. This is a significant discovery for both. A-


Murder at Qana

The Israeli government admits that they made a mistake today, in that they bombed a building in Qana, Lebanon, killing sixty-some people, many children, who had taken shelter in that building. I'm not aware of them explaining just what the mistake was there. They had, after all, already killed ten times that many people in Lebanon, a country they were supposedly trying to pressure into turning on itself, so it's hard to believe that the number of dead bothered them greatly. After all, Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz had warned them: "Nothing is safe [in Lebanon], as simple as that." Maybe the mistake was that this particular incident of mass murder occurred in a small Lebanese town, Qana, that had suffered another incident of mass murder during Israel's Grapes of Wrath operation in 1996. When lightning strikes the same spot twice, it sticks in your mind. Or maybe the mistake is that this incident seems like the straw that breaks the camel's back, finally spurring critical people to seeing through Israel's propaganda nonsense. One piece of collateral damage was that Rice's anti-ceasefire diplomatic mission was suddently unwelcome in Beirut.

For anyone who's been paying attention lately, Israel has been making a lot of mistakes. In fact, Israel has a very long history of making mistakes. But the curious thing is that when most of us make mistakes, we try to recognize some fault that he made, and we express some remorse for what our actions or inactions caused. We also make some effort to prevent such mistakes from happening again, and often others in our society make their own efforts. Some such mistakes are even punished by stripping privileges, like driving or owning guns, or even by incarceration. Yet when Israel admits a mistake, that seems to end the issue, at least as far as Israelis are concerned. Admitting a mistake has become a sort of "get out of jail free" card. Sure, sometimes it isn't quite free -- sometimes they have to run an investigation, but that's rarely more than a ruse to wait until the outrage calms down, or moves on to another mistake. This lack of consequences helps explain why Israelis keep making the same mistakes over and over again. They never learn, because there's no one with the legal authority to discipline them, or the moral authority to teach them.

There was a day when the US government would at least recognize the occasional Israeli mistake, and therefore provide some check against repetition, even though over time the US proved to be a remarkably forgiving father figure. But that was before the Bush regime took power and gave Israel the green light to pursue its own vision of moral clarity. The result of that license is that now, when Israel commits an atrocity like Qana, the US automatically shares a substantial share of the blame. How much is still hard to tell. We know, for instance, that Israel had detailed plans for attacking Hezbollah long before the latter group offered them an excuse to implement them. We don't know, however, to what extent those plans were shared with, vetted and approved by the US. We do know that the US is at least as intimately involved in Israel's operation as Iran and/or Syria are with Hezbollah -- that much is established merely by the flow of weapons and cash. We also know that the US NSA provides signals intelligence to Israel -- that is discussed at some length in the Suskind book. We've seen that Israel has what looks like satellite imagery of Lebanon -- helps them with targeting precision -- which would also come from the US. And clearly there has been extensive collaboration on the anti-diplomatic front. But what about the war plans?

I've come to suspect that expanding the War on Terrorism into Lebanon was actively encouraged by Bush, Cheney, or whoever calls the shots on this. The conventional wisdom has long been that Israel was useless in the War on Terror because an active Israel alliance would be poison on the Arab "hearts and minds" front. However, it's easy to imagine someone saying, what's the point of having this superb military ally right in the region if we can't use them to help our cause? Given the situation in Iraq, the US has worse problems than hypothetical "hearts and minds": open a second (actually, more like third and fourth) front and maybe some of the jihadis will flock elsewhere, taking pressure off Baghdad. Expanding the war effectively gives the US a quick injection of manpower and firepower. Also puts Syria and Iran on edge, hopefully on their best behavior, making the consequences of offending us all the more palpable.

That this now looks like a superdumb losing strategy doesn't prove that it wasn't pushed before the fact. The neocons have been so optimistic before -- even if the US military disappointed them, their admiration for Israel is, or was, untarnished. More points can be established to support this thesis, starting with the inclusion of Hamas and Hezbollah on the terrorism list, and including the diplomatic pressure that drove Syria out of the country, leaving Lebanon relatively defenseless -- or so they thought. Maybe that's the real mistake, and the murder at Qana is just a cover-up for public consumption. Nobody's going to pay for that, anyway.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Suskind Again

Before we were so rudely interrupted, I read and was going to comment on Ron Suskind's The One Percent Solution. This book is an account of the War on Terror, from a quasi-insider perspective, where the insider view closely resembles that of George Tenet at the CIA. A reviewer at the New York Times called the book a "quarter Woodward" -- meaning an insider account like those Bob Woodward does, but with far fewer sources. The similarity may be true, but it also means far fewer deals and compromises with his sources. Suskind certainly makes an effort at rehabilitating Tenet, stressing his interpersonal talents and work ethic, but he's not interested in apologia so much as getting to what happened, and what went wrong.

I've quoted what for me were the most revealing quotes in the book in a post already: Bush's Israel policy -- "We're going to tilt back toward Israel" -- and encouraging words for Ariel Sharon, Bush's belief that, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." We've seen just how that policy and those words have played out in the last few weeks. It's useful to be able to link them back to Bush's pre-crisis outburst.

The rest of this post will be more sections I marked while reading the book. The first is on the genesis and scope of the War on Terror (p. 19):

Washington, day by day, had already become the bustling capital of a twilight struggle -- the so-called "war on terror," a term that was settling unevenly into the global vernacular. Close facsimiles had been floated for a week or so after the attacks and before President Bush used it, just so, in his landmark speech of September 20, 2001, declaring before a joint session of Congress that "Our 'war on terror' begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach had been found, stopped and defeated."

Since the list of terrorist groups soon came to include Hamas and Hezbollah, this suggests that the plan to vanquish Israel's enemies was part of Bush's program from the very start. The first heady days of Israel's pounding of Hezbollah may have looked like the belated opening of another major front of the War on Terror, to go with the much touted "central front" in Iraq. But in doing so, the War on Terror became a joint US-Israeli production, with the US picking up all of Israel's liabilities in the bargain. Given how Iraq has gone, the Bush braintrust may have figured that Israel is the only route forward. Not limiting the scope at the start opened the door for Iraq, for Palestine, for Lebanon, for Syria, for Iran, for the neocon's whole shopping list. It also ensured the tragic failure of endless war. Of course, that was part of the point -- they just thought they'd do better at it, in large part because they viewed Israel's ability to stretch their wars out from 1947 or 1937 to the present as a measure of success.

I marked the part where Suskind quotes Bush from the "axis of evil" speech (pp. 80-81):

"Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens -- leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections -- then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.

"States like these and their terrorist allies," he went on, "constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophe."

[ . . . ]

And then the President offered something beyond Cheney's portfolio, something more personal than the sweeping ideologies. In an evidence-free realm, he would draw his certainty from the deep well of faith. This was all him:

"Those of us who have lived through these challenging times have been changed by them. We've come to know truths that we will never question: evil is real, and it must be opposed." The crowd erupted.

This gives the speech a church revival air, with the applause at the end erupting as spontaneous self-congratulation for taking such a staunch stand against sin. But the effect is that Bush deliberately tied his hands to avoid any temptation to shortchange the good fight. Concentrating on the enemy's evilness left whatever we might have done unexamined and irrelevant. But revivals are far more impressive to those who participate than to outsiders, who easily see through the chest-thumping. Like so many accomplishments of the Bush reign, this one was a chimerical victory of rhetoric over reality.

One merit of the Suskind book is that it marches us back through events with a little added information, albeit with a CIA slant. On Afghanistan (pp. 96-99):

Similarly, what had happened at Tora Bora -- how the CIA's advice was ignored, and how both the civilian and the uniformed leadership of the U.S. military had miscalculated badly, allowing bin Laden to escape -- was indisputable for anyone with involvement and the right security clearance.

On April 17, The Washington Post printed the first, preliminary report suggesting how the U.S. Army had failed to surround the Tora Bora caves and that such a move might have prevented bin Laden from escaping. That day, at a press conference, Donald Rumsfeld disputed that assertion, saying he did not "know today of any evidence" that bin Laden "was in Tora Bora at the time, or that he left Tora Bora at the time, or even where he is today."

That was also false. [ . . . ] In the wide, diffuse "war on terror," so much of it occurring in the shadows -- with no transparency and only perfunctory oversight -- the administration could say anything it wanted to say. That was a blazing insight of this period. The administration could create whatever reality was convenient.

Reality construction has been a major concern of the Bush cabal from the beginning, so this is just one example. On to Iraq (p. 123):

The primary impetus for invading Iraq, according to those attending NSC briefings on the Gulf in this period, was to make an example of Hussein, 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.

In Oval Office meetings, the President would often call Iraq a "game changer." More specifically, the theory was that the United States -- with a forceful action against Hussein -- would change the rules of geopolitical analysis and action for countless other countries.

Again, the belief that force would clarify things. Bush shaped both policy and information in peculiar ways, as evidenced by this quote about CIA executive briefings (p. 182):

Briefing Bush each morning in gory detail -- enabling him to "go operational" -- was now part of CIA procedure. Tenet brought a variety of briefers; some Bush seemed to respond to more than others. Most presidents, in their morning intelligence briefings, sit with analysts. The details of an operation are described, then the analyst works through the architecture of what it means to a state, a region, U.S. strategy, and Bush certainly saw plenty of analysts. But he likes operators, the people, virtually all men, involved in the struggle, the face-to-face and hand-to-hand.

Briefers, all the way to principals and department heads, feel bush's itch, his impatience, and pick up his cadence. They all start talking like operators, no matter what's being reported. These are men who, on balance, never experienced the bracing effects -- humbling, uplifting, oddly settling -- of military action. The few who have, like Powell, and his deputy Rich Armitage, smooth over these disparities -- piquant at a time of war -- by joining in the tough talk that they know, from experience, is hollow at its core.

Bonhomie swirls, led by the chief, animating the room and, in some cases, the action that flows from it.

There are many stories in the book about instances where Bush presses for operational details on various suspects or threats or, mostly, unsubstantiated rumors. His preference for action over analysis is singular. But one thing he never asks is why someone would engage in terror or, for that matter, opposition to the US. That question was answered a priori, by faith. Again on Iraq, but really on the underlying precepts (pp. 214-215):

America was, in sum, ready to act, with hard evidence or not, to thwart any possible challenge. Thus, the job of every country, just to be safe, is to avoid at all costs even an implication that it is not aligned with the interests of the United States. Saddam, felt by Wolfowitz, Feith, and company to be an easy mark, was simply a demonstration model to show the new resolve of the United States and its postmodern rules of international behavior. That's the way you change behavior. The way you do it, any behavioral scientist will tell you, is to enforce the desird behavior, over and over, no matter what the subject does. Then the desired behavior becomes ingrained, reflexive, impulse.

This is the way you buy time in a futile struggle -- whether stopping the unstoppable spread of destructive weapons or keeping terrorists, with or without state sponsors, off our shores. You can't fight them all. You have to change the way everyone thinks, everywhere.

And the way you do that is through action -- continuous, forceful, unrelenting. That's the "game changer," and where George W. Bush's character fits so neatly with this global experiment in behaviorism.

You need a certain type of leader to run this protocol.

One thing that Suskind is relatively sharp at is in drawing out the connections between Bush's personality and policy. The book has many stories about people identified as terrorists and captured or missed. One was Yusef al-Ayeri, a Saudi known as "Swift Sword" (p. 235):

First, it was discovered that this al-Ayeri was behind a Web site, al-Nida, that U.S. investigators had long felt carried some of the most specialized analysis and coded directives about al Qaeda's motives and plans. He was also the anonymous author of two extraordinary pieces of writing -- short books, really, that had recently moved through cyberspace, about al Qaeda's underlying strategies. The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula After the Fall of Baghdad, written as the United States prepared its attack, said that an American invasion of Iraq would be the best possible outcome for al Qaeda, stoking extremism throughout the Persian Gulf and South Asia, and achieving precisely the radicalizing quagmire that bin Laden had hoped would occur in Afghanistan. A second book, Crusaders' War, outlined a tactical model for fighting the American forces in Iraq, including "assassination and poisoning the enemy's food and drink," remotely triggered explosives, suicide bombings, and lightning strike ambushes. It was the playbook.

Of course, we don't need to take al Qaeda's word that the Iraq war played right into their hands. One question no one has addressed so far is who, if anyone, in the US government made an effort to seriously raise the question. Given that CIA al Qaeda experts like Michael Scheuer have opposed the Iraq war, you'd think that they'd take the lead, but their usual critique stops with misdirection of resources. But then they were as committed to violence against their targets as Cheney and Rumsfeld were against Iraq. As far as I know, only antiwar leftists raised the issue.

Suskind quotes Rumsfeld's Oct. 16, 2003 memo with questions about how to measure success in the Global War on Terrorism. Two that strike me as particularly interesting are: "How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools?"; and "Should we create a private foundation to entice radical madrasses to a more moderate course?" Such abiding faith in the power of propaganda to manipulate people, and so little interest in addressing any real issues that may be bothering people, and that would continue to bother people even after massive investments in propaganda! Suskind comments (pp. 276-277):

Yet the most stirring passage -- to know if we are winning or losing the global "war on terror." Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us? -- is a wily Rumsfeldian response to the President's "bring them on" and "rather fight them there than here."

Those statements assumed a kind of quantitative yardstick, much like the one Lyndon Johnson embraced in the early days of the Vietnam conflict, that the enemy is static, measurable, readily identifiable. Kill them off, and you're done.

Rumsfeld's use of "dissuading" -- a favorite term in his memos from the earliest days of the administration -- turns "progress," appropriately, into an active term, a moving target.

And, by the fall of 2003, there had clearly been movement in an unintended, and undesirable, direction. One hundred fifty thousand U.S. troops in the center of the Arab world was a jihadist recruiting tool of almost unfathomable magnetism. Terrorist recruitment was on the rise, visibly and markedly, across the Arab world. CIA reports indicated that the madrassas in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran were overflowing, as were contributions to radical clerics and their operations. Images flashed to millions each day by Al Jazeera of U.S. tanks in Baghdad and Tikrit, and the carnage that was now Iraq, were dissuading young Arab men -- in Iraq and across the Gulf -- from standing on the sidelines. They were joining the global fight against the "crusader" Bush and his infidel army as the cause of their generation. Was our situation, in fact, one, as Rumsfeld queried, in which "the harder we work, the behinder we get?" No question mark needed there, either.

An unhistorical irony may be that after all the search and straddle to find common purpose between two grand initiatives -- the find them, stop them struggle and the overthrow of Hussein -- there was, finally, a connection between Iraq and the broader "war on terror." It was a catalytic relationship, like gasoline on a fire.

Well, "catalytic" wasn't the right word, and Suskind as well as Rumsfeld is hung up on those madrassas -- they're basically the equivalent of Christian home schooling over here, where the big problem isn't the bad stuff they teach but the ignorance they don't seek to overcome. But the memo does indicate that even Rumsfeld is beginning to there's something more going on beyond his precepts. Another interesting quote, following the Madrid bombings (p. 303):

And there was more. Inside the analytical shops at CIA, and NSC, the Madrid bombings and swift follow-up investigation flowed neatly into another growing consensus -- a conclusion that was the last thing anyone in the White House wanted publicized: al Qaeda might not, at this point, actually want to attack America.

Of course, this wasn't publicized (pp. 304-305):

In any event, myriad key facts, such as al Qaeda's status and real strategy, would remain submerged in the spring of 2004. A justification for this secrecy -- and, at this point, the shadow cast over a continent of actions and rationales in the conduct of the "war on terror" -- was a hard, tactical extract from the cult of message-discipline: that to let al Qaeda know certain things we knew, including that we knew that they might not actually have a desire to attack the U.S. mainland, would be valuable in helping them plot their strategies. And, because al Qaeda, its supporters, imitators, and adherents, are members of a vast, nonvoting global constituency that the U.S. President had now assumed, no one could know.

That meant that the dictates of "information warfare" that apply to an enemy in combat would also apply on the U.S. mainland, even though it was now democracy's quadrennial opportunity for citizens toassess the conduct of their leaders. The American public had no more right to know the government's intentions than a mid-rung al Qaeda lieutenant. If all that happened to benefit those in power, so be it.

And far be it from someone like Kerry to question this and risk breaching national security, opening America up to another 9/11 attack. Also unpublicized was the CIA's analysis of how bin Laden's pre-election message served Bush's interests -- a story that has been widely quoted from the book.

The book winds down with a few pages on the post-Tenet CIA and Porter Goss (pp. 334-335):

Goss's people, called "the Gosslings," were running loyalty tests. Goss made clear to top brass what he would later write in an all-agency memo: that CIA is there to support the policies of the administration. Period.

[ . . . ]

In fact, almost all of the dozen or so people at this meeting -- even those most valuable operational bosses who'd built eyeball-to-eyeball relationships with reluctant friends around the world -- would soon be gone, and the people who'd replaced them as well. The agency's role, like that of much of government, would now be to serve and support policy rather than to help create it.

I reading this book I have to admit that sometimes I found what the CIA was doing to be reasonable and useful, even though most of the effort ranged from wasted to counterproductive. But the core problem at CIA and everywhere else was, and still is, the notion that you can fix the problem of terrorism by some combination of intelligence gathering, force, and propaganda, without ever having to consider, let alone change, any of the behavior that inspired terrorists in the first place. That falls back to first assumptions not just of Bush but the whole right wing in America.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Overstated Case

Another good letter appeared in the Wichita Eagle a couple of days ago. The writer is Dick Williams, of Wichita -- don't know him. The title is "Overstated case":

In situations as complex as the present Middle East, it is not helpful to vilify one side and unduly praise another. Because the present destruction of Lebanon and Gaza is so horrific and one-sided, supporters of Israel are tempted to overstate their case, whereas Palestinians have let the scenes of destruction speak for themselves.

Advocates for Israel have been especially active recently. We are told that Israel "sacrificed for peace" by withdrawing from places where the United Nations said it should never have been. We are told about the capture of Israeli soldiers without mentioning Israel's routine capture and assassination of Hamas officials.

What is needed are cooler heads and less dependence on unilateral force. Both sides should consider that violence is ineffectual. Above all, we should recognize that no government, including our own, has a God-given right to exist. We all must justify our existence by our behavior.

This may be the most sensible thing I've read in the last 2-3 weeks. It certainly cuts right through the cant Bush, Blair and Rice have been spouting about not wanting a ceasefire because it might be broken some time in the future.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Some Reading

Some reading on Israel that I've found useful:

  1. Tanya Reinhart: Israel's New Middle East. Reviews the events, then argues that Israel's secret desire is Ben Gurion's original vision of "natural borders" on rivers -- the Jordan in the east, the Litani in the north. Key quote: "But in Israel's military vision, in the next round, the land should first be 'cleaned' of its residents, as Israel did when it occupied the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967, and as it is doing now in southern Lebanon." See also her July 14-17 post: What Are They Fighting For?

  2. Gabriel Ash: Israel, Lebanon: Defense Against the Black Arts. A long, detailed piece that takes apart Israel's talking points.

  3. Sharat G. Lin: Chronology of the Latest Crisis in the Middle East. Just one entry pre-2006, but maps out Israel's pressure from Jan. 25, 2006 on, up to July 24, then makes ten observations.

  4. Jonathan Cook: Five Myths That Sanction Israel's War Crimes. More myths and fallacies.

  5. Tony Karon: Condi in Diplomatic Disneyland. I've already written about Karon's Six Fallacies post, some of which is recobbled here, as well as more recent developments on the so-called diplomatic front.

  6. Chris Hedges: Israel's Barrier to Peace. About the wall and the attitude it projects. Also see his July 14 article, Mutually Assured Destruction in the Middle East.

  7. Yoav Gelber: Lebanon: How We Got Here. Brief history of Israeli relations with Lebanon, most useful for 1948-82 period, scanty on the 1982-85 phase of the war, and thin thereafter.

  8. Helena Cobban: Hizbullah's New Face. Good background article, published April/May 2005.

There's probably a lot more to cite: Billmon's been particularly sharp on this, Juan Cole less so but still useful and still mostly tied down with Iraq, while Helena Cobban -- as knowledgeable as anyone on Lebanon -- is off in Uganda. Looked at some others -- quite a bit at Counterpunch, including Uri Avnery and Robert Fisk; War in Context; Abu Aardvark.

One old fact that struck me here was that the excuse for the 1982 war was the attempted assassination of Israel's ambassador to Great Britain. Clearly, the relationship there of stimulus to response was completely arbitrary: it could have been anything, and it was bound to be something. In some ways this wasn't as big a stretch as in 1982, but clearly Israel was spoiling for a fight, and leapt at the opportunity. One thing that we don't know is to what extent this contingency had been discussed with the Bush regime. Clearly, the decision to launch the attack on Lebanon was made so hastily that the Washington bureaucracy -- e.g., the State Department -- couldn't have been in that loop, although some point-person at the top could have signed off and lined up support. The US never blinked on this war, and the US has stood so staunchly by Israel's side all along that nobody thinks this isn't America's war as much as Israel's. The whole Rice diplomacy charade, along with the rush to resupply Israel, could hardly be more blatant. I wonder how long it's going to be before the world's leaders, including 6/8 of the G8, get over their initial shock and start actually working to undercut and marginalize Bush.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Now It All Comes Clear

Billmon has a post called "War by Tantrum" that cites two quotes I want to comment on. The first is from the Jerusalem Post:

A high-ranking IAF officer caused a storm on Monday in an off-record briefing during which he told reporters that IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz had ordered the military to destroy 10 buildings in Beirut in retaliation to every Katyusha rocket strike on Haifa.

As Billmon notes, the Romans had rules like that. As he doesn't note, so did the Nazis. All three reflect blind faith in absolute violence, the belief that any problem can be solved by beating it to death. There are lots of problems with this. It shows the world that you have no scruples, but perhaps more importantly it shows that you don't know who your enemy is, so you're blindly flailing. The result is that you almost never actually hit anything that might do you some good, even if the theory worked, which mostly it doesn't. For example, in 2001-02, Israel blamed all suicide bombers on Yassir Arafat. Hamas would blow something up, so Israel would take it out on Arafat. That hardly discouraged Hamas, at least until they saw that every time Israel kicked Arafat his popularity went up.

We keep reading about behaviorism -- the idea that you can train a dog or a child to behave by hitting him when he misbehaves. Well, sometimes that works, but sometimes it just makes him scared or skittish or plain mean, and sometimes if he's big and clever enough he'll learn to hit you back, maybe even when you're not looking. But it never works if all you do is hit someone else. And the fact that you can't tell the difference or don't care isn't something he's going to compensate for.

Second quote comes from Ha'aretz:

Bush and the public assumed that the army knew what it was doing, and that Israel, with its superiority in manpower, weaponry and technology, would be able to put an end to Hezbollah as a menace to Israel. Little by little, however, a worrying picture has begun to emerge: Instead of an army that is small but smart, we are catching glimpses of an army that is big, rich and dumb.

This quote followed a discussion of military tactics which breaks down to who's more willing to risk their lives to achieve their goals -- or, as Billmon puts it, "whether a more affluent, less mobilized Israeli society can still absorb the kind of punishment required to slug it out on the ground with Hezbollah." The irony in all this is that the neocons got snookered worse than anyone in thinking of Israel as the model the American military should aspire to. The fact is that Israel hasn't had anything resembling a clean military victory since 1967. The War of Attrition with Egypt was exactly that. 1973 was a draw perceived as a psychological defeat. Lebanon was a bloody, pointless mess from the very start, dragged out to 18 years only to give Hezbollah training. The counter-intifadas were like trying to fight roaches by pummelling them with garbage.

To be fair, America hasn't done any better, unless you're still excited by Grenada. Korea was a draw. Vietnam was a flat-out loss. The Cuba invasion never got off the beach. Panama was good for one kidnapping then a hasty retreat. Kuwait left Iraq as an open sore, then you know what happened when they opened that one up again. Afghanistan is a slow burn. The War on Terrorism has left its Most Wanteds at large. The War on Drugs hasn't made a dent. The War on Poverty was quietly abandoned, at least until Bush revised the semantics. The last winner we had was WWII, and that was won by manufacturing, logistics and engineering -- as Billmon points out, not by the will to fight, which the Germans and Russians were far more effective at mustering.

The neocons, both American and Israeli, don't understand a lot of things, but at the top of their list is that, while we like everyone else will fight for our homes, we don't really want to go somewhere else and fight to take or crush someone else's homes, especially when they're willing to fight back, and we might get killed or maimed. The only way the US can staff its military is by promising folks that their tours will be virtually riskless -- which thanks to the neocons is getting tougher and tougher, and it shows. Israel still has universal military draft -- well, nearly universal, except for the Arabs they don't trust and the ultra orthodox who get a pass -- but even they are so used to riskless conflict that the real thing is shocking. The fact is, very few people these days want anything to do with war. The destruction is extraordinary and mutual, the chances of gain are negligible. Why do these war mongers even exist?


Heard a quote attributed to Hezbollah today that said that they hadn't realized that their little kidnapping caper would elicit the massive reaction that it has. Think about what that quote means: First of all, it means that even Hezbollah underestimated Israel's inhumanity.

I'm afraid that I've underestimated Israel as well. It's been clear for some time now that their lunatic fringe has started to flirt with the idea of genocide. But Israel's plan to create a security zone in southern Lebanon begins to look like the real thing. They've dropped leaflets warning the people who live there to leave. Given the terror bombing and the cutoff of supplies most of those people have indeed become refugees. Israel has further decided that anyone who doesn't heed their warning is ipso facto a Hezbollah terrorist -- such people are deemed valid targets, to be killed during the invasion. The goal, in other words, is to totally clear south Lebanon of its people. To keep them from returning, everything will be destroyed, rendering the land as uninhabitable as possible. Systemmatically clearing a land and eradicating its population: maybe that's not the exact definition of genocide, but it's morally equivalent.

At least, this is what Israel has started to do, and it's what Israel insists is its plan and desire for south Lebanon. Whether it happens or not depends on several factors: how much time the Bush cabal can buy with Rice's diplomatic charade, directed at everyone but the cause of this crisis; how long and how fiercely Hezbollah manages to hold out; how much stomach Israel really has for continuing their war crimes. What Israel is doing is hard to grasp because it is so vile and so stupid. Even if Israel at first looks successful, Hezbollah will infiltrate back into the area, because that's their home. And they will bring their weapons and their memories, including the lessons Israel teaches them: that borders are meaningless, that nothing matters but force.

It's very rare in one's life when you witness an event and know that it changes everything. I didn't recognize that moment on 9/11 because I didn't realize how utterly deranged the US response would be: and not just the Bush response; he had plenty of help, but his blind, stupid rage amplified America's basest emotions when what was urgently needed was a sanity check. But Israel's senseless destruction of Lebanon is clearly just such a turning point. These are the images that will forever be associated with the Jewish State, and that will forever condemn it among the rogues of history. I always thought that a sensible accommodation between Israel and its Arab neighbors and residents could be easily achieved with just a little good will. But all that's been put behind us now. I blame Bush, who based his Israel policy on the idiotic notion that, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." It sure has.

Israel's Choke Hold

The Wichita Eagle published a letter by Laura Tillem today, under the title "Israel's choke hold is unrelenting":

Recent letter writers have claimed that Israel ended its occupation of Gaza. But all Israel did was pull its settlers out, which cut maintenance and security costs while making it easy to punish Palestinians with all-night-long sonic booms. Isreal kept the borders sealed, maintaining a choke hold on Gaza's economy. Hamas had only won its elections after an 18-month unilateral ceasefire. If Israel had any interest in peace, it could have welcomed Hamas' embrace of nonviolence. Instead, it shut off civil and huminatarian aid to the democratically elected Palestinian Authority and shelled Gaza. As an American and a Jew, I must speak out against this unjust policy and demand our government stop supporting it.

We had a demonstration against the war here in Wichita Saturday evening. Had at least 100 people marching, counting a few small kids, a couple in strollers.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Fallacies Behind the Misdeeds

Tony Karon's post on "Six Fallacies of the U.S. Hizballah Campaign" is well worth reading. His six fallacies are:

  1. Hizballah can be militarily eliminated: Israel failed in 18 years of occupying Lebanon to defeat Hizballah, which was built specifically to fight Israel. Even if Israel is uncommonly successful at decimating Hizballah's leadership, they will create further resistance. Unless Israel keeps the fight up forever, any truce will look like a defeat for Israel because the resistance will continue.
  2. If Lebanon is made to pay a heavy price, it will turn on Hizballah: "It's Bin Laden logic, after all, echoing the idea that if al-Qaeda blows up enough stuff on the American mainland, it can force the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East and stop backing Israel." Nobody likes submitting to the will of some other country bombing you.
  3. The crisis offers an opportunity for the U.S. to rally Arab support against Hizballah and Iran: Starts with White House official quote on Rice's mission: "She's not going to come home with a ceasefire but stronger ties to the Arab world."
  4. Syrian cooperation can be acquired cost-free: Problem here is that everyone knows that if Assad falls in Syria, the result will be a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, which will be far worse for the U.S. and Israel ("the Israelis are explicit about this"). So Syria can hold out for what it wants, which is the Golan Heights back. "Syria's relationship with Hizballah was premised on the fact that it had no military capacity to put pressure on Israel directly, and it saw in the Lebanese militia a form of proxy leverage to press Israel for the return of Syrian territory captured in 1967."
  5. The Middle East's crises can be addressed in piecemeal fashion: He doesn't put it this succinctly, but all the problems come back to Israel's unwillingness to settle with the Palestinians: "Sure, the Arab regimes have plenty of problems with Hizballah, but they can't get behind the U.S. until a peace process that will get Israel back to some version of its '67 borders is underway, and other vital interests are addressed and engaged."
  6. Israeli interests are U.S. interests: "The U.S. has a principle alliance with Israel, but it also has an interest in stability in the Middle East, for reasons of oil and security, on a basis of a Pax Americana. That has long been the lodestar of U.S. policy, balancing Israeli interests with those of its Arab clients. . . . But Israel doesn't necessarily need stability, democracy and prosperity in the Arab world. The 'iron wall' doctrine of state building of Vladimir Jabotinsky, ideological icon of Ariel Sharon, is that Israel's survival depends on crushing and humiliating its Arab neighbors."


Before getting to the fallacies, Karon addresses the question of whether Iran is driving the conflict. He argues no, for reasons I've already gone into plus a few more. He also quotes Mark Perry ("a U.S. analyst involved in ongoing talks with Hizballah") on how this all started:

Hezbollah and Israel stand along this border every day observing each other through binoculars and waiting for an opportunity to kill each other. They are at war. They have been for 25 years, no one ever declared a cease-fire between them. . . . They stand on the border every day and just wait for an opportunity. And on Tuesday morning there were two Humvees full of Israeli soldiers, not under observation from the Israeli side, not under covering fire, sitting out there all alone. The Hezbollah militia commander just couldn't believe it -- so he went and got them.

The Israeli captain in charge of that unit knew he had really screwed up, so he sent an armored personnel carrier to go get them in hot pursuit, and Hezbollah led them right through a minefield.

This is a perfectly plausible story. Once this small incident broke, everything else raced up the chain of command. Israel had just responded massively to a similar incident in Gaza, and had long planned for the same in Lebanon, so their instinct was to respond exactly the same way -- except that in attacking a much more heavily armed Hizballah they quickly bit off a much larger war. Still, the circumstances that let the incident blow up were largely constructed by Israel -- in particular, the "iron wall" doctrine, which arguably worked to bring stability against the independent Arab states, but drops the threshhold for violence so low that non-state actors can easily trip it.

On the other hand, Hizballah -- still following Karon's spelling here, at least the third different one I've used in the last week; so sorry about that -- amassed its weapons cache as a deterrent. A sensible Israeli government would have been deterred, lest they just encourage a further arms race, but another facet of the "iron wall" doctrine is that Israel cannot be deterred -- Israel must be fearless in crushing its opponents, otherwise it will be vulnerable to them. Hard to say whether the psychology of the Holocaust feeds into this -- the idea that the world would do anything just to kill Jews -- or is merely a convenient cloak for plain old fashioned bullying.

It's worth noting that Hizballah didn't use its missile arsenal on Israel until Israel started bombing Lebanon. Of course, once the bombing started, Hizballah had no choice -- at least under the logic of deterrence -- except to return fire. Otherwise, Israel will never show them any respect. The only fault in this logic is that Israel didn't fear Hizballah enough to hold back. Rather, they plunged in whole hog, inviting Hizballah to hit them with everything they had. If both sides respected each other's power, this war would not have happened. But when one side thinks it's too powerful to be deterred by the other, that creates an unstable situation where any small incident can escalate to war. In the case of Gaza, Israel never had much to fear -- in large part that's why that story has disappeared. But with Lebanon, Israel is finally getting a taste of its own medicine. In such a situation it's cold comfort to know that you're inflicting more damage than you're sustaining -- any damage at all argues that Israel's political leaders have failed in their promise to protect the security of the Israeli people.

The political upshot of all this remains to be seen, but several points should be obvious: Israel's unilateralist policies are simply unable to cower either the Palestinians or other Arabs into submission, and therefore are unable to provide Israel with security; Israel's hair-trigger escalation to massive collective punishment only shows the world how brutally racist Israel has become; Israel's political leadership has backed into an untenable position, where reinforcing their threats only discredits them further, with no hope of attaining goals that when tested are unobtainable. The US is complicit in this, not so much because of the historical alliance as because the Bush regime has been seduced by the same dream of superpowerdom -- which, it's worth noting, they mostly learned from Israel. Sooner or later this should cause both regimes to fall under the dead weight of their delusions, but as we've seen they are capable of truly dreadful things before that happens.

It's worth emphasizing that this war is the result of bad ideas foolishly pursued by people too enamored with their presumed great powers. The old saw that absolute power corrupts absolutely is once again much in evidence.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Music: Current count 12141 [12112] rated (+29), 900 [907] unrated (-7). Again, worked all week on jazz, so have nothing to show here. The jazz prospecting was relatively successful, and the new Jazz Consumer Guide is nearly done. Recycled Goods time is nearly upon us as well, so I expect to shift gears in a day or two and knock that out as well. Too bad the world is going to hell in a handbasket at the same time as there is so much work to do here.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 12, aka the End)

I'm going to call this the official end of prospecting for Jazz Consumer Guide #10. Not quite done with the draft -- 1628 words at the moment, which is about what will ultimately run, but I still have two critical reviews to write: the second Pick Hit, and the all-important Dud of the Month. Once I get those written I'll have more than will fit, so that will be that. I figure I'll be able to get the draft to the editor by Wednesday. Indications are that it will be edited within a week, and that it will run sometime -- no date yet -- in August.

Update: Got the two key missing reviews in the bag, plus some more, bringing word count to 2315, record count to 43 (20 graded, 23 additional). This still may change before I send the draft in, and some of the above won't fit. Also updated the prospecting file. The total number of records prospected for this round is 244. If you follow the blog regularly, you know about all of them. Those who only read the Voice just get the executive summary.


Mike Stern: Who Let the Cats Out? (2006, Heads Up): Pretty ugly cats, if you ask me. Stern's guitar is only half ugly, which is the least he can do for what's basically a fusion album: lots of electric bass, some gratuitous sax from Bob Franceschini, two dishes of Roy Hargrove trumpet, two more of Gregoire Maret harmonica, the usual keybs. Only thing that bothers me much is Richard Bona's vocals: don't see any point, even as scat, which is sort of the fallback position once you realize you've nothing to say. Not sure this is worth a Dud slot, but he did get his mug on the cover of Downbeat. B-

John McLaughlin: Industrial Zen (2006, Verve): I was originally scheduled to write up an entry on McLaughlin for the Rolling Stone Guide, but it got scrubbed when we ran into a disagreement about some early records I hadn't been able to dig up. I did manage to get all of his Verve records, which carry on from 1986, but in the rush I never got around to playing, much less digesting, all of them. This one makes me wish I had those records under my belt, but I'm not sure it's going to inspire me to do the research. I'm also not sure they'd help much. Despite a couple of nods to India -- specifically, two vocals by Shankar Mahadevan that actually seem a bit out of place, and two more cuts with Zakir Hussain on tabla -- this is a heavy-duty fusion album, much heavier than anything I've heard him do since the early '70s. The difference from the '70s is more programming, and I'm not sure that that's a plus. Nor does the spot sax from Bill Evans and Ada Rovatti, mostly soprano, help much. When he cranks it up it sounds good but not all that interesting. That's always been a risk with fusion. [B]

D.D. Jackson: Serenity Song (2006, Justin Time): The core trio here looks promising, with bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Dafnis Prieto joining the pianist. Jackson was a student of Don Pullen, and every now and then you hear something that only comes out of Pullen's bag -- rare and welcome sounds. But most of the pieces have something more: Sam Newsome's soprano sax on four, Christian Howes's violin on five, Dana Leong's trombone on one and cello on two, with some duplicates along the way. I'm never one to complain about trombone, but the others are mixed blessings. The strings add little more than a glistening thickener, but the sax takes over -- once to impressive effect, but I'm less sure about the others. [B+(**)]

World Saxophone Quartet: Political Blues (2006, Justin Time): Jaleel Shaw is the fourth sax these days, but only one cut here sticks to the original Quartet conception, and even that one just adds a curtain of harmony to a David Murray solo. I've never much liked Julius Hemphill's original concept even though my admiration for the individuals (Hemphill included) is nearly boundless. So the fact that the rest of the cuts have bass and drums is welcome -- the springboard, I think, so some of the most glorious honking in the three mainstay's careers. The political themes are less incisive than I'd like -- David Murray's line, "the Republican Party is not very nice," may be the first understatement in his career. (He was trying to come up with a rhyme for Rice, like "screws you twice" or "sucks like lice" or "pulls a heist.") Oliver Lake rants on the New Orleans smackdown. Hamiet Bluiett comes up with the sharpest concept, "Amazin' Disgrace," but winds up short for words. One guest who does have the words is Craig Harris, who takes his home turf's neocons on in "Bluocracy." Blood Ulmer also sings one, but the best he can come up with is "Mannish Boy" -- good enough you won't mind, even if you have to wonder. Americans hate politics, and with all due respect to Mingus, so do these guys. But when they get their blood up, they sure can blow. A

Adam Lane's Full Throttle Orchestra: New Musical Kingdom (2001-04 [2006], Clean Feed): Looks like Lane's a guy worth keeping tabs on. This is one of several groups/configurations he runs -- the only one I've heard before is a trio with Vinny Golia, but their first record has made my A-list, and I'm ticked off that CIMP didn't send the follow-up as well. This particular group appears to be six pieces, more or less: trumpet, two saxes, electric guitar, bass and drums. They have a previous album on Cadence called No(w) Music, which I haven't heard. This one was pieced together from two sets of sessions, with Lynn Johnston's baritone sax replacing Jeff Chan's tenor sax on the latter. Lane plays bass, and it's safe to say he's studied his Mingus -- for his bass, of course, but also for his compositional approach, and perhaps even more importantly for his skill at taking a mid-sized group and making them sound monstrous. One play doesn't begin to reveal everything that's going on here -- thus far the only track that's sunk in is the last one, something called "The Schnube." Will get back to it in due course. [B+(**)]

Terra Hazelton: Anybody's Baby (2004, HealyOPhonic): Jeff Healey's sometime singer, she has more growl than purr in her voice, which probably suits her more for rockabilly like "Long As I'm Movin'" than the trad jazz her band, with guest spots from Marty Grosz, plays so well. No complaints about the band, but the most touching thing here is the closer, a country-ish thing she sings over nothing but her own strummed guitar. B+(***)


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

Fattigfolket: Le Chien et la Fille (2005 [2006], ILK): Four musicians from Norway and Sweden. Recorded in France. Released in Denmark. Trumpet, sax, bass and drums -- gives them two leads, some harmonic options, no chords to tie them down. Mostly mid-tempo or slower, graceful, elegant, but parts kick in above the ECM line. B+(**)

Pierre Dørge & New Jungle Orchestra: Negra Tigra (2005 [2006], ILK): Herb Robertson adds to a lineup that is already heavy on brass and pushes them uncomfortably close to the brink. Crowding ten musicians onto two microphones also adds to the raw edge of the sound. The pieces demonstate that the this time the jungle is in Vietnam, although they don't integrate eastern sounds nearly as well as Billy Bang has done. But the five "Negra Tigra" fragments that frame the pieces take "Tiger Rag" into the scrappy jungle of the avant-garde, and that's what they do best. B+(**)

Mold: Rotten in Rødby (2005 [2006], ILK): Another two horn quartet -- Anders Banke on saxes and clarinets, Stephan Meinberg on trumpets -- only with Mark Solborg's guitars and gadgets instead of bass. Can play dense and rockish or loose and free. Don't know much about the group: three Danes, one German, met in New York, one previous album, they like to muck around with capitalization, usually spelling the group name moLd. There must be a dozen more or less comparable groups in Scandinavia -- would be a project to sort them out, and may become worth tackling before too long. B+(**)

Ab Baars Quartet: Kinda Dukish (2005 [2006], Wig): Ten Ellington pieces, played more than loose -- in most cases only snatches of the familiar themes emerge unscathed. Baars plays clarinet more than tenor sax, so the heft added by trombonist Joost Buis is essential. B+(**)

The Bennie Maupin Ensemble: Penumbra (2003 [2006], Cryptogramophone): I know very little by Maupin -- certainly nothing that sounds like this. Looked him up on AMG and their Similar Artists list starts: Branford Marsalis, David Murray, Howard Johnson, Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson. Can't imagine what they have in common, much less in common with Maupin. Chico Freeman is the next guy on the list (maybe he's plausible) then Marty Ehrlich and George Coleman -- huh? Maupin's main instrument here is bass clarinet, followed by tenor and soprano sax, alto flute, and piano. The Ensemble adds bass, drums, percussion, working around whatever Maupin brings front and center. Mostly he brings an attractive, loose, low key album, that does little to resolve his stylistic affinities. Maybe he doesn't have any. B+(*)

Carl Maguire: Floriculture (2002 [2005], Between the Lines): This recalls Monk's quartet, both in lineup and in the trickiness of the compositions: the leader plays piano while alto saxophonist Chris Mannigan tries to negotiate the unexpected changes. But whereas Monk mostly found odd notes that somehow worked, Maguire is more devious in his twists and inversions. It's a credit to the band that they hold it all together -- especially bassist Trevor Dunn, who gets the added challenge of a tribute to Mark Dresser. B+(***)

Johnnie Valentino: Stingy Brim (2004 [2006], Omnitone): What's immediately striking here is the instrumentation. Three-fifths of the group would make an organ-guitar-drums trio, but their music eschews groove for shifty postmodernist patterns. The other two-fifths are horns, but they're meant to provide an old sound: Bob Sheppard favors clarinet over tenor sax, and Randy Jones plays tuba in its ancient bass mode. Organist Mick Rossi also plays harmonium, mixing a little Italian roots music into the New Orleans mud. The leader plays guitar. The promo sheet says he "grew up in the '60s and '70s in a predominantly Italian South Philadelphia neighborhood filled with musicians, including guitarists Eddie Lang and Pat Martino." Lang died in 1933, so that's a faux pas, even if he's a certain influence. Martino was more direct, but Valentino's heady mix of old and new moves well beyond his mentors. B+(***)

Avishai Cohen: Continuo (2005 [2006], RazDaz/Sunnyside): Bassist-led piano trio, with Amos Hoffman's oud added on half of the cuts to heighten the Middle Eastern influences. No political statement, but my considerable distance the continuum between Israeli and Lebanese music is more pronounced than its disjunction. The cover depicts a man, back turned to the camera, walking up a barren hill -- reminds me of sunburnt badlands in Wyoming at the end of summer, but could be Israel, or Lebanon, or points east like Syria or Jordan. Without idiots running around with guns it's hard to tell, and pleasing not to care. I do have some reservations about Cohen's fondness for classical music, which show up most prominently on "Arava." But the two electric bass pieces at the end more than make up for it. B+(***)

Jessica Williams: Billy's Theme: A Tribute to Dr. Billy Taylor (2006, Origin): Two caveats here. One is that I'm not familiar enough with Taylor to figure out how these pieces -- all Williams originals, so most certainly not even in Taylor's songbook -- link up. The other is that I'm rarely smitten by solo piano, and when it does happen it's usually someone with enough left hand to keep a whole rhythm section running. This is not one of those moments -- the record is patient and introspective, but I'm drawn into it anyway. Nor is this the first time she's overcome my prejudices. B+(***)

Marc Cary: Focus (2006, Motema Music): Looks like Cary's main business -- can't say about interests -- is in taking his Fender Rhodes into funkier territory than the usual smooth jazz jive, but this is a conventional acoustic piano trio and the fare is respectable postbop, a bit faster and louder than usual. Cary has some impressive credentials, including a stint working for Betty Carter, and can clearly go anywhere he wants. David Ewell plays bass and Samir Gupta drums plus a little tabla -- nice touch, he might be another name to remember. B+(**)

Metta Quintet: Subway Songs (2005 [2006], Sunnyside): From "Morning Rush" to "Evening Rush," most pieces start with a bit of subway noise then flower into delicate, exquisitely detailed postbop. Only five pieces, with Mark Gross's alto sax offset by Marcus Strickland on tenor, soprano and bass clarinet; Helen Sung's tart piano, Joshua Ginsberg's bass, and H. Benjamin Schuman's drums. Schuman founded an educational outfit, JazzReach, which this group is tied with. Makes some sense that they all teach, given how close to the state of the art their music feels. I usually like it a little rougher, but this is so slick my druthers can't get much traction. B+(**)

Helen Sung Trio: Helenistique (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Don't know when or where she was born, but her "Chinese heritage" was tempered by growing up in Houston, and she got a couple of music degrees in Austin before switching to jazz, following the not-unusual track of study in Boston and career in New York. Plays piano. Has a quote on her website from a similar pianist named Kenny Barron, something about "her flawless technique, great imagination, great harmonic conception and real understanding of the language of jazz." As a critic, I probably would have fudged that a bit, but he's basically right on the money. One original here, "H*Town," leads off and reprised at the end, a vamp with some bite. It holds up as well as everything else -- pop standards, jazz standards including a Monk-Ellington-James P. Johnson sequence, Prince's "Alphabet Street" -- and there's something interesting going on in all of them. Comes with the Lewis Nash seal of approval. B+(***)

Bill Carrothers: Shine Ball (2003-04 [2005], Fresh Sound New Talent): Was wondering whether I hadn't graded Helen Sung's piano trio too conservatively when I put this piano trio album on. Turns out conservatively is right. Sung builds on the tradition, but here Carrothers goes somewhere else. It's not just that he plays a prepared piano -- not sure what "foreign substances" were applied where, but the piano rarely sounds like anything other than a normal piano, while the occasional metallic noises sound like they may just as well be coming off Gordon Johnson's bass or Dave King's drum set. The analogy to the banned baseball pitch is that Carrothers also applied foreign substance to his piano. The idea is to surprise the batter, or listener, with an unpredictable break, but as with the pitch the real trick is control. As with many spitballers, the prepared piano may itself be a feint -- mostly the piano comes through clear and sharp, while the improvs sneak past. A-

Cuong Vu: It's Mostly Residual (2005, ArtistShare): I've heard Vu in interesting contexts before, and this got some play in last year's year-end lists, so I tracked it down. Mostly rather noisy fusion work built on Stomu Takeishi's bass riffs, with Ted Poor on drums and the leader on trumpet. I usually like Takeishi's work, but don't get much out of him here. More interesting is "Patchwork," which at least starts quiet and measured, where "recruited guest" Bill Frisell is conspicuously in the mix, then stretches out and breaks up a bit. B

Liberty Ellman: Ophiuchus Butterfly (2005 [2006], Pi): English guitarist, hangs in avant circles in downtown New York. Leads a six piece group here, often just directing traffic between the three horns -- Steve Lehman on alto sax, Mark Shim on tenor sax, and Jose Davila on tuba -- which is all the trickier because the rhythms are so hacked up: "body-moving" is what he aims for, but that doesn't seem to mean all the body moving in the same direction. Don't think it quite comes together, but there's no shortage of interesting ideas here. B+(**)

Dave Liebman/Steve Swallow/Adam Nussbaum: We Three: Three for All (2005 [2006], Challenge): I think they intended We Three for a group name, but I'm annoyed enough with the extra bookkeeping of dealing with ad hoc groups that I'll stick with the artists-first listing. The news here is that Liebman has finally turned in a good album after three or four duds in the time I've been doing Jazz CG. It helps that he's playing more tenor, but his soprano has something this time, and -- well, I didn't notice the flutes, so they must not be too bad. The bigger help is probably that he's got a rhythm section that keeps him on his game. Not exactly a breakthrough. Just very solid all around. B+(**)

Martin Speake: Change of Heart (2002 [2006], ECM): English alto saxist. Don't know his other work, but this quartet with Bob Stenson on piano, Mick Hutton on bass, and Paul Motian on drums plays out thoughtfully. Stenson is probably the focal point. This is a good example of his work, and of Motian as well. The sax runs laconic and/or wistful -- nice, but alto seems a shade too bright for this music. B+(**)

"Killer" Ray Appleton/Melvin Rhyne: Latin Dreams (2004 [2006], Lineage): Russian guitarist Ilya Lushtak honors his heroes by recording with them. On the Hank Jones/Frank Wess album, he mostly took a back seat, but on this organ trio plus congas -- Latin, get it? -- he fills a more critical role. May be too early to dub him the new Grant Green, but how about the new Billy Butler? B+(**)

Michael Musillami's Dialect: Fragile Forms (2006, Playscape): The guitarist's songs might not seem so fragile if pianist Michael Madsen treated them more gently, but that would miss the point, not to mention some terrific piano. Drew Gress and Matt Wilson square off the quartet, firming up the bottom. The only problem with focusing on the fractures is that is slights the Ellingtonian elegance of something like "Emmett Spencer." B+(***)

Shot x Shot (2005 [2006], High Two): Philadelphia quartet, two saxes, bass and drums. Two of the guys, alto saxist Dan Scofield and bassist Matt Engle, also work with Sonic Liberation Front, but nothing Cuban here. I suspect that the effective leader is drummer Dan Capecchi, who wrote the first two pieces and sets the tone throughout. Mostly mid-tempo, with intertwined saxes and a lot of internal tension. B+(***)

Thomas Strønen: Parish (2005 [2006], ECM): Norwegian drummer, the founder of Food, generally classified as a post-rock band, often dabbles in electronics. But this one is a straight acoustic jazz quartet firmly planted into ECM's old age Nordic aesthetic -- some irregularities in the percussion pop up here and there, but mostly the drummer goes with the mild flow set by Bobo Stenson's piano, Fredrik Ljungkvist's clarinet or tenor sax, and Mats Eilertsen's bass. Well done, especially for Stenson, and another facet to a musician worth watching. B+(**)

Thomas Strønen: Pohlitz (2006, Rune Grammofon): Norwegian drummer goes solo, jazz cred evidently secured by improvising it all live. The credits suffice as an outline: "beatable items, live electronic treatments, music." Not sure whether the latter is meant as a discreet input or the sum of the parts. Sounds a bit like Harry Partch to me, with chime-type objects but no strings. But he shows his jazz cred by swinging some. Been on the fence over this one for a good while -- it's rather slight, but in the end it's too fascinating to skip over. A-

Paul Motian: On Broadway Vol. 4 (2005 [2006], Winter & Winter): Fifty years after he came of age in the Bill Evans Trio, Motian may still be the busiest drummer in jazz, with a dozen or more new albums over the last two years. But not he hardest working drummer. His secret is economy: no flash, nothing so tedious as keeping a beat, just a bare minimum to keep everyone on edge. He's stingy enough with this Trio + One that we won't let his two guests play on the same cut. Pianist Masabumi Kikuchi warms his spots up, while singer Rebecca Martin cuts hers back to a hushed stroll. In both cases the songs do the work, and Chris Potter's sax fills out the space. A-

Pierre Favre/Yang Jing: Two in One (2005 [2006], Intakt): Primarily the work of Yang Jing, who plays pipa, a four-stringed lute-like instrument. She mastered it as a soloist in the Chinese National Orchestra. Takes a while, but it grows on you. Favre is a Swiss drummer, works mostly in avant-garde circles but his interests are pretty broad. His effect here is much less obvious, but at the very least he deserves credit for making this happen, and probably a good deal more. B+(**)

Michael Bates' Outside Sources: A Fine Balance (2004 [2006], Between the Lines): Second album by this group -- the first was called Outside Sources and attributed to Michael Bates. But not really the same group -- this one expands from three to four, adding a trumpet to make your basic pianoless avant quartet. Up front are Kevin Turcotte on trumpet and Quinsin Nachoff on reeds. The leader plays bass and composes all the pieces, while Mark Timmermans drums. Lately quite a few groups have been structured like this: the format offers the two horns lots of options, but it also lets the bass run the pulse, which sets everything else up. Perhaps as many as a half dozen of my favorite albums over the last couple of years were set up this way. The difference between them and this one was that they usually featured great musicians, especially in the rhythm section -- William Parker and Hamid Drake, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway. I don't mean to knock Bates, who is a capable guy doing very interesting work here, but his group hasn't pushed itself to the forefront yet. B+(**)

Mujician: There's No Going Back Now (2005 [2006], Cuneiform): This stalwart Anglo-improv quartet goes back to 1990, maybe earlier -- pianist Keith Tippett used the name in 1981 on a solo album, so how do you count that? The Penguin Guide files the group albums under saxophonist Paul Dunmall's name these days -- he's certainly the one who brings the noise. The others are Paul Rogers on bass and Tony Levin on drums. They are less prominent as leaders but have extensive discographies as well. Their circle is one that I've never really penetrated: I've heard five out of thirty albums Penguin Guide lists under Tippett and Dunmall, but can't say as I've made much sense out of them. This one doesn't help much either. There are moments of bracing sax, but they seem few and far between. There are moments when the piano or bass threatens to do something interesting, but they soon fade. Every now and then the record sort of drops into the subsonic realm, but only one piece is listed. Seems short, but 45:30 should be plenty to get your point across, if you have one. B

Trio 3 (Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille): Time Being (2005 [2006], Intakt): Turns out that this group has at least three more albums under the Trio 3 name, so I've changed my attribution and filing here. The musicians' names figure large on the cover, as well they should, so we'll keep them up front here, in parens. Otherwise I'd just have to name them in the review body, then point out that what they do is pretty much what you'd expect them to do, given what they've each done, together and apart, over their collective hundred-plus man-years on jazz's leading edge. B+(***)

Eri Yamamoto: Cobalt Blue (2006, Thirsty Ear): This picks up nicely from her piano trio performance on William Parker's Luc's Lantern -- except, of course, bassist David Ambrosio doesn't make nearly as much of an impression as Parker. But most of this is upbeat, where she shows a strong left hand, and her touch is fine on the chillout closer. Covers of Porter, Gershwin, and a Japanese folk song, plus a batch of originals. B+(**)

NOW Orchestra & Marilyn Crispell: Pola (2004 [2005], Victo): A large free jazz orchestra, led by Coat Cooke, based in Vancouver, provincial enough that they still feel the need to keep their anarchy intact. They've been around a long time -- at least since 1987, maybe longer -- but they only record when they get a guest, and Crispell is a dandy. I don't think she's ever recorded in a group like this -- one's tempted to compare them with Alex von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra, but the Germans are far more violent even if their pianist isn't. Crispell's solos are the gems here, but the ensemble work impresses more often than not. Could be I should hold this back in case it convinces me to slide it up a notch, but working near the deadline the best way to get it in is as what it certainly is, an honorable mention. B+(***)


Pity the Nation

One reason for suspecting the US of suspect motives in Israel's rampage is that it's been so successful at pushing Iraq off the front of the news programs. While you were so distracted, Iraq has had one of the worst weeks since the occupation began. Still, that's not all a plus for the Bush regime: the Iraq timeslot has been so compressed there's no space at all for those countervailing "good news" stories you always hear that nobody is telling about. For instance, Dexter Filkins of New Pravda managed to find an Iraqi Sunni to come forward and beg the US to stay. Not that that's unadulterated good news. It's certainly not if anyone thinks the Shia militias are more dangerous than the Americans.

Israel's rampage has had another perverse effect on the news media: now they're counting days since the start of the war with Lebanon -- or Hezbollah, as they like to put it, but Hezbollah is very much a real part of Lebanon, and Israel doesn't make much of a distinction anyway. What's been lost in the coverage is what Israel's doing in the Occupied Territories these days. It was also lost in the day counter: evidently that stage of Israel's rampage doesn't count, even though it was the best war Israel could drum up until Hezbollah struck. In some ways this is the old story of the invisibility of the Palestinians. But it also emphasizes the main difference between the Palestinian and Lebanese stages of this war: Hezbollah matters more because only Hezbollah is capable of killing Israelis within Israel proper. So what this proves is what we should have realized by now: that Israeli lives count for much more than Lebanese lives, who in turn count for much more than Palestinian lives, at least as understood by our media.


I've added Robert Fisk's book on Israel's old war in Lebanon, Pity the Nation, to the reading sidebar. I actually read the book a couple of years ago, so it's not really current reading, but it's as good a place as any to start with to catch up with the past. Not that it covers everything: the book was originally published in 1990, which is basically where it ends, although the Nation Books paperback edition includes a preface written in 2002. Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World covers the outline of the war, at least from an Israeli viewpoint. It doesn't have the visceral impact of Fisk's book, but is critical enough to be useful. I bought but haven't tackled Fisk's more recent The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East -- at 1136 pages, it's far more than I want to tackle, but I have at least pulled it off the shelf, and may at least poke around in it.

Actually, probably the best historical outline I know of on Lebanon is a videotaped lecture by Ahmad Dallal, which was part of A Jewish Voice for Peace's 2002 series How Did We Get Here?. The main problem is that the sound quality on the tape is atrocious -- so bad that we skipped over the tape when we showed the rest of the series here in Wichita a couple of years ago. But I did write a handout to go with the lecture, and this provides a useful chronology. Wish I had a transcript of the lecture. (The link to the videotapes is broken, and I can't find another link at this point, so this plug may be for nought.) Wouldn't be a bad idea to dig out that videotape and show it, warts and all. Would be an even better idea for someone competent to film a new lecture by Dallal.

The Tanya Reinhardt book is another that I had read some time ago, but dug out based on relevance to current events. I pulled it out for a quote on Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, which neither settled the old war nor foreclosed a new one. I'll add books like this to the sidebar as events unfold and I see fit. Meanwhile, I'm reading about future disasters, even while distracted by current ones.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Sifting Facts From Propaganda

There's a commonplace saying that goes: everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. Yet when people debate various aspects of Israel's current, as yet unnamed, war, one thing that should be obvious to all now is that we do not have a single authoritative set of facts to refer to. This is largely because most of the decisions that directed, provoked and/or escalated this war were made in secrecy, and no one has yet been able to debrief those actors and build up a coherent narrative of who did what, when, where, and why. But this is also because the Israeli and US governments and allied organizations have worked hard at pushing a particular story line that suits their political interests, and thus far this story line has been largely accepted at face value by the US media and its band of merry helpers, the organized punditry. Yet much of this official story line makes little sense. The likelihood that it is true as stated is very low. Indeed, we can look back at past story lines that came from the same sources and see a very poor track record -- not that many people have managed to straighten out the lies and innuendos they were originally told. The people who spin out these stories have a lot of experience with what works -- at least what they can get away with, at least well enough to suit their purposes. That is a large part of the reason Israel has been so successful in the propaganda war. There, at least, they are battling an enemy they know well, one they've repeatedly been able to subdue: the American people.

In theory, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran could be waging their own propaganda war as well. They are, however, at a considerable disadvantage. After all, the first two are officially outlawed, so anyone willing to help them could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting terrorists. They also have communications problems, given that the NSA is likely to feed any electronic surveillance they come across to Israel for bombing. Syria and Iran have no better standing, even if they have more resources. Moreover, each of these organizations has propaganda interests that distinctly differ from the US public: they need first of all to reinforce their support in their own communities, then to obtain support from sympathetic communities. The US public is clearly a prize they can't win and a luxury they can't afford. One consequence of this is that if we want to get to the bottom of this story -- to understand what has happened and what is likely to happen -- we have to approach what we've been told, which almost all comes from one very biased party, with skepticism and seek out countervailing facts wherever possible. To make sense of the story, we first of all have to make it make sense.

As I see it, there are several key questions for which we have no real answers -- at least beyond what the official story line implausibly tells us. These are (in bold below):

Did the elected Hamas officials in Palestine choose to initiate hostilities by tunnelling under that border post and kidnapping that Israeli soldier? It's probably safe to assume that Israel's retaliation was predictable, and therefore a consequence of the Palestinian action. (This is not to say that the retaliation was what Israel should have done -- just what it was going to do, and that Hamas had every reason to expect Israel to do just that. I don't know this for a fact, but I strongly suspect that Hamas has a pretty accurate understanding of how Israel behaves.) So the question is whether provoking this assault was a strategic move on the part of Hamas. If so, we would then need to understand why. But I suspect that the incident was not directed by Hamas political leadership, and therefore had no strategic meaning. At the time, Israel was hard pressed to establish any such connection, blaming a Hamas splinter group working with non-Hamas groups and some possible connection to a Hamas factional leadership in Syria -- and therefore implying some sort of official Syrian connection.

If Hamas didn't direct the raid that captured the Israeli soldier, who did? And why? I imagine that there are a number of small groups that could have chosen independently to mount this operation, but the sophistication of the attack -- tunnelling under the border -- and the evident intent to negotiate a prisoner exchange suggest that this had some degree of organization with external communications. In other words, while the operation may not have been directed by Hamas, it was also not a totally ad hoc event -- although it's worth noting that the way Israel positioned itself could have made it possible for a single madman to trigger the whole massive retaliation. Presumably the options for who include Islamic Jihad and various disaffected factions of Hamas and Fatah: what they have in common is a belief that there is no viable political path to securing Palestinian rights from Israel -- in other words, that the only way to get Israel to change is to apply force. (This is, as far as it goes, a sobering analysis. Israel certainly has a lot of faith in the efficacy of force, and that lesson has not been lost on many Palestinians.) Other options include agents of other governments: Syria and Iran are the ones the official line wants to implicate, but it is very unlikely that either operational capability in Gaza. A far more likely agency would be Israel. They certainly have intelligence operatives in Gaza. They have a long, albeit only spottily documented, history of subversive operations. And they have a fairly good motive, given their extensive war plans. I don't want to go overboard pursuing this line -- never cared for conspiracy theories, and this one is almost reflexive in some quarters -- but the fact is that nothing Israel does in this area is transparent, and it can't be ruled out on grounds of scruples.

The why question needs to be delimited lest we drag in the whole history of the conflict, which is, of course, the real why. We need to focus on Israel's predictable response, who benefits from that, and why. This rules out one common war rationale, at least from the Palestinian side: the idea that you're strong enough to press your advantage. The Palestinians had no credible advantage, no way to force Israel to do anything, so no hope of conventional success in starting this. So the question from their standpoint boils down to: did they somehow conclude that getting pounded by Israel would be preferable to the status quo? The usual answer to that question is that the Palestinian militants feel that it is necessary to remind Israel that they won't just lie down and submit to Israeli force -- in effect, that no matter what Israel throws at them, they shall persevere, fight back as best they can, and press on. A variation is that by fighting back they return at least some of the pain they received, reminding Israel that their acts have costs. In order to gauge how realistic such a position is, you have to look at what Israel was doing before the incident, and ask whether Palestinians could afford to stand by defenseless without replying somehow.

Did Hezbollah leadership, specifically Sheikh Nasrallah, direct the raid on Israel's northern border outpost that resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers? And if so, what was the strategy? Again, I think it's fair to assume that Hezbollah leadership could have anticipated what Israel would do in response to such an attack. (In fact, they took the trouble of setting up an ambush in case Israeli soldiers stormed over the border following the attack. The soldiers obliged, and four more were killed, so you'd have to say that they thought the attack through at least that far.) Again, I don't know, but it does seem likely that Nasrallah and Hezbollah knew what they were doing and acted deliberately for some form of strategic reasoning. Just what that was is hard to say, but it is very likely that the following figured into the calculation: a long list of outstanding complaints against Israel including the Shaba Farms border dispute and numerous Lebanese held in Israeli prisons; substantial international pressure that persuaded Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and that sought to disarm Hezbollah, which would leave them defenseless against future Israeli attacks; their ability to amass a rather substantial quantity of weapons, which at least for now put them in a relative position of strength; various aspects of events in Gaza, including solidarity with Palestinians including Hamas, and the perception that Israel may be weakening itself, at least in terms of public relations, by the brutality of their attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. Most decisions to start a war are based on a complicated calculus of pluses and minuses over time. Hezbollah may have been willing to risk war if they thought that war with Israel was inevitable sooner or later and that they were stronger now than they might be in the future. In this regard, success of US and Israeli efforts to marginalize Hezbollah and its principal weapons suppliers in Syria and Iran would only have served to precipitate a Hezbollah decision to go to war.

The next question is whether the governments of Syria and/or Iran had anything to do with directing the initial events in Gaza and Lebanon that triggered this war. The relationship of both countries to whatever groups may have been responsible for the Gaza event does not seem to have been very large: moral support, asylum for refugees, not much more. Palestinians have very little in the way of arms, and Israel seems to be pretty effective at controlling the flow of money into the Occupied Territories. As such, it seems unlikely that the Gaza event was directed from outside the country. Hezbollah is a different story. Clearly, Hezbollah has a substantial arms stash, and a good deal of that must have come from outside Lebanon, which makes Syria and/or Iran likely suspects. Providing arms may have been a prerequisite to Hezbollah undertaking war with Israel. However, providing arms is not the same thing as controlling when and how those arms are used. Clearly, the arms providers have some moral responsibility here, and have shown some moral indifference -- the same statements can be made about the US providing arms to Israel, for the exact same reasons. I suspect that Hezbollah's relationship to its arms suppliers is the same as Israel's. As Moshe Dayan once said [something like], "The Americans give us arms, money, and advice. We take the arms and money, and ignore the advice." Just as the Americans have their own reasons for arming an Israel that they cannot control or direct -- or chose not to try -- so have Syria and Iran their own reasons for supporting Hezbollah.

However, beyond that point we need to understand that Syria and Iran are different countries, with different interests and needs. Syria is a small, poor Arab country, ruled by a secular political party, which is in turn ruled by a family that belongs to a small religious minority -- Allawites, a group that has some affinity to Shiites, but is distinct, and in any case faces a large Sunni majority. Syria has fought several wars with Israel, and generally done poorly, losing the still-occupied Golan Heights in 1967. Syria has also had problems with Turkey and Iraq, and has a separatist-minded Kurdish minority. Syria has a complicated history with Lebanon, ever since the French carved Lebanon off from Syria in order to create a predominantly Christian client state. After Lebanon broke into civil war, Syria was invited in with support of the US and Israel to restore order. Syria maintained a longterm presence based on shifting alliances -- at various times Christian, Druze, PLO, Sunni, and/or Shiite -- until the US engineered their ouster recently. The Lebanese occupation was important to Syria primarily for economic reasons. There is little if any evidence that Syria looks forward to further hostilities with Israel, even though they are nominal enemies, and Syria is willing to provide comfort to opponents of Israel. On the other hand, Israel and the US have actively villified Syria as an enemy -- a position that they have the luxury of taking as major powers, and that Syria is unable and unwilling to reciprocate.

Iran is a much larger, much wealthier country, non-Arab, with a large Shiite majority. The nation is effectively ruled by the Shiite clergy although it also has democratic institutions which help establish the legitimacy of the government. The US considers Iran an enemy due to the 1979 revolution which deposed the Shah -- a longtime, much hated agent installed by the CIA in a coup in 1953 that led to US oil companies taking over most Iranian oil -- and subsequent events, including an embarrassing year-long crisis when US embassy workers were held hostage by Iranian students. Following the revolution Iran's clerics made an effort to project their power throughout the Middle East, which included a challenge to Saudi Arabia's stewardship of the Muslim holy sites and support for Shiite militias in Lebanon and Iraq -- the hated Hezbollah on the one hand, the SCIRI and Dawa parties of the US-backed Iraqi regime on the other. The US pursued its grudge against Iran by backing Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran in the '80s. Israel, on the other hand, favored Iran over Iraq, sold weapons to Iran, and bombed Iraq's nuclear research facility at Iran's behest. So it's fair to say that recent sabre rattling between Israel and Iran is more a matter of momentary political convenience than a longstanding conflict.

Recent history shows that the US has repeatedly threatened both Syria and Iran -- especially Iran, designated by Bush along with Iraq and North Korea as an Axis of Evil. Also that Syria and Iran have done very little to challenge or threaten the US, although both are no doubt worried about US threats, and Iran has clearly made efforts to build up its defenses against possible US attack. (Whether Iran's nuclear program has anything to do with those defenses is an open question, but the prospect of nuclear arms is the main public focus of US efforts to isolate and undermine Iran.) As with Syria, there is very little sound reason for Iran to reciprocate America's threats. Iran is not as weak as Syria, but is in no shape to take on the US or Israel. The only reason either state might have to aggressively risk war would be if they were convinced that the US and/or Israel had plans that made war inevitable. Neither appears to be the case right now, although Israel feels free to harass Syria and the US has leaked plans to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. Syria, in fact, has been so averse to war that when Israel bombed a Syrian site a couple of years ago, supposedly in response for a suicide bombing within Israel, Syria did nothing more than complain to the UN, resulting in a US veto of a resolution condemning Israel. So the answer to this question, contrary to the propaganda line, is almost certainly no.

To what extent has the US been involved in, and approved of, Israel's military escalations in Gaza and Lebanon? It's quite possible that the answers here is none -- that Bush's policy of giving Israel a blank check means no consultation is necessary. On the other hand, there clearly has been collaboration on the marginalization of Hamas and Hezbollah, the unilateral removal of settlements from Gaza and US support for the West Bank wall, the sealing off and starvation of the Occupied Territories, the presure to remove Syrian forces from Lebanon, and the general strategic position of Israel vs. Iran. Those are all policies that lead more or less directly to the events that triggered this war. The US also continues to provide Israel with extraordinary quantities of cash and weapons, and the US automatically vetoes any attempt to balance or settle the conflict through the UN. It's also clear that the US is consulting with Israel on undermining, or at least postponing, international demands for a cease fire. Therefore, it's fair to say that the US and Israel are working toward the same strategic goals, and therefore are complicit in each other's actions.

There are many additional questions that we still have little in the way of answers to. Judging from reports in the US media -- at least the claims of the US State Department -- the G8 leaders unanimously endorsed the US-Israeli position that Syria and Iran are responsible for these events. So how did that agreement come about (assuming that the reports were even right)? What is the real reaction and involvement of other Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia? (Again, it is widely reported that those nations endorse Israel's efforts to crush Hezbollah. Also that Al Qaeda's anti-Shiites are supporting Israel on this one.)

Sooner or later it will be very interesting, at least for those of us safe on the sidelines, to find out just how these particular historical events have unfolded. But for now, we don't know much more than that much of what we are being told, especially by Israel and Bush and their political and media allies, is certainly wrong.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Cooling-Off Period

The heatwave broke today in Wichita, following four or five days with high temperatures in the 106-109F range, including at least two all-time records. When I went out to a movie last night, after sundown around 9PM, it was still 102. Got up this morning and it was overcast and near 80. Forecast was for 98, but it looks like it only got to 83. Didn't even get the thunderstorms predicted.

In honor of the weather, we'll take a day off from the war -- a luxury we still have in Kansas, but one not available everywhere. In particular, I'm reminded that Gaza is if anything hotter, with no electric power available for air conditioning even for those few normally able to afford it. Much the same is true in Baghdad, which in three years has never managed to restore appreciable electric power. Trying to get some work done here, writing my Jazz Consumer Guide -- finally making some progress there -- and reading about peak oil. More on all that later. Meanwhile, let's take care of some movies.


Movie: The Notorious Bettie Page. Mary Harron's movie on America in the '50s and the nation's mass confusion over female skin -- one hesitates to say sex, although not for lack of confusion. The film was mostly shot in black and white: there are many strange and rather perverse things about the '50s, but one is surely that cinematographers feel obligated to use black and white. One wonders whether this will change once moviemakers are young enough not to remember the era's primitive television. I suppose one could also point to the prevalence of black and white photography in the light porn magazines of the day, before Playboy caught on as some sort of class act. Page was a fairly light, shallow character, which may be why she reflects the era so well. B

Movie: Don't Come Knocking. Wim Wenders movie of a Sam Shepard script about a cowboy actor who goes AWOL from a movie set to get away from who know what and/or in search of who knows what. Still, if it shows anything, it's that motivations are overrated. Far more interesting what he finds than what he might have been looking for, and it scarcely matters that Shepard's character himself may have no clue at the end as to what he found -- the idea behind watching is that we get to see. Terrific small parts: Eva Marie Saint as his bemused mother; Jessica Lange as a fling who bore an unknown son; Gabriel Mann as the surly, confused son; Fairuza Balk as the son's flapper girlfriend; Sarah Polley as the mystery presence who puts it all together; Tim Roth as a bounty hunter hired to track Shepard down. Fine scenery. Just gets richer and richer as it all adds up. A-

Movie: Water. Deepa Mehta's movie, set in India (Rawalpindi?) in 1938, a point of disjunction between old ways bound up in religion and caste and the coming revolution led by Gandhi. Reportedly the third installment in a trilogy -- haven't seen either of the others, so no idea how they fit. In this one, a 7- or 8-year-old child bride is packed off to an ashram after her unmet husband dies, to live a life of forced denial until she too dies. The ashram has other women of different ages but same fates, and four or five figure largely in the movie -- especially an attractive, fair-skinned young widow who is pimped to support the ashram. The child attaches herself to the woman, the woman is courted by a young Brahmin lawyer who himself is a follower of Gandhi; tragedy follows, ultimately providing a breakthrough for the child. It's all a remarkable thing to watch. Needless to say, between the river and the monsoon, there's no lack of water. The class sketches and religious binds are laid out precisely and elegantly. A-

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Wichita Eagle decided that today would be the day to show Israel some love. First up was a "reader view" from Judy Press, AIPAC's hall monitor for south-central Kansas. She signs her letters Executive Director, Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation. Her letters never fail to appear whenever Israel feels pressed by events to remind us that Israel only wants peace and security, but once again has been forced to defend itself by fanatical terrorists. She starts disingenuously, as usual:

When Israel pulled out of Gaza last year, it hoped the Palestinians would take the opportunity to build a country. Unfortunately, the Palestinians used their newfound independence to elect a terrorist government and launch hundreds of Qassam rockets at Israel.

I shouldn't have to pick stuff like this apart -- the assumed level of ignorance is staggering. All Israel did was pull its settlers out, which cut their maintenance and security costs while making it easy to punish Palestinians with all-night-long sonic booms. Israel kept the borders sealed, maintaining a choke hold of Gaza's economy. Hamas had only won their elections after an 18-month unilateral ceasefire. If Israel had any interest in peace, they could have welcomed Hamas's embrace of non-violence. Instead, they shut off civil and humanitarian aid to the democratically elected Palestinian Authority and shelled Gaza until they provoked the incident they used to justify a massive escalation of collective punishment.

Press then tries to construct a similar story for Lebanon, most conveniently starting "since 2000." She does slip up once: "Israel made sacrifices for peace, withdrawing from territory that it won in wars of aggression and exercising restraint when being shelled and bombed." Emphasis added -- most Israeli propagandists try to present Israel's many wars as defensive maneouvres. Then she uncorks a mind-boggling analogy:

Imagine that a terrorist organization in Mexico, members of which were elected to the Mexican government, was firing rockets at population centers in Texas, killing and kidnapping American soldiers, and blowing people up in shopping centers. The United States would take the needed action to protect its citizens. Israel needs to do the same.

Presumably she just made this up to switch the subject, although it's amusing to consider analogies to Pancho Villa, who did conduct a "terrorist" raid on an outpost in New Mexico, and General Pershing, whose retaliatory raid deep into Mexico proved completely pointless and more than a little embarrassing. Rather, the real sleight of hand occurs at the end, where the unstated assumption is that Israel's actions are meant to protect its citizens. Israel's escalation, on top of a long history of Israeli "wars of aggression" has put their citizens at risk for no possible gain. Punishment only exacerbates the wounds, breeding more resistance; only through respect, justice and peace can old wounds heal.

As if Press wasn't enough, the Eagle also published a column by their "Christian music" critic and pet evangelical orifice, Brent Castillo, explaining "Why are evangelicals supportive of Israel?" I have to admit, this piece wasn't as bad as I feared. Castillo offers "two primary reasons":

First, contrary to earlier forms of Christianity, many evangelicals honor Jews as God's chosen people and as forefathers of the Christian faith. Secondly, they respect Israel as a democracy and support its right to defend itself.

I'm not sure whether he's being circumspect here or merely naive. My evangelical grandfather was cheered by Israel for old fashioned reasons: he thought that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land prefigured the second coming of Christ and the end of times. That was an idea shared by David Lloyd George, who actually did something about it, signing the Balfour Declaration which established Britain's sponsorship of the Zionist project. Nor has the idea gone away: Tim LaHaye's series of Left Behind books on the theme have sold some fifty million copies, making LaHaye a major player on the Christian right. Yet premillennial dispensationalism, Armageddon, and all that don't seem to have made it into the talking points lists that guide how the right speaks to the public. Suppose they have some polling that suggests it's not a good time to talk about the end of the world?

In fact, Castillo equivocates all over the place -- proving, no doubt, that he's not ready for Cal Thomas big time punditry:

Support for Israel can be tested by its political and military policies. And some Christians may not understand the motives for the conflict with Lebanon.

But the current aggression was provoked by the Islamic extremists of Hezbollah, and their tactic of hiding among civilians has resulted in the deaths of many noncombatants. The president of Iran has called for Israel to be wiped out, and Hamas is committed to the destruction of all Jews.

Israel is not without fault. Many Christians decry the plight of the Palestinians and believe that better treatment would alleviate much of the tensions.

What is clear is that there are no easy solutions to the conflicts in the Middle East. Our best hope is a truce where all sides agree to peaceably coexist. That's something people of all faith should pray for.

There are worse things Christians can do than pray for peace, like provide blind support for war. Clearly, Castillo has no idea why he's taken the stand he has -- his factual assertions are mostly wrong, most not even up to Press's standard of half-truths. So why does he, and so many other evangelicals, come out so emphatically in support of a belligerent foreign country they don't begin to understand? The clue is in the first paragraphs of his column:

About 3,000 pro-Israel evangelicals met the past two days in Washington, D.C. It was a gathering sponsored by a new organization called Christians United for Israel, which is spearheaded by John Hagee, a pastor of an 18,000-member church in San Antonio.

Prominent Jewish guests included Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, retired Israeli defense chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman. Leading evangelical leaders included Jerry Falwell and Gary Bauer. Also attending were Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

The simple reason is that the leaders of the political cult that Castillo confuses with his religion have decided on their dogma, and that's all the marching orders evangelicals need. With faith like that, who needs understanding?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Connections

Got a note from one of my jazz publicists offering "thanks for your lucid and perceptive analysis of the current mess in the Middle East." I don't really expect that, and often wonder whether I should have two blogs, one for music and the other for political matters. Actually, the original plan was to have three: Terminal Zone for music, Notes on Everyday Life for politics, and Tom Hull for brief pointers every which way and personal notes. The websites exist, but the they're not as usable as I'd like, and it's tough enough trying to keep one at all fresh.

But I'd like to point out that Deborah Gordon is the person in these parts who works the hardest to keep me up to date on Israel and Palestine, and what I know or think would be much poorer were it not for her. (Laura Tillem, of course, is the other one who keeps me going.) Gordon teaches Women's Studies at Wichita State and has done extensive research on Palestinian women under the occupation. She somehow managed to get a letter printed in the Wichita Eagle yesterday, so I thought I would record it here. Title was "Balance missing":

The front-page story, "Wichita's Lebanese, Jews fear for families," (July 14 Eagle) was telling for who didn't appear anywhere in the account. Not only on the ground is places like Rafah, but apparently also in the only daily newspaper of Wichita, Palestinians are a kind of absent presence -- there but not permitted to represent themselves. Conceived of only through an Israeli-centric view of the world. Palestinians are -- what? Half citizens, unless their point of view first goes through an Israeli-centered censor, which means it's not their point of view?

I know of at least one Palestinian family of Wichita that is currently visiting relatives in the West Bank. The other day, the Israeli forces killed 23 Palestinians. What exactly does it mean when The Eagle excludes by design or even just oversight Palestinian citizens and taxpayers of Wichita from the "local" interests in the Middle East crisis? Are Palestinians here simply disposable, like their relatives back in the Palestinian Territories?

These are fascinating intellectual questions and great grist for the academic mill. It is empirically inaccurate and politically suspect, however, to portray the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict for "families" in Wichita as if Palestinians don't have them here.

I think it's obvious that who one knows has an affect on how one responds to such news. Wichita has a rather large and influential Lebanese community, so when the war spread into Lebanon it became impossible to pretend that this was only a matter of concern for Israelis and their political fans here -- for practical purposes, the latter are more commonly Christian zealots and warmongers than Jews, who at least sympathize with real people in Israel, as opposed to religious and ideological abstractions. The propaganda barrage that has so dominated the airwaves in the last few weeks depends on us not knowing or caring about anyone on the receiving end of Israel's collective punishment -- again, we're not just talking about the hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese who have been killed; those affected include hundreds of thousands without electricity, with water and sewage systems damaged, with food and essential supplies cut off or obstructed by destruction of civilian infrastructure. That kind of collective punishment has nothing to do with the provocations. It is not proportional and it is not productive; it's just petty and vindictive, an effort to poison any future prospect of peace. Yet most Americans, having no connection to the people and no knowledge of the history, seem happy to buy Israel's story line.

People with a real connection to what's happening do better because they know better. I'm not sure that I count myself among them, although I am lucky to know people like Deborah who know people. But early on I seem to have picked up a pretty sensitive bullshit detector, to use a term from a book by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I also worked my way through Hegel's master-slave dialectic, which shows how slavery damages the master as profoundly as the slave. And even though I prefer nonfiction, I have enough literary sense to be able to imagine other people's point of view. Those are all skills and experiences that are sadly uncommon in America today, which is why they can get away with such propaganda. But I wonder how long they can keep the connections hidden.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Great Powers and Safe Havens for Terrorists

Here's a little item from the Eagle this morning. Title: "Turkey calls on U.S., Iraq to stop Kurdish guerrillas."

Turkey called Monday for Iraq and the United States to crack down on Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq, and issued a veiled threat to attack the rebel bases if there is no progress.

The U.S. ambassador to Turkey cautioned against a unilateral attack on the insurgents, who are based in remote mountains in one of the few stable parts of Iraq.

The guerrillas, who want autonomy for Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeast, have killed 15 Turkish security personnel since Thursday in ambushes, roadside bombings and shootings.

Turkey's been making threats about Kurdish separatists operating out of northern Iraq for years now, but it's striking that the number of Turks killed "since Thursday" is similar to the number of Israelis killed in that time frame. And far less than the number of Israeli security forces killed or captured before Israel's massive retaliation escalated the war, killing hundreds of non-combatants in Lebanon. So in terms of provocation, Turkey would seem to have as much right and reason to "self-defense" as Israel.

Of course, Turkey is not about to bomb Baghdad's airport, blockade the Iraq's Persian Gulf ports, and seal off the country. Nor is Turkey likely to bomb the political offices of the Kurdish political parties that give comfort to anti-Turkish terrorists. The difference between Turkey and Israel may or may not involve principles, but it certainly is a matter of power advantage. Israel can pummel Lebanon because no one will stand up for Lebanon, other than Hizbullah. Turkey might feel similarly free with a powerless Iraqi government that, like Lebanon, has no effective power over its sectarian militias, but in Iraq the US is in Turkey's way. This is perhaps the only benefit Iraq receives from the US occupation: it does force neighboring countries to think twice before they plunge in.

On the other hand, this just underscores the absurdity of trying to solve your domestic problems by attacking other countries. Turkey's Kurdish problem is mostly Turkey's own failure to satisfy the desires of its large Kurdish population. As is Israel's Palestinian problem. Both countries face similar options: either provide more equitable citizenship or greater autonomy. Both would rather rattle arms and rail against the world beyond their borders than acknowledge what they have done to themselves. Of course, Lebanon and Iraq have the same sort of problems, if anything worse, but those problems have been swamped by what Israel and the US have done to them -- some countries do indeed have good reason to fear the world beyond their borders. There's a simple lesson to be derived from all of this, and that's that relative power distorts perception mightily. After all, the one nation involved in all of this with the least to fear, with the most trivial internal problems, is the United States -- the power that acts most recklessly and most tyranically of all.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Israel's Border Trap

Regarding Israel's belligerent attacks on Lebanon, or as it's viewed here, Hizbullah's unprovoked act of war against Israel, I'm reminded of a section that Tanya Reinhart wrote in her book Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948. The book was published in 2002, but in it she quotes a column she wrote in 2000, at the time of Barak's unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon (pp. 84-86; quotes are from the second edition, 2005):

But there are still a few puzzling questions [regarding the withdrawal from Lebanon]. A first wonder -- how is it that the border line has not been fortified and prepared? For a year, the government and the army have been discussing the withdrawal from Lebanon and when the moment came, it turned out that all that was done so far is to approve the plans. In most areas, the work will take another year. A second wonder -- how is it that there was not even a slight bargaining attempt over the border line, which now passes in the middle of [kibbutz] Manara's water reserve? There was not even bargaining over areas which were probably held by Israel before 1978. . . . And a third wonder -- how is it that the right-wing is not protesting? Sharon seems to be furiously attacking Barak. But over what? Over the fact that Barak didn't deliver harder "preventive blows" to Beirut before the withdrawal. As for the withdrawal itself (to this implausible and unprotected border line) -- Sharon is warmly supportive.

It is actually easy to understand Sharon's stand. After all, he is the first who proposed, three years ago, a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. By his plan, such a withdrawal will provide Israel with the support of the international community . . . [and enable eventually] returning to Lebanon under better conditions. Whoever plans to go back in will not argue over the exact border line and will not invest time and resources in fortifying this border for only a month or two.

But Sharon isn't the one conducting this withdrawal. It is Barak. Then, still, why wasn't the border fortified? There are two options: either there has been a very big goof-up, or Barak is executing, in practice, Sharon's plan. Under the first scenario, Barak is determined to achieve peace, which can explain goof-ups here and there. Although it is Barak who suggested in 1982, in a memo to Sharon, to extend the Lebanon war to a comprehensive war with Syria, he has come to his senses since then. In the second scenario, Barak is the same Barak. Perhaps he believes that it is still possible to realize Ben Gurion's vision according to which control of Southern Lebanon is crucial for the future of Israel. Indeed the [Israeli] public is tired of the price in casualties, but it will soon learn that without Lebanon there cannot be quiet in the north. . . . Then the spoiled public will learn that there is no choice -- we have to go back to Lebanon. Yossi Sarid, at least, has been warning for months that the road of unilateral withdrawal is leading, in fact, back into Lebanon.

The problem is that we have no way to know what goes on in Barak's mind, because he doesn't share his plans with others. Democracy or not -- Barak is known to be a person who takes [makes?] his decisions by himself. . . . At the security cabinet meeting last Monday, the cabinet authorized Barak "to open fire whenever he sees fit," without having to reconvene the cabinet. From that point on, our future depends on whether Barak has changed. Is it the same Barak who wrote Sharon in 1982 that it is possible to keep a very small number of confidants who "know the full extent of the plan" . . . or is it a new Barak, a peace-seeking democrat?

It's worth noting here that the PLO leaders involved in the "final status" negotiations with Barak had objected to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon on the grounds that withdrawing without an agreement would make it look like Hizbullah had been successful in driving Israel out. Such a view, which became commonplace once the Camp David talks failed and especially after the second Intifada started, would reinforce the militant position that negotiation is bound to fail and only a show of force can move Israel to recognize Palestinian rights.

As it turns out, Israel did not soon reinvade Lebanon or attack Syria. Most likely the main reason for this was that longtime Syrian strong man Hafez Assad died two weeks after the withdrawal, leading to his weaker and more moderate son Bashir Assad's rise to power. Barak's two major peace initiatives -- negotiations first with Syria then with the PLO -- both failed, with Barak offering less than the UN resolutions required, then unilaterally pulling the plug on further negotiations. Barak facilitated Sharon's notorious demonstration at the Temple Mount, and his Chief of Staff, Shaul Moffaz (later Sharon's Minister of Defense) reacted violently to Palestinian demonstrations, igniting the Intifada. Barak lost the election to his old boss and comrade Sharon, then before leaving office withdrew all of his rejected peace offers, clearing the way for Sharon's heavy-handed destruction of the PA and the last shards of the Oslo Peace Process -- which, by the way, Barak had opposed at its inception.

Still, by not settling with Lebanon and Syria, by building up Hizbullah's reputation for driving Israel out, and by leaving the border contested and vulnerable, Israel left the bomb that blew up last week. Reinhart, writing in 2002, explains (pp. 86-87):

But one thing is clear: Barak insisted on keeping a small area of conflict -- the Shaba Farms. This is a narrow fourteen-kilometer-long and two-kilometer-wide strip near Mount Dov that Israel insists belonged to Syria, and not to Lebanon, hence it would not withdraw from this strip. (Both Syria and Lebanon deny this and delcare the area is Lebanese and should be returned to Lebanon.) Hizbollah continues, as might be expected, to fight over this strip of land, demanding its liberation from Israeli occupation. This remains a source of tension and potential incidents. The story now is that Hizbollah, and Syria backing it, continues to threaten Israeli existence, and a war with Syria may be inevitable. As we shall see in Chapter IX, the Sharon administration is currently talking openly about such a forthcoming war.

Barak's narrative still accompanies us day and night, like a mantra, and shapes the collective perception of reality -- Israel's generosity versus Arab rejectionism. It is frightening to observe how successful this narrative has been. Those who believed the lies about Barak's concessions despaired at the chance for peace. Since 1993 there has been a constant 60 percent majority in the polls supporting "land for peace," including dismantling of Israeli settlements. (As for the Golan Heights, we saw that in 1999, 60 percent of Jewish Israel supported dismantling all settlements there.) After Camp David and subsequent "negotiations," the support for peace with concessions dropped in the polls to 30 percent regarding both the Palestinian and Syrian fronts. Barak succeeded where Sharon had failed before -- he convinced at least the middle third of Israelis that peace with the Arab world is impossible, and that the coming conflicts would be no-choice wars over Israel's very existence.

Indeed, we've seen periodic hostilities over the Shaba Farms strip, which have been instrumental in Israel getting the US to put Hizbullah on its list of terrorist organizations. That listing, as well as the listing of Hamas, is a good part of the basis for Bush's unconditional support of Israel in this round of wars. One may criticize Hizbullah and Hamas for playing into Israel's hand, but we should be clear that Israel has wanted these wars for a long time: they have been carefully planned, and the plans have been executed without hardly any attention to the situations that nominally triggered them.

The next big question is whether Israel will extend the war to Syria. By blaming Syria both for Hamas and Hizbullah they have set up a logic that would seem to make such an escalation inevitable -- certainly if Syria does anything the least bit provocative, and perhaps in any case. On the other hand, the prospects there should be sobering. Israel may have little trouble with the Syrian army, but Syria would be if anything a more difficult country to occupy than Lebanon proved to be. And while the Assad regime at this point may be little missed in Syria, the probable successor is militant Sunni Islamism. Sunnis have long chafed under rule by the secular Baathists and the Assad family's Shia-leaning religious creed. A militant Sunni Islamist Syria would abut Anbar province of Iraq, which the US has had virtually no success in controlling, so the net effect would be to double the resistance, joining Israel and the US even more tightly as occupiers and oppressors.

The other culprit blamed for Israel's wars now is Iran, which is tightly tied to Iraq's Shia militias -- not yet in open revolt against the US given how busy they are killing Sunnis, but capable of turning decisively against Bush in Iraq. So while Israel's wars could provide cover for the US to launch its much planned, widely leaked attack on Iran, the risks of such an opperation boggle the mind. Of course, the wars could also provide cover for Israel to launch its own attack -- a difficult logistical proposition, far less likely of success than a US attack, and unlikely to provide the US with any cover beyond the gullible US press.

The odds against these escalations only seem stiff because we assume that sooner or later some shred of rationality has to prevail. But it's hard to see evidence of sanity in what Israel and/or the US have done recently.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Music: Current count 12112 [12083] rated (+29), 907 [892] unrated (+15). Again, all jazz all the time, except for one little break reported below.

    KRS-One: Life (2006, Antagonist): Hip-hop nationalist, a real patriot. Can't tell you how many times recently a line from one of his old songs popped into my mind: "now, what the fuck am I supposed to do?" A-

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 11)

Didn't make enough progress last week to feel certain that I'll finish my Jazz Consumer Guide column this coming week. In particular, the increase in what I've actually written is negligible. But in one regard at least I've turned the corner: the number of closeout grades on replay albums below (16) is roughly equal to the number of new prospects (17). But even if this week doesn't do it, next one surely will. Meanwhile, if you're reading these posts here, you already know more than those who are waiting for the CG to appear in the Voice.


Gilbert Castellanos: Underground (2005 [2006], Seedling): West coast (San Diego) trumpeter, originally from Mexico (Guadalajara); plays in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra; has quite a bit of session work over the last 10-12 years, especially behind singers. Hype sheet compares him to "two of his earliest influences": Lee Morgan (one song covered here) and Clifford Brown. Doesn't sound a lot like either to me, although a cross isn't out of the question. Plays on their home court, mainstream hard bop. If that's your thing, I imagine you'd enjoy him live, and might even want this skillfully played, thoroughly enjoyable record as a souvenir. B+(**)

Fred Wesley & the Swing'N Jazz All-Stars: It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing (2005 [2006], Sons of Sound): This is sponsored by or a benefit for something called The Commission Project, which has something to do with golf, which has something to do with swing, which brings us around to Ellington, who always dug trombonists, which leads us to Wesley, who got his name listed first because he's the only All-Star here you might have heard of unless you're on the Sons of Sound mailing list. Wesley actually only plays on seven cuts here, but nobody plays on all eleven -- Marvin Stamm comes closest at nine. The other All-Stars are: Carl Atkins, Mike Holober, Bob Sneider, Keter Betts, Jay Leonhart, Akira Tana and Rich Thompson. One's a bass duet. Nice record, but can't say it means much even if it swings a little. B+(*)

Will Holshouser Trio: Singing to a Bee (2004 [2006], Clean Feed): Plays accordion, with Ron Horton on trumpet and David Phillips on bass. The trumpet stands out starkly against accordion, especially when Horton goes high. The bass, however, burrows under, with little presence on its own -- seems like drums might have been more useful. Touches of Weill seem inevitable, but nothing connects with tango or klezmer -- Holshouser also plays with David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness, but what's lacking on all fronts is momentum. (One more gripe: Clean Feed, following Palmetto and others, has started to only send out promo sleeves. I don't grade down for this, but do find it annoying. I did manage to read the liner notes online -- something about haiku that made no sense to me -- but can't comment on the real packaging.) B

Free Range Rat: Nut Club (1999 [2006], Clean Feed): Starts chaotic. I've never been a fan of what Impulse used to define as "energy music" -- cacophony is the more normative term -- but once in a while something interesting emerges from it, and that's what more or less happens here. As far as I can tell -- another skinny promo disc -- Free Range Rat started as a trumpet-sax duo, John Carlson and Eric Hipp, respectively. Then they added bass, Shawn McGloin, then drums, George Schuller, for one of those free pianoless quartets, although a relatively messy one. This record also has Doug Yates, clarinet and bass clarinet, listed as "special guest." B+(**)

"Killer" Ray Appleton/Melvin Rhyne: Latin Dreams (2004 [2006], Lineage): You know the dreams are Latin because you can hear Milton Cardona's congas. Leave them out, and maybe skip the shot of "Tequila," and you get a standard Hammond B3 trio: Rhyne's organ, Appleton's drums, and Ilya Lushtak's guitar. The only name I recognize here is Rhyne, who cut his first album in 1960 when this style was taking shape. He's made a comeback since 1993, as has the genre. The latter seems slight by definition, but this album is as thoroughly enjoyable as any organ grind I've run across in the last decade or so. Drummer and guitarist are a big part of this, and the congas are all the innovation these guys need, or want. [B+(***)]

Hank Jones/Frank Wess: Hank and Frank (2003 [2006], Lineage): From the label website: "Each Lineage recording is an organic collaboration of living legends and the strongest and most exciting young performers, created in order to perpetuate the timeless straight-ahead jazz aesthetic." The young performers list starts with guitarist Ilya Lushtak -- Russian born, grew up in San Francisco, moved to New York in 1996, 30 years old when his website bio was written -- who runs the label and arranges these collaborations. Jones and Wess, of course, are near the top of anyone's living legends list, and anything that lets them keep on recording is fine by me. Nothing new here, except that Lushtak continues to please as a sideman. Wess plays flute on a couple of tunes, but few people sound better on tenor sax, so that's what stands out. B+(**)

Ignacio Berroa: Codes (2005 [2006], Blue Note): Cuban drummer, moved to New York in 1980, working with Dizzy Gillespie for a decade. He's done quite a bit of session work over the last 25 years, but this is his first album, produced by Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The rhythm pieces jump out at you first, but there are quieter spots, where piano by Rubalcaba or Ed Simon and/or sax by David Sanchez or Felipe LaMoglia come to the fore. Impressive work. Need to spend more time with it. [A-]

Cassandra Wilson: Thunderbird (2006, Blue Note): Don't know what to make of her. My first encounter was when she was part of New Air and, as best I recall, married to Henry Threadgill -- something you don't read about much any more. (Wikipedia mentions it using past tense under Threadgill, but not under Wilson.) Before that she worked with Steve Coleman and M-Base. She's recorded albums under her own name for JMT from 1985 and Blue Note from 1993. I've heard three before this one -- a small sample I have no real feelings about. She has one of those deep, dusky voices that form a line from Sarah Vaughan through Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln, although I can't say that she's ever done much with it. (I'm not a big fan of the other three either, but with Vaughan and Carter at least I have a pretty good idea why others are big fans; Lincoln is as big a mystery to me as Wilson.) This album, produced by T Bone Burnett, fits poorly within any known jazz tradition. Half originals written with studio hands, mostly Keefus Ciancia; half the sort of songs Burnett tends to find. The only one I like much is a slow "Red River Valley" done with nothing more than Colin Linden's guitar. Don't dislike any of it, but don't get it either. B

Bob Reynolds: Can't Wait for Perfect (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Young saxophonist, mostly tenor but one cut on soprano, graduated summa cum laude at Berklee, so his disavowal of perfectionism may have come harder than for most. He fits pretty tightly into a set of mainstream saxophonists like Bob Berg, Benny Wallace, Steve Grossman, Bob Rockwell -- a rich, full-bodied tone that suggests that's what tenor sax was always meant to sound like, a taste for music that's neither old nor new but something hoping for timeless, plenty of chops that rarely get stressed. No doubt he's a tremendous student. Not sure yet where else he's going. [B+(***)]

Sergi Sirvent/Santi Careta: Anacrònics (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Sirvent is a pianist who impressed me every time out, even though I've yet to fall hard for one of his albums. The best to date is filed under Unexpected and called Plays the Blues in Need, and that's in my draft as an honorable mention. That album plays off Monk, so it makes sense that the best of these duets is the one where Sirvent runs away with "In Walked Bud." Lots of standards here, a nice range of pieces, effectively character sketches for the pianist. Careta is a guitarist and less assertive. Don't have much feel for him, but he has another album on the shelf. B+(*)

Esperanza Spalding: Junjo (2005 [2006], Ayva): Quite a name. She comes from Portland OR, is barely old enough to legally drink, plays bass, sings, and composed all or parts of four of nine songs here. Well, sings is kind of a stretch: she reminds me more of Keith Jarrett than Sarah Vaughan, although she's a good deal more artful at scatting along than Jarrett is. The record's a trio, with Aruán Ortiz on piano and Francisco Mela on drums, but like all good bassist-leaders she gets the benefit of the mix. Nice debut. Could pick up another star if I left it open and worked on it. B+(*)

Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet: Way Out East (2005 [2006], Songlines): This sounded horrible at first then started to kick in, rather strangely. The lineup has no bottom, no beat, no propulsion: the leader's piano, Peggy Lee's cello, Ron Miles' trumpet, and Sara Schoenbeck's bassoon. It has a studied, rather stately chamber music feel, appealing in a rather abstract way. [B+(*)]

Kris Davis: The Slightest Shift (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Canadian pianist, migrated from Vancouver to Toronto to New York. I liked her first record, Lifespan, enough to list it as an Honorable Mention. This one pares the group down from six to four, losing two extra horns while keeping the critical one, Tony Malaby's tenor sax. Malaby is remarkably adept at sliding into groups and complementing but not upstaging the leader. Davis wrote all the pieces, working dense piano breaks into the mix. A good example of the left bank of the postbop mainstream. B+(***)

Jeremy Udden: Torchsongs (2003-05 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Plays soprano and alto sax, leading off with soprano here. Credits include work with Either/Orchestra and Jazz Composer's Alliance Orchestra. Studies include Steve Lacy, whose "Blinks" is the only non-original here; Bob Brookmeyer, who guests on two tracks, including a duet; and the inevitable, ubiquitous George Garzone. I often fret when I see a long list of credits -- ten names here -- but this breaks down to two sessions, with most cuts at quartet or less, but three cuts with six or seven show a good deal of skill at knitting the sound together than a minimum of clutter. Among the sidemen, guitarist Ben Monder stands out. B+(**)

Fred Lonberg-Holm Quartet: Bridges Freeze Before Roads (2001 [2006], Longbox): The leader is based on Chicago, plays cello, has done some interesting things -- I particularly like a 2005 album called Other Valentines. Most recently he's replaced trombonist Jeb Bishop in the Vandermark Five. This just appeared but dates back a few years. The quartet includes Guillermo Gregorio on clarinet, Jason Roebke on bass, and Glenn Kotche on percussion. The music is dense and viscous -- it doesn't move so much as it seeps. Interest is minimal, mostly as dull background din. B-

Laszlo Gardony: Natural Instinct (2006, Sunnyside): Hungarian pianist, emigrated to US in 1983, has seven albums listed at AMG, which probably short-changes his early work. This is a trio with bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel. Soft and sweet, worth listening to but not the sort of thing that demands you pay attention. B+(*)

The Chris Walden Big Band: No Bounds (2005 [2006], Origin): I can't help but admire someone who these days can still conceive of big band jazz on such a grossly ludicrous scale. How big are we talking? Well, he's got four French horns to work with. Five cellos. Admittedly, only one harp. I also have to say that singer Tierney Sutton is a plus on her feature -- as long as she sings, everything else just sort of blurs into the ghost of Billy May. In general, the orchestration isn't bad, but it's something to worry about when your best themes come from Walt Disney. Not even Sun Ra could make that work. C+


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

Batagraf: Statements (2003-04 [2006], ECM): Samples of unknown media announcers, something in Wolof, Sidsel Endresen uttering words like "blowback" and "softworks" and reminding us that there are things we don't know we don't know. The music is mostly percussion, with Frode Nymo's alto sax and Arve Henriksen's trumpet making brief appearances for emphasis. Leader Jon Balke remains inconspicuous on keyboards. There's little flow, but a barren fractured soundscape. B+(***)

Chick Corea: The Ultimate Adventure (2006, Stretch): I don't know, and couldn't care less, what this has to do with L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote a book under the same title. But as a fusion album this at least covers the basics: the sine qua non is groove, which this delivers in spades -- first two cuts are impressive enough in that regard I began to think this might amount to something. If this doesn't quite pan out, the reasons are the usual ones: the change of pace brings out the cheesiness in the keyboards and the choice of wind instruments leans strongly toward the flutes. Corea's previous Hubbard tribute, To the Stars, was a dud. This one isn't. B

Jason Kao Hwang: Edge (2005 [2006], Asian Improv): Hwang has been around a while -- his CV doesn't give a birth date, but dates back to 1975 at NYU, so I figure he's closing in on 50 -- but he's only emerged as a major jazz violinist in the last few years. Although he was born in the US, he seems to have spent much of his career exploring Chinese classical music. Most of his jazz work incorporates typical Chinese tones and rhythms, but I wonder whether a blindfold test would peg the Chinese influence here. Good quartet here with Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, Ken Filiano on bass, and Andrew Drury on drums. His previous Asian Improv record, Graphic Evidence, was more distinctly Asian, while his record with William Hooker and Roy Campbell as the Gift pushed much harder into avant terrain. This is somewhere in between. B+(**)

Conjure: Bad Mouth (2005 [2006], American Clavé, 2CD): Long after two '80s albums, this is a third installment of Ishmael Reed texts channeled through Kip Hanrahan's music played by an impressive roster of musicians. The first, Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed is highly recommended; the second, Cab Calloway Stands in the for Moon much less so. This one comes in between. Reed's spoken pieces hold your interest more than the more song-like ones, which suggests that the music isn't quite up to snuff. What should be an all-star set of Latino percussionists -- Robby Ameen, Horacio El Negro Hernandez, Dafnis Prieto, Richie Flores, Pedro Martinez -- don't kick up much of a fuss, and I'm still not sure what Billy Bang does here. But the only holdover from the '80s group does loom large, and when he breaks David Murray steals the album. B+(**)

Kip Hanrahan: Every Child Is Born a Poet: The Life & Work of Piri Thomas (1992-2002 [2006], American Clavé): Effectively this does for Thomas -- author of Down These Mean Streets, perhaps America's best known Puerto Rican writer -- what Conjure does for Ishmael Reed. The words are more prosaic, but the narration has palpable impact. However, the music, meant for a soundtrack, has less impact -- a little trumpet, but it's mostly the Latin percussionists who save the day. B+(*)

Liquid Soul: One-Two Punch (2006, Telarc): Mars Williams learned his craft under legendary Chicago avant-gardist Hal Russell. After Russell died, Williams recruited Ken Vandermark to fill Russell's shoes in the NRG Ensemble. Vandermark reciprocated by inviting Williams into the first edition of the Vandermark Five. When acid jazz came around, Williams split off to form Liquid Soul with synth programmer Van Christie, and they've been plugging away at it for a decade now, with generally indifferent results. This one at least packs a punch, and even builds to a noise crescendo at the end, showing that Williams hasn't forgotten what NRG was all about. Formally, this is still pop jazz, spliced together from undocumented sessions with a long list of minor collaborators -- the only one with any real jazz cred is Hugh Ragin. B+(**)

François Carrier: Happening (2005 [2006], Leo, 2CD): A French Canadian alto saxist, Carrier first impressed me with a live trio album, Play, which did just that: tight, edgy, robust, exhilarating, but the sort of thing that other people could do if that was all they wanted. That same trio is the core of this album five years later -- Pierre Coté on bass and Michel Lambert on drums -- and they've grown even more telepathic, but Carrier has moved onto a broader sonic canvas by adding two more musicians. Uwe Neumann is a specialist in Indian music, playing sitar, sanza, and Indian talking drum. He is the backbone of these improvisations, the exotic center around which everyone else revolves. Mat Maneri plays viola, which vies with Carrier's saxes -- he plays soprano as well as alto -- as a second lead instrument. The liner notes talk about microtonalities in Indian music -- I don't quite get how that plays out, but recall that Maneri's father has long been noted for his microtonal work. What I am sure of is that the five long improvised happenings here never flag or lose interest. A-

Grismore/Scea Group: Well Behaved Fish (2004 [2006], Accurate): Steve Grismore plays guitar. Paul Scea plays various saxes and flutes. They open with Ornette Coleman's "Dancing in Your Head," which presumably frames their interests -- certainly fits their instruments. Fun to hear that piece again, but none of their own works move Coleman forward. Rather, they move toward a fairly generic but spirited fusion, even keeping trumpeter Brent Sandy on hand for those little Milesian riffs. B+(*)

Gnappy: Unloaded (2006, Bean Pie): Jazz-funk group from Austin TX, basically a sax-guitar-bass-drums quartet with a wee bit of vocals, including a rap, plus some guests. I go up and down on them -- means they can prick my interest, but have trouble sustaining it. B

Skerik's Syncopated Taint Septet: Husky (2004 [2006], Hyena): The group breakdown is three reeds, two brass, Hammond, and drums, with little or no electronics. The horns rarely break loose, so the effect is long on groove with thick harmonics, much less so on beat. I like most of what I've heard from Skerik -- think he has the potential to cross both ways; like his analysis and instincts. But when he calls one song "Go to Hell, Mr. Bush" -- the honorific blunted a punch that should have landed harder. B+(*)

Dafnis Prieto: Absolute Quintet (2005 [2006], Zoho): Cuban percussionist, made it to New York in 1999, and and ever since then folks who presumably know about such things have been raving about him. I've heard him as a sideman on half a dozen albums, and more often than not I've been impressed too. But I didn't like his previous album, About the Monks, and I don't much like this one either, although it's easier here to hear what his fans hear in him. For one thing, his knowledge of Cuban music is encyclopedic, but his ambitions are such that he tries to show it all off. One choice cut is "The Stutterer" -- amazingly jerky percussion, real strong sax blast from Yosvany Terry. That's followed by "Afrotango," more or less self-explanatory, with a nice Henry Threadgill guest appearance. But then he delves into Spanish classicism on "One Day Suite" and loses me. B+(*)

Yosvany Terry Cabrera: Metamorphosis (2004 [2005], Ewe): Afro-Cuban saxophonist, usually goes under name Yosvany Terry. Record doesn't specify which when where -- alto seems to be his main horn, but I've also seen him play tenor and soprano, and he probably uses all three here. Avishai Cohen plays trumpet for a contrasting horn, Mike Moreno plays some nifty guitar, and the usual suspects -- Luis Perdomo, Hans Glawishnig, Dafnis Prieto, Pedro Martinez -- keep the complex riddims bumping and grinding. B+(**)

Chris Cheek: Blues Cruise (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Just Cheek fronting Brad Mehldau's trio, doing four covers and five Cheek originals, mostly blues based, smoothly played, richly appointed, stretched out to the 5-7 minute range. Probably his least ambitious album ever. B+(*)

Jason Rigby: Translucent Space (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): A relatively large group here, with Rigby playing tenor, soprano and alto saxes, bass clarinet and wood flute. Still, it rarely feels cluttered -- don't have a track-by-track breakdown, but it may be that the two clarinets, flute, trumpet, and for that matter cello, are sparsely used. Mike Holober's Fender electric piano does get a good deal of use, and is a plus here. B+(**)

Ben Adams Quintet: Old Thoughts for a New Day (2005 [2006], Lunar Module): Vibraphonist, seems to be a Kansas boy -- received the "Kansas State Outstanding Percussion Award" four consecutive years, before moving on to Berklee (Gary Burton) and currently, well, somewhere near San Francisco. Quintet has two horns -- Erik Jekabson on trumpet, Mitch Marcus on tenor sax -- both of which have some bite to their solos. I'm less clear on the vibes -- harder to hook onto them, but many points catch one's attention. B+(*)

John Tchicai/Charlie Kohlhase/Garrison Fewell: Good Night Songs (2003 [2006], Boxholder, 2CD): Two reed players -- Tchicai plays tenor sax and bas clarinet, Kohlhase plays tenor, alto and baritone sax -- and a guitarist. The effect, maybe even the concept, is like a toned-down, spaced-out variation on the Sonny Simmons-Michael Marcus trios -- the horns more polite, which doesn't mean less interesting, the rhythm folded in rather than popping out. B+(**)


Bush, the Saudis, and Israel

I've finished reading Ron Suskind's book, The One Percent Doctrine. The book basically tracks the War on Terror from the viewpoint of sources in the CIA -- George Tenet is the more/less tragic hero of the story, and evidently a major source. I'll have more to say on this, including various sections I marked, in a later post. For now I just want to start with a couple of quotes that involve Bush's Israel policy. They are especially noteworthy these days.

The first quote is background for an April 2002 meeting between Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah and Bush in Crawford (pp. 104-105):

Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States were in tatters. The Saudis had been stewing for more than a year, in fact, ever since it became clear at the start of 2001 that this administration was to alter the long-standing U.S. role of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to something less than that. The President, in fact, had said in the first NSC principals meeting of his administration that Clinton had overreached at the end of his second term, bending too much toward Yasser Arafat -- who then broke off productive Camp David negotiations at the final moment -- and that "We're going to tilt back ward Israel." Powell, a chair away in the Situation Room that day, said such a move would reverse thirty years of U.S. policy, and that it could unleash the new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli army in ways that could be dire for the Palestinians. Bush's response: "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things."

This faith in the clarifying power of force has long since become a Bush trademark, and seems more than anything else to be the common bond between the Bush and Sharon/Olmert regimes. It's noteworthy that this was Bush's attitude before Sharon took office and sent the IDF into Palestinian territories seeking not just to crush the Intifada but to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and the last vestiges of the Oslo Peace Process. In other words, Bush gave Sharon the green light, and he did it precisely because he believed that Israel should use such force.

Suskind then goes into some background on the US-Saudi relationship, which I won't bother quoting, not least because it's rather off base. This then leads to the relationship between the Saudis and the first President Bush, leading up to a dinner with Bush and Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia's long-time ambassador to the US, and consequently to the relationship of Bush père et fils (pp. 106-107):

The discussion between the elder Bush and the Saudi princes was wistful, largely about a world washed away by 9/11, and also a generational passage. Privately, the current President had railed against his father's alliances, and his mistakes. Living, and leading, in reaction to his namesake was a guiding principle. In a defense of his tilting toward Israel, for example, Bush told an old foreign policy hand, "I'm not going to be supportive of my father and all his Arab buddies!"

Next up was a dinner meeting with Abdullah and a rather passive, noncommittal Cheney. Finally, the meeting with Bush at Crawford (pp. 109-111):

The Saudis had specific demands. Abdullah had recently offered his own peace plan: a two-state solution, a recognition of Israel by the Arab world -- and, also a nonstarter about the return to the 1967 borders, leaving East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Arab state, and a host of things he expected in terms of the crisis on the West Bank. The United States, now deep into the "war on terror," had its own set of issues. Though Saudi Arabia was home to fifteen of the nineteen hijackers -- and to bin Laden -- the kingdom was being less than cooperative, barring the United States from interviewing the families of the hijackers and blocking efforts to trace terror finance, most of which tracked through the country's labyrinth of charities and hawalas. First, though, the Saudi started on their list -- a long one, which included the United States distancing itself from Sharon, and acts that would support the Palestinians.

Bush listened, but not really. This was not where he wanted to be. He was marking time. "Let's go for a drive," he said to Abdullah, after a few minutes. "Just you and me. I'll show you the ranch."

And they marched off, in midsentence, to Bush's pickup truck, leaving behind a phalanx of slack-jawed advisers with what one later called "monarchy blues" -- a realization, as he described it, that ideals of representative government fade at moments like this into a feeling that things haven't changed all tha tmuch since foreign affairs were the affairs of kings -- how they got along, or didn't, determined the fate of nations."

Bouncing in the cab of the Chevy pickup -- Bush, wearing a suit and tie for the visit of a foreign leader, Abdullah in a tweed jacket over his gown -- they seemed to get along just fine. Bush loves doing this: showing the 1,600-acre ranch, cutting this way and that over the central Texas scrub in teh pickup, making snap decisions on which path to take, where to go first, and last. There are seventeen varieties of trees. He pointed them out, told Abdullah of his love of the land, his desire for peace. They stopped and talked at one of Bush's favortite spots. They saw a wild turkey.

Then, after an hour or so, they were back for lunch. And everyone settled at a long table on the glassed-in porch -- Colin, Condi, Andy Card, Cheney, Bandar, Bush, Saud, Abdullah, and Jordan -- and Bush asked Abdullah if he could say a prayer. Abdullah nodded, and Bush prayed, and then they ate beef tenderloin and potato salad, brownies and ice cream.

Abdullah, dabbing his lips, snapped to attention as the brownies were cleared -- as though he'd lost track of what had brought him here -- as did Bandar and Saud. They had eight items on their list. They needed deliverables -- something to bring back to the roiling Gulf that would ease the Arab world. Would Bush back up his words with actions? Was he on Sharon's side, or was the United States still interested in supporting its Arab friends? Was America any longer the region's honest broker?

But the discussions could get no traction. The Saudis wanted pressure on Sharon to release Arafat from confinement in Ramallah. Saud went over possible steps the United States could take. Bush stared blankly at them. They went down the items. Sometimes the President nodded, as though something sounded reasonable, but he fofered little response.

And, after almost an hour of this, the Saudis, looking a bit perplexed, got up to go. It was as though Bush had never read the packet they sent over to the White House in preparation for this meeeting: a terse, lean document, just a few pages, listing the Saudis' demands and an array of options that the President might consider. After the meeting, a few attendees on the American team wondered why the President seemed to have no idea what the Saudis were after, and why he didn't bother to answer their concerns or get any concessions from them, either, on the "war on terror." There was not a more important conversation in the "war on terror" than a sit-down with Saudi Arabia. Several of the attendees checked into what had happened.

The Saudi packet, they found, had been diverted to Dick Cheney's office. The President never got it, never read it. In what may have been the most important, and contentious, foreign policy meeting of his presidency, George W. Bush was unaware of what the Saudis hoped to achieve in traveling to Crawford.

Suskind errs in referring to the Saudi peace plan as a nonstarter. The border alignments the Saudis proposed are precisely those mandated by UN Security Council resolutions following the 1967 war. Those are the basis of the international law that governs resolution of the war, and nothing has changed in that regard. Helena Cobban has a good summary of this in a recent post that also covers how international law applies to the recent escalation of hostilities. Her key points bear repeating here:

But the bigger question here, in my mind, is that all these conflicts have now gone on so long, and have so many very tangled sub-themes and potential triggers for escalation by either side, that surely it is time to get the whole darned conflict between Israel and neighbors finally resolved. That means the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Syrian-Israeli conflict, and the Lebanese-Israeli conflict.

This is indeed do-able. If it is done, basically, on the basis of international law, then nearly all the parties to the conflict know what this is and are ready to go ahead and do such a deal. On the Arab side, all the Arab governments have signed onto the Beirut Declaration of 2002 -- and the most recent Hamas-Fateh agreement then endorsed all its main points.

The only party that is not basically ready to resolve the conflict on the basis of international law -- that is, with Israel withdrawing from just about all of the land it captured in the 1967 war -- is that portion of the Israeli public that still clings to the chauvinistic dream of a Jewish Greater Jerusalem that stretches from the Old City just about right down to the Jordan River . . . an outcome that would be unacceptable to the Palestinians in two major ways: it denies any meaningful Palestinian role or presence in Jerusalem, and it slices a huge wedge out of the West Bank, dividing what remains potentially for use by a Palestinian state into two.

The Beirut Declaration of 2002 referred to here is Abdullah's plan -- the same one he presented to Bush. So Cobban is slightly wrong here: Israel is not the only party opposed to so simple, straightforward, and obvious a deal. Bush is another party opposed. Or perhaps we should say Cheney is the one opposed, since he was the one who trashed the plan. Bush merely lacked the attention span of one of those turkeys he enjoys pointing out -- and by not caring, not understanding, by his ignorance and his gut faith in the clarifying power of force, he missed an opportunity that could have set the US in a far superior position in the Middle East, establishing a bit of credibility he sure could have used in Iraq. Instead, we've since seen what comes of his alliance with Israel, of his commitment to force and against justice.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Buddies to the End

It's becoming inreasingly obvious that the answer to the question of why Bush invaded Iraq is all of the above. The two most fervently denied rationales were "for the oil" and "for Israel" -- I've gone over the oil case recently, and now Israel is making the latter case largely on their own. Our reluctance to buy these rationales stems mostly from their foolishness. One assumes, for instance, that a war for oil should benefit gas guzzling customers, but the most common effect of war is to disrupt supplies, driving up prices, and that's exactly what has happened. One also assumes that Israelies would benefit most from peace and stability, which US war in Iraq works against. The poisoned atmosphere in Iraq may not have, strictly speaking, caused the military breakout in Gaza and Lebanon, but it contributed in a big way, both by increasing Arab distrust of the US and the West and by letting the IDF think they can get away with such aggression. Indeed, Israel's propagandists have rushed to point out how Israel has joined the US side-by-side in the War on Terror. For instance, William Kristol in Weekly Standard:

Radical Islamism isn't going away anytime soon. But it will make a big difference how strong the state sponsors, harborers, and financiers of radical Islamism are. Thus, our focus should be less on Hamas and Hezbollah, and more on their paymasters and real commanders--Syria and Iran. And our focus should be not only on the regional war in the Middle East, but also on the global struggle against radical Islamism.

For while Syria and Iran are enemies of Israel, they are also enemies of the United States. We have done a poor job of standing up to them and weakening them. They are now testing us more boldly than one would have thought possible a few years ago. Weakness is provocative. We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.

The right response is renewed strength--in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions--and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.

But such a military strike would take a while to organize. In the meantime, perhaps President Bush can fly from the silly G8 summit in St. Petersburg -- a summit that will most likely convey a message of moral confusion and political indecision -- to Jerusalem, the capital of a nation that stands with us, and is willing to fight with us, against our common enemies. This is our war, too.

Kristol is right about one thing: that Israel's attacks on Gaza and Lebanon are our war. The Cheney Administration committed itself to just this sort of war when they put Hamas and Hizbullah on their terrorist enemies list. Neither decision was obvious. Neither group was affiliated with Al Qaeda or directed against the US. Both had substantial public legitimacy for their resistance to Israel. A much smarter war on terror would have sought to isolate Al Qaeda rather than group them with much more popular organizations. In doing so, the US adopted Israel's cause as its own, and ceded definition of what that alliance would mean to Israel itself -- we wrote them blank checks, which now they have started to cash.

The futility of this ostensible war against radical Islamism should be obvious. We know from vast experience that war drives most people to resistance, and that war promotes extremist leaders over moderate ones. We know that every war in Muslim lands has driven people to Islam and driven Islam to greater extremes. It is madness to think that the US and/or Israel can win by lopping off the extremist fringe of Islam. War itself creates and expands that fringe, so the only logical definition of success in such a war is genocide. Is that what even Bush and Olmert really want to stake their success on?

The thing to realize here is that these wars -- the US one in Iraq, the Israeli one in Gaza and Lebanon -- are the logical, almost inevitable, consequences of bad decisions made and casually accepted without understanding their consequences. Because the US failed to press Israel for peace and justice, the US invaded Iraq with the spectre of Israel's occupation on its back. Because the US failed to see any difference between Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks against the US and the resistance of Hizbullah and Hamas to Israeli occupation, we became partners in that occupation. Because the US repeatedly clung to its alliance with Israel regardless of what Israelis did, the US surrendered its ability to make its own policy. Whether that means that the US will follow Kristol's logic into bombing Iran is another piece of madness that remains to be seen. But expecting either Bush or Olmert to wise up at this point is more optimism than either's recent history justifies.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Death in Gaza

The Peace and Social Justice Center here in Wichita put on a film tonight called Death in Gaza. It had been scheduled for several weeks, but events conspired to bring out a crowd of 20-25 people. What we saw was based on work by James Miller, a British filmmaker who had the idea of focusing both on Palestinian and Israeli children to see how the conflict passes on to future generations. This was shot in 2003, when the second Intifada was still pretty hot and Sharon was pretty heavy-handed in putting it down. Miller didn't get very far: after some rough action in Nablus he went to Rafah at the southern end of Gaza, where he was killed by an Israeli soldier. He never went on to film the Israeli end of the equation, and the film was restructured around his death. It provides a gritty and sometimes gory view, probably quite representative of how Israel's tanks and bulldozers look to Palestinians caught in their grip. The interviews with militants and children reflect this reality -- the juxtaposition of naive adolescent charms and intense hatred for Israel is jarring, and that seems to be the point.

Not that it's much of a point: you can read it however you like, either as an example of how war and injustice derails lives, or as evidence that Palestinian hatred of Israel is culturally endemic, something that Israel can never afford to let down its guard against. My own view is that the point itself is misguided -- is in fact a rather common but confused misreading of the situation. The point argues that the conflict is rooted in the deep-seated hatred that both sides have for each other. Given how hate perpetuates itself through self-righteous acts of violence, this idea leaves us with a conflict that just goes on and on, something we are powerless to halt. Rather, I think it's clear that the conflict is above all a political power struggle, and hatred is just a side-effect of the injuries inflicted. To end the struggle all you need is some kind of mutually accepted equilibrium -- some understanding with enough positive value for both sides that acceptance would be preferable to continuing the fight. Once that happens, you stop feeding the hatred, the scars heal over, and normal life begins.

That hasn't happened for lots of reasons, but the most important one to bear in mind is that the power struggle has become extremely asymmetrical. Israel enjoys overwhelming power yet still cannot be satisfied. On the other hand, no matter how badly Israel beats them, many Palestinians are unwilling to give up their defiance. At its most extreme, we see this in suicide missions, acts that transform defeat into a form Israel finds unpalatable. Had Miller finished his plan, he wouldn't have had trouble finding hatred on Israel's side of the fence, but the hatred would have been as asymmetrical as the power struggle. Israeli hatred of Palestinians, regardless of how vicious it gets, is closer to what we call bigotry. It is a luxury of the powerful to look down on the powerless. Palestinian hatred of Israelis is wrapped up in the desperate, righteous indignation of their victimhood. Not that it plays out so cleanly -- thanks largely to Herr Hitler, who was very fond of the idea of shipping Europe's Jews off to some other continent before he opted for a more final solution, Israelis have tried with much success to corner the market on victimhood, while the Palestinians have become adept at mirroring their oppressors.

We should know by now that human beings are quite capable of forgiving or at least forgetting those who trespassed against them, but only once that trespass is safely in the past. Because of the power asymmetry, that can't be until Israel wills it to happen, and Israel appears to have remarkably little interest in doing so. I'm reminded of Faulkner's quip about the South's constant rehashing of the Civil War: "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." The South's obsession with its past prolonged America's civil rights struggle by more than a century. Israel's unwillingness to so much as meet with Arabs it has wronged in the past looks like a similar preference for the past over the future. Given that the past Israel clings to has been so tragic, the future looks no different.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Israel's Real and Imagined Wars

Regardless of what you thought about Zionist goals and practices, Israel used to enjoy a reputation for competency. Their 1948 War of Independence was fought with brutal efficiency and skillful diplomacy. On the diplomatic front they managed to get an initial UN sanction, conveniently dispense with the part about partition borders, and fend off every subsequent attempt by the UN and/or the US to come up with a more equitable solution. They managed to panic most of the local Palestinian population into exile, then locked down those borders causing a permanent refugee crisis. They exploited several ceasefires for military advantage. They managed the propaganda front adroitly, gaining critical support from first the Soviet Union, then France, then finally the US -- where they always enjoyed critical popular support. They knew exactly what they intended to do in the Seven Day War of 1967, first disabling Egypt's air force, then Syria's; quickly invading the Sinai to the Suez Canal, then the West Bank, then mopping up the Syrian Heights.

However, they failed to parlay their 1967 success into a stable peace. To turn Abba Eban's quip on its head -- a much more accurate formulation -- after 1967 Israel never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace. They almost immediately defied the UN by annexing East Jerusalem, which meant that they never again had the world body behind them. The Wars of Attrition with Egypt and the 1973 war with Egypt and Syria were messy stalemates. Asymetrical warfare with Palestinians in exile took a toll even when Israel appeared to have scored. Their interference in Lebanon turned into a long, bloody, hopeless occupation. Their military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was competent and judicious at first, but that deteriorated over time, especially under pressure from the settler movement, until the Occupied Territories erupted in the Intifada. The whole Oslo Peace Process was effectively sabotaged within Israel, leading to its eventual breakdown and a second Intifada much more violent than the first. Israel's military and security arms still act as boldly as ever, but they've lost their ability to gauge consequences and manage appearances.

Nor did this breakdown in competency limit itself to matters of peace. In its early days, Israel, at least for the Jews, was a tightly bound socialist nation, with a sense of common purpose, equality, and strong mutual support organizations. Back then Israel was famed for making the desert flower. All that has slipped away as well. Israel still has a first-world standard of living, but it is dependent on US subsidies, both private and public, and decades of right-wing government have led to the same sort of inequality we enjoy or suffer from in the US.

Still, Israeli incompetency has rarely been so blatant as what we've seen in the last couple of weeks. I don't have time to rehearse the whole series of events, but the main line is: Hamas declared a truce and maintained it for 18 months, during which Israel attacked Palestinians at will; Hamas won the Palestinian elections on the basis of its truce, but Israel, the US, and Europe used that as an excuse to starve the Palestinians; Hamas finally called off their unilateral truce after repeated Israeli shellings; a small cell of Palestinians attacked an Israeli border post, killing two soldiers and kidnapping one to try to set up a prisoner exchange -- Israel holds more than 8,000 Palestinian prisoners; Israel bombs critical infrastructure in Gaza, including the only power plant, sends tanks and artillery in, and -- well, the list here is long; a similar incident happens on the Lebanon border, capturing two Israeli soliders, so Israel attacks Lebanon the same way, destroying the Beirut airport. For all this, Israel now has two war fronts, ostensibly to rescue three soldiers although they've lost seven soldiers in Lebanon, and they've only redoubled the fear and determination of their neighbors.

What we're seeing here is that Israel's leadership has no plan, no real concept of what they're doing. They're trapped in their own delusions, senselessly flailing at them. What they are is trapped in the idiocy of their own rhetoric. Sharon's insistence on only acting unilaterally denied the Palestinian Authority any authority, while limiting Israel's ability to police Gaza except through such crude measures as artillery and bombs -- measures Israel had little compunction about using, given their past practice of defense by massive retaliation and collective punishment, justified by the ease with which they habitually branded Palestinians as terrorists. In effect, Israel has been seduced by a self-image of omnipotence. The more they fail, the more force they apply, because ultimately force is the only thing they have left to depend on. Justice is an option they forswore long ago.


Israel's reactions in this crisis, at least since the Shalit capture, appear to be driven by the culture of the security arms with little or no opposition or control from Olmert and Peretz -- perhaps because the latter two are not military people, nor are they peace people, and therefore are insecure leaders. But there is a peculiar political logic to what they're doing that seems to be deep-seated within Israel. The following is a quote from Yossi Klein Halev (from The New Republic, quoted on War in Context) which articulates the logic behind this ideology:

The next Middle East war -- Israel against genocidal Islamism -- has begun. The first stage of the war started two weeks ago, with the Israeli incursion into Gaza in response to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and the ongoing shelling of Israeli towns and kibbutzim; now, with Hezbollah's latest attack, the war has spread to southern Lebanon. Ultimately, though, Israel's antagonists won't be Hamas and Hezbollah but their patrons, Iran and Syria. The war will go on for months, perhaps several years. There may be lulls in the fighting, perhaps even temporary agreements and prisoner exchanges. But those periods of calm will be mere respites.

The goals of the war should be the destruction of the Hamas regime and the dismantling of the Hezbollah infrastructure in southern Lebanon. Israel cannot coexist with Iranian proxies pressing in on its borders. In particular, allowing Hamas to remain in power -- and to run the Palestinian educational system -- will mean the end of hopes for Arab-Israeli reconciliation not only in this generation but in the next one too.

For the Israeli right, this is the moment of "We told you so." The fact that the kidnappings and missile attacks have come from southern Lebanon and Gaza -- precisely the areas from which Israel has unilaterally withdrawn -- is proof, for right-wingers, of the bankruptcy of unilateralism.

Yet the right has always misunderstood the meaning of unilateral withdrawal. Those of us who have supported unilateralism didn't expect a quiet border in return for our withdrawal but simply the creation of a border from which we could more vigorously defend ourselves, with greater domestic consensus and international understanding. The anticipated outcome, then, wasn't an illusory peace but a more effective way to fight the war. The question wasn't whether Hamas or Hezbollah would forswear aggression but whether Israel would act with appropriate vigor to their continued aggression.

Characterizing Israel's enemy as "genocidal Islamism" is itself a very peculiar way of looking at the world. I'm not aware of any such thing, so on first approximation this sounds like a snark hunt -- a lot of thrashing and collateral destruction to root out nobody. I'm not saying there are no repressive or even homocidal Islamists, but it's a big leap from stoning the occasional adulterer to setting off a car bomb and a big leap again from there to genocide -- car bombs have been characterized as the poor man's air force, and we don't generally think of air bombardment as genocide. But as the quote unwinds, "genocidal Islamism" starts to take on real faces: Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran. The logic here appears to be that anyone who opposes or disdains Israel is ultimately genocidal. We shouldn't need to rehash where that paranoia comes from, but one point need be made: it takes an extraordinary amount of arrogance to translate that paranoia into an aggressive war against most or maybe all of the Middle East. One more thought is that the only weapons Israel has that has the reach to attack all those imagined "genocidal Islamists" are nuclear. If Israel leaders follow that logic as stubbornly as they've followed their logic to date, they'll be the ones who make the leap from the present scattered atrocities to genocide. Having demonized everyone, how else can they safeguard themselves?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Gray on Globalization

I've had the April 27, 2006 issue of The New York Review of Books in a pile next to my desk, planning on writing something about John Gray's "The Global Delusion" review of several books on globalization. The first quote is a summary of Daniel Cohen's book Globalization and Its Enemies:

"Today's globalization," [Cohen] notes, "is 'immobile'" Goods are produced and marketed on a planetary scale but those who live in rich countries encounter other societies chiefly through television and exotic vacations. There are politically controversial migrations of poor people from the Middle East and Africa to Europe and from Mexico to the United States, but immigrants still make up only around 3 percent of the world's population today, whereas in 1913 it was about 10 percent. Again, trade has expanded greatly in the past thirty years but a great deal of it occurs between rich countries. The fifteen longstanding members of the European Union make up around 40 percent of global commerce, but two thirds of their imports and exports are traded within Europe itself. As Cohen puts it, "in wealthy countries globalization is largely imaginary."

The belief that financial globalization is promoting economic development in poor countries is also delusive. Global financial markets have few incentives to equip poor countries to be globally productive. It may be profitable to computerize a grocery store in New York, but in Lagos customers are too poor to pay the prices required by such investment. The result is that technology is very unevenly diffused, and the poor stay poor.

However, the reason is not that rich countries are victimizing poor countries. The poverty of developing countries is often blamed on unfair terms of trade, and there ccan be little doubt that protectionist practices in agriculture both within the EU and in the US, for example, have hindered poor countries; but Cohen argues that on the whole trade is not as unequal as has been widely thought. The basic reason that poor countries stay poor is that they have little that rich countries want or need.

"To understand today's globalization," he observes dryly, "requires that one renounce the idea that the poor are stunted or exploited by globalization." The poor of the world are not so much exploited as neglected and forgotten. At the same time the press and television are drenching them with images of the riches they lack. For the poor, globalization is not an accomplished fact but a condition that remains to be achieved. The irony of the current phase of globalization is that it universalizes the demand for a better life without providing the means to satisfy it.

This strikes me as approximately right in general, although I would add that when first world capitalists do engage the third world -- the more au courant "developing world" terminology seems prejudicial to this discussion, since the point is that they aren't developing -- it is with advantage in mind, which easily enough maps to exploitation. My other point is that the poor in the US are neglected in the same way -- a point which the last line of the quote underlines. It's easy to make sense of this phenomena as global class struggle, but few people on either side see it that way, because few people have a direct sense of exploitation, but many or most can identify cultural differences that correlate in their minds with continued disparities of wealth.

In this world of mismatched views, anything that disrupts our sheltered sense of civilization is terrorism, but how else can an outsider get our attention? In the old conservatism the poor were always with you, but in neo-world the poor are out of sight and out of mind -- as much as possible, anyway. That's a program for not solving problems, for periodic eruptions of rude shocks, and for nasty reprisals. We know from history that distancing is what makes atrocities palatable, and therefore more likely.

Gray's take on globalization goes beyond his books to focus on limits to growth -- resource dependencies, environment, etc.:

This conjunction of intensifying scarcity in energy supplies with accelerating climate change is the other face of globalization. It poses a large question mark over Cohen's belief that the main problem with globalization is that it is incomplete, for it suggets that completing it may not be feasible. The current phase is only the extension to the wider world of the industrial revolution that began in England a couple of centuries ago, but already it is destabilizing the environmental systems on which all industrial societies depend. Extending the energy-intensive lifestyle of the rich world to the rest of humankind would have an even more destabilizing impact.

I'm reminded here that Kenneth Deffeyes starts his book Beyond Oil off with a quote from Kenneth Boulding:

Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

I've seen economics described as the science of scarcity -- i.e., economics is the study of how we allocate goods in a world where goods are scarce. But when we look back at the material comforts one once aspired to and compare them to what has been widely achieved -- at least in the "developed world" -- and our lack of satisfaction with them, one is tempted to conclude that scarcity itself is a major product of capitalism. Indeed, the engine that produces a greater sense of scarcity appears to be nothing less than the growing disparity between rich and poor: the richer the rich get, the steeper the demand for equality -- hence more strife, whether class conscious or confused; hence more destruction, whether inflicted by rich or poor. It's as if the contradictions within capitalism have to break loose even if not in the form Marx imagined them.

On the other hand, if we could come up with a sense that some achievable level of material comfort satisfies our needs and is universally achievable, we would inch beyond scarcity, hence beyond economics. Whether this is possible isn't all that clear, but moving in the direction of greater equality is likely to be key.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Rope-a-Dope Diplomacy

A week or two ago Helena Cobban posted a piece wondering whether the Bush Administration had decided to change its approach to Iran. Yesterday I landed on Fox News, where the All-Stars were squirming around the question of whether the Bush Doctrine -- we'll wreck your country and hurt you bad if we even suspect you're up to no good -- has been put back on the shelf, or maybe buried behind the garage. I gather worry about Bush's willpower to start more wars is an issue that has simmering on the far right for a while now. A shameless apologist like Fred Barnes dismisses it, arguing that Bush always tries diplomacy before he buckles down. Charles Krauthammer just looks smug and menacing, reminding us Bush still has plenty of time left as president.

What the right worries about is that when you threaten someone and don't follow through you'll wind up looking weak, which will make your threats less effective in the future. That may be true, but what really knocks the hot air out of a bully is when he gets the shit kicked out of him. One theory is that the US picked Iraq out from the Axis of Evil because it looked to be the easy mark. Had that been successful Bush would be positioned to go after the others, much as the chimeric victory in Afghanistan set up war in Iraq. But failure, a fact even if not an option, has the opposite effect, as America's proven weakness emboldens so-called enemies. This might be worrisome if Iran and North Korea were real threats to anything more than the right's vanity image of America the omnipotent. Of course, that's why the only Americans who worry about not rushing to war in Iran and/or North Korea are the far right ideologues. Everyone else has real problems to worry about.

If anything has changed in Bush's foreign policy, it's the facts, not the theory. Having been pounded in Iraq, and watching Afghanistan slip further away, Bush hasn't given up fighting, but he's been forced into a lot of rope-a-dope. His insistence on Europe interceding with Iran and China with North Korea gives him some breathing room, but it also has had one significant side-effect: Europe's fear of what Bush might do to Iran -- a major source of their oil -- has led them to go along with US complaints about Iran's nuclear program, appeasement that only weakens Europe and encourages further US aggression. One obvious side effect of this is that Europe has been almost silent over Israel's escalation into Gaza. Until recently, we had reason to hope that Europe might become an effective force supporting international law. In laying down for Bush and Olmert, they're biding their time while bullies get their way. But then Munich always was in the heart of Europe, and lessons once learned can conveniently be forgotten.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Music: Current count 12083 [12057] rated (+26), 892 [895] unrated (-3). Spent all week on Jazz CG, still more prospecting than reviewing, which means I'm behind. But I didn't manage a single break to rate a non-jazz record, hence this weekly entry is empty. Did finally manage to listen to a bit of the Sonic Youth and KRS-One albums in the car, and they sound like they'll wind up on the A-list. Figure this next week to be all jazz too, or damn close.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 10)

Spent the whole week listening to jazz, and this is all I have to show for it. Still nearly a week's worth of material in the unplayed queue: a big box from Fresh Sound, four new Chico Hamiltons, the Impulse Story series, advances from Blue Note and Verve, a couple of new things in annoying advance packages from Clean Feed, the Kieran Hebden-Steve Reid collabs, things by Wayne Horvitz, Mike Stern, Fred Wesley, others more obscure. Still hope to get a column this coming week, but the odds seem to be dropping maybe 50-50. Need to write up what I've rated, and zero in on the good stuff on the replay shelf. Have two records I'd be happy with as Pick Hits. Don't have a clearcut Dud. How tacky would it be to give Kenny G his lifetime achievement award?


Jeff Healey: Among Friends (2002 [2006], Stony Plain): Blind from age one, Healey is a Canadian who learned to play blues guitar laying his axe flat on his lap. After several albums, he picked up a trumpet and started playing trad jazz, inspired and spurred on by Dick Sudhalter on this first rough cut album, now reissued by his new label. I prefer the new one, It's Tight Like That, and not only because Chris Barber joins in. But there's nice stuff here, like the rhythm guitar on "Stardust" -- also the roughness in his voice, which seems to be on the right track. B+(*)

Jay Geils-Gerry Beaudoin and the Kings of Strings (2005 [2006], Arbors): Two guitarists. Geils is the same guy who ran the J. Geils Band, a venerable Boston rock group I never got around to checking out. According to his bio, he was a big Benny Goodman fan when he was growing up, and finally reverted to his first love when he recorded Jay Geils Plays Jazz! (Stony Plain; haven't heard it, but anything with Scott Hamilton is promising in my book). Haven't heard Beaudoin before either -- he has several swing-oriented albums going back to the early '90s. Beaudoin is also on Geils' jazz album, and they've taken to calling themselves the Kings of Strings. The guitarists are fine enough, but the only thing that keeps the hyperbole from becoming laughable is the tag, "Featuring Aaron Weinstein" -- the young violinist whose debut, A Handful of Stars I recommend highly. Beaudoin describes Weinstein as "the most mature 19-year-old I've never met." Actually, he's the world's youngest old fogie, a teenager who set his stars on Joe Venuti and figured out how to get there. He's less impressive here than on his own album, where he pointedly picked out his own choice accompanists and went straight for Bucky Pizzarelli (and Houston Person and Joe Ascione). Still, this is pretty enjoyable. B+(**)

Maurice Hines: To Nat "King" Cole With Love (2005 [2006], Arbors): Singer tribute albums usually beg the question, why not the original? I predict that once my original surprise and delight wear off, this will wind in the Honorable Mentions, but right now the only similar album I can think of that I find this charming is Roseanna Vitro's Catching Some Rays -- as in Ray Charles, and obviously there the vocal comparison was less in lay, so the music took over. Hines is Gregory's older brother. He has the same talent set -- dancer, actor, singer, in roughly that order -- but never got so famous. The songs are the ones you know. Hines' voice is damn close to Cole's, so he depends on ticks and nuances for variation. The band is first rate -- some real swing, especially the Tommy Newsom arrangements. [A-]

Warren Vaché and the Scottish Ensemble: Don't Look Back (2005 [2006], Arbors): The Scottish Ensemble is a string group, 12 in number. Three arrangements were by 87-year-old Bill Finegan, "the dean of arranging" -- means nothing to me. The others were by James Chirillo, who conducted and plays a little guitar. Vaché's cornet is frequently lovely, but the strings turn me off. Could be a dud, especially if I wanted to do something on the deadly seduction strings hold for horn players. The last two Vaché records I've heard were A-listed, so this is no more personal than Waltz Again was for David Murray. B-

Jeff Barnhart: In My Solitude (Arbors Piano Series, Volume 16) (2005 [2006], Arbors): Solo piano, a mix of stride and slower pieces. One of Barnhart's two originals here is "Remembering Ralph" -- for Sutton, an obvious influence. I find no real fault with this, nor much interest either, except that I wouldn't mind hearing more fast ones like "Stealin' Apples," the Fats Waller piece that closes the album. B

Linton Garner Trio: Quiet Nights (2002 [2006], Cellar Live): Linton was Erroll Garner's older brother. Born 1915, raised in Pittsburgh, played piano for Billy Eckstine and others in the late '40s, moved to Montreal in 1962, and later to Vancouver, where he was a fixture on the scene until his death in 2003 -- 26 years after his more famous younger brother. His trio here includes Ross Taggart on tenor sax and Russ Botten on bass. The program offers standards with one Garner original. Garner gets a lot of space to open up, and Taggart has a broad, lush tone. It's all quite straightforward, very comfortable. B+(**)

Joe Locke-Geoffrey Keezer Group: Live in Seattle (2005 [2006], Origin): A quartet with vibes, piano or other keyboard, bass and drums. Most of this races along at quite a clip, which seems to work for Keezer and against Locke. Indeed, in two plays I've gotten very little out of the vibes, and I've gotten rather tired of the galloping, crashing keyboards. B-

The Source (2005 [2006], ECM): This Norwegian group dates back to 1993 when three of four members were students at the Trondheim Conservatory of Music. They recorded an album in 2000 with Cikada string quartet -- haven't heard it, but it got a favorable nod from Penguin Guide. ECM didn't list the group members on the cover, as they often do. The name, and probable leader, is saxophonist Trygve Seim, with trombonist Øyvind Braekke providing a second horn. Mats Eilertsen, the non-Trondheimer, plays bass. (The original bassist was Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, best known for his work with Ken Vandermark.) Per Oddvar Johansen drums. The lineup recalls groups with Roswell Rudd and Albert Mangelsdorff, but toned way down in ECM's customary way, jazz that is free but without offense. Takes a while to sort it out, but this is promising. [B+(**)]

Susanne Abbuehl: Compass (2003-04 [2006], ECM): Second album by a Swiss-Dutch vocalist, singing slow pieces with minimal accompaniment: mostly piano, with some clarinet for color and occasional bits of percussion. She adds words to two pieces by Chick Corea and Sun Ra. Two more pieces are her arrangements of Lucio Berio "Folk Songs." More pieces add her music to words from James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, and Feng Meng-Lung. And one piece is original start to finish. Quite nice even if only consumed for atmospherics, although there's probably a good deal more to it for those with the patience to ferret it out. B+(**)

Martin Speake: Change of Heart (2002 [2006], ECM): English alto saxist, in a quartet with Bobo Stenson, Mick Hutton and Paul Motian -- names enough to make the front cover. Not familiar with him, although he's recorded quite a bit over the last ten years. This is rather inside out, nice balanced -- Stenson certainly earns his keep. A fine record, the sort of art and craft we hope for, something that sustains our interest all the way to the end. Probably too modest to be a great one, but we'll see. [B+(***)]

Open Door: So Close to Beautiful (2006, Hipbone/Kindred Rhythm): Actually a soft hip-hop album, reminds me a bit of the Stereo MC's, perhaps crossed with some trip-hop. One cover: "DJ," from David Bowie's Eno-produced period. Principals are Vicki Bell (vocals, remix), Peter Adams (keybs), Ray Grappone (beats), with a bunch of guests. B+(*)

The Bob Gallo Quintet: Wake-Up Call (2005 [2006], CD Baby): No label evident here, not even the usual website, although the hype sheet says this is available from North Country, and google points to CD Baby. I've used the latter before on self-released albums where no label is evident, so that will do here. No session dates either, but CD Baby gives this as a May 2005 release, while the hype sheet says Sept. 1, 2006. Gallo plays guitar. His resume mostly lists TV work, which doesn't cut much grease hereabouts. The quintet includes trumpet (Alex Sipiagin), piano (Misha Tsiganov), bass (Boris Koslov) and drums (Gene Jackson). The music is competent postbop with nice solo work from the the main three. B

Ben Monder Trio: Dust (1996 [2006], Sunnyside): Having appeared on ninety-some albums, Monder is a flexible postbop guitarist who can be depended on to fit in and add something every time out. This reissue of a 1997 album originally in Arabesque shows him in the lead, laying out his kit, a fair approximation of the state of the art in jazz guitar. B+(*)

Ben Monder: Excavation (1999 [2006], Sunnyside): Another reissue, originally on Arabesque. Pretty much the sum of its parts: shifty microwaves of rhythm from Jim Black and Skuli Sverrisson (aka AlasNoAxis), scat hymns from Theo Bleckmann, guitar-drenched window dressing from Monder. B

Kenny Wheeler: It Takes Two! (2005 [2006], Cam Jazz): Guitarists, that is: John Abercrombie and John Parricelli. And two more: Wheeler on flugelhorn and Anders Jormin on bass. I'm not all that clear on how the guitars sort out -- there are fairly detailed notes here, but I've been listening in passing. Wheeler has recorded a pile of records recently for this label, all slight, intricate, intriguing, indecisive. This is one more I don't quite know what to do with. [B+(**)]

Pete Robbins: Waits & Measures (2004 [2006], Playscape): Second album. Plays alto sax and clarinet. This is a sextet with Sam Sadigursky on heavier reeds (tenor sax and bass clarinet), Eliot Krimsky on keybs, guitar, bass and drums. First song, "Inkhead," is delightfully disjointed, almost Monkish. Nothing else stands out like that, but the album continues with flashes of thoughtful, intricate, sometimes quirky music. B+(**)

Thomas Chapin Trio: Ride (1995 [2006], Playscape): One of the most influential forces in the downtown resurgence of avant-jazz in New York in the early '90s, Chapin died young, age 40, leukemia. One measure of the respect accorded Chapin is the amount of live material that has been released since his death, including a massive 8-CD box from Knitting Factory defiantly titled Alive. Another is Michael Musillami's Playscape label, which is more or less the house organ of Chapin's former bandmates. So it's fitting that one more piece pop up here. The trio joins Mario Pavone and Michael Sarin. The record starts harsh before they ease off, find a groove, then tear it up and blare some more. Chapin plays flute as well as alto and sopranino sax, well enough I can't complain. Sarin takes a long drum solo -- I enjoyed every moment. Pavone plays some heavy duty bass. The set closes with a "Ticket to Ride" that made my day. [B+(***)]

Michael Musillami's Dialect: Fragile Forms (2006, Playscape): A guitarist with a dozen albums going back to 1990. Also the proprietor of a label which since 2000 has focused on an interesting circle of downtown New Yorkers, most with ties to the late Thomas Chapin. This group is a quartet with Michael Madsen on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Matt Wilson on drums. Although Musillami is credited with writing all of the songs, the key player is Madsen, who often seems to be stomping off orthogonally to whatever the others are doing. I suppose that means the fragility of the forms is shown by fracturing them. Some chance this record will grow on me even more. [B+(***)]

Lucian Ban & Alex Harding: Tuba Project (2005 [2006], CIMP): Well, if you're going to do a tuba project, the go to guy is Bob Stewart, so at least they got that part right. I can see why Ban, a New York-resident pianist from Romania, might want to do such a thing, but I don't quite get the point of adding two saxophones -- Harding's baritone and J.D. Allen's tenor. The fifth member of the group is drummer Derrek Phillips, so Stewart winds up stuck with the bass parts. Way way back when tuba was sometimes used in place of bass, and some pieces like "Cajun Stomp" suggest that, but "Muhal' Song" (for Abrams) is off in another direction.l But the main problem I have is hearing just what's going on. Maybe that's because I don't have the audiophile equipment producer Robert Rusch sells. Or maybe I just don't have the ears. Will try it again. [B+(*)]

Adam Lane Trio: Zero Degree Music (2005 [2006], CIMP): A young bassist with big ambitions. He cites Ellington, Stockhausen, and Japanese noise band Melt Banana as influences prime influences. A more extensive list includes actual bassists: Charles Mingus, of course, and Bootsy Collins, why not? He has one group called Full Throttle Orchestra, and another called Supercharger Jazz Orchestra. He has orchestral works and solo works. Also a quartet with John Tchicai, Paul Smoker and Barry Altschul. I haven't heard any of those -- another SFFR. Before I looked him up, this one struck me as avant-grunge, recalling Christgau's first Nirvana review: "the kind of loud, slovenly, tuneful music you think no one will ever work a change on again until the next time it happens, whereupon you wonder why there isn't loads more. It seems to simple." This is simple like that. Lane's pieces are all pulse, some slow, most fast. Vijay Anderson drums along, reinforcing the pulse rather than fighting it. All this, especially stretched over 70 minutes, wouldn't amount to much without the third member, saxophonist Vinny Golia. He's another ambitious guy, with his own label and a huge catalogue I've barely cracked, but here he too keeps it simple, riffing over whatever pulse Lane lays out. Plays soprano and tenor, and while I naturally prefer the big horn the small one works just as well here. Could be upgraded. Could be a Pick Hit. A-

Trio-X (Joe McPhee, Dominic Duval, Jay Rosen): Moods: Playing With the Elements (2004 [2006], CIMP): McPhee started recording around 1968. He is one of the most accomplished jazz musicians of the era, the kind of guy who should be climbing up Downbeat's Hall of Fame ballot, yet I wonder how many jazz fans have actually heard him. I haven't heard many myself: 9, compared to AMG's list of 46 albums and compilations. This is because no one has been more doggedly marginal, commercially speaking, but it's also because he's such a firm believer in the magic of the improvisatory moment that his records strike one -- me, anyway -- more as instances than statements. Half-a-dozen records in, you sort of know what he can do, beyond which it isn't necessary to hear all the times he does it -- not that I wouldn't mind. This one strikes me as in that same vein, a good example of his range that doesn't quite stand out. One unusual thing about McPhee is that he is the only major jazz musician since Benny Carter to distinguish himself on both brass and reeds. Here is plays tenor sax, flugelhorn and pocket trumpet, and balances them evenly, doing similar things in distinct voices. Duval and Rosen are pretty much the Cadence combine's house band, a dependable free base for any labelmate who shows up. Haven't heard their other Trio-X albums, so can't compare them. Could be being overly cautious here -- if you don't know McPhee, this is as good a place to start as any. B+(***)

Billy Stein Trio: Hybrids (2005 [2006], Barking Hoop): Debut album by a guitarist who "has been working in New York for the best 30 years, continually honing his style." Stein played in Milt Hinton's Jazz Workshop in the mid-'70s, in a class that produced Sam Furnace and Kevin Norton. Don't know much more than that, but by the time Norton finally recorded Stein his guitar style was about as honed as you can get. He dances adroitly on a surface of bass and drums, always keeping a step ahead of your expectations. The trio is ably filled out by Rashid Bakr, who's played for William Parker, and Reuben Radding, the guy you call when Parker doesn't answer his phone. The bass-guitar interplay here is particuarly sweet. [A-]

Instinctual Eye: Born in Brooklyn (2005 [2006], Barking Hoop): Free improv from a multilateral trio consisting of Kevin Norton (drums, vibes), Frode Gjerstad (clarinet, alto sax), and Nick Stephens (bass). The two long pieces take some strange curves, breaking up into noise then suddenly cohering into something quite unexpected -- intense details, less clear as to the overall trajectory. The longer first piece has Norton mostly on vibes, a finely tuned percussion kit that contrasts strongly with the clarinet. B+(**)

Frequency (2006, Thrill Jockey): I'm tempted to file this eponymous group album under Edward Wilkerson Jr., since he's probably the senior member and definitely carries the loudest horn, but most of his records are currently filed under 8 Bold Souls, an avant big band he was definitely the main force behind. He plays tenor sax and clarinet here, wood flute and bells. But everyone plays flutes of some kind or another, especially Nicole Mitchell, who ranges from piccolo to bass flute, plus melodica, Egyptian harp, and plastic bag. She has four albums and a Downbeat rising star poll win. She's also credited with two pieces to one each for the others, and perhaps more importantly the flutes take over after an early sax squall and the albums ends with a whimper. The other members are bassist Harrison Bankhead and percussionist Avreeayl Ra, both steady hands on Chicago's fringe. Lots of interesting spots here, but I have trouble keeping the thread, and weary of the flute register. B+(*)

Bang on a Can & Don Byron: A Ballad for Many (2004-06 [2006], Cantaloupe): Byron just plays clarinet on three songs here -- the Bang on a Can All Stars have a regular clarinet player, Evan Ziporyn, who handles the balance. Byron wrote most (all?) of the music, produced the album, and wrote the liner notes you have to go to the website to read. So, effectively, this is Bang on a Can Plays Don Byron, much like they previously played Eno or Terry Riley. I tend to think of Bang on a Can as natural successors to the Kronos Quartet: a classical-rooted repertoire group that crosses over into semipopular waters to show that their own chosen style needn't be hopelessly academic. But Kronos was/is a stock concept -- the string quartet. Bang on a Can seems more like a production company, with a lineup that shifts according to the project instead of forcing the project to conform. In this case, the lineup is clarinet, guitar, piano, cello, bass, drums. The cello is the main difference from Byron's own orchestrations, and it dominates here. Not sure what I think of this: strikes me as stiff and heavy, unjazzlike, but otherwise hard to classify. [B]

Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: MTO Volume 1 (2005 [2006], Sunnyside): This group has been gigging around New York since 1999, so I've heard a lot about them over the years, and any record by them would be welcome -- if nothing else, just a way to map the reports to a sound. The idea came out of Robert Altman's Kansas City film, which Bernstein did research for -- listening to tapes from the old territory bands that toured around Kansas City in the late '20s and early '30s. This follows the sound a lot more closely than, say, Ken Vandermark's Territory Band, but it doesn't stop there, pulling in Prince's "Darling Nikki," Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed and Delivered," and something from Sly Stone I don't recognize -- Bernstein says, "I made Sly Stone sound like an early Bennie Moten thing." (The notes leave something to be desired; blind faith in the ability of live music to overcome critical facilities isn't all that popular a position among us critics.) Two vocals threw me at first, Matt Munisteri's more old-timey "Pennies From Heaven" kicking in first, Doug Wamble's Wonder tune slowly getting there. Working on it. [A-]

Sex Mob: Sexotica (2006, Thirsty Ear): Figured I should play this next after MTO, since this is another Steven Bernstein group. Or at least was: working off an advance (release date Aug. 1) here which comes with no info on who plays what, or who wrote what, or when it was recorded, or any of that. Thirsty Ear has been one of the most consistently interesting jazz labels of the new century, but they've never gotten their basic bookkeeping down. What the hype sheet says is: "Sex Mob and Good & Evil present an electro-acoustic fantasy inspired by Martin Denny." I have to admit I'm not down with Denny -- as best I recall, what made his exotica exotic was liberal use of bird calls. These guys are clever enough to do a bit of that with acoustic horns, but this time maybe they got too clever? Not clear where the sex is. [B]

Beans (featuring William Parker and Hamid Drake): Only (2006, Thirsty Ear): Another advance, but street date here is April 4, so this one should be out. Can't find the useless info sheet either, so time I know even less than the usual next to nothing. Beans is half of the former Antipop Consortium: raps a little, mixes beats. With Antipop did a previous Blue Series album with Matthew Shipp. Parker and Drake are a little out of their depth here, although the acoustic bass riff is nice to hear as a pulse-line. [PS: Found the hype sheet. Starts with this: "The Ornette Coleman of this rap shit/The link between Suicide, Sun Ra and Bambaataa." Seems to be a line from Beans on Beans. Actually, I'm not even sure he's the Curtis Amy of rap shit, but that would be closer to the mark.] B+(*)

Carl Hancock Rux: Good Bread Alley (2006, Thirsty Ear): As long as I'm in a bad mood, here's another advance, release date May 23, out already. Don't know Rux. Read that he does spoken word -- how does that differ from rap? -- but this is all sung. Could be something here, but it's hard to tell, and whatever it is it isn't jazz. Bad sign is yet another riff on "Motherless Child." B

Eri Yamamoto: Cobalt Blue (2006, Thirsty Ear): Another advance, out July 18. From Osaka, moved to New York to study at New School and stuck around. This is her debut, a piano trio, originals aside from a Japanese folk song and standards by Porter and Gershwin. But she made a pretty strong impression last year handling the piano for William Parker's trio, Luc's Lantern. Her trio mates here are David Ambrosio on bass and Ikuo Takeuchi on drums. Strong rhythm, nice touch. One of the better piano trios I've heard lately. [B+(**)]

Thirsty Ear Presents: Nu Jazz Today (2002-06 [2006], Thirsty Ear): Another advance. Don't see a release date, so perhaps this isn't a real release. In any case it's just a label sampler, with two tracks each from five recent (or near-future) albums: Groundtruther, Longitude; Sex Mob, Sexotica; Nils Petter Molvaer, An American Compilation; Matthew Shipp, One; Carl Hancock Rux, Good Bread Alley. The first three fit into the label's jazztronica stream, even though Molvaer evolved his own independently. Shipp's solo piano and Rux's soul food fit somewhere else. Good stuff, but docked for uselessness -- unlike, I might add, their two previous samplers, Blue Series Essentials and The Shape of Jazz to Come. Also, given how Nu Soul stacks up, they should think twice about describing anything as Nu Jazz. B-

Dr. Lonnie Smith: Jungle Soul (2005 [2006], Palmetto): I probably should have placed Smith's previous Palmetto album, Too Damn Hot!, on my Duds list, but I had no idea that anyone might have been taken by such a slight and tepid outing. So that this one is pretty good comes as a big surprise. I don't know what to make of producer Matt Baltisaris's credits for "rhythm and acoustic guitar," but they can't have hurt. Guitar is central, most clearly electric, almost certainly the work of Peter Bernstein, who displays a rare knack for working within the soul jazz genre. Drummer Allison Miller also works inside, most tastefully on the chilldown closer, "Jungle Wisdom." Given such restraint from the group, even Smith dials his Hammond down, finding a temperate range that's just right. Maybe the previous album was too damn hot after all. B+(**)

John Pizzarelli/The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: Dear Mr. Sinatra (2005 [2006], Telarc): Don't recall seeing this in credits before, but for the record Pizzarelli wears Brioni suits and formal wear. He's photographed walking on the beach in his Brioni suit with an umbrella, but barefoot -- guess he doesn't have a shoe contract yet. The title suggests the likely problem is too formal and too respectful, and there's something to that, although formal is the last word one would use to describe his soft-cushioned voice. The Claytons, Hamilton, et al., know this music cold, and warm it up per the instructions on the box. In other words, nothing new, but most of the songs wear well anyway. B

Yellowjackets: Twenty Five (2005 [2006], Heads Up): The group, founded in 1981 by Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip and a couple others now long gone, has been around for 25 years now. To mark the occasion, we get a live album with old songs and a bonus DVD with more of the same. The current group includes saxophonist Bob Mintzer since 1990 and drummer Marcus Baylor since 2000. Haslip plays electric bass. Ferrante and Mintzer play synths as well as acoustic instruments. Never listened to them before I started Jazz CG, but based on their previous album I found myself wondering which smooth jazz group was the all-time worst -- their major competition seems to come from Acoustic Alchemy and Urban Knights, but I can't say as I've exhaustively researched the subject. This one, however, isn't bad. It no doubt helps that they get to cherry-pick from their songlist. It also seems to be the case that smooth jazz groups in general, regardless of what they'll stoop to in the studio, fall back on their jazz chops when they go live. Mintzer certainly knows his way around Michael Brecker if not David Murray. Ferrante knows his Chick Corea if not Dave Burrell. Baylor can play around the beat as well as on it -- "Greenhouse" strikes me as pretty valid, all the way down to Mintzer's solo coda. The "free bonus DVD" is just another concert. B+(*)

The Chris Byars Octet: Night Owls (2001-02 [2006], Smalls): A smallish big band, with two brass and three saxes, the latter doubling on clarinet and flutes, plus the usual piano-bass-drums. Pretty mainstream stuff, with the harmonies layered on unobtrusively, none of that postmodernist harmonic theory. Even swings some. I'm more pleased than impressed. B+(**)

Misja Fitzgerald Michel: Encounter (2005 [2006], No Format/Sunnyside): Guitarist, French I think, plays acoustic and electric, 6- and 12-string. The latter reminds me of one of the first reviews I wrote, where I lampooned Leo Kottke for sounding like he had too many strings on his guitar. But the density works better here, especially since he has a first rate bassist in Drew Gress. Nine of eleven pieces are trios, with Jochen Rueckert on drums. Two songs each from Coleman and Coltrane, one from Shorter, one from Bill Stewart, the rest originals. The trio pieces are dense and meaty. The other two songs feature Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax. He sounds terrific, but putting him on the opener is a bit of misdirection. [B+(**)]


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

Jeff Healey & the Jazz Wizards: It's Tight Like That (2005 [2006], Stony Plain): Now that I've heard Healey's first trad jazz album -- haven't heard his earlier albums, which evidently were blues or blues-rock -- I'm impressed at how much tighter his band has become. In particular, Christopher Plock has a much larger role on clarinet and various saxes, Jesse Barksdale has taken over most of the guitar, and violinist Drew Jurecka is a major addition. Of course, guest Chris Barber looms huge here. He gives Healey a trumpet's best friend: a trombone -- remember that Armstrong never left home without one. He sings three songs, and he keeps everyone sharp -- he's played this kind of music fifty-some years. Recorded live, a terrific show. A-

Ray Mantilla: Good Vibrations (2006, Savant): The vibes man is Mike Freeman, and he gets off to a terrific start on two Lionel Hampton classics, but loses ground after that, as the Latin percussion takes over -- "special guest" Steve Berrios as well as the leader. Nothing wrong with that, but they need some little thing extra to make it remarkable, and that only happens when Enrique Fernández switches from flute to baritone sax for a finale called -- what else? -- "Bari Con Salsa." B+(*)

Chicago Underground Duo: In Praise of Shadows (2005 [2006], Thrill Jockey): Two now, or again, just Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor. When they stick to their main instruments, cornet and drums respectively, their spareness is attractive. However, they use the occasion to work all sorts of extra junk into the mix -- most of it can be categorized as electronics, but prepared piano and prepared vibes also enter the mix. At its most otherworldly it even sounds a bit like Harry Partch. Unfortunately, more often it doesn't sound like much of anything. B


Reading Billmon

At some point I'd like to go back and read the blog archives for Billmon, perhaps compiling a file of quotables. I started reading that blog on the day after Katrina hit New Orleans, so that's as far back as I go -- don't know how much more there is. One significant thing is that he's managed to sort out a set of terminology that works consistently for problems that often leave me thrashing. Examples: the Cheney Administration, Shrub, New Pravda, the Senate Whitewash Committee. Some of what he does is plainly meant in jest, especially when he fires up Photoshop (or whatever he uses; Gimp maybe?). But he also hits on some rather deep ideas, and does so more consistently than any other blog I've run across.

Here's one quote from his post on Al Gore:

But if extinction, or a return to the dark ages, is indeed our fate -- or our grandchildren's fate, anyway -- I think it will be a Hobson's choice as to which cultural tendency will bear the largest share of the blame:

  1. the arrogant empiricism that has made human society into an instrument of technological progress instead of the other way around,

  2. the ignorant prejudices of the masses, who are happy to consume the material benefits of the Enlightenment but unwilling to assume intellectual responsibility for them, or

  3. the cynical nihilism of corporate and political elites who are willing to play upon the latter in order to perpetuate the former, which is, after all is said and done, their ultimate claim to power.

Actually, I broke that last line up, inserting the numbered list codes to put a little more space around the three choices -- to make it easier to think about them separately, even though they ultimately turn into one of those cyclical things where three beasts chase each other's tails. The three views -- they may well be different aspects of or perspectives on some underlying unity -- are worth unpacking and examining. Not that I want to head down that path here, but I will point out that the first one used to be talked about seriously on the left before the right made such a hash of it -- I'm thinking specifically of books like Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, work by Kuhn and (especially) Feyerabend on science, and a wide range of others who have doubts about the blessings of unfettered progress. As for the principals of the other two views, they've been around for a long time, but lately have become so garish they remind me of Douglas Adams' SEP: how do you make an object that no one sees? You make it so outrageously hideous that people are embarrassed to even acknowledge it, so they silently avert their eyes. There was a time when the fable of "The Emperor's New Clothes" was a gentle reminder to trust our eyes over manners as a guide to truth. But today, in the hands of someone like Karl Rove, it's become an election strategy.

Here's another series of Billmon quotes, from a post called "A House Divided," on blue-red theory:

If I had to boil our modern kulturkampf down to two words, they wouldn't be blue and red, they would be "traditionalist" and "modern." On one side are the believers in the old ways -- patriarchy, hierarchy, faith, a reflexive nationalism, and a puritanical, if usually hypocritical, attitude towards sexual morality. On the other are the rootless cosmopolitians -- secular, skeptical (although at times susceptible to New Age mythology), libertine (although some of us aren't nearly as libertine as we'd like to be) and less willing to equate patriotism with blind allegiance, either to a flag or a government. . . .

Rapid social changes often produce cultural reaction, which in turn spawns angry political movements. Post Civil War industrialization and financial colonization produced the Populists -- both good (Mother Jones) and bad (Tom Watson and Pitchfork Ben Tilman). The waves of 19th and early 20th century immigration spurred the rise of the Know Nothings and the modern Klu Klux Klan. The New Deal and the civil rights era incited the John Birch Society and Goldwater conservatism. And now the blowback effects of globalization (what conservative ideologues sneeringly deride as "multiculturalism") coupled with the patriotic and xenophobic passions unleashed by the war against Al Qaeda, have turbocharged the traditionalists into declaring something close to all-out war on the modernists -- as symbolized, at the moment, by the traitorous New York Times. . . .

The right, in particular, needs the culture war like a paralytic needs his iron lung. It reinforces a simplistic sense of tribal identity (us against the other) that is essential to the paranoid political style -- as Richard Hofstadter dubbed it -- but that increasingly doesn't exist in American society as a whole. The reality (and this brings me to my second point) is that there are not two cultural camps in America but three: the traditionalists, the modernists, and those in the middle, who may be pulled in one direction or another by their ethnic backgrounds, religious faiths, personal life histories or any or all of a thousand other factors.

I left out some wrinkles in a more complex argument -- as well as a lot of stuff about the Spanish Civil War that would be a lot scarier if there was some modern analog to Nazi Germany on the sidelines ready to side with the right -- but this strikes me as pretty close to the mark. One further conclusion I draw from this is that the political struggle between the right and everyone else -- not just the left -- is staggeringly asymetrical. The right insists on issues that the left long ago assumed were solved by common sense. The right uses tactics that the left wouldn't dream of using. And somehow the right is taken as having legitimate concerns while the left is disparaged as loony. Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to have any chance to turn public opinion around is how the triumphant right's uncritiqued bad ideas turn to ruin.

Billmon certainly see where this is going; hence the pessimism of the first quote. He questions why Gore works so hard to propagandize this Inconvenient Truth, asking perhaps if it's "the only sane alternative to despair." I have a simpler, if less convincing, view: if you're free enough to do what you want, you do what you are -- what lets you look at yourself in the mirror and respect the person you see. Ex-politicians suddenly find themselves with that freedom. Jimmy Carter went off to build houses for poor people, which isn't exactly what he did to get to the White House, and to some extent reinforces the notion that as a politician he wasn't true to himself. Gore rediscovered science and public policy. Clinton? Well, as long as Hilary's running he isn't really free, so he's stuck in a strange place, but he's been there so long it may be all the home he knows. On the other hand, GHW Bush went to work for Carlyle and Bob Dole sold Viagra. Those two were money-grubbing sellouts all their lives, so I guess we can grant them consistency in a peculiar form of integrity. But that just rewards the right's asymetric politics: why is it that we so easily trust crooks knowing that's what they are, but are so distrustful of anyone who wants to serve the broad public but has to jump through hoops of deceit to get the chance? Two reasons are the "ignorant masses" and "the cynical nihilism of corporate and political elites" mentioned in that first quote.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Feedback

I got the following note from a jazz publicist who recently looked at my website and read some of the non-jazz entries:

Prolific and opinionated. I like that. Maybe b/c my life is surrounded by liberals, it's so hard to believe how conservative "we" are. Don't want to seem like another ostrich. I suppose the fear factor created by our government is a useful tool to keep so many down and believing in them, and so scary. Glad you are out there writing about it.

This got me to thinking about why I write this stuff. It certainly isn't because I like politics, although some things that I did take a liking to as a child may have disposed me in that direction: geography, history. It's also the case that two cousins I was particularly close to -- for all intents and purposes the only people I knew when I was a teenager who actually went to college -- majored in political science, and one married a Soviet affairs expert, so that made three. Partly under their influence, I went through what I call my Kevin Phillips phase, when I studied election results going back to the Civil War and laboriously plotted them out on county maps. I knew who won every state for every election, and could narrow many down to the county level. I could recite the names of every US Senator since 1900, and many, but certainly not most, US Representatives. I read Congressional Quarterly for a while, and had a pretty good idea of who voted for what.

But none of that fit my original interests. For most of my teens what I really wanted to do was to design and build cars, especially race cars. My short, troubled period in high school was mostly spent in shop classes. I read most of the car magazines. I knew pretty much the whole history of Formula One, Indy, NASCAR; quite a bit about NHRA and even AHRA too. And quite a bit about street cars -- used to take a census of cars I spotted on trips. I didn't really know anything about engineering, but I was always tops in my class at science and math, so I probably could have done fine with a small bit of direction. In fact, before I got into cars, I figured myself to become a scientist. But I had no models in that direction. My father worked in an airplane factory. He was good with metal and a pretty fair carpenter, and I learned from him how to build things that won't fall down. Or to rephrase that, I learned from him that when you build things you have to understand how they want to fall down and what it takes to not let them do that. Many years later I realized that that's the basic key to engineering. So I don't doubt that I could have been a successful engineer had I studied in that direction, but I never did. In fact, I did manage to earn a living as a software engineer for 20+ years, based on no formal education at all -- I started designing typesetting systems, and learned to program along the way, but that's jumping ahead of the story.

Looking back now, I might have enjoyed becoming an engineer or scientist, but the profession I would really have loved would have been architecture. My basic passion was -- still is -- to build things, useful things, pleasing things, and what more so than living and working spaces? I know several young people -- children of friends -- who are moving in that direction, and I envy them. Seems too late for me now, but even now I think about getting into some kind of construction business -- maybe something with computers and home automation, something that would draw my interests and skills together. But I can't do that now, because ever since you know when I've been sucked into writing about the insane political nonsense the political right is putting us through.

For me, this is the second time war has disrupted my life. The first was Vietnam, when I was a teenager. When I was 16, Johnson doubled the number of US troops in Vietnam. By the time I was 18, the war was lost, but rather than "cut and run" -- that was when the phrase was perfected -- the political powers went into denial and stretched a pointless, vicious, brutal defeat out seven more years. Needless to say, the local draft board was more than happy to contribute my body to that cause. And I was determined enough not to go that I would have gone to jail instead. My next door neighbor didn't know any better, shipped over, and was killed. I learned better. I spent those seven years studying every facet of the war and the complex political, economic, sociological, and philosophical underpinnings that made it possible. I kept studying even after the Army decided they didn't want me any more than I wanted them. But then the war ended, and I chucked everything I knew and became a rock and roll critic. Supported myself working in type shops. Reverted to my primal engineering instincts. Learned to program, and was pretty successful at it. Had twenty-some years of relatively normal life in peacetime.

Then when I watched the WTC towers crumble into ash it all came back to me. They say 9/11 changed everything, and for me it did. They say we now live in war, and for me that is true. As with the previous war that so disrupted my life, all I could do was to report for duty once more. As with Vietnam, this war does us and everyone else vast harm. My job is to try to help people see that. I feel somewhat qualified to do that because of what I learned in that decade of the Vietnam War, and because of what I've learned in the half-decade and counting of this one. But also it wasn't just 9/11. Five years earlier I got to one of those midlife crises where you start thinking about how your life got twisted around so you never did those things you always wanted to do. I always wanted to write a book, and most of what I knew about was what I studied during the first war: the history and future of capitalism, how it made the way we live and how we want to move beyond it, and why it is important that we do so -- stuff about the limits of growth, the pointlessness of excessive accumulation, the psychic damage of competition. I started to read more, sketched it out, wrote some drafts, but didn't get very far.

One thing I figured out but never came up with a way to write about was that unless fundamental attitudes changed the future ran the increasingly risk of tragic sabotage -- what we now call terrorism. What changed on 9/11 was that future risk became history. As far as my book idea was concerned, I was unblocked: no longer would I have to posit future doom, since now we were living it. The problem since then has been catching up with its constant unfolding. We are racing an appalling progression of disaster because the fundamental ideas and instincts of our political regime and its broader culture are so dangerously dysfunctional. Not only is terrorism history now; so too is war in Iraq and elsewhere, so too is the endgame Israel is waging, so too is the worldwide class war, so too is global warming, so too are the dark ages sought by the self-blinkered religious right. Even more theoretical problems have been advancing as well, like declining oil supplies, growing population, and what happens when big chunks of the underdeveloped regions turn into major consumers. And we got a taste of what our inability to handle risk feels like with Katrina, also history.

I keep thinking I have something distinctive to say about issues like those. And I figure the blog is practice writing for writing that book I've never been able to buckle down on. So I keep plugging away. Seems like it's important enough to do, and I'm lucky that I can afford to invest the time. But if the blog is testimony to one thing it's that war knocks you out of normal life. That's one more reason to stand against war. As much as I'd rather work at building things, sometimes it's more important just to stop tearing them down.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Un-American Century

Having recently finished Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, the following decline-and-fall quote kind of jumped out at me from Tom Engelhardt's "Playing the Destabilization Card at Home and Abroad" dispatch:

In one of his recent commentaries, historian Immanuel Wallerstein pointed out that the "American Century," proclaimed by Time and Life Magazine owner Henry Luce in 1943, lasted far less than the expected hundred years. Now, the question -- and except for a few "declinist" scholars like Wallerstein, it would have been an unimaginable one as recently as 2003 -- is: "Whose century is the twenty-first century?" His grim answer: It will be the century of "multi-polar anarchy and wild economic fluctuations."

The Phillips book focuses on three prominent factors on the US political landscape that he sees as certain indicators, perhaps even as causes, of American decline: oil, religion, and finance. Citing one of his previous books, we can add growing inequality to that list. He goes back and looks at three previous world powers, finding analogus declines. The previous empires were Spain (16th century), Holland (17-18th century), and Britain (19th century). Oil figures into this equation as the energy source that built America's wealth and made its rise to world power possible. Coal fired Britain's empire in much the same way; the Dutch ascended on wind, both powering their ships around the world and their windmills at home. Spain's wealth, of course, was obtained the old fashioned way: by plundering the New World.

Religion seems to be the hubris of empire, something the ruling classes indulge in as they try to show that their ascendancy was blessed by God, something right and noble. But it also leads to a dumbing down, which seems to be a popular stance as decline sets in. The religion sections are the book's weakest, not because he's on the wrong track so much as he gets distracted along the way, spending a lot of time on voting patterns in the US and making far too facile generalizations elsewhere. Still, Lloyd George is pretty good evidence for his argument that Britain was deluded by religious paroxysms as it fell into decline.

Phillips is stronger on finance, although this combines several different issues. One is how the rich come to view moneymaking as a goal in itself, and this takes over, starving the manufacturing or agriculture or trading or whatever a nation's original sources of wealth were. Another is how as real wealth creation declines, increased debt provides a temporary illusion of wealth. But debt functions in several different ways depending on who owes what to whom. The massive growth of consumer debt in the US is something new: basically a way for the rich to keep getting richer without the lower classes quite realizing how much they're paying for it.

Wallerstein's own dissection of US prospects up to 2025:

The United States on top? There are three reasons to doubt this. The first, an economic reason, is the fragility of the U.S. dollar as the sole reserve currency in the world-economy. The dollar is sustained now by massive infusions of bond purchases by Japan, China, Korea, and other countries. It is highly unlikely that this will continue. When the dollar falls dramatically, it may momentarily increase the sale of manufactured goods, but the United States will lose its command on world wealth and its ability to expand the deficit without serious immediate penalty. The standard of living will fall and there will be an influx of new reserve currencies, including the euro and the yen.

The second reason is military. Both Afghanistan and especially Iraq have demonstrated in the last few years that it is not enough to have airplanes, ships, and bombs. A nation must also have a very large land force to overcome local resistance. The United States does not have such a force, and will not have one, due to internal political reasons. Hence, it is doomed to lose such wars.

The third reason is political. Nations throughout the world are drawing the logical conclusion that they can now defy the United States politically. Take the latest instance: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings together Russia, China, and four Central Asian republics, is about to expand to include India, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Iran. Iran has been invited at the very moment that the United States is trying to organize a worldwide campaign against the regime. The Boston Globe has called this correctly "an anti-Bush alliance" and a "tectonic shift in geopolitics."

One can quibble on details. In particular, military power these days is mostly unusable. Its use is not possible unless first you are able to demonize some enemy, which is hard to do, especially as more countries become democratic, respect human rights, are open to free trade, have negligible military forces, and no foreign ambitions. Moreover, the real damage that any war causes is such that it doesn't take a lot of deterrent threat to keep even the US at bay. What Iraq proves is that even an apparently toothless nation can be more than you want to bite off.

Englehardt started with a long review of the renovated cold war against Russia, then looked at numerous other examples where the order of the day seems to be to destabilize the world -- not just other countries but nature itself. His conclusion is worth quoting:

For George W. Bush and his top officials, taking the long-term heat on [global warming] probably isn't really an issue. They have the mentality not just of gamblers but of looters and in a couple of years, if worse comes to worse, they can head for Crawford or Wyoming or estates and ranches elsewhere to hunt fowl and drink mai tais. It's the rest of us, and especially our children and grandchildren, who will still be here on this destabilized, energy-hungry planet without an air conditioner in sight.

One thing neither Phillips nor Wallerstein get far into is how much future stress is possible, therfore how fast things we take for granted may collapse. As I see it, the only way to cope with such stress is to develop a firm foundation for cooperation. To do that we need to put behind us such obsessions with power, with the ability of one country to dominate others, to enforce its favoritism. Wallerstein's "multi-polar anarchy" is what you get when no state can project its dominion, and that does seem likely as the world grows more unconquerable. The open question is whether such a world devolves into chaos or develops into community based on mutual respect -- in other words, whether we cling to the failed tools of power or grow beyond such suspicions. Either way the next hundred years will be an Un-American Century.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Recycled Goods #33: July 2006

Recycled Goods keeps rolling along: column #33 has just been posted at Static Multimedia. Usual collection of a little bit of everything. If anything a little broader selection of everything -- soundtracks, children's music, and comedy records are not things I normally cover -- with a nice bump in world music, rather loosely defined. This makes 33 columns, 1382 albums, since I started in early 2003.


Counts: 1154 + 228 = 1382. Index by label:

  • Big Beat: The Zombies
  • Blue Jack Jazz: Herb Geller/Rein de Graaff, Red Rodney
  • Buda Musique: Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, Zanzibara {2}, Lulendo
  • EMI [Real World]: Yungchen Lhamo, Los de Abajo
  • EMI [Virgin]: Fountains of Wayne
  • Ex: The Ex
  • FS Music: Nachito Herrera
  • Hopscotch: Cooper-Moore
  • Numero Group: Cult Cargo, Wayfaring Strangers
  • Putumayo World Music: Baila, Paris
  • Runt [DBK, Water]: Thomas Mapfumo, Cluster, Fred Neil
  • Savoy Jazz: Dexter Gordon, Charles Brown, Robert Lockwood Jr, Gatemouth Moore, Women of Substance
  • Sony/BMG [Legacy]: Alabama, Johnny Cash {2}, Ghostbusters, Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane, Eddie Murphy, Harry Nilsson {4}, Rocky IV, Santana, Marlo Thomas, Robin Williams
  • Tresero: Sonido Isleno
  • WEA [Nonesuch]: Brian Eno/David Byrne, Cheikh Lo
  • WEA [Rhino]: Faces
  • World Music Network: Rough Guide to Boogaloo
  • Wrasse: Seu Jorge

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Turn Left in Mexico

One thing most Americans have trouble understanding is that the election of leftist, progressive political leaders in the developing world is a good thing -- for them, of course, but also for us -- by which I mean most Americans. This quite simply is because what poor nations need more than anything else is political leadership that represents poor people and works toward relieving their poverty and opening up opportunities for the poor to live healthier, happier, more productive, more responsible lives. We face a basic choice here: either we welcome the poor into our world, a world which is relatively well off, safe and orderly, or we face an endless fight to keep the excluded from tearing us down, one that bruises us as well as those we put down. Of course, the same can be said within America, and indeed that's a good reason for supporting leftists here, but worldwide the disparity is much starker, and therefore more urgent -- especially as the world shrinks and its people collide.

These thoughts are occasioned by the election in Mexico, as yet undecided. Mexico is a country with a large number of poor and a small number of rich -- often very rich. The latter are politically connected to government systems which are severely corrupt, which serves the rich well enough and keeps the poor powerless. Much has been written about why some nations are rich and others are poor and why the latter tend to stay locked in their poverty, but one common trait stands out: poor countries suffer from corruption. It should be easy to understand why this is so: wealth is produced by effective labor -- labor that is skilled, earnest, dilligent, and applied to genuinely useful tasks. Honesty is an essential trait of such labor. Corruption subverts honesty, perverts purpose, steals value. In hopelessly corrupt societies, which include large parts of Africa these days, there is no incentive to work, since all one produces is likely to be stolen.

Of course, there's more to building wealth -- natural resources are a big help -- and it takes time to build up the institutional infrastructures of dynamic economies: education, finance, law, a reasonable mix of regulation. In capitalist societies there has always been a tension between incentives that reward productivity and the sense of overall fairness. The left hasn't necessarily gotten this balance right -- the Communist regimes tended to kill incentive and opportunity by enforcing strict and often misguided planning -- but in nations like Mexico almost any move to the left is likely to be a positive correction.

Americans tend to think of Mexico in two contexts. One is the effect that NAFTA has, which mostly favors business both in the US and Mexico, and hurts labor. The business benefit is that it provides larger markets, although that is partly cancelled out when one country has products that overwhelm the other's market -- Mexico's farm industry has taken a beating from US agribusiness. US labor is also hurt by having to compete with cheaper Mexican labor, while any hypothetical benefit to Mexican labor rarely materializes due to the corruption and powerlessness there. The other context is illegal immigration, where Mexicans enter the US to work in low skill, low paid jobs. This also has the effect of depressing the US job market, while it leaves Mexican laborers without legal protection.

The people who benefit from NAFTA and illegal immigration, on both sides of the border, are disproportionately the rich, while those who pay are predominately the poor. The combined effect is to make the rich richer and leave the poor further behind -- a disturbing trend on both sides of the border. This effect has only increased during the Fox presidency, and would continue if the conservatives manage to rip off this election. Only a shift of power to the left is likely to make any difference here.

One reason Americans get so confused here is that they haven't noticed the central fact of US foreign policy, which is that "we" no longer includes the overwhelming majority of the American people. US politics tends to serve its special interest groups, and the dominant special interest groups for US foreign policy are the businesses and investors that profit from maintaining corrupt regimes abroad. And by the way, those people include the foreign investors who own an ever increasing share of American assets, bought with America's trade imbalances and sheltered by our low tax rates. So US foreign policy has little to do with what's in the best interest of most Americans. And this has been going on for a long time: the Cold War that had us so worried had as much or more to do with the class struggle, with business vs. labor, as with Russian expansionism or totalitarianism. That's why the US was so eager to support right-wing crooks throughout the Third World. That's also why the US is held in such low repute by leftists around the world. That curse will only change when America itself shifts to the left. But meanwhile, a win in Mexico would be a good start -- for us all.


Michael Tatum asked me about Kinsley KS. I wrote the following back in a letter, and thought I'd keep it here for future reference:

I'm very familiar with Kinsley. Probably been there more than a hundred times. One of my mother's brothers was killed in a car wreck when I was two. His widow got a job teaching grade school, mostly 4th grade, in Kinsley. They had three children, 7-10 years older than me. When I was a child, we went to visit them at least every other month, sometimes more often. I spent a week-plus there one summer. My cousins were major influences on me. They've scattered widely, but we're still close. My aunt remarried much later, hooking up with a Disciples minister she had dated before marrying my uncle. They moved to Newton, 25 miles north of Wichita, where she still lives. She's 91, the last living member of my mother's generation. I've been through Kinsley a couple of times 2-3 years ago. Looks much like it did back in the '60s, but much more run down. Some towns in southwest Kansas have been growing lately, almost exclusively because of feed lots and meat packing. That hasn't touched Kinsley at all.

I have another connection to the area, through my father. His birth certificate reads Spearville, KS -- a small town a little more than half way down US-56 from Kinsley to Dodge City -- but the homestead was actually north and west of there, in Hodgeman County. The first several generations of Hulls are buried just north of Spearville -- not sure of the exact names and dates, but one came to homestead in the 1870s from Pennsylvania. My father had a couple of uncles still in the area when I was young, and a cousin who still lives in Dodge City, where she taught grade school for many years. I went back to a couple of those old farms 3 years ago -- houses I remember as a child had decayed into ruins. Spent a lot of time in Dodge also.

Kinsley is a farm town, about 2500 people at its peak, seat of Edwards County. The Arkansas River bypasses it from south to east, staying a mile or two out of town. A small creek runs west to east through the town, just south of 10th St., known to the rest of the world as US-50. US-50 and US-56 merge on the west end of Kinsley, combining for the next leg west to Dodge City, another 40 miles. US-50 heads straight east, toward Hutchinson, Emporia, the East Coast. US-56 follows the river to Great Bend, then tacks east. There's a marker where the highways meet noting that New York and San Francisco are equal distances away (1561 miles).

The land around Kinsley is shortgrass prairie. They grow wheat and alfalfa, raise cattle. Don't recall much irrigation. As you go from east to west in Kansas, the elevation rises and it gets drier. Beyond Kinsley, especially to the south, not much grows without irrigation. The Hugoton-Anadarko gas field pays for the irrigation, and the Ogalala Aquifer suffers: the latter will be dry in 20-50 years, the land returning to prairie in the north and scrub desert in the south.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Oil on the Brain

In his book American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips makes a case that oil is the main issue that drove Bush and Cheney into Iraq. The case is somewhat complicated, but the following long quote (pp. 76-78) lays out much of it:

The oil maps, in short, had long been the ones that mattered. For the U.S. and British oil companies, losing these concessions to the nationalizations of the 1970s was infuriating. The irony with respect to Iraq was that for one reasons or another, the 1970s were the only decade of heavy pumping and large oil revenues. Production had been kept low during the glutted thirties, and it then stagnated during World War II. By 1948 Iraq's commercial production was just one-seventh that of Iran and one-sixth that of Saudi Arabia. Then between 1980 and 1988, the drawn-out Iran-Iraq War curbed output in both countries. Next came the Gulf War in 1991, followed by the effects of United Nations sanctions from 1990 until the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003. Over the last decade or so this chronology of Iraq's surprisingly limited oil production has become relevant again for a simple reason: given that relatively little of Iraq's oil has been pumped, most of it is still in the ground.

As the dust of the first Gulf War settled, oil companies from Texas to China began wondering which among them would gain access when the United Nations sanctions were lifted. By 1995 The Wall Street Journal and other publications were reporting the American fear: that if Saddam Hussein could escape UN sanctions and give Iraq's lush concessions to non-Anglo-American companies, he could realign the global oil business.

In the meantime, UN sanctions were essential in preventing Iraq from exporting oil beyond the middling amount allowed and also in preventing competitive foreign investments. So long as the United States and Britain could keep these sanctions in place, using allegations concerning weapons of mass destruction, Saddam could not implement his own plan to extend large-scale oil concessions (estimated to be worth $1.1 trillion) to French, Russian, Chinese, and other oil companies. Most analysts concluded that he hoped to enlist those three nations, which had seats on the UN Security Council, to get the sanctions lifted.

As the buzzards circled, Iraq became the prize piece needed to complete three interrelated Washington jigsaw puzzles: the rebuilding of Anglo-American oil-company reserves, transformation of Iraq into an oil protectorate-cum-military base, and reinforcement of the global hegemony of the U.S. dollar. This brings us to the next critical set of maps, the ones used in 2001 by Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group to mesh America's energy needs with a twenty-first-century national-security blueprint. This group pursued a mandate, in collaboration with the National Security Council, to deal with rogue states and "actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields."

Never intended for public scrutiny, the three Middle East maps and their supporting documents came to light in the summer of 2003 under a federal court order. The most pertinent displayed Iraq's oil fields, pipelines, and refineries, with a supporting list of "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts." As of 2001, more than sixty firms from thirty countries -- most prominently France, Russia, and China, but also India, Japan, Indonesia, Canada, and Germany -- had projects either agreed upopn or under discussion with Baghdad. Nothing could have been less popular in Washington or London.

Canadian writer Linda McQuaig of the Toronto Star offered this juicy description: "The southwest is neatly divided, for instance, into nine 'Exploration Blocks.' Stripped of political trappings, this map shows a naked Iraq, with only its ample natural assets in view. It's like a supermarket meat chart, which identifies various parts of a slab of beef so customers can see the most desirable cuts. . . . Block 1 might be the striploin, Block 2 and Block 3 are perhaps some juicy tenderloin, but Block 8 -- ahh, that could be the filet mignon." The French oil giant Total was to get the twenty-five-billion-barrel Majnoon oil field: "there goes the filet mignon into the mouths of the French."

What these maps left unsaid was how relatively untouched -- or at least untapped -- the Iraqi fields were. But Cheney's team would presumably have studied the history of Iraqi oil output. Since the turn of the twentieth century, later explained Leonardo Maugeri, a senior vice president at the Italian oil and gas company ENI, "only 2,300 wells have been drilled in Iraq, compared with about 1 million in Texas. A large part of the country -- the western desert area -- is still mainly unexplored. Iraq has never implemented advanced technologies -- like 3-D seismic exploration techniques or deep and horizontal drilling -- to find or tap new wells.Of more than 80 oilfields discovered in Iraq, only about 21 have been at least partially developed. . . . [I]t is realistic to assume that Iraq has far more oil reserves than documented so far -- probably about 200 billion barrels more. Not a few geologists suspected that the former Mesopotamia might have more left than Saudi Arabia.

Fadel Gheit, a prominent New York-based oil analyst, used words more appropriate to a movie publicist: "Think of Iraq as virgin territory. . . . This is bigger than anything Exxon is involved in currently. . . . It is the superstar of the future. That's why Iraq becomes the most sought-after real estate on the face of the earth. . . . Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath. . . . You can't ask for better than that."

It takes a fair amount of effort to unpack all this. It could be stated a good deal more clearly. The underlying argument is Phillips' assertions that:

  1. US identity as a world power is tied to oil, for better and for worse. The US became a world power because we had a lot of oil and were able to build a more efficient, more productive economy powered by oil than any other country. (Our predecessor as a world power was Great Britain, whose coal-powered economy was eclipsed by our use of oil.) Many effects follow from this, including the such major structures as our emphasis on cars and roads, and the political identity many of us assume between our interests and the interests of US oil companies.

  2. Since 1970, when US oil production peaked, we have had to increasingly turn abroad for oil to maintain our economic position as a world power. By now this position has perhaps irretrievably eroded, lending to our desperation. As worldwide oil production peaks then declines, our position will decline further. Thus far we have largely been able to maintain our illusions by borrowing, by selling, and by projecting non-economic substitutes for power like awe-inspiring weaponry. On the other hand, the US economy and its image of power is on the verge of collapse, which could be triggered by any number of events. One of particular import to US oil companies is the general recognition that reserves are overstated and diminishing. Iraqi oil would help in that regard. Another is the fear that the world oil market might switch from dollars to euros. The requirement that oil sales be denominated in dollars creates demand for dollars abroad, which props up the value of the dollar.

A number of other crises are possible, and Phillips explores several of them later in the book, especially in the sections on debt. The need to demonstrate the shock and awe of US military power also has psychological roots in this same economic fear of falling. The critical time period for most of these issues was the 1970s. That's when US balance of payments shifted negative, when oil imports rose over 50%, when we felt the first severe oil price shocks as OPEC was first able to exert some control over the market. That's also when the real wages of US workers started to decline. Americans have been in denial ever since. That was when Jimmy Carter promised he'd never lie to us, so he was voted out of office. Carter was replaced by Ronald Reagan, who told us what we wanted to hear, then by Bush, Clinton, and another Bush, in an upward spiral of mendacity. The second part of Phillips' book is about the growth of the religious right and its ideological pursuit of blind ignorance. Fits right in.

Phillips cites a long history of US Middle East policy based on oil, starting with Roosevelt's embrace of Saudi Arabia. British policy in the region, which we happily inherited warts and all, had been even more explicitly oil driven. Regarding the 1990-91 Gulf War, Phillips writes (pp. 80-81):

Once the United States decided to eject Iraq from Kuwait, however, Saddam's rationales bdcame irrelevant. When President bush mobilized American forces, he commented matter-of-factly that "our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom and the freedom of friendly countries around the world would all suffer if control of the world's great oil reserves fell into the hands of Saddam Hussein." Secretary of Defense Cheney was even more vociferous: "Once he [Saddam] acquired Kuwait and deployed an army as large as the one he possesses," Cheney argued, the Iraqi leader was "in a position to be able to dictate the future of worldwide energy policy, and that gave him a stranglehold on our economy." Compared with the pretenses of 2002-2003, these statements were relatively candid.

Still, occasional candor popped up even then (p. 83):

Occasionally, the blurring of distinctions between energy, antiterror, and military considerations in U.S. policy making was obliquely acknowledged. In 2003 former White House speechwriter David Frum wrote in his Bush political biography, The Right Man, that "the war on terror" was designed to "bring new stability to the most vicious and violent quadrant of the Earth -- and new prosperity to us all, by securing the world's largest pool of oil.

Again, on Iraq (p. 93):

From the U.S. standpoint, Iraq by 2002 and 2003 was a rogue nation not just because of hidden weapons or attempts to undercut the United States in the oil arena but also because Saddam Hussein sought to unhorse the dollar in the global financial markets. Closely on the heels of the euro's 1999 introduction, Baghdad had started trading its oil for euros, not dollars, a policy that became official in late 2000. There are no records, but Cheney's reported early 2001 plotting against OPEC may well have touched on the related peril to the dollar. Indeed, shortly after Iraq was occupied, U.S. administrators put it back on the dollar standard for its oil transactions in June 2003.

Many people have trouble buying the primacy of the oil rationale for the invasion, including me. I think there are several reasons for this:

  1. Most Americans are oil consumers, not producers, so we benefit from stable free markets. The war has clearly disrupted those arguments, resulting in much higher consumer prices. So since we didn't benefit, how could oil have been a reason? Part of the reason is that even though the oil companies didn't get everything they wanted, they still got record profits.

  2. We tend to recognize that the colonial era is dead, a victim of the progress of history, which makes invade-and-seize a losing bet. That's probably the smart position, but it fails to note that the post-colonial period has seen development of new methods for exploiting former colonies, and these can still be quite profitable.

  3. Oil itself is flamable, and as such relatively easy to sabotage, which means that any sort of armed occupation aimed at stealing oil resources is especially vulnerable. This point, of course, is much more obvious now than before Bush invaded Iraq.

In other words, the reasons for doubting the oil explanation are the sort of things that would dissuade reasonable people from such a venture. However, Bush, Cheney, Rice, et al. -- all three of those weaned in the oil business, even if none were much good at it -- did just that.


Scraps from previous drafts:

The first problem that most of us have with the oil rationale for the invasion of Iraq is that we think of Americans as consumers of oil. It seems pretty obvious that the best deal for consumers would be for the oil producing parts of the globe to have stable, peaceful governments connected to free markets. In such markets, it shouldn't matter at all which companies process the oil: in the end, the oil will go to whoever can best afford it, which isn't a bad deal for most American consumers. On the other hand, by disrupting supplies and destabilizing the region the Bush occupation of Iraq has only served to drive prices up, hurting most Americans, and for that matter consumers all around the world. The problem in all this is that the Bush administration doesn't represent American consumers. It represents the oil companies, about as self-consciously and solo-mindedly as any set of politicans can. The oil companies do benefit from the price run the war has caused, but as Phillips points out, they have bigger problems: contracting oil reserves, which is the point of Iraq.

The second problem we have is that we tend to accept the trend toward nationalizing oil companies, which started in Mexico in the '30s and continued through Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and so forth, so we don't expect any scheme to reverse the tide of history and restore US ownership of foreign oil. As such, even a pro-American government in Iraq is unlikely to privatize its oil resources -- certainly that's not a proposition that most Iraqis are inclined to favor, so you can see why it's best not to bring that up. (Even Paul Bremer drew the line there, as he tried to privatize everything else, perhaps to see how much he could get away with. The economic damage that ensued went hand in hand with the armed resistance.) But major oil companies are used to sending royalty checks to governments as well as private investors: what they want are deals to develop and exploit oil fields, the sort of deal that satisfies both the nations, more or less, and the companies.


To make sense of this, you need to fill in some background. The first big point is Phillips' argument that the basis of US power in the world is, and always has been, oil. He discusses two major precedents: Dutch mastery of wind power which gave them advantages in shipbuilding, trading and manufacturing that allowed them to supplant the Spanish in the 17th century, and Britain's more famous 19th century empire, built largely on power from coal. Phillips argues that the US ascendency over Britain was based on cheap and plentiful oil, highly developed by the first World War. Perhaps even more significantly, the US has started to lose power as we run out of domestic oil -- some indicators of this include that real wages of American workers and the balance of trade started to slip as the US started heading down the backside slope of the peak oil curve. In its ascendancy, the US built a vast economy designed to burn oil. That structure persists even as the oil we depend on becomes harder and more expensive to obtain.

So Phillips is arguing first that oil is the lifeblood of the US economy and the empire built on it. The flip side of this is that even foreign sources of oil have peaked, or will soon.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Music: Current count 12057 [12020] rated (+37), 895 [919] unrated (-24). As predicted, I made a hard push on Recycled Goods this past week, and that pushed the rated count up. Didn't get much in the mail either, so I got the unrated count down under 900. A week ago I was thinking that would turn out to be impossible. Still, it's far from secure. Recycled Goods is done. Just waiting for edits to send it off to Static, so it should be up sometime this week. In fact, got enough Recycled done that I have 28 reviews left over for August, about as large a carryover as I've ever had. So the focus the next two weeks will be on Jazz CG. A lot needs to be done there.

  • Charles Brown: Alone at the Piano (1989-94 [2004], Savoy Jazz): Informality was always the key to his style, just a soft-spoken line, then a little flourish of piano, the essence of a dark, weary, smokey after-hours joint; his fifty years of albums are mostly interchangeable, but never so informal as on these solo air shots. B+(*)
  • Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett (1976-2003 [2006], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): A singer-songwriter with a knack for modestly rootsy music and a tendency to preach, the need for forty songs stretches his five-album-plus catalog, with the relatively recent The Criminal Under My Own Hat (1992) plumbed for nine -- scattered they stand out, an extra sonic edge that made Burnett more successful as a producer. B+(**)
  • The Johnny Cash Children's Album (1971-73 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): I have no special insight into this one's utility, but it sounds like Cash, most of the widely scattered songs aren't pointed plainly at children, I've heard "Old Shep" on a comp before, and I got a chuckle out of the previously unreleased "Why Is a Fire Engine Red." B
  • The Very Best of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (1986-93 [2006], Jive/Legacy): Jeff Townes' scratches seem as corny now as Will Smith's standup, and they're dated now to the stretch between old style and gangsta when rap threatened to break out into the mainstream; it still has that loose-limbed goofiness, especially in the Summertime. B+(***)
  • Judy Garland and Friends: Duets (1963-64 [2005], Savoy Jazz): Only nine pieces, but they're mostly medleys and run a respectable 43:45; as TV without the video, you get the sense that you're missing things, especially when the flow cracks up; the guests are scattered too: Mickey Rooney, Martha Raye, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé -- a teenaged Liza Minnelli tops them all. C+
  • Keep on Truckin': The Very Best of Hot Tuna (1969-78 [2006], RCA/Legacy): Jefferson Steamship Inc.'s spinoff for the ever popular Grateful Dead niche market recycles old blues -- Robert Johnson, Gary Davis, Lightnin' Hopkins, the ever-dependable "Traditional" -- while draining them of pain and intensity, as if the secret to retro is nonchalance. B
  • The Worst of Jefferson Airplane (1965-69 [2006], RCA/Legacy): The inclusion of their hits suggests that the title was commissioned, if not necessarily compiled, as irony, but they were sloppy enough, and perverse enough, you never can be sure. Had they waited another year or two -- this adds two tracks to a 1970 comp -- their intent might have been clearer, as they did get a lot worse. Stuck in their time warp, I doubt that anyone not yet in their fifties can glean that this was once an important band. B+(**)
  • Cheikh Lô: Lamp Fall (2005 [2006], World Circuit/Nonesuch): Originally from Burkina Faso, Lô is a one-man melting pot of West African influences from Mali to Senegal, plus some stray bits from Cuba and Brasil -- gives him a sound that is both generic and cosmopolitan, often on the verge of tying it all together, but sometimes it's hard to tell. B+(**)
  • Lulendo: Angola (2005 [2006], Buda Musique): A singer-songwriter from Angola, plays guitar and likembe, based in Paris since 1982, sings in four languages, picks up stylistic bits from all over the map; used to be world music came from somewhere, but this goes everywhere, cancelling itself out. B
  • Fred Neil (1967 [2006], Water): A singer-songwriter before before they came into vogue, with a guitar and a deep, rich voice that takes some getting used to; wrote everything here, even "Everybody's Talkin'," which Harry Nilsson covered for Midnight Cowboy and parlayed into a top ten hit; Neil remained obscure, his few semi-legendary albums justly prized by obsessive reissue vendors; inspirational verse: "you know they'll probably drop the atom bomb the day my ship comes in." A-
  • Everybody's Talkin': The Very Best of Harry Nilsson (1967-77 [2006], RCA/Legacy): At 14 cuts, 44:57, this doesn't push its luck; most are pop gems, evidence of genius with no obvious game plan other than indulging his every whim, but even the hits are out of sorts, off in some other world. A-
  • Harry Nilsson: Son of Schmilsson (1972-73 [2006], RCA/Legacy): Haven't heard the progenitor, reportedly his masterpiece; this seems typically scattered, with a couple of clear-headed rockers rising from the string-drenched matrix and sing-alongs like "I'd Rather Be Dead" ("than wet the bed"); the bonus tracks mostly are. Seems like his average album, but as usual it's hard to tell. B+(*)
  • Harry Nilsson: A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973 [2006], RCA/Legacy): Old songs, wrapped in strings and sung with remarkable delicacy -- never realized that "Makin' Whoopee!" could offer such scant hint of fun; six bonus tracks are par for the course. C
  • Putumayo Presents: ¡Baila! A Latin Dance Party (1996-2005 [2006], Putumayo World Music): As a sucker for groove, this seems functional enough, but not all Latin music is the same, and rummaging from East Harlem to Buenos Aires to Los Angeles to Stockholm doesn't improve the odds of fitting it all together. B
  • Putumayo Presents: Paris (1995-2005 [2006], Putumayo World Music): La nouvelle génération du chanson français, which means no one you're likely to hear of -- excepting Keren Ann, who was just passing through from Israel -- but that won't matter: as long as the food and wine are up to spec, they're atmosphere. B+(*)
  • The Collected Works of the Roches (1978-92 [2003], Rhino/Warner Brothers): My first experience with them was a night wandering around the Village with Bob Christgau and Carola Dibbell. They were playing in a bar, and Bob talked us in, doubling their crowd if not their door. Their first album came out soon afterwards, but it took me a decade or more before I warmed to it. This starts with four songs from that album, and ends with two from A Dove -- their one album I fell in love with instantly. In between the songs are weaker and more idiosyncratic, but the music gradually takes shape. That series of albums has always escaped me. Thought this might excerpt them to good effect, but they still seem unapproachable. Mostly. B+
  • Candy Licker: The Sex & Soul of Marvin Sease (1994-2005 [2006], Jive/Legacy): A southern soulman retro enough to wind up in Malaco's blues stable, Sease's typical cornbread is tasty enough, but his crunk is mere novelty; of course, it doesn't help that this one-label comp didn't bother to license the notorious 10-minute original of the title song; instead we get a sequel and a live remake. B+(**)
  • Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon (1969-76 [2006], Numero Group): A bevy of Joni Mitchell wannabes, mostly one-shot obscurities doing original material -- except for a "Sister Morphine" that feels out of place, not that any would be right; that the sharpest chords are closest to the mark says something, like that Mitchell herself was unique. B
  • Funky Beat: The Best of Whodini (1983-96 [2006], Jive/Legacy): A second tier '80s rap group from Brooklyn -- only two cuts here come after 1987 -- and they sound like it: hard old style beats and scratches, comps borrowed from Afrika Bambaataa, lyrics that don't aspire to be more than functional; after all, their peak was called "Five Minutes of Funk." B+(**)
  • Robin Williams: A Night at the Met (1986 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): After some foreplay about Reagan and Khadafi -- check the date -- this turns into everything you ever wanted to know about sex, and then some; some insight, too, like "the first purpose of alcohol is to make English your second goddamn language . . . the third purpose of alcohol is to bring out the asshole in everybody." B+(**)
  • Women of Substance (1945-2002 [2003], Savoy Jazz): Useless cross-generational label comp, with six cuts from the old Savoy catalog, three from Muse, one from Denon, three from Savoy redux -- the two latest from the skinny-voiced Carol Welsman; high point is Houston Person's sax solo for Etta Jones. B-
  • Zanzibara 1: Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club (2004-05 [2006], Buda Musique): The 21 volumes of this label's Éthiopiques series provide a unique, extraordinarily detailed survey of one small, little known pocket of African music. One wishes someone would take on a major center with comparable dilligence -- Nigeria, Congo, Senegal, South Africa, even Mali -- but for a second series they've again aimed small, starting with the small trading island off the coast of East Africa. As I understand it, Werner Graebner's series will expand to cover Swahili popular music from Somalia to Mozambique, but the starting point is the island, for chronological reasons as much as any other. Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club was founded in 1905, a band first then a building. I'm not sure how the next hundred years unfold, but the Arab-influenced taraab of the current group is a venerable style, with its oud, accordion, strings and percussion. It is a music of broad contours, its gentle sway dominating the marginal beats. B+(***)
  • Zanzibara 2: L'Âge d'Or du Taraab de Mombasa (1965-75 [2006], Buda Musique): The Arabic influence seems stronger here, most likely the age of the recordings, even though the music is modern enough to be sung in Swahili rather than Arabic; many of the various musicians come from Kenya or Tanzania, suggesting that Mombasa had a cosmopolitan attraction before it got wrecked by war lords. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 9)

Spent this last week working on Recycled Goods, so not much new prospecting to show here. July's Recycled Goods column is more/less done now -- just need to go over some edits and hand it over to Static for posting. I'm far enough into the jazz prospecting cycle at this point that I should be able to pull a Jazz Consumer Guide together. That will be the focus of the next two weeks. Doubt that I have more than twenty unplayed jazz records, but I have a good deal more on the shelf pending replay, so that's where most of the action will be.


Tsegué-Maryam Guèbro: Éthiopiques 21: Ethiopia Song (1963-96 [2006], Buda Musique): Born 1923, the daughter of a noted Ethiopian writer. Like her father, she was educated in Switzerland, learning a half-dozen languages, as well as piano. After the Fascists conquered Ethiopia, she was deported to an island near Sardinia. After the war she returned to her studies in Cairo. In 1948 she entered a monstery, becoming a nun. She later made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, staying there as an interpreter for the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch. She recorded two solo piano albums in Germany in 1963, another in 1970, one more in 1996. She also cut an album of liturgical music where she played organ, but this album just collects her solo piano music. It strikes me as neither the classical music of her teachers nor the native music of her country, and it certainly isn't jazz. Mostly small figures, delicately played. Several songs refer to rivers, reflected in the easy flow and quiet contemplation of the music. A-

Thomas Strønen: Parish (2005 [2006], ECM): One of many Scandinavian drummers I've noted several times. Most straddle over into rock, but Strønen's metajazz interests run more toward miniaturist electronica. This is a typical acoustic jazz quartet, but cut small and bleak: short pieces, small figures, lots of open space. Fredrik Ljungkvist mostly sticks to clarinet, keeping to a softer focus than his tenor sax. Bobo Stenson plays piano and Mats Eilertsen bass. I find this very attractive -- not least the drums. [B+(***)]

Sugar Pie DeSanto: Refined Sugar (2005 [2006], Jasman): Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton in 1935, she got part of her name when Johnny Otis marketed her as Little Miss Sugar Pie in 1955. She recorded for Chess from 1959-66, then vanished until 1993 when she recorded the first of what now are four albums for Jasman. Her voice has deepened, developing some real grit and a fierce growl, and it carries what otherwise is a classic sounding but unexceptional r&b record. B+(*)

Art Blakey: Holiday for Skins (1958 [2006], Blue Note): One of Blakey's many multi-drum experiments, following Drum Suite and Orgy in Rhythm, this one has three trap sets, seven Latino percussionists (including Ray Barretto), Donald Byrd trumpet, Ray Bryant piano, and Wendell Marshall bass. Doesn't seem like the drummers -- Philly Joe Jones and Art Taylor are the others -- ever get on the same wavelength as the Latinos, but the latter are happy to play along with anyone or anything. Especially Ray Bryant, who contributes some tasty moments. B+(*)

Jackie McLean: It's Time (1964 [2006], Blue Note): The alto saxist set his destination for out the year before in two remarkable albums with trombonist Grachan Moncur, but this one is a bit more equivocal. The group veterans lean back toward hard bop, but McLean's pushes them hard, even getting some abstract comping from Herbie Hancock. The newcomers are bassist Cecil McBee and trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who writes three pieces, including the soft closer. B+(***)

Andrew Hill: Pax (1965 [2006], Blue Note): Now that Hill's lived long enough to have become a legend, his old (and now new) label is finally bringing his old catalog back in print. This session has always had problems seeing the light of day: the original was shelved until 1975 when it finally came out as part of a garbage collection project. It isn't garbage. It should have sold fine just on names -- Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Richard Davis, Joe Chambers -- but it's actually better than that. Hill's piano is always into something surprising, and the horns take the hint and play much further out than expected. A-

Serge Chaloff: Boston Blow-Up! (1955 [2006], Capitol Jazz): A hard swinging baritone saxophonist with a bop edge, Chaloff cut his teeth in Woody Herman's Second Herd, then moved on -- actually, was thrown out, for following Charlie Parker's habits too literally -- to cut a handful of memorable albums before he succumbed to a spinal tumor and died at age 33. Blue Serge (1956) is his masterpiece, a tight, elegant quartet where everything goes right, in part because the other three players -- Sonny Clark, Leroy Vinnegar, Philly Joe Jones -- are so dependable. This album is much sloppier but nearly as impressive. Produced by Stan Kenton, this is a sextet with three horns storming -- at its best the balance of raw power and feather light touch Kenton often aimed for and rarely achieved. A-

Lou Blackburn: The Complete Imperial Sessions (1963 [2006], Blue Note): That would be two albums in one year with the same lineup, including trumpeter Freddie Hill and pianist Horace Tapscott -- not yet 30, and nowhere near as distinctive or dominant as he became, but very solid throughout. Blackburn was a Los Angeles trombonist without much under his own name, but these sessions are bright, swinging hard bop, even the one released as Two-Note Samba. Must have been a law in 1963 that everyone had to release a samba album. B+(***)

Gil Evans: The Complete Pacific Jazz Sessions (1958-59 [2006], Blue Note): This marks the emergence of Evans not just as an arranger but as an auteur, and fittingly starts by recasting the entire jazz tradition into his deftly layered, intricate modernism. This disc combines two albums, released as New Bottle, Old Wine and Great Jazz Standards -- the former with more of the latter, ranging from "St. Louis Blues" to Charlie Parker, the latter with more contemporary fare -- not that anyone will be surprise to find "Straight No Chaser" or "Django" there. These records have always long me as cold, calculated, a bit cut and dry, but this time through I'm struck by the solos on the latter half, especially Steve Lacy and Budd Johnson. B+(***)

Paul Motian: On Broadway Vol. 4 (2005 [2006], Winter & Winter): A lot of packaging confusion here: front cover reads "PAUL MOTIAN TRIO 2000+ONE ON BROADWAY VOL.4 OR THE PAR A DOX OF CONTINU ITY" give or take some spaces. Spine is simpler, as above. Trio 2000 + One has appeared before in an album of that name, with Motian, bassist Larry Grenadier, and saxophonist Chris Potter the probable trio and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi the One. This time, however, the pianist is replaced by vocalist Rebecca Martin on eight songs. I don't believe that any of the three previous On Broadway albums have vocals -- they were mostly quartets with Lovano, Frisell and Haden -- Martin's dusky vocals are a natural here. That piano and vocals are exclusive is a reflection of Motian's fastidiousness -- at the risk of a bad pun, the older he gets, the less motion he wastes. Potter, too, is a revelation -- don't recall him working much behind singers, but he's always right on the mark here. [A-]

Jim Black/AlasNoAxis: Dogs of Great Indifference (2005 [2006], Winter & Winter): The pieces here have regular rhythms with more or less fuzz, built up from bass and guitar, around the edges, closer to experimental rock or electronica than to postbop. The louder pieces are industrial grade, but most are quieter. Chris Speed plays tenor sax, providing melodic variation, or just as likely smoothing out the texture. Interesting sonically, especially the lighter pieces, but nothing quite jumps out. B+(**)


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

Saadet Türköz: Urumchi (2005 [2006], Intakt): Swiss-based singer, originally from East Turkestan, reverses her migration in returning to Almaty and on to Beijing to record her solemn, stately folk music in the ancient style, with sparse strings, scarce drums, haunting voice. B+(*)

Aki Takase/Lauren Newton: Spring in Bangkok (2004 [2006], Intakt): Piano and voice, the latter more instrument than verbal -- the exception is the semi-spoken "Das Scheint Mir," in amusingly orchestrated Deutsch. Impressed as I am by Newton's vocal prowess, I perhaps inevitably find the piano more attractive. B+(*)


The True Costs of Drunken Teenage Journalism

Knight Ridder, which owned the Wichita Eagle, sold itself out recently to McClatchy Newspapers, the new owner of the Eagle. While Knight Ridder had plenty of problems itself -- see the book by former Eagle editor Davis Merritt, Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk -- they've done a consistently better job of reporting from Iraq than any other major US news organization. One always worries when one bunch of capitalists sell out to another, richer, group -- after all, being richer is most often a sign of being more corrupt these days. And the general trend in media is toward concentration of ownership with all of the political connections that implies, and toward the propagation of the trivial. Still, the first McClatchy byline I've noticed in the Eagle came as a shock. I may have repressed something, but this is about as stupid as any news article I can recall. The reporter is Ely Portillo, and the title is "Costs of teen drinking add up to $62 billion":

Underage drinking costs Americans $62 billion every year in injuries, deaths and lost work time, according to a tally released Thursday. That's more than three times what the federal government had spent on relief for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita by mid-June.

The highest costs are those associated with rapes, murders, assaults and other violent crimes committed by underage people who have been drinking, which add up to $34.7 billion. The second-highest cost was drunken-driving accidents, totaling $13.5 billion. Researchers took into account immediate costs, such as hospital bills, and long-term damage, such as lost work hours and lowered quality of life.

Dividing the total cost of teen drinking by the estimated number of teen drinkers, the study, from the nonprofit research group Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, estimates that every underage drinker costs society an average of $4,680 a year.

After car crashes and violent crime, the next highest estimated costs of teen drinking were those associated with high-risk sex (nearly $5 billion), property crime ($3 billion) and addiction treatment programs (nearly $2 billion).

"Alcohol kills four times the number of kids that illegal drugs do," Ted Miller, one of the study's lead researchers. "We're not spending much at all on this problem, despite the size of it."

The first paragraph starts off with an apples-to-oranges error, comparing costs of one thing (teenage drinking) to expenses on another (Katrina reconstruction). What the federal government has paid to date for Katrina reconstruction isn't a very good measure of Katrina's damage. Estimates of Katrina damage start at $100 billion and go up from there. But to be comparable you'd have to come up with a set of Katrina damage estimates that was consistent with the methods and valuations used in the teenage drinking study. The Katrina estimates rarely consider anything beyond property damage. Certainly there is a lot more cost "such as lost work hours and lowered quality of life," but putting a value on that sort of thing is hard to do, and the result would mostly be to inflate the costs and confuse the issues.

Most likely, that's why these researchers do just that. They want to get attention, and one easy way to con the gullible is by running up a huge tab. No problem: that's why spreadsheets were invented: just fudge the numbers until you get the results you want. Sometimes, as this story demonstrates, you can even fudge the numbers so far the results become absurd. $62 billion is a lot of money: two Buffetts, half a Katrina, several months of Iraq war (no clear agreement on how to audit that; the US budget there shortchanges the real costs worse than the US budget for Katrina repair). It's hard to see how we never noticed a cost of that magnitude, although I suppose there are other examples -- e.g., global warming.

However, repeating the study's headlines isn't news -- just PR. To make any sense out of this as a story, we need more info: who are these clowns? who do they work for? what are their methods? how do those methods stack up against standard scientific practices? This isn't on-the-spot reporting, like at a car wreck or plane crash, where limited information may still be newsworthy. This type of story only matters if you can put it into some sort of context. Otherwise, it's just nonsense. Which in this case is probably what in depth analysis would finally conclude. Guess McClatchy had some space to kill. It's not like there's any real news to report.


Jun 2006 Aug 2006