October 2006 Notebook


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Out of the Closet

I'm pleased to see that Billmon is ticked off at being attacked as a liberal:

This is slander. I'm not exactly sure how to describe myself politically these days, but liberal is definitely the wrong word.

I'm more of an ex-Marxist, ex-socialist, ex-revolutionary who realized long ago that Marx got his economics wrong, that socialism doesn't work and that Peter Townsend was essentially right about the new boss being the same as the old boss. [ . . . ]

Mostly what that makes me, I suppose, is politically irrelevant and -- in today's environment -- something of a borderline nihilist. [ . . . ] But what it does not make me is a liberal, except in the sense that I've grudgingly resigned myself to the fact that the pathetic old shell of the Democratic Party is the only effective barrier to one-party rule by a bunch of really dangerous authoritarian creeps.

So call me a racist, call me a hypocrite -- hell, call me a communist and a lunatic. I've been called worse before breakfast. Just don't call me a liberal. Because as some in the blogosphere have already discovered, I tend to regard that as a fighting word.

As I've repeatedly tried to explain, I've been down that same road. Liberalism started out as the ideology of progressive capitalism -- i.e., of capitalists who want to change the world to fit their view, which is presumed to be in the world's interest as well as theirs. But when push came to shove, as it did when Marxists came up with a more universal idea of progress, the liberals took their ideals home and joined the right-wing attack on the left. That they kept their high-faluting rhetoric just marked them as hypocrites, which is how those of us who were attracted to the new left first experienced them -- although several decades later we can point to an endless series of confusion and compromise that have left them bankrupt intellectually as well as morally. Nowadays they try to present themselves as noble centrists, opposed to the extremes of right and left, always ready to compromise the principles they insist they're defending -- not least of which is their eagerness to wage war for peace and human rights, which to them are little more than approved rhetoric.

But that's not a distinction the right troubles itself with. Back when liberals had some power it worked to tar them as soft on the left, not least because doing so provoked the liberals to show that they weren't. Nowadays, attacking leftists as liberals just implies that we're as pathetic as the liberals. Some may be tempted to defend liberalism, as if the bourgeois revolution -- including some genuinely progressive results -- wasn't fait accompli. Others, like Billmon and me, kneejerk the other way. Either way, it's hard to see a downside for the right, except perhaps in terms of lost intellecutal honesty -- uh, that's a joke.

I don't know who Billmon is or where he came from or what he went through, but clearly we have a lot of common ground -- and a few differences that matter little these days. I'm less "ex-" than he is today -- certainly not a borderline nihilist -- and what probably means I was less revolutionary back in the day. Also, I've never viewed Marx as anything but a bourgeois thinker, so I never took his post-revolution speculations seriously. And favoring Kant over Hegel, I reckoned his Aufhebungstheorie to be more poetry than logic. Given that grounding, I never had much trouble identifying the trouble with hucksters from Lenin through Castro, which may be why I never judged them as harshly as Orwell or Koestler: no gods died on my watch, because none were permitted.

The only idol I've seen fall was my Boy Scout faith in God and Country, which the liars and demagogues who promoted the Vietnam War managed to whack up pretty severely. That drove me to examine a lot of alternatives. Marx and his fellow travelers were among the ones who helped me make sense of the world, but they certainly weren't the only ones. A small number of tenets of Christianity and American patriotism even managed to survive. I've even kept some ideas of classical liberalism -- but then, so has the right, at least in its rhetoric. For a long while I identified with the left, much as one would favor the underdog, but I'm reluctant to do that now. It's not so much that I find the company unsavory -- at least we're not talking about the right or the self-important middle -- but the ideas often seem slightly off the point. I like to think of myself as centered -- focused squarely on the problems, not on the left-right spectrum. The latter is buried in its own baggage, but more importantly I think the problems are pressing in ways that promise a rather bleak and nasty future. The only way I see to deal with these problems is to develop a culture of reason and cooperation -- a recognition that we're all in this together, we all have a lot to lose (and those who don't need to get some quick), and that matters more than our little zero-sum games.

Given the relative invisiblity of the left these days, it's possible I'm not alone in my reprioritization. The big immediate problem is that the right just won't let it go. They insist on only learning lessons the hard way, and most are so dumb it's going to have to be real hard. Needless to say, that's not my project here. I'm content to try to reason with the world, and occasionally wag my finger and remind you all I told you so. Hopefully there's a rational recourse. But I'll concede that becoming a near-nihilist like Billmon isn't an unrealistic strategy.

Billmon has another post worth noting: "The 51% Solution," on Karl Rove's strategy to keep his winning margins as low as possible, figuring that any consensus majority would weaken and ultimately lose the hardcore base. This fits in with Gary Wills' argument about the fringe domination of both the Republican Party and the Catholic Church. (Can't find the New York Review of Books article, probably because it's been spun off as a book: Bush's Fringe Government.) The problem with cutting those margins so thin is that a little bad luck is all it takes to fall flat. I don't have enough faith in the voters to say that it's going to happen next week, but he sure is living on the edge.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Music: Current count 12506 [12485] rated (+21), 900 [920] unrated (-20). The unrated count is flat-out wrong: I simply haven't done my paperwork this week, although part of that is that I haven't received much either. Don't know exactly what's going on, but the bigger worry is that I've been stuck in the jazz rut all week. Jazz CG is done now. Recycled Goods is due, well, now also, which means it's late. Nothing to report here. Next week will be different. After that I'll finally get a breather -- much needed, I'm afraid.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #11, Part 13)

The 11th Jazz Consumer Guide is closed. The final draft has 21 graded albums (including two pick hits and one featured dud), 22 ungraded (20 honorable mentions, 2 duds). Total comes up to 2094 words, so expect 20-25% to be held back, assuming everything goes according to past practices. I have no idea whether this will in fact happen. I've had very little contact with the Village Voice since they fired Robert Christgau, my editor and mentor there. I do have Christgau's blessing to continue publishing Jazz Consumer Guides at the Voice, not that that carries any weight these days. The Voice has at least continued to publish Francis Davis, and my column complements his nicely, filling out the breadth beyond what he covers in depth.

No first impressions this week. I spent the whole week picking things off the replay shelves and writing up things I had graded but only had notes on. I got a lot of good stuff late, including a few major prospects I haven't gotten to yet. I've also found myself grading rather harshly in the stretch, to some extent as a means of coping with the glut.

I'm starting to work now on setting up the framework for the next cycle, which among everything else includes the usual purge. I probably won't do a Jazz Prospecting post next week. Instead, I'll do something of a wrap-up on this column, as well as posting any relevant news. If the Voice publishes this column, I want to push to get a more regular -- preferably every other month -- schedule. If not, I'll look elsewhere. Despite my occasional tardiness, the writing is only a small part of the work here. It would be nice to get more publishable words out of all this listening, especially given that there's no shortage of good records to write about. It would be nice to write reviews of especially interesting B+ records instead of squeezing the odd A- into the honorable mentions, as I've done in the past and once this time.

No first impressions this time, but these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City: Live at Iridium (2004 [2006], Pi, 2CD): Continuing on after the deaths of Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. The replacements are trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Shahid. They won't be a ghost band as long as Roscoe Mitchell is ticking. He seems more than ever the dominant player here -- the newcomers may have the chops to move in here, but they aren't shaking things up. I never had a very good feel for this group, but this strikes me as about par. B+(*)

So Percussion: Amid the Noise (2002-06 [2006], Canteloupe): Group name has a macron accent over 'o' in "So" -- don't know what that's meant to signify. Maybe it's an omen that I need to move from ISO-8859-1 to Unicode. It wouldn't be the first time I found myself stuck on the losing side of a technology divide. The group consists of three guys who play percussion and synths. An earlier record tackled Steve Reich's Drumming, which gives you some context, but the minimalism here is much less dense, and the percussion is less dependably rhythmic. Didn't sound like much at first, but it's grown on me a bit. B+(*)

Trio East: Best Bets (2005 [2006], Origin): Trumpet-bass-drums trio, not a lot of those out there, with those that do exist tending toward avant-obscurity. Clay Jenkins plays the trumpet, making him the presumed leader, so going with the group name advances him toward his own kind of obscurity. What he gets for it is an exceptionally well-balanced group effort. They did an equally good album called Stop-Start (Sons of Sound) last year, which languished on the cusp of the HM list until this one arrived to take its place. B+(**)

Nels Cline: New Monastery: A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill (2006, Cryptogramophone): This takes Hill's compositions and substitutes Cline's guitar for Hill's piano, giving them a steely resonance and more of a rock kick -- which pays off especially well on the closing "Compulsion." But Hill himself rarely wrote just for piano, so Cline augments his usual trio -- Devin Hoff on bass, Scott Amendola on drums -- with cornet (Bobby Bradford), clarinet (Ben Goldberg), and accordion (Andrea Parkins). Each of these have their moments when you think it's all coming together, but overall this is a mixed bag, interesting ideas that are hard to sort out. B+(**)

Pete McCann: Most Folks (2005 [2006], Omnitone): A guitarist who has a knack of showing up on good albums but not showing off, McCann delivers a lesson on what he can do ("straight-ahead jazz, post-bop, Latin, and creative improvised music") and how he can do it ("gentle nylon acoustic guitar sounds to sinewy and intricate jazz guitar runs to roots-of-grunge Jimi Hendrix-inspired hooting"). Even so, he often yields the spotlight to his band, especially saxophonist John O'Gallagher and pianist Mike Holober -- also sidemen skilled at making their leaders look good. The only nick is that the eclecticism leaves you without a thematic thread or a good sense of where he wants to go -- although that assumption may merely be our problem. B+(***)

Fred Fried: The Wisdom of the Notes (2006, Ballet Tree): He plays a nylon 7-string guitar, folowing the model of George Van Eps. Just bass and drums serves him well, delivering an elegant low key guitar album. B+(**)

Stephan Crump: Rosetta (2005 [2006], Papillon Sounds): Another low key guitar album -- even more so because the leader plays bass, and nobody plays drums. The guitar is acoustic by Liberty Ellman and/or electric by Jamie Fox. B+(*)

John Taylor: Angel of the Presence (2004 [2006], CAM Jazz): Piano trio, with Palle Danielsson and Martin France. I associate Taylor with Kenny Wheeler -- they both have played extensively with the British avant-garde, but tend toward more moderate engagements on their own, or together. This one struck me as exemplary on first listen, but shaded back a bit into the ordinary at spots. B+(***)

Lynne Arriale Trio: Live (2005 [2006], In+Out/Motema): Of all the recent piano trios I like -- Anders Aarum, Dave Burrell, Frank Hewitt, Enrico Pieranunzi, John Taylor, I'm probably leaving someone out -- this strikes me as the strongest crossover prospect. Part of this is that she picks standards that are recognizable and easy to hook into: "Iko Iko" and "Come Together" are two pop songs here, with "Bemsha Swing" and "Seven Steps to Heaven" working the jazz tradition the same way. Her originals, at least here, tend to be genre studies -- "Braziliana," "Flamenco." And she plays with them much like you expect jazz to work, tearing the songs down, rearranging them, teasing new melodies offset from the old. Or I should say they: Jay Anderson and Steve Davis have played in this trio for over a decade now, and the tightness pays off. Recorded at a jazz festival in Germany, with a matching DVD for the audio CD. I actually watched -- or mostly listened to -- the DVD for once. One thing I was struck by was how often all three played with eyes closed. B+(***)

Vision Volume 3 (2003 [2005], Arts for Art): Excerpts from the 2003 Vision Festival, which William Parker and Patricia Nicholson organize each year. I've had this on the shelf a long time, figuring that this was one case where I wanted to take a look at the DVD before signing off on the CD, but never finding the time or inclination to do so. Finally took a look at it today. It's poorly shot and badly edited, with lots of double exposure shots. The sound is sometimes out of sync, and there is a formatting problem that keeps it from returning to the menu after playing a section. On the other hand, the dance pieces by Nicholson and Maria Mitchell (accompanied by Kali Z. Fasteau) lose out otherwise, and seeing helps explain Joseph Jarman's two-horn act. Otherwise, a mixed bag: the experiments at best suggest directions to follow further, and the variety ends them as quickly as it moves past ones that are less interesting. B+(**)

Kali Z. Fasteau/Kidd Jordan: People of the Ninth: New Orleans and the Hurricane 2005 (2005 [2006], Flying Note): Presumably Jordan makes his living trad jazz back home in New Orleans, but driven away by the flood, he's become the Crescent City's unofficial ambassador to New York's jazz underground. A good record with familiar faces William Parker and Hamid Drake resulted -- the Kidd was on his best behavior and the tag team was typically brilliant. Here Jordan helps to steady Kali Z's inveterate eclecticism, providing a consistent sonic center for her piano, cello, and soprano sax. Drummer Michael T.A. Thompson's name didn't fit the spine, but he referees here, and switches to balafon for a duet with Kali's nai flute -- the most attractive cut here. B+(**)

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: Out Louder (2006, Indirecto): MMW did a credible job of updating '60s soul jazz organ combos to the techno era, but after a decade-plus they wandered off into spinoffs and solo projects, letting their main ride coast. Scofield's done his share of coasting as well, adding bright splashes of guitar to other folks' albums while his own grow empty and listless. So this seems like an ideal pairing, a useful jolt for all concerned. And to some extent it is, but I wonder about their Beatles cover, "Julia" -- is it an off note, or a necessary change of pace that just comes too late? B+(*)

Billy Stein Trio: Hybrids (2005 [2006], Barking Hoop): He's a guitarist no one would have ever heard of had Kevin Norton not urged him into the studio. He played with Norton and Sam Furnace back in the '70s, but with endless refinement this is his debut. He works in subtle harmonic shadings rather than the melodic lines that dominate the craft, so this tends to vanish in its subtleties. But he gets exceptionally sympathetic support from drummer Rashid Bakr and bassist Reuben Radding -- the latter a near-perfect match. B+(***)

Frank Hewitt: Fresh From the Cooler (1996 [2006], Smalls): Hewitt was a bebop pianist who almost slipped through 66 years of life without leaving a trace. But he built a cult during an eight year residency at Smalls jazz club, inspiring a label to no small degree dedicated to his legacy. This makes four posthumous albums, with more on the shelf -- at least one more from this date, a trio with Ari Roland and Jimmy Lovelace. The songs are jazz standards, but there's nothing overly familiar about them -- even "Cherokee" and "Monk's Mood" skirt the melodies for hidden nuances. A-

Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar): Nothing for ten years, then he repeats a scam he pulled twenty years ago with Opening the Caravan of Dreams: launching a new label with a live album named for the label, or vice versa. Seems cheap, but when sounding like no one else has been your shtick for fifty years, absence makes his returns sound even fresher, and live heightens the suspense of his inventions. Actually, he's changed little over the years, still pouring out the same sour, shrill, piercing notes. What's new here is his use of two bassists, which keeps the contrast between Greg Cohen plucking and Tony Falanga bowing in the same register. It also doubles the chaos, which is what Ornette thrives on. A

Florian Weber/Jeff Denson/Ziv Ravitz: Minsarah (2006, Enja/Justin Time): A piano trio, a bit more conventional than E.S.T., but similar in touch, feel, dynamics. Minsarah is probably meant as a group name -- i.e., it will probably recur on subsequent records. Bassist Denson and drummer Ravitz write, only slightly outnumbered by the pianist's compositions. B+(**)

Bang on a Can/Don Byron: A Ballad for Many (2004-06 [2006], Cantaloupe): Effectively, this is Bang on a Can plays Byron, with the clarinettist supervising but only making only a brief cameo. There is still some clarinet, by Evan Ziporyn, but piano and strings are more dominant, and they give the compositions a chunky, clunky feel. "Eugene" was written for a silent Ernie Kovacs piece. "The Red-Tailed Angels" was a soundtrack for a documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen. Both lose their utilitarianism in this chamber music setting. On the other hand, the band sharpens up the angles, giving this an edge that would be obtrustive for a soundtrack. Still, it sounds euroclassical to me, a sort of third stream backwash, where conservatory-trained jazz musicians return to the roost. B

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya: Maru (2006, Bakamo): Probably the pick of the four Fujii big bands, even though she only conducts, leaving the orchestra without her explosive piano. But the arrangements gain along the way. The mountains of brass move nimbly, the soloists squawk amiably, and guitarist Yasuhiro Usul gets some well-used space. Much good humor, almost corny in spots. In many ways this is more remarkable than the Junk Box record, which I picked over it -- not least because it was easier to grasp and I settled on it first. If Basie's big band was atomic, this one's thermonuclear. B+(***)

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe: Kobe Yee!! (2006, Crab Apple): Comparably loud to the Nagoya outfit, especially with Fujii playing piano here, and similar in other respects, but not as consistently interesting or as humorous. I wonder whether the horn blares in the second cut cry out "Batman!" in Japan like they do here -- at least for reviews of a certain age. B+(*)

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo: Live!! (2006, Libra): I hate to admit this -- it runs counter to my sense of how the world should work, and especially to how I want to do my job -- but the DVD saved the bacon here. It helps to be able to map sounds to the fifteen faces squeezed onto a small-looking stage. The sheer amount of paper on the stands in front of all the musicians and their concentration in following it all speaks volumes about how all this noise is assembled. It also let me note some uncredited flute-like instruments Kunihiro Izumi used for a solo, and seeing often helps clarify bass and drums. But one shouldn't get carried away: the music itself is often on a cusp between interesting and annoying. While focus helps tilt it over the top, I can't get all that excited about music that makes me work so hard. But I did find the DVD take of "Bennie's Waltz" exhilarating, and most of the time I had my head turned the other way. B+(*)

Territory Band-5: New Horse for the White House (2005 [2006], Okka Disk, 3CD): The third disc is a live concert at Donaueschingen of the first two discs' music. Given a little more budget, the logical thing would have been to provide it as a DVD, which might be as useful as the Fujii Tokyo one. I imagine the group more spread out and less tightly scripted, but with 12 musicians there tends to be a lot going on. Somehow I missed out on Territory Band-4, but the series as a whole has struck me out more often than not. This one strikes me as relatively solid, and offers some hope that the electronics will eventually pan out. Plenty of hot spots, just hard to follow, and there's a lot of it. B+(*)

Crooks in Suits

Stephen Labaton, in a front page Oct. 29 New York Times article ("Businesses Seek New Protection From Litigation") writes:

Frustrated with a recent round of laws and regulations that have been used to sue big companies and auditing firms, corporate America -- with the encouragement of the Bush administration -- is preparing to fight back.

Now that corruption cases like Enron and WorldCom are falling out of the news, two influential industry groups with close ties to administration officials are hoping to swing the regulatory pendulum in the opposite direction. The groups are drafting proposals to provide broad new protections to corporations and accounting firms from criminal cases brought by federal and state prosecutors as well as a stronger shield against civil lawsuits from investors.

Although the details are still being worked out, the groups' proposals aim to limit the liability of accounting firms for the work they do on behalf of clients, to force prosecutors to target individual wrongdoers rather than entir ecompanies, and to scale back shareholder lawsuits.

The groups also hope to reduce what they see as some burdens imposed by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act landmark post-Enron legislation adopted in 2002. The law, which placed significant new auditing and governance requirements on companies, gave broad discretion for interpretion to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

To alleviate concerns that the new Congress may not adopt the proposals -- regardless of which party holds power in the legislative branch next year -- many are being tailored so that they could be adopted through rulemaking by the S.E.C. and enforcement policy changes at the Justice Department.

The first thing that struck me here is how prevalent the defense impulse is among the rich and powerful. No sooner had the Busheviks seized power than they started barricading themselves against the long reach of international law. Back in early 2001 the prospect of having their sorry asses hauled forth to the Hague had much the same hypothetical air, but five years later one thing we can say for sure is that exemption from ICC review hasn't made us less likely to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. The threat of prosecution may not be the ideal way to encourage good behavior, but replacing it with indemnity -- all other factors remaining equal -- is damn sure likely to have the opposite effect.

My second thought was how typical this approach seems in an era where appearance is valued way above reality -- mostly because it's so much easier to fake appearance. What Enron and WorldCom did was actually something almost universal in the corporate world: they attempted to construct a façade that appeared even more successful than they actually were. Everyone does that, and it works as long as nobody looks too close at what's being covered up. So the idea here is to make it harder to look, to reduce the motivations for looking, and to reduce the risks if anyone still bothers. Only in a world where appearances are everything would anyone even suggest such a thing. But that's increasingly the world corporate titans and politicians live in, along with their market researchers, PR flacks, lobbyists and lawyers.

My third thought concerns victims. Corporate fraud is not a victimless crime. The best you can say is that in most cases all the victims lose is money, but it's hard to argue that money is a matter of little importance to them. They are, after all, the investors who provide the capital that capitalism depends on. Laws against corporate fraud and malfeasance aren't generally intended to harrass corporate management, except insofar as they ensure that management is responsible to the investors. So this is not a question of the rich screwing the poor -- investors include more of the middle class than used to be the case, but as a class they are anything but poor. No doubt the Busheviks like this because they have the same relationship to the voters as the corporate managers have to the investors, including a relish for whatever they can get away with. But take away the control that protect investors and eventually you'll hollow out the whole system. Much like Bush's abuse of trust has hollowed out America's democracy.

None of this means that the regulatory expense of trying to keep publically traded corporations honest and forthright isn't a burden on business. But if it is so, it may be because we got off on the wrong foot by requiring that corporations hire the auditors who certify their accounts. The obvious alternative is for the government to hire the auditors, which would establish that they work for the public, not for the corporation. Such a case would eliminate the temptation on both sides to fudge the books -- accounting firms lose the incentive, and corporations lose the opportunity. The audits could then be further reviewed, with practices standardized in an open and transparent process, which would greatly improve the quality of information provided to investors. Better information should, in turn, lead to more productive investments, which ought to be a plus for the entire economy.

For many years this wasn't much of a problem, mostly because accounting firms were isolated from other business relationships and regarded their integrity as important. I recall reading a study back in the early 1980s that ranked professions according to integrity vs. corruption: accountants had by far the highest rating, and lawyers by far the lowest. This changed primarily because of deregulation of financial services combined with lax antitrust enforcement that allowed for industry consolidation. Those things happened because the lobbyists pushing them weighed in far more strongly than common sense that might have given us pause -- and because the politicians of all stripes learned to follow the money.

These new proposals are so contrary to what we know about the behavior of corporate management that they should be laughed all the way back to K Street. But the system is so totally corrupt that you can't be sure that anything ridiculous won't find a way to slip through the cracks. Still, there's more wrong here than mere corruption. Much as we've lost grip on the notion that there is a public interest distinct from some weighted sum of private interests, we've lost our to distinguish between systems and actors. Capitalism depends on accurate investment and price information and competitive markets, but corporations often gain their advantages by subverting just those things. The SEC exists to protect capitalism from corporations, but we've gotten more and more confused on this point, in large part because we assume that the corporations are capitalism. Similarly, we assume that the actors in top management are the corporations.

Same thing happens when we assume that the executive branch is the government, and that the president is the executive branch. This sort of association shifts power to the top, not least by weakening checks and balances everywhere else. That may seem to work if you have someone at the top who looks out for all the other interests in the system. That more or less happens some of the time -- more so in the business world where competition has a sobering effect. But we have many other examples of what happens when that sort of power is handed to scam artists -- just think of Enron under Ken Lay, and the US preidency under George W. Bush.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

F5 Record Report (#13: October 26, 2006)

I expected to be able to announce another F5 Record Report yesterday, but it hasn't appeared on the website yet. The usual link still gives you the October 19 column. In fact, the old issue cover is still up as well. I've written the editor, but haven't heard back. Nor have I dropped in on any of the usual places to check out the paper edition. Most likely just a temporary glitch, but I thought I'd be optimistic and file this notice anyway. Worse comes to worse you can still find the piece in my archives.

This week's lineup:

  • Ben Allison: Cowboy Justice (Palmetto) A- [jazz]
  • Beans: Only (Thirsty Ear) B+ [rap]
  • Nils Petter Molvaer: An American Compilation (Thirsty Ear) A- [jazz, electronica]
  • Sir Douglas Quintet: Live From Austin TX (1981, New West) A- [rock]
  • Ska Bonanza: The Studio One Ska Years (1961-65, Heartbeat, 2CD) A [reggae]
  • Ion Petre Stoican: Sounds From a Bygone Age, Vol. 1 (1966-77, Asphalt Tango) A- [world]
  • Texas Tornados: Live From Austin TX (1990, New West) B+ [country]
  • Eri Yamamoto: Cobalt Blue (Thirsty Ear) B+ [jazz]

Thirsty Ear got a cluster of interesting albums in. The late Freddy Fender deserved a notice, and Doug Sahm is worth remembering too. Ska Bonanza and Stoican are recycled favorites. Allison intersected with my Jazz CG work, which has been dominating my time.

Handed another one in yesterday. As long as I'm stuck in jazz mode the F5 columns are stuck with retreads, although some of my recycling comes from drafts of future columns. That will start to change when I get past this Jazz CG cycle -- any day now.

PS: Turns out the numbering on the website column and in some past dispatches had slipped a notch. This is the 13th column.

Letter to publicists:

This week's F5 Record Report presumably has a record of interest to
you. F5 is a weekly entertainment tabloid distributed free here in
Wichita KS. I cover 6-8 records per week, sometimes recycling from
other columns. The following URL will get you the latest column,
and the "next article" links will cycle you back in time.


For more info, see:


The index by label:

  Asphalt Tango: Ion Petre Stoican
  Heartbeat: Ska Bonanza
  New West: Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados
  Palmetto: Ben Allison
  Thirsty Ear: Beans, Nils Petter Molvaer, Eri Yamamoto

Thanks for your interest and support.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Bush's Useful Idiots

Speaking yesterday of where conservatives went wrong, I thought I'd follow that up with a note on what happened to the liberals. Part of the incentive there was a Tony Judt piece called Bush's Useful Idiots, about the liberals who lined up in support of Bush's little war in Iraq and long war against Terror -- i.e., against anyone who rubs us the wrong way, and seems like easy pickings.

Judt is right to criticize those people, but I think he's a little confused about who they are, what they're up to, and why they're increasingly irrelevant. It's a common confusion, the consequence of a marriage of convenience between liberals and labor in the 1930s, which was remarkably successful for the Democrats -- the liberals much more so than labor or the left -- up to 1968. Since then both have faded, giving ground to the Republican alliance of potentially antagonistic right-wingers and a whole lot of apathy. The notion that liberal = left has been hammered home so hard by the right that most folks accept it even though it has little historical or ideological basis.

The key idea behind liberalism is belief in progress, which follows several vectors: toward individual liberty, scientific rationality, economic growth, internationalism, and globalization. Historically, conservatism was rooted in the aristocracy, while liberalism was the ideology of bourgeois revolution, although as history moves on conservatism adjusts to incorporate whoever's on top and wants to keep it that way. The left differs from liberalism in being more committed to equality and more inclined to act collectively, whereas liberalism is about individuals -- equal opportunity may be an ideal, but redistribution isn't of much interest to them, and is often seen as counterproductive.

The liberals' self-characterization as occupying a noble middle ground between left and right comes from their self-awareness that they are different from the left. The right, on the other hand, has no need for such distinctions, since both are seen as enemies -- especially once the right has co-opted a sizable chunk of liberal foreign policy. If you look back in American history, one thing you'll notice is that liberals have often been more aggressive in their foreign policy than conservatives -- the exceptions were the slaveholding South and the recent convergence of neoconservatives, militarists, and Christian crusaders. So it shouldn't be surprising that there is a segment of liberals willing and eager to promote the Bush agenda: these are people who see the projection of American power abroad as a progressive, rationalizing, liberalizing force, oblivious to whatever death and destruction is caused along the way. Such people are useful to Bush because they help camouflage the everyday corruption with high-minded rhetoric. Such people are idiots because war undermines liberty at home, which presumably is something that they as liberals are interested in as well.

On the other hand, as Judt points out, liberalism is slipping. There are many reasons for this, but the deepest is that the mass benefit of progress is diminishing and for many turning negative. The classic metaphor is that a rising tide lifts all boats -- that growth benefits most people even without attempting to equalize it. That assumes that there is more growth than inequality can usurp, and that's basically been untrue, at least in the US since around 1970. Without more growth liberalism can't deliver the material gains it depends on for popular support. That leaves it with a threadbare ideology -- the promise of something that it can't deliver. Of course, liberalism has other problems -- a reflexive distaste for the masses and a fondness for the use of force head up the list. And of course it's unfair: all conservatives have to do is keep the present system of inequity intact -- even though recently they've been paying dividends -- whereas progressives actually have to show some headway. But that's the deal they bit off back when it seemed to work.

The alternative to liberalism is a resurgence of the left. That's tough, given that at present the left is in even worse shape, at least in terms of popular political discourse, than liberalism is. But maybe a better answer can be found in some sort of synthesis of individual liberty and collective responsibility. Given the right these days, the rest of us are stuck in the same boat, so we have the need to form a common defense. But those liberals who cling to their faith in progressive war have no part to play. To Bush they may be merely useful idiots; to us they're remarkably dangerous morons.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Where the Right Went Wrong

David Brooks' sycophantic New York Times review of Andrew Sullivan's book The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back has a background quote from Sullivan: "The conservatism I grew up around was a combination of lower taxes, less government spending, freer trade, freer markets, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and a strong anti-Communist foreign policy." The interesting thing is that one item on that list doesn't fit with all the rest: that strong anti-Communist foreign policy. It's not that the rest of the list isn't opposed to Communism. It's that the rest of the list concerns local issues, with a strong bias toward individuals that limits the power of government.

The problem isn't opposition to Communism, which never was a domestic threat. The problem was taking that opposition worldwide: assuming that Communism anywhere in the world threatened us and our vital interests, and assuming that we had the right, responsibility, and power to defend all, or nearly all, other people against their own domestic threat of Communism. The latter, not without justice, was seen as a continuation of the Age of Empire that fitfully self-destructed in two world wars. Before WWII the US policy of isolationism -- which meant no military engagements abroad, not no business or diplomatic relationships -- was widely respected, but after the war, we changed, establishing for the first time a massive permanent military with global reach, capable of interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. The Communists who had fought alongside us in WWII became our first enemies, followed by leftists of all stripes, independent nationalists, eventually even devout Muslims -- anyone who feared loss of their self-determination in a global culture of aggressive US capitalism. Ironically, all those enemies just fed the fear that made it possible for the US war machine to keep itself going -- even after the Communist bloc self-destructed, ceasing to be any sort of threat.

But that only begins to assess the impact of Sullivan's beloved "strong anti-Communist foreign policy": for every war abroad, there is a corresponding war at home. From the beginning we've been told that the only way we can lose in Iraq is if we lose our unity and will at home: that dissent is the enemy as much as the resistance in Iraq, that those who warned against wasting our soldiers' lives will be the ones responsible for their dying in vain. This coercive patriotism attacks our freedom more directly than our so-called enemies ever could. It builds up the repressive state against our personal interests. It costs us wealth, wastes our productivity, returns us the greater risks of living in a more hostile world.

It's worth noting that there are conservatives who believe in everything on Sullivan's list except the foreign policy -- the Libertarian Party, Republicans like Rep. Ron Paul, scholars like Andrew Bacevich. This list started with people who don't trust even right-thinking states -- who understand that power always attacks freedom. I can't tell from the review whether Sullivan -- early on an enthusiastic Iraq warmonger -- has even started to lose his faith in war, let alone the political force of repression, but he has at least come to recognize that Bush and his war have empowered some strange bedfellows for those conservatives naive enough to buy Bush's folk-art: specifically, a religious right that supports war abroad as part of a crusade to enforce moral order at home.

One thing that remains poorly understood is that anti-Communism doesn't just mean that you don't like Communism. Anti-Communism is an ideology in its own right: a weapon of the rich against the poor, the religious against the rational, the militarist against civil society. Those are the three prongs of Republican Party dogma, and have been so effectively sold that the so-called opposition party hardly ever questions any of them. So it's not surprising that a gasbag like Sullivan fell for the Party line. The question is whether he ultimately follows his hero Orwell into opposition against the new Stalinists. It sounds like thus far all he's trying to do is to offer them a new deal -- one they'll certainly refuse.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Birthday Dinner

Today's a break from the norm. Still listening to jazz records that may or may not be pick hit prospects, but not really trying to write about them today. I'll spend most of today cooking a rather extravagant dinner. The centerpiece is a rather ugly looking duck with head and toes intact. It's been drying out for a couple of days, and will go into the oven late this afternoon -- hopefully emerging as something resembling Peking Duck. Thought it would be nice to serve an elegant but simple Shark's Fin Soup with it, but I balked at $49 for the dried fin shreds. I've never done the duck before, but I've made the soup before, using canned shark fin that cost less than $10. Got some imitation shark fin -- a strange gelatin concoction -- but I'm not sure if it's worth using. Will have a few appetizers, ribs, wings, rice, eggplant and broccoli dishes, as well as the usual pancakes -- the one part of the spread that has me worried -- and a prefab cake for dessert.

This is the 2006 version of my birthday dinner. The first one I can recall was the night Bill Buckner blew the Series, but it really didn't become a tradition until a few years later. After I left Contex, I got together regularly with a couple of friends there. We often talked about food, and when my birthday came around I offered that the present that would make me happiest would be if I could cook for them. I cooked Chinese that night -- no longer recall just what, but it was a good deal more than tonight. Then each year after that, at least as long as I was in Boston, I did the same. I tried my hand at Indian and Turkish. The year I moved to New Jersey I did Indian again. Since moving back to Wichita, I've missed a couple of years, but have done Spanish and Thai. Last year I made feijoada -- one big dish rather than a lot of little ones. This year just started with the duck -- everything else is insurance if I screw that up.

Had to break to actually cook that dinner, so this part is afterwards. Didn't do the broccoli, which proved to be too much to handle too late. Did make something I forgot to list above: a salad with pork kidneys, tree ears and cucumber in a sesame sauce. Everything came out quite well, except for the frozen coconut cake -- my mother made a fabulous one, which I can do a pretty fair approximation of, but didn't want to put in the work this time. Probably a reasonable decision, given how much wear and tear everything else was. One thing that aging does is to test your faith in progress.

So another day, another year. This makes 56. It's been a rough one. But one thing I like about the birthday dinner ritual is that it shows it's still possible to accomplish something extraordinary, even if just for a moment.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Course Correction

The Wichita Eagle has an article today -- curiously not on the website -- about the White House's latest course correction ("Bush alters rhetoric on Iraq"):

The White House on Monday officially discarded "stay the course" as US policy in Iraq.

White House press secretary Tony Snow and presidential counselor Dan Bartlett disclosed the policy change, saying the shorthand description failed to "capture the dynamism" of the flexible US approach to security setbacks on the ground and the challenges of getting Iraqi authorities to control militias and quell sectarian bloodshed.

The announcement followed President Bush's weekend review of policy with his military commanders and follow-up meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"What you have is not 'stay the course' but in fact a study in constant motion by the administration and by the Iraqi government -- and frankly also by the enemy," Snow said. "You constantly have to adjust to what the other side is doing."

Snow said Bush administration officials were abandoning the "stay-the-course" policy description because it "left the wrong impression about what was going on" and handed critics the opportunity to portray White House policies as inflexible.

Don't know whether to laugh or cry here. "Stay the course" was never more than a rhetorical weapon, underscoring Bush's constancy, purposefulness, moral clarity, blah blah blah, while tweaking the Democrats for their fickleness. It worked well enough, but it did have one flaw: it suggested that Bush knew where he was going, and that steadfastness would get him there. Well, so much for that -- another slogan mark smashed on the rocks of reality.

Still, it's unlikely that the new paradigm will square all that well either. One speechwriter's "dynamism" could just as well be described as squirming. And as any Republican could tell you, flexibility isn't something the US government is all that good at. But when you're groping for terms to describe cluelessness and chaos, it may be the best you can do. This is pseudo-news in that it doesn't seem to reflect any actual changes in US policies in Iraq. But it is portentous, or at least suggestive, that some sort of change is in the works. And that would be ominous, for as bad as they've been, flexibility in the service of desperate avoidance of defeat can lead to even worse things -- Cambodia is one example.

As it happens, after reading this piece, I went back to my current book, Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming, and found this little gem. This is in a discussion of the Dover PA school board's creationism. Goldberg is interviewing a local Baptist preacher and his wife, and they wind up defending their anti-Darwin position to pointing to the Iraq controversy -- don't know when this interview took place, but obviously it was after Bush invaded and well before now (p. 105):

But neither Shirley nor Michael Johnson had any doubt that evolution isn't true. I asked why they thought mainstream scientists were misrepresenting the research. "Once truth leaks out, its powerful," Johnson said. "So you've got to cloud, you've got to make sure there's a lot of layers of lies and cover-ups in order to keep confusion reigning and misrepresentations occurring."

Why would scientists want to be so duplicitous? Johnson answered with an analogy. "You see this principle worked out at times, like with the Iraq war." Adopting a whiny, mock-outraged voice, he said, "'There's all these people dying every day! My gosh, we've got to get out of there!'"

His voice returning to normal, he said that, in fact, "there's been the least amount of casualties in the history of warfare. This is world-war terrorism, they're shipping people in from all over the place, insurgents they're called, to go against the coalition of armies -- and there's another thing, some of the politicians will try to convince people we're going this war alone, that this is unilateral war. No. We have about thirty-three, thirty-four countries that have joined us. . . . Why do people play with figures like that?

"It's because they have something to protect," he concluded. "They don't like the idea that America is setting up democracy and becoming more powerful in the world."

As Goldberg concludes: "You can't argue with that kind of logic."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Music: Current count 12485 [12470] rated (+15), 920 [926] unrated (-6). Working on Jazz Consumer Guide. Honest! Trying to, anyway. Not done yet, and not much to show for last week. This week looks to be bad too. Just awful. Don't know what happens after that.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #11, Part 12)

Lots of disruptions last week -- some expected, some surprises, but the bottom line was that I got nothing done on this for three days. That undid my certainty that I would get this Jazz Consumer Guide column finished this week. I did come close -- so close that I seriously considered keeping this open another day, or at least into the late hours, to see if I could finish it. Or at least to settle the last prospecting questions. But it's possible that my time is going to be mostly wrecked through Wednesday, so I figure it's best to run one more week and get it all tightened down.

One thing that did happen this past week was that I got hit with a lot of exceptionally good records. I haven't settled on my pick hits yet, but I have way too many A-list records for one column, as well as the usual surplus of honorable mentions. Should have closed down a month ago when this was more manageable. Still don't know what happens when I hand this in, but we'll open that bottle when it's ready. One more week and that's it, I swear.

The David S. Ware Quartet: BalladWare (1999 [2006], Thirsty Ear): This was recorded in summer 1999, after Ware. Don't know what the details were, why it's being released now, why it wasn't released then, but it fits in between Surrendered and the two albums Ware released on AUM Fidelity. Seven songs: three standards, four originals, including "Dao" and "Godspelized" -- album title songs from Ware's earthshaking DIW period. These are measured only by Ware's previous standards -- muffled perhaps, never pushed to extremes, but still embroiled in deep tension. Pianist Matthew Shipp is notable throughout, especially on "Godspelized." [A-]

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Codebook (2006, Pi): Whereas Mother Tongue looked to natural languages for tricks of transformation, this one moves on to ciphers and encodings, as when the group members sign their names in Morse code. Either way, the alto saxophonist's true Rosetta Stone is John Coltrane, and what lifts him above dozens of others is his association with pianist Vijay Iyer, who starkly frames his music, and who picks up the place when he lays out. Still, if that was all it took, you'd expect more from Raw Materials, a duo album from earlier this year that never quite stuck together. A-

John Taylor: Angel of the Presence (2004 [2006], CAM Jazz): English pianist. Been around since 1969, but mostly in the background, working with the likes of John Surman (contributes a quote on the back cover), Kenny Wheeler (wrote two songs), Jan Garbarek, and Norma Winstone. Always seemed like a good guy, but I never checked out his own records before. So this piano trio, with Palle Danielsson on bass and Martin France on drums, caught me by surprise. Fully engaged, relentlessly pushing both the instrument and the ideas. [A-]

Joan Hickey: Between the Lines (2006, Origin): Despite the song selection -- I can't say as I've ever wanted to hear "Black Magic Woman" or "Bridge Over Troubled Water" again -- this is an exceptionally engaging middle-of-the-road jazz album. She's a Chicago pianist, working since 1980, but as far as I can tell only has one previous album. This drops down to a trio, as on the Bud Powell closer, which she explains thus: "Everybody got to play some bebop!" But most cuts are amply filled out with Tito Carillo's trumpet and/or John Wojciechowski's sax. [B+(***)]

Mike Holober: Wish List (2004-05 [2006], Sons of Sound): A pianist I've been consistently impressed by, although I'm a little slow on the uptake here. Wolfgang Muthspiel's guitar gives this a shiny allure -- always good to hear him. I'm less sure about Tim Ries, credited with "saxophones" -- something for further study. [B+(*)]

Scotty Hard's Radical Reconstructive Surgery (2004 [2006], Thirsty Ear): AMG files him under rap, but most of the credits on Scott Harding's resume are for producer, engineer, and/or mixing. His credit here is for drum machines, samplers, optigan, and percussion. Keyboardits John Medeski and Matthew Shipp get second billing, followed by William Parker, Nasheet Waits, DJ Olive, and Mauricio Takara. Basically, this is what you get when you shuffle Shipp's jazztronica with Medeski's organ grind. [B+(**)]

One More: The Summary: Music of Thad Jones, Vol. 2 (2006, IPO): Another one, with the same all-star band as the first round: brother Hank on piano; Jimmy Owens on Thad's trumpet; John Mosca on trombone; Benny Golson, James Moody, Frank Wess, and Eddie Daniels on sax, flute and/or clarinet; Richard Davis on bass; Kenny Washington on drums. These aren't session scraps. They were recorded in a second session three months after the first, but as is often the case with volume twos, the concept has lost a bit of its edge, and the songbook may have slipped a bit. Thad was a bebopper who nonetheless thought that big bands were the natural forum for the music, so this nine-piece group is about right. After I played this, I noticed that the street date isn't until Feb. 13, 2007, so I guess I jumped the gun on this one. B+(**)

Boxhead Ensemble: Nocturnes (2006, Atavistic): Don't know much about this group, other than that the central figure is guitarist Michael Krassner. The other figure above the "with" is cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Below the "with," as best I can make out given the badly registered pink type on the tan background, is someone on prepared piano and someone else on percussion -- both limited contributions, but plusses nonetheless. Sonic wallpaper -- tasteful, fractally intriguing, barely on the substantial side of ambient. B+(**)

Sonny Rollins: Sonny, Please (2005 [2006], Doxy): Having played out his contract at Milestone, Rollins is a free agent now, which for jazz legends these days means he's rolling out his own label. He's been selling this on his website for a while, so presumably that's where to go. Press release says it's been licensed to JVC in Japan and Universal in US and Europe, and they'll roll out their "traditional CD release" on Jan. 23, 2007, but will have a digital release on Nov. 21. The album holds no real surprises: the six piece band is more help than he needs but not good enough to compete, although there's nothing wrong with spots of Bobby Broom guitar or swashes of Clifton Anderson trombone; on the other hand, Rollins sounds fabulous, which is all you really need to know. A-

Steve Lacy Quintet: Esteem (1975 [2006], Atavistic): Following Lacy's death, his widow Irene Aebi started sorting through over 300 private recordings for a series called "The Leap: Steve Lacy Cassette Archives." This is Volume 1, and it's easy to see why it leapt to the head of the list. It is raw and deliciously noisy, old sounding, yet so far out it's more shocking now than when it came out. Steve Potts' alto sax provides a second horn. Kent Carter's bass is plug ugly, and Kenneth Tyler is credited with percussion because he's hitting things beyond his drum kit. But the revelation is Aebi herself. I can't stand her singing -- if you go through my database you may notice that Lacy's records get docked about a notch for each song she sings on -- but she sticks to cello and violin here, and you can hear why he fell in love with her. The notes say "The Uh Uh Uh" was Lacy's tribute to Jimi Hendrix. I'll have to listen again to see what that means. A-

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

Patricia Barber: Mythologies (2006, Blue Note): Most of the song titles I recognize from Greek mythology, not that I know or care much about that. "Whiteworld" has been to fit the series, and remains most striking. Other than "The Hours" at the end, which the chorus runs away with, the music is striking, and the vocals distinctive. Don't know what it means. B+(**)

Dave Holland Quintet: Critical Mass (2005 [2006], Dare2/Sunnyside): My idea of doing a bass special with Allison and Lane as pick hits and Holland bring up the rear is officially dead: this has managed to escape the dudhouse. Holland just has too much firepower and too many options in his book to completely slip up. Two cuts are choice here, excepting the closing bars of the latter -- "Lucky Seven" and "Full Circle" -- and it's Robin Eubanks on trombone who put them over the top, although he couldn't have done it without the leader's bass moving things along. You don't hear much trombone period these days, let alone a guy who can run off with the lead without even cheating like J.J. used to do. Vibraphonist Steven Nelson is another guy here who plays a strong hand from a weak suit. Drummer Nate Smith can jump in and out of time with the best of them. And Chris Potter wouldn't be so overrated if he wasn't so damn talented. What threw me off at first is shrinking, but still present -- little bits that seem off color or out of place, plus the suspicion that this is just too damn fancy. But I guess those who can like to flaunt it. B+(***)

Club D'Elf: Now I Understand (1998-2006 [2006], Accurate): Never did manage to figure out who's who and what's what, other than that bassist Mike Rivard is at the center of this amorphuous group and that damn near anyone is likely to show up as a guest. The machine beats recall Nils Petter Molvaer circa Khmer, but conventional drums also appear, probably Erik Kerr. While Rivard's bass grooves are critical, they tend to be thickened up with keyboards -- mostly John Medeski -- and turntables -- someone d/b/a Mister Rourke. Plenty of guitars, too. There's also a strain of mostly middle eastern exotica, which oudist Brahim Fribgane has something to do with. Several songs have vocals -- Jennifer Jackson's "A Toy for a Boy" is a marginal novelty, but the kiddie sample reggae romp "Just Kiddin'" is on my first ever year-end song list. There are also skits and raps, and if MF Doom isn't in the house, his doppelganger ist. If none of this sounds much like jazz, that's just too bad. It doesn't sound like world-techno-fusion either, because they fuck with it like jazzbos junk up pop songs. Besides, Mat Maneri's on the guest list. A-

Meredith d'Ambrosio: Wishing on the Moon (2004 [2006], Sunnyside): Seems like a fine example of what a jazz singer should be -- her voice fine tuned and personable, an innate musicality to everything she does, presence, nuance, the skill and control to play, the discipline not to get off on pointless tangents. All that puts her ahead of about 85% of the field without breaking a sweat. She has a dozen-plus albums, but this is the only one I've heard. I'd be surprised if it wasn't typical. B+(**)

George Lewis: Sequel (For Lester Bowie) (2004 [2006], Intakt): The most common instrument here is "laptop," followed by "electronics," with an assist from DJ Mutamassik's turntables. It's hard to listen to this sort of thing without thinking back to George Russell's electronic sonatas, in part because the random drift they share leaves one's mind plenty of time to wander. Lewis is a trombonist and I'd love to hear him play some -- it's the best part of this album, although the percussive later parts of the 33:46 title piece are marvelous. This doesn't strike me as any closer to Bowie than Homage to Charles Parker was to Bird -- in particular, it lacks the trumpeter's exuberance and folly. On the other hand, if you can give it the attention it doesn't demand, like Russell at his most abstract this offers some remarkable collages of sound. B+(***)

The Vandermark 5: A Discontinuous Line (2005 [2006], Atavistic): The initial effect of Fred Lonberg-Holm's cello replacing Jeb Bishop's trombone is to move the group from tight horn arrangements back into rough and ready free jazz. The other change is that the saxes have moved down a notch -- Dave Rempis to tenor and Ken Vandermark to baritone -- filling the bottom Bishop vacated while kicking up the dirt. The result is a slimmed down, fired up Territory Band, a wild west bar band for bruised brains. A-

Marcus Strickland: Quartets: Twi-Life (2005-06, Strick Muzik, 2CD): Minor bookkeeping change here: I've decided to treat "Quartets" at part of the title, not part of the artist designation. Makes more sense that way, even though the typography suggests otherwise. Two discs, two distinct quartets. Both have Marcus on tenor and soprano sax and his twin E.J. on drums. One has piano and acoustic bass, the other guitar and electric bass. The latter has two advantages: one is that guitarist Lage Lund makes much more of a contribution than pianist Robert Glasper; the other is that the electric bass seems to free up the sax, although Marcus is voluble and pungent on both discs. He's one of the brightest mainstream tenor men I've heard in years, and his brother is equally terrific. Grade tracks the weaker disc, which is in the ground rules, but the stronger one isn't all that far ahead. B+(***)

Junk Box: Fragment (2004 [2006], Libra): Satoko Fujii's four new big band albums, like Ken Vandermark's recent pair of two-disc Territory Band sets, are overwhelming: in such big universes, anything can happen, everything does, and fatigue sets in long before one can sort out so many marginal treats. At least with this trio you can keep the players straight. She pounds out thick piano chords, while sidekick Natsuki Tamura's surly trumpet adds tension and growl, and drummer John Hollenbeck referees. This is basic Fujii -- everything else is elaboration. A-

The Andy Biskin Quartet: Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster (2000 [2006], Strudelmedia): The old melodies benefit from oldish instrumentation -- despite its recent comeback, Biskin's clarinet still sounds like a refugee from the depression, especially when paired with trombone or tuba; guitarist Pete McCann resorts to banjo on occasion, and drummer John Hollenbeck takes the most diehard Foster melody on jingly bells. Still, everything here is more than a little bent. No point making a jazz record unless you take some liberties. B+(***)

Andy Biskin: Trio Tragico (2005 [2006], Strudelmdia): Biskin's clarinet is paired with Dave Ballou's trumpet, more often in unison than not, which keeps the focus on the tricky compositions. The third member is bassist Drew Gress, who adds depth without having much effect on the general drift. This lack of democracy can get tedious over the long haul, and this does run long. But it's interesting when it's working. B+(*)

Geri Allen: Timeless Portraits and Dreams (2006, Telarc, 2CD): Here she moves beyond her initial interest in Mary Lou Williams to something like the court historian of Afro-American musical culture. She pays tribute to Charlie Parker, Billy Holiday, and Louis Armstrong's better half, but the center of gravity falls on gospel, with Carmen Lundy, George Shirley, and the Atlanta Jazz Chorus providing most of the dead weight. This isn't all old or backwards, but seeking respectability traces just one thread in a struggle for freedom and equality that contributed much else to both. She has great skill and learning, considerable pride in her accomplishments. In some ways it's a mark of her success that I find this so thoroughly uninteresting. The thick frosting of sanctimoniousness doesn't help either. B-

Sathima Bea Benjamin: Song Spirit (1963-2002 [2006], Ekapa): Forty years and an extraordinary run of pianists for the South African singer, more at home in the jazz tradition -- "Lush Life" and "Careless Love" are choice cuts -- than in her Africa-themed originals, which tend to be anthemic. Anyone tempted by Madeleine Peyroux should give her a chance. B+(***)

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Paradoxes of Occupation

Michael Schwartz had a piece at TomDispatch describing some sort of US military analysis, published in Military Review, of what went wrong in Iraq. The analysis listed nine "paradoxes" of counterinsurgency. For more details, see the piece; for here I'll just list them, and add a comment at the end.

  1. The more you protect your force, the less secure you are.
  2. The more force you use, the less effective you are.
  3. The more successful counterinsurgency is, the less force that can be used and the more risk that must be accepted.
  4. Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.
  5. The best weapons for counterinsurgency do not shoot.
  6. The host nation doing something tolerably is sometimes better than our doing it well.
  7. If a tactic works this week, it will not work next week; if it works in this province, it will not work in the next.
  8. Tactical success guarantees nothing.
  9. Most of the important decisions are not made by generals.

Some of these are oddly phrased -- #3 might make as much sense if it started "the more successful insurgency is," while the point of #7 is not so much that workable tactics will fail in the future as that they cannot be expected to continue to work. Still, these are paradoxes only if you assume that force is somehow a decisive strategy. The situation becomes much clearer if you recognize the following:

  1. The insurgency always plays offense and counterinsurgency can only play defense. The offense can win, give up, or keep fighting. The defense does not have the option of winning: the best it can do is to negotiate a compromise which entices the offense to give up.
  2. The insurgency will halt or continue to fight depending on the degree of political support it receives from the local population. As such, the counterinsurgency's best option is to offer the local population a deal that satisfies enough that they see no advantage in supporting the insurgency.
  3. Violence diminishes the credibility of those responsible, while reinforcing the political instincts of the victims.

The assumption here is that the utter destruction of the insurgency is either impossible or politically unacceptable. An exception might be a small group of foreign insurgents with no local support -- Zarqawi might have qualified had there been no other insurgency in Iraq, but that was never the case. Once an insurgency does become established with widespread popular support, its utter destruction approaches an act of genocide, which at present is still politically unacceptable.

Put these points together and what you find is that the US political struggle was lost once a fledgling Iraqi resistance was able to goad the US military into flagrant and reckless repression. Nir Rosen's In the Belly of the Green Bird provides an account of exactly that when a small group in Anbar province attacked US forces with the intent of becoming martyrs. The US was susceptible to such provocations for two reasons: one was that Bush's political aims in Iraq didn't allow for a political compromise acceptable to the Iraqi people; the other was that the US for many reasons was biased to respond to any attack with overwhelming force.

By resorting to force, the US showed that its interests would not be favorable to the Iraqi people. The US lost its moral standing, and lost any chance of establishing political favor. The only recourse at that time would have been to advance a more generous compromise, but instead Bush clung to his "course," calculating that more force might do the trick. That, too, failed, and further iterations have continued to fail, ever worse.

I've been reading Mark Kurlansky's remarkable book, Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea, so its lessons are especially fresh in my mind. One of those lessons is:

A conflict between a violent and a nonviolent force is a moral argument. If the violent side can provoke the nonviolent side into violence, the violent side has won.

Admittedly, no one would ever argue that the US military occupation of Iraq was ever nonviolent, but many of its articulated goals were. In attempting to counter the insurgency by escalating its violence, the US turned those goals into lies, which finished them off, leaving no moral cloak, just brute force. That in and of itself might have been no worse than what Saddam Hussein had done, but the US had the further advantage of being an alien power assaulting people in their own homes. It should be easy to see why that didn't work.

Friday, October 20, 2006

F5 Record Report (#12: October 19, 2006)

The F5 posts are making me dizzy, given that I have to turn next week's in about about the same time I have last week's posting to report. One thing that strikes me as curious is the Google ad box, which reads: "Cool Jewish Music/Kabbalah Music/Jewish Blues/3rd Stream Music/Avant Garde Music." Someone's inference engine is flipping out. But then I got a note from Risa Mickenberg, the Jesus H Christ chanteuse, who looked at my columns and wrote, "From F5, Wichita looks like a very nice place." Always good to confound expectations.

This week's lineup:

  • Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: MTO Volume 1 (Sunnyside) A- [jazz]
  • Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (Verve Forecast) B+ [rock]
  • Night in Tunisia: The Very Best of Dizzy Gillespie (1946-49, Bluebird/Legacy) A [jazz]
  • The Essential Ronnie Milsap (1973-88, RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2CD) B- [country]
  • Sam Moore: Overnight Sensation (Rhino) B [r&b]
  • The Essential Charley Pride (1966-84, RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2CD) A- [country]
  • Sex Mob: Sexotica (Thirsty Ear) B+ [jazz]

Three Steven Bernstein records this week. Had I been faster on the uptake, I could have included Baby Loves Jazz (Verve), which is a solid B+ -- maybe better if you aren't as settled in adulthood as I've become.

Letter to publicists:

This week's F5 Record Report presumably has a record of interest to
you. F5 is a weekly entertainment tabloid distributed free here in
Wichita KS. I cover 6-8 records per week, sometimes recycling from
other columns. The following URL will get you the latest column,
and the "next article" links will cycle you back in time.


For more info, see:


The index by label:

  Sony/BMG (Legacy): Dizzy Gillespie, Ronnie Milsap, Charley Pride
  Sunnyside: Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra
  Thirsty Ear: Sex Mob
  Universal (Verve): Leonard Cohen
  WEA (Rhino): Sam Moore

 Thanks for your interest and support.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Recipe for Disaster

I saw Richard Haass -- currently of the Council on Foreign Relations ("a bipartisan think tank"), formerly of the Bush and Clinton State Departments, before that on the previous Bush's National Security Council -- interviewed on one of last night's news programs. He was saying that the current situation in Iraq was a total disaster, and that the only path left for the US was to try to extricate ourselves from the country. He said that everyone who knows anything -- it's still easy to come up with a list not covered by that qualification, but never mind -- agrees. But when he was asked why Iraq had come to this sorry state, he retreated and mumbled something about how Iraq is such a fractious, divided society. But that's true about many nations. What's unique about Iraq is the US occupation. The occupation kills people directly, and kills more people through a armed resistance that it justifies. Moreover, the violence of the occupation and resistance provides cover and opportunity for much more Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.

I suppose Haass may have a problem admitting this because he had a small role in creating it. But he needs to recognize that by not facing up to the facts, he's helping to keep the killing going by letting us continue to think that we're something other than responsible. The truly blind may even conclude that we can still help fix things. Billmon is at least more forthright:

The point deserves frequent repetition: We did this. We caused it. We're not just callous bystanders to genocide, as in Rwanda, but the active ingredient that made it possible. We turned Iraq into a happy hunting ground for Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army. If Iraq is now a failed state, it's because of our failures.

I'm reluctant to use the word genocide myself, partly because the word implies a deliberate plan to kill a population carried out on a wide scale by a competent authority. Rather, what we have is a civil war with at least four sides and possibly more, resulting in incidents of small-scale genocidal targeting among much broader relatively indiscriminate slaughter. The numbers add up -- the Lancet figure of 650,000 comes to 2.6% of Iraq's population. But it doesn't have to be genocide to get numbers like that: old fashioned war suffices, and is reason enough to stand for stopping it. And whatever it is, this point is key: to stop it you have to start by disengaging the force that started it in the first place. That should be relatively easy because the US has no business being there in the first place.

William Pfaff has a short piece in the Oct. 19, 2006 New York Review of Books that explains what the US did after 9/11 and why it has been so disastrous.

On and after September 11, 2001, I wrote a series of columns examining who those people were who had attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and why they were determined to battle the power and influence of the United States in the Mideast -- particularly in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden's home, and location of the Islamic holy places.

They were religious radicals and also utopians, having no chance of successin recreating in our day their (largely imaginary) vision of the Arab world during the years when the followers of the Prophet Muhammad came out of Arabia into present-day Iraq, seized Syria and Jerusalem from the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire, then conquered Egypt and Persia, and created a Mediterranean empire eventually reaching the Pyrenees and Vienna. [ . . . ]

One of my readers (in The Chicago Tribute) angrily e-mailed me in September 2001 to demand why I was going on about the historical and cultural background. "Are you trying to rationalize the murder of 6,000 innocent civilians?" he asked (the actual number of casualties was still unclear). He said he didn't care who the terrorists were or why they did what they did. He just wanted revenge. If I tried to explain who they were, I must be on their side.

This was a comprehensible, but destructive, reaction, because it was the White House reaction as well, sending the government off on the course that five years later has produced wars the United States is losing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and soon, it may be, in Iran and even Syria.

My correspondent in Chicago did not want to know who these people were, and to judge from their actions, neither did the Bush White House. Yet the United States government knew a great deal about al-Qaeda -- which, after all, was the offshoot of a CIA initiative in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. [ . . . ]

This knowledge was apparently of no interest to the White House. Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for their part, already knew that they wanted to seize Iraq, for reasons yet to be acknowledged. A realistic assessment of the terrorism threat [ . . . ] would have presented it as of modest and potentially containable scale, as has proven to be the case.

President Bush and Karl Rove, his propaganda packager, preferred to global cold war model -- the "long war" -- capable of being presented to the American public as a communism-like "struggle for the world," so as to mobilize Americans around George Bush, wearing his flight jacket.

In other words, Bush and his supporters eschewed understanding on the suspicion that it might have warned them against satisfying their emotional commitment to action. They were disinterested in reasons and oblivious to consequences. It turns out that repeating history is not the worst that can come from ignorance of history. They got away with this, for a short time anyway, because decisive action struck a responsive chord in the American public. I suspect that's a human trait that goes back to prehistoric times: when attacked, rally around the guy who acts decisively, like he knows what he's doing. With the proper prep, Bush is very good at acting like that. Too bad he's clueless. Too bad he's a jerk.

All that should have been obvious by noon on 9/11, but we let ourselves be prodded and bullied into a self-sustaining war frenzy. I remember watching people slog across Grand Army Plaza -- shocked, annoyed, but calm, knowing that they had seen the worst and were now safely out of its range. So why were people panicking in Paducah? We were not only prodded to war; we were bullied against reason. Increasingly you can see how poorly those instincts served us. But Billmon is right to point out that our folly has served the Iraqis even worse. He quotes Riverbend on the Lancet study, as "she curtly eviscerates the conservative Holocaust deniers":

We literally do not know a single Iraqi family that has not seen the violent death of a first or second-degree relative these last three years. Abductions, militias, sectarian violence, revenge killings, assassinations, car-bombs, suicide bombers, American military strikes, Iraqi military raids, death squads, extremists, armed robberies, executions, detentions, secret prisons, torture, mysterious weapons -- with so many different ways to die, is the number so far fetched?

Remember, the buck started here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Critical Theorists

PopMatters has posted a new interview with Robert Christgau. This does a pretty good job of positioning him: against balkanization and canonization; sympathetic to past monoculture, not that it was paradise; for popular culture, not least because it's popular but even when it's not; against "phenomenal narrowness" and "unwarranted arrogance"; for good writing, or at least good editing; painfully limited by time available yet still making the most of it. The title quoted him: "My tastes don't evolve; they broaden."

That reminds me how consistent he has been, even going back to his late '60s reviews. I look back at my early writings and barely recognize that person, but his early work stands up -- subsequent explorations into reggae, Africa, the Balkans, and later developments in punk, hip hop, etc., just supplement his core attitudes. What's evolved is his writing, which is denser, deeper, and wiser than it was. As far as the interview's impression of him as "arrogant and opinionated," I see that as coming from other traits: he is very efficient about managing his time, which leads him to jettison anything that doesn't strike him as productive -- including whole genres of music; he recognizes that emphatic writing reads better than wishy-washy, which leads him to sharpen contrasts even in a badly blurred world; and he has a high ethical standard of certainty -- his line is "I don't write about things until I know what I think of them" -- and that's what backs up his assertions.

By the way, in singling out those traits, I'm also highlighting where we differ. I frequently review things I'm unsure of, seeing each iteration as an approximation rather than a secure truth. I often go down inefficient and unproductive rat holes. And I tend to be diffident to a fault -- although Christgau has worked hard to wring that out of my writing. Other differences have more to do with background and experience, but we share some common ground, as when he explains, "because I am blessed with a very healthy appetite for music, and because I am more interested in breadth and variety than I am in having intensive aesthetic experiences."

As it turns out, I found this link from a notice in Christopher Monsen's blog, which didn't mention Christgau but offered this quote: "I think Theodore Adorno was profoundly ignorant." Christgau goes on: "I think even Adorno's fans think he was bad at understanding popular music. He thought it was all jazz. I will give it up to those who say Adorno was very smart, but he based certain aspects of his theories on the assumption that the pop aesthetic was a priori bad, which it isn't." It's been about thirty years since I last read Adorno, so I'm a bit rusty here, but this seems off base. Adorno was profoundly disturbed by Nazism, which he saw not as an aberration in western culture but as some sort of apotheosis derived from the Enlightenment, the domination of nature, and the driving force of capitalism -- forces which brought us the culture industry. He was an expert in modern classical music -- a fan of Schönberg and a critic of Stravinsky -- but he didn't have much to say about jazz, other than he thought that improv was self-deluding: that any effort to spontaneously invent new music would be doomed to repeating the subconscious. He had a very low opinion of intuition. The only way he saw to overcome the forces behind fascism was cold, hard, critical thinking. The music he favored demanded just that; the rest didn't much interest him. Ironically, when he died in 1969 most of the music that might have interested him was coming from jazz quarters, by then the most unpopular of popular musics.

Back around 1975 I burned out on critical theory, and I've found it pretty much impossible to read ever since. I still have a massively marked up copy of Dialectic of Enlightenment -- and for that matter an unmarked Dialektik der Aufklarung -- that I thumbed through tonight, hardly recognizing anything. Once I reached the point where I could identify the bourgeois nature of everything, additional details and examples mattered little. That's when I started reading rock crit, which at least lived in my world, rather than merely railing against it. I'm not sure that Adorno has anything useful to say about popular music in America, but mapping him onto a highbrow/lowbrow spat that these days mostly shows our age is certainly wrong. He was from another time and place, maybe another planet. Wonder what he would have made of Sun Ra.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I started reading Tamara Draut's Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead (Doubleday), but didn't have time to get through it before the library due date came up. No surprises here, but it's one of the major economic stories of our era -- an era that will eventually be recognized as a significant downturn on the welfare of most Americans. The pivotal date was roughly 1970, a fateful date for several reasons: it's when the US trade balance went negative, when US domestic oil production peaked and started to decline, when deficits started to grow, when growth slowed down and turned into what was called stagflation. It occurred in the long stuck course of a disastrous war in Vietnam, and was marked by a political turn to the right, which effectively channeled what gains there were to ever greater concentration among the rich. That this effect has been masked so long is an interesting story in its own right. But this is the only world that Draut's young adults have known, and it's increasingly hard for them to see how they reach, let alone exceed, the living standards of their parents.

I noted a couple of quotes in the introduction, which give the gist of the argument (pp. 4-5):

When our parents were starting out, three factors helped smooth the transition to adulthood. The first was the fact that there were jobs that provided good wages even for high school graduates. A college degree wasn't necessary to earn a decent living. But even if you wanted to go to college, it wasn't that expensive and grants were widely available. The second was a robust economy that lifted all boats, with productivity gains shared by workers and CEOs alike. The result was a massive growth of the middle class, which provided security and stability for families. Third, a range of public policies helped facilitate this economic mobility and opportunity: a strong minimum wage, grants for low-income students to go to college, a generous unemployment insurance system, major incentives for home ownership, and a solid safety net for those falling on hard times. Simply put, government had your back.

This world no longer exists. The story of what happened is well known. The nation shifted to a service- and knowledge-based economy, dramatically changing the way we lived and worked. Relationships between employers and employees became more tenuous as corporations faced global competitors and quarterly bottom-line pressures from Wall Street. Increasingly, benefits such as health care and pension plans were provided only to well-paid workers. Wages rose quickly for educated workers and declined for those with only high school diplomas, resulting in new demands for college credentials. As most families saw their incomes stagnate or decline, they increasingly needed two full-time incomes just to stay afloat, which created new demands and pressures on working parents. Getting into the middle class now required a four-year college degree, and even that was no guarantee of achieving the Americcan dream.

As Draut notes elsewhere, the "government had your back" angle wasn't exactly universal. There was both official and unofficial discrimination, especially racial, also sexual. One recent book describes post-WWII public aid as "when affirmative action was white"; it seems far from coincidental that the right was able to kill off or undermine such programs once it became impossible to deny those benefits to non-whites. The Republican ascendency was built on just that racism, augmented by post-defeat military bravado, and funded by an upper class determined not to let their yachts sink with the falling tide.

The description of how the world changed strikes me as weaker. The economy didn't shift to service jobs so much as service jobs took up the slack from the decline of manufacturing. The latter had two engines: technology and automation which shifted jobs to machines from people, and the capital flight that sought growth markets and lower wages abroad. Stronger labor unions might have mitigated both factors, ideally by converting productivity gains into shorter workweeks for more workers. But the political shift to the right cut the legs out from under the unions, displacing workers to the lower end of the service sector.

The other thing is that it hasn't become impossible or even all that much harder to join the middle class. It's more that the middle class isn't what it used to be, or that it's long been cracked up to be. The middle class was once imagined to be the core of a relatively egalitarian democracy, a sign that we share the same responsibilities and aspirations. Nowadays, middle class means you're just a slip away from falling into poverty, but miles and miles away from the true rich who set the standards you aspire to, but can never reach. The more society splits into rich and poor, the desperate the middle class become.

Draut sums up today (p. 6):

Becoming an adult today takes longer, requirse taking more risks, and is rife with more stumbling blocks than it was a generation ago. To get a sense of how much longer the traditional path to adulthood takes, we can compare the percentage of young women and young men meeting a traditional definition of adulthood in the yeras 1960 and 2000: leaving home, finishing school, becoming financially independent, getting married, and having a child. Four decades ago, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men aged 30 had completed all of these transitions. In 2000, only 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men had completed all these transitions by age 30.

From the price of a college education to the new cutthroat realities of the conomy, young adults are trying to establish themselves in a society that has grown widely unequal and less responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. At each step in the obstacle course to adulthood -- getting an education, finding a job, starting a family, and buying a house -- our nation's public policies have failed to keep up. Young adults are left to drift alone, shouldering more of the financial burden and risk than previous generations.

One major cause of this is that Draut describes as "the new brand of capitalism" (pp. 19-20):

This new economy has increasingly become a winner-take-all system in which most of the spoils go to the top -- the CEOs, big shareholders, and top executives. While technology has allowed America's productivity to soar, unlike in past eras, since about 1980, less and less of these gains have been shared with workers. Productivity grew 74.2 percent between 1968 and 2000, but hourly wages for average workers fell 3 percent (adjusted for inflation). In fact, if wages had kept pace with rising productivity between 1968 and 2000, the average hourly wage would have been $24.56 in 2000, rather than $13.74.

This slide in workers' earnings happened as corporate profits were climbing. Domestic corporate profits have risen 64 percent since 1968, adjusting for inflation. The king of the low-wage sector -- the retail industry -- has done fantastically well. Retail profits have jumped 158 percent since 1968. [ . . . ]

Back in 1950, firing workers for trying to organize unions was rare: there was one illegal dismissal of workers for every twenty union elections. By the 1990s, the National Labor Relations Board found illegal dismissal of workers in one out of every three union elections.

I skipped over the parts about WalMart, as you might well guess. Final conclusion to the introduction (p. 26):

After all my research and conversations with young adults, one thing is crystal clear. Without bold thinking and the courage to uphold our nation's most sacred values, a while generation of young adults will come of age in an America that doesn't reward hard work, family values, or collective responsibilities. I have no doubt that the grim economic reality and choked opportunity facing young adults didn't have to happen. And it doesn't have to continue.

An optimist after all. Some day I hope to get back to the book and find out why. Draut runs an Economic Opportunity Program at a think tank named Demos, and she has some straightforward ideas on how to fix this. I'm not so optimistic, and not just because her young adults haven't run into the health care meatgrinder yet. But it's a good book, full of basic info and credible stories.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Working Techniques

I received the following letter from Luke Kaven, the proprietor of Smalls Records. The label was named for an after-hours joint of some repute in New York, which has expired and been replaced by one called Fat Cat. Kaven has a background in academic philosophy, which feeds into the letter. Thanks to his generosity, I've heard pretty much everything the label has released. It mostly follows a fairly conservative but soft strain of postbop -- given the intersection with Fresh Sound's New Talent series I'm tempted to suspect a West Coast/Cool Jazz influence. But the letter isn't really about the records so much as the fundamental issues of listening: what seems right, and why some things seem right and others don't. It also turns up questions about how I work and why I work that way. I'll comment more on that at the end.

I was glad to see your recent proto-review of Fresh From The Cooler. I was also glad for your other reviews, but I'm interested in something you said about Hewitt in the most recent piece. You allude there to an elusive 'it' that seems so lacking in other modern work. And you've struck onto something that involves why I derailed an otherwise promising academic career to make Frank Hewitt records. There is definitely a certain 'it', or a bundle of 'its'. And the experience of 'it' is like few experiences in life.

In my position, I am able (or required) to look further into music than most. What I've learned in the last few years are the things that one learns when one listens to an artist 500 times (as many times as I heard Hewitt play live), and the things that one learns when one listens to a given recording 500 or so times. Something emerges, something that I began to recognize a few years back, and undertook to study as a grad student in cognitive science. I get to sample a space that most people don't sample, and it is sometimes useful to report back on what is down that road, as what emerges is sometimes unexpected.

It had occurred to me earlier, reading some remarks that you had written about Charlie Parker (and others), that perhaps you were not experiencing the 'it' that many of us do experience listening to Bird. Though recently, I'm beginning to think that this experience is something that comes to you at times, but less at others. This is not to suggest that you're not a bright listener. You are. But the demands of your work do not afford you the opportunity to delve in beyond a certain point, and at times that may be important. Maybe you'll find my perspective to be interesting. I will try to give you a concrete way to visualize the kinds of phenomena I'm talking about so you can experiment yourself, to test whether or not what I claim is valid. If you wouldn't mind indulging me:

The cognitive basis of this experience I refer to is in our evolved ability to coordinate sensory events having a temporal regularity. Our musical experiences and some of our verbal life, as well as our ability to deal with repetitive action such as walking, employ this ability. The best way I know to point out the phenomenon I have in mind is to point to the basic rhyme. The rhyme is best known as a verbal phenomenon. It is a diachronic experience (meaning, an experience that has content from more than one point in time). It is the experience of auditory (specifically here phonetic) similarity between two events at different times, but where the relationship among the events involves a perceived temporal regularity. Every variation on "Roses are red . . ." demonstrates that phenomenon. But rarely does one think of generalizing that to events having other than a phonetic structures. Is it possible for two sounds to rhyme? And the claim is that there is nothing privileged about phonetic properties. The phenomenon can be based in other kinds of non-phonetic auditory properties. The key is that these properties have to be perceived by the listener in such a way as to be distinctly -- and at least somewhat reliably -- identifiable, or at least distinguishable from one another. So what properties are the right ones? Well, there are some that are more psychologically salient than others, and that is the starting point.

The most salient auditory property in musical terms after pitch is the pitch class. Pitch class is C, C#, D, etc., sounded in any octave. Pitches displaced by one or more octaves exactly are equivalent in terms of pitch class. This much almost any listener understands. But in creative music, another layer of properties are exploited, and these are much more difficult to apprehend, and consequently, the number of listeners who can discern these properties are correspondingly fewer. Even fewer are the number of listeners who can discern the ways in which these properties can be systematically exploited for musical effect (at least without musical training). This second layer that I refer to involves the property of 'chord-degree'. It is the distinct sound of a note, a melody note in this case, when sounded against a given chord, and as identified by the interval between that note and the root of the chord. Given an AM7 (A Major Seventh) chord, the note C# would be the Major Third. As sounded, this note will sound not just like C#, but will also have the qualitative character of a major third. (If the chord is fragmented, the quality may be ambiguous, and that is used intentionally by many.) This second layer is what I will concentrate on.

You can begin to visualize this by annotating a lead sheet and laying it out in different ways so that you can see the relationships among parts. Can you read music? Take a Charlie Parker tune, like Confirmation (32 bar AA'BA''), or Au Privave (12 bar blues) and make a copy. Now for each note, write underneath it the chord-degree indicated by the written chord. If one sees the note C# over the written chord "AM7", then one writes "M3" (for Major 3rd) underneath it. Assume that every note functions as a chord tone, because ipso facto it does, and name it accordingly. For example, the note B sounded on top of an AM7 chord would be notated as a major 9th rather than as a major 2nd, because the indicated chord does accept a 9th. If the note is the same as the root of the chord (eg, the note A over AM7), then write a "1". Once you have made the annotations, then make several copies of the resulting annotated score. Each of these copies will be used to visualize the same piece in different metric schemes (2x16, 4x8, 8x4, 3x4, 4x3, etc).

Now take one copy of the annotated score and snip it up according to one metric scheme. Let us start with a 32 bar AABA tune (such as Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" AA'BA'') and use the metric scheme 2x16. This means that you will snip the annotated score up into 2-measure long strips. Then you will lay them out in a column 2 measures wide by 16 rows down and paste them down. Once you've done this, take another copy of the annotated score and snip it up according to another metric scheme, such as 4x8. Snip the score into 4 measure strips, lay them out 4 measures across and 8 rows down, and tape them down. There may be many more metric schemes simultaneously at work in a single composition, but for now, let us work with these two.

The basic principles involves a kind of diachronic perception. The core principle is that in order to perceive regularities or irregularities in a pulse train, one must employ some kind of diachronic perception as a basis for comparative judgment of time intervals. Diachronic in this case refers to the perception of the occurrent sensory event in the present tense in a way that is 'co-conscious' with remembered sensory events. The term 'co-conscious' is a bit of jargon from analytical philosophy that usually refers to two or more elements that are simultaneously available to be enjoined into one thought. In this case, the two diachronic elements are 'coordinated' in time. To get a rough idea of what this is, imagine something a bit like a tape loop in the brain, one that in this case is two measures long. So as you are hearing measure 2 being played, you are hearing measure number 1 being re-played simultaneously. You are able to have thoughts and experiences simultaneously of the two of them at each point in time along the way.

So there are two kinds of musical streams, one the occurrent musical stream (eg, measure 2) and the second, coordinated (short-term) memories of prior music (eg, measure 1). Then there is the ability to have comparative thoughts about the two coordinated streams. This is just the same way as we perceive the common rhyme, and it helps to use the familiar rhyme in order to understand the musical rhyme. The complexity lies in this realm of thought. One may have arbitrarily complex and idiosyncratic thoughts of the two coordinated streams. Which is to say that understanding how the parts of a musical composition are coordinated can involve any kind of comparative ideas. Understanding the structure of a piece (and how its parts are coordinated) requires empirical discovery and knowledge of arbitrary complexity from the entire repertoire of thought, and thus the methodological presumption is (and ought to be) that there is always more to get.

In order to have coordinated experiences, one has to know what events are coordinated and how. But that knowledge can be arbitrarily complex. So over time, partial knowledge may give way to more complete knowledge, producing a significant shift in the qualitative character of the musical experience of a single performance over time.

We are emphasizing here one of the more salient properties of musical experiences, the chord-degree property, and it appears at least that these properties are given the most 'play' in music.

If you snipped up the tune Confirmation, there are some readily understandable moves. In the 2x16 time scheme (2 measures wide, by 16 rows), look down to the bridge, which occurs in rows 9-12 (measures 17-24). Study here, making special note of the play given to the root of each chord in the melody (all the "1"s you annotated). Do you see how the "1" is featured? It plays around the last eighth note in each two-measure segment. In measures 17-18, and 19-20 the note is featured in the last eighth note. In measures 21-22 the "1" is featured everywhere EXCEPT the last eighth note. In measures 23-24, the "1" is intentionally absent, displaced melodically to the first eighth-note of the next measure (measure 25). This pattern has a unique character that is intentionally articulated by the composer (Charlie Parker). It also has a unique rhythm (the rhythm of just the notes marked "1") that exists independently. There are numerous relations of this sort, most often more complex and less obvious. To see these relations, one has to look at the work under each time scheme. Confirmation has significant relations in the 1x32 scheme. It is a rapidly resolving tune with single-measure developments. Again, the way the tune is articulated by the composer provides cues as to his intent. By the way, it is extremely rare to find players these days who have any idea how to articulate this tune as anything other than mostly-flat eighth notes (which is to miss out on what gives it a special beauty). This example is among the simpler relations. More advanced techniques are everywhere in Parker's compositions.

Consider the blues Au Privave. The blues has a 12 bar structure which lends itself to two time schema in particular: 3x4 and 4x3. So you will snip up two copies of your annotated score : the first into 3 measure strips layed into 4 rows, and then the second into 4 measure strips layed into 3 rows. This modern jazz blues has a melodic structure that can be heard as three 4-bar phrases, and simultaneously as four 3-bar phrases. You can also see the piece simultaneously operating strongly at the level of 6-beats times 8 (snip the annotated score into 6 beat strips, and lay them into 8 rows). These simultaneous structures play into very oblique thematic variations that give the piece its continuity. (By the way, this style of composition is sometimes referred to as "continuous variations" in classical terms.)

The process of getting down to the bottom of a masterful work may take years because the process of discovery requires a certain amount of inspiration at each step of the way. Everything from music theory to metaphysics and epistemology come into play.

What characterizes the music that I favor is a combination of this kind of masterful composition with poetic force. One thing I learned from years at Smalls hearing people on a regular basis is that some people take a long time to understand, even for experienced listeners. Those soloists whose recordings inspire me even after 500 playings are rare, but I've found a few. Frank Hewitt is extremely subtle, and it takes years to discover all the layers in what he is doing. The variations are often very oblique, but are there to be heard in the end. This is one reason I feel he was so underestimated. I went through many stages with it myself. In the end, the Principle of Maximum Charity was never so well applied. I will suggest that the differences in level between his various recording dates are mostly insignificant. Four Hundred Saturdays has in fact work of staggering brilliance at least as good as We Loved You and Fresh From The Cooler. I would suggest that while one or another piece may stand out at any given time, and moods may shift, with rare exception time will eventually favor them all.

Other artists I work with who deliver surprises after 500 listenings are Chris Byars, Ned Goold, Ari Roland, Sacha Perry, John Mosca. The Ari Roland disk (Sketches From A Bassist's Album) has some tunes that I've been studying along the lines that I sketched to you above. The lead off tune on the disk, The Lion Of Yerevan, has a staggeringly complicated and imaginative theme with a darkly poetic quality. Much of the work from this bunch as Across 7 Street (Made in New York) has the same quality.

When one develops a greater awareness of this layer of music and its aesthetic contributions, one will understand clearly what makes Charlie Parker (or Monk, or Bud Powell) distinctive, and actually worthy of his title as a true genius of modern music. His thematic improvisations display an uncanny imagination and intelligence coupled with poetic force on a level with those of established figures such as Mozart or Chopin. His work can withstand musical exegesis over many years. It is somewhat deceptive, as Parker played out of a set of a couple of hundred or so patterns. On the surface, his music sounds like a bunch of these strung together. But those patterns were used in a different way each time, in widely varying thematic roles, and with rare ingenuity. A change in gestalt is needed to experience the difference.

The first thing that needs to be said about the way I listen to music is that what I do is very superficial. I play records about 10-14 hours a day, not counting what I throw on at bedtime, but the median for the jazz records I process is two or three plays, with a quarter to a third only getting one. I've read that Gary Giddins sits squarely in front of his speakers to give undivided attention to records, which an assistant puts on so he hears each one with no preconceptions. I don't work like that. I'm almost always doing something else, with my back to the speakers and the volume well below prescribed levels. I've been doing this for many years, over which I've probably heard 15,000 different albums, but I'm unlikely to have heard more than a dozen as many as a hundred times, and none five-hundred. This gives me a lot of reference points, which help me sort out what I hear.

But other than a lot of exposure and history, I don't know much about music. I can't play a lick. I can read a little, but not well enough to work through the exercises presented here. I find Kaven's exposition fascinating more because it exposes working technique than because it elucidates art. The latter is a bit like disecting a magic trick -- strip away the mystery, spoil the fun. On the other hand, I suspect that some understanding of a musician's kit might be helpful, especially in explaining why so much music conforms so rigorously to type. And since different musicians have different kits, it helps in the sorting. But there are simpler ways to do this: a sense of type is something we carry even if we don't do much to cultivate it. After all, we focus on the colors our retinas sense, and on the tastes we have buds to detect. Similarly, we know "it" when we hear it. The problem is how to describe "it" -- would I be able to communicate this more effectively if only I had the technical skills and standard jargon? I doubt it, even though I can see how it might help me understand better -- and in general I'm not a person who lightly values better understanding. But I also believe that if one's primary interest is popular music -- the common use of music by people who aren't musicians -- that may not be all that useful a path to pursue.

I hope this isn't all about Charlie Parker. It may well be that he's never been adequately understood -- pedestals make for a peculiar point of view -- but he's been dead now for 50 years, and you'd think it's well past time to move on. As for the Smalls records Kaven recommends, the Ari Roland strikes me as a good one I never had time or patience to sort out -- it fell just short of my Honorable Mention cutoff point, which is arbitrary and unfair but that's how the numbers break. The one by Across 7 Street doesn't appeal to me at all, which has something to do with harmony that just sounds off to me. The others are somewhere in between. Of course, that's an unfair judgment. Many of the records I listen to gain do stature over multiple plays. Some actually get those plays through luck as opposed to method. That may be unfair but that, too, is how this works. If it didn't work at least somewhat well, no one would bother reading me.

Postscript (2006-10-17 14:15): Luke Kaven wrote back with a correction after this was posted: "I think the only erratum that I found was describing the 'mental tape loop' as a 2-measure loop in my example when it should be a ONE measure loop. Think of it in crude terms like Frippertronics, as in no erase head.'"

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Music: Current count 12470 [12438] rated (+32), 926 [934] unrated (-8). Trying to work on Jazz CG, honest I am. Did manage to play some stuff I grabbed at the library, and barely pushed the rated total over 30 by running late into Monday. Plan to finally nail Jazz CG this coming week. Then I be free, for a while anyway.

  • Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac (2006, Capitol): Her music is narrowcast enough that one has to listen to the lyrics to differentiate between her albums. Coming after the death of her legendary father, famous mother, and more famous stepmother, this one subdues the music even more than usual, while sharpening the words. This one gives God -- in the thorns as well as the petals -- a rough time, while admitting that church spires have the best views. A-
  • Fatboy Slim: The Greatest Hits: Why Try Harder (1996-2006 [2006], Astralwerks): Two new cuts with Lateef vocals; two remixes from Cornershop and Groove Armada; the rest cut up jobs that proved that on the dancefloor you can't be too upbeat or too obvious; not sure that concentration does these singles any favors, as what makes them great makes them inconsistent. A-
  • Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band: Swingin' for the Fences (1999 [2005], Silverline): Eigteen pieces, including some names like Arturo Sandoval, Eddie Daniels, and Eric Marienthal. First piece is a twist on Benny Goodman with Daniels taking the solo and it sounds terrific. Later on is a latin piece called "Mueva Los Huesos (Shake Your Bones)" which Sandoval has a field day with. A lot of the other stuff doesn't do much for me one way or another. This appears to have been originally released in 2001, then recently reissued on DualDisc. Haven't heard two later albums by the group. Goodwin plays alto and soprano sax, writes, arranges, has fun. B
  • The Little Willies (2003-05 [2006], Milking Bull): AMG files this under rock, but based on song selection I'd be more tempted to file it under country: two Willie Nelson songs, one each from Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Tompall Glaser/Harlan Howard, Jimmy Driftwood, Bob Wills and Hank Williams -- Fred Rose shares credit on those two, but you know what I mean. On the other hand, the band wrote a song called "Lou Reed" -- about seeing the singer cow tipping. Lightweight but charming. B+(**)
  • Making Singles, Drinking Doubles (1994-99 [2002], Bloodshot): Chicago's Bloodshot Records became my favorite alt-country label largely due to the efforts of English expat Jon Langford, who settled in the Windy City and juggled several bands -- Waco Brothers and Pine Valley Cosmonauts most prominently -- in addition to his native Mekons. This was Bloodshot's 100th release. It's not a best-of; it's a trivia sampler, collecting B-sides of singles that never made albums, mostly obvious covers mixed in with a few throwaways. E.g., this starts with the Wacos doing "The Harder They Come," and ends with a Langford tune "Nashville Radio" which is a thin gloss on something that escapes my beleaguered memory. B+(***)
  • Sam Moore: Overnight Sensation (2006, Rhino): The survivor of '60s soul duo Sam and Dave -- Dave Prater died in 1988, but the pair split in 1970 and neither had much success, although Moore's been popping up in films, festival and at the Grammies lately, culminating in the 70-year-old's first solo album. Well, not quite. This is one of those all-star duet jobs, and the pairings are peculiar: Bruce Springsteen, Fantasia, Jon Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Travis Tritt, Nikka Costa, Billy Preston, Zucchero. His voice is still strong enough to unify this album, but I guess he's fated to be a duettist. B
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel (1995-2005 [2006], World Music Network): For better or worse, the usual catholic survey; the Ashkenazi may still rule the diaspora melting pot, but the Sephardim and Mizrachi make most of the folk/pop music, making it increasingly difficult for us outsiders to distinguish the Israelis from the Arabs they hate so much. B+(*)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #11, Part 11)

Another week of indecision and procrastination, but then sometimes "stuff happens" and this seems to have been the week. I'm maybe four paragraph reviews away from closing this Jazz CG, and have fourteen A- rated and note-written albums to choose from. Unfortunately, the two pick hits and the dud du jour are among the four needed reviews. I have candidates for the pick hits, but no real idea about the dud, in part because I've been discarding the crap as fast as I find it. Maybe I'm too picky about those things? Maybe even too nice? One thing I have to say is that there's just not enough money in jazz to elicit the mass of crap that you find in rock, country and rap. Almost everyone is competent, earnest, and has some distinct angle on some piece of the puzzle. There's stuff I don't much care for, but not much I flat out don't respect. Still, someone's gotta pay. If you have an idea who and why, I'd like to know.

Some current stats: 240 albums prospected; 99 in the pending queue (45 prospected, 54 not); 123 in the done file with a shot, however slim, of making the cut; 130 in this cycle's flush file. Barring another disaster, should finish this week. Despite all the kvetching, this is still pretty close to my original, and historical, schedule.

Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (2005 [2006], Sound Grammar): The publicity writeup has three pages of bio, as if Ornette wasn't recognizable by the second note. But it doesn't begin to answer the basic questions: why this, and why now? It's been ten years since Coleman's deal with Verve netted four quick albums, and eighteen since Virgin Beauty, his one-shot on Portrait, appeared. This one's just a live set recorded in Germany last year, with Denardo and two bassists. All but two of the songs are new, but how big a deal is that? After all, he's had a decade or two to work on them. One effect of recording as rarely as he does is that I don't get back to him as often as I should. This sounds utterly brilliant, but how does it stack up against his past? Against, say, In All Languages, Of Human Feelings, Dancing in Your Head, At the Golden Circle, The Shape of Jazz to Come? Those are reference points I should know well enough to poll them in my mind. It's going to be fun answering those questions. But in the meantime: the bassists are busy beavers, worth focusing on; doubling them up keeps the rhythm shifting without sacrificing their harmonic undertow; Coleman's typically sour and shrill alto sax is rendered all the more so by the extremely bright live sound; he's also credited with violin and trumpet, which I haven't noticed yet, although there is quite a bit of arco which I initially attributed to the basses. [A]

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: Out Louder (2006, Indirecto): Although he's no doubt capable of interesting straight jazz guitar, as on 1996's Quiet, Scofield's best records have often been groove jobs -- 1994's Groove Elation is one that stands out. Here at least he's in the right company for that sort of thing, and he contributes. However, first pass through the beats seem a little squarish, and the "Julia" cover is an odd change of pace. [B+(*)]

Lisbon Improvisation Players: Spiritualized (2006, Clean Feed): No booklet. Not even a goddam PDF. So here's what I know: The leader is alto/baritone saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, who loves Ornette and set this group up for pure improv, often with whatever guests are in town and up for the sport. This is the second LIP album. Bassist Pedro Gonçalves was also on the first, and he makes a strong impression here. Drummer Bruno Pedroso is new, but probably part of the core group. The trumpet is Dennis González is a guest, although this isn't his first meeting with Amado. He adds a low-key lyricism, stabilizing Amado's tendencies to go over the deep end. The title cut, like everything else, is jointly accredited, but seems very much his thing -- measured, meditative, lovely but not in the conventional ways. Cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff is another guest, limited to the last two cuts. Wish I knew more. [A-]

Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Quintet: ONJQ Live in Lisbon (2004 [2006], Clean Feed): One thing I don't know much about is Japanese noise bands -- the few I've heard have been such an automatic turnoff that I've had no interest in making marginal distinctions. Another is Kaoru Abe, a legendary Japanese alto saxophonist who died young in 1978, but I imagine that Tsugami Kenta here has some if not all of Abe's records. Yoshihide plays electric guitar, which can be a powerful noisemaker in its own right. Two more Japanese names play bass and drums, suggesting that ONJQ is normally a quartet. But the saxes are dominant here, with the margin coming from guest Mats Gustafsson. He's a slowly acquired taste, but at least I have some practice there, and his baritone is hard to mistake. Starts with a "Song for Che" that's hard to recognize. Ends with "Eureka," a Jim O'Rourke song also on their previous OJNQ Live (2002, DIW). The latter almost starts to make sense, suggesting that further study may help. But I'd rather cut them some slack on the grade and cut my losses. B

Elliott Sharp: Plays the Music of Thelonious Monk (2004 [2006], Clean Feed): Solo guitar. Don't know whether that's normal for him -- he's put out several dozen albums, but this is my first. But the cover art raises questions, with four lines, punctuation significant: "Sharp?/Monk?/Shark!/Monk!" Actually, it's pretty straightforward, with the familiar melodies at their familiar paces, the guitar not far removed from solo piano, or more like solo prepared piano. He makes it look difficult, which it no doubt is. B+(*)

Charles Gayle Trio: Consider the Lilies . . . (2005 [2006], Clean Feed): Gayle sounds like no one else. But he sounds so much like himself that his albums melt together into an indistinguishable mass. It makes little difference whether he plays alto sax, as he does here and on Live at Glenn Miller Café (Ayler; released earlier but recorded later), or tenor, as on Shout! (his previous Clean Feed release). Only his solo piano album Time Zones is off in a different world -- he's a distinctive and rather remarkable pianist, but not even Cecil Taylor can pound a piano with the fury and urgency of Gayle blowing sax. As his trio albums go, this one strikes me as better than average: more in control, perhaps because the alto is easier to handle; his one cut piano break fits in nicely, without losing much of the energy level; and Jay Rosen makes a heroic contribution on drums. B+(**)

Adam Lane Trio: Music Degree Zero (2005 [2006], CIMP): The other half of the two-day sessions that previously yielded Zero Degree Music (CIMP), one of my favorite records this year. Both have bassist Lane writing and arranging for drummer Vijay Anderson and soprano/tenor saxophonist Vinny Golia. This doesn't quite measure up. The first one picked the pieces with the most powerful pulse, in turn propelling Golia to some of the most inspired work of his long career. The leftovers are more complex, more varied, more typical. B+(***)

Lou Grassi's PoBand: Infinite POtential (2005 [2006], CIMP): Avant quintet, with three horns up front -- Herb Robertson's trumpet, David Taylor's bass trombone, Perry Robinson's clarinet -- with Adam Lane's bass all led by the drummer. Don't have a good fix on this yet, but the drums strike me as central, heavy pummelling that lifts up the brass. [B+(**)]

David Taylor-Steve Swell Quintet: Not Just . . . (2005 [2006], CIMP): Interesting instrumentation: two trombones, from the leaders with Taylor playing bass, plus three strings: Ken Filiano's bass, Tomas Ulrich's cello, and Billy Bang's violin. But I'm not sure what's going on here, possibly because I haven't been able to focus through the label's notorious acoustics, but it may just be that no one steps up to the plate. [B]

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (Verve Forecast): Peddled as a soundtrack to Lian Lunson's film, actually just a Hal Wilner-produced tribute album, recorded live at festivals in Brighton and Sydney. Wilner's Monk, Mingus and Kurt Weill albums offered fresh perspectives by crossing lines -- mostly by turning rockers loose outside their genre. Here he has less to work with: Cohen's grip on his songs is more secure, and the performers are narrowly cast, with McGarrigles and Wainwrights out in force, and the range no wider than Antony to Nick Cave. Messages: the future is murder, and by its omission I guess we have to conclude that democracy is no longer coming to the USA. Steven Bernstein leads the band. Cohen appears on one song to close, sounding more worn than ever. B+(*)

Brazilian Girls: Talk to La Bomb (2006, Verve Forecast): Not sure what this is. When singer Sabina Sciubba breaks into German she reminds me of Kid Creole, but that's on the superficial side -- I'm also reminded of a bull session in my college German Department, when one grad student asked what good a German degree might be, and another replied that he could become a German factory worker. On the other hand, they do get an enjoyably angular beat out of their continent-hip-hopping, and I've always been a sucker for Deutschsprechen, even if my own skills are hopelessly stunted. B+(*)

Tomasz Stanko: Chameleon (2006, TC Music): Recorded in Athens, no date given, in a trio heavily biased toward synthesizers: Janusz Skowron plays keyboards, while Apostolis Anthimos switches between drums, guitar, and their electronic equivalents. That works only a small fraction of the time, and some of the keyboards are so cheesy they'd take Chick Corea aback. The trumpeter does his best, triumphing here and there. B-

Dave Burrell: Momentum (2005 [2006], High Two): Piano trio with Michael Formanek on bass and Guillermo E. Brown on drums. One thing I've long loved about Burrell is how hard he plays, especially with his left hand -- Pete Johnson was once described as having the left hand of God, and Burrell fits in that tradition. Formanek also puts a lot of muscle into his bass, and Brown managed to hold his own in David S. Ware's Quartet for a few years. First cut, "Downfall," comes roaring out of the box, all rough angles and flying gears. The slower pieces following don't compress as firmly, but I'm still working on them. [B+(***)]

Paul Jackson: Funk on a Stick (2005, Backdoor): Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock bassist. Funk is its own reward, and pretty much the limits of this album's ambitions. Calls in a few chits, even getting Hancock to guest on one track, and Ernie Watts on another. Sings some, not great, but okay. Tony Adamo isn't much better. Someone named Jorge Guerrero raps on two cuts. Miscellaneous credits include Char, Shakara, and Big Boy -- allusions to folks you may have heard of purely coincidental, I'm sure. B+(*)

Jivin' Javon Jackson: Now (2006, Palmetto): I slammed him with the featured dud spot last time, and here he bounces back with the exact same God damn album. Mediocre soul vocalist Lisa Fischer repeats. So does Dr. Lonnie and funk bassist Kenny Davis. The new guitarist and drummer make no appreciable difference. Lame funk. Lazy soul. Clearly, that's all he intends to do with his talent. C

Wayne Horvitz: Whispers, Hymns and a Murmur: Music for a String Quartet (2006, Tzadik): Limited info from a CDR -- cf. previous gripes about Tzadik for whys and wherefores. Horvitz has a sideline in classical chamber music, which is what this is, more or less. Not much I can do about it. I learned from an early age to hate the sound of violins, viola and cello. While I can think of exceptions -- Bob Wills, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, Billy Bang, John Cale, Charlie Burnham -- it's usually because they play alone rather than in consort. This isn't an exception -- the sound grates on me, but the stately music isn't without its charms. Your mileage is likely to vary. B-

Geoff Farina/Luther Gray/Nate McBride: Out Trios Volume Four (2004 [2006], Atavistic): Electric guitar, drums, acoustic bass, respectively. Not as far out as I figured, but I haven't heard any of Atavistic's Out series. A tight, chunky, rhythmic section is particularly appealing, while the slower, sparser sections are merely suggestive. B+(*)

Baby Loves Jazz (2006, Verve): This looks like the first installment of a series that has Baby Loves Disco and Baby Loves Hip Hop on its tail, and Baby Loves Reggae somewhere in the pipeline, as well as a book deal with Penguin. I have no idea what the intended audience might think of this -- looks to me like Sex Mob trying to corrupt the youth of tomorrow, and I wish them the best of luck. In addition to Steven Bernstein's crew, we have John Medeski's keyboards, Lonnie Plaxico helping out on bass, and vocals by Sharon Jones and Babi Floyd. The vocals are prominent -- maybe loud is the more apt term. The songs are mostly standards, widely recognized by the age of 10 if not necessarily 3 -- "Old MacDonald" isn't all that jazzable, but "Banana Boat Song" is a treat. Includes a "Lullabye" to chill down after the workout. B+(**)

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

Charles Mingus: At UCLA 1965 (1965 [2006], Sunnyside, 2CD): Mingus wrote some new music for the Monterey festival, but got stiffed, and wound up performing it a week later at UCLA. "Played live in its entirety," as the cover says, this feels like a workshop, with Mingus moving musicians in and out, lecturing, and hectoring. Not all of the music is new -- he covers his own "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid Too," and rips loose on "Muskrat Ramble." The group has three trumpets, french horn and tuba, versus just Charles McPherson on alto sax, so it's brassy, but also a bit ornate. Historically valuable, of course. B+(*)

Mingus Big Band: Live in Tokyo (2005 [2006], Sunnyside): My usual complaint is that the big band sounds puny compared to Mingus' own much smaller groups, but this starts off in such good spirits that maybe I should give that line a rest. The music must be great fun to play, and that much comes through here. The ending of "Ecclusiastics" calls forth the great man's spirit as emphatically as the band has done in quite a while. Still, I wonder what he would have thought of them chopping off that last half of the title to "Free Cell Block F" -- never has it been more valid to point out, "'Tis Nazi USA." B+(*)

Enrico Pieranunzi/Marc Johnson/Joey Baron: Ballads (2004 [2006], CAM Jazz): I suppose one could carp, something to the effect of why on earth would anyone need another straight piano trio rendition of "These Foolish Things" -- let alone "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" -- but obviousness isn't a crime, or even a sin when it's done this tastefully. B+(***)

Edward Simon: Unicity (2006, CAM Jazz): This is a hard piano trio for me to pin down, but in the end it's either too subtle for me to appreciate or too lackluster for me to care. Simon plays with expertise and finesse, but little surprise. John Patitucci and Brian Blade provide competent support, but don't manage any heavy lifting. B

Sebastian Noelle Quartet: Across the River (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Two quartets, actually. Bassist Ben Street and drummer Ari Hoenig are constants, but the tenor sax spot is split evenly between Javier Vercher and Donny McCaslin. Noelle's guitar shapes the compositions, but either way your ear gravitates toward the sax. While Vercher tends to play within the guitar lines, McCaslin can easily jump the rails. B+(**)

Mark Helias' Open Loose: Atomic Clock (2004 [2006], Radio Legs Music): Bassist-led sax trio, with Tony Malaby taking charge, and Tom Rainey on the drums. Not sure how much to credit the composition here, since the hard chargers are the ones that work best. B+(***)

Samo Salamon Quartet: Two Hours (2004 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): Easily the best of a fairly sizable crop of guitarist-sax quartets this year, and it's easy to explain why: the other three players work regularly as Mark Helias' Open Loose trio. They're more avant than the norm for this label -- rougher, more muscular, but then so is the Slovenian guitarist, who has an edge here he couldn't have learned from mentors John Scofield or Bill Frisell. B+(***)

Walter Smith III: Casually Introducing (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): A young second-generation tenor saxophonist looks back to Sam Rivers' Fuschia Swing Song for artwork but he's more postmodern than that -- plays soprano too, like damn near everyone since Coltrane and Shorter, while his pianists double on Fender Rhodes; shuttles musicians in and out; recycles classics that seemed like a good idea, while writing and borrowing originals that reach out to Africa. In short, this dwells more on his breadth than his depth, which he hasn't reached yet. But there's something to be said for breadth. B+(*)

Irène Schweizer: First Choice: Piano Solo KKL Luzern (2005 [2006], Intakt): Solo piano -- not something I care all that much for, but this is thoughtful, cautiously elaborate, at times bracing. After Portrait I hoped to be blown away, but I'm hard pressed to think of any solo piano albums that move me that way -- even Art Tatum or Cecil Taylor. Solo piano isn't as limited as one hand clapping, but it's missing something, even when it's as thoughtful, vigorous, and inventive as this. B+(**)

Bob Reynolds: Can't Wait for Perfect (2005 [2006], Fresh Sound New Talent): I have a few nits to pick: I wish he'd lose the soprano sax (one cut), and don't care much for his synth programming (two cuts). What makes them minor blemishes on this debut album is that his tone and poise on tenor sax is so superb you wonder why he'd try to dilute it. Youth, I guess. He projects to earn his place in the Budd Johnson-Ben Webster line, which among other things means he very likely has a great ballad album in his future. We remember those guys from when they were old and slow, but once they were young, and Webster wasn't called "the brute" only because he started out in boxing. Reynolds' band is rooted in funk not swing, and that seems fair to me. One he shouldn't lose is drummer Eric Harland. A-

Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: MTO Volume 1 (Sunnyside): Robert Altman's film Kansas City made you want to know more about the city's jazz and less about its mobsters. The featured music stars got a package tour out of the deal before returning to contemporary postbop, but lowly associate music producer Bernstein actually put his research to work. He takes the idea of barnstorming territory bands and time travels to and from his home base in downtown New York, treating Prince and Stevie Wonder songs to 1928-style arrangements, while adding postmodern quirks to Count Basie staples. It works not because the transformations are clever, but because he's one of the few who believe that jazz can become popular again by making it fun rather without dumbing it down. The first album by a group that has been playing regularly since 1999, an incubation period that roughly matches Basie in Kansas City. Coincidence? [Francis Davis just reviewed this in the Voice] A-

Tomasz Stanko Quartet: Lontano (2005 [2006], ECM): I'm not if I've ever seen an ECM album cover look so bleak and featureless, even though such landscapes seem to be the art director's default. The music is neither bleak nor featureless, but it is slow and subtly arranged -- haunting and lovely, but it does take its toll in attention. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski is a master of understatement, one more trait he's picked up from the leader. B+(***)

Kenny Wheeler: It Takes Two! (2005 [2006], CAM Jazz): Not a duo. Actually a quartet with two guitars -- John Abercrombie and John Parricelli. The fourth is bassist Anders Jormin, all of which suggests a low key album. The guitarist work out most of the pleasing textures, to which Wheeler's flugelhorn adds highlights. Can't say much about it, but I'm struck by how consistent Abercrombie has become. B+(**)

Anders Aarum Trio: First Communion (2005 [2006], Jazzaway): I'm convinced that this Norwegian is a terrific pianist, but I can't find the words to say why. Fans of ECM piano should check him out -- he even vocalizes a bit like Keith Jarrett, and that's not the only thing they have in common. At least worth an honorable mention, if not quite a tour de force. Good title: "Let's Put Fun Back in Fundamentalism." Maybe I can use that. B+(***)

Wayne Horvitz Grativas Quartet: Way Out East (2005 [2006], Songlines): Horvitz has been gravitating toward classical music for a while now, and this comes close without going over the deep end line his string quartets. The pieces exhibit swingless chamber music, often with sudden shifts of time -- "Ladies and Gentleman" is an extreme example -- or with simple rhythmic motifs that provide a backdrop for shmears of sound -- see "Berlin 1914," which is the piece that ultimately won me over. The instrumentation is unusual: bassoon for the bottom, trumpet for the top, cello for the meat, piano for the dressing, electronics for the hell of it. It's not the sort of thing I normally like, which may mean it's even better than I think. B+(***)

Postscript (2006-10-17 13:22): Two readers wrote in to point out that the Ornette Coleman has three -- not two -- older songs. The third is "Sleep Talking," reworked from "Sleep Talk" on Of Human Feelings. And yes, the press release missed that, which is why so many reviewers went astray. One reason it's fair to point that out is that "Turnaround" is similarly renamed and reworked from "Turnabout" on Tomorrow Is the Question, and that's in the press release.

Why Can't We All Be Hawks?

George Packer came to regret his contribution to enabling the Bush war in Iraq, but he doesn't seem to have learned any lessons from the misadventure. Recently in the New Yorker (Oct. 9, 2006, p. 27) he wrote:

Darfur -- the world's gravest humanitarian disaster, lately deteriorating, and likely to get much worse in the coming weeks -- perfectly reveals the international politics of the moment, showing all the principal actors as they are, rather than as they would like to appear. The pictures aren't flattering. Since 2004, the Bush Administration has declared the death of several hundred thousand people in Darfur to be a case of genocide, but it has devoted only fitful rhetorical outrage and even more fitful attention to the subject. It has declined to offer any American contribution to a United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur, even though President Bush scolded the opening session of the General Assembly last month, saying that the U.N.'s "credibility" is on the line. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, met with representatives of governments at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in New York, and according to the Washington Post, "renewed her call for Sudan to halt a military offensive in Darfur and yield to international pressure to allow more than 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians there." The Bush Administration still seems to imagine that the world will jump when America tells it to. But at the U.N. the world wasn't jumping. If anything, it was laughing.

I can't go into the details of what's happened in Darfur -- somehow I manage to forget them almost as fast as I learn them, but next time I feel like boning up the first place I plan on checking is Helena Cobban's archive. In particular, there's a link there to a piece by Gerard Prunier, who strikes me as relatively expert and sensible -- not that I'm in much of a position to judge. (Prunier also has a book on the subject, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. He's also written a well regarded book on Rwanda, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide.) But what I am sure of is that unless you think through all of the ramifications of forcibly implanting an international "peacekeeping" force in Darfur you're just asking for more, presently unimagined, trouble.

Packer manages to pack at least four falacies into his paragraph:

  1. He calls Darfur "the world's gravest humanitarian disaster" -- which would put it ahead of Iraq and Palestine, just to pick out two acute cases that aren't even on the UN's radar, as well as more chronic but undoubtedly grave humanitarian disasters such as the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Indeed, Africa has a lot of problems that might compete with Darfur.

  2. He minimizes the solution, arguing for "international pressure to allow more than 20,000 UN peacekeepers to protect civilians there." Those numbers might work if everyone stopped shooting and cooperated, but that requires a political settlement, not pressure. Indeed, it's extremely difficult to solve a problems with threats because it inevitably emboldens one side and breeds resentment in the others.

  3. He argues that the US should put troops where Bush's mouth is -- indeed, that such action is morally mandated by the finding of genocide. This ignores the most obvious lessons of the Bush misadventure in Iraq: that US troops are not going to be welcomed -- as peacekeepers, liberators, or anything else -- in an Arab country, and that when faced with hostility US troops will inevitably aggravate the situation.

  4. He finally attempts to shame Bush into action by arguing that the world is laughing at US powerlessness.

It's an inescapable fact of politics these days that anything one advocates will be seen as having some ulterior motive. That's all the more so when the major advocates of "humanitarian" intervention have glaringly inhumane track records. The recent uptick in propaganda about the crisis in Darfur doesn't merely coincide with Israel's invasions of Gaza and Lebanon -- it's become a major talking point of pro-Israeli propagandists in the US, who view it as proof of an Arab proclivity towards genocide that, were it not for the IDF, would be resuming the Holocaust. While such arguments may make Americans and Israelis feel morally superior, they carry little weight in places like Khartoum that are critical in this crisis. Indeed, Sudan's rulers seems to have moved away from working with the UN recently -- another coincidence?

Packer's interests, let alone his ideals, are hard for me to fathom. Consider this quote (p. 28):

International intervention as a means of stopping mass slaughter has never had many supporters, other than an idealistic minority in the West and the desperate people in need of rescue. But in Kosovo and in East Timor in the late nineteen-nineties it had its moment. The results were decidedly mixed, and the worst was prevented or stopped. Intervention required an unlikely combination of propitious circumstances on the ground, political will in world capitals, and a kind of moral legitimacy that was able to override the self-serving objections of ethnically or economically interested parties.

I missed East Timor -- I have books by Alexander Cockburn and Noam Chomsky on Kosovo and East Timor, but find them unreadable -- but at least in the case of Kosovo, what the US did fits in with the same behaviorism Bush, and for that matter Clinton before him, has been so fond of: punishing those we disapprove of by bombing their people, buildings, resources -- if not indiscriminately, inevitably well beyond the ranks of the people we held responsible. In Kosovo at least there's very little to show that humanitarian slaughter actually works -- the "worst" that we avoided is little more than a hypothetical construct, meant to make us feel better. And in the sense that Kosovo led to unmitigated failures in Iraq and Lebanon, it certainly doesn't establish a general rule -- at least not one that justifies killing for peace.

Many years ago I read Ishmael Reed's novel The System of Dante's Hell. I recall that in the prologue, Reed explained that he had changed Dante's hierarchies to push one particular class of miscreants into a lower circle. As I recall -- sorry I can't look this up -- those people were the hypocrites, folks like George Packer. I find the support given to Bush's war in Iraq by humanitarians like Packer even more reprehensible than pragmatic cowards like Colin Powell or flaming assholes like Condoleezza Rice.

Packer's book, The Assassin's Gate, still sits on my shelf. From having poked around in it, I think it does have some useful information, but I sure can't generate much enthusiasm for the task of separating it from the sanctimonious bullshit.

Munching on Fumes

From Michael Pollan's "The Vegetable-Industrial Complex" (New York Times Magazine, Oct. 15, 2006, pp. 17-18):

This sounds like an alarming lapse in governmental oversight until you realize there has never before been much reason to worry about food safety on farms. But these days, the way we farm and the way we process our food, both of which have been industrialized and centralized over the last few decades, are endangering our health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that our food supply now sickens 76 million Americans every year, putting more than 300,000 of them in the hospital, and killing 5,000. The lethal strain of E. coli known as O157:H7, responsible for this latest outbreak of food poisoning, was unknown before 1982; it is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle. These are animals that stand around in their manure all day long, eating a diet of grain that happens to turn a cow's rumen into an ideal habitat for E. coli O157:H7. (The bug can't survive long in cattle livingon grass.) Industrial animal agriculture produces more than a billion tons of manure every year, manure that, besides being full of nasty microbes like E. coli O157:H7 (not to mention high concentrations of the pharmaceuticals animals must receive so they can tolerate the feedlot lifestyle), often ends up in places it shouldn't be, rather than in pastures, where it would not only be harmless but also actually do some good. To think of animal manure as pollution rather than fertility is a relatively new (and industrial) idea.

Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution -- the one where crops feed animals and animals' waste feeds crops -- and neatly divided it into two new problems:a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. Rather than return to that elegant solution, however, industrial agriculture came up with a technological fix for the first problem -- chemical fertilizers on the farm. As yet, there is no good fix for the second problem, unless you count irradiation and Haccp plans and overcooking your burgers and, how, staying away from spinach. All of these solutions treat E. coli O157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.

I just have two or three more points to add to this. One is that the technological fixes, like chemical fertilizer and power machinery, that made industrial agriculture possible were enabled by cheap energy in the form of oil, and as such is unsustainable if/when energy supplies wane. The second is that this scale of agriculture has thus far supported a major spurt of population growth, which is not only unsustainable but overextended. Lots of things fall out of these points. For one thing, the promise of endless growth has been an analgesic against class struggle, but that game changes when the hope offered by positive sums turns negative. But that's long term. Most striking in the short term are the sheer numbers of food poisoning cases generated as a side-effect of industrialization. Some of that can no doubt be fixed, and the US is wealthy and productive enough that we can absorb some costs to make the food supply here healthier. But this is a world market, the US is increasingly weak in that market, and much of the rest of the world is in a precarious position. Add it all up and the numbers don't look good.

Selective Hearing

Tony Karon explains something I've been having trouble coming to grips with, which is why foreign powers that obviously don't share US interests and know better than to pursue US-type policies still give Bush lip-service on issues like North Korea. Given that any lip-service they offer will be twisted to the administration's ends, it seems to me that in order to make real points they have to make them as clearly as possible, even if that seems harsh. Karon offers a list of ten flaws in Bush's handling of foreign affairs, of which the first is "Megaphone Diplomacy" and the second is "Selective Hearing":

[T]he basis of diplomacy is listening to others and taking account of their concerns as you push your own agenda -- you win the game by articulating your positions in a way that accomodates and addresses the concerns and interests of those you're facing across the table. That, for example, is exactly what China is doing when it tells the U.S. that Pyongyang has crossed a line and must be punished, but at the same time emphasizes that the punishment must be "appropriate and prudent" and must advance the goal of a negotiated settlement. The reason the Bush Administration has hit a wall time and again at the UN Security Council (Iraq, Iran, and now North Korea) precisely because it only hears that part of what others are saying that affirms the U.S. position. It hears that nobody wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons, or that everyone condemns North Korea's test, and appears to then deduce that this means others support the U.S. position.But then, when it comes down to action, it discovers that the U.S. position lacks the support to prevail.

The US managed to get China's acquiescence to a UN Security Council resolution imposing new sanctions on North Korea. The day after China got its first returns from its their nuanced position: Bolton and Rice were all over the media today taunting China to make good on enforcing those sanctions. Rather than earning China points for coming to Bush's aid, this sets them up for an inevitable fall. Makes one wonder why under any circumstances anyone would ever agree with Bush's so-called diplomats about anything at all.

One point that Karon doesn't bring up is that Bush's people routinely run their foreign policy through a domestic politics filter. They take positions designed to resonate with their base and don't mind rankling their opponents -- instead of trying to smooth over ruffed edges, they seem to get a weird energy kick out of pissing folks off. Pissing off foreigners seems to play well to the home crowd as well, which must be one reason why they never seem to learn from their failures.

This from a comment by Bernard Chazelle to Karon's article:

Sorry to be slightly off topic, but I must say how disturbed I am that the new Lancet report seems to have vanished from the media.

There is a report claiming that the US is the biggest killer of the 21st century (ahead of Darfur) -- as a reminder that honor was contested by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao in the last century.

Juan Cole has a good post on the methods and findings of the Lancet (Johns Hopkins) study -- which estimated that between 420,000 and 790,000 Iraqis have died as a result of war and political violence since Bush started the war in March 2003. (The more widely reported 650,000 figure is the most probable midpoint, with 600,000 the excess over the background death rate.) Cole finds the figures plausible, as do I, although I wonder whether they've fully accounted for missing people being merely missing (i.e., refugees).

Friday, October 13, 2006

Searching for a Reason

Alexander Cockburn has an article in the print version of Counterpunch on WTC conspiracy theories. He quotes Michael Neumann:

There wasn't a single seroius question about 9-11. But this is the age of angels, creationism, corpses all over Kosovo, Arabs suspiciously speaking Arabic, Statnic child abuse, nucular Eyraquees, and channeling. The main engine of the 9-11 conspiracy cult is nothing political; it's the death of any conception of evidence.

This probably comes from the decline of Western power. Deep down, almost everyone, across the political spectrum, is locked in a bigotry which can only attribute that decline to some irrational or supernatural power. The result is the ascendency of magic over common sense, let alone reason.

That's part of it, but I wouldn't read too much into the decline of Western power. You certainly can't restore the rule of reason by restoring Western power. For one thing, it was mostly a myth in the first place. For another, the world has pretty much wised up to that myth. But this points to a more basic explanation. Deep down we have a lot of trouble with the idea that things happen without a cause. Most folks go even further and insist on a purposeful causal agent, even if they have to resort to the supernatural to find one they can believe in. Immanuel Kant thought about this matter rather deeply, and concluded that causality was as much an intrinsic part of human reasoning as space and time. So when shit happens, we instinctively look for a cause -- and appoint one if nothing satisfactory is evident.

There are several ways we can approach this problem, but let's cut to the chase. When we're talking about phenomena more complex than elementary Newtonian physics, and that certainly includes any time a human being gets tangled up in something, then causality quickly becomes too complicated to compute. To the extent that we think we do so at all, we do so by cheating -- by using heuristics which we've found in our own peculiar experience to be more or less useful at least some of the time. Any number of things can limit our ability to do this, including not having especially relevant experiences, not having or understanding the tools, not being able to properly imagine scope or scale, and not learning from past mistakes. If you think those caveats through, the most logical conclusion is that we live in a world where nobody is really able to reason effectively on any but the most trivial subjects. But it gets worse, in at least three dimensions: the world is becoming more complex, hence more unfathomable, at a rather dizzying pace; the time interval in which things happen, hence our practical response time to events, is shortening; and the resulting growth of ignorance is rapidly being filled with nonsense.

The first two are by now existential problems. There are some things can be made simpler, and some things that can be slowed down, but to a large extent those are things we just have to learn to live with as best we can. One can sketch out a rough plan to work on that, but the real obstacle is the third. That's because that's where the politics creeps back in. Ignorance is another existential problem, but nonsense is something more than the cobwebs that fill up the vacant spaces in our minds. More often than not, it is invented and propagated for some political purpose. Nonsense is bad enough in its own right, but so much worse when it masks private agendas.

Neumann may be right that conspiracy theories per sé have no political allegiance, at least along the conventional left-right axis. However, their prevalence establishes things of political import. One is, as Neumann argues, widespread loss of faith in evidence and reason. More specifically, it shows the extent to which we feel that experts and authorities have become corrupted, losing their credibility. It matters less what crackpot theory is believed than that we've given up on evidence and reason to determine what is credible and what is not. This has a powerful effect on politics: without truth as the governing criteria for debate, all we have are interests, and discourse becomes a mere tool for advancing one's interests.

The conventional left-right political axis tends to be viewed as a zero-sum game: the right works to concentrate wealth and power among the elites, while the left seeks to equalize wealth and weaken the political bonds that advantage elites over the masses. The common critique of this is to attack the zero-sum assumption: cooperation, including much work in corporations, can increase wealth across the board, while wars destroy wealth for everyone. Both aspects of this argument depend on the fact that we have common as well as individual interests. (Disregard group interests here -- they're bullshit anyway.) This suggests to me that we need to consider an orthogonal axis, which at one end seeks truth, honesty, and integrity, and at the other end descends into chaos, superstition, and subterfuge. Both ends would have their left and right wings: the left favors common interests over individual interests, the right the opposite. At the top of the truth axis, we would seek a satisfactory and stable balance based on evidence and reason -- reality, as best we can understand it. At bottom you get your Hobbesian hell, where even Leviathan looks like an improvement.

The prevalence of conspiracy theories, and 9/11 is just one example, has made them coin of the realm. Indeed, Bush's allies have fabricated and promoted as many as anyone. It's easy to locate Bush on the far right end of the left-right axis, but that doesn't simply explain most of the real damage his administration has done to our world. Sure, he's helped make the rich richer and the poor poorer, but those have been small stakes. What he's really done has been to drive truth away from political discourse. The evidence of that is all around us. Which leaves us with the vexing question of why he or whoever (God, even) caused all this disaster to happen. I don't see how anyone, purposefully at least, could have caused this. Certainly, you can't credit the guy who'll be remembered for saying "bring it on" with thinking his actions through.

F5 Record Report (#11: October 12, 2006)

Another week, another F5 Record Report column. The best URL is keyed to my author ID. This isn't permanent, but by clicking on "next article" you can work your way backwards. You'll even find the October 5 column which wasn't up last week due to an unexplained website glitch.

The lineup this week:

  • Big Youth: Screaming Target (1973, Trojan/Sanctuary) A [reggae]
  • Jesus H Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse (jesushchristrocks.com) A- [rock]
  • Kidd Jordan/Hamid Drake/William Parker: Palm of Soul (AUM Fidelity) A- [jazz]
  • Roy Nathanson: Sotto Voce (AUM Fidelity) B+ [jazz]
  • William Parker: Long Hidden: The Olmec Series (AUM Fidelity) B+ [jazz]
  • Rhymefest: Blue Collar (J/All I Do) A- [rap]

One thing people should understand about the grade game is that sometimes you'll find very interesting albums buried down in the B+ pile. I don't want to get into a rut of grading everything in F5 A- or above, even though I could do that, at least by raiding recent history. So I try to mix things up with some B+ records that might prove especially interesting.

Letter to publicists:

I have two of my weekly F5 Record Reports to report this week.
I skipped reporting last week because the column got lost on the
website. F5 is a weekly entertainment tabloid distributed free
here in Wichita KS. I cover 6-8 records per week. Sometimes I
recycle reviews from my other columns, but I can cover things
here that I have trouble working in elsewhere. The following
URL will get you to the Oct. 12 column, and the "next article"
arrows there point you back to previous columns, starting with
the October 5 one.


The columns are also archived and indexed at:


The label index for these two columns:

  AUM Fidelity: Kidd Jordan, Roy Nathanson, William Parker
  Clean Feed: Ravish Momin
  J: Rhymefest
  JesusHChrist.com: Jesus H Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse
  New West: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson
  Sanctuary: Big Youth
  Songlines: Jean-Jacques Avenel, Jerry Granelli
  Universal (Verve): Ollabelle
  WEA (Rhino): Wilson Pickett

More notes on the blog. Reviewing a record here does not mean that I
won't review it in Recycled Goods or Jazz CG later. Sometimes it works
one way, sometimes the other.

Thanks for your interest and support.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Talking North Korea Blues

The Associated Press headline for Bush's comments on North Korea was "Bush Says U.S. Won't Attack North Korea." Given that most of the article concerns Bush seeking even stricter sanctions against North Korea, credit AP with at least trying to deliver the good news first. And, for that matter, trying to make Bush look saner than he is. While sanctions are less provocative than those "bunker busting nukes" the Pentagon is working on, they are still an instrument of war, and their use is still a form of attack. But the great irony in this Bush statement is that it's exactly what North Korea asked for before they withdrew from the NPT and officially launched their nuclear program. If the US never had any intention of launching a new war in Korea, what possible harm would saying so have caused?

The short answer is that it would have involved admitting a mistake, Bush's problem with admitting mistakes is well known, but he's left himself little wiggle room here: the North Korean nuke test is the direct consequence of his policies, and any deviation from his course would signal as much. So he's stuck with the classic denial line, "who are you going to believe -- me or your lying eyes?" That he has any hope of getting away with it is a consequence of many d years of making mistakes with Korea and getting away with the cover-up. Such mistakes came from the very start, when US occupation commander General Hodge's first assessment was, "Koreans are the same breed of cats as the Japanese" (quoted in Kolko, p. 282).

To understand how this works, think back to the quote where a Bush flack ridiculed reporters for being stuck observing a mere reality-based world while Bush et al. were actually creating their new world. We all sort of know what reality is, so that's naturally the part of the equation we concentrate on. But consider further what alternative universe Bush was operating in while the rest of us are stuck back here in reality. It's not really a fantasy world, even though it's pretty well isolated from reality. The key is to look at what Bush and his ilk actually do: they talk, their talk results in feedback, and that's how they figure out what kinds of talk work and what don't. This world is real inasmuch as it exerts a form of natural selection on the talkers. What works is what sounds good, at least as long as it's not totally implausible. (Although some pundits have managed to overcome that problem, at least some of the time.) Bush may be totally inept with reality, but he's actually very effective in his talk-fantasy world. He has a fine sense of what works and what doesn't, and one thing he knows for sure is that admitting he totally fucked up is one thing on the doesn't work ledger.

Still, I doubt that Bush has any depth of insight into just why North Korea is a problem for us. Like most Americans, all he most likely knows is that they've always been -- at least since they attacked us in 1950 -- and as long as the same people are in power there they always will be. What made this possible is that, unlike Vietnam and Iraq, there never was a significant antiwar movement against the Korean War. One reason was that WWII was fresh in mind, and that made it hard to whine about the losses in Korea. Another was that in 1949 Russia exploded its first nuclear weapon, and the Communist world expanded dramatically with the revolution in China. Those events made it easy to panic the country into an anti-left frenzy, which is just what McCarthy and his allies and competitors did. With the red scare rampant, the left had bigger problems than solidarity with Korean peasants. By the time McCarthyism died down the war was over, never to be revisited again. After all, doing so might suggest that Vietnam was part of a pattern.

But the red scare needed war as much as war needed the scare, and Korea provided that war. The most unsung victim of that war was the American left, which became invisible, both in fact and in memory. That purge moved the nation to the right, with labor and liberals, all factions of both parties, locked in struggle to outdo each other's anti-communism. Anyone who questioned this consensus was shunted to the margins. Cold War propaganda became so etched in our minds that even today hardly anyone questions it. The days are long gone when someone like Henry Stimson, Secretary of War during WWI and WWII, could suggest that we could build a peaceful relationship with the Soviet Union by offering it our trust. The lesson here should be plain: if we want North Korea to act like a normal nation, we have to start treating it like one.

But in the talk world of Washington politicians, including but not limited to Bush, that can't happen -- because they can't imagine any alternative to the time-tested catchphrases that have worked for so long. Because reality has yet to sink in, even if it's making an annoying racket at the door.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Forgetting Nothing: Kolko on Korea

One thing that disturbs me about the state of the world today is how easily the US press can find rhetorical support for Bush's war positions from Europe, Russia and China. I read today about the whole world's unanimous support for severe sanctions to punish North Korea for its nuke test. That's the last thing we need now. You'd think that there'd be some cooler heads around the world, and most likely there are some, but what does it take to get them to come out and say so in public? Or are they doing that, but just not getting into the US press? Same thing applies to Iran. The Bush propaganda machine gets a lot of mileage every time France and Germany say something critical about Iran's nuclear program. There's no real disagreement anywhere in the world that nuclear proliferation is a bad thing, but it's far less dangerous if you constructively engage a nation than if you drive them into a desperate corner.

The test event sent me back to the history books -- specifically, to Joyce and Gabriel Kolko's basic history of the early cold war, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954. The following are some quotes, starting with this strategic assessment (p. 277):

During World War II the formulation of the United States' policy toward an occupied territory reflected its intelligence estimate of the nature of the resistance movements likely to come to power with the defeat of Japan and Germany. If conservative nationalists likely to shift the economic assets of a new state from the old colonial power toward the United States dominated the resistance, as in the Dutch East Indies, Washington was anticolonial and pro-independence. Where, on the other hand, the Left controlled the resistance and had a mass base, the United States recommended trusteeship or a prolonged but "liberalized" continuation of colonialism, as in Indochina and Korea.

Korea had been occupied by Japan since 1910, so there was no possibility of returning it to its colonial proprietor. The Soviet Union entered Korea before the US, so a hasty partition was drawn along the 38th parallel. With Japan surrendering, the Korean left soon formed a Korean Peoples Republic. The US sent Gen. John Hodge to run the southern partition (pp. 282-284):

For the crucial first five weeks the United States armed forces assumed civil responsibility, and the behavior of the United States troops, characterized by arrogance, assault, and looting, plus retention of Japanese personnel, won the immediate antipathy of the Korean people. The civil affairs officers sent from Japan to relieve the regular soldiers were equally poor choices. Most were trained for duty in Japan and shifted at the last minute to Korea. They certainly did not comprehend the internal political forces.

One week after the United States landing in Korea, H.M. Benninghoff, the State Department's political adviser in Korea, reported to Byrnes that "Southern Korea can best be described as a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark." For this situation he in large part blamed the Russians. "There is litle doubt that Soviet agents are spreading their political thought throughout southern Korea. . . . Communists advocate the seizure now of Japanese property and may be a threat to law and order. . . . The most encouraging single factor in the political situation is the presence in Seoul of several hundred conservatives among the older and better educated Koreans. Although many of them have served with the Japanese, that stigma ought eventually to disappear. Such persons favor the return of the 'Provisional Government.' . . ." He did not even mention the People's Republic. At the end of September, Benninghoff amplified his initial impressions, again contrasting the "democratic or conservative" group with the ". . . radical or communist group . . . which proposes to set up a government known as the Korean Peoples Republic." But it hardly mattered that his reports were neither serious nor knowledgeable analyses of the strength and position of the People's Republic, for the policy remained the same. The entire strategy of military occupation and trusteeship was based on the assumption that the Left had power and that the United States forces were to prevent it from organizing a government in the south.

Language assumed a special significance, for there were few Koreans who spoke English, and they were exclusively among the wealthy landholding class. Those rare Americans who spoke Korean were the sons of missionaries, such as George Z. Williams, Hodge's aide. Assigned the task of recruiting Koreans for administrative posts, he restricted his choice to Christians who were also members of the extreme Right factions or former collaborators. [ . . . ]

Although opposed by American forces, the People's Republic in most areas continued to function as a government and began to implement its program of distributing Japanese property which brought it into direct conflict with the United States forces. In Seoul, the republic's power was rather quickly circumvented by the Military Government with the assistance of the English-speaking right-wing Koreans and collaborators, who were largely concentrated there. But in the rural areas the republic's power was at first uncontested by the United States forces, who had been unable to provide an alternative. The American officers knew this was only a temporary expedient and refused to consider the republic and its organs as anything more than "[v]arious societies [which] set themselves up as governments. . . ." "When we came here, we found the Korean People's Republic in control," one officer observed. "This was in violation of orders to let the Jap officials stay on in their jobs. So we broke it up." By the end of September, as the Americans began blocking and reversing the decrees of the republic, the Koreans realized that far from being liberated, one conqueror had simply replaced another.

As the Soviet Union occupied the north, they found common cause with the People's Republic (p. 293):

In the north the Soviets encouraged the People's Committees to become the governing units and usually passed any directive to the Korean people through them. In January 1946, Kim Il Sung, a Communist and national hero of the guerilla war, became the head of the North Korean administration. Since it in no way interfered with Soviet interests, the People's Committees in the north began to implement the program of the republic. In March 1946 they introduced a basic land reform granting farms based on family size to 725,000 landless or land-short peasants, distributing nearly 2.5 million acres formerly belonging tot he Japanese, collaborators, or those who deserted the land and fled south when the Soviets liberated North Korea. But there was no effort at collectivization.

The US installed Syngman Rhee, a Korean exile who had spent WWII in the US cultivating political contacts. Rhee used his incumbency to win an election in May 1948 (pp. 297-298):

The election was set for May 10, and as the State Department's account reported, "The responsibility for preparing for the elections and conducting them fell upon the United States Army Military Government [AMG] in Korea, which had the task of planning and preparing the mechanical details involved in a democratic election, with which the Korean people are unfamiliar. . . ." The entire question of UN observation was patently farcical, for there were thirty UN representatives available to observe a population of 20 million. Yet despite the superficiality, details of terror increasingly colored the commission's reports. The implications alarmed the French delegate, who tried to keep the records confidential, but the Syrian refused in any way to modify the factual data and insisted that they be made public.

Police excesses and the wanton violence of Rhee's bands of youth were the most obvious characteristics of the electoral campaign and the actual balloting. In addition, the AMG authorized the police, in the interest of "law and order" during the campaign, ". . . to deputize large bands of 'loyal citizens,' called Community Protective Associations." These associations continued to patrol the countryside even after the election until their terrorist acts became so repugnant that the AMG dissolved them on May 22. Individuals with police records were barred from voting, which, of course, included most of the Left and moderate liberals in Korea. Sine the Left and the nationalist Right boycotted the election,the election committee chose the slate of candidates from Rhee's party and placed them on the ballot either as independents or under the party name. In the ten days preceding the elction, 323 persons were killed in riots or police raids and more than 10,000 arrested.

The Kolkos sum up (p. 299):

While the developments in the United States occupation of Korea were virtually unknown to the American people before June 1950, Washington was fully aware of events there and the Military Government's political decisions conformed to official policy. The early discussions on the extent of United States support for specific rightist factions were conducted with a view toward excluding the Left from power. Within that fundamental assumption, and confronted by the massive popular support for the leftist People's Republic, the subsequent events might have varied in detail, but they were essentially inevitable in their larger contours. As the United States discovered again and again, in every area of the Third World where it sought to impose its influence, its real options for internal control were limited to revolution or reaction. There was, in fact, no reliable alternative. Yet the evidence of its direct administration of the southern half of Korea revealed that the United States exceeded the Japanese in the repression and terror that it fostered in suppressing a popular revolution and eventually establishing a rightist police state.

The US occupation of Japan was scarcely more enlightened, but Japan was able to keep its Emperor and maintain much of its conservative ruling class, who artfully added allegiance to the US to its sense of duty. China, on the other hand, fell to Mao Tse Tung's Red Army. Rhee barely clung to power in South Korea (pp. 567-568):

Washington knew more than enough to realize fully that Rhee was running a police state, and Truman in his memoir reveals his dismay over the terrible repression as well as his belief that "[y]et we had no choice but to support Rhee." The scale of represeion, which reached a new peak in October 1948 when Rhee closed all opposition papers, jailed editors, and put even his right-wing critics under more intense surveillance, begot its inevitable resistance. On October 20 over 12,000 South Koreans, led by mutineers from Rhee's army, revolted in Chulnam. The same month, the people of Cheju Island also took to arms and fought until the spring of 1949. And despite Rhee's claims that he had crushed the Chulnam rebels, his army was still pursuing them in the mountains the following June. For the scale and frequency of the peasant-based guerilla activity grew in 1949 with Rhee's repression, and by the end of the year, the North Koreans claimed there were 90,000 guerillas fighting int he south. Seoul, for its part, claimed killing 19,000 enemies in the South's border regions. Certain it was, as Time reported in June, that Rhee had arrested twenty-two conservative National Assembly opponents, brutally tortured them, and then quickly released them. As for the Left, as Senator Tom Connally later recounted, "One of Rhee's cabinet members said, 'The torturing of communists by police is not to be criticized.'" By September, according to official data, there were 36,000 political prisoners in South Korea.

More important yet was the continuous and rising tension on the 38th parallel, often leading to armed clashes of considerable proportions. And above all were Rhee's and his associates incessant public demands for a march north to reunify the nation by force of arms. During October and November 1949 they reiterated their usual threats to reunify the country by force, and at the end of the year Rhee again called for reunification, peacefully if possible, but "[i]f, unfortunately, we cannot gain unity this year, we shall be compelled to unify our territory by ourselves."

The border clashes intensified into civil war. The North Korean army crossed the border on June 25, 1950, one of many incidents, but officially the start of the Korean War. Rhee found that as his forces retreated the US felt compelled to enter the conflict. In this, he collaborated closely with MacArthur, who often took his own initiative to further the war (p. 584):

That MacArthur was ready to take the Korean situation in his own hands at this point is unquestionable, and that Rhee had been doing so for some days is certain. Both men had the independence born of dedication to some higher destiny and authority, and there is no reason to suppose that their consistent penchant for intrigue and insubordination in subsequent days had not already found outlets from June 24 onward. The two men consulted together on the twenty-ninth, and MacArthur immediately urged Washington to commit American ground troops into Korea. Rhee at that time claimed that three-quarters of his army had been lost, which was patently false, and he and his generals made it plain that they had no serious plan to stop the invasion. That same day, at the later Washington time, Chiang offered 33,000 ground troops for korea, thereby threatening also to bring China into the war. Acheson prevented Washington's acceptance of the dangerous aid, and relying on his "instinct" he kept MacArthur from going to Formosa to explain the rejection.

But MacArthur sought action, with or without authorization, and early on the twenty-ninth he ordered the United States air force to hit targets north of the 38th parallel, in what was probably his second unilateral act of the crisis. Only some hours later, under Acheson's prodding, and despite some military reticence, did Truman authorize MacArthur to initiate air attacks against North Korea. Then, on the thirtieth, Truman, despite hesitancy of the Defense Department, authorized a naval blockade of all Korea and the use of American ground forces in offensive combat, starting with a regiment and building up to two divisions as quickly as possible. Both MacArthur and Rhee learned from this experience that Washington would sustain their unilateral acts.

MacArthur's forces were able to reverse Rhee's retreat, and soon pushed toward the China border, at which point China entered the war. The Chinese regained most of North Korea's lost territory, with the final lines straddling the initial 38th parallel. The costs to the Korean people were incredible (pp. 614-615):

The Korean War was the second most expensive in American history, yet the manner in which it was fought made it without precedent in the annals of warfare. Ranging the most powerful industrial nation of all time against comparatively poorly armed peasants, for the United States the war almost immediately became an assault against the population of an entire nation -- some 30 million persons -- and the war was scarcely less destructive in its impact on the 20 million Koreans south of the parallel than the 10 million north of it. As such, in proportionate terms it inflicted at least as much death, destruction, and misery on a civilian population as any war against a single nation in modern history. For warfare between a great technological power that relies on indiscriminate mass bombing and shelling and a poor nation leads inexorably toward genocide -- a final solution that the United States avoided only because the war came to an end without a conventional military victory for the Americans.

The United States air force had completely destroyed all usual strategic bombing targets in North Korea within three months' time, and by the end of the first year of combat it had dropped 97,000 tons of bombs and 7.8 million gallons of anpalm, destroying 125,000 buildings that might "shelter" the enemy. In mid-1952 it turned to the systematic destruction of mintes and cement plants, and in June it hit the Suihu hydroelectric complex on the Yalu. In the South the destruction was almost as great, aggravated by Rhee's own special contributions to the elimination of lives. The most notable and publicized episode was his roundup of well over 400,000 men at the end of 1950 -- men he hoped to arm and put in his army but in the meantime left in concentration camps under guard. Unable to arm them, he also failed to feed them adequately, and an estimated 50,000 died of disease and starvation over the next half-year, the large majority of the remainder becoming physical wrecks. Tens of thousands escaped, and ultimately Rhee was compelled to release large numbers under pressure from his irate National Assembly. In reality, however, these men were prospective enemies and guerillas as well as potential ROK soldiers, for the Korean people sustained major guerilla operations behind American lines throughout the war, a skill the Koreans had first mastered against the Japanese decades earlier. The Korean War, in effect, became a war against an entire nation, civilians and soldiers, Communists and anit-Communists, alike. Everything -- from villages to military targets -- the United States considered a legitimate target for attack.

The press fully reported the misery and suffering throughout the war, and when the final accounting was taken the human pain exceeded measurement as each family alone was aware of what it had suffered. UN combatant deaths were over 94,000, 34,000 of whom were Americans. Wounded came to over four times that figure, and American sources estimate Communist military casualties at over a million and one-half. Over a million South Korean civilians died, and probably a substantially larger number of civilians died in the North, for almost a decade after the end of the war the North Korean population was only equal to its 1950 level. Half the South Korean population was homeless or refugees by early 1951, and 2.5 million were refugees and another 5 million were on relief at the end of the war.

The process of utter destruction was virtually complete by the end of the first year of the war, when the head of the Far Eastern Bomber Command, Major General Emmett O'Donnell, Jr., publicly declared, "I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name." This fact created very real military problems, and meant that short of escalating the war to China or committing vast new troops to ground combat, the United States quickly lost most of its military levers for making the Communists more responsive at the armistice negotiations. The bombing of the Suihu hydroelectric complex on the Yalu in June 1952 and thereafter, which the British had feared would lead to an end of truce talks, nearly exhausted that threat. The most important remaining targets to attack were the irrigation dams so vital to the rice crop and the civilian population. Only the Nazis in Holland during 1944-1945 had dared to perform so monstrous an act, one the Nuremberg Tribunal later judged a war crime. Air force planners were fully aware of such humanitarian objections, and for the moment restraint prevailed.

By early October 1952, however, the American representatives at the truce negotiations declared they had no further proposals to make, and the military felt additional military pressures were essential. Despite a substantial increase in American offensive efforts over the autumn, Clark and his aides attempted to obtain vast new man-power commitments from Washington and extend the war to China via air and naval power. Washington rejected the proposal. The war was now irrevocably stalemated unless the new President were willing to unleash a fresh wave of massive destruction -- or negotiate an end to the war. Even so, the United States had so far failed to impose its will on poor Asian nations with the determination to resist. At the end of 1952, and for well over another decade, virtually all of Washington could not comprehend the historic significance of this monumental event to the limits of American power in the world. [ . . . ]

Both in its cynicism, destructiveness, and illusion, the Korean War was an introduction to what was later to become the most sustained crisis of the modern American experience -- Vietnam.

And add Iraq to that list. In the news today was a report of a statistical study that estimates the number of excess violent Iraqi deaths since the Bush invasion to be over 600,000, and that's only one of many metrics. People forget that Korea was even worse. Well, most people -- most Americans. In North Korea they forget nothing.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

North Korea Tickles the Dragon

If the Bush Administration's policy goal was to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, it has resoundingly failed. What justifies the conditional clause is that Bush's negotiating posture was so certain to fail that it's hard to believe that even a bunch as arrogant and incompetent as this one could not have thought it through. After all, only two things are necessary in order to build nuclear weapons: a level of technical skill that hasn't been state of the art for over fifty years now, and the political will to put a lot of resources into a project of no practical value. That the number of nations with nuclear weapons is down around ten is due mostly to the latter. Nations that have no desire to rule foreign lands and have no obvious enemies that want to rule or damage them just don't spend their resources so foolishly.

That North Korea has the skills has long been obvious, but so do dozens of other nations. The real question is why do they have the political will, and as usual there's a lot of history there. One can argue that North Korea fails both sides of my formulation: that they do desire to extend their influence militarily at least to South Korea, as demonstrated by their aggression in the 1950-53 Korean War; and also that they have legitimate fears of attack by the United States and its regional allies, including South Korea and Japan. To a large extent, both fears are sorely dated. It's been a long time since the Korean War ended. The taste of the War left no side with much appetite for more. And the long stalemate has left both sides accustomed to peaceful coexistence. Still, the status quo isn't evenly balanced. The US has, at very little real cost to most Americans, managed to render North Korea painfully isolated -- a clear case of punishing a people for their leaders, something that Americans have little or no conscience over. That has given North Korea a sense of vulnerability that none of its opponents share. It shouldn't surprise us that North Korea's response has been a show of aggressive defensiveness -- they've never had much in the way of options, and unlike the US, time is not on their side.

Deterrence is in the eye of the beholder. For example, a sane person might think that Hezbollah's entrenched defenses and cache of thousands of rockets should have deterred Israel from attacking southern Lebanon, but Israel proved arrogant and foolish enough to do so anyway -- both underestimating Hezbollah and overrating the political power of their own overwhelming military might. One might argue that Hezbollah failed because they didn't have enough firepower, but some trigger-happy states are actually emboldened by an opponent's military build-up -- at least to a point. In the case of the US vs. USSR, this led to an arms race that threatened world destruction, but at least was mutual enough to stabilize. However, the case of one-sided dominance is unstable. The strong side can become overconfident and reckless, as Israel did, while the any effort the weak side makes to try to even the odds can be viewed as an aggressive afront to the status quo.

The problem that North Korea faces is that there's a big gap between being able to deter a foreign attack and being able to convert that military power into something useful, like breaking the economic isolation the US and its allies have imposed. It's possible but not certain that North Korea's military power is the reason the US has not resumed the war. The US has plenty of reasons to be satisfied with the status quo. Arguably the reason the US fought in 1950-53 was to repel Communist aggression. From that it follows that North Korea can protect itself from attack simply by not acting aggressively. If that is so, North Korea's development of advanced weapons that could be used for aggressive as well as deterrent purposes is easily seen as provocative -- thereby justifying the containment policies that so debilitate the nation. But containment is itself a form of war, and that has the effect of increasing North Korea's paranoia and egging them into an ever greater arms race.

Which brings us back to the question of what Bush's real North Korea policy is. One consistent Bush-Cheney policy from day one has been to build up the US military and security agencies as a share of federal government expenditures. To do that, they needed enemies. Before 9/11, they poked at China and Russia, ripped up international treaties, touted new weapons systems -- anti-missile, space-based, bunker busting nukes; they bombed Iraq, turned Sharon loose on the Palestinians, ignored the moderates in Iran, and reneged on the Clinton agreement with North Korea. The 9/11 attacks were merely a temporary blip in the war planning, pushing Afghanistan briefly to the top of the list while setting up the Axis of Evil for the future. Wrecking Iraq just gave Iran and North Korea all the more reason to fear and work toward deterring US attack. North Korea has succeeded in that it looks like it will take someone a good deal more wacko than George W. Bush to start a war there. But if the possible outcomes were either to be able to claim victory and walk all over North Korea or bolster them as a threat requiring massive military investment, that would have looked like a win-win scenario to Bush, even if it was a certain loser for most of us. Hence it's not surprising to hear administration flacks beaming about how the nuke test "clarifies" matters.

North Korea would be better off taking a completely different tack. It turns out that the safest countries in this hostile world are the ones with the least weapons, offensive or defensive, the most normal relations with the rest of the world, and the most equitable relationships among their own people. But North Korea never had a fair chance to try that out: the US has never gotten over the Korean War, and the US was more culpable for that war than almost all of us realize. The US occupied Korea after WWII, dismantling the People's Republic that displaced the 35-year-old Japanese occupation. The US refused to reunite South Korea with the Soviet zone in North Korea, installing Syngman Rhee's extreme right-wing dictatorship, and backing his brutal suppression of the left in South Korea. After China fell to the Communists in 1949, the US began entertaining thoughts not just of containing Communism but rolling it back, and Korea was central to those aims. Once the war started, the US set out on a campaign to take over the whole of Korea, which stalled only once China entered the war. The US committed numerous war crimes -- the bombing of dams meant to cause massive flooding is merely the most notorious example. The war quickly reached a stalemate, but the US dragged it out for years to score propaganda points over the repatriation of prisoners of war. After the armistice was signed, the US never made an effort to normalize relations and reduce the potential for conflict in the region. The US continues to keep large numbers of troops in South Korea and Japan to intimidate North Korea.

US hostility has been met with frequent hostility from North Korea -- sometimes serious, oftentimes little short of juvenile. Over time, cultivated resistance against the US became the life blood of the regime, developing into an extraordinarily paranoid, thoroughly repressive state religion. Especially once the Soviet Union collapsed, economic isolation and a massive resource drain to support the military has left the people with a miserable standard of living -- so bad that reports of mass starvation are frequent. Not surprisingly, just as North Korea's saber rattling serves the purposes of the Bush administration here, US threats reinforce the worst aspects of Kim Jong Il's regime. This cycle can only be broken if one side looks beyond the provocations to a longer-term vision of fruitful coexistence.

The US, Europe, and/or Japan could take the first step by recognizing that North Korea's nuclear weapons are meaningless and useless -- perhaps a safety blanket for North Korea, but not a threat to anyone else, least of all to nuclear powers like the US -- and therefore not an obstacle to achieving normalcy. That uselessness can quickly be established by making the pledge that North Korea has reasonably demanded: that we have no intention or desire to attack the country or undermine its government. That in itself is hardly a concession: regardless of how little regard we may have for Kim Jong Il's regime, no one has nothing better to do than start a war over it -- and no war can possibly solve the problem. Once the veil of threats is removed, there is no reason to embargo trade, no reason not to share technology, no reason not to exchange culture. Disarmament is not a prerequisite, but will be an effect, because armament is itself such a terrible waste of resources.

But like so much else, what is a prerequisite is removing Bush and like-minded politicians from office. They benefit from war not just directly, as in graft for their supporters, but indirectly, by sacrificing the opportunity costs of providing a more equitable society.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Walking the Plank

TomDispatch has a piece on the case for impeaching Bush, concentrating on the political arguments rather than the legal ones. Impeachment is, after all, a political issue. Even when criminal conduct is obvious, as it is here, the main obstacles to justice remain political. One problem with discussing impeachment is that the so-called opposition party simply doesn't have the political will to advance a -- to use a pertinent and evocative phrase -- "slam dunk" case. David Swanson argues that an impeachment campaign is itself a tool for forming that political will:

Congressional efforts to advance articles of impeachment have had legal and political results. These have always benefited the political party that advanced impeachment. This was even true in the case of the Republicans' unpopular impeachment of Clinton, during which the Republicans lost far fewer seats than the norm for a majority party at that point in its tenure.

Impeachment has several advantages as a political strategy. For one thing, it is something that doesn't, in principle at least, have to wait for a scheduled election date. Given popular consensus and political will, impeachment can be done at any time. Impeachment's other great advantage is that it focuses on Bush as the problem. The clearest case where this matters is Iraq, where Bush has vowed to to stay unbowed and unreformed until the day he leaves office. Critics are torn between various possible tactics, most of which are not really options as long as Bush remains in power -- almost anything you can imagine doing other than just packing up and clearing out founders either on Bush's credibility or his inability to implement sensible policies. America faces many problems in the world today -- many deep-seated and difficult to deal with -- but for now at least Bush has managed to put himself so squarely at the head of the list that until he steps down little else can be done. So why not concentrate on impeachment?

The main reason is that impeachment is commonly deemed unrealistic -- at least among Democrat politicos and a media that ignores any political arguments not voiced by, at minimum, a certifiable presidential candidate. To some extent this is just Bush's teflon showing. He's gotten away with so much for so long that he's assumed to be untouchable. It occurs to me that one way around this would be to set up a different pecking order for who walks the plank. Why not start with impeaching Donald Rumsfeld? There's already a pretty broad consensus that he's not fit to be Secretary of Defense, so impeach him instead of meekly calling for his resignation. Next up would be Dick Cheney. No need to waste your time with small fry like Rice or Gonzalez. Rumsfeld will set up Cheney, and Cheney will set the tables for going after Bush. But also it's important to clear Cheney out before Bush, because you certainly don't want him as Bush's successor. By the time you get Cheney out Bush is pretty much toast anyway.

Even if you can't get the two-thirds to convict over the party loyalists in the Senate, full investigations and impeachment would likely grease the skids for resignations, like they did with Nixon and Agnew. How much dirty laundry do these people really want to air out? After all, anything they say now can be used against them later -- in the Hague, which they've been avoiding like the plague from day one.

And if the Democrats do finally develop a taste for Republican blood, a good choice for the next to walk the plank would be Antonin Scalia.

Music: Current count 12438 [12418] rated (+20), 934 [915] unrated (+19). Another crummy week with little to show for it. Fretting over Jazz CG, but didn't actually write much on it: 938 words at this point, need 1600 to go. Did at least write a new A- review this morning. I should know enough to finish it by now.

  • Jesus H Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse (jesuschristrocks.com): "Connecticut's for fucking . . . we're all getting fucked in Connecticut." "Happy happy me/happy medically." "Dear I'm not jealous/I'm just grossed out." "Vampire Girls" who suck knowledge from their boyfriends. "Nipples" progresses into knockers, boobies and melons. A-

Jazz Prospecting (CG #11, Part 10)

Not as much Jazz CG progress last week as I had hoped, but at least I've turned the corner. I'm looking at a draft that's about 60% there, and I've moved from first round prospecting to checking back on the replays. Of course, if Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins pop up in my mailbox, I'll have to give them a spin. The personal disruptions are still taking a toll, so no telling how this week will work out. But I'd say the odds of column done are close to 50-50.

Mary Foster Conklin: Blues for Breakfast (2004-05 [2006], Rhombus): Her voice takes a bit to get used to, but gains on you over time. That's not unusual for jazz singers -- if they had ordinary voices, they'd be doing something else. How much she might gain is something I'm unlikely to find out. This strikes me as marginal, especially given that the slow stuff she favors can be turgid, but her "Let's Get Away From It All" is a choice cut. Dedicated to Matt Dennis, who co-wrote the songs. B

Third World Love: Sketch of Tel Aviv (2005 [2006], Smalls): This merits further listening, especially a comparison with the Omer Avital record -- the bassist reappears here, along with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, the leader of this Israeli quartet. Also need to look further into whatever it is that "third world love" means. Avital's closer, "Three Four (Not a Jazz Tune)" has a pronounced affinity with Abdullah Ibrahim. [B+(**)]

Michael O'Neill: Ontophony (2005 [2006], Songlines): A remarkable record, but the key question remains: how much bagpipe music can you stand? The booklet has a photo that explains better than I can what the concept is here: it shows three highland pipes players in kilts on a rock on the right side, and three Japanese taiko drummers on the field on the left side, each with one arm raised high above the head. That pipes and percussion go together is a thesis we can grant. On the other hand, my tolerance level does not look forward to a replay. Your mileage may vary. B

Les Primitifs du Futur: World Musette (1999 [2006], Sunnyside): Knowing that R. Crumb is involved in this project -- the cover art, of course, but he also plays mandolin and banjo -- makes it all the easier to imagine this as what happens when the Cheap Suit Serenaders go to seed in Paris. Guitarist Dominique Cravic is the leader and principal songwriter. Daniel Huck sings scat, and a cast of dozens play instruments my French isn't good enough to translate. Starts out sounding old-timey, but before long the accordions overwhelm the ukuleles and the musette takes over -- still old-timey, but European, even when they fake a Chinese waltz. A-

Kali Z. Fasteau/Kidd Jordan: People of the Ninth: New Orleans and the Hurricane 2005 (2005 [2006], Flying Note): Drummer Michael T.A. Thompson is the third name on the cover, but not the spine. He has as much to do with this as anyone, but that's because he adds a balance to the leaders. Floods excavate as well as bury, and one of the few positive effects of Katrina has been the emergence of Kidd Jordan as the avant-garde's honorary Mardi Gras master. I've always found him a bit difficult, but Kali Z's goofiness lets him be the focus without getting overly serious. She plays her usual smorgasbord of instruments: piano, cello, soprano sax, nai flute, something called an aquasonic that I'll have to look up some day. While Jordan's the star, he sits out on my favorite track here, pitching Kali's nai against Thompson's balafon. [B+(***)]

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

Louis Hayes and the Cannonball Legacy Band: Maximum Firepower (2006, Savant): Bright, brassy hard bop, pretty much like the model. Vincent Herring is a fair approximation of Cannonball, and if anything Jeremy Pelt kicks Nat up a notch. Hayes has been there and done that -- he played with the Adderleys in their 1959-65 heyday. He's entitled, but the difference now is that the popular moves back then still had an audience. This may sound the same, but it misses that connection. B+(**)

Mike Boone: Yeah, I Said It . . . (2005 [2006], Dreambox Media): An aural scrapbook, with a touching remembrance of mom and the golden rule; a discourse on swing and the electric bass; stories of Barry Kiener, Ben Vereen, and most importantly Buddy Rich. The music itself is widely scattered, the narration holding it together, like the thread of a life. B+(**)

Available Jelly: Bilbao Song (2004 [2005], Ramboy): This is Michael Moore's label and mostly his compositions, even if he doesn't take full responsibility for the group. Ernst Glerum and Michael Vatcher, bass and drums, are frequent collaborators, but the group is defined more by the horns: two brass, two reeds, in all sorts of fruitful combinations. B+(**)

Michael Moore Quintet: Osiris (2005 [2006], Ramboy): Not a repeat of Moore's 1988 quintet, the only other time he's used that lineup. This one's a Dutch group, with Eric Vloeimans on trumpet and Marc van Roon on piano, but closer to chamber music -- soft and silky -- than classic hard bop. It has some moments, and may pan out if you put the time into its postbop intricacies. B+(*)

Don Byron: Do the Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker (2006, Blue Note): No doubt this is better played than the original. Details like David Gilmore's guitar, George Colligan's organ, and Rodney Holmes' drums are cleanly, sharply articulated. They crank up the funk quotient, at points suggesting James Brown. Byron own role is less clear: he plays tenor sax here -- the exceptions are one cut on clarinet and one on bass clarinet -- without much grit or grime. The vocals are another matter. Neither Dean Bowman nor Chris Thomas King offer much of interest, although they do an adequate job of going through the motions. It's interesting Byron still cares about the motions -- I'd say this is populism more than pop. B+(*)

Jason Moran: Artist in Residence (2006, Blue Note): He's brilliant, but his record is pretty scattered, opting for a hip-hop sample on one track, an aria on the next. I'm tempted to say I wish he'd slim this down to focus on his piano, but two of the experiments make me want to hear more: the percusion duet with Joan Jonas, and a rough piece of free jazz with Abdou Mboup's djembe and Ralph Alessi's trumpet joining the trio. B+(**)

Kidd Jordan/Hamid Drake/William Parker: Palm of Soul (2005 [2006], AUM Fidelity): Homeless after Katrina, Jordan fled to Brooklyn and networked with his old chums. Drake and Parker do their usual thing, and then some: not content to be the world's best at bass and drums, they drag out the tablas, guimbri, and miscellaneous percussion exotica. Drake even chants, reducing Jordan to comping. I'm not sure whether Jordan is mellowing, as septuagenerians often do, or is just delighted to be there. A-

Lucian Ban & Alex Harding: Tuba Project (2005 [2006], CIMP): Never figured out what the purpose of the project was, other than to replace the bass in a piano-two sax quintet and get a chance to employ Bob Stewart. The two saxes are Harding on baritone and J.D. Allen on tenor, so the group keeps to the lower registers. Ban composed all but one of the pieces and plays them with roughly structured block chords. Most tuba moves are meant to be retro, but it's hard to tell here. B+(*)

D.D. Jackson: Serenity Song (2006, Justin Time): A good piano trio owing something to Jackson's mentor, the late great Don Pullen. But it doesn't stop there: most cuts add strings and/or soprano sax -- a stereotypical way to set up the serenity theme. I don't much care for the sound of either, which turns this into a bag of mixed blessings. No complaints about the trombone on the Mingus-theme piece. B+(*)

John McLaughlin: Industrial Zen (2006, Verve): For the most part, a pretty straightforward fusion album -- what he's best known for, but not what he's mostly done in the last couple of decades. He can still impress when he cranks it up, but it's mostly the guitar and drums -- the spot sax doesn't help much. Oddly enough, what does help is his Indian interests: Zakir Hussain's tabla, Shankar Mahadevan's two vocals. B+(*)

Misja Fitzgerald Michel: Encounter (2005 [2006], No Format/Sunnyside): The first cut throws you off the game plan, for while guitarist Michel romps along to an Ornette tune, the tenor saxophonist is the one who grabs your attention. He's Ravi Coltrane, every bit as impressive as on his own albums. But after taking charge, he vanishes until the ninth cut -- a Michel original that sets up closers penned by Wayne Shorter and an elder Coltrane. The rest is guitar-bass-drum trio, moving smartly with a sound much denser than the norm for postbop jazz guitar. But then why would Michel bother playing 12-string if all he wanted to do was pick out hornlike single-note lines? B+(**)

Houston Person/Bill Charlap: You Taught My Heart to Sing (2004 [2006], High Note): Lovely, of course, with scant room for nitpicking, but perhaps a bit too much of a mutual admiration society, especially where the saxophonist makes way for the pianist. I keep wishing a bass would enter and scurry them along a bit. B+(***)

Billy Hart: Quartet (2005 [2006], High Note): The veteran drummer wrote four of nine songs, versus two for the pianist and one for the saxophonist, so his leadership isn't exactly honorary. But the group's sound flows from Ethan Iverson's piano and Mark Turner's tenor sax, and fits squarely in their generation of postbop. B+(***)

Ignacio Berroa: Codes (2005 [2006], Blue Note): Following in Chano Pozo's footsteps, Berroa moved to New York in 1980 and found a job in Dizzy Gillespie's band. But his Afro-Cuban roots were attenuated -- he blames Castro for suppressing Yoruba religion and restricting his schooling to the Euroclassics. Even here, the most characteristic Cuban rhythms come not from trad percussion but from Gonzalo Rubalcaba's piano and Felipe LaMoglia's saxophones. He plays traps, but has mastered the coding to produce an effective pan-American synthesis. A-

Stefon Harris: African Tarantella (2005 [2006], Blue Note): I've never been much impressed with the highly touted vibraphonist, but these "dances with Duke" at least show conceptual daring. And when Steve Turre uncorks his trombone for some much needed brass, the opening movements from "The New Orleans Suite" come to life. But Turre provides the only whiff of brass here, leaving the suites mired in soft colors -- flute, clarinet, piano, strings, nothing that might compete with the leader's mallets. As long as the composer is named Ellington, this is an interesting twist. But when the composer's name is Harris, the fluff has a harder time standing on its own. B+(*)

Sonny Simmons: I'll See You When You Get There (2004-05 [2006], Jazzaway): Minimal Sonny, not solo but in duets that only marginally frame his solos -- six with bassist Mats Eilertsen, two with pianist Anders Aarum, two with drummer Ole Thomas Kolberg. The drums hold up best because they clearly add something, whereas the bass and piano are more like admiring reflections. Solo sax tends to slow down because nothing else pushes it along. That can be a plus for an ex-Firebird. B+(**)

Thomas Chapin Trio: Ride (1995 [2006], Playscape): Wish he had kept to the alto sax, as the warbly stuff -- flute and sopranino sax -- tones down what otherwise is a vigorous live set, from the North Sea Jazz Festival. Chapin died young in 1998, and is so revered that his live scraps have become a cottage industry. More often than not, this one shows you why. Title comes from a Beatles song, and he's definitely got the ticket there -- a choice cut. B+(***)

Friday, October 06, 2006

F5 Record Report (#10: October 5, 2006)

My Record Report column appeared in F5 again this week. The paper version has been out since Thursday, but it hasn't appeared on F5's website yet. Probably my fault: I have to submit these things twice, with one copy going to the editor and a second posted directly to the website. The latter then has to be approved by the editor, which usually happens a day or two after the paper appears. I've posted it again, but it still awaits editorial approval. When it does appear, this URL should work. It actually keys on an author ID, which accesses a chain of posts, most recent first.

I could wait until the post appears, but I thought I'd announce this now for two reasons. One is that the paper is out, so anyone with access to an outlet here in Wichita can seek it out. The other is that my archive copy is already up on my website, as are all the back columns.

The lineup this week is:

  • Jean-Jacques Avenel: Waraba (Songlines) A- [jazz, world]
  • Jerry Granelli: Sandhills Reunion (Songlines) A- [jazz, spoken word]
  • Merle Haggard: Live From Austin TX (1985, New West) A- [country]
  • Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana: Climbing the Banyan Tree (Clean Feed) A- [jazz]
  • Willie Nelson: Live From Austin TX (1990, New West) B+ [country]
  • Ollabelle: Riverside Battle Songs (Verve Forecast) B+ [folk]
  • Wilson Pickett: The Definitive Collection (1961-71, Atlantic/Rhino, 2CD) A [r&b]

The Avenel record is the one that got me going this time. It actually is a 2004 record that I picked up recently, so I never gave it any Jazz Consumer Guide consideration. Still, it's an album that deserves some press. That led to two albums from Jazz CGs a while back: Granelli because it's on the same label, and I made a comment about the label; Momin because it's a similar record. Both are idiosyncratic records that I regard very highly.

Handed in next week's column today, filing it correctly this time, so I should have a more straightforward announcement next week around this time.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Chavez and Citgo

A cousin forwarded a letter to me urging everyone to boycott Citgo because it's owned by Venezuela and "Venezuela Dictator Hugo Chavez has vowed to bring down the U.S. government." I responded with the following.

Actually, when we drove to Detroit a couple of months ago, Laura kept bugging me to stop and fill up at Citgo stations. Most oil companies in the US, like Koch here in Wichita, are so deeply in bed with the most extreme right-wing Cheney supporters that she figured we'd be better off patronizing Venezuela. Personally, I doubt that it makes any difference one way or another.

But you have some mistaken information below. Chavez is not a dictator. He has won internationally monitored democratic elections by substantial margins, something Bush cannot claim. He has substantial support among Venezuela's poor, who have before him benefitted very little from the oil industry. Why anyone should be surprised that a populist politician could be elected in a country with massive poverty is beyond me. What's really suspicious are the cases where poor countries elect oligarchs and thieves.

I'm not aware of Chavez ever having vowed to bring down the US government. I can't imagine how he could imagine how he could do that, even if he wanted to. That's more like the plan of Grover Norquist -- the Bush supporter who wants to shrink the government to where it can be drowned in a bathtub. On the other hand, there's plenty of evidence that Bush wants to bring down the Venezuelan government: shortly after Chavez was elected, there was a coup attempt in Venezuela that Bush immediately recognized, even though they never managed to seize power. Going back before Chavez, the US had a long, sordid history in Venezuela, including backing coups and dictators, not to mention the occasional Marine Corps invasions. I still recall that back in the late-'50s Venezuelans threw rocks at Nixon (Vice President at the time) when he visited Caracas.

"Down with the U.S. empire" is another story. Venezuela is a good case example of why so many people around the world hate what the US does in their countries. For a long time Standard Oil owned the oil in Venezuela, pumping out billions of dollars worth and returning virtually nothing to the people there. The resentment over that exploitation linger on, which is a big part of the reason Chavez has been able to win. Still, you can see that the balance of power has been shifting: whereas Standard used to own Venezuela, now Venezuela owns Citgo. It wasn't Chavez who engineered that shift. US deficits, both trade and government spending, sent money out of the country that only returned as foreigners bought US assets, like Citgo. It wasn't Bush either, but he was the first to defend a deal that would have sold most US ports operations to Dubai. Much of this has to do with oil: US oil production peaked around 1970, and we've been running increasing trade deficits to keep consumption increasing ever since.

Castro is another story. As a young lawyer, he tried to work within the Cuban political system, but was blocked by the US-supported dictatorship, which led him to revolution. He won, and the US never forgave him, still trying to strangle Cuba nearly fifty years later. There are both good and bad things to say about his regime, but throughout Latin America his survival is regarded as proof that it's possible to stand up to US power. The irony of all this is that the injustice of US opposition to Castro -- the fact that the blockade only hurts the Cuban people -- is what keeps him in power.

Harry Belafonte was an important activist in the civil rights struggle going back to the '50s when he first emerged as a major pop singer. He may have said some things that were a bit over the top, but calling Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world" seems about right. He's certainly brought a hitherto unimagined level of terror to Iraq. Cindy Sheehan, like Belafonte, has been a courageous opponent of that war. We need more folks like them. And to the extent that they, as opposed to Bush, are viewed as representing the American people, maybe we'll be forgiven for our government's sins.

Don't mean to lecture, but history tells us how we got to be in this particular mess. To me, 9/11 was a wake-up call, a reminder that before we can judge other we must first make sure that we live right. Unfortunately, the politicos opted for blind rage instead. Five years later, you can see where arrogance and ignorance has gotten us.

As someone who always distrusts those in power, I have no special fondness for Chavez. But it seems to me that Venezuelans have plenty of reason to elect someone who resists control by the mostly foreign rich and who supports a fairer distribution of wealth and opportunity for the great majority of the people. And I don't think the US has any right to deny Venezuela their choice of government. But that's what we want to do, and for no better reason than that it annoys us that they don't follow our lead -- a lead that doesn't even work for most of us, let alone for them.

On Wednesday, the Wichita Eagle had a short article titled "Venezuela's weapons cache worries neighbors":

The recent military build-up in Venezuela by President Hugo Chavez has other countries in the region worried that the weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday.

Asked whether he believes Venezuelan officials' contention that the weapons buys are strictly for defense and not a threat to the region, Rumsfeld said, "I don't know of anyone threatening Venezuela -- anyone in this hemisphere."

Note first of all who's speaking for Venezuela's neighbors. Also note the only country in the region, or for that matter the world, that has an official policy of pre-emptively attacking countries on grounds that they might pass weapons to terrorists -- what Venezuela is being accused of here. Also note the only country that has troops in a foreign country in the region -- in this case, in Colombia. Try to remember the last country to send its troops to invade Venezuela. Also, which was the first country to recognize a military coup against Chavez before it failed.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bloggin' Blues

My blog entries recently have been limited to the usual music posts: jazz prospecting, notices for Recycled Goods and F5. Posts like those happend 2-3 times a week, and involve writing that I do every day. The music writing takes up most of my time, and becomes even more consuming when a deadline approaches. Recycled is done for a month, and F5 is no more than a Thursday night special, but Jazz CG is looming -- not least because of the uncertainties surrounding its future. Or should I say my future? Even as I write this I'm also trying to listen to Available Jelly close enough to decide whether it's above or below the cusp of the Honorable Mentions list. One option might be to fall back and do nothing but music and try to do a better job of it, even though it's unlikely that anything I can do will be all that great. Reinforcing this is the fact that I do get some feedback from all sorts of people (producers and promoters as well as consumers) indicating that what I do on music is appreciated.

On the other hand, my big project for the year has been to write a book on political philosophy -- a subject I'm much more confident I understand and can make a genuine contribution to. This is something I've contemplated for over a decade, although it's taken several different outline twists along the way. Unfortunately, I have little concrete writing to show for my efforts, and at this moment it seems as far away as it did back in January when my new year's resolution was to finish it in 2006 or give up trying -- maybe look for a regular job or start some sort of business. I'm not sure whether the blog has helped or hurt -- many of my key ideas have shown up in one post or another, and the constant practice of writing every day may help me break through my blocks. But blogs are monsters, and this too could easily become an infinite time sink.

In any case, my last political post was back on Sept. 24, and that was merely a short citation of a Tony Karon piece. The day before I dumped out a set of notes on Ivor van Heerden's Katrina book. Back on the 20th and 21st I wrote items about torture. (Update: Sam Brownback, as well as the so-called GOP Heroes, put aside whatever principles any of us fancied they might have had and gave Bush what he wanted: most news reports described this as "the tools to fight terrorism," but a more apt name for the bill would have been The War Crimes Amnesty Act of 2006.) This left a three-day hole in September's Archives calendar. It probably didn't help that on Sept. 25 Billmon posted a notice that he was going to quit blogging -- at least for a while, as the time pressures were getting to him too. Over the last month I had narrowed down the number of blogs I was reading to not much more than Billmon and War in Context, so that seemed like a signal. (Update: after a few days the Foley scandal hit, then more dog wagging on Iran, then, well, the outrages keep on coming: "It would, in a totally perverse way, be carthartic (in both senses of the word) if the real October surprise turned out to be a tactical nuclear strike on Isfahan. At least the uncertainty would be gone. . . . And I could finally stop worrying about whether I'm being too paranoid.")

Actually, I've been thinking of lots of things to write about. Some are totally mundane, like three straight days of record-breaking heat after the trees here had started to change color. One is a weird local item: five camels broke loose from an "exotic animal farm" NW of Hutchinson, and four were killed in car accidents. Another local item is the astonishing amount of ink that the Wichita Eagle spent on the Rolling Stones concert last Sunday: I think there were at least five front page stories, maybe more, as well as continual fretting about whether they'd sell out 30,000 tickets, and extensive reports on accommodations, juice bar requirements, private restrooms, etc. But that's probably as much ink as those topics will get.

But there are things that will show up sooner or later. I've read five books on oil politics, and have a pile of quotes. That's going to be a very important issue over the next few decades -- the recent price reprieve and the announcement of a significant deep water field off the coast of Louisiana notwithstanding. I also have quotes from Larry Beinhart's Fog Facts -- the best book I've read about sorting fact from fantasy in the news. Also have a few other books to comment on. (One I read recently but didn't feature in the Recent Reading column was Frank Barnaby's ominously titled How to Build a Nuclear Bomb. Turns out that it's not much practical help, but more annoying is that Barnaby buys into the paranoid notion that terrorists are an inevitable, relentless plague -- that they are bound to do everything that can be done.) Other books are waiting in piles, and I have a rather long book survey in the works.

Also have movies to write about, and music things. What I don't seem to have is energy to tackle it all. Health issues and other distractions take their toll. So do longstanding projects that never quite get off the ground: figuring out a mail system is a big one -- nothing reduces my brain to jelly quite like trying to figure out whether sendmail or postfix should be my poison. The website work is mostly stalled -- although I did just pick up a set of PHP books in hopes they may help. The filing -- digital as well as physical -- is way behind. The sheer mess here has gotten to be debilitating. Still, I have no resolutions. I'll plod along, hopefully producing something of use. Not as often as I'd like, and neither expert nor monomaniacal enough to make it as a blogger -- I know there are dozens of people who read this and appreciate it, but I've never had any luck pieces here picked up elsewhere, or getting my stuff published by people who weren't already friends.

Just wanted to get some stuff off my chest. Back to work, now.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Recycled Goods #36: October 2006

Recycled Goods #36, October 2006, has been posted at Static Multimedia.. I usually specify two Pick Hits, but this time they only showed the Bob Wills box cover. The other one is the Fats Waller box. Both are long format. I figured they could handle that, but it doesn't look like it.

Three good box sets this time, which gives me an opportunity to expound on that product niche. I have three or four more not-so-good ones in the queue, so I don't expect this year's crop top do better than any other year's.

The other thing that's worth noting here is that 31 of 48 records come from Sony/BMG's Legacy operation. That's a big hump from the 2 Legacy records I reviewed in September. Split the two and you get an average: they send me a lot of stuff, including things I didn't ask for, like all those Journey albums. Everyone else I pretty much have to chase down, but I try to review what comes in the door, and they take advantage of it. Also has something to do with keeping series and related albums together, and this month they provided a number of useful clusters.

Here's the publicists letter:

Recycled Goods #36, October 2006, is up at Static Multimedia:


48 records, including an "in series" section for Legacy's Signature Series.
In fact, Sony/BMG hit the jackpot this month, with almost two thirds of
the total haul. Index by label:

  Alula: The Green Arrows
  Concord: Willie Bobo
  DGM: Robert Fripp
  EMI (Blue Note): Solomon Ilori, Tania Maria
  Hux: Stoney Edwards
  Putumayo World Music: Acoustic Africa, Music From the Wine Lands
  Savoy Jazz: Judy Garland (3), The Ravens
  Sony/BMG (Legacy): The Bangles, Count Basie, Tony Bennett (5), Boston (2),
    Bow Wow Wow, The Brecker Brothers, Rosemary Clooney, A Flock of Seagulls,
    Dizzy Gillespie, Journey (6), Loverboy (2), Ronnie Milsap, Eddie Money,
    Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, Scandal, Rick Springfield (2), Fats Waller,
    Bob Wills
  Thirsty Ear: Nils Petter Molvaer
  Tzadik: Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

This concentration is unusual: last month only had two Legacy records,
with the coverage scattered among 21 labels. I try to review whatever
comes in the door, and I often try to group related items. Legacy had
several large groups, and it was catch-up time. Next month will be
more varied.

Thanks again for your support.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Music: Current count 12418 [12396] rated (+22), 915 [900] unrated (+15).

  • The Very Best of Los Jardineros (1929-32 [2006], Shanachie): "Classic Recordings by Puerto Rico's Legendary String Band Ensemble 1929-1932": that's the cover claim, but the group wasn't legendary enough to show up in any of my reference books, and what's obviously classic about the recordings is their age. Ruth Glasser's booklet helps with the details, but doesn't do much for the context. Puerto Rico has long been a poor cousin to Cuba -- less developed, less exploited, less African, but generally reflective of developments elsewhere in the Caribbean. That started to change as Puerto Ricans moved to New York, eventually leading to salsa. Cut in New York by recent immigrants, these records range from the quaintly folkloric to relatively contemporary jazz -- one piece reminds me of the sort of thing Don Redman was doing. B+(**)
  • Keren Ann: Nolita (2004, Metro Blue): Static, sure; maybe even Björkish when the synths lay on thick, but a little bit of pedal steel (if that's what it is) goes a long way. Also like the French, slow enough I can almost follow it. B+(*)
  • Putumayo Presents: Acoustic Africa (1994-2006 [2006], Putumayo World Music): Uniformly folk-singerly, and not necessarily African folk -- that involves drums, doesn't it? -- but generically guitar-guided, mostly from margins like Mali and Malagasy and Cape Verde rather than the jungles, urban or otherwise; still, remarkably pleasant. B

Jazz Prospecting (CG #11, Part 9)

Well, I screwed up. Never made the expected shift from prospecting the incoming queue to sorting out the further listening. What can I say? It's been a lousy week, so I managed to my hard deadlines and let non-deadline Jazz CG slip. Next week will be it: the incoming shelves are nearly bare, and the replay shelves are nearly full. Not that another bad week isn't a real possibility.

Fats Waller: If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It (1926-43 [2006], Bluebird/Legacy, 3CD): Thomas Waller was a dazzling stride pianist, an enduring songwriter, and one of the funniest singers and showmen ever. Anthologists have been tussling over these attributes ever since Fats, a round man with a narrow mustache and an irrepressibly sweeping grin, died, just short of his 40th birthday. With Solomonic wisdom, producer Orrin Keepnews has given us one disc of each. Of course, one can nitpick further -- no "Black and Blue," which might have spoiled the jovial mood, and the "Strictly Instrumental" disc moves too quickly into the band pieces, including a couple of emphatically vocal jive-alongs. But if God had meant you to choose, she would have restored the entire catalog, which since RCA deleted their six box, 15-CD almost complete works have been in embarrassing disarray -- not even the bottom-feeding reissue labels in Europe have been able to put him back together again. Meanwhile, this one's a good-enough chance to get acquainted, and entertained. A

Madeleine Peyroux: Half the Perfect World (2006, Rounder): As I recall, this debuted at #1 on the jazz charts, and no doubt broke onto the pop charts as well, where she's been before. This tones down the Billie Holiday vibe that I found distracting on her previous albums, but also because it moves away from the jazz tradition of Careless Love and into what's called chanson because it's mostly French, in spirit if not necessarily in tongue -- a Serge Gainsbourg song appears, but also two by Leonard Cohen, one each by Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits. She's a featherweight singer, and the arrangements are correspondingly light. This is marginal, but pleasantly appealing, ending with a winning "Smile." B+(*)

Meredith d'Ambrosio: Wishing on the Moon (2004 [2006], Sunnyside): Writing about Peyroux, I almost threw in some lines about the tattered state of vocal jazz -- aside from the narrow cabaret niche, it seems like an arbitrary decision who to throw at the jazz markets versus wherever else they may try to ply their wares. It's hard to know what to do with most of the so-called jazz singers that come my way -- makes me wonder if there is any such thing these days, but this one clears up all my doubts. Only a name to me until now, so I have no idea where this fits among the dozen-plus albums she's released. She writes her songs, has a voice with a lot of presence and nuance even though she keeps it toned down, has a small band that swings lightly -- the bass as audible as the piano, brushes on the drums, Don Sickler's muted trumpet and flugelhorn a comforting second voice. [B+(***)]

Marguerite Mariama: Wild Women Never Get the Blues . . . Well, Not Anymore! (2006, PowerLight Media): Don't have a recording date, but pianist Jimmy Sigler offers a dedication here dated 2004, then evidently died later that year. He plays on all but two cuts -- no piano on one, a different group on "Goin' to Chicago." Mariama signs her liner notes Ph.D. -- the hype sheet describes her as "a triple threat (music, dance, theatre)." She surveys Afro-American song expertly from Ida Cox to Stevie Wonder, has a voice that commands attention, and runs a tight band. Jury's still out on how wild she is, or whether that really shields her from the blues. B+(*)

Stephan Crump: Rosetta (2005 [2006], Papillon Sounds): Bassist, originally from Memphis, now in New York. Didn't recognize the name, but should have: credits include two previous albums, Vijay Iyer, Liberty Ellman, and a Memphis r&b band called Big Ass Truck. This one lines him up with two guitarists -- Ellman on acoustic, Jamie Fox on electric, both sticking tight to the game plan, producing an exceptionally intimate, quite charming little album. [B+(**)]

Al Di Meola: Consequences of Chaos (2006, Telarc): Starts off as a nice groove album, and stays there. Just dropped this in for a stretch when I was preoccupied so couldn't follow it closely. Don't know his work, didn't expect much, but enjoyed what I could follow. [B+(*)]

Rez Abbasi: Bazaar (2005 [2006], Zoho): Guitarist, born in Karachi, grew up in California, lives in New York, drawing on each, as well as more extensive Indian studies, for his work. I liked his earlier Snake Charmer quite a lot, but find this one hard to sort out. The core is an organ trio, with Gary Versace at the Hammond, but two songs add saxophones, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Marc Mommaas; three feature Kiran Ahluwalia's "Indian vocals"; extra Indian effects, hand drums, tabla, something he calls a sitar-guitar. The organ is grooveful. The horns amplify the groove rather than play against it. The vocals don't do much for me. And I wish the guitar was clearer. Seems like too many ideas, but at least that beats the opposite. B+(*)

Dave Liebman & Bobby Avey: Vienna Dialogues (2005 [2006], Zoho): On principle I hate this music, although this makes me wonder whether I'd be so militant had Mr. Pankratz -- my intermediate school music teacher, the only one I ever had -- presented 19th century art song with such simple and inoffensive instrumentation. Avey plays piano, Liebman soprano sax. Calm, stately, or as Liebman puts it, "like clockwork." B

Delfeayo Marsalis: Minions Dominion (2002 [2006], Troubadour Jass): A long time between records, and this one has been in the can for a while -- so long that drummer Elvin Jones passed away in the meantime. I guess the family's allotment of ego got sucked up by the older brothers. Meanwhile, this is as good natured a mainstream hard bop album as I've heard in a long time. Branford and Donald Harrison alternate on their respective saxes. Mulgrew Miller plays piano. Terrific drummer. And I always enjoy a lead trombone. B+(**)

Marcus Strickland Quartets: Twi-Life (2006, Strick Muzik, 2CD): Tenor saxophonist from Miami, plays a little soprano as well. Two previous albums in Fresh Sound's New Talent series, plus he's starting to get some prime sideman work -- Jeff Watts, Roy Haynes, Dave Douglas, Marsalis Music Honors Michael Carvin, another record I like by Metta Quintet. Each disc here is a quartet: the first a conventional sax-piano-bass-drums, the second with guitar and electric bass. I can't say as I noticed the much hyped Robert Glasper on the former, but Lage Lund makes a large contribution to the latter. On both, Strickland is both typical and exemplary of mainstream saxophonists: he can ace any dissertation, but I'm not sure how much of his own style he's developed. His twin brother E.J. plays drums in both groups, and he's definitely arrived. [B+(***)]

Michele Rosewoman & Quintessence: The In Side Out (2005 [2006], Advance Dance Disques): "Recorded September 26/27/28" -- but, like, what year? Can't be this year, since that would be today. Probably last year, but that guess will be harder to establish over time. The music is hard to pin down, ranging from slippery free bop to funk and Afro-Cuban grooves. The core group has two saxes: Mark Shim on tenor and Miguel Zenón on alto or soprano. Bassist Brad Jones plays electric as well as acoustic. For that matter, Rosewoman plays electric keyboards (mostly Fender Rhodes) more than acoustic. Guitarist Dave Fiuczynski joins on half of the cuts, occasionally out in front. Vocal on the last song, presumably by Rosewoman. Normally, I would say this is too much, too scattered, but she's been around long enough to have grown out of the kitchen sink syndrome. More likely it's coming from alternate universe I just have trouble grokking. B+(**)

Dave Stryker: Big City (2004 [2005], Mel Bay): Guitarist, active since the late-'80s; always sounds good, never quite convincing me that guitar is the future of postbop. This is a quartet with fleet-fingered Dave Kikoski on piano, Ed Howard on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. Got it as background to the new one, up next. B+(*)

Dave Stryker: The Chaser (2005 [2006], Mel Bay): This one's an organ trio, with Jared Gold and Tony Reedus. Gold does a good job of keeping things pumped up, and Stryker slides right along. I thought I might have more to say about his guitar, but that's clearer on Big City, or his numerous albums with saxophonist Steve Slagle. But he spent much of his early career playing with organists, starting with Jack McDuff, so this is a return to form . . . or norm. B

Rob Mullins: Standards & More (2005 [2006], Planet Mullins): I reckon every jazz musician wants to take a swing at "Giant Steps." Put that together with "In a Sentimental Mood," "Moanin'," "When I Fall in Love," and something by a guy named Beethoven, and you get a standards album. Write yourself a samba, a blues, and something called "Bb Major Etude" and you got your more. Record it all in a club in Fullerton CA. Put it out on your own label -- it's got no commercial promise anyway, at least compared to your day job, hacking smooth jazz. I don't know much about that day job: I haven't heard any of his eleven other albums, but I don't recognize anyone on his credits list who doesn't walk on the pop side -- well, Spike Robinson, but their album together was called Odd Couple. Still, this is a fun album: Mullins impresses on piano, but the guy I like even better is his tenor sax man, Jimmy Roberts. As best I can figure out, he grew up in Virginia; cites Maceo Walker, Stanley Turrentine, Junior Walker, and Grover Washington Jr.; has worked with Etta James, Rod Stewart, various smooth jazzers; has an album called Bless My Soul that I'd like to hear someday -- most likely he'll turn out to be just a very good soul jazz man, which is an honorable trade in my book. B+(**)

Regina Carter: I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (2006, Verve): Cut after her mother's death, Carter describes this as "a life saver"; after her Paganini album, I'd say it's more like a career saver. Old songs, sentimental songs, ancient amusements, one original. The number of things that violin can do in jazz seems to be limited, but includes swing à Grappelli and the elegiac take on the title song. Guest vocalists appear: I'm not so sure about Carla Cook's three spots, but Dee Dee Bridgewater's two are choice cuts. [B+(***)]

Diana Krall: From This Moment On (2006, Verve): I going to have to do some comparison listening before I make this official, but my instant impression is that the sweepstakes is over: John Pizzarelli, Tony DeSare, not to mention Michael Bolton, can all pack it up and head home -- she's the new Sinatra. And I'm not talking about some distaff version or whatever. There's nothing markedly feminine either in her voice or demeanor. She's simply in total control, both of the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band and of the small subset that keeps the record from overheating. [A-]

Sathima Bea Benjamin: Song Spirit (1963-2002 [2006], Ekapa): A 70th birthday retrospective for a South African singer who got her first break in 1963 when Duke Ellington recorded her Morning in Paris. Her voice remained remarkably consistent over forty years, as did her ear and charm for pianists: she married Abdullah Ibrahim, but he only plays one track here -- the others include Ellington, Kenny Barron, Larry Willis, Onaje Alan Gumbs and Stephen Scott. Three cuts are Africa-themed originals, with "Children of Soweto" by far the happiest. But most of the songs are old standards. "Careless Love," with Barron, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins, is a highlight. [B+(***)]

Marcus Goldhaber: The Moment After (2006, Fallen Apple): In effect, a cabaret singer, although it's noteworthy that he learned as a child with his mother playing piano and pitching him songs. He has a light, thin voice that works best on equally light fare -- "Walking My Baby Back Home," "Old Cape Cod." Also helps that mom was a Fats Waller fan. B+(*)

The Matt Savage Trio: Quantum Leap (2006, Savage): The leader is a 14-year-old pianist and this is his seventh album, mostly trios with John Funkhouser on bass and Steve Silverstein on drums -- the latter two reportedly "adults." He's got fans and hyperbole -- Dave Brubeck called him "another Mozart" -- and has a deal with Palmetto to distribute this self-released album. He's credited with writing 11 of 15 songs. I sort of like one called "Curacao," and don't mind the rest -- but he doesn't have much of a sound, and the pieces mostly feel like exercises. The covers, on the other hand, are real songs. His "All the Things You Are" is quite nice, but he has trouble with "Monk's Dream," then tries to force his way out and leaves it rather bruised. He's competent enough you can see why people are impressed, but it's impossible to extrapolate what he does at 14 into a career, and even if it was possible you'd still have to compare what he's doing now vs. what everyone else is doing now. C+

The John Popper Project Featuring DJ Logic (2006, Relix): I've gone back and forth on how to file this, finally opting for the literal, although the grammar would make more sense if Popper were the object of DJ Logic's project. Doesn't really belong under jazz, but sometimes I have trouble telling until I listen -- Logic does hang out in our neighborhood quite often. Popper is a blues-rock guy -- sings, plays harmonica in a band called Blues Traveler. He's out front here, and OK until Logic gooses him, at which point this this starts to get interesting and turn into fun. Choice cut: NOLA tribute "Louisiana Sky," which has someone named Greenweedz as a guest vocalist. B+(*)

The Taylor/Fidyk Big Band: Live at Blues Alley (2005 [2006], OA2): Taylor is Mark, who composed some of this, and arranged all but one song of the rest. Fidyk is Steve, the drummer and bandleader. Taylor learned his craft from Stan Kenton, and there's some of that here. The band is big and dramatic, but can manage a light touch when called for. B+(*)

Jay Lawrence Trio: Thermal Strut (2006, OA2): Drummer-led piano trio. Don't know why Lawrence gets top billing. Pianist Tamir Hendelman co-produces, writes one of three originals, and arranges most of the covers. Actually, the name I'm familiar with is bassist Lynn Seaton, though I'd have to look him up to tell you why. Nothing much wrong with this, but it's hard to see much reason why we should care about what's merely one more good mainstream piano trio. B

Trio East: Best Bets (2005 [2006], Origin): Clay Jenkins on trumpet, Jeff Campbell on bass, Rich Thompson on drums. Trumpet trios are rare, mostly found on the avant side. Jenkins isn't all that far out, but the horn's necessary sparseness leans that way. Good group, well balanced, interesting approach. Liked their previous album, and this one is more of the same. [B+(**)]

The Vandermark 5: A Discontinuous Line (2005 [2006], Atavistic): Two changes. The first is replacing trombonist Jeb Bishop with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. This reduces the options for the spin-on-a-dime horn arrangements that dominated recent albums like Elements of Style. I don't have a good fix on what the cello does instead, other than that it provides a lower volume contrast to the horn leads. The second change is that Vandermark has ceded the tenor sax ground to Dave Rempis -- Vandermark plays baritone sax and clarinets. The effect there is to lower the sax range, to go deeper and dirtier -- the emphasis more on rough improv than on fancy arrangement. Remarkable on any account. [A-]

Bridge 61: Journal (2005 [2006], Atavistic): Another Ken Vandermark joint, with Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Nate McBride on bass, and Tim Daisy on drums. Vandermark plays tenor and baritone sax as well as a little clarinet. Nice artwork but no info in the booklet. Don't know anything about Stein, and I'm having some trouble figuring out what he's doing here. The Boston bassist and Chicago drummer fit well, and Vandermark gets to flex some muscle on tenor sax. [B+(***)]

Sound in Action Trio: Gate (2003 [2006], Atavistic): Ken Vandermark, just credited with reeds, squares off against two drummers: Robert Barry, from Sun Ra Arkestra, and Tim Daisy, from Triage and numerous Vandermark projects, including the flagship 5. The trio had a previous album on Delmark, Design in Time -- Daisy replaces Tim Mulvenna from then, as he replaced Mulvenna in the Vandermark 5. Doubling the drums doesn't have a real pronounced effect, although there is often something interesting going on back there. But it puts Vandermark on the spot constantly, Vandermark wrote about half of the pieces; the others are mostly avant-jazz classics, including a Dolphy piece for Clarinet, and a Coltrane that shows off his tenor sax. [B+(***)]

Scott Burns: Passages (2005 [2006], Origin): Young tenor saxophonist, originally from Ohio, now in Chicago. Mainstream, but he can pull some emotion under pressure, and I like his sound. Quartet, with Ron Perrillo helping out on piano. Was tempted to blow this off, but "Eddies in the Stream" made that hard to do. B+(*)

François Carrier/Dewey Redman/Michel Donato/Ron Séguin/Michel Lambert: Open Spaces (1999 [2006], Spool/Line): Several years old, presumably pulled off the shelf as a memorial on Redman's death. Otherwise, this is Carrier's trio, working out free improvs on two nights with different bassists -- Donato on the first 20:57 cut, Séguin on the other two (12:54 and 19:27). I don't have the ears to sort out the two saxes, but I like how they pull together, and the overall energy level. Good date for the drummer, too.. B+(***)

Billy Martin: Starlings (2006, Tzadik): He's the Medeski-Wood drummer, but this is something else -- not even as close as the many percussion-centric albums he's released on his Amulet label. "Starlings" and "Metamorphosis" began life as mbira pieces in 1991, but are resurrected here in Anthony Coleman's orchestral arrangements. They've assumed a euroclassical shape, especially in the horns, and I find them rather annoying. Two more pieces are played by Sirius String Quartet -- the second one, a somber piece called "Strangulation," is more interesting. Two pieces with a group called Whirligig Percussionists are more like what I'd expect, drawing on Martin's strengths rather than his ambitions. Some of the sounds remind me of Harry Partch. The final piece is a short solo of Martin on mbira, the primitive core of the album. That adds up to a score by conductor of 4-0 for Martin, 0-3 for Coleman. B

Roger Powell: Fossil Poets (2006, Inner Knot): His main claim to fame was playing synths in Todd Rundgren's space group Utopia, adding resonances to the etymology of the word. Other credits include Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell and David Bowie's dreadful Stage album. He's older now, evidently wiser as well. He styles this as "retro-future" music, meaning electronic, but toned down and dialed back for oldsters. His beats are dependable: they hold the music together without crossing either into dance or ambient -- chill might be the right word, but not too cold. Simple enough I'm not sure it'll sustain interest. I'd be tempted to classify it as New Age, but it's much better than that neighborhood. [B+(**)]

Lynne Arriale Trio: Live (2005 [2006], B'Jazz): Piano trio with Jay Anderson on bass and Steve Davis on drums. They've been together since 1993 (the booklet says) or 1997 (as the discographies of six albums confirm), in either case an exceptionally long time. I don't know her work, so I'm inclined to be cautious, but she has a stellar reputation, and nothing here argues otherwise. Comes with a DVD, which I haven't gotten to, and may never. [B+(***)]

Jim Brickman: Escape (2006, SLG): Pianist, usually filed under New Age for the usual reasons: no swing, no stride, no rock chords, no atonality, no smoke stains or dirt under the fingernails, yet for such static music no intimations of classicism either. Still, I find it hard to fault his piano. He describes his music as "about relaxation, reflection and tranquility," and the tonic is functional, even when he dabs on the string synths. On the other hand, the featured vocals veer into Barry Manilow territory, reminding me that he has no kitsch either. B-

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

The Source (2005 [2006], ECM): Norwegian quartet, led by saxophonist Trygve Seim, with Øyvind Braekke's trombone as the second horn. I'm reminded of an argument that Ken Vandermark made in introducing Mats Gustafsson's Blues record: that American and European players have a fundamental disconnect in their sense of what blues is, the Americans tuned to the sonic signatures, the Europeans more formal, more abstract. Same sort of thing happens here, only viz. swing. This doesn't swing, but it does everything else you expect of a swing record -- while staying what seems to me at least unnaturally upright. Francis Davis wrote about this in the Voice already, which sort of gets me off the hook. A fascinating record I haven't managed to figure out. I do think that Seim will wind up regarded as important, and this won't be the last time I revisit this. B+(***)

Sep 2006 Nov 2006