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Friday, February 29, 2008

News Alert

Three items from the Wichita Eagle this week.


Feb. 28: "Israelis retaliate with attack on Hamas in Gaza":

Israeli aircraft blasted Hamas government offices and metal shops late Wednesday, killing a baby and wounding more than 30 people in a retaliatory strike after a militant rocket killed an Israeli college student.

The bloodshed fed worries about a new outbreak of heavy fighting between the Israeli army and militants in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the deadly rocket attack on the college in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which came a few hours after two Israeli airstrikes killed seven people in Gaza, including two senior commanders in the Hamas rocket operation.

Israel has used Palestinian rocket attacks to justify collective punishment of Gaza, targeted assassinations, and random retaliation, so they must be pleased that Hamas has so indulged them. As the cycle makes clear, neither preëmptive attacks nor retaliation prevent the rockets. The only thing that has worked has been a cease fire, which Hamas had in place until they wearied of unanswered Israeli attacks. What's notable about this piece is that it at least offers a bit of context, showing the rocket attack as a response to an Israeli attack. The arithmetic is still a bit of a problem: the number of Palestinians killed by Israel in this 24-hour period was 30.


Also in Feb. 27 issue, a piece by Kevin G. Hall (McClatchy Newspapers) called "Highest cost of war yet to come", about the new book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes. Note the White House response:

The White House doesn't care for the estimates by Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank who's now a professor at Columbia University.

"People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can't even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, conceding that the costs of the war on terrorism are high while questioning the premise of Stiglitz's research.

"It is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests. $3 trillion? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn't his slide rule work that way?"

Courage? That seems all the more kneejerk because it has no conceivable relevance, unless Fratto means his dogged conviction to ignore the consequences of the war regardless of cost. I have no idea how to calculate the "cost of failure," but if such were possible Stiglitz should add it to his $3 trillion baseline, because failure is one of the few things that seems assured.

The "cost of doing nothing" is more hypothetical because we didn't do nothing. What would have happened had we not responded to 9/11 with Bush's Crusade is open to debate, but whatever it is would have to be gauged against the $3 trillion baseline -- Stiglitz's scenarios go up to $7 trillion, and he probably hasn't factored in the full 100 years McCain is hoping for.


The Feb. 27 Wichita Eagle had an article by Jonathan S. Landay (McClatchy Newspapers) called "Pakistan to try talks, not fighting":

The secular party that won last week's elections in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province plans to open peace talks with al-Qaida-allied Islamic insurgents, a drastic departure from the military crackdowns that the national army has pursued with U.S. backing for the last five years.

The Awami National Party says army offensives in the tribal region abutting the provine have killed, maimed and displaced untold numbers of civilians, driven recruits into the arms of the radicals and helped fuel a surge in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks across the country.

"The war against terror has failed. So there should be no war," said Haji Mohammad Adeel, one of the party's most senior leaders. "The only solution is peace. We will do it with negotiations, not with bombs, not with guns, not with airstrikes."

A dangerous idea, sure to be anathema to Al-Qaeda and the US alike. They are, after all, so much alike.


William F. Buckley, Jr., died, age 82. His father made a fortune in Mexican oil, so he was born rich, a beneficiary of US imperialism. He spent his whole long life defending his class and race, extolling his religion, and promoting the militarism and imperialism that made his pampered life possible. Or at least until recently, when the Iraq war got to be a bit much, even for him.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Music: Current count 14215 [14211] rated (+4), 743 [747] unrated (-4). Came down with something flu-like Monday night, which wiped out the entire week. Past the worst of it now, hopefully. Still don't feel like doing much.


No Jazz Prospecting

Nothing to report this week. I came down with something flu-like Monday night. Had a couple of very bad days, followed by a bunch of merely bad days. Felt improved enough over the weekend I thought I might get back to my routine today, but can't say as I feel up to it at the moment. Even hacking out this little notice seems over my head. Maybe best to leave it at that.


Unpacking: Got some things out of their envelopes, but didn't get them listed. See next week.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Taste of Interfaith Dialogue

We went to what was billed as "A Taste of Interfaith Dialogue" last night, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in the suburban sprawl out west. Up front was a panel of 11 of 12 people who went to Israel in December. The group was "interfaith": three Jews (the rabbis of the Reformed and Conservative synagogues, and the executive director of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation, evidently also a rabbi and an Israeli citizen); two Muslims (a cop and an engineer who works for the city, the former a Sunni from Kuwait, the latter a Shi'a from Iran); Presbyterian and Methodist ministers, plus assorted Christian laiety. The trip was at least partly occasioned by the question of whether the Presbyterian church should divest from business involved in Israel's occupation of Palestinian Territories. The three rabbis who went on this trip spend much of their time here politicking for Israel. They raised funds for the trip. Given their prior experience in Israel, they should have been effective guides and minders.

The session started with two passes around the table, where each talked about their favorite moments during the trip. Most of the Christians talked about their awe at the holy sites, retracing the steps of Jesus. The rabbis, somewhat condescendingly, talked about being touched by the depth of the Christians' experiences, asserting their common religious experience -- one went so far as to describe Christianity as Judaism's "daughter religion." The muslims talked about the fellowship of the group, how they recognized that we are all one people. This polite, feel good facade fractured as soon as the first question was raised. It was: in your travels, were you able to experience anything that let you empathize with the state Palestinians find themselves in? The Arab-American policeman, who teaches Arabic and advises police departments throughout the state on Arab issues, who as he put it is "in the security business," spoke first, and that's all it took for the conflict to take over the discussion.

I didn't take notes, but I think only one subsequent question was not on the conflict. The rabbis did their best to hold their ground -- the Conservative one (originally from South Africa) was combative, the others conciliatory, one lamely arguing that there are only shades of gray in the conflict, the other (in a rare moment of self-examination) admitting his inability to hear the same human complexity from Palestinians that he easily discerned in Israelis. The discussion remained at a friendly level, with much agreement to disagree. What struck me wasn't the details, let alone the arguments, but the simple fact that the legendary Israeli hasbara, practiced in this case by skilled pros on a well-meaning but relatively naive group of mere Americans, had failed to work its magic.

In the end, the interfaith lesson is simple: getting us to agree that we are all the same under God is easy; reconciling that agreement with the Occupation is not.


Music: Current count 14211 [14184] rated (+27), 747 [752] unrated (-5). Spent the whole week pounding down jazz prospecting until I got sick of it. Took a break streaming some new 2008 stuff from Rhapsody. Started putting together a set of 2008 files for year end. Don't know how consistently I'll be able to maintain them, but it's something to hang what I'm working on. For now, I'll dump the Rhapsody reviews here, as well as saving them up for periodic web posting -- no idea how frequently I'll get to them.

  • Drive-By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation's Dark (2007 [2008], New West): Nineteen songs here, what would have been a double-LP in the old days, and like such hard to get your head around it all. Especially given that the tunes are merely as good as they have to be to support the words, and that I've never been much good at focusing on the words. But most I notice, with "Bob" and "Lisa's Birthday" and "Crystal Meth" and several others sinking in. I hear Jason Isbell is gone, and girl singer Shonna Tucker pops up on a couple of occasions, a curve I didn't expect and didn't swing at. On the other hand, Christgau praised this, taking the occasion to pan A Blessing and a Curse once more -- a record I liked just fine. This is as good, maybe better. A- [Rhapsody]
  • Hot Chip: Made in the Dark (2008, Astralwerks): English group, electronic beats, not so fast or fancy as to move them into the techno category, especially given that they set cogent pop songs to them. Multiple voices, none prepossessing. Several previous albums, including remixes. One line I recall: "I'm only going to heaven if it feels like hell/I'm only going to heaven if it tastes like caramel." B+(***) [Rhapsody]
  • The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (2008, Nonesuch): Never much of a fan of 69 Love Songs, I find Stephin Merritt's wit insufficiently funny, his songcraft too arch, his voice -- well, it's too arch, too. His new move here is lo-fi distortion, which has its moments -- the "California Girls" he hates so much is one. But it also muddies even the lyrics, where "Zombie Boy" sounds so much like "Tommie" I take it personally. Too much drinking. Not enough dreaming. B+(**) [Rhapsody]


Jazz Prospecting (CG #16, Part 4)

Transition week, with a lot of paperwork done to move on from one column cycle to the next. Jazz Consumer Guide (15) came out in the Village Voice last week. Most of those records have been kicking around for the better part of a year, but lots of good things, worth being reminded of. (Except for the duds, of course.) We've decided to start printing grades with the duds, so for the record:

  • Satoko Fujii Quartet: Bacchus (Onoff) C+
  • Herbie Hancock: River: The Joni Letters (Verve) B-
  • Miroslav Vitous: Universal Syncopations II (ECM) B-

Hancock won a Grammy between when I submitted the draft and its final appearance. I've been wondering whether I was too harsh. To some extent, my complaint boils down to arguing that a different record -- specifically one with no vocals -- would have been much better. Or maybe a vocal album could have been salvaged had the singers been more distinctive, but only Leonard Cohen managed to break the mold (and he could hardly help it). I stand by my grade, but predict that samplers will be listening to the Wayne Shorter solos.

The Fujii Quartet is the same group as put out Zephyros, one of her best albums (When We Were There is another), so the drop was especially noteworthy. Vitous slipped by no reconvening the group behind his original Universal Syncopations. The substitutes fall short on every count, and his sampling doesn't make up for it.

It looks like I'll be able to by with no "Dud of the Month" going forward. Also looks like April will be open for the next Jazz Consumer Guide column. Whether the quicker pace can be sustained isn't clear, but for now I'm almost ready, and Francis Davis is on leave.

Another intense week of jazz prospecting. Items with bracketed grades have been shelved for another round. There are more than usual; at this point in the cycle I feel more like working fast through the incoming queues. It actually looks like I've gotten through more than half of my backlog. One, maybe two more weeks like this, and I'll start trying to nail the column down.


Maceo Parker: Roots & Grooves (2007 [2008], Heads Up, 2CD): An alto saxophonist, Parker has played on dozens of great albums, but he's never put his name on one before. He joined James Brown in 1964, then moved on to George Clinton in 1975 and back to Brown in 1984. Both leaders spun off instrumental albums, first as the J.B.'s, then as the Horny Horns. Since 1989 Parker has recorded a dozen albums, mostly underachieving the modest goals announced in their titles: Roots Revisited, Mo' Roots, Life on Planet Groove, Funk Overload, etc. This looked like another, until I popped it in and it blasted off into "Hallelujah I Love Her So." First disc is titled "Tribute to Ray Charles," and works through "Busted," "Hit the Road Jack," a few more, climaxing with "What'd I Say." Parker sings a few -- he's more Cleanhead Vinson than Ray Charles, but that works for me. Parker doesn't have the direct connection that Fathead Newman has, but he started out when Charles was laying the foundation his whole career was built on. Second disc is called "Back to Funk": five originals and "Pass the Peas" from J.B.'s days. It's less obvious and every bit as exciting. The secret in both cases is the band. Directed by Michael Abene, the WDR Big Band Köln will play anything with anyone -- their purpose, after all, is to crank out radio shots with visiting dignitaries -- and they've never amounted to much, but they have a ball here. Maybe it's too easy: Charles ran a big band himself, and scaling Parker's grooves up to J.B.-size is as obvious as it is fun. Parker gloats in the dêjà vu. With Charles and Brown gone, he's just the guy to honor them. [Note: Don't know when this was recorded. Album appears to have been released in Europe in 2007, and reissued in US by Heads Up, which has been picking up quite a bit of WDR Big Band material.] A-

Horace Silver: Live at Newport '58 (1958 [2007], Blue Note): I'm glad that Blue Note keeps digging old concert tapes up: the 1956 Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane set was a real find; the 1964 Charles Mingus/Eric Dolphy didn't really deliver the historical import or musical interest attributed to it -- quite a bit of later material from the same group has been out for a long time -- but was good to have nonetheless. This one is slighter than the others in terms of historical interest, but delightful in its own minor ways. Silver's group included Louis Smith on trumpet, a little recorded interlude between Donald Byrd and Blue Mitchell. The rest are: Junior Cook on tenor sax, Gene Taylor on bass, Louis Hayes on drums, and Silver, of course, on piano. Only four cuts, with the marvelous "Señor Blues" the shortest at 8:42 (not much longer than the earlier studio version) and "Tippin'" topping out at 13:10 (more than double the studio version). The extra space is put to good use by the horns and piano, but this doesn't add much for anyone familiar with Silver. The earlier Six Pieces of Silver, with Byrd and Hank Mobley, has 3 of 4 songs; the later Doin' the Thing is an even better sample of Silver live. I can't recommend this over either, but it doesn't miss by much, and it would be churlish to scare anyone away from this "Señor Blues," some marvelous piano, and the chance to hear Smith. A-

Buddy DeFranco: Charlie Cat 2 (2006 [2007], Arbors): Born 1923, DeFranco came up in the swing bands of Gene Krupa and Charlie Barnet, but adapted to bebop, one of the few young reed players to stick with the instrument. He started recording around 1952, his output waxing and waning with business cycles, but he pretty much always sounds the same: the bright tone and fleet dynamics you remember from the swing masters, occasionally showing off his bebop moves. He hasn't recorded a lot lately, but sounds fine here -- well supported with Howard Alden and often Joe Cohn on guitar, Derek Smith on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Ed Metz Jr. on drums, and Lou Soloff adding some contrast on trumpet. [B+(**)]

Howard Alden and Ken Peplowski's Pow-Wow (2006 [2008], Arbors): I still think of Alden as a young guy, but he's pushing 50 now. He came up well after bop became postbop, so he never had to pay much heed to it, developing a swing style on guitar that never really existed before -- real swing guitarists (unless you count Charlie Christian, which most don't, or Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang, other stories completely) played rhythm. (Oh yeah, George Van Eps was an influence, a pretty obscure one.) He has a couple dozen albums since 1985. Peplowski plays clarinet and tenor sax, where swing traditions are much clearer. He's a year younger, also has a couple dozen albums. Don't know how many times they've played together before -- at least 11 times, but working in the same circles with each over 100 credits there are doubtless more. This isn't even their first duo: they did one in Concord's Duo Series in 1992 (which my records say I have ungraded but I can't find). I'm not much of a duo fan, but works out pretty well. Peplowski has a knack for tracing out clear melodies even solo. Alden can pick him up with some rhythm, fill out his lines, or add something on his own. The album wanders around quite a bit, mixing Bill Evans with Ellington, Bud Powell with Cole Porter, hopping off to "Panama." B+(***)

Al Basile: Tinge (2007 [2008], Sweetspot): Born 1948 in Haverhill, MA. Learned trumpet as a teenager, but majored in physics at Brown, and seems to have had a spotty musical resume until he started recording in 1998. Played trumpet in Roomful of Blues 1973-75. Started singing in clubs in Providence in 1977. Has six albums now. Don't know about the others, but this one, with Duke Robillard producing and playing guitar, is straight blues with a dash of Jelly Roll Morton providing the title. Basile's liner notes include references to Louis Armstrong and Cootie Williams. Smart, sensible record. B+(**)

ZMF Trio: Circle the Path (2005 [2007], Drip Audio): ZMF stands for Jesse Zubot (violin), Jean Martin (drums), Joe Fonda (bass). Label describes them as international: Zubot is from Vancouver, Martin from Toronto, Fonda is well known on the avant-garde in New York. Zubot is also involved in the rockish Fond of Tigers group, and he runs the label, which has branched out beyond his own work -- a few more items are on my shelf, including a new John Butcher album, and he seems to have something by Leroy Jenkins in the pipeline. Other than that, don't know much about him. This is avant, by turns aggressive and moody. Martin wrote one piece, Fonda three, Zubot four. The only outside credit is to Anthony Braxton. Didn't catch enough of it first time through, but will play more. [B+(***)]

John Butcher/Torsten Muller/Dylan van der Schyff: Way Out Northwest (2007 [2008], Drip Audio): Recorded in Vancouver by local drummer van der Schyff. Butcher is an English avant-garde saxophonist, plays tenor and soprano here. Has a PhD in theoretical physics (thesis: "Spin effects in the production and weak decay of heavy Quarks"). He has a long list of records, and is well known to anyone who reads The Penguin Guide more assiduously than The Bible, although few others are likely to have even heard of them. I've only heard three albums myself, nothing I much cared for, but hardly a representative sample. Müller (umlaut omitted here) is a bassist, b. 1957 in Hamburg, Germany, but since 2001 based in Vancouver. Müller has no albums of his own, but pops up all over the place, a notable common denominator here being his relationship with the late trombonist Paul Rutherford, to whom this record is dedicated. This is pretty rough free music, very democratic, or maybe I mean anarchic. One thing I rate avant records on is their crossover potential, and this clearly fails on that account. On the other hand, sometimes I like something perversely difficult I chuck my normal standards. This gorgeous ugly mess may be one of them. [A-]

The Inhabitants: The Furniture Moves Underneath (2007, Drip Audio): Vancouver group: JP Carter (trumpet), Dave Sikula (guitar), Pete Schmitt (bass), Skye Brooks (drums), with use of effects by the first three. Carter and Brooks are also in Fond of Tigers. Quasi-rockish instrumentals, starting off loud and brash, mellowing out later. The latter pieces with their ripened textures are more pleasing, and marginally more interesting. B

Steven Bernstein: Diaspora Suite (2007 [2008], Tzadik): Trumpet player, refers to Oakland as his hometown in liner notes here, although he's better known in New York. Credits include Lounge Lizards, Sex Mob, Robert Altman's Kansas City band, Baby Loves Jazz band, Millennial Territory Orchestra. This is his fourth Diaspora title in Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series. They refer back to sephardic folk songs, sometimes reframed in terms of where the diaspora found themselves, as with Diaspora Hollywood. This one jelled conceptually when the Kansas City band reunited after Robert Altman's death -- something about setting the scene then letting the improvisations fly. Large group: hype sheet refers to it as a nonet, but I count ten musicians -- possibly explained by a hint in the liner notes that Will Bernard added his "guitar sweeteners" after the fact. The group swallowed the Nels Cline Singers whole, with extra guitar and percussion, Ben Goldberg's clarinets, Peter Apfelbaum's tenor sax (or flute, or qarqabas, evidently metal castanets from Morocco), Jeff Cressman's trombone. I thought it sounded fabulous first time through, but haven't caught the mood since. Will keep it in play. [B+(***)]

The Jack & Jim Show Presents: Hearing Is Believing (2005 [2007], Boxholder): First, I have to admit that I had never heard of Jimmy Carl Black. Turns out that he was best known for being in my least favorite band of the twentieth century, the Mothers of Invention, usually filed under the bandleader's name, Frank Zappa, but his website discography totals 77 albums without getting past 2002. Black played drums, and introduced himself as "the Indian of the group." Later he had a band called Geronimo Black. Anyhow, he's the Jim. Jack must be guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, who I have heard of and rarely heard -- his website discography claims 180 records, so I haven't heard much. Together since 1995 as the Jack & Jim Show they have 8 previous albums. Might as well list them to get a whiff: Locked in a Dutch Coffeeshop, Pachuco Cadaver, Uncle Jimmy's Master Plan, The Early Years, The Perfect C&W Duo's Tribute to Jesse Helms, The Taste of the Leftovers, 2001: A Spaced Odyssey, Reflections and Experiences of Jimi Hendrix. They do a mix of deconstructed parodies (including three Beatles songs; one each from Marvin Gaye, Tim Hardin, and Dizzy Gillespie) and perverse protest songs ("Cheney's Hunting Ducks" is a choice cut, "Girl From Al-Qaeda" is abducted and held hostage from Jobim and Getz). Chadbourne plays some extreme skronk guitar, and Oxford avant-gardist Pat Thomas slums with some amusing keyboards. Title parses as: you won't believe this until you hear it. B+(***)

Bobby Few: Lights and Shadows (2004 [2007], Boxholder): Pianist, born in Cleveland in 1935, followed Albert Ayler to New York in 1962 and headed further east in 1969 to France, where he teamed up with Steve Lacy. Still in Paris, with a sizable discography. This one's solo, original improvs except for a Lacy piece. My usual caveats about solo piano apply, including my difficulty finding words, but this strikes me as well above average, the work of someone who's spent a lot of time digesting Lacy's oeuvre, itself built on the work of pianists Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. B+(*)

Jason Kao Hwang/Edge: Stories Before Within (2007 [2008], Innova): Hwang was born in the US (Waukegan, IL), of Chinese extraction. He made a strong effort to master Chinese classical music, but now works mostly in avant jazz. He plays violin, often with a Chinese inflection. He has several records I've been very impressed by -- e.g., Ravish Momin's Climbing the Banyan Tree. Group here: Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet), Ken Filiano (bass), Andrew Drury (drums). Bynum was a student of Anthony Braxton, and still plays with Braxton -- I've tried to get hold of some of his material, thus far to no avail. Filiano, as I've mentioned many times by now, always seems to show up on good records. Got distracted in the middle of writing this and lost my thread, but I wanted to give it more time anyway. [B+(***)]

The David Finck Quartet: Future Day (2007 [2008], Soundbrush): Bassist, from Philadelphia I think, studied in Rochester, settled in New York. First album as leader, but he's done quite a bit of studio work: his website lists 122 albums going back to 1980; AMG comes up with more. He's worked with a lot of singers, mostly pop -- he flags 5 gold and 4 platinum albums, including Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series -- but also Rosemary Clooney, Harry Connick Jr., Mark Murphy, Peter Cincotti, and one album with Sheila Jordan. Some other credits include Steve Kuhn, Paquito D'Rivera, Claudio Roditti, and André Previn, who praises him lavishly. He wrote two pieces here, with four more from the band, and six covers. Starts off with a nice bass groove, and much of the album is deliriously upbeat. Locke's strong suit is the way he interacts with pianists, effectively turning the two of them into one supersplashy instrument. Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) and Bob Sheppard (tenor sax) appear here and there as special guests. I didn't keep score -- you don't really notice them until you realize that things have slowed down a bit, which probably isn't a good sign. B

The Joe Locke Quartet: Sticks and Strings (2007 [2008], Jazz Eyes): No piano for once, actually a nice change of pace. The strings are Jonathan Kreisberg's electric and acoustic guitars and Jay Anderson's bass. The sticks would be drummer Joe La Barbera and the vibraphonist. The mix is unusual, with Kreisberg providing texture and Locke accents. (AMG compares this to Gary Burton/Pat Metheny, which if memory serves isn't right at all.) [B+(**)]

Jerry Leake: Vibrance: Jazz Vibes & World Percussion (2005-06 [2008], Rhombus Publishing): Leake teaches percussion with an insatiable desire to span the world, writes books about it, and produces CDs that could function as textbooks. Although vibraphone is front and center here, his credits include a couple dozen other percussion objects from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The only other players are Jonathan Dimond on electric bass and Lisa Leake with a couple of rather odd vocals -- two Jobim songs in the first semester ("Theme 1: jazz/latin & world percussion") and "My Funny Valentine" in the second ("Theme 2: standard jazz"). The extras tend to distract. Lots of everything here, but short on focus. Leake has an interesting approach to vibes. B

Marc Copland: The New York Trio Recordings, Vol. 2: Voices (2006 [2007], Pirouet): Pianist, originally from Philadelphia, based in New York, closing in on 60 now. Always well regarded. I've only heard a couple of his records, and don't have Vol. 1 to compare this one to. What I've heard before struck me as good, and this as better. One could say that by association at least he's moved into the front ranks of contemporary pianists: he's working here with Gary Peacock (as he has many times in the past) and Paul Motian (who has a Hall of Fame career making pianists look good, starting with Bill Evans; Copland's usual drummers have been Billy Hart and Bill Stewart). One of those quietly unassuming piano records that sneaks up on you, never hitting a false note, full of subtle nuances, the only thing we've come to expect from masters like Peacock and Motian. [B+(***)]

James Silberstein: Expresslane (2008, CAP): Guitarist. Not much bio info, just that he's been "a working pro on the New York scene for the past 25 years." Second album. AMG doesn't list any more credits. He has a nice loping rhythm and clean tone, but doesn't run off much, mostly because he has a lot of help here. Most important is bassist Harvie S (né Swartz), who wrote some, arranged more, and keeps the rhythm running, often with tricks he picked up mastering Latin jazz. Horns come and go: Eric Alexander's tenor sax, Jim Rotondi's trumpet and flugelhorn, Steve Davis' trombone, Anne Drummond's flute. Kate McGarry scats on one of the two flute tunes, which barely survives on the strength of S's bassline. Website points out that this hit #13 on the radio charts in its first week. This kind of mix up is typical of a radio focus -- something for everyone -- but doesn't help over the course of an album. [PS: Got ahead of myself here: last piece is a 2:04 solo, a good example of his guitar.] B+(*)

Kelly Brand Nextet: The Door (2008, Origin): Pianist, based in Chicago. Fourth album. Composed and arranged all except for a Wayne Shorter piece. Several songs have lyrics, which are sung by Mari Anne Jayme. Postbop group, with trumpet, tenor sax/flute, cello, bass, and drums. Smart, even tempered, carefully poised. Hype sheet quotes someone calling this "noteworth craftsmanship and flowing serene energy"; another: "elaborate, listener-friendly pieces that score points for both poise and intellect." Neither quote stretches far. B+(**)

Hendrik Meurkens: Sambatropolis (2007 [2008], Zoho): Parents were Dutch, but he was born in Hamburg, Germany. Studied at Berklee, became fascinated with Brazilian music in early 1980s, and has played little else since. Started on vibraphone, but that's become his second instrument now (5 of 11 tracks), behind harmonica. Has 17 albums since 1990, the new title a neat bookend to his first, either Sambahia (according to AMG) or Sambaimportado (his website). They seem to be averaging out. While he brings a new instrument to Brazilian music, he winds up just folding it into the signature light beat and lazy melodies. B

Marcos Ariel: 4 Friends (2007, Tenure): Brazilian pianist, from Rio de Janeiro. Recorded his first record, Bambu, in 1981. Divides his time between Rio and Los Angeles. First I've heard of him, and I don't have a good feel for his discography. May be inclined toward progressive or fusion -- he classifies himself on MySpace as "Nu-Jazz / Down-tempo / Lounge." This is a Brazil-rooted jazz quartet -- piano (Ariel), guitar (Ricardo Silveira), bass (João Baptista), drums (Jurim Moreira) -- with a twist when Ariel moves to synth and starts pumping in fake horn sections. The synth parts are a bit off, partly undeveloped, but mostly because his piano is so crisply rhythmic. Also because it complement Silveira, who is as superb as ever. B+(**)

Machan: Motion of Love (2007, Nu Groove): Singer, plays guitar, writes her own songs. As far as I can tell -- numerous expletives about Flash, MySpace, etc. deleted -- she comes from Japanese parents, grew up in the US, and, well, hell if I know. Says somewhere she was inspired by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor; she's appeared with Pink Floyd and George Benson, and toured with Sting (presumably as a backup singer). Second album. Some jazz players on board here, such as John Scofield, Randy Brecker, John Medeski, Nanny Assis. Sounds like a pop record to me, but with a cool breezy groove. B+(*)

Raya Yarbrough (2006 [2008], Telarc): Singer-songwriter, from Los Angeles. First album, eponymous, like a star the whole world has just been waiting for, a simple revelation of her just being herself. Most jazz singers are interpreters, partly because they've been driven out of rock and pop by songwriters who have found their adequate voices workable. But latey we've seen a few singer-songwriters slotted as jazz, a bit of niche marketing that rarely seems appropriate (but sure paid off for Norah Jones). Yarbrough is part of that incursion, but she's also got a terrific voice, and her jazz moves are better than Amy Winehouse's. Starts off with a blues, "Lord Knows I Would," that had me thinking she could crack the A-list, although I was still a bit worried about all the special guests, many armed with string instruments. By the time the record ended, I was thinking she could be as flat out annoying as Meatloaf. Clearly an uncommon talent. Don't know what the hell to do with her yet. [B]

Diane Hoffman: My Little French Dancer (2006 [2008], Savsomusic): Singer. Born and raised in Cambridge, MA; passed through California on way to New York. Looks like she has one previous album, although it's not mentioned on her website. (MySpace page shows the first, Someone in Love.) This at least is a straightforward jazz vocal album. She has the voice, the nuances, the sense of humor, the repertoire. Well, almost the repertoire -- songs are a little weak, but at least not beat to death. B+(*)

Greg Ruggiero: Balance (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): Guitarist: credits here read: electric/acoustic/classical guitars & vocalisms. Not sure what the latter are. Born 1977, Albuquerque. Based in Brooklyn since 2004. First album. Quintet, with Rob Wilkerson (alto sax), Frank LoCrasto (piano, keyboards), Matt Brewer (bass), Tommy Crane (drums/percussion). They form a small circle, playing in each other's bands -- Wilkerson had a nice album on FSNT a couple years ago. This one has a sort of pastoral-industrial feel -- factory rhythms slowed down, rocking gently back and forth, spread out with soft, lulling tones; pleasantly engaging background music, nonetheless interesting when you notice it. B+(**)

Jostein Gulbrandsen: Twelve (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): Norwegian guitarist, based in New York since 2001, Manhattan School of Music guy. First album, quartet, with Jon Irabagon (tenor sax, clarinet), Eivind Opsvik (bass), Jeff Davis (drums). First thing I noticed was how much I liked the sax, the way it stretched time out into fractured, disjoint slabs. Turns out I've run across Irabagon before but forgot the name: he's in Moppa Elliott's Mostly Other People Do the Killing, my current leading contender for a pick hit slot. A couple of songs later the guitar came into better focus, but he's hard to pigeonhole -- of the usual list of influences on his MySpace page I only hear Jim Hall and Wolfgang Muthspiel, and not much of either. More strong sax follows. A very bent cover of "Message in a Bottle." A bass solo -- Opsvik is a name I do recall, shows up on a lot of good records. Slow guitar solo to close. Either a strong HM or better. [A-]

Peter Van Huffel Quintet: Silvester Battlefield (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): Saxophonist, plays alto and soprano here, from Canada, now in Brooklyn. Quintet has a previous 2005 EP. Van Huffel has a 2003 album, Mind Over Matter, and a couple of group records, but this is the first I've heard. Quintet adds guitar (Scott DuBois), piano (Jesse Stacken), bass (Michael Bates), drums (Jeff Davis). This is postbop pushed a bit toward the edge, fairly adventurous stuff bit by bit, but it also sounds ordinarily adventurous -- bit by bit, stuff I'm used to hearing. B+(*)

The Roy Campbell Ensemble: Akhenaten Suite (2007 [2008], AUM Fidelity): The only time I tempted to visit New York for live jazz is when the Vision Festival is on. For several years I was seeing very selective compilations from the concert series. Lately we're starting to see more full concerts, such as this one, subtitled Live at Vision Festival XII. Campbell plays trumpet and its relatives, and picks up something called an arguhl (a two-tube "clarinet") to flavor his Egyptian themes -- beyond the title suite, he plays "Pharoah's Revenge" and "Sunset on the Nile." Born 1952 in Los Angeles, moved east in the late 1970s, joining Jemeel Moondoc's Muntu Ensemble, hooking up with various William Parker projects, including Other Dimensions in Music. This is Campbell's 7th album since 1991 under his own name, but there are more albums with him in a leading role, and lots more joining in. Group here includes Bryan Carrott on vibes, Hilliard Greene on bass, Zen Matsuura on drums, and Billy Bang on violin. Bang makes the difference, his natural swing propelling the album as unstoppably as the Nile, but the vibraharp accents kick it off in surprising directions. A-

Rob Brown Ensemble: Crown Trunk Root Funk (2007 [2008], AUM Fidelity): Born 1962 in Virginia, based in New York, plays alto sax, mostly in William Parker projects like the Little Huey Orchestra, In Order to Survive, and the extraordinary Quartet behind O'Neal's Porch and Sound Unity, expanded to Raining on the Moon and expanded again. He's been building up a catalog under his own name, now up to 19 titles, mostly duos or trios on very small labels. He plays fast and fierce, thrilling when it all comes together. This group was assembled for a Vision Festival show, then reconvened in the studio, where they play 7 Brown originals. Craig Taborn (piano, electronics), William Parker (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums) -- terrific rhythm section, they keep Brown flying all through the session, or soaring gracefully on the rare spots when they slow down a bit. A- [Mar. 11]

Cindy Blackman: Music for the New Millennium (2008, Sacred Sound, 2CD): Drummer, born 1959 in Ohio, raised in Connecticut, studied at Berklee and with Alan Dawson. Has a pile of records as a leader: 4 on Muse, 3 on High Note. Don't know when this was recorded (AMG lists whole thing as 2004, which looks to be wrong). Quartet, with JD Allen on tenor sax, Carlton Holmes on keyboards, George Mitchell on bass. AMG classifies Blackman as hard bop, which seems fair: this is solid mainstream fare with nothing aiming towards postbop. Blackman's drumming is heightened in the mix, but not heavy handed. It's her record, and shows her off well. I'm even more impressed with Allen. He's got a distinct tone, commanding presence, can move around and flash some muscle. From Detroit, about 33, has two albums I haven't heard -- the one called Pharoah's Children most likely has nothing to do with Sanders. B+(**)

The Klobas/Kesecker Ensemble: No Gravity (2007 [2008], KKEnsemble): Bay Area group. Klobas plays bass, has a classical background as well as some jazz credits, teaches at Cal State Hayward. Kesecker plays vibes and marimba. He's played with Zakir Hussain in the past, and Hussain returns the favor here, gaining a front cover "guest artist" notice. Hussain's tabla doesn't stand out all that much, but contributes to the fertile rhythms. The non-guest who does stand out is saxophonist Gene Burkert. He's credited with woodwinds here, given no further specifics. His tenor sax powers through the first piece, the perfect foil for the rhythmic accents. His other horns are less impressive, but the record picks up whenever the tenor returns. Having trouble (some merely technical) getting more info on these guys. Fun record. Amusing cover shot -- grins well deserved. B+(**)

Keith Marks: Foreign Funk (2006 [2008], Markei): Reported to be "a 35 year veteran of the entertainment business," but this looks like the first album under his name. AMG has some very scattered credits: Beaver Harris, Jerry Goodman, Tommy Shaw, Wishbone Ash, Styx. Harris is pretty obscure these days, but he was a drummer with a pan-African orientation working on the avant fringes, leading a group called The 360 Degree Music Experience. Someone could make something out of that. As for the others, I guess money's green. Marks plays flute. He gets a nice airy sound out of it, and it's not really the problem, although it is kind of limited. The problem is the songs, which pace the title cut, are neither foreign (world would be more politically correct, and for once smarter to boot) nor funky: low points include "Mission Impossible," "Eleanor Rigby," and that old Seals & Croft barfer, "Summer Breeze." B- [Apr. 1]

Melody Breyer-Grell: Fascinating' Rhythms: Singing Gershwin (2008, Rhombus): Singer, born in New York, raised on Long Island. Don't know when, or how long she spent "honing in on her skills" -- her web bio doesn't offer much for a timeline, but she emerged in 2004 with an album called The Right Time (Blujazz), and this is her second. Gershwin songs, hard to go wrong there. Strong voice, able to spin some nuance that I don't always like. First half she seems game to challenge the standards head on, and she gets plenty of help from her band, especially saxophonist Don Braden. Toward the end she feels the need to try to do something a bit different. She talks her way through much of "They All Laughed," then sandwiches "Embraceable You" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Score some points for interest and form. Try not to think too much about Ella. B+(*) [Mar. 4]

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Avatar (2007 [2008], Blue Note): Cuban pianist, has a long string of records since 1990, and should by now be considered one of the world's major jazz pianists. Rather straight jazz quintet, with Yosvany Terry (various saxophones), Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), Matt Brewer (bass), and Marcus Gilmore (drums). Most of the kinks come from the pianist himself, whose deftness at shifting rhythms, at breaking the flow with abrupt stops and starts, is unique. Terry continues to impress. Not as immediately appealing as his last group album, Paseo, but part of that is added complexity. Still working on it. [B+(***)]

Frank Kimbrough: Air (2003-07 [2008], Palmetto): Pianist, part of the Jazz Composers Collective circle in New York. Has 8-10 records since 1988, plus a fair amount of session work -- his role in Maria Schneider's orchestra may be a draw. I've heard a couple, and haven't heard much in them. This solo set started promising, but didn't sustain my interest. But that's usually the case with solo piano, so I'm not sure what this proves. B


No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.


Unpacking:

  • Ben Allison & Man Size Safe: Little Things Run the World (Palmetto)
  • Sam Barsh: I Forgot What You Taught Me (RazDaz/Sunnyside)
  • Walt Blanton: Monuments (Origin)
  • Paul Bley Trio: Closer (1965, ESP-Disk)
  • Hadley Caliman: Gratitude (Origin)
  • Lisle Ellis: Sucker Punch Requiem: An Homage to Jean-Michael Basquiat (Henceforth)
  • Amos Hoffman: Evolution (RazDaz/Sunnyside)
  • Bob James Trio: Explosions (1964, ESP-Disk)
  • Lindha Kallerdahl: Gold (ESP-Disk)
  • Adam Kolker: Flag Day (Sunnyside): Mar. 25
  • Steve Lacy: The Forest and the Zoo (1966, ESP-Disk)
  • Eric McPherson: Continuum (Smalls)
  • New York Art Quartet (1964, ESP-Disk)
  • Mitch Paliga: Fall Night (Origin)
  • Sacha Perry: The Third Time Around (Smalls)
  • The Puppini Sisters: The Rise & Fall of Ruby Woo (Verve)
  • Vince Seneri: The Prince's Groove (Prince V): Mar. 1
  • Tom Tallitsch: Medicine Man (OA2)
  • Spirits in the Material World: A Reggae Tribute to the Police (Shanachie)
  • Nick Vayenas: Synesthesia (World Culture Music): Feb. 26
  • Bobby Watson: From the Heart (Palmetto): advance, no idea
  • Whit Williams: Featuring Slide Hampton and Jimmy Heath (MAMA)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Jazz Consumer Guide (#15): Surplus

At the end of each Jazz Consumer Guide cycle I have a lot of paperwork to do. Most of this is only of interest to me. I do things like moving my notes from the print and flush files for the previous cycle to the notebook, where it's easier for me to find them. The thing that takes the most work is making a pass through my "done" file -- the notes repository for all of the records that I've rated, haven't written up reviews for, but think I still might want to. Usually what happens is that the done file grows up to around 120 records. I only have space to review about 30 per column, so that's four columns worth, not even counting the new records will that will come in during the meantime. I figure that of those 120 I will at most wind up using 40, so it does no harm to cut the file back to 60-80. It just forces me to cope with reality.

The problem is, those records didn't get cut when I first rated them for a reason: usually that they're pretty good and deserve at least the Honorable Mention treatment. There are a few exceptions that I hold back for possible Dud treatment, but they are a tiny fraction. There are lots of reasons why good records don't make it to the column. I used to figure that if Francis Davis covered a record in the Village Voice I needn't merely concur, but I wound up losing track of what Davis does, so that's less of an excuse. I also tended to scratch off records that I reviewed in Recycled Goods, but I won't have that excuse any longer. I do prefer covering new jazz in Jazz CG, but I'm starting to work more old records in, and that will probably continue. So more and more, my reasons aren't all that good or clean cut. At the high end, they come down to age, lack of inspiration, and faulty memory. I also try to whittle from the bottom end, leaving only things that have some special interest. Even they tend to get cut as they get old. It's not so much that I think the timeliness is so important to the reader as I figure it shows some marginal loss of interest on my part.

When I do the surplus cut, I find that in most cases what I've already written in Jazz Prospecting suffices. But in a few cases I feel like adding a few more words, maybe even a bit of explanation. These extra notes follow:


Ralph Alessi & This Against That: Look (2005 [2007], Between the Lines): I hate pulling the plug on this, but it's one high HM I did go back and play again and again, but never managed to get anything written about it. Alessi has repeatedly distinguished himself as a sideman, and that has some relevance here. His leads are as tight and tasteful as his support work, only here they're supposed to stand out front. Complex, difficult postbop -- I can't begin to enumerate the interesting ideas. Only a couple of minor flat spots kept it from the A-list, and in any case it deserves a listen. I'm only kicking it off because I'm not up to it, and I'm getting tired of the pressure. B+(***)

Richie Barshay: Homework (2004-05 [2007], AYVA): Picked this up on the rebound along with Francisco Mela (q.v.). Both guys are drummers who can do a lot of different things, and stuff their debut albums so full of it they wind up feeling like recitals or clinics. I like this one a shade more, but never found much to say about it. He's a talent to keep an eye on. B+(***)

Tony DeSare: Last First Kiss (2006 [2007], Telarc): Slick, handsome, he's my favorite Sinatra wannabe. Young enough he may figure Prince and Carole King were part of Tin Pan Alley. Two good albums down. I'll catch him one of these days. B+(***)

Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd Quartet: Early and Late (1962-2002 [2007], Cuneiform, 2CD): Previously unreleased work from the 1962 quartet that recorded School Days, an album that much later provided Ken Vandermark with a group name, and from the 1999-2002 reunion that recorded Monk's Dream. Both were major figures in the intervening decades, although Rudd had a rougher time, for a while making ends meet playing nostalgia bands in the Catskills. This only loses out to the space crunch: Francis Davis covered it in the Voice, I wrote it up in Recycled Goods, and it's been sitting a while. A-

Francisco Mela: Melao (2005 [2006], AYVA): I only found out about this Boston-based Cuban drummer after his album won the Village Voice Jazz Poll's debut category. One reason it won was that for a debut album it had a lot of star power: Joe Lovano, George Garzone, Anat Cohen, Lionel Loueke. Getting to it so late I never spent enough time sorting it out -- "an embarrassment of riches," I called it. Haven't touched it in a long time since. B+(***)

Golda Solomon: Word Riffs (2006, JazzJaunts): Spoken word poet with jazz accompaniment. I tracked this down looking for background after I heard her on saxophonist Saco Yasuma's Another Rain, and it's more of what intrigued me in the first place. B+(**)

Abram Wilson: Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta (2007, Dune): Dune is an English label trying to break a peculiarly English form of Contemporary Jazz -- one based on hip-hop, reggae, maybe some African pop, something far hipper than any American label of similar ambitions would risk. I applaud the idea, but the realization has been more miss than hit thus far. A couple of years back saxophonist Soweto Kinch released a pretty good but deeply flawed album, while trumpeter Abram Wilson dropped a really bad one. Last year they traded places, with Kinch going deeper into hip-hop and getting lost, while Wilson rediscovered his footing in New Orleans. I wrote up Kinch as a dud. Figured I'd soften the blow with this as an HM, but didn't get it done. Sorry about that. B+(**)

Yerba Buena Stompers: Dawn Club Favorites (2001, Stomp Off): The first of five Stomp Off albums I got as background on this fine trad jazz group. Their model is Lou Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band, formed in 1939 at the beginning of the first great trad jazz revival, and largely responsible for it. Watters' played in San Francisco's Dawn Club, and this is what he played: same lineup, same arrangements, better sound (of course). In my review of the new The Yama-Yama Man, I singled out this and the following New Orleans Favorites as the best of the back catalog. Makes sense that if you're doing repertoire, you'd start from the top. A-

Yerba Buena Stompers: Duff Campbell's Revenge (2005, Diamondstack): Beyond from the five studio releases on Stomp Off, John Gill sent me two live sets on Diamondstack. They are scruffier sounding, a bit looser, not as articulate, but this one in particular is pretty good anyway, a nice little digest of their first four studio albums, with some stories thrown in about someone named Duff Campbell, a notable patron of San Francisco's trad jazz scene. B+(***)


The full surplus file is here.


The following are the notes for the records reviewed in Jazz Consumer Guide (#15):

  • Terence Blanchard: A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) (2007, Blue Note): The title strikes me as a philosophical muddle, although I suppose if you think it was a willful act of a purposeful God, His hurricane may merit some form of tribute. The title emerges chanted at the start of the first cut, "Ghost of Congo Square," and returns near the end of the piece, but doesn't break out beyond that. Congo Square was the site of the old New Orleans slave market, which back in its heyday was also felt by some to be part of God's will. Despite the words, the piece is striking, with Kendrick Scott's percussion conjuring up an African vibe, and Blanchard's trumpet clear and eloquent. Most of the deluge of post-Katrina albums pick their themes obviously -- titles here include "Levees," "The Water," "Wading Through," "In Time of Need," "Ghost of 1927," "Funeral Dirge," and "Dear Mom" -- then map out their music in predictable clichés. Blanchard doesn't escape this, but his horn stands out on record like his silhouetted images on the front and back covers. My main caveat is the orchestra that appears on several pieces, which paints a pretty backdrop while adding nothing of substance. B+(***)
  • The Blueprint Project: People I Like (2006 [2007], Creative Nation Music): Core group is a trio of college chums: saxophonist Jared Sims, guitarist Eric Hofbauer, pianist Tyson Rogers. All three write, do interesting work. Could use a drummer, and maybe a bassist. Last time out they filled those roles with Matt Wilson and Cecil McBee, and got a nice postbop album with a bit of edge. This time they went for Han Bennink, and he's already turned them into a bunch of dadaist anarchists. Can't say it's an improvement, but it's an interesting turn, with the percussion fracturing the soundscapes. B+(***)
  • Chris Byars: Photos in Black, White and Gray (2006 [2007], Smalls): Saxophonist, born and lives in New York. Plays alto, tenor, and soprano here; has played flute and clarinet elsewhere. Has worked at Smalls since 1994, recording in his own Octet and in the group Across 7 Street, and behind various others, mostly label mates. This one is a quartet, with Sacha Perry on piano, Ari Roland on bass, Andy Watson on drums. Byars writes: "I believe this recording conveys part of the secret of how jazz itself never grows old. In the same way I like to pick up the repertoire of 1950's giants Gigi Gryce and Lucky Thompson, here we have some key material of the 1994-2003 Smalls decade . . . and several years the wiser." The Smalls circle strikes me as an attempt to innovate within a formalized tradition -- postbop is the inevitably sloppy framework, of which this is a small subset. I've never been able to say much about that approach; rather, I just roll with the punches, recognizing stuff that sounds both proper and fresh, sorting it out from stuff that sounds less so. But mapping this to Gryce's alto and Thompson's tenor makes sense to me. Had I heard Byars' pieces on those guys albums I would be pleased but not surprised. Byars' soprano would fit into that tradition too if only there was an equivalent model -- I can't think of one. Perry and Roland get some good solo space as well. A-
  • The Claudia Quintet: For (2006 [2007], Cuneiform): Booklet tells us nothing -- just four graphics, cutouts with large degradé pixels. Pattern shifting is also the music idea, but there at least it's grown far more sophisticated. When I first tuned in, on the group's second album (I Claudia), everything seemed to revolve around drummer John Hollenbeck's post-minimalist rhythms. Two albums later the music has broadened to the extent that there's no clear-cut center: Chris Speed's reeds, Matt Moran's vibes, Ted Reichman's accordion, even Drew Gress's bass, cloud up the picture, obscuring simple reactions or explanations. The hype sheet says "file under: jazz/post-jazz" as if anyone has a clue what "post-jazz" might be. The delta between this and what we conventionally think of as jazz is that this doesn't feel improvised, because it isn't built on individualism -- even when Moran talks, or Speed squawks. Rather, it has an organic vitality to it that envelops you, like something new age or ambient might aspire to but doesn't have the brains to make interesting enough. Yet I'm never really certain with this group: the last two albums took me ages to settle on, and this one raises the same conflicting responses. But it consistently scores points, and builds over time -- almost as if it makes marginality an aesthetic pursuit. Album title reflects each song having some sort of dedication, mostly to people I've never heard of -- the exception is Mary Cheney, who's offered an ode to pity. A-
  • The Neil Cowley Trio: Displaced (2005 [2007], Hide Inside): Scrounging for ideas on this record has led me up a lot of blind alleys, such as one reviewer comparing it to the Clash and concluding, "Actually, it's probably best to avoid the j-word." Their myspace page describes the group as "jazz, acoustic, shoegaze," so I had to be reminded once again what shoegaze is/was. Again, I see no relevance, although even that's better than the tirelessly repeated story about Cowley playing Shostakovich at age 10. Waiting until he turns 34 to release his first record suggests he's survived prodigyhood. Or is it just first jazz record? AMG lists a couple pages of credits, mostly producer credits on various artists techno compilations (titles like: Bossa Barva! Vol. 2, Distance to Goa Vol. 7, Café del Mar: Chill House Mix, Cafe Buddha: The Cream of Chilled Cuisine). Or is that the same Neil Cowley? (If it were me, I'd be more likely to brag about the techno than the Shostakovich.) Actually, they're a rock-ribbed acoustic piano trio, full of fat chords, pogoing beats, assured elaboration, calculated tension and release, showing they know their English folk music -- from Pink Floyd to Coldplay, anyway -- and hope to please as much as to dazzle. Ends with a whiff of electronics remixing a fast one, possibly their next stage. Won a BBC jazz album of the year prize, with acclamations of future stardom. Maybe in the UK, or even Europe; over here I doubt they'll be as big as Jason Moran, but I'm reminded a little bit of when Keith Jarrett broke through to rock audiences in the '70s. A-
  • Amir ElSaffar: Two Rivers (2007, Pi): B. 1977, near Chicago, Iraqi father, American mother, studied trumpet at DePaul, worked in classical and jazz contexts. Journeyed to Iraq in 2002, learning to sing maqam and play santoor (a hammered dulcimer), leaving before Bush brought it on. Maqam are habitual note patterns in Arabic music, based on uneven microtonal scales, hard to notate and therefore handed down from person to person. ElSaffar's santoor and vocals presumably fit the model. He says he's adapted his trumpet style as well -- at first it sounded typical hard bop, but by the end I was no longer so sure. The band spreads out between east and west: Carlo DeRosa (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums) provide jazz rhythm, while Zafer Tawail (violin, oud, dumbek) and Tareq Abboushi (buzuq, frame drum) improvise in Arabic modes. The sixth member is Indian-American alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who has a head start on Asian-Coltrane fusion. The piece was intended as a suite, based on the Tigris and Euphrates, from their sources to the Shatt al-Arab. But the rivers are just as aptly Iraqi and American, only played out in mutual respect, as jazz not war. B+(***)
  • Floratone (2007, Blue Note): I filed this under Bill Frisell, mostly because he has a file, unlike the other three principals. Actually, that's unfair to Tucker Martine, whose albums are scattered under aliases like Mylab, whose album, with Frisell the key musician, I liked enough to feature in an early Jazz CG. Martine has a long list of production credits, most based in Seattle, few related to jazz. I didn't recognize the other two principals; my bad. Lee Townsend, like Martine credited with production, has a long list of jazz production credits going back to 1981, with Frisell at the top of the list; other names include Joey Baron, Jerry Granelli, Dave Holland, Charlie Hunter, Marc Johnson, John Scofield. The fourth member, credited with drums and loops, is Matt Chamberlain. He has one album under his own name but more than 200 credits, almost all rock, especially female singer-songwriters (e.g., Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Melissa Etheridge, Macy Gray, Lisa Loeb, Natalie Merchant, Stevie Nicks, Liz Phair, Shakira). Closer to jazz he's worked with Dave Koz and Critters Buggin -- an "experimental rock" group with a good sense of groove and a honking saxman named Skerik. Martine and Townsend are both credited with "production" -- I think the actual chronology was that Chamberlain and Frisell recorded some jams, then handed them over to Martine and Townsend to sort out. Somewhere along the way guests got dubbed in: Viktor Krauss on bass, Eyvind Kang on viola, Ron Miles on cornet. The pieces all start out on grooves with guitar dressing -- there's nothing much to lift them up, so everything depends on the beats, and they rarely falter. Townsend calls this "futuristic roots music" -- he may be thinking of Frisell's take on Americana mirrored into the future, hoping it takes root. In any case, it sounds easier than it is. There are a lot of people trying to do something like this, but few actually making it work, and these vets have separately worked with most of them -- here they almost bring it together. B+(***)
  • The Best of Von Freeman on Premonition (1996-2006 [2007], Premonition, 2CD+DVD): You could call Freeman a late bloomer, but one could also argue that he's always been around but never caught a break until in his 70s. Born 1922, he played with Horace Henderson before the war, the Navy during, and the Pershing Ballroom house band when he got out. He joined Sun Ra in 1948 and hung with the AACM later, but he was also chums with Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk liked him enough to produce his debut album (1972, age 50). He had one of the most idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable tenor sax sounds ever -- he attributes some of that to being a poor boy playing cheap saxophones, and there's a legend that he built his first sax at age 7 out of a Victrola horn. But he's mellowed since he hit 80, developing a richer, cleaner sound that still falls far short of lush. He cut a couple of 1970s records for AACM-connected Nessa, and two more in 1992 for Steeplechase in Denmark, but didn't get much attention until Half Note released his 75th Birthday Celebration. Then Premonition picked up his 1996 Live at the Dakota and started recording him regularly. The material anthologizes well -- it's all quartets with piano or guitar excepting a solo and a duo with Jason Moran -- and includes a couple of previously unissued bait tracks. The DVD just shows him speaking, first in an interview and then to a street crowd at the dedication of Von Freeman Way. He's a natural comic, mature like his music, which sums up a short century of saxophone wisdom -- he reminds me of Sonny Rollins, even if at best he's more like Newk's scrawny little brother. A-
  • Satoko Fujii Quartet: Bacchus (2006 [2007], Onoff): There are (at least) two Satoko Fujii [-Natsuki Tamura] Quartets, one with Mark Dresser and Jim Black, and this one with electric bassist Takeharu Hayakawa and drummer Tatsuya Yoshida. This one did a record called Zephyros in 2004 which I liked enough to put on my top ten list -- a marvelous mix of fusion grooves and avant bash. However, this one strikes me as an idea gone bad. The music is rockish at the fragment level, but without much to hold it together -- the groove plodding and cartoonish when it exists at all. But there is plenty of volume, especially with Tamura splattering his trumpet uncharacteristically. Not sure if she's famous enough to spend a dud slot on, but this is a very unpleasant, disappointing record. C+
  • Charlie Haden/Antonio Forcione: Heartplay (2006 [2007], Naim): Not much here, just simple but elegantly picked guitar and bass, with Haden in his hypersentimental mode. So modest, not to mention quiet, you could easily miss it, which would be a shame. B+(***)
  • Herbie Hancock: River: The Joni Letters (2007, Verve): Joni Mitchell songs, plus "Solitude" and "Nefertiti" -- I'm not enough of a Mitchell scholar to explain why, but they are two of four songs done as instrumentals. The rest have vocals, a smattering of guests who get one shot each. Norah Jones leads off with "Court and Spark," affecting Joni tics and sounding like a pale imitation. Same for Corinna Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza, even Tina Turner. Mitchell sings an obscure one, allowing herself the amusement of hiding among the poseurs. Only Leonard Cohen avoids that game. One result of all these shaded stylings is to remind us that Mitchell's voice and songs were necessarily one. Tribute albums succeed or fail depending on whether they offer convincing reasons for the bother. The vocals fail that test here, and take down with them some very nice instrumental work. Hancock himself does a lovely if risk-free job tucking the melodies in. Better still is Wayne Shorter, especially his little bits on soprano. B-
  • Happy Apple: Happy Apple Back on Top (2007, Sunnyside): Bad Plus drummer Dave King's other power trio, with Erik Fratzke's bass plugged in and Michael Lewis leading on one sax or another. Given their Minneapolis address, it's tempting to call them the Husker Du of free jazz, assuming you can make all the necessary translations. It is jazz, after all, and while they like rock grooves more than most, they never leave it at that. A-
  • Adam Lane/Ken Vandermark/Magnus Broo/Paal Nilssen-Love: 4 Corners (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Three Vandermark songs, which tend to be wild and wooly, mixed in with four Lane songs, which are probably the ones with the sharp patterns and good beats. I'll need to recheck that, but the first cut is a Vandermark squawl, with Broo's trumpet adding a fair share, but it comes together after that. The drummer, of course, can go any which way, and he's busy here. A-
  • Matt Lavelle Trio: Spiritual Power (2006 [2007], Silkheart): Plays trumpet, flugelhorn, bass clarinet -- 1, 3, and 3 cuts respectively here. Born 1970, turned on by Louis Armstrong, studied with a Sir Hildred Humphries, who had direct links to Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie. Evolved through what he calls "the 'Smalls' thing" before joining William Parker's Little Huey Orchestra. Has a previous album on CIMP and a group called Eye Contact with one record. This one's a trio with bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson, both contributing big time. Avant like it's meant to be: sharp, shocking, bursting with creative ideas. The liner notes cite Roy Campbell as a model, but Lavelle adds a level of difficulty and sonic surprise with his emphasis on flugelhorn and bass clarinet. Took me a while to even recognize the latter. A-
  • Allen Lowe: Jews in Hell: Radical Jewish Acculturation (2004-06 [2007], Spaceout, 2CD): I've played this half a dozen times, and read the book, and I'm still not clear what Hell is -- maybe it's somewhere in Maine, where Lowe lives? Or maybe the in suburbs of Long Island, where Jews ate pork and embraced postmodernism, putting Lowe on a path where his radical Jewish impulses were acculturated (or is it pickled?) in Americana? (Compare to city boy John Zorn, who kept his Radical Jewish Culture free of American trash, probably because urban life reinforced community while suburban life stripped it bare.) Or maybe the whole thing is much more metaphorical than a pragmatist like myself can imagine. One reason it's hard to tell is that Lowe doesn't seem to be completely honest here. One of the alternate titles he offers is, "Dance of the Creative Economy: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Space Gallery and Love the Music Business." The Space Gallery is a music joint in Maine that Lowe can't get a job at, and there's little evidence here that he's stopped fretting, not to mention bristling, at that. As for his love of the music business, he certainly hasn't adjusted to its first principles -- money and glamour. On the other hand, he does have friends on the fringes of the business. He touts their names on the cover -- Marc Ribot, Erin McKeown, Matthew Shipp, Randy Sandke, Lewis Porter -- and he keeps their features in the mix no matter how tenuous their connection to his themes may be. First few times through I was irritated by his unwillingness to edit, condense, throw anything away. Lowe plays assured, fluid alto sax, but features it rarely here, but spends most of the record playing grungy guitar, overdubbing keybs, and singing stuff he has no voice for. (There is some dazzling guitar here, but credit that to Ribot.) In the end I stopped worrying: "Lonesome and Dead" should be ugly, and "Suburban Jews," "Where's Lou Reed?" and "Jews in Hell" are hard to ruin. First disc holds closer to concept ("Tsuris in Mind," "The Old Stetl (Where I Was Bonr)," "Oi Death"). Second is more scattered and scrapbooky. B+(**)
  • Hugh Masekela: Live at the Market Theatre (2006 [2007], Times Square/4Q, 2CD): A 30th anniversary bash -- for the Johannesburg venue, that is; the South African trumpeter-vocalist goes back further, having started his globetrotting at least a decade earlier. This is a triumph, an informal career summary that tracks the struggle against apartheid and baser oppressions. Its two discs allow him to stretch out and work the crowd, even to preach a little, knowing there's more than celebrating left to do, but pleased to be there that night. A-
  • Frank Morgan: A Night in the Life (2003 [2007], High Note): Front cover subtitle says: "Live at the Jazz Standard Vol. 3"; there's a previous City Nights: Live at the Jazz Standard from the same dates with the same group, but I'm not aware of a Vol. 2. Six songs: three from Bird, one from Miles, "On Green Dolphin Street" (might as well chalk that up to Miles as well), and "It's Only a Paper Moon." But whereas Parker was sharp, shrill, and explosive, Morgan has mellowed to where he's sweet and soulful. If anything, he reminds me of his Sing Sing bandmate, Art Pepper. In that regard, it does help that the pianist is George Cables. B+(***)
  • Chris Potter Underground: Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (2007, Sunnyside): Adam Rogers' guitar snaking over Craig Taborn's blippy Fender Rhodes and Nate Smith's drums makes for a fresh update on the old organ trio -- especially when the pace slows, Taborn looks to be as far ahead of the field as Jimmy Smith was in 1958. Potter can play soul jazz, but he's most impressive when he kicks out the jams, raising r&b honking to a higher plane, or maybe bringing Pharoah Sanders down to the grease. A-
  • Chris Potter 10: Song for Anyone (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): Ten musicians, with flute-clarinet-bassoon in the winds section and violin-viola-cello-bass for strings, guitar too, and percussion. With that sort of instrumentation, this is full of orchestral stretches that I find deadly, even when I recognize that they're not so bad. Moreover, the saxophonist often rises to the occasion, or exceeds it, and he has a much more full-bodied sound than the one I found annoying on his early work. So I don't feel the anger to make this a Dud, although I'll keep it active in the "done" file a while in case I find myself hard up. B
  • Quadro Nuevo: Tango Bitter Sweet (2006 [2007], Justin Time): Drummerless German quartet -- reeds, accordion, guitar, bass do the trick -- arguing that all the songs here originated in Europe, reclaiming tango from Argentina, Sidney Bechet from New Orleans, and Aram Khatchaturian from the vast steppes of Russia. They make a fine case, a little too pat for jazz, a little too danceable for chamber music. B+(***)
  • Josh Roseman: New Constellations: Live in Vienna (2005 [2007], Accurate): Funk bent severely enough to qualify as avant-garde, mostly generated from the Jamaican crucible of Don Drummond and "Satta Massaganna." B+(***)
  • John Sheridan and His Dream Band: Swing Is Still the King (2006 [2007], Arbors): A Benny Goodman tribute, more or less, with Ron Hockett on clarinet -- sometimes also Dan Block and Scott Robinson, although they most play saxes -- and Rebecca Kilgore singing a majority of the songs. But it doesn't feel like a Goodman tribute -- the swing is looser, cooler, more delectable. Sheridan is credited with arrangements as well as piano, and its the arrangements that push this past the usual retro limits. A-
  • Sonic Openings Under Pressure: Muhheankuntuk (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Don't get as much free jazz as I'd like, but I manage to hear enough to have gotten used to it. Still, my standard for recommendation is that it has something non-devotees can grab onto, which leaves me with a widening gap of stuff I like well enough but can't see breaking out of its narrow niche. Most of this falls in that range, but two cuts in the middle stand out: "The Hardships" starts with a fast, regular beat, then erupts in a torrent of even faster words -- thank David Pleasant for both beats and words, while leader Patrick Brennan's alto sax settles into a skronk groove. That's the hook cut, pop materials done with avant flair. It then sets up "Prosified" with Brennan taking over, writhing snakey improv lines against the beat. B+(***)
  • Marcus Strickland Twi-Life Group: Open Reel Deck (2007, Strick Muzik): I think he's a tremendously exciting young saxophonist, and his quartet, with electric guitar and bass and equally talented brother E.J. on drums, is state of the art. But there are points here where this drags, and not just the guests -- actually, Malachi Rivers' spoken word act focuses the mind, even if it distracts from the music. B+(***)
  • That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History Volume 1 (1895-1927 [2007], WHRA, 9CD): Whereas Martin Williams, in his canonical The Smithsonian Collection of Classical Jazz disposes of where jazz came from by juxtaposing two versions of "Maple Leaf Rag," one by composer Scott Joplin and the other by Jelly Roll Morton, compiler Allen Lowe digs deep into many roots besides ragtime -- minstrels, songsters, march bands, James Reese Europe's orchestra. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1917) doesn't appear until the 3rd disc. Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith (1921) make the 4th, and Jelly Roll Morton (1923) the 5th, but the series doesn't start to sound predominantly jazzy until the 6th or 7th disc. While he sprinkles in early bits of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Bennie Moten, he holds Louis Armstrong back until the last cut -- maybe top play down the notion that Armstrong invented jazz, or just because he couldn't find anything to follow "Hotter Than Hot" with. A-
  • That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History Volume 2 (1927-1934 [2007], WHRA, 9CD): Bix Beiderbecke leads off with 3 of the first 9 tracks, contrasting with 2 cuts by obscure trumpeter Louis Dumaine. The book takes on the always annoying question of race in jazz, plugging numerous whites -- including an argument that Beiderbecke was the first cool jazz proponent -- without ceding any arguments to Richard Sudhalter's Lost Chords. The records wend their way through numerous intimations of swing to come, punctuated by occasional blues and country tunes that are hardly less jazzy. A-
  • That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History: Volume 3 (1934-45 [2007], WHRA, 9CD): Swing is here, announced by Jimmie Lunceford, Red Norvo, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, and Ray Noble on the first disc. Second disc tees off with Bob Wills, a westerner who swings too, and moves on to Count Basie. The most consistently satisfying of the boxes, at least until 1940 (disc 7) when Lowe starts looking for premonitions of bebop -- Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie show up on disc 8, but disc 9 (1944-45) is a broad smorgasbord of retro dixieland (Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson), elegant Ellington, singers like Billie Holiday and Nat Cole, saxophonists like Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas. A
  • That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History: Volume 4 (1945-51 [2007], WHRA, 9CD): Bebop takes over, but of course it isn't that clean a cut. Disc 4, for instance, starts with Bing Crosby and Al Jolson singing "Alexander's Ragtime Band" -- the fourth take, following Collins and Harlan (1911), Louis Armstrong (1937), and Bunk Johnson (1945). Then, after Sidney Bechet, comes Chano Pozo's "Ritmo Afro Cubano." That disc wanders especially wide: Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Lenny Tristano, Mutt Carey, Astor Piazzolla, Hank Penny, Nelly Lutcher, Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker. But before long bebop has driven most of the other contenders from the depopulated clubs -- exceptions are the occasional throwback like Kid Thomas, and an especially ugly bit of projectile vomit from Stan Kenton. I suppose there's a lesson there: I would have picked something listenable, but if you have to acknowledge Kenton, why whitewash him? A-
  • Assif Tsahar/Cooper-Moore/Chad Taylor: Digital Primitives (2006 [2007], Hopscotch): No piano from Cooper-Moore this time, just diddley bow, mouth bow, something called a bango. He also sings one called "Ol' Saint Peter," with a cowboy pulse, brushes or an electronic facsimile, and a gentle sax refrain that bridges gospel and cocktail. He seems to be the center of everything, setting the place, stirring things up. Tsahar rarely gets his dander up -- the finale sounds like his old tenor sax, but elsewhere runs through r&b riffs, colors in on bass clarinet, and even pulls out the didgeridoo. At least two cuts get slow and exotic, with Taylor's beats sounding like balafon -- the credits just say drums and percussion. A-
  • Fay Victor Ensemble: Cartwheels Through the Cosmos (2006 [2007], ArtistShare): I guess we can add Victor to the Betty Carter family of jazz singers, if we could find anyone else to fill out a family. The voices are similar, although Victor's a shade or two lighter. The musical rigor is comparable, especially when Victor slides a verse onto a free rhythm without chaos ensuing. Most of all, they both run adventurous, cutting edge bands. My discovery here is guitarist Anders Nilsson, who always has something to say. The others are bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson, who rank as household names, at least in this household. A-
  • Miroslav Vitous: Universal Syncopations II (2004-05 [2007], ECM): All this shares with its precedessor is title, bassist, and painstaking assembly. But what made Universal Syncopations remarkable was the individuality of its superstars' performances -- Jan Garbarek, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette. They're replaced by a committee here, maybe several, but this could just as well have been assembled from Vitous's legendary library of digital samples -- indeed, the sole voice credit, one Vesna Vasko-Caceres, only hints at how he uses voice to whitewash a heavenly aura over what sounds like a throwback to the Czech's Communist (err, classical) education. The funk horns and multiple drummers only exist on paper. Their syncopations are anything but universal. B-
  • David S. Ware Quartet: Renunciation (2006 [2007], AUM Fidelity): Allegedly "the last ever U.S. performance by David S. Ware's revered Quartet" -- not sure whether that's a statement about Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and the drummer du jour (in this case Guillermo E. Brown) or about the U.S. The Quartet goes back to 1990, when Parker was established as Cecil Taylor's bassist and the others were practically unknown. For a while it was tempting to compare them to the Coltrane Quartet, but by now they've lasted three times as long. Recorded live, this adds one more slice to Live in the World, its immediate spontaneity compensating for the fact that they break no major ground. Ware is mesmerizing, Parker magnificent, and Shipp one of the few pianists who can hold his own in this company. A-
  • The Phil Woods Quintet: American Songbook II (2007, Kind of Blue): No surprises here. Woods may have started as a pure Parker bebopper, but over time he embraced the whole mainstream of American jazz. I don't see much live jazz, but did see him once, playing good student with Benny Carter. In the senior role here, his own good students include Brian Lynch and Bill Charlap, who hardly need his guidance but are too respectful to hint otherwise. The whole thing strikes me as too respectful, too self-satisfied, too easy -- I'm reminded that when I saw Carter and Woods, it was the much younger Woods who spent the whole set on his stool -- but it still sounds glorious more often than not. B+(**)
  • Yerba Buena Stompers: The Yama-Yama Man (2007, Stomp Off): A couple of personnel changes in what has been a pretty stable lineup: Orange Kellin replaces Evan Christopher on clarinet (before Christopher, Larry Wright played clarinet); Clint Baker moves over from drums to tuba, replacing Ray Cadd, and Hal Smith joins on drums. Until now they've evidently kept close to the arrangements worked out by Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which includes a few originals by Watters and Turk Murphy as well as old songs they brought back in the 1940s Dixieland revival. Here they start to move on, picking old songs Watters missed and treating them accordingly. The title song, for instance, dates back to 1908, although Murphy had done it in 1957. Several songs come straight from King Oliver, which matches the orchestration to a tee. Others come from the Red Hot Peppers, which is about as modern as they get. Locking onto their fixed reference points, they freeze history, foregoing the sense of progress that even then was all the rage. That should make them dry, but their chosen moment is hard to resist: it was a point when the excitement of jazz jumped out of the horns and off the stage. Playing through the whole set of five studio albums shows two things that are rare in any such sequence: remarkable consistency and no sense of progress or evolution whatsoever. Both may be attributed to lack of individuality, which may have something to do with the fact that leader John Gill plays the most unprepossesing of instruments: the banjo. These are unjazzlike traits, but the music is primevally jazzy. A-
  • Paul Zauners Blue Brass: Soil (2006 [2007], PAO/BluJazz): Austrian trombonist, runs a label with exceptional good taste, proves to be a worldwise connoisseur, mixing two African pieces with American standards and two originals, polishing them all up to a fine lustre. B+(***)


And the following are the notes for records flushed in the Jazz Consumer Guide (15) cycle:

  • Tony Adamo: Straight Up Deal (2007, Urban Zone): Smooth jazz vocalist, or so he claims. I find he's got some grit to his voice, and his studio musicians are agreeably funky -- a couple of spots with Eddie Henderson and Ernie Watts even show some jazz cred. Could use better songs. B
  • Muhal Richard Abrams: Vision Toward Essence (1998 [2007], Pi): An hour or so of solo piano, recorded live at Guelph in Canada, and a decade later acclaimed a masterpiece and finally released. I wax and wane on it: there are masterful bits, but an hour of nothing but piano can grow tedious, and there are also parts that seem designed to produce that effect. Abrams is an important figure, one I've long admired, but I have no way to gauge this. I guess I worry that it's over my head, or beyond my attention span, or (worse still) not quite as good as it ought to be. Could be any of those things. B+(**)
  • Ralph Alessi & This Against That: Look (2005 [2007], Between the Lines): One of those group names that comes from the previous album title, although the only musician both times, aside from the leader, is bassist Drew Gress. The quartet this time is filled out with Andy Milne on piano and Mark Ferber on drums, plus Ravi Coltrane appears on four cuts. Coltrane isn't much help -- he provides shadings on slow pieces that at best are atmospheric, but are filler compared to the fast ones. Let loose, the rhythm section is terrific, and setting Alessi's tart trumpet free. B+(***)
  • Dave Allen: Real and Imagined (2007, Fresh Sound New Talent): Guitarist, born in Philadelphia, attended Manhattan School of Music in 1988, presumably still based in New York. AMG lists 29 Dave or David (or more famously, in bold type, Daevid) Allens, none of which appear to be him. But he does have a 2005 album, so this is probably his second. It's a quartet with Seamus Blake on tenor sax, Drew Gress on bass, and Mark Ferber on drums. Wrote all the pieces. Has a metallic tone and adept rhythmic sense that fills in well behind and beside the sax. First rate rhythm section. B+(*)
  • Rodrigo Amado/Kent Kessler/Paal Nilssen-Love: Teatro (2004 [2006], European Echoes): Portuguese saxophonist from the Lisbon Improvisation Players teams up with two of Ken Vandermark's mates. The rifling up-and-down tenor and baritone sax is about par for the avant-garde -- leans a bit to the melodic side, actually -- and I find that casually attractive. The support is first rate, especially the drummer. B+(**)
  • "Killer" Ray Appleton/Melvin Rhyne: Latin Dreams (2004 [2006], Lineage): Russian guitarist Ilya Lushtak honors his heroes by recording with them. On the Hank Jones/Frank Wess album, he mostly took a back seat, but on this organ trio plus congas -- Latin, get it? -- he fills a more critical role. May be too early to dub him the new Grant Green, but how about the new Billy Butler? B+(**)
  • Arjun: Pieces (2007, Pheromone): Guitar-bass-drums trio, with namesake Eddie Arjun Peters playing the guitar, composing, arranging, and producing. Website features a news item announcing that Pieces "is number 14 on the Jamband Top 40!" I don't recognize most of the competitors, but those I do seem to be an arbitrary mix of rock (Wilco, Patti Smith, Son Volt) and semipop jazz (Chick Corea/Bela Fleck, Will Bernard, Bad Plus). This is rockish guitar bop, or boppish guitar rock -- at times reminds me of Cream, but then doesn't deliver much on the hint. B
  • Gregg August Sextet: One Peace (2006 [2007], Iacuessa): Bassist, originally from Schenectady NY, went to SUNY Albany, then Juilliard. Worked in Barcelona. Traveled to Cuba. Second album. Previous one (Late August) had more of a Latin twist; this is more straightahead postbop, mostly sextets with three horns, Luis Perdomo on piano, and EJ Strickland on drums. Myron Walden's beboppy alto sax sets the dominant tone, with tenor and trumpet for shading, a harmonic scheme much favored by postbop arrangers, one I find rather unappealing. B-
  • Omer Avital: Arrival (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound World Jazz): Israeli bassist, working in New York since mid-1990s, with a handful of albums -- The Ancient Art of Giving (2006, Smalls) is a personal favorite. This, however, is not. It's a very advanced, sophisticated postbop sexet, with Avishai Cohen (trumpet), Joel Frahm (saxes), Avi Lebovich (trombone), Jason Lindner (keyboards), and Jonathan Blake (drums). There is a lot of art to the layering of the horns, producing dizzying swirls of sound. It's not clear why this came out in a World Jazz series: Avital plays oud on a couple of cuts, but that doesn't fix them in any kind of world -- meaning foreign to the west -- music. Nor does the fact that the rhythm is pretty regular count for much beyond its galloping rush. So maybe he's just gotten too old to pass for New Talent? B-
  • Albert Ayler Quartet: The Hilversum Session (1964 [2007], ESP-Disk): This is the sort of session that would make an ideal complement to some sort of "Deluxe Edition" reissue of Ayler's 1964 landmark Spiritual Unity. The former album's trio, with Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums, reappear, reprising "Ghosts" and "Spirits" and adding other Ayler pieces. But this does more than reiterate: the fourth member is Don Cherry, whose cornet shadows Ayler's lines and lifts the band's spiritual exultation heavenward. A-
  • Jay Azzolina: Local Dialect (2007, Garagista): Guitarist, b. 1952, studied at Berklee, got an MFA at Conservatory of Music at Purchase NY. Played with Spyro Gyra, John Patitucci (present here), Tim Ries (also here) Rolling Stones Project, plus various popstars and mainstream jazzers. Third album, with Ries' sax and flute, Scott Wendholt's trumpet, Mike Davis' trombone, Larry Goldings' organ, Patitucci's bass, Greg Hutchinson's drums, a few others scattered abouts. Regarded as a fusion guitarist. I'm not so sure, but he does force the rhythm in uninteresting directions, and nothing else appeals enough to sort out. B-
  • Baker Hunt Sandstrom Williams: Extraordinary Popular Delusions (2005 [2007], Okka Disk): Album cover just gives last names. The details are: Jim Baker (piano), Steve Hunt (drums, percussion), Brian Sandstrom (bass, electric guitar), Mars Williams (various saxes). Order is alphabetical, with all pieces jointly credited. Needless to say, Williams makes the most noise, and he makes an awful lot of it. I find that noise oddly exhilarating -- maybe I'm relieved to hear Williams back in form after all these years trying to make a living out of acid jazz? Baker emerges in the quieter spots. Over the last decade or so, he's sort of been the Chicago avant-garde's go-to pianist, but they don't go to pianists very often. Some interesting odds and ends, too. B+(*)
  • Patricia Barber: The Premonition Years 1994-2002 (1994-2002 [2007], Premonition, 3CD): Jazz singer, pianist, and composer, her career forms something of an underground parallel to Diana Krall's -- her voice dusky and shrouded where Krall's is bright and articulate, her piano more substantial but still secondary, a successful niche player whereas Krall crossed over. This takes five albums and reshuffles them by category: pop songs, standards, and originals. All are slow and somber, but at least the rock-era pop songs start with some bounce as well as catchy melodies -- "Use Me," "You Don't Know Me," "Black Magic Woman," "The Fool on the Hill" are given especially learned readings. The older vintage standards are less surprising. The originals are less obvious, but thoughtful and sometimes haunting. I see little value in sorting them this way: her albums are mixes of all three -- trending toward more originals over time -- and often work just because these mulitple facets fit. A fine example is Modern Cool (1998). B+(***)
  • Carlos Barretto Trio: Radio Song (2002 [2007], Clean Feed): Bassist-led trio with guitar and drums. Most pieces cook over a high flame, and guitarist Mario Delgado can dance to the music. Three cuts add Louis Sclavis, who makes such an impact that it seems like more. B+(***)
  • Richie Barshay: Homework (2004-05 [2007], AYVA): A very versatile young (b. 1983) drummer, with interests in Cuba and India as well as mainstream jazz with options of swinging free. Title suggests he's still in his student phase. Indeed, this first album has the feel of a recital or clinic, a chance to show off all the things he can do. Impressive. Now what? B+(***)
  • Count Basie: Basie at Birdland (1961 [2007], Roulette Jazz): This is about where Basie's "Second Testament" (as they put it here) band starts to slip, but they can still kick the old songbook into high orbit, the section work is atomic, a key tenor sax solo (Budd Johnson?) is much further out than expected, and Jon Hendricks mumbles his Clark Terry impression on "Whirly Bird"; nearly double the original LP, this is one band that looks best heavy. A-
  • Marco Benevento: Live at Tonic (2006 [2007], Ropeadope, 3CD): Pianist, although he's likely to play any kind of electronic keyboard. B. 1977, New Jersey. Has a couple of albums with drummer Joe Russo as Benevento/Russo Duo, which tend to get filed as experimental/instrumental rock. Involved in Bobby Previte's Coalition of the Willing and Garage A Trois, which elicit similar confusion and collectively define a niche of beatwise future fusion. This was put together from five November nights -- no date given, but presumably 2006: solo (sometimes plus Scott Metzger); duo (Mike Gordon); trio (Reed Mathis, Matt Chamberlain); quartet (Steven Bernstein, Dave Dreiwitz, Claude Coleman); and "drum night" (Previte, Russo, Mike Dillon). De trop, of course, although at $19.98 list not a ripoff. Some good things, with the second disc starting strong and ending with a striking take on "Elmer's Tune." B+(*)
  • Sathima Bea Benjamin: A Morning in Paris (1963 [2007], Ekapa): A lucky break for the South African jazz singer, paramour of the future Abdullah Ibrahim, to be in Paris next to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, playing piano on two cuts each; she is a patient standards singer, drawing out fine shades of meaning, taking the two Ellington cuts especially slow. B+(*)
  • Andy Bey: Ain't Necessarily So (1997 [2007], 12th Street): Recorded live at Birdland in 1997, with Bey singing and playing piano and the Washingtons for rhythm (Vito Leszak subs for drummer Kenny Washington on two cuts). Bey's a subtle, graceful singer, able to turn even "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" into seduction. The live format lets the band stretch out agreeably. B+(**)
  • Michael Bisio Quartet: Circle This (2006 [2007], CIMP): Seattle bassist with a two saxophone quarter, featuring Avram Fefer (tenor and soprano) and Stephen Gauci (just tenor), and CIMP regular Jay Rosen on drums. Title on spine and cover includes CIMP 360, the label name and number, figuring that ties in nicely with the first song title. I've gone back and forth on the title, opting here for the simple version. Bisio moved to Seattle in 1976, and has recorded since 1980, with a dozen (maybe more) records either under his own name or matched with others -- the latter include duets with Eyvind Kang, Joe Giardullo, and Joe McPhee. Website spends a lot of time extolling his skills as a bassist, which between CIMP's acoustics and my system are hard to verify. The main thing I hear is two horns engaged, sometimes pulling together gently but more often roughhousing. B+(**)
  • Michael Blake Sextet: Amor de Cosmos (2005 [2007], Songlines): Saxophonist, born Montreal 1964, moved to Vancouver, then to New York, where he played in the Lounge Lizards. Here he's on a Canadian label with an all-Canadian band, playing tenor and soprano, in a sextet that includes Brad Turner (trumpet), Sal Ferreras (marimba), Chris Gestrin (piano), André Lachance (bass), and Dylan van der Schyff (drums). Played this twice. Like many parts, but can't get a grip on the whole, and wonder whether it's worth trying to figure out. B+(*)
  • Ruby Braff and the Flying Pizzarellis: C'est Magnifique! (2002 [2007], Arbors): Recorded June 2002. Braff took ill in August and died the following February, so this turns out to have been his final recording. Beats me why it took so long to get released, other than that Braff had so much in the pipeline the label was just pacing themselves. Title comes from a Cole Porter song, included here. The record isn't quite magnifique, and in some respects feels unfinished, but it's hard not to cut them some slack. Braff's cornet doesn't swing as hard as in days of yore, but it's clear and poignant. The guitars chug along amiably, with Bucky's rhythm a particularly nice foil for the cornet. John Pizzarelli gets credit for his trio, with Ray Kennedy on piano and brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass. John has a couple of nice guitar leads and sings two songs -- not necessary but nothing wrong with them. Ambles a bit at the end. B+(**)
  • Ari Brown: Live at the Green Mill (2007, Delmark): Chicago saxophonist, plays tenor and soprano, sometimes at the same time, also a little flute. B. 1944, came up through AACM in the 1970s, playing with Muhal Richard Abrams and Lester Bowie, more recently in Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio. Third album as a leader, a sextet (mostly) with Pharez Whitted on trumpet, Kirk Brown on piano, Yosef Ben Israel on bass, Avreeayl Ra on drums, Dr. Cuz percussion. Back cover quote: "Not impossibly virtuosic or unnecessarily complex." Also on DVD with an extra cut. Played it, but can't say I actually watched it all. B
  • Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown: Bogalusa Boogie Man (1975 [2007], Sunnyside): Texas bluesman goes native in Louisiana, creating a mess of swamp pop that is campy gumbo at best and slimy okra at worst, with "Dixie Chicken" a repast of both; five bonus cuts show off some respectable blues guitar, out of place here. B-
  • The John Brown Quintet featuring Ray Codrington: Merry Christmas, Baby (2006-07 [2007], House of Swing): Brown plays bass, teaches at Duke, also has an Art Blakey tribute album out (more on that later). Codrington plays trumpet in the quintet, and gets to sing here. He's hardly special, but brings good cheer to songs that are nothing but -- God gets dutifully thanked in the liner notes, but the only song here that might upset devoted secularists is "Happy Birthday, Jesus," which reminds me more of Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to JFK. Frosty, Santa Claus, and Rudolph all swing like mad, and it snows all over the winter wonderland. Not even I dare rain on their parade. B+(*)
  • The John Brown Quintet: Terms of Art (2007, House of Swing): Bassist, leading a standard hard bop quintet, with Ray Codrington on trumpet, Brian Miller on saxophones, Gabe Evens on piano, Adonis Rose on drums. Most of these songs I recognize from Blakey's group -- none written by Blakey, only some by group members like Wayne Shorter and Bobby Timmons. I don't really see the point in doing such straight recreations of material that effectively consolidated bebop into mainstream. The result is less notable than Brown's Xmas record, but I wouldn't feel right to grade it lower. B+(*)
  • Jimmy Bruno: Maplewood Avenue (2007, Affiliated Artists): Guitarist, from Philadelphia, b. 1953, fits in the line of mild-mannered, swing-happy guitarists from the '50s; started recording in 1991 for Concord, when they were trying to corner the market for mainstream jazz guitar. This is a trio with Tony Miceli on vibes and Jeff Pedras on bass, both named on the front cover. If Bruno doesn't leave much of an impression, that's because Miceli is so entertaining. B+(*)
  • David Buchbinder: Odessa/Havana (2006-07 [2007], Tzadik): Canadian trumpeter, previous groups include the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Shurum Burum Jazz Circus. (AMG also cites an "Arabic fusion ensemble" called Medina, but it doesn't show up in his credits or in his website bio.) Here he trades compositions with Cuban pianist Hilario Durán, who lives in Canada and has worked with Arturo Sandoval. The band is a mix of klezmer and Cuban specialists, including Quinsin Nachoff on reeds and flute, Aleksandr Gajic on violin, Dafnis Prieto on drums, and Roberto Occhipinti on bass. Actually, more klezmer than Cuban, largely because the horns and violin drown out the piano and percussion has trouble keeping up. (Contrast this with Roberto Rodriguez, who starts with Cuban rhythms and adds klezmer on top, a more effective strategy.) One slow spot works nicely. Some of the orchestration is overblown. Nachoff has some strong sax parts. B+(**)
  • Dave Burrell: Momentum (2005 [2006], High Two): Mass times velocity, right? So when this slows down after the first piece (portentously called "Downfall") it gets heavier. That doesn't favor the pianist, who could hold his own in any boogie woogie bar, so much as the bassist. That would be Michael Formanek, and he's the guy to focus on. B+(***)
  • Michael Camacho: Just for You (2003-04 [2007], New Found): Vocalist. Has a distinctive voice, soft and silky, which occasionally impresses but I don't find all that appealing. First album, Don't know anything more about him. Album appears to have been originally released in 2006 on CAP, then reissued on New Found Records -- cover is changed, but songs look to be the same. Five originals, plus standards including some basic rock ballads ("Norwegian Wood," "Spanish Harlem"). B-
  • François Carrier/Michel Lambert: Kathmandu (2006 [2007], FMR): Alto sax/drums improvisations, recorded live in Nepal. After the first piece, someone (presumably Carrier) announces that the piece was called "Kathmandu Improvisation." He then introduces the next piece, also called "Kathmandu Improvisation." He invites people to dance to their improvs, observing that others have done so. The released album does have song titles: "White Summit," "Dancing Light," "Joyfulness and Playfulness," "Prayer for Peace," etc. Sometimes pure improv works, sometimes not so much. One part reminds me how ugly the lower range of the alto sax can be. B+(**)
  • Paul Chambers: Bass on Top (1957 [2007], Blue Note): One of the top bassists of the era -- AMG's credits run to seven pages, all the more amazing given that he was just 33 when he died, although I figure 1/2 to 2/3 of those are dupes for compilations. Although he did a handful of albums as a leader, this is exceptional in its focus on the bass -- or at least it starts that way, as guitarist Kenny Burrell later moves to the fore. B
  • Cyrus Chestnut: Cyrus Plays Elvis (2007, Koch): Presley, of course. Well, why not? It's not like he's been doing much of interest lately -- 1993's Revelation was the last time he showed anything to get excited about. It's certainly a lot more promising than another trip to church -- although he couldn't resist ending with "How Great Thou Art" (and it comes off nicely). Ballads like "Love Me Tender" always sound good, and the upbeat ones remind you that Chestnut could boogie when he wants to. But I have to wonder, why break the piano trio continuity by adding Mark Gross sax on two cuts? That sort of thing happens a lot when angling for a radio cut, which isn't impossible here, but I find it disruptive. B+(*)
  • Chicago Underground Trio: Chronicle (2006 [2007], Delmark): Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor have been doing business as Chicago Underground whatever since 1998, sometimes with third or even fourth members -- bassist Jason Ajemian is the new ingredient this time. They've also been thickening up their cornet-percussion duo with electronics, which have reached a new plateau of density and ugliness this time. Often fascinating, sometimes wearing; I always love the cornet, and am increasingly impressed by Taylor's vibes. Not sure what Ajemian is responsible for, but his credits include electronics, so he may be the secret to the density. Also available on a DVD, which I have but haven't watched. B+(**)
  • Choro Ensemble: Nosso Tempo (2007, Anzic): Anat Cohen, on clarinet, fronts a Brazilian group, with Gustavo Dantas' 6-string guitar, Carlos Almeida's 7-string guitar, Pedro Ramos' cavaquinho and tenor guitar, Zé Mauricio's percussion (pandeiro, zabumba, surdo). Aside from the clarinet, the choro is felt and authentic. The clarinet isn't authentic, to choro at least; the exultant uplift Cohen brings to the proceedings sounds much like the stock-in-trade worldview of klezmer. B+(*)
  • Cique (2007, Capri): Cover explains: "cique (sik) -- (n) post retro trans genre hippy trippy spank a lank; (adj) really totally happening; (adj) not at all well." Latter sounds like "sick." Denver group, with Jeff Jenkins on keyboards (rhodes, organ, synths), Bijoux Barbosa on bass (electric & acoustic), Matt Houston on drums. Steve Holloway guests on bodhran (a celtic frame drum) on one track. John Abercrombie plays guitar on four tracks, rating a "with special guest" honorific. Abercrombie's easy-going fusion is probably the main interest here, but Jenkins contributes some tasty funk as well. B
  • Stanley Clarke: The Toys of Men (2007, Heads Up): Bassist, mostly electric although he plays a good deal of acoustic here, as well as variants like piccolo bass and tenor bass. From Philadelphia. Made a big splash in the early 1970s (his own early 20s) with Return to Forever and on his own, but his crossover never carried much critical weight -- one result being that this is the first of his 30-some records I've heard. (Of course, I have heard other records he's played on -- AMG's list runs to four pages.) This one is an odd mix of things. The six-part title suite would be overblown arena jazz if such a thing existed. But there are also solo bass pieces (acoustic, no less), funk drums duos, keyb and guitar trios, a vocal piece with Esperanza Spalding writing and singing. Most of it is quite listenable, but I don't quite see how it adds up. B
  • Gil Coggins: Better Late Than Never (2001-02 [2007], Smalls): Pianist, born 1924 in New York, died 2004. Played with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, and Ray Draper back in the 1950s. Cut an album called Gil's Mood in 1990; otherwise this is it, hence the title. Sounds like a piano trio -- two drummers are credited, probably two sessions. Nice work, but hard for me to place this. B+(**)
  • Ryan Cohan: One Sky (2007, Motéma): Chicago pianist, b. 1971, two previous albums, has worked with Orbert Davis and Ramsey Lewis, evidently as an arranger. He does have a passion for arranging, keeping three horns busy. Indeed, he's much more likely to fall down when he cuts back to the piano setting up a theme than when he's running full bore. The saxophone is often impressive -- don't know whether it's Bob Sheppard or Geof Bradfield or both -- and Tito Carillo has good moments on trumpet. Indeed, much of this album is impressive, but I also find it annoying, pretentious, overblown, and I have no desire to try to sort it out -- it's like jazz has finally come up with its analogue to the Rachmaninoff era. If this gets hyped enough I may have to come back and decide whether to list is as a dud. It could be, but I probably won't. B
  • Freddy Cole: Music Maestro Please (2006 [2007], High Note): A pretty good soft crooner album with Bill Charlap's trio for backup, a high class move that doesn't translate into anything fancy. He has a lock on the family sound, but has moved on to a new level of maturity. B+(**)
  • Richard Cole: Shade (2000-07 [2007], Origin): Saxophonist, tenor first, soprano an afterthought, based in Seattle. Third album. Name reminds one of alto saxophonist d Richie Cole, but they have little in common. This album was put together with tracks from three sessions: one from 2000, three from 2005, four more from 2007. Randy Brecker gets a "featuring" credit for the first two. The oldest track, "A Shade of Joe," is by far the most impressive -- dedicated to Henderson, Cole rises to the challenge. Becker has good spots on the 2005 tracks. The 2007 tracks feature the Bill Anschell, Jeff Johnson, John Bishop rhythm section, but Cole seems diminished, and the overall effort is rather scattered. B
  • Tim Collins: Valcour (2005 [2007], Arabesque): Plays vibes; also (not here but not unrelated) piano and drums. AMG lists four albums, starting in 2003, but his website describes this as his first album as a leader. Group includes alto sax (Matt Blostein), trumpet (Ingrid Jensen), piano (Aaron Parks), bass and drums. That's a lot of options, letting them navigate some tricky postbop. Sounds fine, but none of it sticks with me. B
  • The Cool Season: An Origin Records Holiday Collection, Vol. 2 (2007, Origin): I really wish publicists would just stop sending me Xmas music. I'm not interested in it. I can't resell it (or anything else; oh, for the days when this town still had record stores). I don't have space to shelve it, even on the dregs shelf in the basement. I can't remember ever liking it, even when Xmas still excited me. And my views got more jaundiced when I read that Xmas music outsells jazz, even though at least there are at least 10 times as many jazz records released each year. I suppose the flip side of that equation is that jazz labels, having to pay the bills to put out the underappreciated music they exist for, should get in on a bit of the Xmas action. That's all this really is. No artists put their names on the covers here, but the whole thing is done by the same quartet, featuring Origin's usual rhythm section -- Bill Anschell, Jeff Johnson, John Bishop -- with Thomas Marriott on trumpet/flugelhorn. It's utterly inconsequential, and pretty close to inoffensive. If for some reason, like you own a retail business, you feel obliged to play the stuff, this is an investment that will spare a lot of people a lot of grief. B-
  • Chick Corea and Bela Fleck: The Enchantment (2007, Concord): Duets, about half from each artist's catalog. The banjo often merges into the piano, producing something like a harpsichord sound, and giving the whole affair a baroque cast -- not as rigid rhythmically, of course. B-
  • Jacques Coursil: Clameurs (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): Trumpet player, born in Paris, his parents from Martinique; appeared on several avant records in 1960s (Burton Greene, Sunny Murray, Frank Wright) plus a couple under his own name. Then basically dropped out of jazz, pursuing a career teaching French literature and linguistics, winding up in Martinique. In 2005 Tzadik released a new album titled Minimal Brass. Haven't heard it, but this follow-up is pretty minimal, with percussion and spare trumpet juxtaposed with spoken texts, including a piece by Frantz Fanon and poems by Edouard Glissant. I can't vouch for the texts, but mix appealing in its simple drama. B+(**)
  • Eddie Daniels: Homecoming: Live at the Iridium (2006 [2007], IPO, 2CD): Plays clarinet and tenor sax, much better known for the clarinet although I rather prefer the sax here -- slows down the bebop runs and feels more centered in a band that includes vibes (Joe Locke) and piano (Tom Ranier). Originally from New York but lives in Santa Fe, hence the title. B
  • Charles Davis: Land of Dreams (2006 [2007], Smalls): Saxophonist, plays tenor a lot here, soprano a little, but best known for his baritone. Born 1933, Goodman MI. Early on (1954-61) played with Sun Ra, Dinah Washington, Kenny Dorham, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, and a fairly steady stream thereafter -- often in large groups, like Muhal Richard Abrams' Hearinga Suite, where his role isn't all that clear. Has very little under his own name -- a 1979 album is called Dedicated to Tadd, and he plays a Dameron piece here. Reminds me of Clifford Jordan with his leonine tone and foursquare phrasing. Quartet includes Tardo Hammer (piano), Lee Hudson (bass), Jimmy Wormworth (drums), but the sax is constantly front and center. Even his soprano sounds heavy, which may be why he built his career on baritone. [B+(**)]
  • Miles Davis: Evolution of the Groove (1959-72 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): Feels like an aborted project, adding up to no more than 14:40 including an unreleased, unnecessary "Freddie Freeloader" outtake, and four short remixes -- one featuring Nas, one featuring Carlos Santana, two more with no one much at all. B-
  • Walter Davis Jr.: Davis Cup (1959 [2007], Blue Note): A minor hard bop pianist, worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey, Archie Shepp, Bobby Watson, a few others. This quintet was his only album on Blue Note, or for that matter under his own name until 1977. He wrote all the pieces, but he doesn't get much piano space. The album is dominated by Byrd, with McLean present but usually laying back. B
  • Deep Blue Organ Trio: Folk Music (2007, Origin): Chicago group, with Chris Foreman on organ, Bobby Broom on guitar, Greg Rockingham on drums. Third album; first two on Delmark. No idea where the title comes from. Nothing here suggests anything I can recognize as folk music: most of the pieces come out of hard bop, with songs from the Beatles and Ohio Players slightly more recent. Foreman doesn't strike me as a particularly imposing organ player. He tends to pad out the groove rather than drive it, letting Broom's guitar set the pace and direction. B
  • Tony DeSare: Last First Kiss (2006 [2007], Telarc): It may not be fair to treat him as another Sinatra wannabe. He plays piano some, although he gives way to Tedd Firth on five cuts here, and he writes a bit, including the title cut. He's especially adept at going soft, as on an "How Deep Is the Ocean?" reduced to the barest simmer, or his own delicate "Lover's Lullaby." He takes two rock pieces -- Prince's "Kiss" and Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move"; I thought about saying contemporary but on average they're older than he is -- and pares them down to his niche, but he's more comfortable with the old stuff. Bucky Pizzarelli plays guitar. Five cuts have horns, including an underused but invaluable Harry Allen. Two albums down, he's my favorite of the wannabes -- except for Diana Krall, who already is. B+(***)
  • The Dynamic Les DeMerle Band: Cookin' at the Corner, Vol. 2 (2005 [2007], Origin): Drummer, sings swing tunes and jump blues in a voice that brings Louis Prima to mind, especially when he turns the microphone over to his straighter half, wife Bonnie Eisele. But the analogy held up better on Vol. 1, where he uncorked a funny story called "Bennie's From Heaven"; nothing here comes close. B+(*)
  • The Karl Denson Trio: Lunar Orbit (2007, Bobby Ace): From San Diego, plays sax and flute, more funk than jazz. Got his break in 1989 with Lenny Kravitz. Other credits include Fred Wesley, Blackalicious, the Allman Brothers, Steve Winwood, John Scofield, and a couple of organ grinders I like: Robert Walter and Ron Levy. The trio here is an organ-drums thing, but it's not really a trio: he uses three different organ players and three different drummers (counting Steve Haney on congas). This leads off with a flute piece, awful really, and he returns to flute several more times -- "That Other Thing" is a tolerable example, but it still seems like a pretty silly funk instrument. The sax, of course, works better -- cf. "Dingo Dog Sled," probably the most retro piece here, easily the funkiest. B-
  • Bob DeVos: Playing for Keeps (2007, Savant): Guitarist-led organ trio, with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander an added attraction on four of ten songs. Don't have much bio on DeVos: four records since 1999, three on Savant, but he looks older, and has credits Richard "Groove" Holmes albums in 1977, then very little until he pops up with Charles Earland in 1997. Dan Kostelnik plays a relatively reserved and supportive organ here, letting DeVos run his long, grooveful leads. I haven't had much nice to say about Alexander lately, but he's back in full tone here, powering through the leadoff cut, and mixing it up with DeVos in the later cuts. B+(**)
  • Dion: Son of Skip James (2007, Verve Forecast): Nephew of Muddy Waters, cousin of Chuck Berry, both of whom figure larger here than James, but it's worth noting that the latter's comeback came after Dion's Belmonts faded into doo-wop history. At the time, Dion was refashioning himself as a folk singer, and he was remarkably good at it -- cf. Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings (1962-1965). He makes a pretty fair bluesman too. B+(*)
  • Lou Donaldson: Gravy Train (1961 [2007], Blue Note): An alto saxophonist, Donaldson got a reputation early in the 1950s as a Charlie Parker imitator, but it's hard to hear the influence, especially by the early 1960s when his easy-flowing blues style fit snugly into the soul jazz milieu. The temptation to put him down as derivative may be because he never showed any big ambitions. He was content to knock off dozens of clean toned, easy grooving albums, popular enough that Blue Note kept him employed from 1952 to 1974. This one makes the most of his limits. Two originals are small ideas worked out comfortably. The covers carry stronger melodies, which he renders with little elaboration but uncommon elegance. Herman Foster's piano is crisper than the usual organs, while Alec Dorsey's congas lighten and loosen the beat. A-
  • Double Duo: Crossword Puzzle (2005 [2007], Libra): Two piano-trumpet duos, one from Japan (Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamura), the other from the Netherlands (Misha Mengelberg, Angelo Verploegen). Not much different than a single duo would have been, given that both duos leave ample room for the other. B+(*)
  • Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters: Hope Radio (2007, Stony Plain): Winner of an honorary "shut up and play yer guitar" award. Filed under blues, although they could pass as a soul jazz organ group -- trio plus two extra bassists, one also playing a bit of piano. Earl's blues guitar is clean and fluid. Still, at its best it reminds me of the guitar breaks in blues-infatuated rock records -- like Big Brother and the Holding Company with no Janis Joplin. B
  • Wayne Escoffery: Veneration (2006 [2007], Savant): Tenor saxophonist, takes one track on soprano without faltering, plays fast postbop, holds an attractive tone when he slows down; basically, has all the tools. Dresses sharp too. Only wrote one song, which holds up. Ends with superb pieces by Ellington and McLean. First rate band, with Joe Locke on vibes a special treat, especially when they race. Hans Glawishnig on bass, Lewis Nash on drums. B+(***)
  • Bruce Eskovitz Jazz Orchestra: Invitation (2007, Pacific Coast Jazz): Listed in the credits as Dr. Bruce Eskovitz. Got his Ph.D. at University of Southern California. Don't know how old he is, but he's got some grey in the beard and a discography that goes back to 1992, or maybe to 1983. Plays saxophone, mostly tenor, some soprano, some alto flute. AMG describes his early records as "crossover," but he turned around and did a Rollins tribute (One for Newk) in 1993. This is a 10-piece big band -- not huge in terms of numbers, but they play loud -- one of several things I like about them. Another is a choice cut called "Latin Fever" which Eskovitz wrote as a classroom salsa intro but kept in the book because it's "always a crowd pleaser." Reminds me of Gillespie's big band. Finally, I like it when the saxophonist takes center stage and cuts loose. Not a lot of finesse here. Maybe the academy isn't so stuffy after all. B+(**)
  • John Ettinger: Kissinger in Space (2006, Ettinger Music): A much more ambitious run of music than on his debut -- more varied, which among other things means some slower pieces. I still don't have a sense of him as a violin stylist, although he hits every mark he sets. But I'm much impressed with his networking: he tapped Arizona schoolmate Tony Malaby for a second voice, and his SF connections brought in Nels Cline Singers Devin Hoff on bass and Scott Amendola on drums. B+(***)
  • Alan Ferber Nonet: The Compass (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): Trombonist, twin brother of drummer Mark Ferber; not to be confused with saxophonist Alon Farber or trombonist Joe Fielder let alone drummer Alvin Fielder, though sometimes it takes some effort. Third album, second nonet, a configuration I almost always abhor. Played it to clear it off my shelf, then had to play it again to verify what I was hearing. It does have a fair amount of that complex postbop harmony I care so little for, but the delicate parts of something like "North Rampart" are luscious, even when the horns weigh in. And the charging trombone sells the hard stuff. B+(**)
  • Joe Fiedler Trio: The Crab (2007, Clean Feed): Trombonist. Based in New York. Third album as leader, plus a substantial sideman list, divided between salsa bands, big bands, and work with avant-gardists (Anthony Braxton, Satoko Fujii, and Chris Jonas show up repeatedly). A previous trio was called Plays the Music of Albert Mangelsdorff, also on Clean Feed, which did a good job of framing trombone as a lead instrument. This trio, with bassist John Hebert and drummer Michael Sarin, builds on that, although it also shows the basic limits of volume and dynamics. B+(**)
  • Scott Fields Ensemble: Dénoument (1997 [2007], Clean Feed): Actually, a double trio: two sets of guitar, bass and drums. On the left channel: Jeff Parker, Jason Roebke, Michael Zerang. On the right: Fields, Hans Sturm, Hamid Drake. Most or all Chicago musicians. Fields has a dozen or more records since 1990, maybe earlier, including a duo with Parker on Delmark. This was originally self-released on Geode Records in 1999. Fields explains: "For most of the compositions, the trios are working in different but interlocking pitch sets and compound time signatures. These structures result in pip-popping little kicks and difficult-to-pin-down harmonies." Strikes me as dabbling: a bit here, a bit there, no particular urge to pull it all together. B+(*)
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Love Letters From Ella (1973-83 [2007], Concord): I don't really know what's going on here. I just have an advance copy and a PR sheet that's more concerned with hyping Starbucks than any of the music here. Plus I figured I'd put it off until some Verve reissues showed up, but they never did. Now I'm just cleaning up. What we have here are ten previously unreleased vocal tracks from Fitzgerald's 1973-83 Pablo period. They are strong performances of familiar material. Eight are presented as featuring special guests: Count Basie, the London Symphony Orchestra, Joe Pass, André Previn, and/or Scott Hamilton. Some have been merged in the editing -- LSO and Hamilton for sure, Pass and Basie are dead although the latter retains a ghostly form, especially at Concord. I'm only partly inclined to reject such adulteration out of hand -- for instance, I don't have a big problem with remixes and mash-ups, but there the shoe is on the other foot. But I do like to know what I'm dealing with, and there's a whiff of dishonesty here that may or may not be dispelled in the final product -- the reviews I've read add some info suggesting it is, but not enough to be sure. In any case, "Our Love Is Here to Stay" with André Previn is a choice cut -- holds up even though my mind keeps interjecting snatches from her duet with Louis Armstrong. B
  • Wendy Fopeano: Raining on the Roses (2006 [2007], Outside Shore): Vocalist, originally from Kansas City, now based in Denver. Second album. Likes vocalese, writing her own lyrics to David Murray and Kenny Barron pieces, as well as using some of Jon Hendricks' lyrics. Likes to scat. Does two Jobim songs, several standards, one co-credit with pianist-husband Marc Sabatella. Gives one song slot up to fellow KC vocalist Carol Comer. Recorded live with a pretty upbeat group. B
  • Gary Foster/Putter Smith: Perfect Circularity (2006 [2007], AJI): AJI stands for American Jazz Institute. Foster is credited with woodwinds. Two booklet photos show him playing alto sax, a third a flute. Lee Konitz wrote a note also mentioning tenor sax. Foster was close to 70 when this was recorded. He came out of Kansas a little too late for the west coast cool boom of the 1950s, but he does have a connection to Warne Marsh and Konitz. He cut three albums in the 1960s, little more under his own name, but he has a substantial number of credits, including an acclaimed record in Concord's Duo Series that Alan Broadbent got top billing for. Smith is a bassist, five years younger. His credit list is much shorter, conspicuously including a half-dozen albums with Broadbent. This is a duo, with the usual limits but nicely done, with both players holding interest in their solos as well as their interplay. B+(**)
  • Jamie Fox: When I Get Home (2006, Rare Cat): Guitarist, from California. First album. Doesn't look to be all that young. Brief bio on website suggests a checkered career: "played lead guitar and served as Musical Director for the Joan Baez World Tour (1989-1991), . . . was lead guitarist for Blood, Sweat, & Tears (1998-2000), touring the USA and Canada." Not being much of a guitar buff, I could go up or down on his attractive mainstream guitar, but he put together a pretty good band -- four (out of five) names I recognize, the best known being pianist Kenny Werner, the most impressive saxophonist Dan Willis. His work here reminds me that I still owe Willis an honorable mention for Velvet Gentlemen. B+(*)
  • Joe Friedman: Cup O' Joe (2006, NAS Music): Guitarist, from St. Louis, now in New York. First album. Wrote two of ten pieces, claiming arrangements on a couple more, so not a big composer. Other pieces include two from Monk, one each from Horace Silver and George Benson. He's a good but unremarkable mainstream guitarist. What lifts the album above par is a band that includes George Colligan on piano and Peter Washington on bass. B+(*)
  • Champian Fulton with David Berger & the Sultans of Swing: Champian (2007, Such Sweet Thunder): Singer, plays piano on two tracks, would probably play more but not much point in front of a big band. Born 1985, grew up in Norman OK, then Le Mars IA, then back to Norman. Father plays trumpet, became director of Clark Terry Institute for Jazz Studies -- Terry was a household guest early on, a world-class education in itself. She graduated from SUNY Purchase, moved to New York, sings with Berger's big band. The Berger band always seemed better in theory than in practice, and are still little more than perfunctory here, but Fulton fits in nicely and brightens them up -- good examples are "He Ain't Got Rhythm" and "Just One of Those Things." B+(*)
  • Funky Pieces of Silver: The Horace Silver Songbook (The Composer Collection Volume 1) (1997-2005 [2007], High Note): An unnecessary label sampler, but it's hard to go wrong with Silver songs. Six of nine feature the Hammond B-3, including four by Charles Earland, three from the same album. The only surprise is that I like Joey DeFrancesco's trumpet more than his organ. Everything is tight, and funk is its own reward. B+(*)
  • Richard Galliano Quartet: If You Love Me (2006 [2007], CAM Jazz): Gary Burton's vibes provide fast light accents to Galliano's accordion, which carries the emotional weight of pieces that are neither fast nor light. Both players have a connection to Astor Piazzolla, who wrote the majority of these pieces. When Burton played with Piazzolla back in the 1970s, he was more fan than help. Here he fits better, not least because Galliano is in a mood to woo, not race. B+(**)
  • Brad Goode: Nature Boy (2006 [2007], Delmark): Trumpet player, from Chicago, now based in Colorado. Sixth album since 1988, when his debut was titled Shock of the New. Haven't heard that one, but I doubt that it was very shocking. Very mainstream, bright tone on the trumpet, standard quartet with Jeff Jenkins on piano. Has a nice stretch of covers early on, including "I Remember You," "Sealed With a Kiss," "Tres Palabras (Without You)." Originals more conventionally postbop. B+(*)
  • Grant Green: The Latin Bit (1961 [2007], Blue Note): The latin percussion is professional enough -- Johnny Acea on piano, Willie Bobo on drums, Carlos "Patato" Valdes on congas, Garvin Masseaux on chekere -- but they can't inspire Green to break out of his usual groove. Two later cuts with Ike Quebec on tenor sax and Sonny Clark on piano work better, with the chekere gone and the congas reduced to atmosphere. B
  • Onaje Allan Gumbs: Sack Full of Dreams (2007, 18th & Vine): Pianist, b. 1949 in New York, 6th album since 1990, with a long list of sideman credits going back to Betty Carter's boot camp in 1972 and Woody Shaw's Moontrane in 1974. He's always struck me as an able supporting player, but I've never gotten a sense of his own style, and this strikes me as all over the map. One vocal track, featuring Obba Babatunde, disrupts the flow, despite noble sentiments. B
  • Tardo Hammer: Look Stop & Listen: The Music of Tadd Dameron (2007, Sharp Nine): Pianist, from New York, on his fourth album, mostly trios -- this one with John Webber and Joe Farnsworth. Deeply rooted in bebop, all the more evident on this program of Tadd Dameron tunes. He does a respectable job, here as elsewhere, but I find this of rather limited interest. B+(*)
  • Julie Hardy: The Wish (2006 [2007], World Culture Music): Vocalist, from New Hampshire, now in Brooklyn after studying in Boston. Second album, after A Moment's Notice (2005, Fresh Sound New Talent). Wrote half or a bit more, including three pieces subtitled parts of "The Wish Suite." Also does a Beatles song, some standards, and added lyrics to a Wayne Shorter piece. Band includes some minor names -- guitarist Ben Monder is probably the best known. I didn't care much for the voice or the arrangements, thought "All or Nothing at All" was especially clunky; but I was working on other stuff at the time, wasn't paying enough attention to get technical, and gave her the benefit of my doubts on the grade, seeing little prospect in pursuing this further. B-
  • The Harlem Experiment (2007, Ropeadope): Related, although I can't tell you how, to two previous Ropeadope releases: The Philadelphia Experiment and The Detroit Experiment. The promo cover speaks of "a quilt of sounds that speak to the real Harlem," but I suspect that has less to do with the actual Harlem of today than the mythic Harlem of yore -- a scene still haunted by Langston Hughes and Malcolm X, where "Reefer Man" is still funny, "A Rose in Spanish Harlem" is a lonely jíbaro serenade, and the Jewish past still lingers in Don Byron's clarinet lead "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," with token entries for funk and a plea for rhyme as serious lit. In other words, an album of distinct pieces composed into an artificial mural. Vocals by Queen Esther, Taj Mahal, James Hunter, Olu Dara. Steve Bernstein smears his trumpet over Malcolm X. DJ Arkive is credited with cuts and bruises. B+(**)
  • David Hazeltine: The Inspiration Suite (2007, Sharp Nine): One of the very best mainstream pianists working today, consistently engaging in his trio -- cf. The Classic Trio (1996, Sharp Nine) -- and a dependable support player. This whole group looks sharp, with Eric Alexander on tenor sax, Joe Locke on vibes, John Webber on bass, Joe Farnsworth on drums, and Daniel Sadownick on percussion (three tracks). But the first time I played it I was little more than annoyed; second time it just flopped lamely, marking time before it expired. I suppose I could give it a third spin to see whether to add it to the dud list, especially if I can figure out why. I'm not real sure why this doesn't work -- Alexander sounds thin, way off his usual game; Locke solos well but otherwise is disconnected; the 26-minute title thing straddling the middle is impossible to distinguish from the before and aft; the leader rarely gets space to stretch out -- but it probably doesn't matter much. B
  • The Skip Heller Trio: Mean Things Happening in This Land (2006, Ropeadope): One of those advance copies that got lost in my pile, in this case for a year or more. No big deal. Heller is a guitarist, born in Philadelphia, based in Los Angeles. Has a dozen-plus albums since 1992, drawing on blues, swing, pop, and if AMG is to be believed, Bakersfield country. The mean things include at least two obvious references to New Orleans: "Katrina, Mon Amour" and "Heckuvajob." Maybe three, given that another title is "President Nero?" There's also a song for Ani DiFranco, "The Kind of Beauty that Moves," and he follows that up with the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl." I wish the music lived up to these titles, but it's mostly mild-mannered organ funk. Last song has a vocal, but no credit for who sang it. It's called "Aragon Mill," about the closing thereof, and is the best thing here, probably because words are sharper than guitar. B
  • Marsha Heydt: One Night (2007, Blue Toucan): Plays sax, flute, clarinet. Grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, tracing her family back to the eighteenth century. Moved to Los Angeles in 1991, then to New York in 1992. First album. Wrote four songs, including one done both as an instrumental and with a nuanced Carla Cook vocal. That's the only vocal. The rest, with the marginal exception of a Monk piece, is rather schmoozy easy listening music, often with quasi-Latin rhythms, three with a string trio, six more with Erik Friedlander's cello. Booklet doesn't specify what Heydt plays where, but her website gives the breakdown as: alto sax 6, soprano sax 3, flute 4. Heydt's alto sax sounds rather wobbly, although her "Georgia on My Mind" has some charm. In fact, quite a bit of this is likable, but it's hard to see much point to it. C+
  • His Name Is Alive: Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown (2004-07, High Two): I imagine that most readers know who Marion Brown is, but that may not be a slam dunk. He's an alto saxophonist, born 1935, made a few notable avant-garde albums starting with ESP-Disk in 1965 up through a couple of remarkable Mal Waldron duos in the 1980s, but he's recorded little since, evidently having multiple health problems. Very few of his records are in print, so if you weren't aware of him when he was active, there's not much likelihood of being reminded of him now. His Name Is Alive is more/less a front for guitarist Warren Defever. In the early 1990s he recorded quasi-rock albums with singer Karin Oliver. Robert Christgau recommended a couple of his/their albums. I bought one, made no sense of it, and never paid any further attention to him/them. Now, a few dozen mostly self-released albums later, comes this Marion Brown tribute. Three cuts were recorded live in 2004, the others undated studio cuts. The musicians mostly come from the Ann Arbor group NOMO, with Michael Herbst on alto sax, Elliot Bergman on tenor sax, Justin Walter on trumpet, Olman Piedra on congas and cajon. None of these players make much of an impression, except occasionally the guitar. Long stretches are rather fallow, occasionally dirgelike. [PS: Looks like Why Not? is available at the ESP-Disk website, as good a place to start as any.] B
  • Billie Holiday: Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (1935-42 [2007], Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): Her early Brunswick singles were credited to Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra, but only the most arcane European labels still credit them to Wilson. One proof that Holiday is the most bankable name in pre-WWII jazz is that the major label custodian of Wilson's Brunswick and Holiday's Vocalion singles, currently d/b/a Sony/BMG, has kept them consistently and extensively in print throughout the CD era, even while they've let works by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, not to the Wilson cuts that didn't feature Holiday. The first CDs were The Quintessential Billie Holiday, released as nine separate volumes. In 2001, Sony came up with 35 unreleased alternates and packaged it all together in a 10-CD box, Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, which they broke down to six CDs of master takes and four of alternates. All along, they've spun off smaller samplers, which are almost impossible to screw up -- unless they drag in a 1958 Columbia horror show, Lady in Satin, where her voice is shot and drenched in dreadful strings, about the only possible complaint is that they cut her short. If the big box seems de trop and the still-in-print Quintessentials seem too arbitrary, this 80-song box is perfect. The subtitle is misleading in that it contains nowhere near all the master takes and singles, but the selection is canonical, faultless. It smoothes over the arcs of her story -- her emergence from being in the band to stardom, the wear and tear of a troubled life. On this evidence, she took charge of a band of superstars from day one and was a model of consistency at least as far as the box goes -- her voice limited in range, her technique straightforward and uncluttered, her phrasing definitive. A+
  • John Hollenbeck & Jazz Bigband Graz: Joys & Desires (2004 [2006], Intuition): After my preliminary note, Hollenbeck wrote in to correct me that Theo Bleckman's "effects" on the first piece were acoustic, not electronic, and that the band played there as well. Indeed, they frame the poem in striking tones, complementing Bleckman's reading while staying out of its way. Five minutes into the second piece, there's still nothing here that couldn't have been done more economically with synths, but gradually the sonic wealth of the big band takes shape, and the record is off and running. Bleckmann returns much later with the rapturous title chant (the piece is "The Garden of Love"), the high point of an album that is always sharp and often seductive. B+(***)
  • Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte as Groundtruther + Special Guest John Medeski: Altitude (2006 [2007], Thirsty Ear, 2CD): Hunter plays 7-string guitar. Previte is a drummer who dabbles in electronics. They both have notable solo careers -- Previte's a decade longer, from 1987 -- and now have three Groundtruther albums together, each named for geographical dimensions (Longitude, Latitude), each with an extra guest (or two). This one adds keyb player Medeski, of Martin & Wood fame. First disc is labeled "Below Sea Level," which lets Medeski exploit the whole gamut of bubbly burbling organ effects, a tedious onomatopoeia that ultimately fails to evolve gills and expires in the deep. The second disc is "Above Sea Level," which lets Hunter air out his guitar for some pleasant flightiness, eventually coaxing Medeski to switch to piano, which for once surprises. B
  • Todd Isler: Soul Drums (2006-07 [2007], Takadimi Tunes): Drummer, percussionist, seems to have special interests in Indian and African percussion, evidently based in New York. This is second or third album. Claims to have appeared on hundreds of albums. AMG counts 16. Has a book called You Can Ta Ka Di Mi This. Songs include various saxophonists, pianists, bassists. Sandwiched between are short percussion-only pieces. Covers two songs: Stevie Wonder's "Bird of Beauty" and Joe Zawinul's "Badia" -- the latter the closer, breaking the pattern with a guitar duo. The song pieces are very nice. The interludes break up the sweetness. B+(**)
  • Jentsch Group Large: Brooklyn Suite (2005 [2007], Fleur de Son): Led by Chris Jentsch, guitarist, based in Brooklyn. Has a couple of previous albums I haven't heard, including one called Miami Suite -- got his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from University of Miami. Group numbers 17, including conductor JC Sanford, five reeds, four trumpets, four trombones, guitar, bass, drums -- familiar names include John O'Gallagher, Dan Willis, Russ Johnson, Jacob Garchik, Alan Ferber. Big, swimming sound, but I'm not all that well disposed to the swaggering moves and the fancy orchestration. Ends with two non-Suite pieces which develop the guitar and individual horns better. B+(*)
  • Ellen Johnson: These Days (2005 [2006], Vocal Visions): Singer. Grew up in Chicago, teaches in San Diego. Has three albums starting with Too Good to Title in 1993, plus a couple of instructional things. This particular album puts her in line behind Sheila Jordan, who repays the compliment with two guest vocals: a duet on Jordan's "The Crossing" and background on Johnson's tribute to Jordan, "Little Messenger." Elsewhere, Johnson acknowledges such Jordan signatures as duetting with bassist Darek Oleskiewicz (Oles here) and adding words to Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square" reminiscent of Jordan's birdwatching. B+(**)
  • Sean Jones: Roots (2006, Mack Avenue): This one was released in Sept. 2006. Again, all I have is the advance. On the back it says: "Sean Jones and Roots take you from the church, to the dance hall, and through the night clubs of New Orleans." Actually, they start with "Children's Hymn" and end with "John 3:16" and "I Need Thee," stopping at "Come Sunday" and "Lift Every Voice" and similar fare along the way -- maybe Brad Leali's "Puddin' Time" counts as a change of pace? (Sounds like it.) Jones is a bright, energetic trumpet player, but he rarely picks the music to show that off. The saxophonist has some good moments; evidently that's Tia Fuller. B
  • Sean Jones: Kaleidoscope (2007, Mack Avenue): Trumpet player, b. 1978 in Warren OH. Fourth album, quite a few side dates, mostly with labelmates but he can also point to some notable big band work (Brad Leali, Gerald Wilson). Never got a final copy of this; for that matter, got an advance but no final of his previous Roots, which I never got to (but may be around here somewhere). This one is meant to showcase vocalists. Don't know who sings what, but the vocalists are: Kim Burrell, Gretchen Parlato, Carolyn Perteete, Sachal Vasandani, JD Walter. Most have a gospel vibe, and none strike me as the least bit interesting. But the trumpet does shine behind them, and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III breaks loose some tough runs. Maybe I should find the old promo? C+
  • Thad Jones: The Magnificent Thad Jones (1956 [2007], Blue Note): The title strikes me as a play on Jones' debut album on Debut, The Fabulous Thad Jones -- among other things it implies continued growth. The slowest great trumpet player of his generation, Jones never dazzled you with his chops, but he had an uncanny knack for finding right places for his notes, and at his moderate pace you get to savor the full beauty of the instrument. Ends with a graceful non-LP duet with guitarist Kenny Burrell. A-
  • Manu Katché: Playground (2007, ECM): Seductive but understated album, the big difference from his previous Neighbourhood is the presence of cleverly textured but unstriking horns (Mathias Eick, Trygve Seim) in place of ones that that force your attention (Tomasz Stanko, Jan Garbarek). Katché, a drummer who composes but doesn't make a lot of noise here, did manage to hang on to two thirds of Stanko's young Polish trio, with Marcin Wasilewski's piano the charm here. B+(*)
  • Bernie Kenerson: Just You & Me (2007, Bernup): Subtitled "The Art of the EWI" -- promised as the first of a number of volumes exploring the Akai EWI 4000s electronic wind instrument; i.e., a synthesizer you control by blowing into. EWI's show up on some smooth jazz records, but not often otherwise. (Sanity check: fgrep through my notebook produces: Michael Brecker, Felipe LaMoglia [w/Ignacio Berroa], Bob Mintzer, Jørgen Munkeby [Shining], Steve Tavaglione [Jing Chi], Andre Ward. That strikes me as short on the smooth side, but my note-taking isn't always up to snuff there.) Problem is that Kenerson doesn't push the instrument very far. He describes himself as "a child of funk and fusion," cites Brecker as his favorite musician, and picks Mintzer's Yellowjackets as his favorite band. Backed with keybs, bass and percussion, Kenerson mostly sticks with harmless funk and a bit of space atmosphere here. The EWI ranges from flute to sanitized alto sax tones -- it's not the problem, but not the solution either. B
  • Carla Kihlstedt/Satoko Fujii: Minamo (2002-05 [2007], Henceforth): Violin-piano duo. Kihlstedt is best known for her work in Tin Hat, although she's shown up in a number of contexts, including ROVA's latest assault on Ascension. The first three tracks, totalling 20 minutes, were recorded as an opening act for a ROVA concert in San Francisco. The final 28:40 tracks was recorded at Wels in Austria. The latter set meshes better, probably because the violinist is more aggressive. The pianist can brawl with the best of them, but she tends to hold back when not provoked. Which is OK too, in the limited way of duos. B+(**)
  • Meinrad Kneer/Albert van Veenendaal: The Munderkingen Sessions: Part 1 (2004 [2007], Evil Rabbit): This predates Predictable Point of Impact, a trio with percussionist Yonga Sun that made my last Jazz CG column. The drums keep things moving, or at least provide a welcome distraction. Cutting back to just bass and piano inevitably slows things down, and this is no exception. Kneer is the bassist. Van Veenendaal plays more or less prepared piano, which offers some surprises, but more often than not the pair get bogged down in minute abstractions. I find this somewhat fascinating, but don't expect many others will. B+(*)
  • The Very Best of Diana Krall (1995-2006 [2007], Verve): The most successful jazz vocalist of her generation, her precise, practiced control of nuance is evident in every note, sometimes so conspicuously that she stretches slow songs out to imponderable lengths. Still, she has no hit parade, no canon -- the selection here seems arbitrary, favoring her least graceful albums making the songs seem unnecessarily difficult. I imagine that other selections are equally viable -- had I started from scratch to make up my own mix tape, I doubt I would have picked as many as two of these songs. B+(**)
  • Jonathan Kreisberg: The South of Everywhere (2007, Mel Bay): Guitarist, from New York, has several albums since 1996. This is a quintet with alto sax (Will Vinson), piano (Gary Versace), bass (Matt Penman), and drums (Mark Ferber). Some cuts drop down to a trio. The sort of record I find appealing while it's playing but can't remember much of afterwards. There are dozens and dozens of good jazz guitarists these days, and he's certainly one of them. B+(*)
  • Steve Kuhn/Steve Swallow: Two by Two (1995 [2007], Owl/Sunnyside): Piano/electric bass, two longtime masters, trading songbooks as well as lines. Played it with pleasure three times and have no idea of how to write about it: intimate, understated, seductive, but too respectful to shake much of anything loose. B+(*)
  • Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd Quartet: Early and Late (1962-2002 [2007], Cuneiform, 2CD): One thing that distinguished both Lacy and Rudd is that they vaulted directly from trad jazz to the avant-garde, pausing only to snatch up the songbooks of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. Instrumentation had something to do with this: before Lacy, the only known soprano sax master was Sidney Bechet, while, pace J.J. Johnson, the trombone had long been a New Orleans staple for dirtying up the lead trumpet -- Louis Armstrong never went anywhere without a Kid Ory or Trummy Young or Jack Teagarden. The first Lacy-Rudd quartet only cut one album, School Days (1963), but it was landmark enough that Ken Vandermark named his trombone-powered pianoless quartet after it. The four early cuts here are unreleased demos -- three takes on Monk and one on Cecil Taylor -- and they are major finds, keys to how to turn a song inside out and make something new of it. The group broke up with Lacy moving to France and Rudd teaming up with Archie Shepp and others before fading into obscurity. Finally, they regrouped for tours in 1999 and 2002, with a new album, Monk's Dream. The balance here are live shots from the tours -- long pieces, mostly Lacy's improv frameworks, plus Monk and Nichols and a sprightly pseudo-African riff from Rudd. They don't blow you away so much as they resonate with the authoritative voices of two major careers bound together at their ends. A-
  • Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers (2006 [2007], ECM): Norwegian father, Finnish mother, sings the Norwegian words of lumberjack-poet Hans Børli -- like Langeland, hailing from the Finnskogen, the "Finnish Woods" of northeast Norway -- while playing santele, a Finnish table harp. She has several previous albums, probably more authentically folkish. For ECM, Manfred Eicher hooks her up with his favorite Nordic jazzers, most notably Trygve Seim on sax and Arve Henriksen on trumpet -- his third appearance in this batch, finally making a memorable appearance. Most of this is slow, cold, a little arch, but now and then they crank up the tension, and interest. [B+(*)]
  • Jon Larsen: Strange News From Mars (2007, Zonic Entertainment): Norwegian painter-guitarist, traces his inspirations back to Salvador Dali and Django Reinhardt and is able to confuse them. The Reinhardt connection is presumably developed fully in his Hot Club de Norvège group, which has 17 albums going back to 1981. Add another half-dozen under his own name, which look to be scattered all over the map, with a string quartet on one end and this piece of sci-fi fusion on the other. Jimmy Carl Black narrates short bits like "Unwanted Sexual Attention in Space." The music is spacey, racey keybs, marimba, guitar, and trombone -- amusing stuff. B+(*)
  • The Soul & Jazz of Timo Lassy (2007, Ricky Tick): Finnish saxophonist, tenor and baritone, plus a little show-off flute. Looks like his first album, a sextet with trumpet and trombone shagging his flies; piano, bass and drums for rhythm. Website suggests: "He is the perfect melting of diverse characteristics triggering a likeness to Willis Jackson and Pharoah Sanders in one's mind." I can't say that he sounds like either, although the juxtaposition is bizarre enough that it helps locate where he'd like to be. He's not there -- simply doesn't have the sound or authority. But his band is happy playing soul jazz, and trombonist Mikko Mustonen, who also works with UMO Jazz Orchestra, earns a shout out. B
  • Alison Faith Levy & Mushroom: Yesterday, I Saw You Kissing Tiny Flowers (2002-05 [2007], 4Zero): See what I mean about Mushroom: this seems like a throwback to San Francisco in the late '60s for no better reason than that Levy does a fairly decent Grace Slick impression -- except in presence, since she never really takes control of the album. That gives it a certain anonymous quality. But while the evoke Jefferson Airplane, they do so with more flexibility and wit. And their polymorphuousness continues unabated and unapologetic. Inspirational title: "Kraut Mask Replica." B+(**)
  • Amy London: When I Look in Your Eyes (2005 [2007], Motéma): Can't glean much from her bio: born somewhere in Ohio, got a BA from Syracuse, been in New York since 1982 (at least), took time from her career for children -- presumably she's recovered from that. Discography shows nine albums: this one, a duo with guitarist Roni Ben-Hur (who plays here), the rest without her name on the cover -- Broadway cast recording City of Angels, movie soundtrack Radioland Murders, something based on Rainer Maria Rilke, Tom Browne's Funkin' for Jamaica, more Ben-Hur. She has a Broadway voice: precise control, projects well, able to exploit a nuance to tell a story. She's also managed to assemble an admirable band, including the late John Hicks on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Richie Vitale on trumpet, and Chris Byars on sax, as well as Ben-Hur and others -- they don't stand out so much as they fit in. Choice cut: "The Best Is Yet to Come." Evidently she's taught voice for quite a while; she does a whole textbook on that one. B+(**)
  • Los Angeles Guitar Quartet: LAGQ Brazil (2007, Telarc): Four guitarists: original members John Dearman, William Kanengiser, and Scott Tennant, plus Matthew Greif, who joined in 2006 replacing Andrew York. Group began at USC in 1980 under Pepe Romero, although York didn't join until 1990 and I can't find any discography that goes back further than 1993 (Dances From Renaissance to Nutcracker, although an album called Recital evidently precedes it). An album called Labyrinth featured "Zeppelin to Sousa, Basie to Copland." One called Air & Ground included Afro-Cuban, Macedonian, Native American, Brazilian, and Celtic pieces. So they're used to exotic repetoire, but they aren't specialists. Brazilian music is friendly, perhaps inevitable, guitar ground. This is pleasant and unchallenging. Guests pop in on a couple of songs: Kevin Ricard percussion, Katisse Buckingham flute and soprano sax, Luciana Souza vocals (two songs; she's never been a plus on anything I've heard, and ranks as a minor irritant here). B
  • Los Angeles Jazz Ensemble: Expectation (2007, Kind of Blue, CD+DVD): A set of pop and jazz standards, given attractive, respectful, easy going treatments. The leader here is Darek Oleskiewicz, who's expanded his Los Angeles Jazz Quartet for the occasion: Bob Sheppard (sax), Alan Pasqua (organ), Larry Koonse (guitar), Peter Erskine (drums), and Janis Siegel (vocals on 4 of 12 pieces). DVD captures a bit more than 30 minutes of studio time, with everyone working in separate rooms. B+(**)
  • Tony Malaby: Tamarindo (2007, Clean Feed): A trio, with Malaby playing tenor and soprano sax, William Parker on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums. Malaby owns all the song credits, but it has a loose improv feel. Parker gets quite a bit of space, and his arco work is spectacular. But the album doesn't quite click for me: maybe too much soprano, or maybe there's a mismatch between Parker and Waits -- the latter is best known for his work with Jason Moran and Fred Hersch. Malaby is remarkably adaptable at playing with both types, but not quite forceful enough to lead them. B+(**)
  • Harry Manx/Kevin Breit: In Good We Trust (2007, Stony Plain): Two guitarists, with occasional variants -- banjo, mandolin, mandola, bazouki, slide mandocello, lap slide guitar, national steel guitar, etc. Manx reportedly "fuses south Asian music with the blues" -- I can't really attest to either, nor can I see much reason to file this as folk or country or jazz but at least it's better than new age. Manx also sings, starting with Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," taken at a past that doesn't risk combustion. B+(*)
  • Roger Mas 5tet: Mason (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): Spanish (or, more precisely, Catallan) pianist, although his favored instrument here is Fender Rhodes. Quintet includes tenor/soprano saxophonist Jon Robles, guitarist Jaume Llombart, no trumpet, but the group is augmented with "special guest" Enrique Oliver on tenor sax. Two covers, one from John Coltrane, the other from Antonio Carlos Jobim. The record has a slick postbop feel, the saxophones omnipresent, the guitarist taking more solos than the leader. B+(*)
  • Bennie Maupin: The Jewel and the Lotus (1974 [2007], ECM): Plays "reeds" which sounds like a sneaky way to slip the flute in, although soprano sax and bass clarinet are also featured in his toolkit; best known for headhunting fusion with Herbie Hancock, who returns the favor here, but this is an early exercise in ECM pastorale, what New Age would be if brains or guts were required. B
  • Barney McClure Trio: Spot (2006 [2007], OA2): Hammond B3 organ-guitar-drums trios are normally as routine as electric guitar blues, a conservatized form that persists in vague remembrance of some primal significance -- the distilled essence of funk, actually. This is not just a cut above run of the mill -- it's light, loose, and lively. Sweet guitarist Mike Denny has a lot to do with that, earning his "featuring" credit. B+(**)
  • Bill McHenry: Roses (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): Tenor sax quartet with guitar, bass, drums. I'm tempted to say that Ben Monder and maybe Reid Anderson want to rock, but Paul Motian won't give them a steady rhythm. McHenry stradles this tension, often inventively, but he's not as slick or as self-assured as a Chris Potter or Donny McCaslin, which if anything helps to open up the interplay. B+(**)
  • John McLean: Better Angels (2004 [2007], Origin): Guitarist, based in Chicago, with Berklee and University of Miami in his background, a 25-year career, three records under his own name, a couple dozen more working with others. Like many people who record infrequently, this record has a kitchen sink quality. Pop songs with vocals, original pieces with little song structure, covers that are interesting in their own right but which scarcely fit or flow, a septet that obscures the leader more often than not. That lets McLean's guitar appear multi-faceted, but also leaves you wondering why not develop it one way or another -- like the electric squawk on "Airmail Special," or completely different, the quiet, organ-backed "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)." Grazyna Auguscik's two song vocals -- Janis Ian's "Ready for the War" and you-know-who's "Blackbird" -- are OK, but her vocal texturing elsewhere is unappealing, unnecessary whitewash. B
  • Francisco Mela: Melao (2005 [2006], AYVA): First album by a Boston-based Cuban drummer is almost an embarrassment of riches. He taps Joe Lovano, George Garzone, and Anat Cohen for various tenor sax duties, with Cohen also playing clarinet; Lionel Loueke and Nir Felder for guitar; Leo Genovese for piano and electric keyboards; Peter Slavov for bass. The drumming is fascinating in its own right, but takes different tangents depending on where the stars go. The reed players excel, especially Garzone. It's easy to see why this got many votes for best debut of last year. My own choices were more narrowly focused. B+(***)
  • Memphis Slim: Boogie Woogie (1971 [2007], Sunnyside): I'm no aficionado of boogie woogie records, and I've never been much impressed by the former Peter Chatman, but this late arrival covers all the ground worth covering, and makes up in grace what it sacrifices in speed. No vocals (that I recall). Just lots of piano, accompanied by drummer Michel Denis, who I scarcely noticed but must have made a difference. A-
  • Memphis Slim & Roosevelt Sykes: Double-Barreled Boogie (1970 [2007], Sunnyside): Two old blues pianists, shooting the shit between singing and playing old blues songs, some with stories. Neither are noteworthy singers, but both can boogie, and the history is good for something. B+(*)
  • Roscoe Mitchell/The Transatlantic Art Ensemble: Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, and 3 (2004 [2007], ECM): Too scattered to hold your, or at least my, attention for any appreciable span, I nonetheless find these rambling abstractions more often than not delightful. The ensemble is a meeting of the continents, with James Carter's old Detroit rhythm section (Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal) and Lester Bowie supersub Corey Wilkes following the venerable AACM saxophonist over for the Munich recording, and Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton, and Philipp Wachsmann among the Europeans on the other end. B+(**)
  • Jane Monheit: Surrender (2007, Concord): Didn't bother asking for this, so I can't complain that they only sent me an advance with no credits or hype sheet. Three songs credit guests: two in Portuguese cite Ivan Lins and Toots Thielemans; the third, "So Many Stars," was done with Sergio Mendes. She's 30 this month, with six albums going back to 2000. This one debuted at #1 on Billboard's Jazz Chart, not that that gives her any jazz cred. She has a striking soprano voice, capable of precisely detailed innuendo. The music, on the other hand, is swathed if not drowned in strings; given how stiff the Yankee stuff is, the tinkly Brazilian percussion is almost daring. Best song is the Jobim without the guests, "Só Tinha De Ser Com Você." Runner up is "Moon River," which is buried in goop and doesn't mind. B-
  • Térez Montcalm: Voodoo (2005 [2006], Marquis): She has a voice that's one half whisper, kind of like her fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen back when he was young, although she's more adept at singing with it. Wrote three songs, but they're much less striking than her covers: especially "Love," "Sweet Dreams," "I Want to Be Around," "Voodoo Child," but others make you wonder about her judgment -- she may be young enough to have learned "How Sweet It Is" from James Taylor but that doesn't make it right. Plays guitar, which gives this all a rockish cast, but puts her ahead of the game for interpretive jazz singers. B+(**)
  • Lee Morgan: Indeed! (1956 [2007], Blue Note): The 18-year-old trumpet whiz's first studio experience, cut one day before the Hank Mobley session that Savoy rushed into print as Introducing Lee Morgan, this is as interesting for the presence of rarely-recorded Clarence Sharpe on alto sax and the way Horace Silver's piano jumps out at you; Morgan still had a ways to go, but the excitement around him was already palpable. B+(***)
  • Lee Morgan: Volume 2: Sextet (1956 [2007], Blue Note): Less than a month after Indeed!, Morgan is sounding even more confident in a larger, more daunting group featuring Hank Mobley on tenor sax and little known Kenny Rodgers on alto sax, with Horace Silver again providing his inexorable bounce. B+(***)
  • Lee Morgan: Volume 3 (1957 [2007], Blue Note): Still 18, at the helm of a subtler, more sophisticated sextet, and even more clearly the star, despite the estimable talent around him -- saxophonists Benny Golson and Gigi Gryce, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Charlie Persip. Golson wrote the whole program, spreading out the complexity, while Kelly holds it all together. B+(**)
  • Lee Morgan: Candy (1957 [2007], Blue Note): Still in his teens, but at last out front alone, leading a quartet with the redoubtable Sonny Clark on piano, running through a mix of standards, including a couple he reclaims from the pop/r&b charts -- "Candy" and "Personality"; he's bursting with energy and ideas, still finding himself, but completely in control. A-
  • Mörglbl: Grötesk (1999-2006 [2007], The Laser's Edge): French fusion group, a trio consisting of Christophe Godin (guitar), Ivan Rougny (bass), Jean Pierre Frelezeau (drums). Third album, including one released in 1997 as Ze Mörglbl Trio. No idea what the name and/or title mean, but it reminds me of a French rock group from the 1970s named Magma that invented their own language to sing in. All three are credited with vocals, but they've managed to keep them discreet enough I didn't notice. One song from 1999; the rest from two sessions in 2006. Fairly innocuous fusion, dependable beat, one slow one has a sweet tone and feel. There's probably a whole minor genre/cult for what they do, especially in Europe, where instrumental rock was a common response to the English language problem (damned if you do, especially if you wind up sounding like Abba; damned if you don't). Filed them under Pop Jazz, where they kick ass. B+(*)
  • Mr. Groove: Little Things (2007, DiamonDisc): Contemporary jazz group: their words, I've never been sure what they mean by that, and find the practical distinctions between Billboard's Jazz and Contemporary Jazz charts to be impossible to discern, probably just a branding issue. Formed sometime in the 1990s by brothers Tim Smith (electric bass) and Roddy Smith (guitars), currently at six with two keybs (Mark Stallings and Steve Willets), sax (Tim Gordon), and drums (Donnie Marshall). Also numerous guests, including original drummer Tony Creasman on the majority of tracks. Four vocal tracks: one by Willets, the other three by guests (Tim Cashion, Daryl Johnson, Ron Kimball). Record ends with two "radio edits" of vocal pieces. Band has also worked with Bonnie Bramlett and the late Boots Randolph. They groove agreeably, and have fun with "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," but the guests and programming suggests that even under their own name the can't help being a backup band. B-
  • Sunny Murray (1966 [2007], ESP-Disk): The problem with adding interview segments to CDs is that no matter how interesting the interview may be to hear once, its long-term value diminishes faster than the music. Even if you figure out how to program the buttons, the interviews wind up being annoying make-work. On the other hand, do you suppose the folks at ESP-Disk figured you'd only want to play the music once, too? This is Murray's eponymous first album, cut with a loud quintet with Alan Silva on bass and relative unknowns -- Jacques Coursil's trumpet is the only real point of interest, when he's able to break loose from the two alto saxes (Jack Graham and Byard Lancaster). Murray mostly sticks to his martial beats, rapid machine gun bursts where he's neither playing with the band nor they with him. It's not without interest, but you have to scratch and dig for it. The interviews are much easier: 23 minutes up front of name-checking "Early History"; some short bits in the middle, one a "Recap Session" by someone else; and a closing segment on magic and musicians getting screwed by record companies. Seems like I've heard that one before. One point of interest is that Murray describes his own music as avant-garde -- a phrase that most musicians seems to be at pains to avoid. B
  • Mushroom With Eddie Gale: Joint Happening (2007, Hyena): It's probably misleading to start with Gale, given that any lead trumpet in a fusion context is going to evoke Miles Davis. The rhythm is different, less funk, more spaciness. My impression is that Mushroom doesn't have a single aesthetic; rather, they draw from multiple sources, definitely including Anglo prog-rock à la Gong. AMG also suggests kraut rock, but that's harder to detect; in honor of Gale most likely they did bone up on Miles Davis. It's hard to say whether the spaciness is a good idea. Other '70s fusion bands did go in that direction, usually far less successfully than here. B+(**)
  • Steve Nelson: Sound Effect (2007, High Note): The sort of album that sounds like you expect jazz to sound like, almost stereotypically so -- the fuzzy flutter of bebop, stretched out into healthy doses of group interplay and improv. Five covers, including a Jobim. Three originals from the leader, a well-established vibraphonist who doesn't write or lead much. The vibes are fleshed out by voluble pianist Mulgrew Miller, and the bass-drums combo is the always superb Peter Washington and Lewis Nash. B+(**)
  • Alípio C Neto Quartet: The Perfume Comes Before the Flower (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Tenor saxophonist, from Pernambuco in northeast Brazil, studied in Portugal. Not sure where he's based now, but this was recorded in Brooklyn. Pianoless, Herb Robertson's trumpet is the other slash and burn horn, Ken Filiano plays bass, and Michael T.A. Thompson does his soundrhythium percussionist thing. Three (of five) numbers also pick up Ben Stapp on tuba, which adds a bubbly bounce to the otherwise free rhythm. B+(*)
  • The New Percussion Group of Amsterdam: Go Between (1986 [2007], Summerfold): A/k/a Nieuwe Slagwerkgroep Amsterdam, founded in 1980 by Jan Pustjens and Niels Le Large. The roster varies somewhat among the four pieces, including: Johan Faber, Toon Oomen, Peter Prommel, Herman Rieken, Steef Van Oosterhout, and Ruud Wiener. English prog/fusion drummer Bill Bruford and Japanese marimba player Keiko Abe also appear on the cover and on one piece each. The album originally appeared on EG Records in 1987, and is now reissued on Bruford's label. It reminds me a bit of the percussion ensembles Max Roach and Art Blakey tried to put together c. 1960, but it's much more worldwise, especially cognizant of Japanese percussion. The emphasis on marimba and related instruments is also appealing. B+(***)
  • New York Voices: A Day Like This (2007, MCG Jazz): Vocal group, obviously. They formed in 1987 with original members Darmon Meader, Peter Eldridge, and Kim Nazarian still together, and Lauren Kinhan since 1992. Meader also plays tenor sax, and Eldridge piano. This is their tenth album, including featured appearances with the Basie Orchestra, Paquito D'Rivera, and something involving chants. It is the first I've heard, and hopefully the last. Dynamically they borrow from vocalese, but they lay it on much thicker, with nothing that suggests humor. C-
  • Normal Love: 2007 (2007, High Two): Inscrutable record, not much helped by the lack of information -- I'm not even sure I'm parsing the title correctly. Group consists of violin (Carlos Santiago Jr.), two guitars (Alex Nagle and Amnon D. Freidlin), bass (Evan Lipson), and drums (Eli Litwin). No vocals. Rough sound, sort of a postpunk fusion that might turn interesting but never quite coheres. B
  • Vince Norman/Joe McCarthy Big Band: Words Cannot Express (2005-06 [2007], OA2): These guys, recording in Springfield VA, I don't recognize at all. The big band plays on seven cuts, including a 3-part suite. The other three cuts are done by a sextet, with Norman moving from piano to reeds and Harry Appleman taking over at piano. McCarthy plays drums on both. He's based in DC, teaching at Georgetown. Has two more records listed under Afro Bop Alliance. Norman wrote everything here except the Tadd Dameron opener. His father played sax with Claude Thornhill, Charlie Barnett, and Bob Wills in the late 1940s/early 1950s. He was schooled in Oklahoma, currently works on the "arranging staff for the U.S. Army Field Band," "as well as playing drums at church each week." This has all the basic virtues of modern big band recordings -- the warm bath of overtones, the feeling of completeness, that everything is taken care of, nice and secure. Doesn't have much beyond that, to make it stand out in a niche that has been overdone, that requires a lot of skill but doesn't offer much inspiration. B
  • Arturo O'Farrill: Wonderful Discovery (2007, MEII): The spine actually credits this to Eugene Marlow, who is listed as producer, composer (with a couple of exceptions, like "Summertime"), arranger, but isn't listed as a performer. He also seems to be the controlling interest in the label, which has released three other albums of his music. Front cover expands to: "Virtuoso Pianist Arturo O'Farrill & Friends Play the Music of Eugene Marlow." The Friends, including four percussionists, give Marlow's music the Latin treatment, which is pretty exhilarating early on, most of all when Luis Bonilla's trombone bowls its way to the fore, but runs down toward the end, especially once the flutes take over. As for the virtuoso, I find his networking more impressive than his piano. But this is a big improvement over the two previous albums I've heard. B+(*)
  • Alan Pasqua: The Antisocial Club (2007, Cryptogramophpne): Pianist, b. 1954 in New Jersey, studied with Jaki Byard and George Russell (one song here is titled "George Russell"). Has nine albums since 1993, which seem to be rather scattered stylistically, with one foot in postbop and the other in fusion -- played in Tony Williams' Lifetime early on and has had a long relationship with Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine. This one is squarely in the fusion camp, tied most closely to early-1970s Miles Davis. Pasqua mostly plays electronic keyboards. The lineup closely follows the Davis groups, with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Jeff Ellwood on sax, Nels Cline on guitar, Jimmy Haslip on bass, Scott Amendola on drums, and Alex Acuña on percussion. A lot of déjà voodoo. B+(*)
  • Ben Paterson Trio: Breathing Space (2007, OA2): Chicago pianist. Website bio provides no useful info, unless you're impressed that he recently played two months in a Taipei jazz club. Presumably his first album. Trio includes Jake Vinsel on bass, Jon Deitemyer on drums, both also unknown to me. Straight mainstream player. Wrote two of nine pieces, the others mostly bop era, none too obvious. Good touch, good taste, pleasing, respectable. B+(**)
  • Sacha Perry: Not Brand X (2006 [2007], Smalls): Pianist. Don't have any bio, but he's obviously based in New York, regularly featured on Smalls albums. This is his second trio album with Ari Roland on bass and Phil Stewart on drums. Underground bop, or postbop, or something like that: thoughtful, well organized, pleasant, not all that memorable. B+(*)
  • Houston Person: Thinking of You (2007, High Note): Lovely, as usual. He gets a little more help this time than usual, with James Chirillo's guitar on ten of eleven tracks and Eddie Allen's trumpet on four. He certainly doesn't need the extra horn, although it does little damage. B+(**)
  • Leslie Pintchik: Quartets (2007, Ambient): Pianist, based in New York, bios don't provide any early dirt until she put aside her English lit studies to form a piano trio in 1992 -- bassist Scott Hardy is still with her. This is her second album, following a good piano trio from 2004 called Glad to Be Here. This one has Mark Dodge on drums, with the trio augmented by Satoshi Takeishi on percussion (five tracks) or Steve Wilson on alto/soprano sax (four tracks). Takeishi had been the drummer on the first album. He fits in tightly here. In fact, I find myself preferring his tracks to Wilson's, at least on soprano, even though he does his usual fine job. B+(**)
  • The Pizzarelli Boys: Sunday at Pete's (2007, Challenge): The senior figure here is listed as John "Bucky" Pizzarelli. Somehow I never noticed before that père et fils were Sr. and Jr. The father was always just Bucky, which seems like a natural nickname for a natural rhythm guitarist. John, on the other hand, could be a matinee idol. I never heard the well-regarded guitar duos they did in the early 1980s, before John started his singing career, but lately they've returned to the format -- cf. Generations (Arbors). The marquee is different here to accommodate a third Pizzarelli, bassist Martin, plus drummer Tony Tedesco, but the sound and feel are the same: old songs, tight leads accented by rhythm chords and a bit more. B+(*)
  • Michel Portal: Birdwatcher (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): Parts of this record sound terrific but it doesn't quite add up or hang together. Portal mostly plays bass clarinet, with one song each on clarinet and alto sax. He mostly adds subtle coloring and comping, but every now and then his stunt double, Tony Malaby, takes over and sets the house on fire. The rhythm section works in shifts, with Happy Apple bass guitarist Eric Fratzke trading with acoustic François Moutin while other cuts team Jef Lee Johnson and Sonny Thompson on electric guitar and bass. Portal has a longstanding fascination with African rhythms, which are sometimes approximated by Airto Moreira. B+(**)
  • Bud Powell: Live at the Blue Note Café, Paris 1961 (1961 [2007], ESP-Disk): Powell's standard Paris trio with Pierre Michelot on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, plus a visiting Zoot Sims on tenor sax on some of the cuts. Mostly Powell's standard bebop fare, with a couple of cuts each from Gillespie and Monk, but "There Will Never Be Another You" and "Lover Man" are done especially well. I've never really understood the tendency to dismiss Powell's later work. He may have been inconsistent in person, but the few dates that do crop up on record are often superb, even when they break little new ground. B+(**)
  • Putumayo Presents: New Orleans Brass (1989-2006 [2007], Putumayo World Music): Jazz may have originated in the Crescent City, but by 1930 virtually every great jazz musician who grew up there had moved on to Chicago, New York, California -- hell, Sidney Bechet went all the way to Paris; 70 years later you can hear the same songs the town couldn't support back when it had musicians who could play them and make them sound fresh. B
  • Quartet San Francisco: Whirled Chamber Music (2007, Violin Jazz): Classical string quartet format, with two violins, viola, cello, no bass. Group formed in 2001. Now has three albums. This one is long on Raymond Scott, but not quite a tribute (7 of 18 pieces), with no other source used more than once -- not even group member Jeremy Cohen, who penned the sole original. They do manage more of a jazz than a classical sound, and the good humor in the Scott pieces helps, but the choice cut is "The Mooche." B+(*)
  • Dewey Redman Quartet: The Struggle Continues (1982 [2007], ECM): With Ed Blackwell on drums, Joshua's esteemed father can work Ornette Coleman territory at will; with Charles Eubanks on piano, he can take a break, and occasionally wax lyrical on his tenor sax; with Mark Helias on bass neither impulse strays far from the edge. B+(*)
  • Kim Richmond Ensemble: Live at Café Metropol (2006-07 [2007], Origin): Alto/soprano saxophonist, based in Los Angeles, with eight albums since 1988, three in a group co-led by Clay Jenkins, plus several dozen side appearances, especially with Bob Florence's big band. This group is a sextet, with three horns (John Daversa trumpet, Joey Sellers trombone), piano, bass, and drums. The horns mesh very cleanly, and Daversa is consistently impressive with his leads. One thing this shows is that it's possible to do sophisticated postbop without falling into the traps that seem to snag especially those just out of college. So in many ways this is masterful -- although not quite enough to shatter my resistance. B+(**)
  • Ike Quebec: Bossa Nova Soul Samba (1962 [2007], Blue Note): Or something sorta like that, although Soul is the only part of that title Quebec's all that conversant with. The rhythm team leans Hispanic rather than Brazilian, and may have meant the lazy riddims as satire, but the tenor saxophonist took them as an excuse for a shmoozy ballads album, which is his forté. B+(**)
  • Claire Ritter: Waltzing the Splendor (2006 [2007], Zoning): Pianist, long-based in Boston, but currently teaching in Charlotte NC. Has 8 or 9 records, only four listed at AMG. Website describes what she does as "American/New Music" -- studiously avoiding the J-word. With its waltz moves and string suites, this sounds more classical than jazz. I'm inclined to dislike it, but don't. The early going, including the suite inspired by Georgia O'Keefe, is quite charming, with Jon Metzger's vibraphone a nice plus. Some solo piano later on strikes me as roughly sketched. B+(**)
  • Herb Robertson NY Downtown Allstars: Real Aberration (2006 [2007], Clean Feed, 2CD): Trumpeter, from New Jersey, attended Berklee, settled into New York's downtown avant-garde scene in the early 1980s, where he's a steady performer who's never garnered much attention. The other stars are Tim Berne (alto sax), Sylvie Courvoisier (piano), Mark Dresser (double bass), Tom Rainey (drums). I don't know much about the pianist -- AMG files her work under Avant-Garde, not Jazz, not that those distinctions are all that trustworthy -- but she seems the odd one out. Also odd is Dresser, who starts each discs/piece with bass solo, but I rarely have any idea what he's up to. The music has no casual utility, just more or less interesting effects -- the trumpet, for one. B
  • David Rogers Sextet: The World Is Not Your Home (2007, Jumbie): AMG lists 12 Dave or David Rogers, plus 3 more Rodgers. There are probably some duplicates in there, but there's still too much noise to find much out. This one is from Missouri; lived in Ghana, where he picked up an interest in talking drums; lives now in New York; plays tenor sax. It's hard to get a good take on this. Starting out awkwardly, he seems to be having a tough time getting the sax and the African percussion to mesh. Later on, especially on "Mobius Trip," the sax comes alive, but the Africana has vanished -- replaced by capable support work from pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver. B+(*)
  • Louise Rogers: Come Ready and See Me (2007 [2008], Rilo): Singer, originally from New Hampshire, in New York since 1997. Three previous albums include two jazz-for-kids things and a duo with husband/bassist Rick Strong. This is a good sample of her range: scoring a Nikki Giovanni poem, adding lyrics to pieces by Mike Mainieri and Jerry Bergonzi, arranging a trad folk song, reworking an original from 1991, sailing through a couple of standard standards. She scales the high notes, scats, swings, gets a song and some nice sax from Gottfried Stoger. The ballads drag a bit, but "The Song Is You" is a choice cut. B+(*)
  • Frank Rosolino/Carl Fontana: Trombone Heaven (1978 [2007], Uptown): Two of the better bebop trombonists to follow in JJ Johnson's wake. Both came up in big band, notably playing with Stan Kenton at different points. The group here includes Elmer Gill on piano, Torban Oxbol on bass, and George Ursan on drums. It was recorded live in Vancouver a few months before Rosolino's tragic death -- he shot his two young sons, killing one, blinding the other, then killed himself. Fontana recorded less frequently as a leader, but has if anything the stronger reputation. The two trombone leads are delightful on a mixed bag of swing and bop standards. B+(**)
  • Doug Beavers Rovira Jazz Orchestra: Jazz, Baby! (2006 [2007], Origin): Children's songs, sung by Matt Catingub and Linda Harmon, punched up with big band arrangements. Can't say whether your kids will get off on it, but at least you won't be bored shitless playing this for them. You may even figure it's good for all concerned. B+(**)
  • Antonio Sanchez: Migration (2007, CAM Jazz): Drummer, from Mexico City, studied at National Conservatory of Music there, then got a scholarship to Berklee, graduated Magna Cum Laude, did some more study at New England Conservatory, and landed a spot in Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra (post-Gillespie, directed by Paquito D'Rivera). First album as leader, but his credits list is impressive, and he calls in a few chits to help out here: David Sanchez (no relation), Chris Potter, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Scott Colley -- he even got Metheny and Corea to debut new songs here. The problem is that the band is so great it's hard to tell what the drummer brings other than mainstream postbop competency -- he has quite a bit of Latin jazz in his discography, but doesn't so much as hint at it here. Rather, we get an all-star game, with Potter and David Sanchez in full flower, Metheny and Corea making choice assists. B+(**)
  • Poncho Sanchez: Raise Your Hand (2007, Concord Picante): Conga player, from Laredo TX, seems to have inherited Ray Barretto's lock on the percussionist category in Downbeat's Critics Poll. Long list of albums, but this is only the second I've heard. I can't see much point to it. The first and last cuts are Memphis soul with Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, and Eddie Floyd singing. Two in the middle feature Maceo Parker: "Maceo's House" and "Shotgun." The congas do little for any of those covers. Two more guest vocals go to Andy Montañez and José "Perico" Hernández. They don't stick with me either, but at least they don't have memories to compete with. B
  • Linda Sharrock/Eric Watson: Listen to the Night (1994 [2007], Owl/Sunnyside): Singer, married to guitarist Sonny Sharrock, who featured her on his 1969 album Black Woman -- as I recall, she appeared as something of a banshee, a limited role on a good album with some tremendous avant power riffing. They did two more albums together -- haven't heard either -- then divorced in 1978. She moved to Austria, popping up on the occasional Wolfgang Pushnig album; also appeared with the Korean group Samul Nori. On the other hand, this is a quite conventional jazz vocal album, with Watson's attentive piano the only backing, and Sharrock's rich, dusky voice fit securely in a line that extends from Sarah Vaughan to Cassandra Wilson. Three originals are hit and miss, but the lead-off "Lover Man" is especially striking, a choice cut. B+(**)
  • The Adam Shulman Quartet: On Second Thought (2007, Kabocha): Pianist, based in San Francisco, studied in Santa Cruz, cites second generation beboppers (Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Evans) and their followers (Fred Hersch) as influences. First album. Wrote all the sounds. Quartet features a soft-touch tenor saxophonist named Dayna Stephens. Also John Wiitala on bass and Jon Arkin on drums. Very nice, but nothing more. B
  • Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits: In Case You Missed It (2006 [2007], Jazzheads): Drummer, percussionist, originally from Venezuela, moving to US in 1987, studying in Philadelphia, then New York. Brother of pianist Edward Simon and trumpeter Michael Simon, both present here. No idea what the band name signifies, but the music has a deep Afro-Cuban vibe, with bata drums on several cuts, Roberto Quintero's congas on more. Three cuts add a string quartet, more for color than anything else. The horns are lively, with Alex Norris playing trumpet, Peter Brainin sax, mostly tenor. B+(*)
  • Frank Sinatra: A Voice in Time (1939-1952) ([2007], Columbia/RCA Victor/Legacy, 4CD): Sinatra is as great a singer as Billie Holiday, and for many of the same reasons: the precise control and authority of his phrasing. Both were born in 1915, but he got off to a slow start -- so much so that he seems like a generation behind, missing the swing era peak, hanging on with straggling bands that were passé before he turned forty. Holiday attracted great jazz musicians who often backed her with hushed reverence -- I'm reminded of a perfect little curlicue of clarinet in "Pennies From Heaven," delivered by Benny Goodman, who could just as well have been showboating in front of the most popular band in America. Sinatra had to make do with Tommy Dorsey early, and went on to even more anonymous bands with Capitol in the 1950s, but in between he was treated even worse at Columbia -- Axel Stordahl? Mark Warnow? Harry Sosnick? At least I've heard of Percy Faith. Compared to this company, one cut with Harry James blows through like a tornado. The Sony-BMG merger has managed to unite the first two segments of Sinatra's career, but it hasn't improved them. Even careful selection only goes so far: the 5-CD box with Dorsey is reduced to one here, and the 12-CD Columbia box is cut down to three. Still, this is spotty. There are points where Sinatra overcomes the orchestra, and there are odd numbers out like the one with James. But you have to work to get down to the Voice. That was never a problem with Holiday. B+(*)
  • Gino Sitson: Bamisphere (2007, 18th & Vine): Vocalist, from Cameroun, based in New York, but still sings mostly in his native Medumba. Third album. Claims four octaves, "the only vocalist who is incorporating African polyphonic techniques into the improvisational jazz vocalese tradition." Hard for me to tell. He does work quite a bit in falsetto registers, with a lower range that sounds more spoken. He does his own backing vocals, and has credits for "vocal instruments" and "miscellaneous vocal effects." Opening track reminded me of mbube, but styles vary a lot after that. He does have a reputable jazz group backing him: Helio Alves on piano, Ron Carter or Essiet Essiet on bass, Jeff Watts on drums. They don't get to do much, and while I don't doubt his virtuosity, I don't get it either. Kind of like Cameroun's answer to Bobby McFerrin. B
  • Daniel Smith: The Swingin' Bassoon (2004 [2007], Zah Zah): Plays bassoon, obviously. Born 1939, has a reputation in classical music, including a 6-CD set of 37 Vivaldi bassoon concertos. Over the years he's tried a lot of unconventional things with bassoon -- English folk songs, Scott Joplin rags, a Jazz Suite for Bassoon -- and now bebop, with this record the follow-up to last year's Bebop Bassoon (also Zah Zah). Listening to things like "Scrapple From the Apple" and "St. Thomas" makes it pretty clear why jazz musicians favor saxophones over bassoon: it just doesn't have the speed, clarity, nuance, and power that we're used to. The band's a quartet, and Martin Bejerano's piano sounds like the real thing. B-
  • Jim Snidero: Tippin' (2007, Savant): Alto sax player, has a bunch of records since 1987, hard bop or postbop, of varying levels of ambition. He takes it easy with this organ quartet, letting Mike LeDonne and guitarist Paul Bollenbeck do the heavy lifting, topping it off with his exquisite riffs. Evidently there's a market for this sort of thing, and this is much better than par for the course. B+(**)
  • Solar Fire Trio: Rise Up (2006 [2007], Foreign Frequency): English group, based in Liverpool, with two saxophones -- Ray Dickat on tenor, Dave Jackson on alto -- plus Steve Belger on drums. Website describes their "mission to combine the no-holds-barred improvisational ethos of free jazz with the exuberance and rebellious spirit of rock music." Dickaty has played in Spiritualized, and all three have more rock bands in their resumes thay jazz -- Jackson is the most likely to list an Eddie Prevost or Paul Rutherford or Lol Coxhill among his references. The saxophonist play unreconstructed '60s avant-noise, mostly on top of rock beats. It's fairly limited, and not pleasant. I'm not sure whether I've gotten immune to it, or there's something interesting buried in the mix, but it's probably not cost-effective to try to find out. B
  • Golda Solomon: Word Riffs (2006, JazzJaunts): Full length, or close enough (39:18). I suppose we can chalk this up to Second System Complex. The music has moved from the goofball accompaniment Bernard Purdie threw together to more creditable avant-garde, with Saco Yasuma on alto sax, Eri Yamamoto on piano, Christopher Dean Sullivan on bass, and most importantly Michael T.A. Thompson on drums. The words were consciously written with jazz in mind, with three pieces with "Blues" in the title, two more with "Bop," one called "1960s Jazz Hag," one name dropping Ellington. On average I'd say it's a wash: more exciting music, less intriguing words, same rivetting performance. Something of a learning process, but all things considered she's pretty unique. B+(**)
  • John Stein: Green Street (1996-98 [2007], Whaling City Sound): Guitarist, originally from Kansas City, MO; now based in Boston, teaching at Berklee. Has a half-dozen albums starting in 1995. This was his second, released in 1999 on A Records (or Challenge; sources differ, but if I recall correctly Challenge is the parent label). It's a fairly conventional organ-guitar-drums trio with guest tenor sax on 5 of 12 cuts. Stein's guitar and Ken Clark's organ hit the right notes, but the real soul jazz comes from Fathead Newman's tenor sax. Wish there was more of it. B+(**)
  • Curtis Stigers: Real Emotional (2007, Concord): Singer, originally from Idaho, moved to New York before he started recording in 1991. Don't know his early work -- only heard one unremarkable album from 2005. Didn't ask for this one either, but it's good they sent it. Don't know whether he has much of a style, but this makes a case for him in the Mose Allison school, at least on Allison's "Your Mind Is on Vacation" -- tunes by other singers who, by jazz standards at least, trend in that direction, follow their models more closely (Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Stephin Merritt, Bob Dylan). Larry Goldings co-produced, plays lots of keybs -- organ and piano are most prominent -- as well as accordion and vibes. Four songs are just Stigers and Goldings, and the latter proves to be a tasteful accompanist. The band pieces are similarly loose, with John Sneider's trumpet a nice touch. B+(*)
  • The Stryker/Slagle Band: Latest Outlook (2006 [2007], Zoho): Steve Slagle strikes me as the model of what a good postbop alto saxophonist should sound like, which among more postive traits admits that he lacks the individuality of Braxton, Coleman, Konitz, or McLean. He sounds terrific here, even though he doesn't do anything unexpected. Dave Stryker is a similarly virtuous, not to say virtuosic, guitarist. Separately or together they recorded a long string of first rate records for Steeplechase, of which the best are together, and this is another. Joe Lovano, who like Slagle came up in Woody Herman's band, drops in for two cuts. His harmony adds a bit, and his solo a bit more. B+(***)
  • Billy Taylor & Gerry Mulligan: Live at MCG (1993 [2007], MCG Jazz): Like J.J. Johnson on trombone, or later Jack Bruce on electric bass, Mulligan took an instrument out of the back of the band and moved it up by playing in its upper range with the virtuosity expected of the front men. Mulligan's instrument was baritone sax. This has the charm and intimacy of a Stan Getz quartet, but not quite the sweet sound. Taylor gets top bill because he's on his home court, carries his end, and makes his guest feel welcome. 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+(***)
  • Jacky Terrasson: Mirror (2006 [2007], Blue Note): German pianist, b. 1966, won the Thelonious Monk Piano prize in 1993, has nine albums on Blue Note or EMI, maybe a couple more, which should put him somewhere in the forefront of jazz pianists of his generation. I can't second that opinion. I've heard very little, and never been impressed enough to seek him out over dozens of other similar postbop players. This one is solo -- aficionados love the intimacy and/or freedom of the format, but I usually find solos underdressed, not to mention underdeveloped. This is no exception. B
  • Dave Tofani Quartet: Nights at the Inn (2007, SoloWinds): Saxophonist, from Williamsport PA, moved to New York to attend Juilliard, and stuck around. Evidently does a lot of studio work -- website claims over 600 albums, including over 100 soundtracks; Donald Fagen's The Night Fly stands out among the website's "small sampling"; this is reportedly his fourth release on SoloWinds, although I can only identify three. Mainstream tenor sax quartet, with standards from Ellington, Kern/Hammerstein, Porter, Thad Jones, "I Hear a Rhapsody," and originals to match. Nice tone and range. A real pro. B+(*)
  • Tyft: Meg Nem Sa (2005 [2006], Skirl): Guitar-sax-drums trio: Hilmar Jensson, Andrew D'Angelo, Jim Black, respectively. Black minors in electronics, especially in his AlasNoAxis group, which Jensson also plays in. D'Angelo gets a fairly typical avant squawk. Unlikely anyone would like this who isn't already well atuned to the noisier end of the avant-garde, but the guitar-drums rump can produce some interesting fractured funk grooves, and they close on a mood piece when that's the last thing you expect. B+(**)
  • Gebhard Ullman: New Basement Research (2005-06 [2007], Soul Note): German, b. 1957, plays tenor sax and bass clarinet here, soprano sax and various flutes elsewhere. Claims 40 albums as leader/co-leader going back to 1985. This is the fifth I've heard, all in the last 2-3 years. The title refers back to a 1995 two-horn album he did with Ellery Eskelin. This time he's escalated to three horns, with Julian Argüelles on soprano and baritone sax and Steve Swell on trombone. The sound is loud, discordant, boisterous. I found it to be fun, but Laura made a point of how much she hated it, and I have to admit that it's unlikely to travel well, or to convince anyone lacking commitment to old-fashioned free jazz. B+(*)
  • Upper Left Trio: Three (2007, Origin): Third album. Three players: Clay Giberson on piano, Jeff Leonard on bass, Charlie Doggett on drums. All three contribute songs, with Giberson enjoying a slight plurality. Group based in Portland, I think. Giberson has three previous albums under his own name, all on Origin. An early review, posted on their website, tries to triangulate them: "Bad Plus wannabe"; "midpoint between the Oscar Peterson Trio and Medeski, Martin, and Wood"; Giberson "crosses Horace Tapscott with Tommy Flanagan." I don't hear any of that, but I'm hard pressed to peg them. B+(*)
  • Albert van Veenendaal/Fabrizio Puglisi: Duets for Prepared, Unprepared and Toy Pianos (2004 [2007], Evil Rabbit): Van Veenendaal is a Dutch avant-garde pianist, likes to work with prepared piano, has an interesting body of work over the last decade, including one album (Predictable Point of Impact, on Evil Rabbit) that I especially like. Puglisi is an Italian pianist I've never run into before. He was born 1969, describes himself as "self-taught" but workshops with Franco D'Andrea and Enrico Rava, a course with George Russell and Mike Gibbs, and a study of Cecil Taylor. His Dutch connections include work with Ernst Reijseger and Han Bennink. I'm hard pressed to think of any piano duet albums I've liked, but this one is interesting, with its odd prepared sounds, rhythmic machinations, and the contrasting timbre of Puglisi's toy. B+(**)
  • Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: The Zoo Is Far (2006 [2007], ECM): Norwegian pianist, b. 1971, has four albums now, all on ECM. This is a sextet, but it seems much more minimal, with percussion, baroque harp, cello, violin (viola, Hardanger fiddle), and Arve Henriksen's vanishing trumpet. Some of the piano fragments remind me of Another Green World, with acoustic instruments somewhat complicating the sound and the melodies. The string bits are scarcely more complex, but don't have the same elegance. Textures mostly, probably related to Norse folk and baroque and such. Small pleasures, or maybe just pleasantries. B+(*)
  • Eberhard Weber: Stages of a Long Journey (2005 [2007], ECM): German bassist, been with ECM since The Colors of Chloe in 1973. Most of his albums are fairly minimal, but this is a live recording built around the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra -- the group pictured on the cover is massive, with Gary Burton (vibes), Jan Garbarek (soprano and tenor sax), Rainer Brüninghaus (piano), Marilyn Mazur (percussion), and Weber added to the Orchestra. The Orchestra itself takes a background role, sloshing back and forth like an uneasy sea, while the group vies for your attention. The saving grace, unsurprisingly, is Garbarek. B+(*)
  • Mark Weinstein: Con Alma (2007, Jazzheads): Flute player, got into Latin jazz in Larry Harlow's orchestra in the late 1960s -- Harlow wrote the liner notes here. Other credits include Herbie Mann, Cal Tjader, Eddie Palmieri, Maynard Ferguson, Alegre All Stars. Also has some Jewish and/or Balkan music in his resume. This is a quintet with piano, bass, drums, and congas, with the flute and congas providing the Latin gloss on what's mostly a set of bop standards -- Coltrane, Shorter, Hutcherson, Monk, Gillespie's title piece. I was more impressed by Weinstein's previous Algo Más, which showed some Cuban roots. This, in comparison, seems superficial. B
  • Ezra Weiss: Get Happy (2006 [2007], Roark): Pianist, under 30, grew up in Phoenix, studied in Oberlin and Portland, wound up in New York. Has a couple of albums. Tends toward complex postbop arrangements, which here include a range of horns and three singers. Even with the familiar Arlen-Koehler title cut, nothing here strikes me as all that happy. Or all that interesting, but tenor saxophonist Kelly Roberge makes the most of his spots. B
  • Harry Whitaker: Thoughts (Past and Present) (2007, Smalls): Pianist, born 1942 Pensacola FL, played in early '70s with Roy Ayers, Eugene McDaniels, Bobbi Humphrey, Roberta Flack, Alphonse Mouzon; has scattered credits since then -- Randy Crawford, Carmen Lundy, John Stubblefield. This seems to be the second album under his name, after The Sound of Harry Whitaker (2002, Blue Moon), with the possible exception of a 1976 recording Black Renaissance: Body, Mind & Spirit, issued (or reissued?) in 2002 by Luv N' Haight and given 5 stars by AMG. (Haven't heard it.) This is a piano trio with Omer Avital on bass, Dan Aran on drums. The songs are listed with dates from 1970-93, but these appear to be new recordings. Seems like a strong mainstream piano trio date; certainly doesn't live up to the hype, but nice enough. B+(*)
  • Howard Wiley: The Angola Project (2006 [2007], CDBaby): Young tenor saxophonist. Second album, a rather ambitious one that takes its prison setting and old-time gospel graces and tries to turn them into something magnificent. I'm impressed, but can't say as I like it -- especially the vocals, which raise the rafters when they're not trying to paint the pearly gates. Many cuts also have a pair of violins, another obvious angelic effect. David Murray guests on one song, an overly complicated original called "Angola." While Murray's the superior saxophonist, Wiley holds his own. B
  • Baby Face Willette: Face to Face (1961 [2007], Blue Note): Organ man, church schooled, natch, cut two albums in 1961 with guitarist Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon, then for all intents and purposes disappeared; this one adds Fred Jackson on tenor sax, whose skill set is summed up in the title of his one album, Hootin' 'N Tootin'; still, it's hard not to enjoy their gutbucket soul jazz. B+(***)
  • Abram Wilson: Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta (2007, Dune): Trumpeter-vocalist, from Arkansas via New Orleans but based in London now. Like his labelmate Soweto Kinch, Wilson has a concept album, but it's based on a mythic bluesman, which at least gives him a viable musical context to work with. The group is large, with two saxes, trombone, tuba, guitar, harmonica, piano, bass, and drums to go with the leader's trumpet. They can soar when given the chance. The booklet ends on a Katrina note -- not the concept here, but the fit isn't bad. B+(**)
  • Robert Wyatt: Comicopera (2007, Domino): I used to think I was one of his biggest fans, but I'm not able to come up with the enthusiasm of more than a few bigger fans who've posted this on their year-end lists. (In fact, The Wire has given their top spot to his last two albums.) The album does have its moments, including "Hasta Siempre Comandante," his best Che Guevara song since "Song for Che" on Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. I like the duet on "Just as You Are," the sax and vibes, his less-than-virtuosic trumpet/cornet, and a few other things. But I also find it awkward and ungainly, difficult and inaccessible -- things that the real fans are able to overlook. I must not be one anymore, which saddens me. B+(**)
  • Yerba Buena Stompers: Dawn Club Favorites (2001, Stomp Off): This is the first of five albums John Gill's group has done on Stomp Off, and it starts off on square one, reviving and revitalizing Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band with the same spirit Watters took on King Oliver's Original Creole Jazz Band. San Francisco's Dawn Club was home base to Watters from the band's formation in 1939 until the leader got drafted in 1942. The lineup features two trumpets (Leon Oakley and Duke Heitger), trombone (Tom Bartlett), clarinet (Larry Wright), piano (Pete Clute), banjo (Gill), tuba (Ray Cadd), and drums (Clint Baker). The album is dedicated to Clute, a ragtime specialist, mainstay of Turk Murphy's bands, and a direct connection to Watters, who died at 67 a month after this was recorded. The most striking thing about the album is the tremendous uplift of the soaring trumpets and clarinet, pulling away from a rhythm that sometimes still slips into step with ancestral marches and rags. One vocal, by Bartlett, on "St. James Infirmary." A-
  • Yerba Buena Stompers: New Orleans Favorites (2002, Stomp Off): Starts with "Tiger Rag" and "Tin Roof Blues;" ends with "Panama" and "Dipper Mouth Blues," with plenty more you'll recognize along the way -- "Doctor Jazz," "Ory's Creole Trombone," "Muskrat Ramble," not to mention "When the Saints Go Marching In." But you might not exactly recognize them because they're tuned back to the pre-swing era, and with their lack of solo power one can even say pre-Armstrong. The lineup again: two trumpets, trombone, clarinet, piano, banjo, tuba, drums. Echoes of Lu Watters; reverberations of King Oliver. They do "play that thing." A-
  • Yerba Buena Stompers: Barbary Coast Favorites (2001 [2002], Stomp Off): Second album, with Marty Eggers taking over the piano bench for the late Pete Clute, which means a small step away from ragtime and into the early 20th century. I expect that the whole series match up pretty evenly, so the distinctions will be marginal. The liner notes don't explain where this title came from, but Barbary Coast is a neighborhood in San Francisco, and could very well be another Lu Watters watering hole. The artwork is almost the same as Dawn Club Favorites. The songs are similar but with a few exceptions ("St. Louis Blues," "Jelly Roll Blues") a shade more obscure. Two vocals this time: one each by Tom Bartlett and John Gill, with the latter's "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" a choice cut. Otherwise, it doesn't pick me up the way the first one did, although it goes through the same motions with comparable aplomb. B+(**)
  • Yerba Buena Stompers: San Diego Favorites 2002-2003 (2002-03 [2004], Diamondstack): Live tidbits from the San Diego Dixieland Jazz Festival. The songs all show up elsewhere in their catalog, and the studio versions usually have more polish and often a bit more bounce. Also short on vocals. This only pales in comparison. B+(*)
  • Yerba Buena Stompers: San Francisco Bay Blues (2005, Stomp Off): Wasn't looking, so I got this one out of order. Real New Orleans jazz, as rediscovered in San Francisco in the 1940s -- yep, another Lu Watters tribute. One thing to note is that John Gill is singing better (3 songs) than on the early records, especially on "Take Me to the Land of Jazz." Trombonist Tom Bartlett still takes one tune, "Trouble in Mind," and also shows improvement. This is a very consistent band. B+(***)
  • Yerba Buena Stompers: Duff Campbell's Revenge (2005, Diamondstack): A little background here: Stomp Off is a modern day trad jazz label run out of a post office box in Pennsylvania by Bob Erdos. I like a little trad jazz, and the dozen or so Stomp Off albums I'd picked up over the years -- not the easiest things to find -- generally impressed me. So when I started Jazz CG, I figured it would be good to mix in some trad jazz but I never managed to make contact. Closest I came was a dealer near St. Louis who runs a website in their name but doesn't do any press publicity. On occasion, when I found out about a new release, I'd try to track the artist down. Most proved as elusive as the label, but when I wrote to the Yerba Buena Stompers, Michael Custer offered to send me everything. I keep a huge shopping list including pretty much everything recommended by the Penguin Guide, and it had all of the Stompers' Stomp Off records, so I welcomed him. So now I have a bunch of them. I'll work through them in the next few weeks. The main risk, I suspect, is that they'll all wind up sounding much the same. If so, it may be hard to pick, but also hard to go wrong. This is a live record tossed off on the side of their main line of albums on Stomp Off. It caught the band at a 90th birthday bash for Charles Campbell, an art gallery owner who was a longtime patron of the trad jazz scene in San Francisco. The title comes from a piece that Turk Murphy wrote in Campbell's honor. The Yerba Buena Stompers are an 8-piece band led by John Gill, who plays banjo and sings on occasion. Gill is a New Yorker, b. 1951, started out in dixieland bands, moved to San Francisco to play with Murphy, then on to New Orleans, back to SF, and finally back to Brooklyn. The band name invokes Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band, formed in 1939 as one of the first bands to consciously attempt to revive traditional jazz up to King Oliver's Original Creole Jazz Band -- tight ensemble work, a deep brassy sound with tuba instead of bass. Watters was early enough that he was able to work with folks like Bunk Johnson who pre-dated Louis Armstrong. Murphy played in Watters' band and carried on the flame, passing it on to Gill. (Who, by the way, should not be confused with another John Gill, an English pianist who also plays old timey jazz. AMG is careful to make the distinction, then totally messes up their discographies.) The live record is probably as good a place to start as any: the intros provide some context, and the selection tends to repeat their signature tunes where they're more likely to seek out obscurities for the studio albums. A lot of classics, broken in like old leather -- "Gut Bucket Blues," "Tiger Rag," "Milenburg Joys," "Maple Leaf Rag," "Hesitating Blues." Their one concession to the postwar period is "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which they frame as a tribute to Elvis Presley, probably less of a reach for Gill's gruff voice than Bill Monroe would have been. Grades are more provisional than usual, subject to change as I sort through the pile. But if I don't start tacking them down I won't feel like I'm getting anything done. B+(***)
  • Pablo Ziegler-Quique Sinesi: Buenos Aires Report (2006 [2007], Zoho): Artist credit includes, in smaller type, "with Walter Castro." Castro plays bandoneon. Haven't found much on him; he's the youngest of the trio, but due to his instrument is a large part of the group's sound. Ziegler and Sinesi hail from Buenos Aires. Ziegler was born in 1944, plays piano, and was part of Astor Piazzolla's group from 1978-89. He composed all but two of the pieces here. Sinesi was born in 1960, plays guitar, composed one song. The last is by Piazzolla, and it seems significant that it is a much livelier, more fully realized piece. By comparison, the others feel like sketches -- maybe studies is the better word. B+(*)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Browse Alert

Five years ago George W. Bush made a horrible mistake: he ordered the US military to invade and occupy Iraq. It's never been all that clear why he did it. The military doctrine of preventive attacks against potential WMD threats wasn't a reason: it was invented just for Iraq, and was stretched thin by the lack of evidence that any such threat existed. Bush no doubt expected the invasion to go as swimmingly as he thought Afghanistan had gone. And there's no doubt that he anticipated a big political upside to another big victory. He had grown to relish his Commander-in-Chief role, and figured his record as War President would be his ticket to a second term. Evidence that the war was a mistake came pretty fast, as Iraq descended into chaos, revolt, and ultimately civil war, while US forces proved powerless to reconstruct basic infrastructure, provide essential security, or reconcile local political factions. Not that Bush tried all that hard: he's been preoccupied for five years now denying that what he did was a mistake.

Some of the costs of Bush's mistake are calculable: over 3000 US soldiers have been killed, and many more maimed; an uncounted number of Iraqis have died violently, probably more than a half million; close to five million Iraqis have been driven from their homes, with 1.7 million fleeing the country, the others moving from mixed to segregated neighborhoods to escape death squads; the US has spent something like $500 billion to occupy Iraq, with the long-term costs likely to be 2-4 times as much; nonetheless, most of Iraq remains unreconstructed, with basic services like sewers and electricity still far worse than before the war. Other costs are much harder to calculate, or even imagine. The war spending and its deficit financing have contributed to an economic downturn that can also be blamed on numerous other Bush policies -- much like Bush tried to cover up his Iraq mistake, his cronies tried to prop up a weak post-9/11 economy with a flood of subprime lending, floating the now collapsing housing bubble. The one success Bush could point to was that by taking so much Iraqi oil off the market he's boosted oil prices (and oil company profits) to historical highs, although that hasn't exactly been an unalloyed blessing for Americans.

Even harder to figure is how much damage to our political and moral culture so much dissembling and posturing, deceit and conceit have caused. By never admitting his mistake, Bush encourages his diehard followers to fight on to the end. From the day we invaded we should have known that it would only be a matter of time before we packed up and left. No army in modern times has invaded another country and held on to control it, and there's no reason to think either the US or Iraq should be the exception. Looking back at the Bremer year one may conclude that Bush's people screwed it up even worse than expected, but it's just as arguable that what they did was exactly what they were about: the cronyism, the corruption, the conviction that their crackpot right-wing economic theories produced (rather than stole) wealth, their naive fantasies that the natives would cower under their displays of shock and awe.

That the US is still in Iraq, with more troops than ever, shows how much of the country's resources Bush is willing to save face. He understands that to admit to a mistake discredits everything he stands for. So he hangs on, setting the table for lashing out at whoever does finally find the realism to withdraw with charges of backstabbing perfidy, hoping his followers can ride that line to redeem him and found a third Bush reich. To the American people, this would be the ultimate instance of adding insult to injury.

Some Iraq links follow.


Patrick Cockburn: Is the US really bringing stability to Baghdad? Depends on what you're willing to call stability. The civil war in 2006 created a new equilibrium with whole neighorhoods "ethnically cleansed" and millions of displaced people. To a large extent, violence is down now because people have resigned themselves to the effects of the violence last year.

The present state of Iraq is highly unstable, but nobody quite wants to go to war again. It reminds me of lulls in the Lebanese civil war during the 1970s and 1980s, when everybody in Beirut rightly predicted that nothing was solved and the fighting would start again.

Michael Schwartz: The Iraqi Brain Drain. The total number of displaced people in Iraq is close to 5 million, almost 20% of the total population. This piece reviews the history and present conditions. Last line: "As long as the United States keeps trying to pacify Iraq, it will create wave after wave of misery."

Helena Cobban: Military Occupations, Sewage, and Governance. After five years of US occupation, Baghdad's sewer system still hasn't been repaired to the state it was in before the invasion. Cobban contrasts that with 40 years of Israeli occupation of Gaza. The health situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate as Israel continues its collective punishment for the insult of last year's elections.

From other reports, it looks like Israel is getting closer to provoking a new round of terrorist attacks. The first Hamas-linked suicide bombing since well before the elections took place recently -- one of the few things, dysfunctional as it is, Palestinians can still do in response to the conditions Israel has imposed, as well as the targeted killings and more/less random shellings. Hezbollah has in turn threatened to play Israel's assassination game. It is not sure that Israel was responsible for the car bomb in Damascus that killed a Hezbollah leader -- Walid Jumblatt has been talking about doing just that sort of thing -- but if so it wouldn't be the first time Israel killed a Hezbollah leader. I don't see how either Hezbollah or Hamas stand to gain anything by getting back in the terror racket. It works for Israel because terrorist attacks grab world attention, giving Israel a free pass not only for its own violence but to avoid reckoning with all the hardship they've caused.

I shouldn't have to add this, but the war-politics axis is not a zero-sum game of morality. Atrocities on one side in no way justify injustices on the other. There's no way to balance suicide bombing or Qassam rocket attacks and the collective punishment that Israel inflicts on Gaza: they are both off the scale of acceptable behavior. But there is one significant asymmetry: if Hamas halts its violence and mistreatment of Israelis, as they have on occasion done, nothing changes; but if Israel were to halt its violence and mistreatment of Palestinians, the whole conflict would change. It's really up to Israel to take the steps necessary to end the carnage. Until they are willing to do that, it hardly matters what Palestinians do.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Browse Alert

Jonathan Schwarz: Bill Kristol's Obscure Masterpiece. This starts as a review of Kristol's extraordinary record for screwing up every analysis and prediction he's ever made, then gets more interesting as Schwarz pulls excerpts from a debate between Kristol and Daniel Ellsberg that occurred a few days after Bush invaded Iraq. It includes a synopsis of US-Saddam relationships up to the war, starting with the CIA-backed coups that brought Saddam to power. It includes Ellsberg's prediction that we would wind up betraying the Kurds yet again, then points out how the US looked the other way when Turkey bombed Kurdistan. You don't need this to conclude that Kristol is a fool, but the historical review is worth rehashing. Five years later we still hear people pleading that nobody knew it would all go so wrong. The fact is that some people knew perfectly well. And some others were plain idiots.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Browse Alert

A batch on electoral politics. (I hate it when that happens.)


Matt Taibbi: The Chicken Doves. I like his stuff, and his print-edition sidebar on Giuliani is as vicious as the G-Man deserves, but this piece on Reid, Pelosi, et al. is a bit pissy. It's not really true that the Democrats got a mandate in 2006 to end the war. Maybe they would have had they asked for one, but Chuck Shumer and Rahm Emmanuel campaigned for seats and if anything leaned against doves. I mean, if 2006 was so antiwar, how the hell did Joe Lieberman win? The result is that they don't have the votes to shut down war funding, nor do they want to act like Newt Gingrich and try to shut down all funding. I can't fault them for that, but I do agree that they've come up short, especially in terms of launching investigations into the most criminal, most corrupt administration in American history. Instead, they're investigating Roger Clemens? Even if he's an asshole Republican (which I don't know and frankly don't care one way or the other) there are a lot of folks who should be in line ahead of him. One helluva lot.

PS: One thing I was wondering about is whatever happened to the US Attorney purge scandal, but the House did vote today to hold Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers in contempt for their refusal to testify. That's something, although I doubt if we see them in jail any time soon.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Unstoppable Obama. As long as I can remember, change has been a cliché in politics, and rarely as enticing as it's assumed to be. Change, like Rumsfeld's "stuff," happens. The real political problem is usually figuring out how to ride it out. But Bush has trashed our world so thoroughly that almost any kind of change looks preferable. For the wonk set, Obama may be lacking in specifics, but on a superficial level it's hard to believe how lucky we are to have him: "As conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan has written, Obama's election could mean the re-branding of America. An anti-war black president with an Arab-sounding name: See, we're not so bad after all, world!" Another sample (emphasis original):

[W]e've achieved the moral status of a pariah nation. The seas are rising. The dollar is sinking. A growing proportion of Americans have no access to health care; an estimated 18,000 die every year for lack of health insurance. Now, as the economy staggers into recession, the financial analysts are wondering only whether the rest of the world is sufficiently "de-coupled" from the US economy to survive our demise. [ . . . ] All of us, of whatever race, want a fresh start. That's what "change" means right now: Get us out of here!

Paul Krugman: Hate Springs Eternal. Krugman's been sniping at Obama all year, usually over details of proposed policy that Obama has kept nebulous. That's usually been fair play because it lets Krugman keep pushing critical details. Here he trips up, charging that the Obama campaign is "dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." I can't speak for Obama's supporters -- I'm more of a bemused bystander -- but I can think of plenty of reasons to be wary of Hillary Clinton. (I've listed them in previous posts.) In particular, I'm skeptical that she "is more serious about achieving universal health care" -- admittedly, she has something to prove on that score, but that may just be because she muffed it so badly last time around. Even so, the title seems way over the top. Hate is, after all, a Republican virtue. Rather, what I would feel if Clinton wins out over Obama is exactly what I heard Clinton say back when her health care plan was being chewed up by attack dogs. When asked if she would be angry if the plan was rejected, she said "no, I'd be sad for America." I would have respected her more at the time if she had said, "hell, yes, I'd be angry!" -- would have made me feel she had a stake in the fight. So if Obama's supporters get angry now, I have to respect the fact that they give a damn. But if Clinton does prevail, then fine, we'll settle for being sad, vote against McCain, and get on her case to do the right thing. If Obama wins, we'll still have to do the latter. But I figure, especially in our current poisoned political atmosphere, that Obama has an advantage in not being too specific, in pushing for intangibles like hope and character, instead of a bunch of half-assed plans like John Kerry trotted out on every question. The real problems are worse than the American people can handle right now, and it is those real problems -- not our preferred preconceptions -- that will determine what actually happens in the near future. So there's an advantage in not getting too wedded to what might be easy to sell right now. I score that one for Obama.

Arianna Huffington: End of a Romance: Why the Media and Independent Voters Need to Break Up with John McCain. One to pass along to anyone you know who still believes that McCain deserves any respect whatsoever. (Note that the piece was posted too soon to include McCain's vote in favor of the president's right to torture enemies.) Beyond the words, includes a picture of McCain hugging Bush, while the latter looks like Jesus (or a bible thumping country pastor) welcoming the sinner home. Personally, I think Huffington's too easy on him, but she has a rather checkered past as well. When McCain ran against Bush in 2000 it was McCain who was the neocon superhawk, and he had Paul Wolfowitz in his tent to prove it. McCain lost in 2000 when he didn't have the guts to stand up to the Confederate flag, then tried to make amends after the South Carolina primary. We can go on and on. It's hard to see why he gets any respect at all.

Steve Benen: Meet Mr. Vague Generalities. One more on McCain. Quotes Jonathan Chait: "On economics, he's repeatedly admitted that he knows very little. And on social issues, he doesn't even know what his own positions are." Comments are worth scanning, even though they mostly want to talk about Obama.


Jazz CG Notices

By the way, I send out a mail announcement when a Jazz Consumer Guide runs, or very infrequently something else of similar interest. But not often: e.g., I don't send out Jazz Prospecting announcements. The mailings are a courtesy to publicists who send me records. I just sent one out today. If you didn't get an announcement, and would like to get them, please drop me a line (look for Contact on the sidebar). The mailing list is currently hand-hacked and very klugey, so I'm not looking for a lot of recipients. In particular, if you follow the blog closely you'll get all the announcements you need here. But if you want push notices, let me know.

Sooner or later I want to replace this with a real mail list manager, which you can sign up for and manage directly. Until then, I just wanted to point out what I'm doing and give people notice on how to make up for my own clumsiness.

Of course, if you're on the list and want off, let me know.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jazz Consumer Guide (#15): Old Forms, Fresh Outlooks

My Jazz Consumer Guide column appeared in the Village Voice this week. This is the 15th such column, going back to July 2004, covering a total of 459 records. Historically, they've been running every three months. The previous one came out on October 23, so this time it's been a little over three months. I have a lot of stuff left over, and should make it a point not to take so long next time. Certainly, there's no shortage of worthwhile jazz records, and no need to take so long to get to them. Many of the records this time have been out close to a year, and have been languishing in my files for much of that time. I really should push to speed up the columns. If we can get them up to a 2-month schedule instead of what we've been doing, the time delays would significantly lessen. As it is, I already have a full column's worth of A-list records piled up (not that I have them all written up yet). The following are A-list leftovers (not secrets if you've been reading my Jazz Prospecting blog):

  • The Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet: Music From Guys and Dolls (Arbors)
  • Bloodcount: Seconds (Screwgun)
  • Miles Davis: The Complete On the Corner Sessions (1972-75, Columbia/Legacy)
  • Ted Des Plantes' Washboard Wizards: Thumpin' and Bumpin' (Stomp Off)
  • Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette: My Foolish Heart: Live at Montreux (ECM)
  • Brent Jensen: One More Mile (Origin)
  • Alex Kontorovich: Deep Minor (Chamsa)
  • Rafi Malkiel: My Island (Raftone)
  • Myra Melford/Mark Dresser/Matt Wilson: Big Picture (Cryptogramophone)
  • MI3: Free Advice (Clean Feed)
  • Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Shamokin!!! (Hot Cup)
  • William Parker/Raining on the Moon: Corn Meal Dance (AUM Fidelity)
  • Art Pepper: Unreleased Art, Vol. 1: The Complete Abashiri Concert (1981, Widow's Taste)
  • Art Pepper: Unreleased Art, Vol. II: The Last Concert (1982, Widow's Taste)
  • Alvin Queen: I Ain't Looking at You (Enja/Justin Time)
  • Louis Sclavis: L'Imparfait des Langues (ECM)
  • Joan Stiles: Hurly-Burly (Oo-Bla-Dee)
  • McCoy Tyner: Quartet (McCoy Tyner Music/Half Note)

That's actually more than I can fit into a column, plus I'm already finding more A-list items in this cycle (a couple of these are scoops, as they are part of next week's Jazz Prospecting):

  • Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Holon (ECM)
  • Mike Ellis: Bahia Band (Alpha Pocket)
  • Grupo Los Santos: Lo Que Somos Lo Que Sea (Deep Tone)
  • Maceo Parker: Roots & Grooves (Heads Up)
  • Ari Roland: And So I Lived in Old New York . . . (Smalls)
  • Steve Reid Ensemble: Daxaar (Domino)
  • Matthew Shipp: Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear)
  • Horace Silver: Live at Newport '58 (1958, Blue Note)
  • Mike Walbridge's Chicago Footwarmers: Crazy Rhythm (Delmark)

In the cycle for this week's column, I wrote up Jazz Prospecting notes for 259 albums (down from 269 the previous cycle). These notes are collected here.

I don't have the surplus file done yet, but will soon go through my leftovers and cut them back to more reasonable dimensions. Then I'll put up a post and note some of the cuts. The big problem, as always, is space and time -- not enough of either. But there's also a small problem, which is that I always seem to be hurting for pick hits and, especially, duds. Pick hits are probably just a matter of time: I don't spend enough time with good records to get to really love them -- I don't think I've played a record daily for a month since the Pet Shop Boys' Very. The only reason I wound up playing the Chris Byars more than any other last year (by a pretty big margin, in fact) was that I had so much trouble knocking out my short review. That it held up to all those plays is certainly a point in its favor, but in the end I couldn't quite nudge it over the line to a full A. That's really the standard I look for in pick hits, and I haven't been finding it. On the other hand, I've set some pretty strict standards for the grade, which are easy enough to check out by looking at my database Jazz A/A+ List. One thing that went into them is the notion of standing the test of time, which is hard for a new record to assuredly do.

The problem with duds is much knottier. The first problem is that I don't find that I get many bad or even mediocre jazz albums. In 2006 I wound up giving B- or lower grades to 41 out of 502 records, 8.1%. In 2007 I got a bit meaner, picking on 44 out of 511 records, 8.6%. Even if you throw in the grade B records (85 in 2006, 96 in 2007) you only get 25.0% and 27.8%. Due to some psychological quirks, I'm probably better than most people at seeing other people's points of view, and as such in finding merit in things I'm not especially attracted to -- as such I hand out a lot of low but polite B+(*) grades which someone more harshly judgmental might downgrade. It may also be the case that some bad records have been avoiding me. But I'm also convinced that there's not a lot of bad jazz albums out there, probably because there's not enough money to be made on them -- aside from pop jazz, which does do a pretty good job of avoiding me.

But even within this small sliver of records that I think are really not much good, most are by unknowns and are hardly worth writing about. I toyed with dudding Ed Johnson's album just because it's so bad, but wound up not caring. But the effect of weeding out records by people hardly anyone has ever heard of is that the dud slot becomes a big game hunt. I wind up looking for off albums by artists who most folks regard as major figures. I find a few, but there aren't many. Here's the featured dud list to date:

  • James Carter: Gardenias for Lady Day (Columbia) B-
  • Michael Brecker/Joe Lovano/Dave Liebman: Saxophone Summit: Gathering of Spirits (Telarc) C+
  • Chick Corea Elektrik Band: To the Stars (Stretch) C
  • Branford Marsalis Quartet: Eternal (Marsalis Music/Rounder) B-
  • Chris Botti: When I Fall in Love (Columbia) B-
  • Javon Jackson: Have You Heard (Palmetto) C+
  • Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (Hear Music) C
  • Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Don't Be Afraid . . . The Music of Charles Mingus (Palmetto) B-
  • Taylor Eigsti: Lucky to Be Me (Concord) B-
  • Kenny G: The Essential Kenny G (1986-2004, Arista/Legacy) C
  • The Matt Savage Trio: Quantum Leap (Savage) C+
  • Warren Vaché and the Scottish Ensemble: Don't Look Back (Arbors) B-
  • Turtle Island String Quartet: A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane (Telarc) C+
  • Soweto Kinch: A Life in the Day of B19: Tales of the Tower Block (Dune) B-
  • Chris Potter 10: Song for Anyone (Sunnyside) B

That list pretty much does what I aimed for, and looking back the grades and comments still seem on the mark. Carter, Lovano, Vaché, and Potter have also scored JCG A-list records. Liebman, Corea, both Marsalis brothers (the LCJO dud was for Wynton), Jackson, and Hancock all have A-list records further back in my database. Brecker doesn't, but he got an HM for Pilgrimage, and almost everyone but me regards him as a titan, some as a god. G and Botti are bestselling pop jazz icons. Eigsti, Savage, and Kinch were small fries with a lot of hype, and they each represented something bigger than themselves: Eigsti the Concord marketing machine, which was trying to fashion jazz star breakthroughs like the mainstream pop world does; Savage the notion of genius in the form of child prodigies; Kinch some form of hip-hop fusion. The Turtle Islanders cover a multitude of sins: overdogs with their Grammys, pop panderers, plus they took on some of the sacred texts of jazz repertoire and made a godawful mess of them.

Actually, the success of this list is one of the things that make it so daunting. Would it be de trop to pick on Hancock (The River) or Corea (his Bela Fleck collaboration) again? Mark Murphy's record was truly horrible, but it's not like I've ever liked his work. Maria Schneider has become big enough game, but is that in itself reason enough to go after her? I don't much like any of her albums, but I don't much dislike them either: for me they're just kind of bland and uninteresting, a reaction at odds with what pretty much everyone else seems to be having. Until I have something worth saying, I don't feel up to taking her on -- maybe I'm even a bit gunshy around her. (Francis Davis told me he was "shocked" when I put Concert in the Garden on an extra duds list.)

One thing for sure is that three of the last four Duds were unhappy picks. Vaché and Potter both play well against backgrounds I dislike, Potter especially so. Kinch is a guy I hope will get it together and do well. Looking forward, there's not much I want to get into. Aside from Schneider, Eric Alexander and David Hazeltine have a pair of records that are well off their usual standards, but when I played Alexander I came up empty. I thought about Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble: an overwrought B by a talented and charismatic young musician on a weak instrument. She's likely to emerge as a Regina Carter-level star sometime soon, but it's premature to hold that against her. The Kurt Elling record is probably down to my standards, but no worse than anything else he's done -- may even be his best. Sean Jones? Matt Shulman? I've already moved Fathead Newman's latest to the "flush" file, figuring as bad as it is, it's still better than the last one I dudded.

While writing this, I came up with an idea for restructuring the column, and kicked if off to the Voice. Get rid of the big review "dud of the month" and expand what I write in the "duds" list, including grades so the difference between a B and a D is clear. We'll see what they think of the idea. When Robert Christgau first came out with this format circa 1990 he called his idea for the revamped Consumer Guide "The A List" -- the whole point was to spend full time finding good records, which he felt he wasn't getting to because he was having to spend so much time listening to crap. The "Dud of the Month" was added later, at Eric Weisbard's insistence. Weisbard figured that critics should get nasty at least some of the time, if for no other reason than to show they don't fall for everything. Of course, Christgau never had the problems I'm laying out here. I assure you that if I was covering hard rock, singer-songwriters, rap, and Nashville I wouldn't either.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Browse Alert

Last few months I've been collecting links to interesting pieces, adding comments, and posting them once-weekly. Some lose their timeliness. Sometimes I lose track. The Tom Lantos bit below is a good example of something that should come out sooner, and in general I don't see much value in collecting longer posts without common threads. So we'll try this change. I'll probably queue up and post at the end of the day. (That at least was the theory last night, but I didn't quite get this done then.) And I'm not likely to have things every day (although I do feel a tinge of gratification when I manage to fill in a monthly calendar). But here's a start.


Steve Clemons: Tom Lantos' Israel-Palestine Shift. Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA) died today, age 80. For decades, at least on matters relating to Israel, he has been one of the most intransigently hawkish members there, pretty much AIPAC's man on the House floor. Clemons argues here that lately Lantos has moderated his positions -- e.g., arguing for diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions with Iran. I can't tell you whether there's any truth to that, let alone whether it might have made any difference. But one thing that strikes me as a repeated theme in Israeli history is how many key Israeli figures seemed to be moving toward some sort of peace position as they faded from the scene and died off. David Ben Gurion, who created the conflict by driving 700,000 Palestinians into exile and establishing the policies preventing their return, had by 1967 opposed any further expansion of Israel, and would certainly have traded the territories captured then for political recognition by the Arab states -- the current official position of the Arab League. Moshe Dayan, who led the expansion in 1967, was key to returning the Sinai to Egypt in 1979, and would have gone further if he had the power (by then Menachem Begin was Prime Minister; by then even Begin had moderated from his 1948 position when he was responsible for the worst massacres of Palestinians). Yitzhak Rabin, who had key roles in 1948 and 1967, was working towards extending his possibly cynical Oslo Accords when he was assassinated. I'm not certain that one can add Ariel Sharon to this list, although he had withdrawn from Gaza before his stroke, and it's unlikely that he would have stupidly invaded Lebanon in 2007 like his successor (or like he himself did in 1982). I suppose this could be taken as evidence that there is a God and that God wants Armageddon. Personally, I'm not so pessimistic about the universe. But it does make me pessimistic about human nature. One thing all of these oldtime warriors believed was that time was on the side of Israel, that all they had to do to win was wait. They were wrong. They waited, they died, they got bupkes, or worse: their lot was inherited by people who would fair even worse.

On the other hand, while Israel may keep drifting to the right, it's unlikely that Americans (Democrats anyway) will keep drifting with them. One reason Lantos was so effective was that no one wants to fight with a Holocaust survivor. The Republican right has its own reasons for supporting the Israeli right, and those reasons are increasingly inimical to values more and more Democrats (more and more Americans) are holding. It's still de rigeur for Democrats to support Israel, but it will make a world of difference whether you support Israel for peace and justice or you support Israel for nationalist domination and war. As such, the idea that Lantos was becoming more moderate may further realignment of the Democrats, whereas the moderation of the Israelis I referred to were literally dead ends.

David Grossman: The blind giant of the Middle East. Actually, I found Grossman's diatribe against Ehud Olmert over the Lebanon war that killed Grossman's son too turgid to get into -- I don't doubt that Israel has lost its way, but I also don't think it was on the right road in the first place. Rather, I want to point out one of the "choice" letters, by Chad Bagley. The other, by Gadi Ben-Yehuda, isn't bad either, but appeals to idealism where Bagley cites good old fashioned pragmatism (I was tempted to say American, but I don't see much of it hereabouts any more):

This is a thoughtful article but I think that it tries to hold on to the myth of the State of Israel as an ideal gone wrong. Perhaps it's time to entertain the heretical idea that perhaps -- just perhaps -- creating a Jewish state in a land that had been occupied by Muslims for millennia wasn't such a judicious idea to begin with. The fact is that the State of Israel was not an organic creation. Anyone really wanting to look at the situation honestly has to concede that Israel was created by the US and Britain as a solution to a refugee problem; refugees that for economic and anti-Semitic reasons neither the US nor Britain wanted to assimilate at the time. Did anyone at the time really think that establishing a theocratic state that worshiped Yahweh that was surrounded by other theocratic states that worship Allah -- both of which firmly believe that the land was deeded to them in perpetuity by their respective gods -- were really going to get along?

As other letters in this thread have said, it's time to take a pragmatic approach and stop supporting a genocidal state that imposes apartheid on its minority. The US needs to put its foot down and give Israel their marching orders (of course that also means getting rid of the pretension that Israel is a sovereign state. Face it, any country whose citizenry receive six times more federal aid per capita than the residents of any American state need to give up the silly notion that they can make their own policy).

Unfortunately, the US foreign policy is heavily influenced by a theocratic leaning cabal that believes in the same kind of scriptural hooey that fuels this hogwash between the Jews and the Muslims (The supreme irony is that the Christofascists who have made this truly bizarre alliance with Israel are doing so because they see the destruction of Israel as a fulfillment of prophesy. After all, how can Israel be destroyed if it isn't on the map? The Zionist boosters think this is a hoot but hey, why look a gift horse in the mouth).

Unless all sides can take a rational approach without basing their foreign policy on old political tracts (i.e. scripture) there will be no solution except the solution that has reigned supreme for the past 50 years: bloodshed and ethnic hatred.

Two or three points I'd like to add to this. The first is that Israelis are themselves divided over what to do, so the problem is less getting the US to tell Israel what to do than to get the US to line up in ways that support Israelis who are willing to live peaceably and equitably with non-Jews in the region. The US is not sending the right message by structuring so much aid for military purposes, just to take the most obvious example. The US has a bigger problem in understanding that the occupation or any institution of unequal treatment will never solve and will only cause conflict. This should be easy enough to understand: all people can agree to equal treatment; only a part of the people will ever agree to unequal treatment. One need only ask oneself why.

Another point is that the root cause of Israel and all of the strife that has come out of it was the unwillingness of world powers and the world in general to settle displaced Jews in their own lands. In order for Israelis to accept equality Jews must be treated equitably elsewhere. Zionism depends on antisemitism. Take antisemitism away and Zionism has no rationale to exist. It should be quite practical to monitor both that non-Jews in Israel and its subject territories are treated equitably and that Jews outside Israel are also treated equitably, with the powers of the world united to reinforce such behavior. To make that happen the US would have to commit to equal treatment (which is, after all, a fundamental principle of American law) and to build cooperative world organizations to work through (forsaking our own selfish interests for common goals -- aye, there's the rub: the American national religion, after all, is the resolute belief that our pursuit of our individual and national self-interests is ultimately best for everyone).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Music: Current count 14184 [14151] rated (+33), 752 [772] unrated (-20). Another week with nothing new here. Spent the whole thing listening to new jazz, piling up Jazz Prospecting. Jazz CG is edited and should be out this week. Last Recycled Goods is out, done except I still haven't sent the PR letter out. Hard to say goodbye.


Jazz Prospecting (CG #16, Part 3)

Spent the whole week listening to new jazz. Started with singers, partly by accident, then by chain of reasoning, or maybe because they go fast. Didn't get much in the mail, so for once the queue shrunk, clearing a couple of annoying piles off my desk. It would still take another three, maybe four, such weeks to catch up, but finally making some progress. I have 60% of the next column written, plus enough identified A-list and honorable mention material to fill up the rest. Also have a couple of possible pick hits, but those aren't locked in. Don't know what to do about the dud slot, which is getting to be a huge pet peeve. I should hold off writing more on that until the pending column comes out, but as usual the hint is on Downbeat's cover. I like the magazine, but I think the only duds they've missed so far have been my bottom feeders (Kenny G and Chris Botti) and a couple of longshot pianists (Taylor Eigsti and Matt Savage). I also don't recall picking any after the cover appeared, so chalk it up to karma somehow.

Jazz CG #15 should be out in the Village Voice mid-week. Don't know what the final cuts are, but I cut down the amount I sent in, so it shouldn't be too bad. I still need to trim back the done list (currently 118 deep; probably should be more like 60) and polish off the surplus file. I figure I could start closing out Jazz CG #16 after as little as two more weeks. Historically, I've run a column every three months and slipped a bit lately (13 to 14 was 3 days short of 4 months; 14 to 15 will also be 3 days short of 4 months). Slips getting slotted into the Voice are the main reason -- one that's unlikely to change, so the only way to speed up would be for me to shorten my cycle. The number of good records to write about would support a two month cycle. I don't know whether the Voice would, but I haven't pushed it hard enough yet to force an answer.

One anomaly below is that I spend a lot of time bitching about Flash websites. I suspect that musicians like Flash because it's good for pushing music out -- same reason they like MySpace, which provides them with a Flash widget for music. That's also one of the reasons I hate Flash: I'm always playing something else when I look up a website, and don't want it to start interfering with my sound. There are lots of other things I hate about Flash, but the reason I got rid of it is that it enables viruses that damage my browser and lose me a lot of work. Since the web was invented, there has been a struggle going on between page designers and users over control of the screen. Flash does offer occasionally useful things, but it tips the balance of power way to the side of the design fascists. A lot of my complaints could be lessened by Flash if they just made their widgets more user friendly: let us turn sound off as a default, let us stop an animation, let us kill and cover up a whole widget, give us some more effective control against untoward behavior. Flash doesn't let us do such reasonable things; the only recourse we have is to disable it. The main reason I go to an artist website is to get some info. That can be done better in HTML than in Flash. It's fine with me if you have straight HTML pages with Flash widgets for only the things Flash is good for. It's also OK to have parallel Flash and HTML paths like Dynamod provides. But this idea that everything has to be Flash hurts me, and ultimately hurts you. It's not browsable, not searchable, and downright irritating. Maybe now that I've said this here, I won't have to repeat it over and over again in the notes, as I did here.


Kat Parra: Azucar de Amor (2008, Patois): Singer, from California, currently somewhere in the Bay Area. Does a mixed bag of Latin music, sambas and mambos, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Peruvian, charangas and danzóns, salsa, with a special interest in Sephardic whatever -- she sings in Ladino, as well as Spanish, Portuguese, French, and (not on her list, but I guess this is a given) English. Second album. It's easier to nitpick the English and/or the slow ones -- she does "Misty" as a bolero but it still sounds like a pretty ordinary "Misty" to me. Her "mystic Sephardic ballad" is appropriately dreamy, something called "Esta Montanya D'Enfrente." B

Libby York: Here With You (2007 [2008], Libby York Music): Singer, from Chicago but spent the 1980s in New York, studying with Abbey Lincoln and Judy Niemack. Started singing professionally at 35, and now had 3 albums in her mid-40s. Sings standards ("You Go to My Head," "But Beautiful," "Azure Te," "Flamingo"). Mid-range voice with precise intonation, able to wrap old chestnuts in fine leather or lace. Guitarist Howard Alden gets credit for arrangements, but yields to Russell Malone on three cuts. Renee Rosnes gets credit as Production Assistant ("the world's most overqualified"), but no piano, a clever omission which leaves plenty of room for Warren Vaché's delectable cornet -- much better than his duet on "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," which is sort of winning nonetheless. B+(***)

Wendy Luck: See You in Rio (2006, Wendy Luck Music): Singer, also plays flute. Third album. AMG classifies her as new age, which indicates the flute came first. Sort of a wispy blonde voice, attractive enough, unmannered and carefree on lightweight Brazilian fare. One long quasi-classical flute feature, "Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5" by Heitor Villa-Lobos, is neither here nore there. B-

Something for You: Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans (2007 [2008], Blue Note): For starters, I still find Evans impenetrable, which isn't to say I'm immune to his charms, although he really has to be doing something special to overcome my resistance. Pianist Elias manages to evoke the same conflicted responses, so she must be doing something right. In general, she's a better pianist than singer. (Except when she's doing Jobim. Maybe Astrud Gilberto skewed the field so far that even Elias seems vibrant by comparison, or maybe she's just so much more at home there.) But the paleness in her voice suits the half-plus songs with vocals here, although only "Detour Ahead" really catches my ear. Bassist-husband Marc Johnson played with Evans, and managed to borrow Scott LaFaro's bass for a couple of songs, so he's beyond reproach. Joey Baron is exceptionally quiet, never reminiscent of Paul Motian. No idea whether Evans fans will like this or not. I find it charming, but can't claim I understand why. B+(***)

Katie Bull: The Story, So Far (2006 [2007], Corn Hole Indie): An adventurous jazz singer, citing Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan as influences, working with mostly avant musicians like Michael Jefry Stevens and Joe Fonda. Fourth album, a very ambitious song suite, with a DVD (unviewed) documenting her performance art. You can use her cover of "Twisted" for calibration: it is looser and quirkier than Annie Ross (or Joni Mitchell, even), and those traits pop up every now and then in her originals. Problem is I don't find myself caring, even when she taunts Bush for not finding any WMD. B

Jamie Leonhart: The Truth About Suffering (2008, Sunnyside): Singer-songwriter, sharing some/most credits with pianist-husband Michael Leonhart. Born in New York, granddaughter of a cantor. Debut album, not counting a self-released EP that AMG lists first. Doesn't sound all that jazzy, but at least one jazz vocal niche is pure marketing accident: a few club dates, a jazz label, who knows? Sounds better when I listen closely, and I can't say that I gave it a fair hearing. Not something I'm much interested in. B

Patrick Arena: Night and Day (2008, Arenamusic): Singer, based in Western PA, maybe from there too, as his CV indicates he studied drama at Duquesne 1970-72, from which I also deduce he's over 50. Spent some time in NYC. Teaches voice. His strikes me as soft-toned, unmannered, with limited range, although he can modulate the volume. A couple of originals and some peculiar covers, like "I'm Always Drunk in San Francisco." C+

Elli Fordyce with Jim Malloy: Something Still Cool (1999-2006 [2007], EF Music): Fordyce is a singer based in NY, b. 1937, with her first album. (I saw one website that had her born in 1974 with 6 albums, but nothing else I see gives that any credence. Scott Yanow's liner notes ask: "How can the singer possibly be 70 when her voice can pass for 40?") She likes the cool jazz of the 1950s, explaining that she hired trumpeter James Magnarelli for his fondness for Chet Baker. Malloy is another singer; has an album of mostly 1950s bop standards called Jazz Vocalist. He appears in duets on 5 songs, and they make a nice pair. Two cuts with just David Epstein on piano. The rest, including all the duets, have Harry Whitaker's piano trio, some with Magnarelli and/or percussionist Samuel Torres added. Good liner notes; solid craftsmanship. B+(*)

Diane Schuur: Some Other Time (2008, Concord): Singer. Has about 20 albums since 1985, but this is the first I've heard. Arguably she's the most famous jazz singer I'd never heard before -- she's had a couple of Grammys and 12 albums on Billboard's Top Ten Jazz Albums lists, but popularity tends to be suspect in this niche and Penguin Guide doesn't acknowledge her at all. Standards, well worn ones at that, like "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Blue Skies," "Taking a Chance on Love," "My Favorite Things." One cut is rather strangely pulled from a 1964 archive, at which point she would have been 11, and that segues into an apparently new "Danny Boy." Small group with piano (Schuur on two cuts, Randy Porter elsewhere), guitar (Dean Balmer), bass and drums. She's an articulate singer with a finely honed neutral voice, assured. Given surefire songs and sensible, swinging even, arrangements, she makes a strong impression. B+(**) [Feb. 26]

Keefe Jackson's Project Project: Just Like This (2007, Delmark): Jackson plays tenor sax and bass clarinet. He moved to Chicago from Fayetteville, AR in 2001. Has an earlier record I haven't heard by a small group called Keefe Jackson's Fast Citizens. Project Project is a large improv-oriented band: 5 brass, 5 reeds, bass and drums. Loose, rowdy, occasionally rapturous solos, nothing that stands out much from any number of similar configurations. B+(*)

Mike Walbridge's Chicago Footwarmers: Crazy Rhythm (1966-2007 [2007], Delmark): Born 1937 in Los Angeles, Walbridge moved from trumpet to sousaphone in his high school band, moved to Chicago after a stint in the military, joined the Original Salty Dogs, and founded the Chicago Footwarmers Hot Dance Orchestra in 1958, playing tuba. That trad jazz never changes is proven by the near-seamless pairing of a 1966-67 9-track LP with 8 new tracks from 40 years later. What holds it together is fellow Salty Dog Kim Cusack, who plays clarinet and alto sax on both sessions. He goes back even further, recording most frequently with James Dapogny, Ernie Carson, and Bob Schulz, although he also has a nice 1967-2007 pair of credits with Jim Kweskin and Maria Muldaur. While the 1967 sessions have extra piano, the most distinctly satisfying thing about this record is its elemental foursquare structure -- clarinet over tuba, banjo with drums -- as basic as trad jazz gets. A-

Sabertooth: Dr. Midnight (2007, Delmark): A quartet consisting of two saxophonists, Cameron Pfiffner and Pat Mallinger, with Pete Benson on organ and Ted Sirota on drums. Group formed in 1990 and has long held an after hours gig at Chicago's Green Mill Lounge. A previous self-released Live at the Green Mill album came out in 2001. The new one suggests they haven't gone anywhere. The two saxophonists can cut it, but Pfiffner likes to relax with his piccolo, Matlinger prefers a Native American flute, neither strong suits. Mostly originals by the saxophonists, but the best thing here is by "traditional," mostly because Sirota gets to shake a Latin beat. Strikes me as spotty, a problem with gigs: live you recall the good spots, on record you dread the rest. B-

Out to Lunch: Excuse Me While I Do the Boogaloo (2007, Accurate): Gratuitous AMG slam du jour: they label this group/record country. The hype sheet references Medeski Martin & Wood, Groove Collective, Club D'Elf, and others, summing up: "James Brown soul to dub influenced reggae, from jazz to house." I guess "acid jazz" doesn't buy you much these days. Actually, I find them a little soft and wobbly for any of those comparisons. The leader is Brooklyn saxophonist David Levy, who hails from Canada and passed through New England Conservatory. Levy's credit list here starts with bass clarinet and clarinet, which has something to do with the soft touch. Josiah Woodson plays trumpet and flute; Petr Cancura tenor/soprano sax and clarinet; Eric Lane keybs; two bassist alternate, and there are drums and electronics. Debut album, although AMG lists one from 2003 that probably doesn't belong here. B

Free Form Funky Freqs: Urban Mythology: Volume One (2007, Thirsty Ear): Guitar improv from Vernon Reid, with Jamaldeen Tacuma reverbing the funk bass and G. Calvin Weston on drums, with extra beeps, bonks and warps plugged in by Reid, but -- they swear -- no guitar, bass, or drum overdubs. Accept it for what little it is and you'll have a nice time. Don't hold your breath for Vol. 2. B+(*)

Steve Reid Ensemble: Daxaar (2007, Domino): Album cover claims "(recorded in africa)" in small bold print against an outline of the continent. The title is evidently an archaic spelling of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where Reid picked up trumpet (Roger Ongolo), guitar (Jimi Mbaye), bass (Dembel Diop), kora (Isa Kouyate, also spelled Koyate, while kora is also spelled korah), and percussion (Khadim Badji), studio pros with Youssou N'Dour and Super Diamono and others on their resumes. Kouyate also provides a vocal on the first song, called "Welcome," which is the only thing here that is unmistakably Senegalese. The rest are seductive little groove pieces. While the Africans go with the flow and flesh them out admirably, the real interest is in the keyboards (Boris Netsvetaev) and electronics (Kieran Hebden, who also does business as Four Tet), light and fleeting details in a thick jungle tableau. Reid's a drummer with a Zelig-like list of credits -- Martha Reeves' "Dancing in the Streets," John Coltrane, James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Fela Kuti, Sun Ra, Miles Davis -- despite spending most of his life in obscurity as an exile, now snug in Switzerland. He got some notice in 2006 for The Exchange Session, two volumes of laptop-drums improvs with Hebden, and that paid for his ticket to Africa. Not the first time he's been back, but this time he brought something extra to the party. A-

Drew Gress: The Irrational Numbers (2006 [2008], Premonition): Flash-only website. For a while after I killed off Flash life was good, but I've run into a few of these things lately, and this one pushed me over the edge into complaining. Don't really need to do much research on Gress anyway. He's one of the top bassists in New York, showing up on 6-10 records per year since the early 1990s, including Fred Hersch, Dave Douglas, Tim Berne, John Hollenbeck (Claudia Quintet), Uri Caine, George Colligan, Marc Copland, Tony Malaby, Ellery Eskelin, Steve Lehman, Ralph Alessi, many more -- AMG lists about 130 albums. This is the fourth under his own name: his compositions, with an all-star quintet: Berne (alto sax), Alessi (trumpet), Craig Taborn (piano), Tom Rainey (drums). Not sure why I don't like it more: the free form passages are exciting, but most of it consists of intricate postbop layerings, possibly interesting on paper, but hard to follow or get into. B+(*) [Feb. 19]

Ben Allison & Man Size Safe: Little Things Run the World (2007 [2008], Palmetto): Another Flash-only website. An advance copy with little information; e.g., credits like "Michael Blake (sax on selected tracks)"; no recording date (AMG gives Aug. 17-18, 2007); no song list (AMG doesn't have one either, but I picked up one from Palmetto website; no catalog number (AMG has one but it looks wrong). Presumably Allison wrote all the pieces, since that's something he does. Also, like Gress, he's one of the major bassists of his generation -- not as much session work, but a stronger record as a composer. "Man Size Safe" is a song title as well as the first indication of a group name. Group includes Ron Horton on trumpet, Steve Cardenas on guitar, Michael Sarin on drums, and Blake more or less. Allison was part of a group that called itself the Jazz Composers Collective (along with Horton and Blake, Frank Kimbrough and Ted Nash). They all do sort of left-of-center postbop, but Allison seems to get more kick out of his melodies. This is interesting, thoughtful stuff, but I'll hold off until I know more. [B+(**)] [advance]

3 Cohens: Braid (2006 [2007], Anzic): Another Flash website, but this one at least has an HTML version (a tip of the hat to Dynamod Web Portals; I don't recommend non-free software or anything involving Flash, but at least they produce usable websites). The 3 Cohens are siblings Yuval (soprano sax), Anat (tenor sax, one cut on clarinet), and Avishai (trumpet), playing in front of Aaron Goldberg (piano), Omer Avital (bass), and Eric Harland (drums). All three provide originals (3 for Yuval, 2 Anat, 4 Avishai), plus there is a cover of "It Could Happen to You." The horns tend to wrap around each other, with the higher soprano sax/trumpet pair dominant -- the reference to braiding has some merit. The rhythm section is relatively anonymous, although the few occasions where they get an exotic rhythm to work with help a lot. B+(*) [advance]

Fabio Morgera: Need for Peace (2007, Smalls): Trumpeter, b. 1963 in Naples Italy, moved to Los Angeles in 1985 and on to New York in 1990. Has 7 or more albums under his own name, plus a parallel track since 1990 working with acid jazz group Groove Collective. The key fact here is that half of the 16 songs have vocals, but they are sung by four different singers (Morgera taking one song), none all that distinctive or attractive. The other half are instrumentals, although they are not staged much differently, with smokey cocktail bar piano and Morgera's deftly phrased, eloquent trumpet. I'd like to hear a more instrumental album, or a better singer. B+(*) [advance]

Richard Boulger: Blues Twilight (2005-06 [2008], City Hall): Trumpet player, originally from Massachusetts, then Connecticut. Studied with Jackie McLean and Freddie Hubbard, who penned the liner notes here. Released first album in 1999. Joined Gregg Allman and Friends in 2001. This is his second album, cut over two sessions, the first blessed by John Hicks on piano, the second helped out by Anthony Wonsey. Hard bop, pretty vigorous. One thing I don't like is having the sax (David Snitter or Kris Jensen) shadow the trumpet, and there's a lot of that here. On his own, Boulger cuts a fine figure. B

Thomas Marriott: Crazy: The Music of Willie Nelson (2006 [2008], Origin): From Seattle, plays trumpet and flugelhorn, has 3 albums since 2005 (not counting his Xmas album, The Cool Season). Quintet with Mark Taylor on sax, Ryan Burns on Moog or Fender Rhodes, Geoff Harper on bass, Matt Jorgensen on drums. The process is similar to what Jewels & Binoculars has done with Bob Dylan, but the extra horn and keyboards generate a lot of excess filigree, complicating the melodies and camouflaging the improvisation. "Crazy" itself, of course, is indelible enough to hold up, and there are other sweet spots. B+(*)

Frederic Borey Group: Maria (2005 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): French saxophonist, plays tenor and soprano. Looks like his first album. Quartet includes guitar, bass, and drums. Don't know much about him. After some searching, I found a French website, implemented wholly in Flash, and for that matter possibly the most annoying Flash I've ever seen. Example: a bio page is cut up into four pieces which are perpetually animated, sliding around the window. I could probably glean some useful info even in French if only I could get it to hold still. Flash itself doesn't provide any controls for slowing or stopping animation, for turning off the sound, or anything else that would be useful -- killing the process and replacing it with a black window is at the top of my wish list. (Sorry to run on like this, but someone has to say it somewhere.) As for the record, it's soft-toned postbop, especially with the soprano, which tends to be cloyingly pretty. Borey's tenor is more substantial, and it's a pleasure to follow his logic. Much of the backdrop is due to guitarist Piere Perchaud, who does a particularly nice job of setting the sax up. B+(*)

The Paislies (2005 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): New York group, six members: Samir Zarif (soprano and tenor sax), Jesse Lewis (guitar), Eliot Cardinaux (nord electro 2 and organ), Miro Sprague (piano), Perry Wortman (bass), Paul Wiltgen (drums). Of these, only Sprague rings a faint bell -- has a couple of albums, but I haven't heard them. Sprague's website describes the Paislies as a cooperative group. Don't see any song credits to indicate otherwise. I'm fond of collectivism in politics and business, but one thing I'm attracted to in jazz is a strong sense of individuality. That's often a problem with larger groups, especially without a strong leader, and I don't hear anyone standing out here. Postbop, soft tones, not a lot of beat, the dual keyboards a bit unusual. Young guys as far as I can tell. Zarif comes from Houston via New Orleans. Lewis is from Boston via New Orleans. Cardinaux has a MySpace page with nothing on it. Sprague has trio and quintet albums, but not much of a biography. Wortman grew up in Tulsa and gigged in OKC. Wiltgen comes from Luxembourg, has his own group, is into Baha'i. Some (or maybe all) of them intersected at Manhattan School of Music. Most have MySpace pages, which I mostly ignore because they're mostly useless, but musicians like them because they can forcefeed you music -- annoying when you're trying to listen to something else. Group has a Flash page: flashier than average, but also not much help. Some of these guys may turn out to be good, but it's pretty early to tell. B-

Ila Cantor: Mother Nebula (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): Guitarist. Website says she was raised in New York, but also says she moved there after high school. I figured her for Spanish, but website says she moved to Barcelona later, "to experience a new culture, language, and life." Two sources say she's the daughter of an author and filmmaker, but don't give a name. She has several groups/projects, both in Barcelona and in New York, including a cabaret group called The Lascivious Biddies. This is a New York group, a quartet with Frederik (or Frederick, on the front cover) Carlquist on tenor sax, Tom Warburton on bass, Joe Smith on drums. First cut starts with an agreeable funk groove, and Carlquist's sax stands up and comes out honking. That sets up the vibe for the rest of the album, even while it strays further afield. I'm most impressed with Carlquist, but can't find much -- a Fredrik Carlquist has two albums on Dragon, and I've also seen a Frederic Carlquist. [B+(**)]

Giulia Valle Group: Danze Imprevista (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): Recorded Nov. 14-15, but doesn't say the year, so I'm guessing 2006. She has another Flash website, totally useless. From Tomajazz (as best I can hack the Italian) I gather she was born 1972 in Sanremo, Italy. Studied in Barcelona and seems to be based there. Plays bass. Wrote and arranged everything here except for a piece by Hermeto Pascoal and a theme from Hindemith she transfigured. Group is definitely Barcelona, with two saxes (Martí Serra and Miguel "Pintxo" Villar), Sergi Sirvent on piano, and David Xirgu on drums. Postbop, arty, but also swings some. I didn't care for the same two sax lineup on her previous Colorista, but this is more winning. B+(**)

José Alberto Medina/JAM Trio: In My Mind (2007, Fresh Sound New Talent): Medina is a pianist, originally from the Canary Islands, now in Barcelona. JAM is presumably just his initials. A previous album, First Portrait, with the same credit used different players at bass and drums. This time they are Paco Weht and Mariano Steimberg. Don't know either of them, but Steimberg has a MySpace page, says he's based in Barcelona, influenced by Miles Davis and Squarepusher, credits include programming as well as drums. One song here has a vocal by Oscar Aresi. Medina has a light touch and lovely tone, and this works nicely within the piano trio format. B+(**)

Hans Glawischnig: Panorama (2006 [2008], Sunnyside): Born 1970 in Graz, Austria; his father Dieter Glawischnig, a pianist and NDR Big Band director; his mother a US native. Plays bass. Moved to Boston to study at Berklee, then to New York for Manhattan School of Music. Second album as leader, following an easily overlooked Fresh Sound New Talent album from 2001, but he's played on more than two dozen albums since 1997, often under Latino leaders (Ray Barretto, Miguel Zenon, Luis Perdomo, Dafnis Prieto). This one will be noticed: he's got a name people have been noticing, and a label that will get him more visibility. It has the air of an overelaborate debut: it deploys nine musicians in groups of 3-5, calling in chits and adding to the star power (only 2 of 3 drummers aren't household names, at least chez moi). The small groups work well enough each on its own, but fit uncomfortably together, partly because shifts like alternating alto saxophonists Miguel Zenon and David Binney wind up sounding so much the same. Another example is piano: Chick Corea leads two trios cuts, while Luis Perdomo fills in the groups, a distinction that could be chalked up to different roles rather than different pianists (who all in all aren't all that different). The one cut with Rich Perry's tenor sax does stand in contrast to the six cuts with alto, but comes as an isolated surprise. The unifying thread is the bassist-composer, which is no doubt the plan. Advanced, interesting postbop, informed by Latin jazz but not really part of it. Bass presence but not much solo space. For various good and not so good reasons this is likely to show up in a lot of year-end lists. B+(**)

Yoko Miwa Trio: Canopy of Stars (2004 [2007], P.J.L): Pianist, from Japan, based in Boston since 1996, has a couple of previous albums. Her website quotes what I wrote about her 2004 album Fadeless Flower: "Young mainstream piano trio aim for clean sound, delicate balance, inconspicuous beauty." Trio this time includes Massimo Biolcati on bass, Scott Goulding on drums (repeating from last time). Not much more to add other than that she mixes it up a bit more, including a tango and a waltz. B+(*)

Matthew Shipp: Piano Vortex (2007, Thirsty Ear): I got this very late, well after the year-end lists were compiled. Not sure why. I get everything else from Thirsty Ear, and asked for and was promised this several times before it finally came through. I've written about Shipp at great length here and here, and two records back he scored a Pick Hit with his jazztronica triumph, Harmony and Abyss. This one turned out to be tough to get into. It's an old fashioned piano trio, with Joe Morris on bass and Whit Dickey on drums. It seemed to just amble quietly then finally detonate about six cuts in. Finally I kicked the volume up a notch, and with Gary Giddins' Jazz Times column as a guide, started paying attention. The ambling quiet title cut does indeed draw you into a vortex. The second and fourth pieces are choppy rhythm things a bit more deliberate than the sixth one ("Quivering With Speed") I've been noticing all along. The odd numbered pieces feature lines that go places you don expect. Morris, who started out as a guitarist, is turning into a sharp bassist, especially with the bow. Giddins writes about others writing about how this is more accessible than other Shipp records. I don't think so. But at least it pays back the attention it demands. A-

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Holon (2007 [2008], ECM): Don't have record date, so I'm guessing. ECM usually has those things, although the booklets have been getting more minimalist. Swiss pianist, b. 1971, into zen, funk, martial arts, green tea, most of which are combined here, although possibly misapplied. A ronin is an outcast samurai warrior, a loner. The five-piece band, however, has two albums now, and play tighter than ever. Electric bass, drums, and percussion chug out regular rhythms, similar to Nils Petter Molvaer, maybe more mechanistic, with minor shifts to keep from wearing down. Bärtsch played Fender Rhodes on the earlier Stoa, but goes with acoustic piano here, adding a layer that again shifts subtly. Someone who goes by the name Sha plays bass and contrabass clarinets and alto saxophone, but he blends in and is pretty inconspicuous. Six pieces are titled "Modul" followed by a number. They start simple and build a bit. It's not postbop and not avant-garde and it doesn't fuse anything obvious, but it's got more going for it than dance electronica or experimental rock. A-

Enrico Rava/Stefano Bollani: The Third Man (2006 [2008], ECM): It's hard to make duos work, harder still when the instruments meet like oil and water, although even for trumpet and piano I can think of an exception -- Warren Vaché and Bill Charlap's 2gether (2000, Nagel-Heyer), but in that case both artists go more than half way to meet the other. They are great listeners. Rava and Bollani are pretty good talkers. Despite their mutual admiration, their oratory sails right past each other, giving us interleaved halves of two solo albums. B

Little Annie & Paul Wallfisch: When Good Things Happen to Bad Pianos (2007 [2008], Dutro Jnana): Singer with piano accompaniment, and sometimes a little more. Wallfisch is the pianist, credited with "Steinway upright in a flooded basement, synthesizers, guitars, bass and percussion." Cover has photos of some pretty wrecked pianos. Wallfisch has a tattered list of rock credits: Love and Rockets, Congo Norvell, Firewater, Botanica, Gene Loves Jezebel, Sylvain Sylvain, Silos, Thomas Truax, as well as a previous Little Annie album called Songs From a Coalmine Canary. Little Annie is Annie Bandez, aka Annie Anxiety, or some combination thereof (e.g., Little Annie Anxiety Bandez). She started out in front of a group called Annie and the Asexuals. Don't know how old she is, but she has a long list of solo recordings going back to 1981. Cracked, strained voice, sometimes passing for character, sometimes falling into comedy, often depending on the song: "It Was a Very Good Year," "Song for You," "Private Dancer," "One for My Baby," "Yesterday When I Was Young," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," etc. One original. I'm amused, just not sure how far I'm willing to fall. [B+(**)]

Omer Klein: Introducing Omer Klein (2007 [2008], Smalls): Pianist, from Netanya, Israel, studied at New England Conservatory in Boston, moved to New York in 2006. Despite the title here, he has a previous album called Duet with bassist Haggai Cohen Milo on Fresh Sound New Talent -- a nice, quiet, intimate introduction to his style. This is a trio with Omer Avital on bass (and one track oud) and Ziv Ravitz on drums, plus extra percussion by Itamar Doari. One result is that this is much more upbeat. Klein even breaks out in a vocal at one point, not a highlight. Should give it some more time. [B+(**)]

Daniel Barry: Walk All Ways (2007, OA2): B. 1955 Erie, PA; studied at University of California Santa Barbara; now based in Seattle. Plays cornet. Also credited here with melodica and misc. percussion. First album under his own name, but has several more in a big band called the Jazz Police, including The Music of Daniel Barry. He also has a prominent role in the Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra, another big band. This record is also on the largish side, ranging from the delightful conga-powered "Mighty Urubamba" that leads off through some things that slide through classical territory leaning heavily on violin, cello, accordion, and James DeJoie's clarinets, flute, and bari sax. The cornet is always bright and welcome, the arrangements clever and classy. B+(**)

Rob Lockart: Parallel Lives (2006 [2007], Origin): Tenor saxophonist, based in Los Angeles. Looks like his first album, although he has a couple dozen side credits going back to 1989 -- mostly with folks I don't know, but Bob Sheppard returns the favor for a one cut sax duet here, and Larry Koonse drops in for another cut. Otherwise this is a quartet, with Bill Cunliffe on piano, Jeff DiAngelo on bass, Joe La Barbera on drums. They have a big, boisterous hard bop sound. It's fun for a while, but ultimately not all that interesting. B


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

Stacey Kent: Breakfast on the Morning Tram (2007, Blue Note): An art singer, or perhaps a pop singer in an alternate universe, which may be the England and France that adopted this New Jersey native. Doesn't write, but four songs are originals, written by husband-saxophonist Jim Tomlinson and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, an often impressive combination. The title track is a richly detailed recipe for putting heartbreak aside. She has an interesting knack for repertoire, taking "Hard Hearted Hannah" and "What a Wonderful World" slow enough to reveal details you missed before. Three songs in French: a samba and two by Serge Gainsbourg. B+(***)

Barbara Rosene and Her New Yorkers: It Was Only a Sun Shower (2007, Stomp Off): A specialist in pre-WWII pop songs, with tributes to Ruth Etting and Annette Hanshaw in her catalog, Rosene rescues "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" from Tiny Tim, and adds 22 more songs only specialists are likely to recognize. The musicians, including Jon-Erik Kellso on cornet and trumpet and Mike Hashim on soprano and alto sax dote on this stuff, and Rosene can brighten any sad day. B+(**)

Nanette Natal: I Must Be Dreaming (2005-07 [2007], Benyo Music): A jazz singer-songwriter who's remained obscure for decades reinvents herself as the new Odetta, as straightforward as any basic blues singer: "tv news makes my blood boil/the mission was to grab the oil"; "the jails are filled to capacity/in the land of the brave and the free"; "a city dies before our eyes/the bursted levees, the broken lies." The line about dreaming is her stab at irony: it's no dream when "living's hard when it doesn't come easy." B+(***)


Unpacking:

  • Louis Armstrong All Stars: Live in Zurich, Switzerland 18.10.1949 (1949, TCB)
  • Louie Bellson & Clark Terry: Louie & Clark Expedition 2 (Percussion Power)
  • Massimo Biolcati: Persona (Obliqsound): advance, Mar. 4
  • Chris Byars: Jazz Pictures at an Exhibition of Himalayan Art (Smalls)
  • Cannon Re-Loaded: An All-Star Celebration of Cannonball Adderley (Concord Jazz)
  • Toumani Diabaté: The Mandé Variations (Nonesuch): advance, Feb. 26
  • Droppin' Science: Greatest Samples From the Blue Note Lab (Blue Note)
  • Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: Live in Zurich, Switzerland 2.5.1950 (1950, TCB)
  • Giacomo Gates: Luminosity (Doubledave Music, CD+DVD): Feb. 19
  • Diane Hoffman: My Little French Dancer (Savsomusic)
  • Stanley Jordan: State of Nature (Mack Avenue): advance, Apr. 22
  • Chuck Manning: Notes From the Real (TCB)
  • Marian McPartland: Twilight World (Concord Jazz): advance, Mar. 11
  • The Marty Sheller Ensemble: Why Deny (PVR): Feb. 19
  • Jon Zeeman: Zeeland (Membrane)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Weekend Roundup

Fred Kaplan: Downsizing our dominance. Another piece on the shrinking of American hegemony abroad. Kaplan sees this as the inevitable result of losing a common threat with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I suspect that most former allies never took the military parrying all that seriously, but sought to curry favor with the US to tap into economic power and technological prowess. That position has been eroding for some time now, even if it's only become obvious since Bush took office. Even now nations suck up to us much more than seems warranted, probably because it's cheap to be deferential and our egos demand it. The real fall is still to come. As Kaplan notes, presidential candidates prefer to skirt the issue: the American people would rather hear about dawn than decline and fall. That actually leaves an opportunity open, if anyone is smart enough to take advantage of it. All we'd have to do is ditch the sole-superpower horseshit and take a lead in pushing for multilateral, shared solutions to real problems: to pursue peace and justice through the UN, to seriously tackle global warming and other environmental issues, to restructure free trade along lines that benefit poorer countries most. Didn't Gandhi say something to the effect that he has to follow wherever the people go because he's their leader? The US can't lead selfishly because the world won't follow. An alternative would be to just get out of the way, but that might be even more unpalatably ego-deflating.

William Astore: In the Military We Trust. A former Air Force Lt. Colonel, Astore gives two reasons why the military is still regarded by most Americans as an honorable and trustworthy organization. One is that demographically it is much more like America as a whole than most other organizations -- he picks on Ivy League colleges in particular -- so many Americans find it easy to see themselves in the military. The other is that the notion of public service is engrained and catered to in the military, especially for males who find it a particularly helpful way to define their masculinity:

In response, what we're seeing is a romantic yearning among young men for the very hardness, the brutality even, epitomized by military service and warfare.

Astore further argues that antiwar people need to understand these points before they can possibly, well, do what? That part isn't clear. It seems to me that the military is trusted mostly because people are very ignorant about its real skills and liabilities in today's world. That actually has very little to do with the character or discipline of those in the military, even if the romance of atavistic war is what draws them in. Still, the problem isn't how to "engage" the military to make them less harmful and more useful. The whole function needs to be rethought from the policy end down. Maybe that involves building different organizations that tap into the qualities Astore recognizes. But it starts with recognizing what is dysfunctional about the military we have, and that's bound to hurt some egos both in and near to the armed forces.

Robert Kuttner: The Recovery Plan America Needs. Argues that the stimulus package Congress is working on falls way too short of what is needed:

Worse, this downturn comes on top of three decades of stagnant or declining real living standards for about two thirds of Americans, and increasing insecurity of employment, health insurance, and retirement, as well as rising costs of housing, education, and energy. [ . . . ] We need to reclaim the managed form of capitalism that produced an economy of shared prosperity during the long postwar boom. That will require progressive taxation, re-regulation, and public outlay on a much larger scale.

Kuttner's solution to the "Housing Mess" makes a lot of sense. So does more public sector spending on things like infrastructure, although by looking at all government spending as stimulus he fails to note how dysfunctional US war spending really is. As for reversing long-term trends toward inequality, his heart's in the right place, but I wonder whether letting the recession do its damage might not be more effective. Much of that inequality is in the form of bubbled up real estate prices, stock prices, dollars even, and one effect of the recession will be to bring that inflation back toward reality. The poor may suffer more, but the rich have a lot more to lose (which is why they've only started panicking now as stock prices started to fall).


Stormy Weather

Senator John McCain's tenure as the de facto GOP presidential nominee ran into a little stormy weather in Kansas on Saturday. Huckabee won 60 percent of the vote, to McCain's 24, with Ron Paul third at 11. McCain had the support of both Kansas senators, and had ex-Senator Bob Dole lobbying for him in the national press. One thing the news reports didn't dwell on is the raw numbers: the Republican caucuses drew about half as many voters as the Democratic caucuses did. Weather? The Republicans met on a Saturday morning of a 60-degree day. The Democrats met in the middle of a blizzard. I suppose McCain can take some solace in the thought that it wasn't just him: nobody much gave a shit about any of the Republican candidates. They just cared a lot less about him than the others. But it's also true that the GOP regulars in Kansas have grown so dependent on the Christian right for their grass roots support they don't know how to get their old crowd out. Part of the problem is that the right have been calling any and all Republicans with anything resembling moderate views RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). It's gotten so annoying a lot of them aren't even that any more.

McCain also lost in Louisiana to Huckabee. And he was losing Washington until the GOP honchos rounded up enough McCain votes to squeeze into a temporary lead, then decided to stop counting and go home. Last known margin there was 26% to 24%, which itself smells pretty funny. Talk about buyer remorse.

Meanwhile, Obama's won five of five states since Super Tuesday. Won a Grammy too. Maybe it is his year.


Deobandi Influences

John Burgess wrote in to make the following comment on my notes on Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower:

I'd like to note, though, that Wright makes a serious error in painting the origins of Al-Qaeda. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (and offshoots) and the Saudi Salafists are certainly at the core. What's missing, though, is the South Asian Deobandi influence. The Taleban, declared themselves a Deobandi organization, so that's a rather important factor to be missing.

I'm sure you can Google or Wiki the Deobandi movement, which started in Raj India in the 19th C. It combined a highly politicized form of Islam with terrorism. It is the inspiration for the intra-Islamic bombings of mosques in India and Pakistan today. It is also the thread of Islamist thought that is playing a corrupting role in the UK and much of Europe today.

It is my belief that only through the combination of the three elements, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, and Deobandi, did the witch's brew of the unthinkable violence of Al-Qaeda come to fruition.

I recommended Gilles Kepel's book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam for its broader and deeper coverage of Islamism, including the Deobandis. Especially since 1980 Saudia Arabia has spent a lot of money on promoting their Wahhabi brand of fundamentalism abroad, and they've found a receptive audience among the Deobandis, who share their belief in the righteousness and completeness of the earliest followers of Muhammad. On the other hand, there are differences -- e.g., the Deobandis follow Hanafi sharia where the Wahhabis follow Hanbali -- and I'm far from competent to sort them out. But it does seem fair to say that both movements are salafist -- a term that embodies much of the same generalizations as fundamentalist does for Christians who nonetheless continue to disagree on sectarian details -- and that both have small subsets that are jihadist. The Deobandis may count for as many as 40% of Pakistani Sunnis. They have an extensive network of madrassas, which are significant given the generally poor state of education in Pakistan. The Taliban is based on and allegedly adheres to Deobandism, although it's also quite possible that some of their more repressive tenets come from Pashtun tribal traditions, and it's likely that whatever their source they've degenerated further due to the brutality of more than 25-years of foreign-engineered war. Holy war has been invoked by adherents of so many varied doctrines that it seems likely to me that its real motivation lies elsewhere.

I'm not sure how this works out. Clearly, Pakistan has been a fertile ground for anti-US jihad, rivaling the Arabs and much more so than any other Islamic countries, and Deobandism may have much to do with that. But also the Afghan mujahideen, especially the Taliban, were actually doing the sorts of things that Al-Qaeda aspired to, setting a practical example in their use of violence both within and against foreign enemies. So it's not surprising that they proved simbiotic. But I'm less sure about who influenced whom and how. This is what Kepel has to say (pp. 222-226):

Apart from a clear doctrinal affiliation, the jihadist-salafists had affinities with another movement that appeard at the same time, in the same region and Islamic context -- the Taliban. They had in common an attachment to the literal aspect of the holy texts and the use of jihad to attain their objectives. But the Taliban, who belonged to the Hanafi Deobandi school, did not have the same doctrinal training as the Arab salafists; moreover, they came exclusively from the traditional madrassas, unlike the salafists. Their jihad was primarily directed against their own society, on which they sought to impose a rigorous moral code: they had no taste for the state or for international politics. The cross-fertilization between the two movements, their simultaneous emergence, the hospitality offered by the Taliban within Afghanistan to the principal jihadists, the fact that some of the latter spoke in their name -- all these factors begged the question of whether the one had some kind of ascendancy over the other.

Both, then, were among the unexpected progeny of the Afghan jihad and the rsult of its hybridization with the Deobandi tradition, for which jihad had never been a priority since its birth in 1867. The Deobandi school had been created to permit the Muslims of India, who had yielded their power to the British in 1857 and immediately found themselves a minority within a population of Hindus, to survive as a community under difficult circumstances. The Deobandi ulemas had issued fatwa after fatwa whereby their disciples were enabled to follow the prescriptionf of the sharia meticulously, within a state that would not apply them. They developed the guidelines for a modus vivendi within a non-Muslim society, in which neither jihad nor emigration to a Muslim nation was possible. At the creation of Pakistan, the Deobandi ulemas who were already resident in the territory of the new state or who chose to come there from India had created a political party, the Association of Ulemas of Islam (JUI), intended to protect their sacred way of life within the then highly secularized Muslim Pakistan and to negotiate for funds to support their madrassas. Within the field of Islam proper, this allowed them to defend their specific identity against the Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Mawdudi -- whose modernism and tendency to confuse religion and politics they roundly condemned -- and against their rivals, the Barelwi ulemas, who had created the Association of Ulemas of Pakistan (JUP). By the sheer weight of the pressure group they formed, which included tens of thousands of pupils and graduates of their madrassas, they were now able to intervene directly in political life and to contest everything that apepared to compromise their view of the Islamic world order.

Their first victims were the Ahmadis, a sect whose disciples they denounced as apostates; several members occupied key government posts. Later, under Zia's 1977-1988 presidency, the dictator's determination to impose Sunni Hanafi Islam as the national norm, the levying of alms (zakat) directly on bank accounts, and the subsequent revolt of the 15-20 percent of Pakistanis who happened to be Shiites in July 1980 gave a new vocation to Deobandi militantism -- the struggle against Shiism. This conflict was encouraged by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. [ . . . ]

Unlike the Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Mawdudi, which in general remained an elitist party of devout middle-class people with no grassroots support, the Deobandis embraced impoverished young people with no hope of climbing the social ladder, for whom violence was the main form of expression within a society that was profoundly non-egalitarian and obstructionist. The madrassas sheltered their pupils -- their Taliban -- from all these tensions for as long as their education lasted; they were also able to rationalize their charges' potential for violence by transforming it into a jihad against anyone designated kafir by the master -- whether he was a Shiite neighbor, an "impious" Indian soldier, or anyone else -- even a Sunni Muslim who was held to be a "miscreant." The Taliban became extremely devoted to their ulemas, after many years of education by them under conditions of intense intimacy. They had little or no contact with the outside world; much of their time was spent mumbling texts that they were taught to revere and apply even though they did not understand their meaning, and this experience left them with an esprit de corps that extinguished even the smallest expression of free thought or individual will. In the doctrinaire madrassas, it was a simple matter to turn pupils conditioned in this way into full-blown fanatics.

After the Gulf War, the radicalized Deobandi movement profited from two coincidences that allowed it to increase its influence and, when added to the violence in the Punjab and Kashmir, opened the way to the final victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Saudi Wahhabism had been badly damaged by the decision of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami and the Afghan Hezb-e-Islami to support Iraq, despite the fact that both had been heavily funded by the kingdom for a full decade. The Deobandi party (the JUI) had also demonstrated against the presence of impious soldiers in Arabia but had shown much less enmity to the Riyadh monarchy. Furthermore, the Deobandi ulemas were the sworn enemies of the pirs, or guides, of the Barelwi brotherhoods, who belonged to the other religious party, the JUP. The patron saint of these brotherhoods was buried close to Baghdad, and they were traditional recipients of aid from Iraq. During the war, their leader attended meetings of support for Iraq, at which he declared his "love" for Saddam; he also set up recruiting centers for volunteers to serve the Iraqi cause, which, according to him, enrolled upwards of 110,000 men.

Riyadh, which had to maintain some kind of contact with religious developments in Pakistan, chose the lesser of two evils and switched its support from the now-mistrusted Jamaat-e-Islami to the JUI. In the JUI's favor were these facts: that it was not linked to the international networks of the Muslim Brothers; that it hated Shiites, Iraq, and the brotherhoods; that its strict religious orthodoxy had many affinities with Wahhabite practice. Likewise, in Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb, which had declared for Iraq, was steadily losing ground to Ahmed Shah Massoud and was unpopular in Riyadh. The way was now open for Saudi backing of the Afghan pupils of the Deobandi madrassas, the Taliban.

The Taliban also proved to be attractive to Pakistani politicians including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who alternated power in the early 1990s. As the Taliban gained ground in Afghanistan, their imposition of harsh sharia was largely consistent and compatible with Saudia Arabia's own practice, certainly no cause for alarm. The Taliban only crossed a Saudi line with the harboring of Saudi dissidents like Osama bin Laden. There's much more in the book on the rise of the Taliban, but little on their relationship with Al-Qaeda. Kepel's book was originally published in France in 2000 and translated in the US in 2002. It is likely that there has been considerable hybridization between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban since the US drove them into their mountain retreats in 2001-02, and that at least the old core of Al-Qaeda has become ever more dependent on Deobandi good will within Pakistan's Frontier Territories. I doubt that anyone really knows what's going on there, let alone what it may wind up meaning. One thing for sure is that the Deobandis form an awfully large pool for recruiting by jihadists.


Burgess has a blog called Crossroads Arabia which provides a lot of detail on Saudi Arabia ranging from geopolitics to everyday life.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Looming Tower

Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006; paperback, 2007, Vintage Books)

Until now, I hadn't bothered reading any books specifically on Al-Qaeda. Wright argues (p. 375) that while the conflict between the US and Arab Islamists was long brewing, only Osama bin Laden had the peculiar skills and vision to make the 9/11 attacks happen. That may be so, but I was more interested in the bigger, more general movements, and al-Qaeda always struck me as a bit player in Islamist politics, its obsession with self-aggrandizement a mistake to indulge. The key book on Islamism is Gilles Kepel's Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam.

But Wright's book is very readable, and covers the basic story in a very useful way. The Islamism he reports on is just one of several threads, concentrating on Ayman al-Zawahiri's experience in Egypt and Osama bin Laden's development from Saudi Arabia to Sudan to Afghanistan to 9/11. He also covers the counterterrorism efforts of the FBI and, to a lesser extent, the CIA, with a bit role to czar Richard Clarke. He cites Kepel in the acknowledgments, and his narrative is consistent with Kepel, although given a tighter focus.


First chapter, "The Martyr," is on Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist ideologue who reacted radically to his 1948-50 experiences in the US (pp. 11-12):

America, however, stood apart from the colonialist adventures that had characterized Europe's relations with the Arab world. At the end of the Second World War, America straddled the political chasm between the colonizers and the colonized. Indeed, it was tempting to imagine America as the anticolonial paragon: a subjugated nation that had broken free and triumphantly outstripped its former masters. The country's power seemed to lie in its values, not in European notiosn of cultural superiority or privileged races and classes. And because America advertised itself as an immigrant nation, it had a permeable relationship with the rest of the world. Arabs, like most other peoples, had established their own colonies inside America, and the ropes of kinship drew them closer to the ideals that the country claimed to stand for.

Qutb had a prudish reaction to sex in America, and the usual complaints about materialism, but what galled him more than anything was America's racial attitudes and policies -- which as a dark-skinned Egyptian he sometimes ran afoul of (pp. 27-28):

[Qutb] also brought home a new and abiding anger about race. "The white man in Europe or America is our number-one enemy," he declared. "The white man crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilization, his universal principles and noble objectives. . . . We are endowing our children with amazement an drespect for the master who tramples our honor and enslaves us. Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust, and revenge in the souls of these children. Let us teach these children from the time their nails are soft that the white man is the enemy of humanity, and that they should destroy him at the first opportunity."

Second chapter is on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the well-to-do Egyptian physician who led the Muslim Brotherhood splinter Al-Jihad and eventually became second-in-command of Al-Qaeda (pp. 61-62):

One line of thinking proposes that America's tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt. Human-rights advocates in Cairo argue that torture created an appetite for revenge, first in Sayyid Qutb and later in his acolytes, including Ayman al-Zawahiri. The main target of the prisoners' wrath was the secular Egyptian government, but a powerful current of anger was also directed toward the West, which they saw as an enabling force behind the repressive regime. They held the West responsible for corrupting and humiliating Islamic society. Indeed, the theme of humiliation, which is the essence of torture, is important to understanding the radical Islamists' rage. Egypt's prisons became a factory for producing militants whose need for retribution -- they called it justice -- was all-consuming.

Montassir al-Zayyat, an Islamist attorney who was imprisoned with Zawahiri and later became his lawyer and biographer, maintains that the traumatic experiences suffered by Zawahiri in prison transformed him from being a relatively moderate force in al-Jihad into a violent and implacable extremist. Zayyat and other witnesses point to what happened to his relationship with Essam al-Qamari, who had been his close friend and a man he keenly admired. Immediately after Zawahiri's arrest, officers in the Interior Ministry began grilling him about Major Qamari, who continued to slip their nets. [ . . . ]

Zawahiri himself doesn't admit to this in his memoir, except obliquely, where he writes about the "humiliation" of imprisonment. "The toughest thing about captivity is forcing the mujahid, under the force of torture, to confess about his colleagues, to destroy his movement with his own hands, and offer his and his colleagues' secrets to the enemy."

Next two chapters are on Osama bin Laden. The story then moves to geopolitics, with Saudi Arabia's intelligence head Prince Turki al-Faisal (pp. 114-115):

Turki's colleagues in the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) briefed him on the Afghan resistance, then took him to the refugee camps outside Peshawar. Turki was appalled by the scale of the suffering. He went back to the Kingdom vowing to dedicate more money to the mujahideen, although he believed that these ragged soldiers could never defeat the Red Army. "Afghanistan was gone," he decided. He only hoped to delay the inevitable Soviet invasion of Pakistan.

Similar thinking was going on in Washington, especially by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was the U.S. national security advisor for the Carter administration. Brzezinski, however, saw the invasion as an opportunity. He wrote to Carter immediately, saying "Now we can give the USSR its own Vietnam war." Looking for an ally in this endeavor, the Americans naturally turned to the Saudis -- that is, to Turki, the American-educated prince who held the Afghan account.

Turki became the key man in the covert alliance of the United States and the Saudis to funnel money and arms to the resistance through the Pakistani ISI. It was vital to keep this program secret in order to prevent the Soviets from having the excuse they sought to invade Pakistan. Until the end of the war, the Saudis would match the Americans dollar for dollar, starting with only seventy-five thousand dollars but growing into billions.

That made Afghanistan a joint Saudi-Pakistani-American operation, which allowed the use of tactics that the Americans might have had second thoughts over, such as the recruitment of Arab jihadists (p. 123):

The lure of an illustrious and meaningful death was especially powerful in cases where the pleasures and rewards of life were crushed by government oppression and economic deprivation. From Iraq to Morocco, Arab governments had stifled freedom and signally failed to create wealth at the very time when democracy and personal income were sharply climbing in virtually all other parts of the globe. Saudi Arabia, the richest of the lot, was such a notoriously unproductive country that the extraordinary abundance of petroleum had failed to generate any other significant source of income; indeed, if one subtracted the oil revenue of the Gulf countries, 260 million Arabs exported less than the 5 million Finns. Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is improverished; where entertainment -- movies, theater, music -- is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment, and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies.

As the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan, a Palestinian Islamist named Sheikh Abdullah Azzam enters the picture (pp. 149-150):

First, however, was Palestine. Azzam helped create Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group, which he saw as the natural extension of the jihad in Afghanistan. Based on the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was meant to provide an Islamic counterweight to Yasser Arafat's secular Palestine Liberation Organization. Azzam sought to train brigades of Hamas fighters in Afghanistan, who would then return to carry on the battle against Israel.

Azzam's plans for Palestine, however, ran counter to Zawahiri's intention of stirring revolution within Islamic countries, especially in Egypt. Azzam fiercely opposed a war of Muslim against Muslim. As the war against the Soviets wound down, this dispute over the future of jihad was defined by these two strong-willed men. The prize they fought over was a rich and impressionable young Saudi who had his own dreams.

(pp. 153-154):

The formation of al-Qaeda gave the Arab Afghans something else to fightover. Every enterprise tha tarose in the sparsely populated cultural landscape was contested, and any head that rose above the crowd was a target. The ongoing jihad in Afghanistan became an afterthought in the war of words an dideas that was being fought in the mosques. Even the venerable Services Bureau, which bin Laden and Azzam had established to assist the Arabs in their desire to join the jihad, was slandered as a CIA front and Azzam as an American stooge.

At the root of these quarrels was the usual culprit -- money. Peshawar was the funnel through which cash poured into the jihad and the vast relief effort to help the refugees. The main pool of funds -- the hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States and Saudi Arabia doled out by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) each year to the Afghan warlords -- was drying up as the Soviets prepared to leave. Scarcity only fed the frenzy over what remained: the international aid agencies, private charities, and bin Laden's pockets.

(p. 157):

The end of the occupation coincided with a sudden and surprising influx of Arab mujahideen, including hundreds of Saudis who were eager to chase the retreating Soviet bear. According to Pakistan government statistics, more than six thousand Arabs came to take part in the jihad from 1987 to 1993, twice the number who came for the war against the Soviet occupation. These young men were different from the small cadre of believers who had been lured to Afghanistan by Abdullah Azzam. They were "men with large amounts of money and boiling emotions," an al-Qaeda diarist noted. Pampered kids from the Persian Gulf came on excursions, staying in air-conditioned cargo containers; they were supplied with RPGs and Kalashnikovs, which they could fire into the air, and then they could return home, boasting of their adventure. Many of them were newly religious high school or university students with no history and no one to vouch for them. Chaos and barbarism, which always threatened to overwhelm the movement, sharply increased as bin Laden took the helm. Bank robberies and murders became even more commonplace, justified by absurd religious claims. A group of takfiris even held up a truck from an Islamic aid agency, absolving their action by saying that the Saudis were infidels.

A reference back to the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which is described at some length pp. 101-108; the bin Laden family did the construction work to refurbish the mosque, and helped to suppress the revolt (p. 167):

The attack on the Grand Mosque ten years before, however, had awakened the royal family to the lively prospect of revolution. The lesson the family drew from that gory standoff was that it could protect itself against religious extremists only by empowering them. Consequently, the muttawa, government-subsidized religious vigilantes, became an overpowering presence in the Kingdom, roaming through the shopping malls and restaurants, chasing men into the mosques at prayer time and ensuring that women were properly cloaked -- even a strand of hair poking out from under a hijab could rate a flogging with the swagger sticks these men carried. In their quest to stamp our sinfulness and heresy, they even broke into private homes and businesses; and they waged war on the proliferating satellite dishes, often shooting at them with government-issued weapons from government-issued Chevrolet Suburbans. Officially known as representatives of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the muttawa would become the models for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In 1992 al-Qaeda exploded a bomb in Aden, Yemen, targeting American troops on their way to Somalia; it missed the Americans, but killed two -- a Yemeni hotel worker and an Australian tourist -- raising the question of killing innocent civilians (pp. 198-199):

One Thursday evening, Abu Hajer addressed the ethics of killing innocent people. He spoke to the men about Ibn Tamiyyah, a thirteenth-century scholar who is one of the primary references for Wahhabi philosophy. In his day, Ibm Tamiyyah confronted the problem of the Mongols, who savaged Baghdad but then converted to Islam. Was it proper to take revenge against fellow Muslims? Ibm Tamiyyah argued that just because the Mongols had made the profession of faith, they were still not true believers, and therefore they could be killed. Moreover, as Abu Hajer explained to the thirty or forty al-Qaeda members who were sitting on the carpet in bin Laden's salon, propping their elbows on the bolsters and sipping mango juice, Ibn Tamiyyah had issued a historic fatwa: Anyone who aided the Mongols, who bought goods from them or sold to them or was merely standing near them, might be killed as well. If he is a good Muslim, he will go to Paradise; if he is bad, he will go to hell, and good riddance. Thus the dead tourist and the hotel worker would find their proper reward.

A new vision of al-Qaeda was born. Abu Hajer's two fatwas, the first authorizing the attacks on American troops and the second, the murder of innocents, turned al-Qaeda into a global terrorist organization. Al-Qaeda would concentrate not on fighting armies but on killing civilians. The former conception of al-Qaeda as a mobile army of mujahideen that would defend Muslim lands wherever they were threatened was now cast aside in favor of a policy of permanent subversion of the West. The Soviet Union was dead and communism no longer menaced the margins of the Islamic world. America was the only power capable of blocking the restoration of the ancient Islamic caliphate, and it would have to be confronted and defeated.

This is, of course, not an analysis, just a propaganda line, not unlike what the Bush administration told us the Iraqis would do once they witnessed our "shock and awe" attack; since bin Laden came up with this line, it has most successfully been repeated by Americans warning against any hint of retreat, no matter how stupidly or fruitlessly the US had engaged further conflicts (pp. 213-214):

Given the diversity of the trainees and their causes, bin Laden's main task was to direct them toward a common enemy. He had developed a fixed idea about America, which he explained to each new class of al-Qaeda recruits. America appeared to mighty, he told them, but it was actually weak and cowardly. Look at Vietnam, look at Lebanon. Whenever soldiers start coming home in body bags, Americans panic and retreat. Such a country needs only to be confronted with two or three sharp blows, then it will flee in panic, as it always has. For all its wealth and resources, America lacks conviction. It cannot stand against warriors of faith who do not fear death. The warships in the Gulf will retreat to the oceans, the bombers will disappear from the Arabian bases, the troops in the Horn of Africa will race back to their homeland.

(pp. 214-215):

Bin Laden claimed that he sent 250 men to Somalia to fight against U.S. troops. According to Sudanese intelligence, the actual number of al-Qaeda fighters was only a handful. The al-Qaeda guerrillas provided training and tried to fit intot he anarchic clan war that was raging within the tableau of starvation that the hostilities had caused. Little the al-Qaeda men did impressed their hosts; for instance, the Arabs built a car bomb to attack the UN, but the bomb failed. "The Somalis treated us in a bad way," one of the Arabs complained. "We trried to convince them that we were messengers for people behind us, but they were not convinced. Due to the bad leadership situation there, we decided to withdraw."

One night in Mogadishu a couple of al-Qaeda fighters saw two U.S. helicopters get shot down. The return fire struck the house next to where the men were hunkered down. Terrified that the Americans would capture them, they left Somalia the next day. The downing of those two American helicopters in October 1993, however, became the turning point in the war. Enraged Somali tribesmen triumphantly dragged the bodies of the dead crewmen throughthe streets of Mogadishu, a sight that prompted President Clinton to quickly withdraw all American soldiers from the country. Bin Laden's analysis of the American character had been proven correct.

Even though his own men had run away, bin Laden attributed to al-Qaeda the downing of the helicopters in Somalia and the desecration of the bodies of U.S. servicemen. His influence was magnified because of insurgent successes -- as in Afghanistan and Somalia -- that he really had little to do with. He simply appropriated such victories as his own.

At the time, the US didn't even know that al-Qaeda existed, but later the War on Terror hawks later echoed bin Laden's claims to try to characterize the US withdrawal from Somalia as the sort of retreat that only encourages further attacks, agreeing with bin Laden's critique of the American character, at least as far as Bill Clinton was concerned. What the helicopter downing actually proved was that US forces were lost and clueless in Somalia, that their presence was not only failing to achieve its peacekeeping mission, that it was in fact making matters worse.

I didn't mark any quotes from the section on the years when bin Laden was in Sudan, but it's worth noting that bin Laden invested a lot of money in Sudan and lost virtually all of it when Hassan al-Turabi sent him packing to Afghanistan. Bin Laden may still have been able to raise money in Afghanistan, but he no longer had much in the way of his own resources.

Also note that the Taliban were not yet in power when bin Laden arrived, although they were gaining significant ground. The Taliban at the time were largely beholden to Saudi Arabia, which insisted that bin Laden be kept under control. It was only later that Mullah Omar became bin Laden's protector, at considerable expense first in Saudi support.

In Afghanistan, with the Taliban (pp. 261-262):

"Women you should not step outside your residence," the new [Taliban] government ordered. Women wee a particular target, as might be expected from men who had so little experience of their company. "If women are going outside with fashionable, ornamental, tight and charming clothes to show themselves," the decree continued, "they will be cursed by the Islamic Sharia and should never expect to go to heaven." Work and schooling for women were halted at once, which destroyed the health-care system, the civil service, and effectively eliminated elementary education. Forty percent of the doctors, half of the government workers, and seven out of ten teachers were women. Under the Taliban, many of them would become beggars.

The Taliban also turned their attention to ordinary pleasure. They forbade kite flying and dog racing. Trained pigeons were slaughtered. According to the Taliban penal code, "unclean things" were banned, an all-purpose category that included: "pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography, any equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, televisions, anything that propagates sex and is full of music, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, pictures, Christmas cards.

The fashion dictators demanded that a man's beard be longer than the grip of his hand. Violators went to jail until they were sufficiently bushy. A man with "Beatle-ly" hair would have his head shaved. Should a woman leave her home without her veil, "her home will be marked and her husband punished," the Taliban penal code decreed. The animals in the zoo -- those that had not been stolen in previous administrations -- were slain or left to starve. One zealous, perhaps mad, Taliban jumped into a bear's cage and cut off his nose, reputedly because the animal's "beard" was not long enough. Another fighter, intoxicated by events and his own power, leaped into the lion's den and cried out, "I am the lion now!" The lion killed him. Another Taliban soldier threw a grenade intot he den, blinding the animal. These two, the noseless bear and the blind lion, together with two wolves, were the only animals that survived the Taliban rule.

In 1997, at the time Peter Arnett interviewed bin Laden for CNN (p. 279):

It is possible that, until now, bin Laden had not killed an American or anyone else except on the field of battle. The actions in Aden, Somalia, Riyadh, and Dharan may have been inspired by his words, but it has never been demonstrated that he commanded the terrorists who carried them out. Although Ramzi Yousef had trained in an al-Qaeda camp, bin Laden was not connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Bin Laden told the London-based Palestinian editor Abdel Bari Awan that al-Qaeda was responsible for the ambush of American forces in Mogadishu in 1993, the National Guard Training Center bombing in Riyadh in 1995, and the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, but there is no evidence to substantiate these claims. He was certainly surrounded by men, like Zawahiri, who had plenty of blood on their hands, and he supported their actions in Egypt. He was, as the CIA characterized him at the time, a terrorist financier, albeit a financier without much money. Declaring war on America, however, proved to be a dazzling advertisement for himself and his cause -- and irresistible for a man whose fortunes had been badly trampled upon. Of course, his Taliban hosts forbade such publicity, but once bin Laden had gotten hold of the world's attention, he would allow nothing to pull it out of his grasp.

In November 1997, 58 tourists and 4 Egyptians were killed at Luxor, with the attackers committing suicide after the operation (p. 293):

The following day, the Islamic Group claimed credit for the attack. Rifai Taha said that the attackers were supposed to take hostages in order to free the imprisoned Islamist leaders, but the systematic slaughter put the lie to that claim. The death of the killers showed the influence of Zawahiri; until this point, the Islamic Group had never engaged in suicide operations. The Swiss federal police later determined that bin Laden had financed the operation.

Egypt was in shock. Revolted and ashamed, the population decisively turned against the Islamists, who suddenly began issuing retractions and pointing fingers in the usual directions. From prison, the blind sheikh blamed the Israelis, saying that Mossad had carried out the massacre. Zawahiri blamed the Egyptian police, who he said had done the actual killing, but he also held the victims responsible for coming to the country. "The people of Egypt consider the presence of these foreign tourists to be aggression against Muslims and Egypt," he said. "The young men are saying that this is our country and not a place for frolicking and enjoyment, especially for you."

Luxor proved to be the turning point in the counterterrorist campaign in Egypt. Whatever the strategists in Afghanistan had thought would come of their one great blow, the consequences had landed on them, not on their adversaries. Their support evaporated, and without the consent of the population, there was nowhere for them to hide. In the five years before Luxor, Islamist terror groups in Egypt had killed more than 1,200 people, many of them foreigners. AfterLuxor, the attacks by the Islamists simply stopped.

In 1998, Saudi Prince Turki thought he had a deal to get Mullah Omar to turn over bin Laden (p. 304):

After the meeting, Saudi Arabia reportedly sent four hundred four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and other financial aid to the Taliban as a down payment for bin Laden. Six weeks later, the money and the truck allowed the Taliban to retake Mazar-e-Sharif, a bastion of a Persian-speaking, Shiite minority, the Hazaras. Among the Taliban fighters were several hundred Arabs sent by bin Laden. Well-placed bribes left a force of only 1,500 Hazara soldiers guarding the city, and they were quickly killed. Once inside the defenseless city, the Taliban continued raping and killing for two days, indiscriminately shooting anything that moved, then slitting throats and shooting dead men in the testicles. The bodies of the dead were left to wild dogs for six days before survivors were allowed by bury them. Those citizens who fled the city on foot were bombed by the Taliban air force. Hundreds of others were loaded into shipping containers and baked alive in teh desert sun. The UN estimated the total number of victims in the slaughter to be between five and six thousand people. They included ten Iranian diplomats and a journalist, whom the Taliban rounded up and shot in the basement of the Iranian consulate. Four hundred women were taken to be concubines.

At almost the same time, Al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; Bill Clinton struck back (or more accurately, struck out) by launching cruise missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan (pp. 319-320):

The CIA suspected that bin Laden was developing chemical weapons in Sudan. The information had come from jamal al-Fadl, bin Laden's former assistant who was now a U.S. government witness. But Fadl hd left Sudan two years before, about the same time that bin Laden had been expelled from the country. Unconvinced by the sincerity of the Sudanese government's repeated overtures to the United States to get itself removed from the State Department blacklist, the agency hired a spy from an Arab country to secure a soil sample from an area close to al-Shifa, a pharmaceutical plant suspected of being a secret chemical-weapons facility and thought to be owned in part by bin Laden. The sample, taken in 1998, purportedly showed traces of EMPTA, a chemical that was essential in making the extremely potent nerve gas VX; indeed, it had few other uses. On August 20, on the basis of this information, President Clinton authorized the firing of thirteen Tomahawk cruise missiles into Khartoum as the first part of the American retaliation for the embassy bombings. The plant was completely destroyed.

It developed that the plant actually made only pharmaceuticals and veterinary medicines, not chemical weapons. No other traces of EMPTA were ever found in or around the site. The chemical might have been a product of the breakdown of a commercially available pesticide widely used in Africa, which it closely resembles. Moreover, bin Laden had nothing to do with the plant. The result of this hasty strike was that the impoverished country of Sudan lost one of its most important manufacturers, which employed three hundred people and produced more than half of the country's medicines, and a night watchman was killed.

Sudan let the two accomplices in the East Africa bombings escape, and they've never been seen again. O'Neill and his team lost an invaluable opportunity to capture al-Qaeda insiders.

(p. 323-324):

In the big-chested parlance of U.S. military planners, the failed strikes were dubbed Operation Infinite Reach. Designed to be a surgical and proportional response to the terrorist acts -- two bombings, two decisive replies -- the missile attacks exposed the inadequacy of American intelligence and the futility of military power, which rained down nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars' worth of armament on two of the poorest countries in the world.

According to General Hamid Gul, the former head of the ISI, more than half of the missiles fell in Pakistani territory, killing two Pakistani citizens. Although Abdul Rahman Khadr buried only five men in the al-Qaeda camp, not counting th eone who died in his arms, there were many false claims. Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, said that "twenty or thirty al-Qaeda operatives were killed." The Taliban later complained that twenty-two Afghans had also been killed and more than fifty gravely wounded. Bin Laden's bodyguard observed the damage, however, and agreed with Abdul Rahman's assessment. "Each house was hit by a missile but they did not destroy the camp completely," he reported. "They hit the kitchen of the camp, the mosque, and some bathrooms. Six men were killed: a Saudi, an Egyptian, an Uzbek, and three Yemenis."

The attacks did have other profound consequences, however. Several of the Tomahawk missiles failed to detonate. According to Russian intelligence sources, bin Laden sold the unexploded missiles to China for more than $10 million. Pakistan may have used some of the ones found on its territory to design its own version of a cruise missile.

The main legacy of Operation Infinite Reach, however, was that it established bin Laden as a symbolic figure of resistance, not just in the Muslim world but wherever America, with the clamor of its narcissistic culture and the majestic presence of its military forces, had made itself unwelcome. When bin Laden's exhilarated voice came crackling across a radio transmission -- "By the grace of God, I am alive!" -- the forces of anti-Americanism had found their champion. Those Muslims who had objected to the slaughter of innocents in the embassies in East Africa were cowed by the popular support for this man whose defiance of America now seemed blessed by divine favor. Even in Kenya and Tanzania, the two countries that had suffered the most from al-Qaeda's attacks, children would be spotted wearing bin Laden T-shirts.

A little historical prelude to Mohammed Atta in Hamburg (p. 346):

During World War II, Hamburg was a great shipbuilding center; the Bismarck had been built here, as well as the German U-boat fleet. Naturally it became a prime target of Allied bombing. In July 1943, Operation Gomorrah -- the destruction of Hamburg -- was the heaviest aerial bombardment in history until that time. But the attack went far beyond the destruction of the factories and the port. The firestorm created by the day and night attacks killed forty-five thousand people in a deliberate campaign to terrorize the population. Most of the workers in the shipyards occupied row houses in Harburg, across the Elbe River, and the Allied bombing was particularly heavy there. Atta lived in an apartment at 54 Marienstrasse, a reconstructed building on a street that had been almost entirely destroyed by terror bombings.

On the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor (pp. 374-375):

The strike on the Cole had been a great victory for bin Laden. Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan filled with new recruits and contributors from the Gulf states arrived carrying Samsonite suitcases filled with petrodollars, as in the glory days of the Afghan jihad. At last there was money to spread around. . . .

But there was no American response. The country was in the middle of a presidential election, and Clinton was trying to burnish his legacy by securing a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. The Cole bombing had occurred just as the talks were falling apart. Clinton maintains that, despite the awkward political timing, his administration came close to launching another missile attack against bin Laden that October, but at the last minute the CIA recommended calling it off because his presence at the site was not completely certain.

Bin Laden was angry and disappointed. He hoped to lure America into the same trap the Soviets had fallen into: Afghanistan. His strategy was to continually attack until the U.S. forces invaded; then the mujahideen would swarm upon them and bleed them until the entire American empire fell from its wounds. It had happened to Great Britain and to the Soviet Union. He was certain it would happen to America. The declaration of war, the strike on the American embassies, and now the bombing of the Cole had been inadequate, however, to provoke a massive retaliation. He would have to create an irresistible outrage.

A lot of the book deals with FBI counterterrorism agent John O'Neill (p. 383):

O'Neill understood that the crime model was just one way to deal with terrorism, and that it had limits, especially when the adversary was a sophisticated foreign network composed of skilled and motivated ideologues who were willing to die. But when Dick Clarke had said to him during the millennium arrests, "We're going to kill bin Laden," O'Neill didn't want to hear about it. Although al-Qaeda posed a far greater challenge to law enforcement than the Mafia, or any criminal enterprise, had, the alternatives -- military strikes, CIA assassination attempts -- had accomplished nothing except to aggrandize bin Laden in the eyes of his admirers. The twenty-five convictions, on the other hand, were genuine and legitimate achievements that demonstrated the credibility and integrity of the American system of justice. But the jealous rivalry among government agencies, and the lack of urgency at FBI headquarters, hobbled the I-49 squad in New York, who had been rendered blind to the danger that, as it turned out, was already in the country.

The convictions referred to cover the first World Trade Center bombing and other attacks, including the capture of Mohammed al-'Owhali following the Kenya bombing. The story of how the FBI interrogated him is one of the more interesting ones in the book. At the time, al-'Owhali told the FBI: "We need to hit you outside the country in a couple of places so you won't see what is going on inside. The big attack is coming. There's nothing you can do to stop it."

FBI agent Ali Soufan's interrogation of Abu Jandal following 9/11 is another interesting case. Soufan was in Yemen at the time working on the Cole case, and Abu Jandal was coincidentally in jail there "for suspicion" (pp. 410-413):

Soufan realized that the prisoner was well trained in counterinterrogation techniques, sine he easily agreed to things that Soufan already knew -- that he had fought in Bosnia, Somalia, and Afghanistan, for instance -- and denied everything else. The responses were designed to make the interrogators question their assumptions. Abu Jandal portrayed himself as a good Muslim who had flirted with jihad but had become disillusioned. He didn't think of himself as a killer but as a revolutionary who was trying to rid the world of evil, which he believed mainly came from the United States of America, a country he knew practically nothing about.

As the nights passed, Abu Jandal warmed to the sport of the interrogation. He was in his early thirties, older than most jihadis. He had grown up in Jeddah, bin Laden's hometown, and he was well read in religion. He enjoyed drinking tea and lecturing the Americans on the radical Islamist view of history; his sociability was his weak spot. Soufan flattered him and engaged him in theological debate. Within Abu Jandal's diatribes, Soufan picked up several useful details -- that he had grown tired of fighting, that he was troubled by the fact that bin Laden had sworn bayat to Mullah Omar, that he worried about his two children, one of whom had a bone disease. . . . Soufan also brought him a history of America in Arabic.

Abu Jandal was confounded by Soufan and what he represented: a Muslim who could argue religion with him, who was in the FBI, who loved America. He quickly consumed the history that Soufan gave him and was shocked to learn of the American Revolution and the passionate struggle against tyranny that was woven into the American heritage. His worldview depended on the assumption that the United States was the wellspring of evil in the world. . . .

On the fifth night, Soufan slammed a news magazine on the table betwen them. There were photographs of the airplanes crashing into the towers and the Pentagon, graphic shots of people trapped in the towers and jumpers fallign a hundred stories. "Bin Laden did this," Soufan told him.

Abu Jandal had heard about the attacks, but he didn't know many details. He studied the pictures in amazement. he said it looked like a "Hollywood production," but the scale of the atrocity visibly shook him. At that time the casualties were thought to be in the tens of thousands. . . .

Coincidentally, there was a local Yemini paper sitting on a shelf under the coffee table. Soufan showed it to Abu Jandal. The headline read, "Two Hundred Yemeni Souls Perish in New York Attack."

Abu Jandal read the headline and drew a breath. "God help us," he muttered.

Soufan asked what kind of Muslim would do such a thing. Abu Jandal insisted that the Israelis must have committed the attacks on New York and Washington, not bin Laden. "The Sheikh is not that crazy," he said.

Soufan took out a book of mug shots containing photos of known al-Qaeda members an dvarious pictures of the hijackers. He asked Abu Jandal to identify them. The Yemeni flipped through them quickly and closed the book.

Soufan opened the book again and told him to take his time. "Some of them I have in custody," hej said, hoping that Abu Jandal wouldn't realize that the hijackers were all dead.

Abu Jandal paused a fraction of a second on the picture of Marwan al-Shehhi before he started to turn the page. "You're not done with this one," Soufan observed. "Ramadan, 1999. He's sick. You're his emir and you take care of him."

Abu Jandal looked at Soufan in surprise.

"When I ask you a question, I already know the answer," said Soufan. "If you're smart, you'll tell me the truth."

Abu Jandal conceded that he knew Shehhi and gave his Qaeda name, Abdullah al-Sharqi. He did the same with Mohammed Atta, Khaled al-Mihdhar, and four others. But he still insisted that bin Laden would never commit such an action. It was the Israelis, he maintained.

"I know for sure that the people who did this were Qaeda guys," said Soufan. He took seven photos out of the book and laid them on the table.

"How do you know?" asked Abu Jandal. "Who told you?"

"You did," said Soufan. "These are the hijackers. You just identified them."

Abu Jandal blanched. He covered his face with his hands. "Give me a moment," he pleaded.

Soufan walked out of the room. When he came back he asked Abu Jandal what he thought now.

"I think the Sheikh went crazy," he said. And then he told Soufan everything he knew.

Note that there was no waterboarding here, no CIA horseshit. The interrogation is calm, methodical; Soufan recognizes that Abu Jandal views himself as a moral person, and works that to his advantage. The CIA comes off very badly in this book, and indeed if you look at Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, and most likely a dozen other books I haven't gotten to, the judgment could be even worse.

On the other hand, the methodical record that the FBI and DOJ had built up during the 1990s went to hell after 9/11, with Ashcroft going ape shit and managing to convict virtually no one of any importance.

An epilog (p. 415):

In so many respects, the Trade Center dead formed a kind of universal parliament, representing sixty-two countries and nearly every ethnic group and religion in the world. There was an ex-hippie stockbroker, the gay Catholic chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, a Japanese hockey player, an Ecuadoran sou chef, a Barbie Doll collector, a vegetarian calligrapher, a Palestinian accountant. . . . The manifold ways in which they attached to life testified to the Quranic injunction that the taking of a single life destroys a universe. Al-Qaeda had aimed its attacks at America, but it struck all of humanity.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Smells Like Dead Elephants

I have accumulated a pretty large pile of books I've marked quotes from, and I'm finally starting to work through them. Some are on Iraq and the broader military-imperial landscape. One is on peak oil. I even have a music book. Some items are derived from book reviews rather than the books themselves: in many cases they capture key ideas on the cheap. Especially when I fall behind, I tend to just blow out the quotes. Sometimes I'll add some context and/or a comment. More often the quotes stand on their own.

Given the surfeit of electoral politics this week, I thought I'd start with Matt Taibbi's "Dispatches From a Rotting Empire." It's mostly old news, but thumbing through it I'm staggered by the sheer quantity of misdeeds we've suffered under the Bush administration. In an era when attention span is an endangered species, when we try to reduce everything to fleeting sound bites, it's hard to keep an active memory file of more than a tiny fraction of all the things Bush et al. have done. So here's a brief refresher course, limited as it is to 2005-06. Taibbi has written another book's worth of material since then for Rolling Stone, which will probably be recycled for a presidential campaign book next year, a sequel to his book on the 2004 campaign, Spanking the Monkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season. If you have anything more than a passing cursory interest in campaigning and its media overgrowth, you'll get more dêjà vu out of Taibbi's book than you'll get new news from 98% of today's newscore. Hope he runs Wimblehack again. That section of the book alone is worth the price, just to have a scorecard for who's feeding you what.


Matt Taibbi: Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches From a Rotting Empire (paperback, 2007, Grove Press)

This is a collection of previously published pieces, mostly from Rolling Stone, which in true rock crit style lets Taibbi wind up before throwing a punch. The pieces and dates are listed below, most with sample quotes.

The book came out too early to include his series on 2008's Republican presidential candidates.


Introduction (pp. xii-xiii):

But in the end I understood that there was a good reason that I never tapped into what the hidden truth of the Bush years was, and the reason for that is that there never was anything to tap into. The tragedy of the Bush era is that there was never any depth under its absurd surface -- and when the ridiculous exterior washed away, in scandal and indictment and disaster and failure and ignominy, we were left with nothing but emptiness, disorganization, and chaos. If I indulged in any conscious use of metaphor anywhere in these reports it was in the section about hurricane Katrina, where the whole country saw how tenuous our grip on civilization really is, and where those of us who happened to get a close-up look at New Orleans after the flood saw what America in these years looked like behind what turned out to be a very thin curtain.

The Bush administration burst onto the scene like a carnival, full of grand plans and crazy schemes, wars and Patriot Acts, suspensions of laws and habeas corpus and international standards -- but in the late years, the years covered in this book, all those plans blew up, and we were left to stare at the wreckage, and stare at each other, and wonder what the fuck happened.

Jacko on Trial: Inside the greatest show on Earth [April 7, 2005]. OK, I skipped over this chapter.

Four Amendments and a Funeral: A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress [August 25, 2005] (pp. 41-42):

Congress isn't the steady assembly line of consensus policy ideas it's sold as but a kind of permanent emergency in which a majority of members work day and night to burgle the national treasure and burn the Constitution. A largely castrated minority tries, Alamo-style, to slow them down -- but in the end spends most of its time beating calculated retreats and making loose plans to fight another day.

Taken all together, the whole thing is an ingenious system for inhibiting progress and the popular will. The deck is stacked just enough to make sure that nothing ever changes. But enough is left to chance to make sure that hope never completely dies out. Who knows, maybe it evolved that way for a reason.

Bush vs. the Mother: On the president's doorstep -- a dead soldier, an aggrieved housewife, and the start of something big [September 8, 2005] (pp. 50-51):

In the sixties, the antiwar movement was part of a cultural revolution. If you opposed Vietnam, you were also rejecting the whole rigid worldview that said life meant going to war, fighting the Commies, then coming back to work for the man, buying two cars, and dying with plenty of insurance. That life blueprint was the inflexible expectation of the time, and so ending the war of that era required a visionary movement.

Iraq isn't like that. Iraq is an insane blunder committed by a bunch of criminal incompetents who have managed so far to avoid the lash and the rack only because the machinery for avoiding reality is so advanced in this country. We don't watch the fighting, we don't see the bodies come home, and we don't hear anyone screaming when a house in Baghdad burns down or a child steps on a mine.

The only movement we're going to need to end this fiasco is a more regular exposure to consequence. It needs to feel its own pain. Cindy Sheehan didn't bring us folk songs but she did put pain on the front pages. And along a lonely Texas road late at night, I saw it spread.

Apocalypse There: A journey into the nightmare of New Orleans [October 6, 2005] (p. 81):

America is a country that has been skating for ages on its unparallel ability to look marvelous on the outside. We've long had things arranged in such a way that our public exterior is always shimmering and clean -- our airports, our food courts, our anchormen, our chain restaurants, our fleets of bombers, and our warehouses full of nick-free products in polymer-coated packaging. For most of the uglier things that are under the surface -- the bitterness, the rancor, the greed, the selfishness, the loneliness, the isolation we feel from each other, our inability to communicate and empathize -- we've found ways to keep these things out of sight. They can be heard, maybe, and read all over the Internet and elsewhere, but not seen -- and in any case they have always been subordinate to our legend of supreme competence and efficiency. We may be many things, we Americans, but we always get the job done.

But what happens when we stop getting the job done? What are we left with then?

September 11, the first great paradigm-shifting event of our new century, was a disaster that the American psyche was prepared for. As horrible as it was, it spoke directly to our most deliciously satisfying persecution fantasies: it was Independence Day, Deep Impact, War of the Worlds. Stinky Klingons attack Manhattan; America straps it on and kicks ass. We knew the playbook for that one.

No one was ready for Katrina, though. He was ridiculed for saying it, but George Bush was absolutely right -- painfully if unintentionally honest -- when he said that "i don't think anyone anticipated" this disaster. New Orleans falls into the sea; whose ass do we kick now? When that isn't an option, we're left just staring at one another. And that's what really hurts.

Ms. America: Abu Ghraib irreparably damaged America's reputation, but Lynndie England's trial proved the nation will try to sweep anything under the rug [October 20, 2005] (p. 88):

The real question buried in the Abu Ghraib mess, of course, was one that was never going to be answered in an army courtroom. No court-martial was ever going to be a referendum on the wisdom of fighting a war on the cheap, with post-invasion plans made up on the fly, placing the welfare of an entire population -- a deeply religious population -- in the hands of stupid, horny young Americans.

And no one anywhere was interested in wondering what kind of people we've become -- completely devoid of morals and empathy but armed with digital cameras, ready to give that thumbs-up and "say the cheese."

Darwinian Warfare: In a Pennsylvania courtroom, America can't get the monkey off its back [November 3, 2005]

The End of the Party: In the house, Bush is a liability, the Hammer's been indicted, and the once-united GOP juggernaut stumbles toward an ugly divorce [Demcember 15, 2005] (pp. 101-102):

But the Republicans would return to form late that same night with the passage of their controversial budget-reconciliation passage.

The victory had all the trappings of a DeLay win in a major vote. One, it was conducted in the middle of the night, so that the smarmy process could be viewed by the minimum number of people and/or reporters. Two, it was a narrow win: 217-215. The one- or two-vote victory has been a hallmark of the DeLay method: compromise as little as possible on your pork and your social cuts, fuck 'em if they don't like it, and win by one vote.

Third, the bill was an Orwellian monstrosity in the classically DeLay-ian mold. The shepherd of such hilariously named bills as the Clear Skies Act (for a bill partially repeating Clean Air) and the Healthy Forests Act (easing restrictions on commercial logging) this time had come up with the Deficit Reduction Act of 2006, a bill that added $20 billion to the deficit. Even in this desperate time for the party, and with the budget already heavily burdened by spending on the Iraq war and Katrina, the DeLay leadership team is still clinging to a plan to implement $70 billion in new tax breaks, with more than half being extended to citizens with incomes over $1 million. To pay for that $70 billion in new shortfalls, DeLay and Co. came up with this Deficit Reduction Act, which cut funding from programs for the very poorest citizens -- mainly from Medicaid, food stamps, and student loans.

(p. 104):

The party has been riding a terrific formula for political success in the past five years: don't compromise, crush your enemies, ruthlessly enforce discipline, and then keep the soldiers happy by handing out campaign money and George Bush largess at election time. While everyone was winning, the internal contradictions were kept well hidden. Even the hard-line deficit hawks and Goldwaterites didn't seem to mind racking up $3 trillion in new debt over five years, just as long as George could produce a W for them by making a few appearances before the polls opened.

Now Bush is stumbling around Washington with spears sticking out of him, and his soldiers are running for the hills looking for a fresh horse to ride. The old days of everyone in the party getting laid and paid are over. The fatal hidden paradox of Bush's political success has finally come back to bite him, exposing this damning riddle. How do you give away the entire national treasure and also keep the fiscal conservatives in your party happy? It should always have been impossible; now it really is.

The Magical Victory Tour: While Iraq burns, the president keeps playing the same old song [December 29, 2005] (p. x):

There are no T-shirts for this concert tour, but if there were the venue list on the back would make for one of the weirder souvenirs in rock 'n' roll history. U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, November 30, no advance publicity, closed audience: check. Here at the Omni, December 7, again no advance warning, handpicked audience, ten reporters max (no one else knew about it), with even the cashiers in the hotel's coffee shop unaware of the president's presence: check. Dates three and four, venues and dates unknown for security reasons: check and check.

This is how President bush takes his message to the people these days; in furtive sneak-attack addresses to closed audiences of elite friendlies at weird early-morning hours. If you want to catch Bush's act in person during this tour, you have to stalk him for days and keep both ears open for last-minute changes of plan; I actually missed the Annapolis speech when I made the mistake of briefly taking my eye off him the day before.

(p. 108):

God bless George Bush. The Middle East is in flames and how does he answer the call? He rolls up to the side entrance of a four-star Washington hotel, slips unobserved into a select gathering of the richest fatheads in his dad's Rolodex, spends a few tortured minutes exposing his half-assed policies like a campus flasher, and then ducks back into his rabbit hole while he waits for his next speech to be written by paid liars.

If that isn't leadership, what is?

(p. 110):

Up until now this president's solution to everything has been to stare into the cameras, lie, and keep on lying until such time as the political problem disappears. And now, unable to comprehend that while political crises may wilt in the face of such tactics real crises do not, he and his team are responding to this first serious feet-to-the-fire Iraq emergency in the same way they always have -- with a fusillade of silly, easily disprovable bullshit. Bush and his mouthpieces continue to try to do so not only selectively but constantly, compulsively, like mental patients who can't stop jacking off in public. They don't know the difference between a real problem and a political problem, because to them there is no difference. What could possibly be worse than bad poll numbers?

The Harder They Fall: Republicans are scrambling to clean their House -- but the dirt won't wash off [February 9, 2006] (pp. 120-121):

Barring a sudden and unforeseen flowering of affirmative values in the depraved whorehouse that is our nation's capital, money is still going to remain a hell of an effective substitute for political principle in this town, meaning all manner of frauds -- from Gingrich on down -- will be moving in not to do anything different but to take over the old dealer's territory. The Democrats, whose innocence in the crimes of the past five years to date corresponds exactly to their lack of opportunities for corruption, may now get a chance at the helm. But it won't take much exposure to cheap stunts like a beaming Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi signing a "Declaration of Honest Leadership" before people begin to remember how much the other guys can suck, too.

Generation Enron: In George Bush's America, the only crime is being poor [February 23, 2006] (pp. 127-128):

"Failure," he said, "is not a crime."

He paused. It was a big deal, psychologically, for high-rolling lifetime winners like Lay and Skilling to admit to being failures. But that was all they were willing to admit, and they certainly wouldn't admit to doing anything wrong. Moreover, Ramsey sabotaged his own line about failure with a "joke" that was clearly designed to show he didn't really mean what he'd just said.

"Failure is not a crime," he repeated. "If it was, we'd have to turn all of Oklahoma back into a penal colony -- heh, heh."

The courtroom didn't laugh with him, not a peep from anywhere in the room. This is how Ken Lay asks for forgiveness -- by calling all of Oklahoma a bunch of losers?

How to Be a Lobbyist Without Trying: A personal journey into Washington's culture of greed [April 6, 2006]

Meet Mr. Republican: The secret history of the most corrupt man in Washington [April 6, 2006] (pp. 135-136):

To most Americans, Jack Abramoff is the bloodsucking bogeyman with a wad of bills in his teeth who came through the window in the middle of the night and stole their voice in government. But he was much more than that. Abramoff was as much a symbol of his generation's Republican Party as Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater were of theirs.

He was an amazingly ubiquitous figure, a sort of Zelig of the political right -- you could find him somewhere, in the foreground or the background, in almost every Republican political scandal of the past twenty-five years. He carried water for the racist government of Pretoria during the apartheid days and whispered in the ear of those Republican who infamously voted against antiapartheid resolutions. He organized rallies in support of the Grenada invasion, showed up in Ollie North's offices during Iran-Contra, palled around with Mobutu Sese Seko, Jonas Savimbi, and the Afghan mujahedin.

All along, Abramoff was buying journalists, creating tax-exempt organizations to fund campaign activities, and using charities to fund foreign conflicts. He spent the past twenty years doing business with everyone from James Dobson to the Gambino family, from Ralph Reed to Grover Norquist to Karl Rove to White House procurements chief David Safavian. He is even lurking int he background of the 2004 Ohio voting irregularities scandal, having worked with the Diebold voting-machine company to defeat requirements for a paper trail in elections.

He is a living museum of corruption, and in a way it is altogether too bad that he is about to disappear from public scrutiny. In a hilariously tardy attempt to attend to his moral self-image, he lately has been repackaging himself as a fallen prophet, a humbled super-Jew who was guilty only of going too far to serve God. He was the "softest touch in town," he has said, a sucker for causes who "incorrectly didn't follow the mitzvah of giving away at most twenty percent." They he shows up a few weeks before sentencing with his cock wedged in the mouth of an adoring Vanity Fair reporter, claiming with a straight face that his problems came from trying to "save the world."

(p. 144):

One of the ugliest developments in American culture sine Abramoff's obscure Cold Warrior days in the eighties has been the raging but highly temporary success of various "smart guys" who upon closer examination aren't all that smart. There was BALCO steroid scum Victor Conte ("The smartest son of a bitch I ever met in my life," said one Olympian client), Enron's "smartest guys in the room" Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, and, finally, "ingenious dealmaker" Jack Abramoff. Somewhere along the line, in the years since the Cold War, Americans as a whole became such craven, bum-licking, self-absorbed fat cats that they were willing to listen to these fifth-rate prophets who pretended that the idea that rules could be broken was some kind of earth-shattering revelation -- as though they had fucking invented fraud and cheating. To a man, however, they all turned out to be dumb, incompetent fuckups, destined to bring us all down with them -- not even good at being criminals.

How to Steal a Coastline: The Gulf is still in ruins -- but Bush has opened the door for the casinos and carpetbaggers, and now there's a cutthroat race to the high ground [April 20, 2006] (pp. 152-153):

The wreckage on the ground is, pointedly, the only thing about New Orleans that hasn't changed since the storm. Without actually fixing much, everyone seems to have done a lot of moving on. On a national level, the city's official return to normalcy has been preposterously celebrated with the triumphant return of the NBA's Hornets. Even Mike Brown, the disgraced ex-FEMA chief, is enjoying an improbable Leslie Nielsen-esque career recycling, recnetly making a revoltingly self-flagellating appearance on The Cobert Report. Only in America can you destroy a major city and within six months be using your own incompetence to launch a second career in self-parody.

Thank You, Tom DeLay: You were the Hammer -- the most brutal and feared of all Republican leaders -- but only your rank incompetence saved us from your revolution [May 4, 2006] (pp. 164-165):

Tom DeLay was never handsome, never eloquent, never profound, never engaging, and certainly never funny. Chicks did not dig DeLay. There is no secondary career as an adored, turtlenecked, coed-oggling poli-sci professor awaiting him. No bar back home full of tough guys is waiting to serve him up a congratulatory cold one, nobody at NASA will name the next comet after him, and he will not be a candidate for the next commissioner of the NFL. The only people left to honor his name will be a bunch of dingbat Christian dispensationalists with big ears and sky-blue suits eager to reward him for his undeniable role in speeding humanity toward the Apocalypse.

No, without his hands on the levers of power, DeLay is a total zero, a loser, two-hundred-odd pounds of the world's purest pussy repellent, and with his resignation many out there will be tempted to revel in that fact without considering the larger picture.

And the larger picture is this: Tom DeLay was the Stalin of the Republican revolution. The difference is we caught him in time.

The right-wing revolution started out as all revolutions start out: as a piece of upper-class political theater that used the unwashed masses as a stage prop, a pair of crossed pistols on the wal. It was always absurd, this idea of a savage campaign against "elites" being led by a poofy wordsmith like Rush Limbaugh, a Harvard fatty like Grover Norquist, a dickless academic like Newt Gingrich, and a diaper-dumping oligarch like George W. Bush. They were just another band of mischievous aristocrats who played at being the voice of the common man -- these new wingers sold themselves as the champions of the fucked-over little guy, in this case the terminally frustrated boobus Americanus, who for decades had been made to sit idly by while ethnics stole his job, evil liberals mocked his religion and his simple way of life, and media "elitists" shut out his views and sent porn and married queers into his living room via the television set.

What made Tom DeLay different is that Tom DeLay was a little guy. He had more in common with Bill Clinton (whom not surprisingly he despised, probably precisely for this reason) than with Gingrich or Norquist or Bush. He came from the dirt of the South, with a drunken reprobate for a father and nothing but white trash in his family tree. Unlike Clinton, however, DeLay was not blessed with personal gifts -- looks, brains, charm. Instead of Oxford and Yale, DeLay dropped out of Baylor after being inveigled in a childish campus-vandalism scandal. His pre-politics career as a rat and bug killer was marked by a continual failure that has to be considered shocking in a state so teeming with vermin. An exterminator failing in southeast Texas is like a pimp failing in Bangkok during tourist season.

(p. 166):

The famously vengeful DeLay was on the way to remaking his party in the same way [as Stalin], disdaining charismatic talkers like Gingrich and Bob Livingston and replacing their type in the apparatus of Washington -- not only in Congress but in the lobbies and the think tanks, who were often forced to comply with his litmus-test hiring preferences -- with his faceless, dependable, snake-mean Christian cronies.

What was terrifying about DeLay was that he was the barking voice of that afternoon talk-radio caller given full reign in Washington. He was that same angry lout, not invoked and used by by clever academics and con men, but actually in charge: a narrow, selfish, envious, mean-spirited prick who had the whole capital on its knees. What kind of man was he? He went into national politics in the first place only because the federal government had banned a potentially carcinogenic pesticide called Mirex that DeLay had used to kill ants. That was his idea of injustice.

Fort Apache, Iraq: Travel the bloody roads with GIs , meet the carpetbaggers, go inside Abu Ghraib, and witness the catastrophic nature of the American conquest [July 13, 2006] (p. 203):

We came into this war expecting to be treated like the GIs who went into France a half century ago -- worshipped, instantly excused for the occasional excess or foible, and handed the keys to both the castle wine cellar and the nurses' dormitory. Instead we were treated like unclean monsters by the people we liberated, and around the world our every move was viciously scrutinized not only by those same Europeans we rescued ages ago but by our own press.

Bush's Favorite Democrat: In Connecticut's Democratic primary, Joe Lieberman claims he's facing a leftist "jihad," but there are two words the senator can't duck: "Iraq" and "war" [August 10, 2006] (p. 215):

No one has played the role of that "winner" more enthusiastically, or more often, than Joe Lieberman. He is everything a Washington insider loves in a politician. He is pompous, pious, and available. Routinely one of the very top recipients of campaign donations from the insurance, pharmaceutical, and finance sectors, and a man whose wife, Hadassah, is a pharmaceutical-industry lobbyist for Hill and Knowlton, Lieberman has quietly become one of the greatest allies corporate America has in Washington.

The Worst Congress Ever: How our national legislature has become a stable of thieves and perverts -- in five easy steps [November 2, 2006] (p. 219):

There is very little that sums up the record of the U.S. Congress in the Bush years better than a half-mad boy-addict put in charge of a federal commission on child exploitation. After all, if a hairy-necked, raincoat-clad freak like Representative Mark Foley can get himself named cochairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, one can only wonder: What the hell else is going on in the corridors of Capitol Hill these days?

These past six years were more than just the most shameful, corrupt, and incompetent period in the history of the American legislative branch. These were the years when the U.;S. parliament became a historical punch line, a political obscenity on par with the court of Nero or Caligula -- a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable.

(pp. 233-234):

In fact, the Republican-controlled Congress has created a new standard for the use of oversight powers. That standard seems to be that when a Democratic president is in power, there are no matters too stupid or meaningless to be investigated fully -- but when George Bush is president, no evidence of corruption or incompetence is shocking enough to warrant congressional attention. One gets the sense that Bush would have to drink the blood of Christian babies to inspire hearings in Congress -- and only then if he did it during a nationally televised State of the Union address and the babies were from Pennsylvania, where Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter was running ten points behind in an election year.

The numbers bear this out. From the McCarthy era in the 1950s through the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, no Democratic committee chairman issued a subpoena without either minority consent or a committee vote. In the Clinton years, Republicans chucked that long-standing arrangement and issued more than one thousand subpoenas to investigate alleged administration and Democratic misconduct, reviewing more than two million pages of government documents.

Guess how many subpoenas have been issued to the White House since George Bush took office? Zero -- that's right, zero, the same as the number of open rules debated this year, two fewer than the number of appropriations bills passed on time.

(pp. 241-242):

Anyone who wants to get a feel for the kinds of beasts that have been roaming the grounds of the congressional zoo in the past six years need only look at the deranged, handwritten letter that convicted bribe taker and GOP ex-congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham recently sent from prison to Marcus Stern, the reporter who helped bust him. In it, Cunningham -- who was convicted last year of taking $2.4 million in cash, rugs, furniture, and jewelry from a defense contractor called MZM -- bitches out Stern in the broken, half-literate penmanship of a six-year-old put in time-out.

"Each time you print it hurts my family And now I have lost them Along with Everything I have worked for during my 64 years of life," Cunningham wrote. "I am human not an Animal to keep whiping [sic]. I made some decissions [sic] Ill. be sorry for the rest of my life."

The amazing thing about Cunningham's letter is not his utter lack of remorse, or his insistence on blaming defense contractor Mitchell Wade for ratting him out ("90% of what has happed [sic] is Wade," he writes), but his frantic, almost epic battles with the English language. It is clear that the same Congress that put a drooling child chaser like Mark Foley in charge of a House caucus on child exploitation also named Cunningham, a man who can barely write his own name in the ground with a stick, to a similarly appropriate position. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Intelligence Analysis and Counterintelligence:

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Death of a Salesman

Mitt Romney dropping out of the Republian presidential campaign brings to a close one of the most shameful acts in American politics at least within my memory. He did it in typical style, as an act of self-sacrifice to forego dividing the GOP and letting the terrorists (i.e., Obama and/or Clinton) win. More likely his business sense finally kicked in, seeing the increasingly self-funded campaign as a dubious investment. I'm reminded of some pundit who when Giuliani dropped out said he didn't have enough respect for conservatives to lie to them. That, of course, was really a backhand at Romney, who disavowed every plank in his Massachusetts political platform to win the hearts of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Whether he was lying now or lying then matters little. You can't be that brazenly self-contradictory and expect anyone to ever trust you again.

When I said I expected McCain to offer Huckabee the VP slot, that too was a slap at Romney. Huckabee would provide McCain with a bridge back to the Christian Fascist party base, which he needs to give lip service to if he hopes to, say, do as well as another war-crazed Arizona senator did in 1964. Huckabee is nuts, but at least he's consistent and principled nuts, a trait he shares with McCain even if their conservatism is rooted and expressed differently. Romney, on the other hand, represents nothing but the Republicans's abiding faith in the big lie. In the end, it's no surprise that his last and most adamant supporters were the party's attack dogs, who know better than most that what counts isn't what you believe but what you say and how rabidly you say it.

I've long thought that the Republican money people were pushing Romney and/or Giuliani as sort of a Hail Mary pass to try to hold on to the White House by moving as far to the left from Bush as possible, but that's turned out not to be possible. The primaries have shown us that Bush's legacy and the Republican base cannot be separated. As they've come to realize that, they've reconciled to McCain as their last best hope. McCain has still managed to gather support from Republican moderates and independents, who continue to mistake him for a rational person despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Recall, for instance, that most neocons like Wolfowitz preferred McCain over Bush in 2000.) I expect that come November the Democrats should be able to convince even the most naive voters how dangerous McCain is. (Patrick Buchanan has recently offered a pretty quotable soundbite, saying that McCain "will make Cheney look like Gandhi." And who can forget the scene of McCain singing "bomb Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann"?) He'd even manage to make Hillary Clinton look antiwar -- hopefully she'll have the good sense to play along.

Meanwhile, McCain has to keep tacking to the right to try to hold down the rank and file party revolt. They don't like him because he has a nuanced position on immigration, because he has shown occasional deviations from the Bush administration line (including occasional qualms about their criminality, although he's never been caught saying as much). The upshot is that in order to prove himself to the Republican base, he has to discredit himself in front of everone else. That's what wiped out Romney, and now it's McCain's turn.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Caucusing

We did go to the Democratic Party caucus here in Wichita KS yesterday. I was ambivalent to start, and by the time we spent an hour in sleet turning to snow waiting to get into the building I was pretty damn unhappy too. I had to change my registration from Independent to Democrat to get in, and I was unhappy about that too. Granted, I haven't had any Republicans to vote for since I turned 21 (well, except for anyone who ever ran against Vern Miller), but I never identified with the Democrats. Maybe it was blood: my father's father and his father both had Lincoln in their names; my mother's grandfather fought for the Union from Ohio, moved to Arkansas, and served as a Republican in a Reconstruction government. Or it may have been from thinking about how many kids, friends and neighbors and relatives, LBJ killed. When I studied political history, I naturally tended to think fondly of progressive Republicans while despising reactionary Democrats. Of course, since Wayne Morse left the GOP in 1956 and Strom Thurmond joined in 1964 it's been hard to see any good in the one even if the other is often little better.

I was ambivalent about Obama as well, and when I saw caucus signs for Kucinich and Richardson I had fleeting thoughts of bolting for candidates with stronger stands against the war, but their chairs and tables were empty. Besides, I was caught up in the cattle car rush of humanity, trying to get out of the packed quarters faster than they had managed to get in. The whole process was hopelessly inadequate, with four times as many people showing up as they had expected, and little indication that they had been prepared for even the expected turnout. To change my party affiliation I had to fill out a blank sheet of paper because they had no forms or records. They then ushered most of us into a lobby, Clinton supporters to one side, Obamas to the other, then quickly marked x's on our hands and chicken scratches on a tablet to count our votes. The Obama side outnumbered the Clintons 2-to-1, maybe more, but the Clintons had more printed signs and made more noise. Don't know what that signified. Then we were dumped outside in the snow, and went home to watch the results. Kansas gave Obama 73.3% of the vote, so our sample wasn't atypical. One person figured out how to vote for Richardson. Kucinich got 35 votes, Edwards 53.


I found some results for Wichita. The caucuses were organized by State Senate district. Ours (district 25, downtown, north and west) had 863 votes, 64.7% for Obama. District 29 (near northeast, mostly black) had 1587 votes, 86.5% Obama. District 30 (further east) was 1758 total, 77.9% Obama. District 27 (southwest), 823 total, 62.9% Obama. District 26 (southeast, Derby), 586 total, 56.3% Obama. District 28 (south-southwest, Haysville), 502 total, 52.8% Obama. Clinton won two districts statewide: Parsons 51.8% (471); Paola 50.8% (500). (District 18, Topeka, held two caucuses because it stradles congressional districts. The part in CD 1 gave Clinton 52.2% of 23 votes; the part in CD 2 gave Obama 70.4% of 901 votes.) Obama's best showing was district 4, Kansas City, 93.5% of 2202 votes. District 2 in Lawrence gave Obama 80.3% (1402); District 19 in Topeka 80% (900).


By the time I went to bed last night it looked like Clinton's sizable (10-17 point) wins in the big states (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California) put her into a slight but probably insurmountable lead. The remaining big states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas) are more similar to the ones Clinton won than to the ones Obama won. And so, I found myself predicting a Clinton-Obama ticket, running against a similar McCain-Huckabee compromise. There are a set of factors which have historically led to such compromises, such as Kennedy-Johnson, Reagan-Bush, and Kerry-Edwards, and those factors are present in spades this year.

Today it looks like I may have been premature. Obama got very nearly the same popular vote as Clinton -- less than 1% separated them -- and may have come up with more delegates (although Clinton still has a super-delegate margin). Also, it looks like Obama has more money going forward, and it's not inconceivable that could make a difference. So I'm wondering now whether Hillary would be mensch enough to take the second slot. Not that she would be my pick, but it would reduce her negatives quite a bit; e.g., it would show some humility few see in her, and it would push her lame duck husband further into the background. (An Obama-Edwards ticket is another possibility, which would work for much the same reasons.)

Basically, there are three reasons for opposing Hillary Clinton. The first is that the dynastic thing has to be buried once and for all, and there's no way to extricate her from it. I won't belabor the point here, but I'm pretty hardcore against nepotism, in favor of confiscatory estate taxes, and downright contemptuous of every facet of aristocracy. She's probably more competent than George Wallace's wife was to be governor of Alabama, but she's still not a marginal case.

The second is the war. No Democrat is ever going to be able to serve their constituency, which is most of the people in the US, unless they can break the war-empire cycle that the US has sunk into. She's got a bad track record, and not just on Iraq. She's developed into a reflexive hawk. Even if it's just to counter the idiot notion that she's not strong enough, either because she's a woman or because she's a Clinton or both, and Republicans and the media know damn good and well how to push her buttons. So even if she knows better about Iraq by now (and that's not all that clear), she doesn't know enough better to stay safe.

The third is that her every instinct is to support business rather than provide a counterweight against corporate excesses. Obama might very well do the same things -- anyone who can raise enough money to run for president has already sold a lot of soul, and he's certainly competitive even if it looks like he may be smarter about it. And realistically, until voters wise up and start voting against the money, nobody's going to be much good in this regard. (I'm not looking for an economics retard like Ralph Nader to stand up to corporations. I'm just looking for someone who can see all sides of a problem, not just the ones the lobbyists point out.)

Obama beats Clinton on 2.5 of these points, so he's an easy choice. (He may be too friendly with his donors, but at least he's never sat on WalMart's board of directors.) He also seems more capable of looking at problems from several different sides, which gives him an intangible edge over politicians who are bred and selected for their kneejerk reactions -- Bush is probably the all-time champ for decisiveness without the slightest shred of understanding, but Bill Clinton wasn't much better.

On the other hand, Hillary might not be the tragic success Bill Clinton was. He had more empathy for everyday Americans than Hillary will ever be able to fake, but she at least doesn't expect everyone to like her (or if she did, she sure knows better by now). His greatest weakness was to compromise not only his principles (which never was a strong suit) but his better judgment to suck up to the powerful, and his reward was getting bitch-slapped by the Republicans for eight full years. He wound up with none of his initial program enacted and his party so lame George Bush was able to steal an election. That lesson can't be lost on Hillary. She knows she'll have to fight back. Good chance she's even brushed up on her Truman and Lincoln. But also the Republicans won't be in the position to rape her that they were with Bill. They've shot their wad and totally disgraced themselves. They'll try to get it up, but most people will see right through them. To carry the analogy one step further, the Republican Noise Machine will be unmasked as the emperor's new dildo. Hillary should have fun with that.

How it turns out will depend on the big primaries to come. Clinton won big states in the East with a strong base of white working class ethnics (like Ohio and Pennsylvania), and California with a lot of Latinos (like Texas). It's not that Obama has to show that a black man can win those votes, but the numbers mean that he must. If he can, he wins. If he can't, he should get a shot at the VP slot because he has proved he can add votes to the ticket, and he should take it because winning will put an end to the question of whether he can win. Hopefully, he'll drive a hard bargain, and become a Cheney-weight VP, not another John Nance Garner. That kind of deal would be good for Clinton as well, not least by changing the chemistry of her crony-machine.

Whoever wins will have to do a much better job than Clinton or Carter did, because there will be rough times ahead.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Year-End Mop-Up (Part 4)

This is the last of four sets of short notes/reviews I made while checking out highly regarded 2007 releases using Rhapsody. These are snap judgments, based on one or two plays. Some records, of course, would benefit from extra exposure, although some might wear worse. I wound up checking out all of the Pazz & Jop top finishers I could find -- see below for a list of exceptions -- down to Queens of the Stone Age (72: Era Vulgaris) and Bat for Lashes (80: Fur and Gold), beyond which little looked apetizing let alone important. I also checked out almost all of Christgau's honorable mentions (Rufus Wainwright was an exception I remember), plus a few odds and ends that struck my fancy. Aside from the Fats Domino tribute, I didn't get into the various artists compilations, and I didn't do much jazz -- either could have impacted my regular writings, and I didn't feel up to thinking about that. Before this exercise I had always been reluctant to review downloads. I still have mixed feelings about it, but I think it's been useful to get the broad overview this exercise has offered. Certainly saves me the temptation to hunt down stuff I wind up not caring much for, as well as the ensuing storage problems.


Shantel: Disko Partizani (2007, Crammed Disc): German electronica producer, full name Stefan Hantel, draws on Eastern Europe and North Africa, Gypsies, Jews, and Arabs, without pushing any particular line to excess. What sounds at first like restraint morphs into eclecticism. B+(*)

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (2006 [2007], DFA/Capitol): I handicapped this at #4, but it won the Village Voice's critics poll in a close three-way race and easily won among Idolator's somewhat more techno-friendly critics. I may have underestimated this because of a quirk in my methodology. A few months ago I found a copy at the library. Checked it out, gave it a couple of spins, thought it was pretty good, jotted down a high B+(***), and forgot about it. With a grade in hand, it wasn't a priority to stream, but after the Voice poll came out I figured it was time. A couple of plays later I can hear why it's winning without getting excited about it. It has four or five cuts that are bouncy enough to lift the rather drab vocals, and the off-speed bit about New York that seems off at first starts to get comfy. It is, in short, the sort of record that if you lived with regularly you'd get to like, maybe a lot. If that doesn't excite me, maybe I'm just too promiscuous to settle down. A-

Holy Fuck: LP (2007, Young Turks): Canadian duo, specializes in live improv electronica, on their second album. Mostly keybs and drums, all instrumental, big pumping riffs, something of a kraut rock influence. This jumped out of the speakers from the start, something called "Super Inuit," and the subsequent variations just added to the impact. Pace LCD Soundsystem, this only took one play. A-

Yeasayer: All Hour Cymbals (2007, We Are Free): Brooklyn group. Christgau described this as "tribal neo-psychedelia as spirit food for the grim times ahead." The multiple voices push the tribal concept, and the hodgepodge of references could pass as psychedelia. I'm a little short on details, but one song is called "No Need to Worry." That sounds like something to worry over. B+(*)

No Age: Weirdo Rippers (2007, Fat Cat): LA-based lo-fi drum/guitar duo, putting a lot of fuzz into a mix more/less reminiscent of Jesus and Mary Chain, perhaps a bit grungier. Don't have much to say about them, but I like the sound and the dingy album cover, which leaves a lot to the imagination. B+(***)

The Twilight Sad: Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007, Fat Cat): Indie rock group lays the Scottish on thick, the accent of course, but also storms of background noise resembling bagpipes and martial drums. It's almost shtick, but they play it straight and keep the excesses in check. In the end all they have to do is lay out a bit of shimmering guitar riff for something to play off against. B+(*)

Daft Punk: Alive 2007 (2007, Virgin): French techno outfit, been around since the mid-1990s, has never impressed me much before, but they're a brand name group in a relatively anonymous genre. Playing live cuts against the genre grain. Evidently they're big enough to get the full arena sound treatment -- cavernous echoes, mass audience noise. It suits their rudimentary kraut rock especially well. A-

Dälek: Abandoned Language (2007, Ipecac): New Jersey underground rap group, including an MC of same name, which leads to various degrees of confusion. Music is built from dreary industrial drones, with deadpan raps that sometimes signify. B+(*)

Dan Deacon: Spiderman of the Rings (2007, Carpark): Electronica impresario, loves those funny cartoonish sounds that are stock-in-trade clichés with synthesizers. E.g., first piece is called "Woody Woodpecker," a rehash of the cartoon theme song with all sorts of extra blips. Various pieces are more/less funny. Ends with an abortive attempt to tell a joke. B

Matthew Dear: Asa Breed (2007, Ghostly): Ann Arbor techno producer, comes up with fairly minimal beats, which at least here are formed into seductive little songs with more/less awkward vocals. B+(*)

The-Dream: Love/Hate (2007, Def Jam): R&B singer-songwriter, born Terius Youngdell Nash. Wrote Rihanna's hit "Umbrella," which won Idolator's singles poll, and had some sort of hit called "Shawty Is a Ten," which reappears here as "Shawty Is Da Sh*!" -- something about the vernacular there I don't understand, and it's not helped by the falsetto or the repeated references to "Shawty" as in "Nikki," who he's bedding in lieu of, or in spite of, Shawty, whoever she/that is. Also not sure what I think about the Nelly-like "heys" punctuating several songs. Thing is, he's pretty effective on a straighter song like "Fast Car" where he's not bogged down in the bogus horseshtick. Several discographical nuissances: not sure what the hyphen means; e.g., do we sort under 'T' or 'D'? Title on cover looks like Love Me All Summer, Hate Me All Winter, but most authorities list it as Love/Hate. Seems like a nice kid with a lot of talent who's trying hard to be polarizing. B+(*)

Low: Drums and Guns (2007, Sub Pop): Three-piece band from Duluth MN, with husband/wife vocalists Alan Sparhawk (guitar) and Mimi Parker (drums) and bassist John Nichols. They call what they do "slowcore": the music is slow, dank, industrial, not an inappropriate representation of their frozen rust belt town. (I spent a couple of days there a few years ago -- in July, thankfully -- and it's a fascinating place.) They've recorded steadily since 1994, and have a steady following. They always seemed like an interesting concept, but the few times I have sampled their music have left me dazed and dull. This isn't an exception, although a song about the Beatles and Stones is at least clear. They have a career, and will probably last as long as the Fall. B

Black Lips: Good Bad Not Evil (2007, Vice): Atlanta-based rock band. AMG lists them as Garage Punk and Garage Rock Revival. Half a dozen albums since 2003. Based on a pretty scandalous live rep, I expected more frenzy in a punk band -- maybe that was an early phase they've grown out of. Nothing terribly fast or hard, but there are traces of 1960s garage bands like Sir Douglas, the organ thinned with guitar, a certain wryness in the twanged accents. Not much here, but I like the basic sound. B+(*)

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Baby 81 (2007, RCA): Another garage band, from San Francisco, named for Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang in The Wild One. This is their fourth album, first I've heard. Most sources place their roots in 1990s Brit bands, especially Jesus and Mary Chain. That sound isn't obvious at first, but is increasingly pervasive. AMG's review complains that "BRMC has no personality to fall back on." That may be true, but in a conventional rock band with good skills and pop sense that isn't such a liability. I'm not sure I'd notice anyway. (PS: One problem here is getting the label straight. AMG lists: Sony, RCA, Island, Universal/Island, which covers two incompatible megacorps. I've also seen Red Int., Red Ink, and RCA/Red Ink. Rhapsody says RCA, which is my fallback position, but without having an actual record it's impossible to know.) B+(**)

Brother Reade: Rap Music (2007, Record Collection): White rap duo from Los Angeles, or maybe Winston-Salem NC, where James Joliff (Jimmy "Jael" Jamz or Major Jamz) and Erin Garcia (Bobby Evans) got their start in a punk band. Beats are soft, loosey, with a lot of undertow. Rhymes are smart enough but not exactly intellectual, and above or beyond partying -- just enough to make "Like Duh" sting. A-

Aesop Rock: None Shall Pass (2007, Definitive Jux): Ian Bavitz piles his beats up like an endless series of car wrecks -- he loves crashing electronic drones, and keeps them coming in ways that defy physics. He keeps the words coming too, but I'm having more trouble than ever catching any as they flash by. In that this sounds typical, just not as much fun as it used to be. B

Air: Pocket Symphony (2007, Astralwerks): French electronica group (Nicolas Godin, Jean-Benoit Dunckel), on the ambient side. The instrumental music here is measured, stately, elegant and comfortable, a little short of beat, but quite lovely. The vocals come far too frequently, and they mostly dull or blur the effect without destroying it. B+(*)

Joni Mitchell: Shine (2007, Hear Music): Returning from retirement to smell the coffee, she starts with an instrumental laced with Bob Sheppard sax, then unveils a series of ecology-friendly save-the-world songs, including a reprise of "Big Yellow Taxi" (the "paved paradise and put up a parking lot" song). I've always reacted out of sync to her, tuning into her early self-centered folkie act only through it reverberated through other people I knew, finding her jazz jones alternately aggravating and enchanting, yet enjoying much of her widely disparaged, other-centered late work. This is a mixed bag, but I like its pieced-together musicality and don't mind the apocalyptic. They have, after all, done worse things than build parking lots. B+(*)

Yoko Ono: Yes, I'm a Witch (2007, Astralwerks): She's recorded off and on for a third of a century, trading on her celebrity, connections, and interesting if not always good taste, but she has nothing distinct in style or sound, which makes her suspect as a musical artist. Her eclecticism is all the more exposed on an album of collaborations with artists who often rip her to shreds. Old songs, too, at least the few I recognize. B

Deborah Harry: Necessary Evil (2007, Eleven Seven): Several times this threatens to break loose but never sustains the interest song to song -- even the last three songs, which Christgau raved over, don't flow. They do at least break out of the mild pop rut of the groupthink on the first 14 songs -- AMG credits those to three or more writers each, whereas Chris Stein appears with two of the last three. B

Joe Henry: Civilians (2007, Anti-): Got some press early on for being married to Madonna Ciccone's sister, but with 10 albums in 21 years plus a lately blossoming roster of production credits, he has a pretty substantial resume by now. Born in North Carolina, raised in Michigan, he fits the midwest singer-songwriter niche (cf. John Hiatt, John Mellencamp), not countryish but at least direct and uncomplicated. B+(**)

Deerhunter: Cryptograms (2007, Kranky): Atlanta band, self-described as ambient punk, which seems a good enough label for their guitar-dominant pattern abstractions -- I'm reminded of the Feelies and Cabaret Voltaire, but on record at least they seem more constrained, less given to pop fancy. That seems at odds with their reputation, which takes punk more as a license to offend. This leans more toward ambience, but has enough edge to maintain an interest level. B+(***)

Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity (2007, Kill Rock Stars): Just for the record, I didn't actually listen to all of this. Sometimes Rhapsody skips over tracks, and I caught this happening at least three times here. I've seen it happen before, and sometimes went back, but here at least I've heard enough. San Francisco group, with a female vocalist, Satomi Matsuzaki, whose presence no doubt tempts them to Japanese tunings. Her voice, too. But they'd likely to be into ornate eclecicism in any case. I find the affectations annoying; before long that reaction also spreads to the sweeping pop riffs and sporadic guitar noise. Ninth album since 1997. C+

Grinderman (2007, Anti-): It would be hard to call Nick Cave a project given how steadfastly I've ignored him. He's been cranking out records since the late 1970s, but this is the first I've heard all the way through. I credit my lack of interest to Christgau, who occasionally entertains arguments whether Richie Havens, Nick Cave, or the Smashing Pumpkins are the worst live act of all time. (Laura witnessed the Havens concert and swears there can be no contest.) Actually, I have heard bits and pieces over the years, and he's usually struck me as a competent rocker, a little derivative and pompous, but listenable. This isn't bad, but it's charms are limited. E.g., he takes an overly obvious Bob Dylan melody and perverts it into "No Pussy Blues." Good guitar on the closer, "Love Bomb"; still, if you recall Flipper's "Sex Bomb," you might argue he merely unperverted it. B+(*)

The Ponys: Turn the Lights Out (2007, Matador): A pretty good indie rock band from Chicago, their third album. Seems like more of a guitar album than the first two, heavier anyway. In doing so, they've sunk into their own competency, going through the motions offering little of interest. B

Patty Griffin: Children Running Through (2007, ATO): Singer-songwriter, originally from Maine. I have her filed under folk, perhaps just my tendency to confuse her with Patty Larkin, who fits the role better. Hearing this had me thinking her marketing niche is adult contemporary, even before noticing the strings on the anthems. Still, her best best is the roots toolkit. She can be deadly dull without it. B-

Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007, RCA Victor): Singer-songwriter from Idaho. Can do some fairly minimal roots pieces, but also has a sense of how to hook a pop tune, and can reel off a credible ballad. I'm impressed, especially by "Right Moves," which should qualify as one of the most irresistible pop singles of the year if I was keeping track. B+(**)

Paul McCartney: Memory Almost Full (2007, Hear Music): Sometimes you can hear the knack he once had, but more often his vacillation between the grand gesture and the trivial sentiment is just annoying. By all indication, he worked harder this time. The result is that this lacks the lightness, not to mention the silliness, that has become his trademark. C-

Ian Hunter: Shrunken Heads (2007, Yep Roc): A surprisingly robust album from the former Mott the Hoople frontman, qualifying as something of a comeback even though his 30+ year solo career never really submerged even if he was often out of mind. More than ever, this parallels Mott, but comes off weaker, the soul, the glamour, the boisterous boyishness all faded. Closes with a ballad called "Read 'Em 'N' Weep" -- fits nicely, almost transcendent. B

Kings of Leon: Because of the Times (2007, RCA): Tennessee group, a cousin and three brothers sired by someone named Leon. Third album. They strike me as lightweight but unpretentious, and I rather like them. B+(*)

Thurston Moore: Trees Outside the Academy (2007, Ecstatic Peace): AMG lists recording date as "1971-2007," suggesting that some of this is old scrapbook material. (Moore would have been 13 in 1971.) A slightly lighter, more laconic Sonic Youth, minus Kim Gordon's vocals, which often make the difference. B+(**)

Blonde Redhead: 23 (2007, 4AD): Alt-rock band, formed by a couple of Italians who grew up in Montreal and met a couple of Japanese in New York. This happened back in the early 1990s. Their early music is invariably compared to Sonic Youth, and Kazu Makino voice is typically described as high and eerie. If that's all true, this qualifies as a relatively mature, moderate, and engaging work. B+(**)

The Avett Brothers: Emotionalism (2007, Ramseur): Country brother act from North Carolina, touted for their "high spirits," "flat-out kickass songs," "Appalachian-style string-band music with punk-rock abandon." Reminds me of the Statler Brothers, but even that's unfair. You always knew that the Statlers got pussy, even if they resorted to praying for it. These smarmy creeps you have to worry about. But at least they don't pray. How they get by without Jesus is a mystery to me. C

Akron/Family: Love Is Simple (2007, Young God): Brooklyn group, quartet (more or less), fourth album. Everyone sings, mostly in unison for a folkie singalong aspect. Reported to have invented their own religion, which is probably more useful than Magma inventing their own language. Sounds like they might not be bad but probably aren't worth the trouble. B

Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino ([2007], Vanguard, 2CD): Thirty-song tribute, almost as many artists. Don't have dates. Most cuts are probably recent, but John Lennon's "Ain't That a Shame" probably dates from 1975. One thing Allen Toussaint shows is that if you really want to nail a classic song it pays to have a near-match voice, not to mention a near-match piano. But if those are the standards, we can (and should) stick to the originals, peerless as they are. On the other hand, a small percentage of these covers stand alongside them (Randy Newman's "Blue Monday," Willie Nelson's "I Hear You Knockin'"), and some even add something (Toots' "Let the Four Winds Blow"). B+(**)

Sa-Ra: The Hollywood Recordings (2007, Babygrande): Also known as Sa-Ra Creative Partners, consisting of three R&B technicians with a long list of production credits (Ice-T, Heavy D, Jay-Z, P Diddy, Common, Coolio, just to pick some names from AMG's list). The principals are named: Taz Arnold, Shafiq Husayn, and Om'Mas Keith. I suppose part of the charm of such a group is that there's little of the usual compulsion to establish an identity -- the brand itself is intently anonymous. Mix of vocals and raps, lots of blippy little beats, skanky little grooves, in-jokes that could be funnier. Nothing yet suggests they're geniuses. B+(**)

Alicia Keys: As I Am (2007, J): Third studio album, settling into her mature level: good singer, thoughtful songs, nice production, some spots for her above-average piano. B+(**)

Chrisette Michele: I Am (2007, Def Jam): Another young R&B singer, good voice, good manners, has a convincingly self-defining song called "Good Girl." I liked it, and liked "Be OK" even better -- a survivor song that doesn't overstate the case. Then she jacks off "Mr. Radio" and tosses off gospel ululations on the senseless "Golden" before recovering a bit. Elsewhere she talks about studying Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Natalie Cole. I suppose it's all part of her business plan. Goes by first and middle name; last name is Payne. Not sure how to sort a name like that. B+(*)

James Luther Dickinson: Killers From Space (2007, Memphis International): Also known as Jim Dickinson -- that's how Wikipedia lists him, while AMG has separate entries under both names. Got his start as a session man (played the piano on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses"; Aretha Franklin's Spirit in the Dark, Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind) and producer (Ry Cooder's Into the Purple Valley, the Flamin' Groovies' Teenage Head, Big Star's Third, the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, more recently Amy LaVere's Anchors & Anvils). Cut his own album in 1972, another in 1979, a few more since the late 1990s. Only wrote one of the songs; don't recall hearing any of the others, a mixed bag that he brings a lot of history and feel to. B+(*)

Taylor Swift (2006 [2007], Big Machine): Teenage country singer, born 1989. Doesn't sound like jailbait, especially on songs like "Picture to Burn" and "Should've Said No" where she shows some evidence of experience. Leads off with one called "Tim McGraw"; as someone who never thinks of Tim McGraw (Tug, maybe, but very rarely), I figured she was selling herself short, but I didn't know she was 16 at the time. Got her a gig opening for McGraw and his good looking, no talent wife. Originally out in late 2006, then redone in a "Deluxe Edition" with bonus cuts and a DVD. Rhapsody only has the "Deluxe Edition," less the DVD. B+(*)

Carrie Underwood: Carnival Ride (2007, Arista Nashville): I've never watched American Idol, and have been militant enough about it that I resented a Jon Caramanica piece that taunted its readers with a "you know you watch it." I suppose that it's true that some significant artists have emerged in talent contests, although off the top of my head I can't think of any since Ella Fitzgerald, which has been a while. Even so, the spectacle of American Idol runs against almost every corollary of artistic distinction in rock, pop, or almost any specialization thereof. Listening to this Idol winner, it occurs to me that the main trait the show selects for is volume. My God, she's loud. Also pretty vapid, but that happens when Nashville can't find some irony to wrap around its clichés. C

Trisha Yearwood: Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love (2007, Big Machine): She has a dozen or so albums going back to 1991, when she started with a neotrad sound and a sense for songs that lately has atrophied. That she frontloads the crap here may mean that she's getting bad business advice. B-

Pam Tillis: Rhinestoned (2007, Stellar Cat): Like Yearwood, she's recorded steadily since 1991, although she's 7 years older, and steadier. Doesn't have an overpowering voice, but uses it well. Songs are sensible and smart. B+(**)

Zu & Nobukazu Takemura: Identification With the Enemy: A Key to the Underworld (2007, Atavistic): First album since I started doing this exercise that hasn't shown up on a single known year-end list. Zu is an Italian avant-jazz group I like a lot: Luca Mai on alto/baritone sax, Massimo Pupillo on bass, Jacopo Battaglia on drums. They've done a number of collaborations, including albums on Atavistic with Spaceways Inc. (Ken Vandermark) and Mats Gustaffson. Takemura is an electronica producer, based in Kyoto, with a long list of records, many on Chicago-based Thrill Jockey. However, this doesn't do much, the stasis coming mostly from the electronic drones that are presumably Takemura's contribution. B


Some things I looked for but couldn't get:

  • Amerie: Because I Love It (Columbia)
  • Battles: Mirrored (Warp)
  • Gui Boratto: Chromophobia (Kompakt)
  • The Field: From Here We Go Sublime (Kompakt)
  • Freeway: Free at Last (Roc-A-Fella)
  • Lil Wayne: Da Drought 3 (mixtape)
  • Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III: The Leak (mixtape)
  • Menomena: Friend or Foe (Barsuk)
  • James Murphy/Pat Mahoney: Fabriclive 36 (Fabric)
  • Róisín Murphy: Overpowered (EMI)
  • Meshell Ndegéocello: The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (Emarcy)
  • OM: Pilgrimage (Southern Lord)
  • Pantha du Prince: This Bliss (Dial)
  • PreNup: Hell to Pay (Rampage)
  • Swamp Dogg: Resurrection (SDEG)
  • UGK: Underground Kingz (Jive)
  • Wussy: Left for Dead (Shake It)
  • Tom Ze: Danc-Eh-Sa (Irara)

It's possible that some of these existed but I couldn't find them. There were several records that took several tries to find. I'm not sure what the status of the mixtapes are. Battles is the biggest surprise, finishing very high in the polls, but electronica seems to be especially spotty. I would like to have had more specialized year-end lists. I still haven't seen Cadence's poll results, which would break out of the semi-major label glut on the major jazz polls. I found a couple of country lists, but not much world, no folk or blues, not nearly enough hip-hop. Electronica appeared in more polls, but was relatively hard to find.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Music: Current count 14151 [14112] rated (+39), 772 [774] unrated (-2). Spent first half week streaming 2007 records from Rhapsody, which accounts for most of the bulk. Wound up adding about 100 records from the exercise. Started jazz prospecting on Friday. Since both of those notes sets are collected elsewhere, nothing to report here.


Jazz Prospecting (CG #16, Part 2)

Jazz Consumer Guide is scheduled for Feb. 13. Don't have edit, and don't know about layout cuts yet. I spent the early part of last week streaming 2007 records from Rhapsody, with diminishing returns. I only turned to Jazz Prospecting on Friday, so this week is short, but I did at least get started. More next week.

I've occasionally been working on year-end comments, one part of which is a statistical review of my year-end list. One thing I was especially struck by -- actually, surprised by -- is how consistent my jazz grading has been. The raw numbers are:

YEARAA-3*2*1*BB-C+CC-TOT
2006 3 45 66137125 85 26 5 6 4502
2007 3 46 69136117 96 31 10 1 2511

The only difference one can point to there is a slight drift from low-B+ to B (down 8, up 11, about 10%) with smaller shifts from B to B- and B- to C+. (The C- grade, by the way, includes a Mark Murphy record that actually got a D.) I suppose one could conclude that I'm becoming a slightly harsher grader. I have noticed myself becoming more critical of competent records that don't much interest me, and that's close to the point where the slip has occurred. Of course, it's possible that the sample has changed. I don't conclude anything from the drop from 10 to 3 C-or-worse records. (I checked the list to see if there was a sudden drop in pop jazz, but I don't see one. In both cases most of the dreck are vocals.)


Cachao: Descargas: The Havana Sessions (1957-61 [2007], Yemaya, 2CD): The best known, or at least the best nicknamed, of a family of legendary Cuban bassists, Israel Lopez wrote hundreds or thousands of songs, ranging from an early role in the invention of the mambo to two volumes of Grammy-winning Master Sessions in 1993. But he's most famous for his descargas, or jam sessions. A-

Grupo Los Santos: Lo Que Somos Lo Que Sea (2007, Deep Tone): A New York quartet not obviously connected to Cuban, let alone Brazilian, music, either by name or instrument: Paul Carlon on tenor sax, Pete Smith on guitar, David Ambrosio on bass, William "Beaver" Bausch on drums. I've been playing this opposite Cachao for, well, a ridiculous number of times, and it's lacking the extra percussion, the choruses, and Chocolate Armenteros' trumpet from the classic stuff, but it holds up awfully well. I've been impressed by Carlon before, but Smith is a revelation, and not just on the two Brazilian pieces (a choro and a samba). Bausch writes about half of the pieces, and may have more up his sleeve than is obvious. There is a bit of extra percussion on two tracks, which credit Max Pollak with "Rumba Tap" -- I think that's tap dancing to a rumba beat. Sounds like it, anyway. A-

Tomas Ulrich/Elliott Sharp/Carlos Zingaro/Ken Filiano: T.E.C.K. String Quartet (2007, Clean Feed): Group name comes from first initials. Ulrich, a cellist, comes first because he wrote all the pieces. Not your usual string quartet: Zingaro is the only violin; no viola; Filiano plays bass, and Sharp plays some kind of guitar ("well, two: one with steel strings, and the othera heavy, shining steel guitar"). String sounds do predominate, as much plucked as bowed. Interesting sonically, but abstract, impenetrable. B+(*)

Bill Easley: Business Man's Bounce (2007, 18th & Vine): Saxophonist, mostly plays tenor here, but claims a clarinet solo, and may work some flute in as well. Born in Olean NY (1946?), moved to NYC in 1964, but went to college at Memphis State, and got his first record credits with Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes. Credits include a lot of Jimmy McGriff, soul singers, Jazz at Lincoln Center. He's got a robust, gutbucket R&B tone, and can bop a little. Starts with "Straighten Up and Fly Right," which he describes as "Hip Hop for senior citizens and their parents." Frank Wess joins on "Mentor"; Warren Vaché on "Memphis Blues," where Easley dusts off his clarinet. B+(***)

David "Fathead" Newman: Diamondhead (2007, High Note): Pretty good band here, with Peter Washington on bass, Yoron Israel on drums, Cedar Walton on piano, and Curtis Fuller smearing some noise on trombone. Fathead, however, sounds thin and wasted, and spends much too much time on flute. B-

Larry Willis: The Offering (2007 [2008], High Note): Piano trio on 5 of 8 tracks, nice postbop stuff, much as you'd expect with Eddie Gomez and Bily Drummond in tow. The other 3 tracks add mainstream tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. He's a fair match for Willis, and does pretty much what you'd expect, fast or slow, up or down. On the other hand, so much as expected gets ordinary fast. B

NYNDK: Nordic Disruption (2007 [2008], Jazzheads): Group name stands for: NY (New York: trombonist Chris Washburne), N (Norway: saxophonist Ole Mathisen and bassist Per Mathisen), DK (Denmark: pianist Soren Moller). Also on this record "special guest" drummer Scott Neumann. Second group album, the first with guests Tony Moreno on drums and Ray Vega on trumpet. Postbop, a little harder and more aggressive with the horns than usual -- trombone helps. B+(*)

Piers Lawrence Quartet: Stolen Moments (2007 [2008], JazzNet Media): Guitarist, born New York, raised San Francisco, studied in Switzerland, now back in New York. First album. Quartet is filled out with Chuk Fowler on piano, Jim Hankins on bass, Sir Earl Grice on drums, all unknowns to me. Three originals, plus covers from Sonny Rollins, Oliver Nelson, Charlie Parker, Sammy Fain/Paul Francis, Jaco Pastorius. Lawrence has a nice sound on elegant lines that work well with the piano. Very pleasant album. B+(**) [Mar. 1]

The Willie Williams Trio: Comet Ride (2007, Miles High): Common name: Wikipedia has six entries, none of which work. This Willie Williams was born in Philadelphia in 1958, plays tenor and soprano sax, has four albums under his own name (first in 1988, last before this in 1993). Studied with Marshall Taylor, did a turn with Arthur Taylor's Wailers, worked in Odean Pope's sax choir and Clifford Jordan's big band. Wrote all the pieces here except for "Caravan" and the Eddie Harris-Jimmy Heath collage he arranged as "Freedom Suite." Basically a hard bop player with more grit than usual. [B+(**)]

Loren Stillman: Blind Date (2006 [2007], Pirouet): Alto saxophonist, b. 1980 in England, studied with Dave Liebman and Lee Konitz. Has 8 records since 1998, mostly since 2003. Quartet with Gary Versace on piano, Drew Gress on bass, Joey Baron on drums. Stillman has a scrawny, delicate sound, and most of this plays like chamber music. I suspect there's more to it, but don't feel much motivation to dig it out. B

Tony Wilson 6Tet: Pearls Before Swine (2007, Drip Audio): Another common name. AMG lists 15, including a few Anthonys. The best known is probably the English record producer and Factory Records founder. My favorite is the Hot Chocolate bassist, especially for his 1976 solo album I Like Your Style. Among jazz guitarists, Gerald Wilson's son Anthony is much better known. This Tony Wilson comes from Vancouver and also plays guitar. The 6Tet adds trumpet, sax, violin, bass, and drums, with some electronics mixed in, for a full-bodied sound that maps closest to fusion, sometimes fevered approaching avant, sometimes not. I go up and down on it. B

Tony Wilson/Peggy Lee/Jon Bentley: Escondido Dreams (2007, Drip Audio): This is both more interesting and less satisfying than the 6Tet album. Where the 6Tet tends to go over the top hoping to sweep you away, this is pretty minimal, which puts it more clearly in avant territory. Bentley plays tenor, soprano, and C melody sax, but tends to follow rather than lead, adding color to the abstract frameworks. Lee's cello is more central, setting the pace and tone for the others. Wilson plays kalimba and charango as well as guitar, and they emerge more fully than in the 6Tet. B+(*)

Fond of Tigers: Release the Saviours (2007, Drip Audio): Seven-piece instrumental group from Vancouver, classified by AMG as rock but really more of a fusion band, with an insistent pulse and a bit of avant edge. Credits listed alphabetically, from bassist Shanto Bhattacharya down to violinist Jesse Zubot. No song credits. Zubot gets an extra credit as producer, but his violin isn't all that prominent. Nor, for that matter, is the only horn, JP Carter's trumpet. B+(*)

Mike Ellis: Chicago Spontaneous Combustion Suite (2000 [2005], Alpha Pocket): Ellis plays saxophones, listing sopranino, soprano, and baritone in that order. Don't know much about him: his website bio starts (or actually, working backwards ends) in 1977 with him studying at Berklee with Billy Pierce. Further studies with Ernie Wilkins, Clifford Jordan, and Steve Lacy. Work with Alan Silva. A group called M.E.T.A. Later got involved with Brazilian music. This is a single 19-part suite, with a quintet, two trumpets (Jeff Beer, Ryan Shultz), bass, drums, constructed is a lean, spare avant vein -- nothing much happens, but the meandering holds your interest anyway. B+(**)

Speak in Tones: Subaro (2003-04 [2005], Alpha Pocket, 2CD): Nominally a collaboration between saxophonist Mike Ellis and percussionist Daniel Moreno, this employs 16 musicians and stretches out to 155 minutes. I take it there's an Afro-Brazil focus, but the sessions were recorded in New York with a group that included Malians Lansine Kouyate and Cheick Tidiane Seck, some notable jazz names (Antoine Roney, Jerry Gonzalez, Graham Haynes, Jean-Paul Bourelly, Adam Rudolph), and scattered others. The long groove pieces are seductive, and it helps that the horns have some sharp edges. B+(**)

Mike Ellis: Bahia Band (2005 [2008], Alpha Pocket): Recorded in Salvador, Brazil, with a mostly Brazilian band, picking up a Professor of African Percussion at the Music Academy of Bahia named Dou Dou Coumba Rose, a Jamaican vocalist from Guyana named Ricky Husbands, a guitarist named Munir Hossn who claims Barcelona, Paris, and Senegal among his homes but was born in Brazil. Mostly guitar (Mou Brasil as well as Hossn) and percussion, setting up a complex, rumbling riddim, which the horns -- Gileno Santana on trumpet, Marcio Tobias on alto sax, Ellis on soprano -- ride along with, although Ellis in particular remains sharp enough to cut the grease. More elemental than Speak in Tones, and better for it. A-


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

The Nels Cline Singers: Draw Breath (2007, Cryptogramophone): Looking at the year-end lists, it's clear that Cline has started getting some attention from outside the jazz world, no doubt due to his employment by Wilco. Their latest album has a guitar dimension they've never had before, but ultimately it takes a back seat to the singer and the songs. Here, in this non-vocal group, guitar is king. I go back and forth on the album. The long "Mixed Message" is as impressive a piece of power trio fusion as I've heard in a long time, at least when it's cranking. But the atmospheric stuff doesn't do much for me one way or another. B+(**)

Ari Roland: And So I Lived in Old New York . . . (2007, Smalls): A matching bookend to Chris Byars' Photos in Black, White and Gray, as it should be, given that the quartets are the same (except for the drummers, Andy Watson instead of Phil Stewart) and the two writers have long worked in the same milieu. More bass solos here. A- [advance]

Stephen Gauci's Basso Continuo: Nididhyasana (2007, Clean Feed): Two basses provide the drive and drone, the phat sonic middle, while two horns -- Gauci's tenor sax, Nat Wooley's trumpet -- work harder at blending in than at standing out. No drums, although now and then you do hear some percussion, probably tapping on the heavy, hollow bass bellies. B+(***)


Unpacking:

  • Howard Alden and Ken Peplowski's Pow Wow (Arbors)
  • Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Holon (ECM)
  • Bob Belden: Miles From India (Times Square/4Q, 2CD)
  • Brian Blade Fellowship: Seasons of Change (Verve): advance, Apr. 1
  • Ron Blake: Shayari (Mack Avenue)
  • Jane Ira Bloom: Mental Weather (Outline)
  • Buddy DeFranco: Charlie Cat 2 (Arbors) %
  • Bill Dixon With Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey)
  • Helena: Fraise Vanille (Sunnyside): Feb. 26
  • Diane Hubka: Goes to the Movies (18th & Vine)
  • Benjamin Lapidus: Herencia Judía (Tresero)
  • Charles Lloyd Quartet: Rabo De Nube (ECM): advance, Mar. 11
  • Nublu Orchestra Conducted by Butch Morris (Nublu)
  • Enrico Rava/Stefano Bollani: The Third Man (ECM)
  • Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Avatar (Blue Note)
  • Horace Silver: Live at Newport '58 (1958, Blue Note)
  • Andrew Sterman: The Path to Peace (Orange Mountain Music)
  • Alex Sipiagin: Out of the Circle (Sunnyside): Feb. 26
  • 3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia (Shanachie)
  • Michael Winograd: Bessarabian Hop (Midwood Sounds): Feb. 17
  • Raya Yarbrough (Telarc)

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Weekend Roundup

Anthony Deutsch: Disgraced and vilified, Suharto dies aged 86. Indonesia's dictator from 1965 to 1998, when his corruption was exposed in the wake of the East Asian currency crisis. He was one of the most murderous rulers of the 20th century, most intensively in the late-1960s when he led an anti-left purge killing at least 500,000, probably a million. He led invasions of Papua New Guinea and East Timor, the latter turning particularly bloody. Throughout his rule he was reliably supported by the US, with the CIA providing him with hit lists of alleged communists in the 1960s. Two American diplomats noted for their work with Indonesia are Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Holbrooke.

Michael Klare: Barreling into Recession. One small point caught my eye here:

In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, for example, the median sale price of existing homes rose from $290,000 in 2002 to $446,400 in 2004; similar increases were posted in other major cities and in their older, more desirable suburbs.

This is one of those my-God-what-were-they-thinking? moments. From 2001 through 2004 the US economy was in a prolonged slump, if not a flat-out recession. The number of jobs created was way below population growth, and for much of the time was negative. Real wages lost ground to inflation, and may even have been negative. Working people were besieged from all corners. The nation as a whole was sinking ever deeper in debt. The dollar was collapsing. (Most of those things are still true today.) So there was absolutely no rational basis for consumer confidence that would raise real estate prices, let alone pump them up by 50%. So why did this happen? And why didn't anyone stand up and say this is crazy?

It's pretty clear now that what caused this was the glut of credit that opened up to fight the recession. That credit had to go somewhere, and much of it went into real estate, which looked like a reasonably safe way to sweep it under the carpet. Part of the idea is that real estate always appreciates, which makes it a safe investment. But also business didn't need more plant, especially after productivity gains and shrinking wages in the 1990s. And credit for consumer spending was already damn near maxed out. Still, all we got from force-fed real estate credit was the illusion of appreciation, because in the end it wasn't tied to real growth. It boosted the economy very little, but it did effectively benefit those who could sell high and those who picked up fees in the process. That, of course, was a very Republican thing to do.

But it happened not because the Republicans wanted it, but because Bush needed it. Otherwise, he was presiding over an economy that was tanking, partly from his wars, partly from his policies, including tax cuts, that shifted huge amounts of wealth from working people to the very rich. You'd think that watchdogs would have been alert to these distortions, but for all practical purposes they were in on the scam. One piece of proof that it worked is that Bush managed to win in 2004 -- even with the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover, the phony appreciation of real estate assets gave enough people enough comfort to disregard his lousy economic numbers. Only now is it sinking in how fraudulent the whole scam was.

The other eye-opening tidbit in Klare's piece is:

In 1998, the United States paid approximately $45 billion for its imported oil; in 2007, that bill is likely to have reached $400 billion or more. That constitutes the single largest contribution to America's balance-of-payments deficit and a substantial transfer of wealth from the U.S. economy to those of oil-producing nations.

As Klare notes, this isn't just the US consuming more oil while producing less. It mostly reflects increases in the price of oil, which are largely attributable to Bush invading Iraq and pursuing sanctions against Iran, taking a critical share of oil off the world market. (China gets blamed too: the nerve of some countries taking the dollars accumulated from our vast trade deficits to go out and bid up the price of oil.) I think Klare is wrong when he argues that rising oil prices led to the downturn that popped the real estate bubble. No doubt oil prices add to consumer pain, but they're marginal compared to sinking real estate values, a problem (like so many others) caused mostly by the short-term deceits of the Bush administration and its business allies/clients.

Parag Khanna: Waving Goodbye to Hegemony. The New York Times Magazine ran this excerpt from Khanna's book, The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. I would personally be more inclined to emphasize the breakdown of great power prerogatives rather than their mere reordering, but Khanna's map can be read my way as well. A couple of quotes:

It may comfort American conservatives to point out that Europe still lacks a common army; the only problem is that it doesn't really need one. Europeans use intelligence and the police to apprehend radical Islamists, social policy to try to integrate restive Muslim populations and economic strength to incorporate the former Soviet Union and gradually subdue Russia. Each year European investment in Turkey grows as well, binding it closer to the E.U. even if it never becomes a member. And each year a new pipeline route opens transporting oil and gas from Libya, Algeria or Azerbaijan to Europe. What other superpower grows by an average of one country per year, with others waiting in line and begging to join?

America's military power turns out to be worse than worthless. Not only does it represent huge economic costs, it has the effect of isolating us.

Europe's influence grows at America's expense. While America fumbles at nation-building, Europe spends its money and political capital on locking peripheral countries into its orbit. Many poor regions of the world have realized that they want the European dream, not the American dream. Africa wants a real African Union like the E.U.; we offer no equivalent. Activists in the Middle East want parliamentary democracy like Europe's, not American-style presidential strongman rule. Many of the foreign students we shunned after 9/11 are now in London and Berlin: twice as many Chinese study in Europe as in the U.S. We didn't educate them, so we have no claims on their brains or loyalties as we have in decades past.

Of course, rising oil prices only add to US weakness:

No doubt the thaw with Libya, brokered by America and Britain after Muammar el-Qaddafi declared he would abandon his country's nuclear pursuits in 2003, was partly motivated by growing demand for energy from a close Mediterranean neighbor. But Qaddafi is not selling out. He and his advisers have astutely parceled out production sharing agreements to a balanced assortment of American, European, Chinese and other Asian oil giants. Mindful of the history of Western oil companies' exploitation of Arabia, he -- like Chávez in Venezuela and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan -- has also cleverly ratcheted up the pressure on foreigners to share more revenue with the regime by tweaking contracts, rounding numbers liberally and threatening expropriation. What I find in virtually every Arab country is not such nationalism, however, but rather a new Arabism aimed at spreading oil wealth within the Arab world rather than depositing it in the United States as in past oil booms.

Article ends with a set of recommendations that don't make a lot of sense to me; "Taken together, all these moves could renew American competitiveness in the geopolitical marketplace -- and maybe even prove our exceptionalism."

What is clear is that any American attempts to dominate the other major powers, or for that matter Khanna's "Second World" powers, will be resisted, and almost always successfully, especially in the long run. The obvious conclusion there is that the only workable approach would be to seek common objectives, as opposed to the special advantages that the US is accustomed to pursuing. It seems likely to me that this will be difficult or maybe impossible as long as the US political system is seen as an arena for furthering special interest groups, above all multinational corporations and the defense industries. Changing that will require some serious rethinking, something we don't seem to be very good at.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Year-End Mop-Up (Part 3)

This is the third batch of short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, unfair to records that repay close attention, possibly too generous to ones that don't. I spent pretty much all of January pouring over year-end lists and picking out things that were well regarded and/or seemed interesting. I shut down the exercise as of Jan. 31, based on the calendar, diminishing returns, and the need to get back to real records, which in my case means jazz. By the time I posted my first two sets I figured I'd do one more. The first two netted 64 records. I now have 70 more. Seems like I should split them in two, so I'll post half now and the other half next week, possibly with some conclusions.


Porter Wagoner: Wagonmaster (2007, Anti-): Never really a great country singer, but for many years his TV show was the quintessential representation of everything I grew up loving and hating about country music. This last shot before he died is in many ways typical of his albums -- the songs are a little weird and out of place, his singing is weathered but not too battered. That they hold together so well is another irony. He rarely did that at album length, so I figure whoever produced helped out. B+(***)

John Anderson: Easy Money (2007, Warner Bros.): His rich, leathery voice hasn't lost a thing. He's got a few better than average songs as well, but "A Woman Knows" doesn't fit his voice, and "Funky Country" is pretty empty as anthems go. Still, he is a pretty funky country singer. And it don't hurt to have Willie Nelson pitch in on the closer. B+(*)

Merle Haggard: The Bluegrass Sessions (2007, McCoury): The label is presumably associated with Del McCoury, but I don't see any credits to McCoury or his band. The name guests are Marty Stuart and Alison Krauss. Most of Haggard's songs are old standbys, including three with "Momma"/"Mama" in the title and a typical political lament "What Happened." Nothing here he couldn't do in his sleep. B+(*)

Antsy McClain and the Trailer Park Troubadours: Trailercana (2007, DPR): AMG classifies this as comedy, but I'll file it under country, which is close enough. He's not an intrinsically funny singer, so the words have to work extra hard. Sometimes they do ("I Was Just Flipped Off by a Silver Haird Old Lady With a 'Honk If You Love Jesus' Sticker on the Bumper of Her Car"), sometimes his observations amount to something ("Joan of Arkansas"), and once he gets an anthem worth savoring ("Living in Aluminum"). B+(*)

Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer (2007, Vanguard): Haven't heard any of his scattered solo albums, but the voice remains recognizable, despite the years and throat cancer. Four of the first five songs are by Traditional, the other by Steve Earle. "False Hearted Lover Blues" is surefire; "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" is more of a stretch. No originals, but not a cover album either. More like a way of staking out that he's still around. B+(**)

Jason Isbell: Sirens of the Ditch (2007, New West): Solo debut from a former member of the Drive-By Truckers. Never bothered to figure out who's who there, but I vaguely recall at least one other solo spinoff [Patterson Hood], while the band carries on and I've seen some reports of a pretty good album out soon [Brighter Than Creation's Dark]. Countryish, but the music stretches out more, to let the writing unfold gradually. B+(*)

Ryan Adams: Easy Tiger (2007, Lost Highway): Prolific singer-songwriter, with something like 9 albums since 2000. Has the tools to do convincing alt-country, but has a tendency toward pointless rock bombast -- "Halloweenhead" is an extreme example. A couple of songs work nicely, but even so you wish he was smarter or funnier or had a better eye or ear. C+

Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha (2007, Fat Possum): Came in 28th in the Idolator poll, 3rd highest of those I didn't anticipate. I hadn't noticed him until a 2005 record made a run on the polls, didn't hear that one, didn't recall the special pleading in Christgau's dismissive review of it, and misunderestimated him. The first few cuts are enchanting. Bird is a singer-songwriter with an arty flair for arranging, a trend I don't particularly care for, except when it really works. Bird comes close. This drags a bit when he gets orchestral -- his first instrument is violin, so he may get some comfort there -- but it is consistently listenable. He's smart enough he never pushes an idea too far. B+(**)

Beirut: The Flying Club Cup (2007, Ba Da Bing!): Vehicle for a young singer-songwriter named Zach Condon, who plies a bit of gypsy accordion for rolling, lilting melodies that sound vaguely European without getting too specific. I understand his previous album had more brass. This one is pleasantly nondescript. B

Björk: Volta (2007, Atlantic): I suppose she's an SFFR, a project I'm not at all anxious to get into. Before this, I've heard two albums: Homogenic (1997) and Vespertine (2001), which got B and C- respectively. I don't remember either, but it's safe to say they left me confused as much as anything else. I'm confused here too, but at least I can credit two songs I want to hear again. They both have hard, angular beats and repeat their titles extensively: "Earth Intruders" and, better still, "Declare Independence." Not sure what to do with the rest of it, but I've heard worse. B+(**)

Caribou: Andorra (2007, Merge): An alias for Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Snaith, previously known as Manitoba until Handsome Dick took offense. AMG classifies as electronica with shoegaze influences, but also refers to it as dream pop, which sounds about right. The idea here is that high-pitched sounds are intrinsically pretty. That may be, but they wear thin after a while. B

Dizzee Rascal: Maths + English (2007, XL): Foreign language rap is all the more dependent on the beats, which here are hard and grimey, without a lot of texture. Not really a foreign language here, just a tough accent to follow -- first song that I figure I get is called "Suk My Dick," and I take it to be funny as well as outrageous. There's more like that, mostly a shade subtler. You get used to it after a while. B+(**)

Bloc Party: A Weekend in the City (2007, Vice/Atlantic): English rock group. I liked their 2005 album Silent Alarm, which had a more electronic feel plus a bit of politics, both missing in this more conventional follow-up. Still sounds agreeably crisp, and I can't swear there isn't more substance to it. B

3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia (2007, Shanachie): The lead singers aren't household names. In fact, I barely recognize the groups they led: Russell Thompkins Jr. (Stylistics), Ted Mills (Blue Magic), William Hart (Delfonics). Not sure of their claim as tenors either -- their real specialty is falsetto. I'm not sure they appear on every track either: Rhapsody credits Bilal, Average White Band, and Hall & Oates, while AMG lists them as guest spots. In any case, this is a remarkable slice of classic Philly soul. Biggest caveat I have is that "Fantasy" merely recalls the EW&F original. B+(***)

Von Südenfed: Tromatic Reflexxions (2007, Domino): This sounded familiar, but it took me a while to get past Public Image Ltd., which AMG cites as an influence, and zero in on the Fall. Shouldn't have taken so long, given that the vocalist is the Fall's own Mark E. Smith, working with a couple of Mouse on Mars guys: Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner. Have heard of but don't know the latter group. Quasi-industrial electronica, with a punk background but a more measured pulse. Some lyrics in German -- for me that just helps frame the joke. Trails off a bit toward the end, which may just require further study. One thing that is worth noting is that this has fared better in the polls than the Fall's own new and quite good record. That's probably because the label hustles more to get their records out to reviewers. That's always a subtext in year end polls. B+(***)

Marnie Stern: In Advance of the Broken Arm (2006 [2007], Kill Rock Stars): I half like this annoying singer-guitarist and/or her eponymous group. Thrash noise, loud, garish, cartoonish. Reportedly she was inspired by Sleater-Kinney, which explains everything and nothing. B

Kevin Drew: Spirit If . . . (2005-07 [2007], Arts & Crafts): Solo spinoff from the group Broken Social Scene, which is enough of a draw that the cover touts "Broken Social Scene Presents:" above Drew's name. Soft-voiced singer-songwriter, although some pieces are band-framed -- I only vaguely recall BSS, thinking they're some kind of punk/political. Can't follow the words here -- probably my fault, something I'm never much good at -- but it's likely he has something to say. "Frightening Lives" is a choice cut. B+(**)

1990s: Cookies (2007, Rough Trade): Pop-punk trio from Glasgow, related to a hadn't heard of called Yummy Fur. They sound much like the Strokes and their various progenitors, with a mischievous streak. First three cuts blow me away, and most that follows is solidly enjoyable. Could finish higher with a few more plays. B+(***)

Brakes: The Beatific Visions (2007, Rough Trade): This sometimes gets attributed to "brakesbrakesbrakes" -- one of those cover tics that causes all sorts of confusion. Presumably this is the same group that recorded the countryish Give Blood in 2005, which I liked but haven't played since I filed it. This one doesn't sound countryish. More of a singer-songwriter album with something to say and an easy way of putting it over. Several lines caught my ear, like the one about the politics of fear. B+(***)

The Cribs: Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever (2007, Warner Brothers): Yorkshire Brit group, three brothers, guitar hooks, some smarts. I'm most impressed by the odd song out, a political talkie over steady riffs called "Be Safe." Otherwise, they are formidably rockish. Includes songs named "Men's Needs" and "Women's Needs," but no "Whatever" -- must be the rest. B+(**)

Electrelane: No Shouts No Calls (2006 [2007], Too Pure): British band, from Brighton, mostly (or all) female. Has an agreeably light, relaxed, jangly keyb/guitar sound that sails past you without demanding much in the way of attention. B+(*)

Peter Evans: The Peter Evans Quartet (2007, Firehouse 12): I haven't really reconciled myself to using Rhapsody to make up for the jazz records I don't get, but crusing through the year-end data I noticed this, typed it into the search box, and found the record. Evans came to my attention in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, a leading candidate for Jazz CG pick hit slot. The quartet includes Kevin Shea on drums (also in MOPDTK), Brandon Seabrook on guitar (also in Alex Kontorovich's quartet, with another A- record), and Tom Blancarte on bass. A lot of quick flutter in the trumpet here, as if Evans is trying to simulate a fuzzy logic approximation or dislocation of standard changes. B+(***)

DJ Spooky: Creation Rebel (2007, Trojan/Sanctuary): Here Paul Miller gets his shot at remixing Trojan's reggae catalog, and has a lot of fun with it. Some items are noteworthy in their own right, like Mutabaruka's "Dis Poem"; some definitely pick up on the extra swoosh Spooky delivers. One cut didn't show up on Rhapsody: someone named Bob Marley. B+(***)

Nublu Orchestra Conducted by Butch Morris (2006 [2007], Nublu): Don't know enough about group/record, but as far as I can make out, Nublu is a club on Avenue C in New York and a label which has at least this one record out. The group includes "band-members from Brazilian Girls, Wax Poetic, Kudu, Forro in the Dark, I Led Three Lives, and Love Trio and regular Nublu guests Graham Haynes and Eddie Henderson"; evidently, they get together and Butch Morris points his baton and conducts their improvisations. I haven't spent the time to digest the Morris oeuvre -- above all the 10-CD Testament: A Conduction Collection -- but any doubts I had about his skill at taking large groups of musicians and getting them to play in tightly measured cycles were put to rest with Billy Bang's Vietnam recordings. This only furthers his case. Small bits of vocals add to the multicultural cross-genre milieu, but most of this consists of long groove pieces with a bit of avant noise. If I were jazz prospecting I'd bracket the grade until I let this settle in more, but I don't have much in the way of caveats. I'll try to look into this further. A-

Liars (2007, Mute): Rock band, hard and dense but not all that metalic. I've seen them listed as dance-punk or art-punk, neither making much sense, except perhaps for their elemental sense of melody. First album was called They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. Fourth album suggests they've run out of titles, and maybe ideas as well. B-

New Pornographers: Challengers (2007, Matador): Semi-supergroup, not that the independent members have ever done all that much on their own. Together they have four albums now. I never got any of them, and have long since ceased to care. This one strikes me as lighter but more belabored. People who care might find it appealing. B

Tegan and Sara: The Con (2007, Vapor): Twin sisters from Canada, on their fourth album. They may have been folkier early on because folk music requires so little capital, but by now they're accomplished popsmiths, writing catchy tunes with mature smarts. B+(**)

Bonde do Rolê: With Lasers (2007, Domino): A Brazilian baile funk group, cleaned up for American audiences by DJ Diplo. This takes a while to get all the gears meshing -- if the lead off "Dança do Zumbi" translates as dance of the zombies the awkwardness may be cartoonishly deliberate, but around midway "Marina Gasolina" combusta and then we're into "Caminhao de Gas," which probably doesn't translate as cooking with gas, not that it matters. B+(**)

Amy Winehouse: Frank (2003 [2007], Universal): First album, came out in UK when she was 20, but she sounds much older with her odd jazz stylings -- scat on the opener, a few extended vamps, a bit of classic vocalese ("Moody's Mood for Love"). But the jazz is more like an affectation, not something she feels like sustaining. Inconsistent song selection plagued her breakthrough Back to Black as well, but there it seemed more like the classic singles/filler problem. Here it's a way of life. B+(*)

Wiley: Playtime Is Over (2007, Big Dada): English grime rapper, not as splashy beatwise as Dizzee Rascal, but similar, if anything faster with the words. Besides, aren't grime beats supposed to be sort of minimalist? B+(*)

Talib Kweli: Eardrum (2007, Blacksmith/Warner Brothers): He combines underground consciousness and/or smarts with mainstream connections, and he's steady enough that he's able to bridge guest stars from Kanye West to UGK to KRS-One while keeping on top of his album, maintaining a consistency that may be his real weakness. Some good stuff here. I like a refrain that goes: "it's bad here on earth but if we don't get to heaven it's hell." One called "More or Less" advocates more peace and less war, also "more Beyoncé, less Britney." B+(***)

Mac Lethal: 11:11 (2007, Rhymesayers Entertainment): White rapper, from Kansas City, KS. I'm not sure why Christgau thinks that, as oppposed to KC MO, makes a difference, other than that KC KS is blacker (somewhat) and poorer (a lot), but I'll grant that it makes a difference he's not from Overland Park, let alone Leawood or Olathe. I was sucked in when he decided to keep his KS accent, and when he said he wouldn't go to church until the Chiefs win the Super Bowl. (I didn't even go then, but he wasn't born yet.) His beats and rhymes remind me a bit of Buck 65 -- less intellectual, coarser, more KS. Has a touching song about growing old. Sounds like he's gonna stick around. A-

Sage Francis: Human the Death Dance (2007, Epitaph): Another white rapper, from Miami, one of Non-Prophets, which had a pretty good record out in 2003. Has a couple of previous albums. Smart, witty, gives a damn, given to poetics, but also inclined to get theoretical. Beats deft but unlikely to move you. B+(**)

Lifesavas: Gutterfly (2007, Quannum Projects): Portland underground rap duo, known individually as Vursatyl and Jumbo the Garbageman -- although looks like three guys on the cover. Good first album, Spirit in Stone (2003). This one is a soundtrack to an unfinished blaxploitation movie. A bit narrow beatwise and complicated plotwise. B+(*)

Devin the Dude: Waitin' to Inhale (2007, Rap-A-Lot): Houston rapper, originally from Florida, takes it slow and doesn't miss a lick. Sample line: "seems like everything on her body is melted together." I suppose the coughs on "Nothin' to Roll With" are meant to be responsible, but it's basically a blues. B+(**)

T-Pain: Epiphany (2007, Jive): Tallahassee rapper, second album, has a couple of singles peaks ("Church") but runs thin, or long, or both -- "Reggae Night" is especially sloppy. Before hip-hop he'd be a soul singer, just not an especially good one. B

Chuck D & the Slamjamz Artist Revue: Tribb to JB (2007, Slamjamz): Christgau attributed this to The Peeps of Soulfunk, which looks plausible enough, at least from the front cover. Might as well file it under Chuck D, although James Brown is sampled enough to claim a credit as well as the cover. Awesome much of the time, but no match for the original, nor for what D can do on his own. Chuck D does toss some well-aimed grenades, such as: "that's the Bush for you/always chasing the dollar." B+(**)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Mr. Clean

From the Wichita Eagle today:

Sen. Sam Brownback said Thursday that his endorsement of John McCain for president had nothing to do with getting new donors to help pay off debt from his failed presidential campaign. [ . . . ]

The Los Angeles Times reported this week that some of McCain's biggest donors gave Brownback nearly $40,000 after Brownback decided to support the Arizona senator on Nov. 7.

Brownback told reporters on a conference call that his campaign did solicit money from McCain supporters, but claims that was never a quid pro quo for his endorsement.

It's just that there aren't a lot of potential donors for a candidate who's already withdrawn from the race. On the one hand, I'm struck by how little Brownback sold out for. On the other hand, it's not like his endorsement was really worth much.

In the long run, Brownback's endorsement was probably worth less than Pat Robertson's, or Joe Lieberman's. Someone should take a look at who's bankrolling McCain, and where else their money is going. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed up for some of that.

Still, some right-wingers haven't gotten their checks yet. Ann Coulter recently said that if McCain is nominated she's campaign for Hillary Clinton. Coulter's a poison pill anyway, but such a backhanded endorsement provides a curious perspective on Clinton's lesser-evil appeal. (Coulter's supporting Romney, so you might want to factor that in.)

Tom DeLay's opposition to McCain is more straightforward, and in his own way more principled. McCain's campaign slogan can be reduced to simple terms: more war, but less graft. DeLay is the Pied Piper of Republican graft, so of course he'd be opposed to McCain. DeLay, like Bush (or at least Cheney and Rove), understand that war and graft are symbiotic, that each furthers the other in a self-perpetuating frenzy. McCain's recent political gains seem to spring from the vain hope many Republicans have that their wars would fare better if only they were managed by a more scrupulous commander in chief.

On the other hand, the serendipitous bailout of ex-candidate Brownback reminds us that McCain's hands aren't so squeaky clean. He's gotten away with the perception that he's different because the press hasn't held him to account yet. But that's likely to change, especially if he gets the nomination and we finally have to come to grips with the question of whether we really want a worse warmonger than Bush to get his finger on the trigger.


Jan 2008 Mar 2008