November 2008 Notebook
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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Frida Berrigan: Who Rules the Pentagon?. Tom Engelhardt's introduction is the most disheartening review of Obama's emerging team in the defense/security/state sectors yet. Not really a big surprise: it is, after all, impossible to have had experience in those sectors without having been complicit in the construction of the imperial edifice. Moreover, despite repeated failures it's hard to find any of them who have learned anything more basic than to pin the tail on somelike like Donald Feith. Then, of course, beyond the political hacks, there's the enduring professional military, and their equally enduring industrial suppliers. It's this inertia, with so many fingers in so many pots, that makes it impossible to do a break-before-make -- i.e., to break the war machine before making peace. That's unfortunate, given how effective the war machine is at staving off peace. But I'm afraid it's also realistic.

Two things I've seen recently strike me as positive. One is that Obama says that "vision" is his department, not something he's planning on delegating to the staff. The other side of that coin is that the staff is being hired for their practical skills, useful to implement Obama's "vision." Given how sorely lacking most of those people were in the vision thing, that suggests that their pasts may not be so indicative of their futures. The second thing is that even with large stimulus spending in the works, Obama has some critical budget people sharpening their red pencils. I've seen assertions that defense spending isn't "discretionary," but in fact no spending is more discretionary -- and since it's largely escaped critical review for the last eight years, or really a good deal more, none is riper for cuts. Initially we're likely to see more arguments of the form: we need to expand X so we need to cut back Y, not just to cover the expense but to manage the whole effort better. But if/when Obama can reduce the sense that we live in a hostile world, a lot of defense crutches could crumble away. That will take a lot more "vision" than we've seen lately, but it's a far cry from utopianism to think that virtually all countries and virtually all peoples would like to take a break from the endless and fruitless wars eight years of Bush and Sharon and their kin have embroiled us in. Never before has "give peace a chance" seemed like such a simply aggreeable proposition.

Tom Engelhardt: Stuff Happens. Explores one of the standing arguments for why it's impossible to get out of Iraq on any fixed timetable: there's just too much stuff in place to get it all out. That's how lame these arguments get. Even if it were impossible to move everything back you didn't want to leave behind, the US military is sure as shit skilled enough to blow it up. Maybe it would help if they disguised those excess tanks and such as civilian wedding parties?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bailouts

Economist's View: The Citigroup Bailout. Useful survey of reactions from all over, including a rather furious rejoinder from Robert Reich, who has tangled with Richard Rubin before. One comment I'd like to single out is from Arnold Kling:

For all of the Depression Mania, there is a lot of the U.S. economy that does not have to shrink. Manufacturing is pretty lean to begin with. Housing construction is already much lower than it has been in years. Unlike the 1930's, we have some very big sectors (health care, education, other government employment) that are unlikely to develop massive layoffs.

The one sector that definitely needs to contract is the financial sector. Maintaining Citi as a zombie bank is not really constructive. I would feel better if it were carved up, with the viable pieces sold to other firms and the remainder wound down by government. In my view, getting the financial sector down to the right size ought to be done sooner, rather than later.

From my perspective, the whole TARP/bailout concept is misconceived. The priority should not be saving firms. The priority should be pruning the industry. Get rid of the weak firms, and make good on deposit insurance. Then let the remaining firms provide the lending that the economy needs.

I might even go further and create government-backed firms to provide a simple, basic set of financial functions, and let all the other so-called innovative products and their hucksters go to hell. There's no good reason why the financial sector should have grown during a period of massive information technology automation. That they did so was purely becuase they were able to exploit their position to extract (or extort) value from productive sectors, and then to translate that value into imaginary forms which could be multiplied for anyone willing to go along with the game. Lots of rich people did, because it seemed easier than putting money to work -- and few of them made their money by working anyway.

The problem isn't so much that companies are too big to fail as that some companies, at least sometimes, do things that we need to keep going even after the investors and management are wiped out. For banks, the real value is actually rather small, as long as you have some alternative means of securing deposits and providing credit. Propping up the banks sort of does that, but it wouldn't be hard to imagine more straightforward ways, which do less to reward the policies that brought on this crisis in the first place.

But we're not very good at thinking up alternatives because we're still far too accepting of the capitalist pecking order. It would, for instance, be easy to build a government-backed health insurance plan that no private company could compete with. It would be possible to publicly finance drug development less expensively and with better results than the private sector does. Lots of things are possible just by directly approaching them with a clear head. But we're still so enchanted by the magic of the market and the allure of the rich that we don't trust such simple, obvious approaches.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Music Week

Music: Current count 14960 [14933] rated (+27), 795 [811] unrated (-16). More jazz prospecting. Still a long ways to go, but didn't get much mail, so unrated count has edged back under 800. Housework continues. Much to read; much to do; not getting much done.

  • Bill Frisell: The Willies (2002, Nonesuch): Most compositions by Frisell; covers list: "Sittin' on Top of the World," "Cluck Old Hen," "Sugar Baby," "Blackberry Blossom," "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man," "Single Girl, Married Girl," "Goodnight Irene." What about "Cold, Cold Heart"? String band album, probably what Nashville should have been, but lacks the conceit of a concept. Rather, guitar, banjo, and bass pick their way through or around old country melodies and new variations. A-
  • Phil Ranelin: Remixes (1973-76 [2002], Hefty): Based on two fairly classic albums of black-power-meets-avant-garde tribal funk, The Time Is Now and Vibes From the Tribe, slathered in electronic gravy and grits by the latest mixmasters. These things almost never work, but this one works more than not -- leaning to the remix side, which the old shit humanizes just enough. B+


Jazz Prospecting (CG #18, Part 11)

Another week with many distractions and little progress toward finishing this Jazz Consumer Guide off, but actually I'm not all that far away. Wrote a little bit, raising the word count to 1445, which is real close to what actually runs these days. I have a lot of rated records that just need reviews. They all have notes and many listens behind them, so should be easy. Not sure about pick hits, and haven't given any thought to duds. Finally got into the travel cases for a few items below, and there will be more to come this week -- especially more avant-garde items, which I've shied away from in this past week's chaos. House projects continue, but the siding should be done mid-week. No plans for Thanksgiving. We'll see how it goes.


Janine Santana: Soft as Granite (2008, NiNi): Percussionist, plays congas, guiro, maracas, claves; has a vocal credit, although Wendy Fopeano and Kihn Imuri also sing, and no info on who did what. Based in Denver. Alto saxophonist Richie Cole and percussionist José Madera get "featuring" credit on the front cover, and Cole wrote some liner notes. Figure them for a Latin funk band, one that can keep a strong groove running, and mix in a little something-else when you're not expecting it -- Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother" sounds like it came from another record, but makes itself at home. No real bio info -- does one song from Carlos Santana, but no mention of a relationship. B+(**)

Giovanni Moltoni: 3 (2008, C#2 Productions): Guitarist. Don't know how old, or where he comes from; seems to be in Boston now, with hooks into New York. Studied at Berklee and New England Conservatory; teaches at Berklee. Third album since 1996. Also credited with synth here. Quartet includes Greg Hopkins on trumpet, Fernando Huergo on bass, Bob Tamagni on drums. Mostly follows the boppish trumpet around, filling out and adding to the rhythmic push. Nice formula. [B+(**)]

Brad Goode: Polytonal Dance Party (2008, Origin): Trumpet player, b. 1963, from Chicago, lists Cat Anderson among his teachers; currently teaches in Colorado. Seventh album since Shock of the New in 1988 -- haven't heard his debut, but what I have heard suggests more of a postbop/hardbop player. This quintet is a bit of a change, with some electronics, the emphasis on groove. Bill Kopper plays guitar/sitar, Jeff Jenkins piano and other keyboards. Better realized than, say, Nicholas Payton's or Wallace Roney's jazztronica dabblings, partly because it's less ambitious. B+(*)

Brad Leali-Claus Raible Quartet: D.A.'s Time (2007 [2008], TCB): Leali is an alto saxophonist, b. Denver, attended UNT, worked his way up through Count Basie's ghost band, released a big band album called Maria Juanez that was a very pleasant surprise. Raible is a pianist; not sure where from or how old, but passed through Munich and NYC on his way to his current base in Graz, Austria. He has four previous records, including a sextet with Leali. He swings, but also taps Bud Powell for a song, and wrote five more, including a pretty good jump blues closer, letting Leali wail. B+(***)

Kenny Garrett: Sketches of MD (2008, Mack Avenue): "MD" would be Miles Davis. Garrett played with Davis at the end of his run, 1987-92, so there's a connection, one that favors persistent funk rhythms over ye olde school hard bop. However, the album subtitle reveals more: "Live at the Iridium featuring Pharoah Sanders." The live gig is an excuse for stretching it out and keeping it loose, with five vamp pieces ranging from 9:21 to 14:34. But the real thing going on here is Pharoah Sanders: at age 68, why on earth doesn't he record more? One the lions of the 1960s avant-garde, his stringy sound instantly recognizable from his first record to the present -- a direct link to Coltrane, but always distinct, a vibe both brighter and earthier. First cut is something called "The Ring," a minimal but irresistible rhythm vamp which Sanders turns into distilled essence of "A Love Supreme." I'm less clear on Garrett's role in all of this. Coltrane's always been his north star, so I guess Sanders is a natural interest. But after his Beyond the Wall dud, this is a complete, delightful surprise. A- [advance]

Andy Scherrer Special Sextet: Wrong Is Right (2007 [2008], TCB): Saxophonist, b. 1946 in Switzerland, based in Basel; four albums since 2000, but has worked at least since 1972, playing with Vienna Art Orchestra since 1991. Credited with "saxes" here; all the photos I've seen show him with tenor sax, but VAO also credits him with soprano sax and piano. Sextet has two more reeds (both credited with tenor sax and bass clarinet): Domenic Landolf and Jürg Bucher. They provide a lively front line that's hard to sort out. Pianist Bill Carrothers gets a front cover "feat." credit. His solos sparkle, and he keeps the band moving. Title picks up on a Thelonious Monk quote. Several band members contribute pieces, plus one from John Coltrane, one from Ornette Coleman, one from trad. Richly figured postbop, not quite wrong enough to really do right. B+(**)

The Here & Now: Break of Day (2007 [2008], OA2): Quintet, with Tatum Greenblatt (trumpet), Ben Roseth (sax), Drew Pierson (piano), David Dawda (bass), Sean Hutchinson (drums). I gather they grew up together in Seattle but are now based in New York. First album. All but Pierson contribute songs. Figure them for postbop -- neither retro hard bop nor avant-garde, but somewhere near the cutting of jazz convention. B+(*)

Jason Domnarski Trio: Notes From Underground (2007 [2008], [no label]): Don't have a label for this. Don't know whether what I have is an advance or final copy: it's in a printed sleeve, which some larger labels like Palmetto do for advances, but I doubt that a self-released one-shot would go to the trouble. Piano trio, with Domnarski on piano, John Davis on bass, Dave Mason on drums. Second album by Domnarski, who attended Skidmore College and moved to New York in 2004, and that's pretty much all I know. Seven originals plus a cover of David Bowie's "Life on Mars." Reminds me a wee bit of rockish jazz pianists like Esbjörn Svensson and Neil Cowley, but doesn't connect often enough. B [advance?]

Lee Shaw Trio: Life in Graz (2007 [2008], ARC, CD+DVD): Pianist, b. 1926 in Oklahoma, spent some time in Chicago, lists Oscar Peterson among her "studied withs," now based in Albany, NY; has a few records since 1996, picking up after her husband, drummer Stan Shaw, died in 2001, but was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993 -- don't know what led to that. Trio includes Jeff Syracuse on bass, Jeff Siegel on drums. Five originals and three covers, including pieces from contemporary pianists Ahmad Jamal and Billy Taylor. DVD has a couple of concert clips and some interviews -- she has a higher opinion of Oklahoma education than I do. Good mainstream piano trio. B+(*)

South Florida Jazz Orchestra (2008, MAMA): Directed by bassist Chuck Bergeron, who teaches at University of Miami, has three records under his own name, maybe three dozen side credits since 1988. Basic full bore big band line up, plus a spare piano and a fifth trombone, plus a set of guests: Charles Pillow, Ed Calle, Kevin Mahogany, and Arturo Sandoval got listed on the front cover; Mike Lewis, Dana Paul, and Nicole Yarling in the fine print. No credits on any of those, but some are obvious. John Fedchock, a big band hand from New York, produced. Well crafted, a lot of neat details on top of the propulsive swing. The few vocals don't fare as well, although "Nature Boy" (Mahogany, I presume) is nice to hear. B

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: This Is Our Moosic (2008, Hot Cup): Ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, the wisecracking terrorists of Moosic, PA, move on from playing rings around bebop to playing rings around Ornette Coleman, often in the process sounding like a deranged New Orleans brass band. Sometimes even breaking into melody. A-

Jenny Scheinman (2008, Koch): Violinist, the most consistently impressive one to have emerged since well before Regina Carter. She's always had a fondness for folkie melodies, but this takes that seed and grows it into a whole new plant: she plays some lovely country-ish fiddle, but appears mostly as a vocalist -- not a jazz vocalist, mind you, more like alt-country, suggesting that if she wanted to she could smoke Alison Krauss on both counts. If she doesn't, she's only keeping in character. Wrote four songs, which tend to rock more than the trad or neo-trad covers she picks. The one from Lucinda Williams measures up well. The Mississippi John Hurt ("Miss Collins") and Tom Waits ("Johnsburg, Illinois") are choice cuts. Tony Scherr fills in guitar, bass, and almost everything else, with added bass and drums on a few cuts, and a Bill Frisell cameo on one. Not quite sure what to make of it. B+(***)

Jenny Scheinman: Crossing the Field (2008, Koch): Not quite sure what to make of this one either. This is Scheinman's serious side, as opposed to the alt-country fluke her eponymous album is. Too serious, maybe. No vocals, a near-allstar group, plus a massive string orchestra on five cuts, an even larger one on one more. Lots of good things here: Jason Moran's piano, Ron Miles' cornet, Doug Wieselman's clarinets, Bill Frisell's guitar, and of course the violin. Scheinman wrote all the pieces, except for Duke Ellington's "Awful Sad" -- very unorthodox choice there. [B+(**)]

Dave Holland Sextet: Pass It On (2007 [2008], Dare2/Emarcy): One of the great bass players of the last 30-40 years. Started in the avant-garde; emerged around the turn of the century as the hands-down winner of mainstream polls like Downbeat's -- I guess we can credit ECM for taming him. State of the art postbop, synthesizing most of jazz history into an aggregate stew that neither offers anything startlingly new or tastefully old. Holland's recent quintets have had a remarkable balance of forces, with trombone (Robin Eubanks) and vibes (Steve Nelson) prominent, and no less saxophonist than Chris Potter. Eubanks looms large here, but Antonio Hart and Alex Sipiagin aren't in Potter's class; Junior Mance does a solid job on piano, but he's less distinctive than Nelson. Not a bad record; just not a very interesing one. B+(*)

Francisco Mela: Cirio: Live at the Blue Note (2007 [2008], Half Note): Drummer, from Cuba, teaches at Berklee, turned a lot of heads with his debut Melao in 2006. Follows that up with a star-studded live album: Mark Turner on tenor sax, Jason Moran on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar. Mela wrote six songs; Loueke one, plus a Silvio Rodriguez tune. Listening quickly, with distractions, I mostly hear pieces, mostly Turner's sax and Moran's piano, a little bit of singalong by Mela and/or Loueke. But "Tierra and Fuego" pulls the whole herky-jerk Cuban rhythm thing off, and that may just be the start. Mela's definitely talented, plus he gets top rate musicians to play along. [B+(**)]

The Klez Dispensers: Say You'll Understand (2008, TKD): Klezmer group, natch; second album, following 2004's New Jersey Freylekhs. I first ran across them on the resume of alto saxophonist Alex Kontorovich, whose Deep Minor showed up in a recent Jazz CG. He mostly plays clarinet here, doesn't appear to be a central figure -- like pianist Adrian Banner, with most of the "Arr." credits, or vocalist Susan Watts, who also plays a little trumpet -- but he's certainly an asset. They play the music for laughs, as well as for sadness. One idiosyncrasy is how they transliterate the Yiddish -- "Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn" vs. the proper German "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" -- but it's still Yiddish, still part of an old world/new world axis that bypasses Israel. And the new world wins out in the "Ray Charleston." B+(**)

Echoes of Swing: 4 Jokers in the Pack (2006 [2008], Echoes of Swing): German group, mostly. Colin Dawson (from England) plays trumpet and sings two pieces -- doesn't sound like much of a voice at first, but grows on you. Chris Hopkins (born in US, but lived most of his life in Germany) plays alto sax. I've run across him previously as a stride pianist -- good time to put in a plug for his duet album with Dick Hyman, Teddy Wilson in 4 Hands, which I shorted as a very high HM -- but he's moved over to make room for pianist Bernd Lhotzky (born in Germany, listed here as D/F). The notes credit Lhotzky with his own "critically acclaimed" piano duet, with Ralph Sutton in 1997; haven't heard it, but his 2006 Arbors album, Piano Portrait, is a respectable-plus outing. The drummer is Oliver Mewes (just D). Group has been together ten years, with three previous quartet albums, plus one by an expanded Echoes of Swing Orchestra. A couple of originals fit in with the archival projects, which are rarely obvious. B+(*)

Tom Lellis/Toninho Horta: Tonight (2008, Adventure Music): Lellis is one of those male vocalists who always seem to annoy me, but he comes off quaint and not without charm on this slow, dainty program that breaks two-to-one sweet standards over samba fluff. He also plays piano, quaintly, and gets a credit for shaker that I'm afraid I didn't catch. Horta is a guitarist from Brazil, who sets the speed and sugar quotient, and sings some too, also managing to sound quaint. B-

Carlos Franzetti: Film Noir (2007 [2008], Sunnyside): Argentine pianist, arranger, composer, b. 1948, moved to Mexico in 1970, US in 1974, now based in New Jersey. More than a dozen albums since 1995, with classical music and soundtracks outnumbering jazz titles. Looks like Franzetti only wrote one piece here: "Tango Fatal." The others are fairly obvious, ranging from "Body Heat" to "A Place in the Sun" to "Alfie." Andy Fusco gets a "featuring" credit, bringing his alto sax front and center. Piano-bass-drums are also credited, but the bulk of the sound belongs to the City of Prague Philharmonic, whose cheap, lush strings are a plague on the jazz world. As these things go, super-romantic, lustrous even. Gag me. C

Fred Taylor and Inquest: Processional (2006, Crinkle-Cuts): Drummer, based in NJ. Some months ago I wrote up a note on his latest trio record, Circling. This is an earlier record, but arrived later, presumably as background. Quartet, crediting Gary Rollins with guitars, James Clark with basses, and Craig Lawrence with woodwinds -- back cover picture shows him with a clarinet; booklet also mentions soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, and flute, all of which are mild and atmospheric. Rollins' guitars are more prominent, both driving and carrying the load. Pleasant, grooveful, could pass for new age. B

Roger Kellaway: Live at the Jazz Standard (2006 [2008], IPO, 2CD): Veteran pianist, b. 1939, introduced himself in the early 1960s, has recorded not all that frequently over the following 40 years. I'm way down on the learning curve on him: seems like a subtle, clever player, hard to pin down as anything more specific than postbop. Has mostly recorded in small configurations -- trios, duos, solo -- and I find him most effective here when it's just him and bassist Jay Leonhart. The three other players here come and go. Russell Malone plays some tasty guitar solos, but they seem to be on a different level. Stefon Harris plays vibes. I've never found him enjoyable or interesting, and this keeps his streak intact. And I have no idea what to make of Borislav Strulev's cello. Doesn't help that the album is so reserved you have to reach hard to hear it all. Or that there's no drummer. Or that it's a double. B


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

Jim Shearer & Charlie Wood: The Memphis Hang (2008, Summit): Wood is a sly singer, probably more at home with simpler country/blues fare, but he tackles some difficult pieces here -- not just Dave Frishberg and Andy Razaf but Joni Mitchell's lyrics to "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and Mike Ferro's to "Well, You Needn't" -- and stays on top of it all. He also plays keyboards, principally Hammond B3, which gets sharpened up considerably by Billy Gibson's harmonica. Shearer is less conspicuous, but tuba is sort of the running gag of the brass section, and his oom-pah keeps the whole affair in good humor. B+(**)

Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog: Party Intellectuals (2007 [2008], Pi): With so many different moves, feels, feints, it's surprising that this group numbers just three members, a basic guitar-bass-drums power trio, like Cream or Mountain, but not, of course. Guitarist Ribot sings some, as do bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith, and a couple of guests toss off some curveballs. The latter two also dabbles with electronics. Opener rocks out hard. "Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch" breaks to laugh at everyone, with Janice Cruz vocal. Some more hard ones follow, plus some not so much soft as indeterminate, and some I don't know what to do with. B+(***)

Corey Wilkes: Drop It (2007 [2008], Delmark): First record, should get some rookie of the year votes over at the Voice poll -- partly because he's been popping up on other projects for several years, not least being Lester Bowie's slot in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This is more mainstream, with a couple of shots of funk -- aside from a bit of Langston Hughes to start off with, the only vocal here is Dee Alexander doing "Funkier Than a Mosquita's Tweeter." I was tempted at first to contrast his debut with Wynton Marsalis's, but Wilkes is ten years older, so of course he has more chops. More like Jon Faddis, in fact. B+(***)

Oleg Kireyev/Feng Shui Jazz Project: Mandala (2008, Jazzheads): Born in Bakshiria, perched in the Urals on the ancient seam between Europe and Asia, saxophonist Kireyev's group plays delicately balanced east-west grooves, with a bit of throat singing, a lot of sinuous guitar, a Senegalese conga player, and inspiration from Coltrane. A-

Lee Konitz and Minsarah: Deep Lee (2007 [2008], Enja): Past 80, Konitz continues to play difficult music with delicate beauty. Florian Weber's piano trio, operating under the name of a past album, stands up well enough on their own. The combination doesn't combust in great bursts of energy, so much as they fall back in mutual admiration. B+(**)


Some corrections and further notes on recent prospecting:

Regarding Joe Locke's Force of Four, Tom Marcello informs me that bassist Ricardo Rodriguez is not related to Robert or Michael Rodriguez, aka the Rodriguez Brothers. My source for the error was my notes on a Rodriguez Brothers album where Ricardo played bass, which don't actually make the claim, but sort of raise the question. Also, the drummer is Johnathan Blake, not Jonathan.


For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.


Unpacking:

  • Steve Carter Group: Cosmopolis (Steve Carter Group)
  • Rebecca Cline/Hilary Noble: Enclave Diaspora (Enclave Jazz)
  • Darunam/Milan: The Last Angel on Earth (64-56 Media): Jan. 6
  • Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya: Saneri (Bamako)
  • Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York: Summer Suite (Libra)
  • Steve Herberman Trio: Ideals (Reach Music)
  • The Burr Johnson Band: What It Is (Lexicon): Feb. 5
  • Peter Sommer: Crossroads (Capri)
  • Natsuki Tamura/Satoko Fujii: Chun (Libra)

Purchases:

  • Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip: Angles (Strange Famous)
  • Sir Victor Uwaifo: Guitar-Boy Superstar 1970-76 (Soundway)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cooking

Haven't written much the last few days, and I'm likely to soft-pedal the politics for the next few weeks -- unless, of course, the lame duck decides to strut his stuff. The transition is boring, the post-election analysis even more so, and the propagandizing borders on the ridiculous. I trust that Obama will do pretty much what he wants, and that predictions from certain quarters that he will opt for socialism are downright foolish. The only interesting thing about Clinton as Secretary of State is that it would signify that she understands that she's never going to be able to run for president again, and perhaps more importantly that she understands that it's no big deal. After running such a pissy campaign, she came out of the convention gracefully, and has been a Mensch ever since. (Of course, once she starts hiring people like Richard Holbrooke I'm likely to have second thoughts here.) I can't even get worked up about Gates, although that hasn't been in the news much lately -- does that mean the deal is done or dead?

The New York Times continued to beat its war drums today. They followed up on last week's "A Military for a Dangerous World" editorial with six letters -- five even more hawkish than the editorial, the other mildly demuring that European countries, after having experienced WWII firsthand, no longer go in for such nonsense. Then they recruited a bunch of "experts" to offer advice on how best to salvage the empire in Iraq and Afghanistan: Donald Rumsfeld, Ahmad Chalabi, Frederick Kagan, Anthony Cordesman, Peter Mansoor, Linda Robinson, and token dissenter Rory Stewart. If Ike Eisenhower were still around, he'd be warning us about the threats to democracy of the military-industrial-New York Times complex.


We've started another round of home improvement work, which is taking a lot of my time, disrupting my life in many ways -- not least of which is that I'm having to get up way too early, without managing to make any compensatory adjustments at the end of the day. Three big projects on the house: 1) cover the remaining wood outside the house with vinyl siding; 2) rebuild the electrical system, replacing the service entrance, panel, and as much of the really old wiring as possible; 3) remodelling the kitchen. The first two will mostly be done by contractors. The siding people have been working for a little over a week, and should be done in 2-3 days. I'm meeting with the electrician tomorrow, and will try to get that scheduled over the next couple of weeks. The kitchen work will mostly be done by a friend and I, so no doubt will be the biggest, slowest, and ugliest of the projects. We do have a good general plan, but still need to make detailed drawings, select (above all else) a range, make some decisions on cabinets, flooring, etc. I figure it'll probably take two months, although I've already procrastinated that much. Nothing gets done until you get started.

Meanwhile, the old kitchen is still somewhat functional. I tried making Chinese on Friday, and it turned out pretty well. The final menu was:

I used to jot more about personal things like this down in my online notebook, but that gave way as the blog became more ambitious politically -- sensitivity, no doubt, to the common charge that blogs are little more than personal indulgences. I've long figured my website to be more of a public filing system, where I keep stores of data of personal interest to myself, and make it publicly available on the off chance that others may find some of it useful. The recipe section is a good example. I started it to make it easier to look up some things, like my mother's chicken and dumplings recipe. Occasionally, I mentioned dinners in my notebook, and the recipe section grew to document them. At some point over the last couple of years, I wearied of the old format, so started to work up a new one, which should make it easier to index by cuisine, source, and ingredients. But I didn't make much progress, so one thing this dinner reminded me of was that unfinished work.

The links above are in the new format -- two were updated from the old format, the others new additions. Aside from the yams, they're all dishes I've made before: the green beans dozens of times; the crabs, scallops, and rice close to a dozen times. While the recipes are the most useful info for me, at some point I should write more on how I pick these things, and how the dinner comes together. Cooking Chinese is typically a lot of prep work, followed by a short but feverish fire drill, leaving a huge pile of pans and prep plates and bowls. For this particular meal: aside from the ham (which started first and cooked pretty much all day) and the cake (done conveniently the night before), everything else took 5-6 hours of prep, followed by about 30 minutes of stir fry. Four dishes made use of the deep fryer, but they were all in the prep stages, and that was all cleaned up and out of the way before the real action took place.

Chinese is pretty easy to cook once you:

  • Learn how to shop for it.
  • Get your prep organized.
  • Overcome our fear of turning the fire up high.

The scallops dish is a good example. The fresh water chestnuts required a trip to Thai Binh, by far the largest Vietnamese grocery here -- a stop at the more convenient Broadway Market didn't produce them. My pantry has all the Chinese staples -- wine, soy sauce (thin and dark), several kinds of vinegars and sugars (although the palm sugar turned out to be petrified), spices, bean sauces, dried things, etc. -- so I rarely have to think about them. But I don't have dried orange peel, so just picked up a fresh one, cut the peel off thin with a vegetable peeler early, and set it out to air dry. Marinaded the scallops the night before. A few hours before the dinner, I velveted them in water, put them in a bowl. Peeled and chopped the water chesnuts, put them in a bowl. I deep fried the spinach, put it on a paper towel. Piled all the aromatics (garlic, ginger, scallions, 3 dried chili peppers) on a small plate. Mixed the sauce in a little cup, and the sauce thickener (cornstarch and chicken stock) in another. None of those steps were big, and only the water chestnuts were ugly. I could take breaks to check mail and switch CDs and what not. Then, about the time the guests arrived, all I had to do was finish the dish: heat up the pan, swirl some oil, dump the aromatics in, stir, add the sauce and water chestnuts, stir, add the scallops and thickener, stir a bit more, scrape the whole thing into a dish, garnish with the spinach. Took less than 3 minutes to finish a spectacular dish.

Aside from the ham, only the eggplant took as much as 10 minutes on the range -- much of it covered, so I could fry the rice at the same time. The crabs were even easier: just dust them in cornstarch, brown them, and dump the pre-mixed sauce (including cornstarch to thicken) on top, swirl around, and serve (garnished with a bit of cilantro). The ham is the other kind of easy: something you put in the pot and just let cook, basting it once in a while, as much to catch a better whiff of the spices as anything else.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Panic

Michael Lewis: The End. Starts off remembering his three years on 1980s Wall Street, which led to his first book, Liar's Poker:

I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I expected them to gape in horror when I reported that one of our traders, Howie Rubin, had moved to Merrill Lynch, where he lost $250 million; I assumed they'd be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn't expect was that any future reader would look on my experience and say, "How quaint."

The article is a long piece of reporting, but Lewis writes so effortlessly you just sail through it. He mostly follows a trader named Steve Eisman, who started as a subprime mortgage analyst and pretty much saw it all coming. At several points he describes the securitization of subprime mortgages and the invention of CDO's (credit default obligations) swaps as a financial doomsday machine. He made money by shorting those things, but even so:

Eisman was appalled. "Look," he said. "I'm short. I don't want the country to go into a depression. I just want it to fucking deleverage." He had tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to explain how screwed up the business was, and no one wanted to hear it. "That Wall Street has gone down because of this is justice," he says. "They fucked people. They built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience."

Finally, Lewis interviews John Gutfreund, his old CEO before he wrote Liar's Poker, who took Salomon Brothers public, thereby increasing the temptation to slough risk off from the partners to the stockholders, and observes:

No investment bank owned by its employees would have levered itself 35 to 1 or bought and held $50 billion in mezzanine C.D.O.'s. I doubt any partnership would have sought to game the rating agencies or leap into bed with loan sharks or even allow mezzanine C.D.O.'s to be sold to its customers. The hoped-for short-term gain would not have justified the long-term hit. [ . . . ]

Now I asked Gutfreund about his biggest decision. "Yes," he said. "They -- the heads of the other Wall Street firms -- all said what an awful thing it was to go public and how could you do such a thing. But when the temptation arose, they all gave in to it." He agreed that the main effect of turning a partnership into a corporation was to transfer the financial risk to the shareholders. "When things go wrong, it's their problem," he said -- and obviously not theirs alone. When a Wall Street investment bank screwed up badly enough, its risks became the problem of the U.S. government. "It's laissez-faire until you get in deep shit," he said, with a half chuckle. He was out of the game.

Lewis, by the way, as a new book out: Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity. Unfortunately, he didn't write most of it -- just edited it, and some of his pieces are as old as Liar's Poker. He's not really a big thinker or a sharp analyst, but he's a good writer, and honest enough to track down stories. I've read three of his books: The New New Thing, Next, and an essay collection, The Money Culture. I thought the latter was a good tour of the US economy circa 1990. He's been off writing sports books lately, with Moneyball something I would certainly have read in happier times.

Jonathan Cohn: Panic in Detroit. This is a fairly reasoned piece on the "big tree" auto industry bailout, explaining why the current financial straits would drive General Motors straight past Chapter 11 to Chapter 7, and adding up the costs to the nation of a liquidation on that order. If it isn't obvious how much damage this would cause, it's mostly because we can't imagine it. I'm not even sure Cohn can imagine it. There have been so many cases of companies turning hat-in-hand to the federal government for handouts that they seem routine. There's also more than a little reason for anyone from the upper middle class down to feel chagrined, since there's little to no chance of the government doing them a similar favor: GM may be "too big to fail" but lord knows you and I aren't. On the other hand, one could extend the context here in several directions. For one thing any country with even an informal industrial policy would be able to figure out whether it wanted to keep an auto industry running, especially one as large as GM-Ford-Chrysler. Only the persistence of the idiot right's private-sector-is-always-right rhetoric makes this into a question. The fact is that many industries that we take for granted would never have come into existence, much less survived economic catastrophes, without government support. We can argue about where the money should come from, and who should enjoy the profits, but it's pretty brainless to shut down the auto industry we let the finance industry get itself into a pickle. I actually think that government should do more to support companies that run into hard times. I also think the rich should pay more taxes, especially when times are good, and that workers should get more of a break both coming and going -- in particular, I think that workers should own more equity in their companies.

I suppose you could compliment conservatives who oppose this and other bailouts for being consistent: they've always claimed that the businessfolk deserve their riches because they take such risks, so it follows that some have to fail in order to prove that the risks are genuine. That would be fine is no one else was wrapped up in the consequences, but that clearly is rarely the case. Still, the principled holdouts are usually the ones on the sidelines. Nothing will turn a rock-ribbed conservative into a socialist faster than bankruptcy court.

Of course, this doesn't mean that the details of the proposed bailout deals are worth supporting. But the principle of some sort of bailout deal is.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Operation Enduring Disaster

Tariq Ali: Operation Enduring Disaster. I just finished reading Tariq Ali's The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, which is more focused on Pakistan than on the Bush administration's hapless botch of an occupation of Afghanistan, but the two are related, especially in the sense that however bad the signals emanating from Afghanistan, Pakistan has the potential to amplify them thunderously. This piece brings the focus back here, with a title that rings so true it should henceforth be impossible to read "Operation Enduring Freedom" without correcting it.

Robert Baer: When will Obama give up the Bin Laden ghost hunt? Just the latest of several piece I've seen arguing that we'd be better off just declaring Osama Bin Laden dead than continuing to fail chasing a pretty cold trail. The reasons are pretty good, starting with the fact that we have no real business tramping through Pakistan, blowing up shit left and right. But the real issue isn't whether Bin Laden is dead or alive; it's whether we pursue him through legal channels or by criminal means. Declaring him dead might be a practical way of avoiding admitting that the whole fevered revenge war did nothing but compound the original crime.

But what if bin Laden really is dead, buried under a hundred tons of rock at Tora Bora, or so weakened that he might as well be dead? Indefinitely crashing around Afghanistan's and Pakistan's wild, mountainous tribal region on a ghost hunt cannot serve our interests. The longer we leave troops in Afghanistan, the worse the civil war there will become. One day Obama will need to give up the hunt -- declare bin Laden either dead or irrelevant.


Note I started writing to Matthew Yglesias in response to a couple of posts today ( Long and Deep; A Big Difference), but got off on a tangent:

Let's put it this way: either Obama is going to be judged on his programs, or on his failure to implement them. He's not going to win anyone over by failing to deliver -- not his enemies, who'll view him as weak and inept as well as deceitful, and not from his supporters either. So he has to put effective people on the field, make his case against many entrenched interests, and avoid getting blind-sided over something stupid, like Clinton did several times in 1992-94. Bush, or rather Cheney, did just what they promised (minus a few obfuscations) in 2001: a model of practical politics which was, admittedly, abetted by the Democrats lack of partisan unity. Bush's big problem was that everything he wanted to do was wrong, often disastrously so. Obama needs to find the right answers, even if they stray from what he found politic to say on the campaign trail. But where he thinks he has them, he has to charge ahead. Otherwise, we'll never know.

There are at least some cases where he should enjoy easy success. Iran has been eager to improve its relationship with the US for at least a decade -- rebuffed by US intransigence that often seems to have no purpose other than to puff up a security threat. Talking to them could produce a quick breakthrough, which should have a rapid effect on calming Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, not to mention Iraq. It would also give Obama further reason to kill the missile defense scam, which would reduce tensions with Russia. And a little positive nudge to Israel to settle the Palestinian question might be all it takes, in contrast to the Bush-Sharon fantasy that "a little force helps to clarify things." So a lot of good could come from something simple -- not least that Obama would have some real defense against right-wing security attacks: results that facilitate peace.

Ross Douthat is arguing that Obama will be more hawkish (e.g., than McCain) on Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran to "safely guard . . . his right flank"; but surely Obama knows that none of those wars can be won, and that fighting such wars will only undermine everything else in his platform (cf. what Vietnam did for LBJ). I don't know what Obama was thinking behind his sometime belligerent Afghanistan/Pakistan rhetoric, but surely he understands (as most counterinsurgency experts admit) that what's really needed is nation building -- a concept anathema to Bush Republicans. I can imagine putting more troops into Afghanistan as a political ploy to change strategy and scale back the war; e.g., to reduce the damage caused by bombardment. I think fewer troops would work even better, but maybe not politically. As for Pakistan, it's possible to say you're going to go more aggressively after Osama Bin Laden and still be more cautious about the collateral damage that threatens to blow back so seriously. That's a tricky game, but Obama's success depends on him not getting it wrong -- as, e.g., LBJ did.

The other big thing that is happening now is that the economy has deprioritized the Bush wars. That's one more reason to take easy steps that reduce conflict. Sooner rather than later Obama will have to face much tougher problems, like deciding whether the US will still be in the auto industry.

Just a draft; didn't send this in.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

End of an Epoch, Birth of Another?

Michael Lind: Obama and the dawn of the Fourth Republic. I took a glance at this shortly after it came out. Decided not to write on it: the French Republic analogies are beside the point, which turns out to be a Hegelian cycle model superimposed on US history. But a friend pointed it out as "interesting," so I gave it a bit more thought. The first three "republics" are 72-year slices, each split into two 36-year rise-and-fall periods, leading to subsequent revolutions. The 1788-1860 and 1860-1932 eras are pretty straightforward: 1788 (actually 1789) is the start under the US constitution. 1860 marks the start of the Civil War, which broke the balance between north and south, free and slave labor, capitalist and colonialist economies. 1932 brings the New Deal, which rescued capitalism from its manic contradictions, brought the nation together to fight WWII, which gave us the military-industrial complex, and America's imperial overreach as the guardian of world business. Numerical logic leads Lind to argue that the fourth such era started on schedule in 2004, whereas for most of us 2004 just marked the midpoint of 8 dreadful Bush years.

The interesting thing about Lind's cycles is that each starts with a centralizing thrust: Washington's (or should we say Hamilton's?) federalism; the Republicans' nationalism starting with Lincoln; and (of course) you know about the Democrats from FDR to LBJ. Each thrust, in turn, broke apart in anti-Washington backlash, which if you take the 36-year half-life, means Andrew Jackson (1824, who wasn't actually elected until 1828), William McKinley (1896), and Richard Nixon (1968). If Ronald Reagan (1980) seems more like the third cycle's turning point, that probably just means that the numbers aren't fated -- although I'm tempted to argue that Nixon is still the root of all Republican evil, the essential dishonesty that made Reagan and the Bushes possible.

Lind writes:

That is why it is too early to predict the outline of the Fourth American Republic. Its shape depends on the outcomes of the debates and struggles of the next generation. But it is possible to speculate about its life span. If the pattern of history holds, the Fourth Republic of the United States will last for roughly 72 years, from 2004 (or, if you like, 2008) to 2076. And if the pattern of the past holds, we will see a period of Hamiltonian centralization and reform between now and 2040, followed by an approximately 36-year long Jeffersonian backlash motivated by ideals of libertarianism and decentralization.

And even if I am right that the new era began four years ago, historians are likely to identify the first president of the Fourth Republic of the United States as Barack Obama, not George W. Bush. Obama may join Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the short list of American presidents who, thanks both to their own leadership and the fortuitous timing of their elections, presided over the refounding of the United States. Yes, he can.

That ultimately doesn't give us much to go on, especially given that the periodicity is the least interesting part of the argument. Lind isn't the first person to look into Obama and see Lincoln and Roosevelt -- a case made easier by the fact that neither Lincoln nor Roosevelt were more promising prospects when they were elected. They were largely made by their times, not least (and in Lincoln's case almost exclusively) by their wars. Obama has little hope of similarly distinguishing himself in war, but given that he inherits a perpetual war machine from Bush he has the opportunity to break out of the mold and effectively pursue peace. And like Roosevelt, Obama is the recipient of an economic catastrophe.

Nor are those the only big shifts in political tectonics. The first three eras were marked by: 1) physical expansion of the US from coast to coast; 2) industrial revolution within the US market; 3) the emergence of the US as the premier world military and -- more important by far -- economic power. The next period will see expansion replaced by contraction, as the US becomes just one of many more or less equivalent states -- a relative decline as the whole world settles into economic and political equilibrium, and an absolute decline as resource limits start to pinch back. The last point is not a political choice. It's already happening, and very likely irreversible. What isn't determined is whether we respond to this decline honorably and intelligently, or we lead the disintegration into a bloody war of all against all.

It's worth noting that although the present conditions are far worse than ever before, this is not the first time a US political leader had the opportunity to confront the inevitable waning of American power. Jimmy Carter took a few jabs at that around 1980, when a punk power like Iran became an intractable problem for the world's greatest superpower, when gas prices shot through the roof and the economy tanked, overcompensating for a decade of stagnant inflation ("stagflation"). The American people responded to the news by electing Ronald Reagan: faced with terrible truths, they chose to be lied to, to be flattered, to flee from reality into their own happy dreams. Every subsequent politician has more/less followed the same formula, until we stumbled blindly into the vast chasm between rhetoric and reality known as the Bush administration.

Obama managed to negotiate this chasm rather brilliantly, on the one hand acknowledging inescapable reality, on the other hand stroking us with hopeful flattery and carefully couching his change platform to avoid setting off any alarms. Sure, he could kick off a fourth era by facing up to America's problems courageously and ingeniously; or he could wind up like either of his Democratic Party predecessors, a failed idealist like Carter, or a crass and cynical lesser-evilist like Bill Clinton. Neither path is likely to amount to much. It's possible, after all, that there won't be any "Fourth Republic"; it's just as likely that the dark ages of the last 8, 16, 28 years will keep dimming to oblivion.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Music Week

Music: Current count 14933 [14907] rated (+26), 811 [829] unrated (-18). Another week just slogging through the new jazz. Work finally started on installing new vinyl siding on the house, so that has been disruptive. Expected it to start last Monday, but they didn't get anything up until Thursday -- a small patch, then another slightly bigger one on Friday. Should finally get going this week. We're putting in a new storm door and some new porch lights. Haven't done anything about the loss of the Rhapsody account. Feeling really exhausted with all the music, although the house stuff is hitting me at least as bad.


Jazz Prospecting (CG #18, Part 10)

Another week of triage, slogging through the backlog of CDs, including a few things from the logjam when I was in Detroit. Still haven't gotten to unpacking the travel cases. If I had nothing better to do, and more confidence than I feel, I'd say that next week should be the one where I buckle down and finish Jazz CG #18. It's due. The records are there. I'm anxious to get to the Anthony Braxton box. One problem is that it's going to be another bad week of house work. Another is that I'm still feeling like I'd rather be reading, especially now that I've finally gotten to Arno Mayer's Plowshares Into Swords, or writing about other things.

Note a relatively large number (9) of bracketed grades this time. Those records are all due for at least one more listen. Some are because I got distracted and didn't get a clear take; some are because something surprised me that I need to go back and figure out; some are because they might grow on me further. All, in other words, are because I'm working too fast. Which, for better or worse, is standard operating procedure here. One good question is why aren't there more bracket grades. Part of the answer there is that I'm not trying to write authoritative reviews of everything I listen to. I'm doing prospecting for a Jazz Consumer Guide column, and often I can decide a record isn't a prospect without fully forming a viewpoint on it. I can't claim that's fair, but over the long haul I think I wind up with pretty interesting record lists. If I wasn't unfair I suspect the whole process would paralyze. Some weeks that seems close to happening, which may be why I bring it up now.


Idit Shner: Tuesday's Blues (2008, OA2): Alto saxophonist, grew up in Israel, studied in Oklahoma, graduated from UNT, played in Sherrie Maricle's DIVA Jazz Orchestra; now based in Oregon. First record, a quartet with Stefan Karlsson on piano, Mike League on bass, Steve Pruitt on drums. Four of seven songs are listed as traditional: "Yellow Moon," "Elisheva Doll," "Adon Haselichot," and "Ha Lachma." I wouldn't classify them as klezmer, but the folk melodies help center the album. A bit of solo sax near the end is particularly nice. B+(**)

Dan Heck: Compositionality (2007 [2008], Origin): Guitarist, graduated from Berklee, was in Seattle for a while with a band called Bebop & Destruction; now based in South Florida. First album, calling out trumpeter Thomas Marriott for a featuring role. Nice, tasty postbop, with the guitar rolling gently off the trumpet leads. B+(*)

Jeff Johnson: Tall Stranger (2002 [2008], Origin): Google shows up many Jeff Johnsons; AMG lists 14. This one is a mainstay of the Seattle jazz scene, playing bass, with four albums since 1999, several dozen side credits, especially with pianists Jessica Williams and Hal Galper. This is a trio, with Hans Teuber (tenor sax, bass clarinet) and Billy Mintz (drums). Slow pieces, strongly shaped by the bass, with Teuber's reeds following the same contours. Somewhat abstract, very seductive, rewards attention. [B+(***)]

Roy Assaf & Eddy Khaimovich Quartet: Andarta (2007 [2008], Origin): Two Israelis, who met by chance in New York and found they fit. Assaf plays piano; Khaimovich bass. The quartet fills out with Robin Verheyen on sax and Ronen Itzik on drums, but Verheyen sits out a couple of cuts to make way for Roy Hargrove on trumpet. Postbop with a dash of world groove. B+(*)

Asaf Sirkis Trio: The Monk (2007-08 [2008], SAM Productions): Israeli drummer, b. 1969 in Petah-Tikva; left Israel in 1998 for Holland, then France, finally settling in London, where he joined Gilad Atzmon's Orient House Ensemble. Trio includes electric bassist Yaron Stavi and guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos. The electric instruments give the record a fusion feel, but upside down, with the drums out front and the chord instruments striving to catch up. Fifth album as a leader -- three with a group called Inner Noise. Sounds like someone to explore further. [B+(**)]

McCoy Tyner: Guitars (2006 [2008], McCoy Tyner Music/Half Note, CD+DVD): Quartets, with Ron Carter on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and a smattering of guitarists sharing the center stage with Tyner: Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Bill Frisell, and Bela Fleck (uh, banjo). Scattered results, with Ribot's metallica and Fleck's hokum the outliers, and Trucks playing it safest with "Slapback Blues" and "Greensleeves." Scofield's "Mr. P.C." is pretty safe, too. Frisell's closer, "Baba Drame" from Boubacar Traore, is the choice cut. Comes with a DVD I haven't seen yet. B+(*)

Ruslan Khain: For Medicinal Purposes Only! (2008, Smalls): Bassist, from Leningrad (booklet says St. Petersburg), Russia, b. 1972, in New York since 1999. Hard bop quintet -- could have been cut by Hank Mobley (actually, Chris Byars) or Lee Morgan (Yoshi Okazaki) in the 1960s. Maybe a little looser, a bit less hard (by which I don't mean soft; more like less rigid). Richard Clements is on piano; Phil Stewart on drums. B+(***)

Adam Birnbaum: Travels (2008, Smalls): Pianist, first album. Group is nominally a quartet, but saxophonist Sharel Cassity is rarely to be heard. Postbop, I suppose. Bright and sharp, but runs on. B+(*)

Dan Cray Trio: Live: Over Here and Over Heard (2007 [2008], Crawdad): Piano trio, with Clark Sommers on bass, Greg Wyser-Pratte on drums. Fourth album. One original, plus covers from Jobim, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Henry Mancini, "More Than You Know," "That Old Black Magic." Can't think of much to say about it. B

John Burnett Swing Band: West of State Street/East of Harlem (2008, Delmark): Chicago-based big band, four trumpets plus guest Randy Sandke, four trombone, five reeds, the whole kit and kaboodle. Burnett hails from England, holds down a steady job as a radio DJ, directs the band. Frieda Lee sings two songs, and Tony Pons does his best Satchmo impersonation on "Hello Dolly." Website cites them as "keeping alive the sounds of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and others" -- most obviously Basie, especially when they crank up "April in Paris" more than one more time. B+(*)

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 1 (1980-2007 [2008], Doxy/Emarcy): I've read so many Gary Giddins columns raving about Sonny Rollins' live performances that my first reaction here is: is this the best you can do? Looking at the fine print, we see: 7 songs, from 7 different venues, 2 from 1980, 1 from 1986, 1 from 2000, 3 from 2006-07. The groups are nearly as scattered, with 2 pianists, 3 bassists, 5 drummers, trombonist Clifton Anderson on 4 cuts, guitarist Bobby Broom on 3, 2 percussionists on 3 cuts. Still, the striking thing is that none of that matters. One thing you can't say about Rollins is that he's a team player. He sounds exactly the same in any context over this 28 year stretch, so overwhelming it hardly matters who else is on stage. That isn't to deny the occasional piano or guitar solo. It's just to wonder who else could piece together such a coherent album from scraps like this? Giddins wrote the liner notes, proclaiming this one of Rollins' finest albums. I wouldn't put it in his top ten, and refer you all back to G-Man, which -- never having seen him live myself -- is how I've come to imagine him live. I don't doubt that this series will eventually turn tedious, especially once Rollins' heirs start vetting the takes, but for now this is just further evidence of what "saxophone colossus" means. A-

Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: We Are MTO (2005 [2008], Mowo!): Different label, otherwise they could have called it MTO Volume 2. Bernstein's downtown big band is a spinoff from his work on Robert Altman's Kansas City film, basically an attempt to update the blues-based swing bands that toured around Kansas City in the 1920-30s. Or, at Bernstein puts it in explaining the title cut: "Don Redman meets Funkadelic at Count Basie's summer home by the lake." Old songs from Redman, Basie, and Fats Waller -- a nasty, strung-out "Viper Song"; also obscurities from Cecil Scott and Preston Jackson, a gritty "Makes No Difference," a hymnal "All You Need Is Love." Vocals on most pieces by guitarists Matt Munisteri and/or Doug Wamble. Violin by Charlie Burnham. Even better are the horns, which clash just enough to remind you that this is post-avant-garde swing. A-

The Peggy Lee Band: New Code (2008, Drip Audio): Cellist, from Vancouver, been around long enough now you should recognize her. Group is octet, mostly Vancouver avant-gardists I recognize from elsewhere, like Brad Turner (trumpet), Jon Bentley (tenor sax), and Dylan van der Schyff (drums). Two guitars (Ron Samworth and Tony Wilson), and electric bass thicken up texture, setting off the cello and horns. Starts with a bent take on Dylan's "All I Really Want to Do." Tends toward the atmospheric after that, but complex with surprises. [B+(**)]

Benny Powell: Nextep (2007 [2008], Origin): Trombonist, b. 1930 in New Orleans, came up through the Lionel Hampton and Count Basie bands. Has a lot of side credits, but very little under his own name -- this is the third title AMG lists. No special reason to credit, or blame, him for this one either. Most of the songs were written by saxophonist-flautist T.K. Blue or pianist Sayuri Goto, not exactly brand names. No complaints about the trombone, or drummer Billy Hart, but the rest tends to get soupy, especially when Blue plays flute. Ends on an up note, with a Blue calypso called "The Caribbean Express." B-

Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid: NYC (2008, Domino): Hebden is a laptop patch musician, best known for his records as FourTet. Reid is a storied drummer -- early credits include Martha and the Vandellas, James Brown, and Fela Kuti -- who cut a couple of notable avant-garde albums in the 1970s, then largely vanished until a couple of years ago. His latest record, Daxaar, is overdue for recognition in my Jazz CG A-list. The pair have two previous records, listed under Reid's name. This is an advance, so things may change, but right now it looks like Hebden's name comes out first. He has an uncanny knack for synth tunes, and the pieces here would be worth listening to even without Reid's drumming, but they feel more complete with it. [B+(***)] [advance, Nov. 18]

The James Moody and Hank Jones Quartet: Our Delight (2006 [2008], IPO): With Todd Coolman on bass, Adam Nussbaum on drums. Title song is by Tad Dameron, who's good for three more, including "Good Bait" co-credited to Count Basie. One Moody song, plus three from long-time employer Dizzy Gillespie, and one from Sonny Stitt; Jimmy Heath's tribute, "Moody's Groove"; "Body and Soul" and "Old Folks" -- no stretching here, just a couple of octogenarians delighted to still be able to play the music of their youth. I'm not very familiar with Moody, but he sounds suave and polished. And Jones is always a gentlemanly accompanist. Anyone sentimentally inclined toward respecting their elders will be delighted too. I'll keep it open, in case I am one. (Moody plays flute on a couple of cuts, which aren't bad but can't sound as good as his tenor sax; Roberta Gambarini sings the "bonus" cut: "Moody's Groove" -- a nice toast.) [B+(***)] [Nov. 18]

Barbara King: Perfect Timing (2008, CCC Music Group): Vocalist, from Brooklyn, voice described as "Sarah Vaughan-like," which gives you the general idea: deep, dusky, but despite the title, she doesn't quite have the moves down pat. No recording date(s), with a lot of musicians shuffling in and out, not making much difference. Song selection is an issue. She manages to make something out of "Let It Be," but "Forever Young" is beyond redemption. B

Marcus Goldhaber: Take Me Anywhere (2007 [2008], Fallen Apple): Vocalist, b. 1978, "a suburban kid in Buffalo, NY"; second album. Has a high, thin voice much like Theo Bleckmann's, but tastes less esoteric, fancying himself as a crooner, with Chet Baker to fall back on -- compare "I Fall in Love Too Easily," which he sings better than Baker, without making the difference matter. Backed by the Jon Davis Trio -- Davis on piano -- with Hendrik Meurkens providing a guest harmonica spot. Long: 17 cuts, 75:11. I can imagine some people falling in love with it, but I can't imagine me ever giving it the time. B

Jerry Costanzo With Andy Farber and His Swing Mavens: Destination Moon (2004-07 [2008], Semi-Quaver Jazz): Costanzo is a vocalist, as dead a ringer for Sinatra as I've heard in many years -- if anything, he makes it look easier, and the band helps in that regard. Repertoire has something to do with this: "I Thought About You," "Come Fly With Me," "Young at Heart," "Fly Me to the Moon"; with all the flying he throws in one from Nat Cole: "Straighten Up and Fly Right." Two sessions, separated by three years and quite a bit of turnover in the band. The edge goes to the later edition. B+(**)

Amina Figarova: Above the Clouds (2008, Munich): Pianist, b. 1966 in Baku, Soviet Union, now Azerbaijan; based in the Netherlands. Has at least nine albums since 1995, focusing more on her compositions than her piano. I figure this as postbop, probably with some "third stream" elements -- in any case, a mixed bag, with a lot of horns, some pleasant, promising arrangements. Probably deserves further research, but hasn't motivated me yet. B

Mark Weinstein: Lua e Sol (2008, Jazzheads): Flute player, has a dozen or so albums since 1996, mostly in Latin idioms. This one is firmly rooted in Brazil, with Romero Lubambo on guitar, Nilson Mata on bass (and co-producing), and Cyro Baptista on percussion. I've never cared much for flute, but can't complain here: he ranges from decorative to delectable, and Lubambo is especially superb. B+(*)

Johnny Varro Swing 7: Ring Dem Bells (2007 [2008], Arbors): Veteran swing pianist, b. 1930, broke in Bobby Hackett in 1953, spent much of the next decade with Eddie Condon. Has a pile of records on Arbors -- his Swing 7 group is pretty much the label's all-stars: Randy Sandke (trumpet), Dan Barrett (trombone), Scott Robinson (tenor sax), Ken Peplowski (alto sax/clarinet), Frank Tate (bass), Joe Ascione (drums). Such a group could hardly do wrong, especially on proven standard fare, but they never kick it up that necessary notch. Scattered pleasures, shy of a tour de force. B+(*)

Bucky Pizzarelli and Strings: So Hard to Forget (2008, Arbors): The strings are kept small, essentially a quartet -- Sara Caswell and Aaron Weinstein on violin, Valerie Levy on viola, Jesse Levy on cello -- plus bass (Martin Pizzarelli, Jerry Bruno), with Frank Vignola dropping in for a second guitar on 2 tracks. Nor are the strings very imposing: a lot of this sounds like solo guitar, with the strings occasionally adding dabs of background color. That's also the part that works best, which makes me wonder: why bother with the strings? Partly because it puts him into a delicately meditative mood, bringing out an aspect of his guitar playing we haven't hear much of lately. Partly because when it does work it can be sublime. B+(**)

Mort Weiss: All Too Soon (2008, SMS Jazz): Plays clarinet, b. 1935, grew up in the bebop generation, only dabbled in music until he retired from business and started issuing his own records. This is a duo with seven-string guitarist Ron Eschete, probably a better known player, although the album cover doesn't attempt to link to his market. Starts with "Scrapple From the Apple," adding "Blue Monk" and "Django," but also slips in a few standards -- "Like Someone in Love," "Softly as in Morning Sunrise," etc. About what you'd expect: low key, nicely done. Thank God for FDR, Charlie Christian, and Charlie Parker. B+(**)

Corey Christiansen: Roll With It (2008, Origin): Guitarist, 37 (I assume that means b. 1971), based in Utah after some time in St. Louis, second album since 2004. Basically a soul jazz group, with Pat Bianchi on the B-3, David Halliday on tenor sax, Matt Jorgensen on drums. Fresher than most; nice tone on the sax, slick lines from the guitar. B+(*)

Joe Locke: Force of Four (2008, Origin): Quartet, the vibraphonist joined by Robert Rodriguez on piano, Ricardo Rodriguez on bass, and Jonathan Blake on drums. Robert Rodriguez has recorded with trumpeter Michael Rodriguez as the Rodriguez Brothers. Ricardo also seems to be a brother, but doesn't get much credit on the group's website. Three cuts add a horn: one with Thomas Marriott on trumpet, two with Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax. Neither the pianist nor the horns have much impact, but Locke continues to play remarkably. B+(*)

Bill Carrothers: Home Row (1992 [2008], Pirouet): Pianist, b. 1964, based in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan -- home of one of the great jazz fiction in cinema: Jimmy Stewart, in Anatomy of a Murder, hops out of his convertible and strides into a local bar, where Duke Ellington is playing. AMG starts Carrothers' discography in 1999, listing 11 albums. Carrothers' webpage shows 20 album covers, but doesn't offer a discography. This was cut much earlier. With Gary Peacock on bass and Bill Stewart on drums. Sounds a bit rough to me -- "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is rushed almost unrecognizably, to no clear purpose. Still, an impressive debut -- admittedly, easy to say after a decade-plus of later records. B+(*)

Lafayette Gilchrist: Soul Progressin' (2008, Hyena): Pianist, based in Baltimore, has played in David Murray groups. This is his fourth album, the second with a horn-heavy octet he calls the New Volcanoes. He keeps a regular beat here, as if he's trying to pass this off as a funk album, but it's more angular, with bits of dissonance, sometimes a straying horn. I don't recognize anyone in the band, and none really stand out -- it's easy to imagine someone like Murray in this mix, which would kick this up to the level of a nastier Shakill's Warrior. But even with ordinary horns, this kicks like he's finally onto something. B+(***)

Charlie Haden Family & Friends: Rambling Boy (2008, Decca): Born 1937 in Shenandoah, IA, into a musical family which played country and folk music on local radio stations, Haden picked up the bass, played a bit with Hampton Hawes and Art Pepper, then not much more than 20 found himself in the Ornette Coleman Quartet, and the rest, as they say, is history. This is a memoir, and a showcase for his own musical family, a bunch of folk/country songs with too many vocalists and a very steady bassist. One cut is from the scrapbook, billed as "feat. 2-yr-old Cowboy Charlie," juvenilia for sure, but you have to cut him some slack for the yodel, and the back cover photo is beyond cute. Several more cuts feat. his three daughters, billed as the Haden Triplets -- the opening "Single Girl, Married Girl" is the album's choice cut. They could carry their own album, which can't be said for the two male voices in the Haden family. The Friends are hit and miss, with Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Elvis Costello, and Ricky Skaggs doing about what you'd expect, and Jack Black doing a bit better than I expected. Still, the other choice cut here is the one instrumental, feat. Pat Metheny, a lament on Hurricane Katrina called "Is This America?" needing no lyrics. B+(**)

The Warren Vaché-John Allred Quintet: Live in Bern Switzerland at Marians Jazzroom: Jubilation (2007 [2008], Arbors): The leaders play cornet and trombone, respectively, although Allred makes less of an impression than usual, and Vaché is clearly the leader. With Tardo Hammer on piano, Nicki Parrott on bass, Leroy Williams on drums. Seems like a typical cross-section of Vaché's shtick: Gershwin and Berlin, "Caravan," "Old Devil Moon," a couple of newer tunes strong on melody (two from Horace Silver, one from Junior Mance), a couple of his haphazard but charming vocals, one a trash-talking duet with Parrott (pronounced "pa-rot") -- in fact, called "Sweet Hunk o' Trash." B+(**)

The John Bunch Trio With Guest Frank Wess: Plays the Music of Irving Berlin (Except One) (2008, Arbors): That's the back-cover version of the title. Arbors often has different versions of titles on the spine, front cover, back cover, and the disc itself. I usually choose the more compact spine, but this time I figured I'd let them spell it all out. The "except one" is a song by Gus Kahn, Carmen Lombardo, and Johnny Green: "Coquette." The other eleven songs are Berlin standards, half deeply ingrained in every musical consciousness, half less so, allowing for breaks. Bunch is a veteran swing pianist, b. 1921, Indiana; reportedly learned to arrange for big bands as a POW in WWII Germany; worked for Georgie Auld, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Tony Bennett; later pops up in groups with Bucky Pizzarelli and Scott Hamilton. Always a delight, his lithe tone meshes especially well here with Frank Vignola's guitar and John Webber's bass -- the famous melodies float by as light as clouds, which is why Wess, on 6 of 12 songs, can stick to flute and not gum anything up. [B+(***)]

Cosmologic: Eyes in the Bck of My Head (2006 [2008], Cuneiform): San Diego quartet, formed in 1999, same lineup through four albums: Jason Robinson (tenor sax), Michael Dessen (trombone), Scott Walton (bass), Nathan Hubbard (drums). Songs are pretty evenly divided between Hubbard, Dessen, and Robinson. Mostly free jazz, with two horns flaying apart, the trombone more than holding its own. B+(**)

Randy Brecker: Randy in Brasil (2006 [2008], MAMA): The surviving Brecker Brother. Has a checkered, mostly fusion-oriented, solo career, but pops up in other contexts, like the Mingus Big Band. Not sure how much Brazilian music he's done in the past, but he was married to Eliane Elias, which certainly counts for something. This one was cut in Brazil, produced by keyboardist Ruriá Duprat, with a local band including guitarist Ricardo Silveira. Two originals, plus a lot of Djavan, Ivan Lins, Gilberto Gil, and João Bosco. Flows well, and the trumpet is competent, but nothing stands out. B-


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


For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.


Unpacking:

  • The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton (1974-80 [2008], Mosaic, 8CD)
  • Carol Fredette: Everything in Time (Soundbrush): Feb. 10
  • Sheila Jordan: Winter Sunshine (Justin Time)
  • Mark Masters Ensemble: Farewell Walter Dewey Redman (Capri)
  • Quadro Nuevo: Ciné Passion (Justin Time)
  • The Matthew Shipp Trio: Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear): Jan. 27
  • Michael Jefry Stevens Trio: For Andrew (Konnex)
  • David S. Ware: Shakti (AUM Fidelity): Jan. 27

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Warmonger

New York Times: A Military for a Dangerous World. Lead editorial today. Of all the advice Obama is getting these days, this may be the worst. Most of all, it reminds me of the crucial role the New York Times played in propagandizing for the Iraq war, and for that matter for the whole Bush schema of permanent, self-perpetuating war. Still, the formulation is straightforward: build up this military, and what you will get is a more dangerous world. No enemy is necessary. Even though the usual suspects are listed, the fact is that with this military, we'll be able to go out and find a steady stream of enemies:

In an unpredictable world with no clear battle lines, the country must ensure its ability -- so-called lift capacity -- to move enormous quantities of men and matériel quickly around the world and to supply them when necessary by sea.

First up is more troops, even with the Iraq war winding down:

More ground forces: We believe the military needs the 65,000 additional Army troops and the 27,000 additional marines that Congress finally pushed President Bush into seeking. That buildup is projected to take at least two years; by the end the United States will have 759,000 active-duty ground troops. [ . . . ]

What we are calling for will be expensive. Adding 92,000 ground troops will cost more than $100 billion over the next six years, and maintaining lift capacity will cost billions more. Much of the savings from withdrawing troops from Iraq will have to be devoted to repairing and rebuilding the force.

And, of course, there's all that globetrotting equipment:

The Pentagon will need to invest more in unglamorous but essential aircraft like long-haul cargo planes and refueling tankers. The KC-X aerial tanker got caught up in a messy contracting controversy. The new administration must move forward on plans to buy 179 new planes in a fair and open competition. [ . . . ]

America should maintain its investment in sealift, including Maritime Prepositioning Force ships that carry everything marines need for initial military operations (helicopter landing decks, food, water pumping equipment). It must also restock ships' supplies that have been depleted for use in Iraq. One 2006 study predicted replenishment would cost $12 billion plus $5 billion for every additional year the marines stayed in Iraq.

With Congress in a mood to stimulate itself silly, it's unlikely that they'll try to cut anything. The US already spends more money on its armed forces than the rest of the world combined. There isn't the slightest shred of evidence that the world would be any more bellicose if the US unilaterally cut more than 90% out of its war (aka defense) budget. One could do even better by negotiating US cuts into arms limitation treaties, and by resolving many of the extant conflicts around the world diplomatically. Just to pick one flagrant example, the US practice of feeding Israel $3-5 billion per year in military aid has bloated their war machine, made them more aggressive with their neighbors and subjects, and given them no encouragement to settle their real conflict, which is nothing more than their denial of equal rights to Palestinians. The case of Israel has proven that no amount of military superiority makes up for unjust and immoral treatment of people. On the other hand, simply treating people right is a cheap and effective way out of the whole wargame racket.

Somewhere back in one of Obama's old speeches he said something about how we needed to change the way we think about war. The first step would be to reject the grand schemes of warmongers like the New York Times editors -- to start working on the real causes and consequences of war, rather than on the contingencies that lead us so easily into thinking wars are excusable, winnable even. They aren't. Every war is a failure: of politics, of diplomacy, of human decency. Budgeting so lavishly for failure just breeds more of the same.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Rhapsody Notes

Post filed here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Teams of Rivals

Tom Engelhardt: No Breathing Space in Washington. Also titled: "Don't Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart." I see that Doris Kearns Goodwin is coming to Wichita to speak at the Chamber of Commerce, pushing her line that Obama needs a "team of rivals" like Lincoln had. Obama is well known for seeking out alternate points of view. He also has the reputation for being able to think for himself, so maybe his choice of advisers won't be as fateful as it has been for others -- Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Reagan come readily to mind. Still, most of what you hear these days is about how he needs to stock his team with the very same sorts who got us into this mess in the first place -- e.g., former Treasury Secretaries Lawrence Summers and Richard Rubin; current Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The instinct may just be to be cautious; after all, who wants to rock a sinking boat? On the other hand, we hear very rarely hear a name even from short left field -- Robert Reich, maybe, about as short as you can get.

The other problem, which is more in Engelhardt's sights, is that Obama still accepts much of the American empire paradigm, especially as regards using military force against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He may have wanted to change the way we think about war, but it isn't clear how much he's changed his own way of thinking. This is unfortunate for lots of reasons: one being that there is a lot of opportunity to make some dramatic changes fast. Iraq is more than ready for a major drawdown of US forces. Iran and Syria have been anxiously awaiting a US government willing to deal with them. Afghanistan and Pakistan need a lot more sympathy and understanding, which doesn't come about by escalating the air war -- we need more tools, including a willingness to indulge in "nation building." And, of course, the big game changer would be to broker a fair deal in Israel/Palestine. All of those things have been blocked primarily by the Bush administration's war fetishism. Obama could change all that, but he'll have to overcome a lot of institutional inertia to do so -- much more than he was willing to tackle during the campaign. Engelhardt writes:

Political Washington is a conspiracy -- in the original sense of the word: "to breathe the same air." In that sense, there is no air in Washington that isn't stale enough to choke a president. Send Obama there alone, give him that "breathing space," don't start demanding the quick ending of wars or anything else, and you're not doing him, or the American people, any favors. Quite the opposite, you're consigning him to suffocation.

Mark LeVine: Obama will have to go where no other president has dared. If Obama really wants a "team of rivals" he needs to bring experts like LeVine into the fold. Good, succinct summary of the real problems Obama will face in the Middle East, far removed from the political lens of the campaign media: Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Newer Deals

Paul Krugman: Franklin Delano Obama? There seems to be more discussion of the New Deal very recently than at any time I can remember in all my 58 years. Krugman may have been the one who started this off (cf. The Conscience of a Liberal, and look forward to a revised edition of The Return of Depression Economics), but others have brought up similar points, including Robert Kuttner (The Squandering of America and Obama's Challenge) and James Galbraith (The Predator State). I've also seen a few books from the right attempting to discredit the New Deal, such as Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man. Krugman helps clarify some of the history here, including the false starts that allow for right-wing nitpicking, and notes that the stimulus package that really did the trick was WWII -- spending at a level that no one could have previously conceived of, but which had the effect not just of raising the whole economy but of creating a long-lived middle class. Long-lived, that is, until Reagan and his followers started knocking the essential props out from under. Advice to Obama: think big, spend big.

George Packer: The New Liberalism. A post-election sample of the liberal breeze, mostly about Obama but starting with six paragraphs on FDR. Packer argues that Obama is a cautious sort, but circumstances are making him bolder:

Obama began to refer to the financial meltdown as "the final verdict" on a "failed economic philosophy" -- words that one of his advisers called "the key line in the campaign narrative." Another adviser told me that, in the final months of the race, economic conditions pushed Obama to the left. "Barack is a progressive person but also cautious," the adviser wrote in an e-mail. "He understands politics and understands the limits it can create on progressive policy. But as the times have moved, he's moved quickly along with them." Early on, during the more vaporous and messianic phase of his candidacy, Obama took more cautious stands than Hillary Clinton did, but this fall he began to embrace some of Clinton's positions that he had once refused to support, such as a moratorium on foreclosures and a government buyout of mortgages.

Obama was able to make a powerful case for a break with conservative economics, in part, because he doesn't carry the scars of recent history. "He's not intimidated by the issue frames that have bedevilled Democrats for the last couple of decades," one of the advisers said. "There's never been a sense of having to triangulate." By the end of the campaign, Obama wasn't just running against broken politics, or even against the Bush Presidency. He had the anti-government philosophy of the entire Age of Reagan in his sights.

Emphasis added. More on those changing times:

Obama will take office with a number of advantages that were unavailable to the last Democratic President. The Party is more united, the Democrats in Congress energized by their recent return to a majority. As stagnant wages and pressing public needs have become the focus of Democratic domestic policy, the old line between deficit hawks and economic liberals has dissolved -- last week, the Times published an Op-Ed piece co-written by a leading representative of each group: Rubin and the economist Jared Bernstein, respectively. (They met somewhere around the forty-yard line on Bernstein's half of the field.) Bill Clinton began his Presidency as the country was coming out of a recession, and Alan Greenspan, the semi-divine chairman of the Federal Reserve, could hold the new President hostage to Wall Street. Now Greenspan, in retirement, has confessed to Congress that his free-market world view was flawed; Wall Street lies prostrate after suffering something like a paralyzing stroke; and, with the country entering a deep recession, both deficit spending and financial regulation are givens. More profoundly, the conservative tide was still high when Clinton entered the White House, and it quickly swamped him. Obama will take power at its lowest ebb. It is for all these reasons that 2009 will be more like 1933 than like 1993.

The biggest problem I see with a new New Deal is no longer political; it's resource bound. FDR could argue that there's nothing to fear but fear itself because the economy could still grow as fast as you could force money into the system and get people back to work. That's less obviously true now, in large part because we're increasingly pinched by supply shortages of critical goods -- most importantly oil, but the list is growing. While there's probably room for some forced growth, at some point the economy is bound to contract. A lot of American myth is vested in the notion that equal opportunity is a fair substitute for equality because opportunity in general is boundless, but that won't be the case when we start to choke on limited supplies. (More myth is vested in the idea that science will solve all problems, but that too may just be misplaced optimism.)

Actually, fairness becomes even more critical whenever the economy shrinks, whether due to financial mischief like we've witnessed of late or more intractable resource crunches. Anyone who thinks Democrats, even smart ones like Obama, will be able to solve such problems and bring back the giddy heights of "the American Century" is likely to be disappointed. What's far more critical is that they soften the landing -- that they respond to crises like people who give a damn and can think their way through tough issues. How good they are at that remains to be seen, but the Republicans have been nothing less than catastrophic.

One more hint on how the New Deal may come back is a 2004 book I hope to get to soon, by Obama advisor Cass Sunstein (better known recently for co-authoring Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness): The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution -- And Why We Need It More Than Ever.

Andrew Loenard: My Father's Vote. I didn't realize until this week that Andrew Leonard is the son of the late John Leonard. Short memoir piece here, the critical time being Obama's election. I first read John Leonard in my late teens, most likely on education, something I was interested in because I got so damn little of it growing up in Wichita. I always regarded him as a pillar of civilization.


Rumors, or maybe just arguments, are going around to the effect that Obama should keep Robert Gates around as Secretary of Defense. I suppose that would be like Richard Nixon keeping Clark Clifford because he didn't screw up as badly as Robert McNamara -- which, by the way, Nixon didn't do. Actually, that wasn't the first analogy that popped into my mind. First thing was that it would be like the Allies letting Albert Speer stay on to keep German industry afloat after WWII.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Music Week

Music: Current count 14907 [14885] rated (+22), 829 [837] unrated (-8). Just jazz this week. Rhapsody subscription has expired.


Jazz Prospecting (CG #18, Part 9)

First full week of Jazz Prospecting since I got back to Wichita. Most things are back to normal, although I've been laid up with various aches and pains, slowing things down, feeling so bad at the moment I have no specific ambitions for the next week. Still haven't started unpacking the trip music, nor have I gotten into the new arrivals since I left, so what follows is at least a month old, stuff that didn't seem interesting or urgent enough to pack.


Bruno Råberg: Lifelines (2007 [2008], Orbis Music, 2CD): I remember Christgau complaining about how much he hated the double listening required for 2-LP sets. Back in the day, they were rare, usually commemorating a group passing its peak and trying to slough off quantity for quality, as with the Beatles' "white album" and Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. The exceptions were few: Eric Clapton's Layla was propped up by an endless proven songbook; the Clash's London Calling was bursting with new ideas; and the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, and to a lesser extent Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything, made the quantity gambit work. Still, most of that list are currently available in single-CD packages, so the measure of excess these days is more inflated still. I mention this because I'm so snowed by these two discs I don't know what else to say. Råberg is a bassist, originally from Sweden, now based in Boston, teaching at Berklee. Has half-a-dozen records since 1992, mostly elegant postbop. This set of 22 originals (plus Miles Davis's "Nardis") is uniformly attractive, offering plenty of space for Chris Cheek (soprano/tenor sax) and Ben Monder (guitar), switching between two drummers (Ted Poor and Matt Wilson). Plenty of space for the bass as well, which is always interesting. In fact, there's much of interest here. Just a lot to sift through. B+(**)

Aaron Irwin: Blood and Thunder (2008, Fresh Sound New Talent): Alto saxophonist, has a previous FSNT album. This is a sextet, with Chris Cheek on tenor sax, Ben Monder on guitar, and Eliza Cho on violin. Postbop, almost orchestral, with the two saxes complementing each other nicely -- long, intricate stretches come off as quite lovely. B+(**)

Von Garcia: I Think a Think (2008, Sluggo's Goon Music): Hype sheet describes Sluggo's Goon Music as a collective as well as a label. Also describes Von Garcia as an "ambient noise rock project," led by James von Buelow (guitar, keyb, vocal) and Damon Trotta (bass, dobro, percussion, programming). Other vocals and instruments are listed -- guitarist Ben Monder, in for a solo feature, is the only one I recognize. More rock than jazz, but the vocals are tossed off on the side, the regular beat leans toward funk, and the guitars get to stretch out. I like it better without the vocals. B+(**)

Michael Higgins: The Moon and the Lady Dancing (2007 [2009], Michael Higgins Music): Guitarist. Cites Joe Pass, Joe Diorio, Barney Kessel, and others as influences. Second album, a trio with bassist Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum. Very pleasant record. B+(*) [Jan. 1]

Nina Simone: To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story (1957-93 [2008], RCA/Legacy, 3CD+DVD): Package is 5.25 inches high, 11.25 inches wide, no deeper than a jewel box -- a combination that fits on no known shelving. Starts with 3 Bethlehem tracks (1957), 8 Colpix (1959-64), 5 Phillips (1964-65); ends with 1 Elektra (1993), the balance inexpensively culled from RCA's catalog, including live takes of older hits: about the same shape as the 2-CD Anthology from 2003, just longer, with more marginal stuff. Simone was courageous politically, cautious romantically, sometimes brilliant, but more often her covers were only as deep as her voice -- songs like "Mr. Bojangles" come off as mere exercises. This hits the key points, and stays away from the dross which dominated her RCA catalog, but offers no surprises. Documentation is good. B+(**)

Carmen McRae: Live at the Flamingo Jazz Club London May 1961 (1961 [2008], Acrobat): Barely accompanied by Don Abney's piano trio, eleven standards from "I Could Write a Book" to "They Can't Take That Away From Me," including obvious stops like "Stardust" and "Body and Soul" and the local nod "A Foggy Day (in London Town)," given readings at once textbook proper and delectable. B+(*)

The Miles Davis All-Stars: Broadcast Sessions 1958-59 (1958-59 [2008], Acrobat): Ten tracks from four sessions, with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley missing one each, pianists ranging from Bill Evans to Red Garland to Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers on bass except for the cut Candido drops in on; no surprises, at least until Coltrane catches fire on the last cuts, reminiscent of Bird's Roosts. B+(**)

Dizzy Gillespie Big Band: Showtime at the Spotlite (1946 [2008], Uptown, 2CD): Diz came up in big bands and preferred them well into the 1950s, but this is mostly a historical curiosity, predating his Latin binge with Chano Pozo, with raw audio roughing up sometimes spectacular solos. Band members include Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke. Sarah Vaughan drops in for a cameo. Second disc tails off at 37:04. B

Charlie Parker: Washington D.C., 1948 (1948 [2008], Uptown): Easily the most extensively documented jazz musician in history, with a smattering of legendary studio recordings and a huge number of more/less bootleg-quality live tapes, some no more than the alto sax solos cut out from the performance. Aficionados devour them all. I've never quite seen the point: even when Parker is at his most inspired, he adds little to what we already know from crisper sounding and better supported studio work. This new discovery starts with a very ordinary 7:39 bebop exercise led by Ben Lary and Charlie Walp, then spruces the group up by adding Parker and Buddy Rich, who both make a world of difference. Later the group drops down to a quartet, running through "Ornithology" and "KoKo," then they finish with a "Dixieland vs. Bebop" joust with Tony Parenti, Wild Bill Davison, and Benny Morton on "C Jam Blues." Nice solos by Rich and Parenti, and the aficionados won't be disappointed with Bird. B+(*)

Chet Baker: Chet in Chicago (1986 [2008], Enja): With the Bradley Young Trio -- Young on piano, Larry Gray on bass, Rusty Jones on drums -- plus tenor saxophonist Ed Peterson on three cuts. The fifth volume of Enja's Chet Baker Legacy series, sweeping up the previously unreleased leftovers from a long and notable career. Sprightly piano, fine trumpet, and Baker whisking his way through his umpteenth "My Funny Valentine." B+(**)

Thelonious Monk: Thelonious Himself (1957 [2008], Riverside/Keepnews Collection): Solo piano, excepting one anomalous take of "Monk's Mood" with John Coltrane and Wilbur Ware. Covers like "April in Paris" and "A Ghost of a Chance" are carefully dissected to reveal odd tangents, but the process is so slow and painstaking it's hard maintain interest. B

Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961 [2008], Riverside/Keepnews Collection): Always a subtle pianist, sneaking about here as bassist Scott LaFaro frequently leads and drummer Paul Motian invents his off-centric drumming; LaFaro died in a car crash ten days later, his legendary status secured this weekend, which also yielded Waltz for Debby, this record's only rival for the highpoint of Evans' career. A

Erik Friedlander/Mike Sarin/Trevor Dunn: Broken Arm Trio (2008, Skipstone): All compositions by cellist Friedlander, so file it there. Dunn plays bass, Sarin drums. The cello is mostly plucked, more string band than chamber group. Light, loose, seductive music. Not sure how deep, but could grow on me even more. [B+(***)]

Jessica Molaskey: A Kiss to Build a Dream On (2008, Arbors): Singer, married to John Pizzarelli, who duets on two songs and plays some guitar; daughter-in-law to Bucky Pizzarelli, who plays even more guitar; also inlaw to bassist Martin Pizzarelli. Unrelated Aaron Weinstein plays fiddle; still very young, he's the obvious pick for anyone looking for the spirit of Messrs. Grappelli and Venuti. Cute songs, cute voice, plucky strings. B

Rebecca Kilgore/Dave Frishberg: Why Fight the Feeling? The Songs of Frank Loesser (2007 [2008], Arbors): Kilgore is the singer here; Frishberg accompanies on piano, but doesn't sing. Kilgore b. 1948 in Waltham, MA; moved to Portland, OR, where c. 1980 she started a career in swing standards. Has more than a dozen albums, plus dozens of side appearances, especially with John Sheridan's Dream Band. She recently sang Loesser on Harry Allen's Guys and Dolls. Nice voice, nothing idiosyncratic or forced, the sort of singer you can always enjoy, even with minimal accompaniment, such as here. B+(**)

Trygve Seim/Frode Haltli: Yeraz (2007 [2008], ECM): Norwegians: Seim plays soprano and tenor sax, Haltli accordion. Both have previous ECM albums -- Haltli's more folkloric, Seim a promising postbop musician. The instruments mesh nicely here, the sensibilities evening out. Title cut is Armenian traditional. Two thirds of the opener are credited to G.I. Gurdjieff. The one other cover is from Bob Marley. B+(**)

The Phil Norman Tentet: "Totally" Live at Catalina Jazz Club: In Memory of Bob Florence (2008, MAMA, 2CD): Recorded Jan. 15, 2008. Bob Florence, a big band arranger based in Los Angeles with numerous records on this label, died at age 76 on May 15, 2008. Don't know whether Florence was present here, or what the state of his health was at the time. He wrote and/or arranged several pieces here, but so did Kim Richmond and Scott Whitfield, who were also introduced. Tenor saxophonist Norman's group plays these pieces impeccably, including a sly "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and a lovely "Nature Boy." B+(**)

Fred Taylor Trio: Circling (2008, Fred Taylor Music): Drummer, b. 1954, Spokane, WA; worked in Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis; now based in NJ. Seems to have a fusion background, although this is postbop, with Rick Crane on bass, Bob Ackerman on alto sax, flute, and clarinet. Could just as well be Ackerman's record, especially given that he wrote most of the pieces -- Taylor's credits are arranging "Dear Old Stockholm" and his share of the group improv "Inventions I and II." B+(*)

Marshall Gilkes: Lost Words (2007 [2008], Alternate Side): Trombonist, b. 1978 in Maryland, father was "a musician in the Air Force" -- reminds me of the Robert Sherrill book, Military Justice Is to Justice as Military Music Is to Music -- based in Brooklyn; studied with Conrad Herwig and Wycliffe Gordon; plays with Maria Schneider and David Berger. Second album; wrote all the pieces. Quinet with Michael Rodriguez on trumpet/flugelhorn, Jon Cowherd on piano. Postbop, little bit of everything here, sounding promising then wandering off into something else, also sounding promising. B+(*)

Doug Hamilton: Jazz Band (2007 [2008], OA2): Toronto big band, together since 1993. Hamilton is a trombonist, but doesn't play in the band. Didn't find much on him: common name, lots of false leads. Hamilton and Mark Taylor produced. Taylor's background is "ex-U.S. Army chief arranger for the Army Blues." Ten members: three reeds, three brass, guitar, piano, bass, two drummers. Drummer Steve Fidyk is the only one I recognize. Jim Roberts' guitar stands out in the mix. Nice, professional job. B

Curtis Salgado: Clean Getaway (2008, Shanachie): B. 1954, Everett, WA; based in Portland, OR. Cover hypes him as "a true soul singer." I make him more as a blues singer, but he goes with the songs. Reportedly the inspiration for John Belushi's Blues Brothers. Sang in Robert Cray's band before Cray took over; later sang in Santana. Good singer, sometimes reminding you of better ones, like when he's doing their songs. B

Jo Lawry: I Want to Be Happy (2008, Fleurieu Music): Vocalist, from Australia, based in New York. First record, with Keith Sanz on guitar, James Shipp on vibes and marimba, Matt Clohesy on bass, Ferenc Nemeth on drums, extra piano and accordion, generally helpful. She works hard at personalizing standard songs, bending notes into odd shapes, slipping into scat. Some of my favorite songs here, struggling to peak through. I can't say that she ruins them, but the idiosyncrasies strike me as gratuitous. To pick one example, Tierney Sutton may not be a superior singer, but I much prefer her straightforward version of the title track. B-

Steve Shapiro/Pat Bergeson: Backward Compatible (2007 [2008], Apria): Shapiro plays vibes, and has a background as a producer. Bergeson plays guitar and harmonica. This is their third album together. The previous one, Low Standards, was a Jazz CG A-list item in 2005. Nashville Hot Clubber Annie Sellick sings most cuts. Two 1970s rock classics -- "Heart of Gold" and "Free Man in Paris" -- seem too indelibly attached to their originators, the bubbling vibes not all that apparent at first, but older, lower standard fare like "It Could Happen to You" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," works nicely, and the instrumental breaks swing so effortlessly they could support an album on their own. B+(***)

The Joe Gilman Trio: View So Tender: Wonder Revisited Volume Two (2004 [2007], Capri): Pianist, b. 1962, based in Sacramento, where he founded the Capital Jazz Project. Cut two volumes earlier of Dave Brubeck tunes, following that up here with Stevie Wonder. (Haven't heard Volume One, or the Brubecks.) Nice set of postbop piano jazz, only rarely dwelling on Wonder's themes, although I doubt that this would be anywhere near as melodic without Wonder's starting point. B+(**)

Steve Million: Remembering the Way Home (2007-08 [2008]. Origin): Pianist, based in Chicago since 1988, fifth album since 1995. Solo piano, elegant, thoughtful. B+(*)


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


Some corrections and further notes on recent prospecting:

Last week I incorrectly identified Jay Clayton as English. She was born in 1941 in Youngstown, Ohio; spent a little time in Europe, but has lived most of her life in the US, currently teaching at Vanderbilt. I thought I knew enough about her I didn't need to do the due dilligence. In fact, I've heard very little by her, mostly remembering the name from the Anglo-centric Penguin Guide, and confusing her with someone else -- probably Norma Winstone. Her new record, The Peace of Wild Things, is interesting and still in play.


For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.


Unpacking:

  • Arild Andersen: Live at Belleville (ECM): advance, Nov. 25
  • The Leonisa Ardizzone Quintet: The Scent of Bitter Almonds (Ardijenn Music): Jan. 6
  • Ran Blake: Driftwoods (Tomkins Square): advance cdr, Jan. 27
  • Dan Cavanagh's Jazz Emporium Big Band: Pulse (OA2)
  • Mark Colby: Reflections (Origin)
  • Cosmologic: Eyes in the Back of My Head (Cuneiform)
  • Greg Diamond: Dançando Com Ale (Chasm)
  • Clay Giberson: Spaceton's Approach (Origin)
  • Brad Goode: Polytonal Dance Party (Origin)
  • Tim Green & Trio Cambia: Change of Seasons (OA2)
  • Julia Hülsmann Trio: The End of a Summer (ECM): advance, Nov. 25
  • The Microscopic Septet: Lobster Leaps In (Cuneiform)
  • Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet: Tabligi (Cuneiform)
  • Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet: Infinity (Patois)

Purchases:

  • Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 (Columbia, 2CD)
  • Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It (Columbia)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Show of Money

Thomas L Friedman: Show Me the Money. President-elect Obama's getting lots of bad advice these days. The New York Times' star opinionist has nothing in his kit but bad advice, so it's not surprising that he'd use his soapbox to spread some around. Still, his column today is spectacularly stupid:

To all those Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, Russians, Iranians, Chinese, Indians, Africans and Latin Americans who are e-mailing their American friends about their joy at having "America back," now that Obama is in, I just have one thing to say: "Show me the money!"

Don't just show me the love. Don't just give me the smiles. Your love is fickle and, as I said, it will last about as long as the first Obama airstrike against an Al Qaeda position in Pakistan. No, no, no, show me the money. Show me that you are ready to be Obama stakeholders, not free-riders -- stakeholders in what will be expensive and difficult initiatives by the Obama administration to keep the world stable and free at a time when we have fewer resources.

There's an obvious contradiction here. What makes all those people all around the world so happy is the expectation that Obama will not continue Bush's arrogant, bellicose, and disastrous foreign policy, yet Friedman assumes that he will -- in particular, that he will keep up the sporadic bombing of Pakistan, which Friedman admits is bound to cause blowback. There's no reason why any nation unwilling to back Bush should back Obama doing the same. Indeed, if Obama gets stuck in the same policies, his worldwide popularity will wane too.

One thing that Obama needs to learn, if indeed he doesn't understand it yet, is that American imperialism is not in the best interests, let alone desirse, of the people who voted for him, and therefore is not a platform he can build a successful political career upon. This was a hard lesson for past Democratic presidents to learn, mostly because the propaganda against Communism had been so successful, partly because Clinton was so insecure viz. the military. Still, time and again, war has kept Democratic presidents from delivering on their promises, and as such has weakened their political position. This is even true for Roosevelt, easily the greatest of American war presidents, whose New Deal never delivered on two of his Four Freedoms because WWII got in the way.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Shining Lights

Uncle James weighs in on the election with a letter in the Wichita Eagle today:

What an amazing election. I never thought the day would come to this "righteous nation" when we would elect a person to be president and leader of our country who openly approves abortions and wants homosexuals to have the same rights and privileges as married couples. That a black man who the election shows the best of what the United States is, but the core beliefs he maintains show the worst of what we are -- that we are not that "shining light."

It is no less amazing for our state to have a Roman Catholic governor who supports President-elect Obama and, at least by implication, the same beliefs, and who is still apparently receiving Communion -- somewhere. I wonder what God thinks.

Thus goes the meltdown of the right-wing brain. Just think: if you could peel Obama's skin off and wrap it around McCain or Bush or Rush Limbaugh you'd get the best of all worlds. Of course, it would be easier for the Republicans to celebrate "the best of what the United States is" by nominating Alan Keyes, but somehow they didn't think of that in time. Even if they did, it's unlikely he would have been any more successful than he was running against Obama in Illinois in 2004. Then, as now, Obama won on issues, on the voters' willingness and confidence to trust him to better represent their interests and views. In particular, it shouldn't be surprising that Americans would elect someone who supports abortion rights, given that a majority of Americans do too.

The thing I find peculiar is how James singles out abortion rights and basic civil rights for homosexuals as "the worst of what we are." Way back when I was a Boy Scout, I thought that rights were the very essence of what America was about. The Declaration of Independence started with a declaration of rights. More rights were enshrined in the Constitution, forming a Bill of Rights that were placed high above the political winds of Congress and the Presidency. I've never been able to see how someone could claim to be an American patriot and not support those rights, let alone try to extend rights in reasonable cases the founding fathers didn't spell out explicitly. Yet, much to the nation's shame, we have a long history of trampling on our own rights, and no one has suffered worse in that history than Afro-Americans. After several decades of Republicans exploiting social fears for votes to back their oligarchy, and eight years where the Bush administration has ignored the constitution any time it seemed convenient, it's good to see the candidate who best stands up for our rights to win.

By the way, that "shining light" has always shined brighter in theory than in practice, and has dimmed in both respects lately, with two wars taking the greatest toll: the Vietnam conflict which showed the US as the last defender of colonialism and introduced such lovely locutions as "destroying the village to save it"; and the post-9/11 global tantrum, which spread far more terror than it ever sought to have controlled. One result is that our standard of living, once the envy of the world, has dimmed, torn apart by the growth of inequality, made less secure by governments controlled by special interests, by people whose commitment to the public is purely selfish.

It's possible to see Obama's election as a vote for restoring and extending our rights, and for reigniting that fabled "shining light." James can't see this, hence his mental breakdown.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Election Notes

FiveThirtyEight: I've followed this site for polling information over most of the campaign. Their slogan is "Electoral Projections Done Right." For the most part, they looked right, and backed it up with a surfeit of data and reasoned analysis. (They also didn't have any Flash I couldn't handle, an issue that knocked out several competitors.) Their final predictions were damn close: they said Obama would get 52.3 percent and McCain 46.2 percent; looks like both candidates did 0.1 percent better. Only state they got wrong was Indiana, which they had very narrowly for McCain and was barely won by Obama. Their biggest glitch was the Alaska senate race, but that still isn't over.

Andrew Gelman: Election 2008: what really happened. Some stats on the election results, including scatter plots of how Obama did in 2008 vs. Kerry in 2004. The upshot there is that with very few exceptions, Obama outperformed Kerry across the board. There's also a state map, but this county-by-county map is clearer. The shifts in AK/AZ (and the small shift in MA) can be attributed to homefield candidates. That leaves a swathe from eastern KY to southern OK (and bits of northern TX), plus LA, northern AL, and the FL panhandle, all places where Obama lost ground. There's a lot of talk about how the election proves that racial bias is history in the US, and there's something to be said for that, but this map suggests that there is still a sizable chunk of the South that hasn't got the message -- probably more than is evident, since areas with many black voters balanced out the white shift (e.g., Mississippi, except for its northeast corner, and southern Alabama). Obama got a slightly larger percentage of white voters natiowide, but not necessarily (or even likely) in the South.

Matthew Yglesias posted this version of the map:

His comment:

You can see why John McCain's principled stand against higher taxes on the wealthy would have a special resonance in this region. Liberals who thought race had something to do with those appeals should be ashamed of themselves.

The other thing to note is that the baseline here is 2004, when John Kerry (white catholic) already lost a lot of ground compared to 2000 (Al Gore, white baptist, from Tennessee). It's also possible that Arkansas is the last redoubt of Clinton PUMAs. One reason they may have not come around to Obama is that, unlike OH and PA, there never was a concerted Obama campaign in AR, not even in the primary. Ignored, overlooked, they never got the message, so fell back into their ignorant rut.

While Obama got a lot of crap for his "condescending" analysis of why poor (white) people from Appalachia through the Ozarks keep voting against their interests, he is at least aware of the problem, and is no doubt aware of the opportunity to flip those votes. All it should take is for government to actually do something to help out, as opposed to the Republican/Dixiecrat norm of trampling them at every opportunity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama's Challenge

One thing I hate about elections in America is the fixed term aspect, which gives you this sudden instant of democracy locked into arbitrary 2-, 4-, or 6-year time slices. If you miss that moment, or screw it up, you can be stuck hopless for interminable slices of time. Meanwhile, the lobbyists are at the real levers of power 24/7, and the politicians who pander for your vote one instant spend most of their lives in a world of naked influence peddling, where you aren't invited and certainly don't matter. This is the system that gave us eight years of George Bush and his Wrecking Crew -- a reference to the Thomas Frank book I'm halfway through -- based on two days of confusion and folly. It's a system that can be scoped and gamed. Bill Clinton was pretty good at that, and Bush was even better -- a tougher job given that he had nothing but destruction and despair to offer.

Barack Obama got a day of democracy yesterday. He's worked toward that end steadily for two years, putting together a neat package of hope and hard work, flattering America much more than recent performance merited. He could have drawn a much starker contrast against John McCain's platform of same economics and even more war, but he kept pulling his punches, emphasizing the positive, trusting that the voters had seen enough for themselves. In the end, enough had, but it was still much more of a squeaker than conditions warranted. Obama will enter office with a strong mandate, including large congressional majorities, behind his programs and person, but the Republicans managed to avoid a 1932 transformational collapse. They maintained party discipline in the so-called Red States, especially where they weren't seriously challenged by Obama's campaign. (McCain won by 16% here in Kansas, and the Republicans picked up a House seat. My impression is that voting was light and routine, even more so than in 2004, but it is possible that there was more advance voting this year.)

The result is that the Republicans are nowhere near as discredited as they deserve to be based on their performance -- not just under Bush and before him Newt Gingrich but going back as far as Reagan and Nixon. Still, on some level this is understood, at least by enough people to elect Obama: the proof is how little credence was given to this round of Republican smears and slanders. The point where conservatives can credibly address the center of the political spectrum has passed. Of course, we still hear much of them talking to themselves, working themselves up to a lather, fulminating like stuck pigs, but their righteous anger is increasingly wasted. Not only are fewer and fewer people recoiling at slurs like "liberal" or "socialist"; more and more folks are taking a liking to the idea.

The four years to come are never predictable based on the moment of election. This is not necessarily perfidy on the candidate's part, although that had a lot to do with Bush in 2000. It's because the future will be different from the past. Obama has lots of plans, but it's only a matter of time -- most likely short time -- before he gets blindsided by reality. That will be his test. Over the last few decades, American presidents haven't done well with such tests -- one even suspects that the political process selects for presidents who will prove inept. I recently read Robert Kuttner's Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, which argues that Obama has some distinctive traits which suggest he might rise to the challenges ahead, in ways that transform our understanding of what politics in America can do. I can't say that I find that implausible, but it does depend on his being able to transcend the limits of this campaign, on his ability to ask questions and probe deeper than the conventional wisdom, and on his confidence in leading the American people to places where they don't think they want to go.

The next four years will at least be interesting, both for their challenges and for the prospect that the president might respond to them in unexpected ways. That certainly has not been true of the last eight, where the conceptual and ideological limits of Bush and the Republicans have guaranteed one disaster after another.


Kuttner book quotes.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Tragedy and Farce

I caught Saturday Night Live's last pre-election opening sketch. I recognized Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, but couldn't make the actor playing her running mate. Damn good likeness, I thought. Turns out that it was John McCain parodying himself. The skit was mostly concerned with the candidates hawking campaign memorabilia. I don't know what McCain thought he was doing, but the obvious points were that he has so little self-esteem that he's just happy to be on TV, even to the point of admitting he's just a shill for other interests. My first reaction was to wonder why he'd allow himself to appear so unpresidential. I can't imagine Obama indulging that whim. Why, after all, would he have even run for president unless he took the office seriously?

Of course, the presidency is way overrated. Most days I wouldn't mind someone so exalted pricking those inflated pretensions. But the real problem here isn't that this exposes McCain as a buffoon, which is one of his least objectionable character traits. Last post, I likened him to a platter of shit with shards of glass. I suppose we could update that image by having him bury some rubber worms in the shit, then pluck one out and eat it. But how does making McCain even more surreal help his case, let alone make his supporters any more credible?

But the thing that bothers me the most about this is how completely a major party presidential candidate has surrendered to the sadistic delights of the media -- and SNL isn't even respectable media. People on both sides complain about media bias, but more disturbing is the way the media disciplines candidates to fit their own perverse notions of acceptable behavior. One of the most remarkable things about Obama is that he's managed to survive this gauntlet with his dignity intact. McCain hasn't, not that he ever had any. He built his whole career sucking up to the media, which treats him like a well-trained dog: sit, roll over, beg, play dead. That got him this far, so why not go all the way?

Still, were McCain to succeed George Bush, we would have moved from tragedy to farce in record time.


Paul Woodward comments:

John McCain's willingness to fight a dirty campaign has been taken as indicative of his ruthless determination to win, but to my eye that determination has never been clearly evident. The tactics he has employed seem to say less about his core drives than they do about the lack of imagination in those around him. [ . . . ] Look at McCain on Saturday Night Live. He is more at ease standing next to Tina Fey than he is with his actual running mate.


David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about McCain's 2000 campaign, way back when McCain's buffoonery was more amusing and seemingly more harmless. It was republished earlier this year as a standalone book, titled McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope. Shortly afterwards, Wallace committed suicide. I don't know that the two events were related, but it does weigh one's mind.

One thing that's weighed on my mind is an early-2001 quip in a letter to the editor of the Wichita Eagle that "we survived one George Bush; we can survive another." The author, a friend and an impeccably well-meaning person, has thankfully survived, but the list of people who haven't has grown steadily, including way too many people who were thoroughly appalled by what's come of our nation under George Bush. One of the most recent was Studs Terkel, whose books on the depression (Hard Times) and WWII ("The Good War") are models of how to come to grips with history.

Other personal losses range from Lucy Fishman to Kalman Tillem. We live today in a much poorer world.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Music Week

Music: Current count 14885 [14869] rated (+16), 837 [790] unrated (+47). Back in Wichita. Incoming mail catalogued. Working through jazz backlog. Not quite back to normal, but close.


Jazz Prospecting (CG #18, Part 8)

Got back to Wichita late Friday evening, after more than three weeks in Detroit. Spent those weeks working on a house there, which allowed me little time to listen, even less to write. Hence, Jazz Prospecting has been on hiatus. Always the optimist, I packed the most promising records to listen to on the trip, then didn't get to many. Don't have them unpacked yet, so they're still pending. So when I got back, I just started picking the stuff I didn't pack almost at random, which at least got me going. The backlog at this point is ridiculously vast, so there's plenty to choose from. Will do more dabbling, and more unpacking, this week. I did manage to catalog the mail that had piled up, adding about 60 records to the queue. Was very disappointed that the Anthony Braxton Mosaic Box wasn't waiting. It is the reissue event of the year/decade/century. If it doesn't arrive soon, I'll have to buy a copy -- even though I still have a pile of old Arista vinyl, I'm far from complete.

Still haven't returned to normal yet. My main computer is broke, and my first pass at fixing it failed, so I dropped it off at the shop, and they promised to take their bloody time getting around to it. (If true, my last visit there.) I'm slogging through on my old 1999-vintage Pentium III box, but can't risk much browsing on it. Still lots of things to do around the house. But at least some jazz prospecting has returned to the mix.


Lucía Pulido: Luna Menguante/Waning Moon (2006 [2008], Adventure Music): Hot-blooded, arch-voiced Colombian chanteuse, based in New York, all the better to pick up talent like bassist Stomu Takeishi, drummer Ted Poor, clarinetist/flautist Adam Kolker, and (uncredited on the cover) trombonist Rafi Malkiel. They make all the difference, although I may be overly wary of such emoting in a language I don't adequately understand. B+(*)

Karen Emerson: From the Depths (2007-08 [2008], Daring Kittens): Singer, first album. Has an arresting voice and interesting phrasing on bopwise material; less so on the Brazilian songs that make up nearly half of this -- presumably those recorded with Jovino Santos Neto. The problem is less that the two halves are at odds than that a handful of awkward spots gum up the works. Otherwise, she could develop into a striking vocalist. B

Jovino Santos Neto & Weber Iago: Live at Caramoor (2007 [2008], Adventure Music): Two Brazilian pianists square off for duets or competing solos. I've always preferred the upbeat, sometimes funky, Neto over the more meditative, often classical-aspiring, Iago, but I can't swear to who plays what here. Iago offers three originals; Neto one. The balance, aside from "Alone Together," are Brazilian standards, with Jobim twice. Special bonus is Joe Lovano's soprano sax on "Wave." B

Leonardo E.M. Cioglia: Contos (2007 [2008], Quizamba Music): Brazilian bassist, b. 1971, working in Brooklyn these days, with an interesting group: John Ellis (reeds), Mike Moreno (guitar), Stefon Harris (vibes, 4 cuts), Aaron Goldberg (piano), Antonio Sanchez (drums). Not much olde Brasil here; more like postbop, sly enough it escapes the usual traps of ornateness and/or retrovision. Ellis and Goldberg are more appealing than on their own records. (Harris too, of course.) [B+(***)]

Marco Granados: Music of Venezuela (2008, Soundbrush): Venezuelan flautist, fronting a group with cuatro, bass, and maracas, with occasional guests -- two tracks with Francisco Flores on trumpet raise the bar. Lively, bouncy stuff, played at bebop speeds -- reminds me of Sam Most more than of any Latins who come to mind, lighter and more bubbly than Dave Valentin. I like it about as much as I could imagine liking it. B

Judi Silvano: Cleome: Live Takes (2008, JSL): I think there's some market research that shows that people relate more readily to records with vocals than they do to instrumentals, and that in turn is one reason instrumental jazz remains so far out on the commercial fringe. I personally take the opposite view. I much prefer the clear sound of horns, especially when the lyrics don't signify much of anything -- and they never signify less than in scat, where the comparison to horns is most explicit. Of course, you could make scat worse by dispensing with the rhythm and letting the singer wander deaf and blind over the charts, which isn't that far removed from what Silvano does here. I find the vocal parts pretty much unlistenable here, which is a shame because the same music without vocals would easily sail into HM territory. I might even have cut them some slack, because it's not every day you get to hear the legendary George Garzone -- an especially nice touch, given that Silvano could have inexpensively featured husband Joe Lovano instead. The rhythm section is Michael Formanek on bass and Gerry Hemingway on drums, with John Lindberg slipping in on Silvano's two covers. Some remarkable patches here. If my initial reaction wasn't so visceral, I'd put it back and see what comes of it. B-

Ava Logan: So Many Stars (2006-07 [2008], Diva Vet Music): Standards singer, originally from DC, now based in Chicago. First album. Most female singers don't readily disclose their ages, so I'll risk a guess and say that she's in her 50s. Strong, attractive voice. Does a nice job on everything here, especially "Day In Day Out" and "Detour Ahead." Backed by piano trio plus guitar. No doubt she deserves a break, but probably won't get one. B

Jay Clayton: The Peace of Wild Things: Singing and Saying the Poets (2007 [2008], Sunnyside): English vocalist, enjoys a substantial reputation working well outside the mainstream, although I'm so far behind the learning curve I can't say much more. Dedicates this one to Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan. Doesn't sound much like either, but at least that gives you a sense of where she finds peers. Reminds me a bit of Laurie Anderson at her most austere, with minimal electronics and some dubbing of background vocals behind her spiel. [B+(**)]

Martin Taylor: Double Standards (2008, The Guitar Label): Taylor introduces this as "the first of a series of guitar duets that I plan to record over the next ten years." However, his duet partner this time is his self: double-tracked guitar work, sometimes settling into solo. The standards hold up, and he plays them with calm eloquence, reminding me of what I first found so attractive in his work. B+(**)

Chico Pinheiro & Anthony Wilson: Nova (2008, Goat Hill): Brazilian guitar record: Pinheiro is the effective leader, the band is mostly Brazilian, and the guest stars include Ivan Lins and Dori Caymmi, adding vocals that I don't deem much of a plus. Wilson adds a second guitar, mostly electric to Pinheiro's mostly acoustic. A couple of duet pieces are intimate and comfy. Group pieces with piano, bass, drums, percussion, and sometimes horns, are more ordinary. B

Danilo Perez & Claus Ogerman: Across the Crystal Sea (2008, Emarcy): Front cover lists Perez alone at top, followed by the title, then in faint light blue over white: "Arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman." Spine credits both Perez and Ogerman. All but two song credits belong to Ogerman, although most are "after a theme by" things crediting Hugo Distler, Jean Sibelius, Manuel de Falla, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Jules Massenet. Perez's piano is featured, of course, but awash in a sea of Ogerman strings -- the sort of thing I can rarely stand, but this is uncloying and exceptionally pretty. Might benefit from further listening, but might as well turn sour, so consider this grade a bit more tentative (and polite) than usual. B+(*)

Peter Delano: For Dewey (1996 [2008], Sunnyside): I remember reading a Joshua Redman blindfold test a few years back where he instantly exclaimed, "gee, doesn't pop sound great." Pop, of course, was Dewey Redman, and he had one of those sounds that didn't take a son to recognize. That was my first reaction to this previously unreleased 1996 album. Redman only plays on three (of eight) cuts: they jump out of the box, setting the frame so that Delano's piano trio cuts just seem like filler. They're more than that: first-rate postbop piano, intense, intricate, innovative. Of course, there's a lot of that elsewhere, and it never manages to sound as great as Dewey Redman's tenor sax. B+(***)

Todd Coolman: Perfect Strangers (2008, ArtistShare): Bassist, based in New York since 1978, teaches at Purchase College, has a couple of previous albums, a couple of books, a few dozen side credits going back at least to 1982. The Perfect Strangers are the composers: seven people I've never heard of who submitted pieces in response to Coolman's request. The musicians are better known: Eric Alexander (tenor sax), Brian Lynch (trumpet), Jim McNeely (piano), John Riley (drums). They make up a sparkling hard bop quintet, with Lynch standing out -- wonder if producer Jon Faddis favored him. B+(***)

John Stein: Encounter Point (2007 [2008], Whaling City Sound): Guitarist, originally from Kansas City, has a half-dozen albums. Quartet here, mostly funk licks over Koichi Sato's electric keyboard, with a little samba wedged in, not just to make drummer Zé Eduardo Nazario feel at home. B+(*)


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


For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.


Unpacking:

  • Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: We Are MTO (Mowoi)
  • Gene Bertoncini & Roni Ben-Hur: Smile (Jazz Foundation/Motéma)
  • Buena Vista Social Club: At Carnegie Hall (Nonesuch, 2CD)
  • The Blue Note 7: Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records (Blue Note): advance, Jan. 13
  • The John Bunch Trio: Plays the Music of Irving Berlin (Arbors)
  • John Burnett Swing Orchestra: West of State Street/East of Harlem (Delmark)
  • Ablaye Cissoko/Volker Goetze: Sira (Obliqsound)
  • Sean Conly: Re:Action (Clean Feed)
  • Jerry Costanzo: Destination Moon (Semi-Quaver Jazz)
  • KJ Dehnert: Dal Vivo a Umbria Jazz (Motema Music)
  • Delmark: 55 Years of Jazz (Delmark, CD+DVD)
  • Harris Eisenstadt: Guewel (Clean Feed)
  • John Escreet: Consequences (Positone)
  • Amina Figarova: Above the Clouds (Munich)
  • Fight the Big Bull: Dying Will Be Easy (Clean Feed)
  • Gilfema: Gilfema + 2 (ObliqSound)
  • Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band: Act Your Age (Immergent, CD+DVD)
  • Danny Green: With You in Mind (Alante): Jan. 6
  • Charlie Haden Family & Friends: Rambling Boy (Decca)
  • Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid: NYC (Domino): advance, Nov. 18
  • The Here & Now: Break of Day (OA2)
  • Hot Club de Norvege: Django Music (Hot Club)
  • In Former Times: Memorize the Sky (Clean Feed)
  • Jazz Arts Trio: Tribute (JRI): Nov. 17
  • Willi Johanns: Scattin' (TCB)
  • Jeff Johnson: Tall Stranger (Origin)
  • Bujo Kevin Jones & Tenth World: Live! (Motéma)
  • Barbara King: Perfect Timing (CCC Music Group)
  • Jon Larsen: The Jimi Carl Black Story (Zonic Entertainment/Hot Club)
  • Brad Leali-Claus Raible Quartet: D.A.'s Time (TCB)
  • The Peggy Lee Band: New Code (Drip Audio)
  • Daniel Levin Trio: Fuhuffah (Clean Feed)
  • Tony Malaby Cello Trio: Warblepeck (Songlines)
  • Jim McAuley: The Ultimate Frog (Drip Audio, 2CD)
  • Giovanni Moltoni: 3 (C#2 Productions)
  • Joe Morris/Barre Phillips: Elm City Duets (Clean Feed)
  • The New Jazz Composers Octet: The Turning Gate (Motema Music)
  • Fredrik Nordström Quintet: Live in Coimbra (Clean Feed)
  • Parliament/Funkadelic: The Mothership Connection Live 1976 (Shout! Factory, DVD)
  • Bucky Pizzarelli and Strings: So Hard to Forget (Arbors)
  • Benny Powell: Nextep (Origin)
  • Putumayo Presents: A Jazz and Blues Christmas (Putumayo World Music)
  • Ridd Quartet: Fiction Avalanche (Clean Feed)
  • Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 1 (Dual Doxy/Emarcy)
  • Angelica Sanchez: Life Between (Clean Feed)
  • Janine Santana: Soft as Granite (NiNi)
  • Boz Scaggs: Speak Low (Decca)
  • Andy Scherrer Special Sextet: Wrong Is Right (TCB)
  • Shakers n' Bakers: YFZ (Yearning for Zion) (Little I Music)
  • Lee Shaw Trio: Live in Graz (Arsits Recording Collective, CD+DVD)
  • Asaf Sirkis Trio: The Monk (SAM Productions)
  • Fred Taylor and Inquest: Processional (CCR-FT)
  • Tetterapadequ: And the Missing R (Clean Feed)
  • Townhouse Orchestra: Belle Ville (Clean Feed, 2CD)
  • The Warren Vaché-John Allred Quintet: Live: Jubilation (Arbors)
  • Peter Van Huffel/Sophie Tassignon: Hufflignon (Clean Feed)
  • Johnny Varro Swing 7: Ring Dem Bells (Arbors)
  • Mark Weinstein: Lua e Sol (Jazzheads)
  • Mort Weiss: All Too Soon (SMS Jazz)
  • The Stephane Wremble Trio: Gypsy Rumble (Amoeba)
  • Eli Yamin: You Can't Buy Swing (Yamin Music): advance

Purchases:

  • Chet Baker: Peace (1982, Enja)
  • Hamiet Bluiett: Blueback (2001, Justin Time)
  • John Coltrane: Ascension (1965, Impulse)
  • Bill Frisell: The Willies (2002, Nonesuch)
  • Dizzy Gillespie: Sittin' In (1957, Verve)
  • Phil Ranelin: Remixes (2002, Hefty)
  • Horace Silver: Song for My Father (1963-64, Blue Note)
  • Sally Timms: Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos (1999, Bloodshot)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Undecided?

Four years ago I wrote a rather desperate letter urging family and friends to deny George Bush a second term by casting a vote for John Kerry. Kerry was my least favorite of the initial batch of Democratic Party hopefuls, and didn't redeem himself much with his campaign, but the thought of Americans not being able to see their way through Bush was too pathetic and too horrifying to believe. I can't say that the letter had much effect. True, I only got a couple of dissents back, with Ralph Nader matching if not outpolling Bush. After the election I wrote a rather bitter analysis, titled America flunks Democracy 101. America is going to be tested again in a couple of days. We'll see whether people have learned anything from their extra four years studying Republican government.

I didn't write a similar letter this year. It's not that the choice is any less obvious or important this year. It's more like if America can't figure this out the problem is way beyond my influence. Come Tuesday, God will either bless or damn America, working through the bizarre thought processes of mostly ignorant and often careless voters. After all, who's undecided now? And how ignorant and careless can such people be? David Sedaris, in a New Yorker piece on "Undecided," put it this way:

Some insist that there's very little difference between candidate A and candidate B. Others claim that they're with A on defense and health care but are leaning toward B when it comes to the economy.

I look at these people and can't quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. "Can I interest you in the chicken?" she asks. "Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?"

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

I mean, really, what's to be confused about?

[ . . . ]

I wonder if, in the end, the undecideds aren't the biggest pessimists of all. Here they could order the airline chicken, but, then again, hmm. "Isn't that adding an extra step?" they ask themselves. "If it's all going to be chewed up and swallowed, why not cut the chase, and go with the platter of shit?"

Ah, though, that's where the broken glass comes in.

That about sums up the deal, and I can't even quibble that Sedaris is being a bit harsh. We could argue about the best way to cook that chicken, or whether we might be better off substituting rabbit, fish, or frog legs, but the alternative is still the platter of shit with glass shards. McCain comes into the election as a far worse candidate than Bush was in 2000. The chances that he'd get any better after the election are pretty slim. Like Bush, he's on his best behavior before the election, speaking in code to the base and confusion to everyone else. He had to sell whatever soul he had left -- and he's been to the crossroads so many times in the past you have to wonder what he could still have left to barter -- to get the nomination, which for all intents and purposes locks him in bed with the same crowd of liars, crooks, and fanatics Bush found and cultivated when he hit town. These are people who believe that small wars can't be lost, that markets are always optimal, that property owners never do wrong, that government should be drowned in some bathtub -- at least once they've managed to pick it clean for private gain and political booty. The outright costs of eight years of Bush rule have been staggering. The moral degradation due to watching the country run by these people cannot be computed. And then there's the opportunity costs: the time we've lost chasing the Global Snark Hunt on Terror while the country and possibly the whole climate went to hell in a handbasket. Eight years ago one could have predicted that everything Bush would do would have to be undone sooner or later. Now we not only have to dig our way out of that hole, it's all the more difficult on the downslope of peak oil, with several times as much debt, with half a generation more poorly educated than previous generations already in decline. McCain can't possibly help any of this. He can't even grasp his role in making it happen.

On the other hand, the biggest knock against Obama is that he seems too good to be true. There's a sizable upwelling of disbelief against him, for no better reason than that his predecessors turned out to be such liars. Why, after all, would he even run for president except to connive and defraud us? His other big problem is that his proposals are too tame, too meticulously balanced, too inoffensive, to measure up to the problems we now face (thanks to Republican leadership from Nixon through Reagan and the two Bushes, with inept assists from a couple of Dixiecrats, and the money that backed them up). I have my own doubts on just these counts, but they don't worry me so much -- nothing like the worry the last eight years have drawn out. Chicken may or may not be the answer, but it sure beats that platter of shit and glass shards. Anyone who can't see that needs to take a break and sit this one out.


PS: By the way, the two links above are to my pre-blog political website, Notes on Everyday Life. The name attempted to resuscitate, or at least honor, a new left rag that Kevin Dougherty, Harold Karabell, and Elias Vlanton founded in St. Louis around 1972. I joined up, working on it for two years; after which we scattered, I dropping into a period where I almost exclusively read rock criticism. The website collects various pieces I wrote starting with the 2000 election up to the point after the 2004 election when I started using the current blog format. It has largely laid dormant since then, succumbing to severe bit rot, which I finally cleaned up today. Worth checking out. Makes me think I'm entitled to a whole lot of told-you-so.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Recycled Goods (#58): October 2008

Posted Recycled Goods (#58), such as it is.


Oct 2008 Dec 2008