October 2009 Notebook
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Thursday, October 29, 2009

India's Secret History

Kapil Komireddi: Indian Winter: A little bit about the prospects of turning Alex von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire into a movie. I can't really see Hugh Grant in the role of Lord Louis Mountbatten, last viceroy and first governor-general of India -- Clive Owen maybe. Hard to improve on Cate Blanchett as Lady Mountbatten. Still, the bigger problem is that it will be all but impossible for a movie based on the principal characters not to compound the book's most serious weakness, which is that it makes so much history turn on the actions of a small number of larger-than-life figures: the Mountbattens, Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Churchill. The book tends to fall into the Great Man bag, even if the greatest figure on that list is the Lady. This approach isn't without its insights. In particular, the intense personal dislike between Louis Mountbatten and Jinnah seems to have preceded the prejudice that Mountbatten showed against Pakistan in dividing the empire. On the other hand, it reduces Pakistan to a personal delusion of Jinnah, as if there was nothing more behind it than the ambitions of one determined politician. And it leaves the eruptions of violence mostly unexplained, since they don't much figure into the actions or programs of the principal figures. I finished the book grateful for what I learned but with so many residual questions I wanted to read further.

The "secret history" has much to do with the Mountbattens, but remains rather discreet about Edwina's romance with Nehru. The movie, of course, even if they don't take liberties with the record will inevitably render the affair so explicit as to be undeniable -- and needless to say, the cash register bets that they will go further. And there's the rub. I've seen a dozen or more major movies about India over the last couple of decades, and all ultimately portrayed India in positively glowing terms. I hadn't realized that this is to some extent a consequence of the censorship rights the Indian government demands as part of the price to film there. Despite its much ballyhooed boast to be the world's largest democracy, India is tightly controlled by Nehru's direct heirs, who don't take kindly to publicizing Nehru's dalliance with a foreign woman -- something Nehru himself was very circumspect about. Komireddi does a good job of explaining how this works. Indeed, his notes on the proliferation of Nehru-Gandhi names reminds me of the Ronald Reagan sanctification project here.

For much more from the book, look here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Friends of Cadence

Got some spam from Cadence/North Country today where they announced they're setting up a "Friends of Cadence" program where overly flush donors can underwrite Cadence magazine subscriptions for unspecified but presumably worthy recipients. I subscribed to Cadence for many years, accumulating large boxes of them mostly unread, unorganized, and increasingly inaccessible. When they bumped the price up and cut the frequency down to quarterly my subscription lapsed. In fairness, the interviews are valuable, and the reviews are numerous even if few are reliable and most are only marginally readable -- they do at least provide lots of raw data for jazz prospecting. Sometimes I think I should break down and subscribe, but then I remember how difficult they've always been to do business with -- the only way I know of that works is the phone -- and let it slide. Last time I had such an inkling I offered to trade them a column for a subscription, but got turned down by Bob Rusch -- rather rudely, I thought, although it's hard to tell what he really meant to say. Cadence/North County used to be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in avant-garde or just plain out-of-the-mainstream jazz, but these days they can almost always be avoided. Their Cadence Jazz and CIMP labels used to be very productive (although CIMP insisted on some audiophile standard that was often hard to follow on my ordinary stereo equipment). I haven't gotten anything from them since the last time I renewed my sub, so I'm way out of date. (Rusch offered to send records for review in the Village Voice, which I can't guarantee. What I can assert is that if I don't hear them they won't make it to the Voice Jazz Consumer Guide.)

The links for the Friends of Cadence is here. Note: it's a PDF file, presumably so you can print it out and fax or snail mail in -- told you this wouldn't be easy. I have no idea how they plan on deciding who the recipients should be, but if you think it's worthwhile to support them in this way, I wouldn't mind getting back on their subscription list, and a subscription wouldn't be totally wasted on me. On the other hand, if I really thought it was worthwhile (and could figure out how) I'd subscribe to it myself. This really is an example of what economists call the principle of indifference: the price point where buying something promises so little in return that one no longer cares.

The sad thing is that Cadence's review and interview archives would actually be a nice thing to have up on the web, properly indexed and handily searchable. It would greatly add to the world's store of information on a lot of jazz that remains way under most folks' radar. You'd also think it would benefit companies that sell obscure jazz records, not least Cadence/North Country. It would also be a project that could legitimately attract contributors, because it would involve giving something back to the community. I've brought this up in the past, and even offered to work on it. Their response has always been that doing so wouldn't make them any money, which is true as far as it goes. I wouldn't bring this up except every now and then they make a pitch for help from their friends. They may even deserve it. But like everything else, they make it awfully difficult.


Legacy of Ashes

Dexter Filkins/Mark Mazzetti/James Risen: Brother of Afghan leader is said to be on CIA payroll: That would be Ahmed Wali Karzai, widely regarded as one of Afghanistan's heroin kingpins. The CIA's legacy in drug runners is so long and deep that the only surprise here is that it took eight years for the NY Times to add one plus one. Still, it's worth pointing out that this is not just a case of bad taste and corruption. Any organization that works clandestinely will soon find itself in the company of drug runners because those are the people who know how to move guns and money around without getting audited. Two simple fixes are obvious. One is to legalize the drug trade to bring the industry aboveboard and dry up the corruption that it feeds. The other is to abolish the CIA, at least the operations branch. The CIA got a new lease on life when Bush approved their scheme to go first into Afghanistan. They jumped in with suitcases full of money to hire warlords, renting the sort of allies who would sell their mothers for bags of cash -- not that they'd always deliver, as shown by the great Al Qaeda getaway. Now we see that the fatal flaw in the Afghan government is its endemic corruption. Well, guess who paved the way? The history of the CIA in the Global War on Terror years has yet to be written. Most likely it will turn into volume 2 of Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes.


Huge attacks today both in downtown Kabul and in Peshawar, helping to close out an October that has seen more US casualties than any month ever in Afghanistan. I'm not sure what to make of them strategically: it's almost like they're daring Obama to send more troops in, while at the same time proving that a retreat to protecting the cities will not work. But it does make you wonder: if the 20,000 extra troops that Obama already sent to Afghanistan have helped stabilize the country (as compared to some hypothetically worse scenario had Obama not sent those troops), the number it would take to make a practical difference must be astronomical. The other possibility is that the extra troops already sent have made the security situation worse (resulting in what we see today), and more will make it even worse. I think the latter, but that doesn't mean that fewer troops are a secret recipe for US success. It means acknowledging that we don't have the answer, and it starts to take us out of the equation. The conflict won't wind down until that happens. While the prospects are grim, failure sooner would be better.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Trekking Across Afghanistan

Jason Zengerle: Recessional: Rory Stewart gets a lot of credit for thinking outside the box on Afghanistan, but it may just be because his box is hard for us to conceive of. A Scotsman born 1973 in British Hong Kong, raised in Malaysia, he's one of the last of a breed, those born into the civil service of British imperialism, aware of the follies of empire yet unable to conceive of a world that doesn't need them. Stewart's book on walking across Afghanistan, The Places In Between, wasn't very deep, but was sympathetic and humble, watchwords of the latest fad in counterinsurgency -- talking like you understand and relate to the people, as opposed to the old fad of insisting that the people only understand force and you're going to shock and awe them into submission. Stewart offers profound doubts about the US mission in Afghanistan, yet urges us to muddle on -- just try to wreck a little less of the country, and don't expect to be thanked for the effort. Consider this quote:

Stewart's biggest bugbear is the doctrine of counterinsurgency, which he believes feeds maximalist visions. "I think counterinsurgency has become this very, very funny catchall," he complains. "One of the ways in which it operates ideologically is that it's very, very good at bringing on board humanitarians and academics, because it's always saying it's not just a military solution, or we need to do hearts and minds, we need to look at development, we ought to be cautious as to aerial bombardment. So you get this situation where it neutralizes a lot of criticism. It in fact incorporates an enormous number of people who, in previous interventions or theaters, have been quite critical of military operations."

It wasn't the humanitarians who got us into this war, but by getting involved in the cleanup they keep the war going. Stewart hasn't wised up to his own counsel: he's running for Parliament with an eye toward influencing UK policy in Afghanistan. You'd think he'd know better by now than to get wrapped upon such a hopeless operation, but as the scion of the British empire, he still feels compelled to civilise the world, so to speak.

Steve Coll: The Case for Humility in Afghanistan: He's right that humility is called for. But he hasn't internalized his lesson. He's still committed to further US intervention, despite a constant record of failure. It's pure arrogance to think that we hold all the answers, especially after proving that we don't have a clue to the questions. This attitude persists because no one involved can bear to admit that they just don't know, even when it's obvious all around.

George Packer: Why Rufus Phillips Matters: Packer nominates another Vietnam book for the Afghanistan analogy sweepstakes: Rufus Phillips: Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned (2008, Naval Institute Press). Phillips, a protege of Edward Lansdale, saw how the "strategic hamlet" program was already failing in 1963, and made an unusually candid report on this to President Kennedy. His book was written late enough that the author could draw analogies between Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Packer includes a long letter from Phillips that is even more explicit. Note that the book's introduction was written by Richard Holbrooke, who got his first big war break by working for Phillips in Vietnam. (Packer's long piece on Holbrooke, The Last Mission, is also online. I couldn't hack my way through the Vietnam jungle sections, but there's probably something of note in it. I figure it'll turn into a book, which despite the bad tastes of both author and subject will be worth reading, especially after Packer has had more time to reflect on how it all went so horribly wrong.)

Eric Margolis: America pulls strings in Afghan election: I don't know whether Margolis is in the ballpark or not, but this piece gives you a sense of how ignorant we are about Afghanistan, and correspondingly how flimsy the factual basis is that so many pundits and prognosticators are basing their convictions on. It is interesting, for instance, how utterly different the political systems we installed in Afghanistan and Iraq are: the former has a "strong" president and weak parliament, with no political party affiliations; the latter is a parliamentary system where party slates don't even have to disclose the candidate names. In other words, both systems are far removed from the systems in every functioning democracy in the world, so no wonder they don't come close to working. The idea of putting all your eggs in Karzai's basket seems particularly stupid now, but even Margolis seems to buy the notion that the top dog has to be Pashtun. The US, Bush least of all, just couldn't leave democracy to chance: the last thing they wanted was for the Afghans to elect a government that would tell us to take our war somewhere else, even if that would have been the best thing that could have happened. So here we are, with all Washington wanting (as Margolis puts it)to reprimand Karzai: "Bad puppet! Bad puppet!"

Stephen M Walt: High Cost, Low Odds: The warmongers are satisfied to greatly inflate the risks of giving up while ignoring the costs of staying in and implying that success is just a matter of sticking with it, although you have to suspect that anything that keeps the war going is success enough for them. That's certainly true of the right, which knows from years of practice that guns trump butter. But it's hard to get any war through a realistic cost-benefit analysis, and as Walt shows Afghanistan isn't even close. That's why even the generals are trying to cast themselves off as humanitarians these days, sensitive to the people they've routinely been bombing, sympathetic to their hopes for anything but peace, anxious to camouflage their war in haughty moral tones. That's why it's so important to sucker real humanitarians into their cause.

The Nation is accumulating a lot of links on Afghanistan. Most recently, Robert Dreyfus: Obama's Afghan Compromise? speculates that Obama will escalate part way (another 10,000-20,000 troops), something that won't cover his ass with McChrystal or even acknowledge the many people who voted for him to find a way out of Bush's wars.

Then there is Tom Hayden: Kilcullen's Long War, where Australian counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen relishes keeping the war going for another 100 years -- Zina Saunders' illustration (above) captures this nonsensical future. (For proof that this prospect isn't so far fetched, see Nick Turse: What the US Military Can't Do, which starts out by pointing out that US soldiers are still in the Philippines fighting Muslim separatists in a war the US originally joined by taking the Philippines as booty in the Spanish-American War back in 1898.) Kilcullen makes sense sometimes, as when he recognizes that guerrilla wars happen in response to foreign invasion. Still, he doesn't draw the obvious conclusion: don't invade and occupy other people's lands. He seeks control through "population-centric" schemes, but also through a program of carefully targeted murder such as the Phoenix operation in Vietnam, or McChrystal's feats in Iraq. At best, these schemes protract wars. But then that's pretty much all a counterinsurgency entrepreneur like Kilcullen can hope for.

Hayden points out how unpopular US efforts are, especially in Pakistan:

When faced with massive popular opposition, does the counterinsurgency model call for strategic retreat? Apparently not. Instead, the fallback military option is ratcheted up in hopes of either defeating the guerrillas or dissuading the accidental guerrillas from growing in number. That is why 95 percent of this year's budget for Afghanistan is still devoted to the military campaign, the exact opposite of the ratio that Kilcullen recommends as the best practice for counterinsurgency. Instead of pulling the plug, he favors soldiering on until the Taliban and Al Qaeda are defeated in the "hard fighting" and a decade of "nation building" can commence in the rubble. This is a faith-based doctrine if there ever was one.

That 95% figure should remind us that no matter how much apologists for the war talk the talk about population protection and rebuilding, the war is fundamentally a make-work project for the military and its domestic fan club, a piece of Keynesian stimulus meant both to feather the profits of the Complex and to goose up right-wing patriotic fervor. It is, however, wearing thin, in large part because the returns -- even on this cynical level -- are so paltry.

Paul Woodward: A letter from Afghanistan that every American should read: The letter in question is the resignation missive from Matthew P Hoh, formerly Senior Civilian Representative, Zabul Province, Afghanistan.

Eight years into war, no nation has ever known a more dedicated, well trained, experienced and disciplined military as the U.S. Armed Forces. I do not believe any military force has ever been tasked with such a complex, opaque and Sisyphean mission as the U.S. military has received in Afghanistan. [ . . . ] Our forces, devoted and faithful, have committed to conflict in an indefinite and unplanned manner that has become a cavalier, politically expedient and Pollyannaish misadventure. [ . . . ]

"We are spending ourselves into oblivion" a very talented and intelligent commander, one of America's best, briefs every visitor, staff delegation and senior officer. We are mortgaging our Nation's economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory.

That's as apt a note as any to close this post on.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Music Week

Music: Current count 15964 [15930] rated (+34), 777 [786] unrated (-9).

  • Gary Burton/Chick Corea: Crystal Silence (1972, ECM): Vibes/piano duo, really much more Corea's show than Burton's: Corea wrote 5 of 9 pieces, including the title track; Burton wrote none -- three come from Steve Swallow, one from Mike Gibbs. The vibes barely shadow the piano; you can think of this as a slightly more elegantly dressed up solo piano record. The pianist is sharp and tasteful. B+(**)
  • Gary Burton/Chick Corea: Duet (1978, ECM): The return match is still heavily weighted toward Corea, who writes all but two Steve Swallow songs, and plays dramatic leads, sometimes to heavy for my taste. Burton makes more of a contribution, and is more of a plus B
  • Chick Corea/Gary Burton: In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979 (1979, ECM, 2CD): The change in the pecking order most likely due to Corea's commercial ascendence after his Return to Forever group. It would, after all, strain credulity to suppose that Burton was demoted because this is the first of their duo albums where he holds up his own end. The songs, of course, are mostly Corea's, with 3 of 10 penned by Steve Swallow. B+(*)

Also added grades for remembered LPs from way back when:

  • Jan Steele/John Cage: Voices and Instruments (1976, Obscure): Stumbled across Christgau's CG of this, which sounds about right as far as I can recall. Eno produced and released this on his private label, which was an interesting source for marginal English avant-gardists. Steele doesn't seem to have done much else. (Cage, of course, is American, and rather famous.) B+


Jazz Prospecting (CG #22, Part 1)

Jazz Consumer Guide has been packed up and shipped to the Village Voice. Word is they'll publish it late November, maybe the 25th. Glad that's done. Just been playing a little bit from here and there, trying to focus a little bit on the end-of-month Recycled Goods, but also just to move some of the unplayed records so I don't fall too far behind. Main thing I didn't work on much was culling the surplus. That still involves unpacking July's travel cases. One thing I did find there was the Ersatzmusika CD. Not jazz, but good news can be hard to find, so I thought I'd slip it in.


Gary Burton/Chick Corea: Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79 (1972-79 [2009], ECM, 4CD): Hot on the heels of a 35th anniversary reunion tour documented as The New Crystal Silence, ECM repacks the original album along with two subsequent duet performances. I wish I could extoll the original as a legend, but vibes-piano duets offer a limited palette with similar dynamics -- at best (e.g., Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk) you get an intriguing solo piano record with a cloud of bright accents. Corea's piano is similarly dominant here, especially on the original album, which despite name order Burton's vibes add very little to. Six years later, Duet is thicker, with Corea more dramatic and Burton more frenzied -- often too much so. The following year's live album finds both players slipping into their comfort zones. Spread out over two discs (combined length 83:11) they are the most evenly matched and generally pleasing, although the piano on the first album makes a stronger impression. B+(*)

Tyshawn Sorey: Koan (2009, 482 Music): Drummer, b. 1980, has made a big impression everywhere he's played (mostly Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman groups). Second record; his first, That/Not, a double of his compositions including a lot of material he didn't play on, got a lot of critics poll support. This is a trio with Todd Neufeld on guitar and Thomas Morgan on bass (and sometimes guitar). Morgan's shown up on a few albums recently (Scott DuBois' Banshees is the best), but I don't recall running into Neufeld before. Hard to get much of a sense of Neufeld here: the pieces are slow, spare, fragmentary; too enigmatic to reveal much of a point, which given the Zen title may be the point. B+(**)

Komeda Project: Requiem (2009, WM): Komeda is Krzysztof Komeda (1931-69), a Polish pianist-composer who is mostly remembered here for his soundtrack work, especially for Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. He may also be recalled as the subject of Tomasz Stanko's Litania. He has a dozen or so albums out on obscure Polish labels. I was hugely impressed by the only one I've sprung for, Astigmatic (1965). Second album, after Crazy Girl in 2006. The group is a quintet. I figure Andrzej Winnicki as the leader: he plays piano and slips his own compositions into what's otherwise an all-Komeda program. Closely allied is saxophonist (tenor, soprano) Krzysztof Medyna. The two grew up in Poland but seem to be based in New York now, which makes it easier to recruit the supporting cast: Russ Johnson (trumpet, flugelhorn) is on both records; Scott Colley (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums) are new this time. The three-part "Night-time, Daytime Requiem" that leads off has a nasty habit of playing a motif then stopping with a collective squawk. Some pieces get a bit soundtracky, but there is also some powerfully orchestrated jazz here, including strong solos by Medyna and Johnson. [B+(**)]

Gary Peacock/Marc Copland: Insight (2005-07 [2009], Pirouet): Bass-piano duo, the bassist getting top billing most likely because he's more famous -- Keith Jarrett has something to do with that -- but also 13-years older and has a slight edge in writing credits. Although it also strikes me that the bass is more often than not in the lead, an interesting effect. B+(***)

Loren Stillman: Winter Fruits (2008 [2009], Pirouet): Alto saxophonist, b. 1980 in London, on his 9th album since 1998, a quartet with Nate Radley (guitar), Gary Versace (organ), and Ted Poor (drums; also writes 2 of 8 songs, the rest Stillman's). Likes the upper range of the horn, giving him a mostly sweet but sometimes tart tone. Few surprises here. B+(*)

Randy Brecker: Nostalgic Journey: Tykocin Jazz Suite/The Music of Wlodek Pawlik (2008 [2009], Summit): Pawlik is a Polish pianist, b. 1958. His website claims 18 albums starting from 1987. I'm not sure that AMG knows about any of them -- even a 1995 album called Turtles which featured Brecker. This one was cut in Bialystok with the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic conducted by Marcin Nalecz-Niesiolowski, Pawlik's piano trio, and the headline trumpet player. That doesn't sound like much promise, especially given how lousy Brecker's recent records have been (cf. Some Skunk Funk and Randy in Brasil), but this is quite a surprise. Pawlik's jazz suite emphasizes bebop rhythm, and the strings follow suit, shaping the background without spoiling it. Brecker's is the sole horn, just the right voice to cap it all off. I'm not sure that I believe it all yet. [A-]

Ted Kooshian's Standard Orbit Quartet: Underdog, and Other Stories . . . (2008 [2009], Summit): Pianist, b. 1961 in San Jose, CA; attended San Jose State; played on cruise ships; moved to New York in 1987. Third album since 2004; second under this group name, which aligns him with saxophonist Jeff Lederer, bassist Tom Hubbard, and either Warren Odze or Scott Neumann on drums. Most of the songs here are recognizable as TV or movie themes. "Underdog" was a cartoon show I recall from my youth, done with a Latin twist here, while "Sanford and Son" and "The Odd Couple" were sitcoms; "Popeye" goes back even further. Not sure where to place Raymond Scott and Duke Ellington, but Steely Dan's "Aja" is an outlier. While some of the themes are cartoonishly obvious, most of them amount to more than laughs. B+(**)

Quartet Offensive: Carnivore (2008 [2009], Quartet Offensive): Baltimore group, not a quartet -- five members, of whom three write; not especially offensive in any obvious sense; not even sure how carnivorous they are, although the bunny on the back cover looks nervous. The writers are Adam Hopkins (bass), Matt Frazăo (guitar, electronics), and Eric Trudel (tenor sax); the others are John Dierker (bass clarinet) and Nathan Ellman-Bell (drums). (OK, they were a quartet before Trudel joined). They like to play off rock riffs, although I wouldn't tag them as fusion. Just seems to be the way they're wired, a good example of a broader generational trend. B+(**)

Wayne Escoffery: Uptown (2008 [2009], Posi-Tone): Tenor saxophonist, b. 1975 in England, moved to Connecticut at age 11, studied with Jackie McLean. Fifth album. Has a big tone, impressive chops, tends to make conservative musical choices. (Labels: Nagel Heyer, Savant, now Posi-Tone.) This is an old-fashioned soul jazz configuration -- guitar (Avi Rothbard), organ (Gary Versace), and drums (Jason Brown) -- although no one here quite risks sounding old-fashioned. B+(*)

Beat Kaestli: Far From Home: A Tribute to European Song (2009, B+B): Vocalist, from Switzerland, based in New York since 1993, looks like his third album. Nine of 14 songs list Kaestli as co-writer; most likely he adds lyrics to others' songs. Album credits are confusing, although Gregoire Maret needs no introduction. Liner notes are by Jon Hendricks; not much help either. The European songs include Bizet and Weill and trad. The words are all in English. The singer is sauve and elegant, precise and stylish, something of a drag. B

Terry Waldo's Gutbucket Syncopators: The Ohio Theatre Concert (1974 [2009], Delmark): A trad jazz pianist, b. 1944 in Ohio, which has remained his stomping ground. Has close to 20 albums since 1970's Hot Jazz, Vol. 1, many on Stomp Off, which is a pretty consistent label for that sort of thing. This archival tape came from a concert originally intended to feature ragtime pianist Eubie Blake, who took ill and didn't show. The band then had to scramble around to fill in, reflected here in a rather scattershot set of points of interest. The middle section features Edith Wilson on seven songs -- billed here as "the third black woman to make phonograph records, recording for Columbia nearly a year and a half before Bessie Smith." She was 77 at this point (1896-1981), favoring Louis Armstrong's songbook -- all the way to "Black and Blue." Waldo sang one song earlier, the sly "How Could Red Riding Hood?" Toward the end there's a 3:16 piece of speechmaking, by a guy reminiscing about his long history as a ragtime/trad jazz fan. Turns out this is William Saxbe, an Ohio Republican politician who at the time was US Attorney General, appointed to restore some integrity to the post-Watergate White House. I remember Saxbe more as a dovish pro-civil rights Senator -- as I recall, he evenleaned toward marijuana decriminalization. They don't make Republicans like him any more. B+(**)

Keith Jarrett: Paris/London: Testament (2008 [2009], ECM, 3CD): Solo piano -- stop me if you've heard this one before. Jarrett had 20+ discs of solo piano out already, which I guess is what the world deserves for buying five million copies of The Köln Concert. The landmark album stands out for its roiling rhythmic energy, which is all the more compelling on a single CD than broken up on its original 3-sided LP. Beyond that I haven't found much to favor any solo Jarrett over any other -- 1999's The Melody at Night, With You and 2005's Radiance are typically fine -- although I was turned off by 2006's widely praised The Carnegie Hall Concert. This has elements of most of the recent ones. The Paris concert runs 69:23, filling the first disc. The next week's London concert ran longer, now split between the 49:32 second and 43:28 third discs. The latter turned out quite nice, maybe becuase he seemed to be winding down. He can't really crank it up like he used to, but he still finds interesting things to play. B+(**)

Kristina: Offshore Echoes (2009, Patois): Vocalist. No last name, not even on hype sheet or on her website (which, by the way, wasn't on hype sheet either). AMG lists 8 artists known solely as Kristina plus 38 Kristina Somethings plus one more with Kristina as a last name plus a Kristina & Laura, none of which look like likely matches. This one is from the Bay Area, home of the world's worst world music. Ten songs are labelled by country treatment rather than source, so you get "Cherokee" representing Cuba and Paul Simon for Jamaica. The band would prefer playing everything with a Cuban twist, except for the starchy strings representing USA ("Tenderly"). The credits laborously label the percussion instruments, then chalk the horns off as, well, horns. Voice is on the sweet side, and her jazz phrasing is average, but the songs leave a lot to be desired. Could use a corporate makeover -- she's certainly not going to become a Madonna, a Joyce, or even an Eldar. C+

Saltman Knowles: Yesterday's Man (2009 [2010], Pacific Coast Jazz): Bassist Mark Saltman, pianist William Knowles, based in DC, both write, 10 songs split 5-to-5. Third record together. Their songs have a nice tight feel to them, flowing easily, and they rotate various horns expertly, as well as employ a drummer and a soprano steel pan player. The point I keep sticking on is vocalist Lori Williams-Chisholm, who isn't bad (least of all in the good-bad sense) but always seems to be in the way. B- [Jan. 26]

Anna Estrada: Obsesión (2009, Feral Flight): Singer, from Bay Area, second album, mostly in Spanish (I think), with some Brazilian tunes slipped in, plus two in English done with nice samba beats. The latter two are inspired choices: "Nature Boy" and "Always Something There to Remind Me." Nice album cover art. B+(**)

Here Comes . . . the Nice Guy Trio(2009, Porto Franco): San Francisco group, first record together: Darren Johnston on trumpet, Rob Reich on accordion, Daniel Fabricant on bass. Johnston has a couple of good records out recently, including one in my latest JCG A-list, The Edge of the Forest. Reich is on Johnston's record too; also on Andrea Fultz's German Projekt. Don't know about Fabricant, but you can always use a bass player. Most recognizable song is "Fables of Faubus," which the accordion center gave an air of Kurt Weill. Half a dozen guests drop in for a cut or two, nothing that takes over but nice touches -- clarinet (Ben Goldberg), tabla, dumek, pedal steel. Nice guys. B+(***)

Phoenix Ensemble/Mark Lieb: Clarinet Quintets (2007-08 [2009], Innova): Lieb plays clarinet. The rest of the New York-based Phoenix Ensemble is a string quartet, with a couple of slots changing between the two sessions here. One session plays Morton Feldman's "Clarinet and String Quartet" (39:10). The other is Milton Babbitt's "Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet." Feldman's gentle repetition works nicely here. Babbitt unsurprisingly is somewhat dicier, with some squeak and discord. B+(**)

Gene Segal: Hypnotic (2009, Innova): Guitarist; born in Moscow, Russia; based in Brooklyn; first album. Mostly a trio with Sam Barsh on organ, Matt Kane on drums, running more toward funk than soul jazz. A couple cuts add some horns, which adds substantially to the groove -- Jonathan Powell's trumpet is most memorable. B+(*)

Mahala Rai Banda: Ghetto Blasters (2009, Asphalt Tango): Touted as "the Balkan equivalent of the Memphis Horns with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section," a rowdy Romanian brass band inching into the age of electronica. Like their analogues, they're at their best when they stick to time-tested verities, and crank up the volume and velocity until they become self-evident. B+(***)

Ersatzmusika: Songs Unrecantable (2009, Asphalt Tango): A group of six Russians based in Berlin, the most critical being keyboard-accordion player and singer Irina Doubrovskaja. The Russian lyrics have been translated into English by seventh wheel Thomas Cooper who sings two of them with as little voice as possible. Doubrovskaja as a speechy voice as well -- I've seen her likened to Marlene Dietrich, which at least give you a picture of the effect -- with an accent so heavy she turns the English words back into Russian pidgin. What's ersatz is the folk-rock with a cabaret twist. Group also has an earlier album, sans Cooper, called Voice Letter, which is even truer to the concept. [PS: I don't normally put any stock in a musician's MySpace friends list, even I was impressed by this group's combo: Moondog, Brian Eno, and Manu Chao. PPS: I think those are fan pages rather than artist pages.] A-


These are some even quicker notes based on downloading or streaming records. I don't have the packaging here, don't have the official hype, often don't have much information to go on. I have a couple of extra rules here: everything gets reviewed/graded in one shot (sometimes with a second play), even when I'm still guessing on a grade; the records go into my flush file (i.e., no Jazz CG entry, unless I make an exception for an obvious dud). If/when I get an actual copy I'll reconsider the record.

Ben Goldberg: Speech Communication (2009, Tzadik): Clarinetist, has 8 albums since 1992, plus three more by his New Klezmer Trio group (1990-2000). This is another trio, in Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series, so there's some suggestion that this is a New Klezmer Trio reunion -- drummer Kenny Wollesen is shared, bassist Greg Cohen is new. With all original tunes, doesn't sound very klezmerish, but isn't far removed either. Starts solo, but picks up nicely with bass and drums. The deep-sounding clarinet on a couple of pieces is a contra alto. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Guy Klucevsek: Dancing on the Volcano (2009, Tzadik): Accordion player, b. 1947, a major figure on the instrument since the late 1980s, covering a wide range of styles -- AMG lists his genre as Avant-Garde and his styles as including World Fusion, Klezmer, and European Folk. He's not a jazz musician in the bebop sense, but most other senses will do. Group is normally a quartet with Steve Elson (clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano sax), Pete Donovan (bass), and John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion); on a couple of tracks Alex Meixner's accordion replaces Elson. A couple of waltzes, some dancing, not a lot of volcano. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

David Taylor: Red Sea (2009, Tzadik): Taylor is billed as "one of the world's greatest virtuosos on the bass trombone." While most 16-18 player big bands have a bass bone alongside three standard ones, I've never heard of one touted as a virtuoso before. It's hard to tell here: the dominant vibe is slow and ugly, inspired by and borrowing from Cantor Pierre Pinchik. But Taylor gets help in that department: Scott Robinson is credited with nine instruments, mostly down deep as well -- bass sax, contrabass clarinet, contrabass sarrusophone, tenor rothophone, bass flute, like that, plus something called a treme-terra I can't find any info on. Some toy piano and other sounds, some vocals, a lot of Warren Smith percussion. Hard to figure but oddly intriguing. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

On Ka'a Davis: Djoukoujou! (2009, Tzadik): Guitarist, joined up with Sun Ra near the end of the latter's career, manages an unruly mob here, long on bass and percussion, with horn credits, like vocal credits, merely divided into "fronting" and "backing." Davis has another new record out this year, Seed of Djuke, which I picked as an HM. It had pretty much the same group, more vocals, a bit more generic funk. This is rougher, dirtier, like he's finally getting some mileage out of his Sun Ra channel. Especially vivid is a squeaky sax solo early on -- I figure it's probably Saco Yasuma. B+(***) [Rhapsody]


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


Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:

  • Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/The Partyka Brass Quintet: Carla's Christmas Carols (Watt)
  • Stefano Bollani Trio: Stone in the Water (ECM)
  • Lajos Dudas: Chamber Music Live (Pannon Classic)
  • Egberto Gismonti: Saudaçőes (ECM, 2CD)
  • The Hot Club of San Francisco: Cool Yule (Azica)
  • Anders Nilsson's Aorta Ensemble (Kopasetic)
  • NYNDK: The Hunting of the Snark (Jazzheads)
  • Edward Ratliff: Those Moments Before (Strudelmedia)
  • The Reese Project: Eastern Standard Time (In the Groove): Jan. 5
  • Robert Sadin: Art of Love: Music of Machaut (Deutsche Grammophon)
  • Ike Sturm: Jazzmass ([no label])

Plan B

Stephen Walt: Time to start working on Plan B:

Obama's election and speechifying has done a lot to repair America's image around the world -- at least in the short term -- in part because that image had nowhere to go but up. But as just about everyone commented when he got the Nobel Peace Prize last week, his foreign policy record to date is long on promises but short on tangible achievements. Indeed, odds are that the first term will end without his achieving any of his major foreign policy goals.

Walt follows this with a 6-point list, starting with Israel/Palestine. Obama's election signalled a new will in America to try to solve some problems in the Middle East, as opposed to his predecessor's favored tactic of dousing them with gasoline. Even before Obama took office, Israel responded to installing their No Team, a governmnent dedicated to never giving up an inch of ground especially if it might in turn result in a moment of peace. For Netanyahu that's not just a promise; that's a proven track record, as he set up the vastly popular Oslo Peace Process for a final takedown by his tag team buddy, Ariel Sharon. It's easy now to say that Obama never stood a chance in Netanyahu's ring, but that's mostly because Obama felt the political need to cede points on Hamas and Iran. But it's also because the one plank that Obama did attempt to walk -- the insistence on reining in Israel's West Bank settlement expansion -- was something of a sideshow, and not the fight that he should have fought.

It's true that the purpose of the settlements is to make any sort if Israeli withdrawal politically impossible. I can think of several ways to deal with the settlements problem, but the best way to deal with it now is to ignore it. If you look realistically at all of the land that ultimately should be turned into a Palestinian state, the settlements (especially the big, close ones) will be seen as the last parcels to be returned. The real question right now is whether any land can be turned over to the Palestinians. The fact is that there is a lot of land that can be turned over immediately, starting with the whole of Gaza. The position Obama should take is that every Palestinian is entitled to full, first-class citizenship, at least in the country where he or she currently lives. If that abode is in Israel or under Israeli control, then that citizenship must be citizenship in Israel. If Israel doesn't like that, Israel should renounce the territory, and turn it back to the UN so that it can be incorporated into an independent Palestinian state. That's a simple point, and it's hard to see how any American or European can disagree with it when stated in those terms.

There are a bunch of objections Israel will raise, basically revolving around an endless circle of security demands and final borders that have to be negotiated with a Palestinian responsible party that as far as Israel can tell doesn't exist. This is all bullshit, but Obama is going to have to make a couple of points clear to get past it. The first is that because there is no free and independent Palestine, there is no responsible Palestinian party that Israel can negotiate with. The only way that Israel can negotiate with anyone -- and such negotiations will be needed over borders, water rights, travel, extradition, all sorts of things -- Palestine must first be free and sovereign. If that isn't the case, then Palestine isn't free to negotiate, because they won't have the power and leverage to ever say no. It should be easy to explain this point, even though no one seems to get it yet.

The way this would work is that Israel would give up a parcel of land to the UN. The UN would then organize government institutions and elections to direct those institutions. That parcel and those institutions would constitute an initial Palestinian nation, which would be recognized as having the same rights and responsibilities as every other nation (including Israel). As time goes on, Israel may decide to give up further parcels, which the UN would then integrate into Palestine according to procedures that ensure that each citizen of Palestine has equal rights and representation. The resulting government could negotiate with Israel, or not. It could, for instance, assert that Israel should turn over more territory, including its illegal settlements. It could take such a case to the World Court. The main thing it could not do is to threaten or attack Israel -- a violation of international law. On the other hand, once Israel gives up parcels of land, they can no longer threaten or attack the nation representing the people living on that land.

There are some more bells and whistles that can be added to this scheme to help ensure that it would work, but the key is that Obama and any allies he can round up -- Europe should be more proactive on this -- have to insist that Israel moves to ensuring that everyone in the region has full and equal rights, whether within Israel or in two states. Israel has managed to make the whole problem insurmountable. But parts of the problem can be picked off and resolved simply. And once you do that with, say, Gaza, then you will have broken the logjam. Israel's central preoccupation ever since Ben-Gurion sent Golda Meir to negotiate Transjordan's stake in the West Bank with King Abdullah has been to prevent the Palestinians from ever having the legal status of a state. But all through history they've hardly ever put it in those terms. They've avoided the subject because deep down they've taken a position that is indefensible. If Obama wants to solve this problem he has to hit Israel at its weak spot, and that isn't the settlements; it's the denial of the most basic civil and human rights to millions of Palestinians.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Style Matters

I haven't had much to say about Israel lately. Part of this is "same old, same old": the Goldstone report merely confirmed the obvious about Israel's criminal siege of Gaza; the Obama focus on curtailing settlements has been inept and, I think, misses the point; on the other hand, Netanyahu's far right regime continues to make enemies and revulse friends, with Turkey an interesting example; and the Iran focus continues to be a distraction, which is exactly the way Netanyahu wanted to play Obama. But another part is that I've pretty much given up on what used to be my best source for intelligence on Israel, Mondoweiss, and that I blame on a website redesign that limits posts to 80-100 words after which you have to click to read further. The theory there most likely has to do with forcing page hits up, but in my case it's having the opposite effect.

One reason I mention this is that Salon has a redesign to make it look more like, well, a bunch of websites I don't recall because I never look at them -- Daily Beast, Huffington Post, stuff like that. The visual clutter on their home page is worse than the norm, but the thing that's most annoying is that they've propagated the design to their blogs. I've lately been keeping How the World Works, War Room, and Glenn Greenwald open in tabs, but their usefulness is declining: not only are the posts getting chopped up to force extra clicks, the number of active posts is being cut back (except for Greenwald).

I suppose advertising has something to do with this, but I don't see a lot of advertising on either site, and increasingly advertising only counts for something if you actually click it. But as likely as not the root cause is bureaucratic self-deception. The easy way to prove that a given site or feature is popular is hit counts, so they start to turn into a fetish. And like most arbitrary measures, if you can't beat 'em, scam 'em. Something like this happened at MSN to drive the redesign of Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide, breaking up a column that we normally run on one page at robertchristgau.com into more than a dozen separate clicks. (User guide hint: look for the Next links.) I have no idea whether that redesign resulted in more page hits, let alone whether more page hits were a good thing for the publisher. It certainly meant more work for everyone else.

The other driving force is likely to be the designer mafia, who need frequent redesigns for career practice. Sometimes I think I should put more effort into design than I do, but in the end I'd rather put the work into content. The design of robertchristgau.com hasn't changed since the prototype I threw together in an hour or two back in September 2001. It certainly could be improved, but I've never had a complaint from Christgau, who appreciates that it leaves the focus clearly on his writing, and doesn't feel compelled to change for change's sake. Don't recall when I put my current design in -- the blog dates back to Jan. 2005, at which point I adapted a somewhat older design that I had started using (and still haven't propagated throughout the whole website). In principle, I'm not opposed to putting some effort into website design. I just think it should enhance the content -- not bury it, nor substitute for it, which has been happening way too often.


Fragment:

While the proliferation of blogs has made it possible for anyone to express an opinion, it hasn't made it possible for more than a handful of extremely energetic, well connected individuals to get those opinions heard.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rough Guides to Afghanistan

Thomas L Markey/Jean-Claude Muller: Afghanistan seen through the Wakhan Corridor: One of the more perceptive background pieces about Afghanistan, focusing on an area that is mostly isolated from and unaffected by the US occupation, its Afghan face, and the Taliban resistance. A couple of good ideas here:

Afghanistan per se is a fictitious socio-political unit that, by and large, was engendered in the wake of the 19th century's Great Game; any resemblance to Iraq is real. As we see it, given the successes of the Wakhan Corridor and the GBAO, an effective solution to current woes would be to convert Afghanistan into a federation of largely autonomous "cantons" divided along ethno-linguistic lines (and even those of religious persuasion) and then encourage cross-border communication and cooperation between and among related groups; so, for example, between Tajiks on both sides of the Oxus River divide, between Belochis on both sides of the Afghan-Iran border, and so on.

We should also look for creative and novel non-military solutions such as replacing poppy cultivation with saffron cultivation (virtually economically equivalent crops), encouraging local handicraft co-operatives, whether operated by women or not (as has been successfully done in the GBAO), building rural schools along the lines of Greg Mortenson, engaging a variety of non-military players such as His Highness the Aga Khan in socio-political decision making, and so on. And we should largely absent ourselves to let Afghan diversity flourish once again. Going blindly down the same paths of militant aggression as did the Russians and British will surely once again end in ever greater disasters, even more so when we have so clearly failed at cultural understanding and linguistic communication.

Cantonization seems like an especially good idea for a country which has seen 30 straight years of what amounts to civil war between Kabul and the countryside. Even if some provinces reproduce those same problems on a smaller scale, that may still be an improvement. At least it provides many laboratories for developing democratic institutions on a more personal level. The GBAO the authors talk about is an autonomous region in neighboring Tajikistan which seems to have gotten its shit together after a nasty civil war there.

Of course, the cantons could turn into warlord fiefdoms, but it should be possible to bias them differently. One could start with a development bank that all outside resources would go through. The bank would have various guidelines to determine whether to invest or not, including transparent elections and justice systems, as well as basic standards of security. As it is now, a lot of money goes into Kabul but little goes out to where most Afghans live, and what does usually inefficiently follows the military around. Places like the Hazara regions get no support even though they are relatively secure, and could certainly use the help. Doing so would start to give Afghans a sense that constructive behavior will result in progress. As it stands, they have damn little reason to imagine such a thing.

Matthew Yglesias: The Great Gamble. Gregory Feifer's The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan provides numerous points showing that it isn't surprising that the US War in Afghanistan is as ill-fated, but as Yglesias points out, it also shows that the "all out" doesn't guarantee a Taliban triumph. The Soviet-backed Najibullah regime held on for three years after all Soviet military forces withdrew, and would likely have lasted longer with continued aid. Same thing seems likely if the US/NATO military forces, which are symbols of occupation and major irritants, went away. In some ways, the odds would be even better this time: Karzai's government should be widely viewed as more legitimate than Najibullah's; it certainly holds more territory; US military aid should be more effective than what the Soviets were able to provide; the present Taliban lacks international support, whereas the anti-Najibullah mujahideen was still backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US. The odds could be further improved further by making Karzai's government more democratic, responsible, and transparent -- perhaps by shipping Karzai out with the US troops. The argument that the US had to stay in order to prevent a Taliban takeover is certainly false.


Was thinking I'd find and comment on more Afghanistan pieces, but didn't find time. Thought it best to go ahead and post this.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reading Material

Matthew Yglesias: Reading Material: Some pushback on the Vietnam War analogies for and against General McChrystal's pleas for further troop level escalation in Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal reported that doves were reading Gordon Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster while hawks were touting Lewis Sorley's A Better War -- the titles themselves do a nice job of buttressing positions. The New York Times took this story seriously enough to have Goldstein and Sorley write opinion columns for last Sunday's "Week in Review" section. Yglesias doesn't link to the columns, which is just as well given that both were embarrassing rehashes. Whether the Vietnam War has any useful analogies depends a lot on the question you wish to ask. I can give you several points where there are similarities: both are about the same problematic size: too large and populous to easily subdue, especially given an overwhelmingly rural population and difficult terrain; neither was ever effectively governed by central authorities (unlike Iraq, for instance); both have long, multi-generational resistance forces, which can refer back to substantive victories, and both are well grounded ideologically as well as united by nationality; both have fought against a series of foreign invaders, of which the US is the latest and mightiest; but the US is also the furthest away, with few real interests in the region or real reasons to continue fighting (other than the self-esteem of its military and political elites); in both cases the US has attempted to put a local face on its forces, but that strategy has fared poorly because the quisling governments are seen by their people as foreign agents and by the US as corrupt and ineffective; both have borders that permit the resistance safe havens but which prove problematical to the US. That's a pretty hefty list. There are dissimilarities, but they pale in comparison. The Taliban, for instance, does not have anything approaching the depth of foreign support that the NLF had. The Taliban seems unlikely to break out of its ethnic stronghold, which makes it unlikely to overwhelm Afghanistan and impossible to overturn Pakistan. Those factors might offer more time for a more legitimate US-supported Afghan government to emerge, but the demand for such a government would have to come from the Afghan people and not be obstructed by the US and its perception of self-interests (killing Al Qaeda, disrupting the drug trade). On the other hand, most of these points look like sure losers for the US, and many of them get tougher the more the US tries to fight them. (For comparison, recall that the US went from 20,000 advisers to 600,000 troops in a couple of years, during which if anything the US lost ground. The main effect of that escalation was to Americanize the war, making it a colonialist war, further uniting the resistance, discrediting and therefore weakening the puppet government.)

Still, the dispute isn't really about whether the Afghanistan and Vietnam Wars are analogous. More important is what lessons, if any, we learned from Vietnam. There are those, especially on the Republican (neoconservative) right, who maintain that the Vietnam War was lost not on the battlefield but at home when a traitorous Congress pulled the plug on the efforts of freedom fighters. Sorley's book gives such people comfort, but only as long as they ignore the real reasons why the US lost. Goldstein's book offers just such a reason: we lost because the Vietnamese refused to give up. That was true in 1965 when McGeorge Bundy was misadvising President Johnson. That was no less true in 1973 when Nixon pulled the last US troops out. The rump regime in Saigon held on two more years. With more aid they might have held on longer, but no amount of aid would have convinced the Vietnamese to give up their struggle. As long as the Vietnamese keep fighting, Sorley's "victories" add up to bupkiss.

There's no reason to think that the Taliban will knuckle under to US force any more readily. Their senior commanders have survived various onslaughts for more than 30 years now. They will fight on until they win, or die, or make peace with an Afghan government that is not under some foreign thumb. The irony here is that if you're actually committed to Afghanistan -- which, by the way, the American people aren't, no matter what the political pundits and military elites think -- the only way to salvage anything is to unwind the military adventure while encouraging a legitimate Afghan democracy as a forum where Taliban partisans can participate without bullets or bombs. Unwinding the military presence is necessary because the US military inevitably does two poisonous things: one is it kills and injures a lot of people that many-to-all Afghans regard as innocent; the other is that it makes Afghans feel that their government is powerless, owing its existence and allegiance not to the people but to the occupiers. So the US is left with a conundrum here: the military has to go, but there is no guarantee that the Afghans will step up to the task of running a legitimate government. In fact, they have no experience whatsoever at doing so. (Certainly not back as far as Zahir Shah, whose monarchy was what you might call "normally corrupt.")

Basically, the US has three options at this point. One is to keep fighting more or less the way we've been fighting, defining this as an American war against Afghans (and the occasional stray Arab mujahideen), in which case we'll get more or less what we've been getting. Another is to try to salvage a peaceable Afghanistan by freeing it from our military and political yoke, channeling as much help as is prudent through the UN under complete direction of a democratic republic of Afghanistan. The third is to recognize how little Afghanistan really matters to most Americans and pull out completely. The first and third are basically the two sides of the Vietnam War coin: we fight and fight and fight until we are exhausted, then we duck out and never look back. Both options are based on the self-obsessed sense of national interests we for the most part pride ourselves in. We fight for our interests, and when our interests aren't worth the fight, we quit. The middle road, on the other hand, runs against all of our instincts. It involves giving up the conviction that if we want something bad enough we can get it. In other words, it says, first we must give up control. Then we have to behave honorably, responsibly, generously. We have to help Afghanistan when they want our help, in ways they want, with no strings attached, nothing for us in return. One way to do this might be to enter a plea bargain in the World Court, where we accept blame and fines of billions of dollars for the damage we have caused in Afghanistan. We might also encourge several other nations who also have reason to feel guilty to do the same: a few names that come readily to mind are Britain, Russia, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran. Put this money in an escrow account to be drawn by a legitimately elected and reputable Afghan government as needed.

One blessing here is that it would finally break the Vietnam analogy. Kissinger never attempted to negotiate any sort of peace and reconciliation and redevelopment in Vietnam. All he sought was a face-saving way to extricate US troops from a war that had gone on too long and cost too much, and he did so in the worst way imaginable -- much as he and Nixon had protracted the war. The one thing they steadfastly refused to do was to surrender any measure of legitimacy to communism. If he had cared one whit about the Vietnamese, he would have attempted to negotiate some kind of amnesty so that US collaborators could stay safe in their homes in Vietnam. Instead, he consigned them to reeducation camps, to boats, and to exile, just to preserve the maxim of "better dead than red." Same thing for the negotiations that led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, ensuring decades of civil war including the rise of the Taliban.

If you want to bone up on a Vietnam book, you could do worse than check out Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things. He has a fairly long section on the various arguments over whether the US could or could not have won the war if the political will had held up. But other details are just as telling. Bissell takes his father, a Marine in the late 1960s, to Vietnam, where he asks him "how the hell did you guys manage to lose?":

"Funny," my father said, looking away. "I was just thinking about that myself. What can I tell you? When I was here I was always under the impression we were winning. In the end, I just don't know what happened. There was a lot of death, a lot of disillusionment. I think half a million Marines in total came through Vietnam. Thirteen thousand of them were killed, and ninety thousand, I believe, were wounded. That's one in five -- a higher casualty rate than what the Marines suffered during World War II. Think about that. We had a lot of advantages -- that's certainly true. But this wasn't our country. We were a long way from home."

Or this little bit of military wisdom:

"The first quality of a soldier," according to Napoléon, "is constancy in enduring fatigue and hardship. Courage is only the second. Poverty, privation and want are the school of good soldiers." How would Napoleon have felt about the forty ice-cream factories built for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam? The 340 pounds of supplies every soldier used up each day? The 10 million field rations eaten and 80,000 tons of ammunition used a month? The mountains of Coca-Cola and Pepsi on ice at every U.S. base? The shrimp cocktails and fresh strawberries?

This contrast is at least as true in Afghanistan. But it has to be like that, otherwise no Americans would sign up for this fight. Still, those who do know they'll wind up going home eventually -- possibly dead, maybe maimed, but most likely alive. The Afghans (and not just the Taliban) know this too: just as the short-term soldiers will go home, sooner or later all Americans will leave. The only reason we're in Afghanistan is to satisfy our arrogant delusions, and sooner or later they will give way. Maybe not the arrogance or the delusions, but certainly the sense of satisfaction. You can see that waning already, which is why the warmongers are so feverishly pressing Obama to keep digging in deeper. Still, when they start parading arguments like "had we only tried a bit harder we could have won in Vietnam" you can be sure they're running out of ammo.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Music Week

Music: Current count 15930 [15912] rated (+18), 786 [787] unrated (-1). Short rated count. Spent most of the week trying to finish off Jazz CG. Done now, except for some paperwork. Looking forward to some freedom.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #21, Part 10)

As promised, or at least hoped, last week, my 21st Jazz Consumer Guide column is complete. I still need to make an edit pass before handing it in, and I have some paperwork to do moving forward. I'll take the next week or two knocking the surplus down. (Done file currently numbers 76, which actually isn't huge historically.) I came into this round with nearly a column's worth of material left over, and leave it even further backlogged. The current draft has 45 albums (14 main reviews, 28 HM, 3 duds), 1683 words. Leftover has 54 albums (14 main reviews, 39 HM, 1 dud), 1709 words. Would be a big help if the Voice would run a followup column in quick succession. Otherwise I just keep slipping further behind, even when I do things like sneak A- records into the Honorable Mentions list (6 this time, probably a record; 6 more in leftover). This column has more 2009 releases than ever (21), but they are still slightly short of a majority (18 from 2008 and 6 from 2007). The final Jazz Prospecting file is here. The prospect count came to 224 records, the lowest total I have handy numbers for (the last six columns) but only down 2 from last time. The relatively short period, plus a couple of breaks, are to blame. The fall off would have been greater had I not sampled a couple dozen records on Rhapsody -- still an idiosyncratic and very limited source for jazz, by the way. (Or the count could have been much higher had I counted the Verve Originals I listened to for Recycled Goods but didn't report here.) The pending queue is currently at 184 (including a couple dozen records I've at least played and sometimes first-pass prospected), so I've been remiss there.

No idea when this will run -- hopefully by end of November. After a couple of relatively mainstream columns, this one is significantly more avant-garde than usual. I sort of like to cluster related albums together, and several of them came due this time (much like Satoko Fujii's 6-album run last time). The two pick hits are A- records -- probably the most difficult things I've picked thus far. Overall I'm getting plenty of low A- records but very few I can get really excited about. Don't know whether that's objective or subjective. Guess I need to do some more prospecting.


Ari Roland: New Songs (2009, Smalls): Bassist, says here that he's been playing every week with Chris Byars and Sacha Perry for 22 years now. I figure that makes him 15 when he started that gig. Byars, a saxophonist who mostly plays alto here but tenor elsewhere, and Perry, a pianist, are two years older. Quartet is filled out by drummer Keith Balla. Tight group, trying to find new angles on old bebop and mostly succeeding. B+(**)

Barney McAll: Flashbacks (2009, Extra Celestial Arts): Australian pianist, b. 1966, moved to New York in 1997, fifth album since 1996 (or sixth since 2001, depending on your source). Plays keyboards and something called a Chucky here. Musicians come and go, but most tracks include Jay Rodriguez (tenor sax), Josh Roseman (trombone), Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Drew Gress (bass), Obed Calvaire (drums), with Pedrito Martinez (bata drums, percussion) on half. That's quite a lot of fire power, with Rosenwinkel's guitar especially prominent. Quiet spots featuring piano are quite nice; the louder runs powerful. Maybe a bit too rich for my taste, but impressive postbop. B+(**)

Mika Pohjola: Northern Sunrise (2008 [2009], Blue Music Group): Finnish pianist, b. 1972, studied in Boston, settled in New York. Has a long list of records since 1996 -- AMG lists 7 for 2009 alone, but this is the only one I've heard. Postbop quintet, with Steve Wilson ("saxophones"; presumably alto and soprano), Ben Monder (guitar), Massimo Biolcati (bass), and Mark Ferber (drums). A wide range of stuff, including a bit of Grieg, some Ellington channeled through Mingus, some bop, some fusion, some pastorale. B+(*)

Dan Aran: Breathing (2009, Smalls): Israeli drummer, b. 1977, based in New York. First record, another postbop thing with a broad range of nice moves -- a slow take of "I Concentrate on You" with a long piano intro followed by gentle horns is particularly lovely. Uses various combinations of Avishai Cohen (trumpet), Eli Degibri (tenor sax), Jonathan Voltzok (trombone), Art Hirahara or Uri Sharlin (piano), Matt Brewer or Tal Ronen (bass), as well as a couple of others -- Gilli Sharett's bassoon is the aforementioned horn on "I Concentrate on You." B+(**)

Roberta Gambarini: So in Love (2008 [2009], Emarcy): Italian singer, moved to US in 1998, with three albums albums since 2006; touchy about her age but has an album on Splasc(h) from 1991. I missed her first album, heard the second on Rhapsody way after the fact, and only got this lousy promo after the June release. She has a remarkable voice which sounds serious and unmannered on even the plainest ballad, but she can also scat and bite into vocalese. Side credits include James Moody on tenor sax, Roy Hargrove on trumpet and flugelhorn, a bunch of piano-bass-drums players. Song selection seems a problem here: "Crazy" and "That Old Black Magic" remind me of other, better versions. Promo ends strong with her words on top of a Johnny Griffin riff, but the final release fades away with a medley from "Cinema Paradiso" and "Over the Rainbow." B+(*) [advance]

Chris Potter Underground: Ultrahang (2009, ArtistShare): After years of complaining about Potter's postbop moves, he blew me away with two live Village Vanguard albums and impressed me nearly as much with Underground, a bass-less group powered by Craig Taborn's Fender Rhodes and Adam Rogers' guitar. These are contexts where he can loosen up and blow, as he does here. (Nate Smith squares off the quartet on drums.) Electrified, he quickens the pace and pumps up the volume. B+(***)

Ben Neill: Night Science (2009, Thirsty Ear): Trumpeter, b. 1957, has ten or more records since 1991. AMG classifies him under Avant-Garde Music, but the genres are pure electronica: trance, ambient, jungle/drum 'n' bass. This is the first I've heard, a set where he evidently multitracks and mixes everything himself, using programmed beats, electronics, and a contraption he calls the mutantrumpet: looks like a trumpet with three bells (one muted), some extra valves, and a PC board to control multiple MIDI channels and interface to a computer. The result sounds a lot like Nils Petter Molvaer, a wee bit cooler because there is no pretense of living in the jazz moment. B+(**)

Jessica Williams: The Art of the Piano (2009, Origin): Pianist, b. 1948, has a long list of albums including a large subset of solo piano, which this adds to. Wrote 6 of 8 originals, adding one each by Coltrane and Satie. Writes a lot about Glenn Gould in the liner notes. I've sampled her here and there; always been impressed and pleased, rarely had much to say. B+(**)

Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls: Seize the Time (2008 [2009], Naim): Chicago drummer, formed his Rebel Souls group in 1996, with a number of Chicago notables passing through. Likes political themes, although most are no more obvious or in the way than his Mingus pick, "Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi U.S.A." Pieces from Miriam Makeba, Caetano Veloso, and the Clash are done with great care. Group now is a quintet, with two saxes (Geof Bradfield and Greg Ward), guitar (Dave Miller), and bass (Jake Vinsel). B+(***)

Bug: The Gadfly (2008 [2009], Origin): Quintet, principally the work of brothers Jeff and James Miley (guitar and piano/rhodes, respectively), with Peter Epstein a token horn on alto sax. Postbop, further indication of how the guitar has pushed the trumpet out of jazz's standard quintet configuration. B+(*)

George Benson: Songs and Stories (2009, Concord/Monster Music): Listenable enough for a while, as long as he keeps his soft soul personable, but by the end Marcus Miller's programming gets the best of him. Not sure whether Lamont Dozier's "Living in High Definition" is intended as funk, samba, or disco, but it fails on all three counts. C+

Carlos Franzetti: Mambo Tango (2009, Sunnyside): Argentine pianist, b. 1948, has a dozen or so albums since 1993. This one is solo piano, three originals including the title cut, plus standards ending with Bill Evans and Duke Ellington. Does very little for me one way or the other -- a victim, no doubt, of casual listening, a bad habit I expect superior records to kick me out of. This one is merely very nice. B

Eldar: Virtue (2008 [2009], Masterworks Jazz): Russian whiz kid, b. 1987 in Kirgizstan; not sure when he moved to US, but he lived in Kansas City for a while before landing in New York. Eight record since 2001; first since turning 21. He's a powerhouse pianist; likes to jam thick chords together at oblique angles, but it still strikes me that his models are classical like Rachmaninoff rather than jazz, like Tatum or Taylor. Mostly trio, with extra sax on four tracks -- Joshua Redman on one, Felipe Lamoglia on three, with Nicholas Payton chiming in on one of those. The horns are put to good use on "Long Passage," the one cut written by bassist Armando Gola, where Eldar switches to electric. Follows that up with a soft touch ballad that is quite nice. I tend to be real skeptical of prodigy claims, but this is the third album I've heard, and they've been improving. He should turn out OK. B+(**)

Robert Glasper: Double Booked (2009, Blue Note): He got a huge PR boost in signing with Blue Note, whose previous discoveries had included Jason Moran and Bill Charlap. Certainly attractive is the idea of a young whiz who can incorporate hip-hop influences into the jazz lexicon. However, he's yet to deliver the goods. Here he keeps his two sides separate. The first half trio tracks show him making nice progress as a postbop pianist. Nothing really stands out, but it all comes off as fundamentally sound. Second half is his Robert Glasper Experiment, where he plays more electric piano, adds Casey Benjamin on sax and vocoder, and works in some turntables and voices and -- well, I don't have the details. Benjamin's sax charge carries one piece, but other experiments, as can happen, turn into stink bombs. I think Bilal is involved in one of the worst. B-

Eyal Maoz's Edom: Hope and Destruction (2009, Tzadik): Guitarist, born in Israel, based in New York. Has a previous Tzadik record called Edom, elevated here to band name despite a couple of personnel changes, and a new duo with Asaf Sirkis, Elementary Dialogues (Ayler). This is a quartet with Brian Marsella on keybs, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on bass (pictured electric), and Yuval Lion on drums. Fusion, more than halfway to prog rock, what "radical Jewish culture" there is largely washed out -- "Two" is a partial exception. B+(*) [advance]

Anouar Brahem: The Astounding Eyes of Rita (2008 [2009], ECM): Oud player, from Tunisia, b. 1957, eighth album since 1991, all on ECM. He's generally struck me as the milder, blander alternative to Lebanese oudist Rabih Abou-Khalil, but he's settled into such a seductive groove here one can hardly complain. Group is a quartet with Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet, Björn Meyer on bass, and Khaled Yassine on percussion (darbouka and bendir). The bass clarinet adds depth without standing out on its own. Album is dedicated to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose poem "Rita and the Rifle" is featured in the booklet. B+(***)

Luis Bonilla: I Talking Now! (2008 [2009], NJCO/Planet Arts): Trombonist, b. 1965 in Los Angeles, has a couple of previous albums on Candid (1992 and 2000), a lot of side credits -- mostly Latin groups, but also Lester Bowie, Gerry Mulligan, Matt Catingub, Toshiko Akiyoshi, George Gruntz, Gerald Wilson, Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy. Quintet, with Ivan Renta on sax, Arturo O'Farrill on piano, Andy McKee on bass, John Riley on drums. Some of this gets into the radical shifts of Afro-Cuban jazz, which the trombone lead gives a distinct aroma to. On the other hand, a lot of it strikes me as rather ordinary postbop. B+(*)

Ryan Blotnick: Everything Forgets (2008 [2009], Songlines): Guitarist, b. 1983 in Maine, spent some time studying in Copenhagen, based in New York. Second album. First was an HM here. This one is relatively slow and atmospheric, harder to get a grip on. Joachim Badenhorst's reeds are subdued, and acoustic bassist Perry Wortman is joined by electric bassist Simon Jermyn, leaving much of the album rounding the basses. B+(*)

Joris Teepe Big Band: We Take No Prisoners (2008 [2009], Challenge): Dutch bassist, b. 1962, based in New York (or, as his MySpace page puts it, New Rochelle, NY). AMG lists eight albums since 1993. Big band is loud, brassy, has some strong sax soloists. B


These are some even quicker notes based on downloading or streaming records. I don't have the packaging here, don't have the official hype, often don't have much information to go on. I have a couple of extra rules here: everything gets reviewed/graded in one shot (sometimes with a second play), even when I'm still guessing on a grade; the records go into my flush file (i.e., no Jazz CG entry, unless I make an exception for an obvious dud). If/when I get an actual copy I'll reconsider the record.

Ken Vandermark/Barry Guy/Mark Sanders: Fox Fire (2008 [2009], Maya, 2CD): Two sets recorded in Birmingham and Leeds, more or less home turf to bassist Guy and drummer Sanders. Vandermark plays tenor sax and clarinet; sounds magnificent on the former, fierce on the latter. Don't know whether the pieces are group improvs, come from Guy's stash, or are more mixed. Doesn't make a lot of difference. Guy has an interesting bag of tricks, and Vandermark fleshes them out admirably. A lot to listen to in one shot; wish I had this. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

C.O.D.E.: Play the Music of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy (2008, Cracked Anegg): I guess the artist credit is a trivial cipher for "Coleman, Ornette; Dolphy, Eric." The group consists of Ken Vandermark (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax), Max Nagl (alto sax), Clayton Thomas (bass), and Wolfgang Reisinger (drums). The nine tunes are from Coleman and Dolphy (two medleyed together), each member arranging. Nagl has been on my shopping list a long time, but I hadn't managed to find anything by him before. Similar to the Vandermark 5's Free Jazz Classics, both in the assured command of tricky music and their willingness to run with it. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Revolutionary Ensemble: Beyond the Boundary of Time (2005 [2009], Mutable Music): A live set cut on a tour in Poland, effectively a last hurrah before pioneering violinist Leroy Jenkins died in 2007. The trio with bassist Sirone and drummer Jerome Cooper worked together from 1971-78, then regrouped for a remarkable album in 2004, And Now . . . (Pi). So this promises more, but they come out uncertain and despite various characteristically intriguing moments never really get their sound together. They come closest in the two closing improvs, even when Cooper switches to synth. B [Rhapsody]

Revolutionary Ensemble: Vietnam (1972 [2009], ESP-Disk): The latest reissue of the periodically reissued debut disk of the Leroy Jenkins-Sirone-Jerome Cooper trio. Nothing specific about Vietnam, but it was in the air in revolutionary circles of the time. Jenkins single-handedly invented a new path for violin in avant-jazz, scratched raw, searching the ins and outs of his comrades' rhythms. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton: Imaginary Values (1993 [2007], Maya): Cautionary tale: I thought I'd check to see if I could find anything recent and unheard by Parker on Rhapsody, given that I have a lot of his material written up for the CG. Rhapsody listed this as 2008 -- their dates are often useless, but they're the first ones I see. AMG and Amazon have it as 2007; not too far out of date. AMG gives the label as TCB, but almost everyone else agrees on Maya. So I play it and research some more. It shows up in discographies as recorded in 1993 at the Red Rose Club in London. Penguin Guide, which only lists recording dates, has it as a 4-star, rating it one of the trio's best efforts. Hard for me to tell. Rhapsody won't play the 3rd cut or the 6th. I jump to the 8th ("Invariance"), which PG singled out, but I don't really get it. This is difficult music, abstract, lots of oblique angles, prickly spines sticking out every which way. Parker plays more soprano sax than tenor, which makes this wobblier than usual, and Guy and Lytton are always difficult. And it's way too late to keep pursuing a line that isn't going to produce anything. So for now, but I'm not scratching it off the shopping list. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

The Neil Cowley Trio: Loud Louder Stop (2008, Cake): British pianist, leading a trio with Richard Sadler on bass and Evan Jenkins on drums. First record, Dis-Placed, won a BBC Jazz Album of the Year poll; I liked it enough to include it in a Jazz CG. Similar stuff this: bright acoustic (and some electric) piano; sharp chords, often repeating, always keenly rhythmic. They get compared to E.S.T. a lot -- there seems to be a certain pop cachet to that in Europe, but they strike me as both brighter and more mainstream, a bit like Ramsey Lewis at his very best. Except that Lewis was almost never at his best, and these guys always are. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Luciana Souza: Tide (2009, Verve): Brazilian singer, has a nice clean tone in the main line of Brazilian pop and jazz singers, a bit higher pitched. Three Brazilian songs strike me as exceptional, but none of six in English piqued my interest. Larry Klein wrote five of the latter, so he's suspect; the sixth was from Paul Simon, not someone I'm particularly fond of. B [Rhapsody]

Melody Gardot: My One and Only Thrill (2009, Verve): Singer-songwriter from New Jersey; second album, evidently some kind of bestseller. Wrote 9 songs, co-wrote 2, and picked one cover, "Over the Rainbow." Her voice has unobvious appeal, and most of the songs work in unpredictable ways. Six are swathed in strings, which sound awful at first but quickly recover -- another burden she manages to slough off. Name sounds French; not sure how that works, but the one song she wrote in French is a choice cut. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

Harry Connick, Jr.: Your Songs (2009, Columbia): Searching the top of the bestseller list for a dud, but this isn't it -- just can't bring myself to dislike it. A long list of stellar credits (don't have song-by-song breakdowns) are almost impossible to recognize: Wayne Bergeron, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Ernie Watts. The music is almost totally dominated by anonymous string orchestration, more Nelson Riddle than Billy May, and not Riddle -- but then Connick isn't Sinatra either, so the downsizing works surprisingly well. Half the standards come from the rock era, with obvious lemons from Elton John, Billy Joel, Bacharach and David, even the Beatles, turning into bright spots. At worst, a little dull. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

Benny Reid: Escaping Shadows (2008 [2009], Concord): Alto saxophonist, b. 1980, second album; filed it under pop jazz, which has much more to do with the saxophone, which could fit nicely in any postbop context -- he has a sweet tone on the ballads and can romp on the fast ones. Worse than the keybs-guitar-bass is the scat slung by Jeff Taylor. B [Rhapsody]

Tim Sparks: Sidewalk Blues (2009, Tonewood): Solo guitar, not sure what "fingerstyle" means -- guessing, I substituted "fingerpicked" in my review of Sparks' Little Princess. This is a bit less intriguing, probably because the old blues, gospels, rags, and jazz tunes (Fats Waller the most recent) have mostly been fingerpicked over before. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

Béla Fleck/Zakir Hussain/Edgar Meyer: The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto & Music for Trio (2009, Koch): Banjo, tabla, bass for the principals. Their trio pieces are modestly exotic, the strings in sharp contrast, the percussion balancing them in tone and shifting the music. The three movement concerto is fortified by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The trio still stands out there, making you wonder why they need the semiclassical backdrop anyway. Probably some institutional money and prestige riding on it. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

The Hashem Assadullahi Quintet: Strange Neighbor (2009, 8Bells): Saxophonist, plays alto and soprano, b. 1981, studied in Texas and Oregon, based in Eugene, OR, although he seems to have some kind of deal going in Thailand. First album, with Ron Miles (trumpet), Justin Morell (guitar), Josh Tower (bass), and Jason Palmer (drums). This has sort of a suite feel to it, not just in the first five linked pieces: the instruments tend to fold together in neat bundles with few attempts to break out and solo. Reminds me a bit of Mingus, only mellower, the guitar sweeter and tighter than a piano would be. B+(**) [Rhapsody]


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

Mike DiRubbo: Repercussion (2008 [2009], Posi-Tone): An impressive alto sax quartet -- big sound, bold moves, still well inside the postbop tent -- with vibraphonist Steve Nelson the fourth leg, a contrast in the rhythm section more than a second solo option. Dedicated to drummer Tony Reedus, who died five months after the record was cut. B+(**)

Joe Lovano Us Five: Folk Art (2008 [2009], Blue Note): With a very young band, the reigning saxophonist of his generation feels free to indulge his idiosyncrasies: aulochrome, straight alto sax, taragato, why not two at once? Sounds like he's entering his Rahsaan Roland Kirk phase. B+(***)

Fire Room: Broken Music (2005 [2009], Atavistic): Trio, with Ken Vandermark on tenor and baritone sax, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, and Lasse Marhaug doing something ugly with electronics. Vandermark and Nilssen-Love have a couple of good duo albums, and more small group albums, so the delta here is Marhaug. Loud static, low warbling, hard to see how what he does helps out, even though there are short stretches when the energy pays off. B

Miroslav Vitous Group w/Michel Portal: Remembering Weather Report (2006-07 [2009], ECM): Strange thing, memory, blotting out not just Joe Zawinul's fusion but all keyboards, substituting bass clarinet for Shorter's soprano, orchestrating a set of strange and intriguing Dvorak variations on not just Miles Davis but on Ornette Coleman to boot. B+(***)

Charles Tolliver Big Band: Emperor March (2008 [2009], High Note): Same big band as on the widely touted 2007 album With Love, but much sharper live, especially when the saxophonists get some elbow room. If only they held it all together more consistently. When they do this is a rich and powerful experience; otherwise it's just loud, or something else. B+(**)

Blink.: The Epidemic of Ideas (2007 [2008], Thirsty Ear): Chicago freebop group. I don't get the period in the band name, but they certainly have a lot of ideas. Greg Ward (alto sax) and Dave Miller (guitar) also show up in the latest version of Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls. Bassist Jeff Greene and drummer Quin Kirchner evidently have some background in rockish grooves. Fast, slow, up, down, all sorts of ideas. B+(***)

Tribecastan: Strange Cousin (2008 [2009], Evergreene Music): Cosmopolitan exotica from the New York melting pot, with Jeff Greene and John Kruth playing a long list of instruments, rarely any one for more than a couple of songs -- Kruth leans toward mandolins and flutes, Greene more often percussive. Supplemented by a short list of guests: Dave Dreiwitz's bass is the most frequent instrument here; Matt Darriau on sax and clarinet, gaida and kaval; Brahim Fribgane on darbuka and riq; Jolie Holland does a song each on box fiddle and voice; Steve Turre on trombone and shells. Sometimes this takes on a jazz vibe -- Don Cherry and Sonny Sharrock provide two reference covers -- but mostly it is something else. B+(**)

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble: Eternal Interlude (2009, Sunnyside): Dazzling at times, annoying at others; full of thick, luminous sheets of sound, but the potential solo power, including Tony Malaby and Ellery Eskelin on tenor sax, rarely pokes through; not much interest in the rhythm section, even though that's where the leader resides. Theo Bleckman speaks an intro, and adds some verbal mush elsewhere. B+(*)

Fernando Benadon: Intuitivo (2009, Innova): Not exactly a string quartet -- 2 violins, viola, bass, plus clarinet and percussion; not exactly chamber music either -- edgy, abstract postmodern. B+(**)

David Berkman Quartet: Live at Smoke (2006 [2009], Challenge): Very solid, perhaps exemplary, mainstream postbop quartet, the pianist-leader always cogent, Jimmy Greene a pleasant surprise on tenor sax, even making a strong showing on soprano. Not sure why I don't rate this higher; probably because after a half-dozen plays I'm short for words. B+(***)

Edmar Castaneda: Entre Cuerdas (2009, ArtistShare): Harp player, originally from Colombia, based in New York, leading a trio with trombone and drums and occasional guests. The complex stringiness of the harp sound is unusual and distinctive. A couple of cuts have a tango feel. Didn't much care for Andrea Tierra's rather diva-ish guest vocal. An interesting talent. B+(**)


Some more re-grades as I've gone through trying to sort out the surplus:

Avram Fefer Trio: Ritual (2008 [2009], Clean Feed): [formerly B+(**)] B+(***)

Arve Henriksen: Cartography (2006-08 [2009], ECM): [formerly B+(***)] B+(**)

Ruslan Khain: For Medicinal Purposes Only (2008, Smalls): [formerly B+(***)] B+(**)

Larry Ochs/Miya Masaoka/Peggy Lee: Spiller Alley (2006 [2008], RogueArt): [formerly B+(***)] B+(**)

The October Trio/Brad Turner: Looks Like It's Going to Snow (2008 [2009], Songlines): [formerly B+(***)] B+(**)


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


Unpacking: Found in the mail the last two weeks:

  • Mario Adnet/Philippe Baden Powell: Afro Samba Jazz: The Music of Baden Powell (Adventure Music)
  • The American Music Project: On the Bright Side (Inarhyme)
  • Carlos Barbosa-Lima: Merengue (Zoho): Nov. 10
  • Andy Cotton: Last Stand at the Havemeyer Ranch (Bju'ecords)
  • Wayne Escoffery: Uptown (Posi-Tone)
  • Joey DeFrancesco: Snap Shot (High Note)
  • The Dynamic Les DeMerle Band: Gypsy Rendezvous, Vol. One (Origin)
  • Anne Estrada: Obsesión (Feral Flight)
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood (1961-62, Verve, 4CD)
  • Rob Garcia 4: Perennial (Bju'ecords)
  • Robert Glasper: Double Booked (Blue Note)
  • Gerald Gold: Supersonic (Posi-Tone)
  • Jon Gordon: Evolution (ArtistShare)
  • Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters (1939-50, Verve, 3CD)
  • Vivian Houle: Treize (Drip Audio)
  • Chris Icasiano/Neil Welch: Bad Luck. (Belle)
  • Randy Ingram: The Road Ahead (Bju'ecords)
  • An Excellent Adventure: The Very Best of Al Jarreau (1975-2004, Rhino)
  • Kottarashky: Opa Hey! (Asphalt Tango)
  • Dom Minasi String Quartet: Dissonance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (Konnex)
  • Josh Moshier & Mike LeBrun: Joy Not Jaded (OA2)
  • John Moulder: Bifröst (Origin)
  • Willie Nelson: American Classic (Blue Note)
  • The Nice Guy Trio: Here Comes . . . the Nice Guy Trio (Porto Franco): Nov. 17
  • Marius Nordal: Boomer Jazz (Origin)
  • Arturo O'Farrill: Risa Negra (Zoho)
  • Houston Person: Mellow (High Note)
  • Quartet Offensive: Carnivore (Morphius)
  • Oscar Peterson: Debut: The Clef/Mercury Duo Recordings 1949-1951 (1949-51, Verve, 3CD)
  • Chris Potter/Steve Wilson/Terrell Stafford/Keith Javors/Delbert Felix/John Davis: Coming Together (Inarhyme)
  • Saltman Knowles: Yesterday's Man (Pacific Coast Jazz): Jan. 26
  • Matthew Shipp: 4D (Thirsty Ear): advance, Jan.
  • Daniel Smith: Blue Bassoon (Summit): Jan. 12
  • Somi: If the Rains Come First (ObliqSound)
  • Kelley Suttenfield: Where Is Love? (Rhombus)
  • Ben Wendel/Harish Raghavan/Nate Wood: ACT (Bju'ecords)
  • The Tony Wilson Sextet: The People Look Like Flowers at Last (Drip Audio)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Humble in Afghanistan

Discarded draft:

Steve Coll: The Case for Humility in Afghanistan: The title reminds me of an old press conference with Elvis Presley. I wish I had the exact quote, but it runs something like this: a reporter asks Elvis if it's true that he's really a shy, retiring, modest lad; Elvis then stands up, points to his white leather, the gold on his 6-inch-belt buckle, and says something to the effect that he can't understand why anyone would think that. He is, after all, the King; given that, he could hardly be anyone else. Coll may think that after repeated failure the US could enefit from a little humility in Afghanistan, but once you're King -- or better yet the world's sole superpower -- self-effacement just isn't in your repertoire. It isn't even conceivable: Coll's own subhead says "a Taliban victory would have devastating consequences for U.S. interests"; how humble can you be when you assume anything happening in the poorest, most remote corner of the globe can have any real impact on your "interests"?

The case for expanding the war (the socalled "all in" option) increasingly rests of a nest of contradictions. They have to, first of all, argue that the risks of failure are dire, but also that the chances of success are plausible. The former is done by exaggerating the threat of Taliban takeover, conflating the Taliban with Al Qaeda, and drawing some kind of line from a "safe haven" in the Hindu Kush to terror plots in the US. None of those planks are very solid, but even if you grant them all the worst case outlier is something like a repeat of 9/11, a tragic event that it is not clear we grossly overreacted to. To get worse consequences than that you have to fantasize the Taliban overwhelming nuclear-armed Pakistan then committing mass suicide. Still, the tougher part of the argument is showing how the US can emerge victorious, given eight years of nothing but blundering failure. If the secret is humility, well, good luck with that. For example, Coll writes:

To succeed, counterinsurgency approaches require deep, supple, and adaptive understanding of local conditions. And yet, as General McChrystal pointed out in his assessment, since 2001, international forces operating in Afghanistan have "not sufficiently studied Afghanistan's peoples, whose needs, identities and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley." To succeed, the United States must "redouble efforts to understand the social and political dynamics of . . . all regions of the country and take action that meets the needs of the people, and insist that [Afghan government] officials do the same."

This will be difficult at best, but it is not impossible.

Before jumping to the conclusion, unpack this a bit: we've failed for eight years because we didn't understand the people or what they want, so now we're going to fix that by "redoubl[ing] efforts"? In barest mathematical terms, doesn't Coll understand that two times zero is still zero? You need to start by looking at why we couldn't figure this out in the first place. A big part of this is that all people understand the world by looking at themselves and projecting out. Americans can't help but think that Afghans want to be Americans because that's the only thing Americans can understand -- indeed, in the military and in the political ranks they are strongly selected for just that viewpoint. On the other hand, Afghans necessarily have a different viewpoint. To them Americans are likely to continue to look like they have for the last eight years: as harbingers of death and destruction, dislocation, corruption, moral rot. It's hard in any case to change perceptions; harder still when the charges are not just true but deeply seated in the assumptions of the American mission in Afghanistan.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Library Books

I notice that I have a bunch of book pages typed up that I haven't posted anything on here in the blog. These are books that I got from the library, read quickly, typing up more or less extensive quotes as I went through them, but in most cases not a lot of comments. One could, in theory, go back and annotate them further. I like having the quotes accessible, especially since the books aren't. And typing is something I have a lot of practice doing, having spent a good chunk of my worklife in typesetting shops. I think there's even a sort of cognitive advantage in not just reading but typing.

The books:

There are a couple more books I'll try to get to soon.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Profiles in Courage

Jon Krakauer: Gen. McChrystal's Credibility Problem: This focuses on a rather narrow point, which is McChrystal's role in the political coverup of footballer-turned-9/11-soldier Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan. Tillman was killed by "friendly fire" in April 2004. McChrystal was a Brigadier General at the time, in charge of the JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), responsible for Tillman. McChrystal immediately nominated Tillman for a Silver Star, a symbol of Tillman's political value to the war effort at a time when Bush was campaigning for election as president. McChrystal is now a four-star general in charge of the whole Afghanistan theater. He is currently lobbying for an additional 60,000 troops -- a huge escalation in an eight-year-old war that is going worse and worse for the US. Krakauer has written a whole book on Tillman, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, so it's fair to say he knows the ins and outs of this story, and raises an interesting question about McChrystal's credibility (or alternatively, his political sense). Reminds me of Colin Powell, whose critical 2002 presentation to the UN about Saddam Hussein's WMD activities was nothing more than a crock of lies. Powell was at the time held in sufficient esteem that he mostly got away with his scam. On the other hand, it would have behooved us then to have remembered that early on in his career Powell learned the art of deceit as the officer responsible for burying the My Lai massacre.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Back to the Future

William Astore: Apocalypse Then, Afghanistan Now: Within a year of the US invasion, Iraq was reminding Americans of a certain age of a certain familiar quagmire in southeast Asia. Any such historical comparison is bound to have as many variances as similarities, which makes for fruitless debate as the apples and oranges glide by in their own quantum orbits. The real question isn't whether the whole comparison fits. It's whether we've learned lessons from the past experience. The Iraq-Vietnam analogies wound up fading, mostly for two reasons: one is that the anti-American forces were never able to unite over a Sunni-Shiite divide that the US actually did much to exacerbate; the other is that the Shiite-dominated government was able to consolidate a power base that the puppets in Saigon never managed. As such, the US military, with its penchant to turn everywhere it bombs into Vietnams, faded into the background, taking its quagmire with it.

On the other hand, Vietnam-Afghanistan analogies are booming. Of course, there are differences, but one similarity stands out, and it is the one that McGeorge Bundy singled out as the single most important (and by the US unexpected) characteristic of the Vietnam War: the endurance and persistence of the enemy, even in the face of extraordinary losses sustained over long periods of time -- longer timespans than the American people could stomach. Even if nothing else in the analogy holds up (and I wouldn't go that far) the main reason the US lost the Vietnam War looks like the main reason the US is likely to lose out in Afghanistan.

Tom Engelhardt points out in his introduction that Washington these days is torn between two Vietnam books: Gordon Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, and Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. I've read the former. You can read all you need to know on my book page. I haven't bothered with Sorley. I don't find his book credible, for a couple of reasons. One is that throughout the whole history of the war there were always metrics to show that the US was winning. It eventually became a commonplace that the US won every battle and still lost the war. So intuitively I don't believe Sorley's victories. That doesn't mean they're not worth examining, but I'd be real surprised if examination doesn't reveal that they are illusions or irrelevancies. Another reason is that the US had already lost the war in 1964-65. Before the US had hopes of propping up a friendly Vietnamese regime against a Vietnamese insurgency, but the desperate coup against Diem and insertion of US soldiers discredited the Saigon government and turned the war into a colonialist venture. No power since WWII had pulled that off, and Vietnam was too large, militant, resilient, and patient to allow an exception. So even if Sorley could point to tactical victories, turning that into anything more than an extension of an already shamefully extended war would be very hard to believe. One more point is that I believe that a US military victory -- whatever that means -- would have been a bad thing, certainly for the US and most likely for Vietnam. A "victory" in Vietnam would have bolstered the militarist right, leading to more wars -- much like the evident victory in Afghanistan in 2001 led to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Or like the US victory in WWII put us on a path of 60+ years of more/less constant war, where defeated powers like Germany and Japan have managed to mind their own business.

In 1965 McGeorge Bundy was looking at analyses showing that the US could never win anything in Vietnam and urging Johnson to Americanize the war -- to send massive ground troops and to launch enormous waves of bombing -- for no reason other than to save face by postponing the inevitable. Thirty years later he, like Robert McNamara, realized that his advice was disastrous, but he was trapped inside a bubble where everyone thought the world would end if even one domino flipped communist. Astore contrasts the simultaneous views of others not inside the imperial bubble -- specifically Norman Mailer. One striking point Astore makes, citing Mailer:

Don't fight a war, and clearly don't escalate a war, in a place which means so little to Americans. In words that apply quite readily to Afghanistan today, Mailer wrote in 1965: "Vietnam [to Americans] is faceless. How many Americans have ever visited that country? Who can say which language is spoken there, or what industries might exist, or even what the country looks like? We do not care. We are not interested in the Vietnamese. If we were to fight a war with the inhabitants of the planet of Mars there would be more emotional participation by the people of America."

Of course, with television there are Americans who can picture Afghan faces, but they are few and far between. Some sympathize with Afghanistan, a sentiment hawks readily prey upon, although you'll be hard pressed to find those same hawks actually caring about America much less Afghanistan. The real reason they insist on fighting in Afghanistan is that they like to fight. They worry if the US ducks out of a fight even in a place that otherwise matters not one whit to the people who run the country, much less the people who merely work here. If you look back to hawks like Bundy you find the same indifference and disregard of Vietnamese people our modern hawks have for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the you find the same callow reasons for slogging on.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nobel Blues

My first reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize committee selecting Barack Obama for this year's award was that it was way premature: he has yet to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan (indeed, he's in deeper in the latter than Bush was); his Israel/Palestine efforts have stalled behind Israeli stonewalling; he has yet to make any significant progress in breaking down a long list of American blacklisting efforts (especially North Korea, Iran, Cuba) that rarely amount to anything more than juvenile superpower tantrums; he's submitted record large Defense Department appropriations, and skewed his minor shifts toward more small-scale intervention. His performance hasn't all been negative -- he's given some nice speeches, and he's backed away from the most offensive aspects of a still-insane anti-missile defense system -- but unless you give him a lot of credit for not being George Bush/Dick Cheney he hasn't actually accomplished much. Indeed, a lot of Bush-era programs that Obama himself had criticized are still intact and functional -- Guantanamo one obvious example. Gary Wills wrote a recent piece in the New York Review of Books detailing the continuities between Bush and Obama. He called his piece Entangled Giant, but "Déjŕ Vu" would have worked as well. A taste:

The truth of this was borne out in the early days of Barack Obama's presidency. At his confirmation hearing to be head of the CIA, Leon Panetta said that "extraordinary rendition" -- the practice of sending prisoners to foreign countries -- was a tool he meant to retain. Obama's nominee for solicitor general, Elena Kagan, told Congress that she agreed with John Yoo's claim that a terrorist captured anywhere should be subject to "battlefield law." On the first opportunity to abort trial proceedings by invoking "state secrets" -- the policy based on the faulty Reynolds case -- Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, did so. Obama refused to release photographs of "enhanced interrogation." The CIA had earlier (illegally) destroyed ninety-two videotapes of such interrogations -- and Obama refused to release documents describing the tapes.

The President said that past official crimes would not be investigated -- certainly not for prosecution, and not even by an impartial "truth commission" just trying to establish a record. He said, on the contrary, that detainees might be tried in "military tribunals." When the British government, trying a terrorist suspect, decided to use some American documents shared with the British government, Obama's attorney general pressured it not to do so. Most important, perhaps, was the new president's desire to end the nation-building in Iraq while substituting a long-term nation-building effort in Afghanistan, run by a government corrupted by drug trafficking and not susceptible to our remolding.

I don't doubt that Obama's reticence to tackle past abuses has more to do with pragmatic politics than with personal convictions. He certainly would not be in the position he is if he lacked sense of where and when he should fight for a principle. Still, nearly a year after his dramatic election, we have yet to identify any of his red lines because he has yet to stake out any principles he is willing to risk losing for. That doesn't mean that he won't eventually succeed at any number of worthwhile efforts, but it doesn't give us sound expectations. If, for instance, he's not willing to fight his own government bureaucracy and the largely discredited and numerically marginal opposition, does he really offer much hope of turning the rest of the world around?

The Nobel Peace Prizes have a very checkered history. While a number of prizes have gone to individuals (and by association, to groups) that have genuinely embraced the principles of putting a just end to war, prizes have also been given to figures who built their careers on war and whose contributions to peace have been tenuous at best. Part of this problem is structural: the short cut to getting into a position to end a war is to start one -- pairs like Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho or Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin are obvious examples. Part seems to be a desire on the part of the prize committee to rub elbows with the powerful. It would be so much easier to award an anti-prize for war, and it's telling that some of the same people would have ranked on that list as well (e.g., Kissinger, who extended the Vietnam War and expanded it to Cambodia leading to millions of extra deaths, and Begin, who was responsible for the worst atrocities of Israel's 1948 War of Independence, and who later celebrated his Peace Prize by invading Lebanon).

Obama is something of an enigma on this list. Defenders of the prize have pointed out that Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded the prize early in his reform process, but it seems very unlikely that Obama will follow Gorbachev in dissolving his empire -- Obama hasn't even withdrawn from Afghanistan yet, which Gorbachev had already done before receiving his prize. Obama has already ordered one escalation in Afghanistan, and is contemplating another, much larger one. We could very well wind up with more blood on his hands than any other Nobel winner since, well, Woodrow Wilson -- who engineered the US entry into WWI after practicing numerous invasions of Latin America.

With so little track record, most commenters argue the prize on conjecture. Will the prize inspire Obama to realize the peaceful goals he has eloquently advocated? Will the prize inhibit Obama from acting belligerently, the one option that American presidents always like to keep on the table? The idea that the prize might work as some kind of prophylactic has no historical basis or internal logic. If you want to ensure future peaceful activities, you should start with someone who has a past record for embracing and advocating peace.

The other problem with the prize is opportunity cost. With the Israel/Palestine efforts stalled, I'd be tempted to pick an Israeli, a Palestinian, and an American who dependably worked toward peace and understanding of this issue: some names that immediately come to mind are Jeff Halper, Raja Shehadeh, and Helena Cobban. (I'm sure many more would pop up if I gave it a bit of thought. Halper was actually nominated, along with Ghassan Andoni, another good candidate.) Or if you wanted to look at what the US has done more globally, you could recognize the most consistently distinguished critic of US foreign policy since the Vietnam era: Noam Chomsky.

The truth is there are lots of good candidates doing noteworthy work. They just aren't likely to be high government officials, especially of countries that find themselves constantly in the grip of war.


Helena Cobban: Obama's Nobel: Similar reservations, a little more generously stated.

Tariq Ali: Ahmed Rashid's War: I thought about including Ali on my own Nobel shortlist. He is one person who never gets fooled by the promise of power. It's curious that besides Rashid the other person The New York Review of Books depends on for analysis in the Centcom theater is Peter Galbraith, who in the last couple of weeks was fired from a UN job in Afghanistan and shown to have conflict-of-interest investments in the Kurdish oil industry. (For more on this, see Helena Cobban.)

Matthew Yglesias: Rich on McCain: Starts with a long list of wars McCain has supported: pretty much every one that seemed hot, with an occasional respite for some countries when hotter prospects emerged. Obama may effectively remain under the hegemony of America's war mentality, but McCain, even more so than Bush, is bound to it at a third-grade emotional level. As an American, I think that McCain and Bush are anomalous here, that most Americans are nowhere near so warlike, and that Obama is dangerously in the middle, legitimizing hawks by not standing up to them, even when he clearly knows better. But what the Nobel Prize suggests is that Europeans, taking the likes of McCain and Bush as American norms, see Obama as blessed relief, and desperately want to support him. They may be right. While I would rather support people who genuinely believe in peace, Obama may be the last best chance to stave off nutcases like McCain. He clearly was in the 2008 election.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Music Week

Music: Current count 15912 [15889] rated (+23), 787 [774] unrated (+13). Starting to close out Jazz Consumer Guide, which means that I'm spending about as much time re-listening to already rated records as examining new ones or ones put back for further listening. Should be done with that in one more week. Don't know what happens then.

No Jazz Prospecting

Not really. There's enough to publish, but I'm in the middle of a two-week column wrap-up and a lot of things are up in the air. What I'm holding back here: six new records, four relistens, a bunch of Rhapsody things I checked out (some looking for possible duds). I spent most of the week listening to previously rated but unreviewed albums. Managed to write a bunch of them up, although a couple of A- records got knocked down to honorable mentions. Draft currently has 75 albums (26 A-list, 47 HM, 2 duds), 2804 words. This adds up to a little more than two columns worth of material. The next big job will be to partition what I have. Still not sure about pick hits: don't have any straight A records on tap, so I need to pick a pair of relatively strong and interesting A- entries. Looks like I'll need to go back to the flush files to pick out a third dud. There must be something there. Also need to kick a lot of deserving honorable mentions into the surplus file. I didn't do a cull last time, so it's overdue now. The unrated file is deeper than ever right now: 190 records. Got my first 2010 advances this week, so those at least can be ignored for a while.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Problem Fixing

Laura Stevens wrote: What examples do you think of, if any, of large nations fixing other nations' problems? with or without self-interest being at the fore of the efforts?

I responded:

Depends a lot on the problem. You can say that India fixed Bangladesh's biggest problem in 1971: that was West Pakistani repression blown up to civil war levels, a problem solved by crushing Pakistan's army and giving Bangladesh independence. Had India attempted to occupy Bangladesh this would have turned out very differently, but India was satisfied to have inflicted a major military loss on its main rival. Of course, India also left Bangladesh as poor as ever, and nothing they've done since has made much difference.

Finding an occupation, either in the colonial or post-colonial periods, that has actually helped any nation's standard of living is hard. The US likes to claim Japan and Germany as examples, but those occupations were actually very inept, to the point of causing mass starvation in both countries. They were at least nonviolent, largely because war-weary peoples much of the responsibility (at least did not blame the US), and because their remaining proxy elites did a good job of humoring American sensibilities. Once US interests shifted to anti-communism those elites became willing allies and thereby achieved independence for most practical purposes, even though the US still stations troops there. (John Dower's Embracing Defeat, on Japan, is especially good on this.)

The US has arguably helped some economies by providing favorable credit and/or trade terms, but this has only been meaningful for independent nations. South Korea is a good example, but its export-driven growth was in no way organized by the US. The Marshall Plan is often cited. It certainly helped rebuild post-WWII western Europe, but only because the necessary business organizations and culture were already in place. The Marshall Plan was one of those anti-communist aid projects that are no longer seen as necessary these days. In any case, the US has changed in ways that systematically undermine any efforts at aid. Under Bush aid was reduced to nothing more than political patronage, terms that actively selected against anything of value.

The UN does reasonably good work for relief, which could be the basis of a politically neutral, respectful, and helpful aid system, but no such effort has been launched because the US and the other powers have little special interest in doing so. Europe's transfer system is the most ambitious such effort to date, but it is limited to Europe.

I've poked here and there in the international development literature. About all I can say is that nobody has a very good handle on how to get it to work, especially for tough cases like Afghanistan and much of Africa.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Polk on Afghanistan

William R Polk: An Open Letter to President Obama: The author stakes out his credentials as a Democrat and an early Obama supporter; a Kennedy administration Policy Planning Council post for the Middle East and Central Asia; a University of Chicago professor, founder of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He only mentions two of his books: the comparative study of insurgencies Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq, and Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now, the latter co-authored by George McGovern. He doesn't mention two basic history primers he's written: Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation (2005) and Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad (2009), or numerous other books, including some about his ancestor, another Democratic president excessively fond of war. He addresses Obama in polite terms while explaining basic history with remarkable clarity. Here, for instance, is exactly what you need to know (and hardly anyone does know) about Kashmir:

Kashmir is one of those legacies of the age of imperialism that still blight international relations. Today's problem was created in 1846, when the British sold Kashmir and its Muslim population to a Hindu who became its maharaja. Cruel and rapacious, he and his descendants were bitterly hated by Kashmiris. When the British were leaving South Asia in 1947, they assumed that because the people were mainly Muslim, Kashmir would be folded into what became Pakistan. But the maharaja opted for India. Despite a promise from Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister-designate of India, to Lord Louis Mountbatten, then viceroy of India, that a plebiscite would be held to ascertain the wishes of the Kashmiris, it has never been held. Ever since, the Indians have occupied Kashmir with half a million troops as a conquered enemy country. Under Indian rule, thousands of Kashmiris have been imprisoned, hundreds "disappeared" and almost everyone afflicted by lesser tyrannies. In shorthand terms, Kashmir is the Palestine of Central/South Asia. Pakistan and India have fought three wars and innumerable bloody engagements over Kashmir. The drain on the resources of both India and Pakistan has been immense. In part because of the destabilizing effects of this conflict, Pakistan has never developed a durable, coherent government. The only really solid Pakistani organization is the army. Civilian governments have been marked by massive corruption, ineptitude and fragility.

The problem in Kashmir is one of many that are beyond US power regardless of political will. Later on, Polk sums up and advises:

On Kashmir, as with many world problems, the logical solution is probably not practical. If India and Pakistan could agree to hold a plebiscite, the Kashmiris would probably accept modestly enhanced autonomy under India. Neither Pakistan nor India wants an independent Kashmir, but the current situation is costly for both, so they have established a back channel to inch toward accommodation. We should stay out of this problem.

The suggestion that the US should "stay out" of a problem is going to be cognitively dissonant. As Americans, we have what amounts to a religious faith in our ability to solve any problem. (In foreign policy it must be religious, because there is little if any empirical evidence that it is true.) Nor is this the only thing that Americans can't fix in Afghanistan. In particular, there is the corruption problem, which is the biggest problem most Afghans have with the government (except maybe for their dependency on foreign troops):

On Afghan government reform, there is not much we can do. Corruption runs from top to bottom. As I witnessed in Vietnam, if a government wishes to steal itself to death, foreigners can't stop it. We had an opportunity in the 1960s to help a reforming Afghan government but failed to do so; indeed, we welcomed the man who overthrew it, Mohammed Daoud Khan, because he was anti-Communist. To be realistic, we must assume that even an elected Hamid Karzai will probably not last long after our army departs.

He also takes a shot at our bugaboo over the drug trade:

On the drug trade, it would be convenient if the Afghans solved our drug problem for us, but if we are realistic we must admit that drugs are ultimately our problem. Heroin is proof that market forces really do work. We can make minor adjustments, subsidizing the planting of other crops, buying up what is grown, engaging in defoliation, etc., but as long as people are willing to pay a high price for drugs, producers and distributors will supply them.

I'm much less certain than Polk that a US military withdrawal would result in the Taliban quickly, or ever, marching into Kabul. The Taliban is very effective fighting where geography and ethnic breakdown favors them, and they would certainly consolidate their control in such areas, but extending their domain is likely to prove very difficult, unless the Taliban get a lot of outside (i.e., Pakistani) military assistance and anti-Taliban forces within Afghanistan (the central government and all the regional warlords) simply collapse. More likely would be a stalemate, which could be a nasty war of attrition like the 1989-92 civil war as long as both sides aim to dominate the other, or could be encouraged to stabilize. One thing that would help here would be more democracy: decentralizing government, with provincial autonomy (including militias) and loose cooperative federalism.

Still, Polk's points are fundamentally right. US and NATO troops are symbols of occupation, discredit the democratic government, and have very limited marginal utility in terms of providing security. They need to be pulled back and sent home. Some combination of advisers and air support may be useful if oriented towards stabilizing a stalemate. It must be understood that we have no role or ambition interfering in Afghani politics and society -- which means we need to disabuse ourselves of much of our thinking about the country. We need to forget about heroin, and we need to forget about Al Qaeda, because those obsessions, even if they have some real basis in our interests, are clouding our judgment and leading us to do more harm than we can possibly do good.

Polk and McGovern had some clever ways of doing just this sort of thing in Out of Iraq. They may very well be following up on Polk's suggestion and adapting their book to Afghanistan, in which case they may well be ahead of me on this. Polk's "Open Letter" is one that should be widely read and distributed. He's on the right track.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Goldberg Standard

Matthew Yglesias: The Goldberg Standard: Might as well quote this short post in toto:

To some, the modern American right-wing looks intellectually moribund. Steve Hayward thinks there's some truth to that, but also powerful minds working on serious issues; people like . . . Jonah Goldberg. The idea that Goldberg's Liberal Fascism represents one of the peaks of right-of-center political thinking is, I think, a more damning indictment than anything any liberal could possibly come up with.

Goldberg is so inscrutable I've never even managed to parse the title. In English we normally put the adjective in front of the noun, which should make the book about a subset of Fascism, specifically the Liberal subset. In other words, it reads like an oxymoron, but whereas you can find relatively jumbo shrimp, which fascists were relatively liberal? Franco? Juan Peron? Neither seems to be a subject of interest to Goldberg. Nor is it clear that he means Fascist Liberalism, although that seems to get closer to his intent. But rather than focusing on a subset of liberalism, he wants to taint the whole by finding a phylogenetic linkage from fascism to liberalism -- something remarkable (in the sense of ridiculous) not only logically but historically. Or maybe not: could he be complaining that fascism is debilitated by its ontological linkage to liberalism?

Given the confusion in the title -- not helped by the subtitle, The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, implying (among other things) that Il Duce was an American and that "the politics of meaning" actually means something -- it seems unlikely that reading the book would clarify anything. Still, the book was a huge bestseller, paving the way for subsequent nonsense by Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Dick Morris, and Michelle Malkin. Still, the main effect seems to have been to free the word "fascist" of all meaning for use as an all-purpose epithet. Maybe it was wrong to characterize George Bush (just to pick a not-quite-arbitrary example) as a fascist, but at least one could make a logical argument, citing points both for and against. But after Goldberg, the right is free to attack Obama as fascist or nazi or socialist or liberal or any other nasty itch they wish to scratch.


PS: From the publisher's notes:

Jonah Goldberg reminds us that the original fascists were really on the left, and that liberals from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Hillary Clinton have advocated policies and principles remarkably similar to those of Hitler's National Socialism and Mussolini's Fascism.

Contrary to what most people think, the Nazis were ardent socialists (hence the term "National socialism"). They believed in free health care and guaranteed jobs. They confiscated inherited wealth and spent vast sums on public education. They purged the church from public policy, promoted a new form of pagan spirituality, and inserted the authority of the state into every nook and cranny of daily life. The Nazis declared war on smoking, supported abortion, euthanasia, and gun control. They loathed the free market, provided generous pensions for the elderly, and maintained a strict racial quota system in their universities -- where campus speech codes were all the rage. The Nazis led the world in organic farming and alternative medicine. Hitler was a strict vegetarian, and Himmler was an animal rights activist. [ . . . ]

We often forget, for example, that Mussolini and Hitler had many admirers in the United States. W.E.B. Du Bois was inspired by Hitler's Germany, and Irving Berlin praised Mussolini in song. Many fascist tenets were espoused by American progressives like John Dewey and Woodrow Wilson, and FDR incorporated fascist policies in the New Deal.

No need to refute these arguments point-by-point. Like antimatter, few even survive as arguable assertions as far as the period. To take an example, one reason no one (but Goldberg) remembers Du Bois as having been "inspired by Hitler's Germany" was that the people we do remember so inspired where conservative racists and antisemites, not civil rights leaders. Another reason is that Du Bois is more often remembered as a communist, forgetting that before WWII hardly any white people but communists really supported civil rights. FDR certainly didn't want to talk about it -- Ira Katznelson wrote a book about the New/Fair Deals called When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold Story of Racial Injustice in Twentieth-Century America. (Goldberg's own magazine, National Review, was still defending segregation in the 1960s.)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Afghanistan Correspondence

Laura Stevens wrote to me back on 9/28:

I'm interested to see your interest in Afghanistan, and was surprised at the remark in the book review "We're a nation that prides itself on good business sense, and quite frankly any business that reviews returns like these will quickly move to cut their losses. There may be some room for debating how to do that, but it should be clear that our best efforts have failed and that some sort of reduction is clearly in order." I haven't read the Rashid book, but have read lots of other things about Afghanistan - back to Tamerlaine, Babur, the Great Game & etc - (and made 2 visits, in '04 & '05, but wouldn't go presently because of much worse security) and conclude that no one has ever conquered Afghanistan, but some have worked with them to some success. The US efforts have been anything but our best, having dumped the project almost immediately upon boots hitting the ground - they scurried away to Iraq. I think it's too late to repair the damage without an enormous effort, largely non-military, which the US will not do. The Afghans know that sooner or later, every foreign power goes home, especially including that aid is superficial and fleeting. There are lots of very reactionary people in Afghanistan who are in general sympathy with Taliban traditional beliefs and on the fence about everyone's methods. There is little real energy for progressive thinking outside Kabul - and the ISAF presence hasn't cultivated any. (International Security Assistance Force - NATO countries) A reduction in the US military presence may be in order, but not because our best efforts have failed - because our least efforts predictably made a mess which staying around in this format won't fix.

I finally responded today:

Some things: 1) The US blew it in Afghanistan even before Iraq, partly because the motivation was so self-serving (9/11 revenge and the desire to remind the world that we're still an unchallengable superpower) and because the Bush/Rumsfeld anti-nation-building doctrine was so extreme they repeatedly undercut anything State tried to do with international support. As such they merely flipped the warlord ratio without realizing that the Taliban's necessary existence was as a counterbalance to what they restored. 2) Best Efforts is a pretty negligible thing for the US, whose aid programs are aimed at recruiting local elites and/or favoring crony capitalist supporters, a problem made even worse by Bush's own culture of corruption and cult of incompetence. Why anyone thinks that the US is capable of or even interested in fixing any other nation's problems is beyond me. It's not like they've shown any interest in fixing our own problems. Moreover, we've never shown the least remorse for anything we've done (a list which starts with slavery and Indians), a combination of arrogance and insensitivity that should pretty much disqualify us from dealing with the rest of the world.

Given all this I think the disastrous course in Afghanistan was wholly predictable from the start, and therefore should have been opposed from the start. Nor was that the only reason: this dose of war fever did a lot of domestic damage as well, including making Bush more effective and Obama less effective. Any claim that Afghanistan was a "necessary war" should be beat down.

This isn't to say that a fair system of international justice shouldn't find the US (and a few other countries) responsible for a lot of damage done to Afghanistan from 1979 on (and possibly further back) and assay some amount of reparations. There's just no reason to expect the US to recognize any such responsibility or to administer any such aid in a fair and effective manner. That's a shame, but it's nowhere near as bad as letting the US continue on its present course.

Since you wrote I put up another Afghanistan post ("Ink Spots"), and I've waded through a couple more books -- Nicholas Schmidle's "To Live or to Perish Forever" is pretty good (on Pakistan); Gretchen Peters' "Seeds of Terrorism" (on heroin) isn't. The books section on Af-Pak has gotten fairly thick.

Also wrote this in an earlier draft:

Of course, we don't conduct foreign policy according to business principles. We view it as a subsidy to certain business interests, distorted by a few ideological planks which started as an agreement to represent the whole of the globalized capitalist class and wound up with self-glorifying superpower worship. This is reinforced by a bipartisan tag team of self-certified foreign policy experts, most of whom defend the Afghanistan commitment like their own jobs depended on it. Feels like a lot of Emperor's New Clothes.

A normal person might think that after what we did in 1979-89 and/or what we didn't do (to put it obliquely) in 1989-2001 we owed something to Afghanistan, but that had nothing whatsoever to do with how OEF was conceived or executed. Even before Iraq the US consistently subverted international efforts to revive Afghanistan -- by preferring to support warlords, by peculiar signals to Pakistan and other neighbors. Nor was this just Bush/Rumsfeld/etc. (although they were pretty extreme); the US has never done well in post-conflict situations -- see, e.g., John Dower's "Embracing Defeat" (at least skim through my collected quotes on the book page) which shows that the US "success" in Japan was almost totally a Japanese effort (involving a lot of self-effacing humility that Arabs and Afghans don't seem to have much knack for). Obama might think the US, Europe, UN, etc., could do more and better, but if so he'll find that he's dragging a lot of dead institutional weight along. I imagine that Kabul looks like it could be the exception, as it is the meeting ground for "donors" and people interested in getting help, cosmopolitan enough to make both comfortable.

Music Week

Music: Current count 15889 [15852] rated (+37), 774 [757] unrated (+17). Thought I'd do more jazz prospecting this week, but wound up playing Rhapsody more, picking up some jazz and some other things. Back problems and other ailments slowed me down. Did get a big Recycled Goods out.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #21, Part 9)

Two weeks worth of occasional dabbling here, pulling things what now looks like randomly from the unplayed pile, and checking out some unreceived records via Rhapsody, mostly sniffing for duds. Can't say that either was all that successful, but time keeps slipping by. I should spend the next two weeks closing out this column. Shouldn't take much, but I hardly feel up to it. Don't have pick hits picked yet, and only have one dud written up (not that I haven't heard more).


David Gibson: A Little Something (2008 [2009], Posi-Tone): Trombonist, has three previous albums on Nagel Heyer since 1999. Quartet with Julius Tolentino on alto sax, Jared Gold on organ, and Quincy Davis on drums. Straightforward, with elements of soul jazz and hard bop. Tolentino is a sharpshooter, and I'm always sympathetic to trombone leads, but this drags a bit, the organ not generating much heat. B

Ricky Sweum: Pulling Your Own Strings (2008 [2009], Origin): Tenor saxophonist (soprano too, of course), b. 1974, grew up in Oregon, based in Colorado Springs, CO, where he wound up after a tour with the Air Force Academy Band. First album. Wrote everything, including song titles like "Hot Sonny Day" and "Under Sonny's Bridge" that most likely aren't about Stitt. Big sound, bold moves -- well, except for the soprano. Runs a quartet with guitar, bass, and drums -- Wayne Wilkinson gets off some nice runs on guitar. B+(**)

Diverse (2009, Origin): Eponymous group album, from Kansas City, students of Bobby Watson at University of Missouri-Kansas City, won a competition the label sponsored at the 2008 Gene Harris Jazz Festival. Watson produced, and appears on one track. Members: Hermon Mehari (trumpet), William Sanders (tenor sax), John Brewer (piano, rhodes), Ben Leifer (bass), Ryan Lee (drums). Mehari seems to be leader -- at least owns the contact email -- but Leifer is the most prolific writer, with 5 of 10 individual credits (plus a share of 2 group credits). Fashionably postbop, but nothing jumps out at me, and it drags more than a little. B-

The Aggregation: Groove's Mood (2008 [2009], DBCD): Big band, arranged and produced by trumpeter Eddie Allen, who certainly favors the sound of trumpets, although he manages to keep every other cog in the machine engaged. Lists Kevin Bryan as the lead trumpet, but takes his own solos, plus hands out one each to the other trumpets: John Bailey, Guido Gonzalez, and Cecil Bridgewater. Allen wrote 3 of 10 pieces, including the four-part "The Black Coming"; other sources include Freddie Hubbard, James Williams, Stevie Wonder, and trad. Two Wonder songs, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and "Ma Cherie Amour," get vocals from LaTanya Hall, who pretty much nails them. B+(***)

Alex Terrier New York Quartet: Roundtrip (2009, Barking Cat): French saxophonist, born in Paris; attended Berklee, another George Garzone student; lives in New York. Second album. Lively postbop quartet with Roy Assaf (piano), François Moutin (bass), and Steve Davis (drums), plus guest guitarists on 4 of 10 cuts. Mostly plays soprano, which I find the least attractive. B+(*)

Jan Garbarek Group: Dresden (2007 [2009], ECM, 2CD): Quartet, with Rainer Brüninghaus on piano/keyboards, Yugi Daniel on electric bass, Manu Katché on drums. The leader is credited with soprano and tenor sax, and selje flute. Plays a small curved soprano, which is closer to alto in dynamics than the straight horn is. Probably splits about 50-50, with the flute minor and unobjectionable. I can't really single out anything that makes this album work so well. Maybe it's that after so many highly conceptual studio albums, it's just real nice to hear him open up and blow. A-

Fred Simon: Since Forever (2008 [2009], Naim): Pianist, don't have a birth date but there's a YouTube video of a 70th birthday party. Cut his first album, Musaic on Flying Fish, in 1979, and has worked irregularly since then -- AMG likes a 1988 album on Windham Hill (probably why they list him as New Age) and a 1991 album on Columbia, in both cases his only record on those labels. They don't rate/review his three albums on Naim starting in 2000. This is a quartet, with Paul McCandless (soprano sax, oboe, English horn, bass clarinet, duduk), Steve Rodby (bass), and Mark Walker (drums, percussion). McCandless is the draw, and the results are rather mixed. Liked it more the first play, less the second; want to move on now. B+(*)

Roger Rosenberg: Baritonality (2009, Sunnyside): Baritone saxophonist, also plays soprano sax and bass clarinet. Second album, the first appearing in 2003, but has side credits going back to 1970s, starting with Buddy Rich, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, George Russell, and John Lennon (Double Fantasy); Bob Mintzer is a name that pops up a lot after that; also Barbra Streisand and Steely Dan -- note that Walter Becker is producer here. Quartet with Mark Soskin on piano, Chip Jackson on bass, Jeff Brillinger on drums, plus Peter Bernstein's guitar on one track. The bright bouncy postbop Soskin brings is fine but not all that interesting; same for Rosenberg's proficient soprano, but the more stripped down and focused on the baritone the better. B+(**)

David Ashkenazy: Out With It (2009, Posi-Tone): Drummer, from Southern California, based in New York; first record, wrote 2 of 8 songs, adding covers from Shorter, Foster, Lennon/McCartney, Alberstein, Frisell, McHugh (just gives last names, only some obvious). Sax-organ-guitar quartet, usually a soul jazz cliché, but Gary Versace is one of the few organists working who manages to stay out of the usual ruts, and Joel Frahm and Gilad Hekselman are also inspired choices. Strikes me as a drummer who likes to swing as well as bop. Studied-with list offers some hints: Jeff Hamilton, Joe LaBarbera, Peter Erskine, Kenny Washington. Played some klezmer and reggae as a teen, too. B+(***)

Jake Hertzog: Chromatosphere (2009, That's Out): Guitarist, b. 1986, graduated Berklee, based in Champaign, IL; first album. I've rather avoided playing this: front cover looks like fusion, back cover suggests a fashion sense stuck in the 1970s, and the shrinkwrap was still shrunk and wrapped. Had I opened it I might have read: "Jake Hertzog is a jazz guitarist of and for the 21st century. . . . Players in this century are mainly influenced by Pat Metheny, Mike Stern and people outside the jazz orbit like Jimi Hendrix. As a result they sound much different from their predecessors on the instrument." In general, that's not true, not enlightening, and not interesting. As for Hertzog, well, what I said. Leads a trio, plus piano on three cuts. Not very fusiony, although he's no doubt listened to rock guitarist -- Duane Allman is a name that comes to mind. Has a distinctive tone, which comes through most clearly in an old song like "Almost Like Being in Love." B+(**)

Jeff Golub: Blues for You (2009, E1 Music): Pop jazz guitarist, 9th album since 1988. Should be on safe ground sticking to blues, but fails to ask the basic question: blue about what? Can't be the roster of guest vocalists (Marc Cohn, Billy Squier, John Waite, Peter Wolf) or instrumentalists -- Chris Palmaro (organ), Kirk Whallum (sax), Jon Cleary (piano), each given one song to show off on. Thick, slick; I don't buy it for a minute. B

A.J. Kluth: Twice Now (2008 [2009], OA2): Saxophonist (tenor, soprano), from Chicago, b. 1980, has published a book of transcribed Chris Potter solos. First album, quintet with guitar-piano-bass-drums, no one I've heard of, although guitarist Nick Ascher contributes four songs (topping Kluth's three) and is a prominent soloist. Two covers, one from Chick Corea, the other from Radiohead. Bright and energetic, but run-of-the-mill postbop, not all that interesting. B

Ben Neuman: Introductions (2008 [2009], OA2): Another young pianist, from Chicago, who plays fluid postbop. How young? Well, Joey Calderazzo is third on his influences list, following Tyner and Jarrett. First album, a trio with Dennis Carroll and George Fludas. Wrote one song, filling up the album with standards plus Coltrane, Silver, and Hancock. B+(*)

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet: ˇBien Bien! (2009, Patois): Trombonist, from San Francisco, b. 1952, has released four quick Latin jazz albums since 2006, the first three not making much of an impression on me. No obvious Latin names in the band -- Murray Low (piano), David Belove (bass), Paul van Wageningen (trap drums), Michael Spiro (percussion) -- but this comes close to getting it right, with all the jerky time changes and the complex polyrhythms. Four guests add more trombone (Julien Priester) and vocals. Not sure about the vocals, sporadic and erratic. Worth playing again. [B+(***)]

Lhasa: Lhasa (2009, Nettwerk): A singer-songwriter whose exotic name gets her slotted as world music -- the full McCoy is Lhasa de Sela, from Big Indian, NY; parents from Mexico; she wound up in Montreal, Canada, or maybe France. This doesn't sound like it comes from anywhere or is going anywhere. Doesn't even sound folkish, just sort of neutral, peaceful, New Age with words. B-

Nicola Conte: Rituals (2009, Emarcy): Italian guitarist, DJ, producer, dabbles in film scores, bossa nova, acid jazz, ethnic Indian music. AMG files him under electronica, which is true of most of the beats here. A mixed bag of pieces, with five vocalists, all in English, and large groups of musicians, mostly Italian. On a couple of items the horns steer the pieces toward jazz. By far the best is "Caravan," and blazing trumpet solos by Till Brönner and Fabrizio Bosso, and a vocal by Philipp Weiss that actually helps. Certainly a choice cut. The rest I'm not so sure of. B+(*)

Chuck & Albert: Énergie (2009, chuckandalbert.com): Two brothers, Chuck and Albert Arsenault, one plays guitar and harmonica, the other fiddle and assorted things, ranging from cowbell to diaper-wipe box. They make Canadian hillbilly music, assuming Prince Edward Island has anything that might pass for hills, in any case en français, so you may have to go to the trot sheet for the jokes, not that the music itself in any way lacks good humour. B+(**)

Eric Alexander: Revival of the Fittest (2009, High Note): Apposite title: normally a very "solid" (a title), "dead center" (another title) "man with a horn" (yet another title), he's been rather erratic the last few years, but he sounds pretty revived this time. Maybe it was David Hazeltine's fault? He certainly owes Harold Mabern hearty thanks this time. B+(***)

Cedar Walton: Voices Deep Within (2009, High Note): Half piano trio, half quartet adding Vincent Herring on tenor sax. The alternation makes the split less obvious, and also a bit disorienting. Walton's previous album, Seasoned Wood, was one of his best. Checking back, I see that not only is Jeremy Pelt gone, the previous Peter Washington-Al Foster bass-drums section has given way to Buster Williams and Willie Jones III. Still a good showcase for Walton's piano, but lacking several of those edges that often make him such a superb bandleader. B+(**)

Dave Holland/Gonzalo Rubalcaba/Chris Potter/Eric Harland: The Monterey Quartet: Live at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (2007 [2009], Monterey Jazz Festival): All-star live jam session, does pretty much what you'd expect, with both Rubalcaba and Potter working their full mojo in. Only surprise for me is that Harland, who has no catalog under his name, contributed his share of songs -- breaks out two each. No surprise that Holland and Harland can go Cuban, even on their own songs. B+(***)

Paolo Conte: Psiche (2009, Platinum/Universal): Italian singer-songwriter, b. 1937, likened by some to French paragons like Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens; given his gravelly voice and casual worldliness the analogue I'm tempted to offer is Leonard Cohen. I doubt, though, that it holds up to close examination. B+(*)

Gordon Grdina's East Van Strings (The Breathing of Statues (2006-07 [2009], Songlines): Canadian guitar and oud player, based in Vancouver, does interesting work but doesn't make it easy. This set where he's joined by violin-viola-cello is a good deal more difficult than usual. From the other room it sounds like slightly annoying classical chamber music. When I settle down and pay close attention it seems more interesting but still rather inscrutable. The string players are notable jazz musicians in their own right: Jesse Zubot (violin), Eyvind Kang (viola), and Peggy Lee (cello). I suspect that there is a good deal more to this, but doubt that I'll ever figure it out. B+(*)


These are some even quicker notes based on downloading or streaming records. I don't have the packaging here, don't have the official hype, often don't have much information to go on. I have a couple of extra rules here: everything gets reviewed/graded in one shot (sometimes with a second play), even when I'm still guessing on a grade; the records go into my flush file (i.e., no Jazz CG entry, unless I make an exception for an obvious dud). If/when I get an actual copy I'll reconsider the record.

Kurt Elling: Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (2009, Concord): The 1963 John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman is one of those records that always seemed like it should be better than it is. Coltrane's Ballads, from 1962, was one of his most deeply pleasurable albums. Hartman was a smooth singer who could be an asset in the right setting. The Tyner-Garrison-Jones rhythm section was in peak form. But it really doesn't live up to all the wishful thinking invested in it. Elling doesn't exactly try to recreate it: he adds a couple songs, working several others into medleys. He adds some strings. He taps Ernie Watts for the tenor sax role -- a welcome choice but about as far away from Coltrane as contemporary saxophonists get. Of course, Elling is even further removed from Hartman. He manages to bury his vocalese shtick, only rarely lapsing into his idiosyncrasies, mostly keeping his voice in tune. Recorded live, throwing in some backstory of the album. B- [Rhapsody]

The Terence Blanchard Group: Choices (2009, Concord): This is a mess, difficult to sort out under the best of circumstances, hopeless streamed one time through a tinny computer. Blanchard has done a fair amount of soundtrack work, on top of which he likes to orchestrate high-minded concept albums -- e.g., his score to Malcolm X followed by The Malcolm X Jazz Suite (much better). He makes both work sometimes but he's also pretty erratic. This has a few overripe stretches, but it also has some respectable semi-trad jazz and some blistering trumpet. It also has long stretches of spoken word, courtesy of Dr. Cornel West, that break up the music. I couldn't follow them all, but what I heard is interesting in its own right, if not necessarily in the context of an album. Generally less conspicuous, but more annoying, are the soft soul vocals of Bilal. Real grade could be a bit higher or lower -- maybe more but right now it doesn't seem cost-effective to figure it all out. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

Stefon Harris & Blackout: Urbanus (2009, Concord): Vibraphone player, got a big boost signing with Blue Note in 1998, one of the first jazz musicians who grew up with hip-hop and promised to fuse the two together. This album looks like he's still pushing that line, but it sounds like something else altogether: fractured rhythmically, Monk-like but working different angles, augmented by Marc Cary's keybs and a palette of soft reeds -- flute, alto flute, clarinet, bass clarinet. Some vocals, or vocoder, muddies the water a bit -- not to my taste, but interesting still. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

Medeski Martin & Wood: Radiolarians II (2008 [2009], Indirecto): The second of three discs of presumably related material -- I didn't get these, although I've been getting hype for a forthcoming box set that pulls them all together (not that that guarantees I'll get the box set either). Radiolarians are protozoa with intricate mineral skeletons. Medeski composed all but one of the pieces here (other comes from Rev. Gary Davis), but the stripped down, rhythm-first feel reminds me more of Billy Martin's sideline records, especially when Medeski plays piano. I like it more than anything I've heard by the group in a long time. Medeski wheels the organ out near the end on "Amish Pintxos" and that works fine too. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Medeski Martin & Wood: Radiolarians III (2008 [2009], Indirecto): Evidently the end of this series, starts more abstractly with more piano, shifts midway to organ and pumps up the volume, ends toned down again. Group comps this time. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

Lucky Thompson: New York City, 1964-65 (1964-65 [2009], Uptown Jazz, 2CD): An excpetional saxophonist whose slim discography has gradually built up as lost sessions and live shots have been uncovered. Two more, the first disc an octet at the Little Theater, the second a quartet at the Half Note, neither indispensible but the sheer beauty of Thompson's tenor sax comes out especially in the smaller group setting. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

Mike Stern: Big Neighborhood (2009, Heads Up): Electric guitarist, learned fusion under Miles Davis, but it was rather late in the game when Davis was well past his peak. He's never much impressed me on his own, garnering a dud for Who Let the Cats Out? last time. New record is more groovewise, mostly metallic but one song sounds slightly African. Don't have the breakdown of which guests play on which cuts, and not sure that it makes a lot of difference. Most common effect is to wrap some vocals around the mainline, but not even that gets annoying. B [Rhapsody]

Ted Nash: The Mancini Project (2007 [2008], Palmetto): Saxophonist, leaning more toward tenor this time, also playing alto, soprano, alto flute, and piccolo, leading a quartet -- Frank Kimbrough (piano), Rufus Reid (bass), Matt Wilson (drums) -- on an all-Mancini program. Most Mancini projects play up the playful side of catchy soundtrack tunes, but Nash drills straight into the melodies. Would have preferred less flute, but even that is nicely thought out. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Herb Alpert & Lani Hall: Live: Anything Goes (2009, Concord): Hall, a/k/a Mrs. Herb Alpert, first emerged as the vocalist for Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66. She cut 7 albums for A&M from 1972-84, a couple in Spanish. Alpert, of course, is a trumpeter whose Tijuana Brass band scored several pop hits in the 1960s, "Whipped Cream" being one of the more substantial. Mostly indelible standards, with "Besame Mucho" and a Djavan song the only entries from south of the border. Hall rarely gets much traction with the songs; Alpert's trumpet is a plus. B [Rhapsody]

Roy Hargrove Big Band: Emergence (2008 [2009], Emarcy): Mainstream trumpet player, made a big splash early on which still serves him well in polls. Has tried his hand at Cuban and pop-funk, and now moves on to big band, weighing in heavy at 18 pieces plus occasional vocalist Roberta Gambarini. Some nice things here, like a "My Funny Valentine" that stays on the delicate side, and plenty of power when Hargrove wants to put pedal to the metal. Gambarini is nothing special here. B+(*) [Rhapsody]


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: Found in the mail this week (two weeks, actually):

  • Fred Anderson: 21st Century Chase (Delmark)
  • Samuel Blaser Quartet: Pieces of Old Sky (Clean Feed)
  • Blink.: The Epidemic of Ideas (Thirsty Ear)
  • Anouar Brahem: The Astounding Eyes of Rita (ECM)
  • Tom Braxton: Endless Highway (Pacific Coast Jazz)
  • Gary Burton/Chick Corea: Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79 (1972-79, ECM, 4CD)
  • Chuck & Albert: Énergie (chucketalbert.com)
  • Jamie Cullum: The Pursuit (Verve): advance, Mar. 20
  • DJ Spooky: The Secret Song (Thirsty Ear)
  • Anne Drummond: Like Water (ObliqSound) *
  • Zé Eduardo Unit: Livein Capuchos (Clean Feed)
  • Marty Ehrlich Rites Quartet: Things Have Got to Change (Clean Feed)
  • Harris Eisenstadt: Canada Day (Clean Feed)
  • Nobuyasu Furuya Trio: Bendowa (Clean Feed)
  • Jim Gailloreto's Jazz String Quintet: American Complex (Origin Classical)
  • Ray Gehring & Commonwealth: Radio Trails (Evan Music)
  • Jonathon Haffner: Life on Wednesday (Cachuma)
  • Darryl Harper: Stories in Real Time (Hipnotic)
  • Keith Jarrett: Testament (ECM, 3CD)
  • Nick Kadajski's 5 Point Perspective: Remembering Things to Come (Circavision)
  • Komeda Project: Requiem (WM)
  • Ben Neill: Night Science (Thirsty Ear)
  • Gary Peacock/Marc Copland: Insight (Pirouet)
  • Ben Perowsky: Moodswing Orchetra (El Destructo)
  • Alberto Pinton/Jonas Kullhammar/Torbjörn Zetterberg/Kjell Nordeson: Chant (Clean Feed)
  • Chris Potter Underground: Ultrahang (ArtistShare)
  • Q'd Up: Quintessence (Jazz Hang)
  • Mike Reed's People, Places & Things: About Us (482 Music)
  • Júlio Resende: Assim Falava Jazzatustra (Clean Feed)
  • Charles Rumback: Two Kinds of Art Thieves (Clean Feed)
  • Gene Segal: Hypnotic (Innova)
  • Tyshawn Sorey: Koan (482 Music) *
  • Loren Stillman: Winter Fruits (Pirouet)
  • Chad Taylor: Circle Down (482 Music)
  • Terry Waldo's Gutbucket Syncopators: The Ohio Theatre Concert (1974, Delmark)
  • Weightless: A Brush With Destiny (Clean Feed)
  • Pete M. Wyer: Stories From the City at Night (Thirsty Ear)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Recycled Goods (66): September 2009

See file.


Sep 2009 Nov 2009