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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll

When Gary Giddins left the Village Voice back in 2004, Robert Christgau had to figure out some way to fill giant shoes. He tapped Francis Davis to fill in with monthly essays, me to mop up with a quarterly Jazz Consumer Guide, and Nate Chinen to fill in some live coverage. One idea that Davis brought in was to run an annual jazz critics poll. The fourth such poll appeared today, with 99 critics voting for 576 records. Davis wrote a summary article, and as I've done several times in the past, I wrote a sidebar "second opinion" piece. The links are:

One technical problem loomed large here, which is the amount of work it would take to be able to post all of the individual ballots. This was made all the more critical by a snafu which caused last year's ballots to disappear from the Voice website. This year they farmed the job out to me. I hacked together something quick and dirty, splitting the ballots up into five flat files. I also added a longer totals file (possibly more such files to come):

In my article, I ran out of space for everything I wanted to mention honorably, so I proposed ending my piece with a link to a longer list. I culled this list from my working year-end list, taking a snapshot limited to jazz releases:

One reason for publishing the whole thing is to provide some context for the top ten list. I always complain about how it only scratches the surface, but here that's visible: that top ten amounts to just 1.47% of 681 records considered. (Admittedly, the 89 unrated records were considered mostly by not being deemed critical enough to stuff into my CD player, but some I did play and didn't make up my mind on, and some arrived at the last minute when I was already swamped.)

The list also shows that my access to reissues is pretty limited and arbitrary: only 86 records. I figure a typical year has about 2000 new jazz releases, so I'm hearing over 30% of them. There are about 1000 reissues, of which I'm hitting less than 10%. Those are figures I worked up 3-4 years ago, and they're probably still close to accurate. I wanted to build a list of records I know I didn't get -- what Rumsfeld called the "known unknowns" -- but didn't get far enough to show it with any confidence. Something else to work on.

For comparison, you might also look at JazzTimes' poll:

The JazzTimes poll tapped 40 critics, vs. 99 for the Voice poll. Of these 19 were in both polls, so the differences were 21 unique JazzTimes voters (53%) vs. 80 Voice (81%). Still, the results were similar, with the Voice's top 8 finishing in JT's top 12, and JT's top 6 finishing in the Voice's top 8: VV's big gainer was Jim Hall-Bill Frisell (30 to 9), while JT's gainer was Gary Burton-Pat Metheny (38 to 8). There is some reason to think that VV's separate categories for Latin and Vocal suppressed the overall results for category winners Miguel Zenón (8 to 3) and Gretchen Parlato (28 to 8). The Voice has more voters with avant interests, but they tend to scatter their votes so widely that they have little effect on the upper echelons of the poll. (VV voters listed more than twice as many distinct albums as JT voters.) On the other hand, behind every avant-gardist who finished more or less high is a well-known publicist (Fully Altered and Improvised Communications placed 7 records on JT's 50 and 10 on VV's 40), with Linda Oh's self-released debut the obvious fluke.

I've heard 46 of 50 JT records: the exceptions are Dee Alexander, SFJazz Collective, Linda Oh, and Stanley Clarke. I've heard 48 of 50 on the VV list: I missed Linda Oh and Von Freeman. I had 3 of the Voice's top 10 at A- (Iyer, Lehman, Toussaint); the rest down in the B+ range (although Argue and Zenón were streamed and could have benefitted from more play). The best finish from my top ten list was Bill Frisell at 11, followed by David S. Ware at 35, and a couple of my top ten votes had no other support (Brad Shepik, Hairy Bones, Dennis González). The latter two got virtually no promo, which isn't decisive but is critical.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tatum Guest List

I asked Michael Tatum to write up a year-end top-ten list for a guest post. He started off with two of my top three, but wound up with five records that didn't make my A-list: five that I've only heard on Rhapsody and probably need to take more seriously. Tatum writes:

  1. Lily Allen: It's Not Me, It's You (Capitol). This is the only '09 record that I played addictively. I'm not sure if it's stronger song for song than . . .
  2. Leonard Cohen: Live in London (Columbia, 2CD) . . . but there's something to be said about something you accomplish over the course of a year and something accrued over time, as wonderful as this record is. I've yet to see the DVD concert of this, but my father reported he was mesmerized.
  3. Brad Paisley: Another Saturday Night (Arista). "Welcome to the Future" is my favorite song of the year, even if it was tainted by our pledging of additional troops in Afghanistan. Welcome to the future? I say meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Well, maybe that's too cynical, too reductive: after all, the old boss said God told him it was the right thing to do, while this one cites "reason." Which is worse?

  4. The XX: The XX (XL). This one is so tailored to my aural taste that I wonder if someone has been picking my brain while I sleep. Certainly dreams are where this great young duo live.
  5. Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador). All of SY's 00's records rank at least an A- for me, but how anyone could prefer this to, say, Rather Ripped is beyond me.
  6. Wussy: Wussy (Shake It). I felt ambivalently toward their first two records; this one makes me wonder what I missed. Though I suppose I never would have been moved toward the lyric sheet (lots of great details) if I hadn't been roped in by the superb tunes. Guess I'll have to do some backtracking.
  7. Tune-yards: Bird-brains (4AD). I refuse to bow to the silly typescript thing, but the DIY ethos hasn't been this fully realized since the Magnetic Fields.
  8. Neil Young: Fork in the Road (Reprise). Neil Young does another concept album: was afraid of a repeat of Greendale, or Journey Through the Past. Turns out it's the songs, not the concept. Duh.
  9. Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch). Haven't found Jeff Tweedy this likeable since the Woody Guthrie records. Every now and then, a little selling out (whatever that is) does one good.
  10. Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel (Bismeaux). Needs no explanation. Provided glorious backdrop to an otherwise insufferable dinner with my grandmother (the food, not the company).

Caveat: since I'm neither writing nor working in record retail, I've probably listened to fewer records this year than any year since . . . high school? Records of note that I've missed thus far include Loudon Wainwright, second Franco comp [Francophonic, Vol. 2], Mulatu Astatke, Nellie McKay, Jay-Z, others. I've been playing the Black Eyed Peas enthusiastically, but it's too new in my mind to qualify here. Top-drawer records like Marianne Faithfull and Amadou & Mariam start off strong, but taper off more than, say, the Wilco record. Nirvana and Oumou Sangare were on the cusp. Wish I could have listened more. Whine, whine, etc.

Nothing here that's not on Christgau's list, but aside from jazz I don't have much either: Ghostface Killah, Mika, Metric, Shakira, Syran Mbenza, Ersatzmusika, and some of the rootsier things that I'm partial to -- Maria Muldaur, Tanya Tucker, Rosanne Cash, Buddy & Julie Miller. And I'll be real surprised if Ghostface and Shakira don't figure in the next CG. On the other hand, the only records on Tatum's list that are faring well (top 10-15) in the polls are the XX and Wilco, with Lily Allen and Sonic Youth in the next tier, and Paisley in the top 2-4 country records.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Music Week

Music: Current count 16194 [16184] rated (+10), 770 [771] unrated (-1).

  • Franco: Francophonic Vol. 2 (1980-89 [2009], Sterns Africa, 2CD): A+
  • Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar: Devla: Blown Away to Dancefloor Heaven (2009, Piranha): [was: B+(***)] A-
  • Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy: Good Time Music for Hard Times (2009, Stony Plain): A-


No Jazz Prospecting

No Jazz Prospecting this week. Lots of things got in the way: holiday events, construction projects, Christgau website maintenance, another time-consuming programming job. Some year-end list stuff. Been playing a lot of music I don't need to write about; haven't felt like writing about even stuff I do need to cover. Weather has been really awful, too. Next week will be better. That's what they always say.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Health Care Reform

I, for one, am pleased that the Senate passed any kind of health care reform bill. Without the reforms it is virtually impossible for me to buy functional insurance at virtually any price. I wish the bill covered more people more affordably. I wish the bill did a much more aggressive job of tackling the critical problem in the system here, which is profit-seeking by virtually everyone involved. This has led to fragmentation and unnecessary complexity, to obfuscation and propagandizing. This leads patients to not understand when they do or do not need treatment, making critical decisions based on all sorts of things that should be secondary or irrelevant. This tempts doctors to give more or less or just different treatment than the patient actually needs. This leads drug companies to mislead us on medications, including covering up major harm. This has led to all sorts of things that have very little to do with promoting public health. Most impressively of late this system has done everything within its considerable power to corrupt political discourse. That anything positive has come out of it is remarkable.

I've been thinking about the health care system for a long time now. I have some pretty straightforward ideas about how to fix most of the problems, and they led me to favor different solutions from the one that Congress settled on. Everyone likes their pet ideas, and I'm no different in that respect, but T.R. Reid's recent book is helpful in showing that there are actually many variations on health care system that all work much better than the one we have, both in terms of lower costs and better outcomes. In theory, I'm inclined to favor a "Beveridge Model" system like the UK has (or like the US provides through the Veterans Administration), where all services are government run. But the UK system tends to be underfunded, resulting in longer delays and fewer options than we are used to (assuming you have reasonably good insurance here in the US). Especially in terms of availability and flexibilty, it looks like the best health care systems in the world are in France and Japan, which use private insurance and providers, but regulate them severely, in effect squeezing the profit motive out of the system. This has led to great cost efficiencies in the systems: for example, an MRI that costs over $1000 in the US costs $100 in Japan -- a situation which allows Japanese doctors to order more MRIs and still save money. But the various systems aren't exclusionary: it's easy to imagine a UK-type system pursuing upstream supplier costs like the Japanese do. It's easy to imagine a Canadian system with adequate funding for specialists: in fact, that's what the US Medicare system does.

Reid offers good and bad news on prospects for change in the US. He shows two examples of systems that were similar to ours (profit-seeking, out-of-pocket) up to 1994 but were then changed successfully: Switzerland and Taiwan. In the Swiss case, the main change was to require private insurance companies to refund any profits. Before the change, Switzerland had the second most expensive health care system in the world at 11% of GDP, just 1% behind the US. Fifteen years later, Switzerland is still second, still at 11%, while the US GDP cut has boomed to 17% and is still headed up. Taiwan did a bit more, and got better results: they adopted a Canadian-style single payer scheme. The good news here is that such change is possible. The bad news is that in both Switzerland and Taiwan the changes were pushed through by conservative political parties, preferring to compete with the left-liberal parties by adopting progressive change on their own terms. In both cases, the decision was arrived at not just politically but morally: in both cases, even conservatives agreed that equal access to health care should be a right for all people, not just for those who can afford it. Of course, that's not bad news for Switzerland and Taiwan; it's bad news for us, where even the Democrats have trouble articulating health care as a fundamental right, and where Republicans are nothing short of shameless. Not a single Republican voted for health care reform this year, despite the numerous deals that Obama negotiated with the AMA, the pharmaceutical industry, and other lobbyists, despite the fact that insurance company stock prices rose on passage. The Republicans have moved past their usual stance of sucking up to industry; on health care they're into pure ideological malevolence. So the near term prospects for conservatives doing anything responsible are close to nil.


For a taste of Reid's book, look here.


Matthew Yglesias: Mitch McConnell's Proud Unipartisanship. Quotes the Republican Senate Minority Leader:

This fight isn't over. It's going to be a multi-cycle campaign issue. Many Democrats will be defeated over this. The landscape is shifting. We have an excellent chance of having the cavalry arrive next year. The Democrats will be more skittish. A substantial number of them will want to change the subject as rapidly as possible. [Health care] is a huge political loser for them.

And they say generals always prepare to re-fight the last war. Republicans remember how their intransigent opposition to Clinton's 1993 health care reform effort was followed by Republican wins in the 1994 congressional election, so they figure what worked then will work now. That strikes me as monumentally stupid, both as a political strategy and as a reading of history. The single biggest difference is that Obama passed his bill whereas Clinton failed to get his bill out of committee. Clinton's failure looked incompetent, then when he walked away from the bill like some embarrassing road kill, he gave Democrats little reason to expect more from him. On the other hand, Obama persevered, against tough odds, and he comes out of this with something to defend.

At most, the defeat of health care contributed some moment to the Republicans in 1994. Their big issue was the corruption of Congress under long-term Democratic rule, and it was largely H. Ross Perot who turned the tide in their favor. After that they used every trick of incumbency to hang onto narrow margins until 2006 when their own corruption finally sunk them. During the 15 years between Clinton's failure and Obama's success, Republican intransigence and blindness has allowed a predatory health care industry to increase its share of GDP from 12% to 17%, during which time more and more people were unable to buy or afford insurance, bankruptcies proliferated, and the US sunk further and further on most international metrics of health. Those are costs that fall not just on the poor and working families; they cut into business profits and burden manufacturers, who in turn cut real wages and/or export jobs. Against these trends, the Republicans have done nothing, turning a blind eye to greed and a cold heart to suffering and fear. They've made a lot of noise, and worked themselves up into a frenzy, but it's all been negative, paranoid, surreal. Aside from their fanatic base, will anyone else believe them? Why would anyone else trust them?

I'm not saying the Democrats have no problems. They have all of our problems: continuing pointless wars, economic rot, solutions that don't go far enough. But they can point back to the wreckage of Republican rule, which is all the more credible given that the best the Republicans can claim is that Bush screwed up because he was a big spending big government closet case. And they can point to their own pragmatic moderation, which gets real (but modest) results without upsetting the Establishment. The Democrats would have it made if the Establishment showed them equal respect, but even so, the Republicans seem determined to make sanity the issue the next couple of election cycles turn on. The last time they exposed their conservatism so nakedly was Goldwater.

Paul Krugman: Simulating Single-Payer. A little economic analysis arguing that Hackerish health care plans, like the one in Massachusetts and the one the Senate just passed, approximately simulate single-payer plans: "just imperfect, somewhat inefficient ways of simulating the results of a single-payer system." This is basically the same thing as we get out of Reid, who shows time and again how universal coverage ("community rated") private insurance systems approximate the behavior of single-payer systems. You can take this as reason not to get too disappointed that Obama and the Democratic leadership didn't stick their necks out for a real single-payer system. On the other hand, the inefficiency is likely to be more than "somewhat," and the imperfections glaring. It all depends on how strictly regulated the insurance companies are, and how efficiently the market can be made to work. Up to now the key to profits has been inefficient markets: opaqueness at every stage, lack of standardization in billing, uncertainty in payments, complexity everywhere, monopoly rents nearly everywhere. There is a lot of room here for savings without sacrificing one iota of service, but I expect the interests to fight efficiency as doggedly as they've fought equality. Single-payer may not in principle be any more efficient than a well-managed private system like in Japan. But single-payer would be much simpler, and would show political will to make it work. And while it may not have been politically practical, the main reason is that leaders who know better didn't have the guts to go for it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pazz & Jop Ballot

This is always a snapshot, but due Dec. 24, I decided to go ahead and send in what I had a wee bit early. Only change due to recent listening was that Wainwright cracked the list -- he may eventually rise a bit higher. Brooke is a 2008 release, but got no mentions in my 2008 meta list (unlike 1508 other new releases), so I don't feel bad about having missed it back then. I usually don't put reissues on this ballot, but made an exception for Franco. For some reason I was feeling that the list would be weak on top, although at ten deep that's hardly ever a problem. What is a problem is spending enough time with with records to let them really sink in. I took Lily Allen with me on every trip I made this year, and got to love every song. Can't really say that for the rest of the list -- except for Leonard Cohen, where I already knew every song.

  1. Lily Allen: It's Not Me, It's You (Capitol) 18
  2. Franco: Francophonic, Vol. 2 (Sterns Africa, 2CD) 12
  3. Leonard Cohen: Live in London (Columbia, 2CD) 10
  4. Willie Nelson/Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel (Bismeaux) 10
  5. Matthew Shipp: Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear) 10
  6. Oumou Sangare: Seya (World Circuit/Nonesuch) 8
  7. Jonatha Brooke: The Works (BDR -08) 8
  8. K'naan: Troubadour (A&M/Octone) 8
  9. The Fully Celebrated: Drunk on the Blood of the Holy Ones (AUM Fidelity) 8
  10. Loudon Wainwright III: High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project (161, 2CD) 8

Only two jazz records, down from the last few years. Only one rap record, also down. Three African is a up, but counts the rapper (who, by the way, topped last year's ballot). I count Brooke and Wainwright as folk, which hardly ever appears this high, although one country album is about the norm. I file Allen and Cohen under rock, which won't much impress the rockists. I like guitar bands fine, but I'm rarely impressed enough with one to budget a ballot slot for one. (Franco may have initially bumped Yeah Yeah Yeahs out of the bubble spot, but in the end I had several options.)

My A-list is very much in flux right now. It currently numbers 101 records (excluding Franco), of which 55 are jazz, 46 something else. Of those, 23 owe their grades to fleeting acquaintances on Rhapsody, and they tend to be bunched near the bottom of the list, including a disproportionate share ofthe rock, rap, and country. (Another dozen were first heard on Rhapsody then begged or bought.) Since 2006, A-lists have run 117, 108, and 101 records long (including 9, 8, and 16 late adds), so this year's is similar -- fewer full-A records at the top, a bit more A- than usual.

I didn't do a songs ballot. I don't keep track of songs, don't really think of music in that way, and it seems like a bad time to try to hack something together. Website is a little out of sync right now, with the year-end list research both volatile and prone to breakage. The research suggests that the only record on my ballot with much chance of finishing in the top 40 is Lily Allen, somewhere around 20. K'naan and Cohen are outside shots, probably closer to 60 than 40. Nelson, Wainwright, and Sangare could finish in the top 100, but I wouldn't bet much on it. Brooke is the one most likely to be on nobody else's ballot, followed by the Fully Celebrated (probably on 2-3 ballots). Glenn McDonald has a scheme for processing Pazz & Jop data to show "critic similarity" -- the inverse of this ranking scheme shows obscurantism. I usually wind up about 3/4 down the list, and that's what I expect here: well out of the critical mainstream, but not totally in my own little world. I think that's about right.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Music Week

Music: Current count 16184 [16154] rated (+30), 771 [771] unrated (+0). Pretty much utterly failed to make progress on Jazz CG. Did spend a lot of time with year end lists, which are depressing in their own right.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #22, Part 8)

Tempted to skip posting Jazz Prospecting this week just because I'm so disgusted with my lack of progress, but I guess there's enough to show, including the inevitable first breaches in last week's forced conclusion to the year-end list. Not sure why it got so out of hand: some rather frustrating work on the kitchen had a hand in it, plus I spent a lot of low-brain time looking at year-end lists. My meta compendium of these lists is here. The sampling is rather haphazard, but it still seems all but inevitable that the Pazz & Jop poll will wind up: 1) Animal Collective; 2) Phoenix, 3) Grizzly Bear; 4) Yeah Yeah Yeahs; 5) Dirty Projectors, with XX and Girls the late-breakers, Wilco the only serious old guard contender, and token hip-hop albums by Raekwon and Mos Def are too far down to challenge the top five. Of the top five, It's Blitz is the only one I like much: Phoenix seems OK, Animal Collective an annoying jumble of both better and worse, and the other two close to unlistenable. I'm finding that rather disconcerting: there have always been records I didn't like, but I'm not used to things that I simply cannot comprehend, much less records that are evidently vastly popular. (It's all the more curious that New York Times jazz critics Ben Ratliff and Nate Chinen included the three in their mostly-jazz year-end lists.)

Meanwhile, I'm thrashing on Jazz CG, so will make no more predictions about it, especially with holiday disruptions all but inevitable.


The New Mellow Edwards: Big Choantza (2009, Skirl): Second album by this quartet, named after the first album, which was attributed to trombonist Curtis Hasselbring. The others both times are Chris Speed (clarinet, tenor sax), Trevor Dunn (bass), and John Hollenbeck (drums). Basically a freewheeling two-horn quartet, a little less mobile with the trombone-clarinet pairing, although Hollenbeck helps out in that regard. B+(**)

Will Holshouser Trio + Bernardo Sassetti: Palace Ghosts and Drunken Hymns (2008 [2009], Clean Feed): Accordion player, has a couple of previous albums on Clean Feed. Trio adds trumpeter Ron Horton, who is sparkling throughout, and bassist David Phillips. Sassetti is a Portuguese pianist I have high regard for, but he doesn't make much of an impression here. "Drunkard's Hymn" is fully achieved; it is credibed to Holshouser but its roots are deep in trad. B+(**)

Nicolas Masson Parallels: Thirty Six Ghosts (2008 [2009], Clean Feed): Tenor saxophonist, b. 1972 and raised in Geneva, Switzerland, has a couple of previous records. This is a quartet: Colin Vallon (fender rhodes), Patrice Moret (bass), and Leionel Friedli (drums). Website describes this as "at the same time remotely familiar and completely unclassifiable" -- only good that statement does is to make me feel better about not being able to come up with a description. Coltrane-ish in a moderated way, the electric piano providing somewhat unusual accents -- organ without the heaviness, xylophone with reverb. B+(**)

Tony Malaby's Apparitions: Voladores (2009, Clean Feed): Saxophonist, mostly tenor, some soprano, almost invariably steals the show as a sideman, but somewhat less successful as a leader. Group includes Drew Gress on bass, Tom Rainey on drums, and John Hollenbeck on more drums plus marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, melodica, and small kitchen appliances. For all his billing, Hollenbeck doesn't leave a lasting impression. The record inches along on the sharp edge of Malaby's sax, which is riveting enough. B+(***)

Jacques Schwarz-Bart: Abyss (2009, ObliqSound): Tenor saxophonist (one track soprano), b. 1962 in Guadeloupe, mother black, father was French-Jewish, both novelists; grew up shuttling back and forth between Guadeloupe and Switzerland, picking up gwoka drums in one place, jazz in the other. Has a couple of previous albums. Huge sound, always makes a big impression. About half vocal tracks with several singers and a poem by Simone Schwarz-Bart: not sure they add much, but they go with the flow, making something of an organic whole. Band includes guitarist Hervé Samb of David Murray's Gwotet. Concludes with two remixes; I rather like the synthbeats. B+(**)

Dennis González: A Matter of Blood (2008 [2009], Furthermore): Trumpet player, on a roll lately with a half dozen or so new albums out. Quartet, with Curtis Clark on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, Michael T.A. Thompson on a drum set he calls a soundrhythium. Old school avant-garde, with everyone playing at a high level. B+(***)

Gary Burton/Pat Metheny/Steve Swallow/Antonio Sanchez: Quartet Live (2007 [2009], Concord): I've never really gotten the point of Pat Metheny, but he's certainly the force that holds this surprisingly agreeable group together. He keeps it all moving swiftly forward, with electric bassist Swallow blending in seamlessly, which leaves vibraphonist Burton little to do but react. He's produced a lot of mediocre (and some hideous) records over 45 years now, but one thing he's always had is quick reflexes, and they're a plus here. B+(*)

Kyle Eastwood: Metropolitan (2009, Rendezvous): Bassist son of actor Clint Eastwood. Physicist Sheldon Glashow once had a story about being at some sort of celebrity autograph thing and noticing that the guy next to him was getting a lot more traffic than he was. He asked the guy who he was, and got "Clint Eastwood" for an answer. Asked him what he was famous for, and got "you gotta be kidding." Kyle has been lurking on Clint's soundtracks for the past decade, although Lennie Niehaus is still the director's jazz professor emeritus. Fourth album since 1998, not counting his soundtrack to Letters From Iwo Jima. Advance copy with no credit info either on sleeve or hypesheet, other than that Miles Davis's son Erin co-produced. Mostly groove tracks, with non-cheezy electric keybs, bass and drums, some nice spots of trumpet (Til Brönner), two vocals (Camille). B+(*) [advance: June 2]

The Godforgottens: Never Forgotten, Always Remembered (2006 [2009], Clean Feed): Magnus Broo on trumpet, Sten Sandell on organ (with some piano and a bit of throat singing), Johan Berthling on double bass, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I've seen this described as Sandell's trio plus Broo, but Nilssen-Love has surely played as much with Broo as with Sandell. Three long pieces, jointly credited, which usually means made up on the spot. Sandell works in a mode totally divorced from soul jazz, and manages to make quite a bit out of it. Broo, for once, is the only horn, so he has the field clear, and takes to it aggressively. A-

Anthony Braxton/Maral Yakshieva: Improvisations (Duo) 2008 (2008 [2009], SoLyd, 2CD): Yakshieva is a pianist, b. 1968, from Turkmenistan, based in Moscow since 1995. Background looks to be good Communist fare -- folk melodies and classical -- although she has also tangled with Roscoe Mitchell. Two disc-length improvs, one 57:08, the other 51:47. Braxton goes easy on her, displaying a light ballad touch you may not have noticed much in his last 200+ albums. He's often quite wonderful, and while she doesn't stretch much, she's game to play along. B+(***)


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

Darius Jones Trio: Man'ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing) (2009, AUM Fidelity): Brooklyn alto saxophonist; I think this qualifies as his debut album. With Cooper-Moore on piano as well as diddley-bow (a potent bass substitute) and Rakalam Bob Moses on drums. I've been resisting this, perhaps for no better reason than I don't want to seem like a sucker for every saxophonist Steven Joerg digs up, but I am -- Joerg even managed to get a good album out of Kidd Jordan. Beauty is up to the beholder, but this certainly is raw, with a down and dirty blues base and plenty of squawk on the uptake. His sax is belabored, and he keeps it down in the tenor range where it sounds scrawny and mean. At least until he slows down and Cooper-Moore switches from his diddley-bow roughhousing back to piano, which is elegant, not sure about beautiful. A-


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


Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:

  • Charlie Apicella & Iron City: Sparks (Carlo Music): Mar. 9
  • Burkina Electric: Paspanga (Cantaloupe): Feb. 9
  • Empirical: Out 'n' In (Naim Jazz): Feb. 2
  • Sofia Rei Koutsovitis: Sube Azul (World Village/Harmonia Mundi): Jan. 12
  • Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar: Devla: Blown Away to Dancefloor Heaven (Piranha)
  • Nilson Matta's Brazilian Voyage: Copacabana (Zoho): Feb. 10
  • Tineke Postma: The Traveller (Etcetera Now): Jan. 10
  • Refugee All Stars: Rise & Shine (Cumbancha): advance, Mar. 23
  • Tierra Negra & Muriel Anderson: New World Flamenco (Tiera Negra): Jan. 1
  • Sam Weiser: Sam I Am (Disappear): advance, Feb. 16

Purchases:

  • Patterson Hood: Murdering Oscar (and Other Love Songs) (Ruth St.)
  • Mika: The Boy Who Knew Too Much (Casablanca)
  • Buddy & Julie Miller: Written in Chalk (New West)
  • Mos Def: The Ecstatic (Downtown)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wilson

Matthew Yglesias: The Strange Case of Woodrow Wilson. I'm reading Ann Hagedorn's Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America 1919, which hasn't had much to say about Wilson in the first 100 pages, but no doubt will. Meanwhile, much of what I know about Wilson was gleaned from Walter Karp's The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920), which depicts Wilson as a pseudo-reformer and an inveterate two-faced schemer, especially in his efforts to plunge America into World War. (Actually, I'm sure I've read more on Wilson, especially William Appleman Williams, but that was long ago. James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong also features Wilson, practically on the first page.) Still, this post is a good precis, even though it leaves out a lot of details -- like two wars against Mexico. (Pershing's slog through Mexico in search of Pancho Villa is a pretty close precedent to the fruitless search for Bin Laden. Villa, like Bin Laden, had attacked US territory [a town in New Mexico]. Wilson, like Bush, responded with a massive retaliatory invasion, which never found Villa, and eventually returned empty handed. The only difference was that Pershing was so inept he didn't even manage to destroy Mexico. That was more the point of Wilson's Veracruz invasion, but that ultimately accomplished nothing either.)

You can make interesting cases comparing Wilson to two later US presidents. Like Clinton, he won a first term with the Republican Party split, then leveraged his incumbency for a second diastrous term. Even though Clinton got impeached, Wilson was actually far more unpopular: only Richard Nixon had a more disastrous second term. Like Nixon, Wilson implemented, or preëmpted, much of the other party's reform proposals, while administratively doing his best to undermine them. Like Nixon, Wilson had grandiose designs for foreign policy. Like Nixon, those designs involved all sorts of surrepetitious military adventures, massive propaganda, and major efforts to undermine civil liberties. Wilson's reputation today is based mostly on his usefulness to FDR and his cold war successors in turning American foreign policy from isolationism to interventionism: Wilson symbolized a path not taken, which supposedly would have changed the course of history, preventing a second world war and all that came with it. That's a fantasy which is hard to sustain once you look at what Wilson actually did, which is why so much of his record is forgotten, and should be recalled.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Music Week

Music: Current count 16154 [16137] rated (+17), 771 [764] unrated (+7). Tough week.


Jazz Prospecting (CG #22, Part 7)

Not real sure what happened last week, except that I got distracted by the stainless steel countertop project, and I got increasingly confused and frustrated by the demands of finalizing a year-end ballot and writing my little sidebar piece. I probably need to reconcile myself to the futility of trying to sum up a year while still stuck in it. I did manage to find three more A- records this week, but none had the time to sink in to the point where they challenged my top ten. I tried pulling all of the jazz albums out of the Year 2009 file, and came up with 699 new jazz records -- didn't bother to count the reissues, which I don't get nearly enough of. Of those 699, 54 are currently on the A-list, 96 more are B+(***), 174 are B+(**), 146 are B+(*). I expected the three B+ slices to be more evenly balanced, but I may be demoting 3-star records I don't feel up to writing about. All of those ranks will grow as I work my way through the queue, and as I catch up with stragglers. Haven't compared that to past years, but it's probably pretty consistent. Two years ago I noted 650 new jazz albums and 45 A-list albums at this point, so I'm slightly up but Rhapsody most likely makes the difference.

Didn't finish my year-end piece until 4AM last night, but it's done now. Didn't really do anything last week on closing out Jazz CG (22), but will get onto that this week. Still haven't posted my surplus cull from last time. I go back and forth on that, but most likely will roll what I have over until next time. After two cycles without a significant cull I have way too much nominally in play. The other thing I'll start doing this week is to go back and revisit records I put back for further listening. Don't know whether I'll finish the column this week, or next, but it's close to done -- missing pick hits and duds, as usual.


Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/The Partyka Brass Quintet: Carla's Christmas Carols (2008 [2009], Watt): Probably inevitable, especially once Carla took her big band to church, and the choice of Ed Partyka's Brass Quintet is inspired. Two originals, a lot of Trad., starting with the undisguisable "O Tannenbaum," but with a "Jingle Bells" that wandered far enough afield I found myself checking the title. Still, it's more solemn than not, stately and measured. Would be an improvement over much you'll hear this shopping season. B+(*)

Gerald Wilson Orchestra: Detroit (2009, Mack Avenue): B. 1918 in Mississippi, which puts him past 90 for this record. Moved to Detroit, graduating from "Cass Tech" (a song-title here), then out to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Apprenticed in Jimmie Lunceford's big band, playing trumpet and arranging. Led his own big band 1945-54, cutting records currently available only on Classics compilations. Spotty discography in the 1950s -- Duke Ellington, Buddy Collette, Red Callender, Leroy Vinnegar, June Christy, Curtis Counce -- but with big bands virtually extinct as working units, from 1961 he cut a series of albums for Pacific Jazz that brought about a new era, that of large, ad hoc studio jazz orchestras. Actually, for him it's been two eras: 1961-69 and 1992 to the present. In between he had two long breaks around a 1981-84 burst that is no longer in print. His recent records have been among his best, and this one is way up there. A six-piece suite was commissioned by the Detroit International Jazz Festival, and recorded by Wilson's LA-based working group. It hits all the right notes: sterling solos, solid section work, power, finesse, noteworthy use of violin (Yvette Devereaux) and guitar (son Anthony Wilson). The last two pieces were cut with a star-studded New York group and they are, if anything, even sharper. A-

The Anthony Wilson Trio: Jack of Hearts (2009, Groove Note): Guitarist, b. 1968, son of arranger Gerald Wilson; 7th album since 1997. Actually, two trios: one with Jeff Hamilton on drums, the other Jim Keltner. Both feature Larry Goldings on organ, making this sort of a soul jazz throwback, but Goldings is unusually reserved, and Wilson is more intricate, but swings less, than someone like Grant Green. B+(*)

The Tony Wilson Sextet: The People Look Like Flowers At Last (2008 [2009], Drip Audio): Canadian guitarist, not to be confused with Anthony Wilson, or for that matter any of a considerable number of Tony Wilsons in or related to music -- my favorite was the Hot Chocolate founder who turned in a lovely (and hopelessly out of print) 1976 album I Like Your Style. Sextet includes Vancouver stalwarts Peggy Lee (cello) and Dylan van der Schyff (drums), saxophonist Dave Say, trumpeter Kevin Elaschuk, and bassist Paul Blaney. The horns have some excited runs here, but they tend to get swamped out in the complicated postbop harmonizing. B

Myron Walden: Momentum (2009, Demi Sound): Might as well start out in gripe mode and get that out of the way. I've had this advance for something like five months, along with lavish PR, and I've endured emails and phone calls to sound out my uptake. Got a second package, with CDRs of a live version and a couple of more albums allegedly out in January. But the final copy I've been waiting for never showed up. I have a lot of correspondence with musicians and companies who can't afford to send me records, and in general I can't make much of an argument otherwise. But anyone who can afford to hire a PR flack to phone me should be able to afford to send a finished package. End gripe mode. B. 1972 (AAJ) or 1973 (AMG) in Miami, FL; moved to New York at age 12; fell for Charlie Parker and picked up the alto sax. Has four previous albums plus a lot of side work since 1996, mostly in/near the Smalls scene. Took some time off recently to retool for tenor sax, which he debuts here, in a basic hard bop quintet with Darren Barrett (trumpet), David Bryant (electric piano), Yasushi Nakamura (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums). This is all very solid mainstream work, with only the electric piano and an occasional harmonic smear distinguishing it from the typical early-'60s work of, oh, Hank Mobley, or Art Blakey. B+(**) [advance]

Yotam Silberstein: Next Page (2009, Posi-Tone): Another unrequited advance copy, actually released back in June, stuck in the cracks of my filing system. Israeli guitarist, did three years in the IDF as a "musical director, arranger, and lead guitarist"; got a New School scholarship and moved to New York in 2005. Second album, after a FSNT from 2004 that I don't much remember but graded B+. Half trio with Sam Yahel on organ and Willie Jones III on drums; other half adds Chris Cheek on tenor sax. No sense of soul jazz in either guitar or organ; at least that steers clear of clichés. Cheek is typically strong, but cycling in on every other song does little for the flow. B+(*) [advance]

The Jeff Hamilton Trio: Symbiosis (2009, Capri): Piano trio, led by the drummer better known for his role in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, currently the big band singers like Diana Krall routinely call on. The pianist here is Tamir Hendelman, with Christoph Luty on bass -- two young musicians based in Los Angeles, possibly on their first records. Record includes one Hamilton original (a samba), the rest standards. Straightforward, snappy, enjoyable. B+(**)

Jackie Ryan: Doozy (2006-08 [2009], Open Art, 2CD): Singer, born sometime, based somewhere -- claims a Mexican mother and an Irish father, but my guess is that they're both Americans, as is she. Has a half-dozen albums since 2000. Writes some vocalese lyrics, drops in some Portuguese, works with frontline, impeccably mainstream musicians -- Cyrus Chestnut, Ray Drummond, Carl Allen, Jeremy Pelt, Eric Alexander, and when she needs a taste of Brazil, Romero Lubambo. Pretty average for jazz singers, with some striking moves, lots of ordinary ones, occasional hitches in her voice (may come from taking her claimed "three and a half octave range" too seriously). Double-disc album is de trop, could have been edited down to a better single, focusing on upbeat pieces like "Doozy" and "Do Something." B+(*)

Ben Perowsky Quartet: Esopus Opus (2006 [2009], Skirl): Drummer, b. 1966, from and in New York, has a few albums and a lot of side credits since 1989, many (but far from all) in the John Zorn orbit. With Chris Speed (tenor sax), Drew Gress (bass), and Ted Reichman (accordion) -- three-fifths of Claudia Quintet. Covers include Jimi Hendrix ("Manic Depression"), two Beatles songs ("Within You Without You" and "Flying"), a couple of Brazilian tunes. The accordion blends with the sax for plush texture, cushioning even Hendrix. Anomalously, "Flying" ends in a bit of chant-along. Perowsky's originals hold up -- "Murnau on the Bayou" is a funeral blues, best thing here. A-

Nellie McKay: Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day (2009, Verve): Looking through my database of 16,000 records I've listened to enough to have an opinion about, I'm not entirely surprised that I've missed Doris Day completely. There was a window of non-jazz, non-rock pop music, mostly in the 1950s, that I didn't exactly miss -- I grew up hating it, a stance that softened as I've opportunistically spot-checked famous names. Not that I ever even disliked, much less hated, Day; who could? More like I always thought of her as an actress who sung some on the side, kind of like Elvis Presley was a singer who acted a little, but not worth taking seriously. Still, the 12 songs here -- not counting the one McKay wrote -- are pretty familiar, but mostly not linked to Day, at least in my mind (unlike the missing "Que Sera Sera"). In fact, aside from "Sentimental Journey," none of Day's biggest hits (judging from the list on Wikipedia), were covered here. Instead, we get a younger, hipper, jazzier Day, with "Crazy" and "Dig It" on the cutting edge, and more seasoned standards like "The Very Thought of You" and "Close Your Eyes" given snazzy new readings. Norms are always contextual, so it shouldn't be surprising that the new normal is slightly shifted from the old. A-

Fred Taylor Trio: Live at Cecil's, Volume 1 (2009, Fred Taylor Music, CD+DVD): Drummer-led trio, with Bob Ackerman on woodwinds and Rick Crane on doubel bass. Taylor wrote one piece; Ackerman four; the other five covers, starting with a delightful "Sunnymoon for Two" and ending comparably with "Bags' Groove." Of course, I favor Ackerman's sax over clarinet or flutes, but he makes them all work nicely -- postbop with a little edge. Haven't watched the "bonus" DVD. B+(**)

Randy Ingram: The Road Ahead (2009, Bju'ecords): Pianist, from Laguna Beach, CA; studied at USC and New England Conservatory, at the latter with Fred Hersch and Danilo Perez (also garlanding an "incredible pianist" quote from George Russell). First album, mostly trio with Matt Clohesy and Jochen Rueckert, with saxophonist John Ellis joining in on several cuts. Four of nine originals, including a Monkish "Hope" leading in to Monk's "Think of One" -- other covers include Lennon/McCartney, Cole Porter, and Ornette Coleman. Impressive work either way. 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.

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Rhapsody in Blue: Live (2009, Spartacus): Gershwin's famous jazz-flavored composition, written originally for Paul Whiteman's famous -- in the day; nowadays rather unfairly taken as a joke -- big band. The Scotts take it seriously, giving it the full bore treatment, with the small-print names on the front cover -- tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith and pianist Brian Kellock -- making all the difference. B+(**) [Rhapsody]

Miguel Zenon: Esta Plena (2009, Marsalis Music): For sheer virtuosity, perhaps the most impressive alto saxophonist to show up in the last two decades -- maybe since Anthony Braxton. Fifth album since 2002, mostly uneven although Jíbaro held to a tight Puerto Rican concept and was nearly flawless. This is more lavishly, and slavishly, rooted in his native commonwealth, with extra percussion and lots of vocals piled on top of a superb quartet -- Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischig (bass), Henry Cole (drums). Not sure what I think of the vocals, other than that "Que Sera de Puerto Rico?" would make a curiously indecisive anthem. Really need more time than I have now, and a little miffed that I didn't get serviced on this one -- especially since the label sends me everything else they release. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Gretchen Parlato: In a Dream (2008 [2009], ObliqSound): Singer, bio provides no details before winning a Monk prize in 2001, but seems to have been born in 1976, probably in California. Second album. Musicians include: Lionel Loueke (guitar), Aaron Parks (piano, keybs), Derrick Hodge (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums). Keeps them rather minimal, like her voice, which if anything is even thinner and less flexible than Astrud Gilberto's -- a rather novel feat in presumably a native English speaker. Still, kinda cute. B [Rhapsody]

Michael Bublé: Crazy Love (2009, 143/Reprise): Singer, from Canada, b. 1975. Fourth studio album since 2003; second straight to chart No. 1, which puts him in a different universe than nearly every other jazz singer -- this album has sold more than 1.5 million copies to date. Pretty much the polar opposite of Gretchen Parlato: a suave, sophisticated, powerful vocalist, backed with an arsenal of a big band, so much overkill it turns into amusing self-caricature. Obvious songs, too: "Cry Me a River," "All of Me," "Georgia on My Mind," the Van Morrison title cut. Some clever ideas: a Sharon Jones duet, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)"; sounds like the Mills Brothers on "Stardust." Not sure whether to be appalled or applaud. Most likely neither. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

The Manhattan Transfer: The Chick Corea Songbook (2009, Four Quarters): Vocal quartet: Tim Hauser, Cheryl Bentyne, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul. Been around since 1969 or 1971 or 1976 (when Bentyne replaced Laurel Massé), dropping 23 or 24 albums. I've heard very few of them -- none that I can recommend. Their harmonizing gives me the willies even on songs built for it, but it seems all the more ridiculous vocalese-ing on top of Corea's mostly Spanish-flavored melodies. C- [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:

  • Harry Allen: New York State of Mind (Challenge)
  • Greg Burk: Many Worlds (482 Music)
  • Marc Copland: Alone (Pirouet)
  • Charles Evans/Neil Shan: Live at Saint Stephens (Hot Cup)
  • Maxfield Gast: Eat Your Beats (Militia Hill): Feb. 9
  • Dennis González/Jnaana Septet: The Gift of Discernment (Not Two)
  • Dennis González: A Matter of Blood (Furthermore)
  • Tord Gustavsen Ensemble: Restored, Returned (ECM): advance, Feb. 9
  • Prana Trio: The Singing Image of Fire (Circavision): Jan. 12
  • Rempis/Rosaly: Cyrillic (482 Music)
  • Matt Slocum: Portraits (Chandra): Jan. 19
  • Tomasz Stanko Quintet: Dark Eyes (ECM): advance, Mar. 30
  • Jason Stein: Solo: In Exchange for a Process (Leo)
  • Tinariwen: Imidiwan: Companions (World Village)
  • Ralph Towner/Paolo Fresu: Chiaroscuro (ECM): advance, Mar. 16
  • Robin Verheyen: Starbound (Pirouet)
  • Christian Wallumrod Sextet: Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM): advance, Feb. 9

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nobel Warrior

I've often felt that it would be much more straightforward to give a Nobel Prize for War than one for Peace. The criteria would be much simpler and self-evident, and the competition would be stiff enough to ensure a steady stream of contenders. Moreover, you'd eliminate such embarrassing contradictions as giving a peace prize to someone consistently associated with war throughout his career -- Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson come to mind, by far the most belligerent US presidents of the first half of the 20th century. Still, virtually no past Nobel Peace Prize recipient has embarrassed the prize more quickly and more thoroughly than Barack Obama this year. Since being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize he has launched the steepest escalation of the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan in eight years of fruitless fighting, increased a US military budget that already accounts for more than half of the world's military funding, and backpedaled on every sentiment he had expressed on human rights, liberty, justice, and freedom from the fear of war. Adding insult to injury, he took the opportunity in Oslo to lay out his philosophy of righteous war based on a doctrine of American righteousness that is laughably at odds with the last sixty years of history. He could just as well been awarded a Nobel Prize for War, and his speech would have worked just as well.


Paul Woodward: How America won the Nobel Peace Prize. Speech analysis, including the stock line about how we were attacked on 9/11, and how that makes our war in Afghanistan just. This keeps being accepted thoughtlessly, but the basic facts are:

  1. The US was not an innocent victim on 9/11, even though virtually all of those killed in the attacks were.
  2. Afghanistan was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Bush switched targets because he wanted to respond with the US military, which would have been inappropriate and impractical had the target for US vengeance been limited to Al Qaeda.
  3. The collateral damage US warfare has caused in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, has disproportionately exceeded the provocation, and this collateral damage has been unnecessary because the use of US military force was inappropriate.

I've never read a convincing "just war" theory, but most efforts I have seen to sanctify war due to special conditions of cause and conduct wind up confirming that the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are in fact unjust. That Obama didn't reach the same conclusion just exposes the shallowness of his thinking.

Woodward's conclusion:

Remember when Obama talked about ending the mindset that took us to war?

I do, but apparently he doesn't.

Juan Cole: Top 5 ways Obama can redeem his Nobel. Still searching for a silver lining, Cole proposes:

  1. Get out of Iraq on schedule. We can't stop their low-intensity conflicts, and they are more likely to compromise with each other if we are not there.
  2. Resist calls for Iran to be bombed. Such a raid would guarantee that Iran would start a crash program to develop a nuclear weapon, and there would be no way to stop it short of full-scale war.
  3. Stop allowing the CIA to operate drones with which to assassinate people. It is illegal and shameful. The U.S. military must be in charge of defending the country by force or we are a police state.
  4. Get the Palestinians a state by the end of 2011, even if by unilateral recognition. Palestinian statelessness is the biggest human rights scandal in the world, since citizenship is the right to have rights. This step alone would solve the bulk of U.S. problems in the Arab world and would deal a deadlier blow to al-Qaida than capturing Osama bin Laden.
  5. Stick to the plan of beginning a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in summer 2011. Karzai and the generals will attempt to embroil us in a decades-long quagmire. No one will remember his Nobel Peace Prize if President Obama lets that happen.

Right now, I'd say that only one of those five (no war against Iran) is better than a 50-50 proposition. The use of drones over Pakistan has increased under Obama, with another event much bragged about this week -- killing some alleged Al Qaeda muckety muck and a bunch of fellow travelers. The only thing that keeps this from having the lowest odds is that Obama could be vetoed by Pakistan and (less likely) Afghanistan, where it is political poison. The others are long shots: the US has been building infrastructure for permanent presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hawks don't seem to be much concerned with such deadlines. As for a Palestinian state, Obama will have to buck a lot of conventional wisdom and political pressure, which thus far he not only hasn't shown the backbone for -- he's acting more like its prisoner (cf. Stockholm Syndrome).

Andrew Sullian: The Tragedy of Hope. Here's a more sympathetic reading of Obama's Nobel speech -- key point is Sullivan's observation that "Obama is far more conservative than his predecessor." That means far more to Sullivan, who likes to think of himself as a conservative and a realist, than it does to me. I don't doubt that all this carefully considered nuance has some rigor and value, but it doesn't take long to get reduced to simplistic slogans, like Obama's neocon-approved syllogism: Evil, Nazis, Al Qaeda, wage war in Afghanistan. Even if you do believe that there is Evil in the world, it's hard to see how joining it helps.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Francis Davis Jazz Poll Ballot

New albums (10):

  1. The Matthew Shipp Trio: Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear)
  2. The Fully Celebrated: Drunk on the Blood of the Holy Ones (AUM Fidelity)
  3. Brötzmann/Kondo/Pupillo/Nilssen-Love: Hairy Bones (Okka Disk)
  4. Brad Shepik: Human Activity Suite (Songlines)
  5. Digital Primitives: Hum Crackle & Pop (Hopscotch)
  6. Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut)
  7. David S. Ware: Shakti (AUM Fidelity)
  8. Dennis González Jnaana Septet: The Gift of Discernment (Not Two -08)
  9. Bill Frisell: Disfarmer (Nonesuch)
  10. Andy Sheppard: Movements in Colour (ECM)

Reissues (3):

  1. Art Pepper: The Art History Project (1950-82, Widow's Taste, 3CD)
  2. Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood (1961-62, Verve, 4CD)
  3. Jimmy Rushing: The Scene: Live in New York (1965, High Note)

Vocal (1):

  1. Lisa Sokolov: A Quiet Thing (Laughing Horse)

Debut (1):

  1. Darren Johnston: The Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed -08)

Latin (1):

  1. Roberto Rodriguez: Timba Talmud (Tzadik)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Recycling History

Matthew Yglesias: Strange Victory: More opining on the Iraq surge. I still believe that if you look at the timeline on the surge, you'll find elevated violence all the way from the start to Petraeus's congressional testimony, then a big drop in the violence level a month or so later, when effectively the surge was called off. We now know that the main reasons for the reduced fighting was the Mahdi Army ceasefire and the turning of Sunni Awakening groups against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and that those key strategic shifts occurred before the surge itself got underway. What actually happened, then, was two contrary trends: aggression against US forces was reduced diplomatically, except inasmuch as AQI Iraq may have tried to pick up the slack from other Sunni groups to fortify its claim as the main resistance to US occupation; meanwhile US aggression increased local resistance to the point that overall violence was still up. When the US surge sloshed back, the reduced violence trend was able to predominate. The best face you can put on the surge is that it may have focused pressure on beating down AQI, but even there it's more likely that the Sunni Awakening had more effect.

Still, it's become dogma among the right punditocracy and the whole military propaganda arm to credit the Surge with turning Iraq around. And there's nothing like misunderstanding the last war to get you off on the wrong foot next time. The military's solution for Afghanistan is not just the usual 30,000 extra troops. They hope to duplicate as much of the script as possible, even though there are differences in almost every detailed respect -- except, of course, those 30,000 troops. So the interesting part of this post isn't "the hardened conventional wisdom about the surge in Iraq." It's the quote from Brian Katulis interviewing Mowaffaq Al-Rubaie, who was al-Maliki's national security adviser during the surge:

"We had been saying to the Americans since 2006 -- please remove the U.S. presence from the streets," Al-Rubaie told the conference. It was previously reported that when President George W. Bush met with Prime Minister Maliki in Amman in November 2006, the Iraqi leader came with a Powerpoint presentation arguing against the U.S. surge of forces. Al-Rubaie argued that there haven't been many U.S. troop deaths in Iraq since the U.S. presence was removed from urban areas this past June -- and he said this was "a point the Obama administration should take into account in Afghanistan."

Of course, Afghanistan is different from Iraq. In Afghanistan it's the rural areas, especially the Pashtun-dominated rural areas, you'll want to keep U.S. troops away from, because that's where most of the people live.

Paul Woodward: Obama wanted a surge, he's getting a surge, and it feels good: A short summary of the New York Times 4,660 word article on Obama's decision process for Afghanistan. One thing from the Times article I found striking was the reference to Gordon Goldstein's McGeorge Bundy book, Lessons in Disaster. In it, Bundy observes that the dominant characteristics of the two presidents he served under were that Kennedy wanted to be seen as smart, whereas Johnson wanted not to be seen as a coward. As we go through Obama's process, we see that he bought into both sides: he wants to be seen as smart, but also wants not to be a coward. His big problem is that there is no middle ground -- certainly none on the far side of the globe.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Music Week

Music: Current count 16137 [16109] rated (+28), 764 [756] unrated (+8). Should be closing out the year in jazz. After several down weeks, got a lot of mail, so I'm hardly catching up.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #22, Part 6)

I should be closing out my Jazz Consumer Guide column, hoping that the offer of a January publish date is real and I'll be able to recover some time against what seems like an ever-increasing backlog. I've long felt that the column should run at least every other month. In fact, there's enough material of interest that it could run monthly: in which case I could open up the writing a bit, move some B+ records into the top section rather than slipping A- records into the HMs, maybe do some more reissues. Fantasy stuff. Mostly, though, I tried to pick through the incoming queue to make sure I've heard the most promising prospects. That never works as well as I hope: for instance, two years ago I missed MOPDTK until the week after my deadline. So I've focused more on prospecting this week than on clean-up, and that will probably continue one more week. VV jazz poll ballot is due Dec. 11; my sidebar piece is due Dec. 14. Jazz CG doesn't have that firm a date, so I'll aim for the following week. Pazz & Jop ballot is due Dec. 24, which will include non-jazz releases, which are actually more settled in my mind -- Lily Allen's It's Not Me, It's You is far out ahead of the field.


Vijay Iyer Trio: Historicity (2008-09 [2009], ACT): Piano trio. AMG credits the leader with 10 albums since 1995, not including his leadership in Fieldwork and his impact in Burnt Sugar. Has mostly worked with saxophones in the past -- Steve Lehman in Fieldwork, Rudresh Mahanthappa practically everywhere else -- but it seems like all pianists are driven to prove their mettle in the trio context. Covers album, recycling 2 of 4 originals, adding pieces from Andrew Hill, Julius Hemphill, Ronnie Foster, Stevie Wonder, Bernstein & Sondheim, and M.I.A. Unfortunately, I often run into trouble dissecting piano trios, but I do know what I like. After five plays, this is still opening up. A-

David Murray and the Gwo Ka Masters: The Devil Tried to Kill Me (2007 [2009], Justin Time): Murray's connection to Guadeloupe has produced a remarkable series of albums: 1998's Creole, 2002's Yonn-Dé, and 2004's Gwotet. I figured one more would automatically be a year-end contender, so rushed this advance CDR into the player. Two plays later it's certainly not a contender. The saxophonist is brilliant, natch, and the gwo ka drummers power an awesome beat. Can't complain about the guitarists, or Rasul Biddik's occasional trumpet. But the vocals barely connect, especially on Taj Mahal's solo feature, the generic "Africa" with the overly didactic Ishmal Reed lyric. Sista Kee holds up a bit better, with or without Taj. My copy includes two "radio edits" -- shorter versions of the two Taj Mahal songs. I don't mind recapping a hit, but a miss is something else. B+(*) [advance]

Mike Reed's People, Places & Things: About Us (2009, 482 Music): Chicago drummer, formed this particular group -- Greg Ward on alto sax, Tim Haldeman on tenor sax, Jason Roebke on bass -- originally to explore the music of the late 1950s post-bop, proto-avant Chicago scene. Second album explores their own music, including three contemporary guests who each bring a tune along: tenor saxophonist David Boykin, trombonist Jeb Bishop, and guitarist Jeff Parker. Starts fast with a more convincing 21st century chase than old-timers Anderson and Jordan recently put on. Wanders a bit, but mostly sharp, vibrant even. B+(***)

Jones Jones: We All Feel the Same Way (2008, SoLyd): Trio: Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino sax), Mark Dresser (bass), Vladimir Tarasov (percussion). Free improv, three cuts recorded in St. Petersburg, the other two in Amsterdam. All three have notable careers in the avant-garde, Ochs mostly lurking behind group names like Rova and this one, Tarasov best known for his work in the Ganelin Trio. And each of the three make a mark here, the only caveat being that this seems like something they could do whenever they got together. B+(**)

Chaque Objet (2008 [2009], Evil Rabbit): Group name and/or album name. French name, but the group is all Italian, with two guitarists, Pablo Montagne and Adolfo La Volpe, plus Francesco Massaro on saxes and flutes and Alessandro Tomasseti on drums, percussion, and vibes. Guitar sound dominates, in a heady avant-garde mix. B+(**)

Audrey Chen/Robert van Heumen: Abattoir (2008-09 [2009], Evil Rabbit): Chen plays cello and makes vocal noises -- hard to judge her as a singer here in what is basically an unapologetic avant-noise album. Van Heumen is credited with laptop and controllers; also "selected, mixed, and mastered" so he has the last laugh. Chen is Chinese-American, b. 1976 near Chicago, is based in Baltimore. She has appeared on several other albums, only incidentally getting top billing here. Van Heumen's credit list goes back to 2000, but it's hard to tell how they shape up into albums. I tried following postclassical electronic music back in the 1970s when it was still relatively rare, but lost track in the 1980s, especially after Tom Johnson left the Village Voice. I imagine there's more stuff like this floating around, but just don't hear it. Strange sounds, lots of noise, a bit hard to take. Still, I don't find it as annoying as Merzbow or Lightning Bolt. I doubt that you'll like it, but I'm not sure I don't. B+(*)

Gianni Lenoci: Ephemeral Rhizome (2008 [2009], Evil Rabbit): Italian pianist, has at least 7 albums since 1991, the first few on Splasc(H). My coverage of European jazz is hit and miss: Norway, Netherlands, and Portugal seem to be my first tier (and ECM, of course); Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Spain less so; Russia, Finland, Switzerland rarely. Not much at all from England, France, or Italy, which are all major jazz scenes -- CAM Jazz is the only Italian label I've seen in years, but Splasc(H) is actually one of the most prolific jazz labels anywhere, Philology is close behind, and Soul Note is still in business (not sure about RED). One result is that someone like Lenoci can avoid my radar for decades, until he shows up on a Dutch label. Solo piano, all original pieces, far ranging, dynamic, sometimes down and dirty. I'm impressed. B+(***)

Wadada Leo Smith: Spiritual Dimensions (2008-09 [2009], Cuneiform, 2CD): Trumpeter, b. 1941, AACM member from 1967, founded Creative Construction Company with Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins, survived the 1970s by running his own label (reissued in 2004 by Tzadik on 4-CD as Kabell Years, 1971-1979), struggled in 1980s (although the newly reissued Procession of the Great Ancestry is widely admired), picked up the pace around 1997, recording a wide range of material on Tzadik (solo, duos, groups, compositions) and some straightforward, even popular material on Cuneiform -- two Yo Miles! sets with Henry Kaiser, and last year's Golden Quartet Tabligh. He's back here with two groups on one disc each, his reshuffled Golden Quintet -- doubled drums with Don Moye and Pheroan AkLaff, John Lindberg on bass, Vijay Iyer on piano -- and the guitar-heavy Organic. Not sure why the electric band is called Organic, but they build on fusion ideas in denser and more complex ways than Yo Miles!, and Smith injects more rough edges than Davis did. The Golden Quintet is harder to sum up, in part because both Iyer and Smith construct solos you can never quite pin down. Lindberg takes a long bass solo, and that too is a plus. A-

The Dynamic Les DeMerle Band: Gypsy Rendezvous, Vol. One (2008 [2009], Origin): Featuring Bonnie Eisele, DeMerle's better half in all the usual senses. Both sing: she's really quite good, a better standards stylist than most of the singers I get who hog up whole albums; he's not bad, and while in the past he got by with humor, he makes do with a sense of humor here. Not sure how he conceived his version of "St. Louis Blues" -- sounds to me like a cha-cha. He's also a drummer, and manages to work in an extended solo: in the past I've been tempted to cast them as Louis Prima and Keely Smith, but you know he'd rather be Buddy Rich. As for the gypsies, that's a quartet called Gypsy Pacific, with violin, two guitars, and bass. The instrumentals, which include one from Django, one from Bird, and one from Newk, don't really stand out, but they keep the program going. My guess is that they're a lot of fun live. B+(***)

Anders Nilsson's AORTA Ensemble (2008 [2009], Kopasetic): Guitarist, from Sweden, b. 1974, based in Brooklyn. Sticker on front cover says: "Sweden's AORTA, Cennet Jönsson, and NYC's Fulminate Trio team up to explore free form and 7-piece designs." Jönsson is a saxophonist (soprano, tenor, bass clarinet) with a couple of albums under his own name plus credits with Tolvan Big Band and Meloscope. AORTA is Nilsson's Swedish quartet, with brother Peter Nilsson on drums, Mattias Carlson on tenor sax (alto, clarinet, flute), and David Carlsson on electric bass. They have two previous albums, including Blood, a pick hit in these parts. Fulminate Trio is Brooklyn-based with Nilsson, Ken Filiano on bass, and Michael Evans on drums/percussion. Put them together and you get double sax, double bass, double drums, and a whole lotta guitar. A-

Ben Allison: Think Free (2009, Palmetto): Good bassist, superb composer and bandleader. His last couple of albums have been so tuneful I'm inclined to hold this one back until I get it or give up. Nothing obvious this time. The middle ground is occupied by Jenny Scheinman on violin and Steve Cardenas on guitar, normally distinctive players who tend to go with the flow here. Rudy Royston, unknown to me, plays drums, and Shane Endsley, also unknown to me, highlights vigorously on trumpet. Seductive and thoughtful, just not sure how much to make of it. [B+(***)]

John Funkhouser Trio: Time (2009, Jazsyzygy): Piano trio, with Greg Loughman on bass and Mike Connors on drums. Funkhouser comes from Boston, studied at New England Conservatory, lived in New York for a while then returned to Boston to teach at Berklee. Also plays bass, presumably not here. Website claims discography of "over 40 CDs," three with his Trio: previous ones take the hint from his name are are called Funkhouse and Funkhouse II. This rolls along brightly. B+(**)

Minamo: Kuroi Kawa - Black River (2008 [2009], Tzadik, 2CD): Duo: Satoko Fujii (piano, accordion) and Carla Kihlstedt (violin, trumpet violin), with some voice from both. Second album together, after Minamo on Henceforth back in 2007. First disc is studio; second live. Probably too much of a limited thing, but the intricate interplay is mesmerizing, except when Fujii crashes the boards, rare here but still a signature move. B+(***) [advance]

Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord: Accomplish Jazz (2009, Hot Cup): Guitarist, has a couple of previous albums including Big Five Chord. Group here deploys two excitable saxophonists -- Bryan Murray on tenor and Jon Irabagon on alto -- Moppa Elliott on bass, and Danny Fischer on drums. Four of five songs rock hard; the other is a Louvin Brothers tune, "The Christian Life," best known from the Byrds cover, which comes off as s solid and settled centerpiece. B+(***)

Tom Gullion: Carswell (2008-09 [2009], Momentous): Saxophonist, b. 1965 in Clinton, IN, studied at Indians University and Northwestern; worked in Chicago, currently based in Wisconsin. Two sets here, one cut in LaCrosse, WI, the other in Chicago, with different groups -- both feature electric piano, acoustic bass, and drums; plus the WI group has David Cooper on trumpet. Mainstream player with some chops, mostly tenor but also works in a little soprano, bass clarinet, and alto flute. When in doubt, sticks close to funk grooves, not a bad idea. B+(**)

Nick Kadajski's 5 Point Perspective: Remembering Things to Come (2008 [2009], Circavision): Alto saxophonist, based in New York, leads a group with two guitars, bass, and drums -- no one I recognize. Has a Jekyl/Hyde aspect to it: when the saxophonist lays back this loses itself in arrangerly postbopism, but when he takes charge he's the life of the party. 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.

Bill Dixon: Tapestries for Small Orchestra (2009, Firehouse 12, 2CD): Trumpet player, b. 1925, which makes him 84. Late starter: he got his first notice on a 1966 Cecil Taylor album, Conquistador, but didn't carve out much of a career until the 1980s when he cut a series of albums on the Italian Soul Note label, a run that ended around 2000. Those were small group albums, some no more than duos with drummer Tony Oxley. However, Dixon was enough of a legend, at least in some circles, that he reappeared in 2007, of all things arranging for large groups -- curiously, a move also made by Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, and Charles Tolliver. I've only sampled Dixon lightly over the years, and never found anything particularly appealing, but this one is striking. The 9-piece group is heavily stocked with the trumpet family -- Dixon plus Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes, and Rob Mazurek, most on cornet with flugelhorn, bass trumpet, and piccolo trumpet also credited. The only reed is Michael Conte's contrabass and bass clarinet. Glynis Loman plays cello, Ken Filiano bass, and Warren Smith vibes, marimba, drums, tympani, and gongs. Several of these plyers are also credited with electronics, which can get a bit Halloweeny, often pierced by jabs of cornet. Eight pieces stretch out over two discs. Package also includes a DVD, which I don't have and haven't seen. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Taylor Ho Bynum & Spidermonkey Strings: Madeleine Dreams (2009, Firehouse 12): One of those things that musicians sometimes do: take a piece of literature and turn it into opera. My all-time favorite is Michael Mantler's take on Edward Gorey's The Hapless Child, the exception to the rule that opera is usually a just a nasty slog. The book here is Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Madeleine Is Sleeping. I don't know how it reads, but it's awkward musically, and I can't say anything nice about Kyoko Kitamura's voice -- sure, could be an inspired meeting of weird words and music, but not an obvious one. Three extra cuts at least give the band a chance to show off. The Spidermonkey Strings are Jason Kao Hwang (violin), Jessica Pavone (viola), Tomas Ulrich (cello), and Pete Fitzpatrick (guitar), fortified by Joseph Daley (tuba) and Luther Gray (drums), with the leader on cornet. Coleman and Ra are standard here, but Ellington's "The Mooche" is most sublime, at least until Kitamura butts in with her Adelaide Hall impression, almost as amusing. B [Rhapsody]

Gianni Lenoci: Agenda (2003 [2005], Vel Net): Thought I'd check out an earlier work by Lenoci, an Italian pianist whose recent Ephemeral Rhizome solo impressed me. This is also solo, a set of Steve Lacy pieces transplanted to piano. Slow and deliberate, thoughtful. B+(*) [Rhapsody]

Alexander von Schlippenbach/Daniele D'Agaro: Dedalus (2008, Artesuono): Germany's premier avant-garde pianist turned 70 in 2008, releasing a bunch of records I've been hard pressed to find: a trio Gold Is Where You Find It (Intakt), duets with Aki Takase Iron Wedding (Itakt), Friulian Sketches (Psi), two volumes of Twelve Tone Tales (Intakt). On the other hand, I did find this duo with Italian reed player D'Agaro, so figured I should give it a listen. D'Agaro, b. 1958, leads off with clarinet; also plays bass clarinet, tenor sax, and C melody sax, but don't have details here -- tenor sax, for sure. Has a few records more or less under his own name, mostly avant-garde (give or take Sean Bergin), but a couple of early ones were tributes to Don Byas (Hidden Treasures and Byas a Drink), a trio with Mark Helias and U.T. Gandhi looks like Ben Webster (Gentle Ben), and another is credited to the Daniel D'Agaro-Benny Bailey Quintet. The pianist is forceful enough to more than hold his own, framing the multipart pieces to draw D'Agaro out, and providing the necessary percussion on the Monk trilogy (plus "Hackensack") at the end. It's worth pointing out again that Schlippenbach's Monk's Casino is an outstanding tribute to Monk. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Schlippenbach Trio: Gold Is Where You Find It (2008, Intakt): Same trio in 1972 cut Pakistani Pomade, one of the founding documents of Europe's avant-garde, a crown selection in the first and recent editions of The Penguin Guide to Jazz: Alexander von Schlippenbach on piano, Evan Parker on tenor sax, and Paul Lovens on drums. All three have done a lot in the intervening 36 years (especially Parker, who has been averaging 5-6 records per year), but the aesthetic here hasn't changed much. Parker and Schlippenbach are both forceful players, always prodding, searching, and Schlippenbach is like having a one-man rhythm section. In his company, Lovens is all finesse. B+(***) [Rhapsody]

Tommy Smith Group: Forbidden Fruit (2005, Spartacus): Scottish tenor saxophonist, broke in with Blue Note in 1989, moving to Linn after four albums, then eventually to his own label. Started out with phenomenal speed and technique, and eventually grew a mature sound to round out his capabilities -- Blue Smith, from 2000, was a breakthrough. I last heard him on 2004's Symbiosis, a duo with pianist Brian Kellock, which was a Jazz CG Pick Hit -- last record he sent my way, although he made all the difference on last year's Arild Andersen record. This is the follow up, a little dated for Jazz CG, but finding it I had to play it. Young Scottish group: Steve Hamilton (piano), Aidan O'Donnell (bass), Alyn Cosker (drums). I go up and down on the group, but Smith is a tour de force running through his considerable range. A-


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

Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:

  • Ben Allison: Think Free (Palmetto)
  • Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut)
  • Mulatu Astatke: New York-Addis-London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 (Strut): advance
  • Michaël Attias: Renku in Coimbra (Clean Feed)
  • Sharel Cassity: Relentless (Jazz Legacy Productions)
  • Empty Cage Quartet: Gravity (Clean Feed)
  • The Godforgottens: Never Forgotten, Always Remembered (Clean Feed)
  • Andy Haas/Don Fiorino: Death Don't Have No Mercy (2005, Resonant Music)
  • Andy Haas: Humanitarian War (2006, Resonant Music)
  • Andy Haas: The Ruins of America (Resonant Music)
  • The Hanuman Sextet: 9 Meals From Anarchy (2006, Resonant Music)
  • Will Holshouser Trio + Bernardo Sassetti: Palace Ghosts and Drunken Hymns (Clean Feed)
  • In the Christmas Groove (Strut): advance
  • Oliver Jones/Hank Jones: Pleased to Meet You (Justin Time)
  • Scott LaFaro: Pieces of Jade (1960-61, Resonance)
  • Babatunde Lea: Umbo Weti: A Tribute to Leon Thomas (Motéma, 2CD)
  • Erica Lindsay/Sumi Tonooka: Initiation (ARC): Jan. 12
  • Tony Malaby's Apparitions: Voladores (Clean Feed)
  • Nicholas Masson Parallels: Thirty Six Ghosts (Clean Feed)
  • David Murray and the Gwo Ka Masters: The Devil Tried to Kill Me (Justin Time): advance
  • John Patitucci Trio: Remembrance (Concord)
  • Radio I-Ching: Last Kind Words (2005-06, Resonant Music)
  • Radio I-Ching: The Fire Keeps Burning (2007, Resonant Music)
  • Radio I-Ching: No Wave Au Go Go (Resonant Music)
  • Reed's Bass Drum: Which Is Which (Reed's Bass Drum): Jan. 28
  • Jackie Ryan: Doozy (Open Art, 2CD)
  • Jacques Schwarz-Bart: Abyss (ObliqSound)
  • Jason Stein's Locksmith Isidore: Three Less Than Between (Clean Feed)
  • Gerald Wilson Orchestra: Detroit (Mack Avenue)
  • Matt Wilson Quartet: That's Gonna Leave a Mark (Palmetto)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Rhapsody Streamnotes

Another batch of short notes/reviews based on streaming records via Rhapsody -- snap judgements based on one or two plays, with minimal research and no reference to packaging. Last batch was posted on November 8, so this is what I have to report since then. The archives are here, including a roll-up of Recycled Goods and Jazz Prospecting. This isn't a good way to work, but it does help satisfy my curiosity, especially about items that I can't afford to buy just to play once or twice and shelve. I'll probably pick up the pace as the month progresses, especially as I get a sense of what other folks are thinking about year-end lists. My Village Voice jazz poll ballot is due Dec. 11, and Pazz and Jop is due Dec. 24.


Contents here.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Movies

Movie: Capitalism: A Love Story: Sure, a tale of woe and heartbreak if ever there was. This is Michael Moore, back in Flint 20 years after GM shut the city down to give him a plot for Roger & Me, but mostly on and about Wall Street, where he's like to toss everyone in the slammer, or at least find someone who can explain what the hell a deriviative is. Starts with a sequence on the fall of the Roman Empire, the scenes taken from movies -- I'd swear I caught a quick glimpse of Zero Mostel -- and intercut with contemporary American shots. It's a clever, telling sequence, followed by a loving paean to union-bolstered middle class life in the 1950s, which is in turn wrecked by a Jimmy Carter speech ("bummer") and as accurate a synopsis of Ronald Reagan as I've seen. Moore has a big advantage over every liberal pundit in America because he actually understands the new left paradigm, and because he's generally willing to let the chips fall where they may -- lots of politicians and bankers get skewered here, but Chris Dodd may suffer the most mortal wounds. In particular, he does a neat job of tying war into the build up and destruction of the middle class, starting with pictures of devastated Germany and Japan to illustrate how little competition GM had in the good old days. The one guy who catches a break is Obama, who is shown saying things that confirm Moore's ideal of change we can believe in, while the point about how much money Wall Street put into Obama's campaign is handled in a mere voiceover with corporate logos. And while Tim Geithner gets hit hard, nobody points out that he is Obama's Treasury Secretary. Moore's case stories are well selected, even though he could have come up with hundreds others just as effective: a lot of people get evicted, just like in Roger & Me, but this time he puts more emphasis on fighting back, and on a couple of occasions that even works. One bit I particularly liked showed two businesses owned and run democratically by employees. I'm a big believer in employee-owned businesses. One bit I enjoyed more than I expected to was the stuff with Jesus and the Catholic clergy vs. capitalism. The fact is that Christianity is one of the few pre-capitalist institutions that still has some sway these days, so why not make something of that. Even more important was FDR's Second Bill of Rights speech: something hardly any Americans know about, something all should. His aside that Roosevelt's dreams have in fact been implemented almost everywhere else in Europe and Japan could have been underscored. I didn't agree with Moore's conclusion: that capitalism is evil and can't be fixed by regulation. I think we can do a lot with regulation -- enough to make the productivity of capitalism balance favorably against the predatory instincts of capitalists. But the pendulum has swung so far the other way that a minor quibble with the correction doesn't detract from a superb movie. A


Catching up, working backwards:

Movie: An Education: Set in 1961, a 16-year-old English girl facing a steep uphill climb to college and the world falls in with an older con man, who is even more successful at seducing her parents than her. The relationship eventually goes bust, which comes as something of a relief. He isn't completely sordid, and she isn't completely naive, but the world she comes from was so claustrophobic that it really needed some opening up. Interesting that the BBC Masterpiece Collision had a very similar subplot, set today, the main difference being that the guy had to be much richer to get the attention of the girl. A-

Movie: A Serious Man: Coen Brothers movie, presumably set close to their own adolescence in suburban Minnesota in 1967. A tormented father (Michael Stuhlbarg), wife, two teenage children, the man the wife wants to marry, and a panoply of rabbis, lawyers, and a dentist. Mostly works (or doesn't) according to the Jewish in-humor, much quite funny. B+

Movie: Julie & Julia: Split story of Julia and Paul Child in Paris in the 1950s intercut with Julie Powell's blog year of cooking from Child's pathbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci were superb as expected, but I enjoyed Amy Adams' performance as much, and thought it hit the right balance between idolatry and ambition. Also, Adams got most of the food shots, mostly finished dishes whereas Streep was more often slaving over a mountain of onions. Bought the book -- Child's cookbook, that is -- but I still have 524 recipes to go, ETA well over 365 days. A-

Movie: Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarrantino's WWII fantasy, really just another movie exaggerating the importance of movies, a subject Tarrantino actually knows something about (unlike WWII). As history revised beyond the point of absurdity, this reminded me of a Sylvester Stallone vehicle called Victory -- you know, the one where the Nazis, losing the war, decide to recoup their losses by staging a soccer match in Paris against allied POWs (including Brazilian star Pele) and manage to lose that too. I thought that Christoph Waltz's scenes were too hammy and ran on too long, and that Brad Pitt's command of English was even worse than his Italian. Of course, there is lots of marvelous stuff here, and the violence gets by with Tarrantino's usual catharsis, although somewhat less so than in the past. B+

Movie: Public Enemies: John Dillinger gangster movie, although I gather the book it was based on focused more broadly on the FBI from 1933-43. I can't say I was in the mood, but it was nicely shot, and the law enforcement officers were suitably creepy -- especially Billy Crudup's portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover. It's hard to think of anyone in US government whose reputation took a steeper nosedive immediately after his death. B

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Recycled Goods (68): November 2009

See file.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Fascist Nation

Matthew Yglesias: A Center-Right Nation. If you discern that Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional troops to the front in Afghanistan is an act of political discretion, you need to acknowledge the political forces you're trying to appease. The fact that Obama didn't order up the troops immediately on the recommendation of the military officers in the field suggests that he at least didn't automatically believe that more troops and more money are the obvious solutions to problems that even the military brass agree are fundamentally political -- unlike, say, people like John McCain, simpletons who always cheer whatever the generals and admirals tell them. Obama certainly knows better, but he's gone along anyway. I suppose you can argue that he's always been a true believer in the Afghanistan War, but you can also argue that his position all along has been conventional political thinking. Back in 2001 there was a popular rush to war, and staking Afghanistan as the "right war" compared to Iraq in 2003 proved shrewd without exposing himself as a peacenik. It's not clear even now that his position isn't primarily shrewd politically even though the war in Afghanistan has become vastly unpopular. The problem is that too many people, even ones who disparage the wars, still cherish the military. Yglesias takes this as confirming the canard that the US is a "center-right nation." I'm more inclined to conclude that this shows that the US is a fascist nation, at least in the core sense that fascists love uniforms and inflicting violence against enemies both foreign and domestic.

Yglesias contrasts Obama's political quandry in disagreeing with the military to other hypothetical scenarios:

And in practice, it's very politically problematic for a president, especially a Democratic president, to get into fights with senior military officials.

And if you think about a comparable situation with the civilian bureaucracy, you'll see that things are very difficult. It's not a serious problem if a Republican president pursues a course that senior career officials at the Environment Protection Agency believe are destroying the planet. Nobody says we need to "support the Civil Rights Division litigators" or "give the social services workers the resources they need to finish the job" of fighting child poverty.

The thing I find galling about Obama's escalation here is that he's squandered an opportunity to try to turn this imbalance around. He is, after all, president of the nation and leader of the party that has substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. He has approval polls over 50%, and more than 50% of all Americans oppose an expanded war in Afghanistan. Back during the 2008 campaign he had an eloquent line about wanting to change how Americans think about war. Yesterday he had a golden opportunity to do just that, and he wasted it. He repeated all the hoary lines about 9/11 and safe havens and how the national interest involves bombing Afghan farmers but doesn't entail providing health care insurance to 50 million Americans. He went on and on about how America is a force for freedom around the world, about how we seek no spoils, how we're never an occupier -- news, I'm sure, to the Philippines, Cuba, most of Central America, and today the hosts of over 800 US military bases scattered all around the world.

The low point was when Obama proclaimed his decision not as president but as commander-in-chief. Not only has he continued most of Bush's policies, he's even adopting Bush's fantasies. The Constitution specifies that the governing body responsible for deciding whether and when we go to war is Congress, but a long series of presidents have usurped this fundamental law, to the extent that war policies are scarcely ever debated in our once-democratic institutions. The great irony here is that while it's become fashionable on the right to accuse Obama of fascism, the one instance where he can actually decide policy dictatorially is the one he chooses to implement the right's policy.

Make no mistake about this: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed all the wars big and small the US fights abroad -- the force-feeding of the military, the elevation of military security over social and economic security -- are agendas to bolster the political right and to hamstring the left. They work on many levels, ranging from propagandizing martial values to sucking discretionary spending away from social and economic needs. If Obama had anything like the progressive agenda he is often charged with, he'd realize the trap he is setting for himself and for his supporters, and he'd use his formidable powers to turn this country away from war and toward peace and social justice. He'd do this if for no other reason than because his political life depends on it. But he's can't grasp this fundamental fact, probably because he can't conceive of changing anything profound. The notion that Obama would emerge as some sort of transformational president always struck me as fanciful, still even I had no idea how hollow he'd turn out to be.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Democracy for Dummies

Two pieces on Talking Points Memo ruined my day today. The first was Obama's announcement that he's sending another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Of course, the details matter here, and I don't know exactly what the strategy behind those troops is, but by default US troops shoot up the place, piss everybody off, and leave the country even more of a wreck than they found it. If Obama thinks he can change that he's outthinking himself. All along everyone on every side of this issue has been saying that Afghanistan is primarily (or in some cases purely) a political problem. But he don't have any answers for the political problem. Putting more troops into action digs a deeper hole and makes it all the harder, ultimately all the more painful, to get out. Whether this war sucks the life out of his presidency is something that will become clearer over time. But right now it starts by putting his health care reform agenda on the back burner: he is, after all, saying that there is a war going on, a war that matters a lot to him, a war that he's going to be hard-pressed to sell, especially to his own base. And he's not going to get any slack from the hawks he's bending over backwards to appease, because they're only too happy to see him throw his presidency away in pursuit of a hopeless war.

The other story has to do with the right-wing block of Democrats threatening to trip up the federal debt limit expansion unless Obama gives them a commission to champion scuttling Social Security and Medicare -- their term of art is Entitlement Reform. It's impossible to express just how stupid this is, or even how many levels on which it is stupid. It's one thing for the Republicans to engage in cynical wholesale nihilism -- it not only makes them feel good, they're safe knowing that the tantrums they raise aren't actually going to change anything important. But these Democrats -- Diane Feinstein, Kent Conrad, and Joe Lieberman are the names in the piece, 3 of 12 who have allegedly signed on -- have turned to suicide bombing. The programs they're trying to wreck are the most popular in the country. Historically, they're the bright feathers in the Democratic Party's cap. There is virtually no rank-and-file support among Democrats for wrecking Social Security and Medicare -- even less than there is for expanding the war in Afghanistan. There's hardly any support in the whole country, as Bush found out after the 2004 election. At most, there's some confusion about what's at stake, as when Republicans elicit hysterical rants warning the Government to keep its hands off Medicare. That's not really a complaint about Medicare, let alone a plea for the Democrats to defund it.

This Gang of 12 is just as far off base on the deficit, which is the result of other things having nothing to do with what little safety net Americans still have. Some of those things could be tackled directly, like the ridiculously unproductive expense of two major wars in Asia, and the fiscal disaster of Bush's tax cuts, most of which were squandered on the financial bubble that dropped us into the worst economic depression since the 1930s. The weird thing is that if you ever do raise such questions the Republicans will insist that war spending and tax cuts stimulate the economy, that eliminating them would be economically foolish even though they remain steadfastly opposed to any other form of stimulus, and could never imagine forgoing a tax cut proposal out of concern for the deficit. For Republians this illogic is just cunning: they're happy with stimulus measures so long as they benefit the rich, as long as they can make sure that the poor don't accidentally benefit. The problem is why should any Democrat, dependent on the poor and the working class for votes, think that way? Well, for one thing, they're not thinking very well. You'd think that Democrats would have learned from Roosevelt if not from Keynes -- hell, they could even have learned as much from Nixon or Bush (take your pick) -- that government needs to borrow and spend when times are bad, and put off paying back until times are good. In which case you have to wonder what kind of times the Gang of 12 think we're in now: you'd think even morons would be able to decipher a 10% unemployment rate. But even if these Democrats are as contemptuous of the jobless as the Republicans cheering them on, they still should notice how low the interest rate on government debt is. The private sector -- all those rich investors the Republicans have been force-feeding the last decade -- is telling the government loud and clear: here, you take our money, we don't have any better ideas than you do about how to invest it. Admittedly, some day the Gang of 12 may be right to worry about the deficit, but right now their timing is all wrong. It's as if they exhaled, dived into deep water, and started trying to breathe normally while still underwater. It's not merely stupid; it's suicidal.

Actually, there is a third TPM article worth mentioning today, about how Democrats don't seem to be as motivated these days to support their political leader as Republicans. How much of a shock is this? Maybe it's because the Democratic political leaders aren't doing any of the things they were elected to do. They're not getting out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're not dismantling the military interests that keep getting us into foreign wars. They can't even shut down Guantanamo, or set the record straight on how Bush and Cheney walked all over the constitution. They're not passing anything like the health reform we desperately need. They haven't reversed the Bush tax cuts. They haven't passed the laws needed to make it legal for workers to join unions. They haven't done squat about regulating the finance industry so it can't repeat the last year's disastrous meltdown. They've done little to help people in hard times keep their homes, and they haven't done nearly enough to stem the tide of job losses, much less to put people back on their feet again and to reverse the 40-year-trend of declining real wages. They haven't begun to wean Washington off of the legalized bribery that defines our political system. Democratic politicians, like their Republican counterparts, listen to the voters one day each two years, and to lobbyists the other 729 (or more in a leap year).

On the other hand, Democrats (except for the Gang of 12), still aren't Republicans, mostly because Republicans have spent every waking moment since losing the 2008 election diligently lowering the bar. They deny that there's anything wrong with the economy; most even oppose the banking bailouts, figuring the system hadn't collapsed nearly far enough. (After all, the intellectuals in their camp have been known to argue that Hoover caused the Great Depression by being too pro-active.) They deny that there's a thing wrong with the American health care system. (Except that in the future we won't be able to afford Medicare unless we turn it back over to the private sector to let the market work its magic.) They can't imagine any infrastructure projects that the government should invest in -- after all, if they were worthwhile the private sector would be hard at work on them -- yet somehow they've never seen a war they didn't want to dive right into. They think the only reason the rest of the world doesn't just do what we say is that we don't stand up forcefully enough. They think we'll never run out of resources as long as we can give tax breaks and subsidies to businesses. They think the atmosphere is as clean and healthy as the day God gave us dominion over the earth. They are, as Michael Kinsley once put it, Big Babies, and over the last year they've been reverting and devolving. It's hard to imagine how the Democrats could ever manage to lose to such reckless, foolish fantasists, but they're looking like they might. The key is not just delivering so little that even their base stops caring; it's making mistakes so gross and stupid that they no longer seem subject to reason. At this rate, Obama and the Democrats may pull it off.


Nov 2009 Jan 2010