May 2006 Notebook


Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Small Matter of Programming

One thing I've liked about Billmon's website is that he has a little sidebar item on "Current Reading." I've been wanting to hack something together like that, and finally did. The cover images have been scraped from the usual places, but don't link to the usual stores. Don't have any accounts set up, and don't feel like linking for the hell of it. This could change in the future. In fact, I have a book review section on the website which I've never done much with, but that might be the right place to link if I choose to develop it further.

I also made a slight cleanup of the Links section. Again, the website has long had a Links section, which has almost as long been obsolete: another project desperately seeking time. But the real significance of these two changes is that they break out of the prison formed by the Serendipity blog software. Previously I used the "HTML Nugget" plugin for the links. Now I've created a brand new plugin which evals an arbitrary piece of PHP code. That code sucks in an external PHP file, which I can then program without having to hack through the Serendipity Admin interface. While this may not be a good idea in general, it will be a huge convenience for me. It means I can do development locally, then just blast the changed up.

Feels good to actually do a little programming for once.

Jazz Consumer Guide (#9): Second-Term Blues

The long-awaited, much-agonized-over ninth Jazz Consumer Guide has finally appeared in the Village Voice. The two pick hit slots went to pianists. I often worry that I know nothing and have nothing to say about pianists, but this proves at least that I know what I like. The title, "Second Term Blues," comes from a song on the Mario Pavone album. The guerrilla musician theme is suggested by the wide range of obscure musicians working on various fringes, which more than ever extend worldwide. Even the token retro choices are underground: Bob Rockwell has long worked out of Copenhagen; Harry Allen is based in New Jersey, but most of his records appear first, and often last, in Japan.

As usual, going into this I submitted more than would fit on the allotted page. As a bonus for those who bother to read here -- and if you do, you could figure this out anyway -- the cuts/holdbacks this time were:

  • Rabih Abou-Khalil/Joachim Kühn, Journey to the Centre of an Egg (Enja/Justin Time) A-
  • Erik Friedlander, Prowl (Cryptogramophone) A-
  • Manu Katché, Neighbourhood (ECM) A-
  • Charles Lloyd, Sangam (ECM) A-
  • Joe Morris Quartet, Beautiful Existence (Clean Feed) A-
  • Francis Wong, Legends & Legacies (Asian Improv) A-
  • Unexpected, Plays the Blues in Need (Fresh Sound New Talent) HM

No idea why one, and only one, and only that one, of the Honorable Mentions got cut. The Unexpected is a piano trio based in Barcelona, led by Sergei Sirvent Escué, a young player I find consistently engaging. He certainly would have fit nicely with the other pianists. The rest were held back for various obscure reasons -- mostly having to do with getting older records out before they become even older.

As usual, I haven't seen the print version, but I've heard that it has one serious error -- since corrected on the web. The Claudia Quintet saxophonist I identified as Chris Cheek is in fact Chris Speed. I knew that. That was just one of those stupid slip-a-gear mistakes that I seem to be prone to these days, and much worse than when I called Scott Amendola "Steve" given that this error mismapped a real, plausible musician. In case you're wondering why the Voice fact checkers missed this, the simple reason is that there are none. The editors do manage to catch a few things, but they usually -- foolishly -- assume I'm the expert. I try to be, but the fact is I screw up every now and then -- like once per column. So I'd like to make a proposition: I'd like to find one or two folks who'd be willing to fact check my Jazz CG columns. I'll send you a draft when it goes to the editor, and an update when I get it back, and explain how to dig into the secret compartments to follow how I work. Helps to be an expert, but errors like Amendola and Speed/Cheek could have been caught just by comparing my reviews to my notes. No compensation, although I reserve the right to send you some surplus schwag if I'm particularly impressed.

Jazz prospecting for Jazz CG (#10) has started, but only now am I getting serious about it. The collected prospecting notes for JCG #9 are here. This is the background against which the CG was selected. The published column covers 32 records. The prospecting file has notes on 198 records. I've started work on cutting the surplus down -- currently I have 153 rated plus 114 unrated records vying for next column's 30 slots, so realistically that needs to be cut down rather drastically, even though it means skipping over good records. I'm more impressed than ever by how much good jazz is being produced these days.

These are the notes for the records in Jazz Consumer Guide (#9):

  • The Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet: Hey, Look Me Over (2004 [2006], Arbors). Cohn is Al's son. He plays guitar, setting the pace but not taking a lot of spotlight. Allen plays retro tenor sax, a throwback to the swing era with Coleman Hawkins his main man, but Al Cohn and Zoot Sims are major touchstones. Indeed, Cohn looms over this particular disc, penning three songs and influencing others. Allen plays wonderfully here -- mostly upbeat standards, with a slow original near the end followed by a vigorous "Pick Yourself Up." A pure delight. Grade here is minimal; could be Pick Hit. A-
  • Jimmy Amadie Trio: Let's Groove! A Tribute to Mel Tormé (2006, TP). With similar tributes to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Amadie's piano trio is working its way through the standards songbook much as the singers did -- but without the vocals that defined those singers. Or maybe there's another connection I'm missing, given that five of these eight songs are credited to Amadie. I don't have much to say about him as a pianist, and don't mean any disrespect by that. It's just that in this case the trio is supplemented by "special guest" Phil Woods, who sweeps the boards. Woods' days as a bebopper are long past. When he slowed down he discovered the clean, elegant swing of Benny Carter. When Woods and Carter played together their sounds were distinct, but now that Carter's gone Woods feels free to channel -- never more than here. B+(***)
  • Antonio Arnedo: Colombia (2000 [2005], Adventure Music). Arnedo is a Colombian saxophone player. Doesn't specify what kind(s) of saxophone, but my ears and one booklet picture lean toward soprano. There's also a picture of him playing a long skinny instrument, presumably the gaita (different from the Spanish bagpipe of the same name). Recorded in Brooklyn, the rest of the musicians are US-based, with guitarist Ben Monder and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi most prominent here. Rough and exotic, with the first half-plus just bubbling up from the percussion -- every time I hear Takeishi I'm more impressed. B+(***)
  • Ray Barretto: Time Was - Time Is (2004 [2005], O+ Music). Time was the time of bebop, the time of jazz's first fling with what much later came to be called world music. Time is is what happens when you get old enough to distinguish it from time was. As bebop-latin fusion, this starts strong, powered by Joe Magnarelli and Myron Walden in the roles of Diz and Bird. As for Chano Pozo, Barretto's played him all his long life long. B+(***)
  • Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Stoa (2005 [2006], ECM). Citing James Brown as well as Kurosawa, Bärtsch's "Zen-funk" is minimalism that doesn't stick in any one groove long enough to risk inscrutability. Bärtsch plays piano, giving the dominant figures an acoustic ring. Clarinet, bass, drums and percussion develop as extra parts in the mechanisms, relating to rhythm like harmony to melody. The notes concede that whatever this is it isn't really jazz. But it hooks the listener with the immediacy of its performance. That's close enough to jazz for me. A-
  • Bob Belden: Three Days of Rain (Original Soundtrack) (2001 [2006], Sunnyside). Jazz's utility for movie soundtracks has been demonstrated again and again, although less frequently than should be the case. Dark, dreary, endless rain can easily turn into cliché, but it also provides some unity -- one common problem with soundtracks is that the need to exaggerate dramatic tension leads to a hodgepodge of sounds. Belden scored this, but doesn't play. He leaves that job to a range of players who add their distinctive sounds: piano trios led by Kevin Hays and Marc Copland, guitar by Al Street, trumpet by Scott Wendholt, above all Joe Lovano, who plays a little clarinet and a lot of tenor sax. Movie's set in Cleveland, so you couldn't think of picking anyone else. B+(***)
  • James Carter/Cyrus Chestnut/Ali Jackson/Reginald Veal: Gold Sounds (2004 [2005], Brown Brothers). Alan Suback writes: "This album sprang from one question: what album would we want to buy which doesn't exist?" In other words, the record was commissioned to support a promoter's concept that sounded good on paper. That concept is Pavement goes jazz, with James Carter ("simply John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler rolled into one") honking. Movies have been pitched with no more detailed fantasy, but not good ones. Same here. Pavement's music is skewed enough that it's going to take more than these mainstreamers to tease something out of it. Chestnut is a particularly uninspired choice, but even Carter misses more than he hits. Two cuts get something going -- "Stereo" and "Here" -- but most go nowhere, or worse: "Cut Your Hair" erupts into nonsense vocals, "Platform Blues" gives Carter a chance to wear out his contrabass sousaphone, and "Trigger Cut" leaves Chestnut home alone. B-
  • The Claudia Quintet: Semi-Formal (2005, Cuneiform). Oh dear, here we go again. Almost every jazz artist fits into some reasonably well recognized framework, and almost every such framework has many examples, some of which are inevitably more skilled, more exemplary, or at least more interesting than others. These are the rules that make it possible to, usually quickly, sort out the vast produce of jazz into relatively manageable bins, and as such to give jazz consumers a break. Personal taste enters into this, of course. I happen to like saxophones more than pianos, especially in the stripped down context of trios, so may skew my grades accordingly (or compensate by skewing them otherwise), but give me a batch of mainstream piano trios and I'll probably sort them out reasonably well. John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet has two problems here: one is that they're unique -- ain't nobody else remotely similar to them, at least not within jazz. On the big map, I suppose they fit somewhere between minimalists like Philip Glass and post-rock experimentalists like Tortoise, but unlike either, like the jazz musicians they undoubtedly are, they not only play in that uncharted space, they improvise in it. The second problem is that unlike most conceptualists they don't refine and reduce their concept -- they muddy the waters, projecting their ideas in multiple directions until you're never sure just what the concept is. One consequence of this is that the albums are, tastewise anyway, maddeningly inconsistent. I sat on I, Claudia for nearly a year before finally deciding that the marvelous parts outweigh the imponderable parts, and I could do the same here, but experience tells me that in the end the marvels will win out. One thing I have a problem with is the mushiness of the instrumentation: the lead instruments are vibes, accordion, clarinet. On the other hand, that only holds true when Ted Reichman's accordion (or keyboards) holds the center. Matt Moran is one of the most interesting vibraphonists working, and he's just as likely to swing to the rhythm side building on John Hollenbeck's beats. Chris Speed mostly plays clarinet, but he switches to tenor sax on several pieces here, and that provides a huge contrast to the dominant pastels -- every time he does he blows me away. I'm not through here, but I figure it would be chickenshit to sit on the rating. One of the most distinct and exhilarating albums I've heard this year -- and, yes, it's jazz, because that's the sort of thing great jazz aims at. But it's also not as convincing as I'd like. A-
  • Jamie Davis: It's a Good Thing (2005 [2006], Unity Music). The new singer for Basie's ghost band splits the difference between Little Jimmy Rushing and suave Joe Williams. The band carries on the late testament tradition -- an orchestra of overwhelming brass with no rough spots or standout soloists, but the harshness of the "atomic" era sound has been ironed out. They may be anonymous as individuals, but they've never been more comfortable as a unity. Package includes a "Making Of" DVD. Haven't watched it, but might be fun. B+(***)
  • Taylor Eigsti: Lucky to Be Me (2005 [2006], Concord). I'd like to think that the capital influx Norman Lear et al. dumped into Concord is going to be good for jazz -- that somehow they're going to figure out how to start growing an audience that has been shrinking pretty steadily, at least in the USA, over the last 50-60 years -- but the odds are that what's good for Concord will be bad for everyone else. Eigsti is a hot young property -- a 21-year-old piano whiz on his third album -- and now he's got some money behind him. The album credits include Grooming and Stylist, so he looks as good as he sounds. His everyday trio has been replaced by Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, or by James Genus and Billy Kilson, with horns and guitar added sparingly. He writes a bit, but mostly works a repertoire designed more to show his range than what he can do with it: Coltrane, Porter, Björk, Bernstein, Van Heusen, Eddie Harris, Mussorgsky, the theme song to The Sopranos -- the latter done up-tempo with a horn section then slowed down, at odds with the rest of the album, but I bet Concord has some marketing data to justify it. By itself, this isn't a bad album, and I'm sure he's a nice enough kid -- smart, hard working, should have a long, fruitful life ahead of him. Still, I'm reminded of two things here. One is that Frank Hewitt, a pianist with subtle skills but great erudition, never got the major label contract he coveted because the labels were always looking for young guys who they hoped might expand the market by attracting young fans instead of serving the market that jazz actually has. The other is that Eigsti's choice of a Cole Porter tune, "Love for Sale," begs comparison with another pianist who tackled the same tune near the start of his career. That was Cecil Taylor, 47 years ago. B
  • Exploding Customer: Live at Tampere Jazz Happening (2004 [2005], Ayler). Swedish freebop quartet, led by alto/tenor saxman Martin Küchen, with Tomas Hallonsten on trumpet for a two horn, no piano lineup. They have all the usual virtues: a rockish undertow, no qualms about getting noisy, a flexible bassist in Martin Quigley, and a terrific drummer in Kjell Nordeson. The two horns flare apart as usual, but they're exceptional when they band together, often on fast loops like a flashy circus act. B+(***)
  • Garage A Trois: Outre Mer (2005, Telarc). A-
  • Moncef Genoud: Aqua (2004 [2006], Savoy Jazz). This is, by any reasonable standards, a very good record. I'm reluctant to push it onto the A-list, but the closest thing to an explanation I can think of is that it does too many things too well. Genoud is a pianist, born in Tunisia in 1961, raised in Switzerland. This is his tenth studio album, but the first with any real US distribution, and given the supporting cast -- more on them later -- is his gala coming out party. I haven't heard any of the others, but The Meeting With Bob Berg has to be worthwhile, and Together with Youssou N'Dour is bound to be interesting. Not sure how well known he is in Europe, but he hasn't appeared in the Penguin Guide yet. He's blind, which is neither here nor there, but tempts me to liken him to Tete Montoliu, although I can't swear by that. He is both a mainstream player and rather idiosyncratic, a guy who plays within given frameworks in his own way. Six cuts here are straight piano trio, with Scott Colley and Bill Stewart as solid as you'd expect. Three evenly spaced cuts add Michael Brecker saxophone, rising majestically from the mix -- one fast, one slow, one just right. Brecker has a huge rep, but I've never warmed to, or even been much impressed by, what Branford calls "that Mikey shit." Still, Brecker's faultless here. The tenth cut reverts to Genoud's European trio, with Dee Dee Bridgewater singing "Lush Life" about as authoritatively as it can be sung. So, every facet of this album impresses. Can I knock him for trying too hard? Guess not. A-
  • Ben Goldberg Quintet: The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact (2004 [2006], Cryptogramophone). As Goldberg describes his tutoring by Steve Lacy, one imagines a Zen master. Goldberg's learning is similarly oblique, as is his tribute -- recorded three days after Lacy died, but conceived when the event was foretold. Goldberg plays "Blinks," but otherwise the connections aren't all that easy to decipher. Perhaps Carla Kihlstedt's little vocal is meant to remind us of Aëbi, but it's far less starchy. Throughout what's most fascinating here is the rhythm -- loose and open for the most part, buoyant on "Song and Dance," hypnotic on "I Before E Before I." But the most un-Lacy-like thing here is Goldberg's avoidance of the spotlight. Makes the record more obscure than it ought to be. And more curious than it would be otherwise. B+(***)
  • Jason Kao Hwang: Graphic Evidence (2000 [2005], Asian Improv). A specialist in Chinese classical music, it's hard to hear his violin without framing it in his ancestors' homeland. Fellow Asian-Americans Tatsu Aoki and Francis Wong reinforce the location. Aoki's bass complements the violin, as does Wu Man's pipa (a Chinese lute) on two cuts. Wong plays soprano sax -- an instrument Coltrane discovered a new role for by pointing east. Wong too points east, on our globe completing the circle. B+(***)
  • Jazz at Lincoln Center's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra With Arturo O'Farrill: Noche Inolvidable (2005, Palmetto). Records like this one try my patience. I don't know enough about Afro-Cuban big band jazz to make fine distinctions, or even gross distinctions, but isn't it supposed to be more fun than this? Or am I just projecting the Lincoln Center tuxedos back onto the dance floor? The band is huge, especially in the brass department. The percussion is busy, although it's hard to see where it's going. Almost every song has a vocal, with Herman Olivera and Claudia Acuña trading punches, and the vocal cloud makes it not sound much like jazz to me. Given a key or two, this could turn out to be better than I think, but right now it seems equally likely that I'm cutting it some slack to bury it from sight. B
  • Brent Jensen: Trios (2006, Origin). No record date. Two sets, one with guitar-bass, the other with bass-drums. Songs are standard jazz fare, so much so that one can imagine this as the orals for a jazz degree program: "Beautiful Love," "Bemsha Swing," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "Giant Steps," "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," "East of the Sun," "Well You Needn't." I've been reading Stuart Nicholson's Is Jazz Dead?, where he complains much about jazz that points backwards, showing off its competency while hiding its disinterest in innovation. Still, Jensen, an alto saxist, aces everything he touches, and while this breaks no new ground, it succeeds at a more fundamental level: it entertains and delights. B+(***)
  • Marc Johnson: Shades of Jade (2004 [2005], ECM). Tough to rate records like this -- supremely accomplished, but lacking the sort of tension that impresses you with how hard they worked. The "they" is appropriate here: at the very least it acknowledges Eliane Elias, who not only plays her usual lush life piano but wrote most of the songs and even gets co-producer credit along with the inevitable Manfred Eicher. According to my best info, Johnson and Elias are married -- her marriage to Randy Brecker is better documented, but evidently over. Johnson is a notable bassist, presumably responsible for the lovely arco on the doleful Armenian song that closes the album -- although it sounds more like cello. The "they" also includes drummer Joey Baron; organist Alain Mallet, not very conspicuous here; and two others who hardly need introduction, especially when they play so close to form: Joe Lovano and John Scofield. B+(***)
  • Andrew Lamb & Warren Smith: The Dogon Duo (2004 [2005], Engine). Low budget. Probably the cheapest packaging I've ever seen: a piece of recycled chipboard, a pasted-on piece of foam robber to hold the disc, a pasted-in piece of printer printout for the text. (I doubt that that's just what they send to reviewers, since there's no legal boilerplate, and note that the list price is $6.79.) So everything's recycled but the notes, which are invented on the spot -- sax or flute riffs with Smith's percussion kicking off. Neither musician is brilliant, but the whole primitivism thing doesn't require that. B+(**)
  • Steve Lehman: Demian as Posthuman (2005, Pi). Twelve short pieces, structured like a bridge with community on both ends and mostly duo pieces in between, where Lehman plays alto sax against his own programming and Tyshawn Sorey's drums. Dense and cerebral, with no wasted motion. I've written about an interview where Lehman talks about how his work opposes what he sees as the coming dark ages. Hesse's Demian was a guide out of the darkness -- actually, a superficial world of light, or so I gather -- so that seems to be the overarching concept. If so, the point of these pieces may be to create oppositions to force you to think. The duos feel uncommonly compressed, weighted down, although I'm not sure with what. The community pieces are more affirming, with Vijay Iyer's piano the most impressive thing, as usual. A-
  • Mario Pavone Sextet: Deez to Blues (2005 [2006], Playscape). Pavone describes this music as upside down, with the piano and bass carrying the melodic line while the horns provide counter motion. That's certainly part of it -- especially why Pavone's bass so often winds up on top, but there's much more going on with convoluted density of Peter Madsen's piano. Also, left out of the equation is Charles Burnham's violin, which can take the high road with Pavone, or more likely the low one with, or in place of, the horns. The hornmen, by the way, are Steven Bernstein (trumpet, slide trumpet) and Howard Johnson (tuba, baritone sax, bass clarinet). They add a lot in small ways but never threaten to run away with a piece. The opening cuts here are as stimulating as anything I've heard this year. The later ones may take more concentration, but the rewards are evident. And no need to ask what "Second-Term Blues" is about -- what the blues has always been about: survival. Grade is a baseline. I'll be auditioning this for a Pick Hit. A-
  • Gianluca Petrella: Indigo 4 (2004 [2006], Blue Note). Italian trombonist, not yet 30 when this was recorded, with a couple of unheard albums under his belt. Blue Note picked him up because they're part of EMI's multinational megacorp and jazz is bigger in Europe than in its homeland, and he's exactly the sort of prospect that makes majors think jazz has a viable future: well studied but eager to take that extra step and distinguish himself. The covers are Ellington, Monk, Tony Williams, Sun Ra, and "Lazy Moon." The originals weave in and out in complementary ways. As a trombonist he draws on Roswell Rudd, which among other things means he doesn't hesitate to get down and dirty. He also dabbles in electronics -- almost de rigeur these days, especially in Europe. He's complemented here by Francesco Bearzatti on tenor sax and clarinet. The band's one of those piano-less quartets, the two horns free to wheel and deal, with Bearzatti taking advantage of his more nimble horns. But despite his friskiness, Petrella stays within the boundaries of modern postbop: he's an integrator, a constructive traditionalist. B+(***)
  • Bob Rockwell: Bob's Ben: A Salute to Ben Webster (2004 [2005], Stunt). This one's too easy, but it's an undeniable pleasure. Rockwell's a mainstream tenor saxman who moved to Copenhagen in 1983, two decades after Webster, and settled into a respected if unspectacular career. He has the broad tone but none of Webster's vibrato, so he keeps a respectful distance while luxuriating in a dozen Webster ballads. I thought I never wanted to hear "Danny Boy" again, but I was wrong. A-
  • Ray Russell: Goodbye Svengali (2005 [2006], Cuneiform). Don't have recording dates, so I'm going with the liner notes. In any case I wouldn't count the old tape of Gil Evans piano that Russell overdubs. In this guitarist's tribute to Evans, I'm reminded that Evans himself made a project of arranging Jimi Hendrix for big band, but Russell wasn't Hendrix or similarly inspired -- Larry Coryell is much more to the point, and (of course) McLaughlin. But I don't know Russell's work -- mostly fusion dates going back to the late '60s, but he had more with Evans than the dining relationship mentioned in the notes here. So I suspect he had some insight into an Evans interest in guitar that informs this exceptionally fruitful tribute. B+(***)
  • Bernardo Sassetti Trio²: Ascent (2005, Clean Feed). Piano trio from Portugal plus two extra musicians: Ajda Zupancic on cello and Jean-François Lezé on vibes. The vibes aren't conspicuous, but the cello makes a difference, building the soft, luscious texture Sassetti's piano offsets. Not avant-garde or boppish or anything else you can pigeonhole. Just remarkably logical, coherent -- makes perfect sense the way it unfolds. Still don't know how to write about it, but for now, suffice it to say this is the best piano album I've heard since I started doing the Jazz CG. Could be Pick Hit. Could be graded higher. A-
  • Alexander von Schlippenbach: Monk's Casino (2003-04 [2005], Intakt, 3CD). Surprising at first that everything Monk wrote can be squeezed onto three discs, but Monk's well started to dry up not far into his career and his later discs are mostly reworkings of his earlier songs. Some of these do run short -- "Crepuscle With Nellie" 2:17, "Pannonica" 1:36, "Stuffy Turkey" 0:44 -- but "Misterioso" stretches to 10:05. Some are straight renditions of the compositions, but work around the themes, much as Monk himself did. Trumpet and bass clarinet recapitulate Monk's own preference for working with horns, but they vary enough from the usual tenor saxmen to illuminate new edges and quirks in Monk's work, much like Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd did. Schlippenbach himself is less like himself, content to lay back and direct like Monk often did. Still, in total this is a remarkable, and quite marvelous, de/reconstruction. A-
  • Irène Schweizer: Portrait (1984-2004 [2005], Intakt). One disc in a slipcase with a thick booklet, packed with excerpts from fourteen albums, by a Swiss pianist I've never heard before, although I've certainly heard of. Nothing in this year's bumper crop of solo piano strikes me as anywhere near as robust as the three solo pieces here. Even better are the duos, mostly with drummers, but two saxophonists I've also never heard of, Omri Ziegele and Co Streiff, also stand out, and the 10:13 "First Meeting" with trombonist George Lewis is riveting from stem to stern. Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake are tight enough that their trio combines the virtues of the duos. That leaves two pieces with Joëlle Léandre and Maggie Nicols, where the latter's artsong vocals would normally turn me off, but somehow here they slip past as high camp. This does what few samplers manage to do: make me want to hear all of the albums they come from. A
  • Sonny Simmons: The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings (1966 [2005], ESP-Disk, 2CD). Simmons was past 30 when he cut his first two albums. Both feature his wife Barbara Donald on trumpet, the first in a quintet with a young John Hicks on piano, the second a sextet with Michael Cohen on piano and Bert Wilson on tenor sax. Before arriving in New York, Simmons had played alto sax mostly in r&b bands, but he had an exceptional sense of the connections between Parker, Coleman and Dolphy, and he sums them up with fierce logic and cunning, even advancing the state of the art a bit. A few years later he returned to the West Coast, fell on hard times, lost his family, became a homeless junkie, scratching for change playing on the streets. He finally got a gig from someone who remembered these albums, cleaned up and came back with a vengeance, turning in his finest work at an age when most people hope to be retired. Both discs are padded with interviews, but the man's got history. A-
  • Sonny Simmons: The Traveler (2004 [2005], Jazzaway). Sonny goes to Norway, hooks up with Anders Aarum's piano trio, a string quartet, and veteran reedist Vidar Johansen, who limits himself to flute and conducting. So at first glance this is one of those sax with strings things where the strings just provide a schmeer of background tapestry for a saxophonist. The recent Lee Konitz Jonquil album is typical of the sort, where you wish someone would just lop off the strings and let the man play. I'm not much more impressed with the strings this time, but still they seem to have put Simmons in a particularly fine mood. He has rarely played so clear and cogently -- seems like he's spent most of his career jousting with a second saxophone in bare-bones trios, like his marvelous 1996 Transcendence, so maybe there's something to be said for letting him bask in the glory of a tasteful string section. Kudos also for Aarum, who solos adroitly and provides consistently solid backing. A-
  • String Trio of New York With Oliver Lake: Frozen Ropes (2004 [2005], Barking Hoop). John Linderg and James Emery are constants for 25 years now, while the violin slot has pretty much annointed the who's who of the instrument -- Billy Bang, Charles Burnham, Regina Carter, Diane Monroe, now Rob Thomas. Lindberg is, or should be, well known from his own albums. But the one I keep noticing here is Emery. His guitar tends to add color, but in this mix that makes a difference. And his lead piece, called "Texas Koto Blues," is both the simplest and the most striking thing here -- you just know Albert King would get a kick out of it. It's also the one piece where Lake fits in most seemlessly. Elsewhere he challenges the group, mostly for the better. B+(***)
  • Kenny Wheeler: What Now? (2005, Cam Jazz). Wheeler's the mild man of Europe's avant-garde. Originally from Canada, he moved to England in 1952 and has been present and accounted for at most of the formative moments in the evolution of European free jazz. But left to his own devices, he prefers flugelhorn over trumpet, and slow tempos over fast ones. He fit much of his career into ECM, but unlike John Surman, say, he scarcely had to adjust his style to fit in. His recent records on Cam Jazz, both as a leader and as a sideman with Enrico Pieranunzi, are in many ways all reflections of one another. They are slow, thoughtful, delicate, hard to get excited about, but not easy to dismiss either. This quartet offers a richer pallette, with Chris Potter's tenor sax complementing Wheeler's flugelhorn, while John Taylor's piano and Dave Holland's bass round out the sound. No drums, leaving the music all flow with little inflection. (The Pieranunzi albums have Paul Motian, whose beside-the-point abstractness amounts to the same thing.) B+(**)
  • Miguel Zenón: Jíbaro (2004 [2005], Marsalis Music/Rounder). The first I heard of him was when he won Downbeat's poll for alto sax, TDWR division, a couple of years ago. I got hold of Ceremonial, his then current album, where he impressed me more than the record -- bit fancy for my taste -- but the record could easily have been a HM. Since then he's been showing up everywhere, never disappointing even when the records do. I read a blindfold test with him recently, and he absolutely nailed everything they threw at him. Smart guy, knows his craft inside and out. I should have gotten this record when it came out last summer -- thought I did, but searched all over the place and couldn't find any trace of it. This is his Puerto Rican roots record -- jíbaro is a rural folk-pop style, Edwin Colon Zayas calls it his "country music" -- but Zenón aim for roots. Rather, he writes new pieces mapping the style onto a standard acoustic sax-piano-bass-drums jazz quartet -- no cuatro, guiro, bongo, vocals. The result is jazz centered on jíbaro roots, rather than jazzed up jíbaro or some kind of fusion. It's exceptionally clean and clear, beguiling music. A-

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Time to get serious about culling surplus records from the active roster for Jazz Consumer Guide (#10). Going into this exercise, I have 153 done records (rated but not written up), and 114 unrated records in the queue -- 34 with non-final prospecting notes, 80 unplayed. I can get about 30 records into a Jazz CG, maybe a couple more if I squeeze real hard. Don't have a good number on the rate of new records, but last year I received about 450 records and was able to work about 110 into Jazz CG, so my long term inclusion rate is about 25%. The current done list are actually the survivors of an ongoing suprplus cull. Going into this exercise, I've already disposed of 80 records, so a reasonable post-cull done list here would be 0.25 * (153 + 80), or 58 records; i.e., down 95. I doubt that I'll get down that low. The records that have survived the ongoing cut are mostly pretty good -- records that deserve notice even if I don't have space for them. (There's also a handful I've kept in reserve as possible duds.)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Music: Current count 11919 [11883] rated (+36), 860 [848] unrated (+12). Moved a lot of stuff this week, mostly for Recycled Goods -- June column is done, several days early for once. Not a lot of jazz prospecting. Jazz CG will run this week, so that's another milestone.

  • The Best of Studio One (1967-80 [2006], Heartbeat): With so much to choose from, this seems arbitrary, skipping the ska years to focus on rocksteady stars -- Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Slim Smith -- and the rasta roots movement -- the Abyssinians, the Gladiators, Wailing Souls -- and a little rub a dub; with so much to choose from, this holds up anyway. A-
  • Dave Brubeck: Jazz: Red Hot & Cool (1954-55 [2001], Columbia/Legacy): Actually, the temperature is pretty tepid, at least when Desmond plays. When Brubeck plays, it's more like ice cold. B+(*)
  • Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up ([2005], Numero Group): The former British Honduras is a small Anglo enclave facing the Caribbean from the Central American mainland. Its music connects through language to the expected places -- Jamaica, Trinidad, the United States, maybe even the old country -- but judging from this sampler, Belize has yet to develop a distinctive sound of its own. Or maybe the exuberantly recycled '70s soul and disco was what most flattered the compiler's ears? It's hard to fault "Back Stabbers" and "Shame Shame Shame" except for their obviousness. No dates in an otherwise informative booklet, except that the earliest tracks here date from Lord Rhaburn's 1967 sojurn to New York. It's doubtful that later cuts go much past the '70s. Two standouts: Lord Rhaburn's "Disco Connection" boils up as advertised, and Nadia Cattouse's "Long Time Boy" is the odd track out, a folk ballad with a proper English accent. B+(***)
  • Ravi Coltrane: Mad 6 (2003 [2003], Eighty-Eights/Columbia): The two other albums I've heard snuck by with A- grades despite doubts that are all the more warranted here. He has a very fleshed out sound, a lot of movement, and runs a pretty hot sextet here -- most impressive is pianist George Colligan. As with the others, I could be overrating this, but it's pretty enjoyable. B+(*)
  • Dave Douglas: Strange Liberation (2003, Bluebird): A sextet with Bill Frisell (guitar), Chris Potter (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Uri Caine (fender rhodes), James Genus (acoustic and electric guitar) and Clarence Penn (drums, percussion). Played this three times. Don't have a strong feeling one way or another: don't much care for Potter's soprano or the way Frisell fits in, but the other parts, including Potter's tenor, impress. B+(**)
  • Downbeat the Ruler: Killer Instrumentals From Studio One (1967-75 [2006], Heartbeat): Clement S. "Coxsone" Dodd ran one of Jamaica's Big Three sound systems in the early '60s -- Duke Reid and Prince Buster were the other two. Together they were responsible for almost all of the ska that launched Jamaican music as we know it, and they continued to be major creative forces for decades, as ska evolved into rocksteady, reggae, roots, dub, and dancehall. Dodd's legacy comes to forty CDs on Heartbeat -- Reid's Trojan Records may have had more and bigger hits, but in a music that has been slammed as too samey, Dodd distinguished himself as its most steady norm. The base of Dodd's operation was his studio band, which comes through most cearly in their instrumentals. Killer may be an overstatement -- they're more like the meat and potatoes or the rice and beans of reggae, a fine meal in themselves. A-
  • Steve Earle: Just an American Boy: The Audio Documentary (2003, E-Squared/Artemis, 2CD): Normally, I'd discount a live double that recaps large swathes of a songbook that is well established on studio albums, but those studio albums don't come with the commentary which at least in this case adds urgency and humanity. He laments Woody Guthrie, then takes giant steps in his shoes. Makes me feel good about feeling bad. A-
  • Full Up: More Hits From Studio One (1967-82 [2006], Heartbeat): Aka Best of Studio One, Volume Two, which translates as more of the same, with Bob Andy and Delroy Wilson showing up on the rocksteady side, while Burning Spear and Culture nail down the roots angle; still strikes me as an arbitrary meander through the backwoods of a cultural treasure. B+(***)
  • Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937 (1926-37 [2005], Old Hat, 2CD): They were called medicine shows because the entertainment was just meant to attract crowds to hear sales pitches for patent medicines. Their heyday came in the late 19th century, but persisted into the era we have records for -- indeed, Porter Wagoner was still hawking for the Chattanooga Medicine Company on his '60s TV show. Picking from the early records of medicine show veterans, this compilation covers the gamut of rural Americana -- music that eventually got sorted out into country and blues but at the time was as complexly mixed as still-present minstrelsy. The music favors songsters, jug bands, and mountain fiddlers, with most of the songs dating well back -- old music that itself was old-fashioned. But delightful as the music is, the package sets a new standard in how such distant history should be presented. The 72-page booklet details every song and every artist, put in context by two expert essays and pictures that show more than can be said. A
  • Gospel Music (1937-77 [2006], Hyena): In purely musical terms, one of the finest compilations of classic gospel music ever, able to raise the rafters, but also to hold them intact under the severest of storms; as history, useless, with Joel Dorn's liner notes just adding insult to injury. With even halfway decent documentation this would be an A. As it is, I got the dates from a customer at, and they're hardly certain. B+(*)
  • Woody Herman: Blowin' Up a Storm! (1945-47 [2001], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Essential music from the 1st and 2nd Herds. Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" is an interesting twist. A-
  • John Hicks: Some Other Time (1981-84 [1994], Evidence): Piano trio with Walter Booker and Idris Muhammad. Reissue of John Hicks (1981 [1984], Theresa 115), plus three previously unreleased tracks. Most of this is brightly played and compelling, but the slower parts are less articulate. B+(*)
  • Dave Holland Quintet: Extended Play: Live at Birdland (2001 [2003], ECM, 2CD): This came out around the time when Holland was reaching something of a pinnacle in terms of jazz acclaim. His big band had turned out a very admired album, and his quintet had become the standard for postbop groups. With Chris Potter and Robin Eubanks he had notable soloists, while Steve Nelson's vibes provided an interesting alternative to piano. This takes Holland's pieces to extended lengths, providing everyone with interesting solo space -- as usual, I'm both impressed and slightly peeved by Potter, but I have nothing but admiration for Eubanks. B+(**)
  • King Crimson: The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, Volume Two: 1981-2003 ([2005], DGM, 4CD): Robert Fripp's solo years between his old and new bands were spent on guitar instrumentals, augmented by his frippertronics. During those years prog-rock went the way of the dinosaurs, punk and new wave came in. In reviving King Crimson, he had a brand name brought back the spotlight, but the new band made no effort to sound like the old. Unlike the old band, this lineup proved stable: starting with Fripp, Tony Levin, Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford, two decades later the only change was Pat Mastelotto replacing Bruford. But the music evolved, initially new wave with Talking Heads rips, eventually gravitating toward postmodern sonic pastiche. Like its predecessor, this offers two discs each of studio and live, with a timeline that would be useful if the group much mattered. B
  • Gershon Kingsley: God Is a Moog (1968-74 [2006], Reboot Stereophonic, 2CD): Like Gutenberg, Kingsley's first thought on discovering a new technology was to use it to serve the Lord -- resulting in the "electronic prayers" of Shabbat for Today; the electronics take a back seat to the words, sung or lectured, declamatory or didactic; sounds like a smarter Jesus Christ Superstar -- e.g., "poverty is a form of slavery/from the rich we must be free." B
  • Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars: Carnival Conspiracy (2005, Piranha): The trumpeter behind Hasidic New Wave and the Klezmatics networks, pulling together forty-some musicians from eight countries to rip through songs in four languages interleaved with brassy instrumentals; cover sez "File under: USA / World / Carnival / Klezmer / Brass" -- it's all those things. A-
  • Bob Marley & the Wailers: One Love: At Studio One (1964-66 [2006], Heartbeat, 2CD): Juvenilia, more identifiable by C.S. Dodd's studio groove than by the soon to be famous singers -- Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone as well as Marley; but even if "Simmer Down" was just a one-shot ska smash, "One Love" pointed forward, and Marley shared writing credits on both; not essential, but critical history. B+(**)
  • Willie Nelson: You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (2006, Lost Highway): Sure, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, but then Nelson is a world-class interpretetive singer. Walker goes back to the '40s when she wrote or co-wrote such Bob Wills classics as "Bubbles in My Beer" and "Cherokee Maiden" -- it's fine with me for Nelson to do Bob Wills all day long. I know "Warm Red Wine" from Ernest Tubb, "I Don't Care" from Webb Pierce, "You Don't Know Me" from Eddy Arnold. Nelson sweeps all three. A-
  • The Rakes: Capture/Release (2005 [2006], V2): At first this sounded like the midpoint between the Buzzcocks and the early Police. Seems like a pretty basic concept -- shouldn't be all that hard to do, but I can't say as I've heard it done many times. Later on they grow a bit, maybe even toward their own sound. A-
  • The Rough Guide to Bhangra Dance (1998-2005 [2006], World Music Network): A-
  • Pharoah Sanders: Journey to the One (1979 [1992], Evidence): Not wild about the chant, but it's not awful either. Sanders strikes me as a bit underrecorded, but then you wouldn't want to blow out your speakers. But I pulled this off the shelf for the pianist, and John Hicks is repeatedly wonderful. B+(*)
  • Julia Sarr/Patrice Larose: Set Luna (2005, Sunnyside/No Format): Based in France, she sings starkly haunting ballads that owe je ne sais quoi to her native Senegal, while he plays flamenco-influenced guitar toned down to her speed; Youssou N'Dour joins for a duet. B
  • The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: The Dead Sea Scrolls of Record Collecting! (1926-32 [2006], Shanachie, 2CD): The cover offers two possible subtitles: the descriptive "Super Rarities & Unissued Gems of the 1920s & '30s" and the hyperbolic "The Dead Sea Scrolls of Record Collecting!" The latter suggests revelations -- new insights into ancient history -- but the booklet is so preoccupied with the anal obsessiveness of record collectors that it scarcely provides any history much less insight. When were these supposedly rare records released? On what labels? Who were these people? Isn't the main point of excavation what it tells you about history? As for the music, these are country tunes, black and white almost equally. Picking songs for their obscurity is as arbitrary as slotting them by chart position, and suffers soundwise, but this still winds up as a better than average period sampler with a few transcendent moments. Despite the R. Crumb artwork, I hate the packaging -- the form factor waste; the trick CD trays that won't release their wares without a struggle; the lazy, frustrating booklet. As for the dates, I spent a couple hours tracking down half of them, and those I could find cluster pretty tightly around 1930. B+(***)
  • Lucinda Williams: Live at the Fillmore (2003 [2005], Lost Highway): For my take on live albums of well established studio songbooks, cf. Steve Earle above, and factor in that her studio works are consistently superior to his. Also note that when she calls for revolution at the end, that's her first spoken interlude, and it's just a throwaway. I've seen her live twice, and the songs rule, as they do here. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 4)

As each month approaches its end, I have to shift gears and scrounge the shelves for Recycled Goods, which takes time away from sorting out the steady flow of jazz prospects. Accordingly, not much of interest this week -- four of five new records this week aren't even jazz. Got so bad I almost decided to skip this week, but a little last minute mop-up helped. Next week gets serious -- about time, considering how heavy the new shelves are. But it's also appropriate: the long-awaited Jazz Consumer Guide (#9) finally hits the streets, in New York anyhow, on Tuesday or Wednesday this week. I still don't know what made the cut and what got held back. Don't have my surplus culled yet, either. Need to work on that. Stand by for announcements. Still don't know much about the longer term prospects for the Voice and/or Jazz Consumer Guide, but until I hear otherwise we'll keep on doing.

Dr. John: Mercernary (2006, Blue Note): The good doctor attacks the Johnny Mercer songbook, growling and snarling and occasionally kicking its ass. One Mac Rebennack original: "I Ain't No Johnny Mercer." Hardly needs saying! B+(*)

Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars: Carnival Conspiracy (2005, Piranha): The trumpeter behind Hasidic New Wave and the Klezmatics networks, pulling together forty-some musicians from eight countries to rip through songs in four languages interleaved with brassy instrumentals. Cover sez "File under: USA / World / Carnival / Klezmer / Brass" -- it's all those things, but I also like the closer for its solemn soulfulness. A-

Irving Fields Trio: Bagels and Bongos (1959 [2005], Reboot Stereophonic): This could, and possibly should, be as tacky as its title and songs like "Havannah Nagilah" suggest, but it isn't, and that works too -- prim, proper, a light touch that keeps the piano up front, leaving the bagel- and bongo-rhythms wafting in the air, faint aromas of the exotic. A-

Ardecore (2005, Il Manifesto). Italian sources classify this as folk or folk-blues, although I suspect that this revisits at old Rome much like the Mekons rework country and western or the Pogues recast Dublin. One clue is that the title translates as "Hardcore"; another is that the core of the band comes from Zu, a group that straddles the politics of the Mekons and the Ex but usually ventures further into avant-jazz territory. But here Luca Mai's bari sax burnishes the luxurious sway of classic Italian melodies, while Giampaolo Felici sings with the coarse authority of a griot or cantor. A-

Toots Thielemans: One for the Road (2006, Verve): The reigning, all but permanent poll winner on "other instrument" -- in his case harmonica -- returns with an album of Harold Arlen songs. Good songs, of course. Harmonica adds soulful texture, but on nine of the songs it's background for nine guest singers, none of whom impress me as much as Carrie Smith did on Sir Roland Hanna's Arlen tribute. Also lurking in the background are uncredited strings. B

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

Bobby Previte: The Coalition of the Willing< (2005 [2006], Ropeadope): Not sure about the iconography, but the big quote under the clear plastic tray is from George Orwell's 1984, and the liner notes end with "Wake up everybody." Previte, Charlie Hunter, and Jamie Saft try to do their part by cranking up the volume, but all they get for it is a pretty decent fusion album. Skerik and Steve Bernstein help out, and Stanton Moore appears on one track. B+(**)

Dom Minasi: The Vampire's Revenge (2005 [2006], CDM, 2CD): Dedicated to Anne Rice, inspired by her vampire books, of all things, this like so many large-scale projects in the jazz underground depends heavily on the auteur's friends. Critically, I would say, because they're an interesting bunch and add all sorts of strange and wonderful things to Minasi's amusing score. Just to cite a few: Borah Bergman, Perry Robinson, Mark Whitecage, Jason Kao Hwang, Herb Robertson, Steve Swell. Minasi's core trio is solid too, with Ken Filiano and Jackson Krall joining the veteran guitarist. The vampires, on the other hand, enter through Carol Mennie's two scats-plus-shouts -- "just one more" repeats ad infinitum until she takes her "bite" -- and Peter Ratray's somber recitation. B+(**)

Michael Blake: Blake Tartare (2002 [2005], Stunt): Starts and ends soft, with guitar groove and searching sax in between, including pieces by Mingus and Sun Ra that punch up the drama in the middle. Nothing spectacular, but a very satisfying arc. B+(***)

Colin Stranahan: Transformation (2005 [2006], Capri): Led by the drummer, a rather fancy postbop ensemble, with two saxes, piano and bass, plus trumpet on four cuts, vibes on another. Much of this impresses me despite some misgivings about the basic approach. B+(*)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Ignorance Is Our Business

General Michael Hayden has been swept through the Senate's rubber stamp process to become head of the Central Ignorance Agency -- aka CIA, not to be confused with the actually useful Culinary Institute of America. Virtually no hearings. Fifteen dissents, including one Republican, the generally loathesome Arlen Specter. Even Russell Feingold seemed cautious in his opposition, saying: "I voted against the nomination of General Michael Hayden to be Director of the CIA because I am not convinced that the nominee respects the rule of law and Congress's oversight responsibilities."

This at least gets to the key point: if you're going to have an organization allowed to work in near complete secrecy, you have to staff and manage it with people who are not just trustworthy -- people who are beyond suspicion. Hayden isn't any such thing, but given how the current administration has politicized its use of so-called intelligence, anyone Bush nominated would be instantly tainted. At this point, that means that the problem is not merely a question of who should be director: the CIA has proven to be an intrinsically dangerous organization. That danger is a consequence of the CIA's ability to operate in secret, with little or no public oversight. (Congressional oversight counts for nothing, as the story of Jay Rockefeller shows: having been briefed on the NSA's illegal phone surveillance program, he was prevented from consulting his own legal counsel because the program was classified.) This sets up an atmosphere where CIA operatives can get away with anything, including providing totally wrong "intelligence" -- especially crap that is politically convenient, for their White House masters, or just for themselves.

We know very little about what the CIA actually does with its $40 billion/year. The actual information that they publish, like their nation summaries, amount to a mere drop in Wikipedia's bucket. While there's useful information there, that accounts for next to nothing of what they do. Beyond that, who knows? George Tenet's service in fabricating rationales for Bush's Iraq War got him a presidential medal, but we still know little detail about how the CIA turned out to be so spectacularly wrong. The CIA occasionally crop up in books like Cobra II, where everything they say and do turns out to be completely orthogonal to reality. Looking back at their glory days in the Cold War, we find them consistently misestimating Soviet strength and consistently misunderstanding Soviet intentions. Of course, back then they actually accomplished some things: like turning Iran into our Axis of Evil enemy, and training Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. Not to mention all those drugs they schlepped from Laos, or the occasional massacre in Latin America, or assassinating Patrice Lumumba, securing the Congo for several decades of what may charitably be described as rape and pillage. Oh, those were the days!

Since Tenet ducked out, the CIA was first handed over to Porter Goss, a political hack whose main task appears to have been to purge anyone who hasn't yet got the lesson that in this administration we make our own reality -- no point consulting anyone else. And now that the people are gone, the Wiretapper General can move his machines in. Sounds to me like a plot line out of 24, and for all we know it may be. That's the problem with keeping everything secret -- you never know what they're up to, what scams they're pulling, when the next gross fuck-up is going to slip out. The core problem, I think, is the word "intelligence" -- either in military parlance as a piece of information or more generally as the skills to systematically process that information, the key to establishing the truth and significance of intelligence is that it be subject to public scrutiny. Secrecy, by hiding information from the public, is the antidote to intelligence. In other words, secret intelligence = ignorance, which explains a lot.

A while back I argued against the Collins-Lieberman plan to demolish FEMA. That department, I argued, isn't intrinsically flawed. It's just being managed by bad people for bad purposes, starting with Bush. In theory, if you get rid of the bad apples, replace them with honest and competent and dilligent people, and give them a clear charter, they can come close to doing their assigned tasks. The CIA is different. Sure, they have the same incompetent and corrupt management, but in their case the whole program is rotten down to its foundation. They should have been abolished back when the Russians cleared out the KGB, if not before. But it's still not too late, even as the costs of not shutting them down keep building up. But given how untouchable they look to Washington politicos, it may be too late for us.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Walk the Walk

One thing I don't understand about George W. Bush is why he's always photographed walking to the podium when he appears before the press. I don't recall any other president being treated that way, except maybe Gerald Ford, but only when he fell down. Are we supposed to be impressed that even if Bush can't talk the talk he at least can walk the walk? One thing that makes this look even weirder is that he makes all his guests walk right along with him. Who can forget the memorable scenes of Bush, Sharon and Abbas hobbling to their three podiums at Taba? I'm reminded of this by pictures of Bush and Blair walking side by side to their joint denial conference. I didn't actually see a harness, but it sure looked like Bush walking his dog. I expect we'll soon see some touched up photos making the point explicit.

This kind of media manipulation doesn't just happen. They do it for a reason, even if it isn't an obvious one. I mean, it can't be that Bush's handlers want to distance their man from FDR -- a somewhat more successful war president. This reminds me of the story about how Bush's father, back when he was VP, took a tour of Jordan and insisted that there be camels in the background for photo ops at every stop. The other question, of course, is why the press puts up with this kind of manipulative horseshit. But I guess we've given up on them.

Meanwhile, the man who almost prevented us from realizing how horrible Bush would turn out to be as president has put a movie together explaining anthropogenic climate change -- that's global warming to you, bub -- to anyone not currently on the oil industry's payroll. I still have my doubts that Gore would be doing anything so useful had he been elected -- there's something about politics in America that drags everyone into the sewer. And it's not just something: a big part of this is the press. Paul Krugman puts it this way:

Why, after all, was Mr. Gore's popular-vote margin in the 2000 election narrow enough that he could be denied the White House? Any account that neglects the determination of some journalists to make him a figure of ridicule misses a key part of the story. Why were those journalists so determined to jeer Mr. Gore? Because of the very qualities that allowed him to realize the importance of global warming, many years before any other major political figure: his earnestness, and his genuine interest in facts, numbers and serious analysis.

And so the 2000 campaign ended up being about the candidates' clothing, their mannerisms, anything but the issues, on which Mr. Gore had a clear advantage (and about which his opponent was clearly both ill informed and dishonest).

Bush's dishonesty could have been investigated back in 2000, if anyone had bothered. Instead, we kept hearing about how Bush was the sort of guy you'd like to have a beer with, while Gore was so totally obsessed with making himself president that he would probably crack up and have to be medicated if he lost the election. If it's unfair to compare Bush and Gore at this point, try comparing Gore to the last Republican to lose a presidential election. After Bob Dole lost, he just took the revolving door into the lobbying end of the racket, representing Dubai Ports and hawking Viagra -- such a Republican way of life, you know, making money, letting others fend for themselves.

At the Bush-Blair blues conference, Bush conceded that he regretted some of the things that he had said -- that "bring it on" and "dead or alive" had unfortunately been misunderstood. Nobody reminded him about "crusade" -- why rehash old news? He also acknowledged that Abu Ghraib had been bad for PR, but insisted that those responsible had been tried and justice done. Makes me wonder why Saddam Hussein didn't think of sentencing his helicopter pilots at Hallabja to several months jail. He must be kicking himself: if only he'd known that that's all it takes to dissociate yourself from a war crime.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Liberating Iraq: A Howto

Perhaps it's just the engineer in me, but whenever I read about some problem, I can't help but think of ways around it. Bush's Iraq war was probably doomed from the start, but he could have done some things to limit the damage, and maybe they would have been enough to spin it into some sort of success. Of course, he didn't do these things, and I think the reason wasn't just oversight or even excessive optimism: the things that needed to be done weren't in his nature to do. On the other hand, had one the sense to do these things, one would also have had the sense not to start the war in the first place. Still, enumerating the steps he should have taken helps show how hopelessly ill-equipped he was to deal with the real world of Iraq.

  1. Solve the Israel-Palestine problem. The dumbest thing anyone said in favor of the Iraq war was that the road to peace in Israel passes through Baghdad. That's exactly bass-ackwards. More than anything else, the Bush needed some credible evidence that the US could be trusted to do right by Iraq, Arabs, and Muslims. Fifty years of sucking up to Israel argues otherwise, and the only way to fix up that image problem is to settle the conflict. Impossible? The Saudis made a sensible proposal and rounded up unanimous support from the Arab League, and Bush just ignored it. The terms were easy to understand and fair: Israel withdraws to 1967 borders, letting the Palestinians govern themselves in the West Bank and Gaza, and every Arab nation normalizes relations with Israel. This grants Israel the one serious red line issue they've fought for since 1948 -- the refugees still need some help somehow, but they won't be able to return to Israel. Sharon would have squealed like a stuck pig, but would he have resisted all the pressure Bush could have brought down on him? Most Israelis support a two-state deal like that, and the US and the Saudis could have greased the deal with a lot of money. (Bush offered Turkey $40 billion just to stage the Iraq war from Turkish soil. You could relocate all the settlers to Las Vegas for less than that.) So sure, it could have been done. And it needed to be done: the occupation of Palestine was the model the US would inevitably be measured against in Iraq. The only way to get past that comparison was to get rid of the model.

  2. Patch up the problems with Iran. The US doesn't have a real problem with Islamic theocracies -- I mean, look at our bosom buddies in Saudi Arabia! Iran is an enemy because we had a snit fit when they deposed the Shah, occupied the US embassy, and held our people hostage for a year. Get over it. The Shah was a jerk anyway, and we should be embarrassed for catering to him like we did. We apologize for the Shah and all that silly Axis of Evil stuff; they apologize for the embassy, and Lebanon -- well, thank God that's all over with now. We drop all our embargos. If Iran wants nuclear power plants, well, we'd be happy to sell them stuff that we're scared of building back home, but what the hell, knock yourself out. Iran's a natural ally of the US viz. Iraq, just as they turned out to be an ally in Afghanistan once we had to give up on the Taliban.

  3. For that matter, patch up our relations with Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. Shouldn't be much of a problem after Israel-Palestine is taken care of. Syria's been trying to make nice since 9/11, even offering their services torturing Canadian tourists rendered by the CIA. And Turkey just wanted to keep us from doing something stupid. Kind of like taking the car keys away from a drunk. Can't hold a grudge about that.

  4. Change the baseline reason for the war from WMD to Saddam Hussein. Part of the rationale here is the argument that as long as Saddam Hussein is in power he would always be a threat to start wars and develop and use WMD even if he doesn't have any now: the only way to be sure Iraq will peacefully coexist with everyone else is to remove him from power. Reinforce this argument by having the International Criminal Court indict him, his two idiot sons, and anyone else you really need to get rid of -- a short but definite list. One thing this does is to change the focus from something indefinite -- that may not exist, or may just be hidden -- to something readily verifiable.

  5. Spell out exactly what you plan to do with Iraq once the US invades and deposes Saddam Hussein. There should be no ambiguity or confusion when a US tank strolls into Baghdad. The list should be clear, and well publicized before any action happens. It should include objectives, like detaining only those indicted by the ICC, and confiscating heavy weapons including any WMD. It should specify the rules of engagement -- e.g., we don't shoot unless we are shot at. It should spell out what happens to existing institutions -- e.g., that they are to be maintained until they are passed on to a newly constituted democratic government. It should explain how that government will be formed. I recommend building government from the bottom up, with substantial federal autonomy for each of the pre-existing governorates, while keeping the oil industry at the federal level, with equitable revenue sharing. I also favor a federal courts system to protect individual liberties. It should specify who does what during the transition period. And it has to specify when, by criteria if not by date, US forces will withdraw. The list can be monitored, and there should be an international system that Iraqis can take complaints to.

  6. Take this list to the UN, NATO, the Arab League, anyone else you want help from. Bush needs the UN not just for legitimacy, but also for skills. Let's face it, the US military is real good at blowing things up and moving shit around, but that's as far as the list goes. Even if the US gets its credibility act back together, we still need help doing all those little things that need to be done. Even before this war Iraq's infrastructure had been badly damaged -- the reconstruction list is extensive, and just bringing Iraq back to where it was before Saddam won't be enough.

  7. Don't rush, and don't panic. The best solution would be for Saddam to turn himself in and turn his government over intact. Maybe you'll accept a plea bargain -- he testifies before a "truth and reconciliation" commission then goes into comfy exile. Such a commission is a good idea in general -- beyond the ICC indictment list there should be a general amnesty conditional on testimony. It is important that the world learn what Saddam's government did. It is far less important that they suffer for it. The cycle of revenge needs to stop, and this provides an honest way out. But set a date: if Saddam doesn't surrender by then, move in and execute the plan.

This all seems so straightforward that it's remarkable that it's all so inconceivable for anyone anywhere near the center of power in the US. There are two core reasons for this. One is that we've long been convinced of our righteousness -- of the value of applying our way of life to the rest of the world, a fact that was proven by our triumph over fascism in WWII and communism in the Cold War. The other is that we cling to the belief that dominance works -- that as long as we are strong and forceful enough the rest of the world will follow our lead, to their as well as our benefit. Reasons like these are really just conceits: their very persuasiveness depends on never exposing them to examination, which is why no politician would dare suggest otherwise.

Israel is less a cause than a supreme example of this stubborn belief in self-righteous dominance. Israel is the only nation in the world today whose political system insists that one broad class of people are entitled to systematically repress another, yet we never allow ourselves to notice -- raise even the faintest question and Israel's flacks jump all over you, frantically trying to change the subject because Israel's behavior cannot survive scrutiny. By never challenging Israel, the US has become complicit in all that Israel does, which leads us to engage in the same sort of desperate escape from the real impact of our acts.

Few people in America actually believe that "might makes right" -- the opposite is closer to what they believe, but American might has gone off on its own, following its own brutal logic. Optimists hope for some silver lining in all that power; cynics look for ways to exploit it for their own benefit. But neither group -- the opposite ends of the respectable political spectrum these days -- dare rein it in. When I was a child, people liked to quote Lord Action: "power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's not something you hear much of these days. America's empire depends on circumspection, on plausible denial. The reason is that nobody wants to be under some empire's thumb -- two-plus centuries of revolution have made this point time and again. But America's power has become so corrupt that Bush and the neocons make no effort to hide it. No, they flaunt it, and that above all else was their purpose in Iraq. To succeed at what they wanted, they not only had to achieve short term goals like deposing Saddam Hussein. They had to bend the Iraqi people to their will, because only in doing so would they succeed in showing the world the hopelessness of defying American power. In that they failed, and that is why they failed.

The alternate approach I outlined above tried to minimize the raw use of power by finding points where we could establish that what we wanted to do was right -- so clearly right that others could see us in that light and assent to our plans. This allows that power may still be needed to overcome someone like Saddam Hussein who has repeatedly abused his power. But by stating our intents clearly and constraining our methods, we make it clear that we have no hidden agendas. Bush couldn't do this, not because he couldn't buck AIPAC, but because he had his own hidden agendas he didn't dare expose. Those of us who knew that, in our bones or in our minds, opposed his war -- not to save Saddam Hussein, who we have nothing but contempt for, but to save America from the consequences of Bush's extraordinary arrogance.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cobra Poisoning

I marked a few quotes while I was reading Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (2006, Pantheon). The book was written by Michael R. Gordon, a New York Times correspondent who was "embedded" in the operation's command headquarters, and Marine General Bernard E. Trainor. Gordon and Trainor had collaborated on a similar book about the 1990-91 Iraq, which had become the definitive inside story of that war. Gordon and Trainor had extraordinary access to US military sources involved in this war, including still classified debriefings of Iraqi military sources.

The quotes don't attempt to synopsize the book. They are, rather, items that I found particularly revealing.

Page 145-146:

Lieutenant Colonel Steven Peterson, one of Marks's planners, identified another problem with Eclipse II [McKiernan's postwar plan], one that went to the core of the CENTCOM plan and the effort to apply the principles of transformation in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. To encourage the collapse of Saddam's regime and speed the push to Baghdad, the air and ground campaign was designed to destroy the regime's command and control -- the "shock and awe" promised by Franks. Yet, some command and control was essential, for the postwar plan assumed that McKiernan would use Iraqi Regular Army forces, police, adn institutions tohelp maintain order. There was little in the way of a U.S. reserve should the Iraqis not be up to the task or could not be controlled. This contradiction and its potential to undermine U.S. postwar efforts were noted by Peterson in a classified assessment he prepared before the war.

"Over a month before the war began, the Phase IV planning group concluded that the campaign would produce conditions at odds with meeting strategic objectives," Peterson later wrote in an unpublished paper that he submitted to the National War College, course work that became the talk of military war colleges but was never noted by the media. "They realized that the joint campaign was specifically designed to break all control mechanisms of the regime and there would be a period following regime collapse in which we would face the greatest danger to our strategic objectives. This assessment described the risk of an influx of terrorists to Iraq, the rise of criminal activity, the probable actions of former regime members, and the loss of control of WMD that was believed to exist."

To hedge against the risk that a newly liberated Iraq could spin out of control and that WMD would go missing, Peterson and his fellow planners stressed the need to seal the borders, identify infrastructure that needed to be protected, and gather Iraqi troops and resources to quickly reestablish control of the country. But Peterson understood all too well that McKiernan had only a limited number of forces and was struggling to persuade Washington to send the reinforcements, military police, and support he believed were needed. Not even Peterson thought there were a lot of extra troops to take on the missions he foresaw for Phase IV. Zinni had based his old 1003 plan on the assumption that it took more troops to secure the peace than to upend Saddam's regime, and the rejection of that assumption had led to a dilemma. "No officer in the headquarters was prepared to argue for actions that would siphon resources from the war fighting effort, when the fighting had not yet begun," Peterson wrote. "The war was not yet started, let alone finished, when these issues were being raised. Only a fool would propose hurting the war fighting effort to address post-war conditions that might or might not occur."

Peterson's paper spoke volumes about the incessant pressure to fight the war with as few troops as possible, the military's unease about the outcome and its unwillingness to take a firm stand on troop requirements for a phase of the conflict that was replete with uncertainty. The military's reluctance to address this, Peterson concluded, was one of the biggest mistakes of the war.

In other words, there was an inherent contradiction between the goal of destroying Iraq's command and control and the need to use those same mechanisms to secure Iraq once the enemy was defeated. One alternative would have been to provide sufficient manpower to establish a new command and control system. How much manpower that might have actually taken had never been more than a wild guess in previous war plans -- I suspect that Zinni's 380,000 figure was better tuned to dissuading his hot-headed political bosses from doing something stupid than it was a careful estimate of the all the ways invasion of Iraq could go wrong.

The book discusses Rumsfeld's ideology of "transformation" -- the idea that employing more precision technology would make it possible for the US to fight wars with less manpower. Following this line of logic, Rumsfeld bullies Franks into radically reducing his manpower requests for the invasion of Iraq. One aspect of this is discussed: reduction in manpower reduces logistic requirements, which allows the US to deploy its forces faster. Not discussed is a much more important matter: in order to sell the war, Rumsfeld and his cabal had to make the war to be as painless and risk-free as possible. If the generals insisted on the originally planned troop levels or more that would tip the public off that occupation wouldn't be a cakewalk and arouse the opposition. Publicly airing the risks of occupation would risk the whole adventure. Accordingly, Rumsfeld had to not plan seriously for the occupation because any realistic plan would weaken the rush to war.

Ironically, the one part of the postwar plan they couldn't sandbag was WMD, since that was their cassus belli. Accordingly, any military planner was free to raise the question of what happens when Iraq's WMD are deployed in any context.

P. 152:

Though the particulars of his speech were misleading, Rumsfeld had given a surprisingly blunt and public explanation of the "enabling" philosophy of nation-building that he and Rice had trumpeted. In short, the war seemed like a win-win situation. The United States could oust a dictator, usher in a new era in Iraq, shift the balance of power in the Middle East in the United States's favor, all without America's committing itself to the lengthy, costly, and arduous peacekeeping and nation-building, which the Clinton administration had undertaken in Bosnia and Kosovo. The new policy would be best for both sides, Americans and Iraqis, or so the theory went.

Not everyone was as sanguine about the postwar scenario. Joe Collins, the Pentagon official who dealt with peacekeeping operations, was anxious about what might unfold. Collins was very much a supporter of the president, but he feared that the occupation might be much more burdensome than the White House anticipated. With the lean force the U.S. was sending, it would be hard to safeguard the vulnerable supply lines, he feared. Administering the peace could be more costly and problematic as well. Collins shared his worries with Elliott Abrams. The invasion, he fretted, might be the Bush administration's political undoing. "The way I do the math, Bush will be a one-term president," Collins said. "That's not the way Karl Rove sees it," Abrams quipped. The White House's political maestro had famously drafted a memo that predicted that the war could be a boon to the president's reelection effort, which, to the embarrassment of the White House, had leaked.

P. 168, just before the start of the war:

That evening, a Pentagon aide passed a message to a senior military public affairs officer in the Gulf from Torie Clarke, the Pentagon spokesperson. POTUS, the president of the United States, wanted the military to facilitate three types of news reports: of Iraqis celebrating the arrival of the victorious American troops, of allied shipments of humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi population, and of the newly discovered arsenals of WMD. The White House seemed secure in its cause and confident of victory. Bush was convinced that grateful Iraqis and disclosed WMD would provide the White House with the ultimate photo op.

The administration's allies in Washington were calm and confident. In a conference call with a Wall Street firm, Richard Perle predicted a quick war and an easy occupation. "There is no plan for an extended occupation in Iraq," Perle assured the investors. "The size of the force to maintain order will be much smaller than people believe."

The Iraqis, Perle said, would greet the Americans as liberators, and government functions would be turned over as quickly as possible. As for the Iraqi army, secret police, and intelligence services, "there will be a process akin to de-Nazification after World War II, in which we will attempt to identify and root out people who cannot be allowed to remain in authority."

The president's decision to invade would soon be vindicated. "There is no question that we will find weapons of mass destruction."

Page 436, after Baghdad fell:

Franks endorsed McKiernan's strategy and passed on his guidance in a video conference. As U.S. forces ventured north, Franks wanted them to cut off the pipeline that was transporting Iraqi crude to Syria. The Syrians had allowed foreign fighters to cross into Iraq and were no friends of the Pentagon. "Find out where the knobs are to shut off the oil to Syria -- they've been assholes, they continue to be assholes, so I want to turn off their oil," Franks said.

Franks also had another matter on his mind. With Saddam out of power, the Turkish government was beginning to complain that Turkomans in northern Iraq were being harassed by the new law in the area: the Kurds who were allied with the U.S. Franks had little sympathy for Ankara's position. "Tell the Turks they can kiss my ass," Franks said. The CENTCOM commander was still smarting from Turkey's refusal to let the coalition open a northern front. As for the enemy, Franks made it clear that the remaining pockets of Iraqi forces were to surrender promptly or be destroyed. "I'm interested in exploitation, in killing those who need to be killed and targeting wht needs to be targeted. Let the youngsters know that they should be as lethal as they need to be. We need to still be very much offensively inclined. The only negotiating we'll do is either you capitulate or we'll kill you. Don't get jerked around, be tough in negotiations, either you surrender or we kill you period."

P. 446-447. Tikrit had been secured by the Marines:

Nonetheless, Kelly decided he had entered the postwar phase of operations. He ordered his Marines to take off their flak jackets and helmets and circulate among the locals. An ad hoc Tikriti police force was organized. Vigilante checkpoints were disbanded. [ . . . ] Within a few days, [the Marines] received orders to turn over their area of operations to Ray Odierno's 4th ID. [ . . . ] Kelly believed he had already transitioned to postwar operations; Odierno thought that his late-arriving division was still in the combat phase of the campaign. Odierno had been told his mission was to attack north, seize the Iraqi military complex at Taji airfield at Balad, and then advance to Tikrit as quickly as possible.

Apache helicopters from the 4th ID flew into the Marines' battle space without coordination with Kelly's task force and began to strafe abandoned enemy armor, vehicles that were close to the Marine LAR units. Major Ben Connable of the Marines said that Odierno's staff "felt they were coming to Tikrit not to relieve us, but to rescue us." A draft history prepared by the 1st Marine division was equally critical. "US 4th ID had missed the combat phase of OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and was determined to have a share in the 'fighting.' . . . . Stores that had reopened quickly closed back up as the people once again evacuated the streets, adjusting to the new security tactics. A budding cooperative environment between citizens and American forces was quickly snuffed out." According to the Marines, a senior officer with the 4th ID made it clear that the Army had a different prescription for Tikrit when he remarked, "The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I'm about to introduce them to it."

It's worth recalling that Falluja broke into open revolt after a similar transfer of military authority. In general, rapid turnover of US forces meant that no matter how constructively one commander was able to work with local Iraqis, he would soon be replaced with someone clueless who would quickly undo whatever understanding had been established. This pattern was probably made worse by Rumsfeld's plans to understaff and quickly draw down US forces, but in many ways it's endemic to the way the US military is staffed and the expectations of its soldiers.

P. 461:

Tom White, the civilian Army secretary, had a less charitable view. "Rumsfeld just ground Franks down," White said. "If you grind away at the military guys long enough, they will finally say, 'Screw it, I'll do the best I can with what I have.' The nature of Rumsfeld is that you just get tired of arguing with him." Since Rumsfeld and his aides were determined to keep the American troop presence in Iraq to a minimum, the decision was all but pre-ordained. White explained, "Our working budgetary assumption was that ninety days after completion of the operation, we would withdraw the first fifty thousand and then every thirty days we'd take out another fifty thousand until everybody was back. The view was that whatever was left in Iraq would be de minimis.

Note that this is their "budgetary" model -- i.e., the one used to minimize the officially projected cost of the war, and therefore make it more palatable politically. This does not mean that they actually intended to withdraw all those troops. Otherwise, why would they be building all those "enduring camps"? The contradiction here follows the same pattern as previous contradictions.

P. 490, after Bremer took over:

To the south, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Conlin, whose battalion had taken the Crown Jewel [i.e., the oil fields] on the opening day of the invasion, was given authority for Najaf. Conlin arrived to discover that the CIA had installed a Sufi as mayor who not only was unpopular with the city's residents, but was receiving bad notices in the Western media. Soon word came down from Bremer's office that Conlin was to fire the mayor.

Conlin suggested that an election be held and Mattis's and Bremer's staffs endorsed the idea. The Marines and an Army reserve unit from Green Bay, Wisconsin, devised a plan to register the Iraqis and build wooden ballot boxes. The upcoming balloting stimulated enormous interest and intensive campaigning. The Shiites had been repressed for years by Saddam and now, having been liberated by the Americans, they would finally have an opportunity to govern themselves. Just a day before the registration process was formally to begin, however, Conlin received a call from Mattis. The election had to be canceled. Bremer was concerned that an unfriendly Islamic candidate would prevail.

P. 491-492, meanwhile in Falluja:

In the west, Buff Blount had sent Perkins's 2nd BCT to Fallujah to restore order after the 82nd and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had come under attack. Perkins had an entire brigade of troops. The brigade also reached out to the Iraqis. Blount authorized the payment of "blood money" for the Iraqis who had been shot by the 82nd, hoping to head off further revenge killings. The division's soldiers sought to cooperate with the local imams and to train the police. By July, however, it was time for the 3rd ID to return to the United States.

But Blount was worried that the inroads his soldiers had made with the Iraqi population would be erased if his soldiers were replaced by troops from the 82nd, whom the residents of Fallujah still hated with a passion. Blount went to see Sanchez and explained the sensitivity of the situation. As much as Blount wanted to take his soldiers home, he offered to extend the 3rd ID deployment in Fallujah. If the 82nd returned, there would be fewer forces in the area and fewer soldiers with a history of trouble relations with the Iraqis.

Sanchez was not sympathetic. It was time for the 3rd ID to leave and the 82nd was the only unit that was available to take over. Within weeks of the 3rd ID's departure, the 82nd shot and killed some of the policemen the 3rd ID had worked so hard to train after mistaking them for Iraqi insurgents. Hostility against the Americans continued to grow in Fallujah.

Sanchez, by the way, spent the early war on a boat in the Mediterranean, his troops denied access to Iraq through Turkey. The generals who actually fought the war scattered quickly after "mission accomplished" -- leaving Sanchez with holding the bag. Sanchez was later largely responsible for the Abu Ghraib scandal.

These were just the sections that I marked as I was reading. I don't do that often; had I planned ahead I might have marked up a good deal more. For instance, Lt. General John Abizaid predicted that US forces would be an "antibody" in Iraq -- the closest thing to insight in the whole book -- then came up with various crackpot schemes to put Iraqi faces on the occupation. When General William Wallace made his famous comment about the enemy they were fighting not being the enemy they had wargamed against, Rumsfeld and Franks threw tantrums and tried to get Wallace relieved. It's still noteworthy that Franks was ordered to revise the previous (Zinni's) Iraq war plans back in Sept. 2001, immediately following 9/11, even with Afghanistan also on his plate. It's also noteworthy how hard Rumsfeld pushed to get postwar planning under DOD control and away from the State Department, especially given how little effort DOD actually made on such planning. The politics behind that, as well as the politics behind the appointment of Paul Bremer, were mostly off Gordon's radar, so barely appear here. The book itself ends very quickly after Bremer comes onto the scene, so the idea that this is the inside story of the occupation is a reach. Much more happened later, but arguably with the looting and the bomb attacks on the Jordanian embasy and the UN headquarters the die was already cast.

Whatever it was that the CIA was up to was also off the radar here, but one constant emerges: every piece of information that the authors report the CIA as providing turned out to be deadass wrong. No reason here not to refer to them as the Central Ignorance Agency. Meanwhile, the Defense Intelligence Agency has no presence whatsoever. As far as I can tell, the sole reason for their existence was to filter shit for use as propaganda, pretending that the Pentagon actually knew something. But as I said above, the Pentagon didn't want to know anything, because the only things they could have learned were things that would have made the war less attractive. Their sole idea was to sell the war, and the harder that became, the less truth they could afford to admit.

The book has had a role in recent debates over Rumsfeld's fitness to command, even though that is certainly not the primary interest of the authors. (At least half of the book is a blow-by-blow account of military operations from invasion up through capturing Baghdad. As far as I'm concerned, that's the boring half, but that's the side their bread is buttered on.) Still, the basic judgment one has to return is that Rumsfeld functioned solely as the advocate for the prowar position and never made any sort of fair and impartial effort at getting to the facts, asking the right questions, or drawing the right conclusions. If he worked for me, I'd sure fire his ass. If the Democrats win control of congress later this year and want to sharpen up their knives with an impeachment project, Rumsfeld looks to me like the juiciest turkey to start carving on. But I suspect that his political goal is no different from Cheney's or Bush's, so he merely practiced his deceit and corruption in his ledership's interest. None of the troika really suffice as fall guys for the others.

The book also doesn't comprehensively focus on Franks, but it does do a pretty good job of making him look as dumb as he once said Douglas Feith is. That's cutting it pretty deep. As for the rest of the military brass, the book means to make them look good, but what they're good for is hard to say. Shooting ducks in barrels, fine. But they can't conquer a two-bit country without turning it to shit, which means that as an imperial legion they're worthless. Worse than worthless, in that all they do is make things worse. Anyone with the least critical instincts should have been able to recognize their shortcomings before they were deployed. Madeleine Albright once asked what's the point of having this extraordinary military if we never use it. The correct answer is that there is no point. It's just meant to be admired and feared. Use it and you lose it, which is pretty much what's happened.

One last point: Cobra II was the war plan, named in honor of Patton's WWII campaign across Europe. As the Perle quote shows, the architects of this war saw it as restoring the glory accrued to the US in fighting the original Axis of Evil. The persistence of WWII metaphors is an interesting psychopathology -- something that will be amusing to chew over once the wars themselves are put to rest. One wonders, for instance, whether this might be rooted in Israel's primal obsession with the Nazis. Or whether it's just a subconscious way of avoiding comparisons that would soon become obvious: Vietnam.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Past Midnight in Baghdad

I've read books in a row about Iraq. They reveal a great deal about how the Bush-Cheney invasion and occupation went over the deep end. The reading order helps drive home a story of progressive damage and decay, both by moving forward in time and by shifting the focus more and more to the Iraqi resistance. The books:

  1. Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (2006, Pantheon)
  2. Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War (2005, Henry Holt)
  3. Nir Rosen, In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (2006, Free Press)

These three books track one important vector in the progression of the occupation: namely, how the US first underestimated then thoughtlessly and recklessly amplified popular Iraqi resistance to the Bush-Cheney administration's vain and arrogant revolution -- also known as the Occupation. Other vectors are worth exploring: the selling of the war has been largely documented, although there is certainly more dirt to be revealed; the crooked intentions and gross malfeasance of the CPA and the reconstruction debacle still is largely undocumented, although its consequences are in plain sight; the interactions and interests of other countries and NGOs have been little explored; a comprehensive detailing of the damage to Iraq's society and economy from all quarters would be an eye opener. But the main thing these books show is that the disaster caused by the invasion and occupation was completely predictable on the basis of little more than a broad sense of history and a bit of insight into human nature.

We now know that when US forces invaded the Iraqi people were divided on the issue of whether to welcome their self-proclaimed liberators. We can look at this division as offering a window of opportunity when the US could have proven its good intentions. Too bad Bush-Cheney had no such good intentions, at least that offered anything most Iraqis might actually want -- stability, order, justice, progress, peace, prosperity. But even if the US actually meant well, the division was deep enough that it would sideline those intentions. Shadid and Rosen quote various Iraqi proverbs, but an American one suffices here: "when you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that you got in to drain the swamp." The fact is that it's impossible to do good works when people are shooting at you. And we're not just talking about Iraqis shooting at their American liberators here -- the Americans were the ones who came in shooting from day one. It also seems to be impossible to only hit what you're shooting at, and it's even harder to know that what you're shooting at is the real problem. As it turns out, the scatter spreads, eventually roping everyone into the fight.

That's pretty much what happened. A lot of things made it predictable, but one of the most basic is built into the very nature of armed forces everywhere, Americans included. John Powers, in Sore Winners: American Idols, Patriotic Shoppers, and Other Strange Species in George Bush's America, has a relevant footnote citing Colin Powell on Vietnam:

Powell is no softy, as he shows in this rumination on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam: "I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male. If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe so. But an able batallion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong."

The obvious conclusion is that people with dull perceptions of right and wrong, especially ones armed to the teeth, shouldn't be set loose in someone else's country. Nir Rosen mostly writes about Iraqis, but he has one chapter on how American soldiers operate, called "If They're Not Guilty Now, They Will Be Next Time: Fall 2003." Here's a long quote (pp. 98-100), but it says a lot about the US occupation:

Inside the intelligence section of the army's civil affairs headquarters in Baghdad, on a bulletin board, I saw an anecdote meant to be didactic. It told of American soldiers suppressing Muslim-Filipino insurgents a century before. They dipped bullets in pig's blood and shot some Muslim rebels to send a warning to the others. A Latino civil affairs officer, fed up with Iraqis, explained that the only solution was to shut down Baghdad entirely. Military civil affairs is supposed to provide civil administration in the absence of local power structures, minimize friction between the military and civilians, acting as intermediaries between the two, restore normalcy, and empower local institutions. One brigade commander in Tikrit explained to a civil affairs major that "I am not here to win hearts and minds; I am here to kill the enemy." He refrained from providing his civil affairs team with security, so they could not operate. Not far, in Albu Hishma, a village north of Baghdad cordoned off with barbed wire, the local U.S. commander decided to bulldoze any house that had pro-Saddam graffiti on it. He gave half a dozen families only a few minutes to remove whatever they cared about most before their homes were flattened. In Baquba, two thirteen-year-old girls were killed by a Bradley armored personnel carrier. They were digging through trash. The American rule was that anybody digging on roadsides would be shot. It became common practice for soldiers to arrest the wives and children of suspects as "material witnesses" when the suspects were not captured in raids. In some cases the soldiers left notes for the suspects, letting them know their families would be released should they turn themselves in. Soldiers claim this is a very effective tactic. Soldiers on military vehicles routinely shot at Iraqi cars that approached too fast or too close, and at Iraqis wandering in fields. "They were up to no good," they would explain. Every commander became a law unto himself. A war crime to one was legitimate practice to another. After the Center for Army Lessons Learned sent a team of personnel to Israel to study that country's methods for suppressing an urban anti-occupation insurgency, the army implemented the lessons they learned and initiated house demolitions in Samara and Tikrit, blowing up homes of suspected insurgents. The Fourth Infantry Division was especially notorious in Iraq. Its soldiers in Samara handcuffed two suspects and threw them off a bridge into a river. One of them died. Down south, in Basra, seven Iraqi prisoners were beaten to death by British soldiers. A high-ranking Iraqi police official in Basra identified one of the victims as his son.

"Americans think they can just throw new paint on the walls and it will win people over," said one expert. Their tactics of handing out candy to children during th eday and arresting their fathers at night were not winning hearts or minds. It was hard to be patient when mosques were raided, protestors shot, innocent families gunned down at checkpoints or by frightened soldiers in vehicles. It was hard to be patient in hours of traffic jams that Americans caused by closing off so many main roads to guard their facilities or because of "incidents." Their vehicles blocked the roads and they answered no questions, refusing to let any Iraqi approach. Cars were forced to drive "wrong side," as Iraqis called it, nearly killing each other. Iraqis became experts in walking over the concertina wire that divided so much of their cities; first one foot pressed the razor wire down, then the other stepped over. They were experts in driving slowly through lakes and rivers of sewage, at sifting through mountains of garbage for anything that could be reused.

The fear of death was constantly there when the soldier in a Humvee or armored personnel carrier in front of you aimed his machine gun at you, when the aggressive armed white men in the SUVs raced by, running you off the road, scowling behind their wraparound sunglasses, shooting at any car coming too close, when the soldier at the checkpoint aimed his machine gun at you. Iraqis were reminded at all times who had control over their lives, who could take them with impunity. In the summer of 2003 hundreds of Iraqis would approach the Green Zone, seat of the former dictator and his current replacements, looking for jobs. The American soldiers spoke no Arabic and their Iraqi interlocutors no English. One frustrated American soldier raised his M16 and pointed the barrel at an Iraqi man's face, telling him he was trained in killing people, not career counseling. Elsewhere that summer, an old Iraqi woman approached the gate to Baghdad International Airport, or BIAP, as Saddam International Airport is now known. Draped in a black ebaya, she was carrying a picture of her missing son. She did not speak English, and the immense soldier in body armor she asked for help did not speak Arabic. He shouted at her to "get the fuck away." She did not understand and continued beseeching him. The soldier was joined by another. Together they locked and loaded their machine guns, chambering a round, aiming the guns at the old woman, and shouting at her that if she did not leave "we will kill you."

Morale was low among the soldiers, who had no clear mission and viewed Iraqis as "the enemy" through a prism of "us and them." An officer returning from a fact-finding mission complained of "a lot of damn good individuals who received no guidance, training, or plan and who are operating in a vacuum."

In a bathroom of an important Washington-based and U.S.-funded democratization institute I found in the bidet by the toilet a thick orange book entitled The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Koran. It was next to a brochure explaining that Arabic is written from right to left and a guide to focus groups. It was from these focus group results that the people in the Green Zone learned "what Iraqis want."

Prowar flacks keep insisting that we only hear the bad news from the occupation, never the good. The problem with this is that good news and bad news don't cancel each other out. Bad news is poison; mix that in with food or drink -- good news -- and you still have poison. It may be more tempting, but you have to dilute it extremely to overcome the toxicity. It's easy enough to find examples of US commanders who are conscientious, who understand that they need to help Iraqis and who try to act honorably, but even they are in over their heads, and the brass doesn't really support them -- to do so would mean that they'd have to knuckle down on every commander who makes the US unwelcome in Iraq. Do that and they'd get a mutiny, but that's not even the toughest aspect of the problem: the brass, and the administration, have only the slightest idea what makes them so unwelcome. The only insight the politicos have into this problem is their skill at manipulating US public opinion, as if Iraqis are following US polls to help make up their own minds.

Still, it goes on. I saw Nir Rosen and two Iraqi expatriates on PBS last night. Rosen reported that he had just got back from Iraq, and that the civil war there had grown more ominous than ever. In particular, he pointed out that Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army has to a large extent taken over the Iraqi police, and that Sadr has given up any interest in brokering a united Sunni-Shiite opposition to the US; now he's just another thug warlord. The two expats tried to hang on to whatever threads of hope they could find -- surely self-interest will favor cooperation over civil war. One expressed hope that direct talks between Zalmay Khalilzad and Iran will lead to some kind of breakthrough. I can't imagine what that might be. (Maybe he wants to become ambassador to Tehran? Before or after the apocalypse?) One effect of breaking Iraq into so many pieces is that none of its neighbors have the ability, much less the interest, in putting it back together again. Aside from the political embarrassment that would follow letting their defenses down, I doubt that anyone in the Bush-Cheney administration much cares either. They've reduced Iraq to the level of war-torn Afghanistan, or maybe even Liberia.

Monday, May 22, 2006

John Hicks, 1941-2006

John Hicks died on May 10. Born December 1941 in Atlanta, he was 64. He was one of the most notable jazz pianists of his generation. While he recorded nearly 40 albums, he worked often as a sideman -- AMG credits him with 267 albums, but many of those are comps, and some are dubious, like the tenor sax he allegedly played for Dinah Washingtons before entering his teens; still, I've counted 160, and there are more. I don't have time to try to sort his career out, but I thought I'd at least mark his passing by glancing through his discography and checking off the ones I've heard against my database.

In chronological order (approximately):

  1. Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: 'S Make It (1964, Verve) B
  2. Sonny Simmons: Staying on the Watch (1966, ESP-Disk): Reissued as part of The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings ([2005], ESP-Disk, 2CD) A-
  3. Hank Mobley: High Voltage (1967, Blue Note) B+
  4. Lester Bowie: Fast Last! (1974, Muse): Reissued as part of American Gumbo ([1999], 32 Jazz) B+
  5. Pharoah Sanders: Journey to the One (1979, Evidence) B+
  6. Betty Carter: The Audience With Betty Carter (1979, Verve, 2CD) B-
  7. Chico Freeman: Spirit Sensitive (1979, India Navigation) B+
  8. Arthur Blythe: Illusions (1980, Columbia) B+
  9. Ricky Ford: Flying Colors (1980, Muse) B+
  10. David Murray Quartet: Morning Song (1983, Black Saint) A-
  11. John Hicks: Some Other Time (1981-84, Evidence) B+
  12. John Hicks: In Concert (1984, Evidence) B+
  13. John Hicks/David Murray: Sketches of Tokyo (1985, DIW) A-
  14. David Murray: I Want to Talk About You (1986, Black Saint) A-
  15. Bobby Watson: Love Remains (1986, Red) A
  16. Arthur Blythe: Basic Blythe (1987, Columbia) B
  17. Pharoah Sanders: Africa (1987, Timeless) A-
  18. David Murray: Ming's Samba (1988, Portrait) B+
  19. Peter Leitch: Red Zone (1984-88, Reservoir) B
  20. John Hicks: Naima's Love Song (1988, DIW) A-
  21. Chico Freeman/Arthur Blythe: Luminous (1989, JazzHouse) B+
  22. Ray Anderson: What Because (1989, Gramavision) B+
  23. Gary Bartz Quintet: West 42nd Street (1990, Candid) B
  24. Vincent Herring: American Experience (1990, Musicmasters) B+
  25. David Murray/James Newton Quintet (1991, DIW) B+
  26. David Murray Quartet + 1: Fast Life (1991, DIW) A-
  27. David Murray: MX (1992, Red Baron) B
  28. Betty Carter: It's Not About the Melody (1992, Verve) B
  29. Peter Leitch: From Another Perspective (1992, Concord) B
  30. David Murray: Jazzosaurus Rex (1993, Red Baron) A
  31. David Murray: Saxmen (1993, Red Baron) B+
  32. David Murray Quartet: For Aunt Louise (1993, DIW) A-
  33. John Hicks: Beyond Expectations (1993, Reservoir) B+
  34. Arthur Blythe: Retroflection (1993, Enja) A-
  35. John Hicks: Lover Man: A Tribute to Billie Holiday (1993, Red Baron) A-
  36. Keystone Trio: Heart Beats (1995, Milestone) B+
  37. Mingus Big Band: Live in Time (1996, Dreyfus, 2CD) B
  38. Roy Hargrove's Crisol: Habana (1997, Verve) B
  39. Eric Alexander: Solid! (1998, Milestone) B+
  40. Jeri Brown/Leon Thomas: Zaius (1998, Justin Time) B
  41. Mingus Big Band: Blues and Politics (1999, Dreyfus) B+
  42. David Murray Power Quartet: Like a Kiss That Never Ends (2000, Justin Time) A
  43. Keystone Quartet: A Love Story (2000, 32 Jazz) B+
  44. Billy Bang: Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001, Justin Time) A
  45. John Hicks: Music in the Key of Clark (2001, High Note) B+
  46. Arthur Blythe: Exhale (2003, Savant) B+
  47. James Carter: Gardenias for Lady Day (2003, Columbia) B-
  48. Roni Ben-Hur: Signature (2004, Reservoir) B+
  49. Billy Bang: Vietnam: Reflections (2004, Justin Time) A-
  50. Mingus Big Band: I Am Three (2004, Sunnyside) B+
  51. David "Fathead" Newman: I Remember Brother Ray (2005, High Note) B+

One thing to note here is that the two B- grades are definitely not Hicks' fault. I've always had a lot of trouble with Betty Carter, but one thing I do grant is that she runs a terrific band. The Audience With Betty Carter is widely regarded as her masterpiece -- Penguin Guide gave it a crown -- and the parts where she keeps it zipped can be very impressive. It's not impossible that I'll return to the album and find I make peace with it. James Carter's Gardenias for Lady Day has real problems with the singer, the strings, and the concept, but the parts where only the quartet plays are terrific, and Hicks has a lot to do with that. One thing that's clear about Hicks is that he's always been a guy who brings out the best in everyone he plays with.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Music: Current count 11883 [11854] rated (+29), 848 [842] unrated (+6). Looks like it'll be another week before Jazz CG comes out. Waded through quite a bit of stuff this week. I figure +30 is an outstanding week. Only thing that kept me from it was the King Crimson box -- got another one for this week -- and some 2CD sets. Thought about skipping a week of jazz prospecting, then scrambled at the last minute. June Recycled Goods is currently at 7 + 28 -- pretty close to a full load. Looks like that's up next, but the main thing I need to do is to weed out jazz surplus by the time JCG runs. Ugh, another busy week.

  • Chieftains: The Essential Chieftains (1977-2002 [2006], RCA/Legacy, 2CD): The average Irish folk ensemble, but after recording and touring relentlessly for more than a quarter century, going everywhere and playing with everyone, their averageness may just be the norm they established. They couldn't be better served by a compilation. First is their baseline, the "roots" disc: standard fare, expertly done. Second is their "friends" disc, where their good-natured folkie syncretism extends beyond the usual suspects (Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Alison Kraus, Ricky Skaggs) to Mexico (Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos) and Quebec (the McGarrigles) and a choice cut with Marianne Faithfull. B+(***)
  • Bing Crosby: Lost Columbia Sides 1928-1933 (1928-33 [2001], Collectors' Choice, 2CD): Early singles, mostly with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but also Sam Lanin, the Dorsey Brothers, Frank Trumbauer, and a spin through "St. Louis Blues" with Duke Ellington. And some under Crosby's own name, with Eddie Lang and other backing. This strikes me as exceptionally dated: some of these songs were lost for good reason. B
  • Rodney Crowell: Life Is Messy (1992 [2000], Lucky Dog): So is art. B
  • The Indigo Girls: Retrospective (1987-2000 [2000], Epic): Susan Faludi wrote the liner notes. Don't know exactly what that means, but "Well, you could try listening to the Indigo Girls" isn't exactly the punchiest line since Lester Bangs. Two folkies from Atlanta. Signature verse: "I'm not making a joke/you know me, I take everything so seriously." First song's awful, but "Closer to Fine" has its hootenany moments. "Shame on You" makes the best of their virtues. Two new songs for those who already have all the old ones -- "Devotion" is the better one, because it rocks a bit. C+
  • Louis Jordan: Number Ones (1942-48 [2006], Geffen/Chronicles): He dominated the jukeboxes in the '40s with his tight swing, quick wit, and relentless showmanship, with most of these R&B toppers also storming the Pop charts; there's a lot more where these came from -- this is just a no-brainer intro, nothing you won't want, nothing you shouldn't already have. A
  • King Crimson: The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, Volume One: 1969-1974 (1969-74 [2005], DGM, 4CD): The idea of progress was still alive and well in the late '60s -- the notion that the next big thing will be bolder, fancier, heavier, further out than anything that came before it. In English this led to Prog Rock: roughly speaking, proto-heavy metal cut with something or other to make it more pretentious -- classical mostly, but blues, folk, and jazz also appeared. King Crimson was one an exceptionally enigmatic Prog Rock group. The confusion came from front men like singers Greg Lake and Jon Anderson and lyricist-graphic designer Peter Sinfield. In retrospect, those were just masks for guitarist Robert Fripp, the only constant in the group's convoluted history. Still, Fripp was no auteur -- even in this canonical retrospective, as expertly crafted and succinctly informative as any box set I've seen -- consistent threads are hard to find. But one trend is clear, which is that they drifted into jazz -- well, heavy metal fusion -- on two axes: over time, and from studio to live. Two of the four discs are live, and they have a definite edge. B+(**)
  • LCD Soundsystem (2005, DFA/Capitol, 2CD): Christgau flagged this as a dud as soon as it came out, then backtracked and made it a low honorable mention as it garnered pazz & jop votes. I got this from the library, gave it one spin, and think it has some terrific things, like "Give It Up," and some so-so shit. I could see it growing on a person, or wearing out its welcome, but most likely it will just settle into its groove. Mostly hard, somewhat punkish, reminds me a bit of Wire, except when it doesn't. Could certainly be edited down to a single. B+(**)
  • Delbert McClinton: Cost of Living (2005, New West): Texas blues-country-alt-rock singer, plays harmonica, has recorded steadily since 1972. I remember having one of his records back in the '70s, but don't remember which, or anything about it -- looks like it must have been Love Rustler (1977, ABC). I always figured him as second-tier, the sort of guy you'd enjoy live -- after a couple of beers, anyway -- but you wouldn't pick off the record shelf as long as you have Joe Ely records. That makes him about the average New West artist, and this is his fourth album for them. Some blues, some country, an Eagles rip that ain't half bad; a few songs that could be Ely but only two that Joe'd keep: "Two Step Too" and "I Had a Real Good Time." B+(*)
  • Mitch Miller & the Gang: Sing Along With Mitch (1958 [1990], Columbia): I remember when Miller's sing-along shtick came on television. Before that I thought Lawrence Welk was the absolute nadir of the musical world, but little did I know -- hell, in my sheltered childhood, I hadn't even heard Wagner back then. Miller himself is a legendarily nefarious personage in the history of popular music. Most of his damage was done as head of Columbia Records, which he kept firmly rutted in MOR pop while rock and roll gained ground everywhere else. Famously, he let Bob Dylan slip through as a harmless indulgence of John Hammond. Not all that he produced was awful. In fact, these acappella boys chorus versions of songs that predate the evolution of chestnuts aren't awful either. Just corny. C+
  • Original Irish Tenors: The Legendary Voices of Celtic Song (1921-53 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Vintage recordings, transferred cleanly so you can hear the deep, rich clarity of the voices, which is what this music is about -- well, also a certain drunken braggadocio. Usually encountered as a stereotype, this strikes me as the real thing. B+(**)
  • John Rich: Underneath the Same Moon (1998-99 [2006], BNA/Legacy): This sat on the shelf until Rich hooked up with Big Kenny Alphin and sold some records as Big & Rich; mainstream country, nothing special except for the acapella gospel of "New Jerusalem." B
  • Bruce Robison: Eleven Stories (2006, Sustain): A singer-songwriter based on Austin TX, best known for having written the Dixie Chicks' "Travelin' Soldier." Two covers -- "Tennessee Jed" from the Grateful Dead and "More and More" from Webb Pierce -- are obvious from the start; Robison's own songs kick in more slowly, with careful observation -- reminds me of John Prine in its details, but without the cosmic grace or humor. B+(**)
  • Hobart Smith: In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes (1963 [2005], Smithsonian/Folkways): Recorded less than a year before the Virginia old timer passed on, a remarkable archival trove; Smith plays banjo, guitar, fiddle and piano as he recalls old blues and jigs, with rivetting austerity. A-
  • Neil Young: Living With War (2006, Reprise): I could quibble -- in fact I will: Barack Obama has been awful on Iraq, but before Colin Powell can become President he needs to visit the Hague first. "America the Beautiful" strikes me as an awfully ugly piece of irony at the end of this, not least because it's still meant as sincere patriotism vs. government. I remember "the days of shock and awe" more as disgrace than anything else: the US military's ability to shock by merely killing civilians had worn thin even before OIF started, and the only thing awesome about it was its disconnect from sanity. Nonetheless, "Let's Impeach the President" is a slam dunk George Tenet will never score, in large part because he lets Bush hang himself with his own words. And "Roger and Out" is a good old Neil Young song. Wish there were more of them. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 3)

Third week of this cycle, and I'm still not really into the swing of the tenth Jazz CG. That's partly because #9 still hasn't run. Got bumped for Francis Davis one week, then for Robert Christgau's CG the next. I'm thinking it'll run next week, but I haven't heard officially yet. Meanwhile, I'm more into cleanup than real prospecting: some comps I've put off, some things that look like they're likely to wind up below the line. This is likely to continue slow the rest of the month, as I finish June's Recycled Goods and cull the surplus from JCG #9. A lot of new stuff on the shelf that I just haven't gotten to. Some of it looks promising, and no doubt there will be a surprise or two as well.

Brian Eno/David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1979-80 [2006], Nonesuch): Interesting to think of this as jazz, even though neither principal has any jazz cred, and the record fit into no jazz tradition. But it also fit into no rock or pop tradition. It was a piece of pure experiment, pieced together ad hoc, using the studio (or more precisely, the tape recorder) as an instrument. It was unprecedented then, if not unrelated to Jon Hassell's Fourth World, but these days it is a type not far removed from things that jazz musicians do. This edition has seven extra tracks, each slighter, more minimal than the original eleven. Such narrow focus is perhaps its most jazzlike quality. A-

George Benson: The Essential George Benson (1963-80 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): A good jazz guitarist, but conceptually he never got out of Wes Montgomery's shadow -- even if I have to score "California Dreamin'" in his favor, it's not much of a triumph. Turned into a gritless soul singer, then got worse, but this compilation cuts him off and doesn't dwell on all that. Instead, it packs sideman cuts with Jack McDuff, Miles Davis, Stanley Turrentine, Tony Williams, and Dexter Gordon. B

George Duke: The Essential George Duke (1977-90 [2006], Epic/Legacy, 2CD): This series usually tries to span an artist's career, even if that costs a little extra. But this one cuts its losses, sticking to Duke's Epic catalog, nothing but warmed over funk. Half sounds like secondhand P-Funk, replete with Bootsy-like interjections. Other half sounds like what Pedro Bell slammed as Turf, Hot Air & No Fire, except when the girls sing -- you know, Sister Sludge. First disc is further marred by a trip to Brazil, but the second, surprisingly, turns into tacky, sticky fun. B

Martin Taylor: The Best of Martin Taylor (1978-2004 [2006], The Guitar Label, 2CD): Having only heard three of the Scottish guitarist's many albums, I hoped this might provide a welcome overview, but it's turned out to be frustrating and annoying. Inspired by Django Reinhardt, Taylor emerged in the late '70s with Stéphane Grappelli, and went on to record a splendid Spirit of Django tribute. He has a light touch, which doesn't swing so much as it floats, dazzlingly quick and clever. This works impressively in small contexts, solo even. But he also has a fondness for cheese, which is indulged throughout, but mostly on the first disc -- simpy songs, Kirk Whallum slickness, smooth jazz that turns syrupy. Second disc is more interesting -- a better best-of is clearly possible. B

Roger Davidson: Pensando En Ti (2005 [2006], Soundbrush): Boleros and rumbas, mostly composed by the pianist-leader, played with an easy rhythm that lets the richness of the piano shine through. The group includes guitar, flute, and trumpet/flugelhorn, each folded in neatly. Davidson has a classical background, but he's worked in Latin forms before, notably on tangos with Pablo Aslan, who produces here. Lovely record, but it's almost totally lacking in tension. B+(*)

Brad Goode: Hypnotic Suggestion (2005 [2006], Delmark): Trumpet player, in a quartet with pianist Adrean Farrugia. Harvey Pekar notes that this 54-minute album was recorded in two and a half hours: "That helped add spontaneity, a live feeling, to the proceedings." Yes, but it also means that they kept what they came up with on the spot. Which isn't bad, but after playing it three times I've invested more time in it than they did, and have less to show for it. B

Yosvany Terry Cabrera: Metamorphosis (2004 [2005], Ewe): A saxophonist from Camaguey in Cuba, now in New York. Plays alto, I think, but just specified as sax here. I've noticed him on several recent latin jazz records. He's if anything less prominent here, mostly because his sax is often shadowed by Avishai Cohen's trumpet. Normally I don't care for that approach, but this time it works. The other prominent instrument here is Mike Moreno's guitar. Latin, of course, but ranges a bit and never settles into a rut. [B+(***)]

John Ellis: By a Thread (2006, Hyena): This is one of those albums that tries to do everything and does it well enough to tease you into playing along. Instrumentally, Ellis plays various saxes, bass clarinet and ocarina, backed by Aaron Goldberg's keyboards and/or Mike Moreno's guitar -- not a large group, but a loaded one. Musically, we have various shades of postbop, including blues and funk riffs. It's all impressively well rounded. B+(**)

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

Marc Mommaas with Nikolaj Hess: Balance (2005 [2006], Sunnyside): Music this sparse depends on balance, which is evident here. Two tenor sax solos, the rest with Hess piano added. The tone is even handed, the dynamics measured -- the sax challenging but unaggressive, the piano helpful but less interesting. B+(**)

Zu/Mats Gustafsson: How to Raise an Ox (2004 [2005], Atavistic): With two baritone saxes, this gets ugly fast and barely lets up. Still, it has some groove to it, mostly thanks to Massimo's bass, and it's the groove that holds it together. B+(*)

Lew Tabackin Trio: Tanuki's Night Out (2001 [2006], Better known for his featured role in wife Toshiko Akiyoshi's big band, Tabackin runs a tight trio on the side. This is a live set from Japan -- been out there a while, but has only recently become available here. He plays flute on three pieces -- a majority if you discount the two encore covers -- and runs through a smart set of postbop moves, getting a substantial sound. His tenor sax, of course, has more muscle tone, especially on the well studied encores -- "Body and Soul" and "Rhythm-A-Ning." B+(**)

Ran Blake: All That Is Tied (2006, Tompkins Square): Solo piano, something Blake has done a lot of. Blake is 70, having recorded 35 records since his ESP-Disk debut 40 years ago. I've only heard a handful, and can't say that I've ever made much sense out of him. I just have a promo, with a quote on the front from John Medeski's liner notes: "A journey into an intuitive, mystical, poetic, personal and important world." Haven't seen the notes themselves, but that's about what this sounds like, even if I don't have the imagination or vision to see it myself. Francis Davis applauded this record. Brian Morton went even further: "the most beautiful and challenging piano record of the last 25 years." I don't doubt but that there's something here, but I'm giving up on trying to get it. B+(**)

Charles Gayle: Time Zones (2006, Tompkins Square): I always appreciated Gayle's occasional piano forays. Even when he ventured into Cecil Taylor territory they provided a brief respite from his torrential sax. But a whole album of solo piano offers no such contrast. And the last couple of cuts settle into a lovely pastoralism -- compounding my usual confusion. He's looking good on the cover. I'm happy for him. B+(*)

Matthew Shipp: One (2005 [2006], Thirsty Ear): Shipp has developed into a marvelously percussive pianist since he took over Thirsty Ear's Blue Series. But this solo piano album reverts to the melodic explorations of his early solo albums, with only a whiff of extra left-hand muscle. Not without some interest, but not a lot of movement. B+(*)

Movie: Neil Young: Heart of Gold. A Jonathan Demme concert film, tightly focused on the performers, especially Young as he debuts his recent Prairie Wind album at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Young assembled a large group of performers: a core band led by pedal steel guitarist Bill Keith, an array of backup singers featuring Emmylou Harris, a horn trio, a string section, and a gospel choir -- the latter three used spottily, to mixed effect. The new album songs eventually give way to old ones: "Harvest Moon," "Heart of Gold," "The Needle and the Damage Done," "Comes a Time," etc., mostly working in Young's country vein. Shot just before Young went in for surgery on a brain aneurysm, there is a sense to it that he might be writing his own epitaph. Opens with interview snippets of the musicians in cars on the way to the auditorium. Closes with credits running as Young alone on stage doing a song in an empty auditorium. I'm not a music video person, nor for that matter much interested in live music, and that's pretty much it here. Everybody's looking old these days, but still sounding pretty good. The featured album is his best in a while, although it recycles much of his country kit. Behind that his songbook, his catalog, is extraordinary. B+

Young has a new album out -- as Christgau remarked, it's as notable a news event as a record. I've had mixed feelings about it, finally jotting the following down in my notebook:

[ . . . ]

I did stick "Impeach the President" into the songs list I'm collecting. (Never do manage to come up with such a list come ballot time, so for once I'm trying to be prepared.) Thus far, the only other song on this list is Bill Sheffield's "I Don't Hate Nobody," from Journal on a Shelf.

I'm not totally down on "America the Beautiful" -- it shows up constructively in two recent Carla Bley projects: Looking for America (ECM) and Not in Our Name (Verve, look under Charlie Haden). I live in the "amber waves of grain" part of the country, and always enjoy a drive up to Coronado Heights when the winter wheat ripens.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Monuments on the Mind

Tom Engelhardt wrote a piece about New York City's extravagant plans to memorialize the 9/11 tragedy by building a memorial museum, reflecting pools, and a 1776 foot "Freedom Tower" -- projected price tage, one billion dollars, give or, most likely, take a few hundred million. My gut reaction to this is that I've never heard of anything so obscenely self-indulgent, and there are many other overtones to it. Engelhardt starts to get a grip on it:

[E]ven in victimhood, Americans have in recent years exhibited an unseemly imperial hubris. . . . The United States was, in its suffering, the greatest victim, the greatest survivor, and the greatest dominator the globe had ever seen.

While this monumentalism says much about America, I'm at least as interested in what this might mean for the actual victims of the 9/11 attacks. I knew a secretary killed in the World Trade Center, though her husband, who I've known since he was a small child. I was in New York when the attacks happened, and spent quite a bit of time with the family. I've only been back once since then, but was shocked at what I saw. Since then I've lost touch -- partly my fault, but also indicative of what happened. Tragedy happens, but 9/11 wasn't just statistically significant. It played into a set of political agendas, which produced a unique reaction. One part was that the families of the victims were showered with cash. Given the ensuing Bush wars, it's tempting to view their windfall as blood money, but the reaction of the families was more powerfully conflicted. The money was unearned, except perversely through a sacrifice that no amount of money could compensate. The money was welcome, of course, because in America money is always something one needs, and one never quite knows how much is really needed.

But it's more complex, and more convoluted than that. For one thing, the suffering was amplified by the scale of the attacks, by their conspiratorial agency, and by the intense publicity that ensued. So-called Acts of God tend to be consigned to fate, but the idea that these attacks were the work of a foreign network -- of Osama Bin Laden, of the militant Salafist-Jihadism in general, perhaps even of a massive, intractable "clash of civilizations" -- politicized the tragedy, turning mere victims into martyrs to help promote wars of revenge. Some 9/11 families reacted against these politics, but most went along with the flow. Either way prolonged the agony.

9/11's scale was matched by Hurricane Katrina -- in terms of deaths, that is; in terms of the number of people affected, the property damage and loss of livelihood far exceeded 9/11. Katrina attracted a lot of press, but it launched no avenging crusades -- at least not against the Army Corps of Engineers or the mystery behind global warming, although the Bush administration sunk to its usual embarrassing level of corruption and incompetence. In other words, Katrina was, like most disasters, something to put into the past. But 9/11 was kept alive, looming as a portent of the our fearsome future. Monuments help do this: their fundamental idea is to keep memory alive, where it's useful for people with axes to grind. That's why, for instance, the US South is dotted with Civil War monuments, but no monuments to the greater tragedy of slavery. That's why we have monuments to imperial wars, but not to genocide against Native Americans.

But this is just excess baggage for the individuals caught up in 9/11. I had an uncle who was killed in a car wreck when I was very young, leaving his three small children with no father and his wife with no husband. They all (we all) pulled together and made do. I saw no real, practical difference when my friend lost his wife. Indeed, there was little difference between then and when I lost my first wife, except for the sudden shock -- in my case spread out, but hardly diminished, by long illness. These things happen, and sadly, painfully, we cope with them. But we're constantly told that 9/11 is something different: not a personal tragedy, but some sort of national stigma. One consequence is how this interferes with the recovery of the people who actually bore the costs. Paying them off supposedly helps them out, but it also legitimizes the cause of war in their names.

The revenge of 9/11 has done nothing to salve its pain. The count of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq has nearly doubled the dead from 9/11, and rises inexorably. The count of Americans injured, often severely, is far greater. Meanwhile, the US has behaved far worse than the masterminds of Al Qaeda ever imagined -- an escalation of the cycle of revenge that only promises further tragedy. But putting all that aside, it's not just political opportunism that drives 9/11 activism. There seems to be a cultural dread of death, which especially in the case of sudden, pointless death seeks a peculiar form of immortality to find meaning where none is evident. Monuments and revenge are two traditional ways of bringing the dead purposefully back -- to meaning, if not to life. A more novel way is something like "Megan's Law" -- deny death by changing the rules. Makes one wonder whether what we really need isn't a new understanding of politics so much as a shrewd psychiatrist.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Belated Movie Logs

Saw two movies after the last such notebook entry. Figured since I had been ganging the movie notes up that wasn't enough. Then never quite found the time. Now it seems like it's been so long -- last report was actually dated March 7 -- that I've forgotten much of what I've seen. So I expect this will be patchy. But if not now it'd only get worse.

Movie: Caché. Not as clear as it could be, but a powerful testament to how strange and subtle blowback can be. Daniel Auteuil plays a minor television personality -- has a program about books -- who is stalked, taunted, and haunted by an Algerian he drove away from his childhood home. The significant thing here is not whether he was wrong then but how self-righteously aggressive he acts now -- the old best defense is a good offense ploy. Denial, after all, is not just a way to hide from responsibility; it makes sure no wrong is redressed. A-

Movie: Mrs. Henderson Presents. Was prepared for yet another dull exercise in the British notion that nudity is good for business. Found instead that the immaculately posed nudes were their own best critique. Also got some humor at the expense of the British upper classes, and an antiwar speech that strikes me as fundamentally correct, even if narrowly conceived. Like the British notion of the business of nudity. A-

Movie: Why We Fight. The title comes from Frank Capra's WWII propaganda films, but Eugene Jarecki doesn't do much with that. Instead, he spins what Gore Vidal calls "perpetual war for perpetual peace" around Dwight Eisenhower's lecture on the military-industrial complex. There must be a million ways to slice up this story -- James Carroll's new book is one I plan on reading soon -- but this one seems as valid as any. I could have done without the 9/11 blowhard, but even that story has some interesting twists. A-

Movie: V for Vendetta. This has a reputation of being pro-terrorist, but the terrorist in question is as tangible a product of horrific state-implemented torture as one can imagine. Where he differs from your garden variety terrorists is in the uncommon elegance of his vendetta and the gentlemanly grace with which he accepts his own flawed doom. But then, this is fiction; one should never forget that, or lose the knack of separating it from fact. As for the government that unleashes biological warfare against its own people to promote a panicked embrace of fascism, that's fiction too. But I still want to know who sent all those post-9/11 anthrax letters out. Those were fact, as was the mad rush to war that followed, not to mention the NSA snooping and other aspects that this fiction runs the risk of understating. A-

Movie: Inside Man. Clever caper, although I have all the usual caveats -- Nazis in the closet, remarkably principled and skilled Jewish crooks played by WASPs, Denzel's girlfriend confusion, whatever Jodie Foster was supposed to be. Spike Lee could grow up to be Sidney Lumet, if that's what he wants. B+

Movie: Friends With Money. Let's face it, money's wasted on the rich. B

If there was another, it's slipped my mind. Maybe I should go back to one short entry each time out. Not that there's been anything to see in several weeks.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Music: Current count 11854 [11848] rated (+6), 842 [838] unrated (-4). Spent most of the week listening to David Murray. Changed a couple of grades there -- bumped up Ming to A, Real Deal to A-, knocked some WSQ albums up and down -- but didn't have much unrated material on the shelf. Thought about buying Remembrances and Lovers and maybe The London Concert, but didn't pull the trigger on that. Murray piece is pretty much done. Not sure what else comes next. Probably Recycled Goods for June. Getting to where I need to round up some records for that.

  • David Murray: Flowers for Albert: The Complete Concert (1976 [1997], India Navigation, 2CD): Penguin Guide lists Flowers for Albert as a 4-star record, but closer inspection reveals something fishy. This one is IN 2026; their one is IN 2004. This one was recorded 1976-06-26 with Olu Dara, Fred Hopkins and Phillip Wilson; their one was recorded 1977-09 with Butch Morris, Don Pullen, Fred Hopkins and Stanley Crouch (the writer on drums). So clearly they're not the same records, but I can't find any other corroboration for IN 2004. Closest match in Murray sessionography (which, btw, I suspect is incomplete -- certainly isn't up to date) is a 1977-08-17 record, West Wind 2039, also called Flowers for Albert, released 1990, combining two LPs originally released on Circle. This one expands an LP with three additional tracks, 45:47 of new music, which slops about half-way onto a second CD. Same lineup as Low Class Conspiracy except that this one has Olu Dara on trumpet, a second horn that takes some of the focus off Murray -- 21 years old, and already a very imposing performer. On the basis of focus and sound, I give the nod to the studio album. Those are the only two Murray albums I have before Sweet Lovely, his second album for Black Saint. There's a fair amount of live material in his discography, very little of which is still in print. This is a good one, but perhaps a bit of caution is in order. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 2)

Haven't heard a peep out of the Voice about the pending Jazz Consumer Guide. I had heard maybe 5/17, but I see that Francis Davis got his page into issue 20. Robert Christgau usually runs every other week. He had a page in issue 19, so he will probably get issue 21, but I don't know that. Christgau has a piece out of sequence in issue 20: an obit on Grant McLennan. Don't have a lot of prospecting to report this week, given that I spent most or all of five days listening to old David Murray records. Just wonderful.

Fred Anderson: Timeless: Live at the Velvet Lounge (2005 [2006], Delmark): One of the last nights at Anderson's Chicago club, with the saxophonist in charge, his long-time protégé Hamid Drake on drums, and Harrison Bankhead fattening up the sound with his bass. My main caveat is that this is much like what Anderson has been doing for the last 3-5 years -- I haven't heard all of his Velvet Lounge records, but the trend seems to be toward a measured, more balanced attack. Maybe he's getting old, or maybe he's just finding himself. [B+(***)]

Vijay Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa: Raw Materials (2005 [2006], Savoy Jazz): Put this on as soon as I got it, and I've played it three times since, so this isn't really a first impression. But it really is just an impression: I've been playing the record in odd moments when I couldn't really focus. It took me a while before I realized that these pieces are just duets. Iyer is so adept at marshalling time and filling space that I never suspected anything to be missing. But my strongest impression of the record is that it annoys me. I'm inclined to blame Mahanthappa's tone -- a sour, metallic taste, all edge. I can think of other alto saxists with a similar bite -- most notably, Jackie McLean -- so perhaps there's something more bugging me here. Iyer's work here remains impressive -- he's a major figure, and judging from his other work Mahanthappa is at least a useful one. This leaves me with a conundrum: impressions thus far have made it clear to me that I'm never going to like this enough to rate it even as an Honorable Mention; on the other hand, it's possible that if I played it another 3-5 times I might develop the grudging admiration that would push it into low B+ range, or I might get so annoyed to list it as a Dud. Right now I'm not looking forward to either. B

Christian McBride: Live at Tonic (2005 [2006], Ropeadope, 3CD): Three-plus hours of live action is a lot to sit through, but at $18.98 list this is something of a bargain. The breakout yields three cleanly distinct discs. All feature the same funk-fusion quartet, with McBride playing more electric than acoustic bass, Geoffrey Keezer more electric keyboard than piano, Ron Blake honking and Terreon Gully drumming. The first disc is just the quartet, with cuts selected from two sets -- reportedly the best, but really just a baseline. Second disc brings in guests Charlie Hunter, Jason Moran and Jenny Scheinman, stretching out for long and insinuating jams. Third disc has a different set of guests -- DJ Logic (turntables), Scratch (beat box), Eric Krasno (Soulive guitarist), Rahsaan Peterson (trumpet) -- on even longer jams with hip-hop flavor. Excessive, indulgent, lots of chatter and applause. B+(***)

Conjure: Bad Mouth (2005 [2006], American Clavé, 2CD): The first Conjure album, recorded in 1983 carried the self-explanatory title, Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed. Kip Hanrahan directed the music, composing some of it, bringing in a range of musicians to flesh out his ideas, with Reed himself reading the texts. Twenty-some years later, here is more of the same thing. Aside from Hanrahan and Reed, the only musician returning from the first Conjure album is David Murray, who looms large, as you may expect. Working on the rest. [B+(***)]

Kip Hanrahan: Every Child Is Born a Poet: The Life & Work of Piri Thomas (1992-2002 [2006], American Clavé): Could have listed this under Thomas, who wrote and recites most of the words, or even Jonathan Robinson, who directed the documentary film this is the soundtrack to, but Hanrahan orchestrated this, much as he has the Conjure albums with Ishmael Reed. In some ways he's even more central here -- as gripping as the words are, the instrumental interludes are exceptionally captivating. Thomas is perhaps best known for his 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets. [B+(***)]

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

Billy Martin & Grant Calvin Weston: Live at Houston Hall (2002 [2006], Amulet): I tend to reflexively discount drum records -- maybe that's my rock roots, the result of listening to John Bonham go on and on and on. Martin, of Medeski and Wood fame, has more than a dozen albums on his own label now -- solo drums, duo drums, electrobeats, turntablists, remixes of all of the above. I've heard seven, which is way more than any non-fanatic needs, but they're all interesting in various ways. This, like most live albums, was probably more fun when it was experienced live, but even now it strikes me as the best of the crop, and one of the more consistently engaging, as well as exciting, drums albums I've heard. Even so, I'm unsure how to rate it. Maybe if Weston played more trumpet than just the splash midway through? B+(***)

The Bob Sneider & Joe Locke Film Noir Project: Fallen Angel (2005 [2006], Sons of Sound): Film music -- don't get what film noir has to do with it, given that the films and writers are second generation and then some -- Dave Grusin, Mark Isham, Jerrald Goldsmith, Tomasz Stanko. Makes for smokey atmospherics, but not much more. B+(*)

Randy Sandke and the Metatonal Big Band: The Subway Ballet (1988-2005 [2006], Evening Star): Conceived as dancing commuters enter and exit the series of subway stops from Brooklyn to Harlem, the music fits the concept literally enough that the unchoreographed ballet is unnecessary. The highlight comes with the Hassidic diamond merchants, identified by David Krakauer's clarinet. As for the metatonal theory, all I know is that it doesn't require a piano. Bonus: four tracks from Sandke's early days as a fusion guitarist. Guess I was wrong when I grouped him with all those young fogies he's spent most of his career playing with and for. B+(***)

Diego Urcola: Viva (2005 [2006], Cam Jazz): Like his fellow Argentine and frequent collaborator Guillermo Klein, Urcola plays Latin jazz but with a more extended European feel. He's not as ambitious as Klein -- more like a well travelled sideman who winds up calling in a lot of chits to make an album that he does little to dominate. The group is strong all around, with Antonio Sanchez and Pernett Saturnino on percussion and a slew of guests -- Dave Samuels' marimba and Paquito D'Rivera's clarinet stand out. Leader plays trumpet. B+(*)


Tom Lehrer explained that he gave up on satire once he realized that reality had outpaced it. It was only days ago when Stephen Colbert described the Iraqi government as "fabulous," but already the news hype has trumped him: "magnificent" is the mot du jour. Friday's Eagle carried a piece by James Rainey of the L.A. Times called, "'Fed-up' Iraqis tipping off police." Some quotes:

The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq acknowledged Thursday a recent spike in violence against civilians but said the nation has made "magnificent" progress toward building stability, in large part because of its improved security forces.

A day after Iraq's president reported that the Baghdad morgue had received 1,091 murder victims in the month of April, U.S. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said Iraqi authorities markedly have increased police and army patrols and been able to stave off worse carnage because civilians have been delivering a record number of tips about suspected insurgents.

"People want to talk about what the enemy did. But they don't talk about what the enemy couldn't do," Lynch said in his weekly news briefing. "And there is a lot he couldn't do because of that increased presence.

[ . . . ]

U.S. and Iraqi forces Thursday rescued seven Sunni Arab men seized by suspected Shiite militiamen near Baghdad, part of a campaign to suppress sectarian death squads responsible for hundreds of deaths this year.

Lynch said Iraqi citizens have become "fed up" with the violence. That resulted in a record 5,855 tips to authorities during the month of April, he said, declaring that "99 percent" of them had led to the capture of insurgents or the seizure of weapons.

In other words, it could have been worse. Isn't that magnificent? As for all those tips, you can slice them many ways. At slightly more than 1 per 100,000 Baghdadis, it's not like Iraq's suddenly become a nation of snitches. With only 1% of the tips not producing arrests, you have to wonder how carefully the authorities weigh the evidence. This certainly opens up a lot of opportunities for groups to sick the authorities on other groups, especially given that by now everyone is armed and suspicious. And then there's all that future collaborator taint. As for the paragraphs I left out, well, might as well reprint them too:

Lynch said that the past 10 weeks have sen a particularly high number of attacks on civilians, about 80 percent higher than the leve of violence late last year. In recent days, there have been an average of 85 attacks around the nation, he said.

On Thursday, violence again struck a broad geographic and demographic spectrum of Iraqis, taking the lives of four police officers, a judicial investigator in central Baghdad, a Sunni politician near Basra, a school teacher on her way to work in Baqouba, a doctor working in his clinic in Mosul and four laborers cleaning a street in Western Baghdad. Officials also reported the deaths of three U.S. soldiers in roadside bombings near Baghdad.

Like the man said, magnificent!

Night Draws Near

I've finished reading Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War. The narrative extends to the May 2004 revolts, when the US moved against Muqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army at the same time they had sent the Marines into Fallujah to exact vengeance for four killed and mulitated US mercenaries. The most striking thing about this moment was the threat posed by unity of Sunni and Shia in revolt against the occupation. On p. 375:

The Americans talked about independence but were perceived as occupiesr; Sadr, like his father, talked about closing ranks in a national crusade that joined the uprisings in Shiite towns with the defense of Fallujah: "You are witnessing the union of Sunnis and Shiites toward an independent Iraq, free of terror and occupation. This is a lofty goal. . . . Our sentiments are the same, our goal is one and our enemy is one. We say yes, yes, to unity, yes to the closing of ranks, combating terror, and ousting the infidel West from our sacred lands."

On p. 378:

The popular response -- of Shiite and Sunni coming together to give aid, shelter refugees, and even volunteer for the fight -- pushed, however briefly, prevalent fears of civil war to the background. In the months ahead, the bloodshed would grow precipitously, taking on a nihilist quality in a drumbeat of beheadings, suicide bombings, and executions and deepening the country's sectarian and ethnic fault lines. But in those weeks, in the Arab parts of Iraq, there was a moment of common cause, ephemeral perhaps, that they shared the same foe.

As early as April 6, two days after Sadr launched his revolt, residents of the traditionally Sunni neighborhood of Adhamaniya, considered by many the birthplace of Iraq's Baath Party, marched with Sadr's followers. Throughout Sadr's revolt, Sunni groups, long angry at Shiites for tolerating the occupation, hailed him as a hero, their proclamation read over a loudspeaker in Sadr City, to the cheers of hundreds of militiamen waving pistols and swords. A leaflet made the rounds: "God is greatest," it proclaimed. "Long live the resistance in Fallujah, long live the resistance in Sadr City. No Sunnis and no Shiites, only Islamic unity."

For a while, the US responded to the revolts with overwhelming firepower, but fear of a unified resistance forced the US to back down. Fallujah was nominally handed over to a Baathist ex-general, never heard from again. Sadr's control of Najaf was broken not by the US but by a peaceful march led by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who brokered a deal that invited Sadr into sectarian electoral politics. Two years later, he has become the principal power broken in the Shia UIA coalition that nominally, but ineffectively, governs Iraq. But he paid a price in breaking solidarity with the Sunnis. Without the threat of a united Sunni-Shia front, the US was free to punish Fallujah. Parts of the Sunni resistance in turn focused attacks on Shiites, and Shiites responded with mass killings of Sunnis. The US tactic of divide and conquer produced its inevitable result: civil war.

Some day we will have a more detailed picture of just how these critical political machinations unfolded. (I suppose some of this may be in Paul Bremer's My Year in Iraq, but I'd rather not go there.) Those stories are bottled up in the halls of power: the Green Zone, the Pentagon, the White House -- in the midst, you may recall, of a rather desperate re-election campaign that certainly affected the timing of many events. Shadid's book is impressionistic, a set of travels among the people, facilitated by his command of Arabic and grasp of history as Iraqis understand it. On the other hand, he offers scant view beyond his immediate reporting: little on the Americans, nothing on the Kurds -- even among the Arabs his geographic range rarely extends far from Baghdad. But he had little trouble picking out the omens of how the war would turn.

One early story is especially striking: The US operating north of Baghdad rounds up most of the young men in a village, and a masked collaborator goes through the crowd pointing out several as insurgents. The collaborator is recognized, and the tribal leaders meet and decide he should be killed. The deed is finally done by the father and brother of the collaborator, precluding further revenge on the collaborator's clan.

Another story occurs later on. Shadid's pre-war Baathist "minder" turns out to be an accommodating sort, and Shadid continues to employ him after the war. Eventually, the minder's house is bombed. Nobody knows exactly why, but the man and his family prudently flee Iraq for Jordan.

One part of the tragic cost of this war that no one talks about is the stigma of collaboration. The longer the US stays, the more people we taint. Eventually American troops will leave Iraq -- a position already favored by majorities both here and there. Some collaborators may manage to follow the Americans, like the "boat people" did in fleeing Vietnam. But most will stay, and will try their best to hide or explain away their collaboration. They'll be remembered like the Vichy French -- if they're so fortunate. Of course, this doesn't bother Bush or his kind. They were born to use and abuse people.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Mobsters in Suits

Speaking about the erosion of public trust under right-wing -- dare we say Fascist? -- politicians, I was struck by a couple of quotes in Alexander Stille's New York Review of Books piece, "The Berlusconi Show" (May 25, 2006):

If Berlusconi initially entered politics to save his television and financial empire and to defend himself against criminal prosecution, then his political career can only be judged a complete success. But he has achieved much more than that: he almost single-handedly derailed the national corruption investigation known as Operation Clean Hands. He greatly weakened the war against the Mafia. He made it possible for politicians to openly mix public affairs with their private interestrs, and created a politically slanted television that in many ways anticipated developments in the United States and elsewhere.

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree of popular support for the investigations of public corruption that took place in 1994 when Berlusconi first "entered the playing field." The magistrates who conducted the inveistigations were highly trusted; and Antonio Di Pietro, the most prominent of the prosecutors, was literally the most popular person in the country -- far more so than Berlusconi himself. Similarly, between 1992 and 1995, prosecotrs in Sicily and elsewhere accomplished the semingly impssible by arresting thousands of mafiosi, including the boss of bosses, and helped bring the murder rate in a country of nearly 60 million people down by 50 percent. The Mafia seemed on the verge of defeat. The entry into politics of a billionaire who owned TV stations and the country's leading soccer team and whose company was already under investigation changed the atmosphere; it had the immediate effect of making criminal justice a political issue: any further effort to prosecute Berlusconi or his associates would automatically be seen as a political attack.

[ . . . ]

Berlusconi's prolonged presence in politics has made the entirely abnormal appear normal. Some Italians have accepted that the owner of the largest media company has become prime minister without divesting himself of his interests; no one seems surprised that the parliament contains dozens of his employees, or that they pass laws that help his company. Since a businessman who was already under investigation when he entered politics could become prime minister, hardly anyone seems appalled that he should get his co-defendants and their lawyers elected to parliament so as to give them parliamentary immunity. Nor has there been any serious complaint when these lawyers in parliament write laws to help their clients escape prosecution in cases they might lose at trial.

Other sections of the article talk about how Berlusconi's media empire was able to effectively slander Di Pietro, and how Italy's economy has declined under Berlusconi's rule. In some ways this story is peculiar to Italy. No US media tycoon, despite all the corporate concentration of recent years, has a comparable degree of dominance. Moreover, in the US corporate titans still prefer to rent their politicians rather than taking on the dirty job themselves. Hence, Ken Lay was satisfied backing George Bush -- although in retrospect he might have been better off following in Berlusconi's footsteps.

Clearly, politics in the US is a calling that has lost its appeal to anyone with a sense of self-respect, much less a shred of honesty and integrity. Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone, May 18-June 1, 2006) traces this back to Richard Nixon:

In the Forties or Fifties, in the age of FDR or Ike, you grew up thinking the president was like your dad. If you grew up with Kennedy, he was a handsome young prince living in a castle. Nixon was the first to rule in an era when the president was something gross your parents whispered about at night, like ethnic neighbors or anal sex. These days, the idea of the president as a sort of hideous, power-crazed monster with a lizard brain and a ten-foot erection is almost universal. In fact, we choose our presidents now solely on the basis of their ability to survive a grueling two-year process designed to beat out of a man everything but his most nakedly criminal urges. We ritually assault his friends and family, make him perform acts that would shame a Thai whore -- and if he's still smiling at the end of it all, we pick him. Only a monster, a Nixon, is capable of that finish-line face.

We know that, and we choose him anyway. Why? Because that's who we are. We get off on that sort of thing. The fascination runs very deep. And it's far too late to do anything about it.

That sounds like a good lead-in to say something about Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Colbert can't do anything about it either, but it was delicious to see and hear him strip away the polite veils at a confab that by its very existence was obscene. Politicians like Bush and Berlusconi have become impervious to mere criticism. Part of this is because they themselves are crooked they are very adept at implying that anyone else who tries to enter their game must be crooked too. They taint the media that they themselves are so adept at manipulating. They pose as victims of conspiracies when they're the real conspirators. Pointing such things out only reinforces the prejudices of their supporters.

Colbert does something different: he adopts their rhetoric, proclaims their ideals, trumpets their accomplishments. But among the latter he unflinchingly counts results they tend to edit out. For example:

I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.

Such candor makes spin transparent:

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriesr and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

He also nails the White House lapdog choir:

As excited as I am to be here with the president, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. . . . But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished.

Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD, intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knoew.

But listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know -- fiction!

Colbert gave his speech in front of every White House correspondent in the nation. Immediately afterwards, they rushed back to their offices and wrote about . . . something else.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Do the Right Thing?

Thinking back on my previous post (Appeasement and Occupation), I want to expand a little bit on the notion of doing the right thing. As a writer, I try to avoid phrases that can't be clearly resolved. I also distrust moral invective. This phrase risks both, but it is useful because it insists that we find common ground to solve major political problems. Such solutions depend on broad consent -- often difficult to achieve -- but that is the only way stability can be achieved. This contrasts with the old practice of framing political disputes as clashes of self-interests and contests of power, with the winner seizing the spoils. While historical examples abound, a close review shows that unjust dominance tends not to solve problems but to bury them in bitterly prolonged struggles. And to the extent that there is a trend, it is that unjust power will resisted, even when power gets nakedly brutal.

Although the idea of the right thing is optimizing, in practice just enough often suffices. We experience many grievances here in America, but for most people there is enough freedom, stability, security, material support, and political legitimacy -- enough, that is, to make active resistance unnecessary and unattractive. All of these issues revolve around trust -- basically, our need for the world we live in to treat us with respect and without malice. Peace is perhaps the single most critical attribute of any world built on respect and trust, so it is central to our concerns. That in a nutshell is why waging or escalating war is pretty much always the wrong thing to do, even when you might think it's necessary to end some other grievance.

The idea of doing the right thing isn't new. To a large extent it is the cornerstone of the ideals of international law. Brian Urquhart, in The New York Review of Books (May 11, 2006) provides a useful summary:

The first sketch of the UN Charter and the international system that was to regulate the postwar world was based on three simple but revolutionary principles. First, states would recognize the obligation to refrain from the use of force in their international relations, and would resort to force only in self-defense or when authorized to do so by the international community -- later to be represented by the UN Security Council. Second, they would maintain and respect the "inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights" of all members of the human family. Third, they would promote economic liberalization and progress through free trade and other means.

In 1945, when these ideas were advanced following the manifest tragedies of two world wars, the US took a leading role in pushing this program. But that was a far different US: the New Deal had worked to reduce poverty and inequality at home and to promote a Good Neighbor policy abroad, and the US had reluctantly entered the world war, allying with the Soviet Union to fight fascism. The US had long preferred open doors to colonialism, so was able to take principled stands following the war in favor of rebuilding rather than punishing the defeated Axis nations and in bringing the age of imperialism to a close -- much to the chagrin of Britain and France. It might have been the war to end all war, had the cold war with the Soviet Union -- a crude translation of the class struggle between labor and capital into the realm of national interests -- not developed. The US fancies itself as the winner of that cold war, but as the Bush administration clearly shows, that triumphalism has proven poisonous.

The contrast between the moderate leftism of the New Deal and the extreme right Bush cabal underscores one of the basic points about doing the right thing: the only workable solutions are those that move leftward, toward more equality, more participation, more opportunity, more freedom for more people. The reason for this is simple: workable solutions require consent, which means satisfying more and more people. Even rightists like Bush try to disguise their agendas in leftward rhetoric: freedom but mostly for capital, democracy that can be subverted, security and stability through repression. Indeed, it's hard to think of any of their initiatives that have honest or accurate names. All their mendacity has but one effect: to undermine public trust, leading to a more fragile and brutal world, one with more fear. The right thinks that's fine, that fear works in their favor. But as Bush's polls sink -- as the moral rot of the administration becomes impossible to ignore -- you'd think that someone would come up with a novel alternative idea: like trying to do the right thing.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Appeasement and Occupation

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been reading Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael Gordon and Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor. I figured I'd follow it up with Nir Rosen's new book -- In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, something a good deal closer to the other side of the conflict, or maybe Paul William Roberts' A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq. But I ran across Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War at the library, checked it out, and I'm currently about half way through it. It's gotten to the point where there are so many books on Iraq that it would be a full time job just to digest them all. I've read a couple, mostly early on: William Rivers Pitt's War on Iraq, Dilip Hiro's Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's Weapons of Mass Deception, Tariq Ali's Bush in Babylon, Aaron Glantz's How America Lost Iraq, Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command. Books are mostly for looking back and catching up, so it takes a while for books to track what actually happened in Iraq from 2003 forward and make sense of it.

I'll do a couple of posts about Cobra II later. Got some quotes marked. Gordon was embedded at the highest levels of war command, so this book is mostly a view from the top brass. It has a lot of detail on the military advance, which needless to say is the tedious, boring part of the book. But it is worth recalling that the US ran into fierce and furious resistance on the drive to Baghdad and that the resistance came almost exclusively from Fedayeen -- irregular forces, already fighting guerrilla war, a portent of future struggles. A couple of brief sections try to deal with Iraq's defense strategy, which for the most part was none at all -- at least none with any sort of central direction. But the book doesn't provide much on the occupation: Paul Bremer shows up, fucks up, end of story. What happened next is bound to be a more interesting story, but that book hasn't been written yet. (Bremer's book is out, but sifting the truth out between the lines of his delusions is an ordeal I'll pass on. I'd read George Packer before that.)

One thing that makes Shadid's book a pleasure after Cobra II is that finally we get a chance to look at what the war does to real people. (I suppose it indicates something that I find it much easier to relate to Shadid's Baghdadi residents than to the US military brass, or even to the imperial grunts, but that's the way it is, and, I think, should be.) Of course, what happens to those people is bad, often very bad. And not just the usual varieties of bad: the killing, the destruction, the terror, the chaos, the deprivation, the fear, the loathing of those who caused this and/or proved incapable or unwilling to help -- e.g., the American invaders. One thing that's very clear both from Cobra II and from this book is that the cards were stacked severely against a successful US occupation from the very start. Also that the US military and civilian administration didn't have anything remotely resembling the right stuff to deal with it.

One thing we get from books like this, as opposed to our poorly remembered accounts of poorly reported news, is a chance to better order those memories. Here's a Shadid quote (pp. 197-199) of just such an event:

On May 22, 2003, the American occupation of Iraq officially began. Of course, for all intents and purposes, it had begun six weeks earlier. Yet it wasn't until May 22 that a U.N. declaration, passed in a 14-0 vote with only Syria abstaining, granted the Unitd States and its wartime ally, Britain, sweeping formal authority as occupying powers in Iraq. It was a long-expected conclusion to the invasion, ending thirteen years of sanctions and setting the stage for the resumption of Iraqi oil exports to finance the country's hoped-for reconstruction. It cleared the muddy waters of authority -- the United States, not a provisional Iraqi government, would be in charge; it would hold a formal writ as an occupying power. "The council has taken decisive action to help the Iraqi people," said John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who would serve as the first U.S. ambassador to post-Saddam Iraq the following year.

The resolution -- its terminology, its implications, and its very symbolism -- was perhaps one of the most decisive gestures of the American experience in Iraq. It almost single-handedly changed the cast of the aftermath, beginning the ihtilal, or occupation, a term that leaves no room for negotiations, less for compromise.

The American experience had obviously started poorly in Iraq, chaos and confusion persisting well into the summer. The looting had diminished but it was like a knife dragged across the city, digging wounds that would never heal. While the Americans were not fully responsible, Iraqis perceived them as allowing the plunder and pondered whether the condition of their country was the result of malicious inattention or inattentive malice. Either way, many Baghdadis had soured on the new overlords. The current of skepticism would only deepen, creating a divide that had become impassible, perhaps as early as April.

The May 22 declaration exaggerated the divide. For many Americans, even Europeans, the term "occupation" probably evokes the aftermath of World War II and an American-led vision of cooperation with like-minded peoples forging a common destiny. But for Iraqis, and for most Arabs, the term, seared into the collective memory, brings to mind Israel's record in the Middle East. Some recall Lebanon and the Israeli occupation that endured there, in one fashion or another, from 1978 until May 2000, when the last Israeli soldiers departed through the Fatima Gate on the Israeli-Lebanese border. More spectacularly, the term calls to mind the region's most incendiary issue: Palestine. If the very name "Vietnam" suggests to Americans a decadelong war in Southeast Asia, images of harried U.S. soldiers in rice paddies, fiery napalm swelling across tropical tree lines, the hard angles of American helicopters set against the soft beauty of an Asian landscape, ihtilal suggests years of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. The images are persistent: hulking Caterpillar bulldozers demolishing homes of stone and concrete in the squalor of Gaza; American-built Apache helicopters hovering over West Bank villages along rocky terraced Palestinian hills; imposing Merkava tanks crashing across refugee camps as haunted faces in black-checked kaffiyehs watch them pass. This has become the Arab notion of occupation; those images define ihtilal.

When the U.S. government shifted the legal jurisdiction of its presence in Iraq, it inadvertently answered a question that had long dominated Iraqi conversations before and during the war. Would it be an occupation or a liberation? Even by American admission, it was now an occupation. And in an ihtilal, ambitions of a common destiny, promises of collaboration, pledges of shared aims and goals are rendered impossible. By definition, ihtilal denotes inequality, a relationship of two unequal powers, the weaker submitting to the will of the stronger. By imposing an occupation, the Americans declared that the situation was different from what most Iraqis perceived it to be -- for, even if Iraq's leader was gone, few Iraqis viewed their nation as fallen.

Now, there's no point asking what the Americans were thinking at this point, because that was clearly beyond their skill set. But 14-0, what does that say about the UN? Most of the UN Security Council refused to sanction Bush's Crusade in advance, but given as fait accompli, they retroactively sanctioned it. I suppose the naive view would be that the UN couldn't stop the US from breaking Iraq, but also shouldn't obstruct the US from fixing it. The more cynical view is that the resolution let the war's opponents wash their hands of the mess -- let the US have it. This was naive in thinking that the US could or would heal and rebuild Iraq. But it also was a tragic strategic retreat: the UN, without exception, tendered its good name and good will to the very regime that had flagrantly defied international law in starting the war. Before the UN was merely helpless to prevent aggression; here the UN retroactively sanctioned it. Following the vote, the UN went to work for the US. Their election work went nowhere. They were soon bombed, chased from the country.

The UN resolution was sheer appeasement. It showed that no major power, even those who knew better, had the will to stand up to the US when the US was clearly, dangerously in the wrong. It showed that no nation cared enough, either about Iraq or the US, to even try to do the right thing. What might the right thing be? Well, for starters, the UN could have insisted on elections for a new, sovereign Iraqi government, in no more than 90 days. They could have insisted on interrim UN control, to which the US-UK military forces would be subject. They could have insisted that a short list of Saddam Hussein and his top henchmen be tried before the International Criminal Court and that everyone else in the Iraq government would be amnestied, possibly subject to testifying at a truth and reconciliation commission. They could have cleared up the WMD controversy. They could have put together a large fund for reconstruction, and tied that to human rights assurances by the new Iraqi government. They could, in other words, have insisted that Iraq be liberated from Saddam's tyranny and crimes, instead of allowing Iraq to be further victimized by Bush. But they failed to do any of that. Instead, they issued Bush carte blanche to misrule Iraq as long as he can stand the heat. While there's a cruel justice to the UN's decision, more than anything else it is shameful.

In doing so, the UN has reverted to the behavior of its precedessor, the League of Nations, which carved up the colonial empires of Germany and Turkey and served them to Britain, France and Japan. In appeasing Bush, the UN has buckled like Chamberlain. Undaunted, Bush now wants to subdue Iran as well. The US is not the same sort of implacable aggressor as Germany and Japan were in WWII. It won't take force of arms to stop the US. But it does demand that someone stand up for what's right. And thus far no nation has shown the courage to do so.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Music: Current count 11848 [11815] rated (+33), 838 [841] unrated (-3). May Recycled Goods came in a couple of days late. That it got done at all was due to a frantic last-minute crush. Tried to keep that momentum going and worked my way through a lot of product. Also got a chance to play a few new non-jazz records, so the y2006 A-list finally has some non-jazz on it. Need to work on David Murray this week, which will cut the ratings total down a lot. Looks like Jazz CG will be coming out mid-month, so need to work on culling that too. Other small piece of news is that I've opened a file for Recycled Goods January 2007 -- the second year-end wrap column. Finally looks like there'll be some records to cover there.

  • Gaby Lita Bembo and Orchestre Stukas du Zaïre: Kita Mata ABC (1974-83 [2005], RetroAfric): This is classic soukous, not all that cleanly recorded, but this wasn't a very clean group; the stock line on Lita Bembo was that he was a "great showman" -- i.e., he never missed an opportunity to kick a high energy level even higher; played so fast and hearty, it's remarklable that the silkiness of the guitars still shows through. A-
  • Charles Brown: Black Night ([2005], Masked Weasel): Booklet says these come from the '40s and '50s, but one tell is that the "brother in Korea" from the 1950 original of "Black Night" has moved on to Vietnam; few of these 14 songs show up in his Complete Aladdin Recordings (1945-56, Mosaic) or in the Classics' series (six volumes so far, up to 1951), but they do show up in redundant comps from the usual suspects (Cleopatra, Madacy, St. Clair) and the lineup song-for-song matches Stardust's The Very Best of Charles Brown Featuring Shuggie Otis -- Otis started recording in 1969 and worked with Brown in 1975, but that doesn't cover it all either; if you don't care about such things, this does capture the sound of Brown's sly piano blues, and the three Xmas songs are better than you'd expect. B
  • Cheap Trick: Dream Police (1979 [2006], Epic/Legacy): A pop metal band -- doesn't "pop metal" refer to those cheap, fragile castings made with a lot of tin? -- running out of ideas; aside from the title cut and the whiney ballad "Voices" this is pretty rote; "Gonna Raise Hell" might be funny from Blue Oyster Cult, but here it's lame. B-
  • Cheap Trick: All Shook Up (1980 [2006], Epic/Legacy): The live "Day Tripper" bonus track suggests they came along too late, applying their limited talents in the wake of Led Zeppelin instead of the Beatles; hiring George Martin to produce should have been a sign, a plea for help, but all he did was twist knobs. C+
  • The Coup: Pick a Bigger Weapon (2006, Epitaph): Not sure if I get, let alone approve of, the one about shoplifting, er, boosters. The "Bush and Saddam in bed, giving H-E-A-D head" bit is a bit cheap. No doubt that they are soul brothers on some level. They came from different sides of the oil patch, one buying and the other bullying his way to the top, but what they mostly have in common is an eagerness to pursue their worst ideas to their most self-destructive conclusions. As for making that baby, don't let me stop you, but quite frankly Bush done done something crazy. The assbreath skits are way too quotidian. One wonders what a double dose of "assbreath killers" might do for the White House press mob. Still, there's more here than any other record I've heard this year. That's an artistic achievement, not to mention a political one. A
  • Drive-By Truckers: A Blessing and a Curse (2006, New West): Maturing. Not just getting older. Getting over it all. A-
  • Bill Frisell: Unspeakable (2004, Nonesuch): Hal Wilner produced, provides some turntables, samples. The 858 Strings show up on half or more of the tracks. Horns, mostly arranged by Steven Bernstein, come and go, but don't stick around. Seems like a fairly typical Chinese menu for Frisell. B+(**)
  • Hallelujah Chicken Run Band: Take One (1974-79 [2006], Alula): Thomas Mapfumo's chimurenga -- the Shona language music of struggle against the white settler government of Zimbabwe -- starts here. The band was formed by the owners of the Mangura copper mine to play for their workers. They attracted some young pros like Mapfumo, and won a recording contract in 1974. Mapfumo left soon after due to a pay dispute: he only appears on four tracks here, but the band tracked his progress, providing a broader context to Mapfumo's Chimurenga Singles (various overlapping collections on Shanachie, Zimbob, and DBK Works). As the map suggests, Zimbabwe's music is a mix of South African melodic elements and Congolese guitar charge. This delivers on both counts. A-
  • Herbie Hancock: Future 2 Future (2001, Transparent Music): I'm not sure exactly what's going on here. Hancock plays keyboards, and is listed as producer, but he's listed second behind Bill Laswell. Hancock had shifted back into acoustic jazz well before this point. No recording dates, but clearly some of this goes back a ways -- e.g., Tony Williams died in 1997. So figure this is a Laswell remix project with a little help from Hancock. The beats, including work by Carl Craig and A Guy Called Gerald, are pretty state of the art, and they keep this moving much more briskly than anything the old Headhunters did. But the vocals are a very mixed bag, even if they mostly do us the favor of dissolving in the mix. B+(**)
  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Long Walk to Freedom (2006, Heads Up): Twenty-some years after South Africa's great mbube group first gained our attention with Induku Zethu (1984, Shanachie), the limits of their a cappella concept have become obvious; still, they carry on, with gimmicks for variety: guest stars this time, like Taj Mahal and Emmylou Harris, and a cover of the song Paul Simon introduced them on. B+(*)
  • Souad Massi: Honeysuckle (Mesk Elil) (2005, Wrasse): A singer-songwriter, born in Algeria, based in Paris; no need to ask why; she's just trying to enjoy her life and music, which is personal and poignant -- closer to troubadour than the electrified dance music of the chebs and chaabas -- as if the ideologues and idiots of the world could be safely ignored. B+(***)
  • Liza Minnelli: Liza With a "Z" (1972 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): The soundtrack to Bob Fosse's concert for television, a career climax capping her star role in the film of Cabaret; she was a singer in her mother's tradition, dated and campy after rock took over; several songs feel like hand-me-downs, but not "Ring Dem Bells" nor the 10:22 "Cabaret Medley" -- all the more powerful for its concision. B+(***)
  • Mott the Hoople: Mott (1973 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): One of the great rock albums of the '70s; the artistic direction had resolved in favor of Ian Hunter, whose Dylanizing had become his own voice, but the band -- Mick, Verden, the perfectly named bass player Overend Watts, the one who's "just a rock 'n' roll star" -- was still intact, and never stronger. A
  • The New Orleans Social Club: Sing Me Back Home (2006, Burgundy/Honey Darling): Listing this under Various Artists, but one track is credited to New Orleans Social Club, probably for lack of anything better. Others go to various Nevilles, Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball, Dr. John, Troy Andrews, Henry Butler, Mighty Chariots of Fire, the Subdudes, Willie Tee, Monk Boudreaux, John Boutté. Some are pretty good: Cyril Neville's opening "This Is My Country" sets the tone, and "Fortunate Son" drives it home. B+(**)
  • Madeleine Peyroux: Dreamland (1996, Atlantic): First record I heard by her was the 2004 hit Careless Love, which I found disconcertingly immitative of Billie Holiday. This one is much less so -- the opener, a wonderful "Walkin' After Midnight," not a bit so. Does Fats Waller after than, then a mess of not so messy blues. B+(**)
  • Pink: I'm Not Dead (2006, LaFace/Zomba): Not dumb either. In touch enough to ask "how can you sleep when the rest of us cry?" and modest enough to convince us that she's one of us. Her music has moved from teensy dance pop to mainstream (i.e., post-new wave) rock, and this time she seems comfortable there -- she's not just trying on new styles, like Madonna has made a career out of. Strongest examples: "Leave Me Alone (I'm Lonely)" and "U + Ur Hand." A-
  • Las Rubias del Norte: Panamericana (2006, Barbès): Led by singers Emily Hurst and Alyssa Lamb, both formerly of the NY Choral Society, backed by various suspicious characters -- the cuatro player comes from France, the bassist "speaks better Latin than Spanish," etc.; at times they sound like the Roches en Español, but I suspect they are just smartass students, and what they like most about the polymorphuousness of Latin music is its perversity. B+(***)
  • Mott the Hoople: All the Young Dudes (1972 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): At a time when English rock bands were going heavy metal or prog or both, this one just wanted to be a rock 'n' roll band, but didn't have a clue how to do it. Ian Hunter had an earnest Dylan imitation and liked to conceive of himself as the subject of sweeping ballads. Mick Ralphs was ready for groupies, and willing to associate with Bad Company to attain his dreams. Three quick albums stiffed, but the band started to cohere on the fourth, Brain Capers. Then along comes David Bowie, slaps on a little makeup, has them cover Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" and writes them an anthem that namechecks T-Rex, and voilà -- glam rock, what punks listened to before punk rock came along. Mott, the follow-up, was a more coherent album; this one you can still see the scattered pieces, including "Sea Diver" -- the first Hunter ballad to prove transcendent. Too many bonus cuts, but it doesn't hurt to rough this music up a bit. A-
  • Run the Road Volume 2 (2006, Vice): This lacks Volume 1's names, if indeed you consider Dizzee Rascal and Lady Sovereign names. These Brit DJs and rappers may gain recognition over time, but this is likely to remain a snapshot of the moment in grime or garage rap or whatever it is. Meanwhile, they try to get by with hard beats, hardened attitudes, and lots of featured guests. B+(***)
  • John Scofield: En Route (2003 [2004], Verve): Recorded live at the Blue Note, with Steve Swallow on electric bass and Bill Stewart on drums. Pretty basic. B+(*)
  • Bill Sheffield: Journal on a Shelf (2006, American Roots): Good, slightly folkish roots album. Artist's URL incorporates blues, and that's part of the mix -- "Black Bottom," "Invitation to the Blues," like that. Put "I Don't Hate Nobody" onto my songs list. A-
  • Shel Silverstein: Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook (2005, Harper Children's Audio): Don't know why they sent me this. Thought I'd pack it up along with Legacy's Best of Shel Silverstein for Recycled Goods, but I've played it and really have nothing to say about it. Dennis Locorriere reads the book -- the voice is still familiar from Dr. Hook. The language is all based on swapping the first letters of adjacent adjectives and nouns, leading to the occasional mauvais mot. Not so easy for me to hear this sort of thing, let alone parse it, let alone comprehend it. It's billy anyway. B-
  • Britney Spears: Greatest Hits: My Prerogative (1998-2004 [2004], Jive/Zomba): Slouching toward Madonna, with more bronze and less brains, but enough of the latter to get professional help with the beats. As a cult artist, or even a pop artist, I don't exactly disapprove, but I'm not all that convinced either. B
  • Bruce Springsteen: Greatest Hits (1975-95 [1995], Columbia): Four cuts from Born in the USA, which everyone already owns anyway, seems a little excessive for an artist who has recorded a few other good albums. Eleven cuts in this is awesome. The next three cuts make as much sense of his early '90s as needed. Then you get to four cuts that are neither great nor hits: a set of new cuts that didn't fit that year's The Ghost of Tom Joad. They're pro forma, which isn't the same as awful, but they give this compilation a peculiar downslope. As not much of a fan, I can imagine a single disc compilation that would overcome my reservations, and as such be useful. This isn't it. B
  • Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (1997-2006, Columbia): "We Shall Overcome" dates from a Seeger tribute cut in 1997. The rest reflect subsequent research. Springsteen explains that he never knew much about Seeger before the tribute. But what he tapped into there was a vein of Americana he may always have had in his bones. Done informally, in unedited live takes, this may be his idea of a hootenanny, but the fact is that even off the cuff Springsteen is such a compelling musician that everything he touches gains grandeur. A-
  • Porter Wagoner: Misery Loves Company (1954-69 [2005], Masked Weasel): I grew up watching Porter's medicine show, broadcast from West Plains MO, a few miles over the border from my mother's ancestral Arkansas homestead. Hated it at the time, but eventually it came to signify the weird hypocrisy endemic to country music. Since then I've searched for the records that would secure his place in the pantheon, but the final judgment seems to be that he was just a hack in a flashy nudie suit. RCA's 20-cut The Essential Porter Wagoner is slight but basic, but now gone from print, replaced by the even slighter 16-cut RCA Country Legends. This budget comp reduces him even further, to 11 cuts, a mere 29:36, and doesn't provide much history, but the selection hits most of what he's remembered for: the patronizing "Skid Row Joe," the creepy "Cold Hard Facts of Life," the creepier "What Would You Do If Jesus Came to Your House," and the marvelous "Green, Green Grass of Home." B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting (CG #10, Part 1)

It looks like my ninth Jazz Consumer Guide column will be published in the Village Voice in a week or two. Don't have the exact details, but the column has been edited, the artwork is in, I've provided a list of possible cuts/holds, but as far as I know they haven't done any layout yet. From this point on, it's out of my control. Since the Voice was sold a while back they've been going through some abrupt changes, including the recent replacement of music editor Chuck Eddy by Rob Harvilla. Nobody much knew what that meant, but for now at least it looks like the jazz coverage will continue more or less on the same plan. Thinking this might have been the end of the line, I tried to cram as much as possible into JCG #9. Even so, I have stuff I've graded but didn't get to -- Zentralquartett, Ulf Wakenius, lots of good honorable mentions. Chances are that five or more of the short reviews I wrote this time will get held back. What happens 2-3 months from now is still hard to predict, but I'm proceeding as if there still is a future, and that the future will include more Jazz Consumer Guide columns. So this is week #1 of prospecting for next round. Not a lot to show as yet: spent most of the week on Recycled Goods, so I started here by catching up with reissues. Don't expect much more next week either, as I need to work on a David Murray piece. Same format as before: grades in brackets are tentatives guesses. B+ is divided into thirds, the more stars the better.

Angá: Echu Mingua (2006, World Circuit/Nonesuch): Angá is congalero Angá Díaz. Echu Mingua is his saint's name in the Yoruba religion; relates to Eleggua, the God of crossroads, the owner of all roads in the world. He says, "this album is the realisation of all the ideas that I've gathered over the years." Methinks, too much kitchen sink here; surely he could have kept a few ideas in reserve. Most cuts have vocals of some sort: coros, chants, spoken word. Most have percussion of many sorts: congas, bongos, timbales, clave, bata, shekere, tamani -- a Malinke talking drum played by Baba Sissoko, who also plays n'goni. Cachaito plays bass on most cuts. Various pianists show up for a cut each, including Rubén González and Chucho Valdés. Turntablist Dee Nasty is all over the joint. One idea was to redo an Argentine piece by Pablo Nemirovsky, who drops in on bandoneon. Some cuts have strings, others horns, one guitar, three flute. Angá himself mostly plays congas, but adds some guiro on one cut. The result is an Afro-Cuban smorgasbord, often tasty, but way over the top. I didn't plan on covering this under jazz prospecting until I noticed "Round Midnight" and "A Love Supreme" -- two more half-baked ideas -- and side credits with Steve Coleman and Roy Hargrove. I expect that we'll hear more from him, and some day it will make more sense. B

Dexter Gordon: Gettin' Around (1965 [2006], Blue Note): The last of the Blue Notes. Gordon sounds relaxed, his huge sound towering over light but sprightly accompaniment from Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and Barry Harris on piano. B+(**)

Lee Morgan: The Gigolo (1965 [2006], Blue Note): A brisk, chunky hard bop quintet, with Wayne Shorter playing second banana to the trumpeter, and perhaps more importantly pianist Harold Mabern cooking up the grits and gravy. B+(*)

Lee Morgan: Tom Cat (1964 [2006], Blue Note): With three horns this is a little busy up front, but Morgan's trumpet is never far from the spotlight. McCoy Tyner provides some slick interludes when he gets the chance, and contributes one song to make sure he does. The Penguin Guide has a clever putdown of this album: "With complete absence of irony, the final track is 'Rigor Mortis.'" The song in question is spelled "Riggarmortes" and it's pretty upbeat. Still, there's something wrong with an album where Jackie McLean doesn't bother to make himself noticed. B

Hank Mobley: Dippin' (1965 [2006], Blue Note): Aside from a token ballad this could just as well be a Lee Morgan album, since trumpet runs roughshod over sax at will, at least when these two play; it holds up better than most because Harold Mabern and the rhythm section keep things moving, but also because Mobley gets to stretch out a bit on the ballad. B+(*)

Horace Silver: Silver's Serenade (1963 [2006], Blue Note): Silver's quintets were mostly interchangeable, but this line-up was a bit shy of the others: Blue Mitchell and Junior Cook tended to blare in unison, while Gene Taylor and Roy Brooks overreacted. Center, of course, was Silver's piano, a rollicking gospel-tinged party machine. B

Jimmy Smith: Softly as a Summer Breeze (1958 [2006], Blue Note): Standards fare with Smith comping lightly behind a series of light-handed guitarists -- Kenny Burrell, Eddie McFadden, Ray Crawford -- which despite some nice moments doesn't give you much of a feel for anyone involved; Bill Henderson sings on four bonus cuts -- he's not so incredible either. B

Andrew Hill: Smoke Stack (1963 [2006], Blue Note): It looks like it's finally Hill's time. This year's Jazz Journalists Association Awards nominated Hill both for Musician of the Year and Lifetime Achievement Award. He's got a good new album out on his second returnt rip to Blue Note. And his new/old label has started to put his catalog in order. This one is unusual among his early records for its lack of horns. It's not quite a trio, in that he uses two bassists, frequently playing arco. But it's a good example of how far he could push his piano, especially as he surfs over such volatile time shifts. A-

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: Brotherman in the Fatherland (1972 [2006], Hyena): One more live shot from the archives, a bit earlier and a lot louder than two others the label sent me for reference -- The Man Who Cried Fire and Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom. Less talk, more covers, fewer tricks -- although the booklet does have a picture of Kirk blowing three horns at once, and other bits of misdirection. Live albums take on poignancy after an artist dies, functioning as memoirs for those who have memories, and curiosities for those who are merely curious. B+(**)

Gnappy: Unloaded (2006, Bean Pie): Austin TX group, claim their formula is one jigger jazz, two jiggers funk. Guitar, bass, sax, drums, some guest trumpet, a so-so vocal track also provided sans vocal, a bit of rap. Not sure about Marcus Cardwell's sax since the tracks I noticed had Steve Johnson guesting. Nor am I sure what I think of it all, but most likely it's easier to fake the funk than the jazz. [B]

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

Joe Chambers: The Outlaw (2005 [2006], Savant): Although his credits list includes drums, Chambers primarily plays vibes here. Combined with Bobby Sanabria's percussion and Logan Richardson's soprano sax, this has a playful feel almost totally free of weight. Weird at first, then seductive. B+(**)

Odean Pope Saxophone Choir: Locked & Loaded: Live at the Blue Note (2004 [2006], Half Note): Pope's choir is more like a big band with nine saxes and no brass -- the key being that the group is anchored by a piano-bass-drums rhythm section. The saxes do their best to harmonize, but for this gig they get outgunned by the guests: Michael Brecker on two cuts, Joe Lovano on two, and James Carter on the finale. Brecker stands out as the soloist on a hot night, but Carter works the group harder, making "Mantu Chant" the choice cut. B+(**)

Art Lillard's Heavenly Band: Reasons to Be Thankful (2000 [2006], Summit): The big band can indeed be heavenly -- not only when they work their Latin vibe, but when they flesh out the details on more conventional fare. The vocal pieces -- six, with three lead singers -- are nicely done, but not up to the rest of the band. B+(**)

Pamela Luss: There's Something About You I Don't Know (2006, Savant): Good singer, with a lot of help, especially from Vincent Herring, who produces like a kid in a candy store. Interesting that the most familiar songs -- "Georgia on My Mind," "Fever," "My Funny Valentine" -- are far and away the most irresistible. B+(**)

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Iraq Remembers the US From 1991

The following is a quote from Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War (p. 37-38). It does a pretty succinct job of the damage that the US had done to Iraq before Bush's invasion in 2003:

Recollections of the 1991 Gulf War informed the expectations many Iraqis had for the approaching invasion. Although the Gulf War lacked the brutally epic narrative of the war with Iran, the resulting damage remains awesome. The most spectacular was done by the forty-three days of air strikes that proceded the American-led ground attack to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. In the bombardment of more than seven hundred sites in Iraq, U.S. forces targeted leadership facilities, weapons plants, air defense, military forces, and communications networks. The choice of these targets was justifiable; their losses would incapacitate the Iraqi army, recognized as an aggressor by the Unitd Nations. But the bombs, their targets multiplying at a dizzying pace as the war progressed, also wrecked bridges, railroads, oil refineries, and electrical plants.

A report made after the war by a public health team from Harvard University noted that of Iraq's 320 generating plants, thirteen were damaged or destroyed in the first days of bombing. By the war's end, only two were still functioning, generating 4 percent of Iraq's prewar output. That left many Iraqis without power for weeks, and without clean water and sewerage for far longer. With devastating speed, the crisis unleashed epidemics of typhoid and cholera. (Iraqis recalled vividly how the government got electricity up and running, at least partially, within two months. The contrast with the U.S. occupation in 2003 was a sharp one.)

The U.N. sanctions, which banned air travel to and from Iraq and barred exports from Iraq's oil reserves, worsened the people's nightmare, although American officials in Baghdad and elsewhere were always loath to mention the sanctions' devastating impact on innocent citizens. As long as they live, many Iraqis and others around the Arab world will recall the words of Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who, when asked about the horrible human toll of the sanctions, refused to back down. Was the price worth it? she was asked. "Yes, I think the price is worth it," she answered.

By the time the U.S. invasion, nearly thirteen years after sanctions were imposed, incomes had dropped to one-fifth of prewar levels, infant mortality had doubled, and only a minority of Iraqis had access to clean water. One-third of six-year-olds had dropped out of school. The adult literacy rate fell from nearly 90 percent during the war with Iran to 57 percent a decade after it was over. The United Nations said half of all sewage treatment plants were inoperable and another fourth were polluting the already fragile environment. In all, 500,000 tons of raw sewage werw spilling into the Tigris, the Euphrates, their canals, and other waterways each day. Growing numbers of Iraqis were showing symptoms of severe protein deficiency usually only seen in famines. The record at that time amounted to what the United Nations called "a semi-starvation diet for years."

This raises a question: what practical difference is there between attacking a nation with biological weapons and destroying water and sewage treatment plants? The latter result in widespread diseases like cholera as surely -- actually more so -- as if one had delivered the germs.

The above quote doesn't talk about the widespread US use of U-238 ammunition in the 1991 war, which beyond its immediate effect is toxic and radiological. Doesn't that constitute a chemical weapon? Worse than that, a chemical weapon with nuclear fallout.

The irony of Bush's preëmptive war doctrine is it rationalized an attack on Iraq for possibly sometime in the future threatening to do to the US what the US had already done to Iraq.

The extraordinary damage done by the US/UN sanctions was, of course, abetted by Saddam Hussein's regime, who allowed his people to feel the full brunt of war and sanctions. Like Madeleine Albright, he doesn't appear to have lost any sleep over it -- except to the extent that it caused him to worry about the threat of his own people. That threat might have been real, but it was one that he was able to manage. Given that the sanctions failed to undermine Saddam's regime, they must be judged a tactical failure as well as a crime against humanity.

The importance of the quote is that it helps establish a baseline perception that most Iraqis had of the US before Bush ordered his invasion and occupation, which in turn have made matters worse -- and this time no thanks to Saddam Hussein.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Recycled Goods #31: May 2006

Another month, another batch of Recycled Goods, posted up at Static Multimedia. Almost got jammed this time, having worked up to the last few days of April on Jazz Consumer Guide. Turns out that the word count this time is higher than any since January's 2005 recap. The feature on Adventure Music had been planned, but came in handy in that I was able to construct most of it from old notes files. One thing I forgot to mention there is how attractive the packaging and artwork are.

A couple of records this time are far from new. The Bruner box has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I finally felt like tackling it after listening to Bruner's part of the JSP Wetern Swing box, and figured it was worth reporting. The old Mott the Hoople compilation is still worth noting. I had already forgotten about the previously reviewed Greatest Hits, which might seem like a good idea but misses too many great ones from Mott and The Ballad of Mott. It only pays to be selective when you select right. One thing I had thought about reviewing but never got the records for is a complementary batch of Nina Simones on Verve. I wrote a rather indifferent request letter to Regina Joskow over there and never got a response. Too bad, but the Phillips Simones aren't all that much better than the RCAs -- just a bit more consistent, as far as I've been able to tell.

I feel like I'm thrashing a bit with this column these days. I have plenty of stuff to fill it, so I don't work hard at getting new items, then find myself not getting the ones I most want. World music continues to fit in awkwardly. This month has much more than the last few, and there's more on the shelf, but coverage seems to be very hit and miss. Same thing is true for rock and rap, and for that matter everything but jazz. Curiously, not much jazz this time, especially if you discount Adventure Music and Nina Simone, which some do. But that's partly because that's most of what I held back for next month.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Faux Fixes (What's a Idiot to Do?)

I've posted very little on political affairs lately, but only because I've been preoccupied with music. Now that Jazz CG and Recycled Goods are in their publishers' courts, I figure it's time to blow off a little steam.

One story I haven't weighed in on is Bush's ever-lower poll numbers. This shows that more and more ordinary Americans are wising up to the Bush con job. The good news here is that the rejection is so visceral that it's hard to imagine any sort of spin that might restore Bush's lost credibility. On the other hand, the so-called opposition party has yet to make anything out of the poll numbers. A good example of how brain-damaged Washington politicians can be was the news conference about FEMA held by Senators Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman. They claim to have studied the agency and its problems, and they've concluded that fixing FEMA is hopeless. The only thing that can be done is to close up FEMA and move its responsibilities, more or less, to a brand new agency. The network news media reported this event breathlessly, but they didn't dig into it deep enough to mention that one problem with FEMA is that it had been redirected after it was merged into the Homeland Security Department. Let alone that Lieberman and Collins were way out front in urging that we solve that nasty old terrorist threat problem by creating a Department of Homeland Security. Sounds crooked to me, like arsonists claiming that it wasn't their fault they burned a building down, because it had termites and would have fallen apart anyway.

Still, it's hard to be sure that Collins and Lieberman are the biggest idiots in Washington. Especially given the mind-boggling proposals and counterproposals to ameliorate the gas price crisis. I didn't have time to follow this closely, but last time I looked a bunch of Democrats, including Clinton and Schumer, wanted to suspend the federal gasoline tax -- 18.4 cents/gallon, dedicated to building roads, which they can't afford to do anyway given the price of asphalt -- while a bunch of Republicans, including Frist, wanted to help out by sending everyone a one-time check for $100, or a coupon for a free fill-up. There are bunches of problems with these proposals, but let's start with basics: both are one-shot, short-term acts, but high gas prices sure don't look like a problem that's going to go away any time soon. Looks like a chronic problem, one that will dog us more/less severely the rest of our days. So what happens after that $100 is gone? What happens when prices go up another 18.4 cents/gallon?

There's also been talk about a "windfall profits tax" -- seems like some politicians are old enough to remember the term from 1973, even though they don't seem to know what it means. The idea is pretty simple: If you own an oil well, you've already put in the investment to produce oil, so the oil you pump from that time forward produces a certain rate of profit. However, if world supply is artificially constricted, as it was in 1973, all of a sudden you can sell that same oil, which costs you the same to produce, for a lot more profit. You didn't do anything to profit more. You didn't even expect those profits when you drilled the well. So you're profits are a windfall, and the tax says you didn't earn all that benefit, and taxing you extra helps the public deal with the increased costs.

Exxon's profits are only partly windfall. They also come from price fixing, which they are able to do because other oil companies are unable or unwilling to compete. And why should they? As long as demand stays up and nobody rocks the boat, profit margins can hold, and everyone -- the oil companies, that is -- benefits.

These "solutions" aren't even the result of short-term thinking. They're the result of not thinking at all. Politicians spend so much time tinkering with taxes, or arguing about tinkering with taxes, that it's their reflexive answer to everything -- unless they can get away with a simple government reorganization. But these "solutions" aren't merely dumb. They can easily be shown to make their problems worse. Take FEMA, for example. There are several deep problems with FEMA, like we're not really clear on what it should be doing, and when it should do it, let alone how. Nonetheless, there is one overriding short-term problem with FEMA: George W. Bush. Fixing that problem is arguably the prerequisite for fixing any other FEMA problem. So what does reorganization -- abolishing the department and building a new one in its place -- do? Any reorganization of the federal government presents a ripe opportunity for the president to mold the organization to his own personal taste, which with Bush is to turn it into a dysfunctional cesspool of corruption. That's exactly what moving FEMA under the new Homeland Security umbrella did. Q.E.D.

Gas prices is a tougher problem to solve, and in the long run won't be solved: sooner or later we run out, except for whatever we can synthesize from growing plants. Prices go up as demand increases and/or supply restricts. The demand side of the problem is a double-edged sword: ironically, the easiest, most effective way to reduce demand is to artificially raise prices (i.e., gas taxes), which conflicts with the goal of cheaper prices. But any attempt to depress prices just encourages use and waste, in turn driving prices up. Less efficient ways like wrecking the economy have even more problems. In between, I suppose, would be schemes to enforce conservation, such as outlawing SUVs, or abandoning suburbia and moving into work camps. (Reimposing a 55 mph speed limit is a less malign but less effective idea along these lines.) So as long as you conceive of the problem as high prices, forget about the demand side. That leaves supply: how do we get more oil? In the long run that's hopeless too, but there is a fairly simple short-term fix, good for a few years anyway. That would be for the US to get the hell out of Iraq, let the Iraqis sort out their problems (made so much worse by Bush's invasion and occupation) and put their oil back on the market. Also, forget about sanctions and war with Iran, which would only make the situation worse. And shut all those US tanks and bombers down -- you think SUVs are gas guzzlers? Try filling those babies up!

But the dumbest thing about the whole gas price crisis is that the price of gas is the least of the problems we have with the stuff. There's pollution. There's worldwide climate change. And there's subsidizing oil gazillionaires, who all around the world have proven to be political disasters. But on the plus side, oil gives FEMA something to do. Too bad it don't know how.

Apr 2006 Jun 2006