Thursday, April 18, 2019

We spent several hours today reading through the newly-released Mueller report.  There's a lot to take in, but one of our favorite passages reads:
"when [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, 'Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm fucked.' The President became angry and lambasted the Attorney General for his decision to recuse from the investigation, stating, 'How could you let this happen, Jeff?' The President said the position of Attorney General was his most important appointment and that Sessions had 'let [him] down,' contrasting him to Eric Holder and Robert Kennedy. Sessions recalled that the President said to him, 'you were supposed to protect me,' or words to that effect. The President returned to the consequences of the appointment and said, 'Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won't be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.'  
The President then told Sessions he should resign as Attorney General. Sessions agreed to submit his resignation and left the Oval Office. [Communications advisor Hope] Hicks saw the President shortly after Sessions departed and described the President as being extremely upset by the Special Counsel's appointment. Hicks said that she had only seen the President like that one other time, when the Access Hollywood tape came out during the campaign."
Beyond just describing embarrassing anecdotes documenting the President's small-minded egomania and limited understanding of how government works, the report documents several episodes of Presidential behavior that the Special Counsel considers as potential obstructions of justice, including:

  • The President's efforts to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
  • The President's firing of former FBI director James Comey.
  • The Presidents's efforts to assume oversight of the Mueller investigation.
  • The President’s order to the White House counsel to deny that the President had tried to fire Mueller.
  • The President’s conduct with regard to several associates who have pleaded guilty to crimes.

The Mueller report notes, “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”  They didn't so state, but the report does not recommend prosecution of the President by the Department of Justice, either.  Instead, it notes that Congress might do so, stating, “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law."

So, far from being a "complete exoneration" of the President from any wrong-doing, the Mueller report is a challenge to Congress to live up to their vows and preserve and protect the Constitution.  

Will Congress rise to the occasion?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

As we said the other day, we human beings tend to react most forcibly when confronted by threats that are direct and personal.  So while it's easy to maintain our stoic Zen composure when confronted by long hold times on the telephone or traffic delays, it's another thing when our boss decides for whatever reason that today would be a good day to start an argument, and when we resist getting pulled into whatever it was that he was not happy with today, he brings up his impression of some event from at least two years ago and throws that at us to see if that gets a rise out of us.

It did.  But fortunately, before our sympathetic nervous system took over and we lashed back, we were saved by the bell - literally.  Our cell phone went off, and the boss said, "Fine, go take that call," which we did, walking out of his office and the provocation that he left out there.  It was a robo-sales call but we listened to it long enough to walk away from the situation and regather our composure before getting on with the rest of the day.  The boss sulked in his office for the rest of the afternoon.

God, we can't wait until retirement, if for no other reason than to get out of this toxic environment.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Zen and the Art of Retirement

All of our life, at least so far, at least since the early 1980s, we've worked for a living with little time left over to appreciate our presence here on this blue planet.  In consulting, we've even managed to monetize our time - consulting is sometimes derogatorily referred to as "brains by the hour" - so from there it was only a short distance to the point where we were willing to pay others to do things that freed up our time and gave us more hours.  Time was money, and there was an inverse relationship between income and free time.  The more we  worked, the more money we had, but the more money we had, the less time we had to enjoy it.

What's more, knowing that free time was our scarcest commodity, but that we were reasonably assured of a steady income and a lifetime flow of future paychecks, we had no problem with buying an airline ticket, non-stop please, instead of driving, with paying landscapers and house-cleaners to do our routine menial chores, and with buying or paying for anything that would save us some precious time.

In retirement, the situation is going to be the polar opposite.  Our income will be fixed and we will have finite savings on which to survive.  But we will have all day to do whatever needs getting done, all week, all month, all year if need be.  What we're afraid of is having nothing to do, of boredom, and of falling into lethargy or depression.  So it will be in our interest to do things that fill time and at the same time doing things that will save us money.  Rake or blow our own leaves.  Clean our own damn house.  Drive instead of fly places.  Instead of annoying us, things that will take up a lot of time will keep us from having nothing to do, and may keep us from squandering our savings.  

Once we realized this, our mindset changed instantly.  No, we're not young and we don't have an infinite number of years ahead of us, but we will have all the time in the world to do all the things that need to be done in this world.  No need to rush.   And this new way of looking at life doesn't need to wait until retirement but can start right now.  This very moment.  We have to go to work today?  Good.  That's something to do, and bonus points: we'll get some extra income for the effort.  Traffic on the way home?  No problem - we have nowhere else to be, might as well turn up the music and enjoy the leisurely pace of driving.  

Yesterday, we had to call the U.S. Social Security Administration because the on-line Medicare enrollment locked us out when we couldn't identify a telephone number from 15 years ago.  As we were warned, we were on hold for over an hour before we got through to someone, and then had to go back on hold again and again as that someone tried to resolve our issue.  The long and the short of it is that we now have an appointment for a second telephone interview in mid-May - the first call turned out to be just a set-up for an interview with someone else to prove we really are who we say we are.  

Before our time/money realization, this would have infuriated us.  "What? We don't have time for this!"  However, now we do have the time, in fact, it's something that will fill a few of those hours of some later day, so we should be thankful.  What's more, our study of Stoicism shows us that we needn't worry about things that are outside of our control, and all that we can really control is our own reaction to things.  It's our choice whether to be infuriated, outraged, and angry about the god-damned government and their incompetent bureaucracy, or to calmly accept that this is the path ahead of us and then calmly walk that path, without beating ourselves up over it and stressing out about things we can't change anyway.  We were particularly calm and, well, Zen, during our pre-appointment telephone interview yesterday and the person on the other end of the phone (and we do need to remember that it is, in fact, a person on the other end, with their own life and problems, sorrows and disappointments, joys and achievements) even mentioned how much they appreciated our patience and understanding.  

We're looking forward to retirement - it's already making us better persons.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Nels Cline/Gerald Cleaver/Larry Ochs Trio at The Bakery, Atlanta

Two shows in two nights (thankfully, it was on a weekend!).  This evening, it wasn't the ever-reliable Earl but a show at the Atlanta alternative, D.I.Y. venue, The Bakery (where we saw Lonnie Holley and Mary Lattimore last year).

The show opened with an Atlanta outfit called Outside Voices, a clever name as they played "outsider" free jazz and also because they played loud, using their "outside voices."  Normally a trio, the band expanded for this performance with an upright bassist, who added a lot to the set.

Theirs was an improv jam session with each musician playing their own thing, but unlike, say, the Aurora Nealand-Tim Berne-David Torn-Bill Frisell band Absînt, the sounds blended well together into one coherent whole, rather than just sounding like four people noodling along at the same time. There was dynamism to the set, louder at times, loud, but not quite as loud, at others.  It was a fun set and a good way to start the show, and I'm glad that Atlanta has resident bands like this playing this kind of music.

Nels Cline is an incredible guitarist.  In thinking about what makes a guitarist "incredible," we came up with another one of our crackpot theories (no, we're not going to bore you with veridical vs. sequential again, other than to say that this entire show was 100% sequential).  Guitarists, we propose, can distinguish themselves in one of two ways.  Some distinguish themselves by their lyricism, their ability to carry and create melody, and especially in jazz, to improvise and compose on the fly, basically creating a pleasing song as they go along.  Think Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Jerry Garcia, even Frank Zappa.  Other guitarists are more into the sound than the melody, and distinguish themselves by their inventiveness, playing the guitar in new and different ways, coaxing new sounds out of their equipment with novel or unusual methods.  Think Arto Lindsey and Pete Cosey (Miles Davis' electric band), and Robert Fripp and Johnny Greenwood.  The reason that Jimi Hendrix is so universally respected, even all these decades later, is that he was both lyrical (his guitar sang) and inventive (it sang in voices never heard before).

Nels Cline falls into the inventive category, and can arguably be called the most inventive guitarist playing today.  The man truly belongs in the guitar god pantheon.  His playing last night incorporated about every device imaginable - slides, pedals, repeaters, feedback, fretboard play, etc. He constantly was doing something new and something interesting, and it always sounded good and spot on for that moment. It was a Masters' dissertation on guitar inventiveness and on the ways his instrument can adapt to a free jazz format.

Saxophonist Larry Ochs brought the lyricism, and his playing was every bit as good in its way as Cline's was in its.  Ochs is best knows as a member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and while he might look like Larry David if David dropped a lot of acid, he channeled Albert Ayler, Sonny Shepp, and even John Coltrane himself in his playing.  Unfortunately, the nature of their compositions usually had Ochs' solos fading off into a Nels Cline passage, and Ochs didn't get nearly as much applause for his playing than did Cline, but Ochs more than held his own.  It takes a certain selfless humility to end your solo by yielding to the other rather than grandstanding for effect, and it seems that what Ochs did much of the evening.

But this was a trio, and member Gerald Cleaver was no slouch on drums.  There was no bass and most of the set was basically just an electric guitar over drums or a saxophone over drums with occasional full ensemble play, and Cleaver ably kept the beat going and provided percussive comments on both player's music.  The cool thing was he made it look easy, even when both soloists ganged up on him with aggressive free playing at the same time.  Cleaver just sat there, not missing a beat and effortlessly tied it all together with his drumming.  On some of the quieter passages, he didn't "drum" so much as coax odd sounds out of his kit with rim shots, cymbal effects, and brush work.  Cleaver may have taken a back seat, both literally and figuratively, to his bandmates, but he was every bit their equal musically.  Listen to how he adapts his drumming to match the changes in Och's solo, giving Ochs some room to breathe as he tapped the keys on his sax:

So,  yes, as you can tell, we enjoyed the show.  It was a wonderful way to end the weekend, and we were even able to get home in time to catch the encore presentation of the season opener of Game of Thrones.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Strand of Oaks, Tyler Ramsey at The Earl, April 13, 2019

So, a quick word of explanation before anyone jumps to a wrong conclusion: last night, we went to see Tyler Ramsey and Strand of Oaks at The Earl, but once there realized we left our iPhone in the car.  Pics or it didn't happen, as they say, but in this case it did happen but we just weren't able to get any pics.  Which is a shame, because per usual, we were in the front row and, unusually, The Earl had the stage lit pretty brightly, so the pics would have come out great.  So instead, we will randomly post pictures from something called the Equatorial Guinea Bodypainting Festival without any additional explanation.

Getting to it, then, there were only two bands on the bill and the opener was singer/songwriter Tyler Ramsey, best known as the frontman for Band of Horses.

Ramsey, as they say, is a tall drink of water and a commanding presence on stage.  This worked to his advantage as he performed solo, just him and a few of his favorite guitars.  This was a classic "folk" singer/songwriter set and relied on the audience to pay attention to his lyrics and guitar picking.  His imposing presence on stage worked well for him in this regard, as he was hard to ignore (although as always at The Earl, a group of people back near the bar seemed oblivious that they were at a live music performance as they talked away loudly).

We're not big fans of this kind of singer/songwriter set, and even less so of folk singers performing songs with which we aren't familiar (most of Ramsey's set was from his new solo LP).  We thought about it during his set, and before you roll your eyes at us going into another discussion of veridinal vs. sequential processing of music, hear us out: we enjoy folk singers (Damien Jurado comes to mind) when we're familiar with their music - that's when the veridinal system can kick in.  But if we don't know the songs and don't experience that veridinal kick of endorphins when we recognize songs that we know, the folksy music of singer/songwriters is just too austere and simple, just the strumming and picking of guitar strings, for the sequential system to identify some theretofore unrecognized sequence of sounds and recognize it as music and release it's endorphins.  So we're left there, sans serotonin.  It's not that the music's bad or unpleasant, it's just that we don't get that "kick" that we go to music to experience.

Still, kudos to Tyler Ramsey - the songs were well written, he's a good guitarist, and he has a fine voice.  Those paying attention and familiar with his LP seemed to really enjoy the set.

After a short intermission, Strand of Oaks took the stage.

Strand of Oaks is the long-time vehicle for Timothy Showalter's music.  The "band," such as it is, was usually just Showalter with possibly a few other musicians recruited to add some textures and shading to his songs.  But classic Strand of Oaks albums, like the cult classic Pope Killdragon, were basically folk-rock affairs, with an inclination toward the folk side.

But times change and musicians change, and musicians change with the times and the times change with musicians, and Timothy Showalter and Strand of Oaks are no exceptions.  The newest Strand of Oaks album, Eraserland, features a full-on rock band performing full-fledged rock songs.  It's a dramatic departure for Showalter, but he manages, at least on record, to maintain his Strand of Oaks identity and signature sound.

The live show is to the new record what the new record is to the older records.  This was full-on southern rock, occasionally veering into blues-rock territory.  Showalter was clearly having a great time, smiling throughout the whole set, even during what seemed like sad songs, and the enthusiastic audience loved it, dancing the whole time, fist-pumping and finger-pointing in the air.  It was a great back-and-forth exchange of energy between audience and performer, each pushing the other onto greater heights. Pope Killdragon himself would have been proud to see where Showalter has taken his band of merry men.

We weren't familiar with the new songs (no veridinal endorphins) and the music, while orders of magnitude more dynamic than Tyler Ramey's, was still pretty straight-forward, anthemic, arena-sized rock, so while there were some sequential releases, the mind only released the endorphins in drips and drops, virtually titrating the serotonin to our neural receptors.  To be honest, the best part of the show was the very enjoyable experience of watching Showalter work the sold-out crowd at The Earl into a frenzy, and to see the frenzy if the crowd in turn push Showalter into Springsteen territory (the distance between Eraserland and E Street is not as far as one might think). 

Showalter sincerely thanked the audience for their support, attention and enthusiasm, high-fiving the crowd and even hugging some of the more enthusiastic patrons in the front row.  He even thanked the City of Atlanta on Twitter for our support and enthusiasm, and posted the set list.

This was a fun way to spend a Saturday night, and even if the music wasn't completely to our taste it was still a good show and an interesting experience.  Showalter seems destined to take his music into bigger clubs and venues than the little old Earl, and with the band and showmanship there's no reason not to imagine Strand of Oaks headlining festivals or filling arenas in the not-distant future.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Bodhidharma, Superstar

Courtesy Giovanni Boccardi (

There's a Zen koan that asks, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?"  As most Buddhists know, certainly Mahayana Buddhists and even more specifically Chan and Zen Buddhists, the monk Bodhidharma traveled from India to China sometime around 500 A.D. and is credited with introducing the "authentic" teachings of the Buddha to the Far East.

But to ask "why" is to try and interpret motive or intention, which can only be known to the one taking an action, any action, including travelling from India to China.  As we understand the koan, there is no "correct" answer and the monk passes the koan when he convinces the teacher that he understands that some things are unknowable and therefore not of value for further inquiry (we could be wrong, though).  Some things are just the way they are.

Our favorite story concerning this koan involves Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder and the other beat poets asking the question to various patrons of the bar in which they were hanging out.  When they asked the dishwasher and he immediately retorted, "I don't care," they decided that was the best answer.

But regardless of his intention, legend has it that Bodhidharma travelled from India to China, and one small detail of the story, really not much more than a footnote, states that he travelled by sea, not the overland Silk Road route, and that the journey took him three years to complete.

We're not sure what the sea-speed velocity of Indian boats was in 500 A.D. (we don't even know what Indian boats looked like in 500 A.D.), but three years seems like a long time.  Did they get lost?  Were they shipwrecked?  Kidnapped by pirates?  Or did they just have fun adventures exploring the Southeast Asia shoreline and took their own sweet time travelling, with occasional forays onto islands and the mainline to hunt, obtain provisions, interact with natives, and so on.  The legends don't tell us anything about the voyage, other than it was by sea and that it took three years.

We think there's a great, epic novel in there - The Adventures of Bodhidharma On the Indian Ocean or something. It's fun to think of it as a graphic novel, or an HBO mini-series.  It could also make a great video game - Bodhidharma, in addition to bringing the dharma to China, is also credited with inventing kung fu during his stay at Shaolin Monastery, and the game could allow one to acquire different kung fu skills and levels of mastery by completing different tasks during the journey.  You can also write it such that you can also develop a parallel set of spiritual skills, we'll call them the Six Paramitas, by doing good deeds and helping others and by refraining from violence at times.  That could set up some interesting strategic choices for the player - do you kill the tiger and complete a kung fu level, or do you free it and finally master the Paramita of Not Killing?

But other than those broad-brushstroke ideas, we're really hampered on how to write the book (much less the other spin-offs) by our complete and utter lack of any idea of what sea travel was like in the Sixth Century.  What were the boats like?  How long could they be at sea before they'd have to land for provisions?  Did they collect rain for drinking water?  Would a single ship travel alone, or did they travel in convoys?  We couldn't find many resources online to answer our questions.

So imagine our delight when yesterday we came across a rather obscure, 1896 manuscript titled Buddhist Practices In India.  The manuscript is a scholarly translation of a Seventh Century manuscript written by a Chinese monk named I-tsing, who, enthused about the buddhadharma, decided to make a pilgrimage from China to India to visit the holy sites in person and experience the teachings from the source itself.  Most of the book, as the title implies, contains I-tsing's notes on just how Buddhism was practiced in India (and therefore how it should be practiced in China),  There are instructions on ceremonies and clothing, meals and the duties of officers, chants and mantras, and even a chapter on how to maintain personal hygiene and how to properly use the lavatory.  In many regards, it resembles portions of Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, and it's worth noting that in the 14th Century, like I-tsing, Dogen was also motivated to make a westward journey, this time from Japan to China, to learn about Buddhism from an "authentic"  source.

But what really interests us in I-tsing's manuscript is that it includes a detailed description of his voyages, including details on the ship in which he traveled, the route, the number of days between stops, meetings with people in what is now called Sumatra and Malaysia, and encounters with aboriginal people on remote Indian Ocean islands (including the Insulae Nudorum, or Land of the Naked People) and with bandits on mainland India. It's hardly a swashbuckler, but it's not hard to imagine it as one.  And even though I-tsing's journey was a century after Bodhidharma's and in the opposite direction (for the most part - I-tsing not only also describes his return voyage back home from India, but he apparently had to leave Sumatra in haste on his return and he describes a second voyage back to Sumatra to retrieve the manuscripts he had left behind), it seems reasonable to assume that Bodhidharma's voyage was probably very similar.

The account of the journey is a relatively short portion of the overall book, just a half-dozen or so pages in the introduction, but it's very detailed and precise.  For example, to answer our earlier questions, we now know that the ship was a Persian merchant boat, it had two masts (either with five sails each or one sail per mast each stitched from five sheets), and over 100 fathoms of rope and rigging.  Based on all that, it seems most likely that the ship was a baghlah (Arabic for "mule"), which were roughly 100 feet long and required a crew of 30 to 40 sailors to sail.  That not only fills in a lot of the data gaps, but also can fuel a lot of speculative fiction right there.

We think we have enough to go on now to start a novel, if not The Adventures of Bodhidharma On the Indian Ocean, then Bodhidharma's Voyage From the West, or maybe simply just Bodhi.  And with our retirement imminent, we actually for once, maybe for the first time in our adult life, have the time to actually write it.  

Please don't steal our idea and publish the story before we can write it - we know we can trust everyone on the internet to keep quiet about this and keep it our little secret. Besides, we've already laid out the premise here, so this post would serve as evidence of plagiarism were someone to come along and try to beat us to the punch.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Unpacking Big Ears, Part VII: The Masters

We need to get things moving in this Unpacking series - we're already up to Part VII and have only covered the first day and a half of Big Ears 2019.  Considering that The Masters golf tournament is going on as we type, and considering that it's Friday, the day formerly set aside for our Dreaming of the Masters posts, it seems appropriate to cover all of the Masters that we saw and heard in Knoxville in one big post.

We established in our last post that while an exciting and creative performer, Shabaka Hutchings' music isn't jazz but a mixture of rock and EDM played on a saxophone.  This brings up the question, though - what is jazz? - and the next band we saw after Hutchings' The Comet Is Coming was a new quartet that debuted at the festival, but not only did they not answer the question but they blurred the lines defining jazz even more.

ABSÎNT (Aurora Nealand, Bill Frisell, Tim Berne and David Torn)

Just like with the Japanese bands that we heard on Thursday, we had absolutely no idea what to expect from Absînt until they played the first notes of the first song of their set.  This was a jazz supergroup of sorts - renowned and eclectic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, avant outsider musicians David Torn (guitar) and Tim Berne (sax), and New Orleans provocateur Aurora Nealand.  Each has their own style and as soon as they started, we realized that each was going to play in that own style of theirs, without regard for the others.  In other words, the two guitarists were improvising away without any apparent attempt to sync with the other, Tim Berne was laying atonal sax screeches and skronk over, under, and around the two guitars, and Aurora Nealand was doing whatever it was that she was doing, which we couldn't tell because she sat on the floor for the entire performance and given that we arrived late and were at the back of the standing crowd, we couldn't see what it was that she was doing.  With no drummer or bass to provide rhythm, the music just honked and beeped in seeming random time.

This was as free as "free jazz" gets, without any constraint by melody, rhythm, tone, mode, structure, or anything.  Just four musicians, randomly playing random sounds, all independently of the others. This is nothing new to jazz - The Art Ensemble of Chicago has been doing this for decades.   The entire set was one long improvisation - without structure or composition, there was no way for a "song" to start or stop, so the performers just kept jamming until the time ran out.

To be honest, it got tiring after  a while.  We've talked about the mind's sequential and the veridical modes of processing music before (the veridical enjoys hearing what's familiar and known, and the sequential likes finding the patterns in sound that makes it "music").  But there was nothing familiar played for the veridical to groove on, and the sequential got frustrated in trying to find anything that could be followed in the set.  With neither system firing, the set became something to endure more than something to enjoy.

The initial audience was a full house - the place was packed - mostly by what we assume were Bill Frisell fans.  Frisell played a lot of sets at this year's Big Ears with a lot of different ensembles, and unfortunately this is the only one we caught, but we were told the rooms were packed at every set he played.  However, this kind of dissonant free jazz is not what Frisell is known for or what his audience expected to see, and many of them walked out throughout the set.  At the beginning of the set, we were all the way in the back, but as the audience thinned out we were able to move our way  up, and by the end of the set, we were like three rows of standing people back.  Still couldn't see Aurora, though.

For what it's worth, Bill Frisell looked lost for much of the set, meekly strumming a single chord over and over while everyone else was improving all around him.  It appeared like he was looking for a point to jump in and do something, anything, but couldn't find a seam in the wall of sound being produced by the others.

So, was this jazz?  If we used the definition that we applied to Shabaka Hutchings - improvised music to a syncopated beat - it wasn't; there was no beat at all, much less syncopated (although there was mucho improv).  Yet, we still consider this jazz, at least the outer fringes of free jazz, even though it doesn't meet our definition of the word "jazz," but we don't consider Shabaka Hutchings' music to be jazz. Why the double standard?  Our only guess is that with some effort we can fit Shabaka's music into other categories, "rock" or "EDM," but we have nowhere else to put Absînt, so we might as well leave it under "jazz."

But who needs labels anyway?


Later that day, after hearing the vocal chorale Roomful of Teeth and a couple  of electronic artists (more about all of them in a later post), we saw Matts Gustafsson's band, Fire!  Gustafsson's set at last year's Big Ears with the electronic musician Four Tet was not only the highlight of that festival, it was one of the best sets of live music we've ever experienced.  There was no way we were going to miss this set, even if it did start at midnight at the end of a very long day of music.

We were not disappointed.  Gustafsson's playing was just as energetic and just as exciting as last year's set, and while nothing may ever top that collab with Four Tet, this year's set with Fire! left one wanting nothing.  For an idea of what it was like, imagine being sung a lullaby by a bull elephant that can periodically go into full must at random moments.  Here, let us show you:

The set was an uplifting and almost spiritual experience, a cathartic release not unlike screaming into gale-force winds. At the end of the 60-minute set, the audience was all smiles and bro-hugs, all of us having experienced a communal release of pure endorphins.

Is it jazz or not?  Who cares?  At one point, Gustafsson referred to it on stage as "this Swedish bullshit music," so apparently he's not hung up on labels.

Wadada Leo Smith

Among his many other accomplishments, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith recorded an album in 1978 called Divine  Love with one of the greatest trumpet triumvirates ever assembled - Kenny Wheeler, the Art Ensemble's Lester Bowie, and Wadada himself.  Bowie and Wheeler have since passed, but at Big Ears, Wadada attempted to perform the album with surviving members Bobby Naughton on vibraphone and Dwight Andrews on woodwinds.

"Attempted."  Something clearly went wrong with the performance.  The trio started off playing some abstract but still accessible free jazz, but Wadada's single trumpet couldn't play all the parts for the three trumpets on the LP.  At one point, it seemed he wanted to explain something to the audience, but none of the microphones on stage worked, so he just quit trying.  A little later, a tape kicked on of the other two trumpeters dueting, but the trio on stage just stood there doing nothing while the tape played.  We think (but we don't know) that the intended concept was for the trio to play on stage to the accompaniment of the session tapes of the other two trumpeters, but the tapes didn't come on when they were supposed to, and then later came on when no one on stage expected them.  After about 20 minutes and with no explanation or even a "goodbye,"  the band simply walked off stage and the house lights came on.  Show's over, folks.  Have a good night.

We don't blame Wadada for the set.  We think (but again we don't know) that some off-stage technician was supposed to switch on the tape at the appropriate point in the song, which would have been way cool - a live band of seasoned Masters playing on stage along with the taped performances of their departed brothers.  But the tech was either unfamiliar with the music or simply didn't recognize the cue in the free jazz of the first set, and threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing.  Wadada wanted to explain what was wrong but couldn't find a working mic, and finally the band left in frustration - the magic just wasn't happening for them that night.  Bummer.

Here's what it could have/should have sounded like:

Well, we were planning of discussing three other Master's sets in this post, but this whole thing is rambling on longer than we anticipated and probably past your patience to read.   We'll wrap it up here and talk about Masters old (Carla Bley), new (Makaya McCraven) and in between (Nik Bärtsch) in another post at another time.

There's nothing we can do about it - this is all going to take a while.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

We weren't upset this morning when we heard that Julian Assange has been arrested.  He should be arrested - he stands accused of a crime, and he should be given a fair trial to determine if he's guilty or innocent of the charges, and if found guilty, a judge and jury should decide what - if any - degree of punishment he should receive.

It doesn't matter what the prevailing public opinion is on this matter, or what the press has to say.  If Wikileaks has redeeming social value that justifies the crimes Mr. Assange stands accused of, the judge and jury should take that into consideration.  He could be found innocent.  He could be found guilty but given no or a very light sentence.  He could be found guilty and have the book thrown at him and never see the outside of a prison cell again.  But it's up to the judicial process to decide all that - not Op Ed writers, not the Gallup poll, not the word on the street. His treatment should be decided by a jury of his peers, by the governmental democratic justice system.

Meanwhile, our rare endorsement of the government is tempered by the bureaucratic frustration we experienced today.  It's that time in our life when we have to apply for Medicare.  We went on line today to enroll, guided by a professional insurance consultant to help us with our decisions.  We entered our data to enroll - name, Social Security number, and address - selected a screen name and a password, and then were asked some personal questions to verify our identity.  How much is our mortgage payment?  What company holds that mortgage? And so on.  But then came the gotcha question:  "Which of the following is a former telephone number of yours?"

We've had the same cell phone number for at least the last 20 years, probably longer.  We haven't had a landline since at least 2004, and don't remember what that number might have been.  What's more, back in the days of dial-up modems, we had telephone numbers dedicated solely to our vintage computers, numbers assigned to us that were never even connected to a telephone.  And we don't remember the number of any of them.  The online form for Medicare enrollment listed three numbers, none of which rang a bell, and a fourth option, "None of the Above." Since we didn't recognize any of the numbers, we went with "None of the Above."

We immediately got booted out of the system, with a warning message saying that our account was locked down because we were unable to verify our identity.  

The insurance consultant, our counselor, told us that we would have to enroll by mail, and that he would email us a form that we would have to submit by good old U.S. Mail.  But then he called back a few minutes later and said that there was in fact no form for our situation, and that we would have to either enroll by phone ("be prepared to be on hold for long periods") or we'd have to go to the Social Security Administration office building and enroll in person ("best to set aside a whole day for the process").  

Neither option sounds very appealing.  What's frustrating is that we're going to have to go through the slow-boat bureaucratic process simply because we don't recognize an unused telephone number from 20 years ago or because the website designer didn't think of giving the user the option of saying "Don't know - ask another question."

But here's the thing - how come the government knows our telephone number from 20 years ago? And our mortgage payment?  And our mortgage holder?  Okay, they could get the mortgage holder from our income tax returns, but we never reported the actual monthly mortgage payments, just the annual interest paid.  How do they know all that, and much more do they know about us?  Our favorite of the "and so on" questions mentioned above (at this point, I think they were just showing off how much they knew about us) was, "Our records show that you paid off your current car in 2013.  Which of the following companies had financed the loan?"  Does the government know how many miles are on the car?  Do they know about our blow-out flat tire from earlier this year?  Do they know our cats names?  The time of our last bowel movement?

Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks, et al have a point - we do in fact live in a surveillance state.  And the government doesn't always use that surveillance data discretely - today, they used it to deny us enrollment in Medicare.

Free Julian Assange!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

From The National Affairs Desk

At one time or another, so-called "President" Dumbledorf Pumpernickel has attacked or insulted former President Barack Obama, U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters and Frederica Wilson, gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, CNN correspondents Don Lemon, Abby Phillip, and April Ryan, NBA superstar Lebron James and ESPN journalist Jemele Hill,  and even his own former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.  Among other qualities, all of these are persons of color, and Pumpernickel's insults used the old, tired racist slurs and stereotypes ("low IQ," "dumb," and "dogs").

Recently, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Abdullahi Omar (D., MN), long a target of the right, declared that Trump advisor Stephen Miller was a white nationalist based on his immigration policies and the right went wild. Republican critics of Omar, including the President's son, Dumbledorf Jr., viewed the congresswoman's attack against Miller, who is Jewish, as anti-Semitic.

So if you claim a person is anti-Semitic because they criticize someone who happens to be Jewish, even though they didn't use any of the familiar anti-Semitic tropes in that criticism, what do you call a person who routinely and systematically insults and attacks persons of color?

A racist.  You call that person a racist.  

Dumbledorf Pumpernickel is a racist.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Unpacking Big Ears, Part VI: The Shabaka Sets

English tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is being widely hailed as the next big thing in jazz.  In a recent New York Times review, Giovanni Russonello wrote, "Now more than ever, the easiest answer to that pesky question - what’s keeping jazz vital these days? - appears to lie in London. And much of the serious activity there runs through Shabaka Hutchings."  The young (33-year-old) musician anchors a handful of his own bands, and their LP Your Queen Is A Reptile by his Sons of Kemet was released on the prestigious Impulse! label, the former home of Coltrane and Pharoah, Mingus and McCoy, Oliver Nelson and Sonny Rollins. Jazz cred doesn't get much better than that.

Shabaka brought two of his groups to Big Ears this year, and we took the time to check them both out.  Both of them are built, as critic Jon Parales described it in his review of the festival, around Shabaka's "fat-toned, indefatigable tenor."  Sons of Kemet, who played Saturday night, is a quartet: Shabaka, two drummers, and a tuba player.  

That set was muscular enough according to Parales, but the previous night's set by The Comet Is Coming - Hutchings, a drummer, and a keyboardist - "was so forceful it set off a mosh pit."  NPR Music described The Comet Is Coming's sound as "astonishing music that blends jazz and electronics in thrilling new ways," and as "spaced-out, sonic premonitions of apocalyptic doom."  Their recent LP is called Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery ("we were going for brevity," joked The Comet's keyboardist Friday night).  According to NPR Music, that record could serve as the soundtrack if "a Salvador Dali zombie-scape came to life."

We can't deny that both sets weren't exciting and propulsive, and Shabaka can achieve a force-of-nature wail with wall-of sound proportions, but we can hardly categorize the music as "jazz."  Jazz can scarcely even be defined anymore, but if you go back to the old "improvised music over a syncopated beat" definition, then Shabaka certainly isn't that.  His playing relies much more on repetition than improvisation, the same riff repeated over and over with varying degrees of intensity, and the pounding four-on-the-floor  dancehall beats of his bands are hardly syncopated.  "He allows himself an extended solo now and then, but most of the time he pumps out short, hard riffs, all sinew and drive," Parales notes in the Times.  The beats are "derived from dance music and - his far-from-secret resource - carnival rhythms (he has Barbadian roots)."

Not that not being jazz automatically disqualifies music from being enjoyable.  There's lot and lots of music we like and that we like a lot that nobody would ever call "jazz."  But if critics and the media are going to anoint Shabaka as the future of jazz or the force keeping it vital, there's going to be problems down the line.  Instead of exploring new possibilities with his music and opening up new modes of expression, Shabaka limits the modes to his "short, hard riffs" repeated over and over. Instead of leading jazz to new horizons, Shabaka seems to be shackling it to jump blues, early R&B, and EDM.  This circular process does nothing to enhance jazz and doesn't even provide fans of jump blues, early R&B, and EDM anything new to appreciate, but instead simply redirects them back to what they were already listening to anyway.

We know, we know - we're sounding like old discontents, like the same people who tore into Miles for On The Corner or that booed Bob Dylan at Newport.  So we will say that on a positive note, we met several young listeners, almost all men, at Shabaka's Big Ears sets who had no previous interest in or exposure to jazz music, or anything avant-garde or experimental at all, but who were awed and impressed by his bands, and who did stay around to hear and enjoy the other diverse sounds, including jazz, at Big Ears.  So if Shabaka can serve as a gateway band for these new-found fans, the way that early jazz fusion bands like Mahavishnu and Weather Report did in the '70s for a previous generation, then maybe the music might benefit after all, and that's most definitely a good thing. Maybe jazz does need a rock star after all.

Monday, April 08, 2019

From The Green Desk

As a species, we humans have evolved in such a way that we react to threats that are direct, imminent, and personal, and to generally ignore those that aren't.

Our cave-man mind knows to run when we a bear charging at us (direct threats), to jump out of the way when a tree is falling toward us (imminent threats), and to pay attention when the dweller in the next cave points at us and says "I'm drinking your milkshake" or whatever (personal threats).

Climate change is not direct (we don't see it coming), it's not imminent (it's glacially slow, literally), and it is far from direct (it threatens the entire ecosystem, not just us).  Therefore, our sympathetic nervous system doesn't react and we tend to ignore the problem.

Dr. Sanjayan is right - guilt trips and non-specific threats won't turn the tide of public opinion.  His solutions-oriented approach is interesting, but what if there were a way to make the problem direct, imminent, and personal?  To say "Climate change is going to cause the Storm of the Century to destroy your home tomorrow" may not be scientifically correct, even to those on the coast about to be hit by a hurricane, but will it get our attention?  Will it cause us to act?