Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dafnis Prieto Si o Si Quartet, Stanford Jazz Workshop

I went not sure what to expect, figuring a Cuban drummer with a couple more Cuban guys in the quartet was going to play Afro-Cuban jazz, but also noting that he has been Henry Threadgill's drummer of choice on a couple of occasions, so anything goes. The Latin element was in there, but for the most part it was edgy modern jazz, sometimes with an identifiable beat, which was 7 as often as 4, sometimes just a tight free-jazz pulse. Complex composed passages. The rest of the band is first rate, especially Manuel Valera on piano, who has Keith Jarrett's way with angular solo lines (the rest: Peter Apfelbaum, tenor sax; Armando Gola, bass).

Criticism? Too much drum! Prieto is awe-inspiring, and he plays with the band, not against it, but he's so clever and busy (and loud in a small space) that one is easily distracted. Not an unpleasant distraction, mind you...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Carnatic Jazz

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen (2008) is the most exciting jazz album I have acquired in some time. I'm not a big fan of eclecticism and too-clever cultural fusions, so my expectations were not high, despite the rave reviews. Expectations overturned big time. To call it "Indo-jazz fusion" doesn't really do it justice. The highlight here is the interplay between the improvisations of the two alto saxophonists, Mahanthappa and Kadri Gopalnath, the former a jazz player in the contemporary New York vein, the latter not a jazz musician at all but an interpreter of South Indian Carnatic music. Gopalnath's energy and off-kilter tonalities bounce off Mahanthappa's cool virtuosity, backed up by a stellar blended rhythm section. Everyone is probing, exploring, learning. You, the eager listener, will do the same.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Well, I never thought he was the greatest, but he may well have been the weirdest, and he recorded some great songs in his prime. Most people seem to think Thriller is the pinnacle, but I kind of prefer Off the Wall, at least the propulsively funky side 1. He was a few months younger than me... strange.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Wire

Finally finished the fifth and final season on DVD. Was it the best TV series of all time? Certainly a contender, in my mind. What I particularly appreciated was the relentless efficiency of the story-telling: not a wasted moment on the screen. Along with the writing, acting, production, sociological and political themes, all that stuff too. And an appealing crook who read his Adam Smith.

I had heard that the fifth season was a let-down, and how could it not be, following on 3 and 4, perhaps the two most perfect TV runs ever? Still, as a person who briefly contemplated a career in journalism and did a very short reporting stint on a small-town paper, I actually found the newspaper story line pretty compelling. The final episode's closing epilogue was uncharacteristically contrived and unnecessary, however... an unfortunate way to go out.

For all its emphasis on shades of gray, The Wire clung to fairly standard cop-show moral conventions in its portrayal of the police: flawed and capable of very bad behavior, but with their hearts in the right place-- in fact so much so that we were inclined to accept that their ends justified their means. What defied cop-show convention was that the bad guys could be understood as complete human beings in terms of their development, motives, and moral code... and that, nonetheless, to understand is not-- necessarily-- to forgive.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

State Oddity

I caught a little of the California Report's interview with the Gubernator on KQED radio this morning. The whole California budget situation has an air of the surreal. Arnold has assumed the strange hybrid persona of a scolding schoolmarm mixed with budget deficit Terminator, and the act has really gotten tedious. Of course there's a lot of posturing, but serious cuts will occur, and it is bizarre to be living in one of the richest and most successful economies in human history and contemplate the shutting down of the state park system, or the gutting of health insurance for poor kids, or the gradual deconstruction of the world's greatest public system of higher education.

Everyone can easily point to their favorite culprits. The housing meltdown and recession are big proximate contributors, for sure, but the budget problem is structural. California's extremely rigid 2/3 majority requirement for both tax increases and budget passage is clearly an obstacle to a reasonable solution, particularly in the context of political polarization. The more polarized the legislature, the more extreme the views as you move away from the median legislator, and we now see what happens when the wacky right-most 1/3 hold veto power over the whole budget process. Even Arnold, nominally a Republican, has given up on these idiots and devotes his energies to badgering the Dems.

A new state constitution could offer a way out in the long haul, and I'm sympathetic to holding a convention. But in the land of Prop 13 you do have to be careful what you wish for. An alternative would be measures to depolarize the legislature. Even left-wing Democrats, who would personally be losers in a system that favored more centrist politicians, ought to be willing to make the sacrifice if the ideological cutoff at the 2/3 majority could be moved leftward toward the center. It's hard to imagine much real progress under the current rules until this happens. The new commission-based redistricting scheme provides some hope here, but it will take a long time before the impact is felt.

Bottom line in the short run: Please, please, please, Barack, help us out! Or perhaps a more Terminator-like threat is in order: Barack, don't turn us away, we can pull the rest of you back down with us!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Taste Oddity

I just picked up a used copy of Essential David Bowie: Best of 1969-1974 at the local library sale. I've heard 'em all before, of course, and I sure have enjoyed some of those old Bowie songs over the years. "Space Oddity" is a genuine pop-rock classic, "Suffragette City" is enjoyably leering, "Changes" and "The Man Who Sold the World" are compellingly hooky, even if Richard Barone and Nirvana both did better with the latter. But what about the rest of it? This is his best? It's a snooze. Could he be right up there with the Doors and the Dead among the all-time most overrated artists of the rock era?