Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Go Left, Young Person

Aidan and I checked out the Go Left Fest 2 at Yoshi's SF last night. The three acts were well-chosen to represent the range of what is happening in improvised music that might very loosely be called the jazz avant garde.

Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait and Switch quartet opened the show. Mezzacappa is an excellent jazz bassist and a fantastic composer. The pieces here were inspired by some of the free jazz greats of the 60s and 70s: Art Ensemble of Chicago, Henry Threadgill, etc. Special kudos to saxophonist Aaron Bennett, whose nerdy appearance belies the raucous energy revealed in his compressed but well-conceived solos.

Next up, Andy Milne and Dapp Theory provided an updated take on some of the looser versions of 70s fusion, replete with spoken word vocalist and cheesy synth sounds. Tight drums, excellent pianism.

The headliners were Fred Frith's new band, Dream On, featuring Beth Custer on clarinets and Pavel Fajt on percussion. Frith, who is a guitar god a la Clapton or Page in some very twisted alternate universe, introduced their set by mumbling, "We're going to make a filthy racket for 50 minutes and then go home." True enough. Nobody can torture a guitar like Frith. Last time I heard him live he took a power drill to his instrument. Aidan and I had to drive home to get up early for work this morning, so we couldn't stay on for the full assault, thus missing out on any power tools. Too bad.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bill Dixon, RIP

Probably not everyone's cup of tea, but he was a jazz musician of the very first rank. Vade Mecum is an album I return to when in the mood for music that is challenging, adventurous, and anarchic, yet humble and even soothing in its highly textured fashion. Unlike most avant-garde jazz, the music simmers and bubbles, but never comes to a full boil. It still cooks. One could argue that in some ways he made the trumpet speak and sing in the human voice more compellingly than anyone since Louis Armstrong. (Photo stolen from NY Times.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer reading advice

Although, like most people, I work through the summer, there is something about the warm weather and the week or two of vacation that put me in the mood for some pure literary escapism. My criteria are pretty simple. Sure, the novel should be exciting, with some cliffhanger chapter endings, but it should also have compelling heroes facing worthy adversaries, and it should not insult your intelligence with lame plot devices. Humor helps. But perhaps most important, it should be well written. Having largely exhausted the oeuvres of LeCarre, Leonard, and PD James, the true masters, I have had to resort to lesser literary mortals.

The late Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo got a lot of attention when it came out, and like many I read it with high expectations. Sorry to speak ill of the dead, but the book was a major disappointment: poorly written, with cardboard cutout characters and a ridiculous, convoluted plot. With its cheap cliffhangers it kept my attention to the lame and bitter end, much like The Da Vinci Code, another miserably written thriller. But I didn't feel at all good about myself in the morning. (At least one could give Larsson the benefit of the doubt and attribute the ham-handed writing to the translation from the Swedish, an excuse alas unavailable to Dan Brown.)

I'd sworn off the Girl sequels until I read Michiko Kakutani's recent glowing review of the posthumously published finale of the trilogy. I generally trust Kakutani's judgment, so I figured I better give the guy another chance and catch up with part 2, The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Big mistake. It's just as lame as the first installment, and at least as poorly written. The first chunk of the book is devoted to a pedestrian recap of the first installment, along with some obligatory and truly atrocious sex scenes. From there it only gets worse, with cheesy villains right out of a bad Bond movie, and a spunky heroine who is so much smarter than her adversaries that she never is in any real danger, until the absurdly implausible ending.

Oof. So imagine my delight when I followed that up with a truly masterful, minor classic of cyberpunk by Richard K. Morgan: Thirteen. I had read and enjoyed some of Morgan's hardboiled near-future thrillers before, but this was the best so far by a good margin. The main plot elements are well-worn staples of the genre: a conflicted genetically engineered hero, corporate malfeasance, and a post-United States political landscape in which, in this instance, the country has split into two coastal blue countries and a central red Republic, nicknamed Jesusland by the blue-staters.

So far nothing you haven't seen before, all the basic elements not so very different from what you find in Larsson, but handled so well, and get this, artfully written! Nice descriptions of urban landscapes, clever metaphors, vivid action scenes, and some steamy romance that at least is not embarrassing. The book runs long, and just when you think Morgan has finally run out of gas, he surprises you with an extended, heartfelt, and genuinely sad deathbed scene. From there the denouement is a little disappointing, leaving us with an ambiguous ending that at least offers some hope for a sequel. I'd read it.

I followed this up with a last-minute and perhaps desperate airplane read, Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled. Mankell is usually reliable, but this is by far the worst I've read. Dull dull dull! Perhaps this summer's best-selling title should be: The Swedes Who Couldn't Write for Shit.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

And still more NYC blogging

Laura examines a Rothko at the MOMA. Nice paintings for sure, although my own tastes in abstract expressionism have gravitated toward Barnett Newman. These strange deceptively simple works still speak in a way that is very rare in art.

More NYC blogging

Alexi enjoys an iced green tea at Canteen 82 (83?), purveyors of a mighty fine xiaolongbao. It's very gratifying to have an adventurous foody as offspring!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The High Line

I had read about The High Line in the New York Times, and based on the review I expected it to be pretty cool, but seeing it in person exceeded every expectation. It was the highlight of my recent one-week trip to NY.

The designers of the High Line took an old elevated railway in Chelsea and converted it to a trail through an urban prairie garden. Everything about it works. The High Line manages to look simultaneously overgrown and anarchic and, well, simply lovely, like a cottage garden flowing above the city streets. Walking along, your eyes and ears are continually drawn from the plantings and your fellow strollers to the sights and sounds of the city around you (and the city views are spectacular here), but since you are in a sense floating above it all, there is a curious sensation of being both a part and apart.

The view from the street...

You might suppose that flowers and greenery would only call attention to blight and ugliness. I incline toward finding beauty in urban industrial decay anyway, but I think most people will find that the High Line makes everything around it look better.

Go and see!

(Thanks to LMK for some of the photos.)

The Muse of History

Here I am, bemused, while enjoying a glass of house chianti at Pisticci in Harlem, in the company of the muse of history and namesake of cliometrics (or quantitative economic history for you uninitiated).

Prop 16 goes down

So PG&E's bald-faced attempt to buy a CA state law that would protect their electricity monopoly has gone down to defeat, despite the fact that they outspent their opposition 500-to-1. I suppose I should take comfort in the wisdom of democracy, rather than being depressed about the 47.5 percent who voted "yes"...