Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Bill Barr declares his permanent loyalty to Trump


Attorney General William Barr’s emotional dependence on Donald Trump is unmistakable, leading him to stake his reputation now and in the indictable future on No. 45. Wild horses 🐎 couldn’t drag him away.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Friday, July 31, 2020

Thursday, July 30, 2020

John Fedchock NY Sextet lays down good blend of solo and collective excellence

Desirable outcomes in studio recording sessions usually mean that the material is known well in advance to the parti
Trombonist-bandleader John Fedchock
John Fedchock leads a unified sextet
cipants and the bandleader structures it in such a way that solos, accompaniment, and ensemble passages seem soldered into place.

I like when, from moment to moment, everyone seems to be focused on presenting a musical object more than foregrounding "expression."  That's the impression I pick up from "Into the Shadows" (Summit Records), the latest recording by the John Fedchock NY Sextet.  And that doesn't have to mean the jazz that results seems cut-and-dried —  a simple triumph of planning.

Trombonist-bandleader Fedchock has created arrangements for himself and five colleagues that maintain pulse and momentum while giving us something as solid and functionally appropriate as a well-made chair.

To take from the album the clearest link to the tradition of great jazz sextets, "Alpha Dog" is an easily rocking update of the hard-bop tradition. It's deliberately abstract, I think, to avoid seeming less like an Art Blakey Jazz Messengers tribute.  Typically, concise solos run throughout the performance, covering everyone but the drummer, Eric Halvorson. The other players are Scott Wendholt, trumpet and flugelhorn; Walt Weiskopf, tenor saxophone; Allen Farnham, piano; and David Finck, bass.

The band presents an assertive profile in such a number, but it can also render a soft-focus sound that coheres, as in the flowing samba "Manaus."  That piece features one of several outstanding Wendholt solos. Others that caught my ear on repeated listening happen on the standards "I Should Care" and "Nature Boy."  The latter arrangement catches the mystery of the original song without having to slow down to a ballad pace; in fact, the phrases are punched up without presenting the song in gaudy new garb.

Also fetching was Fedchock's uptempo arrangement of "I Should Care," with Farnham introducing the tune in an engagingly cryptic fashion. Fedchock ends that piece with a coda, featuring the drummer. Halvorson also gets a fusillade of last words in "Star Eyes" against a five-chord riff in the piano. That tune had the Fedchock solo that struck me most favorably, as once again everyone has his say in a round-robin solo format. But there's no showboating here: It's an unspoken "Hey, everyone, we've got a good chair to make: every detail has to fit and display complementary workmanship."

The title tune, one of five Fedchock originals, is pretty much a trombone showcase, yet even with that emphasis, the arrangement is all about the the sextet. The ensemble stays close to the theme in its accompaniment, as if to underline the import of the trombone. Here is leadership of a kind we might wish for in other arenas: The  man in charge accepts responsibility, carries it off well, and allows those working with him due opportunity to shine. Fedchock ventures into the shadows, to be sure, but emerges from them shining.

[Photo by Enid Farber]

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Deeply rooted suburban fantasies maintain resonance

It's easy to get puzzled by the Trump-driven narrative shoring up his reelection prospects. As used as we think we are to the perspective that he has also imposed on the Republican Party, there are new swerves in his rhetorical aggressiveness. It's hard to keep up with them all.

A recent one was the inclusion of a prediction that Joe Biden, if elected, would destroy the suburbs. What was that all about, I wondered, until I saw Trump's tweeted warning to "suburban housewives of America."

"Housewives"! Were they twisting their hands nervously in immaculate aprons as they looked out the kitchen window at a perfect lawn and a white picket fence? It fell into place: the Trump slogan "Make America Great Again" focuses squarely on the dream of a pristine suburbia.

Suburban dreams in the makIng: Levittown under construction
And that means solidly white enclaves, the heritage of the Levittown developments that followed World War II, the metastasized suburbia enabled not only by the mass transit around a few metropolitan areas, but by the proliferating cross-town expressways that promised quick access to cities where white-collar work was concentrated and back again to a haven purposely designed to put people among their own kind.

Prejudice — the othering of minority groups — was built into the triumph of the American suburb. Today, the perceived disaster of a Biden victory is presumed to carry with it the completion of racial and ethnic integration. Typically Trump casts his mind into a way-back machine picturing a suburbia not anywhere as diverse as it has become. It's a world where it's OK to think of the women whose votes he is likely to lose in November as housewives.

In big cities, competing ethnic groups have learned to sort of get along over the past century or so. They have to mingle somewhat in the conduct of daily life. There have been dramatic flare-ups, of course, but these have also served as warnings to suburbanites. And urban strife, along with federally designed escape routes and legal exclusions, has been pictured as something the suburbs can avoid.

Big-city irony would shift to suburbs
But it's not easy: A party of black teenagers in a Dallas suburb leads to a police officer wrestling a bikini-clad girl to the ground. Scary, yes, but worlds away from the 1919 race riot in Chicago sparked by a black swimmer crossing into water considered exclusive to whites. That event is among the markers of the prejudice that warps the maturation of the hero of James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan." And the lines are fiercely maintained: Though Studs and his gang include, with some disparagement, a Jewish pal, the neighborhood slut draws the line at accommodating him in the bedroom. She has her standards.

In the large cities, the inevitable meltdown of ethnic purity creates dream worlds that Philip Roth, in the heavily ironic title of one of his best novels, called "American Pastoral." Trump's suburbia is still populated by the legacy of the American diaspora, and he suspects it's kind of a last stand. His housewives and their commuting husbands ("Honey, I'm home!") are the shepherdesses and swains updated from the classic pastoral.

Roth was writing about his hometown, Newark. In the nearby city of Paterson, Allen Ginsberg grew up. The Jewish middle class of which they were a part had a place in the big cities that their people  did not easily find in the suburbs. One of those north New Jersey towns was home to my paternal grandfather, who once told my mother that he would never sell his home to a Jew. When I told his sister, my great-aunt, that I was headed to Harvard to begin graduate school, she replied crisply: "I don't like Harvard — too many Hebrews."

It was a world of casual bias, radiating from the WASP establishment out through the Jewish populace and into black and brown communities. Towns that were wealthy enough to keep their independent character could morph into suburbs of the metropolis and remain white havens.

Ezra Pound nailed a prejudice he linked to the suburbs.
In a  1967 conversation with Ezra Pound in Venice, Ginsberg heard this confession from the older  poet, who had slid out of the charge of treason for incendiary World War II broadcasts into a mental hospital, which, unpleasant though it was, eventually yielded to an old age in calm Italian exile: "The worst mistake I made," Pound said, "was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism."

Why "suburban"? Pound's  admission fingers the culture that sustained prejudice. If rural America was hostile to outsiders, it rarely had to be inconvenienced by them. And the big city allowed groups to self-segregate socially while keeping commerce uneasily, and unequally, integrated. Suburban anxiety was unique, built upon the fear of loss, hopefully a remote nightmare. To keep the fear at bay, the illusion of suburban purity, of households headed by June and Ward Cleaver, had to be maintained. The fiction is still powerful, Trump hopes. Suburbia is the fulcrum.

"The commuter towns and leafy developments circling Philadelphia and other U.S. cities — areas with increasing racial diversity and a growing number of college-educated voters — have been a clear source of trouble for the president and his party," says a July 25 Associated Press article, headlined "Trump plays on fears in campaigns for suburbs."

In his Paris Review interview, Pound told Donald Hall that tales of his post-frontier origin in Hailey, Idaho, could offer little explanation of his iconoclastic ways. "I grew up  near Philadelphia. The suburbs of Philadelphia." The adjective "suburban" was thus wisely chosen as an indicator of his notorious prejudice. Later in the interview, Pound said truly: "We suffer from the use of language to conceal thought and to withhold all vital and direct answers." That's one of many possible answers that could be put forward to explain the attractions of suburbanism.

And the suburban mindset might well be universal. In his expansive 1940 poem "New Year Letter," W.H. Auden describes humanity as "The children of a modest star, / Frail, backward, clinging to the granite / Skirts of a sensible old planet, / Our placid and suburban nurse."

The image is one that hints at desperation, an unavoidable dependence that we can't free ourselves from. Events may properly suggest that our earthly home is neither "sensible" nor "placid," but we are inclined to say well, let's go with that. Our suburban dreams demand it. That's what Trump and his supporters are counting on.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Eighth Blackbird takes flight with a linked program by three composers

Susannah Bielak's cover design hints at the gems within.
An adventurous new-music ensemble teases out the meaning of its name with "Singing in the Dead of Night" ( Cedille Records), a collection of music by three composers whose works under this title are linked to lyrics of the Beatles song "Blackbird."

Eighth Blackbird is named after a stanza in Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which runs like this: "I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know."

I can't guess why the "eighth blackbird" of Stevens' poem attracted the ensemble's attention as a best summation of its artistic mission.  But surely the compositions of David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe in "Singing in the Dead of Night" are loaded with noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms, though the latter in particular might well have escaped less expert musicians.

The three works are presented in the order Eighth Blackbird has settled upon in concert since 2008. The three movements of David Lang's "these broken wings" (no caps in any of the titles, the way Eighth Blackbird used to style its name) are in the first, third, and fifth position. The division makes sense both in complementing the Gordon and Wolfe pieces and in representing the unique blend of percussive sounds (including deliberately dropped items) and wind and string sonorities that Lang calls for.

Recorded last fall at the University of Chicago, a Midwestern "hot spot" for new music since the palmy days of Ralph Shapey, "Singing in the Dead of Night" is a worthy contribution to the celebration of Cedille Records' 30th anniversary this year.

Julia Wolfe's long piece, which lends its title to the recording, most deeply represents this Paul McCartney line in "Blackbird" — "into the light of the dark black night."  Its intensity and thick figuration seem  to struggle to evince light in the imagination's darkest night. The music is frankly irritating at times in order to plunge, with no textual underlining needed, into the mystery of that line and the obstacles to any flight out of darkness. It's a work that actually seems to want to be longer than it is (nearly 19 minutes); no easy escape is suggested. Ending with the cryptic rubbing of sandpaper, "singing in the dead of night" adds to my impression of the strong personality this composer shows in the compositions of hers known to me.

Michael Gordon's "the light of the dark" follows up on the rhythmic jumpiness of the opening track, the first movement of the Lang piece, after moaning cello glissandos set out troubling portents relieved by skittering violin, flute and clarinet skittering and steadying accordion chords. The relentless pulse of "the light of the dark" is subject to stunning pauses. A buoyant, rapid lyricism emerges from the clarinet. The passacaglia form organizes the bafflement inherent in the topic and the changing instrumentation.

The second movement of Lang's piece, alluded to above, evokes feelings of stasis associated with the subject of this program. And his finale, which concludes the CD, bears the apt title "learn to fly'; the style is a kind of rambunctious minimalism.  It seems to point the way to a resumption of vitality and the shedding of any dark black night's most troubling implications — especially in the current time of political and pandemic anxiety.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Fused names and simpatico artistry of French saxophonist and Italian pianist fuel Spirabassi

Giovanni MIrabassi (left) and Stephane Spira are a compatible duo.
"Improkofiev" is the major work on the new CD of that title representing a meeting of minds between Stephane Spira (whose website provides access to the release) and Giovanni Mirabassi.

The seasoned musicians, a soprano saxophonist and a pianist, respectively,  collaborate with seeming effortlessness in their punning salute to Sergei Prokofiev, specifically drawing upon the Russian composer's First Violin Concerto.

The three-movement suite references the concerto chiefly in its tunefulness and its hints of sentimentality, always a vein accessible to Prokofiev that he used to balance his nose-thumbing sauciness and modernist flair. The near-constant demands on the soloist are not replicated in the jazz suite. The signature spikiness and skill with disjunctive lines characteristic of Prokofiev make the suite's first movement the most satisfying as a tribute. So does the presence of an extra voice, the flugelhorn of Yoann Loustalot.

The remaining two movements of the suite proceed without Loustalot, which detracts from the suite's coherence. Why not keep the second horn player around through "New York Dream"and "No Strings Attached"?

The first four tracks have an individuality and pungency that the suite projects less consistently. The other classical tribute, a perky waltz version of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1," is a charmer. The other borrowed piece, Carla Bley's "Lawns," sustains most successfully the Mirabassi-Spira partnership, which is unshakable, with complementary solos, and easily takes in a transition to a Steve Wood bass solo.

Donald Kontomanu's drums start off "After Rain," a piece whose title seems to apply well to the feeling of abandon and freedom that emergence from a drenching spell provides most of us with. It's a great exposition of the quartet's rapport, flowing ahead without looking back once.

The opening "Ocean Dance," which like "After Rain" is a Spira composition, never becomes oceanic in volume; this is not a forceful ensemble. But its variety of motion and glinting playfulness are aspects of the sea to which the clean lines and crystalline tone  of both players in the group's portmanteau name give body and invite the listener to jump in: the water's fine.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Australian pianist sets down a manifold expansion of solo jazz piano

Alister Spence has set down on two discs a different kind of solo improvisational maximum, worthy of comparing to, but not dependent on, such a milestone as the Keith Jarrett "Köln Concert."

Alister Spence in "Whirlpools" offers a wealth of puzzlement.
The veteran Australian pianist-composer has assembled 23 free improvisations, eccentric to most kinds of jazz pianism, where his roots are. Over the course of two brightly recorded discs, "Whirlpool" (Alister Spence Music) amounts to a highly charged example of what this essential instrument in just about all Western music can express on its own, with relatively few unconventional techniques now and then expanding the sonic palette.

Spence's keyboard lucubrations are not for everyone, it's safe to say. Like the music itself, the titles he's chosen vary from illuminating to baffling. They are all uncapitalized, starting with a parenthetical short word connected by implication with a longer word, which may or may not be read as standing by itself or essential to the full title.

The listener is charged with applying the title to what he hears or else concluding that the title's meaning must be private. In "(over)taken," for example, the track opening Disc 2, there are chase elements that are resolved along the way, with the pursuit eventually absorbed. I get the "overtaken" meaning, but "taken" alone seems murkier as a structure for which "over" is a kind of porch.

Inevitably, and putting the titles somewhat aside, connections to music the listener is familiar with will be made. Given Spence's apparent aesthetic freedom, the similarities may play no part in what the pianist is consciously attempting to do. There are repetitive structures that suggest minimalism, for example, except that harmonically the static tremolos that preoccupy both hands in "(under)standing" are more cluttered. That piece also raises another problem with the project: As I hear the tremolos fill the canvas less insistently, the shaking continues in the right hand, and some calming bass chords set up a single-line finish to the album's longest piece (8 minutes, 17 seconds). Is the coherence accidental or artistically driven?

So a couple of central questions emerge. They may have bothered Spence as well, but they certainly irritated me, stimulating my response (and not always favorably). The performer in free improvisation has to decide whether to reject elaboration or indulge it: When and how should he undertake shifts in texture, tempo, and mood?

And that raises a central question for the listener: Am I hearing musical statements that amount to more than a hill of magic beans? Or is the performer sifting through those hills of beans looking for something different and stimulating for himself? Sometimes a relaxed feeling strikes one as just what is needed, as when the mezzo-forte dissonance in a close-textured melodic line yields to a relaxed feeling in "(back)water." But in that case I was nagged by a sense that Spence was treading water waiting for a new inspiration. And how patient must I be with what could be mere
dithering? On the other hand, maybe cultivation of patience is essential to the point of "Whirlpool." Maybe I am mistaken to try wresting too much meaning from what Spence is up to. If he is occasionally at sea (even briefly, and some of the pieces are fragmentary), so be it.

Finally, just to offer some guideposts to adventure-seeking listeners, I heard aspects of Cecil Taylor's action-painting approach, without so much barbed dissonance, as well as hints of Bill Evans' gentler musings. There is clearly an attraction to pure rumination, but there is also a cryptic, allusive quality, with some of the wryness of Erik Satie. In a couple of pieces — "(well)spring" and "(sub)stance" — there seems to be the clear influence of Claude Debussy's preludes. The latter Spence piece in particular, with its sense of something magnificent and abandoned beneath the surface, brought a strong suggestion of "The Sunken Cathedral."

Like real whirlpools, these pieces under that title generate self-contained forces both dangerous and inviting. Spence is prepared to rest in being fascinated with what he knows and what he is given to explore. How much that focus sustains fascination for the listener is open to question.