Monday, June 30, 2014

Ginger Baker in Boston

Alec Dankworth, Abass Dodoo, Ginger Baker, Pee Wee Ellis

Caught Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion at the Wilbur Theater in Boston last night. Even though Baker has mostly played jazz-oriented music for decades now, it was largely a rock crowd, replete with vintage concert t-shirts and gray ponytails. That said, no one was there to hear old Cream hits. People knew what they were in for and responded with enthusiasm to the instrumental solos from bassist Dankworth and tenor sax man Ellis and the wicked polyrhythms generated by Dodoo and Baker. Certainly there were Baker diehards there, heavily into his virtuosity, but there wasn't much hero worship. The irascible drum god wouldn't stand for it.

When Baker left the stage briefly after the first song there was cause for concern. His health isn't good, with serious lung and spine issues. He returned saying "at my age when you need to take a piss you take a piss." But when he was drumming there was no impairment. Going in I knew that the presence of African drummer Dodoo was a good sign. And sure enough, every song and drum feature had powerful pulses and clear structures you could hang your hat on. Too many jazz drummers sacrifice a recognizable pulse in the name of "creativity" or "stretching out." Not a problem last night. I guess it makes sense that the sax chair was filled by an alum of the James Brown band. Yes, it was jazz even old rockers could love.

(This photo was taken by our friend Tony from the floor seats.)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Totem with Howling Beasts

M. Bogen, Vacuum Cleaner Readymade with R. Janz Glyfitti

Perahia Peforms "The Goldberg Variations"

On the short list of most perfect pieces of music is Bach's "Goldberg Variations." Extremely popular for a reason. I only own Gould's 1980s version. The Perahia version, sampled here, strikes me as lighter and more felicitous the Gould. It's nicely split into groupings on YouTube, good for quick fixes, though this first posting should actually be labeled 10-12, according to some of the comments. In this section you will experience the strutting, confident energy of life at its peak. Beneath it, I'm posting the final aria, the most serene song imaginable, manifesting the quiet piece of having experienced loss but still believing in the beauty of life. I especially like the passage beginning at 1:40. Such simple staggering "rightness."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Buddhism's Parable of the Poisoned Arrow

The form of Christianity I was raised in placed a strong emphasis on believing certain very particular propositions about the nature of Jesus and God. In fact, Christianity as a whole, not just my denomination, is a religion based on the professing of creeds, most notably, the Nicene Creed. This aspect of Christianity never sat well with me. Why was it so important -- punishable by damnation even -- to believe a set of propositions that couldn't be experienced directly?

That's why when I encountered the Buddhist parable of the poisoned arrow, I found it so appealing. The fact that Buddhists of every stripe -- Zen, Mahayana, Theravada -- love this story tells you something. Here's Thich Nhat Hanh's version:
The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, "Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same." Another time he said, "Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first." Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.
In Buddhism it is practice that brings enlightenment, especially the practice of meditation, the cultivation of non-attachment to phenomena, and the pursuit of deep and ever-expanding compassion, compassion starting with the self and extending to all of life. These relieve suffering.

Actually, I enjoy metaphysical speculation, but not as existentially critical, or as a set of truths that others must share. I treat it as a game or creative pursuit that can have positive resonances in my life. Such speculation is only a problem if I think a particular form of it is essential to living life properly.

UPDATE: 7-4-14
Consider reincarnation. It seems plausible, maybe even likely, that something like multiple lifetimes is our cosmic reality. Yet do I do the right thing because I'm scared of bad incarnations to come? That I might return as the proverbial cockroach or beast of burden? No, of course not. Now, the notion that we reap what we sow seems true, but to realize this doesn't require anything more than close inspection of lived experience.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Words on Words

1. Maybe this year all the pundits will pivot away from saying 'pivot.'

2. That said, using current buzz phrases doesn't always represent verbal laziness as the scolds insist; it's a fun way to participate in the popular culture of the moment. The trouble is that by the time people my age get hip to a phrase it's often too late. (I know, right?)

3. I also support curse words. Used moderately, they add flavor.

4. I'll even defend the occasional use of 'like.' Isn't it better to say "I was like, there's no way I'm going to that movie" than to say, "And then I said, and I paraphrase, there's no way . . ."

5. When politicians are on TV, they always use the word 'look' to re-frame a question they don't like. "Look. The issue here is whether we can maintain our dependence on fossil fuels."

6. My pet peeve lately is the shift among policy geeks and pundits from the collective singular to the collective plural. The singular usage is the American tradition; the plural, British. But suddenly the experts are always saying that the "the data show that . . ." instead of "the data shows . . . ." It's as if there was a language virus that struck the chattering classes, or that some sort of tacit agreement was made -- without my consent.

7. How many more politicians will continue to "evolve" on the question of marriage equality?

8. When is the last time you heard anyone say "information superhighway"? 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Provincetown Artists: Lillian Orlowsky

Lillian Orlowsky (1914-2004) is one of the great abstract painters associated with the Provincetown scene. When she studied there with Hans Hofmann one of her fellow students was Robert DeNiro, Sr., who, as their careers developed, never really worked in a pure abstract style as Orlowsky did. The images posted here (which are from Acme Fine Art in Boston, who represents Orlowsky's work) demonstrate the beauty and musicality of abstract painting at its finest. Like much instrumental jazz, the content of the pieces are found less in narrative storytelling than in the dynamic, rhythmic relationships among color and form. These relationships are actually the story that is being told.

Lillian Orlowsky, Red Dominance, c. 1952, 30 x 24 in.

In this interview with PBS, Orlowsky talks about things she learned from studying with Hoffman:
"Hofmann didn’t think in terms of dark and light but he thought in relation to color. And it was color light that he was thinking of. So he transformed it. You don’t experience in Hofmann’s paintings an element like a photograph which is light and dark vanishing. But you feel an experience that each color has a life of its own and each color can go back and can go forward, both ways. Whereas, the academic point of view was that dark was a shadow. Well, the dark could be light if you’re using it as a color. So it depends what the relationships are to each other. Hofmann’s colors move back and forth, which we call a “plastic relationship” of the picture plane. They kind of revolve and rotate around the surface. You don’t feel that anything sticks to the surface. It’s always moving."

Lillian Orlowsky, Rose Still Life, c. 1955, 36 x 28 in.

Lillian Orlowsky, Dance Movement, c. 1942, 24 x 18 in.

Blanche Lazzell, white line wood cuts

Hans Hofmann, abstract oil

Michael Mazur, Rocks and Water, monotype

Michael Mazur, Pond Edge II, oil painting

Irene Lipton, untitled oil

Mary Giammarino, impressionist oil

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Merle Haggard Sings "If I Could Only Fly"

One of my very favorite singers, period. If you set aside the fiddle and steel guitar you might think this was jazz. Each phrase gets a unique inflection, and Haggard's tone is gorgeous. He's a master; a musician's musician. It's a wrenching song ("just dismal thinking on a dismal day"), written by the late Texas singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, memorialized in Lucinda Williams' "Drunken Angel." Notice how the song goes places, instead of just shifting back in forth in place. The chorus extends beyond where you think it might end, and the intervals throughout are really sweet, often moving past the expected resolutions.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cave Paintings of Chauvet

Watched the Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams last night. In 1994, three cavers found this previously unknown cave in the south of France, which boasts the oldest cave paintings known to us to date: approximately 30,000 to 33,000 years old. What strikes me is how technically accomplished they are; the depictions along with the sense of motion are uncanny. The question that keeps occurring to me is: Why do they only depict animals? These aren't animals being hunted, as in other cave paintings. Also: Why no humans? It is said that the birth of the modern human is here, manifested by artistic consciousness.

View the work of the shaman of modern day wall paintings Robert Janz here.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Van Vechten: White Negro Prototype

Carl Van Vechten, self-portrait

There's a new biography out about the intriguing Carl Van Vechten which has been receiving some attention in the media. Among the coverage, this review by Mark Reynolds at PopMatters is a must read. Van Vechten was a gay white man from Iowa who ended up as the "original white negro," as Reynolds describes him, some 30 years before Norman Mailer's landmark essay and nearly a century before Eminem staked out his turf as a kick-ass rapper. Beginning in the 20s, Van Vechten immersed himself in Harlem, going way past the Cotton Club, and he was a top-notch talent spotter, introducing Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes to white society.

A bit of a provocateur, he just couldn't help himself and named his novel of the Harlem experience Nigger Heaven. Sorry Quinton Tarantino, someone got there first. He even knew better, explaining in a footnote: “While this informal epithet is freely used by Negroes among themselves, not only as a term of opprobrium but also actually as a term of endearment, its employment by a white person is always fiercely resented.”

Reynolds' piece is so well written, I'll quote his conclusion at length, but please do read the whole thing, especially since there is so much more on the subject that's interesting.
The controversy over Nigger Heaven was a turning point for Van Vechten. He would publish two more novels, but never delve so deeply into black culture in his writing. In fact, his muse shifted away from writing during the ‘30s and to photography. He spent many years inviting the famous and the attractive to his studio for portraits. Some were old friends and associates, others were among the new generation of the famous and notorious. One of those latter folks, White reports, was none other than Norman Mailer.
Although Van Vechten was ultimately much more than a cultural thrillseeker or racial poseur, his story is instructive for all those White Negroes and wannabees out here today. Yes, you can mix and match black signifiers in your walk, your talk, your dress, your choice of music. Yes, you can proclaim yourself in solidarity with black people, and black people may well take you into their hearts and homes. You can befriend them, you can love them, you can even marry one. Whatever you need to do to proclaim your non-middle American-ness, go for it. It’s a free country.
Just be mindful that there remains a line that can’t be crossed. You may identify with the black world, but you won’t ever actually be black (and thus have to face the daily societal indignities black skin begets). And in any circumstance, think long and hard before any permutation of the n-word passes through your lips.
Having said all this, Reynolds concludes that Van Vechten's contributions on the whole were worthwhile. "Like it or not, and not without some missteps," writes Reynolds, "he indeed earned his ghetto pass."

What Is Libertarianism? Pt. 2: James Madison

Following up on the previous post, let's look at the irony of Carson failing to understand his own analytical framework. The impact of 9/11 was indeed one in which power shifted from the people to the government. Homeland security and FSA intrusions are one part of the story, which most libertarians and civil libertarians recognize as troubling developments.

The other part of it is the militarization of U.S. politics and foreign policy. No 9/11, no Iraq invasion, in all its fruitless and squalid glory.  Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, of course, but the Bush administration seized on the atmosphere of fear to launch an extremely aggressive course of action that haunts us today. I think libertarians like Rand Paul get this, which seems to suggest that Carson, basking in his new-found celebrity as a sort of libertarian hero, is simply talking out of his hat. Dr. Carson, I think you should stick to medicine.

James Madison wasn't a libertarian, but he was a founding father, and he outlined the domestic cost and dangers of foreign war better than anyone ever has. All of us, left, right, center, and other should internalize his message, written in a letter to William Cabell Reeves in 1793:
"War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."
I should add that for a long time now war also helps private corporations accumulate power and money. What are we to make of the fact that Halliburton, which Dick Cheney ran before becoming VP, has made nearly 40 billion dollars on Iraq-related contracts since the invasion? Can self-identified libertarians, who are now a force in Republican politics, call out the corporations? Will libertarian hero-of-the-week Dave Brat have the stones to not just condemn "crony capitalism," but actually to name names, including that of Dick Cheney? Now, that would be interesting.

Friday, June 13, 2014

What Is Libertarianism?

As far as I can tell it's Tea Party superstar Ben Carson explaining last week that Obamacare is worse then 9/11 since it "shift[s] power from the people to the government."*

How is it possible to perceive the pre-Obamacare status quo as even remotely a situation in which the power resided with "the people" as opposed to massive unaccountable private insurance companies who could deny coverage to anyone they wanted? A system in which huge numbers of families' lives were ruined because of inability to pay for treatment?

* One of his big talking points is that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to the US since slavery. I'll let you just sit with that one.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Sinatra Imperative

Each generation must deal with Sinatra. For us Boomers, Sinatra represented the older, unhip music that was to be swept aside by rock and roll, psychedelia, sensitive singer-songwriters, and all-purpose rebellion. Yet, anyone interested in music as music, as opposed to a tribal signifier, will get past the labels and understand that Sinatra was the interpreter par excellence of the Great American Songbook. It's all about tone and phrasing and confidence, as well as an actorly ability to convey the meaning of the lyrics.

In the last couple weeks I've been listening to the Sinatra-Jobim album, Come Dance With Me, and Songs for Swingin' Lovers. The Jobim disc is cool because Sinatra clearly has worked to adapt his style to samba and boss nova. He sings in a softer and flatter, i.e., more even tone, and carries it off pretty well. I love this record.

Back in the 60s, it was almost a matter of betraying your own "side" to listen to Sinatra. But then came the big lounge revival in the 90s, and the massive popularity today of people like Michael Buble'. So I don't know what young people today think. Maybe just indifference? At any rate, do your homework and study Sinatra.

Sinatra fun fact: Frank said to always wear your hat at an angle, thus anticipating hip hop nation by a few decades.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Nichiren: What Is Education?

"Teaching another something is the same as oiling the wheels of a cart so that they turn even though it is heavy, or as floating a boat on water so that it moves easily ahead."

- Nichiren, 13th century Buddhist philosopher

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Menuhin: Bach's A Minor Violin Concerto

I freely admit that my classical knowledge doesn't go much deeper than the really well-known pieces, among which Bach's A Minor Violin Concerto is surely counted. But that doesn't make it any less powerful, right? I always prefer the slow movements in classical music. It helps me to really get it. So here I will post the Andante second movement, performed by the master Yehudi Menuhin. The insistent pattern of the lower strings is pure Bach, communicating great, if restrained, passion; and these patterns are moved forward by the rich sustained tones in the higher strings. Menuhin channels the mystic ideal of melody.

UPDATE: 6-10: Ever since I wrote this, I've been bothered a bit by my argument. The truth is that both string lines convey restrained urgency -- one through ostinato, the other through swelling long tones -- and that each helps the other to move forward. Of course! The interdependence is the whole point.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Neil Young: Thrasher

What is it about Neil Young? By no measure would his voice be considered a good one, yet he's spellbinding. He's got a shamanic thing goin' on. I will take a stand and say that Thrasher is the greatest Neil Young song of them all; and there's a lot of heavy competition. Thrasher's lyrics are being composed three feet above the canvas; the exact story's a bit obscured. But the words work stunningly well in their own right, with no more specificity needed. A favorite: "And the aimless blade of science slashed the pearly gates." This line hints at the fallout from cocaine abuse but could mean a bunch of other things, too. In fact, as lyric analysts online will tell you, Thrasher tells the story of Young's split from Crosby, Stills, and Nash, signaled with the line "How I lost my friends, I still don't understand." In this video, I love how Young botches the lyrics at 2:49. Leave to Neil to leave it in. Perfection is not our friend!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Jacques Tati: Welcome to the Working Week

Jacques Tati in the film Playtime, 1967

I lifted this image from a great essay by Martin Filler at the NYRB on the evolution and/or devolution of our working environments. Once you've seen a Tati movie you will get some images stuck in your head. One I remember is a couple kids in a vacant lot kicking at a can with delight as gleaming towers of progress are being erected around them.