Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fear Not the Slippery Slope: Aja

Knowing what I know now, that Steely Dan's Aja represented a slippery slope toward a full immersion into smooth jazz, I feared listening to it again. But I picked up a copy a few weeks ago, and the damn thing is a masterpiece, wall to wall with snapping grooves, sinuous guitar, diverse sonic textures (some synthesized), apt horn section riffs (as in "Peg"), and trademark verbiage such as "sensations, libations, that stagger the mind." All of it presented in such an original way as to nullify the smooth jazz slur. Among many highlights, it includes perhaps their most ambitious cut ever, the title track, which features a fearsome Wayne Shorter tenor sax solo and phenomenal, legendary drumming from Steve Gadd, both under Shorter's ride and over the out choruses. The cut "Deacon Blues" is one of just a handful of "sincere" songs* in their entire catalog, and, as a rarity, moving as hell. "They got a name for the winners in the world / I want a name when I lose / They call Alabama the Crimson Tide / Call me Deacon Blues." Done.

* Others include "Brooklyn" from their first LP and "Katy Lied" from the album of that name.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Maps: What Are They Good For?

Jasper Johns, Map, 1961, oil on canvas, 78 x 123 in.

With the rise of GPS, good old two dimensional maps are about as practical as a Jasper Johns abstraction or an ancient map with sea monsters. Maps are becoming merely aesthetic, as opposed to utilitarian. Hey, and while we're at it, does anyone have a globe in their house anymore? It was quaint, the way we used to orient ourselves in space (with north always pointing "up").

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gregory Porter: Water Under Bridges

There is no success more satisfying to me lately than that of Gregory Porter. God bless him, he's giving us something we've been missing but didn't know we needed. This song is from his latest album, Liquid Spirit. Let the positive vibrations reconstitute your molecules. Let the humanity bolster your soul. Nod your head when he sings, "Even our worst days / Are better than loneliness."

BTW, the second post I ever did on this blog featured Porter singing Be Good, the title song from his previous album. That's how much I value what he offers.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

That's the question Mick Jones sang about in the great Clash hit of 1981, and it's a question that most of us -- no, all of us -- will ask at some point about a relationship we're in, be it personal or professional or organizational. I experienced this quandary many years ago at a mission-driven non-profit I worked at. Because our ideals and conceptions of justice were involved, differences were acutely felt. How long to fight the good fight and contribute in the role of loyal opposition? That's a tough question. Often the best answer is to move on, especially if one's health and well being are being impacted, which became the case for me. Determining the right cut-off line is the trick, and mostly it's gotten right only in hindsight.

All across the US, members of mainline Christian denominations are asking themselves this question because of debates around same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. Now, for me, these things are unambiguously good. But I'm not a member of those denominations, or of any church. Many congregations are leaving because of their opposition to these developments, and I think that can be the right choice for them. People practice their religion because of their concern for the ultimate questions and a desire to live right, so I'm sure no one on any side of these issues takes their decisions lightly.

Here's a very interesting, in-depth account at Slate of the current struggle within the Methodist church over these matters. It details the questions members grapple with as they consider the worst-case scenario for believers: schism.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dad Rock Prisoner


I never wanted to be that guy who just listens to classic rock -- Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, etc. -- and have succeeded in that. I listen to older stuff, and across all genres, and the rock of my generation, of course -- Talking Heads, Clash and a whole range of new wave and other 80s stuff. But I was always determined to listen to new music, and my rock listening kept extending to a whole bunch of music -- Massive Attack, Pavement, Liz Phair, Radiohead, Beck, Tribe Called Quest, Wilco. But the thing is, I don't like much that comes after that. The Strokes are good, but too derivative. Vampire Weekend? No thanks, can't bear the singing. I do like EDM, but that's utilitarian music for dancing.* And then I started to get worried. So I got online, where a quick visit to Wikipedia revealed that all the "new" music I like was/is made by people who flourished in the 90s and are now in their 40s. And then it struck me: I'm just a Dad Rock Prisoner.

* But I try. I'll be watching some newish band on Palladia and my wife will walk by and ask me why I'm listening to that. I'll reply that it's in the interest of due diligence and cultural literacy. She'll reply that it sounds like pep rally music. And let's not even get started on all the "uh-oh-oh" chants and choruses.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Truth & Beauty #4: James Audubon

James Audubon, Shore Lark, illustration from The Birds of America, 1827

In the nineteenth century, naturalists set out to catalog and create a taxonomy of as many plants and animals as could be identified. Far from a dull pursuit, their work created a fusion of art and the natural sciences that still stupefies with its mixture of exacting detail and aesthetic beauty. Did their labors of love go hand in hand with colonization? Certainly. Were they part of a scientific project that has disenchanted our existence? In a way, yes, in a way, no. Their wonder at, and affection for, our natural world is immediately evident, and something to be treasured. After all, to communicate a sense of awe is a core religious function.

Previous installments of Truth & Beauty featured snowflake macro-photography, brainbows and dying stars.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Let's Hear It for Amoral Isolationists!

Neocons and some liberal hawks allege two main things about people like me who are skeptical about military interventionism as a foreign policy tool.

1. We don't care about the threat and abuses of Muslim intolerance and repression overseas and even in Europe. This was the late Christopher Hitchens' argument. Here's my answer: Of course we care about it but doubt that military engagement is going to positively impact that, and in fact may exacerbate it, allowing fundamentalists to poses as defenders against Western aggression. I am concerned with arenas in which I can make a difference, which is why I work in the fields of religious pluralism, dialogue, and education for global citizenship. As for Muslims in the US, the wisest course is to embrace and encourage them to be full participants in social and civic affairs. This is not foolproof, of course: see the Marathon bombers. But we all need to feel we have a stake in the success of our country, which is why I found it odd that so many "patriots" on the right are secessionists.

2. We advocate an "isolationism" that allows "bad guys" to get away with aggression and violence. This is the slur lobbed at Rand Paul, who doubts, as I do, whether we could ever create a flourishing democracy in Iraq via military occupation, which we already tried. Neocon arguments are usually built on scare tactics. Let me just say that the threat of terrorism never was and never will be the same as the threats faced during the Cold War, much less the build up to WWII. Enough with the Neville Chamberlain "appeasement" analogies. And enough with the What Would Ronald Reagan Do? line of argument. But for the record, what Reagan did was negotiate with enemies and terrorists.

The best writing on this subject is from Daniel Larison at the American Conservative. I'm a self-described liberal, but I agree with everything he says, perhaps because we align with the much-maligned Realist foreign policy point of view. It was through Larison that I discovered the Realist website War on the Rocks, which recently featured this devastating takedown of Rick Perry's recent, ill-informed Washington Post op ed on foreign policy.

OK, enough. I'll go back to sticking pins in my Dick Cheney voodoo doll now.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Random Music Notes: Accidents Will Happen

The best album opener in all of rock is Elvis Costello's unaccompanied two-note descending exclamation "Oh I" that kicks off Accidents Will Happen, the lead cut on 1979's "Armed Forces." His unique vocal timbre really communicates in that exposed setting. When the band kicks in the vocal melody ascends while the bass continues to descend in a two-note boom bah-boom, bah-boom heartbeat pattern. Sweet. Totally a repeat button song for me. Check it out (with cool animation).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Farewell, Charlie Haden

One of the greatest jazz musicians of all time (though little known to the wider public), the bassist Charlie Haden died last week. Raised on a farm in Iowa in the 1940s, Haden came from a family of musicians. The first chance he got, he split for the coast, as they used to say, and almost immediately found himself in LA playing with free jazz pioneer and genius Ornette Coleman. Haden liked to play in every format, from duets with people like Hank Jones and Pat Metheney; to small group formats with Keith Jarrett, the "super-group" Old and New Dreams, and his own noir-music nostalgia group Quartet West; to his uber-political big band Liberation Music Orchestra, which he founded with Carla Bley. His tone was deep and pure. As accompanist he was spare, finding the right foundational note; as a soloist he focused on melody and meditative, resonant strumming. The dude was heavy, with a beautiful, loving heart. Toward the end of his life he formed a group dedicated to the rural music of his youth. This stunning piece from that group on The Letterman Show provides quite a send off. Below that that I'm posting his lovely First Song, written for his wife, and the grooving De Drums, with the Keith Jarrett Quartet.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

We're Kids in Shopping Cart Cars

I keep up with my science for regular people, all right? I don't want to be a purist treading water on the humanities side of C.P. Snow's Two Cultures, though I do find the water warmer over there. I get most of my science reporting through the written word, because on TV or radio the "science guy" always talks with a wacky voice and uses the word "stuff" a lot. Often while wearing a bow tie.

One of the core scientific issues is the question of free will, which scientists agree doesn't exist. If I understand properly, we're like toddlers riding in one of those shopping cart cars, blissfully indulging the illusion that we're actually steering. The question is who's driving then? Well, mom and dad are surely steering a bit in absentia, depending on the amount of therapy we've engaged in as adults. Evangelicals and fundamentalists say it's god, but that doesn't fly as a scientific explanation. Scientists are all Darwinians, so, in that view, steering isn't the result of any personal factors or influence. Maybe we're guided by a biological GPS app that was programed by countless millennia of genetic experience. Not sure that's how I see it, but I think that's the scientific view.

But the kids in those cars don't question things. They just enjoy the hell out of the ride, and make sure they get some goodies before the check out counter.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Circle Paintings

Robert Delaunay
Jasper Johns

Kenneth Noland

Frank Stella
Sol Lewitt
Zen Circle

Laurie Justus Pace

David Smith

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Provincetown Artists: Fritz Bultman

Another from the Hans Hofmann school of Provincetown abstraction. Trends be damned, I always have and always will love musical, dynamic abstract (or as they called it a century ago, non-objective) art. It has something to do with my deep affection for jazz. Writing in The Tides of Provincetown, Deborah Forman confirms that: "Bultman's collages ... are composed of large pieces of paper painted in glowing colors in gouache and convey a rhythm that was likely influenced by the jazz of his native New Orleans." These images are taken from a great Bultman gallery at the website Proteus Mag. Oh, I almost forgot, Fritz Bultman lived from 1919 - 1985.


Blanche Lazzell, white line woodcut

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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Another Epic Wimbledon Final

Grand Slam tennis is one of the great spectator sports. Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer in five really hard-fought sets at Wimbledon yesterday, in a match that went nearly four hours. At one point in the fifth set each player had won the exact same number of games, something like 165 each. The thing about tennis is that the athleticism is stupendous, but the human drama is equally so. Down 5 - 2 in the fourth set, Federer was staring right into what appeared to be imminent defeat. He held serve and then broke at 5 - 3, with everything on the line, going on to take the set. If he was nervous he didn't show it. He ultimately lost, but his poise was impressive, as was that of Djokovic, who refused to let the momentum swing all the way to Federer. A five set match features many, many such gut check moments, which makes for a viewing experience par excellence, especially since it's just the two competitors, with no place to hide, and with no chance of errors being compensated for by others, as in a team sport. I should add that in addition to the gut checks, it is essential to maintain total concentration over the course of the four hours. Any mental lapses will be exploited instantly.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Basic Call to Consciousness

On Independence Day, a different point of view. This is from a book called "A Basic Call to Consciousness," a collection of papers delivered by the Haudenosaunee (or, the Iroquois people) to the Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1977. To what extent is capitalism predicated on the depletion of natural resources? What did Winona LaDuke mean when she said that "a society built on conquest cannot be sustained"?

Here's what the Haudenosaunee said in their discussion of their (non-Christian) version of "liberation theologies" and "liberation technologies":
"Liberation theologies are belief systems which challenge the assumption, widely held in the West, that the earth is simply a commodity which can be exploited thoughtlessly by humans for the purpose of material acquisition within an ever-expanding economic framework. A liberation theology will develop in people a consciousness that all life on earth is sacred and that the sacredness of life is is the key to human freedom and survival. It will be obvious to many non-Western peoples that it is the renewable quality of the earth's ecosystem which makes life possible for human beings on this planet, and that if anything is sacred, if anything determines both quality and future possibility of life for our species on this planet, it is that renewable quality of life.
"The renewable quality -- the sacredness of every living thing, that which connects human beings to the place which they inhabit -- that quality is the single most liberating aspect of our environment. Life is renewable and all the things which support life are renewable, and they are renewed by a force greater than any government's, greater than any living or historical thing. A consciousness of the web that holds all things together, the spiritual element that connects us to reality and the manifestation of that power to renew which is present in the existence of an eagle or mountain snowfall -- that consciousness was the first thing which was destroyed by the colonizers.
"A strategy for survival must include a liberation theology ... or humankind will simply continue to view the earth as a commodity and will continue to seek more efficient ways to exploit that which they have not come to respect."

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Edward S. Curtis Photos

It's astounding that just over a century or century and a half ago the old, indigenous way of life persisted on this continent: a non-industrial, non-Christian way of life. A way of life, in fact, demonstrating a whole other way of being in the world. When Edward S. Curtis started photographing Native Americans in the 1890s many of the old ways were gone, therefore many of the images were recreations. We take as a given that our way of life is the natural way of living, or at least the best. The benefits of technology are clear, and for this we should be grateful, but it also helps to contemplate what is lost, and to bring forward what's worth bringing forward when we can.