Tuesday, May 17, 2016

album review: Bryan Deister turns a groove into a rut with "Spines of the Heart"

 Spines of the Heart--Bryan Deister

It’s a cinch that Bryan Deister worked hard on his recent release Spines of the Heart, as it seems this this one-man wonder provided every sonic wash, each cradled chord, each vocal croon and cry, every earnest word, each dollop of solemn percussion on his own. There is much here to recommend his music to fans of the brooding likes of Radiohead, late period Pink Floyd, and the post-Velvet Underground graveyard goth of John Cale. There is not much to recommend to consumers who prefer their traffic to move along rather than remain tonally static. Deister has worked hard, yes, but the range isn't as broad nor genre bending as his publicity materials suggest with its mentions of the musician's classical training and background in jazz, rock and rhythm and blues and trance modes. Some genuine fusion of ideas might have occurred here.

Deister feels deeply, or at least the mulling personas who embody the lyrics do, and there is nary a hint of joy or happiness to come away with. His music , clever in some instances, routinely trudging in others where the tone is down cast and which always seems to require the most plodding instrumental backdrop conceivable, is defeated, finally, by a monotony that results in very little in the way of variety. The experience is not unlike that of playing with one of those toys you find in museum gift shops, a flat plastic casing containing sand of different grades and weight and different colors that, when moved around and viewed with wide eyes and unflagging attention, offers a wondrous flow of sediment flowing in fluid motion to new layers, new striations of variously hued granules demonstrating what sedimentation means. Sadly , though, that is all it does, and what Deister, who we are told is trained in the disciplines of classical and jazz, not rising above the sedimentation, amazing as it might be, and revealing what else his musical garden might yield. For ninety minutes one does not feel they’ve ventured very far in the vehicle provided; one understands that the scenery and the narrative hasn’t changed.

It would have been a grand thing to break up the mood and the approach and give the listener more wrinkles in the other wise smooth, if dingy blanket of music he created, along the lines of a truly cracker jack tune “Seven Eight” (referring to the song’s time signature), a jerky, farfisa organ twist of angular cynicism that features a cool , low tech organ solo that collides,bumps and hopscotches over the jaggedly insistent.It’s the one instance where there is a sense that the narrator rises above morbid moping and like states of psychic statis and attempts to re-contextualize his ’til then glum perspective.You have a sense of movement through the accursed weight of reflection, where music and words match and transform the world. Tension and release, a chance to breath faster, a moment when the ambient gloom gives away and something momentary occurs that brings us something that pulses like a genuine human response to otherwise overwhelming circumstances. I imagine there is more emotional variety and nuance in Deister’s experience and , indeed, more colors and shades and means to use them in his possession than what he allowed himself here.

Monday, May 9, 2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA:CIVIL WAR: a noisy, frantic hodge podge

http://www.technobuffalo.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Captain-America-Civil-War-concept-art-1.jpgCaptain America : Civil Wars is a repetitive bore. Slow to get moving, and then it becomes a long, creaking fandango that alternates between sketchy conveyed expository dialogue and excessively choreographed fights ruined by a combination of MTV editing and a preponderance of seizure inducing camera work that jittered, jostled and in general neared the visual incoherence of a Transformers movie.And, for Christ sake, Tony Stark get even more Bruce Wayne-ish with newly revealed murdered parents issues. What desperate drag this was.Not that it was badly made, to be sure; CA:CW had the Marvel/House style that makes sure that matters of camera angles , cgi effects, fight scenes and editing are executed and presented in seamless fashion. There is a bland professionalism that has taken over Marvel Studios that are making their films stylistically indistinguishable from one another, less so, say, than the sort of factory-assembled cop shows that dominated 70s television.

 This is a shame, of course, because the Captain America tale on film has had a wonderful  arc on screen prior to the latest offering, beginning with the hero's origins in WW2, expanding splendidly in the first Avengers film, and evincing great potential for political intrigue with their plot borrowings from Three Days of the Condor, with the second CA film, Captain America:Winter Soldier. This more closely resembles a Saturday morning cartoon show in the vein of Animaniacs, where there are dozens of recognizable and more obscure pop culture personas running about in a varied states of frenzy and violent upheaval, only to each take a beat to deliver a quip, a joke, an ironic aside. humor blended with accelerated mayhem is Marvel's signature, but the glut of heroes fighting heroes, each with a polished repartee is too much of what used to be a good thing. The film seems like watching the last acts at Comedy Store amateur night, and at other times it comes across as characters auditioning for their own franchises. CA:CW seems only in service to set up the future of the Marvel Universe . Under-considered, alternately plodding and manic, hysterically talkative, jittery and jumbled as an action enterprise, this film is a self-distracting mess.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


This reminisce first appeared in the May, 2016 issue of tsandiegotroubadour.com
 Used with kind permission.
Joe Marillo. Photo by Dennis Andersen.
Photo by Dennis Anderson

At La Jolla’s old Chuck’s Steak House, in a cramped jazz lounge off to the side of the main dining room that seemed no bigger than a studio apartment, saxophonist Joe Marillo held forth on a miniscule stage, lifting his instrument above his chest, his back arched, letting fly with a rapid succession of notes that danced atop the pulse of a racing walking bass and the cymbal riding sweep of an earnest drummer. Wild as this might sound, the proverbial box of pots and pans dropped a flight of stairs yet Marillo and group were in the moment, the essence of jazz greatness, the duality of tossing caution aside, of forgetting formal training and the rules of engaging a song, and still finding extemporaneous musical beauty.

Joe in the 1970s
Joe in the 1970s
The hours of wood shedding; practice; and learning from flubs, goofs, and gaffes that were refined until licks and phrases became syntax for a tongue bypassing the logic of words, every slight, insult, belly laugh, fist fight, and love affair insinuating itself in each quarter note pause, each accelerated race of scales, each bluesy bend and gracious strut, turning the mere technique into a very real voice, tempered by experience. Technique is merely a matter of mechanics, skills an aptitude you demonstrate when you’re working for a grade. Talent, though, is what you learn, when theory meets practice. Practice meant playing with out the safety net as you showed the world what it was you’ve learned and the depth of personality you bring to the technique. Joe’s personality was deep, varied, sprite and somber, lyric and abrasive, emerging fully, masterfully from his instrument, the embodiment of a quote attributed to Charlie Parker:
Joe, 1964
Joe, 1964
Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom.
If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.
They teach you there’s a boundary line to music.
But, man, there’s no boundary line to art….
This was in the seventies, between 1973 through 1975. I can’t locate the exact date in my mind, but it’s a vivid memory all the same. I was working in a string of quizzical jobs—a poet and an occasional rock critic becoming rapidly bored by the calcified likes of rock ‘n’ roll and cautiously investigating jazz, the music of snobs, old people, and tonal chaos. I was watching Joe Marillo, who seemed to transport himself into dimensions without names as he blew and let his fingers fly over the saxophone keys, and then I understood that I didn’t need to understand what he was doing. All there was to do was listen as the allusive complexity of the improvisations cohered and provided the continuous sounds of revelation. I began to grasp the concept I could not grasp previously.

However much Joe seemed to be in a state of transcendence while he was in the throes of improvisational excursion when the music wound down—muted cymbal hisses and piano, bass and guitar fills diminishing in volume and speed as the leader offered one last, rich cadenza that concluded his sortie on a low, richly sustained major note—he stood up, opened his eyes, and looked about the lounge, an overcrowded room of San Diegans fortunate enough to experience Marillo’s bifurcated grooves. He looked squarely in the direction I was sitting. “We’re going to take a short break, have a drink, and let’s keep this scene going, eh?”
Joe with Stan Getz, 1974
Joe with Stan Getz

I sat with two of Joe’s friends, Robert and Jeri, and we were lucky enough to, among the comparative few, have a table inside the circumscribed lounge. They were pals I had since my early days as a UCSD undergraduate literature student and poet in the making. Robert, someone with a detailed knowledge and deep affection for music that was improvised, experimental, full of odd elements and outside the four-chord strictures of pop music, suggested we see Marillo and his band that night at Chuck’s. Robert suggested that Joe might be amenable to letting me sit in with my harmonica for a blues tune. Joe positioned his saxophone on a stand, grabbed his drink, and walked over our table. Fast and animated, Joe brought Robert and Jeri up to speed about what he was planning to do: start up his own jazz series at the Catamaran in Pacific Beach. Robert and Jeri did much the same, the conversation a blur, with rushed words and hasty summations of what had been going on over the weeks since they last saw each other, but altogether amiable, the kind of quick camaraderie among friends who understand the moods of their friends quickly when time was pressing. Joe looked at the “C” blues harmonica I had placed on the table, a cheesy habit I developed: put the instrument in conspicuous view and hope a professional musician would take the bait and ask me to play with him. It worked sometimes; other times the harmonica was ignored. Joe asked one question, pointing to the harmonica.

“What key is that thing in?” I told him that it was in the key of C.
“Tell you what,” he said, his voice a friendly, honking rasp, “you’re going to play a blues with us on the next song, when we start the next set.”
Photo by Dennis Andersen
Photo by Dennis Anderson

Play we did, a slow blues in G, myself trying to follow the augmented I-IV-V progression, Joe’s saxophone seasoning the groove with short fills, blurts, aching squeals, the drummer giving accenting key points of tension, and the pianist tinkling the keys with manic trills and quicksilver runs. Joe leaned over as I held the harmonica to the mic and the mic up to my mouth, likely looking to the crowd like someone who hadn’t eaten in a week who finally got his hands on a Big Mac and a side of fries. He offered these fateful words: “Go ahead, man, it’s all yours.” Play I did, and not all that well, my ideal sound being Paul Butterfield crossed with copious amounts of Sonny Terry, but the crowd provided a visible approval, heads nodding, bobbing, men with their eyes closed as though they were playing the mournful tones, women swaying in their seats, long hair fanning the table tops and overpriced drinks. My first note was a low moan, a bend on the two-draw note, next up to three draw, a construction of textures based on the progression. And so it went for two choruses, me intoning the riffs of the masters, the sounds coming out the house PA system and muffled by the collective sound of the band hammering hard on the grit that made Mississippi great. Joe was yelling “Yeah” at one point, near the last bit of my solo, giving me a start. I missed the groove
The crowd applauded and cheered, though. Joe patted me on the back and gently pushed me from the stage, friendly but firm. The band increased in volume and Joe took possession of the spot again. Center stage was a place where Joe Marillo belonged, gathered with musicians dedicated to making a living playing what is arguably America’s greatest music. In the 40 plus yeas that I listened to him, there seemed to be no style he couldn’t perform masterfully with his horn. There was the Coltrane factor where the register was jumping with steeple-chase changes of “Giant Steps,” which were negotiated with ease and panache by Joe. There was the large, blasting harmonics of Gato Barbieri when the groove went Latin-jazz and the notes assumed extra urgency; there was the delicate, ribbon-lyricism of a Paul Desmond when he did a ballad, his tone subdued, softer, investigating the emotions contained between a composer’s scripted subtle melodic configurations.

It needs to be said here, I think, that above all else, Joe Marillo was a master of his instrument, in my estimation, as well as a the pioneering musician whose legwork convinced a good number of restaurants, clubs, hotels, and cafes to regularly program jazz. Not long after seeing him for the first time at Chuck’s Steak House, Joe created the Society for the Preservation of Jazz, a group that was dedicated to exposing jazz to San Diegans who, at the time, had precious few spots to hear the music performed. He opened his series at the Catamaran and booked jazz legends Sarah Vaughn and Art Pepper among a wonderful string of artists. He had been named “the Godfather of San Diego Jazz,” and it was a nickname he earned. He played all over the county—from East County, Downtown, and the beach area to the North County, spreading his kind of full-throttle jazz to anyone who cared to show up and listen. Something took, I think, all these years later since Joe first campaigned for the music. What we have in our variety of jazz and jazz-friendly venues is due in large part by Joe.

The short and long of it is that Joe Marillo improved the cultural life of San Diego in ways difficult to calculate, which is a more qualified way of saying that he improved life on his planet, period. Had it not been for Joe putting jazz where it had not been before in this sun-glutted burg, my tastes in music would have been impoverished beyond tolerance. Marillo was part of this young man’s education in what makes being alive worth the trudging and setbacks. I thank Joe Marillo for the lessons taught.

Dizzy’s is hosting a tribute to Joe on Tuesday, May 24, 7pm, featuring musicians who worked with him, plus a photo exhibit.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

album review: "ImPossible" is impossibly good

ImPossible--Divinity Roxx

Just as the tributes to the recently departed Prince was causing me to become a shade fearful that we might not witness a comparable talent with his scope and easy mastery of rock, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, funk , fusion and soul , I came upon “ImPossible” (pronounced ‘I’m possible’), a new release by seasoned bassist, singer, MC, band leader, songwriter Divinity Roxx.

I’ve been playing it all week , amazed at her and her band’s effortless blend of motifs, springing from the expected springs of hip-culture and the polysyllabic bantering of rap, but incorporating the riffy drive of rock, the percussive ebullience of greased-up funk, the slow jam testimonies of a lover’s testimonial, the gospel punch of soul , the truly sobering testimonial of unaffected rap rhythm. Roxx, a precise and quick witted bassist who’s been best known as band member and Musical Director for Beyonce, has collaborated with dozens of names in an equal amount of varying styles, and with ‘ImPossible” brings the world an album that is beyond infectious or catchy or merely entertaining (although it is all those things); she is conceptualist, a synthesizer, a musician with an actual fusion sensibility who , it sounds like , loves many kinds of sounds with equal ardor , imagines the ways the approaches can fit together coherently, effectively, powerfully, and who reveals the know-how, or “feel” how, to make this diversified project work. It rocks, it struts, it is insistent on the downbeat, propulsive on the upbeat. That is what she shares with our beloved and begone Prince, an impressive talent based on tradition but , in the corniest parlance one can manage, stands on the shoulders of giants to see what vistas lay ahead for the music.

I’ve been playing it all today as I write this. Groove-tacular. The principle short coming, if that’s the case at all, are Roxx’s limitations as a vocalist; there are more than one occasion on this fine record that you want to knock the ball out of the park the way Aretha Franklin can, or had the husky but feminine baritone of Nina Simone to find the emotional cracks , dents and imperfections in the words; no matter, I say. Roxx is a different generation , raised and reared in hip hop , and she makes fine use of her voice in the old tradition of toasting; but instead of boasting, these long , percolating recitals grasp the thorny issues of racism, violence against the black community, self esteem , the need to remain full of love in both one’s personal affairs but also in the face of the world that is hostile to your existence merely for your shade of skin tone.It does sound a little much, an overkill of I-Have-A-Dream and a stream of sentiments taken off placards, if one were relying on casual description, but Roxx and her special guest reciters, including the esteemed Victor Wooten, reveal themselves, speak truth to power, avoid the strident declarations but insist on strength , resolve, action strengthened by keeping an open heart. The effect is , as well, beyond uplifting, it is transforming. The video above, “We Are”, is a superb representation of an effort that has brightened my week. Driving riffs, blistering, joyous rhyming, determined voices joining in the march toward the day when we all might enjoy our similarities and appreciate our differences.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


 I came into sobriety knowing only one thing for certain , a fact that none of the thousand or so books I'd read nor the many words I'd written could help me feel deep in the bone, in the marrow, where it counted the most. I knew I didn't want to drink again, coming as close I cared to becoming a cheap, delusional , whiny punk petty criminal, gaunt, nervous and doomed to a tragic and end as cipher, a memory no one wants to recollect. But not until I accepted that I was doomed unless something happened was I able to stop arguing with an inevitable and walk the other way, up the hill, toward the sunlight of the spirit. It hardly mattered that I had no plans for the future, if I had any future at all;  all that mattered was not drink today, not steal today, not lie today, not die today. That was nearly 29 years ago, and until I could admit that I was defeated and that my variety of jive was sounding stale even to myself, that I was beyond human aid of any sort, only then was I able to actually do something contrary to the compulsive behavior that made me the saddest sack you'd ever seen. Acceptance, and then change everything you're doing.

Self acceptance is one thing, but it seems to me that changing oneself is required in order to maintain a level of sanity that can return you sanity after the batterings, high and low and in-between, human existence brings us. We cannot remain stubbornly the same as a means of spiting those who attempt to add us to their particularized set of neurosis; learning how to change is an essential skill. Perhaps “change” is the wrong word, as its been co-opted and poisoned by every fad pop-psychology has heaped upon our mass-mediated culture. More appropriate, more useful, perhaps, would be “grow”. Screw trying to change yourself into a internet meme, our tasks is to remain teachable and to grow into new experience, to learn, to become wiser and more full of the love for the world as well as love for ourselves. Too many of us pay a sorry price for having an excess of one or the other. We can grow into ourselves into the world we find ourselves, as individuals, as citizens, as members of a community .

 I realize the phrase “To thine own self be true” is a cliche that makes many cringe, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad way to go. It’s a matter of how we do it. Besides gaining knowledge through experience, we should be able to gather wisdom as well. Or one would think.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The case for making sense against the the professional sense makers

A buddy had just finished a book I'd lent him, The Death of the Critic by Ronan McDonald, and was convinced that the theorists needed a severe pounding. His language was such that I had to put the phone down and answer the door for the pizza delivery man. When I got back and picked the phone up again, he was still ranting, unaware, it seems, that I was gone for a couple of minutes. He's a high school pal, someone who like no matter the contrasts in cultural preference, and he likes a critic to perform the service of being a consumer guide.

 He likes mysteries, Clive Cussler and true crime books, and all he wants is a synopsis and brief evaluations on whether he'll get his money's worth. I have no idea why he wanted to read the book, but he was fired up enough to be convinced that the Usual Suspects McDonald lays out for literary criticism's demise--French theorists, multiculturalism , feminism, variations on the postmodernist riff--had conspired to irritate him .One might understand the response, as in any of those times one volunteers a statement, heartfelt but visceral, not cerebral, about a book they read and enjoyed that might have happened to be the subject of conversation. Once you make your remarks, add your few pennies worth, some smart ass chimes in with caterpillar-length words and odd ideas from two or three different disciplines and leaves you there, lost and humiliated.

That happened to me when I was younger , much younger, mouthing off my platitudes about arts and politics, but rather than getting angry and nurturing a resentment, I was determined to become one of those smart asses, or at least sound as though I belonged to the club. My friend, though, craved his resentments and continued variations of his anti-intellectual beef over the last forty-some years. I assume most of us have friends like that. It was an exasperating conversation. Finally I got him off the phone and made a mental note to not lend him any more books having to do with literary theory or the history of ideas. Rather, I'll offer him some Elmore Leonard. There is a writer we can probably talk about.

On the topic of the book ,it's not that the literary critics are dying as much as people have pretty much ignoring them, preferring the pseudo science of theory, which prefers to wallow in a choking , jargon-clogged solipsism to writing that actually engages a book and it's style, the author's intentions, and the successes or failures contained therein. At some point a generation of young academics hitched their fortunes on the diffusing forces of continental philosophy because they found a method through which they could abnegate their charge to aid readers to sharpen their skills.Literature, by whatever definition we use, is a body of writing intended to deal with more complex story telling in order to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the primary work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single , intangible supposition.

Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that is resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ultimate worth, varies wildly too; there are things that instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect. The goal of literary criticism, ultimately, is not to create the terms that define greatness, but to examine and understand what's already there, and to devise a useful, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest in useful criticism is in how and why a body of work succeed or fail in their operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written

Some of us who toyed with deconstruction and the like , when we found that language in general and literary writing in particular couldn't address the world as is,remember the sweetly slippery issue of inter-textuality. Promoted by Derrida and deMan, if memory serves me (and it often doesn't), this was the fancy footwork that while books fail to address the nature things and make them fixed, unchanging situations, texts (meaning books) referred only to other texts, and the coherent systems writers seemed to uncover or create about how things are were in practice drawn from a limitless archive of each text that came before the one you might have in your hand and considering it's fidelity to your experience.

A futile concern, we find, since everything has already been written, everything has already been said. If this were true, we asked, how can it be that some theorists are using language to precisely describe what language cannot do, i.e., precisely describe things? I never read a response that made sense, as the the answers seemed even more steaming heaps of gobbledygook that made the unanchored theory before even more impassable.Interestingly enough, the entrenched theoreticians, reticent to use the metaphorical techniques they had interrogated and attempted to render inert, weren't able to have their ideas stand outside the limits of their terminology and secure a comprehending response from the interested nonspecialist.

A pity, since science writers and even literary researchers themselves were able to explain in easier parlance the purpose, technique and consequence of the minute and verifiable data science was accruing. But no matter, because at the time one had discovered a nice hedge against having to read a book; I am being grossly unfair to the good critics taking their cues from Continental thought, but deconstruction and intertextuality were choice methods of not dealing with what a writer was saying, instead giving a jargonated accord of how all writing and discourse cannot get beyond itself and actually touch something that terms signify.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Mistress of mystery travels through time

Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I am of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite. 

Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, its motivating core and precise particulars lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation. I've heard it remarked more than once over a few decades that Dickinson appears to be talking to the air around here, oblivious to whether there are others around her who might hear here address things that cannot be seen about equations that cannot be fathomed with certainty.

 It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary, of course, is not science and it is particularly pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play. 

There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have been aware of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art. I do, though, welcome contrary views and insights. 

That's a major reason why I finally surrendered to the singular genius of this poet as a poet of ideas; where the descriptions of manufactured melancholy and text book irony wore out with the idioms they rode in in, Dickinson , like Shakespeare , to a large  degree, remains contemporary with a language that is unique, in a form that eschews what formal instruction demands and which services a poetry that remains relevant to the modern age, what ever decade a reader happens to be sitting in, reading a poem off the page or device; the mystery of existence is intact and vital. Dickinson still provides the reason to say aha, she still creates the chill of recognition.

Society for me my misery
Since Gift of Thee—”

Dickinson, as I understand her, was not a fan of   humanity, and preferred her thoughts and her privately considered things to the clamor and debate of the many that would battle over the right to name the world and its contents as they think it should be. She kept her own consul and had no patience for what others thought or thought of her. 

Being public was a burden beyond what her personality desired; in this couplet, which I suspect is indeed a couplet, she considers the state of being noted, notable, famous for any reason a misery that she ought not to suffer. Being known beyond Amherst was an undeserved gift to the world, as reputation that accompanies fame presents the world with a readymade narrative of someone’s life and presented her with the problem of having to live up to a plot line that she felt had nothing to do with her. Being comprehended or understood by the masses was a useless option for her. 

While Dickinson wanted to everyone to mind their own set of affairs while she tended her own piece of the earth, Pound, again, wanted to have language be capable of getting an image exactly, as would a photograph; the thinking, I think, is that he wanted to get beyond the metaphysical conceits that an older poetics contained. 

On the face of it this seems admirable, but what he wanted to do was to have the world see the world as he saw it, precisely, without romantic resonance and the nuanced variations that come with the habit (and the political tumult as well). He wanted to settle matters quickly and have folks move into a new, dynamic direction. Essentially, I believe his basic goal with his project of boiling down the language was an effort to turn whole populations into cattle.

Blues philosophy with Tomas Doncker

THE MESS WE MADE -Tomas Doncker  —  (True Groove Records)

The music called the blues isn’t dead because people still get the blues, a condition that comes from various states of being that are not conducive to broad smiles and sprite pop songs. Racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, love problems, crime, economic oppression, organic states of mental instability , life seems a punishment to millions , a punishment mostly of our own making , the sad fact of human history that we create our own woes. The truth is about speaking the truth to these matters, testifying from one’s own experience and critiquing the cases and causes of the accumulated woe in terms blunt, specific, unhindered by apologies or finessed blather.

Blues man Tomas Doncker, a veteran guitarist/singer and songwriter who’s been developed a diversified resume with collaborations with Yoko Ono, Ivan Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Bill Laswell and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, brings us The Mess We Made , a pungent and thrilling diagnosing of the current situation that reminds us, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, that blues is news that stays news.
The Mess We Made is a contemporary blues album, far beyond the expected twelve and sixteen bar idiom of more traditional form that have become sadly parodied, if unintentionally, but a generation of younger musicians. Doncker has an expansive palate the draws from, generous portions of New Orleans stride , electric-Motown funk ala the Temptations (“Cloud Nine”), the ethereal rhythm and blues musings and murmurings of Curtis Mayfield (“Freddie’s Dead”).
“Church Burning Down”, a hyper funky testimony that features the superb rhythm section cooking on a red hot foundation for Doncker’s ire, an angry lament that in the face of turmoil, strife, oppression, the cold murder of members of the community, the Church he worships at and the churches of other faiths nominally sharing the same spiritual beliefs and tenets, cannot come together and move their communities toward a common goal of making daily life better, decent.
I am a sinner, just like you
 Abandoned by a state of Grace
 Just like you-just like you
 So damn sick and tired
 Of being sick and tired and abused…
There is conspicuous common cause for religious leaders to live up their professed beliefs and work hard for a better community where neighbors aren’t preying on one another, but human vanity resists the commitment and what results is institutionalized indifference to the problems, an indifference that will results in the church being consumed by the troubles they ignore.
The title song, “The Mess We Made”, reflects on the irony of humans acting increasingly in corrosive bad faith through the kinds of digital aids that have promised consumers the means to connect with hundreds of others, acquire scores of information in an instant and achieve a glimpse of the real world only to find themselves isolated, fearful, angry, paranoid, depressed as a long term result. Verse three is a sad admission of powerlessness to anyone who harbors aching regrets over ignoring relationships and opportunities in life as it’s actually lived , preferring the illusion of being the center of the universe while in the prison social makes possible.
Should’ve known better
 Should’ve left well enough alone
 Could’ve shook a hand and made a friend
 Should’ve put down my smart phone
 Should’ve known better
 But I was so afraid
 ’Cause I drank the poison sweet Kool-Aid
 And now I’m drowning
 In the mess we made
Get your mind right
 Gotta get your mind right
 Get your mind right now…
The Mess We Made is a confident testimony from one musician and citizen who wants himself to rise above the routine mendacity that depreciates both oppressed and oppressor, but also that insists that we need to free ourselves from our devices, to look up from the monitors and to walk outside to see the world that unveils itself. This not, though, an album of lectures, rants or scorn heaped on you at length. It’s a musically rich field of styles here, extending the blues into the contemporary vernacular but never losing the grit, the grease, the percolating counter points and variously rocking counters that make this testament alluring, fascinating , and, yes, danceable. Bear in mind the instrumental chops of the musicians, with Doncker’s guitar work reflecting both the slash and sonic wherewithal of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. He has chops, yes, but they are in service to his fine songwriting.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


A problem of being a self-appointed culture critic is that the longer you hang around the planet breathing the air, the faster it seems your heroes seem to die.  That's a generational thing, your elders and your peers start to pass on, and your tribe is just a little smaller every few weeks. The cure for that sort of minor depression is ,of course, get new heroes, read new artists, listen to music by younger musicians, and, most obviously, make more friends.

Today is Iggy Pop's 69th birthday  and it's an irony upon an irony that he enters the last year of his 6th decade of life  on the same day we find out that Prince has passed away at the age of 57. Iggy survived the morbid predictions that insisted that he would be the next major edgy rock star to go, joining Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones and others as having a bad end to a an edgy life lived in the spotlight. Nihilism was at the core of his act , both as Stooges front man and as solo artist, and it seemed that the fabled mixtures of teen age impulse and fantastic amounts of meth amphetamines and heroin were willful tools he was using to describe life not just at the edge of existence but also, if he were lucky, a will to narrate the passage through the thick shroud of unbeing . It's a classic conceit in modern arts, that an artist's demise is confirmation of their greatness/genius/cutie-pie factor, what have you. It's a species of pornographic thinking and shame on us for egging it onward in the culture. 

 Something intervened in that cliche, however, and Pop has been one of the more interesting elder statesman for sometime, always worth a listen. We benefit by his persistence to remain creative; not to be too terribly sentimental about it, but Pop's longevity improves the quality of my life by his example that you can continue to respond creatively, with imagination to the short existence we're allowed to have. Prince was one of those people, like Bowie, you assumed would be around for the final mile of the long haul, a genuinely gifted polymath who would make music into his dimmest twilight. What hurts the most, from this fan's view, is that we won't get to hear the grander, more experimental adventures Prince would have had as a musician. A straight ahead jazz album. A record of guitar blitzing? Serious classical endeavors? Movie soundtracks? Big Band Music? A blues thing? Reggae? A stage turn as Othello?  

His androgyny/sex fiend persona aside, I marveled at the chameleon nature of his music, the jumping around from style to style. Unlike Bowie, equally eclectic in taste and output, there was a substantial musical virtuosity to Prince's switching up and mashing up and fusing the elements of rock, fusion, Philly/Motown/Memphis/ soul, jazz and the occasional bits of classical allusion. Though he never spoke much of his training,self taught or schooled, he had as solid a grasp of the mechanics of music and controlled his virtuosity like it were a tool to be used judiciously, in service to the music. There was little that was excessive in his music, and I rather liked his singing, which was far from your traditional rock or soul voice; thin, reedy, nasal, limited in range and color, he still molded it convincingly over his melodies and lyrics, sounding wise, insinuating, dangerous, alluring, nearly any persona he wanted to get across. Anything seemed possibly for him because he was spectacularly good at the varied projects he'd already finished and released.

  Alas , but no. This makes you want to pause a few moments and consider the breath your taking at that instant and recognize that life is a gift we are given but that which we don't own. Embrace the days we have and do something with the hours while we have them.

Monday, April 18, 2016


So much vitriol has been unleashed from critics following the release of Zack Snyder's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" that it's not unnatural for those sympathetic to the director's zeal to give us a vision of super heroes in the Age of Anxiety to suspect that the reviews were a result of herd-think. The image of a bunch of high school thugs cracking their knuckles waiting for their selected victim to emerge from the protection of the school halls comes to mind. What they had to say , the critics, sounded more like they wanted to hear themselves in the hating,the collective will to condemn without attempting to dig into what Snyder was doing artistically or in the over lapping storylines. No, I am not one of those who think Marvel , DC's rival,bribed critics to give BvS:DOJ  negative reviews. Instead, I think three years of anticipation and bickering and speculation while the film was being made has poisoned the critical well. Herd think. That's my view.

 That is to say that I don't think the movie reviewers were on a rival company's payroll in to order to undermine the DC Comics sophomore entry in creating a cinematic version of its comic book line. In the time since this project was announced at the San Diego ComicCon in 2013, nay sayers, professional critics and compulsive internet nags alike, appear to have been chomping at the bit to get their negatives in order for that day when BvS:DoJ finally had a public debut. The vitriol, much of it clever in the art of invective, seems too polished, over rehearsed, like a "gotcha" line from a Presidential debate that makes for a good sound byte but misses the point all the same. That's what I think of the negative reviews, they miss the point. The zeal of contain this film in the buzz-kill fog of horrible word of mouth has made for sharp writing and bad thinking.
Of course I loved the film quite a bit, flaws and occasional gaps in plot logic altogether. The film, though, is beautifully mounted and is not incoherent at all. Anyone half way familiar with the essential DC comics this film comes from will have no trouble going along with the vivid visuals and photo-caption philosophizing that move through this , yes, "grim-dark" saga of how the world's two most famous super heroes come to do battle in their first encounters. Without going into an excess of chat-happy detail and equally overheated defense of the film and the director's choices, it just needs to be said that Zack Snyder makes a different kind of comic book movie than what Marvel's glib, chatty, joke-infested action vehicles have; Marvel's is not a bad style, of course, and it has been extremely profitable for them , but it amounts to a House Style, which is to say that it seems as though each film is directed by the same person, each is written by the same team. 

Snyder goes a different direction and, though one needs to admit that his story lines are often muddied film to film, his visual style , from his dark , steely color schemes, his sense of alternating slow motion and rapid motion during action scenes, his ability to fluidly provide with a sweeping series of panorama camera moves that gives us a vision of a world where human kind is challenged by both heroes and defenders who's existence in the midst is terrifying on the face of it, effectively resonates with the dread caused by dark headlines from a world that is anything but serene . The fight sequences are splendid indeed, Ben Affleck may well be the definitive Batman for years to come, and Henry Cavil as Superman creates a subtly complex portrayal of super hero bedeviled by the negative results his attempts to help the mortal world result in.

There are a number of well argued defenses of Batman v Superman one can Google that defend Snyder's style as applied to these icons, and which argue that BvS is quite a bit of a triumph and a breakthrough in the genre. I would recommend Mark Hughes' calm, thoughtful defense in the online edition of Forbes. The short and the long this set of paragraphs is to make mention that even with flaws, there is verve and flair, grit and brilliance in this movie and that anyone with a love of comic books in general owes themselves the gift of seeing a film that will be a game changer for how comic book movies are made; I have confidence that the DC Cinematic Universe is here, a vital and vibrant style of super hero movie that will be an important counter point to what Marvel offers.