Monday, September 4, 2017

A repeated appreciation of JOHN ASHBERY

John Ashbery, America's greatest, most singular, and most entrancingly elusive poet, has passed away today, age 90. The glory of Ashbery was that he didn't seem to care whether others found his poems attractive or not and cared not a whit for what dubious critics and other species of know-it-alls who habitually found fault with his confounding mixture of lyric diction and confounding segues, abrupt transitions, zany intrusions of cartoons movie lore and sports weaving there way through hermetic anecdotes,  sudden confessions, astute observation, quick-witted jabs and softly emerging tones of melancholy and a need to fill the emptiness with talk, ideas, beautiful ideas, things, beautiful art, and beautiful people who could shoulder the burdens of the world preferred a harsher, more blunt way of unfolding. He was content with how he wrote and was puzzled why many readers were bewildered by the non-sequitur surface of his poems. He drew pleasure from the writing of the lyrics. He felt readers ought to derive pleasure from reading something interesting, provoking, poking one's own memories into their own cascading and overlaying associations, the material and the abstract contemplated at one instant. 

His task, his project, was less the hidebound and starchy resolve to make sense of the world, to convene a narrative where every bit of happenstance and coincidence falls prey to a divine hand moving the worldly pieces around a cosmic chessboard, but instead developing a sense of the world as it happens, as it has happened, accepting celebrations and mistakes, youthful and elan and the aches of aging as matters to be marveled at and no more minor a part of one's definitive biography in this existence than the names we are given us when we are born. Discussing Avant gard art in an essay, Ashbery gave us a quote I find wonderfully wise and innocent even though it's meant to unfasten the grip of arthritic thinking from our habitual ways of thinking about how artists should deal with the fleeting phenomena of life itself. Behave  and feel as if there is no certainty to any proposition regarding the metaphysical structure of the seen world: "We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun?"  Ashbery wrote believing that how he wrote mattered and that it would change the way this life is regarded, but never without the lurking suspicion that his true kingdom might well be the fool's paradise. That is what made his poetry, unfathomable though it may seem when wading into its currents, a sustained joy to read. This paragraph follows bits of other pieces on Ashbery I've published before, revisited again, my best words for a great artist.

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the psychic membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.  

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet.  
He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped.

Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.

A poem should not mean, but be.---Archibald MacLeish

That's what MacLeish said and that's what Ashbery holds to, which places smack in the middle of a tradition in American poetry that's been with us since the rise of Modernist practice with Pound, Eliot, and especially the esteemed Wallace Stevens. I find it puzzling that there are those who continue to harp on Ashbery's difficulty and summarily dismiss him as an enemy of "meaning"; it's hardly as if the poet is a foe of the capacity of humans to make sense of their lives through language, and that such use can furnish oneself and one's community with purpose and, perhaps, an ethical structure that would instruct and aid said community against expressing it's worst instincts. What Ashbery would opposed, if he were a polemicist (which he is isn't) is the idea that the "meaning" that language is capable of creating through writing and, in this instance, poetry, is the final destination, the last stop on the route. 

Ashbery isn't interested in the hidden meanings that one might pull from a text like it were an archaeological artifact, but rather in the fluidity of perception; his poems are filled with man made things in a natural world , and it's here his power as a writer, for me, takes hold. Our homes, our cars, factories, the shape of city streets , are custom designed with purposes to help us settle and "conquer" a raw landscape, nature, who's metaphysical presence eludes our conventionally dualist approach to dealing with the world. The contradiction between our ready made distinctions and a Nature who's essence is constant change unmotivated by rhetoric comes clear. We age, we change our minds about ideas, our store of memories expands, and we cannot view the same things again the same as we had; Ashbery's is a poetry of the concrete world,solid, dense, of itself, and the consciousness taking it in, associating sights, smells, gestures, personal possessions in conflations, synthesis. Wallace Stevens imagined the Supreme Fiction and wrote of the balances the perfect shapes of the objects and attending senses in his most ecstatic work, and Ashbery effectively extended the project. The supreme fictions and the imperfect physical things that represent them commingle, inhabit the same space. The result is not the easiest of writings to parse , but what the poet is doing is less undermining the province of language to provide meaning and structure useful for both community stability and expression than it is an affirmation that the singular idea of "meaning" , often times spoken of as if such a thing were a monolith on which all communities and individual sensibilities can ride, does not quite exist. Social constructions have a stronger hand than some folks would care to examine. Examine Ashbery does, and brilliantly at that, if confoundedly so. 

For me, poetry is very much the time it takes to ;unroll, the way music’s not a static, contemptible thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture. – John Ashbery 

Exact meanings of things, of this world we live and grow old in, changes with the introduction of both our years and new social arrangements brought on by new technologies, wars, any number of things. But the aim of Ashbery’s poems isn’t to declare that legitimate meaning cannot be had; he wants to instead to inspect the way an interaction between our thinking, our interior life, and the world external to it exists as a kind of permanently placed negotiation between our expectation and the change that comes and which is inevitable. Ashbery embraces process more than anything else, but not at the sacrifice of a meaning that makes what’s desirable and repugnant to us recognizable. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of  Platonic form,  that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, an guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgement, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.

What Poetry IsJohn AshberyThe medieval town, with friezeOf boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow That came when we wanted it to snow?Beautiful images? Trying to avoid Ideas, as in this poem? But weGo back to them as to a wife, leaving The mistress we desire? Now theyWill have to believe it As we believed it. In schoolAll the thought got combed out: What was left was like a field.Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around. Now open them on a thin vertical path.It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?

This poem talks about representations of things captured at particular moments of aesthetic iteration and speaks to our expectation that things, as we actually experience them, adhere to a narrative we’ve assigned them. But where many despair at how real places, things, people stray from the fine lines that tried to get at their essential nature, Ashbery wonders and finds something remarkable . There is that “it” that we’ve been instructed to seek out, the moral, the lesson to be learned, but the poem asks us, in oblique yet alluring images, are we to give up the quest for meaning because the world is not the static place one might have assumed it was the goal of poetry to confirm? He calls it here, as close as he ever has in his career, when he writes “In school / All the thought got combed out: / What was left was like a field. “ We have been trained to quantifying the content of our experience, we have been instructed in many ways of quantifying sense perception and turning into data that, in turn, is given over to endless narrative strategies –literary, scientific, ideological, economic—that promise a lump sum of a Larger Picture. The task after that, the obligation of the poet afterwards, is to know something more about experience by gauging the fluid nature of our responses to it. Ashbery in his many good moments gets the dissolution perfectly, beautifully. Confounding, but beautiful.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Peter Sprague lets it fly, fleet and fancy

LUCY IN THE SKY--Peter Sprgaue
Ever the versatile and prodigious musician, jazz guitarist Peter Sprague has been on a strong creative streak, with the relatively recent release of his fine collaboration with vocalist/ percussionist Leonard Patton Dream Walking (2016) and the 2017 issue of his collaboration with singer Rebecca Jade, the superlative Planet Cole Porter.  The respective releases reveal again Sprague’s particular joy in collaborating with skilled vocalists on a set of well crafted tunes, whether from the Great American Songbook, or songs more contemporary.  He never loses track of the melody or the vocal line; even in Sprague’s furthest reaching improvisations, you sense a player who’s responding to a fuller concept of the material. 

 So now we have his newest album, Lucy in the Sky, an album of Sprague, performing  on solo guitar, a varied set of songs, --from “My Favorite Things”,  “Oh Shenandoah”  “Trieste”  and several  Lennon-McCartney compositions—with a marvelously delicate touch . There is a discipline here that emphasizes the euphony over cacophony.  Sprague is skilled both in finger picking and in using the pick, and varies his approach with a compositional sense of dynamics.  He does a remarkable job disassembling the familiar melody of the title track and modifying the tune into something wholly fresh. The melody morphs slowly, gorgeously, and his fleet embellishments contrast well against his unique voices of the songs dreamy themes. Not that this album is solely meditative or prone to tone poems. The record, in fact, swings and sways quite a bit, a major amount of commotion for one musician to generate. “My Favorite Things” comes into consciousness as the album opens with punchy rhythms and brooding guitar figures, subtly coming to the main theme and seamlessly giving way to some wickedly sprite 16th note flurries , brief, enticing, a subtle rise in the song’s sense of anticipation. “Etude Z”, a Sprague original, is a choice romp, a swing progression with a firmly implied walking bass highlighting the guitarist’s mastery of sliding between full, diminished and half chords and adding elegant and elaborations on joyous blues. In the same vein, the last track, the Beatles “Can’t Buy Me Love”, gets an arrangement that hints at Sprague’s abiding interest in many guitar styles that inform his playing:  a strong strain of bop, a sexy taste of bossa nova, a bit of the blues.  And, to say again, Sprague does not lose the sense of the human voice in his impressive demonstrations of technique, lyric and mindful or accelerated and quick witted.  Peter Sprague is a modern master, in my view. 

Friday, August 25, 2017


University. of Chicago tells incoming freshmen it does not support 'trigger warnings' or 'safe spaces' - Chicago Tribune:

'via Blog this'

Image result for courage dogCollege is the place where young people are supposed to be introduced to ideas and concepts that are not theirs, dangerous, daring or threatening as they may be, and to inspect them, investigate them, interrogate them, to learn from them. College is the place where young people are supposed to think critically and creatively about the world they live in. Bravo to the University of Chicago for refusing to nurse-maid their students from ideas and issues. Treating young adults like children will not make them good citizens prepared for the adulthood.  The problem is less the idealized notion of "safe places", those sectors of the university where one may discuss in clarity and detail issues, personal and political and otherwise intellectual than it is a method of shutting down debate on campus. Student newspapers have gotten into problems with students, faculty and administrations all over the country for publishing views that are contrary to whatever the local political thinking might be. 
At UCSD, where I graduated in 1981, the campus humor magazine had their funding suspended because they made fun of "safety zones" and "triggers" and such; needless to say the ACLU is suing the university for suppression of free speech. What is happening on campuses in terms of a growing intolerance of views that are contrary or contrary to whatever the conventional wisdom may be is coming from the academic Left , an over theorized portion of the progressive community that has become so invested in identity politics that they've tossed out the great tradition of self criticism and debate, of challenging their theorems against actual material circumstances on the ground and have lost sight , as well, that the point was bringing the hurt, the oppressed, the marginalized, the maligned, the exploited, the forgotten, into the mainstream, as participants in the larger discussions , exchanges and debates that provides us with greater comprehension of life as it occurs outside the Academy. 
I understand the need for accommodation for those with needs traditional methods cannot address, but the trend has been to limit discussion on issues, not expand them. There comes a time when one, special issues and triggers or not, will have to face an unfiltered presentation of views that challenge them and may well cause them discomfort. As much as I expect decorum and civility in a debate, one will be expected to shore up their resources and have responses as strong stated and vetted as anything an aggressive counter view can offer. What concerns me is that there is a trend to shut down things that groups of students find objectionable on their campus and in their classes, and this is not a good thing.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Awfully played music deserves awfully written reviews?

Babies and Punks | San Diego Reader:

As a few of you are doubtless tired of hearing, I wrote music reviews and features for the San Diego Reader in their early days, a moment when a young man was revealing some signs of genuine word-slingerosity who was, as well, an uneasy admixture of self-consciousness, hubris and occasional moments of insight and random kindness. Barely into my twenties, I desired a public intellectual of some rank, a critic, a provoker of greater, deeper considerations of the arts in readers and the various beer-drinking academies I found myself keeping company with. I found the Reader, a then-new alternative weekly started by the enterprising James Holman, who was kind enough to print my first submission, an energetic if scuff-kneed recounting of my second trip to Los Angeles for the required examination for the draft. It actually wasn't that bad a tale as I wrote it, given that I  was still seeking my voice, my cadence, while I   was borrowing the rhythms of other writers. That comes with time, of course. But it seems to me that a lot of what the Reader was kind enough to publish by me was tone-deaf. Bad writing, in short. The editors, bless them, acknowledge the writers who've written for them over the decades and will reprint old stories by them as examples of the prose flavors they brought to that unique publication. 

This set of two record reviews, of Alice Cooper's wearisome teen anxiety factory Billion Dollar Babies and Humble Pie's double - record castrati fest Eat It. Such were my   tastes at that moment- in -time, a white male lover of Post-Cream guitar heroes , trying to make an argument that  guitar pounding in 4/4 time was an art form for which there were standards that must be adhered to, and that the titles here were violating a social contract, of a sort, with the audience. I  wanted to maintain that this mattered, but my attempts to subtly make the case and seduce disbelievers into buying hard rock albums rather than Blue Note jazz reissues at the Sports Arena Tower records were all but so much vapor vanishing into the night air. Ironically, I was trying to give reviews to what, I thought, were bad records with writing as awful and full of obvious phrases, dated buzzwords, and herd-thinking as the records I thought substandard. 

I  wish it had been Mailer or Vidal or Bangs in quality. It was, though, something less, the yearning of a man wanting to sit at the adult table. Well, let it not be said that my bad deeds against writing haven't gone unpunished. Along with the fabled Steve Esmedina, I came to the Reader in the 70s from Mesa College with it in mind to set the world straight as to what constituted good rock and roll and did so in terms that were, in retrospect, presumptive, pretentious and awkwardly worded. The writing was bad, and my only plausible defense was that I was learning how to write, seeking a bit of the quipping panache my various writing heroes had. That said, 44 years later it's safe to say I've learned how to put a couple of cogent sentences in sequence. This is a not-so-grim reminder that my beginnings as an art critic were little more than another ill-phrased rant from the peanut gallery. 

Image result for dunkirkThe respect director and screen writer Christopher Nolan continues to get as a film maker baffles me even more these days ,having recently sat through his most recent effort, the rudderless and pace-less historical drama 'Dunkirk". Dramatic? No, sorry. A strategic defeat but a grand moral victory for Britain in WW2, this movie ought to have some sort of David Lean-ish grandness to it, a sense that English citizens and their military were joined in common cause to thwart a massive evil on the horizon. Nolan loves under written scripts, though, and here effectively dispensed with a script entirely--or so it seems-- and instead used his storyboard for guidance, following big, fuzzy outlines of plot arcs, ideas of editing, notions of resolution.

It's a big picture Nolan is attempting to capture, bringing together five different stories happening, more or less, at the same time as the enemy lurches closer and the rescue of the trapped soldiers is threatened at each turn--the soldiers waiting for evacuation, Spitfire pilots protecting rescue ships from German aircraft, citizen boat owners en route to Dunkirk, commandeers grimacing over their collective plight,and so on. Nolan likes to inter-cut between scenes in an effort to suggest complexity and monumental effort , but there's a lack of emphasis here, a determined lack of tension. Rather than intensifying dramatic tension and expectation by having the audience anticipate what will happen next on a number of different plot lines, there's a bored randomness in the selected edits; this was nothing less than like watching cable TV with a fidgety 10 year old commanding of the remote control.

The hope was, perhaps , to allow character personality emerge and evolve out of the action and not exposition. If so, a respectable aesthetic, but a notion only worth dwelling on if it works. here, it does not. This historical moment has been interpreted as an aimless , repetitive film that no amount of hyperbole can save.Nolan routinely gets high marks from Rotten Tomatoes , as does Tarantino and a doze or so other literal critical favorites I other wise categorize as having, at the least, inflated reputations. I have enjoyed some of Nolan's work when he's focused on plot, or at least determined to have an impact--Following, Momento, Batman Begins, Insomnia--but have found his work in recent years to ambitious in intent and utterly de-fanged of excitement by his habit of trying to juggle many ideas, plot strands His movies come out as opaque in tone and message, and this is not a good thing for him. It's another way of saying that his thematic vagueness is something he hides behind. He'd like us to consider it "poetic".

 You sense it coming, the old punchline, and here it is: IF YOU CAN'T DAZZLE THEM WITH BRILLIANCE, BAFFLE THEM WITH BULLSHIT."  These seems a situation, less uncommon than you'd assume, where the audience suspends their disbelief perversely and buys into the Nolan-As-Genius razzle dazzle to avoid social embarrassment and, it seems, a certain level of sharp scorn. It happens. I told a young fan that I wasn't enamored of the Logan film, a widely praised off shot of the X-Men movie franchise. The discussion was one way, and brief, he said: "I've lost all respect for you". He meant it, it seems. Conversations about recent films came to a dead stop. The work place became a little colder. Trying to make sense of this, I went to what I knew, movies. 

Some people can't handle the truth.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The fans are rabble

The Fans Have Spoken: Top Ten Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Snubs - CultureSonar | Cool Stuff to See, Hear, Read and Do:

The article linked to above argues the  case for ten acts that have not been included so far in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an attempt, I suppose,  to drum up some kind of otherwise harmless internet outrage  about a supposed string of injustices that have not, demonstrably, made any one's life worse for the fact of it. Irritating ,however, is that the case is being made for bands and musicians who Really Don't Matter on my grading system   of who     is worthy and who ought to disappear into retirement anonymity. It 's subjective, I hear you muttering, but admit it, won't you, that not all opinions, subjective as they are, are created equal? It's not even the case that I disagree with who this writer argues for, it's that he doesn't give a sufficiently thought     out rationale . This is list has all the taste of stillwater, a lazy assemblage of press releases. The criteria here is whether the groups or artists sold out stadiums, garnered many platinum albums and otherwise made the record companies billions of dollars. 
The premise is as bogus as the Hall of Fame itself. Grand Funk? Moody Blues? Jethro Tull? These are not bands that made rock and pop music change course. They made hit records, not history . My peeve is that the MC5 is still not in the Hall, a band that arguably influenced more artists after them than all three of the bands I've mentioned combined; along with the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 pioneered the attack, the aesthetic and the philosophical defiance of Punk Rock. It's tragic enough that it took the RRHOF over 30 years to induct the widely acclaimed and hugely influential Paul Butterfield Blues Band. It's just as tragic that witless and bankrupt squibsters like this person from Culture Sonar wants to prate about musicians who mostly have no value beyond their ability to make corporations money. What I'm saying is that the Hall of Fame is a scam. I can't help but think that for every induction ceremony we go through each year, more nails are driven into the coffin and more dirt is shoveled into the grave of an art that is no longer a defining force in the lives of a generation, but only another distraction, like most everything else that is passed off as artistic expression. The secret is this: we haven't been sold out at all. We've sold ourselves out, sacrificing  genuine discovery for convenience and ease of acquisition over discovery. We Google information to settle a bet and cannot remember the answer a minute later. We read books on Kindles and cannot remember plots or character names. We download music for free and use it to retreat, isolate and block out the world as it blasts crudely over headphones and ear buds, and not to engage the world , not to be inspired to create something new, not to sustain a reason to believe in defensible values and moral concerns. We have given up our ability to think critically and given our lives over to 2 bit commentaries and corporately sanctioned views that sell us on the cliches of our times; our conversations are reduced to advertising slogans and photo captions. Moody Blues? Grand Funk?Jethro Tull? Really? Really?!? To be fair to the author, he did mention Warren Zevon, Little Feat and the Cars as artists who should be inducted, three acts I like very much and for each of whom plausible arguments for inclusion can be made.  I am not so convinced the Cars quite merit the award,but I am at least willing to listen to reason   without my routine resistance to canon-formation, but it would a sure bet for Zevon and Little Feat, Zevon for his pugnacious wit and ability to endure pressure with grace and humor, and LF for their artful and literally seamless meld   of rock, funk, jazz motifs into a  fusion that sounds even more organic than what the laudable Steely Dan could do.  What saddens me,if that's the word, is they are on list otherwise studded with profitable mediocrities. Doobie Brothers? Three Dog Night? The Guess Who? Emerson Lake and Palmer? Keeee-rist almighty.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Musaic - Simon and Bard (Flying Fish) 

Fred Simon and Michael Bard, a pianist and multiple reedman respectively who ve been around the jazz scene virtually unknown the past few years, here emerge from relative obscurity with their first record Musaic, an effort that strikes me as an example of  playing-it-safe: the melodies are pleasant and draw on a number of recognizable sources, the rhythm section does its chores competently, and the solos display the requisite knowledge of technique. But, the music never takes chances.  Admittedly the skill level is high,  but Simon and Bard s insist on tilling styles that have been farmed  too long to less bountiful yields: their sources sound like an overly-familiar crossbreeding of Paul Winter, Oregon and Bruebeck: with a dash of Ellington thrown in for good measure - makes the stuff on Musaic merely run of the mill. Even Larry Coryell's appearance on the funk jam "Fancy Frog" fails to liven things up. The usually idiosyncratic guitarist sounds more than happy to merely cruise along with the flow of things, content to only dish out cliche blues licks and occasional fast runs instead of really pushing himself or anyone for that matter. Bear in mind, the music is not atrocious. It's nice and would make the ideal backdrop for when your mother was over for dinner. Otherwise, your time would be better spent catching up on your sleep, or staying up all night watching black and white movies highlighting big lizards devastating Japanese coastal cities. 

Are You Gonna Be The One--Robert Gordon

Image result for are you going to be the one robert gordonFor a number of years Robert Gordon has, in his own way, been trying to revive the spirit of rockabilly music. For all the sweat that's soaked his satin shirts because of his efforts, he's hardly scratched the surface of authenticity, let alone come close to the essence of , grease. The problem isn't Gordon's lack of vocal apparatus - his voice is impressively clear and demonstrates a better-than-average range - but rather that he too obviously relishes the. cliches of his chosen form. The title tune "Are You Gonna Be the One" has him affecting a low voice called from one of those baritone backup singers, and "She's Not Mine" is a ballad wherein he offers a fragile Presley-like falsetto (something in Elvis's singing that I never liked, all corn pone and no guts). Obviously the The Guardian list of syllogistic borrowings goes on, and throughout the album, Gordon sounds too exacting, with each phrase sounding as though he's practiced them through a tape recorder so he'd capture the right nuance; he never allows himself to truly mess with the format or defile the expectations of the potential audience. This leaves little to talk about, praise or condemn , really, and makes this more about his skill as an impostor than an artist who can revive styles from decades before his own.This is not the duty of an interpreter of a style. Though the comparison is tenuous, early rock and roll, like jazz, did have an element of spontaneity, and the magic of the best rockabilly was a kind of barely-contained craziness that was reflected both through the singer's voice and the near-anarchism of the band. Gordon comes across like a stand-up comic impressionist: a ' soon a the shock of recognition ion fades, Robert Gordon it's readily apparent that he's not the real thing. Gordon, however, does show promise in another style. "Standing on the Outside of Her Door" is a change of pace. a country and western ballad in the most maudlin sense. Gordon's voice sound comfortable for once, resonating, low and caressing as he milk every bit of tear-in-the-beer pathos from the lyrics, which are 0 sentimentally sticky they drip down on you like stereophonic tapioca. Not exactly my cup of tea - I would like to hear someone do some rockabilly that didn 't 'SOund like a rusty door hinge - but I might suggest t that Gordon shed his rolled up t- 13 shirt and buy an outfit from Nudies.

Escape Artist - Garland Jeffreys 
Image result for escape artist garland jeffreysYou'd think that Garland Jeffreys' multiple-racial identity - strains of Puerto Rican and Afro-American twined with a strong immersion in the White culture of the Bronx - would enable him to devise a cross-cultural rock and roll fusion that would unify the variegated elements of the Big Beat into an exhilarating, cogent synthesis. Things being as they are, however, Jeffreys' never attained the heights critics have long predicted for him, nor the high water mark
aspirations he 's set for himself. Instead, he is a rather likable sort who can deliver, now and again, with a great song and remains naught but an interesting minor talent. Escape Artist, his most recent release, suffers less from Jeffreys' seemingly habitual confusing of identities. His cover of the Question Mark and the Mysterians oldie "96 Tears," is a delightfully tacky clone of the original version, with his voice sounding expressively sleazy against the farfisa organ. "Modern Romance " and "Christine" are straight forward as he deals with the problems of boy ·girl relationship. Some of the other rockers su~est the influences of Spnngsteen and Costello. Jeffreys, though, does again stumble .on his bad habits in his reggae numbers which sound as limp and washed out as they've ever been. His stabs at clarifying profundity, as in "Miami Beach," only tread the obvious polemics. What Jeffreys needs is a sense of irony, a demonstrations of some kind of street- sharpened wit that would reinforce his particular world view. Presently he seems like someone who tries a little too hard with the options in front of him. A little loosening of the music could make Jeffreys more comfortable with himself as a performer, and to us as listeners. B minus.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A ramble about my record collection in one paragraph. Do not look for a formal thesis

It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Led Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock. By the time I turned 48, how I perceived the world at 18 - 21 is irrelevant to the fact that they've made some good, sometimes brilliant tunes. Hardly perfect: the lyrics are an embarrassment, but the band is about riff and sound, as Richard Cobeen said in the Lennon thread by way of dismissing the band, but is something I think is crucial to their rock and roll success: riffs and sounds over laid on a varied set of styles and influences that work, sonically, more often than they don't. The lyrics, with the vocals, were just part of the overlay, a part of the texture. Like the Beatles, Steely Dan, and Led Zeppelin were studio artists, where the studio was the proverbial third instrument. Live, they were one of the worst bands I've ever seen--though they sounded pretty damned good when I saw them in '67 (?) on their first US tour with Jethro Tull--but in the studio , their music was finessed and honed, typical in those days. For all his faults as a faulty technician in live circumstances, he is a producer who brought a fresh ear to the recording process, and came up with ideas that circumvented the routine dullness and rigor that's become the bane of less able hard rock and metal bands after his Zeppelin's break up. It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin again got my attention. What the new fascination revealed was a band that was more diverse, musically, than what the fidgeting knocks against them at the time allowed.Led Zeppelin IV is their high water mark for track-by-track knockouts and variety of sounds, but Houses of the Holy is where the band really stretched beyond the comfort of the hard rock style they created. I think they do reggae fine, and "The Crunge" is quite funked up-- Plant's Brown vamping is inspired, and the lyrics are , in turn, somewhat surreal without losing a greasy, fry-cooked crease in the seam.The only real bad aftershock of " Sgt Pepper's" and other "concept albums" from the period was the mistaken notion by other artists that there had to be one grandiose and grandiloquent theme running through  both sides of their albums in order for the their work to be current with the mood of the art rock of the period. The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt.Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and "Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: over lapping themes, lyrically,
are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (it's use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album. Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastrous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable 'Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Who’s Next" and the Kinks , best of all, with "Lola", "Muswell Hillbillies" and "Village Green" , both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums; finally, on the hope that the music is good, the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition. Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but not always, and I think the popular opinion that Pepper is a better disc, song by song, than Satanic Majesties is on the mark. Majesties had The Stones basically playing catch up with the Beatles with their emergent eclecticism and failing, for the most part. That they didn't have George Martin producing and finessing the rough spots of unfinished songs marks the difference. Majesties, though does have at least one great song, "2000 Man", and a brilliant one, "She's A Rainbow" For the rest, it sounds like a noisy party in the apartment next door. The album sounds like a collection of affectations instead of a cohesive set of songs. Cohere is exactly what the tunes on Pepper did, good, great, brilliant, and mediocre. The sounded like they belonged together. Authenticity is such an elusive quality that it's mostly useless when judging as subjective as whether someone's music is legitimate. It's a nice way to chase your own tail, though, which is what many like to do. Better to consider whether the music is at least
honest, or better yet, if it's done well: whether music, lyrics, voice, style work on their own terms, makes for a more interesting set of topics, and a more compelling record collection. I would say that "She's Leaving Home" is one of the most atrociously three-hankie wank fests ever written, but I would say that "Good Morning Good Morning" has a lyric that is defensible: it serves the purpose, it's lines and images are clipped, fitting the beats, and the words don't address anything larger than what they're supposed to, a bad mood on a fast morning. It's a self-contained set of references, locked in a particular frame of mind. It is not Lennon's subtlest work, but it's not embarrassing at all. "Catch the Wind" is a lovely song, with a beautifully tendered lyric. Though obviously coming into public view on Dylan's coattails, Donavan was no talentless amateur: he wrote good material in his "new Dylan" period, and did, remarkably, go in a direction quite distinct from Dylan's. He had his moments of good work. Anyone who is still complaining about Zep's less-than-Eliot lyrics has spent too much time staring at their lyric sheets while wearing headphones. It's better to consider Sgt. Pepper as a good album as a good album as a good album, with its historical importance set to the side. There are several good songs on it that have worn well over the decades that keep it from becoming the equivalent of the nutty uncle you don't want your pals to see. Realizing which songs were good after the fact isn't nostalgia, it's common sense. Catcher in the Rye remains what it is, certainly the classic of growing up twisted and feeling put upon. It makes no sense to trash it just because your reading habits became more sophisticated.

Chet Baker's return home in 1977

Image result for you can't go home again chet baker
You Can't Go Home Again-- Chet Baker
Trumpet player Baker has a cool, lyrical, muted style not similar that of Miles Davis from his Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain period. One ought not stop with the maybe too obvious comparison , as Baker is fairly much his own man when it comes to speaking in the hushed , muted tone that Davis also preferred in his best period. Baker's riffs are his own,personalized medals and scars of good looks and good loving gone bad due to women, whiskey and heroin. Baker did eventually succumb to a drug related death, a repeating tragedy among artists as it is among the rest of us , but his particular album was made during one of his periods of getting clean and commencing to make music again. It's a good one, seductive, alluring, not perfect and a bit frayed around the edges of Baker's improvising; some notes are harsher than you know he intends, some ideas are a little clammy in this mood  inclined project. But it works, soulful, intuitive, honest.   You Can't Go Home Again (released in 1977) , applies himself more tactfully and imaginatively than a dozen other flashier players could, Freddie Hubbard (Liquid Love ) included. The music is generally lyrical and moody with heavy orchestration by Don Sebesky (whose career as CTI house arranger has converted many a talent into a white faced, mass market commodity) , but Baker's pensive, searching emotionalism transcends the limits, as well as the efforts of a superb group of sidemen, including drummer Tony Williams, saxist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist John Scofield, along with other famous names like Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, and Alphonso Johnson. The group playing is infectious and allows for a number of sparkling moments, particularly in the solos of Scofield, Desmond and , Brecker. The lyricism here is terribly handled, without  sentimentality. Emotionally, this music is tougher stuff. Baker's power seems to come from a deeper; each note, even when he quickens his phrases as the rhythm section doubles and triples the time, seems like a hard won victory of expression. Today, pain , heart ache and the series of self inflicted wounds that constitute Baker's non-music playing life, cannot quiet this man's need and ability to create a terse and jarring poetry.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Dark Tower

Image result for the dark tower
The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is a missed opportunity for the following quality sci/fi fantasy series. Initially, a nine-novel sequence penned by Stephen King has the ingredients for a continuing saga revolving around protecting the titular dark tower that exists between realities and stabilizes the varied facts within its domain. This being based on a potent and endlessly unfolding Stephen King narrative, which is to say that the original series of novels takes side trips and falls into distracting, if entertaining rabbit holes at many turns of the story, has the central element of this problematic phantasmagoria to be children, one child in particular, who has the power to create all things or cure the ailments that threaten everything that lives. Lots of characters, superpowers, magic, betrayal, good versus evil, a gifted child with abilities far beyond those of men and gods; King certainly provides quite a bit for multi-season streaming drama. 

The film, though, is brutally condensed, curt, and abrupt in transition both in scenery and idea. It would be kind to suggest that the movie is breathless in its pacing. One should be admiring the briskness in which a great deal of thematic material from Stephen King's writing they manage to wedge into the 90 minute time but do so, for me, would be dishonest. Where others think breathless, I say, gasping for breath, the singular tone being someone who wants this project done much sooner rather than a way later. For all the explanations that might be given for how slipshod the storytelling is, think of that one kid in high school, yourself perhaps, who tried to ad-lib their way through an assigned oral report they hadn't prepared for. This is precisely what The Dark Tower feels like for its duration.

Matters of a plot point, explanations of thematic conceptions, and revelations of what's been going on are passed off in a hurry through cavalier bits of expository dialogue. The Man in Black, watching the Gunslinger wondrously dispatch minions with his weapons, reveals that legend has it his guns were forged from the same metal that made the mystical sword Excalibur. And that's it, which is annoying since that's an intriguing notion worth expanding on. The skillful expansion isn't the aim here, but rather contraction, and this feels more like a Quick Notes summary than anything else. I was never beyond the feeling that what I was watching was the usual prelude before a new episode of a television drama as to what's occurred earlier in the season in a quick montage. It's a shame since the premise is attractive, and Movies with Iris Alba and Matthew McConaughey should leave you breathless from their performance, not scratching your head wondering why they bothered with this.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Album reviews: SWING LOW, SWING HIGH

Petite Fleur -Zzmzzy Quartet 
(Art Hurts Records)

This originally appeared in The San Diego Troubadour.
Used with kind permission
The summer of 2017 thus far has heard a good loud, crashing, dynamic music coming from my apartment, speed metal, hard rock and hard bebop, fast and infuriating. With the recent passings jazz-fusion guitar geniuses Larry Coryell and Allan Holdsworth  , I pulled their respective CDs from my collection and played the fastest, hardest, most blistering music I could find from these two. Understandably, noise complaints, frayed nerves and headaches ensued before long, necessitating a change of music, both in tunes, tone, and mood. Rather handily, Petite Fleur by Zzmzzy Quartet came into my possession.  Noise complaints ceased, nerves soothed, headaches abated, and the apartment currently resounds with the mellow gypsy swing of the Zzmzzy Quartet. The first word of the troupe’s name, their web site advises, rhymes with “whimsy.”

And whimsy it is, as this time honored music is performed by four skilled musicians (Beston Barnett on guitar vocals, Matt Gill on clarinet, Paul Hormick on upright bass, Peter Miesner on guitar and lead vocals) who  move through the snaky  and occasionally minor key melodies and occasionally acrobatic chord progressions with contagious good humor . This is hardly a stiff resurrection of an old timey style; this is music that pulses, moves, swings indeed, performed by some guys who continually find the sweet spot in the heart of the songs. Principle in this effect is the sultry and sonorous playing of clarinetist Gill,  who provides a tone that is rich and finds the right emotion a song’s melody suggests, either doleful or exhalting,  gleeful  or meditative. His reading of the title tune, Sidney Becket’s “Petite Fluer”, rises and ebbs fluidly, each note a smooth caress against a steady and sympathetic back up   of guitarists Barnett and Miesner and the resonant bass work of Hormick.

 Zzmzzy Quartet, in turn, sweetens the pot with fine medley of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood / Solitude”, a beautiful guitar figure framing Gill’s nuanced reading of the melody and a brooding improvisation that joins the contrasting melodies of both songs.  Sweetness abounds again with a jaunty take on “Lazy River” by Hoagy Carmichael, jumping and jamming with piquant guitar and reed making marvelous miracles though out.  There is quite a bit of splendidly played music on this music, not of this time but timeless in the sense of joy very fine tunes provide when played with the love and inspiration Zzmzzy Quartet obviously has. 

Those of you who like their swing jazz rousing, spiky and fleet fingered are in for a treat with the album’s last track, a robust take on “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Guitar, clarinet, trombone (form guest artist Billy Hawkins) take turns twisting and rocking the melody, the rhythm firmly propulsive, all before a wonderfully plaintive vocal from Miesner and Barnett.  This has been playing at least once a day as of this writing, which is to say that Zzmzzy Quartet’s Petite Fleur is cool and keen and a wonderful reminder that there is little in this life that good music can’t make better.