Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Stray Thought

In some (presumably hypothetical but perfectly realizable) language, the sentence You have to be a good speller to write a palindrome is, itself, a perfect palindrome.  It's funny.

But in a different (presumably hypothetical but perfectly realizable) language, it's one letter off from a perfect palindrome -- and is much, much funnier.

Poem of the Day: Hughes's Let America Be America Again

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

-- Langston Hughes

Monday, April 29, 2013

Stray Thought

Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel would contain a Vast number of volumes of ASCII art.

Poem of the Day: Auden's As I Walked Out One Evening

I just noticed I haven't posted any poetry since January.  This will not do.  So I'll post a poem every day this week -- to make up for lost time, as it were.  Plus get up on this blog some favorites I've never put up here.

So without further ado...

As I Walked Out One Evening

As I walked out one evening,
  Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
  Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
  I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
  “Love has no ending.

“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
  Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
  And the salmon sing in the street,

“I’ll love you till the ocean
  Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
  Like geese about the sky.

“The years shall run like rabbits,
  For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
  And the first love of the world.”

But all the clocks in the city
  Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
  You cannot conquer Time.

“In the burrows of the Nightmare
  Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
  And coughs when you would kiss.

“In headaches and in worry
  Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
  To-morrow or to-day.

“Into many a green valley
  Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
  And the diver’s brilliant bow.

“O plunge your hands in water,
  Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
  And wonder what you’ve missed.

“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
  The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
  A lane to the land of the dead.

“Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
  And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
  And Jill goes down on her back.

“O look, look in the mirror?
  O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
  Although you cannot bless.

“O stand, stand at the window
  As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
  With your crooked heart.”

It was late, late in the evening,
  The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
  And the deep river ran on.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


So if you're reading this on a computer, not an iThingie or rss-gorge or what have you, you'll notice that the place just got a new look.  I'm not sure I'm 100% happy with it, but I like the idea behind it, if you know what I mean.  The rendering remains a work in progress.

(One thing it now does -- in one of the silliest wastes of time in the History of Man -- is match the main page of my twitter feed.  (Branding!) But the twitter machine lets you have a separate picture for the header; blogger only allows a color.  I like the twitter look better.  Any advice on how to more closely replicate it here would be accepted gratefully.)

The other change I made was to delete my blogroll.  No offense to any of the fine blogs on it.  But the damn things was years out of date, with a great many blogs now moved, retired, renamed or dead,* many new blogs unlisted, etc, and I didn't have the time or energy to update it, so amputation seemed the doctor-recommended option.  If I get time I'll do a new one... except that the entire things speaks to a particular time, when the World & Blogosphere was Young, that has passed.  I liked those halcyon days of yore, and the virtual coffeehouse within them -- they were what made me start blogging -- but liking won't bring them back, and maybe it's no use pretending that they're still around. (cf this)  So since I was getting a new look anyway, I decided to do the amputation and the cosmetic surgery at the same time, and save on the anesthesiologist's fee.

Oh, and is there any particular meaning to the whole The Wind in the Willows, and specifically the E. H. Shepard illustrations thereof, theme?  Nah.  I've used Toad as my twitter & blog icon for a while.  It just seemed like some nice images to play with and give a thematically consistent yet visually interesting look.  (Again, more successfully here than, er, here.)

* Not a metaphor, sadly.  RIP Leila Abu-Saba, Steve Gilliard and Andrew Olmsted.  I couldn't bear to delete them from the list, but it's wrong to keep them on too; one more reason for the whole list to just go.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Nature of the Primordeal Story

All children are magical realists; realism is a later development.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Quote of the Day: The Two-Step of Terrific Triviality

Henry Farrell has done us all the favor of reminding us of a good idea* from John Holbo:
...a standard rhetorical move which has no accepted name, but which really needs one. I call it ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’. Say something that is ambiguous between something so strong it is absurd and so weak that it would be absurd even to mention it. When attacked, hop from foot to foot as necessary, keeping a serious expression on your face. With luck, you will be able to generate the mistaken impression that you haven’t been knocked flat, by rights. As a result, the thing that you said which was absurdly strong will appear to have some obscure grain of truth in it. Even though you have provided no reason to think so.

-- John Holbo

c.f. Dennett's coinage "deepity", which is, I think, a close cousin of the two-step (but not a subcategory? Have to muse on this more.)


* Not quite le mot juste.  It's not an idea, it's an act of naming, which in this case (as in many but not all) includes an act of recognition. title="Not quite le mot juste. It's not an idea, it's an act of naming, which in this case (as in many but not all) includes an act of recognition."

What We Cannot Speak About We Must Link To In Silence

Lotsa links, some old but all still fresh.  Mostly humorous or diverting.  A few otherwise. Random order.

Teju Cole, "Seven Short Stories About Drones" (viaMore here.

100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About

Philip Roth v. Wikipedia

Flowchart: Are You Good at Following Flowcharts?

The Spider-man frog.

The greatest 404 page ever. (Warning: music starts on opening.)  Another good one.

• Possibly the greatest Venn diagram ever (via):

• If you read the Narnia books as a kid, you might remember the problem of Susan.  I'd always thought that Neil Gaiman had the last word on that.  But it turns out there were other brilliant things to say too.

• I’ve done my work for the day,
I’ve twittered random shit.
I’ve whined about immigration;
And I’m sure I displayed my wit.
I’ve drunk my supper, watched some porn,
And even fed the dog.
Now it’s time to be an idiot on John Scalzi’s blog.

(continues at the link)

•  Plot holes (and similar flaws) in World War Two.  Sample:
Apparently we're supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren't that evil. And that's not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.
Similarly (or is it 'conversely?), If Series Set In the Modern Day Were Written Like Sci-Fi Series.

• Rest easy: University of Chicago's Indiana Jones mystery solvedAlso here.

The Avengers vs. God. 'nuff said.

God's blog: the comments.  Sample:
Going carbon-based for the life-forms seems a tad obvious, no?

The creeping things that creepeth over the earth are gross.

The dodo should just have a sign on him that says, “Please kill me.” Ridiculous.

Amoebas are too small to see. They should be at least the size of a plum.
• The inspiring and uplifting -- at least in personal terms; it's a bit depressing & infuriating considered politically -- story of Richard the piano tuner:

Here's his web site, for more on his lifestyle -- or to hire him to tune his pianos. if you live in the London area.

•  11 More Weird & Wonderful Wikipedia Lists. The problem with pages like this is that highlighting good stuff on Wikipedia always sets it up for deletion.  But it's fun.

Brief but fascinating (and quite persuasive) speculation about how fictional characters work from Cory Doctorow.

• Old news, but I missed it before: Neil Gaiman's writing a new Sandman series!  Huzzah!  And with the person who is probably the best artist working in mainstream comics today, too.  (JHW3's books are pretty much the only ones I'll buy just for the art, even with little interest in the story.)  So double huzzah!!

The Battle of Hoth (from The Empire Strikes Back) in military terms.  Includes links to rebuttals, further discussion, etc.

Zombies as an image of survivalism.

A defense of academic hesitations and verbiage.  Preach it!

Compilation of Calvin & Hobbes snowmen cartoons.

• And speaking of which, “Hobbes and Bacon” is a “Calvin and Hobbes” tribute that takes place 26 years later

• I don't know how to describe this incredible, amazing series of photographs called simply "The Basement".  It's brilliant.  Go see.

• The Saga of the Hat:

An extraordinary blog post about addiction, from the fabulous Natalie Reed who, sadly, recently stopped blogging.

Sayings of the Jewish Buddha.

27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts In 2012

• Truth hurts:  Novelists strike fails to affect nation whatsoeverDying Lion Sure Doesn't Feel As Though He's Completing Some Great Cosmic CircleNew Cheney Memoir Reveals He's Going To Live Full, Satisfied Life Without Ever Feeling Remorse And There's Nothing We Can Do About It.

• Ever since Ambrose Bierce's classic Devil's Dictionary (1881 - 1906), there have been a lot of sequels, updates, etc.  Most aren't nearly in its class.  But this one comes pretty close.

Henri Matisse’s Rare 1935 Etchings for James Joyce’s Ulysses

Texts from Superheroes (via).
 Link to tumblr; link to best-of-2012.

How many people are in space right now?

• "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious": not invented in Mary Poppins. In fact, it predates it by decades.

• Quiz: 18th-Century Connecticutian or Muppet?  Don't miss the answers (especially the final answer).

Wild dolphins will greet one another by exchanging names.

Six things rich people need to stop saying.

• Two on (SF writer) Robert A. Heinlein: Friday as a trans novel, and Robert Heinlein: One Sane Man?  By John Kessel.

The unabomber's entry for his Harvard alumni reunion book.  And the unabomber's pen pal.

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's Horrifying How Familiar It Feels To Be Reading About Mass VIolence in the US

...although of course the hometown location makes it particular for me.  I hope everyone I know there is ok.  My thoughts are with them -- and with the city I love.

Photographs from the Boston Globe here.

We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared. Our fears would play right into the perpetrators' hands -- and magnify the power of their victory for whichever goals whatever group behind this, still to be uncovered, has. We don't have to be scared, and we're not powerless. We actually have all the power here, and there's one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized.

It's hard to do, because terrorism is designed precisely to scare people -- far out of proportion to its actual danger....

Don't glorify the terrorists and their actions by calling this part of a "war on terror." Wars involve two legitimate sides. There's only one legitimate side here; those on the other are criminals. They should be found, arrested, and punished. But we need to be vigilant not to weaken the very freedoms and liberties that make this country great, meanwhile, just because we're scared.

Empathize, but refuse to be terrorized. Instead, be indomitable -- and support leaders who are as well. That's how to defeat terrorists.

-- Bruce Schneier

You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out..... This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

-- Patton Oswalt

A policeman told me, “We have the possibility of another device. You are not safe here. Please move along for your own safety.” She did not appear to be kidding. You could smell the blood a block and a half away. On a day like this, everybody’s nervous. Everybody’s scared. Nobody knows anything. And everything is a secondary device.

It was always going to be something like this. After the Olympic Park Bombing in 1996, it wasn’t going to be a big event. It wasn’t going to be the Super Bowl. Or the World Series. Or college basketball’s Final Four. It was going to be a happy gathering that everyone took for granted. It was going to be the average college football game. It was going to be a small college basketball game. It was going to be the Boston Marathon, one of the last big open events in a society closing in on itself from every direction....

The problem the EMTs had was that the bomb went off inside the security barricades. The barricades meant to protect the spectators briefly prevented the EMTs from reaching the injured. This was not the last of the day’s cruel ironies. The EMT told me that the first person he saw was a 5- or 6-year-old with blood on his face. He did not seem to be in any way injured. One of his parents lay on the ground next to him. The parent wasn’t moving.

It was always going to be one of these. It was going to be a smaller, happier less grimly secure event. And now it’s one of these. And you can smell the blood two blocks away.

-- Charles P. Pierce

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.

 -- Fred Rogers ("Mr. Rogers")

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Obama and Lincoln Analogies

Obama came into office wanting to be Lincoln but ended up being McClellan instead.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Unlearned Traveler's Tales, or, In Praise of Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth

Thus far I have been discussing entrance points to jazz -- first albums, second albums, avoiding albums, and the like.  It's like that section of a guidebook where they tell you what to pack, how to get to the country, and give you a potted history you skip.  It's preparatory.

It seems like it's time to stop talking about how to get into jazz, and to start talking about what you might want to see once you're inside.  --  Or, to uncoil that simple thought from its tangled skein of metaphor, to talk about some music I've liked.

I'm envisioning this as a series of posts, each talking about some music I've liked -- perhaps a musician, perhaps a particular track, or perhaps several recordings of a single song.  But usually, I suspect, I'll talk about albums (notwithstanding): it's the terms in which I grew up thinking of music, and it's how I still largely do.

A few words of warning -- or, somewhat less grandiosely, of classification -- before I begin.

First, I've been exploring largely at random, and I'll be talking about some of the music I've discovered in the same way.  These aren't best of lists; they're things I've heard and liked.  I'm not systematically going through the Great Music; I'm browsing, and talking about what I've found.

Second, do remember that I am an extremely uninformed listener.  I'm in new territory.  Some of these entries will be the equivalent of saying "Wow, I was in Rome, and there's this large building, and one of its ceilings is really nice.  Bit high up though."  Other entries will be the equivalent of walking into a tourist attraction and mistaking the refreshment stand for the main site and gushing about it.  --  My hope, of course, is that the naive view might be worth hearing.  (If you want expert guidance instead, of course, there's lots of places to look for it.)

And finally -- and most importantly -- my status as an uninformed listener will really hamper what I can say about the music.  In some cases I'll have some idea of why I like it; but in other cases I won't.  Even in cases where I do have some idea, I usually won't have the conceptual vocabulary to really pin down what I'm liking about it.  Description always requires knowledge; understanding something simple such as first-blush enjoyment requires a great deal of it.  I don't have that knowledge.  These are reports more than analysis.

All that said, I want to write about one of my favorites of the albums I've heard since I began my recent explorations into jazz, one that I liked instantly at first listening, and have just continued to like more the more I've listened to it.  (And while I don't know for certain -- my listening is across too many formats and programs to keep accurate count -- I think I've heard it more times than any other jazz album I've listened to in the past few months.)  It's one that (unlike some other albums I've liked) I'd not only never heard before, but I'd never even heard of before.  The album is by Oliver Nelson, and it's called The Blues and the Abstract Truth, and it was recorded and released in 1961.

One question I can't answer is how I came upon this particular album -- since I did, early.  It's hardly an obscure album -- this top one hundred jazz albums list, for instance, currently* places it at #23 of all time.  On the other hand, it's #23, not a top ten or even top twenty album; which is to say, it's a classic, and it's some people's favorites, but it's not a consensus top-tier album, unless the tier in question is pretty broad.  Thus, for instance, it's not on any of the dozen lists of starter albums which I discussed and linked to in this post.  It's mentioned in comments on a few, but I don't think I saw those before.

Of course, I looked at other lists too, including a lot of longer ones.  And it's on some.  I'm pretty sure that I myself got it off of this top 25 list.  (It's also on this top fifty list, this top 100 list, and this one (as well as the previously linked one.))  But it's not a consensus pick by any means.

So why did I focus on it?  Sheer chance clearly had a lot to do with it.  The fact that my local public library (bless it!) had a copy, and that that copy was neither checked out nor damaged, played a big role.  Might have even been dispositive.

But I think I focused on it because of its title.

In a strange land, we grab onto familiar.  I seek out bookstores in foreign countries, even ones where I don't speak the language.  Many Americans seek out McDonald's; Chinese tourists eat at Chinese restaurants in Europe.  And so forth.  Well, I'm far more of a word person than a music person -- I know more about their use, their composition, their aesthetic power and effects.  Which is not to say I don't love music (obviously), but I am at home in words, and abroad in sounds.

And The Blues and the Abstract Truth is an absolutely awesome title.

I'll admit I do this more often than I should.  Looking at a list of jazz albums, or jazz songs, I latch onto great titles.**  It's not unlike judging an album by its cover, which is barely a half-step away from the proverbial mistake about books.  Now, it's true that an album's cover (like a book's) is an artistic and aesthetic object in its own right -- there are good ones and bad ones.  It's just that the quality of a cover isn't correlated at all with the quality of the book/album it wraps.  It's a separate issue.  So to judge one by the other is simply silly.  (Hence, proverb.)  And while I'm not sure that the same is true of titles to quite the same extent -- particularly, perhaps, in the case of stories, novels, poems rather than music -- it's basically a slight correlation, and a silly way to pick music.

But in the midst of vast riches, we grab onto things for odd reasons, or none.  And this is, often, mine.

So enough about the title, then.  What about the music?

Well, it's pretty much an all-star band.  Not quite as much as Kind of Blue, perhaps, but close.  In fact, one person -- the pianist, Bill Evans -- is the same on both albums.  And he is, as I noted before, a star.  Of the other performers, Eric Dolphy (flute & alto sax (& maybe bass clarinet?)) and Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) were both major jazz musicians in the 1960s, being the leaders on important albums of their own, and sidemen on many other important albums as well.  Paul Chambers, the bassist, didn't have, to the best of my extremely limited knowledge, as important a career as a bandleader as Evans, Dolphy and Hubbard each went on to, but he did appear on a great number of important albums as a sideman, including a lot of albums with both Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  Roy Haynes, the drummer, I know less about, but he's been prolific both as a bandleader and as a sideman.  (And I don't know anything at all about George Barrow, who played baritone sax on the album.)  Overall, though, it's clearly a fabulous band.

What about Oliver Nelson, the bandleader (and player of alto sax)?  Well, he definitely made a lot of albums.  Most of them, however, get a mixed reception -- except The Blues and the Abstract Truth.***  Here's a discussion thread on the topic of what other Nelson albums to listen to as a follow B &AT.  I must admit I haven't yet followed up on any of those suggestions, though.  Given that I have so much to explore, I haven't quite felt motivated, much as I love The Blues and the Abstract Truth itself.****  (If anyone has any affection for any particular Nelson albums apart from The Blues and the Abstract Truth, please feel free to sing its praises in comments.)

The album itself, incidentally, is pretty short -- six tracks, totaling 36.6 minutes.  And, unlike many other classic jazz albums, it hasn't been released in an expanded version, including lots of alternate takes, etc.  (This tendency is a mixed blessing: given jazz's improvisational nature, alternate takes are often worthwhile and are certainly interesting; but it can be overwhelming, at least for the newcomer.)  Nelson wrote all six of the songs.  The track titles are: "Stolen Moments", "Hoe-Down", "Cascades", "Yearnin'", "Butch and Butch" and "Teenie's Blues".*****

Ok.  But what's so good about The Blues and the Abstract Truth?  What makes it so special?

Here's where my ignorance, alas, comes into play: I simply don't know.

I can tell you that it is incredibly accessible, even to those new to jazz -- rather in the way that Kind of Blue is.  One doesn't put it on and find it hard to follow; you put it on and it just sounds great.

The solos are all fabulous.  They also seem to have a more straightforward relationship to each other, and to the main theme of each piece, than in a lot of jazz.  They're more obviously melodic.  They're catchy, gorgeous, driving, relaxing, by turns.

Incidentally, some people (at least in this discussion) seem to think the second track, "Hoe-Down", is not as good as the rest of the album.  Speaking personally, I love it; sometimes it's my favorite track.  (Other times other tracks are; often, I just like them all.)  I suppose I'm missing some flaw they hear.

I really like Dolphy's flute.  Flute is not a major jazz instrument -- certainly not like the sax, trumpet, bass, piano or drums -- but it works really well here, and the contrast in tone color is fabulous.

Actually, my (amateurish and vague) sense is that one of the marvels of this album is precisely its tone color.  The mixing of the various winds -- several saxes, trumpet, flute -- really works, and creates a gorgeous sound palette, which Nelson and the others work with in really entrancing ways.

It is, in short, a great listen.  Highly recommended (even as your second album, if you haven't yet moved beyond your first).  It's fun, captivating, beautiful.  Just marvelous music.  But, truth be told, I don't really know why it is.

...Did I mention it has a great title?

Hmm.  This witness doesn't seem to know much about the case, your honor.  Can we call another?
This record is as good as anything in jazz music, I think.... you've got a lot of musicians who are at a very exciting point in their development. ... on bass clarinet, Eric Dolphy did things that other musicians, even classical musicians, could not do. Great leaps of intervals, great playing of octaves in his music, from top to bottom, very fast and very easily. It's very hard to do that on that instrument, I have been told.

Oliver Nelson... [had] the ability to make a very small group sound large. So you hear the opening lines of "Stolen Moments" which we played a bit earlier, and you think that you're listening to a much larger band than you're hearing. That shows very good writing. He was a very studied musician. And with this very particular record, he was anxious to explore the chordal structure of the blues. He does that well. He also refers to the basic Gershwin structure of "I Got Rhythm" as being something that he wanted to work from here.... The blues is all through this record....

...It would be criminal not to mention the rhythm section of this album. These are three of the greatest players ever assembled for any session, I think.... And, they're full collaborators in the music. Please do not omit this rhythm section as you listen to this recording.

-- Murray Horwitz. & A.B. Spellman
Ah, that's better.  Another?
Oliver Nelson is known primarily as a big band leader and arranger, he is lesser known as a saxophonist and organizer of small ensembles. Blues and the Abstract Truth is his triumph as a musician for the aspects of not only defining the sound of an era with his all-time classic "Stolen Moments," but on this recording, assembling one of the most potent modern jazz sextets ever... "Stolen Moments" really needs no comments, as its undisputable beauty shines through in a three-part horn harmony fronting Hubbard's lead melody. It's a thing of beauty that is more timeless as the years pass. The "Blues" aspect is best heard on "Yearnin'," a stylish, swinging, and swaying downhearted piece that is a bluesy as Evans would ever be. Both "Blues" and "Abstract Truth" combine for the darker "Teenie's Blues," a feature for Nelson and Dolphy's alto saxes, Dolphy assertive in stepping forth with his distinctive, angular, dramatic, fractured, brittle voice that marks him a maverick. Then there's "Hoedown," which has always been the black sheep of this collection with its country flavor and stereo separated upper and lower horn in snappy call-and-response barking. As surging and searing hard boppers respectively, "Cascades" and "Butch & Butch" again remind you of the era of the early '60s when this music was king, and why Hubbard was so revered as a young master of the idiom. This CD is a must buy for all jazz collectors, and a Top Ten-Fifty favorite for many.

-- Michael G. Nastos
Right, that's how you talk (and think) about music.  How about one more?
...a rare marriage between an arranger-composer's conception and the ideal collection of musicians to execute it. The material is all based somehow on the blues, but Nelson's structural and harmonic extensions make it highly varied, suggesting ballads, hoedowns, and swing. The band is one of those groupings that seem only to have been possible around 1960, a roster so strong that the leader's name was actually listed fourth on the cover. Nelson shares the solo space with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, alto saxophonist and flutist Eric Dolphy, and pianist Bill Evans, while bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Roy Haynes contribute support and baritone saxophonist George Barrow adds depth. In stark contrast to Dolphy's brilliant, convulsive explosions, Nelson's tenor solos are intriguingly minimalist, emphasizing a tight vibrato and unusual note choices. It's not quite Kind of Blue (nothing is), but Blues and the Abstract Truth is an essential recording, one that helped define the shape of jazz in the '60s.

-- Stuart Broomer

Er, right.  All that.  That's what I would have said, if I'd had the technical vocabulary.  (Cough, cough.)

In my own voice, all I can say is it's beautiful.  Give it a listen.

* The list is by majority vote, so its rankings change over time.

** E.g., album titles:
(Compare "Live in/at...", "The Complete...", etc.  Or any of Miles Davis's terrible puns on Miles (Milestones, Miles Ahead, Miles to Go, etc.)

*** None of them have anywhere near as good titles as The Blues and the Abstract Truth.  Clearly that's the main factor here.

**** One obvious place to begin might seem to be the album More Blues and the Abstract Truth, but Wikipedia says of the latter that it "features an entirely different band and bears little resemblance to this record", while allmusic.com notes that "unlike the original classic [The] Blues and the Abstract Truth set from three years earlier, Oliver Nelson does not play on this album," and adds that it "falls short of its predecessor."  None of which means it isn't good, but all of which is enough to make it not the obvious, immediate go-to follow-up its title clearly meant one to think it was.

***** Nelson seems to have used up his good title quota on the album title.

† Viz:
`What do you know about this business?' the King said to Alice.
`Nothing,' said Alice.
`Nothing WHATEVER?' persisted the King.
`Nothing whatever,' said Alice.
`That's very important,' the King said, turning to the jury.

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 12, 'Alice's Evidence'

Monday, April 08, 2013

I Have No Idea How Reliable The Information On This List Is...

...but if it's reliable, then this is fabulous, and quite well put together:

Incidentally, the one famous film moment I'd always heard was improvised that's not on this list is the classic moment in Indiana Jones when some guy jumps out and does some fancy routine with a sword, and Jones just shoots him.  I wonder if it wasn't really improvised?  Or if it was and the makers of this video just didn't know about it?

Your Totally Awesome Web Site of the Day

How far is it to Mars? (via)

Given My Recent Obsessions, I Think I'm Legally Required To Quote This

We lost the blogosphere. It was vibrant and rich and ever changing and filled with interesting design and BlogAds and PayPal and Amazon wishlists. That's pretty much gone. Today it feels like jazz in the '80s compared to jazz in the '50s. Those who are doing it know that this isn't the time to be doing it. But either they can't stop or they're doing it for the right reasons. That's the good thing, if you're blogging in 2013 you're probably doing it out of love—certainly not for audience or money. So that's good.

-- Tony Pierce
Via twitter, natch.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Exploring Jazz Sideways (Albums? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Albums)

In my posts on jazz to date -- which I am viewing as a combination of personal narrative and a possible help to any who might wish to follow in my footsteps -- I've talked about albums.  I've talked about one's first jazz album, and one's next; I've talked about the first jazz album I came to really love, and about the Library of Congress's recognition of a particularly notable album.  Albums, in other words, have been the unit of measure in the explorations to date.

But why?  Why albums?

The answer is threefold: my personal history, the music's history, and broad social/technological history, but they all come down to this: albums were the vehicle of music transmission for roughly the second half of the Twentieth Century.

LPs -- a record long enough to hold an album -- were only put on the market in 1948.  They took a while to get settled as the predominant unit of musical consumption, but settle they did; and the format changed little as the medium hopped from records to cassettes to CDs.  Of course, in the Twenty-First Century this has changed again, first with mp3s (legal and illegal) and now with streaming (a universe I know little about).  Still, there was a long time, when the normal way music was consumed -- both in jazz specifically and in American music more broadly -- was the album.  As Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux say in their useful introduction, Jazz:
From the early 1950s until the middle 1980s, the industry was dominated by the LP; many of those albums ought to be considered as integrated works.... Works such as Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, Duke Ellington's Far East Suite, and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, among hundreds more, should be experienced in their entirety -- no less than a Beethoven symphony or a Verdi opera or St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The album concept remained in force in the CD era, but its hold began to slacken, especially in Jazz. (p. 650)
The point being, that in the era where the majority (or at least the plurality) of music I've so far preferred was made (roughly 1950 - 1970), albums were the relevant unit, and since I grew up in the album era, I am used to that as the relevant unit.  So I think in terms of albums.

But, while granting Giddins and DeVeaux's point about the integrity of albums as an artistic unit, there are plenty of works for which this isn't the case -- everything before 1950 or so, and many things after 2000, but a lot of things in the intervening years.  As in rock and folk, jazz musicians made albums, and consumers bought them, but radio stations played singles, and there were still plenty of cases where a song makes perfect artistic sense in isolation.

In fact, arguably, this is much more the case in jazz than in either rock or classical music.*  While many of the albums post-1960 grew to have very long tracks, a great deal of jazz is based on songs.  So far this is true in rock as well.  But it seems that in jazz musicians are far more expected to know, to play and to record other people's songs.  At least since the Beatles/Dylan revolution in rock, rock musicians have tended to compose their own works.  Covers are done, of course, but they tend to be limited to one or two an album, plus some at concerts.  (Albums with more covers than that -- say, one with all covers -- have the air of a stunt.)  And you certainly don't have the expectation that any given rock performer would know how to play any given rock song, no matter how famous.

But this isn't true in jazz.  In jazz, the idea of knowing a repertory of songs seems to be basic.  A lot of performers have as some of their best-known pieces performers of others' compositions.  Jazz, in other words, formed its traditions and expectations at a time when performers played tunes other than their own -- when they were expected to know them (if, for instance, they wanted work).  And thus there are a lot of songs which have gotten a lot of play in jazz.

I was brought to this (belated) realization by another excellent book, Ted Gioia's useful recent work, The Jazz Standards: a Guide to the Repertoire.  Honestly, I got it out of the library not really having much of a sense of what was in it.  I knew that Gioia was a prominent jazz critic, author of (among many other things), one of the widely-recommended histories of jazz -- indeed, probably the one that, at this point, I'd recommend myself.  (It's that or the Giddins & Deveaux volume; I hope to discuss those and more in a future post.)  I think I vaguely thought it might have a detailed list of recommended albums.

But of course it doesn't.  It's a list of the standards -- the songs that, as Gioia says, jazz musicians are expected to know.**   (The list itself can be seen as the table of contents; you can see it in the Amazon preview, the Google books preview or (possibly simplest of all) at the Barnes and Noble site.)  And that fans, presumably, either should know, or would want to know, or will come to know.  Gioia helpfully provides, in addition to a brief discussion of each song (talking variously about its history, its musical qualities, classic recordings, etc.) a list of recommended recordings.

Which, of course, suggests another approach to learning about jazz.

While I have, so far, mostly been listening to jazz albums, I have also done some listening to jazz songs.  It's a bit harder: given that the library is my primary source of music so far, it's a lot easier to find out if they have a particular album, and then to lay my hands on it, then it is to figure out if they have a particular recording.  And they're more likely to have albums that show up on top-ten lists than Gioia's lists of recordings, which tend to deliberately include some rather obscure (and/or just contemporary, where the library is weaker) renditions in nearly every case.

Still, it's possible, and there are some advantages to it.

First, if you pick enough songs (and the right songs) and go through them, you can actually get a decent overview of jazz history, jazz styles, and so forth.  Not completely -- it's not clear to me if free jazz or fusion will be adequately represented, for example.  And obviously there will be holes, unless you're really thorough.  (I imagine that Gioia's complete list -- all 2000 or so versions of his 252 songs -- would do it.  (It's available as a spotify playlist, if that's your thing.))  Still, most of the major performers will be represented, and most of the major styles.  So it's a different route in -- but one arguably as valid as albums.

Which, incidentally, is not true of any given list of songs from rock -- there's no set of songs so covered that you'd hit most of the major figures.

But it has other, more significant advantages too.

I hope that no one reading these posts has been mislead into thinking that I am in any way an informed or educated or particularly sensitive listener to jazz.  I've liked a lot of what I've heard.  (I've loved some of it; I've thought some of it was okay; I've hated one or two tracks.)  But I don't really understand what I'm listening to, or what I'm supposed to be listening for.  The entire thing is often rather obscure to me.

And it seems I'm not alone.  Giddins and DeVeaux's book opens by talking about how even experienced listeners sometimes have the "what is that musician doing up there?" bafflement during a concert -- and that it's common for novices such as myself.  An older (and honestly rather outdated) introduction to jazz, by Martin T. Williams (who edited the first Smithsonian jazz anthology which I mentioned in an earlier post) was frankly called Where's the Melody?: A Listener's Introduction to Jazz.  A more recent introduction to jazz volume, Jonny King's What Jazz Is: An Insider's Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz, has an opening chapter titled "Where's the Melody?".  The point is, it's a common complaint.***

And Williams's case, he starts of by telling a story of two friends, a novice and a long-time jazz fan, going to a jazz club:
The novice turns to the insider and asks, "What are they playing, do you know?"

The master replies, "That's A Foggy Day."

At this point we can discern puzzlement, and perhaps despair, on the face of the novice. He knows perfectly well what A Foggy Day in London Town sounds like, and he hears nothing whatever like its melody coming from the musicians in front of him.  Yet his friend is sure that it's A Foggy Day.  Jazz must be some kind of musical puzzle.

In effect, our novice has asked a prevalent question, "Where's the melody?"  Or, to put it more crudely, "What are those musicians doing up there?"  It is a question that is considered so square by some jazz fans, and even some musicians, that they refuse to answer -- or even hear it.  Yet I think it is a perfectly valid question, and answering it can be enlightening. (pp. 3-4)
Well, I can't help but agree that it's a valid question, because it's mine, more often than not.  And I too would hope for enlightenment in its answer.  And while Williams has some reassurance on this score,**** I personally continue to hope for yet further enlightenment,

The point is that, while the music often sounds nice, I often don't really understand what's going on.

Which is an advantage of exploring jazz sideways.  If you listen to two or three versions of the same song, you get more of a sense of what is (in a jazz interpretation) what is essential and what is not.  You might -- or, at least, over time I hope to (I haven't yet) -- get to better understand the relationship between the improvisations and the basic stuff of the song.

There are a number of ways to do this.  One is to find a song that one knows and likes which is frequently recorded by jazz musicians, and seek out that; another way is to listen to a bunch of jazz, find a song one likes, and seek out alternate versions; a third way is to look at a list of jazz songs one has already and note duplicate titles.  I've done a little of each; I hope to do more of all.

Again, in either case, one possible guide to use is Ted Gioia's The Jazz Standards: a Guide to the Repertoire.  His use of recommended recordings in particular is useful, but so are his discussions of each song (sometimes including useful comments on the , to say nothing of the listing of songs itself.  Frankly, it's rather irritating that the library wants its copy back.

(I do have a few complaints about Gioia's book, incidentally.  First, it's indexing is not what one would want: he gives a single, 'general mention' index, without distinguishing the type of mention.  For a book of this sort, it would be helpful to have separate indexes of composers, artists & albums on recommended lists, and mere mentions.  Second -- and this is not a mark against his success in writing the type of book he set out to write, but simply a note about its utility for some purposes -- while a focus on current standards is obviously most useful for musicians, or those who plan to frequent jazz clubs, a list including one-time standards that have fallen out of favor would be more useful to those exploring jazz's recorded history.  But obviously both of these are nitpicks; it's a very good book overall.)

Incidentally, here's where knowing some selections from the Ella and Louis album series has served me well: a number of the songs they recorded are on Gioia's list,***** and a number of others probably qualify too.  Simply knowing some of those songs gave me a way in.

Other songs I already knew.  Well, as Chamira, a commentator on my first jazz post noted, John Coltrane famously recorded "My Favorite Things" -- yes, from the Julie Andrews movie, although the film hadn't come out yet (it was a Broadway show first, and that's where Coltrane got it).  Chamira, quoted a reviewer discussing
Trane's shocking demolition of the dainty brickwork of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favourite Things" which he stripped back to a brutal but dazzling modal exploration in E minor and E major...
Indeed, it became a hit for him, and thereafter a song particularly identified with him.  And, yes, it's in Gioia's book -- because Coltrane's influence made it a standard -- and Gioia includes among his recommended versions two Coltrane takes (the one from the album of the same title, and the one from a 1965 live album), as well as versions by Bill Evans, Sun Ra, and others.  And, yes, Chamira's right: that would be a good second album.  (That track, if not the whole album, was one of the ones I heard first this time around.)  Coltrane's success with "My Favorite Things" spurred him to record "Greensleeves", which was always also a favorite of mine.

And I've used other methods, too.  I encountered both Duke Ellington's "Harlem Air Shaft" and Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" in the course of exploring jazz, liked both, and sought out other versions.  Simply searching out recommended jazz albums, on the other hand, led me to encounter a lot of copies of Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" and Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight".  (And no, the duplication of those composers is not accidental: as far as jazz composers go, they're among the most important.)

So if you are a little into jazz, or decide to follow me down this crooked, happenstance highway, consider exploring it sideways.

I won't say it's a good way to use as one's sole method.  Among other things, it's my sense that later on (perhaps from 1959 on?) recording standards became less central, at least for the major artists, and possibly for everyone.  Partly this is because of the phenomenon Gioia laments (but acquiesces to), that fewer songs these days are becoming standards.  (More on that later perhaps.)  But it also seems a trend.  A lot of important albums in the post-1959 period are single artistic statements -- I'm thinking of things like Coleman's Free Jazz, Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Davis's In a Silent Way, Jarrett's Köln Concert -- where covering standards just wouldn't fit.  In a lot of other cases (such as most if not all of the five 1959 blockbusters) those 'standards' that are on there (using Gioia's list as the criteria) are there because those initial recordings made them so.  (Thus, "So What" from Kind of Blue, "Giant Steps" from Giant Steps, and "Take Five" from Time Out are all on the list because of those initial recordings.)  To some degree this is probably the phenomenon that Giddins and DeVeaux discuss, that jazz was, in this period, increasingly an art of the album.  Another factor might be changing notions of artistry and the importance of competition -- even, perhaps, influence from other musics (although rock wouldn't come to focus on performer-composed songs until a few years later, I believe).

Still, tracing a song out -- going sideways across albums, rather than simply feasting on one album before moving on to the next -- seems like a good additional way to approach this particular body of music.  -- If that's a trip you want to make.  Speaking for myself, so far I've found it one well worth taking.

* Folk is more like jazz in this regard, I think.

** Gioia argues, persuasively, that
...knowledge of the repertoire was even more important to a jazz musician than to a classical artist. The classical performer at least knows what compositions will be played before the concert begins. This is not always the case with jazz. I recall the laments of a friend who was enlisted to back up a poll-winning horn player at a jazz festival -- only to discover that he wouldn't be told what songs would be played until the musicians were already on stage in front of 6,000 people.  Such instances are not unusual in the jazz world, a quirk of a subculture that prizes both spontaneity and macho bravado.  Another  buddy, a quite talented pianist, encountered an even more uncooperative bandleader -- a famous saxophonist who wouldn't identify the names of the songs even after the musicians were on the bandstand. The leader would simply play a short introduction on the tenor, then stamp off the beat with his foot... and my friend was expected to figure out the song and key from those meager clues. (The Jazz Standards, p. xiii; second ellipsis and emphasis in the original.)

*** See also Chuck Berry:
I've got no kick against modern jazz,
Unless they try to play it too darn fast;
They lose the beauty of the melody,
Until it sounds just like a symphony,
That's why I go for that rock and roll music...

**** These two bits, for example:
...anyone who has ever watched a group of jazz fans will be led to suspect that more than a few of them are responding to jazz rhythm -- and very little else.  There is nothing invalid about such a response, for its particular way of handling rhythm is indeed one of the unique things and one of the most compelling things about jazz music.... (p. 4)
And (using Miles Davis as a more general example):
What's going on is that Miles Davis is offering a new melody, one which he is improvising on the spot.... The way to listen to him now is to listen not for something we already know or have already heard, but for the music that he is making as we hear he.  If we also hear, or sense unconsciously, that "outline," that related chord structure the player is using as his guide, fine.  But we don't have to.  Jazz is not a musical game or puzzle.... Where's the melody? The melody is the one the player is making.  Hear it well, for it probably will not exist again.  And it may well be extraordinary. (pp. 7, 8, 13)

***** Five of the twelve songs on the "best of" version (i.e. that I know really well) are on Gioia's list (and in four cases their version make his 'recommended recordings' list): "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You". "A Foggy Day", "Stompin' at the Savoy", "Summertime", and "They Can't Take That Away From Me". Four more tracks from the various Ella and Louis albums make his recommended recordings list; and another handful that they recorded are in Gioia's book without making his preferred recordings list for that particular song.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert, 1942 - 2013

[On his impending death]: I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

-- Roger Ebert (2010)
...The elements in 'The Wizard of Oz'' powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.

-- Roger Ebert (1996) (via)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

If Wittgenstein Lived in the Twitter Age

...whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words.

-- Ferdinand Kürnberger, cited by Wittgenstein as the motto to the Tractatus

...whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in 140 characters.

-- Modern version

An Essential Part of Fantasy is the Self-Consciousness of Being in Story

This is a point that John Clute makes in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy*:
Part of the definition of fantasy is that its protagonists tend to know they are in a Story of some sort, even if at first they do not know which one... It would of course be injudiciously restrictive to claim that all fantasy texts convey a sense that their protagonists are under the control of an already-existing Story, and that sooner or later they come to an awareness of the fact; it is, however, the case that many fantasy texts are clearly and explicitly constructed so as to reveal the controlling presence of an underlying Story, and that the protagonists of many fantasy texts are explicitly aware they are acting out a tale. ("Story", section 2 (p. 901))
Clute gives many examples.  (One famous one is Frodo and Sam's talking, towards the end of The Two Towers, talking about what sort of story they are in, and what it would be like to hear it.)

All of which is a lengthy prologue to why these sentences in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland -- a taproot fantasy text (to use Clute's technical term) as well as foundational children's book -- caught my attention:
`It was much pleasanter at home,' thought poor Alice, `when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn't gone down that rabbit-hole--and yet--and yet--it's rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought! And when I grow up, I'll write one--but I'm grown up now,' she added in a sorrowful tone; `at least there's no room to grow up any more here.' (Chapter 4, "The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill")

As you were.

* Which, incidentally, is a brief, marvelous critical book on the nature of fantasy, cut into pieces and distributed alphabetically among a lot of more standard encyclopedic material, making up a lengthy tome.  The critical book is very highly recommended if you haven't read it: start at the "Story" entry and follow cross-references.  The rest is a useful if (by this point) slightly outdated reference.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Quote of the Day: An Educational Challenge

...from Freddie deBoer (via):
I've said this before: let's have an academic decathlon. You choose a team based on whatever pedagogical criteria you want. You can choose students from public school or private, unionized teachers or not, parochial or secular, from charter or magnet, from Montessori or KIPP or whatever else you want. However, I choose the demographics of the students on your team. For my team, the situation is reversed: you choose the pedagogical factors for my students, but I choose the demographics. You stock your team kids from whatever educational backgrounds you think work, and mine with whatever educational systems you think don't work. Meanwhile, I give you all children from the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden inner city and impoverished rural districts where we see the most failure. I stock mine with upper-class children of privilege. I would bet the house on my team, and I bet if you're being honest, you would too. Yet to accept that is to deny the basic assumption of the education reform movement, which is that student outcomes are a direct result of teacher quality.

If you think that take is harsh, remember that I am a socialist, and if I had my druthers, there would be no more poverty and no more entrenched disadvantage to set these kids back so far before they even enter school.
One additional note about this.  One response I've heard to this point -- I feel like Matt Yglesias has said this several times, but I don't have the time & patience to google it up now -- is to say, well, then you're saying good teachers don't make a difference; or, if this is the case, we shouldn't put resources into good teachers.

But this doesn't follow at all, unless you have a (ludicrously simple) model in mind where only one factor influences results.  But here are a couple other models, which all strike me as, on their face, more plausible -- and which are certainly possible models, which you'd need empirical evidence to adjudicate.

First, it could be that teachers matter a great deal, but only once certain minimums are met.  Which is to say, that up to a certain minimum level of wealth, safety, home stability, home enrichment, etc, teachers have little effect.  But once that minimum is hit (whatever it is), then the main variable affecting educational outcomes would be teacher quality.  In this case, ignoring poverty would screw those below the minimum, but simply declaring teacher quality unimportant would screw all the kids above it -- which, one hopes, would eventually be everyone.*
Or it could be that both teaching and lack of poverty are necessary but not sufficient: you need both a minimum of wealth/safety/etc and good teachers to do well.  Remove either, and things go badly.  Again, both would need to be addressed.

And so on.  All sorts of models are possible.  (Maybe teaching only matters up to a certain level of competence.)  The point is, the fact that good teachers are important in no way implies that poverty vitiates any gains that improved teaching might make; and the fact that poverty blights the educational hopes of children in no way implies that good teaching is unimportant.

As deBoer says, the question of what effects educational outcomes is an empirical question.  Only inquiry can answer it.  But we certainly can't say, a priori, that the overwhelming importance of one factor means another is unimportant.

* Incidentally, my understanding is that happiness research shows that this is how happiness relates to money: below a certain minimum, you need more money to be happier; once you hit that minimum, other factors largely determine happiness.  So there certainly are some things that model works for (whether or not educational achievement is one of them).

Monday, April 01, 2013

My First Favorite Jazz Album: Ella and Louis (Again, Porgy, Compact)

I have been talking about the first and subsequent jazz albums one ought to listen to, as well as about some of the famous ones that have achieved Governmental Recognition.  Those are all great places to start listening to jazz.  And I did, many years ago (when I started a never-really-engaged exploration with jazz) start with the first and then hear a few of the seconds before trailing off.

Then they got shelved, added to in a trickle, and enstoraged, and not heard again (save as incidental music to a modern life) for years.  (And now I have pulled them all out, and added to them substantially, and have heard more jazz in the last month than I've heard in the rest of my life combined (save for the album I'm about to discuss.))

Except that, in the same time -- starting, actually, probably a bit before, so this really was my first jazz album -- I heard another album.  And heard it over, and over, and over, and over, and over.  Memorized it; loved it.

I just didn't have the slightest idea it was jazz.  Which was pretty stupid of me, when it comes right down to it, since it had the word "JAZZ" right there on the cover in what Douglas Adams would have called big, friendly letters.  But when I thought "jazz", I thought of various instrumental music styles.  I didn't think of vocal music, which is what this was.  Letters be damned, or at least ignored.

I'm not sure what I would have called it, really.  "Popular music", I suppose.  Older, pre-rock popular music.  Maybe I would even have called it jazz, had anyone asked or I ever thought about it.  But I never did think about it what it was.  I just listened to it.

But, of course, it is jazz -- clearly, unmistakably jazz -- performed by two legendary jazz musicians, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

The album in question was called Compact Jazz: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

This particular album is a compilation, a "best-of" collection (Compact Jazz was a series of those but out by Verve; I don't know how many were released, but it was a lot -- more than two dozen, certainly, possibly many more), drawn from three major albums released in the 1950s.  The three albums in question were: Ella and Louis (1956), Ella and Louis Again (1957) and Porgy and Bess (1957) (which, of course, were EF and LA's rendition of the classic Gershwin opera.)  It had four songs from the first album, six from the second, and two from the third.  (List of songs here.)

So, why did I hear it? Why didn't I think of it as jazz?

The answer to the latter is the answer to the former: I didn't think of it as jazz because I didn't seek it out; I heard it at work.

When I was in college, I worked two summers, full-time, and two years part-time during the academic year, in the package room at Harvard's Science Center (a big building of classrooms, offices, labs, public spaces and a library).  The package room at the Science Center received, in addition to the packages for the Science Center itself, all the packages for all the buildings in Harvard Yard, since package trucks weren't allowed in (letter carriers were).  Those were the freshman dorms, above all, but also a lot of office buildings and classrooms and so forth.  So it was a busy mailroom -- overwhelmingly so, at the end of every summer/beginning of every fall, when it would receive huge sets of all the earthly possessions of various freshman about to arrive, or just arrived, for the fall term.  But even otherwise, it was busy (the dorms housed summer students over the summer, who were generally high-school students in the pre-college program, and who thus got more than their share of packages).  Lots to do.

The person I worked for, the chief of the mailroom, was a large man named Sam McCleary.  He was friendly, good humored, whip-smart and a kind and generous boss (without tolerating any bullshit); I liked and admired him, and got more from knowing him, than I was ever able to properly say.  I would run out to deliver notices, but mostly I worked in the package room itself, as did he.  So we were together for hours every day (albeit busy and in different parts of the room).  When things got really slow, we'd chat.  He taught me how to play cribbage.

And we had a tape player which we could listen to music on while we worked.

I don't recall where this tape came from.  I assume it was Sam's.  I occasionally brought in tapes of my own; I remember once I brought in Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, which we listened to; when the UPS delivery guy remarked on it, Sam replied "we're very spiritual here".  And sometimes we just listened to the radio.  But there were a few tapes, and this was one of them.

Well, I liked it, so I put it on.  And again.  And again.  At some point, I remember, I told Sam that when I was a kid I used to listen to every album I really liked over and over and over and over, so he should tell me when he was sick of it, because I wasn't going to get sick of it myself.

"Well, you see," said Sam, "I did the same thing when I was a kid."

For all that, I think he flinched before I did.  Although I think it was more than a day.

But we kept listening to it frequently -- at least once a day, is my memory, although we're talking about two decades ago,  The point is, I really got to know that album very well.  Without ever thinking about what it was.  At some point, in a CD store, I saw the CD for sale, and bought it: I wanted to be able to hear it after I graduated -- forever, or the indefinitely that humans so often mistake for forever.

-- So why did I like it so much?  -- That's easy: because it's so damn good.  -- All right then, why is it so damn good?  -- Let me count the ways.

• The songs.  This was my first introduction to a number of classic American popular songs from the pre-rock era (say, before the mid-1950s) which can sound, to modern ears, old-fashioned if not mannered and contrived.  But they're really quite good: catchy melodies and quite witty lyrics (including lyrics that I remember thinking were racier than I would have predicted).  My favorites (although I never put it together at the time) were the ones by George and Ira Gershwin -- in particular, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "A Foggy Day" -- but the album also included songs by Benny Goodman, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein (without Rodgers), Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern, and others.  In other words, I got to hear a rich tradition of song which I was more or less ignorant of.  And they really are quite good.

• The performers.  They're just fabulous.  Ella Fitzgerald has a gorgeous voice and is a brilliant singer.  Louis Armstrong has a very different voice -- gravely and low -- but it's wonderful in its own way.  (Readers not into jazz might be most familiar with it from his famous version of the song "What a Wonderful World".)  And Armstrong plays trumpet on most of the tracks too -- and it's his trumpet which made his reputation and (in the process) remade jazz.*

• The duets.  But it's not just two brilliant performers.  It's what they do with the collaboration.  First, Fitzgerald's gorgeous voice and Armstrong's gravely one make a marvelous contrast, either sung together or in alteration, which is (I think) far better than either apart.  (I have to admit that, having learned to love this album first, hearing any of Fitzgerald's solo performances feel somewhat lacking to me.)  In addition to the marvelous textures of their raw voices, they play off each other, tease each other and quite noticeably interact in marvelous ways, that add a lot of humor and verve to the performances.  Then there's the fact that most of the songs are love songs (not all: for instance, "It Ain't Necessarily So, from Porgy & Bess, isn't one.)  So that singing them as duets makes an enormous amount of thematic sense -- and Fitzgerald and Armstrong play that up marvelously, to great effect.  They flirt, musically, and it really works.

• The music.  And then there's the instruments.  However much I may distinguish in my own mind (yes, still (perhaps mistakenly)) between vocal and instrumental jazz, there's a lot of great jazz instrumentation here.  One of the challenges in learning to listen to jazz (which I hope to write about in future posts) is figuring out what various soloists are doing -- which can be a puzzle even if you actually like it.  But for me, because I've heard them so much, Armstrong's trumpet solos sound not only good but inevitable: I can't imagine how you wouldn't orchestrate the songs that way.  (Which is to say that not only are they great -- which they really are -- but that they're great in a way that seems to make sense, rather than being great but mysterious.)  In that sense, this album did help me learn to hear jazz.

So, yes, it's a great album.  And in my most recent flurry of jazz exploration, one of the things I did was track down a more complete set of the Armstrong & Fitzgerald collaborations, and I can report that the other songs are as good as those on the Classic Jazz selection.

Would I recommend it as a starter jazz album?  Well, unquestionably, but with one major qualification: it's vocal jazz.  Perhaps I'm wrong to distinguish so sharply between vocal and instrumental jazz, but hearing them just feel very different to me.  For me, at least up until this point, they're different varieties of musical experience, on a fundamental level.  (And, in general, I'm more interested in instrumental than vocal jazz.)  I don't think I'm alone in this -- a few of the starter lists I talked about in an earlier post are specifically limited to instrumental jazz.  (And one of the lists that wasn't so restricted did include Ella and Louis in its suggestions.)  But if you're interested in jazz, then you have to hear at least a bit of the vocal jazz -- and for those purposes, I can't imagine a better starting point.  Speaking as an uneducated and beginning listener, it is one of my two favorite sets of jazz vocals; it's simply marvelous.  For that matter, even if you're not particularly interested in jazz, but just want to hear some great music, I'll recommend this unreservedly too.

So, if you want to hear it, how should you get it?  There's no reason to stick to the best-of set I happened to hear.  Get the full set of duets.  But how to do that?  It's complicated.  There's no one single set that has all of the recordings that Fitzgerald and Armstrong did together, but there are a couple that have most of them.

It goes like this.  (I'm working from the discography here.)  They did six songs (three singles, each with a B side) for Decca in 1950/1951.  Based on the success of those albums, I believe, they went on to produce a whole album -- Ella and Louis -- but this time for a different label, Verve.  Verve also produced the follow-up albums Ella and Louis Again, and Porgy and Bess.  The first and the third albums had pretty stable track lists (of 11 and 15 songs, respectively), but the second varied, with a fair number of bonus tracks added later.

Now, Verve released an album called The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on Verve -- but note those last two words, sometimes deemphasized, and occasionally omitted altogether: the six songs from Decca are not included.  But all of the three Verve albums are, the second in its most expanded version, plus two extra tracks that don't seem to be otherwise available.

Then there's an import set called the Complete Album Collection, which I snagged on Amazon.  (At the moment it's listed as out of stock.)  This has several advantages.  First, it's nearly half the price of the Complete on Verve set ($15 for CDs as opposed to $27 for mp3s).  Second, it's slightly larger.  The Complete Album Collection lacks one song that Complete on Verve has ("Undecided", one of the two never released prior to the Complete on Verve set); but it has two of the six Decca tracks ("Can Anyone Explain?" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me").  Which is a good trade.

...And then it has a song that's neither on the Verve nor one of the six earlier Decca songs -- one which is, in fact, not listed in the discography I'm relying on at all -- but which is, unmistakably, a duet between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (including trumpet by the latter): "The Frim Fram Sauce".  I have no idea of its provenance.  But it's a third addition to balance out the single omission.  (And, of course, it raises the possibility that there might be still others.  I don't know of any; there are several other songs on the album Our Love Is Here to Stay: Ella & Louis Sing Gershwin, but I think they're all actually solo versions, by either EF or LA, from other sets they did.)

But the truth is the two sets are nearly identical: stick the CDs of the Complete Album Collection in a computer, and in two of the three cases the automated track namer will think it's actually the Complete on Verve set; only disk three differs at all.  (There are still others, such as one which is (mis)labeled** Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: the Complete Studio Recorded Duets, which omits some things from the other collections, but has all the Decca tracks.  Etc.)  Either will get you the bulk of their fabulous collaboration.***

Way or another, check them out.

* Really.  That's not hyperbole.  Armstrong's playing was what established the tradition of the individual solo, and his style dominated for nearly two decades (until the development of Bop in the early 40's.)

** One thing that a non-jazz listener has to get used to in getting into jazz -- at least in my experience -- is the really astonishing number of albums that are labeled "complete", or "best of", and so forth, which turn out to be nothing of the sort.  Sometimes there's some hidden qualification -- complete/best of from a particular record label -- but in general, there's a fairly shocking amount of poor labeling around.

*** I think the rest are purchasable as individual mp3 tracks; I haven't bothered to do this yet, though.  Some day.