David Murray On the Island

In his liner notes to Miles Davis’ post-Bitches Brew recording At Fillmore: Live At the Fillmore East, Morgan Ames quotes J.J. Johnson on Miles’ new direction. “If you put Miles and his new group in the studio and recorded them on spearate mikes, and then you cut the band track and just played the trumpet track, you know what you’d have? The same old Miles. What’s new is his frame of reference. ”

Musicians reinvent themselves not so much by changing their personal style but by putting themselves in new contexts. David Murray, a prodigious recorder has done that times over since the mid-1970s. Whether in small groups or large, the World Saxophone Quartet, avant-garde or ballad programs, Murray’s voice, a unique blend of swing, bop and free expression, is instantly recognizable.

His best playing, certainly currently (and it’s all great), can be heard on his Afro-Caribbean projects.  Murray’s connection to the  French possession, Lesser Antilles island Guadeloupe, heard on 1998’s Creole, and 2004’s Gwotet, has given him new life. His brother-in-law, Klod Kiavue and a group of Guadeloupe Creole musicians known as the Gwo Ka Masters contribute to this Africa-America connection. To make The Devil Tried To Kill Me an overarching fusion hybrid, Murray brings in Californian funk drummer Renzel Merrit. To make it a fusion of arts as well as styles he integrates the poetry of Ishmael Reed  and brings in folk-blues interpreter Taj Mahal to sing them.

Despite all this stirring –and the Rabbit, no stranger to stews, promises to use no more food imagery– the one ingredient (sorry) that stands out here is Murray. His ability to catapult an improvisation into a squeaky, high-register and just as gracefully fall back is familiar to those of us who’ve been following his work since his early recordings on the Italian Black Saint label.   Murray’s willingness to combine elements of classic swing and bop, to recall masters from Ben Webster to Albert Ayler, and to do so in fresh, invigorating ways, is unique among tenor players. Then there’s his tone: rich, robust and razor sharp. The purity of his sound, even at its most wild, even when he somersaults through those previously mentioned upper- register squeaks or caterwauls deep in the low, makes his every solo, especially in these Afro-Caribbean rhythms, a thing of marvel. Yet there’s no doubt, no matter how different the frame of reference, who the saxophonist is.

The lyrics and background chanting provide much of Murray’s motivation to overachieve. Surprisingly, they’re a mixed bag.  Reed’s poem that gives the recording its name is a driving story of recovery, powered by interwoven percussion and vocalizations. Singer Sista Kee makes the lyric flow against the rambunctiousness of her piano and the JuJu paced rhythm guitar of Christian Laviso. But even Taj Mahal can’t make Reed’s “Africa” fit the music in a meaningful way. The poem’s imagery of illness and recovery (a theme on the recording– “Africa, if I were a hospice worker…”–on lyrics by Kito Gamble as well as Reed) are apt and moving as spoken word. Setting them to music — this music — seems to dilute their message. Much more meaningful to the song: Murray’s heart-felt, flowing bass clarinet solo.

The rhythm section is the heart of this recording and it beats best when it is driving a bloodline of chanting that gives way to solos from Murray and trumpeter Rasul Sikkik. Bassist Jaribu Shahid provides just enough support and none of it overly repetitious, even as it grooves. Murray seems particularly responsive to the bass — or is it the other way around — and the effect is one of a single voice coming from eight different musicians. Lovers of both African pop and American jazz will find things to like, even love, here. What comes together on the Island won’t stay on the Island. And lucky for us.–Cabbage Rabbit

Stories Of the Times

The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” short story issue has generated lots of comment, much of it in the why-wasn’t-so-and-so included? category, some of it in the why-wasn’t-I included? category, the best of it in the (sorta) latter category and self-deprecating in a satiric way. And, of course, there was some that made no sense at all.

While we loved and marveled at most of the stories — okay, we saw Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” as a gimmick built on two pronouns and  misleading in its intent to impart double meaning (and we love Foer’s novels) — we couldn’t help notice that none of them addressed the day’s biggest issue: the economic downturn and its effect on the lives of everyday, let alone well-off Americans. Sure, Salvatore Scibona’s “The Kid” gives us an American soldier who orphans his foreign-born  child after an ill-advised marriage. And ZZ Packer’s “Dayward”  uses Reconstruction-era black children to suggest modern-day lessons. There’s certainly poverty and displacement there. But where are the stories of a struggling middle-class? Where are the stories of homes lost, incomes destroyed, the frustrations of futile job searching, the loss of love and respect and the psychology of imposed failure? Where are this generation’s Steinbecks, Orwells, Algrens, Zolas, Lewises, Faulkners? Are we so afraid of class distinction in this country, of making someone who’s still comfortably positioned uncomfortable, that we can’t even acknowledge what’s going on right before our very eyes?

Almost all of these tales are about difficulties in relationships. Nothing is more damaging to relationship stability than economic failure and displacement. Can the most common story of our time also be the most ignored?

It’s true that this New Yorker issue included only eight of the 20 stories. We’ll be looking closely through the others for a contemporary realism that deals with more than the frustrations of party anxiety among the Hollywood wannabe set or the professional-class’ social climbing and the Porsche mechanics they left behind. Great literature, literature that changes culture and political direction, has always portrayed the struggles of common people in difficult times. The characters –and subjects — in the contemporary stories here may be what we’ve come to accept as common people. But there is no sense of what the greatest recession since the depression  is doing –specifically and in detail — to their lives. Certainly there are writers out there adressing these subjects (and no, I’m not one of them…shame). Where are the publishers with the guts to get them in print?–Cabbage Rabbit

Chabon On Father’s Day

Those of us who are not fathers or husbands understand Father’s Day through memories and envy. Neither of  those mental activities are exclusively positive, at least in the case of fathers. Even as fatherhood has evolved, its old stereotypes haunt our relationship to and understanding of the title: fathers are macho, missing and manly in all the worst sense of the world.  I remember my father, a man whose favorite pet name for me was “stupe”  second only to “dumb shit.” As Leonard Cohen sings, “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”

So it seemed a good time to pour quickly through Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son to get some insight on the profession. We know Chabon to be a smart,  entertaining writer, one who understands the tribulations of male coming of age (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay)   and who has a detail-oriented eye for truth (The Final Solution: A Story of Detection). Chabon, a twice-married man with four children, also has a knack for expressing a thoroughly modern view of cultural issues.

What you’ll find in Manhood are expressions of Chabon’s own fathering in light of his childhood. (Mostly missing is Chabon’s own father — the writer’s parents divorced when he was 11 — other than a mention that dad was an obsessive collector; Chabon’s ex-father-in-law is discussed in terms of his acceptance of his son-in-law into something of a man’s club) . Much of what Chabon says is based on a kind of personal nostalgia and how some of the things he enjoyed, namely freedom, have been taken —  by him — from his kids. His essay “The Wilderness of Childhood” recalls a small patch of woods that held mystery and escape in his childhood, the kind of place that doesn’t exist or would be otherwise denied if it did exist, to his children. He laments the evolution of Legos from simple building blocks to “a strange geometry of irregular polygons, a vast bestiary of hybrid pieces, custom pieces, blanks and inverts, clears and pearlescents” that seem more about marketing than creativity. He feels badly for his children and the amount of commercial “crap” they have to put up with, some of which he saw in his own childhood.

He defines his role simply. “I’m a father. Being a hypocrite is my job,” and he proves it by using everything from marijuana to Wacky Packages. In the chapter “A Textbook Father,” one that chronicles his reaction when observing boys staring at his twelve -year-old daughter walking down a hallway, he acknowledges how difficult it is to be exceptional. “It turns nout there are only nine different ways of being a father, and eight of them are distinguishable from one another only by trained experts from Switzerland, and the ninth is exactly like the others, only more so.”

He also acknowledges that being a man sometimes means putting your children at risk. In a chapter called “The Binding of Issac,” he describes that seemingly now-forgotten November night when Barack Obama walked onto the stage at Grant Park with his family and we all began to wonder at the meaning of his victory. He sees Obama’s children as everyone’s children and the realization that their perfect innocence of pain misfortune and sorrow will someday be betrayed. (How difficult this is for the President and his children is being made abundantly clear now by shameless attacks from the right.) Betrayal is a father’s fate and something of his duty. A certain kind of honesty is required to realize this. “I have abandoned my children a thousand times,” Chabon writes, “failed them, left their care and comfort to others … or neglected their needs in the name of something I told myself merited the sacrifice. All that was in the very nature of fatherhood; it came with the territory.” It’s for this kind of insight we read great  writers. While much of what Chabon says in this volume has been said well before, it’s these exceptional moments that make Manhood worth reading, on Father’s Day or any other.–Cabbage Rabbit

First Lines of the 20 Under 40

There’s been much blog ado over The New Yorker‘s “Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40.” Check out the gnashing here, here and here (we promise to complain more in a later post). However the writers learned their craft, they learned to write first sentences well. In fact, we found the lead sentence to be the best part of most of the stories. Clue to craft: Those with the least interesting first sentences tended to be the least interesting stories. As a service to our readers, we’ve taken the first sentence of each of the eight stories and put them together in no particular order, to make a free-association poem of a quality no more dubious than the stories themselves.–Cabbage Rabbit

Max had a name for what had happened to his son: the Accident.

The boy and his twin brother grew up on the streets of Northside,

down in the little choke valley, befouled by industry,

between university hill to the southeast and the neighborhood to the north,

College Hill, which had no college, despite its name,

only modest white houses hinting at the white suburbs to come.

The boy wore a black parka, a matching ski cap, bluejeans, and sneakers;

he appeared to be five years old; and he was weeping.

He hadn’t heard from Kate Lotvelt in two weeks. Early yet, the morning clouds,

the color of silver fox,

and Lazarus was running. Lucky diary! Undeserving diary!

People say no one reads anymore, but I find that’s not the case.

Enlightened Electric

Spirituality has long haunted the music of guitarist John McLaughlin.  But its a different kind of spirituality than commonly accepted.  Serenity is replaced by driven purpose sometime almost furious in its speed and direction. The organic is overcome by the electric. The enlightened sense of  “taking it as it comes”  is replaced by a lock-step unison through structured themes and powerful rhythms. This is an enlightenment with weight, purpose and intensity.

It may have been difficult to make the spiritual connection when McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra arrived on the scene in 1972. The imagery was all there — the band’s name, the album’s title The Inner Mounting Flame, its candle-lit album cover — but the music, more fire than flame,  was something else again, mostly speed, spark and machine-gun rhythm. But not exclusively. “Lotus On Irish Streams” a meditative, acoustic number better fit the cliche of spirituality. These loud-quiet contrasts have been present through out McLaughlin’s career, begining with the devotional acoustic and avant garde sensibilities of his first recording, Extrapolation, through the dichotomy of Shakti and Electric Dreams.

The mistake we make is to type-cast spiritual music as acoustic, pastoral, reverent or reserved. Think of spiritual music that is not easily defined by these terms — Santana, Alice Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, the more fiery ragas played by Ravi Shankar — and its a simple matter to see that spiritual music, like spirit itself, can be all things, including intense, acutely rhythmical music.

John Coltrane’s solos on  A Love Supreme, possibly the most spiritual of jazz recordings, carry an intensity that expresses the yearning and the search of the seeker. Something like it is heard on McLaughlin’s latest, To the One, an electric jazz-rock outing that relies on tough drumming, tight vibrant bass lines, shimmering keyboards and its leader’s high-voltage electric transmission. Without McLaughlin’s explanatory notes on the inside cover — “The inspiration behind this recording stems from two sources: Firstly from hearing the recording ‘A Love Supreme’ by John Coltrane in the 1960’s (sic), and secondly from my own endeavors towards ‘The One’ throughout the past 40 years” —  listeners might think that the guitarist was making another turn towards jazz-fusion.

There’s less insistence and more acceptance on To the One than heard in the Mahavishnu recordings, electric or acoustic. From the recording’s opening bass slide and cymbal splash, the music is positive, serene and upbeat. There’s nothing here to suggest the path to The One is long, arduous or otherwise marked with temptation. It’s as if McLaughlin has already attained what he seeks and now is enjoying it.

The 4th Dimension  (not to be confused with the 5th) is McLaughlin’s most polished band. Much of its drive and cleanliness comes from bassist Etienne M’Bappe whose rich tone and detailed play are the fine line underscoring the proceedings. M’Bappe is something of a juggler, supporting every note from his bandmates and propelling it back into the air. His solos are busy, buzzing affairs filled with lyricism despite their speed. Drummer Mark Mondesir is crisp and tasteful, having the drive of Billy Cobham and the inventiveness of Jack DeJohnette. Keyboardist (and sometimes drummer) Gary Husband finds the right moods and tonal combinations to complement any direction the music might take. His accompaniment is smart and reflective, his chords often coming a step behind the lead as if to give them a split moment to sink in. His solos, especially the one on “Discovery,” are warm and sophisticated. Just when he seems ready to overstate his case, he finds a place of conviction, a sense of contentment.

McLaughlin brings a sense of joy to his play that reflects the recording’s attainment. Listen to him on”Special Being” as he spins and pirouettes like an accomplished gymnast. He gives a characteristic roughness to his tone on “The Fine Line” before sliding into a singing theme. “Lost and Found” is the disc’s most relaxed piece and its most beautiful. It’s resonating synthesizer backdrop and McLaughlin’s smooth synth-guitar tones give it a meditative feel heightened by M’Bappe’s repeated bass motif presented at different octaves.

The most spiritual of the six pieces on this short, 40 minute-plus recording, is the title tune. Husband’s clipped cymbal work (he doubles on drums for this number) accents McLaughlin’s synth strolls in a way that suggests idle contentment. In a nod to A Love Supreme, there’s some unison chanting over a drone at the end that suggests the journey isn’t yet over. Note how in his comments McLaughlin writes after “periods of indolence, doubt and even plain laziness” he hears the call of his soul and returns to his “inner ear,” not his inner being. We find this brilliant; the portal to enlightenment being the ear rather than the mind or the soul. It’s certainly the place where so much joy, so much beauty, so much knowledge has entered.–Cabbage Rabbit

Digging Up A Deadly Past

The Gaza Flotilla Raid in May that left nine dead and dozens wounded has already faded into the background of oil-soaked news. While in Seattle earlier this month, the Rabbit witnessed attempts at keeping the issue alive: dueling protests on the University of Washington campus in which both bullhorned sides invited the other into the space between them for “real” discussion (neither side budged while we watched), and a large, pro-Palestinian march the following day through downtown. Similar actions have been  reported around the country and the world. The opposing UW protests emerged in our mind as an symbol of how little chance there is of worthwhile resolution to the West Bank and Gaza issue. No doubt,  by the time summer is over, the flotilla incident will be just another footnote in a long, cruel and bloody struggle.

The death toll in the flotilla incident is small compared to that alleged in the two incidents illustrated in Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. The book is a long account of Sacco’s investigation of two actions in Gaza that occurred back in 1956, one in the town of Khan Younis that left 275 Palestinians dead, another in Rafah that left 111 dead. While the overall effect of Sacco’s narrative is one of shock, disgust and shame it also serves as a reminder of the on-going nature of repression and killing that has marked the Palestinian-Israeli struggle for some 60 years.

Sacco, author-illustrator of Palestine and Safe Area Grorazde is the premier graphic journalist, the creator of detailed, researched, investigative comics that are no laughing matter. He approaches his subject in classic Gonzo style, injecting his search for stories into a larger narrative. This injection strengthens his reporting with its wide-angled, contemporary background to, in this case, events over 50 years old. That he concentrated on personal accounts, often to make up for a lack of official documentation, makes his work extremely engaging. Perspective–no pun intended– is everything in his work.

Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2001 with reporter Chris Hedges for Harper’s magazine and soon returned to collect accounts of the massacres that occurred during the ’56 Suez conflict. As readers of Palestine know, his sympathies are with the Palestinian people and this will disqualify him as a legitimate source for many. Yet anyone reading his book and examining the illustrations cannot help but conclude that the Palestinians suffer overwhelming poverty, repression and the effects of  what amounts to war. His infrequent sympathies for Israelis thrust into terrible situations as well as infrequent but obvious disapproval of some Palestinian actions offer precious little balance to a story that has little of it to offer.

In his introduction, Sacco acknowledges  the “scant” official documentation of the events he investigates as well as the questionable reliability of oral testimony. What documentation he was able to discover by sending researchers into the Israel State Archives and the archives of the Israel Defense Forces is listed (and quoted) in the Appendix. He issues the hope that his work will cause some Israeli veterans to come forward with accounts of their own.

Sacco also cautions readers not to see his illustrations as fact. Despite using historical photos when drawing his landscapes, he says that drawing comes with “a measure of refraction” and should be seen as such. (It’s surprising how little things have changed from his depictions of 1956 to the  current day drawings.)

Sacco makes clear the complications of life in Gaza; the waste, the shortages, the crowds, the filth.  He claims that the half of Gaza’s workforce which once worked in Israel have found themselves replaced by Thai, Romanian and Chinese workers.  Invited by a United Nations Relief Worker Agency employee to visit a home in Khan Younis, Sacco sweats and becomes claustrophobic at the tight conditions in which the 11 people live.  He notes what little work is available to them, hunting scrap or the rare teaching position funded by UNRWA. He finds that the Palestinian Authority hires police whose only duty seems to be to collect salaries. The most well-off man he meets works for an American aid agency as a facilitator of “democratization.”  “Basically, it’s bullshit,” says the man.

These modern-day accounts of Sacco’s investigation and story gathering make the book far more relevant than just an account of the massacres. When those accounts do come, they are filled with horror, grief and inexplicable cruelty. Some of Sacco’s most extreme panel’s are over-sized Hieronymus Bosh-like nightmares depicting killing, detention and states of cruel pandemonium. Cross-hatched scenes of darkness or those with the story-teller super-imposed on his own story are done to chilling effect.

Unlike Palestine, the art work doesn’t evolve but maintains a direct, composed style. The strongest work in Palestine is its portraits. Here, the portraits are all of a kind, similar in mood and expression. Footnotes’ best illustrations comes in the narrative flow. Sacco is a master at finding the right action and composition to move his story forward and even the scatter of spent shell casings on a blank background has an impact on his story.

Comic touches are few. A restaurant menu is rolled open to reveal “Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions!” Sacco makes laughs at his own expense and his is the only overly characterized face: large lips, receding hairline, eyes constantly whited out behind  large, round spectacles. He also makes fun of the press corp and their proclivity to drink and party even as duty calls in sections that recall the indifferent press in the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire.

That party scene  serves to illustrate his frustrations — and hopes — beyond the murderous bickering. Among the international crowd of reporters and N.G.O.s are “hepcat Arabs from Ramallah and right-on Jews from Tel Aviv sharing salads and grooving to the same post-bop jazz. Are the dark-haired cuties who jump up when the dance beat kicks in Palestinian or Israeli?…Ahhh, even in the belly of the world’s most intractable conflict there’s a glimmer of hope in which to exalt!”

At end, Sacco feels shame for what he’s lost while gathering his accounts, “for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, and logged it onto my chart.” This confession comes as something of a surprise as he has shown nothing but compassion for those who experienced the killings. In a series of almost four wordless pages he runs a final account through his mind, from a perspective inside the punished crowd, as if in attempt to develop an empathy he didn’t have. If he didn’t succeed with himself — and what preceeds it suggests that he did — Sacco certainly succeeds with the reader.–Cabbage Rabbit

A To Not Quite Z

Rereading Douglas Coupland’s  Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture reminded this baby boomer how important and, in its way, groundbreaking the book was when published in 1991. Not that it received much attention, despite its title,  at release. No major reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker or The Los Angeles Times (somebody please prove me wrong about this). Only culture critic Robin Abcarian of the LA Times seemed to catch on and then, months behind the book’s release, only in light of his second novel.

The book was different even in its design. It’s use of margin slogans and illustrations separated it from the previous generation of literature. Also in the margins were the defining terms of the times, such as  “MCJOB: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who never held one.” And “NUTRITIONAL SLUMMING: Food whose enjoyment stems not from flavor but from a complex mixture of class connotations, nostalgia signals, and packaging semiotics.” Even its off-beat size (8″x9″) made it stand out.

But writers, particularly those interested in marketing, were quick to catch on to the idea of Generation X that prior to the novel had been the province of punk rock and those unable to find a suitable label for any generation of teens that came after (and sometimes including) the boomers.

Coupland defines the subject generation  not quite a third of the way into the book when Andrew tells the story of his working at a “teenybopper magazine” in Japan and seeing the alienation of its same-age generation, those for whom the prevailing culture, as one of his Japanese colleagues puts it, “murder my ambition.”

“…shin jin rui — that’s what the Japanese newspapers call people like those kids in their twenties at the office —  new human beings. It’s hard to explain. We have the same group over here and it’s just as large, but it doesn’t have a name — an X generation — purposefully hiding itself. There’s more space over here [in the U.S.] to hide in — to get lost in — to use as camouflage. You’re not allowed to disappear in Japan.”

This disappearing act is less related to generation than to class (see “McJobs” and “Nutritional Slumming” above). Near the end of the book, Andrew sees this invisibility being shared by his entire family. He’s lit hundreds (“maybe thousands”) of candles in the family living room for the holiday celebration. The effect is revelatory, “the normally dreary living room covered with a molten living cake-icing of white fire, all surfaces devoured in flame — a dazzling fleeting empire of ideal light.” But once the candles are snuffed, life reverts to normal. And that’s when the true revelation rises.

“But I get this feeling —

“It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we’re middle class.

“You see, when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happiness es are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.”

While Coupland is credited with painting the alienation of a certain generation, he’s also defined it for all contemporary generations, a definition that speaks to class struggle and middle-class envy leading to unfullfillment. Some of this class consciousness exists in  Generation A but its alienation is a separation more from nature and emotional experience caused by a dependence on technology, much of it pharmacological. Telling stories is central to both books but there’s a difference. The stories in A are all about plot. In X, they’re all about character. In X, Coupland explains story-telling in terms of “the letter inside us,” an idea he credits to Rilke, and that “only if we are true to ourselves, may we be allowed to read it before we die.” He also uses Rilke to define the separation from reality felt by the alienated, a theme that pervades both books.

Coupland’s excellent first novel, badly misunderstood when it first came out (by this dumb bunny,  too)  spawned a curse of generational considerations, mostly on the negative side of opportunity and abundance, that we can’t seem to escape. Film critic A.O. Scott bemoaned (enough whining!) this curse in a piece that references Sam Lipsyte’s timely book The Ask. Scott suggests that Generation X –those slackers — are having a mid-life crisis.  But what they’re going through — what most of us are going through — is more like Coupland’s middle-class invisibility. How can you be someone, at any age,  when no one can see you? Generation A is not only less of a novel for its failure to make the label stick (“Generation A” comes from an address given by Kurt Vonnegut at Syracuse University in 1994) but also for making its five central characters circumstantial celebrities, something that will never happen to X‘s Andy, Claire and Dag, midlife crisis or not.   —Cabbage Rabbit