From the archives: Jazz

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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Suggested reading, jet-lagged edition

Monday, 29 March 2010 — 9:45pm | Assorted links, Film, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I haven’t read the Internet in almost two weeks, thanks to my various globetrotting commitments. But never fear—these selections from early March are here.

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Suggested reading, bowled-over edition

Monday, 8 February 2010 — 11:23pm | Assorted links, Comics, Computing, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I don’t follow American football whatsoever and would probably be unable to name any former or current NFL player that hasn’t been involved in a highly publicized criminal investigation, but you don’t need to know football to enjoy the Super Bowl pieces in McSweeney’s. The two that stuck out for me, both from a few years back: “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian, and the Characters They Would Be in an Actual Dickens Novel” and “Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII”.

This week’s bag of links:

  • In a rare sighting of the man behind Calvin and Hobbes, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer interviews Bill Watterson fifteen years after the legendary comic strip ended its run.

  • Peter Hum ruminates on the “ugly beauty” of avant-garde jazz.

  • The big news coming out of Barack Obama’s 2011 budget was the abandonment of NASA’s plan for the resumption of manned spaceflight to the moon. SPACE.com has the analysis.

  • Jonathan McCalmont, caught between the debate over high/low culture and his vehement dislike of the popular video game Bayonetta (“a game so dumb that it makes a weekend spent masturbating and sniffing glue seem like an animated discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)”), spun it all into a compelling essay on hypnotism and lowbrow art.

  • This Charles Petersen piece in The New York Review of Books is one of the better histories you will find of where Facebook came from and how it has transformed, and offers a thorough look at the content-pushing pressures facing the social-network model of a nominally private Internet.

  • Mark Sarvas identifies some common problems of debut novels from the perspective of a prize-committee veteran.

  • In The Guardian, Darrel Ince implores scientists who rely on internally developed software to publish their source code.

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Suggested reading, goddam phony edition

Monday, 1 February 2010 — 11:32pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Music, Video games

In a way, the media frenzy over the death of J.D. Salinger can be understood as a kind of cathartic relief—i.e. now that he’s croaked, we can finally talk about him without feeling like we’re intruding on something. It has, at least, made for some very good reading about one of literature’s most enigmatic figures. Rather than collect the obituaries myself—I haven’t had time to read them all—I’ll link to the links at Bookninja here and here.

Serious aficionados should take a look at this 1957 letter by Salinger explaining why he saw The Catcher in the Rye as unfilmable. Really dedicated junkies of all things Salinger may even go as far as perusing Joyce Maynard’s 1972 article, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”, which led her to drop out of Yale and live with the author for a year. (I personally find it nigh on unreadable, but it’s evidence that the cliché anxiety about settling down with 2.2 kids has been around for nearly four decades at least.)

And now for something completely different:

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Suggested reading, cork-popping edition

Monday, 18 January 2010 — 9:24pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Mathematics, Music, Science

I read too much and write too little. This has made it difficult to keep this space current and engaging, something that I sought to remedy with a weekly book review until other commitments started getting in the way. The book feature will return as soon as I can manage it and for as long as I can help it; but until then and going forward, I will content myself with regularly sharing some links to pieces that may fascinate the sort of people who come here in the first place, as they certainly fascinated me.

Up to this point I have typically refrained from aggregating news and commentary from elsewhere without any reply of my own, but I would rather pass on insightful reading material free of comment than never have it reach you at all. At the very least I hope to introduce some of you to the many excellent blogs and journals I follow.

Some recent highlights:

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Greenie’s Blues

Saturday, 11 July 2009 — 10:23pm | Jazz, Music

Prowlers of Wikipedic biographies may have come across the factoid that Alan Greenspan was once a Juilliard-educated jazz musician who played with Stan Getz. What you may not know, however, is that “Greenie” was allegedly a very good jazz musician—or could have been, were he not intimidated out of it by the best. As Joe Queenan reports in The Weekly Standard:

Napolitano was in the room the night Greenspan’s supernova career fizzled out. It was September 14, 1949, and Greenspan found himself in the same Greenwich Village club as John Coltrane. Coltrane, a convivial sort, went out of his way to be friendly to the youngster, but Greenspan was having none of it. Sax at the ready, he challenged Coltrane to an onstage showdown. It was a mistake he would regret for the rest of his life.

“Trane smoked his ass,” Parnell remembers. “Greenie foolishly tore into ‘Cherokee,’ Charlie Barnet’s old standby, but Trane knew that tune inside out from his days in Kansas City. Greenie tried to keep up, but no chance. Trane didn’t rile easily, but something about the way Greenie carried himself didn’t suit John. Trane took him apart.”

(No, it isn’t true. But, much like the Orson Welles film of The Bat-Man, it’s a story one wants to believe.)

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You’ll know the real thing when you hear it

Monday, 6 July 2009 — 9:16pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Kenny Werner performed in Edmonton on Thursday with his touring quintet (Randy Brecker (trumpet), David Sanchez (tenor sax), Scott Colley (bass), Antonio Sanchez (drums)). I am pleased to say it was one of the most complete jazz concerts I’ve seen, full of vitality and character at every turn.

Let me put it this way. After Werner whistled along to his own piano outro at the tail end of his lovely, lovely composition, “Uncovered Heart”—which he introduced as the song he wrote on the day his daughter was born—my classical composer companion leaned over to me and whispered, “So I’ve decided on his behalf that he is going to have more children.”

In retrospect, were we unable to plead ignorance it would have been a callous remark. What Mr Werner did not tell us was that his beloved daughter had perished in a car accident two years earlier. I suppose he trusted the music to speak for itself—and it did.

The band played a set consisting mostly of originals from his 2007 album Lawn Chair Society (“New Amsterdam”, “Uncovered Heart”, “The 13th Day”), but in a wholly acoustic setting, plus an unrecorded tune (“Balloons”, a lilting piece that bobbed up and down in thirds) and John Williams’ signature melody for the Harry Potter films (“Hedwig’s Theme”).

One can go on forever about how jazz is the quintessentially American music, and nowhere is it more American than in its ideal of individual liberty as the wellspring of greater collective achievement. This was one of those bands where every musician was consistently interesting to listen to, yet never selfish. Brecker’s dizzying bebop lines were an ample foil for David Sanchez’s wide expressive sweeps, and Antonio Sanchez was a real listener who clearly thought in ideas much bigger than patterns and strokes. Colley was a discovery for me, particularly the way he used pizzicato bass to trace smooth legato shapes and do far more than walk. And of Werner’s facility for drawing singsong melodies out of the piano, the more said the better. Elsewhere he cites Joni Mitchell as his primary musical influence, and I believe him.

Werner’s quintet was current, situated in the here and now and doing something fresh, while staying within an accessible jazz aesthetic with traditional instrumentation. The funk-and-swing pastiche of “New Amsterdam” highlighted the continued richness of acoustic instruments in predominantly electric forms, and the screaming intensity of “Hedwig’s Theme” harked back, however distantly, to what John Coltrane did to “My Favorite Things” decades ago. (I don’t hear nearly enough John Williams in jazz: up to the 1960s the adaptation of iconic themes from contemporary cinema and Broadway productions was a matter of course, and one would think that Williams, the definitive composer of film music from 1970 to present, would elicit more widespread treatment.)

There’s plenty of good jazz in the world. But great jazz? You’ll know it when you hear it—and I heard it.

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