Saturday, June 26, 2010

Music Notes – Liz Story

Now and then, little will do to calm me but good, emotive piano playing. Typically this means Mr. Jarrett, particularly the improvised concerts. Sometimes that means listening to George Winston (and some of the knock offs of his style). But a pianist I seem to return to over and over is Liz Story.
Story does not seem, to my admittedly untrained ear, to be as creative as Jarrett (but who is, really?), and I am pretty sure she is not as popular as Mr. Winston. But I think she is better than he is. One can hear the influence of the great Bill Evans here, especially in the subtle, but never sleepy touch that lets all empty space become part of the music, stroking the melodies with just enough color to make them stand out, but not so much as to scream for attention.
Ms. Story does play some beautiful original compositions. “Wedding Rain” and “Pacheco Pass” are favorites for many listeners (including myself). Her more introspective pieces remind me of another musician that doesn’t get enough attention: Richard Souther. But I am intrigued by her readings of such classic pieces as “How Insensitive,” “All the Things You Are,” and “My One and Only Love.” I consider anyone tries Evans’ “Peace Piece” to be quite bold, but I have to say I really like her rendition.
Liz Story’s playing is soft in a good sense. It is relaxing and beautiful, but don’t let that fool you. While her work doesn’t dive and dip like Keith Jarrett’s, and it might not be as poetically rounded as Bill Evans, it is very enjoyable. Often just what I need.

Bookmarks – The Cradle Place

Thomas Lux is not your roses is red poet of pretty little lines. He isn’t Shakespeare. There is a great deal that Lux isn’t. And even if his strange verses are a little hard for the overly expectant reader to take, they are darn good.
Lux has been described by many critics as “surrealistic.” Poems in  The Cradle Place employ some odd images which seem to come from dreams, and what you expect to be horrifying sometimes ends up beautiful, at least in my psyche. And perhaps that is Lux’s strength: not so much to get us to embrace the nightmares we imagine, but to be honest about the nightmares we live around unknowingly. Maybe we also learn to see, as only in dreams, the possible that we would deny if we looked at it face to face.
These poems contain a great deal of humor, though you might find it missing when you look for it. It is like riding in the car with the wise, but weird uncle: you know he’s going to say something funny and he’s going to make some sort acute observation, but if you try to force anything, he’ll sit mute. As soon as you turn on the radio to drown out his silence, something comes out touching wonder. It is best to read without presumption and let whatever happens happens.
While I did say that Lux is like no other poet, I do think he has his kindred spirits. A number of the poems in this collection owe their power to observations about the minute and discarded, a la A. R. Ammons. But where Ammons opens the world of science to metaphor that few have since Donne, Lux’s muse has bite (and sharp teeth!). Bits of information and daring questions lodge in the brain like a feather, sometimes tickling, sometimes scratching, always screaming for attention. What is done with that attention is left to the reader. But the reader is not going to be the same…unless she or he expects nothing else.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Music Notes: Voodoo Blue at the Harbor

Took in a wonderful set on Thursday night by the Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute band Voodoo Blue.
Even if you have never heard of Stevie Ray Vaughan (and if so, I feel very sorry for you), and have somehow missed his tunes on the radio, I dare anyone to sit and listen to this band play and not be impressed with how good they sound or how fun they are to watch. (I say that at the same time I was flabbergasted by all the people mulling around during the show like they were just cruising the mall.)
Those who did sit still (or dance) were treated to some mighty good renditions of Vaughan classics, like “Little Wing,” “Pride and Joy,” “Crossfire,” “The House is Rockin’,” and my personal favorite: “Cold Shot.”

Voodoo Blue also provided the crowd with a few of the lesser known tunes from the SRV canon (meaning the stuff you don’t get on the classic rock radio stations) like “Willie The Wimp.” At the end, they played the National Anthem a la Hendrix and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” At this point nearly everyone was on their feet. Local groups don’t generally generate this kind of excitement, especially cover bands. But Voodoo Blue deserve it.
If you are going to do the music of a guitar legend, you better have some one better than good on the six string. Voodoo Blue does in Casey James. This guy is an exciting performer, even looking like Stevie Ray. From the opening number, he had us all electrified. But the whole band was good here. I loved the keys when I could here them and the singer was a punch of good blues.
There is nothing like the original. But this is pretty darn good stuff. If you are in the DFW Metroplex and need good fix of SRV that radio or your old cassettes and give you, this is the band to see.

Dear Senator Barton:

Thank you for taking the time to apologize on my behalf to a very bad man working for a very bad company in an industry so evil that America is drowning under its influence. After all, as a grown man myself, I still have trouble appreciating a person who represents decades of abuse and oppression.
You have confirmed for me that you are a consummate politician,  a word that I understand comes from an ancient language meaning asshole, probably due to what comes out of it. And up until this time, I just figured you and your kind were only one notch above child molesters and divorce lawyers.
Once again, you did what politicians do: you seized the moment for yourself, drawing attention to YOURSELF, in one quick jibe dismissing the out right EVIL that BP and other oil companies have perpetrated on this country. You have left those who are hurting (REAL PAIN SENATOR, NOT A LITTLE OUWIE) behind so you can push an agenda that is nothing more than the same old “take the other side no matter how stupid it is and let us all spread the hate” position that goobers on both sides of the arena have been doing for a very very long time.
You have no real concern for the people whose livelihoods are gone forever. You do not care about the families who have lost loved ones. You have no love for those who serve to BETTER this country. YOU LOVE YOU. That’s all.
For me the BP thing is not about politics. In fact, it is politics that has helped to get us into and have exacerbated this mess. I have grown to distrust all politicians, left and right because of people like you Senator Barton. You had a chance to prove right and wrong are not about left and right and to get people on the side of DOING SOMETHING instead of saying nothing. But I guess it was more important to earn the praise of the Rush Limbaughs of this world. Silly me; I just don’t get it.
I read that you have apologized for your apology. But why? Because you were forced to by people in your own party. See, it is not about doing the right thing. It is about saving face. TAhat is the first side of every political coin: Save Face. The second half reads: Get Elected.
In the wake of the all the rhetoric, you have done  divided families and killed real freedom. Now politics is a religion, and all we hear is given litany from the priests at Fox and MSNBC. Some say, “you have to be involved in politics to change politics.” Horse shit. I might as well deal with child molesting priests by apologizing to the Pope for all the people who have asked him to be accountable for the church he leads. Then I suppose I should help him shuffle off more bad minister to work with kids and make sure all the good priests get held up for ridicule.
You see, this is what you and other politicians have done. You basically have told the abuser, the molester, the killer, “We are so sorry you are getting punished. We are so sorry there has been pressure on you to do the RIGHT THING since we know in a free world you should never have to do the right thing.”
Politicians on all sides talk and talk and talk about personal responsibility. And yet when someone is actually expected to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY, you ALL decry it. You don’t want people to take responsibility. You only want to take credit.
So here are two things you can take credit for: 1) further disillusioning me from the idea the politicians can do any good for this country and 2) giving the smug bastard his life back.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Music Notes – Tribute (Keith Jarrett Trio)

Keith Jarrett just has to do things differently. And so when he and his band mates (bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette) make a tribute album, it just can't be for one person or even a composer. Here they pay tribute to the great performances of several people doing other people's great tunes. Now I am not familiar enough with the original recordings, so I can only focus on the music itself, which, as usual, is fine.
I can say these standards sound much more like the kind of thing people go to when they want to hear fresh versions of the Great American Songbook, and there are not so many of the usual "extensions" Keith Jarrett Trio is known for. But if you love piano jazz, you won't get this recording confused with any other trio. You may have heard many renditions of "Lover Man," "Solar," "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and “All The Things You Are.” But a few notes into the melody, and you know you are listening to Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette.
A couple original tunes can also be found on Tribute, each of which close the respective discs on the project: "Sun Prayer" on the first disc and "U Dance" and side two. I'm not sure why they are here, but I didn't find their inclusion jarring in the least. They are also two of the catchier and perhaps most accessible pieces in the project.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Music Notes -- The Mars Hill Band at the Harbor

When I see the words “Party Band” used to describe an act, I don’t have very high expectations that I am going to enjoy the music. Usually I end up listening to plodding and lethargic versions of songs I don’t really like, even by the original artists. Maybe I’m getting old, because that isn’t my idea of a party.
But the Mars Hill Band surprised me in their set at the Harbor in Rockwall on Thursday night. The group played a spirited set mixing tunes from a variety of decades and genres. Even some songs that don’t do much for me personally (like “She Country” and Michael Jackson's “Rock With You”) came off well and seemed to be pretty well received by the crowd gathered by Lake Ray Hubbard. Shoot, they even did a version of “Welcome to the Jungle” with some darn hot horns.
There were a few glitches here and there, like a guitar that didn’t always want to be heard on my side of the stage, but mostly this was a surprisingly fun show. The group handles, as noted before, several different songs and made them work together. The even got called for an encore, and did a raucous rendition of Living Colour's “Cult of Personality.” (By the way, I really did like this song, but I’d been so taken with the horns—a trombonist and a flugelhorn player – that I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to experience the tune with them.)
This was a party band, and though I didn’t dance, I’m glad I came.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

TV notes – The Nine Test High School Education

I get more and more soured on sports, especially the so-called “student athlete.” There are some really fine athletes who do take their education seriously. I know this because many have graced my classes, working very hard both on the field, and and treating every morsel of knowledge like gold, happy for the privilege to learn. But the truth is that most athletes in college are like a group I have run into in my own job: spoiled children who are genuinely surprised when a teacher has the audacity to fail them in courses they did no work in and rarely, if ever attended. (I once had a baseball player who came so infrequently to his class, I did not know what he looked like.  He only turned in one assignment, which he failed, and asked me how to get an A just before the final exam, which he actually took expecting to pass the course.)
There are some who would blame a culture of entitlement, an attitude seemingly ramped up with athletes (usually male, by the way – most female athletes I’ve encountered take a more realistic approach to college) as if on steroids. Others will blame bad parenting. Others blame the professionals for providing role models only in terms of selfishness and aggrandizement.
I’m sure each of these has some influence on the never was a scholar athlete. But I believe the real culprit is that sports has been made a god and its male participants have become little deities commanding worship. I used to see it in the pros. Then I became a college instructor and realized that it has always been there too. When I became a parent who took his kids to soccer and basketball practices, I saw that many of these little gods had been formed (and their educations dropped like a new convert runs from the devil) long before they hit high school.
Let us take the case of one Tony Mitchell and young man who missed over a hundred days of class and yet managed to rise from being a freshman to a senior in less than two days. Here is Brett Shipp’s first report on the case, reported on WFAA in Dallas on June 1.

Now take a look at Shipp's follow up report on the investigation:

Today I caught the following commentary from anchor John McCaa:

Where have we gotten to as a society when people attach a man for reporting the misdeeds? What are we to say of ourselves when the potential of a gifted athlete, not for what he can use his talents to provide for himself (remember the word “education”?), but what he can bring to a college program, namely fame and money, is all that people are concerned about? We haven’t gotten to any place. We are in the same place we always were: worshipping the sport and the athlete so much, that we become blind to the abuse done not only to education, but also to this young man and those like him and, dare I say, to real values of sports. A handful of us will applaud what Mr. Shipp has done in reporting this story and what Mr. McCaa has said in support of that story. But what does it say about the world we live in when this small minority of us are looked as if we  are the religious zealots, not those who see a misguided and poorly led 17 year old as a savior.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Music Notes – Thieves and Poets

Some have compared this project from guitar master John McLaughlin to Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain. It is not really as great as all that, but saying so isn’t really fair to McLaughlin. After all Sketches is one of the best albums by one of the greatest artists in music history. It has also has had longer to garner listeners and acclaim. But there are a number of similarities between the two projects that make the comparison worthy of attention.
Thieves and Poets can be divided into two sections. The first is the three part title suite composed by McLaughlin. The second consists of four jazz standards played with McLaughlin's usual adroitness: “My Foolish Heart,” “The Dolphin,” “Stella by Starlight,” and “My Romance.” Parts II and III of the suite and the standards feature The Aighetta Quartet.  The orchestra on this recording is I Pommeriggi Musicali di Milano. Both ensembles provide the lush and beautiful backdrop for McLaughlin's composition and the understated classics. So, like Sketches of Spain, this project straddles the worlds of jazz and classical music.  I think the result is something is likely to satisfy people in both camps. But only to a degree.
Where Sketches is a fully realized, coherent collaboration between Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Thieves and Poets is really a disc with two distinct, and not uniform, halves. The suite wants to be like the majestic “Concerto de Aranjuez,” and as a classical piece, it almost is. But Davis’ genius was that he could use the orchestra as he did his band, and so his version of the Rodrigo composition almost seems to be his own, yet without losing the essentials of the original. So what Davis did was both classical and jazz. But McLaughlin has a powerful work for the orchestra, and nothing more. Ironically, “Concerto De Aranjuez” is a work for guitar and orchestra.
That suite is very much worth listening to, but with the other four tunes, the record as a whole is jarring. The standards are rendered beautifully here, if not that special in terms of improvisation, and come off as little afterthoughts. Pretty, but afterthoughts nonetheless. One might get the impression after a few listens that McLaughlin didn’t have enough of either and so he just stuck them together.
I would rather have had either two separate projects or a double disc opus with the classical material on one and the jazz classics on the other. Far be it from me to say the two genres don’t belong together. But here it doesn’t work quite so well as music lovers know is possible.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Music Notes – Rock Instrumental Classics: The Seventies

Before I ever got into jazz (sort of), I was a rock and roller (sort of), a child of the 70s. And while some of the tunes on this disc I never actually heard during that decade, those that did come through my tiny radio speakers had me thinking there was more to music than folk tunes, disco, and the advent of heavy metal. So when I found this disc for cheap at a Half Price Bookstore, I had to have it.
A couple things do bother me about this little collection of 18 songs. Probably the most noticeable problem is the truncated version of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein.” Second, while I know that jazz and rock are not the same thing, if a compilation can include “Joy” by Apollo and “The Hustle,” of “rock” music, then surely they could have found room for tunes by Herb Alpert, Chuck Mangione, Spyro Gyra, or crossover sensation George Benson. The seventies were a time when a lot of jazz and rock crossed over, and these artist had some pretty good tunes. I guess, however, that might have taken two discs (so would that be Volume 3b?). To make room, on the other hand, I might suggest cutting “Apricot Brandy” by Rhinoceros, since it was actually released in 1968 and was not a big hit.
But that doesn’t diminish what one has here. The disc is rather uneven, with some real rock songs mixed with some disco and pop novelties, like the aforementioned songs, Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” and the quirky “Popcorn” (by, of course, Hot Butter). But we also have classics (dare I say standards?) like Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces,” Deodato’s version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” and mega groovy “Outa-Space”by the late Billy Preston (God rest his sweet jammin’ soul!).

There are also some nuggets (at least for me) in some songs, as noted before,  I never heard before putting this in my player. Notable are ELO’s “Daybreaker” and a hearty version of Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love” played by King Curtis & The Kingpins. The disc also contains some interesting liner notes (something that those who did not grow up in the seventies or before may not remember as part of the listening experience).
Okay, so my misgivings notwithstanding, this is a fun little record, one that should give a good picture of one significant part of one of the richest decades in music history.
[Note: I noticed that this series contains music from the 50s and 60s, but nothing past the seventies. I wonder what statement that makes for music past that time. Just saying…]

Music Notes: Forecast: Tomorrow

 If you like Weather Report, this is good stuff. If you love Weather Report, you probably have already heard (and own) most of it. Still, it is a nice collection (the only box set) of the one of greatest of the jazz fusion groups. image
I enjoyed it mostly, but it is marred in that it is missing two of my favorite WR tunes: "A Remark You Made" and "Boogie Woogie Waltz."  (The former is found on the DVD, but missing the latter is, unconscionable.)

Still, the collection, as whole, shines nicely. There are some tunes I had not heard before, at least not in live versions. And I liked the solos, particularly Wayne Shorter’s. I was also intrigued by Joe Zawinul’s tasty playing on the mellower tunes.
The DJ Logic remix of “125th Street Congress” was irritating at first (probably due to my aversion to rap), but a couple listens and I was hooked. The biggest WR hit, “Birdland,” comes off a bit flat. However, I’ve now heard that song so many times, and there are so many good live versions of it, that I may be a bit harsh.
imageWhat may be the biggest draw of the set are the older tunes, those originally on the first three Weather Report albums. The band had not really hit its stride, and these more developed and energetic versions are really enjoyable.
As a whole, Forecast: Tomorrow is a fine listening experience, particularly for the fan who has appreciated Weather Report from afar and not really given themselves a chance to get into them. Whether that person is willing to shell out this kind of money for the set remains to be seen.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Bookmarks – A Painted House

I had put off reading this novel because I found out a Hallmark movie was made from it. But I decided I needed to give it a try anyway, since I usually like Grisham's books, including the mainstream (non-thriller) ones.  I am glad I did. This was an enjoyable tale of about a young boy living on a farm in Arkansas with his parents and grandparents, and how much he grows up during one season of picking cotton.
The book isn't perfect. There is a little too much repetition of some facts and I have my doubts about this being the story of a seven year old boy, especially considering the many secrets he is expected to keep. But these problems are pretty easy to overlook.
The tale is inviting, with enough sub-plots to keep the reader interested. It gives a fine picture of 1952 farm life, and doesn't make even its most sympathetic characters too perfect (a la Hallmark). As the theme of the novel is secrecy, there is plenty of intrigue. But there is also a good deal of humor as well. The tone is engaging and smooth throughout.
Subtly, Grisham seems to be making statements about race and class distinctions. The novel's protagonist does come to all the right conclusions, even when his own motives are not so pure. The family must deal with two sets of workers: Mexicans and Hill People (whites who come from other parts of Arkansas to pick cotton). The differences are dealt with more in a matter-of-fact manner, particularly since the main character is more interested in baseball than the rights and concerns of people outside his family. So Grisham avoids hitting his reader over the head with moralizing.
I do recommend "A Painted House," but I won't likely see the movie anytime soon. I have my own prejudices getting in the way of that.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Bookmarks – Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

FOself2Brad Gooch has done a great deal of research on O'Connor (in my mind one of America's most important writers), and has produced a biography that should satisfy the scholar and the vaguely curious. The book reads sometimes like a novel and sometimes like the gossip page of a small town newspaper. It does shed a great of light on the writer's work and habits, and certainly the ideas behind her art.
O'Connor's life was beautiful and sad, a study in  itself of suffering and faith, even without her powerful prose. This book gives insight into her childhood, including the relationship with her father, whose death profoundly affected her. We also get snapshots of her life as a college student and cartoonist, as well as her brief time away from Andulsia (the family farm she spent almost all of her adulthood). Only a tiny bit of this information has been available before, and only to a handful of scholars. flannery--odd
Seen here also is the strained and difficult relationship between O'Connor and her mother. Gooch does not pull any punches concerning Regina O'Connor, but is also more sympathetic than one might expect. Readers also get interesting information about Betty Hester, known for years as “A,” a woman whose correspondence with O'Connor tells us much about not only the writer, but the Christian.
Anyone interested in O'Connor would do well to read this book. But this story is also for those who want to read about one America's most under-recognized and often misunderstood thinkers. It will certainly become required reading for any O'Connor scholar, but it is a darn good story for the rest of us plain folk too.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Publication Notes – June 2010

Since the summer has begun, I have, in greater earnest been sending material out, including some book length manuscripts. Have even collected a few rejections already. Wow! The Internet is speedy! However, a couple pieces have found homes.
“The Dog Barked” has been published at sillymess. No payment,  but I’m glad to have my work out there. It is a flash fiction piece I think I wrote sometime last year.
My poem “The Insomnia War” also is soon to be  published. It is expected to be in the July issue of Flutter, another online zine. Also, I recently heard from the editor of Trapeze Magazine and she will be publishing a twitter haiku on June 26.
These are kind of experimental, at least as far as the type of writing I usually do. Yet I’m proud to have written them and hope they generate some attention.
Other than that, I’m still working a little at a time at the novel, now with a new idea for the second half of the story, and on a non-fiction book of rants and meditations. As I am teaching online, I hope to contribute some time to an e-book I have wanted to write for school. At least I’ll think about it. Those are the plans. What will happen only God knows.