Against all odds, I just accidentally found out I’ve been a “community author” with JazzTimes since november 2012. I wish they’d let me know! The very first post i wrote on wellyouneedit happens to be featured in an online jazz mag. The world is unfathomable.
* Caveat: While this post has a clear political content, yours truly intends to stick with the music/arts focus of this blog
Are we doomed to live in a society where the world’s ruling elites seem determined to turn humans into disposable commodities, where entire mountain ranges get a facelift in order to line the pockets of a handful while the people get sick from polluted water and coal dust-infested air, where a form of slavery is overtly reestablished with the complicit silence of the corporate state, where the mass-media-driven distraction of consumerism and entertainment hides the dire reality of an increasingly disenfranchised people gradually stripped of their most basic rights? This ominous script is already unfolding in the beleaguered America depicted in Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s scathing book Days of Destruction Days of Revolt. If that sounds all gloom and doom, it’s because it is. Set successively in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Camden, New Jersey, Immokalee, Florida, and Liberty Square, New York City, the book explores the broken lives of individuals bearing the brunt of a corporate oligarchy desperate to secure its survival at any cost. Sacco’s graphic illustrations give the book a gritty quality that makes the text even more compelling. What Hedges calls the “sacrifice zones” feel like war-torn places usually associated with countries devastated by the combination of political corruption and endemic poverty. Except this is the United States of America today. At least, part of it. Through his trained eye as a war reporter who has covered conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and Central America, Hedges leads us into the lives of ordinary Americans grappling with living conditions unimaginable in the world’s most opulent country. Granted, anyone remotely familiar with US past and current history knows that the American dream has not exactly been fulfilled, and on that score, the book drives the point home with unassailable force. But with the dramatic example of America, Hedges hits on something broader, reminding us in Orwellian fashion (often quoted in the book) that a security state driven by profitmaking can and will take on its own citizens, even physically so, for the sheer survival of an idea. That financial value trumps any other value, including human value. From the annihilation of Native American culture in South Dakota to the destruction of mountains in West Virginia to the tent parks of Camden, New Jersey on through the enslavement of migrant farmworkers in Florida, Hedges and Sacco deliver a hard-hitting report. Sacco’s comics are equally powerful, capturing complex emotions and situations with minimal photographic snapshots. I’m looking at one right now: A man, Larry Gibson, overlooks a mountain blasted into a moonscape by the coal industry, flanked by his dog, who looks on with equal distress. Through it all, it is the resistance of these (extra)ordinary people that is particularly striking given the horrid circumstances.
The book ends on a more hopeful note, taking us into the heart of the Occupy movement and giving us a genuine insider’s look into its organic organization. The people we meet there are living embodiments of Thoreau’s civil disobedience philosophy. Pretty amazing. Sometimes, the text feels slightly redundant – a criticism mitigated by Hedges’ sincere anger – crowding out comics that might have worked better and are generally too sparse, i thought. I also wish the authors had looked at the aftermath of Katrina but that might be a subject for another book.
I grew up and live in a country once lauded and envied for its social protections and cultural model. While the scale and magnitude are definitely not comparable, there are glaring examples of similar destruction in France, from urban decay to corporate assaults on the environment to dwindling paychecks. You name it. No matter where you stand politically, the record is overwhelming. Hedges and Sacco are calling for revolt. Now, I don’t have a damn clue what forms that should take but I guess the smallest acts of defiance, including reading thought-provoking books in the 21st century, will always make more sense than speculating on our own destruction.
But I promise, next time I’ll talk about jazz.
Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction Days of Revolt, Nation Books, 2012
En français: Jours de destruction jours de révolte, Futuropolis, 2012, traduit par Sidonie Van den Dries et Stéphane Dacheville
As one third of The Bad Plus, Dave King is known for his high-powered drumming and phenomenal precision, fitting qualities for this leaderless trio that makes telepathy seem like a walk in the park. King’s versatile drums are so integral to the band’s organic chemistry it’s hard to imagine the drummer lending his voice to other musical adventures. Yet, he maintains a hectic musical schedule, playing in 8 bands of various styles and configurations. To great effect.
On his new record under his own name, “I’ve been ringing you” (Sunnyside), King hooks up with fellow Minnesotans, pianist Bill Carrothers and bassist Billy Peterson, and makes quiet but intense music. The album consists of 8 songs, including 7 standards tastefully reconfigured for the 21st century and infused with a dark introspection. The record documents King’s deep reverence for the jazz tradition and showcases his impressionistic talents when playing songs in a more “straight-ahead” format. The choice of slow tempos on all the songs emphasizes the meditative mood that permeates the album, which would not be out of place in ECM’s stylish catalogue. In fact, King’s subdued drumming, not so much playing time as messing with it, sounds to some degree like an inspired continuation of the late Paul Motian’s work on Manfred Eicher’s prestigious label.
The opener “goodbye” (Gordon Jenkins) sets the mood, a spacious meditation that never seems to start and actually sounds all the better for it. Carrother’s eerie voicings are an invitation to daydreaming appropriately highlighted by Peterson’ discreet pedal-point commentary and King’s soft touch on brushes and whale songish waterphone. The band continues with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, a respectful rendition that honors the melody by roving around it and stating it in various permutations. As on the rest of the album, that particular song is a striking example of cohesive collective improvisation, drums and bass rumbling along with Carrother’s ghostly lines, constantly interacting with piano. Cole Porter’s “So in Love” is introduced by King”s crisp crackle and features a resonant solo by Peterson, a new name for me that shines throughout the record. Clocking in at 38:45 minutes, the album delivers on a bold agenda, one that finds King reassessing his well-deserved place alongside today’s preeminent jazz improvisers. While the music remains consistently calm, it is executed with an intensity suggesting a brooding storm. There is no mushiness in the way the trio addresses the standards here. Listen to how “If I Should Lose You” gradually emerges from Peterson’s cavernous glissandi, taking shape along meandering lines, picking its way through the murk, with King latching on to piano and bass every nanosecond. The title song and only original that bookends the record is the perfect coda of this suite, picking up where the opener left off. With winter only a couple of months away, it’s a record you might consider playing on a cold snowy day, huddled up under the quilt or late at night, lights out on any given day. Having said that, what will sound like a singular take on familiar territory to the hardcore jazz fan will always sound a little esoteric to the casual listener. But if anything, the record will hopefully resonate with anyone who enjoys the strange intensity of silence.
I am still reeling from the news. With every passing of jazz veterans, the art form seems to recede a little further into history. Their legacy, though, remains immortal. Butch Warren is not my main influence on bass but somehow I feel I had a special connection with him. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I’d like to relate an anecdote as a tribute of sorts.
Three years ago, I went to hear Butch Warren perform with a French quintet in Paris. As I recall, the musicians had caught up with him in NY and wanted to bring him over to France where he hadn’t performed in 30 years. I squirmed in my seat in eager anticipation. The concert began, and sure enough, Butch’s firm tone immediately brought to mind scores of blue note records that he played on – he was Blue Note’s house pianist back in the 60s– and importantly for me, his fruitful association with Monk during the 1963 Japan tour. As Robin D.G. Kelley remarks about Monk’s hiring of Warren before the tour (Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original, “Monk liked the big sound Warren got from the lower register and his inventive choice of notes – characteristics he appreciated in Wilbur Ware’s playing”. That sound was definitely present that late afternoon, preserved from a long spell of personal hardship and serious health problems. I could hear Butch huffing and puffing as his long fingers stumbled across the fingerboard, assuming unorthodox positions. After each song, he sat down and seemed to wait for the next tune call, as if to say “man, I can hold it down, okay, but don’t I deserve a little rest?” And yes, despite the awkward fingering and obvious signs of physical strain, he could sure hold it down and make his notes sing. I will never forget the sight of this giant laying down some heavy bluesy lines as if driven by a rekindled flame. At one point between two songs, I overheard the drummer winking at the saxophonist and mouthing the words “they don’t make them like him anymore”. He was enjoying that deep-soul vibe. So was I. Impeccably dressed and wearing a black Stetson hat, Butch cut an impressive figure despite his apparent fragile health.
The concert ended to thundering applause. I walked out the concert hall and lit up a cigarette to regain my senses. I was about to head home when I saw Butch come out and sit on some steps, rolling his cigarette. Petrified, I mustered my courage and walked up to him. That was now or never. I was only one handshake away from Thelonious Monk, for god’s sake! Like any nervous fan, I congratulated him a little dramatically. But that gave me a lead to ask him a couple of questions. He obliged me very nicely. Our brief conversation revolved around all things bass, strings, projection, cutting through the drums, his desire to mount some gut strings on his new bass and how unaffordable they were. When I asked the one question I should have asked from the start: “do you have any advice to give me as an aspiring bass player trying to develop his chops?” I loved the laconic answer: “Try to get a good sound”. Those words burned into my mind like a haunting mantra. A young woman who seemed to be his manager nicely offered to take a picture of Butch and me with my cell phone. However heavily pixelized and impossible to enlarge, that miniature photo exists. On it, you can still recognize Butch, towering over me (he was about 6, 20 feet). I’m so glad and grateful I shook hands with that beautiful giant. RIP Edward Rudolph ‘Butch’ Warren.
Read the Washington Post obit for a glimpse of his life here
Watch Butches’ Blues, a short documentary that traces his rocky path, here
Selected album recommendations featuring Butch Warren on bass
Herbie Hancock, Takin’ off, Blue Note
Thelonious Monk, It’s Monk’s time, Blue Note
Thelonious Monk, Monk in Tokyo, Prestige (ideally, try to get the LP on Epic)
Jackie McLean, A Fickle Sonance, Blue Note
Sonny Clark, Leapin’ and Lopin’, Blue Note
Joe Henderson, Page one, Blue Note
Elmo Hope, Complete Studio Recordings, CD 3, Gambit Records (only 2 tracks but it’s all in there)
Butch Warren, Butch’s Blues, Butch Warren