Archive for February, 2010

Friday Jazz blogging

David Liebman on Ornette Coleman, from the liner notes to his new Ornette tribute record:

A lot has been written about the music and legacy of Ornette Coleman, his “harmelodic” approach and overall influence. If only for his first recordings in the late 50’s and early 60’s, especially Free Jazz with the double quartets, he would’ve made musical history. On a personal level from the several times I’ve met Ornette, he impressed me as soft-spoken, a total gentleman always ready to talk about music and explain his theories (which after five minutes had me completely baffled–similar to what I have heard from others). I particularly love two of his recordings for their incredible swing and fire: New York Is Now with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison and Live At the Golden Circle with Charles Moffett and David Izenzon-both great rhythm sections. But in general his music has not had as much an influence upon me as others from my generation. This is primarily due to the relatively minor role that harmony plays in his music, or shall I say intentional-direct harmony. For my aesthetic, choosing and refining harmony (at least on occasion) deepens the expressive power of a melody, be it an improvised line or a nursery rhyme. The development of harmony stands as one of the major contributions of Western culture to the musical world at large. Although there have been “harmonic moments” in Ornette’s music in tandem with pianists Walter Norris, Paul Bley, Joachim Kuhn and Gerri Allan, as well as all the bass players throughout the years, for the most part Ornette’s brand of “free-bop” doesn’t really place much importance on harmony per se.
Nonetheless I do admire his seemingly never ending repository of lyrical melodies, most of which do just fine with little or no direct harmony. Over the years it intrigued me to imagine what would happen if I “loaned” harmony to some of the more likely material and arranged the freer music to fit my long standing group of twenty years which features the guitar in the person of Vic Juris.
A primary factor for me when considering what I call “repertoire” projects (as opposed to original material) is that I can learn something by immersing myself in another’s person’s music and life. After choosing material from Ornette’s vast catalogue and re-thinking the original recorded concepts, I focused on his improvising and found several recurring tendencies: tonally centered material for extended periods sprinkled by short chromatic excursions into neighboring key areas; triadic and close interval line construction with occasional use of wider intervals; often use of blues inflections if not actual blues licks per se; intense swinging eighth notes interspersed with non metrical fast multi-noted flurries; a basically legato flowing approach to articulation encompassing the full range of the alto saxophone with a very strong and focused tone. Finally, there is present a feeling of controlled abandonment which consistently underlies the group interaction surrounding Ornette as a soloist.
Above all as in any great music, it is the spirit that shines brightest. In Ornette’s music there is a joyful spirit which permeates throughout and explains why people love his art as they do. His music expresses an irrepressible joie de vivre, uplifting and mournful at the same time, playful and deadly serious-a full view of the human condition. With deep respect to a true individualist and master of his art, I hope you enjoy our Ornette Coleman voyage.

As a piano player and one who’s devoted to understanding the full harmonic palette of the instrument, it’s easy for me to nod along in agreement with what Lieb’s saying here. If you really dig the evolution of modern jazz harmony from Bud Powell to Bill Evans to Herbie Hancock to Richie Beirach, chances are you’re going to wrestle with Ornette’s music at some point or other, because, as Lieb notes, it really feels all the way on the opposite pole yet still manages to make such a bold statement.

To me it’s a little surprising to hear a player like Lieb express this feeling, for a couple reasons: 1) Given his past work with Beirach, I figured it was too obvious an idea that he’d have a hard time with Ornette – and usually, influence in jazz is not this easily traced. You’re much more likely to be surprised by a player’s influences in my experience (cf: Wynton Marsalis citing Booker Little).  2) The pianoless Elvin Jones records on which Lieb played in the early ’70s seem to me to be very much in the Coleman tradition. It would be interesting to hear Lieb’s thoughts on this early work.

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Hyperchoice

I’m halfway through Larissa Macfarquhar’s excellent profile of Paul Krugman and am really identifying with the story of the young Krugman, especially the part where he decides to become an economics major instead of a history major because he’s more interested in the “why” than the “what.” (I made the opposite decision, but am not sure it was the right one…but anyway, that’s for a whole ‘nother post.) One thing that piqued my curiosity was the discussion of specialization and international trade:

…[W]hy would countries trade goods that were almost the same? Because consumers like to have a choice, and, as Avinash Dixit and Joseph Stiglitz had pointed out a few years earlier, the same logic of increasing returns to scale that Krugman had identified as an essential dynamic in trade could apply to a single brand as well as to a whole industry.

No doubt consumer choice drives trade in similar items. But I’ve been thinking a lot about choice lately, and it’s led me to wonder, first of all, what do we mean by choice? And is choice really always what we want, or just something that we believe is good, in spite of our best interests being elsewhere? After all, as a consumer, choice isn’t cost-free; to be able to make a good choice and feel like you have any idea of what you’re doing, you have to invest time into learning about what you’re choosing.

The example given – trade in cars between Germany and Sweden – seems like an example of a truly beneficial choice for consumers. While a Volvo and a BMW will both get you from point A to point B, there are clear differences between the two. A Volvo is (supposedly) safer and more sensible; a BMW is more expensive and more fun to drive.  And the large investment to buy a car seems like it justifies investing a chunk of your time into learning just what the differences between the two makes are.

But then there are other products whose differences are a) not obvious, and b) probably not worth investing the time into learning about these non-obvious differences. To use what’s becoming a weird favorite example of mine, take toothpaste. You’ll probably go through, oh, about 200 tubes of toothpaste in your adult life. Which means you’ll spend about $10 a year buying it. Yet apparently the competition is so fierce for this $10 a year that toothpaste makers keep thinking of new ways to differentiate their toothpaste from the other guy’s. Crest alone currently lists 42 different toothpastes on crest.com, divided into 6 (overlapping) groups. Are the benefits across brands and types of toothpaste so unevenly distributed that the health and well-being of your teeth depends on which one you buy? Doubtful.

So this seems like a case where hyperchoice brings the consumer little actual benefit relative to the cost. The amount you spend on toothpaste is so trivial that you really are wasting your time to try to understand what you’re buying. The only real benefits from this go to a subset of the toothpaste producers who are duking it out for your dollars. They can capture more of the market by constantly coming out with meaningless new bells and whistles that look appealing, and also might be able to gradually increase their prices across the whole sector if you’re perceiving that their new bells and whistles justify spending a little more per tube. (See the body wash market, for example – liquid body wash costs far more than regular bar soap, and has become a huge driver of profits in the last 10 years or so.)

Or, to use an example that doesn’t involve a product in your bathroom, how about mutual funds?  The average investor is utterly clueless when it comes to which funds they should choose in their brokerage account, yet that hasn’t stopped the number of funds from exploding. I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, having this much choice seems very frustrating. On the other, you can’t really be frustrated by something that’s so opaque that you don’t even understand how little you understand it. And so most investors, having made their choices, muddle through, blissful in their ignorance of how well they’re doing relative to how well they could be doing.

I realize that a lot of these questions are at their core philosophical rather than economic. Would be interested in checking out any research that’s been done on some of them, though.

Stating the obvious?

Not sure how I feel about this Kevin Drum post in which he backs the NYT for not being more explicit that Tea Partiers’ beliefs are, objectively, crazy. On the one hand, I see his point – the NYT is trying not to condescend to its readers by having to constantly restate the obvious. On the other…I don’t think Kevin’s comparison to a North Korea story holds up, either.

The difference between not pointing out that Tea Partiers are nuts and not pointing out that the DPRK’s views are totally divorced from reality is that the NYT doesn’t routinely bend over backwards to advance pro-DPRK narratives. Whereas I can point to any number of Adam Nagourney or Matt Bai stories in the NYT that promulgate a narrative that amounts to “Real Americans are Always Right.” Real Americans, in this case, are people who are really, really similar to Tea Partiers – white, aging rural conservatives from flyover country. This demographic is sacrosanct and its feelings go unquestioned. If it believes that Iraq is an imminent threat to the US, that climate change is bogus, that Barack Obama is a radical socialist revolutionary, then that view is legitimate and must not be disturbed by noting the facts. It’s this attitude that has enabled all kinds of insidious goalpost-moving – nobody ever is impolite enough to call Real Americans on their bullshit, so the bullshit just gets crazier and crazier as time goes on.

Wrong-way Rahm

Today we’ve got allegations from Joe Sestak that the White House tried to buy him off to get him out of running for Senate in Pennsylvania. If true, this strikes me as a really good example of the failings of the White House political operation. Let’s say I’m the president and I’m trying to get my legislative agenda through Congress.  Arlen Specter, who recently switched parties, is unhappy because Sestak is threatening to unseat him. Well, that’s bad for Arlen Specter but as a Democratic president it should be exactly the situation I want. An Arlen Specter under great pressure from the left is proving to be a solid Democrat. An Arlen Specter who isn’t under pressure from his left…you can file that one next to “Joe Lieberman,” or worse (Evan Bayh, Ben Nelson).

Of course, maybe this is one of those crazy double bank shots where Rahm Emanuel wants to keep pressure on Specter while trotting Sestak out there to preserve plausible deniability. Given recent history I kind of doubt it, though.

The Brooks Brothers movement

Today’s news includes a CNN poll that suggests that the Tea Party movement is richer, whiter, and more Republican than most of the electorate, by far. If nothing else, this would seem to put the lie to reports of Republican fears that these people are yahoos who are going to tear the GOP in half. The much more likely scenario to me is that we’re seeing something like astroturfing going on here, a conscious decision to try to move the goalposts even further right by marshaling the party’s most reliable foot soldiers. Instead of writing about all the grass-roots support this movement has, shouldn’t some intrepid reporter be delving into who is organizing these people and why?

On the other hand…I took a look at the internals of the poll to see how respondents were classified as “Tea Partiers”, and we’re basically talking about a survey of 124 people here. That small a sample leads to a pretty big margin of error (9%), so we probably need more data than this before we can make any broad conclusions.

Top music purchases of 2009

Haven’t felt too inspired on the politics front lately, so it’s time to turn to music. In no particular order, here was some stuff that I bought in 2009 and loved:

1. Frank Zappa, Roxy and Elsewhere. The funkiest Zappa I’ve heard to date, and arguably the loosest Zappa band of this period. The two drummers never get in the way of the groove.

2. Keith Jarrett, Facing You. Ted Gioia does a good job summing this one up; my only complaint is that “In Front,” the first track, is such a towering masterpiece that the rest of the record never feels quite at that level.

3. Miles Davis, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. As a curious college radio DJ, I pulled “Right Off” off the shelf one day and threw it on the air without any idea what it was going to sound like. It rocked. I still remember the guy who called in thanking me for playing this oft-ignored classic. Unlike the complete Bitches Brew box, this box’s bonus tracks often reach the heights of the original album.

4. Art Tatum, Piano Starts Here. I avoided listening to Tatum for years. I was too insecure a pianist to handle Tatum, who is not only to this day considered a technical apex of jazz piano, but also managed to throw in enough subtle harmonic maneuvering to show that the guy had brains to match his brawn. “Come on people, Tatum is for show-offs. I’d rather take my cue from Monk and the hard boppers anyway – they knew that it isn’t about how many notes you play,” I used to say. Everyone: I was wrong. I’m probably still not going to try to emulate Tatum anytime soon, but I can’t deny that he was legit. Watch.

5. Chris Potter Underground, Follow the Red Line – Live at the Village Vanguard. Craig Taborn is one of my favorite piano players. He can play in any bag, inside or out, electric or acoustic. Here he tears it up on Rhodes without even a bass player helping out. To the non-musicians out there, this is like winning a 1,000-meter race naked – you’re running so fast that nobody can tell you aren’t wearing anything. The compositions here are really strong, electric music played with heart.

6. King Crimson, Discipline. That this record isn’t more heralded speaks to the bankruptcy of most rock criticism. I have to admire Robert Fripp for having the guts to make an album like this at 35, an age at which most rockers are starting to think hard about taking gigs at your local dog track. KC’s earlier work still felt like a very British rock band (with prog and proto-indie touches), and they sounded damned good at it. Fripp could have coasted or succumbed to his own ego and surrounded himself with mediocre players. Instead, he brings in a guy as formidable as Adrian Belew to share guitar duties, has Tony Levin playing Chapman Stick, and decides to have everyone collaborate on these weird odd-meter tunes (I’m still trying to work out the hemiola on “Indiscipline”). You’d expect a nerdy, cold mess. The actual result is a crushing rock album.

7. Jimmy Smith, Groovin’ at Small’s Paradise. Smith’s earliest work is not quite satisfying for me. The great chops are always evident and Jimmy is playing really well, but the sound of the organ wasn’t fully settled yet – where the B3 drawbar settings Jimmy was using in 1958 sounded smooth and lean, the ones he was using in 1956 are more bouncy with the organ percussion too prominent; comparisons to a roller rink organist’s sound are too close for comfort. For this reason I’m always wary of stuff recorded before The Sermon. Yet these live sessions prove that in mid-1957, he was already there. I’ve said it before elsewhere on the Internet, but I’ll say it again: Jimmy Smith was an unheralded master of arranging tunes. The orchestration can sometimes seem like an afterthought, but the form is always played with in a wonderful way. I love the intros that Smith comes up with on this record. It’s sad that live recording was done so rarely during this period; I wish there were more documents of Jimmy playing in clubs, stretching out for 10+ minutes per tune like he does on these tracks.

Others that deserve mention but that I haven’t digested thoroughly enough yet:

Clark Terry, Serenade to a Bus Seat

Steve Lacy, Soprano Sax

Sonny Criss, Sonny’s Dream (Birth of the New Cool)

Weather Report, Weather Report (the 1970s debut album, not the 1980s one of the same name)

Mahavishnu Orchestra, Between Nothingness and Eternity

Daydreaming of bargains

I’ve tuned out a lot of recent political news – the big topics last week were the QDR and health care reform, which have made me bored and depressed, in that order. So instead I did some thinking about my other great passion: finding ways to avoid paying retail.

One idea that I think could provide a gigantic amount of consumer value would be an institution that compares various generic consumer products with their higher-end equivalents. I don’t want to pay $8 for a detergent that contains identical ingredients and gets my clothes no cleaner than a store brand that I can buy for $3, but I also don’t have the time to do the testing and analyzing myself for everything. In case it’s unclear, I’m envisioning a large-scale version of something sorta like this. Obviously, this would not be an easy task – an ideal version would have to hire experts to do really rigorous comparisons. And producers would hate anything that essentially collapses the value of their brands like this. But wouldn’t it be awesome to go to the grocery store and have your phone tell you, based on your preferences, what versions you should and shouldn’t be buying?

The way I see it, 90% of branded products introduce externalities into the market that unfairly transfer wealth from consumers to producers.  There are a couple of reasons for this: first, producers exploit an information gap. We simply lack sufficient information on products to make a good decision; after all, P&G does not want to throw open its factories to you. Second, there’s immense complexity involved here – producers take advantage of the fact that you don’t have the time or energy to study their products in depth. There are 118 different kinds of toothpaste on the shelf from 8 major players, and you just need to get your damn teeth clean. So anything that helps demystify these decisions is going to essentially work like a well-functioning tax against an inefficient market: consumers benefit, and so do the producers who are truly the most competitive, rather than the ones who manage to thrive by bamboozling us into paying more for what amounts to the same stuff.