Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Critically Endangered

Echinomastus erectocentrus v. acunensis, exactly where they said it would be.

So I became obsessed with the above rare Arizona endemic, in one of those genera that features a very few species almost all of which are obscure and occupy fairly restricted niches. The genus is Echinomastus, which certain cactus conservatives have recently sunk entirely within Sclerocactus, thus effectively removing the distinguishing characteristics of both genera. (The degree to which I can be incensed by recent boneheaded renaming is remarkable, but I have perhaps wisely avoided ranting about it here....)

It took me three nearly full days of searching over the Thanksgiving holiday to find two plants. I found this population at the very end of the third day, near sunset.

Part of the fascination is actually that the low Sonoran desert doesn't really have all that much biodiversity, botanically. The plant species that have adapted here have adapted extraordinarily well, to the point where there's a kind of formulaic monotony to the botanical situation. Sometimes huge areas are stunningly massed with dense cactus forests, but quite often this represents the great success of about 5 species. So it fascinates me that this well-camouflaged, highly restricted plant is also present.

The other aspect that got me obsessed was to see a plant that taxonomists don't even recognize as existing. The somewhat more common, though also rare, Echinomastus erectocentrus has largely survived the recent taxonomy by the blind absurdity (except for being called Sclerocactus erectocentrus). But ssp. acunensis has disappeared from "recognized" lists, in the aftermath of Mr. Magoo rewriting the books on cactus systematics.

Anyway, I had the GPS navigator with me and got coordinates so I can pretty much get back any time, without former long hours of searching. It's cattle country, and very accessible to people out ramming around on ATVs, so it'll be interesting to check in periodically.

This brief interlude brought to you from the cactus side of things...back to Rex Harris and 55 year old jazz purism soon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed

Thus Orrin Keepnews on the fine art of "jazz criticism."

Case in point: a fascinating volume published in 1952, written by Rex Harris (no, not Rex Harrison) titled quite simply, portentously and of course arrogantly, Jazz.

Harris was an intense British dude, born in Kent in 1904. The author blurb indicates that he was introduced to ragtime at the age of 8. There's this unintentionally hilarious sentence: "...he has achieved the seemingly impossible by combining a professional career of consulting optician with that of a jazz authority." One of his ambitions is to "help dispel the prevalent misconceptions regarding the word 'Jazz.'"

Whether fair or not, I'll be spending some time in Rex's world as a way of highlighting the absurdities in "jazz" writing: the anachronisms, howlers, ax-grinding, cultural misconceptions, time lags, racism, cultural imperialism and demonstrably just plain ignorant judgments. This spotlight isn't poor Rex Harris' fault, really. I could have chosen Stanley Crouch...who, by the way, really is a terrible writer. Have you read any of his editorials lately? (From his New York Daily News editorial of November 5: "Instead, American Gangster proves, yet again, that Hollywood is much less interested in aesthetic grandeur than it is in profits. In that sense, it is often no better than the lousy gangsters it makes into well-dressed entrepreneurs rather than the glittering spiritual vomit that they actually are.")

But I digress.

In a strange inside cover blurb, the joys that lie ahead in Rex's book are immediately revealed:

"After the long and wearisome years of 'swing' which overlaid the traditions of jazz there has arisen a new generation which is anxious to learn of the roots and growth of this fascinating folk music. So much confusion exists in the public mind regarding the word 'jazz' that it was felt necessary to trace its ancestry and present a genealogical table which would make the subject clear."

Oh man.

Let's skip the several prefaces to *three editions* of this book between 1952 and 1954 (noting only in passing the charming holdover from salad days of yore: "My thanks also to my wife Mary for her attention to the tedious work involved in checking the index") and jump instead to the foreword.

"Some of the conclusions I have reached after many years of interest in jazz will no doubt cause lifted eyebrows among some of my friends in the dance-band world, but I would hasten to assure them that I have no wish to denigrate their valuable and excellent work in that sphere: it is only in the use of the word 'jazz' to label their music that I have any difference of opinion. Many of them hold the same opinion on the subject as I do, and some few have sturdily tried to live up to their principles....This book is an attempt to vindicate the integrity of those who have kept jazz alive during the long years of its eclipse behind the meretricious blaze of artificially exploited swing."

In love with longer titles as I am (One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, for example) may I add, entirely as a good natured aside, hopefully without causing any eyebrow strain, that perhaps the next Marsalis or Brookmeyer or Charlap or Krall outing could be titled The Meretricious Blaze of Artificially Exploited Swing? I'd buy it.

Get ready for eyebrow altitudes perhaps hitherto unprecedented as Rex concludes his foreword:

"Whether jazz musicians are able to read music or not is immaterial. Whether they gain financially by playing jazz is beside the point. The vital and essential crux of the whole question is whether they express themselves in their music because they have something which they must express. In other words it (sic) must be an art rather than a craft."

There seems so much unspoken counterargument behind this last salvo. As always when a passionate author is arguing against ghosts and absent interlocutors, there's a lot of rail jumps. One of the aspects of Rex's prose that immediately seduced me was his obvious, burning passion and sense of righteousness. I enjoy reading books that have an ax to grind, especially when the author is unabashed about his or her florid indignation. It's refreshing to read someone who isn't at all tainted by the meretricious blaze of Universal Approbation that has descended on much critical writing these days. "It's all good" can hardly be a motto to sustain the well-honed critical mind.

Jaw dropping spectacles of masturbatory vapidity have recently passed before this writer's eyes, such as people who know better defending Norah Jones (against whom?) or presenting a distinctly brown proboscis after sniffing the latest wunderkind's derivative hindquarters or arguing that the Pulitzer Prize winning Blood on the Fields (which has all the punch of a B-section news story about the groundbreaking for a new commemorative plaque) would have fared better with critics if it had featured David Murray. These are merely innocent examples, mind you. I don't want to stir up old bitterness. Let me hasten to assure my friends in the "jazz blogosphere" that I don't mean to denigrate their important and valuable work. My only objection is in the application of the label "criticism" to such efforts.

But, again, I digress.

Clearly, the central thesis of Rex's book is that there is a Real Thing deserving of the label "jazz," and that there are those who have struggled valiantly to keep the Real Thing going against the odds, and that there is an emerging generation of young musicians who want to revive The Real Thing in the midst of a disturbing cultural trend that is meretricious, artificial, exploitive and definitely *not* the Real Thing.

(A brief etymological aside on the delicious word "meretricious." It's one of those words that originally had a very narrow meaning, deriving from the Latin "meretrix," i.e., "prostitute." By extension then, courtesy of Dictionary.com:

1.alluring by a show of flashy or vulgar attractions; tawdry.
2.based on pretense, deception, or insincerity.
3.pertaining to or characteristic of a prostitute.

How Rex gets away with fawning over his friends in the "dance-band world" yet essentially calling them whores says more about his rhetorical skills as a consulting optician, and an acidulously polite Brit, than anything else. Perhaps.)

Moreover, the Real Thing is quite separate from techne (Reading music? Immaterial) and economic factors (Making a living? Beside the point...perhaps it's only those rarefied few who have achieved the seemingly impossible, such as combining being a consulting optician and jazz authority, who can so boldly assert that the exigencies of the marketplace are unessential). The Real Thing is, in fact, Art. Which Rex defines as "expressing oneself in one's music because one has something which one must express." A quaintly Romantic formulation for Art Music. Quaintly tautological, charmingly both obfuscatory and completely empty of any content whatsoever. But the Jazz Hero (a figure who will appear time and again in Rex's narrative) is a distinctly Romantic, spontaneous and brilliantly untutored fellow.

My central thesis is that Rex's book gathers energy from exactly identical underlying assumptions, prejudices and shrouded ideologies that continue to fuel "jazz criticism" right now. The hilarious juxtaposition of The Real Thing against whoreish "swing" only serves to highlight how equally absurd is the current wave of self-appointed Jazz Saviors and Jazz Police. The great service my careful analysis of Rex's book will provide to you, dear reader, will be that you won't have to wait 55 years to enjoy the ironies.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Duology 3

Two headed Astrophytum capricorne v. senile.

Duology 3, Saturday, Nov. 10, 8 pm, O'Shaughnessy Performance Space, The College of Santa Fe, Santa Fe NM. Made possible by The Contemporary Music Program at the College of Santa Fe.

Improvised duets with yours truly on piano joined by Lauren Camp, language; Katie Harlow, cello; Dan Pearlman, trumpet; Sam Rhodes, bassoon; Gary Sherman, low brass; Dave Wayne, drums.

The third in a series, which started with Jeremy Bleich, Paul Brown, Chris Jonas, Mike Rowland, Mark Weaver and Ruth Zaporah and continued with "Dino" JA Deane, Ross Hamlin, JSA Lowe, Carlos Santistevan, Molly Sturges and Milton Villarrubia III.

Check back here for complete mp3 downloads of the performances soon after Nov. 10, courtesy of Steve Schmidt at Fly on the Wall Productions.

Some bios for 5 out of 6 of D3's participants (Gary Sherman.....tell us about yourself).

Lauren Camp is a visual artist. Her writing entered through the back door – a way to complete certain works, sometimes to obscure them. When it first showed up, she didn’t even know she was writing poetry. When her artwork traveled around the country, the writing traveled with it. People surprised her by asking who wrote the “poems.” Soon she found herself writing more and more. Since then, her poems have been published in Brilliant Corners, The Magazine, Santa Fe Literary Review and other journals. She appears on Zerx, vol. 20 with a crazy rendition of a pantoum she wrote, and has performed her poems in duet with jazz musicians from the stages of the Albuquerque Museum to St. John’s College. In 2006, she won a New Mexico Discovery Award. Last March, she was part of a collaborative improvisation, called “ARTiculations,” at the Harwood Art Center in Albuquerque with sound artist CK Barlow and musician Rufus Cohen. Lauren’s newest series of artworks is a collection of self-portraits made in fabric and thread that incorporates her words and history with those of other women. She is currently creating a 60-minute audio soundtrack with narratives, anecdotes and poetic ramblings to accompany the series as it travels to museums. Every Monday morning, Lauren hosts and produces “The Colors of Jazz” for KSFR 101.1 Community Radio, Santa Fe, NM, a weekly 3-hour mind-bending romp through the facets of jazz and poetry – yet another way to keep her mind on rhythm, sound and words. You can see Lauren’s artwork and read more of her words at www.laurencamp.com.

Catherine Jean (Katie) Harlow, cellist, has a Bachelors Degree in Cello Pedagogy and a Masters degree in Music Education from the University of New Mexico. For the past 35 years, she has performed in numerous symphonic, chamber, folk, and improvised music ensembles (Out of Context and Playroom) throughout the southwestern United States. As a teacher, she has been on the Performing Arts Faculty at Albuquerque Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico since 1997. Katie is an active composer and arranger; recently completing a collaboration with Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj to release the CD Friendship. For productions at Albuquerque Academy, she has composed original music for Shakespeare's As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet. She often collaborates with Albuquerque director and playwright Laurie Thomas and composed music for Barry Kornhauser's play This is Not a Pipe Dream, directed by Thomas. In Spring 2007, Katie collaborated with other members of Playroom (Mark Weaver, Dave Wayne, and Joseph Sabella) to create music for Thomas's original play Mad Hattr, which premiered at Albuquerque's Cell Theater.

Dan Pearlman studied trumpet and composition at the Oberlin Conservatory. He graduated from Oberlin in 1968, and has been improvising (in every sense of the word) ever since. Dan moved to New Mexico in 1983, and has been very active in the Northern New Mexico jazz and improvised music scene. He has performed several times at the Outpost Performance space as well as numerous venues in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos, with Zimbabwe Nkenya, Dave Wayne, Chris Jonas, Ori Kaplan, Alan Lechusza, Mark Weaver, Anthony Braxton and many others. Heavily influenced by Indian, African and Gypsy music as well as by the jazz greats, Dan's tastes and musical interactions have been diverse and always rewarding.

Sam Rhodes was born in San Antonio, Texas. He graduated from Oberlin Conservatory. He has played with numerous symphony orchestras in the southwest. For the last 14 years he has served as the principal bassoonist with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra .Sam plays regularly with Out Of Context, a conduction ensemble formed by J. A. Deane

Dave Wayne took a step back from the Santa Fe music scene in October 2004 to concentrate more on being a father & husband. And also to add on to his house, mess around with his vibraphone & comb through his luxury-sized LP and CD collections. Dave played frequently with bassist Zimbabwe Nkenya until Nkenya left New Mexico in January 2006. Other past collaborators include Bing, Stefan Dill, Rob Brown, Alan Lechuzsa, Ori Kaplan and Anthony Braxton. In the past year or so, he has played with Peter Breslin’s ‘Miles Davis Project’ (also his first live appearance as a conguero), Mark Weaver’s ‘Rumble Trio’, in a duo with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, and with a quartet led by trumpeter Jeff Kaiser. Current projects include Playroom (improvised & composed new music with Mark Weaver, Joe Sabella, and Kate Harlow); Maya Mundi (ethnic & folk music from all points east), funky jazz with the jaw-droppingly great keyboardist Robert Muller, and an as-yet unnamed progressive rock trio with guitarist Mike Shepherd & bassist Tom Lantieri. Wayne also writes CD reviews for the on-line music site www.jazzreview.com.