Thursday, May 31, 2018

Principles and Interests

An aphorism for the day: Never trust those who claim to base their policy positions on a consistent set of political principles, if their policy positions always (or nearly always) happen to be fully consistent with their own narrow self-interest.

Underwhelming "Overstory"

For many years, Richard Powers has been my favorite fiction writer in any language, largely because of his ability to write so fluently and intelligently on so many different and difficult topics, ranging from quantum mechanics to musicology. He was almost a modern American version of Thomas Mann (although it is really unfair to compare any novelist with Mann).

Powers' new novel, The Overstory, is, like all his books, ingeniously structured, chock full of knowledge, and beautifully written. Like all the others, I had a hard time putting it down. Unlike his other books, however, I found it ultimately disappointing. Despite its many merits, the book is an indication that Powers' imagination has been captured by a single theme: the inability of humans to alter our trajectory toward inevitable environmental catastrophe. It is a theme Powers has been exploring for some time, notably in his 2014 novel Orfeo and, to a lesser extent, in his National Book Award-winning 2007 novel, The Echomaker.

I do not dispute any of Powers' scientific information about trees and forests, although his frequent use of anthropomorphic metaphors in describing forests (perhaps with the good intention of making humans more aware of the extent to which individual trees and individual humans or communities of them are alike) is sometimes misleading. Almost everything Powers says about the cutting of old growth timber in the US, sometimes in violation of state or federal law, is true. But his view of the situation also is somewhat historically myopic. He fails to give any credit at all to human efforts at preservation (aside from the creation of seed banks), as we have come to better understand forests and their importance for the combined social-ecological systems in which humans (among billions of other species) exist.

Since 1910, total forest acreage in the US has, in fact, been stable, increasing slightly from 754 million acres to 766 million acres between 1910 and 2012. "Reserved" forests (generally off-limits to timber harvesting) have increased from 10 million acres in 1920 to 74 million acres in 2012. Of course, the genetic diversity of forested lands have declined greatly as rotations of harvesting and replanting have continued since the late 19th century. That is why seed banks are vitally important to maintain. One would not learn anything from Powers' novel of the efforts (in some cases, of heroic proportions) of federal, state and local governments, along with non-governmental organizations and individuals, to ameliorate, if only marginally, the problem. Perhaps it would undermine the power of Powers' dystopian nightmare to provide any kind of positive counter-narrative of forest protection efforts in the US.

Still, there is the larger moral question that Powers raises; and he laments what he considers the inexorable human answer. But the kind of catastrophism that Powers manifests has never actually solved any social or ecological problems. And, as his book illustrates, neither have the actions of ecoterrorists who, rather than drawing due public attention to a serious problem, are perceived only as "tree-huggers" attempting to impose their own values on the rest of society - becoming ecological versions of Plato's philosopher kings.

Sometimes, a novel is just a novel, and we should read too much into it. But no Richard Powers novel is "just a novel." To see a writer of his intellectual abilities become imprisoned by a catastrophist world view is itself a minor catastrophe.

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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Deznil Best Was One of the Best

Jazz history is full of great players and characters, many of whom are well known to us. But there are equally many who are less well known than they deserve to be. Denzil DeCosta Best must be somewhere near the top of that list.
In the video below, Best can be seen playing his own classic composition, "Move," with George Shearing's quintet. He was less inclined to call attention to his own playing than other great players, such as Art Blakey or Max Roach, but Best certainly was among the original bebop masters. His brush work in particular is reputed (by Elvin Jones among others) to be among the best on record. The video below provides one nice demonstration; another is the entire recording of Errol Garner's 1955 "Concert by the Sea."
In the mid-1940s Best joined Coleman Hawkin's groundbreaking group, which also included Thelonious Monk. Best and Monk later left Hawkins band to form their own, which became Monk's first group as a leader. Monk reportedly loved Best's laid-back but hard swinging style. The two of them co-wrote "Bemsha Swing." Unfortunately, a freak accident in which Best broke both his legs forced him off the drums for a couple of years, and out of Monk's group. Best later joined up with Shearing and Garner. He also played with Ben Webster, Artie Shaw, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Lennie Tristano, and Lee Konitz. Unfortunately, sometime around 1963 Best developed paralysis presumably  relating to his earlier injury. He died in 1965 at age 48, after falling down stairs at a New York City subway station.
In addition to "Move, and "Bemsha Swing," Best left the world with other fine, and oft-recording compositions, including "Wee," "Nothing But D. Best," and "Dee Dee's Dance."

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Terence Blanchard & The E-Collective in Bloomington

Terence Blanchard and his band put on a great show this evening at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington, playing tunes from their new album, "Live." His drummer, Oscar Seaton, was awesome - even better in person than on the album. In fact, the entire band, including guitarist (and former Stanford University anthropology student), Charles Artura, was outstanding. If you like fusion, you'll love the album. If you don't like fusion, you'll still like the album.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Update on the Oppo PM-3 v. Ultrasone Signature Studio Contest

I've been listening to both set of headphones using my Pioneer XDP300r hi-res music player, which decodes up to 4xDSD plus MQA. I've been listening both to my own stored FLAC files and music from TIDAL (although TIDAL's android player does not yet allow for the highest resolutions, including MQA files).

At first, I found the Ultrasone headphones a bit "hot," even harsh, at the top end. But I was digging the smoothness of the Oppos. Over time, however, the Ultrasones either mellowed out a bit or I just got used to them. Currently, I must say, I prefer their clarity and dynamism, including their more expanded range on top and bottom, along with their larger (admittedly, artificially enhanced) sound stage to the Oppos neutral imaging. Indeed, the Oppos have begun to strike me as a bit boring by comparison. Interestingly, I find myself trying to split the difference between the two sets of cans by using an equalizer both to reduce the U-shaped tuning of the Ultrasone's and to liven-up the flatter response of the Oppos. But the effects of equalization have not been equal. It has helped more with the Ultrasones, the sharp edge off the highest frequencies, than with the Oppos.

Both cans are light and seem equally suitable for travel. The Oppos fit in a somewhat smaller case, but the Ultrasone actually fold up to be as small or smaller than the Oppos (in the shape of a super-sized banana). I wonder why Ultrasone did not make a travel case that takes full advantage of their portability; its case is significantly larger than the Oppo case, though still sufficiently portable. The weight difference between the headphones doesn't differ enough to matter to me. And they are both quite comfortable, even though the Oppos have real leather compared to the Ultrasones' PU leather. My relatively small ears fit well within either set of ear cups. The cups on the Ultrasones clamp a bit more tightly than the Oppos. That could make them less comfortable over the course of a long flight, but it could also provide superior isolation (all else being equal). In any case, I don't to wear any single pair of headphones for more than a few hours at a time; I always alternate between headphones and my Nobel X in-ear monitors (not to mention my custom Weston noise protection inserts for sleeping).

The contest is not yet over; it's even possible that I'll decide to keep both sets of headphones. But at this point, I'd say that the Ultrasones have the advantage.

Farewell, Jake

I just had my final drum lesson with Jake Richter, who is moving to New York to pursue advanced degrees in jazz composition and drumming at the Manhattan School of Music. Having learned from one master drum teacher, Steve Houghton, here at IU, he'll be learning from another, John Riley, at Manhattan. I wouldn't be surprised if Jake himself eventually becomes a master drum teacher (though I know composition is at least equally important to him). Which isn't to say that he won't also be a great player - Riley and Houghton (among others) prove that being a great player and a great teacher are not mutually exclusive career paths. Based on my experience this past year, Jake's well on his way. In any case, I look forward to seeing him playing in some clubs in NYC over the next couple of years. (I'm kicking myself that I don't have a photo of the two of us together to post here.)

Friday, May 11, 2018

Patting Myself on the Back

For commenting much, much less on FB posts, and limiting my comments mainly to music-related posts. I am now spending a total of about 10 minutes per day on FB. By contrast, my daily music listening time (only listening - not playing along or reading while listening) is up to about two hours. I believe this is a healthy development (possibly the only healthy development I can claim over the past couple of years).

Monday, May 7, 2018

Miles & Trane

This is a great concert LP. It's not really new, but it's the best part of a tour set previously released on CD. Jimmy Cobb never sounded better. Likewise Wyton Kelly and Paul Chambers. Trane was just about to leave to lead his own group. And Miles was Miles. But its the beautiful quality of the recording that sets this concert LP apart.

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Sunday, May 6, 2018

New Headphone Test

With some long trips coming up in the second half of 2018, I've decided to test out some new travel headphones, as companions to my Noble IEMs (I like to alternate between over-ear cans and IEMs because, after a few hours, either becomes somewhat uncomfortable).

I used to have a pair of Bose of noise-cancelling phones, but active noise-cancelling tends to be detrimental to sound quality. Anyway, those cans now belong to my wife. I still have a pair of Sennheiser Momentum 2.0s, which are light and well-made, have excellent passive isolation, and good sound quality. They provide the baseline for my new test of the following two headphones:

The Ultrasone Signature Studio (msrp $599) and Oppo PM-3 (msrp $399).

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They are two very different kinds of headphones. The Ultrasones start with conventional dynamic speakers, but add a special design and tuning system to create a wider and deeper sound stage than closed-back cans typically provide. The Oppo cans are planar-magnetic that have been well-reviewed by respected audiophile journals, and are perennial contenders for the best headphones under $1000. Oppo recently announced that they are no longer making them, and they already are getting harder to find, which increased my motivation to find a pair to test. I have a pair of planar-magnetic phones, which I like, but feel ready to upgrade. In fact, I'm much more interested in relegating to Ebay my Monolith M560s than my Sennheiser Momentums.

The Ultrasones arrived today. I expect to receive the Oppos this week. After a couple weeks of testing, I'll report on the results of my completely subjective comparison. After that, one of the two headphones will be for sale. (Let me know if you're interested.)

Kenny Barron Quintet, Concentric Circles

A new Kenny Barron album is always an important event. For one reason, he never, ever disappoints. What's more, he seems to personify the entire history of modern jazz. Suffice it to say, he is a national treasure. Yet, somehow, he also continues to grow as an artist. And we are all the beneficiaries.

Now, just a month before his 75th birthday, we have a new album from the Kenny Barron Quintet. Anyone who has followed Kenny's career closely knows that he's recorded many albums with quintets, but not for the last ten years or so. This is also Kenny's first recording as a Blue Note artist (query to Blue Note: what took you so long?). The quintet is comprised of Kenny's regular, outstanding rhythm section of Kiyoshi Kitigawa on bass and my man Johnathan Blake on drums, plus Mike Rodriguez trumpet and Dayna Stephens on tenor sax and flute. The result is an absolutely beautiful recording of a varied repertoire of songs, more than half of which are Barron compositions, a few of them brand new. The album also includes a solo-rendition of one of Kenny's favorite Monk compositions, "Reflections."

No one would suggest that this album of being on the cutting edge of jazz - it is thoroughly mainstream. And the musicians are not concerned with displaying the enormous chops each of them obviously possesses. Kenny's playing almost seems subdued at times; in fact, it is perfectly measured to the music. All of the artists are there to serve the music. In approaching their parts, they seem to ask the crucial, but often overlooked question, "What does the melody want me to do?"

Thanks goodness, many avid jazz aficionados still appreciate that mainstream jazz performed by truly great, creative musicians can be just as exciting and as satisfying as the most experimental offerings with wacky time signatures (and often hardly any melody to speak of). Don't get me wrong, I appreciate, and even enjoy, a lot of the cutting edge music from today's jazz avant garde. But I still love a beautiful melody, beautifully constructed with interesting arrangements, and beautifully and interestingly executed.

2018 has a long way to go yet, but I'd be surprised that if this album were not among my two or three favorites at year's end. That' prediction would surprise few of my friends, who know that I revere Kenny Barron as I revere very few artists of any genre. In my view, he's among the great piano virtuosos in the history of jazz, and an incredibly underrated composer. Every album he releases is a jewel. "Concentric Circles" is no exception.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Happy 89th Birthday, Sheldon Cole

My father begins his 90th year today. I feel fortunate for any time I get to spend with him, but doubly fortunate to be with him on his birthday. 

Closed Borders and Closed Minds in Israel

Israel takes another step in the direction of illiberal theocracy.

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