black codes +30

Posted May 24, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I had the CD of Wynton Marsalis’s “Black Codes (From The Underground)” in my car for a few days, and even though I’ve listened to it off and on since 1985, I think this was the first time I really heard just how good an album it is.

I chalk it up to 30 years going by. Back when “Black Codes” came out, there was a big controversy about Marsalis and what he represented – a kind of counter-reformation in jazz that seemed to threaten the very good, but harder for the average person to listen to, jazz that came out of the 1970s, what people generally call the “loft jazz” movement. Marsalis struck a lot of people as a dead end, with his veneration for the jazz that had come before him, his insistence that the past represented the one true way.

Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t put it exactly the same way now, and one of his main points – that you have to submit to the discipline of an art form in order to master it, and that listeners should pay more attention to forms which require such mastery – is less threatening and more appreciated these days. Marsalis himself is a genial older statesman for a music that has disappeared into the academy – jazz is now safely one of America’s great cultural treasures, everyone agrees, and maybe the poorer for it.

None of which touches “Black Codes,” which is generally regarded as a successor to Miles Davis’s mid-60s quintet – and maybe it is, but coming back to the album, I hear something slightly different. As much as I love the second great quintet, I don’t remember many of the melodies – some of Wayne Shorter’s classics being the exception, though even then I tend to remember other versions more easily. Maybe I’m just not musical, but my favorite second quintet recording has always been the “Plugged Nickel” set, because its largely standards-based repertoire gives me something to hang my hat on. And I have huge affection for the music Miles made right before the second quintet, the “Seven Steps To Heaven” era, because of both the covers and the memorable originals, and because the band had not quite reached the stratosphere. It played brilliantly, at high altitudes, but you could still see the ground.

And that’s where I think “Black Codes” fits, if you’re talking historical precedent. But the more I listen, the more I think the best way to approach this music, this band, is on its own terms. If “Black Codes” reflected lessons learned, those lessons were thoroughly absorbed and made original. “Black Codes,” the title, is a declaration of purpose, a band lighting out for the territory; “For Wee Folks” is an utterly distinctive ballad; “Phryzzinian Man” and “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” swing like mad and after 30 years sound completely in the moment.

The closer, “Blues,” just Marsalis and bass, sounds far more traditional than the rest of the album, and to the degree that you think Marsalis is diminished by his years dwelling in pre-bop jazz, it may feel like the tipping point, though he had already recorded a “with strings” album and was showing every sign his muse wasn’t confined to 1945 and after.  That said, in the context of “Black Codes” it’s more than fine – and Marsalis followed this album with another that was at least as good, “J Mood.”

One other point: jazz, like novel writing or portrait painting, is feature-complete, has been for decades, and for a while was prey to the arguments of post-modernism.  “Black Codes” came out in 1985, right in the heart of the long post-modern moment, in which the line was “everything’s exhausted, there’s no more innovation, and all that’s left is to stack the blocks in different combinations.” The smart money – I’ll put Marsalis in that camp – never believed that in the first place, and looking back, one of the virtues of “Black Codes” was the way it demonstrated craft and care while it refused irony, refused to know too much. That strength made “Black Codes” durable and deserving of a place high up on the shelf of best jazz albums.

(Note to Columbia/SONY: It’s time to give “Black Codes” and “J Mood” the deluxe treatment. I think Marsalis peaked here, and these are great jazz albums. I’d like to hear more.”)

the road to hell

Posted May 4, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I’m trying to make good use of Twitter, but it’s oddly difficult for me to keep at it.

Why? The usual reasons – the incredible anxiety I feel when I see the cascade of new! interesting! stuff raining down on me, the urge to give up when I don’t compulsively check my feed every couple of minutes, come back to it, and discover another dozen bon mots have landed, the overwhelming sense that everyone there is so much more plugged in than I am or could possibly ever hope to be.

And mind you, I follow a miniscule 14 other people and organizations. 14. On Twitter, that’s less than “statistically insignificant.” It’s probably less than “failure to launch” or “what did you do with your second hour on Twitter?” And it’s still too much for me to follow, what with all the retweets that get added in.

I’m sure most people use Twitter the way it’s meant to be used, to be scanned, flitting from item to item until the pull of gravity from one of them is strong enough to make you look at the attached link. I’ve done it – do it – myself, but have decided I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I think you’re supposed to just go with it (“Look at me! Riding this wave of information!) but what I increasingly notice is what’s missing. Twitter not only cuts into the time I would otherwise devote to books, it seems to stand in opposition to the act of reading them.

I know, I know. There is a lot out there these days about the bad effects of the internet, and more specifically, social media. The case is overstated, as reactions to technology tend to be. But there is something worth paying attention to here: I read, at least in part, to relieve anxiety. To successfully read a book you have to quiet your mind some to start, and then the reading itself acts as a kind of bootstrap. The more you’re absorbed by the words on the page, the more able you are to take in more of the words. You experience the peculiar effect of having the universe shrink to book-size, and yet grow at the same time. Not every book does this fully of course, but once your brain establishes the “reader pathway,” you know how to get there, even if imperfectly.

Twitter works at cross-purposes to reading because it increases anxiety – on Twitter, you can never know enough, be current enough or be following enough. You’re always at risk of missing the most important thing of the moment, so you’re always reading with one eye on what’s next, what you could be scanning instead of what you’re looking at now.

So maybe it’s surprising that I want to make some sort of peace with Twitter; I hold out hope that I can wrangle it into serving as a personal wire service, without it killing the host. In honor of this hope, I spend time on Twitter every day, and usually find one or two things to tweet or retweet – but that presents another problem. I try really hard not to, but I find myself looking for things to pass along, and subtly evaluating what I look at in terms of whether it’s fit grist for the Twitter mill. And because there’s so much stuff to consider, I’m tempted to give an item the quick once-over and if it seems ok, pass it along. Taken together, I think of these things as the central tendency of Twitter, the compulsion to redistribute whatever you’ve taken in, no matter how slight your attention.

But I’m pushing back: my personal rule of thumb is – don’t retweet anything I haven’t read carefully, all the way to the end (silly to say, but I’ll bet a lot of things get tweeted after the first third is digested) and I try to avoid most things that are of the moment. Also, it has to be something I have more than a passing interest or expertise in, which narrows the possibilities greatly. I’d like to say it works, but I don’t know yet. I’m finding it hard to keep my balance – use the medium for my own ends, and not let the means take over.

no future

Posted May 3, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

If you’re a Verizon customer, as I am, there appears to be no option at all right now for buying a phone with an FM radio chip inside that’s been activated. Set aside the obvious flagship phones, the Samsungs and iPhones – if I’m reading things correctly, nothing else in the Android line-up, including the Moto X, will work either.

(Two other Motorola phones, the G and E, both apparently work with Motorola’s own FM radio app. They’re cheap pre-paid phones; the X is a mid-priced, full-featured phone. What gives?)

To make matters much worse, even if you’re willing to sacrifice a lot and go the Windows phone route, the FM option has been closed off there as well. The HTC One adopted from Android doesn’t have its FM chip activated, even though the version Sprint sells does. And even if you go back a generation and buy, say, a Nokia Lumia 928 off ebay you’re out of luck. The FM chip wasn’t turned on in the 928, even though it was the “flagship” phone of the ragged Windows phone fleet on Verizon less than a year ago.

So I’m stuck with my bordering-on-ancient Lumia 822, or getting my HTC 8X repaired. This strikes me as more than a little ridiculous, and transparently anti-consumer; no, there hasn’t been a big demand for FM on phones, but that’s at least partly a conceptual problem – how would people know to want it? And I’m guessing it costs exactly nothing to turn on the chip in question, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that Verizon – and let’s be charitable here – just doesn’t want to support the functionality. I would never suggest they want us to burn up our data plans instead of getting free over-the-air radio.

All that said, I don’t see the radio industry making much headway on the issue. They’re not good at this sort of thing; see, transitions, HD.

twilight music

Posted May 3, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Who would have predicted back in, say, the mid-70s, that we would be drowning in jazz and standards albums, singers slyly confessing that they really, really always loved this music, even as they made their money elsewhere? There is a lot of wheat to separate, even though most of it is of the GMO variety, and hard to hear anything with fresh ears.

Make a large exception for Jose James’ new album, “Yesterday I Had The Blues.” I missed James up until now, but from what I read he’s dabbled in several genres with a couple of albums of standards under his belt, counting this one. “Yesterday…” is billed as a tribute to Billie Holiday, though listening to it  I didn’t think much about her; instead I was caught by the unity of the feel, from start to finish. It’s mostly ballads, and to get all metaphorical, it’s music for sitting in a bar as the sun goes down. More exactly, its lineage goes straight back to Sinatra’s slow theme albums of the 1950s. Everything lingers here; even “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” is measured.

You can call it mood music, and I suppose it is because even though the individual songs – “Good Morning Heartache,” “Body and Soul,” “I Thought About You,” to name three – are obvious American Songbook classics, there is a sameness to the album as it plays through that extends and deepens the mood – sort of like late afternoon to sundown. That’s a feature, not a bug, to my ear.

(That said, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the concluding “Strange Fruit.”  Even though James takes a good run at it here, it’s a hard song to place on any album. I dunno; thinking about it.)

The other obvious point of reference is Johnny Hartman’s album with John Coltrane, over and above the broad similarities in voices. Jason Moran on piano is at least James’s equal all the way through; as in Hartman-Coltrane, you’re moved by both the music itself and by the musical intelligences at work.

I have a feeling “Yesterday…” will be a hit for Blue Note, that a lot of people who don’t really like jazz will buy it and that it will slip into our collective awareness in the same way Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” did a decade or so back. That may mean you’ll hear it too often when you’re out to eat or on Pandora or whatever, and I suppose the familiarity is to be regretted. On the other hand, it’s hard to have too much twilight and stillness and blues.

rethinking the rethink

Posted May 2, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

As noted here back in the dead of winter, I loved the idea of an FM radio chip in my phone, but didn’t use it all that much. I’ll stick by most of what I wrote, but experience is running somewhat contrary to theory this spring.

First, what I’m using: a dirt cheap, low end Windows phone. Windows phone is the only platform desperate enough to be even mildly serious about activating the FM chip most phones have, but don’t use. My two HTC phones had working radios; so does this Nokia Lumia 822. (Just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?)

The great limiting factor is the fact that your headphone cord is also your antenna, and as you move around while walking, the signal can have issues. It annoyed me a lot last summer; this spring, not so much. A couple of things are in play: my default station is North Country Public Radio out of Canton, and they have a strong translator signal in my little town. That means the signal generally overrides whatever twists and turns I’m putting the headphones through.

Second, it’s actually faster and easier to turn on the FM signal – it’s one touch on the home screen of my phone and the station is just there. I use the TuneIn Radio app for streaming, and it can be 30 seconds before the stream comes up. Plus, as with all streaming, sometimes it just stops. The digital gods are no less capricious than the older gods of radio.

The trade is, I get little bursts of static. They really don’t bother me much when listening to voices. The other trade, and this is more bothersome, is that an ok signal on my car radio isn’t necessarily ok on my phone. WCNY FM has a translator here as well, but its signal is not nearly as strong as NCPR’s. So if I want to listen to music, as I did this morning, it’s back to streaming.

But mostly it’s NCPR, and the other thing that’s changed this year is me – I adjusted my walking schedule a little, which means I’m out in the evening when there’s programming on I like. The siren song of streaming apps is preference, the idea that you can always find something which suits your mood just a little better than whatever is on offer locally. If you’re going to listen to radio, you have to accept that you’re the passenger. With a few slight tweaks to when I walk, I’m happier being along for the ride.

Going forward, the problem for the few people who, like me, want radio on their phones is simple – getting it. At some point I’ll run out of patience with not having the apps I want, or the phone will be too slow, or Windows 10 will be not good on phones, or some combination of all. At that point, I’m back to having to buy an Android or iPhone, but as I understand it, only a very few Android phones on Verizon will support radio – and you have to download an app, maybe sacrifice a chicken – and the iPhone not all, which is ironic, considering the fact that iPhones have become significant tools for mobile, radio reporting.

Finally, what is missing here is any discussion of AM. I don’t know what would be involved, but I would pay for AM radio as a feature. Call me naive, but I remain hopeful someone(s) will find a way to make AM work again.


Posted April 19, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I don’t ordinarily spend a lot of time on – or thinking about – social media, mostly because not much happens there which interests me. Twitter is a mild, partial exception, but even then I ruthlessly keep the number of people I’m following to a bare minimum. Right now, the number is 13 – I get much bigger and I’m just half-paying-attention surfing from tweet to tweet, which is exactly what I don’t want to do.

However, I find the dismal l’affaire McHenry weirdly compelling. For anyone finding this page months or years from now, I’m referring to Britt McHenry, the ESPN person (does the word “reporter” apply? Based on video I’ve seen, it doesn’t exactly fit what she does) who was caught on camera unleashing a torrent of insults at an employee of a towing company, after her vehicle was towed. If you need a refresher, it’s here.

We reach some kind of null point here – McHenry is the latest in a long line of not very important TV people behaving badly; the towing company is apparently less well-liked than your average towing company, from which you can draw your own conclusions; and the commentary on McHenry’s Twitter feed – which I rubber-necked yesterday like driving past a bad traffic accident in progress – was filled with the kind of cheap vitriol that is the stock in trade of, well, social media.

This mini-scandal is remarkable for its unremarkableness, out of the ordinary for its ordinariness. If you keep a mental scorecard of “How low can we go?” it rates mostly for how workaday it is. It’s what we do with our lives.

What’s different for me is a dawning awareness – make that horror – of how utterly artificial all this is, how it is purpose-built for social media, and how the point, the thing you should pay attention to is not the event itself, nor the reaction to it, nor the reactions to the reactions, but to what’s really going on beneath the surface.

This is solely about getting people to respond and building data points for the giant social media engines like Facebook and Twitter. There’s an old quote revisited in the compelling new book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, one which we should put at the top of most web pages, cell phone screens, blog posts: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”  That would be us.

If this also strikes you as something to shrug about, either because you figured that’s the way things work or because you figure there’s nothing you can do about it, or more likely both, then you aren’t seeing just how large-scale the data mining is, of which you’re one point, or of how this has upended the model of computing most of us still carry around in our heads, the vague notion that these machines are tools of personal empowerment, that they can make us freer, give us more choices, more privacy. Facebook and the rest obviously reduce privacy; less obviously they reduce choice – think about, for a moment, how few options you have when it comes to customizing your FB page.

All that said, I’m not sure how to go forward: social media is unavoidable for most people and besides, it does have some value, though I think the value is way more than offset by what we are all giving up, date-point by data-point. That’s hard as well: the problem is asymmetrical – we don’t see the data dripping out, a little at a time. We do see the bright, shiny toys that FB and rest dangle in front of us and say to ourselves “What the hell. It’s just Facebook.”

a note on windows 10

Posted April 2, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s too easy to say “Windows 10 is what Windows 8 should have been.” I mean sure, it dispenses with the touch-first fundamentalism that was the core of 8, and which drove away millions. (Not me.) But once you “fix” the extreme reaction 8 was to a world that seemed to be veering headlong toward nothing but tablets – it wasn’t, by the way – what are you left with?

Well, the plumbing’s better than 7, I’m told, though I’m not qualified to judge. 10 is responsive the way 8/8.1 is – that’s good. And it’s more generally “modern,” though Microsoft is still very much sorting out what that means, as you now have applications like “settings,” which is supposed to replace the old control panel but is a very different animal in look and feel and, it appears, capabilities.

The problem is, pretty much everything everybody needs still runs on Windows 7. And since 7 is not obviously insufficient, I’m not sure where the incentive to change is. Microsoft will probably soon turn Apple-like and list the hundreds of improvements in 10, some of which actually benefit users day-in and day-out. Making the upgrade free won’t hurt, though I still don’t see large companies being in a hurry to switch.

To be clear; I like and use 10. But then, I like and use 8/8.1. I’m a large exception to Microsoft’s user base, which is more like someone I know who clings to XP and buys third party anti-virus protection just to keep the system somewhat protected. If Windows 8 taught us anything, it’s that people don’t like change.

I think Microsoft is a more interesting company now than it’s ever been; I love Windows Phone, though I wish it were more popular so that a few more of the apps I like were available; I’m eager to see the next generation of small tablets, which supposedly will have a more phone-like interface. That’s all good. And to the degree that 10 makes it easier for a Windows program to be everywhere, so much the better. But Windows is still mostly about the desktop. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean the bar for 10 is high, maybe higher than anyone thinks.


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