Archive for August 2016

Album reviews

I recently wrote a post on some of the albums of the last year or so that I’ve kept returning to.  There are a few recent jazz (for want of a better word) releases that I’m really enjoying and keep returning to that I’ve wanted to write about for a while.  So without further ado…

Badbadnotgood IV

First up is the latest album by the Canadian quartet Badbadnotgood, which must surely be one of the coolest band names out there.  Released in July, IV is, as you’d expect, the band’s fourth album.  IV is mostly an instrumental album and could just as easily be described as a hip-hop album (as opposed to a jazz album).  The album has a retro feel about it while at the same time sounding fresh and modern.  It’s a good combination.  Killer tracks include Speaking Gently, Confessions Pt.2 and Lavender.  Check them and the others out.  The album includes three vocal tracks.  In my experience the odd vocal track on a largely instrumental album is often the weakest track on the album.  Not so here.  The three tracks really add something to the album and the track In Your Eyes, featuring Charlotte Day Wilson, is one of the best tracks on the album and will surely find itself on some of the better chill-out compilations out there.  For my money it has to be a contender for one of the best albums of 2016.

Eli Degibri - Cliff Hangin'

Next up is Cliff Hangin’ by Eli Degibri, which received five stars in a recent Downbeat review.  I don’t slavishly follow Downbeat’s recommendations but when they award an album with five stars it’s invariably worth checking out, which I did.  Cliff Hangin’ is clearly a jazz album and what I’d call a straight-ahead affair.  The album features Degibri on tenor and soprano saxophones, the rest of his quartet consisting of fellow Israeli musicians on piano, bass and drums.  The standard of musicianship on the album is second-to-none, Degibri himself having played with Herbie Hancock for a number of years.  Degibri has killer chops but plays with a warmth and joy which is often hard to capture on record.  What stands out for me, however, are the tunes.  Unlike a number of jazz albums this one has tunes which are actually recognisable and which you can hum along to.  Stand out tracks for me include the album opener, The Troll, Cliff Hangin’ itself and Shesh Besh.  Highly recommended.

Rob Garcia - Finding love...

Last up is Rob Garcia’s Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet.  While Badbadnotgood walk away with best band name, Rob Garcia surely walks away with best album name.  Garcia is a Brooklyn-based drummer and this release finds him surrounded by other prominent New York-based musicians including Noah Preminger (sax), Gary Versace (piano) and Masa Kamaguchi (bass).  Like BBNG’s IV, Garcia’s album features a number of guests, including Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, Kate McGarry, vocals, and Brendan Burke, also vocals.  Like IV, the vocal tracks are some of the best on the album.  The plaintive People are Everything featuring McGarry is a stand-out track as is Mac N Cheese on which Burke vents about the state of the world, including bank fees, dead bees and trees.  The stand out track for me though is the Charlie Mingus-like Terror, Fear and Media which features wicked solos from the Preminger, Versace and Garcia.  The album is a concept one of sorts, chockful of decent tunes and with each band member playing their socks off, though I think it’d be fair to say that the album is less accessible than the two featured above.

There’s something here I hope for almost all tastes.  If you like what you hear or even if you don’t like what you hear, then let me know!

The Fog of War – recommended books on war

I recently returned John Keegan’s, A History of Warfare to Amazon.  Having been up for ‘perhaps the most remarkable study of warfare that has yet to be written’, and Keegan being ‘the most readable’ of military historians (The New York Times), I found that after 50 or so pages (and a fascination with proving Clausewitz wrong) I didn’t want to wade through anymore.  While that was a waste of time it did inspire me to write this post on those books on war that I’ve enjoyed and would recommend to others.  Looking at the books piled up around me as I type, there are some recurring themes and authors which reflect my interests – you’ll see as we go along.  What they all have in common, however, is that they’re all well written and real ‘page-turners’.

All Hell Let Loose

As a military historian, in my book Max Hastings can do no wrong.  I’ve read The Battle for the Falklands (with Simon Jenkins) (1983), The Korean War (1987), All Hell Let Loose – The World at War 1939-1945 (2011) and Catastrophe – Europe Goes to War 1914 (2013).  They’re all well written and offer something a bit different from a number of military books I’ve read.  Hastings has the knack of being able to address grand military strategy while painting a picture of what life is like for the soldier and those way behind the front line, such as the families at home.  Unlike Keegan, or what I’ve read of him, Hastings doesn’t over-theorise things.  You’re left in no doubt why something happened, which is a good job, especially if you plan on reading about World War One.  Hastings is a go-to-guy for military history and I’m looking forwards to my next journey with him.

The best and the brightest

David Halberstam, like Hastings, is another of my go-to-guys.  You know that whatever you’ll read of his will be incisive and well written.  While Hastings writes almost exclusively about military matters, Halberstam has delved into the world of sports, notably baseball and basketball.  His book The Fifties (1993) is a great read, setting out why the 50s was more important than the 60s in terms of its impact on the United States: the rise of the fast food franchise, rock ‘n’ roll, and the US’s initial foray into Vietnam.  It’s this last subject which Halberstam is arguably most famous for.  His book The Best and the Brightest (1972) is a classic text on the Vietnam War.  Halberstam is interested in how things could have gone so wrong for the US given the ‘best and the brightest’, from industry, academia, etc., that were appointed to senior posts within the Kennedy administration.  The wikipedia page on TBATB nicely summarises how these intellectuals could get it so wrong but it doesn’t capture the essence of the book.  It’s a very rewarding read, the lessons of which go way beyond the US intervention in Vietnam.  War in a Time of Peace – Bush, Clinton and the Generals (2001) is another good read from Halberstam.  It does what the title says, setting out the struggles and internecine warfare within the Bush (George H.W) and Clinton administrations.  It’s a good read but not an essential one.

In Retrospect

Robert S. McNamara’s In Retrospect – The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995), is another, classic book on the Vietnam war, written by one of its major protagonists.  McNamara had just been made president of the Ford Motor Company when JFK recruited him to the post of Secretary of Defense in 1961 (one of Halberstam’s ‘best and brightest’).  McNamara remained SOD until 1968, serving under both JFK and LBJ and therefore well placed to comment on the war.  Simply, McNamara is clear that ‘we were wrong, terribly wrong’, the two major protagonist countries failing to understand one another’s intentions.  It’s a fascinating book written by a man who appeared to have spent the rest of his life making amends for Vietnam, notably as the head of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981.  If you’re not quite prepared to read 500-odd pages, I highly recommend you watch Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, in which McNamara features heavily.

Fiasco

The Iraq War, like Vietnam, has spawned numerous books,  Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco (2006) being one of the best.  Ricks focuses on the failings of both senior US administration figures and the military in prosecuting the war.  Another good book looking at things from a slightly different angle is Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006), made into a film, Green Zone, starring Matt Damon.  I’m not a fan of the film, preferring by far the book, which describes what life was like in the so-called Green Zone in which coalition forces were based.   The book sets out how the Coalition Provisional Authority went about rebuilding Iraq, from trying to get power to homes to setting up a provisional government and a functioning army.  Another fiasco.  Blackwater – The rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army (2007) by Jeremy Scahill isn’t a book on the Iraq war though the war features heavily.  The book covers the rise of Blackwater, a private military company (PMC) and the largest PMC operating in Iraq.  It offers another perspective on how wars are prosecuted and the moral and legal issues associated with PMCs operating alongside state forces.

The Looming Tower

Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower – Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 (2006) has had praise heaped on it including a Pulitzer Prize.  The book describes the events leading up to 9/11, from the 1940s through to a dissection of the institutional problems which hindered the US government from preventing 9/11.  Any book on 9/11 worth its salt has to include Osama Bin Laden and this book does a good job in describing the early life of the Saudi business man, turned Mujahideen funder, turned chief architect of 9/11.  It’s detailed in parts but is a thrilling and rewarding book on one of the defining moments of our time.

Duty - Robert Gates

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m interested in US foreign policy.  The last handful of recommendations are all autobiographical in nature and some of the best books of this sort that I’ve read.  First up is Robert Gates’s Duty – Memoirs of a Secretary at War (2014).  Gates was US Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, an unprecedented (I think) appointment, i.e. the same SOD serving a republican and democrat president.   Gates served in the US air force, was a career CIA official rising to become Director of the CIA and President of Texas University before being appointed SOD.  Gates’s autobiography could lose a few hundred pages but is nevertheless a rewarding read.  Gates is candid about the role of SOD and the challenges he faced in the pentagon trying to do what he could to make sure the troops got all the equipment they needed.  He also comes across as a likeable and humane individual which is the opposite of what you’d expect.

Colin Powell’s My American Journey (2003) is similarly, if not more rewarding a read.  Powell’s is an inspiring story which takes him from the South Bronx to National Security Adviser to President Reagan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Powell later went on to become the first African-American to become the US Secretary of State, which isn’t covered by this book).  Powell’s book is very readable and he comes across as an earnest, driven but likeable individual.

To end a war - Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke couldn’t be described as ‘likeable’.  His nickname was ‘the bulldozer’ which may be what you need to be when assigned to the role of peace envoy in Bosnia.  Holbrooke’s book, To End a War (1998) captures his experience of trying to negotiate a peace, sometimes in a war zone (three of Holbrooke’s team were killed on the road to Sarajevo at the start of their mission), between warring and intractable factions in Bosnia.  If you want to know what brokering peace – which Holbrooke and team ultimately achieved via the Dayton Accords in late 1995 – look like under these circumstances then check out this book.

My final recommendation is Douglas Feith’s War and Decision – Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (2008).  The book documents the origins of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and how those wars were prosecuted.  Feith was an assistant secretary in the Pentagon at the time of 9/11 and the aforementioned wars and is well placed to discuss how events transpired and how decisions were taken.  Unlike all of the other books mentioned above, Feith’s book benefits from the inclusion of numerous memos, which were classified as secret.  While somewhat repetitive in parts, the book is a compelling read and really  ‘puts you in the room’ of the chief decision makers on the Iraq war.  Regardless of your thoughts on the Iraq war this book is highly recommended.

Apart from Max Hastings’ books, I’ve focussed largely on books by US authors and on US foreign policy.  Hopefully there’ll be something here to interest you.  If you’ve got your own recommendations do let me know via the comments section.  I’m always in the market for a good read.

Something old, something new…

No, I’ve not decided to start blogging about weddings and wedding paraphernalia.  Having blogged a lot recently about books or jazz, I thought it might make a change to post something on the albums of the last year or so that I keep coming back to.

Blackstar

First up is David Bowie’s Blackstar, released two days before Bowie’s way too premature death on 8 January 2016.  The album stands on its own as a great Bowie album but takes on its own poignancy given the circumstances.  I first heard the title track Blackstar on TV as it was the opening theme for The Last Panthers, and was intrigued, so bought the album the morning it came out.  Another attraction was Bowie’s band on the album, which is formed of top class jazz musicians and is essentially the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s quartet.  It’s not a jazz album though.  Bowie always surrounded himself with top class players, whether they’re from the jazz, blues or wherever world.  Blackstar itself is a great track as is Dollar Days. The lyric during the latter, ‘If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to’ is just one example where you’re hit with an emotional pang.  The album finishes on I Can’t Give Everything Away, a perfect close to the album and an amazing recording career and life.  It’s hard to keep the tears in given the poignancy of the tune.  McCaslin and Ben Monder deliver wonderful solos making this track one of the highlights of the album.  Highly recommended.

Tame Impala - Currents

Next up is Tame Impala’s album Currents, released in July 2015.  Tame Impala is effectively a one-man band:  Kevin Parker played all the instruments, wrote the tunes, produced the album, made the tea, etc.  The album sounds like something that came out of the 80’s if the person making the album came back from the future with some Daft Punk albums!  The album’s first track, Let it Happen, is an epic tune that gets better as it goes along and I imagine hundreds of thousands of people all over the world have gone nuts dancing to it.  Other stand out tracks include Yes I’m Changing, a slower paced tune and something that wouldn’t be amiss if you heard it in 1982, and The Less I Know the Better, which includes a nice bass riff underpinning the almost ethereal sounding vocals.  It’s an album that you can stick on and enjoy every (or most) tracks and it’s one that I keep coming back to.  The album was in the top 5 of all the ‘Best of 2015’ polls and rightly so.

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell

Sufjan Stevens’ album Carrie and Lowell (named after Stevens’ mother and stepfather, respectively) was released early in 2015 and, like Currents, performed well in all the Best of 2015 polls.  It’s a quiet, poetic album, reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel or Elliott Smith.  The album starts strongly with Death with Dignity (you know this isn’t going to be toe-tapper!) and continues in a similar vein.  One of the album’s highlights is Should Have Known Better, one of the tracks reminiscent of Elliott Smith and is itself about Stevens reminiscing on his earlier life, going back to when he was ‘three, maybe four’.  Another personal favourite is ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’, which sounds and reads like poetry.  If you’re not a fan or appreciative of S&G or Elliott Smith, this may not be up your street.  If you are, then you may want to check out this gem of an album.

Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly topped all the Best of 2015 polls and was a favourite with jazzers, not least as it featured the likes of Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Thundercat.  However, I prefer Lamar’s ‘untitled unmastered‘, which was released in March 2016.  UU is simply an album of outtakes from the Pimp a Butterfly sessions; 8 outtakes which are better than most albums released!  At 34 minutes long it’s less than half the length of ‘Butterfly’, which is perhaps one of the reasons I prefer it.  The album kicks off with what has been aptly described as an ‘unashamedly apocalyptic opening‘.  That’s a bit strong but it’s certainly got a dark streak running through it while it grooves along like nobody’s business.  Untitled 2 (the tracks are named untitled 1-8) is another foreboding track, my favourite on the album, which sounds like the grim reaper is on the organ, on acid and having gone to ‘cool chords’ school.  The rest of the album is a blend of funk, soul, jazz and even bossa-nova and closes with a groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Earth, Wind and Fire album.  If you’re not into rap, give this a go.  It’s worth sticking with and is highly recommended.

Other notable mentions include Radiohead and Badbadnotgood’s latest albums but hopefully these will keep you going until next time.