Wynton Marsalis and Buddy DeFranco

Of the four concerts I’ve seen thus far, the Buddy DeFranco quintet was easily the best. (If you haven’t read my recent posts, I’m referring to the Ottawa International Jazz Festival 2008.)

Wynton Marsalis was good:  perhaps 3.5 stars out of 5. Part of that is just a matter of personal taste, meaning that I’ve never been a fan of big band music. For me, jazz is best when it’s only loosely structured. Big bands necessarily have to be structured and locked into their parts much more than a smaller group. What you get, by way of compensation, is an ability to craft the sound and achieve effects that are impossible for a smaller group. But that doesn’t interest me so much — as I say, that’s just a matter of personal taste.

Marsalis himself was coasting, in my opinion. He let his fellow musicians have the spotlight most of the time, and on the few occasions when Marsalis did solo, I think he was basically going through the motions. Maybe the stoic Ottawa audience didn’t impress him as being worthy of an all-out performance?

The other soloists were terrific. The band was (of course) extremely professional and disciplined. And the arrangements were perfect. So, 3.5 stars.

But Buddy DeFranco’s quintet was awesome. DeFranco was born in 1923 so he’s 85 years old. Ilona commented that, when he spoke, he had the breathlessness of a senior citizen. But when he started playing the clarinet the years just rolled away. He soloed for three or four minutes at a stretch, and never seemed at a loss for breath.

Here’s an excerpt from “As Time Goes By”. After a few bars, the other instruments lay out, leaving just DeFranco and bassist Neil Swainson, weaving melodic lines. This is followed by a second excerpt, from a completely different song, featuring clarinet and piano:

DeFranco started performing professionally at age 13. He joined Gene Krupa’s band in 1941 and later played with the Tony Dorsey Orchestra, the Count Basie Septet, and Nelson Riddle. From 1966 until 1974, DeFranco conducted the Glenn Miller Orchestra, during which period he stopped playing the clarinet for several years.

I assumed DeFranco played straight-ahead swing in the Benny Goodman vein, but I was mistaken. The quintet took me by surprise when DeFranco introduced Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple”, and performed it brilliantly. It turns out that DeFranco is known for having mastered Parker’s oeuvre.

[DeFranco] remains one of the few clarinetists able to transfer the musical language of Charlie Parker onto his instrument. Challenged after hearing Parker, DeFranco attacked the bebop style and mastered it with ease, developing a fluid speed and inventive style that never faltered. “I first heard Parker in the mid forties,” he recalled to Whitney Balliett, author of American Musicians II: Seventy-two Portraits in Jazz, about his conversion from swing and big band to a more modern approach. “It was uptown at some club. He had just come in from upstate — skinny with a mop of hair. He borrowed a horn and sat in. I was completely turned around. I couldn’t sleep for two days. [N.B. Parker had this effect on every jazz musician of that era.] I decided immediately that that was it: I was determined to articulate like that on the clarinet. I changed my reed and opened up my mouthpiece. I’ve worked toward that articulation ever since.”

Here’s one of the highlights of the evening:  a lightning-quick piano solo by Bernie Senensky, born in Winnipeg in 1944. He’s “only” 63. Just listen to the speed and force of his playing! This is from the aforementioned “Scrapple From the Apple”.

Lineup:  Buddy DeFranco, clarinet; Joe Cohn, guitar; Bernie Senensky, piano; Neil Swainson, bass; and Terry Clarke, drums. If these guys come to your town, don’t miss ’em!


Live blogging Jazz Festival 2

Tonight’s opening act was Félix Stüssi (pianist) leading a quintet. Stüssi was originally from Switzerland, but he now lives in Montreal. The other members of the band are all Montrealers.

I brought Ilona to this concert because Stüssi was billed as Thelonius Monk-like. Ilona isn’t a big jazz fan — she prefers the blues, the raunchier the better — but she likes Monk well enough.

Of course, Monk is sui generis. I wasn’t too surprised to find that Stüssi wasn’t much like him after all. On the contrary, the quintet leans toward the avant garde end of the jazz spectrum, and that definitely isn’t Ilona’s thing!

One way to analyze music is to say that it alternates between tension and release. Even a simple, standard blues chord sequence fits within the framework. As soon as a musician moves away from the tonic chord, tension is generated. There’s an emotional tug:  we long to return to the tonic chord, where the tension is released.

What we refer to as “elevator music” is essentially tension-free, and therefore BO-RING! Free jazz is at the opposite end of the spectrum:  where immense tension is generated, and release is deferred until it seems that it will never arrive.

Stüssi and his quartet started their set by generating considerable tension. I would put the first song at 7 out of 10 (where 10 = maximum tension) ; and the second song at 8.5. The two saxophonists, Bruno Lamarche and Alex Côté, were primarily responsible. They mostly seemed to be playing in different keys. With the help of the rest of the band, they generated an intense wall of discordant sound.

I was beginning to think it was a serious mistake bringing Ilona. But song three was an almost-standard blues tune. Yay! Release!

In the end, Ilona enjoyed a lot of the set. (Me too!) And now Buddy DeFranco, a clarinetist in the Benny Goodman vein, has just taken the stage. The joint is jumping! Except there is no joint — it’s an outdoor venue.

(Ilona adds:  the thing she likes about Thelonius Monk is that his approach to piano playing is so spare. There’s lots of space between the notes. Whereas these two saxophonists generated lots of notes, but at the expense of musicality.)

Live blogging Jazz Festival 1

The Ottawa International Jazz Festival 2008 starts this evening. We’ve just heard Servantes, a seven-piece band serving up jazz-inflected Latin rhythms.

They were pretty good (if they had been a little louder, it would have helped), but Ottawa jazz fans are a notoriously staid bunch. Leader Patrice Servant must have been disappointed that such a big crowd was rather undemonstrative.

Are you having fun?

[polite applause]

Boy, if I was so quiet in school …!

“Welcome to Ottawa,” I said to my friend. But I admit, I was just as quiet as everyone else.

Next up:  Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. This will be a rare treat for our small city, and Confederation Park is packed out.

The Problem of Headship part 1: The Beginning

…spawned from a series of comments on a previous post of mine, this post is the second in a larger debate going on between my father and I. The first was entitled “Where the women aren’t”, in which my father argued that it is possible to derive from scripture an understanding that women are equally suited to leadership and teaching roles. In this post, the first of my responses, I seek to discuss the relevancy of my more Complementarian understanding of gender roles in today’s age…

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the word “leadership?” How about “leader?” I can’t speak for the world, but as a fairly young adult, the images that are conjured in my mind automatically are ones of great political figures, many grounded in relatively recent history. Hitler is a perfect example of our society’s image of a “great leader.” Videos and pictures of him, standing in front of a crowd, stirring up uncomparable fervour with a wave of his hand, or a single sentence, or even merely exiting his vehicle, all remind us of something very, very relevant to the discussion of leadership: Power. Hitler’s sense of command is one of the most powerful instances of leadership to ever blow through this world, and although his term in command was relatively short compared to others (such as his more paranoid counterpart, Stalin), his flame burned so brightly that he, above any other, is the figure that defines 20th century politics — for better or worse.

Of course, when we’re debating Biblical leadership, such images are left behind, and sometimes more of a distraction than an aide. The Bible — particularly the latter Testament — is more concerned with leadership on a daily basis than large-scale political decisions. The two most talked about forms of leadership in the New Testament are that within the household, and that within the Church. To mistake these for the leadership of a fascist country is to confuse an egg with a dinosaur, and, if the latter image is retained when discussing the first, one can come up with some very frightening propositions. But then, it’s probably self-explanatory that we don’t want to mistake a husband for Hitler.

However, the Hitlerian image brings up, as I said, the idea of power. This idea is very important for the sake of my discussion on headship, both of the household and the Church. I want Hitler to be kept in mind for the duration of this conversation, so that we can adequately compare today’s image of leadership with a Biblical one, and perhaps work out some sort of understanding of where Paul, Peter, and many others were coming from when they advocated the headship of the men — as in the gender, not the race — within the two aforementioned structures.

But first, let us swing back to a time long before Peter, Paul, Luke, or any of the other apostles. Let’s shift back an indefinite amount of time to come to a period which is viewed only through the mist of time. A mist which makes sense, really, since it’s also the beginning of time about which we will be talking:


Yes. The dreaded word itself: Creation. One of the most hotly contested episodes in the Bible, which has been the source of much ado throughout most spheres of American life, from politics, to education, right through the household. Why is Creation important? Simply, because it tells us about the fundamental nature of the universe. Creation — that is, the source time from which all things on Earth spewed forth — necessarily affects our view of how the world around us operates, as well as the world within us.


Shape shifter

John McCain is reputed to be a straight talker. And it’s true that McCain is often blunt (i.e., aggressive) in the way he expresses his opinions. If that’s what people mean by “straight talker”, the label is accurate.

But with respect to policy positions, there’s some evidence that McCain is more of a shape-shifter than a straight talker. Here’s the latest example, neatly illustrated by CNN:

  1. McCain used to be open to a windfall profits tax on oil companies; but now he is mocking Obama for supporting such a tax; and
  2. McCain used to support an existing, federal ban on offshore drilling; but now he says the ban should be lifted.

These policy shifts are important, because McCain wants Americans to believe that he’s serious about tackling climate change. But if McCain’s policy is to provide a supply of (relatively) cheap oil, people will have less incentive to change their carbon-emitting ways.

What does Obama mean by “windfall profits”? Consider that the five largest oil companies realized a $36 billion profit in the first quarter of this year. Obama proposes,

I’ll make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and we’ll use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills.

McCain is now on record as opposing that policy. It isn’t surprising that he mocked Obama in Texas, which is the home of big oil.

On another environmental front, Obama and McCain have both expressed support for a cap-and-trade system:

A central authority (usually a government or international body) sets a limit or cap on the amount of a pollutant that can be emitted. … Companies that need to increase their emissions must buy credits from those who pollute less. The transfer of allowances is referred to as a trade.

Obama’s support for a cap-and-trade approach is unequivocal. But does McCain really support cap-and-trade? He raised some doubts here:

I believe in the cap-and-trade system, as you know. I would not at this time make those — impose a mandatory cap at this time.

The same article makes it clear that McCain has equivocated on this point previously:

It’s not quote mandatory caps. It’s cap-and-trade, OK. It’s not mandatory caps to start with. It’s cap-and-trade. That’s very different. OK, because that’s a gradual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. So please portray it as cap-and-trade. That’s the way I call it.

Confused? I am. McCain is not such a straight talker when it comes to his environmental policy.

Michelle Obama, in context

The Republicans will make an issue of Michelle Obama in this election year. Actually, the Republicans try this trick during every election, as Ragged Thots points out:

This is the ’08 version of a really weird conservative urban legend that pops up every four years. The names change, but the basics remain the same: 1) It always involves the wife of the Democratic presidential candidate; 2) It always portrays the wife — not the candidate — committing some anti-American, unpatriotic act.

I was first exposed to this during the 1988 campaign when the line was, “There’s a picture out there of Kitty Dukakis burning the American flag … just wait til that comes out …” (that one got out of hand when a GOP senator actually believed it and called a press conference to say he would soon produce the evidence — which never materialized). Four years later, “There’s a picture out there of Hillary Clinton burning the American flag … just wait ’til that comes out ….” In 1996, the Hillary thing repeated itself. In ’04, there was a similar one about Teresa Heinz Kerry.

Differences this year: Because of the racial angle and Jeremiah Wright, Michelle Obama — and Louis Farrakhan, for good measure — are blaming “whitey.” Because of YouTube, it’s a clip, not a photo.

This B.S. arises every election cycle, so let’s lay the “whitey” rumour to rest.

But what about that other knock, the one where Michelle Obama was caught red-handed on youtube? She said, “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am proud of my country.”

OK, not a very prudent choice of words. But let’s consider the remark in context:

What we’ve learned over this year is that hope is making a comeback. It is making a comeback. And let me tell you something — for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.

And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment. I’ve seen people who are hungry to be unified around some basic common issues, and it’s made me proud.

And I feel privileged to be a part of even witnessing this. Travelling around states all over this country, and being reminded that there is more that unites us than divides us, that the struggles of a farmer in Iowa are no different than what’s happening on the south side of Chicago. That people are feeling the same pain and wanting the same things for their families.

One of my commenters (who describes her as “ghastly”) said, “If she goes around saying she wasn’t proud of America until it started to recognise the sheer wonderfulness of Barack (and presumably, by extension, Michelle) Obama, then she can’t really complain about being attacked for it.”

But is that a fair representation of Michelle Obama’s remarks, in context? No; obviously it isn’t.

Michelle Obama was expressing frustration over the hyper-partisanship of American politics:  the Rovian tactics that are used to drive a wedge between one American and another, and compel Republicans and Democrats to opposite poles of the political spectrum.

To be fair to Karl Rove — not that he deserves it — this hyper-partisanship did not begin in 2000. It was evident throughout the Clinton years, as anyone who lived through the Lewinski scandal and the ensuing attempt at impeachment will remember.

In other words, this hyper-partisanship that sets Republicans and Democrats at each others’ throats has been a fact of life for all the years that Michelle Obama has been an adult. And now she sees people seizing on her husband’s campaign as an opportunity to get beyond partisanship and fight a common enemy:  for example, for poor whites and poor blacks to work side-by-side for their rightful share of America’s prosperity.

(Meanwhile, John McCain promises to save millionaires $700,000 in taxes.)

It’s a pity, given that Obama’s remarks are readily available on youtube, that so few people have actually watched the video and considered what Michelle Obama was saying. Next time someone quotes her, out of context, you can set the record straight.

Just because it amuses me

Obama has released his birth certificate (to Daily Kos) to lay some rumours to rest. Like, what if he wasn’t actually born in America like he claims?

Obama's birth certificate

John Cole comments:

Has any other candidate for President been required to prominently and publicly display his/her birth certificate to prove they are American (particularly after they have already won the nomination)?

If so, I am unaware of this happening. If not, I guess this is just more proof of Geraldine Ferraro’s thoughtful “black guys have it easy” thesis.

*** Update ***

The verdict from the lunatic fringe:  It isn’t good enough! the birth certificate needs additional debunking. A genealogist needs to be summoned to determine whether or not Obama’s father is indeed “African.”

This tempest in a teapot amuses me so much that I’ve added an edited version of the birth certificate to the sidebar. Inevitably someone will conclude I’ve gotten the Obama=Messiah bug, but too bad if they can’t appreciate how ludicrous this story is.

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