Tuesday, November 29, 2005

New CDs and DVDs are released on Tuesdays. In years past, the holiday season worked like this: After Thanksgiving, retails buyers and distributors have their hands full trying to refill existing stock, so new releases are held until after the New Year. It made sense for everybody; holiday shoppers have a few weeks to pick up the latest releases for stocking stuffers, and the industry is able to streamline for four weeks to maximize profits.

Lately, however, studios and record labels have been pushing into those weeks to release new products. In the past three years, the Tuesday after Christmas has become a target date, based on the logic that shoppers will be spending gift certificates and merchandise credits. This remarkably stupid bit of reasoning is what you get when you hire executives that combine a total lack of front line experience with an arrogant determination to leave their mark: They fix what ain't broke.

You find the same thing at Starbucks, where a large is called "venti" and small doesn't exist. The logic is obvious: Customers will feel cheated if they pay three dollars for a small coffee, so instead it's called a "tall." That logic is also purely theoretical; if these executives ever worked behind a counter, they'd know that most customers simply ignore the jargon and order small, medium, or large. The idea probably sounds good in a boardroom with pie charts; but in a noisy, bustling store, people don't appreciate cutesy gimmicks. They want to buy their coffee and leave.

Working in a record store during the holidays isn't easy. It can be great fun; your customers aren't fighting over popular toys or discounted computers, and most of them are carrying lists which make them easy to help. But it's constant, neverending work; there are customers lined up outside before you open, and you'll have to lock out a few unlucky souls on most evenings before you can go home. You have enough to do, between trying to check out customers and refill shelf stock and keep everything neat and orderly; clearing space to advertise new releases is a task unto itself, and it simply isn't cost effective to saddle that responsibility onto retail clerks at this time of year.

This is a problem that's becoming pervasive in corporate America today: an insistence on siezing every small chance to make a dime, accompanied by a failure to understand that oftentimes you profit more through smart allocation of available resources.

Monday, November 28, 2005

I've got a horrible memory. I frequently miss appointments, not because I arrive late but because I just plumb forget. Kerrie once asked me to reschedule a haircut for her as I was on my way to see her stylist for my own appointment; and I swear, I sat through the entire haircut and actually talked about Kerrie's appointment, but it wasn't until after I'd left that I remembered she had asked me to change it. It's not just short-term memory, either; I remember visual scenes and details about things that occurred during my youth, but I can't place them in time, order, or location. I can't seem to hold onto anything but the broad strokes.

So I'm sitting at home yesterday, watching the New York Giants play in Seattle, and the announcer mentions that the Seattle quarterback's name is Matt Hasselbeck. The name rings a bell, so I hit Google and it turns out that he was born in Westwood, Massachusetts. As I'm scratching my head over that coincidence, the announcer continues that Matt's younger brother Tim is a backup quarterback for New York -- and that name rings a louder bell, so I return to Google and learn that Tim Hasselbeck was born in 1978 and grew up in Norfolk. So that's how I knew the name: I went to school with him, and we played soccer together.

I don't remember the kid. I remember playing on the fields around that school; I remember the commuter trains rumbling past during practice, and I remember chewing orange slices during halftime. But I'll be damned if I can remember the name or the face of a single kid from that school, including Hasselbeck...so why the hell did his name ring a bell?

It's times like this, I think about humans using only six percent of our brains. This memory is a piece of knowledge that, for all practical purposes, I don't have; yet it's apparently stored somewhere. That remaining ninety-four percent clearly isn't just idling. There's got to be a way to coax it into active duty.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The attorney general in Massachusetts, Tom Reilly, has spent the past year arming for a 2006 election battle with incumbent Governor Mitt Romney. So it's likely that Shaw's Supermarkets isn't on his Christmas card list; because during the past week and a half, they dropped him smack in the middle of a Thanksgiving fiasco.

Here's the deal: Whole Foods Market, a chain of supermarkets specializing in natural and organic foods, decided to open its stores on Thanksgiving Day. Naturally, they advertised this in advance; and when Shaw's executives caught wind of the plan, they drafted an open letter to Attorney General Reilly and the police chiefs of eleven Massachusetts cities and towns advising that Whole Foods was planning to break the law.

Massachusetts still has several blue laws on its books. "Blue laws" are dated from the Puritan origins of the thirteen colonies, basically imposing religious morality on the populace -- in this case, prohibiting most businesses from opening on a day when Puritans believe you should stay home with your family. While I happen to agree with the sentiment, I don't agree that it should be enforced by armed policemen; and I find it incredibly ironic that this is happening in the first state to sanction gay marriage.

Shaw's complained on two bases. "Besides disadvantaging competitors, a Whole Foods opening would harm consumers, due to lack of choice in the marketplace for consumers to shop and compare prices for the best deal." Now obviously, Shaw's could give a damn about consumer choice in the marketplace; but you can't appreciate just how stupid that argument is unless you live in Massachusetts and know both stores.

The two companies aren't competitors. Whole Foods doesn't sell Coke, or Oreos, or Honey Nut Cheerios, or any of your favorite brands; it's an organic supermarket, tailored specifically to affluent communities. Shaw's, on the other hand, is a ghetto supermarket. Their competition is Market Basket, and the only race is to attract the highest portion of food stamp recipients. This letter was like Snoop Dogg bitching that Luciano Pavarotti was stealing his fans.

So with nothing to gain but a reputation for corporate PMS, Shaw's shoved a public spectacle onto Tom Reilly's desk. He couldn't disregard the law; so to his credit, he made the smart move and embraced it. He told the Boston Globe that tradition outweighed convenience, and that he thought workers should spend Thanksgiving at home with their families. It's not a popular opinion -- but it's always better to look wrong than to look weak. Instead of appearing to be a sockpuppet or a reluctant participant in coercion, he took responsibility and made it seem like enforcing the law was his decision. It was a smart political move.

Unfortunately, the Chinese merchants don't read the Boston Globe. The owners of all six Super 88 Markets opened their doors on Thanksgiving Day; and although Quincy police ordered one location to close before noon, the others remained open. Obviously, Reilly will have to impose fines on the stores, which will almost certainly alienate him from a significant portion of that close-knit ethnic community.

You have to wonder whether Shaw's has a public relations director; and if so, whether he's incompetent, asleep, or possibly a covert Romney agent. This is exactly the sort of fiasco he's paid to prevent; not only does Shaw's look like a corporate tattletale to its blue-collar customer base (currently being wooed by Wal-Mart), but Shaw's has now also earned the ire of an attorney general and would-be governor.

Shaw's loses face. Whole Foods loses money. Super 88 will face fines, and Reilly will look like the bad guy. Frankly, the only guy who wins here is Mitt Romney. And I'm voting for him. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Top Ten Jazz CDs of 2005

Everyone's got their two cents. As promised, here are my choices for the best jazz records of 2005.
  1. Kenny Wheeler: What Now?
  2. Kenny Barron: Live at Bradley's II
  3. Bill Frisell: East/West
  4. Wayne Shorter Quartet: Beyond the Sound Barrier
  5. Wynton Marsalis: Live at the House of Tribes
  6. Joe Lovano: Joyous Encounter
  7. George Russell's Living Time Orchestra: The 80th Birthday Concert
  8. Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis: Occasion
  9. Doug Wamble: Bluestate
  10. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane: Live at Carnegie Hall
Here's hoping this will become an annual tradition. Start shopping.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #1

Kenny Wheeler
What Now?

Well, here we are. And although I'd like to say that I agonized over this choice, I'll tell you the truth: I knew from the first moment I heard this record, I'd still be listening to it in December.

We often compare great albums to an artist's previous work; and taking that perspective, there are a number of ways to view this album. You can look at it as an expansion of Wheeler's last album on this label, a duet with John Taylor. You can look at it as a reduction of Wheeler's quintet records featuring some of these same musicians. But listening to the compositions on What Now and the improvisations they inspire, I think the most insightful comparison is as a sequel to 1998's memorable Angel Song.

That album featured Wheeler with Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, and Dave Holland. It topped most Top Ten lists that year, and it remains one of the best sets of music recorded during the '90s. It was a confluence of unforgettable chemistry: four great musicians who synced flawlessly, and a program of original tunes that struck a perfect balance between script and improvisation. And by removing the drummer's chair from the band, Wheeler allowed time and texture to flow more naturally from the group than when guided by a single hand. Angel Song is a marvelous album that every jazz fan should own — and to my mind, this is Part Two.

It's worth adding: The engineers, James Farber and Goffredo Gibellini, captured an intimate acoustic; you can hear the buzz of Holland's strings and the snap of Potter's pads. I definitely recommend listening to this record with a good pair of headphones; this is one of those albums that puts you in the room.

I love everything I've listed in the Top Ten, but this unquestionably belongs at #1. This is jazz at its best, with every ingredient to which we aspire in every performance. The conversation between soloists is intelligent and articulate at every turn; and they never coast, not even for a second. There were plenty of good records this year; but this was a cut above, and it doesn't have a single weakness. It's uncommon for any artist to produce a work that strong, and now Wheeler has recorded two. Buy them both, today.

What Now: Iowa City; One Two Three; March Mist; The Lover Mourns; The Sweet Yakity Waltz; What Now; For Tracy; Verona.
Personnel: Kenny Wheeler, flugelhorn; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Taylor, piano; Dave Holland, bass.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #2

Kenny Barron
Live at Bradley's II: The Perfect Set

Kenny Barron is possibly the most underrated pianist in jazz. He's sort of like Jaki Byard or Dave McKenna: Everybody knows his name, but too few listeners pay him serious attention. His reputation among musicians is ironclad, but he's one of those guys whose talent doesn't seem to resonate with the masses. I don't get it — because he's absolutely, positively, off-the-chart brilliant.

This is my favorite record of the year. I rated one above it, as I'll explain tomorrow; but strictly in terms of enjoyment, this one's my favorite. Piano trios are a dime a dozen, and ditto for live recordings; but not only is this an absolutely stellar performance by a piano trio, it represents a complete and uninterrupted program of music recorded in a single set. That's almost unheard of in recorded jazz — and it's a pleasure to find.

The previous volume of Barron's trio at Bradley's was released in 2002, featuring tracks culled from several nights. It's a great album worth a listen; but this set packs a singularity, a consistent vibe that you don't often capture on tape. It makes me wonder why this album wasn't issued first.

Barron is best known for his work with Sphere, a band dedicated to exploring the music of Thelonious Monk. He's certainly a fan (the last two tracks here are Monk tunes), but too many critics lean on the comparison as a crutch. If you listen to his phrasing, Barron actually owes as much, if not more, to Bill Evans. The point isn't anchoring him to one or the other; but whereas I've seen many writers almost dismiss him as a Monk acolyte, Barron is a considerable artist in his own right. He's a first-call pianist for the best names in the business, and that doesn't happen unless you bring something heavy to the table.

I haven't heard a Kenny Barron album that I wouldn't recommend. If you'd asked me last year, I'd have pointed you toward his duo recording with bassist Charlie Haden (another live album compiled from several nights); but The Perfect Set now takes the top slot. I couldn't have picked a better title myself; and although I don't understand why this wasn't issued several years ago, I'm thankful for its escape from the vault.

The Perfect Set: You Don't Know What Love Is; The Only One; Twilight Song; Shuffle Boil; Well You Needn't.
Personnel: Kenny Barron, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #3

Bill Frisell

I can't compare Bill Frisell with other musicians. I think he has more in common with Georgia O'Keeffe and William Faulkner than with Mick Goodrick or Pat Metheny. I love both Goodrick and Metheny — but I think Frisell is on a different level.

He's the only musician whose music evokes imagery in my mind. I've known a lot of musicians who feel that music and film are intimately connected, who close their eyes and see pictures as they play. I've never had that experience except when listening to Bill Frisell. I honestly don't think he "plays"; the best description I can conceive is that he paints.

His impact on guitar remains to be seen, but I think it will be comparable to what Art Tatum did on piano, or the influence that John Coltrane had on generations of tenor saxophonists. He has a unique perspective. He doesn't play lines, and he doesn't play chords; he sculpts and brushes intervals. It's completely different from anything that's been done before.

This album ostensibly shows Frisell in two different settings; the West Coast band explores more folksy tunes in extended treatment, whereas the East Coast band hits shorter versions of several standards. The truth is, regardless of setting: Frisell is Frisell. His voice is unmistakable. I've heard him play bebop, bluegrass, and standards in duo; and while some guys sound totally different depending where or what they're playing, Frisell is always Frisell.

I've heard comments questioning whether Frisell qualifies as jazz. It's certainly true that his music has deep roots in both rock, and country and western. If you're looking for an entrance to jazz from a rock-and-roll background, Frisell would be a good start. Most of his records bear little or no resemblance to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis. But like I said, I don't find it useful to assess him as a musician. Whatever genre he's playing, I think he unquestionably warrants mention alongside the greatest American artists.

People have been saying this is Frisell's best album. I think it's probably more accurate to say this album best fit what people expected to hear. His previous records have consistently surprised critics with odd angles or new instrumentations; this time, he stripped it down to a conventional trio and recorded relatively simple fare. There are no surprises. I wouldn't want to rate this album in contrast with Nashville or Have a Little Faith; but I certainly agree, it's among his best work. Despite my ardor, he's recorded plenty of music that I wouldn't recommend for many people — but I can't imagine anyone not liking this album.

If you download East/West from the iTunes Music Store, you'll get two bonus tracks: "Big Shoe" featuring the West Coast trio, and a cover of Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now Is Love" played by the East Coast trio. The CD package doesn't include any liner notes, so you may as well buy the digital version.

Disc One: West: I Heard It Through the Grapevine; Blues for Los Angeles; Shenandoah; Boubacar; Pipe Down; A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.
Personnel: Bill Frisell, electric guitar, loops; Viktor Krauss, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums.
Disc Two: East: My Man's Gone Now; The Days of Wine and Roses; You Can Run; Ron Carter; Interlude; Goodnight Irene; The Vanguard; People; Crazy; Tennessee Flat Top Box.
Personnel: Bill Frisell, electric and acoustic guitars, loops; Tony Scherr, bass, acoustic guitar; Kenny Wollesen, drums, percussion.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #4

Wayne Shorter Quartet
Beyond the Sound Barrier

I think Wayne Shorter's albums receive five stars before the label begins mailing promo copies. The only exceptions are the reviewers who try to appear aloof by docking a half-star, as if to prove they're not impressed by Shorter's history. I don't think these reviews have much to do with the music — although it probably doesn't matter, because everyone's going to buy his albums anyway.

It's unfortunate that writers focus on Shorter's history instead of his music, because his music is some of the more interesting jazz ever recorded. He has always worked outside the box with regard to form; and here, he continues to stretch popular conception. This quartet reminds me of the original Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. They share the same dynamic: Everyone participates. Everyone instigates. Shorter's name is on the ticket, but the band is clearly a democracy.

I think this band surprised everyone. Danilo Perez received a lot of attention for PanaMonk in 1996, but those headlines dried up fast and he hasn't scored a hit since. John Patitucci is known best as the bassist from Chick Corea's much-maligned Akoustic Band (a great record, by the way) and a handful of forgettable records under his own name. The only rising star was Brian Blade; and although fellow drummers invariably name him among their favorites, his own records have met with lukewarm sales. Shorter might have picked bigger names; but when you hear the group dynamic, it's clear why he chose these guys.

The music here is more open than many listeners are comfortable with, both in terms of time and texture. That's a delicate dynamic, and it only works if you've got guys who can strike a balance between taking initiative and knowing when to exercise restraint. Jazz musicians tend to play a lot, all the time; and sometimes the hardest challenge is knowing when not to play. These guys walk that balance like a tightrope; there isn't a single moment here when the music dips into excess, where what's being played isn't thoughtful and inventive.

My only complaint is with the editing. This isn't a live concert; it's a glimpse inside several live concerts recorded over the course of 18 months. The album was produced by Shorter, so I suppose I can't argue that these cuts second-guess the judgment of the artist; but regardless, I'd rather hear a complete portrait. I don't approve of fade-outs in jazz. It's like piloting a boat: Cruising in the open water is easy; navigating your way into and out of port are the difficult parts, and that's what I'd like to hear.

That aside, this record remains a stellar series of performances from a band that reaches into the stratosphere of jazz at every moment. It'll be interesting to look back on this album in another 20 years; my guess would be, these guys are ahead of their time.

Beyond the Sound Barrier: Smilin' Through; As Far as the Eye Can See; On the Wings of Song; Tinker Bell; Joy Ryder; Over Shadow Hill Way; Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean; Beyond the Sound Barrier.
Personnel: Wayne Shorter, tenor and soprano saxophones; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #5

Wynton Marsalis
Live at the House of Tribes

Wynton Marsalis was famous before he turned 25. He won the first Pulitzer Prize for jazz, founded Jazz at Lincoln Center, and helped develop several influential programs that have introduced jazz to the mainstream of America. He's also a polarizing figure whose strong opinions have earned him a reputation as a tyrant and a demagogue.

Whatever else he may be, anyone with ears has to acknowledge: He's an outstanding musician. His technique and tone on the trumpet, both beyond reproach, are incidental: He's an intelligent, articulate, and even funny soloist. But he's often been compared to Miles Davis, and the resonance of that comparison lies in something else: Wynton is an inspiring and charismatic leader.

Trying to appreciate jazz by assessing soloists misses the forest for the trees. Miles Davis is remembered for his solos, for his tone, for his compositions — but most importantly, he was a bandleader. The same is true of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. The legendary contributors did more than simply make individual statements; they knew how to assemble a group and draw the best out of each player.

Wynton is a heavyweight bandleader. Marcus Roberts recorded a half-dozen albums on his own, and none of them were half as good as anything he played in Wynton's band. Wes Anderson's own quartet recording at the Vanguard isn't worth hearing; but on Wynton's front line, Anderson becomes a compelling soloist. Wynton creates a chemistry that elevates every constituent, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Several critics have said this is Wynton's best album since Live at Blues Alley. I don't find that particularly insightful, since he hasn't really recorded anything comparable during the interim; but I agree, this is among his best work. Live recordings are a tightrope: Mediocre performances sound bad, and bad performances sound worse; but if you catch the right band on the right night, you can capture magic.

Live at the House of Tribes: Green Chimneys; Just Friends; You Don't Know What Love Is; Donna Lee; What Is This Thing Called Love; 2nd Line.
Personnel: Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Eric Lewis, piano; Kengo Nakamura, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Robert Rucker, tambourine on 6; Orlando Q. Rodriguez, percussion on 1, 2, 5, 6.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #6

Joe Lovano
Joyous Encounter

A few years ago, I took an Introduction to Law class taught by Robert Iuliano — who was, at the time, deputy general counsel for Harvard University. On the first night of class, a girl started asking obnoxious questions that grew progressively disruptive. She was obviously strung out, probably on cocaine, and the situation could easily have escalated into an arrest. Instead, Iuliano put down his chalk, looked straight at the girl, and told her he wouldn't tolerate any further disruption.

He didn't raise his voice. He didn't curse. He didn't make a single threat. It was pure demeanor: one minute he was warm and jovial, and in a flash he became a forceful, imposing figure. He did it calmly, politely, and with respect — yet the change in tenor was unmistakable. You could feel the entire class stiffen.

To increase intensity without increasing tempo or volume is a rare skill. It requires more than fluency; it requires character, and character comes only through long experience. It's one of those things that make me skeptical any time I hear about some child prodigy; there's a depth to conversation that you simply can't achieve as a teenager, no matter how many books you've read. And great music is conversation.

Between the four of them, Lovano and company have nearly three centuries of experience as professional musicians. They have character. And that's what defines this CD, what elevates it above every other disc featuring four guys playing weather-beaten standards. These cats couldn't play lightweight if they tried.

Generally speaking, I don't like all-star sessions. Labels have an annoying habit of pulling a bunch of marquee names out of a hat, locking them together in a studio, and rubber-stamping whatever they happen to record. Too often, the chemistry just isn't there. Lovano cut a similar record five years ago with Jim Hall, George Mraz, and Lewis Nash; and although those were four great musicians, they never clicked as a band.

If you'll pardon a kindergarten analogy: It's like a hot fudge sundae. You want real vanilla bean ice cream; and thick, homemade fudge; and cold, fresh-whipped cream. You want the right proportions, and you want a spoon big enough to hold some of each. Sure, you could line up three dishes with separate ingredients and dip your spoon into each for every bite...but that wouldn't be a hot fudge sundae.

These guys have that chemistry, and the result is a masterclass in everything you want to hear from a band. They remain a cohesive whole throughout, never fracturing into "soloist vs. rhythm section." They share a pulse, yet maintain individuality: Lovano sounds like Lovano. Hank Jones sounds like Hank Jones. And their interactions, always fascinating, are the real star of this record. Honestly, you forget about the songs they're playing. You just hear the stories they tell.

Joyous Encounter: Autumn In New York; Bird's Eye View; Don't Ever Leave Me; Alone Together; Six and Four; Pannonica; Consummation; Quiet Lady; Joyous Encounter; A Child Is Born; Crescent.
Personnel: Joe Lovano, tenor and soprano saxophones; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Paul Motian, drums.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #7

George Russell's Living Time Orchestra
The 80th Birthday Concert

I wish George Russell would record more often. He was jazz's first theoretician, and he remains one of its most influential composers. His ideas contributed significantly to the development of both Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and his Lydian Chromatic Concept has alternately confounded and inspired musicians for half a century.

Ten years ago, a French label released two albums from Russell's Living Time Orchestra, one of which included his last (to date) new composition, "It's About Time." That was back when Tower Records maintained a significant presence in Boston and regularly stocked imports; and I was lucky enough to have a friend who had studied with Russell, and he insisted that I buy both albums even though I'd never heard of the guy. Thank God. Soon afterward, both albums went out of print, and they're nearly impossible to find today — so I bought this one as soon as it appeared.

Russell is the perfect example of a composer who uses solos only when they serve a greater purpose. His compositions are never, never, never written simply as vehicles for blowing over changes. He doesn't write unless he has something to say; and when he does, he knows exactly how he wants it said, which is why his works always sound like cohesive compositions rather than arrangements.

The most accessible piece is "So What," based on Miles's original trumpet solo which Russell orchestrated for the full band; and personally, I was drawn to the revamping of "It's About Time," which has always been one of my favorite compositions. But "The African Game" is probably the most poignant work on the album. Russell has explained that he believes music is more than art, more than subjective indulgence; so when he writes a suite based on the origins of life on Earth and the development of mankind, he makes a profound statement.

This piece was, in part, the reason for this live recording; the original album has long been out of print, and Russell has cynically (although probably correctly) surmised that Blue Note is waiting until he dies to license a reissue. So he took matters into his own hands — and now, for the first time since 1986, newcomers can hear "The African Game."

I hate to endorse Russell's cynicism; but if he's going to wait another ten years, this may indeed be his last recording. I have to believe he planned it that way, and deliberately arranged this program to be a retrospective of his best work. These performances were recorded during a 2003 tour of Europe; and clearly, Russell chose the best recordings of each piece for this album. It's a wonderful tribute to this giant among composers.

The 80th Birthday Concert: Listen To the Silence; Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature; The African Game; It's About Time; So What.
Personnel: George Russell, composer; Hiro Honshuku, flute, electronics; Chris Biscoe, alto saxophone; Andy Sheppard, tenor saxophone; Pete Hurt, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Stuart Brooks, Stanton Davis, Palle Mikkelborg, trumpets; Dave Bargeron, trombone; Richard Henry, bass trombone; Mike Walker, guitar; Brad Hatfield, Steve Lodder, keyboards; Bill Urmson, Fender bass; Richie Morales, drums; Pat Hollenbeck, percussion.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #8

Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis

I have to begin with a confession: This wasn't my first choice. I had assigned this slot to a different album; I wrote the review, edited it, and uploaded it onto the server to be published. But the more I thought about it, I realized that first choice had been the safe choice; and while that was a great album too, I haven't pulled it from my shelf as often as I've reached for this. I'll publish the other review after Thanksgiving; but in the meantime, this CD belongs in the Top 10.

Ben Wolfe told me that Harry Connick, Jr. was the most talented musician he'd ever met. Coming from a guy who spent years touring with the Wynton Marsalis Septet, that's not a remark to be taken lightly; so when Marsalis Music started recording Connick playing something other than soundtracks, I gave him a chance. His first CD was good, but this is something else entirely; it's careful and it's thoughtful, and it almost qualifies as chamber jazz — from the last two musicians you'd expect to play that way.

If you'd asked the average jazz fan (pardon the stereotype) to call this album without hearing it, I suspect you would have gotten one of two predictions: that Connick would record a sappy, melodramatic album to seduce housewives; or he'd produce a bouncy program of pleasant if shallow swing. This record is a left turn; it's deep, deliberate music. There are no pyrotechnics, no instrumental gymnastics — and that shows considerable restraint from two men who are capable of both. It's a quiet recital; in fact, it reminds me very much of the Concord's series from Maybeck Recital Hall.

I've had a few opportunities to see experienced musicians play together for a first time. Connick says he's played with Marsalis occasionally since 1970, but what I hear is similar to that first-time chemistry. I saw Mick Goodrick and Russell Ferrante play together this past April, and I noticed two interweaving dynamics: both seemed conscious of "overplaying," yet each seemed to be exploring the other, like reaching out your hand in a dark room to find the wall. That's what I hear here: There isn't a single moment of reckless abandon, yet Connick and Marsalis are constantly challenging each other and playing off one another.

My first draft of this Top 10 list included fourteen titles. This was one of the four that I had cut — and I'm glad I caught the mistake. I keep banging this drum, but it's important: A list like this should highlight what was original, which records worth hearing weren't like anything else you could find. That's what elevated Occasion above my original choice — that, and the fact that as I keep listening to this record, I keep hearing new depth.

Occasion: Brown World; Valentine's Day; Occasion; Spot; I Like Love More; All Things; Win; Virgoid; Remember the Tarpon; Lose; Steve Lacy; Chanson du Vieux Carre; Good To Be Home.
Personnel: Harry Connick, Jr., piano; Branford Marsalis, saxophones.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #9

Doug Wamble

Doug Wamble has the most original voice I've heard since Bill Frisell (and it's purely coincidence that both are guitarists). The only reason you haven't heard more about him is that critics don't have a clue how to categorize his music, which falls somewhere between jazz, blues, gospel, and country. Bluestate is the kind of album that reminds you how stupid we can be about insisting that music fall into neat categories.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is notorious for advocating classical definitions of jazz — for instance, instrumentation consisting of a horn line accompanied by piano, bass, and drums. He's the last bandleader you'd expect to hire a guitarist. But Wamble decided he wanted to work with Wynton; so he worked his ass off, he studied and practiced the right music...and damned if he didn't bag the elephant.

That alone earned him a glance in my book; and when I heard his music, I was absolutely sold. As a generalization, I don't like vocal jazz; and I'm skeptical when small bands use odd meters or asymmetrical forms because they tend to emerge as gimmicks. Wamble shatters those stereotypes. If you've never understood what critics mean when they describe music as "honest," this CD is your answer.

I read a review that compared Wamble to Ray Charles. My first reaction was to roll my eyes; every musician and critic has spent the past 18 months reaching for references to Ray Charles. But then I gave it some thought; and actually, I've decided it's an insightful comparison. Both assimilated various influences into a unique, almost folksy voice that was immediately resonant early in their careers; and both their work shares a common thread of "soul" — which, in retrospect, might be the best characterization for Wamble's music.

On some albums, one track seems to stand out with everyone who hears it; and in this case, it's the traditional "Rockin' Jerusalem," featuring an infectious chorus and a blistering solo by Branford Marsalis. This is one of those songs where, if you're not tapping your foot and singing along, there's something wrong with you. Wamble moves from straight gospel into a bebop groove for his and Branford's solos, then bleeds back into a rousing finale that makes you think you're stomping your feet in a Tennessee church. You'd label him crazy if he described the plot before playing the tune; but when you listen, it just works.

Wamble is as far from the cookie cutter as you can measure. I suspect that, if it weren't for a record label owned by Branford Marsalis, he never would have been signed to record this music. At best, he might have been given a chance to record a program of standards and swing; and while that would have sounded fine, what we got instead is an original voice.

Bluestate: If I Live to See the Day; The Washing of the Water; The Homewrecker Hump; Antoine's Pillow Rock; Rockin' Jerusalem; One-Ninin'; No More Shrubs in Casablanca; Have a Talk with God; Gone Away; The Bear and the Toad.
Personnel: Doug Wamble, guitar and vocals; Roy Dunlap, piano; Jeff Hanley, bass; Peter Miles, drums; Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone on 5.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #10

Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane
Live at Carnegie Hall

Every so often, you read about an unknown work by a famous painter being discovered in a yard sale or someone's attic. This past February, Larry Appelbaum was thumbing through old tape recordings in the Library of Congress, preparing them to be digitized when he made a startling discovery: a previously unknown recording featuring John Coltrane playing together with Thelonious Monk in Carnegie Hall.

You have to understand the significance of this event. Monk and Coltrane are two of the most revered jazz musicians in history. They redefined the art form in specific ways; each was unique, and both developed into unlikely geniuses who had profound influence on their peers and successors. And 1957 marked a significant year for both men: Monk returned to performing after the reinstatement of his cabaret card and began to catch the attention of mainstream audiences; and after being kicked out of Miles Davis's band in April, Coltrane went home to Philadelphia and kicked his heroin addiction cold turkey. He never used drugs again.

Upon his return to New York, Coltrane joined Monk's quartet for five months, during which they recorded only once, resulting in only three tracks. The sole exception (until this year) was a scratchy, hissing, low-fidelity recording made by Coltrane's wife, who set up a handheld tape recorder on her table one night at the Five Spot. Because of its significance, that tape became legendary as documentation of a pivotal stage in both men's careers; but jazz historians have always lamented the neglect to seriously record this quartet.

So this discovery constituted a seismic event in jazz. It was rushed through production; and eight months after its discovery, the concert was issued on CD. It is the newest "must-own" for jazz fans, a CD you'll probably find on every shelf. The substance of the music is almost an asterisk to this story; everyone would buy it, even if it weren't any good.

For the record, it is good. I'll split from most critics and confess that I prefer the old Five Spot recording; jazz flourishes in small clubs, and that late summer recording represents a less polished band than you hear in November. ("Less polished" meaning you can better hear the pair trying to acclimate to each other.) But this is a great concert filled with wit and humor; you can tell these guys enjoyed the evening, and they gave the audience their money's worth. You'll enjoy every moment, right up until the final track — which ends abruptly as the tape runs out.

Live at Carnegie Hall: Monk's Mood; Evidence; Crepuscule with Nellie; Nutty; Epistrophy; Bye-Ya; Sweet and Lovely; Blue Monk; Eistrophy.
Personnel: John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Thelonious Monk, piano; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The day after Thanksgiving traditionally launches the holiday shopping season, a four-week countdown that defines the success or failure of the retail year. In the spirit of the season, I'm going to spend the next ten days counting down my Top Ten Jazz CDs of 2005.

This will mark the first time I've published a critic's choice. I intend to write them every year; but for one reason or another, I never seem to get beyond selecting the albums. Usually I spend too much effort trying to make sure I haven't overlooked some hidden gem; and before I know it, it's February. As I post this, however, I've already written all ten entries...so this year will be different.

Every critic always says, "There were so many great albums, it was hard to choose ten." That's kinda the point, no? If it were easy to pick out the crème de la crème, it wouldn't be worth making a list. The exercise is only valuable if you've spent the past year listening intently to what various artists have contributed and separated the wheat from the chaff. If you can't speak with experience and expertise, you might as well simply post sales figures.

Having said that: The purpose of this list isn't to be clever, nor to surprise, nor to prove how elite I am by praising a bunch of obscure albums. Don't be surprised to find names you recognize on a Top Ten list: Those names have become recognizable for good reason.

One last caveat: I didn't try to pick good Christmas presents. Several of these would probably make great presents; but there are also a few which, it's safe to assume, most jazz fans already own. My only aim was to review what's been released during the past year, and evaluate: Who really had something to say?

Over the next ten days, I'll answer that question.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

With Black Friday around the corner, I thought it would be worth sharing a few tips I've learned about shopping on Amazon. I've been using Amazon since 1999, and I've spent...well, let's just say I'm an experienced user. Here are some tricks.
  1. Take advantage of pre-orders. I ordered Batman Begins two months in advance and paid $15.98; by the time the DVD was released, Amazon had raised the price to $21.68. If you order Fantastic Four today, you'll lock a 47% discount. If you wait until after its release, you'll almost certainly pay more.

  2. Amazon offers free shipping on almost any order over $25. They try to discourage you from using it by deliberately delaying shipment of these "Super Saver Shipping" orders; but if you can exercise patience, it pays off.

  3. If you use Amazon's search engine regularly, they link your account and give you a 1.57% discount on every order. Depending on how often you use Amazon, that could be a lot or a little; but even if you only place one order in a year, it's loose change that you can keep in your pocket.

  4. Amazon's prices change. If an item's price is raised after you place an order, Amazon will honor the original price; but sometimes those prices are lowered, and Amazon won't automatically apply those discounts to your order. They will make the changes manually, however, if you call and request them. Check those prices occasionally; I've saved $8.50 in the past month by catching these reduced prices. It only takes a moment, and the call is free: 800-201-7575. (There's no automated system to wade through, and Amazon's customer service representatives are actually quite helpful.)

  5. Finally: If Amazon makes a mistake, call and politely complain. You'd be amazed how generous they can be with $10 promotional rewards. Again: 800-201-7575.
Lest you think I'm astroturfing Amazon, let me point out: If you follow my advice above, Amazon may lose money. There's no way they can carve a margin off DVDs sold for 48.57% below retail; and although Amazon doesn't charge me for shipping, that certainly doesn't mean United Parcel works for free. Every $25 order I place costs a few dollars for Amazon to ship; and when the discounts are deep, those few dollars may exceed their profit. They probably lose a few cents on each order.

But hey, that's capitalism. They volunteer these promotions hoping to attract customers who are too lazy or impatient to invoke the discounts; and in their wake, smart customers can enjoy a free ride.

One last note: I support Alan Lankin's Upcoming Jazz Releases, which he hosts as a public service, by clicking his links to buy discs from CDUniverse. I get the same low prices; but instead of CDUniverse pocketing $1.10 from every disc, they only profit a dollar and Alan gets ten cents. It doesn't cost me a dime, but it's a simple way to thank him for a great site. Amazon has a similar referral program. Check it out.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Maybe you have to be a composer to enjoy composed music. I did. When I first began listening to jazz, I avoided big bands like the plague. I thought they were stiff; the antithesis of jazz, which happened when a few guys got together to improvise. Then someone gave me a Don Byron CD. Then I checked out Ellington. Finally, Berklee forced me to write and conduct music in front of live bands -- and something clicked. I fell in love.

Now, probably one-third of the stuff I buy is through-composed. It was something that I couldn't appreciate until I had actually done it; and once I had, I experienced one of those moments where you realize the vast scope of your own ignorance. Even as a writer, it wasn't until I tried composing that I realized just how scary can be a blank sheet of paper.

Kerrie still doesn't like big bands. For her, and for many people, music without lyrics is already a stretch; when you introduce six different lines and eight different timbres, it's just too much information. I can sympathize; I have the same reaction when she tries to explain her finance homework to me. I sincerely try to listen...but by the time she's thrown four different numbers at me, I'm like a deer in headlights. I can do simple arithmetic fine, but I get lost in complex math. It's just too much information.

I've been asked how to kindle appreciation for big bands in people who relate them to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. The best idea I've found is to let them find a building block: Listen for motivic development. People can be overwhelmed by immediately trying to pick out a small motif; instead, just listen for a pattern. It's that simple. You'll hear it; humans are particularly keen at detecting patterns.

Once found, that pattern can be broken down like a fractal into smaller fragments which share a common attribute -- maybe a similar rhythm, like two long and one short; or maybe a similar shape, like three ascending pitches followed by one low note. And that's the key to understanding most composed music. Just like any pattern: Once you've found it, you'll find yourself compulsively listening for it in other places. You'll hear it, too, interpreted in myriad ways, some more recognizable than others -- but always reducible to that simple motif. And then, assuming the music's any good, you'll appreciate the cleverness of the composer in developing that motif.

There are any number of ways to begin wrapping your ears around this stuff. That's just one -- but I've suggested it and been told that it worked. I don't find it useful to try talking people into enjoying something they dislike; but if they can understand it, appreciate it, then at least they have a foothold.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Rabbi Marc Gellman has something to say.
Religious leaders today must remember that we are embodied souls, and those bodies are now being seduced by an unprecedented avalanche of sex carried by TV, movies, video games, music, magazines and beer ads. The avalanche’s roar carries a single message: love and sex do not have to be connected in any way at all.

Religion has become the national joke. The sneering is directed toward Christianity, but that's disingenuous: Science is mocking God in all his forms, whether He sacrificed His Son or not. And religious leaders answer by conceding ground and restricting their sermons to ethereal concerns beyond the grasp of science. How obliging. "Thank you, sir. May I have another?"

The principal merit of religion is the ambition to become a better person. If you restrict religious discussion to the nature of Heaven, if you divorce it from tangible concerns, then you rob it of any relevance to people's lives. If you rely on superstition to fill the seats, you're going to have to close the doors.

So kudos to Rabbi Gellman for rolling up his sleeves. There's no dignity in letting the Torah gather dust on a shelf while society slouches toward Gomorrah. Those lessons have tremendous wisdom and insight to offer our day-to-day lives; and refusing to confront them because we're afraid of being challenged by science is an abdication of responsibility. Our best minds have invested centuries of thought into exploring those avenues of the human spirit; to insist they've revealed nothing of value simply because they were founded in religion is ludicrous -- and it's exactly the sort of prejudice abhorred by true scientists.

Gellman quotes the Talmud:
Be very careful if you make a woman cry, because God counts her tears. The woman came out of a man’s rib: Not from his feet to be walked on. Not from his head to be superior, but from the side to be equal. Under the arm to be protected, and next to the heart to be loved.
Forget about God. If a passage like that can inspire you to become a better man and a loving husband, who cares about the rest of it? That's the value of religion -- and woe betide us if we expel that in the name of science.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

When I was in fifth grade, Blessed Sacrament decided that four of us were gifted. (No, this isn't a story about how cool I am.) They pulled us out of normal classes and assigned us, two and two, into a small room to be tutored by Sister Julia. I remember some hysterical stories about the curriculum she tried to create for us, notwithstanding her best intentions -- but the worst part I remember was being assigned logic games.

Here's an example of a logic game:
Four students -- Harry, Linda, Susan, and Thomas -- took a history test. Harry's grade was lower than Susan's grade. Thomas did not fail. If Linda got a B and Susan got an A, what was Harry's grade?
Imagine that, but far more complicated. That's what we had to do in fifth grade; and that's what I'm doing right now, preparing for the LSAT. I wasn't any good at logic games when I was eleven, and I'm not any better today.

I'm not whining that they shouldn't be on the LSAT. I agree that they evoke analytical skills which are relevant to law. But I'm not any good at them; and if there's one thing I've struggled with, it's getting good at something for which I absolutely lack aptitude.

Logic games are like juggling. You have to balance a handful of rules across (usually) two sets of variables, and you have to be able to freeze them in certain alignments for later reference. When I tried to learn juggling, I discovered that, in the process of trying to track the motion of several objects, you begin to see phantoms. The eye sees a ball and the hand reaches for it, only to realize the ball was never there. You definitely saw a ball, but now you're grabbing empty air.

The same problem arises with logic games: In trying to keep track of different variables, you begin to see rules that weren't specified and conclusions that aren't warranted. The farther those phantoms seep into your thinking, the more difficult it becomes to return to the original problem. And then you're screwed.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Wal-Mart has taken a lot of flak lately over a corporate memo that suggested reducing the cost of employee health care by forcing cashiers to perform physical labor, which would presumably prevent unhealthy people from applying for jobs. I don't see why this would surprise anyone. They've achieved their success by lowering costs through coercion; it's a bit disingenuous to express outrage when that tactic is turned on their employees.

I like John Maxwell's books. I've read several, and I agree with everything he's written except this:
The founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, has been called many things, including enemy of small-town America and destroyer of Main Street merchants. ... The truth is that Walton was a small-town, Main Street merchant of the type he is criticized for displacing. The only difference is that he was an excellent leader who was able to solve problems and change rather than go out of business.
That's a crock. The difference between Sam Walton and his fellow Main Street merchants was greed. It wasn't enough for Walton to own a successful shop; he had to put the other merchants out of business. It wasn't enough that he conquer one town; he had to conquer every town. Walton was competitive without ethic or compunction. He was driven by greed.

Walton's brand of capitalism is to free trade what the Soviet Union was to socialism. The truth is, any ideology gone unchecked is indistinguishable from tyranny. The line between ambition and greed is crossed when you forgo decency. Walton's golem has no decency.

The American dream is a noble ideal -- to own a business, to build something from nothing and contribute to society. It's also an impossible challenge: More than a million new businesses are founded every year, and more than eighty percent of those businesses fail within five years. If you can start a business, buy a house, and put your kids through college, you've achieved success. If you can do it without bankrupting your neighbor, you've accomplished decency.

Wal-Mart doesn't try to earn customers. It tries to eliminate alternatives. In fairness, at least its tactics are forthright. It doesn't want to be the best company; it wants to be the only company. I don't find that admirable. I don't find it respectable. And I don't shop there.

Monday, November 07, 2005

I've been obsessed with a phenomenal CD that I discovered while browsing CDBaby: Black Baby, a collection of Scott Joplin's ragtime music played by Italian pianist Alessandra Celletti. I love Joplin's rags, and Celletti plays them flawlessly -- but what makes this recording unique is that it was recorded in 2001.

No one records Joplin today. There's always a small market for his music, so you can find a few inexpensive CDs; but the recordings are old and scratchy, the audio equivalent of mothballs. His ragtime compositions still earn a nod of respect among musicians, but no one plays them. Jazz musicians can't be bothered to commit them to memory, and classical musicians consider them clunky and repetitive; unfortunately, a Joplin recital doesn't carry the cachet of Liszt or Debussy. For whatever reason, the style is inextricably tied to its time period; and no one wants to play their grandfather's music.

But there's another element of time in music. Just like language, performances from decades past always sound dated compared to contemporary recordings. We speak the same English language today as our nation's founders; but when we read their personal letters, the difference is unmistakable: We don't talk like that. The same is true with music. Two musicians, playing the same notes a century apart, will always sound different; and each will sound more familiar to his contemporaries. That's why classical musicians continue to record Bach and Beethoven. To believe a modern performance has nothing to add is to misunderstand music.

Joplin considered himself a classical composer. His dream was to launch a successful opera. He would probably be disappointed to learn his name became synonymous with ragtime -- a style which, although he didn't invent it, he certainly defined. But the greatest works often come from painters who would rather be sculpting or playwrights who would rather write novels. Joplin's rags are clever, complex, and absolutely beautiful; and I'm thrilled to finally hear them sung in a contemporary voice.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Village Vanguard is the most famous club in jazz history. More than 150 albums have been recorded there, including historic music by Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane. Ashley Kahn wrote that recording at the Vanguard is "a rite of passage for modern jazz players." That's accurate.

I've only been to the Vanguard once. Kerrie and I went on a Monday night to see the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and it cost the two of us $60 to walk through the door. Manhattan rent aside, that's ridiculous. I have no objection to an honest business trying to make a profit; but there's a fine line between cultural landmark and tourist trap. In this case, that line is economic.

If you'll pardon hyperbole, a jazz fan's visit to the Vanguard is like a Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca: It's got to be done. And although you're essentially paying for prestige, I can't deny the Vanguard books serious artists. If you're looking to hear music and can't be bothered to browse listings, the Vanguard is a sure bet. But the fact that jazz is subsidized by affluent white folks is an unfortunate reality that we shouldn't propagate; and like the price of Red Sox tickets, it's a shame to think that a couple of college kids can't catch a show without chipping a week's pay.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

There's a famous scene from Goodfellas where Henry impresses Karen by walking her into a club through the back entrance; instead of waiting in line, they're greeted by the club's owner, who shakes Henry's hand and orders a special table brought to the front row.

We drove to Norwood tonight to have dinner at Abbondanza. When we arrived, the restaurant was full -- and the hostess had no record of our reservation. But the waitresses all recognized us; and five minutes later, they had carried a table from the back and we sat down. I don't know that I felt exactly like Henry Hill, but I was reminded of that scene. It was pretty cool.

I've written a lot about supporting local business, and I've given a lot of reasons. But here's another: You can't beat the perks of being a regular at the neighborhood restaurant.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Today's late edition of the New York Times reported a sadly historic event:
For what Radio City officials said was the first time in memory in the 73-year history of the annual "Christmas Spectacular" show, Radio City's 35-piece orchestra was silent. Live musicians were replaced with a digitalized, prerecorded score as the backdrop for the famously lifted legs of the Rockettes.
Depending whom you ask, this is the result of a strike or a lockout. It doesn't really matter; the damage has been done, and it's catastrophic. The article continues:
No calamity appeared to befall the theatergoers. "It was really good," said Wendy Coulson, of State College, Pa., who had come to see the show with her daughters, Madeline, 14, and Rebecca, 12. "I didn't notice a difference at all."
Welcome to a textbook illustration of Santayana's adage: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Everyone knows that so-called reality television has proved a windfall for the networks: low production costs, profitable ad buys, and reliable ratings. What everyone forgets is that the fad began as a result of contract negotiation tactics by the Writers Guild, which spent two years leading up to the summer of 2001 threatening a massive strike. They refused to accept the studios' terms on pay and creative rights; and in their wake, they promised, the Actors Guild would initiate its own stoppage. Together, they would shut down Hollywood.

Leave it to Californians to announce a strike two years in advance. The result, predictably, was that some executive looking for a solution glanced across the street to MTV, checked their ratings on The Real World -- and to cut a brief story short, CBS hired Mark Burnett to launch Survivor. The strike never happened, but the damage was done: Survivor shattered previous records and snared more than 50 million viewers. Studios realized they could produce even more profitable programming without paying writers or actors. By overplaying their hand far too early, the Writers Guild had cut their worth in half. They had effectively crippled themselves.

Broadway producers have been itching for years to cut the cost of hiring musicians by using prerecorded music. The only reason they have hesitated is stigma: New York is an artist's town, and tourists come to see live shows. If someone can establish that audiences will pay equally to hear a prerecorded soundtrack, an entire profession will disappear in the proverbial minute. Just like what happened in Los Angeles during the 1970s: hundreds of musicians will find themselves unemployed, and the number of musical jobs in this country will be slashed substantially.
Julie Hoyt, from Springfield, Mass., found the performance "flawless" and said that, although she would have liked to have seen a live orchestra, the canned sound was "great."

Billy Ward, age 9, had a big smile. "It was really good," he said.
Maybe it's inevitable. But it's sad. Last year, the New York Times published a profile of Juilliard's 1994 graduating class, to discover where music students found themselves ten years later. Remarkably few remained in music. It's an unforgiving profession with few opportunities -- and it might have just become more difficult.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

NFL coaches say that the first points in a game are always the hardest to get. The same is true of writing a book. The first few pages can establish momentum, but getting those onto paper can be excruciating. As another writer said: It's not like putting a hammer to a nail.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Designed for would-be writers having trouble overcoming inertia, the project emphasizes quantity over quality: The idea isn't to write a masterpiece, just to write a novel in a month. Presumably if you've done it once, you can do it again; the experience of finishing a crude novel will make the goal of a decent novel seem attainable.

The average screenplay will consist of about 60 scenes. So if you write one scene every week, you can finish a movie every year. You don't need to write them in order; skip around, and fill in the gaps as you go. The point is to break up a colossal undertaking into manageable pieces; and any method will do, whether it takes a month or a year. You may not end up with a masterpiece; but you may acquire the confidence to bring that masterpiece within reach.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Today is our fourth anniversary. Since we're now engaged, it's also possibly the last in November; so it's worth taking a moment to consider the past four years.

We had been close friends for several years before dating; so when we became a couple, we moved in together almost immediately. That's like throwing a relationship into a pressure cooker: Whatever happens, happens fast. It's difficult to keep pace, and you're lucky if you only stumble occasionally.

No relationship is without conflict -- or maybe I should say, you can't have passion without conflict. We've had our share of both. I don't think the measure of a relationship has anything to do with those, with conflict or joy or any fleeting emotions, but something simpler: How many memories have you shared?

We've got lots.

Watching the Leonid meteor shower on Nauset Beach. Rushing between families on Thanksgiving. Driving through snowstorms, and playing with seals in the surf. Winning blackjack in Montreal. Scrapbooks, and cookie dough, and dancing and desserts and the North End and about a thousand restaurant menus.

I don't know what makes a life "good." For better or worse, that's a question that will require hindsight. Barring a measure of quality, I think the only thing we can ask is for a life that's full -- and I've had that in spades. Here's to four years running.