Saturday, July 22, 2017

Class Warfare Redux, or, Pierre Bourdieu on Trial

In a recent editorial (New York Times, July 18, 2017), columnist David Brooks makes use of the theories of French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu (pictured above) in an effort to explain the Trump phenomenon. He describes Bourdieu as “the world’s most influential sociologist within the academy, and largely unknown outside of it.”

This remark in itself tells us something about the insular nature of academic sociology, and perhaps proves Bourdieu’s major point, which is that groups of people (that’s what sociologists study...but also what they are) develop a “habitus” or an “intuitive feel” for the social game, and such a habitus consequently shapes their habits, tastes, and values. To me this sounds like a circular description of what a social group is. Your environment and history shape your social habits, and your social habits shape your environment and history. If you don’t accept this commonplace notion, then sociology itself is bunk.

Dueling grillmasters - seeds of revolution
Brooks writes: “Your habitus is what enables you to decode cultural artifacts, to feel comfortable in one setting but maybe not in another. Taste overlaps with social position; taste classifies the classifier.”

Thus, Bourdieu “discovered” (by means of questionnaires, I presume)  that manual laborers are likely to enjoy listening to Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” but not Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Among academics the situation was reversed.

Even this simple example begins to suggest how limited and uncomprehending the sociological approach tends to be. People like a particular piece of music, not because their friends like it, but because it speaks to them personally. Academics tend to like Bach for the same reasons they became academics—it tickles their intellect. Hence the correlation. Working-class Joe’s like country music because they like “real songs about real people with real problems.” But some academics like rap, and some ore boat workers like Beethoven. Musical tastes are born largely from within. To take an extreme example, Bob Dylan loved black music from an early age and was convinced he’d been born into the wrong family.

Warfare within the habitus
Some of my friends like Greg Brown, others like Barry White. Some never tire of Irish music, while others cannot get enough of Balkan vocal dissonance. Some of my friends like musicals but steer clear of opera. With me the situation is reversed. We respect one another’s enthusiasms and devote some energy to expanding our own, but no one feels the need to conform to the habitus of the group.

But it appears that Bourdieu wasn’t all that interested in the subject of our multivarious habitae, except in so far as they can be exploited in the quest for personal and political power.  He argued (according to Brooks) that we make use of the cultural signs we receive from our habitus in an endless quest for personal prestige, with the ultimate objective of developing the power to “define for society what is right, what is ‘natural,’ what is ‘best.’ “

As Brooks describes the theory: “Every minute or hour, in ways we’re not even conscious of, we as individuals and members of our class are competing for dominance and respect. (emphasis added) We seek to topple those who have higher standing than us and we seek to wall off those who are down below. Or, we seek to take one form of capital, say linguistic ability, and convert it into another kind of capital, a good job.”

Once again, I find such an argument jejune, the reflection of a deprave and misanthropic intellectual who has never participated much in genuine social life. But let me hasten to add that there is a grain of truth in the theory. We have all found ourselves at one time or another in a social milieu that made us feel uncomfortable because its constituents were drawing from an unfamiliar set of signs and references. Usually the underlying factor is relative wealth. To reduce the situation to a couple of bald-faced stereotypes, the poor have bad taste ... but so do the rich. Only my own friends set the right balance between marble-topped kitchen counters and water in the basement, between Prairie Home Companion and Liquid Music, between the delights of the international film fest and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Competition is rife
And it occurs to me immediately to add that among this group, neither competition nor ostentatious displays of wealth have ever been part of the social equation. Some of my friends live very comfortably, while others might well be struggling with a mountain of debt, but I couldn’t tell you for sure which is which, and I wouldn't want to know.  

Pursuing the nuances of the situation further, I must admit that when I have occasion to socialize within a group that's obviously wealthier and more well-connected than I am, I'm often struck by the lack of pretension, the desire to extend hospitality rather than establish any type of superiority or dominance. (Perhaps this is because I am so obviously so far outside my limits of my own habitus that no social purpose would be served by "scoring point" off of me.)  

Bourdieu coined a famous phrase “symbolic violence” to describe the vicious power grabs executed within and between social groups making use of a host of “signs” including cultural references, acquisitions, clothing, and vocabulary. It’s a bad phrase, in so far as symbols are merely indicators or shadows of real things. By definition, real violence is worse than symbolic violence. More generally speaking, this theory fails to account for the deep and obvious interest of the occupants of many habitae to nurture their conviviality, extend their blessings, share their wealth, and develop a better understanding of tastes and values different from their own.

We call these people Democrats.

Perhaps Bourdieu, scrambling to maintain his dominance with his peculiar academic niche, had no experience with such a habitus. Protean and multifarious, it eludes the attention of both the statistician and the social climber, and it also challenges the ingenuity of campaign strategists to exploit with negative advertising.

But back to the subject at hand. Brooks writes: “Bourdieu helps you understand what Donald Trump is all about.” And yet, stripped of their high-flung terminology and pretensions, Bourdieu’s theories add nothing to our understanding of the current political situation. All Brooks (through Bourdieu) is saying is that when a boor is in the White House, it emboldens others to assert their own bigoted values and ideas. 

The underlying notion—that both “left” and “right” are playing the same harsh and violent game, making use of two different sets of propaganda that are morally indistinguishable—is simply not very discerning. It also vitiates the value of political opinion pieces, which, ipso facto, are stripped of their theoretical content and become nothing more than fusillades of a competitive and conniving class neither different from, nor wiser than, any other.  

I don’t believe this ... and neither, I think, does David Brooks.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Most Beautiful Morning

Yes, it was. The most beautiful of the summer, so far. I don't mean to compare it with so many fresh, sparkling morning we've had in recent weeks, but this one had the added virtue of being present, here, now.

I went out to prune some bushes at 6, taking care not to make too much noise as I opened the garage door and reached for the pruning shears. Not for the first time I said to myself, "The wrong bushes were planted here," using the passive voice to evade culpability. I should have said, "We planted the wrong bushes here." 

Get over it! We've got three robust shrubs—a viburnum opulum, a green-twigged dogwood, and a forsythia. The only problem is that they all want to be twenty feet tall, rather than eight. I tried to dig up the cranberry bush years ago, and eventually took an ax to the roots. But no. It wanted to stay. And considering how many of the things we've planted died decades ago, I ought to be thankful.

Two baby chipping sparrows were feeding amid the cast-off fruit of the basswood tree that overhangs the driveway. (We got none of that heavenly linden smell this year. I've never figured out what the factors are that determine production.)

It had rained during the night and a few pools of water had collected on the concrete. The humid air smelled like plants and dirt. The sun was just beginning to streak through the cottonwoods in the neighbor's yard across the street. And suddenly it occurred to me I ought to drive down to Bassett Creek and measure the clarity of the water.

This might sound like a hare-brained idea, but I've been monitoring the water there once a week for several years, and sending the results in to the DNR in the fall. They're especially eager to get readings after what they call "rain events."

(If you want to see the data I collected last year, click here.

If you want to see a broader view of the hundreds of monitoring sites, click here. )

As I drove down the parkway with the window down, a simple and haunting piano piece happened to be on the CD player: Franz Listz's Annees de pelerinage:2eme annee: Italie. Spozalitio. (I didn't know what it was, though I suspected Listz. I looked it up in my iTunes catalog just now.)
The water level in the creek has been low, but the water I scooped up from the bridge a week ago scored 100+. You can't do better. This morning the water level was back to normal, but I lost sight of the little metal disc at 68 centimeters down the Secchi tube. A bit muddy. (The creek's worst score ever was 19.)

Having made my reading, I returned the bucket and tube to the car, then lingered in the cool air, relishing the subtle and spectacular dawn I was standing in the midst of.

The sun was still behind the trees, but there was plenty of light to see the watery sparkle on the grasses and shrubs lining the creek. An egret was feeding in the shadows on the far side of the pond, and a school of suckers was riling the water thirty yards upstream from the bridge. A flock of geese flew by overhead. And a common yellowthroat was singing merrily in the tall grasses alongside the makeshift archery range just across the parkway.

It won't be that long before the birds stop singing. On the other hand, evening cricket-choruses on the deck are also just around the corner. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bastille Day Meditations

There is a lunatic in the White House, yet a big bunch of asparagus at Trader Joe's is only $2.95. Thus do life's incongruities intersect, or at the very least coexist.

On Bastille Day, we celebrate the good life by toasting it and living it as best we can. 

In honor of the day, I got an email this morning from the New York Review of Books touting their collection of French language reprints, and offering selected volumes at 40 percent off. It was an interesting mix. There was Jean Giono's Hill. But reading the descriptive notes convinced me that it's the same novel that was originally called Hill of Destiny. I have the first American edition, published in 1928, right here on the shelf.

The film-maker Jean Renoir's book about his father, titled simply Renoir, My Father, is rich in that combination of casual rural charm and aesthetic sophistication which is the crowning achievement of early 20th century French culture. However, I happen to have the first American edition right here on the shelf beside me. I also have a hardcover book club edition—my "reader's copy," as it were—ready and waiting in the basement.

My French is as shaky as ever, but I'm pretty sure the third of the books on sale, Maupassant's Like Death, is a translation of Fort Comme la Mort, which I read just out of college, probably because Ford Madox Ford drew heavily from it for the plot of his early masterpiece The Good Soldier.  I got my copy of the book at a very musty used book store in a dreary part of Duluth a few blocks up the hill from Michigan Street—a neighborhood of churches and tenements—as part of a multi-volume set with cheap purple binding—a dollar per book, as I recall. I'm quite sure this new translation, by Richard Howard, is far better. Tempting.

Then we have Henri de Montherland's Chaos and Night, which I read in the 1990s. All I remember is that it's the story of a cranky man and his daughter, exiled to Spain, grumbling about the government, following the bullfights. Were they Spanish or French? I don't recall. I liked its excoriating bitterness at the time. But do I want to re-read it?

The list moves on the Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize as recently as 2014. I read one of his books a few months ago. It seemed like a Simenon mystery, but without Inspector Maigret or the mystery. Maybe I ought to give him another chance. On the other hand, I'm a little too old to be reading books with titles like Young Once and In the Café of Lost Youth, don't you think?

In honor of Bastille Day, I put a few select CDs in the changer as we were making dinner: Gilles Chabenat's very long hurdy-gurdy recording, enlivened by a few female vocals, and Nicolas Peyton's Dear Louis, a big band homage to Louis Armstrong and the spirit of New Orleans. Hilary pulled a lump of lamb out of the freezer a few days ago, and I copied a recipe for a lamb tagine from a New York Times article featuring quintessential Bastille Day recipes. The spices smelled good the minute they hit the pan—ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. But I had failed to read the recipe to the point where it says: "Cook in the oven at 325 degrees for 2 1/2 hours."

We decided to hurry the process on the stove-top, and I put another CD on the stereo—Motifs by a group I've never heard of called Paris Combo. I'm not a big fan of French pseudo-jazz, unless it's being used as the soundtrack for an Eric Rohmer film. But listening from the other room, Paris Combo wasn't that bad.   

Yet finally the flashy tunes became as unbearable as a green polka dot shirt, and we moved on to the great recordings made by Django and Grappelli in 1938 with the Hot Club of Paris. Years ago we used a few of these tracks as a soundtrack to Payment in Full, a brilliant thirty-minute super-8 version of Othello some of us cooked up in which neither Othello nor Desdemona die. The only extant copy sits in the basement, becoming more brittle and flammable year after year. Maybe I should take it in to CostCo and convert it to DVD, with a new title: In the Café of Lost Youth.  

I was worried about the meal. I'm used to a tagine with sliced lemons and black olives, and I wasn't sure how this one would turn out. But it was rich and good, smothering the couscous, with a squeeze of lemon juice and some cilantro on top. In the midst of that hearty dish, I couldn't tell the difference between the apricots and the chunks of meat.

I suppose I should have hunted up a Radio Tarifa CD to go with it, but we were working our way into a special-occasion bottle of Domaine de la Brassande Mercurey. We were sitting in comfy chairs in the living room, and the silence that ensued following Django's final number, "If You Can Forget, Don't Worry 'Bout Me," was also very nice.

This morning we thought we'd extend the event with a turn around the lakes, which sometimes look a lot like the Seine at Argenteuil circa 1872. But having arrived on the scene, we noticed that Hilary's bike had gotten a flat, and the best we could do was continue down to Turtle Bakery on 46th Street and pick up some fresh-baked croissants.

Not that I was complaining...

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Blue Apron Slaves

I read somewhere recently that roughly one third of American households have made use of some sort of food delivery or preparation service by now.

We have.

A friend sent us a free week of meals from a company called Blue Apron. I'd never heard of it (though Blue Apron sends out more than 30 million meals a year.) We tried it, and have continued on with the service—for now.

A cardboard box arrives on the doorstep every Thursday containing the recipes and materials to make three dinner-time meals. It's sort of fun to unload the box, wherein you'll find little vials of vinegar and honey, slim plastic containers of fresh cilantro and tarragon, robust cucumbers, serrano peppers and cute fingerling potatoes, packets of yogurt, thick bundles of soba noodles, plastic bags of barley and farro, and occasionally a fresh peach or a couple of limes.  

There are also bags of fresh chicken, beef, salmon, and pork, surrounded by packets of ice.

The accompanying recipe sheets, printed in color on thick cardstock, show you, step by step, how to chop, prepare, assemble, and cook the meals. The quantities are well-proportioned so that an average couple (e.g. us) can eat the entire meal, or save a bit of the starchy side dish for later consumption.

One obvious benefit of this approach is that the exotic Chinese sauce required for a given dish (one tablespoon) won't sit on the shelf in the refrigerator door for years. It's all gone! Those fresh herbs you typically pay too much for at the supermarket and hardly use won't inflict any collateral damage as they turn yellow and shrivel in the fridge because they're all gone!  There are lots of packages to dispose of, but most of them are little packages.

The cooking process is fun, no question. As for the meals themselves, I would say that a) none of them have been bad;  b) all of them have been interesting; c) all of them have made use of flavor combinations that have never appeared in our kitchen before; d) none of them have been great.

So, what's not to like? The cost? It's hard to say. Each meal costs $20 for two. No waste. No drive time to the store. Still, that's pricey.

The main drawback to this method, as far as I'm concerned, is that it engenders a condition of utter passivity in the mind of the cook. Here's the box, here's the stuff, here's the recipe: make it.

This is a far cry from the usual situation, in which I say to myself: those tomatoes in the fridge are getting rotten. Should I buy some basil and make bruschetta or buy some bacon and make BLTs? And that butternut squash that's been sitting around: I dimly recall a recipe involving fresh sage and scallops. Yes, but can I find it?

If I go with bruschetta, I really ought to get some good bread from Rustica. I can get that at Surdyk's. Maybe pick up a little tub of that Tuscan bean dip, too. Hey! I think the Alte Garnatxa white is on sale right now....

With Blue Apron, I have never felt so much like a prisoner, stripped of initiative and imagination, coddled and force fed. Meanwhile, we have not cooked a single Blue Apron meal that I'd add to our homemade cookbook of favorites.Though that peach salsa we had last night (see below) was awfully good. To "keep" a recipe would require some extra effort at measuring. They don't tell you what quantities are required; they just give you the exact amount you'll need.

On the other hand, this summer our consumption of frozen pizzas has dropped considerably. And we've gotten into the habit of suspending delivery every other week (easy to do on the website) to alleviate the pressure. I guess we're not quite ready to go cold turkey. But soon the thought of responding to an endless succession of cardboard boxes containing pretty meals, all different but identically structured--meat, starch, chopped vegetables--will become intolerable.

We must break free of this quintessential "first-world problem." Soon!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Second Half of the Year

It has been my experience that the second half of the year is often better than the first half.

Better how? Maybe it's just the satisfaction of knowing that so many warm months lie ahead, and when the darkness does start to close in, there will be plenty of gatherings and musical events to distract us. But that seems too analytical. I think it has more to do with the burden of the months lifting. In any case, the summer months breed confidence, as if we've completed a climb, exhilarating but peppered with hardship, and it's all downhill from here.

Hardship? This isn't something I think about a whole lot, even in springtime. A little trouble with the knee as the result of some reckless moves on the tennis court. A night in a tent under six hours of thunder and quite a bit of rain. The rabbits (or turkeys?) chewing the black-eyed susans to the ground, like they do every year.

One pleasant challenge that I face in late spring every year is to make thoughtful use of the birthday gift I receive from Hilary's parents--namely, cash--which they implore me to spend on something fun or unusual, knowing full well that they don't need to twist my arm very hard. This wad of cash loosens up my approach to the Daedalus summer catalog, among other things. 

This year I placed an order consisting of the following items:

A six-CD set of the Beaux Art Trio playing Mozart's complete piano trios and quartets
The Event of Literature by Terry Eagleton
An Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza
Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson

 At an art fair in St. Anthony Park I happened upon another golden opportunity, landing 10 jazz CDs at $1 per disc. Among the highlights were:

Cassandra Wilson: Standards
Fred Hersch: Solo Monk
Nicolas Payton: Gumbo Nouveau
The Ultimate Bill Evans
Charlie Haden/ Hank Jones: Steal Away—Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs
Steve Lacy/ Roswell Rudd: Monk's Dream

The one book I purchased at the event was the well-known anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate. I cracked it open a few days later and was charmed by Max Beerbohm, whom I had previously known only through an unflattering cartoon. Near the end of one essay Beerbohm drops the thread of his story to reflect on how weak his recollections are:
It is odd how little remains to a man of his own past— how few minutes of even his memorable hours are not clean forgot­ten, and how few seconds in any one of those minutes can be recaptured... I am middle-aged, and have lived a vast number of seconds. Subtract ? of these, for one mustn’t count sleep as life. The residual number is still enormous. Not a single one of those seconds was unimportant to me in its passage. Many of them bored me, of course; but even boredom is a positive state: one chafes at it and hates it; strange that one should afterwards forget it! And stranger still that of one’s actual happinesses and unhappinesses so tiny and tattered a remnant clings about one!
Memories do tend to fade, recombine, blend together, and rearrange themselves into more convenient narrative structures. And maintaining an accurate chronology is simply not in the cards. Earlier this morning I booked a campsite at Crow Wing State Park. Hunting around for some photos of our last visit, which seems like a distant memory,  I was surprised to discover it was only a year ago—almost to the day. Beerbohm makes a similar point. 
...Memory is a great artist, we are told; she selects and rejects and shapes and so on. No doubt. Elderly per­sons would be utterly intolerable if they remembered everything. Ev­erything, nevertheless, is just what they themselves would like to remember, and just what they would like to tell to everybody. Be sure that the Ancient Mariner, though he remembered quite as much as his audience wanted to hear, and rather more, about the albatross and the ghastly crew, was inwardly raging at the sketchiness of his own mind; and believe me that his stopping only one of three was the merest oversight.

What will I remember of the spring just past? The summer tanager we saw out at the arboretum, five hundred miles north of his normal range? The bright morning cruise around Duluth Harbor? The gritty flamenco show? The get-together on the deck with friends? The bike ride through the woods to Utepils, our own local brew pub, on a glorious weekday afternoon?

I drove down to the Antiquarian Bookfair this morning. (Come to think of it, I did that a year ago, too.) Today I ran into a few old friends and chatted with a woman who's looking for someone to write a book about a sculptor she knows, recently deceased. (I gave her my card.)

I was not moved to buy anything. But I stopped by our local library on the way home to pick up a request that had come in and spotted two gems (or potential gems) in the give-away card by the front door: The Conscience of the Eye: the Design and Social Life of Cities by Richard Sennett and The Darkening Glass: a Portrait of Ruskin's Genius by John Rosenberg.

There are blue jays everywhere these days, squawking and reeling. It's the young ones, enjoying their newfound wings. Summer is just getting started. The afternoon sunlight is sublime. An atmosphere of unfocus descends, sweet and strangely passive, and it's hard to say when I'll get cracking on any of these books. Yet dipping into the book on Ruskin, I come almost immediately upon this passage: "Ruskin was eye-driven, even photoerotic, and confessed to 'a sensual faculty of pleasure in sight'...[He] looked at the material universe with preternatural vivacity and clarity, and believed that what he saw was divine."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Musical Events

Every year the Center for Irish Music brings in luminaries from across the Pond to give workshops and deliver a final low-key evening at Celtic Junction. We attended the concert, where the camaraderie that  often develops in the course of such multi-day events was evident. There were lots of kids there. They're the ones taking lessons and participating in workshops. And there were lots of old timers in the crowd, too, many of whom obviously knew each other.

The performers appeared one after another on stage to do a few solo numbers, telling us before each tune what county it came from and where they picked it up. Modesty abounded, and I heard phrases "It goes something like this..." and "We'll give it a try..." more than once or twice. 

Each of these mini-sets was preceded by a good-natured but perhaps overlong introduction from the M.C.and a pitch for donations. After all, a number of the students present had their hearts set on participating in upcoming competitions in Ireland, and they needed the money.

John Carty, selected as  Traditional Musician of the Year by Irish radio's TG4 in 2003, delivered a succession of spritely fiddle tunes. Tall Colm O'Donnell—farmer, sheep-herder, bard—sang a few traditional numbers a capella, while swinging his lanky arms back and forth on stage. Then James Kelly arrived with his fiddle to do a few tunes. Following a beer break, Méabh Ní Bheaglaoich offered us some of her singing, story-telling, and accordion-playing, and Detroit native Sean Gavin squeezed some evocative sounds out of his uilleann pipes.

Then all five performers appeared on stage for a few ensemble numbers.

Those who know the music well were no doubt enthralled by subtle variations in the jigs and reels. For myself, I was carried along by the intricate energy of the fast ones and moved by the haunting sorrow of the slow ones, while remaining clueless about the formal or historical significance of any of it.

A few days later we wandered down with friends to a flamenco performance by Sachiko “La Chayí” at the Icehouse on Nicollet Avenue.  Long familiar to local aficionados due to her choreography commissions and her work with  Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre, Sachiko spent five years  in Spain studying with the masters and "soaking up" flamenco culture before returning to the States in 2015.

(Note: flamenco artists are sometimes given nicknames by their teachers, following a practice that might be similar to the Dakota practice of giving a young warrior a new name following an important battle. One of Sachito's teachers, the renowned  Pilar Montoya Manzano, gave her the nickname “La Chayí.” What does it mean? I have no idea.)

The great challenge of flamenco is to take the performance beyond mere proficiency and infuse it with expressive intensity—curt, vehement, plaintive, and defiant by turns.  Sachiko met this challenge repeatedly, aided by singer José Cortés Fernández and guitarist Andrés Vadin. The three of them together kept the pot boiling for the course of two varied sets during which all three had plenty of opportunities to shine. Vadin's guitar-work roiled during his solo number, a blulerias, and Fernandez's peppery voice was ever-present, providing expert palmas and  inspired  jaleos throughout.

My blood pressure had barely returned to normal when, a few days later, the annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival rolled into town. It gets bigger every year, but that hasn't undercut the mood of the casual, street-side performances.

It was raining when we drove down with friends on Thursday night, but the rain let up just as we arrived at Mears Park. We could hear Swedish trumpeter (he was actually playing the mellower flugelhorn) Oscar Stenmark ripping through a solo as we approached the stage. The chairs in front of the main stage were wet, but also mostly empty, and we sat down front and center, three rows back from the barriers dividing the VIP section from the audience at large.

Soft-spoken, blue-eyed, and boyishly handsome, Stenmark looked like a Swede, and the fact that he was wearing a traditional wool vest from his home region added to the effect. His patter was laced with remarks like, "I don't want to talk too much..." but he did talk quite a bit, trying to explain how Swedish themes that are typically played on a fiddle serve as a basis for his compositions and improvisations.

Stenmark knows his instument backward and forward, and tended to seek out the notes below its natural range rather than reach for the squealing high ones, perhaps because they better evoked the pastoral landscapes of the Swedish backcountry. But the irregularity and complexity of his chosen themes seemed to inhibit the flow of his soloing occasionally. In contrast, pianist Alex Pryrodny roared vigorously through the ”changes," relishing the harmonic complexities that are largely beyond the reach of a brass instrument.

Heading for the food trucks after the set, I noticed Pryrodny standing alongside the merchandise table and went over to chat.

"Where are you from," I ask. Answer: Ukraine.

"A friend of mine told me your name means "forest."

"That's not quite correct. It actually means "nature."

"How did you get interested in jazz?"

Alex told me he's always played the piano. (I read later online that he started playing at age 3.) Though classically trained, improvisation interested him from early on, so jazz was a natural fit."So, to learn the ropes, I moved to New York."

We got to talking about some of his heroes, Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper prominent among them. When I mentioned Fred Hersch he said, "I studied with Fred Hersch." That's impressive! We agreed that Brad is courageous, but can get a little weird with the polyrhythms.

"I once saw Brad at Carnegie Hall. His program was devoted to improvising on classical themes, Brahms intermezzi, and so on. I remember that some of my classically-oriented friends I brought along were not too happy with what they heard! But I think he did something quite courageous and I have a lot of respect for that, for the whole idea of drawing inspiration from classical music for improvisation."

"Fred Hersch is a deft harmonizer," I said, "but I sometimes feel that he becomes too delicate and too fascinated by the inner lines, and he forgets to swing."

“Yeah, I know Fred has been studying Bach chorales a lot” said Alex. “It shows in his voicings and voice-leading. He swings for sure, but it’s a pretty particular type of feel that doesn’t always work with every collaborator. For instance when Fred and Brad Mehldau, who is of course his former student, played a duo concert together, I thought their time feel was quite different and it was clashing at times. I am a big fan of both of them, actually, and try not to miss their solo programs.”

When I mentioned Kenny Barron, a pianist from an older and earthier school, I drew a blank. I asked him if he was familiar with the Swiss pianist Colin Vallon.

"He plays around town, but I haven't heard him. But there's a Swedish pianist who really got me interested in the jazz of that country."

"You mean Bo Bo Stensen?"

"No. Esbjörn Svensson. He was the leader of E.S.T., a group that means a lot to me. You should check it out."

So many pianists. There's a world of listening out there!

Alex later sent me a link to some of his own current work. He's improvising to a Chopin waltz. You can listen to it here.

The second group on the docket showcased the brilliant and sometimes humorous piano style of charismatic Emmet Cohen. He often sat sidewise to the piano looking out at the audience with a impish grin on his face, plunking out notes in a style I associate with Chico Marx. At other times he would rise from the bench while he played in imitation of Jerry Lee Lewis. And he sometimes reached inside the piano to strike or dampen the strings--something Jerry Lee Lewis never would have done. His bass player was wearing a headband, dark glasses, and psychedelic pajamas, and his drummer wore a hat with a broad, floppy brim. They were having a lot of fun on stage, but it was musical fun, and by the time Cohen brought his set to a close with a Fats Waller medley, it was obvious he knew every inch of the keyboard and was never at a lost for ideas.

Following these two jazzy acoustic performances, Terrance Blanchard's heavily electrified grand finale was a sonic disaster. In contrast to Cohen's exuberance, everyone in Blanchard's band looked tired, bored, and self-important, and when Blanchard himself finally arrived, he looked confused and disgruntled, like he'd only recently awoken from a long unsatisfying nap on a park bench.

The pulsing sound was set to levels that I could feel on my chest. The bass part was so simple a machine could have generated it. Blanchard's trumpet carried a device that fuzzed out while also doubling the notes on a time delay. Why, I don't know. The pianist was a virtuoso of sorts, fiddling with his laptop for effects as dexterously as he roamed the keyboard.

But the huge crowd seemed to be enjoying the show. (To tell you the truth, I have noticed over the years that the people in the back are mostly standing around talking.) We were among the few to cut out after the second number.

A few minutes later we were sitting in a pleasant breeze on the terrace in front of the Black Dog Cafe, listening to a local group called the Scruffians, who were playing inside, and discussing the merits of fusion as opposed to that more traditional kind of jazz that relies on working through the chordal structure of a tune. Was Blanchard moving ahead, or backwards to the days of Bitches Brew? I recently purchased a 2-CD set of Miles Davis's Pangaea at a garage sale, and I threatened to invite everyone over for a listen.

Our strategy the next day was to skip the main stage at Mears Park for a while, where drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt might well be serving up another dish of guitar-heavy electronic fusion, and visit a few of the outlying venues instead. At the Black Dog Cafe we listened to a very pleasant set by reedman Paul Harper fronting a quartet called the Bardo Band. Harper did some nice work on a Sonny Rollins tune that I recognized but didn't catch the name of and on Thelonious Monk's lovely "Ask Me Now." Nice stuff!

At the TPT Stage Jennifer Grimm was singing "Summertime," and Lila Ammons later emoted on Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" to good effect. At the nearby Marker's Mark Stage the Mississippi Hot Club roared through a few samples of "gypsy" jazz. The lead guitarist was great, but should have given way to the fiddler more often, for the sake of both variety and authenticity.

By the time we returned to Mears Park the place was packed, and the best seats we could find were on a piece of Dresser traprock extending out into the stream. Israeli Clarinetist Anat Cohen had brought a Brazilian band with her—seven-string acoustic guitar, accordion, and pandiero—and they soon filled the dusk with classic choro music.

We ended the evening with friends at a sidewalk table across the street from the park, discussing The Jazz of Physics and The United States of Arugula while the post-game fireworks from the nearby St. Paul Saints stadium exploded above our heads. Brazil, Sweden, the Ukraine, Israel, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Japan--the entire world had arrived at our little metropolis to keep the party going, to help us keep the spirit alive.   

Friday, June 16, 2017

Twenty-eight Ticks

Scientists love numbers. They often have what can only be called a sentimental preference for cleanliness over truth.

I like numbers, too. It's an easy means of gauging the relative success of an enterprise. For example, last year we saw 115 bird species on our spring birding trip, while this year we saw 128.

Does that make it a better trip? Not really. But it's a useful shorthand. Only a few sightings stand out from any venture: the scarlet tanager in the trees at the top of the bluff south of Winona; the immature red-tailed hawk fiercely consuming a songbird before our eyes, bones and all;  the flock of sharp-tailed grouse we flushed inadvertently at Namekagon Barrens

Hilary and I were hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail in Gooseberry State Park the other day, a mile upstream from the Fifth Falls. We came across an elegant Canada warbler up there (see above) which is a rare treat. (It put my annual warbler count at 19—a good year for me.)  I also saw a merlin.

The trail follows the river, and from time to time we'd stop, sit down on a rocky shelf at the riverbank, take off our boots, cool our feet in the water rushing by, and look for ticks.

On our way back down the hill, we took a two-mile detour across an upland circle loop. I saw my first black-throated blue warbler along that trail many years ago. I have only seen two or three since.

Our best sighting on this visit was a flock of grouse. The babies flew up from the tall grass one after another and hurried across the broad trail to position themselves in the shadowy branches of the pines growing on the other side of the path. They looked to me like supermarket capons, not only due to their small size but also because they didn't have many feathers.   

The father started making a commotion in the woods nearby, fanning his tail and ruffing out the black collar that gives him his name: ruffed grouse. It was an explosive event, and it lasted quite a while, because the babies didn't flush all at once, but individually and unexpectedly, like a sputtering, misdirected roman candle. I think there may have been eight chicks in all.

That trail eventually took us back to the river, and we were eager to sit on the bank again and inventory the harvest of ticks we'd collected as we plodded through the tall grass. By the time I was through examining my socks, legs, and pants, my count had risen to 21.

We mentioned to the ranger at the visitor's center that we'd flushed a family of grouse. She smiled and nodded but I could tell she wasn't impressed, or even much interested. She probably hears such stories every day.

Returning to camp, we ate some smoked fish sandwiches we'd bought in Duluth and then took an evening walk across the huge rocky slab that extends out into Lake Superior—one of my favorite places. The frogs were chorusing from the pools that collect on the rocks, and the stiff grass that fringes the pools caught the low rays of evening light, creating a sublime effect. Two loons were drifting aimlessly out on the lake.

Far more strange was the yellow-headed blackbird poking around in the pools on the rock shelf. This is a bird I associate with cattails and marshes in southern Minnesota, though I seldom see one. But with nature, you never know. Perhaps it had developed a taste for frogs?

Back at our campsite, I made a fire and we listened to fifteen minutes of rock-and-roll hits from the 70s that were booming from a site at least 200 yards away, in a different loop. Then quiet returned, or at any rate the pleasant sounds of children shrieking, laughing, and shouting as they chased their siblings and cousins around, blithely unaware that the mysteries of twilight were entering deep into their souls. I came across two more ticks during that time, plodding up my leg. Ticks often appear out of nowhere, but they're never in a hurry.

We hit the hay before the first stars came out. Slept well. No owls, whippoorwills,  or coyotes.

I got up once to answer the call of nature. I wouldn't have mentioned it, except that it serves to explain how, when I got out of my sleeping bag the next morning, I had five more ticks on my legs.

Grand total—28.

Let's hope it wasn't 29.