PN 140 - Kevin Whitehead, 'Why Jazz?'

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead talks about his back-to-basics primer on the music.

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Reader's Notes - Doug Ramsey on Those End-of-the-Year Lists

     From the always interesting Doug Ramsey and his blog Rifftides comes a rumination on the process that critics across the arts go through in compiling the best-of-the-year lists -- an artificial and futile exercise, to be sure, but one that we all feel compelled to do.  Here's mine. My approach to these lists is usually the following sequence:
     1) "These lists are silly and I'm not going to do one."
     2) "I just looked at the list from Critic X and I can't believe Artist Z made the cut.  Artist Y is much better!"
     3) "For the sake of Artist Y, I must compile my own list."
     4) "I hated having to compromise my principles, so I won't be doing this next year."
     Ramsey stretches it out a little bit more than I have, so I provide the link to his blog entry.  Have a happy new year, all!

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Undead Notes - The Walking Dead - Issues 1-78

Well before The Walking Dead became a ratings champion on AMC this year, the franchise had a notable following in the comics world. Starting in 2003, The Walking Dead first appeared as a monthly black-and-white comic published by Image , is still being published as such, and has been written the whole time by Robert Kirkman and drawn for the most part by Charlie Adlard (aside from issues 1 through 6, which Tony Moore who illustrated). As a comic, The Walking Dead is coming up on 80 issues and seven years, and, after having read Issues 1 through 78, it appears to only be getting stronger.
     A few things strike me immediately about The Walking Dead as a comic.  In the first place, for the zombie apocalypse genre, TWD is remarkably disciplined in its approach to pacing, which is to say that, while there is certainly plenty of action and many unpredictable plot turns and twists, Kirkman does not appear to throw things in unless they are a development of character, situation, or setting.  Some have called TWD a very “talky” comic, but the pages are rarely if ever filled with unnecessary dialogue or narrative, and you will often find many sections where the story unfolds in tight, economic images, panel to panel, with not a word on the paper.
     You don’t get seven years into a writing story about the zombie apocalypse (and maybe two years of story time) without getting past the initial thrills of a survival story.  This has to be more than a 90 minute Hollywood feature, so some deeper questions are explored.  How difficult do some survivors find it to let go of their loved ones – even those who have become undead?  When civilization has collapsed, how might some survivors revert to deception, criminality, immorality, and evil?  Is it worth having children?  Do you allow children to remain innocent of how the world has changed?  When there’s no more electricity and gasoline, how do you live?  When there’s nothing left to scavenge from the store shelves, how do you eat?  What happens to the planet when there’s five or six billion zombies endlessly searching for flesh to eat?
     Charlie Adlard, who makes the most of the black-and-white format, is at his best when working in the blacks to create tremendously bold shadows and a sense of feeling trapped, although his work in lighter tones create, at times, an almost bleached-out effect.  It’s as if in the world of TWD, there’s either too much light or not nearly enough.  I particularly admire the way in which Adlard shades the eyes of and allows for a fully rotted-out mouths of his zombies.  He’s also particularly attentive to the wounds, scratches, and scars of the characters; you really feel as if these people are deep in the fight month after month.  There are images in the comics (from both Adlard and Moore), though, that are so strong, they are bound to work their way into the storyboarding of the series, as did the now-iconic image of Rick Grimes on horseback arriving in a destroyed Atlanta.
     Viewers of the series The Walking Dead should be encouraged to learn – just as I did – that although Frank Darabont and his team did change many aspects of the story in the six-episode mini-season this past fall, they can still make full use of almost all of the material from the comic’s seven-year run.  The relationship triangle between Rick and Lori Grimes and Shane Walsh has yet to be resolved, and Carl Grimes is a much fuller character as the story develops in the comics.  The pizza delivery guy Glenn becomes much more than an excellent scavenger as time passes, and camper-driving Dale and blonde Andrea have steps to take as well.  Some of the most significant characters – Michonne, Tyreese, and The Governor – and settings – Hershel’s farm and the prison – have yet to be even hinted at.  In short, the television show has really just scratched the surface.  As with Lost (at its best) and Battlestar Galactica (almost always), there should be the potential at any moment to have one of those “Holy crap!” scenes that brings you out of your chair.
     In the meantime, if you can’t wait for the series to be back on the air in October, you’ve got seven years worth of comics you can read.  Just don’t say I didn’t give you a big spoiler alert.
     NOTE: My thanks to Andrew “Headshot” Miller for loaning me his collection of The Walking Dead.

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The Master Switch by Tim Wu

     It's a truism to observe that every age narrowly believes itself to be unique and that the present isn't really as unusual as ages past -- but it's probably fair to say that, while many people give credence to the truism, some still prefer to secretly believe that there's still something special about the present.  "No, people, really -- this time, things are really different."  But who can really tell?
     Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, makes an ambitious attempt to determine if there's something unique about the information age and, particularly, the nature of the Internet.  Wu, a journalist and professor at Columbia University, takes on the question of what happens to information empires and why we should care about it at all.  The talk of late about net neutrality and, in recent years, of warrantless domestic wiretaps might get one's attention -- or maybe just the notion that adult entertainment might vanish entirely from the Internet.
1932 movie poster for 'Three on a Match'
     Wu presents two basic notions in his book, using the examples of motion pictures, the telephone, radio, and television to illustrate what he calls -- forgive the capital letters -- The Cycle.  First of all, Wu shows that information industries are created out of disruptive innovations and develop through a relatively open period when entry costs are low and creativity is high, then settle into closed monopolistic structures where entry costs are high and innovation is low.  Secondly, Wu argues that the closed periods of information industries (the years of Ma Bell or the Hollywood studio system or the Big Three TV networks) tend to economic development at for the sake of stable profits and cultural consensus -- a trade-off that runs counter to free market and libertarian ideals.  Wu's retelling of the cutthroat history of these industries -- and the government's cooperation (at times) with monopolists -- is surprising.  You probably know about Hollywood's conservative Hays Code, but the story of the quashing of FM radio is enough to make you depressed all over again. Say what you will about the Nixon Administration, but officials from those years set in motion both the explosion of cable television and the breakup of AT&T.
     In many ways, Wu's narrative about the open-then-closed cycle of information empires is to set up the fundamental questions that face us now: Is the Internet fundamentally different and why should we care?  To the first question, Wu clearly outlines that the Internet's structure -- a network of networks that is designed to go around most disruptions and across most platforms and technologies -- tends to resist a complete monopoly.  In other words, if Comcast throttles my Netflix, I'll switch to some other provider -- by satellite, for instance.  The second part of the question, about caring, is answered through an examination of Apple and its ubiquitous iPod, iPhone, and iPad.  Wu doesn't call these devices computers, but rather, "information appliances," which exist inside a walled garden of proprietary monopolies (Apple and AT&T), as opposed to hardware, software, and content with more open standards (Google and Verizon). Ultimately, Wu comes down on the side of openness -- if in the broader political sense of freedom of speech.  If information industries are largely closed and in the hands of a few, access to channels of communication will be limited and our own activities are much more likely to be monitored.
     Whatever opinions one might have on the future of the Internet -- "No, this time it's really really going to be different!" -- Wu's book is a worthwhile read for the stories it tells about the development of 20th century media, and the serious issues it raises for how we will live and work in the information economy -- as digital artisans and connoisseurs or mere consumers of the same old bits and bytes as everyone else on the planet.

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Eater's Notes - The Kwanzaa Cake of Questionable Intent

Sandra Lee's demonstration of white-girl kuumba
I wish you all a happy belated Hanukkah, a merry Christmas, and, tomorrow, an auspicious start to Kwanzaa.  With all the goodies and gifts abounding, my gift to you is a cautionary tale -- a video actually.  From a few years back on the Food Network, we have a video of Sandra Lee throwing together some sort of a cake in honor of Kwanzaa.  Wait for the last few moments when Ms. Lee takes a bite of her creation.  Although this is by no means a fresh video, it's a holiday favorite around the house, where the cake itself is known as "an edible hate crime."  As one commentator has offered, ""If I was black, I'd ask for some reparations after watching this!"

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Viewer's Notes - The Expendables

     Just to avoid being too sensitive and thoughtful here in the holiday season, allow me to admit a guilty pleasure from the aftermarket, a film I missed from the summer: The Expendables.  Panned by critics for its brain-dead qualities and clearly marketed to a particular gender and age -- even knowing this -- I could not resist.
     As a man in my 40s, I'll confess that the details of this movie are right in my wheelhouse. A group of highly skilled mercenaries navigate their ways through the professional and personal complications that inevitably arise when you are a highly skilled mercenary.  Their names? Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Statham), Yin Yang (Li), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), and so forth.  There are lot of guns and knife killings, lots of blood, and lots of crunchy punching and kicking.  There's a plot about a job nobody else will take to a jungled nation nobody has heard of, but that's beside the point.
     The Expendables is so clearly over the top that it's value is in that peculiar realm of action homage that is as much parody as tribute, along the lines of both volumes of Tarrantino's Kill Bill and Jet Li's best features, Fong Sai Yuk and its sequel.  What makes this film distinctive is what ends up being borrowed from 80s action movies -- the sheer volume of the guns (both in number and sound), the fire and explosions, and sheer the splattery crackling mess of the general melee.  I didn't even mind the laconic attempts of the characters to show their emotional sides, the grim detachment of the warrior-poet, best personified by Mickey Rourke in his role as the mechanic-painter Tool.
    But enough about warrior-poets, and more about the violence.  The Expendables is old school in its approach to mayhem, with hand-to-hand fights that look more like ass-kicking than dancing, blanks rounds in the firearms, and a taste for really blowing things up.  You'll be hard-pressed to find too much CGI in this movie, and the sudden shift to slo-mo is refreshingly absent.  The last half hour of the film is as entertaining an action climax as I've seen in years.
     All this is to say that the director, Sylvester Freaking Stallone, really knows exactly what he wants to do and he does it.  Awesome. Stallone should not have to apologize for making this movie, and you shouldn't have to apologize for enjoying it.

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PN 139 - Judy Collins - 'Over the Rainbow'

Judy Collins discusses her participation in the creation of the book 'Over the Rainbow,' based on the famous song from 'The Wizard of Oz.'

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PN Video Jukebox - Duke Ellington

The video jukebox returns with ten performances from the long and prolific career of Duke Ellington.  Don't forget to check out my interview with New Yorker music critic Alex Ross this weekend, during which, in part, he talks about Ellington in the context of 20th century concert music.

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Listener's Notes - Bad Plus on JazzSet

I almost placed The Bad Plus' Never Stop on my best of 2010 list, but such lists are arbitrary, anyway, and I used about half of my slots for up-and-coming groups.  Allow me to make it up to the great jazz (yes, jazz) trio by highlighting this performance featured on JazzSet through NPR.  Enjoy, and happy Festivus, everyone!

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Viewer's Notes - Awards for Scott Pilgrim

Does that say "Krom?" If so, I'm geeking out.
Aside from Inception, which you'll be hearing more about from me in the next few weeks, one of my favorite films of the past couple of years has been Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, which, when I talk to people, seems to inspire either great affection or great disapproval. It's gratifying to see that the International Press Academy handed out two awards to Edgar Wright's movie, one for best musical or comedy and another for Michael Cera for his title role.  Wright's known for his work with Simon Pegg on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but if you can check out the UK TV series Spaced, you will see just how deep the nerd roots reach.

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Barcalounge Skipper - Refrain from Qatar

     In a very silly statement, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, has suggested that gay folk attending the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, "should refrain from any sexual activities."  Setting aside the matter that Qatar gave women the right to vote in just 1999, that alcohol consumption is largely forbidden, it remains very clearly on the books that "sodomy" (unnatural sex acts) between consenting adults is illegal in the country, and punishable by up to five years in prison.  Without knowing too much about Qatar, however, I would hate to indulge in the sort of speculation that fans the flames of anti-Islamic sentiment. One would imagine that, in practice, those with the money and prestige to travel to watch the World Cup would be largely free to eat, drink, and be merry in whatever manner they please -- provided they do it in the social "free trade zones" of tourist hotels and other venues.
     No, my beef is with Sepp Blatter, who, although he might think what he thinks about gays and lesbians, should have kept his mouth shut -- even if it ran the risk of offending the Qatar monarchy. Although Blatter naively insists that by 2022, discrimination will not be an issue, I am more skeptical.  If we can skip right over the bigoted jokes about soccer being gay, or this or that team as being gay, or this or that player as being gay, those of us who are secure in our straightness will understand that, for most of the secular free world, if you are marketing anything, you should generally market to as many people as possible.  If I have the money, I'm not sure I'd be going to the 2022 World Cup.  Maybe I'd give my money to one of my gay friends or relatives, so they could travel there just to have sex in the privacy of a Qatar hotel room.
     Then again, maybe most people at the World Cup just want to watch some soccer.  At $150 a ticket, before travel, food, and lodging expenses, I'd certainly much rather be thinking about soccer than about people I don't know having sex in a way that doesn't interest me.
     The real story here isn't about sex and sexuality, or the more broad problem of alcohol consumption in a "dry" nation -- it's about having a modern, secular, global event in a nation that wants to be modern, secular, and global only as a matter of status, but the rest of the time prefers for most of its day-to-day workings to be antiquated, doctrinaire, and provincial.  Sepp Blatter has had a long and mixed tenure as the head of FIFA, and this seems to be another sign that it's time for him to leave.  And before it's too late, let's find another place to host the World Cup in 2022.  How about the Netherlands?

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Reader's Notes - Literature for Losers

This year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question) lists the five greatest novels about failure -- oddly enough, in the Wall Street Journal. Cautionary tales for capitalists?  For my money, I'll take the hilarious and horrifying debut novel from Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes, a magical journey through mental illness, alcoholism, obsessive sports fandom, and extended periods of couch-bound lethargy. Published in 1968, A Fan's Notes is far and away Exley's best known book, a flash of brilliance from a writer who never seemed able to get out of his own way, and who died in 1992.

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PN Archives - The Pope, Frank Constanza, and Me

A Festivus for the rest of us -- join the secular celebration on December 23.  From the Passing Notes archives.

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Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2010

After a week of technical difficulties, we're up and running again.

While I'm always a little skeptical of doing these end-of-year best of lists, but people have asked if I'm going to put one together, so here it is.  The releases are in no particular order and are my attempts to combine my taste with a sense of canon as well.

The Glenious Inner Planet, Glen Ackerman
Harvesting Semblances & Affinities, Steve Coleman & 5 Elements
Fierce, Patrick Cornelius
You Can Have Your Moment, Kneebody
Solo, Vijay Iyer
Jasmine, Keith Jarrett and Charlie Hayden
Ten, Jason Moran
Lost in a Dream, Paul Motian
Blue Soliloquy, Sam Newsome
Silver Pony, Cassandra Wilson

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Undead Notes - Zombies on the Brain

     After a week's hiatus for the Thanksgiving break, I've risen from the dead to blog again, having feasted for a week upon the flesh of turkey sandwiches and cranberry sauce.  In the midst of my post-Miami Book Fair stupor, I can't say when it happened, but I managed to catch all but the season finale of The Walking Dead, and I will be tuning in at 10:00 tonight for the season finale.  I'd heard some talk in years past among friends about The Walking Dead comics, but with the babies and all I haven't really had the time to pick up reading a new title.
     All in all, I've been a fan of zombies for some time, going back to the George Romero films -- which were very scary for a boy back then -- to The Serpent and the Rainbowto the Doom and Quake video games, to the whole Resident Evil franchise, as well the more recent pomo efforts like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. From time to time, my wife and I have been known to pledge our affection and fealty "UTZA" -- until the zombie apocalypse.  I found a fine article on The Huffington Post on the ascendancy of zombies, so I'm going to suggest it as homework before tonight's finale of The Walking Dead.
     In the hiatus between Season 1 and Season 2 of The Walking Dead, I'll be mixing in reviews of that show's first season, plus whatever other zombie related material I can. Remember Rule #2: The Double Tap.

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Holiday Notes - My Life as Clark Griswold

     As you read this, I'm most likely digging through the storage room to pull out all of the lights that I'll be putting up for the holidays.  It's not that we here in the Hayes House are particularly spiritual ("Put Christ back in Christmas!"), and it's not that we're particularly materialistic ("Which set of Christmas dishes should we use this year -- and do we have a matching gravy boat?").  But we have a couple of little boys, ages two and three, who love the music, and tree, and most of all the lights.  I have admit, much to my surprise, that I'm starting to get into the lights.  I mean, I want to Bring the Lights.
     Few thing are more dull for readers than for a parent to write about parenthood, but I will say that having kids has changed me in ways I did not expect.  I find that I don't mind drinking Kool-Aid any more.  I have developed a fondness for non-Japanese animation.  I have come to regret my harsh words about Kenny G.  I know an old lady who swallowed a fly. And so forth.
     But this is foremost: I love my Christmas lights.  I have a ladder, I have a staple gun.  I have special electrical cords to run serious amounts of electricity to even the most remote parts of the front yard.  I calculate that I have about 2,000 lights, which sounds like too many, but, of course, it's not nearly enough.  So, these days, if I happen to stop at the drugstore or hardware store, I pick up a box or two of lights -- red, green, or white, another 200 at a time.  I don't know exactly what I going to do with them yet, but-- but-- well, I'll take a picture when I'm done.  Clark Griswold is my hero.  His sufferings are my sufferings.  Perhaps, one day, I will have a lightshow as awesome as the one below.

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Eater's Notes - The Twelve Sandwiches of Christmas

     I spent a full summer in London during 2004. British food, I have say, for the most part, leaves much to be desired.  Good ales, great sweets, and decent Indian food -- but not as good as you would think on that last item, as it seemed a little bland to me, toned down for the English palate.  At any rate, just around the corner from my flat on Goodge Street was a Sainbury's -- just another big supermarket chain, but with at least one significant difference: The Sandwich Aisle.  It was an Aisle Entirely Made Up Of Sandwiches.  One can find the same sort of thing at Marks & Spencer and Tesco.
   These days, I have my Google Reader rigged to forward my all kinds of stuff, and one of my news alerts is set to send me any and all items related to sandwiches.  As I expected, most of the world's sandwich news comes from England.  The sun may have set on the British Empire, but it will never sit on a UK prawn mayonnaise sammie.  Although I have, personally, sat on one.  Very messy indeed.
     In honor of the holiday season, I present a rather healthy list from The Telegraph, "The 12 Sandwiches of Christmas."  Nom nom nom.

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PN Archives - Big Savings

Charlie-in-the-Box: Resenting kids for 45 years.
From the archives, thoughts for the start of the holiday shopping season about how money can be saved -- or not. With extra Rankin/Bass goodness.  Follow the Feedburner or iTunes links below to listen.

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PN 138 - Salman Rushdie - 'Luka and the Fire of Life'

At the Miami Book Fair, I sat down with Salman Rushdie to talk about his new novel, Luka and the Fire of Life, a sequel of sort to 1990's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Sir Salman (he was knighted in 2007) offered his opinions on the importance of imagination and storytelling, as well as his views on music (Frank Zappa and U2 in particular), writing, and, of course, which style of cricket is best. The full PN Unscripted podcast will be posted next week on iTunes and Feedburner, but in the meantime you can listen to today's Passing Notes feature at 11:05 am on 88.9 FM in Miami (online at wdna.org) or follow the links below.

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BONUS - Book TV's coverage of Rushdie's session at the Miami Book Fair

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