Sunday, June 25, 2017

Two socialisms, two capitalisms

There are two kinds of socialism on the market (if one ignores the madness of millennium revolutionaries). One is the kind being touted by Jeremy Corbyn - raising workers' pay and public expenditure, without a clear idea of how to achieve it. I shall come to the second in a moment.

Opposed to it, we are told, is free-market capitalism. A good example of the propaganda for this is ex-banker James Bartholomew's "letter" article in The Spectator this week. Here young James (he is not near sixty yet) talks condescendingly to his nephew, contrasting what he saw of the rapidly advancing prosperity of Hong Kong in the 1980s with the condition of the communist countries he subsequently visited.

Of course Hong Kong prospered! It was the time when China, encouraged by a USA bent on driving a wedge between the Middle Kingdom and Russia, was given the chance to build a massive industrial economy on the basis of increasingly debt-fuelled Western consumer demand. Hong Kong was to be its showcase and middleman. This suited the Western entrepreneurs who surfed the flood through the all-open canal locks as capital flowed East, much of it sticking to their fingers in Western tax havens and much of the rest recycled first into US Treasury bonds and then into purchases of land and businesses in America and elsewhere. 

The result? The American rich became super-duper-rich and the American economy was hollowed out to the point where voting for Donald Trump seemed to the middle class a last desperate chance to stop the rot. Now the panhandlers by the roadside are not winos but people who can't make ends meet even when both partners are working.

Still, well done, the Chinese! No-one can blame them for using the opportunities they were given, especially since it wasn't they who made the most out of the arrangement - James Kynge estimated that Chinese businesses kept perhaps 15 cents of each dollar of export.

And China was learning capitalism of the original kind, the kind that made Britain rich in the Industrial Revolution: investing in factories, labour skills, infrastructure. The capitalism that made Josiah Wedgwood's fortune as a potter, that encouraged the Duke of Bridgewater to use his own money to cut a canal for transporting finished goods. Capitalism that made good profits and wages from making good products.

But there is another, more modern type of capitalism - the type that did so well out of the Chinese economic miracle for the Westerners who made deals with them. This one is like Blu-Tack: a big ball of money that is rubbed onto smaller bits, not to stick up the poster but simply to make the ball bigger and then to put it away in a drawer. The poster can flop to the ground after that; who cares?

As an example of this latter kind of predation, look at the case of Southern Cross Healthcare and NHP.  These companies - one a chain of care homes and the other a landlord - were acquired by an American private equity group that then put Southern Cross on a lease agreement requiring 2.5% annual rent increases for 35 years, floated the company so as to extract a billion in capital, and abandoned Southern Cross to its inevitable collapse and the misery of the vulnerable humanity for which it had to provide.

This kind of debt-bloat ram-raid capitalism continues and will continue, until suddenly it can't. We saw that in 2008, but the dreadful reckoning was, and is being staved off with public money, and nobody seems to know how to stop the process.

"Labour and the Tories are like a pair of corpses, stiff with rigor mortis, propping each other up," said Peter Hitchens, back in 2005. "They no longer represent the true divisions in British society, which is why Labour can win only 22% of the popular vote, and the Tories a mere 20%." His wish was for both to collapse.

Despite their vote share rising to 40-plus per cent, for various reasons, they have collapsed. They haven't quite stopped twitching, is all. 

At the moment - pace the screams from Socialist Worker and Day Of Rage types - we have Giveaway Tory versus Giveaway Labour. Neither has the answer. Staring us in the face is the destruction of the Welfare State.

Instead of these gruesome bookends we need a reformed pair of parties. Both Right and Left should aim for a productively employed workforce, that can pay enough taxes to make the books balance. 

Before Wilson's turn on a sixpence in 1975, he and his British Labour Party were against membership of the EEC. At the Oxford Union, Peter Shore explained how the country was losing billions annually as a result, already; behind him the sulky face of the - I think it's not too much too say - treacherous "Conservative" Ted Heath deepened its scowl. 

I suspect that there were those on the Right who hoped that Europe would "sort out" the unions, blinding themselves to the harm done to our competitiveness by a business class that had failed to reinvest for decades, so that many soldiers returning from the Second World War doffed their uniforms to handle tools and machines dating to before the First World War; and goodbye, the British motorcycle industry as the Japanese listened to Dr Deming and went for quality and continuous improvement. 

In any case, the Americans wanted to tell Europe what to do with one phone call, not a couple of dozen. But that was no reason for us to join the new bloc.

Yes, new bookends, please: patriotic Conservatives with an economic and investment plan for the country that will improve the lot of all the people, and Labourites who, while rightly defending the pay and conditions of the working class (including, one would hope, the self-employed), support prosperity through work rather than envious dispossession. 

SUNDAY JAZZ: The Final Gig, by Wiggia

I wanted to finish this series with a favourites page. That is never as easy as it sounds as when you have written or composed a list you immediately realise that x is not on it and the list like Pinocchio’s nose just keeps growing.

What is interesting when reminiscing through the collection is how often you go back to certain albums and how others considered at one time bankers for that top ten are no longer flavour of the month. That I think is down to changing taste, a different slant on certain types of music, and/or a realisation that something heard when still a teenager was not really that good, or the opposite in that you never gave it a chance all those years ago.

There is also the fact that some artists who you always liked never made more than very good albums and some who have had little exposure have made that one superb rendering which stands the test of time.

Two or three choices have already had an airing in previous articles, including Coltrane's “Giant Steps” and Brubeck's Oberlin album among them; what I shall put up here are artists that have not made the other articles or may just have got a mention but have left stunning music in their own right. There is no particular order to worthiness or otherwise, it is not really possible.

My first is Arthur Blythe known as “Black Arthur”, an alto player whose ‘78 album Lennox Avenue Breakdown has become a classic. A bandleader and composer who straddled avant garde and traditional modern jazz, he died in March this year at the age of 77.

Here is the title track, and yes that is a tuba there:

Joe Lovano is a Sicilian American multi instrumentalist including drums, but it is his tenor sax work that people admire. Influenced by Coltrane Gillespie and Sonny Stitt, he also worked in the big bands of Herman and Mel Lewis after studying at University. Since then his own quartets and quintets are where he is the now established star in his own name. Not everything he does moves me and several albums fall into that category, but this album is one of my favourites From the Soul, and this number is as good as any on there: “Central Park West”.

Playing alto and soprano saxes and clarinet, Gary Bartz is another who when you look up his details thinking he is in his forties you discover he is a contemporary; frightening isn’t it? He has stretched into funk, soul, African music as well as avant garde and bop jazz. He has played on 240 albums, forty of which were his own and played with Davis, Mingus, Roach, McCoy Tyner and Jackie McLean, and started out as did so many with Art Blakey.

The number I selected is not with his own group but that of McCoy Tyner, one of my greatest pianists who he played with and won awards for McCoy's “Illuminations” album. This is live from a German festival recording in ‘07 Ballad for Aisha from the album Blues on the Corner. Beautiful musicianship from all here:

Also from that age group, and the same remarks apply as he is 81 now, is Odean Pope, another tenor saxophonist who started playing in Philadelphia’s Uptown Theatre behind James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He has subsequently recorded extensively with Max Roach as well as in his own name.

The album I return to is Locked and Loaded from 2006; he is still recording. Not easy to find anything from the original album with Odean playing but he is also an arranger with his saxophone choir, up to nine different saxophones and this number is representative of the sort of thing he produces.

Here another arrangement of Central Park West live from the famous Blue Note jazz club in NY in 2004. Lovely sound:

There is not a lot from the Sonny Criss catalogue around. An alto player who was a contemporary of Parker and drifted around several groups, he really blossomed later in his career and his output increased during this period but sadly after this number was recorded he developed stomach cancer and after returning to LA he committed suicide in ‘77 at the age of fifty.

Because of the years that have passed since his death there is a fair bit on Youtube to listen to, including my favourite album of his, Sonny’s Dream, with the Sonny Criss Orchestra (Birth of the New Cool) - worth looking up. This is Angel Eyes from the album Saturday Morning, recorded in ‘75:

Johnny Griffin made a memorable album with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot. He recorded with Monk several times and was with Art Blakey before that. He was endowed with an amazing technique that allowed him to play unbelievably fast runs. He never varied from his be bop heritage and was not at all pleased with so-called “free” jazz. Short of stature, he was a fashion-conscious man and spent most of his last two decades in France and the Netherlands.

From that famed album with Monk “In Walked Bud”:

I go back to Bill Evans more than any other pianist; that doesn’t make him greater or more popular than those other giants of the keyboard, but he did play a style of piano that engulfed you, the sort of thing you put on after a bad day and forget everything, I am playing him a lot at the moment for obvious reasons ! I have all his early albums and most of the later, nearly all get played which is why he gets in here, though he has already featured earlier.

“My Foolish Heart”:

I will finish on a “populist” note. Basie was always my favourite band; Ellington was far more adventurous and almost certainly made the better jazz albums but that Basie sound was always so comforting. Yes, he did produce huge numbers of mainly forgettable albums in his prime, but that does not detract from his best work which was superb. The same can be said for Frank Sinatra, who sang with all the big bands of note yet probably his best albums of that type were with Basie. I have all three and they get played. This Basie/ Sinatra number makes it all look so easy: the diction, the timing, just the right amount of backing from Basie - no unnecessary intrusions, just superb music that we will not see or hear again. Two governors of their craft showing how it should be done.

Nice !

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Car manufacturers force everyone to switch to electric vehicles after June

I have had notification that my cheap and reasonably reliable old petrol-engined car - and all of yours - will no longer be supported by manufacturers, garages and filling stations and we must get an electric engine within a week. We have no choice in the matter.

Here is an extract from the manufacturer's support page:

Do I need to get an electric engine to stay mobile?

Yes, the best way to stay mobile is to get an electric engine.

You have two ways to get an electric engine:

Upgrade your current car

You can purchase a complete new electric engine and transmission, but you should first make sure that your car is built to take it. Very few older cars can accommodate such a refit. We recommend that you check out the electric engine specifications page to find out if your car meets the system requirements for electric motors. For more detailed information, read the FAQ.

Get a new car

If your current car can't carry an electric engine, it might be time to consider shopping for a new one. Be sure to explore our great selection of new cars. They're more powerful, lightweight, and stylish than ever before—and with an average price that's considerably less expensive than the average car was 10 years ago.


Very sorry, totally misread my email link, turns out it's Microsoft's Windows Vista that has to be scrapped by everyone. So that's all right, then.

Friday, June 23, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Summer Rags, by JD

Summer has finally arrived which means it is time for a musical fiesta!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Wine, the Making Of, by Wiggia

My Wine Change and Fashion piece was actually read by someone outside our small (hopefully widening) circle, in fairness only because I told him about it, but he did read it and we had a discussion that involved a lot of the current trends and the manufacturing of wine by the big players, e.g. Gallo.

With a bit of research many findings simply underscored that we already knew but went a lot further: it is quite remarkable how the food industry has taken wine in a relatively few years from being a pig in a poke to a beverage that can be relied on to assuage people's perceptions of what wine should be and sell it as you would a packet of crisps; that is nowhere as far-fetched as it sounds, in fact not at all.

All the big wineries use outside testing tasting companies to put together the tastes that people want. It is exactly the same as biscuits or ready made meals: your chicken Kiev may have come from Asda or Waitrose and may taste slightly different, but the only real difference as they are all produced by Allied Foods or similar; it is the seasoning or sauce variation that has been tweaked to give an impression it is a better product and can command a premium when purchased from an upmarket retailer.

With wine at the moment it is not quite that approach as the big wineries do their own market research, through these companies and some in house to tweak and alter their own wines to best suit the target punters.

Before anyone goes all au naturel over this, the Romans were doctoring wine by using lead (really!) as a sweetener, marble dust, animal blood and seawater, all part of the enhancing and prolonging of the life of wine, and even before the industrialisation of wine  and today the use of sulphur, copper nitrates, the use of egg yolks in the fining of wine, removing particles, the addition of sugar in bad years and bad wines to bring the alcohol level up, chaptalisation is the posh word used for that, were and are all normal and legal additions to wine-making.

Today those bad wine days are over. The technical side has created an industry within an industry that with powders and potions, all of which are legal, they can cleanse, enhance, change and improve, dilute as necessary, raise and lower alcohol levels, add colouring for that rich red or change to a lighter colour for that fresh look, all without breaking any laws.

This is a typical wine lab:

Even the expensive oak barrel taste can be replicated by wood shavings, wood dust, staves of wood and chips with added flavours; all achieve the same end to the nth degree as the expensive wood barrels. All this after extensive research and blind testing and tasting with random groups who will give their opinions on favourite tastes and smells, it is pure market research. 

What is often forgotten is the target market, that £5-6 bracket that is where the bulk of all wine sales are, and it does not take a lot more tweaking to produce a premium product that commands a higher price. A good example of that is the Ravenswood Zinfandel, winner of a gold medal, and gives the impression of being made by a small winery; far from it - it comes from a very large industrial winery. The use of labels depicting some idyll small winery is a normal marketing trick, again no different from Tesco's use of farm logos on veg that has never seen this country's soil.

As an example of the scale of production with the big brands. Yellowtail from South Australia produces 12 million cases annually. 96% is exported and most goes to the States of all places, where the demand increases, it is their biggest imported wine.

What does all this mean? Jancis Robinson, one of the few wine writers I have respect for, has summed it up rather well: she wrote, “It is one of the ironies of the wine market today that just as the price differential between cheapest and most expensive bottles is greater than ever before, the difference in quality between these two extremes is probably narrower than it has ever been.” She also reiterates what I said in the earlier piece about how little bad wine exists now, so much so we have largely forgotten how bad it was. There is no doubt that industrialisation has made it possible to elevate good wine to a level near very near to established top end products.

Of course expectations still play a big part in enjoying wine and buying it. If someone spends £50+ on a bottle of wine his brain is already telling him that the wine will be good even if it isn’t. The same applies to the wine you had on holiday: it is always better than the same bottle you purchased at home. Why? Because you were on holiday enjoying yourself in hopefully wonderful surroundings, your brain is not going to let an average bottle of wine spoil that. That of course is a generalisation, but it has been proven to be fact, in the same way blind tasting even among wine critics can produce different scores for the same wine when drunk on different days and in different surroundings.

So can you trust wine scores? To a degree; the mean average of scores can be a fair result of different palettes, but again you have to remember they are tasting as at the annual primeur tastings in Bordeaux at the Chateau; if you are going to Lafitte for a tasting you are already expecting great things, I would love to see the same tasters' results if all was done blind !

Wine competitions are something I have voiced an opinion on before. These are blind tastings but even blind tastings can produce a different set of results on another day with the same tasters. Another factor is that the wine competitions deal mainly with lower price wines, many of which fall into the industrial category; with the uplift in quality in that section, it appears few go home without an award and now they extend the awards to another higher level - all too much, I feel.

Price and quality do go hand in hand, again it is all arguable: there is no doubt that up to fifty pounds a bottle  the quality climbs with the price; after that, name, reputation and availability push up the price, not always with any justification as to what is in the bottle. Once a wine reaches £100 and up it sadly these days becomes a collector's item or investment. My tasting at the higher end is naturally limited but even I have had some terrible disappointments along with amazing surprises. Burgundy when in the days I could afford the odd “good” bottle was my graveyard: some of the producers who knew and know because of their limited output they could sell anything should have been put to the sword, yet the best red wine I ever drank came from that region.

With wine it is the unknown that keeps me interested, the forever new countries coming onstream with good wines and different grape varietals. It is all good news and keeps the price down. For those who reach for Yellowtail whenever they visit the supermarket shelves one thing is sure: it is a lot, lot better than the equivalent of twenty years back, costs less in real terms and is very unlikely to disappoint or be faulty. Yellowtail became successful by removing the things in wine that new customers do not like, acidity and tannins; this could change as people decide to move on from this orchestrated fruit juice, but for now…….. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

SUNDAY MUSIC: Drummer's Holiday, by Wiggia

Buddy Rich
The title was the name of an album by Louie Bellson, a drummer and bandleader. A drummer as part of the rhythm section is not normally associated with band or group leading, yet a few had very successful careers doing just that.

Chick Webb was as near the first of the drumming bandleaders of the Swing era. Born in 1905 with tuberculosis of the spine he grew up with a spinal deformation that gave him the appearance of a hunchback; the same disease finally killed him after a major operation at the age of 34. He had taken up drumming as a form of therapy.

He was known as the King of Swing having won a “battle of the big bands” contest with the likes of of Goodman and Basie as contestants. His style influenced Buddy Rich and others. He would make a wonderful counterpoint to all those youngsters today who want free stuff: he purchased his first set of drums from money earned doing a paper round - that itself with his condition must have been difficult, to say the least - and played professionally at 11. Ella Fitzgerald sang as a young woman with the band from ‘35 and after Chick's death she lead the band for some time before going solo.

Stompin’ at the Savoy (1934):

As so many from that period, Gene Krupa was more than an influential drummer: he was a composer actor band leader and, like Buddy Rich, a showman, something that was a must in the days of the Swing era when those big bands were the huge attraction for the general public.

Anyone who has a biopic made about him, as he did. has reached a level beyond just being a drummer. I can remember seeing "The Gene Krupa Story" as a teenager.

He is cited as a big influence in drummers becoming more than just apart of the rhythm section, being one of the first to use drum solos in his work. He was also instrumental in the development of drums and cymbals, as this piece from Wiki explains:

"In the 1930s, Krupa became the first endorser of Slingerland drums. At Krupa's urging, Slingerland developed tom-toms with tuneable top and bottom heads, which immediately became important elements of virtually every drummer's setup. Krupa developed and popularized many of the cymbal techniques that became standards. His collaboration with Armand Zildjian of the Avedis Zildjian Company developed the modern hi-hat cymbals and standardized the names and uses of the ride cymbal, crash cymbal, splash cymbal, pang cymbal, and swish cymbal. He is also credited with helping to formulate the modern drum set, being one of the first jazz drummers (for that recording studio) to use a bass drum, in a recording session in December 1927.[12] One of his bass drums, a Slingerland 14 X 26, inscribed with Benny Goodman's and Krupa's initials, is preserved at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C."

This is with Benny Goodman's orchestra before he set up his own big band but contains in this hit from ‘37 an illustration of his drumming style and a featured Harry James on trumpet.

Sing Sing Sing:

Buddy Rich was very much a contemporary of Krupa. The ultimate showman, he was as much wanted in later life as a TV personality as he was a bandleader drummer. He always had an opinion on everything and was not one to sidestep being controversial. He was also a very hard taskmaster, demanding and getting the best from his musicians.

This TV interview from ‘71 will not please someone I know ! but is hilarious in his put-down of country music - he genuinely hated it:

And he maintained his opinion to the day he died….

During the medical therapy prior to his death, a nurse asked him whether he was allergic to anything, to which Rich replied "Yes, country and western music".

His Wiki page is a good read:

There are numerous Youtube videos of Rich giving amazing drum solos, dancing, singing, showing off etc. Many regard him as the greatest drummer of all. He certainly gave value for money, but here with a drum solo he leads his band in ‘65 with "Cherokee":

One thing can be said with absolute certainty, Rich was never boring.

Another who started young was Louie Bellson. He was playing drums at three and went on to win a national Gene Krupa drum contest against 40,000 contestants. He also was bandleader, composer and later a jazz teacher, and was married to the singer and actress Pearl Bailey. He is also credited with the pioneering use of two bass drums. Although not known for primarily leading his own big band, he did work during the forties with Tommy Dorsey , Goodman, Harry James and Ellington. His writing and composition work was prolific and spanned all genres of music: he appeared on 200 albums and wrote 1000 pieces. His big band work was mainly on records or when touring in Europe and elsewhere.

As I have said before, most drum solos have me reaching for the off switch but these people are different, they are the masters of their craft. There are many examples of stupendous solos from many of these top guys with Rich having more than his share, rightly, but this is a short controlled piece of work from Bellson.

Skin Deep (1957):

Mel Lewis started in the big time by joining Kenton in ‘54. 1966 and a move to NY saw him team up with Thad Jones for the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra although it was not any more than informal get-together for many years until regular slots became available in ‘76. It became the Mel Lewis Orchestra when Thad Jones left for Denmark that year. Drummers are like goalkeepers, they are separate in many ways from the rest of the outfit, have a lot of quirks with their kit set up etc and Lewis was no exception with a very personal cymbal setup and later drums with differing drum skin covers from normal; all this, of course, to get the sound he wanted.

Here he is in ‘87 looking like a bank manager with the Mel Lewis Orchestra in Holland, playing Groove Merchant:

Of course those mainstays of be bop Roach and Blakey fronted groups of varying sizes as drummers. Both have had exposure on my earlier pieces so there is no need to do any biographies on them, just straight to the music.

This is Max Roach with his then wife Abbey Lincoln - I need no prompting to put up anything she did - with Driva Man from ‘64 and Roach’s album Freedom Suite:

Plus a classic Art Blakey driving number: A Night in Tunisia from his "Messengers of ‘58" with Lee Morgan trumpet, Benny Golson sax and Bobby Timmons piano:

Frequently overlooked as a “serious” jazz drummer, Shelly Manne most certainly was serious, but his debunking to the West Coast and being part of that cool jazz movement, and his albums (very successful) based on My Fair Lady and his association with Andre Previn made him in some eyes a lightweight. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was also at the forefront of music for the film industry and not only did he provide the music for "The Man With The Golden Arm", starring Frank Sinatra, but he was also an advisor in the film and afterwards was in much demand for percussive effects in films; and he also worked a lot with Henry Mancini.

After a career that started with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, he virtually retired when jazz became less popular in the sixties-seventies. He owned a club in LA where he kept the jazz flag flying, it was inevitably called Shelly’s Manne Hole, and ran for years with many stars joining his club band. Whilst always returning to straight jazz he ventured into and experimented with ragtime, orchestral work and other areas of music. A drummer though he had to be as his father and uncles were all drummers; he was still experimenting and playing and recording right up to his last days.

Just Squeeze Me is from the fourth album of five that came from a very successful stint at the Blackhawk; always a tasteful, not forcing, drummer.

There have been other drummers who have been group leaders but not over time as these above. Great drummers though they are, the likes of Jo Jones, Roy Haynes etc were in the main always sidemen, even if very starred sidemen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Protest - or revolution?

I'm not politically tribal, and I am disturbed by the suddenness and intensity of the "protests" that have sprung up in the wake of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower.

For sure, there are questions to be asked. For example, I'm amazed that Grenfell residents were advised in a 2014 newsletter that "(unless there is a fire in your flat or in the hallway outside your flat) you should stay inside your flat." I've never seen that on a fire safety notice in any hotel room.

But protests are not spontaneous. They have to be organised. And in the picture above, culled from today's Daily Mail, the protest at St Clements' Church yesterday looks very organised.

By whom? Who are the placard-holders here, and why is the fellow at mid-right, front, wearing a copy of Socialist Worker like a tabard? Someone on the left has already got a printed T-shirt. That was fast.

We are in a very volatile period, and modern communications offer the chance to whip up trouble double-quick. When people protested and rioted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they did not have the right to vote. But now they do - and a third of them don't bother.

I'm suspicious of direct democracy. We need a representative democracy, but one that does listen and does try to act in the best interests of the country. Perhaps these dangerous signs are a measure of the failure of the current, gamed systems in our councils, regulatory organisations and the Palace of Westminster.

Friday, June 16, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: The original blues, by JD

This time an eclectic selection of the Blues from folk/blues where it all sprang from through to the modern era.