Pianist Paul Bley, 83, passed away this week. He leaves behind a jazz legacy of boundless progression and experimentation. After a fairly straightforward start to his recording career in 1953, he soon headed a trio that featured up-and-coming free jazz pioneers Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. In the 1960s, he was one of the first jazz musicians to use synthesizers. Later, he would champion such new artists as Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. By the end of his career, he had over 150 albums to his name. There are numerous Bley albums available on Hoopla Digital.
As a New Jersey kid growing up in the 1970s, I loved soccer. I remember being completely thrilled when the New York Cosmos brought on the legendary Pele, immediately catapulting the then-struggling North American Soccer League (NASL) into the national spotlight and seemingly making soccer America's "next big thing." For the next several years, I thrived as a Cosmos fan (sorry Sting enthusiasts!) and completely bought into the idea that big-time soccer was soon to be a permanent fixture on prime-time TV. Of course, I knew nothing of the NASL's disastrous business model, and didn't realize that, when teams weren't drawing 30,000+ crowds for games against the Cosmos, they were lucky to be filling 15,000 seats in NFL stadiums.
Ian Penderleith's Rock & Roll Soccer gives us a good long glance at the NASL and considers what made it special (great international talent, a willingness to try and create a league based on attractive, fan-friendly soccer when European teams were becoming ever more defense-oriented) and what ultimately brought it down (excessive focus on the Cosmos, allowing for too much expansion too quickly, etc.).
The approach is thematic rather than sequential. Chapters focus on topics like "Pele vs. Eusebio" or "The NASL vs. Fifa and the world," with quite a bit of sidebar-like inserts to illustrate points. This means that the timeline jumps around a bit, but it still makes for a lively, entertaining read. There are plenty of colorful anecdotes about legendary players like Pele, Rodney Marsh, George Best and Giorgio Chinaglia, along with accounts from lesser-known American players, as well.
Ultimately, did the NASL help or hurt soccer's profile in the US? Is the current league, Major League Soccer, successfully managing expansion in a fashion that will avoid NASL's disastrous collapse? You can take either side, but the story of American soccer is certainly not complete without the NASL.
Jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty has built up an impressive discography. Now, he shows up on two very different collaborations. First, he teams up with former Yes vocalist Jon Anderson and a formidable group of session musicians to create the Kickstarter-funded Better Late Than Never. Ponty and Anderson contrubute a number of newly-composed songs, such as "One in the Rhythm of Hope," and there are a number of reworkings of Yes tunes ("And You And I," "Roundabout," etc.) and Ponty songs with added vocals ("Infinite Mirage--Soul Eternal"). Overall, the proceedings are more rock/fusion than jazz and are a nice listen for fans of either musician.
For the more jazz-minded fan, Ponty has also collaborated with legendary bassist Stanley Clarke and French guitarist Bireli Lagrene for the album D-Sringz. The album feels like a more modern version of Stephane Grappelli's and Django Reinhardts' Hot Club performances--everything swings and there are some fantastic takes on classics, such as Reinhardt's "Nuages" and Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" (most famously recorded by both Cannonball Adderly and The Buckinghams). The album is also available in hoopla.
Think of this 2008 book as kind of a "Freakonomics of Driving." Vanderbilt asks many questions about life on the road (Is it better to merge early for a lane reduction, or wait until just before your lane disappears? Do traffic signs make roads safer? Do we really drive as well as we think we do? Do trucks cause more accidents? What are the most dangerous vehicles on the road?) and considers them through from scientific, social and psychological aspects. An engaging read, which will have you reflecting on your own habits, as well. Written in 2008, it anticipates, but just misses some of the impact of the most modern technology on driving, such as the latest smart phones (he makes lots of references to Blackberries), but still worth reading today.
Progressive rock legends Yes lost their only constant member with the passing of co-founder/bassist Chris Squire on June 27. This is probably as good a time as any to sit back and take a long listen to their music--and there's no better way to binge-listen than this box set that captures their work from their eponymous 1967 release, up to 1987's "Big Generator." There's clearly an evolution to their sound--the baroque intricacies of Fragile and Close to the Edge (not to mention the epic excess of Tales from Topographic Oceans) give way to the more straightforward 80s sounds of 90125 and Big Generator. Through each of their periods and stylistic incarnations, however, the group managed to create its own unique sound, creating plenty of musical gems along the way. Also check out the always-available albums by Yes on hoopla digital.
Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick, on tour in the US, found an affinity with the upper Midwest--which reminded him of southern Norway (and was once the destination of many Norewgian immigrants). This inspired him to write the songs that make up Midwest, his latest offering on ECM records. The pieces are stately, even reflective, and reside in the area between jazz, folk and classical music. There's a quiet intensity to them, and the melodies are haunting and memorable. Eick's trumpet playing is clean and understated--and blends beautifully with the folk-inflected violin playing of Gjermund Larsen. There's clearly talent in the ensemble, but no one overplays. Standout pieces include "Hem" and "Dakota." Also check out Eick's previous albums,Skala and The Door, via hoopla.
Jazz saxophonist Chris Potter leads a large chamber jazz ensemble in this thrilling new set of songs, the centerpiece of which is the four-part "Imaginary Cities" suite. Potter's compositions move seamlessly between moods, from muscular to brooding to exultant, and the ensemble playing is magnificent. There are hints of 20th century classical music, middle eastern and south Asian accents and straight-ahead funk-inflected jazz. The overall effect is very cinematic. One of potter's real accomplishments is the way he's worked the string ensemble into the arrangements. They don't merely sweeten the sound or add background for playing over, but rather become an integral part of the group, helping move the compositions along. Especially listen to Indian-influenced strings in the album's closer, "Sky." This will probably be on many jazz critics' "Albums of the Year" list. If the CD isn't on shelf, you can also borrow it on your mobile device or PC via hoopla.
The Martian is getting a lot of buzz as a tale truly for nerds...but don't let that put you off. In the not-so-distant future, astronaut Mark Watney is alone on Mars after his fellow crewmates are forced to abandon him for dead. He has no communication equipment and a limited supply of food. How can he possibly let earth know he's alive and survive long enough to be rescued? Luckily, he's an inventive guy and starts figuring out how to use the tools at hand to help improve his odds. To a great extent, this is a good, old-fashioned adventure story. There are certainly messages about human ingenuity and determination, but Weir never strays too far from the task at hand--trying to get Watney home. Of course, there are plenty of suspenseful twists and turns. For the true science geeks, there is a LOT of well-researched detail put into various fixes and procedures, but those less enthusiastic about the very technical aspects can gloss over those a bit and just get the gist of things while going along with the general plot. A quick, fun read, well-paired with Mary Roach's Packing for Mars. While you're waiting for the movie version (with Matt Damon) to come out, you might enjoy watching Robert Redford's All Is Lost for another sort of one-man-against-the-elements tale.The Martian is also available in eBook, audiobook and large type.
The successful test launch and return of the Orion space capsule in late 2014 reminded me that I'd yet to read Mary Roach's 2010 book about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into getting humans into space and (fingers crossed) to Mars one day. Keep in mind that sending probes and landers the many millions of miles to the red planet is certainly a feat of science an engineering, but it's almost trivial compared to the task of creating a spacecraft that can actually get humans there (and back, if they're lucky) in a way that leaves them both alive and sane. Roach describes the kinds of earthbound testing done on human research subjects to see who'll best be able to live for months in close quarters, dealing with exacting routines and massive amounts of boredom (hint: it's not the "Right Stuff" space-cowboy types). There's also an awful lot of discussion of discussion about various...er...personal hygiene issues, and even the requisite reflection upon space romance. What you quickly learn is that space travel will not be for those who expect to maintain a great deal of privacy and dignity. Roach's tone is often humorous, especially when she describes her own experiences in various testing/training tools, such as the "vomit comet" (the jet on which would-be astronauts first experience zero-gravity). She nicely focuses on the personalities of the people behind the projects, not just the science and technology. The has a lot of diversionary footnotes, which I found interesting and enjoyable, but that others might think bothersome. This is a quick, entertaining and enlightening read.
The MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award" Fellowships were announced today. With that in mind, why not take a quick listen to some cutting edge jazz from 1999 local Fellowship recipient, Chicagoan Ken Vandermark? "Free Jazz, vols. 3 & 4," with his ensemble the Vandermark 5, celebrates the music of saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The pieces start with the original melody, quickly swirling off into energetic free explorations. Thrilling, challenging stuff.