by carl wilson

Postmortems: Molly Ivins, Whitney Balliett,
and other passages


I can only add my voice to those mourning the deaths this week of Whitney Balliett, the great jazz critic, and Molly Ivins, whom I would call a great critic of the art of politics, as much as she was any other kind of journalist. Balliett was 80, while Ivins was only 62, and both died of cancer. They were each writers from whom other scribblers could learn a thousand lessons - from Balliett's poetic imagination and his gift for the music critic's most difficult task, describing the abstractions of timbre and improvisational style with immediacy and precision; from Ivins's wit, directness and determination to truck no bullshit; and from both of them, their individualism, so at ease in their own stylistic skins, which could give the delicate Balliett an earthy groundedness and the salty Ivins her own gentle touch. Balliett was no ally of the avant-garde (nor of more militant black politics) but he was open to the best of the innovators; Ivins, likewise, was no radical intellectual, but she was a powerful anti-anti-intellectual - and, just as important, anti-snob. Tributes to Ivins abound online, including at my alma mater The Nation and at her journalistic home, The Texas Observer. There's another fine one here. Eulogies to Balliett are predictably more scarce, but his former employer The New Yorker reprints two of his classic columns at its website. It will be interesting, in next week's issue, to see how the magazine addresses what's widely agreed to be Balliett's shabby treatment in his final years there. Further remembrances at Anecdotal Evidence, Rifftides, Orange Crate Art, String Theory, James Hale and Terry Teachout, among others.

For those who may be wondering: The Rhys Chatham concert was quite packed at the Tranzac on Wednesday, though it was plagued by a series of technical delays that saw it really not get going until late in the evening. The ensemble of local and visiting players, including - for the first time, Chatham said - a string section, followed Chatham's guitar-hero lead through two pieces of about 20 minutes each, as well as a brief encore. Each piece followed a similar trajectory - a single chord played in different configurations and building in volume from loud to louder, ultimately generating a series of harmonic overtones so that at the peaks, one could hear what seemed to be reeds or choral singing magically materializing from the valley of the thrumming chord. For me it felt a bit too much like a museum piece, as in the decades since Chatham and Glenn Branca first demonstrated these tricks with electric guitars in the 1970s, the wall-of-overtones technique has been incorporated back into rock and combined with song by groups such as Sonic Youth and The Ex - some of my favourite music, but too familiar by this point for the pure demonstration to seem like much more than an exercise. One wonders why it's so appealing to Chatham himself to keep repeating the gesture 30 years later. He seemed like a gracious, intelligent man, and I was happy to be there to pay respects - and to enjoy the high points in each piece, at which point my more academic quibbles melted away for a few minutes, though only to return moments later. But the evidence of stasis was frustrating. I don't mean that people have to totally reinvent themselves: When Tony Conrad visited here a few months ago, for example, he was plumbing much of the same territory he's been visiting since the 1960s, but it still felt as if he were exploring new corners of it, attentive to the fresh details with which he could surprise himself. It seems like a subtle distinction in theory, but in practice it usually seems fairly obvious whether or not an artist is repeating himself or still digging down to new strata.

As for Thursday's panel discussion at Harbourfront - well, it was a mixed bag, too. The three-way interview is an awkward format, and through whatever accidents of mood, I didn't feel anywhere near my best. So neither I nor Owen Pallett - who's a more shy public speaker - were able to keep up with the verbal pyrotechnics of Steve Kado, which isn't Steve's fault but made the proceedings seem lopsided. It also passed by so fast that we didn't get into half the subjects we'd meant to talk about. But most of the audience seems to have found it absorbing enough. The highlights I'll remember most happened on our iPods - when Steve played a passage by This Heat that consisted of a series of fade-outs, and we were all providing "Mystery Science Theatre" undercommentary, and when Owen rebutted Steve's contentious dismissal of practicing instruments by playing a Vladmir Ashkenazy performance of a Chopin prelude that stunned the whole room into moved silence. What mattered was that these moments brought us back to music, and how deeply the two of them really feel and understand it, all our chatter about scenes, capitalism and the means of production put aside, for a moment. (I'll have to check with them what the specific tracks were - unless any of you remember?)

Toronto new-music impresario Ron Gaskin (left) alongside Rhys Chatham (centre) and some of the musicians from Wednesday night's concert at the Tranzac. Photo by Roger Humbert of the Live Music Report.

| Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 03 at 6:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)



Balliett exemplified the worst tendencies of "New Yorker" magazine writing: elegance masking an ignorance; sophistication masking a provincialism; a habitual search for the drolleries of the working classes masking a condescending snobbery toward his supposed social inferiors. He habitually and pointedly referred to Ella Fitzgerald as a pop singer, explicitly stating that she wasn't a jazz singer. Such ex-cathedra pronouncements betray a lack of understanding of the music and a lack of respect for the opinions of the musicians.

Max Roach doesn't swing?

Johnny Hodges' ballad style was reminiscent of Edgar Guest, the author of "It takes a heap o' livin' to make a house a home"?

Even his noting that Charlie Parker played without vibrato, which one of the tributes you link to quotes, shows that he didn't get it: Most of the bop greats played without vibrato, because it allowed for fast, dense ensemble passages. (Paul Gonsalves talked about this in one of those Stanley Dance books on the Ellington orchestra.)

He could be pretty good on the moment-by-moment impressions that music makes, but for me that doesn't make up for his rudeness, poor judgment, and lack of understanding.

It seems he was a nice guy to his family and friends and acquaintances, though, which is more important than being a good critic. Condolences to his family and friends.

Posted by john on February 6, 2007 11:31 AM



Saw the discussion on youtube! Twas fascinating stuff!

Posted by Kevin Erickson on February 5, 2007 2:08 AM



Maria...not a hero. Talented, but not someone to admire for her political stances. Quite a moron actually.

Posted by Maria on February 4, 2007 11:11 AM



ah well...nostalgia's not what it used to be

Posted by nilan on February 4, 2007 12:51 AM



Thanks for the whole thing, Carl. It was great!

The song by This Heat is called "Horizontal Hold". It is such a complete song, and, arguably, the best distillation of what the band sought to accomplish. It's also the first track on their first album--not counting the track "Testcard", which is about 45 seconds of almost silence.

"Horizontal Hold" was This Heat's most performed song, and in their recent collection, it appears at three times. They recorded it for John Peel, released another recording on their live album, and many many bootlegged versions exist, both live and in studio.

The Chopin recording was lent to me by Dan Goldman a couple of months ago. The one we listened to was Prelude #12, and I think it's in c# minor.

Posted by Owen on February 3, 2007 11:27 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson