Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books & Reading

During the week of Thanksgiving, I overheard one of the clerks at Barnes & Noble say that he had read fifty-seven books so far during the year.  That number is an impressive one.  If that person had not read another book during the remaining weeks of the year, he would have read more than one book per week. 

I have had students who enroll in my writing classes who dislike reading and who claim not to have read a book since high school.  Some students complain about the amount of reading required in my online classes.  Another student even said that my written lectures contain too many words that he/she is forced to look up.  What I need to do is start keeping a record of those students who claim not to like reading so as to determine whether the students finish the course.

My students would benefit more if it were required that the students read a scholarly book during the semester, that is, a work of nonfiction containing notes and a bibliography.  Learning to introduce their sources and to evaluate them would not be such an alien concept if they had seen how other writers use sources.  It would help, too, if students could see how writers use quotes and, in most cases, avoid dropping them into paragraphs without an explanation.  Usually, the students entering my classes have only read fiction if they read at all.  Their experience with nonfiction has probably been limited to their textbooks.

At two of the institutions where I taught, the students enrolled in English 102, the equivalent of a second-semester writing course, were required to read a work of fiction.  One institution emphasized literature and had the students writing about each genre—fiction (novel and short fiction), poetry, and drama.  Another institution used this required novel as the foundation for the essays written during the semester.  One essay emphasized the social elements found in the novel, for example; another essay emphasized the author’s biography and those biographical elements found in the novel.  At both of these institutions, I chose the work of Willa Cather, My Antonia at one institution and O Pioneers! at the other one.  It was during a time when I was very much concerned with place, having adopted the Great Plains as my home after having known a peripatetic existence as a Navy brat.  My Antonia, of course, is so much more than a novel about place because of its emphasis on marriage and male-female relations.

If I had the opportunity to choose a book for my classes now, I would probably choose Capt. Charles Moore’s Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans.  On the surface, the book emphasizes Capt. Moore’s discovery of the gyre of plastic waste found in the Pacific Ocean.  It is also a book that emphasizes Capt. Moore’s growth as a writer.  Not having finished college and not having a science background, he set about learning to write for a peer-edited journal with the help of associates.  After conducting a survey of scholarship and after polishing his writing, he eventually had the first article he wrote accepted for publication.  These are the kinds of things that my students need to know about writing for an educated audience, that is, learning how to write takes time and that any one work cannot be completed quickly but requires draft after draft. 

Capt. Moore’s concluding chapter of the book is particularly enlightening because he describes how we humans are exposed to the chemicals found in plastic—e.g., phthalates and bisphenol-A—and how these plastics may affect our health.  This book, and the last chapter in particular, fits with the thematic nature of my current classes because some of my students are writing about plastic, using articles found in library databases.

Judging from the books that I have recorded at LibraryThing, I have read something like sixteen or seventeen books this year.  That does not count the books that I may have bought in previous years and only started reading recently.  I may have read two books a month during 2014.  I will have to keep a closer record of my reading during the coming year.  I have been reading two books recently.  One is a biography of a ghost town in the Kansas Flint Hills during the 19th century; it is written by Joseph V. Hickey, an anthropologist, and titled Ghost Settlement on the Prairie: A Biography of Thurman, Kansas.  I also just recently finished reading Wallace Stegner’s Recapitulation, which is mostly an interior monologue as Bruce Mason returns to Salt Lake City after a forty-five year absence.  As he attends a funeral for a relative, he comes to terms with his past during a period of twenty-four hours. Both books have sat on my shelf for a good number of years.  I read Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain about twenty-four years ago.  Recapitulation features the characters from that previous novel.  I am certainly not asking anyone to model their reading after my own.  What’s important is that I read regularly and that this reading serve as an inspiration for my own students to explore their interests and to challenge their minds by reading non-fiction occasionally.  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Jazz Favorites for 2014

My jazz selections for 2014 appear below.  This year has been one in which I have primarily supported independent musicians, that is, those musicians who choose to make their music available on Bandcamp.  I am sure that there are many more albums deserving of attention and released by the major labels.  These recordings are the ones that caught my ear in 2014. 

Erik Friedlander, Nighthawks Cellist Erik Friedlander created the songs that make up this recording after Hurricane Sandy had knocked out the electricity in New York, and he uses the work of Edward Hopper to emphasize our relationship with the night in an urban environment, that is, an environment characterized indoors by nostalgia and melancholy and outside by hustles and lonely encounters with strangers.  Friedlander is joined by Doug Wamble on guitar, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Michael Sarin on drums.  Friedlander and Wamble had previously explored together an excellent interpretation of Miles Davis’ ballad "Blue in Green."  Nighthawks is an example of an independent musician exploring the metaphors inherent in other art forms. 

Asa Trio, Craning (Sunny Sky Records) This second recording of the Asa Trio contains all original material, with Agnar Mar Magnusson (organ), Andres Thor (guitar), and Scott McLemore (drums) each contributing several songs.  The trio soars on this recording.  Known for his percussion work on Sunna Gunnlaugs’ albums and on his quintet recording, Remote Location, Scott McLemore makes his own unique contribution to Craning and sheds his “quietest drummer” label.  Listen to McLemore’s drumming on “On Pluto.”  All of the songs are worth one’s attention.  Listen to the interplay between organ and guitar on “Something to Make You Change Your Mind” or the emphasis on guitar on “Green Door.” 
Andres Thor, Nordic Quartet (Nordic Notes) Andres Thor has altered the makeup of his quartet for this second album as a leader.  For this album, he has recruited three members from Scandinavia, that is, Anders Lonne Gronseth (Norway) on saxophone, Andreas Dreier (Denmark) on bass, and Erik Nylander (Sweden) on drums, and recorded the album in Norway as well.  Anders Lonne Gronseth is most impressive on the ballad “Komodo.”  Andres Thor’s guitar explores the sonic reaches of a melody on “Squiek.”  Although I quibble with the addition of a drum machine, I think the album as a whole is quite impressive and deserving of attention.

Christian Vuust, Urban Hymn (Aero Music)  Christian Vuust, a Danish saxophonist, is joined on this recording by three Americans—Aaron Parks on piano, Ben Street on bass, and Jeff Ballard on drums.  This recording was made in New York after Christian Vuust had immersed himself in the milieu of the urban environment and created nine new songs from this experience.  These songs are characterized by Vuust’s long melodic lines on saxophone.  Though understated, this recording reveals its gems with repeated listenings.  Jeff Ballard makes his presence most known on “Biking the Big Apple” while Aaron Parks solos on many occasions in these songs.
Bebe/Buchanan/Tagel Featuring Helge Andreas Norbakken & Julian Arguelles, Gone 
Playing compositions written by Jakob Buchanan (fugelhorn and trumpet), Kasper Tagel (bass), and Soren Bebe (piano), this Danish quintet also features the work of Julian Arguelles on saxophone and Helge Andreas Norbakken on drums.  Buchanan and Arguelles make up the frontline of this quintet and are backed by a particularly strong rhythm section.  Each musician, nonetheless, gets the chance to solo, but the emphasis is placed on melody instead of a series of solos within any one song.  We are enriched by the funding provided to jazz musicians in Northern Europe, and it is unfortunate that this album has not seen wider coverage outside of Bandcamp except for a review at AllAboutJazz.

Tord Gustavsen Quartet, Extended Circle (ECM) Tord Gustavsen has probably created his best album yet with this quartet. Tore Brunborg appears on about half of the album, making a significant contribution to “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg,” “Staying There,” “Entrance (Variation),” “Devotion,” “The Embrace,” and “Glow.”  Perhaps Tord Gustavsen will keep this quartet together for at least another album.

Hess/AC/Hess, Spacelab (Gateway Music) Nikolaj Hess on piano is joined by Anders Christensen on bass and Mikkel Hess on drums in this selection of music suitable for late night listening.  This recording highlights the contribution of each instrument although the piano clearly remains the lead instrument.  “Jamil,” “Super 8,” “Altona,” “Sunday Grace,” and “Lu Bird” are particularly memorable.

Trio Johannes Groene, Chasse-Croise  This debut recording of Johannes Groene on saxophone and clarinet and leading a trio composed of Christian Proteau on bass and Claude Lavergne on drums contains some excellent work, with two tracks in particular, “La Grasse Matinee” and “Rostrot,” containing examples of where this trio might go in upcoming recordings.  At other times, such as “Generations,” Johannes Groene plays with a phrase before he takes it apart, exploring where it might lead, while accompanied by this strong and impressive rhythm section.

Kvartett, Vekk This EP of approximately twenty-seven minutes marks the official debut of this quartet that was created in 2013 and is led by the Belgian saxophonist Erik Bogaerts.  It also features the Belgians Lionel Beuvens on drums and Axel Gilain on bass and the Finn Alexi Tuomarila on piano, all of whom are leaders of their own groups.  Of particular note is the bass intro on “Vekk” and the interaction between saxophone and piano on “Masar.”  Let’s hope that we hear from this quartet again in the near future.

Jakob Lind Lauritsen, Shadowing (Gateway Music)  While only a twenty-minute EP, this recording deserves attention because it shows how the traditional piano trio can be expanded with the addition of electronics or what Jakob Lind Lauritsen refers to as “audio art.”  Jakob Lind Lauritsen also plays bass and is joined by Nicolai Majland on piano and Morten Haesum on drums.  As I mentioned in a brief review, the electronics used here serve as an additional instrument.  This EP serves as a snapshot of what we can expect in the future from this trio.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Giving Thanks

I want to thank Peter Bacon at Jazz Breakfast and Dave Sumner at Bird Is the Worm for including the Red Moon Cafe on their blogrolls. That attention is much appreciated. I plan on devoting more of my posts to jazz reviews, albeit impressionistic ones, in the coming year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In Place of a Christmas Tree

Because artificial Christmas trees are made with PVC plastic and because real Christmas trees are sprayed with pesticides, neither of which we wanted to bring inside our home, my wife and I decided to forgo purchasing a Christmas tree and to decorate our mantle this year. Finding an organic Christmas tree might have been an option if we could have found one and if we could have afforded one once we located it. We think that the alternative worked out quite well. Saving money on not having a tree is an added plus.