RhumBoogie – Part II of my Rum Odessey

My rum explorations started out, over 25 years ago, with the basics:

  • Meyers Original Dark
  • Coke

Yep, the classic upgrade to a Bacardi and coke. I don’t even remember if I had a lime wedge handy. If I had acquired a Bacardi silver, I used that. and so on… Occasionally I would mix it up with a pineapple juice faux tropical. Very stylish!

At some point I found out about the “tiki resurgence”, probably a few years after it happened. But as a wannabee mixologist I am enchanted by weird drinks. It helps if they are tasty. I’m sure I read an article on tiki in an issue of Saveur magazine, and it no-doubt featured Jeff Berry. And it was a smart move to feature him. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry is probably the foremost popularizer, with his books Sippin’ Safari, The Grog Log, Intoxica, and Potions of the Caribbean, among others. His works are essential because he has done the groundwork that many others skipped over. He names names, names ingredients, spills secrets.

One thing that is immediately apparent: If you want to make one authentic tiki drink, it might involve a lot of work and sourcing of ingredients. It might involve finding two or three rums. It might mean making a syrup or two, or three. It will means squeezing fruits. Crushing of ice… etc… if you want to be a tiki-naut, you will be both poor and smell like nutmeg. The array of liquors, fruits, syrups, bitters, and accoutrement is staggering.

Yeesh! I wanted a drink to chill out with, not a fugazi chem lab in my kitchen. Initially I probably wanted no more than a tasty rum drink to round out my summer rotation. I probably did want a fugazi chem lab, but that is beside the point. A fully stocked tiki bar is not simple nor is it inexpensive. But… if you want a tropical and tasty experience and don’t mind a little time in the kitchen, there is a solution… make your own rum punch mix!

Here is a scalable version of Jasper’s Secret Mix:

  • 1 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 1 cup turbinado/raw sugar
  • 1 oz Angostura Bitters
  • 1/2 small nutmeg, grated

Combine and stir until sugar dissolves. Bottle! Refrigerate!

Like any syrup or mix this can be stabilized with a small dose of silver rum, or better yet, Wray Overproof or another overproof/151.

Now you have an easy way to knock out an above-average tropical drink in a below-average amount of time. My personal ratio is 2:3. Two parts Jasper’s Secret Mix and three parts Plantation 5, stir with crushed ice, and you can even lengthen with seltzer, ginger beer, or ginger ale if you so desire. You can use whatever rum you have on hand, but bad rum will not help any drink.

Speaking of which, we have tripped over a deep and treacherous subject:

Bad Rum

Really, no rum is worst of all. And most rums can produce a palatable result, if not especially delicious. What I am really on about here is better rum, occasionally excellent rum. One thing that might pop up if you rev up the Google and start looking for this kind of info is that Bacardi has many detractors. Not that it is horrible, but the dry, vodka-esque character will add precious little to the taste of a tropical drink. In fact it can be downright nasty. I absolve Bacardi 8 because it is a little heavier and has a little more of the buccaneer under the hood. That is a great choice in a Bacardi product. If you want to know why “the bat” is omnipresent, ask the same question about any giant american yellow-beer brand.

Good Rum, A Sensible Approach:

The key here is to find the sweet spot between availability, affordability, versatility, and quality. This is the “sweet, sour, strong weak” of the smart rum shopper. I could rattle off a few good rums that you might not find, or might need to go far afield for. I hate when people do that and then say that you are a horrible person if you substitute anything for their precious HeathCliff Unobtanium 18. Pay that no heed. You want to avoid straying too high or low, too strong or too weird.

If I had to stock up on a few decent rums on the cheap I would stick with Cruzan, Mount Gay, and Coruba.

  • Cruzan Aged Light Rum is a steal at under $14/750ml, even here in the expensive northeastern USA. Mount Gay Silver is a good equivalent. Meyer’s Silver is a respectable 3rd place.
  • The same logic goes for Cruzan Aged Dark Rum and Mount Gay Eclipse. Both are a good choice for a versatile gold rum. To go off that simple script for a second, If you find Plantation 5 in good supply you should go that way.
  • Now, hold on to your wallet. None of the good dark rums are cheap, but I prefer Coruba if I can find it. Coruba has the best balance, but it is not especially cheap, it is not always easy to find, and for some reason there is often one bottle hanging around longingly in even the better shops. One. Not sure why. Meyers Original Dark is readily available but seems overpriced, and Goslings is the darling of the Dark and Stormy crowd, though I don’t like it in any other drink.

For somewhere in the area of $50 you will now have a light rum, a gold rum, and a dark rum and can get a general feel for what the rum-gods are offering. As always, buy the smallest bottle you can find and don’t be shy about asking the shopkeep. They know what they have.

(In a future post I plan on creating a simple style/rating grid for rums I have tasted/purchased)

If you feel an overwhelming desire to branch out, do so cautiously.

HERE BE DRAGONS

If you do not choose wisely you will either be holding your nose or giving a partial bottle away to a friend (maybe a stranger). I will hit a few highlights and you can search out more on your own:

Martinique Rhum Agricole: These are rums made from pressed cane juice, not molasses, and they can have a grassy, earthy character. I especially love this style. Rhum Barbancourt is an easy find and while the 3-star is more affordable (and good), the 5-star is worth the upcharge. These are not especially expensive or challenging, and can be mixed in place of other rums. Another distiller, Rhum JM, makes a wide range of rhums and the top of the line are very pricey. Also in this category are La Favorite and Clement. Clement VSOP is pricey but very good, and that seems to apply to all the Clement variations I have tried. Not cheep, but very good. BONUS INFOooooo… if you like a mojito or a caipirinha you should try using a white rhum agricole such as Clement Canne Bleu, or their Platinum. It is a match made in Martinique. Bonus Bonus: the mother of all applications for rhum agricole is the ‘Ti Punch: Squeeze a lime wedge into a smallish old-fashioned glass, dose with some simple syrup, and add rhum agricole to your taste. Ice cube optional. Very austere and not easy to find that good balance right away, so start small.

Overproof Rums: These are typically in the 115-160 proof range and vary wildly in character and drinkability. Wray Overproof is the rum that Jamaica runs on. I have likened it to “what if you could turn bananas into gasoline”, but it has a special charm. You will get seriously damaged on this so go lightly. As well as being the true flavor of the islands (not the cruise ships) it is also essential to making a good falernum… but I digress. Unless you are lucky enough to find the Hamilton 151 (successor to Lemon Hart 151), you are on your own. Most are suitable as a float or to flambe some bananas. The worst are a crime against humanity.

Flavored Rum: A bottomless pit of pain lies beneath the label! I am not much of a fan or consumer, and most of them taste very bad or one-note to me. Showing up at a buffet bar and finding Captain Morgan as the only rum is a panic-trigger akin to my abhorrence of McDonalds coffee… it brings back nothing but memories of deep despair and broken dreams. That said, I would be very sure I was going to like one before purchasing it. As I mentioned previously, I bought a bottle of Quebecois spiced rum last year, in Quebec, and it is decidedly not horrid. It is made entirely in Quebec, so go figure how they pulled that off. Original Captain Morgan is not the worst. How is that for faint praise?

Weirdo Rums: Cruzan Blackstrap is probably the easiest to call “weirdo”, and Stroh might be a stretch to call “rum”. Even if I am using the Cruzan Blackstrap as a little kick or a float, it dominates. The flavor is like vanilla meets off-brand root beer. One bottle could last two people a good long time. I think I only paid $11 for it, so there is some price relief to buffer the regret. I see Kraken in many shops and in many bars. I had a Kraken dark and stormy, and one with coke. All I could taste was vanilla. Like a less-complex Cruzan Blackstrap. Not my choice.

I will end with a suggestion that you keep an eye on the bottle selection (or ask) at the bar, or seek out rum-friendly bars. You can try a new rum in a cocktail and get a feel for it without buying a whole bottle.

Next up, a quick survey of syrup technology, and a small glossary of my favorite web resources on the subject of rum and cocktail chemistry.

Rhum for the Hills!

I have not been blogging recently, but I have had a project in mind and now is as good a time as any. Even through there are many Tiki culture and craft cocktail books out there, many of them are either extremely broad or end up being very complicated. I enjoy a good cocktail, and I expecially enjoy rum. That means stumbling into one of the most confusing and dangerous sections of your local liquor store. Rum is mysterious! They said. Well, yeah, it is mysterious. The range of styles and flavors, and quality, is broader and less predictable than in any class of alcoholic beverages I can think of. Rum ranges from bone dry white liquor that compares to vodka, to dark and heady “pirate juice” with aroms that can be overpowering to the unsuspecting consumer. My plan for the next few posts is to establish a plan of attack, and look for ways to simplify while lowering the initial cost of a basic rum selection.

  

Clement VSOP, a very nice Martinique rum. This is not where the rest of this blog post is heading. Thanks for looking at this rather spendy rum. This is distilled from pressed cane juice, not molasses. Nerd, out.

What’ll ya have, sailor?

What kind of drinks are you interested in? Rum can play well in anything from the simplest Cuba Libre to the most devious Zombie. Narrowing your focus is a good way to get off to a good start, and making a tasty drink, without needing a shelf full of specialty rums.

  • Long Drinks (rum, ice, mixer)
  • Cocktails (rum or rums, syrups, bitters, lime juice)
  • Tiki Drinks (rum, fruit juices, syrups, ammendments)

When it comes to the rum itself, let’s keep the categories simple:

  • White Spanish (dry white rum such as Bacardi, Ron Matusalem, and Ron Barrelito)
  • White Jamaincan/Carribbean (lighter but flavorful such as Cruzan, Don Q, Meyers White, and J.Wray)
  • Gold Rums (medium bodies rums such as Bacardi 8, Appleton VX, Plantation 5, Pussers)
  • Dark Rums (Meyers, Coruba, Goslings, El Dorado 12)
  • Specialty Rums (Wray Overproof, Cruzan Blackstrap, Flavored Rums, Spiced Rums)

Even that simple list is up for debate, especially the Gold/Dark distinction. I love El Dorado 12. It makes the best Dark & Stormy I have ever had. It is more “rum” than the vanilla, molasses, and rootbeer flavors that dominate other darks. But some rumheads will balk at caling it a true dark. Getting over the nit-picking is the best way to save time, money, and frustration. The wealth of information in books and on the internet is astonishing, but it can also be confusing. I will list some resources later, but remember that one good rum is better than a lot of bottles of “meh” rum.

The first order of business is to nail down what kind of drink you want to make, and then find a good recipe and a good rum. I have no idea what that will be, but I don’t need to know. I will pick a few examples as we go along and hopefully my reasoning will become clearer.

Obviously, the easiest route is a long drink with a prepared mixer. That is not always bad. Somewhere between getting clandestinely hammered on poorly mixed rum and RC Cola in some poorly lit parking lot, and having a Jeff Berry tattoo on your ass, is a lot of very good real estate. If you can make a well balanced Dark and Stormy or Cuba Libre you are off to a good start. So, let’s start there:

  • Dark and Stormy – 1.5oz rum, 8-12oz ginger beer, Ice, lime wedge optional
  • Cuba Libre – 1.5oz rum, 8-12oz Coke, Ice, lime wedge almost essential

Note: There is one commandment – Thou shalt always use fresh lime juice and fresh lime wedge. Any other source of lime juice is an abomination and you will have only yourself to blame for the horrid results. Amen. If you have a bottle of Rose’s and are not making a pitcher of Kamikaze’s in a frat house, you are on the wrong path. Step up thy game!

Despite the simple appearance, you have some latitude in the strength of the drink (dilution) and the acidity/complexity of the drink. Normally I wouldn’t specify a brand of soda, but Coke has that nutmeg note built in and nothing else does. That is key because someone has put that “je ne sais quoi” into a readily available and affordable mixer, and you don’t have to. As for Ginger Beer, Goslings is easy to find as is the Jamaican DG brand, or the Reed’s Extra Strong. Another option if you want to go all foodie on it is to make a ginger syrup and then top off with seltzer. But I digress.

The question is “which rum?”. If I had to pick one rum to makes these two drinks I would choose between Coruba and El Dorado 8. First off, they are very good rums. Secondly, you will be making a distinctive drink with a rum you won’t find on the line at the local bar. Lastly, those rums taste like rum. You can pick a lighter option like Cruzan Barrel Aged Silver, or a heavier rum like Kraken (which to me tastes like vanilla and little else). Or whatever you see that piques your interest. I have abottle of spiced rum from Quebec that is actually quite good, so it isn’t just speculation.

So far all you needed was some rum, a mixer, ice, and a lime. Hardware-wize you needed a paring knife or something to cut the lime, and a stirrer. You can use a pocket knife and your finger, but if you are trying to impress friends or a date, up your game just a tad. The next step up the rum ladder is to use a sweetner, usually in syrup form. They are as easy to make as a cup of tea, and they will improve your life in many ways. Flavored syrups are like moving from a tea bag to loose tea. Still very simple.

  • Plain syrup – equal parts granulated syrup and water, warmed to disolve sugar, cooled, stored in the fridge
  • Rich Syrup – two parts sugar to one part water, as above
  • Ginger Syrup – Peeled, sliced ginger in plain syrup, bring to barely a simmer, remove from heat and cover. Let sit for about 2 hours, cool, store.

Note: You can add a shot of rum to your syrups to prolong their life and prevent crystallization. It is a good idea.

I will end this entry with the mother of all simple drinks, the Daquiri. This is a great drink and easy to make as long as you have rum, limes, syrup, ice, and a drink shaker. Use any rum you have. Many rum drinkers use this as their reference drink when trying a new rum for the first time. My one caveat is that rums with strong flavors, or spiced rums, will be tricky to balance. But under no circumstances let that stop you. A weird Daquiri is better than no daquiri.

Classic Daquiri: 1.5 oz rum, 1 oz lime juice, 0.5 oz simple syrup. Combine in a shaker with ice, shake well, strain into a cocktail glass or an Old Fashioned glass.

The shaker can be as simple as you want. I have made very serviceable drinks in one of those plastic shakers that come with tequila bottles. Search the web for all kinds of nerd-lust related to drink shakers and the perceived merits of each type. I am not going to pick favorites.

So that is it. Keep it simple, don’t get dragged into the weeds by mysterious rums from near and far, and don’t buy nasty bottom-shelf rum unless it is completely appropriate. Good rum is out there for not much more. I will cover my choices for best values in good rums, as well as syrups and accoutrements in the next few entries.

Merry Go Round…

I have been home for a week from my trip to the Festival Moo Ah in Corby, England. I m almost all the way back in terms of gastrointestinal flora and my need for a constant supply of soft, delicious, cellar temperature ales.

There was a voice in my head, and also coming from a few friends: You went 3,000 miles to spend two nights listening to some geezers play Zappa music? Well, Yes. Of course I did. First of all, for several reasons, there is nothing like that going on in the USA. Europe has been a bit of a safe haven for people who include Zappa music in their repertoire. Firstly, the audience gets it. Secondly, there is much less interference and bullying from the Zappa family. The same event, held in Connecticut, would have received threats of legal action. Not might-have. Would-have.

Additionally, I get to see old friends that I have met at Zappanale, or putting faces with people I only know from their internet presence. That is a lot of fun. Having a chat and a pint with a new friend is a special event. I don’t take it for granted.

Lastly, the performances always have a side effect. That is usually a revelation, insight, or reference that leads to an “a ha” moment. This festival was full of those. Here is one….

One of the mysteries of the tribute-band world, and I will stay specifically on the subject of Zappa tributes, is that often the best shows to be at don’t hold up when you listen to the recording. The event often trumps the content. As a musician that has often left me puzzled. This festival cleared it up for me once and for all (for now).

I will start with a stark comparison:

In the red corner: Zappa Plays Zappa is a great band, well rehearsed, all the notes in the right place, excellent arrangements, and they bore me to death. I have stated before that Dweezil has the personality of a wet ball of yarn, but then I received several delightful videos from wet yarn balls. Point taken. I will repeat: Great Band. If you are looking to hear spot-on performances, they are the best of the best. Aside from their connection to She Who Shall Not Be Named, I wish them all the best (they are on tour as I type this).

In the other corner, Acton Zappa.

Acton Zappa

They opened the Moo Ah festival. A new band that worked their asses off to play power-trio versions of some Zappa compositions, and had a lot of fun doing it. I had met their guitarist, Mike Fox, before and it was great to see him taking a band onto a stage and “cranking some Frank”. I am in no hurry to hear the audio from that set. To be honest, no more than I am to hear the audio from the set my pickup band played on the Kamp in Bad Doberan in 2009. The idea was not stunning technical performances. The idea was to have fun. Fun, dear reader, is something that Frank Zappa himself exemplified. Whether it was his constantly evolving sense of humor, sense of indignation, glee at leading his amazing bands… Fun. M-F’in FUN. Acton Zappa had fun. Well done, boys!

The Referee: Ideally you would have both. A band like the Muffin Men (Liverpool boys, aka the “Flab Four”) pulls that off beautifully. They have the music under their fingers and can play with a power and fluidity that eludes many other groups. You wouldn’t know it to look at them but the boys can crush you with a Sabbath cover as easily as a tricky Zappa passage. When they mash up Faeries Wear Boots with Brown Shoes Don’t Make It they do both at once.

Muffin Men

OK, metaphor exhausted, the Big One in terms of epiphanies was that the best acts to see are not the bands trying to recreate a specific Zappa lineup, or record, or concert.. That is impossible. You will never get it right. There is no amount of rehearsal that will do it. You are not good enough. There is no Frank to lead you through it. You are doomed to fail. Turn back now. That goes for Zappa alumni, and Zappa progeny. Your best bet is to work very hard, learn the parts as a unit, and be yourself at the end of the process. Yes, if you play St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast you will have to play the marimba lick, and play it well. Or you just bend a string like… and let the notes fall where they may. But between those poles is certain failure.

In order to be fully smacked in the head by this concept I had to take one of my favorite observations, and then actually observe it: There are more Zappa alumni playing Zappa music at this moment than at any time since 1988. With a few exceptions they are not trying to recreate any specific era. They are skilled musicians who have had time to come to grips with their own skills, desires, emotions, and the music they worked so hard to perform. Banned From Utopia, Grand Mothers: Re-Invented, Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Denny Walley, Ed Mann… even Terry Bozzio still plays the Black Page at clinics and the occasional festival (erghhhhhhhhhh, sorry). I believe that it took time for Frank to be far enough away, in all senses, for the musicians he employed to break free from his shadow. It is enough to play the music, play it well, and play it with joy in your heart. There is a lot of that going on out there if you are interested. I think Z3 is kicking major ass at the moment, fwiw.

Whether you were in the band for one tour, twenty years, or never, that is the bar: “play the music, play it well, and play it with joy in your heart.”. To fail at that is to fail yourself and fail The Master.

Corby 2015 – The Rundown Cometh

Just a quick warning that I will have a few observations from my recent trip to the Festival Moo Ah in Corby, England. Yep. Another Zappa-themed festival in a European location with its fair share of beer and elsewhere. Uncle Ian is a Corby resident so I will be kind: I like Corby, but at one point I was sure that it was not reciprocal. I wish I could have seen more than the view from the taxi or on my escape from The George… My feeling about England, and this was my first trip, was that it is lovely when you have lovely company. Conversely, when things go sour they do so in a big way.

First the summary version! I expect to have a few more on music, food, and a solar eclipse. My trip was based out of the Manchester area, so I will start there:

A great party was had in the Manchester area, and it was great fun to see my Zappateer/Mancateer friends in their natural surroundings. :)

obshire_2015 28

A great road trip was taken to Corby! :)

obshire_2015 71

I had to choose a room at the Inn, and I did not choose wisely :(

evelien_george-1photo by evelein langereis

The first night full of good friends and good music. :)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmike fox and helen tate

I returned to a hotel room that was a miasma of chip-fat (fryer grease) :(

Booked a new room at 5:00am over a prehistoric GPRS connection :(

New hotel was 2 miles away and gave us a 7:00am check-in  :)

I still had not really slept in three days and my diet had been poor, at best :(

Was able to attend a commitment ceremony for friends Steve and Susan :)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Was starving and ate a double burger at the UK equivalent of Applebees :(

Reception for Susan and Steve

Second night of music was great, but I was in rough shape :) :(

Actually slept some on Saturday night, took it easy with breakfast, but… damage done :) :(

Ignored GERD-symptoms and had an epic drink-up with curry on Sunday night :)

curry cheers!

Crazy Train grinds to a serene halt on Monday morning and much lounging around ensues :)

Fantastic family dinner with my hosts! Hard to beat that :)

Out the door at 6am on Tuesday to return home :) Guiness and an egg sandwich at 6:30am in Manchester airport :)

obshire_2015

All told, a really fun time at a really fun festival. I need to thank everyone including Ob, Mrs. Ob, the Oblings, Danny, Steffen, Bengt, the residents of Mancunia, Uncle Ian, Andy, Canadian John from London, YoungPumpkin, Ged, Eric, the Dutchies, the Vikings, Rupert and Kevin, some mad bloke named Rick, and a seemingly endless string of amazing people who I now count among my friends.

Sorry, Charlie…

It has been a very shaky start to the new year. My groaner of a first 2015 post was symbolic of the way the year kicked off. And things may have been looking up until a mass murder in France took the lives of some of the greatest satirical minds of my generation, along with their friends, co-workers and protectors. Charlie Hebdo. I saw this weekly paper on my trip to France in 2011, and it stirred my desire to learn the French language a little. (I got carried away, and am still learning the language, albiet slowly, in fits and starts). The cover of an issue of Charlie Hebdo stood out like a beacon from a newsstand. Whatever that was, I wanted some. I was not disappointed. One reason for the fascination was that Charlie Hebdo destroyed my notion that the French people were not funny. Maybe I was blinded by their appreciation of Jerry Lewis, or the deeply un-funny Gerard Depardieu. Maybe I was just ignorant. But my highly-tuned cartoon radar saw immediately that these French were not only funny, they were hard-core funny. They were not fucking around. No punches pulled. You were being told to get the joke even if you WERE the joke. I was in France to pay homage to Frank Zappa, and he had prepared me well to appreciate the genius of Charlie Hebdo.

Until Wednesday, January 7, that was all there was to it. I sat at my desk, at work, at 7:30am and it was as if I was reading fiction. Two hours after the attack I was reading a headline in complete disbelief. How could this be true? …that kind of reaction. Then the churning stomach, the rage, the sadness, the confusion.

I would see the Charlie Hebdo covers on the internet, sometimes digging a little deeper, and I could understand enough to get the joke. But not being on the scene in France, specifically I am not French and furthermore not Parisian, I could only glimpse the joke. They were playing to the home team. I was watching from afar on a lo-res feed. In Paris, they are heroes. Not “were” heroes. Are Heroes. The French take their satire very seriously. Wine. Charcuterie. Satire. Charlie Hebdo. They were committed to not pulling punches. They were not letting their audience make editorial decisions for them. What is the point in that? Why bother with satire if you are letting the object of the satire tell you what is in-bounds? No. If Le Monde wants to play that game, there is plenty of game for Le Monde. But Charlie Hebdo is the prow of the free speech ship. Taking the brunt of the waves and the weather.

And that, of course, is what will be glossed over as this tragedy is examined by every hack with a microphone or a PhD or a blog (even I am glossing over something, I’m sure). The core concept of free speech, the concept that makes satire and critical commentary possible, is to be free from that kind of sensitivity. The existence of that sensitivity, when it rears its head, is a giveaway to where the next jab should be directed. Like a fighter covering up a bruised rib, that is where you direct the next blow. Charlie Hebdo walked the walk. Their mission was to occupy the deep center of free speech protections and put everyone else to the test. Does the government support free speech? Immigrants to France, knowing full well that they are living in the cradle of free expression? Foreign interests, who may or may not be aiding and abetting by giving quarter to extremist voices? They all stand in some measure as less free than Charlie.

I have made the point that Charlie Hebdo may not have been an outlier as much as the surrounding voices stepped back when called, leaving Charlie exposed and unprotected. The threat of extremist violence is no laughing matter. Not something to be taken lightly. Most people are not dealing with the threat that they will be assassinated for their latest blog post or news article. If you are thinking that I read Tony Barber’s piece in the Financial Times, you are right. When he writes “It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.” Errrr… Tony, they are not purporting to do anything. It is actually free fucking speech, you imbecile. It is not up to the speaker to provide the common sense. Charlie Hebdo was not yelling FIRE in a movie theatre. The common sense is that they have a right to speak and draw and satirize. The offended must have the common sense to respond in kind, with a pen and not a kalashnikov rifle.

But all of that is conjecture. Cabu and Charb are gone. Wolinski, the same. Tignous, silenced. Honoré, snuffed out. This is not an academic exercise. It is the kind of reality we have avoided in the US by sanitizing so much of our public speech (and as Ted Rall points out, by getting out of the political cartoon business, almost entirely). We, Americans, the holders of the flame, stepped back when the call was to step up. We now pull punches as a matter of course, letting the offended set the rules of engagement. We are not alone, but we are a good example. Even the dimwitted David Brooks managed to not make a total hash of this concept in the NYTimes: “Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.”

No. We are NOT Charlie Hebdo. And to maintain otherwise requires proof. What we did is let Charlie Hebdo take the heat while we relax in air-conditioned comfort. That is the truth. Do we want the lives of the good people at Charlie Hebdo, called by name to be slaughtered by maniacs, to mean something in the long term? Can we pay homage to their legacy in a meaningful way?

If the answer is yes then we need to reexamine our lives and our rules and our hysterical reactions. We need to ask ourselves if we are better off living as appeasers or dying as free men. Maybe we will not get all the way there, but if we try then we are at least learning from this sad episode and not just spackling over it like we do with so many other offensive acts. Can we bring ourselves to walk the walk in the face of this aggression? That may very well be the defining question of civilized peoples in the 21st century, and we can thank a group of French “cartoonists” for the lesson.

ch-dave-brown-finger

Image by Dave Brown, cartoonist at the Independent UK.

It’s About That Time

I have a gig coming up and am taking time each day to get up to speed. Prepping for a gig can be as much or as little as you make it. Want to be uber-prepared? Get busy about two weeks ahead, daily work. If it is very charty, that would be 2 months. Metronome practice, and a lot of it. Until the metronome sounds like Zig. Or Danny Richmond. and so on.

Meh. Point is: at least I have a plan.

And the improbable situation I find myself in is that I have become a person who is all about planning. Planning in the sense of structuring activity and time in a way to get things done. I also find myself at the a very weird crossroads in life. A place where I have hit a lot of strong numbers. Turning 50. 21 years on one job. Two amazing nephews turning 21. 25 years with an amazing partner who was suggestible enough to agree to marry me, baggage and all. My main man Wylee kicking ass at 11 years.

There is a rising drumbeat reminder of how tenuous it is and how things change. How much change I have seen. Who, and how, and when, and occasionally why. Rarely why.

There is a certainty that the present is a testament to how well or badly we have measured the past. The successes and mistakes form the ripples and eddys. It might be that the most important human mental tool is that we learn from mistakes. If we are especially aware we can learn from others’ mistakes. The humor in the idea that we are better off learning from the mistakes of others is that it is just not the real thing. Yes, you can learn from someone else’s mistake. But you won’t learn as much.

Nothing will get worn smooth by your mind like rehashing your very own gnarly, craggy mistake. Don’t pass up that juice. I realize that I’m a big fan of mistakes on the simple premise that mistakes are an essential tool. Throwing their value away is a monumental waste.

Mistakes are a huge part of preparing for a gig. It is all about making the mistakes before you get to the gig. My wife just sat through a week or two of me working on audio mixes for a project. Essentially it is repetitive listening to eradicate mistakes or make incremental improvements. Nobody wants to hear that except one person. And that person is always looking for ways to have to hear less of it. The continuous quest is to get more efficient. Not that inefficiency is all bad, it just is not as good. Being inefficient is its own, lesser, learning  tool.

And you would be wise to ask why someone would put themselves through all that. All those mistakes and slop and frustration… Simply: At any moment you either decide not to suck at something, or you decide something else, anything else. So the odds are stacked against that decision. To make it, and make it regularly, you have to be motivated by something.  Formal education is all about someone else providing enough structure to make that work compulsory and fairly evaluated. Otherwise you would be going all Huck F. Finn on your schedule. Without that external structure you need to do it because you want to do it. Your plan depends on it. Internal or external, that structure is essential. Huck was not going to ride that raft forever. He had a plan.

You have a plan of attack. Good. You can treat it as a formula like I did up top in the gig prep. I need two weeks to make all those mistakes. It is an inefficiency, but like friction generates heat, actions generate a voice. In music there are many variables. How you listen. How you feel time. How well you read. How well you can translate your inner voice with your instrument’s voice.Your voice becomes a product of your process. Your product will bear the fingerprints of your plan.

You decide, you act, you observe, you hopefully learn, and you apply the lesson. Done.

In a few days I play some Miles Davis, and Herbie, and Nick DeMaria (fer crissakes) and the questions all get answered. Musical questions, and some others too. And there will be more mistakes to provide the grist for the mill.

Miles’ “It’s about that time” is in the setlist, and each time I hear it I laugh at Miles playing with the words in a way James Brown or Sly Stone would immediately recognize. It is all about “that time”. Miles was always the man with the plan.

[this post is dedicated to my nephews Nick Charlton and Chris Gonzalez]

Jazz died in 1959, and I can prove it (or Nicholas Payton can)

My good friend and bandmate John Venter just shared this with me.

On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore

Read it. Read it all.

It sums up a lot of the feeling that I have had, and shared, for a long time. Sure I love the sound of a good jazz band. But the real deal is that when, in conversation, I have compared it to a Society for Creative Anachronism event, or to Civil War reenactments,  Those statements bought me plenty of hairy eyeballs, but that is what I feel. As much as I love the music I could never throw myself into the act of learning jazz standards. Lord knows I have tried. I don’t have a problem with other people doing it, but I am not the man for the job. I want to act on my musical impulses, whether they are informed by jazz or not.

There have been many efforts to adjectivize the art form. The New Thing. Electric Jazz. Hard Bop. Smooth Jazz. Euro-Jazz. Afro-Jazz… For more than 60 years the focus has been on  “modern jazz”, and I think there is a case to be made that “modern jazz” is/was a label to keep the form from truly advancing, or was instantly an extinct idea. Maybe both. I still use “jazz” and “free jazz” when tagging my music when I publish on sites like Bandcamp. I use the label cautiously, but I use it because it is a known concept and can be helpful for listeners. But when you listen to one of my tracks, brother, it ain’t jazz, free or otherwise. I am informed by Jazz, and educated by jazz. But the music is hopefully a music of the present.

My exposure to Jazz goes back to infancy, if not the womb, and much of that early exposure was crossover jazz, like Bird with Strings, or Jamal at the Penthouse. Name players in front of a string section. It was a lot safer for suburban whites to consume than something like Monk or Art Tatum. When I started to check out “jazz” I immediately gravitated to the harder-edged, bluesy, emotional music of the early 60’s. The Hard Bop scene, especially Mingus and his circle of players and composers, has been a huge influence on me. Much of that was recorded from 1960 onward, and that is at least an anecdotal support for Payton’s premise. These musicians were taking jazz forward by bringing it back to the roots of blues. Moving the forms away from the conceit of advanced european harmonic concepts (i.e. “birth of the cool”) and toward the I-IV-V, the funky cousin of the ii-V-I. This pushed open the doors for modal approaches, and other less restrictive platforms on which to improvise. Jazz was dead, but there was no stomach for a new genre or label. They would be marketed as jazz, then as now as forever.

There is an even darker side to that exposure. The more I learned about Charles Mingus, and how he was “angry” and “volcanic”… the more I was convinced that the roots of his mania were planted in being shut out of being a classical cellist as a youth. He could have been one of the greats in American classical music. Why wasn’t he? There was no place for a black classical cellist in 1940’s Los Angeles (and there was no other venue for cello, truly). He switched to bass, and focused on Jazz, because it was accepted. While he had an amazing career full of powerful music, I can’t help thinking that his stature as a “third stream” artist is a way to put a happy face on the racism that pushed him into “jazz”. Jazz may have been dead much earlier than 1959. It could have been dead in 1941 if you want to push the concept.

The argument about what, and who, is “jazz” stretches into the Jazz-purity quest of Wynton Marsalis, and the sneering of Stanley Crouch. They want the body kept alive by any means necessary. They have the right, and they have the platform, and even the funding, to pursue that goal. But the story as seen in an objective light might accurately be that they were performing CPR on a corpse. Crouch lambasting Miles for not making more Kind of Blue is an apex example. Miles was not an observer, he was a participant, and had been present at the funeral. He knew it was dead. Crouch was looking to preserve his domain at the expense of an artist. “Sell Out”, he hissed.

The deal is that the 20th century is chock full of artists who have tried to use jazz as a launchpad and not a crashpad, and they have been routinely marginalized and misunderstood on purpose. Monk. Ornette. Sun Ra. Cecil. Pharaoh,  Roland. They were all held up to the light of Pops, or the Hawk, or even Bird (who was punk to the core, trying to blast jazz free by brute force). They were never allowed to occupy the next plateau, the next “jazz”. They were tethered to a pyre no less real than Jean D’Arc. And all the while jazz has been dead.

Name the most successful “jazz” artist today. Where can you hear their music? Where can you see them play? Is it truly the fault of an entire society that jazz has lost its relevance? Can it be, in an age where music and information are more available than ever, that this American art form from the cusp of the 20th century could be so roundly ignored and unprofitable? Or is it like trying to sell crystal radios to the iPhone generation? An anachronism, as beautiful as a tintype and about as relevant.

Enjoy jazz. It isn’t going away. I spent some time digging Angelo Debarre playing gypsy jazz in his hard-hitting and direct style just last night. It was beautiful. It still is today. It still will be forever. But it isn’t new. It is a photo of a corpse. A beautiful, romantic, hard-won, photo of a corpse.