Bullish 01.11.17

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

I spent the holidays thankful that I *wasn’t* a beat writer covering the Chicago Bulls.  Sportswriters, bloggers, podcasters and the like were up in arms about the team, and my only response would have been to suggest that they calm the fuck down.   Seriously.  Let’s look at the charges.

The Team is Mediocre

This isn’t news.  Vegas put the Bulls over/under to start the season at 38 wins, i.e. a 38-44 season.  Many prognosticators took the under.  Nate Silver’s 538 site picked the Bulls for 45 wins, which Electoral College jokes aside, still isn’t a formidable record.  The Bulls have hovered at or just below .500 lately.  Why is this a surprise?

The Rajon Rondo Signing Isn’t Working Out

Rondo was once a leading NBA point guard but in the last three seasons, he’s worn out his welcome in Boston, Dallas and Sacramento.  He can’t shoot from distance; 29.2% for his career from behind the arc, which makes him an especially bad fit in the pace and space offense that Fred Hoiberg was hired to implement.  He’s a clubhouse cancer as illustrated by his recent itinerary.   Only Bulls GM Gar Forman thought this was a good idea.  That Rondo wouldn’t last half a season as the Bulls starting point guard was one of the safest bets in the NBA.

That led to this aggravating conclusion

It’s time to blow it up!

This is code word for its time to trade emerging superstar Jimmy Butler, which would be idiotic.  First of all why trust a rebuild to Forman, a personnel executive, who thought contrary to all conventional wisdom that signing Rondo was a good idea.  Secondly, the point of rebuild is to find a young superstar to anchor the team.  Butler is 27.  In other words they have a cornerstone already.

Thirdly, and this is the most important point, the Bulls won’t tank as they have done that and it didn’t end well.  From 1999 until 2005, the team drafted in the upper echelons of the lottery, and those picks didn’t turn out too well.  Here are a few highlights

Marcus Fizer

Chris Mihm

Eddy Curry

Jamal Crawford

Tyrus Thomas

Ben Gordon

Kirk Hinrich

Luol Deng

Admittedly, some of these guys had honorable NBA careers and were stellar role players, but that’s the low end of what you want from a high lottery pick.  Meanwhile the team suffered through six of the worst seasons in franchise history.  Most key members of the front office remember that era and have no stomach to risk repeating it.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

At the end of last season’s 42-40 campaign, the Bulls were an aging and broken down roster in decline.  I thought the goal was to maintain some relevance in the standings while transitioning toward a younger core of players.  The signing of Dwyane Wade helped maintain the relevance but the Rondo signing didn’t.  It takes minutes away from Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and the recently added Michael Carter-Willliams.  Their development as well as that of frontcourt players Bobby Portis, Niko MIrotic, Paul Zipser and Doug McDermott is the barometer of the team’s success.  The sooner the team begins making that clear the better.     The games since “the crisis” especially the 101-99 loss to the Wizards on January 10, show that narrative taking hold.  The success of the season will be its sustainability.

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Winter Jazz Festival 2017

Winter Jazz Festival Marathon Musings

My 2017 Winter Jazz Festival Marathon began and ended with arguments.

No, they weren’t stylistic or about the nature of social awareness (one of the WJF 2017 themes) and music.  The disagreement was more fundamental.  It was 9:30 on Friday night and I’d just finished a workday that featured four hours of journalism followed by eight more of retail.  My bones and muscles insisted that home, a ten minute walk, was the only option.  My ears were just as adamant, the New School buildings, an epicenter for the Marathon, were also a ten minute walk away.

The ears won and off I went toward the New School, where in one venue I heard a program of Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone ably performed.  It was motivation to go further west where Mike Reed, a great Chicago based drummer was presenting his Flesh and Bone.  There was a poet and wild and cool declamations but the highlight was hearing Reed’s sextet.  His sound is a counterfactual.  What if the scenes that produced soul greats Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield and bluesy jazz giants Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan and the AACM, the musical collective that has nurtured dozens of contemporary music’s leading lights intermingled more than balkanized.  As with Reed’s group, People Places and Things, the results with Flesh and Bone are tantalizing.  It was telling that many Chicago journalists in town for other events stopped by to hear the hometown hero.  Even in a marathon taking place in nearly a dozen venues with more than 100 acts, there couldn’t have been much better going on.

Saturday, with only about six hours of journalism on my shoulders, I was more energetic, though still centered around the New School campus, and for six hours I bounced eagerly between three buildings.  The highlights began right away with the quartet of Michael Formanek, Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerlad Cleaver recreating their magic from their ECM recordings of a few years ago.  The magic increased with John Herbert’s Rambling Confessions, which featured Jen Shyu tearing up “Alfie” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and making those classics hers.  I could have listened to them all night but my friends were eager to run upstairs and catch what we could of the Mary Halvorson Octet.  The theater was packed but the organizers left the door cracked and from outside I could hear the complex rhythms and nimble harmonies meld into a charged, intense beauty.  One of my pals wanted a dose of something more straight ahead so three minutes later we were in the 12th St. Auditorium watching drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. lead a rip roaring band through tunes like Eric Dolphy’s “Iron Man.”  My pals decided that venues on the southern edge of Greemwich Village might satiate their sudden desire for energetic eclecticism.  I stayed in the New School area to investigate Adam O’Farrill and he happily lived up to the hype with a quartet named Stranger Days that deftly navigated its way through repertoire by Kenny Dorham and some knotty originals.

There are many moments during WJF where one yearns for the science fiction power to replicate yourself temporarily so that you can be in two places at once.  That wish was powerful as 11:00 approached, I was sitting in the Glass Box Theater utterly mesmerized by Ben Allison’s Think Free, a group that was turning minor key blues into finely textured musical weaves with pianist Frank Kimbrough zigzagging through the fabric.  My ears wanted to stay.  But my ears also wanted to go upstairs to hear another bassist, Chris Lightcap and his group Superette.  I went (one of Lightcap’s other group, Bigmouth is one of my favorites), and it was quite the contrast.  Lightcap’s group, two guitarist s and a drummer wailed.  Someone needs to double bill them with Jenny Scheinman’s aptly named Mischief and Mayhem.  Post millennial rocking jazz rock usually has a foreign accent; Lightcap’s group had a powerful twang.

My WJF marathon ended nicely where it had started 27 hours before, in Tishman Auditorium, this time for Nik Bartsch Mobile, a quartet that trafficked in sublime, gently wrought textures and rhythmic lines.  It was as if Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians had been written for a European jazz quartet with a pianist, bass clarinetist and two drummers.  My ears were eager to trek east for Brandee Younger, but by then I wasn’t only tired but I was hungry so my body won that argument.

For all of that music wonder, the real highlight of the marathon took place outside a concert hall.  After Halvorson, I encountered a high school teacher from Long Island with a diverse dozen or so of his students.  He told us that he brings a crew to WJF every year; meanwhile his students enthusaistically debated which venue would be next.  It was heartening to see the artistry and ambition presented on stage matched by someone in audience development.  I had a bunch of hip teachers in high school, but that dude was in a completely different league.  I almost envied the students.

jen-shyu

Jen Shyu, a highlight at WJF 2017

 

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Nat Hentoff R.I.P

When I was a teenager starting to buy my own jazz records, rather than borrowing my parents LPs or making cassette tapes of my siblings, my father took note and bought me a copy of Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Is. I read it and reread it almost immediately. He was capable of lionizing jazz greats *and* analyzing them. I was fascinated as previously I had thought that the act of scrutiny inherently reduced the subject. It made me want to write like that too.
About 25 years later, I began writing for the Wall Street Journal, I knew that Hentoff wrote for the same section of the paper but I couldn’t imagine that he might read my pieces. Then about two years into my time there, my editor emailed me the day a review of mine ran, and I cringed. I feared I’d botched a detail. Nope, my editor was writing to convey Hentoff’s praise. Then about a year later, it happened again, and a couple of years later, again.

Each instance put me on cloud nine for weeks, but what also impressed me was which articles he commented upon. The stories about Sonny Rollins or Duke Ellington, artists that Hentoff had written beautifully about, weren’t the ones that impressed him. He was a big fan of the 2004 story about the then up-and-coming Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. He liked the 2009 article about Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum, Jessica Pavone and Tomas Fujiwara. In other words, his ears were still open and eager for information on new music. It made me that much more interested in finding new and exciting musicians. Impressing my editors wasn’t easy, but impressing Nat, now that was the gold standard.
Nat’s gone now, but I’m not going to stop trying to impress him. That’s what Jazz Is, right? He taught me with his words and his actions.

nat-hentoff-wsj

 

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At WSJ on the Kamasi Washington Effect

 

 

I’m glad this could be said.  Washington’s impact on the jazz scene will be felt for years to come and the success of his colleagues should do wonders to highlight how decentralized the jazz scene has become.  I know there’s a Bay Area and Chicago sound.  I bet in coming years we’ll hear sounds from scenes well outside the current mainstream.

How Kamasi Washington Revived Jazz-Funk

Jazz musicians are returning to the hybrid style, putting their own twists on the 1970s genre in records with crossover appeal.

Kamasi Washington in July ENLARGE
Kamasi Washington in July Photo: James Mccauley/Rex Shutterstock/Zuma Press

The rise of Los Angeles-based saxophonist Kamasi Washington was easily the biggest jazz story of the past 18 months. Following the release of his aptly titled three-disc recording, “The Epic” (Brainfeeder), he brought his exceptional live shows to venues across the country and spurred recordings by his associates that have updated jazz-funk, a hybrid style popular in the early ’70s and intermittently since. His ascent and his coattails have brought attention to the extremely fertile Los Angeles scene that is rapidly becoming an important jazz epicenter, and on the increased eclecticism among jazz musicians.

The 35-year-old tenor saxophonist performs in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 30 and 31, in San Francisco Jan. 6-8 and Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 12.

Mr. Washington plays a variant of the hybrid that is much heavier on the jazz part, but still very much rooted in the nascent funk of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The abundance of small percussion instruments, the addition of flutes and other sinuous instruments, and a more propulsive backbeat show the influence of such cornerstone discs as Pharoah Sanders’s 1969 recording “Karma” and Billy Harper’s 1973 album “Capra Black,” but it was Mr. Washington’s work on Kendrick Lamar’s superb 2015 hip-hop recording “To Pimp a Butterfly” (Interscope) that was his big break. When Mr. Washington’s debut recording was released a few months later, he became a

surprise crossover success. In the tours that followed, he played in large, sold-out venues to predominantly young audiences who were probably more familiar with J. Cole than John Coltrane, one of Mr. Washington’s most important influences.

Two of Mr. Washington’s colleagues—saxophonist/producer Terrace Martin and trumpeter Josef Leimberg—and MAST (a project by L.A.-based multi-instrumentalist Tim Conley) delivered stellar jazz-funk recordings this year. Mr. Martin, who also contributed to Mr. Lamar’s recording, released “Velvet Portraits” (Ropeadope), which has been nominated for a Grammy. His disc draws equally from the earthy grit of vintage R&B and the slow, relaxed grooves of such archetypal early jazz funk as Roy Ayers’s song “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” Mr.

Leimberg’s recording “Astral Progressions” (World Galaxy) is more atmospheric but heavy on virtuosic jazz solos from Mr. Washington and others. “Love and War” (Alpha Pup) from MAST adds another effective element to the mix, electronic dance music, and it offers an engaging panoply of sounds that are both of the moment and suggestive of a jazzier version of some early drum ’n’ bass from the late ’90s.

These are not the only L.A.-based artists making their way onto top-10 lists. “The New Breed” (International Artists) by guitarist Jeff Parker and “MONKestra Vol. 1” (Mack Avenue) by pianist John Beasley have also scored end-of-the-year accolades. The eclecticism displayed on these discs and many others of note this year highlight a growing trend toward ambitious experimentation and blends of jazz with other musical styles. Much of that vibrant activity took place in Los Angeles, a place not known, until recently, for its jazz scene.

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The Do Over: Holiday Edition

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.

Like a lot of people, my fondest holiday memories are from when I was a kid.  I don’t mean unwrapping presents, but rather the energy of having all of my siblings and many of their friends charging every molecule of air in the apartment or duplex or where ever it was that my parents lived.  Not that I didn’t get good presents that set me on my life path as a music journalist—for instance I received Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Nina Simone’s To Love Somebody and the Soundtrack to The Harder They Come, as a gift from my eldest brother in 1973, but the camaraderie was what I remembered best.

Around the time I was 26, I had begun to realize that I would have to create different types of holiday traditions.  My family’s gather holiday was Thanksgiving, which is sometimes complicated given my food business obligations (on a sales per hour basis, Turkey Day is one of busiest days of the year at several places where I’ve worked). In the best years, however, I made it back, first to Dallas and now to Chicago for the big meal, and in the very best years I arrived early enough to cook some of it.

Christmas was always another matter, and as an adult I searched for a way to give it meaning.  My professional life, a balance of cheesemongering work and freelance journalism had no discernable precursor, and it appeared early on in my adult life that I would have to develop my owns ways to celebrate “the very best time of the year.”  Things began to take shape in 1985, a good friend came over and we watched as the Knicks fell hopelessly behind the Celtics and decided to wander into Chinatown for a meal (yes, we missed a stunning comeback, one of the Knicks major highlights of the era).

NBA games became an integral part of my holiday tradition er, habits.  So too did a movie binge.  Xmas Eve and Day were usually great times to catch up on art flicks I’d missed upon their release but were still around since everyone else was crowding into the blockbusters.  But the most important thing about the holidays were that they became a time of solitude, not in an Edward Hopper sense, but rather in a simple retreat and regroup manner, a chance to not be Martin from this food place or Martin from that publication or website.  Instead it was a chance just to be well, Martin.  Sometimes you don’t know how loud the din in your head is until you turn it down.  A yoga class or a bike ride typically fit into the mix.  A cooking endeavor, usually a pot of mussels or some homemade ramen figured prominently into my plans.  In other words, I did stuff, but my real agenda was to increase my clarity.  You might say that you can do that anytime and I’d say YOU can do that anytime, for me, I needed the dialed down volume of the city and the lack of work pressures.

It was stunning how quickly and abruptly my professional world shifted into that mode this year.  On Friday the 23rd, before 10 a.m., I received 50 music journalism related emails.  From 10 til Noon, I received only 15 more.  Between Noon and 1, I was discussing a cheese class with my contact at the 92nd Street Y when in mid dialogue, I got an auto response: out of office until January 3.  An hour later on my walk to the store, I could hear the sound of the city quiet from its usual roar to a gentler croon.  The store I work at is unusual in that Christmas isn’t a busy season; we’re still somewhat dependent on the five nearby collegiate dorms.  This means Yuletide is slow, and we make it all back on New Year’s Eve and in early January.  My beer aisle has an older, more consistent following, but still I was able to leave an hour earlier than usual and take Sunday off.

Christmas Day did involve a bike ride to Chinatown for brunch and a long winding walk back to the East Village that took us by the apartment that housed me in the mid ‘80s (yes, where my friend visited in 1985).  And yes, a Knicks-Celtics game was going on at the time.  The rest of the day was devoted to NBA, cleaning and cooking.  Still after two and half days where the loud pressures of “PRODUCE, PRODUCE, PRODUCE” were replaced by softer priority of renewal.

I think I’ve figured out how to make what seemed so strange 30 years ago, holiday solitude, into a welcoming ritual.  If my life changes in a way that I’m not so able to have a quiet Christmas then I really will have to figure out how to have this measure of tranquility some other time of the year.

charlie_brown_xmas_tree

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Bullish 12.17.16

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

The great Chicago Bulls experiment finally met its match this week and the result was a surprising thud: three defeats to teams that the fanbase might have thought inferior.

The Bulls have gone against the grain for a third of the season.  Rather than build an offense around great outside shooting, the method used by every other successful franchise these days, the team built around every other major attribute, rebounding, not turning the ball over and getting to the free throw line.  In two and half games, the team discovered how bad things can look when the other team counters that strategy.

It’s a little bit of a surprise that two teams that unmasked the Bulls were the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Milwaukee Bucks.  Neither team figures to be a Conference Finalist this year, but both are filled with young future all stars and figure to be top echelon teams soon.   What each team did was contest the rebounds and due to their length and athleticism, they kept the Bulls from getting second shots.  In each of the three games, the Bulls offensive rebounding dipped well below its seasonal average and the results were disastrous.

The Bulls are often criticized for their lack of three point shooting and it’s a valid complaint.  The Bulls are dead last in the Association in three point attempts, makes and of course, percentage.  What’s more is that they aren’t passing up threes and routinely nailing mid range shots.  They are 25th out of 30 teams in two point field goal percentage.  In other words this is truly the gang that can’t shoot straight.   The 69 points against Milwaukee at home on Friday night, was more a reflection of a crucial team weakness, not a fluke.

The easy point of comparison is that the Bulls are like a college football team that in an age of spread offenses and high flying passing games, still prefers to grind it out, three yards and a cloud of dust.  Yet, the Bulls ground game isn’t all that good either.  Their offensive rating fell from 10th to 15th this week.

Until the Bulls repair their offense, they will be dependent on their defense.  That’s a familiar position for Bulls fans during the Tom Thibodeau regime, but those Bulls were typically top five or even top three in defense.  This year’s Bulls are 11th in defense.  A defense that is a bad game or two from being middle of the pack isn’t going to carry a team with an offense in freefall very far. bulls-logo

 

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Bullish: The Quarterly Report

Bullish: The Quarterly Report

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

The NBA 2016-17 season is just more than a quarter over, so small sample size caveats no longer apply.

It’s clear that the Bulls are better than the assessments of most forecasts.  Vegas put their over/under win total at 38 and most pundits (myself included) took the under.  Yet during the first 23 games, the Bulls have played at or near a 50 win pace.  They have signature wins over elite teams like the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they hung very close with the Los Angeles Clippers before losing.  They have also shown weaknesses losing to teams like the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers and the team with the Association’s worst record, the Dallas Mavericks, blew them out by 25 points.

The Bulls have created an effective offense by capitalizing on the strengths of their roster.  All five starters, Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez are above average rebounders and below average shooters from long distance, so instead of mimicking the league’s dominant trend toward fast paced play featuring a flurry of three point shots, the Bulls play a methodical style that maximizes their second shot opportunities and Butler and Wade’s ability to create their own shot, often creates opportunity at the free throw line.  Also, although Rondo is given to flashy, ambitious passes sometimes, the team is one of the best at not ending possessions in turnovers.

Their defense which also ranks in the upper echelon on the Association is premised on dismantling opponent’s pick and roll plays.  Depending on the defender, the Bulls will either switch or trap the play, and on traps or sometimes when they show traps, the taller defender will frequently sink back into the restricted area to protect the rim.   The biggest attribute to this approach is the Bulls are often beating opponents to desired spaces and deterring shots.  That has left them with elite numbers in opponent’s Effective Field Goal Percentage and ratio of free throws to field goal attempts.  Oddly for a team that excels in Offensive Rebound Percentage, their Defensive Rebound Percentage is middle of the pack.  If it improves, the Bulls D might make former coach and defensive wiz Tom Thibodeau smile.

The most encouraging thing about the team so far is that there’s a clear recognition of its strengths and that there’s a willingness to experiment.  Coach Fred Hoiberg played big man Cristiano Felicio as a reserve for the first ten games of the season or so, but when Doug McDermott, the team’s only reliable marksman from distance went out with an injury, Felico found himself nailed to the bench in favor of Bobby Portis, a big who has some shooting range.  The substitution failed miserably, however, as Portis lacks Felicio’s defensive mettle and the second year player doesn’t react quickly enough to be a useful force on the floor.  As soon as McDermott returned, so did Felicio, and the Bulls bench, once a major problem has become only a minor issue.

At the start of the season, the defensive strategy was to switch every pick and roll, but better teams, most notably the Clippers used that strategy to isolate favorable one-on-one matchups.  A lasting takeaway from that game is the site of Clippers power forward Blake Griffin backing down the much smaller Rondo and shooting over him before additional help could arrive from Bulls defenders.  The new strategy minimizes those situations.

The Bulls are still a work in progress, and yes, aren’t we all, but there’s a lot to be settled before the team can be fully counted on to vie for a top four seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.  There are questions at reserve point guard which may not be settled until Michael Carter Williams returns from his wrist injury.  There are questions of crunch time lineups.  I favor using Wade at the point and having McDermott on the floor to stretch the defense, but that quintet hasn’t been on the floor enough to settle pro or con.  There are also interesting issues surrounding minutes, usage and player development.

The Bulls have 59 more games to work those through.  The nice thing is that the Bulls were never in the Finals-or-bust most that underpinned recent seasons.  Instead they were literally trying to turn this thing around and move forward.  The first goal appears to have been accomplished.  How far and how fast is what we have to gauge.bulls-logo

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