At The Root on Roots

I watched a lot of TV last week.

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The Wilbon Mess

NBA-Basketball-07-08-Season                The only thing worse than getting piss in your face is getting piss in your face when you don’t expect it.  That happened to me last week when veteran ESPN and Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote a column claiming that African American and Sports Analytics don’t mix.  The short and simple of his reasoning was that Black people don’t do math, and these math geeks were costing young African Americans jobs in NBA front offices.

Let’s go all old school on this and revive an all too appropriate phrase, “say what?”

Wilbon is a known foe of the analytics movement as are many middle aged African American sports personalities.  Charles Barkley, Joe Morgan, Harold Reynolds and others are quick to look askance at arguments built on statistics that were developed in the last two decades or so.  His stance wasn’t surprising and he’s welcome to it.  But to tar and feather all Blacks?  That ain’t right.

It’s smelly liquid in my face because I was one of the first daily newspaper columnists to use advanced statistics in covering the NBA.  I did it 13 years ago for the NY Sun, and I continued to do it until the paper’s demise in 2008.  The Sun had quite a heyday.  Regular readers in those days were treated to a sports section that included such great minds as Tim Marchman, John Hollinger, Aaron Schatz, Doug Farrar, Jonah Keri, Christina Kahrl, Kevin Greenstein, Eric Silverstadt, Max Watman and many others.  The influence of the alumni association stretches far and wide.  Our coverage always went beyond the usual carping about this player or that player or idle press release regurgitation.  From that pulpit, I correctly picked the underdog to win the NBA Finals in 2004, ’06 and ’08.  In 2008, I began writing sports columns for The Root, an African American news and cultural affairs site whose editors clearly didn’t share Wilbon’s antipathies.

During that time, I often traded notes from the comments with other African American readers at The Root.  And my picture was on my column at the NY Sun and on several occasions I encountered young African Americans who shared my passion for analytics.  Even today, my barber and several of his other customers engage me in discussions that might center on PER or WAR.  In addition, African Americans who frequent my favorite beer bars do the same.   To this day, I think I’ve had more discussions involving sports and advanced metrics with people of color than I have with white people.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I applied on several occasions to Undefeated but this axe grinding has nothing to do with that.  I totally get not being hired.  I’m nowhere near as good at building my brand as a journalist as I am at building mine as a specialty food professional.    My weekly sports writing endeavors in the national press came to an end in 2010, save for the occasional piece at Wall Street Journal or at Slate.

I was delighted that other African Americans in journalism were as outraged as I.  Jemelle Hill and Michael Smith took Wilbon to task on their superb podcast His and Hers.  They included Chris Herring of the Journal as a guest.  And Bomani Jones spoke out against Wilbon’s idiocy.

My passion for statistics was instilled in me by my father who was consistently outraged that Black stars in the ‘60s weren’t given their due and used statistics to back up his arguments.  When I was in the third grade he taught me conventional baseball statistics like Earned Run Average, Batting Average and On Base Percentage.  15 years later I gave him a copy of Bill James Baseball Abstract as a gift and he read it cover to cover that day.  My Dad passed away ten years ago, but I could see him clear as day shaking his head in disagreement as I read the Wilbon piece.

I think the Wilbon controversy is an age thing (though I’m his age and I don’t think that way).  He and several other older African Americans in sports media feel like their powers from several decades of observation have been challenged by these young, mostly white, cats who back their arguments up with new statistical data.  To them it’s like they paid their dues to achieve this eminence of dictating the narrative, and now they are being challenged by these youngsters who have neither the credentials of having played the game nor the decades of observation.  They resent it.  That much is unfortunate but logical.  Extrapolating it to the idea that African Americans can’t handle math because it’s not how we intrinsically view sports is sheer lunacy.


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At The Root on Jonathan Abrams Boys Among Men

Usually when I think about Grantland, the late, much lamented ESPN sports and pop culture site, my mind dwells on the great weekly scribes they had like Zach Lowe, Jonah Keri, Bill Barnwell and others.  But Jonathan Abrams was also one of my favorites.  His longform pieces were never less than provocative and his new book reads like a 120,000 word version of them.

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At WSJ on the Dave Harrington Group

‘Become Alive’ by Dave Harrington Review

Dave Harrington’s new album is a showcase of the variety of styles and genres he’s mastered.

In Darkside, a duo with Nicolas Jaar, Dave Harrington, a master of many instruments best known as a guitarist, created some of the most compelling and widely adored electronic music of this decade. “Become Alive” (Other People) is the new release from the 30-year-old’s first solo project—which is billed as the Dave Harrington Group—since Darkside went on hiatus in the summer of 2014. On the album, Mr. Harrington is wending his way back to his roots: the late-’60s and early-’70s experimental jazz that inspired his musical career.

On the album, Dave Harrington is wending his way back to his roots: the late-’60s and early-’70s experimental jazz that inspired his musical career. ENLARGE
On the album, Dave Harrington is wending his way back to his roots: the late-’60s and early-’70s experimental jazz that inspired his musical career. Photo: Kyle Good

During its brief existence, Darkside produced moody and dense electronic music that was highlighted by Mr. Harrington’s virtuosic work. The band fused dub, prog rock, electronic dance music and elements of jazz fusion into a potent mix. The name of the band recalled the 1973 Pink Floyd recording “Dark Side of the Moon,” and in many ways the sound seemed like an updating of it. Darkside was particularly well received. Pitchfork hailed the band’s amalgam of styles and cited its 2013 recording “Psychic” as one of the best albums of the decade. Darkside’s 2013 remix of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” was named one of the best recordings of the year by the New Yorker.

Dave Harrington’s first solo project since Darkside is ‘Become Alive.’ ENLARGE
Dave Harrington’s first solo project since Darkside is ‘Become Alive.’ Photo: Chad Kamenshine

“Become Alive” starts with “White Heat,” a brooding track highlighted by keyboards and guitar. It has a pristine sound and glacial pace; no one will link it to the Velvet Underground classic “White Light/White Heat” Instead the tone and mood recall the Radiohead recordings “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” minus the vocals. The second track, “Slides,” maintains the mood but is built from stellar, serpentine bass clarinet lines from John Stanesco. The recording’s middle tracks are more atmospheric and cinematic, highlighted by “Steels,” a solo track featuring Mr. Harrington’s excellent pedal steel guitar work. But the final three pieces—the title track, “Spectrum” and “All I Can Do”—shift gears. The music is less brooding, more narrative in structure and often up-tempo. The title track features 11 musicians and “All I Can Do” has six. With the muscular bass lines, soaring harmonies, and searing solos, the music is reminiscent of bands like the Tony Williams Lifetime and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, which straddled the divide between jazz and rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

As is often the case with a musician’s first full length recording, “Become Alive” is a showcase for the variety of styles and subgenres that Mr. Harrington has mastered. He had jammed around New York, then met Mr. Jaar while both men were students at Brown University. Mr. Harrington grew up in the city and studied at the Harlem School of the Arts with great musicians like guitarist Kelvyn Bell and bassist Brad Jones. He loved the late-’90s Manhattan downtown, especially the music of Bill Frisell and John Zorn as well as vintage prog-rock groups like King Crimson. With “Become Alive,” Mr. Harrington illustrates the vibrance and diversity of New York music late in the 20th century while smartly updating it.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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I turned 56 this week, and received several hundred well wishes on social media.  This is how I thanked my friends.


Fifty Six isn’t the sort of milestone birthday that 40 or 50 or 60 is, but this birthday felt like a landmark even if I didn’t celebrate as if it were.  For most of the last 15 years I’ve been eluding ruin in some form or another.  I was a music journalist then that stopped generating income so I became a sportswriter. That dried up, so I went back to music.  That ended abruptly so I went full time in the food business running a cheese counter.  I discovered that the business model for most cheese shops is as broken as it is for most newspapers, so I slid over to craft beer.  That works but only if I could restart the journalism.  I found two editors who seem committed to keeping my inbox full, if not overflowing.  Meanwhile, two family members died.  My health has been haphazard, and the financial ups and downs have been so extreme that for a while the guards on the ground floor in the housing court building at 111 Centre St. knew me by face.  Five years ago, I had a trip there where the only thing on my mind was forestalling eviction long enough to move my stuff in an orderly manner.  I got a continuance and landed a promising full time job and a big catering gig to make most of my arears go away.  I crowdsourced the rest and well, I’m still here in this apartment.

This time last year I’d kind of had it.  I’d begun to wonder if this well more than a decade old struggle was worth it, but I soldiered on mostly on the notion that I knew this game plan and I just didn’t have the energy to formulate another one.   Yet work was going well.  I could see the break-even mark in the offing, and I figured beyond that lay the possibility of retiring debt and rebuilding my life.

Earlier this year, I had an epiphany.  I think during the last 15 years I’ve pretty much experienced every missile that the agents of chaos can shoot my way.  I’ve dodged every land mine too, and I’ve grown immune to their poison gasses.  I realized that I didn’t need to live in fear anymore.  Sure, it’s in the back of my mind as is true of everyone that derives a chunk of their change from journalism.  But I have several plan b’s ready, and more importantly I have several initiatives in motion that will increase both my income and my stability.  This, in other words, was what the struggle was all about.  I’m beginning to think I’m winning, and I haven’t felt that way since I was 41.

Birthday was hectic and work filled.  It was Wednesday, and Wednesdays are often work-filled and hectic. I did decide to start carving out more time to chill and maybe more time to gameplan.  I feel like I’ve grown really good at changing direction in mid-air.  I’d like to limit my use of that skill going forward to dance and yoga classes and not so much real life.

So thank you thank you thank you thank you for the hundreds and hundreds of birthday wishes.  In years past, I’d see these wishes and despair over the fact that I had no idea when I would see some of you.  Now, I do know.  Not specifically, but now it just requires planning, not a miracle.  That much, thanks in no small part to this legion of friends who have my back, has been accomplished.

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An Interesting Week at The Root


After a slow month, I got back into the groove at The Root with features on food, film and business.

On Melba Wilson on Melba’s, her new cookbook, how soul food is the basis for American comfort food and how African Americans invented Farm to Table

Then the following day, I was in on a GREAT documentary, Two Trains Running about the coincidence in the search for Son House and Skip James and the Freedom Summer in Mississippi.

Finally, the next day, I was in on a unique business incubator that directs venture capital to minority and women entrepreneurs.



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Mark Feldman at The Stone

MarkfeldmanViolinist Mark Feldman is a musician whose music I like, but I don’t follow his career obsessively; there simply aren’t enough hours in a day for me to aggressively track all the musicians I enjoy and  Feldman is one of many who falls through these cracks.  Therefore, I was delighted when a friend told me he was going to Feldman’s Thursday night set at The Stone, where he was playing in various configurations that week.  I was already considering Feldman’s solo set Sunday night and my pal wanted to hear him in the company of drummer Tom Rainey, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier.  I figured it would reverse the joyous experience I had last week of hearing pianist Angelica Sanchez in a trio first (with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, no less) then in a large ensemble (with numerous luminaries).  I got to hear her exceptional compositions expand.  Here I thought I’d here Feldman’s work distill.

Wrong.  At least on the compositions part for Feldman.  When we settled in, there was a noticeable absence of music stands.  I’ve been to numerous engagements at The Stone that were entirely improvised, so I wasn’t shocked or anything.  At the outset, as Rainey, Laubock and Feldman traded virtuosic lines, I figured that at worst, the sum of the parts would be nice, but then Courvoisier began strumming some deeply reverberant chords on the low end of the piano and everything her bandmates were doing cohered.  It also set the structure as either she or Rainey would provide big rhythmic figures to contrast other musicians.  Shortly after Courvosier set the tone, Rainey repeated a series of drum licks that sounded like Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah” transposed to percussion.  Feldman was reserved offering riffs to contrast Laubrock’s play or even stepping back altogether.  Toward the end there was stretch with Raney, creating martial figures with a handful of drumsticks lightly brushing against his kit while Courvoisier offered fleet, nimble runs across the high end of her keyboard.  With Laubrock contributing short staccato bursts that finished with long elegant lines, I was reminded of Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray and Jimmy Lyons work from Nefertiti.  After about an hour they were done and the reaction nearly warranted an encore.  There was a spectacular degree of ensemble unity for an improvised set among four musicians.  My pal rushed to them to ask if they’d been touring.  It was a reasonable inquiry.

I know what I’m doing Sunday night.

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