My recent essay for The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Suicide and Secularism on a Wednesday Afternoon”, was posted, fittingly, this past Wednesday. It reflects on the tragic story of “the tragic suicide of Tara Condell, a twenty-seven-year-old Manhattan dietitian who hanged herself in her apartment after posting a note online that is, in so many ways, a damning indictment of the widespread lie that health, a good job, a comfortable life, and an eclectic range of interests and pursuits are sufficient to provide meaning and purpose in this life.”
In Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer (which won the National Book Award in 1962), the young movie-going Binx Bolling states that “the malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.” Ms. Condell, for her part, readily admits having “a great life on paper,” filled with good meals and wide travel, but confesses: “However, all these facets seem trivial to me. It’s the ultimate first world problem, I get it. I often felt detached while in a room full of my favorite people; I also felt absolutely nothing during what should have been the happiest and darkest times in my life.”
Percy, like Eliot, recognized that the core problem is not one of mere morality—even though the jettisoning of basic Judeo-Christian morality is a key symptom and “an ontological impoverishment”—but a failure to really know what it means to be human. Secularism assumes that comfort is a necessity, but the Judeo-Christian tradition warns that comfort and the belief that one has “arrived” are often just strains of an undetected poison. The average person, wrote Percy in the essay “Diagnosing The Modern Malaise,” “has settled everything except what it is to live as an individual. He still has to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon… What does this man do with the rest of the day? the rest of his life?”
I read three jazz magazines—Downbeat, Jazzwise, and JAZZIZ—every month and visit a number of jazz-oriented sites on a regular basis, and I am happy to report that jazz is not only alive, it is vibrant, diverse, and abundant. Even better, the quantity of releases is matched by the amazing quality of countless releases. I listened to dozens—perhaps 200 or more—releases in in the past year, and time and again I was floored by the talent and creativity coming from musicians young and old, from all corners of the world.
This list could be much, much longer. (And I actually list 13 albums, if you keep count.) But in the interest of appealing to readers who likely aren’t as “into” jazz I am, I’ve kept it short and sweet. I think all of these albums are worth hearing and buying.
Love Stone by J.D. Allen. Some ballad albums drag, and others slip into sentimentality. Allen not only avoids those traps, he makes every single note count in such a way that there is a perfect marriage of warmth and anticipation throughout this remarkable, gorgeous album. There is not a hint of showmanship here, but the playing is otherworldly. Stunning.
The Future is Female by Roxy Coss. With song titles such as “Females are Strong as Hell,” “#MeToo”, and “Nasty Women Grab Back,” you might expect anger and heaps of spoken word lectures. Instead, you are treated to a brilliant, modern hard-bop session with sophisticated writing and beautiful playing. Coss and I likely differ on more than a few political fronts, but I have no reservations at all about this confident, engaging, and—again—beautiful set. Highly recommended.
The Other Side by Tord Gustavsen Trio. Gustavsen has been producing melodic, melancholy Nordic jazz for nearly two decades now, and he once again delivers a magical, dusky collection. This one has an overtly spiritual quality to it—Gustavsen’s “The Other Side” and Bach’s “Jesu Meine Freude/Jesus, Det Eneste” are examples—but there is a deep, pulsating restlessness that bubbles up from time to time. Recommended listening for late night, with a good bourbon in hand.
Flight by James Francies. He’s barely into his 20s, but Francies has already made his mark as a sideman in a wide range of settings, not just within jazz but also in pop, hip-hop, and R&B. That eclecticism is evident here, with modern production and stellar chops at the service of an impressive and cohesive artistic vision. There is certainly a strong nod, to my ears, to Robert Glasper, another Houston native, but Francies is his own man, and his restless, inventive approach is an indication that jazz is in good hands.
Little Big by Aaron Parks. His 2008 album Invisible Cinema remains one of my all-time favorite piano-driven jazz albums, and he never predictable or dull. There is a decidedly “rock” feel to this album, but this is ultimately an organic synthesis based in creativity and trust, full of both energy and melodic focus. Like his decade-old classic, this presents and sustains an aural world, from beginning to end.
After Bach and Seymour Reads the Constitution by Brad Mehldau/Brad Mehldau Trio. How many artists can release a solo album of Bach and Bach-inspired improvisations and a trio album bursting with freshness and mind-boggling skill? But we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from Mehldau, who can play anything and play it with an immediately recognizable sound and quality. The Bach album is respectful but often surprising, while the trio engagement is a deep dive into twists and turns that are as assured as they breathtaking. Artistry in spades.
Concentric Circles by Kenny Barron Quintet. Barron is fine wine—he is now 75, and he is, if anything, better than ever. Which is saying something. This has the feel and approach of 1960s Blue Note classic (think Herbie Hancock or Andrew Hill), but with a clear contemporary quality. Relaxed and crisp, warm and sharp, detailed and accessible—this is small ensemble playing at its finest, headed by a generous, joyful leader.
Live by Marcin Wasilewski Trio. This veteran Polish group has been a natural fit for the ECM label, with a melancholy and melodic style that reminds me at times of the Gustavsen trio. But this live set finds the trio in an energetic, even exultant, mood, with plenty of sparks flying, notably on the Police classic “Message in the Bottle” and Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof”, but also in the other cuts, all originals.
Ahlam by NES. This is perhaps the most unusual entry in this list, as it is sung in a variety of languages and has a strong “world music” flavor. Singer/cellist Nesrine Belmokh, who has a stunning voice, has roots in classical music (she’s worked with Lorin Maazel and Daniel Barenboim), but she effortlessly combines that background with jazz, pop, and traditional Arabic music, resulting in a deceptively simple and achingly beautiful album. Dreamlike in feel, which is fitting, as “Ahlam” means “dream” in Arabic.
Sonic Creed by Stefon Harris & Blackout. This has long been a favorite group, led by one of the finest vibrophonists today, and this long-awaited album, the follow-up to 2009’s “Urbanus”, does not disappoint. This is a sophisticated but immediately engaging collection, with a subtle funkiness and chamber-music quality that sets it apart, especially with the vibrophones in the mix. Rewards multiple listens!
Heaven & Earth by Kamasi Washington. How do you follow up a massive hit album titled The Epic (2016)? You go even more epic! Washington is one those rare artists (in any genre) who lives up the hype, marrying audaciousness with a focused vision, complete with choral parts and otherworldly sonic landscapes. The contributions of pianist Cameron Graves are worthy of note, as they ground the entire two-disc affair, from simple melodic lines to cascading walls of keyboard brilliance. Hard to describe, but has to be heard.
13th Floor by Eric Harland/Voyager. This ensemble lacks nothing in talent, with the prolific Harland on drums, Taylor Eigsti on piano, Walter Smith on sax, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Julian Lage and Nir Felder on guitar. It also lacks nothing in writing and cohesion; each cut is a perfectly realized gem, undergirded by Harland’s astounding time-keeping and driven by Eigsti’s often rhapsodic playing. This is not a “blowing session”, but a fully realized work of cerebral, muscular jazz.
Advent is perhaps my favorite season of the liturgical year. One reason is that I knew nothing of Advent while growing up as a Fundamentalist—there was Christmas and Easter, and really nothing else to mark any sort of sacred day or season (that would have been “Romanish” and “pagan”). The irony, I suppose, is that we, as Fundamentalists were quite obsessed with the End Times, readily seeking out signs of impending apocalypse in a world moving from one fatalistic sign of doom to the next. And Advent is a season intimately connected with eschatology, judgment, and apocalypse, even while it is also rooted in the Incarnation, joyful anticipation, and eternal hope. In that way it readily demonstrates the “eschatological tension” reflected upon by St. John Paul II in his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), which delves deeply into the Eucharistic character of the Church and the Kingdom.
The reflections below were written in 2006, and have been lightly edited for this posting.
Preparing To Meet the Lord: Reflections on the Readings for Advent
An advent, of course, is a coming; the word means “to come to.” Advent anticipates the coming–or comings–of the Son of Man: in his Incarnation two thousand years ago, in his future return in glory, and in the mystery of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (CCC 524). Simply put, Advent is about being prepared to meet Christ–not on our terms, but on His terms. By preparing us to meet the tiny Incarnate Word of God lying in a manger, Advent also directs our hearts and minds toward the return of that child as glorious King and Lord of all.
In a book of reflections titled Seek That Which Is Above, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that the purpose of Advent is “to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope.” Later, he states that Advent is also about shaking off spiritual slumber and sloth: “So Advent means getting up, being awake, emerging out of sleep and darkness.” In Advent of the Heart, a collection of sermons and prison writings, the priest and martyr Fr. Alfred Delp contemplates Advent from a similar perspective. “Advent,” he writes, “is a time for being deeply shaken, so that man will wake up to himself. … It is precisely in the severity of this awakening, in the helplessness of coming to consciousness, in the wretchedness of experiencing our limitations that the golden threads running between Heaven and earth during this season reach us; the threads that give the world a hint of the abundance to which it is called, the abundance of which it is capable.”
Advent is marked by anticipation, contemplation, joy, conversion, discernment, repentance, hope, faith, and–last but never least–charity. The readings for this Advent (cycle C) aptly reflect all of this, always within the context of historical events and realities involving men and women who face difficulties and struggles similar to those that confront us today. Here, then, are seven themes and/or persons who have stood out to me as I have studied and contemplated the readings for Sunday liturgies during this Advent season.