I recently wrote a feature piece for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper about my experiences co-founding and helping lead a men’s reading group for over 16 years. While the group is Catholic—and thus reads and discusses books that are Catholic in fact or sensibility—I think the seven points are helpful for a wide range of reading groups. Here’s the start of the essay:
The group, bearing the ambitious moniker “The Neo-Inklings,” first met in the spring of 2004 at a local brew pub, invited there by myself and Anthony (Tony) Clark. The inspiration for the men’s reading group came from Tony, who at the time was working to finish his doctorate in Chinese history at the University of Oregon.
Tony and I had met a few weeks earlier after Divine Liturgy at the local Ukrainian Catholic parish, and we quickly discovered that our shared love for the Catholic faith also extended to reading and good books. “I need a couple of hours each month,” Tony said, “when I can be with men who share the same interests as I do, and we are able to freely discuss Catholic books and the Catholic faith.”
The plan was simple: invite some other men to join us to discuss a book chosen beforehand. In hindsight, after nearly 200 meetings, it’s a minor miracle it worked. So much could have gone wrong; so much should have gone wrong. But we quickly discovered a truth that G.K. Chesterton expressed so well back in a 1904 essay on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “The sincere love of books has nothing to do with cleverness or stupidity any more than any other sincere love. It is a quality of character, a freshness, a power of pleasure, a power of faith.”
Love of books is obviously necessary for a book club, of course, but there are other important qualities, including good character, a love of truth and a commitment to faith. A book group that lasts for many years and consistently includes edifying insights and challenging discussions is a bit like a good marriage: It requires purpose, devotion, honesty, patience and, yes, sometimes forgiveness.
That’s the question I take up in my new editorial at Catholic World Report:
Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), made the following remark as part of a longer statement about the violence in the United States Capitol: “I join people of good will in condemning the violence today at the United States Capitol. This is not who we are as Americans.”
With all due respect: who are we, really, as Americans?
Are we the Americans who demonstrate peacefully against injustices, real or perceived? Or the Americans who riot and vandalize cities such as Portland, Oregon—just 90 minutes up the road from where I live—for weeks and months on end?
Are we the Americans who tire of technocrats and experts issuing constant decrees about “pauses” and “freezes”? Or the Americans who shame and attack those who think such measures (and the virtue-signaling religion of perpetual mask wearers) should be questioned with facts and reason?
Are we the Americans who think Donald J. Trump is the savior of America, the last great hope for Christianity and freedom? Or are we the Americans who think Trump is the new Hitler and a racist demon whose tweets and hair should be condemned to everlasting (but clean-burning) fires?
Or are we the Americans who think both sides are short-circuiting zombies who cannot see the forest of reality for the trees of ideology?
• “Companion” by Sainte Olympia: I’m biased here, as the singer, pianist, and songwriter here is my younger sister. Regardless, this is the anti-2020 album: contemplative, deceptively simply, deep, and rich with lyrical and melodic mystery. I’m both proud and moved by this release.
• “The Nashville Songbook” by Mandy Barnett: Now in her forties, Barnett’s magical voice has become even more magnificent over time. This lush and often hair-raising record reveals that Barnett is also a top tier interpreter of classic songs. Magical!
• “No One Sings Like You Anymore” by Chris Cornell: This was actually recorded in 2016, not long before his death. Cornell was multi-talented; what comes through here is, of course, that voice–but also a unique approach to interpreting songs, as all ten cuts are covers. ELO’s “Showdown” is a favorite.
• “Italian Ice” by Nicole Atkins: Speaking of voices, this New Jersey native has one of the finest pop/rock voices around and her music is always compelling. Ranging from atmospheric to anthemic, edgy to heart-breaking, this is perhaps Atkins’ best album, which is saying something.
• “Rise Radiant” by Caligula’s Horse: The talented Aussie prog-rockers never disappoint, as the Jim Grey (singer) and Sam Vallen (lead guitarist)-led unit is dynamic, soulful, restless, and intense. And, as always, featuring perfect production. Hard but melodic prog at its best.
• “La Vita Nuova” by Maria McKee: The former Lone Justice singer is now in her 50s and has made some major changes in her life, but the unreal voice and the stunning writing are still there. In fact, this is her best overall album since 1996’s “Life is Sweet”. Challenging and most rewarding. One of the very best of 2020.
• “The Women Who Raised Me” by Kandace Springs: The incredibly talented Nashville singer and keyboardist (she’s also a mechanic and visual artist) navigates the famous songs here with relaxed confidence and soulful, jazzy verve. Like fine wine. Impressive.
• “En Español” by The Mavericks: It’s entirely in Spanish, but the language barrier (for me, at least) disappears quickly as Raul Malo and Company bring an immediacy and intimacy that cannot be denied. The opening track “La Sitiera” grabs you from the first notes and the album never relents.
• “Nice ‘n’ Easy (2020 Mix)” by Frank Sinatra: Originally released in 1960, this #1 album captured Sinatra at the peak of his powers. The remaster brings a noticeable new clarity and definition, and highlights the many subtle aspects of a classic album. The 2020 release “Reprise Rarities” is also worth seeking out, although the material is not as consistently brilliant.
• “The Absence of Presence” by Kansas: My all-time favorite prog band does it again, following up 2016’s terrific “The Prelude Implicit” with another set of superbly crafted American prog. The longevity and quality of these Midwestern rockers continue to amaze.
• “Through Shaded Woods” by Lunatic Soul: A surprise for me, as the more electronica-oriented LS albums were enjoyable, but this driving, acoustic-based album is a revelation in urgency, mystery, and dusky beauty. Both lovely and a bit unsettling.
• “Color of Noize” by Derrick Hodge: Pure aural jazz-soul-R&B-electronica candy–but with plenty of musical meat and potatoes. Incredible playing and superb production. This is why headphones were invented.
• “Keaggy, Blazier, & Lunn” (An American Garage Band)” by Phil Keaggy. This was recorded years ago by Keaggy and drummer Bobby Blazier in a jam session, with bass by Gary Lunn dubbed in later. Yet it sounds completely organic and warm, a sophisticated jam session by one of the most eclectic and tasteful guitarists of all time.
• “Monovision” by Ray Lamontagne: I do like some of Lamontagne’s more experimental albums (“Ouroboros”!), but this is the sweet spot for me: the gentle, backwoods vibe that marries Americana and folk with early 1970s Van Morrison. This is fine whisky in musical form.
• “Revisiting This Planet” by Kevin Max: I was never a big Larry Norman fan (his voice bugs me), but Max wins me over with this modern, punchy, and on-point rendering of several Norman songs. Max is true to the music, but also makes the songs his own. Great stuff.
• “Panther” by Pain of Salvation: Daniel Gildenlöw has gone through a lot in recent years (nearly dying in 2017) and so this is a welcome return to full-blown form for the Swedish musician and crew. This is a prog diamond: hard, clear, and multi-faceted, featuring one of the best rock singers out there.
• “Inescapable” by Godsticks: Previous albums were good, but a bit repetitious. Not so here. Vocalist and guitarist Darran Charles has expanded his range, the songwriting is equally expansive, and the band is tight. A deeply personal and powerful album.
• “Fireworker” by Gazpacho: Arguably the most remarkable prog album of year. Huge, intimate, byzantine, beautiful, and never predictable. Those who think prog is about long solos and wonkiness need to listen to this masterpiece. Spellbinding.
• “Terminal Velocity” by John Petrucci: Fantastic instrumental album from Dream Theater legend. Yes, he’s a technical wizard, but Petrucci’s mastery of mood and attitude is at the forefront here. And it’s fun without ever being silly or derivative.
• “Liturgy by Saint John Chrysostom” by Benedict Sheehan: Glorious, glorious, glorious. Enough said. Just listen.
It’s safe to say that I am the “jazz guy” here as I listen to jazz in some form or another on a daily basis, especially while working (along with some favorite classical works).
And so my first 20 favorites of 2020 are jazz.
(The next 20, to be posted separately, are “everything else”, which includes prog, singer-songwriter, instrumental rock, and a bit of country.)
• “Moment of Clarity” by Paul Shaw Quintet: This beautiful album was my most played jazz release of 2020, a near perfect combo of interplay, melodic playing, and crisp production.
• “From This Place” by Pat Metheny: This epic album, which has a soundtrack quality to it, is one of my favorites of 2020 regardless of genre, with astounding playing at the service of deeply engaging songs. A masterpiece, in my opinion.
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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.