Monday, January 23, 2017

The Barrow's Goldeneye

A warm January is nice. But a gray and dreary day calls for some sort of response. Ours was to head for the Mississippi north of town to see about locating a Barrow's Goldeneye that had been reported seen by three or four people in the vicinity of Anoka.

The common goldeneye can be seen fairly often in these parts, even in the wintertime, presuming there's some open water. It's a beautiful duck, and full of character, a frisky diver, more compact than most ducks, with a somewhat elongated forehead that gives it an interesting shape.

The Barrow's goldeneye looks just the same—except that the white spot on its cheek looks like a comma rather than a circle. (There are other differences, but no need to go in to them here.)

Goldeneyes tend to travel in flocks, up and down the river, usually on the opposite side from the one you're on. We reached the river in Champlain, a twenty-minute drive north, and pulled in to the riverside park. I was trying to get the spotting scope rigged up when a pick-up pulled over.

"Any luck?" the man said.

"You mean the Barrow's goldeneye? We just got here."

"I saw it earlier this morning. Haven't seen it lately. A lot of the goldeneyes are across the river in front of that house—can you see it?—with the big front porch."

It was a long ways away.

A man with a very large camera was sitting on a stool near the beach, poised a ready.

"See anything?" I asked, walking over his way.

"No. But maybe you can get those goldeneye to cross the river and pose right here in front of the beach."

"Sure. If you'll email me the photo. Did you know there's a rare one out there?"

"I had no idea."

We decided to cross the river ourselves to check out another large flock just offshore in front of Peninsula Park in Anoka, barely visible from where we were standing. On our way out of Champlain I made what may have been the best sighting of the day—Q Fanatic BBQ.

"That place often shows up in the top ten lists," I said. "We should come back for lunch."

Five minutes later we were lined up along with three other birds on the bank of the Mississippi, looking through the trees at a large raft of goldeneyes.

"You see anything?" I said.

"I've got the Barrows right in my scope. Trouble is, he only comes up for a second or two and then dives again. Oh, he's up again. Now he's down."

The man directed me to the part of the raft where the Barrow's was diving. Through that V in the trees, just beyond the ice flow. I didn't see him.

"He's up! Now he's down."

I think the three other birders must have seen him, but we didn't. I started to rationalize: three knowledgeable birders attest to the presence of a barrow's goldeneye within that raft of ducks. I see the raft of ducks. So it might be said that I have seen a Barrow's goldeneye, though I have no idea which duck it was. Not a very satisfying "sighting."

I don't mind asking questions, it's obvious that we're novices."So, do you look for the facial markings, or the coloration on the back?"

"Look for the darker back. It's very distinctive. You'll never see that hook in the white spot. Oh. Now he's up again! ... Now he's down. Here. Take a look through my scope."

I didn't see it.

A few minutes later we walked up a rise along the mushy sidewalk to a spot where two other birders were standing. One was the man we'd talked to initially across the river in Champlain.

"He's out there," the man said.

The view was better here. He tried to describe where the Barrows was situation in the flock. Then I saw it. The obvious comma-shaped white marking in front of the eye. The bird had grown tired of diving, evidently, and was taking it easy. Nice.

Hilary took a long look and also saw the variation on the back. I looked away, then saw it again. When two other birders with their scopes came over, I (suddenly the expert) tried to help them locate the position between the trees and in the midst of a grouping of perhaps eighty other almost identical birds drifting slowly downstream in the midst of large chunks of floating ice.

Having driven this far, we decided to continue up the river a few miles the Monticello, where hundreds of trumpeter swans congregate every winter. There weren't any swans in sight when we got there—just a few hundred mallards. They'd taken advantage of the melting snow to head out into the nearby cornfields to feed. But Jim Lawrence, who lives next door and feeds the birds daily, happened to be standing there, and he showed is a panorama on his iPhone of a recent day (or perhaps it was last year) when more than 1,600 swans had congregated there. 

Jim told us the story of how the swans, once considered extinct in North America, had made such a comeback locally, and also shared quite a bit of information about coyote hunting in urban areas and trapping nuisance species in nearby Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. But that's a tale for another time.

We decided to take backroads along the river back to Champlain, rather than return to the freeway, and this took us through a village I'd never visited before—Dayton. Not much going on there, by the look of things. But sometimes you'd be surprised.

We capped off our gray winter field trip with some heat—at the Q Fanatic BBQ, located in a very short strip mall just off of Highway 169 in Champlain. Lots of meat on those ribs, and the beans and slaw were also notably tasty.

I'm no expert on ribs, but I later read a review in The Heavy Table that began as follows:
It is infuriating that Q Fanatic is one of Minnesota’s best-kept gastronomic secrets. This is a place that should be elbow-to-elbow crowded, seven nights a week, and resisting the temptation to expand and choke on its own success. Q Fanatic is doing barbecue at a level that stacks up, rib for rib, against the kind of stuff they’re doing at the grand-champion 17th Street Bar & Grill near East St. Louis, or at Allen and Son in Chapel Hill, NC. This is stuff that kicks Famous Dave’s into the dust and merits the long drive from the metro area. Grit your teeth, and get in the car. There is a rainbow of perfectly cooked meat waiting at the end of your voyage.
If ribs alone don't make it worth a trip, you can always stop along the river and try to hunt up a Barrow's goldeneye. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Is Jazz Dying?

Among the several virtues of the recent film La La Land is that it has gotten people talking about jazz. A few people. One of the protagonists in the film (Ryan Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who has a dream of opening his own club. He's afraid that the jazz traditions are dying, and yet he finds it impossible to make a decent living without stooping to accept a job as a sideman in a pop-funk band.

Some viewers have commented that the way this issue is developed in the film is a little childish and generally unconvincing. I agree. Here are a few reasons:

a) Few unemployed jazz musicians living in one-bedroom apartments seriously imagine they might lease or purchase a historic ballroom in Los Angeles any time soon.

b) In any case, running a club is an entirely different kettle of fish from playing music on the highest level. Both take a lot of time, but they aren't the same thing at all.

c) Most aspiring musicians of any genre spend a great deal of time jamming with their musician friends, trying to develop new sounds, rather than sitting alone at the piano trying to copy riffs from LPs that are fifty years old.

d) The manager of the nightclub where Gosling works could easily have agreed to let him play something more complex  than "Jingle Bells," if he kept it mellow, and he could easily have agreed. It not, he could also have amused himself jazzing up the items that were on the playlist for his own pleasure without alienating the dinner guests unduly. That's what jazz musicians do. (Check out Charlie Parker's version of "White Christmas" on iTunes.) As it stands, the conflict in the film rings false.

All of this doesn't effect the film much, however. La La Land is a fantasy, and jazz is a pretext, and it works well enough under the circumstances. So let's not get too concerned about it. The question remains: Is jazz dying? And the answer, to anyone who knows jazz, is an obvious no.

Most people don't know much about jazz, and I suspect that many adventurous listeners who give it a try find that they don't like it much. Yet in the set of statistics I just dug up online, which runs to 2014, jazz accounted for 1.4 percent of music sales—the same as classical music. Not bad! I suspect if it rose much higher we could attribute it to the success of one particular vocalist or "crossover" artist who would no longer be doing "real" jazz anyway. 

There are many types of "real" jazz, of course, though they aren't mutually exclusive. You might like Trad Jazz, Swing (Big Band), vocal jazz, Bop (cool, West Coast, hard bop), Modal, free jazz ("out"), fusion, Euro (chamber jazz), or "ethnic" jazz, by which I mean jazz inflected with Asian, Brazilian, or modern African elements, to mention a few of the most obvious style-niches.

The beauty of jazz—I think the film got this right—is that those who love it really love it and are thrilled to be in its presence on any given night. Jazz blogs abound covering some of its many underground nooks and crannies. (One I read regularly is dothem@th, maintained by Etan Iverson, the pianist of The Bad Plus.)

The energy of a live jazz set tends to wax and wane, and the temptation musicians face to coast is ever-present—especially on a Monday night in Minneapolis. I consider my time well-spent if there are ten or fifteen incandescent minutes in a given performance. Often there are more.

I've been going to jazz shows since the late 1960s, when the Guthrie Theater presented a top-notch series (Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, Garry Burton, etc.). In those days the storefront club Cafe Extraordinaire (located where K-Mart now sits on Lake Street, but one hundredth the size) also booked some big names into its dark, low-ceilinged room full of folding chairs (e.g. Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson). The six dollar cover seemed enormous to a high school kid like me, and the club was twenty miles from home, but it was worth it to listen to the McCoy Tyner Trio while resting my tennis shoes on the front leg of his piano!  

All serious jazz fans maintain a memory list of greats they've heard "live"—experiences often only dimly captured in recordings. I won't bore you with mine. But I would like to send one query out into the blogosphere. I once heard Charles Mingus play a surprise set at the Guthrie with only two or three days notice. I heard about it on the radio (KSJN).The two young reed men in his group were fantastic, but at the time I'd never heard of them and didn't remember their names. In retrospect I wonder if they might have been Rickie Ford and Sonny Fortune. Can anyone help?

The greatest challenge jazz presents to newcomers is simply one of sorting out the styles. If your introduction to jazz piano, for example, happens to be Thelonious Monk, you'll have a very different impression of jazz than if Bill Evans is your guide. And what about Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams, Bud Powell, Robert Glasper, Mal Waldron? The stylistic differences are striking, radical, and the list goes on and on.

If you emerged from the theater after seeing La La Land with the idea that you might like to learn a little more about that elusive thing called jazz, here's a short list of recent mainstream piano recordings to check out on iTunes. Why not download a few numbers? It would cost less than your morning latte. I wouldn't say these are the BEST. They're just a few albums I happen to own myself.

  • Kenny Barron/ Dave Holland: The Art of Conversation (2014)
  • Bill Charlap: Notes from New York (2016)
  • Gerald Clayton: Life Forum (2013)
  • Chick Corea: Further Explorations (2011)
  • Herbie Hancock:  River - the Joni Letters (2007)
  • Brad Mehldau/Joshua Redman: Nearness (2016)
  • Fred Hersch: Night and the Music (2007)
  • Robert Glasper: In My Element (2007)

And for historical perspective I'd throw in the 2 CD set by Bill Evans called Some Other Time, recorded in 1968 but released only last year.

I haven't followed jazz avidly for a long time, though I occasionally "dip in" to see what's happening. I also belong to a Jazz Night group that meets once a month to listen respectfully to selections brought by the various members. I came across a very thick book the other day, Jazz Record: the First Sixty Years, by Scott Yanow, in which he chronicles the art form in exhaustive detail over the course of 800 pages of fine print. The narrative ends in 1976, but Yanow concludes:

Some of the lazier observers of the current jazz scene have complained that jazz has lost its direction since the 1970s and that the music has run out of fresh ideas. The truth is that jazz is in a golden age that started in the mid-1890s, accelerated around 1920, and has not stopped since. The music on a whole has never had an artistic off period, and it continues with brilliant performances and recordings up to the current time.

He follows this remark with a list of roughly three hundred "young" performers, only a smattering of whom I've heard of.

In short, jazz is still very much alive and well. The challenge for the performers is one of making a living from it. The challenge for us lies in sorting it all out.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Northwoods Journal

It was dusk when we pulled into the Mont Royal supermarket—a place where the lighting director probably makes more than the produce buyer. It was a glitzy shopping experience of the kind I don't generally associate with Duluth. But we'd come looking for fresh fish and bought a pound and a half of lake trout. The butcher was excited to sell it to us. "Caught just yesterday in Bayfield," he said enthusiastically. (Everyone else seemed to be buying frozen shrimp and scallops for their New Years Eve party.)

It was dark by the time we got to Two Harbors. Not a big deal, though it seemed odd to arrive at our cabin in Castle Danger without having gotten a good long look at the big lake. We could hear it, however. It was roaring. We breaded, fried, and ate the fish while listening to jazz piano on Hil's iPad (Billy Childs, Fred Hersch), took a walk in the dark along the approach road to the resort, then built a fire in the glassed-in fireplace.

Now I'm reading Martin Heidegger, who tries to convince me, based of the etymology of the German word, that "building" is "dwelling." Think about it. It's a ridiculous position to take, though it highlights Heidegger's singular preference for passive rather than active notions.
Tomorrow we'll ski.

Morning. Two red-breasted mergansers (I think) just drifted by outside the window. I had a dream that I had been selected to give some sort of speech at a college campus. No one told me this until I arrived, however.

We skied Gooseberry State Park. Plenty of snow cover. Two hours without seeing a soul. These are our favorite North Shore trails. The woods are varied and generally open, never flat but seldom treacherous. Climbing gently, descending to that creek. (Don't know the name.) The frozen river is nice, of course, but even more impressive, I think, is the view inland across the expanse of woods and hills from the ridge, a mottled pattern of frosty grays and greens stretching to the horizon. We took our usual route but tacked on another small loop at the base of the "deer yard" and then up a little hill to a bivouac shelter with another great view, flushing a grouse along the way.

Later, on our way out of the parking lot, we came upon four pine grosbeaks sitting in the road.

After lunch we decided to go back out and ski the municipal trails in Silver Bay. That was ambitious. It was something of a shock to arrive at the parking lot and find it almost full.

"I can't believe there are so many people here," I said to the middle-aged woman who was just climbing up over the snowbank with her skis.

"Everybody decided to come north, I guess," she said, with only a faint wisp of disdain in her voice.

"Yeah, but we skied Gooseberry this morning for two hours and didn't see a soul."

She wasn't interested. She was gone in a flash, off into the dense woods. And she was the only person we saw during our ski.

The trails here are narrow. They run through the dark spruce woods maybe thirty feet up the bank from the Beaver River. The afternoon sun coming across the frozen river penetrated the vegetation here and there to give the woods a genuine sparkle. A half-mile in, the trail leaves the river and the countryside becomes more open, occasionally meadow-like, which makes it easier to see the spectacular rock outcroppings in the distance, hundreds of feet high.

On our way back we took a detour to Lax Lake, where the ice houses can be beautiful set against the same rugged hills we were skiing between. There weren't all that many houses out on the ice--too early in the winter, perhaps?--but little matter; few things are more brilliant than just to be out on a snow-covered lake in full glare of winter sun.

I was cooking up a lamb stew with white beans and vegetables when Hilary got back from testing out a new set of aluminum snowshoes we'd inherited. "I haven't quite mastered the snowshoes," she said, "but the moon is spectacular."

I went outside to take a look. There was a crescent moon, more golden than usual. There was Venus, above and to the left, and then Mars, higher up, smaller.

I'm drinking a glass of Willamette whole cluster pinot noir. A few steps above my normal price point, yet I'm finding it unpleasantly sweet?! (Do you think that will stop me from having another glass?)

I have a collection of Heidegger's essay here beside me on the couch. Having read a few pages, I arrive at the conclusion that Being isn't very interesting. Can anything be done about Being? I think not. Let's put it aside, therefore, and redirect our attention toward a more important concept: Value.

So I turn to Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, where I read:

Men, in moments of
Idleness, occupy their minds
with the vacuity of
Feminine eyebrows..."

—Ou Yang Hsiu

The poet must have had a rough life, for he goes on to say:

               —who ever
has been benefitted by the
presence of a woman? Still,
my lewd heart yearns for the past ...

Turning from Rexroth to the French thinker Gabriel Marcel, I read:

Might it  not be said that to create is always to create above oneself? And is it not exactly, also, in this sort of connection that the word "above" assumes its specific value?

A little further on in Marcel's work, I come upon a remark that might well have been aimed, in the kindest way possible, at his estimable German colleague:

When he coins a new word, a philosopher is often the victim of an illusion. The strange and surprising impression produced on him by his new word often prevents him from seeing that there is nothing strange or surprising about the thought it expresses.  

And so, we walk outside again to view the stars. A clear night, constellations everywhere, the moon still 20 degrees above the horizon.

And then a bonus—a pack of coyotes, not that far away, yipping like mad.

Monday, January 9, 2017

La La Land

When the temperature is approaching zero and the skies are gray, the idea of spending a few hours in sunny Los Angeles might sound like a good one. And Damien Chazelle's new film, La La Land, satisfies that urge to a T. It's a quasi-romance on the order of A Star is Born, in which two aspiring artists fall in love—sort of. It also happens to be a musical. The songs are fairly catchy, and few human activities have greater power to lift the spirits than tap-dancing.

The opening number, a ten minute song-and-dance in the midst of a traffic jam on the LA freeway, appears to be a single take, and it establishes that this film is going to be full of creativity and whimsy. That impression is reconfirmed in many places along the way.

In short, La La Land has enough energy and surprise to dismiss from our minds the notion that it's striving slavishly to ape some lost film aesthetic. I'm a big fan of Hollywood musicals (not Broadway musicals)  and I've never seen a film quite like this. 

On the other hand, I'll have to admit that the opening sequence reminded me of a very, very long Target commercial.

In fact, La La Land is the kind of film in which you often find yourself thinking about the art director. The colors are super-bright, like a film from Pedro Almodóvar in his prime, though never to the point of outright garishness. Yet you look at a turquoise tumbler on a table, and notice how well it harmonizes with the bathroom curtains. That's not a good sign.

The most serious shortcoming of the film, however, is that the central romantic entanglement is tepid. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sustain a sort of antagonistic humor in the early going, but we don't feel much of an amorous countercurrent. They even sing a song together as they look out over the lights of Los Angeles in which they analyze this lack of feeling they share for one another. Anyone familiar with the energy and tension generated by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, or by Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or even by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, must find this tone a little troubling. (Judy Garland and Gene Kelly? Kelly and Rita Hayworth? Grant and Jean Arthur? Astaire and Rogers? The list goes on and on.)

Gosling is largely to blame. He's sort of glum, and his repartee has an element of bitterness in it, based on the fact that no one shares his enthusiasm for mainstream jazz. When he eventually joins a band to start earning some real money, we're supposed to take it as a sell-out to pop commercialism ... but I sort of liked it. And anyway, musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea (jazz greats one and all) made the same choice back in the early 1970s, during the glory years of fusion. Hey! A guy's gotta eat.

Things do start to click between the two eventually, but the strongest impetus they exchange is one of encouragement and self-sacrifice. Gosling wants Stone to follow her dream, while she wants him to do the same. That's all very noble, and it might even be wise, but it doesn't generate much entertainment heat. And neither of these aspiring artists should be surprised that if and when their careers blossom, they aren't going to be seeing much of each other.

But such concerns, which force us to leave aside superlatives when discussing La La Land, take nothing away from the film's value as a divertimento. Singing, dancing, color, romance, the pursuit of a dream: what's not to like? The ending scenes work, I think, but what happens "in the end" is less important than what's happening scene by scene, and this makes La La Land the kind of film that would, I suspect, be very easy to watch more than once.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Return to Meadowlands

It looked almost like a shaman's shrine, standing in the shadows at the edge of the woods. A spruce log ran about head high between two rough posts. There were feeders dangling from the bar and chunks of suet affixed to both posts.

I think we might have driven right past the station except that there were two cars parked along the road nearby. We were still a quarter-mile away when I spotted a man walking down the road. As we approached I noticed that a camera with a very large lens was hanging from his neck, and he was wearing the most elaborate pair of knee-high white mukluks, cross-laced with rawhide strips, that I'd ever seen. Ah! The shaman himself!

As our Corolla squeaked to a stop on the snow-covered dirt road I rolled down the window.

"See anything interesting?"

"No. But someone saw a great gray owl right about here this morning."

"Really?" I replied, trying to sound impressed. And of course, I was. But it was cold outside, and the time was 3 p.m. That bird could be anywhere by now. Then again, if you really want to see one, it makes sense to spend some time in the vicinity where they've been seen before.

Birders come from all over the U.S. to this very spot in hopes of seeing such a bird. It drops south across the border from Ontario only sporadically, and seems to prefer the thick, quiet black-spruce bogs north of Meadowlands to the upland forests closer to the border. A few years ago, Hilary and I had the good luck to be up north during a rare winter invasion of the species. We saw eighteen of them in a single weekend.

Meanwhile, the shaman was scrutinizing my face, trying to gauge what type of a birder I really was. I took a brief look past his rugged face at the thick wall of black spruce behind him, through which a few glints of late afternoon sun were sparkling--as if I was suddenly going to see those big, expressionless, yellow eyes peering out at me that the shaman had somehow failed to spot! Of course, I saw nothing.

"Good luck," I said quietly, and waved with a single finger as I cranked up the window, released the clutch, and we moved forward respectfully toward the cars parked alongside the road  ahead.

"I think we just passed the feeders," Hilary said, turning her head. Indeed, there they were, obscured in shadow. They didn't look like much. I parked next to the other cars and we got out. A man was standing by the side of the road.

"See anything interesting? A boreal chickadee, perhaps?"

He shook his head.

"I've never seen one," I said.

"Neither have I. But this is the right time of day. I've been told they like the gob of peanut butter that's smeared on the top of the beam ... There's a redpoll eating seeds on the ground under the left hand post."

"I haven't seen one of those for ages," I said, honing in with my binoculars on his red forehead spot and rosy breast.

"We flushed a flock of them down by the Loretta feeder a half-hour ago. I've only been here for five minutes."

The man was from Madison. He'd driven up with his wife and daughter, who were sitting in the car. At one point the girl got out, and she and her dad played briefly in the snow bank. Then both of them returned to the car and got inside.

We stood there for a few minutes more, examining chickadees one after another, eager to spot one with a grayish cheek, a brownish head. There were perhaps thirty of them zooming in and out from both sides of the road, often missing our heads by only a few inches as they passed. But it was not to be.

I waved at the man in the car as we left. He was still looking at the feeding station, but only though the closed window, with his naked eye. It's a six-hour drive from Madison to Meadowlands. I wonder how long he stuck around.

I've been interested in Meadowlands for quite a while. I like the name, and it has always struck me as an improbable place for a town to be—like an Oz or a Shangri La. On our recent visit another element was added to the story, as I was reminded of something I'd long forgotten. Our recent visits have been by way of Highway 169 and Floodwood, but last weekend we came north on the freeway, took the Cloquet Cutoff (Highway 33) and continued north on Highway 53 to Cotton. This is the route my family took many times when I was a kid on our way to the cabin on Lake Vermilion. The stretch between Cloquet and Virginia always seemed dull, and all but interminable.

The only bright spot was the traditional stop at Berweger's Cheese Shop (long since burned down) to buy a few slices of Tilsit cheese and a big bag of penny candy that we used as chips in our evening poker games. (Little did I know--nor would I have cared at the time--that the cheese shop was an outlet of Berweger's Cheese Factory in Meadowlands.)

The only other memorable landmark (not counting the horrible stench in the outhouse at the Lion's Springs wayside rest) was the green highway sign in the middle of nowhere pointing the way to Meadowlands. The sign might just as well have said Oak Woods or Steep Cliffs. It didn't sound like a municipality; it sounded like a natural phenomenon. In any case, I found it hard to imagine that there were any meadows out in that direction.

These are the things that capture the imagination of children: the things with a mysterious, vaguely romantic flair. The things that don't make much sense.