Monday, September 4, 2017

China's Asian Dream: Empire Building along the New Silk RoadChina's Asian Dream: Empire Building along the New Silk Road by Tom Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tom Miller, a former journalist and senior analyst at Gavekal Research, is a China expert who has spent years in the country and Asia more broadly, and can speak and read Chinese. This is his second book; the first one, China’s Urban Billion was published by Zed in 2012. He is in an excellent position for having written China’s Asian Dream, that focuses on China’s strategic vision and actions to reclaim what it sees as its rightful place as the undisputed leader in Asia. The book gives a systematic and lively treatise of China’s aspirations on the continent and in the world. It paints a picture that poses significant challenges not only to the neighboring countries in the region, but to the West and the United States in particular.

The first part of the book provides a broad historical and geopolitical context, including a brief overview of China’s long history and its humiliation by Britain and the British East Asia Company in the 1939 Opium War and the 1942 Treaty of Nanking that forced China to open its ports to foreign trade. Then in 1895 followed the defeat in the Sino-Japanese war, no less by a country that China regarded a little brother. Then in 1931 Japan invaded China’s northeast setting up Manchukuo, a puppet state. In 1937, a full-out war broke with Japanese domination for years to come. These were humiliations that China has never forgotten (although Mao later thanked Japan for the invasion, as it eventually enabled the successful Communist takeover in 1949).

Chapter 1 after this introduction tells about the ongoing effort by China to establish a ‘New Silk Road,’ what it calls ‘One Belt, One Road,’ connecting China to its neighbors through both a terrestrial and maritime route eventually leading to Europe. The initiative is tied to financing by the Silk Road Fund and the newly established Asian Infrastructure Development Bank. The aim is to tie Asian countries more tightly to China’s sphere of interest through extensive investment in infrastructure. This more proactive strategy, as Miller points out, is a clear departure from China’s earlier foreign policy established by Deng Xiaoping that “diplomacy must serve the greater goal of domestic development” (p. 26). The current President Xi Jingping has taken a much more aggressive stance in promoting Chinese interests abroad.

The rest of the book is divided into sections based on geography. Here Miller reports first-hand accounts from his travels often to remote local areas in the countries. The first such section focuses on Central Asia, including China’s western Islamic dominated province of Xinjiang (literally, ‘New territory’). The Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan used to belong to the Soviet Union and, while becoming independent after the breakup of the empire, have maintained close ties to Russia. Recently, however, China has made a concerted effort to muscle itself into Central Asia and its expansive oil fields. “Economically, China – not Russia – is now top dog in Central Asia,” writes Miller (p. 75). However, business for the Chinese traders is not always easy, given the need to routinely bribe border guards and the occasional troubles that break out. Tens of thousands of Chinese have settled into Central Asia, but most of them see them as temporary visitors making some money for a few years before returning home. While the Chinese investment is welcomed by the governments, local people fear they are being overtaken by the Chinese – a theme that is quite common throughout the book. Russia at the same time is concerned about losing its grip on Central Asia. Local people in the Stans are worried about Russia’s intentions, especially after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia remains militarily dominant in the region and its cultural ties to Central Asia are definitely closer than those of China.

The next part deals with Laos and Cambodia, two of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries downstream in the Mekong basin from China’s Yunnan Province. Yunnan shares a 4,000 km long border with Southeast Asia and the Chinese planners have made it a priority to connect these two parts with extensive road and railway connections, as well as air links. China has designated Yunnan as ‘bridgehead’ for Southeast Asia’s development. As Miller notes, ‘bridgehead’ is a military term, which may have unfortunate connotations (p. 98). Laos is also one of the few remaining communist countries ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. It is traditionally closely allied with Vietnam and was heavily bombed by the American air force during the Vietnam War, although Laos was not officially a party in the war. When I worked there a decade ago, the Vietnamese presence was still prevalent and Thailand also had a strong influence. In the northern parts of the country, however, you could see an increasing Chinese influence. Today the capital city, Vientiane, has been transformed by Chinese capital. Miller reports from Udomxai, the biggest town in northern Laos where the Chinese make up some 15% of the inhabitants. Even Chinese farmers are moving to Laos to take advantage of the country’s cheap and fertile land. Moving to the infamous opium growing Golden Triangle where Laos meets Thailand and Myanmar, Miller finds industrial scale agricultural plantations operated by the Chinese. Chinese-owned casinos have sprouted up there to cater to Chinese and Thai gamblers; and even the working girls are imported from China (p. 111). Further south, in Cambodia, the Chinese money and influence are equally important and eagerly received by the thuggish Hun Sen regime, which ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. As a consequence, Cambodia has often been out of line with its fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), regularly supporting China in its controversial and expansionist policies pertaining to Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang and, importantly, the South China Sea. While the elites in these countries are all too happy to receive China and its investments, the relationships between the regular people and the Chinese immigrants who are not known for their respect for other people’s cultures is not always equally friendly. Furthermore, as Miller points out, there is a fine balance to be achieved in foreign relations: for instance, China’s increasing influence in Cambodia is resented in Vietnam (p. 124).

Myanmar provides a cautionary tale as to the perils of associating with undemocratic and corrupt regimes. In the following chapter Miller reports on how China “lost” Myanmar, where it was the closest (in fact only) international ally to the notorious military regime. When the junta dissolved in 2012, anti-Chinese protests ensued, in particular against Chinese state-owned firms operating a giant dam, a copper mine, and oil and gas mines. The Chinese were accused of taking land with poor compensation from locals, as well as destroying the environment and ransacking natural resources (p. 127). Myanmar’s democratic transition coincided by the American government’s ‘pivot to Asia,’ which worried China. Anti-Chinese feelings are widespread in Myanmar and the democratization and consequent freedom of expression led quickly to popular protests against China. Public pressure even caused the new president to suspend work on the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam that was a Chinese flagship project. The leaders in China were shocked about how popular opinion could lead to such a disastrous outcome – obviously, they were not used to the fact that people’s views mattered – and Chinese analysts started talking about the ‘loss’ or Myanmar (p. 128). Miller claims that in the recent years the Chinese firms have started to understand that they need to improve their relations with local populations (p. 134). The Chinese state has also taken unprecedented steps as a mediator between the government of Myanmar and the Kachin rebels up north. Despite the tensions China should not be counted out in Myanmar. Trade between China and Myanmar stands for a high share of Myanmar’s GDP – and this is not counting the highly significant illegal trade in timber, opium, meta-amphetamines and jade. The environmental watchdog Global Witness estimates that the jade trade in alone 2014 was worth a whopping $31 billion and a significant driver of the armed conflict with the Kachin (p. 141). In the late 1990s, when traveling in the border region of Yunnan and Myanmar, I could witness an incredibly buoyant trade in jade that was by no means under ground. Miller travels to Lashio, the largest town in northeastern Myanmar to seek evidence of a reported ‘Chinese invasion,’ but finds little by way of new arrivals. He concludes that Myanmar doesn’t need to worry about being overrun by Chinese people, but rather by Chinese money: “Myanmar’s problem is less one of outsiders arriving and taking over than one of outsiders taking what they want and then leaving” (p. 148).

One of the reasons why Myanmar is so important is because of China’s desire to gain access to the Bay of Bengal. Such a western seaboard for China would notably improve its energy supplies and reduce the risks of importing most of its oil through the narrow Straits of Malacca that could be blocked by US or other war ships during a time of conflict. Some years ago the Chinese national petroleum company constructed oil and gas pipelines from the Myanmar coast to Yunnan. These pipelines, which were subject to protests during their construction, started pumping natural gas from the Myanmar’s Shwe gas field in 2013 and two years later the first oil was pumped, bringing billions of dollars to the government of Myanmar as well as benefiting China. A Chinese port on the Bay of Bengal is also seen as important for facilitating exports to Bangladesh, India and beyond. Importantly, the economic corridor from Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal allows Beijing to extend its sphere of influence to the Indian Ocean (p. 150). Miller concludes that much depends on how Myanmar’s new government, in effect led by Aung San Suu Kyi, receives China’s approaches and whether Chinese companies there behave responsibly.

In a chapter entitled “A String of Pearls” Miller turns his attention to the Indian Ocean where China has become increasingly active. Indian analysts believe that the Chinese are systematically building naval bases around Indian ocean establishing what they have called ‘a string of pearls’ in order to enhance their dominance of what India considers their backyard. India and China have a half century long history of mutual distrust. Latest this summer, the two countries’ armies were at loggerheads across their land border in the Himalayas. Indian concerns about the ‘string of pearls’ has further intensified since Xi Jinping announce the plan to build a Maritime Silk Road in 2013 (p. 167). Indian analysts that Miller has talked to see China’s advancement as a conscious step by Beijing to expand its dominance in the region. While India could benefit from cooperating with China on initiatives, such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, there are significant security-related concerns. In Miller’s judgment, these are exaggerated: “Beijing is far more interested in securing alternative routes for its energy imports and in protecting commercial sea lanes than it is in building a new empire” (p. 171). This despite the fact that Miller recognizes that China’s schemes have geostrategic as well as commercial motives. India is concerned about Sri Lank sliding into China’s sphere. However, a particular sore point is the long-standing friendship between China and Pakistan, an expression of which is the Chinese port development in Gwadar on the coast of Baluchistan and the associated plan to develop a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor running from Gwadar to the Chinese border and Kashgar in Xinjiang. Apart from opening up an alternative route for energy imports, according to Miller, China also wants to use this massive economic cooperation to persuade Pakistan’s government to rule in Islamic extremists whose tentacles reach across the border to Xinjiang (p. 176). Importantly, the Gwadar port provides a valuable permanent maritime base for China on Indian Ocean, near the shipping lanes from the Middle East and Africa.

China had a close relationship with the government of Mahenda Rajapaksa, former dictatorial and thuggish president of Sri Lanka, supplying the bulk of arms he used in the prolonged civil war against the Tamil population in the north of the island country. During that period, Chinese banks financed major projects in Sri Lanka constructed by Chinese firms. The banks loaned money at high interest rates so that these could be used to provide kickbacks to Rajapaksa and his cronies. After the civil war ended and Rajapaksa died, these high interest rate loans have been a major bone of contention between the new government and China. As Miller states: “For China, Sri Lanka offers a test case of how nimbly its leaders and enterprises can react to the vicissitudes of foreign politics” (p. 195). He quotes a Sri Lankan intellectual saying: “The Chinese do not quite understand how to deal with countries that are democracies, where you have political transitions as we have seen here .. They would rather deal with a corrupt dictatorship and not worry about it.”

The final chapter of the book deals with the fiery waters of South China Sea, an area where tensions have risen in recent years as China has aggressively pursued an expansionist policy (see also Hayton, 2014; Kaplan, 2015). China has claimed sovereignty over most of South China Sea causing conflict with many of its neighbors. It claims the Paracel Islands southeast of Hainan. These are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, but China has controlled them since it wrested them from South Vietnam in a maritime battle in 1974. Much further away from the Chinese mainland and its exclusive economic zone as recognized by international law lie the Spratly Islands, which are also subject to disputes between China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan. Using its military power, China has in the past several years focused on creating ‘facts on the ground’ by carrying out massive reclamation works to create artificial islands and building garrisons on them. The Chinese government has, somewhat disingenuously, used both claims based on international law and, when they have been unsuccessful, historical claims to the ownership of the islands. Already in 1975, Deng Xiaoping told his Vietnamese counterpart that the islands of South China Sea had “belonged to China since ancient times” (p. 202). As demonstrated by Bill Hayton in his excellent book The South China Sea and summarized here by Miller, these historical claims are at best dubious. For most part of its 2000 years of history, the South China Sea was a trading area for the various peoples belonging to shifting kingdoms that occupied the littoral. The Chinese empire was not even active in maritime affairs for most of that period. The claims to the South China Sea started appearing in Chinese maps for the first time in 1914 and these were used as a basis for claims by the Nationalist government and the Communists after that. In 2009, China for the first time submitted a map to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in which appeared a nine-dash line (also known as the ‘cow’s lick’) and exerting “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and adjacent waters” (p. 206). The Southeast Asian nations were understandably furious. Since then, Chinese actions in the South China Sea have resulted in numerous conflicts with the neighbors. China has blocked oil exploration in the territorial waters of Vietnam, which it claims to itself. There have been naval standoffs and actual shooting incidents between Chinese and Vietnamese and Philippines forces. And China has harassed fishing vessels from other countries that have ventured into disputed waters.

One of the reasons for China claiming virtually all of South China Sea, including the EEZs of the adjacent Southeast Asian nations pertains to the hydrocarbons to be found in the seabed. However, Miller does not believe this to be a major motivation: it is believed that the region contains relatively little oil and gas, and what is there is hard to exploit due to difficult geology and powerful typhoons. The real reason he says is to gain strategic control of the shipping lanes (p. 210). Miller appears to have some sympathy for China’s position, although he recognizes that its position is weakened by its selective adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of which it is part, and its refusal to accept a ruling in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines regarding the Scarborough Shoal, a triangular group of reefs and rocks off the coast of the Philippines. The events have also led to tensions with other countries, including Japan, Australia and the US. In fact, the American navy destroyer U.S.S. John McCain, which collided with a tanker off Singapore on August 21st, 2017, was returning from a ‘freedom of navigation’ mission in South China Sea sailing through international waters that China claims. This has led Beijing to believe that there is a US-led anti-Chinese coalition being built involving its Southeast Asian neighbors, as well as Japan, Australia and India.

Tom Miller ends his excellent book with a brief but powerful 10-page conclusion that both acknowledges China’s rightful concerns and its need to “start acting like a great power” (p. 239) given the size of its population and economy, as well as recognizes the challenges that the country itself and the region as a whole face. President Xi’s “proactive” foreign policy in Asia, he writes, “offers a straightforward deal: China will deliver trade, investment and other economic goodies to all partners that accommodate – or, at the very least, do not challenge – its core interests” (p. 240). China’s persuasive power comes from the economic incentives it can provide. It faces questions of trust with its Asian neighbors and partners, especially those that have disputes or historical reasons to distrust China. Also in newly democratic countries, like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where China is associated with support to previous suppressive regimes, there will be challenges.

However, as Miller, states, “the reality is that China will become a much more visible presence in Asia in the coming decades” (p. 242). And as Chinese nationals and firms spread across the region and the world, President Xi has sworn to protect nationals abroad, using military force if necessary (p. 243). These factors risk blowing up in the future. Still, despite a certain militarization, China has thus far emphasized trade, commercial interests and economic growth, rather than political or geographical expansion (notwithstanding its occupation of Tibet and claims to Taiwan as a rogue province). In President Xi’s words: “We Chinese love peace … No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion” (p. 245). Miller sees China’s determination to gain control of the region as quite rational and something that the US and regional powers must accept. He finishes the book with the following passage (p. 248):

“It is hardly my place to prescribe how the US and China should avoid war. I do believe, however, that the US and its regional allies must accept China’s determination to carve out its own sphere of influence across Asia. And having accepted the inevitability of China’s rise, the safest course of action is to accommodate it within a remodeled regional security structure. Whether China would accept such an accommodation is another question, and much will depend on the relative strengths of both sides in the decades to come. But as China pursues its vision of national rejuvenation, something has to give. If it does not, the “Chinese dream” might tragically morph into an Asian nightmare.”

Tom Miller has written a very fine book on a topic that is one of the most important developments in the world today. His writing is smooth and entertaining, while he combines historical and political analysis with reporting from the frontlines. Everyone interested in security and development in Asia and the world would benefit from reading this book.


Hayton, Bill (2014). The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2015). Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. New York: Random House.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Six FourSix Four by Hideo Yokoyama
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me a long time to get through this one. It's not because it's boring or badly written, but because it's a big book. I mean literally big: 635 pages and mine is the heavy hard cover version. I travel a lot and I could not make myself bring the book with me, as it would have doubled the weight of my carry-on, although it would have been good reading on long flights (like the ones I took on a Japan trip during this reading). The fact that I had to take several breaks from the book made it harder, as the story is really quite complicated. Or stories, I should say, as there are several going on in parallel.

At the heart of it is a kidnap-murder case that took place 14 years earlier and where the trail has gone cold. This story is quite interesting and complex in itself, with a surprising twist at the end. A parallel story to this is that the protagonist Mikami's daughter has vanished and this is naturally putting a huge strain on Mikami and his wife Minako.

Here's another thing that makes it a bit hard to keep track of the characters. To name a few, so the protagonist is Mikami and his spouse is Minako who has a friend Mizuki; while in the office Mikami's assistant is Mikumo and the assistant chief is Mikura. Now, I know that in Japanese these are entirely different names but reading in English we don't have the benefit of the kanji characters that would keep them separate. And in the end, it turns out that the phonetic similarities have a meaning to the story.

Back to the story, the main complication to the plot is that it mostly focuses on the internal strife within the prefectural police department where Mikami is press director. Here again there are parallel plots. There's been a cover-up related to police missteps during the cold case kidnap-murder, which the different sides use as a weapon against each other, the sides being the Criminal Investigations and the Administrative Affairs divisions. Mikami, a former detective and still one at heart, has been sidelined to Administrative Affairs and thus lands in the middle of the infighting, with conflicted loyalties. There's a threat of the police commissioner from the National Police Agency in Tokyo to come down and take over the Criminal Investigations division, which would be an enormous catastrophe to the pride and minds of the local police.

At the same time, there is unexpected tumult in the press relations, which Mikami (and Mikumo and the two others in the team) has to manage. The press representatives are depicted as rather vulgar savages out for blood and the press briefings, some lasting the entire night, turning into shouting matches where the press assaults the officers hauling insults and sometimes getting physical (it's interesting because the author used to be an investigative reporter). This takes a toll on Mikami who at the same time has to conduct his own investigations, try to prevent damage from the commissioners visit, partake in the departmental intrigue, try to manage his career and marriage etc. You get the point: he's one stressed out dude.

For a Western reader, the fights within the police department and with the press may seem like a storm in a tea cup. The cover-up is a bigger deal, but the rest of it is about things that could be seen as rather trivial. Yet, Mikami (and the author Yokoyama) makes a huge deal of it -- in fact, this is the main reason to the book's length. A huge amount of space is dedicated to these plots and to the mixed ponderings inside Mikami's conflicted mind (see, this is a psychological thriller). What they do reveal, though, are the machismo and pride and the fear of losing face that define Japanese salaried men. And the fact that you are entirely defined by your work and loyalty to your office is seen as paramount. Even generations of former Criminal Investigations directors are drawn into the plot and their years of retirement have not lessened their partiality or investment in departmental intrigue. In other countries, Mikami would have already called it quits, but he might as well kill himself if he had to leave the police force (although his thinking evolves during the book and he starts to see life priorities in a slightly clearer light). This is not exaggerated, I'm sure, and it's all very interesting. But these sections are just too long, there is a lot of repetition, and a huge number of characters who are hard to keep straight in one's mind -- and they distract from the fascinating investigations.

It's not that the book is boring. It's actually well written and has a certain amount of suspense. The translator, Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, has done an admirable job and the language flows naturally. Maybe I would give it another star had I just read it in one go spending a weekend on the sofa with a pot of coffee and, perhaps, pen and paper to remind me of who each of the characters was and what they stood for.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Gary Burton & Makoto Ozone @ The Blues Alley, March 2, 2017

Gary Burton has announced he is retiring and that this is his farewell tour. Born in 1943, he’s been touring for nearly six decades and made his recording debut in 1960 at the age of 17. Not that anyone would think that he’s getting old hearing him play, seeing his tall frame bent over the vibraphone, chuckling at his good natured commentary between the tunes. Burton has chosen to carry out his retirement tour with his long-term musical partner MakotoOzone. They’ve known and played with each other for 34 years. The duo played in front of a full house at the Blues Alley in Georgetown for two nights, with two shows each night in the beginning of March.

Gary Burton is possibly the most accomplished vibes player in the history of jazz (the only possible competition would come from his seniors, Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson). He has recorded more than 60 albums as a leader and received about half a dozen Grammies – a rare feat for a jazz artist. He pioneered the four-mallet technique on the vibraphone, which has since then been emulated by many musicians. One of the hallmarks of his career has been collaboration with many leading innovators on the jazz scene, including ChickCorea. His collaboration with Makoto Ozone is a good example of this collaboration.

The concert started with a Chick Corea composition honoring the pioneering bebop pianist Bud Powell. This was an icebreaker that allowed the audience to get into a full jazz swing, with Ozone providing a solid rhythm occasionally breaking into stride piano. The early part of the concert was overall defined by more straight jazz than one would often hear from Burton. The evening would grow more varied as it progressed. The Burton-Ozone sound is quite different from that of the more famous Burton-Corea duo.  Ozone uses his left hand to a rhythmic effect and plays often thick chords on the right. He is a superb pianist, but his style is somewhat heavier than that of Corea’s. In many ways, it fits well in this duo format where there is no bass or drums to provide the base. Neither is needed or missed, although one could imagine an innovative double bass player fitting into the format.

One of the highlights of the evening was ‘Remembering Tano’, a piece composed by Burton for the legendary Argentinian composer, leader and accordionist Astor Piazzolla, with whom Burton recorded. Naturally, the piece is in a tango format, oozing with dark passion and tension amidst complex rhythms, while the bridge seamlessly shifts into a brighter major key only to soon return to the original melancholy mood. It provided an excellent opportunity for Ozone to dwell in the drama, which seems to come naturally to him.

In 2002, the gentlemen recorded an album, ‘Virtuosi’, with arrangements of classical pieces by Brahms, Gershwin, Ravel, Scarlatti and others. At the concert, they explained how they had sat together in a café in Phoenix, Arizona, coming up with the idea. Interestingly, the album would go on to receive a Grammy nomination in classical music category. This night they played the Prelude from Ravel’s ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’, providing one of the most beautiful moments of the show.

Back to jazz history, ‘Opus F’ by Benny Goodman followed. The up-tempo tune displayed some amazing fast soloing by Burton and gave Ozone another opportunity at stride piano. A fun interlude in the varied program.

Several years ago, Gary Burton was recording an album and had requested Makoto Ozone to write two original pieces for it. As Ozone recalled it, he had made very little progress and not really gotten into the task because of other things to do. One Sunday Gary called him over to his house. Makoto arrived and was promptly closed off into the basement alone with a piano and kept there until the two pieces were done. We heard one of them at the concert. The composer had written much space for piano in it and it displayed clearly his classical background. Makoto Ozone still today performs as a classical music soloist with symphony orchestras in Japan and the USA.

After the concert I spotted Gary Burton chatting with some patrons and I joined them. I told him that I had first seen him in Helsinki sometime in the 1970s. Gary’s reaction: “Oh, then we go way back!” I remember the concert quite well and mentioned that Eberhard Weber had been part of the group.  Gary acknowledged that he had played a lot with the German bassist and they were still in touch. Unfortunately, Eberhard can’t play anymore as he’s had a stroke.

I am very glad that I was able to catch Gary Burton on one of his last gigs. I understand his wish to quit touring, which must be very hard work – and it’s always good to quit while you’re still winning – but I hope that we will still hear from this master also in the future.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Psychopath TestThe Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very well researched account of what the author calls the madness industry. Written in a highly entertaining style, the book provides a thoughtful critique of how psychology and psychiatry are practiced, and how pharmaceutical companies push for more and more severe diagnoses to peddle their products. In the book we meet an interesting cast of characters -- sane and truly insane, psychopaths and not so, incarcerated and sitting in boardrooms. Looking at these serious phenomena through the concrete and varied cases provides a most vivid and absorbing approach. Along the way, Jon Ronson also examines his own sanity and role as a journalist.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Adios Gato & Jeremy

The year that just ended can hardly be described as a good one. The carnage of the civil war in Syria
and the siege of Aleppo are on top of our minds – or at least should be. The situation in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen remains precarious. Natural disasters caused an estimated US$175 billion in damages around the world, with floods in China, hurricanes and typhoons in the Philippines and Haiti, earthquakes in Japan, and many others. Terrorists attacked Nice, Berlin and Istanbul (right on New Year’s Eve!) – not to mention Baghdad. The influx of refugees hardened attitudes towards foreigners in Europe and voters in the U.K. opted for BREXIT. Russia continues to flex its muscles – as concretely personified by its often shirtless leader – flaunting human rights, threatening its neighbors and even influencing the US elections through hacking. And partly as a result, the worst disaster of the year, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States supported by millions of misguided and misinformed people in this post-fact world.

The rock music world experienced many notable losses, as well, starting with David Bowie who died on January 10 at age 69, ending with George Michael passing away on Christmas Day at just 53. In between, Prince’s death on April 21st (at 57) probably received the highest attention, as did that of Leonard Cohen (November 7th at 82). Other notable departures from the popular music scene included the pianist Leon Russell (November 13th at 74) whose sound was more influential than many listeners realized; another highly influential behind-the-scenes force, Rod Temperton (October 5th at 66); the laid back southern pianist/singer Mose Allison (November 15th at 89); and Greg Lake (December 7th at 69), the fabulous bassist, vocalist and composer of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame. Others, such as the Belgian-born harmonica master, Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans (August 22nd at the tender age of 94) whose music everyone has heard, whether they realize it or not; the magical Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos (March 9th at 71), and the legendary drummer Alphonse Mouzon (also on Christmas Day at 68) were great losses to the musical world. Finland lost one of its more prominent jazz musicians, bassist Make Lievonen (December 14th at 69). Although I grieve for all of these fabulous artists, I will here briefly focus on two forceful creators who were amongst the most important to me personally: Gato Barbieri and Jeremy Steig.

The saxophonist Leandro ‘Gato’ Barbieri (b. November 28th, 1932, in Rosario, Argentina; d. April 2nd, 2016, in New York) was my hero during my teenage years. I remember the first album I heard from him, ‘El Pampero’ (1971). It completely blew my mind. It still holds a central place in my record shelf. This was a live recording. The tunes were long – just two to a side – with nearly constant soloing by Gato against a South American beat provided by three percussionists, Bernard Purdie, Sonny Morgan and the above mentioned Nana Vasconcelos. The band was completed by electric bassist Chuck Rainey and Lonnie Liston Smith whose piano added freer fills into the mix. I was sold. Especially, the tune ‘Mi Buenos Aires Querido’ with the gorgeous saxophone intro caught my heart and made me long for the sensuous capital of tango on Rio de la Plata. Gato in his trademark black fedora hat was the coolest cat I knew (apologies for the pun). Even my mother warmed up to his warm, huge and highly distinguishable sound on the tenor sax.

I immediately went back to look for his earlier recordings to find that they were mostly free jazz, inspired by Ornette Coleman. In the mid-1960s Gato divided his time between Rome and New York performing and recording with Don Cherry, Carla Bley and others in the avant garde movement. Only with the 1969 album ‘The Third World’ did he find the voice that would combine elements from Coltranesque jazz with tunes and rhythms from South America. Other recordings followed, including ‘Bolivia’ (1973), which brought forth the lyrical side of Gato, with melodies borrowed from the South American jungles and pampas. Mind you, this was not what you would normally call ‘Latin jazz’, because Gato’s music never flirted much with salsa or even bossa nova. His roots were more firmly in the music of his native country, Argentina.

This was most clearly demonstrated by the film score Gato made for Bernardo Bertolucci’s scandalous ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (1972) for which the composer won a Grammy. The dramatic and sexy score became an international hit record with Gato’s powerful tenor at the lead accompanied by a tango orchestra featuring a bandoneon and strings. Its melancholy laments of forbidden, fleeting love pulled my heartstrings more than most other music ever. The legend has it that Bertolucci had planned a role for Gato in the film but the latter turned out to be such a wooden actor that the plan was scrapped. Nevertheless, when he made a cameo appearance as a stranger practicing the saxophone, whom the lovers, the middle aged Marlon Brando and 19-year old Maria Schneider, could see through a window, I was I heaven.

"Always in the tango is tragedy — she leaves him, she kills him. It's like an opera but it's called tango … The lyrics and the melodies are very beautiful. It's very sensual," Barbieri is quoted as having said in 1997 (Billboard, April 2, 2016).
Then followed in rapid succession the series of Chapter albums recorded for Impulse!: ‘Chapter One: Latin America’, ‘Chapter Two: Hasta Siempre’ and ‘Chaper Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata!’ (1973-1974). The third introduced a large orchestra arranged and conducted by Chico O’Farrill, and some truly beautiful music, such as a version of the classic ballad ‘Cuando vuelva a tu lado’. A fourth in the series, ‘Chapter Four: Alive in New York’, released in 1975, was as the title suggests a concert recording.

Not all Barbieri records were masterpieces. Having earlier recorded for the jazz labels Flying Dutchman and Impulse!, his new label, A&M took Gato to a more commercial smooth jazz direction. I could still find great merit in records like ‘Caliente!’ (1976), even if I missed the earlier rougher productions. The intensity, lyricism and warmth never disappeared from Gato’s playing. His collaboration with Carlos Santana on a rendition of the latter’s composition ‘Europa’ can still bring tears to my eyes.

There was a long hiatus in his recording after a dispute with the record label in 1982. During the 1980s he released a couple of albums that received little attention. Throughout the period he toured extensively performing around the world. His wife of 35 years, Michelle, died in 1995, and he himself went through the first of his bypass heart operations. His comeback album after the break was the 1997 ‘Qué pasa.’ By that time, Gato had married again, to Laura, with whom he would spend the remaining two decades of his life. During the 2000s he would only release a couple of albums, but he continued to perform in concerts. I last saw him at the Blues Alley club in Washington, DC, more than a decade ago. He was in great form performing the music that he loved, not the smooth jazz version of it.

"Music was a mystery to Gato, and each time he played was a new experience for him, and he wanted it to be that way for his audience,” Laura Barbieri is quoted as saying (Rolling Stone, April 3, 2016). In 2015, Gato Barbieri received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award from the Latin Recording Academy. He is greatly missed but the consolation may be that there is no better way to remember him than through his sensuous, melancholy music.

Another artist and human who made a huge impression on me was Jeremy Steig (b. September 23, 1942, in Manhattan; d. April 13, 2016, in Yokohama). I also started listening to him as a schoolboy in Finland in the 1970s. I often biked over to my friend Timo’s house on afternoons to listen to music. We’d have a wide scale, ranging from Edgard Varèse to Eric Dolphy to Frank Zappa, as long as it was novel and interesting. Timo was the one who introduced me to the records of Jeremy Steig and the music hit me like a rock from the very beginning. Both Timo and I were aspiring flute players, so discovering a rare jazz flautist who was as versatile and creative as Steig was a real treat for us. At that time, almost all jazz flutists were primarily saxophonists who doubled on the smaller instrument, but Jeremy Steig was a flutist first. The first record I remember hearing was ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (1971), which featured a small group of leading contemporary jazz musicians, such as Eddie Gomez and Don Alias, but playing to a funky rock beat. The music was free in a loose format with largely improvised interplay. Again, I went back to older albums by Steig, such as the 1968 ‘Jeremy & The Satyrs’ which embodied the psychedelic spirit of the era.

Jeremy Steig had grown up in the straight jazz tradition and had been on the New York scene since the early-1960s. He released his first album as a leader, ‘Flute Fever’, in 1963. The album featured a traditional piano trio with young Denny Zeitlin. His greatest claim to fame in mainstream modern jazz was, however, ‘What’s New’ recorded with the pianist Bill Evans, backed by Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell, in 1969. The song list consists of standards, such as ‘Straight No Chaser’, ‘Lover Man’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’ but the treatment was novel and the playing enormously creative and interactive. Jeremy later told me how in those days, there were no fancy music schools for jazz musicians to take a shortcut to fame; the only way was just to practice and play and try to get the chance to be accepted to sit in with the established stars in clubs. To me, one of the best collaborations was the rather free form album ‘Outlaws’, recorded in 1976, with just Eddie Gomez on bass and Jeremy Steig on flute and alto flute.

Jeremy Steig’s flute playing was truly unique. He had perfected his jazz chops but then moved more towards a crossover style, adopting techniques that incorporated singing into the flute and ample use of overtones. What contributed to his special sound was a motorbike accident at 19 that left a side of his face paralyzed. He re-learned to play and rebuilt his face muscles, but never fully recovered from the damage. In the 1960s Jeremy would sit in with both jazz and rock groups at live performances in New York’s Greenwich Village. He observed that he could still solo “with integrity” over the funky beats of rock bands. “We decided that we’d invented jazz-rock … Of course, there were about 50 other people who had come to the same conclusion,” he later mused (New York Times, June 2, 2016).
It was in Greenwich Village where I caught Jeremy Steig on one of his rare live appearances in 2007 (see my review of the gig). The gig was amazing, with Jeremy playing as innovative music as ever, alternating between the regular and alto and bass flutes (one of his last records – the 2007 ‘Pterodactyl’ – consisted of only overdubs with flutes of different sizes from piccolo to bass). After the show I went to talk with him and his wife Asako who was acting as his manager. We established a good rapport and followed up with a dinner in a nice restaurant in the Village on another evening not long after. A common element was found in the fact that we both had spent a lot of time in Japan. As it happens, Asako hails from Morioka, not far from my wife’s hometown in the same northern Japanese prefecture, Iwate. Asako and Jeremy established a home in Yokohama, which is where Jeremy passed away.
Over the long dinner we discussed many matters, around and beyond music. Jeremy considered himself retired, “senior citizen”, as he repeatedly mentioned. He hadn’t made new records since the above mentioned ‘Pterodactyl’ and the excellent 2007 quartet recording ‘Flute on the Edge’, both produced and released on his own label. He seldom performed but he continued to paint, which had long been his other artistic passion. In fact, he produced the cover art for several of his albums and lately he and Asako created a series of ‘digital picture books’ with his art. Jeremy’s interests were wide and included politics. I remember him raving about the book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, which detailed how American firms had taken over developing countries by convincing them to take huge loans for construction and infrastructure projects.

Sadly, Jeremy Steig never became a household name, even amongst jazz aficionados. Still his music was highly influential in many respects. He made appearances as sideman on recordings by famous artists ranging from Art Farmer and Urbie Green to Johnny Winter and Tommy Bolin. One of my favorites is his performance on a rather obscure, but lovely pop tune, ‘Hurricane’ by Dee Carstensen. As Jeremy would tell, the most money he ever made through his music was in 1994 when the Beastie Boys sampled his 1970 ‘Howlin’ for Judy’ for their hit ‘Sure Shot’.