Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Manager's Dilemma: Talent and Laziness

Here's the most counterintuitive management tenet I know: urging workers to try harder isn't the appropriate recourse when they're performing tasks for which they're ill-suited.

My sister - a natural artist who emerged from the womb able to draw, paint, and sculpt - inadvertently taught me this early on. Like most naturally gifted people, she didn't view her talent as special. She assumed everyone could do art! From her perspective, people who draw poorly simply aren't trying hard enough.

This misapprehension can be spotted in many circumstances. Gregarious people assume shy people don't try hard enough to be social. Attractive people think unattractive people don't make enough effort with their appearance. Etc., etc..

I grasped this early on, yet it was slow to fully sink in. This led to problems when people I've managed have failed to be, for instance, creative, or clearly articulate. My urge is to coax them to try harder. They seem, above all, lazy. I've continued making my sister's error long into adulthood.

Egotists don't have this problem. They see people around them (especially those under their supervision) as lesser creatures, so deficiency is unsurprising (they'd never have expected workers to match their magnificent talents). Given that egotists run most hierarchical organizations, this explains why such operations are usually stiflingly drudge-ish. If you never expect people to step up, to "bring it", to leap to unexpected new heights, there's little alternative but to treat them as finite commodities, and to box them in so their core competencies can be efficiently pumped, like egg-laying chickens in tight little pens.

Managers who don't have big egos, by contrast, are shocked and perplexed when workers can't do what they can, leaving those workers confused and annoyed by the expectation that they'll magically exhibit faculties not in their nature. The problem is that the very notion of a fixed, limiting "nature" involves a condescending worldview that's creepy terra incognita for those lacking the condescension gene.

Yet, as with many shortcomings, there's a hidden pearl. If you don't know better than to expect greatness and transcendence, workers sometimes, indeed, will step up to meet those expectations. Whenever people recall that they "did their best work" in a certain situation, it's generally the result of having worked for a non-egotist, who declined to box in chickens because "nature" was never imagined a limiting factor.

But while it's fine for hope to spring eternal, the challenge is to remember that it's not laziness that prevents cats from fetching balls or cows from hunting mice.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Chicken Seasoning Quest

There's a certain seasoning effect I've been trying to convey with broiled chicken for years now. Today I finally nailed it:  Spanish smoked paprika, galangal, and black pepper.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


r/beertrade, I'm bread-it!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Food Science Can't Foster Deliciousness

I was listening to a lengthy J. Kenji López-Alt interview on Freakonomics Radio when I suddenly realized what's wrong with the whole "food science" movement.

(Note: I enjoy and admire J. Kenji López-Alt's stuff; none of this is a knock on him, personally or professionally.)

Consumer-facing operations like Cooks Illustrated and Lopez-Alt's Food Lab are dwarfed by the mighty funds and smarts invested in the enormous field of food science. And while food science addresses many challenges, the golden ticket would be to make food more reliably delicious. If a food scientist could break the code for wrangling even just one set of ingredients into a reliably moan-worthy result via replicable algorithm, the world would be her panko-encrusted oyster.

But after decades of big food science, with billions upon billions upon billions upon billions of dollars spent - the needle hasn't budged. Burger King does not grace the world with supernal delight....even though ground beef grilled over fire is awfully hard to mess up. Food science doesn't foster deliciousness. It just doesn't. We're in collective denial over this, akin to the widespread misconception that cosmetic surgery fosters beauty.

Food science can ensure more consistent results, increase efficiency, and stave off various poor outcomes. It can allow you to swap in cheaper ingredients and methods. These relatively pedestrian accomplishments constitute the industry's entire return-on-investment. Plastic surgeons can certainly make your boobs bigger.

What is deliciousness? If it's a certain optimal bill of ingredients combined and cooked in an optimal manner, as many people assume against all evidence, then we'd already have cracked the code. If the hordes of brilliant, lavishly-funded PhD's in our industrial-gastronomic complex could make food even 10% more delicious, this would be a very different world.

Similarly, if emotionally affecting music were the inevitable result of certain pitches sounding with given timbres at certain intervals, computer-generated music would make us cry...and bad musicians would use computer assistance to sound great. But nyuh-uh. Such assistance can correct the intonation of an out-of-tune singer, or touch up other blemishes, but it can't make bad singing beautiful, nor make beautiful singing more beautiful. Cosmetic surgery can't make an ugly person beautiful, nor make a beautiful person more beautiful. It can merely correct flaws

Error correction doesn't yield beauty. Beauty is not an absence of flaws (in fact, the greatest beauty is often flawed....and flawlessness is often insipid). There's nothing palpably wrong with most commercial foods. Their low appeal isn't due to flaws, it's due to a lack of beauty. The harder we try to address this shortfall by shaving away at flaws, the worse the beauty deficit becomes. Consider the outcome of lots of cosmetic surgery!

As I write this, The Sainted Arepa Lady somewhere blithely rubs crummy margarine over corn cakes sizzling away upon her unevenly-heated griddle. She summons magnificence from cheap supermarket provisions and dodgy equipment. If Lopez-Alt were to advise her to switch to a provably optimal blend of Moroccan Argan oil and otter fat, they wouldn't taste better, because, past a certain (low) threshold, error correction does not augment beauty (what's more, I have no doubt that a year hence she'll have found a way to make her new provisions taste exactly like margarine; see the tale of George's New Piano).

It's possible to see clearly through a lot of murky thinking if you'll bear closely in mind that great photos can be taken with lousy cameras. My iPhone camera is vastly better than the equipment Ansel Adams used, but the aesthetic gap between he and I hasn't narrowed. The big development is that I enjoy vastly greater ease of use.

"Ease of use". That's our jam. That's where the money and ingenuity show results. Quality, however, remains a great Mystery. It stems from love, skill, care, commitment, and other perturbingly vague concepts that stubbornly resist reduction, formulation, and replication. A century of research, supported by upwards of a trillion dollars, hasn't increased deliciousness. Our food is less flawed, and a helluva lot easier to make, but science is not making it more delicious. If it could, it surely would.

I confess that I'm as enticed as anyone by geeky food science writing. I find myself investing in the widespread baseless hope that some new move will improve my cooking. But it's only possible if I'm doing something so wrong that I'm making success impossible. If so, a more optimized method would indeed improve my results. If you've been cooking steaks exclusively via armpit heat, science definitely has very good news for you.

But the lousiness of the foods all around us is not due to errors. On the contrary, most of it has been fully optimized by food science's best efforts. They've had lots of "work done" (the culinary equivalent of tummy tucks and face lifts). Yet you still can't get a tasty pie at Pizza Hut - even though cheesy, saucy bread is awfully hard to mess up.

I understand deliciousness is not Pizza Hut's sole priority. They'd gladly settle for moderate deliciousness if they could save two cents per metric ton. But if food science worked - like, at all - then Pizza Hut surely wouldn't suck. Sucking would be obsolete. Instead, flaws are obsolete. As is hard work. And that tells me we're actually headed the wrong way. Great food is never blandly flawless, nor is it created by shirking hard work!

Deliciousness barely correlates with (much less is caused by) factors like technique, equipment, or ingredients. I'm not suggesting it's entirely a matter of hippy love and chakras; even the most earnest three year old can't create wonders by simply splashing together random condiments from the fridge. Some minimally effective workflow must be established. But once it is, tweaking via science can increase your efficiency and your consistency, and certainly your ease of use. It can debug flaws. But it won't increase the deliciousness.

Just as plastic surgery can give you tauter skin or bigger boobs, but never anything resembling beauty, we need to recognize what's possible. If a few bucks worth of science could augment your deliciousness, think what the annual investment of $25 billion should have accomplished. We'd be moaning over the supernal, subtle qualities of our Slim Jims and Pop Tarts!

In fact, food science works against deliciousness. Increased efficiency removes opportunities for human touch to impart deliciousness. And flaws are the vital spice of art. And consistency is a regression toward the mean (inspiration is fleeting, so expunging volatility ensures uniformly uninspiring results). As with a taut Beverly Hills face, the application of blunt science to profound aesthetics produces a zero-flaw, zero-beauty outcome.

Companion pieces:
The Evil That Is Panera or...Why Adam Smith's Invisible Hand Reaches For Lousy Chow
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Artificial Flavors (which was too optimistic about technology).

Careful readers will note that an enormous amount has been left unspoken. As we've considered food, photography, music, and cosmetic surgery, the question pervades: what's the missing chunk? What, exactly, resists dissection, comprehension, and replication? Whence beauty?

It's a question I've pondered since childhood, and have tried to answer, in a thousand ways, in a thousand of these Slog postings. The problem is it can't be stated in a direct, crisp manner. If it could, then it would be something hackable and wield-able. But even a trillion dollars of research hasn't budged that needle. If it could be explained in clear terms, we'd have done so centuries ago.

Scientists remain certain they just need to slice finer and sample wider. I love science, but the two issues which most intrigue me - Consciousness and Deliciousness (and its analogs in other art forms) - appear to resist all scientific/materialistic investigation. I wonder how many centuries it will take for us to spot the cul-de-sac our collective noses have smashed up against (note: this is why some materialists are getting angrily dogmatic. They're starting to smell the inevitable endgame, and they don't like it one bit).

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Modesty, Heroes, God, and Singers

I had a run for a few years where every time an eatery looked good to me, it would, indeed, turn out to be extraordinarily good. I've long been a skilled chowhound, but for this length of time - a period I called my "streak" - I just couldn't fail.

(It wasn't entirely pleasant. It's hard to enjoy peaks when there are no valleys. What's more, I kept questioning my taste, bringing people along just to confirm that I hadn't lost my discernment. It was all pretty confusing and weird. FWIW, my streak ended during my Chow Tour, in Halifax, where "Gingerbread Haus Bakery" excited me so much that I bought a vast array of their stuff for a tasting among local friends, and we discovered that every bite was simply okay.)

Around that time, I made the mistake of telling a young food writer about my streak, and she reacted spitefully. She thought I was being immodest; that I was boasting.

My mechanic can rebuild a transmission. This is one of the most complex tasks a human being can tackle. If I lived a thousand years, I couldn't learn this skill. So is my mechanic boastful when he confidently notes that this is something he can do? Should he instead mumble "Ooh, geez, I don't know about "rebuild"; I can kinda fool around a little, and sometimes it works out pretty okay...."?

My mechanic certainly takes pride in being good at what he does, but it's not something he would ever think to boast about. Nor would it occur to him to soft-pedal his ability. Soft-pedalers indicate that they find themselves so awesome that they need to tone it down for the inferiors.

There's nothing as boastful as modesty. I wrote a few years ago about a Harvard-educated friend who hemmed and hawed whenever someone asked him where he'd gone to school.
He'll meekly fess up, looking horribly uncomfortable. At some point, I felt compelled to point out to him that, really, Harvard's not that big a deal, and that the pains he takes to soft-pedal it transparently reveal how earth-shakingly impressive he actually deems it.
I'm not saying boasting isn't a drag, or that modesty isn't a virtue. But people have lost perspective on this. Modesty isn't about denying that you can do what you perfectly well know you can do - which, among other things, deprives those around you of being helped out by your forte. Real modesty is the recognition that everybody's got a forte, and Richard Scarry was right: it takes all kinds (and, by pooling our respective expertise, we create a utopian whole). Real modesty is helping people eat better via your extraordinary ability to find good places, and exuberantly tapping other people's skills for the countless areas in which you recognize you're a complete fricking moron.

The kernel of this is hard to express, because humanity is so extremely turned away from this perspective that the words strike us as flat and incomprehensible: doing great stuff doesn't make you great. There are no great men/women; just shitty little rivers.

  • Recognizing this need not be depressing.
  • This is what all those rock and movie stars mean when they deflect credit to "God" or whatever in their awards speeches. This is their clumsy means of expressing that talent works through you, not from you (i.e. doing great stuff doesn't make you great). The really good epiphanies, eurekas, and insights simply arrive; they're not manufactured (where that stuff comes from is unnameable, and "God" is one term we've chosen to name the unnameable).
  • This is why you should always expect to be disappointed when you meet your heroes. It's helpful to remember that humans are fast-calculating farm animals capable of a few transcendent pass-thru magic tricks. Everything beyond that is mere pose.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Chowhounding Albany (and Environs)

I just posted to Chowhound about some good fines in and around Albany (extending to Troy, Saratoga Springs, and Kinderhook).

I'm way too overwhelmed in my mystery project for this to be any sort of polished writing, but the tips are solid.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Customer Service Turing Test

Here’s how to quickly determine the humanity of your customer service representative (pass it on!):
Them: "Hello, Mr. Leff. My name is Johnny and I’ll be providing you with excellent customer service. How are you today, sir?"

Me: “I’m very well, thanks so much for asking. How are YOU?”
Of course, I’ve stepped on his line. At this point, a human rep will be challenged to do two grueling things: 1. use his brain, and 2. be spontaneous. His response will tell you all you need to know.

25% will register what you’ve done. They'll chuckle, or pause awkwardly for a moment. Roused from the tedium, they'll awkwardly mumble a genuinely off-the-cuff reply, reluctantly bypassing their scripted answer of “Very well, thanks so much for asking.” You are speaking to a human. Continue your call.

50% will simply answer “very well” without batting an eyelash, and move on smoothly. At least they're able to respond to input. Continue with caution.

25% will blithely power forward, replying “Very well, thanks for asking”. And, oh dear, someone’s just rang your doorbell, and/or your lunch is burning, and/or you've spotted a rampaging elephant swiftly bearing down on your house, and/or discovered a lump on your breast or testicle, so you’ll just unfortunately need to call back later g'bye.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A 20 Year Trip to Alpha Centauri

So the plan is to create thousands of spacecrafts, each with the weight of a paper clip and carrying a computer, a camera, a laser communication system, and a plutonium engine. That's the easy part. The hard part is to blast them, up in space, with millions of lasers from down here on the ground, all in perfect synchronization through Earth's roiling atmosphere.

Accelerated to 50,000 miles per second, or one quarter the speed of light, they'll pass Mars' orbit in ten minutes, and catch up to Voyager 1's position in three days, finally reaching Alpha Centauri in under 20 years(!), where they'll take photos, and beam home prints for our perusal four years later.

If we can make this happen 20 years from now, and I watch it with the lasagna, there's a chance I'll be able to see close-up images of exo-planets within my lifetime.

This was all announced yesterday, so even Wikipedia hasn't caught up, but The Economist offers pretty rich coverage.

I never did get my jetpack, but between this and the craft beer boon, I've decided I like the future. I was going to mention "video phone" along with jetpack, until I remembered my iPhone does FaceTime (and, come to think of it, I loathe Facetime, which, hmm, has me rethinking a few things).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Pliant Perspective re: My Posting About Frozen Perspective

I just made some tweaks to the previous entry about frozen perspective. One downside (?) of a pliant perspective is never seeing anything you've ever worked on as complete!

Boredom, Certainty, and Frozen Perspective

I wrote last month about how certainty is humanity's crowning glory ("Since the dawn of history, our heroes have been the staunchest of the staunch. People of unwavering conviction, adhering faithfully to a rigid code") and also its downfall ("The central problem isn't religion, or political ideology, or racism. It's not even mob sentiment or extremism, per se. If you peel through the layers to the core of the problem, you'll find that it is, above and beyond all else, a matter of certainty.").

Between those cojoined Taoist extremes there lies an insidious peril: boredom. Boredom is humanity's most popular expression of certainty. It is the unwavering conviction that nothing interesting or provocative can possibly come from the people you're with in the place you're at. Inputs are shut down and perspective is narrowed. Nothing for me is forthcoming here, so I shift into "sleep" mode.

The remarkable thing about boredom is that it is, itself, incredibly boring. Bored people spray boredom. It's the ultimate rebuke of Gandhi's exhortation to be the change you wish to see in the world. A three step maneuver is involved: 1. assessment (inevitably flippant) that there's nothing of interest, 2. self-defeating shutdown of receptivity to anything of potential interest, and 3. resolution to make yourself of no interest whatsoever to those around you.

If you're someone dedicated to being surprising, insightful, and creative, bored people will be your kryptonite. They're a suffocating pillow. A certainty of disinterest is the single most effective countermeasure to interestingness. Creative, surprising people are put at great risk by the presence of this potent neurotoxin.

At its very root, the problem with certainty - either the big kind that fosters bloodshed, or the smaller kind that fosters buzzkill - is far simpler than you'd think. The problem is that it involves a frozen perspective. That's it! Frozen perspective is at the root of all human misery, large and small, inflicted or endured. And certainty is the means by which perspective freezes.

If you practice expanding and refocusing your perspective, you'll never be bored. And the less bored you allow yourself to be, the more interestingness and creativity will be fostered, both within yourself and in those around you whose creativity was previously thwarted by your boredom.

My previous, slightly less developed effort at this
An example of the underlying issue of perspective .

Friday, April 8, 2016

Everything that Happened Around You and Nothing You Did

Actor Tim Olyphant (star of Justified) on today's Leonard Lopate Show, explaining how to keep it fresh and creative while repeating the same scene umpteen times:
Every take you're trying to see how much you can remember everything that happened around you...and nothing you did.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Recordings I've Worn Out

The following are records I've worn out. There's no other connection here; these are not necessarily my most musically important records, nor the best records by these artists, nor even my "favorite" records. They're just ones that, for whatever reason, I happened to listen to more than any others.

Note: yesterday I posted about some of my favorite bands

In no particular order (and note that more writing doesn't mean "more highly recommended"):

Ray Barretto "Indestructible"
Incredible salsa; incredible songs, arrangements, and performances, and, most of all, incredible "swing" (i.e. infectious rhythm; not literally "swing music", of course).

Jerry Gonzalez "Ya Yo Me Cure"
More jazzy latin music, with a Cuban flavor (as opposed to the pure Puerto Rican sound of "Indestructible"). Not saying it doesn't have guts, though. An amazingly evocative record.

"Todo Banda"
Superficially, this is an anthology of overblown oompa brass bands from southern Mexico, replete with anguished, tipsy-sounding singers and screaming trumpets. You know: Hispanic kitsch. But you must understand context. Austrians and Germans dropped brass band music into a largely isolated Indian population a century ago, and those guys have resourcefully developed and evolved and deconstructed it into something unrecognizable yet fantastically Mexican. The tuba players are funkier than Bootsy Collins, the arrangements are fiendishly clever, and these guys are SUPERSTARS down there. Banda music is some of my favorite, and this is a great starter compendium. Listen many times to pick up details and catch the infection. I can sing you every note from every individual player.

Amalgama "Encuentro"
The gypsies originally came from India, and this is the first time Spanish gypsy flamenco masters were musically reunited with the motherland. My friend Xavier Turull, a Catalan drummer, had studied tabla in India, then moved back to Spain and studied with flamenco masters. He co-led this briefly-existing group composed of Catalans and gypsies, and Xavi flew his old South Indian professors (renowned Karnataka masters) in for the session. It is an absolute treasure, a historic masterpiece, and puts to shame every other "new flamenco" effort. Alas, I might have played on this record had I arrived in Madrid just a week earlier. It's one of my biggest regrets, though I had a great time playing with these guys in their musical commune right after they finished the recording.

Arnie Lawrence "Renewal"
Some of the best work by my mentor, Arnie Lawrence (read my tribute to him). If jazz bores you - too repetitive, too needlessly complicated, hard to follow, emotionally obtuse - just listen to this.

Dexter Gordon "Our Man in Paris"
Dexter Gordon is not playing the sax, but singing through it, in his distinctive logey, bemused, burry tones. Utter poetry.

Lorraine Hunt "Bach Cantatas"
Nat King Cole wasn't a singer. He was a piano player who was reluctantly dragged in front of a microphone....and it stuck. Similarly, Lorraine Hunt started out as a hard-working violist. Most singers are head cases with a pathological need for attention. Hunt's back-door entrance led to a less emotionally exhibitionistic and needy approach. No narcissistic baloney, just pure beauty from the anti-diva. I'm not a fan of classical vocal music - let alone sopranos (even mezzos). But this is the unadulterated good stuff.

Anton Batagov "The New Ravel: Works for Piano"
Classically-trained avant-garde pianist Batagov, who ordinarily wouldn't be bothered to play classics like Ravel, sleepwalks through a few pieces with deliberately bored ambivalence, repressing all emotion. Magic ensues. Don't ask me to explain. But it's Ravel like you've never heard him. He sings more when the performer removes himself from the equation.

"Dances and Trances"
Mystical Moroccan trance music, recorded with hidden microphones by a dude who managed to penetrate some very hard-to-find secret/sacred scenes deep in the heart of Morocco. Last year, I was in Rabat recording with some great local musicians. I played them this, and they insisted I turn it off after a few seconds. They said it was "too much", explaining in broken English and Spanish that there's a level of trance music that "makes you go out." I got the impression they were annoyed that anyone had commercialized this. An amazing document, and a phenomenally transportive thing to listen to. Just be careful not to go out!

"The Hambourg Legacy"
Mark Hambourg, a peasant virtuoso from Eastern Europe who'd relocated to England, was the real deal, an early-recorded connection to the time when all this musty classical stuff was new and fresh and punk. Very well known in the early 20th century, Hambourg married in to Scottish nobility, and had a daughter, Michal - a prodigy who, in my opinion, was even better than him. Michal was poised for stardom, but WWII interfered, and she never regained any career whatsoever. Rescued from obscurity in her 90's(!!) by Arbiter Records' Allan Evans (who also published the two previous recordings), who recorded her on her home piano, with Liszt's walking stick mounted just above, on the wall. Arthritis cramped her technique some, but even if classical piano's not your thing, you'll instantly feel this is something else (listen to a free sample of her playing some Chopin that will make you cry). She sounds like she's IMPROVISING. No stiff, stodgy, polite, show-off piano this. Anyway, this record includes father, father + (young) daughter, and some modern recordings of just the daughter.

Elis and Tom
Antonio Carlos Jobim (aka "Tom") wrote all those famous bossa novas, and was, almost as a hobby/sidelight, a tender pianist and affable vocalist. Here he teams up with Elis Regina, the tragic and much beloved Brazilian singing idol (think of her as the Billie Holiday of Brazil), and they sound like they're having so much damned fun in the studio. I've never met a Brazilian who doesn't own and treasure this record. This is the essence of everything. Oh, let me explain the weird piano sound which occurs in a few places: Jobim is whistling along in unison for an eery effect.

Erroll Garner "That's My Kick/Gemini"
A Tasmanian Devil-ish whirlwind of exuberant swing from deep down under in it.

James Booker "New Orleans Piano Wizard"
A drunken one-eyed pirate from New Orleans who started off as a child prodigy but things went bad. Sounds like he's playing with four hands, and his singing makes you want to fly immediately to NOLA. Forget the cheesey Queen hit....he will, he will rock you. Here's a video plus more links on Booker.

Joe Henderson "Our Thing"
Straight-ahead hard bop jazz, but something extra. Something about the arrangements, the performances, the recording....this is next level. This is people really playing together. Listen deeply, and you'll notice a never-ending series of crazily intuitive moments. And it's all elegantly hung on such fantastic original tunes, so resourcefully arranged.

Captain Beefheart with Frank Zappa "Bongo Fury"
Beefheart's out-there-ness restrained by Zappa's rock instincts. Zappa's sophomoric tendencies tempered by Beefheart's whiskey juice. Great arrangements and funky musicianship. Benefits from much-repeated playing. Don't need it to make sense.

La Bottine Souriante "Rock & Reel" (aka "Xième")
Traditional French Canadian folk music doesn't do much for me. These guys are masters of it, but they stretch it beyond the breaking point. The repetitively-structured songs pick up more and more flotsam, complication, and syncopation with each repeated chorus until your head explodes. The clicking sound is clogged dancers tapping along on wooden boards in the recording studio.

Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley
More than just jazz. A mood that will be accessible to anyone anywhere anytime (even 1000 years from now), achieved without a bit of dilution or pandering. This is a very, very high level of American music. There's no better late night wistful/sophisticated listening.

Ruggiero Ricci "Gypsey Melodies" (aka "Violin Recital")
My favorite violinist. Read my profile of Ricci (including a great sample video) here.

Slickaphonics "Wow Bag"
Downtown NYC experimental jazz types decided to make a punk-funk record. Killer results, just off-kilter enough (though not every song's a gem). Hasn't aged a day in the, Jesus, 34 years since it was recorded. Their follow-up record wasn't as good, alas. Is it ever?

Again, here's a list of favorite current live bands. Here's a list from this past January of some current or recent favorite TV series, and here's a two-year-old massive round-up of all-time TV faves.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Bands I Like

I've almost never written about music. Musicality occupies a different part of the brain from writing or talking. Musician me barely knows writer me. What's more, it's difficult for me to write about music to a general audience because I know too much.

I may know more about food than you do, but if we were to share a slamming plate of lasagna, you and I would feel an affinity. We'd know we were enjoying the same thing in the same way. But if we were to listen to music together, you'd see me smiling, grimacing, and rollling my eyes at what would strike you as completely random moments. You'd wonder what the hell I was hearing. There's no commonality!

This is why my food writing career was more "successful" than my musical career. Everyone appreciates a scrumptious brownie, but if I were to play something astonishingly beautiful, vanishingly few people would notice, much less appreciate it (watch a thousand people utterly fail to give a crap as Joshua Bell - pretty much the top classical violinist - plays his Stradivarius in the DC metro).

There are jillions of music fans out there, and I can't relate to how any of them hear music. This disturbs me, and leaves me uninterested in writing about it (this article about my mentor, Arnie Lawrence was a rare exception).

But I was recently asked which bands I currently listen to, and a straight question merits a straight answer. So here goes. The following are random faves; my capricious collection of ferreted-out treasure. It's the music I listen to as a fan - as a civilian - not as a musician (which would be a very different list). It's also in random order, and it's eclectic enough that you'll almost surely hate some of it (don't let that dissuade you from checking out ones you don't know!):

Lake Street Dive

I don't love everything these guys do, but the two cuts above give a sense of their (surprising) range. Jazz guys from Boston striking it big in the indie music world, without being the least bit cynical about it. Nice!

Les Claypool Duo de Twang

I'm told Claypool's previous group, Primus, was great, too. I haven't caught up to it yet. But if you use music as wallpaper (something I don't necessarily approve of, by the way), this is certainly one evocative texture worth keeping on hand.

Check out their great record , containing their truly astonishing cover version of the Bee-Gees "Staying Alive".


I loved their first record and also their second (where the above song appeared). Their stuff is far more complex and difficult than it sounds. But what I most love is their abundance of quirks (music must surprise me a little; I can't stand people doing the same-old). Alas, Rubblebucket's more recent stuff seems to shave off many of the quirks, so I've stopped going to their shows.

Dub Apocalypse

Listen to Soundcloud samples , or check out their latest gigs at the Internet Archive.

Great bar band out of Boston, playing jazzy/funky jams on mostly reggae grooves. These guys are great players who are really listening to each other, but it's not precious at all. Enjoyable at lots of levels. Catch their Sunday night gig at Bull McCabes in Somerville to enjoy the best weekly bar band gig I know in America. And they come to NYC a couple times per year. Note: I don't love their new (and only) record.


Slightly pretentious-seeming white guy reggae band with a singer with this weird, jarring, high-pitched voice. This does not sound lke my usual sort of thing! But anything can transcend if it's great enough, and I'll be damned if this isn't a truly great slightly pretentious-seeming white guy reggae band with a singer with this weird, jarring, high-pitched voice. I normally recoil from pretentious-seeming people who appear to be pushing hard to emotionally move me. I don't appreciate manipulation. But I leave every Groundation concert legitimately moved. So maybe it's not pretension, after all. Clearly, they've really got something.

Groundation rarely plays on the east coast, but when they do, I take considerable pains to be there.

Bryan and the Haggards

It's a little complicated. NYC avant garde jazz guys formed a group to pay tribute to the music of Merle Haggard. But there's a shtick....they pretend they really are Merle's band (sans Merle), but took some bad acid before the gig. And this makes them sound a little like NYC avant garde jazz guys.'s basically jazz guys doing an impression of country guys making fun of jazz guys. Woozy-making, hilarious, and well-played. I liked their first record

Ethan Lipton

I honestly don't know why Ethan Lipton never hit it big. His songs are so clever and amusing, so surprising, and so deftly presented, he should have been a sensation long ago. This was the record that hooked me. I haven't heard his newer stuff (this and this), but I'm glad to hear about it and will go buy it now!

Moon Hooch

I don't understand why this works. I've played with many world-class ballsy, aggressive sax players, and they've all been strictly low-dose cases. But Moon Hooch is different. They've attracted a surprisingly wide, loyal following of people who've probably never seen a saxophone before. Their unprecedented irrepressibility, plus the bafflement of seeing lots of kids going nuts over this sort of thing, makes my brain want to explode (it also pings my envy, given that I - sometimes - played like this, myself, in the 1980's....too early....).

Unnamed Swing Group

I don't think they even have a name, but there's a band hosting an open jam session at Mona's Bar (224 Avenue B, near 13th Street) Tuesday nights at midnight. They do 1920's swing, played with great feeling, and it's surreal to me that so many super young people are so totally into it. Once in a while, you might even spot an old fogey trombonist sitting in.

Here's a list of my most oft-played recordings. Here's a list from this past January of some current or recent favorite TV series, and here's a two-year-old massive round-up of all-time TV faves.

Blog Archive