Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Knicks Now

It’s hard for a New York sports team to become nearly invisible in the ubiquitous sports media and irrelevant to all but their most loyal fans, but that’s what the New York Knicks have accomplished this decade. They play on the grandest stage in basketball, Madison Square Garden, but via a remarkable sequence of horrible personnel moves first by Scott Layden then by Isiah Thomas the team has become so bad that mediocrity would merit a banner heading in the New York Times. However, the team’s current state of disarray, a roster littered with unproductive players on long-term contracts, probably suits Team President Donnie Walsh just fine. It gives him a chance to build a Knicks team that is squarely in the tradition of their past champions.
Recently, the team appeared to hit rock bottom. After starting the season with nine losses in ten games, it considered signing free agent guard Allen Iverson, a great player in his prime, but presently a cantankerous, ageing veteran that few other NBA teams regard as worth the trouble, then at the last minute, chose not to. The addition of Iverson would not have turned the Knicks into contenders, but he would have given them a pulse, something that seemed sadly lacking in the team’s efforts early this season as it suffered one double digit defeat after another.
The scenario of watching a lifeless team isn’t new to Knicks fans; during a four year stretch ‘04-’05 through ’07-’08, the team lost nearly two thirds of its games. Rudy Giuliani was still mayor and a rising star in the Republican Party when the team last had a winning season in ’00-‘01. But the Walsh era is supposed to be different. When he took over the team in April 2008, he announced that the team’s goals were to be competitive on the court and to get their payroll far enough under the league’s salary cap so that they could vie for players in the upcoming summer 2010 free agent market, when superstars like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be available.
Selling the notoriously impatient New York City market on the concept of “wait till next year,” is considered a long shot, and Walsh’s concept was more like “wait till the year after next year.” Yet, it worked…for a while. New York basketball fans started dreaming of LeBron in a Knicks uniform like so many children hoping to find the latest cool toy under the Christmas tree. Fans shrugged off the fact that neither James nor Wade nor any other star players were likely to leave a championship contender to join the Knicks, a team that has not qualified for the postseason since 2004. In addition, as much as New Yorkers are proud of their bright lights, location matters less than it used to. NFL star quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the professional athletes with the most endorsement deals, plays in Indianapolis.
Last season those concerns seemed far away as the Knicks played solid basketball for much of the season. New coach Mike D’Antoni installed his uptempo system and the team played with urgency and passion, something not seen in a Knickerbocker jersey in many years. Meanwhile Walsh dramatically overhauled the roster. Almost weekly, players from the Thomas era were sent packing in favor of replacements whose contracts expired before the great summer of 2010. This led to a wellspring of optimism amongst the fan base. It seemed that the plan would work. The Knicks would be an improving team and with that plus the lure of New York City, a superstar would find Gotham irresistible. The giddiness led people to ignore that the final edition of the Knicks roster, wasn’t very good. Last season’s squad went 8-18 in their final 26 games, and it turns out that was merely a prelude to this season’s dreadful first month.
The slow start panicked fans as it effectively puts an end “the plan,” their dreams of a superstar in blue and orange, but it probably doesn’t faze Walsh at all. Although he certainly would like to have a superstar choose to come play for his team, Walsh’s reputation as a leading NBA team executive owes to two decades with the Indiana Pacers where he consistently put winning teams on the floor without following the superstar-and-supporting-cast model of roster construction. Instead, his teams were balanced units of solid contributors.
Walsh, who is 68, was born and raised in New York; he probably has vivid memories of the Knicks title era in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Those teams were also “ensemble” teams rather than superstar plus supporting players. Back in the early ‘70s, New Yorkers took great pride in that fact. Rival teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks had superstars, bur the Knicks won with a cohesive, ego-less unit.
Now, as what will probably be his final act in the workplace, Walsh is set to try and build a winner in New York that is squarely in the model of the teams that still cast a long shadow today. It would explain Walsh’s draft strategy, which has avoided high risk/high reward players like Brandon Jennings, a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks who scored 55 points in only his seventh game in the league. And, it is why he would choose against signing Iverson. He understands that the Garden has had its fill of players who are superstars in their own minds like Stephon Marbury, Stevie Francis, and Zach Randolph. The Knicks of 2010-’11 are far from set, but what little we’ve seen indicates that Walsh is going to pursue players who are stars in the very best Knicks tradition. It’s an ambitious plan, but under these dire circumstances, it’s probably the only one that can work.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ben Ratliff on Nels Cline's new disc


If the guitarist Nels Cline had joined the revered and more than semi-popular rock band Wilco in his early 20s, rather than in his late 40s, he might never be making solo-guitar albums on the side like “Coward.” This record reflects a far-and-wide aesthetic imagination, one that’s been broadening for a long time.

Mr. Cline’s playing has seriously mixed blood, and when he records multiple versions of himself on electric and acoustic guitars and about a dozen other stringed instruments, he becomes exponentially more mongrelized. He does his version of John Cipollina’s wide runs and fast vibrato; he likes crying slide guitar glissandi, looped clumps of distortion and amplifier hum, the clashing overtone sounds of Sonic Youth and the slow, deliberate, almost monastic music of traditional Japanese koto players. But he doesn’t let anything rest in one place. Meditative and minimal as these pieces may be, they’re written with rigor. Hear them once, and you might only be lulled, but one more time and you’ll hear the purpose and symmetry.

“Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven” is the imposing accomplishment here. It begins and ends with long zither chords, and over the 18 minutes between, links together slowly evolving figures, building and ebbing. Mr. Poole, an experimental English guitarist who lived and worked in Los Angeles and who was a friend of Mr. Cline’s, was murdered in 2007; a piece like this seems the right kind of homage to someone who had the patience to fully absorb long-form music. But then much of this record strikes a similar tone: it sounds like both an advertisement and an elegy for deep listening. BEN RATLIFF

Point of Departure # 21 and Blue Note at 70 in NYT

Issue 21 of Point of Departure is out

NY Times on Blue Note at 70

NFL and NBA at The Root

On the whether the rise of black NFL coaches is sustainable

On basketball's new superstar, Kevin Durant


Two new jazz pieces at The Root

On Sonny Rollins extraordinary disc, Road Shows Vol. 1

On Joshua Redman's fine disc, Compass


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More from the Masters

Nat Hentoff at the Wall Street Journal on how jazz hastened the civil rights movement.

Gary Giddins in the New Yorker on guitar great Bill Frisell.


On Freddie Hubbard R.I.P.

Freddie passed at an inconvenient time for me. I was bogged down with holidays in retail and tired. That and also Hubbard was someone whose music I always respected more than I passionately loved.
Dave Douglas did the man justice with his blog at his label

So did Darcy James Argue.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A vital dialogue about jazz and criticism

Ben Ratliff of the NY Times (and like me, long ago of WKCR-FM) fielded questions from readers from January 12-16. It was a constructive exchange that echoes many things that I feel about jazz today.

I just bet he wishes he could add about 12 more names to his list of contemporary genuises.


A song for the Inauguration

Extra Golden's "Obama"

a coupla more from the archives

Election Night in Harlem for The Root

The current jazz revival for The Root.

The election night piece was just an example of playing a hunch and winning big. The jazz piece is close to my heart and I wish that I had had about 800 more words for it. The caliber of the music is amazing but it won't get the audience it deserves unless the jazz audience is willing to work for it. I suspect they would if there were details on how to do that work.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Vijay Iyer's You Tube channel

There's a lengthy discussion that needs to be had about the jazz audience and the expectation of the music industry functioning as a delivery system. We'll save that for another day and just amplify that Vijay Iyer has started his own youtube channel which functions as a fine archive of highlights from his recent performances.
His own website is full of other resources as well.


The Orlando Magic

I thought the Magic would be a good investment, and now that they are on a seven game winning streak, including four in a row out west (and a victim list that includes the Lakers, Nuggets and Spurs), the only thing left is to see if they can hold home court against Boston (01.22) and Cleveland (01.29). If they do--and of course, barring injury--Magic fans should harbor championship dreams.


On Popular Music at The Root dot com 2008

This is on TV on the Radio's Dear Science,

This is on the Godfather of Soul

This is a QnA with Vernon Reid on the impact of the King Assassination on popular culture.


On Jazz at the Root dot com, 2008

This is on the rise of piano trios, and new albums by Muhal Richard Abrams and Nik Bartsch.

An article very close to my heart, this is on Lee Morgan

Another trumpeter, this is on Roy Hargrove

Kind of Blue at 50.

Early '09 should see pieces on Sonny Rollins, Jazz Icons, and hopefully Josh Redman.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

At The Root dot com on the NFL's Conference Championship Sunday

This article goes to great lengths to explain that the Eagles are not a Cinderella team, nor are they this year's Giants.
Then I own up to be utterly confused as to picking between Baltimore and Pittsburgh.


From the Archives: Cheese writing

For a little less than a year, I wrote a column on cheese for the networking site

Here are a few samples
This is on the American Cheese Society

This is on buying great cheese on a tight budget

This is on the rise of southern cheesemaking (ignore the photo of Humboldt Fog)

This is on cheese and nutrition

This is on Cheddar

This is on Vermont's glorious history

This is on cheese gift giving

This is on pairing wines and cheeses

This is on America's rise as an alpine cheese nation