Artists of the Year

As a white liberal who has written speeches for Clinton, Branch keeps himself remarkably honest while chronicling LBJ's own cloud of delusions. Branch wrings out all of the bloody laundry of the mid-'60s administrations, paralleling the Gulf of Tonkin incident with the discovery of the slain Freedom Summer volunteers in Mississippi. And he correctly cites Malcolm X as the first public figure to connect the dots between American violence abroad and at home.

But Branch also tells the story you never knew was the story: that Malcolm inspired a multiracial brand of American Islam that dwarfs Farrakhan's small yet vocal sect. That was what Malcolm died for--leading all Americans to the back of the bus. In a year when our pop culture felt trapped and starved, feeding on its own past almost obsessively, Branch and Outkast throw light and provide shade.

 

Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.

 

DAVID MATLIN

by Eric Lorberer

Too many of our best poets and novelists seem to live in a bubble, at least according to the nonfiction books they publish: obsessive tomes that finger the worn worry-beads of craft and technique, petty catalogs of who is great and who is not. The "experimental" novelist and poet David Matlin has this year accomplished a more unique, and thus more impressive feat: He has written a powerful and highly politicized book that veers away from his more "artistic" pursuits while still using the narrative and lyrical skills those pursuits have honed. In so doing he has elevated the "creative writer" to thinker and statesman--common roles for authors outside U.S. borders, though all too foreign in our own society.

Matlin's outstanding work of nonfiction, Vernooykill Creek: The Crisis of Prisons in America, tackles the subject of the "correctional facility," a world that the author demonstrates is rapidly encroaching on our putatively free spaces. Having spent 10 years educating inmates in the maximum-security prisons of upstate New York, Matlin has had plenty of time to observe, to interact, and to reflect. The result is a book that weaves back and forth from personal stories of life behind bars to DeTocquevillean analyses of our postindustrial American culture, where corrections corporations carefully develop different levels of hell. That such sobering sociology can read with all the grace and passion of imaginative fiction is Matlin's great accomplishment. And the studied apocalyptic fervor alluded to in the book's subtitle might just get you--yes, you--motivated to heed this Jeremiah in our midst. With Hennepin County poised to plop a big ol' jail in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, Matlin's work is especially relevant now and here.

 

Eric Lorberer is co-editor of theRain Taxi Review of Books.

 

ALBERT AYLER

by Brad Zellar

By the time Albert Ayler climbed onstage at New York's Village Vanguard in December 1966, he and his bandmates--including his brother Donald--were a Salvation Army unto themselves. Much of the music from that night would have sounded right at home among the reeling fiddles and ecstatic gospel squalls from last year's celebrated reissue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. At his most inspired and visionary, Ayler spewed an incredible amalgam of American musics, wobbling and burping like a ragtag beer-hall brass band one moment and wailing and testifying like the most convincing spiritual eccentric the next. He could bleat with the best R&B honkers and bury a lovely little folk melody in a scrum of pure, exultant noise.

And yet you want a definition of toiling in obscurity? You want more convincing evidence that Ayler--who was found drowned (and some claim chained to a jukebox) in the East River in 1970--was jazz's Robert Johnson? Despite the fact that the Greenwich Village recordings are only a little over 30 years old, there is apparently nobody alive who can remember with any certainty who was playing piano behind Ayler on the set-closing tune "Angels."

From March 1965 through February 1967, Ayler played shows at a number of venues that were recorded and issued in odd installments and then consigned to obscurity. This year's Impulse reissue of all those tracks, Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings, caps the long reassessment of Ayler's critical reputation that arguably began with experimental saxophonist David Murray's emergence in the late '70s. These recordings represent the most sustained and concentrated stretch of fever-drenched inspiration in Ayler's too-brief and often confusing career, and--all jazz-crit fakebook hooey aside--the real reason these discs almost never left my CD player all autumn is that on a pure, idiot, blood level, this music sounds like the way my body naturally jangles, the way my head assembles words, the way sound should be constructed. It sounds like soul music.

 

Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

BILL T. JONES

by Caroline Palmer

Though choreographer Bill T. Jones has often trodden the unworn path in his life and work, his piece We Set Out Early...Visibility Was Poor represents a journey into terra incognita. There are no pat explanations or answers offered by this evening-length selection--which helps explain why it continues to resonate some three months after a performance at Northrop Auditorium. (The piece premiered in 1997.)

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