Patrick Lencioni – The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Patrick LencioniThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Jossey-Bass 2002)

Patrick Lencioni is a business consultant guru and he has written a number of books on business management.  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a sort of self-help book, with a separate workbook, DVD and facilitator’s “field guide” available to accompany it for implementation in actual businesses.  It is written in two parts.  The first is the “fable”, an entirely fictional story of a group of executives at a start-up software company that just demoted its previous CEO and appointed a new one.  The second, much shorter part of the book is an explanation of the author’s theory that there are five dysfunctions of a team, as were purportedly illustrated in the preceding fictional story. The second part of the book also provides brief (one paragraph) suggestions for how to redress each dysfunction.

The book is absolute rubbish — let’s make that clear from the outset.  It provides absolutely no justification or empirical evidence for any of the its assertions, and the fictional story is so poorly drawn and unrealistic that it has only a negative value for the entire book.  Even taken together with the available supplemental materials, the package is really meant to accompany a session with a paid consultant (“facilitator”) who, one hopes, will contribute something useful not found in the book or related written materials.

Most [books like this] have one simple, enduring message that echoes through the ages: ‘Pay to see me speak at the Ramada’.”  (online review)

When someone offers advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of structuring a team, it seems immanently reasonable to demand something more than idle conjecture.  Is Mr. Lencioni’s book an attempt to provide an easy-to-grasp narrative illustration of theories that others have empirically tested?  No.  Does it even fit within a particular school of thought on leadership — generally or at least within a business context?  It is hard to say.  There is not so much as a bibliography included.  No attribution is given to anyone as having originated or at least influenced the concepts discussed in the book.  This is problematic, to say the least.

“How does Patrick Lencioni know there are five dysfunctions and not three or seven? Answer – he uses his own experience, and nothing more.

“What research does he cite in support of his thesis that the most important dysfunction is an ‘abs[]ence of trust.’? The answer is none.

“I could continue but sympathetic readers will understand my point. This is yet another anecdotal, pseudo-scientific business book, of questionable accuracy and limited use.”  (bookstore customer review)

No doubt, it would be easier to swallow some of the advice contained in the book as “common sense” or some such thing if the “fable” part of the book had even a whiff of believability.  Sadly, no.

“One of the main characters in the case (Kathryn) would rarely be hired into a mid-size company. There is no chance that her resume would hit the desk of a multinational corporation. Climbing through the ranks with Kathryn’s credentials is fiction. The author tends to suggest that an extremely uncommon event (that is, retaining an executive with Kathryn’s inexperience and lack of academic pedigree) has some relevance into corporate management at the executive level. It does not. Someone of her caliber may come into the company as a Manager, Director or other middle management hire – but not the lead executive. No way!” (bookstore customer review)

So, the new CEO (Kathryn) sets up the premise of the fable in a totally implausible way.  But, setting that aside, what about her interactions with the other executives?

“The huge egos of company vice presidents crumble under the matronly 7th grade teacher whose husband is a high school basketball coach. Characters are unrealistic and you can’t help but want their company to fail so they find themselves selling Starbucks lattes for a living.” (bookstore customer review)

While the comment immediately above smacks of misogyny — the corporate world needs more “matronly” attitudes as desperately as anything else — and hints at social ostracism based on background — does the occupation of an employee’s spouse really matter to his or her job competence? — the problem with Lencioni’s narrative is that the almost uniformly hard-nosed attitude of most higher-level executives would never let them “crumble” as they do in this fictional account.  The fact that the characters do crumble is revealing about what this book is really about, and why it is so popular — and it is immensely popular.  Here we start to get to the crux of the problem with this book: its ideology.  One “exposé” of business management gurus had this to say:

“Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest—not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class.  *** [A]ll economic organizations involve at least some degree of power, and power always pisses people off.”  The Management Myth

So, this looks like a book that is nothing more than a weapon of choice for CEOs or other management trying to reinforce a hierarchy of power within a company.

“This book was completely absurd. It was written to sell and tells CEO’s exactly what they want to hear — that their managers are paranoid children who cannot behave like adults and must be spanked into submission, (though he offers absolutely NO solutions on how to do this).” (bookstore customer review)

Many bookstore customer reviews sharply criticize this book as pushing a “socialist” idea of teams, perhaps also asserting that the supposed benefits of collaboration is empirically false. There is a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2013) in which old Soviet film is discussed and compared to the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule, which was dismissed by Soviet leadership as a few troublemaking individuals not representative of The People — the mythic force of historical necessity used to give the leadership credibility.  There is an analogy here.  This seems precisely to be what Mr. Lencioni is doing with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  There is this mythical notion of an Effective Team, which is never really delineated — this book focuses only the supposed dysfunctions without really ever setting forth what an effective, non-dysfunctional team would look like or what ends they pursue.  The only thing we are left with at the end of the book is a reassertion of the control of the CEO.  Whether the company actually succeeds once the CEO has control of the team is not really part of the book, which, lest we forget, is justified only by pure fiction.  This is not “socialist” but authoritarian (that documentary illustrates how the same ideologies show up across the political spectrum, used by communists, fascists and capitalists alike).  Really, if this book were “socialist” (it manifestly is NOT), or even if it really took seriously the democratic implications of teamwork, why is it all about executives operating off on their own without input from rank-and-file employees?  This is the major fault of the book.  It stresses teamwork, but only within certain unquestioned boundaries, all the while offering a stern lecture about how everything, boundaries and all, need to be discussed.  This is a profound hypocrisy.

Anyway, the criticism of Lencioni’s advocacy of “teamwork” rests on two key points.  One is that working collectively on a “team” is more effective than working individually or competitively.  This is an empirical point.  Lencioni does not address it.  The other is that there is an agreed upon way to measure success that allows such an assessment of effectiveness.  Stock price?  Err, does anyone really believe the “efficient market hypothesis” that stock price actually tracks the “real” value to a company anymore?  Stock price aside, this latter issue really gets to the crux of the problem with Lencioni’s book.  What it obfuscates is the question of power.  Who gets to decide the metrics that matter to a business?  After all, accountability (“avoidance of accountability” is one of his “dysfunctions”) presupposes a format for measurement.  Lencioni’s theory rests on a curious definition of teamwork.  That is, it is a non-democratic form of teamwork.  The CEO decides the metrics.  Period.  If a CEO has bad ideas, perhaps a “coup” of sorts by other, lower-level executives to mire the leadership in circular infighting has a benefit to the company, by preventing the implementation of idiotic plans from an incompetent CEO that the other executives have no power to remove — making them somewhat like Bartleby, the Scrivener.  Here, Lencioni’s “fable” gives the company’s board, which fired the previous CEO and hired the new one, a complete pass.  Their decision is non-reviewable.  But shouldn’t accountability flow up to them too?  Oh, wait, accountability in this model implicitly flows, like shit, only downhill.

In a business context, there is always a default to saying that profits matter.  But, of course, Lencioni’s book doesn’t provide data like that as a judge of success — not that any such data in a fictional story would have any persuasive value whatsoever.  And yet, there are other intra-company dynamics at work too.  Why does anyone care about profits?  Why should anyone subordinate their personal interests for the pursuit of profits for someone else?  Lencioni offers a very naïve analysis — really a dismissal — of these things.  Yet sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu have documented such fields of struggles (The Social Structures of the Economy) in a way much more compelling than what is offered here.  This also fits squarely within the theory of historian Alfred Chandler, Jr., whose The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business won many awards on its release for its delineation of how business management behaves like a distinct “class” acting in its own interests quite apart from concerns of shareholders or even for long-term profitability of the firm (really an older idea that comes from the likes of Adolph A. Berle if not earlier, and was later backed up by an investigation by Edward S. Herman). What is difficult to swallow is that the sorts of theories like Lencioni’s look like attempts to justify inequality (here, of power) on the basis of meritocracy, something that at least one observer has noted “conveniently places management consultants … at the very pinnacle of the new order.”

Most executives enter business and go into management for social status, either due to the prestige of their position and the power that it offers, or as a byproduct through the salary or wages it provides.  Lencioni’s narrative would have us believe that such an executive would demote himself for the betterment of the team!  Historians and sociologists have developed considerable evidence that suggests this is quite unlikely.

There are some vague hints at useful concepts implied here.  For instance, the idea that people in business try to save face is an interesting concept.  It is not discussed in any detail though.  Other consultants have brought up that point too, though many also flounder when it comes to offering any actionable advice around it.

Lencioni does suggest that a significant problem teams face is that the people involved won’t discuss real issues.  Anyone who has worked in a corporate setting will immediately appreciate this problem.  Lencioni is by no means the only person who has made this point.  But he offers very little in the way of techniques to uncover subtle obfuscation of the “real” issues in business settings, and in some ways perhaps distracts from such insights.  And his suggestions to overcome this fall very flat.  In this book, his suggestions are so limited to be almost non-existent.  More is provided in the DVD and workbook — oh, did you buy those too?

Lencioni’s accompanying workbook includes a bunch of silly exercises that try to build “trust” by encouraging executives/management to reveal personal details of their life to build trust in a work setting.  This approach could easily be empirically tested.  Like everything else in this book, it isn’t.  It is also a dubious proposition just on a theoretical level.  It seems reasonable to think that people may trust each other as friends, on a personal level, and still not trust each other in work-related capacities, or vice-versa.  If this is not a fair belief, it could be empirically disproved, but you would need to look elsewhere than a Lencioni book.

One prescient comment from an online review is that this book tends to be trotted out by corporate “leaders” who themselves are the major problem in an executive “team” using the book to insist that the problem is everyone else:

“The real truth in our case — the poobah who is making us read this book is the dysfunction of our group. This person has a physical ailment that causes emotional instability — but is too high up the ladder for anyone complain about without being fired. Now we have this book to tell us how it’s actually our fault for not being a good enough team.”  (bookstore customer review)

A much better way to look at problems in business settings is simply to ask the question that Roman censor Lucius Cassius used to ask (this analysis was cited approvingly by Cicero), “Cui bono?”  (“to whose benefit?”).  Is management simply reasserting its power over other employees in a company?  Is that the ultimate object of improving “teamwork”?  Are executives simply re-positioning themselves relative to each other, or relative to other firms, in a hierarchy of social status?  Also, as Lencioni does eventually mention, there are tools from psychology that can help mediate purely interpersonal interactions.  Of course, Lencioni only mentions this stuff on psychology in passing, and without any citation to even a single resource.  You would need to look elsewhere on your own for any useful information in that regard.  But, purely within a “leadership team” setting, Lucius Cassius’ question tends to rise above all others.  Most executives are smart and/or educated enough to not be put off by minor frictions between different personality types, though most executives are also so motivated by status that they constantly reinforce — consciously or unconsciously — the reproduction of certain habits of thought and hierarchies of power and prestige.

Seriously, if your boss is making you read this, it’s already too late.(online review)

Indeed.  If you work at a company where the management believes this book to be useful, you should start looking for other employment immediately.  Sadly, though, it might be hard to find anything outside this paradigm.



Redacted (2007)

Magnolia Pictures

Director: Brian De Palma

Main Cast: Rob Devaney, Daniel Stewart Sherman,
Patrick Carroll, Izzy Diaz

Although director Brian De Palma won accolades in early European film festivals, Redacted was a commercial failure in the United States.  It opened in barely more than a dozen theaters and hardly anyone saw it.  That might be explained — in the post-Jaws manner of direct marketing — that the film wasn’t advertised enough.  Regardless, it remains a difficult film to watch, but is still among the more significant made thus far about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The film does not devote itself to the reasons for the invasion and occupation, or the political motives for doing so.  Rather, it takes aim at the withholding of the “facts” about what actually was happening during the occupation.  As the film’s title implies, this is partly about the U.S. government covering-up and concealing what was happening, but perhaps more so the role of the media in enabling a deception on the American people who ostensibly enable the war and occupation.  The story is fictional, but was based on real events involving the rape and murder of an Iraqi civilian by U.S. troops.

What has attracted the most attention is the technique of interspersing different perspectives.  The film is presented as if assembled from a video diary by the soldiers themselves, footage from French and Arabic television crews, security cameras, as well as Internet videos.  The notion of presenting multiple perspectives goes back to films like Rashomon (1950), though the extensive use of first-person video recalls the zombie movie Diary of the Dead (2007), which was released a mere week later.  Like that zombie movie, the acting in Redacted has some weak spots, exacerbated by poor casting.

The central plot of the film involves a couple of clearly mentally disturbed soldiers who decide to rape a local girl who passes through their military checkpoint daily.  Although they inform other soldiers in their unit, those others do little or nothing to stop them.  In this way, De Palma frames the plot around something close to Hannah Arendt‘s famous notion about the “banality of evil”, developed when she wrote about the Nazi concentration camp administrator Adolph Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil).  In a historical sense, the rape incident in Redacted resembles the My Lai Massacre from the Vietnam War, a story broken after the fact by independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.  Following the rape, one of the soldiers, who was making the video diary throughout the movie, is kidnapped by insurgents and beheaded on camera, as revenge for the rape and murder (though it is unclear if these insurgents knew that the kidnapped soldier was directly involved).  The highest ranking soldier of the unit reports the incident, at which point his account is suppressed and distorted — this is where the “redaction” by the government occurs.

The film’s harshest judgment seems reserved for the solider making the video diary, who goes along with the others who commit the rape and murders (the girl’s family is also killed) to document the event like a journalist.  Journalists often espouse an “ethics” of non-involvement, in which they act as passive observers and do not act affirmatively to assist their subjects.  De Palma is puts that position up for debate.  The other perspective is that maybe journalists act as collaborators and enablers.  This other point of view has long been espoused outside of mainstream journalism.  Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is perhaps the most well-known formulation..

De Palma’s film was a failure, in the sense that it did not raise awareness of the issues it presents.  And yet, history has absolutely vindicated the film’s perspective.  The Wikileaks organization released a trove of documents about the Iraq war and occupation that contradicted official claims and denials, most famously the “Collateral Murder” video, with an extensive campaign against the leaker Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and the operator of Wikileaks, Julian Assange.  As this review is being written, hired mercenaries who worked in Iraq were just convicted for the Nissour Square Massacre.  Another recent story showed that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were found in Iraq, but they were old ones leftover from the war with Iran in the 1980s, and had been made with U.S. assistance.  With this information in hand, De Palma’s film looks like a chillingly accurate portrayal of what can be expected to happen in a military occupation, and how those at the bottom deal with those realities.  This film deserves much credit for extending its moral concern not just to U.S. soldiers but also to the locals subject to the U.S. military’s use of force.

Miles Davis – Agharta


Miles DavisAgharta CBS/Sony SOPJ 92-93 (1975)

Miles Davis’ fusion period came to a head on Agharta.  His music was still melding rock and jazz.  It had become a more dense, ominous melange over the course of the last five years or so.  This is one of those albums that really encapsulates something essential about the tenor of the times.  It represents the tipping point, doing away with what has gone as far as it can, making way for something, anything.  The most indelible quality of this music is that it presents something that must be confronted.  It makes a certain imposition on its listeners–strange, foreboding vibrations with a tightly controlled and disciplined form.  That’s the key to this album.

The times were tumultuous, and Davis’ music reflected them.  Politically and socially a number of crass moves made this apparent to the observant.  President Nixon–the crook–had (illegally) taken the country off the gold standard, just to snatch away the legitimate progress other nations had been making.  The freedom (civil rights) movement had concluded a decade ago, and its gains were proving to be rather paltry.  Jim Crow racial segregation wasn’t explicit anymore but was still quite prevalent.  Cities were still de facto segregated, and jobs were not opening up, blacks were still poor.  The courts did step in to halt lynchings and similar racial terrorism of the most brazen sort.  Black militancy was waning, and as it did few lasting, tangible results beyond those of the ostensibly peaceful freedom movement remained.  In the broader view, these were the mere beginnings of a new order orchestrated from behind the proverbial closed doors, with jobs going elsewhere (offshoring), increasing financialization and de-industrialization across the whole economy.  The political right had yet to begin mass incarceration to obscure the removal of domestic job openings to locations abroad, though.  Women were gaining a greater say in Western society.  What did it all mean?  Well, in Davis’ music, you get a little taste of it all, without any firm conclusions.  Some major things were on the table.  Follow-through wasn’t always there though.  What else could he do after this but go into retirement?  Davis’ seclusion in his home in the coming years would be society writ large (Davis effectively retired from music for six years beginning just a few months after this live recording was made).  It would be up to the punks (still called merely “new wave” at the time) to carry the torch the rest of the way.  Not that Davis had a connection to that directly, but his stepping away from music after this was a call to action, and a lot of punks responded.  The idea that Miles was going to hold hands and drag along followers is the absurdity that his retirement rejects.  It is up to the rest of us jokers to get up with it and do something.  So in that context the absolutely funky rhythms of this music are appropriate.  Listen to this, well get up offa that thing.  By the way, this album’s title references a mythical (?) city said to reside at the Earth’s core.  It’s sort of a gnostic, Valentian conception of esoteric, utopian, secret wisdom.

At the time, it would have been easy to say, “what is this shit?”  Yes, it’s still easy to say that.  But, the more difficult proposition is to go back to this, dig deep, and maybe come to terms with some real progress found here.  Pete Cosey‘s guitar maybe isn’t just transposed Hendrix flash, but something that floats on looser moorings, free to access the full power of noise, even if it didn’t stay in that territory long.   Take a long, hard listen to this, and find a bunch of musicians able to play so much stuff independently at the same time, with a riveting sense of common purpose to attune their varied interests with space-age precision.  What makes this different from the more playful and sparring qualities of the various early 70s fusion albums the man made, is the sense of weariness, the last-ditch effort this represents.  What next?  Indeed.

Black Flag – Loose Nut

Loose Nut

Black FlagLoose Nut SST 035 (1985)

There is a real blue collar/working class attitude on Loose Nut.  Maybe that was always present in Black Flag’s music.  But this album taps into a really angry version of it.  Take “Annihilate This Week.”  It is about just getting through the week, beating back the drudgery and routine with alcohol and cigarettes.  It sums up the attitude of lots of people I used to work with at stupid minimum wage jobs, enjoying the time spent doing work that actually did accomplish something, however small and faceless, by taking up a low-rent kind of hedonism.  But maybe they take the low-rent hedonism as the focus more than getting something done along the way, not seeing anything beyond the week.

“Bastard in Love” is a great love song.  The title alone conveys that being “in love” is when social obligations are suspended.  But in this case, some “bastard” is just using this as an excuse for shitty, abusive behavior that masks narcissistic self-pity.  Meanwhile the song’s narrator is isolated, taking a more authentic view of love, but finds his view unwanted, and is stuck with pain.  The best part of the song is just repeating the epithet, “bastard…in lo__ove”.  It is the insistence of somebody pushing their stupid shitty relationship into other people’s faces.  Just a few lines of the song convey this perfectly.

There is nothing innovative about how this album sounds.  It basically adopts the sort of metal/hard rock sound that much of the working class (at least the men) in the USA listened to around 1985.  There also isn’t a whole lot of space separating Loose Nut from the sort of bluesy 1970s hard rock that was probably still on a lot of jukeboxes at the time, either, in bars that weren’t really about listening to music as much as drinking and meeting up with pals.  Yet it still hits pretty hard.  The guitar plays a more restrained role that in years past.  The riffs are often predictable progressions, but they cut loose in angular, eccentric solos, with dissonant resolutions all over “This Is Good,” and in a few other brief patches.  Loose Nut was the last time the mighty Flag summoned any real power in the recording studio.  The band’s demise was just around the corner.

Yet the most curious juxtaposition of Loose Nut is that it invites feminine perspective ever so slightly.  Kira complained about the role of the group’s sole female member, but the lyrics at least accept a position of non-dominance, even as those words are delivered with a solid roar against aggressive guitar and rhythms.  The macho perspective is consistently mocked across the album.  Maybe it isn’t transcended, but there are strides to counteract it.  Yes, maybe more could have been done.  There was still more happening in that regard on this Black Flag effort than in most hard rock of the late 1980s.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

Physical Graffiti

Led ZeppelinPhysical Graffiti Swan Song SSK 89400 (1975)

Led Zeppelin were never a band with a high degree of artistic integrity.  They were always a band designed to succeed by catering to what audiences wanted.  It should come as no surprise that they updated their approach through the 1970s, and with 1975’s Physical Graffiti they had adopted some funk and proto-disco into their sound.  It works.  Although all of the best-known hits are on the first disc, disc two cruises by without any hiccups.  This is state-of-the-art 1970s hard rock, with every imaginable form of studio effect used to its advantage.  Probably the band’s best album.

The Harder They Come Soundtrack

The Harder They Come

Various ArtistsThe Harder They Come Mango MLPS 9202 (1972)

The 1972 movie The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff depicted the seedy realities and distorted dreams of impoverished Jamaicans. The soundtrack reflected some of the best music coming off the island at that time. Featuring some of reggae’s finest artists of the day and more than a few classic songs, The Harder They Come is a classic reggae record.

Artists work through their problems in song. The Melodians run with the gospel harmonies of “Rivers of Babylon” followed by Jimmy Cliff’s epic “Many Rivers to Cross.” The miserable conditions portrayed in Desmond Dekker’s “(007) Shanty Town” contemplate some of the disastrous effects of England’s colonialism. Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo” clings to the hope that things will change.

Getting permission for The Slickers to use the song “Johnny Too Bad,” one writer was found underground and the other on death row. Probably the best metaphor for the movie and soundtrack, The Slickers portray the distorted dreams of the man in the street. Ultra-cool posturing of the rude bwoys (hired thugs in ganja trade) in the movie turns from a means to the ends themselves. The soundtrack further stresses the straight and narrow way. “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Rivers of Babylon,” and “Pressure Drop” look up from the depths to the bright light of day these people believe is out there.

“Pressure Drop” by Toots & the Maytals is a highlight among many highlights on the soundtrack. The slightly mysterious lyrics brace for a stormy change on its way. Toots Hibbert can sing with the best of ‘em. His love for soul music, particularly his Otis Redding influence, provides soaring effects.

Songs blend into the storyline in the movie. Ivan, Jimmy Cliff’s character in the movie, becomes somewhat of a recording star with his song “The Harder They Come.” After a hip recording session, he visits a sound system (a traveling dance party) hosted by Prince Buster. This is a rare dramatization of the roots of hip-hop, where sound system deejays would toast (basically rap) over records.

The world still didn’t know much about reggae when this record/movie came out (with the slight exception of Desmond Dekker’s 1969 international hit “Israelites”). The high-energy ska of the 60s gave way to the simpler but more soulful reggae (by way of rocksteady or whatever you want to call the intermediate stuff). These grooves make conversion easy. The larger world was ready for reggae.

This soundtrack is worth checking out, as is the movie. It features ten classic reggae songs (plus alternate mixes of the two Jimmy Cliff songs). The many artists represented give a good cross-section of reggae styles. Though the songs are not very politically charged, they work for the movie. The unique flavor of Jamaica comes through these simple songs.

Sun Ra – Secrets of the Sun

Secrets of the Sun

Sun Ra & His Solar ArkestraSecrets of the Sun El Saturn GH 9954-E/F (1965)

At an exhibit on space exploration at Chicago’s Science & Industry Museum, off a ways from near-advertisement “exhibits” about what your friendly neighborhood petrochemical company does for you and the glories of genetically modified frankenfoods, a corner of a sign reads: “‘Space Is The Place’ – Sun Ra”.  If you want to understand why that’s a true statement, just take a listen to Secrets of the Sun.

Sun Ra’s best albums tend to be ones that focus on a single one of his many interests.  Secrets of the Sun is a moderately experimental effort that puts on display a lot of the things Ra was working with in the late 1950s and early/mid 1960s, with a decidedly sci-fi exotica feel to everything.  The solos aren’t always as intriguing as they could be.  Still, this was one of the more listenable of Ra’s albums to date.

The CD reissue of the album is great because it features “Flight to Mars”, a track intended as side two of an album that was never released.  It’s a pre-psychedelic masterpiece of Ra’s 1960s period.  I’m tempted to say it’s one of the best tracks of his early/mid 60s period.

Dizzy Gillespie – At Newport

At Newport

Dizzy GillespieAt Newport Verve MG V-8242 (1957)

At Newport comes from a July 6, 1957 performance at the Newport [Rhode Island] Jazz Festival. As be-bop split into hard bop on the east coast and cool out west, Dizzy Gillespie went his own way. He developed a big band Afro-Cuban style. The bohemian hipster image of the 40s be-bopper gave way to a new, more familial feel.

The opener “Dizzy’s Blues” features a drenching blues solo by Wynton Kelly on keys, complete with Dizzy shouting along in the background. There is still be-bop structure present. This is truly a shining example of the classic jazz format. Diz had recently returned from a U.S. State Department-sponsored world tour (to spread American culture), where a young Quincy Jones produced some stunning arrangements still in use.

Dizzy Gillespie was a bold man on the trumpet. He could blast away endlessly in his upper register, as on the Latin boogaloo of “Manteca.” Dizzy’s talent was so immense that his improvisational style went outside most other players’ range (not even the likes of Miles Davis could keep up). His late-50s work showed him exploring both his past and the roots of his people. You get everything here. “School Days” even shakes things up with Diz doing some spoken word/singing.

The CD reissue adds three phenomenal bonus tracks (and I would recommend this re-issue over the original), two of which feature Mary Lou Williams bouncing along on piano. Williams performs selections from her “Zodiac Suite” plus “Carioca.” Her career spanned decades and her style constantly evolved. Along with Diz, Williams was one of the great jazz teachers, influencing countless legions of performers. She blends into Gillespie’s band effortlessly and if Diz didn’t announce it, you would never know she was coming out of semi-retirement. The additional tracks with Williams add quite a bit to the album, by providing complex solos from yet another superstar.

Eighteen-year-old trumpeter Lee Morgan gets some solo time on the bonus track “A Night In Tunisia” (solo time being valuable when you back a legend like Diz). The young Morgan can’t cut Diz, but his talent is still obvious. It is stellar songs that distinguish this set. An early rendition of Benny Golson’s standard, “I Remember Clifford” mellows the pace of the album. They rejoice, but not without some sadness.

In the heart of the beat movement, Diz found probably the most popular appeal of his entire career. This is Diz still at his peak.

Grateful Dead – Live/Dead


Grateful DeadLive/Dead Warner Bros.-Seven Arts 2WS-1830 (1969)

Live/Dead was the Grateful Dead’s first live album and is still one of their greatest. The group was at its peak and a classic lineup was still intact: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Tom “T.C.” Constanten, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Supposedly released to pay off a debt to their record company amassed when recording Aoxomoxoa, Live/Dead has since proved its own worth many times over.

The Dead in the late 1960s were more comfortable with themselves as a band than in earlier years. They had a symbiotic relationship going where each member’s contributions sparked even more creative output. Three songs in the middle of this double-disc album are a good as any Grateful Dead on record (the myriad of bootleg material included). “Saint Stephen,” “The Eleven,” and “Turn On Your Lovelight” capture the Dead at their most daring and impassioned. I think just those three songs alone make this album well worth a listen.    There is something almost sinister about this album that seems to have only really surfaced here, never to return.  That’s a shame.  While there are other good (even very good) live Dead albums, this is one of the few to have any of the anarchistic flavor of the late 60s. Into the 70s and beyond, when Dead live sets started coming out without almost a kind of regularity, the emphasis on easygoing songs seemed to take attention away from the abandon of pure performance.

On the other hand, this album feels like it goes just beyond their previous releases.  Where earlier Dead studio albums (with the exception of the live/studio hybrid Anthem of the Sun) tried too hard to be something they weren’t, Live/Dead is more direct and to the point.  It makes the case for the Grateful Dead being one of the great live rock bands of the late 60s. This is the album that established the Dead’s reputation as a fan’s band. It avoids pretentiousness by simply showcasing the music that enthralled their fans at live performances. Too often live material is a note-for-note rehash of what you’ve already heard, and little more than a way to bilk die-hard fans for a few more dollars. This was almost unthinkable for the Dead (overlooking many ill-conceived post-1973 diversions). Early on, they seemed to have made music to have fun themselves. Taking chances wasn’t optional. Live/Dead is a glimpse into a time when things weren’t perfect but the essence of the feeling had lots of potential. Though it marked the end of the Dead’s early period–they next moved to a country-rock style–the album is fluid and unapologetic.