Sunday 25 July 2021

The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records - Ashley Kahn (2006)


Rating: Excellent

A week ago I was remarking to my friend, Owen, who lent me this book, that jazz is the greatest music genre because it is endlessly complex, filled to the brim with amazing practitioners and has something for everyone, from soft, slow cool jazz to freaky skronky spiritual jazz. He didn't disagree. Impulse Records was, and, once again, is, one of the most important and influential jazz labels. The House That Trane Built is a fine book detailing the history of this important label from 1960-61 to 2004, when Alice Coltrane released her last studio album, the incredible Translinear Light. Oddly, however, the discography near the back of the book ends in 1977, when the label was sold and then mainly became a source of reissues. This is a minor issue, as the writing is engaging, the history fascinating and the major players, such as producer Bob Thiele, who worked extensively with John Coltrane, are all correct and present. Coltrane, is, of course, one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. There's plenty within these pages for Coltrane fans, in particular regarding Coltrane operating in the studio and some insights into his home life. Although Coltrane does dominate, Impulse signed some of the key innovative jazz acts of the sixties and seventies outside of Miles Davis, making this book a history of jazz itself during that period as it took on the rising force of rock in the late sixties and early seventies.

John Coltrane - the greatest...

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The House That Trane Built is the regular two page features on specific albums, many of them unknown to me, or ones that I'd forgotten that I had lurking away among my records and CDs. As expected Coltrane himself is included a number of times, with his first for the label, Africa/Brass (1961), featuring early on, which I hadn't listened to for years. There's also obscurities like Ask Me Now! by Pee Wee Russel (1961), which somehow I had in my collection, un-listened to, which turned out to be beautifully poised and gently ebullient. There's also some great photos, such as Albert Ayler playing the bag-pipes and some very sexist print ads for the era, one of which features a naked women being spoon fed. At least the jazz can't be cancelled. The book was put together in a timely fashion, with many of the major players still alive to contribute, like Alice Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and many of the producers used throughout the first life of the label. Their first-hand contributions really make this book shine, and also unfortunately highlight the sad fact that John Coltrane died at the age of forty in 1967. The book does become less interesting after this point, but this is not really the fault of Kahn. Although Kahn is no great stylist, his straight-forward accounts still manage to convey his obvious passion for jazz. If you've never really understood jazz, I wouldn't necessarily recommend the music covered in The House That Trane Built as a place to start. Depending, of course, on your general musical experience and predilections, I'd begin with 50's hard bop before moving on to the likes of Impulse. If you get that far then this book is a perfect initial guide. However if you are ready to dive into the deep end of jazz, then Impulse has just released a beautiful sixtieth anniversary box set that I can personally vouch for as well worth your investment.

Monday 5 July 2021

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI - edited by John Brockman (2019)


Rating: Admirable

It is fitting that Brockman dedicates this collection of essays about AI to "...Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein and Frankenstein." Brockman explains why in his introduction, which I will not go into, however that last name - Frankenstein, is very fitting, as that's how I see humanity's obsession with creating artificial intelligence, an obsession that says a lot about human hubris. What people refer to as AI at the moment is really nothing of the sort, merely powerful computers using algorithms to crunch data that then suggests varies outcomes or possibilities. I read Possible Minds hoping that it would give me greater insight as to where we are right now and where we are possibly heading in terms of 'true AI', however ultimately I came away relatively disappointed. 

An overarching aim of the collection is to comment on and expand upon a foundational text called The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) by Norbert Wiener, who apparently was the father of cybernetics. I'd never heard of Wiener, so that in itself was interesting, however throughout the essays the necessity of referencing Wiener sometimes seemed to be holding the essayists back, or perhaps I just became sick of hearing about him. The essayists themselves produce work that falls into three broad camps, those that are wary (although not too wary, on the whole) of the risks posed by AI; those that are not really worried at all, as long as humanity imposes 'control' on AI (they point out that, after all, as the creators, we can readily impose adequate controls) and those that produced essays that either focussed tightly on their field of study or expertise, or were flights of fancy that came across as slightly indulgent. I did learn quite a bit by reading these essays, however some were just downright boring! Curiously no essayists mentioned the potential of quantum computing as a means to producing true AI capability. I'm no scientist, but I remember that when I read about the recent breakthroughs in developing quantum computing that was the first thing I thought of; surely it has a significant role to play in potentially developing AI?

Westworld's conception of AI

A curious consequence of reading Possible Minds is that I've come away thinking that true AI will never happen. Of course I may well be wrong, but nothing I read here convinced me otherwise. Also, as I mentioned above - the sheer arrogance! The brains of living creatures on Earth have been honed over millions of years and we think that we could create AI within a century? Also brains, particularly human brains, are considered to be the most complex objects in the known universe, in terms of the complexity of neural pathways. Also we really do not have much of an idea how the brain and in particular, consciousness and sentience, works. Some theorists have speculated that there is perhaps a quantum element to consciousness - it could indeed be that deeply complex. Personally I think that it is more likely that the future of humanity lies in the convergence of biology and technology - we'll become cyborgs eventually (well, more cyborg in nature as technically even someone using glasses is a cyborg). Perhaps I've been influenced too much by the likes of Altered Carbon (TV series: 2018-20). Perhaps in the near, or far future, we'll be uploading our consciousness into quantum computing generated cyberspace, or perhaps fragments of it. What is certain is that computers will become far more powerful, but true AI? Let's wait and see...