Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Coming Soon: Note By Note

For jazz pianists, the process of paying dues often involves showing up for a gig and finding a crummy, out-of-tune upright piano. They pay those dues for the opportunity to perform on the elite concert grand pianos handcrafted by Steinway, a process documented in producer-director Ben Niles’ new film: Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (trailer here).

Eschewing mechanization, Steinway’s manufacturing techniques have changed little in the company’s 150 year history. Note takes the audience step-by-step through the year-long process of making one instrument, the film’s protagonist: L1037. Wood hand selected by Steinway specialists is carefully molded into the basic frame and rests for several weeks before the various production phases can continue. You see the stringing, staining, assembling, and tuning, all done by specialized craftsmen. Almost imperceptible variances in production can affect the piano’s sound in ways that cannot be predicted.

In between production periods, we see classical and jazz musicians testing various models in the Steinway showrooms. Jazz listeners will be happy to see artists like Bill Charlap, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, and Marcus Roberts presented on a par with classical artists like Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Helene Grimaud. Throughout the film all the musicians speak eloquently about their relationship to the piano and what they prefer in an individual instrument. Harry Connick, Jr., for instances, prefers a piano “that pushes back a little.”

It is fascinating to see the audition process, as Aimard tests pianos for the precise sound he is looking for. Due to the fidelity limits of film, the subtle shades of difference are not really audible to the audience, but that is sort of the point. As Hank Jones say at one point, perfection is unattainable. The subtleties of sound resulting from fractional variances of the thousandths of degrees are so mysterious they defy quantification and can best be heard only in live performance. That mystery of what gives one piano its distinctive sound and personality lies at the heart of Note.

Most of the music heard is fragmentary in nature, designed to test the feel of each instrument. However, if you want to hear every note ever recorded by Charlap or Barron, than you will want to hear them test-driving Steinways with “The Very Thought of You” and “Yesterdays.” We do actually hear more classical, but Aimard’s hunt for the perfect piano for Ives’ Concord Sonata is a sizeable plot point, and not to be a spoiler, but Grimaud’s Rachmaninoff is a fitting conclusion to L1037’s story.

Obviously crafted by music lovers, Note is a surprisingly good looking film. The Steinway facility in Queens must have the best natural light of any factory in America, as it often appears bathed in Golden sunlight. For their part, the Steinway employees, while taking obvious pride in their work, relate to music in different ways. Some are quite respectable on the ivories themselves, while one Deadhead involved in the early tuning process speaks of how much his work has helped his theoretical approach to music on guitar and other instruments, but he now refuses to play any sort of keyboard.

Note may well be the most effective and extended product placement ever filmed, if one can afford the six figure price tag for their concert grands. It is obviously worth it though. Despite the rarified reputations cultivated by Fazioli and Bösendorfer I have heard many jazz pianists profess their partiality for Steinway. As is clear in the film, many classical artists share that preference.

Following L1037 through the production process is quite a satisfying viewing experience and Note is itself a well-crafted film. Surprisingly, it engenders patriotic feelings, as it shows an American company based in Queens, meticulously hand-crafting pianos sought by world-class artists. It plays at the Film Forum November 7-20, and filmmaker Niles will be attending the 8:00 screenings on the 8th and 9th.

(Note: Still in Prague, so blogging will continue to be light.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Early Oscar Prognosticating

(Note: Blogging will be light for the next week, as I will be attending a Christening in Prague.)

I predict the awards other pundits just won’t prognosticate, like the jazz categories at the Grammys. For the Oscars, that includes best documentary and best foreign language film. These two categories are particularly difficult to gage given their unique voting rules within the academy.

I have seen some excellent docs this year, but do not expect any of them to win, for reasons of political correctness. The winner will be about hardcore propaganda. However, with even MTV’s Kurt Loder fisking Sicko’s issues with truth and reality, this won’t be Michael Moore’s year. Domestic box office for his valentine to Cuban health care is also only $24.5 million, respectable for a documentary to be sure, but a crushing disappoint compared to the $119 million for Fahrenheit 9/11. DiCaprio’s global warming doc 11th Hour by contrast is an out-and-out flop, with ticket sales of only $700,000. Even Roger Friedman found it “mind-numbingly dull,” so scratch that one too. However, Jonathan Demme’s hero-worshipping Jimmy Carter Man From Plains opens soon. I have not seen it, but it smells like an academy favorite from here.

Gore may have won the documentary award last year, but liberty loving film goers could take satisfaction from the foreign language award for The Lives of Others, a remarkable look at Communist oppression in East Germany before the fall of the Wall. Maybe this year, we can root for Poland’s official submission: Katyn, Andrzej Wajda’s dramatization of the Soviet massacre of 4,000 Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn Forest, not far from Smolensk in Russia. Long denied by the Soviet Communists, Gorbachev finally admitted their guilt in a 1989 Glasnost-era “our bad.”

Katyn still has tremendous resonance for Poles and Polish-Americans. One of the most striking sites (perhaps the only one) of my former hometown of Jersey City is the enormous Katyn Forest Memorial. Its dramatic depiction of a Polish Officer of bayoneted in the back almost brings to mind the grand-scale Russian WWII monuments. Normally it provided a stark contrast to the placid Manhattan skyline, but on September 11th, the juxtaposition took on added meaning, as these pictures attest.

If I had a vote for best documentary it would be for The Rape of Europa, but I will be delighted if it is even nominated. I am more hopeful for Katyn’s chances to make the nomination cut, or at least find distribution here in America. Yet how sad is it that for films that really understand the idea of liberty and totalitarian attempts to proscribe it, American film patrons have to look to Poland and Germany.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Soundies: a Musical History
Hosted by Michael Feinstein
Liberation Entertainment

There was a long paucity of jazz on PBS following the Ken Burns documentary series. In recent years though, there has been a greater presence for the music on public broadcasting. The latest, Soundies: a Musical History (trailer here), which premiered during the March 2007 pledge breaks (though not on New York’s WNET, I believe), fits in with recent PBS music programming that has emphasized nostalgic greatest hits.

Soundies are described by host Michael Feinstein as the original music videos—synched film and audio projected onto a screen in the Mills Novelty Company’s “refrigerator-sized” Panoram machine. Eight soundies fit to a reel playing in a continuous loop, making it impossible for patrons to choose preferred clips.

Soundies starts by showing one of the best, as chosen by several on-screen commentators—Duke Ellington’s “Hot Chocolate” (a.k.a. “Cottontail”), featuring Ben Webster on tenor. In addition to Duke’s men, “Hot Chocolate” also features Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, including Frankie Manning, seen performing a sometimes painful step in which Dottiemae Johnson kicks him from behind, sending him flying into the air.

Following Ellington, Soundies follows up with swinging numbers like Cab Calloway’s “Blowtop Blues” and Nat King Cole’s “Frim Fram Sauce.” Although country and pop-classical musicians are represented, the majority of the artists represented on Soundies are either legitimate jazz greats of the swing era, or contemporary popular vocalists who straddle the border of swing and sweet.

Not every novelty soundie deserves classic status. “Clink! Clink! Another Drink,” a Spike Jones drinking song is included because it features Looney Tunes voice-over artist Mel Blanc, and its charms would indeed require a strong buzz. There are some interesting discoveries though. Will Bradley’s big band is relatively unsung today, but they show a driving swing on “Boardwalk Blues,” matching up reasonably well to the bigger name bands in Soundies. However, the accompanying white-bread jitterbuggers simply cannot compare to Manning and his Lindy hoppers.

There is plenty here to interest jazz fans, including soundies from Fats Waller, American Master Les Paul, Kay Starr, and Count Basie’s band (featuring Jimmy Rushing). Like Peter Townsend’s Pearl Harbor Jazz, Soundies effectively blurs the distinctions between codified swing-style jazz, and 1940’s pop music. In fact, one of the best performances is “Lazy River” by the Mills Brothers, identified as the kind of vocal group who benefitted from the AFM musicians union ban on recording. Discussion of the unintended consequences of the recording ban, leading to changes in the entertainment tastes of the American public, have some added saliency now, as a strike looms over Broadway.

Intended to be interrupted by pledge breaks, Soundies can feel episodic. Within the Soundies program itself, there are no complete soundies, even though they clock-in around only three minutes. However, in the bonus section, six of Feinstein’s favorites are included in their entirety, and again, one of the best comes from the Mills Brothers. Feinstein also contributes an original song inspired by the program, “The Songs of Yesterday Are Here To Stay,” featuring some appealing clarinet accompaniment from Dan Block.

Soundies offers up plenty of footage that jazz lovers will enjoy (even if they do find many clips to be too short), and makes some interesting editorial choices in what it features. It is just good to see more programming encompassing jazz on PBS, and eventually finding its way to DVD.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Walking with Legends

Walking with Legends: Barry Martyn’s Jazz Odyssey
Edited by Mick Burns
LSU Press

As interviewer and subject, Mick Burns and Barry Martyn made a good match. Both were Englishmen and traditional jazz musicians whose love of authentic New Orleans style jazz kept luring them back to the Crescent City. Sadly, Walking with Legends, the resulting book culled from a series of conversational interviews with Martyn, would be Burns’ final book, having passed away in February of this year.

Martyn’s story is in some ways familiar—that of the outsider who is adopted by the venerable surviving musicians of New Orleans jazz history, bearing some similarities to Tom Sancton’s story of coming of age while a student of George Lewis. Martyn however, had professional experience as a musician in his native England before meeting his NOLA heroes. Again, his experience of American jazz statesmen was by and large quite welcoming. Even fresh off the boat in New York, he remembers cold calling the hospitable Zutty Singleton:

“I told him my name and that I was a drummer from England. He said, ‘You here in New York? Come on over.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. You must be mistaking me for somebody else. I don’t actually know you.’ He said, ‘Well, how am I going to know you if you don’t come on over?’” (p. 18)

In New Orleans, he continued to find the jazz greats to be welcoming and accepting, at least as far as segregation would allow. Martyn would actually make history and get some ugly phone calls for being the first white member of the African-American musicians local. New Orleans had long attracted European acolytes like Martyn and the Swedish Lars Edegran. The trend would become even more pronounced when Martyn returned for good in 1985, leading him to quip: “There were a lot more European musicians, especially English. They all stuck together; it was like the Raj.” (p. 122)

Burns shapes Martyn’s words into a very entertaining narrative, well capturing his humor. In addition to legitimate laughs, the book, though short, is chocked full of fascinating details you will not find elsewhere. Who knew British Trad man Ken Colyer was a conservative? According to Martyn:

“Contrary to what most people think, he was very right-wing, politically; he was dead against trade unions. One of his great heroes was General George S. Patton. I had quite a few things in common with him, but I liked him more as a man than as a musician.” (p. 83)

Ironically, Martyn essentially produced clarinetist Barney Bigard’s With Louis and the Duke in largely the same fashion Walking was produced, serving as the Mick Burns for the Ellington and Armstrong sideman. Mr. Burns sent me a very nice email when I reviewed his book on New Orleans Brass Bands, Keeping the Beat on the Street, which I still recommend as an excellent resource on the NOLA brass band scene. He organized a number of fundraising concerts for New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. His connecting material in Walking is often quite witty. As a writer and advocate for the music he will be missed, but his collaboration with Martyn is a lovely little coda on his career. It is a very entertaining read.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mingus, Cornell 1964

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy
Cornell 1964
Blue Note 2 CD set

Charles Mingus has inspired the critical and scholarly attention befitting a jazz titan of his stature. Of course, when an important, but hitherto unknown recording is discovered, authors like Todd Jenkins (I Know What I Know) will have to revise their work somewhat. On hearing Cornell 1964, a newly unearthed live concert recording of the Mingus sextet with Eric Dolphy, one doubts they will mind too terribly much.

Any new recordings of Mingus with Dolphy will make fans of both artists sit up and take notice. The short-lived sextet Mingus led at Cornell is notable for artists closely associated with the bassist, like Dolphy, pianist Jaki Byard, and drummer Dannie Richmond, as well as two musicians whose tenure would be much shorter—namely tenor player Clifford Jordan and trumpeter Johnny Coles.

In terms of repertoire, again it is a mixture of the recognizably Mingusian, and tunes like “Jitterbug Waltz” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” making their first appearance in the Mingus discography here. The two sets, represented on two disks, are consistently exciting, and the audio is surprisingly clear, given the fact that the source tapes were collecting dust for years before their fortunate discovery.

It is a shame this combo never recorded in a studio, as they sound remarkable compatible on Cornell. A tune like “Meditations” could be a release unto itself, clocking in at over half an hour. It is a richly-hued, far-ranging performance, taking many twists and turns, with Dolphy getting his say on flute and bass clarinet, and Jordan also taking an impressive solo.

Although Johnny Coles did tour and record with Mingus, like Jordan, he is probably not on the tip of a Mingus listener’s tongue if asked to name his classic sidemen. Again, he blends in beautifully, playing clear unison lines and offering tart but upbeat solos, as on the lilting “Irish Eyes” (it was St. Patrick’s Day after all).

In the liner notes, Gary Giddins makes the point that despite the presence of serious-as-your-life music like “Meditations” and “Fables of Faubus,” this is actually was actually a joyous session for Mingus, who took obvious pleasure in leading a band that could swing for the fences. That good vibe really shines through in Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” with Mingus vocalizing his enjoyment of Jordan’s tenor solo.

Mingus always honored his elders, and this concert was no exception. Waller was well represented with “Jitterbug” and in spirit through Byard’s feature “ATFW You,” which stood for Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Mingus’s high regard for Ellington is well established, so it is no surprise to see two selections of Ellingtonia, a solo feature for himself on “Sophisticated Lady” and a rousing rendition of “A-Train.”

Much was made of the so-called eccentricities of Mingus, but his sensitive nature is often overlooked. With a band of well attuned, empathic musicians, it was all good. Despite his troubled genius image, Mingus clearly had no problem with happy, let-the-good-times-roll music, as exemplified by Cornell. It is definitely an important discovery, sure to top year-end lists and polls.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Happy Sounds

For some reason, many jazz writers have a misery fetish. Biographers regularly glorify their subject’s down-and-out periods, and often gloss over the artist’s happy and productive years. A recent Downbeat review even criticized a very good big band session for sounding too happy. I don’t really get that. Miho Nobuzane celebrated the release of her new CD Make You Happy at the Kitano last night, and as the title suggests, she played largely upbeat, buoyant music, that swung nicely, and that was a good thing.

Nobuzane does seem to have a talent for penning fresh originals that convey a sense of optimism, like her title composition (parts 1 & 2 heard in the first set), for instance. The exuberant vibe makes sense though, as some compositions were inspired by her young son. New York City itself also seems to be a source of inspiration, as reflected by her originals “212” and “Brooklyn Bridge.” There was of course some variance in tone, like on the thoughtful trio feature “Ray.” Overall though, it was an invigorating, and yes, happy sounding set.

Nobuzane’s Brazilian group has a great sound and plays cohesively together. Jorge Continentino in particular contributed some impressive solos on tenor and flute. Nobuzane herself is in inventive soloist, showing a strong touch on the keys. Adriano Santos on drums and Gustavo Amarante make up a good rhythm section with Nobuzane, but at times Amarante’s electric bass sounded a little muddy through the sound system. In general though, the Kitano is great venue, with a honestly friendly staff.

Playing the blues is a central element of jazz, and that certainly implies a certain emotional spirit. However, swing is as much a part of jazz as the blues, which suggests a countervailing jauntiness. No critic would question the necessity of swing in jazz, so one wonders why “happy” is a dirty word for them. Regardless, they should respect Nobuzane as a composer and pianist.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Strike Talk

The illegal transit strike of 2005 did not quite go according to the transit union’s plans. Deep, dark blue New York City quickly lost patience with TWU 100, rewarding the despised MTA a PR draw with the union. The stagehands union Local One might be heading towards a similar fate if they make good on threats to strike. The critical issue at stake, as defined by Patrick Pacheco on NY1’s On-Stage a few weeks ago: “featherbedding.”

Both sides seem to agree the single biggest sticking points are current work rules requiring excess (producers claim) stagehands above and beyond the needs of shows. According to the League of American Theaters and Producers' Charlotte St. Martin: "Were the League to accept the final offer dictated by Local One, the Local One labor costs for new plays and musicals would rise by 30% for new musicals and 44% for new plays, over the life of the contract." In the long run, these production costs will make it ever less likely riskier productions like the recently closed Grey Gardens will make it to Broadway. Instead, theater patrons could expect future seasons chocked full of safe but dull Disney and Hollywood adaptations.

So far, Local One has not appeared to be as publicity conscious, posting no press releases or letters to theater patrons on their website (but according their newsletter, they just held a successful golf tournament fundraiser for their PAC). They “respectfully declined” Mayor Bloomberg’s offers to help facilitate negotiations. Most of their statements in press reports refer to the revenue generated by Broadway’s blockbuster shows (conversely, producers point to an 80% failure rate for new shows). Variety reports the local is formulating justifications for striking without the required approval from the international, which indicates a disconnect between the two.

If Local One does strike, will New Yorkers rally to their cause? So far, they have not really taken their case to the people, but defending unnecessary “featherbedding” is a tough case to make. Of course, it will not just be producers who suffer. The real economic pain will be felt by restaurants, shop owners, and hotels that cater to the Broadway tourist trade, hardships which the union has yet to acknowledge.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Where Are the Rebels?

If you ever wondered what Petula Clark’s “Downtown” sounds like in Czech, Rebelové (The Rebels) is the film for you. Check out this youtube clip of dubious providence to satisfy your curiosity, because this 2001 Czech movie musical is not currently available on DVD in North America.

Rebelové begins as a colorful, splashy teenaged love-story movie musical. It translates a number of familiar English-language 1960’s pop tunes, like “Downtown” and Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town,” into Czech for some breezy, if slightly goofy, musical numbers. However, as the story advances, the mood gets progressively darker. After all, it is set in 1968 Czechoslovakia.

Perhaps that is why Rebelové has never reached the audience it deserves in America (yes, this is an if-you-release-it-I-will-review-it post). It starts out as Hairspray (without cross-dressing) and concludes like The Lives of Others, except gloomier. Spoiler (if you think you will ever see it): In fact, as Rebelové ends the young lovers are separated, with the young army deserter cooling his heels in solitary, as his true love and her family make a break for the border.

Downer endings do not usually cut it with American musical audiences, but Rebelové was a big hit with Czechs when it was released. Clearly, the story of young lovers literally separated by Soviet tanks touched a nerve with viewers old enough to remember the dark days of the invasion. It was even adapted as a Czech stage musical two years after its screen release (Broadway has certainly adapted weirder fare).

I saw the film on a Czech Air flight, and totally fell for it. Call me sentimental, but it is unusual to see a film evolve in tone the way Rebelové does. Prague is on my mind as I will be back there soon for a family function (of which I’m an honorary member). At a time when my friends tell me the memories of life under Communist oppression are starting to dim in the younger generations, New York theater goers will get a fresh reminder when Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tom Stoppard’s new play about the Prague Spring, opens on Broadway, assuming the stagehands do not strike. That would be a fitting irony if a questionable union action postponed a production about the struggle for free expression in Eastern Europe.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Making the Scene

Making the Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz
By Alex Stewart
University of California Press

When many hear the words “big band” it summons black and white images of hotel ballroom dances from the 1940’s—elegant, but distant. Those who follow jazz, particularly here in New York, know that there is still a great deal of exciting and adventurous music still being produced with big bands. To an extent, Alex Stewart’s Making the Scene illustrates that point, documenting the rich and diverse big bands playing in the City during the late 1990’s.

In addition to being an academic, Stewart is also a musician with a great deal of experience playing with various aggregations. The more valuable portions of Scene draw from those experiences, as when he explains the benefits of big band experience for musicians. Stewart writes: “soloing in a big band builds strength. Waiting for a turn to solo, surrounded by fifteen or so peers, is like sitting in a pressure cooker.” (p. 3)

Scene also benefits from the voices of many cooperating musicians, with their insights and personalities buttressing Stewart’s case on behalf of big band jazz. Maria Schneider for instance, is always eloquent in her comments, and sometimes shows a sly wit. Stewart recounts:

“Speaking to a nightclub audience about a commission for a ‘women in jazz’ concert at Carnegie Hall in 1994, she said with thinly veiled sarcasm, ‘Don’t you just love that.” (p. 144)

There are weaknesses in Scene though. The obvious being that as a study (of sorts) of late 1990’s big band jazz, it is already dated in some cases. Sometimes Stewart acknowledges this himself, as in the case of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band Jazz Band, which was led by Jon Faddis, but now is no more. While Stewart writes that the Lincoln Center’s former Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra: “fits into Marsalis’s vision of reinvigorating jazz as dance and popular music,” in a move that surprised many, the Afro-Latin band was let go by Jazz at Lincoln Center. (p. 255) Still led by Arturo O’Farrill, it is now temporarily in residence at Symphony Space. Also Andrew Hill, whose big band music receives well-deserved attention from Stewart, sadly passed away (when the book was likely well into production). The march of time can outstrip any nonfiction writing, but for jazz it can be especially fleet.

Though somewhat dated, Scene could still be a valuable resource, recording the recent past of New York big bands. It is when Stewart draws on his experience as an academic rather than as a musician that Scene really suffers. Stewart is obsessed with racial and sexual politics. To an extent, this is more than fair territory for academic inquiry, but it gets repetitive in Scene.

Even more frustrating is Stewart’s repeated misuse of the term “neo-conservative,” as when discussing Republican criticism of the NEA, he writes: “neoconservatives saw it as rewarding artists on the left of the political spectrum.” (p. 85) “Neoconservatism” refers to a relatively small movement of intellectuals who were at onetime partisans of the left. Represented by figures like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, they have not traditionally been especially as hostile to programs like funding for the arts, which is one reason Pat Buchanan has consistently turned his fire on them. In most cases when Stewart uses the term neo-conservative, paleo-conservative would have been more accurate. When venturing into political discourse Scene frequently displays this kind of sloppiness.

Scene is much stronger when Stewart writes as musician rather than as an academic. He does have some real insight to bring to bear on the subject, having played in many big bands himself. Unfortunately, it is a little too dated to be a valid handbook of the current New York big band scene, and it has a little too much politically correct academic jargon to make it a readable history of 1990’s big bands.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

48 Hours on 2 of 162

The Hot 8 Brass Band is one of the best of the younger, funkier New Orleans brass bands. The senseless murder of drummer Dinneral Shavers was a tragedy for the NOLA music scene and an even greater loss for his students at the Robouin High School, where Shavers founded the student band. Sadly, he would not live to hear them play the instruments he moved Heaven and Earth to acquire for them. His case and the case of another murdered artist, animated film maker Helen Hill were profiled on CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery last night. Titled “Storm of Murder,” it is worth catching on the web here.

Correspondent Erin Moriarty breaks down the grim facts of NOLA justice:

“The truth is convictions for murder in New Orleans are rare. Just how rare? Dinerral Shavers was one of 162 people murdered in New Orleans in 2006. Police have made arrests in a third of those cases and as of today, there has been one conviction. One conviction. . . .

This year, nearly 3,000 suspects -- ranging from alleged drug dealers to murderers -- were simply released because the district attorney's office failed to bring charges on time. But even when charges are filed, cases often fall apart. What’s the effect? "I think the effect is no one wants to testify because they're afraid that this guy is gonna be out of jail. No one wants to put themselves out there," says [Shavers’ principal Kevin] George.”

Unfortunately 48 Hours did not have the time to fully explain the ins-and-outs of the Louisiana system. By virtue of criminal code #701, the DA has sixty days to file charges, or the accused is cut loose. According to the Pic, there were 187 such releases in 2005 before Katrina hit. In 2006, there were 3,000 so-called 701 releases.

As bad as DA Eddie Jordan (D) looked in “Storm of Murder,” his record is actually even worse. Dealing with this trying situation is an unqualified staff hired by Jordan to replace experienced career employees in the DA’s office. That is the inescapable implication of a jury ruling against Jordan in a racial discrimination suit, which was recently upheld by a federal appeals court.

The closing titles of “Storm of Murder” read:

"There has still been no arrest in the Helen Hill case.
With 162 murders in 2006, the New Orleans District Attorney’s office just announced its 2nd conviction.
The New Orleans murder rate for 2007 remains the highest in the nation."

The police have a suspect for the murder of Shavers, but the handling of the case does not inspire confidence. Helen Hill’s brother Jake, seen in the report handing out reward flyers, seems to be investigating her murder more actively than the NOPD. Compounding the personal tragedy for their friends and family is the great music and film their murderers have denied the world in the future. The Hot 8 are still making music, but they certainly have not forgotten their friend. (They will be in New York for the Lincoln Center Christmas tree lighting on Nov. 26th and you can check out their site here.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Coming Soon: Darfur Now

Which describes your feelings about the genocide in Darfur? A: It is a vast human tragedy perpetrated by an intolerant Islamist regime. B: It is a very sad thing that deeply touched celebrities like Don Cheadle and George Clooney. If you answered A, you will be profoundly disappointed in Darfur Now. If you answered B, this is the film for you.

Darfur Now opens November 2nd, and a full review will be posted then. Despite its unquestioned good intentions, DN is undone by its poor historical context and questionable celebrity worship. Written and directed by Theodore Braun, DN provides precious little context into why the genocide is happening. While the filmmakers do explain Sudan is ruled by the National Islamic Front, they do not mention NIF’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the international jihadist organization. The NIF established Sharia law and embarked on an ethnic cleansing campaign against Christians and animists in the south, but DN does not think these facts are relevant, glossing over the 1990’s as a period of “civil war.”

Darfur Now’s reason for being is to raise consciousness of genocide in Darfur, yet ignores past genocide itself. The trailer makes this clear, explicitly dating the beginning of the genocide at 2003. Conservatives have criticized Hollywood activists for turning a blind eye to Sudan’s genocidal campaign against Christians, only belatedly stirring to action when the Wahhabist government began its mass murder of the moderate Sunni Muslims of the south. Unfortunately, DN will further support that argument.

While DN’s grasp of history might be lacking, its coverage of celebrity activism is slavishly comprehensive. DN follows six main characters, identified for their efforts to bring positive changes to Darfur. Naturally, co-producer Don Cheadle is one on them. We get to see riveting scenes of Cheadle writing speeches for rallies. More embarrassing, are the home movies shot by Cheadle of his amateur diplomatic trips to China and Egypt with George Clooney on behalf of Darfur. This is basically Entertainment Tonight level stuff.

Of the six primary characters, only two are native to Darfur, but viewers see them the least. Probably the most screen time is given to Adam Sterling, a college student spearheading a campaign for California’s divestiture from Sudan. His budding idealism is admirable, but not great cinema.

Perhaps the most compelling character is Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor assigned to crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. After a year and a half investigation, he brought provisional indictments against a high-ranking Sudanese official and a leader of the Islamic Janjaweed militia. In a telling scene, one of Ocampo’s lieutenants asks if Sudan will actually turn over anyone they indict. Another answers with words to the effect of: “of course, eventually they will have to.” Here’s a spoiler: six months after the indictments, it has not happened yet. In fact, one, Ahmad Muhammad Harun, is currently the government official in charge of Darfur refugee camps.

The timing for this film will be interesting. It will be released a week after Jonathan Demme’s hero-worshipping Jimmy Carter Man from Plains documentary hits screens. Of course, Carter recently announced to the world that what is happening in Darfur does not qualify as genocide, just really bad luck. At least, DN’s intentions are noble. Despite the film’s blind spots and weaknesses, it deserves some credit for raising awareness of the very real ongoing tragedy in Darfur. One just wishes this film had been made years earlier, and done better.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Spaces In Between

The Spaces In Between
By John Surman
ECM 1956

There is a long tradition of jazz and classical double threats, stretching back to Benny Goodman, who was never known to be intimidated by a clarinet concerto. Coming from a diverse jazz background, including jazz-rock and adventurous big band sessions, John Surman has also composed for classical idioms as well, including his latest collaboration with the Trans4mation string quartet, The Spaces In Between.

The final selection of Spaces, “Leaving the Harrow,” illuminates the pastoral spirit of the session best. Surman describes the inspiration for the composition, a local pub named the Harrow in rural Kent. According to Surman: “the idea for the piece came from leaving there—possibly buoyed up with a couple pints of best bitter—walking home on a beautiful evening in harvest time and the harvest moon was enormous.”

It starts with more of a nocturne, “Moonlighter,” appropriately featuring Surman’s baritone cradled by the string arrangement. There is a distinctly and traditionally English flavor to many of Surman’s compositions, as in “Wayfarers All,” which gives a darker hue to the strings before Surman comes in on Soprano.

Spaces is tightly arranged, but there is some, well, space for individual expression. While there is not a traditional rhythm section, Surman enlisted the talents of bassist Chris Laurence, proficient in both jazz and classical idioms, to maintain a propulsive element and lend his jazz sensibilities to the endeavor.

The title composition is an unaccompanied solo feature for violinist Rita Manning, coming appropriately at the midpoint of Spaces. An austere, challenging piece that does indeed make use of space, “In Between” is the longest composition of the session. It is followed by he shortest, “Now See!,” a spritely English jig of a miniature.

“Mimosa” is the only expression of Surman’s exploration of Eastern music. Originally written for, but not recorded by, his “Thimar” combo, it still gets a nocturnal vibe from Surman’s baritone but the rhythmic arrangement for the strings suggests someplace east of Kent. Spaces concludes with “Leaving the Harrow,” a contemplative vehicle, again for baritone.

Throughout Spaces, Surman’s reeds integrate remarkably well with the strings. The lush combination of baritone and strings is a particularly warm sound that makes one wonder why bari features have not been more popular in classical music. Its unhurried thoughtfulness conveys the pastoral experience to its listeners quite effectively.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Impressive Panel

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem deserves credit for putting together the best panel on post-Katrina New Orleans at a jazz event I have yet attended, and I have suffered through many. Typically, they degenerate into a spectacle of Bush Derangement Syndrome, which does not help anyone. However, in a drastic departure from tradition, the Jazz Museum actually presented a panel with some philosophical balance as part of their Jazz for Curious Listeners educational series.

To be sure, there was plenty of Bush bashing, most vociferously from Stanley Crouch. Giving some programming balance was Anthony Napoli of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Mr. Napoli was not there to defend the Bush administration, but to speak of the Institute’s efforts in New Orleans. Yet, he did mention the Republican roots of his organization’s co-founder, Lewis Lehrman, the philanthropist and gubernatorial candidate who lost a close, hard-fought race against Cuomo in 1982.

In fact, the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s efforts in New Orleans have been considerable. They have worked with two charter schools, one in Algiers, the other near Tulane, restocking their libraries and helping arrange funding for their history departments. They have started special Saturday academies for supplemental instruction in American history, and by extension the basic knowledge students need as college prep. The Institute is even planning to open a special high school in New Orleans focusing on U.S. history. These are all real, tangible efforts on behalf of the city. You would think the Mayor would be interested in their efforts, or at least be willing to meet with them, but evidently not (you can support their efforts here). It is why moderator Loren Schoenberg concluded the panel saying words to the effect that regardless of their politics, everyone on the panel cared about the people of New Orleans. Very refreshing.

In addition to talk, there was also music, from panelist Jonathan Batiste. A New Orleans native, Batiste broke up the discussion with periodic musical selections, including a NOLA flavored “Green Chimneys.” He also doubled on melodic at one point, swinging it hard. (Melodicas seem to be in vogue lately, I’m hearing them much more often.) It was another good programming decision, as music is a major reason why so many care about the city’s fate.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Bureaucrats are Bad for Music, Example 5,789

It is the age old complaint: you’re trying to sleep but the local symphony orchestra keeps blaring Mahler. Well, have no fear the EU is here. There has been a flurry of stories recently about the EU is applying noise abatement regulations on symphonies in member-states. It is actually work-place exposure issue rather than a general noise pollution concern, but it is undeniably an instance of government regulations abridging artistic freedom.

The regulations pertain to prolonged exposure, so they can still turn the trumpet section loose occasionally. According to the Guardian, the London Symphony Orchestra started balancing loud and soft in their programs several years ago. Like it or not, many more soft and precious compositions like Satie’s Gymnopédies will be programmed to offset the crowd pleasers that end with a good bang. The EU’s 2002 directive is set to take effect next year, but many orchestra directors remain skeptical. Not surprisingly, the Washington Times reports the Czechs are dubious:

“It can’t work in symphony orchestras,” said Libor Pesek, conductor of the Prague Symphony. “How could you apply it to Gustav Mahler, for instance, or Richard Strauss?”

The 1812 Overture would be a little problematic too, not to mention Stravinsky’s Scythians. It also makes one wonder how long before it is applied to other genres as well. After all, free jazz artists can get the decibels up too, and unlike orchestras they tend to play in smaller venues. Visiting artists themselves should not reach the exposure threshold, but what about venue employees?

The Times also quotes bass trombonist Douglas Yeo of the Boston Philharmonic, asking: “Do you need the nanny state to step in and say, ‘No, you cannot play the bass drum fortissimo in the Verdi Requiem?’” It is a good question. Let’s not give Mayor/nanny Bloomberg any ideas. This is New York. Whether jazz or classical, we play loud.

Monday, October 08, 2007


By Sinikka Langeland
ECM 1996

Vocalists often get short shrift in jazz, but they have one advantage over instrumentalists—they can communicate a message directly to their audience through the emotional or sentimental qualities of their lyrics. Of course that presupposes listeners understand the vocalist’s language. When this is not the case, the singer’s vocal artistry stands alone, for good or ill. Most likely few American listeners will understand the Norwegian poetry of Hans Børli as interpreted by Finnish Norwegian Sinikka Langeland on Starflowers, but they will easily comprehend the austere, sometimes mystical vibe.

Both native to Finnskogen, the ethnically Finnish South-Eastern forested region of Norway, Langeland has a longstanding affinity for Børli’s poems. They speak of the mysteries of nature, and at least imply a rejection of commercialism. Of the thirteen tracks, the ten vocals each adapt Børli poems, with the balance being instrumentals, all featuring Langeland as a vocalist and an instrumentalist on the zither-like 39-string Finnish Kantele.

“Høstnatt på Fjellskogen,” translated “Autumn Night in the Mountain Woods” sets the tone with Langeland’s relxed kantele and Børli’s atmospheric poetry:

“A dark humming of
subsiding wind
across each moor,
softly swinging sprigs of pine.”

“Den lille fløyten” (The Little Flute), which “makes lonely music in the darkness by the backdoor,” showcases the finely tuned interplay between trumpeter Arve Henriksen and Trygve Seim on tenor. Starflowers has a freshly textured sound thanks to their effective unison lines and the relatively exotic sound of Langeland’s kantele and the tasteful support of bassist Anders Jormin and percussionist Markku Ounaskari.

Although Langeland approaches the material from a traditional folk background, she has her jazz influences (the strongest being Jan Garbarek), and Seim and Henriksen have appeared on many jazz sessions for ECM in the past. That jazz feeling comes through on “Treet som vekser opp-ned” (The Tree That Grows Upside Down), coming close to a traditional swing feeling through Ounaskari’s cymbal work, and featuring an eloquent solo statement from Seim on tenor.

“Sus i myrull” (Whispers in the Cotton Grass) also has a swing-ish feel, with Langeland demonstrating a more percussive attack on kantele and Ounaskari keeping time with brushes. It is jaunty, but also somewhat wistful, as Børli’s poetry confides:

“Life isn’t just
ten thousand plodding steps
towards petty goals.

No, life is rich enough
to be just whispers in the cotton grass . . .”

The so-called ECM sound is probably most pronounced on “Sølv” and “Sølv,” two short instrumental interludes featuring Langeland’s kantele and Jormin’s bass (largely pizzicato on the first and arco on the later), with occasional percussive accents. The third lyric-less selection starts as another impressive showcase Henriksen and Seim until Langeland literally adds her voice to the mix.

Like the kantele, there is something exotic or other-worldly about Langeland’s voice that is difficult to pin-point. When combined with Henriksen’s trumpet and Seim tenor or soprano it makes for an effective blend. That the lyrics are most likely foreign to listeners (though translated in the liner notes) adds an additional layer of mystery to an intriguing session.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Safe and Comfy Banned Books

Independent booksellers are wrapping up the festival of congratulatory back-patting called Banned Books Week. Once again, they decline to recommend any books that have actually been banned in recent memory, instead highlighting “challenged” titles like Harry Potter, represented on both Booksense’s Banned Books Week Top 10 list and the ABFFE’s list of 100 banned or challenged books. If Harry Potter, with tens of millions of copies in print, seriously qualifies as a banned book, every author should be so banned. The hypocrisy was too thick for one indy store, who recently mocked the hoopla for its political correctness.

If booksellers wanted to actually stand up for free expression, instead of building some merchandising around hollow posturing, they would be hand-selling books by authors like Salman Rushdie, who have had fatwas issued against them by Islamic fundamentalist extremists. Indeed, The Satanic Verses would be a novel selection, since it has actually been banned. Of course, recommending legitimately banned books during Banned Books Week, might, you know, offend someone. Better to just push Harry Potter, and pretend you’re standing up to the dark specter of Christian Fundamentalism. Then there would be no consequences to worry about.

If you want to actually support banned books, try hand-selling books by the signatories of the February 2, 2006 manifesto for intellectual freedom published in response to the violent protests surrounding the Danish cartoons. Writers like Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasreen, Mehdi Mozaffari, and Irshad Manji live in constant fear for their lives because their writings have offended the sensibilities of Islamic Fascists. You will also learn a lot more about the price of free expression and the state of the world from their books than from a bubblegum YA fantasy.

(Disclosure: Rushdie and Manji have been published by a corporate cousin of my employer. Their sales have no effect on my duties or compensation.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Opening Soon: Terror’s Advocate

What do Pol Pot, Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal, the Red Army Faction, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have in common, besides violent ideologies? They had the same attorney: Jacques Vergès, the subject of a new documentary, Terror’s Advocate.

Directed by Barbet Schroeder, Advocate includes extensive interview footage with its cooperative subject and many of his past associates. Vergès gained worldwide notoriety for his defense of the Nazi war criminal Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, essentially using the proceedings to establish a moral equivalence between Barbie’s crimes and those of French colonialists in Algiers. However, Vergès is a Zelig of evil, turning up with nearly every violent extremist group of the last fifty years.

Advocate presents the framework of a unified theory of collectivist evil, tracing connections between German National Socialism, Communism, and Islamic Fascism. The film sketches out links between Vergès and François Genoud, a Swiss Nazi who became a champion of Palestinian causes, Waddi Haddad of the Maoist PFLP, Johannes Weinrich of the Red Army Faction, and the KGB recruited Carlos the Jackal.

The interrelations between the various factions of terror are fascinating. It is clear from voluminous STASI records that East Germany authorities allowed Carlos and his PFLP and Red Army Faction allies to operate within their country, where Vergès would visit them. They were under constant STASI surveillance, but their operations were not disrupted.

Genoud was converted to the Palestinian cause through his dealings with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on behalf of the National Socialists. In 1969 he picked up the tab for Vergès’ defense of the notorious PFLP Zurich El-Al hijackers. Years later, he would underwrite Vergès’ defense of Barbie.

Advocate is strongest when illustrating these alliances between the malignant ideologies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It certainly does no favors for the image of France. On one hand, Vergès and his allies pillory France’s record on Algerian, while from the other perspective, we see a feckless Mitterand government kick loose Anis Naccache, a Vergès client convicted of an attempted assassination of a former Shah minister at the Ayatollah’s bequest, for political expediency, in an episode the film dubs the birth of Islamic terrorism against the west (and Vergès was there). (The film’s website is quite helpful providing some crib notes on the various satellites of terror in orbit around Vergès.)

However, the film’s approach to Vergès as an interview subject is not as successful. Schroeder follows the same strategy he employed with his 1969 film on Idi Amin, relying on his subject to damn himself with his own words. What may have worked with a dictator of questionable sanity is far less successful with an experienced (one might say deceptive) trial attorney.

To be sure, Vergès’ words can be absolutely chilling, as when he minimizes the extent of the mass murders committed by his friend Pol Pot. Unfortunately, Vergès is never directly challenged by Schroeder in any of his assertions. Those unfamiliar with the crimes of the Khmer Rouge or the Butcher of Lyon might find his slick evasions convincing, as a result. Consider how many have fallen for Ahmadinejad’s media campaign (and Vergès even gives that audience a variation on the “Bush-is-worse-than-Hitler” line, which of course, the studio put in the trailer).

Vergès is not just deceptive in interview segments, he is also dull. Granted, the advocate may be slick, sophisticated, and smart to be sure, but he is also the personification of the banality of evil. Advocate is fascinating when exposing the world of terror Vergès faithfully serves, but less so when recording his unquestioned dissembling. (It opens October 12 in New York at the Lincoln Plaza.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


U-Carmen (e-Khayelitsha)
Produced and Directed by Mark Dornford-Smith
Koch Lorber Films

In addition to its enduring popularity, Georges Bizet’s Carmen has also proved remarkably pliable. For instance, Oscar Hammerstein revamped Bizet’s lyrics for Otto Preminger’s classic film Carmen Jones. Several jazz artists have also interpreted the score, including an underappreciated classic by Barney Kessel. U-Carmen (trailer here), the latest recasting of Bizet’s opera, which shifts the setting to a South African Township and translates the lyrics to Xhosa, is now available on DVD.

U-Carmen was originally developed as a stage production by British-born director Mark Dornford-May for the South African troupe Dimpho Di Kopane (DDK). While the idea of Carmen in Xhosa translation may sound jarring, opera traditionalists will actually be very comfortable with what they hear. There are Xhosa elements in the soundtrack, but by-and-large the orchestrations are traditionally classical. One might expect the linguistic clicks of Xhosa to be distracting, but again Carmen proves to be remarkably elastic.

Pauline Malefane plays Carmen and Andile Tshoni plays her ill-fated policeman lover, Jongi. Both have very impressive voices. One of the biggest tests for U-Carmen is the “Habanera,” and Malefane handles it beautifully. The third (matador) side of the love triangle is largely under-developed, here represented by an expatriate opera singer (often pictured performing in the matador role). Fans of the opera might be disappointed that the “Toreador Song” is not employed as an aria feature for him, instead appearing briefly as a vehicle for the cigarette factory women’s choir in the beginning and late in the film (and as an orchestral background theme).

Perhaps the most joyous music of U-Carmen is the Xhosa chanting celebrating the exiled singer’s homecoming (also heard over the menu titles). It actually makes one wish they had taken more liberties with the music. However, the work that went into the soundtrack was impressive. According to the bonus featurette, the orchestra was 98% South African. Music director Charles Hazelwood explains: “it was a motley bunch of people who had never played together as a unit before, but the upshot of that is it gives the recording of the music for the film a kind of urgency, a kind of danger, because the orchestra was playing, genuinely, like their lives depended on it.”

Even as a lopsided love triangle, most of the elements of Bizet’s opera are recognizably present: the cigarette factory, the barracks, the sick mother, the fortune teller, and the smugglers. While the energy may flag at times, Dornford-May has an impressive eye. It is an interesting attempt to make the old, new again.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

IFP: A Girl and a Gun

There were some interesting looking documentaries addressing topical issues at last months IFP, and some that looked dreadful. I refrained from posting on them, because for films of that nature really need to be screened in their entirety. There were promising films on Afghanistan, but without the full story, it is hard to pass judgment on ultimately how compelling the narrative is and how fairly the subjects were treated by the filmmakers. I do want to catch up with one topical film, A Girl and a Gun, which delves into the relatively unexplored topic of women gun-owners.

Based on the twenty minutes screened Gun does not fall back on stereotypes or tired party lines. One woman we meet is a social worker who probably looks to the world like a typical Upper Westside liberal (in truth her politics were not revealed in the clip), who happens to be a recreational shooter. She herself seems somewhat surprised by the apparent contradiction in her lifestyle. We a gun magazine professional say something gun-nutty one minute, and then something insightful the next. We briefly meet two mothers, one who campaigns against handguns, the other who used a handgun to protect her daughter.

From the brief screening, Gun seems to be fair to its interview subjects and nuanced in its approach to the issues of gun rights. Predictably, this hilariously provoked many in its first screening, who found it “biased” for not uniformly conforming to their prejudices.

Again, it is impossible to pass judgment on just twenty minutes of film, but in this case of A Girl and a Gun (trailer here), it was sufficient to demonstrate great potential. I am definitely looking forward to seeing the finished film.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Celia the Musical

The recent track record of Broadway jukebox musicals has been mixed, from the highly successful Jersey Boys to the short-lived Ring of Fire. Although New World Stages technically qualifies as Off-Broadway, it is very Broadway-like in the commercial nature of its productions. Their new entry into jukebox musical market, Celia: the Life and Music of Celia Cruz, which opened the 26th, succeeds largely due to its honesty and its faithfulness to her music.

Singing the songs of Cruz is Xiomara Laugart, and she is a natural fit for the role. Clearly, she can identify with the dramatic events of Cruz’s life, having, as the NY Daily News reports: “defected to the U.S. almost a decade ago without a penny in her pocket or a command of the English language, yet managed to resume her career and build a new life.” Laugart has a strong voice and demonstrates an affinity for the repertoire, including most of the favorite hits from Cruz’s career, including: “Quimbara,” “Guantanamera,” and “Yo Viviré (I Will Survive)”. She really is a powerful vocalist who wins over the audience immediately.

Laugart is supported by a fantastic Latin combo, seated on stage Chicago-style, up from the pit. They even get a wardrobe change during intermission, from tuxedos appropriate to the pre-revolutionary clubs of Havana, to seventies style flora prints.

Led by Isidro Infante, a veteran of bands led by Cruz, Tito Puente, and Machito, the Celia combo sounds like a much larger group than their seven pieces. As the orchestrator and musical director, he gets the music right. Percussionists Luisito and Robert Quintero, who have recorded with the Caribbean Jazz Project, keep a strong rhythmic pulse going. At one point, Luisito Quintero channels Tito Puente, showing off the drumstick-around-the-head orison. Unfortunately, Nelson Gonzalez’s tres is largely overwhelmed in the mix, as he has a very tasteful, but all too brief solo that left one wanting to hear more.

The drama is largely supplied by Modesto Lacén as Cruz’s widower husband Pedro Knight, telling his nurse (recording artist Pedro Capó) about life with his beloved Celia. It is basically a narrative framing device to keep the musical numbers in context, but Lacén’s Knight is still touching at times. Capó has some impressive numbers, and a few effective dramatic moments with Lacén, as well. Also, Wilson Mendieta’s depiction of Johnny Pacheco and his exuberant conducting style should amuse salsa fans.

To its credit, Celia the musical deals with the realities of the Castro regime and Cruz’s resulting exile directly and forthrightly. The book by Carmen Rivera & Candido Tirado makes it clear there would be no artistic freedom in Cuba after 1959. We see the corruption and arbitrary abuses of power from party bureaucrats and the suffering inflicted on musicians like Cruz and Knight. In one of the musical’s heaviest dramatic episodes, Celia portrays the pain Cruz felt when she was unable to attend her mother’s funeral due to Castro’s banishment decree.

Celia is well staged, nicely capturing the excitement of major events like the Fania All-Stars concert at Yankee Stadium. It deftly handles the trials of Cruz’s life, without dampening the joy of the music. There are only two English language performances each week—Saturdays at 5:00 and Sundays at 7:00. I attended the Saturday show, and if it representative of other shows, one can expect to feel a real collective spirit in an audience eager to express its love for Cruz (New World Stages also sells Sangria in the theater, which does not hurt the good vibe). Celia is an entertaining show that moves along at a good clip and features a great musical performance by Laugart in the title role. Her fans won’t be disappointed, and the music of Celia Cruz should win over anyone with open ears. (Read Val's reaction and his personal reflections on Celia Cruz here.)