Thursday, January 31, 2008

Meet a New Movie Villain

He was known as Michael X, Abdul Malik, and Michael de Freitas (his given name). A self styled leader of the British Black Power movement, he was hung for murder in his native Trinidad in 1975, and he now appears as one of several villains in the clever upcoming caper film The Bank Job (though he barely makes the trailer).

In 1971, an unknown team of thieves broke into the safety-deposit boxes of an undistinguished London bank. Job speculates the heist was motivated by compromising information Michael X stored in a box there. A full review will go up opening day, but it is worth looking at the historical X-Malik-de Freitas now.

De Freitas was a pimp and drug dealer who reinvented himself as a revolutionary, with the British press acting as witting accomplices in his PR campaign. He was the first non-white to be arrested and convicted on charges stemming from the British Race Relations Act. He returned to Trinidad to evade an extortion charge, where he oversaw a bizarre “commune,” evolving into a combination of Louis Farrakhan and Jim Jones. Two bodies were eventually found in shallow graves near the compound. One was Gale Benson the daughter of a conservative MP who had taken up with one of De Freitas’s American colleagues. The other was Joseph Skerritt, a disillusioned follower for whose murder de Freitas would eventually swing.

Michael X was a villain, and to its credit, Bank Job identifies him as such. In the production notes actor Peter de Jersey discusses the figure he plays:

“‘Michael X began to believe his own myth,’ says de Jersey. ‘While he was in Trinidad he was asked the question, “Are you a Socialist?’ and he said, ‘No, think more along the lines Napolean and Hitler.’”

Again, to their credit, the filmmakers do not glamorize Michael X as charmingly roguish. He is frankly somewhat banal, but they do show his success playing London’s trendy left. Reportedly, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were among his benefactors (and who do those extras look like seated to his right?). That is something to remember next time you hear “Imagine.” The film ignores the Islamist character of his cult, but the implications of the “X” are hard to miss. (Incidentally, David Suchet is one of the better screen heavies in recent years as a sinister pimp and pornographer associate of Michael X.)

V.S. Naipul wrote an extended non-fiction piece on Michael X and reportedly modeled the novel Guerillas on the Trinidad affair. In reviewing Naipul’s work in the NY Times, Jane Kramer wrote:

“The fact that Michael X was ignorant and inarticulate and possibly psychotic, that he was prone more to sullen demagoguery than rousing street talk, discouraged neither the English newspapers whose radical chic of the moment was black revolutionaries nor the English hostesses.”

Kramer echoes Naipul’s jaundiced view of Michael X’s media manipulations, who witheringly wrote: “for people like Malik there was no point in being black and angry unless occasionally there were white people to witness.”

Michael X was a killer and it is refreshingly surprising to see a film depict him as such, rather than water-down their portrayal out of political correctness. Indeed, the way the film mixes historical fact with fiction is quite clever (more on that later). Of course it is a British production. One wonders if a Hollywood studio could do as well.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Academy Award Nominee: The Counterfeiters

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the classic game theory problem in which the most favorable collective result for prisoners is to cooperate together, but the dominant strategy for each is to cooperate with their jailers, inevitably leading to the least optimal combined result. Austria’s Academy Award nominated best foreign language film, The Counterfeiters, can be considered a tragically real historical application of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in a concentration camp setting, which would have wider repercussions on the outcome of WWII.

Counterfeiters dramatizes the historical events surrounding Operation Bernard, considered the largest counterfeiting project ever, organized by the Germans in the waning months of the war as a desperate attempt to undermine the economies of the Allied nations. It relied on the labor and expertise of specially selected Jewish concentration camp prisoners, led by notorious forger Salomon Sorowitch, based on the real-life Salomon Smolianoff.

Sorowitch is a survivor, so he is willing to put his talents to work for his National Socialist captors, to earn a temporary reprieve from the gas chambers and receive relatively improved living conditions in the counterfeiters’ “Golden Cage.” However, at least one colleague refuses ignore the ethical implications of their project. Adolf Burger, a printer mourning his wife murdered at Auschwitz, repeatedly sabotages efforts to forge the American dollar. (Years later Burger would write The Devil’s Workshop, the book on which the film was based.)

Clearly, the counterfeiters were facing a terrible dilemma. If they cooperate, they temporarily prolong their lives and enjoy small privileges, like better rations and unlikely enough, a ping-pong table. Yet, by doing so, they prolong the war and help finance the National Socialist death machine. Of course, if caught sabotaging the operation, they would surely face summary execution.

It is tough moral predicaments like these that might make some viewers uncomfortable. Unlike many Holocaust films, in Counterfeiters much of the horror of the Sachsenhausen camp happens off-screen—literally walled off from the characters in Block 19, and by extension the audience. Of course, the inhumanity and casual cruelty of their captors periodically intrudes into the Golden Cage in some disturbing scenes. In many ways, it is a cold slap-in-the-face of a movie that does not offer easy answers or pat sentimental endings.

At one point, one artist-turned-forger complains to Sorowitch that he cannot find any color in the camp. That is certainly true of director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s production and the washed out look of Benedict Neuenfels’ cinematography as well. However, the use of Marius Ruhland’s melancholy tango themes lends an inspired texture to the film. In many ways, the film is like its protagonist, cerebral but very intense.

Karl Markovics has a real challenge in the coldly analytical Sorowitch, but he makes the character fascinating to watch, as the career criminal develops an increasing sense of responsibility for the men under his charge. The rest of the cast is at least adequate, but it really is Sorowitch’s film. Counterfeiters is not Life is Beautiful and it is not Schindler’s List. It might actually be closer akin to The Pawnbroker, as a story about the costs of surviving. Counterfeiters is a smart film that is definitely recommended to those who do not require nice, safe formula devices in their cinema. It opens February 22nd in New York.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Next Week: The Band’s Visit

The romantic sound of Chet Baker has been bringing people together for years. In the upcoming film, The Band’s Visit, it even helps bridge the gap between Israelis and Egyptians—in a small way of course.

Visit is a variation on the lost band-on-the-road story. This band happens to be the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, lost in a provincial Israeli town, miles away from the Arab Cultural Center they are booked to play. Actually, provincial would be an understatement. However, they do find hospitality courtesy of Dina, a café proprietress, who convinces two of her regulars to split up the band with her, putting them up for the night.

Despite the obvious tension between the two nationalities, Visit is not really about politics. Like Lost in Translation it is about strangers of different backgrounds thrown together, who end up sharing private moments, which may or may not ultimately mean something. While the trailer might suggest that the Israelis are more apt to be depicted mockingly (“there is no culture here”), the film is actually quite even-handed. After all, it is common Israelis who shelter and feed the wayward Egyptian musicians. In Visit, Israelis and Egyptians are equally capable of being either people of substance, or dullards.

As Dina, Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz is a smoldering screen presence. She is balanced perfectly by Sasson Gabai as the reserved leader of the band. Both are truly impressive in their scenes circling each other, and it is this brief relationship that forms the heart of Visit. Most notable amongst the rank-and-file of the orchestra is Khaled, the lady killer violinist and trumpeter who perfected a Chet Baker impersonation (with voice and trumpet) to woe women.

Director Eran Kolirin’s pacing is deliberate, but that should not be interpreted as a euphemism for slow. He just gives each scene as much time as it needs to play out. It would sound like Visit offers up the predictable message of: “people are the same everywhere, so give peace a chance.” It is certainly possible to read that into the film, but in truth, Visit’s apolitical nature is its deliberate political choice. At heart, it is a film about people, not geopolitics. It is also refreshing to see a film whose characters take music seriously, from Chet Baker to the traditional Arab classical music the police orchestra specializes in.

Originally slotted to be Israel’s Oscar submission for best foreign language film, Visit was disqualified due to language technicalities (for most of the film, characters communicate through their common halting English rather than Arabic and Hebrew). That is a shame, because it is a foreign film with very real crossover potential. Visit is a deceptively simple film that reveals in characters with grace and dignity. (Frankly, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film.) It opens next Friday in New York at the Angelika.

25 Years of Jarrett Standards

My Foolish Heart: Live at Montreux 2-CD
Setting Standards: New York Sessions 3-CD
Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette
ECM Records

As celebrated as Keith Jarrett’s solo work (like the bestselling Köln Concert) has been, the so-called Standards Trio is probably his admirers’ preferred format to hear his piano artistry. It was twenty-five years ago roughly that Jarrett went into a Manhattan studio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette for ECM’s Manfred Eicher. It worked out well for all involved. Recently, My Foolish Heart, a live set documenting the trio at the 2001 Montreux Jazz Festival was issued, and this month sees the release of Setting Standards, a special anniversary collection of the three albums worth of music recorded at that fateful 1983 session. Together these five disks make quite an impact, artistically and as indication of Jarrett’s esteem as a recording artist, so it seems fitting to address them together in one big value-sized review.

The Montreux disks kick off with a brisk take on the Miles Davis standard “Four.” Jarrett’s playing is particularly fluid and his trademark vocalizations are audible throughout. The title standard starts with an appropriately sensitive interpretation by Jarrett, until he briefly kicks up the tempo about halfway through, with Peacock and DeJohnette following totally in-synch. Peacock solos tastefully and DeJohnette’s drumming is supportive and complimentary.

“What’s New” is a nice example of the democratic nature of the trio, with Peacock getting ample room to solo, as Jarrett comps underneath him. From there they take “The Song is You” as a bebop burner propelled along by DeJohnette’s roiling percussion.

Heart’s first disk ends with one of three tunes Jarrett describes as “ragtime” numbers, designed to stun an under-appreciative Montreux audience. Actually, they are well within in the jazz idiom, but the tunes have a stride-like feel, and are indeed surprisingly jaunty. Jarrett has stirred controversy for laying beat-downs on inattentive audiences and distracting photographers (for which I refuse to fault him). However, his “ragtime” gambit completely won over any wavering listeners judging by the roar of applause ending disk one.

“Honeysuckle Rose” and “You Took Advantage of Me” kick off the second disk in the same spirit. “Advantage” is a particularly infectious swinger. Jarrett’s playing is marked by uncommon wit and verve here, aided by DeJohnette’s sly percussive accents. Again, Jarrett and company cover a wide range of standards, including Gerry Mulligan’s “Five Brothers,” which Jarrett opens up beautifully.

The trio can really lock-in on ballads, so not surprisingly that is what the two longest tracks of Heart are—namely the title song, and “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” In-the-moment inspiration is what drives their live performances, and they truly conjure up a fragile and melancholy mood in “Tears.” They fittingly conclude with another ballad, “Only the Lonely,” a truly fine example of the trio’s interplay. DeJohnette’s shimmering cymbals combine with Jarrett’s piano for a delicate conclusion that takes one’s breath away, before the familiar voice of Claude Nobs signals the end of the set. It wouldn’t be a live Montreux recording without him.

Setting Standards collects Standards Vol. 1 and II with Changes. Together it is a great bundle of music. More than the Montreux set, it shows their predilection for recasting standards in different spirits. “God Bless the Child” for instance, on Volume I, is taken at a faster tempo than usual, but is extremely soulful, and surprisingly groovy. It would be a good blindfold tune if not for Jarrett’s vocal accompaniment. Jarrett sounds like he is singing along with joy on “The Masquerade is Over,” that has none of the bittersweet quality commonly associated with the standard. “Meaning of the Blues” begins as blue as the blues get, but evolves into something else entirely, richly completing a disk that started something that would hold up well.

Standards Volume II begins with an elegantly swinging “So Tender,” Jarrett’s own slightly Latin standard from collaborations with Airto Moreira, and a bit of a ringer in the session. Again, the Standards Trio sets unconventional moods, as in “If I Should Lose You” which has little of the maudlin sentimentality usually associated with the song. Instead, there is an audible sense of joy—even an exultation of “whee” from Jarrett. Clearly, sensitive ballads continued to inspire, as on the closer, “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” but they still manage to take it in unexpected directions.

The final disk serves as the exception to the rule. Though recorded during the same period, Changes consists of three long original composition/improvisations, which gives a complete picture of the trio’s collective power. All three tracks are in fact quite melodic—elastic in form, but far from unstructured. “Flying Part 1” is fascinating look at their developing cohesion, as the intensity rises and falls. Peacock gives “Part 2” a greater sense of pulse, providing a launching pad for Jarrett’s explorations. The concluding “Prism” is more contemplative fare which Jarrett built his reputation.

Separately the 1983 releases have turned on a lot of Jarrett fans. Having them packaged together in Setting Standards represents a great value. Along with Heart, they account for five disks of Jarrett’s Standards Trio hitting the shelves in recent months, making a heavy statement about Jarrett’s prestige with his label and in the marketplace. It called for some extreme reviewing. It’s intense, but recommended—go ahead kids, try this at home.

(Note: Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette will perform at NJPAC Fe. 2nd. They will return to NY for a Carnegie Hall concert Oct. 18th.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

American Premiere: Elegy for Life

The sight of Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich performing an impromptu cello concert as the Berlin Wall came crumbling down is one of the great images of recent history. Oddly, such a cinematic episode was not included in Alexander Sokurov’s new documentary Elegy Of Life: Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya. Chronicling the lives of both Rostropovich (who sadly passed away in April 2007) and his wife, the great opera singer and vocal teacher Galina Pavlovana Vishnevskaya, Elegy made its American debut at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Envisioning Russia film series Sunday. Even without the famous footage from the Wall, Sokurov directed a film with some very revealing scenes of the two giants of Twentieth Century music.

Between Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya (who kept her own name for reasons not addressed), the couple won just about every Soviet award for music and culture the ministries could bestow. Sokurov explicitly makes the point that they literally had everything to lose when they decided to shelter Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in their summer home when the Communist Party declared the dissident writer a “non-person.” It would be fair to say the Party was not amused with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, who would quickly be forced into exile themselves.

Eventually, their Russian citizenship would be restored in the 1990’s. However, the West has been the beneficiary of the Soviet banishment. Rostropovich recorded extensively and led the U.S. National Synphony Orchestra for many years. In effect, they became world citizens (but hold passports issued by Monaco). In a fascinating interview with Vishnevskaya, Sokurov asks the former diva if she worries about losing their beautiful Russian home they re-acquired after the fall of Communism. She answers to the effect of: yes, people have short memories and they may forget the how bad life was under Communism.

There are definitely some lessons to be taken from Elegy. At one point Rostropovich shows Sokurov a section of their home devoted to framed pictures of departed friends of honor, including a smiling President Reagan, who had awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1987. (Strangely, we never see a photo of Charlie Wilson, but it was a big house—maybe in the bathroom.)

Sokurov plays an interesting trick on viewers as he opens the film. We see Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya quietly eating desert at their golden anniversary party, looking like a tired elderly couple. However, as he revisits scenes from that party throughout the film, we see them laugh, dance, and revel like a couple a fraction of their age. At their table is Boris Yeltsin and just about every crowned head of Europe, each one a personal friend. Finally we see a loving moment shared by them immediately after that deceptively mundane opening footage.

Sokurov brings a certain idiosyncratic visual style to Elegy, but he recorded some telling moments. Most importantly, he captures the joy for living—through music—shared by his subjects. It deserves significant American distribution. Rostropovich will be missed, but fortunately his life and music were well documented. Elegy plays again at the Walter Reade tomorrow afternoon at four.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

CUNY Pick: Black Dju

CUNY, the City University of New York, has a public affairs cable network here in the city that also broadcasts some arts programming. In addition to Classic Arts Showcase, a compilation show of performing arts video clips, CUNY also produces City Cinematheque, one of the few remaining cable outlets that from time to time shows foreign films—and not just crossover hits, but films that are may have received limited American distribution. The movies are followed by a discussion by the host and a guest scholar, and you would certainly be forgiven for tuning out at that point.

This weekend’s Black Dju merits a nod for the music alone by André Mergenthaler and the great Cameroonian funk-jazz artist Manu Dibango. The Makossa Man also appears as himself, playing for a house party in the Immigrant’s Hostel, which is a stretch, but cool none-the-less. Also appearing briefly in a strictly dramatic role is Cape Verdian vocalist Cesária Évora.

The story involves Dju’s search for his father, a “guest worker” in Luxemburg, who has lost contact with the family in Cape Verde. Dju sets out to find him, but is quickly swept up by the cops, dutifully following their new immigration control directives. He does however, meet a new ally, Plettschette, a burned out inspector at odds with the force’s new policies and alienated from most of his colleagues. Often it is easier to suspend disbelief in foreign films because the actors are largely unfamiliar and frequently less image conscious. (Sean Penn as a brain surgeon? I think not.) Here haggard does not begin to describe Philippe Léotard’s Plettschette, who looks as if he has been pounding nails with his face.

Dju is the first installment of City Cinematheque’s series, “On the Move: Recent Films about Immigration,” but the post-film commentary suggested it was a bit of a ringer in the mix and not a true movie about the immigrant experience. For instance, a lot of the white European characters, like Plettschette, his barkeeper friend, and the manager of the hostel, were actually, believe it or not, nice. They almost sounded disappointed by this.

They do suggest that it shows gross mistreatment of illegal aliens. While some abuse is depicted, the film is far from an expose. If you believe a country has the right to enforce their own immigration laws, there is even less to find outrageous here (though certainly Dju’s father is ill-treated). Weird commentary, but a good movie (with a great soundtrack), and evidently not available on DVD and was not released on VHS (whatever that was). It runs again tomorrow at 9:00 and next Friday at midnight.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Nine Fingers

Nine Fingers
By Thom August
Leisure Books mass original

In the past, Chicago jazz has had to cope with the Windy City’s history of mob activity. For instance, the venerable jazz club The Green Mill was once co-owned by Capone enforcer “Machinegun” Jack McGurn. Pseudonymous author Thom August has renewed the association between jazz and Chicago’s organized crime in the new novel, Nine Fingers, the first mass market original to be reviewed here.

Fingers starts with a mob hit that does not make apparent sense. The syndicate’s top assassin, simply known as “the Cleaner,” kills a visiting businessmen and part-time jazz musician as he sits-in with a local ensemble. What appears to be a case of mistaken identity leads to more attacks on the group. It all seems to trace back to a mafia princess, and another visiting musician, mysteriously missing his pinky finger (and supplying the title). Fortunately, the investigating detective in need of career rehabilitation once gigged professionally, allowing him to go undercover with the band.

No real-life musicians make cameo appearances, but August sounds familiar with the lives of working musicians. The chief protagonist of Fingers and one of three perspectives from which the story is told is Vinnie Amatucci, the band’s pianist and business manager. Amatucci shows a talent for meticulous work, like tuning the piano and balancing the sound system before gigs. At one point he ruminates:

“Jo Jones always said that if you can hear the rhythm section of a jazz band it means they’re fucking up. You’re supposed to feel them, unless one of them is soloing. And I believe that. The trumpet and sax are up front, physically, and their sound is supposed to be up front, aurally. That’s the nature of the music.” (p. 66)

Whoever August is, he writes musical details convincingly. Those passages of Fingers reminded me of the jazz mysteries of Bill Moody, but this is much more hardboiled than the Evan Horne novels. The language is saltier and there is considerably more drug use and graphic violence. Particularly gratuitous is a way over-the-top sex scene near the novel’s midpoint which is quite explicit and frankly defies believability within the context of the story. (I won’t quote from it, but the dogs out there can find it starting at p. 184) Unfortunately, August is stuck with the ramifications of that interlude for the remainder of the novel, creating additional issues of credibility in later scenes.

What is believable is his depiction of the dynamics within the combo. The musicians are well delineated characters, like the under-achieving, over-thinking Amatucci. August deserves credit for not making the leader, trumpeter Paul Powell, into another icy stand-in for Miles Davis (which has been done far too often). Instead he is cerebral in interesting ways, and has some nice scenes with Amatucci. August describes one such encounter from the pianist’s perspective, as he approaches the trumpeter practicing long tones:

“I gave him a little nod and he turned back toward the lake, and continued for another few minutes, working steadily up in his register until it must have required a phenomenal effort to hold each note. But each note was like a rounded little pearl, fat and shiny and hard, even the high ones.” (p. 329)

There are some nice moments in Fingers, and there are some ridiculous ones as well. To its credit, jazz is not treated as mere window dressing—rather it plays an important role in the story. Usually jazz related novels are of the depressingly literary variety, which makes Fingers a real change of pace. If it was not twenty degrees outside, it could be described as a good beach read, despite (or because of) an occasional excess. It will be interesting to see how August develops as a hard-boiled jazz novelist, if Fingers spawns a series. After all, he has the music down cold.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Retrospective Love for Paskaljevic

Some directors’ films are marked by signature themes and motifs. For instance, many of Goran Paskalvejic’s films conclude with running sequences. The Serbian director’s films also tend to take a jaundiced look at the powers that be in his fractious homeland. He is now the subject of an overdue retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Pasklavejic (henceforth abbreviated GP) is best known for Cabaret Balkan (1998, a.k.a. The Powder Keg). It is probably his bleakest, most unrelentingly naturalistic picture, reflecting his horror at a Serbia that could commit the atrocities of the Bosnian War. GP was one of the few Serbian filmmakers to speak out against the Milosevic, soon finding it prudent to relocate in 1992. Cabaret Balkan presents a vision of a Belgrade where mundane encounters can quickly escalate to senseless violence. Introduced by an androgynous nightclub host, it makes Cabaret look like Gigi.

Though his earlier works are not nearly as dark, they do show recurring anti-authoritarian themes, often tweaking the Yugoslav Communist authorities. The NYT misleading writes that GP “worked under dictators as philosophically opposed as Tito and Milosevic.” He certainly lived under both regimes, but as both were Communists, how are they opposed?

Perhaps GP’s most explicit critique of the Communist state came in post Berlin Wall-era 1990 with Time of Miracles. GP regular Miki Manojlovic plays the local Communist strongman, who commandeers the town church, painting over its frescoes to convert it into a new school. What the school teaches sounds more like propaganda than education in a masterfully absurd satirical sequence. However, when the frescoes miraculously reappear despite constant whitewashing, the Party enforcer panics. Things get downright Biblical when the school teacher Lazar appears to be resurrected by a mysterious bearded stranger (look, this is a great film, but maybe not a subtle one). As a result, the local Communist leader resorts to desperate measures to protect Party authority.

GP’s earlier films also offer hints of criticism of the Communist apparatus. Special Treatment projects a surprising amount of physical comedy, while painful, even sinister emotions lurk under the surface. As the story of a martinet doctor overseeing a controversial alcohol addiction program that includes public confessions, it is easy to read wider allegories into the film.

However, GP has helmed some gentle films with heart, like his The Elusive Summer of ’68. It is all about young love and how boring it is to study Marxism, particularly during the summer when an all-women orchestra is visiting provincial Yugoslavia/Serbia from Prague. It is sweet and funny, but the significance of 1968 hangs over the film. In a way, it is a Serbian precursor to the Czech movie musical Rebelove.

GP has a fascinating body of work, which has certainly grown darker in recent years. Do not look for any of it at Netflix though, because none of his films are available on DVD in America. However, MoMA shows the love. The retrospective continues through the month, so check them out on a big screen instead. (Elusive screens again the 30th, Miracles screens again the 31st, and both conclude with running scenes.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sabertooth is Dr. Midnight

Dr. Midnight: Live at the Green Mill
By Sabertooth
Delmark Records

Midnight to five—nice hours if you can get them. That’s Sabertooth’s regular Saturday-night-into-Sunday-morning gig, their so-called “After Hours Jazz Party,” at the Green Mill in Chicago. I’m guessing they are not morning people. At least they certainly sound like their in their element during Dr. Midnight, a live recording capturing a late night Green Mill session.

Though largely a soul jazz combo in the Stitt and Ammons mold of two tenors and an organ, Sabertooth’s tenor players Cameron Pfiffner and Pat Mallinger double on flute and claim influences as diverse as Coltrane and the Dead. Naturally, they maintain a late-night vibe throughout as on the up-tempo, but easy grooving opener, “Blues for C Piff.” Appropriately, Pfffner takes the solo honors before handing off to Mallinger, with Pete Benson laying down some grease on the Hammond.

Dr. Midnight is actually a pretty varied set, with an infectious calypso style “Mary Anne,” featuring nice unison work and interplay between the tenors. It is followed by the exotic “Tetemetearri,” introduced by Mallinger’s Native American flute. After Pfiffner enters, also on flute, Mallinger moves to tenor for an eloquent solo statement. It all has an appealing texture thanks to the subtle Hammond accompaniment and Ted Sirota’s supportive percussion.

The title track gets an extended spoken word introduction from Pfiffner that sounds like David Cross of Mr. Show channeling Rod Serling. It is the late night set. It is also the moodiest, freest ranging tune of the release. For Neal Hefti’s “Odd Couple” it is back in the pocket for some blues. Sirota and Benson provide a kind groove, as the familiar theme proves to be an accommodating vehicle for the reeds.

Surprisingly, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “China Cat Sunflower” is the track that most stuck in my head (perhaps revealing my own collegiate “influences”). Evidently, Mallinger also has some Dead in his past as well. The combination of his tenor and Pfiffner’s piccolo just sound great over Benson’s Hammond grooves.

In his liner notes Michael Jackson writes that he recommends Sabertooth’s Saturday night sets to “outta towners.” That makes sense listening to Dr. Midnight. They bring wit and energy to their music, and when they finally wrap, it’s basically light outside. Dr. Midnight is consistently fun, crowd pleasing jazz, while mixing things up sufficiently to avoid sounding stuck in a groove, which is a nice trick.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Solo Marathon

Merkin Hall is open again, and the sound in the auditorium is great. Yesterday, getting in evidently was a trick. If you came ten minutes early, you walked right in, but when I left there was a huge line for vacating seats.

Stylistically, the solo piano marathon was an interesting programming mix of classical, jazz, and even Broadway. Unfortunately I had to leave before Anat Fort played. She was the artist I was most interested in hearing, but I was happy to see her scheduled for the high-profile concluding hour.

One particular surprise was the first pianist, stage composer Stephen Flaherty. His set began with some of his compositions, which were actually quite memorable, followed by a nice pseudo-stride rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” concluding with some music from his Broadway show Ragtime, which incorporated traditional show tune composition with stride and rags. His set would adapt well for one of Birdland’s Broadway nights.

On the jazz side, Jonathan Batiste performed the standout set. Actually mixing in a little classical to please his teacher in attendance, Batiste still had the audience clapping and even scatting on cue. Both his technique and his ability to control an audience were impressive.

A cool aspect of the marathon was that the throngs who fought their way in were probably exposed to some music they would not ordinarily hear. They heard Michael Reisman perform his transcriptions of Philip Glass’s new soundtrack for Dracula. It was Philip Glassy, sounding basically like a dark and moody soundtrack. Some more challenging jazz came from Vijay Iyer with his funky yet adventurous “Blues for Sun Ra.” He also almost made Lennon’s “Imagine” sound interesting (sorry for the heresy, but the tune is just dull, maudlin, and moralistic).

Merkin had to be delighted with the overflowing crowd to launch their new season. I hope Fort and Batiste also expand their fan-bases as a result.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Chasing the Rising Sun

Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song
By Ted Anthony
Simon & Schuster

Eric Burdon of the Animals did not write “The House of the Rising Sun.” Hopefully, you already knew that. Neither did Lead Belly, Josh White, Nina Simone, or the multitude of recording artists who have put their personal stamps on the song, (or at least took a stab at it). The song about the archetypal bordello in New Orleans (some still consider it a prison), claims a special place in the collective cultural consciousness. It was powerful enough to draw author Ted Anthony into his own grail quest for the source of the traditional song, a pursuit he documents in Chasing the Rising Sun.

The actual genesis of “Rising Sun” remains obscure, despite Anthony’s sleuthing through “The Village,” his metaphor for the Ozarks, Piedmonts, and Appalachian hills and hollows where: “magic and music blend—British balladry, old-time hymnody, early Tin Pan Alley song-writing, and West African field hollers” would form the roots of country music and co-mingle with the blues. (p. 11) Anthony uses terms like “malleability” to describe the song, as it makes its way from Appalachia to the British folk-rock boom, via song-hunter Alan Lomax. For instance, Anthony describes Lead Belly’s rendition, sounding worlds removed from the Animals’ best known version:

“The earliest recording I can find [of Lead Belly] dates to February 1944 and sounds like a ghost, imported straight from a raucous barrelhouse in the last decade of the 1800s. No feeling of lament here; the guitar is upbeat and insolent and teases slyly as it opens the song.” (p. 76)

One intriguing version even put the Rising Sun in Brooklyn and explicitly links it with the clap—let’s hear that BK pride. Anthony puts it nicely into context:

“No subtlety there. No metaphor. No euphemistic mention of ‘hell’s eternal brink.’ It’s pretty straightforward: Here’s the Rising Sun, and here’s gonorrhea.” (p. 120)

While Chasing belongs to the relatively new genre of song biography, joining the ranks of books like David Margolick’s Strange Fruit, Anthony’s authorial voice is always very much at the forefront. At times that works, as when he meets and befriends the surviving family of Georgia Turner, the Middlesboro, Kentucky teenager who first sang the song for Lomax in 1937. Sometimes though, Anthony shows a tendency for getting up on the soapbox, as when he complains of: “the feeling of losing my own story, of being sucked up by corporate narratives and becoming a cog in the churning machine of story-driven capitalism that has consumed our country.” (p. 123)

Yikes, that is preachy. It is part of a distracting account of self-described blue-stater Anthony’s visit to the red state amusement park Silver Dollar City. It should have been cut, as it does a disservice to Anthony, who otherwise displays great sensitivity for the residents of “The Village” and the offensive “hillbilly” stereotypes they have been saddled under.

Chasing’s best asset is the song itself, which conjures up hazy imagery that never fails to intrigue, and keeps popping up Zelig-like in the most unlikely corners. Recent archeological discoveries that suggest there may have actually been a house in New Orleans they called the Rising Sun only add to the interest. Anthony reprints a tantalizingly vague advertisement in an 1821 New Orleans newspaper which assures patrons: “Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive Servants. The bar will be supplied with genuine good Liquors.” (p. 222)

Anthony is up-front with readers from the beginning that he was unable to trace “Rising Sun” to its original source. Yet somehow reading his history, we come to want the Rising Sun to exist somewhere out of time: a Xanadu, a stately pleasure dome, where Stagger Lee, Tom Dooley, and the giant and the dwarf from Twin Peaks hobnob with all manner of exotic women of the night. (New Orleans is surely as good as any city to host such an establishment.)

Anthony probably should have stepped back from his narrative more, intruding only during moments of real drama, as when he plays the Lomax recording for Turner’s family. Still he deserves credit for making his song obsession infectious and tracking down some fascinating leads into under-explored realms of musical history.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Culture of Complaint in Manhattan Plaza

New York suffers from a complex web of convoluted and counter-productive housing regulations which hurt most the ones they are supposed to help. Since they are not likely to change soon, affordable housing is scarce. Those who have a good lease will go to great lengths to hang on to it. For one musician, that has meant a serious curtailing of his practice time.

Dave Schnitter is a one-time Jazz Messenger living in Manhattan Plaza, a housing complex built as a performing artist colony. Despite an official building policy stating: "personal rehearsal in apartments should end by 10 p.m.," Schnitter has been completely prohibited from practicing in his apartment and threatened with eviction because of some noise complaints from three neighbors.

Schnitter’s predicament has been brewing for some months (getting coverage in the local media in late October), but based on the bulletins I have seen recently, things must be coming to a head. More than anything, this underscores the corrosive effect of our litigious grievance culture. Instead of knocking on Schnitter’s door and discussing the problem like reasonable neighbors, they file an official complaint. If they had politely explained that due to an acoustical anomaly his practice sessions were coming through the walls loud and clear, I imagine Schnitter would have been happy to explore sound-proofing options—out of neighborly respect and to forestall more serious proceedings. Now he has to dig in and protect his rights.

As a result, Schnitter has been banished to the basement practice room (only available to tenants for limited blocks of time) and threatened with eviction. For their part, the complaining neighbors find themselves saying “no comment” to NY1 for You’s Susan Jhun and, I imagine, getting a deservedly cold reception from Schnitter’s friends in the building. This all seems avoidable had they used a little common sense, but that is about as scarce in the City as affordable housing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sending Out the Biggest Piano

For a while, it seemed like clubby fusions of jazz and house/techno/and-so-on was the sound of the future. Since then, that wave has ebbed and flowed, but Grand Pianoramax may represent a crest. The driving force behind the group is pianist/keyboardist Leo Tardin, the winner of first Montreux Jazz Festival Piano Solo Competition. Blending jazz with rap, house, and chill-out music, Grand Pianoramax sounds like a studio phenomenon, but they consider themselves a live band. Last night, Tardin launched his forthcoming Obliq Sound CD The Biggest Piano in Town at MI-5, a funky downtown venue, where it was interesting to hear some of the new tunes in a live context.

Releasing February 19, Biggest Piano covers a fair amount of stylistic ground (a full review will go up when the CD is on-sale). While GP does some more chill music-oriented tunes like “Tempest” on the CD, last night’s set was dominated by Tardin’s big synthesizer sound, appropriate for the loud party atmosphere.

Tardin in a way brings to mind the late, great Joe Zawinul, one of the few jazz pianists who were always a welcome sight behind a bank of keyboards. Despite their omnipresence in the 1970’s, and their continued use in sessions, keyboards have not exactly been embraced by jazz listeners. Perhaps Tardin the keyboard player will break through with jazz fans in that sense, like Zawinul or Herbie Hancock, while pursuing his hyphenated crossover music.

The first track on Biggest Piano is a rap collaboration titled “Showdown.” While I have heard many rap and jazz blends, this stood out for its almost idealistic defense of love, in an explicit tune about voyeurism (clean version available for radio). That’s why I enjoy blogging on music—to hear something I’ve never heard before. Tardin and company will soon be hitting the road, touring in support of the CD and opening for Maceo Parker, so it will be interesting to hear how well they build their crossover audience.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Opening Next Week: Shoot Down

Armando Alejandre, Jr., Carlos Costa, Mario M. De La Peña, and Pablo Morales can no longer speak out against Cuban oppression themselves, but a new documentary tells their story. On February 24th, 1996, they were aboard two American planes deliberately shot down by Cuba MiG’s in international airspace. Springing into action, the Clinton Administration issued a series of strongly worded statements, and then proceeded to sweep the matter under the rug. Now the entire episode and its consequences are examined in-depth by Shoot Down (trailer here), a surprisingly even-handed new documentary opening in many cities next Friday.

The four men were part of Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR), an organization created to fly missions of mercy, patrolling for refugees in the Straights of Florida. It was estimated when BTTR was founded, only one in four Cubans who set out for Florida on ramshackle rafts would survive the journey. While their primary purpose was humanitarian, they would pass along observations of suspicious behavior to the Customs Service. Indeed, experts from Customs, the Atlantic Command, and Richard Nuccio, Clinton’s special advisor on Cuba, all praise BTTR’s initial efforts in early interview segments.

Basically, BTTR would spot survivors, drop down emergency water and supplies, and notify the Coast Guard to pick them up. However, their raison d'être was cut out from under them by the Clinton Administration. Nuccio explains: “From one day to the next, by a decision of Pres. Clinton, Cubans were no longer political refugees. They were now to be treated like refugees from any other country in the world.” He later adds: “This was the biggest change in the relationship between the United States government and the people of Cuba since the revolution itself had occurred, and it was made, frankly, without a lot of thought.”

With the change of law, BTTR could still offer emergency assistance, but the Coast Guard was now forced by law to return refugees to Cuba unless they could offer concrete proof they would face retribution on their return. Shoot Down documents how frustration with this policy led BTTR to some, the film argues, ill-advised ventures into Cuban airspace, even dropping leaflets over Havana during one flight. In truth, the filmmakers seem to have little love for BTTR co-founder Jose Basulto (at least during the final BTTR missions), but far less for the bearded dictator and his enforcers. Their treatment of BTTR’s more activist missions might be seen to reflect a bias that could prove controversial. (Ultimately, BTTR were men of action, looking for ways to help, but feeling powerless to do so because of an arbitrary decision made in Washington.)

Truly, director Cristina Khuly does not gloss over the arguably provocative nature of some of these flights, including the fateful flight on the 24th. This is all the more striking since her uncle was one of the four killed by the Cuban military. However, watching Shoot Down will give a complete step-by-step understanding of what happened during the incident. It is clear the two planes were shot down without any warning, well within international airspace. As an American University professor concludes, shooting down unarmed civilian aircraft, without warning or legitimate provocation, is never acceptable, regardless of whose airspace they might be flying in.

Perhaps no participant personifies the inner conflict of Shoot Down more than Nuccio, who seems plagued by regret, equally pained by decisions of his own administration and what he considered the intractable nature of Basulto. Conversely, Maggie Alejandre Khuly becomes the moral conscience of Shoot Down. She dismisses various conspiracy theories and criticizes Basulto for his recklessness. Yet she refuses to let that lessen the culpability Castro’s regime, stating emphatically: “the responsibility for this rests squarely on the Cuban government.”

Ms. Khuly is an inspiring figure, who would extract a small measure of justice from the rogue state. Unfortunately, she found little enthusiasm for her efforts from the administration, which displayed a strong desire to forget the entire incident. That is one reason Shoot Down is an important film—all the more so given its even-handed, rational presentation of the facts. Shoot Down also refocuses attention on the four men murdered on that day, who as part of BTTR helped save an estimated 5,000 lives. out.

To parse its biases, Shoot Down does represent BTTR as reckless in later missions, but does not ameliorate the guilt of Castro and his minions in the murder of the 24th. Some commentators do suggest taking steps to normalize relations, but it is not an overriding issue in the film. More than anything, it is Clinton whose image suffers, as it becomes clear he never cared about the fate of the Cuban people.

It is a thorough, uncompromising political documentary, which provides a valuable lesson in recent history. The film opens widely throughout Florida next Friday (as one would expect), but will also be playing in Houston (AMC Studio 30), DC (AMC Hoffman Center), LA (Mann Beverly Center), Chicago (AMC South Barrington), and other select cities. It is well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Revolutionary Yawn

Given bassist Charlie Haden’s reputation for extremist politics, an interview titled “The Mind of a Revolutionary” in this month’s Downbeat conjures up expectations for some bomb-throwing from the composer of “Chairman Mao” and “Song for Che.” Surprisingly, it is a rather tepid in terms of political rhetoric, as it focuses almost solely on revolutions of a musical nature (perhaps the Democracy Now crowd will cry bait-and-switch).

Interviewed by a star-struck Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus, the printed feature is dominated by discussions of Ornette Coleman’s music, and Haden’s insights here are quite valuable and well worth publishing and reading. Only late in the printed interview does Iverson prompt a political statement:

Iverson: . . . I heard that in Litchfield you called for impeachment to the audience.
Haden: I sure did.”

Yawn. Unfortunately, belief that your personal political convictions should take precedence over the results of a democratic election qualify as pretty tame language from the hard left these days. Regardless, it was not followed-up in print, or in the online supplement. One wonders whether that was a Downbeat editorial choice or Haden’s heart just was not in it on that day.

Haden played on some incredible sessions, particularly with Coleman. However, his hero-worship for dictators like Mao and Castro, and terrorists like Che deserves to be challenged. It would indeed be timely to ask him about the human rights movement, slowly growing in Cuba, despite brutal government reprisals.

For instance, how does he feel about the government throwing teenagers in prison for the crime of wearing white bracelets? How would characterize Vaclav Havel’s work on behalf of Cuban democracy advocates? His reaction to the recent awarding of the German Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt Medal for human rights to the Cuban political prisoners Dr. Oscar Biscet and Normando Hernandez would be particularly telling. However, Iverson, obviously in awe of the bassist, was hardly the interviewer to raise tough questions. The fact remains it is one of the more pleasant Haden interviews published.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Where Have You Gone Simas Kudirka?

Should we learn from past wars or bury our heads in the sand? Collectively, many in the West are choosing the latter option as many watershed events of the Cold War have fallen through the memory hole. An example would be the attempted defection of Lithuanian sailor Simas Kudirka, scandalously returned to the Soviets on the orders of clueless senior Coast Guard Officers. Anyone looking to raise their blood pressure is invited to read Tom Dunlop’s detailed account of the affair in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine (the incident occurred off their coast).

The event was actually dramatized in an award winning television film, which frustratingly has never been available on home video. (Yes, this is another reissue fishing post, and any DVD lines out there are invited to bite.) For a TV movie, The Defection of Simas Kudirka boasted a more than respectable cast, including Donald Pleasance, Richard Jordan, and Alan Arkin as Kudirka. Veteran television director David Lowell Rich won an Emmy for Defection, as did the editor John Martinelli. Pleasance was also nominated, as were soundtrack composer David Shire and writer Bruce Feldman.

I have never seen Defection—see above—but it sounds like a strong production. Why has there been no home video life? One Cape Cod blogger argues the 1978 tele-pic was a contributing factor in the rise of President Reagan and his peace-through-strength foreign policy. That seems to bestow exaggerated significance on the film, but would certainly explain Hollywood’s lack of reissue enthusiasm for Defection. The post also makes interesting reading for the credit it gives Pres. Ford for arranging Kudirka’s release.

Thanks to that high level intervention, Kudirka was finally allowed to immigrate to America. According to Dunlop he was far from a cooperative prisoner, participating in: “a series of protests, hunger strikes, work stoppages, and attempts to alert the West to conditions in Soviet prisons.” They were probably happy to be well rid of him. While living in America, he would write his memoirs with screenwriter Feldman, but eventually returned to Lithuania after the collapse of Communism.

These stories are important to study. They are not distant skirmishes from the War of 1812, but critical events of the defining conflict of most of our lifetimes. Their implications are not simply academic either, as Russia seems to be spoiling for a rematch. It is important to know the nature of the neo-Soviets and the Soviets before them.

That the Coast Guard’s district commander, Admiral William B. Ellis, could force a defector seeking freedom back into Soviet hands is deeply troubling years after the fact. That he could seriously state in justification of his decisions: “I didn’t, and I still don’t, feel there [are] any facts that the Russians go around killing people,” is beyond belief, particularly in light of the published testimony of dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Bukovsky that were then coming to light, not to mention Kruschev’s revelations of Stalin’s Great Terror. That is why the lessons of the Cold War must be studied, and a little reissue love for Simas Kudirka would be a welcome start.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Let It Go

It looks like the liner photos for Jon Regen’s new CD, Let It Go, were shot at the surprisingly photogenic Steinway & Sons piano factory in Queens. It would make sense, since Regen is a Steinway artist, like his early mentor, Kenny Barron. While Regen often records in a singer-songwriter bag, he has deep jazz roots, which he pays tribute to in this month’s Keyboard magazine with a profile of Barron. Regen writes: “Even after years of listening to the liturgy of jazz piano, hearing Kenny for the first time changed everything for me.”

Barron stressed the need for flexibility with his students, and Regen appears to have taken that to heart, as Let It Go, is a melodic set of vocal pop tunes, seasoned with jazz accents. Fortunately, Regen has the chops for it. His voice is strong and clear, with a slight edge for character. (While it is well suited to his songs, it would be interesting to hear him try a hoary old blues standard sometime.)

The title track is a great opener, with the piano and drums really jumping out of the speakers (the audio engineers out there should approve). It is a bit unusual to hear a song of female empowerment written from a sympathetic male perspective, but Regen delivers the lyrics convincingly, and his piano gives it a great driving vibe.

The next track, “It’s Alright By Me,” suggests a Randy Newman influence. As a serenade for a quirky courtship, it really sounds tailor-made for a film soundtrack. Again, Regen’s vocal interpretation comes across honestly, and the mix of piano and organ is always a great combination.

Andy Summers, one of several high profile guests on LIG, is of course best known as a member of the Police. However, in his solo work he has recorded jazz, so it makes sense he could relate to Regen’s pop vocal/jazz crossover music. He lends of his guitar to “Close to Me,” which thematically recalls “Every Breath You Take,” but is less stalkerish.

Another well known artist joining Regen is Martha Wainwright, adding subtle backing vocals on the heartfelt “I Come Undone.” Throughout LIG, loss and hope alternate as themes in Regen’s songs. While “Undone” is most definitely conveys the former, a tune like “Better Days” nicely expresses the latter. Regen’s jazz roots peak out occasionally too. He plays a brief instrumental solo fittingly called “Interlude,” and “Disappear,” has some space for piano statements.

I may be a jazz person more than a pop person (safe understatement) but I do get to a number of Broadway shows, so I feel comfortable giving Regen credit as a songwriter. He has crafted some catchy melodies with some memorable lyrics. I have often found myself humming the title track over the last week or so. It should definitely appeal to fans of his songwriting influences, like Newman and Bruce Hornsby.

(Note: Regen will play the Highline Ballroom 1/30 before leaving on a European tour.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Hidden Listener

Discovering the Hidden Listener: An Assessment of Radio Liberty and Western Broadcasting to the USSR During the Cold War
By R. Eugene Parta
Hoover Institution Press

Few broadcasters were as beloved by their listeners, as was Willis Conover, yet he was nearly unknown in his own country. As the host of Voice of America’s Music USA program, Conover brought jazz and the great American songbook to listeners behind the Iron Curtain. At its height, his listenership was estimated at between 20 and 30 million people.

VOA attained a certain character by mixing such music and entertainment programming with news broadcasts. Radio Liberty by contrast, was the Western broadcaster which concentrated on hard news, giving special attention to events within the Soviet Union. It is the reach of these western broadcasters in general, and Radio Liberty in particular, that former RL audience research director R. Eugene Parta analyzes in Discovering the Hidden Listener.

Parta identifies the hard-line Communist coup of 1991 as RL’s shining hour. Reportedly even Gorbachev himself listened to RL and other western broadcasters while he was cooling his heels under house arrest. Parta quotes Russian President Yeltsin, speaking on RL shortly after the coup was defeated on the network’s importance:

“During the 3-4 days of this coup, Radio Liberty was one of the very few channels through which it was possible to send information to the whole world and, most important, to the whole of Russia, because now almost every family in Russia listens to Radio Liberty” (p. xv)

With due respect to the late Yeltsin, Parta’s figures suggest this was a slight exaggeration. However, for a media outlawed by the state and under constant propaganda assault, western radio’s reach was certainly respectable. Parta estimates:

“In the period 1978-1990, the weekly reach of western radio was in the range of 25% of the adult population. In 1989, Western radio was reaching ca. 25 million people on an average day and over 50 million in the course of an average week.” (p. xix)

Of course, statistical analysis of any kind was problematic under the repressive Soviet environment. The importance of word-of-mouth as a method of distributing information could also amplify RL in ways that would be difficult to quantify, spreading news through its listeners, to those reluctant or unable to tune-in. Parta explains:

“A high degree of reliance on word-of-mouth communication is a hallmark of authoritarian and totalitarian societies, where it is often viewed as more credible than official sources of information.” (p. 46)

Clearly, RL contributed to the victory of the Cold War by providing an antidote to Soviet propaganda. Parta even suggests another more material contribution, writing of the never entirely successful Soviet efforts to jam the RL broadcasts:

“At the height of the Cold War, the USSR had constructed such an extensive jamming transmitter network that it cost considerably more to jam Western broadcasts than to broadcast them.” (p. 10)

Listener is a short study, which simply gives readers the data estimates and the methodology used to generate them. Parta is working on another book about Cold War broadcasting that hopefully will flesh out this important and needed history more. Parta can certainly write on the topic with authority, based on his very credible statistical analysis in Listener. Given the bellicosity and neo-Soviet saber-rattling of the current Russian regime, his expertise may be particularly valuable in the near future.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


It is a new year, but the outlook for the music industry continues to look glum. In fact, recent indicators suggest things will only get worse from here. In the short term, the ongoing writers strike will have a serious financial impact on the many musicians who rely on lucrative studio work. This represents a lot of lost work for composers, orchestrators, copyists, and musicians, not to mention those employed by labels specializing in soundtrack releases. However, the more serious developments for industry are of a systemic nature.

Recently, radio insider/blogger Brian Maloney reported on hard times for broadcasting companies:

“So far in 2008, Wall Street has continued to slaughter broadcast industry stocks, sending several into official penny- stock territory (under $5/ share).”

Yet, he points to the continuing popularity of talk radio, as measured by Arbitron ratings. Maloney, a talk radio veteran, decries that radio belt-tightening has disproportionately affected talk formats, so far. Numbers are numbers, though, and it will not be long before executives come to the conclusion that Sean Hannity has:

"‘Music radio is going to be in trouble.’

So said radio talker and Fox News host Sean Hannity this week at Arbitron's consultant fly-in.’

In five years when every car has an iPod connection and you can listen to anything you want, what is music radio going to do?’”

Commercial radio said goodbye to jazz long ago, though I understand there are a few scattered survivors out there somewhere, servicing the Land of the Lost or the Bermuda Triangle. For the rest of the music industry, this would represent a major blow in terms of lost ASCAP and BMI clearances, as well as promotional exposure. Yet, with top 40 stations playing the same characterless songs in relentless rotation, can the industry be that surprised if they start to lose stations to talk and sports formats?

For jazz, a much more ominous note came in the announcement of Barnes & Noble’s holiday sales. It turns out music ruined their Christmas. According to PW:

“Holiday sales in the November 4 to January 5 period fell short of expectations with same store sales down 0.4%; B&N had expected same store sales to be up in low single digits. The retailer blamed the shortfall on music sales which it said were ‘significantly below forecast.’ Excluding music, comp store sales were up 0.8%.”

If one department can drag down sales increases throughout the rest of the chain, you can expect it to lose retail space in stores. Which niches genres will feel the brunt of the cuts?

Of course, the real problem is not with jazz. We are what we are. Everything else lately has just been bad. When was the last time you heard of people sleeping outside to be first in line for a new CD? When was the last time you rushed out to buy a new release on its on-sale date, rather than waiting to get it cheaper on-line?

Truly, the digital download revolution is an unresolved challenge that will continue to hang over the industry’s head. Yet, quality is a more fundamental issue that could actually be addressed. People do not want to buy a twenty dollar CD with only two decent tracks. They will just download them from i-tunes for two bucks.

Again, I would argue this does not apply to jazz. Jazz musicians by their nature are used to producing rewarding improvisations night after night, so they are better able to produce interesting takes in the studio than the more Pro-Tools-reliant pop acts. Since jazz artists are also expected to mix originals with standards, they are also better able to program balanced CDs. Of course, nobody is looking to jazz to save the industry. One just hopes our niche will not be cut any further, as they music business continues to contract.

Friday, January 11, 2008


You, the J.B. Spins reader, are a coveted audience. Dozens of press releases hit my in-box every day, announcing events and other stuff to plug. Here’s a quick round-up of some interesting things I will pass along.

The first comes via a post from Karol. Evidently a friend of hers will try to eat more than a dog to raise money for a charity. I don’t really get how that works, and don’t really want to. However, the charity looks impressive. Pups for Peace sounds like a touchy-feely hippy outfit, but what they do is really cool. They train bomb-sniffing dogs to combat Palestinian suicide/homicide bombers. This is work that saves lives. Eat up, man.

I know several people at Health Corps, a non-profit founded by Dr. Mehmet Oz to provide health education and mentoring in high schools. On Friday the 18th, they are sponsoring “Saints and Spinners,” a 24-hour stationary bike marathon in Grand Central, featuring different celebrity riders throughout the day, and hopefully setting a Guinness World Record. Guest spinners scheduled to appear include: Miss USA Rachel Smith, Miss Universe Riyo Mori, and Miss Teen USA Hilary Cruz. I’m just saying.

If you’re looking for the perfect accessory, consider a Cambio bracelet. All the cool kids are wearing them. Seriously, these young people are as cool as cool gets, defying Castro’s thugs for the sake of their country’s future. Cambio means change, which Cuba desperately needs. It has become their slogan, which they have worn on white bracelets, at tremendous risk to their lives and safety. All people of good conscience should wear one in solidarity. (I do.)

On a lighter note, I expect to post a review of John Regen’s latest CD early next week—I’m just not done chewing on it yet. Regen has an impressive jazz background, but his own sessions are more in the singer-songwriter vein. He gigs at the Cutting Room tomorrow night at 9:30 PM, before leaving on a European tour. Check out the tunes on his myspace page, and if you don’t have plans, consider going. Look for a review of Let It Go here soon.

Most of us have the 21st off for King Day, but not the staff of Merkin Hall. To celebrate their grand reopening, they are hosting a free Grand Piano Marathon of solo performances from 2:00 -8:00 PM. The scheduled artists include Anat Fort, one of the best jazz pianists on the scene today (her latest CD, A Long Story was one of the Top 10 of 2007), and New Orleans’ own up-and-coming jazz star Jonathan Batiste. I’ll be there for a while, at least (exit and re-entry will be allowed).

If there isn’t anything here to interest you, do not despair. I’ll have plenty more stuff by the end of the day.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Action Music

Lights, Action, Music
Directed by Dan Lieberstein
First Look Studios

Nothing creates a stronger sense memory of a great film like an equally great score. Take for instance, François Truffaut’s Day for Night, blessed with themes composed by Georges Delerue which indelibly lodge in the mind. It is love-letter to filmmaking that was recently brought to mind by Lights, Action, Music, a documentary examining the power and process of film compositions directed by Dan Lieberstein.

Originally broadcast on PBS (in New York on Long Island’s WLIW, but not on Channel 13 in the City), LAM combines film clips, interviews, and some original studio orchestra recreations. It gives some historical perspective on film scoring, providing short sketches of great Hollywood composers like Dimitri Tiomkin and Franz Waxman, but more time is given to explanations of the work-a-day process of film scoring and orchestrating.

Lieberstein filmed interviews with some of the top film composers working today, including John Barry of 007 fame, Academy Award winners David Shire (Norma Rae), and Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel), as well as jazz musician and frequent Spike Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard. (Given Blanchard’s participation, I’ll have to give this a “Jazz on PBS” tag.)

Each offers some real insights into what they do, but Elliot Goldenthal, himself an Oscar winner for Frida, comes across as the wittiest. He explains the lesson learned on his first scoring gig for a film of an adult nature, so to speak: “stay out of the way of the movie—just write stuff that doesn’t interfere with what’s on the screen.” Only Marcelo Zarvos, best known for the didactic flop The Good Shepherd seems out of place here, as Osvaldo Golijov brings a certain perspective as a first-time film composer for Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth.

The interview segments are the strongest aspects of LAM, especially for students of film and film scoring. Unfortunately, the selection of film clips is not as strong, likely due to licensing constraints. The only example of a universally acknowledged classic combination of film and music seen in LAM is that of Rocky Balboa running up the steps to Bill Conti’s triumphant theme.

While Elmer Bernstein’s score for Hawaii might have been Oscar nominated, in retrospect it is not as enduring as his scores for The Magnificent Seven or Man with the Golden Arm, the first jazz influenced soundtrack to be nominated for an Academy Award. As for Delerue, he is not represented for his great collaborations with Truffaut, but for Ken Russell’s Women in Love. Again, these might have been selections based on necessity rather than preference.

However, Lieberstein does deserve credit for some shrewd musical choices. Blanchard is heard performing “Levees,” a theme from the Spike Lee miniseries, which is currently up for a Grammy nomination (the resulting album, A Tale of God’s Will was on the J.B. Spins 2007 top ten list). While Taking of Pelham One Two Three may not be Shire’s most famous film, it happens to be a really cool score. The attention given to his soundtrack for Coppola’s The Conversation (another film with jazz influences) is also well warranted.

LAM, the film itself, is actually quite short, just under an hour. However, there are two hours of bonus interview footage on the DVD, which are indeed the strengths of the film. It is definitely well-worth spending time to hear insights into film and music from Blanchard, Shire, and Barry.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Coming Attraction: Flight of the Red Balloon

Call it RB2: the Revenge. Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien has crafted his homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic short children’s film, The Red Balloon (which was debuted for American audiences on G.E. Theater, with host Ronald Reagan). In truth, it is quite faithful to the gentle spirit of the original, yet Flight of the Red Balloon (trailer here) is somewhat of a departure in many respects.

Superficially, Flight is a simple story. Hou takes us inside a small Parisian family—one that is complicated, but fully functional. Suzanne, an artsy puppeteer played by the film’s only name actor, Juliette Binoche, lives with her son Simon. She hires Song, a Taiwanese film student, as her new child-minder. Though reserved, Song meshes well with their family. As a filmmaker, she is a natural observer, often framing the film’s events for the audience. Most of the family drama happens off-camera, involving Simon’s unseen absentee father, and his half-sister only appearing only in flashback.

Like its inspiration, Flight begins with a boy walking the streets of Paris, finding a red balloon strangely attracted to him. However, after the opening the sequence, the mysterious balloon does not reappear again until roughly midway through the film. It is the shrewdly observed subtleties of Simon’s family that occupy Hou. Those requiring a constant stream of plot twists and turns would probably want to scream during Flight.

Yet in some ways, it is a refreshing film. Although Simon is in many ways more grounded than his dramatic mother, their relationship is a loving one. Likewise, he adores his half-sister Louise. There is no reliance on sibling rivalry or other such clichés as plot devices.

Hou creates some strong visuals, taking advantage of the cinematic potential of Suzanne’s puppet shows, and the enduring beauty of the city of Paris. He is aided by a very evocative classical piano score.

The small cast is excellent, rising to the challenge of Hou’s intimate scrutiny. Binoche conveys Suzanne’s hyper nature, while maintaining both sympathy and credibility with the audience. Young Simon Iteanu as the conveniently named Simon has a remarkably assured screen presence. Likewise, Song Fang as Song brings a sense of intelligence to what could have easily devolved into a stock character.

Flight is a quiet film of discrete charm. Some viewers might respond to it like family, finding it difficult to like, but loving it anyway. It opens April 4th at the IFC Film Center in New York. Those who affectionately remember Lamorisse’s film, and do not suffer from excessive ADD should check it out.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Making Record-Making Records

Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music
By Phil Ramone with Charles Granata
Hyperion Books

Here is Phil Ramone’s list of producing and engineering credits at, representing artists from jazz, rock, pop, and Broadway. One can definitely see a book in there. Ramone, who worked with the likes of John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavoratti, and Billy Joel, collects a number of anecdotes from his recording career in Making Records, a conversational memoir co-written with Charles Granata.

While Ramone’s greatest commercial success came through his work with mega-pop stars, jazz plays a surprisingly large role in his story. Ramone was actually cutting a demo as a jazz violinist (with charts written for him by the great Ralph Burns) when he was recruited into his first studio gig. He would win his first Grammy (of fourteen) for engineering a jazz album, Getz Gilberto. Throughout his successful production career, Ramone frequently brought in major jazz artists to add a certain élan to his sessions. One thing that comes through clearly in Records is Ramone’s passion for a wide variety of music, certainly including jazz.

Along the way, Ramone produced and witnessed quite a bit of musical history. It was actually Ramone who did the sound for Pres. Kennedy’s birthday gala, which featured Marilyn Monroe’s famous serenade, with Hank Jones accompanying her on piano. Ramone recollects: “It was pretty imposing to be on stage with Marilyn Monroe, Hank Jones, and a nine-foot grand piano!” (p. 206) I’m sure he was really checking out that piano.

Records provides laymen with a basic introduction to craft of producing records, but it is not meant to be a primer for sound engineers. Ramone is more interested in illustrating the process of collaborating with creative talent. His stories suggest there are often times when producers need to smooth egos over. For instance, he was able to diplomatically explain to Billy Joel’s saxophonist, Richie Cannata, why he wanted to bring in bop alto legend Phil Woods for a session, so that the regular band-member would not object. He quotes Cannata explaining:

“All of us (Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, and I) looked up to Phil Woods; he was the Charlie Parker of our era. If Phil (Ramone) had asked Michael Brecker or David Sanborn to play on ‘Just the Way You Are,’ I would have felt hurt. But it was a real honor to have Phil Woods play on our record.” (p. 50)

In recent years, Ramone has made a specialty of songbook duet sessions, including Sinatra’s Duets, Tony Bennett’s Duets, and Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company. All three figure significantly in Records, with the final Ray Charles sessions making a fitting conclusion. However, Billy Joel and Paul Simon probably have the greatest prominence in Ramone’s book, not surprisingly given their success. Ramone evidently even named his sons after them.

To his credit, Ramone shows little interest in passing off gossip or scandal. However, a little sense of conflict would have given the book greater dramatic urgency. Surely, there is someone out there Ramone would not care to work with again. In Records though, it seems Ramone is able to overcome every pitfall with a little creative engineering. More power to him. In any event, Records is a breezy read, that provides some fresh insights into the artists Ramone worked with, and audiophiles will dig his explanations of his various techniques and improvisations in the studio.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Brown at the Green Mill

Ari Brown Live at the Green Mill
Delmark CD & DVD

Delmark deserves recognition from Chicago’s Chamber of Commerce. In addition to being the Windy City’s most celebrated independent label, in recent months they have brought forth a series of DVDs recorded by some of Chicago’s finest musicians in the city’s leading venues. Releases like Nicole Mitchell at the Velvet Lounge and Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble at the Ascension Loft create enticing portraits of Chicago’s musical scene. For a live release from Chicago reedman Ari Brown, Delmark went to the Green Mill, considered the oldest surviving jazz club and once boasting Capone enforcer “Machinegun” Jack McGurn as a co-owner. The resulting Live at the Green Mill effectively showcases Brown and his Chicago-based ensemble, and further buttresses the burgeoning reputation of the local jazz scene.

Like Mitchell, Brown is comfortable in avant-garde settings, but for his live sets at the Mill, stays within a straight ahead, bop-based bag. Brown and company do take ample opportunity to stretch out though, with the seven tunes of the DVD averaging out to over ten minutes. They start with “Richard’s Tune,” an inviting workout, taken up-tempo, but not too briskly. It is an excellent bop showcase for Brown’s tenor and Pharez Whitted on trumpet. Pianist and brother Kirk Brown also displays a deft touch in his solo here, and throughout the sessions.

“One for Skip” follows, with Brown’s mournful introduction. Dedicated to a departed friend, it is elegantly elegiac. Brown has a rougher-hewn sound on tenor, and his ballad treatment here recalls the Hawk through its muscular sensitivity.

The DVD has the advantage over the simultaneously recorded CD with the inclusion of “Waltz of the Prophets.” Filmed over two nights, it appears from wardrobe clues tracks 1-3 came from one date, with the balance coming from the other night. Brown at one time played with McCoy Tyner, and one can hear an affinity in their music on the slightly exotic “Waltz.”

Brown switches to soprano (and changes shirts) for an explicitly titled homage, “Shorter’s Vibes.” Compulsively propelled along by Dr. Cuz’s percussion and Kirk Brown’s rhythmic piano, Brown’s solo is fittingly ecstatic.

Kirk Brown signals another change of pace on “Two Gun V,” augmenting his piano with some funky keyboard work. Not to be outdone, Ari Brown, starts on tenor, moves to soprano, and then proceeds to play both simultaneous, a la Rahsaan Kirk, over a solid groove from the rhythm section.

Brown and his band members are great musicians, who come strong in these consistently crowd pleasing Green Mill performances. They do not seem to tour New York often (at least as far as I have heard), so Live at the Green Mill makes a good case for visiting Chicago. Things definitely seem to be happening there.