Monday, March 31, 2008

A Dead, But Theatrical Man’s Memoir

A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel)
By Mikhail Bulgakov
Penguin Classics

Sergei Maksudov loves the Independent Theater, even though most of his colleagues there are vain, venal, and often quite mad. Welcome to the world of 1920’s and 30’s Moscow theater, as portrayed in Mikhail Bulgakov’s unfinished roman-a-clef, A Dead Man’s Memoir.

Bulgakov was associated with the unsuccessful Whites during the Civil War, so the period of Bolshevik consolidation was unpleasant for him. Stalin is considered the inspiration for the Devil in Bulgakov’s masterwork, The Master and Margarita. However, Keith Gessen explains in an informative introduction that for a time the future tyrant “would continue to display a keen and oddly friendly interest in his favorite anti-Bolshevik writer.” (p. xvi)

Maksudov, Bulgakov’s surrogate, is evidently not a very good writer. Yet after a dismal publishing experience, his stillborn novel is bought for stage adaptation by a venerable theater. The Independent’s creative director is Ivan Vasilievich, a transparent representation of Stanislavsky, who is broadly satirized. The neophyte playwright comes to the realization that Vasilievich’s exercises are counterproductive, confiding to readers:

“Ominous doubts had begun creeping into my heart at the end of the first week. By the end of the second week I already knew that this theory was not applicable to my play. Not only had [actor] Patrikeev not begun to present his bouquet, write his letter and make his declaration of love any better. Oh no! He had become forced and dry and not funny at all.” (p. 165)

Gessen argues that unlike other Bulgakov works, Memoir rarely touches on political concerns, except briefly issues of censorship, which were inescapable for the Soviet creative community. When describing the reaction to his novel, Bulgakov’s luckless narrator tells us: “As one man, all the listeners told me that my novel could not be printed for the simple reason that the censor would not let it pass.” (p. 9) However, it is tempting to interpret any description of arbitrary abuse of authority in Soviet Russia, such as the absurd whims of a theater director, in allegorical terms.

Through its framing device, we know Maksudov will eventually end in a suicide. Unfortunately, Bulgakov never finished Memoir, deferring work on it in favor of completing Master. He died shortly thereafter. As a result, we will never know what humiliation finally led to Maksudov’s demise, but we can probably assume it had something to do with a fateful scene Maksudov often expresses his emotional attachment to:

“I had wanted people to hear the terrible song of the accordion on the bridge as the patch of blood spread across the snow in the moonlight. I had wanted people to see my black snow.” (p. 158)

Despite all of Maksudov’s disappointments, Memoir is actually a love letter to theater, which ought to be stocked in the specialty bookstores in New York’s theater district. This new translation is particularly readable and the introduction and notes nicely clarify the historical context, well serving Stalin’s “favorite anti-Bolshevik writer.”

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Remembering Chris Anderson

We throw around terms like “musician’s musician” all the time, but it really did apply to Chris Anderson. The inventive pianist, best known as an early teacher of Herbie Hancock, will be remembered at a memorial in St. Peter’s Monday night at 7:00.

St. Peter’s was the sight for a rather amazing performance by Anderson some years ago. It was a benefit concert for the ailing Billy Higgins, whom Anderson had played with on one of his all too rare recording dates. Anderson was blind and suffered from brittle bone disease, which limited his touring. Getting to hear him take flight was a treat that night, so his colleagues let him keep playing, throwing their schedule out the window.

Given the scarcity of his recordings, I never understood why Inverted Image on Riverside’s Jazzland label has yet to be reissued. With Philly Joe Jones and Walter Perkins sharing the drum chair and Bill Lee (father of Spike) on bass, it is a beautiful trio session that would probably sell well, at least among his many musician admirers.

Those friends include Barry Harris, Richard Wyands, Larry Willis, Harold Mabern, and George Coleman, who will celebrate Anderson’s life and music tomorrow night. There are some Anderson recordings available, which are definitely recommended. However, he was best heard live, so those who heard him that night at St. Peter’s and sometime later at the Jazz Gallery were indeed fortunate.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Jazz Score: Odds Against Tomorrow

Two of director Robert Wise’s great “issue” movies feature great jazz soundtracks and will be screened during MoMA’s Jazz Score retrospective. The first is I Want to Live!, his capital punishment drama. The second is Odds Against Tomorrow, a grimly naturalistic film noir indictment of racism.

Ed Begley is Dave Burke, an ex-cop looking to make a quick score. To take down a sleepy upstate bank, he hires Earl Slater, a racist ex-con with anger management issues and Johnny Ingram, an African-American jazz musician deep in debt to the mob. Conflict will be unavoidable.

Robert Ryan plays Slater—exactly the kind of role he specialized in—a man bitter at a world he thinks owes him a living. Unable to hold a job, Slater’s girlfriend, played somewhat over the top by Shelley Winters, tries to control him through her purse strings, which only increases his resentment. Harry Belafonte is the suave, sophisticated Ingram, whose weakness for horses threatens the security of his estranged family. Due to their dire economic circumstances, they both agree to Burke’s caper. However, the perfectly planned score is needlessly undone by Slater’s fatal racism in a brilliantly realized climax.

Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.

The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”

Indeed, Odds paints a desperately grim picture of human nature. In a telling early scene, Ingram off-handedly mentions he has another bet down on a race because: “you can’t lose forever.” Burke responds: “you’d be surprised.” There are certainly no winners in Odds. Burke turns to crime having been punished for his honesty while on the force. Ingram is a loving father, but hopelessly weak. Slater is irredeemably racist and violent. Together they hurtle towards an inevitable end deftly directed by Wise. It screens at MoMA April 20th and 30th, along with I Want to Live!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Horne’s Blues

Shades of Blue
By Bill Moody
Poisoned Pen Press

The fictional jazz sleuth Evan Horne plays piano. His creator, novelist Bill Moody, is a drummer. Since the Horne mysteries are written in the first person, I have sort of inadvertently conflated the two, despite their different instruments. However, given the relentless personal drama befalling Horne in his latest installment, Shades of Blue, one hopes the series, or at least this particular entry, is not particularly autobiographical.

In past books, Horne has reluctantly solved historic mysteries related to the music, while rebuilding a once promising jazz career nearly cut short by an auto accident. Each has essentially stood alone, but Horne’s personal life has formed a continuous storyline throughout the series. At this point, I have lost track of Horne’s various former girlfriends. However, notably in the previous book, Looking for Chet Baker, Horne is betrayed by a close friend and recurring character, in a legitimately surprising plot point that Moody deserves credit for. As a result, trust issues hang over Shades and become more pronounced as events unfold.

Horne has a hard time in Shades. Calvin Hughes, his mentor, passes away, leaving his estate to his piano protégé. He also bequeaths Horne some family mysteries, including some hand-written lead sheets that hint that Hughes might have had a hand in writing tunes for the classic Miles Davis sessions, Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool. Moody here takes inspiration from a real-life controversy (referenced in the novel) between Davis and Bill Evans over the authorship of “Blue in Green” from the former album. Unquestionably the most popular jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue is also a touchstone for Horne as well. Moody writes in his character’s voice:

“But there was something else about Kind of Blue, as if I’d heard this music before I’d even become aware of it. It has sounded familiar the first time I’d listened.” (p. 6)

Within the first few pages, Horne learns of Hughes’s death and his FBI agent girlfriend is wounded in the line of duty, but his trials and tribulations are just beginning. It is not all bad for the musician-sleuth though. He is unexpectedly offered a chance to record on Roy Haynes’ next album, with Ron Carter on bass, both of whom seem really cool in the novel. Moody is strongest when describing the act of creating jazz and his account of the Haynes session is a highlight of the book. Moody lovingly describes their studio time in near magical terms:

“Carter and Haynes poise for my cue and I begin the vamp. For a moment, I’m lost in the dream that Bill Evans played these exact same chords on Kind of Blue in 1959. I nod, feeling Haynes and Carter watching, and we go right into “Rhapsody.” I do three choruses, glance at Carter, who takes two, his beautiful tone singing through the headphones, then two choruses of eight bar exchanges with Haynes. He’s all over the drums but in such a melodic way, it’s always clear where he is in the tune, and more than demonstrating his nickname ‘snap crackle.’” (p. 130)

Moody is always spot-on when writing about the music itself. He has also improved as a crime novelist as the series has progressed. In Shades though, the actual criminal elements feel almost tacked on, as Moody seems much more preoccupied with family mysteries this time around. Those family secrets intersect with enough jazz history to hold the interest the series’ fans (in which I include myself). Evan Horne is a very likeable character, so let us hope he has less drama and more crime (preferably historical) to deal with in the next book.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Duke Jams

At the Côte D’Azur with Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Miró/Last Jam Sesson
Duke Ellington
Norman Granz Presents/Eagle Eye Media

Edward Kennedy Ellington was known as the Duke long before he led his famous band. Some people just know how to live and he was one of them. Jazz producer and impresario Norman Granz was another, so when they collaborated on a French Riviera concert film, good things were likely to happen. Granz later filmed an all-star quartet session that produced the Big Four album shortly before Ellington’s death. Collected together on a two DVD set with an unwieldy title, the Côte D’Azur and Last Jam Session films capture the inspiration of an American giant.

Of the two, the French sessions are probably the strongest, but both are historically significant. The Duke sets the scene with a recorded introduction extolling the virtues of the bikinis and gambling of the Riviera, as well as the modern art of the Maeght Foundation. We see Ellington tour the museum grounds with Joan Miró like two old friends. With bassist John Lamb and drummer Sam Woodyard, Ellington gives an intimate concert for Miró. Granz cleverly intersperses shots of the institute’s sculpture including that of Giacometti and Miró with that of Ellington’s trio in performance. “Kinda Dukish” reminds us of Ellington’s swinging attack on the piano, often overshadowed by his remarkable talent as a composer and bandleader. We also hear an impromptu creation “The Shepherd” and see it adapted for the full band at a later rehearsal.

The Antibes-Juan Les Pins concert is a nice mix of Ellingtonian classics like “Creole Love Call” and “The Mooche” as well as newer compositions like the majestic “Such Sweet Thunder.” Trains were a recurring motif in Ellington’s songs and “The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues” was a new example that ought to be more of a standard (it appears only Scott Hamilton has recorded it since).

The climax of the concert comes with Ella Fitzgerald’s entrance. She had just heard of her sister’s death earlier that day, but swings “Satin Doll” and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” hard. Her lovely rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For” obviously takes on added meaning.

The Big Four session is captured on the second disk, featuring Ellington in an all-star quartet, with only one previous bandmember, drummer Louis Bellson, on hand. Together with Ray Brown (Ella Fitzgerald’s former bassist and husband) and Joe Pass on guitar, they play some great music and thoroughly enjoy themselves. Though recording in the studio, it has a late night jam session feeling—hence the title Duke: the Last Jam Session. It is fun, with some wonderful music, but a tad ragged at times (particularly early in the session), befitting the jam session moniker. The French sessions would be a better introduction for Ellington neophytes, whereas, established fans will enjoy watching the Duke talk and joke between takes as they listen to playbacks.

Ellington was a true American original and these sessions capture him still at the height of his powers. Both the creative longevity and prolificacy of the man are staggering. Associating Ellington with Miró is altogether fitting and proper, with Granz presenting the Duke in an elegant and respectful context. It is great to have this footage available.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Day Trip

Day Trip
Pat Metheny
Nonesuch Records

Pat Metheny has the most recognizable hair in jazz and a remarkable flexibility to excel within various styles and formats. With his latest release, Day Trip, he strips things down to a simple, straight-forward trio, for a relaxed, enjoyable set of Metheny originals.

Metheny’s newly reconstituted trio consists of the leader’s guitar, Antonio Sanchez on drums, and Christian McBride on bass, who play cohesively together throughout. McBride is proving to be the go-to bassist for powerhouse trios over the last year, performing with Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes at Carnegie Hall and recording with Bruce Hornsby and Jack DeJohnette on the rock star’s jazz debut. Here, he meshes perfectly with Metheny and Sanchez.

Things lead off with the mid-tempo “Son of Thirteen,” enriched by Sanchez’s rhythms. It is followed by the contemplative “At Last You’re Here,” featuring some of session’s the strongest solo statements from the leader and McBride.

Indeed, it is the peaceful, introspective tunes like “At Last” that are the highlights of Day Trip. In fact, the session’s emotional climax comes with “Is This America (Katrina 2005),” a haunting elegy obviously inspired by current events, but sounding like a delicate, deeply personal statement, rather than a political broadside. (Yes, it can be done.) Metheny’s playing sounds truly inspired and McBride’s arco solo is perfectly fitting.

Day Trip is at its bluesiest with the strutting “Calvin’s Keys,” evidently a tribute to the under-recorded guitarist, Calvin Keys, a veteran of the Jimmy Smith trio. Metheny also changes things up a little by breaking out the guitar synth for a jazz-rock excursion on “The Red One."

Metheny is jazz’s current guitar hero and his return to the trio format is certainly well worth hearing. This Metheny Trio plays at a consistently high level throughout Day Trip, but the CD may actually suffer from high expectations set by the guitarist’s last several recordings, including collaborations with Brad Mehldau and the extended suite The Way Up. Metheny will probably be playing the instant classic “Is This America” for years to come, but his other originals here are not quite as distinct and compelling. Still, Day Trip rewards repeated listening with many moments of dynamic group interplay.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Jazz Score on I Want to Live!

Great movies with great music. That is what the MoMA’s Jazz Score retrospective series will be offering. I have taught many of these pictures in my jazz film class and will be previewing most closer to their MoMA run, but in light of Eliot Spitzer’s legal problems, Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! (trailer here) is unexpectedly timely now. An early, pivotal scene of Live takes on added relevance for referencing the Mann Act, which prohibits trafficking women across state lines, as is now well known to New York State residents.

Based on the actual criminal case of Barbara Graham (a.k.a. “Bloody Babs”), Live is sanitized to strongly suggest her innocence of the crime that sent her to the gas chamber. It features a fantastic jazz score composed by Johnny Mandel and performances by an all-star combo of Gerry Mulligan on baritone, Art Farmer on trumpet, Pete Jolly on piano, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Bud Shank on alto, Red Mitchell on Bass, and Shelley Manne on drums, who are even listed in the opening credit sequence. (Different artists recorded Mandel’s large ensemble themes.) One tune, “Black Nightgown,” would later become part of the band book for Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.

Graham, euphemistically called things like a “goodtime girl,” is first seen on screen sitting up in bed after perhaps some exertion. It is a great shot—perhaps the best entrance since Harry Lime in The Third Man. Shortly thereafter, vice comes knocking. “Now c’mon, let’s not make a federal case out of it,” says her “friend.” “It is a federal case—ever hear of the Mann Act?” chastises the flatfoot. However, Graham has seen a picture of her client’s family in his wallet and takes the fall for him. She thereby establishes her credentials as a “you-know-what” with a heart of gold and earns her first stint behind bars.

Even though Live completely sides with Graham, she still comes across as a difficult person to embrace. Susan Hayward plays Graham with complete conviction, for which she received her only Academy Award. It also boasts great supporting work from decidedly unglamorous character actors, like Simon Oakland as Ed Montgomery, the journalist who first demonizes Graham and then rallies to her defense. A note signed by Montgomery at the beginning and end of the film claims the screenplay was based on his stories and other primary sources.

In a twist of fate, Gerry Mulligan was sentenced on a drug charge by the same judge who condemned Graham to death, Charles W. Fricke. In his Chet Baker biography, Deep in a Dream, James Gavin writes:

“Fricke treated Mulligan kindly. When the saxophonist testified that the household pot was all his, the judge leaned over and whispered, ‘Son, you don’t want to say that.’ He ended up ignoring the marijuana charge but gave Mulligan six months in prison for possession of heroin—a light penalty, given the harshness of L.A.’s drug laws.” (p. 72)

Live might have taken factual liberties to support its indictment of the death penalty, but it is compelling cinema—one of the best examples of vérité-style film noir, with great music throughout. The entire I Want to Live! experience does offer up two object lessons Client Nine would have benefited from. First, pick up your “goodtime girls” after you arrive on a trip and not before you leave. Secondly, if a judge tells you to shut up, you should stop talking. It screens at the MoMA April 20th and 30th.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Playing the Changes

Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs
By Milt Hinton, David Berger, and Holly Maxson
Vanderbilt University Press

His photographs have graced the walls of the Smithsonian, the Corcoran, and the Denver Art Museum. His bass can be heard on classics recordings by giants like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Cab Calloway. Few jazz artists were as recorded as the studio stalwart, and fewer still did as much to document the music as did this intrepid photographer and interviewer. Milt Hinton’s dual role as participant and documenter of jazz history is richly celebrated in Playing the Changes, a lavish combination of memoir and illustrated photography book.

Though too modest to say so outright in his memoir, Milt “the Judge” Hinton was absolutely beloved by his fellow jazz musicians, particularly bassists. Bassist-vocalist Jay Leonhart always pays tribute to Hinton in his one man show, The Bass Lesson. The Academy Award nominated A Great Day in Harlem relied almost entirely on the photos taken by Hinton and the 8mm footage shot by his wife Mona for its original source material. His photography would also be collected in books and displayed in prestigious museums and galleries. Hinton writes of his dawning realization of the historical importance of his hobby:

“Some of the pioneers like Chu [Berry] and Jimmy Blanton were already gone, and some of the other greats were well on their way to early deaths. For some reason, I felt strongly about using my camera to capture the people and events from the jazz world that I was lucky enough to see. I guess I realized I was actually living through jazz history.” (p. 313)

In Changes, Hinton covers many career highlights, like his early years touring with Cab Calloway and playing on Billie Holiday’s final recording session. He also toured the Middle East with Pearl Bailey and her husband Louis Bellson on behalf of the U.S. State Department. One particularly noteworthy foreign trip was a gig in the Soviet Union at the party of Ara Oztemel, an Armand Hammer-like businessman and one-time jazz musician. Spending ten days in the USSR for a forty minute gig, Hinton was sought out by the local underground jazz musicians in a hotel dollar bar. Through his fast friends Hinton came to understand the precarious position of jazz musicians in 1972’s USSR:

“The government seemed to control all the music. Some guys who worked in the hotels told me they’d have to submit a list of tunes they wanted to play and then wait for approval. Evidently, there was a great deal of concern about playing foreign music.” (p. 277)

As a photographer, Hinton was less concerned with composing a shot than simply being prepared for a moment worth immortalizing. For instance, there are great shots of his Calloway band-mates sleeping on trains and busses. His photographs are remarkable for the ease of his captured subjects. Obviously his colleagues were just used to having Hinton and his camera around, but their trust was warranted. While his photography may not have the expressive passion of Francis Wolff’s, Hinton always seems to convey the essential humanity of his subjects—his photos of Holiday’s final session being an excellent example.

Changes is probably the jazz book of the year. In addition, to the photos (many of which are published here for the first time) and Hinton’s memoir (expanded from a previous addition to cover the final years of his life) Changes comes with a CD of Hinton in words and music, which really does give one a fuller sense of the man. Lovingly assembled by his friends Berger and Maxson, it is a fitting tribute to an artist who supported the music in so many ways.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Love Songs

It’s a simple title, but Love Songs carries a good measure of irony. Featuring the songs—some original, some rewritten specifically for the film—by French pop-rock composer Alex Beaupain, director Christophe Honoré’s decidedly European movie musical is a frank examination of troubled relationships, opening in New York tomorrow (trailer here).

A Parisian couple, Ismaël and Julie, have opened up their relationship into a threesome with his coworker Alice, which (no surprise) leads to great stress between them. (Evidently Dr. Drew is not heard in Paris.) Musical numbers do indeed accompany scenes of Ismaël and Julie’s disintegrating union, performed convincingly by a cast with little prior musical background, much like the cast of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd.

If things were not dark enough, tragedy strikes in the second act. At the risk of being a spoiler, let’s just say the threesome has no future. What follows is truly an adult musical, involving bereavement, survivor guilt, sex, and an unexpected homosexual relationship, again all expressed in song.

Love Songs is an adult film in the sophisticated sense of the term. The scenes involving the threesome are not played for pruriency. Instead, they focus on the awkward logistical details. As a result, it is painfully clear throughout that this arrangement will only cause further pain and resentment between the original couple.

Beaupain’s score has a decidedly downbeat vibe that is understandable given the nature of the story. At their best, his songs have a catchy melody and uncomfortably pointed lyrics. A tune like “Je N’Aime Que Toi” makes Company sound like a bubblegum romance. Many of the arrangements were shrewdly tailored to the performers, like “Si Tard,” a beyond the grave lament given an almost speak-on-pitch treatment. Collectively though, the uniformity of theme and mood often blurs the distinction between many of the tunes.

The characters of Love Songs are most certainly human, but not particularly likeable. Clotilde Hesme’s Alice comes across as the smartest and perhaps the healthiest. Conversely, Louis Garrel’s Ismaël appears immature and frankly annoying. That his personal relationships could be troubled is more than believable. Ludivne Sagnier as the reserved Julie probably gets the most memorable song and acquits herself well.

There is no question Honoré is an able director. He deftly stages the musical numbers and uses contemporary Paris as an effective backdrop to the story. While tremendous talent went into Love Songs, its difficult characters and their painful decisions are hard to embrace. Ultimately, it is a great sounding, great looking musical, with a cold heart. It opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Film Center.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Polonium Friday

“Who lost Russia?” That is a question that will soon be asked with increasing regularity. The appointment of Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister in 1999 essentially ended Russia’s experiment with democracy, which he soon replaced with a Stalinist personality cult. The assassination of dissident Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, via a radioactive Polonium-210 mickey slipped into his tea, served as a wake-up call to many of the nature of the Putin regime and would inspire Andrei Nekrasov’s damning documentary Poisoned By Polonium (French trailer here), opening in New York this Friday.

Initially an interview subject, Litvinenko became Nekrasov’s friend. Both had something in common: conflict with Russian/Soviet intelligence services. As a student, Kekrasov had been persecuted and expelled for not informing on classmates to the KGB. Litvinenko was the dissident whistleblower who had publicly accused the succeeding FSB of widespread corruption. (In fact, the film explains the Soviet KGB simply morphed into the Russian FSB, with no distinction made in the history of the two on its official website.)

Much of Nekrasov’s footage of Litvinenko is intimate, to the point of eeriness. Early in Polonium, the dissident looks into the camera and says: “If anything should happen to me, I beg you to show this tape to the world.” While there was independent television in Russia, Litvinenko did appear on air to accuse the FSB of committing extortion and assassinations with the foreknowledge and consent of Putin. Using his late friend’s information as a starting point, Nekrasov connects the dots between Putin and SPAG, a shady German conglomerate with ties to the Russian mob, the Stasi, and the Columbian drug cartels. He also shines a light on the French government’s collaboration with the Putin regime—not exactly a shocker there.

However, the Russian war on Chechnya looms largest in Polonium’s catalogue of Kremlin crimes. We hear the former FSB Colonel and other critics, like journalist Anna Politkovskaya (who was conveniently executed in her apartment elevator mere weeks before the Polonium incident), pointedly accuse the government of complicity in the 1999 apartment bombing and the Nord-Ost Moscow Theater hostage crisis, which were used as provocations for military action against the breakaway republic.

In truth, one of the more awkward sequences of Polonium is an attempt to explain his deathbed conversion to Islam as a sort of ecumenical spiritual impulse, with Nekrasov taking great pains to distinguish Caucasus Islam from more virulent Middle Eastern variants. While we can never really know Litvinenko’s motivations during those excruciatingly painful final honors, it seems more plausible that his conversion was simply his final expression of solidarity with the Chechen people he had come to make common cause with.

If the occasion of Polonium were not so tragic—the death of a friend—one would argue Nekrasov was remarkably fortunate in the scenes he was able to document. After an interview, one of Litvinenko’s killers actually offers the filmmaker a cup of tea (thanks, but no thanks). Again, maybe not so fortunate but certainly effective, we see Nekrasov discover his home has been mysteriously ransacked after he starts Polonium.

Nekrasov seems to represent the left wing of Putin’s opposition, so he deserves credit for including a wide spectrum of criticism of the current regime. Particularly notable is some refreshingly insightful commentary from philosopher André Glucksmann, who cautions critics of Putin’s crony capitalism to give proper credit to the Russian capitalists also struggling for free expression and democracy.

Polonium is by necessity a mixed bag of footage, but Nekrasov cuts it together remarkably effectively. At times the film is flat-out chilling, as when Putin cold-bloodedly tells reporters: “Mr. Litvinenko is unfortunately not Lazarus.” Altogether it is a cold, hard, slap-in-the-face warning about the Putin’s neo-Soviet regime, yet highly watchable throughout. In his footage, Nekrasov shows an interesting visual sense and captures some extraordinarily telling moments on film. This is an important documentary, well worth seeking out. It opens Friday in New York at the Quad, hopefully rolling out to more cities soon thereafter.

(Thanks to La Russophobe for sharing this review with their readers.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Canadian World Frontiers

By Jesse Cook
Koch Records

No disrespect to Jesse Cook, but ordinarily I would not pick up a disk with this cover. It just looks too “sensitive singer-songwriter” for my tastes. Fortunately, the back photo of Cook’s guitar in close-up is a better depiction of the contents, as Cook’s music is more gypsy camp than Chelsea Hotel. The Canadian Cook’s latest, Frontiers (on-sale domestically today), is a pleasing set of flamenco-rumba that while not exactly jazz per se, will often appeal to jazz ears.

As a youth, Cook discovered the guitar while living in the Camargue region of France. Later, he would immerse himself in Seville, the fount of flamenco. Since then, he has played jazz festivals and opened for countryman Diana Krall. His label categorizes Cook as world music, which is probably a good enough rubric for the various styles and traditions he synthesizes.

Cook has tremendous technique, heard to best effect on what he refers to as “upbeat rumba flamenco,” for which he has already achieved a good following. Frontiers is actually considered a bit of a departure by including slower pieces. However, Cook is still at his strongest here on such flamenco swingers like “Matisse the Cat” (great title) and “Vamos.” While still not really jazz, these tunes sound closest in tone to the flamenco-jazz fusions of Louis Winsberg.

Although Frontiers would have benefited from more such high-octane selections, there are some nice late-night Latin flavored pieces like “Café Mocha” and “Havana.” At times there is an overly new age-ish sound on some tunes, like “Rain” and “El Cri.” However, the rumba version of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” is a nice surprise. A great arrangement, it is one of those commercial guest vocalist features—in this case for Canadian Melissa McClelland—that really does work.

Always pleasant, Frontiers is best when Cook displays his fiery chops to full effect. Given his frequent jazz fest bookings, jazz listeners will likely be hearing more from him in the future. More often than not, they should dig his impressive facility for flamenco.

Monday, March 17, 2008

CUNY Love for Kieslowski

Best known for his visually striking Trois Couleurs trilogy, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski was not considered a political filmmaker, per se. However, as seen as part of a current retrospective series on CUNY TV’s City Cinematheque, his early films do reflect the current Polish political realities of their time in subtle, oblique ways.

Camera Buff (1979) is considered a somewhat light-hearted film, at least by Kieslowski’s standards. However, there is still plenty of drama and even tragedy for his working class characters. Filip is an ordinary factory worker given an 8mm camera as a present upon the birth of his daughter. He is subsequently hired by his boss to record the plant’s anniversary celebration. It sets in motion a passion for amateur filmmaking which suggests parallels with professional filmmaking under the auspices of the Polish state authorities. Even on that first assignment he learns how touchy things can get when you start pointing a camera around a Communist country. His boss tells him: “There’s a guy with glasses . . . We need to see him less . . . Or better still, not at all.”

The other two Kieslowski films recently aired on CUNY-TV deal with political issues a bit more explicitly. The Scar (1976) tells an industrial story similar to Trace of Stones, in which the state planning process is exposed as inefficient and incompetent. Despite the protests of the local community, a massive factory project is planned for a depressed province. We hear the arrogant local party boss sneer at “those who lecture us on the beauty of nature” and we see the clear-cutting of forests to make way for progress. Bednarz, a basically decent manager is called in to oversee, but the project is arguably dangerous and certainly doomed to failure.

No End (1985) is set during, and is a direct product of, the early 1980’s Martial Law. Attorney Antek Zyro’s ghost looms over his wife as she mourns his loss. She meets with the wife of an imprisoned Solidarity organizer Zyro was defending, yet she does not make a deep connection. Zyro’s former mentor takes over his case, but it seems his ghost is concerned his former mentor will be too willing to betray his client’s principles for the sake of his defense. Indeed, the elderly advocate eventually cuts a deal with a bogus union established to shill for the government. While we are clearly meant to identify with the plight of Solidarity supporters, Kieslowski does not to belabor the point. No End is actually quite effective for portraying desperation as an everyday reality and therefore not at all extraordinary.

The CUNY series continues with two more films. So far, it has also featured some of CUNY’s more insightful post-film commentary, coming in two cases from former Polish filmmaking colleagues. The next installment will be Blind Chance, a sort of precursor to Sliding Doors, which was banned by the Communist government for five years—always a promising indication of quality. It runs on Saturday and Sunday at nine o’clock. No End also repeats Friday at midnight and past installments often re-run at odd times during the week.

Dresden: a German City Gets Its Close-Up

Directed by Roland Suso Richter
Koch subtitled 2-DVD set

If a WWII drama is titled Dresden it is probably a safe bet there will eventually be some Allied bombs falling from the sky. Dresden, the German miniseries broadcast in America on the History Channel (and now available on DVD), does indeed climax during the devastating bombing of the German city, but remains quite compatible with American audiences’ perspective on the war.

Director Roland Suso Richter has demonstrated an affinity for projects about twentieth century German history expressing a sense of national self-awareness. His previous miniseries, The Tunnel, re-cut to feature length for the international market, is an excellent fact-based Cold War thriller about an effort to dig beneath the Berlin Wall to rescue loved ones from the Communist East. In Dresden the hero is actually Robert Newman, a British bomber pilot shot down over enemy territory and the villains are all Germans. Hardly unusual for an English language production, but from German television it seems fairly bold.

Newman (who speaks fluent German, but with an identifiable accent) is sheltered by Anna Mauth, a German Nurse who does make a sympathetic heroine. However, her family, like most of the other German characters, is far from likeable. Her father can tell which way the winds of war blow and has been selling his hospital’s morphine allotments on the black market to pay for a new clinic in Switzerland. Anna’s doctor fiancé lacks the moral courage to stand up to his prospective father-in-law. Her coquettish sister works for the National Socialists and uses her fearsome connections to intimidate others for sport.

Of course, Newman and Anna Mauth fall in love. In many ways, Dresden is a throwback to the sweeping miniseries that were Richard Chamberlain’s stock-and-trade, giving viewers romantic melodramas wrapped in the sweep of history. However, it does not shy away from sensitive issues, like the Holocaust. Laura Miller explains in a review of Frederick Taylor’s study of the bombing, it was actually an unexpected opportunity of escape for the few surviving Jews in Dresden, who were to be “relocated” the next day. To the credit of director Richter and screenwriter Stefan Kolditz, Dresden addresses these events directly in one of its subplots.

Historian Taylor also takes issue with traditional characterizations of the bombing as a horrific attack without sufficient military justification. It is here that Dresden does in fact display a German bias. As presented by the filmmakers, the British plan the attack as an effort to slake Stalin’s bloodlust, choosing the city on the basis of: “high urban concentration, flammable [sic] construction, narrow streets.”

Like the ship in Titanic, the city of Dresden is one of the stars of the miniseries. The production design is impressive, first recreating the city’s splendor and then leveling it to the ground. It is in its graphic depictions of ghastly death in the so-called bomb shelters that Dresden covers new ground, setting it apart from other WWII productions. Dresden is also refreshingly notable for making a Catholic priest one of the few sympathetic Germans, besides Anna Mauth.

The British Light turns in a strong performance as the strong, silent (by necessity) hero and the German cast is convincing throughout. At times the melodrama may seem a little over-ripe, but it sucks viewers in just the same. Throughout the film, it seems like the drama is accompanying a fair amount of soul searching regarding the country’s National Socialist past. Altogether, it makes for fascinating viewing.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Great White Darkness

The nominations for the best foreign language Oscar surprised many this year by snubbing the supposed frontrunners. Many expected French Canadian Denys Arcand’s Days of Darkness (L'âge des ténèbres) to be in the running, based on his Oscar track record. However, unlike Persepolis and 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Academy actually knew what it was doing by declining to nominate Darkness.

Now playing at the MoMA as part of its Canadian Front series, Darkness is a wildly uneven film that at least contains some creative scenes, making it a perfect film to screen at MoMA, if you are a member. Darkness has screened here and there in America, but does not appear to have secured substantial distribution yet. It does open in select English speaking Canadian cities next Friday, so Vancouver and Toronto, this review’s for you.

Jean-Marc LeBlanc has the worst job in near-future Montreal. He is employed by the Citizens Rights government agency to listen to peoples’ complaints and then tell them whatever the problem is, that is not his department. It seems there is much to complain of, as the vaguely futuristic Canada appears to be slouching towards Orwell’s Oceania. The bureaucracy of Quebec has become so bloated, the government is actually housed in a converted stadium, which makes for some truly surreal scenes—the sharpest of the film.

LeBlanc’s home life is an even greater train wreck than his professional career. His wife is a shrewish realtor, lifted straight out of American Beauty, and his daughters could care less about him. To cope he develops a vivid (and often erotically charged) fantasy life, which appears to be intruding into his perceptions of reality. Only when visiting the dying mother he can no longer reach does LeBlanc wholly exist in cold, hard reality. Marc Lebreche is actually a consistently watchable screen presence as LeBlanc, a role that spans low comedy and high drama.

Some of the fantasy scenes are amusing (Rufus Wainwright even appears in the opening sequence). However, they never break new ground—Woody Allen for one, has mined this vein with far richer results. Politically, it does seem to take shots at both sides, but it goes out of its way to conflate to conflate the struggle against terrorism with the abridgment of civil liberties. At one point, LeBlanc finds himself at a gathering of medieval re-enactors and before you can say Saladin, someone gives an ugly Christian speech advocating a crusade against Islam.

Darkness wants people to think of it as Walter Mitty meets 1984, but that would not be an apt description. Frankly, LeBlanc lacks the charm of Mitty and the desperation of Winston Smith. In a way, Arcand deserves some credit for not overdoing the Big Brother world-building. In fact, much of the impending dystopia appears to be political correctness run amok. There is a very funny scene in which LeBlanc faces a bureaucratic star chamber for some un-P.C. remarks, ultimately trumped by the power of his civil service union—remember, this is a Canadian film.

Darkness is a strange film in that despite being quite heavy-handed, it is not clear what message it wants to leave for the audience. Certainly, there is the idea that one must engage with the world, such as it may be, and not retreat into a world of self-absorbed fantasy, but surely audiences can get this fairly readily.

There is a dubbed trailer for the English Canadian release, playing up the whimsical elements, but one hopes they have not dubbed the film itself. This short trailer is less descriptive, but faithful to the film’s best moments. Darkness opens in Toronto and Vancouver the 21st, and plays at the MoMA again (with subtitles) on Wednesday.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Introducing on Violin . . .

Bassist Milt Hinton’s Playing the Changes is a valuable book for a number of reasons (review coming soon, I promise), but it happens to be a timely reminder of the oft over-looked importance of the violin in jazz history. Hinton actually started his career on violin and his stint with violinist Eddie South’s group brought him critical early exposure. Yet despite the legacy of jazz greats like South, Stuff Smith, Ray Nance, and Joe Venuti, the violin is often under-recognized as an instrument for jazz soloist, so it is great to hear up-and-coming artist Sarina Suno keeping the jazz violin tradition alive and vital.

Last night Suno led her quartet (guitar, bass, and drums) at the Aruba Bar & Lounge, sort of a hidden venue in the City, but an advantageous spot to hear live music. (There is not a bad seat in the house of you can snag one.) Suno has been playing with guitarist Hara Garacci for several years and it shows in their relaxed musical compatibility. This is the second time I have heard them live and I remain quite impressed.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the funky arrangement of “Summertime,” a standard I usually find far too maudlin. Here they transformed it into something that grooves, yet stayed true to its original spirit. They also performed a similar trick with the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love.” For some reason, the compositions of Chick Corea adapt to violin particularly gracefully. Suno and company performed both “Spain,” her favorite standard overall and “La Fiesta,” my own Corea tune of choice (previous youtube clips here).

It is important to go out to hear and encourage new artists like Suno at live shows. You will hear the future of the music in intimate settings, and in the case of Suno’s group, you will definitely enjoy the music. If you do not get to New York often, her debut album, Introducing, is available from itunes. Featuring her tour-de-force “Spain” and guest appearances by Mike Stern on the lovely “Sarina’s Ballad” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” it is a very rewarding spin.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

An Irregular Heartbeat

In 1978 Elie Wiesel criticized the miniseries Holocaust for dramatizing, and thereby capitalizing on the murder of six million individuals (a controversy recounted in the documentary Imaginary Witness). When debating the possibility of filming Holocaust stories, Wiesel did not outright rule out the possibility, but argued the production in question just was not good enough. Likewise, Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine), which examines the culpability of a German conglomerate in the Holocaust, simply is not good enough in its handling of such sensitive subject matter.

Detector (French trailer here) introduces the audience to Simon Kessler, a cold blooded HR psychologist working for a German multinational corporation. His duties include molding employees into blind obedience and downsizing those that become expendable. Karl Rose, one of his Mephistophelean masters orders him to unofficially investigate the mental state of the French division’s CEO, Mathias Jüst (the significance of whose name is difficult to miss).

Kessler pretends to research the company string quartet Jüst once played in for the sake of a corporate bonding project as cover for his presence in the French office. For his part, the CEO seems a bit gruff and eccentric, but not unfit for leadership. However, Kessler eventually uncovers a batch of anonymous poison-pen letters, sent first to the CEO and then to himself, accusing Jüst and their company of collaboration during the Holocaust.

As Kessler pursues his quarry, reality and illusion begin to blur. At this point, the narrative of Detector becomes problematic, as it is difficult for viewers to discern dream sequences from ostensible real life. Kessler’s own behavior starts to become erratic as well, even though his conscience is apparently stirring. The truth might lie with a member of that seemingly inconsequential string quartet, but it is hard to hold onto a notion of truth in such a subjective environment.

There are some heavy moments of intrigue, as when we get peaks into dark history of certain characters, but the pacing of Detector is certainly slow and its characters are cold. Those are not original sins, but it does make demands on the audience. As Jüst, Michael Lonsdale fares best, compellingly emoting a world-weary intelligence. Mathieu Amalric as Kessler is not simply cold. He remains a cipher throughout the film, never really letting the audience into his head, even when he appears to be losing it.

Ultimately, Detector is fatally undone by its pretensions. There is a very blatant analogy made between the boardrooms of corporate capitalism and the death camps of National Socialism, suggested through plot points and imagery. Such comparisons would be a delicate matter under any circumstances, but in Detector it often seems the Holocaust material is there solely for the sake of the film’s more contemporary commentary.

The issue of European collaboration with the Nazis remains an issue of tremendous resonance and could make for gripping drama. At times Detector shows flashes of such inspiration, but overall, it simply does not handle the material deftly enough. It opens tomorrow in New York at Cinema Village and Lincoln Plaza.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Wetlands Preserve Preserved

There was an interesting time in the 1990’s when elements of rock and jazz were reaching towards each other through the jam band movement. Rock bands like Phish and Widespread Panic, inspired by forerunners like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, were exploring similar musical territory as were jazz jammers like MMW and Soulive. More than any other venue, the Wetlands Preserve incubated the rock side of the jam band scene and celebrated its hippy roots. The life and times of the club are chronicled in Dean Budnick’s entertaining new documentary Wetlands Preserved (trailer here), opening in New York this Friday.

The Wetlands Preserve was the unlikely brainchild of sixties holdout Larry Bloch. He had no prior nightclub experience, but envisioned a unique venue in which the club would support a center for political activism as a given cost of doing business. During the Tribeca club’s life, from 1989 to its closing soon after September 11th, the Wetlands booked a number of acts poised to explode, including Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Spin Doctors, and Hootie and the Blowfish. To his regret, Bloch never did book the Dead—the band that inspired his club—but Robert Hunter played their final night, which was almost close enough.

There is some great music to be heard in Preserved, thanks to live performances recorded in the club from artists including Matthews, Blues Traveler, Robert Randolph, and Ben Harper. Together with some animation appropriate to the club’s spirit, it is definitely the reason to see the documentary.

However, the behind the scenes stories of Wetlands are also surprisingly entertaining—some even laugh out loud funny. We learn that Bloch’s green sensibilities insisted the club only use paper straws, not plastic, which according to his ex-wife worked about as well as you would expect. Many of the employees have great anecdotes too, like a bar worker who started on the night an uncharacteristically hardcore band played. (The story depends on his expressions and it is a tad scatological, so let’s save it for the film.)

(As for the politics of Wetlands, they tended to be a juvenile mix of environmental and anti-corporate street theater. Frankly, the coordinator of their activism center comes across as a terrible on-camera spokesman, so it is easy to tune out his clichéd rhetoric.)

The music is indeed what the club did best, and it is the best part of Budnick’s film. In addition to improvised rock, Wetlands also booked ska, hip-hop, hardcore, and jam-based jazz. For instance, jazz artists like Charlie Hunter and Soulive played the club. Although these artists are not represented on Preserved’s soundtrack, Jazz listeners will find much of interest in the film, including interviews with John Medeski, Soulive’s Eric Krasno, and briefly Branford Marsalis (who should know something about hippy music having toured with the Dead).

Bloch deserves a lot of credit for creating a great venue and dealing with the City’s red tape and regulations (one amusing sequence pokes fun at the club’s “legal” maximum occupancy). Budnick’s documentary collects some cool grooves and real laughs in a film that should appeal to those of us who went to school during the Wetlands years and associate vivid memories with that music. It opens in New York this Friday at the Cinema Village.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Marcus Eponymously

By Marcus Miller
Concord Records

Marcus Miller is part of the exclusive “Sons of Miles” fraternity of former Davis sideman. Miller was in fact, the unofficial music director and composer for the group during his tenure with the legendary trumpeter. Yet, those Warner Brothers years remain controversial with Davis fans. That combination of jazz, funk, and pop sensibilities that marked Miller’s collaborations with Davis is also in evidence on Miller’s latest, simply titled Marcus.

Miller has worked with jazz artists like McCoy Tyner, the Breckers, and Lenny White, as well as pop figures, including an important association with Luther Vandross, so he is comfortable continuing to mix genres. In truth, Marcus could be divided into two records, a bass dominated jazz-funk record and a set of pop vocals featuring famous guest stars, including Corinne Bailey Rae and Keb’ Mo.’ While the latter tracks would appeal more to fans of the guest vocalists, the instrumental selections make for a surprisingly enjoyable set of accessible funk-jazz.

As it is his session, Miller’s electric bass is up-front in the mix, but we hear him on other instruments as well, like the sitar on the nicely textured opener “Blast!” Miller sets a kind groove and highlights his solo chops on the following “Blues Joint.” There is a lot of funk throughout, as on “Strum,” which ought to be licensed by a commercial producer for the sense of cool it exudes.

Davis is represented with “Jean Pierre.” Like the preceding “Strum” it benefits from the contributions of French harmonica player Gregoire Maret, formerly of the Pat Metheny Group. He can also be heard to advantage on “When I Fall in the Love,” the straightest jazz performance of the set. With Miller carrying the melody on bass clarinet (his unlikely double), it is an unusual but effective combination of sounds.

Of the vocal tracks, “Free” featuring Rae and “Ooh” with Lalah Hathaway should appeal to fans of the singers. Each also features some tasteful bass accompaniment from Miller, to keep his fans satisfied. However, the very electric “Milky Way,” co-written by Keb’ Mo’ and Miller, may not be what the contemporary bluesman’s listeners are used to hearing from him. He is also heard through samples on the following “Pluck (Interlude),” a driving selection that easily fits with the set’s other instrumental tracks.

Despite the Miles Davis seal of approval (or because of it at that stage of his career), many purists might dismiss Miller as a pop or smooth musician. Marcus makes a strong case for his musicianship and could surprise some listeners. Its instrumental tracks will be red meat for jazz-funksters out there, but certainly will not intimidate the fans of his pop guests.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Broadway In The Heights

Welcome to Upper Manhattan—some might call it the barrio. Broadway has not gotten up around here too often since West Side Story. However, In the Heights, composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s affectionate slice-of-life musical set on a Washington Heights street corner, has none of the gang wars of the earlier Bernstein musical, focusing instead on the daily struggles of its characters. Now, after a long, circuitous Off-Broadway route, Heights finally opened on Broadway last night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

For out-of-towners, Washington Heights is a neighborhood in Manhattan, above 155th Street and below Inwood on the Island’s tip. It currently has a largely Hispanic demographic breakdown, so Heights appropriately boasts a very strong salsa and meringue flavored score, joining Passing Strange in an attempt to broaden Broadway’s musical palette.

Miranda plays Usnavi, the shy Dominican everyman bodega owner who knows everyone in the neighborhood and how they take their morning coffee. Many of Miranda’s numbers incorporate a sort of half rapping, half singing delivery that deftly handles a lot of the exposition. He also makes shrewd allusions to Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and Cole Porter.

This show just would not work if its lead did not exude an earnest likeability. Fortunately, Miranda’s Usnavi makes for a strong rooting interest as he deals with his undisciplined cousin Sonny and his unrequited love for the impossibly long-legged Vanessa, played by Karen Olivo (there is a reason she never has to pay for coffee).

The book by Quiara Allegria Hudes is not perfect, but it keeps the audience caring about the characters. Actually, the cleverest lines of Heights, like the explanation of Usnavi’s unlikely name, often come embedded in songs, in a way that makes it difficult to determine if book writer or songwriter deserve the credit.

The matriarch and moral center of the neighborhood is Usnavi’s Cuban “grandmother” Claudia, played touchingly by Olga Merediz, who one way or another figures in some of Heights’ most moving numbers, including “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith).” It vividly describes her past life in Havana as well as her family’s sudden flight, which though not explained in song, obviously involves a certain bearded dictator.

While there are moving moments in the various subplots, the music is what really stands out in Heights. “96,000” is a rousing show-stopper for the entire cast and “The Club/Fireworks” is a well staged conclusion to the first act. Even Eliseo Roman in a small role as a street vendor competing with Mister Softee gets a big hand for “Piragua.”

Miranda’s Latin music is infectious and the band sounds great throughout. It includes a number of jazz musicians (or at least musicians with jazz experience), including: trombonists Joseph Fieldler and Ryan Keberle, trumpeter Raul Agraz, Kristy Norter on reeds, percussionist Andres Patrick Ferero, and bassist Irio O’Farrill. Together they contribute enormously to the show’s success.

One of the questions hanging over Heights is whether or not this corner is a neighborhood or simply a way-station. It is hard to ignore the fact that the characters never express a sense of American identity. Rather it is their roots in DR or PR that define them. Perhaps Usnavi takes a step towards answering this question in the nicely drawn conclusion. Yet to its credit, Heights values things like family, hard work, education, sacrifice, music, and yes, community.

Ultimately though, the music of Heights defines the show—it is probably the best original score to grace Broadway stages in years. Together with the charisma of its lead, it provides a fresh theater experience, which should give Heights a long, successful run.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Music for Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters: Music from the Motion Picture
Milan Records

This year’s Oscar nominated original scores were a particularly dreary, unremarkable lot. Perhaps the most effect movie music of the year was actually ineligible, as a good portion was not originally composed for the film. While Marius Ruhland did compose some original themes and cues, the soundtrack of The Counterfeiters, winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film, is dominated by the haunting tangos of Hugo Diaz.

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky happened to have the music of the Argentinean harmonica player recommended to him while he was making the film and thought it was a perfect fit for the lead character, Salomon Sorowitch, based on the real-life Salomon Smolianoff. It seemed particularly fitting because Smolianoff actually relocated to Argentina sometime after his liberation from the camp.

Sorowitch is a survivor and a man of the underworld. As a result, he never wears his emotions on his sleeve. As played by Karl Markovics, Sorowitch brings to mind a lightweight boxer, maintaining a shrewdly cold exterior, while projected to sense of potential danger. However, despite his criminal success, he remains Jewish, subject to all the same German prejudices and hatreds every Jew in straight society must endure. The tango themes associated with his character tap into that sense of sorrow that a character like Sorowich refuses to outwardly express. The music of Diaz actually helps Markovics establish the interior turmoil of the steely counterfeiter. They also contribute to the appropriately modest emotional pay-off granted through the film’s framing sequences. In short, Diaz’s music makes the film better.

Diaz in fact, should be better known in America. He was a master of many forms of Argentinean music, not simply the tango, and was a friend jazz harmonica players like Toots Thielemans and Larry Adler. Each of his selected performances has an elegantly stark beauty, with “Man a Mano” and “Silencio” being perfect introductory and concluding themes, respectively.

Of Ruhland’s themes, most are of the emotional helper variety, perfectly effective in the film, but not so interesting independently. Probably the foreboding “Burger’s Secret” holds up on its own the most successfully, but it is hardly required listening.

The balance of the selections consists of the light operetta records so beloved by the National Socialists, which they would actually play for the counterfeiters as a form of positive reinforcement. Whatever their relative merits, knowing the privileged position some of these artists held under the regime leaves one cold to hear them now. For instance, Belgian tenor Marcel Wittrisch, here represented with “Nur fur Natur” and “Wei Mein Ahnl Zwanzig Jahr,” also recorded something called “God Bless Our Fuhrer.” However, within the context of the film on-screen, the chosen selections work effectively.

Counterfeiters is a great film, highly recommended. After seeing it, the tangos of Diaz probably sound even better, whereas the opposite is true for the operetta. Even apart from post-viewing reactions, the soundtrack CD is a mixed bag stylistically. However, Diaz’s tangos are a highlight that will hopefully reach a wider audience now.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Nice Work in the Bank Job

One September weekend in 1971, a crew of thieves broke into the safety deposit boxes of the undistinguished London Bank. Relatively few box-holders were willing to report their losses to the police, and after an initial rash of sensational press coverage, the case precipitously disappeared from the papers. This much is true and it opens up enormous holes of plausibility for the screenwriters of The Bank Job to plug with some very clever historical speculation. Opening wide today, The Bank Job (trailer here) is a surprisingly entertaining caper film that shrewdly incorporates the political environment of post-Mod London.

The McGuffin of Bank Job involves compromising photos of a Royal (which the film actually names) held by Michael X, a murderous pimp and drug dealer, who reinvented himself as the self-appointed leader of the British Black Power movement. As long as Michael X holds those photos, he is effectively immune from prosecution, so British intelligence manipulates a group of small-timers living on the edge reputable society to hit the bank.

Jason Statham plays the leader of the rag-tag crew of appropriately colorful accomplices and Saffron Burrows plays their puppet master. Their heist scenes, though constrained by the actual historic circumstances, are reasonably entertaining on their own. However, the scenes of historical political speculation are very sharply written and seamlessly integrated into the story.

Michael X (Michael de Freitas), played by Peter de Jersey, is portrayed as a stone cold killer, who has conned London’s fashionable Left with his revolutionary posturing. The real life Freitas was indeed a thoroughly evil character (background here). Again, Bank deserves credit for depicting him in an accurate manner and not watering him down out of politically correct squeamishness. One of the fascinating elements of Bank are the criminal connections it postulates between Freitas’s network, the vice empire of Lew Vogel (played with relish by David Suchet), an exclusive Madam catering to government elites, and a large contingent of crooked cops.

Bank is being promoted as Statham’s breakout from formulaic actioners into legitimate leading man territory. Alas, he just does not quite pull it off, coming across slightly wooden in his dramatic scenes. Fortunately, he is at least good enough to keep everything charging forward and is surrounded by a top flight cast of British character actors. David Suchet’s Vogel is a riveting screen villain, simultaneously scary and oddly charming in a disconcerting, serpentine way. Gerard Horan also lends some unexpected depth to Roy Given, one of the few honest cops in London.

Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais deserve a good portion of the credit for the film’s success. While Bank is at heart an action picture, they wrote it smart, with “what if’s” that are completely convincing. Roger Donaldson directs in a splashy visual style appropriate to the swinging period and functions as a good traffic cop, moving events forward at a vigorous pace.

It might not replace your Kurosawa collection, but all the elements come together nicely for a good time at the movies. Ultimately, Bank just delivers as an action picture with ambition. It opens nationwide today.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

CJ7 3/7

In many respects, Hong Kong actor-director Stephen Chow is the closest thing to a post-modern Charlie Chaplin in contemporary cinema. There is definitely an element of the Little Tramp in Ti, Chow’s character in his latest film, CJ7, opening tomorrow (trailer here).

Ti is a widowed, barely competent construction worker, struggling to send his son, Dicky Chow played by Xu Jiao, to an exclusive private school. While young Chow is surrounded by wealth at school, he literally lives in a hovel and wears stitched together clothes. Most of his father’s shopping entails foraging at the local dump. It is there that Ti finds a substitute for the CJ1, the robotic toy dog his son covets. The rather nondescript toy he unearths and dubs CJ7 eventually morphs into an E.T. style alien that seems to have some sort of mysterious power.

Despite Chow’s enormous Hong Kong box office success, he plays a supporting role to the Dicky Chow character. Until the CJ7 arrives, the young Chow lives an almost Dickensian life. He is bullied by rich, mean-spirited classmates, and the faculty treats him little better. With the exception of the compassionate Miss Yuen, played by Kitty Zhang, his teachers are cold, bordering on the outright hostile.

The alien CJ7 is aggressively cute. Chow acknowledges a debt of inspiration to Spielberg’s E.T., and one can also see dash of Gremlins thrown in as well. Unfortunately, that Spielberg influence also manifests itself in a marked sentimentality. Indeed, Chow’s hyper-kinetic Kung Fu Hustle also displayed a similar sensibility at times. In CJ7 it is all the more pronounced.

As a filmmaker, Chow deserves credit for throwing himself into projects with total enthusiasm and honesty, and CJ7 is no exception. Yet the film hits an odd series of notes. The whimsical alien scenes would skew towards a younger audience, but young Chow faces some starkly dramatic crises which could upset sensitive children.

Arguably, CJ7 is the antithesis of City of Men, in that it celebrates the sacrifices Ti makes to raise his son, refusing to use their abject poverty as an excuse for failure. Whether you enjoy the film or not depends on how you feel about cute aliens and precocious kids zipping across the screen. The trailer is actually a fair representative sampling. CJ7 opens in New York tomorrow at the Landmark Sunshine.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Miles Smiles and Invents Post-Bop

Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop
By Jeremy Yudkin
Indiana University Press

Of all the various styles of jazz, “post bop” has been the slipperiest to define for my SCPS classes. I have often heard the term used in context with bop-based musicians of the late twentieth century, who have been largely inspired by the second great Miles Davis Quintet (1965-1968). Jeremy Yudkin offers a somewhat different definition of the sub-genre, but identifies Miles Davis as its originator in Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop.

Yudkin in effect argues post bop is something of a hybrid between hard bop and avant-garde free jazz, identifying Miles Smiles as its inaugural recording. He sums up post bop in the following terms:

“an approach that incorporated modal and chordal harmonies, flexible form, structured choruses, melodic variation, and free improvisation. It was freedom anchored in form. We can call it post bop.” (p. 123)

It seems debatable whether Miles Smiles truly broke this new ground, when artists like Andrew Hill were already straddling free and bop terrain on recordings for the Blue Note label. However, the influence of Smiles can surely be granted.

Yudkin logically spends a good length of space analyzing this recording, providing many previously unavailable transcriptions that will make his study valuable to music students. Yudkin effectively captures the group dynamic that produced Smiles, as when he describes the recording of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints:”

“Three times Davis signals an ending (at the ‘right’ place after twice through the head and at the end of both ‘extra’ repeats), either by slowing down on the three eighths at the end of measure 10, or by elongating his final pitch, or by effecting a fade, apparently by backing away from the microphone. In all three cases, one or another of the members of the rhythm section carries on regardless.” (p. 94)

Yudkin is strongest when analyzing the title record. While he offers some helpful transcriptions and interesting observations on the Davis recordings which preceded it, Richard Cook’s It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record would be a more useful survey of the trumpeter’s discography for general readers.

Miles Davis has long been recognized as the prime innovator for many stylistic developments in jazz. In effect, Yudkin seeks to codify Miles Smiles as the post bop cornerstone, alongside Birth of the Cool for cool jazz, Kind of Blue for modal jazz, and In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew for fusion. It is an intriguing argument I would have liked Yudkin to have fleshed out more, explicitly describing the influence of Smiles on succeeding post bop artists. Yudkin writes on the music of Miles Davis with authority, but he does not quite nail down post bop’s place in the Davis canon.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Biolcati's Persona

By Massimo Biolcati

Feel the Bergman love. Massimo Biolcati’s debut CD as a leader, Persona (on-sale today), takes its inspiration from the Ingmar Bergman film of the same title. There might be some irony in taking a film about two contrasting personalities as the jumping off point for his first opportunity to establish a distinct impression as a leader. However, Biolcati’s program of opposing themes has some bright, energetic moments.

The first five tracks (which would have been side 1 back in the day) form the so-called “Motion” program or persona. The first two tracks are direct reflections on the Bergman film. “The Beginning,” logically enough the lead-off track, starts the proceedings at a crisp tempo. “Deconstruction” is less of a flag-waver, conveying a sense of nervous energy through the guitar of Lionel Loueke. Up to this point, Biolcati is probably best known for his work with the guitarist, including Loueke’s acclaimed Virgin Forest from last year.

“Wise Way” is an appealing feature for the leader’s bass. Inspired by drummer Jeff Ballard’s work with Chick Corea, it brings to mind some of the pianist’s pleasing past melodies. The energy portion of the disk concludes with “TT (in Memoriam Take Toriyama),” which became a tribute to the late drummer, but according to Biolcati: “It’s not a requiem, as I wrote it when he was alive and full of energy, which is the way I want to remember him.”

Fittingly, the tribute to Toriyama leads into the “Stillness” program. The introspective portion of Persona starts with a vocal performance by Lizz Wright, interpreting a poem by Norwegian poet Mona Vetrhus (Biolcati is actually Italian-Swedish). The lyrics are appropriately Nordic, beginning:

“When you disappear like a barren winter time, the night under the white
Searching for your tomb and talking to the moon, you say you’ll be home soon.”

“Stillness” is an apt description for “Hopeless Dream To Be,” which has a strong ECM flavor. The Northern European vibe eventually reaches its apex with the concluding composition, “Scandinavia.” Pianst Peter Rende switches to accordion, giving the track a ghostly Old World quality.

Biolcati has penned some intriguing melodies and presented them in a thoughtful manner. Persona sounds like a real concept and not just a collection tunes, making it a strong debut for the bassist as a leader.