Monday, April 30, 2007

Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t

Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties
By Scott Saul
Harvard University Press

It is a cliché to call the 1960’s a turbulent decade, but a musical history of the decade certainly includes many chaotic contradictions. At a time when many original American blues artists were largely forgotten at home, the British acts inspired by them were dominating the American charts. In the early 1960’s, jazz still seemed periodically able to crossover into the national consciousness at-large, but as the decade closed, its position was much less secure. It is this period of jazz history that Scott Saul analyzes in Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, (somewhat) recently reprinted in tradepaper.

Indeed, there are many contradictions in Freedom Is. Saul identifies the irony that an artist like John Coltrane, who came to personify spiritual transcendence, could be championed by an extremist like Amiri Baraka. Saul quotes Baraka’s rhetoric:

“Baraka saw Coltrane killing off the weaker music of the past: ‘Coltrane’s salvation,’ he wrote, ‘will only come as a murderer, an anarchist, whose anarchy seems so radical because references to the “old music” still remain.’” (p. 229)

Coltrane and Charles Mingus are the two touchstones Saul often returns to throughout the book. He does focus some insightful analysis on the music of both, including one of the more unlikely analogies for Trane’s music:

“Coltrane was an unlikely cousin of Gertrude Stein, who quipped that compositions must be simple, but simple through complication. He built elaborate structures, with the same unstoppable energy that Stein brought to her voluminous writings, out of purposefully rudimentary beginnings.” (p. 256)

Saul’s basic thesis seems to be the sixties were important to jazz and jazz was important to the sixties. Beyond that, Freedom Is reads like a collection of thematically related journal articles lacking cohesive unity. (In fact, I looked for the reprint credits, to no avail.)

It seems like Saul simply looked for a rubric to write on some of his favorite subjects, and at times his omissions are distracting. When discussing the community oriented collectives begun in the sixties, like the AACM, he includes BARTS, the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School which Baraka was associated with. His perfunctory discussion of its demise begs certain questions:

“eventually the police raided the Black Arts building, seized its firearms, and arrested six of those left in the building.” (p. 318)

It is a bias that sees nothing to explain about stock piling firearms in a community arts center that limits the usefulness of Freedom Is to music scholars. His account of the Newport riots should probably be read alongside George Wein’s own account in Myself Among Others, and then divided by two. Freedom Is is at times interestingly idiosyncratic, but ultimately too unfocused to recommend to general audiences.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

As Usual, Little Relief from Louisiana “Governor”

The Times-Pic is quite generous in framing Louisiana “Governor” Blanco’s budget priorities with the headline: “Blanco pushes ‘modest’ tax cuts.” Her real priority according to the paper: “more than $1 billion in proposed new spending, the vast majority of which is targeted to education, healthcare and pay raises for government workers.” Yes, some spending increases will be necessary to rebuild a damaged educational system, however, her proposals do not adequately address the economic challenges ahead for the state.

The State of Louisiana has been losing jobs even before Katrina hit. Although there are some welcome tax credits for families, there is very little her budget proposal that will actually stimulate the economy. Her best proposal is: “A $36 million decrease in the sales tax on utilities charged to businesses.” However, rather than consistently propose such tax cuts that would spur systemic recovery, which would be completely feasible given the $1.22 billion projected surplus, much of her “wish list,” such as it is, involve outlays designed to lure in a big fish. According to the T-P:

“Another $100 million has been penciled in to help lure a German steel mill to the state. Lawmakers in a December special session put $300 million in a special fund to help make infrastructure improvements to the proposed site in St. James Parish.

Alabama, Louisiana’s only competition for the plant, has anted up $400 million for the plant and other economic development projects.”

What the “Governor” should be proposing are permanent changes to the state’s tax code that will make Louisiana more attractive to businesses, not bidding on big ticket development items with taxpayer money. Louisiana businesses could certainly use some relief, but it looks like they will have to wait until the current occupant of the Governor’s mansion vacates the premises.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Metheny Mehldau Quartet

Metheny Mehldau Quartet

Those with large comic collections in their youthful past may remember Marvel Team-Up, the series that joined together diverse characters from the comic company’s universe for a short story arcs. Jazz has produced roughly analogous couplings of big named pairings for a series of sessions, including Jimmy Smith-Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard-Woody Shaw, and Red Rodney-Ira Sullivan. Following in the tradition of jazz team-ups, comes the second Pat Metheny-Brad Mehldau collaboration, simply titled Quartet.

The guitar and piano combination can be fraught with chordal pitfalls, but the musical compatibility of Metheny and Mehldau makes it work seamlessly. Together with Mehldau’s regular rhythm associates, drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier they perform some very melodic jazz of a high order.

Well sequenced, Quartet starts with Ballard’s rim-shot kicking off “A Night Away,” the one tune of the set co-written by the co-leaders. It is a catchy, up-tempo performance with inventive solos, propelled along Ballard’s drumming.

While titled Quartet, there are four duets on the disc, including “The Sound of Water,” given a somewhat exotic sound by Metheny’s 42-string Pikasso guitar. In duo performances like “Don’t Wait” Metheny and Mehldau’s warmly sympathetic playing demonstrate that guitar and piano can get along sometimes.

There are some strong compositions recorded on Quartet. Metheny’s “Towards the Light” is a fascinating composition for the shifts in tone and dynamics within the tune itself. It begins with Mehldau’s dark ruminations over Ballard’s insistent pulse, until Metheny takes over on the guitar synth. Around the 6:10 they segue into a propulsive rock beat, and then settle into an airy contemplative closing.

“En La Tierra Que No Olvida” is another Metheny composition that starts with a strong melodic hook. Like some of his best work, it is a bright, shimmering tune, again featuring sparkling solos from the quartet leaders.

The two M’s have shown an interest in cinema. Metheny composed several soundtracks, including A Map of the World and The Falcon and the Snowman, while Mehldau contributed to the Eyes Wide Shut and Million Dollar Hotel soundtracks. Therefore, it follows naturally that Quartet would include two songs which reference cinema: the two concluding tracks, “Silent Movie” and “Marta’s Theme” (from Metheny’s score for the Italian film Passagio per il Paradiso), both of which are played with a thoughtful delicacy.

The comparison between jazz artists and comic super heroes might well be apt, because feats of daring and endurance are routinely expected of both. Listeners will be happy with the latest collaboration of the M’s, and further encounters will be quite welcome.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Critics and Collaborators

The reviews were mixed for Paul Verhoeven’s worthy film Black Book. Not surprising given some of the implications of the film. There are some mysterious twists to this tale of intrigue amongst the Dutch Resistance to their National Socialist occupiers, which will not be revealed here. The film uses a flashback device, opening in a 1956 Israeli kibbutz, so it should not be too much of a spoiler to write that it ends there as well.

As the credits roll, the kibbutz comes under rocket attack as our protagonist walks back to her home after remembering the story which has unfolded on-screen. Throughout the film she rhetorically asks, will this ever end? With his ending Verhoeven makes it clear that it has not ended yet. Israel’s “peace-loving” neighbors, the Egyptians, were only too happy to pick up where the Nazis left off. This obvious point was lost on one audience member, who actually asked us to explain the ending as we walked out of the theater. It’s 1956 in Israel. Suez War with Egypt? Evidently did not ring any bells.

Drawing a clear moral parallel between the Egyptians in 1956 and the National Socialist in the 1940’s probably is not the best way to win over old media film critics. It’s depiction of the duplicity and anti-Semitism within of factions of the resistance probably did not win many friends amongst European critics either. Thematically, it brings to mind Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Army of Shadows. However, Melville’s film is actually more charitable in its portrayal of collaboration and disloyalty within the French resistance. When Simone Signoret betrays her colleagues, they set out to execute her, despite fully understanding and sympathizing with her motives. It is simply a case of tragedy begetting tragedy. Black Book on the other hand, tends to show motives for collaboration as baser and less ambiguous.

Critics who may have dismissed Black Book for whatever reason missed out on a good film. It was the Dutch entry for best foreign film this year, but did not make the cut with the Academy. Perhaps it is just as well, as it might have drawn votes away from the remarkable Lives of Others, both of which featured German actor Sebastian Koch. Black Book also boasts a score by one-time Art of Noise member Anne Dudley, featuring some swing and sweet band music appropriate to the era. Though not quite at the level of Lives or Army, Black Book is a superior film, that some people seem to have difficulty getting. Wonder why?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Coming Soon: The Treatment

John Zorn has built a reputation for genre-crossing compositions and a diverse, but dark body of film scores, collected in his ongoing Film Works series. After providing soundtracks to serious documentaries, sexually provocative short features, and Japanese cartoons, Zorn scores his first romantic comedy in The Treatment, opening May 4th in New York (trailer here).

Zorn had collaborated with director Oren Rudavsky previously on the documentary Hiding and Seeking. Although reportedly resistant at first, Zorn was convinced after screening the film. As befitting a New York romance, The Treatment is indeed more neurotic than standard date movie fare.

Zorn, at Rudavsky’s suggestion, composed a score with tango overtones, particularly in the choice of instrumentation with Rob Burger’s accordion, Mark Feldman’s violin, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz's bass, and in places Marc Ribot’s guitar. Giving a distinctive flavor to the soundtrack is the addition of Kenny Wollesen’s vibes. The result is a sophisticated, but vaguely agitating score that creates a consistent mood, enhancing the on-screen drama.

Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigeman stars as Jake Singer, an exclusive prep school teacher with serious emotional issues, in therapy with Dr. Ernesto Morales, the Freudian from Hell, played with theatrical relish by Sir Ian Holm. Whether Morales’ advice is helping or hindering his attempts at romance with widow Famke Janssen is debatable throughout the film. At times though, Singer’s fantasy interludes of Dr. Morales are difficult to distinguish from his actual sessions—whether these were conscious attempts to problematize the film’s reality were not readily apparent.

The Treatment clearly follows in the Annie Hall tradition of New York comedies of love and neuroses, with stronger writing than many of its precursors. It is not afraid to put its protagonist in embarrassingly uncomfortable situations, and it handles the father-son reconciliation plot line with nuance.

Filmed in the City and featuring a strong supporting cast, including Harris Yulin, Stephen Lang (Crime Story), and Roger Rees (Cheers), The Treament is an entertaining film. It is particularly well served by Zorn’s soundtrack, which has been available well before the film’s release on the 18th installment of Film Works on the composer’s Tzadik label. It opens in New York on May 4th, the same weekend Spiderman 3 debuts on several thousand more screens, so one will have to seek it out.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

B.B. King

B.B. King: Standing Room Only
S’More Entertainment

To hear B.B. King live today is about the equivalent of seeing Sinatra live in his late prime—it will set you back. When he plays his Times Square club, usually $75 or so will just get you in the door. It is rewarding to see a blues artist enjoy that kind of deserved success, but if you want to see a representative B.B. King set without breaking the entertainment budget, you can check out Standing Room Only.

Standing Room features the big hits one would want, including “When Love Comes to Town,” which features a short solo from his saxophonist/band director nephew Walter King. The bluesman King was influenced by jazz greats like Charlie Christian, and one can see a jazz ethos in King’s willingness to give solo features to his band members, with the most space probably given to bassist Michael Doster.

His gospel influences can also be heard to full effect on a medley of “I’m a Poor Man, But I’m a Good Man” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do.” His humor can be heard too, as he needles the audience into some call and response: “We only got a few and some of them were late. . . One more time”

Whether directing the audience or the band, King commands the bandstand, and his playing is not the least diminished. He probably plays “The Thrill is Gone” over three hundred times a year, but he still burns it up. It’s also just cool to hear saxophonist Melvin Jackson yell “B.B. King, undisputed king of the blues” as the band chugs away on “Thrill.” It brings to mind the drama of James Brown, and also how few musicians of King and Brown’s stature are left.

Although the live concert was clearly re-sequenced for video release (sometimes distractingly so), the rousing closer “Peace to the World” is a fitting conclusion. Again King’s gospel affinities can be heard, particularly in James Toney’s piano and keyboards.

For King, Standing Room was another good show, nicely filmed and recorded. Its DVD release also includes some radio interviews, in effect delivering more than the 62 minutes promised on the back jacket. Of course, the best way to hear King is live in concert, but it would be in more expensive venues than the fateful juke in Twist, Arkansas.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Denver Jazz Field Report

New Yorkers listen up: there are other cities out there to find live jazz, including Denver. I was there on a family visit and found time to check out the local club scene over the weekend.

Dazzle is the marquee jazz club in the Mile High City, often bringing established names, proudly billed as “from New York.” They also showcase local talent, like reedman Fred Hess and bassist Kenny Walker. Recently remodeled, Dazzle still has its autographed wall of musicians who have played there, including the salutation: “Bob Dorough was here and dazzled them.”

On Friday, the New York import was Ari Hoenig’s Punk Bop Trio, featuring Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman and bassist Johannes Weidenmuller. They live up to their New York billing, playing together seamlessly. While some of the standards sounded a little rushed, they locked in beautifully on Hoenig’s originals. Drummer Hoenig is an intriguing composer and plays his kit with passion and style, while not overwhelming his trio with roaring thunder.

The Chapultepec is a long venerated informal club, which has opened a second franchise somewhere on the North side of town. Chapultepec Too (known colloquially as the ‘Pec Too) is basically a tavern with a small bandstand that features well-established local talent (most likely for the tip jar proceeds). They attract an appreciative club-like audience (only the employees seemed to be talking during the set), but they don’t serve food or have a website, yet.

Sat. night looks to be the regular night of Pat Bianchi’s group, performing jazz standards on the B-3. Bianchi has some national exposure from his Jazzed Media CD, and he has a tasteful touch on the organ. He was backed up by the fine trumpeter Greg Gisbert who recorded for Criss Cross in the 1990’s, and a drummer (whose name I did not catch). Bianchi is working on a Larry Young tribute project with Ralph Peterson, which should definitely be worth checking out.

If in Denver, check out the club scene. They do have some legitimate local talent, often leading their own groups, or backing up visiting New Yorkers.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

In the Meantime

Due to family matters I probably won’t be able to post here until late Mon. If you are in the City, go out and hear some live music this weekend. Deanna Witkowski is playing at St. Peter’s (54th & Lex) as part of the 2007 Women in Jazz Festival. Her set is at 2:30 Sat. It’s just $20 for a day’s worth of great music. Also, check out the conclusion of the Bossabrasil Festival at Birdland. Last night Cesar Camargo Mariano and Romero Lubambo playing an amazing duo set, and were later joined by guests Leny Andrade and Paquito D’Rivera. The next two nights of Cori Caymmi and Joyce should be well worth the investment as well.

If you insist on spending the weekend reading blogs, check out some of the good people who have linked to stories here, like Karol at Alarming News, Rod at Words and Music, Gateway Pundit, and Hip Hop Republican.

Parading Fees

Is anyone in the media paying attention to New Orleans anymore? Sure, maybe to score a quick political point, but are they really looking at the rebuilding issues facing NOLA residents? That’s why Downbeat deserves credit for a piece in the May issue, “Disputes Suggest Hardening in Crescent City’s Music Culture,” about the dramatic increase in the fee charged by the city to social clubs for parade permits: “up more than 300 percent, from $1,200 to $3,790.” According to David Kunian’s feature:

“In the past, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the Norman Dixon Sr. Foundation have paid the fees, but now they can only afford a percentage, and the clubs are forced to come up with the rest.”

Lawsuits are pending (the legal merits of which I won’t speculate on). Clearly, these fee increases, called by many a tax on NOLA’s indigenous culture, will jeopardize the survival of second-lining as it has been known. Of course, some nutroots have blamed this policy on Pres. Bush. Quick review: we have a Federal political system, with separate layers of government. Complaints should be addressed to Mayor Nagin, who has indeed been named in the suit.

If nothing else, this policy seems like the height of ingratitude by the local government. Jazz has certainly let itself be used by the city as a rallying symbol in the city’s fundraising and rebuilding efforts. In Kunian’s piece, Tamara Jackson of the New Orleans Second Line Coalition and Task Force is quoted saying:

“We’re the only culture that is taxed that much. When the city holds special events, they look for second-lines. When we need their support, they’re not there.”

One takes her point. However, with crime on the rise, it might be fair to an extent for the police department to argue their costs of providing security have increased. D.A. Eddie Jordan has made conditions much worse with his refusal to indict all manner of suspected felons, resulting in their eventual release back on the streets in sixty days under Louisiana law. Arguably, second-liners now have another reason to get rid of Jordan.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Weather Report 1976

Weather Report Live at Montreux 1976
Eagle Eye Media

This month Joe Zawinul is graces the cover of Downbeat on the occasion of his new CD revisiting classic Weather Report compositions. For some perspective on the new recordings versus the old, take a look at the classic version of Weather Report in Live at Montreux 1976.

The 1976 line-up of WR may well have been the strongest. Jaco Pastorius was still relatively new to the band, but on his way to becoming a cult hero. Though Wayne Shorter appeared to be marginalized in later incarnations of the band, his voice was still very prominent in the mix at this point.

Shorter’s tenor comes to the fore right off the bat in “Elegant People.” His fiery solo should answer any critic too quick to dismiss WR as light-weight pop-jazz. Buoyed by Pastorius, Zawinul, and percussionists Alex Acuña and Manolo Badrena, Shorter delivers another searching post-Coltrane solo on “Black Market,” this time on soprano, as well as briefly sharing keyboard duties with Zawinul.

As impressive as Shorter might be, for many Pastorius will be the center of attention. There are several showcases for his virtuosity, including his infectious groove on “Barbary Coast” and his solo prelude to “Portrait of Tracy.”

Although Zawinul’s voice does not dominate the band as it would it later years, he is undeniably a strong presence during the Montreux set. Despite solo space for Shorter on tenor and soprano, Zawinul’s keyboards dominate “Cannon Ball,” his tribute to his former boss, the elder Adderley brother.

Indeed, this is the Weather Report of choice for many because there are three strong and distinct musical personalities, ably supported by Acuña and Badrena (who get their own percussion duet). This was a group playing together at a very high energy level. Throughout the set, one can see the sweat glistening of Shorter’s face. By the time they play the final notes of the last workout, “Gibraltar,” featuring another blistering soprano solo from Shorter, one can see Acuña take a deep breath, as in “whew.”

Later WR albums would be later albums. If there was ever a time to see them live, it was 1976-1977, so it is great to have a restored, non-bootleg version of their Montreux set available.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Prized Pulitzers

It was cool to be the first to tell some Ornette Coleman fans yesterday that the alto legend had won the Pulitzer Prize for music. Despite their pleasure to see Coleman recognized for his work, they had mixed feelings that he would now be considered part of the establishment.

Frankly, Coleman will always be his own man, but it does help the Pulitzer’s reputation. The Pulitzer board’s snubbing of Duke Ellington in 1965 is a well known blot on their record. It was not until 1997 that a jazz piece was finally awarded a Pulitzer: Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields. Some press accounts of Coleman’s prize for the album Sound Grammar are calling it the first prize for jazz, categorizing Fields, as classical, which would likely draw an argument from those who performed and recorded it, including Jon Hendricks, Cassandra Wilson, Russell Gunn, and James Carter.

Regardless of what it means to the establishment, jazz fans should be happy to see the ranks of jazz Pulitzer winners double. Nekessa Mumbi Moody at the AP should get credit for writing: “Classical’s Grip Loosening on Pulitzers?” on Friday, looking fairly prescient a few days later. The Pulitzers should get credit too, for making their rules friendlier to jazz and theater composers.

The Pulitzers have also given special citations the jazz greats the last two years, as sort of make-ups for having missed the boat while they were still alive. Last year it was Monk, this year Coltrane. Ellington was belatedly acknowledged in 1999 (a year after finally recognizing George Gershwin’s music might have some staying power after all). Next year, someone should tell the Pulitzer board there was also this man named Mingus.

Green Mill Murder

The Green Mill Murder
By Kerry Greenwood
Poisoned Pen Press

Australia has its own jazz tradition, including modernist artists like Don Burrows, John Sangster, and Bernie McGann. If Americans are familiar with Oz jazz, it is most likely such postwar artists featured in the great little documentary Beyond El Rocco. Written in 1993, but only now published in America, Kerry Greenwood’s Green Mill Murder incorporates elements of the early Australian jazz scene in a mystery set in Melbourne’s great lost dance hall.

The Green Mill held a roughly comparable place in Australian music history as did the Savoy or Paramount ballrooms in America. Unfortunately, very little survives to document the dance palace beyond the memories of its patrons. As Green Mill opens, one dance marathon contestant will not survive beyond page one.

During the initial investigation, Greenwood’s amateur sleuth Phryne (rhymes with Briney) Fisher finds herself flirting with the leader of the featured jazz band. Despite the fresh corpse, Greenwood writes light-hearted banter for them:

“‘Put on thy gown, look not so pale,’ capped Tintagel Stone unexpectedly. ‘I tell thee, Duncan’s dead, and cannot come out of’s grave.’

Phryne looked her surprise, and he smiled a devastating smile, showing white teeth. Tintagel Stone, Phryne thought, would bear watching.” (p. 6)

Their emerging attraction leads to tutorials in Chicago-style jazz from Stone, which are not always entirely accurate. He tells Fisher:

“The old New Orleans style used three instruments as the core of the band—trombone, trumpet, and clarinet—but the white bands were using all sorts of things: piano, violin, banjo. So we had Chicago style.” (p. 41)

Somehow I think Jelly Roll Morton would take issue with that, but it might well reflect then contemporary misconceptions.

Midway through, what started as a Roaring Twenties mystery, morphs into a bush-country family drama. While Fisher is an almost painfully plucky heroine, she does have her charm in what is basically a cozy, with a touch of the “if-she-had-only-known” style mystery. Regardless, it is nice to see a writer try to recapture one of Australia’s lost musical shrines.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Duo: Saluzzi & Lechner

The Americas Society makes its home in a stately McKim, Mead & White building that once housed the Soviet delegation to the UN. If the previous landlords left behind any listening devices, they heard some incredible music from Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner in the Society’s Simón Bolivar Room Saturday night.

The Americas Society and ECM Records were celebrating the launch of Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner’s American tour, supporting their new release Ojos Negros. Saluzzi hails from Argentina and his instrument is the bandoneón. As one might expect, the tango is a pronounced influence on his work, but there are substantial measures of classical, folk and jazz as well. His bandoneón merges with German Anja Lechner’s violoncello to form a striking blend of chamber music.

In an interview segment preceding the performance, the host asked Saluzzi to categorize his music, to which Saluzzi first replied, simply: “it’s music.” To the same question, Lechner’s clever and diplomatic response was: “it’s Dino’s music.”

The music they made was indeed quite beautiful—romantic but also stark in its intimacy. While Saluzzi and Lechner may not improvise in a jazz sense during their duets, no two performances are the same. There are indeed subtle changes in phrasing and dynamics, which makes it fascinating to watch and listen to them as they play.

As dramatic as their music is, seeing them in performance makes clear how much they enjoy playing together, with Saluzzi even breaking into laughter before their second selection. It is moments like that which can really shed insight into a musician’s work that one only receives by attending live performances.

Fortunately, there will be ample opportunity to hear Saluzzi and Lechner live. The tour officially begins on the West Coast the 18th. They will be back in the City performing at Merkin on the 24th (Miami on the 25th, etc.). Touring these international musicians must take quite some coordinating, so take advantage of the opportunity if they are in your town.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sounds for Silents

Can jazz save silent movies? As part of their sets at the Iridium, Dave Douglas & Keystone are playing their new soundtracks for Fatty Arbuckle shorts, included on Douglas’ Keystone CD. Like Wycliffe Gordon’s score for Intolerance, Douglas’ new soundtrack gives new life to films that are acknowledged as important (even seminal), but rarely seen.

Indeed, the movie portion of the night, at least during Friday’s first show, was the strongest material of the set. On stand-alones like “Tough,” DJ Olive’s turntable and sound effects become distracting. Despite the electronics, Keystone is a tight group that has a good groove from drummer Gene Lake and bassist Brad Jones. Marcus Strickland’s tenor is highlight and Adam Benjamin also had some nice solo turns on the Fender Rhodes.

Fatty and Mabel Adrift is a gentle comedy about the courtship between the leads, threatened by a rejected suitor, who conspires to send their love cottage out to see during a perfect storm. While the turntables and electronics were definitely a part of the score, they sounded better integrated, well suiting the on-screen action, like the driving rains late in the film. Sounding more conservative than the previous Douglas originals, the music effectively emphasized the dramatic cues, without resorting to cartoonish “wah-wah-wah” effects.

Introducing the film, Douglas explained that he was a little put off by the old-timey piano that usually accompanies Arbuckle’s films. Once he turned off the sound and put on a radically different record, it started to work for him. I suspect that would be the case for many people if they could see these images synched to intriguing new sounds. Of course, it is all the more effective when the musicians are performing the score live. This weekend (there is a late set tonight) will be a rare opportunity to actually see a good film at the Iridium, in addition to hearing good music.

Friday, April 13, 2007

White Bicycles

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s
By Joe Boyd
Serpent’s Tail

One of the virtues of 1960’s was that it seemed to be an easier time for music to cross-over categorical boundaries. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles is a valentine to the years when blues, jazz, and folk could share a place in the public consciousness with rock and pop.

Boyd would have his greatest success producing folk-rock and psychedelic bands in London, but he started in the business with the blues. For his first foray into concert promotion was as a teenager in New Jersey. Boyd found the temporarily forgotten bluesman Lonnie Johnson and enticed him to give a concert in a friend’s living room. As Boyd recalls:

“As the evening went on and everyone relaxed, the music grew more intense and Lonnie began playing his old blues. Our friends and their parents edged closer to Lonnie’s chair in the middle of the room; none of them had ever heard anything like it.” (p. 15)

Boyd would first his first real professional work in the blues field as well, managing George Wein’s Blues and Gospel Caravan European tour, featuring artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Reverend Gary Davis. Boyd frequently worked for Wein’s Festival Productions, coordinating jazz tours as well. While his own company primarily handled rock-oriented acts, he returned to jazz to record South African Chris McGregor, with countrymen Johnny Dyani and Dudu Pukwana. It is these reminiscences that will be of most interest to jazz and blues listeners.

Boyd however, became intimately involved with the London rock scene as the decade advanced. As a producer and record label owner he pursued but just missed out on major acts like Pink Floyd and ABBA. Throughout Bicycles Boyd consistently defends the music, culture, and leftist politics of the sixties. At times though, he does express some reservations about decade, particularly in regards to the drug use which would ultimately claim so many musicians. Boyd writes:

“Is this one legacy of the sixties? That after flinging open the doors to a world previously known only at the margins of society, the pioneers would move on, leaving the masses to add drugs to the myriad forces pulling our society towards chaos and mediocrity?” (p. 267)

To his credit, Boyd writes with a great deal of candor. He pulls no punches when suggesting the band members’ conversion to Scientology led to the artistic demise of the Incredible String Band. While some of the figures and events of White Bicycles may not ultimately be remembered as mythically as Boyd views them, he makes a passionate case for his music.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Soundtracks and Family Drama

(No blogging Thursday due to sales conference. Back on Friday)

According to Jazz Times, jazz pianist and composer Bill Cunliffe has scored an upcoming independent film titled The Northern Kingdom. Jazz soundtracks are always welcome, and this one definitely sounds interesting. It features flutist Holly Hoffman, guitarist John Chiodini, and violinist Peter Kent, who have played with Cedar Walton, Natalie Cole, and Shirley Horn respectively.

There are not any blockbuster stars attached, but one name is interesting: Linda Powell, daughter of Sec. Colin Powell. One wonders if film critics will punish Powell over the course of her career for their disagreements with her father’s role in the Bush Administration. That obviously would not be fair to Ms. Powell, but for the Bush-deranged it seems that no line of attack is off-limits. So far, she has been featured several times in the Law & Order franchise, which has been friendly to Republican actor-presidential candidates, even if their storylines have not necessarily been so congenial.

Kingdom will be a small indy film, that sounds like a meditation on grieving for those lost in the Iraqi War. As such, it might not be the best vehicle for such critical vendettas. Linda Powell will also be in American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. (My house is certainly wishing it will be a very commercial film since we are publishing the tie-in.) If MSM critics are so inclined, that kind of film may be seen as a better opportunity for indirectly pursuing political grudges. Let’s hope that does not happen, and also that Cunliffe’s soundtrack gets decent distribution.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Canned Heat with Gatemouth

Canned Heat
Live at Montreux 1973
Eagle Eye 2-DVD set

The term blues-rocker is far over-used, but a band vouched for by John Lee Hooker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown can claim some real blues street cred. That was the case with Canned Heat, which is documented in performance on Live at Montreux 1973.

Heat showed their dedication to the blues at Montreux when they essentially served as “Gatemouth” Brown’s back-up band for a guest set within their own set. Ironically, Brown the bluesman eschewed the blues label, having also distinguished himself in jazz and country music. On four tunes, Brown is the unquestioned leader, featured on vocals, guitar, harmonica, and violin. Particularly interesting is his blues “Please Mr. Nixon,” which seems ripe for a conservative deconstructionist reading with lines like: “please don’t cut off that welfare line, so we can live good all the time.”

Montreux comes with a bonus documentary disk, relating the band’s history largely from the perspective (almost by necessity) of surviving drummer Fito De La Parra. Certainly among the highlight’s of their story are the Hooker n’ Heat sessions blessed with the badness of John Lee Hooker. The band members happened to meet their idol in the Portland airport whole both were on tour. Their former manager recalls arranging the resulting session:

“I called John up at Oakland and told him Canned Heat wanted to do a record with him, and we would use all of his songs, he would have all the writer-publisher money. We would also give him half the artist royalties, rather than splitting it. And it was a time in their career when they were a meaningful act and they were going to sell some records and reintroduce the world to John Lee Hooker.”

There are plenty of low-lights in the Heat story as well, many of which seem to palpably disgust De La Parra. Unfortunately, the band lost several members Behind the Music-style to a combination of drugs, booze, and chaos. The first band tragedy was the loss of Alan Wilson, the victim of depression, further alienated by his new found extremist views on the environment. As De La Parra observed: “He was very, very concerned with it [the environment], which became an obsession. You let something become and obsession—it can kill you, and that’s what Alan did.”

While Canned Heat might not have been the most charismatic band (we see front man Bob “the Bear” Hite hiking up his drawers more than anyone needs to), they took their blues influence seriously. They were in good form at Montreux, and “Gatemouth” Brown was as real as it gets.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Light and the Gates

When taking stock of jazz’s sacred music this Easter weekend, it became apparent that two of Dave Brubeck’s more important LPs are essentially unavailable on CD, despite his stature and commercial success. Surely, The Gates of Justice and the double LP The Light in the Wilderness, his Decca releases recorded with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, are important milestones in Brubeck’s discography, regardless of their initial commercial reception.

The original Gates remains unavailable digitally, although a new version was recorded on Naxos in the 1990’s. Of course, it just is not the same session. The first recording is considered much darker, while the second omits some elements, including a love-it-or-hate-it organ solo.

Light was available on CD at one time from exclusively from one of the record-of-the-month clubs, but since most people are terrified of dealing with them for fear of being blitzed with CDs they did not order, it in effect remains out-of-print. Like Gates, Light is an ambitious composition for symphonic brass and choir, but it features more pronounced jazz interludes for Brubeck’s trio.

Both sessions are heavy stuff, and would never reach the audience that Take Five has. Their dated cover art does not help either. They do represent a pivotal point in Brubeck’s career, so it is still strange that a turntable is required to hear them. It was to pursue such large scale compositions that Brubeck temporarily put his popular quartet on hold. They also led to further such sacred works, including To Hope! A Celebration, a jazz Mass commissioned by Our Sunday Visitor. As America, the National Catholic Weekly explained, the experience would ultimately have a great effect on his life:

“The ‘Our Father’ was not listed among the parts given to Brubeck to set to music. When the Rev. Ron Brassard heard the completed Mass, he noticed the oversight and pressed Brubeck to wrote music for it as well. Brubeck’s emphatic response was that he was tired and going on vacation with his family. Something, however, stirred in the composer. On the second night of his vacation he dreamed an entire Our Father: ‘I jumped out of bed and wrote it down, because I knew its simplicity was working and I didn’t want it to get away from me…[ellipsis in America] and it’s so simple; but I heard the choir and the orchestration, everything.” The experience had such a profound effect on Brubeck, he became a Catholic. That very night he said to himself, ‘If this is what’s happening, I think I’ll join the church.”

A biographer could well argue that Hope followed a logical course set in motion by the spiritual searching of Gates and Wilderness. In his notes to Wilderness Brubeck wrote:

“I am not affiliated with any church. Three Jewish teachers have been a great influence on my life—Irving Goleman, Darius Milhaud, and Jesus. I am a product of Judaic-Christian thinking. Without the complications of theological doctrine I wanted to understand what I had inherited in this world—both problems and answers—from that cultural heritage.”

Years later, Brubeck would receive the Laetare Medal, considered “the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.” Light and Wilderness would be a nice collector’s set, making an important, if uneven period of his career available to his fans and students.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Shout, Sister, Shout

Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe
By Gayle F. Wald
Beacon Press

In 1998 the U.S. Postal service issued a four piece gospel commemorative set, featuring Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Roberta Martin, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Unlike the other three singers, Tharpe had a profound influence outside of gospel as an instrumentalist. While she has obviously not been forgotten, Gayle Ward argues she never received her proper due in her biography Shout, Sister, Shout!

Much Wald’s telling of Tharpe’s story involves her blurring of boundaries. For jazz and blues fans, that category cross-pollination is often attractive, but in the gospel world it can be problematic. Despite her gospel roots, many first discovered Tharpe during her time with the Lucky Millinder outfit. Wald writes of her debut with band:

“‘When Sister Tharpe opened up at the Savoy with Lucky Millinder’s band people just went wild,’ [jazz and r&b pianist] Bill Doggett recalled. ‘Everybody just loved Sister. Because she knew how to mingle with people, and she just had that, the charisma. Of course they weren’t calling it (that) then, I guess they were just calling it “show business,” but that’s what it really was. Sister really had it.’” (p. 58)

Wald clearly positions Tharpe as an under appreciated fore-bearer of rock-and-roll, making a convincing case. She quotes those closely associated with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley:

“‘Elvis Loved Sister Rosetta Tharpe,’ says Gordon Stoker, who clocked thousands of hours with Presley as a member of the Jordanaires. ‘Not only did he dig her guitar picking—that’s what he really dug—but he dug her singing too.” (p. 70)

For all Wald’s efforts to build Tharpe’s historical reputation there is an odd section (p. 88-90) dealing with rumors regarding her sexuality, which seem gossipy and out of place. While some people are quoted passing along rumors of a relationship between her and her gospel singing partner Marie Knight, according to Wald:

“Marie rejects these stories about Rosetta and herself as so much hokum. The gospel world is full of liars, she says, and it’s best not to believe the rumors and gossip other people pass off as truth.” (p. 89)

When making the musical case for Tharpe, Shout is on solid ground. Wald also gives deserving credit to her mother, singer and evangelist Katie Bell Nubin, who only recorded one album, Soul, Soul Searching, but made it count, backed up by no less than Dizzy Gillespie and his band. Most of Tharpe’s recordings are already available on CD, but if this book can help spur a reissue of Nubin’s LP (which I can attest is quite good) that would be a happy event. Regardless, Shout gives an overdue ovation to an artist whose recordings and influence straddled musical boundaries.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Closing the Book on Tarik Shah

(Note: Like the stock exchange, I’ll be taking Good Friday off.)

Two years after he was charged, bassist Tarik Shah has pleaded guilty to conspiring to aid Al-Qaeda terrorists, the NY Times reports. Some in the jazz community, like Howard Mandel, have criticized the government’s case from a civil liberties standpoint. Others, like Margaret Davis, immediately leaped to Shah’s defense, presuming his innocence and assuming malfeasance on the part of the U.S. government.

Given the hours of videotape evidence reportedly collected by the F.B.I., it is indeed hard to understand why it took so long for Shah’s case to come to trial. When prosecuting terrorism-related cases, justice should be swift and harsh.

How will Shah’s partisans react to his guilty plea? Despite NY Times puff pieces about him scatting in prison, Shah reportedly regarded his profession as the “greatest cover” for a jihadi. He has pleaded guilty to throwing in his chips with the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks, which had a calamitous economic impact on the New York club scene. It claimed the life of jazz vocalist Betty Farmer. Shah’s disturbing attitude towards al Qaeda is clear from the NY Sun’s report:

“Shah said little at yesterday's hearing, beyond admitting that he knew supporting Al Qaeda was ‘wrong.’ Nonetheless, during questioning by a prosecutor, Karl Metzner, the defendant appeared unwilling to call Al Qaeda a terrorist organization. After consulting with his lawyer for several minutes, Shah conceded only that he knew the government considered Al Qaeda to be a terrorist organization.”

Those who attended uptown benefit concerts for Shah’s legal defense would have done more for the music had they contributed to the Jazz Foundation of America—such was Shah’s betrayal of the music he once played.

Jazz in the White House

It has been a banner year for jazz on New York PBS affiliate, with two primetime sightings. After Independent Lens’ Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life in February, last night Channel 13 broadcast In Performance at the White House: Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It would be nice to see a little primetime love for Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, but WNET 13 can’t seem to handle programming jazz on more than a bi-monthly basis.

That said, the White House special was a great tribute to both the Monk Institute and the jazz legend it is named for. Benefit concerts and all-star specials can be a little uneven, as the ensembles usually are not particularly well rehearsed or cohesive, but the quality of music heard in the White House concert was surprisingly good.

Actually, there was only one Monk tune in the concert, although quite a bit was heard from the pianist during a segment of archival footage. To maximize accessibility, there were several vocal features, including the good swinging opener, “Kansas City,” which showcased Institute competition winners, including vocalist Lisa Henry and Helen Sung on piano.

Probably the best performance was from Herbie Hancock, leading an all-star ensemble of Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on soprano, Ron Carter on bass, and Terri Lynne Carrington on drums through his classic “Watermelon Man.” Shorter and Hargrove would later display some great interplay on “Rhythm-a-Ning,” the concert’s one Monk standard.

Another highlight was “I Won’t Dance,” an Ella and Louis inspired vocal duet for the elegant Nnenna Freelon and the great Clark Terry. While Freelon handled the traditional lyrics, Terry offered some of his mumbles-inspired vocal punctuations and a nice solo on flugelhorn. It was a great performance, held together by Sung’s stylishly swinging piano. Terry’s participation is particularly fitting, as he led the last session Monk played as a sideman, released as In Orbit on Riverside Records. The one Monk tune they recorded, “Let’s Cool One,” remains a staple of Terry’s sets.

It seemed like a lot of thought went into the ensembles. Terry, Hargrove, and George Duke (who accompanied Anita Baker on a refreshingly less maudlin “My Funny Valentine”) are all familiar to some PBS viewers of the first season of Legends of Jazz. Wayne Shorter served in the second great Miles Davis Quintet with Ron Carter, and was a label mate of Herbie Hancock’s during the classic Blue Note years. He could also relate to Bobby Watson as a fellow alumnus of Art Blakey’s Jazz messengers.

All told, it was a totally first-class affair, but presumably the lunatics will find something to object to. The First Lady’s introduction was brief, but apt, describing jazz as “America’s cultural treasure.” The President’s concluding remarks, as filmed, were briefer, but no less fitting, as he thanked the musicians “for filling the White House with such joy.” No doubt, some will be analyzing the tape to see if the President was appropriately enthusiastic. From what I saw, he certainly seemed to be grooving to the finale, “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”

The Monk Institute concert was a consistently strong special and a great opportunity to spotlight jazz. One can hope that WNET will capitalize the good vibe, and schedule the second season of Legends at a time when people who work for a living can watch it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The V-Word for NOLA

The idea that school vouchers hold the best hope for the future of New Orleans’ educational system is gaining increasing acceptance. On Sunday, the Times-Pic published an article, in which LSU economist Loren Scott advocated a voucher system as a remedy for New Orleans schools that were sub-par even before Katrina, and by extension for Louisiana’s shrinking corporate base. According to Alan Syre’s article:

“‘The education system is a major impediment not only to white-collar employment, but all employment,’ Scott said. ‘The same people can go elsewhere in the United States and put their kids in the K-through-12 system without the problems you have in the New Orleans system.’

Scott said drastic action, such as a voucher system that would still have the state paying for education without trying to run it, is long overdue. Although the mention of vouchers can send some—especially those tied to the current public system—into paroxysms. Scott said the first state to fully adopt the system of allowing schools to compete for students will find itself way ahead in the development game.”

Previously, the Urban Institute issued a paper authored by Paul Hill and Jane Hannaway advocating a don’t-call-it-a-voucher-system voucher plan. They proposed:

A Scholarship plan under which all New Orleans students, no matter where each went to school previously, can take a set amount of money to any local school. This amount (including funds for facilities rental) could come from a combination of state and federal aid. Far more than a voucher plan, the idea is to prompt the private sector to open more schools and thus promote school quality.”

Even parochial schools would be eligible under Hill and Hannaway’s plan, but don’t call it a voucher. Catholic and charter schools have proved far more resilient rebounding from Katrina than incompetent traditional government schools in New Orleans. Regardless of semantics, a voucher plan for New Orleans is an idea whose time has come.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Morse of Dregs

The Dixie Dregs Live at Montreux 1978
The Steve Morse Band Live in Baden-Baden
Eagle Eye Media

If you go to B.B. King’s club on Times Square on any given night, you’re actually not very likely to hear much blues. Probably, it will be a rock act, theoretically blues-inspired, but it’s often a stretch. The Dixie Dregs (wisely shortened to The Dregs in later years) were a legitimately blues & jazz inspired band, fusing disparate influences like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Led Zepellin, country, and bluegrass. Given their background, the Dregs were a more comfortable fit as a crossover jazz festival act, as documented in Live at Montreux 1978.

During their Montreux set bassist Andy West frequently emphasized their country roots to the audience, for good reason. It was on tunes where that influence was most pronounced that best represented the Dregs. On “The Bash” (or “The Wabash” or “Wabash Cannonball”) guitarist Steve Morse and violinist Allen Sloan whip up the audience with their rock & roll-bluegrass call-and-response. The hoedown-style “Kathreen” was another crowd pleasing high energy workout for guitar and violin.

The Dregs were unusual for being an instrumental rock band for most of the group’s life, proving the violins place in rock/fusion well before the Dave Matthews Band. Morse was considered the prime mover of the band, writing most of their repertoire, including catchy tunes like “Free Fall” and “Leprechaun Promenade,” and attaining a reputation as a guitarist’s guitarist. Among the bonus footage is a later clip from American Bandstand, which suggests the Dregs jumped the shark when forced to add a vocalist, sounding more like a generic hard rock band than the multi-hyphenated bluesy country-rock band of Montreux.

After a few detours, Morse would lead his own eponymous band, which was recorded Live in Baden-Baden Germany for the Ohne Filter show. Recorded after Morse’s stint with Kansas, the Baden-Baden session certainly has a stronger rock orientation than the Dregs at Montreux. However, his country roots still show on tunes like “General Lee.” Morse also still show something of a jazz sensibility in his interplay with bassist Dave LaRue, particularly on “Country Colors,” which sounds like a country tune by way of Mike Stern. He evens shows off his love for Bach on “Point Counterpoint,” a baroque-inspired duet with LaRue.

Between the Dregs and the Morse Band, we get a look at the road predominantly not taken in rock—instrumental music. Evidently, regardless of the virtuosity of the musicians, (frequently lame) vocals are considered crucial to commercial success. Whereas, in jazz vocalists take a backseat in prestige to instrumentalists, despite the fact that vocalists have proved more likely to “break out.” Ultimately, it is probably best if musicians play to their strengths, which in the case of Morse and The Dregs, means sans vocals, as is nicely exemplified in the Montreux and Baden-Baden Live DVDs.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Roadblocks on the Road Home to New Orleans

Is this a story? A Virginia company is contracted by the State of Louisiana to disperse Federal funds appropriated to rebuild Katrina ravished homes for $756 million (plus a $19.1 million travel allowance). Residents who applied for aid quickly found the company to be unresponsive, often forced to leave voice mails that went unreturned. Just over one percent of applicants, 1,300 of 109,000 as of late February, have actually seen any funds. Many applicants complain they were unfairly rejected for aid, or received low-ball figures that were hopelessly inadequate. When pressed, the company offered excuses about “a period of time in October and November where we were seeing that our databases weren’t lining up, and we weren’t getting good information.” Oh, and the executives of the company in question have a history of donating the Democratic Party.

ICF’s stewardship of Louisiana’s The Road Home program has received some bad press (on the PBS News Hour for instance), and deservedly so, but imagine the reaction if their execs had a record of donating to the GOP. However, ICF officials have been much more generous to Democrats than Republicans.

Chairman & CEO Sudhakar Kesavan gave $6,000 to Democratic campaigns and a $1,000 keep-the-lines-of-communication-open donation to the local GOP congressman.

Executive VP & COO John Wasson gave $1,000 to Democrats—nothing for Republicans.

Sr. VP Douglas Beck gave $3,500 to Democrats—nothing for Republicans.

Sr. VP Isabel Reiff $1,500 to Democrats—nothing for Republicans.

One executive VP gave $1,000 to a Republican before she joined the company. Another gave $200 to John Warner back in 2001 before his company was acquired by ICF. Political donations from ICF executive leadership found on-line have broken down $12,000 Democrat to $2,200 Republican ($1,000 of which was actually given while with ICF). A search of the FEC data, which can’t be saved via permalink, shows donations from all ICF employees skewing to the Democrats.

Those figures are chump change in DC, but one has to wonder, why is a consulting firm in Virginia doing this business for the State of Louisiana? Just how was this contract bid out? If a firm led by executives with a record of Republican giving had performed as ICF has in the early stages of its contract, would the press play up that angle?

The Road Home was supposed to be the tent pole of “Gov.” Blanco’s recovery program. However, for those homeowners interviewed by the News Hour, it represents bureaucratic futility. During a Congressional hearing Blanco offered up excuses:

“It’s maddening. I am on the phone every day pushing for solutions. The company promises us that, by the end of the month, we will see a rapid increase.”

At least, the Road Home program has accomplished something. It performance surely contributed to the “Governor's” decision not to seek re-election.