Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Tale of Two Singers in Cuba

Bloggers United for Cuban Liberty are launching a new campaign aimed at Police front-man Sting. In the 1980’s he was all about lecturing audiences on human rights, but for their reunion tour, the Police have accepted an invitation to play Havana this December. So much for the spirit of not playing Sun City. Evidently, Sting is not aware of, or has chosen to ignore, the wholesale rounding up and torturing of independent journalists and librarians, the invisible ones, practiced by Castro’s enforcers. BUCL’s campaign intends to raise that awareness of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience during the Miami leg of their tour. Learn how to support here.

Sting’s apparent ignorance of rampant human rights abuses is being contrasted with jazz singer Youman Wilder’s recent defiance of Cuban censors. During a performance in Cuba, Wilder departed from the state-approved set list, singing thematically charged songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom is At Your Door.” According to information forwarded to Babalu Blog:

“Mr. Wilder was woken up at 3 am and told to leave the country under heavy Cuban Militia.

Also Mr. Wilder was threatened with death and told he would be taken to a local jail.

Wilder was deported out of the country under a Cuban mandate that saw him and his group as enemies of The Revolution.

Also what was not said is that Wilder at Jose Marti International Airport, while being escorted out of the country by armed military sang “We Shall Overcome” as vacationers from The UK, Canada, and France looked on.”

Now that was quite a show. Actually though, I’m not ready to canonize Wilder yet. He did after all agree to play Cuba in the first place, and his past interviews have included some of the usual knee-jerk, brain-on-auto-pilot attacks on Pres. Bush and Fox News one expects from the celebrity left. However, he deserves real credit for figuring out the lay of the land once he arrived in Cuba, and for standing up to Castro’s thugs and censors. It’s a good lesson for Sting when he performs for the real King of Pain.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Classic Zappa

Classic Albums: Apostrophe (‘)/Over-Nite Sensation
By Frank Zappa
Eagle Vision

Frank Zappa has always been a rock artist with strong jazz crossover appeal. He was originally signed to the pop division of Verve Records, the jazz label, and if anyone fit Downbeat’s designation of “beyond” it was him. Two of his breakout records, featuring George Duke on keyboards, Apostrophe (‘) and Over-Nite Sensation are examined in the latest installment of the Classic Albums DVD series.

Zappa had a host of influences, including blues and doo-wop. We hear him discuss his early attraction to composer Edgard Varese, recalling:

“I just thought it was beautiful. I couldn’t understand it when my mother would start screaming at me to take it in the other room because it bothered her while she was ironing. I said but listen to the siren.”

Former Zappa band keyboardist George Duke’s on-screen interviews will interest fusion fans. At one point he gives props to Zappa’s blues chops:

“Frank could play the blues with the best. His technique was excellent and he was very creative as a guitarist.”

The level of commentary here is actually higher than in most rock docs. Alice Cooper, for instance, gives Zappa credit for lampooning hippies as well as the government. Audiophiles will also enjoy listening to Dweezil Zappa find buried treasures in his fathers master tapes and extol the virtues of analog recording.

Zappa was arguably an early post-modern ironist, whose outrageous humor sometimes veered into the explicit. He was certainly never boring, and it is hard to deny the appeal of a band with a transduced marimba. His loyal fans will enjoy this examination of his music, and the bonus material, which includes complete musical performances.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Writing Rumba

Writing Rumba: The Afrocubanista Movement in Poetry
By Miguel Arnedo-Gómez
University of Virginia Press

There are some archetypal images of Cuban culture, particularly the beautiful rumba dancer, that continue to have romantic resonance for those attracted to the island nation’s music and culture. Such images held great appeal to the Afrocubanista cultural movement of 1920’s and 1930’s Cuba, whose poetry comes in for a critical re-evaluation in Arnedo-Gómez’s Writing Rumba.

At the time, the Afrocubanista movement was championed as a movement towards a culturally unified Cuba, beyond race or ethnicity. It received strong theoretical underpinning from Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz. However, critical notions of identity and authenticity are quickly introduced in Writing Rumba, as many of the Afrocubanistas were of white Spanish descent, but used Afrocuban elements in their poems, particularly music and rumba. For instance, Arnedo-Gómez cites critic Richard L. Jackson:

“Jackson divides afrocubanista poetry into ‘false black poetry,’ written by white negrista poets, and ‘authentic black poetry’ . . . For Jackson, what characterizes the former is the representation of qualities often associated with Cuban culture of African origins, such as song, dance, rhythm, and sexuality. He argues that negrista poets were only interested in ‘black folklore and rituals,’ in beating ‘black-drums in poetry’ and making use of African sounding words.” (p. 11)

Yet, questions of authenticity persist beyond racial lines in Arnedo-Gómez’s survey. Despite poet Nicolás Guillén’s Afro-Cuban heritage and the legitimacy which it grants him in the eyes of some critics, his upper-class upbringing leads the author to question his personal connection to the lives and traditions of average Afro-Cubans:

“His father was a journalist and a prestigious politician who served as a senator from 1909 to 1912 under the liberal government of José Miguel Gómez. . . There is no indication in Angel Augier’s biography of the poet that Afro-Cuban traditions were practiced in the Guillén’s family home.” (p. 55)

Clearly, Afro-Cuban musical forms were a common source of inspiration for the Afrocubnistas. One example Arnedo -Gómez cites for its “European device of personification” is Alfonso Hernández Catá’s “Rumba:”

“While the string complains,
the cornet shouts.
. . . . . . .
The galloping of the timbales
steps over all restraint.
. . . . . . . . .
The bongo has gone crazy.” (p. 132)

Regardless of notions of race and class, the Afrocubanistas poets arguably helped shape the romantic perceptions of Cuba and its music. Arnedo-Gómez does seem inclined to give the Afrocubanista poets a qualified defense against some critical charges, arguing often that they were, in fact, more faithfully representing elements of Afro-Cuban life then commonly believed. However, he has very little to say about their work in an aesthetic sense. Ultimately, Writing Rumba is overly concerned with how its subjects are perceived and other such issues of identity politics, and not interested enough in the work they actually wrote.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Make Reservations

Bumped for the spontaneous: If you missed Deanna Witkowski’s Fazioli concert on June 8th, you missed out on a night of beautiful music from a beautiful artist. For shame. You do have a chance to hear her in a different context, with her trio, at the River Room this Fri., June 22. It will be an opportunity to hear wonderful music in a venue that promises spectacular views of Riverbank State Park.

Deanna has played many impressive venues including the Tel Aviv Opera House and Dizzy’s at J@LC. She is the winner of the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano Competition and was a guest on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. Get out of the blogosphere for a night and hear some great live music. Make reservations now.

8:30 and 10:00 pm
The River Room of Harlem
Riverbank State Park
Riverside Drive at 145th St
I always highly recommend Deanna's gigs. Come to the River Room tonight and hear why.


Pierre Favre Ensemble
ECM 1977

Some music is a challenge to listen to on an ipod in the subway—its subtleties are easily overwhelmed by garbled announcements and jostling passengers. Such is the case with Swiss percussionist Pierre Favre’s latest ECM release, Fleuve, which consistently creates intriguing sound portraits through its unusual instrumentation, that demand closer listening.

While Favre’s compositions often start sounding quite diffuse, the drummer and his compatriots are patient as fishermen, eventually coming together to extract satisfying melodies from abstract beginnings. The opener, “Mort d’Eurydice,” is a perfect example, beginning with the foreboding sounds of Favre’s percussion and Hélène Brechand’s plucked harp, eventually melting into a classically elegiac melody carried by Frank Kroll’s soprano.

“Panama” follows, demonstrating a similar extended prologue, in this case featuring percussion, harp, and guitar, before Kroll’s bass clarinet comes in around the 3:30 mark, introducing a somewhat up-tempo melody. Guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger and Kroll take short, but expressive solos before the surprisingly abrupt ending.

“Reflex Sud” is probably the closest Favre’s compositions come to traditional bop, starting with a brief almost Blakey-style drum solo intro before Kroll’s soprano takes over, propelled along by Bänz Oester’s bass. It is followed by the exotic sounding “Fire Red—Gas Blue—Ghost Green,” another composition that should be easily accessible to a wide array of listeners. Featuring pungent solos by Schaufelberger and Kroll, on bass clarinet, it illustrates Favre’s diverse world music influences.

Favre’s choice of instrumentation, including at times bass clarinet, tuba, serpent, bass guitar, and bass, may sound heavy to the point of unwieldiness, but his melodic accents and the intricate interplay of voices actually keep things on a lighter, airy plane.

Favre takes a painterly approach to percussion that well serves his compositions. Hearing them evolve from the freely ethereal to the melodic makes Fleuve a fascinating listen.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Italian Culture

Last night, the Italian Consulate stressed they only bring authentic originals to represent the best of Italian culture. In this case, it was Stefano Bollani playing at the Italian Cultural Institute and the unveiling of a fragment of a Pinturicchio fresco—a portrait of baby Jesus perfectly framed by three hands (two being those of Mary, the third has been somewhat of a mystery)—at the consulate next door.

Bollani played a highly entertaining set of solo piano, opening up with some serious left hand, bordering on boogie woogie. His witty re-casting of “On the Street Where You Live,” was perhaps the strongest showcase for his talents. Bollani established a strong rapport with the overflowing audience, although his Italian banter was lost on me. Bollani has eclectic ideas and influences, but still swings nicely, making him an effective ambassador for Italian jazz and the ECM label.

The Italian Consulate next door was already quite well appointed, with work by the likes of de Chirico adorning the walls. The addition of a legitimate Renaissance master is pretty impressive. How long it will be there and where it goes next, I’m not clear on, but Bollani will be accessible, with U.S. dates coming up (Baltimore on the 23rd).

Not long ago, Italian jazz musicians were reportedly frustrated with their domestic scene, with artists like Stefano di Battista relocating to the greener pastures of France. However, there seems to be an ongoing Italian resurgence, with veterans like Enrico Rava (with whom Bollani received attention as a sideman) and Gianluigi Trovesi producing some of their greatest work, and younger artists like Bollani, Stefano Battaglia, and Francesco Cafiso infusing fresh energy into Italy’s jazz world.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Hope in Hughes’ House

Bertha Hope is a beloved figure on the New York jazz scene, beyond her status as a statesperson for the music. One of her many worthy endeavors is her work to promote awareness of the music of Elmo Hope, her late husband. Having recorded duo piano together on the classic Riverside release Hope-Full, she is imminently qualified to lead the Elmolenium Orchestra, a combo dedicated to interpreting his compositions, featuring Charles Davis on tenor and soprano, Roni Ben-Hur on guitar, and Leroy Williams on drums. Last night, the Hughes House proved a perfect venue for their music.

The historic home of Langston Hughes has recently been converted into a jazz performance space that is well worth a trip to 127th Street. Probably no poet championed jazz to the extent Hughes did, so each performance fittingly begins with a reading of one his poems, as an invocation to his sympathetic spirit. The vintage Brownstone provides an intimate listening environment (although the screen-saver light show playing on the flat screen behind the musicians is an unnecessary and anachronistic distraction).

The Hughes House also boasts a Fazioli piano, which got a good workout from Ms. Hope, who perhaps has not gotten the credit she deserves as a pianist in her own right, outside of the immediate jazz community. She led the band through Hope classics like “Low Tide”, the more exotic sounding “Stars Over Marakesh,” “Carvin’ the Rock” (co-written with Sonny Rollins), as well as “Eyes So Beautiful As Yours” and “Monique,” with lyrics written and performed by vocalist Amy London. Elmo Hope is one of a handful of musicians, like Herbie Nichols, whose reputations have increased in recent years, despite being under-recognized in their time. In the case of Elmo Hope, this is in large measure due to projects like Elmolenium, as well as the aggressive classic reissue programs of the late 1990’s. Elmolenium is the perfect sort of programming for Hughes House, as it allowed for the celebration of two icons: Hope and Hughes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Cover Story

Sometimes it seems like the big three jazz magazines just rotate cover stories on Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and Joe Lovano. They are all important musicians, but it would be nice to see some different artists from time to time, so the cover story on Steve Wiest on the July issue of JAZZed, the jazz educator’s magazine, was a great call.

Wiest is a highly literate jazz artist, as is reflected in his Excalibur CD, which I recommend quite a bit. In the interview feature, he defends the trombone’s honor:

JAZZed: On a scale of one to 10, 10 being Angelina Jolie, 1 being Phyllis Diller, how sexy is the trombone?

Steve Wiest: I’d have to say about a 20! [Laughs] I’ll tell you, it’s a marketing thing. The trombone gets a bad rap sometimes, but it just needs better marketing! It’s the one instrument that best captures the human voice. It bends, moans, growls—does everything a human voice can. That’s just an appealing thing to me.”

Give JAZZed credit. Usually, I just quickly skim it, but if they will be featuring fresher faces, I might spend more time with it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Blue Monday

Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll
By Rick Coleman
Da Capo Press tradepaperback

One of the ironies of Katrina was that one of New Orleans’ greatest celebrities to be temporarily unaccounted for during the chaotic aftermath, was a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll many had presumed to have already passed away. Fats Domino remains one of the Crescent City’s favorite musical sons, and his legacy is appropriately dealt with in Rick Coleman’s Blue Monday.

As a young musician, Domino absorbed the varied musical influences from his home city, including jazz and particularly boogie woogie piano. Coleman quotes Domino from an interview with noted jazz critic Ralph Gleason on the success of his music:

“‘The only thing is the rhythm,’ replied Domino between chews. ‘You gotta keep a good beat. The rhythm we play is from Dixieland, from New Orleans.’” (p. 128)

Indeed, Domino had many jazz oriented players in his band at various times, including Plas Johnson (of Pink Panther theme fame) and Clifford Scott (who recorded for World Pacific). Coleman often makes comparisons between Domino and Louis Armstrong—two revolutionary New Orleans musicians, who were also enthusiastically committed to entertaining their fans. It was a comparison Lew Chudd of Imperial Records, Domino’s label, also made on his behalf. According to Coleman:

“Chudd strongly emphasized to [Ed] Sullivan Domino’s similarities to Louis Armstrong, who even to most whites was an American icon. After all, Satchmo’s 1949 version had inspired Fats to sing ‘Blueberry Hill’ and—re-released—it followed Domino’s hit up the chart.” (p. 138)

Chudd is one of the heroes of Monday, not just for championing Domino’s music, but for promoting African-Americans to high level executive positions well before the rest of the music industry was ready to follow his example. In fact, Monday is a fascinating history of early rock ‘n’ roll. Coleman deftly weaves in social and historical context throughout his narrative, as when he discusses the underground penetration of rock behind the Iron Curtain:

“Sailors imported forbidden rock ‘n’ roll records, which were bootlegged onto the only available vinyl—x-rays displaying ghostly bones. The fact that teens defiantly treasured the wretched ‘rib records’ proved their passion.” (p. 212)

Throughout Monday, Coleman makes an impassioned case for New Orleans’ overlooked role in the birth of rock, giving credit not just to Domino, but to his longtime collaborators like Dave Bartholomew. However, the personality of Domino, a private person uncomfortable with interviews, never fully emerges from Coleman’s pages. He remains mythic figure—a touchstone for the revolutionary musical events unfolding largely because of him. Still, Monday is a rich cultural history of both rock ‘n’ roll and New Orleans.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Chet in Rep

At one point in Bruce Weber’s documentary Let’s Get Lost, Diane Vavra, Chet Baker’s on-again-off-again lover recounts falling for the trumpeter player after talking to him for twenty seconds. Viewers of the film now screening in repertory at the Film Forum however, may find Baker harder to like after spending two hours with him.

Let’s Get Lost is something of an iconic work in its own right. The long out-of-print VHS edition has been a hard target grail quest for many collectors. As visually compelling as Lost is, it does not necessarily burnish Baker’s reputation. Weber seems to take exquisite pleasure in contrasting the early matinee idol Baker with the craggy, not-long-for-the-world Baker of the late 1980’s.

Baker’s infamous drug addiction clearly took a toll on the man and his music. Far more troubling though are his abusive relationships with women, particularly Vavra. Watching Lost, it seems the great “what if” question of jazz, would be what would have happened had Baker stayed with Halema, wife number two, immortalized by William Claxton on the cover of My Funny Valentine. Biographers have suggested she was the closest thing to the love of his life, and in Lost, he seems to look even more distant when discussing her. Unfortunately, their marriage would not survive the chaos of Baker’s notorious stint in Italy.

Let’s Get Lost is a love letter to a junkie—a musician who, though erratic in his later years, could still summon wonderful music on a good night. It’s a fascinating film in its way. Film Forum is currently showing it suburban multiplex style on multiple screens. It’s definitely worth checking out there and hopefully it will make its way to other repertory theaters across the country.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Monk on Mondays
Monk’s Music Trio
CMB Records

While New York might be the undisputed center of the jazz universe, there remain many talented jazz musicians performing regularly with little fanfare due to their distance from the City. One such band is the Monk’s Music Trio, an enjoyable group that regularly performs the music of Thelonious Monk on Mondays in a San Francisco café, from which comes the title of their latest CD, Monk on Mondays.

Evidently, the MMT has held their semi-regular Monday gig at the Simple Pleasures Café since 1999, which ought to qualify them as a local institution. When in the Bay Area, they sound like they are well worth checking out. They do not have a website (at least not popping up quickly on Google), but the address is: 3434 Balboa Street, in “the outer Richmond District.”

As for the Mondays CD, it is a respectful, but entertaining tribute to their musical hero. On this outing, the MMT particularly excels on the bluesier Monk standards, like “Something in Blue” and “Light Blue,” the latter featuring a drum prelude from de facto leader Chuck Bernstein.

Throughout, Si Perkoff demonstrates his dedication to Monk’s spirit, but plays with a slightly lighter, swinging attack. “Let’s Call This,” for instance, is a breezy, up-tempo opener. “Brake’s Sake” may be their most adventurous arrangement, moving Sam Bevans’ bass to the forefront. While many well-known Monk standards are represented here, the MMT wisely included some less recorded tunes, like “Locomotive.”

Like Herbie Nicholls and Joe Harriott, Monk’s compositions were so rich and challenging they can easily sustain a group devoted solely to their performance. In this case, hearing the MMT play Monk should also make for a fun Monday night if you are in the neighborhood.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Moments that Changed Music?

For the “why bother” feature of the day, let’s look at Blender’s “100 Days that Changed Music” (July 2007). Unfortunately, it is about as sad as you would expect, with jazz completely unrepresented. The best we get is “Robert Johnson’s first recording session” at #97 and Sinatra at the Paramount at #26. Ranked higher in world shaking import were “Police Raid Neverland Ranch” at #18, and “Justin and Britney Split” at #13. If these were watershed events in your musical development, that’s just sad.

Of course, many of the entries are legitimate, like “Edison Invents the Phonograph” (which only ranks #36?). However, many important events were overlooked. Forget Ornette Coleman opening at the Five Spot, Louis Armstrong’s Chicago debut with King Oliver did not even crack the list. No mention of the AFM recording ban which hastened the demise of the big bands and led to the prominence of pop vocalists. Not to belabor the point, but Benny Goodman’s first racially integrated combo with Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson in 1936 was surely a greater social and cultural milestone than “Tiffany Tours Malls” at #57.

Criticizing Blender for an inadequate historical perspective might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but the mag is symptomatic of a larger musical illiteracy in society. Try dropping references to an early R&B pioneer like LaVerne Baker at the office and you’ll likely get the same blank stares that an obscure AACM reference would produce. Ironically, jazz’s legacy is probably more secure, because there will always be small cadres of enthusiasts dedicated to its protecting its heritage. Yet for other genres, the contemporary musical memory is becoming ever shorter, and Blender was not much help this month (again).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Village Vanguard at Lincoln Triangle

“After seventy-two years you’d better have a reputation for something,” Lorraine Gordon said of her club, the Village Vanguard, at the Lincoln Triangle B&N last night. The event was an interview and Q&A with Gordon moderated by Dan Morgenstern to promote her recent memoir Alive at the Village Vanguard (review here).

Gordon’s late husband Max opened the Vanguard in early 1935 and it has been in its present location since December of that year. Lorrraine Gordon took over the club’s management after his death, beginning with a stand by the Tommy Flanagan Trio on May 23, 1989. However, Gordon had always had a passion for jazz, and some of her fondest remembrances in her book and at B&N last night were of the great trumpeter Jabbo Smith.

As a substantial value-added bonus pianist Cedar Walton, a Vanguard regular fresh off a plane from Japan, also played solo, warming up the audience before Gordon came out with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and playing a half hour set afterwards that started with “Sweet Lorraine.”

Unfortunately, the Q&A session demonstrated the perils of audience participation. One rather upset woman felt the need to defend Benny Goodman’s honor based on her misreading of Alive. Gordon assured her: “I was madly in love with him.” Another audience member actually interrupted her mid-anecdote so he could ask a question before he had to leave. Could we show a little etiquette, please? Of course, Gordon dealt with him easily—she has been running a night club for eighteen years, and it is a great place to hear jazz. The acoustics are perfect and the vibe is legit.

It was impressive for a book event. (Believe me, I’ve been to plenty.) Look for a B&N event with Larry Coryell from the same publisher sometime in September.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Award for Least Relevant Award Show . . .

Stop your Sopranos griping. It’s over. As disappointing as it may have been, Sunday could have been worse, if say, you were producing the Tony Awards. Pending final numbers it may have been the award show’s record lowest rating. Two days after the fact, I just noticed my only rooting interest in the show, Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed, actually pulled off the upset, winning best actress in a play, despite having been closed for months.

What does it say that Americans turned away in droves from a celebration of Broadway’s finest? There is still money to be made there—just ask the producers of Jersey Boys. As an art form though, how vital are its signs of life? Jazz used to frequently adapt Broadway songs as vehicles for improvisation, and many classics of the American musical songbook remain in musicians’ repertoire today. Yet how many jazz versions of Grey Gardens songs have you heard? Who can even name a tune from Curtains? One has to wonder if Broadway can produce a hit song any longer.

During the late night Monday rebroadcast, some of NY1’s On-Stage commentators questioned whether there was a place for a Broadway award show on national television. The pessimist could conclude people are increasingly less comfortable with live entertainment that cannot be fast-forwarded, paused, or rewound.

Broadway book musicals and jazz have some common ancestry, rooted in the early Broadway revues of ragtime musicians like James Reese Europe and Joe Jordan. It would be nice to see both genres financially and artistically successful. (Broadway still has the former, while jazz claims the latter.) For those outside of New York it may well be harder to experience either in a genuine live setting, which explains the collective yawn for Sunday’s Tony broadcast.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Iron Stone

The Iron Stone
By Robin Williamson
ECM 1969

Arguably, Robin Williamson is one of those musicians whose influence is far greater than his fame. While Williamson’s highly regarded Incredible String Band had quite a bit of chart success in the UK, their former manager Joe Boyd bemoaned their missed opportunities for international breakout superstardom in his memoir White Bicycles. That seems to have given Williamson the latitude though to chart his own course in recent years, which included sessions of sung poetry that incorporate elements of folk and jazz for ECM. His latest, The Iron Stone, includes the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as his own writings.

Williamson’s voice might not be the richest, but it is steeped in character, transporting listeners to the Scottish Moors or Medieval Wales. Stone starts with an original, “The Climber,” an Icarus-like fable of three brothers climbing “into and through the clouds themselves.” It sets the eerie tone for the session, which includes combinations of Williamson’s harp and percussion, Mat Maneri’s viola, Barre Phillips’ bass, and Ale Möller’s Mandola, accordion, flutes, and assorted traditional instruments.

Williamson still finds inspiration from great poets, as in “Wyatt’s Song of Reproach,” given a sensitive troubadour rendition. As a lament for romance gone by, it serves his voice very well. Wistful elegies to time past are a recurring element, as in Raleigh’s “Even Such Is Time,” another simple, but elegant arrangement.

Of Williamson’s songs, perhaps “Political Lies” has the strongest melodic hook. Like much of Stone though it conveys a naturalistic sensibility, heard in the refrain:

“Political lies, political promises
This shadow everywhere, a sense of powerlessness.”

While Williamson’s words are central to the session, the musicians form a highly compatible unit. Their string trio arrangement of “Loftus Jones” maintains their feeling reflective melancholy uninterrupted.

The Williamson of Stone sounds eons removed from the 1960’s of his ISB days. His “Verses At Ellesmere” could easily pass for a traditional English folk song, as he sings:

“Who can deal an order on God’s ardour?
Who can out-shuffle every shift of the cards?
Among the tangled turns of nettled England.”

Williamson and company open a window into a striking, but stark world of loss and spiritual draught. The delicate music perfectly accompanies his often grim words for a fascinating listening experience.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Hear Tonight

(If you missed Deanna’s Fazioli concert you missed out on a night of beautiful music from a beautiful artist. For shame. You do have an opportunity to hear her again soon in a different context, with her trio, at the River Room on Fri., June 22. Make reservations now.)
I posted on this previously for the plan-ahead types, but now for the spontaneous out there, you need to go hear Deanna Witkowski’s solo concert at the Klavierhaus Fazioli Salon tonight at 8:00. Deanna is an incredible jazz pianist, an authority on Brazilian music, winner of the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano Competition, and one of the leading composers of sacred jazz. She’ll be playing the Fazioli, one of the finest pianos in the world.

Deanna is simply an amazing artist. I listened to her latest CD Length of Days quite a bit recently during a challenging time and it is incredible. To hear her in an intimate concert setting will be the kind of event that makes living in New York worth the hassles. If you already have tickets to something else, scalp them and join me and many other J.B. Spins readers at Klavierhaus.

Friday, 8 June from 8-10 pm
Fazioli Salon at Klavierhaus
211 W 58th St

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Angels of Shanghai

Angels of Shanghai
By Bob James

It’s been quite sometime since Bob James recorded for the avant-garde ESP label. Since that time he has embraced a smooth jazz rep, although he participated in many successfully funky CTI sessions in the 1970’s with the likes of Hank Crawford, Hubert Laws, and Ron Carter. He also contributed to the under-appreciated Serpico soundtrack. His recent release, Angels of Shanghai, is interesting as an ambitious collaboration with traditional Chinese musicians, but will be more pleasing to his established fan base than other listeners.

Angels starts with the relentlessly upbeat “Celebration.” It is a catchy melody with a pleasing guitar solo from Jack Lee. James does meld his group well with his Chinese colleagues, including Li Li on Pipa; Xie Tao on Gu Zheng; Lu Cong and Zhao Qi on Dizi; and Ma Jia Jun on er-hu. Together, they are heard to best effect on sweeping pieces like “Theme ‘Onara’ from ‘Dae Jang Keum’” and “The Magic Paintbrush” as well as the delicate “Angels’ Theme: The Invention of Love.” At times though, the percussion is overly mechanical, overwhelming the musicians on tunes like “Butterfly Lovers.”

There are moments on Angels that are emblematic of James’ career. The syrupy vocal track “Endless Time” is a pop mistake. More interesting is his recasting of his famous theme for the show Taxi as “Angela with Purple Bamboo,” which blends a sensitive arrangement with a slightly funky sounding electric piano.

Those looking for improvisational fire will know Angels is not for them. James deserves credit for tackling an ambitious project though. At its best, it would make excellent soundtrack music, in the best tradition of the genre.

That Age-Old Issue

In 1936 jazz led the way, as Benny Goodman’s racially integrated quartet broke the color line with Lionel Hampton on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano. Even today it is really the only form of music where you can see racially mixed groups on a regular basis. Yet issues of race persist. The latest controversy being a ten-year anniversary CD released by the Oakland jazz club Yoshi’s, which did not include any African American artists. Feelings of ill will were compounded by what many argue to be an under-representation of African American musicians at a local jazz festival. The SF Chronicle reports:

"'It is like going to a Chinese restaurant and there are no Chinese people,’ said Howard Wiley, a local saxophonist. ‘It is very disheartening and sad, especially from Yoshi's, which calls itself the premiere jazz venue of the Bay Area.

‘I mean, we are dealing with jazz and blues, not Hungarian folk music or the invention of computer programs.’’

Yoshi’s offered a response:

“Peter Williams, Yoshi's artistic director, said the exclusion was an oversight and that the club does not have the right to record all the performers that appear there.

‘We apologize to anyone who feels slighted by the omission of African American artists on this project, as that was never our intention,’ he wrote in an e-mail to concerned supporters. ‘This compilation CD was meant to celebrate a milestone for us in the Bay Area and not necessarily meant to be a representation of all the artists and music styles ever played at our club.’”

It is folly to deny the African American roots of jazz, so it is perfectly understandable how the CD’s line-up could trouble people. However, had the disk only included selections by Marion McPartland and Joe Pass, would many serious jazz listeners complain?

In this case the inclusion of lesser artists and the exclusion of local Bay Area talent seem to be as much a part of the problem. So many great musicians have played the club. No disrespect intended, but are Joey DeFrancesco and Robben Ford really on a par with McPartland and Pass? Eddie Gale is a great trumpeter from San Jose who has played the club, and will play Vision Fest in New York on June 23rd. He would have been a perfect artist to include (and not that it should matter, but he is African American). Choosing the line-up for such a project is always a delicate balance, but including more local talent that could benefit from the exposure might have helped.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

George Gee Wailers

George Gee and the Jump, Jivin’ Wailers Swing Orchestra
Music director and arranger Walt Szmanski
If Dreams Come True

Jazz was the hit parade music of the big band era that got dancers on their feet. It is that swinging spirit that George Gee looks to channel with his big band at the Swing 46 Jazz & Supper Club, and with his new slimmed down jump-swing Wailers outfit debuting on If Dreams Come True.

Thanks to the relentlessly upbeat arrangements of Walt Szmanski, the results are certainly enjoyable. Gee, a leader evidently in the Jimmie Lunceford tradition, has wisely selected some lesser played swing standards. Lionel Hampton’s holiday cheer, “Gin For Xmas,” is a good example, featuring the arranger’s trumpet and the sax section of Mark Gross, Michael Hashim, and Alex Harding to good effect.

As a dance band, Gee’s Wailers blend swank and swing on the “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” aided by guest Dan Block’s clarinet. Gee has assembled a top-notch band, including Marcus McLaurine, Clark Terry’s longtime bassist, who also gets a short but enjoyable solo on the Irving Berlin standard.

The undeniable highlight is actually the slowest number on If Dreams. Carla Cook (a great vocalist not to be confused with Carla White as a earlier version may well have) gives a caressing rendition of “It Had to Be You,” showing her voice to be in beautiful form. There are also vocal contributions in a sort of Jimmy Rushing-style by John Dokes on “Sent for You Yesterday” and Szmanski on “Lulu’s Back in Town” that are appropriate to the project, but are not as memorable.

While not transcendent, If Dreams is about enjoying music. The tunes and solos are short, but the vibe is good. It’s a nice swing CD for parties, and has more nutritional value than the phony jiving swings bands of recent years past.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Hurricane on the Bayou (but not in NY)

If an advocacy film does not play New York City, does it really make a statement? When Greg MacGillivray’s Hurricane on the Bayou, the IMAX film on Hurricane Katrina and the Louisiana wetlands was announced, it seemed odd that the film was not playing in the City proper. After all, eighty-percent of the writers interested in covering it (outside of Louisiana) could well be New York film and music journalists.

Since I happen to be in Denver, I was able to catch it. Hurricane is a mixed bag, but it deserves attention. The IMAX nature photography is quite impressive, and the gators steal the show. It starts with the weak conceit of following fourteen year-old fiddle prodigy Amanda Shaw as she assembles her school project on the shrinking wetlands. (Could the audience be treated as adults and not lectured to by a teenager?)

Hurricane was literally being filmed as Katrina hit, and when it did, all bets were off. We definitely see the storm’s fury and the human drama of the aftermath, which is moving. There is nothing like an IMAX screen to capture the enormity of the flooding.

Music plays a big role in the film. In addition to Shaw, we hear from New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, Zydeco musician Chubby Carrier, bluesman Tab Benoit, and gospel singer Marva Wright. We also hear some licensed Dr. John and a brief Ken Burns-style Louis Armstrong tribute.

Hurricane is best when it shows instead of tells. Benoit becomes the voice of the filmmakers, but he almost overstates his case. There are in fact some questions that could have been addressed. As Young and Bush wrote in the NY Times, Mississippi had the sort of barrier islands we hear advocated as a hurricane defense, yet Katrina hit there just as hard. Indeed, the floodgates also advocated in Hurricane are most likely the best defense.

That is not to say we should not work to restore Louisiana’s wetlands. They clearly play an important role in the state’s cultural and commercial identity. However, the state needs to carefully balance its priorities at this time. As Hurricane makes abundantly clear, another hurricane like Katrina will cause immense devastation. Still, if you are in Denver, or wherever, Hurricane is well worth seeing, particularly for the gators.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lt. Col. James Antink 1920-2007

Lt. Col James Antink, U.S.Marine Corps, retired. WWII. Korean War. Bronze Star. Purple Heart. Office of Naval Intelligence (NCIS). Husband, father, grandfather. World traveler and raconteur.

Opening Soon: 12:08 East of Bucharest

In general, Warsaw Pact countries with a history of dissent, like Poland and then Czechoslovakia, fared much better after the fall of Communism then those countries where Marxist domination went virtually unchallenged. Romania under Ceausescu would be a case in point, in Corneliu Porumboiu’s new film, 12:08 East of Bucharest.

The title refers to the moment at which Ceausescu evacuated Bucharest on December 22, 1989. It is the pivotal time for determining whether the characters of Porumboiu’s city of Vaslui actually revolted during the regime, or merely celebrated his demise after the fact.

The bulk of 12:08 takes place on the set of a live call-in show in Vaslui, as two flawed characters, one an alcoholic school teacher, the other a part-time Santa Claus, recount their revolutionary memories. However, their claims are soon disputed by various townspeople, including a former secret police bureaucrat turned crony capitalist, in what could be described as a provincial Frost Nixon.

Indeed, we see a Romania that lacks the verve of the Czech Republic and the economic drive of Poland. It seems to be a perennially dark country, even though street lamps play an important metaphorical role in the film. There is wide spread cynicism for Vaslui’s revolutionary claims, but Porumboiu fittingly gives the last call to a mother whose son was killed in Otopeni, Bucharest on the 23rd, fighting to bring down the feared Ceausescu dictatorship, who nicely puts things into perspective.

Porumboiu has written a script that asks some interesting questions and his direction captures the claustrophobia and tackiness of that provincial studio (where we also get to hear a traditional Romanian band try their hand at a Latin dance number). It lacks the suspense and emotional heft of a film like The Lives of Others, but it certainly captures the feeling of a country still finding its way after monumental changes. It is fitting that one of its main characters often plays the role of Santa Claus, who as P.J. O’Rourke wrote, gives us everything we want, but does not really exist. It opens at the Film Forum in the City on June 6th (with free DVD giveaways of one of Porumboiu’s shorts at the 6:15 & 8:00 shows).