Friday, November 30, 2007

NOLA Report from Banks Street

Note to readers: Blogging will be erratic for the next four days. I am in New Orleans for sales conference and bolting as soon as possible in the evenings to hear some music. What I have seen of the city has been limited so far, but it is true that if you stick to the Quarter, you would never know how hard Katrina hit.

Walter “Wolfman” Washington is a NOLA legend that I was strongly recommended to check out. He has a regular Thursday night gig at the Banks Street Bar, which is somewhat off the beaten path. It’s only a ten or twelve dollar cab ride from the Quarter. The cabbie did his best to dissuade me, but despite passing some distressed buildings, the general area looked like respectable lower middle class Queens to me.

Washington puts on a great show. His blues is of the jazz-influenced, soulful variety, with trumpet and tenor giving it a real funky kick. Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman” was a perfect song for his style, and his band tore through a honking and wailing take on Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloup Island.” Washington exudes cool, one of the few people who can really make a red suit work.

Banks Street is off the tourist circuit, or at least it was last night, with some real local characters hanging. It is actually one of the more comfortable bars I have patronized in recent years, along with Arthur’s Tavern in New York, where the great pianist Eri Yamamoto plays when she is not touring. In addition to his regular Thur. night at Banks Street also has a regular Wed. night gig at d.b.a. on Frenchman, which probably won’t require as arguing with your cabbie.

There is still a vital music scene in New Orleans, but Katrina certainly did not do it any favors. More reports to come as I’m able to satisfy company commitments.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Traditional Chinese Holiday Cheer

Culture and politics can be difficult to untangle from each other. A case in point is NTDTV’s upcoming Holiday Wonders and Chinese New Year Splendor stage-show spectaculars. On one level, they look to be big extravaganzas, featuring traditional Chinese music, dance, costumes, and visual art. However, at a media event yesterday, the producers made the point that these shows are part of an effort to revive interest in traditional Chinese culture, which has suffered from neglect in recent years, and downright persecution under Mao and later the Gang of Four.

The Chinese New Year show is entering its fourth year, set to open in Radio City Music Hall January 30th. The Holiday Show is a new production opening at the Beacon Theatre December 18th. While not a Christmas Show, it seems to more or less fit with the “Happy Holidays” spirit.

I have never attended one of the shows, but judging from the rehearsal opened to media (and a few stray bloggers), they look cool. Reportedly, most of the troupe are ethnic Chinese, but born outside of mainland China. At the time, they were working on moves derived from Tibetan and Mongolian dances, which of course is significant, as the Communist government has tried to suppress the cultural traditions of both countries.

In their video package, Canadian Conservative MP Rob Anders recommends the show, making the point: “it’s so important that people get a sense of Chinese history from something other than the Communist lens of propaganda.” Anders also played a lead role during the Dalai Lama 2004 Canadian tour and is an outspoken critic of the Communist government’s brutal campaign against Falun Gong practitioners.

That seems to be where politics and culture collide again. NTDTV and co-sponsor Epoch Times have been aligned with the Falun Gong movement, speaking out against the government’s human rights abuses. For their part, the Communist authorities have labeled Falun Gong a cult to a surprisingly receptive western media, which seems to have colored some critical responses to the show. No matter what you think of Falun Gong, its practitioners should not be tortured and held incommunicado. Even Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are concerned, issuing strongly worded reports.

China is rightly celebrated for centuries of artistic and cultural achievement. Tragically, that heritage faced literal, physical attack during the Cultural Revolution. To preserve a cultural legacy and provide an entertaining night out is quite a program. Again, only based on what I saw, they look impressive—a really different kind of theater experience, but audiences can judge for themselves on the 18th and January 30th.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Azzolina’s Live Dialect

The Stones must be off the road this week. Jay Azzolina was able to get his musical comrade Tim Ries, the Rolling Stones sideman and jazz interpreter, for his CD release and tour launch celebration at the Cutting Room in New York’s fashionable Flatiron district. The CD bringing everyone together was Local Dialect, reviewed here last week.

As on Dialect, Azzolina kicked-off the set with “Friends of Friends” an intriguing, but catchy original that serves as a nice up-tempo ice-breaker. While Dialect often shifts in tone and personnel throughout the disk, in live performance Azzolina stuck to the old-school soul-jazz organ combo format. Azzolina is perhaps best known for his more commercial work with Spyro Gyro, but he can clearly burn through a grits and gravy session. While Dialect actually has one particularly “contemporary” radio friendly track, it was full speed ahead with no concessions during last night’s set.

Behind the organ console, Gary Versace is obviously fluent in the soul-jazz vernacular. Ries, Azzolina’s Westchester neighbor, had plenty to say as well, particularly in his fiery soprano solos. This is definitely a good band, which should only get better as they continue to play this music.

Dialect really is a strong release, with some memorable compositions, that often have a hint of the bittersweet. This is probably most pronounced on the lovely “Angel’s Dance” a Latin-style duo number that did not make it into Tuesday night’s set list. The CD is well worth checking out, as are Azzolina and company if they are playing in your locale.

Fortunately, I had a heads-up about the gig. Even though the Cutting Room is quite convenient to the J.B. offices, its bookings are so eclectic, I often lose track of who is playing there (it turns out Hubert Sumlin will be making a guest appearance Thur.). Hopefully the myspace add will rectify that.

According to his myspace page, Azzolina’s next gig in New York is at the Bar Next Door on December 13th, as part of the club’s guitar trio series. Hearing Azzolina in a slightly different format should make for a good night out as well.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Blame it on Fidel

Blame it on Fidel
Directed by Julie Gavras
Koch Lorber

Political films face the potential danger of sacrificing story for the sake of the message. Recently, Hollywood has jumped into this trap with both feet, resulting in quick box-office deaths, and even critical drubbings. Nuanced political films that actually do not stack the deck outrageously make for much more interesting viewing, which is why Hollywood ought to sit down and screen Julie Gavras’s Blame it on Fidel.

In Blame, the audience sees an affluent French-Spanish couple’s conversion to Bohemian radicalism through the eyes of their instinctively conservative daughter Anna, played surprisingly effectively by Nina Kervel, with little of the cloying quality typical of child actors. It is her skeptical reactions to her parents scruffy new leftist associates and their hardcore activism that makes Blame almost politically ambiguous.

After moving from their large family house to a cramped flat, Anna starts to lose patience with her parents’ new lifestyle. Her old nanny Filomena, a Cuban refuge from the Castro regime, has been replaced by a Greek exile. When Anna tries to draw a parallel between the two, her father dismisses Filomena’s history, saying “Oh, that’s different.” He even chides her angrily for reading a comic book because: “Mickey Mouse is a fascist!”

While Gavras clearly sympathizes with their causes (the Soviet-aligned Allende government and the French abortion rights movement), their behavior as refracted through the lens of their daughter frequently appears dubious. Sometimes it crosses the line into outright irresponsibility, as when they take their children to a street demonstration and temporarily lose Anna when the proceedings devolve into a riot. Gavras is the daughter of Costas-Gavras, the leftist film director, so one cannot help wondering how much of her childhood is, perhaps inadvertently, reflected in Anna.

The fact that either end of the spectrum can take something from the film is what makes it interesting. Certainly no mention is made of the KGB’s financial support of Allende’s campaign or the hyper-inflation chaos that marked his second year in office. However, the common sense of Anna is often seen in opposition to her parents’ ideology in some sharply written scenes. Anna’s challenge to her parents to differentiate their definitions of “group solidarity” and “sheep behavior” is a particularly apt example.

The quality of the writing is one major key to Blame’s success. It is an intelligent screenplay that is a family drama at its core, which most could identify with at some level. When watching the extra deleted scenes, one sees how Gavras made decisions based on requirements of story, not political impact (the original screen tests of the child stars can be safely skipped though).

Of course, Kervel’s performance is also central to the film. On screen nearly for the entire film, she seems to be a natural actor, conveying Anna’s intelligence and intuitiveness. She is able to play the character acting out, without losing the audience’s sympathy. (By contrast, based on the behind the scenes features, there did not seem to be much acting going on with Benjamin Feuillet as the annoying younger brother in major need of Ritalin.)

Gavras proves to be a sensitive director, aided by a charming score by Armand Amar. Whatever her political intentions were with Blame, to its credit, it should prove enjoyable to viewers across the ideological spectrum.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Fundamental Blues

Last night I spent five hours in church, and I doubt Old Scratch took any satisfaction from the fact that jazz was being played nearly the entire time. After regular jazz vespers, the Jazz Foundation of America had a moving tribute to their co-founder Herb Storfer and Chairman Dr. Leo Corbie, with beautiful music from Dr. Billy Taylor, Bertha Hope, Jimmy Owens, and others.

Coincidentally, I have been following some pitched internet skirmishes in recent weeks regarding Bob Jones University’s ban on jazz. (It seems like fun in general is banned at BJU, but this debate only focused on jazz.) While I’m sympathetic to the general cause of jazz there, I doubt intruding into their debate as an outsider would have been helpful, but it led to some thoughts here.

Regardless of what you think of the institution and its troubling past policies, it does have a certain reputation (to put it mildly), that will likely make employment particularly difficult for its music majors. Classical symphony positions are extremely scarce, difficult even for graduates of elite Northeast conservatories to attain. If they had some instruction in jazz, BJU grads would actually have a better foundation for real-world musical employment, like backing up singers, pit orchestras, studio work, and maybe even their own gigs. They could also network within rehearsal big bands. Jazz instruction might not make you rich (usually far from it), but it does give graduates more employment opportunities within music that really are not available to the solely conservatory trained.

Much was made in the debate of jazz’s red-light district roots, which is a historic fact. However, it is not like Jelly Roll Morton voluntarily decided of all the places in the world to play, he would choose a bordello. Early twentieth century African-American musicians in New Orleans had to take their opportunities where they could find them, even in Storyville. Such arguments do a particular disservice to the New Orleans jazz pioneers, who were almost entirely devout, God-fearing individuals. Hymns like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” were in the standard repertoire of every traditional New Orleans musician, and nothing symbolizes the birthplace of jazz more than the stately jazz funeral, culminating with “The Saints.”

I am not an Evangelical Christian (more of a Lutheran with Catholic inclinations), but I think they are often misrepresented by the media. Pointing out this debate will only confirm some of those prejudices, but the BJU policy on jazz does not help anyone. Should they ever reverse policy though, it is hard to think who would be a good fit for the jazz chair. (New York hipster joins Evangelical faculty—could be the basis of a good sitcom.) Still, I’m always in favor of more employment for jazz artists.

Evidently, BJU agrees with Oprah and Letterman on one thing—unfortunately that would be their low regard for jazz. The jazz partisans are probably right that this policy costs BJU potential Christian music students. In truth, it is America’s churches that are proving to be one of the few growing markets for the music. St. Peter’s may have been the first church to regularly feature jazz in a worship service, but it is no longer alone. Years ago, Ellington and Brubeck proved that jazz can make a powerful statement of praise. Currently, many younger jazz artists are following in that tradition. For now, BJU students are just missing out on something good.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Bennett/Benedetto in the Studio

Tony Bennett in the Studio
By Tony Bennett with Robert Sullivan
Sterling Publishing

There is actually quite a body of museum quality fine art produced by jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and Pee Wee Russell. Perhaps the best known jazz artist-visual artist double threat is the unflaggingly popular vocalist Tony Bennett. His second collection of drawings and paintings, Tony Bennett in the Studio, has been recently published in time for the Christmas shopping hordes.

For an art book, Studio has a surprising amount of text, mostly written by Robert Sullivan giving the highlights of Bennett’s career. Many of these episodes will be familiar to the legions of Bennett’s fans. However, his early 1970’s years in London are rightly identified as an underappreciated point in his career. His Verve/MGM records from this period, working with the likes of Robert Farnon and Don Costa, are some of the finest of his career and ought to be available alongside the better known Columbia releases. Also, Sullivan quotes Bennett remembering this as the period he took his natural talent for painting to a higher level:

“I’d been painting whenever I could, but it was this year in London that I really started to get serious about it. I found a wonderful professor of art, John Barnicoat, who gave me private instruction. . . I became more serious about painting than I’d ever been, and I’ve never looked back.” (p. 120)

While Bennett might be a pop-jazz crossover artist, his affection for jazz is well established, and can be seen in the pages of Studio. In addition to the illustrious figures of jazz history, like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, Bennett also depicts some of the musicians’ musicians of jazz, like Scott Hamilton, Ted Curson, and his longtime musical director Ralph Sharon. You can also hear some of Bennett’s favorite jazz artists on the sampler disk packaged with Studio. “The Very Thought of You” features lovely trumpet obbligatos from Bobby Hackett and “But Beautiful” is one of his sublime duets with Bill Evans. (A Bennett portrait of Evans used as the cover of the pianist’s Blue in Green record is also included in Studio.)

While Sullivan’s text is informative, its hero-worshipping tone can be a bit distracting, repeatedly telling us that despite his undeniable talent, Bennett is just plain folk around his adoring public. Fortunately, this is not the sort of book you get for the text, but for the art, which is quite good, much of it reflecting an acknowledged influence from the Impressionists. It is interesting to note Bennett sings under his stage name, but signs his work by his given name Bennedetto (this observation from someone who blogs under his initials).

For those who own Bennett’s previous mid-1990’s collection, What My Heart Has Seen, there is some overlap in the painting each volume collects. In general, Studio includes many more sketches and drawings, as well as more subject matter drawn from music and from European trips. Logically, it also includes newer works, like Christo’s Gates in Central Park and Bill Charlap with the Washingtons at Jazz Standard.

Heart is shorter and is more New York City centered, but its introduction by Ralph Sharon is actually preferable to the celebrity prefaces to Studio from the likes of Mitch Albom and Mario Cuomo (I’m sure they really are famous friends of his, but would you turn to either for insight into art or music?). In Studio, Bennett explains to Sullivan how Sharon’s advice to the young newly signed singer was crucial helping him find his identity:

“‘[Columbia Record’s Mitch] Miller wanted me to do one ballad after another,’ he say. ‘Ralph Sharon said, ‘Make sure you do some jazz.’ Ralph knew how much I loved jazz. He knew that, really, I’m a jazz singer. In this commercial world they put me in the traditional pop category, because, well, I’m white and Italian.” (p. 45)

Studio also lists the various recordings Bennett cut and the awards and honors he has received, including the 2006 NEA Jazz Master title. Recently, he won another coveted jazz prize, well after Studio would have gone to press—the Downbeat Readers Poll for best male vocalist. Packaged with a short sampler CD and priced at $29.95, it really is a decent value as a Christmas gift item, handsomely presenting Bennett’s art for his loyal fans.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Cos Says: Come On People

Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors
By Bill Cosby & Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D.
Thomas Nelson

A longtime supporter of jazz, Bill Cosby has been seen at every Great Night in Harlem benefit concert for the Jazz Foundation of America, usually as the host. In I Spy, he was the first African-American actor to co-star on equal footing with a white counterpart. So when he takes it upon himself to speak out on the state of African-American culture and community, it is worth taking notice. Much of what he has said recently has generated controversy. However, it is mostly common sense mixed with a little tough love that Cosby and co-writer Dr. Alvin Poussaint have to offer in their new book Come On People, the title to which comes from their frequently repeated exhortation to their readers.

Their recommendations should not sound outlandish: fathers should not abandon their children, kids should stay in school, and everyone should stay off drugs and eat more nutritious foods. Some of their prescriptions are decidedly liberal, such as expanding government health insurance programs.

However, when decrying the effects of single parent families, Cosby and Poussaint recall Vice Pres. Quayle’s Murphy Brown controversy, aligning themselves with the former VP. They write:

“When people say, ‘I never liked the Huxtables,’ we know why. People who don’t like Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable don’t like—or don’t know—their own fathers.

We can’t speak honestly of black culture in America unless and until we honestly address the issue of the estrangement of fathers and their children.” (p. 16)

While certainly advocating an active role for the government, to their credit, Cosby and Poussaint resist dogmatic ideological approaches. They promote the benefits of entrepreneurship and see a positive role for the church to play in healing rifts both in the family and in society at large. They repeatedly acknowledge the pernicious effects of slavery, but refuse to use it as a scapegoat for all that ails African-American communities. They argue:

“Certain people tell us that we are picking on the poor. Many of those who accuse us are scholars and intellectuals, upset that we are not blaming everything on white people as they do. Well, blaming only the system keeps certain black people in the limelight, but it also keeps the black poor wallowing in victimhood.” (p. 221)

However, People should not be seen as Cosby’s conservative coming out party, despite coming from Christian publisher Thomas Nelson (which also has Current, a largely conservative imprint). He and Poussaint proscribe an expansive economic role for the government and laud the Nation of Islam for being active in their communities.

In fact, they prove to be better cultural critics and healthcare advocates than economists. They sincerely urge young African-Americans accept any honest work available to them, arguing: “You don’t flip burgers for the rest of your life. You flip them to become the manager of the place. You flip burgers to move from manager to owner.” (p. 225) Yet they advocate raising the minimum wage, which always leads to a reduction in entry level jobs.

They have much to say about culture in general, and music in particular, but despite Cosby’s longstanding love for jazz, it figures little in People. (Wynton Marsalis is featured in one of many profiles of accomplishment, and Dizzy Gillespie is quoted at length at one point.) However, hip-hop and gangsta rap are criticized in no uncertain terms. According to Cosby and Poussaint:

“Those who defend gangsta rap claim there is no harm in profanity, no harm in vulgarizing women, no harm dropping out of school, no harm in blaming the system for the disaster they have made of their own lives. They don’t fight the mess they have inherited. They glory in it.” (p. 143)

There is no question People is a well intentioned book that raises some important issues. With frequent sidebars quoting from participants at the town hall style “Call-Outs” and “Life Lesson” success stories, it is a fast read, but it can also be repetitive. Straddling current events and self-help, People should lead to some useful discussions, but it also talks down to its audience at times—if you need Bill Cosby to tell you to floss you are in real trouble.

Readers looking for his “I-brought-you-into-the-world-and-I-can-take-you-out” parenting humor should stick with his backlist, as little of the Cosby comedy is on display in the deadly serious People. However, Cosby has had an undeniably huge impact of American culture, so the cultural criticism he writes here deserves serious consideration.

(Note: The authors will be signing at the Lincoln Triangle B&N on Dec. 19th.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cyrus Plays Elvis

Cyrus Plays Elvis
By Cyrus Chestnut
Koch Records

Elvis Presley might be the king of rock ‘n’ roll, but many consider him an imitator of the great African American R&B artists who preceded him, even appropriating some of their hits. Now Cyrus Chestnut returns the favor, reinterpreting the Presley songbook in a jazz context with his latest release, Cyrus Plays Elvis.

While the Presley canon might seem like an odd (the snobbish might say pandering) choice for a jazz musician, Chestnut has long been attracted to crowd pleasing music, regularly playing Christmas music during his holiday season engagements, for instance. Like Presley, Chestnut also has deep gospel roots. Though at times uneven, Cyrus Plays Elvis is largely unabashedly breezy, fun music that would nicely go with an afternoon at the local coffee-house.

CPE opens with “Hound Dog,” actually one of the most faithful adaptations, taken as an up-tempo rollicker that does feature some dazzling runs by Chestnut. There are perils in tackling an iconic artist’s songbook, in that opinions will vary widely as to which are the true highlights and which are merely over-rated hits. Honestly, “Hound Dog” never really did it for me, and neither did the following “Don’t Be Cruel.” However, Chestnut gives it an interesting twist, taking it at a slower tempo to get to its blues core, at times even throwing in some Monkish accents.

“Can’t Help Falling in Love” gets a much more faithful reading, that sticks largely to the original melody. The addition of Mark Gross’s soprano is pretty, at the risk of sounding syrupy. As a delicate love song “Love Me Tender” is more successful, showcasing Chestnut inventiveness but maintaining an intimate vibe. Gross returns on tenor later on the more successfully sentimental “Don’t,” but one cannot help thinking this would have been better as a strictly trio release, given Chestnut is much more interesting as a soloist, but plays primarily a supportive role on the horn tracks.

There is one “inspired by” original titled “Graceland” that nicely demonstrates his trio’s compatibility swinging together nicely. “Heartbreak Hotel” ranges furthest afield from the original Presley version, given a darker sound, slower tempo, and more elliptical melody statement by Chestnut, as well as more turbulent percussion by drummer Neal Smith. Chestnut also ratchets down “In the Ghetto,” from a sweeping social-issue song (one of very few in the Presley songbook) to an introspective personal statement.

“How Great Thou Art” was probably the only tune here that was in Chestnut’s repertoire before the Presley project. It is one of the many hymns Presley recorded. (According to his biographers, Presley’s favorite pastimes included singing gospel songs with friends, and listening to the records of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.) His spare but stirring solo performance is a fitting conclusion to his Presley program.

CPE is at its best without a guest horn, and when the arrangements venture away from the familiar Presley recordings. Throughout, Chestnut is a consistently inventive soloist who often does put his personal stamp on these songs. Considering the proliferation of Beatles jazz projects, it seems strange the home-grown King remains relatively untapped. CPE takes a credible, if not groundbreaking, crack at his songs.

(Note: This review was reprinted in the 12/6/07 edition of The Epoch Times by permission of J.B. Spins.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Season for Celebration

With the holidays gearing up, it is time to celebrate. Frankly, anytime people come together in the spirit of camaraderie to make music is cause for celebration. In the last four days, New York offered two very different music related parties, but a good time was had by all at both.

I first heard TOMOKO at St. Peter’s leading the congregation through Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and was totally impressed by her voice. Friday, she launched her debut CD Organically Afro Asiatic at the swank 230 Fifth. While she is actually more of soul or R&B singer, her CD was co-executive produced by Wycliffe Gordon (the jazz trombonist who first came to prominence in Wynton Marsalis’s group and the Jazz @ Lincoln Center band), who also plays on two tracks. TOMOKO has an amazing voice and is a poised performer. Strongly influenced by Stevie Wonder, fans of the Motown legend should definitely appreciate her music too. (You can watch her new video, which definitely should sell a lot of CDs, here.)

Then last night, the Jazz Foundation of America held its annual Thanksgiving party for friends, clients, and supporters, in the vastly different setting of Local 802, featuring the famous and the should-be famous jamming together to create some fantastic music. Wendy and the Foundation do the Lord’s work, looking out for sick and elderly musicians who have dedicated their lives to the music. They worked tirelessly in the wake of Katrina, when their client rolls expanded exponentially. JFA also has a new CD available of the 2007 Great Night in Harlem, which you can purchase here to support their efforts.

Unfortunately, the Foundation will have another, more somber celebration this coming Sunday. Their co-founder Herb Storfer and Chairman Dr. Leo Corbie passed away within weeks of each other, so the Foundation will pay tribute to their lives and gifts in a joint memorial. Taking things full circle, it will be at St. Peter’s at 7:00 PM. Again, supporting the Foundation would be a fitting tribute to both men. Happy Holidays.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A New Terror

Cracker—A New Terror
Directed by Antonia Bird
Acorn Media

Visiting England in late 2001, I heard many expressions of friendship and empathy for America and horror at the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks. How much 7/7 changed attitudes, I could not say. However, it is hard to see how the Britain depicted in Cracker—A New Terror could possibly re-elect Tony Blair, or have any kind words for a visiting American.

Newly released on DVD after airing on BBC America, ANT is billed as the final episode of the British ITV crime series Cracker, of feature length and directed by film director Antonia Bird (best known for the controversial Priest), bringing back hard-drinking, compulsive gambling Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a forensic psychologist, just returned to Manchester for his daughter’s wedding after seven years in Australia. Evidently, while he was visiting the beaches down under, Fitz took advantage of an opportunity to jump the shark.

“Fitz” is his usual charming self, except more politically charged, as he makes small talk with wedding guests, like: “suicide bomber kills ten in Iraq, won’t you confess to even a slight tinge of disappointment that not one of them was American, that they were all Iraqis that died?”

Cracker is the cat-and-mouse variety of crime series rather than a whodunit, so we soon know the killer is one of their own: Archer, an ex-military copper, tormented by the memory of a particularly heinous IRA attack in Northern Ireland, for which, of course, he blames America.

The general action of ANT follows a basic pattern: 1. Killer launches into an anti-American tirade. 2. Killer kills. 3. Fitz launches into his own anti-American monologue while tracking the killer. 4. Repeat 1-3.

The original Cracker was stark, gritty TV—naturalistic crime drama as if written by Arthur Miller. Watch Season One, which features Carol Kidd’s (an excellent Scottish jazz vocalist whose career was launched by Sinatra) renditions of “Summertime” and “Stormy Weather” as reoccurring motifs in the debut episode: “The Mad Woman in the Attic.”

Fitz’s interrogations were the centerpieces of each episode, and in ANT it does provide a moment of moral clarity. Analyzing the episode which haunts Archer, Fitz explains: “the soldier trusts the humanity of the sniper. He’s not going to shoot where there’s a pram, but the sniper knows this . . . it’s the abuse of humanity.” Unfortunately, it is a long trek to get to that point, and shortly thereafter it reverts to form, with Fitz virulently bashing America and Bush in an attempt to draw Archer out. Robbie Coltrane was probably born to play Fitz, and he again brings a world-weary gravitas to the role. Unfortunately, the performances are overwhelmed by ANT’s agenda and constant background noise.

The Britain of ANT is truly Orwellian, but not in the way intended by the filmmakers. Just like Big Brother, the leftist media is omnipresent, bombarding citizens and viewers with propaganda reports designed to undercut support for coalition forces and our Iraqi allies. Even die-hard partisans would find it a tad didactic. Check out Season one or other great British mystery series, like Inspector Lynley or Rebus, instead.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Local Dialect

Local Dialect
By Jay Azzolina

Just North of Yonkers, Hastings-on-Hudson is a Westchester village easily accessible to the City via commuter rail. While it may never eclipse celebrated jazz communities like Harlem and the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, at various times in its history Hastings-on-Hudson has been home to many jazz legends, including Michael Brecker, Ralph Sutton, and Fats Waller. It has also been home to guitarist Jay Azzolina and his musical comrades, Tim Ries and John Patitucci, who join Azzolina on his latest release: Local Dialect.

While Azzolina is probably best known for his association with Spyro Gyra, Dialect is a varied, but largely straight ahead session, as established by the opener, “Friends of Friends,” with its intriguing melody and complex rhythms. Benefiting from Rolling Stones sideman and jazz interpreter Tim Ries’s horn arrangement, it is a great vehicle for some smoldering solos by Azzolina and Ries. The easy groover “Three Ladies” follows in one of Dialect’s many shifts of tone. Again Azzolina shows a facility for attractive melodies and tasteful solo statements, accented by Ries’s flute and some short, but attractive brass passages.

Larry Goldings joins the group (minus the horns) for three soul-jazz oriented organ combo numbers. “Mind Your Mind,” performed as a trio with drummer Greg Hutchinson, is the bluesiest in its vibe, whereas “Between Thoughts” and the closer “Exit Strategy” are more up-tempo swingers, giving plenty of space to Azzolina and Goldings to have their say.

The Latin flavored “Angel’s Dance” is a dramatic change a pace, featuring Azzolina’s guitar and vocalizing accompanied only by the percussion of Cyro Baptista. It’s a standout track that really adds another sonic dimension to the release.

“Smile For Me” might be the most pleasing for his Spyro fans, combining a funky backbeat, with keyboards, flute, and soprano sax. The other tune employing keyboards is the darker, more challenging “Acceptance,” propelled by Janko R.’s insistent drum program.

Throughout its shifts in personnel, Dialect enjoys the rock-solid rhythmic support of Patitucci and Hutchinson. With their assistance and that of his other guests, Azzolina makes some eloquent statements, both as a composer and as a soloist.

(Note: Azzolina will be playing in the Citywith Ries and Hutchinson at the Cutting Room on Nov. 27th, at 9:30.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Best of L.C.D., Free Form Radio’s Greatest Hits

The Best of LCD: The Art and Writing of WFMU-FM 91.1
Edited by Dave the Spazz
Princeton Architectural Press

WFMU holds a privileged place in the hearts of New York vinyl lovers. Even those who are not devotees of WFMU’s surviving free form format (or lack there of), revere the station as the sponsor of the City’s best record show. Even WFMU’s program guides, ironically titled L.C.D., for lowest common denominator, developed a cult following and attracted big name contributors, some of whom are included in the new retrospective Best of L.C.D., edited by WFMU program host Dave the Spazz.

True to its free form roots, L.C.D. collects writings on a wide array of music. Perhaps in recognition of WFMU’s unique place in the current radio continuum, there are also frequent profiles of significant figures in wireless history. For instance, Rob Weisberg writes: “Out of twelve Americans indicted for treason following World War II, all but five were radio broadcasters—a fact all of us at FMU can be proud of.” (p. 36) It turns out Mildred Gillars, a.k.a. “Axis Sally,” had attended Hunter College, and her propaganda boss and ex-lover Max Otto Koischwitz taught at the Manhattan school (something I will now remember whenever the 6 train stops at 68th Street).

Jazz is well represented among L.C.D.’s diverse selection of music profiles and criticism. Although not listed in the table of contents, there is an insightful profile of Joe Maneri by Harvey Pekar that tantalizing describes the reedman’s then-unreleased first session originally recorded for Atlantic Records. Some pieces are surprisingly personal, like avant-garde saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s piece on the father he never knew. The elder Eskelin recorded as Rodd Keith in the “song poem” field, essentially the 1960’s recording industry equivalent of vanity publishing. Despite working with strange material sent in from suckers around the country, Eskelin writes of the respect many shared for his father’s talent:

“I began seeking out people who knew him. The responses were uncannily similar as if these people, many of whom did not know each other, were all speaking from the same script. ‘Your father was a musical genius’ are usually the first words out of their mouths.” (p. 131)

Many of the pieces are very funny too, like the grudge match between Don McLean and his former opening act Andy Breckman. Some of the best lines come from FMU host and expert on all things Jim Flora related (latest book reviewed here), Irwin Chusid, whose “No Justice—No Airplay!” offer a witty response to demands WFMU boycott the Beach Boys for playing Sun City. Happily free form radio would remain just as free of PC restrictions as of corporate play-lists. Most applicable are his cautionary writings on the dangers of reading: “People who read a lot are usually withdrawn, introverted, and behave awkwardly, unaccustomed to dealing with their peers.” (p. 25)

As someone working in publishing, I completely concur. Books are not meant to be read, but purchased and placed strategically around your apartment to impress your friends with your erudition. (I provide these reviews as a public service, so you can bluff your way through if someone asks your opinion.) L.C.D. will be a good book for that purpose. Including many color pages of past issue covers and portraits of musicians and other figures, it will look great on the coffee table. Most importantly, it sends the right message: you support WFMU. For you “listener supported” is not just the title of a disappointing Dave Matthews release, it is a way of life.

While uneven, like free form radio, L.C.D. is often fascinating. Sure some of the cartoons just do not make any sense, and there are certain excesses in both art and prose. Yet the profiles of both the celebrated, like Doc Pomus, as well as obscure figures like Hawaiian exotica stylist Paul Page, will appeal adventurous listeners everywhere

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Name of Ayler

In many ways, Albert Ayler flew in the face of preconceived notions of the avant-garde. Where some practitioners of the “New Thing” were as fiery in their words as in their music, Ayler was soft-spoken, the model of a sensitive artist. It is that aspect of Ayler Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin focuses on in his documentary treatment of the jazz artist, My Name is Albert Ayler.

Name achieves intimacy in its portrait of the artist through the close cooperation of Ayler’s father Edward and his troubled trumpeter brother Donald, as well as video and audio clips of Ayler’s music. We also hear from Ayler in his own words, through sometimes eerie sounding interview recordings, some of which are also available in the highly recommended Revenant box-set, Holy Ghost.

After a stint in the military, Ayler honed his music in Europe, before returning to America, and eventually signing with Impulse thanks to the influence of his mentor John Coltrane. Ayler faced various professional challenges to his unconventional music, while at the same time he was increasingly pressured to look after his brother and front-line mate. During this period, many believed Ayler was deliberately isolated from friends and family by his manager/lover Mary Parks. (Though declining to appear on-screen, Parks did consent to phone interviews with the clearly frustrated Collin, asserting her off-screen voice would create a sense of mystery for the film.)

Tragically, Ayler committed suicide in 1970, though many have harbored suspicions regarding the circumstances of his death. Collin however, made a conscious editorial decision not to explore such issues. In a Q&A following the 7:00 screening yesterday, Collin also alluded to further Ayler family troubles, which he declined to address in the film. It is actually refreshing to see a filmmaker respect the privacy of his subjects, and clearly he wished to keep the focus squarely on Ayler the man, and his music.

Of Collin’s other interview subjects, former Ayler and Cecil Taylor sideman Sunny Murray brings the most to the table. Often insightful and at times quite funny, Murray has some of the more fitting words of summation, suggesting many who followed Ayler may have played with similar energy, but in Ayler you could hear someone truly playing with his heart.

Name begins and ends with ninety year-old Edward Ayler during a visit to his son’s gravesite in a Cleveland cemetery. These scenes of the devoutly dignified elder Ayler take on additional poignancy with the recent news of the death of his younger son Donald.

While less adventurous ears might be intimidated by a documentary of such a touchstone figure of the avant-garde, Ayler’s music is actually more accessible than people realize, especially if heard in the full context of the performance, and not just in isolated honks or shrieks (and of course his late R&B oriented New Grass material should not unsettle any listeners).

Collin’s film is respectful, bordering on the reverential. Well focused, it does convey some sense of Ayler as an individual. Its New York run ends tonight at the Anthology Film Archives, but will play limited runs in other cities in the coming months, including Ayler’s hometown of Cleveland starting November 17th. It is well worth seeing if it unspools in your city.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Directed by Christoffer Boe
Koch Entertainment

The films of legendary Soviet film director and eventual defector Andrei Tarkovsky were renowned for the degree to which past intrudes on present, to the point of problematizing conceptions of reality. They were not known especially for their use of music. Ironically his films have recently inspired the compositions of Francois Couturier, and Christoffer Boe’s film Allegro, in which classical music plays an important role.

As in Takovsky’s Stalker, there is a mysterious region known as “the Zone,” but instead of the Russian wilderness, Allegro’s forbidden Zone is an otherworldly addition to the Copenhagen city center. Bordered by invisible force-fields prohibiting entry, the sudden appearance of the Zone seems to correspond to the loss of the memories of the emotionally frozen concert pianist Zetterstrom.

Hurt by the loss of his lover Andrea, Zetterstrom has withdrawn from all meaningful human contact, pursuing technical perfection at the piano. Zetterstrom is a Glenn Gould raised to multiple powers, insisting on screens to mask him from the audience, lest the visual aspect of his performance interfere with music itself.

Eventually, Zetterstrom returns to Copenhagen to seek his lost memories in the Zone, with the help of a strange host, who also serves as the film’s narrator. Allegro is a film which defies easy summarization. Ultimately, it is difficult to say what is really “real,” and what is illusion, but everything which unfolds on screen is undoubtedly real to Zetterstrom. Fortunately, unlike recent films by David Lynch, Boe has no problems giving some narrative structure for viewers to follow, even providing an animated timeline of Zetterstrom’s life.

Ulrich Thomsen, perhaps best known to American audiences as the truth-telling sibling Christian in the Dogma 95 picture The Celebration, is excellent in the challenging role of Zetterstrom, suggesting the confusion buried somewhere deep beneath the glacial protective shell. Supermodel Helena Christensen nicely conveys the sensitivity of the beautiful Andrea. Almost as important as the actors is the rich cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro, who makes the buildings of Copenhagen at night glow with a sense of mystery.

If you require uncomplicated, linear narratives, sorry, Allegro just won’t work for you. However, if you enjoy storylines which feature some psychological gamesmanship, you will be fascinated by Allegro. Think of it as a blend of Tarkovsky’s hyper-real science fiction films like Stalker and Solaris, mixed with Un Coeur en Hiver’s drama of arrested emotional development. Like the Claude Sautet film, Allegro uses classical music motifs effectively, providing real keys to understanding the lead character.

Borrowing a page from Woody Allen, Boe has a fictional music critic address the camera mock-documentary style at one point, to give this assessment of Zetterstrom: “He is a great pianist. Outstanding. No doubt about that. Technically speaking . . . But where is his passion?”

He may have achieved technical perfection, but his emotional interpretation is lacking. The Zetterstrom we meet could only be a classical musician, and never an improvising jazz double threat like André Previn or Friedrich Gulda. Elegantly crafted and rich in detail, Allegro is a challenging, but rewarding film that uses music in interesting ways to tell its surreal tale.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer, Celebrity, 1923-2007

Summing up Norman Mailer has been a thorny proposition for obituary writers. Roger Kimball had no trouble passing judgment on Mailer’s literary body of work, but on Sunday, The NY Times struggled to find a consistent note. It seems clear his literary reputation had been shrinking in recent years, particularly if one looks at current scholarship on jazz literature.

Mailer notoriously used jazz in his essay “The White Negro,” as a symbol of a sexual potent existentialism that only achieves full flowering in acts of nihilistic violence, leading him to glorify the hypothetical impulse killing of a candy-store owner by juvenile delinquents. Mailer infamously wrote: “jazz is orgasm” and as a result, created a raft of hipster baggage for jazz artists to deal with.

Mailer’s violent racial and sexual jazz associations were not well received by some at the time, and have aged poorly. David Yaffe is remarkably even-handed and dispassionate in his analysis of jazz and American literature in Fascinating Rhythm, but his portrayal of Mailer is not flattering. Of Mailer’s understanding of jazz, Yaffe writes:

“A detailed investigation of what was actually happening on and around the bandstand would have complicated his argument, and the nuance would have cooled the fire of his prose. Mailer needed musicians to be tough, black, and hypersexual men, and the last thing he wanted was for bop to be the ‘miscegenated’ phenomenon identified by [Anatole] Broyard.” (p. 36)

Yaffe dramatizes Mailer’s musical ignorance with this description:

“Those who knew Mailer well said he never did have an ear for music, and, according to Carl Rollyson’s biography, he rented a saxophone to play along with Monk’s music despite his complete inability to play the instrument. Indiscriminately honking along with Monk’s music was ‘hip’ to Mailer, who thought he was witnessing black masculinity in its purest unadulterated form.” (p. 38)

While Yaffe’s analysis of “The White Negro” as jazz writing is unflattering, he gives it credit on some levels, arguing it: “misses the music but succeeds as polemic.” (p. 197) Another recent scholarly examination of “The White Negro” comes from Scott Saul in Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties. The political tone of Saul’s writing suggests he would be more inclined to cut Mailer slack for ideological reasons, but he quotes extensive criticism of “WN” from contemporary critics:

“Nat Hentoff criticized Mailer for inflating the acumen of the hipsters, whose ‘reactions’ to jazz were ‘as superficial and unknowledgeable’ as those of white ‘adolescents’ who loved the onstage hamming of Stan Kenton . . . Some of its practitioners, he added evenhandedly, led itinerant lives of adventure and disrepute, but many were ‘cigar makers, dock workers, artisans, sons of small businessmen,’ even ‘the children of the middle class.” (p. 68)

Others were even more caustic according to Saul, like Ralph Ellison, whose letter to Albert Murray complaining about Mailer and Jack Kerouac is also cited:

“These characters are all trying to reduce the world to sex, man, they must have strange problems in bed . . . That’s what’s behind Mailer’s belief in the hipster and the ‘white Negro’ as the new culture hero” (ellipsis in Saul, p. 69)

Mailer needed 1960’s jazz to be 1990’s hip-hop. That many jazz artists were consciously working to perfect their art while working to provide for their families was not sufficiently revolutionary. He would eventually move on to more suitable objects for hero-worship: convicted killers Gary Gilmore and professed Marxist Jack Abbott.

Kimball might be dismissive of Mailer’s talent as a writer, but I would argue there was at least some “there” there, at one time. The only Mailer novel I have read is his critically castigated Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Churned out in a matter of months when Mailer was in desperate financial straights, it is filled with foul language and misogynistic sex, perhaps the perfect window into his soul. It is also an oddly compelling crime novel that pulls you through the story by the nose (though Mailer would probably say he was reaching for a different body part). In the NY Times obit, Mailer actually identifies it as one of his favorites—sometimes the wolf at the door can be a heck of a muse. Mailer also deserves credit for his aspiration to write “the Great American Novel,” a lofty goal, that he can not be blamed for failing (by his own admission) to attain.

Mailer evidently came to consider himself above editing, as his books became increasingly long polemical doorstoppers. Fewer and fewer among the literary smart set would feel the need to keep up with Harlot’s Ghost and Oswald’s Tale. In his later years Mailer was evolving from vaunted literary figure to mere celebrity, writing an O.J. Simpson mini-series, and even guest-starring on The Gilmore Girls. Such were the demands of maintaining celebrity status. Guilty pleasures aside, Mailer’s future place in the literary canon is increasingly murky, and his writings on jazz in particular have already fallen into critical disfavor.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Harlem Rivers

Note to my publishing colleagues: someone needs to sign Sam Rivers to write his memoirs. He has the distinction of having played with Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, and Dizzy Gillespie. As one would expect, he has a lot of stories, which as evidenced last night, he is eager to tell.

Rivers was the focus of a three part Columbia/Harlem Jazz Project concert at Aaron Davis Hall Saturday. The first part was an interview conducted by Brent Hayes Edwards, in which Rivers proved a cooperative subject—no Stephen Wright monosyllabic responses for him—followed by various small groups drawn from the Rivbea Orchestra, concluding with the full Rivbea.

While Rivers’ claimed his facility on reeds has slowed due to age, it was not apparent during his sets, especially when spontaneously improvising as part of his trio, with Doug Matthews on bass and Rion Smith on drums. Equally impressive was their rendition of his ballad “Nightfall.” Although enjoyable, his horn ensembles were not up to the same level of emotional heft. The concluding performances by the full orchestra had great energy, but are striking in their difference from his spontaneous compositions.

While Rivers is revered for his early avant-garde work in the 1960’s and 1970’s and his contemporary free improvisations, the big band charts Rivbea played last night brought to mind some of the funky late 1960’s big band work of Gerald Wilson and (no kidding) even Buddy Rich. With funky electric bass lines and short but swinging solos, tunes like “Quagmire” sounded a world away from the small group. That is not a bad thing though. In fact, it makes for a fascinating evening of music.

Watching Rivers is a show unto itself. Again, his playing is still remarkably strong (his protests notwithstanding). His communication as a leader can be a bit chaotic, but one can definitely see how the Rivers was a natural in the 1970’s loft scene. Saturday he was not afraid to call musicians back and start over, but not in a confrontational way a la Mingus. He was just uninhibited by the concert stage in any manner. He is a trip to listen to, but unfortunately some of the stories cut into the time for the music. That is why he needs a publisher. There must be a house out there for him.

Rivers now lives in Florida, where the Rivbea Orchestra has a regular gig in Orlando at the Palace Theatre every second Wednesday. Since he does not play New York as often now, last night’s concert was an event, which should have been better publicized by Columbia. Believe me, I get a lot of press releases, but I only heard about it on myspace. This is why you should make “friends” with all the musicians you enjoy—you might otherwise miss a great show.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Mahavishnu at Montreux

Mahavishnu Orchestra Live at Montreux
Eagle Eye Media

You know John McLaughlin must be cool—there’s a Miles Davis song named after him (on Bitches Brew, no less). The Mahavishnu Orchestra would be his post-Miles entry in the then booming fusion super-group market of the 1970’s. Fusing jazz, rock, and at times classical music, the Mahavishnu Orchestra would be very popular in the seventies, even as they morphed line-ups several times. However, the reconstituted Orchestra of the 1980’s comes front and center in the new DVD release Live at Montreux.

While the eighties Orchestra may not have been as acclaimed, and was more conventional in its instrumentation, it had the benefit of Bill Evans (the saxman, not the pianist or the New York weatherman) on reeds. An under-rated player fresh from a stint with Miles Davis himself, Evans was a great foil for McLaughlin. Some of the most rewarding elements of this release are the contributions from Evans it documents. The major drawbacks would its “eighties-ness,” represented by various electronic vocoders and guitar synthesizers.

There is indeed some great playing on the 1984 set, particularly by Evans. “Nostalgia’s” In a Silent Way vibe is aided by his sensitive soprano, a reed that his former boss Davis came to prefer during the later stages of his career. Evans also displays an up-tempo prowess on tenor during “East Side, West Side,” a burner featuring a funky keyboard solo from Mitchell Foreman, which segues into an affectionate cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Unfortunately, here McLaughlin’s axe is outfitted with an of-its-time sounding Synclavier 2 synthesizer giving it a tinny keyboard sound.

That effect works best combined with Evans soprano on the affecting melody of “Clarendon Hills,” a feature for Evans, and also the city of his birth in Illinois. Again, it meshes well with Foreman’s keyboards in the Zawinul-esque intro to “Mitch Match,” a melodic, up-tempo jazz-rock flag-waver (in the “Birdland” tradition), which they reprise for their encore.

For many though, the real highlight will be the second disk presenting the MO live at Montreux in 1974. Of the six tunes on the disk, only two tracks have video (the other four audio tracks are accompanied by CGI solar eclipse montages), but as extended jams, together they clock in over thirty minutes. This is one of the preferred, classic MO ensembles, including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, as well as Gayle Moran, performing the sort of wordless vocals that would mark her work with husband Chick Corea’s Return to Forever.

As presented here, the 1984 MO is more of a jazz-fusion combo, with an emphasis on solos and the 1974 MO was more of an ensemble, producing some exotic textures of sound. Having them together make for an interesting comparison study.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Pacquito D’Rivera, #1 with a Clarinet

The returns are for Downbeat magazine’s 72nd annual readers poll, and Pacquito D’Rivera took top honors in the clarinet category. This is of course, a most satisfactory outcome, as this blog has campaigned for D’Rivera in the clarinet category for two years in a row.

With the switch from paper ballots to online voting, participation in the poll was up dramatically. Editor Jason Koransky noted some surprising new winners emerged as a result, including Tony Bennett, who hard as it is to believe, topped the male vocalist category for the first time in his career this year. Another such winner was D’Rivera, who as Koransky writes: “had placed high but had never been named Clarinetist of the Year. Until Now.”

The official returns were 499 votes for D’Rivera over second place finishing Don Byron with 452 votes. In last year’s poll, Byron won the category with 250, with D’Rivera coming in second with 151.

In addition to obviously benefitting from online voting, D’Rivera also had the advantage of a highly acclaimed release fresh in the marketplace during the voting period. He also had the J.B. Spins campaign, supported by Val, George, and the Babalu blog community. Lest I get cocky, it should be noted I also recommended voting for Arturo Sandoval in the trumpet category, who failed to place this year. We’re not all-powerful here, but maybe we boosted turnout.

Regardless, D’Rivera is a worthy winner by any measurement. As mentioned, his latest CD Funk Tango has garnered universally glowing reviews. Additionally, D’Rivera, the Cuban defector, deserves respect for his willingness to speak out against the Castro dictatorship. He has also been known to administer reality checks to Che cultists and other apologists for oppression. Yet, despite this political incorrectness, he remains a beloved figure on the jazz scene, frequently appearing at high profile concerts and events. Congratulations to D’Rivera.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Find Fresu

The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu
Carla Bley

Carla Bley has a well-deserved reputation as a composer’s composer. Even when writing for her own sessions, she is really writing for her sideman, as on her newest release The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu. Written specifically for a two horn font-line of reedman Andy Sheppard and Italian trumpeter Fresu, Bley has crafted a distinctive statement for small combo.

Bley’s writing is also notable for a sense of humor, which can be heard in the etymology of the so-called “Banana Quintet,” the centerpiece suite of the CD, originally consisting of five movements, but growing into six. The title comes from some word association, starting with five, to hand, then to bananas (which grow in hands).

Regardless, “The Banana Quintet” is gorgeous music, starting with the spare elegance of “One Banana.” Featuring lovely solos from Fresu and bassist Steve Swallow, it is the perfect music to listen to on the ipod when coming home on an early winter night. Fresu might not be particularly well known in America, but he is one of the top trumpeters in Europe, distinguishing himself in the lyrical Italian trumpet tradition beginning with Chet Baker’s Italian sojourn and most celebrated in the figure of Enrico Rava.

“Two Banana” is bluesier, but still reflective, while showcasing the more plaintive sound of shepherd’s tenor. It is also a nice example of the compatibility of Fresu and Sheppard, playing off and around each other. “Three Banana” has a slightly Monkish lope to its rhythm, giving some space to its composer, propelled along by Billy Drummonds cymbal work.

“Four” is the darkest of the suite, a moody passage, which grows in intensity through Drummonds insistent drumming. “Five Banana” is lighter in tone, with a lilting rhythm, again well suiting Fresu’s polished trumpet tone, followed by a crisp, eloquent solo from Sheppard on tenor. “One Banana More” is the bonus banana, a short but elegant coda to Bley’s hand.

Of the other three individual Bley compositions, “Death of Superman/Dream Sequence #1—Flying” is another title which requires some explanation. According to Bley, it was originally composed as a tribute to the life of Christopher Reeve for a commission that fell through. Fortunately, Bley took a waste-not-want-not attitude, adapting it here for the Lost Chords and Fresu. It is a delicate piece, with Swallow introducing the melody, giving way to some Miles-like mute work from Fresu, followed by Sheppard’s husky tenor taking a delicate solo.

Given their short shelf life, bananas seem like an inappropriate title for richly textured music that grows with repeated listening. Maybe there is an analogy to be made about peeling layers, but it is probably best to just let the wordplay go. In any event, Find is a very rewarding session (even the liner notes are entertaining) that may bring both Fresu and even Bley wider audiences in America.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Prague Blogging: Pokorný at Dinitz

Náměstí Republiky was formerly a sketchy area of Prague, but is now an up-and-coming nabe thanks to the new Palladium mall. It is also home to Dinitz, a relatively new jazz venue, which hosted jazz guitarist Roman Pokorný last Tuesday. Pokorný was one artist I wanted to catch while I was in Prague. After recording some pretty groovy, straight ahead releases, his recent CDs have been more fusion influenced. However, his set last week at Dinitz was an earthy, stripped down blues session (though billed as a duo, including Pokorný, it was actually a trio).

Pokorný kept things loose, leading his rhythm section through some legit blues standards like “Stormy Monday,” “The Thrill is Gone,” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” His relaxed English vocals were pleasing enough, and he showed a natural affinity for old school blues guitar. He even threw in a bluegrass interlude for fun.

Besides myself and the people I dragged there, Pokorný had a decent sized following at Dinitz. He is interesting to follow, as he continues to branch out in different directions. The simple approach of his blues trio is in fact more satisfying to my ear than his fusion combos heard on his recent Hot Jazz News and Two Faces: Blues Box Heroes, but are both still recommended (Faces in particular features a lovely guest vocal turn from Yvonne Sanchez on “Magic Night”). Frankly though, I’m still most partial to his greasier soul-jazz fare, like “Smoking at the Little Castle” and “Grunt Groove” heard on Arta’s Trio ’03. Coincidently, if you happen to be in Prague, you can catch them at Dinitz again tonight.

There is no cover and the food is pretty good. The American-style burger is decent, but because they overly slather both sides in mayo, it keeps sliding out of the bun (what other music blog gives you inside dope like this?). We returned the next night to hear the Mario Illes Trio, a Hot Club style string combo. The Illes Trio is not as established on the Prague scene, but their sets were certainly enjoyable. Dinitz seems to book an interesting mix of established and emerging Czech musicians, and its drink prices are pretty reasonable. Check it out next time you’re in Prague 1.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Prague Rock City

For many of us, 1968 means only one thing: Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of Prague. Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tom Stoppard’s latest play, identifies another significant event with that year—the formation of The Plastic People of the Universe, the underground (by necessity) Czech rock band that would become a symbol of Communist oppression when arrested and imprisoned in 1976 (background info from Stoppard here). Spanning decades from the bleak days of Husák's hard-line regime to the heady promise of the Velvet Revolution, Rock ‘n’ Roll tells the Plastics’ story obliquely, through the eyes of an average Czech rock fan and his English friends.

Music and freedom are intertwined in Rock ‘n’ Roll, but the political implications of rock are initially lost on Jan, a young philosophy student and record collector who voluntarily returns to Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion, having studied in England with a prominent British Marxist professor, Max Morris. Though not political, Jan’s love for the music of the Plastics and other western bands forces him into a dissident’s life.

The first act moves through the years in a rapid-fire succession of scenes, as Jan is increasingly harassed by the state and reluctantly pushed into pro-democracy activism. Any record collector’s stomach would turn at the sight of Jan’s record collection smashed by the secret police. All the while, Morris remains faithful to his ideology, despite the evidence he sees with his own eyes when he visits Jan in Prague during a Marxist academic conference. He is a hard-case—after all, he weathered 1956 with his faith in tact.

After thoroughly damning Morris in the first act, Stoppard largely lets him off the hook in the second act. Morris is now a widower living with his daughter Esme and granddaughter Alice, both of whom have sentimental attachments to their neighbor, the reclusive former Floyd band-member Syd Barrett. The scenes are longer, but frankly, it is harder to care about the Morris family dramas. However, when Jan comes for a visit, things pick up steam, as Stoppard challenges preconceived notions of collaboration, emphasizing the difficulty of making moral judgments under an oppressive government.

Stoppard is often knocked for the intellectualism of his plays and characters who talk in academic jargon. Morris would be a prime example of this, a man who needs to exist on a philosophical level to disconnect from uncomfortable realities. However, in a tough, challenging scene, his cancer-stricken wife Eleanor calls him out, demanding he respond to her on an emotional level, with ambiguous results.

As Jan, Rufus Sewell is pitch-perfect. It was not just the accent and mannerisms, but something indefinable in his performance was totally Czech. He actually reminded me of Czechs I have met. As Morris, Brian Cox blusters and bellows, chewing up scenery and dialogue with gusto. In a dual role, Sinead Cusack turns in some of the play’s most electric moments as Eleanor, but her grown Esme comes across a bit milk-toast.

Sewell’s Jan though is the heart of the play. Not really an intellectual because he never finished his degree, and not really a dissident because he was never political, Jan is simply a rock ‘n’ roll fan. However, that in itself was political in Communist Czechoslovakia. He was just one of many dreamers who never had chance under a corrupt system of government. In a telling exchange late in the second act, Jan contemplates immigrating to England, but a former Czech countryman tells him words to the effect of: “you finally have a chance to rebuild your own country, why leave now for an England that only apologizes for itself now.”

Stoppard, born in Czechoslovakia, British by way of Singapore, had often spoken out on human rights concerns behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in his collaboration with André Previn, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and his television film, Professional Foul. Here his words crackle with meaning, deftly integrating Czech history into his story and wrapping things up nicely with a perfectly fitting conclusion.

Veteran stage and film director Trevor Nunn keeps the pacing brisk. Rock ‘n’ Roll is effectively staged, particularly in its use of classic rock songs to introduce each individual scene, like U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” an arresting preface to the second act, particularly in light of what preceded. Ultimately that is what Rock ‘n’ Roll the play is about—the power of music. After runs in London and Prague’s National Theater, Rock ‘n’ Roll opened last night on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, and it well worth seeing, provided the stagehands don’t strike.

(Note: this review is based on a preview performance, coincidentally on the night before I left for Prague.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It Ain't Easy

It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of British Blues
By Paul Myers
Greystone Books

Probably the most common complaint in show business history is of victimization by bad management. Unfortunately, some clichés are often solidly grounded in fact, as in the case of Long John Baldry, the acknowledged pioneer of British Blues, who temporarily veered into lounge crooning just as the British blues explosion was about to hit. The often frustrating story of the long, tall British Bluesman unfolds nicely in Paul Myers’ new biography, It Ain’t Easy (which takes its name from one of Baldry’s better received albums).

In the history of British blues, Baldry got in on the ground floor. Strongly (one might say fatally) influenced by Lead Belly and Big Bill Broonzy, Baldry impressed many with his authentic Delta Blues singing style, belying his elegant British demeanor. His early bands backed up touring American Blues legends like Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf. Sometimes these gigs led to interesting situations. Myers quotes one such recollection from Baldry’s early protégé Rod Stewart of an encounter with Little Walter:

“He’d just done his set, and he knew I was scoring big time with some of the girls. He just said, ‘Can you go and get me a girl?’ I took no notice of him, and then he suddenly drew out a knife. He didn’t point it at me, just showed it to me. I said ‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll be right back with a couple!” (p. 73-74)

Baldry was indeed a shrewd talent scout. In addition to being the first to hire the Rod Stewart, he also hired the Elton John early in his career. Formerly Reg Dwight, Elton John eventually adopted his new name from those of John Baldry and his Baldry bandmate Elton Dean. Due to many career missteps, Baldry is best remembered by many for these mentor-student associations.

Music business shenanigans even sabotaged his late-career run in the original Peter Pan production starring Cathy Rigby, for which according to Myers, Pat Waldron, the original producer, blamed Rigby’s manager-husband. Waldron describes for Myers a tantalizing stage follow-up for Baldry that sadly was never financed:

“It’s this one guitar, a metaphor for the evolution of music. Every person had a different approach to playing this guitar . . . They went to New Orleans, to Chicago, to the 20’s, over to Britain, the first rock ‘n’ roll stuff, and then to New York. It was an interesting script, and it promised to be a fascinating project, but we never had the money.” (p. 226)

Easy is a highly readable account of Baldry’s life and his involvement in the British Blues boom that would culminate in the English rock ‘n’ roll invasion of the 1960’s. Myers’ prose is brisk, and at times witty, but never at the expense of his narrative. He deftly handles issues of Baldry’s sexuality and self-destructive tendencies with honesty, without descending into lurid excess. Easy also benefits from Myers’ original interviews with an impressive list of Baldry’s associates and contemporaries, including: Stewart, John, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Mick Fleetwood, and Brian Auger. It should have a wide rock ‘n’ roll audience, but as was the case with Baldry, it is more likely that the really informed blues people will be the ones seeking it out.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Darfur Now Opens

When a film is made on an important topic in need of greater attention, but fails in its execution, it is particularly disappointing. Such is the case with Theodore Braun’s documentary Darfur Now opening in New York today.

As detailed in a previous post DN actually whitewashes the genocide of Christians and Animists in the 1990’s, basically giving the regime a free pass for crimes committed during “a period of civil war.” The Islamist nature of the Sudanese government is also glossed over and its history of sheltering Bin Laden and Al Qaeda is evidently not considered relevant. What we see all too much of is Hollywood celebrity worship run amok, which really undercuts the film’s integrity.

DN follows six individuals identified for doing something to “make a difference” in Darfur. Only two are actually Sudanese. Ahmed Mohammed Akakar is a former pillar of his Darfur village, now trying to hold his community together in a refuge camp. Hejewa Adam is a grieving mother who joined the rebels in response to the murder of her son. Their stories are clearly compelling, but are the least developed in the film.

Conversely, the face shown most often is that of student-activist Adam Sterling, spearheading a campaign to divest California’s pension funds from companies doing business with Sudan. It is a good cause, which frankly ought to be expanded to all countries which sponsor terrorism. However, the often over-wrought Sterling’s dramatics border on embarrassing. It is interesting to see him get a political education though. When meeting with the legislative director of the California NAACP, Sterling finds himself grilled as to whether his palm cards were printed in a union shop, revealing the true priorities of his supposed ally.

Another subject seen too frequently is co-producer Don Cheadle. DN seems to have a new age philosophy of empowerment through activism, and Cheadle is its chief proponent. We see him at book signings earnestly urging people to “get involved.” At times it seems DN views Darfur as important not as a human tragedy, but primarily as a venue for activism, which leaves one increasingly uncomfortable. As for scenes of Cheadle writing speeches for rallies, they would be better left to Hollywood gossip shows, rather than a serious documentary.

Perhaps the most interesting characters are those involved with multi-national organizations. Pablo Recalde runs convoys of food into Darfur for the World Food Program, the importance of which is unquestionable. Also note-worthy is the work of Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor for crimes in Darfur. It is fascinating to see him build a case for genocide, and his idealistic belief in justice is laudable, but ultimately he is undone by the nature of the ICC. Despite handing down two provisional indictments after a year and a half of investigating, Ocampo has yet to see any of the perpetrators in the ICC’s docket.

Though well intentioned, ultimately DN is distracted from the real story in Darfur by its New Age empowerment philosophy. We hear too many extortions to the effect of: “don’t ask what you can do, tell us what you can do.” To its credit, it is non-partisan. In fact, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) comes across best of all politicians who appear in the film. He is well informed and genuinely seems to care about Darfur when seen meeting with Cheadle. The music is also effective, with Graeme Revell’s score employing musicians from Darfur, as does the nice recasting of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” from Songs in the Key of Life, as a duet for Wonder and Bono.

Unfortunately, DN does little to substantially increase the general understanding of events in Darfur with what it presents on film, shying away from graphic examinations of the nature of the atrocities in Darfur. DN just gives too little attention to the full historical and political context of the genocide, and too much screen time to Hollywood activists, like Cheadle and George Clooney, who are a world away from the events in Darfur.

Hoodoo Love

Opportunities for jazz and blues in New York theater productions come along irregularly, so we should hope for the best each time such a musically themed play hits the boards. The latest, Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love, opened Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre last night (where it started life as part of its Mentor Program), and by-and-large it capitalizes on its opportunities quite well.

Set in the Mississippi Delta region, Hoodoo is steeped in the blues tradition, where love and murder are close cousins. Though it might be seasoned with a hint of the supernatural, at its core, Hoodoo is a love story and a naturalistic family drama of the most dysfunctional sort. Throughout, the power of music, namely the blues, offers the promise of escape, though at times this appears to be a false hope.

The love in Hoodoo Love comes between Toulou, a young washerwoman eking out a hardscrabble living, and the dashing blues musician and gambler, Ace of Spades, more committed to the open road than any of his numerous romantic interests, when the play opens. Played by Angela Lewis and Kevin Mambo respectively, their relationship is the cornerstone of the play. Unfortunately, there is bad love as well, represented by Toulou’s preacher brother Gib, played by Keith Davis. His sudden reappearance in her life complicates the courtship of Toulou and Ace of Spades, sowing the seeds of suspicion in the bluesman as to what transpired between the siblings in the past. Watching over her is a sympathetic neighbor, Candy Lady played by Marjorie Johnson.

The relatively small cast lends an intimate feeling to the proceedings, as tragedy begins to beget tragedy. Of the four characters, three are quite nuanced in their development. Lewis has the challenge of taking Toulou from a state of arrested development rooted in her family abuse to a state of willful survival (empowerment would probably be too strong a word) as an aspiring blues singer. Kevin Mambo brings a sense of both humanity and cunning to the role of Ace of Spades. For her part, Candy Lady is a surprisingly flawed character, seeing herself as almost as much a victim of her own timidity as Toulou as the first act closes. Only the character of Jib lacks any real surprises. By now the perverse, hypocritical clergyman is such a cliché, Jib could have been imported from dozens of other works.

Despite the weakness of Jib, Hoodoo is a strong play. While Ace of Spades’ conversion from rolling stone to hen-picked husband in Act II is a bit abrupt, the play really picks up steam again when he starts playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Jib, in an attempt to confirm all his suspicions. Hall makes a smart decision to show Ace of Spades as intuitive enough to suspect the truth from the beginning (as does the audience, after all the brother is a preacher, right?).

Hoodoo is very well staged by director Lucie Tiberghien. At times Hoodoo is brutally frank in its on-stage depictions, but never in a way that raise questions of taste. The blues songs of Toulou and Ace of Spades (also written by Hall, with music by Daniel Barker and the theatrical compositional group Broken Chord Collective) are an important element of the play, but incorporated in a way that does not tax anyone’s chops. Hall’s language is realistic and appropriate to the setting, but not distracting in a desire for colorful effect. Robin Vest’s evocative but economical set design is flexible enough to enhance the various moods of the play.

One of the refreshing things about Hoodoo is that it really takes the blues seriously, for which Hall deserves credit. Toulou should not be seen as a stand-in for Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, but clearly their blues flowed from similar sources. In some of the early press notices there was speculation about a Broadway run. It would be great see a legit blues drama on Broadway, but one would not want to see the revolving celebrity casting door spinning American Idol contestants in and out of these roles. The four cast members are universally strong, with Mambo being a standout. Like Sideman, the last jazz drama to have a good Broadway run after making the transfer, it is really about characters, so its best to see it in any intimate setting, like Cherry Lane. This is something unusual: a worthy new American play that also happens to be blues literate. It officially opened November 1st, and plays though December 9th.