Monday, December 31, 2007

Best CDs of 2007 and Beyond

Judging the best CDs of 2007 is far more difficult than the best films. Anytime talented musicians come together there will at least be some worthy music to hear, but a lot of Hollywood talent can come together to produce an unwatchable movie. Just about every CD reviewed here is great release, because I prefer to be evangelical when it comes to posting on music. Again, this is a collective top 10, not ranked from 1 to 10, but in alpha order.

A Tale of God’s Will, Terence Blanchard’s recasting of his score from the Spike Lee miniseries packed an emotional punch, yet still seemed to hit some hopeful notes. "Ashé" may well be the most beautiful single track of the year.

Anat Fort’s ECM debut A Long Story was sometime coming, but worth the wait for listeners. I have heard her at the Rubin Museum and Cornelia Street since reviewing Story and remain quite impressed.

Cool is cool, and Eddie Gale still has it, lending some to Mushroom on Joint Happening, claiming the mantle of the electric Miles of modern times.

One big factor in choosing the best CDs of the year is how often they were revisited after the review went up. Bruce Hornsby’s jazz debut, Camp Meeting with Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride, had a lot of staying power in the CD player. Maybe this is a surprise to some, but it’s the real deal.

It would be embarrassing to compile this list without Charles Mingus at Cornell, 1964. For such a hitherto unknown recording come to light, in such good fidelity, was a surprise that had Mingus scholars joyfully rewriting discographies.

Paul Nash and friends knew Jazz Cycles would most likely be his final project. Nash’s compositions are both intriguing and pleasing, and the circumstances of the recording definitely inspired the musicians, making this release worth seeking out.

Again, Miho Nobuzane’s Happy Sounds has been frequently revisited after the initial posting. She plays with tremendous verve and joy, making audio coffee, perfect to listen to on the ipod as you pound through the streets of New York.

Charles Tolliver’s big band session, on a major label co-released with Mosaic Records, was a welcome development to see and hear. Hopefully With Love's Grammy nomination will portend more such Tolliver big band releases.

For some reason, a lot of critics did not share my enthusiasm for Gianluigi Trovesi’s Vaghissimo Ritratto. They were wrong. Period. This is an elegant gem.

Sadly, Brown Street will presumably be Joe Zawinul’s final release, but what a session. Zawinul and the WDR Big Band revisited Weather Report, staying true to the spirit of the original recordings, but swinging them like mad.

There were a number of great releases that I could not shoehorn into the top 10, some on the technicality that they were reviewed in late 2006. We can look forward to more great music from great artists in 2008 as well.

Eri Yamamoto will soon be recording a new CD that I am eagerly anticipating. She is a talented and prolific composer, so I can’t wait to hear what she chooses for the recording. I believe Steve Wiest will be recording something new as well, which I will be looking forward to. Grammy voters have nine days to get their ballots in, so remember he is nominated for Best Instrumental Arrangement for “Besame Mucho,” performed by the late, great Maynard Ferguson.

For recordings with definite release dates, Nik Bärtsch's follow-up to Stoa and a new Enrico Rava disk from ECM portend good things for early ‘08.

Happy New Year. Here’s to great sounds in 2008.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best Films of 2007 and Beyond

Year-end best of lists are tradition, perhaps Hamlet would say best honored in the breach than the observance. They do afford an opportunity to revisit some great work from the closing year, though.

There were some great films this year (I have the luxury of choosing what to review, so I did not have to endure dogs). If you count The Lives of Others as a 2007 film (the year it was released and reviewed here) it would rate as the best of the year. However, it was Germany’s 2006 Academy Award selection for best foreign language film, taking home the little golden statuette, and made many of last year’s 10 best lists.

Kite Runner should be making more top 10 lists this year, but critical reaction has been unfairly mixed. Perhaps some reviewers were uncomfortable with its brutally frank depiction of the Islamist Taliban regime. Persepolis offers a similar critique of post-Revolutionary Iran, through its stylized animated prism.

Allegro received a very limited distribution (I caught up with it on DVD). It is a demanding narrative, not for the multiplexes, but it will remain with you long after screening it. Sweeney Todd also deserves a quick capsule review. This might well be the role Johnny Depp was meant to play, and is easily his most successful collaboration with Tim Burton. It is an impressive production, with perhaps the weakest link being—heresy—the Sondheim score, which was well out of Burton’s hands. Yes, it is bloody. So, what? It’s Sweeney Todd. Didn’t you know what’s in those meat pies? (Hint: it’s the same thing as Soylent Green.)

Among documentaries, Singing Revolution was honestly moving. Who would not fall for a film about music triumphing over Communism? The Rape of Europa documented another inspiring story—that of the heroic Monument Men, the American officers assigned to protect and recover Europe’s artistic legacy. Note By Note was also surprisingly satisfying, chronicling the making of a Steinway concert grand piano, with insight from many great jazz and classical musicians. Terror’s Advocate may have the single most informative doc of the year, and Manda Bala was just a mind-blower.

Added together, that makes a collective top 10, not ranked in any order. Looking forward to 2008, Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn stands head and shoulders above anything else on the horizon. Wajda is one of the few surviving directors of the stature of a Tarkovsky or even a Truffaut. That he is still directing at or near the peak of his powers is incredible. Katyn is Poland’s official selection for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language film, so let us hope for decent distribution.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Strike (Strajk)
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff
MPI (in Polish with English subtitles)

“Strike” is not such a happy word in Hollywood right now, but it still has heroic connotations in Poland. Perhaps the great irony of labor cinema is that one of the more effective strike movies involves workers marching on the Communist Party Committee, rather than “greedy” capitalists. Directed by the German Volker Schlöndorff, Strike (now on DVD, trailer here) dramatizes the early events of the Polish Solidarity union through the eyes of Agnieszka Walczak, a character largely modeled on early Solidarity hero Anna Walentynowicz.

Agnieszka has a hard life. She is a born worker and a devout Catholic, but not necessarily anti-Communist. However, she gradually loses faith in the party as she witnesses its corruption at the Gdansk shipyard. First her activism is relatively circumspect, motivated by very concrete concerns, like pensions for the widows of workers killed through party negligence. A single parent, and borderline illiterate, she fears for her son’s future when she is diagnosed with cancer. However, it is her recent husband, mechanic and jazz musician Kazimierz Walczak, who dies an untimely death, while “Holy” Agnieszka makes a miraculous recovery.

Schlöndorff does a nice job integrating the fictionalized Agnieszka into the very real events of Solidarity, most importantly the violently quashed strike of 1970 and the breakthrough strike of 1980, which led to the recognition of free trade unions. German actress Katharina Thalbach plays Agnieszka, with her Polish dialogue dubbed (essentially the reverse casting of the Polish Krystyna Stypulkowska in the East German Trace of Stones), but still delivers an amazing performance. There is pain in her Agnieszka, but also defiance, as when she boards a tram, beaten and bloody, after her release from the militia’s interrogation, challenging the confused stares of passengers.

Strike’s depiction of Lech Walesa is a bit touchier. The actual Walentynowicz has made no secret of her differences with Walesa after the fall of the regime. Evidently, she has criticized the film for not being sufficiently anti-Walesa. Yet the film certainly sides with her (or at least her surrogate), suggesting Walesa was at times shortsighted and personally ambitious. Hardly a dead-ringer for Walesa, Andrzej Chyra’s role is not any easier given Strike’s point of view, but he does humanize his celebrated subject quite well.

It is no secret that Walesa has had many pubic feuds since his presidency. Polish democracy is messy, just like any other, particularly the American version. Yet a democracy it most certainly is, and not about to change, which is why Agnieszka’s final voice-over rings somewhat hollow. However, Strike is quite adept at capturing historical events of thirty years past. When the workers do march on the Party Committee in 1970 it is stirring stuff, and when the Solidarity banner is first unfurled it is an emotional moment (but not overplayed).

Powerfully underpinning the drama is a score by Jean Michel Jarre, which brilliantly blends symphonic themes with industrial sounds and the jazz of the Andrzej Trzaszkowski Sextet. In fact, Strike will be of particular interest to jazz listeners due to the score and through the character of Kazimierz, whose trumpet unexpectedly plays a significant role in the story.

Strike filters its history through its biases, but does so in earnest, and with good faith. Though hardly a love-letter to Walesa, he is never seen as the villain. Those judgments are reserved for those who served and profited from a corrupt Communist system. Strike is a remarkably well crafted film, conveying the oppressive drabness of the now hallowed Gdansk shipyard and creating some riveting (and at times horrifying) scenes. It is a valuable contribution to cinema of the Communist experience.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Black Unstoppable

Black Unstoppable: Live at the Velvet Lounge
By Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble
Delmark DVD

For whatever reasons, jazz flutists, or flautists, have crossed over to wider popularity at a greater rate than other instrumentalists, as witnessed by the popularity attained by Herbie Mann, Hubert Laws, Paul Horn, Bud Shank, and Charles Lloyd in the 1960’s and 1970’s. If the decade is due for a new breakout flautist, Nicole Mitchell looks like a promising candidate, as documented live in concert at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge on the new DVD Black Unstoppable.

In some ways Mitchell has greater affinity with more adventurous jazz flutists, like Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and her onetime teacher James Newton. Yet her music has soulful and spiritual qualities that should enjoy a wider audience. In truth, Mitchell’s music can be heard in the funky-spiritual avant-garde bag that produced Pharaoh Sanders and Leon Thomas’s surprise hit, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”

The title of the first tune, “The Creator Has Other Plans for Me,” even echoes the Sanders classic. It functions as a nice introduction to the Black Earth Ensemble, with a short but evocative cello preface from Tomeka Reid, and featuring swinging solos from Mitchell on flute, David Young on flugelhorn, and Marcus Evans on drums. It also gives viewers a tour of some of the Velvet Lounge memorabilia during Evans’ solo.

The stylistic similarities to the funkier Pharaoh are most pronounced on the vocal tracks featuring Ugochi Nwaogwugwu. “Life Wants You to Love” is something of a calypso, showcasing the tenor of David Boykin and the leader’s flute. “Love Has No Boundaries” is a soulful duet between Nwaogwugwu and trumpeter Young, who also solos impressively with the cup mute. Guitarist Jeff Parker gets to have his say as well on a very groovy track.

The third vocal, the concluding “Thanking the Universe,” has the same spiritual groove. Dedicated by Mitchell to Boykin, her “soul mate,” it appropriately features a blistering tenor solo. Despite the free excursions, most of Unstoppable, particularly the vocal tracks are accessible to the point of being downright crowd pleasing. Ironically, the freest, most challenging composition is probably the title track.

It is unfortunate that Oprah Winfrey seems to hate jazz, because Mitchell would seem to be a perfect fit for her audience, as a strong instrumentalist and composer, whose music offers a message of universal love and spiritual empowerment. She is also a prodigious bandleader, impressive particularly since women in jazz still face challenges, even today. She is even based in Chicago and now recording for the venerable Chicago independent label Delmark.

Regardless of the avant-garde aspects of Mitchell’s work, there is no reason why her music could not reach a wide popular audience. She swings hard and she her words speak to concerns of the soul, but she is certainly not middle-brow, like say Chris Botti, whom Chicago’s famous host seems to prefer. Too bad for those loyal viewers. Mitchell is an exciting talent, well worth checking out in Unstoppable.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cross the Water Blues

Cross the Water Blues: African America Music in Europe
Edited by Neil A. Wynn
University of Mississippi Press

From the late Nineteenth Century European tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to the 1960’s British Blues Revival tours, African American musicians have often found receptive audiences across the Atlantic. In response to the centennial celebration of W.C. Handy’s first blues publication, particularly Mike Figgis’s examination of the British Blues tradition for Martin Scorsese’s PBS special, an academic conference examining the phenomenon of African American music in Europe was organized by the University of Gloucestershire and the European Blues Association. Many of the resulting papers have now been revised, collected, and published in Cross the Water Blues.

As is to be expected in anthologies, not every contribution offers the same level of insight. However, there are several valuable papers which challenge the notion of an entirely enlightened European embrace of the music. Both Iris Schmeisser writing on Josephine Baker in France and Catherine Parsonage discussing jazz in England identify a similar dichotomy. The French and English were attracted to this music both as an expression of urban modernism and to satisfy an exotic fetish for the music’s perceived primitive African roots. Parsonage writes: “Jazz encapsulates musically the metaphor of the ‘urban jungle,’ as its modernity was expressed through its perceived ‘primitive’ rhythmic qualities.” (p. 92)

One of the more valuable pieces comes from Rainer E. Lotz, whose “Black Music Prior to the First World War,” performs some impressive musical archeology, tracking down details on now obscure musicians who were able to carve out impressive careers on the Continent. Citing many archaic cylinder recordings, Lotz concludes: “African American musicians were among the pioneers of recorded music not only in the United States, but also in Europe.” (p. 81)

Probably the weakest selection was Sean Creighton’s hero-worshipping love letter to Paul Robeson. Glossing Robeson’s loyalty to a Stalinist Soviet Union, Creighton is frankly deceptive when he describes Robeson’s ideology as: “a non-violent crusade for freedom.” (p. 139) As the Hoover Institution's Arnold Beichman catalogues in the Washington Times (article reprinted within comment 47), Robeson sided with the Soviet invaders over the Hungarian people in 1956, defended the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and endorsed the show trials of the Great Terror. Regardless of what you think of Robeson’s ideology, non-violent hardly seems an apt description.

Excepting Creighton’s dubious contribution, Cross the Water is a largely informative volume. As well-mined as the British blues-rock movement might be, Rupert Till finds fresh insight, particularly in his examination of the blues roots of (and litigation against) Led Zeppelin. Many contributors, like Lotz display a laudable enthusiasm for their subjects, while remaining instructive in their papers. Although it is all too easy to believe some of the collected pieces began life at an academic conference, there is much here for music scholars to absorb and debate.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas, Good King Wenceslas

The statue of King Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech people, is one of the dominant landmarks of Prague. Legend has it that at the Czechs’ greatest hour of need, the statue will come to life and lead his people to salvation. Other versions have St. Wenceslas rousing the slumbering Knights of Blanik entombed beneath Blanik Mountain under similar circumstances. However, many only know King Wenceslas as the subject of the Christmas carol, one of the few sacred-themed carols which do not mention the birth of Christ.

King Wenceslas only ruled then Bohemia for five years. As the carol suggests, he was known for his charity to the poor and to children. Also known to be hard on the nobility, his reign was marked by comfort for the afflicted, and affliction for the comforted. On his ascent to the throne, King Wenceslas ended his mother’s persecution of Christianity, becoming a staunch Defender of the Faith. He even considered abdication to pursue a life of the cloth. Ultimately, he was martyred by his brother, after ruling only five years.

The twentieth century was difficult for Czechs, yet King Wenceslas did not return during the German occupation or the Soviet invasion of 1968. However, some do not know Václav is the common Czech and Slovak derivative of Wenceslas, and one Václav definitely came to the fore.

The analogy between Václav Havel and King Wenceslas is certainly flawed. Though harassed and imprisoned, Havel happily was not permanently martyred. From 1977 to 1989 Havel regularly saw the inside of prison cells. Havel is the playwright and jazz fan who rallied to the cause of the persecuted rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. He became the natural leader of the Velvet Revolution, culminating in his election to the Presidency, heading the first free government since the Communist coup of 1948 from Prague Castle, where King Wenceslas ruled over 1,000 years earlier.

Havel neither sought power for himself, or to cling to it once he attained it. He is now content in his role as preeminent world citizen. In recent years he has taken the lead supporting the emerging democracy movement in Cuba, and advocating vigilance against. Fortunately, he is not a saint, but he is a hero.

If you are caroling this Christmas, give St. Wenceslas his due. Let us give thanks for his example and those of the great heroes of our time, like Václav Havel, Lech Walesa, and those risked their lives with them. Merry Christmas to all my Czech friends, and to all semi-regular readers of J.B. Spins, wherever you are.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Inhospitable District

I tend to post favorable reviews because there does not seem to be much point in telling people not to buy CDs they have never heard of, or not to go to films that might not even play in their cities. However, since Aron Gauder’s animated Hungarian Hip Hop film The District has generated some strong notices and its run at the Two Boots Pioneer overlaps with the opening of the far superior Persepolis, it seems appropriate to quickly review the one in light of the other.

Stylistically, The District is quite remarkable. Its breakneck animation is consistently inventive. It’s the substance that is the problem. There is a clever plot device involving Romany ancestors and oil reserves under the eponymous neighborhood of Hungary. However, everything that follows is quite predictable. Old rival become fast friends until the reserves run out. The dark cabal of Bush, Blair, and company become threatened by Hungary’s new oil wealth (the audience’s obviously forced Pavlovian laughter at the Bush jokes were particularly embarrassing). Even the film’s punch line involving the object of our protagonist’s affections has been seen before.

By contrast, even if one did not know the events of Persepolis were largely based on a true story, their dramatic importance would still resonate. Persepolis is about family at its core, featuring well drawn (literally and figuratively) characters. The District by contrast, is wholly inhabited by stock figures. Persepolis illustrates how families continue to love, even when the world around them has gone mad. The District presents an unflaggingly cynical world, in which sex is an impersonal act, and humanity has little place.

Billed as a Hungarian Hip Hop film, The District actually lacks any real sense of place, again in contrast to the post-Revolutionary Iran of Persepolis. The Hungarian Hip Hop is there, but it is not particularly memorable. Tremendous talent went into The District. The filmmakers should have gone back to the word processor instead of the drawing board, as the animation was not the problem. Indeed, one hopes Gauder and company will keep making films, as they show some real talent. They need a real story to work with though—hopefully one that does not revel in such unrepentant cynicism. The District plays at the Two Boots Pioneer through Christmas Day, which is when Persepolis opens. Adults looking for smart animation should hold out until the latter opens.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Memo to Grammy Voters

The deadline for Grammy voting is January 9th, so presumably many Recording Academy members will be curling up in front of the fire with their ballots over the holiday. For those who have not given the jazz related categories much thought (if that’s even possible), here is some completely free blogospheric advice, presented in ballot order. (You can find the complete nominations for the jazz division here and the composing/arranging division here.)

The Best Contemporary Jazz Album usually seems like an odd catchall, with widely divergent nominees thrown together. I will post predictions closer to the telecast, but I expect Herbie Hancock’s Joni Letters has this sewn up. For those not sold on Hancock, I would recommend checking out Will Bernard. I’m not particularly well versed in these artists, but I like his funk and free improv approach.

Best Jazz Vocal Album is a strong field. Kurt Elling is also a deserving choice, but I would go with Freddy Cole. I actually met him briefly this year under strange circumstances, and he seemed legitimately nice. Those who do not live in The City might be interested in this commercial he shot for NY1, Time Warner’s New York news channel, on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s a respectful presentation of his vocal artistry and hopefully could even increase his fan base.

Even though my favorite track from Terence Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will was “Ashé,” “Levees” from the same release would probably be my choice for Jazz Instrumental solo. Of course, it would be hard to vote against Hank Jones in any category. However, you can vote for his live set with Joe Lovano, Kids: Live at Dizzy’s, for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.

Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will is a simply beautiful session that packs a real emotional punch. It would get my vote for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Recording. I was also happy to see Charles Tolliver’s With Love nominated. Tolliver should have been recorded far more than he has been, as this session proves.

I have blogged on Steve Wiest before. I like the man and his music, so it should not come as a surprise that I recommend him for the Best Instrumental Arrangement Category for “Besame Mucho.” Wiest enjoyed a long stint in the great Maynard Ferguson’s band, and his nominated chart has added significance for its inclusion on the trumpeter’s final CD, One and Only.

Again, these are my favorites, not my predictions. Unfortunately the two are not necessarily the same. If you are a Grammy voter, and do not mind a little internet jazz punditry, than I definitely recommend you go to the websites and myspace pages of these artists and check out their nominated work.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Holidays from Free China

Traditional Chinese dance, ballet from Swan Lake, an interpretive dance of Falun Gong triumphing over Communist thugs, and Santa—is there anything else you could ask for in a holiday show? NTDTV’s Holiday Wonders show opened at the Beacon Theatre last night (press event covered here), and basically everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in, including a very definite point of view.

The prime motivation behind the new show, Holiday Wonders, and the established Chinese New Year Splendor, is to celebrate and promote the traditional culture of China. This is not without political ramifications, as the Gang of Four did its best to obliterate its artistic and cultural heritage during the Cultural Revolution, and ancient Chinese cultural traditions remain out of step with the priorities of the current regime’s corporate communism. The shows are designed to present positive images of China, distinct from the government’s austere propaganda. And yes, there is the Falun Gong issue too.

While it might be more of a “Happy Holidays” than a “Merry Christmas” kind of holiday show overall, there was a surprising amount of Christmas music with the related trappings. As for the show itself, it truly is a multicultural event, showing respect for both Eastern and Western musical expression. In a departure from the New Year show, there was a conscious effort to incorporate the Western elements, hence the Pas de deux from Swan Lake. Though Anna Liceica and Nilas Martins were very good in the scene from Tchaikovsky, it was the Chinese choreography that remains the real highlight.

“Water Sleeves” for instance, uses its costuming and choreography together to create a water lily effect, with a vibe reminiscent of the “Sugar Plum Fairy” dance. The large production sequences also usually celebrate regional cultural diversity, again in contradiction to the government’s statist policy. “Xinjiang Spirit” derives from the Northwest “Chinese Turkestan” region and “Good Fortune” celebrates the Chinese mountain community of ethnic Koreans in the Changbaishan range. Both are upbeat, spirited numbers, featuring the attractive troupe of dancers.

The entertainment value of flashy percussion is well established, and there are two great examples here. “Drummers of the Tang Court” combines martial precision and percussive power. The finale, “Resounding Drums,” brings back the dance troupe, incorporating shoulder-slung drums with choreography.

Of the Western Associated fare, the Hester Quartet were the standouts, performing a lovely “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and a cleverly arranged “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The Empire Brass also did a crowd pleasing set of Christmas Carols and popular classical standards. The only significant weakness of the show is the between set banter from the co-hosts, and their comedy bits with Santa Clause. I wanted to rewrite it for them right there in the theater.

However, the one feature that really makes you think “huh, wow,” has to be: “The Power of Awareness.” If you have a problem with Falun Gong, you will not dig this number. We see thuggish communist authorities attack practitioners, including a mother and her daughter, for unfurling a banner with their aphorism: “Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance.” Fortunately, the goons are overcome by other Falun Gong followers in the park. While it did not seem to particularly represent traditional culture, it is entertaining to see the Commies get it for a change. It’s certainly not something you see every day.

Holiday Wonders and the New Year show are affiliated with media outlets sympathetic to Falun Gong and critical of the Communist regime, which colors some critical reaction to the shows. Indeed, Falun Gong cropped up in the lyrics of some of the original songs (translated on-screen behind the soloist) and it obviously shaped the conception of “Awareness.” For the record, nobody was pushing tracts in the lobby.

It is new era, when people can come together to form media outlets to challenge totalitarian governments. Holiday Wonders seems to be an entertainment arm of that overall endeavor. The bottom line is: Wonders is an entertaining show that moves along at a fast pace. It may have its idiosyncrasies, but it is a different and interesting way to spend an evening. It runs through December 26th at the Beacon and the New Year show opens January 30th at Radio City Music Hall.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Opening Soon: Imaginary Witness

Glamour, escapism, and sentimentality—all are strong suits for Hollywood, but completely uncalled for when addressing the Holocaust on film. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the American film industry was long reluctant to dramatize the Holocaust, as director Daniel Anker illustrates in the documentary, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.

Originally broadcast on AMC and soon to screen at art houses and on campuses, Witness is more than a Chuck Workman-like compilation of film clips. Frankly, with its scope limited to American produced dramatic features (excluding documentaries) the list of potential source films is relatively small. Within that list, many films, particularly those produced during or shortly after the war, were clearly uncomfortable in their handling of the historical issues involved. Yet as filmmakers became bolder in their depictions, some like Elie Weisel, would challenge the very morality of any attempts to dramatize the Holocaust.

Witness does document some fascinating episodes in Hollywood history. According to the film, prior to WWII, Germany accounted for ten percent of the foreign market, explaining why few films were produced criticizing the rise of National Socialism. One such film was MGM’s Mortal Storm starring James Stewart, which led to the prohibition of all MGM films in Germany. That Warner (which controls the classic MGM library through Turner entertainment) has yet to make this historic film available on DVD is quite disappointing.

A particular revelation for most viewers of Witness will be the remarkable reception in Germany for the NBC miniseries Holocaust (which again ought to be available on DVD). Evidently, it was eye opening for younger Germans who did not live through the war and led to a legitimate national dialogue. However, Weisel was referring to this miniseries as “morally objectionable and indecent” when he criticized fictionalizations of the Holocaust.

It is ethical questions like this that Witness is particularly interested in exploring. However, some interview subjects offer more to the film than others. Branko Lustig’s interview segments may well be the strongest aspects of the film. Lustig was the producer of Schindler’s List and was involved with the productions of Sophie’s Choice and War and Rembrance. He is also a Holocaust survivor. To say he brings insight to the subject would be an understatement. When he speaks of being the last survivor working in Hollywood who can advise on questions of authenticity, it is a heavy moment. Audiences could probably watch an entire film of his interview.

Also contributing much through their participation are Steven Spielberg, and The Pawnbroker’s Sidney Lumet and Rod Steiger. Although Neil Gabler is an acknowledged authority on the original Hollywood moguls, he is such a glib TV talking head, that he lacks gravitas of other participants and seems to have a disproportionate amount of screen time.

Like the film oeuvre it surveys, Witness is uneven, but it does have some powerful moments, most notably Lustig’s contributions. My greatest complaint might seem trivial—its actual title. People of good conscience can certainly understand the meaning of Imaginary Witness, but there are a frightening number of unhinged deniers in the world today. Putting the words “imaginary” and “Holocaust” together in the same title seems to be handing them a rhetorical device, which is obviously the furthest from the filmmaker’s intentions. That such people are out there reinforces the need for Witness and the films it analyzes. It opens in New York at the IFC Film Center on Christmas Day.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Trace of Stones

Trace of Stones
Directed by Frank Beyer
First Run Features

“The plan is a sacred cow,” says a party bureaucrat. Yet everyone knows the plan is hopelessly flawed, and questioning it can lead to a reprimand. Welcome to East Germany, circa 1966, as reflected in a scene from Frank Beyer’s industrial drama, Trace of Stones. If that sounds like risky material for East German cinema, one would be correct. Despite being produced as a prestige picture by the GDR studio DEFA, and heavily promoted as such, the East German authorities stepped in at the last minute, disrupting its premiere and then banning it outright. After twenty five years, it was finally given a proper premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and is now available on DVD in America.

Trace is told in flashback through testimony at a party inquiry into Werner Horrath, the idealistic party secretary appointed to Schkona, a fictional behemoth of socialist engineering. The charges against him include: “immoral behavior as well as personal career-mindedness and political and ideological failures.”

At first, Horrath makes waves by openly questioning the flawed site plans and challenging the authority of Hannes Balla, the hard-living, rule-breaking boss of the Balla gang, the most productive work group on the site. (That the Ballas bear a certain resemblance to western cowboys probably did not help the film with GDR ideological authorities.) At first viewers root for the straight-laced Horrath as he stands up to the bullying of the anarchic Balla, but their relationship becomes much more nuanced as the film progresses and more of Balla’s character is revealed.

The married Horrath and the rebellious Balla both fall in love with a party engineer, Kati Klee, played by Polish actress Krystyna Stypulkowska (and dubbed by German actress Jutta Hoffman). As the love triangle unfolds, the Communist party apparatus looks increasingly grim, with the pregnant but unwed Klee facing a party star chamber seeking the identity of the father.

Ostensibly, Trace does not assail Communism—not directly, at least. Horrath and Klee remain loyal to the party throughout their travails. Balla however, is an antinomian wild card. While he and his entire crew are union members, only one belongs to the party. Though he might be reckless, he does live by a certain moral code, which appears to preclude party membership. He seems to even say this directly, in an off-hand comment to Horrath’s wife late in the film.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of Trace is the humor. As Balla, Manfred Krug at times shows a deft touch for comedic situations. He also convincingly conveys both the sensitive and loutish facets of Balla’s complex personality. Indeed, Trace is very well acted by all involved, including Eberhard Eshe as the well-meaning but timid Horrath.

It might not be Miracle on 34th Street, but as a good portion of Trace occurs during the Christmas season, this might be an appropriate time to screen it. It will definitely stand out. Though it is starkly naturalistic and ends a bit abruptly, it is a very satisfying film for its performances and honesty.

Eventually, Beyer would be allowed to direct again, bringing East Germany its only Academy Award nomination for Jakob, the Liar. He would later deal directly with the legacy of Communism in work for German television until his death in 2006. Based on the quality of Trace, one hopes his post-Communist work will also be released in America eventually

Sunday, December 16, 2007

PoPsie N.Y.

PoPsie N.Y. Popular Music Through the Camera Lens of William “Popsie” Randolph
By Michael Randolph, Forward by Quincy Jones
Hal Leonard

Many of the photographers who have documented jazz, like Francis Wolff, Roy DeCarava, and William Claxton, are now as celebrated as the musicians whose images they captured. Generally overlooked in this pantheon of jazz photography has been William “PoPsie” Randolph, probably because his images were almost entirely created as work-for-hire in the Runyonesque Broadway P.R. industry. Now a portion of his enormous body of work has been collected by his son in the illustrated volume, PoPsie N.Y., titled after his father’s signature logo.

One gets a sense that Randolph’s world was not unlike that seen in The Sweet Smell of Success, except it seems clear the photographer was much more popular with his clients than Tony Curtis’s press agent, Sidney Falco. As son Randolph explains, PoPsie [two capital P’s] Randolph had worked as a band boy/road manager for the Woody Herman and Benny Goodman orchestras, and it was actually BG himself who essentially staked Randolph’s photography business. Bandleader and producer Quincy Jones writes in his introduction: “I feel fortunate to have had a part of my life chronicled by a great photographer like PoPsie.” (P. 4)

As one might therefore expect, there are several photos of Goodman and Jones collected in PoPsie. While, all forms of popular music from the fifties through the seventies are included, jazz is particularly well represented. Some photos are particularly tantalizing from a musical point of view, like the shot of Charlie Parker and Lionel Hampton jamming together at the Band Box. Numerous other jazz artists are also pictured here, including: Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Mac Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Randolph was often called upon to shoot publicity photos on behalf of artists and their labels, producing headshots in the studio, like the one of Peggy Lee on the cover of PoPsie (and also on the cover of a recent biography of the singer). He also shot recording sessions, club dates, and press conferences. Perhaps the best photos in the book are the casual shots, like that of Nat King Cole at home with his daughters. Randolph’s style is marked by a feeling of warmth and glamour. Unlike the dramatic shadows of Francis Wolff, his subjects are usually bathed in light, in photos well suited for use in press kits.

PoPsie is a charming collection, that recreates an era gone by, in which recording artists were expected to be elegant and sophisticated, rather than cheap and scandalous. Those days are sadly over. Randolph’s studio was just steps away from the Brill Building. No longer the songwriting Mecca, the Brill still houses some somewhat show-business related tenants, including a screening room, and Colony Records, the only remaining link to Randolph’s days. Last time I was there for a screening I stopped at Colony and saw PoPsie prominently displayed. Nice to know they remember.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kite Runner, the Film

Kite flying is practically a contact sport in Afghanistan. It is also surprisingly cinematic in Marc Forster’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling The Kite Runner. As has been said before, Kite Runner (trailer here) is a work of fiction, but it deserves credit for its unflinchingly realistic portrayal of life under the Taliban regime. It is also a very personal story about the bonds of friendship and family.

As the film opens, debut novelist Amir Agha’s guilt-ridden past intrudes on his life of domestic tranquility in America. Summoned to Pakistan by a close friend of the family, we see his early years in Afghanistan unfold through flashbacks. The Kite Runner is actually Hassan, the son of the loyal family retainer. A close friend of Amir, Hassan has a particular talent for chasing down the trophy kites “cut” by the young protagonist during the dog fight contests that animated the Kabul skies before the Taliban’s prohibition.

In Kite, the past has an ever tangible effect on the present, as one moment of shame undoes the boys’ friendship and colors every succeeding event of Amir’s life. The young actors in these roles are far superior to most child stars seen in Hollywood films. Watching them, there is no doubt of the gravity of the situations playing out on screen. As young Amir, Zekira Ebrahimi probably has as much screen time as Khalid Abdalla gets as adult Amir, which might make it difficult to delineate lead and supporting performances for purposes of award nominations.

As Amir’s father (Baba), Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi gives a particularly award worthy performance. The character of Baba provides the film’s moral center. In a formative scene, he explains to Amir that theft is the greatest sin of all, because it is the basis of all other crimes—theft of one’s life, theft of a loved one’s life, theft of the truth, and so on. He has no use for the mullahs or the Communists, complaining before the invasion: ““the Mullahs want to control our souls, while the Communists deny we have any.”

Shaun Toub also gives an effecting performance in the role of the family friend Rahim Khan, which is likely to be underappreciated for its understated dignity. We see Khan recognize and encourage young Amir’s literary talents, and the lasting impact of his kind attention. It is the sort of noble character that we rarely see in contemporary movies.

Kite is scrupulously honest in its portrayal of the brutality and corruption of both the Soviets and the Taliban. We see a burkha clad woman stoned to death in a Taliban public assembly. It is a disturbing, but necessary scene, as is the now infamous assault scene, which led to the concerns for the young actors’ safety. It is horrifying, but not exploitative. Director Forster handled these challenges well, crafting a very impressive film.

At its core, Kite is a story about family, but it does not happen in a vacuum. Its frighteningly realistic backdrop of a land scarred by Communist occupiers and Islamic Fascism heightens the drama and gives the film additional relevance. It opens today on 35 screens, including the Sunshine in New York.

(Note: For New Yorkers, as good as Kite Runner is, remember to also check out Singing Revolution this weekend while you can.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Genius at Montreux

Ray Charles Live at Montruex 1997
Eagle Eye Media

Ray Charles left the world many lasting images. He laid down the law for the Blues Brothers, worked with the Muppets, sang over the opening credits of In the Heat of the Night, hosted SNL, and was portrayed on film by Jamie Foxx. This is the genius of soul we’re talking about though, so more recordings and footage are always welcome, like the breezy concert performance now released as Live at Montreux 1997.

Charles was a total pro, but was not receptive to suggestions for deviations from his typical set, probably because that would imply other shows were less than special by comparison. So that night at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Charles hit with his band, like usual.

He opens up with a brassy, brisk workout in “I’ll Be Home (Sadie’s Tune),” but unfortunately the vocals are somewhat down in the audio mix. All is good though for the second tune, the bluesy “Busted.” The next song, “Georgia” needs no explanation, but it seems a little early in the set for such a crowd favorite. Despite performing the song hundreds of times a year, Charles still feels it, delivering the lyrics like nobody else could.

This was actually a pretty swinging Basie-like set, well suited to a jazz festival. Again, Charles keeps things in the brass bag for the Bix and Bing associated “Mississippi Mud.” He brings it down for the soulful “Just for a Thrill,” giving some solo space to David Hoffman’s tasteful flugelhorn. Although this band might not have the famous jazz improvisers of past outfits, like David “Fathead” Newman and Don Wilkerson, it is still a tight band, well drilled by musical director Al Jackson.

This is Ray Charles giving people what they want, like the funky, finger snapping “Scotia Blues” and, of course, the Raelettes. Since “Georgia” was earlier in the set, that means “What’d I Say” was the closer. Maybe Montreux 1997 was not the transcendent statement for the ages from Charles, but he did what he did. The man was cool.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Opening Friday: The Singing Revolution

Imagine thirty-thousand Estonians all singing in harmony. It may sound like a colossal Coca-Cola commercial, but for the Soviets it proved to be a nightmare. The word “inspirational” is almost meaningless through overuse, but it truly applies to The Singing Revolution (trailer below), a new documentary which takes its name from Estonia’s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union.

As well documented by principle producer-directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty, the Singing Revolution was so named for the role Estonian singing traditions played in their resistance to the Soviets. Central to this story is the quinquennial Laulupidu Song Festival, which had repeatedly been the scene of mass defiance of the Soviet Rule. While the 1947 Song Festival was designed to be a celebration of Stalin’s regime, an Estonian composer slipped past the censors a song based on the patriotic Estonian poem “Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love,” immediately establishing it as the underground national song.

The 1969 festival was again the scene of national self-assertion, as tens of thousands of Estonians spontaneously broke into their forbidden anthem. These song festivals proved to be the model for mass demonstrations against their Soviet oppressors during the waning days of Glasnost, defining the Estonian democracy movement.

One of the many revelations of Singing is the extent of Estonian resistance to the Soviet occupiers, notably from the so-called Forest Brothers partisans, the last of who were finally captured in 1978. Indeed, the filmmakers make the history of Soviet oppression crystal clear. It was the Soviets who first invaded Estonian in 1939 as part of the Molotov-Rippentrop (so-called Hitler-Stalin) Pact, which divided Eastern Europe between the two dictators, and resulted in mass executions and the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Estonians to Siberia. It puts in perspective the Estonian government’s recent controversial decision to dismantle a memorial to the Soviet war dead.

Singing takes pains to be fair to every party involved in the Singing Revolution. Even Vaino Väljas, the final Estonian Party Secretary appointed by Moscow, is given credit for gracefully accepting the will of the people. Other Estonian Communists, particularly ethnic Russians, were not so civilized, but amazingly, the Singing Revolution would be entirely bloodless.

This is a very well put together film. The music is well chosen for both illustrative and dramatic effect. Linda Hunt’s narration is clear and authoritative. The filmmakers have collected some amazing archival footage and conducted many insightful interviews. Wisely, they completely eschewed the usual talking head academics, in favor of the people who really lived the story.

More than just a lesson in history and politics, Singing is about courage, both on the individual and collective level. It is about two police officers charged with protecting the country’s only radio transmitter tower from the invading Soviet army. It is also about hundreds of thousands of Estonians who took to the streets to protest the Soviets and to protect the Estonian government from rioting Communists affiliated with the Interfront faction.

The stories of Singing are truly moving, especially when accompanied by the stirring large scale chorale music of Laulupidu. These events should be common knowledge, yet the recent history of the Estonian Singing Revolution, the Czech Velvet Revolution, and other such courageous movements seeking freedom from Communist rule, are being ignored, forgotten or otherwise discounted these days. Singing Revolution is an excellent antidote. It should be seen by every student in America, as it speaks directly about what it means to be a citizen and to live in a free society. In fact, this film is increasingly timely, as Putin continues to chart an alarmingly neo-Soviet course for Russia.

It opens this Friday in New York at the Village East Cinema. Kite Runner opens the same day, which is also a great film, but Singing will have a more limited window to reach an audience, so interested viewers should make it their priority. Seeking it out is highly recommended.

(Note: The directors will be attending the 7:00 shows on the 14th and 15th for Q&A sessions.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

PBS Stomps Off Holiday Jazz

Whenever PBS broadcasts jazz programming, I have to give it breaking news treatment. After all, I have been critical of the network for using Ken Burns Jazz series as a carrot during pledge drives, and then failing to deliver regular jazz programming throughout the rest of the year (terms like “bait and switch” may have been bandied about). So PBS definitely deserves credit for broadcasting Wynton Marsalis and members of the J@LC band live from their home in the House of Swing (Rose Hall at the Time Warner Center) in Red Hot Holiday Stomp, as part of the Live from Lincoln Center series.

The first half of the program was a well conceived set consisting largely of swinging versions of holiday favorites. Literally everyone loves jazz Christmas music, but a lot of folks just do not realize it. After all, jazz musician Vince Guaraldi was responsible the beloved music of the ever-popular A Charlie Brown Christmas. Here Marsalis and company run through some crowd pleasing Christmas standards like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” and what Marsalis called “that old Christmas favorite:” “Sheik of Araby.”

If not revolutionary, there were some very entertaining solos, especially from Wessel “Warmdaddy” Anderson on alto and Wycliffe “Pinecone” Gordon on trombone—it is great to hear them back in the band. “Sweet Papa” Don Vappie, who according to Marsalis “got up out of his sick bed to come out here tonight,” probably supplied the highlight of the set with his soulful vocal on “Blue Christmas.”

The second half of the set was made up of “Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul,” a musical collaboration between Marsalis and poet Maya Angelou. S. Epatha Merkerson conveyed strength and warmth in her delivery of Angelou’s words, but the text itself seemed slight compared to the heft of Marsalis’s major works on similar themes, like Blood on the Fields, Congo Square, and In This House on This Morning. Though impressive, the energy of Jared Grimes accompanying tap dancing is probably best experienced live, and was not well served by the camera work last night. Again, the band acquitted itself well. In particular, Ali Jackson’s concluding drum solo was a perfect conclusion, showing wit and dexterity, rather than bombast.

Surprisingly, the typically witty Marsalis did not bring his A game for between-tune banter, but the only really embarrassing aspect of the broadcast was Glenn Close’s gushy “interview” with Marsalis. If you can forget that, which should not be hard to do, it was entertaining showcase of what J@LC does best. (Look for it if your local affiliate did not carry it live last night.) Even if you are not down with Marsalis and his conceptions of jazz, this is great band. It has most of what I consider their classic line-up from the late 1990’s, with fantastic musicians, like Anderson, Gordon, Joe Temperly, Victor Goines, Ron Westray, and of course Marsalis himself, making Holiday Stomp a solid, if all too infrequent, jazz feature on Public Television.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Finding Jackie Paris

Which is more overdone in music documentaries, jazz experts constantly extolling the virtues of unsung artists you have never heard of, or directors who insert themselves into their stories? The thing about Raymond de Felitta’s ‘Tis Autumn: the Search for Jackie Paris (trailer here), a documentary about the underappreciated jazz vocalist and guitarist, is that it does both, in ways that are actually appropriate within the context of the film.

Jackie Paris was indeed a neglected figure in jazz. Even now, most of his CDs are available only as Japanese imports, although several are up on i-tunes. The interview subjects testifying to his musical talents include major jazz figures, like Dr. Billy Taylor, Teddy Charles, James Moody, Ruth Price, Howard Rumsey, Mark Murphy, and Phil Schaap. He even toured with Charlie Parker for six months at the altoist’s request, but never recorded with Bird.

Paris did not lack for famous cheerleaders either. Dr. Taylor played his records on his radio programs. Peggy Lee arranged an ultimately unsuccessful audition with Capitol Records. Lenny Bruce drafted a long passionate letter on behalf of Paris to a showbiz power broker, but never mailed it. (Autumn sees this as mysterious, but from what we know about Bruce, we can probably speculate the drugs had something to do with it.) Somehow the breaks always went against Paris, which is one of the mysteries Autumn explores. Reportedly, he spurned offers of mafia management, which is offered as a potential explanation for his career woes.

Autumn starts with what seems to be another comeback attempt for Paris, booked for a stand at the Jazz Standard. Film director and jazz pianist de Felitta came to hear the voice he only knew from import CDs and meets the man himself. As a result, he befriends Paris, and begins making the film, which culminates with the answer to its central mystery—did Jackie Paris have a child whom he never knew?

As de Felitta pursues leads, his presence in the film makes sense. There are a few scenes of him which should have been cut, as when he visits a New Jersey record show looking for rare Paris records, but overall the director’s presence is necessary for the story telling process. In both cases, Autumn gets away with its jazz documentary clichés.

Autumn is notable precisely because it does not simply engage in hagiography, rather giving a surprisingly balanced portrait of Paris. Despite pursuing the mysteries of the vocalist’s private life, it does keep the focus largely on his music, including some tracks that have not been commercially released before. One such tune, “I’ve Had a Heck of a Time,” is a pitch-perfect choice to run over the concluding credits.

Paris did deserve better. After all, this was the first vocalist to tackle Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.” His albums like The Song is Paris should be considered jazz classics. Autumn makes an effective case on his behalf, wisely selecting some fantastic music to make its points. It is currently playing in New York at the Cinema Village.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mingering Mike, Superstar

Mingering Mike: the Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar
Art by Mingering Mike, Text by Dori Hadar, Preface by Neil “The Game” Strauss
Princeton Architectural Press

If you have ever experienced the joy of collecting the entire output of an obscure record label, or can recite LP catalog numbers from memory, you are one of us. Known as vinyl hunters, crate diggers, or (more prosaically) record collectors, lovers of analog platters are true music aficionados, but some of us are a wee bit prone to obsessive behavior. The love and obsession are clearly evident in the work of Mingering Mike, a so-called “outsider artist” who created hand-drawn records for his fantastical alter-ego, superstar soul singer Mingering Mike, in an extensive body of work, much of which is collected in Mingering Mike, an illustrated volume from Princeton Architectural Press.

Mingering Mike’s art reached the public consciousness through nearly tragic circumstances. He kept his art and much of his LP collection in a storage locker, but one month when his payment came a few days late, he found his contents had been auctioned out from under him. However, that led to crate digger Dori Hadar’s discovery of the mysterious Mingering pseudo LPs at a flea market and his resulting quest to find the man behind the art.

When immersed into the art of Mingering Mike, one gets a sense of the depth of his love of soul music. Through record after record, LPs and 45’s, he created an extensive discography for his fictional doppelganger, as well as creating avatars for family and friends, like “Joseph War’ and “The Big ‘D.’” Mingering describes War on Introducing Joseph War “and What He Stands For” in very soulful terms:

"War Stand for peas and hominy
Mash potatos and beef
Chicken and string beans
And “ah” lot of other stuff
But really he stands for peace and tranquility
I hope we all do" (p.33)

What emerges is a soul music mythology that mirrors contemporary musical developments, sort of Henry Darger covering James Brown. It’s a world that actually makes sense to a crate digger like Hadar. Based on my own love for Blaxploitation soundtracks, I can look at Mingering Mike’s Brother of the Dragon and think how righteous it would sound if it were a real LP. Readers sort of get a sense of what their favorite Mingering songs would be by following which are released as singles, collected on “best of’s” and performed on “live” releases. Even the names of the labels, like “Ramit,” “Sex,” and “Ming/War” sound perfectly suited to their time.

During the early 1970’s, when the outside world intruded into the Mingering universe, it usually reflected societal ills troubling the artist. The scourge of drugs is a frequent theme, as on the song “Jittering Jack,” with lyrics like:

“‘Ah,’ say Junkie, ‘Ha’ you want some dope?
You want the needle or the kind you sniff or smoke?
Now listen here junkie
The pusher don’t care a heck about you
‘Cause he meets hundreds a day just like you” (p. 120)

There is indeed a dark side to Mingering Mike, reflecting a great deal of loneliness. The artist behind Mingering Mike is now enjoying his unlikely recognition, but is maintaining his anonymity behind the Mingering moniker. From the biography Hadar reveals, it is clear he spent a good period of time largely cut-off from society, relying on his art for solace.

Although the Mingering catalog began in conjunction with the artist’s ambitions for a singing career, one wonders if he could have really handled superstardom (you can enjoy some rare audio of Mingering at his website here). Family who talked to Hadar described Mingering as shy, and the implication of the frequent spelling and grammatical errors on the Mingering records is difficult to ignore. Yet that makes Mingering Mike, the book, particularly compelling, as it opens a door into someone’s very private universe.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Reissue Love: The Struggle Continues

The Struggle Continues
By Dewey Redman
ECM 1225

It might be a tad unorthodox to review a reissue, but the digital rebirth of Dewey Redman’s The Struggle Continues certainly rates such consideration. Long unavailable since its original 1982 vinyl release, Struggle’s reissue has been long hoped for by his fans. Rumors circulated on the now defunct Blue Note Records bulletin boards that the original tapes had been lost or some other technical problems were preventing its release. Happily, these rumors were either unfounded internet disinformation, or the tapes were found and the problems were fixed, as Struggle is now on available on CD shelves from ECM.

Perhaps surprising to some, the music of Struggle is largely bop-oriented, but to recycle part of a 2004 Signal to Noise review I wrote of a Lincoln Center Ornette Coleman tribute concert featuring the tenor player: “Redman, who as a longtime collaborator with Coleman and the father of young post-bop tenor Joshua Redman, represents a sort of nexus of jazz history. Redman has also shown an ability to modulate the ‘freeness’ of his playing.” Indeed, throughout his career, and especially on Struggle, has exhibited a flexible approach to the music.

The opening original “Thren” is a real Bird-flight, featuring the bop chops of Redman and pianist Charles Eubanks. While their solos may venture into free territory, they never stray far from the underlying blues. Despite a somewhat plaintive introduction, the following “Love Is” resolves into a lyrical ballad, which showcases Redman’s warmth on tenor rather than his fire. Struggle also benefits from a strong band surrounding Redman, including bassist Mark Helias, who contributes an elegant pizzicato solo on “Love.”

Redman was indeed a Texas Tenor, part of a long tradition of lusty, bluesy, full-bodied saxophone playing, which is showcased on “Turn Over Baby” over Helias’s funky bass lines. It is unapologetic greasiness, more Arnett Cobb than Ornette, though Coleman also had roots in Texas R&B. It is followed by “Joie de Vivre,” an appropriately titled sprightly swinging bop-based original.

“Combination” is unquestionably the piece furthest “out” in the set, but for those with just a cursory familiarity with jazz developments in the late 1960’s, it will hardly sound alarming. Frenetically paced at just over five minutes, it provides Redman and Eubanks latitude for some pretty free, if brief, explorations, as well as a nicely constructed drum solo from Ed Blackwell. Redman finishes with an explicit return to bebop with Charlie Parker’s “Dewey Square,” which shares the breezy swinging vibe of “Joie de Vivre.”

While not as celebrated as Coleman, the loss of Redman was deeply felt in the jazz community, with his January memorial at St. Peter’s garnering press coverage in the NY Times. It is great to have Struggle readily available now, as it is very accessible introduction to Redman for new listeners.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Coming Soon: Persepolis

Take heart, there are some very good movies set to release soon, and believe it or not, one of them is actually based on a graphic novel. While many live-action adaptations, like V for Vendetta with its immature nihilism, come across as juvenile, the animated Persepolis, has some serious and very grown-up insights to offer. Based on the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi, and directed by her and her colleague in comic art, Vincent Paronnaud, Persepolis chronicles its creator’s turbulent coming of age years, both in post-revolutionary Iran, and while living in exile in Austria. 

Like Kite Runner, a good portion of Persepolis is told through an extended flashback, as Satrapi waits for the flight that will return her to Iran after years away. Through her eyes, we see the Islamic Revolution unfold, soon followed by the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War, and then her often chaotic European sojourn. Though her family despised the Shah, they quickly recognize the new regime will be worse. 

Satrapi and her mother (voiced by Catherine Deneuve) suddenly find themselves forced to wear the veil. Sometimes the Islamist policies seem absurd, as when the older Satrapi, now in art school, finds herself sketching a model in a shapeless Burkha. However, there is nothing amusing for the young protagonist when she visits her beloved uncle in prison, understanding full well it is to be the last time she will see him alive.

The animated Satrapi is a natural rebel. She is attracted to western style hard rock, finding subversive freedom in the music (echoing the sentiments of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll). She is not afraid to argue a point when fed a line of propaganda by her teachers which is contradicted by her own experiences. That independent spirit would prove dangerous in the Ayatollah’s Iran, leading her parents to send her abroad for her protection. 

 Animated in the style of its source material, almost entirely in black and white, Persepolis presents a compelling vision. Quirky and sometimes dark, Satrapi’s characters at times suggest a restrained Charles Adams. Persepolis often grapples with some meaty political issues, like the role of women in Islamic society. 

Yet, at its core Persepolis is a family story. Like real life, Persepolis is episodic in nature. Some sequences are more interesting than others, but several are brilliantly powerful. Especially effective are the scenes of Satrapi and her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux), who teaches her granddaughter honor (particularly when living under oppression) and helps Satrapi make important decisions, through the example of her own free-spirited life. 

 The title Persepolis refers to the seat of the ancient Persian Empire (thank you production notes), nodding to Iran’s ancient legacy of learned culture. Tragically, the government of Iran today allows no place for the talents of a free thinker like Satrapi. To their credit, the French do enough to have nominated Persepolis as their official selection for the 2007 Academy Awards’ best foreign language film. It is a worthy selection—a dramatic vision of growing up in a country gone mad. It opens Christmas Day in New York at the Angelika.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Opening Soon: Kite Runner

The events of Kite Runner are not real. It is a fictional motion picture. However, some in the Islamist world seem to have trouble distinguishing cinema from reality. While Kite Runner might not be “real,” it is most definitely realistic in its portrayal of the extremism and depravity of the Taliban regime, which might be the actual problem behind the recent controversies.

Opening December 14th, Kite Runner is a well crafted film (trailer here) based on the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini. A full review of the film as a work of cinema will go up then, but after screening the film, it raises some topical issues deserving separate attention. By now, concerns for the safety of Kite’s child stars, particularly Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, whose character is raped by an older boy (who happens to be an Islamist) have been widely reported. Again, this is a work of fiction. Even if the Islamic world has trouble telling fantasy from reality, one would think they would have compassion or the victim of a horrific attack. Evidently not.

Indeed, the film is willing to shine an uncomfortable spotlight on the blame-the-victim syndrome prevalent in Islamist regimes like that of the Taliban. Kite unflinchingly depicts the stoning to death of a burkha-clad woman for adultery. As a form of execution, it is both cruel and cowardly, inflicting gruesome pain, but not requiring any hands-on effort from the “men” performing this ritualized public murder. Kite actually seems to raise questions regarding the sexuality of the Taliban enforcers. In addition to their misogynistic enforcement of Sharia law, pedophilic predators are presented as another constant danger stemming from the mullahs in power.

Though the film graphically depicts the Taliban’s reign of terror, it does not let the Soviets off the hook either. In many ways, the father of the film’s protagonist serves as the film’s moral compass. Just before the Soviet invasion he complains to the effect that: “the Mullahs want to control our souls, while the Communists deny we have any.”

Indeed, Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi’s performance as “Baba,” Amir’s father, is one of two performances worthy of an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Shaun Toub’s touching turn as the close friend of the family, Rahim Khan, is the second. Actually parsing lead from supporting roles in Kite might prove difficult, as young Amir probably has just as much screen time as adult Amir. It really is an ensemble piece with the entire cast turning in fine work.

Kite is often intense, and it nicely handles the challenge of devoting its first half to an extended flashback. The now infamous assault scene is indeed horrifying, but not lurid. It is an emotionally engaging and frequently terrifying film that deserves serious consideration.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Retrospective Love for Skolimowski

A director who critiques society in thoughtful ways (as opposed to clumsy didacticism) is certainly worth reviewing in a retrospective. Such is the case with Jerzy Skolimowski (henceforth abbreviated as JS), who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Anthology Film Archive this week.

JS worked with the notable Polish directors Adrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski before directing his own films, several of which ran a foul of the Polish Communist authorities, most notably Hands Up!, which was produced in 1967 but not released until 1981 (and was included in the Anthology program). Also screening last night was Barrier (Bariera), a challenging film of the sort that calls into question what is real, what is fantasy, and what does it all mean anyway? A jaded student drops out of school, perhaps to get married the next day. Along the way, he walks through a dreamscape of weird imagery, carrying a suitcase and a saber.

Binding and unwrapping—physical barriers—are repeated motifs in Barrier. Skolimowski can convey a sense of menace in commonplace things, but for all its illusory imagery, he cuts the proceedings with an occasional flash of subversive humor. Barrier may refer to human boundaries, but it is significant to make such a film in Iron Curtain Poland, where barriers were a very real part of every day life. Certainly, Barrier was worlds away from the state-approved Socialist Realism of dedicated workers striving to build the Communist state of tomorrow.

JS was a one-time jazz musician and was an associate of Krzysztof Komeda, who scored Barrier. Komeda’s music at times blends jazz reminiscent of Miles Davis’ Elevator to the Scaffold soundtrack with a vocal choir, but also uses orchestral themes that bring to mind some of Georges Delerue’s work. In each instance, his musical cues underscore the dreamlike nature of the film.

Moonlighting, JS’s best known film (screening today), is different—an uncomfortably direct and personal examination of a desperate individual. Jeremy Irons plays Nowak, one of four Polish laborers set to London illegally to renovate a flat for their boss in the government. Nowak is given the burden of leadership as he is the only one of the four who speaks English and is not a member of Solidarity.

In a career making performance Irons portrays a man given responsibility, but no authority, powerless in a strange land, with their money running out and communication from Poland cut off by the declaration of martial law. In order to finish the project, Nowak keeps the news of crack down against Solidarity from his men, even stooping to destroying mail from their families. Though he considers them fools, crude men of mean circumstances, at least their souls are their own. Nowak however, is a knowing pawn.

The Skolimowki retrospective runs through Saturday, often with JS shorts preceding the films. They make for fascinating viewing, as they show a director dealing with some common themes in vastly different ways.

Monday, December 03, 2007

NOLA Report from Frenchmen Street

Frenchmen Street is the street, where all the music lovers meet, down in New Orleans. Sure I heard some very entertaining traditional jazz in Preservation Hall and Maison Bourbon, but getting to them was a little unpleasant. The word “grody” could have been coined for Bourbon Street, as you now find it. Frenchmen Street however, is just outside the Quarter, but it has a great music scene, patronized by a good mix of people, including local residents. Of the Frenchmen Street clubs I was in, about two-thirds of the crowd was a good twenty years younger than me, and the other third was at least twenty years older.

Ellis Marsalis has a regular Friday night spot at Snug Harbor, and it is well worth seeing the patriarch of one of jazz’s famous families when in New Orleans. Son Jason accompanied on drums and Roman Skakun, a young vibist active on the NOLA scene, joined the trio for a good portion of the set. Another upcoming NOLA musician, Jesse McBride, sat in on piano for a tune. It appears sitting-in is far more prevalent in New Orleans—must be that Southern Hospitality. As for the elder Marsalis, he is still an eloquent pianist, who packs the house, so buy tickets ahead of time.

Across the street is The Spotted Cat, which is a bar more than a club, with a talking rather than listening crowd, but it books bands that I was strongly encouraged to check out. The New Orleans Jazz Vipers also have a regular Friday gig there, playing New Orleans flavored swing in a very Basie bag. Like Basie, they keep things loose and tailor their presentation to the ruckus environment. (It is not uncommon to see band members carry on conversations with patrons during a tune.) When they try a vocal number, it is largely lost in the din, but everything is done in fun, so no worries. In the NOLA spirit, Washboard Chazz sat-in for a few. Another regular I would like to hear more of is the New Orleans Hot Club, a Django-inspired combo including violin and clarinet that is honestly better than many such imitators.

“Do you want to hear some funky ass shit?” was Kirk Joesph’s question opening his second set Saturday at Blue Nile. Frankly, yes. Joseph is known for his sousaphone work in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and is leading a killer band called the Backyard Groove. They do groove, with some very jazz oriented trumpet and reed playing, and some very funky guitar and keyboards, with it all given a real heavy bottom thanks to the leader’s sousaphone (think tuba). They played a smoking “What’s Goin On,” far funkier than the version the DDBB recorded on their Marvin Gaye tribute album last year. They were probably the best show I heard in NOLA and Nile staff was actually very nice.

New Orleans is all about music, and as great as the traditional stuff might be, there is a lot more there too check out. New Orleans produced many great modern jazz musicians, like Ellis Marsalis, more avant-garde artists like Kidd Jordan, as well as a new generation of funky brass hybrid groups like Joseph, the DDBB, and the Hot 8 Brass Band. Yes, there is quality music to hear in the Quarter, but do not (I’m begging here) confine your visit to Bourbon Street, as some of my colleagues did to my everlasting embarrassment.