Friday, May 30, 2008

JFA Delivers Another Great Night

Wendy and the Jazz Foundation of America staff deserve congratulations for producing their best annual Great Night in Harlem benefit last night, based on the five of seven concerts I have attended. Not to be misinterpreted, they have always been great shows, but the Apollo Theater sound system was much more cooperative this year than in years prior.

Again, the music has always been great, but this year seemed to have more working groups than one-time-only jam ensembles, which probably yielded better results. For instance, Randy Weston opened with longtime bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Neil Clarke for the spiritually transcendent opener “The Healers.”

They were followed (after a brief piano solo and introduction from Chevy Chase) by Dave Brubeck’s quartet of altoist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Randy Jones. In a true example of giving the people what they want, they played “Take Five.” If Brubeck played it say 400 times a year since recording it in the summer of 1959, this could be around the 19,200th time he has played it in performance, yet it still sounds fresh. Militello particularly tore up the solo, not at all sounding like a Desmond carbon copy. The entire quartet sounded great, and why not? Playing “Take Five” with Brubeck on the stage of the Apollo has to rank pretty high up there.

The Foundation is indelibly linked to New Orleans now after all the emergency services they provided to musicians in the wake of Katrina, so there is usually a Crescent City presence at Great Night shows. Dr. Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band returned this year, exploring the bawdier roots of jazz and blues with vocalist Thais Clark through the song “Horn Man Blues.” It was great fun, delivered with style, but to describe it as double entendre would suggest misleading subtlety—it is pretty straight-forward about sleeping with the band.

Arguably the biggest guest star was Norah Jones, performing “The Nearness of You” backed by Buster Williams and Hank Jones, who was presented a cake for his ninetieth birthday. Actually, it would have been cool to hear that powerhouse duo take a purely instrumental turn, but the only act to get more than one number was Frank Foster’s Loud Minority, who followed Foster’s emotional thanks to the Foundation. They started with his standard “Shiny Stockings” as an instrumental showcase for guest soloists Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, and Phil Woods, and then backed vocalist Nnenna Freelon’s “Don’t Explain.” Of course, the greatest applause probably went to Wendy on harmonica during the concluding blues jam, as it usually does.

JFA does amazing work on behalf of jazz musicians in need. The concert might be over but you can still contribute. Visit their website here or send a check to:

Jazz Foundation of America
322 W. 48th St., 6th Floor
New York, NY 10036

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Classified Brothers

By the Brubeck Brothers

The saying goes: like father, like son. The Brubeck family has frequently collaborated in jazz contexts, but on their latest release, Classified, the Brubeck Brothers, bassist/trombonist Chris and drummer Dan (sans brother Darius) again followed in their celebrated father Dave’s footsteps with a fluid fusion of jazz and classical idioms.

While Dave Brubeck’s jazz-classical pieces often were of a sacred nature, involving large ensembles and choral arrangements, Classified is more in the tradition of chamber music, of both the jazz and classical varieties. The first seven tracks are highly melodic, swinging jazz. For the three movement suite Vignettes for Nonette and the elder Brubeck’s classic “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” the Brubeck Brothers augment their quartet with the Imani Winds.

The CD kicks off with the easy-going “Good Question,” giving ample solo space to the non-Brubecks in the quartet, Chuck Lamb on piano and Mike Demicco on guitar. The following “Cool on the Coast” evokes the West Coast Cool scene their father was not really a part of, but is often lumped in with.

Chris Brubeck doubles on trombone for “Dance of the Shadows” and “Friends Beyond Time,” blending with Demicco’s guitar for an intriguing combination of tonal colorings. “Dance” is the more up-tempo of the two, but the entire program has an upbeat vibe, which never lets the mood or the energy flag.

Throughout Chris Brubeck’s Vignettes suite, there is a regular ebb and flow between more classical sounding passages for the Winds and more swinging stretches for the jazz rhythm section, but the transitions are smoothly realized. Not surprisingly, the third movement is the most insistent, with the Winds sounding particularly swinging, and featuring a well integrated drum solo for Dan Brubeck. It concludes with “Rondo,” a major part of the Brubeck family legacy and a highlight of the session. Even with the fully orchestrated sound of the Winds, the jazz solos are downright down-home, with Chris Brubeck going gutbucket on trombone.

Classified keeps a good groove on, even when blending jazz and classical with the Winds. It would be good summer spin for general listeners, but has plenty of nutritional value for experienced jazz ears.

(Remember tonight is the Jazz Foundation of America’s Great Night in Harlem benefit concert. Proceeds go to a great cause so consider attending. Even if you don’t have a reservation, I imagine if you show up with money, something can be worked out.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Don Matteo

Don Matteo (in Italian with English subtitles)
12 Episodes on 3 DVDs
Ignatius Press

Why can’t Protestants solve crimes? It seems like all the good sleuths of the cloth are Catholic, like G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Ralph McInerney’s Father Dowling, and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, all of whom have been gone from books to television. They also have Italian company in Don Matteo (or Father Matthew), a long-running RAI series about an Umbrian village priest who solves crimes and saves souls, now available to American consumers in a twelve episode collection from Ignatius Press.

Making Matteo more accessible to American audiences is the recognizable presence of actor Terence Hill in the lead role. After taking several parts in Italy under his original name, Mario Girotti, Hill gained notoriety for his work in The Leopard with Burt Lancaster. He changed his name to pursue Hollywood work, the best remembered of which are probably the Trinity comedic westerns and Super Fuzz. (Yes, Don Matteo is Super Fuzz, how super bad is that?). As Father Matteo, Hill projects a strong, reassuring presence, looking a picture of craggy but vital late middle age.

The supporting cast does not always come off as well as the good father. The rectory’s domestic servants provide downright painful comic relief. The Carabinieri, the coppers, fare somewhat better. The banter between Captain Anceschi and Marshall Cecchini kind of grows on you, and the scenes in which Matteo offers them spiritual counseling adds a dimension never seen in American hour-long dramatic television.

Released by the Catholic publishing company, Ignatius Press, Don Matteo, does indeed take faith seriously. Matteo’s concern for his flock extends to both the souls of victims and perpetrators. Some storylines therefore unfold a little differently than American viewers might expect, like in “Murder in the Library,” in which the mysterious Vatican scroll actually does not conceal a secret that could undermine the entire Catholic Church. Unfortunately, some Hollywood conventions evidently extend to Italy, like a tiresome storyline about the new Mayor’s pursuit of environmental policies over the opposition of the local landed interests, but at least Milena Miconi brings a Jane Seymour-like appeal to the role.

Given the limits of fifty minute episodes, the mysteries are not particularly complex, but the writers try not to blatantly telegraph every plot development. Still, the strongest aspect of Matteo is its treatment of Catholic faith. In an episode like “The Poisoned Chalice” we see Father Matteo, shaken by several attempts on his life, find strength through prayer. Though Matteo frequently quotes other sources (including even the Quran), he speaks pretty directly about God and Jesus, as when he tells the killer in the first collected episode: “The godless can’t even imagine how limitless God’s love is.”

Set in the picturesque town of Gubbio, Matteo looks great, often acting as a persuasive commercial for Umbrian tourism, enhanced by Pino Donaggio’s breezy theme music. Hill is still a cool screen presence, giving Matteo real charisma. Definitely G-rated and probably considered corny by Italian hipsters, Don Matteo is not perfect (again that comic relief must not translate well), but it has a real novelty appeal, given the cynical treatment of all organized Christianity and Catholicism in particular on American television.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Let It Come

Let It Come to You
By Taylor Eigsti
Concord Jazz

One of jazz’s post-Marsalis prodigies, Taylor Eigsti, now twenty-three, first recorded as a leader as a youthful sixteen year-old, which is plenty annoying to contemplate. Eigsti seems to have avoided the kind of jealousy and criticism that goes with the prodigy territory (particularly for the so-called “Young Lions”), garnering strong reviews and Grammy nominations for past CDs. With the release of Let It Come to You, Eigsti deserves credit again, for a strong, well thought-out mix of originals and standards.

Eigsti does have an interesting way with standards. At first he seems to attack the opener, Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” elliptically, giving the well-worn melody an almost minimalist treatment, before stepping on the gas at the halfway mark. The old chestnut “Fever” gets a similar treatment, before becoming a vehicle for Eigsti’s fleet chops.

His less obvious choices give the session a nice dimension too, like the Michael Brecker tribute, Pat Metheny’s “Timeline,” which Brecker recorded with the guitarist on his album Time is of the Essence. Here special guest Joshua Redman steps into the tenor role for some hot, soulful blowing. Another unusual choice is “Not Ready Yet” by the pop-quirk band the Eels. Eigsti’s arrangement is sensitive, giving some solo space to bassist Reuben Rogers.

The originals are all sequenced at the end of Let It, but they account for some of the strongest music of the session. The title track is an elegant ballad, which is nice, if not exceptionally memorable. However, though probably misnamed (one hopes), the three-part "Fallback Plan Suite," is a rousing musical statement, with strong melodic hooks and some great ensemble playing from flutist Evan Francis, and tenors Dayna Stephens and Ben Wendel. “Part One: Less Free Will” starts in a graceful hard-bop vein, segueing into more reflective passages, then rising and cresting again. “Part Two: Not Lost Yet” has more of a pop sensibility, with a prominent back beat and Eigsti’s Rhodes more discernable in the mix. It concludes with “Part Three: Brick Steps” which is much more insistent in tone, but boasts some sparkling ensemble horn passages and tenor solo from Wendel.

Let It is quite a satisfying musical statement from Eigsti as musician and composer. He should not have to worry about fallback plans. What he is doing now seems to be working out for him just fine.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Budapest and Lodz

After a recent day trip to Budapest, I left believing it to be the most beautiful city in Europe. Yet, that Budapest is completely unrecognizable in landscape filmmaker Peter Hutton’s Budapest Portrait. Budapest dates its founding back over a millennium ago. How much could have changed since Hutton’s filming from 1984-1986? Certainly, the fall of Communism had an enormous impact on Hungarian life, but could the oppressive Socialist government literally depress the very brick and mortar of a city?

To be fair, Hutton never shows us the Budapest seen from tour buses—no St. Stephen’s Basilica, no Heroes’ Square. Hutton’s camera gravitates towards the Soviet industrial and the decrepit gothic. The Budapest we see is cold and inhospitable. He films huge Socialist Realist monuments, revealing their true purpose: not to commemorate a particular event or person, but to dehumanize those people they tower over.

For the people in Hutton’s Budapest life is constant toil. We either see them as ant-like specks against some state-planned monstrosity, or dozing off in nocturnal scenes from train stations, consigned to Hellish versions of Edward Hopper paintings.

I have never been to Łódź, so I have no basis for comparison, but given the city’s role during WWII and the Holocaust, it is hard to imagine it ever being a cheerful place. Through Hutton’s lens, the Polish city much resembles his Budapest. In Łódź Symphony (1991-1993), his choice of imagery takes on added significance when we see cogs in ancient gears and a large chimney. (We actually see many Łódź chimneys, as Hutton documents the city’s chimney sweeps at work.)

Given Hutton’s decidedly unromantic approach to filming the cities, it is really no small feat that he left both Communist countries with his film (not to mention his being) in-tact. Budapest was in fact the first film made by a filmmaker outside the Soviet bloc at Hungary’s BBS (Béla Balász Stúdió) and only the second from a filmmaker from outside Hungary. Evidently, the BBS made a few edits (including excising the late Andropov’s portrait) and added a soundtrack for a version of the film re-titled Memoirs of a City. The print MoMA screened as part of their Hutton retrospective carries the Memoirs title, but has no soundtrack, to the consternation of one of the most ill-behaved audiences I have ever sat through a screening with.

Hutton’s Budapest and Łódź are a bit demanding, in that there is no sound and they do proceed at a deliberate pace. One might not want a steady diet of his work, but at less than an hour together, the two films offered some striking images to those capable of sitting still long enough to receive them.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Great Night, Great Cause

When I write about how the Jazz Foundation of America helps musicians in need, I write of that which I know of first-hand. I have been involved with the organization as a volunteer and supporter for a number of years, but during the months following Hurricane Katrina that involvement became particularly intense, as I coordinated the independent instrument donation offers that poured in from around the country. I heard directly from musicians how much the Foundation had done for them, paying their bills and providing housing and work opportunities. As a result, I have no reservations recommending their annual Great Night in Harlem benefit concert on May 29th.

Even before Katrina, JFA kept plenty busy. They had provided emergency housing for hundreds of musicians a year and formed a special relationship with the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey to grant completely free treatment to uninsured jazz musicians. Of course, Katrina dramatically increased JFA’s caseload.

JFA gets a lot of just attention for the emergency housing and medical assistance they provide, and the employment they offer through their Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program. Less recognized is the community infrastructure they supply, like the weekly jam session they produce in the Local 802 hall. It’s open to anyone, including participating musicians as well as polite listeners, starting around 7:00. It is a jam session, so you never know, but there are some rock-solid regulars in the rhythm section who play most of the night, and it is hosted Okaru Lovelace, a fantastic vocalist. It is a rare opportunity for people new to the City to jam—just one of the many services provided by JFA.

The Great Night concerts are always cool shows in the historic Apollo Theater. The line-ups are always subject to change right up to the last moment, but this year’s invitation lists: Randy Weston, Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath, Phil Woods, James “Blood” Ulmer, Nnenna Freelon, Jason Marsalis, Frank Wess, and Dr. Michael White. Whatever the program, it will be well worth the price of admission. The show is on Thursday the 29th at 8:00. Visit their website to buy a ticket (or make a donation).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Generation Apart

A Generation Apart
Directed by Jack Fisher
City Lights

Some events are often thought to cause psychological repercussions for generations to come, but it seems like the Holocaust is rarely discussed in such terms. Director Jack Fisher, the son of survivors, came to believe his parents’ experiences had a profound impact on his and his brothers’ lives. Exploring those issues led to his film A Generation Apart (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Though from the same village, Alan and Esther Fisher survived the Holocaust separately, meeting after the liberation in a refuge center in Cypress. Jack Fisher was born in Israel before the family relocated to New York, eventually settling in Brooklyn. Between the brothers and their families, Friday night dinners are set for an extended family of eleven at the time Generation was filmed.

Not everyone in the family posits the Holocaust with the same formative significance as the filmmaker brother. The eldest brother Joe is a constant corrective, often challenging his assumptions. In frank discussions he even raises the sort of issues of memory appropriation that marked the recent film Memory Thief. At one point the elder brother emphatically tells the director their parents lived through a different Holocaust than the one he thinks he understands.

One of the merits of Generation is its refusal to straight-jacket every figure into preconceived notions. In the commentary track, Fisher admits many interview subjects, contrary to his expectations, took strength from their parents experiences, leading him make a film: “in some ways the opposite of what was intended.” Giving wider context are on-screen interviews with Shelly, an artist friend; Yoram, an Israeli actor playing an SS officer; and Peter, a former doctor from Australia. While the actor flatly denies the Holocaust’s significance to his life, Shelly and her mother clearly have very real conflicts, rooted in her Mother’s horrific experiences, which they appear to resolve during the course of the film. Peter and the Fisher brothers seem to fall into various points between these two extremes.

In perhaps the film’s pivotal scene, Shelly’s mother tells a story of a malnourished little boy doomed to death after only a brief existence in the ghetto. Relating her feelings for her children to her memory of that child, she makes the connection the film seems to be looking for.

Generation is a very humane film. Its participants speak with direct honesty about very painful subjects. Although quite heartfelt, the music by Peter Arnow can get a bit intrusive at times and probably would have been more effective mixed down somewhat. The original film (reflecting the look of the early 1980’s) is augmented for DVD with some recent commentary, including Alan Fisher’s moving tribute to his wife, who had passed away well after Generation was completed. In addition to providing valuable oral history of the Holocaust, Generation also offers some unique insight, well worth viewing and reflecting on.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wasilewski Trio in New York: At Birdland

The Marcin Wasilewski Trio stepped into the spotlight last night at Birdland, celebrating their latest ECM release, January. Despite an uncharacteristically early start time by New Yorker standards (it’s hard to get us to show up for anything before 8:00, preferably 9:00), they played to a sizeable, enthusiastic crowd.

Having heard them live and on disk quite a bit over the last week, it finally struck me they were getting a similar reaction that I have seen Jason Moran’s trio (a.k.a. Bandwagon) receive. It is not that they bear striking stylistic similarities, but they both have the same “in-it-together” ethos, with nobody on the bandstand looking to take a lot of bows at the expense of the group endeavor. Both trios also project an unaffected sense of cool, which is appealing as well. That unity of spirit in particular though, is something audiences for both trios really respond to.

Logically, the set drew from January, including Tomasz Stanko’s “Balladyna,” with the trumpeter in attendance, fresh from yesterday’s concert at MoMA. Introducing the tune, Wasilewski recalled playing for Stanko at the same club a year and a half ago. In an interesting decision, the Trio concluded with Carla Bley’s “King Korn,” perhaps the thorniest, most demanding selection on the CD. In general though, the set was representative of the thoughtful intimacy that characterizes January.

The Wasilewski Trio shares the enigmatic lyricism of their mentor. Listening to their music unfold is a pleasure. They are probably the most original and cohesive trio unit I have heard since Moran’s group came on the scene. Given jazz’s uncertain, usually prohibited status during the dark days of Communism, it is especially rewarding to see great new talent from Poland emerge on the world stage.

From New York, their American tour continues on to Philly, Baltimore, Ann Arbor, and LA. Again, whether on CD or in live performance, they are definitely highly recommended listening.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wasilewski Trio in New York: At MoMA with Tomasz Stanko

Last night represented the convergence of two on-going events that have been covered here: the Marcin Wasilewski Trio’s American tour and MoMA’s Jazz Score film series. Over the weekend MoMA screened several films with soundtracks composed by Krzysztof Komeda, and recorded by his group, usually featuring Tomasz Stanko on trumpet. Last night, Stanko gave a tribute concert of his mentor’s music, backed up by his protégés, the Wasilewski Trio, with special guest Billy Harper on tenor to round out the quintet.

There was not an empty seat to be had in the Titus Theater, and Stanko and his associates did not disappoint. Harper’s rougher tenor proved to be a good counterpoint to Stanko’s misty trumpet. Throughout the evening, the Wasilewski rhythm section-mates were ably supportive and tastefully swinging, often taking considerable solo honors themselves. At times, the ensemble could have been interpreting entire Komeda soundtracks, twisting and evolving to match an emotionally complex story arc.

Stanko has often returned to the music of Komeda, most recently recording “Kattorna” on his latest ECM release Lontano, as well as on tribute records like Litania and Music for K. Clearly he and the Wasilewski Trio are well familiar with Komeda’s music, but still find new things to say through it. Harper also sounded comfortable with the music, spreading warm tenor goodness over Komeda’s classic ballad theme from Knife in the Water for his quartet feature.

Stanko, Harper, and the Wasileski Trio nicely captured the many hues of Komeda’s music: up-tempo swing, darkly brooding ruminations, elegant lyricism, and nervous tension. It was a perfect concert for the MoMA film department to produce as part of their jazz retrospective.

Tonight, the Wasilewski Trio will finish their New York stint with a launch concert at Birdland for their latest CD, January, with an early hit time of 6:00. Based on last night’s audience reaction it promises to be another great show.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Jazz Score: Sounds of Komeda

Krzysztof Komeda is often considered a victim of the curse of Rosemary’s Baby, dying less than a year after the release the famous film he scored. He and producer William Castle were actually admitted to the same hospital, at the same time, but while Castle recovered, Komeda eventually succumbed to his injuries. He died prematurely young, but already one of Poland’s most influential jazz musicians and soundtrack composers. Saturday night, MoMA’s Jazz Score series showcased several films Komeda scored, and tonight, Tomasz Stanko, a former member of Komeda’s Quartet, will play his music at MoMA, backed up by the Marcin Wasilewski trio.

Komeda had a long association with Roman Polanski, which brought him to Hollywood in the late 1960’s. Though it is Polanski’s first full-length feature as a director, Knife in the Water hints at some of the psycho-sexual themes that would pre-occupy much of his later work. It also bears some slight similarity to Dead Calm, telling the story the arrogant, well-connected Andrzej and his trophy wife Krystyna, who pick up a young, un-named hitchhiker, and take him on their day cruise, evidently out of boredom and the challenge of his banter. However, that witty patter often gives way to darker expressions lurking below the surface, intensified by the claustrophobic conditions aboard the small yacht.

As dark and moody as Knife might be, Komeda’s score is not as dark as one might expect. It often swings nicely, capturing the bouncy of the open water with clear skies. At others times it is cool and laid back, almost languid like the placid sea.

Despite featuring some musicians associated with the avant-garde, including cornetist Don Cherry and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, Komeda’s score for Le Départ is also a surprisingly swinging affair. The first film directed by Knife screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski, it was actually filmed in Belgium, with a largely French cast, including Jean-Pierre Léaud, one of the most consistently annoying screen presences in international cinema.

To be fair, Léaud was often cast in roles demanding such performances, like in Last Tango in Paris and the great Day for Night. Again, here in Départ, he plays the immature dreamer. This Léaud character is Marc, a young hairdresser’s assistant obsessed with entering a motor rally, at the expense of his relations with real people, particularly a potential girlfriend he drags on a foolish, bordering criminal spree, in lieu of an actual date.

Départ is very much a continuation of the New Wave, crying out for comparisons to Godard’s Breathless. Skolimowski has a distinctly subversive eye, well matched by Komeda’s music. At times, his music undercuts the on-screen action, rather than reinforcing it, as when Marc begins a half-hearted attempt to seduce a middle-aged client at a fashion show. Komeda worked with Skolimowski on several projects, including Barrier, which often features the darker sounds frequently associated with the composer. Indeed, a Komeda retrospective would be a great follow-up series for MoMA.

Komeda was an important mentor to Stanko, who has often recorded his compositions. Tonight you can hear him interpret them anew at the MoMA. Tomorrow night, the Wasilewski Trio, mentored by Stanko, will play at Birdland, capping off a mini-festival of Polish Jazz in New York (but Knife and Départ will screen again on May 22nd).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jazz Score: Friday the Thirteenth

Artist Ray Johnson died on Friday the thirteenth, drowned in the waters of Sag Harbor. Numerologists will take note: he was checked into room 247 of a local hotel, numbers which director John Walter’s documentary How to Draw a Bunny points out, add up to thirteen. In addition to displaying a shrewd sense of humor, Walter’s film also makes keen use of solo drum improvisations by the great Max Roach, making it a welcome, if somewhat idiosyncratic addition to MoMA’s Jazz Score series.

Well regarded by colleagues like Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Chuck Close, and Christo & Jean-Claude, all heard in interview segments, the renown of his contemporaries eluded Johnson. He probably was not helped by his eccentric approach to business dealings, which the film interprets as an extension of his performance art pieces, dubbed “nothings” by Johnson in the pre-Seinfeldian era. Introducing the film Wednesday, Walter explained the initial uncertainty surrounding Johnson’s death—murder, accident or “performance art gone wrong?”

Watching Bunny, so named for the rabbit figures which often adorned Johnson’s graphic work, one is easily convinced the artist was a mad genius. While the film unquestionably accepts Johnson’s artist merits, some of the work shown makes one wonder if he were truly a fine artist or a con artist, pulling an elaborate gag on the art world. Some of his portraits and collages are indeed fascinating, but other smaller works using Lucky Strike packages kind of make one wonder. Indeed, much of his work comes across as an extended joke for his own amusement, like a nothing in which he whipped a cardboard box with his belt while hopping on one foot before a stunned hipster audience.

Regardless of one’s take on Johnson’s art, Bunny is a surprisingly entertaining film. Roach’s solos swing hard, accentuating Walter’s strong visuals. The decision to incorporate footage of Roach’s hands in performance, described by Walter as an “analog” to the creative work Johnson shaped with his own hands, gives a mysterious, almost spiritual dimension to film.

Ultimately, Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide—essentially a performance art piece gone tragically right. Given the artist’s subversive methods used to get his work into the MoMA collection so it could be included in an exhibition curated by Close, the film seems like a particularly apt choice for their Jazz Score series. Documentaries have also been relatively under-represented thus far, so Bunny is a nice change of pace. It is a fascinating story briskly propelled by Roach’s brushes. It screens today at 2:30.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Wasilewski Trio in New York: January the CD

By the Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Michal Miskiewicz
ECM Records

In coming days, New Yorkers will have several opportunities to hear some of the finest jazz from Poland, and many of those events will directly involve the Marcin Wasilewski Trio. Following a day of Polish films featuring Krzysztof Komeda soundtracks as part of MoMA’s Jazz Score series, the Wasilewski Trio will play a Komeda tribute concert with their mentor, Tomasz Stanko, the leading statesman of Polish jazz. Then on Tuesday evening, the trio will take center stage at Birdland to celebrate the release of their new CD January. Their sophomore release as a unit on ECM, January is notable not just as the impetus for bringing them to America, but as a remarkably assured musical statement.

Beginning with the appropriately titled “The First Touch,” January establishes a relaxed sense of open space and elegant simplicity, colored by Mishiewicz’s shimmering cymbals. Setting the session’s mellow but explorative mood it is an effective example of the unforced patience and rapport of the trio’s interplay.

Perhaps of particular interest to patrons of the jazz and film series they will participate in Monday will be the two cinema-inspired tracks. Their beautiful rendition of the Morricones’ “Cinema Paradiso” is taken at a slower tempo to express its poetic richness. Taking its name from the Polish film festival it was composed for, “The Young and the Cinema” is an upbeat swinger. At over nine minutes, it is the longest track of January, giving all three ample solo space.

The Wasilewski Trio, formerly called the Simple Acoustic Trio (and also thought of as the Stanko rhythm section), remains a democratic group. For instance, Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz share the melody statements on the pop cover “Diamonds and Pearls” by the artist formerly known as Prince (or whatever). It is a perfect example of jazz artists recasting familiar material, in this case adapting it to the Trio’s sparklingly lyrical style.

January includes other notable covers including Gary Peacock’s “Vignette” here sounding perfectly suited to the trio’s vibe and Stanko’s brooding “Balladyna.” Perhaps the ringer of the session is Carla Bley’s Monkish “King Korn,” the most agitated performance on January, proving their facility with faster tempos and knotty melodic lines, as well as thoughtful ballads.

The disk closes with “New York 2007,” a brief, elegiac improvisation recorded by the trio when they were in said city last year. Soon, they will return, backing up Stanko at the MoMA on Monday the 19th at 7:30, and launching January at Birdland the next day (5/20) at 6:00. From there, they will play gigs in Philly, Baltimore, Ann Arbor, and LA. Whether on CD or in live performance, they are definitely recommended listening.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jazz Score: Sweet Smell of Success

Publicists have a difficult job. Getting press for clients is often a tough assignment. I have been able to cover some truly great artists and films here because of their assistance, and have real respect for those I have worked with. So it is important to remember Sidney Falco from The Sweet Smell of Success is far from representative (but in some cases he has provided a sort of tongue-in-cheek inspiration). His story also comes accompanied by a jazz soundtrack, which explains its inclusion in the MoMA’s Jazz Score series.

As a press agent, Falco played by Tony Curtis, is desperate to get his clients into the newspapers, particularly in the column of one J.J. Hunsecker. Clearly inspired by Walter Winchell, Burt Lancaster’s Hunsecker is the tyrant of the tabloids. Oozing schmaltz for his readers and radio listeners, he is a Machiavellian figure, who also has a strange need to keep his young sister under his tight control. Unfortunately, she has taken up with the doggedly principled Steve Dallas, a jazz musician, which is unacceptable for obvious reasons. Now the obedient Sidney is charged with torpedoing the relationship. Until he does, he will be frozen out of Hunsecker’s column.

Co-written by notorious lefty Clifford Odets, Success seems like a naturalistic, almost muck-raking expose of the world of Broadway press agents, in which Falco is totally done over by the Hunseckers. However, after viewing it several times, the real villain who emerges is Falco himself. Hunsecker is indeed a moralizing hypocrite who abuses the power of the press, but Falco is a willing accomplice in his own debasement. There is nothing and nobody he will not voluntarily sacrifice, including whatever shreds of dignity or sense of self he might have left, simply to suck up to his press master. In cringe-worthy scenes, we see Falco obsequiously light Hunsecker’s cigarette after the columnist publicly humiliates him. At one point Hunsecker tells Falco: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” and he is not wrong.

Success is a great film, as is much of the music, particularly that of Chico Hamilton’s quintet. There is also a sort of crime-jazz influenced orchestral soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, which is not quite as swinging as his score for Man with the Golden Arm. The Hamilton Quintet does indeed get screen time the Dallas group. Portrayed by Martin Millner (no kidding), Dallas is seen as the leader and guitarist of the combo, whereas drummer Hamilton was the actual leader and cellist Fred Katz was the de-facto musical director. Hamilton’s guitarist at the time, John Pisano, is heard but not seen, dubbing Millner’s performances.

The dialogue of Success crackles and Hunsecker may well be Lancaster’s best film performance. Effectively directed by the British Alexander MacKendrick, Success is a film noir-ish time-capsule look at early 1950’s Times Square New York. It also represent one of the better troupes of jazz films—the association of jazz with integrity. It screens at MoMA May 24th and 25th.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Travel Notes

Travel Notes
By Alon Yavnai

Not to inject too much of the reviewer into the review, but having listened to Alon Yavnai’s Travel Notes while passing through airports this week, I can say it travels well. Strongly rhythmic, yet also thoughtful and calming, Yavnai’s new release (on-sale yesterday) is a perfect soundtrack for those on the move.

Again, not to overdo the travel metaphor, but Yavnai is no stranger to life on the road, having come to America from Israel by way of Costa Rica, and then playing and touring with Paquito D’Rivera for six years. His music is informed by a wealth of international influences, including his native Israel, the Middle East, and Latin America.

The opening “Bayit (Home)” nicely captures the spirit of the album. Wistful, but not morose, it is an excellent feature for Yavnai as a composer and pianist, propelled along by his rhythm section of bassist Omar Avital and percussionist Jamey Haddad. “Yonatan” nicely continues that meditative but engaging vibe. Yavnai shows loads of technique, but consistently resists the urge to be showy.

Yavnai’s title track has a somewhat brisker tempo, but not jarringly so. It is a striking composition, given slightly exotic accents with the addition of Avital’s oud, building in intensity as Yavnai and Avital trade dazzling statements. “Ilna B’nit (Beautiful Island)” is another richly textured original, evolving in intriguing ways around deceptive rests.

Yavnai’s touch on the keys comes to the fore on four solo features, three of which are the only selections on Travel not penned by the leader. “Numi Numi (Sleep, Sleep),” Shlomo Gronich’s “Shir Ahava Tari (Fresh Love Song)” and Lea Goldberg’s “Yakinton” are given sensitive, almost classical-styled renditions. The aptly titled concluding track “Sof (End)” is a brief ruminative coda on a fresh and original jazz statement.

Though Travel is not Yavnai’s recording debut as a leader, touring as such is relatively new to him. Based the reception to his “pre-launch” at the Jazz Standard, he has a promising career ahead. He already has a distinct sound, and also seems like a nice guy, both of which should auger well for him. Travel is quite a rewarding session—definitely recommended.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In Search of the Blues

In Search of the Blues
By Marybeth Hamilton
Basic Books

The country bluesman carrying a guitar down that lonesome road is now a well established cultural archetype. It was not always so. Many folklorists and “song hunters” contributed to the Country (later Delta) Blues concept, often for their own ideological reasons. That evolution is examined by Marybeth Hamilton in her new study of Blues Studies, In Search of the Blues.

Hamilton begins with the not exactly reconstructed Southerner Howard Odum, who may have softened in his later years, but originally studied the folk songs of Southern African-Americans in hopes of buttressing prejudiced racial notions. Although self-styled as a progressive, novelist and academic Dorothy Scarborough’s interest in the music came from a related nostalgia for the idealized South of her youth. In a particularly telling passage, Hamilton captures Scarborough’s disillusionment on meeting the future personified, an economically prosperous, independent African-American man of music—W.C. Handy:

“Here the tenderness of her remembered South had been crowded out by a hard-nosed commercialism, faceless and altogether lacking in deference, as Scarborough found herself rebuffed in a smoke filled office where white women and men jostled with black ones for the attention of a black entrepreneur.” (p. 90)

While Odum and Scarborough were far from boosters of the music we now refer to as the Blues, their work laid their foundation for the most famous and controversial figures in Search, the Lomaxes. Father John and son Alan Lomax are well remembered for their discovery of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and the resulting fallout from that association. Hamilton’s treatment is far more critical of the conservative elder than the fellow-traveling son. John Lomax’s dogged defense of the South in general is certainly questionable, but his fears regarding his son’s involvement with the Communist Party seem well founded in light of subsequent revelations about the Soviet domination of the CPUSA.

The unlikely hero who emerges from the pages of Search is the rather eccentric and anti-social record collector, James McKune. Together with a rag-tag group of fellow obsessives dubbed the “Blues Mafia” he largely shaped the Country Blues aesthetic. In his triumph, Hamilton posits a victory for the mafia over the “philistine brand of left-wing populism” of those championing the blues as an expression of proletarian solidarity (p. 229). In particular, Samuel Charters is identified as a critic who would eventually make an about face, first politicizing the music in his book The Country Blues, then writing four years later:

“If the blues simply mirrored the protest of the moment they would finally have little more than a historical interest, like the songs of the suffragettes or the Grange movement.” (p. 235)

While McKune certainly had his collector’s quirks, he is portrayed being attracted to the music because of the music itself, and not for an ideology laid on top of it. Like other figures in Hamilton’s study, he uses terms like “primitive” to describe the music. However, McKune seems to come to these expressions to describe sounds which resonated for him, rather than adopting the music for its preconceived primitiveness. Indeed, one gets the sense it would have been equally uncomfortable for Leadbelly’s Popular Front sponsors if he had started offering sophisticated discourses on monetary policy as it would have been for the elder Lomax.

Like the musicians he loved, McKune was a figure on the margins of society, ultimately dying a death worthy of its own blues. Search deserves credit for elevating him from obscurity. While specifically addressing the blues, Search also contains substantial crossover material for jazz audiences, as Alan Lomax’s Jelly Roll Morton sessions and New Orleans jazz oral histories are explored to give wider context to folklorists’ pursuit of “authenticity” in African-American music. Unfortunately, Hamilton often lets the left off the hook for the sort of primitive fetishizing she criticizes in others. Overall though, Search is consistently informative and highly readable, offering a fresh perspective on the now well trod ground of blues creation mythology.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Gott Paint

I'm still out and computer problems may further delay a resumption of regular blogging. However, for those planning a Czech excursion, here is a quick review of the Gott Gallery Restaurant.

Karel Gott began his career as a jazz vocalist, performing with the likes of the Gustav Brom Orchestra, but eventually drifted into more pop vocal terrain. While he had the popularity of a Czech Sinatra, it would probably be more stylistically accurate accurate to describe him as a Czech Vic Damone. Popular he was though, and popular he remains with a segment of the population. Some however, judge him harshly for accepting the favors of the Communist regime. For a time in the early 1970's Gott refused to return from an international engagement, but Husak himself made a personal appeal. You might notice wiki and other online bios are strangely silent about the period from 1968-1977.

Gott is sort of like the Communist era Kofola soda, dividing Czechs. Some can enjoy them with a sense of nostalgia, whereas for others they simply leave a bad taste in their mouths. For expats though, he has high kitsch appeal, so the Gott Gallery Restaurant was a natural stop when BC set out to show me around the city again.

The deserts are rich—KG's personal recipes I'm sure, but the art was the main attraction. Gott seems to have a very healthy appreciation of the nude female form, with a bit of Sapphic eroticism thrown in for good measure. Yet, the middle-aged Czech women did not seem did not seem anymore scandalized than we were. His Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec influences are immediately obvious. They seem to be the expression of a man accustomed to enjoying life. As a painter, I would say he is no Tony Bennett. I certainly would not make it a priority for those on their first trip to Prague, but it is not over-run by foreign tourists, and for expats and regular visitors it has a bizarre fascination.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Eccentricities by Tennessee Williams

(I’m in Prague and points unknown in Hungary the next week and a half. Blogging will be light but a few time sensitive posts will go up during that time.)

Alma Winemiller must be eccentric. She is far too demonstrative in her music. Not that music is an inappropriate pursuit in itself—she just puts too much of herself into it for the tastes of respectable society in early twentieth century Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Her creator, Tennessee Williams, clearly had more affection for her though, rewriting Alma’s first stage life, Summer and Smoke, into a substantially different play, eventually re-titled The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Although it became Williams’ preferred version, Eccentricities has rarely been revived, but a rare new production opened at the Clurman last night from The Actors Company Theatre.

Life has stacked the deck against Alma Winemiller. Her natural eccentric spirit is all the more suspicious to Glorious Hill in the light of the madness running unbridled through her family. Her mother’s mental instability is a constant source of embarrassment, sabotaging her own social development. However, the dark secret history of her Aunt Albertine (of New Orleans, no less) may cast a greater shadow over Alma. Given her place in the world, Alma’s continuing yearning for her childhood crush, the now dashing Dr. John Buchanan, Jr., appears hopeless.

According to the very helpful program notes, Williams cut several characters from Summer and greatly simplified the plot. The young Dr. Buchanan’s character was made more sympathetic and Alma became more assertive. They were probably wise edits, as the scenes shared by the two characters are sharply written, forming the heart and soul of the play.

In impressive performances, Mary Bacon and Todd Gearhart play Alma and her object of desire with nuance appropriate to the emotional complexity of Williams’ dialogue. Although their characters’ actions might not always be satisfying, they make those decisions completely believable. While most of the parental characters are basically stern and unsympathetic, the disturbed Mrs. Winemiller comes across more as a childlike woman stuck in a state of arrested development than the dread mad woman in the attic. As a result, the horrified reactions she engenders seem somewhat out of place.

Eccentricities is an intimate story, that proves quite compatible with the Clurman’s space. Bill Clarke’s gauzy sets and gothic backdrops effectively evoke the sense of Southern ennui that marked Williams’ work. Given how the playwright ranked Eccentricities within his body of work and his affinity for its lead character, it seems odd that the play has not been revived more frequently. While the Broadway version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof might be selling a lot of tickets because of celebrity casting, the simple directness of Eccentricities deserves to find an audience as well. TACT’s revival makes a strong case for revisiting the place of Eccentricities in the Tennessee Williams canon. It runs through May 24th.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Blues By the Beach: On Screen and Online

In the past, there has been the occasional bloodshed in blues jukes, sometimes even becoming the stuff of legend. These days, one would hardly expect even a little fist-fighting in a blues club, much less a homicide-suicide bombing. In Israel however, that is never outside the realm of possibility. Filmmaker Jack Baxter learned this all too well while making Blues By the Beach, a documentary which plays May 5th at the Two Boots Pioneer, and is also available online as part of the digital delivery revolution.

Baxter originally travelled to Israel with plans of filming a documentary about a terrorist facing trial. When he arrived at the courthouse, Baxter found his prospective subject was already well covered by another filmmaker, and frankly not that interesting. Baxter planned to pack up his gear and leave, but happened to wander into a Tel Aviv blues club on his supposed last night. He found Mike’s Place, a beachfront club featuring a mix of blues and related blues-rock.

The managing co-owner, Gal Ganzman, had created an oasis of American ambiance that drew a decidedly mixed patronage. Everyone in Mike’s spoke English, but never discussed religion or politics. When Baxter saw Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and Europeans, all peacefully coexisting at Mike’s, he figured he had his story. Baxter hired bartender Joshua Faudem and Faudem’s Czech girlfriend, Pavla Fleischer, to be his crew and started interviewing the people of Mike’s, expecting a narrative to take shape. Unfortunately, it did.

On April 30, 2003 a suicide bomber walked into the club, changing the lives of everyone there and tragically altering the trajectory of the film. Three people lost their lives that night: Dominque Hass, a Mike’s waitress covering for someone else on her night off, and musicians Yanay Weiss and Ran Baron. Seriously injured in the blast was the bouncer, Avi Tabib, who spotted the bomber, preventing far greater carnage, and Baxter himself.

The director would become the subject, as Faudem assumed the helmer's duties. Each death is painful for the people of Mike’s, but the loss of Hass is particularly shocking to the audience. Bright and attractive, Hass was established as one of the lead voices of Beach before the cowardly attack. Losing her presence in the film makes Beach feel unbalanced, incomplete—which is the point. That is the messy reality of terrorism and the resulting sense of loss.

Beach is not a film of strikingly composed images. Rather it was about having the camera pointed in the right direction when something important happened, and capturing the drama unfolding. This is not an academic exercise, offering excuses for the killers (who happened to be British nationals). It is about a savage act of violence, and the efforts to deal with the resulting emotional and physical scars. It is as real as it gets.

Faudem did indeed finish the film, but the experience would prove trying. Baxter recovered to see the film into release as co-producer and will be taking questions at Two Boots after the screening. It turned out to be a painfully intimate film, showing the effects of terrorism in very concrete human terms. Mike’s Place looks like the sort of spot we would hang at if we were in Israel. The music we hear in the film by Barry Gilbert and Sobo is actually pretty good and the people seem friendly. That is why Beach is so disturbing. It introduces us to a place we, like Baxter, would feel so comfortable in, and then see it senselessly bombed out of sheer hate. Beach is a brutally honest film, well worth seeing.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Action/Abstraction and All that Jazz

In the trenchantly written The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe argued that art criticism’s theories had eclipsed actual works of art in terms of importance for the art world. Given the disparagement heaped on Wolfe’s book by art’s intelligentsia, probably nobody will be more amused than he to see it under glass in a new art exhibit. Yet there it is on the second floor of the Jewish Museum, as part of Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976, an exhibit putting Abstract Expressionism in a full cultural context and directly addressing the theories of critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, both of whom figure prominently in Word.

Both Greenberg and Rosenberg were advocates of Abstract Expressionism, but employed very different theories and semantics in their writings. Greenberg represents the “abstract,” a formal art for art’s sake ethos, articulated with terms like “flatness” and “purity.” Rosenberg corresponds to the “action,” valuing art as a creative process, expressed through the language of “liberation” and “gesture.” Yet both were able to trumpet artists like Pollock and de Kooning as exemplars of their aesthetic concepts.

Pollock and de Kooning are indeed the exhibit’s marquee artists, but twenty-nine other figures in some way associated with the movement are also represented. In an explicit criticism of Greenberg and Rosenberg, a section labeled “Blind Spots” highlights women and African-American artists unfairly ignored by the critical establishment, despite producing work comparable to their more famous peers. Norman Lewis is a particularly interesting inclusion since he had come to distance his work from racially specific conceptions. As the accompanying text explains:

“Lewis turned away from African and African American imagery, as well as his earlier convictions about the social relevance of art, to focus on pure abstraction. By doing so, Lewis and other African American artists felt they might escape associations with the ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic.’”

Lewis still produced work inspired by the sounds of jazz, like Twilight Sounds (1947), included in Action/Abstraction. While essentially consisting of lines, its composition more than suggests the form of a jazz combo.

Jazz also figures in the “context rooms” which explore the cultural, political, and historical factors influencing and reacting to the ascendance of Abstract Expressionism (which is also where you will find Wolfe’s Painted Word). Pollock was well known as a jazz enthusiast, asserting the music’s claim as the one “really creative thing” America had to offer. While recent revelations suggest his record collection was not as hip as we might like to think, he did have some classic swing and New Orleans jazz, including Coleman Hawkins’ “My Ideal,” heard on a loop with Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” and John Cage. (Hawkins’ gorgeous tone is immediately recognizable. Though unexpected in such a shrine to modernism, it is not completely out of place, considering Hawk’s openness to modern bebop developments.)

Opening to the general public May 4th, Action/Abstraction is a well conceived and assembled examination of Abstract Expressionism and the intellectual milieu which shaped it—an intriguing blend of art and cultural history. It runs through September 21st before moving on to St. Louis.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Refusenik: Opening Victory Day (5/9)

The words “Next Year in Jerusalem” have always been rich with meaning but for Soviet Jewry, they took on even greater significance during the stark years of Communist oppression. Soviet Jews who dared to apply for exit visas were dismissed from their employment, harassed by the KGB, and often imprisoned or exiled to Siberian. Filmmaker Laura Bialis documents the inspiring story of the so-called Refuseniks in the new film Refusenik, which opens in New York May 9th.

The film starts with a quick and lucid recounting of Soviet anti-Semitism, ranging from discrimination in university admissions to Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot, the invented conspiracy used as a pretext to persecute Jewish doctors. Although Stalin was an initial supporter of the State of Israel, anti-Semitism would become systematized to such an extent during the Stalin years that many were honestly expecting to be swept up in another Holocaust.

Called a “renaissance of hope,” by historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Refusenik identifies the stunning Israeli victory in the Six Days War as a pivotal moment for Refuseniks. Israel’s battlefield triumph, despite all Soviet state media predictions to the contrary, provided an inspiration and a hoped for destination.

As a matter of course, the Soviets denied all emigration requests, often on the pretext of the applicant being an important specialist. Then these irreplaceable specialists were summarily fired, forced to live uncertain hand-to-mouth existences. Yet an extraordinary refrain is repeated by many of the Refuseniks Bialis interviews. Regardless of the desperate circumstances they faced as a result, they never regretted their actions, because it was through their defiance of the Soviets that they first felt free.

Perhaps the most celebrated Refusenik, Natan Sharansky is one of the film’s lead voices. His story is nothing less than heroic, having served nine years in a Soviet prison on trumped up charges. However, some of the lesser known Refuseniks are equally remarkable. Vladimir Slepak was actually the son of a loyal party member, but when told by his father it was preferable to arrest one hundred innocent people rather than allow one enemy of the party to go free, his response was: “I’ll never be in your party. It’s too much blood on your hands.”

also chronicles the worldwide movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and is laudably bipartisan in who it credits in the struggle. The passage of the Jackson-Vanick amendment requiring countries observe emigration rights to qualify for favored nation trading status is presented as a principled coalition of liberal and conservative congressional representatives over a détente-obsessed Nixon administration.

Of American political leaders, two stand above all others. One is a Democrat, Sen. Scoop Jackson. The other is a Republican: Pres. Ronald Reagan. It is clear from interviews that he made Soviet human rights a priority like none of his predecessors had before him. It is not just summit anecdotes from George Shultz that make the point.

Refusenik Ari Volvovsky tells a story that powerfully illustrates Reagan’s commitment. While serving his sentence in a prison camp, Volvovsky was called into the commandant’s office and asked if he was friends with the American president. He was then shown a letter from Reagan to Gorbachev pressing for his release. Probably Gorbachev’s reputation will suffer most from the film, as it is made clear he resisted releasing the Refuseniks and actually tells his interviewer: “Many of them were my friends.” Right, some of his best friends were Refuseniks.