J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Goin’ to Kansas City


At 81, Robert Altman left an impressive, if uneven body of work. In obituaries of the director who died on the 20th, Kansas City, his 1930’s jazz and crime drama is usually unfairly categorized as a failure.

Featuring artists like David “Fathead” Newman, Joshua Redman, James Carter, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, Ruseel Malone, and Nicholas Payton, Kansas City is richly and lovingly scored with the sounds of Kansas City Swing. It painstakingly recreated the ruckus town ruled by boss Pendergast. Its critical dismissal has always been a little puzzling, perhaps explained by the film’s frank depiction of corrupt Democrat operatives, working hand-in-glove with Pendergast’s mobsters.

At one point Steve Buscemi’s small-time tough organizes his battalion of low-life “voters,” telling them: “you’ll be exercising your God-given right to vote. However, you’ll be voting the way I tell you to vote, and as many times as I tell you.” As they file into a polling place, gangsters outside tell them, “remember you’re a Democrat,” before gunning down a poll watcher who asks too many questions.

It was refreshing that someone of Altman’s politics could paint such an accurate picture of the corrupt political machine that actually brought Harry Truman to the national stage. The film also stars Harry Belafonte in an unforgettable performance as Seldom Seen, a mobster who is “seldom seen, and rarely heard.” (If only that were true for the actor, as well.) The closing scene of Belafonte counting his money as Ron Carter and Christian McBride play a bass duet of “In My Solitude,” is a pitch perfect conclusion.

Ignore the critics—Kansas City is a great film, one of many in Altman’s filmography. Based on news accounts from Tennessee and what I’ve personally heard from sources in Connecticut, it is timelier than ever, and the soundtrack stills sounds fantastic