J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

In the Vaults


Many great jazz LPs have yet to be reissued on CD, languishing on the vaults. It’s also true of some great jazz films which have not been yet been released on DVD, some did not even have a life on VHS (at least legally authorized). There could well be rights issues complicating possible release, but it would be nice to see some of these on pristine DVD:

A Man Called Adam (briefly on VHS): Sammy Davis, Jr. plays Adam Johnson, a trumpeter most likely inspired by Miles Davis and his love interest is played by Cicely Tyson, who would later marry Miles Davis. Johnson’s young trumpet protégé is played by Frank Sinatra, Jr. His evil booking agent is Peter Lawford. All of which makes it fascinating to watch from a Freudian perspective. Factor in great performances by Louis Armstrong and Mel Torme, and totally cool retro animated opening credit sequence featuring Nat Adderley’s cornet and you have an under-rated entertaining jazz film.

Bix: an Interpretation of a Legend (VHS only): Italian director Pupi Avati crafted a beautiful biography of Bix Biederbecke, shot on location in Davenport, Iowa. Some have criticized a few inaccuracies in terms of who was with what band when, but for us mere mortals lacking encyclopedic knowledge Midwest territory bands, it is a sensitive, finely crafted portrayal of the jazz legend. Musical director Bob Wilbur recreates the music of Bix and Tram superbly.

Ballad in Blue (briefly on VHS): With Genius Loves Company selling millions of copies and Ray winning an Oscar for Jamie Foxx, why hasn’t this pleasant film starring Ray Charles as himself found its way onto DVD (legally)? Another great opening sequence featuring Charles with his band is one of several jazzy musical numbers that make this film fun. The melodrama side-plot of a blind British boy befriended by the genius of soul isn’t so cloying that it distracts from the coolness of Ray Charles being Ray Charles and he has great scene telling some tough truth to his young friend’s over-protective mother.

Lush Life (available only on PAL import formatted DVD): While the story of a jazz musician facing a terminal illness may sound potentially melodramatic, Lush Life handles it with a light, deft touch, ending on a perfect high note. The music is of a consistently high caliber, with Forrest Whitaker’s trumpet handled by Chuck Findlay, and Bob Cooper doing the honors for Jeff Goldblum’s tenor. Ernie Andrews appears as himself, taking a swinging vocal.

Too Late Blues (no legal release): Not a great movie, but certainly interesting. John Cassavetes only commercial Hollywood movie, is unlikely enough about jazz musicians. Benny Carter’s music is great, even with the weird vocal stylings of Stella Stevens’ character. Simply knowing Stevens and Bobby Darin were actually working with Cassavetes make this an odd viewing experience.

The Cool World: Shirley Clarke’s naturalistic look at urban life, wisely simplifies Warren Miller’s novel, which tried to shoehorn every possible social pathology into one boy’s short life. The classic soundtrack was performed by jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and composer Mal Waldron. However, when the soundtrack record was recorded, Waldron was left off the session, in favor of Kenny Barron, Gillespie regular pianist at that time.

There are scores of great jazz CDs, books, and DVDs releasing each week, so it’s not like we need to find ways to spend more dough, but these are interesting films that deserve wider viewing.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Katrina—One Year Later

A year after Katrina ought to be a time for some reflection. Many, many people opened their hearts and wallets to ease the suffering of those affected. Inconceivably, many who jumped on Katrina as an opportunity for finger pointing and political gamesmanship have largely been rewarded for their efforts by the old media. Despite the heartfelt efforts of so many Americans, others seem to want to keep New Orleans in a perpetual state of martyrdom to use as a prop in their media propaganda campaigns.

There are good people who don’t participate in such vampirism. The Jazz Foundation of America has worked tirelessly to assist the musicians who nurture America’s musical legacy. Having volunteered coordinating their instrument donation drive, I’ve talked to many such musicians, and heard heartbreaking stories. I’ve also seen the generosity of ordinary Americans, who have donated wonderful instruments to artists in need, shipped at their own expense. Such donations go beyond temporary relief, providing the means for professional musicians to start gigging again. Instruments are still in need, particularly saxes, sousaphones, flugelhorns, and drum equipment. (Send me an e-mail at jb.feedback at yahoo if you can help.) The Foundation has also given out Hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency grants for housing and living expenses. Go here to support their efforts.

Of course, NOLA was not the only city to be effected. The people of Mississippi have been overshadowed by New Orleans, arguably one of the few disadvantages of having a vastly more competent governor in charge of recovery efforts. One great way to help is by supporting efforts to rebuild their Library system. There is an excellent system set up here to help restock their collections.

Years from now, we’ll judge how we responded to this cataclysmic event. The old media may take pride now in their rumor-mongering, conspiracy-theory peddling, and frequently inaccurate reporting. Political advocacy groups may revel in the rhetorical points they chalked up. Yet those like Wendy at the Foundation, who took direct action to help other people in need, will be remembered more fondly.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Carol Robbins’ Jazz Play


Jazz Play
By Carol Robbins
Jazzcats JCTS-105

Many would be hard-pressed to name a harpist outside of the Marx Brothers, let alone a jazz harpist. Yet jazz experts could rattle off the names of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, demonstrating jazz’s hospitality to more exotic instrumentation. Carol Robbins is a former protégé of Ashby, establishing a unique lineage for the instrument in jazz. Jazz Play is her third CD, and it makes a good case for the jazz harp.

Jazz Play is dominated by a late-night-into-early-morning mood, with Robbins’ harp meshing well with her sidemen. Her attack on tunes like “Buddy’s Bite” is actually more percussive than the rhapsodic cascades one expects from the harp. She generously shares the solo spotlight, featuring Steve Huffsteter’s warm flugelhorn on the lushly romantic original “Still Light.” It is representative of the moody, relaxed feeling of Jazz Play, over half of which consists of Robbins originals. The standards are well chosen, including a rendition of John Lewis’s “Skating in Central Park” that highlights Bob Sheppard’s tenor, furthering the cool blue feeling of the set.

Perhaps her most interesting theme is the moody Latinesque tune “Tangiers.” Strong, focused solos by Robbins and Sheppard on soprano keep the energy for this tune elevated above the generally laidback level of the overall CD. While the nature of the harp may lend itself to such an approach, some listeners might prefer a few more up-tempo tunes for the sake of variety.

Throughout the session, there is strong interplay between the musicians. On “Sollevare” for instance, Robbins and guitarist Larry Koonse blend so closely, it takes close listening to tell where one set of strings comes in and the other comes out. The supportive rhythm of Darek Oles on bass and Tim Pleasant on drums keeps everything swinging nicely (but politely), despite the relaxed mood of the set.

The jazz harp tradition may not be the most celebrated, but Carol Robbins keeps it alive with Jazz Play. Surely Dorothy Ashby would approve.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Wein Scolded

“A Nightmare in Havana” is the title of an open letter from Paquito D’Rivera to George Wein, the famed founder and producer of the Newport Jazz Festival, published in the August Latin Beat magazine (not available on-line). The great clarinetist and saxophonist took issue with Wein for programming a film by John Holland titled A Night in Havana, featuring Dizzy Gillespie at one of his festivals. D’Rivera of course defected from Cuba, and was separated from his family for years, as there were held as hostages by Castro’s criminal regime.

Seeing the film is particularly unpleasant for D’Rivera because of his “having to put up with the repugnant presence of the oldest dictator on this planet, absurdly mixed with a certainly dearest—yet ill-advised—representative of an art form that epitomizes the most revered concept of artistic and personal freedom.”

He takes Wein to task for screening a film that exploits music for the sake of its pro-Castro, and therefore pro-oppression propaganda. D’Rivera pointedly scolds Wein for giving credibility to such an undertaking, pointedly writing:

“Despite the availability of so much footage of Dizzy’s masterful performances, what is the point in portraying him in such an embarrassing environment?—Dizzy’s presence in Cuba was commercially very rentable—was the answer of filmmaker Holland. For my money, it is unfair to take advantage of the terrorist repression and absolute lack of freedom that the Cuban people have to endure on a daily basis. Marketing our misery, is highly cruel, insulting, racist and disrespectful.”

He also reminds Wein “looking at the Cuban musicians on tape, you’ll easily find out that a great number of them are now living in different countries around the world, far away from the ‘paradise island.’” Indeed, D’Rivera reminds Wein, his colleague Arturo Sandoval’s defection “was orchestrated by Washington impresario Charlie Fishman, backed up by Dizzy himself, using his contacts at Reagan’s White House.”

Reading his frank autobiography, Myself Among Others, the impresario is laudably willing to admit past mistakes, like the shabby treatment bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs received at a Newport Folk Festival. Wein succumbed to pressure to flip-flop Scruggs with the popular scheduled closing act the Kingston Trio. After the Trio’s set, many young fans and their parents poured out of the festival as Scruggs began to perform, creating an unfortunate situation for the vastly superior musician. The decision to program a film rife with pro-Castro sentiment however, was an unforced error, which could easily have been foreseen to lead to potential ill-will with scores of Cuban-American musicians like D’Rivera, Sandoval, and others. Wein should have known better than this.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Musings in the Met

Hippocrates Refusing the Gifts of Artaxerxes is part of the Girodet exhibit closing imminently at the Met. It’s a scene from antiquity that raises contemporary questions. Hippocrates, of “first do no harm fame,” refuses to doctor to Greece’s enemies. Despite the wealth offered by the Persian emissaries, Hippocrates tells them to go pound sand. For Hippocrates, his love of Greece trumped financial remuneration.

How would the dinosaur media react today if a famed American specialist refused to doctor to Castro or Ahmadinejad? Would they be expected to see themselves as doctors first, and Americans second, if at all? That certainly seems to the choice many reporters have made. Would they respond to a scene of Hippocratic patriotism as Girodet did?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Mayor Parsons

Mayor Parsons. I’d probably be OK with that. According to this week’s New York Magazine Time Warner CEO Richard Parson is considered to be weighing a bid to become the next Bloomberg-like businessman turned mayor. Mr. Parsons has also been very supportive of the Jazz Foundation of America, one of my favorite causes. He is on their advisory board and co-chaired the Great Night at Harlem benefit committee. He was also a generous bidder and general good sport at their benefit auction last year.

Looking at Parson’s on-line contributions (Federal FEC.gov provides more info but no permalink for search results , State, City), it seems that his GOP credentials are actually stronger than Bloomberg’s were before his Mayoral run. He has given to both parties to be sure, following established business practice. His contribution to former Clinton hack Charles Simon’s assembly campaign this year is particularly disappointing and his support of RINO Arlen Specter is less than thrilling. However, he has supported John Faso’s campaign to the tune of $5000, when most commentators are writing off the gubernatorial campaign as a Spitzer inevitability. John Faso would be a great governor. Presumably, Mr. Parsons agrees, which is certainly an encouraging indication of what his administration would be like.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Narrow PBS POV on Lomax

Does PBS really hate jazz and blues? It sure seems so. Last night I watched Lomax the Songhunter, POV’s documentary on Alan Lomax, the great folklorist and field recorder recorder for the Library of Congress. Lomax made music history when he traveled to the Sherrod plantation to record a bluesman named McKinley Morganfield. Morganfield is now known and beloved as Muddy Waters, an artist whose influence on blues and rock musicians like the Rolling Stones (named after one of his songs) is incalculable. Lomax would describe the session in The Land Where the Blues Began, which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. Lomax is the author of Mister Jelly Roll, a book that developed out his celebrated LOC recordings of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton reminiscing and performing at the piano.

Oddly, even though Lomax’s name is forever intertwined with early blues history, POV focused almost exclusively on Lomax’s work documenting European folk artists, or American folk artists, like Jean Ritchie, whose songs trace their lineage to European forms. The only music from African-American sources POV featured were work songs from Southern prisons (close to the blues). No Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, or Mississippi Fred McDowell, all who were essentially “discovered” by Lomax. Certainly, Lomax documented the folk music of many diverse cultures, but by ignoring the blues, POV excluded many career highpoints. The filmmaker is entitled to his editorial choices, but what he produced will most likely be of minor interest to those who study Lomax and his legacy.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Warren Vaché: Don’t Look Back


Warren Vaché and the Scottish Ensemble
Don’t Look Back
Arbors Jazz

One of the best jazz films of the 1980’s is Frank Gilroy’s The Gig, the story of a kicks band that lands a real paying gig in the Catskills one Summer. A major reason for its success was the music and acting chops of Warren Vaché. While both Vaché and The Gig, (currently unavailable on DVD) deserve to be more widely celebrated, Vaché has at least recorded often. With his new recording Don’t Look Back, Vaché tackles the “with strings” concept, with the help of deft musicians and arrangers, who do not confuse the saccharine for sumptuousness.

Many might associate the cornet with brash Dixieland playing, but here Vaché shows its full romantic potential, gently caressing the melodies, but never succumbing to the lush string accompaniment. While the over-riding mood is one of wistful romanticism, “Molly on the Shore,” the Irish folk ballad appearing nearly halfway through the program, is a bit more up-tempo with an almost Baroque quality, providing a nice respite from the gorgeous melancholy. Indeed, “Molly” is a standout track, as is Chirillo’s original “Valse Prismatique,” with its more exotic feel, adding some spice to the proceedings.

Don’t Look Back is also newsworthy for premiering an original Johnny Carisi arrangement of “Spring” originally penned for a Charlie Parker strings session, but unrecorded until now. Vaché shows no sign of being intimidated by stepping into Bird’s role. His playing is as assured here as it is throughout the session. Vaché’s solos are unerringly tasteful throughout, but his vocal on the concluding title track, a speak-on-key performance a la Rex Harrison, may not work for every listener, but it shouldn’t ultimately detract from an overall beautiful CD.

Not surprisingly, Vaché is the primary solo voice on Don’t Look Back. However, James Chirillo does take a nice turn on “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” thanks to the generous arrangement of the leader cornetist. Chirillo, who often plays with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra when the services of a guitarist are needed, ought to be better known himself, but hopefully his performance here as string arranger and conductor will lead to further opportunities for him.

“With Strings” sessions have a bad reputation with many jazz listeners for their easy sentimentality. Thanks to Vaché’s playing and the high caliber of the Scottish Ensemble’s string accompaniment, Don’t Look Back avoids clichés and cloyingness, fully realizing the romantic potential of instrumental jazz combined with a supportive string section.

Monday, August 21, 2006

I Know What I Know: the Music of Mingus


I Know What I Know: the Music of Charles Mingus
By Todd S. Jenkins (Forward by Sy Johnson)
Praeger
0-275-98102-9

In some ways Charles Mingus might be too good a subject for biographers. He was truly a larger than life figure about whom there are scores of stories purporting to document his eccentricity. It is easy to lose sight of the music of Charles Mingus which should be the primary interest of anyone reading a book on Mingus. To rectify that, Todd Jenkins wrote I Know What I Know, a full analysis of Mingus’ music, recording by recording.

In general, Jenkins eschews the biographical details of his subject’s life, except in so far as they illuminate a particular piece of music under discussion. He does however, note the bassist’s troubles with the local musicians’ union when Mingus came to New York in 1951 with vibist Red Norvo. As Jenkin relates:

“The city’s Musicians Union wouldn’t let Norvo work in its clubs if he retained the bassist, ostensibly because Mingus didn’t have a local union card. But the race issue was an unspoken yet implicit factor, so Norvo reluctantly let Mingus go.” (p. 17)

However, Mingus would not take such an action laying down, would sue the union, ultimately settling out of court. He would use the financial compensation to start one of his several record labels, Debut.

Mingus was famously political, and spoke out often in support of civil rights. Many of his song titles had ungainly political titles, that bordered on parody, like: “Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA” and “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America.” Wisely though, Jenkins focuses on Mingus the composer and musician, and sometimes the person, as when longtime sideman Charles McPherson remembers an early gig with Mingus at a fundraiser for his friend poet Kenneth Patchen. McPherson recalls:

“Charles did it for nothing but did want to pay us. So at the end of the benefit, after we performed, Mingus began doling out five-dollar bills to the players. I turned it down and told him to put it in the basket for Patchen. What’s five dollars going to do for me? I can buy a couple of beers with it, but this is a benefit. Then Mingus looked at me and his eyes welled up. From that point on I could do no wrong in the band.” (p. 79)

Though Mingus and many of his great sidemen have passed on, Jenkins has captured some valuable recollections from surviving band members, like McPherson and Jack Walrath. He is at his best when describing the music itself, as when he discussing Mingus’ 1964 band’s Town Hall Concert (on Fantasy/OJC), likening Dolphy’s solo to “a drunken ice-cream truck, constantly teetering back and forth between tonality and freedom.” (p. 108)

One odd aspect of I Know What I Know are some comments made by the author about Sue Graham Mingus, the widow of Charles Mingus, which could be construed as less than flattering. In an introductory note Sue Mingus cautions readers about shoddy bootlegs, arguing: “Not only are musicians and record companies cheated out of royalties, but their reputations are damaged when consumers purchase poor qualities of their work,” noting that “some of the Mingus material discussed in this book falls within that category.” (p. xvi)

Later, Jenkins writes: “’The I of Hurricane Sue’ was composed for his wife, Sue Graham Mingus, and it is as complex a creation as the both of them. Mingus maintained that it was a tribute but not a reflection of her personality; one might have guessed otherwise.” (p. 135) Comparing Sue Mingus to a hurricane seems a bit tactless, especially given her dedication to Mingus, his music, and even Jenkins' book. Her book Tonight at Noon is recommended for additional perspective on their relationship. Regardless, Sue Mingus has a point that artists deserve to be compensated fairly for the music they create, which does not happen when their work is pirated.

While Jenkins is not the smoothest writer, he brings some fresh insight to Mingus’ music. I Know What I Know serves as a set of liner notes to his collected recorded output. In doing so, it takes the focus away from colorful Mingus stories, and puts it back where it belongs, on the music.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Blogs Insist: Release Cuban Journalists Now

It’s August 18, 2006. The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has sent out a clarion call to its members to publish editorials today calling on Cuban thug Fidel Castro to release all journalists held imprisoned for practicing their vocation and Val Prieto (guest blogging for Michelle Malkin) asks the blogosphere to follow suit.

In March 2003 Castro ratcheted up his reign of terror by rounding up pesky troublemakers like journalists and librarians, sentencing them in kangaroo courts for alleged violations of Law 88, an instrument of legal terror which IAPA describes as “a 1999 act providing long sentences for a variety of journalistic ‘crimes.’”

It’s not just journalists that Castro has declared war on. Independent librarians have also been targeted by Law 88. In January 2004, Nat Hentoff renounced his ALA Immroth Award for intellectual freedom, when the American Library Association voted down an amendment which would have protested the wholesale arrests of Cuban librarians. The ALA should attempt to rebuild its reputation by joining the world community in protesting Castro’s treatment of librarians and journalists.

Artists have fared little better under Castro’s dictatorship. He has also imprisoned poets like Renaldo Areinas, Heberto Padilla, and Armando Valladares. Jazz musicians like Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera have been harassed by Castro’s organized street gangs and in some cases also imprisoned.

Clearly, free expression has been incompatible with the Castro regime. It is time for change to come. The world must demand the release of all Cuban prisoners of conscience. IAPA should be commended for focuses attention on the plight of independent journalists in Cuba—journalists like:

Ricardo González Alfonso; Víctor Rolando Arroyo (also an independent librarian); Normando Hernández González, Julio César Gálvez; Adolfo Fernández Sainz; Omar Rodríguez Saludes; Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez; Mijaíl Barzaga Lugo; Pedro Arguelles Morán; Pablo Pacheco Avila; Alejandro González Raga; Alfredo Pulido López; Fabio Prieto Llorente; Iván Hernández Carrillo; José Luis García Paneque; Juan Carlos Herrera; Miguel Galván Gutiérrez; José Ubaldo Izquierdo; Omar Ruiz Hernández; José Gabriel Ramón Castillo; Léster Luis González Pentó Alfredo Felipe Fuentes; José Manuel Caraballo Bravo; and Oscar Mario González

Their names may not be familiar to us, but each is an individual, with family, friends, and the courage to question a corrupt regime. Journalists, librarians, and bloggers should have a consistent message—set them free.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Presbyterian Publishing’s Definition of “Progressive”

What passes for “progressive stances on theological and social issues” at the Presbyterian Publishing Corp. (PPC), the independent publishing unit of the Presbyterian Church (USA)? One might guess compassion for the poor and social tolerance. Actually, that’s how Jack Keller (quoted in Christianity Today 7/31), vice president of PPC imprint Westminster John Knox Press (WJK) characterizes conspiracies theories which accuse the Bush administration of orchestrating 9-11, and thereby murdering nearly 3,000 Americans. Real Progressives should sue Keller for defamation of character.

At a time when the editors of Popular Mechanics are basically staking the heart of 9-11 conspiracy theories, the quasi-independent WJK has cast its lot with the like of Loose Change conspiracy-mongers who regularly mock the families of 9-11 victims, publishing a book by 9-11 conpiracy theorist and extremist Bush critic David Ray Griffin titled Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11. Board Chair Kenneth Godshall gave the requisite pseudo-disclaimer in a WJK press release:

“The views expressed in the book are Griffin’s alone,” Godshall added. “PPC provides a variety of viewpoints in the books we publish. A few of them from time to time will be controversial. This particular book is the work of an independent author and in no way represents the views of the denomination or PPC itself.”

However, the clear implication is that the contention that President Bush deliberately murdered nearly 3,000 Americans is well within the bounds of mainstream discourse. It also begs the question, if WJK publishes such a wide array of viewpoints, how many of its titles endorse the conventional view that Islamic terrorists committed the 9-11 atrocities and advocate vigorously prosecuting the war on terror, and support the state of Israel? According to Professor Earl Tilford, also quoted in Christianity Today: "They are very anti-Israeli and very much inclined to anything that speaks ill of the administration."

It is also interesting to note how Publisher’s Weekly handles the story on-line. Their story conveniently provides a link to a major 9-11 conspiracy website, but if you want to read from the cited critics of WJK, you have to hunt for them on the web yourself.

Publishing books on both sides of the political spectrum is healthy, and often financial sound strategy. However, when you traffic in conspiracies theories, you endorse their validity. That’s why in the 90’s, St. Martin’s Press cancelled publication of David Irving’s Goebbels biography when they learned of his Holocaust denial past.

It’s not just the Presbyterians who peddling myths. The AP reports, Spike Lee is also stocking his forthcoming HBO Katrina documentary with similar tales, reporting:

“Lee said he included in the documentary theories of an intentional bombing of the levees, but he stopped short of saying if he believed them.”

Again, this begs the question, if Lee is agnostic with regards to such theories, did he seek to include any interviews with engineers which might refute them. On the positive side, according to the AP Lee also interviewed many musicians and recreated a New Orleans jazz funeral. Let’s hope he paid them well.

In reality, unhinged Bush critics are promoting two contradictory narratives. In one, the Bush administration is all powerful and deliberately killed scores of people for vague nefarious purposes. The second narrative argues the Bush administration was caught napping by each disaster and mismanaged the response. Clearly, both cannot be true.

Truth however, is not important to the so-called “9-11 Truth movement” and conspiracy theorists in general. No theory can ever be definitively disproved, because they simply create new corollaries, expanding the machinations of the conspiracies further and further outward. Conspiracy theorists try to shift the burden of proof, requiring others to disprove their claims. Faith in conspiracies theories becomes a pornographic substitute for productive political engagement. Spike Lee and the Presbyterians should consider the wisdom of lending their credibility to such conspiracy porn.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Songs of Ethel Waters


The Favourite Songs of Ethel Waters
Sepia Records (1079)
www.sepiarecords.com


Ethel Waters was one of the first popular recording artists to successfully crossover into a straight acting career. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Pinky (1949), at a time when the Academy still was not particularly generous in its recognition of African American artists. Waters was also one of the most popular vocalists of her time, a bridge between Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, yet both her recordings and films are relatively hard to find, a lamentable condition which Sepia sought to remedy with a fine new collection The Favourite Songs of Ethel Waters.

One of the few Waters films available on DVD is the Vincente Minnelli musical Cabin in the Sky (1943), a highlight of her career, four tracks from which are included on this set. It was here that Waters launched the standard “Taking a Chance on Love,” in a rousing and definitive performance. The film version of Cabin also introduced “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” which she revisited in 1947 in a dramatic interpretation, with the spare accompaniment of Reginald Beane’s piano.

Also included are tracks with the J.C. Heard Orchestra on swinging jazz-oriented tracks, sometimes featuring sassy, even suggested lyrics that Waters would later repudiate when she embraced her gospel calling. In “Honey in a Hurry” she sings: “That man is built for speed, but there’s something else that I certainly need.” Hmm, what does that reference? Little-known violinist Ray Perry’s playing is also an ear-openening discovery. Waters had great range, well reflected in this collection, whether swinging with a big band, in moody after-hours sessions with Beane, or caressing a song against the vocal backdrop of the Bob Davis Singers.

Perhaps Waters is not as readily available as she should be because some have difficulty relating to the final arc of her career. She would be closely associated with Billy Graham in her later years, performing gospel music exclusively. However, as Sepia’s collection shows with “The Crucifixion” (1947) and “Partners with God” (1955), Waters’ religious conviction was evident during the earlier years of her career, as well.

More of Waters’ films like Cairo (1942), Tales of Manhattan, The Member of the Wedding (1952), and The Sound and the Fury (1959) ought to be on DVD. She also co-starred in Manhattan Tower (1956), a television film based on Gordon Jenkins’ sound poem of the same name, which would be interesting to see, if the film still exists. Happily, Sepia’s new Ethel Waters collection is an excellent survey of her vocal artistry. Based in the UK, Sepia is doing laudable work preserving and reissuing classic vocal recordings by the likes of Waters, Billy Daniels, Jo Stafford, and Monica Lewis. (Check out their website and pick up something good.) Ethel Waters herself was a huge influence on many vocalists who followed her, including Billie Holiday, so it is fortunate this collection will help keep her recorded legacy available for new listeners to discover.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Gitmo Chill-Out


Ordinarily, smooth-jazz saxophonist Marion Meadows is not the kind of artist celebrated here. However, I’ll forgo the snarky jazz snobbery, to give Meadows credit for getting it. The latest Jazz Week (8/14, subscription req’d) reports Meadows will headline the Guantanamo Bay Jazz Festival, organized by the base’s Morale Welfare and Recreation Department. Jazz Week reports comments from Meadows that are a breath of fresh air:

“Being one of the first smooth jazz artists to visit and perform in 2004 at ‘Gitmo’—as the servicemen like to call it—was a career highlight,” said Meadows. “Having been asked back again in 2006 is truly an honor.”

Meadows is also quoted stating:

“In these troubled times, when a soldier is called for duty, he or she will probably end up far from home with a tough job to do,” Meadows says. “I’m simply following in the footsteps of all the entertainers who have traveled the globe throughout the years in support of our troops. Opportunities like this make me proud to be an American.”

Although I’m normally turned off by smooth-jazz, I’m now willing to at least give Meadows a try. He was associated Bob James, a smooth jazz figure who has done some interesting work I’ve enjoyed (including arrangements for Mikos Theodorakos’ Serpico soundtrack and themes for Lincoln Center’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood.)

The bottom line is, if the servicemen enjoy his performances, that is all that matters. After all, they deserve it. There is indeed a secret of Guantanamo. Vile and disgusting acts are being committed on a daily basis. The secret, which the photo-shopping media wants to keep from the public, is that the inmates are the violent aggressors, terrorizing our servicemen. An opportunity to Chill-Out in September will be welcome indeed.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Burnt Sugar

Burnt Sugar: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish
Tradepaper edited by Lorie Marie Carlson and Oscar Hijuelos
Free Press
0-7432-7662-0


Music and poetry both have a strong rhythmic component, which may explain why Cubans have a historic affinity for both art forms. In Burnt Sugar a new collection compiled by Carlson and Hijuelos readers get a convincing sample of twentieth century Cuban poets (therefore no José Martí), that deliberately eschews politics.

According to co-editor Carlson they originally intended to include Cuba poets still writing under the Castro regime’s rule: “However, current U.S. regulations, set forth by the Department of Treasury, rendered it too uncomfortable—both from a practical as well as legal standpoint—to do so.” (p. XVI)

While there seems to have been a deliberate editorial choice to avoid political themes, it is difficult not to read political significance into some of the collected verse. Themes of isolation and longing reoccur, as in Heberto Padilla’’s “I Have Always Lived in Cuba:”

“I Live in Cuba.
I have always lived in Cuba
Those Years of roaming the world,
Of which much has been said,
Are my lies, my falsehoods.” (p. 13)


Conversely, for Gustavo Pérez Firmat finds pleasure in the protection of isolation in “The Rain:”

“I miss the rain.
Tonight when it finally pours again
I know the rain
Surrounds the house and makes it safe.
(Thanks to the rain once more we’ll be an island.)” (p. 1)


And there is optimism, despite current hardship, as declared in Pura del Prado’s “The Island:”

“The Island will forever be invincibly alive,
Though we be missing.
She will survive historical ruins,
her emigrations
and political conflicts.
It is good thus.” (p. 76)

Elements of Cuban life and culture are celebrated, including Chano Pozo, the Cuban percussionist who gave the Dizzy Gillespie’s Cu-Bop band Afro-Cuban authenticity, appearing in Adrian Castro’s “To the Rumba Players of Belén, Cuba:”

Did Chano Pozo inherit
he whose ears were present
at the first drumming?
Oye Chano
are your hands homesick
when not beating on goatskins?” (p. 86)


A volume celebrating the poetry of Cuba need not be overtly political. Indeed, the poems collected in Burnt Sugar, are excellent, often covering universal themes, like love and loss. English translations are often presented alongside the original Spanish poems, while a few mix the two languages in ways that make side-by-side comparison impractical.

Yet, reading the brief biographical notes of the contributing poets, it is difficult not to draw some conclusions about Cuban life. Three contributors, Reinaldo Arenas, Jesús J. Barquet, and Lisette Mendez, emigrated to America during the Mariel Boatlift, despite the danger they would be exposed to from brutal street gangs organized by the Castro regime. Indeed, there are many former prisoners of conscious in this collection, including Arenas and Heberto Padilla:

“A poet, novelist, and journalist, he was arrested and imprisoned briefly in 1971 because of a book of poems critical of the government—an episode commonly referred to as ‘El Caso Padilla.’ In 1980 he was permitted to leave the country, whereupon he came to the United States.” (p. 110)

Other poets of conscious were less fortunate in the duration of their incarceration. Angel Cuadra was imprisoned for fifteen years, while Armando Valladares’ term lasted twenty-two years. Clearly, free artistic expression is incompatible with the Castro regime. While Carlson might be reluctant to state that in her introduction, bemoaning Treasury Department restrictions, it is clearly expressed by the fact that twenty-eight of the poets collected in Burnt Sugar were born in Cuba but either now reside in America, or were living here at the time of their death.

Burnt Sugar is a highly recommended volume that hints at some of the artistic dividends humanity will collect when Cuba’s tyrant falls. In his introduction Hijeulos remembers the words and spirit of his grandmother, whose attitude is appropriate when thinking about the poets and musicians of Cuba. According to Hijuelos: “Castro, and any form of tyranny, she abhorred, but never had she shown any malice to ‘her people.’”(p. XXII)

Cuba is a captive nation and ordinary Cuban are prisoners of a totalitarian regime. Perhaps we can start to look forward to a new day, sans Castro, when the poets of Cuba can write as they please, making collections like Burnt Sugar thicker. Until then, we can still enjoy the great many Cuban poets collected here, who voted with their feet, at great personal risk, to live and write freely.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Blues for PBS and Thirteen

Channel Thirteen, New York’s local PBS affiliate says “if Thirteen didn’t do it, who would?” That’s a question jazz and blues fans would like answered these days.

In 2000, PBS premiered Ken Burns’ Jazz, and during its pledge breaks, Channel Thirteen assured its viewers that they were the home for jazz programming. It would be six full years before PBS would follow through on that implied promise of regular jazz programming with Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis. Here in New York, arguably the jazz capitol of the world, Channel Thirteen deemed Thursdays at 12:30 a.m. to be the proper time slot for such a program (currently on hiatus).

The International Association of Jazz Educators launched a letter writing campaign, but obviously Thirteen did not take it seriously. I sent my letter asking Thirteen to put Legends of Jazz in a timeslot accessible to young viewers. Five months later, I finally received a form letter response (dated June 23). Evidently, clerical efficiency isn’t Thirteen’s strong suit either.

If you believe in Public Broadcasting, it must be for programs like Legends of Jazz. PBS should be all about bringing the finest performing arts and culture to those who would not otherwise have access to them. While relegating Legends to the wee hours, Thirteen gives primetime slots to Yanni: Live! and hardcore leftwing programming like Now (formerly with Bill Moyers) and Frontline. If you search their schedule for jazz in the month of August, you will come up empty.

Jazz fans should at least be happy they can sometimes Tivo Legends. If you are a blues fan who made a pledge to Thirteen, during Martin Scorcese’s The Blues, PBS and Thirteen haven’t given you anything to show for it. You can watch the series re-run on August 29-31 at 12:30 am (the designated jazz/blues timeslot evidently), but if you were expecting more original blues programming, you were had, another victim of pledge week bait and switch.

In recent weeks, PBS has shown some worthy classical programming, but jazz and blues fans are out in the cold. It is difficult to argue in favor of taxpayer subsidies for public broadcasting, but it would be possible, if PBS and Thirteen better lived up to their ideals and consistently offered symphony, opera, jazz, blues, drama, science, and fine arts programming of the highest caliber to those who would otherwise be unable to enjoy them. Unfortunately, too often Thirteen offers programming that is indefensible, like Yanni (call me a music snob) or infomercials for Wayne Dyer’s new age schtick, The Power of Intention. PBS should be culturally elite and politically non-partisan, because they accept taxpayer funds extracted from everyone, regardless of political affiliation. Currently, they fail on both counts, but moving Legends of Jazz to a normal person’s timeslot would be a nice improvement.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Atzmon Brings the Hate

Music can be a healing force, bringing people together, but if you are expecting anything like that from Gilad Atzmon, think again. Multi-reed musician Atzmon, the self-described Israeli-born Palestinian, is a darling of the British far-left, known for extreme rhetoric, bordering on, if not outright anti-Semitism (more background here). The toast of Counter-Punch and al-Jazeera has been writing on events in Lebanon, in three pieces quoted from below. Unfortunately, his poison pen is probably all too representative of Euro Leftist thinking.

Here is how he sees Israel:

“Since the end of the cold war, things changed. Israel isn’t threatened anymore by its neighboring states.” (Pour Your Fury p. 2)

“As far as the Israeli political game is concerned, the rule is very simple, the more Arab blood you have on your hands the more you are suited to get on with your governing job.” (Pour p. 4)

“Olmert and Peretz were very quick to use the ultimate military measures. They probably realise very well that arrogance, violence, brutality and barbarism is the Israeli raison d’etre.” (Never Again p.4)


On Hezbollah:

“a tiny paramilitary group of patriotic warriors. (2=500 p. 2)”

“Those Arabs have a good reason to be cheered by the Hezbollah. It is the Hezbollah that gives them a very good reason to look forward with pride.” (2=500 p.3)


On Syria and Iran:

“It is Syria and Iran who support the oppressed people of this battered region. i.e.. the Palestinians and now the Lebanese. For me this is more than enough to suggest that at least ethically, Iran and Syria are the most progressive powers around.” (2=5 p. 3)

On Jews:

“Without referring to the truth value in the Medieval tales of blood libel; without trying to suggest whether or not Jews made Matzos out of young gentile blood, the growing quantity of images of orchestrated murderous Israeli activity helps us realise where such accusations may have come from.” (Never p. 5)

There we have it. Israel, a free democracy, is the war-mongering state. Hezbollah, responsible for the deaths of scores of innocent people through terrorist operations like various embassy bombings and the hijacking of TWA flight 847—considered by many a graver threat than al-Qaeda—are “patriotic warriors.” Syria, implicated in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is the savior of Lebanon. Iran, where Holocaust denial is official state policy, and activists like Ahmad Batebi face long prison sentences or worse, is the “most progressive power around.” And medieval blood libel is excused as understandable given how Jews act. That is how Gilad Atzmon and far too many of his extremist socialist cronies see the current conflict in the Middle East. They represent an organized marshalling of hatred within the far left that the old media willfully ignores.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Memo to Q: This is how Chinese Communists Feel About Jazz


Douglas and Mary Monitto built a world-class jazz venue in a replica Louisiana mansion on the outskirts of Beijing. Unless fate has intervened, the local authorities took the wrecking ball to it on Sunday. According to the China Daily on 8/5:

“Monitto’s widow, Mary, said they spent more than US$1 million to fly everything from a New Orleans jazz club, The Big Easy, into China, after being encouraged to open the music outpost by local authorities and signing a 13-year contract in 1998.

Mary Monitto said she received a notice from Chaoyang Park [the local authorities] in January ordering her to vacate the mansion within two weeks, even though the contract runs until 2011.

After fruitless effortsto meet with Chaoyang Park officials, Monitto received a new order on Tuesday stating the building would be demolished this weekend. Water and electricity were cut off on Wednesday as workers erected a four-metre-high wall around the club, bulldozers at the ready.”


According to a local official a “Peace Plaza,” will be erected in place of The Big Easy, but the details of just what that would entail were vague. In truth, Ms. Monitto should be congratulated for hanging on as long as she did. There has not been any follow-up at China Daily, so presumably, that was that.

It does raise a few questions. Not to be obnoxious, but has anyone asked Quincy Jones, who was so charmed by the Chinese government during a tour in May, how he feels about an important beachhead for jazz being demolished by the local authorities? At the time Jones gushed (the quote is from Reuters, so it must be true): “The inspiration of the strong leadership in preparing the 2008 Olympic Games and the theme ‘One world, One Dream’ has led me to offer everything I can possibly bring . . . to this fantastic event.” Strong leadership indeed. I'm sure Q would feel bad about Ms. Monitto's misfortune, but he seems to need a reality check regarding the nature of the Chinese government.

There is also a good lesson here for so-called capitalists who have been similarly charmed by Beijing. Think the Chinese government will respect your contract rights? The Monittos thought so.

(Image from China Daily of a Big Easy fresco which most likely no longer exists.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Susanne Abbuehl’s Compass


Compass
Susanne Abbuehl
ECM 1906


Attempts to integrate jazz with poetry have met with varying degrees of success. Oscar Brown Jr.’s rendition of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Plain Black Boy” was a career highlight, whereas Herbie Mann accompanying Laurence Harvey reading the forgotten poetry of Walter Benton was not. Susanne Abbuehl’s Compass is closer to Brown—not stylistically, but in that she wisely drew from a variety of source materials which well suit her style. On this CD she mixes the poetry of James Joyce, William Carlos Williams and Feng Meng-Lung, with the musical inspirations of Luciano Berio, Gil Evans, Chick Corea, and Sun Ra (himself an accomplished poet as well as intergalactic traveler). The result is an intriguing vocal album perfect for the genre-bending ECM label.

Indeed, Compass is a disk of contradictions. Abbuehl’s voice is warm and soothing, but also haunting—even ghostly. Sometimes the mood is peaceful, other times brooding. The accompaniment is supportive, yet sparse. On most tracks Christof May’s clarinet wraps around Abbuehl’s voice, almost protectively, except on Sun Ra’s “A Call for Demons,” where he creates an atmosphere of foreboding.

“Sea, Sea!” from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would certainly seem a bold choice, perhaps the most unlikely jazz cover since The Bad Plus took on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” yet it is surprisingly well adapted by Abbuehl. With Wolfert Brederode’s piano effectively punctuating Abbuehl’s interpretation of Joyce’s reputedly inscrutable words, “Sea Sea!” is one of the Compass’s highlights.

Although clocking in under three minutes, Abbuehl’s cover of Chick Corea’s “Children’s Song No. 1” is another standout track, conveying a sense of welcome playfulness in an often pensive set. Featuring original lyrics by the vocalist, it well captures the spirit of her label-mate. Abbuehl also pens a compelling original, the opener “Bathyal,” which starts with the request: “do not run just yet, do not hide” building through a nice solo spot for Brederode, to the plaintive ending: “you may look around before you flee,” showing her own words can be evocative as well.

Compass represents a dialogue between jazz, poetry, and other musical traditions. It is also a dialogue between musicians who take words and music seriously, as Abbuehl, ably supported by May, Brederode, and Lucas Niggli, with his tasteful and unobtrusive brushwork, whisper back and forth to each other. Hers though is unquestionably the lead voice throughout. The result is a rewarding conversation to listen to.

Monday, August 07, 2006

García’s Arsenio Rodríguez


Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transanational Flows of Latin Popular Music
By David F. García
Temple University Press
1-59213-386-X


An oddity in the Blue Note catalog, Sabu (Martinez)’s Palo Congo LP is a strictly Afro-Cuban percussion-oriented session, without any jazz soloists, but featuring Arsenio Rodríguez on tres (a Cuban six-string guitar) and vocals. While jazz listeners might know Rodríguez best from this session, his influence on Latin music, particularly the development of mambo and salsa styles is profound, as García explains in Arsenio Rodríguez.

Blinded as a young boy as the result of an accident, Arsenio Rodríguez would find music to be an avenue of advancement for a Cuban of African descent. Rodriguez developed a wide following for his son montuno style with its dense poly-rhythms. He attained significant popularity in Cuba before the revolution through his live performances on Radio Mil Diez, a station then owned by the Communist Party. Although he was pressured to join the party, Rodríguez refused, protesting: “No, no, no. I don’t belong to any party. I play for both the conservatives and the liberals. And if they’d pay me I’d play in a cemetery. My [politics] is music.” (p. 28) However, García argues his continuing aversion to politics may have dampened enthusiasm for Rodríguez among the post-revolutionary Cuban immigrants in America.

Throughout his American career Rodríguez had repeated dust-ups with the musician’s union. One instance in 1953 involved defiance of Local 802 prohibitions against foreign orchestras playing for dancing, as opposed to strictly listening pleasure (which was grudgingly allowed), when the visiting Conjunto Casino played the Tropicana Club in the South Bronx. According to García: “Audience members, however, did dance, and after Conjunto Casino’s set was finished Arsenio’s musicians began to take the stage when [union enforcer] Ugarte ordered all union members off the stage.” Rodríguez was quoted as responding: “He, as a Cuban, will play even if they terminated his membership.” (p. 29) He was fined for his defiance of Ugarte’s authority. In his final days, union authority would actually prevent the recording of his last LP when “recording officials from Los Angeles’ Musician’s Union (Local 47) canceled the session because Arsenio had not paid his union dues.” (p. 115) He would pass away a few weeks later.

When emphasizing Rodríguez’s African ancestry García makes much of “revisionist” memories of Cuba on the part of political exiles, suggesting there was in fact much racial inequality before the revolution. Surely, Rodríguez did face discrimination, most likely acerbated by his blindness. However, García has little to say about the effects of Castro’s regime, although he does mention late in the book the Communists’ decision to ban or “discontinue black social clubs after 1959.” (p. 145) Such clubs would later be celebrated in the Buena Vista Social Club film and CDs.

While Rodríguez never attained the commercial success in America he had in Cuba, his influence on the mambo of Tito Puente and Perez Prado, as well as the salsa of Larry Harlow and Ray Barretto is clear. His style would inform their playing and his tunes would become part of their repertoire.

García’s book is strongest when approaching the subject from an ethnomusicologist’s perspective. His analysis of Rodríguez’s son montuno style will help refocus critical attention on a neglected figure in Afro-Cuban musical history. As a biographer, García is less successful. For instance, only passing mention is made of Rodríguez’s conversation from Santeria, becoming a Jehovah’s Witness—surely an incident of great importance in Rodríguez’s life. If lacking a biographer’s flare for drama, García is at least a convincing advocate, building an effective case for his subject’s place in music history.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Sudhalter Benefit Concert

One of the nice things about living in New York, is being able to see the jazz community come together to help one of its own. It happens again Sunday Sept. 10th at a concert for author and musician Dick Sudhalter. For just $40.00 you can hear scheduled musicians like Dave Frishberg, Wycliffe Gordon, Marian McPartland, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Randy Sandke. The concert starts at 7:00 at St. Peters (if you get there early, you can hear enjoy Jazz Vespers).

Details on how to contribute are at the PR on allaboutjazz. Mr. Sudhalter's biography of Hoagy Carmichael is also in-stock and available for purchase at Amazon.

Note concert will be Sept. 10th.)

CT Senate: What Would Allen Drury Write?

The most entertaining political novels I’ve ever read are the Washington cycle books of Allen Drury, starting with the Pulitzer Prize winner Advise and Consent. Drury’s novels (sadly, currently out-of-print) feature outrageous yet plausible plot twists, coming from a right-of-center cold warrior’s perspective. Parties are not explicitly identified in Drury’s books, but the heroes are usually thinly disguised Scoop Jackson Democrats—good liberals who recognized the evil of the Soviet empire. That’s why Joe Lieberman reminds me of a Drury protagonist right now.

Lieberman v. Lamont is a Druryesque story if ever there was one. Lieberman, faithful running mate to the leftwing vice-president, agrees to tack left, and then standby his running mate through various court challenges to a duly certified efforts. Four years later when he runs for President himself, he is betrayed by the former-VP, who endorses an unstable extremist candidate in the primary.

Now in the eleventh hour of Lieberman’s sinking senate primary campaign, his extremist opponent Lamont is embarrassed by Jane Hamsher, a formerly close colleague, whose blog posted a photo-shopped picture of Lieberman in black face. Will Lamont’s lame defense (don’t know her, she only filmed my internet commercial, escorted me to the Colbert Report, raised money for me, whatever) erase the twelve point lead reported in a recent poll?

Actually, in a Drury novel, Lieberman would lose the primary, but go on to win the general election as an independent, which now looks like a possible outcome. In reality, I’m sure Sen. Lieberman would opt to remain in the Democrat caucus if he were to win under those circumstances. I would hope he would let his “fellow” Democrats sweat it out for a week though, as he took smiling photos ops with Pres. Bush, before announcing his decision. In a Drury novel, that would be the big cliff-hanger. Would he switch to support the administration’s policies of support for Israel and building democracy in Iraq, or would he stay a Democrat to more effectively fight extremism in his own party.

Of course, the CT senate race is a true story yet to unfold. Still, Sen. Lieberman might take some inspiration from Drury’s books. As Advise and Consent opens anti-Communist Sen. Orrin Knox is largely isolated in his own party, having lost the presidential primary to a less principled politician. When the series concludes, Knox is president.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Obviously a Bad Idea


Drudge and other media outlets have had a field day with the story of a small Fresno-area radio station, KFYE 106.3 on your FM dial, changing formats, from Christian programming to sexually-themed songs. Tunes like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” will be in heavy rotation, along with less explicit tunes mixed with the recorded sounds of sexual ecstasy.

This brings to mind a George Benson album released on the Paul Winley label titled Erotic Moods, which the guitarist actually claims to have never played on. While the Winley LPs have a reputation for being a bit dodgy, if not outright bootlegs, this record (now available as a vinyl reissue) features some nice funky soul jazz. However, “Sweet Taste of Love,” an otherwise appealing slow groove, is marred by a similar overdubbing of moans and groans. Listeners might find it maybe, somewhat, kind of amusing on the first hearing. However, it is impossible to spin to a second time. There is simply no way for such "remixes" to not sound cheesy. As a format, such overdubbing would be impossible to live with. How long could anyone stay tuned in while sealed in their car during the morning drive-time rush, for instance?

People of good conscience can legitimately object on moral grounds, citing violations of FCC standards. Others suspect it is simply a publicity stunt, prior to a more serious and permanent format change. Yet one might foresee further legal complications, if the original artists were to object to their songs getting the X-rated treatment.

Regardless, KFYE is engaged in a dumb stunt. It is good news for Al Franken though. Air America is no longer the hardest radio outlet to spend extended time with. It might temporarily lead to some more radio play for George Benson (or whoever played on the Winley record released under his name) as well. His legit Body Talk album has potential too.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Shipp of Fools

The September Jazz Times is currently hitting mailboxes with a feature marking the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack on lower Manhattan, soliciting responses from a diverse group of musicians. Most, like Sonny Rollins, Bob Belden, Joanne Brackeen, and Fred Hersch largely confined their reflections to personal stories. Matthew Shipp however, took the opportunity to make some vile statements, excusing the unprovoked attack that killed almost 3,000 of his fellow New Yorkers. As Shipp sneers:

“With the type of cold-blooded capitalism that is practiced in western uncivilization [Shipp's intal], terrorism is an inescapable consequence. This country cannot be involved in wholesale corporate imperialism like it is and not expect some type of blowback.”

What we are experiencing “blowback” for is the fact that we allow musicians like Shipp the freedom of artistic expression. (Interesting to note, Nestor Torres in the same feature notes he was unable to perform his interdenominational musical project in a mosque because it was prohibited.) We are experiencing “blowback” because we allow women like Joanne Brackeen to perform, teach students, and show her face in public, not veiled beneath a burqa. We are experiencing “blowback” because we let people worship as they please, or even live a completely secular life.

We are at war with an extremely violent strain of intolerance that will not be appeased. Islamic Fascism seeks our destruction because what Shipp belittles as “western uncivilization” allows for religious and artistic freedom, not to mention the education of women. Having seen Islamic fascism destroy the great Buddhist monuments of Bamiyan, an artist like Shipp should understand the stakes the artistic community has in this struggle. Juvenile tirades about “the terrorist brotherhood of the bin Ladens and Bushes of the world” simply demonstrate his ignorance and immaturity.

There was one musician who got it. Not surprisingly, it was Paquito D’Rivera who wrote: “In our musical community, I see a very pronounced, fashionable and snobbish tendency to put down everything that is American, overlooking the positive qualities of our society.” The evidence of it is there in the very same round-up feature. He concludes:

“I have personally seen so many of my colleagues running like crazy behind immigration lawyers, marrying American citizens or doing anything to stay in U.S. territory; and as soon as they got their papers in order, they become the best vehicles to propagandize the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, or even justify or celebrate the actions of Islamic terrorism. I don’t understand living in a place that you hate so much, being free to establish themselves someplace else; Cuba for example!”

The terrorist attacks of 9-11 had a devastating impact on New York's economy, which as a result had deep repercussions on music scene. Gigs dried up, and venues closed. Most importantly, almost 3,000 individuals were brutally murdered. Make no mistake, there is no place for a jazz musician in the world of Islamic Fascism. Neither is there room for anyone who does not subscribe to their extremist Islamic beliefs. Everyone who contributed to Downbeat’s 9-11 reflections has a stake in the fight we face, whether they want to acknowledge it, or not.

(Words and Music concurs. Like Rod, I've enjoyed Shipp's music, so I'm all the more disappointed by his comments.)

(Thanks to Gateway Pundit for taking developments in jazz seriously, as well. At least we can all count on Paquito D'Rivera for some sanity.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Nocturne for the Amen Corner


With rumors swirling regarding Cuban despot Fidel Castro’s health, Babalu Blog will be a frequently visited site over the next few days. Certainly Raul will try to maintain the iron grip his brother held on the Cuban people. However, the personality cult central to the regime reign of terror has been almost exclusively built around Fidel, which is why some are now cautiously daring to hope for regime change.

Many in Hollywood and on the Upper Westside will be nervously watching these events unfold. Castro’s celebrity Amen Corner could indeed be embarrassed by their fawning over the tyrant, if the Cuban people throw off their shackles and start exposing the regime’s crime to the light of day.

Musician and Cuban defector Paquito D’Rivera has often chided celebrities like Danny Glover and bassist Charlie Haden for their slavish devotion to Castro. Haden, a political extremist who penned tunes like “Chairman Mao” and “Song for Che” has a bit of history with D’Rivera. The reedman called out Haden in the pages of Jazz Times for his support of Castro at a time when D’Rivera was desperately trying to get his family out of Cuba, writing: “So I wonder if it would be interesting for you to know that while you were playing your odes to Che Guevara and to Fidel (who naturally didn’t attend your concert, or any other concert), my son and his mother were visited by the political police.” (My Sax Life p. 193) Of course rather than responding, Haden unsuccessfully tried to pressure JT to spike the letter.

Haden has performed in Cuba and dedicated his performances to Fidel. He has recorded Nocturne, a very pleasant tribute to the music and people of Cuba. If you don’t have to live there, Havana probably conveys a romantically noirish mood, what with the vintage cars and crumbling buildings, evidence of the dismal lack of material progress made under the Fidel regime.

It will be interesting how Haden reacts if the musicians he played with, like Gonzalo Rubalcaba, are finally able to express opinions they previously were not able to. As D’Rivera says, when Cuban musicians tour abroad, they don’t leave behind family, they leave hostages.

What will they say and what will come out? How will the Amen Corner be implicated, beyond the fact that they should have known better? Some long, dark nights of watchful waiting may lie ahead.

The Vampire’s Revenge


The Vampire’s Revenge
Dom Minasi (
domminasi.com)
CDM Records

After Elton John’s Lestat bombed spectacularly on Broadway, it would be pretty bold to release a double CD of tunes based on Anne Rice’s vampire characters. Fortunately Minasi’s compositions on The Vampire Revenge are in fact quite bold, succeeding where Broadway failed.

Minasi has assembled an all-star aggregation of adventurous musicians, like Perry Robinson, Borah Bergman, Steve Swell, Matthew Shipp, Joe McPhee, and Sabir Mateen, making Vampire practically a self-contained Vision Festival. Anne Rice readers unaccustomed to freer sounding jazz may well find the moody, turbulent pieces challenging. However, those familiar with the downtown scene will probably find Minasi music refreshingly structured, as there are distinct passages and transitions. This is not a loosely structured succession of free-blown solos. Minasi is taking listeners on a well thought out journey.

Minasi also employs vocal elements on a few tracks. In the case of “The First Day” Carol Mennie’s vocalizing creates a disconcerting, but effective erotic effect. (It’s a standout track, but you might want to turn down the volume for it if you’re listening in the office, as I was.) Less successful was the dramatic recitation on “Where You Gonna’ Go? Where You Gonna’ Hide?” which would almost be campy, but for the accompanying music which is about as far from camp as one can get.

Minasi is not afraid to share the spotlight, and uses his soloists to great effect, like Borah Bergman’s solo reflecting the turmoil of the new vampire on the complex “Bloodlust,” another standout track. This is dark, challenging music that rewards repeated listening.

Minasi has taken inspiration from Ellington before on his Takin’ the Duke Out CD. Now he has followed in the Ellingtonian tradition of extended suites inspired by literature, like Suite Thursday and Such Sweet Thunder. His Anne Rice inspired compositions succeed admirably where Broadway should have feared to tread.