J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Coming Soon: The Rape of Europa


Fine art should be inspiring and ennobling. It should help man relate to his fellow man, and enrich the lives of those who experience it. Yet, whether as objects to be vilified for propaganda purposes, greedily plundered, or spitefully destroyed, the National Socialists were obsessed with works of art. The upcoming documentary, The Rape of Europa (trailer here) details the various Nazis campaigns against art, revealing how truly dangerous the Nazis nihilistic reign of terror was to the survival of Europe’s cultural legacy.

The touchstone work for Europa is Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, described in the film as the most recognizable and celebrated Austrian work of art. Looted by the Nazis, it long hung in an Austrian museum before it was finally restored to the Bloch-Bauer heir. The film also makes the salient point that it is widely known in Austria as the Gold Portrait rather than by its given title, which referred to its rightful Jewish owner.

Based in large measure on Lynn H. Nicholas’ NBCC winning book of the same title, Europa lucidly chronicles the National Socialists’ Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibit, and other propaganda attacks on modern art. It also describes in detail the scope of their systematic looting Jewish homes and museums, organized at the highest levels, which continued unabated even as the fortunes of war turned against Germany.

Europa does identify some heroes however. First and foremost were the Monument Men, a select group of American officers with elite training in the arts. Given the mission of minimizing the damage to Europe’s architectural treasures and restoring its looted art with little material support, they were remarkably effective. The Monument Men included officers in their ranks like Lincoln Kirstein (co-founder of the New York City Ballet) and painter Deane Keller. It would be Keller who emerges as first among heroes in Europa, having initiated the restoration of Pisa’s all but destroyed Campo Santo under desperate conditions—an effort which continues to this day.

As Europa makes clear, the Soviets also had a similar corps of officers, but tellingly, they were referred to as “trophy” men. One reason many pillaged old masters remain missing is that they were put on trains headed east. The revelation of trophy art in the Hermitage became a cause célèbre for Russian nationalists in the late 1990’s, with the Duma passing a resolution barring the return of these works to the heirs of their rightful owners.

Europa is fascinating and frustratingly topical. It is a very well crafted documentary that has powerful moments, effectively supported by Marco D’Ambrosio’s score recorded by the Prague Philharmonic. To their credit, the filmmakers offer quite a bit of insight, and are not afraid to broach controversial subjects.

Screening Europa makes evident the differences between the values of America and totalitarian regimes like the National Socialists and the Communists (and now it appears, Russian Nationalists). Free societies value art for its own sake, apart from pecuniary and propaganda concerns. Those who share a love of art should see Europa to gain an appreciation for those who protected and restored Europe’s treasures during the continent’s darkest hour. It is an important film that deserves a wide audience. Europa opens in New York September 14th (at the Paris and Angelika).

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Los Zafiros


Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time
Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano
Shout! Factory


To understate matters, 1962 was an interesting year in Cuba to form a vocal quintet heavily influenced by American doo-wop. However, that is exactly what Los Zafiros (The Sapphires) did, becoming tremendously popular (both in Cuba and on world tours) for nearly two decades, fusing vocal harmonies with bossa, rumba, and conga rhythms. The two living members of Los Zafiros reunite for music and reminiscences in the documentary Los Zafiros: Music from the Edge of Time (trailer here).

Miguel Cancio, an original founding member, currently lives in Florida, but was allowed to return to Cuba with filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano’s crew. Having immigrated to America, leaving behind friends and family, Cancio’s story is wrapped up in themes of exile, belonging, and patriotism. In an early interview Cancio says:

“I adore my country because he who doesn’t love his country, loves no one. I feel I am a good Cuban, but this is my second country.”

His surviving colleague is Manuel Galbán, whose long career in Cuban music started as Los Zafiros’ guitarist, and included several groups after the quintet’s demise, including an association with the Buena Vista Social Club. As Paquito D’Rivera explains in his autobiography, international touring is the goal of every professional Cuban musician, so it is with understandable pride that Galbán states: “I’ve been on tour 93 times and as long as I’m alive, I want to keep representing my country’s culture.”

There is a political subtext to Zafiros that remains largely unspoken throughout the film. It appears that Cancio opted for freedom in the U.S., while Galbán has come to terms with the Castro regime. Yet they greet each other as brothers, laughing and performing together with joy during their reunion.

There are some dramatic scenes in the film, as when Cancio visits with the brother of a late band-mate. There are many spirited performances as well. The original Zafiros remained so popular they actually spawned a new, younger version, Los Nuevos Zafiros, who join with Cancio and Galbán for a performance of “Ofelia,” one of the film’s highlights, enjoyed by a street audience, including the composer, Guillermo Belén Pacheco.

The music of Los Zafiros is actually a very satisfying blend of American style doo-wop and Latin rhythms. The extra section includes four entire performances that emphasize their Cuban sabor, including “Rumba Como Quiera” and “Congo Len.” Also included in the generous extras are deleted scenes, including the revelation of Los Zafiros’ Stuart Sutcliffe (the film often suggests they were the Cuban equivalent of the Beatles), Oscar Aguirre, their first guitarist who parted company with the group prior to their enormous success.

Los Zafiros definitely aims for a Buena Vista appeal, and it is not an inappropriate comparison. Despite the feeling one gets when watching Zafiros that so much is going unsaid, their music is distinctive and quite infectious, and ultimately the music is what their story is all about.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Coming Soon: The Hunting Party

In October 2000 Scott Anderson wrote “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” an article for Esquire magazine about his booze fueled misadventures, with four journalists friends (including Sebastian Junger of Perfect Storm fame), trying to track down the Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic. According to his article: “In the four and a half years since the war in Bosnia had ended, only forty-eight of the ninety-four men indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague had been captured.” In the seven years since its publication, one doubts many more war criminals have been caught, but the film The Hunting Party loosely based on Anderson’s piece has been produced and opens in New York September 7th, expanding successively wider the 14th and 21st (trailer here).

Written and directed by Richard Shepard, The Hunting Party boldly announces: “Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true.” While there are flashes of inspiration throughout the film, and the opening and closing sequences border on brilliant, in-between Hunting Party simply is not as wildly unbelievable as it likes to think. Instead of the five journalist friends with more liquor and enthusiasm than sense, Hunting Party cuts the search party down to three, diversifying their backgrounds. Richard Gere plays down-and-out gonzo reporter Simon Hunt. Terrence Howard plays Duck, his former camera man, now enjoying a cushy network gig, and Jesse Eisenberg plays Benjamin, the annoying rookie journalist and son of a network big wig.

The strongest element of Party is its sense of place. Shot on location in Sarajevo and Croatia (doubling for Serbia), it presents a world literally scarred by war and figuratively haunted by ghosts. Their search for The Fox, the fictionalized version of Karadzic, takes on some intriguing twists and turns. Along the way, the United Nation’s incompetence is exposed (again), when the official attached to the International Police Task Force tells them he would be happy to make apprehending war criminals a priority, but he does not have a copy of the indictment list or a working fax machine—an episode the film deliberately points out was based on fact.

Gere emotes all over the screen as the tortured Hunt. Howard’s Duck however, having lost his spirit since selling out for network comfort, is understandably reserved and understated. Eisenberg’s Benjamin is simply irritating. Together they do not present a strong rooting interest. The strongest personalities on-screen are actually two small supporting parts. Mark Ivanir comes across as quirky but humane as Boris, the Bulgarian officer attached to the UN peacekeeping force, who wants to do the right thing, even if it is outside his official mandate. Also, Dylan Baker gets to chew on some of the film’s best dialogue as an arrogant CIA spook who materializes late in the film.

Hunting Party has its strengths and weakness. Despite some bland and clichéd characterizations, it moves along at a fast clip, and it does raise some valid questions. Was there a secret deal cut to protect war criminals like Karadzic during the 1995 peace talks? When the truth comes out on the Clinton administration, the real arsenic may be in their Bosnian record. For years, Clinton ignored the suffering of the Bosnians by steadfastly defending the arms embargo, which benefited the Serbs (and their Bosnian Serb allies by extension), as Serbia controlled most of the former Yugoslav army’s munitions. Did that administration also establish a policy of turning a blind eye to the fate of war criminals? A character in Hunting Party points out that they were able to find The Fox in a matter of days, whereas the UN, CIA, and NATO had five years, but were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, that is not too ridiculous to be true.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Camp Meeting


Camp Meeting
By Bruce Hornsby with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette
Columbia Legacy


A recent cliché (that is already tired) is that of pop stars looking to reinvent themselves by muddling through a set of vocal standards with imitation Nelson Riddle arrangements. Far from being the instrumental equivalent of such projects, Bruce Hornsby’s debut jazz recording is the real deal. Blessed with rock steady support from Christian McBride on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Hornsby shows real jazz chops and respect for the tradition on Camp Meeting.

Meeting begins on an auspicious note, with “Questions and Answers,” a hitherto unrecorded composition by the Pulitzer Prize winning Ornette Coleman. Brimming with nervous energy and propelled along by DeJohnette’s electronically augmented percussion, it is an attention getter that does right by the spirit of its composer. The vibe continues on “Charlie, Woody and You,” an original blues based a Charles Ives work, as Hornsby mixes the down-home with the dissonant. Clearly, this is not frothy Dudley Moore celebrity cocktail jazz.

Hornsby is one of the few pop/rock/etc musicians whose jazz affinities make perfect intuitive sense. His country-rhapsody solos on pop hits like “The Way It Is” certainly demonstrated a command of his instrument and a distinct stylistic voice. That identifiable Hornsby sound is still there in his jazz, particularly his originals like the blues drenched title track, also featuring some programmed augmentation from DeJohnette, and the swinging hoedown “Stacked Mary Possum.” Both are catchy melodies performed with verve by a cohesive trio unit.

In addition to Coleman, Hornsby interprets some classic jazz standards, including John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” given an unusually brisk tempo, featuring dexterously fleet solos from Hornsby and McBride. Miles Davis’ “Solar” starts with a delicate Third Stream style intro from Hornsby, picking up steam from DeJohnette’s percussive effects, as it segues into an idiosyncratic swinger.

Arguably, Hornsby's jazz debut may have been his cover version of “Backhand” contributed to a 2000 Keith Jarrett tribute album, As Long As You’re Living Yours. He shows his range by returning to Jarrett again here, with a sensitive solo interpretation of “Death and Flower.”

In Meeting, Hornsby proves to be an eloquent jazz soloist. His all-star rhythm-mates lock-in with him throughout, with the session benefiting from their drive and DeJohnette’s witty accents. It will be interesting to see what Meeting portends for Hornsby’s future career directions, but as a jazz album, it is as legit as it gets.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State


Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State
By Dave Oliphant
University of Texas Press
978-0-292-71496-0

Clint Eastwood is fond of crediting jazz and westerns as America’s two original contributions to world culture. The place of Texas in the history of the western is undeniable. In his latest book, Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State, Dave Oliphant makes a case for Texas’ pride of place in jazz history as well.

When jazz listeners think Texas, they think tenor sax, specifically the lusty, honking Texas Tenor tradition, including musicians like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. They are mentioned here, but not in great depth, because Mavericks is actually a collection of writings, many of which were written to fill in gaps in Oliphant’s previous Texan Jazz. As a result, some of the pieces, particularly the first two, can be a tad repetitive in listing names of Texan jazz musicians.

One Texas titan covered well here is Ornette Coleman, through reviews of John Litweiler’s biography and a 2004 concert, which was his first in Texas in twenty years. Oliphant recounts many of the struggles of the jazz innovators career, both celebrated and lesser known, including his tangles with the labor regulations of 1960’s Great Britain. Oliphant writes:

“the same British musicians union and the Labour Ministry that had frustrated and inspired him three years earlier declared Coleman’s achievements irrelevant, and so he had to compose Emotion Modulation in order to qualify again as a ‘concert artist.’” (p. 126)

Oliphant discusses many Texas jazz artists, but stops short of identifying a specific Texas style (apart from that of the Texas Tenor tradition). At times though, he does speculate on the effect of a Texas upbringing on an artist’s music. He describes trailblazing electric guitarist and trombonist Eddie Durham (of San Marcos) as someone who:

“grew up making his own instruments, who was a crack shot with a rifle, who, when he hunted rattlesnakes, wore his boots and looked where he was going, and who shared with his musicians all that he had learned, having grown up in a family that worked and played together.” (p. 185)

While much of Mavericks is good spirited Texan jazz boosterism, Oliphant is not afraid to mix it up a little, taking aim at Howard Reich and William Gaines, co-authors of a 2003 biography of Jelly Roll Morton. Oliphant takes particular exception to their treatment of folklorist Alan Lomax, whose Library of Congress oral history tapes of Morton formed the basis of his biography Mister Jelly Roll. Oliphant writes:

“The accusation that Lomax ‘grilled Morton about sex, mayhem, and murders’ when ‘Morton wanted to talk about music’ distorts the contents of Lomax’s book. Moreover, the authors spend a good part of their own first chapter describing the New Orleans red-light district in raunchier detail than anything offered by Mister Jelly Roll. Most of what we know about Jelly’s views on his and others’ music is to be found in Lomax’s writings, and much of this information has been silently plowed back into the prose of Reich and Gaines.” p. 165)

Of course, Lomax was from Austin. (As they say, don’t mess with Texas.) Throughout Mavericks, Oliphant shows a loyalty to Texas musicians, and indeed, the state can claim many worthy trailblazers, like Durham and Coleman. As with most collections, Mavericks is a little uneven, but it is a quick read and often quite informative.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Covering Costs

As I visit Denver from time to time, I have come to appreciate its jazz scene. Some excellent artists make their home there, including Fred Hess, Ron Miles, Pat Bianchi and Chie Imaizumi. While it can’t compare to the New York club scene, which features multiple headliners of international stature every night, it does have some reliable venues to hear live jazz. According to the Denver Post though, business is not great. Some club owners were pretty candid about their finances:

“Dazzle expects to pull in $1.3 million in revenue this year - but there won't be any profit. [Club owner Donald] Rossa said his sales only cover operations.

Jazz @ Jack's on the 16th Street Mall should take in $750,000 this year but is still paying off startup costs, said owner Sandra Holman-Watts. “

The experience of Denver club owners actually highlights one of the oft-overlooked positive aspects of the free enterprise system: the freedom to send good money after bad. Under socialized systems, government controlled resources would be allocated under the best case scenario to projects with the broadest utilitarian appeal. In practice, they go to those with political connections. Neither broad popular appeal nor political clout, have been strong suits for jazz as of late.

Jazz has been historically blessed with entrepreneurs who were content to eke out a living by making the music available to a loyal audience. Those campaigning for a government subsidized performance space should take a look at the local taxes and regulations which make it so difficult to do business in New York. Club owner Lorraine Gordon complains of “the board of health, the fire department, the I.R.S.—all the departments that run your business in New York City, whether you like it or not,” in her book Alive at the Village Vanguard. (p. 206) Rather than entitlements that could actually lead to real resentment for the music, jazz supporters ought to be advocating empowerment-zone style tax cuts and regulatory relief. Those like Rossa, who voluntarily chose to spend their capitol on the music, despite having better returns on their investments available to them, deserve a break.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans


Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans
By Thomas Brothers
W.W. Norton tradepaper
978-393-33001-4


Jazz historians have generally subscribed to the “great man” theory of history, placing prominent innovators like Armstrong and Ellington in the Jazz Pantheon. Their contributions are seen as not just revolutionary, but deliberate and singular to their genius. Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans takes a different approach, placing more influence on Armstrong’s environment and how it shaped his music.

Brothers’ book is not a biography per se, but rather a cultural examination of the Crescent City during the years Armstrong lived there. There are certainly details of the early formative events of Armstrong’s life, like his first proper musical instruction and organized band experience at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. However, Thomas places nearly equal emphasis on the music of rag-pickers and street merchants Armstrong absorbed prior to his time at the Waif’s Home. According to a manuscript passage cut from his memoir unearthed by Brothers, the musician wrote of a rag-picker named Larenzo: “the things he said, pertaining to music, had me spellbound.” (p. 55)

Although much has been made of Armstrong’s childhood circumstances, Brothers seems more inclined to defend his mother, Mary Ann (Mayann) Albert, particularly for exposing him to the influence of the Sanctified Church and instilling a work ethic in him. Brothers quotes her advice to a young Armstrong: “never worry about what the other feller has got. Try and get something your self.” (p. 76)

While Brothers does not really try to diminish Armstrong’s accomplishments, he does look for obscure influences and unrecognized role models. He does make a compelling case for the influence of cornetist Buddy Petit. Brothers argues:

“Both specialized in nicely sculpted improvisations marked by harmonic precision. Both were fast fingerers and skillful in bringing blues touches to any kind of melody. Petit, like Armstrong, had a fertile imagination. ‘He’d stay in the staff and . . . make you dizzy with the variation he’d make,’ said trumpeter Abert Waters.” (p. 267)

Brothers is clearly a passionate authority on not just the music of Louis Armstrong, but the entire cultural milieu of early twentieth century New Orleans. His prose though, can be a bit slow to plow through. While maybe not an essential volume on Armstrong, Brothers’ book provides valuable insight on his lesser known contemporaries, including figures like Petit.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Coming in October: O Jerusalem

“If God is not here, he is nowhere,” says a character in O Jerusalem, while looking over the city which holds the holiest sites of the world’s three major religions. O Jerusalem, a new film based on the novel by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins dramatizing early events in the founding of the State of Israel, tries to avoid taking sides in the greater political debate, instead focusing on personal dramas set against the historical backdrop.

Of course, the filmmakers may make a good faith effort at being honest brokers, but there are indeed some differences in how each side is portrayed. The central relationship of the film is a the friendship between Bobby Goldman, an American Jew newly returned from WWII, and Saïd Chahine, a Palestinian Arab studying law in America. They become fast friends in New York, but find themselves called to Jerusalem to take sides in the impending conflict, as the British prepare to withdraw.

Goldman and Chahine are used even-handedly to humanize their respective sides in the conflict. Each sees tragedy first hand, yet both men retain some remnant of their former friendship. In representing their comrades, French Jewish director and co-screenwriter Elie Chouraqui seems to give the Arab Palestinians a slight advantage. While both sides kill in the heat of battle, it is only atrocities committed by Jewish extremists at Deir Yassin that are vividly pictured on screen (although the resulting horror felt by Goldman and the Haganah regulars is made clear).

Certainly, the Holocaust figures prominently in Jerusalem, but it is not graphically depicted, except in brief archival footage. Goldman’s girlfriend movingly tells of her experiences in a concentration camp. However, the filmmakers show no images of Arab terrorist attacks, and decline to explain the fact that the Arab forces arrayed against Israel had also allied themselves with Hitler and the National Socialists.

The personal drama of Jerusalem is often quite moving. It is probably one of the better films portraying the loss and grief of war. People were literally crying during the final scenes last night. The dramatic situations are effectively underscored by Stephen Endelman’s music. His orchestral themes have a logical Middle Eastern flavor, often complimented by strings and voices.

Coming in under two hours, Jerusalem is quite manageable for a historical docudrama. If anything, it seems to end a little early from a historical point of view, with events on screen essentially ending with the cease fire of June 11, 1948, leaving the rest of the history to be summarized by voice-over. It is however, a point of stark dramatic climax for the film’s characters.

Saïd Taghmaoui brings real intensity to the role of Chahine and J.J. Feild seems to grow into the role of Goldman as the film progresses. The best known actors of Jerusalem have smaller parts based on historical figures. Tovah Feldshuh seems to own the role of Golda Meir, having portrayed her during a successful Broadway run for the one-woman show Golda’s Balcony, and she is convincing returning to the role here. Tom Conti wrings every drop of dignity and regret he can from the small role of Sir Allan Cunningham, the British High Commissioner. Sir Ian Holm however, is less effective as David Ben-Gurion in a performance that comes across as a bit of a caricature.

Jerusalem is often quite moving, and it is consistently interesting to watch the filmmakers walk the tightrope between each side of the conflict. While Arab Palestinians might have a slight edge in the film’s historical treatment, the film is far from being anti-Israel, as it seems to personally identify closer with its Israeli characters. Israelis would probably settle for such media treatment every chance they can. Audiences can judge for themselves when O Jerusalem opens in New York on October 17th. (The French trailer is available here.)

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Music of Freedom in South Florida

Recently, Arturo Sandoval celebrated the one year anniversary of his South Florida jazz club, which has brought many of the real-deal top names in jazz to the area. Sandoval, whose defection from Cuba was dramatized in the HBO bio-pic For Love or Country, has risked much for the sake of artistic expression. Now he’s involved in free enterprise as well. Sandoval explains his motives for this venture in the September issue of Downbeat, telling Eliseo Cardona:

“It was simple: I wanted to become the first Cubanito to show how rich jazz is in the land of its birth . . . Growing up in Cuba, we couldn’t listen to jazz because this music was banned by the government. Castro thought it was counter-revolutionary. My mission was this: In the land of freedom, you have to play the music of freedom.”

Sandoval’s club has brought in a diverse roster of artists, including Ivan Lins, Jason Moran, Greg Osby, the Bad Plus, and John Scofield, as well as the trumpeter himself. Of course, opening a jazz club is a speculative venture, particularly so in Miami where jazz venues like MoJazz and Upstairs at the Van Dyke have closed in recent years. Downbeat’s piece is otherwise informative, but one would think they would include the club’s website for those interested in checking it out when in Miami.

Sandoval and his fellow defector and musical associate Paquito D’Rivera are well regarded in the Cuban-American and jazz communities. They harbor no illusions about the dictator of their homeland. D’Rivera has been particularly outspoken on the crimes perpetrated by the Castro regime. That’s why I have suggested voting for both artists in the Downbeat readers poll. There is still time for GOTV efforts (voting ends 8/31). You can vote here for Rivera in the clarinet and alto categories and Sandoval in the trumpet categories (clarinet via drop down menu, the alto and trumpet categories as write-in’s). Again, both artists are universally respected as musicians, so nobody would begrudge them their victories. They also understand only too well why jazz is the music of freedom, having been denied it by a bearded tyrant.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Solo in Mondsee


Solo in Mondsee
By Paul Bley
ECM


Solo piano can be a real challenge. Without bass or drums, the pianist is on their own for rhythm. Paul Bley makes it sound easy on Solo in Mondsee, an improvised solo session that is relaxed, and surprisingly melodic.

Recorded in Mondsee, Austria, each track is simply entitlted “Mondsee Variation I-X.” Each variation has its own character, but sounds like a piece of Bley’s whole. “Variation I” establishes a delicate, pensive mood, despite the foreboding introductory note delivered on the bass strings of the piano. The mood brightens and the tempo quickens with the “Variation II,” as Bley improvises first a pleasing melody, then reinterpreting it in various ways.

Solo is not simply contemplative music. Bley brings darker hues to “Variation VII” through discordant notes and some heavy left hand. “Variation VIII,” features a particularly strong rhythmic attack and Jarrett-esque hummed accompaniment. Throughout Bley shows masterful command of the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, as with his impressive runs on “Variations V & X.”

Throughout Mondsee, Bley consistently takes each improvised “Variation” in surprising directions. He changes mood on a dime, spinning out sparkling melodies and embarking on free passages, while keeping a hint of the blues (still subtle, but perhaps easiest to hear on “Variation X” around 2:10).

Mondsee will doubtless be compared to other ECM solo piano sessions, like Bley’s first solo outing Open, To Love, and the work of Keith Jarrett, most notably his classic Köln Concert. Mondsee, like Köln, is strongly identified with the city it was recorded in, albeit under very different circumstances. The two also could be classified as jazz for classical music lovers (or perhaps vice versa).

As a solo improvised recital in its own right, Mondsee is a very strong session. Bley proves he is still an improviser of a high order. At times Mondsee is quite beautiful. Certainly agreeable as mere background music, it also rewards deeper, concerted listening.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Montreux Tulls for Thee


Live at Montreux 2003
By Jethro Tull
Eagle Eye Media


There is some irony when Jethro Tull plays the odd jazz festival, which they have, despite being an avowed rock & roll band, albeit with blues roots. Front-man Ian Anderson has long acknowledged a debt to the one-of-a-kind jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk as a formative influence on his flute playing. That debt, which includes various over-blowing and vocalizing techniques, can be seen and heard in Jethro Tull’s Live at Montreux 2003 newly released on DVD and CD.

John Kruth interviewed Anderson for his Kirk bio Bright Moments, writing:

“He was a delightful chap, well spoken and quick witted. I wasn’t sure if he was paying homage or a karmic debt that many feel he owes Rahsaan. Either way his enthusiasm for Kirk’s music was clear.” (p. 191)

While Tull’s cover of “Serenade to a Cuckoo” did not make the Montreux set list, they did include some of their bluesier numbers. It’s not hard to hear the blues echoes in “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine for You,” especially with Anderson introducing it on harmonica. If you can name any member of Tull besides Anderson, it is probably guitarist Martin Barre, who gets a guitar trio feature (sans Anderson) that comes respectably close to jazz on his brief but tasteful “Empty Café.”

There are some lingering resentments for Anderson’s commercial success capitalizing on Kirk’s innovations. Perhaps self-conscious when playing a somewhat jazz-oriented venue like Montreux as a result, Anderson joked:


“We’re going to play something that mingles a little jazz with a little bit of classical music. It’s actually pretty sleazy cocktail lounge jazz. The worst you ever heard in your life at the very worst Holiday Inn you ever stayed in.”

Anderson must have stayed on some trippy Holiday Inns, as it was Bach’s “Bouree,” long a staple of Tull’s book, that Anderson was introducing, one of several Tull hits mixed with less recognizable older songs and some new material. As they did at each Tull I have attended (yep, I’ve been to two) they closed with “Aqualung” and used “Locomotive Breath” as their expected encore.

The surprise of the set was the relative strength of some of the newer material. “Eurology” (terrible pun) actually has an intriguing sound thanks to the addition of the “instrument from Hell: the German piano accordion” played by Andrew Giddings. Of the Tull classics, the percussive “Fat Man” may have been the highlight, with Barre sharing flute duties with Anderson.

Regardless how Kirk partisans feel about Anderson, as of 2003, he could still over-blow his hits. Tull is a fun live band, in good measure due to Anderson’s on stage sense of humor. Seeing them here is a blast of nostalgia, which is something festival programmers are definitely going for.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Take Five Instead

Jazz may not have a lot going for it with the general public, but it does have a well earned reputation for independence. That’s why the well-intentioned campaign for a city subsidized performance space for experimental jazz is troubling. It may trade away a significant part of jazz’s cultural capitol for a government entitlement.

This campaign by the Alliance for Creative Music Action was largely spurred by the closing of Tonic, which certainly was a great loss. However, given the number of fantastic gigs I have been to in recent weeks that were only moderately attended, I question the efficacy of demanding space from the city for subsidized venue (particularly if its shows are sparsely attended). Regardless, it is highly unlikely that the city would provide such subsidized space. (I can’t make ACMA’s 8/21 meeting, but would definitely be interested in what is discussed.)

Frankly jazz needs larger audiences more than it needs entitlements. Instead of writing letters and demonstrating, those who support this music should try to bring five jazz outsiders (not your jazz hang-buddies) to a show each month. That is, expanding the audience by bringing five people who would otherwise not be attending jazz gigs at all. (I have tried this for certain events in the past, and yes, it is real hard, but the results are immediately measurable.) If 100 people actually did this for three months in a row, it would expose 1,500 people to the music, which could result in tangible economic benefits for musicians.

Sales of jazz albums were down 8.3% last year according to Nielsen Soundscan. Jazz is losing market-share within an industry trending down. However, it is not because of the quality of the music released in 2006. The music is still vital. In fact, much of what I have heard live and on CD recently has been truly fantastic. The problem is jazz has not been effectively marketing to new listeners. Its true believers need to evangelize more, not look to Caesar for a subsidy.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Macedonia

Macedonia
By Harvey Pekar and Heather Robinson. Illustrated by Ed Piskor
Villard tradepaper
9778-0-345-49899-1


Harvey Pekar’s greatest fame might be for his wildly uncomfortable guest appearances on the Letterman show and the Paul Giamatti film based on his autobiographical graphic novels. He is also a widely published jazz critic, who has also been known to broach more political subjects (a phenomenon we cannot object to). His latest graphic novel, Macedonia co-written by Heather Robinson, is such a departure, tackling recent events in the Balkans and wider themes of war and peace.

Macedonia is in fact very polemical. It certainly proves the dramatic challenges of providing historical exposition, often thinly disguised here as dialogue. Much of this background material is lucidly written, at times challenging preconceptions about the region. Even the term “Balkan” comes under scrutiny when Pekar and Robinson point out:

“The whole idea of the Balkans is only partly geographic. When the term came about in the 1800s, it was meant to describe Ottoman holdings in Europe . . . This idea persists that once a place is Balkan, it will always be Balkan. As if the place somehow imprints on its inhabitants a genetic destiny—one of war, fragmentation, and deceit.” (p. 25)

The basic narrative of Macedonia follows Robinson as she travels through the Balkan country, collecting evidence from its recent history to support her contention that war is not inevitable. It opens with her defending her major in Peace Studies to a skeptical Poli Sci professor (presumably one of the few conservatives on faculty at Berkley). While it is entertaining to hear him refer to her department as “all ideology,” their essential argument whether war is or is not an inevitable state of humanity seems like a bit of a straw man. Most critics of peace studies and peace movements would rather argue that the human cost of peace is often greater than war, as witnessed by the crimes of National Socialism, Communism, and Islamic Fascism. At times war may very well be prevented, but at what price?

There is much Balkan history and geopolitical analysis in Macedonia. As for actual plot and character development, it may leave some readers cold. Those who only read Pekar’s music writing will not find much of interest. In one scene Robinson’s friend Delisa jams with some Skopje street musicians, complaining of their chauvinist mind-set: “If I were a guy I could have gotten the guy to play his riff and it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But instead his friend was hitting on us and he’s showing off.” (p. 83) (Even in America, women musicians sometimes face these attitudes.)

However, Robinson’s carefully selected debate question does offer some interesting analysis in her Macedonian case study. It is true that Macedonia averted a Bosnian style war, but whether this was truly a case of peaceful strategies winning out over war is open to interpretation. As Macedonia explains, there was a very real armed Albanian insurrection. While short-lived and resulting in only a handful of casualties, it did lead to the Ohrid Agreement, which addressed the grievances of the Albanian minority. One might argue that this was so a swift and decisive victory for war, there was not time for the atrocities seen elsewhere in the former-Yugoslavia.

Conversely, the horrors of Bosnia could just as easily be attributed to strategies of “peace.” The UN’s record of defending its so-called safe havens” is simply tragic. Bosnians were also disproportionately disadvantaged by the UN arms embargo, as the Serbs controlled most of the former Yugoslav army (JNA)’s arms. Although in press materials Robertson says “They name streets after Bill Clinton” in Kosovo, one doubts they have the same regard for him in Bosnia and Herzegovina, since he twice vetoed Congressional resolutions calling for an end to the embargo. The eventual cease fire did not come until Bosnia and Croatian forces turned the tide against the Serbians.

It is true that Macedonia avoided the horrors Bosnia endured, even though Pekar and Robinson admit many of the underlying tensions remain. Much of that recent history, as recounted in Macedonia is fascinating. As an actual graphic novel, it is underdeveloped. Most characters are indistinguishable from each other, merely coming into the picture to announce their name, ethnicity, and designated geopolitical lesson to impart to readers.

The strongest aspect of Macedonia is the very real affection it expresses for the actual people of the Balkans. Macedonia actually makes readers want to visit Macedonia, when Pekar and Robinson write of Macedonians:

“Everyone teased each other. Told stories, interrupted each other. I missed interruptions. . . . Here, people get so engaged. They interrupt, they gesture.” (p. 128)

Ultimately, that fondness for Macedonia and its people gives the graphic novel heart, making it readable, despite its long passages of historical background and occasional ideological excesses (of course, there this the requisite slam on Pres. Bush, obligatory to the point of being boring). There is at least food for thought and debate here, something Robinson, to her credit, welcomes several times in the graphic novel.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

EW on NOLA

In the Aug. 10th issue Entertainment Weekly remembered there’s a little rebuilding going on in New Orleans. Their oral history style feature actually raises some interesting issues.

For one thing, they (perhaps accidentally) raise some important second amendment points:

Antoinette K-Doe, owner of R&B venue the Mother-in-Law Lounge ‘We took on five and a half feet of water. I have an apartment upstairs, and I was up there seven and a half days. They did a lot of looting around here. Some guys were out there saying, “Tonight, we’re gonna go in the Mother-in-Law Lounge.” I shot over their heads with a shotgun. I said, “I don’t think y’all want to come in here.”

Joann Guidos, owner of music venue Kajun’s Pub ‘I pulled out my weapons to protect my place. We had a couple of people that made threats, and I said “Come on by, we’ll be here waiting.” They never came back. But I was running out of fuel and, on Sept. 7, U.S. Marshalls took all my weapons. I left Sept. 8.”

Later in the feature, EW listens to producers and actors currently filming in New Orleans. One makes an important point:

“Tony Kaye, director of Black Water Transit ‘Because the film is using the flood as a backdrop, we have to be careful. You don’t want to benefit from someone else’s misfortune.’”

It is great to bring productions to New Orleans, supporting the local economy. Focusing attention on circumstances in New Orleans can also be helpful, but individuals’ sensitivities and privacy should be respected. Robert Polidori’s photo exhibit at the Met last year crossed that line, intruding in the personal loss of hundreds of families, even identifying their street addresses in the photo titles. One can make a statement without the exploiting the people involved, and if Kaye gets that, it is to his credit.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jazz Cycles—the Music of Paul Nash


Jazz Cycles
Manhattan New Music Project performs Paul Nash
MNMP Records

Typically, artists do not realize when they are recording their final sessions, but when Paul Nash went into the studio on December 6, 2004, he understood the likelihood that would be the case for him. Nash, a composer and guitarist who led groups featuring musicians like Mark Isham and Tom Harrell early in their careers, would record his final sessions a year after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Jazz Cycles, the first of the two resulting CDs to be released, is a fitting requiem for the composer.

A composer-led session, the music of Cycles was played by the latest incarnation of Nash’s Manhattan New Music Project (MNMP), consisting of many top musicians with impressive associations on their resumes, like tenor saxophonist Tim Ries, well-known for playing in the Rolling Stones’ back-up band and his own jazz-oriented Rolling Stone Project, and trumpeter Shane Endsley, who first gained notoriety for his work with Steve Coleman. Vic Juris had the intimidating duty of filling the guitar duties and acquits himself well. Together with alto and soprano saxophonist Bruce Williamson and a rhythm section of pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer Grisha Alexiev, they perform Nash’s compositions with passion and precision.

Nash’s classical influences can be heard throughout, including the opener “Passaglia,” with a fervent alto solo from Williamson. It blends uninterrupted into the next track, the more urgent “Night Flight,” with short but vital solos from Endley, Juris, and Ries.

“Wind Over the Lake” is actually adapted from a larger orchestral work, one of two the Paul Nash Memorial Fund is raising money to record. Introduced by Williamson’s plaintive soprano, it shifts mood several times, suggesting the full original will be well worth hearing. Ridl contributes a tasteful solo and Ries makes an impassioned tenor statement, propelled along by Alexiev’s drums.

Cycles demonstates Nash’s range, including an idiosyncratic blues like “Strange Rife” and an up-tempo workout like “Outside In,” sparked by Willaimson’s soprano and Juris’ guitar. However, “It’s Only a Dream” in many ways best represents the session. It is a brisk, buoyant tune, featuring a swinging solo from Ridl, yet seems to have a wistful quality beneath the surface. The same is true of “Night Flight (Reprise),” except the undercurrent of melancholy is emphasized slightly more through Williamson’s soprano. It serves as an excellent vehicle for ensemble swing from a highly sympathetic group, emphasizing interplay over ego.

Clearly, the musicians assembled by Nash were inspired by the material. Nash composed some intriguing and pleasing melodies, which he well documents with the help of his friends and colleagues. It is a worthy memorial project and makes one hope the Paul Nash Memorial Fund has further success in bringing more of his compositions to a wider audience.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Guitar Trio


Super Guitar Trio: Larry Coryell, Al Di Meola, Biréli Lagrène
Live at Montreuz 1989
Eagle Eye Media


Larry Coryell has always had a certain kinship for his fellow guitar players. He has often teamed up with his colleagues to form all-star ensembles, and has written an instructional column for Guitar Player magazine since 1976, happily passing along his experience to others. It is not surprising to see him anchoring one such all-star trio for an acoustic set documented as Live at Montreux 1989.

Joining Coryell at Montreux were Al Di Meola, best known for his work with Chick Corea as part of Return to Forever and Biréli Lagrène, who was just then emerging as the next great guitarist in the gypsy jazz tradition. According to Di Meola the performance marked the finale of their five week tour, and the three had reached an impressive level of sympathetic compatibility.

The trio’s set was well served by their choice of material, with many Latin or gypsy influenced compositions that gave them an opportunity to display their dexterity. Coryell’s “PSP No. II” starts in a contemplative mood, but quickly morphs through several changes of mood and phase, giving all three ample opportunities to demonstrate their prowess. The camera work is impressive throughout the concert, capturing many close-ups of the trio’s fleet fingers.

Latin flavor is imported from Argentina, Brazil, and Spain, with the former represented by Astor Piazolla’s “Tango Suite (For Two Guitars),” as a feature for Coryell and Di Meola. Both clearly have a strong feeling for the piece. Piazolla’s music had long had great importance to Di Meola, and Coryell, who had begun interpreting composers like Ravel and Rimsky-Korsikoff in the 1980’s, also shows a strong affinity for the composition.

From Brazil, Laurindo Almeida’s “Braziliance” is another showcase for the full trio. Almeida’s lovely melody gets a respectful treatment in perhaps the briefest performance of the set. Two Chick Corea-penned Return to Forever tunes close the DVD: an up-tempo “No Mystery” and the appropriately Spanish tinged “Spain,” their designated encore piece.

For many, Lagrène was and may still be the surprise of the set. Although Coryell has his moments on “Musette De Paris Avec La Rue Dupierre No. 5,” it is really Lagrène feature spot, with the senior member of the trio sensitively supporting him. “Musette” and his solo performance following on “Waltz” are pretty impressive, showing how much Lagrène had absorbed and processed of the tradition at a relatively early point in his career.


Some purists might be skeptical of Coryell and Di Meola given their fusion pedigrees, but there is no denying the acoustic facility captured on film by all three trio members that night in 1989. One supposes if the concert had been performed in the 90’s instead of the late 80’s all three would be dressed in black, instead of white. That is about the only sense of it being dated, as the music certainly holds up well (particularly the compositions of Piazolla and Lagrène).

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Reality Music

Bad sign for hip hop: Vibe magazine is starting to sound defensive. The latest issue features contributions from several commentators on whether hip-hop is dying or just slightly winded. Representing the “nothing-to-worry-about-here-move-along” side is Greg Tate who writes:

“The day it matters what anybody over 25 thinks about hip hop is the day hip hop will have truly died as a culture and become like jazz—a history lesson in need of its Ken Burns.”

A more jaundiced view comes from Dr. John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute (and an interpreter of vocal standards). McWhorter takes the music to task for its glorified cynicism:

“Hip hop and keeping it ‘real’ don’t seem to be working out so well. Let’s face it: It’s always been a pretty lazy kind of ‘real,’ hasn’t it? There’s nothing too difficult about cursing, calling people names, and hating Republicans. What’s difficult, and what real people do, is strive for something better than real.”

What’s realer than real are signs that hip hops commercial appeal might be cresting (a 21 % sales decline from 2005 to 2006). Tate off-handedly dismisses jazz, which in reality is still a vital form of musical expression. When jazz lost its commercial clout, it still had its dazzling virtuosity and its soul. Check out some of the emerging jazz musicians in the smaller clubs in the City and you will feel like the early Christians keeping faith alive in the Roman catacombs. Hip hop however, sold its soul (and cheap to white suburban kids). If the money goes, what is it left with? Cursing, name calling, and hating Republicans make for lousy nostalgia.

To be fair, there have been some soulful hip hop songs, but thing of it is, they usually display a marked jazz influence. A case in point: Us3’s “Grand Groove,” a grandson’s dedication to his grandfather, definitely speaks of someone who worked “for something better than real.” Frankly, Us3 might be too downright jazzy for Tate and the other hip hop partisans manning the barricades in Vibe. They feature instrumental solos after all, which definitely keeps things real.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Searching for Eddie Rosner

Consider this post an open invitation to DVD companies: if you release Eddie Rosner: Jazzman from the Gulag, I will review it. Gulag a documentary from 1999, directed by Pierre-Henry Salfati, scored a rating of 8 out of 10 in Scott Yanow’s Jazz on Film. I have not seen it, but Rosner’s story in general should be better known.

Eddie (or Addy, born Adolf) Rosner was a highly regarded, legit German jazz musician and the son of a Polish Jew. After playing with his hero Louis Armstrong, the American jazz titan reportedly inscribed a photo to him: “To the white Louis Armstrong from the black Rosner.” Of course, 1930’s Germany was a difficult environment for a jazz musician, particularly one with Rosner’s family composition.

Rosner fled National Socialist persecution, first to his father’s native Poland, and then to the Soviet Union. At first he was embraced by Stalin, as a popular, morale boosting entertainer. Perhaps apocryphal, there is a story that during the war, Rosner’s band was summoned to play an apparently empty theater, except for “Uncle Joe,” concealed by the shadows in a balcony box. His appreciation of Rosner’s band would not last.

In 1949, Stalin launched a campaign against jazz, confiscating saxophones, and promulgating slogans like: “Today he plays jazz and tomorrow he betrays his country.” Rosner found himself in a Soviet Gulag, where he would remain for over a year after Stalin’s death.

Rosner’s story illustrates both the anti-Semitism and the antipathy towards jazz (and other forms of free expression) historically demonstrated by Communist authorities. Given recent trends in Russia, its release might be uncomfortably relevant (and those at last week’s Summer Stage reading would certainly benefit from screening it). Regardless, spending time with a fascinating life is always rewarding.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Gigs are Good

You will never hear a musician complain about having too many gigs, especially in New Orleans. On Sunday, the NYT noticed that the gigs are not as plentiful in NOLA these days. No kidding.

There have been some private foundations and corporate angels that have come forward to help, including Tipitina’s club and foundation, which serves as an important support center for NOLA musicians. According to the NYT:

“The Tipitina’s Foundation, the club’s charitable arm, has distributed about $1.5 million in aid; in all, Tipitina’s and other nonprofit groups have marshaled tens of million of dollars in relief from around the world to help bolster the music business here.”

The Jazz Foundation’s Wendy Oxenhorn frequently makes the point that jazz musicians are reluctant to take handouts, preferring honest gigs. The Times reports on JFA and other groups efforts to provide gigs:

“The New Orleans Musicians Clinic paid musicians to play at the airport and offered $100 guarantees to musicians who cold find gigs for themselves elsewhere. The Jazz Foundation of America also subsidized performances.”

Dubbed St. Agnes by the Foundation, Agnes Varis of AgVar Chemicals has underwritten JFA’s Jazz in the Schools program, putting musicians to work and exposing kids to jazz. Longtime JFA supporter e-trade came through with a $100,000 emergency housing fund. It is an inspiring example of private organizations coming together to help people in need. It is a point that Terence Blanchard reaches in this month’s Jazz Times (featuring a deathly looking Clint Eastwood on the cover), telling Bill Milkowski:

“For example, a lot of people in New Orleans now are realizing that they can’t go to the government for help. So you have church groups, along with business folks, people who probably would’ve never worked together at all, coming together to try to make things better in the city.”

Unfortunately, this seems to be true at all levels of government. At a time when NOLA desperately need an adrenaline shot of economic development many in the city council have been more concerned with enforcing zoning ordinances than spurring economic growth and supplying basic services. Ultimately it will be groups like the Jazz Foundation, Tipitina’s Foundation, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, the Stephen Spring Foundation, and other private organizations working with leaders in the private sector that will do the heavy lifting of rebuilding of New Orleans (click the links to support their efforts). After all, has anyone in any level of government inspired confidence with their response to Katrina. OK, maybe one.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Louis Armstrong: Jazz is Played from the Heart


Louis Armstrong: Jazz is Played from the Heart
By Michael A. Schuman
Enslow Publishers
0-7660-2700-7


As “Ambassador Satch,” Louis Armstrong’s worldwide recognition and popularity reached levels seen only for figures like Muhammad Ali. He is considered the most influential jazz instrumentalist and vocalist, yet was often misunderstood by younger generations during his later years. Those highlights and controversies of Armstrong’s career are economically elucidated for young readers (sixth grade and up) in Michael Schuman’s Louis Armstrong: Jazz is Played from the Heart.

Given Armstrong’s role as an original jazz innovator, it is understandable that the book is weighted more heavily towards Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans and Chicago. Schuman starts with the fateful telegram from King Oliver that would bring Armstrong to Chicago, writing: “Jazz historians say that Armstrong’s life can be divided into two distinct periods: before he received Oliver’s telegram, and after he received the telegram.” (p. 11)

Schuman gives a straight forward factual account of the arc of Armstrong’s life (although Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans differs in some details of his childhood years, review forthcoming). If there is one deficiency, it is his treatment of Armstrong’s actual music. Schuman does explain Armstrong’s enormous vocal influence, if not actually inventing scatting during a performance of "Heebie Jeebies," as widely reported, than certainly popularizing and perfecting it. Yet there is little discussion of Armstrong’s groundbreaking role shaping the conception of the jazz solo.

On delicate issues, such as Armstrong’s use of “When It’s Sleep Time Down South,” Schuman is reasonably deft at explaining the controversy to young readers. Schuman explains: “To some, the lyrics celebrated the stereotypes white people had of African Americans,” while “To Armstrong, the song was simply the tale of a man like himself who left the South to make good in the North.” (p. 69) Later Schuman also explains the significance of Armstrong’s criticism of the Federal government’s slow response to the attempts to block Arkansas school integration, which for many would dispel their discomfort with the Armstrong of “Sleepy Time.”

It is certainly valuable to have a volume about a man of Armstrong’s stature available to students. However, it should be accompanied in school libraries by Armstrong’s recordings as well. Unless students hear “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” and “Potato Head Blues” they will not truly understand or appreciate the Armstrong legacy.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

A Duke Named Ellington

A Duke Named Ellington
Council for Positive Images


In his youth, Edward Kennedy Ellington would play in the streets of Washington, D.C. as the former president Teddy Roosevelt sometimes looked on. Late in his life, Duke Ellington would befriend Pres. Nixon, then occupying the White House, who would award him the Medal of Freedom while hosting Duke’s seventieth birthday party. In between a very public life was lived by a very private person. Ellington was indeed an American master, so he was a fitting subject for the PBS series of the same name. Originally aired as an installment of Masters in 1988, A Duke Named Ellington is now available on DVD.

While Duke Named does cover the basics of Ellington's career, it is more concerned with his music, than simply stringing together a list of dates and places. While they do miss some important elements of the Ellington story, like his innovative use of Jimmy Blanton’s bass, the focus on the music serves their subject well, showing the confidence to include some performances in their entirety, like “The Opener,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Solitude.” In effect, filmmaker Terry Carter is content to let Ellington’s music speak for itself, as opposed to Ken Burns’ Jazz, which would show a short excerpt, and then cut to a talking head to tell viewers how brilliant it was.

Duke Named features extensive interview footage with band members including, Clark Terry, Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope, Louis Bellson, Cootie Williams, and vocalists Herb Jeffries, Alice Babs, and Adelaide Hall. (Leonard Feather serves as the designated commentator, which might be a drawback for some.) Most milestones in the Duke canon are covered, including the “Black Brown and Beige” suite, and “Creole Love Song,” featuring Hall, described as “the first wordless jazz vocal.”

Duke’s deep religious conviction is often overlooked, but Ellington’s Sacred Concerts are given their due here. Jeffries provides perspective, telling his interviewer: “he also, in my mind’s eye, was truly a very Godly human being.” Perhaps even less known were his ballet collaborations with Alvin Ailey. The River, commissioned by the American Ballet Theater is featured, and the music is certainly interesting, if the least Ellingtonian sounding in its brief clip, perhaps for the strings. (It would be fascinating to see the entire work released.) Another Ailey collaboration “Night Creature,” most definitely has that Ellington swing.

Duke sidemen repeatedly make the point that Ellington composed for the musician’s personality not their instruments. In fact, we get to know their personalities more than that of the maestro himself. This is not to fault the film, which makes an excellent case for Ellington’s genius. It is well put together by producer-director-narrator Terry Carter, perhaps best known as Col. Tigh on the original Battlestar (which should give it additional cred with sci-fi geeks out there).

Ellington, who moved so many with his music, still defies attempts to delve beneath the surface of his persona. He projected a suave, debonair image, while privately he was devout individual, dedicated to his mother and sister. The depth and extent of his work though, is still inspiring musicians and listeners. With its archival interview footage of Duke himself, his sidemen, and some excellent, uninterrupted performances of his band, Duke Named is a worthy introduction to an American genius.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Journeyman’s Road


Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post 9/11 New York
By Adam Gussow
University of Tennessee
1-57233-569-6


It has sometimes been said that as bad as the commercial outlook for jazz looks, it is positively robust when compared to that for the contemporary blues scene. As the apprentice to a senior African-American blues musician, music writer, and scholar of Southern literature, Adam Gussow is well positioned to evaluate the sources for both optimism and pessimism in Journeyman’s Road, his new collection surveying the contemporary blues scene.

Gussow is best known as a musician for his work as the junior partner in the duo of Satan and Adam and best known as a writer for his memoir of his time with Mister Satan (or Sterling Magee), Mister Satan’s Apprentice. In fact, the most interesting selections of Journeyman, both emotionally and commercially, pick up the story of their partnership after publication of Apprentice. In “Life with Mister Satan,” Gussow describes his mentor’s primal force:

“Even with perfect intonation Mister Satan is an earful; with six wimpy rock strings melting under his onslaught, not to mention cymbals and tambourines, he sounds like a street-rodding TransAm blowing itself out, losing muffler, tailpipe, and manifold in a screeching clatter of metal rubbed raw against macadam. Something terrifying and impressive is careening past you with great conviction, but it’s hard to say precisely what. He remains a miracle, which is why I do this.” (p. 12)

Sadly, the Satan and Adam collaboration would largely be put on hold due to what is eventually referred to as Mister Satan’s breakdown. Presumably, under the influence of evangelical family members he gave up the Satan moniker and for a while, the blues that went with it. At various points in the collection Gussow’s articles provide intermittent updates on Magee as he is now known, that are heartbreaking, but at times hopeful.

Journeyman illustrates the question of identity that reoccurs throughout blues history. Many blues artists’ original names are remain unknown or subject of conjecture. Rice Miller, if that was actually his name, could become the second Sonny Boy Williamson, even as the original was still actively performing. It seems toward the end of Journeyman that the individual now known as Magee is not the same musician as when he was known as Mister Satan. Of course, age and life had intervened.

Blues is not the only music heard in Journeyman. Gussow also covers a Great Night in Harlem, courtesy of the Jazz Foundation of America. The executive director of JFA, Wendy Oxenhorn is a fellow blues harpist who clearly had made quite an impression on Gussow:

“Perfect fit between Wendy and job. She has endless compassion for their [musicians in need] sad tales and bottomless respect for their creative artistry. The musicians adore here.” (p. 85)

Wendy is one of my heroes too, and Gussow gives an entertaining account of the first annual Foundation fundraising concert at the Apollo Theater. Gussow is at his best when writing of his mentor and his friends like Wendy and other bluesman who deserve a greater share of limelight, like Frankie Paris (a regular at Arthur’s Tavern) and Irving Louis Lattin, who was the voice of Viagra during the first year of its commercial campaign. There is probably a little too much of Gussow’s analysis of blues in the work of William Faulkner, but to his credit, “Plaintive Reinteration and Meaningless Strains: Faulkner’s Blues Understandings” is fairly readable for a conference paper.

Ultimately, it is the continuing chronicle of Satan and Adam that will draw readers to Journeyman. When discussing those who live the blues life, Gussow writes with sensitivity and experience. Despite an occasional academic or New Age excess here and there, Journeyman often makes for compelling reading and ultimately gives one hope for the future of the music.

(Note: Satan and Adam will be the subject of an upcoming documentary mentioned in Journeyman. See the trailer here.)

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Unhinged in Central Park

The City Park Foundation decided to host an evening of 1960’s “Black Power” poets on Thursday night on Central Park’s Summer Stage, so presumably they got what they bargained for. In fact, both readers, Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez were described as Summer Stage veterans. What those in attendance heard (and largely ate up) was a diet of didacticism, profanity, and hatred.

Baraka started the reading with a “short story” collected in Tales of the Out and Gone, describing 1960’s revolutionaries losing their faith in a newly elected African American mayor. It was short on both character and plot development, but long on invective hurled at those Baraka disagrees with, like “Neo-Colonial Negroes and state collaborating Puerto Ricans” and of course the former “cracker mayor.” Baraka also read a poem dedicated to Sonny Carson, a figure too divisive for even the New York City Council to consent to honor. Baraka himself has a long history of comments that have been condemned as anti-Semitic by the ADL (background here), and his “Eulogy” included Carson’s infamous defense against such charges: "I'm anti-white - don't limit my anti's to one group of people."

Sanchez read next starting with a “poem” that was a list of “heroes” including hardcore Marxists like Chairman Mao and Angela Davis, as well as Cynthia McKinney and Charles Barron, a racial demagogue who represents Brooklyn in the City Council. To include Communist dictators and their apologists in her pantheon while also professing a love for jazz that night reveals a shocking historical ignorance on Sanchez’s part. As the newly announced U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic can attest, jazz and its listeners were constantly persecuted by the Communists during the Cold War.

We did get insight from Sanchez like Pres. Bush is known for mangling “the King and the Queen’s English.” Sadly, ad hominem attacks like this usually get a good hand in New York these days. As for Sanchez’s own use of language, in the poem “Peace” we heard lines like a “terrorist bomb is the language of the unheard” and about “holding hostage the hearts and penises of the workers.”

Last night “peace” was advocated for Iraq in the form of an immediate troop withdrawal with complete ethical disregard for the consequences, while contradictorily preaching “resistance” and revolution to “smash capitalism” here in America. That so many of my neighbors have no problem hearing such extremist sentiments is disturbing. That the non-profit City Parks Foundation (not a City agency) would sponsor such an extremist, one sided event must mean they endorse the sentiments to some extent. Perhaps the City should start looking elsewhere for programming.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Charles Simic, Poet Laureate

Images of nature tend to be very dark in Charles Simic’s work. Though self-described as a “city poet,” there is both menace and whimsy to be found everywhere in the work of the newly announced U.S. Poet Laureate. His influences include jazz and growing up in what was then Yugoslavia under National Socialism and Communism, having said: “I’m sort of the product of history; Hitler and Stalin were my travel agents.”

In an interview Simic clearly connects those influences:

“Yugoslavia was then a Communist country and in the first years of Communist rule, it was prohibited to listen to jazz. Jazz was regarded as a kind of decadent art form, an invention of the capitalists to undermine socialist youth. You could go to jail for listening to jazz. I know, for example, one of the poets I translated, Ivan Lalic, was then a student at the University of Zagreb and was a Communist party member. He was thrown out of the party for listening to jazz records. Which made it even more fun. So this, like a lot of forbidden things, became a secret pleasure. I remember later on going to houses of older boys who had records and listening to something like Bessie Smith with the volume turned down really low and the poor mother fretting in the next room saying ‘Oh God, those kids are going to get us all in trouble.’”

Simic is a prolific and rewarding poet, accurately described by the Librarian of Congress as “both accessible and deep.” For further reading Hotel Insomnia and Return to a Place Lit By a Glass of Milk are highly recommended. (His poem "Crepuscule with Nellie" was also included in Everyman's Library's Jazz Poems, reviewed here.)

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Writing vs. Blogging, They’re Not Synonymous

Sometimes I receive packages addressed to me as “jazz writer” here at the office. While that is a much cooler title than my pedestrian marketing position, “jazz blogger” would be more apt. The two are not necessarily the same.

Blogging certainly involves writing in the literal sense, but I would argue at its finest writing is an art, whereas blogging by necessity is merely a talent. Writing compares to blogging as fencing compares to ultimate fighting. Both are combative, but for the former, finesse and style are paramount, whereas with the latter, endurance and brute force count for a lot more.

There are of course, literary precursors for blogging. Like J.J. Hunsecker in the Sweet Smell of Success (which featured a great jazz soundtrack from Chico Hamilton’s group with Fred Katz), columnists have long faced daily deadlines, turning out pithy, pointed prose for their loyal readers. H.L. Mencken was dashing off columns nearly every day of his professional life, and that they are still read and collected in book form is simply unearthly.

It seems like a lot of bloggers take themselves too seriously, deigning themselves the only ones competent to anoint the next president, for instance. They need to take a step back and get some perspective.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Coming Soon: Manda Bala


Americans essentially have two cinematic views of Brazil. One is the lush romanticism of films like Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus and Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova. The other is the grittier naturalism of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God and Carlos Diegues’ Orfeu. Jason Kohn’s new documentary, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), is definitely more in line with the latter, giving audiences an inside glimpse into the rampant kidnappings, widespread political corruption, and frog farms of contemporary Brazil, arguing they are all connected.

As Bala opens, it announces itself as “a film that can’t be shown in Brazil.” Whether that is true or not, it certainly was not produced in conjunction with the tourism board or the chamber of commerce. It introduces us to São Paolo through its luxury skyscrapers, each with a heliport, to facilitate the only means of travel considered safe by many residents. Kidnappings are literally a daily occurrence. The practice of slicing off ears to send as proof of life is so widespread it makes plastic surgeon Dr. Juarez Avelar wealthy and famous for his specialized reconstructive technique.

We also meet Jadar Barbalho, the former President of the Senate and governor of the Para province. He was implicated in the plundering of literally billions of dollars from SUDAM, the state development agency for the Amazon region, but remains immune from prosecution by virtue of holding national elected office. In the ending credits he is billed as the “corrupt politician” (the filmmakers do bring an attitude to bear on their subjects). As part of the SUDAM scandal he allegedly embezzled $9,000,000 earmarked for building a $300,000 frog farm. It is that frog farm that provides some of the more surreal images interspersed throughout the film. For instance, the audience is shown the inner workings of the frog slaughterhouse, and it is not particularly pretty (you may never eat frog again after seeing the film). However, the most disturbing images come from kidnappers’ videotapes.

A woman called “Patricia” represents those legions of victims. She endured a harrowing ordeal that required Dr. Avelar’s services for both ears on her eventual release. We also meet a kidnapper, called “Magrinho,” who tries to justify himself as a Subcommander Marcos style class warrior. Despite his claims of using ransom money to pave his neighborhood, the streets we see him walk show no sign of pavement or maintenance of any sort. He is simply a sociopath—one of many, evidently. The heroes of Bala are people like Camila, and the entrepreneur who calls himself “Mr. M,” whose work helps drive the engine of the local economy, but lives in fear despite his love for his city of São Paolo.

In spite of the widespread crime and corruption Bala documents, it cannot fully escape the romantic appeal of Brazil. Heloisa Passos’ gorgeous cinematography captures the color and vibrancy of Brazil’s architecture and landscapes. While no original soundtrack was composed, a wide selection of Brazilian music was licensed creating an impressive cross-section of the country’s music. Artists represented include: Jorge Ben, Baden Powell, Tom Zé, Tim Maia, Egberto Gismonti, Trio Mocoto, Os Mutantes, Jorge Mautner, Alceu Valença, Gal Costa, and of course, Caetano Veloso.

While Bala can surely tie the crooked Barbalho to the frog farm, it does not explicitly connect the dots between the national political corruption and the endemic street crime terrorizing São Paolo’s citizens, as the filmmakers intended. Still, it remains a consistently fascinating film that is always a pleasure to listen to, even when it presents bizarre and disturbing images. It opens in New York at the Angelika on August 17th. (See the trailer here.)

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