J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Opening Next Week: Desert Bayou


There is an impending bumper crop of Katrina related documentaries in the works. Four had screenings at this year’s IFP marketplace (the most promising I saw was Talkin’ Water). Inevitably that raises the stakes for each film to distinguish itself from the pack. Desert Bayou (trailer here), Alex LeMay’s documentary about a group of Katrina evacuees finding shelter in the unlikely environment of Utah, has interesting moments, but falls short of its ambitions.

Bayou follows a group of NOLA residents, focusing on two particular men who we learn as the film progresses, brought their personal demons with them, compounding the difficulties they face in Katrina’s wake. Right from the start, Bayou wants to frame the story in divisive racial terms: evacuees vs. Utah. The filmmakers are right to decry mistreatment during the evacuation. Surely the New Orleanians should have been told where they were going when they were whisked onto the plane to Salt Lake City. Outrageously, adding indignity to their injuries, they were frisked for contraband as they disembarked from the plane.

However, there is much made of the fact that they were initially housed at the National Guard’s Camp Williams instead of a downtown hotel, offered to imply racism on the part of the people of Utah. Though no holiday to be sure, this complaint seems to be a bit of a stretch. Those displaced by Hurricanes are usually temporarily housed in Red Cross or Salvation Army shelters. The permanent facilities of Camp Williams may have actually been better accommodations than those shelters. Military bases were also designated as shelters in Texas during Hurricane Rita, so the experience was not unique to the Utah evacuees.

One of the intriguing aspects of the film that went under-developed was the relationship between the evacuees and the base commander, Col. Scot Olsen. He seems to be a stereotypical hardnosed military man, whose on-camera explanation of the curfew he established makes no sense whatsoever. However, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is often highly critical of the handling of the NOLA residents, seems to be quite sincere when he compliments the Colonel for the rapport he developed with his guests. Understanding those relationships better would have helped put the entire Camp Williams interlude into clearer focus.

Too often the film seems to be more interested in scoring cheap points against Utah in general and Mormons in particular. It seems clear that a handful of man-on-the-street interviews were cherry-picked towards this end. Most problematic is the inclusion of a late middle-age woman whose mental grasp of the situation appears questionable. Her statements can hardly be considered indicative of anyone beyond herself, and her inclusion comes off as exploitative.

Bayou recounts the admittedly embarrassing history of the Mormon Church on racial equality. Again though, it overstates things a tad, labeling Joseph Smith an anti-Abolitionist, when, for what it’s worth, his views evidently evolved to Abolitionism. Bayou also makes much of what the narrator calls the “unorthodox doctrines” of the LDS, but again seems to overstate things when belittling their belief in “continuing revelation” through Church prophets, which does not sound so far removed from Catholic belief in Papal Infallibility (and of course, the Catholic Church has a strong presence New Orleans).

There are some moving scenes with the two primary evacuees profiled, that illustrate the impact the past continues to have on the present. One struggles to overcome his history as an ex-con. The other grapples with drug addiction. Both decide to try to build a new life for their families in Utah, evidently with varying degrees of success. It seems the film grudgingly concedes that maybe the people of Utah are not so bad after all, as 100 of the 600 evacuees decide to put down permanent roots there.

Ultimately, there are too many talking heads in Bayou, and not enough dramatic payoffs with its central characters. It makes some very legitimate complaints, but undermines its integrity as a documentary with its heavy-handed biases. Considering how extensive the Katrina filmography will be, Bayou just seems a little slight, like a padded episode of Frontline, but for those who follow events in New Orleans closely, it opens here in New York at the Village East next Friday (10/5).

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tonolo, Goldstein, Swallow, Motian, and John


Your Songs: The Music of Elton John
Pietro Tonolo, Gil Goldstein, Steve Swallow, Paul Motian
ObliqSound (OS 506)


Timing is critical in jazz, but sometimes it involves factors beyond one’s control. Given the bad publicity Elton John has had this week it might not seem to be the best time to release a set of interpretations of his tunes. However, Pietro Tonolo and his all-star rhythm section have reinvented the material so effectively on Your Songs: the Music of Elton John, it is easy to lose track of the original songwriter, and enjoy the music on its own merits.

With Paul Motian on drums and Steve Swallow on electric bass, time certainly is not a problem for Your Songs. Gil Goldstein might be better known as an arranger with an understanding of pop, having worked with likes of John himself and Chris Botti, but he has also been a well regarded faculty member in NYU’s jazz department. Here he shows a nimble, boppish touch on the piano.

As for the leader, Tonolo’s solos are consistently inventive, as are the arrangements. A song like “Tiny Dancer” unfolds gradually as a rich vehicle for Tonolo’s tenor, exploring the catchy melody without any of the cloyingness that John’s music is susceptible to. When Goldstein shifts to accordion it adds rich texture to the tune.

Of the Elton John songs chosen, perhaps “Rocket Man” is the most recognizable. Wisely, they avoided most of the pop star’s more over-played hits, like “I’m Still Standing” or (Heaven forbid) “Candle in the Wind.” As for “Rocket” it is played fairly straight, but there are interesting solo statements from Tonolo on tenor, Swallow, and Goldstein.

“Your Song,” the sort of title track, has another strong arrangement, with a very effective intro from Swallow, before the full rhythm section falls in. Goldstein takes an elegant turn before Tonolo finally enters on soprano. Throughout, they respect the melody, but give it a distinctly fresh interpretation.

On the ballad “The One,” Motian’s shimmering cymbals and a surprisingly lyrical solo from Tonolo make it a track both John fans and jazz purists could relate to. The following “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is taken as an up-tempo swinger, more for the latter audience.

Your Songs concludes with two “inspired by” originals from Tonolo. “White Street” and the brief “Epilogue: Semifonte” do suggest his talent for composing intriguing melodies, wrapping up things nicely.

Your Songs is the kind of session that demonstrates how one genre of music can feed into another. Tonolo is a former classical violinist, turned jazz saxophonist, recording the songs of a pop star, who now composes for Broadway. Fortunately, it all works. Tonolo and his colleagues seem to have a real affinity for the material, and succeed in putting their own stamp on it.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Jazz Diplomacy


“I’m the real ambassador
It was evident I was sent by government to take your place
All I do is play the blues and meet the people face to face
I’ll explain and make it plain; I represent the human race and don’t pretend to more”


Those were among the lyrics delivered by Louis Armstrong, “Ambassador Satch,” in Dave Brubeck’s original musical The Real Ambassadors. Set against the backdrop of the U.S. State Department’s popular jazz goodwill programs, Armstrong plays one such touring musician, mistaken for an actual bureaucratic Ambassador as represented by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross ( singing lyrics like: “we have followed protocol with absolute propriety, we’re Yankees to the core”).

The obvious implication was a jazz musician could influence many more hearts and minds abroad than a state department functionary. What was true in the 1960’s is true today. Enter the organization American Voices, plugged in this month’s Jazz Times. David Adler’s guest column quotes Dr. Gene Aitken, a jazz instructor for the organization, who had recently conducted clinics in Iraq:

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Aitken exclaims. There were roughly 50 jazz students, ranging from 15 to 50 years of age. “They had barely any previous exposure to jazz,” Aitken says, “but they had a thirst for information, and the progress from day one to the end was tremendous. I’ve never encountered anything as meaningful.”

In February of this year, the group produced workshops and a concert with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, culminating in orchestral performances of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” In JT Ferguson attributes why jazz (about 25% of their programming) has proved such a successful component in their presentations: “People who have close contact with traditional music take to jazz very easily.” Their Unity Performing Arts Academy, at which Aitken taught this July, proved the universal appeal of jazz and other American forms of music, successfully bringing together 300 musicians from around Iraq, including Kurdistan, representing Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians to form a special Unity Orchestra.

American Voices has been active in Afghanistan as well, producing in late 2005 the first concert by American artists in twenty-five years, performing in collaboration with native musicians. Executive director John Ferguson explained to Downbeat magazine: “The musicians we were working with had all gone to Pakistan during the Taliban era because they were chopping off the hands of musicians in Afghanistan.”

One could argue that jazz’s free spirit and democratic nature are also very appealing to a formerly oppressed people. After all, Willis Conover’s jazz program Music USA was by far the most popular programming on Voice of America during the Cold War. American Voices are finding a similar desire for what jazz represents in their current work in the Middle East and beyond.

Clearly, this is an organization worthy of support. In addition to producing clinics and concerts, they also supply local musicians with instruments and charts. Their efforts obviously qualify as good news from Iraq, at a time when many wish to deny any such thing is possible for their own extremist partisan motives. You can support American Voices’ efforts here, and check out some of their work on youtube here.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

K-Ville Blues


The producers of Fox’s K-Ville deserve credit for filming in New Orleans. They certainly could have gone elsewhere, but they made the choice to help stimulate the local economy. However, with that said, based on the first two episodes, one wonders how long those K-Ville film crews will be around (pilot available here or for free download on itunes).

Granted television shows need time to develop their characters and the chemistry between its actors. However, from what was seen in the first two episodes, in K-Ville both are standard, at best. Billed as a hard-hitting crime series informed by the reality of life in post-Katrina NOLA, K-Ville is in actuality, disappointingly generic.

There is much going on in New Orleans that would make for riveting drama. The criminal justice system is in shambles. Recently, Democrat D.A. Eddie Jordan lost his second appeal in a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by former white employees of his office. One experienced forensics expert charged (successfully) that he was replaced by a candidate who “had little experience other than being a lifeguard and doing some office work at a law firm.”

What would have simply been an expensive tab for NOLA taxpayers (Jordan is not personally on the hook for the judgment) has taken on tragic dimensions for the city, as Jordan has proved incapable of prosecuting cases in a timely manner. Under Louisiana criminal codes, the state must file an indictment sixty days after arrest, or kick loose the accused. Under Jordan there were almost 3,000 so-called 701 releases (named for the applicable article of the code) in 2006.

It is not surprising the level of mistrust that has built up between the police and the DA’s office as a result. To make matters worse, drug gangs are relocating to city, recognizing the greener pastures afforded by prosecutorial incompetence. The dramatic possibilities of such a situation are rich. From departmental tensions, to the temptation to extract vigilante justice to circumvent the DA’s revolving prison door, K-Ville has the raw material to make The Shield look like Inspector Gadget.

Instead, K-Ville simply recycles a rogues’ gallery of left wing bogeymen du jour. In the first episode, the greatest danger facing the city is not the proliferation of drug dealers and their attendant turf battles, but a politically connected group of vigilantes obviously based on Blackwater. In episode two, it turns out that actually too many people are going to jail in New Orleans (a flat out insulting contention to New Orleans citizens protesting in hopes of making their streets safer), to provide prison labor for a corrupt warden and, of course, an evil corporation.

Rather than get to the heart of post-Katrina issues, K-Ville has been content in its first two episodes to fall back on tired liberal Hollywood clichés, in effect ignoring the facts on the ground. The direction is actually quite strong, and the production values look high. Dr. John performs on the theme song, which is cool. However, mediocrity would be an ambitious goal based on what has been seen so far. That is a shame. K-Ville is missing an opportunity for some powerful television.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Les Paul: Still Chasing Sound


Les Paul: Chasing Sound
Directed by John Paulson
Koch Vision


Hip New Yorkers look forward to Monday nights. With both teams at 1-2, it’s not for football. Guitar innovator Les Paul has held a long-term Monday night residency at the Iridium, transforming a traditionally slow club night into their busiest (usually) of the week. Profiled as part of PBS’ American Masters series in July, Les Paul: Chasing Sound is now available on DVD, with notable bonus footage.

Paul has worked as a musician of the highest order in jazz, pop, and country genres, but perhaps his greatest contribution was an innovator, pioneering the use of multi-tracking, over-dubbing, and the solid body electric guitar. Paulson’s documentary shows Paul as an amiable artist, enjoying his lofty position as the beloved father of the electric guitar. Reviewing Chasing before it aired I wrote:

"Wisely, Paul is the dominant voice of Chasing, in interview segments and performance clips. We also hear from figures like Gary Giddins, Bucky Pizzarelli, Kay Starr, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, and Johnny Frigo. . . Throughout the film, Paul comes off as a likeable, witty individual. Ultimately, Chasing is as much a tribute to Paul’s continuing longevity, still playing at a highly accomplished level every Monday night at age 92, as it is to his audio innovations. It is well worth catching."

Chasing is still entertaining on second viewing. Paul’s humor and charm come through clearly, even more so when you watch the extensive bonus performance footage, as when he reacts in mock horror when Steve Miller (his god-son) pulls out a Fender (Paul of course is the original designer of Gibson’s solid body Les Paul, called: “by far, the most successful endorsement relationship ever in the history of musical instruments”).

A predictable complaint with docs about musicians at this blog is the frequent lack of complete, unedited musical performances. After all, is not that what their subjects are really all about? The extras here rectify that handsomely, including one of his Iridium sets (celebrating his birthday), featuring an array of guests sitting-in, including a blues with Miller and a very tasty, finger-picking duet with Tommy Emmanuel on “Blue Moon.”

We also see some of the musical features from his television show Les Paul and Mary Ford At Home (1953-1960), sponsored by Listerine (there ought to be another DVD release there, if not a complete set, there should be plenty of highlights to collect). Also of interest are expanded interview segments, covering Paul’s love of jazz, and the reaction to his first electric guitar, which actually occurred during his time with Fred Waring.

The greatest aspect of Chasing is the extent to which it captures Paul’s personality. Most would be happy to be as witty and spry as Paul at 92, let alone have the chops for a weekly gig. Collecting Chasing with a choice Iridium set, archival film footage, and rare film of Paul duets with the likes of Keith Richards and Chet Atkins, makes this great viewing for anyone who ever strummed an electric guitar. After all, they could not have done it without him.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

IFP: Hot Flash


Blues artists usually are not considered good human interest stories by the media, but Saffire—"the Uppity Women of the Blues," were obviously different. They received a lot of attention for being a multi-racial trio of late middle-age women, who happened to be blues musicians. To Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, they were blues musicians first and foremost, who would become one of the top selling acts on his label. Their career trajectory is traced out in Hot Flash, an entertaining a short documentary (39 minutes) screened at IFP, which takes its name from one of Saffire’s best regarded recordings (clip here).

Despite their blues chops, Saffire built a large following outside traditional blues circles, based on their message of empowerment for women. They also have a flare for ribald humor, following in the venerable tradition of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. (If you can’t pick up on what they are singing about in a tune like “Silver Beaver,” I don’t know what to tell you.)

Iglauer signed them simply because he enjoyed their demo, and thought he could do maybe a tad better than break even on their record. It surprised him by becoming a breakout hit (by blues standards). One of the intriguing things about the film is that it comes at a time when their commercial reception is cooling. According to Iglauer, they have cut back on touring due to family concerns, which has had a discernable effect on their sale of CDs. Iglauer frankly states he is unsure if Alligator can continue to record the group. One can hope that the film will generate publicity for Saffire and keep them profitably under contract for some label. As viewers see in the film, they are talented, legit blues artists.

Briskly directed by Sarah Knight, Hot Flash covers a great deal in a short period. My only complaint is one I have with many musical documentaries—there are no complete musical performances shown in their entirety, unedited and not drowned out by off-camera interview subjects. After all, their music is the most important part of their story and at least one full tune would give audiences a feel for attending their shows.

Saffire has a story worth hearing, and Hot Flash tells it with economy and humor. As is the case with Saffire’s music, the film should have an appeal well beyond the traditional blues audience.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sonny Rollins: Celebrating 50 on 57th

A legend took the stage at Carnegie Hall Tuesday night: Sonny Rollins. These days, anytime Rollins performs, it is an event. He was also marking the fiftieth anniversary of his first appearance at Carnegie Hall—although given his remarkable career, he could probably celebrate the anniversary of something notable nearly every week.

In observation of this anniversary, the first set consisted of the tunes he had played fifty years before, in an all-star trio format, with Roy Haynes and Christian McBride. McBride actually acquitted himself well in the company of jazz’s elder statesmen. Rollins has also recently celebrated his 77th birthday (Sept. 7th), and inconceivably the dynamic Haynes is eighty-two. (I’d suggest we all should be doing what Roy Haynes is doing, but drummers have been thinking that for years.)

The trio half of the concert was a showcase for Rollin’s robust tenor sound. The heavy-weight tone he achieved from his celebrated practice sessions on the Williamsburg Bridge remains undiminished. The second set featured his regular sextet with a program of calypsos, emphasizing his unusually strong rhythmic conception on tenor.

If not absolutely transcendent, it was a very satisfying concert with several highlights, particularly when Rollins and Haynes played off each other during the first set. Those who were not packed into Carnegie Hall (at times it seemed like the staff had never managed a sellout crowd before), will be able to hear it later. Rollins recorded the concert and will release it on his Doxie label.

Throughout the night, the crowd could not wait to give him standing ovations. At one point Rollins said words to the effect that asking for fifty more years might be pushing it, but he intends to keep performing for a least another twenty. That sounded good to us.

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IFP: Frontrunners


Alexander Payne’s 1999 film Election squared frighteningly well with my experiences with high school student senate elections. As there will never be a shortage of ambitious kids, student government elections will continue to supply drama of the big-fish-in-a-small-pond variety, as demonstrated in the IFP screened documentary, Frontrunners (trailer here).

Frontrunners chronicles a recent student union election at Stuyvesant, New York’s elite public high school for the gifted and talented. Evidently, Stuy turns the election intensity up to eleven, with primaries, student newspaper endorsements, and a televised debate.

It is pretty compelling to see the young leaders map out their campaigns, trying to find the right ethnic and gender balances for their tickets, testing campaign themes and putting together GOTV efforts. Most of the candidates are clearly talented, putting to shame the weak field of candidates my school had to offer (present blogger included).

Frontrunners also, perhaps unintentionally, answers the question of where biased journalists come from. WE see an editorial meeting of the school paper, in which staff start the meeting by bashing Fox News for being biases, and then proceeding to argue they need not cover any candidates they have not endorsed. They clearly have promising careers a head of them at the New York Times.

Frontrunners at least, fairly balances its coverage of the two candidates who survive the primary. It captures the building suspense of the grueling campaign, and concludes with an interesting hint of emotional ambiguity that has a touch of Redford in The Candidate (but be assured, neither of the two candidates lacked for ideas of what to do once in office). On screening it, I’m glad I was running in a school where I could get by on a smile and a hearty handshake.

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IFP: Satan and Adam

In the October issue of Downbeat, James Blood Ulmer rejects the “Devil Blues” vision of the music, stating: “when I made this record I was trying to make sure that I had the stories I was talking about be pleasing to God. My songs aren’t about the devil at all.” The blues artist born Sterling Magee, who performed under the moniker Mr. Satan obviously tacked a different course. Together with harpist Adam Gussow they formed the biblical duo Satan and Adam, whose careers will be documented in an eponymously titled documentary.

Satan/Magee in his prime was an elemental force who dominated the duo with his sheer energy. However, recent years have been troubled, leaving his continued musical career in question. These episodes have been detailed in articles collected in Gussow’s latest book, Journeyman Blues (reviewed here), following up his hit memoir of life with his fearsome mentor, Mister Satan’s Apprentice. The third act of the film remains to be shot (an extended trailer was screened at IFP, a shorter one can be found here), but Satan and Adam presents great dramatic potential.

Satan and Adam are actually one of the better known blues combos, as a result of Gussow’s books, performances at international festivals, and their original chance breakthrough appearing in U2’s Rattle and Hum, in their full street performance glory. Satan and Adam the documentary ought to find an audience, particularly if it includes a triumphant second coming of Satan (Magee).

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

IFP: Budapest to Gettysburg

Whenever I visit Prague I get the sense that 1968 could have been just yesterday for most Czechs. The memory of the Soviet invasion is so fresh and visceral, it continues to loom over every aspect of public life. I imagine there is a similar feeling for 1956 in Budapest, particularly after screening Budapest to Gettysburg (trailer here) at IFP.

Budapest chronicles internationally recognized historian Gabor Boritt’s reluctant return to his native Hungary, at the prodding of his son, filmmaker Jake Boritt. A professor at Gettysburg College, we see Dr. Boritt’s insights on Lincoln sought out by august company, including the likes of the late Peter Jennings, Karl Rove, and Ken Burns. He is not thrilled with this project, though, preferring to leave his own history safely in the past.

As they visit important sites from the Boritt family’s past, Dr. Boritt starts to warm to the project. Dr. Boritt had lived through tumultuous times, surviving the National Socialist occupation as a young Jewish boy in Budapest, and later participating in the revolution of 1956 as a teen-ager. Some family history remains a mystery though, including details of his father’s role in the resistance to the Nazi occupiers. What is most remarkable is the little reported link between the freedom fighters of 1956 and the words of Abraham Lincoln, which in effect ties together the disparate periods of Boritt’s life.

Despite his protestations, Dr. Boritt’s story is well worth telling. He and his colleagues may not have been successful in 1956, but their efforts would eventually bear fruit. Many observers consider the post-Communist success of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to their legacies of challenging Soviet domination, establishing a tradition of free thinking that would survive all attempts of suppression.

Budapest, screened in its entirety, is finished and ready for distribution. It is a film that should be seen by American students, as it has much to say about the fight for freedom, both in Hungary and on a hallowed battlefield in Pennsylvania.

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IFP: Honeydripper

Juke joints were associated with two things: getting down and getting dead. Blues drenched killings have been immortalized in the lyrics of such classics like “Stagger Lee,” which is in fact heard in John Sayles’ new juke drama Honeydripper (trailer here), which formally opened Independent Film Week Mon. night. As a juke joint drama, it shows both the good times and the undercurrent of potential violence that often accompanied the Devil Blues.

Being a John Sayles film, Honeydripper (named after one such juke) eases into its plot at a leisurely pace. Again, as is often the case with Sayles films, it has a strong sense of place. Set in 1950 Alabama, it presents the trials facing juke owner and former big band pianist Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis, a well meaning family man overwhelmed by his current circumstances. Danny Glover plays Purvis, basically recreating the same character he has played for the last twenty years. In fact, Honeydripper’s biggest fault is the relative weakness of its characterizations. For instance, Stacy Keach’s corrupt sheriff is only a pale shadow of Lone Star’s Kris Kristofferson, a villain who can evidently be bought off with a fried chicken drumstick.

Perhaps the most intriguing character is a mysterious itinerant blues musician played by Keb’ Mo’, whose benevolence or malevolence remains an open question in the film. His appearances are also occasions for some pretty cool solo guitar work from Mo.’

The music of Honeydripper is spot on, capturing the period when the blues was evolving into R&B, which of course would be popularized to white teenagers as rock & roll. In addition to Mo’s tasty solos, there is some impressive work from the emerging Texas blues musician Gary Clark, Jr. as the young new guitar slinger in town. The great Dr. Mabel John also contributes some rocking vocals. John appears to be experiencing a late career renaissance, having also published her first novel late last year (reviewed here).

Honeydripper looks right and sounds great. It may not be perfect, but its blues literacy is readily evident. Unlike many of the films screening this week, it is completely finished and placed with a distributor. Look for it late in the year.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

IFP: Objects and Memory


Marketing professionals can explain the importance of punchy titles. Objects and Memory is pretty pedestrian as far as titles go, but it is oddly appropriate for a film that examines how everyday items took on enormous significance based on their proximity to the World Trade Center on September 11th.

Directors Jonathan Fein and Brian Dantz have crafted a very moving and respectful film. While they focus on the WTC, they also examine relevant examples from the Oklahoma City bombing and the Viet Nam Memorial. There are deeply personal recollections from family members that have not to my knowledge been told elsewhere. When you hear family members explain the meaning of a recovered item, like a wallet or purse, it is poignant. A particularly devastating segment involved a woman actually born on Sept. 11th, whose birthday present was salvaged from the trunk of her husband’s car.

Beautifully filmed with supportive music by Philip Glass and narration by actor Frank Langella, Objects is a film that deserves a wide audience (trailer here). At a time when cynicism about the events of September 11th is being promoted for dubious purposes, Objects reconnects viewers with the personal reality and magnitude of the event, without engaging in any sort of polemics.

The practice of investing spiritual meaning in otherwise commonplace items is well documented in human history—one need only look at the relics collected by the early church. As is abundantly clear in Objects, it is not the combination of wood, glass, or acrylic particles that gives an item its true value, but what humanity adds to it. Screened in its entirety (62 minutes), Objects seemed to have an affect on all in the audience. Well meaning and well crafted, it is a film which ought to reach a wider audience.

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IFP: The Spine Tingler


How can you turn down a screening that offers you a $1,000 insurance policy should you die of fright? Hip viewers will recognize this homage to horror movie director-showman William Castle, and indeed Spine Tingler is a biographical documentary of that Hollywood legend, which was screened in its entirety at IFP yesterday.

Castle is actually fondly remembered by many for his promotional gimmicks, like issuing insurance policies in theater lobbies, or installing electric buzzers in select seats for the Vincent Price film The Tingler. John Goodman’s character in Matinee is almost wholly modeled on Castle, and its director Joe Dante is one of those paying tribute to the master in Spine Tingler. Producer director Jeffrey Schwartz also covers lesser known, but no less colorful incidents, in what was a darn interesting life.

We learn of the early William Castle, who built a successful publicity campaign for a summer stock play by ostensibly standing up to Hitler, when his German émigré leading lady was invited (but hardly expected) to a reunion in Nazi Germany. Throughout his career, Castle did have an eye for the commercial, buying the rights to Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. Due to studio machinations, he would not actually direct the Roman Polanski classic, but it was a William Castle Production.

Schwartz clearly has a love of the material, creating an entertaining looking film, through retro graphics and clever use of vintage film. He was able to obtain clearance for all of the important works in the Castle canon, and had the cooperation of the family and many of those who worked with Castle, including Marcel Marceau. This is a film for film-lovers, not just goofy horror movie cultists, as it captures a unique filmmaker’s love for his craft. It deserves distribution (and it will be screening at the upcoming AFI Film Festival.)

The film is complete (trailer here), except for a little color correction, according to Schwartz (actually, it would have been totally appropriate if someone had turned up in the film with a green head, but it all looked right at the screening). Castle’s films enjoy a revival life, so this film should have a market, and despite the Tingler footage, I obviously did not die of fright (and Mother Spins will not be collecting $1,000), so the uninitiated can safely attend.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

IFP: Talkin’ Water


Katrina related documentaries seem to be an emerging cottage industry. I will not be able to see each one screening at the IFP Marketplace, but the enthusiasm of the filmmakers convinced me to catch Talkin’ Water.

The film producers gave film and cameras to four teen-aged African-American girls, two from New Orleans and two from New York, to film the state of New Orleans environment, and interview everyone who thought they might have something to say.

The “let-the-children-be-our-teachers” approach can be grating, but in this case some fresh perspective from the young filmmakers, who do not seem to be carrying a lot of ideological baggage, is actually welcome. Katrina is undeniably one of the lowest points in the history of American media, with unconfirmed rumors reported as truth. Instead of being embarrassed, the old media has inexplicably seen fit only to congratulate itself.

The four young women are understandably disillusioned with government, and seem to come to the conclusion that they should pursue a more self reliant course. Their youth may also have helped open up some of their interview subjects, as the cut screened shows a particularly emotional encounter with a journalist still living in a FEMA trailer.

Talkin’ Water will have to distinguish itself in a crowded field of Katrina documentaries, but the young filmmakers’ voices will surely help. While many seem to take a didactic tone, pursuing various agendas, the honesty of the young four young women will probably provide a welcome perspective. (In post-production, trailer here.)

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IFP: Predator House

Predator House is a film likely to cause mixed emotions in viewers. The portion screened was fascinating, but I do not know if I want to spend more time with the profiled individuals, for an understandable reason. They are convicted sex offenders.

If nothing else, PH raises alarms over the prison revolving door. Accept for the female subject, as part of their therapy, the four male profiles have copped to fifty to eighty previous victims, before getting caught. However, accept for one individual who also served time for attempted murder, the other four only did two to three years for the sex crime for which they were convicted.

The movie is pretty clear on one point, like it or not, they are getting out and they have to be put somewhere. For reasons that are not fully explained in the market cut, the owner of a Spokane apartment building has agreed to house fifty-five such ex-cons. She certainly sounds tough though. The landlord, the State Department of Corrections, and the parole officers cooperated in the filming, making PH the first film crew to film there, aside from foreign news crews (which have been allowed in the past). According to the filmmakers, they frequently act as a corrective to when the subjects try to spin certain issues in their horrific careers.

PH certainly has a true crime appeal, and would be an excellent fit for HBO’s documentary series. The commitment and execution are definitely there, but one wonders how they could spend three years with such an assembled cast of characters. (Predator House is in post-production. Trailer here.)

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IFP: Natural Soul Brother

The IFP Market and filmmakers’ conference kicked off yesterday, and today marked the beginning of screenings for a slate of documentaries from hopeful filmmakers. Most are in various stages of production or post-production. Even those screening in their entirety are presumably subject to revision once picked up for distribution. Most films are represented in ten to twenty minute rough cut extracts. Therefore, full reviews would not be appropriate, but for some, it is enough to suggest the filmmakers are at least on the right track.

Natural Soul Brother was one of the first to screen, and indeed looked to be on the right track. Natural tells the stories of the early African-American disk jockeys who championed R&B, and in the process revolutionized American popular music. Many became huge local celebrities, and many became larger than life personalities, like former minister turned D.J. Al Benson, who figures prominently in the fifteen minute clip. A strong, intriguingly edited presentation, it mixed footage of the original hip D.J.’s with Martin Luther King’s address to the National Radio Announcers’ convention, to underscore the influence the D.J.’s influence.

This is definitely the sort of cultural history that lends itself well to film, and the execution here looks promising, and hopefully one can see it in theaters eventually. (Still in production, but trailer available on website). More IFP reports will be posted tonight.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Brick City Hope

Once, Newark featured a nightlife scene that compared favorably to New York’s, with venues like the Kinney Club, the Boston Plaza, the Alcazar, the Nest Club, and the Manor. Those days are gone. Can Newark pull out of its decades-long economic depression and endemic political corruption? That is the task facing new Mayor Cory Booker, interviewed in the October issue of Vibe. (Ordinarily I leave Jersey blogging to the Cranford Pundit, but I doubt he subscribes.)

Mayor Booker, a Democrat, has some interesting things to say. Interviewer Aliya S. King asks him bluntly about his past support for school vouchers, to which he responded:

“I think every poor child in America should have the freedom to go to whatever school they want to go to. I’m poor? Education is my way out? I need to get the best education. But it’s a pipe dream. It’s not happening in New Jersey. So I’m not expending my energy to fight for vouchers. I am supporting the public school system and charter schools. We have the highest performing charter schools in the nation.”

Such notions have led to friction with the state teacher’s cartel. According to Vibe: “a third of Newark’s 278,000 residents live in poverty, and the murder rate is five times that of New York City.” Why are things so bad for New York, particularly when compared to neighboring New York? King mentions the 1967 riots (which surely did not help), but New York has a long history of rioting, from the 1863 Draft Riots through the 1991 Crown Heights riots, and including most applicably, the 1977 blackout riots.

At times, King provides incomplete or even misleading background. She quotes a Booker critic, one Ras Baraka, identified as a school principal and former city councilman turned out by Booker’s election, saying:

“He’s not just from another city,” says Baraka, “he’s from a different place.” [her italics]

Given the abject corruption of the prior administration, Newark should be looking for a mayor metaphorically coming from a different place. Yet a little context on Baraka would be helpful. He is the son of avowed Marxist poet-activist (and jazz critic) Amiri Baraka, who was a vocal ally of former Mayor Kenneth Gibson, setting the tone for that administration when he wrote: "We will nationalize the city's institutions, as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola." Steve Malanga summarizes the impact of an administration born of such radicalism:

By 1986, after 16 years under Gibson, the city’s unemployment rate had risen nearly 50 percent, its population had continued dropping, it had no movie theaters and only one supermarket left, and only two-thirds of its high school students were earning diplomas.

That the Barakas continue to wield influence in Newark politics should begin to explain why the city’s economic stagnation has been so persistent. Unlike Newark, New York has rebounded from all manner of disasters because it had leadership at key moments. Brick City needs a Giuliani. It may at least have an Ed Koch in Booker, which would be a distinct improvement. Like Koch, Mayor Booker (support for educational choice not withstanding) is a mainstream liberal. He has however put the city’s well-being above ideology, pursuing quality of life crimes and educational reform. Despite Vibe’s thinly cloaked skepticism, Booker’s administration shows early promise, and can only gain from comparison to his predecessors.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians


Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians
By Virginia Waring
University of Illinois Press tradepaper with retrospective CD
0-252-07444-0


Time is relentless. Fred Waring was one of FDR’s favorite bandleaders and a close friend of Pres. Eisenhower. Yet, today he is largely forgotten, despite his enormous success and an influence which extended into America’s kitchens—as in the Waring Blendor. Waring’s third wife and one-time Pennsylvanian Virginia Waring’s biography of her husband, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians attempts to re-establish his place in American music history.

Waring’s band, the Pennsylvanians, tended towards the “sweet” ever since its inception in the 1920’s. However, there were swing elements, perhaps more pronounced early in its history. During those beginning years, Waring periodically rose to the defense of jazz as a genre. In one such statement to the press Waring argued:

“The older forms of music, including those we call the classics, have exhausted themselves and have nothing new to offer. The only hope of future progress lies in the wider application of the rhythmic principles revealed and developed by ‘jazz.’” (p. 93)

In later years Waring would incorporate large choral ensembles into his group, which at the time became tremendously popular. Biographer Waring convincingly argues for the long term influence of Waring’s choral music, particularly bandleader Waring’s methods for ensuring the lyrics be understandable, and his choral music publishing company that is still a going concern. However, Waring’s music now seems to fall between genre crevices, too sweet for swing, and too big band for easy listening. Waring also hired auxiliary Pennsylvanians, including classical pianist Virginia Waring (then Morley) and for a time the Les Paul trio (which argues for more jazz cred, but fans will be disappointed that biographer Waring did not write more on Paul’s stint with the outfit).

In addition to being a musical leader, Waring was an entrepreneur and civic activist. In the 1960’s he hired African-American vocalist Frank Davis, and faced the opposition one would expect on tours south of the Mason-Dixon. He did not invent the blender, but perfected and largely financed the Waring Blendor, which bears his name. That venture would ultimately end in litigation. According to biographer Waring:

“And so the royalty payments rolled in for some thirty years until the mid-seventies, when suddenly the quarterly checks did not arrive. The parent company—Dynamic Corporation of America—went into Chapter Eleven bankruptcy, and was using its profits from its little subsidiary, Waring Products, to pay off creditors.” (p. 151)

Waring was also a proud Republican, and a friend and enthusiastic supporter of President Eisenhower. Waring extracts a journalist’s account of Waring leading Gen. Eisenhower and the campaign contingent travelling with him in a late night sessions of songs, concluding with The Lord’s Prayer, that actually reveals much about the private Ike. However, Waring’s independent streak also led to conflicts with unions. On his General Electric television show, he discovered he had to pay for a union designated handler to move his rocking chair. Waring quotes Waring:

“That was the gimmick. They’d hired a chair mover, a union man, whose job it was to keep that chair where it was comfortable for me, but I had to pay his salary.” (p. 234)

Waring represents Waring well. We get a little too much about life with Fred, but there is some great material in the book. His early professional correspondence sounds Runyonesque and his salad years on network radio and television encompass some very telling anecdotes. While his music may sound dated to some, his life makes for fascinating reading.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Angels in the Dust


Ninety-four minutes on AIDS in Africa might sound like a Bono-Jesse Helms-style guilt trip. Frankly, that is part of what Angels in the Dust is (trailer here), passing along buzz-killing information like: “By the year 2010, 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa will be infected with the disease and 40 million children will be orphaned.” Fortunately, Louise Hogart’s new documentary is more than a well-intentioned power-point presentation of factoids. It actually introduces the audience to some people making a difference.

Marion Cloete and her loyal husband Con opened Botshabelo (now called Boikarabelo), a home and school for AIDS orphans one hundred miles north of Johannesburg. If one were casting a Hollywood version of the Cloetes you might think Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. Marion Cloete, a self-described activist, was the prime mover behind their orphans’ village, enlisting her husband and their two daughters into her labor of love.

While nothing particularly out of the ordinary for the Cloetes is documented in Angels, the stories told by the children are absolutely harrowing by any standards. Many had suffered from rape and violent crime, in addition to contracting HIV/AIDS. For her part, Cloete is a remarkably comforting presence in their lives. She resembles everyone’s favorite elementary school teacher, but she is tough too.

Cloete can be blunt. Soon after ministering to a man suffering with AIDS, she charts his destructive wake, saying: “as his partners die, he moves on. He’s a serial killer.” The audience also sees she is not afraid to call out an abusive and neglectful mother. Refreshingly though, Cloete is sensitive enough to send the cameras away at certain moments, putting empathy above ego.

If there is anyone who truly incurs the wrath of Marion Cloethe, it is Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the ANC’s Minister of Health. She has been the flashpoint for criticism of the Mbeki administration’s AIDS policy, which has only recently, and begrudgingly, accepted the link between HIV and AIDS. Dr. Manto is also infamous for having more enthusiasm for her nutritional prescriptions over anti-retro viruses (AVR’s) as treatment for AIDS. Cloethe complains: “olive oil, beet-root and cabbage and garlic . . . if we had followed this regimen [their student] Virginia would have been dead by now.”

While not perfectly paced, Angels is a compelling film. Director Hogarth does not bring much in the way of a distinct visual style, opting instead for a simple reportorial approach. She does effectively capture the personalities of her subjects. The film is also notable for its soundtrack, which includes original songs by Simphiwe Dana, a South African vocalist who blends aspects of afro-pop, R&B, and nu-jazz. (At least the cool music in Angels can count as fun.)

Angels is definitely an advocacy film, but it is actually not overly politicized, instead maintaining a focus on the human drama of the Cloetes and their charges. It opens in New York this Friday at the City Cinema Village East.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lest We Forget


It has been only six years since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, but many in the creative community seem determined to forget, obscure, and deny the lessons of that event. Lest we forget, the jazz community suffered real losses that day, including one of its own. Betty Farmer, a one-time jazz vocalist working for Cantor Fitzgerald was killed that day. She started her singing career in the cradle of jazz, her hometown of New Orleans, and eventually performed with Duke Ellington. According to the New York Times’ “Portrait of Grief,” she was in the process of re-launching her performing career.

The jazz community also suffered severe economic losses as a result of 9-11. Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation often speaks eloquently about the number of gigs that either dried up completely, or went from paid gigs to tip-jar gigs here in the City. Charles Lloyd played a free stand at the Blue Note in an effort to encourage patrons to return to the clubs.

Make no mistake, creative artists—including jazz musicians, were attacked on September 11, 2001. For those who question whether that threat to creative expression continues, look to recent events in the Middle East. Vendors of music CDs and cassettes are literally under siege in Pakistan. Last month three Pakistani CD and video stores were bombed by Islamic extremists. Why? Music is deemed an “un-Islamic business” by Islamic-Fascists (and “entertaining female customers” is also frowned upon).

This was not a response to Iraq or Israel or any other tortured justification. It is simply another manifestation of an ideology of hate, the same motivation for the murder of 3,000 individual human beings at the World Trade Center (as Karol will be reminding people today). Therefore, we all have a stake in fighting Islamic extremist terrorists, especially musicians and other creative artists.

Today is a day to reflect and remember. We mourn the loss of Ms. Farmer and all who were senselessly murdered that day. We pray that their family and friends can find a measure of solace. Let us remember them throughout the year, and not just this day.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Fantasy


Fantasy
By the Bill Mays Inventions Trio
Palmetto Records


It is a bit surprising to see a list of the film and television scores Bill Mays has played on, including the diverse likes of Adaptation, Interview with a Vampire, and Dallas. Despite this obvious flexibility, Mays’ own recordings as a leader reside primarily in the traditional jazz realm of piano trio. As a composer though, he has penned some extended suites for varied instrumental aggregations, and now a three movement suite for his new chamber jazz group, the Inventions Trio, as featured on his new release Fantasy.

The Inventions Trio consists of Mays on piano, Marvin Stamm on trumpet (and flugelhorn), and Alisa Horn on cello. The presence of Stamm’s polished trumpet tones is particularly logical. In addition to being a longtime friend of Mays, Stamm has long shown a facility for challenging arrangements. His Verve LP Machinations featured the arrangements of Johnny Carisi (and ought to be available on CD). With Horn as the Invention Trio, they display a bright, clear sound on a program consisting primarily of classical composers and Mays’ original suite.

Fantasy begins with “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” one of four duets with Stamm recorded in 2001 prior to the formation of the trio. It has a light, swinging approach appropriate to such a frothy standard. It establishes a nice dramatic contrast with the following “Vocalise.” Here, Horn’s cello brings out darker hues, blending nicely into the trio.

The longest cuts on Fantasy are the three movements of the eponymous suite. The first movement begins with Horn, and indeed much of its sound is defined by the cello, as when a passage of insistent bowing marks a turbulent mood swing around 5:05, before Mays piano comes swinging out of it. Although Horn has much less experience as an improviser, she interacts well with her colleagues. The second movement has an overall more contemplative feeling, largely voiced by Stamm’s plaintive tones. The third movement maintains that vibe until about the three minute mark, when Mays and Stamm cut loose and Horn follows with some legit jazz phrasing of her own.

The highlight of Fantasy is actually the final duo track, a medley of Bach’s “Invention #8” and Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha.” It is a surprisingly natural pairing, with Parker’s standard lending itself to a classically oriented chamber interpretation remarkably well. It also features short, but rousing solos from Mays and Stamm in a pleasingly upbeat conclusion.

Although Fantasy might have benefited from more contrasts within its set, it is an undeniably strong venture into chamber jazz. The trio plays effectively as a unit, approaching the material with the respect of classical musicians, but showing the improvising chops of jazz artists.

(Note: Bill Mays and the Invention Trio will be playing Wed. at St. Peter’s 1:00 Midtown Jazz, and at the Kitano Fri. and Sat. nights.)

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Work: Musician


Being a jazz musician is hard work. If you did not know that already, Daniel Krause’s new documentary Musician (clip here) will make it clear to you. If you see it at Two Boots’ Pioneer Cinema in the next five days, you will also get to hear a solo set from its protagonist: Ken Vandermark.

According to the Chicago based reed player, seven consecutive solo sets is an unusual stand for him, but as is amply demonstrated in the film, Vandermark is a road warrior, who probably would not turn down any doable gig. Thursday night his pre-film set consisted of two free improvisations on clarinet, and two pieces for tenor, including “Waltz for Monk” which was freshly composed as of that morning. With a fittingly loping rhythm, “Waltz” shows Vandermark’s prolific talent as a composer. In the Q&A following, Vandermark spoke of trying to build an audience in rock clubs. Despite what could be called avant-garde inclinations, one can see his appeal to that demographic, given his passionate style and penchant for tonguing and various dramatic effects.

As for the film itself, it certainly rang true to what I have been told about the business side of a jazz musician’s life. Krause arguably makes a pacing mistake by starting with an extended look at Vandermark’s composing process. Once we start to see him interacting more with musicians and professional colleagues, the film picks up dramatically. Vandermark seems to be a naturally reserved person, but as the film progresses, his sense of humor starts to emerge. Clocking in at 52 minutes, Musician also gives neophyte viewers a manageable sampling of contemporary avant-garde jazz through clips of Vandermark’s performances.

Through Musician, the audience gets to share the joy of booking gigs. You will see Vandermark pay one sideman a dollar extra for driving. You will start to understand how much fun load-in can be. I have yet to hear a musician speak a kind word about Canadian customs, and Vandermark’s band experiences the requisite hassles to be faced by a car full of musicians trying to cross the northern border. From my limited perspective, the film is pretty much spot on.

Musician is part of Krause’s Work series of documentaries based on interesting occupations—sort of a modern cinematic equivalent of Studs Terkel’s Working. He has a good cinematic eye and captured many telling moments. The double feature of Vandermark and Vandermark continues at the Pioneer through Sept. 11th.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Celia Media


The cast of Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz had their press day yesterday in their new home, the second theater of New World Stages, the Off-Broadway theater complex. After a previously announced opening of September 12th, it is now set to officially launch September 26th. Coincidently, that debut will also mark the opening of the Smithsonian’s traveling Celia Cruz ¡Azúcar! exhibit at the Museo Alameda in San Antonio, the next leg of its tour. Cruz’s life and legacy look to be well remembered in 2007, just over five years after her death.

The set backdrop used for the event clearly evokes the Old Colonial Spanish architecture of Havana. As for the lead, Xiomara Laugart Sanchez looks well cast as Cruz. Celia will only have two English language performances each week—Saturdays at 5:00 and Sundays at 7:00. During the media session some reporters expressed surprise that there would be any English performances (which seemed odd, given that their interviews were in English). At one point Sanchez spoke of music having no country, and indeed, the music will be the crucial factor in making Celia a success. The fact that Latin music veteran Isidro Infante (who has worked with legends like Cruz, Tito Puente, and the great Machito) serves as musical director is a good sign. Celia’s band also includes former Cruz sideman Luisito Quintero, and Robert Quintero, who has played with the Caribbean Jazz Project. The appearances of Puente and Johnny Pacheco as minor characters are also encouraging factors.

The other crucial test for Celia will be its handling of her years in exile as a result of the rise of Castro’s dictatorship. Perhaps more than any other artist she represented the greatness of Cuba’s musical heritage, no longer welcome in its native land. Paquito D’Rivera devotes a full chapter to her importance in his memoir, writing:

“Celia was one of those special artists, who even away from her homeland became, without realizing it, the person most representative of Cuban national character, with all of its virtues and none of its vices. She tore down all types of racial and generational barriers and transcended all musical, political, sexual, and religious prejudices.” (p. 336-337)

With persistent rumors swirling about Castro’s health, it would be a fitting historical irony if Celia’s opening coincided with the death of the dictator. Regardless, Cruz was a true icon, deserving of a lavish stage tribute.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Tale of God’s Will


A Tale of God’s Will (a Requiem for Katrina)
By Terence Blanchard
Blue Note


Much has already been written and said about New Orleans and Katrina, the nature of which runs the gamut from the inspiring to the ugly. By their nature, words are an imprecise, imperfect method of communication. Terence Blanchard’s Katrina-inspired themes from his soundtrack to Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke documentary, re-orchestrated and re-recorded on A Tale of God’s Will, demonstrate the advantage music holds in speaking directly to listeners’ emotions.

Even before Katrina, New Orleans was a city haunted by ghosts, and Blanchard gives those ghosts their say throughout Tale, starting with “Ghost of Congo Square,” known as the site of the Sunday celebrations of the slave population of New Orleans, but also as Blanchard writes in the liner notes: “where they displayed the severed heads of men who revolted against slavery.” It is a fittingly percussion heavy track, with the musicians chanting “this is a tale of God’s will.” Later, Blanchard’s trumpet speaks for the ghost of Hurricane Betsy (at the time the worst American storm of record, killing 76 Louisianans in 1976) and Brice Winston’s tenor animates the ghost of the flood of 1927 (still considered the worst in American history and inspiration for blues from Charlie Patton and others) in short interludes.

The meat of Tale consists of Blanchard’s adapted themes and contributions from his quintet, which fit together well, sounding like pieces of a unified whole. With “Levees” Blanchard expresses the calm before the storm through his mournful trumpet, in a piece that becomes increasingly darker and more turbulent. “Wading Through” speaks to the aftermath, introducing some motifs that reoccur throughout Tale, featuring pianist Aaron Parks.

“Ashé” may be the most hopefully note of Tale. Inspired by a Yoruban blessing, the beautiful composition by Parks is a stirring showcase for Blanchard’s rich trumpet sound. As on most tracks on Tale, “Ashé” is fully orchestrated for the strings of the Northwest Sinfonia, giving the session a lush sound, befitting its soundtrack origins, but in this case, not overwhelming the instrumental soloist.

Bassist Derrick Hodge’s “Over There” echoes Blanchard’s themes, with sweeping strings framing Blanchard’s burnished trumpet tones. Blanchard’s “Funeral Dirge” departs from New Orleans tradition somewhat, portraying the somber procession to the cemetery, but foregoing the joyous return. Tale concludes with Blanchard’s very personal “Dear Mom,” composed for his mother’s return to her flooded home as filmed for Lee’s documentary. Of all the tracks, it might be the most symphonic, with the strings coming into the forefront, nearly eclipsing Blanchard’s expression of loss.

Blanchard has been outspoken in recent interviews, expressing anger and resentment, but there is little rage in Tale. There is sorrow and grief, and occasionally a glimmer of hope in a rich program of music.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Granz and Mili: Improvisation


Norman Granz Presents Improvisation
Directed by Gjon Mili
Eagle Eye Media


Albanian Gjon Mili was an accomplished still photographer for Life magazine, so revered in Albanian-speaking regions, that in recent years a school for photography in Kosovo would be named in his honor. Mili also filmed what many regard as the greatest jazz film ever made—the 1944 Warner Brothers short Jammin’ the Blues, which would be nominated for a short film Academy Award. Six years later Mili and his collaborator, producer Norman Granz shot footage for a sequel that was assumed lost for years. It has been collected with Jammin’ and other Granz-produced concert footage of note in the new 2-DVD set Improvisation.

Improvisation is a historic film for several reasons, not the least being a sequel to Jammin’ the Blues. It also contains some of the only existing film footage of Charlie Parker in performance, which takes on added significance as his only recorded musical meeting with Coleman Hawkins (at least that we currently know of). One factor complicating the release of Improvisation was the difficulty of synching the film with the audio. Improvisation was shot in Mili’s photo studio, which was not sound-proofed. This required the audio track to be laid down in a separate studio, prior to the filming. As a result, there is a certain roughness to Improvisation. Mili never edited a final cut, so his ultimate vision remains unknown. However, Improvisation faithfully collects and collates his images with the fantastic recorded music, perhaps not seamlessly, but the overall effect does not distract from the music.

The music itself is amazing. Clocking in around fifteen minutes, the restored Mili sequence features the likes of Parker, Hawkins, Hank Jones, Lester Young, Bill Harris, Ray Brown, Buddy Rich, Flip Philips, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Ella Fitzgerald. It starts with Jones’ lovely intro to “Ballade” (also used over the DVD menu) before Hawkins full-bodied tenor enters, caressing the melody before handing off to Bird. Hawk and Bird were actually a natural pairing, as Hawkins was evolving towards something much like bebop just as Parker burst forth onto the scene with his innovative approach. One can see the regard Bird has for Hawkins in Mili’s video. In fact, this rare footage does much to humanize Parker, too often mythologized for his extremes. Here, Mili’s camera captures his sensitivity and his enjoyment of his colleagues and their music.

Young and Edison are the two returning musicians from Jammin,’ getting their say on “Pennies from Heaven” and “Blues for Greasy.” Again, Improvisation can stake a claim to history, showcasing the titans of the hot and cool schools of tenor sax, with Hawkins and Young, respectively.

Of the additional performances on disk one, the Ellington is particularly noteworthy. “Blues for Joan Miro” was improvised for the Spanish artist at the Fondation Maeght Museum amidst a exhibition of the artist’s sculptures. With Sam Woodyard on drums and John Lamb on bass, the maestro demonstrates a rhythmic, percussive keyboard attack which might surprise some. Ellington never ceases to amaze.

The second disk contains silent rush footage and stills of the session by photographer Paul Nodler, giving further depth and context to the Mili sequence. The highlight of disk two though, unquestionably is the original Jammin’ the Blues. It hardly needs reviewing. The opening shot of Young’s porkpie hat should give chills to any jazz lover. It is also notable for a smoky rendition of “Sunny Side of the Street,” from Marie Bryant, a vocalist then in-between a stint with Ellington and an extended European sojourn, who should have been recorded much more than she was.

In Improvisation, two of Mili’s three short films are collected. (The third Jammin’ for Mili featured the Dave Brubeck quartet.) As such it is of historical importance. It takes on added significance as a rare document of Charlie Parker in live performance. The additional live footage of Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass are no small value-added bonuses. Improvisation is a heck of a collection, continuing Granz’s mission of presenting the improvised music with respect for the improvising artists.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Surveying a Flood of Katrina Ink

Much has been written on the second anniversary of Katrina and the quality varies widely. Some of the best comes from Daniel Rothschild in his series of Myths of Hurricane Katrina for Reason. The first myth is the one the Democrat candidates were in town peddling: the purported lack of federal money. Rothschild writes:

“The federal government has already allocated a substantial amount of money to Gulf Coast reconstruction. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as of July 2007 the federal government had appropriated $94.8 billion for Katrina recovery. Congress has allowed the National Flood Insurance Program to borrow another $17 billion from the government to cover the deficit it racked up paying out Katrina claims. The federal government has also created $16 billion in targeted tax breaks through Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone credits and other programs.

So it's not a lack of funding that's the problem. It's spending the money. Under existing laws, FEMA can't simply write checks to Katrina victims. Some recipients would undoubtedly squander their funds, and there would be widespread fraud. This isn't idle speculation. According to the Government Accountability Office, immediately after Katrina hit, about a billion dollars of emergency aid—16 percent of the total—was lost to fraudulent claims. Even legitimately obtained pre-paid debit cards given to aid Katrina's victims were used to buy champagne, guns, tattoos, and porn.”

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with what those debit cards were used to buy (whatever helps them get by) and the guns in particular seem like a wise purchase, given the explosion of crime in post-Katrina NOLA. However, Rothschild’s overall point is taken.

Rothschild’s third myth is that “the Gulf Coast is suffering from a lack of leadership.” It turns out this is true only by the media’s definition of leadership—namely political and governmental leadership, which is also the case for nearly every region of the country. One example of innovative leadership cited by Rothschild came from, yes, that’s right, Wal-Mart:

“In Waveland, Mississippi, for example, the manager of the local Wal-Mart worked with the company's corporate officials to open a store under a tent in the parking lot, then later opened a convenient, easily accessible ‘Wal-Mart Express’-the first-ever store of its type-designed especially for post-Katrina Mississippi. Such creativity and on-the-fly adaptation and innovation on-the-fly would have been inconceivable from FEMA, which kept physicians from treating wounded evacuees because they weren't registered with the federal government, and kept firefighters away from those in need until they completed sexual harassment training, and courses on FEMA's history.”

There have been many non-profits active in NOLA taking direct action on a personal level to improve the situation. Organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America, the Stephen Spring Foundation, Tipitina’s Foundation, and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic have done heroic work responding to the needs of NOLA’s musicians. To see this myth of leadership being inextricably tied to governmental authority, one look no further than Larry Blumenfeld piece for Salon. At one point he writes indignantly:

“Republican Rep. Lindsay Hunter took that citizen-action theme one rather disturbing step further. ‘Government is inept,’ he said. ‘Bureaucracies are inept I see a great future for New Orleans based not on what government does for people but what free people do for themselves.’ . . . Moments later, discussing the problems with police protection, Hunter said frankly, ‘To the people of New Orleans, I have to say that’s a local issue. I can’t help you with that.”

Strictly speaking, Rep. Hunter is correct. Whether Blumenfeld likes it or not, we have a federal system of government. Crime is a local issue. Short of declaring martial law, the federal government can only do so much to fight crime, especially on a regional basis. However, the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas makes the following recommendation to Pres. Bush:

“In his speech in New Orleans this week, Bush should say he’s ready to ask Congress for $500 million for the city’s police and prosecutorial forces over two years—but only if Nagin and Jordan make it their No. 1 priority to enforce the law rationally. And only if the city works with the feds to tie the money to measurable results, starting with rational arrests for offenses from quality-of-life infractions to homicide, more effective prosecutions and sentencings—and, ultimately, fewer crimes.

It’s an enduring mystery why Bush hasn’t used Katrina to show the world that America can rebuild a major city using bedrock conservative principles: law and order first.”

For Blumenfeld and others decrying a lack of “leadership,” would such an initiative be welcomed or seen as federal micro-managing? One article that recognized leadership need not have a government honorific attached to its name appeared in the Columbia City Paper. Magdalene Kellett pays tribute to average citizens showing real leadership, including the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund:

“As the fund grew, more people gave and other items were donated to victims including furniture and refurbished instruments. NOMRF has also helped supply high school marching bands with instruments. Anybody who has spent anytime in New Orleans knows the amazing talent these kids have.”

One often gets the feeling that those bemoaning a lack of “leadership” and demanding more spending really do no want things to get better in New Orleans. They prefer to have the city in a state of perpetual martyrdom, using overheated rhetoric designed not to build consensus, but cleave divisions. That’s why pieces like Rothschild’s are refreshing. It is always good to stop and survey the situation from a fresh, dispassionate perspective.

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