J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, February 29, 2008

City of Men

While the Cristo Redentor physically looks down over Rio de Janeiro, it might seem at times as though no higher power watches over the city. Last year, Jason Kohn’s documentary Manda Bala captured bizarre and disturbing of a city which had all but surrendered to street crime. City of Men (trailer here), the latest installment of producer Fernando Meirelles’ hyper-realistic series on life in Brazilian shanty-towns, paints a more personal portrait, depicting an even starker reality for the children of Rio.

Following the previous film City of God and the Brazilian television series also titled City of Men, the film picks up on the lives of Ace and Wallace as they come of age in the favela shanty on Dead End Hill. Do not confuse them with the Dead End Kids or the Bowery Boys. Coming of age on their Hill involves dodging gunfire more than maturing emotionally. That they have nearly lived to see their eighteenth birthdays as the film opens is no small feat.

Life is cheap on Dead End Hill and becoming ever more so thanks to an erupting gang war. Ace and Wallace have been able to maintain a neutral non-combatant status, but the complex web of personal relationships on the Hill threatens to draw them into the conflict.

Kids die in this film. As a result it might be disturbing viewing for some parents. However, the film actually has much to say about parenting, as Ace comes to grips with fatherhood (almost certainly prematurely), while Wallace sets out to find his long absent, ex-convict father.

Tragedy begets tragedy in City of Men, as the cycle of violence threatens take on Shakespearean dimensions, with the sins of the fathers intruding into the lives of their sons. Yet despite the apparent nihilism of life on Dead End Hill, there is very definitely a moral center to the film. Indeed, it is aptly titled, as it explicitly addresses the responsibilities of fatherhood and manhood.

Although the stories of Men and God are fictional, the actors came from Rio’s favelas. One might argue Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha as Ace and Wallace respectively, are simply playing themselves, but they both exhibit a dynamic screen presence. Director Paulo Mirelli, a veteran of the television incarnation, has a compelling visual sense, aided and abetted by composer Antonio Pinto’s gentle Brazilian rhythms, often sounding eerily anachronistic over the landscape of urban violence and blight.

City of Men might be too raw for some viewers in its brutal depictions of teens and even pre-teens engaged in stone cold killing. By now, you probably have a good idea if this is a film for you. It is intense and gripping—highly recommended to those who would not be deterred by the prospect of some very realistic street violence, because that bloodshed serves an artistic purpose. It opens today in New York at the Angelika.

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Stew’s Rock Musical: Passing Strange

The image of a journeyman musician carrying a guitar down that lonesome road still has resonance in our collective unconscious. That archetype is part of what is at work in Passing Strange, a new rock ‘n’ roll musical (no joke), which opened at the Belasco tonight, after a successful Off-Broadway run at the Public last year.

Strange is the semi-autobiographical creation of the single-named Stew (at one time Mark Stewart), the show’s narrator, guitarist, bandleader, book and lyric writer, and co-composer/co-orchestrator with bassist Heidi Rodewald. Although Stew has an understudy listed in the program, it is difficult to imagine the show without him driving the band, and that band is truly front-and-center in Strange. There is something aesthetically pleasing about seeing the instruments prominently up on stage when you enter the theater. (Although Stew has not had much to say about other musicals in interviews, appropriately he did tell the NY Times Magazine he “loved Chicago,” another show with the band up out of the pit and visible on the stage.)

The story is basically a variation on the on-the-road tale. The simply named Youth, feeling constricted by his lower middle class Los Angeles upbringing, sets out on a journey to find “the real.” Yet it is not clear whether the aspiring songwriter really wants to find it, preferring the excesses of a bohemian lifestyle in Amsterdam and the hipster pretensions of Berlin. His expatriate voyage unfolds on an austere stage amid Stew’s band and a few plain chairs, augmented by the flash of a light wall designed by Kevin Adams and David Korins, which definitely heightens the rock ‘n’ roll ambiance.

It might be a simple story, but Stew has penned some sharp, incisive lines. At times the book is quite clever, as when the Youth has an epiphany regarding the connection between the African-American Church and rock music (both come from a blues source, feature call-and-response and so forth.). It also savagely satirizes the self-important leftist performance art of the Berliners. However, there was about one too many of those performance art numbers, as the Berlin interlude drags a little.

Stew’s book challenges the audience’s expectations in shrewd ways, frankly addressing issues of personal identity, and authenticity in race, sex, and art (hence the confusing title). When the Youth adopts a militant Black Power persona to impress the Berlin artists’ collective, his role-playing is undercut by Stew’s narration: “Nobody in this play knows what it’s like to hustle for dimes on the mean streets of South Central.” Ultimately, it casts a critical eye on the Youth’s expatriate wanderings, perhaps suggesting he may have missed “the real” he had been looking for all along by turning his back on his home and mother.

Daniel Breaker is convincing enough as the somewhat immature Youth, and Eisa Davis gives a powerful performance as his mother, but it is really Stew’s show. Together with Rodewald, Christian Gibbs on drums, and Jon Spurney and Christian Cassan both doubling on guitar and keyboards, they rock the house, far more than previous so-called “rock musicals.” Their performances definitely sound in-the-moment, with even some improvisation reflecting the evening’s vibe. Over all, it is a strong score featuring two standout showstoppers in “Amsterdam” and “Keys” as well as effective recurring riffs like, “just when it was starting to feel real,” which tie the music and drama together nicely.

It is great to see and hear something legitimately new on Broadway. While the second act does not quite have the zip of the first, it does deliver some unexpected honesty, which is always worth seeing on stage. Passing Strange might not exactly be a Disney show—remember a good part of the first act takes place in the Amsterdam where the expats hang—but it has real energy. The music of Stew and Rodewald could actually produce Broadway’s first legitimate breakout chart hit in years. It is a brisk change of pace from the old warhorses anchored in many Broadway theaters that deserves a strong run.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Passing Strange



Today's post, a review of the new Broadway show Passing Strange, will actually go up late tonight after the official opening. Look for it then.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

New York Jazz, Sans Cover

Great jazz without a cover charge—what a concept. You will not find it in the major clubs, but many other venues in New York really do feature jazz artists with national reputations, on regular nights, without cover charges. Of course, they will still expect you to order a drink.

Let’s start with my good neighbor, guitarist Larry Corban. Every Tuesday night from 9:00-12:00, you can hear him as part of a great jazz guitar trio with Mike Heady on drums and Mike Noordzy on bass at Whiskey Town (29 E. 3rd St.). These guys obviously enjoy playing together. Their sets are relaxed and swinging, making this a great late evening hang. The people at Whiskey Town are friendly, the drinks are reasonable, and I have never had a problem finding a seat at the bar. Again, no cover.

When Eri Yamamoto is not literally touring the world, you can hear her every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 7:00-10:00 at Arthur’s Tavern (57 Grove Street). Arthur’s is not exactly a well kept secret. You might have to fight for a seat around the piano, but it is the effort, because Eri Yamamoto is a great musician and a prolific composer. You could hear a world premiere any given night. Most nights the crowd is split, with half listening raptly, and those in front yammering away (but remember—no music charge).

If you find yourself on the Upper Westside and want some steak with your music, check out Roth’s Steakhouse (680 Columbus Avenue). Every Thursday night starting at 8:30, a very funky jazz group including guitarist Bernard Grobman and drummer Cindy Blackman (who has played with just about everyone, including Jackie McLean and Lenny Kravitz) hold court. When I was there two weeks ago, there was a real Cannonball kind of thing going on. By New York standards, the hanger steak is pretty reasonable too.

You can still find venues in New York featuring world class jazz artists without a cover, but they often do not get the word out as well as they should. I have been to these three within the last few months, and have always enjoyed these regular featured performers. When in New York, consider patronizing them, but remember these are no cover gigs, so if a tip-jar comes around, do the right thing.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Third Man

The Third Man
By Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani
ECM Records


Evidently, those feet in the bottom left hand corner are connected to ECM founder Manfred Eicher, producer of many Enrico Rava sessions and Stefano Bollani’s recent solo release. Titled as a tribute to Eicher and in homage to the classic Carol Reed film, Rava and Bollani’s The Third Man may at times summon impressions of film noir, but it is worlds away from Anton Karas’s Viennese zither theme.

Third Man is dramatic in its unadorned simplicity. Rava’s trumpet sounds ethereal throughout, and Bollani’s piano often sounds like scattered raindrops falling on water. Third Man’s late night vibe is consistently arresting, established from the start with “Estate.” Like several tracks on the CD, it shares a similar effect with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, in that even though at times they quicken the tempo (most notably on the briefest track, “In Search of Titina”), with Rava rising to the upper register, the session as a whole still leaves an overall impression of quiet intimacy.

The title track conveys a strong sense of mystery and foreboding. It is the most diffuse of their duets on Third Man. Along with the rhythmically dense “Compari,” it definitely has a film noir feeling, containing the sessions few unsettling notes.

Though one really does not hear the sounds of Austria in Third Man, Brazil is represented with two variations of Jobim’s “Retrato Em Branco Y Preto,” given appropriately impressionistic treatments here. They also play a sensitive rendition of Moacir Santos’s lovely melody “Felipe”

Even though Rava is the senior partner on the session and his trumpet tends to dominate the aural landscape, Bollani offers effective support, and has lovely solos, as on “Birth of a Butterfly” and his original, “Santa Teresa,” for instance. Indeed, the two colleagues display a remarkable rapport, blending into each other seamlessly.

By turns stark and lyrical, Third Man is an elegant musical statement. It makes for richly rewarding listening to hear two great musicians at very different stages of their careers, come together for such a pure sounding session. It is also encouraging to hear Rava, the mentor, in such close collaboration with one of the succeeding generation of Italian jazz artists. After all, we should hope to see a healthy future for jazz everywhere.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Far From Poland

Far From Poland
Directed by Jill Godmilow
Facets Video


Events can radically outstrip a topical documentary. Several of this year’s nominated documentaries for instance, already seem dated. Jill Godmilow’s Far From Poland is a mixed bag of disparate elements, of which many still maintain their resonance years later, even though much of the director’s speculations have since been answered by history.

Godmilow was in Poland, filming a documentary about Polish theater Jerzy Grotowski when Solidarity’s Gdansk strike galvanized the country. Not wanting to bring the wrath of the state down on her host, she resisted the urge to bolt for the shipyard. Instead she finished her film, returned home, and raised money for a documentary on Soldiarity, when low and behold, the Communist Polish government declined to grant her a visa.

Far From Poland is a chronicle of necessity—a documentarian making a film from a distance—hence the title. At its most creative, Far still holds up. The heart and guts of the film are interviews originally printed in Solidarity publications dramatized with actors. Most notable, and downright inspiring, is the sequence with Anna Walentynowicz, the middle-aged crane operator who became the inspiration for the movement when she was unjustly fired by the Communist authorities. (Walentynowicz’s story was also recently dramatized in a bio-drama Strike, and both films essentially agree in their presentation of her life story.)

Godmilow elicits some very effective performances in what is ostensibly a documentary. As Walentynowicz, Ruth Maleczech conveys a sense of the strength and dignity of a woman who endured no end of hardships and exploitation. She creates real drama when recounting an incident when Walentynowicz made a formal complaint against cronyism in the shipyard. Then Maleczech says in the words of Walentynowicz:

“The next day, the foreman took me aside. He said, Anna, there was a phone call. You are asked to report to the office. If you don’t come back, what should be done about your child?”

After rounds of interrogation and imprisonment, Walentynowicz was dismissed from the Lenin Shipyards after thirty years service, to the very day. Yet she would be reinstated. As she says in the interview:

“When the strike broke out, people changed in strange and wonderful ways. People became good instantly on that very first day.”

Just as Walentynowicz was the conscience of the Soldiarity movement, she forms the moral center of Far. Her polar opposite is K-62, a former government censor, who is a little worried about his future employment prospects, given his resume. Godmilow was cocerned actor William Raymond’s hang-dog performance might come across too sympathetic, so in a much debated move, gave his sequences a sitcom-style laugh track. The effect is certainly bizarre.

Godmilow also received the benefit of insight from some Polish friends. Jan Gross gave a particularly lucid explanation of the mediocrity of the Communist government:

“For thirty five years you had a mechanism of selection operating that would promote to higher positions and echelons only people who would unquestionably accept orders from the top and were able to pass them down.”

Whereas, Solidarity attracted the best, because: “All talent was banned from participating in the political system.”

However, Far loses its way when Godmilow inserts her own melodrama into the film. Her much younger boyfriend evidently did not share her fascination with events in Poland. This gets too much screen time. Her fictional dialogues with Castro are also just plain weird.

In some aspects, Far is actually interesting for the ways it is dated. We see Godmilow, an avowed Socialist, watch Michael Harrington try to claim Solidarity for the Socialist movement. Indeed, some of their initial demands would support this contention, but the economic reforms of 1989 undermine those assertions, in retrospect.

Far, again by necessity, ends on something of a downer note in 1984. However, Poland today is a stable democracy, with a relatively free and vital economy. It is important to remember the events that led to such a revolution, and Far is helpful in that respect. At worst, the excesses of the film hold a certain idiosyncratic fascination. At its best, Far gives a voice to the words of Solidarity and provides some clear summaries of the movement’s early history.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar Night Guide

Get ready to be nostalgic for the writers’ strike tonight. Another Academy Awards ceremony is preparing to lumber onto the airwaves. At J.B. Spins, we caution the kids out there about playing Oscar drinking games. Drink for every time someone kisses up to Clooney and you risk blackouts. A drink for every time somebody says something to offend church going, Iraqi Freedom supporting Americans could lead to fatal alcohol poisoning. Better to drink for every time Jon Stewart says something funny—you’ll be stone sober and could safely drive home.

As for the categories, it is the weakest field of nominees seen in years, particularly best score. Frankly, the music was the only aspect of Kite Runner I was not impressed by. Really, how many people have you heard humming the themes from Atonement or Michael Clayton? Grown adults seem insistent on showing their love for Ratatoille, so I expect to follow up its Grammy with a win here.

As for the documentary nominations, could they find a drearier lot of propaganda? In a year with great docs like The Rape of Europa, The Singing Revolution, and Manda Bala, the doc division seems intent on honoring anybody willing to whine about Pres. Bush into a camera. I’ll be pulling for Operation Homecoming, but fully expect the statuette to go to No End in Sight or Taxi to the Dark Side.

Many commentators have complained about the foreign film category this year. I agree 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days was robbed. Ordinarily, a nominee from Israel would have no shot, but as a film designed to weaken Israeli resolve to fight in the face of terror, I predict Beaufort will win out. However, The Counterfeiters is a great film with a decent shot. It might be too challenging for Academy voters if they actually see it, but if they simply vote on capsule reviews, it could win as a Holocaust film. Even though I have not seen Katyn, I am still pulling for it. Andrzej Wajda is a brilliant filmmaker, already an honorary Oscar winner, and Katyn is seen as his masterwork. Will a distributor pick this up already?

I am only making three predictions tonight. Most I hope will be wrong. A final prediction would be that the downward spiraling ratings trend will continue for tonight’s broadcast. With this slate of nominees, there just is not much to root for.

Friday, February 22, 2008

One Night Out of a Fort

The MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight series is well under way, and if you enjoy environmental handwringing, welcome to Nirvana. To say most selections sound a tad PC should not be a controversial statement. The most ridiculous description is given to the short film “Checkpoint/Paso,” which according to the bulletin: “symbolically juxtaposes the former border between East and West Berlin with the new fortification wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.” Just for the record, there happened to be a very real “fortification wall” between East and West Berlin. Evidently, there is no moral distinction for the filmmaker between a democracy trying to keep illegal aliens out and a dictatorship trying to keep its oppressed citizens from escaping to freedom. At least the Fortnight featured one film of serious insight and merit last night.

Both the Communists and the National Socialists tried to kill Garri Urban, but he survived to tell his tale, in a fashion. His son, British filmmaker Stuart Urban was clearly always in awe of his charismatic father, but he never knew the early drama of his father’s life until he wrote his memoirs late in life. With the fall of Communism, the Urbans traveled to scenes from the senior Urban’s past, footage of which became the foundation of Tovarisch: I Am Not Dead (trailer here), the filmmaker son’s documentary about his mysterious father.

Tovarisch means comrade. “No Tovarisch, I am not dead,” were Urban’s words to the Soviet soldier who had shot him in the water as he tried to swim to the then free Romania. He then took a swing at the comrade. It is a great title once you understand the significance.

Urban holds the distinction of being one of the few successful escapees from the Siberian Gulags. He actually made his way to Moscow where he met and romanced the love of his life. Indeed, his life story seems to have been equal parts Great Escape and Doctor Zhivago. Seeing Urban reunited with his great love fifty years later is pretty heavy stuff.

Yet in many ways, Urban’s life remains a mystery. Following his father’s death, filmmaker Urban set out to discover the contents of Garri Urban’s KGB file. He knew his father had been given the file at the former Ukrainian KGB station, because he filmed it happening. However, his father evidently destroyed the documents, and the Ukrainian authorities denied it ever existed. What little he is able to piece together only raises more questions.

Garri Urban’s story might ultimately be unknowable, but it is a fascinating mystery. Along the way, Stuart Urban includes some valuable insight into the realities of the Gulag system in an intriguing blend of family and world history. Tovarisch is a rewarding film that deserves a theatrical release in America. After all, it single-handedly redeemed Documentary Fortnight. At least the MoMA has something cool to look forward to in April: a jazz soundtrack film series.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Red Prometheus

Red Prometheus: Engineering and Dictatorship in East Germany 1945-1990
By Dolores L. Augustine
MIT Press


There used to be a joke to the effect of: “only Communism could make Germans lazy.” Lazy really is not the right word—inefficient or counter-productive would have been more apt. The blame fell squarely on the shoulders of a dictatorial system and those who served it as enforcers. As Dolores Augustine makes clear in Red Prometheus, East Germany’s engineers and technical professionals maintained a high level of professionalism and a resolute work ethic throughout the Communist era, but were consistently undercut by systemic failings beyond their control.

East Germany’s engineers were in a peculiar position. Having largely collaborated with the National Socialists, many were coerced into a kind of temporary servitude in the Soviet Union. Yet, many former collaborators found the Soviets and then the East Germans more than willing to sweep their Nazi history under the rug in return for their loyal service. Augustine explains:

“Due to their Nazi past, they were predisposed to get along tolerably well in the Soviet Union. They were accustomed to being the privileged but politically impotent helpers of a dictatorship, and to putting ethical concerns regarding military research out of mind.” (p. 32)

Once back home, East German engineers were able to lean on a well established professional ethos to maintain their prestige and sense of worth. However, Augustine details how their work was frequently sabotaged by poor planning, shortages of goods and foreign exchange, and in some cases, the deliberate actions of the Soviets themselves. Almost as asides, Augustine reports some fascinating incidences of scarcity in the East, as when: “the central planners allowed all the glue produced in the GDR in one year to be used to create the Venusian landscape for the country’s first science fiction film, The Silent Star.” (p. 228)

The Stasi was not particularly helpful either, although Augustine suggests confidential informants were at times able to use their handlers to address health and safety concerns. Still, there are plenty of horror stories like the case of Werner Hartmann, who championed microelectronics to a leadership intent on misallocating resources elsewhere. According to Augustine:

“Hartmann was scapegoated for failures that he had worked mightily to prevent. Taken into custody several times in 1974-1976, he was relentlessly questioned for days at a time by the Stasi.” (p. 179)

Hartmann was eventually broken, but belated efforts to step up East Germany’s microelectronic industry were doomed to failure. Espionage came to replace innovation as engineers were increasingly called upon to copy smuggled western technology. This caused manifold problems, as Augustine explains:

“First, patent infringements made it difficult to sell [East] German equipment in the West. Second, purely imitative ‘research’ demoralized personnel, whose work was robbed of creativity. Third, the costs and difficulty of copying foreign microelectronic components increased exponentially as miniaturization progressed.” (p. 309-310)

Reading an entire book on East German engineering may sound like a dare, but a film like Frank Beyer’s Trace of Stones illustrates the very real drama of engineering and central planning in the GDR. It was deadly serious. The professional tradition of German engineers often placed the field in an ambiguous position. The East German television tower which graces the book’s cover in many ways symbolizes the ambiguities in Augustine’s study. It was an unqualified success of East German engineering, but Augustine adds: “It should not be forgotten, however, that one of the most important aspects of the tower for its many visitors was the view it afforded of the entire city—including West Berlin.” (p. 212)

In truth, Prometheus does make dense reading, but that should not be considered a criticism of Augustine’s prose. She is actually a good writer, but there is a great deal of information compacted on each page, which requires some unpacking on the reader’s part. There is also, by necessity, a high concentration of acronyms. Yet it requires no prior knowledge of engineering, and should not be considered simply a specialized academic text. Augustine relates some fascinating Cold War history in Prometheus. She writes in an even-handed manner on the engineers, and of the regime which squandered their talents. The book is even attractive as an object, with a dramatic cover image, black and white photos throughout, and some color plates.

In reality, a history of East German engineering is probably a tough sell, but one hopes it finds its way into most academic libraries. Students of both the Cold War and engineering history may well find it rewarding reading as well.

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Hanging Jazz

As its name implies, the Jazz Gallery makes an explicit connection between jazz music and the visual arts. Probably best known as a performance space, it is also the City’s premiere exhibitor of jazz themed or inspired art. Last night, it was music serving art in the Gallery, as Jaleel Shaw, Boris Kozlov, and Johnathan Blake played for the opening of Takao Fujioka’s new exhibit “A Jazz Perspective.”

Fujioka, of “Jazgra Graphic Design for Jazz” has a distinctive style. While it does perhaps sometimes bring to mind David Stone Martin (both have a graphic design background), Fujioka’s work has a look all its own. His use of bold color in otherwise black and white portraits is striking. His musicians have comparatively small heads, but large, abstract bodies, which imply power and motion. Fujioka often shows a clever compositional sense, as with his portrait of Joe Zawinul, framed by a Z-shaped bank of keyboards. There are in fact, plenty of familiar jazz legends for patrons to identify in the exhibit, like Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.

Fujioka’s bright colors look great displayed together on the Gallery’s walls. Jazz Gallery director/curator Dale Fitzgerald introduced the show with the revelation that Fujioka’s prints, encased in acrylic, are actually child-proof. Evidently, Fujioka was quite a good sport when Fitzgerald’s young son assisted the hanging process. Good for him. After all, the Jazz Gallery is a great venue for a jazz-inspired artist to show.

As for their part, Shaw, Kozlov, and Blake played a very impressive set, given that they were performing under unusually difficult circumstances for the Gallery. It was a party. People talk, what can you do? Fujioka’s work graces the Gallery walls until August 31st. There will be plenty of opportunity to see his work and hear a good show before then.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

State Legislature Opens Friday

Many outside of Idaho will not be particularly knowledgeable of the state’s politics, beyond perhaps the colorful names of some statewide office holders, like Gov. “Butch” Otter, former Gov. Phil Batt, and Sen. Mike Crapo. Some may have also read about their other Senator’s worst visit to Minnesota ever. However, legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on Idaho’s citizen lawmakers in State Legislature, opening in New York at Anthology Film Archives this Friday.

Wiseman is an unlikely cult filmmaker, celebrated for his long, in-depth documentary films, which often focus on bureaucratic organizations. However, jazz listeners may remember him for producing Shirley Clarke’s feature The Cool World, which featured a powerful Dizzy Gillespie soundtrack. As a documentarian, Wiseman eschews voice-overs and soundtrack music, instead capturing events as they happen.

The lead figure in Legislature is logically enough then Speaker of the State House Bruce Newcomb. In the opening scene, Newcomb speaking to a school group puts Idaho’s part-time legislature in context:

“I’m here for three months and I’m home as a rancher for nine months, and I have to live with what the legislature did to me and listen to what other people think I did to them, and then I come back and I make changes.”

Though part-time, most legislators appear quite conscientious. Newcomb might have a certain folksy charm, but he is clearly deeply conversant in the issues facing the state, as when he discusses water politics in great detail with a reporter. They bemoan the fact that water might be as valuable as oil, but as an issue, it is duller than dirt. Yet, Wiseman patiently lets this discussion and hearings on mundane issues like state licensing for contractors unfold in due time.

Legislature is similar to other Wiseman projects in its apparently unfiltered style. However, in some ways Legislature is a departure for Wiseman. His films have a reputation for following a thematic organization rather than a chronological order. However, Legislature’s early scenes document initial committee work and later scenes record floor votes, giving it a more conventional story arc, over the course of the legislative session.

Wiseman is probably best known for Titicut Follies, an expose of conditions in a Massachusetts facility for the criminally insane. Many of his documentaries are considered “problem” films in a similar vein, but again Legislature is an exception. Here, legislators are reasonably well informed and seem to work in good conscience on behalf of their constituents. Evidently, we can rest assured that at least the citizens of Idaho are well represented by their legislators. (I hasten to add we have no such reassurances here in New York.)

Wiseman seems to avoid partisan politics, as such. Perhaps, this was by necessity, as both chambers of the Idaho legislature are overwhelmingly Republican. However, when filming average citizens testifying before legislators, it seems like he gives a pronounced advantage to liberal proponents on issues like driver’s licenses for illegal aliens and whether an American history exhibit can include the Ten Commandments. In truth, this imbalance is the film's one major weakness. Of course, with a running time over three and a half hours, it is difficult to yearn for more footage.

Wiseman obviously had remarkable access, and captured some telling scenes. Ultimately, Newcomb and his colleagues acquit themselves well on film. It can be a challenge—perhaps best suited for C-SPAN die-hards—but Legislature has real insights on state government, and is notable as a documentary that does not add to the cynicism regarding the American political process. It begins a limited run in New York at the Anthology Film Archives, and debuts on PBS in June.

(Note: The highly recommended Company debuts on PBS tonight. Revisit the review here.)

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Biggest Piano

The Biggest Piano in Town
By Grand Pianoramax
ObliqSound

Leo Tardin is Grand Pianoramax. The concept is his, and the band is basically his piano and keyboards, augmented with different guests. On his latest, The Biggest Piano in Town (on-sale today), Meshell Ndegeocello drummer Deantoni Parks is a near constant on all but one track, joining a revolving cast of rap and spoken word artists like Mike Ladd, Celena Glenn, and others.

Tardin has jazz chops, having won the first Montreux Jazz Festival International Piano Solo Competition. However, GP is more of synthesis of various forms of electronic music, including electronica and ambient, but often bringing to mind the vibe of “Rock-It” era Herbie Hancock.

It starts with “Showdown,” the track that really earns BPW the parental advisory logo on the cover. There is a “clean” edit too, but here “clean” is relative. It is an explicit fable of dueling voyeuristic superheroes that in its way, makes an idealistic defense of romantic love. Sort of.

There are some more jazz oriented tracks though, like the acoustic “Ride I: the Race.” It is a nice showcase for Tardin’s facility on the keys, giving a sense of the road he is largely not currently taking. Most tracks however, have a definitely pronounced electro-funk feeling, like “The Hook Introduction” and “Ride II: Driftin.”

BPW segues through a variety of moods, drifting into chill-out territory at times. While “In the Lab’s” plethora of quirky effects over Parks’ steady drum line are at first somewhat dull, the tune dramatically evolves into “Tempest,” a hypnotic trance that recalls the best work of four80east. Given its strong melodic hook, it might be the most compelling track on GP, and makes for a strong conclusion.

Tardin must enjoy confusing genre classification. Press materials for BPW describe it as “Nu-Jazz (Elements of Phuture Funk/Hip-Hop/Spoken Word).” Add to that chill-out, jam, and ambient. That should clear things up. GPW might become a “pick-and-chose” album for many downloaders. Actually, Tardin is nearly always doing interesting things here, but various tracks may well appeal to very different people. It suggests Tardin will be an intriguing figure to watch in the future.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Q50

50 Years in Music—Live at Montreux
By Quincy Jones & Friends
Eagle Eye Media


Lionel Hampton certainly had an eye for talent. The orchestra he took to Europe included a trumpet section of future jazz greats Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, and Quincy Jones. Of course, Jones would find his calling not as an instrumentalist, but as an arranger and composer. In 1996, having made his living in music for fifty years, Jones and Montreux impresario Clause Nobs put together 50 Years in Music, an all-star concert celebration now available on DVD.

Jones starts with his first feature in the Hampton band, “Kingfish,” as well as “Stockholm Sweetenin,” with the Clifford Brown solo orchestrated for the full band. While there are many big name soloists, Australian trumpeter James Morrison, relatively unheralded in the States, often takes solo honors, as on “Kingfish,” where he outshines smooth practitioner Gerald Albright.

Jones has always sailed between genres at will, and here he brings a diverse cast into a big band setting. While Albright takes a while to acclimate to this context, David Sanborn (a veteran of many CTI sessions early in his career) fares much better, to his credit. On the ballad “The Midnight Sun Will Never Set” his solo is warm and gentle, but not sappy.

As a producer, Jones has worked with hall of fame vocalists. Recent Grammy winner Patti Austin swings the band nicely on standards like “Perdido” and “Shiny Stockings.” Guests from the pop world have more mixed results. Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, looking tragically British at times, just can not get out of Ray Charles’ shadow on “In the Heat of the Night.”

Conversely, Chaka Khan (not surprisingly), sounds perfect on tunes like “Miss Celie’s Blues” and “Dirty Dozens,” both from The Color Purple. She also lends her voice to “Walking in Space,” an arrangement which actually inspires Albright’s best jazz solo of the night.

Without doubt, the most effective guest is Toots Thielemans, the jazz harmonica legend, who brings his haunting sound to Ivan Lins’ “Septembro” and “Grace Notes,” the theme Jones wrote for the 1984 Olympics (I’ll hold my peace on the 2008 Games). (The least effective is Phil Collins, who just does not cut it as a big band vocalist, despite his declared ambitions.)

50 Years has quite a bit loaded onto one disk. The concert clocks in just over two hours, and there is another ten minutes of Jones and Nobs interview segments from a masterclass. Throughout the concert, the big band, including Morrison and members of Northern Illinois Jazz Band do the master proud. Like Jones’ career, not every selection is perfect, but in its entirety, it is pretty impressive.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Retrospective Love for Forman

With two best director Oscars to his credit, Miloš Forman hardly lacks for recognition. However, his early work in the creative vanguard of the Czech new wave is nowhere near as familiar to cineastes as work like Amadeus or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Thanks a current MoMA retrospective, audiences will have an opportunity to enjoy films from both Forman periods in the coming weeks.

The Firemen’s Ball has the distinction of being the last film Forman directed before finding it prudent to leave his home in then Czechoslovakia. It was released shortly before the Soviet invasion. It closed shortly after.

Forman went to the provincial Czech village of Vrchlabí looking for inspiration to strike. It came at the local firemen’s actual ball. A far cry from Socialist realism, Firemen casts a jaundiced eye on the foibles and corruption of a small-time fire department as the try to produce their annual ball. One of the great controversies surrounding the film is whether it is allegorical, or just the victim of very bad timing. Regardless of intent, 1968 just was not a good time to satirize buffoonery in uniform.

Seen even less often is the so-called “jazz opera” A Well Paid Walk (Dobre placená procházka) Forman directed for Czechoslovakian television. The jazz elements are actually quite overstated. Although one song performed by the postman played by lyricist Jiří Suchý makes explicit reference to jazz and incorporates syncopated rhythms for dramatic effect, composer (and co-star) Jiří Šlitr’s music is essentially on-par with that of its Broadway contemporary’s.

Labels aside, the music is pretty catchy, and the story is not at all your typically frothy romance. It starts with an impending divorce between a young couple, however the split is put on hold when a telegram announces a rich American aunt’s intention to leave their as yet unborn baby one million dollars, which was real money in 1966 Czechoslovakia. Suchý’s postman has a habit of advancing the storyline through telegrams that almost veers into David Lynch territory late in the film. Yet in terms of music and attitude, it seems very much a product of its mod times.

While Firemen took on political implications even if it had no such original ambitions, Walk does not lend itself to such interpretations. However, it has shown resiliency as a musical, with Forman collaborating on a stage revival at the National Theater in Prague last year. Both films make for particularly intriguing viewing at the MoMA. (Walk screens again Sun. the 24th and Fireman, plays again on the 25th.)

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Thursday in the City

Yesterday was Valentine’s, or as some of us call it: Thursday. It was however, a good opportunity for musical events in the City capitalizing on the theme. ObliqSound celebrated the launch of Backdrop, their new electronica imprint, with the release of Moods: You, the Night, and the Music at M1-5 with a night of guest DJ’s. The classy people of OS know how to throw a cool event, and this was certainly no exception.

While designed as an urban mix “suitable for any environment—from the lounge, to the club, to the bedroom,” much of Moods leans more to the club than my tastes usually run. However, I dig Eric Kupper presents K-Scope’s “Latin Blues Part 1.” It’s a groovy tune not too far removed from the Hammond soul-funk you can often hear in the J.B. Spins offices, except just slightly amped up. I also recommend the funky lines Grand Pianoramax’s remixed “Freestyle Figures.” GP’s Leo Tardin was on the scene, as were some fellow bloggers—linkage here.

Later at Cachaca, Miho Nobuzane also presented a Spiritual Valentine themed show, via the rhythms of Brazil. Her technique on the piano is amazing. After watching her open the second set with “Cravo E Canela” I wanted to dunk my hands in a bucket of ice water. Most of the set drew from her debut CD, Make You Happy. It’s a fantastic record, one of your J.B. Spins Top 10 of 2007. The night was even sponsored by a jeweler, Ayazakura, whose work I’m afraid was lost on me.

Miho Nobuzane is a fantastic musician with a great band. You know the Brazilian vibe is legit, since her drummer Adriano Santos is from Brazil. She will be playing the jazz brunch at the Blue Note March 23rd, which should be another cool gig.

Last night was a good example of how the City delivers musical Valentines year-round, even on Thursday. Here’s a belated Happy Valentines Day from J.B. Spins.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Q Too?

Next week I’ll be reviewing Quincy Jones celebrating fifty years in music at Montreux. How cool does that sound? However, one Quincy Jones gig that will not generate much eager anticipation will be the Beijing Olympics, for which he will serve as an “artistic advisor.” Steven Speilberg was recently shamed into bailing on Beijing over Darfur. Now what about Jones, his Color Purple collaborator?

Presumably he has not yet followed Spielberg’s lead. His myspace bio still proclaims:

“In October of 2006, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad appointed Quincy Jones as the artistic advisor for opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.”

In May 2006, Jones sounded completely seduced by the Communist regime. Reuters quoted Jones praising china for: “the beautiful women—some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, whoah.” OK, fine, I agree, Chinese women are beautiful. Too bad there will not be anymore in the near future, thanks to the Communist government’s strict one child policy.

Mia Farrow deserves credit for embarrassing Spielberg into doing the right thing. Of course, she focused on their support for the Sudanese regime. DH makes the valid point that the Chinese government’s policies towards its own people ought to be troubling enough on their own. Tiananmen Square, Tibet, forced abortions, internet censorship, and toxic consumer exports ought to be enough for most people to want to steer clear of the regime.

Jones has created some great music, including “Grace Notes,” a theme composed for the 1984 Olympics gymnastics competition. Perhaps Jones wants to revisit past Olympic glory. Be that as it may, Jones would do more good by playing Montreux again in 2008 than associating with the Chinese regime.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Company Next Week

Stephen Sondheim has a reputation as Broadway’s most challenging composer, but his work has proved remarkably accessible and pliant in recent years. Last year, Tim Burton compellingly adapted Sweeney Todd using a cast of actors with little vocal experience. On Broadway, director John Doyle has staged some unusual revivals of Sondheim, including Todd, and more recently the Tony Award winning Company, documented by Great Performances, and debuting on PBS stations next Wednesday, February 20th (you know, check local listings).

In staging Sondheim, Doyle has his troupe multi-tasking in the extreme. In addition to their traditional acting and singing roles, they also serve as their own pit orchestra, playing each instrument from the stage (see clip embedded below). It is an unusual effect, but Company lends itself to Doyle’s approach, with its abstract sets and situations.

To an uncharitable eye, Company would seem to simply be the story (or Seinfeldian non-story) of Robert, a Manhattan commitment-phobe with a group of annoying married friends, who seems to spend a lot of time standing on his furniture and sabotaging his romances. However, George Furth’s book is a brutally frank examination of relationships. Sometimes his words induce wincing, as they often hit raw nerves. Some descriptions compare Company to Sex in the City, but the writing is far superior, refusing to sugar-coat its uncomfortable situations.

Raúl Esparza as Robert, or Bobby, Rob, and Bubby-Baby, as he is variously called, is the key to the show. Always on stage, he has to appear emotionally detached, but suggest something is going on deep beneath the surface. In the song “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” his girlfriends sing: “you impersonate a person better than a zombie should.” Yet at the end of each act, Esparza has to deliver a revealing show-stopper, which he does convincingly. Esparza is in great voice throughout, and his performances of “Marry Me A Little” makes one wonder why the song has not become more of a standard.

Sondheim won the Tony for both best score and lyrics when Company debuted on Broadway in 1970, and it might be his best work for any show. Individually the songs are memorable, and there is a nice sense of variety within the show (Angel Desai’s “Another Hundred People” being another highlight). Undoubtedly the best known song would be “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which Elaine Stritch debuted. Later renditions have played down the sarcasm of the lyrics, but not here. Channeling Stritch in the role of Joanne, Barbara Walsh’s version of the toast almost borders on the abrasive.

The cast all have strong voices and happily hold their own as musicians. (Again, Company deserved the Best Show Album Grammy far more than Spring Awakening.) While the music is great and there are some nice comic touches, some viewers might have difficulty with the ambiguous nature of the show. It is not a dumbed-down Disney production.

It is a happy development that people around the country will have this chance to see it on GP. Commentators on NY1’s On-Stage have bemoaned the disappearance of recorded theater on television and it is a fair point. The combination of Doyle’s unique staging, Sondheim’s music and Esparza’s performance make this a very memorable show, and an effective corrective for the syrupy sentimentality of lesser Broadway shows. It airs a week from today, February 20th, at 9:00 pm (here in New York on WNET 13).





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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ronin’s Holon

Holon
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
ECM Records


With a host of influences, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch offers critics an opportunity to pick their favorite. Many seem drawn to Steve Reich comparisons and discussions of minimalism. Others discuss the seductive grooves and techno elements. Obviously, there is a strong Eastern influence as well, clearly referenced by the band’s name. Bärtsch’s Ronin brings it all together for their trance inducing new release, Holon, which defies easy classification.

Each track on Holon is a mathematically labeled “modul,” which do not necessarily follow in strict arithmetic order. Yet they do sound all of a piece, with each modul blending into the next, all the while propelled along by a hypnotic pulse.

Bärtsch eschews keyboards on this outing in favor of the acoustic piano, which adds a lighter, sparkling texture, particular in the introductions to the first “Modul 42” and “Modul 39_8.” Together Ronin has evolved into a seamless band, whose improvisations are difficult to unravel from the overall compositional fabric. Each member has opportunity for self expression. For instance, bassist Björn Meyer comes to the fore in “Modul 45,” with Sha’s alto adding a haunting air. Holon really works though because of Bärtsch’s ability to lock-in with drummer Kaspar Rust and percussionist Andi Pupato. Here the groove is very definitely the thing.

Ronin seems quite an apt name for this band that so deceptively sublimates their solo roles to their collective expression. Ronin were masterless samurai, disgraced for failing their feudal lords. The most celebrated were the 47 Ronin, who sacrificed their lives in a campaign to avenge their master. Bärtsch speaks of the freedom of the samurai, but that ostensible freedom was deceptive. True Ronin were constrained by a code of honor, which inextricably limited their course of action.

Holon segues effortlessly from the dark and moody to open, airy passages. It pulls listeners along with its insistent rhythm and the remarkable cohesion of Bärtsch and company. While there is indeed the minimalist influence, Ronin should not be confused with mere ambient music. There is some exciting soloing integrating into their aural tapestry. Though difficult to evoke in words, they are very compelling to listen to, with Holon being their most definitive statement to date.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line
Produced and directed by Daniel Gordon
Kino


The line James Joseph Dresnok crossed was the Demilitarized Zone—the border between North and South Korea, roughly corresponding to the 38th Parallel. The former Private First Class became a deserter and a traitor to his country, when he became one of four American servicemen to defect to the Northern regime. Of the four, just two survive today, and only Dresnok remains a loyal subject of Kim Jong-il. British filmmaker Daniel Gordon turns his lens on Dresnok in his documentary: Crossing the Line.

Gordon has had good fortune obtaining filming permission in the DPRK, which leads one to be a bit skeptical the film’s perspective. Although Gordon largely declines to challenge the assertions of Dresnok and a few of his Communist colleagues, his footage certainly captures how scary North Korea looks. Pyongyang appears severely Stalinist, with its personality cult monuments designed to overwhelm the individual.

Some of the strongest material of Crossing describes service along the DMZ, suggesting a great documentary could be made about those ever-present stresses and skirmishes along the border. One DMZ veteran explains:

“We were being attacked at night by North Koreans throwing hand grenades at us, and so forth. The foliage in the DMZ made it very difficult because the bad guys could come within grenade range and you didn’t know they were there, until the grenade went off.”

Gordon seems to take a similar strategy Barbet Schroeder employed in Terror’s Advocate, simply letting their subjects talk unchallenged, hoping to let them damn themselves with their own words. In each case, their success is mixed. Dresnok comes across rather churlish, carrying a chip on his shoulder for having been orphaned at an early age. He often sounds like someone who thinks the world owed him a living and found the North Koreans were willing to pay. When he lit out for the North, Dresnok knew he faced a certain court martial for forging a leave pass. When speaking of his decision to desert, Dresnok says:

“Hey, there’s the orphan, the poor boy. You ain’t shit. What am I? Am I a slave? To Hell with this.”

Dresnok and his fellow traitors became stars of North Korean propaganda pictures. He seems to have no problem parroting the party line, blaming America and Japan for the extreme famine of the 1990’s. The only issue Gordon really challenges Dresnok on is the women North Korea is widely believed to have kidnapped to become wives for the American deserters.

The case of his colleague Charles Jenkins is relatively well known. It is now well established Jenkins’s wife Hitomi Soga was kidnapped from her Japanese home on Sado Island to instruct North Korean spies. Through Japanese diplomatic initiatives Soga was returned home and Jenkins was eventually able to join her after serving a short sentence in America. Voice-over by Christian Slater explains:

“During the course of filming this project, allegations came to the fore that all the Americans were married to women who had been brought to North Korea against their will and that Dresnok’s first wife in North Korea was a Romanian kidnapped from Italy. Dresnok was reluctant to discus his first wife in North Korea. He refused to confirm where she was from and never volunteered a photograph of her.”

In addition to confirming kidnapping allegations, Jenkins has also accused Dresnok of acting as the regime’s enforcer, meting out physical punishment against him on their orders. While Dresnok gives his side of the story in Crossing, Jenkins has probably reached a wider audience on 60 Minutes. (His memoir previously published in only Japan is forthcoming from the University Press of California.)

Throughout Crossing, Gordon seems reluctant to burn his North Korean bridges, often simply allowing Dresnok to act as a mouthpiece for his masters. However, the reality of North Korea is difficult to camouflage and Dresnok’s own failings make it near impossible to find sympathy for the treasonous deserter. It also casts needed light on the North Korean spy breeding program. It should be seen by sophisticated viewers, provided they are able to parse through Dresnok’s propaganda.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Grammy Recap

It seemed tonight the Academy had decided the excellence of the recording industry was best represented by Amy Winehouse, until Herbie Hancock pulled off a NY Giants sized upset for Album of the Year. That I did not predict. (Complete list of winner here.)

In terms of programming, between Herbie Hancock playing Gershwin and Eldar paying tribute to Oscar Peterson, jazz got about six minutes of air time. (Actually, no I do not have a lot of time on my hands, but I’d like to track jazz’s Grammy penetration from year to year.) Of course, jazz collectively cannot complain this year, given Hancock’s big win. In addition, many of this year’s departed jazz greats were duly honored in the annual memorial tribute, including: Oscar Peterson, Max Roach, Al Viola, Joel Dorn, and Joe Zawinul.

As for my predictions, they are not completely embarrassing:

Herbie Hancock won for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Check. No surprise, as he was playing the telecast. Sorry Eldar, but presumably your time will come. I predicted anyone but Hancock for Album of the year—happy to be wrong there.

Patti Austin won for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Avant Gershwin. My prediction was Dee Dee Bridgewater. There seemed to be a Gershwin vibe going on with the Grammy’s this year.

Best Instrumental Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album went to the late great Michael Brecker. Check and check.

New Orleans’ own Terence Blanchard won for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album (and one of your J.B. Spins Best of 2007). Check.

Paquito D’Rivera followed up a Downbeat poll win with a Best Latin Jazz Grammy. Check.

Best Traditional Blues Album went to Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen. I predicted Koko Taylor and as high powered a combination Henry Townsend, "Pinetop" Perkins, Robert Lockwood, Jr., and David "Honeyboy" Edwards are, I am shocked they beat out Taylor.

Best Musical Show Album went to Spring Awakening. Company deserved it, but check.

Best Score went to Ratatouille. I predicted the Oscar winner Babel.

Best Composition went to Maria Schneider. Check.

Best Instrumental Arrangement went to Vince Mendoza for “In a Silent Way” on Zawinul’s Brown Street. I was really pulling for Steve Wiest, but to be fair, that was a great album.

Seven right, five wrong. That is not eerily prescient, but maybe not terrible.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Selections from The Fall

You have to respect a punk band that has survived and thrived since 1977. Aside from that, there’s not much I know about The Fall. So when Perverted by Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall, came in the mail, I really did not have much insight to bring to bear upon it. However, I do not want to crib Instapundit’s “in the mails” so I wanted to at least dip into the volume of Fall stories.

Each story takes its title from a Fall song, like Carlton Mellick III’s “City Hobgoblins,” a rather disturbing tale of human-mutant relations. It is notable for having a character express a pro-life sentiment, albeit under bizarre circumstances: “Yeah, well I’m pro-life when it comes to all issues. If there’s anything I can do to keep a living being alive I will do it. Even if it’s something that came out of the walm [mutant central].” (p. 46)

However, most of the narrators of the stories I sampled are morally and ethically compromised. A cokehead snitches on a royal neighbor. An office thief graduates to homicide. The music of The Fall seems to lend itself to rather pessimistic visions of humanity.

Perhaps the most disturbing brings readers inside the head of Dr. Hume, a Holocaust denier, in Stav Sherez’s “God-Box.” Having read the entire story, I don’t believe it is offensive, but it certainly provocative and people of good conscience could understandably be offended. Even after its final revelations, there are aspects of Hume, who is not whom he appears, that remain disconcerting.

As one would expect, there is not much jazz in Language. The most we get comes from a hitchhiking musician in Nicholas Royle’s “Iceland,” who tells his ride: “I play the bass saxophone . . . Jazz-punk. Not really jazz at all. I hate jazz.” (p.101) That is pretty much the extent of it.

If titles like “League of Bald-Headed Men” and “Lie Dream of a Casino Soul” already mean something to you, than you do not really need much of a review. Just: “here it is.” For the rest of us mere mortals, if you like dark hipster short stories with a dose of the fantastic, you could also probably get behind Language. Editor Peter Wild seems to have selected some well written contributions based on what I sampled. Ultimately, I just feel like I’m missing the irony of matching story to song without that deep knowledge of The Fall, but if it’s your thing, have at it.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Superheroes

It was nice knowing you Jack. Over the last few days the blogosphere has mourned the betrayal of 24 by its new hand-wringing writers. Dirty Harry for one, is not amused with the news that next season’s Jack Bauer will be guilt-ridden by his past zealous prosecution of the war on terror, possibly even digging ditches in Africa as penance. Hello shark.

Hollywood does not get it. America wants heroes to kill the bad guys before they kill us. Many comic book writers do not seem to get it either. At a time when America faces a grave threat from Islamist terrorism, Marvel Comics decided to off Captain America. It sounds like he was dying a slow death anyway, with the final storyline for the Steve Rogers’ Cap fighting more against the American government and its fictional policy requiring the public identification and registration of superheroes.

Marvel has already announced a new Captain will rise again, but based on their polemical plot points in the past, it is hard to muster much enthusiasm. There is however, a new updated Captain America surrogate for the War on Terror. His name is Matamoros. Sgt. Chuck Sobietti was seriously wounded in Iraq, but is reconstructed by the Army’s experimental medical treatments, which seem to give him heightened physical abilities, much like the late Captain (whose comic death they directly reference).

In true government fashion, once the army rebuilds him, they thank him for his service, sending him back to civilian life. In the first issue, he uncovers a terrorist ring and takes care of business. Matamoros, so-dubbed by a fuming civil liberties attorney after Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-Slayer), is not about to dig ditches. Written by Sleet and Darius Lamonica and illustrated by John Cox of Cox & Forkum fame, it is definitely not politically correct, but it might become the only outlet to get your Bauer on.

Frustratingly, there are very few graphic novel depictions of the courageous service of our troops in Iraq. Yet depicting heroism is what comics have always historically done. Naturally, there have been several anti-Iraqi Freedom comics published. Several came from companies affiliated with my publishing house, so I can not discuss them even if I wanted to (thank you conflict of interest).

There has been one notable exception: Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq. Written by former embedded journalist and AEI scholar Karl Zinsmeister, and published back in 2005 by—give them due credit—Marvel Comics, Zone depicts the on the ground realities of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Throughout Zone, the American forces take great pains to avoid civilian casualties. The Fedayeen though, have no such scruples. Col. Kirkwood tells his men:

“We’ve all seen things here we never thought we’d see in our lives. Gunmen dragging women and children by the hair, using them as human shields. Shooters attacking us from hospital windows, with patients lying in beds next to them.” (p. 95)

While the names have been fictionalized in Zone, the heroism is real. It is much more compelling than the standard fare coming from both Hollywood and graphic novel publishers. Zinsmeister is now with the administration, making a sequel to Zone unlikely, but at least we can presumably look forward to the next installment from Matamoros.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Coming Soon: Jellyfish

Time and again, Israel’s neighbors have threatened to drive her “into the sea.” Thankfully, they have never fulfilled their threats, but it makes Israelis keenly aware of their Mediterranean coast. That seaside plays a pivotal role in Jellyfish (trailer here), a character study of three women in Tel Aviv directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen.

By its nature Jellyfish does not lend itself to a neat capsule summary. It resembles films like Short Cuts and Pulp Fiction, in which characters cross paths, but their lives rarely intersect. Wisely, Keret & Geffen resist the urge to compulsively parade their characters through “near-miss” scenes, having established their close proximity.

As is often the case with braided stories, not every thread is as successful. The lead storyline involves Batya, a down on her luck waitress who finds herself sheltering an apparently mute little girl found abandoned on the beach. Only Batya’s storyline incorporates elements of magical realism, which gets a bit pretentious late in the film.

Most effective is the story of Joy, a Philippine nurse who finds employment tending to Malka, a difficult and initially mean-spirited patient. Yet they develop a touching relationship, perhaps compensating for their separation from their children—Joy by physical distance, and Malka emotionally so. Ma-nenita De Latorre as Joy and Zharira Charifai as Malka provide Jellyfish’s greatest emotional payoff with some nicely nuanced performances.

The third strand involves a newlywed couple, Michael and Keren (played by Gera Sandler and Noa Knoller, respectively), confined to a Tel Aviv hotel after she breaks her leg during an unlikely accident at their wedding reception. At first they seem hopelessly mismatched, and frankly annoying, but Keret and Geffen bring unexpected depths to their story, redeeming its shaky start.

Jellyfish is a personal story, not a political one. The realities of Israeli history only obliquely intrude when an Alzheimer’s patient Joy briefly nurses asks her son who scarred his face. The Syrians he responds.

Keret and Geffen convey a strong sense of modern Tel Aviv, which contributes to vivid sense memories of the film. To their credit, they created believable characters, not “quirky” constructs. Jellyfish might be a little uneven, but there are some memorable parts in its whole. While not quite as successful as The Band’s Visit, it is certainly another worthy import from Israel.

(Jellyfish opens in New York at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza April 4th.)

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Grammy Predictions

Thanks to a WGA waiver the Grammy’s will go on this coming Sunday at 8:00 Eastern. Expect viewers to start asking the Guild to revoke their free pass around 8:15. At least we have something cool to listen for when Herbie Hancock performs “Rhapsody in Blue” with Lang Lang.

With the January 9th deadline for ballots long past, it is time to prognosticate. Last year I was not too far off. Of course other pundits won’t bother to predict these categories, so I’m basically competing against myself this year, with following.

Speaking of Hancock, I would be delighted to see him win album of the year, but he won’t. I don’t know what will, but I know I won’t like it. However, Hancock is a lead pipe cinch to win Best Contemporary Jazz Album. He’s set to play the show. The Academy knows him and likes him, plus a Joni Mitchell tribute album is something they can totally get behind.

Best Jazz Vocal Album is tough, but I’m thinking Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Red Earth: a Malian Journey. The world music angle is appealing and her NPR affiliation gives her added clout.

Best Instrumental Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album will go to Michal Brecker. There was a lot of affection for him in the industry, so I fully expect them to take advantage of a final opportunity to honor him.

A Tale of God’s Will was one of the 10 Best CDs of 2007 here. I doubt that cuts much ice with the Academy, but I still expect it to win Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Voting for it is a painless way to express solidarity with New Orleans, and it really is a powerful record.

2007 was the first year Paquito D’Rivera won the Downbeat Reader’s Poll. Look for him go on a winning streak with the Best Latin Jazz Grammy as well. Grammy voters probably don’t dig his straight-shooting on world events like we do, but he is still very popular with fellow musicians, and Funk Tango made many critics’ Top 10 lists.

Koko Taylor will own the Best Traditional Blues category. Old School is clearly a sentimental favorite as her comeback vehicle after long bouts with illness. Besides, would you want to vote against her? I don’t think so.

Moving down the ballot, Concord aggressively promoted Gustavo Santaolalla’s score to Babel, so it might be the only nominated soundtrack in any voters’ personal collections, unless they have kids. In that case, they are probably totally sick of hearing Happy Feet and Ratatouille. Babel also won the Oscar, so it looks like a safe bet.

Critics have been slavishly boosting the “rock opera” Spring Awakening, so I fully expect it to win hands down. Company would be a more adventurous choice, given John Doyle’s unconventional staging, but that guarantees no Grammy love. (Incidentally, Great Performances will be broadcasting Doyle’s revival of the Sondheim show February 20th. Look for a review here about a week before.)

For Best Instrumental Composition, Philip Glass is the only non-jazz composer and has a loyal following. Still, if Notes for a Scandal mania broke out last year, I totally missed it. I see this going to Maria Schneider.

I have plugged Steve Wiest “Besame Mucho” for Best Instrumental Arrangement before. I would like to see him win, so I’ll make that my prediction, and take the hit if I’m wrong to avoid having divided loyalties. I really do think he has an excellent shot, since he was nominated for the late, great Maynard Ferguson’s final recording.

As usual, you will have to go on-line to check these predictions, as there is never any broadcast love for the jazz categories. Regardless, congratulations to all the nominees in these categories for some great music in 2007.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

New Crystal Silence

New Crystal Silence
By Chick Corea & Gary Burton
Concord Records 2-CD set

Those who prefer the fusion side of Chick Corea have reason to rejoice with the long-awaited news Return to Forever will reunite later this year to tour and possibly record. Those more partial to the acoustic Corea have new opportunities to savor his duets with vibist Gary Burton, one of the preferred contexts in which to hear the pianist. After touring together in 2007 to celebrate their thirty-five year periodic association (with more dates to come in March), the two have revisited tunes from their original recording Crystal Silence as well as succeeding collaborations in the appropriately titled double live set, New Crystal Silence, on-sale today.

The two disks represent two very distinct live sets, starting with the sweeping romanticism of their concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and concluding with the camaraderie of a duet concert. The Sydney concert often has an understandably pronounced third stream feel. The opening “Duende” in particular, also brings to mind some of Gil Evans charts for Miles Davis, in its balance of impressionistic orchestral passages with delicate solos. Tim Garland’s arrangements have a weightier feel than the vibe of the original CS on ECM, which is not at all a bad thing, as it puts Corea’s standards in a new context.

“Love Castle” features a stirring introduction, showing how adept Corea and Burton blend together and with the Symphony. Burton’s playing here is beautiful, sounding quite at home with the orchestra. It would be rewarding to hear in such settings more often, as I would argue his 1973 Seven Songs for Quartet and Chamber Orchestra is an overlooked gem in his discography.

New CS also serves as a reminder of Corea’s success composing enduring standards. “Brasilia” proves particularly hospitable to Garland’s arrangements. Of course, it could not be New Crystal Silence without “Crystal Silence.” It unfolds slowly, with much implied, before morphing into a sparkling rendition of the classic theme, with some dazzling interplay between the co-leaders.

Both disks end with Corea’s classic standard “Fiesta.” The first version features darker hues and grand cascading sounds, concluding a dramatic set, whereas the duo version is a rousing set closer, with Corea and Burton sounding audibly inspired. Indeed, the second concert is often an unabashed swinger, with a set list that could have been written by fans, including a briskly boppish “Bud Powell” and the elegantly lilting performance of “Waltz for Debby.”

Along with “La Fiesta,” most short lists of favorite Corea tunes would also include “No Mystery” (sorry no “Spain” this time). Here Corea’s fleet piano runs give it an appropriately exotic flavor. The only tune from the original CS making the second set is “Señor Mouse,” featuring some consistently inventive playing from both musicians.

It is clear throughout New CS that Corea and Burton’s highly attuned musical rapport remains undiminished. Listening to them play off each other and follow each other seamlessly is a pleasure. For acoustic Corea fans, this may well be the release you have been waiting for from the prolific pianist since his marathon live sessions at the Blue Note. It will not disappoint.

(Corea plays NJPAC with Béla Fleck on February 15th and in NY State at Poughkeepsie with Burton on March 7th.)

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Article VI

Article VI: Faith, Politics, America
Written and directed by Bryan Hall

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”—Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Gov. Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and the media will not let you forget. Evidently, for some people this is a deal-breaker. That media reaction became the spark for Mormon filmmaker Bryan Hall’s new documentary Article VI, which examines the practice of religious tests in the political process, imposed both officially by governments and unofficially by individuals, with admirable nuance and perspective.

Article uses presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s Houston “Catholic issue” speech as a touchstone throughout the film, as opposition to Kennedy’s Catholicism parallels the opposition to Romney for his Mormon faith. However, Article also addresses both recent and historic American religious political controversies, spotlighting the early violent treatment of Mormons in America.

It may well be that many of the filmmakers are political conservatives and Romney supporters, as is definitely the case with executive producer and on-screen commentator Hugh Hewitt, but the film is consistently restrained and balanced. It is not afraid to criticize intolerant “Christian” expression, certainly including the mob protesting the Mormon Church’s annual conference, but also Judge Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument, and the so-called Christians who disgracefully disrupted the first Hindu benediction in the U.S. Senate. Article benefits from some telling commentary, as when Christian rights attorney David French implies Judge Moore made his work more difficult:

“The very weekend that Judge Moore was making his stand in Alabama, I was in a Federal court in Pennsylvania arguing for the free speech rights of some Christian students in the Pennsylvania higher education system, and it struck me as supremely ironic that the very moment I was seeking the aid of the Federal court to protect Christian rights, a few hundred miles down the road another Christian was defying the Federal courts. And I was just hoping the judge was able to separate the two and to realize that, yes, some of us do have respect for the law.”

William F. Buckley famously ran the Birchers out mainstream conservativism, making it clear there was no place for paranoid lunacy in the movement. Often, it seems a similar impulse is at work in Article, in an effort to sever mainstream religious conservatives from the strident fringe elements which insist on identifying themselves as Christian.

Filmmaker Hall though, has a surprise in store for his third act. He reaches out to one of the frightening protestors outside the Mormon conference, and makes a human connection. While interview subjects like Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Rescue and internet evangelist Bill Keller say some pretty unattractive things, Hall gives them an opportunity to show some humanity, which they do, even displaying a sense of humor. Only Pastor Robert Jeffress fails to take advantage of the opportunity, sounding downright Clintonian when asked if he could consider Hall a friend or neighbor.

Article is the second documentary in recent months to address Mormonism. However, Alex LeMay’s Desert Bayou essentially lines up with the protestors outside the Mormon Conference, including an uncomfortably hostile litany of perceived Mormon sins halfway through the film. LeMay sets out to demonize those he disagrees with, whereas Hall looks to humanize them. That speaks volumes about the difference between the two filmmakers’ approaches.

Throughout Article, Hall proves to be a talented filmmaker, who is scrupulously fair in his treatment of both interview subjects and the issues examined. Article appears to have a theatrical release in the offing. If it screens near you, it is not exactly the film you might expect, but well worth seeing.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Restoring Bert Williams

The MoMA houses the archive of the Biograph Company, the early American film production company, which became the first studio home of D.W. Griffith. In a twist of fate, they were also the only studio to produce films with Bert Williams, the famed African-American Vaudevillian, who usually performed in blackface.

Williams was a phenomenal success in his day, and one of the first African-American entertainers to achieve crossover popularity, but has a surprisingly slim filmography. Williams made two silent comedies for Biograph in 1916, the two-reeler “A Natural Born Gambler” and the one-reel “Fish,” both of which have been fully restored by their film department. The MoMA also found the raw footage of an aborted feature film they are laboring to assemble into a proper narrative.

Both short films and scenes from the discovered feature were screened at the MoMA last night, with valuable historical perspective provided by biographer Camille F. Forbes, author of Presenting Bert Williams. There is no denying the great influence Williams had on Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and early Broadway. While Williams tried to avoid the humor of racial stereotypes, his blackface appearance and “Jim Crow” persona is clearly dated and makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Or so I thought. However, last night I had the unusual experience of sitting in a theater packed with New Yorkers sporting “Bush Lied” buttons, laughing uproariously at blackface comedy. These films are historically significant and revealing in their way. Williams is respected today for his ability to effectively portray the humanity below the burnt cork. MoMA materials quoted W.C. Fields’ description of Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”

Williams’ limited work on film brings to mind Charlie Chaplin, as both convey a strong sense of pathos. As a result, empathy with the men makes it hard to enjoy the humor of their circumstances. While New Yorkers laughed at Williams’ mugging, they were missing the inner sadness of the man.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Twelve O’Clock Tales

Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales
By Wanda Coleman
Black Sparrow Books

Jazz and Los Angeles have a lot of history together, but they have always been uneasy fit. While New York has been home to the grittier jazz of hard bop and Blue Note Records, L.A. is best known for the “Cool School.” Yet jazz in many different forms provides the soundtrack for many of the Los Angeles-based stories in Wanda Coleman’s Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales, a title which alludes to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

Many of Coleman’s characters live in distressed South Central neighborhoods. By and large, they are just getting by, or beginning to fall behind. However, many are involved in creative endeavors of one kind or another, like a widowed studio musician, a self-centered actor, an aspiring film student, a gospel singer, and a journeyman jazz musician.

“Jazz at Twelve,” almost the title story, is the only selection which directly addresses the music itself. It uses the occasion of a sideman gig played by veteran drummer Frank Lattimore to foretell future hardships for him, the narrator, and her hero-worshipping husband. Coleman tells the story with frequent asides portending ill winds blowing. For instance she writes:

“What Frank doesn’t know is that there’s another young woman taking notes that night. She’s a reporter for the Times. She is pale, ashen blonde, and of lofty attitude. She will pen a rave review tonight. It’ll run tomorrow. It will praise every member in the Ditzi group … except Frank.” (Ellipsis in Coleman p.20)

While this revelation-in-context motif might be difficult to maintain in a longer work (and would probably get tiresome) in this story it is a very effective story-telling device. Coleman is clearly an accomplished writer. A few of the shorter pieces are too fragmentary for my aesthetic preferences, but they are still quite well written.

Her work also tends to be dark and pessimistic, with the literal death of innocence a recurring theme in this collection. Perhaps the only story ending anywhere near an optimistic note is “My Brain’s Too Tired Too Think,” which shows the benefits of seeking mental help through professional counseling. It does get a bit preachy though, when cataloging the evils of society.

Many of Coleman’s stories end imperfectly for her characters. Ironically, the grimmest might be another music story, “Dunny,” a jaded portrayal of the gospel music industry. The title character has business problems that end badly. He remembers what they told him when he signed with his label:

“You have to appreciate the difference between hard people and bad people. We’re not bad people. Not at all. But sometimes we’re hard.” (p. 139)

Coleman’s stories sometimes bring to mind the work of Raymond Carver. She often writes of common people in desperate situations. In these stories at least, many of her characters take consoling pleasure from music. She is an impressive writer, probably best published in short short-story collections like Twelve, where readers can digest her naturalism in manageable doses.

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