J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jazz & Blues Musicians of SC

Jazz & Blues Musicians of South Carolina: Interviews with Jabbo, Dizzy, Drink, and Others
By Benjamin Franklin V
University of South Carolina Press


Aside from Dizzy Gillespie’s Cheraw roots, South Carolina rarely factors in the popular histories of jazz. Jack McCray offered the beginnings of a case that Charleston deserves a place alongside New Orleans as an early incubator of the music in his photographic history of the city’s jazz scene. Now Benjamin Franklin V contributes interviews with nineteen jazz artists, and a few blues musicians, who either were born or spent a significant period of time in the Palmetto State, collected in Jazz & Blues Musicians of South Carolina.

To give South Carolina its due, there are in fact some big names represented in Franklin’s book, including Gillespie, Arthur Prysock, Jabbo Smith, Chris Potter, and both Etta Jones and Houston Person. (Longtime Basie sideman Johnny Williams graces the cover.) There are some interesting biographical details here that I have not read elsewhere. For instance, Prysock’s voice is actually familiar to millions from the eight years he sang “Here’s to Good Friends” for Lowenbrau.

In fact, J&BSC really starts to pick up as a read about the point of Prysock’s interview. Franklin adapted the book from interviews conducted for the South Caroliniana Library at USC, publishing them in a strict transcription format. Some would have greatly benefited had they been fleshed out into feature profiles, particularly the more senior musicians who start the book and prove to be more reserved, even reticent in their answers.

However, he had no trouble getting Drink Small talking in an interview that reads like it is perilously close to spinning out of control when the guitarist-vocalist starts discussing religion, telling Franklin:

“But like I tell people, I had me a lady almost cry. I said, ‘Lady, nobody going to heaven but me.’ She said, ‘Why do you say that?’ ‘Because I tell the truth. Nobdy going to heaven.’ What you got to say about that?

BF: I don’t know Drink.” (p. 75)

The most valuable interviews in J&BSC feature musicians who participated in some memorable late 1950’s sessions in New York, but had since been largely forgotten. Ron Free was something of a prodigy on drums who recorded with the likes of Lee Konitz and Mose Allison. Despite having a great name for jazz, personal problems including drugs sidetracked his career for many years. However, he sounds quite philosophical about it all in his session with Franklin, telling him: “I used to say that if you had a lot of real bad karma in a previous lifetime, you came back in this one as a jazz musician.” (p. 128)

Webster Young barely qualifies for inclusion having simply been born in the state, but spending little time there subsequently. Yet his chapter might be the most valuable since very little has been written about the under-appreciated trumpeter. For one thing, he describes a mentoring side of Miles Davis’s personality rarely recognized by his biographers. He relates one such incident when the famous musician gave him a shot of confidence for his first recording session: “On the morning of the date, I went over to see Miles, and he convinced me that I could do it.” (p. 63)

Naturally some themes and touchstone institutions recur throughout. For older musicians, it is the Jenkins Orphanage brass band. For younger musicians, the Main Street Jazz Festival looms large in their memories of South Carolina jazz. However, high school and college marching bands seemed to be a fairly common formative experience across generations.

Some of the less heralded artists of J&BSC turned out to be the more compelling interview subjects. More historical context and descriptive prose would have helped smooth over the rough edges of the transcript format, but there are some good stories to be found in the book. While uneven, it could have greater value to jazz researchers than its regional title might suggest.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

NYKFF: Once Upon a Time

The Japanese subjugation of China, particularly Nanking, is now infamous, yet Korea’s experience during WWII goes relatively unmentioned in Western media. Granted the Imperial Japanese presence in Korea pre-dated the war and would ultimately result in a divided country, but one think there would be as much interest for Korea’s historical experience as for that of a confirmed geo-political rival and totalitarian state. While far from a serious, in-depth examination of Korea during the Second World War, Once Upon a Time (in Corea) (trailer here), screening today at the NYKFF, makes interesting use of its historical backdrop.

It is the summer of 1945 and the other shoe is about to drop for the Japanese. As of now, they still control Korea, having been there for approximately thirty-five years. Speaking Korean is prohibited and citizens have been forced to adopt Japanese names. Causing further distress, Korea’s national treasure, the spectacular “Light of the East” diamond has recently fallen into the hands of the Japanese authorities. Enter caper movie.

In need of resources to feed the war machine, Korea’s gem is to be shipped to Japan, after a gala celebration of its discovery, just the sort of soiree sure to draw the attention of a couple of enterprising thieves. One is Hae Dang-hwa, mostly known as Haruko in the film. Ostensibly a jazz singer, though her numbers sound more like contemporary Korean pop, she has drawn the unwelcome attentions of a Japanese military police colonel. Bong-gu, or Kanemura, a playboy antiquities dealer and general rogue, the other rival for her romantic affections, turns out to also be her competition for the rock. As they chase the prize, the local resistance cell based at Haruko’s night club targets the Japanese military commander for assassination, as Japan’s military outlook progressively worsens.

Evidently, these pulp-serial inspired adventures are difficult to pull off. Spielberg and Lucas were at the height of their powers when they made Raiders of the Lost Ark. More common are fair to lackluster efforts like The Shadow and The Phantom. In truth, Once is pretty entertaining, one of the more successful attempts at the genre. It keeps the caper plot moving at a good pace and successfully submerges us in its time and place. At times though, we could use some relief from the comic relief of the incompetent resistance partisans.

As Haruko, Lee Bo-young might have a nice voice, but it is not even close to jazz that she sings. However, we do hear some incidental big band music as well as a jazz rhythm section during some actions sequences. Strangely, her stated ambition is to open a jazz club in Russia, the supposed “home of jazz.” Given Stalin’s actual attitude towards jazz, it is a good thing she never makes it there.

Directed with flash by Jeong yong-gi, Once looks great and Lee Bo-young’s production numbers have a kind of eccentric charm (whatever style they might be). Despite the seriousness of its setting, Once is essentially entertaining, light-hearted fare that never delves too deeply into the dark realities of its place and time in history. It screens tonight as the NY Korean Film Festival moves to BAM.

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Music is Perfume

Dr. House and Caetano Veloso are both fans of Maria Bethânia. At one point, House M.D. used her “Fera Ferida” on the show’s soundtrack (but it is not on the official CD release). Veloso has worked with Bethânia since their earliest years—he happens to be her older brother. In fact, it was he who renamed her after a popular romantic ballad of the time. Veloso tells that story as one of several giants of Brazilian music paying tribute to Bethânia in Maria Bethânia: Music is Perfume (trailer here), opening today in New York.

Bethânia’s career has moved through distinct phases. Once known for decidedly political material, she became an interpreter of unapologetically romantic Brazilian popular song in the 1980’s. Despite the stylistic change, she remains committed to the song’s integrity. She now largely prefers simple, direct arrangements which best suit the material. Of a song of innocent flirtation she explains: “It’s a light-hearted song. Like a conversation between friends. . . Taking it too seriously, adding strings and so on, might make it a bit . . . corny.”

Her repertoire, as reflected in Perfume, does not completely ignore material of social significance. Probably her most effective performance in the film is of a song which directly links Brazilian music with the Middle Passage ordeal, as she sings (in Portuguese): “The drumming waves of night taught me to sing.”

In interview segments we hear from some of the most prominent names in Brazilian music, including Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, and as one would expect, Veloso, who even plays a brief rendition of “Maria Bethânia.” We also hear her joined in concert by Nana Caymmi and Miucha, a past collaborator with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes.

While Bethânia’s musical director Jaime Alem will use an element here and there borrowed from jazz, it not part of an over-riding concept beyond the simple goal of finding what best serves the music. Bethânia’s first big hit was in fact a samba, which she often returns to, most notably with “Samba de Benção,” a song that appeals to her Bahia pride. Still, the overall vibe of Bethânia’s music is that of the popular and often traditional love song, delivered in a decidedly intimate style.

As captured by director Georges Gachot, Bethânia seems very down-to-earth. Several times she talks about the simple pleasures of a nice cold beer. She also obviously maintains strong relationships with her family, including Veloso and their mother, nonagenarian matriarch Dona Caro.

As a film Perfume is pleasant enough, if small in scope. While Bethânia might have started her career as a firebrand, the film entirely avoids any political controversies. While she doubtless has very definite opinions on the state of the world, the film focuses almost all its attentions on her music, which really is the best way to present an artist. It starts its New York run today at the Pioneer with Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée (separate admissions), which would probably be somewhat more interesting to jazz audiences than the delicate lyricism of Bethânia’s vocals. Still, Perfume is certainly an effective introduction for general audiences to a major Brazilian artist.

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Sukiyaki Western Django Comes to Town

After Kurosawa films inspired westerns like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, there is a certain amount of twisted logic in re-importing the spaghetti western back into Japan. Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (trailer here) is that film. Borrowing from Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbuccio, and indirectly Kurosawa, Miike recasts Yojimbo in feudal Japan, using what look like the costumes for a western-themed stage show meant to star Liberace and some of the props from Corbuccio’s original Django.

Miike cranks up the action somewhere between a cartoon and a video game, with stuff flying through the air and characters occasionally blowing holes through each other big enough to stick your arm through. Hideaki Ito is the archetypal man with no name, who swaggers into town, finding his skills sought after by the rival Genji (white) and Heike (red) clans—essentially A Fistful of Dollars rewound back to the feudal Heiji Rebellion. Listening to offers but staying non-committal, the gunslinger cools his heels at the Soba house run by Ruriki.

Red and white briefly mixed to pink when Ruriki’s son married Shizuka. However, when her husband was killed by his own clan, Shizuka took dubious refuge with the Genji, where she most definitely catches the lone gunslinger’s eye. While Sukiyaki is for the most part a testosterone driven action movie, its most interesting performances come from women. Yoshino Kimura is both seductive and emotionally nuanced as “the temptress” Shizuka. Kaori Momoi (previously seen it films like Memoirs of a Geisha and Kurosawa’s Kagemusha) steals the show as Ruriki, who turns out to be more of an action hero than the wooden gunslinger.

Some of the men do not fare so well, from an aesthetic perspective. The worst performance comes from Quentin Tarantino, who seems convinced audiences want to see he camp it up and go completely over the top. We don’t. This is totally annoying Destiny Turns on the Radio Tarantino, not the somewhat sufferable Pulp Fiction Tarantino. Fortunately, it is a relatively small supporting role, because when he is on-screen, things come to a screeching halt—quite an achievement given the hyper-kinetic energy Miike infuses into the proceedings

Miiko goes for whacked-out gonzo action and largely succeeds, thanks to the ultra-cool Momoi and a dance number from Kimura that alone is worth the price of admission. However, the film has a mean streak that somewhat dampens my enthusiasm. Cruelty and physical humor go hand-in-hand in Sukiyaki, and at times it makes an uneasy fit. It has wild look and a bizarre vibe, partly due to the actors’ unnatural sounding phonetic English. An occasional subtitle might have helped.

Takashi Miike is the ultimate cult director, so Sukiyaki should be red meat for his fans. The rest of us mere mortals are likely to find it wildly uneven, but never dull. After successful festival screenings co-presented by NYAFF and the Japan Society, Sukiyaki opens in New York today at the Angelika.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Mexican Shivah

The Hola Mexico Film Festival started each screening with two entertaining spots that worked well together: one was Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” and the other was the My Mexican Shivah trailer, featuring the tagline: “the worst thing about dying . . . is getting the family together.” If not the most interesting man in the world (they certainly look similar), the late Moishe lived richly and on his own terms, which led to friction with his family, making the cosmic reckoning of Aleph and Bet, the angelic rabbis watching over his shivah, an uncertain proposition. Those seven days are chronicled in director Alejandro Springall’s Shivah, opening tomorrow in New York.

Moishe died as he lived, kicking up his heels to his favorite mariachi band, a fact unremarked on by his uptight family. Though estranged from the late patriarch, they proceed with his shivah, by necessity at his daughter Esther’s house, because Moishe was shacked up with Julia Palafox, the notorious Catholic home-wrecker. Anticipation that the scandalous Palafox might have the audacity to pay her respects exacerbates the already high family tensions. Moishe’s son Ricardo is dealing with girlfriend issues and a mid-life crisis. Esther and her daughter Galia continually spare over her private life in America. For her part Galia does her best to ignite the sexual attraction between herself and her newly Orthodox cousin Nicolás. For seven days it all simmers in a pot of forced family togetherness.

Shivah is defined by a religious ceremony whose participants’ piety varies widely. By and large though, the film is fair in its portrayal of each extreme. True, the Chevreman of the funeral society is more concerned with the form than the spirit of the ceremony. However, the newfound Orthodox faith of Nicolás is never dismissed as a matter of convenience, even when we learn he had reasons for relocating to Israel in a hurry.

While Shivah has the outward appearances of a comedy, it is much more of a family drama. Rather than being terminally quirky, Moishe’s family is surprisingly believable. Not every relative’s subplot pans out, but it is a big family. The cast is quite effective portraying the community of Polaco, Mexico City’s Jewish neighborhood. In particular, David Ostrosky hits a nice balance between world-weariness and desperation as Ricardo, and veteran actress Blanca Guerra exudes warmth and wisdom as the infamous Palafox.

It is all nicely complemented by Jacobo Lieberman’s score for the Klezmatics, whose best known member is probably the somewhat jazz-influenced trumpeter Frank London, who himself scored other films, like the doc Divan, which also addresses notions of Jewish identity. Indeed, the Klezmer and Mariachi music heard in Shivah make for an interesting mix and is part of the film’s charm.

When the shivah concludes, Shivah essentially ends, although hardly any of the family issues are resolved. That’s life, after all. Jorge Goldenberg’s screenplay based on an Ilan Stavans story is often clever and the characterizations are credible. Rather than condemn them for their bourgeoisie ways, Shivah is respectful of the things that bring people together during bereavement—family, friendship, and even religion. While small in scope, Shivah tells Moishe’s story honestly, ultimately giving the dearly departed his due. It opens at the Quad tomorrow.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

NYKFF: A Love

He broods, she’s cute, it’s all very tragic, and ends with an unusually long dramatic freeze frame. That is Kwak Kyung-taek’s A Love (Korean trailer here) in a nutshell— unadulterated popcorn romance. If you enjoy sweeping weepers, A Love was your cup of tea at the NYKFF.

If we must discuss plot, it is a generous portion of star-crossed love with an occasional side dish of violence. Our lovers briefly meet in grade school, where In-ho finds himself compelled to come to Mi-ju’s defense. However, her family’s financial ruin leads to their first separation. In high school he unknowingly forms the most unlikeliest of friendships with her punk brother. When her brother and mother die in a fit of family dysfunction, In-ho again steps up to be Mi-ju’s protector, which she will need. Her late mother’s loan shark has an ugly method of collecting her bad debts, foiled at the last minute by our hero. Unfortunately, he is sent to jail as a result, leading to their second separation.

Years pass and eventually our hero is released. In-ho gets a job on the docks where he attracts the attention of the powerful chairman of a multinational corporation, who promotes him to serve as his bodyguard-enforcer. Eventually, one of his duties entails looking after the Chairman’s new kept mistress, who of course would be the lost love of his life.

While far removed in time and tone, Love’s fundamental plot somewhat parallels that of Hwang Jin-Yi. Young lovers are torn apart, only to come together again when the protector must facilitate the sexual dealings of his true love. Kwak directs it all with shameless indulgence, so despite holes in its wildly emotional plot, on some level the film works, until it’s climax finally goes too far over-the-top .

Joo Jin-mo broods like a champion as In-ho and is believable in his judo scenes. Park Si-yeon’s Mi-ju quite convincingly becomes the personification of vulnerability and sensitive regret, letting us accept their unrepentantly romantic relationship. Is it uncool to admit I enjoyed such a sentimental film?

Despite some similar plot elements, Hwang Jin-Yi is a serious, well-crafted prestige picture that beautifully recreates Korea’s Joseon Dynastic era. Song Hye-kyo is great as the celebrated kisaeng poet, in a film that also has plenty of sweeping romance in addition to its historical speculation. It screens at BAM as part of the NYKFF on Sunday.

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Return to Goree: N’Dour and Jazz

Although it was a small supporting role, Youssou N’Dour showed tremendous screen presence portraying Oloudah Equiano in Amazing Grace. A charismatic performer with a powerful voice, N’Dour now has his own cinematic vehicle in the documentary Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée (trailer here). Opening Friday in New York, Gorée serves both as N’Dour’s meditation on the legacy of slavery and his pilgrimage through the music of the African Diaspora, as he leads an all-star group through jazz and gospel arrangements of his Senegalese songs.

The film starts and culminates at Gorée, the island home of the notorious slave-trading outpost off the coast of Senegal. It opens with the stirring lyrics of N’Dour’s anthem “Red Clay,” which speak directly to the African experience, making a fitting start for the musical odyssey to come. After securing the blessing of the curator of Gorée’s House of Slaves for his mission, N’Dour’s first rendezvous is with the French jazz pianist Moncef Genoud, who had previously collaborated with the vocalist on jazz arrangements of his material at a jazz festival. Together they perform with the Harmony Harmoneers at the Greater Israel Christian Fellowship church in Atlanta. However, N’Dour seems bizarrely alarmed to hear them sing their praise of Jesus in rehearsals—he wanted gospel, after all. Despite a bit of grumbling, the Harmoneers do agree to secularize their performance of “My Hope is in You” (the “you” formerly being Jesus for the gospel singers).

The next stop is New Orleans for a jazz set at Snug Harbor, with drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist James Cammack joining the rhythm section for the duration of the tour. In a pattern that repeats throughout the film, director Pierre-Yves Borgeaud films N’Dour and colleagues in a scorching rehearsal, and then moves on without showing the actual concert.

Then it is on to New York for a session with vocalist Pyeng Threadgill (daughter of the often avant-garde Henry Threadgill) and harmonica player Gregoire Maret, who has played on high profile recordings with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Pat Metheny, and Marcus Miller. We also hear a jazz-and-poetry collaboration with Amiri Baraka, who is relatively restrained in his militancy on that particular day, mercifully.

N’Dour and company make a final stopover in Luxemburg to add two more axes to the band, trumpeter Erni Hammes and Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, who plays an eloquent solo as we hear his thoughts on the project. Muthspiel observes:

“The center of the music is the song. Youssou sings and is surrounded, illumined by the playing of the musicians, which you could call jazz influenced, but the center is not the improvising. The center is the song. In a way, I think even the best jazz musicians have the song in the center.”

As the musicians assemble in Dakar, the Harmoneers tour the House of Slaves and are moved to sing “Return to the Land of Gorée.” It is a scene that recalls Roberta Flack singing “Freedom Song” in a Ghanaian slave fortress during the Soul to Soul concert film, (which was cut at her request from Rhino’s DVD/CD reissue).

When the final concert kicks off, it does sound like the band came together into a tight unit. Unfortunately, we do not hear the full group with the Harmoneers or Threadgill. In general though, N’Dour’s experiment sounds great. His songs translate well into a jazz context, helped by the presence of jazz musicians like Muhammad and Genoud who are well attuned to N’Dour’s original music.

With an interesting mix of well known musicians like N’Dour and Muhammad with European artists largely unfamiliar to American audiences, like trumpeter Hammes in particular, Gorée is definitely a cool jazz documentary. It opens Friday in the City at the Two Boots Pioneer, along with Music is Perfume, a film about Brazilian vocalist Maria Bethania from the same distributor (but screening separately). Look for a review of Perfume on Friday.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

NYKFF: Shorts

In publishing, it is established wisdom that readers prefer novels to short stories. With films, the preference for features over shorts is even more pronounced. It seems that film festivals are the only real venue remaining for shorts, which is unfortunate. It is not as if people can not enjoy short films if given an opportunity. They just are not on the current cultural radar. To expand on a discussion after Monday night’s short film program at the New York Korean Film Festival, one reason shorts are largely denied any meaningful publicity is because they can be devilishly difficult to write about (believe me).

By their nature, shorts are often impressionistic and poetic. Their stories are compressed, frequently relying on suggestion and gesture. Conveying such a viewing experience to readers is much more demanding than simple plot summary. A film like Weekend, directed by Paula Kim, is a case in point. It is a film entirely about perspective, depicting the dreariness of solitude or the pleasure of independent living, depending on the artfully filmed point-of-view. As the audience first watches the protagonist’s weekend unfold, her face is kept obscured from view, without the film feeling forced or gimmicky. During the second pass, we see her countenance, getting entirely different impression of her weekend spent alone. Obviously, you have to see the film to get a real sense of it.

When short films do have concrete plots, or at least discrete plot devices, they often end on an indeterminate note, or a punch line for which you have to experience the set-up to truly appreciate. Ted Chung’s A Thousand Words is a story of a man’s attempt to return a digital camera to a woman on a train, and perhaps forge a more substantial human connection, that concludes without definitively revealing his ultimate success or failure. Similarly, Ruslan Pak’s

Dance of the Free Bird, caps off a student’s terrible night of internet dating with an amusing moment that would not have much meaning apart from the scenes which led up to it.

The best short film of the NYKFF shorts program is probably the easiest to convey, at least in terms of communicating its basic plot, if not its intensity. James Bang’s Wianbu—Comfort Woman dramatizes the horrific experience of a so-called Comfort Woman, one of 200,000 Asian women kidnapped and sexually brutalized by the Japanese military during WWII. Portraying Sohee, a captive Korean comfort woman, Elena Chang gives an absolutely fearless performance. As a Wianbu, she is repeatedly violated, but shames one of her would be tormentors with the depravity of his actions. It is a painfully difficult film to watch.

Clearly, festivals like NYKFF still value short films as early opportunities for young filmmakers to practice their craft. Yes, there is tremendous potential for shorts to find viewers online. However, the better short films like Wianbu deserve a serious audience and should be seen as they were intended. Most filmmakers did not go to the considerable effort and expense of making their short films in the hopes it would be seen in a cocktail napkin-sized window on youtube. They had a big screen in mind. Last night you could sense nobody in the audience could breathe during Wianbu. That is an element of the viewing experience completely lost online.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

ACE Film Festival: Preview

Yes, this week will be heavy on Korean films as coverage of the NYKFF continues. If Korean cinema is not your cup of tea, you’re missing out, but there will be plenty of arts documentaries in the very near future. The 2008 ACE Film Festival (the American Cinematic Experience) is set to take place September 4-7 in the main theater of New World Stages, just west of Times Square in the Theater District. Having seen shows here before, I expect it to be a cool venue for the Fest.

In addition to narrative features and shorts, the ACE Film Festival includes five documentaries from the extensive New York Foundation for the Arts film library. The NYFA selections touch on various disciplines of the humanities, including music, dance, architecture, and history. I already heartily recommend Been Rich All My Life¸ the story of the Apollo Theater dancers, the Silver Belles, which screens the 7th and plan to attend the screening of the Holocaust documentary, The Children of Chabannes.

In the narrative program, the Salsa drama The Big Shot Caller, sounds particularly promising, since it has been chosen to close the festival. Also, Kill Kill Faster Faster looks like a notable film-noir, with a big-name cast and a Crime Jazz-influenced score by Michael Benn, known for his work with Terry Callier.

The ACE Film Festival runs from the 4th through the 7th. Information on tickets and passes, directions, and film descriptions can be found here. As a preview, here is a slightly condensed version of a previous Been Rich All My Life review, which screens at ACE Sunday, September 7th:


There was a time when people dressed up for a night out. The big bands ruled the night clubs and theaters, and the women of the Silver Belles were dancing in the chorus at the Apollo Theater. Director-producer-and-most-everything-else Heather Lyn MacDonald records their stories in the touching feature documentary Been Rich All My Life.

It was big band swing that they danced to at the Apollo and legendary night-spots like the Cotton Club, so as one would expect, music plays an important role in their story. Silver Belle Marian Coles explains: “We do mostly jazz moves. You got to be loose to move and the music inspires that.” Which band did they single out? Jimmie Lunceford’s: “that was our band . . . because they were swinging.”

Ms. Coles, age 88 at time of filming, was also teaching tap in addition to performing. When she talks about preserving the tap tradition, her words have resonance for jazz lovers as well: “I love to dance—I teach because our style of dance—there’s no one out here doing it . . . I teach to pass it on, because the students love it.” Her teaching techniques even reflect a jazz influence, as she scats the dance steps to her students.

MacDonald captured some great interviews, preserving some important cultural history. In one interview, Cleo Hayes tells us: “I’m from Greenville, Mississippi and I don’t have to tell you why I left.” If you don’t know, it should be clear when listening to their experiences on Southern tours. Even when a part of the first African-American USO tour, they had to deal with segregation, despite soldiers shouting: “Hey Apollo, Hey Apollo.”

Tap like jazz depends on masters passing down the tradition, by teaching young talents. Coles and Hayes both credit senior member Bettye Lou Wood, who passed away during filming, for just that sort of formative instruction early in their careers. It is that sense of living tradition and passion for one’s art that makes Been Rich a rewarding film.

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NYKFF: Hwang Jin-Yi

There was a time when being both a poet and prostitute was considered highly unusual. That would be sixteenth century Korea, when Hwang Jin-yi, known professionally as the kisaeng Myung-wol, was desired both for her beauty and her verses. Hwang Jin-yi has been a popular figure in Korean drama, having recently been the subject of a 2006 television mini-series and soon thereafter director Chang Youn-hyun’s Hwang Jin-Yi (Korean trailer here), which opened this year’s NY Korean Film Festival.

According to the director during a post-screening Q&A, this Hwang Jin-Yi speculates more on the courtesan’s back-story. We see her raised as a daughter of nobility, schooled in arts and letters and catered to by servants, including the young orphan boy Nom-yi. Of course, he falls in love with his mistress and their fates become intertwined. After a period of exile, Nom-yi returns to the household as a steward with fierce fighting prowess and a considerable working knowledge of the pleasure district.

The family’s fortunes have fallen since her father death, but her impending marriage promises to improve their position, until the engagement is suddenly cancelled. The family of her intended has learned a secret even she is not privy to: she is not of noble blood, but raised to the manor-born after her mother, a lowly maid, was attacked by her father and then cast out. With the truth public knowledge, her options are limited. She opts for the most independent life then available to common-born woman in Joseon-era Korea: the brothel. Now the grief-stricken Nom-yi takes on a new role as her procurer. Hwang becomes epic in scope, when Nom-yi essentially becomes a socialist revolutionary, while his true love precariously finesses the local lord, finding respect for her mind, despite selling her body.

Hwang Jin-yi, now Myung-wol, shows true grit in her time of existential crisis. While it might be difficult to believe a child of privilege could walk from such a life so easily, Song Hye-kyo sells it. Known for lighter roles in Korea, she shows real screen presence in this iconic role. It is her relationship with Nom-yi (played by Yoo Ji-tae, director of Out of My Intention, who is quite credible in his actions scenes) that at times stretches credibility. It was he after all, who revealed her secret, for reasons that seem tortured.

Hwang is notable as an example of South-North collaboration. It is adapted from a North Korean novel and its final scene was filmed in a mountainous province of the DPRK. So it is difficult not to hear traces of Northern propaganda when Nom-yi speaks of establishing a community without class distinctions where nobody starves (though that would be worlds away from the brutal North Korean reality).

With its lavish production values, Hwang looks great and features a fantastic lead performance. It would make for interesting viewing if ever programmed with similar themed films like the recent Japanese film Sakuran, although the stakes are considerably higher in Hwang. It screens again Sunday at BAM.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

NYKFF: Going By the Book

Nice guys finish with a bag full of cash and a bank full of hostages. At least, that is how it looks for Jung Do-man. No good deed goes unpunished for this tragically honest cop in Going By the Book (Korean trailer here), screening during the NY Korean Film Festival.

Once a detective, Jung Do-man got himself busted down to traffic patrolman for daring to investigate the corrupt local provincial governor. He even has the bad fortune of ticketing the new police chief on his first day on the job. Of course, Jung Do-man writes it up—unless ordered differently he does everything strictly according to Hoyle.

That might be annoying, but it convinces the new Chief he is the right cop to play robber in an elaborate training exercise he is planning. Their sleepy backwater has suffered a rash of bank heists recently, so with the cooperation of the banks, the Chief instructs his force one of their own will attempt a bank job. They will have no idea how, but it will be their job to stop it. He knows Jung Do-man will take the assignment seriously enough to put on a good show for the media, which is what this exercise is really for.

Unfortunately, Jung Do-man does not understand that. Ordered to hold up a bank, he proceeds to do just that. So when a colleague approaches, he shoots him in the head. It was only a blank of course, but he is dead to the training game. At first the Chief is pleased to see Jung Do-man make a good show of it, but when he disables the cameras and lowers the shutters, he realizes he has an embarrassing situation on his hands, with an amused media enjoying the spectacle. Suddenly the hypothetical bodies are piling up with no end in sight.

Book puts a new twist on the hostage crisis story and makes the most of it. In truth, there are story holes all over the place, but it does not matter. The film is inventive enough to just keep careening over them. While watching Book, it seemed like a movie ripe for an American remake, but upon reflection it probably would not be credible in an American context. Book is dependent on its characters strictly observing the rules of the exercise. Most would expect American cops to take Jung Do-man out, whatever the rules, once the department started suffering public embarrassment.

Jang Jin’s script is quite clever. At times it treads close to some dark places, but it always pulls back just in time to maintain its brisk comedic spirit. Director La Hee-chan keeps things zipping along nicely and Jeong Jae-young is perfect as Jung Do-man, the straight-man who takes over the joke of a training exercise. Book is a very entertaining film that should prove a crowd pleaser if it is picked up for further American distribution. It screens again during the NYKFF on Monday at the Cinema Village and Saturday at BAM.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

NYKFF: Out of My Intention (Short)

For suburban drivers, long commutes can be dehumanizing. You might be surrounded by people in traffic, yet hermetically sealed in your car. When traffic is bad, you are even denied the illusion of forward motion. At least that seems to be the case for the unnamed protagonist of Yoo Ji-tae’s Out of My Intention, which screened as part of the NY Korean Film Festival’s short film program.

Traffic is bad, but Lee Dae-yeon’s commuter is in no particular hurry to get home. He would rather face the recriminations of Ok-kyung, his ex-girlfriend, or at least his memories of her. Intention starts as a memory play before veering into the experimental terrain of dreamscapes and the dark recesses of the subconscious. Strangely enough, it is a trip accompanied by an often jazz-influenced soundtrack, composed by Cho Young-wuk.

While the initial music we hear is basically mood music, as the man at the wheel descends into himself, the audience hears sounds reminiscent of groovy 1960’s bachelor pad-style jazz, featuring vibes and electric guitar. It seems wildly out of place, yet there is a dark undercurrent below the effervescence of the vibes. Cho’s score is oddly successful in facilitating the on-screen disorientation taking place. It makes one curious about the musicians who played on it, (but the ending credits were no help to me).

Yoo is better known as an actor in Korea, but he shows an interesting visual sense in Intention. He also gets convincing performances from his actors, with Lee emoting much, but expressing little. Conversely, Cho An has a very showy role, yet must remain a cipher to viewers.

At just over twenty-four minutes Intention is long enough to bear some analysis. While its surreal imagery can be puzzling, its lonely destination is dramatically effective. It is part of a carefully curated short film program that has two more blocks running Monday night at Cinema Village.

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NYKFF: Open City

If you feel your pocket being picked in Korea, you might want to just let it go, or risk pulling back a bloody appendage. At least, that is one message of Open City (Korean trailer here), a stylish crime drama screening during the New York Korean Film Festival. Far from Dickensian street urchins, these pick-pockets are stone cold gangsters, but at least one of their ringleaders is also a sultry bombshell.

Baek Jang-mi is getting a gang together. She has two talents, picking pockets and tattoo art. Well, maybe three talents. Her upstart crew sets off a series of turf skirmishes among rivals gangs. When one particularly violent crew gets the drop on Jang-mi, she only survives due to the intervention of Dae-young, an emotionally scarred cop who can handle half a dozen henchmen with ease.

When Jang-mi realizes she was saved by a copper, she ditches him at the nearby coffee-bar. However, their paths soon cross, when Dae-young’s organized crime unit is assigned to take down the marauding pick-pocket gangs. This leads to one of the best cinematic femme-fatale cop seductions in quite some time.

It turns out flatfoot and criminal are connected through associations with Dae-young’s ex-con mother, a former pick-pocket herself. As events come to a head and the driving rain starts to fall, the action sequences become almost operatic, as the weight of family regrets and resentments beget more tragedy. In these scenes, City has almost an old school John Woo vibe going on (but no doves, at least).

City has some fantastic action sequences, the most effective of which are probably straight forward one man vs. many style street-fighting scenes. Lee Sang-gi is a stylish, but not subtle director, and he lets the film get a little overblown at times. Occasionally, the villains veer into over-the-top Dick Tracy territory. However, his leads are great and generate some real heat in their scenes together. Son Ye-jin plays Jang-mi with nuance—a manipulator to be sure, but maybe one with a heart. Then again, perhaps not. Kim Myung-min can administer a beat down with credibility and also convey the anger simmering beneath Dae-young’s stoic façade. However, his unyielding hostility towards his mother eventually becomes tiresome and overwrought.

While its themes of forgiveness and redemption get more than a little heavy-handed, the pacing never suffers for it. City’s mix of high tragedy and slick action results in a distinctively ambitious hard-boiled action-film noir. It screens again during the NYKFF at the Cinema Village Tuesday.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Imaginary Column-Earth-Satellite Dish Live

Imaginary Day Live
By the Pat Metheny Group
Eagle Eye Media


Pat Metheny is unusual among jazz artists in that when he tours, he brings serious gear and can afford guys to carry it all. You can see them setting up for a series of concerts at the Mountain Winery on Imaginary Day Live, the latest live DVD release from the Pat Metheny Group, of course featuring Lyle Mays on piano and keyboards.

Day was part of a concert tour to support the CD of the same title, with the seven of the ten tracks on the DVD drawn from the record’s nine tunes. The original CD cover art was notable for the picto-cryptograms used for the titles, which has been expanded for the DVD, with “Live” becoming egg-pocket watch-Empire State Building-elephant. Day was also notable as Metheny’s most fully realized immersion into jazz-rock territory at the time, which is reflected in the live concert performance.

Metheny seems to prefer starting concerts with a solo performance, which “Into the Dream” essentially is, concluding with some percussive accompaniment. The full band then launches into “Follow Me,” which is vintage Metheny—highly melodic with a medium tempo groove and some nicely harmonized background vocalizing. Probably the best straight-ahead jazz solos come in the following “A Story Within the Story” from Metheny as well as from trumpeter Mark Ledford. The interludes featuring his muted horn and Philip Hamilton’s melodica add a nice flavor to the tune.

Easily the most full-throated jazz-rock excursions are heard on “Imaginary Day” and “The Roots of Coincidence.” The synths on the latter can be a bit overbearing, approaching Floyd levels, but it is a high octane performance (with Mays playing second guitar).

Considering Day represents Metheny’s jazz-rock period, there are a surprising number of moody, introspective tunes, like “Across the Sky,” “Message to a Friend,” and “September Fifteenth.” As heartfelt as Metheny’s performances are, they lose some of their immediacy on video. More successful are the Latinesque “Heat of the Day,” which recalls some of Chick Corea’s Spanish-inspired compositions and features a dramatic solo from Mays, and the up-tempo set-closer “Minuano (Six Eight).”

Day is a very good set that is sure to please his fans, but if you are looking to start your Metheny DVD collection, I would recommend beginning with The Way Up Live, also from Eagle Rock. Not to disrespect Day, but where it is solid, Way Up is outstanding and remains Metheny’s best work to date.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Muddy the Waters

Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal do not like Pres. Bush, not one little bit. You could probably guess that from their credits as producers of among other films, Fahrenheit 9/11, but in their latest documentary they go out of their way to remind viewers of their low esteem every ten or fifteen minutes, or so. It is unfortunate because it undermines the power and effectiveness of the survivor stories recorded in Trouble the Water (trailer here), opening in New York tomorrow.

Evidently when tragedy strikes, Lessin and Deal’s first instinct is to grab their cameras and start filming, so that is what they did after Katrina lashed through the Gulf Coast. They were not getting much material until they met Kimberley and Scott Roberts, who filmed much of their ordeal during the storm with their recently purchased camcorder.

What the Scotts captured on film was abject chaos. No one in authority showed any leadership, or even had a clue. Perhaps some of the most infuriating footage involves tapes of terrified people calling 9-11 only to be told the NOLA PD were not accepting emergency calls at the time. Unfortunately, Lessin and Deal then disingenuously cut to footage of Pres. Bush. (Had they consulted a high school civics textbook, they would have read that America has a federal system of government, not a unitary one. The local NOLA authorities did not in fact report to the President but to a Democrat mayor, who would later be re-elected.)

This pattern becomes so blatant it distracts from the human drama faced by the Scotts and their family and friends. Was FEMA awful during Katrina? Lord, yes. (Has FEMA ever been praised for their timely response?) Yet many of the faults laid at the feet of Pres. Bush are just as much a function of dysfunctional local governments. For instance, complaints were made of the slowness of Federal money disbursed for home rebuilding efforts. However, the state coordination of those Federal disbursements was outsourced by then Gov. Blanco to a Virginia consulting firm, ICF, in one of the more controversial provisions of her Road Home program. Many speculate the administration of the Road Home, or lack there of, was the deciding factor in her decision not to seek re-election. However, Blanco is a Democrat, so fuller context would not help the narrative Lessin and Deal are spinning.

The Scotts and their friends and family pulled together and survived, but they did lose people close to them. Yet for various reasons they came back to New Orleans, despite finding what appeared to be welcome refuge in Memphis. The spirit and culture of the Crescent City seems to have an enduring hold on its citizens, but there is little sense of the city’s exceptionalism in Trouble. Kimberley Scott is a fairly talented rapper, so her music is logically heard periodically during the film, but aside from a licensed Dr. John rendition of “Wade in the Water,” we hear very little readily identifiable NOLA music in Trouble until late in the film when Free Agents Brass Band play at a protest outside the mayor’s office.

To their credit, Lessin and Deal do not insert themselves into the narrative. However, their treatment of an innocent New Orleans tourism official follows the Michael Moore tactic of targeting average Joe’s for ridicule as surrogates for their larger bogeymen. Are the filmmakers really interested in New Orleans or is it just a handy vehicle to try to score partisan points? One has to wonder watching Trouble. I have talked to many Katrina survivors who had harrowing stories to tell. When you talk about Katrina, it should be about them, not your personal feelings about Iraq. They and the Scotts deserve better than Trouble.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Gig: Jazz Film to Book Musical

Is a band really a band if they never perform for an audience? It is a relevant question even to professional musicians who dedicate great time and talent to rehearsal bands. For so-called kicks bands, the question can be ever more pointed. In The Gig, screenwriter-director Frank D. Gilroy poignantly dramatized the frustrated dreams of a group of amateur Dixieland jazz musicians who pursue a moment of professional glory through a legit paying gig at a second-rate (at best) Catskills resort.

You probably have not seen The Gig, since it only received spotty distribution when it was released and quickly went out-of-print on VHS, with no DVD afterlife announced as of yet. One of those who did see the film was Douglas J. Cohen, who adapted it into a book musical, which has had various Off-Broadway and out-of-town incarnations, but has yet to crack the Great White Way. The do have a cast recording though, selections from which were performed live at the Lincoln Triangle B&N Monday night.

Gilroy’s movie is an under-rated minor classic of jazz cinema—a valentine to those who play for sheer love, even if their passion exceeds their talent. Used-car dealer Marty Flynn (Wayne Rogers after MASH but before becoming an investment guru) uses his fast-talking skills to get the band booked at Paradise Manor, a resort run by “that Prince of Inn-Keepers” Abe Mitgang, who will explain to you your room isn’t too small, he just uses thick wallpaper.

Eventually Flynn cajoles the reluctant holdouts to take a chance, except their bassist Georgie Pappas, who will be checking into the hospital for a serious procedure, but delivers a carpe diem speech to the band that perfectly expresses the spirit of the film. As a replacement, Flynn hires sight-unseen Marshall Wilson, played by Cleavon Little, who turns out to be an African American jazz modernist who does not think particularly highly of Dixieland or of amateurs taking jobs away from professionals. When they finally play, it turns out Mitgang loves his rimshots but hates the “Biff-Bam-Bang,” as he calls their hot jazz, insisting they stick to sweet society numbers.

At first the gig looks like an utter disaster, but as Wilson starts to gel with the group and their brand of jazz proves popular with patrons, it looks like jazz will carry the day. Then the ugly realities of the music business intrude and the middle-aged musicians learn the hard way what it means to be a professional musician, ending on an appropriate, if bittersweet grace note.

The cast is uniformly excellent, including real-life jazz musician Warren Vaché (with whom the fictional Wilson sometimes tours), who deserved further acting gigs based on his performance as Gil Macrae, a lady’s man who chose to marry into money rather than pursue a promising musical career. Vaché’s cornet is also heard on the soundtrack, supervised by drummer Herb Harris, which also featured clarinetist Kenny Davern, trombonist George Masso, and bassist Milt Hinton. For Dixieland, the Gig Band’s music is swinging and often bluesy, particularly the concluding number. Not only should the film be available on DVD, the soundtrack ought to be available in some format as well.

As of now, if you want a piece of The Gig, only the musical cast album is available. Appropriately, the production heard on disk was produced by the York, which makes its home below St. Peter’s, the jazz church. Despite being about a Dixieland group and employing the instrumentation of a traditional jazz combo, the score for Gig the musical is more show tune than hot jazz. Based on Monday’s performance, it still has its moments. The initial introduction-of-characters number gives way to “Farewell Mere Existence, Hello Jazz,” a plucky little flag-waver that features a neat “fugue” where the band scats their instruments in what could be the most solidly jazz moment of the score.

Cohen sounds reasonably talented as a songwriter and he has excellent taste in source material. The Gig is an understated film that does not rely on star power, but it is still difficult to envision other actors in those roles, even after getting a substantial taste of the stage production Monday. Of course, for most people that will not be an issue should The Gig ever make it to Broadway or a rep theater near them.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Eick’s Door

The Door
By Mathias Eick
ECM Records 2059


A debut release should be a happy occasion, but in this case it is also a reminder of something lost. At the 2007 IAJE convention, Norwegian Mathias Eick was awarded the IJFO International Jazz Award for New Talent, and performed the best concert of the show. Sadly, there will be no more IAJEs, but as consolation, his initial outing as a leader, The Door, releases today from ECM.

The opening title track is a good indication of the deceptive nature of Eick’s music. It starts as an open, spacious vehicle for the leader’s lyrical trumpet, but the rhythm section subtly locks in, until drummer Audun Kleive kicks the intensity up to a crescendo, only to fall off for a brief mournful coda from Eick.

Simultaneously stately and moody, “Cologne Blues” benefits from the supportive aural textures added by Stian Carstensen on pedal steel guitar, an instrument rarely heard in jazz aside from Buddy Emmons’ dabblings outside of his Nashville sessions. Together with Kleive’s spooky percussive accents and an inventively structured solo from Jon Balke on piano, it is an intriguing track. It also shows Eick’s range, from breathy vibrato to strong clarion high notes.

Having penned each track on The Door, Eick shows a tremendous facility for melody, like the hypnotically catchy “October,” which inspires a surprisingly swinging solo from Balke. Eick skips a month, following it with the impressionistically lovely “December,” a remarkably accessible example of jazz trumpet that should woe fans of Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, and maybe even late pre-electric Miles.

“Williamsburg” is another haunting melody, but it never flags in energy, thanks to the strong pulse laid down by the rhythm section, particularly bassist Audun Erlien. It might feature Door’s strongest solo flights from Eick and Balke, again cutting loose for a playfully swing-centered statement.

With The Door, Eick suggests dualistic rhetoric: spacious yet rhythmic, lyric yet forceful, Nordic cool but swinging. It is a session that really pulls you in on initial listening, and then stays in heavy rotation in the CD changer. It turns out IAJE may not have been good with money (to say the least), but they did have good judgment in other areas. The Door represents a great start fulfilling the promise of Eick’s auspicious American debut at their final New York show.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Anatema: Choosing Life in Kosovo

Anatema
Directed by Agim Sopi
Vanguard Cinema


The horrors committed by the Serbian former Communists and their Bosnian Serb allies were horrendous, and the Free World’s feckless response was a scandal, which has yet to be adequately captured on film. The Hunting Party had some intriguing moments, but was undercut by a weak lead performance and displayed more interest in criticizing NATO for a lack of zealousness pursuing war criminals than dramatizing the actual crimes. Though not perfect, writer-director Agim Sopi’s Anatema (trailer here), now available on DVD, serves as a valuable corrective, shining a light on Serbian war crimes, in this case committed in Kosovo.

Sopi’s original intention was to document war crimes occurring in Kosovo with a documentary, but when the Serbian army confiscated his film, he was forced to shift his efforts to a narrative film. One of the unsettling aspects of Anatema is that it looks like its fictional crimes could have been filmed at the sights of previous real life atrocities. Those acts of evil dominate the first part of the film, as David Schwartz, an American journalist, and Ema Berisha, his Kosovar translator, attempt to save a little girl shot in the stomach by Serbian forces, but are prevented by Serbian officers making absurdist sport of the situation. After surviving the subsequent brutality of the Serbs, Schwartz broadcasts his report, only to be recalled by his network due to the impending NATO intervention. He and his field producer want to take Berisha with them, but she insists on returning to her home in Pristine.

Despite the temporary joy of a reunion with her fiancé, leading to their long postponed wedding, Pristine quickly turns into a nightmare. The Serbian forces occupy the city, deliberating using organized rape as a tool of terror and pacification, before expelling the survivors to Albania. On her return to Kosovo, Berisha is rejected by her husband and spurned by most of her friends. Nobody wants her to keep her baby (which for all she knows could be the product of her wedding night). The Kosovars do not want her to keep the presumed product of Serbian war crimes and issue of Serbian blood. The Serbs do not want such babies to survive as evidence of their crimes. Berisha is determined not to punish Ana, her unborn daughter, for the crimes of others. Indeed, Anatema (Ana + Ema) may well be the most pro-life film ever made.

Berisha is forced to temporarily give up Ana for adoption, but when she returns to claim her, the agency is gone. She tracks Ana to a former monastery appropriated by the old Communists and noveau mobsters trafficking in babies, both for profit and disposing of war crimes evidence.

Anatema is at heart a mother’s story and as such is wholly dependent on its lead actress. Unlike Richard Gere in Hunting Party, Lumnie Sopi is terrific as Ema. Unfortunately, many of the supporting actors are considerably weaker, although Blerim Gjoci is likeably credible as the sympathetic Kosovar Commander Shpati. Director Sopi truly takes the audience to occupied Kosovo, rightly forcing viewers to confront the reality of the war crimes committed there. However, he can be a bit heavy-handed, as when he shows a stampeding crowd trampling a baby’s doll. Still, his portrayals of Serbian brutality and the cluelessness of the international policing forces are infuriatingly effective, all of which is ultimately held together by an impressive lead performance.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vinyl Love for Tenor Classics

The music business is hurting. Hard copy sales are down across the board, with one exception: new vinyl. According to the RIAA, new vinyl sales were up 36% last year, while CDs were down 17%. Of course, CDs still had about 500 times the sales of new vinyl the industry group quickly pointed out, for some reason eager to pour cold water on vinyl’s good press. Ordinarily I do not tell people their business, but it seems to me, the RIAA should be embracing a potential vinyl renaissance. Certainly, LPs are not going to muscle out CDs or downloads, but if a significant number of people starting choosing the LP as their preferred media vehicle, it would be a godsend to the industry. After all, CDs can be burned, files can be copies, and tapes can be dubbed, but there are not a lot of people out there who can press records.

Some labels have re-embraced vinyl, including Concord Records, the current custodians of the classic Prestige and Riverside catalogs, who has been heavily promoting their Collectors Corner as a place to buy new vinyl pressings of their classic jazz releases (the availability on other major online retailers appears spotty). Listening to some of the new some of their classic records repressed in the format they were intended for is a treat.

Recorded in 1961, Eastern Sounds was Yusef Lateef’s fullest exploration of Eastern musical forms up to that point, yet he still kept it firmly grounded in the jazz idiom. LP’s in general sound better than their CDs counterparts, and Eastern is a good example. The sparkling notes of the opening “The Plum Blossom” really jumps out at the listener. Here Lateef plays the Chinese globular flute and bassist Ernie Farrow plays the rebat (or rabaab), sounding like a cross between the bass and the mbira. With vinyl’s richer sound, you can actually hear Farrow’s bass on tracks like “Blues for the Orient” and you get the full auditory sensation of Lateef’s warm tenor goodness on “Don’t Blame Me.” (While Farrow is largely remembered for his work with Lateef, he was active on the Detroit scene as a sometimes leader, and according to his half-sister, Alice Coltrane, he certainly had an impact on jazz history by introducing her to the music.)

There are not many extant recordings of Monk’s group while Coltrane was a member, which is why the 2005 discovery of the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert was such a find. The logically titled Thelonius Monk with John Coltrane was one of their few recording sessions we have always known. Actually cobbled together from two sessions, but it is no less rewarding for it, Monk with consists entirely of the leader’s originals, including the concluding piano solo, “Functional,” a starkly beautiful blues, which makes one wonder why this tune is so under-recorded. While Coltrane was at this point still getting used to playing with Monk, he sounds born to play the achingly tender “Ruby, My Dear.” On the large ensemble tracks, Coleman Hawkin’s full-bodied swinging tenor is totally in-synch with his supposedly more modern colleagues.

Coltrane really hit his stride during his late Atlantic and early Impulse years, but there are plenty of great moments on his Prestige sides. Soultrane is certainly a solid outing, backed up by two thirds of the Miles David rhythm section of Red Garland and Paul Chambers, with Arthur Taylor filling the drum chair. On vinyl, you can really hear and feel Chambers’ bass on a track like the opening “Good Bait,” which I’m sure my neighbors agree is very cool. Soultrane effectively showcases Coltrane’s expressive range, particularly striking on “Theme for Ernie,” a tribute to the late Ernie Henry, an alto player best remembered for his sideman work with Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

And what possibly needs be said about Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus, probably the most analyzed single “non-concept” record ever? With the introduction of “St. Thomas,” what would become his signature tune, and “Blue 7,” arguably the most acclaimed solo in jazz history, the significance of Colossus is beyond debate. As an LP, its iconic blue-washed cover image of Rollins actually looks as dramatic as intended. Rollins has a reputation for preferring live performance to the studio setting, but his playing on Colossus is exceptional throughout, like the gorgeously lyrical “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Again, you get the full auditory effect of Doug Watkins’ bass and Max Roach’s bass drum.

It is nice to see a label promoting its classic catalog on vinyl. The sound is richer and the overall experience is more tactile. One can savor the full cover art as it was meant to be seen, rather than as a cocktail napkin-sized insert. Frankly, in my experience CDs are just as apt to scratch and skip as records, so the clear advantage goes to vinyl.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Tibetan Night at Two Boots

NBC has been dubbed “Nothing But Communism” for the fawning coverage of the Chinese government seen during its Olympic broadcasts, so a documentary reminding the world that there is in fact a place called Tibet, which happens to be occupied by China, would seem timely indeed. Screening Saturday night at Two Boots’ Pioneer Theater, the documentary Dancing at Amdo (trailer here) attempts to examine the Tibetan occupation dispassionately from all sides, but in doing so, it leaves many obvious questions unasked.

Amdo starts with historical context, but seems to accept the proposition that pre-Communist Tibet was a feudal society. A local CP official’s assertion to that effect is essentially accepted at face value, which becomes a pattern throughout the film. Evidently there is an ongoing scholarly debate regarding the nature and extent of Tibetan serfdom, and the only academic involved in the film, Dr. Melvyn Goldstein, holds to the position of extreme serfdom. What sounds like a solely academic controversy has greater significance, since Tibet’s presumed history of serfdom has been used to justify the Chinese occupation.

The filmmakers do contend that the Tibetan government in exile is certainly more progressive than whatever may have preceded it, giving them credit for the democratic election of their prime minister. Also, there is no attempt to whitewash the crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution against Tibetan culture. According to the Venerable Amchok Rinpoche, the director of the government in exile’s archives, of the estimated six thousand monasteries existing in Tibet before the Gang of Four’s ascension, “at least 70 percent, seven zero, 70 percent are totally gone.”

In general though, Amdo seems all too willing to let the words of the current Chinese government pass unchallenged. After showing some vintage Cold War cartoons to mock American anti-Communist attitudes, we hear from Ye Xiaowen, the director general for the State Administration for Religious Affairs tell us: “Over the past few years, my office has done a lot of things to protect the Chinese people’s freedom of religious belief.”

That there is even such an agency for “Religious Affairs” is in itself chilling. Considering there are only five officially authorized religions in China and each is directly controlled by that agency, Ye’s statement is quite a jaw-dropper. Even if conditions have improved for Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese Christians would surely take issue with his assurances, and regardless how one feels about Falun Gong practitioners, there is little question they have been persecuted for their beliefs. Far from challenging Ye, we see stills of the filmmakers as Ye praises them, saying: “You are now looking at China through your camera and you are trying to see the truth.”

While at times informative, the greatest problem with Amdo is the lack of independent critical voices at such junctures. Yes, we do hear from the Dalai Lama and other members of the government in exile, like the venerable archivist, who seems to personify wisdom, and is allowed to rebut Ye’s claims late in the film. However, with their homeland occupied by the Chinese, there are very legitimate political and diplomatic reasons for them to be circumspect in their interviews.

The strongest scenes in Amdo document the attempts to keep Tibetan culture alive, through the institutions established by the Dalai Lama and the government in exile. Several officials talk about the distinctions between a living, dynamic art and that which is maintained on life-support in museum-style preservation programs. We also hear about traditional Tibetan productions rewritten by the Chinese to suit their propaganda purposes. Although the results are mixed, in general it seems legitimate contemporary Tibetan culture still remains quite vital.

With the Dalai Lama now accepting the possibility of Hong Kong style Communist rule in Tibet, the region might be reaching a turning point. The richness of Tibetan culture is nicely highlighted in Amdo, so its continued survival is a very real concern. However, the film should not be one’s primary source for historical and geo-political background on the conflict. It screens tomorrow night at Two Boots.

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Joy House: Noir and Swinging

Joy House (Les Felins)
Directed by René Clément
Koch Lorber


René Clément’s career had its ups-and-downs, but his collaborations with Alain Delon were high points. Their first, Purple Noon, established Delon as an international star. The second, Joy House (original trailer here), is a sophisticated film noir that ought to have been included in either the MoMA’s Jazz Score series or the Film Forum’s French Crime Wave retrospective. Happily though, it is now available on DVD.

Delon plays Marc, an amoral gigolo, which is a promising start to any film. Dumb enough to romance the wife of an American mobster, he quickly finds he is not safe, even on the Riviera. Needing a hiding place, he takes work as the chauffeur of Barbara Hill, a reclusive American widow living alone with her niece Melinda, or so they tell Marc. He quickly suspects there is another player somehow involved in the Hill household—someone who probably played a role in Barbara’s bereavement. After all, it is impossible for Marc to believe the beautiful widow, played by Lola Albright, is not enjoying the attentions of a man. He would certainly volunteer for the position, but it is the niece (a pre-Barbarella sex-kittenish Jane Fonda) who repeatedly throws herself at him, leading to something more complicated than a love triangle (a rhombus maybe).

Delon’s adventurer might not be particularly likeable, but he is not an idiot, immediately recognizing all is not right with his employers. Lola Albright, of Peter Gunn fame, brings a surprising vulnerability to her black widow role. As Melinda, Fonda is reasonably credible, conveying the danger lurking beneath her coy surface. What really makes the film enjoyable though, is some of the hardboiled dialogue. At one point the European contact for the American gangsters tells them he is Corsican. “Well, that’s not your fault,” one replies.

Titled Les Felins in the French version, there is a pronounced feline theme, with the women literally showing claws at times. Clément creates a sense of desire turning claustrophobic, heightened by Jean André’s production design, which really makes Barabara’s castle-like villa another character in the drama.

Adding a sultry flavor is Lalo Schifrin’s groovy little crime jazz score. Recorded with members of the Paris Opera Orchestra as well as trumpeter Roger Guérin, who also played on Martial Solal’s soundtrack for Breathless, and bassist Pierre Michelot, who played on Miles Davis’s Elevator to the Scaffold soundtrack and was a member of the house band seen in Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, Schifrin’s soundtrack was only just issued in full four years ago. However, his main theme, “The Cat” took on a life of its own, with Jimmy Smith, Claude Nougaro, Peggy Lee, and Schifrin himself recording cover versions of it at the time.

The new DVD version includes both the English and French language versions, and they are not precisely the same, with the French being a bit longer, giving a bit more context, as when Marc and Barbara spar during their initial interview. In either version, House is a clever crime story with a cool swinging sixties vibe. Having taught it in a jazz and film class as an example of Schifrin’s film work, I am happy to see it readily available again.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chabrol’s Cut

In 1906 Henry K. Thaw murdered his wife’s lover, Beaux-Arts architect Stanford White. That crime and the resulting trial of the six year old century have inspired several literary and dramatic adaptations. While E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime and the subsequent film and musical are the best known, Claude Chabrol’s latest psychological drama also takes its initial kernel of inspiration from the White case. Opening Friday in New York, A Girl Cut in Two (trailer here) shares some elements of his great crime films, but has more in common with his psycho-sexually charged films like The Pleasure Party.

Charles Saint-Denis is a man who extracts as much pleasure as he can out of life. He is a successful, well-regarded novelist, with a low-stress wife on very good terms with his ambiguously affectionate editor. When he happens to meet Gabrielle Deneige, young woman building a television career on being cute rather than deep, he takes advantage of what chance offers. However, as he lures her deeper into 9 ½ Weeks style debauchery, she becomes more emotionally attached to the older man, which obviously will not do at all. After finding herself abruptly dropped by her lover, Deneige eventually succumbs to the advances of a conspicuously unstable, but filthy rich suitor, Paul Gaudens.

While Cut is a crime film of a sort, with Saint-Denis standing in for Stanford White, it is all about the build-up to the murder, with the scandalous trial coming as anti-climax, before a head-scratching denouement that only seems to serve the purpose of literally illustrating the film’s title (it is not what you might think, so do not consider that a spoiler).

Chabrol is a great director, and Cut hardly suggests it is time for him to retire. He handles the film’s adult themes quite deftly, conveying precisely what manner of lurid behavior is going on behind closed doors, without taking viewers inside to revel in the depravity. Chabrol also still shows a gift for crafting intense scenes, here abetted by Edouardo Serra’s cinematography and Matthieu Chabrol’s music, which both heighten the hot house atmosphere. He elicits some strong performances, particularly from François Berléand as the world-weary hedonist Saint-Denis and son Thomas Chabrol as a cold-blooded defense attorney.

Unfortunately, the screenplay has serious issues. Motivations are often vague at best, which creates problems of credibility. Five minutes with Gaudens should be sufficient to convince anyone he is bad news, yet Deneige marries him, albeit out of spite for Saint-Denis, only to be shocked by his capacity for violence later. Also, Cut places far too much significance on her name, which translates as “the snow,” as in pure as the driven.

Chabrol is still a world-class director. He just misfired in Cut. While there are flashes of his masterful skill in the film, compared to the rest of his filmography, it is a bit of a disappointment. It opens Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Anita O’Day’s Life

1959’s Gene Krupa Story might be a flawed film, but there is a great scene of Anita O’Day singing “Memories of You” at an after hours party. “Who’s the snake charmer,” Sal Mineo asks as Krupa. His femme fatale girlfriend responds: “Anita O’Day. Not bad, if you like talent.” While brief, its one of my favorite O’Day clips, and one of the few not included in a new O’Day documentary opening Friday in New York and LA. Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (trailer here), draws from extensive archival performance and interview footage, focusing squarely on O’Day’s music rather than her melodramatic life.

O’Day’s first real national exposure did indeed come with Krupa’s band, where she raised eyebrows by playfully interacting onstage with the African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Then following a brief stint with Woody Herman, she reluctantly signed on with Stan Kenton’s outfit, where she tried valiantly to get him to swing more, as she explains in a hilarious segment. Despite Kenton’s terminally whitebread style, O’Day was able to make silk purses out of his novelty numbers like “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” before striking out on her own.

Unfortunately, O’Day’s life is nearly synonymous with chaos, with her addictions all too public. Arguably, her greatest talent was for getting involved with the wrong men, yet she kept plugging away at the jazz life. She was commencing yet another comeback shortly before her death, with the help of her final manager, Robbie Cavolina, who co-directed the documentary with Ian McCrudden.

We do hear various interviewers ask the requisite questions about drugs and other madness, which she answers honestly and directly. However, true to the jazz ethos, she appears more interested in the present than the dead past. Like O’Day, Cavolina and McCrudden seem more interested in O’Day’s music than the details of her habit, which is quite refreshing.

Too many music documentaries seem to lack confidence in their subjects, giving the audience quick performance sound-bites, only to have talking heads speak over them, telling us how brilliant it is. Here, Cavolina and McCrudden let us listen to many complete performances (or at least complete vocals), including vintage television appearances and rarely seen Japanese concert footage. Of course, they also include her renditions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival immortalized in Bert Stern’s documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day.

By putting the spotlight on O’Day’s music, the filmmakers illustrate to the audience why they should care about the vocalist, but they include enough of her ups and downs to establish the dramatic arc of her life. It is a welcome approach I was happy to see for a change. If viewers want to plumb the dark side of her life more they can certainly consult her autobiography High Times, Hard Times, but you will probably know her better through her music, like “Georgia Brown” at Newport, or even “Tears Flowed Like Wine” with Kenton, which does not sound so funny in retrospect (if it ever really did before). Anita O’Day is one of the more enjoyable jazz documentaries I have seen in a while, and I have seen a lot. It opens Friday at Cinema Village in Manhattan.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mazur’s Elixir


Elixir
By Marilyn Mazur with Jan Garbarek
ECM 1962


Someone once dubbed Miles Davis’s surviving sidemen “the Sons of Miles,” but where would that leave Marilyn Mazur, who played on the trumpeter’s arguably last great recording, Aura, and toured with him for nearly half a decade? Basically, doing her thing, with musicians of the caliber of Gil Evans, Eberhard Weber, and Jan Garbarek, with whom she recorded Elixir, a set of solo and duet performances, for her percussion and his reeds.

With the opening track, “Clear,” Mazur establishes the mysterious nature of the music to follow, but Garbarek’s tenor is surprisingly warm and tender. Indeed, her percussion seems to propel him towards some of his most explicitly jazz sounding performances of recent years. Mazur supplies “Dunun Song” a strong groove that has Garbarek swinging surprisingly hard on tenor. “Joy Chant” is even more upbeat, with bright tonal colors produced by Garbarek’s soprano and Mazur’s percussive accoutrements, sounding almost like a steel pan drum here.

Mazur and Garabarek cover quite a bit of ground in their varied set. “Mountain Breath” is a brief exotic pastoral for flute, whereas “Totem Dance” is a hypnotic trance-dance. With Garbarek on tenor, it almost suggests some of Charles Lloyd’s more mystical music. Only “Winter Wish,” another tenor feature, has the sort of austere, Nordic vibe one might expect of a Garbarek session on ECM. Mazur has played on a number of the Norwegian reedman’s sessions, which evidently has led to a musical empathy of a very high order. They sound perfectly in-synch throughout Elixir, conveying an easy, unforced manner.

Mazur’s percussion solos interspersed throughout Elixir are quite evocative and even melodic. Pieces like “Metal Dew,” “Mother Drum,” and “Creature Walk” have a strong rhythmic pulse that is easy to get caught up in. Whereas, improvisations like “Sheep Dream” and “The Siren in the Well” eerily suggest scenes of nature at night.

Loose and improvisational, Elixir still holds together quite cohesively. While spacious and moody, it should not be dismissed as experimental or self-consciously intellectual. Indeed, Mazur and Garbarek often produce the joyful sounds of an accessible brand of jazz.

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