Monday, August 24, 2015

A Milkshake, a Meatball and a Box of Fries walk into a room...

2001 - 2015


The end.

We bid you goodnight.

Finito.

After 15 years and 138 episodes Aqua Teen Hunger Force has rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisibule.  The final double-sized episode premiered Sunday night and the show went off as true to itself as Breaking Bad.  Frylock died when the jewel on his back burned out, Master Shake was devoured by hostile clams and Meatwad grew up to marry a mortgage lender and raise two kids in the suburbs. What else would you expect?

Aqua Teen was the first home-grown show on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block that wasn't based on old Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters.  The concept went for broke in its craziness, three human-sized talking pieces of fast food living in the New Jersey suburbs and fighting crime when they weren't sneaking into the pool of their next door neighbor, Carl, a fat, balding, veritable Goodfellas extra.  On the very first show they were dealing with a giant dancing, mechanical rabbit that had escaped from the lab of a nearby mad scientist, and things progressed from there each week in 11-minute bursts of concentrated insanity.  Pretty soon they dropped the crime fighting gimmick and became just three roommates encountering love-starved mummies, thieving moon men, radioactive zombie pets, and a blood-drinking spider named Willie Nelson that lived in their attic. The personalities of the main characters balanced each other very well. Frylock was the nerdy voice of reason, Shake was a loud, obnoxious pile of "me, me, me" and Meatwad was an indestructible, child-brained innocent who cheerfully endured all of Shake's tortures.

The show's creators, Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro, amazingly wrote every episode and developed a framework flexible enough to allow for shows that focused on Carl's tribulations like being visited by the spirit of New York Giant Bart Oatts,  finding out what his life would have been like if he had a full head of hair or getting sexually assaulted by a dog cloned from Shake's hand (Yes, this was a very weird show.)  Carl even became the main character for a few episodes when he had to show the Aqua Teen's house to new tenants while the guys were being held prisoner off camera by their vampire landlord. The flexibility even applied to the show's title which changed each season after the 100th episode. From Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it became Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1, Aqua Something You Know Whatever, Aqua TV Show Show (with a great chilled-out jazzy theme by Flying Lotus) and finally Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever.

There was an unsually somber episode where Frylock got skin cancer and a live action one where Shake was played by Bob Burgers' H. Jon Benjamin, Frylock by rapper T-Pain, Meatwad by a red exercise ball and Carl by the winner of a real Carl-lookalike contest. Animation purists weren't happy that the action was little more than moving cutouts back and forth but for me, the non-stop lunatic verbal humor trumped all.  The voice actors, Dana Snyder as Shake, Carey Means as Frylock and Dave Willis pulling double duty as the "dese, dem, dose" Carl and the Southern baby-ish Meatwad, were consistently excellent.

Not every episode was great. I particularly didn't like the few where Shake, a complete jerk, came out on top but when the show was flying, nothing was better. Of course, no TV program goes away forever any more. Aqua Teen will probably stream on the Adult Swim website as long as it exists and the reruns will assuredly be a part of the TV block for a long time, joining other cancelled shows like King Of The Hill, Sealab 2021 and The Cleveland Show. However Sunday, with Patti Smith singing the closing theme, was the real end of the line. As Carl once said "Truly they were an Aqua Teen Hunger Force".

Friday, June 12, 2015

Dracula, The Dream and the Skies Of America

The past 48 hours have been one of those periods where you're afraid to open your computer or watch any kind of news anywhere. First it was the news that the great actor, Christopher Lee, had died. Then last night I saw that pro wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes had died also. Then this morning came word of Ornette Coleman's passing.  I don't know quite what to say.  Lee and Coleman were of an age where this wasn't unexpected but still there was no word they were in failing health and you don't want to admit your personal icons will ever die.

I loved Christopher Lee for all his great horror work as in the Hammer Studio Dracula films and The Wicker Man but I was also glad to see him get attention from younger audiences in recent years for acting in the Lord of The Rings trilogy.

I watched wrestling when I was a kid in the days of Bruno Sammartino and Killer Kowalski but I was turned off by the kiddie cartoon antics of Hulk Hogan and the rest of Vince McMahon's 1980's WWWF.  Then in 1986 I stumbled on the NWA's syndicated show and I was captivated by all their trash-talking, rough-looking badasses. Above all, one man stood out to me, a guy with curly white hair, the girth of a bus and a line in Southern patter that would put a Baptist preacher to shame. That was The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes. I grew to appreciate the mastery of other performers in that era like Ric Flair and Jim Cornette, but I always held a soft spot for that big, boogalooing tough guy who practically talked in his own language.

Then there's Ornette Coleman, simply one of the most important musicians of the last sixty years, the man who brought true freedom to jazz, the visionary who some reviled and called a fraud when he first emerged but who lived long enough to enjoy the accolades and love that befitted his genius.  There hadn't been much activity from him in recent years, and the one recording that came out last year is now looked on as a bit shady,  but still it hurts to lose him.  I had already prepared my next radio show for next Tuesday but I just junked that for a small Coleman tribute, though I currently have access to far fewer of his recordings than I should.


Friday, May 29, 2015

Coming June 9th: "The Outer View"

It's now official.  I'll be doing a weekly radio show on Radio Fairfax starting June 9th.  It'll be called "The Outer View" and it will be on from 2 to 3 PM. I'll be concentrating on various styles and groupings within modern jazz, starting on the first program with large ensembles.

The show is available on cable TV in the Northern Virginia area but also online at www.fcac.org and on TuneIn Radio.

As I said before I hope to use this blog to talk in a general way about some of the artists I'll be playing and the approaches I'll be investigating.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

No, I ain't dead yet.


I don't even want to think how long it's been since I wrote something here.  Obviously this retirement stuff sapped most of the forward motion and organization out of me to the point where I cannot get my brain organized enough to even write anymore.

Hopefully though I will be doing something soon that might put some structure back into my life.  I'm at the verge of finally getting my own radio show, which would be on Fairfax County's public access station. If it happens that would be a one hour, weekly timeslot where I would be playing any music any I wanted, which means jazz in all those weird little niches and tangents I love so much, stuff like Carla Bley and all the British players and oddball vocalists I love which even the more progressive radio outlets around here don't touch.

If that happens (and I should be getting a final yea or nay in the next week or so) I may start using this blog as an adjunct to the show, doing posts on certain artists I'll be playing, something I was doing haphazardly in this latest spurt of posting. Lord knows if I'll get myself together enough to write anything else, but we'll see. After all my stop and start actions here, I don't want to make any more promises.

Since I am here now though, here is a small tribute to a great bluesman who just left us. Rest in peace, B. (When I went to YouTube to get this video, the recent comments underneath were mostly in foreign languages like French, Russian, German, Spanish and Italian. That says everything about how universally loved he was.)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Rigmor Gustafsson - "Calling You"

I said I was no longer going to post video or audio clips without any sort of context but now I need to make an exception because I know almost nothing about this artist. I was just looking up things on YouTube when I ran across a Swedish jazz singer named Rigmor Gustafsson who seems to be very acclaimed in her home country.  I watched clips of her performing "The Girl From Ipanema" and "The Windmills Of Your Mind" and was impressed by the natural soulfulness of her voice. Then I clicked on a live performance of her doing the song "Calling You" from the movie Bagdad Café with a string quartet.

Oh. My. God.

I've always liked this song but listening to her voice purr against those slow strings almost brought me to tears. I literally cannot listen to anything else right now.



Needless to say I just ordered the CD.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My Top Films of 2014

So here it is 2015 and I'm finally getting around to posting a "Best Of" list for 2014.   I'm not doing one for CDs because I don't feel like I heard enough new music in the past year to do a list in that field, even though I did an all-jazz one for Cadence. (Jason Roebke's Red/High/Center was my Number One.)  Since I was watching my funds due to retiring, I didn't buy as muich music as I might normally have done.

Movies are another matter.  I've noticed more people doing the "New To Me" angle when compiling their Best Films list this year and that's what I'm doing again.  Thanks to all the various ways to watch movies out there, I've seen over 300 films this calendar year, some new, some old classics I've finally caught up with and a couple way from way out in left field. Since I waited until the bitter end, I'm able to consider every film I saw in the calendar year 2014.  This is a list of my 20 favorites. I'm not going to write in depth on all of them, especially the actual 2014 releases that have gotten a lot of attention everywhere else.

1.  Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

This one lived up to every bit of its lofty reputation.  Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play an elderly couple forced to live with grown children who don't want them around.  Directed by Leo McCarey, best known at the time for doing Laurel and Hardy and Marx Brothers movies, this is a heartbreaking, poetic film,  about the tragedy of growing old and at the mercy of a family that no longer wants you around.


2.  Frances Ha (2012)

This surprised me.  Modern comedies about quirky, young single women usually drive me up the wall (See In A World...) but I really liked this one. Greta Gerwig made a really cool, intelligent and likable protagonist and you could see her maturing as the film went along.

3.  Stories We Tell (2012)

Sarah Polley has made several intriguing films about families but this one was a documentary investigation into her own family, examining the lives of her parents and finding out some things she never suspected. It's a moving story and one that makes you think about how tangled family histories can be.

4.  The Big Combo (1955)

A lean and sharp film noir that pit hard-nosed cop Cornel Wlide against slick gangster Richard Conte. It was filled with familiar tough-guy actors like Earl Holliman, Lee Van Cleef, and Brian Donlevy and was a master class in how to create atmosphere with light and shadow on a low budget.


Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner
5.   Mr. Turner (2014)

This is a recent film that is liable to get lost in the end-of-year "prestige picture" shuffle but shouldn't.  British director Mike Leigh constructed a gorgeous biography of 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner played by Timothy Spall as a prickly, jovial rascal out of a Dickens novel. It shows a lot of respect for the artistic process and the colorful, contrary personalities of Turner's day.

6.  I Want To Go Home (1989)

I've gained a lot of respect for the work of Alain Resnais in the last few years and this film which starred Adolph Green as a sourpuss comic strip artist being feted in France was enormous fun. It celebrated comic culture with a far lighter touch than the grim flood of superhero movies we put up with these days.


7.   Birdman (2014)

8.   Foxcatcher (2014)

9.   Under The Skin  (2014)

10.  Scarlet Street (1945) 

Another old one I finally caught up with, a story of a meek little man's decline and fall told eloquently by the great Fritz Lang with Joan Bennett at her sexiest. Dan Duryea at his slimiest and Edward G. Robinson making a memorable tragic hero.

11.  The Babadook (2014)

Wesley Morris and Glenn Kenny, two of the few movie critics I read regularly these days, both loved this horror film and they had a point. It's an Australian film about a mother and son terrorized by an evil spirit out of  a children's book.  It relied far more on mood than explicit violence and was a far cut above the current crop of horror movies.


#12
 12.  The Whisperers (1967)

I remember hearing about this film when I was a kid. It starred Dame Edith Evans as an old woman who lives alone with "voices" her only company and is preyed on by her son and con artists before being delivered into the custody of an estranged husband who is not too happy to be reunited with her. Evans' dotty but deep performance and the twisting plot are completely engrossing.

13. A Most Wanted Man (2014)

One of Philip Seymour Hoffman's last movies where he plays a German spy chief involved in a John Le Carre intrigue concerning a mysterious suspected terrorist. It's a beautifully complex story and Hoffman's rumpled, shrewd presence dominates.

14.  Out Of Sight (1998)

This is another long-overdue catch-up,  Steven Soderbergh's Elmore Leonard adaptation about a sexy U.S. marshal who gets involved with a bank robber. It's one of the movies that made George Clooney's career and it showed classy possibilities for Jennifer Lopez's career that she has yet to follow up.

15.  Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)

I'm a big fan of Jack Webb's 50's Dragnet and this crime film where he starred as a 20's jazz trumpeter has the same, tight punchy rhythm but enhanced with imaginative camera shots, acting support from the likes of Edmond O'Brien, Janet Leigh and Lee Marvin and singing by Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald.


#16
16. Sexual Chronicles Of A French Family (2012)

This takes a little explanation. It's essentially a French softcore sex film that I caught on Netflix.  It starts with a teenage boy who is caught masturbating in school and it expands to explore the sexual desires of his entire family, his parents, sister, older brother, and grandfather. It does so in a natural, open-minded way completely different from the snickering embarrassment you'd probably see in an American treatment of this theme. There are a lot of near-hardcore sex scenes and by the end almost everyone is happily paired off with someone, including the older brother with his boyfriend. The grandfather has passed on but a young prostitute he built a relationship with gets accepted into the family.

17.  The Boss (1956)

This was an odd but interesting combination of plots. It starred John Payne as a World War I veteran who rises through the ranks of his hometown's political machine to become a statewide power broker who isn't above a shady deal or two. The odd part is that it switches emphasis in the second half from dirty dealings to the boss' crumbling relationship with his wife and feels more like a soap opera by the end. Nevertheless, Payne makes an excellent tough guy.

18.  Compulsion (2013)
A very strange black comedy that stars Heather Graham as a woman obsessed with getting her own TV cooking show who develops a creepy fixation on a despondent former child actress who lives across the hall played by Carrie-Anne Moss. I've always thought Graham was underrated and her combination of manic cheerfulness and derangement here is really impressive.

19.  Wish Me Away (2011)

A lovely documentary on country music star Chelly Wright and her decision to come out as a lesbian.

20.  Ernest And Celestine (2014)

The one animated feature I managed to see was this French film about the friendship that forms between a mouse and a bear in a world where the two species regard each other as monsters. It was funny and beautifully drawn.  I know there's a dubbed version around with American voice actors but I saw the original French version and the voice work was delightful.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Pentangle

Left to Right: Jansch, Thompson, McShee, Cox, Renbourn

In the late 1960s' there were a number of British folk musicians with wandering ears who began to incorporate other musical styles into their versions of traditional tunes.  Most, like the people who came to make up the bands Fairport Convention and Steeleeye Span,  brought in the electric thump of rock and roll.  One group, however, opted for the fluidity of jazz, Pentangle.

Pentangle formed around 1966 or 1967 with five members who came together from different directions. Bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox were part of the British blues-jazz scene, guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch were acclaimed folk players, Renbourn more traditionally oriented and Jansch leaning more towards the blues, and vocalist Jacqui McShee sang in folk clubs. Together they had a uniquely supple sound with Thompson and Cox providing a frisky bottom, Jansch's and Renbourn's guitars bobbing and weaving in the middle and McShee's angelically high voice, with its occasional blue inflections, soaring above all.

The group's repertoire included traditional folk songs, American blues, original numbers and even, on their album Sweet Child, a couple of Charles Mingus jazz compositions that gave Danny Thompson the chance to show his stuff.  This is another of their jazzier tunes, "I Got A Feeling".  As Jansch hints, the tune is swiped from one of the best, Miles Davis' "All Blues".




Pentangle had a good run as a popular group in England, even scoring a hit single in 1969, "Light Flight".  They broke up more or less amicably in 1973, with everyone going off to solo careers.  They reformed a few times since then in various formations with other musicians.  In 1995 McShee actually had a band that went out as Jacqui McShee's Pentangle but from what I've heard of them, they had a bland New Age-y sound with none of the snap or fun of the original.

The original five did get together again in 2008 to play live and record again and they sounded just fine.  They continued on intermittently until Bert Jansch died of cancer in October 2011, and as far as I can tell, that brought a permanent end to Pentangle.  The music is still around though in the form a number of releases of live and broadcast recordings as well as their original records.  They had a fleet, relaxed groove unique even within the experimental crucible of the 60's British folk movement with a blending of voice, guitar and rhythm nobody else matched.

Here are more samples of their work. First, a TV performance of "Travelling Song" and "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" from 1968 that highlights McShee's and Jansch's vocal blend and also shows how much Thompson and Cox brought to the band.



This version of the traditional "House Carpenter", featuring Renbourn on sitar and Jansch on banjo, shows the Indian influence that also crept into their music.



The only thing I can say about this is that it's bloody amazing.



Finally, two versions of their hit "Night Flight", the first from a 1970 BBC appearance and the second from 2008 after their reformation.  38 years dimmed very little of their talent.



Monday, November 3, 2014

Return To Saturn

Mr. Ra

In the realm of jazz, there has never been anyone else quite like Sun Ra.  He was born Herman Blount in 1917 and his first substantial musical gig was working as an arranger and pianist for the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the late 40s.  Somewhere in his early life Blount began to draw ideas together from science fiction, history, archeology, philosophy and other disciplines, and combining that with advanced musical concepts he worked on, he emerged as Sun Ra, visitor from the planet Saturn and leader of a big band he called the Arkestra whose music was a dazzling collage of Harlem nightclub swing, show tunes, blues, free jazz screaming and avant-garde concepts, including one of the first uses of synthesizers and electronic keyboards..  The band dressed in homemade costumes with capes and headdresses, danced on stage and played hair-raising, energy-filled music that sounded as futuristic as a spaceship soaring among the planets. His song titles alone sounded they had come from old science fiction pulp magazine: "The Satellites Are Spinning", "The Second Stop Is Jupiter", "We Travel The Spaceways", "Where Is Tomorrow?" "Strange Celestial Road", and "Angels And Demons At Play" being some of the more colorful ones.  Ra left this world in 1993 but the Arkestra has carried on without him. At first it was led by the group's legendary tenor player, John Gilmore, but when he passed, the reigns were handed to alto player Marshall Allen who still leads the band to this day.

This year marks Ra's centennial and for the occasion, a group of DC jazz promoters and enthusiasts got together and turned Halloween weekend into a Sun Ra festival with concerts and lectures by various folks keynoted by the Arkestra itself performing at the Lincoln Theater on Halloween night. This was not your average concert. I came out of the subway across the street from the theater an hour before things started and was lucky enough to catch the Arkestra parading down the street to the Lincoln chanting and playing and giving the usual U Street partygoers something different from the usual Halloween revels.

Inside the auditorium, on the movie screen in back of the stage (The Lincoln was once a movie theatre.) Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, a 1980 documentary on Ra, was playing as the audience filed in.  The show itself began with a large group of black women in colorful Afro-futurist regalia slowly marching down the theater aisles holding up a big picture of the great man while one of them slowly intoned "Raaaa!".  The music started with an improvised duet by local saxophonist Brian Settles and drummer Jeremy Carlstedt. Then Dr. Tom Porter read Amiri Baraka's introduction to a book of Ra's poetry accompanied by keyboard legend Bernie Worrell on synthesizer.  Then, since it was Halloween and a number of folks dressed for the occasion, a brief costume contest was held.

Finally the Arkestra came out resplendent in their usual brightly colored garb and tore into a fiery set of romping big band music full of the dancing fire that had always sparked the band's most thrilling moments.  They were enhanced by the presence of three female dancers who came out occasionally, shimmying, shuffling, break dancing, and gliding to the ferocious grooves. The dancers, like everyone else on stage, were dressed in spectacular party gear with veils and capes but there was one curvy lady with gold-braided hair and a gold top and pants whose moves seemed to defy both the laws of gravity and the human anatomy.

This version of the Arkestra is a combination of older and younger faces but it is no mere ghost band.  They still play this music, including some of Ra's most familiar tunes, like "Rocket Number Nine", "Saturn" and "Space Is The Place" with amazing energy and heat.  I don't know the names of most of the current members but as always, there is Marshall Allen.  Allen joined Ra back in 1957 and is now 90 years old. It would be a gross understatement to say he plays well for a man his age. He is playing extraordinarily for a man half his age, bellowing cascades of freakish notes out of his horn like fireworks.  His solo on "Cocktails For Two", alternating the screaming with smooth, old-school melody, was amazing.  He also played an EWI wind synthesizer, an electronic instrument that can sound horribly cheesy but which Marshall turned into a portable theremin,  using it to create booming and swooping effects which fit right into the band's cosmic cacophony.

Bernie Worrell added his funkified keyboard squelching to a couple of numbers and "Space Is The Place" served as the backdrop for a fashion show displaying the works of a local clothing designer who had actually made capes for Ra in the past.  The show ended with the band playing the grand, swooping waltz, "Love In Outer Space" as they left the stage and marched through the aisles before going backstage.

Sun Ra's universe is a bit eccentric for some tastes but he has come to be generally recognized now as a visionary musician and philosopher who created a towering body of work that merged the past and future of jazz.  His influence has been passed down to many and the musicians who are currently in the Arkestra carry on his cosmic message impressively.

For those of you not familiar with any of this music, here are some video samples:

First, part of an interview with Ra that shows bits of his philosophy. This was done in Helsinki, Finland in 1971 and is interspersed with clips of the band in performance:



Then the Arkestra makes a very rare appearance on American television in 1989 on the show "Night Music".  Marshall Allen takes the first sax solo and the second is by John Gilmore, an influence on John Coltrane:



Finally a bit of the current-day Arkestra led by Allen.  They are doing "Angels At Demons At Play" at a 2012 festival in Poschiavo, Switzerland.