Monday, August 11, 2014

Public Notice



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Look On My Works, Ye Mighty..."

I haven't written about Breaking Bad in a while but I started watching the final episodes when they came to Netflix. I've just watched  the third to last show, "Ozymandias"...

I know that "binge watching" where you devour a entire season worth's of TV episodes in a day or two is the thing these days, but if anyone could watch that program and merrily race ahead to the last two episodes, they have no soul.

This series is full of gruesome and shocking scenes of violence but one of the most gut-wrenching moments just concerns a simple phone call.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Story Of ()

Let's get one thing straight. Director Lars Von Trier is completely barking mad but in a good sort of way.  You have to be out there to conceive of a three-hour version of the Brecht-Weill song "Pirate Jenny" filmed on a bare stage like his Dogville or present the end of the world as positively as he did in Melancholia.  I've just seen the first half of his latest opus, Nymph()maniac. I don't know yet if the entire thing matches up to his most audacious feats like Dogville, Breaking The Waves and Melancholia but so far it's in the ballpark.

The film opens on a woman named Joe who lies beaten and bleeding in a city alley. A man named Seligman finds her and takes her back to his small apartment to heal, rest and get something to eat. While there, she starts telling him the story of her life, which has been mostly about a quest for physical pleasure since she was a little girl that has led her to sleeping with innumerable men without having any real feelings for them. As Joe talks she keeps telling Seligman what a terrible person she is for doing these things stories but he persists in seeing the rational and positive side of her lurid tales.

The film does contain nudity and explicit sex but not as much as some of the publicity would lead you to believe.  At heart it's a conversation between two modes of living, an orderly, cultured life and one driven by natural instincts. In their discussion  they begin to realize that Joe's life of random sexual adventure does have underlying order to it and their lives have something in common.  Von Trier covers this ground while weaving in strands on nature, the Fibonacci Sequence, fly fishing, Edgar Allan Poe and Bach's organ music.

The film actually reminds me a bit of Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre which was similarly a conversation between someone who had led an adventurous, globe-trotting life and someone who was content with order and monotony but with a lot more nudity and genitalia. Joe's stories play out in flashback and tilit widly between wild comedy and stark drama as befits the subject matter. In one of the most intesne sequences, one of Joe's married lovers suddenly shows up at her door ready to move in but his wife (played by Uma Thurman) and their three kids come right behind him and cause a commotion that quickly goes from soap opera parody to raw drama.  The section where Joe spends time with her father in a hospital watching his mental deterioration as he dies is pretty brutal as well.

Von Trier is totally on his game here and makes this tale totally compelling.  Stellan Skasgaard is convincingly objective  and compassionate as Seligman and Charlotte Gainsbourg has a chilling matter of factness as storyteller Joe. Her younger self in this part is played by Stacy Martin who runs a broad gamut of emotions from despair to joy to numbness. This half ends with Martin screaming " I don't feel anything" as the one man she seems to love plows into her.  Then some brief scenes from the second part play alongside the credits which promise the film getting even wilder and darker. I cannot wait to see  Volume 2.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stalker (1979)

(I've been doing a lot of recalibrating in my life the past couple of weeks but I'm now back to blogging for a while...I hope.)

There was something of a kerfuffle in the movie critic world in 2011 when Dan Kois, a writer for the New York Times, did a piece about on how some films are "cultural vegetables", meaning people watch them because the critical establishment tells them they are worthwhile and enlightening, not because they are enjoyable in any sense. One of the films he criticized in his piece was Stalker, a 1979 Russian science fiction film by director Andrei Tarkovsky.  I've just seen this movie and honestly, I have no idea what the man was talking about.  Yeah, it's long and brooding  but to me it was a deep and compelling film that went by faster than its supposed 165 minutes.

It is set in an unnamed country where some years earlier something from outer space landed in an wooded area and transformed it into an overgrown wilderness full of traps and false trails that was since cordoned off by the authorities and named the Zone. In the center of this place exists a room that will grant anyone who walks in their fondest wish. The central character is a man who makes his living taking people on trips into the Zone and guiding them through all the dangers to reach that room . The film follows one particular trip he takes with a professor and a writer who have different motives for entering the Zone.

First of all the film looks beautiful.  The scenes in the everyday world are in sharp, almost tactile black and white that gives a sense of the oppresive weight and dirt in this landscape. Then when things shift to the Zone, the movie apes The Wizard Of Oz and changes to color, not overly bright but a darker, muted color that fits the overall mood of the story.

There is a constant mood of suspense through the trio's journey conveyed largely by the guide's wary demeanour. He has the haunted yet resigned look of a man who's seen dreadful things happen to others in this place and is trying not to become its next victim.  Then about two-thirds of the way through the picture, something completely unexpected happens which turns everything we've seen to tht point on its head and presents the entire story in a different light. Near the end when things seem to have settled into their new pattern, another surprise occurs which turns the tale in yet another direction and wipes away any thought of easy resolution.

Stalker is really a debate about faith and scepticism cloaked in a science fiction plot with people who believe in the fantastic set against those who don't want to dream. Its slowness presents an aura of creeping dread that really draws you in  and holds your attention without relying on dead bodies or special effects to keep the suspense going.  Heavy? Yes. Brooding? Definitely.  Dark? To a point.  When all is said Stalker is an excellent film well deserving of the exalted reputation it enjoys in the film world. Sometimes vegetables can taste pretty damn good.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio

It's always fun to go to a concert not knowing quite what to expect and being pleasantly surprised about what you hear. That was my response to seeing Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio at Bohemian Caverns last night.
     The trio consists of Crump on bass, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar and Jamie Fox on electric guitar.  Before last night I knew Crump from Vijay Iyer's trio, had heard Ellman's name in a couple of places and didn't know Fox at all.  Together they played jazz that was flowing and rhythmic in complex lines without distortion or effects. They could be delicate or swing mercilessly. I was reminded of other modern guitar sounds like the clean chording of the late Jim Hall and the thoughtfulness of Ralph Towner. On a lazy blues called "Memphis" Fox even bent a few notes in the direction of B.B. King.
     All three men had ample chance to show what they could in solo turns and Crump particularly impressed me with his drive and imagination. Not only does he have three CDs out with this group, he's also done a duo disc with a very different sort of guitarist, Mary Halvorson. I'll love to hear how he deals with her abrasive chords and melodies.
     You don;t hear anything about the Rosetta Trio, even in modern "out" jazz circles but they are definitely worth investigating, just one great example of the infinite beauties found in the jazz world today.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Jazz World: The Cool

The Birth Of The Cool

In the 1950's there was continued investigation into the idea of exploring advanced harmonies and textures in jazz music. The most significant attempt at this came from a group of young musicians who met together repeatedly at the New York apartment of arranger and composer Gil Evans in the late 1940's.  These men, who included Miles Davis, John Lewis, Lee Konitz, Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan, looked at bringing in instruments not used in jazz often like French horn and tuba to create a larger unified sound and took cues from the work of French impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy.  What emerged was a style of jazz that worked at a lower intensity than bebop but was still sophisticated and swinging, a style that came to be known as "Cool Jazz".  The results of this work were recorded by a nine piece group under the leadership of Miles Davis, sessions that eventually came out as an album entitled Birth Of The Cool.

This is a sample of that wotrk, a Gerry Mulligan composition called "Jeru":

Gerry Mulligan

I'll talk about Miles Davis and Gil Evans in later posts but for now I want to concenrtnate on Gerry Mulligan.  Mulligan was known first as an arranger but he later gained fame for his effortless way with the unwieldy baritone sax.  He took the Birth of the Cool ideas to the West Coast where an entire movement of cerebral, easy-swinging players would emerge, men like Shorty Rogers, Art Farmer, Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton, and Jim Hall.

Mulligan's biggest innovation was in putting together a small group without a piano, just two horns and a rhythm section. Jazz without the harmonic bridge of a piano was virtually unheard of at the time but Mulligan pitting the low sound of his baritone against the trumpets of either Baker or Farmer or the valve trombone of Bob Brookmeyer gave his band's sound a flowing freedom that would resonate in different forms through later years. Here is a 1957 Mulligan quartet with Brookmeyer playing "Open Country":

Jimmy Giuffre

Jimmy Giuffre was not part of the "Birth of the Cool" sessions but he had ideas along the same lines. Adept at a number of reed instruments, he first played and wrote for big bands, most famously composing the saxophone section workout "Four Brothers" for the Woody Herman Orchestra but he soon developed his own concept of quiet, unusual instrumental combinations, working in trios with bass and either (again) Bob Brookmeyer's trombone or Jim Hall's guitar.  He did a lot of work with simple blues and folk forms in the Fifties before eventually going more abstract in the mid-60's. Here he is on various reeds with Hall and Jim Atlas on bass in 1957 doing his composition "The Train and The River".

The Modern Jazz Quartet

John Lewis was part of the "Cool" sessions but his main interests turned out to come from the past, the baroque music of Bach and his contemporaries. Lewis had been pianist in Dizzy Gillespie's big band and during their concerts, he and the rest of the rhythm section, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Ray Brown on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, would play a few numbers to give the horn players a break. Eventually that quartet would go out on its own as the Modern Jazz Quartet with Percy Heath replacing Brown and Connie Kay replacing Clarke. The group was originally co-led by Lewis and Jackson but eventually Lewis took over the sole reigns and began to explore in depth merging classical music and jazz. The polite elegance of his piano and the bluesy gravity of Jackson's vibes made a stark but sexy contrast, distinctive enough to make the Modern Jazz Quartet last through five decades, playing all over the world, collaborating with symphony orchestras and in their own way,  presenting an image of the black jazz musician as a dignified serious artist, something that looking back was a powerful statement for its time.  This is a studio recording of one of their most popular tunes, Lewis' "Django",  a piece that strongly states their classics/jazz dichotomy.

Dave Brubeck

I wrote a post about Brubeck when he passed away but I can't leave him out here. He was another musician who brought classical influences to jazz, experimenting with advanced harmonies and unusual time signatures.  After trying out an octet in the late 40's, he began a partnership with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond that lasted over twenty years. Brubeck's driving, angular playing mixed with Desmond's sighing, liquid sax was a perfectly balanced combination and with Eugene Wright and Joe Morello in the rhythm section they were the most popular jazz group of their day, even managing a Top 10 pop hit in "Take Five". After the quartet broke up in 1967 Brubeck continued to work with other quartets as well as composing extended orchestral works and played almost up until his death in 2012. Some people in the old days complained that Brubeck's music didn't swing enough but by the time he died he was universally regarded as one of the finest musicians in the music's history. Here is the classic Brubeck quartet doing "Blue Rondo A La Turk" on one of Hugh Hefner's Playboy TV shows. Cecil Taylor has always cited Brubeck as a favorite player. His solo here clues you in as to why.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Jazz World: Composers and Theorists

Moving on to a few more of the music's great post-war composers, the first stop has to be my single favorite jazz musician...

Charles Mingus

Mingus was a singular figure in an universe full of them, a man who wrote music with both classical ambitions and gutbucket passions, who could turn the blues into all manner of soaring, aching shapes. Much of his work reflected his environment, deep-souled love songs, tributes to past masters like Lester Young, tone poems that asked big questions about life, and works that dealt with the civil rights struggles of the Fifties and Sixties in pieces like "Fables Of Faubus" and "Meditations On A Pair Of Wire Cutters".  No matter what the subject matter, Mingus' bands with his booming bass in the lead, swung murderously.  This is one of his greatest works, 10 minutes of soul shouting on the topic of prehistoric man, "Pithecanthropus Erectus":

Mingus had the benefit of having some extraordinary musicians in his band over his career like saxophonists Clifford Jordan, Eric Dolphy and George Adams, trumpeters Johnny Coles and Jack Walrath, pianists Jaki Byard and Don Pullen and his almost constant rhythm mate, drummer Dannie Richmond.  This is a live clip of a 1964 Mingus group that included Coles, Byard, Jordan and Dolphy doing the Ellington-Strayhorn classic, "Take The 'A' Train.  The most notable parts are Byard's romping stride piano spot and Dolphy beaming in from another planet on bass clarinet:

Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano was a blind pianist who emerged in the late 40's with a methodology akin to bebop.  He rolled out long streams of improvisations on the chords of standard tunes but with nods in the direction of Johann Sebastian Bach and atonality, creating more openly experimental music than what Parker, Gillespie and their cohorts were doing.  A number of great musicians studied with Tristano, the most prominent being saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.  In 1949, they were part of a Tristano recording session of pieces called "Intuition" and "Digression" which were completely improvised with no use of prearranged melodies and harmonies. These works are now considered the first examples of Free Jazz.

The Tristano clip below requires a little background. Look Up and Live was an anthology program of religious drams that ran Sunday morning on CBS from 1954 to 1979.  In the summer of 1964, as the host explains, they took a break to explore the performing arts, which in this case meant, filming Tristano's quintet, including Konitz and Marsh, during a gig at New York's Half Note club.  There is an attempt during the show to tie the music to religious/philosophical themes, but think about what's being presented here. Can you imagine any sort of religious broadcast today just letting a jazz group play on air for a half-hour? For that matter, can you imagine any TV show today doing such a thing?  This was one of the beautiful by-products of Jazz being part of mainstream adult culture way back when:

George Russell

George Russell's major contribution to Jazz was not a composition but a theory. "The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation" proposed a new musical system where chords replaced scales as the basis for improvisation giving musicians a greater range of options to play with.  Russell gives a thumbnail sketch of his ideas in this interview excerpt from a 1958 TV show, The Subject Is Jazz: 

Russell's work would be absorbed by a number of restless young musical minds including Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, which right there makes him an influence on the next several decades of Jazz.  He led small groups through the 50's, working with players like Eric Dolphy and Don Ellis, and spent some time in Europe during the 60's, making the acquaintance along the way of a group of young Norwegian musicians including Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal who would go on to long and productive careers. Russell's later composing stretched to longer form works that included electronics, rock rhythms and even lashings of go-go and funk.  I couldn't find a copy to post here but he did a version of "You Are My Sunshine" with Sheila Jordan on vocals that is amazing.

This is one of Russell's classic early compositions, "Ezz-thetic":

And this is an excerpt from one of his later works, "Listen To The Silence", featuring members of his Norwegian crew like Garbarek, Rypdal and Bobo Stenson.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Inside on the Outside

Out in the cold again.
I have some brief thoughts on the Oscars. The main talk about the nominations right now seems to be that while the vast majority of a large group of excellent films got some love, a few didn't, like The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and Inside Llewyn Davis. The last named was my favorite movie of the past year and I thought it would get a lot of nominations, in part because Joel and Ethan Coen have been Academy darlings in recent years. It got snubbed for all but two minor awards and thinking about it, I can guess why.

Like it or not, Davis is a niche film. I'm a huge music fan and I'm familiar with the 60's Greenwich Village folk scene, but how many other people in the greater audience are?  All the publicity for the film mentioned that it was inspired by the life and career of Dave Van Ronk.  How many people out there had even heard the name Dave Van Ronk before this movie came along?

Davis' narrow, self-defeating version of "artistic integrity" may resonate beyond the period but you had to get beyond references to Peter, Paul and Mary, novelty songs about the space program and other period names and places to get there. It was a movie where the protagonist meanders between different peoples' apartments, takes a fruitless trip to Chicago and ends up in the exact same place where he started. It was expertly told but had no forward movement at all, unlike the heavily nominated and equally striking small film Nebraska where another futile trip at least leads to some character development and growth.

The understated, somber mood of this film isn't like the goony, crowd-pleasing humor of the Coens' other more celebrated "folk" musical, Oh, Brother Where Are Thou? It's more like their dryly humorous take on Hebrew traditions and the story of Job, A Simple Man and that was no Oscar bait movie either. In other words I cannot bring myself to be mad about Davis' Oscar snubbing.  Heck, there was another great film about a later generation of New York folksinger that came along this year, Greetings From Tim Buckley and almost no one is championing that.