Friday, September 30, 2011

Good Vibes (I know it's a corny title but I can't think of anything else right now)

I've known about the music of vibraphonist Gary Burton for many years but tonight was the first time I ever got to see him perform live.  Burton has been a long time innovator, both with his technique of playing with four mallets at once and in his mixing of other genres with Jazz, notably country and rock.  He's been around for a long while and it's stunning to realize he is 68 years old. With short blondish hair and glasses, he looks a good twenty years younger than that. Then again, with all the octogenarian Jazzers out there still kicking butt like Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz, Sam Rivers, Roy Haynes and Sonny Rollins, I guess Burton is still a relative kid.
     I saw him at Blues Alley tonight in the quartet format he has favored for most of his career. Actually watching him play with four mallets was a fascinating experience with the dexterity he showed in being able to hit different notes simultaneously with a bright rhythmic flow and even use only three mallets at a time with the fourth jammed in his fist but not touching the keys. Of his bandmates, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez were both excellent but the real eye opener was guitarist Julian Lage, a 23-year-old former prodigy that Burton has been playing with for ten years. The young man played with fire, passion and rock-influenced dexterity much in the tradition of former Burton guitar players Larry Coryell and Pat Metheny.
     As good as Lage was Burton's playing was the real revelation for me. Half of the group's set was spent doing tunes from their latest CD but the rest of the time they played familiar pop and Jazz standards. Burton is known for all the non-jazz musics he has dabbled in over the years, like country and rock in the 60's, tango and Spanish music in the 70's and his contributions to ECM's classic airy, hovering aesthetic with albums like Crystal Silence with Chick Corea. Tonight he showed he can play straight-down-the-middle Jazz with real swinging drive as he did "Afro Blue", "I Hear A Rhapsody" and Thelonious Monk's "Light Blue". The encore was Milt Jackson's "Bags' Groove" which was bluesy as all get out and struck me as a little poignant. Here was one of the great living masters of the Jazz vibraphone doing the music of a departed master as soulfully as the dour-faced Jackson himself might have played it. It was a great show and I'm glad I went.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Honored Mr. Rollins

I don't usually pay that much attention to the Kennedy Center Honors anymore but when I read this year's list of Honorees, a big smile came onto my face. Meryl Streep, Barbara Cook, Yo Yo Ma, and Neil Diamond are all well-deserving but the name that got me was one Theodore "Sonny" Rollins, arguably the greatest Jazz musician alive.

When these awards started in 1978 the Kennedy Center was pretty good about honoring some of the Jazz legends who were still around like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.  I have a feeling that is because these people had been huge popular stars that a large portion of the event's live and TV audience would still know. That's changed as the rock-loving Baby Boomer audience has grown up and taken over and country and pop legends have taken the spot the Jazz guys used to have. Yes, the last Jazz musician honored was Dave Brubeck only two years ago, but before that the previous one was Quincy Jones in 2001 and honestly Jones' biggest fame comes from his pop production work, especially with Michael Jackson.  Before him the last hardcore jazz name was Benny Carter in 1996.

Acknowledging Sonny as a great American artist like this is a great honor for the entire Jazz field. Today may be his 81st birthday but from all reports he is still the astounding presence on tenor that he has been since the Fifties. I have read noting but raves about his 80th birthday concert last year, part of which is about to be released as a CD on his own label. For a little while jazz should be getting a little mainstream publicity coming from one of its greatest and most vital names. Now if this trend keeps up, might they honor Ornette Coleman next year?...Yeah, I know. I'm dreaming.  Still, congrats Sonny...

Friday, September 2, 2011

When Comedy Just Ain't Funny

I don't blog that often as it is but last week's Natural Disaster Double Feature temporarily stopped me from even thinking about writing anything. I will finish off my Top 10 Songs list soon but first I want to get to some long overdue thoughts about modern TV comedy, one show in particular.

I got out of the habit of watching regular network TV a long time ago, particularly comedies. The only comedy series I've really enjoyed in recent years have been the animated Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the Canadian import, Corner Gas. Nothing else has much appealed to me, especially the highly touted shows that many people call the TV milestones of the last twenty years. Sex And The City was ample proof how unsexy shallow, overdressed women can be. The few times I watched Friends I was creeped out. All I saw was adults behaving with the emotional maturity of eight-year-olds but crayying around grown-up libidos. Seinfeld just felt stale to me like a reheated casserole of all the New York-based sitcoms of the Sixties and Seventies, only nowhere near as spontaneous or funny.  The couple of times I've watched Curb Your Enthusiasm it almost gets there with amusingly absurd situations and a lot of genuinely funny guest stars like Wanda Sykes, Bob Einstein and Richard Lewis. My problem with that show though is Larry David himself. With his one-note delivery and hectoring voice, the man is a black hole for comedy, a place where funny goes to die, but he's the second coming of Buster Keaton compared to the star of the current hit sitcom I recently endured two episodes of...

                                                    Yeah, this poor bastard, Louie C.K.

What I've seen of his show, Louie, is well put-together and acted but I'll be damned if I can see where it's a comedy.  The character of the put-upon loser is a long-standing comic archetype, one Chaplin, Keaton, Woody Allen and many others have worked beautifully but all of those characters had some element of hope or fight in their makeup that made you empathize with them. In the two Louie episodes I saw, one where he spends an afternoon with an old girlfriend and one where he debates a young woman who discourages masturbation, Louie just comes off as a beaten-down dog, somebody dragging himself through the world with virtually all hope gone, the kind of guy who'd be right at home sharing a beer with Willy Loman in Harry Hope's Saloon, the setting of The Iceman Cometh. He seems so miserable you'd expect that the last episode of the series will end with the sight of Louie putting his neck in a noose or holding a gun to his head.

Maybe Louis C.K. is a brilliant standup comic but this show is more tragedy than anything else. I'm amazed anybody finds this funny. I love dark material but for me, this is too realistically depressing to be entertaining. There are still some TV comedies out there I'd like to explore like Parks And Recreation, Community and 30 Rock.  Hopefully some of them are actually funny once in a while