It strikes me – as it should strike you – that there’s an especially pervasive aura of American-ness suffusing this year’s roundup, especially given that the words, “America” and “American” appear in most of the titles. This motif was making itself apparent as I started putting the list together before November 8 and it became even more – what? “prevalent”? “0mnipresent”? “prescient”? – after November 9.
One need not use this space for further dissection of what happened, and didn’t, in that 24-hour period. It’s all we keep talking about, and avoiding talking about, sometimes simultaneously. All I can say for my part is that these selections reflect a socio-cultural patriotism in both my conscious and subconscious mind that, in spite of all that has happened and may soon happen, remains steadfast. Whatever’s coming down will likely give jazz even more of a beating than it’s already sustained through this (so far) dismaying century. But the best thing one can say is that it’s no more beaten up or beaten down than it’s been since, let’s say…1968? That was a helluva year, too. Some of us feared the worst after that election. . But we made it. And so, somehow, did music.
That’s all I got. You want to feel warmer and fuzzier about things watch a Wal-Mart commercial. But if you really want to feel good about this country and its (say it with me, America) Greatest Art Form, these eclectic items, I promise, will do the job.
In the deathless words of Yuri Gagarin (who wasn’t American, but we’ve always secretly wished he had been), “Let’s go!”
1.) Jane Ira Bloom, Early Americans (Outline) – Hard to believe that after sixteen albums through nearly four decades, Bloom has never before walked the high wire with nothing more than a bass (Mark Helias) and trap set (Bobby Previte). She comes through just as you’d expect: with bold, deep tones that swallow you whole and bright,supple phrases that recombine themselves into breathtaking shapes. From Helias and Previte, she gets the kind of backup an ace improviser deserves. They merge their rhythmic instincts with her soprano saxophone’s probing, soaring voice to become one entity, totally in control of whatever they take on, regardless of tempo or mood. On the (literally) groovy “Singing the Triangle,” they seem to take turns at the wheel with Previte’s toms assuming melodic duties with his characteristic wit and bravado. When it’s just Bloom and Helias, as on “Other Eyes,” the colloquy is so detailed and urgent that you think you’re eavesdropping on a secret plan for curing cancer, hunger and ignorance. And when it’s just her, in full flight, she asserts her command of every aspect of her art whether assembling a necklace of diamond-hard chords and taking them apart (“Rhyme or Rhythm”), burrowing deep into the contours of a classic melody (“Somewhere’) or blowing the blues with joyous abandon (“Big Bill”). It’s now official and can be certified by any number of witnesses: There’s no one like her. Anywhere.
2.) Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneform) – Having previously contained multitudes in his matchless pageant of historic landmarks (2012’s Six Freedom Summers) and his widescreen embrace of Midwest natural wonders (2014’s The Great Lakes Suite) Smith, himself a force of nature whose renown has burst into a big, blinding glow at age 76, would of course be inclined to celebrate this year’s National Park Service centennial with a similarly ambitious and dauntingly variegated tour through the service’s assets, both widely known (“Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890”) and relatively obscure (“New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718”). Don’t expect either a Copland-esque procession of soaring, meaty strings or a rustic stream of acoustic guitar riffs cueing your awe over big rivers, big mountains and bigger skies. Smith has a way of swelling the American heart that’s distinctly his own; his horn, by turns plaintive, coarse and slashing as Miles Davis’ once was, assumes an even heavier, more rugged tone to keep up with his voracious impulse to take in the colors, textures and elements of his subject’s landscapes, even when he’s mostly imagining what they’re like. (“You don’t need to visit a park,” he says in the liner notes, “to write about a park.” And there’s something about his submission to the imaginative muse that overpowers your literalist’s skepticism.) His instrumental voice fuses effectively with that of cellist Ashley Walker and the rest of his Golden Quintet, with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and, most especially, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, seems to take on added strength and power from the music’s robust challenges. It’s not an easy hike. But if you give in to the arcane beauties and shape-shifting aspirations of Smith’s muse, you’ll remember most, if not all, of what your inner ear sees.
3.) Fred Hersch Trio, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – We’ve been here before with this group and we know from previous experience that they come to kill every time they show up downstairs on 178 Seventh Avenue South in Manhattan. So what’s different this time? Maybe because, as the title says, it’s Sunday night and as every Village Vanguard habitué knows, Sundays are when performers wind up their six-night engagements. While critics always show up Tuesdays for the opening-night sets, the Sunday closers can be less-heralded occasions when the ensembles, after a hard week’s work, are at once locked in tight and empowered to let loose. Hersch tweaks expectations from the jump with an appropriately spry-and-whimsical treatment of “A Cockeyed Optimist,” a Rodgers-and-Hammerstein chestnut that isn’t often put through the jazz colander. The spiraling variations Hersch’s piano applies to the melody makes you wonder why this is so and then you realize, once again, that it’s because Hersch may be one of the few pianists of his generation with the open-hearted imagination to re-invigorate mid-20th-century Broadway grandeur for post-Millennial jazz heads. Along with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, Hersch builds upon this frisky beginning with a couple of classics from the jazz repertoire (“We See,” “The Peacocks”); some of his own compositions (“The Optimum Thing,” “Calligram,” “Black Wing Palomino”) that deserve to be part of that repertoire and, of all things, a ruminative, fireplace-glow cover of Sir Paul McCartney’s “For No One.” Hersch’s liner notes say he and his partners were “in the zone” on this Sunday night last March. He’d know. All I know is that I had an especially hard time keeping it all out of my player – and my head – for the rest of the year.
4.) Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (PI) – For a change, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for music is letting his sax and flute sit this dance out while leading two pianos (Jason Moran, David Virelles), two altos (Roman Filiu, Curtis McDonald), a cello (Christopher Hoffman), a tuba (Jose Davila) and a drummer (Craig Weinreb) in a four-part suite paying tribute to the late Lawrence “Butch” Morris (1947-2013), Threadgill’s fellow Vietnam War vet and partner in avant-garde insurgency and orchestration. The band is a typically eccentric gathering, but it is by no means Threadgill’s strangest combination of instruments. And if the dense musical collages assembled by the composer are as inscrutable and idiosyncratic as ever, they are also less forbidding; the angular dynamics and static-but-surging momentum urgently aligned with the wary-to-yearning-to-anxious mood swings of the present day. Indeed, I think Old Locks and Irregular Verbs is Threadgill’s most emotionally accessible work since Where’s Your Cup?, his 1996 Columbia album with Very Very Circus. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for him – and for our jittery selves needing the reassuring possibility of discovery and adventure in an uncertain future.
5.) Allen Toussaint, American Tunes (Nonesuch) –It may not quite fit into whatever gets categorized as “jazz” in its ever-marginalized marketing niche; not as neatly as 2009’s incandescent, expansive Bright Mississippi where Toussaint got to wander through a smoke-filled, twilit museum of 20th century black music with the likes of Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Marc Ribot. But even with a relatively smaller guest list of notables (Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Rhiannon Giddens), this album, whose concluding sessions were cut a month before Toussaint died in November, 2015 while on a European concert tour, is a deeply moving valedictory for an epoch-making legacy. No other pianist, living or dead, could apply his ironwork-ornate flourishes and mosaic-tile detail to such chestnuts as “I’m Confessin’,” “Viper’s Drag,” “Rosetta” and “Waltz for Debby.” No one could better evoke the resilient, inexhaustibly vivacious spirit of his home town when rolling through “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” “Big Chief” and “Hey Little Girl”; just as no one else could have written “Southern Nights,” whose solo rendering here is sweet-and-sour enough to sting the eyes. But you should save your tears for the finale: his vocal performance of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which goes down, especially this season, like both commiseration and a blessing, even when you’re stopped dead in your tracks by the plaintive, unadorned manner with which he sings: “Still when I think of the road/we’re travelling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong…” And I wonder how we’re managing to go on without him.
6.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam) — On the most elemental level, I can (almost) see conservatives’ point when they keep insisting that government isn’t your mother. But government also isn’t, or shouldn’t be, that creepy uncle who insists on hanging around your bedroom, listening in on your phone conversations, reading your mail and letting rich people with giant-squid tax shelters follow you around while you buy things. This is the world we’ve been living with for most of this – as I referred to it earlier – dismaying century so far; full of night sweats in broad daylight, cynical whistling-in-the-dark and equivocal behavior by those who’ve known too much for too long. So why, you wonder, would you want to listen to a whole damn album summoning up this dark matter? Because Darcy James Argue is a wicked-smart conjurer of phantasmagoric narratives grounded in real-life mystery. (See 2014’s Brooklyn Babylon for further enlightenment.) And his 18-piece Secret Society kicks ass and proves itself worthy of its name by enabling its leader to put forth a gnomic, allusive, brassy and insinuating musical soundtrack you can apply to any noir mind-movie your paranoia can summon to life. It’s the kind of story I wish someone of Argue’s boundless energies and bountiful vision didn’t have to tell. But, as many have observed of Edward Snowden’s transgressions, I suppose somebody had to do it.
7.) Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau, Nearness (Nonesuch) – These two guys have been all but joined at the hip since Mehldau served in Redman’s quartet along with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride. (Yes, that actually happened. Only one 1994 album, but, as you’d imagine, it remains a good, if retroactively undervalued one.) Redman and Mehldau have supported and inspired each other in the intervening years to the point where one is tempted to refer to them as the Huck and Tom of their generation of jazz musicians. I hope you’ve noticed that I did not say “Huck and Jim” and if you’ve read the books and been paying attention to their respective career arcs, it wouldn’t be hard to decide which is Huck and which is Tom. Or would it? Never mind. What you need to know about these live duets from five years ago is that they get off to a bit of a ragged start on “Ornithology,” but soon meld together in rapturous communication on Mehldau’s “”Always August.” Here and throughout the rest of the album, you’re aware of how much each of them has grown into their respective styles; Melhdau’s piano unfurling sheets of rich harmonies while Redman, on tenor and soprano, shows how impressively he’s contained and controlled that prodigious talent that got everybody excited more than two decades ago. And he can still level you when he wants to; most especially on a stunning extended solo break he takes on “The Nearness of You,” throughout which he doesn’t seem to take a breath – except, maybe, your own. Mehldau likewise makes your eyes grow big with his own derring-do on “In Walked Bud.” But they’re at their most potent when putting their heads together on Mehldau’s originals, notably the easy-rolling (at first) “Old West.”
8.) Kenny Barron Trio, Book of Intuition (Impulse!/Universal) — Sometimes, maybe most times, you just want music to come across like sunlight shimmering along the nearest available body of water, the undulations so soft and sweet that you don’t care how far or how high you’re floating. At 72 years young, Barron may be the undisputed living grand master of jazz piano. He is, without dispute, his idiom’s t most agile communicator in whatever setting or at whatever tempo. With bassist Kiyoshi Kitigawa and drummer Jonathan Blake, the group he’s been leading in nightclubs and concert halls for most of the past decade, Barron delivers a state-of-the-art smorgasbord of straight-ahead pleasure, much of it braced by the Latin and Brazilian rhythms that highlight his tuneful dynamics. The table is set from the start with “Magic Dance,” whose soft bossa-nova beat is Barron’s happy place; happy enough, in any case, for him to tempt fate with a flurry of arpeggios that settle soon enough into an easy-does-it samba. His homage to Bud Powell, “Bud-Like,” surges into Afro-Cuban overdrive while his fealty to Thelonious Monk is served with two of the Enigmatic One’s lesser-known pieces, “Shuffle Boil” and “Light Blue.” In each of these, Barron doesn’t try to out-Monk Monk so much as let his own graces impose their own manner of wit and mischief into their workings. It’s one of those records (and I have at least one of them every year) that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but reminds you why and how wheels work so beautifully.
9.) Etienne Charles, San Jose Suite (Culture Shock) – This ambitious work, enacted here in twelve parts, encompasses not just one, but three San Jose settlements in three different Western Hemisphere spots: California, Costa Rica and Trinidad. What’s distinctive about each of these San Joses/St. Josephs is less important to the formidably gifted Charles than what they share and the music he fashions from his inquiries is bright, ingenious and bursting with provocative rhythmic combinations. The polyglot of Indo-African-Latin-American-European influences not only evokes the past but advances a singular new musical language redolent of the “creole soul” that gave trumpeter-composer Charles the title of his potent 2013 album. Whatever you call it, as pure sound, it is gorgeous to behold with intensely committed interaction throughout from Charles, altoist Brian Hogans, guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist Victor Gould, bassist Ben Williams and drummer John Davis. The last three tracks are a mini-suite, “Speed City,” in which Harry Edwards recalls his tumultuous career at San Jose State University when he helped spearhead the African-American boycott/protest of the 1968 Olympics. At first, I thought the “Speed City” trifecta differed so much from the nine previous pieces that they belonged on a different album. Over time, I’ve come to think they not only belong, they’re a bonus to what precedes them; mostly because Charles and the rest of his crew leave blisters no matter when or where they turn up the heat.
10.) Delfeayo Marsalis & The Uptown Jazz Orchestra, Make America Great Again! (Troubadour Jass) – In the most politically astute and (therefore) funniest Saturday Night Live sketch of the late, unlamented campaign season, Darnell Hayes (Kenan Thompson), host of an edition of “Black Jeopardy!” made extra special by the participation of a white blue-collar-Trump-supporting contestant (Tom Hanks), is given the last word: “When we come back, we’ll play the National Anthem and see what the hell happens.” Well, you’re all encouraged to stand – or, if you roll that way, kneel – when this album begins with a stately, serious-as-a-heart-attack rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” And what the hell happens after that’s over is a raucous compound of house party, choral recital and vaudeville revue offering, as one song lyric puts it, “soul food for your ear.” The album’s title track is played for cheeky irony with the trombone-playing Marsalis brother’s narration intoned by actor Wendell Pierce with hambone slyness over an antic riff reminiscent of Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.” The words question whether the “catchy slogan” is a “pragmatic proposition” to “a melting pot of diversity fighting a juggernaut of adversity.” Did Marsalis and company know how things would turn out after the recorded this session? Feel free to ponder that as his 19-member orchestra throws down a potpourri of hard-driving arrangements whose sources range from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (“Snowball”) to Benny Carter (“Symphony in Riffs”). Final question: Is this a bittersweet send-off to the optimism that followed the election of 2008 or a defiant hello to the dark-edged uncertainties unleashed by the election of 2016? Guess we’ll know for sure in eight years, if not sooner.
HONORABLE MENTION: Sonny Rollins, Holding the Stage (Doxy/Okeh); Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, Moving Still (PI); Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto); Bill Frisell, When You Wish Upon A Star (Okeh); Roberta Piket, One for Marian (Thirteenth Note); Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Lionel Loueke, Eric Harland, Aziza (Dare2); Anat Fort & Gianluigi Trevisi, Birdwatching (ECM).
BEST VOCAL ALBUM: Catherine Russell, Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village)
BEST REISSUE/HISTORIC ALBUMS: 1.) Larry Young in Paris: The Ortf Recordings (Resonance); 2.) Joe Bushkin Quartet, Live at the Embers 1952 (Dot Time) 3.) Joe Lovano Quartet, Classic! Live at Newport (Blue Note)
BEST LATIN JAZZ ALBUM: Etienne Charles, San Jose Suite. HONORABLE MENTION: Sao Paulo Underground, Cantos Invisieves (Cuneiform)
Curtis Hanson, who died September 20 at age 71, was a decent man who made good and, quite often, better than good movies. It’s the sort of epitaph we’d pay several mortgages to own. Somehow it doesn’t say enough to compensate for a passing bereaving those of us who went to a movie theater in search of something more than distraction or anesthesia.
Carrie Rickey reminded me this morning of something Hanson once said about his own work: “I prefer stories of people who are, in a sense, trying to find better versions of themselves.” Hanson placed these personal quests front-and-center of his best work. Even with 1997’s L.A. Confidential’s pervasive squalor, layered betrayal and indiscriminate brutality competing for attention, you never wander far from the slow, painful education of dim, volatile LAPD detective Bud White (Russell Crowe’s star-making performance). You don’t share Hanson’s keen sympathy for him at the start, but before the end, you’re with them both.
American movies these days don’t work as hard as they once did to engage you in the lives of serial fuckups like Bud, or for that matter, Grady Tripp, the rakish, peripatetically stoned creative writer instructor from 2000’s Wonder Boys. As played by Michael Douglas, in his best performance (we can argue later), Grady’s “better version” of himself is stuck in neutral as he pokes away at the long-awaited follow-up to the novel that made him a cult hero. Among the things that distract him from finishing (besides his own bleary hubris) are his more gifted and troublesome students and the affair he’s been having with his boss’ wife (Frances McDormand).
Not all of his fuckups were guys, if you count Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz), from 2005’s In Her Shoes, in which she cloaks her shame over her learning disabilities with heavy drinking, empty relationships and an inability to focus on anything. Nor were all of the protagonists necessarily fuckups, if you count Jimmy Smith Jr., Eminem’s semi-autobiographical alter ego from 2002’s 8 Mile, whose apparent gifts as a rap artist are constrained less by his own character flaws than by the formidable obstacles imposed by his outskirts-of-Detroit environment. He overcomes as impressively, and as credibly as Maggie, Grady and Bud.
None of these films were made all that long ago. Yet they now seem very far away when you begin to wonder who, if anyone, now works to fashion such humane, intelligent and well-wrought stories for the big screen. Toward the end, even Hanson had to slide over to television, delivering his last notable work, 2011’s Too Big to Fail, to HBO. It’s possible to include this account of the 2008 financial crisis in Hanson’s thematic wheelhouse if you consider the whole banking system as a fuck-up and U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt) the principal agent in retrieving some, if not all of the system’s better angels. Those who knew Hanson, or even met him (as I did) once could easily see Paulson as a surrogate for the director’s own easygoing competence and composure.
After Hanson, who? I’m still asking.
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(On 115th anniversary of what, according to his Baptismal certificate, was Louis Armstrong’s actual birth date, I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2001 for SeeingBlack.com & for whatever reason, is now lost in the digital ether.)
Louis Armstrong may be the only American musician who gets two centennial celebrations. He is certainly the only one who deserves them. Last year, nodding to the July 4, 1900 date Armstrong believed to be his birthday, record companies unloaded a rich harvest of retrospectives and boxed sets, notably Columbia-Legacy’s four-disc The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings of Louis Armstrong, with the history-making sessions between 1925 and 1929 that, in essence, created 20th century music.
Given the relatively recent discovery that Armstrong was actually born August 4, 1901, the centennial celebrations are likely to continue through the end of this year. The keynote was certainly struck in January with the broadcast of Ken Burns’ epochal PBS series, Jazz. Armstrong’s spirit informs all 19 hours of the documentary, establishing him—once and for all and in timely fashion—as a towering figure in world history. People in other countries had no trouble with this notion. In Europe, he was an important musical artist. In Africa, he was a king. If you doubt this, watch documentary footage of Armstrong’s concert tour of that continent. They knew they were in the presence of a hero. Though you may find few who’ll admit it now, there were many black folks in this country who doubted this, including me.
I know now that I badly needed Louis Armstrong as a hero when I was growing up. Being a creative child who was never happier than when I was drawing pictures, making up skits or putting strange words or sounds together, I couldn’t possibly have found more positive reinforcement for my undefined dreams than the first great American improviser himself. Armstrong’s own account of his 16-year-old self, playing a horn in a rough Mississippi River-front honky-tonk, exemplified the kind of self-containment and artistic poise to which I’d subconsciously aspired ever since I learned to read and write:
“[The Brick House]…was one of the toughest joints I ever played in…Guys would drink and fight one another like circle saws. Bottles would come flying over the bandstand like crazy and there was lots of plain common shooting and cutting. But somehow all that jive didn’t faze me at all. I was so happy to have some place to blow my horn.” (From Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, 1954)
Unfortunately, I didn’t encounter such inspiring anecdotes until I’d grown well past the need for role models. (To paraphrase what a famous African-American actor once said to me: Role models are useful up until the age of 17. After which time, if you still need one, what you really need is therapy.) By that time, I had also come to realize other things about Louis Armstrong that made him seem even greater a hero than I was conditioned to believe as a teenager. His well-publicized rancor with the U.S. government over President Eisenhower’s reluctance to send federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 to enforce school integration revealed a fiery militancy very much at odds with the jovial, hanky-brandishing persona that was the only Armstrong my generation knew.
Getting past that image was something that even my parents’ generation had to be talked into, given its too-close association of Armstrong with the hambone minstrelsy of a fading era. However warmly they may have felt towards Pops, my folks and their peers found it easy to dismiss him as, at best, Yesterday’s News. And if my parents weren’t going to guide me towards Armstrong’s example, my fellow baby-boomers were even less help. To them, Armstrong was Everybody’s Foxy Grandpa—always entertaining you with his sandpaper voice and cute expressions but lacking the raw aggression of James Brown, the stiletto-edge danger of Huey Newton and the sex appeal of any pop star of our era.
Let’s be plainer still: What the boomers believed at their worst was that Louis Armstrong was a prototypical sellout pandering to the crowds; an Uncle Tom. I never (I don’t think) went that far. But received “wisdom” of this magnitude was powerful enough to keep me from engaging Armstrong’s music, no matter how much of it came my way.
“Political correctness” was a concept whose usage was pretty much confined to Marxists when Armstrong died in 1971. But professing an informed fondness for Louis Armstrong and all he personified was something of a liability for young African Americans who in those Nixon years were being goaded to the barricades, literally and figuratively. Part of me accepts these circumstances because that’s the way it wuz in dem days. Most of me will always resent empty socio-political baggage put between a potentially nourishing life force and my unfulfilled self.
It wasn’t until four years after Armstrong’s death that the piercing clarity of his horn shattered my pre-fabricated resistance. It was the 1927 recording of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” included on the first edition of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Armstrong seized my attention and curiosity from the opening chorus with the kind of force that one imagines it had almost a half-century before on an earlier generation of listeners. That was the beginning of a long, happy re-acquaintance with King Louis during which I listened to all the majestic 1920’s recordings with fresh, revitalized ears (Three words. “West End Blues.” Go now and listen to it!) while reading whatever I could find about him. Throughout these years, I sought to make amends with his spirit. Many surprises awaited me on the journey.
I knew of his disdain for modern jazz, especially the beboppers. What I hadn’t known about was his fondness for Guy Lombardo and rock and roll, his R-rated sense of humor (Three more words. “Tight Like That.” It should be on the same circa-1928 disc as “West End Blues. Seek. Find. Laugh.), the letters he wrote on the road or at home, the collages he made by hand and, most revealing of all, the anger at racism of all kinds that he concealed behind his amiable mask until it became necessary to let it loose (as it was when Ike was tardy with backup). The more I found out, the more enigmatic and mysterious I found this man who seemingly gave all of himself to his public.
Ossie Davis alluded to such chimeras in his on-camera testimony in Ken Burns’ series. As with many who came of age after Armstrong’s early breakthroughs, Davis had trouble getting past what he called “ooftah,” his name for the shucking-and-jiving stage antics that Armstrong deployed like a poker dealer. But when he’d seen Armstrong sitting alone off-camera during a shoot of Sammy Davis Jr.s 1965 movie, “A Man Called Adam,” Davis was moved by the intensity of Armstrong’s immobile expression to re-evaluate his opinion. Maybe, Davis thought, Armstrong was concealing lethal weaponry beneath that broad grin, ubiquitous hanky and gilded trumpet.
The way I feel now, I don’t care whether that horn, in Davis’ words, “could kill a man.” I just know that it’s taken longer than necessary to give Armstrong a break for whatever he was supposed to have done to African Americans and their self-image—and for me to figure out what I needed him for. Everyone else should try as well. After all, it’s his birthday.
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Soon, almost a month will have gone by since Miles Ahead was released and I’m still wondering whether it was worth making a movie that conceives of Miles Davis as a hip-limping, gun-toting, coke-snorting, jump-suit-wearing, jheri-curled amalgam of Han Solo and John Shaft.
Part of me wishes this summed up my complicated feelings about Don Cheadle’s dream (in more ways than one) project because I’m aware that what I just wrote seems to embed me among the jazz-snob coterie weighing in with sundry, often incendiary objections. Within that coterie, however, I lean towards those balancing our misgivings with resignation over what it takes these days to make, and sell, a movie. And with resignation comes qualified gratitude that Miles Ahead is somehow still making its way through the entertainment-industrial complex with so-far-not-catastrophic box-office returns and a mostly positive critical reception.
I mean, it’s not as if I could imagine, or even wanted an actual bio-pic with all the decorous solemnity and self-defeating finicky-ness too often accompanying the genre. (Even when such movies are careful with the facts, they still somehow ring false, which means John Ford’s often-regurgitated advice about “printing the legend” is more pragmatic than anything else.) To the extent that Cheadle’s near-hallucinatory pastiche of Davis’ self-imposed exile from the outside world during the late 1970s departs from this dubious norm, I think the movie is an intriguing heave into the cosmos. Too often, however, the blurriness seems less aesthetic calculation than technical difficulties. Some of the interior scenes are cluttered and awkwardly staged. Plus there’s an overall problem with “flow,” which I’m not using as rappers do, but with respect to transitions between scenes, whether flashbacks or in the movie’s present day. Cheadle, assuming he gets another shot at directing a feature (and I think he should), should acquire greater facility with this craft. But for now, as a filmmaker, he’s a hell of an actor – which, as you’ve heard, he proves throughout Miles Ahead.
The greatness of Cheadle’s performance isn’t just in the way he successfully appropriates Davis’ raspy voice, glowering intensity and physical tics. All those things, however impressive, isn’t acting so much as impressionism — which in a movie that leans heavily on impressions would blend with, if not thicken the surrounding goo. It’s Cheadle’s all-or-nothing engagement with Davis’ interior struggles that both evokes and epitomizes the intimacy of Davis’ art – and the abiding faith we kept in Miles through all his transitions and phases. It’s a performance that is most electrifying at those moments when Cheadle’s Miles is either in repose or contemplation; when he isn’t talking or looking at anything except his horn, which at times seems as unfamiliar or as vaguely threatening to him as the future. The tenderness and vulnerability Cheadle summons in his portrayal doesn’t surprise the already indoctrinated. But they are as immersed in its evocation as those whose first encounter with this mercurial personality may inspire them to probe the real deal’s recorded output.
Certainly, it’s a greater inducement than the woozy exhortation delivered by Dave Braden (Ewan MacGregor), the dissolute Rolling Stone “journalist” apparently coaxed into existence by studio executives who believed even the central presence of a black musical genius couldn’t guarantee a motion picture being made, much less distributed, without a White Guy to ride shotgun. “You got laid to this man’s music,” Braden scolds a bleary-eyed student drug dealer, “and you don’t even know who he is!” It’s not the first time a finished movie entered the marketplace still selling its premise. But it doesn’t make this boosting any less obnoxious.
MacGregor, to his credit, makes the best out of his otherwise thankless task. But his character is by no means the movie’s biggest problem. That comes during a physical altercation between Miles and his wife Francis Taylor (the stunning Emayatzy Corinealdi) that, as depicted in the movie, seems to have happened because Taylor goaded Davis into throwing the first punch. Whether this is what happened or not, I’m disquieted by the scene’s implication that Davis’ widely authenticated serial abuse of the women in his life was a.) brought upon themselves and b.) a relative anomaly in his behavior. That Miles Davis’ smoldering rage could often explode into violence against women is one of the many difficulties those of us who cherish his art struggle to acknowledge, if not accept. (Cognitive dissonance, folks: never easy and rarely pretty.) Since Cheadle did far more work than I did to realize the vision, I’m going to assume he knows this and, thus, knows what he’s doing here. It still chews at me.
I suppose, though, that part of what makes this Miles Ahead a conspicuous product of its subject’s legacy is the way it leaves you at the end: With more questions and implications to sort through than hard resolutions. It’s how Davis left things when he left the planet. It’s how so many of the albums he recorded from the mid-1960s to the bitter end lost listeners who couldn’t keep up with his own inquiries into form and function.
And with all my qualms about the movie, I can also say that the best thing it did for me once it was over was send me back to my bulging Miles Davis shelf; not to absorb myself yet again in Kind of Blue, Round About Midnight, Nefertiti or even Bitches Brew, but in the extended electronic performances from the early 1970s that, in toto, left me somewhat bewildered, even aggrieved over what I thought was overindulgence and even sloth on Davis’ part. Having re-acquainted myself with the vagaries of Dark Magus, Pangaea and Agharta, I now recognize many aspects to the amplified riffs and tempo flexing that given a present-day cutting edge patrolled by the likes of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar (with whom Miles, if he were still alive, aware and active today, would love to forge new sonic provocations) sound more prophetic than meandering. I should have known that somehow, someway, Miles Davis will always find a way of messing with your mind, calling bullshit on your home-made conventional wisdom. I may even change my mind about the movie someday. But not for a good while.
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Patty Lane would put it exactly that way. Remember Patty Lane? She was the one “who’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights.” If you’re of a certain age – mine, more or less – you know what comes before or after that line in the indelibly memorable theme music to The Patty Duke Show.
That was the one about “identical cousins” — and if that concept sounds genetically implausible, remember that the show ran between 1963 and 1966 when network television, in a time of often traumatic socio-political upheaval, opted for a chintzy species of magical realism where witches, Martians, talking horses and other anomalies could appear in your living rooms and three-hour boat tours could get you shipwrecked miles from the known world.
So, yeah, we bought the whole thing about two teenaged cousins who looked exactly alike while having starkly contrasting personalities. Cathy, the visiting relative from overseas, was demure, soft-spoken and scholarly while Patty was brash, jive talking and gregarious. They were both played by the teenage star who won an Oscar for her unsettling, enthralling performance as the blind deaf-mute Helen Keller in 1962’s movie version of The Miracle Worker.
This straight-from-Parent-Trap gimmick (apparently) sold the show to ABC. Duke’s zesty bravura sold the concept to America, which in retrospect is mildly astonishing. It’s difficult to remember now in a Miley Cyrus world that it was once rare to see adolescents inhabiting the center of a weekly TV sitcom. Leave it to Beaver cleared the way for Patty Duke Show with a point-of-view so child-centric that we still weren’t sure what its adult characters did for a living besides live in firehouses and teach school. But to have a weekly television series dominated by someone who was, at the time of its debut, still in high school, seems now to be the kind of a dare only a third-place network would take; one similar to the one it took by scheduling this crazy thing as the Wednesday lead-in to what turned out to be Patty Duke Show’s last season.
Little else was innovative about the series besides the concept. Whatever whimsical trouble the cousins contrived to get into, the adults almost always saved their bacon with sage (read: dull) counsel, just as they did in every family sitcom, with or without talking pets. But in an era when the Beatles’ pop explosion confirmed the arrival of what some persist in calling “youth culture,” it now seems altogether logical that a young person, a contemporary who likely knew all the lyrics to every Lesley Gore tune on the radio (as we could likewise recite every word in the show’s theme) was given brand-name autonomy over her very own show.
Something else that many people may have forgotten: She was really, really good at her work. It takes, at the very least, first-rate imaginative faculties to persuasively pull off a dual role and Duke sustained the magic effect for three seasons. Much later, Duke, with the candor and grace that typified the aftermath of her often-nightmarish psychological troubles, recalled how “prescient” the show’s producers turned out to be in devising a dual role for someone afflicted with bipolar disorder.
She also recalled that shy, retiring Cathy was closer to her basic personality than the cheeky, boisterous Patty. I was captivated with Cathy’s downy composure — and, of course, would have been quite happy to “go steady” with her, if I thought I could somehow keep up with her intellect. (I was told at the time that I could; I didn’t think it was necessarily a compliment, and you’d had to have been there to know why.)
But it was Patty – reckless, bumbling, relentlessly optimistic Patty – that I found more to identify with. Her mouth got her in trouble, but she always led with her heart, and never in a corny way. She was, in her way, a dogged New York hipster, though she was, by the 1960s, dangerously close to anachronistic in her effusions — “Pop-Oh,” “Toodles,” “Endsville,” etc. – and her deportment. But if you were the right age for it (and I was), she struck you as being as much a paragon of cool as a TV private eye or secret agent of comparable vintage.
I was sorry to see Patty and Cathy go when they did. But they made me a Patty Duke devotee for life, as they did just about everybody else at or near my age group. Yet it was always on the small screen that Duke made her most lasting impressions on me, whether it was a guest shot on a variety show or her Emmy-winning turn in My Sweet Charlie, her lovely, heartbreaking two-character recital with the late, great Al Freeman Jr. Her acceptance speech for that award was, itself, heartbreaking and worrisome. Was she all right? Would she be OK?
She would be. And until today’s unwanted news, I thought she had more gifts to bestow. It’s fine. She’s given us plenty. Or so I’ll eventually convince myself.
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But is the Monkey more significant than, say, the Rat or (my own birth-year icon) the Dragon? Let’s make comparisons, reaching back not TOO far in the previous century:
1932: “You Can Look Up Now, Everyone.”
1944: “If He Wins Again, We Win Again!”
1956: “Ike I Still Like! (You, I Don’t!)”
1968: “There Must Be Some Kinda Way Outta Here…”
1980: “Good Morning, Bitches!”
1992: “All I Want Is To See You Smile…”
2004: Still having trouble with this one. Bouncing around with stuff from “Swift-boat Me, Jesus!” to “Staying the Course to Nowhere” to “Look, It’s Not as Though Things Can Get Any Worse” (retroactive sniggering).
I see three, maybe four stars you can apply to that list. But let’s look at another recurring Chinese annum:
1928: “Chickens! Pots!! Each as Big as Your Head!!!”
1940: “Remember that ‘Rendezvous With Destiny’ thing? It’s really here now!”
1952: “Hey! He won the war for ya, dinnee?” (Yep, Fonz, he did!)
1964: “Helloooooooo, Lyndon!”
1976: “Once and for all, Why Not The Best?” (retroactive sniggering)
1988: “I want a kinder, gentler nation.” (more retroactive sniggering)
2012: “Whoop! He did it again!”
The star next to that next-to-last one gets bigger in hindsight than even those Monkey elections with stars on them. And the Rat?:
1936: “It’s a very nice win, dear, but don’t get carried away!”
1948: “Sure, it’s the middle of October, but why bother polling again? This thing’s over!”
1960: “Well…Suppose we don’t want to Get Moving Again?”
1972: “Four More Years!”
1984: “Four More Years!”
1996: (um…) “Four More Years!”
2008: “We Sure As Hell Did!”
A very big star on the last one, which may only get bigger in retrospect. Otherwise, poor Rat…and, maybe, Poor Us.
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The governors and voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should go into the streets, suburbs and strip malls of our great nation and thank every single angry black person they see. Start by going to the Smith family manse and apply a big, long, warm hug to Jada Pinkett Smith — and her husband, too, but only if he really needs one. Give Spike Lee another lifetime achievement award for something, anything else. And keep paying it forward, fulsomely and individually, from sea to shining sea.
Because if it hadn’t been for the #OscarSoWhite movement and all the attendant debate, acrimony and controversy it aroused among movie people all over the world, hardly anybody would give a bacon-wrapped, caramel-covered you-know-what about this year’s show.
Begin with the fact that ALL of this year’s top acting awards have been foregone conclusions for weeks. So barring the utterly, inexplicably unimaginable upset, (in other words, don’t count on it), there’s almost zero suspense accompanying the awards going out to the most recognizable people.
Some uncertainty clings to Best Picture, I guess. But that won’t be decided until the bitter end, at which point Chris Rock will (one hopes and trusts) have kept you engaged and amused with his strafing every glitzy square inch of pomposity and Caucasian self-importance within his reach.
And it wont matter whether he’s the only person-of-color who shows up because, as I’ve said since the boycott was announced, there’s little hope in changing things by absenting yourself from a frame from which your overall absence (or relative lack of presence) is already taken for granted. That’s as clear as I can or need to be on THAT topic. Except, I guess, for this.
Let’s do this thing we do because we know you care – and we still can’t understand why. As in past installments, projected winners are in bold and there’s a “For Whatever It’s Worth” (FWIW) ancillary graph tacked onto each category listed.
Best Picture The Big Short Bridge of Spies Brooklyn Mad Max: Fury Road The Martian The Revenant Room Spotlight
Revenant is heavily immersive, grandiosely “wow” moviemaking. Then again, this description more or less applies to at least two, maybe three other movies on this list, especially Fury Road, which many believed had the early lead. Big Short may still pull a Crash-like upset. And then there’s Spotlight, which in any other year would have been the public-spirited work collecting Oscars in the double figures. I’m betting on the One With The Big Bear.
FWIW: My own favorites from this list were Spotlight,Fury Road, The Martian and Bridge of Spies, whose U2 takedown scene was, outside of Leo & The Big Bear, the best set piece available in this crowd. (They’re kinda sorta alike if you think too much about it. So let’s not.) If a younger director put that aerial sequence together with the same blend of meticulousness and brio, she’d be hailed as a harbinger of greater things to come for the movie industry. Because it’s Spielberg, it was more like: Is that all you got for us? (At least, that’s what it sounded like to me.)
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Go look it up. I did. The only two directors ever to win back-to-back Oscars were Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve) and John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley). Mank…Pappy…Iñárritu? It makes a kind of karmic sense: Birdman was a high-fallutin backstage soap in the All About Eve manner, only with dorkier phantasmagorical subtexts. And it’s plausible that if Ford were around today, a frontier epic such as Revenant would have been in his wheelhouse – presuming said wheelhouse was drained of Ford’s patented Irish-whiskey sentimentality. As for what I think of Iñárritu’s work…I think the category, “Less Than Meets the Eye,” that the late Andrew Sarris included in his groundbreaking auteurist survey, The American Cinema, was made for somebody like him. (Then again, to his everlasting credit, Andy wasn’t afraid to change his mind about any of his rankings along the way.)
FWIW: Ridley Scott’s omission must have been a really close call, though it’s hard to decide who would have had to go from this group to put him there. As relatively unassuming as McCarthy’s work on Spotlight appears, his seamless control of volatile material is a lot harder than it looks. The Big Short seems the only outlier in the band, if only because it’s both a muckraking j’accuse and a quirky docu-comedy. Given that this is a presidential election year, Short is also timelier than any of the nominated films and, for a time, that attribute seemed enough to vault McKay to a win. Time, so to speak, flies.
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Going all the way back to This Boy’s Life and The Basketball Diaries, I can think of at least two DiCaprio performances more Oscar-worthy than this one. But, when going all the way back, I also remember that in those days he was considered more of an “actor” than a “movie star.” And when a movie star is seen at a certain point in his career putting himself through as much shit as Leo conspicuously does here, the convergence of forces is too powerful to ignore. In other words, it’s time to let him have it…
FWIW: …because, while I still think Cranston is in the conversation as Our Best Actor, his Dalton Trumbo was ham left in the oven a tad too long. Damon will Get His some other time as will Fassbender, who may have actually been the Best In Show here.
Cate Blanchett, Carol Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
It’s a given at this point. And it’s cool. She invests so much into this dark, slender story that her presence assumes total command of the enterprise. (Plus she looks exactly the way readers of the novel imagined.)
FWIW: Had Charlotte Rampling measured her words more carefully before weighing in on the minority/Academy set-to, there might have been some echo-chamber chatter about her illustrious career getting a much-deserved party favor. Thing is, she’s actually pretty excellent in this movie and it would have been altogether appropriate to give her the gold this time. It’s just…that is…well…you probably intended to say it differently, but…how to put this? Do you actually know any black Americans personally, madame?
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies Sylvester Stallone, Creed
I’m aware I said there’ll be no suspense at all with the acting awards. But I suppose there’s some suspense over whatever bleary thing will pop into Stallone’s head during his acceptance speech and whether he once again thanks the William Morris Agency twice while altogether forgetting to thank the black director and cast members of what some would-be-wit-iots insist on calling Rocky VII. The very least he can do is remind America – and maybe himself – that his “imaginary friend” Rocky Balboa would have never existed without Muhammad Ali as an inspiration. Google “Bayonne Bleeder” if you don’t know what I mean. On second thought, we’ll save you the trouble.
FWIW: Rylance’s is the one great performance in this bunch and the most significant MIA here is, of course, SAG winner Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. Meanwhile, I’m still wondering whether Tom Hardy is our new Brando or our new Lee Marvin. Either option would work out just fine. M Squad: The Movie? I’m so there…
Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
She’s really good, folks. And she’s had one of the best overall years of anybody on this docket. As much as she outclassed her co-star here, this picture, in some ways, was the least of it. In Ex Machina, she was the most alluringly scary of living dolls. She was also dryly funny beneath the dazzling threads she wears in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
FWIW: Still…Winslet was great in one of those never-saw-it-coming turns that, in many ways, was better than the one for which she won the lead-actress Oscar. (And remind me. Which one was that?) But I’m really rooting for JJL, who made the best out of one of the most thankless roles in motion picture history.
Best Adapted Screenplay The Big Short Brooklyn Carol The Martian Room
Classy source material and an austere, near-classical design. What more could anybody ask for?
FWIW: Then again, Carol was pretty austere, too, which some people, though I’m not one of them, believed was its biggest problem. I’d be happier, though, if Big Short’s brasher tactics were rewarded here, if nowhere else.
Best Original Screenplay Bridge of Spies, Ex Machina Inside Out Spotlight Straight Outta Compton
A really good list here and I’m sure I’m not the only lapsed newspaperman who roots for this one, no matter where it’s nominated.
FWIW: We may well be running out of opportunities to give one of these to a Pixar movie and my inner cartoonist secretly pulls for the one with the Ugly Imaginary Friend. Yet I’m all but positive it’s a shoo-in for…
Best Animated Feature Film Anomalisa Boy and the World Inside/Out Shaun the Sheep Movie When Marnie Was There
Centuries from now, assuming the smarter rats and bugs take up history, cinema studies and Freud as hobbies, the Disney-Pixar corpus will be pored over as keys to how civilization at the Second Millennium engaged with and critiqued its own imaginative autonomy. Inside/Out will be as crucial to this retrospective effort as all twelve films of the Toy Story saga. (I know, but give them time because you know that’s what The Mouse is ultimately after…)
FWIW: Sing along with me, everybody: “He’s Shaun the Sheep! / He’s Shaun the Sheep!/ He Even Mucks About With Those Who Cannot Bleat/Keep it in Mind/He’s One of a Kind/Oh!/Life’s a Treat/With Shaun the Sheep!!…” Let me repeat: It’s “SHAUN THE SHEEP”!!!!!
Best Cinematography Carol The Hateful Eight Mad Max: Fury Road The Revenant Sicario
Nobody does natural light like Emmanuel Lubezki, and this will be an unprecedented third consecutive time.
FWIW: I hope someday Oscar properly recognizes Edward Lachman’s ability to evoke not just the past, but how we remember the past, as he does in Carol.
Best Documentary – Feature Amy Cartel Land The Look of Silence What Happened, Miss Simone? Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Tossing the dice here, because this would be the Academy’s best opportunity to present SOMEthing to an African American. (Lisa Simone Kelly, the subject’s daughter, is co-executive producer.) Besides that, it’s as intense, riveting, distressing and, ultimately, heartrending as Simone was.
FWIW: The same words, in any order, could apply to the Amy Winehouse documentary, though the Simone film feels more urgent and timely. Either would be a worthy recipient – though I also wouldn’t mind if Joshua Oppenheimer’s Look of Silence took the Oscar as a kind of retroactive reward for its companion piece and immediate predecessor, The Act of Killing, which, to repeat, was THE film of 2013.
Best Foreign Language Film
Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent
France, Mustang Hungary, Son of Saul
Denmark, A War
By a considerable distance, it’s the single most talked-about and all-but-unanimously praised film in this category. In past years, that still wasn’t enough to win. But the manner in which this Holocaust story keeps to the horrific conventions of its sub-genre while blowing them into unfamiliar shapes makes it hard to ignore, or dismiss.
FWIW: Among my favorite foreign films of 2015 was The Assassin; more thrilling than The Avengers and deeper than Room. I’m still OK with Son of Saul winning it all.
Best Original Score
Thomas Newman, Bridge of Spies
Carter Burwell, Carol Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sicario
John Williams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Even people who hated Tarantino’s movie thought the score was its finest, most effective attribute. Plus, don’t you think Morricone deserves to have more than a lifetime-achievement Oscar while he’s still alive?
FWIW: Forgive me if I think a word or two needs to be said on Sicario’s behalf, and this is the place to do it since Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score evokes much of the hard-driving, hairpin-turn qualities that made Lalo Schifrin a demigod at film scoring. (And BTW, where’s his lifetime-achievement Oscar?)
Best Original Song
“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey
“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction
“Simple Song #3,” Youth ‘Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground
“Writings on the Wall,” Spectre
The idea that a documentary could include a Best Song winner is, to me, a intriguing prospect. (Apparently, there have been four others from documentaries that have been nominated before this.) Also, her overshoot on the David Bowie Grammy tribute notwithstanding, Lady Gaga deserves the mic to once again dedicate an award to victims of campus rapes and their cover-ups.
FWIW: The only visual effect that would rival, if not eclipse that of Lady G’s triumphant podium walk, would be for The Weeknd’s hair to walk, or shimmy, away with the Oscar for “Earned It.”
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Here’s what I liked most about last year, period. No added explanation necessary, though you’re going to get a LOT of it as we move along. So without further ado, in no particular order, etc…
Black “Black Comic” Novels
I’m already on record declaring this to have been a banner year for African American writing, especially in this sub-genre. So I have only a few things to add: 1.) I wish I could have found a way to have included in my CNN piece God Loves Haiti, Dmitri Elias Leger’s cunning and deeply moving romantic roundelay set against the backdrop of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake though 2.) what I really wish for is a the chance to have met Fran Ross, author of Oreo, if only to reassure her, as others had before she died in 1985 at age 50, that she was neither alone nor wrong in her artistic foresight and socio-cultural insurgency. 3.) If Paul Beatty’s cheeky, incendiary and laugh-out-loud Sellout had gotten even half of the attention afforded Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, we’d all be a lot further along than we are now because 4.) these and many other novels, poems and memoirs are so far ahead of where everybody else is on race and culture, especially what used to be called “The Press,” that their authors don’t have the time or the patience to look behind them. It’s up to the rest of us to catch up…and I’m not feeling especially hopeful about those prospects as I write this, especially today.
Comic Book Superheroes on TV
MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES
You could probably fashion some kind of algebraic formula out of this theory and make yourself quite obscure, in more ways than one: Something about the comic-book superhero genre diminishes whenever contemporary Hollywood seizes one of its properties and blows it up on for big screen while, on the other hand, the smaller the screen, the greater weight and dimension are allowed for these stories. It could just mean that there are better people writing for television than for movies; a thesis that may not need too complex an algorithm to prove. Whatever the reason, TV, with or without its water-based delivery systems (clouds, streams, etc.) has provided the only superhero “product” (I really need to slap myself stupid every time I use that word) with depth, breadth and, most especially, shadows. I’d previously thought the DC stable led the way by several lengths with Arrow, Gotham, The Flash and its latest sweet surprise, Supergirl. But with the exception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, for all its on-the-fly tinkering, still seems as though it’s fumbling in its pockets for magic and momentum), the Marvel Universe caught up big-time by going urban-neo-noir on Netflix with both Daredevil and the remarkable Jessica Jones coming at you as if every Law and Order episode came down with a severe case of the DTs. (And yes, that is a MAJOR compliment!) The relative success of small-screen super-heroics evokes simpler times when the original TV Superman was charming and cheesy while the first TV Batman was campy and cheesy and both took themselves seriously without being too solemn. Maybe the Fantastic Four franchise, having whiffed in two multiplex-targeted incarnations, would be better off lowering its expectations and looking for a cloud, or stream, to carry it forward. Or not.
I suppose there was a small part of me that wished Todd Haynes had given in to his inner Douglas Sirk with as much abandon as he had in 2002’s Far From Heaven, his previous exploration of “forbidden love” in the 1950s. There were many critics, even those who otherwise praised this movie, who felt the same way. The more I think about it, however, the more I believe Haynes was correct in opting for a mood of smoldering insinuation and rectitude since those are qualities most associated with Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel, The Price of Salt, from which the movie is adapted. She is a writer I will never love as much as I admire – and even then, from a shivery distance. If the movie leaves one cold, well, so did Highsmith. I’m not sure if anybody else could have done the material justice as well as or better than Haynes. Maybe the younger Kubrick since the movie at times evokes a colorized version of his 1962 take on Lolita; or, even better, the Alfred Hitchcock who made such gauzy dreams out of Vertigo or Marnie.
To Pimp a Butterfly(in the approximate, or relative context of Straight Outta Compton) –
The overlap of Kendrick Lamar’s most variegated testament (thus far) with F. Gary Gray’s astonishingly successful biopic/infomercial about N.W.A. made one ponder how much things have changed, if at all, between “Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model/To a kid lookin’ up at me/Life aint nothin’ but bitches and money” and “…[T]he world don’t respect you and the culture don’t accept you/But you think it’s all love/And the girls gon’ neglect you once your parody is done.” The latter quote from Butterfly is, of course, more contemplative and lyrical than the more belligerent assertion of “the strength of street life” from the 1988 album that gives Gray’s movie its name (and, really, its reason to exist.) Yet both these statements, and the records they come from, are stalked, even haunted, by the vulnerability of black lives as framed within the seemingly impregnable “White Problem” in America. Their shared response, in so many words: This is who I am, mothafuckas!! Deal with it because you got to change before I do! Both Butterfly and Compton (the album) also share the imperative to sound like nothing else that came before them. And their respective makers have profited from that make-it-new impulse; though it’s clear from both the movie and the story it tells that N.W.A. has gotten over with its members’ sometimes harrowing practice of rugged individualism while Lamar’s still probing for something deeper and more messianic to carry himself and his listeners to a new, yet-to-be-defined phase of The Struggle. The real bridge between these two works is Lamar’s “Alright,” which stomps in with the “Gangsta Gangsta” swagger before morphing into an assertion of self-worth powerful enough to have made the song an anthem of the “Black Lives Matter” movement – and, potentially, of movements, or just “movement,” to come.
There were so many shattering revelations and shameful double-dealings in this series’ third, and best, season that one feels derelict in highlighting only one episode. But the season’s ninth episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” was one of the peaks of series television, not just of the year, but also of the century so far. Its main action takes place in a repair shop late at night where Elizabeth and Phil Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), Russia’s most stylish spy tandem, have taken a broken mail robot to dig out some needed Intel. An unexpected surprise materializes in the form of an elderly woman (the great Lois Smith) who was married to the shop’s original owner. She’s just as surprised to encounter the Jennings and her bewilderment gradually evolves to a weary acknowledgement that she will not survive the night. Her presumptive executioners share in the gnawing awfulness of the situation especially Elizabeth, who attempts to ease the woman’s impending fate with some intimate, reassuring conversation about family life and then with an excessive injection of drugs. It’s an interlude that makes the audience feel somewhat like intruders – and co-conspirators. Even in a golden age of cable television drama, no other series could pull off such an emotionally searing sequence. I can’t wait to see what the fourth season’s going to submit for our approval.
It took a while for me to cozy up to Bloom County in its original 1980s incarnation. At the time, it seemed as though Berkeley Breathed’s strip was trying too hard to conflate an assortment of influences from Peanuts to Pogo, from Lil’ Abner to Doonesbury (especially) without developing a clear identity of its own. I also thought the comedy was too schematic and not terribly interesting (i.e. aging frat boy Steve Dallas hurling brazenly sexist overtures to super hot feminist schoolteacher Bobbi Harlow. Quelle Topique!) By mid-decade, though, the strip established its own blend of down-home whimsy, magical realism and soft-boiled satire distinctive enough to win a steady, fervent following – and a Pulitzer Prize!
Of course, The Penguin had almost everything to do with it. Breathed knew this since Opus was, for a while, the only character who made it to two sequels following the strip’s closure in 1989. This past July, Breathed came out with a made-for-social-media revival of Bloom County with deeper shadows, broader effects and the same antic impulses. Smartass savant Milo Bloom and his irresolute, monster-haunted school chum Michael Binkley have barely aged beyond pre-adolescence while Steve Dallas is still a self-loathing dick and (thus) a Trump supporter. Binkley has fallen in unrequited love with an enchanting pint-sized yogi named Abby. Bill the Cat is still…Bill the Cat, only more so. And Opus is very much the sun around which the rest of the cast revolves, if not evolves. I didn’t know how much I missed having these guys in my life until I started catching up with them on Facebook. And when I say the shadows are deeper this time, I refer to a recent storyline involving a small boy with an apparently life-threatening illness to whose elaborate space-opera fantasies the Bloom County gang caters. Breathed says he has no intention of bring his troupe back to newspapers and I think it’s a wise move on his part.
I still wonder, though, whatever became of Ronald-Ann Smith from Breathed’s Outland sequel strip. Is she the same age as well? Or did she grow up to become a semiotics professor at a Midwest college? I’m in no hurry to find the answer. I’d rather invent my own.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
My favorite documentary of the year may well be the most balanced, comprehensive and intensely felt history we’ll ever get of its oft-misunderstood topic. Director Stanley Nelson’s companion piece to his comparably thorough and illuminating Freedom Summer (2014) deftly weaves all the scattered, twisted fragments of Panther history from the group’s epoch-making, armed-to-the-teeth appearance at the California legislature (which resulted in then-governor Reagan signing the country’s first gun-control legislation) to its think-globally-act-locally agenda that both scared and thrilled the rest of America to its active harassment under the odious COINTELPRO scourge to its violent confrontations with police and the murder of Fred Hampton – who scared authorities, it’s clear here, more for having his political act together at a very young age than for any largely imaginary danger he posed to civilization. Nelson doesn’t shy away from the internal friction among the Panther hierarchy – and he’s taken some heat for doing so. But none of whatever happened between Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and others diminishes one’s abiding admiration for what this cadre tried to accomplish – or the persistence of what they challenged, against terrible odds, almost a half-century ago.
When Kristen Wiig left Saturday Night Live in 2012, I almost did, too. She gave the show a jolt of danger reminiscent of John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and (yes, even) Adam Sandler. As these examples suggest, such bomb-throwers are rare and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come along that soon to provide a similar did-I-really-see-that buzz to the franchise. Then this ball-of-fire roars into 30 Rock’s fun house and once again, America’s on the edge of its seat wondering what this crazy person will do next. She had me, so to speak, at Justin Bieber. But her take on Hillary Clinton so thoroughly and scarily encompasses the aspects of Madame Secretary’s personality feared by millions that you feel your own worst imaginings being held at gunpoint. (And that they deserve to be, too.) Madame Secretary’s appearance on stage with her perversely avaricious doppelganger was one of the show’s highlights, as much for showing the real-life candidate’s impressive composure in not breaking character, or breaking-up during the routine; something that couldn’t be said for Ryan Gosling a couple shows later. Enjoy her while she’s there because, if past history is any guide, she’s going to get so huge that she’ll outgrow the fun house.
Philip Levine & James Tate
Sunday’s New York Times reminded me that two of my favorite poets passed away during 2015. They seem utterly incompatible at a glance: Levine’s poems were engaged with the grit, heartbreak and elusive epiphanies of blue-collar life while Tate was a deadpan emperor of ice cream who revealed strangeness in familiar things while exalting familiarity in strangeness. Yet reading their poetry gave me frissons similar to the contact highs I used to get from seeing American and European movies more than forty years ago. As I emerged from the theaters of the 1970s, my immediate surroundings attained sharper definition and broader possibility. Good movies, great art and fine poetry induce such rapture and, with the latter especially, you are grateful for those bright flashes of grace and insight whether delivered by the cosmos or summoned from the sidewalk. You need both perspectives to function as a human being, otherwise what’s it all for? Don’t answer. Just listen to Levine working up the nerve to dive into a reverie by declaring: “I place my left hand, palm up before me/ and begin to count the little dry river beds/on the map of life” (“Blue and Blue” from 1994’s The Simple Truth). And dig Tate hard when in the title poem from his 1972 collection, Absences, he neatly sums up the autobiographical impulse: “A child plots his life to the end; and spends the rest of his days trying to remember the plot.” Whenever you lose a poet (or two), you gain renewed diligence to respect the things not readily seen, including all the poets who are still around to sharpen the landscape.
But if all that’s true, then why, I keep asking every year, is there so much good-to-great “product” (a euphemism I loathe, but am stringing along, hoping it’ll take the hint from the diminishing effect of quote marks) that still comes out? Why is it that I made up this year’s list thinking that there were so many discs I could have easily included that didn’t even make the Honorable Mention cut? Why is it that any of the top five on this list could have easily been number one and why could any of the ones below them, even the Honorable Mentions, could have slipped into the top five?
Why? Why ask why?
An answer — not “the” answer — is that whatever infrastructure that used to be in place for promoting and marketing music is in worse shape than some of our bridges, tunnels and highways. In fact, there might not even BE an infrastructure so much as a make-it-up-as-we-go-along system that spreads and circulates the word on artists and “product.”
Or not. I don’t know, really. As with everybody else who still cares, I go with my gut. And what my gut tells me is that jazz, whether God likes it or not, is finding a way to move along on its own power regardless of who’s noticing at this point. And my top five especially give me hope that the music is not just moving along or getting by, but transforming itself into something not even Lisa Simpson or Mayor Quimby will recognize at first. I say it every year at this time and I will find some way of saying it again next year.
And I’m not giving up my compact discs either. Why? Vinyl. That’s why. You all said THAT was dead, too, once.
1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, For One to Love (Mack Avenue) – Her debut album two years ago was one of those once-in-a-generation calling cards in which soul, grace, power and intelligence materialize in one implausibly commanding 24-year-old package. She could have easily followed it up with another mélange of classic or out-of-left-field standards and maintained her front-running status as the Next Great Jazz Vocalist without making your jaw drop as she did when introducing herself. But damned if she doesn’t do that to you again, and then some, with a bold concept album whose range and depth are reminiscent of similar innovations from this year’s centennial birthday boy Frank Sinatra during the fifties (“Only the Lonely”) and sixties (“September of My Years”). The songs on this album are connected in some way with what it’s like to for one’s looks to be scrutinized and summarily judged. I’d also be inclined to label her effort here as an attempt to filter The Male Gaze through a prism of her own design. But why limit oneself, or her, to one gender’s glancing assessments? The biggest tip-off is “Look at Me,” one of her five original compositions here, in which self-conscious doubt starts seeping into an otherwise idyllic romance. (“Why don’t you look at me/ the way you look at all the other girls you see?”) along with its companion, “Left Over” (“I wonder if he even knows my name”) Such plaintive, yet pointed inquiries make themselves known in other selections, such as “Stepsister’s Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and that sweet swinging Bacharach-David tune, “Wives and Lovers,” which she nonchalantly hits over the fence and through the windshield of a neighbor’s car parked four houses away. Her penchant for unearthing early blues (Spencer and Clarence Williams’ “What’s the Matter Now?”) also melds easily with the overall concept, whose poignancy is offset by the ferocious jolts of hope and mother-wit infusing “The Trolley Song” and an especially breathtaking “Something’s Coming.” It almost frightens you to keep listening. Yet you have to. And of course, it all wouldn’t work nearly as well without the pliant and comparably ingenious accompaniment of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers.
2.) Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder) – I suspect this will likely lead most of the lists my peers are assembling for the year’s best jazz albums. If the level of emotional investment shown in the previous entry hadn’t moved me more, I’d have been right along with them. This represents one of those occasions where you’re not only recognizing artistry on these three discs, but what this whole work represents: A heady return to the notion of orchestrated jazz as a source of emphatic, unmediated ecstasy; the difference here from the raw, searching energies summoned by John Coltrane, Su Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and generations of “New Thing” acolytes and fellow travelers from the past being a wider accessibility to beat and tone. Because of Washington’s Los Angeles roots, I kept thinking about great bandleaders and mentors from that scene such as Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott whose charts roared, stomped and often sprawled the way these pieces do. But because of the conspicuous presence of Washington’s keening, quicksilver tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (which, if you were holding my feet to the fire, I’d be ready to declare the Album of the Year among all genres), I also recognize in this Epic’s conception Hip-Hop’s big, avid ears for blending rogue sounds. In this case: tiers of percussion propelling choirs of angels, street-hard horns breaking and merging at will and, once in a while, the familiar sound of a Hammond B-3 organ (summoned by keyboardist Brandon Coleman). It’s an achievement of such conspicuous heft and dimension that it makes you wonder if Washington’s trying to do too much at once. But just when you think those aforementioned energies are flagging, something, maybe a speed run by the bassist known as Thundercat, an extended comp by acoustic pianist Cameron Graves, an incisive lead vocal by Patrice Quinn or a fervent, reasonably straightforward take on “Clair de Lune” comes along to sustain the sense of the ground beneath one’s feet rumbling. It’s not that The Epic represents anything new under the sun. (It even revives “Cherokee,” for Charlie Ventura’s sake!) But it makes you aware of how long it’s been since jazz music made you want to reach for the sun, much less stare at it without fear.
3.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare) – In a year when the overall level of jazz composing, arranging and orchestration challenged the adequacy of one’s supply of superlatives, it altogether figured that the redoubtable Schneider would put forth what, up to this still-relatively-early point in her brilliant career, could well be her masterpiece: An eight-piece suite, a decade or so in the making, evoking the outward graces and cherished epiphanies of the Minnesota prairie where she grew up. The music at first lulls you into thinking this handsomely packaged selection will be nothing but daydreams bathed in twilight pastels. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But Schneider, whose ability to “play” an 18-piece orchestra has never before been as consummate or as confident as it is here, layers her pastoral vision with themes that thicken, recede and recharge with the mercurial impulses of Nature itself. After all, the weather isn’t always sunny and warm in one’s past, or, to be sure, in one’s present either. As with every great bandleader, Schneider allows her soloists near-collaborative space to enhance her vision, as in the cases of pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund replicating the tension between memory and reality on the title piece or Rich Perry’s inquisitive tenor sax summoning the persisting lure and unfulfilled yearning of “Home.” Too often, Schneider’s work as a composer-arranger incites comparisons to her inspirations/mentors Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans (about whom more later on this list). Now, she stands alone as a musical force capable of inspiring others. And if I were to make any comparisons at this point, it would be less towards other bandleaders than towards poets, to whose influence she has been paying homage on recent discs. In particular, her work on Thompson Fields reminds me of Robert Frost, another pastoralist whose darker, more ambivalent approaches to the passages of time and the seasons are often overlooked at first glance because of the elemental beauty of his tone. In both his case and hers, the subtler sense of unease aroused by their respective visions incline you to be more solicitous to the living things around you – and to treat their mysteries with respect and discretion.
4.) Stanley Cowell, Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive) – Now 74, Cowell has been among the underappreciated stalwarts – and treasures – of American music. As with generations of jazz masters who found themselves marginalized in the cultural firmament even as they were becoming more autonomous as producers (he was one of the co-founders of the legendary Strata-East independent label in the seventies), Cowell spent most of the last several decades in academia while continuing to write, perform and record in a variety of settings as sideman and leader. He has also been one of the few pianists whose solo work is as textured and broadly realized as any combo’s repertoire. This unaccompanied performance of a work originally written for large ensemble commemorating the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, or at least its informal announcement in Texas in 1865, feels very much like a splendid gift to his abiding fans as well as a moving tribute to Cowell’s resilience. Because he shares a Toledo, Ohio birthplace with the great virtuoso Art Tatum, Cowell lays claim to the same faultless command of time and space that Tatum displayed in his own formidable body of solo recordings. He also weaves references to, and extensions upon, such disparate tunes as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Strange Fruit,” “Dixie” and other Americana redolent of the surging, shape-shifting referencing of Charles Mingus, only with a more probing and nuanced approach. With the issues animating the Civil War gaining more urgency in the years since Cowell was commissioned (in 2012) to compose this suite, “Juneteenth” feels at once both topical and enduring; news that, for better and worse, stays news.
5.) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT) – Modernism meets post-modernism and the former gets a “fly” face-lift it can grow with. Bird Calls is (far) less a “tribute album” to Charlie Parker than a young alto-sax daredevil’s attempt to connect with the divinities that made Parker soar into uncharted changes more than 70 years ago. Mahanthappa borrows or, more appropriately, “samples” themes, licks and riffs from the Parker canon and uses them as propellant for his own fire-breathing inventions. The familiar fanfare from the “Parker’s Mood,” for instance, is transfigured on “Talin is Thinking” into a incantation setting the table for a dirge drastically different, yet no less resonant or far-reaching than the original while “Maybe Later” cheekily elbows tropes from “Now’s the Time,” Parker’s slow-hand blues that midwifed both bebop and post-war rhythm-and-blues, and creates a bouncy number that swings more like an uptown rave than a downtown slide. The only thing that strongly evokes Parker throughout is the insurgent, turbo-charged drive to Make It New; and, in the process, to expand the possibilities for jazz to emerge from the chrysalis of its established traditions into something resembling full, unrestrained flight. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston robustly share their leader’s commitment to this process and, you hope, other attempts at homage to past masters will take the hint.
6.) Steve Coleman, Synovial Joints (PI) – “Doctor” Coleman continues the inquiry into the human body he commenced two years before with Functional Arrythmias (also on PI) and expands his bag of implements beyond those of his customary quintet of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd, guitarist Miles Okasaki and, this time, drummer Marcus Gilmore to include a few more horns, a flute and piccolo, a string quartet, a pianist (David Bryant) and a singer (Jen Shyu) who join him on the eponymous four-part exploration/appreciation of, as Coleman writes in the liner notes, “the joints that bind the human musculoskeletal system [that] function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissue and provid[ing] various degrees of movement for our bodies.” Yes, I had the exact same thought: What a fine dance performance routine this music would serve. And the pull-pull interplay between strings and horns, bass lines and modes encourage one to imagine knees, elbows, legs and shoulders accommodating themselves to whatever groove gets transmitted as permission to ambulate. This disc doesn’t just go inside on “Acupuncture Openings” and “Celtic Cells” (not those in the body, but in medieval clusters of otherwise scattered visionaries. They also spend time in the Sahara desert on “Harmattan” and “Nomadic.” Wherever they go, Coleman’s ad-hoc musical aggregation sustains an engaging blend of the spontaneous and the deliberate that keeps mind and body in constant motion at delightfully varied speeds. It’s even fun if you’re just walking at a normal pace and this quirky music’s somehow playing – in more ways than one – through your ears.
7.) ) Ryan Truesdell Gil Evans Project, Lines of Color (ArtistShare) – Despite several albums of live performances by his big band released during the last 15 years of his life, so much of the reputation of arranger-bandleader-composer-enabler-of-the-cool Gil Evans (1912-1988) remains tethered to studio work, most especially whenever Miles Davis was involved. Thus, Ryan Truesdell, to whom so much is already owed for his Evans project’s award-winning 2012 debut. Centennial (also on ArtistShare), continues to restore Evans’ body of work and its myriad possibilities for revision. Here, he also helps re-establish the exuberant interaction of big band music with its audience — even if it’s sitting and drinking along, as opposed to dancing, which for all I know happened, too, at midtown Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, where these sessions were recorded. Take, just as an example, the project’s reiteration of Evans’ arrangement of Bix Biederbecke’s “Davenport Blues.” On the 1959 Pacific Jazz album, Great Jazz Standards, the piece is carried along by the late trumpeter Johnny Coles’ soft, cool and dry solo, this version’s rhythmic pulse is amplified by drummer Lewis Nash’s down-and-dirty beat and trumpeter Mat Jodrell’s flamboyantly vertical solo. I thought Evans’ 1965 version of “Greensleeves” would be a non-starter without Kenny Burrell’s guitar up front, but trombonist Marshall Gilkes busts the arrangement wide open. Because Truesdell is as much curator as orchestrator, he also uses such occasions for lesser-known or previously unrecorded Evans, notably “Avalon Town,” which he’d written during his mid-1940s apprenticeship with Claude Thornhill, during which he began tinkering with impressionism and modulated brass.
8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear) –This is the small group album many of us have been waiting for from Wilmington’s Excitable Renegade. His knotty, multi-clustered attack on the piano is as relentless as ever with his themes and motifs rolling, tumbling and shifting direction with seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness. The first few bars of “Instinctive Touch” (along with the title itself) announces to the uninitiated how insistently he’s willing to stress test a motif until it breaks apart to reveal some promising new form of life. Yet it’s the title track that discloses something new to the mix; an exuberant drive that somehow seems more contained and yet more fluid and expansive. I’m going out on a limb by saying that it’s the addition of drummer Newton Taylor Baker to the tandem of Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio, whose solos likewise seem to have gained greater breadth and openness. Baker’s playing, both with the others and on its own, stretches and spreads out along with Shipp’s and Bisio’s, establishing keener interaction within the trip and helping Shipp’s compositions, whether as crypto-funky as “Blue Abyss,” or as discursive as “Primary Form” reach trajectories that challenge listeners without leaving them stranded or shortchanged. Mostly, it’s fun. Which is how jazz at whatever level of ambition or comprehension is supposed to “conduct” itself.
9.) Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, Intents and Purposes (Enja) – The year’s notable contribution to the file marked, Discs-I-Couldn’t-Keep-Out-Of-My-Player-Without-Knowing-Exactly-Why is a disarming and surprisingly illuminating inquiry into the oft-discredited realm of what we used to know in the 1970s as jazz-rock fusion. Because so much of the music associated with that genre leaned on synthesizers, wah-wah pedals and other plug-in accessories, purists of all persuasions suspected both its players and its repertoire of coasting on waves of bombast and white noise. Abbasi’s guitars, assisted by Bill Ware’s vibes, Stephan Crump’s upright bass and Eric McPherson’s trap set, excise the bubbles and fuzz from one’s memories of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron,” Chick Corea’s “Medieval Overture” and Pat Martino’s “Joyous Lake,” among others, to reveal their sinewy lyricism without muting their sounds or constricting their energies. These guys come on strong enough to make you check the cover again to make sure nobody’s packing a concealed amplifier.
10.) Heads of State, Search for Peace (Smoke Sessions) – This gathering of gray eminences – saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster – isn’t out to re-invent the wheel, or anything else. This is about as unassuming as “straight ahead” jazz gets these days, given its selection of standards, both familiar (“Impressions,” “Lotus Blossom,” “I Wish I Knew”) and not quite as well known that you don’t need to mention their composers’ names (Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade,” Jackie McLean’s “Capuchin Swing”). There are also two pieces, “Soulstice” and “Uncle Bubba,” written by Bartz – and as masterly as the other esteemed “heads” are, it is Bartz to whom this album truly belongs and whose playing throughout is a clinic in lyricism, timing and tone. At 75, he is a living exemplar of the alto saxophone and all you have to do is listen to him lay out on something like “Crazy She Calls Me” to bask in the reflected glory of someone who knows exactly what to say, how to say it and where each bend and curve in a variation needs to go. Jazz doesn’t always have to change the world, or even rearrange the furniture in your head, to be great. Sometimes, all it needs is a rich, ripe and still evolving gift such as Bartz’s to remind you why you don’t really care what anybody else says about jazz music’s alleged “deterioration” or “demise.” If Bartz still believes, you should, too
Fred Hersch, Solo (Palmetto)
Myra Melford, Snowy Egret (Enja) Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities (ECM) Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso (Skipstone) Tigran Hamasyan, Luys I Luso (ECM) Romain Collin, Press Enter (ACT) Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street, Philadelphia Beat (Sunnyside) Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff (ECM) Liberty Elfman, Radiate (PI)
BEST VOCAL: For One to Love HONORABLE MENTION: Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth By Day (Legacy)
BEST LATIN ALBUM: Arturo O’ Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motema)
I’m going to say it was 1993 because who’s going to tell me it wasn’t, right? It was, in any case, one of those blessed years when a good chunk of my weekly salary was earned talking regularly to jazz musicians and I was having an especially jovial and illuminating conversation with McCoy Tyner about, mostly, the big band he sometimes, though not often enough, drove onto concert stages. Somewhere, the talk took a slight veer into the tricky issue of progenitors and I asked Tyner what he thought of Erroll Garner.
Why? This is where it gets hazy, because I’m not altogether sure how it came up unless Garner came to my packrat mind as an example of a jazz pianist who rarely (if ever) fronted or accompanied large ensembles, owing to a sprawling, multi-layered attack that telegraphed plenty of orchestration on its own. I also think that I was hearing much of the same lavish, often rousing ornamentation in Tyner’s late style – though I thought it prudent not to frame the question in this fashion.
Tatum, Monk, Bud Powell…these were the names Tyner was willing, even eager to claim as influences. But Erroll Garner? Not so much and, though I never used his remarks on this topic till now, I distinctly remember him saying of Garner, not unkindly, that unlike the others in his pantheon, “he never made the piano sound like anything other than a piano.”
I thought, back then, I knew what Tyner meant; that Garner, whatever his many attributes, wasn’t considered one of those innovators who transformed the landscape around them, and not just jazz, or the piano. As I say, I didn’t use the material in my piece, in large part because I thought Tyner’s estimation was a kinder, gentler variation of the ways in which Garner’s once-glowing reputation had dimmed along jazz’s upper reaches.
Not that plenty of people weren’t trying hard twenty-something years ago to stoke those fires again; esoteric classicists such as Dick Hyman would talk Garner up any chance he got. Always there were the inexhaustible efforts of Garner’s manager Martha Glaser, whose devotion to her client’s best interests endured well beyond her client’s death in 1977. She was always ready to talk on the phone about Garner and promote an event celebrating his legacy – and on those occasions when I obliged her, I routinely insisted to my readers that Erroll Garner deserved to remembered as much more than the man who wrote “Misty.”
My readers, I like to think, may have been smarter about such things than musicians since Garner’s crowd-pleasing, readily accessible swing left them feeling very happy. Glaser herself died a year ago next month at 93. What’s happened since would make her very happy.
For this has been the year that Erroll Garner’s reputation has been rejuvenated by the release in September of The Complete Concert by the Sea (Sony Legacy), a three-disc package that presents in unedited form on the first two discs the live performance on September 19, 1955 (yes, if you’re scoring, 60 years ago) by Garner, drummer Denzil Best and bassist Eddie Calhoun in what is now the Sunset Arts Center in Carmel, California. The third disc offers the same edited version of the concert that, along with Time Out and Kind of Blue, became one of Columbia’s evergreen jazz LPs of the decade.
Not everybody loved it, though I never quite understood the beefs since they seemed to have little if anything to do with the music. After I finally bought my own copy of the original LP in the mid-1970s having heard so much about it for years, a perpetually grouchy friend of mine sneered that it wasn’t an album so much as a mood-setting accessory for “swinging” bachelors. This jaundiced view, I’m embarrassed to say, held unjust dominion over my own; when at first, I was captivated by Garner’s high spirits, jaunty humor, and infectious cleverness, I would instead see these qualities as happy hour ruffles and flourishes intended to get a rise out of the Carmel crowd, which seemed cued to applaud every ornate lick and at every point when a familiar melody made its presence known. Then and now, I wondered what they were really clapping for: Garner’s prefatory inventions or their own ability to, so to speak, Name That Tune when it materialized.
And yet, my inner crank was at war with my even younger self, who was enchanted with Garner’s witty, crafty 1947 solo, “Frankie and Johnny Fantasy” or immersed myself in my parents’ 1967 LP, That’s My Kick, with its double conga drums and hooky original compositions, “Nervous Waltz” and “Like It Is.” A self-taught, ambidextrous pianist who couldn’t help growling at the keyboard seemed eccentric enough to avoid being diminished as lightweight. Yet as with such sui generis pianists as Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett (who also makes strange noises while he plays), Garner’s popularity with the public seemed something of an indictment to jazz snobs.
But as with the futile complaints against Ella Fitzgerald’s unfettered glee in invention, carping against Garner’s similar instincts for joy and fun is ultimately a losing battle. Also, Garner is held in high regard by such jazz-snob favorites as Martial Solal and Cecil Taylor, who (again, if memory serves) thought the free-form preludes Garner often indulged before he dug into a melody were too often overlooked on their own merits. The peerlessly resourceful contemporary pianist Geri Allen is one of the principal forces behind restoring The Complete Concert by the Sea to the marketplace and her contribution to the liner notes makes a persuasive case for “Mr. Garner’s innovative, singular piano technique and exuberant musicality personifies a joy of fearless virtuosity and exploration…the very spirit of swing, free improvisation and the blues.”
Suits me, and apparently it likewise suits the critical cognoscenti who have all but unanimously deemed this package the year’s best re-issue – though I suppose it’s not technically a reissue if it’s more than doubling the original LPs 11 tracks with previously unreleased pieces, including a near-breathtaking turn on “The Nearness of You” and a deeply satisfying run-through of “Bernie’s Tune.”
More than anything, the set has put Garner’s name back in play for pantheon status, though who really wants to engage in that game when Joy is the final arbiter? I’ll let that somewhat confounding question sit in mid-air while one begins reconsidering how much Erroll Garner lives in the spirits of jazz pianists past and present, young and old, “progressive” and “mainstream” (or however you make such distinctions in your own mind). Other than similar re-packaged goods it augurs, Complete Concert by the Sea opens up that potentially delicious discussion. And whatever its virtues of resiliency, “Misty” hasn’t all that much to do with it.
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