Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2019

I’m not going to say this past year in jazz was stranger than any other. But my list is sure a surprise, at least to me.

I mean…just look at the top five…not just one, but two organ albums? Yes…and not only that, they were both different approaches to jazz organ, having little in common except some righteous tenor sax interaction and all-out commitment from their respective leaders. More on them later.

It makes me remember something told to me back in the 1980s by a very wise man named Jerry Gordon, founder and manager of Philadelphia’s hallowed and still much lamented Third Street Jazz: “There’s no middle ground on organs. People either love them or they don’t.” Jerry would know since Philadelphia has a legitimate claim to being “the jazz organ capital of the world” and indeed, one of the organists on this list has deep Philly roots, deeper even than those of Sun Ra, another organ player who called Philadelphia home and whose massive, unparalleled body of work Jerry would later help curate for Evidence Records.

If anybody occupied Jerry’s nonexistent middle, I was sure it was me, even if I could never avoid such music because as far as my dad was concerned, organ jazz was Dah Joint. This was especially true in the 1960s when he was looking for something to make the rec room jump at odd hours of the night. Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, Charles Earland, Shirley Scott…those were all his peeps, his boon pals and drinking buddies. Not that I didn’t jump up and down to Jimmy Smith by my own self in those years, but I had so many more outlets for musical comfort and joy. So “love,” as Jerry characterized it, had little to do with it.

Still, as much as Dad would find the basic trappings cozy and familiar, I can’t say for sure whether he’d be able to hang long with these two organ albums. They swing hard, but they also aim high. As much as he liked to jump, Dad likely wouldn’t want to go as high as these two albums. As I say, more on them later.

I suppose that having jazz organ front center aligned somehow with a need I had from jazz and from culture in general to go hard and aim directly at the heart of things. The music that grabbed me the most this past year didn’t dwell on stuff too much, but showed commitment, energy and drive. In plain terms, these albums all followed the ancient bandleader’s imperative to “Hit It!” And that was enough for me.

There was too much else to think about this past year – and also not a whole lot of thinking to go with it. So, if passion was there to be had, my sense of things was that it had better be engaged, tough and above all smart to know where it was going and how it wanted things said and done.

So, let’s hit this!

 

 

 

1.) Etienne Charles, Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol. 1 (Culture Shock) – I like gumbo. No, I don’t. I love gumbo. I especially love it when its ingredients are scraped, plucked, dug up, mashed, dashed and liberally strewn into the pot with seeming abandon, but also – and always – with instincts homed in on what combinations will at once surprise, awaken and enchant the senses. Charles, a trumpet tyro from Trinidad, has made it his business to collect musical seasonings and spices from all over the Caribbean to create mind-body release music redolent of their cultural origins while intent on illuminating the region’s complex history. His previous work, including 2013’s Creole Soul and 2017’s San Jose Suite, gave off rushes and thrills while disclosing the calculation and intelligence behind them. On Charles’ full-bore inquiry into the festival music of his native land, the erudition isn’t as conspicuous, but the eclecticism is. And the rush invigorates from the jump as an on-site recording of Trinidadian street musicians laying down a rollicking, swiveling beat is amped up by some slash-and-burn post-bop inventions of Charles, also saxophonist Brian Hogans pianist James Francies, guitarist Alex Wintz, percussionist D’Achee and drummer Obed Calvaire and others. David Sanchez adds his agile tenor sax to the simmering pot on other tracks and the leader himself kicks in some percussive support, even a cowbell, to the proceedings. This is the enrapturing and beautiful album one long suspected Charles is capable of delivering and maybe the best part of the whole deal is that this is only “Vol. 1.” Here’s my bowl. More, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.) James Carter Organ Trio, Live from Newport Jazz (Blue Note) – It’s been almost twenty years since Carter, a fire-breathing, bottom-voiced avatar of croon-and-holler saxophone, last took a deep dive into the repertoire of gypsy guitar legend Django Reinhardt. And it’s been almost ten years since he’s released an album of any kind. As if to remind us of what we’ve been missing, Carter audaciously re-engages with Reinhardt’s music and brings along his power backup of organist Gerald Gibbs and drummer Alex White. Thus, two raucous traditions – the red-hot “jazz manouche” of 1930s-1940s Parisian bars and the smoky-blue hardbop of 1950s-1960s uptown nightclubs – were in each other’s arms at Carter’s 2018 Newport Jazz Festival appearance and the clinch proved intoxicating, even transformative. Unlike 2000’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, Carter’s not here to pay homage, but to revitalize such Reinhardt chestnuts as “Le Manoir De Mes Reves,” “Anouman” and “Melodie Au Crepuscule” with soulful strutting and hard-rock shouting. The trio opens “Crepuscule” with a grinding vamp borrowed from Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” drawing the crowd to their side and keeping it in their pocket with Gibbs’ spirited riffing and Carter’s bait-and-switch inventions. While Carter can still blow the doors off any nearby building with his sky-scraping honks, bleats and wails, his deep tone on tenor, alto and soprano sax is supple and lustrous at any tempo or altitude. The smoldering, bewitching variations he makes on “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” induce both terror and awe and apply a diamond-hard exclamation point to this triumph for Carter, for Newport and for tradition, wherever it can be salvaged and recombined.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.) Branford Marsalis Quartet, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (Marsalis Music) – Through the years, nay, decades he and his family have held presumptive dominion over the national jazz discourse, Branford has always been my favorite Marsalis grumpy-pants: testy, feisty, dryly funny and brazenly confrontational with his peers over what jazz music really is and what the public really wants from it. Whether in dispute or agreement with his tirades, I’ve often found them livelier than his music, however solidly crafted and polished in presentation. There’s been no doubt that he and his bandmates – pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner – have as keen a rapport with each other and with their audience as any working combo. But there hasn’t been a full-blown album that evokes what this rapport can achieve at its best. Until now. Something about this one pulls hard on your coat and ramps up the unit’s commitment and drive. Every member brought their A-game for this session to the point where it’s hard to single out, say, Calderazzo’s sweet, steady-rolling changes on his pieces “Cianna” and “Conversations Among The Ruins,” or Revis’ combustible compositions, “Dance of the Evil Toys” and “Nilaste.” Faulkner, the relative newbie in the group, contains and advances the apparatus with a fiercely applied command of weight and balance belying his youth. And the leader seems more locked in than usual, playing with blazing verve and urgency that enhance his habitual ingenuity. To get the full impact of this group’s high-spirited interaction, you need only listen to its exuberant rendition of Keith Jarrett’s “Windup” that, appropriately, brings this set home. Many moons ago, Marsalis showed his drolly churlish side speaking of Jarrett’s own prickly-pear personality, insisting even then that he had nothing whatsoever against Jarrett’s music, proving that even the hardest-shelled curmudgeons can call upon their generosity when properly inspired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.) Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox) – At 85, South Africa’s greatest living jazz artist finds himself deep in the winter of…not discontent exactly, but of wistfulness that stops just short of melancholy. His piano still dances with as much command of space and time as it ever did. But it now takes its time, forsaking much of the whirling-dervish momentum of Ibrahim’s youth with a more deliberate pace that nonetheless resolutely forsakes caution. The sepulchral mood of “Dreamtime” at first throws you off. But as soon as his seven-piece band Ekaya kicks in full gear on “Jabula”, Ibrahim gets frisky enough with the beat to let you know he’s nowhere near ready to slip into the shadows. He remains as open to riding the rugged and unfamiliar in rhythmic combinations as he ever was and as moving as his performance is of “Song for Sathima,” the paean he wrote for his late wife, vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, there’s a grand and open-hearted spirit to the recital that envelops multitudes. Now more than ever, it’s possible to hear — and feel — what got Duke Ellington all het up when he first heard the Artist Formerly Known as Dollar Brand (a name he still uses on the cover of this one, though not as prominently).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.) Joey DeFrancesco, In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue) – When I first saw him as a student at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, he was still “Joe DeFrancesco” pounding the hell out of an acoustic piano as if his life depended on it. (The kid playing electric bass behind him was then known as “Chris McBride.” As you’ve heard, his grown-up self is likewise better known under another first name.) Joey went on to follow in his dad’s footsteps on the Hammond B-3 and became keeper of the jazz-organ tradition. This album takes his talents to an unexpected direction and, as much as I’d detected way back in his prodigy period, he seems to be going all-out on this one, using all his considerable resources to probe the mystical and spiritual realms explored by African American jazz artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He even brought along Pharaoh Sanders, one of the key figures of that movement, to sit in on a couple of tracks, and damned if the 79-year-old Sanders doesn’t sound here as nimble and propulsive as he did in his “Karma” period. (He even takes the late Leon Thomas’ role in singing the lyrics to “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”) DeFrancesco’s regular saxophonist Troy Roberts plays with similar force and grace and it’s always a treat to hear Billy Hart on drums with Sammy Figueroa ably in support on percussion. But as usual, it’s the leader you can’t wait to hear whether he’s vamping and swinging with deceptive ease, comping with dexterity or surging through the changes with near-demonic energy – though on second thought, “near-demonic” (a compound I think I used when I first wrote about him in his middle school days) is an inappropriate characterization for such a spiritually-based enterprise. Bright moments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.) Miguel Zenón, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel) –– Rivera (1931-1987), also known as “Maelo” or “El Sonero Mayor,” was a genius of salsa singing, a master of antiphonal improvisations spinning choruses within, through and above choruses with such groups as Los Cachimbos and Cortijo y su Combo, table-setters for bomba and plena genres. This makes him an inevitable and fertile subject of inquiry for Zenón, who has dedicated himself to framing and extending the motifs to his native land’s pop music with modern jazz motifs. Once again, Zenon, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole find fresh, ingenious and uplifting possibilities from their source material without in any way mitigating its subtle graces. Their effervescent interaction is bracing at any pace, whether in the somber dirge “Las Tumbas” or in the rough-and-tumble “El Negro Bembón” with its rapid-fire quintuplets. As effectively as the rhythm section tamps down each eccentric shift in tempo throughout the album, it’s Zenón’s alto saxophone, by turns fiery and elegiac, that most enraptures in conspicuously, appropriately assuming lead vocals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7.) Steve Lehman Trio with Craig Taborn, The People I Love (PI) – Put an intense maximalist like alto saxophonist Lehman together with a dedicated minimalist like pianist Taborn and you get…well, is “harmony” the word we’re aiming for here? Probably not since the word assumes they meld with their personalities fully intact. Their give-and-take on “In Calam & Ynnus” suggests at the very least a mutual affinity for ripping stuff apart and slamming the distended shapes back together into odd, but logical coherence. Lehman’s facility for rapid-fire riffing is taken up by Taborn, who is willing to fade their discourse out and let Taborn carry the rest of their colloquy home. Here, even more than on his previous albums, Lehman’s bright, bristly tone proves adaptable to a variety of contexts, whether it’s Autechre (“qPlay”) or Kenny Kirkland (“Chance”). He seems most empowered by a burner like Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design,” where he, Taborn, bassist Matt Bewer and drummer Damon Reid weave into each other’s embroideries so well that you can’t always tell who’s keeping time. (All of them. likely.) This, to me, is the warmest, sunniest album yet from Lehman and, for that matter, from Taborn. Once again, I’m hoping for seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8.) Nicholas Payton, Relaxin’ with Nick (Smoke Sessions) – As a colleague said to me the other day, Payton may not appreciate being on this list at all, given his contempt for the word “jazz.” He prefers the acronym, “BAM” for “Black American Music” to define what he does. As if to drive the point home, the album includes his composition, “Jazz is a Four-Letter Word,” inspired by the title of Max Roach’s unpublished autobiography and if you want to know what he and Payton mean, the late drummer’s recorded voice is there to explain, both in full and in sampled bits. It’s one of the highlights of this two-disc live trio recording, an unvarnished triumph of multi-tasking as the one-time trumpet prodigy proves himself to be a master of acoustic and electronic keyboards, capable of even comping his horn solos, which are as powerful, vibrant and pulsing with narrative energy as ever. (His singing of “Othello” and “When I Fall In Love” isn’t as masterly, but his downy phrasing suggests he’s on to something nonetheless.) One suspects he’d try being his own rhythm section someday. But at least for this laid-back marathon session, he is fortunate to have bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington at his back. They’re not related to each other, but share years of veteran savvy, impeccable timing and implacable focus. As with the Marsalises, Payton isn’t shy about courting controversy and he has in like fashion used whatever rancor he arouses as fuel for his forward progress. However you feel about his pugnacity, he’s at peace with it – and you should be, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

9.) Wadada Leo Smith, Rosa Parks: Pure Love (TUM) – The peerless and, at 77, apparently tireless Smith previously paid tribute to Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott seven years earlier in his epochal opus Ten Freedom Summers. He takes what he characterizes as the boycott’s “381 Days of Fire” and unfurls from its core an oratorio in Parks’ honor with seven songs, three singers (Min Xiao-Fen, Carmina Escobar, Karen Parks), a string quartet, a brass trio (including Smith’s trumpet), two percussionists and some electronic sound mixing. Smith also augments this blend with excerpts from recordings he made about fifty years before with fellow “creative music” insurrectionists Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall. The music may not be “easy,” but its message is elemental: a plea for simple justice in the face of fear and loathing. Not to put too fine a point on this, but given the imperatives of the present day, such a testament would be worth the investment of those who are closest to you – and especially those who aren’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10.) Paolo Fresu, Richard Galliano, Jan Lundgren, Mare Nostrum III (ACT) – One of the treasures of European jazz has put out three gorgeous albums in more than a decade and still aren’t as famous as they should be on these shores for emitting some of the most transfixing sounds on the planet. The great Galliano (as I’ve come to call him, mostly because it sounds cool) remains a formidable paragon on the accordion and related gadgets. But what’s become apparent over time is how he’s made his virtuosity merge so seamlessly with Fresu’s plangent horn and Lundgren’s dulcet keyboard. They collectively merge their distinctive voices so as to now seem to speak as one delicate, riveting entity. Both the familiar (“Windmills of Your Mind,” “Love Theme from ‘The Getaway’”) and the not-so-familiar (Lundgren’s “Ronneby,” Galliano’s “Letter to My Mother,” and Fresu’s “Human Requiem”) are rendered in short takes, densely packed with rich melodic invention and tightly contained passion. Some might dismiss it all as “pretty,” but you can pass by “pretty” with ease. These guys make the kind of terrifyingly beautiful music that stops you in your tracks if you’re not careful.

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION : Steve Davis, Correlations (Smoke Sessions), Anat Fort Trio, Colour (Sunnyside), Matthew Shipp Trio, Signature (ESP)
Ed Palermo Big Band, A Lousy Day in Harlem (Sky Cat), Anat Cohen Tentet, Triple Helix (Anzic)Toni Freestone Trio, El Mar de Nubes (Whirlwind)
Fabian Almazan Trio, This Land Abounds with Life (Biophilia)

 

 

 

 

 

BEST VOCAL ALBUM
Catherine Russell, Alone Together (Dot Time)

HONORABLE MENTION; Annie Addington, “In a Midnight Wind” (Annie Addington) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST LATIN ALBUM: Miguel Zenón, Sonero

HONORABLE MENTION: Guillermo Klein & Los Guachos, Cristal (Sunnyside)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST HISTORIC ALBUM
Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)
Stan Getz, Getz at the Gate: The Stan Getz Quartet Live at the Village Gate, Nov. 26, 1961 (Verve)
Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour, Live at F1rehouse 12 (Sunnyside)

Albert Camus, Patron Saint of Editorial Writers

Of all those who’ve had their say, and then some, about Albert Camus, A.J. Liebling likely came closest to summing up his essence when, in a footnote to one of his columns about what we used to call, “The Press,” he wrote that Camus’ energies “were dissipated in creative writing and we lost a great journalist.”

Except I’m not as sure as Liebling was that we “lost” Camus as a journalist. If anything, I’m thinking that in the almost 60 years since Camus was killed, at 46, in the crash of his publisher’s sports car, he’s come into even greater definition as a writer whose nonfiction, most especially his journalism, has more to tell us these days than the novels, stories and plays that forged his reputation during his lifetime.

He was often classified as a philosopher and this seems to me as misapplied as using the same word to describe Norman Mailer. At their respective peaks, both were remarkable, relentlessly penetrating observers, not only of their own psyches, but also of whatever energies were swirling around them. One need only read some of Camus’  Lyrical and Critical Essays published posthumously in 1968 and the intensely rendered landscapes of Prague, Oran, Algiers and the Mediterranean to see how he could put a reader alongside him in the places he describes. You also see this fidelity for pertinent detail in his last novel, The First Man as he vividly evokes what it looked, sounded and even smelled like to be in the houses, neighborhoods and schools of his childhood.

Tagging Camus as a journalist, however, may seem to devotees a kind of demotion from being the globally revered “conscience” of the Western world. A review of Herbert Lottman’s 1979 Camus biography suggested that the book made its subject sound more like “a species of ballasted newspaperman, a French James Reston.” Clearly this wasn’t meant as a compliment to Lottman, Camus or Reston. (And, by the way: “Ballasted”?) All those iconic photos of a brooding Camus in an open trench coat, a cigarette dangling Bogart-ishly from his lips seal this overall impression, adding noir-ish glamour and affirming to some that there was less than met the eye to Camus’ philosophical repute.

His journalistic repute, however, remains to me valuable and important. His was the kind of skeptical mind that was even skeptical towards its own skepticism. Journalists insist that this is a worthwhile quality in the abstract; in the workaday world, however, it’s seen as an immobilizing liability. Can’t keep second-guessing yourselves, people! Got to nail something down before deadline.

When he nailed things down, Camus was unequivocal and the impact was, if anything, only amplified by the pitch and yaw of his self-inquiries, especially when it came to such subjects as capital punishment (which he was forcefully, persuasively against) and resistance against World War II Nazi occupiers and Vichy collaborators alike.

There’s a shock of recognition to be found on the first page of Camus and Combat: Writing 1944-1947 (Princeton University Press), a collection of his journalism for the French Resistance newspaper for which Camus served as editor-in-chief and editorial writer. In March 1944, the 55th edition of Combat ran his editorial, “Against Total War, Total Resistance.” If you’ve been alive and aware over the last few years, the following excerpts are going to feel…eerie to read:

“Lying is never without purpose. Even the most impudent lie, if repeated, often enough, and long enough, always leaves a trace. German propaganda subscribes to this principle, and today we have another example of its application. Inspired by Goebbels’ minions, cheered on by the lackey press, and staged by the Milice [a French militia backing German efforts to put down the Resistance], a formidable campaign has just been launched — a guise which seeks, in the guise of an attack on the patriots of the underground and of the Resistance, to divide the French once again. This is what they are saying to Frenchmen: ‘We are killing and destroying bandits who would kill you if you weren’t there. You have nothing in common with them.’
“Although this lie, reprinted a million times, retains a certain power, stating the truth is enough to repel the falsehood. And here is the truth: it is that the French have everything in common with those whom they are today being taught to fear and despise…
“Don’t say, ‘This doesn’t concern me. I live in the country and the end of the war will find me just as I was at the beginning of the tragedy, living in peace.’ Because it does concern you…”
“There is only one fight, and if you don’t join it, your enemy will nevertheless supply you with daily proof that that fight is yours. Take your place in it because if the fate of everyone you like and respect concerns you, then once again, rest assured, this fight does concern you. Just tell yourself we will bring to it the great strength of the oppressed, namely solidarity in suffering. That is the force that will ultimately kill the lie, and our common hope is that when that day comes, it will retain enough momentum to inspire a new truth and a new France.” (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer).

This is not writing as evasion, or redirection or submission. This is not writing as an alternative or as an amendment to action. This is writing as action. To write is to act.

When Camus wrote this, the occupation and the war were approaching their conclusions. Right now, whatever it is we’ve been going through since 2016 appears to be starting its end. Whether it happens or not, the resonance of these words and, for that matter, of Camus’ other editorials, may never dissipate as long as there are fears and loathing to be exploited by monsters.

Seymour Movies: How Batman Cartoons Are Better For You Than Batman Movies

 

 

 

The best thing about Joker, as far as I’m concerned, is that it makes Batman: The Killing Joke look far better in retrospect, if only because the latter animated feature from 2016 doesn’t try so hard to be anything other than a longer and more-risqué-than-usual Batman cartoon.

Given all the noise and clatter preceding and following Joker ‘s premiere, the controversy accompanying Killing Joke ‘s release three years ago sounds relatively quaint. It, too, presented a Joker origin story as first conceived by nonpareil comics writer Alan Moore in a 1988 graphic novel. As some of you may recall, the Joker was, as with the guy in the new movie, a struggling comedian. Only here, he’s got a pregnant wife and no prospects. So in desperate search for scratch, he agrees to aid and abet an attempted heist at a chemical plant only to be disfigured and, thus, deranged from falling into a huge vat of  toxic glop.

 

 

Which turned out to nowhere near as interesting as what happened in the same movie to Batgirl, who ends up shot and paralyzed for life by the Joker, but not before a separate subplot during which she and Batman…Oh boy, do I want to spoil it for you! (Maybe I already have.) But some shocks to the system are most productively sustained in direct encounter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Needless to say, fan boys and fan girls of all ages were scandalized, screeching, “How dare you heartless pigs do all this to Barbara Gordon?” They were likely remembering all the good times they had back in the nineties when the original Batman animated series was humming along as (since I have the floor and whether anybody cares to argue with me or not) the finest iteration of these characters on ANY sized screen.

There were also many critics who wondered whether the world really needed an R-rated animated action feature. But even if Killing Joke’s animation wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, the film was about as pure a noir product as any black-and-white early 1950s thriller with Lisabeth Scott and/or Glenn Ford. The storytelling was lean and measured, the dialogue was crisp and juicy and the vocal work was superb, most especially by Mark Hamill, whose rasping and cackling as the Joker over three decades of Batman cartoons showed more engagement, invention and audacity than anything he’s done as a on-screen actor.

 

 

 

 

Better than Joaquin Phoenix? Yeah. Maybe. And so here we go…

 

 

Yes, Phoenix is brilliant in Joker, a bony wraith with hooded eyes and a heart so broken that its fragments seem to poke out of his spine. But it’s a lot of trouble to go to for a character we have no reason to connect with emotionally. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was no better, the movie’s defenders insist. But Robert De Niro’s Travis had just enough charm at the outset to at least make Cybill Shepherd’s campaign worker agree to a date, even if that date was a fiasco. The movie gives neither Phoenix nor us any escape valve, any outlet for irony, wit or joy save for a few precious seconds when Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck joins an audience of entitled swells in laughing at Chapin’s blindfolded roller skating in Modern Times, a glimmer of footage evoking almost everything the movie either forgot or omitted.

Joker isn’t a movie so much as a giant boulder in the middle of Culture Gulch that’s too big to move or ignore. I suppose that’s why there’s been something about the Joker in every New York Times arts section over the last week and a half, at least. This morning’s paper had an article contending the Joker was a case study in thwarted white privilege. Sure. Fine. Whatever. Let’s by all means pump up the rhetoric about Joker being both metaphor and rallying cry for the dispossessed who would rather watch the world burn than engage in any rational effort to save it. The conceit lasts for as long as one forgets how yellow and frayed comic book pages can get over time and how fragile a vehicle they are, ultimately, for the most complex of societal dilemmas.

Still, there’s one aspect of Trump-ism I found in Joker that I haven’t yet found in any review or analysis, though it’s possible I may have missed it. The Gotham City depicted in the film looks most like a doppelganger for the New York City of the seventies with its graffiti-covered subway cars, its rampant street crime, its grimy, cluttered and combustible architecture. It has always struck me that at the core of so much of the president’s rhetoric and, for that matter, the Fox News Channel patter that both feeds and feeds off it is a perverse nostalgia for those Drop-Dead years of the Imperial City, when the hopes and dreams of reformers literally went up in smoke, white flight was at its peak and stigmatizing people-of-color for being the sole agents of their own desperate circumstances was used as fuel for a slow-building mad-as-hell conservative resurgence in the eighties. The Trumpeteers may not have dug the seventies — except for the way those years of squalor and decline made it so much easier for them to hate the sixties.

I realize that by bringing all this up that I’m adding to the same overestimation of Joker’s significance that I’m criticizing. My pallid excuse is that I’m only going along with the rest of the culture – and with the movie itself. I need to stop it here before it gets worse.

 

 

 

So I’m going to end this the way Killing Joke ends: with both Batman and Joker, mortal enemies and mirror images of each other’s obsessed, damaged souls, laughing together at the same dumb joke. It may not have the grandeur and oomph of Joker’s windup. But as with much else about that full-length Batman cartoon, it makes for a much more satisfying and logical conclusion – or do I mean punch line?

 

What’s So Great About Being POTUS?

From Amy Davidson Sorkin in the Sept. 9, 2019 issue of The New Yorker: “…Even (Beto) O’Rourke for whom, just last year, being a senator was a dream job, said that running for the same office now ‘would not be good enough for El Paso and it would not be good enough for the country.’…On a human level, it’s understandable that O’Rourke would want to directly take on [president Donald] Trump and his bigotry; on a political level, the logic is less clear.”

You think? But in America’s present frazzled state, logic is so devalued a commodity right now that if Mister Spock made a recon field trip anywhere on this rock he’d probably mutter something like “Fuck this shit!” in Vulcan, and pivot for home. Like Beto, we’re all a little too emotional about stuff we shouldn’t and we think (when we think at all) that watching a lot of television will calm us down.

Deep breath, America: The presidency is not where you should be investing all your attention. Congress in general and the senate in particular is where crucial decisions are made, and just as often, not made that affect your kids’ lives, to say nothing of their kids’ lives.

Granted, this process has been hampered, especially in recent years, by the stubborn impediment to the national blood vessels that is the senate filibuster whose dominion over that body’s regular order of business has solidified in the public mind Congress’ position as the place where Nothing Ever Gets Done. Bring out the raspberries and guffaws, but always remember that a helluva lot of damage can be done by not doing anything. And do you need to wonder who benefits most in spreading over the collective American mind the image of representative government as being such a morass that nobody should expect anything to get done?

So that’s why POTUS gets more attention that he should. But as others wiser than me keep telling people, to little avail, the president can’t tell anybody else what to do except the military over which he is commander-in-chief. Otherwise he’s just another legislator trying to convince people to go his way; not a goddam king !!!

And I hate like hell to get vulgar about this. But if you only knew how many times during Barack Obama’s presidency that I had to keep telling younger folks, and even older folks who likely slept through high school civics classes, that the president presides, executes, but does not rule the country. “Who does?” they ask. Well…in theory, you do, I say, but that just confuses them.

So I stopped answering that question and went back to my main point: What matters as much as voting for president, and sometimes more, is voting for the right person to represent you in the federal legislature. So for that matter is voting for your state governors, mayors, city councils, school boards, and so forth. All of which, I know, sounds too boring to contemplate. I agree. Contemplation of any kind is boring. But think of all the dreams that die and the lives that are ruined because of the dearth of collective contemplation. I’m asking you to think. Again.

In fact, let’s hear from somebody who knows even better than I do what it means to be a POTUS; somebody who once commanded one of the largest armies in world history. The General has a message to Beto O’Rourke and those who are similarly inclined to battle Donald Trump next year. (Oh and maybe Donald Trump needs to hear this, too):

 

 

“Anybody is a damn fool if he actually seeks to be president. You give up four of the very best years of your life. Lord knows it’s a sacrifice. Some people think there is a lot of power and glory attached to the job. On the contrary the very workings of a democratic system see to it that the job has very little power.”

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, 34th president of the United States

Off the top of my head, I blame Teddy White. If it weren’t for The Making of the President 1960 and White’s three quadrennial sequels, pursuing the presidency (a.k.a. the Highest Office in the Land etc. etc.) wouldn’t seem like the lumbering, furry and clunky pageant that eats up so much media space every three to four years. White’s books sold in bunches, even the 1964 installment that chronicled an election whose results were in retrospect a forgone conclusion practically from the start.

But blaming White is too easy. Better to blame the results of that 1960 campaign which is when we started on the road to wherever it is we are now. That was the year, as Norman Mailer wrote at the time, that America voted in its first matinée idol president. Granted it was by only a sliver and there were still hardheads who weren’t about to have a Catholic in the White House no matter how pretty he and his family looked on magazine covers. But the administration following that election marked the era when the president of the United States became undisputed Star of the Really Big Show that was American government. Unlike his immediate predecessor, John F. Kennedy robustly sought the presidency “because (as he put it in his last election-eve speech in Boston) it is the center of action.” This was when he was still running for the office. When he got there, it wasn’t as easy as he thought it’d be. But after the second year, he was beginning to get the hang of it enough to try reviving the old “bully pulpit” motif – one which has, alas, taken on newer, more literal meaning today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was the same Massachusetts U.S. senator John Kennedy who only three years before accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book comprising portraits of U.S. senators who helped move the needle on History by going against the prevailing political climate. The title of the book was How To Put Your Ass on the Line For Little Fun and Less Profit. I kid of course. It was Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage written by Ted Sorenson (as everybody pretty much accepts now). What seems most authentic about the book, even today, is that Kennedy once believed that Congress mattered almost as much as the presidency and its members could be as consequential to the country’s direction; maybe more so as in the examples of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams (a more effective legislator than president), John C. Calhoun, James Blaine, Thomas Hart Benton, Joe Cannon, Robert Taft and George Norris.

 

 

Soren…I mean, Kennedy even decided to include a chapter on Edmund Ross, the Kansas senator who cast the lone vote against convicting the impeached president Andrew Johnson. It apparently didn’t matter to JFK at the time that Andrew Johnson was an incorrigibly retrograde racist and that Ross’s vote may not have been as idealistically motivated towards preserving the institution of the presidency as Kennedy’s account makes it seem. It was the gesture of courage itself that was heroic enough to Kennedy to make it glow in retrospect.

You wonder when JFK stopped believing in the messianic possibilities inherent in serving as a senator or representative. Then again, he probably never really believed in them at all, having seen whatever forces, seen and unseen, that Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned against his father when the latter was ambassador to Great Britain (even though Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. did as much if not more damage to himself than Roosevelt). Indeed, we may have started measuring eras in American history by presidential administrations with FDR’s, though some might argue that process began in earnest with the eight years his cousin Theodore was in the White House. But even at the start of the 20th century, young and bombastic TR had to share center stage with congressional titans like the aforementioned “Uncle Joe” Cannon, then a speaker of the house as powerful, obstinate and impregnable as senate majority leader Mitch McConnell seems now.

 

 

 

 

McConnell, to my mind, has been a more consequential political force in this nation’s government this decade than its two very different presidents. He’s imposed his will through stonewalling, cajolery, intimidation and, to be more specific about it, transformed the U.S. Supreme Court for generations, assuming we last that long. “But he’s only a senator,” a friend I’d thought was savvier about such things told me. Right, I said. And Keith Richards is only a rhythm guitarist and Mean Joe Greene was only a defensive lineman.

 

I mean…Yes, it’s somewhat nauseating to put someone as malign as Mitch McConnell in the same company as Clay, Webster, Adams, Taft, Robert Lafollette, Everett Dirksen, and the Lyndon Johnson who was, as Volume Three of Robert Caro’s epic biography labeled him, “Master of the Senate.” But it took gall of previously unimaginable dimension to have blatantly, cruelly mashed and baked the dreams of Merrick Garland into soot for the same of political expediency – and getting away with it. One also recalls the bone-chilling spectacle of McConnell staring laser-like at Susan Collins as she cast her vote for confirming Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court.

That, boys and girls, is Exercising Power. Whining about your predecessor’s deal with a media company is not.

So what to do? Getting rid of the filibuster has been on the table during this presidential campaign and there’s little clear consensus among the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls as to whether they’d support its suspension if their party regains senate control. (Elizabeth Warren’s adamantly for suspension; Michael Bennet’s against; Biden’s listed as “unclear” – huh?—and most of the others are considered “open” to the prospect, at best.) But it’s probably easier to just make sure that most of the Republican right-wingers now holding senate seats don’t come back and at least permit some legislation to pass.

But as with almost everything else that matters right now, a shift of perception is what’s needed above all else. In other words, stop thinking of our three branches of government (yes, there are three) as a pyramid where the executive branch is always on top. The best way to think of government, and I do mean “think” more than “feel,” is in lateral terms, which how I always imagined those troublesome Virginians like Madison and Jefferson saw it in theory.

This isn’t going to be easy. There was no television in 1787 and even though those Founding Fathers carry lots of star power to this day, none, except maybe Benjamin Franklin, would likely know how to act in front of a video-cam. But there once was a time in the succeeding centuries when senators were stars as big as, even bigger than the president. If we mean it when we claim to love our democracy, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to reimagine such times in our own.

On Being Funny & Knowing Funny

An active sense of humor, at the giving or receiving end, is the great social leveler of American life, though you’d barely know it now as we’ve been squeezed tighter into this grim shouting match that passes for political discourse.

 

 

 

 

For me, being funny or at least “knowing” funny compensates for most political sins and I’ve gotten into plenty of trouble for making such allowances. There was much (we’ll put it at “everything”) about William F. Buckley’s politics that I found undigestible and racist, however much he walked back his segregationist sympathies towards the end of his life. Nevertheless, whenever the subject of Buckley came up among us intense student lefties back in the day, I would often get eye daggers aimed at my forehead when I dared suggest, “Well…at least he’s funny!” This is why for most of my life I could never be considered a reliable enough ideologue or revolutionary.

I blame my upbringing. (Doesn’t everybody?) I grew up in one of those households where if you couldn’t take a joke, you became one. My mother was the lone holdout. “That’s not nice!” she would say whenever the rest of us, especially my father, ganged up on something or somebody. But after a while she grudgingly accepted her role as comedic foil to the rest of us smart-assed Seymours. (Missing you, mom! In your own way, you too knew funny!) If you hung out with us for any length of time, you had to be funny or, failing that, accept your fate. Not everybody appreciated the vibe, but over the years my siblings and I appreciated the leveling effect our collective joshing and jiving had on whatever social milieu was taken aback by our presence.

With my father, though, it was always a risk whether the one-liners would work even with my mother. And when it didn’t work with strangers, he’d just shrug and say, “I make a friend a day.”

Then again, it’s never been apparent, for all the pride we take in our stand-up clubs from sea to shining sea, that Americans can take a joke, even though they’ll all make passes at telling one.

What’s more than apparent is that the incumbent president of the United States is a dreary gasbag who can neither take a joke (thinking mostly of the bad Buster Keaton imitation he gave towards his predecessor’s jibes at a White House Correspondents Association dinner) nor tell one very well, though when he slow-dances with the flag, he’s at least convinced himself that he is funny.

 

 

 

My friend Colin McEnroe, who’s not only a lot funnier than President Trump but a whole lot funnier than anybody who’s after Trump’s job, conjectures that 45’s idea of funny came from repeatedly listening to Don Rickles’ 1968 LP, Hello Dummy at an impressionable age, though I would think that at 22 (assuming he’s not fibbing about his age), Prince Don T. had outgrown his need for role models. Just as generations of would-be comics thought from listening to Richard Pryor’s albums that all you needed to buy into his renown were jokes about farting and fucking, Trump likely inhaled all of Rickles’ rude noises without digesting his timing and craftiness.

 

 

 

 

Is it really so hard to be funny? To know funny? If you really want to gauge what’s been lost over the last fifty years in degrees and dimensions of political wit, compare any YouTube video of Buckley on his Firing Line talk show with ten random minutes from Fox News, his alleged ideological descendants. You may not make it past five. Tucker Carlson’s petulant browbeating veers at least forty miles wide of Buckley’s vulpine stealth. Neither Carlson nor anybody else on the Fox schedule displays anything close to Buckley’s twinkly indulgence of opposition viewpoints, during which interval either a rhetorical hammer or pointed stick loomed overhead.

Things aren’t all that giddier over on MSNBC, where one finds surfeits of enthusiasm, earnestness, passion, energy – and relatively little to make even a partisan laugh except for a sarcastic whoop here and there. I might feel a lot better being on Chris Hayes’ or Rachel Maddow’s side if every so often their respective commentaries emitted smoky-spicy ironies redolent of Fran Lebowitz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which, some may agree, might not be necessary. Because, as you’re already dying to tell me, we don’t need the MSNBC gang to bring the funny as long as the Jon Stewart Alumni Association – Colbert, Noah, Bee, Oliver, Cenac and company – is at work at its members’ respective platforms. I’m not disagreeing. As I’ve written elsewhere, comedians appear now to own the kind of credibility once claimed by journalists, though at least Oliver has said aloud that if it weren’t for journalism, nothing he has to say on HBO would matter. What worries me about those guys, however, is that their repeated bashings against what often seems a granite edifice of clueless cruelty could exact such a toll over time that they could become too absorbed by the chaos to be an antidote against it.

Besides which, wielding snarky comebacks in public brawls, however cathartic the blows may feel, isn’t as satisfying as the leveling process that comedy at its most bracing can yield. Though John Oliver at least will season his outbursts with dorky self-deprecation (making them somehow more effective than those of his peers), you wish for more of a kind of ecumenical acknowledgment by all sides that when you come down to it, we’re each as full of shit as the next person. This shouldn’t narrow the prospects for more and better funny. Quite the opposite.

But because the aforementioned discourse is now set at Defcon 3, or lower, that equanimity seems even more unreachable. Everybody’s more skittish and defensive about what they say, when and where they do it. So there’s a whole lot to laugh at – and not much that’s funny.

Or maybe it’s the other way around. I’d ask my dad about it, but he’s no longer around. But if he somehow found his way back to our present-day reality…well, the first thing I’d do is apologize for whoever did such a thing to him. Then I’d give him time to get a sense of how truly fucked up things are on all sides. And at some point he would say something he always did whenever bullshit was piling up all around him from friends and strangers alike:

“At least I know I’m fulla shit!”

Do you have a comeback for that? Then it sucks being you.

Bifurcating Bill Conlin

 

 

 

 

Bill Conlin was a terrific writer and a dreadful person. He was larger than life and among the lowest forms of life. This is where things begin and end with him and I’d just as soon start here with how it ended since that’s what so many now think foremost about him while preferring to forget everything else.

On December 20, 2011, less than six months after he’d accepted the J. G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for lifetime achievement in sports writing, Bill Conlin abruptly retired from the Philadelphia Daily News when its sister paper, the Inquirer, published accusations from three women and one man that he’d sexually molested them as children during the 1970s. (One of the alleged victims, a prosecutor based in Atlantic City, was Conlin’s niece.) Three more people later made similar accusations.

From what I’ve read in several outlets, it’s clear that as horrific as the crimes were (and because the statute of limitations had long expired, he was never formally charged), the manner in which he was said to have intimidated, browbeaten and otherwise manipulated children and their parents to remain silent for so long was as despicable as the crimes themselves. Worse – but then cover-ups often are.

Conlin, protesting his innocence to the end, banished himself to Largo, Florida where he spent the remainder of his days in debilitating seclusion before his death in January 2014, at 79, from kidney failure. Among its many unbearable-in-retrospect outcomes, Conlin’s steep, rapid and mortifying fall from grace was a hard kick in the collective stomach of those of us who consider ourselves proud veterans of the Philadelphia Daily News, for which he’d been among its more glittering ornaments.

During my own tenure at the “People Paper,” accounting for just nine of the forty-five years he’d spent there, I saw Conlin in person just once. It was sometime in the mid-1980s when he’d come to pose for photos with other Daily News stars for a magazine article about the paper. His appearance in broad daylight was a rarity, given the wee hours he kept at work and at leisure, along with the fact that he did practically all of his writing from his New Jersey home.

Those of us on the clock that afternoon peppered his Brobidngnagian aura with smart-to-semi-stupid questions about baseball, its content and discontents. He didn’t mind answering any of them. In fact, one had the feeling that the only thing he loved more than baseball was talking at length about baseball, sharing clubhouse gossip about the Phillies and their National League antagonists, dropping the occasional dime on a general manager or player for this or that off-the-books peccadillo and theorizing with abandon on any number of topics whether it was the Battle of Balaclava or Larry Bowa’s endless war on third-base umpires.

Yet for all his rangy intelligence and lordly indulgence, Conlin also gave off the unsettling aura of one of those broad shouldered smartasses you remembered from high school who out of sheer boredom would body-slam you against the lockers while you were on your way to class, shouting loud enough for the hall monitors to hear that he was sorry about your chipped tooth, but you were in his way and made him late for chem lab, so later, gator!

Hence my first and only one-on-one impression: A bully; bright, expansive, sophisticated, but a bully, nonetheless.

And, as it turned out in the end, much worse besides.

Almost ten years will have soon passed since the disclosures and Conlin’s soul still drifts in a Negative Zone, from which there is neither a chance of, nor inclination towards recovery or escape.

 

 

 

 

 

However…

It’s March again. And as usual around this time of year, I am engaged in my annual ritual of poking and gleaning my library of baseball books as a way of psyching myself for the forthcoming season. One of those books I always turn to is Batting Cleanup, Bill Conlin, an anthology of Conlin’s newspaper writing collected and published in 1997 by Kevin Kerrane. I remember buying the book that year on my one and, thus far, only visit to Cooperstown and that it was at or very near the peak of Conlin’s national fame as resident curmudgeon on Dick Schaap’s Sunday-morning panel show The Sports Reporters on ESPN.

There are those who insist that reading old newspaper articles is about as useful or as transformative as reading old newspapers – which is to say not much. And there are those like me who avidly read old newspaper articles, between hard covers or not, because, at their best, they can convey the immediacy of a past moment more vividly than a work of history conceived years after the fact. It is like that with Batting Cleanup: Conlin’s deadline artistry was such that one of his columns can, like a “golden oldie” pop hit, take you back to the moment they were new, fresh and in the air, most especially when baseball was the topic.

I don’t want to stretch the point too much; in some ways I am as conflicted about Conlin the writer as I am towards the thorny pathos of his personality. Even during my time in Philadelphia, I never shared in the all-but-universal acclaim Conlin received on the Phillies beat as Earth’s Mightiest Baseball Writer. My own tastes in newspaper baseball scribes in the seventies and eighties tended to favor the Boston Globe’s super-grinding hard rocking Peter Gammons and the Washington Post’s wry and graceful Tom Boswell.

But however impressive were Gammons’ and Boswell’s respective strengths as well as those of countless others who regularly covered baseball over decades, there is general agreement that Conlin had few peers (if any) in being able to break down the nuts and bolts of any game and lay them out for readers who, having already heard the score on radio or TV, looked for something edgier and more “inside” from an informed, idiosyncratic spectator. Unlike Gammons, Boswell, the New York Times’ George Vecsey and other more urbane sportswriters roughly in his generation, Conlin cast his lot with a scratchier, more combative tradition, extolling both Jimmy Cannon and Dick Young as his role models. These influences made Conlin a sometimes unwieldy, but often compelling compound of street corner poet and barroom brawler – the latter of which he literally, habitually, notoriously was.

His single greatest column, since I now have the floor, was his 1970 sendoff to Connie Mack Stadium, written in sorrow, bile and reverie, from which it is all but impossible not to quote at length:

“Connie Mack Stadium is an old woman dancing nude at the Medicare Senior Prom. You know what she might have been , but tonight she is an obscene accordion of yellow flesh.
“Connie Mack Stadium is a joke played by a 1909 high school class in Architecture. At its best, the architectural style could be described as St. Louis World’s Fair Lavatory. It makes [Philadelphia] City Hall look like the Palace of Versailles.
“Connie Mack Stadium is the adrenaline pumping, the terror rising as furtive footsteps draw closer at 1 a.m. after a twi-night double header.
“Connie Mack Stadium is four flat tires on Smedley Street. Next time, you’ll let that kid watch your car for a dollar. Maybe next time you’ll stay in the suburbs and mow your lawn…
“Connie Mack Stadium is a night under a Lehigh Avenue moon, first discovered by the noted astronomer [longtime Phils broadcaster] By Saam. It is Saam making the game come alive for those of you at home scoring in bed. It is Rich Ashburn in his floppy tennis hat, preceded by a decade of floppy singles.
“Connie Mack Stadium is a [Richie] Allen drive searing the night, the wonder of it leaping a tall sign and muting the boobirds. It is Allen tracing out “Oct. 2” in the first base dirt while Bowie Kuhn blanched. It is a lone couple necking in the upper deck in rightfield.
“Connie Mack Stadium is an old man sitting in erect in a sun-drenched dugout. It is where the organ lady quit one night, to be replaced by years of scratchy Guy Lombardo records.
“Connie Mack Stadium is the lengthened shadow of a man sliding finally to rest. A small step for any other city, a giant step for Philadelphia.”

This is what you could read beneath Conlin’s byline somewhere in October, 1977, the day after what was then a prototypical Phillies Phold in crunch time:

“Dusty Baker hit a tough chopper to third, and Mike Schmidt pounded on the wicked short hop like a jaguar running down a rabbit.
“That was one out in the top of the ninth, seven straight ground balls thrown by Gene Garber . And 63,719 fans were on their feet , a shrieking chorus that all afternoon had roared with the blood lust of a Roman Coliseum mob rooting for the lion.
“Rick Monday bounced out to Teddy Sizemore. The Vet throng was chanting ‘DEEFENSE.’ Eight straight ground balls by Geno. Game three was history. One more out, Geno baby, and this was a 5-3 Phillies victory. The Dodgers had coughed up two eighth-inning runs to go with the three the crowd and plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt had bled from starter Burt Hooten in the second.
“The Dodgers were down to their suspect bench. Ancient Vic Davallio hauled his well-traveled bones to the plate, more wrinkles on his leather face than there were base hits left in his bat. On deck was Manny Mota, 39 years old, one final straw for Tommy Lasorda to clutch at should Davallio reach first base.
“Thus began the shortest, most devastating nightmare in the history of a town steeped in an athletic tradition of flood, fire and famine, a place where down seemed like a long way up.”

It doesn’t matter whether you had a dog in this race (though Conlin’s constituency obviously did). These graphs put you in that park with a sweep and intensity that no digital feed can match.

Here’s another lead from 1981 recounting a night when the Cardinals “chain-sawed” the Phillies 11-3:

“Last night, the Phillies outfielders spent more time in the alleys than the Guardian Angels. And by the time the Cardinals savaged Dickie Noles for five ninth-inning runs, the infielders were suffering from advanced windburn. When they weren’t ducking bullets, Larry Bowa and Manny Trillo were sprinting to the outfield to take relay throws from the warning track. Pete Rose spent so much time crouched at the cutoff position, he could have been designated an historic landmark.” 

 

 

Somewhere between these two calamities, the Phillies won their first “world’s championship” in 1980 and this was how Conlin chose to end his back-page lead story of the sixth and final game:

“[T]o paraphrase William Butler Yeats, 97 years of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking ballpark. And this rough beast of a ball club slouched towards JFK Stadium to be reborn.”

A risky conceit for a baseball beat writer to drag Yeats from left field, so to speak. But Conlin’s copy often dared going to places it didn’t belong. He could be both antic and lyrical in the same paragraph with little strain or clutter showing in the result, “antic” and “lyrical” comprising an unruly juxtaposition of terms that fit neatly over the collective personality of his tabloid home.

It may be a kind of chicken-egg question as to how much the Philadelphia Daily News’ house style, to the extent there was one, empowered Conlin’s style and those of others. Clearly, his presence was large enough to have encouraged those of us who wrote in different sections of our paper to be as brashly erudite as he was. Along with the other members of the Philadelphia Daily News’ storied sports staff (and such front-of-the-paper columnists as Pete Dexter and This Guy), Conlin’s way of writing influenced our own and those of us affected/infected with its swagger forged our own variations on his pugnacious energy.

Again, I don’t want to overstate things: There was in Conlin’s writing a streak of cruelty poking through the crustiness of his persona that, as with his idol Dick Young, could egregiously bruise and bloody someone who made him angry. I prefer instead to acknowledge those bluff interludes of tenderness he could summon, as he did for the passing of Arthur Ashe in 1993: “…when a genius dies, you grieve for the acts of genius left undone…Black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, athlete or couch potato…we are all terribly diminished.”

Still it’s difficult, if not impossible to reconcile my admiration of Conlin’s “termite art” (and pantheon movie critic Manny Farber, if he’d read any Conlin, would surely place him in that category he’d coined) with the craven squalor of his crimes against children. But I haven’t in the years since Conlin’s death been able to abruptly or casually “cancel” such prose from my life because, whether I like it or not, it’s part of swarm of voices that helped me create my own. He was never as great a professional role model for me as others I’ve met along the way. And I never knew him well enough to regard him, abstractly or otherwise, as even an acquaintance. But I reject the idea that his sordid deeds inflect his work with toxins that might somehow infect me with his same disease if I were to pick up a clipping or a chapter with his name on it.

We are all left with the good and bad of what others leave behind and as furious as I am on behalf of his victims and those he bullied into keeping their pain under wraps, I can, along with the rest of you, only move into the baseball seasons ahead with recrimination, regret and, every once in a while, sadness over the deep scars ruining what could have otherwise been an awesome legacy.

Seymour Movies Thinks Oscar Needs A Time Out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popular culture, show-biz, whatever you want to call it has been in a dank, sullen funk for at least the last 24 months and the only time it seems to feel better about things is when an Obama pops up unannounced at a party. It’s not unprecedented for one to appear at an Academy Awards show and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one Sunday night, maybe sitting quietly in a chair onstage while Clint Eastwood rasps incoherently. But if the lead-up to this year’s ceremonies is any indication, I’m not sure even an Obama will sweeten these sour spirits.

This has been an especially…what’s the word…eccentric awards season, beginning with the basics. One day, they have a host, then they don’t, then they can’t find a replacement and then they decide they’re not going to have a host at all. My two cents: The Academy could have barely done worse by giving David Letterman another shot. Given the mood he and for that matter everybody else is in these days, he’d have said, “Nah! The hell with it!” And we’re left with whatever’s in store for us. Be afraid. This edition didn’t have a host either.

It’s been constant: Only a few days ago, the Academy decided to hand out cinematography and editing awards during commercial breaks and then, after predictable and justified fury from its membership, hit the “Delete” button on that idea. This has led to handwringing from ABC network affiliates over running times on the east coast. My two cents: Deal with it, toddlers! The Oscars are not now, have never been and never will be an efficient or well-wrought broadcast. You want broadcast television efficiency? Download some Wheel of Fortune episodes. You’ll get twice the effusions and embarrassments in less than a third of the time.

Besides which, you may see some actual suspense on this year’s broadcast. Part of the wooliness coursing through awards season has come from the unusually wide swath of winners among the trade awards, BAFTA, the Golden Globes and various and sundry critics’ circles. With less than a week left before the swag is handed out, there may be one – and only one – major award that’s a sure thing in advance. The other sure thing going in is that this will be the year I get a lot more of these things wrong than right. Good. Maybe that means I get to concentrate on things I actually liked from 2018 – though there aren’t many of those on this list either.

As I say: Eccentric. At best. Let’s be real careful making our way through this together, shall we?

(As always, projected winners’ names are in bold and whenever appropriate, For Whatever Its Worth (FWIW) notes will be applied.)

 

Best Picture

BlacKkKlansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

So let’s get the weirdness started right away by predicting a win here for a story about a Mexican housekeeper, filmed in black-and-white,  produced and distributed by Netflix with English subtitles. In any other time and in any other era, pundits and voters would render all these factors as instant disqualifiers. Cineastes are especially aggrieved over the Netflix part. They argue that once the Academy has opened the door to let the streams in, it hastens the death of cinema, or at least the romance of moviemaking and movie-going; all for the sake of feeding high-end product to stay-at-homes and smart-phones. But O my brothers and sisters, all that you cherish about whatever golden age you choose to embrace began its slow death many moons before now. And it’s a little late in the day for all of us, no matter how we feel about the digital universe, to kvetch about Mammon’s pact with the Muses over the ultimate destiny of moving pictures.

What’s ironic about the purists’ complaints is that there are whole passages in Roma that remind you – or, at least, me – of why we fell in love with movies in the first place, whether you see it on the big or small screen. It’s not just the film’s deployment of light and shadow, its deep focus sequences or its period verisimilitude. It’s a movie that respects you enough to make you do the work of connecting the narrative and of letting its characters’ contradictions come to you.

But we now have generations of moviegoers who not only expect, but demand to have everything explained to them along the way. They think Roma is boring and there may be enough of these folks to shoo it away. Whether these generations dominate Academy voting or not, I sense that there’s something about Roma’s blend of the intimate and the sweeping that will be difficult to resist. To repeat: I’m flying blind here and I’m probably giving the Academy too much credit (which I never do). But Roma isn’t going to go down quietly, anywhere on this list.

FWIW: When the Screen Actors Guild gave its best movie ensemble award to Black Panther after the Producers Guild gave its top prize to Green Book, it was the first sign that this was not going to be an easy Oscars to handicap. Panther’s actors were all quite fine. But not even Wakanda’s most credulous fellow travelers would think of the movie primarily as an actors’ showcase. Meanwhile, various and sundry complaints have curbed Green Book’s apparent early lead. Two primary factors are in play with Best Picture winners, neither of which have anything much to do with whether the movie’s any damn good or not. The first is how the movie will raise or transform Hollywood’s business profile and the second is the best possible face Hollywood wants to wear on its collective visage. Panther’s stunning, transformative global success seems to gratify the first impulse while Green Book’s good intentions likely fulfills the second imperative. At this writing, I don’t think either will win, though a Panther coup would surprise me less here than a Green Book one. The others have wildly diverging odds and while either Bohemian Rhapsody or The Favourite has enough weight-to-power ratio to plausibly leap over everything else, Black KkKlansman is the real wild card here, in more ways than one.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron (Roma)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Adam McKay (Vice)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

The Directors Guild of America has already anointed Cuaron, who’s won one of these before. The others haven’t and of those four, Lee and Lanthimos have the best chance of taking it from him. Hollywood has been waiting for a chance to let Spike have it, so to speak, and this could be his best chance. I still think it’s Cuaron’s to lose.

FWIW: In this year more than any other I can remember, you could make the case for several people to fill Adam McKay’s spot on this ticket; beginning foremost with Bradley Cooper, whose first-at-bat with A Star is Born was far more impressive overall than Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning directorial debut – and his Dances With Wolves beat out Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (fer cryin’ out loud). Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk may not have been the stunner that Moonlight was. But he too deserved consideration. And if Hollywood were as serious as it claims to be about raising women’s professional stature in non-acting categories, then it’s blown a great opportunity by omitting or ignoring Marelle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) and Tamara Jenkins (Private Life).  Just so you know, I’ve nothing in particular against Adam McKay or with political cartoons, of which Vice for all its investigatory fervor was an especially overinflated example.

 

 

 

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

On the face of it, this appears to be a cut-and-dried example of Oscar finally granting a perennial also-ran her long-overdue reward. And that knockout acceptance speech Close gave at the Golden Globes drew enough tears and cheers to seal the deal way in advance. Those who haven’t seen her movie would likely wonder whether she’s as much of a shoo-in as others believe. I say to them: Never underestimate the power of a DVD screener to push a performer over the moon with Academy voters. The Wife is one such movie and the wire-to-wire intensity and masterly control of Close’s performance is such that even a “career” Oscar given this time around would hardly be a gratuity for services rendered. Oscar doesn’t often go for subtlety and intelligence. This time, it should.

FWIW: Still, everybody loves them some Olivia Colman as dowdy, dotty Queen Anne, even the ones who’ll vote for Close anyway. Some think Lady G’s sparkly Grammy turn is enough to make her a front-runner again, but I don’t.

 

 

 

Best Actor
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Of all the stories of this weird season, perhaps the most mystifying is how A Star Is Born broke fast out of the gate last fall only to begin slow-fading by New Year’s Day. The counter-narrative to that story is how a Freddie Mercury biopic, though arriving in the national multiplex dragging controversy and advance barbs, somehow seduced so many viewers into embracing it as a kind of anti-Star Is Born. Not all of its elements have withstood closer scrutiny, but Malek dominates Bohemian Rhapsody by grandly evoking so much of Mercury’s flamboyance, audacity and pathos. To indulge once more in second-guessing the Academy voting demographic, the Gen-X contingent of 30-to-40-somethings may feel a personal investment in honoring a hero-martyr of their youth. It certainly got him the love from SAG, BAFTA and the Globes and there’s little-to-no-evidence that he wont get it here.

FWIW: I’ll be brief: Ethan Hawke gave the single best movie performance last year in First Reformed as a Presbyterian minister in deep spiritual conflict. I might also have given Denzel another shot at this one for single-handedly raising Equalizer 2 above its action-genre conventions. But that’s (literally) just me.

 

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams (Vice)
Marina de Tavira (Roma)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Hollywood’s already shown its affection for King with a couple of Emmys and as she provides much of the gravitas and whatever hope one can find in Beale Street, she seems pre-fit for this one.

FWIW: Weisz has the edge over Stone among Favourite’s muck-rasslin’ ladies-in-waiting. But she already has one of these and only King’s absence from this slate would have guaranteed another.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Even with sentiment in the air for the redoubtable, always reliable Elliot, it’s going to come down to either Ali or Grant. With Ali turning in incredible work on this season’s run of HBO’s True Detective, my initial instinct was to think back to the probable boost Matthew McConaughey‘s career-defining Detective performance four years ago gave his Best Actor chances that same season. But Grant is especially beloved in Hollywood for, among other things, turning his life around from being the kind of dissolute character he plays in this movie and my hunch is that this may be enough to nip Ali at the finish line. Plus, as with Weisz, Ali already has one of these.

Best Original Screenplay
The Favourite (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Green Book (Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
Vice (Adam McKay)

With the Writers Guild of America’s (WGA) winner, Eighth Grade, not in the running, this seems as wide-open as any category on the board. My choice would be Schrader. But when in doubt go for the one with the bitchier lines and the more opulent costumes.

Best Adapted Screenplay
A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters and Eric Roth)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty)

Either BlacKkKlansman or Beale Street could get the customary consolation prize this award has traditionally represented. For now, I’m playing it safe by siding with the WGA. Besides which, it’s a terrific script.

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

This one’s tough; one of those “Do you vote your fears or your hopes?” dilemmas for voters. Minding the Gap is one of the more ruthlessly candid chronicles of families, cultures and dreams under siege in the American rust belt. As great as the movie is, voters may not be in the mood to reward its devastating timeliness. On the other hand, I can easily see them cheering on Alex Honnold’s death-defying clamber up a steep rock face. It’s a feel-good, guilt-free and well-made documentary whose only other competition here celebrates the tiny, unstoppable force of nature holding up her end of the Supreme Court.

FWIW: If write-ins were permitted, “Wont You Be My Neighbor?” could have Wendell Willkie-ed its way to the winner’s circle here. Its omission remains one of the myriad perplexities of this peculiar season.

 

 

 

 

Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

This is often the easiest call to make and so it is for this year. But usually it’s a Pixar film that’s the clear favorite and this time, it’s the most “meta” artistic achievement of any movie in any category.

Best Foreign-Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

An especially strong field this year and it’s possible that any of them could stem the Roma tide. I doubt it, though.

Best Cinematography
The Favourite (Robbie Ryan)
Never Look Away (Caleb Deschanel)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
A Star Is Born (Matty Libatique)
Cold War (Lukasz Zal)

This is the sixth nomination for Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Natural, Fly Away Home, etc.) and I would be in a very good mood if his work on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterly epic finally put him over the top. His visual design is almost as breathtaking as Cuaron’s and I think it’s going to be a close call.

Best Original Score
Black Panther (Ludwig Goransson)
BlacKkKlansman (Terence Blanchard)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
Isle of Dogs (Alexandre Desplat)
Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman)

I’m giving in to personal bias just this once. But I also have a gut feeling that Hollywood’s musical community respects Blanchard’s work over the last couple decades enough to make his first-ever nomination a first-time win.

FWIW: If my gut is messing with me (wouldn’t be the first time, wont be the last), Goransson will take it home.

Best Original Song
“All the Stars” (Black Panther, written by Kendrick Lamar, Al Shux, Sounwave, SZA and Anthony Tiffith)
Performed by Kendrick Lamar and SZA
“I’ll Fight” (RBG, written by Diane Warren)
Performed by Jennifer Hudson
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Mary Poppins Returns, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman)
Performed by Emily Blunt
“Shallow” (A Star Is Born, written by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt)
Performed by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, written by Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch)
Performed by Tim Blake Nelson and Willie Watson

Mostly because I still find it hard to believe that this movie could get totally skunked by Oscar, though the idea of Kendrick Lamar getting one of these things to go along with his Pulitzer appeals mightily to the Imp Within.

My Own Private Top-Ten of 2018: The Paradigms Do Shift

2018 was, as I’ve recently written elsewhere, a year of boundary-busting black achievement in the arts and  much of what follows below will re-emphasize this point. But it was also a year when you needed black storytellers to step up, lean in and heave grenades at whatever retro-reactionary politics are throwing their weight around the country.

And you also needed these stories to reinforce something you wont hear on Meet the Press or anywhere else on daytime TV: whatever the “alt-right” or its enablers believe they’re trying to defeat has already triumphed. We have become, in pop-cultural terms, so diverse, multi-ethnic and blended together that even using the “multicultural” term so despised by Fox News and its minions is redundant and likely no longer the point. I’m aware that stuff keeps happening to innocent, unarmed people-of-color that mitigates this impact. But whether anybody in positions of power cares to acknowledge it or not, the “culture wars” they’ve been fretting about since at least before the century started have been all but won – and those of us on the winning side should start acting like it no matter what the legacy news organizations say.

It’ll take more time for this news to sink in – and part of acknowledging victory is accepting the fact that there will always be a hard, prickly core of humanity that will never accept the results. But what James Baldwin published sixty-five years ago is truer now – and, for many, harder to accept: “The world is white no longer and it will never be white again.”

My totally subjective, utterly random list of whatever moved or grooved me in 2018 is not totally white or black or pink or yellow. I’m not sure where on the prism it is and I like it that way. As usual – and I cannot stress this enough – these are all in no particular order:

 

 

 

Killing Eve – The wiggiest British TV spy series since a fat white blob immobilized Patrick McGoohan a half-century ago was also the year’s most irresistible dish of nuts: eat one and all the rest are instant history. Nutty is the ideal word to characterize this continent-spanning cat-and-mouse game between a frowsy, doggedly inquisitive MI-5 analyst (Sandra Oh) and a button-cute sociopath (Jodie Comer) who can’t help showing off when she’s murdering people in secret. The story, awash in sultry inference and disorienting menace, carries more double- and triple-crosses per episode than a John Le Carré novel. And creator-producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s variations on Luke Jennings’ “Villanelle” series of short-form thrillers are jolting and darkly witty enough to make you feel throughout as though you’re watching Patricia Highsmith convulse on laughing gas. Among the show’s myriad satisfactions is seeing Oh thrive in the deep-dish central role her brilliant career has merited and in beholding the relatively lesser-known Comer, a hoot-and-a-half as an angel-of-death who is as good at her work as she is poignantly flawed. We await a second season with these damaged souls wondering how they and their respective handlers, enablers and hangers-on can possibly continue, much less surpass, the craziness they – and we – have already undergone.

 

 

 

Lorraine Hansbury: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart – The year was so crowded with turmoil and exasperation on a day-to-day basis that it was easy to forget that Tracy Heather Strain’s illuminating documentary had aired way back in January on PBS’s American Masters series. Remembering it now renews one’s profound gratitude for not only restoring the author of A Raisin in the Sun to contemporary consciousness, but in bringing forth the complete person in all her complexities, contradictions and, above all, courage, whether in living out her precociously uncompromising radical politics, confronting Bobby Kennedy over his brother’s foot-drag on civil rights and coping with love and life as a closeted lesbian. It felt bracing and, above all, timely to have her back among us, even if her most significant work of art never went away.

 

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – If you abhor comic-book movies, I’m not going to judge, or dismiss your qualms about seeing this one. As much as I loved Marvel Comics in my protracted adolescence, I now find in the whole superhero movie corpus a distressingly anti-democratic strain that implicitly encourages its devotees to abandon their individual agency and submit to those with greater, higher powers. (It remains my principal misgiving towards Black Panther and the accompanying “Wakanda Forever” phenomenon, however much I enjoyed the movie and endorsed its salutary impact on global movie markets.) But the giddily “meta” nature of this iteration of the web-slinging wonder both opens up the genre to fresh appreciation and brings its inflated pretenses and aspirations for personal transcendence to something resembling ground-level; actually more like street-level in the case of Miles Morales, brown-skinned schoolboy prodigy resisting the isolation of his nascent genius as he finds himself bitten by the same radioactive spider that juiced Peter Parker’s metabolism to near-invincibility. The Peter Parker in Miles’ world has been killed, but a tear in the cosmos caused by…oh, never mind…results in a riot of multiverses from which a handful of other similarly bitten boys, girls, men, women and even cartoon pigs spill into Miles’ Brooklyn all capable of walking on walls, shooting out web fluid and pounding evildoers three times their respective sizes. The narrative is persistently clever and the animation is surprisingly evocative. Which brings me to another of my biases towards comic-book movies: that a pair of feature-length animated Batman movies are far better realized than all their live-action counterparts and that no Superman movie, not even those with the late, lamented Christopher Reeve resides as deeply in my devotion as the Fleischer animated shorts of the 1940s. The lesson being that maybe, just maybe, the best comic book movies are those that look most like a damn comic book.

 

 

 

 

 

Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce – Don’t get me wrong. I’m as charmed by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s second season as I was with its predecessor. And yet, as was the case last year, the show’s sheer momentum threatens to exhaust me before I’m halfway through its run. It seems to start from a point way above my head and just keeps rocketing skyward on hyper-thrusts of spritz. More often than not, I kept wondering whether Rachel Brosnahan walks that fast in real life and if so, how much carbo-loading does it take for her to get through an average day. It’s only when Luke Kirby’s Lenny Bruce materializes from the shadows that Mrs. Maisel takes a knee, along with a deep breath, to retrieve its bearings. At first Kirby’s dead-solid rendering of Bruce’s mannerisms, vocal tics and stage swagger seemed little more than a plot device, a sharkskin Jiminy Cricket, or Obi-Wan Kenobi in thin lapels popping up to remind Midge of Her One True Way. This season, there was something more haunting and maybe a shade more ominous in Lenny’s once-insouciant temperament; faint traces, even as far back as 1960, of blue meanies closing in on his incendiary shtick. Back then, as some of us are old enough to remember, the straights went after Lenny for speaking the unspeakable. It’s a good thing we’ve evolved to the free-and-open cultural dialogue of our own time, isn’t it? That little qualifier at the end should make watching Kirby’s Lenny an even more unsettling interlude to the wacky-pack chronicles of Miriam Maisel’s midcentury coming-of-age.

 

 

 

 

Brian Tyree Henry as Everyman I’m not alone in believing that the second “robbin’” season of Donald Glover’s masterly Atlanta saw the ascension of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles to the series’ center stage. As the eternally grumpy, enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle rap-star-in-the-making, Brian Tyree Henry himself became a rising star as he made his working-class-stoner persona bend and react to the narrative’s quasi-surrealist tropes and to the increasingly dubious rewards of Paper Boi’s cult stardom. Henry’s own presence has, like Al’s, been spreading throughout the cultural mainstream from a vocal role in the aforementioned Spider-Verse to a Tony-nominated performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero to a wide range of movie roles, including the political kingpin in Widows and an ex-convict in If Beale Street Could Talk. Though he isn’t in the latter movie for very long, Henry’s presence during a sad, tense conversation with the movie’s star-crossed lovers (Stephan James and KiKi Layne) crystalizes the legal system’s devastation upon black men’s lives and the oblivion that swallows their dreams. At that moment, Beale Street becomes something larger and more all encompassing than even the intense love story at its core and Brian Tyree Henry is transformed into every friend we ever had whose life was unjustly ruined by casual systemic racism.

 

 

 

The Sisters Brothers – The year’s most talked-about western movie was the Coen Brothers’ cheeky, rusty-dusty Netflix pastiche The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I liked it, too (most of it anyway). But I very much preferred Jacques Audiard’s statelier, more traditionally mounted genre piece that was unfairly gunned down in cold blood at the box office. It was in its way as quirky as the Coens’ mash-up, but its satisfactions were deeper, more redolent of what those of us who grew up with westerns (like, say, me and Audiard) remembered best; their measured pacing, ritualized stoicism and gritty characters. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the eponymous outlaw brothers offered familiar personality contrasts with Phoenix, not surprisingly, throwing off wayward sparks and Reilly, maybe more surprisingly, evoking enough gravitas to carry the movie’s moral core. That some critics dismissed the story’s rambling manner said less about the movie’s shortcomings than the collective amnesia of contemporary audiences towards the kind of discursive storytelling that moviegoers took for granted in the days when Ford, Hawks, Mann, Boetticher and Peckinpah rode directors’ chairs on desert sound stages.

 

 

Heads of the Colored People – Among the auspicious debut story collections published in 2018 by African American writers, this one remains my favorite for the stealthy wit and acerbic observation sustained in a variety of settings. “Belles Lettres,” for instance, is presented in the form of increasingly snarky notes planted by black “bourgie” moms in their daughters’ backpacks. The title story is a darkly comic and ultimately tragic tale of an encounter outside a comic book convention between a “cos”-wearing fan and a street entrepreneur. Then there’s the inventive and similarly harrowing/funny “Suicide, Watch” [sic] in which a young woman uses social media to determine how, or if, she should do away with herself. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a talent large enough to propel her towards a novel, and I can’t wait to see what she does. An honest-to-goodness African American variation on Catcher in the Rye? It’s certainly within her grasp, but I dunno: I really like what she does within the tighter corners of the short story

 

 

Equalizer 2 – What throws you a little when watching Antoine Fuqua’s pared-to-the-bone franchise sequel isn’t how much Denzel Washington has aged. (His character is called “Pops” by one of the preppie predators he’s about to break into several gratifying pieces.) It’s how beautiful he remains to watch in stillness, even though his eyes at times betray a compound of world-weariness and cumulative horror over what his sixty-something vigilante-bibliophile has witnessed in a gloomy, bloody life. Washington has achieved more than a veteran’s smooth grace in front of the cameras. He’s made watchfulness into a movie star trademark and is carrying this stripped-down persona into what promises to be a golden age of elder statesman roles, only without the implied stiffness and solemnity. Artist-craftsmen who casually wear their gifts are easily taken for granted; a mistake that has not and should never be made in Denzel Washington’s case.

 

 

Random Acts of Flyness — “RACE IS A SYNONYM FOR WHITE SUPREMACY” is one of the flash cards whizzing by in the fifth and penultimate episode of this HBO series which along with
Sorry To Bother You was the year’s most emphatic and adventurous expression of black-bohemian-futurist consciousness. I’ve already had my say about Boots Riley’s impudent phantasm of a feature film. But I’m still sorting through my reactions to Terence Nance’s mash-up of sketch comedy, animated shorts, ideological infomercial and time-warped romance. It’s been called “Key & Peele on Acid” and “Monty Python for Woke People,” though I think the whole notion of “woke”-ness is among the many present-day rhetorical motifs Nance and his collective of artists, actors and insurgents are interrogating. In that same episode (to my mind the best and most intensely realized), the “woke” concept is countered with the idea that sometimes sleep may be good for you and I’m still not sure, after many weeks of “sleeping” on this show that it’s being in any way sarcastic; it even implies that sleep, or at least, rest (e.g. contemplation) isn’t an evasion or a denial of “woke”-ness, but a means of protecting one’s own autonomy over one’s – whadyacall? – soul? If that drive-by notion can plunge the unwary into a deep, broad pool of thought, you can imagine how the myriad content of the other five episodes seeps into your head; “imagining “being both the method and the meaning behind Flyness – which has been given at least another season to snap at your comfort levels.

 

 

 

 

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965-2016 – It has all come down, or risen up to this: The largest, most expansive exhibit the Museum of Modern Art has ever staged for a living artist. For the first half of 2018, MoMa’s whole sixth floor was occupied with drawings, photographs, videos, cards, signage and whole rooms of Piper’s variegated output over six decades as performance artist, minimalist, creator of “happenings” and insurgent Kantian philosopher. The sheer heft and breadth of her oeuvre  taunt anyone’s efforts to express its essence, but Thomas Chatterton Williams, in an New York Times Magazine article as illuminating and frustratingly complex as his subject, came as close as anybody could when he wrote that Piper “has been quietly conducting, from that vexed and ever-expanding blot on the American fabric where white and black bleed into each other, one of the smartest, funniest and most profound interrogations of the racial madness that governs and stifles our national life that I had ever encountered.” Whether it’s a “humming room” whose guards encourage everybody entering it to hum a melody, any melody; or the mercurial self-portraits that play approach-avoidance games with her African American heritage; the “space-time-infinity” pieces tearing and nibbling at the perceptions of useable space on a geometric plane; the famous, or infamous calling cards that tweak unsuspecting strangers for casual or unwitting racism and sexism…All of it breathtaking, intimidating and provocative at once. Piper now lives a near-monastic existence in Germany and has, as of four years before, “retired” from being black, issuing this announcement in yet another irony-infused self-portrait in which she darkened her pale brown skin. All this and she can still dance her ass off. I remember wandering from the exhibit dazed, bemused and utterly refreshed. (Two words flashed in my frontal lobes: Trickster Goddess.) The last century didn’t quite know what to make of her. Maybe this one will..

 

 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2018

It was the kind of year when the biggest, most-talked-about release in recorded jazz was a compilation of takes and outtakes from fifty-five years ago. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Both Directions At Once at or near the top of some reviewers’ lists for best new album since its 1963 sessions by the John Coltrane Quartet had never before seen the proverbial light of day. The album doesn’t appear on this list, and I’ve already suggested why it won’t. Still it was the kind of marketing triumph rarely seen in jazz music, pulling in a big, broad spectrum of listeners. Some older jazz heads told me Both Directions drew bigger crowds than Coltrane did when he was still alive – which sounds more than plausible.

Even with my misgivings, it was hard not to be caught up in the excitement Both Directions At Once aroused among listeners, especially those who weren’t yet born when Coltrane died in 1967. Yet along with the excitement there was also a melancholy acknowledgment that Back Then aint the same as the Here & Now. Hearing the Coltrane quartet at a time when some of its greatest breakthroughs were just ahead reminded you that those early-to-mid-1960s were an era of expanding horizons and greater possibility.

And now? To paraphrase something one of my peers told me earlier in the year, we once lived in a time of transcendent, boundary-breaching improvisers. Now we live in an era awash in very-good-to-great players working well and even nobly within the standards set by giants. Every once in a while, one of them spins you around by making a sound you never heard before. (Number 4 on this list has been doing this since she emerged only a few years ago.) But maybe Gary Giddins was right when he wrote back in 1983 about the emergence of the Marsalis brothers and their contemporaries, “My intuition is that innovation isn’t this generation’s fate.”

After almost forty years have passed and at least a couple more of waves of musicians have emerged, Giddins’ assessment still sounds prescient, at least as far as improvisers are concerned. But there are other ways to be innovative. Throughout this period of revision and retrenchment, some of our most interesting jazz artists have devoted their energies to creating or, in Wynton Marsalis’s case, refreshing contexts for jazz’s presentation, whether by expanding the music’s canon through jazz repertory or providing broader frameworks for presenting the music. Maybe you bring choirs along as part of your equipment, as Kamasi Washington does, or revise conventional horns-rhythm-section stagecraft as the late Max Roach once suggested – and as artists such as Esperanza Spaulding have been doing. It’s the same kind of musical nation-building that Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and Betty Carter used to do with their outfits and I’d like to believe that from these revised contexts, more than a few musicians will emerge and make all our heads spin the way John Coltrane once did, and still does.

Or…I could be wrong. Anyway, here’s my list and I’m sticking with it:

 

 

 

 

1.) Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (PI) – In Coleman’s previous appearances on this list, I’ve described what he and his band are doing as an ongoing quasi-scientific inquiry into what he characterizes as biological processes, but are in reality groove dynamics and harmonic montage. The studio work has yielded encouraging and often earth-shaking results. But in a live setting, especially within the concave confines of jazz music’s Holy Dive, everything the band does seems ramped up in intensity as if having live witnesses to its experiments goads Coleman, Jonathan Finlayson, Miles Okazaki, Anthony Tidd and Sean Rickman to raise their respective games. The overlapping dialogue between Coleman’s scorching alto sax and Finlayson’s slashing trumpet seems more colorfully serpentine on stage while the worlds-within-worlds polyrhythmic drive provided by bassist Tidd and drummer Rickman yanks you into the music’s molten core and Okasaki’s guitar sets off well-timed compression bombs. If your head can move to this group’s percolating dramatic tension – and it should – your body will eventually follow.

 

 

 

 

 

2.) Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note) – This just in: THE MULTIVERSE EXISTS! If you doubt this, and you do so at your peril, you need to find the nearest available copy of The 3 Marias, a “prestigious publication” dominating a “one world reality” known as Logokrisia. Failing that, you’ll just have to trust this one-of-a-kind artifact springing from the teeming brain of a comic-book nerd from Newark who grew up to become, among (many) other things, one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees. This combination of graphic novel and three-disc collection is a multiverse you can carry around the house or, if invited to do so, somebody else’s. The title, which is “no name” spelled backwards , owes its origins to a Dizzy Gillespie tune and is given to the novel’s mystical superhero. Described by Shorter and co-author Monica Sly as a “rogue philosopher,” this Emanon travels from dimension to dimension to subdue fear and oppression in all its forms and replace them with knowledge and wisdom. The real mystery and suspense come with the music performed on the three discs by Shorter and his comparably intrepid sidekicks, pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Pattitucci, spinning off motifs, ideas and even characters from the comic book (“Pegasus,” “The 3 Marias,” “Prometheus Unbound” etc.) The first installment has the quartet deploying its customary allusive interplay in tandem with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. At times the combination sounds like the soundtrack to a cryptic SF movie spectacular. But then, almost all of Shorter’s compositions, going as far back as such grandly-conceived classics as 1965’s The All-Seeing Eye and ahead towards such underrated pastels as 1985’s Atlantis (where “The 3 Marias” first appeared) and 1995’s High Life, are soundtracks to movies whose stories would be too inscrutable for Hollywood to attempt. The quartet carries on its sporadic, probing conversations on the other two discs, whose content is culled from a live London concert. Some listeners have complained that the music seems more tentative than they expected as a definitive statement from the greatest living jazz composer. (We’ll argue that latter clause some other time.) But it all sounds pretty definitive to me, coming as it does from somebody whose teenage nicknames were “Mr. Gone” and “Mr. Weird.” Listen to this music often enough and you’ll find that its secrets aren’t meant to be deciphered; only appreciated on their own slippery, shadowy terms.

 

 

 

 

3.) Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau, Long Ago and Far Away (Impulse!) – Up until his death in 2014, bassist Haden was always up for melding minds with other individual seekers of beauty and truth. This colloquy, recorded in 2007 at a jazz festival in Mannheim, Germany, may not be perfect (since nothing is), but it is gorgeous in the affecting manner of an early winter sunset or a lingering over-the-shoulder pivot towards a onetime lover you’re certain of never seeing again. Haden knew a fellow romantic sensibility when he met one and Mehldau found in Haden’s generosity of spirit a warm, safe haven for his vagabond lyricism and bold phraseology. The playlist is pure classic standard, from “Au Private” to “Everything Happens to Me,” both of whose steady-as-she-goes renditions here would have made Charlie Parker smile. But what would have caused Bird to sit up straight with wide eyes are Mehldau’s variations within each chord change; sometimes they swirl and tumble onto a different path while at other times they imperturbably ride with whatever tangent Haden discovers along the melody’s surface. These collaborators bring out each other’s richest conceptual contours in such ballads as “What’ll I Do” and a Haden favorite, “My Love and I,” David Raksin’s love theme from the 1954 movie “Apache,” within whose bridge Mehldau shakes loose some of his most stunning inventions, expansive yet firmly tethered to the song’s pulse. Haden has always shown a special watchfulness in piano duets. This one is most remarkable for disclosing many things we either didn’t know, or merely suspected, about Mehldau’s resourcefulness. And, as another entry on this list will attest, we’ve come to know a lot more by now.

 

 

 

 

 

4.) Cecile McLoren Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue) – She can neither be stopped nor contained by anybody’s marketplace; nor is she in any way daunted by having to immediately follow the most breathtaking and ambitious jazz vocal album of this century. She takes a heady gamble on this one by relying mostly on a single accompanist: pianist Sullivan Fortner, who is as formidable a dramatist with his instrument as she is with hers. Her inflections provide well-timed cues for his embellishments and fusillades. Granted, there are times when their respective strengths almost collide, most notably on that Bernstein-Sondheim rouser, “Somewhere,” when their attacks at different ends of the song threaten to shortchange its impact and even confuse their listeners. But even when they threaten to go too far, they end up creating something you haven’t heard before – and won’t mind hearing again. She’s still at the top of her game and, more definitively, her profession. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’m talking about her again in this space a year from now. I expect to be surprised by what she chooses to do next.

 

 

 

 

 

5.) Charles Lloyd & The Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note) – “We all play folk music,” Thelonious Monk once told Bob Dylan. Accordingly, this smoke-cured aggregation of laments, dirges and secular prayers lofted towards what we cringe to regard as Present Day Reality feels very much like the album Dylan would release if he believed now was the time to try more jazz with his blues. Led by tenor saxophonist Lloyd, who at 80 seems to be (in Dylan-speak) a lot younger than he was in his Forest Flower period of the 1960s, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland and steel guitarist Greg Leisz concoct a spectral blend of American musical java that soothes and jolts at odd hours of the day. Williams, in my judgment, has never had more suitable backup for her leathery vocals, whether on original songs such as “Ventura” or “Unsuffer Me” or on Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” on which you’re tempted to imagine an alternate reality where he lived long enough to accompany her. (Maybe Wayne Shorter, or Emanon, can find one.) Still wondering why “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is an instrumental, but they (whichever [sic] “they” are) may know something I don’t.

 

 

 

 

6.) Joshua Redman, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch) – Jazz needs another tribute album the way I need another Bush, Clinton or Trump to run for president. But this feels far more like an urgent personal testament than yet another solemn salaam to a past master. It’s a tribute, perhaps foremost, to Redman’s father, which also makes it a homage to the Old and New Dreams band that featured Dewey Redman on tenor, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. And because that group was formed as a kind of early exemplar of an Ornette Coleman repertory band, the younger Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade are taking on the respective roles of the aforementioned (now departed) players, but in their own voices and on their own terms. Thus, these four guys aren’t paying homage so much as paying renewed attention to a state of mind, a manner of behaving well under pressure and a means of stretching the collective unconscious. There is one piece each by Haden (“Playing”) and Coleman (“Comme Il Faut”). Yet most of the compositions are originals by Colley and Redman, the latter of whom, despite the fearsome range displayed in his previous recordings, shows sweet affinity with the serrated rhythmic patterns and riff extensions of the older band. It’s hardly a secret that all was not well between the elder Redman and his son in the former’s lifetime. But the peaceful feeling one gets listening to these tracks suggests a more intimate, profoundly deeper peace fully achieved within a tumultuous heritage of undaunted dream weavers.

 

 

 

 

 

7.) Brad Mehldau Trio, Seymour Reads the Constitution (Nonesuch) – To get the obvious out of the way, yes, I was intrigued, though mildly disappointed to find out that the title tune refers to a dream Mehldau had wherein the thirsty-grizzly voice of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was reading the Constitution to him. But it wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t keep this disc out of my player for most of the calendar year. By now, the things Mehldau has done to stretch possibilities of the piano trio format have become part of the music’s turn-of-the-century heroic folklore. But what keeps us attentive to Mehldau and his longtime partners Larry Grenadier (on bass) and Jeff Ballard (on drums) is their expansion of jazz’s repertoire, either by broadening the definition of “classic pop” (Brian Wilson’s “Friends,” Paul McCartney’s “Great Day”) or by prying open fresh approaches to modernist standards, especially Sam Rivers’ evergreen “Beatrice,” whose natural bounce is refreshed here with insouciance and ingenuity. To his own compositions, Spiral” and “Ten Tune,” Mehldau brings deeper harmonic invention and tonal progressions that reflect the abiding influences of both Bach and Brahms. Somehow, Mehldau has softened his intensity without losing his edge and still stands out among a prodigious — and increasingly crowded — pack of great jazz pianists.

 

 

 

 

8.) Christian McBride’s New Jawn (Mack Avenue) – “Jawn” is Philly-speak for…well, I suppose if a definition of a noun is person, place or thing, then “jawn” is another word for “noun,” though I always took it as a Del-Val variant of “joint.” In any event, I don’t think McBride’s piano-less quartet necessarily qualifies as a “new thing,” which for jazz heads of earlier generations was a euphemism for what was considered avant-garde from roughly 1959 till 1971. In fact, there’s something bracingly familiar in this joint’s blend of freewheeling neo-bop and nimble rhythm machinery. Trumpeter Josh Evans and saxophonist Marcus Strickland let fly with seeming abandon while staying grounded to the shifting pocket of percussion lad down by drummer Nasheet Watts and the bassist-leader, who despite his growing reputation as an eminence-gris on his instrument still comes across as the young tyro breaking loose from Philadelphia’s storied Settlement Music School. And perhaps what’s most gratifying about a small ensemble such as this is that it provides an ideal showcase for hearing what McBride has learned and can teach as a musician and a leader.

 

 

 

 

9.) Eddie Henderson, Be Cool (Smoke Sessions) – Let me tell you about Eddie Henderson because his is one of the most remarkable jazz-life stories you probably never heard. First of all, it’s Doctor Eddie Henderson, having earned a medical degree from Howard University in 1968 four years after earning a B.S. in zoology from Cal-Berkeley in 1964. His general practice came in pretty handy in the years after he’d recorded with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi electro-boogie band in the early 1970s. Oh, and before all that happened, he took his first trumpet lesson with Louis Armstrong at age nine. This was in large part because he came from Harlem entertainment royalty since his mother was a Cotton Club dancer and his father was a singer whose 1957 cover of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” was a million-seller. If that sounds like too much to take in at once, then we’ll make this long story short by saying that Dr. Henderson continued to practice general medicine while playing, recording and touring all over the world. This latest album of polished hard bop, backed by solid gold players such as pianist Kenny Barron, alto saxophonist Donald “Big Chief” Harrison, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Mike Clark, comes across as the closest thing to a musical autobiography Henderson has put forth so far. Its selections pay homage to players who have inspired and nurtured him throughout his long career whether it’s Hancock (“Toys”), Coltrane (“Naima”), and fellow trumpeters Woody Shaw (“The Moontrane”) and Miles Davis (his take on “Fran Dance” just misses equaling Davis’ dry-witted studio rendition from 1958, but that’s OK because Miles never quite matched it either and Henderson’s comes closer than he did). But what boosts this testament towards rare air is its approach to that stout old warhorse, “After You’ve Gone.” Most interpretations play that Tin Pan Alley ditty as a briskly paced taunt. Henderson, however, goes against the grain and slows the tempo, turning what’s popularly recognized as a jolly anthem of comeuppance into a wistful rumination on loss. I forgot to mention: Henderson turned 78 last October and is still gigging, recording, broadening his musical horizons and, for all I know, available for consultation.

 

 

 

 

10.) Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble, The Rock & The Redemption (RMI) – The notion of a jazz suite devoted to the myth of Sisyphus seems so obvious that you wonder why it hasn’t happened before now. (Albert Murray, the late philosopher king of swing, had to have at least sketched out an idea of Sisyphus as the first blues hero…somewhere.) It’s likely that the idea was waiting to land on someone like Baerman, a keyboardist-composer who teaches at Wesleyan University and has struggled his entire life with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an incurable malady that affects connective tissue. As one can imagine, the disorder has tempted Baerman to walk away from playing music, but he has gone on and in doing so, found communion with the dogged Sisyphus, whose labors to roll a boulder up a slippery slope are duly honored with an 11-part piece blending funk, gospel, hard bop and (of course) blues. Baerman’s Resonance Ensemble provides formidable support for this tribute to perseverance: Kris Allen on reeds, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Henry Lugo on bass, Bill Carbone on drums and vocal support from cellist Melanie Hsu, Garth Taylor, Latanya Farrell and the late Claire Randall, whose murder at age 26 a year after this 2015 recording session became yet another painful marker on the slippery, treacherous slope of day-to-day existence. Her presence here is part of the bittersweet gift this enterprise bestows on those of us who wake up every day with a boulder in front of us, still standing wherever we left it the day before. The way I see it – and maybe Noah does, too – the rock mocks us, but in doing so, its presence reminds us that we’re still alive. And pushing.

 

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band (Smoke Sessions) Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM); Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing (Sunnyside); Renee Rosnes, Beloved of the Sky (Smoke Sessions); Jeremy Pelt, Live in Paris (High Note); Fred Hersch Trio, Live in Europe (Palmetto); Don Byron & Aruán Ortiz, Random Dances and (A)tonalties (Intakt); Ambrose Akinmusire, Original Harvest (Blue Note); Dave Holland, Uncharted Territories (Dare2); Matthew Shipp Quartet Featuring Mat Walerian, Sonic Fiction (ESP Disk); Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turk)

 

 

 

 

HISTORICAL/ARCHIVAL/REISSUE, ETC.
1.) Frank Sinatra, Only The Lonely (Capitol)
2.) Keith Jarrett, La Fenice (ECM)
3.) Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 (Columbia/Legacy)

 

 

 

 

LATIN ALBUM

David Virelles, Igbó Alákoran (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I & II (PI)

HONORABLE MENTION: Ruben Blades, Wynton Marsalis & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Una Noche Con Ruben Blades (Blue Engine)

 

 

 

 

 

VOCAL
Cecile McLorin Salvant, The Window
HONORABLE MENTION: Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing

DEBUT
Arianna Neikrug, Changes (Concord)

“Both Directions At Once”: A Window, A Pathway or Just Another Day at the Office?

 

 

 

John Coltrane will have been with the ancestors for fifty-one years this month. Yet he remains jazz’s toughest act to follow. Many people, not all of them fans, insist that jazz history stopped moving when Coltrane’s heart stopped beating in a Long Island hospital on July 17, 1967. Even those who were mystified, if not altogether alienated by Coltrane’s headstrong voyages beyond the stratospheric boundaries of tone and invention acknowledged him as a bellwether for whatever would happen next for the music. His death at just 40 years old seemed to signal that there would be no more “next,” only whatever happened before.

So it’s hardly a wonder that a large crowd gathers whenever somebody uncovers Coltrane music that nobody’s heard on record before. They all swarmed four years before when a 1966 concert of Coltrane’s second, most experimental quartet was packaged and released to the public as Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse!/Resonance). Though it was unavailable for digital downloads, Offering was at or near the top of the Billboard jazz charts for several weeks. My guess is that a majority of those purchasers were just as confounded by the music at that concert as they were by such late-period Coltrane LPs as Kulu Sé Mama, Expression, Meditations and Interstellar Space (about which more later). But its success affirmed what now seems an everlasting attraction to John Coltrane as karmic messenger; it’s as though we’ve all agreed that somewhere in Trane’s legacy there’s something we’re missing and we need only pay close attention when another such discovery is made.

Hence the buzz and jubilation surrounding this month’s release of Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!). These are never-before-released recordings of a March 6, 1963 studio session with Coltrane and his “classic quartet” of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. The set, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., includes several takes of Coltrane’s “Impressions,” the standard he’d built using the same harmonic baseline as Miles Davis’ “So What” on 1959’s epoch-making Kind of Blue. (Ashley Kahn’s typically informative liner notes mention that Trane himself wrote “So What” on the box holding the “Impressions” tapes.) There’s also a three-minute-plus take on “Nature Boy” and a couple of versions of “One Up, One Down” (not to be confused with “One Down, One Up,” which the quartet delivered with stunning abandon in a February1965 live broadcast at the Half Note previously released as part of a 2005 bootleg).

To me, the most fascinating of this “found” album’s storylines involves “Untitled Original 11386” (again, not to be confused with “Untitled Original 11383,” a hard-driving blues piece that opens the two-disc package and isn’t heard from again, even though you’d like to). It’s one of the quartet’s more buoyant riff extensions and it exemplifies the principal pleasure offered by this release: Listening to each member of this exemplary group interact, enhance and add to each other’s contribution whether it’s Jones’ loping and rolling combinations (especially when it’s just his trap set and Trane’s soprano doing a pas de deux), Tyner’s unobtrusive, yet bracing comps and Garrison’s sleek, powerful lines. Not that anybody needed to be reminded of this quartet’s pre-eminence above all others in its time, but even the minor glories of this session seem especially portentous given what would from this point on prove to be the group’s most productive and illuminating period (the Johnny Hartman sessions were a day away, the Birdland performances would be recorded in just seven months and the following year would yield the near-blinding sunburst that was A Love Supreme.)

 

 

 

 

Sonny Rollins’ vivid encomium for this package, “This is like finding a new room in the great pyramid,” encapsulates every fan’s enthusiasm for Both Directions At Once. Still, while it’s only proper to have Rollins’ benediction on such an auspicious occasion and though I yield to no human in my devotion to the Colossus, I don’t think there are any startling discoveries to be found here regarding Coltrane’s genius. Beyond the renewed appreciation for the workaday brilliance of the quartet, of which there can never be enough examples (and is, by itself, no small virtue), I think the revelations of this disc have less to do with Trane and more to do with how jazz music used to produce both accessibility and adventure with both assurance and fortitude. The modal innovations pioneered and expanded by Coltrane have become so commonplace in jazz that it becomes easy to forget how exhilarating and easy to love its themes were.

Moreover, I think that when many listeners, whether jazz aficionados or not, embrace this music, they are consciously or not cleaving to a moment in time just before Coltrane decided to accelerate his inquiries into deeper, wider possibilities. Put less charitably, it’s at or near the spot where even the most devoted and forbearing listeners said “Adios” to Trane as he soared headlong into what they believed were impenetrable regions of tonal and rhythmic chaos.

 

 

 

So while I’m hoping that this “lost album” re-galvanizes the faithful while indoctrinating new generations to this quartet’s glories, I’d also commend all these listeners to use this occasion to slide over to where Coltrane began to press the edges of the envelope. I’m referring to 1965’s Ascension, the polyphonic freeform ensemble piece that joins Coltrane, Jones, Tyner and Garrison with such avatars of what used to be called “The New Thing” as saxophonists Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, John Tchicai and the enigmatic trumpeter Dewey Johnson, who played alongside Freddie Hubbard here and never recorded again. Those non-indoctrinated or hostile to free jazz hear nothing but random chaos in this piece. But if you pay attention from the start, you find that the whole sprawling, intermittently surging work can be viewed as the picaresque adventures of a five-note phrase – well, four notes actually since one of them is repeated. But try to keep up with that phrase throughout and you may find that while the whole apparatus seems to take you all over the place, it can also keep you centered in surprising ways. Which I’ve always suspected were Coltrane’s intentions all along.

 

 

 

 

If that trip seems in any way fruitful, then I’d recommend you jump ahead several albums and two more years to Interstellar Space, released by Impulse a year after Coltrane’s death and which has thus been called “the final masterpiece” by The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. This is by no means a consensus opinion, given the many listeners who can’t get past the wailing, keening tone of Coltrane’s tenor in the first few bars of “Mars” as he and drummer Rashid Ali detonate their five-piece cosmic duet. But what some view as run-amuck obscurity, I prefer to accept as an act of willed ecstasy, a release from any obvious constraints of space and time (in the musical sense) and a daring leap towards a more organic means of fashioning unity in sound and meaning.

Some believe that “getting” such music requires sticking your head as close to the speakers as you can until its “meaning” materializes in front of you. That’s almost the right idea, but as I’ve suggested before in other contexts, I think you’re better off carrying the music with you and allow it to blend in with the other more inchoate sounds in your life. That’s how I “got” it – or more to the point, appreciated it.

Another suggestion: After letting these “Interstellar” sounds live in you for a while, go back to Both Directions At Once. And yes: there’s a hint of an explanation to All Things Trane in that title, but you’ll have to finish the rest of the course on your own.