We all knew The Green Mile was going to be the first movie cited in Michael Clarke Duncan’s obituaries. It’s just that none of us expected to be reading those obituaries this soon. His seemed to be one of those careers built for the long haul; he was a solid screen presence audiences were always happy to see in as many movie and TV supporting roles as he could accumulate. Down the road, he could have headlined his own TV series, instead of merely providing support for somebody else’s. And it wasn’t at all unlikely that he could collect another Academy Award nomination to go with the one he’d received 12 years ago for playing John Coffey, the unjustly-condemned man with healing powers in Green Mile
Duncan’s riveting, affecting portrayal is a fine centerpiece to a too-brief career. Yet when I got the news of his death at just 54 years old last night, I didn’t think at first of John Coffey. I thought instead of Otis Jenkins, a small role in 2008’s Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, a family-reunion-as-slapstick farce in which Clarke played gruff-but-sensible elder brother to Martin Lawrence’s blundering talk show guru. In his few scenes, Duncan showed an ease of manner, a limber command of space that he rarely, if ever had the chance to show on-screen. One suspected from his self-effacing, warm-spirited public appearances that this persona was much closer to his real-life self than the by-the-numbers heavies he played more often in such films as 2003’s Daredevil or 2005’s Sin City.
I wish, in other words, there were a lot more Otises in Duncan’s curriculum vitae than Kingpins.
Once in a while, there would be a nice blend of these tendencies; notably (maybe solely) in 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards. I thought there would be more time for Hollywood to truly realize what it had in Duncan; that just because you’re big and black doesn’t mean you have to be perpetually cast as a Looming Threat, implied or otherwise. I should know better. Hollywood’s constricted imagination narrows even more when it comes to African-Americans. To say Duncan, as successful and beloved as he was, deserved better from the mainstream movie industry is to say it of any talent-of-color, on- or off-screen. Even Duncan’s John Coffey role, as beautifully rendered as it is, is redolent of what Spike Lee has sneeringly labeled the “magical negro” meme in which black characters are endowed with the kind of exalted, near-supernal gifts whose purpose is to somehow ennoble or absolve white characters. I don’t bring this up to demean or diminish Duncan’s life-altering, well-deserved moment in the spotlight. He had a wonderful life and an admirable career. It’s just another lament for lost opportunities. .
Speaking of both Spike Lee and lost opportunities, I got the news of Duncan’s passing over my phone just as I was about to put it to sleep before a screening of Lee’s latest, Red Hook Summer. I was prepared by advance reviews for an uneven movie and thus wasn’t surprised to find moments of brilliance and insight leaping like sparks from a generally muddled saga of life in a Brooklyn public-housing project as seen though the eyes – and I-Pad2 – of a middle-class boy (Jules Brown) from Atlanta spending a summer with his overbearing preacher-grandfather (Clarke Peters).
As with most of Lee’s films, Red Hook Summer is far more valuable for what it brings up than for what it resolves. The vignettes and extended visual takes of its eponymous neighborhood teem with vitality and engagement. No one shoots Brooklyn, or black people, quite like Lee, bringing out tones, colors, details and nuances you just don’t get in other movies with these same subjects. The state of Red Hook, its environmental and economic troubles, its stratification between low-income apartment dwellers and those who either cross the river to Manhattan or flit in and out to shop at Fairway or Ikea are enumerated in the grandfather’s sermons. You learn — and feel — a lot of illuminating things in static bursts, until an unexpected plot development lands with a discordant thud at the climax, raising many more questions than it answers. (I’m not going to give out the spoiler because I still think you should see the movie, warts and all; after all, these lives are so rarely seen in movies that Red Hook Summer gains its importance practically by default.)
The narrative is so diffuse that only two elements provide any kind of adhesive. One is the glowering throughout by Master Brown and the other is the performance by Peters, better known for his work on two David Simon HBO series: the cerebral detective Lester Freamon on The Wire and the bullheaded “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux on Treme. Peters seems at first to have the thankless task of imposing his character’s aggressive piety upon both his grandson and the audience. It’s only when the air leaks out of his preacher’s rigorously virtuous aura that Peters takes the movie’s grappling to more contemplative and unnerving concerns.
If nothing else, Red Hook Summer establishes Clarke Peters as an actor magnetic and resourceful enough to carry a movie on his own. I’m neither able nor willing to believe the movies have arrived at a point where it knows what to do with such forceful intelligence, especially when it comes from a middle-aged African American. Then again, Denzel Washington’s a middle-aged African American. And he’s been known to carry movies on the strength of his personality….
Maybe not. Only television knows how to adequately showcase someone like Clarke Peters. The living room, after all, is where the “real” people come to visit.
Before we get to this year’s Top Ten, some random thoughts: 2011 has been such a mean, tumultuous, uprooting year for me that it was a challenge to keep track of the latest recordings. With the year almost over, I’m factory-sealed certain that I’ve left several worthy candidates behind. See them? They’re glaring at me from behind, standing with hands on hips or waving at my dust trail as if to say, “What?”
Then again, I find myself wondering what the hell they’re doing there. Seems to me I heard at some point this fall that Termination Day for CDs is approaching even faster than one had been led to believe. If we want the latest Keith Jarrett or Aaron Neville, we need only reach into a cloud — a.k.a. THE Cloud — and snatch whatever track we want. I still can’t believe that’s all we’ll eventually be left with. But it’s what all the salespeople insist is happening and they’ve never lied to us before. Ever.
And yet, you’re all here, aren’t you? Even though I haven’t yet learned how to download album covers or to make the necessary links to specific tracks. Someday, maybe even next year, that’ll be in place. For now, some tough choices from a tough year…
1.) Sonny Rollins, “Road Shows Vol. 2” (Doxy) – The Greatest Live Act in Jazz, headlined by the Greatest Living Improviser, keeps rolling along, its every flourish and delicacy captured for what promises to be an epochal series of recordings from past and (one hopes) future concerts. This second installment’s tracks are just a year old, but you understand why they needed to be out there in a hurry. They celebrate the start of the Colossus’ ninth decade as observed in Japan and, most notably, at last September’s “Sonny Rollins @80” concert @ New York’s Beacon Theater. On that evening, the celebrant, leonine and fit, sounded frisky and responsive to the electricity of the moment, his furry tone combed to a bristly sheen. He brought out guitarist Jim Hall, his comparably indefatigable 1960s playmate (to dive into “In a Sentimental Mood,” of course) as well as trumpeter Roy Hargrove who, as with the leader, always brings his A-game in front of onlookers. This disc is the next best thing to having been there. Yet it still makes you wish you’d been able to share the audience’s excitement at seeing Ornette Coleman wander on-stage for a characteristically insurgent solo on “Sonnymoon for Two” wherein he lures the Colossus “outside” the regular changes for some buoyant give-and-take. If Rollins is now the de-facto king of whatever it is we mean when we talk about jazz, then this edition of “Road Shows” shows him to be a wise, benevolent ruler whose domain, however small it may seem to outsiders, feels accessible enough to meet your most urgent needs and expansive enough to contain multitudes.
2.) Ambrose Akinmusir, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening” (Blue Note) – Only four years removed from winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, this 29-year-old trumpeter has delivered on his grand promise with an album of startling depth and range. Once you get past the challenges of pronouncing his intimidating surname (ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee) and of getting past the album’s knotty title, you’re free to acclimate with his big, brilliant sound or unravel the intricacies of his soloing – which, while layered with the trills, glissandos and arpeggios emblematic of the jazz trumpet’s heritage, share the probing detail and varied attack of sax icon Joe Henderson and of pianist (and album co-producer) Jason Moran. For all his agility and command, Akinmusire leans heavily on his band-mates (tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown); all of whom are worthy collaborators, collectively and individually. Word is out that these guys are all part of a big band that Akinmusire is leading. Can’t wait to hear what that’s like.
3.) Noah Preminger, “Before the Rain” (Palmetto) – At age 24, Preminger, a front-rank tenor saxophonist on just his second album as a leader, plays ballads as if he were a seventy-something road-warrior. He already knows, on instinct, how to approach a melody from behind; where to hang the drapery on a chord change and when to gently pull it away. And he doesn’t seem in a hurry to disclose everything he knows, not even on his original compositions (the title track, “Abreaction,” “Jamie”) or on Ornette Coleman’s “Toy Dance.” As with Akinmusire, Preminger is blessed with a eerily compatible rhythm section of bassist John Herbert, drummer Matt Wilson and pianist Frank Kimbrough, who contributes a couple of his prodigious compositions (“Quickening,” “November”) to the cause. By the time this group gets to massage a sturdy war horse such as “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” you’re utterly convinced that Preminger is the real thing – and that he’s coming along quite nicely.
4.) Allen Lowe, “Blues and the Empirical Truth” (Music & Arts) – Is it music or is it scholarship? Or musical scholarship? Is it criticism of the blues or just critical of them (or at least of what people say about them)? These and dozens of other questions aroused by “Blues and the Empirical Truth” are far more significant than any answers I or anyone else pretending to know more about music than Allen Lowe can cobble together. Lowe is a gnomic, compulsively idiosyncratic polymath who lives in Maine, plays a red-hot saxophone and has for years put together epic inquiries into the history and nature of American music and how it shapes – or doesn’t – the national character. On this three-disc set, recorded over a two-year period, Lowe arranges, composes and plays “inside” and “outside” jazz as well as such makeshift forms as neo-gutbucket-progressive-punk (at least that’s what I’m calling it for the moment.) He is backed by a typically eclectic guest list that includes guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Matthew Shipp, trombonist Roswell Rudd and Lowe’s fellow musicologist Lewis Porter, contributing here and there on keyboards. Along the way, tribute is made to civil rights activists Pauli Murray and Ella Mae Wiggins, forgotten or obscure musicians such as saxophonist Dave Schildkraft and pianist Blind Tom Bethune and…Doris Day, who should have been invited to Portland to jam with this crowd; except you have to wonder what she would have made of a song list with such titles as “Speckled Shaw Crippled Pete Boogie,” “Blues in Transfiguration,” “Elvis Died With His Sins Intact,” “In a Harlem Ashram” and “(Bull Connor Sees) Darkies on the Delta.” Guess it doesn’t matter as long as no animals were harmed in the process.
5.) Muhal Richard Abrams, “SoundDance” (Pi) – Just so you know, Sonny Rollins isn’t the only octogenarian legend who’s still getting the job done. Abrams, the peerless pianist-composer who co-founded the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) nearly 50 years ago, marked his own ninth decade by engaging in colloquies of such breadth and magnitude that they each needed their own disc. One of these is a dialogue with tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson that took place in October, 2009, a year before the latter’s death, though it’s a strain to detect signs of sagging energy in his playing. Both Abrams and Anderson seem energized by the task of extending or enhancing each other’s thoughts and even listeners resistant to free-form improvisation won’t miss a beat (so to speak). A year later, Abrams engaged in a sonic pas de deux with fellow innovator, author and AACM veteran George Lewis, who brought both his trombone and his laptop to the party. These two masters of orchestration create intricate, spiraling patterns that are at once imposing and puckish. You can wander in and out of their gallery of sound and find something strange, shiny and, in a peculiar way, companionable.
6.) Craig Taborn, “Avenging Angel” (EMI) – A title of one track could easily apply to most of the others: “A Difficult Thing Said Simply.” Taborn, who owns one of the most eclectic curriculum vitae in contemporary music (Tim Berne AND James Carter?), approaches the art of solo jazz piano as if he were translating complex code from a distant star. Often, he binds the information in tightly-wound chords struck down as if on anvils to forge unusual shapes. At other times (the aptly-named “Glossolalia”), he lets things twirl in the air like dazed, tiny phantasms squeezed out of an overcrowded basement. As with the early work of Keith Jarrett, Taborn is prone to lean to too hard on a riff, but (again, as with Jarrett) the digging can occasionally lead to an illuminated strike. In what’s been a vintage year for solo jazz piano discs (see the honorable-mention list below), this stood out for one simple reason: It sounded the most different from what its genre had yielded before.
7.) Youn Sun Nah, “Same Girl” (ACT) – Didn’t know a thing about her when this disc slipped into in my mailbox earlier in the year. After one track, I found myself asking, “Where has she been all my life?” (In Europe, apparently, where this album was first released last winter.) She is steeped in the French chanson tradition, but as with the most interesting singers beyond the boomer generation – Is she really 42? – she’s willing to try anything from Broadway (“My Favorite Things”) to Brazil (“Song of No Regrets”), from the folk music of her native Korea (“Kangwondo Aririang”) to the mellow sounds of Metallica (“Enter Sandman”). And she can scat real good, too, as proven on the quiet-fire “Breakfast in Baghdad.” The minimalist backing she gets from guitarist Ulf Wakenius, bassist-cellist Lars Danielson and percussionist Xavier Desandre lets her rangy, limber voice roam, run and leap about at will, even when the material is dipped in deep blue. Nothing seems to scare or stop her. Good as this disc is, it makes you wish she’d dare even more.
8.) Bill Frisell, “Sign of Life” (Savoy) – At its most inquisitive and unfettered, Bill Frisell’s music can be as evocative of the “the old, weird America” as Bob Dylan’s 1967 basement tapes. (Come and get me, Greil Marcus!) He has a boho-folk artist’s affinity for both the pastoral and the abstract. Beneath even his most glowing, spacious-skies landscapes, there are flickering shadows and misshapen objects that don’t distort the view, but are blended to make a slightly cockeyed, but still arresting picture, “Sign of Life,” performed by his 858 Quartet of violinist Jenny Schienman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts, is his best-realized sound painting since 2001’s “Blues Dream,” whose noir-ish cloaking devices I still appreciate, even if others didn’t. This is a sunnier compound of motifs and riffs that give off an aura of mystery, even danger – especially when the irrepressible Scheinman starts throwing paraphrases and adornments like left jabs. It’s clearer than ever that with both this disc and the John Lennon tribute released in the same year, Frisell can’t be stopped – or even contained. Only sampled – and what would NPR do for filler between news stories if his music weren’t around?
9.) Miguel Zenon, “Alma Adento: The Puerto Rican Songbook” (Marsalis Music) – Not only was this the year’s best Latin jazz album, it was also among the more inspired examples of that overpopulated subgenre, the tribute album. Zenon’s homage isn’t to a single artist or composer, but to the men and women who wrote the classic pop tunes of his native land. He and arranger Guillermo Klein practically reinvent crooner Bobby Capo’s “Incomprendido” as a slow-drying lament. Conversely, Rafael Hernandez’s “Silencio,” revived by the “Buena Vista Social Club” some years back, is given a near-chimerical, tempo-shifting transformation. The centerpiece, literally and figuratively, comprises two pieces by Sylvia Rexach: the title track and “Olas y Areenas,” both of which are treated by Zenon and Klein with passionate intensity and solicitous intelligence. Zenon may sometimes risk going overboard with his ambition and with his playing, but that’s part of the attraction. And if his alto-sax soars like a rocket plane, he’s becoming more adroit at gliding to pinpoint landings. .
10.) Evan Christopher, “Remembering Song” (Arbors) – If you paid close attention to “Treme” this year…no, wait. I have to digress just a little here. I’ve been hearing fans of “The Wire” complain that they find “Treme” too slow, too dense and not as – what? – urgently engrossing as its predecessor. I am compelled to remind these folks that it took at least three seasons for “The Wire” to find a following. And that only when it was nearly over did people begin thinking of it as a “classic.” So though it’s no longer fashionable in pop-culture circles to counsel patience, call me unfashionable. Watch and wait…Anyway, if you did pay close attention to “Treme,” you probably saw Christopher jamming with Tom McDermott and the luminous Lucia Micarelli on Scott Joplin’s “Heliotrope Bouquet.” He has been one of Crescent City’s most lyrical and stalwart clarinetists and this love letter to his adopted hometown is both a wistful lament for the unshakable legacy of Katrina and a bittersweet celebration of the spirit that refuses to wither or retreat from that legacy. His original compositions – e.g., “The River by the Road”, “You Gotta Treat It Gentle” – show that he’s not trying to reinvent tradition, but fulfill its demands. Sometimes, you don’t need to listen to something that changes the world. Easing its pain is enough. And for me, this year especially, it was more than enough.
1.) Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Fe Faith” (5Passion)
2.) Matthew Shipp Trip, “The Art of the Improviser” (Thirsty Ear)
3.) Larry Goldings, “In My Room” (BFM)
4.) Charles Lloyd & Maria Farantouri, “Athens Concert” (EMI)
5.) Terrell Stafford, “This Side of Strayhorn (MaxJazz)
BEST NEW ARTIST
Chris Dingman, “Waking Dreams” (Between Worlds Music)
Youn Sun Nah, “Same Girl” (see above)
BEST LATIN ALBUIM
Zenon, “Alma Adento: The Puerto Rican Songbook” (see above)
Julius Hemphill, “Dogon A.D.” (Arista/Freedom) HONORABLE MENTION: Bill Dixon Orchestra, “Intents and Purposes” (RCA/Dynagroove)