Seymour Movies Retrospective: Watching “Cabin in the Sky” for Lent (2009)

Reposting this essay I wrote twelve years ago about Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 classic all-Black musical because a.) people besides me like it a whole lot and b.) because of its more-timely-than-ever admonitions against too-easy dismissals of what is believed to be Anachronistic and (thus) Patronizing. Also if you’ve never seen it before and it happens to come your way again, jump on it. You won’t be sorry.





At the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s, Cabin in the Sky embodied everything we young, gifted, and solemn black college students thought we were fighting against. All we blinkered baby cultural-nationalists could see back then in those idyllic depictions of small-town African American folk life were unhealthy levels of honeysuckle and hambone. Eighty-six those rolling dice and eyeballs, all that cornball piety and undignified shucking! Is that really what we wanted our collective profile to look like after King and Malcolm and countless others had died for our advancement?

 


It’s a measure of how much time has passed that I can’t even LOOK at that previous sentence, much less write it, without wincing; the same kind of wincing we aforementioned Children of the Movement were doing whenever Cabin  poked out from TV’s wee-hour wilds or was screened at collegiate film societies. Exaggerated nose-turning-in-a-vertical-direction is at least as embarrassing as pronounced eye-rolling – and not nearly as funny. Given the choice between retroactive scoldings from what some new-jack pundits have come to label the “soul patrol” and the to-be-or-not-to-be anxieties displayed by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, I know whose party I’d rather go to.

 

 

 


The distinction no longer needs raising. A few days ago, I’d hosted a screening of Cabin  for a Wednesday-night Lenten supper at our predominantly black Episcopal church in lower Manhattan. It was a small audience, mostly older and just about all of its members had seen the movie before and loved it without predisposition or qualifiers (even though the DVD released three years ago opens with Warner Home Video’s contemporary disclaimer apologizing about “stereotypes” that were “wrong then and wrong now.”) The tiny audience appeared to appreciate the concern, though it didn’t need to be told what was or wasn’t appropriate. They just wanted a warm black-and-white memory bath. Even the sole 20-something in the room, recruited to help with projection, was caught up in a movie old enough to be his (grand) mother.

 

 

 

 


Each time I see the movie, I’m more galvanized by the sheer magnetism of its performers. Even in the reproachful seventies, it was hard not to be waylaid by the glory that was Lena Horne in her twenties. What she was then and what she remained throughout the sixties and beyond was so legitimate & enduring to young black fogies like us that we gave her quick dispensation for Cabin; the kind of pass that that didn’t easily go to, say, Ethel Waters (about whom, more later),“Rochester” Anderson or John “Bubbles” Sublett, whose song-and-dance recital of “Shine” is at once the movie’s most glaring anachronism and its most flamboyant affirmation of poise and skill.

 

 

 


Which in no way slights everyone else in the movie, though you wish Louis Armstrong got to do even a little bit more than set off a few elegant licks while wearing those ridiculous devil’s horns. You also wish you could see more of Duke Ellington’s orchestra at work beyond flashes of its suave, imperturbable leader. (That IS Johnny Hodges in the front with the alto, right?) But first-time director Vincente Minnelli was too caught up in the dancing and singing – and rightfully so. His own eye is so greedy and avid for movement and energy that you can almost feel him sitting next to you as you’re looking for the next big moment.

 

 


Almost all of which moments are owned by Waters. Donald Bogle has elsewhere noted how often contemporary audiences are drawn to screenings of Cabin by the promise of seeing the young, cat-like Horne, yet leave those screenings dazzled by Waters’ charisma. If younger moviegoers had easy access to Waters’ recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, they’d be better prepared for her vocal agility. (Critics and historians, not that anyone pays them any mind, argue with conviction that Waters’ chops as a singer were the equal of Armstrong’s – and that her influence on jazz singing was just as emphatic & far-reaching.)

 

 

 

 

 

But hardly anyone at any age is prepared for the moment when Waters’ Petunia, backsliding into “sin” to “save” Anderson’s Joe from the Devil’s clutches, sashays into a startlingly graceful jitterbug with Sublett’s Domino. One has read in books about both women of tension between Horne and Waters throughout Cabin’s shooting. (In her own memoir, His Eye is On the Sparrow, Waters doesn’t go into detail about the friction except to say that she “won every battle” and that her scrapes kept her away from the movies for another six years.) Whether Waters ended up dominating Cabin by fair or foul means, her triumph endures just as Dilsey, the character she played in her last film, 1959’s The Sound and the Fury, endured.

 

 


After the church screening was over, I asked the audience if there were still aspects of the movie that offended or seemed out-of-date. No one could think of any – and I honestly couldn’t come up with any that mattered. I do wish, in retrospect, that I’d asked them if it seemed as though the folks who were either in hell or engaging in “sinful” partying had a better time – and heard better music – than those who stayed close to Petunia’s righteous path. I decided against bringing that dilemma up in a Lenten discussion, though it now strikes me that there were folks willing to talk it over.

 

I did, however, bring up the closest present-day corollary to Cabin in the Sky’s blend of low comedy and Manichean melodrama: the films of Tyler Perry, especially those featuring Madea, Perry’s pious, pistol-packing alter-ego. Since I knew that all those assembled had seen more than one Perry movie more than once, I asked if there was any real difference between the depictions of black life in Cabin and those in, say, the recently released Madea Goes to Jail. They said there were none; a surprise to me since I expected them to mention the relative rawness of Perry’s depictions of single motherhood, class animus and teen pregnancy. Cabin’s dichotomy between Petunia’s milk-and-honey world view and the temptations of the flesh embodied by Horne’s duplicitous Georgia Brown seem like old school Disney by comparison. But in both cases, a simplistic (as opposed to simple) solution to mortal weakness and moral sloth is submitted to audiences for whom broad laughs and big emotions are the only justifications for entertainment.


Perry continues to astound the mainstream (white) world with the bushels of money he reaps for his movies. And his entrepreneurial moxie serves as a reminder that, unlike the 1940s (or the two decades subsequent to or preceding them), it’s possible for African American artists to have some control over how they’re depicted on screen, for better or worse. I still wonder whether future generations of black people will someday accuse his work of, at best, being too over-the-top or (so to speak) too black-and-white in their moralistic aims. I doubt it somehow. But of one thing I have no doubt: Madea, whatever her own martial skills or swaggering mojo, is no Ethel Waters.

Seymour Movies Thinks This Could Be The Last Time It Goes All Out on Oscar Predictions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve never believed there was a useful distinction to be made between “popcorn movies” and whatever’s meant by “prestige films.” Good movies are good movies and whatever’s left to talk about is marketing, nothing more.

And so, for that matter, is all this year’s pre-Oscar chatter about the decline in TV ratings for the awards ceremonies and the relative apathy among the public for movies considered “Oscar bait.” Do pundits and other assorted “observers” really think nominating Spider-Man: No Way Home for Best Picture is going to revive the Academy Awards’ profile among the masses? I don’t think so – and I happen to believe movies like Spider-Man should be nominated – as long as they’re good; just as I was pulling for Deadpool’s nomination (and for that matter, Leslie Uggams’) a few years back and wouldn’t have at all minded if Black Panther had won Best Picture over Green Book three years ago. It was, after all, the better movie in addition to being the bigger success.

Neither factor has ever really mattered when it comes to the Academy Awards. As I keep putting my blood pressure at risk to tell people who refuse to believe otherwise, the Oscars are trade awards voted and decided upon solely by those who work in the film industry. That means whatever gets nominated and rewarded depends on whatever mood prevails each year among a crowd of Hollywood working stiffs. And these mood swings are somehow immortalized (for at least three months or so) as the Best Movies of their particular year by cable news channels, slick magazines, and whatever’s left of the newspaper industry.

The social and economic upheavals of the last three years, especially the pandemic’s ongoing reverberations, are causing even legacy media institutions to wonder if this venerable charade is, at last, over and out. The celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Godfather’s release is a melancholy reminder of theatrical cinema’s once prominent place in American life and of how the old apparatus of making and hyping movies at all levels of society hasn’t existed since at least the second Clinton administration. Once again, I find myself asking, if we’re no longer sure what a movie is, then what the hell is an Oscar? And more to the point, what’s any of it worth?

I still don’t have an answer and I bet none of you do either. It’s one of those many 21st-century dilemmas for which an answer will surface on its own rather than materialize as a lightbulb over the head of an Instagram follower. For now, The Show in whatever form and however it’s packaged will go on as will the usual griping and grousing from those who don’t care and never have about Academy Awards. I’m no longer sure I care much either. But I’m here. Again. And many of you are or will be. I can hear you growling and snapping.


Once again, projected winners are in bold and, whenever applicable or appropriate, an FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) note will be added to each category.


Best Picture

Belfast
CODA
Don’t Look Back
Drive My Car
Dune
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
Nightmare Alley
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story

Even before cowpoke’s cowpoke Sam Elliot blurted his indelicate critique against Power of the Dog (and these days, Oscar Season just isn’t Oscar Season without some occasion for public outrage and virtue-signaling to keep the yahoos distracted), Jane Campion’s western was showing a slight drop from the front-runner status it seemed to nail down upon its premiere last fall. The first wave of acclaim, along with the initial flurry of critics’ awards and field-leading 12 Oscar nominations, was followed by an unusually quick and acerbic blowback. I’d expected Belfast to be the principal beneficiary of this shift in Power/Dog’s fortunes – and it still might be. But lately it’s CODA that’s been gathering a head of steam since it won a best-movie-ensemble award from the Screen Awards Guild (SAG).

Not that SAG’s record as a Best Picture harbinger can be counted on to float without sinking. Less than half of the last 26 winners of that award carried their luck over to Oscar’s big prize. And besides (trying not to spoil things here), CODA’s story of a working-class teenager choosing between fulfilling her destiny as a singer and helping her financially strapped deaf family fits snugly into how SAG’s members see their own careers and aspirations. You wonder if that story arc is likely to patch into other Oscar voting blocs. Heck, yeah, it is, especially if it makes everybody cry as they’re watching. At the time I’m writing this, it’s still Power of the Dog’s race to lose, and as one of my correspondents suggests, Sam Elliot’s “POS” tirade could end up gaining added sympathy for Campion and her movie. But recent history has me regretting every time I’ve underestimated the power of “feel good” movies.


FWIW: Here’s where I usually talk about what I liked best last year, Oscar-nominated or not. Mostly I am, and plan to remain, confounded and aggrieved over Passing, its two stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, and its first-time director Rebecca Hall getting skunked out of any nominations whatsoever. In the long run, it may be all for the best; movies that are bold and enigmatic in their own time often find greater acceptance in another time – and I still believe in time.
Speaking of boldness, I keep insisting that Nightmare Alley wasn’t a “remake” of a 1947 noir classic so much as a total reimagining as though 1945’s Detour (a far bleaker and grittier exemplar of “noir” movie than the original Nightmare) had a head-on collision with a Stephen King movie adaptation from the mid-to-late-1980s. It got a few Oscar bids in technical categories, but you’ll never see it win anything on live TV because of how they’re planning to telecast this year’s ceremonies.
The Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner revival of West Side Story deserved much better upon its theatrical release than it got from the public and from industry wise guys too quick or, maybe, too eager to stamp it as a disaster. These days, I’d say, the word “disaster” weighs too much to casually fling at a movie whose biggest mistake was having the bad luck to pile into movie houses during a pandemic. To me, there’s no greater portent for the inevitable fall of the multiplex than the turnaround in overall reaction to West Side Story 2.0 in the weeks since it dove into the streams, as it were.
I also have a qualified recommendation for The French Dispatch that reflects the latent generosity, or greater tolerance from my older, more indulgent self towards Wes Anderson’s intricate jewelry boxes. Or maybe it’s that I’ve lately found his knee-jerk critics more insufferable as time passes for their all-too predictable carping and jeering.


Best Director

Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Even if Power/Dog doesn’t get the Big One, it won’t keep its director from Getting Hers, as it were. It used to be an anomaly for Best Film and Best Director winners to diverge. It’s now happened often enough in recent years to be taken for granted. Campion still has lots of support for this one whatever Sam Elliot says. And, as I said earlier, he may even have unintentionally helped her stay in front of this pack.

FWIW: If I had a vote on this one, Spielberg would get it; if nothing else, just for withstanding all the catcalls he was getting, even as he was still trying to finish it against stiff odds. (e.g., “Why are you bothering? The first one was just fine!” Or: “Why are you bothering? This old warhorse is too creaky, an anachronism, etc.”) Branagh could also pick Campion’s pocket, but only if Belfast wins Best Picture.


Best Actor

 

 

 



Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Andrew Garfield, tick..tick…Boom!
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

As good as I am at intuiting such things, I still can’t tell for sure how much Hollywood still loves Will Smith, despite the hugs, kisses, and backslaps he got for winning the SAG prize a few weeks back for this same role. And yet I can’t imagine anybody else from this list taking the Oscar from him except possibly …Denzel, whom I’m sure Hollywood loves for still being able to open a movie on name recognition alone while always delivering nothing less than an A-level performance. His Macbeth isn’t his very best, but it’s good enough. Smith’s rendering of the Williams sisters’ volatile, complicated daddy, on the other hand, IS his very best. Not a slam dunk, maybe; Cumberbatch also lurks in the weeds. But taking everything into account, it’s close to a no-brainer.

Best Actress

 

 


Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Coleman, The Lost Daughter
Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Chastain’s SAG award vaulted her to the foreground of a not-terribly-strong-but-highly-competitive field. It’s a big, bravura performance, exactly the type that actors love to reward. And however effective, say, Kidman and Stewart (especially) were at embedding themselves in their real-life personas, it’s now Chastain’s to lose.


Best Supporting Actor

Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Another case where the SAG vote seems to have locked this one up. McPhee had the early lead, but with Plemons’ nomination for the same move came that hoary old saw about “splitting the vote,” which I never thought mattered much and won’t this time either. The veteran Hinds enjoys much affection and esteem among his peers and his turn as the grandfather in Belfast is lovely and touching. But Kotsur’s movie now has greater momentum and his is the far more compelling backstory.

FWIW: There was a moment early on when I thought Simmons had a fair shot of getting his second one of these and it had mostly to do with how even those who disliked Being the Ricardos were always happy to see his William Frawley appear on-screen.


Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ariana DuBose, West Side Story
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

Rita Moreno made me tear up when she soloed on “Somewhere” in West Side Story. I was sure that alone would have made inevitable another nomination, even another win 60 years after she copped this same award for playing Anita. Still, DuBose is getting unadulterated props – and prizes — for her fiery, effervescent, and deeply touching turn in the same role. She should have little-to-no trouble adding another trophy to the pile…

FWIW: …but if it were up to me, I’d ship this puppy posthaste to Aunjanue Ellis for all but stealing her movie out from under the Fresh Prince’s fabled jawline. Her character’s confrontation with a meddling neighbor was an aria of last-nerve enervation with Other People’s Bullshit. Love her, even if hardly any other forecaster seems to notice, or care.


Best Original Screenplay

Belfast
Don’t Look Up
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
The Worst Person in the World


Paul Thomas Anderson may be the most original and audacious living American filmmaker – which won’t necessarily help him win this one. You need to be in the mood for Licorice Pizza’s first-this-happens-then-this-happens-and-then-this-happens storytelling, which would be far more welcome to moviegoers in the 1970s when this story takes place. I was down with it because that decade was my most formative as a cineaste and it is probable there’s a majority of voters in this category who are likewise disposed. But I sense this one’s heading to Northern Ireland.


Best Adapted Screenplay

CODA
Drive My Car
Dune
The Lost Daughter
The Power of the Dog

This one’s wider open than it seems with all except, maybe, Dune carrying strong, if not overpowering cases on their behalf, and none as innovative as Kushner’s delicate, detailed upgrade of West Side Story‘s book, which was totally ignored. Even with CODA‘s late surge to the finish line, I’m thinking Power/Dog may have the edge. But not by a lot. 



Best International Feature

Drive My Car
Flee
The Hand of God
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
The Worst Person in the World

Drive My Car’s triumphant ride through last year’s festival circuit made this elegiac dissection of grief an early favorite in this category. But this is an especially strong field, with both the groundbreaking Flee and Worst Person in the World drawing homestretch buzz. The Ukraine invasion could be a rogue factor favoring Flee if not in this category, then in one of the other two where it’s contending. Even past winner Sorrentino’s Hand of God has a puncher’s chance. Keeping my finger here for now but prepared to move it at any time.


Best Documentary Feature

Ascension
Attica
Flee
Summer of Soul
Writing With Fire

I’ve had dismal luck forecasting this category in recent years and I’m not quite sure about this pick either. As in past years, the outcome of this contest depends on whether Hollywood votes its hopes or its fears. Both impulses are very much in play in the present tenseness. As much as I was transported as everybody else by Summer of Soul’s found objects, I’m going to presume that both innovation and urgency count for a lot with this crowd and believe this is where Flee collects its Oscar.

FWIW: Once again, the grizzled ex-newspaperman in me is rooting for the nominee that shines a light on journalism overcoming formidable odds in foreign lands. Last year it was Romania’s Collective; this year it’s India’s Writing With Fire. Next year, it’ll be some doughty, put-upon independent weekly near the Urals – or, more likely, Central Florida.

Best Animated Feature

 

 

 

 


Encanto
Flee
Luca
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon

Sony Animation’s rowdy, whip-smart sugar rush of a techno-satire is, in every sense, the wild card of this bunch. That it’s already won 25 awards from critics’ associations and other groups may come as a surprise to those who’ve watched only its first ten minutes or so on Netflix (where, BTW, you can still find it, even if it’s not always highlighted on the home page). It seems at the outset like such a typical example of formulaic dysfunctional-family slapstick that you’re almost shocked by how meta it gets without losing its edge, its warmth, or its run-amuck tempo. It’s by no means a sure thing, especially with not one, but two Disney entries and the aforementioned Flee as competition. But brains-and-heart, along with the much-beloved Olivia Coleman providing the voice of a megalomaniacal smart phone, seem to me a formidable combination of factors for victory.

FWIW: Unless I’m wrong and either Encanto or Luca end up in the winner’s circle after all.


Best Cinematography

Dune (Grieg Fraser)
Nightmare Alley (Dan Lautsen)
The Power of the Dog (Ari Wegner)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (Bruno Delbonnel)
West Side Story (Janusz Kaminski)

Once again, a good, strong field, all of them deserving. Because of that, I choose to go with my personal preference. Fraser may win it anyway. But this movie’s images keep crawling back into my head the way Dune’s do not.


Best Original Score

Don’t Look Up (Nicholas Ball)
Dune (Hans Zimmer)
Encanto (Germaine Franco)
Parallel Mothers (Alberto Iglesias)
The Power of the Dog (Jonny Greenwood)

Greenwood deserved this award in 2017 for Phantom Thread and he’d probably get his first win this year for his appropriately itchy and eccentric arrangements for Power/Dog if Zimmer, who’s only got one Oscar (The Lion King, 1994) to show for his 12 nominations, hadn’t done some of his finest work ever in laying down tracks, as it were, on Planet Arrakis.

FWIW: I’m going to assume, however, that the Encanto soundtrack’s prolonged stretch run on the pop charts isn’t lost on voters, many of whom likely have kids in the house who’ve played it to death on whatever platform or machine they have. Not that such factors have always tipped the scales; voters in this category like to think they’re above such matters. But nobody should be surprised if Encanto’s name is called. On any of these.




Best Song

“Be Alive” from King Richard
“Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto
“Down to Joy” from Belfast
“No Time to Die” from No Time to Die
“Somehow You Do” from Four Good Days

Does Billie Eilish beat Beyoncé? Do either of them expect to beat Disney? Or Van Morrison? (Well, yeah, because we’re all supposed to be ticked off at Van Morrison, right?) And what about Reba McEntire? Nobody knows from her movie anyhow. Maybe that’s why she’ll win. But I’m going with who’s hot right now and that would be…would be….could be…um…

Gene Seymour’s Ten Favorite Things in 2021

Going to live performances for most of the past year was pretty much out of the question for me (with one notable exception cited down below). And there were so many reasons for this that relatively few of them had to do with the pandemic. (Here, for example, was a big one.) As for the brave not-so-new-anymore world of streams and clouds, one wasn’t always sure where one wanted to dump several hours of one’s life into binge-watching. Most evenings found me staring at the available options, all but completely immobilized by the sheer mass of “content” to the point where I frequently found myself saying, “The hell with all this noise!” and go to sports or Turner Classic Movies – or both. Or neither.

So given the myriad, metric tons of possibilities for my favorite things. of 2021, it’s possible that there may be things I’ve neglected, passed by, haven’t caught up with or entirely forgotten about. It may say something about the sheer glut of “content” that my top pick was a 2020 release, but it took me most of this year’s first half to absorb its content, and even longer to assess its impact. It’s still Up On Top, so to speak, because it’s too important to ignore – even if much of the culture, popular or otherwise, pretty much has:

 

 

 

 

 

 




Turn Me Loose, White Man – Now that “critical race theory” has affected state and local elections, driven school boards up a wall and perplexed a mass media that doesn’t quite grasp the concept (or know exactly what it means), it may be time to consider the possibility that we’re all going about this “racial dialogue” thing the wrong way. Mostly we need to stop worrying about making Black and White people “feel better” about being what they are. “Feelings,” after all, are what got us all into this mess in the first place. Somebody needs to break the news, however gently, that none of us is as “Black” or as “White” as we think we are, thanks in large part to an ongoing cultural transaction that began centuries ago with music created by African slaves, propagated by their descendants, absorbed and, yes, appropriated by Whites only to be reinvigorated and even reinvented into new forms by pink and brown alike.
Fellow Americans and worthy constituents, it’s in all our DNA, whether we like it or not. We’re all different, and always the same.
Few people this side of Ralph Ellison’s ghost care to even consider such concepts, booby-trapped as they are with anachronisms, racial slurs, ribald and sacred outbursts swarming and popping on scratchy old 78-RPM records, archaeologic souvenirs of an earlier, exceedingly weirder America.
But Allen Lowe, saxophonist, composer, historian, educator, and cultural gadfly, has long believed that if you gathered as much aural arcana as can be assembled, you could approach something resembling a unified field theory about what makes up the American soul in all its contradictory restlessness and conflicting exuberance.

 

 

 


It takes 30 compact discs with almost 900 songs and two volumes of hypertext for Lowe to fashion Turn Me Loose, White Man, a survey of the national sound in all its permutations, blues, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, burlesque, C&W, R&B, rock and rockabilly in so many mutant and mongrelized strains that “genre” loses all meaning. As, Lowe implies, it probably should.
Lowe’s archival efforts have been compared in range to those of such intrepid pioneers as Alan Lomax, Paul Oliver, and Harry Smith. But there are far more idiosyncratic and illuminating patterns Lowe draws from and, in some cases, imposes upon his discoveries. You’ll probably need to follow along, as much as possible, with Lowe’s written text (pure pleasure on its own) to gauge how and why on the first volume he chose to follow, say, the great Black vaudeville comedian Bert Williams’ 1906 recording of his deathless “Nobody” with the more obscure May Irwin’s whimsical 1907 sliver of minstrelsy, “If You Aint Got No Money, You Needn’t Come Around.” Note the use of dialect in the title’s first clause and the grammatical precision of the second. Such tensions are played out in big and small ways throughout this cosmic juke box whose selections cover the 20th century’s first sixty years.
From the shuck-&-jive of Irwin’s “coon song” (defined by Lowe as “that odd phenomenon of progressive melody and harmony, advanced white singing, significant black co-optation and racist bait”) through the 1920s emergence of Black blues queens Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and a panoply of artists from the widely celebrated (Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Leadbelly, Count Basie, Bill Monroe, Bing Crosby, Kitty Wells, Charlie Parker, Roy Rogers, Little Richard) to just-below-the-radar legends (Geeshie Wiley, Babs Gonzales, Blue Ridge Quartet, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Yancey, Riley Puckett) and many more obscure or little-remembered artists whose contributions glow like searchlights struggling to be seen through twilight mists.

 

 

 

 


The zillions of epiphanies and discoveries along the way are too numerous to adequately summarize. The best I can do for now is to mention the shock of hearing the original bust-out 1911 recording of Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days,” composed by Black songwriter Shelton Brooks and thus an early example of appropriation; but one whose impact was galvanic enough to give safe passage to Turner’s stardom well past the 1960s. Another shock: the spare, haunting 1941 recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” by the ill-fated blues singer Lil Green that Peggy Lee credited with influencing her own hit version the following year. And on and on…

Whether things should have turned out this way (and artists like Lee are the ones least deserving of blame) shouldn’t be a matter of concern to contemporary listeners anxious to throw as many red “racism” flags at the past as can be flung. (You’re better off blaming the Southern segregationist bloc in Congress for ruining what could have been a nice party for all.) The main point, as Lowe continually asserts, is that such push-pull dynamics, this braiding of cultures on record, as it were, didn’t validate or encourage racial separation. It was very much the opposite, even when the lyrics were far from conciliatory or respectful to Black people earlier in the century.


Lowe’s magnificent treatise comes to us as a gift we’ve needed for a long time, though this era being whatever it is, I don’t know whether the skittish, hopelessly judgmental masses who now dominate social media are prepared to deal with its sheer weight or its propensity for nuance, irony, wit, and surprise. For the moment, I choose to be optimistic enough to speculate that when these masses are ready for Turn Me Loose, White Man, it’ll still be around somewhere to both explain and evoke a world where the Light Crust Doughboys are as “ivey-divey” as the Sun Ra Arkestra.

 


The rest, as usual, are in no particular order:

 

 

 



Rita Moreno – You know how you have those people in your life or in your personal pantheon of whom you always say, “If you don’t like —-, then I don’t want to know you”? Well, Rita Moreno has for most of my life been at or near the top of that list for me and it was as much for what she did when she was Being Herself on talk shows and interviews as for when she exploded on-screen in the original 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story and collected her supporting-actress Oscar the following year. As most of the known universe knows by now, she’s also in the Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner version and not a few people believe she can win the same Oscar sixty years after she got her last one. It may not matter much either way as she’s practically a charter member of the EGOT sisterhood. What does matter is that this year, at a supernaturally energetic 90 years old, Moreno has been given her proper due and then some; not just with the new West Side Story (of which she is also a producer), but this past year’s release of Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a PBS documentary about Moreno that gained viewership when it streamed on Netflix. She made being Rita Moreno look easier and much more fun than it likely was, especially when struggling through her dispiriting and (especially) demeaning early years as a studio ingenue. From those experiences, she developed superior emotional intelligence and fervent empathy towards all who struggled as she did. At about the five-minute mark of this interview clip, she talks about how when working as a series regular, she would go out of her way to make guest actors feel more welcome in unfamiliar, and in some cases, less hospitable surroundings. It’s not in the documentary, but it’s yet another reason, as if any more were needed, to cherish her forever.

 

 

 

 



The Beatles: Get Back – As Samuel Johnson didn’t say, but would have, whosoever gets bored from watching four active imaginations pooling their resources to make music in a studio is bored with life. Eight hours of footage didn’t seem an exceptionally long time to get embedded in a handful of hard day’s nights in the studio. Much as they may have wanted to get back, so to speak, to live concerts, their basic instincts turned out right: they were better together in a studio than they would have been on stage in their latter days as a group. (The guess here is that if they’d stayed on the road any longer than they did, one or more of them would have gotten physically, seriously hurt as the decade they helped create began curdling like cream left open too long on the patio.) Even with all the tiffs, tantrums, and tensions sharing the room with them, the guys were in their safe space, as capable of mutually assured generosity (still loving the sequence where George is helping Ringo erect a bridge for the latter’s “Octopus’s Garden.”) as of sticking tiny needles into each other’s self-esteem. All of which happens when you’re just “hanging out” and this may well be for all time the sine qua non of cinematic “hangs.” The sainted Cassavetes couldn’t have pulled it off if he’d staged everything in advance: he could never have drawn up those two “what’s-all-this-then?” constables trying in vain to get the lads to shut down their rooftop concert. Questions for further study: Can we be sure Phil Spector didn’t put the old lady up to calling the cops? And where, in all this footage, was Phil Spector anyway?

 

 

 

 



Passing – With episodic television now firmly in the center of popular storytelling, it’s perhaps inevitable that some of the year’s most critically-lauded feature films tended to leave more of their narrative details to the imagination, much as producers, directors and writers tried to do in the mid-20th century as commercial television squeezed movie houses into tight corners. Jane Campion’s award-winning western noir The Power of the Dog was a revelation to many for its calculated ambiguity. I preferred Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut if only for the daring aesthetic and personal choices she made in adapting a Harlem Renaissance classic and thus proving (a.) that Nella Larson has earned serious reconsideration as a major American novelist and (b.) judging from some of the reactions to the movie, there remain some things about skin color we feel uneasy about.

 

 

 

 

 



Samantha Fish – So let me tell you how this happened: I was wandering around YouTube this past summer in search of vintage fifties black-and-white videos of the great country-rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson to show a friend of mine what she’d been missing. In the process, whatever algorithm mediates such things kicked up more recent live performances from a guitarist/vocalist I’d never heard before.  Among the many things that led me from the Telluride thing was this solo recital above for New Orleans’ fabled WWOZ from a year ago when things were too locked down for live audiences.

Damn! I said to myself. Where’d she come from? I then asked myself.

 

 

 

 

Born 33 years ago this coming January in Kansas City, Fish’s been performing kickass blues, soul, and country rock for more than a decade and has recorded seven albums under her name, the latest of which, Faster, came out this past September on the Rounder label. She plays several different types of guitar at several different speeds and may well be the master of the amplified cigar-box. With composure and conviction, she can belt, purr, growl, and shout like a grizzled juke-joint veteran, a swampland Marilyn Monroe with a surfeit of sang-froid. She’s always on the move from one medium-cool venue to another, her smitten fans following her trail and hanging on her every well-wrought lick and riff. By autumn, I was so enamored that when I found out her tour would land at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer on my birthday night, I gave her concert as a present from me to me as the first live music show I’d attended since lockdown. I keep wondering why this woman isn’t ruling the world. One answer, the best I can come up with for now, is that the world as it is now constituted would need to be at once older and newer to deserve her reign. As things stand now, she already travels the world, finds love wherever she goes, and, as The Fugs would say, is doing all right.

 

 

 




Tear Across the Dotted Line – In a time like ours where narcissism and its toffee-nosed sibling solipsism rule the populace regardless of ideology, anything that chips away at what legendary basketball coach Pat Riley famously labeled “the Disease of Me” is worth your time. I’m certainly glad for the time I spent absorbing this six-episode animated series by the Italo-Franco cartoonist Zerocalcare, who also voices (in the Italian-language version) his cartoon alter-ego Zero, a snarky, self-absorbed, and self-sabotaging professional illustrator whose personality is best expressed by the giant orange armadillo who hangs around as his sardonic Jiminy Cricket: “You’re a black belt at dodging life.” Exhibit A for the armadillo’s diagnosis is Zero’s fraught, constricted relationship with Alice, a shy, enigmatic young woman with whose feelings Zero plays an exasperating game of keep-away, until tragedy forces him to confront his own mangier inhibitions. On this description alone, you may be inclined to take a hard pass. But there is genuine charm, wit, and ingenuity in execution, and it wins your heart, fairly and honestly, at the end, even if you’re left feeling that Zero would still be more annoying without the armadillo tagging along.

 

 

 

 

 



The Love Song of W.E.B. DuBois – “We are the earth, the land. The tongue that speaks and trips on the names of the dead as it dares to tell the story of a woman’s line. Her people and her dirt. Her trees and her water.” If you’re going to try writing a “great American novel,” you better come at it with a killer lead, especially if what follows is almost 800 pages long. Award-winning poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers fulfills this first obligation in her first novel, an audacious, dense-star potpourri of bildungsroman, multi-generational history, socio-political inquiry and, as the title implies, love story. The coming-of-age story belongs to Ailey Pearl Garfield, habitually impertinent, intensely probing, and passionately engaged in the pursuit of her family background with all its upheavals, hardships, duplicities, and hard-won victories. For those who wonder if going so long and deep is worth the trouble, I yield the floor to culture critic Davin Seay who in 1982’s The Catalog of Cool posed the rhetorical question, “Ask yourself…you looking for something to do while the coffee cools or do you want to read a book?”

 

 

 



Lashana Lynch, Ana De Armas & Lea SeydouxNo Time to Die took its sweet time getting its business done, making Daniel Craig’s long goodbye to the James Bond franchise seem even longer than necessary. Still, the movie’s generosity of spirit towards its cast and its audience compensated for any number of longueurs and Craig’s comfort level with the 007 persona was never more evident, or more disarming, than it was on his way out. What also helped was a dazzling trio of what would have once been branded “Bond girls” for convenience’s sake, though somehow, they each seem emblematic of Things to Come rather than What Once Was. We’ll start with Lynch as Agent Nomi of MI-6, who in the wake of Bond’s resignation from the secret service, was granted “license to kill” status and made the most of it with a skill set formidable enough to get her out of any jam the franchise could conceive. Seydoux, reprising her role from SPECTRE as Bond’s enigmatic love interest Madeleine Swann, got to show additional bad-assery in an unexpected place beyond Bond: as the truculent prison guard who doubles as an artist’s nude model in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Last, and by no means least is Armas, who made perhaps the biggest splash with critics and audiences as Paloma, the callow, but poised CIA agent, whose one action set piece with Craig’s Bond showed she could take command of the screen on her own. When Armas’s Paloma split for Parts Unknown, you felt she’d taken much of the movie’s vitality with her. It’s been whispered that Paloma will be given her own movie as will Lynch’s Nomi. It’d be OK with me and I suspect millions of others if they paired up somehow, if the world could withstand so much magnetism from the same place.

 

 

 



The Underground RailroadI’ve had my say and then some about Barry Jenkins’s masterly, unsparingly corrosive adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s antebellum magical-realist picaresque. The only thing I can add is that I still believe there’s been nothing like it on television before. If it weren’t so tough to watch the first time, I might be able to say for sure after a return viewing. And I don’t know if those faint whispers about a second season are or should be for real. It’d be intriguing to see Jenkins, or somebody else, try.

 

 

 


Succession – For those who haven’t watched the third season, or for that matter, its two predecessors (and what are you all waiting for anyway?), I’ll try hard not to spoil anything for you by being of no real help whatsoever. Moving stuff around without changing anything about their miserable selves: that’s what being a member of the Roy family is all about, beginning with Mister “Fuck Off “himself, his satanic majesty Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Part of the reason Season 3 reached a new peak in dialogue was its many cogent deployments of the f-word as verb, adjective, noun, and adverb. beginning with what retains pole position as Snap of the Decade: not-as-smart-as-she-thinks sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) telling her not-as-hep-to-the-jive-as-he-thinks-younger bro Roman (Kieran Culkin): “Oh, you love showing your pee-pee to everybody, but sooner or later, you’re actually going to have to fuck something!” Then there’s Shiv’s not-as-pliant-as-he-seems husband Tom (Matthew Macfayden) telling nowhere-near-as-cool-as he-thinks renegade son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) why he can’t join the latter’s uprising against Big Daddy: “I don’t mean to be insulting, but having been around a bit, my hunch is you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot. And I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.” In the end, there’s Logan (and, as Tom says, this shouldn’t be a spoiler to those of us who’ve “been around” these jackals since 2018) proclaiming “I! Fucking! Win!” closely followed by Shiv’s doleful last words till next season, “Mom fucked us.” That’s more than enough fucking “fucks” for you to begin piecing together where things go from here. And you can count on so much more — and potentially worse — fuckery to come.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2021

 

 

I’m not altogether sure what it says about this year – or, rather, my year – in jazz that for the first time since I started putting these things together, a single artist dominates my annual list as William Parker does this one. It’s not as though he’s an overnight sensation; he’s been a redoubtable and influential fixture on the progressive jazz scene since the 1970s when the music’s cutting edge could be found working through its experiments in big-city lofts. But his impulse to outwork, out-produce and out-gig his peers both within and outside the (so-called) avant-garde has been especially apparent this year, not just with the significance of the ten-disc omnibus that leads the list (see below), but in the appearance during the past 12 months of at least six albums bearing his name, including three that are also on the list. (5, 6 and 10) It helps that Parker is something of a polymath: a grandmaster of the upright bass with a formidable body-of-work as a composer along with an ability to express himself on many other instruments and an accomplished, if relatively unsung poet. From reading Cisco Bradley’s Universal Tonality: The Life and Work of William Parker (Duke University Press), also published this year, one gets the impression that irrepressible curiosity and a multiplicity of interests are among the things that drive Parker forward. I’m sort of thinking that most of us who have struggled throughout 2021 to recuperate in various ways from 2020 while still feeling wary and uneasy about what’s happening now and whatever’s ahead could profit from the example set by somebody like William Parker, who at 70 has cultivated and honed his craft to a glistening edge while retaining an active abhorrence of injustice, a profound sense of cultural history and a steadfast, self-effacing core of spiritual equilibrium.

Most of the other artists on this year’s list have in different ways released albums that convey those same values. Some are declarative in expression, others more contemplative. They engage the prevailing disquiet, not (necessarily) in anger, but with a determination to face turbulence and dread with clarity and understanding. (I almost said “correctness.” I refuse to say “woke.” Never mind why.)

Also: if you’d somehow found my 20-something self under siege in the seventies and told me that more than a half-century later, albums headlined by both Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp would be included among my personal top-ten list, I’d have said you were either daft or irrationally optimistic. Their octogenarian triumphs make me wonder whether, “irrational optimism” is a legitimate and necessary response to whatever’s now threatening us all, whether from nature or from humans. It may well be that both Sanders and Shepp persist because they’re both still somehow necessary to fight the power in their different ways. Feel free to suggest that in another few decades, four of Wynton Marsalis’ albums will find their way to the upper half of such lists, assuming we’ll still have albums, or lists, or…

No. Let’s not go to there. We’re going to try “irrational optimism” for a while longer. At least, I am.

 





1.) The Music of William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, Volumes 1-10 (AUM) – On its own, this imposing gallery-without-walls is a Top-10 list. And not just for jazz, but also for world music, art songs, soundscapes and “spoken poetry.” Think of it also as a ginormous prism that, when held to natural light, emits wildly varying arrays of color and echo. The first volume, “Blue Limelight,” sets the table for its successors as Parker’s musical autobiography suffused with childhood memories and dreams (“Cosmic Funk,” “A Great Day to Be Dead”) and reminiscences of such colleagues as Cecil Taylor and lesser-know-but-still-legendary Hoboken trumpeter Bennie Bishop. The remaining volumes comprise a portable universe of possibility – and of orchestration: a whole disc of solo piano pieces played by Eri Yamamoto taking off from some of the composer’s personal iconography (Malachi Favors, Malcolm X) and his abiding engagement with Native American history and culture; another volume, “Cheops,” whose title track is named after an Egyptian pyramid, places in its foreground the startling range and pyrotechnics of vocalist Kyoko Kitamura with Parker not only playing bass, but also a bass dudek (an ancient Armenian double-reed instrument) and fujara (a “fipple flute,” tall enough to stare down a bassoon). The composer provides plenty of space for voices to lay out, notably on a volume where Lisa Sokolov does a stunning a capella recital of Parker’s “Afternoon Poem.” Parker throughout is less of a presence on bass than he is on other such exotic instruments whose deployment emerges in all manner of settings whether they are reveries of Harlem, Mexico or the films of Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, and other Italian filmmakers (“Lights in the Rain.”) To find the best encapsulation of this ambitious collection, you need to go all the way back to the first volume’s third track, “I’d Rather Be” in which this titan of what is still regarded as jazz’s “avant-garde” has a character from one his “tone poems” declare that she “would rather be a human being than be avant-garde [because] the most avant-garde thing you can be is a human being.”


 

 



2.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet with Wynton Marsalis,The Democracy! Suite (Blue Engine) – The leanest, tightest, toughest-minded music released under Wynton Marsalis’ name in decades made its public debut in the Appel Room of J@LC’s Frederick C. Rose Hall in September 2020, just about the time when the shattering events of that year were propelling the nation towards its Election Day rendezvous with destiny. There was no live audience because of the COVID-19 lockdown. But there’s urgency, momentum and focus merging together in Marsalis’ eight-part composition in ways not often encountered in his previous work. The first track, “Be Present,” is as declamatory as its title, throwing punches at the prevailing chaos without flailing. Once this group has your attention, it keeps up the pace with “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matter),” a piquant rouser upon which Marsalis’ old boss Art Blakey would have pounced with polychordal brio. Of the ensemble’s soloists, J@LC mainstay Walter Blanding makes his tenor sax growl deep and dissonant on this track, in case there’s any doubt that Marsalis and his men are out to kick Trumpism in the teeth. But it’s not all grievance and exasperation. Things perk up with “Ballot Box Bounce” anchored by reed master Ted Nash’s breezy rendering on flute of Marsalis’ witty melody and “That Dance We Do (That You Love),” with Blanding, Nash, trombonist Elliot Mason, pianist Dan Nimmer, drummer Obed Calvaire, and bassist Carlos Henriquez helping their leader here and elsewhere make his most emphatic case yet for jazz being the consummate expression of, and metaphor for the democratic process: individual freedom flourishing within the collective imperative. And if the resilience of that paradox isn’t clear to all, or even some, Marsalis composes a movement for that, too: “It Come ‘Round ‘Gin.” As everything, good, bad, and indifferent, always does in America.

 

 

 

 

 


3.) Veronica Swift, This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue)— For Swift, the classic pop song repertoire is more than an arena for her fearsome vocal agility. It is also a mode of interrogation, an agency of dissent. Think of how her sister Millennial phenom Cecile McLorin Salvant assembled a concept album of standards, 2015’s For One to Love, illuminating the often-casually toxic quirks of the male gaze. The title track of Swift’s latest album, which until now seemed the sole property of Dinah Washington, signals thoughtful and passionate engagement with the anxious present. She applies shading and intensity to the Clyde Otis dirge, which at once contains its majesty while maximizing its power. It’s an exquisite balancing act that sets the table for the creative and virtuosic renditions of stage musical standards and such Brill Building oddities as “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s disquieting dissection of abusive love, which she sings to the stark accompaniment of Armand Hirsch’s guitar. She carries this inquiry into questionable behavior between the sexes to such grand old war horses as “As Long as He Needs Me” from “Oliver!” and “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” whose effervescent interpretation barely conceals the gimlet-eyed contempt for its implicit sexism. She trains her sights on racism with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which is immediately, but no less trenchantly (or imaginatively) countered with that same duo’s “Getting To Know You.” Her range of concerns is as deep and wide as her vocal resources, taking in Bob Dorough’s bopping “You’re the Dangerous Type” and Dave Frishberg’s “The Sports Page,” cheekily summing up why so many of us seek refuge in scores and highlights from the exasperations of whatever “hard news” delivers. The present spreads all over This Bitter Earth. But Swift’s mesmerizing chops remain Beautiful and True in any time frame.

 

 

 

 

 



4.) Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises (Luaka Bop) – OK. John Coltrane’s Ascension, right? Pharoah Sanders was one of the eleven musicians who played on that landmark 1965 album that drew a line in the sand between those who were totally onboard for the Free Jazz rocket flight and those who wanted no part of it. After a six-decade career which he began as an avatar for “outside” saxophone inventions, Sanders, now 81, aligned himself with British electronic music artisan Sam Shepherd, alias Floating Points, who composed a nine-part suite he and Sanders recorded with the LSO not long before everything locked down. So, what does the tempestuous Ascension, which I’ve routinely characterized (in a good way) as a “sonic maelstrom” or a “polyphonic orchestrated abstraction” have in common with a sequence of suggestive, near-pastoral impressions? (A glibly convenient, if not terribly useful shorthand description might be, “trance music with soul.”) For one thing, both works take off from a simple progression of notes that become an ongoing riff: Ascension takes off from five while Promises sets sail from seven. Each work also wears its own brand of inscrutability, daring you to poke around its layers, resisting any effort towards “understanding” what makes each of them tick. With Promises, there are tensions winnowing throughout between space and time, declaration and insinuation, abandonment and resolve. Sanders’ voice, downier, warmer, but every bit as probing and incantatory as it was when he was in his mid-twenties, is what carries you along the contours laid out by Shepherd’s keyboards and the LSO’s strings. (At various points, you hear the saxophonist’s gentle singing voice seeping into the mixture with his own non-verbal lyrics.) On the whole, the album delivers nowhere near the same kind of intensity associated with Ascension. It is a far subtler, more enchanting, and comparably provocative experience that coerces repeated listening in search of more secrets, not resolutions necessarily, just more secrets.

 

 

 


5.) William Parker, Painter’s Winter (AUM)

 

 

 



6.) William Parker, Mayan Space Station (AUM) – Two very different trios make the case for Parker’s mastery of both his principal instrument and of guiding small bands of any size towards expansive and productive interplay. With electric guitarist Ava Mendoza setting off harmonic firestorms propelled by the equally combustible drummer Gerald Cleaver, Mayan Space Station is redolent of the riveting mosaics of amplified sound forged in trios led by the late Sonny Sharrock. Parker’s bass playing does as much breakaway running as his two partners, though most of the time he’s content to drive this vehicle forward and let their younger people go off. The acoustic trio on Painter’s Window that includes multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake seems a lot more composed. But their collaboration is just as intense and deeply committed with Carter’s solos on trumpet, saxophones and flute unfurling intricate patterns as Drake’s percussive momentum shifty enough to keep up with the indefatigable bassist. Besides Parker, the only quality these two discs share is narrative drive that’s both refined and rugged.

 

 

 

 



7.) Kimbrough (Newvelle) – Frank Kimbrough died just before last New Year’s Eve at 64, setting off a still-resounding wave of shock and grief from generations of jazz musicians who played with or studied under him. Among these artists, Kimbrough was beloved as a “pianist’s pianist,” a droll and ubiquitous presence on the New York City scene, an archivist tending diligently to the legacies of Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk, a crucial member of the critically acclaimed Maria Schneider Orchestra, a devoted teacher who mentored aspiring musicians at NYU and Julliard, and a gifted, uncompromising, and prolific composer. It is mostly to that latter aspect of Kimbrough’s life and work that this extensive, ambitious tribute album was recorded almost six months after his death. There are 61 tracks featuring 67musicians in 55 different combinations. Any random sample of the players involved – Ben Allison, Fred Hersch, Michael Blake, Dave Douglas, Craig Taborn, Joe Lovano, Matt Wilson, Helen Sung, Noah Preminger, among many others – is enough to suggest the breadth and depth of Kimbrough’s influence on his peers and ex-pupils alike. The compositions they play, sometimes on one take and in different versions (“Reluctance” is rendered in solo and quartet form) offer so many revelations as to suggest decades to come of workshops, repertory orchestrations and ensemble performances of Kimbrough’s mostly unsung work spreading out to concert halls and colleges here and abroad. In the immediate aftermath of Kimbrough’s passing, one of his heartbroken friends wondered whether it marked the end of an era or the beginning of a new one. This album’s release reinforces my belief that it’s more the latter. I’m sure Frank would agree.

 

 

 

 



8.) Archie Shepp & Jason Moran, Let My People Go (Archieball) – There was always something of the old-time spiritual revivalist in Shepp, even as far back as the mid-1960s when he emerged as one of the more stridently political of the emerging tenor saxophonists inspired and nurtured by John Coltrane. At 83, Shepp doesn’t let his phrasings wail with the sustained force he exerted on such classics as 1966s Mama Too Tight, 1972’s Attica Blues or (my all-time favorite) 1975’s A Sea of Faces. His mature style relies more on space and timing, the vocalizing more contained, but no less intense. In this collaboration with the mighty, simpatico pianist Jason Moran, Shepp sings with and without the tenor or (mostly) soprano sax with a depth of feeling that releases itself in bursts, especially in the “sorrow songs” such as “Go Down, Moses” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Shepp’s stark, weathered vocals allow you to hear each line and word with a deeper sense of desolation and yearning on these spirituals and Moran’s own spare and impeccably timed comping provides an elegant frame for Shepp’s arias. On the other tracks, Shepp and Moran are more conversational, their measured, lively exchange of themes and ideas inspiring fresh ways of engaging such familiar standards as Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Coltrane’s “Wise One,” Shepp’s own “Ujamaa,” and, in an especially multi-layered rendering, Moran’s own “He Cares.” Shepp’s patented blurts, bleats and squawks flare up over the cushions of chords Moran sets loose or holds back whenever the occasion demands. It often sounds as though both are collaborating on separate dramas with their synchronistical dialogue weaving seamlessly into place. One remembers that back in those 1960s, Shepp was, among other things, a playwright.

 

 

 

 

 

 


9.) Julian Lage, Squint (Blue Note) – Anyone whose curriculum vitae includes gigs with Nels Cline, Charles Lloyd, John Zorn, Bela Fleck, Gary Burton, David Grisman and Yoko Ono should have your attention from the jump. And Lage (pronounced “lahzh,” as in “lozenge”) goes all out on his first release with the fabled Blue Note label to show he can do anything and everything he wants to with a guitar, whether it’s a neoclassical a cappella solo (“Etude”), straight-ahead swing (“Boo Blues,” the title track), classic covers (Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” Gene Autry’s “Call of the Canyon”), country-rock (“Day and Age,” “Twilight Surfer”). Clearly Lage knows more than a little about a lot of different genres. But he makes his best impression as a player not by leading with his learning or virtuosity, but by gently asserting and maneuvering his own sensibility into each piece. It helps to have a rhythm section of bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King as smart and attentive to his needs as any great piano trio. Indeed, Lage’s trio has drawn comparisons to Bill Evans’ deathless 1961 Village Vanguard threesome both for the seamless interaction between the principals and the insinuating lyricism. Other influences raise their hands for attention in Lage’s style from Chet Atkins to Pat Martino. But Lage, who first gained notice as an eight-year-old prodigy, is still just getting started and with greater name recognition an all-but-inevitable result from Squint , one gets a little tingly over what he’ll be able to do with even broader resources available to him.

 

 

 

 

10.) William Parker & Matthew Shipp, Re-Union 2021 (Rogue Art) – Though Parker and Shipp have worked together on several projects with larger groups, this Re-Union marks only the third time they’ve played together as a duo. Their respective personalities blend so well together that it’s surprising they haven’t “re-unioned” more often. As with most friends’ conversations, one of them starts out with something small: a thread, a fragment, a half-baked suggestion, the punch line of a joke neither knows about (yet), any of which could make the other either carry the thought towards a tentative conclusion or veer off into another topic entirely. Which is how I’d best characterize the 22-minute title track that kicks things off. If you’re able to keep up with the exchange, you can start taking measure of the two personalities and how they are or aren’t alike. Shipp’s eccentric, enigmatic combinations of chord clusters follow their own logic while Parker’s austere, but fluid bass lines follow him along when they’re not shoving him in an altogether different direction. Neither seems particularly worried about whether the other lands, though the unwary listener should always be alert for shifts in direction, temperament, maybe an impromptu lull in their transaction before picking up the previous thread or finding a new one. They’re both free spirits in different ways – but not so free-spirited that they forget you’re listening. So be ready when Parker decides to pick up his bow to assert himself more or Shipp re-doubles his efforts to deepen his attack. Think of it as just another afternoon of eavesdropping at the coffee house when voices are raised without warning, but nobody’s mad at anybody.
In this spirit, we leave the last words to both these gentlemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



HONORABLE MENTION: Kenny Garrett, Sounds from the Ancestors (Mack Avenue); Vijay Iyer, Uneasy (ECM); Henry Threadgill Zooid, Poof (PI); Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trios, Songs from My Father (Whaling City Sound); Bill Charlap Trio, Street of Dreams (Blue Note) Artifacts (Tomeka Reid, Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed)…and then there’s this (Astral Spirits)

 

 

 

 

REISSUE OR HISTORICAL RELEASE: 1.) Hasaan Ibn Ali, Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album (Omnivore) 2.) Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller, In Harmony (Resonance) 3.) Hasaan Ibn Ali, Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings (Omnivore)

 

 

 

 


LATIN: Eliane Elias, Chick Corea & Chucho Valdes, Mirror, Mirror (Candid)

VOCAL: Swift, This Bitter Earth
HONORABLE MENTION: Mary LaRose, Out There (Little Music)

 

 

 


DEBUT: Patricia Brennan, Maquishti (Valley of Search)

Winners and Losers in the Race for the Future

November 3, 2021

 

 



Reading J.W. McCormack’s overview in the latest Baffler magazine of Donald Barthelme’s life and work while watching the sixth and final game of this year’s World Series added a thin, but pliable layer of poignancy to a bittersweet evening. I had by then finally decided after days of back-and-forth that I wanted the Astros, Don B’s hometown team, to at least take the Braves to a seventh game, if not (necessarily) Win It All. Part of it was about redemption for the Space Cowboys’ dismal and now apparently embedded reputation for cheating their way to a 2017 championship.

 

 



Mostly I was rooting hard for their manager Dusty Baker, who at 72 may be past hope of smelling the metaphoric roses but will likely be remembered as the kind of manager who took unruly, star-crossed and/or degraded franchises and got them to stand upright enough to move forthrightly towards Ultimate Victory. He likewise fell short with the Giants, Cubs and Nationals, all of whom would, in time, reach the promised land without him. While I wasn’t altogether sorry to see the Braves bathing in champagne (paternal family ties to the state of Georgia, plus which they ended up being my late mother’s favorite baseball team) their triumph left a taste of melancholy; an altogether suitable context when reading about Barthelme’s Houston roots, since as his old pal Thomas Pynchon once wrote of him, melancholy was at the core of Don B’s exotic, eccentric body-of-work. Quoth Tom P:

“As any Elizabethan could tell you if they all weren’t dead, melancholy is a far richer and more complex ailment than simple depression. There is a generous amplitude of possibility, chances for productive behavior, even what may be identified as a sense of humor. Barthelme’s was a specifically urban melancholy, related to that look of immunity to joy or even surprise seen in the faces of cab drivers, bartenders, street dealers, city editors, a wearily taken vow to persist beneath the burdens of the day and the terrors of the night. Humor in these conditions leans toward the anti-transcendent — like jail humor and military and rodeo humor, it finds high amusement in failure and loss, and it celebrates survival one day, one disaster, to the next.”

Put another way, it’s the kind of melancholy that accommodates conflicted emotions, whether they come through winning while losing, loving while hating, or resisting while enduring: a natural progression (a musical analogy that Barthelme the jazz hound would appreciate) to the off-off-year election results that yielded a Democratic loss of the Virginia gubernatorial election and an apparent stand-off in the New Jersey gubernatorial race. I knew last night that it was a mistake to switch from the Series’ postgame festivities to CNN for the latest vote tallies, further eroding my mood and devastating prospects for a good night’s sleep. What depressed me weren’t the results so much as the exasperating inevitability of “post-game assessments” by the punditocracy: “Uh-oh. Looks like BIIIIG trouble for President Biden, Nancy!” “How right you are, Cliff! This is clearly a referendum on the administration and the early returns look pretty bad for Biden and the Democrats!” “Yes, they should take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s winning formula and reach out to the disaffected white middle-and-lower-middle classes and blather-cliché-platitude-placate-pander-pander-pander …”



Nobody asked me, but (thanks once again, Jimmy Cannon) I don’t think any of this is Joe Biden’s fault. Or at least it’s not entirely Joe Biden’s fault. In fact, the president seemed to have had, despite some mishaps along the way, a pretty good week in Europe, patching up leaks, reasserting leadership in the climate crisis and generally staying upbeat as is and has been Joe’s way, whatever the situation or the odds. But however pugnaciously he keeps insisting otherwise, #46 isn’t close to getting “moderate” and “progressive” members of his own party on the same page with what seems to any rational human being his vitally needed package of economic-recovery expenditures. Placating those who holler “Socialism!” or (a euphemism I’ve decided I hate now more than any other) “Critical Race Theory!” at them seems to be the Democratic game plan, along with giving the billionaire senator from West Virginia a far bigger public profile than he or anybody else requires.

White Guys, in other words, are The Solution as far as the political establishment and their media enablers are concerned. And yet, candidates-of-color (including one woman) triumphed in mayoral races in Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York City. Cities are cities (especially in the northeast) and states are states. But did anybody in Virginia bother to consider what a candidate-of-color could have done in what experts insist is an increasingly blue state against a Trumpian mediocrity like Glenn Youngkin? Instead, the Democrats ran Terry McAuliffe, who was, besides being Another White Guy, a retainer from the Clinton years. Old news, as even the dimmest bulb in the political press corps could and should have suspected.


Some people think I lean too much on the wisdom of my late fellow worker Murray Kempton. But among his many wise observations was (and I paraphrase) that political success is most attainable by those who ally themselves to the future while bearing little to no responsibility to the past. “The past,” Murray once said in this context, “already has a job.” And yes, I know who’s president (for the time being). But Biden was smart enough back when the primaries were seemingly happening a million years ago to understand that his best chance to get nominated was to leapfrog his way to Black power brokers like Jim Clyburn and make them see that his years with Barack Obama allowed  him to perceive as others didn’t the possibilities #44’s presence, of not his policies, signified for the party’s future. Whatever their respective ideologies, Eric Adams (basically as “moderate” as they come), Michelle Wu and Ed Gainey represent, at the very least, the chance for Something Different in their party than whatever came before, including, maybe especially, the Clinton era.

I’m willing to bet whatever pittance I’m carrying in my wallet that you’re not going to hear any Political Insider hired by television say such things. I refuse to take whatever these talking heads say seriously unless they are in any way familiar with the aggregate works of Albert Murray AND James Baldwin, Toni Morrison AND Grace Paley – and, of course, the aforementioned Donald Barthelme (had to get back to him), whose short fiction was once regarded as surreal, but I’ve lately come to believe was farsighted enough in the sixties, seventies and eighties to now comprise hyper-explicit accounts of our present-day reality. Writes McCormack: “[Barthelme] dwelt in the fissures of the conscious mind and made work that was neither one thing nor the other because it was both and neither…a trickster spirit…who took nonsense so seriously it congealed into wisdom, the effect of staring so deeply into the void that not only does it stare back, it becomes cross-eyed.”

Don’t take his word for it, or mine.  You’ve got time. Look into him – and don’t be surprised if those stories we’re talking about look into you.


In Which I Get My New Aortic Valve & Take it Out For Walks

 

 

 

 

 

So…

On the very (very) hot afternoon of June 30, I was walking the four blocks it took to get from the 47th Street and Walnut bus stop to my West Philadelphia condo between Spruce and Pine Streets. My son was striding ahead of me as I struggled to catch my breath. When I got to the corner of Spruce, I suppose I must have been in bad enough shape for my son to ask, “You OK, Dad?”

And that’s when I blacked out and, from what I was later told, fell face first on the sidewalk.

I had come to shortly afterwards, my face covered with flecks of concrete, my left eye oozing and burning. Apparently it was my son, whose home is about 2,900 miles west of us but,, fortunately, happened to be visiting us that week, who called 911 and was instructed to turn me over on my back so I could breathe. The only pain I was feeling was from my eye; there was no chest pain whatsoever even though the immediate diagnosis was that I had suffered a heart attack.

I spent whatever was left of the afternoon and evening in Penn Presbyterian Hospital’s emergency room as all kinds of tests were administered (EKGs, EEGs, ultra-sound and bloodwork, bloodwork, bloodwork). By the following afternoon, a cardiologist came in to tell me that I didn’t have a heart attack, but that I was laid low by something called aortic valve stenosis.

It was not entirely unexpected. I was warned some years back that there was… something going on with my aortic valve. As recently as a year ago, I found myself short of breath on my morning walks but preferred to think it had something to do with having to wear a mask outside because of COVID-19. Except that when I didn’t have to wear a mask, I still needed to take breaks if I walked more than, say, four blocks back and forth from home.

Whatever the case, things had gotten serious enough to consider one of two procedures for dealing with this. The first was an all-out replacement of the valve through open-heart surgery, which the cardiologist believed would be both painful and drastic. The second was the less invasive transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), in which, as the name implies, a catheter is inserted through the leg or chest and implants a replacement valve into the damaged valve. This was considered the option with the least possible hospitalization time and, as such, sounded preferable. At first.

I was sent home for a while with orders to avoid heavy lifting and other exertions. (“Can you be sedentary?” the cardiologist asked. Like a fiend! I replied.) I had to wait for Penn’s cardio-surgery team to fully inspect my portfolio of scans and X-Rays to determine which of the two options was the best. When the team captain, as it were, told me of “severe calcification” around the exhausted valve I sensed where this was going and by the time they told me they were going to break my chest open and do a full-bore valve replacement, I was OK with it, even at (a kind of) peace.

“You’re young enough,” I was told, “to withstand whatever rigors will happen with the surgery.” Which was the first time I was ever aware that being sixty-eight was “young enough” for any “rigors,” physical or otherwise. Fine, whatever.

Surgery took place August 27 and took several hours. (Or so I was told later.) All went well, except for what I was later told was a helluva time trying to “intubate” me to help with breathing or eating or maybe both. I can’t say which, for sure. The day was kind of a blur for me. As was the day after and part of the day after, which, if memory serves, was a Sunday.

I remained more or less out-of-it for the following 24 hours or so, during which time the chief surgeon and some of his team dropped by and noted how good my incisions looked. That was cute of them, because they felt like hell, all swollen and very sore. To his credit, the chief surgeon did tell me at the outset that open-heart surgery was going to hurt. So no one can say I wasn’t warned.

Oh…I almost forgot…

 



One of the assurances my procedure offers is that my replacement valve will be totally organic (if that’s the right word) and that it would either be a “porcine” or “bovine” valve. Since my surgeon prefers the latter, there was no chance I was going to get pork instead of beef. So my new valve comes by way of the cow…or, maybe even a bull. I don’t know for sure and neither does anybody else. At least, nobody’s told me.

So, in the absence of such information, I have resolved to do what an old friend of mine did and give my new valve a name: Ferdinand.

Now before any accusations of gender preference are heaved in my direction (I’m still kind of an invalid, people, so cool it), let me remind you who Ferdinand is: the hero of a 1936 children’s book by Munro Leaf (1905-1976) about a nonconformist bull who prefers lying under trees and smelling flowers to charging matadors. It’s proven so popular that it’s inspired more than one animated film and lulled several generations of small children to sleep. It’s also been banned in some libraries for being subversive, accused, by turns, of being anarchist, pacifist, communist and (even) fascist. Mostly, I think of him as the ultimate passive resistor, Gandhi with hooves, horns and a tail. I don’t think I’m the only one.

So Ferdinand and I left hospital five days after surgery and we seem to be getting along just fine even with the residual soreness that logically ensues from having one’s chest bone sawed open and sewn together again. I’ve taken my new bovine pal out for short walks at least twice daily now and am already anticipating our first party, road trip, ball game and live concert.

But not all at once. If there is anything this now receding summer has given me, it is the impulse to take one’s time on everything. And by “everything,” I mean…everything: walking, talking, bathing, eating, even picking stuff off the floor. Is “re-behave” a word? If so, that’s what I’ve been doing these last three weeks and expected to be doing more of the same for the weeks and months to come. Quite likely, it was about time anyway.

Now if you’ll excuse us. The bovine and I have some flowers to smell.









Seymour Movies: Seymour’s Movies

If blame is necessary, then it goes to my good friend, humane observer and fellow professional spectator Tim Page, who was inspired by this year’s recently completed Academy Awards to come up with his own entirely subjective Best Picture list for every year he’s been alive. He posted this list on Facebook and the heroism of his effort so inspired me that I was compelled to come up with one of my own.

I had fun with it while I was picking and choosing. But as soon as I was finished, I was all but overcome by a profound sadness. Because as I surveyed this list, it came across more like a melancholy relic of an era of moviegoing that is all but swept away by the streams and clouds of the digital age, along with the countervailing bombast of spectaculars and star-packages contrived to keep whatever’s left of the multiplexes alive and upright, post-pandemic. 

Whatever you want to say about my choices, which are presented with little more than random illustrations and no explanations (or, at this point, equivocations), they each came from discoveries I made either at the time they were released or, mostly, long afterwards.  They are not commodities to be assessed like IPAs or yoga mats, which seems pretty much how most “consumers” assess filmed “product” these days; these films were means of stretching my senses, deepening memories, sharpening the landscape around me. They are all places to which I am always happy and eager to return so I can re-encounter the arcane joys they gave me and, maybe, find something new to like about them as an older, if not always wiser viewer. 

“Viewer.” I like that word so much better than “consumer.” Don’t you? 

A couple things before we begin: 1.) It’s entirely possible that some of the things on this list could change over time. They did in at least a few places as I prepared to post this version. 2.) These are in no way intended to be a definitive, all-time-great, etc. or whatever other euphemism you wish to use. They are parts of myself that I and I alone declare as a personal best for each year. You will have your own. I shall be as forbearing towards those as I hope you can manage to be for mine own. 

 

So…

 

 

 

1952: Singin’ in the Rain
1953: Tokyo Story

 

 

 

1954: Rear Window
1955: The Night of the Hunter
1956: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

 

 

 


1957: Sweet Smell of Success
1958: Vertigo
1959: Rio Bravo
1960: Shoot the Piano Player

 

 

 


1961: Yojimbo
1962: The Manchurian Candidate

 

 

 


1963: Charade
1964: A Hard Day’s Night
1965: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
1966: Persona

 

 

 


1967: Bonnie & Clyde
1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey
1969: The Wild Bunch
1970: The Landlord

 

 


1971: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
1972: The Godfather
1973: Amarcord
1974: The Godfather II

 

 


1975: Jaws
1976: All the President’s Men
1977: Annie Hall
1978: Blue Collar

 

 


1979: Being There
1980: Raging Bull
1981: Diva/My Dinner With Andre

 

 


1982: Blade Runner
1983: The Right Stuff
1984: Repo Man
1985: Lost in America

 

 

 


1986: Blue Velvet
1987:  The Princess Bride 

 

 

 


1988: Bull Durham
1989: Do the Right Thing
1990: GoodFellas
1991: Daughters of the Dust

 


1992: One False Move
1993: Groundhog Day

 

 

 

 


1994: Pulp Fiction
1995: Toy Story
1996: Jerry Maguire

1997: L.A. Confidential
1998: Babe: Pig in the City

 

 

 


1999: All About My Mother
2000: Yi-Yi

 

 

2001: Y Tu Mama Tambien 
2002: The 25th Hour/Talk To Her

 

 


2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 

 

 

 

2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men

 

 

 

 

 


2007: Zodiac
2008: WALL-E

 

 


2009: A Serious Man

 

 


2010: The Social Network
2011: Margin Call
2012: Moonrise Kingdom

 

 

 

 

2013: Only Lovers Left Alive

 

 


2014: Inherent Vice
2015: Mad Max: Fury Road
2016: Moonlight

 


2017:  The Florida Project 
2018: The Sisters Brothers

2019: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

 

2020: First Cow

2021: Passing

 

Seymour Movies Asks: If We’re Not Sure What A Movie Is Any More, Then What’s An Oscar?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just so we’re clear, movies aren’t dead, though multiplexes are likely dying. And that process was well underway before COVID-19 locked down the world.

We keep hearing that there’s light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been trudging through for a year. But keep in mind, whether immunized or not, that we’re still in a tunnel, even as I’m writing this. And whenever we all can safely stagger into this light-at-the-end, it’s going to take a while for us to get our cloistered senses re-adjusted. Things will at the very least look a lot different at the outset from how they did a year ago, the movie business being among the familiar institutions most conspicuously affected by a year of closures and strictly enforced re-openings here and there.

Of course, I too have missed going to movie theaters, even the ugliest, most utilitarian of them. No matter how big an HDTV screen you’re able to squeeze into your kitchen or bathroom, the experience of watching any moving picture, whether as intimate as Persona or as populated as Rear Window is nowhere near as immersive as sitting with strangers in even the narrowest darkened room. As with any other self-respecting cinephile, I regret what seems an irreversible decline in a kind of romantic, near-heroic age of moviegoing commemorated by Martin Scorsese during the past year. Streams and clouds are no longer alternatives to theater-going. They are now, pretty much, The Ball Game.  Given the choice between figuring out logistics for going out to see a blockbuster or watch that blockbuster at your own convenience as soon as it “drops,” how many would rather pony up the baby-sitting money, root around for gas and parking expenses and line up single file for whatever dubiously packaged snack will adequately meet their needs and those of the kids tagging along? 

But we’ll still have movie houses; better yet, all those repertory houses that were devoured by the multiplex could come back to life and restore the romance and adventure celebrated by Scorsese. If whatever’s left of the multiplexes still think they can make a go of it by including all kinds of other distractions – arcade games, dining, aerial acts, whatever – they’ll carry on and some may even thrive in such reinvention.

And the really good news, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that the Age of Clouds and Streams will better enable greater diversity of both product and producers. Studios will no longer have to wonder about whether certain scripts and stories are too “niche-ey” to reap theatrical profits worldwide. In other words, Black and other minority filmmakers will have more and better outlets to tell their stories and, through such exposure, may eventually be empowered enough to carry those stories into wider marketplaces.

But that’s all for later. For now, the movies are still trying to pick their way through a bewildering, anxious and altogether strange year that may someday be regarded as a transformative one. Whether the transformations are for better or worse won’t be settled or even suggested by this year’s Oscars that, whatever else you want to say about them, don’t look a whole lot like the Oscars of a decade or even a half-decade before

As always, projected winners are in bold face and, whenever necessary, a FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) disclaimer/appendix will follow.

Oh…and one more thing: if you’ve been annually wagering on my picks, please don’t do that this year because this year, as opposed to its predecessors, I expect to be wrong about most, if not all of these. 



Best Picture

 

 

 

 

 

Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Father
The Trial of the Chicago 7

After all those serial film festival triumphs, rapturous reviews and probing inquiries into its up-to-the-minute-neo-Grapes-of-Wrath relevance (or lack thereof), Nomadland has become this season’s catch-all for smarty-pants revisionism. Critics and civilians alike seem to be groping for reasons to dislike or dismiss it, many of them insisting on greater detail or added socio-political content that the movie’s structure was never built to contain in the first place. Why? Who’s that helping? And aren’t we supposed to be smart enough to tease out such inferences on our own? What happened to the idea of making the audiences work even a little bit instead of the story doing all the work for them?

I still believe in Nomadland, even if I’m no longer certain the Academy does. But what kind of Academy vote will matter here? If it’s the same Academy that punched Green Book’s ticket two years ago, then Mank, The Father or Chicago 7, the closest things to “traditional” Oscar bait, will get this one. If it’s the Academy that gave Parasite its unprecedented near-sweep of a year ago, then Minari, Judas and, yes, Nomadland lead the pack. This leaves Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman, both very dark in very different ways. If you think the Best Picture vote is the best reflection of an overall industry mood, then I’m going to presume here that the overall industry is both anxious and angry over what’s happened over the last twelve months, or four years, or whatever index you choose to use. The mordant humor of Promising Young Woman is, from this vantage point, best suited to ride that wave. If on the other hand events since January 20th are making Hollywood feel more hopeful than not, then any of the others could take this one home. As with just about every category on the board this year, nothing’s set in granite.

UPDATE (4/8/21): Is it plausible to imagine a world in which the in-your-face storytelling of The Trial of the Chicago 7  vanquishes the sublimities of Nomadland or even Minari (which would be my personal choice)? Doesn’t take much imagining,  because that world has been with us for as far back as the 1940s when issue-oriented melodramas such as Gentlemen’s Agreement could prevail over David Lean’s Great Expectations. (A greater, if not necessarily bigger movie than either Lean’s Bridge Over the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. ) It’s still anybody’s ballgame as far as I’m concerned. But somehow Aaron Sorkin’s look-back-in-anger over what happened to Fred Hampton in 1969 seems more of an industry crowd-pleaser (and prototypical Oscar-winning Best Picture) than, say, Shaka King’s angrier one. 

Best Director

Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
David Fincher, Mank
Emerald Fennel, Promising Young Woman
Lee Issac Chung, Minari
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round

Zhao’s ascension is as compelling and inspiring a story as her movie’s. Besides which, it’s past time for a woman-of-color to win one of these

Best Actor

 

 



Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Gary Oldman, Mank
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Steven Yeun, Minari

There’s been some chatter, as the NSA likes to put it, over how Hopkins’ portrayal of an Alzheimer’s victim is so consummately good that voters may decide he deserves another one of these after all. But Old and New Hollywood, in whatever post-Millennium forms they assume, were deeply shaken by Boseman’s passing last August and his widow’s acceptance speech at the Globes was so startlingly beautiful and moving that voters would love a reprise.


FWIW: Since we’re here, would it be OK if we take a brief tour of Boseman’s (brief) life’s work to determine which of his roles would or should have gotten this award beforehand? We can eliminate Black Panther ‘s title role, even though he evinced a lot of star power in all the MCU movies where his character appeared. Of the historical figures Boseman brought to life, his portrayal of James Brown in 2014’s Get On Up is the one that was at once the most electrifying and credible, though the Jackie Robinson he played in 2013’s 42 was more complex and cogent than was generally acknowledged at the time. A few words, but no more than a few, should be submitted on behalf of his impressive star turn in the 2019 NYPD thriller, 21 Bridges. But what in many ways represented Boseman at his most magnetic was his scene-stealing performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods as the charismatic, doomed patrol leader for which he richly deserved a Supporting Actor nomination – and, for that matter, the Oscar. Have I mentioned yet that this particular nomination is only his first? How could I have forgotten to mention that? Oh, and about 5 Bloods? Delroy Lindo was screwed. 

Best Actress

Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman

In any other year, this might have been the occasion for yet another win for Academy fave McDormand. But this a formidable quintet competing in what is almost, but not quite, as wide open a contest as this year’s Supporting Actress race (see below). Early on, Day’s Golden Globe victory took so many by surprise that it compelled several hundred eyes to gaze upon her  intuitively intelligent rendering of Billie Holiday. The rest of her movie, however, can’t keep up with her and, in some ways, drags her down. She could still take it. But Mulligan’s been poised for some time towards Oscar’s embrace the same way that a heat-seeking missile is poised to take down an enemy compound. And this all-out performance of a fierce, wounded feminist avenger, especially when juxtaposed with her un-nominated, but noteworthy turn as an emotionally-tough-yet-physically-fragile aristocrat in The Dig, seals Mulligan’s reputation for range and raw nerve.


Best Supporting Actor

 



Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Yet another example of what should have been acknowledged as a lead performance that’s (kind of) a ringer in the supporting category. Some think having Stanfield in the mix make a cancelling-out effect, or even a tie, inevitable. Ties are not unprecedented, but it won’t happen here. And I’ve been hearing about “cancelling-out effects” for most of my adult life and now believe them to be as mythological as sports teams getting a championship for no other reason except that they’re “due.” Gambling tip: next time you hear somebody make a pronouncement like that, hook them immediately for whatever hard cash you can risk. And thank me later.

FWIW: If I had a vote, it’d go to Raci, without a second thought.


Best Supporting Actress

 

 

Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Coleman, The Father
Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

So wide open, as noted earlier, that there’s no such thing as a dumb guess here. Coleman’s recent win for The Favourite makes her the least likely winner. But as I’d warned the year she got that Best Actress prize, quite a lot of people love her and as noted above, The Father’s been picking up some momentum on the home stretch. Close’s work was, by common consent, the best thing about her movie and the Academy seems to be searching for some way, any way, to give her a win after eight tries. Bakalova’s turn as apprentice Kazakh journalist and would-be-sex-partner to Rudy Giuliani may have been the century’s most audacious comedic impersonation and she’s been getting considerable buzz for it. Seyfried already has amassed a great deal of industry-wide affection, and it’s hard to imagine an Oscar contender going away empty-handed after picking Gary Oldman’s pocket in a black-and-white movie in which Orson Welles is more of a supporting character than hers is. Except..in situations such as this, dark horses always have a chance. And since the marvelously bawdy and winsome Youn Yuh-jung has won the SAG, she’s no longer a dark horse. Nevertheless I insist it’s still wide-open. 

 

 

 



Best Adapted Screenplay

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Nomadland

One Night in Miami

The Father

The White Tiger



Usually I go with the Writers. Guild on these, but I’m having trouble picturing the same crowd who put their heads together on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm converging here as one big winner, though it’d certainly be my preference. Kemp Powers is already assured of a win for co-directing Soul (see below). But he’s been such a conspicuously entertaining media presence throughout the Oscar campaign season that it isn’t hard to see him scoring a rare double here. Of course, if Nomadland gets a monster surge of momentum towards the home stretch, I’m an idiot once again.


Best Original Screenplay

Judas and the Black Messiah
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Definitely going along with WGA on this one for its serrated edges and willful ingenuity. Dark as hell, almost literally speaking, but in its weird, deterministic way, the most fun of these assembled nominees. (I mean, not that “fun” has anything to do with it, but…)

 

 

 



Best International Feature

Another Round (Druk)
Better Days (Shaonian de ni)
Collective
Quo Vadis, Adia?
The Man Who Sold His Skin

Thomas Vinterberg’s Best Director nomination was about as big a “tell” as you can expect as to how this one’s going to go. But it’s also the closest Vinterberg has come to a “feel-good” movie and that will count for a great deal with the general consensus. 

 

Best Documentary Feature

 

 


Collective
Crip Camp
My Octopus Teacher
The Mole Agent
Time

I took Crip Camp to my heart for how authoritative and touching it was in rendering the rise of the handicapped-rights movement. And this grizzled old newspaperman greatly appreciated Collective’s intricate, rousing examination of how investigative journalism can effect change, even in a government as corrupt as Romania’s. But Garrett Bradley’s multi-layered chronicle of a Black woman entrepreneur’s efforts to overcome heavily stacked odds in freeing her husband out from under an egregiously lengthy prison stretch is the most innovative picture among this year’s entire slate of feature films, fiction or nonfiction. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will win. But for those who still appreciate how movies can still catch you by surprise in the things they do (or don’t), it’s, so to speak, Time.

 

UPDATE (4/23/21): Way too late to take my hand off this piece, but the New York Times this morning has My Octopus Teacher the overwhelming favorite and I should’ve known it carried even more of a feel-good vibe than Time. I’m prepared to concede defeat on this one. My only comfort is that it won’t be the only one.




Best Animated Feature

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Onward
Over the Moon
Soul
WolfWalkers

 

 



A lay-up, of course. All the same, it’s a drag that Pixar releases one of its finest features the same year that the Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon gives cel painted animation a gratifying jolt with the enrapturing WolfWalkers. The jazz beaux and the romantic folklorist living within me are deeply divided — though I doubt either of them will grieve all that much if the Saloon scores the (unlikely) upset.



Best Cinematography

Judas and the Black Messiah (Sean Bobbitt)
Mank (Erik Messerschmidt)
News of the World (Darius Wolski)
Nomadland (Joshua James Richards)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Phedon Papamichael)

I don’t know who has the edge here, so I’m going to presume that what Messerschmidt does with shadows and light emit dazzle sufficient enough to carry the day.
 

FWIW: Of course, if Nomadland runs the table, etc etc.

Best Original Score 

Da 5 Bloods (Terence Blanchard)
Mank (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Minari (Emile Mosseri)
News of the World (James Newton Howard)
Soul (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross & Jon Baptiste)

Reznor and Ross’ only real competition here is with themselves and Stephen Colbert’s unflappable bandleader pushes this one over the hump with the kind of acoustic jazz charts the movies have hitherto forsaken.


Best Song

“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami
“Io Se (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7

Leslie Odum Jr., the song’s co-writer and performer is compensated for not getting the Supporting Actor prize for re-enacting Sam Cooke. It must be nice….


Two Cheers for “WandaVision”

 

 

 

 

If I read the reviews of WandaVision correctly, those who didn’t like the latest, just-completed manifestation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came in two categories: those who hate on sight whatever the MCU manifests and those who think the situation comedy parodies are the only possible reason for the series’ existence and (therefore) believe them to have made a flimsy (at best) premise for a full-fledged series. There’s little you can do about the MCU haters because they made up their minds long ago that those absorbed in Marvel’s mythology are all hyperventilating, arrogant, sub-human adolescent males of varying ages who have it in for cinema-as-we-know-it. An understandable simplification, but wrong on at least a couple levels if the teenaged girls materializing in bunches at MCU movies since the century began are any indication. They’re the ones who grew up with all those Avengers and Mutants and were likely far ahead of the critics, even the non-haters among them, in grasping what WandaVision was up to from the beginning.

[SPOILERS AHEAD, SO STOP RIGHT HERE IF YOU STILL HAVEN’T WATCHED ANY WANDAVISION ON THE DISNEY CHANNEL. JUST SAYING…]

For those who don’t know and/or are in any way curious, WandaVision is an eight-episode sequel-of-sorts to the 2019 MCU epic, Avengers: Endgame in which Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch was compelled by the apocalypse beast-man-alien Thanos (I really don’t have the time here) to sacrifice her lover Vision (Paul Bettany), a.k.a. The Vision, an android who (that?) somehow acquired a soul with his human persona. Though the world-as-we-or-they-knew-it is essentially restored, Vision is not and the grieving Scarlet Witch decides to remake a nondescript town in the middle of New Jersey into a simulacrum of the dream life Wanda’s always wanted, with Vision able to hide his identity behind an avuncular horn-rimmed façade and a pair of sons who are both cute and mischievous. There’s even a Wacky Next-Door Neighbor who, because she’s played by Kathryn Hahn, cannot possibly be what she seems – and isn’t, but we’ll talk about her later.

 

 

 


The gimmick that drew viewers and even MCU haters at first was the sitcom angle, where each week depicted Wanda and Vision’s simulated home life in the style and trappings of various eras of half-hour TV family comedies: from black-and-white kinescopes with canned laughter, wide lapels and bulky circa-1950s gas guzzlers through the gaudy “living color” mid-to-late-1960s sheen all the way to the fake-reality motifs of the Modern Family type. As with most gimmicks, the parodies were smart enough to arouse early buzz. But as noted earlier, critics thought the joke was going to wear thin. This was before they and the rest of us began realizing Something Else was going on. And it was far more than an extension and elaboration of a comic-book mythology.

Briefly: outside of Wanda’s dreamy-creamy cocoon, officials of the U.S. government agency S.W.O.R.D. (again, I really don’t have the time) have formed a cordon monitoring the show. A rogue agency head (Josh Stamberg) is ready to move in and wipe out Wanda, her dream life and, if necessary, the townspeople playing their parts under her spell. Standing in his way are FBI special agent Jimmy Wu (Randall Park), data analyst Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and S.W.O.R.D. operative Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the latter of whom is also not quite what she seems, only we’re not yet sure what that is, so we probably won’t talk about that here.

 

 

 

 

The latter trio are quicker to understand, in ways not even the show’s audience did at first, that Wanda is mostly acting out of a wrenching grief whose depths she isn’t able to completely gauge or totally understand. Hence the infrequent bursts of conscience and second-guessing emerging through the simulated Vision and the way the whole landscape of her dream wobbles and phases in and out like a vintage picture tube struggling to stay in focus. It was at this point that WandaVision shape-shifted from a MAD-like parody into something with a deeper, more profound ingenuity and intent: an inquiry into a damaged soul in conflict with itself. For most of its middle-and-later episodes, this series seemed poised to do something that nothing before exhibited by a comic-book franchise had ever dared; the kind of genre-warping humanism most of us adolescents of a certain age remember going to Marvel Comics for in the first place.

 

 

 


Then suddenly…as comic book panels habitually proclaim, the series seemed to snap out of its more thoughtful intervals to remember what it was there to do all along. And so, the latter two episodes transfigured Hahn’s Wacky Neighbor (or was it “Nosy Neighbor”?) into Agatha Harkness, a supporting character in the Marvel Universe who in this quadrant is a really wicked witch prepared to do to both Wanda and her dream life what the government was about to. There is, as Marvel’s True Believers are conditioned to expect, a noisy and protracted climactic battle, actually two of them: one with Agatha and Wanda firing red and purple hexes t each other, the other with Wanda’s Dream Vision duking it out with a newly—rebuilt Vision sent by S.W.O.R.D.’s spoilsports to devastate Wanda and the whole town. Scarlet beats Violet, New Vision flies away, Old Vision fades away with the rest of Wanda’s fantasy. All done – with of course a few of the customary Easter eggs True Believers count on at the end of every Marvel production for whatever’s happening in the future.

It was, in short, an ending that was sometimes touching, but also felt somehow desultory, a conclusion that, whatever else it provided in visceral catharsis, was unworthy of the emotional complexities and internal conflicts that led up to it. Which is not untypical of these limited-run steaming series. The third season of Star Trek: Discovery likewise showed promise throughout its run of shedding some of its more lugubrious tendencies and developing its own agile identity in relief from the franchise’s past. But it too resolved its many plot elements in the manner of a rush-hour traffic maelstrom that barely avoided irreparable damage.

For those of us who seek out genre works that don’t just satisfy expectations, but dare to transcend them, a show like WandaVision, however modest in scale and intent, offers tremendous promise in its process, but always threatens to disappoint in its execution. One can’t blame the actors for this. Bettany was, as he often is, exemplary and persuasive in his own displays of imagination and grace, even in the most absurd situations. It was also nice to know that Olsen can be as genuinely funny as she is intense. Hahn, one of our best and subtlest comic actors, took full advantage of her opportunity to soar way over the top here and while I’m not sure I’m ready for her to do so again, or often, she, along with everybody else in the cast, seemed to be enjoying herself.

This isn’t the time or place to ask me what I think happens next with these characters or, for that matter, the rest of the MCU from here on. But the way things are right now with the entertainment industry, I’m suspecting the screens exhibiting Our Heroes’ future endeavors will be somewhat smaller than the ones that first showed Avengers: Endgame. This would be fine with me as I’ve often believed that the quality of comic-book films increases in direct proportion to how the delivery of their images diminishes. Whatever misgivings I had about how it wound down, WandaVision for the most part proved my (admittedly unwieldy) hypothesis.

 

Herbie Nichols: A Study in Frustration

 

 

 

 

So this is what happens when you’re double-sequestered by piles of snow from a big, beautiful nor’easter along with the ongoing threat of pandemic – and NO damn vaccines available and accessible within miles of where you are. You hear a Herbie Nichols record and think to yourself: this is exactly what makes sense right now.

It wasn’t the music itself that brought me back to Nichols so much as a YouTube video posted by Jason Moran a few weeks ago featuring a rare WBAI radio interview with Nichols from 1962, which meant it took place on Mait Eady’s “The Scope of Jazz” show when the nonpareil pianist-composer had months left to live before dying, at 44, in April, 1963 from leukemia.

The conversation is, therefore, a blessed gift from the universe. It retains Nichols’ lovely and lucid speaking voice and affirms what writers like A.B. Spellman have attested about his warmth and wide-ranging intelligence. One also infers that if Nichols was getting interviews like these, then the relative obscurity he’d faced after his mid-1950s run of albums for Blue Note and Bethlehem may have shown signs of dissipating at last and that listeners were ready to engage what once seemed even to the adventurous an eccentric body-of-work.

 

 



It’s only towards the end of this fascinating interview, with plenty of his compositions and recordings weaved into the mix, that you hear Nichols’ frustration with being marginalized in comparison with fellow modernists such as Thelonious Monk, who was by the Kennedy years enjoying a burgeoning nationwide vogue thanks to his contract with Columbia Records. Nichols aims his irritation, ever so gently, at jazz critics, who he wishes had more grounding in formal musical education and could therefore better appreciate, or at least begin to understand what he’d been trying to do. Eady, sounding somewhat flustered, confesses to Nichols that he has no musical training, prompting Nichols to suggest, with all the geniality at his disposal, that he should consider getting some.

In my time as a jazz journalist, I used to hear this a lot from musicians who believed, not entirely without justification, that we were getting in the way of their transactions with the audience by not being able to satisfactorily explain the technical nuances of what they’re doing. Once, early in my jazz reporting tenure at New York Newsday, I was taking notes at a Carnegie Hall concert when I glanced across the aisle at a competitor for another daily who seemed to be scribbling harder than I was. I tried to match his intensity before leaning close enough to see what he was writing: not words, impressions and titles (as I was), but actual musical notation! Like…notes, key signatures, clefs, man!

I slunk into my chair, despondent, believing myself to be an imposter and wondering what the hell I thought I was doing here. But I still had a deadline to meet and went back to whatever it was I was doing.

In time, I got over this by eventually reminding myself that my job, in the end, wasn’t to deconstruct technical information well enough to satisfy the demands of those I was writing about. My job was to report back to readers how it sounded to me and, in doing so, convey to those who weren’t at Carnegie Hall that night or any other venue on any other engagement what it felt like to be there. My readers and, for that matter, the musicians on stage were just going to have to trust that I’d listened to enough jazz, done enough background research and cultivated my instincts sufficiently enough to tell my story to others who, to varying degrees, were as familiar with, or more to the point, as interested in the subject as I was.

That was all. Maybe it wasn’t enough for some. But my readers trusted me for a long enough time to put up with my reporting. So I must have done something right.

And while I understand the frustration of musicians like Herbie Nichols, I now believe that having critics with the keenest first-hand musical knowledge try to mediate their art with the public doesn’t necessarily guarantee a bigger, more receptive audience. Even scholarly musicologists, I submit, can be overly influenced by conventional wisdom and they can be just as oblivious to Something Totally New as whatever musicians imagine to be the clueless masses. It’s as true with all art: movies, books, paintings, dance and fashion. There are whole eras where it’s hip to be square, or at least, safe. Even “square” can catch people off-guard when they’re expecting something more rhomboid or triangular. If that makes any sense…

Whatever. It’s just a pleasure to be able to argue with a long-lost master in absentia. And as long as we’re here, in case you aren’t aware of who Herbie Nichols was and why he mattered to so many of us who still exult in modernism’s resilient wonders, here’s an entry I wrote for a long-defunct biographical jazz site. It also places before the court an example of how a relative “amateur” in formal musicology tries explaining genius to whomever shows up to listen. Consider this, also, a sideways homage to Frank Kimbrough, a keeper of Nichols’ flame and a great pianist in his own right, whom we lost sometime close to the start of this new, presumably better, year.

 

 




NICHOLS, HERBIE (HERBERT HORATIO) Jan. 3, 1919-April 12, 1963

Herbie Nichols’ compulsively inquisitive spirit lives within every session player struggling to cultivate an individual sound within the din of the marketplace. Nichols spent most of his career working in bands whose music wasn’t nearly as idiosyncratic or progressive as his was. If the stars had been better aligned in his favor (or, as some of his friends have suggested, he was less self-effacing), Nichols would have been regarded in his lifetime as a modern jazz pianist as innovative as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Yet it is only in the years since his death, at 44, from leukemia that Nichols has slowly achieved the stature he deserves. He has seduced subsequent generations of listeners and musicians with his angular melodies and rhythmically-sculpted harmonies.


The son of emigrants from Trinidad and St. Kitts, Herbie Nichols was born Jan. 3, 1919 in New York City’s San Juan Hill section in the West 60s. At age 7, he moved with his family further uptown to Harlem where, two years later, he began studying piano with a teacher who stressed classical training. As a youth, Nichols was said to be introspective and fun-loving, good at checkers and chess, steeped in books (a favorite author, according to his friend, trombonist Roswell Rudd, was the Russian Nikolai Gogol) and attracted enough to the popular music of his teen years to play jazz with a high school combo.

 

 


His first professional gig came in 1937 with the Royal Baron Orchestra, led by saxophonist Freddie Williams and featuring bassist George Duvivier. A year later, Nichols began working regularly at Monroe’s Uptown House which, along with another Harlem venue, Minton’s Playhouse, would become legendary in jazz lore as an incubator for the modernist upheaval in jazz music. In later interviews, Nichols would say he was both stimulated and put off by the hothouse competitive atmosphere generated by the virtuosi who would invent bebop and other post-swing genres. He was unhappy with what he later characterized as a clique mentality among the musicians who worked at Monroe’s and Minton’s. The critic Leonard Feather, in liner notes written for one of Nichols’ 1955 Blue Note albums, recalled Nichols being “pushed off the piano stool” at after-hours jam sessions by less-talented players.


He was drafted in 1941 and served 18 months in the Infantry with little opportunity to either take part in battle or play music. When he returned to New York in 1943, Nichols was unable to connect with the burgeoning bebop movement, playing mostly with rhythm-and-blues or New Orleans-style bands. Among his more prominent employers from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s were Danny Barker, Hal Singer, Illinois Jacquet, Snub Mosely, Arnett Cobb, Edgar Sampson and John Kirby. Through it all, Nichols was also struggling to find his way as a composer, sending off musical pieces that were either neglected or rejected by publishers.

 

 

 


Then in 1951, Nichols met Mary Lou Williams, a pianist attracted to the kind of quirky, insurgent music being written by Monk and his contemporaries. After hearing Nichols play some of his compositions, Williams recorded three of his tunes, “The Bebop Waltz” (which she re-titled “Mary’s Waltz”), “Stennell,” which she dubbed “Opus 2” and “At Da Function.” (Nichols’ flair with titling his own work would become apparent as he recorded as a leader, though his most famous piece, “Lady Sings the Blues” was originally dubbed “Serenade,” until Billie Holiday heard it and was so taken with the melody that she wrote her own lyrics to the tune, whose new name was also the title of her 1955 autobiography.)
Nichols continued to work mostly for traditional jazz and swing bands throughout the northeastern United States while auditioning for his own club dates and recording sessions. Blue Note Records co-owner Alfred Lion remembers Nichols being especially persistent for more than a decade in asking for a chance to record his own music. Lion gave Nichols his shot. In May and August, 1955, Nichols recorded with bassist Al McKibbon and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. He recorded another session the following August with Roach and bassist Teddy Kotick. Two 10-inch albums were released by Blue Note from those sessions and were immediately hailed by critics, though relatively neglected by the public. The same outcome greeted his only other album as a leader, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, released in 1957 by Bethlehem to glowing reviews and anemic sales.

 

 

 


Nichols went back to playing Dixieland music for dough, though in his latter years, his recordings had acquired cult status among an emergent generation of progressive musicians, including Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Buell Neidlinger and Roswell Rudd. Nichols’ reputation as a composer and innovator was still a well-kept secret and his frustration only deepened with every throwaway gig, every indifferent audience he faced. “He seemed to be dying of disillusionment,” wrote A.B. Spellman, the critic and historian whose 1966 book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, helped set in motion Nichols’ posthumous restoration. “He knew his worth, but it seemed as if nobody else did.”


Perhaps only a sensibility as independent, contemplative, wistful and tenacious as Nichols could have forged such alluring, yet provocative music. As with his friend and rival Monk, Nichols plays and writes with calculated indifference to melodic and harmonic convention. His main themes, as with the aforementioned “Lady Sings the Blues”, are accessible and even “hum-able.” Yet his variations often spread themselves in eccentric patterns within, around and through the song’s intervals. Listen, for instance, to his rendition of “The Gig” on his Blue Note collection and you’ll hear phrases repeated, stretched, smashed and re-shaped along a seeming riot of tempo shifts that never veer too far from the rhythmic core. You sometimes wonder whether the piano is bracing up the rhythm section or vice-versa. Either is plausible, given Nichols’ affinity for harmonies that keep time as much as they play with it.


The title track from Love Gloom Cash Love   is as melancholy as acerbic as its title  would lead you to believe. Yet its progression owes as much to classical music as it does to Tin Pan Alley song structure. Nichols’ sense of mood, drama and narrative timing can be found in just about any one of his compositions, such as “House Party Starting,” which trumps the sense of anticipation aroused at the start for the eponymous party with what Nichols, in liner notes he’d written for one of the Blue Note albums, “grave and silent doubts as to whether there is really going to be a parry, whether there is going to be lots of fun.” Contrasts stalk a Herbie Nichols composition as disappointment often trailed his life’s achievements.

 

 

 


After Nichols’ death, a host of musicians from Rudd, Neidlinger and Shepp to John Coltrane, Steve Lacy and Misha Mengleberg performed and enhanced his work in order to help fix his name in the global jazz repertoire. One can also hear Nichols’ influence in an eclectic assortment of younger piano talents, notably Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Frank Kimbrough, who in the 1990s helped spearhead the Herbie Nichols Project, an ensemble of musicians dedicated to performing Nichols’ compositions, including those never before performed, though ensconced in the Library of Congress.


RECORDINGS
Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Recordings (1955-6) (Blue Note), 3 Discs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Spellman, A.B., Four Lives in the Bebop Business, 1966, Limelight paperback
Davis, Francis, “The Mystery of Herbie Nichols” from Outcats: Jazz Composers, Instrumentalists and Singers, 1990, Oxford University Press.