Seymour Movies: Oscar’s Chalkiest Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one thing I can still remember poor Jo Koy saying at his much-derided hosting stint at this year’s Golden Globe Awards came at the very end when he exulted, “Hollywood is back!” Not even crickets could be heard acknowledging this statement, which made me, at least, wonder whether even Hollywood thinks it’s back. A Socratic temperament might press for terms to be defined: What do you mean by “Hollywood”? What do you mean by “back”? “Back” from what? From COVID? From the contract disputes? From the looming specter of A.I.? And is this what being “back” looks like?

It is a certainty that all those who work in the Factory of Dreams are back at their jobs, which means they can campaign and vote in all their various trade competitions leading up to the Academy Awards. But if by “Hollywood,” you mean, the “screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood” of klieg lights, big screens, and its ersatz royalty of big stars…well, only a sentimental naïf wouldn’t have by now figured out that gossamer myth dissipated into the ozone several decades ago and whatever tiny fragments remain are deflating hour by hour in a post-Millennial universe where, as somebody on the recently-completed fifth season of FX’s Fargo might put it, we all get to create our own reality while feeling empowered to throw big, sharp rocks at everybody else’s.

How can any movie, Hollywood or independent, presume to grab a lion’s share of a consensus audience in a determinedly fragmented world like ours? For a while this past summer, Barbie appeared to have pulled it off triumphantly enough to have given Warner Bros. a breathtaking surge in its profit margin. But before long, we stopped having serious fun with the movie and started getting frivolously solemn over whether it was OK to enjoy ourselves so much over such a conspicuous, if cheekily self-referential example of “product placement.” And we’re still arguing about it with one side of the room grousing about Oscar keeping both the movie’s star Margot Robbie and its director Greta Gerwig out of the running while others bloviate about arrested development and whether the whole thing was post-feminist or post-post-feminist, or yet another marker in civilization’s dreary slouch towards Bethlehem.

I shall, of course, deal further with Barbie in the text below. As far as how I liked it, I need only quote the indispensable cultural critic Robert Warshow who is famous for saying the following: “A man watches Barbie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” OK, I made up the Barbie part. But somehow the original quote, a standby among cinephiles for generations, makes more sense when put this way, at least to me.

The critic that I like to think I still am enjoys the ongoing threads and conversations as they unspool on various platforms. But conversation, after a while, gives way to a kind of annoying “know-it-all”-ism requiring nothing more than loud, emphatic assertions of opinion with little to no room for challenges or even questions from the floor. Often, it’s jaded contrarianism without portfolio (literally) as if standing in opposition to the crowd, or merely believing that you do, is all you need to bring to the microphone. I want more than that. And we should, too, without worrying about how our opinions look to others and how our judgments will be judged in turn.

And if we do like something that everybody else likes, we shouldn’t have to apologize for it in the same way we shouldn’t have to apologize for liking things nobody else cares for. All that is part of what used to be the romance of moviegoing and in romance, looking or feeling foolish is always a liability. But you don’t move anywhere without such risks and neither does art. If we could stop being so self-conscious about what we wear in the digi-verse, we could all come back to the rapture we felt when we first sat down in a dark room waiting for transport. The movies, as we knew them, could truly be “back” – and so, maybe, could Hollywood.

Wait for it…wait for it…

Naaaah!

You know the drill by now. Projected winners are in bold and FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) asides will follow some predictions, as needed.

Best Picture

American Fiction
Anatomy of a Fall
Barbie
The Holdovers
Killers of the Flower Moon
Maestro
Oppenheimer
Past Lives
Poor Things
The Zone of Interest

As Barbie continued to dominate industry chatter well into the new year, I wondered whether Academy voters would do the Wild Thang (sic) and give it the top prize, partly to mollify those who think director Greta Gerwig and lead actress Margot Robbie got skunked out of nominations and mostly to give props to its galvanic impact on the Almighty Bottom Line. But devoted followers of this site will recall that a year ago, I believed Top Gun: Maverick would reap voters’ good will for its olly-olly-oxen-free shoutout to audiences that it was not only safe, but mandatory to return to the multiplexes in the pandemic’s wake. I’m not making that mistake a second time. Oppenheimer fits the Oscar prototype for a major movie whose significance surfaces before the movie even begins. The same can be said, even more so, for Scorsese’s Good Fellas of the Purple Sage (my own name for it and I mean no disrespect.). Voters have tended to seek the comfort of Big Important Topics as a way of putting the industry’s best possible face forward into its future. I’m opting now for the one whose importance would have been timelier back in the 1980s in the last tense days of the Cold War. But never mind. Right now, its front-runner status here is secure, even after more than half a year.

FWIW: Despite pundits’ best efforts to coax this year’s categories into wire-to-wire finishes (as they are prone to do), I suspect this is one of those Years of Foregone Conclusions as far as handicapping Oscars is concerned. In other words, chalk is your wisest investment. The past year has so exhausted the industry that it’s hard to imagine any of the nominated films, their casts and crews suddenly catching fire towards the finish line. There’s been enough excitement from all these shutdowns and strikes this past year, thank you very much. Let’s just worry about catching up and getting back to whatever this New Normal in the industry is concerned because there’s an awful lot of stuff to make everybody nervous about the future. So, who needs horse races? Let’s leave them to actual horses.

In case anybody’s interested, Poor Things would get my vote, simply because I had a blast watching all that grotesque slapstick and baroque comedy slithering out of the screen like tentacles. Yorgos Lanthimos’ movie goes about its sticky, gnarly business the way Willem Dafoe’s deformed Doc Baxter went about his: so absorbed in its own process as to be coolly indifferent to the effect it’s having on its incredulous onlookers. It won’t win here, but I’m tickled that I saw it if for no other reason that it gives me added incentive to actually read more Alastair Grey this year. Lanark, I think.


Best Director

Jonathan Grazer, The Zone of Interest
Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things
Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer
Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon
Justine Triet, Anatomy of a Fall

Nolan has been so routinely unpopular with segments of the critical community (not an oxymoron) that I sometimes think his haters invent reasons not to like any of his movies, even when they work well. With me, it’s always been case by case. Liked Insomnia. Hated Tenet. Admired, without loving, Dunkirk. Loved, without admiring, Interstellar. And on and on. With other directors, as well as craftspeople in various disciplines, it’s a different story. They’ve likely been waiting for just the right moment to give him a party favor and if he doesn’t get it for this one, it’s hard to imagine another chance coming up. Except that directors like him outlast almost everybody else, even, and especially, critics like us.



Best Actress

 

 


Annette Bening, Nyad
Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall
Carey Mulligan, Maestro
Emma Stone, Poor Things

All these contenders went all-out in their performances, and each would have been sure bets in other years with weaker competition. History, however, is opening a wide, clear path for Gladstone to repeat Michelle Yeoh’s coup of a year ago by becoming the first Indigenous American to win a lead-acting Oscar. And, as with Yeoh’s becoming the first Asian-American last year, Gladstone has earned it.

FWIW: Still, part of me wishes I could airlift Bening’s nomination to another year with weaker competition. I thought she deserved to win 13 years ago for The Kids Are Alright, which was her fourth and, till now, most recent Oscar bid in more than 30 years. She’s not quite Glenn Close as far as hard-luck Oscar nominees go, but one fears she’s getting there.


Best Actor

 

 


Bradley Cooper, Maestro
Colman Domingo, Rustin
Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers
Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction

People look at Holdovers’ promotions and all they can see and hear are other, lesser nostalgic prep school comedies with cranky adults buddying up with drippy students; the most notable example brought up is 1992’s Scent of a Woman, which finally got Al Pacino his Oscar well into the “She’s-got-a-GREAT-ass!” phase of his career. This essay by Olivia Rutigliano says everything that needs saying about why both the movie and Giamatti’s performance are different – and why he’ll be rewarded for it.

 

 

 

FWIW (2/25/24): Or maybe not. Murphy’s SAG and BAFTA awards, in swift succession,  now make him the prohibitive favorite — and the movie’s cast award can only accelerate his movie’s chances for a Oscar night sweep. 










Best Supporting Actress

Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple
America Ferrara, Barbie
Jodie Foster, Nyad
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers

Randolph’s already a front-runner, principally because she so deftly conveys the complex, mercurial nature of loss, a theme that makes the movie stand out from others in its sub-genre. Also, the way her character’s aching vulnerability is contained beneath  dry, if pliable layers.

FWIW: I still wish there were a way to train more attention on some of the other worthy nominees here, especially Ferrara, who to my mind had an even greater challenge in her overall characterization than the people playing dolls. 

Best Supporting Actor

 

 

 


Sterling K. Brown, American Fiction
Robert De Niro, Killers of the Flower Moon
Robert Downey Jr., Oppenheimer
Ryan Gosling, Barbie
Mark Ruffalo, Poor Things

I see this as, essentially, Iron Man vs. The Hulk. Iron Man wins.

FWIW: If Wright hadn’t been nominated for Best Actor, I would have liked to see his vulpine rendition of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Rustin given its due here. Problem is, everybody else in this category is so formidable that there wouldn’t have been any room for his nomination.


Best Adapted Screenplay

American Fiction
Barbie
Oppenheimer
Poor Things
The Zone of Interest

In case you’re still wondering what Barbie is doing here, this will provide the (illogical, unsatisfying) answer. Whichever category it landed in, the script would have been well-positioned to allow co-writer Gerwig to get the statue for which director Gerwig wasn’t allowed to compete. Too bad in a way because the other “Adapted” nominees are all especially worthy contenders…

FWIW: …especially Cord Jefferson’s script for American Fiction. Even though he’s been scolded by some for paring down the serrated edges of his source material (Percival Everett’s acerbic satire Erasure), he managed to fashion an all-too rare and persuasively level-headed depiction of an upper middle class Black family, balanced, humane, and still witty enough to stand out from anything that came beforehand, if you can think of what that could be.

Best Original Screenplay

Anatomy of a Fall
The Holdovers
Maestro
May December
Past Lives

David Hemingson’s script for Holdovers isn’t perfect. But it makes for the kind of movie that holds its elements loosely enough for voters to cozy up to. Story, structure (of a sort), snappy dialogue, emotional impact. It checks enough boxes to breeze through here.

FWIW: Then again, there’s always the (very slight) chance that a sleeper like Past Lives could ease its way to the front of the pack for having greater, if subtler emotional weight.


Best International Feature

Io Capitano
Perfect Days
Society of the Snow
The Teachers Lounge
The Zone of Interest

Great Britain’s entry is Jonathan Glaser’s chilling, prize-winning depiction of the banality of evil near one of the Nazi death camps. As with recent winners in this category, it also has a Best Picture nomination, which usually means an inevitable win here.





 

Best Animated Feature

The Boy and the Heron
Elemental
Nimona
Robot Dreams
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

By far, the most competitive race on the docket with predictions weaving back and forth between the new meta-Spidey adventure and Hayao Miyazaki’s Boy and the Heron, the latter of which has already collected a Globe along a rasher of critics’ prizes. The other three, including Diz-Pix’s latest, could legitimately be regarded as classics, especially the smart and daring medieval/urban fantasy Nimona, which almost didn’t make it into any kind of distribution. Even with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) edging towards eclipse at the moment, I’m going to put my chips on Miles Morales, even though it’s plausible that Oscar will wait for the third installment of that series to drop before full acknowledgment.

Best Documentary Feature

Bobi Wine: The People’s President
The Eternal Memory
Four Daughters
To Kill a Tiger
20 Days in Mariupol

Each of these selections carries enough urgency in their socio-political themes to illuminate a whole nation state. All of them deserve to win and any of them could. I’m betting on the AP/Frontline entry whose depiction of a Ukraine city under siege is wrenchingly, frighteningly intimate in its accumulation of raw detail. 

Best Cinematography

El Conde
Killers of the Flower Moon
Maestro
Oppenheimer
Poor Things

The relentless march of Oppenheimer ensures that Hoyte Van Hoytema will likely get his first Oscar after his previous work with Nolan’s Dunkirk and Interstellar was nominated but did not win (NBDNW). It’s by no means a lock, but… 


Best Original Score

American Fiction
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Poor Things

Of course, I would love it if Robbie Robertson would get some posthumous love for his haunting, old-weird-America score for Killers; his interludes fit so seamlessly with the scratchy, tinny archival recordings weaved into the soundtrack that you almost believe it all came from the same old 78-RPM records. But it’s easier to imagine Ludwig Göransson’s second win being part of the Oppenheimer wave.

Best Song

“The Fire Inside” (from Flamin’ Hot)
“I’m Just Ken” (from Barbie)
“It Never Went Away” (from American Symphony)
“Wahzhazhe” (from Killers of the Flower Moon)
What Was I Made For?” (from Barbie)

Outside of production design, this has to be the only sure bet on the table for Barbie, plus it’s already nabbed a Grammy for Song of the Year.

Gene Seymour’s Favorite Things in 2023

The preponderance of books and television series cited below suggests that I still don’t get out as much as I should. And while COVID isn’t going away (and did, in fact, bite me sometime earlier in the year), there’s still so much to behold in person as opposed to a screen. Or a page.

Still, I did, for the record, travel more than usual in 2023, mostly to northwesterly places on the continent where I saw bears, moose, elk, glaciers, and geysers. By my count, I still have twelve states in the union to visit in my lifetime and sustain the hope, however faintly it is articulated these days, that there will still be a union for as long as I hope to live.

Still.

If democracy is under siege and things are as bad as cable news networks insist (I don’t think they are, but that’s another discussion for another time), it’s not because culture failed us. The items below, even though they represent a relative sliver of what’s available, all tell eternal truths in up-to-the-minute fashion. Even when they depressed me, they gave me hope. So, the lesson here is a clear one: Stop watching cable news. Watch and – especially, for the love of God – read stuff like this. You’ll feel better. You’ll know more. That’s the best I can say. The rest, especially in 2024, is up to you.

Once again, these are in no particular order:

 

 

 



The Survivalists – Another outstanding year for African American fiction – and, at this point (for varied reasons), why don’t we just say, “American fiction,” period? – began with this silken-swift comedy of manners that’s as dark, rich, and intensely stimulating as the gourmet coffee that, along with heavy artillery, is a major trope in Kashana Cauley’s novel. Its central character is Aretha, a fast-tracking corporate attorney whose peripatetic love life seems finally to have found mooring with Aaron, the dashing founder-proprietor of Terminal Coffee, which roasts and sells coffee from his home base in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. Beyond mutual infatuation, Aretha and Aaron are such kindred spirits in their droll hipness, Type-A impulses, and wily diffidence that she moves into the commodious old rowhouse he shares with two somewhat singular housemates: Brittany, a churlish, taciturn “Angry Flo-Jo” who’s responsible for assembling the backyard bunker, and James, a sullen, pallid ex-reporter fired from the Washington Post for plagiarism. It turns out this motley band is warehousing more than coffee beans. There’s also a deep, wide stash of guns and ammo, part of which they’re hoarding as protection from an as-yet unspecified urban apocalypse while the rest is being sold to all manner of dubious buyers in the Tri-State area. Aretha at first keeps a respectful distance from the gunrunning business. But when her hitherto upward trajectory towards full partnership hits the ceiling, Aretha throws herself into Terminal Coffee’s off-the-books operations – and becomes scary-good at it. Cauley, herself a lapsed attorney who was once a Daily Show staff writer, nails down rueful insights about cultivating high ambitions in cloistered times and tallies the ironies in striving for space in a future you otherwise fear and loathe. In other words, it’s about living one’s best possible life near the upper reaches (and below the radar) in the 21st century.



 

 



The Bear – I’m going to imagine that at some point during the filming of the second season of The Bear that the ghost of John Cassavetes somehow made it to the Chicago locations where the series was being shot. He (it?) likely felt very much at home, especially within the intimate, more ramshackle surroundings like the restaurant kitchen being ripped apart to make room for a newer, sleeker, higher-end eatery than the one it’s replacing. So much of him yearns to assume corporeal form even for a minute or two, if only to offer advice, encouragement, maybe a few suggestions, once he can find out the storyline, the schedule, and what the theatrical specifications are. First off, he probably can’t believe this is all being made for television. Then, with sheer wonder, he thinks: These kids really know what they’re doing. He is especially galvanized by Ayo Edebiri, who plays the precocious young chef Sydney. Despite her age, she seems the wisest, worldliest person among her stressed-out colleagues; except for those times when she isn’t, and her own insecurities come at her from unexpected places, like muggers in dark alleys. His attitudes towards The Bear’s male leads are more complicated. With both, it’s like staring at a looking glass. Jeremy Allan White’s portrayal of Carmen (“Carmy” or sometimes just “Carm”) Berzato, the perpetually frustrated genius-chef stalked by guilt, haunted by death, keeping fear of failure at bay, is the kind of soulful, belligerent savant Cassavetes used to play all the time. He’d have nailed his role down like an iron fencepost back in his day. The other guy, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Carmen’s best bud and restaurant manager, is also a role made for him, meaning the self-sabotaging stick-of-dynamite with the short fuse who needs just one more thing to go south for him to blow himself up and everybody else with him. All these three kids with dreams way bigger than they can carry without tripping on the curb are magnificent creations. But Cassavetes knows they’re not even all of it; it’s also the family background, which all comes to a head in that bravura Christmas episode with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The ghost thinks: That was something I could have never pulled off the way they did. It managed to fire all over the place and still come through ferociously contained. And besides, Cassavetes thinks, even I wouldn’t have had the stones to end the whole episode with the mother driving a car through the living room. And that the mother was played by somebody you only gradually recognize as Jamie Lee Curtis, but in another time and place, could have easily been Gena Rowlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 



The Chain Gang All-Stars – I’ll admit it. There’s this teeny, microbe-sized Imp-of-the-Perverse way down deep inside me that’s tempted to wonder, if for no more than a nanosecond, whether the alternate universe depicted in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s ingeniously dystopian first novel is onto something: that giving the most abject violent criminals in custody the option of fighting televised duels-to-the-death would be something of a win-win situation for them and for a society that can’t get enough of real-world violent spectacle. Before you judge me, you should know that at least one reviewer of Adjei-Breyah novel opened the piece by asking whether he was having too much fun reading about a world in which there is such a thing as a Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE) program and that such a world could all too easily adapt its moral compass to take in pay-per-view packages showing wanton, all-out bloodshed between otherwise doomed convicts, some with their own fan bases and merchandise. It may not be the kind of thing I’d shell out my hard-earned streaming dollars for, but the fact that I can imagine as easily as Adjei-Brenyah does fans of all ages having wall-poster-sized devotion to gladiators like Loretta Thurwar and Hamara Stacker a.k.a. “Hurricane Staxx,” who, inconveniently, are lovers as well as competitors. In addition to these awkward situations, Adjei-Brenyah is conscientious enough in his world-building to conceive a web of corporate enablers of his madness from all-sports cable networks to the incarceration industrial complex (which is what I’m calling it this week anyway). The heretics travel along with a protest movement stalking the CAPE caravan at every stop on its tour, making some of the arguments you can hear in “real life” about the malign growth of the private prison industry and the seemingly impermeable hold that mandatory sentencing, capital punishment, wrongful convictions, solitary confinement, and other, similar aspects of the “real” legal system has on those who want their loves ones protected. At what point, one asks, does “safety” itself become its own kind of prison? Part of Adjei-Brenyah’s purpose is to arouse such self-interrogations in his readers – who, in turn, could subdue their own meaner instincts enough to ask more questions of our society and ourselves. So you can question your fears…

 

 

 

 



The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store – …or you can engage with your hopes. We were as urgently in need of James McBride’s  depiction of collective strength and courage in the 20th century as we were of Adjei-Brenyah’s  more acerbic alternate vision of the 21st. McBride follows up his 2020 triumph, Deacon King Kong, with another exuberantly polyphonic novel in which a community, if not the notion of “community” itself, is the protagonist. It’s a murder mystery set off in 1972 by the discovery of a skeleton, along with a mezuzah, found at the bottom of a well in the Chicken Hill section of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, once a lively, tumble-down community of mostly Jewish and African American residents. The narrative steps back more than 40 years before when Moshe Ludlow, a Romanian Jew owned and operated a theater and dance hall while his American-born wife Chona ran the eponymous grocery store nearby. Events are set in motion when Nate Timblin, a Black employee at Moshe’s theater, asks the couple to shield an orphaned and deaf 12-year-old boy child Dodo from state officials seeking his institutionalization. Moshe is reluctant, but Chona, a woman of deep compassion and iron will, insists, despite threats, explicit and otherwise, from the city’s white power structure, many of whose members disdain the easy-does-it interaction between Chicken Hill’s ethnic minorities to the point of taking part in Ku Klux Klan parades. In clumsier, hammier hands than McBride’s, this is the kind of story whose melodramatic elements can be ramped to needless excess. But here, as McBride’s previous work, it is his exquisite sense of tone, timing, humor, and nuance that allows the novel to earn our tears — and our faith in each other, whenever we need it.

 

 

 

 




Lily Gladstone – Screen stars always emit a field of magnetism that at once draws us in and keeps us at a distance. With Gladstone, these warring elements somehow merge into an aura of repose that’s eerie to behold. Her less-is-more triumph in Killers of the Flower Moon is powerful and dominant enough on its own elemental terms as to all but redefine the very nature of bravura performance. She is a virtuoso of stillness in ways that harken all the way back, if you can imagine it, to Buster Keaton and other silent-movie icons. And not even they could convey with their faces whole landscapes whose emotional weather systems can shift from wary to vulnerable to kittenish to sensual to bemused, braced throughout by resilience whose sources are probably a mystery even to her. Perhaps one way to account for this composure is Gladstone’s portrayal of
Hotki in Reservation Dogs. As jail-bound mother to Danny, whose suicide pitches the series’ teenaged characters into upheaval, anxiety, and confusion, Hotki has distanced herself emotionally and otherwise from everyone in her family except for her niece Willie Jack. When in the series finale Willie Jack brings Hotki an “offering” of snacks and sodas, the “auntie” summons the spirits of the ancestors passing on to the younger woman the obligation of looking after the friends and family members most in need. Once again, a majestic act carried out with understated humor and minimal flourish. She’s a trickster goddess with more surprises in store for us.

 

 

 

 

 





Barry – Of the hustlers, victims, losers, loners, narcissists, innocent passersby, and low-life sharpies making their way through four seasons of auteur-star Bill Hader’s inky, deadpan tragicomedy, none was as manipulative or as disingenuous as Monroe Fuches (the amazing Stephen Root), friend-mentor of Hader’s Barry Berkman, the mentally-unbalanced ex-GI who was guided by Fuches through an underground career of lucrative assassination before Barry decided he’d rather be a professional actor. Towards the conclusion of this so-dazzling-it-physically-hurt-to-watch-it season, Fuches, who emerged as something of a crime capo following some hard prison time, confronts his Chechen counterpart Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), whose bumptious naivete was darkened and deflated when he was forced by his own bosses to abet his lover’s murder. Now Hank and Fuches are haggling over who gets to kill Barry. (The “why” would take too long to get into here, requiring a rehash of Dostoyevskian proportions). It’s enough to say that Fuches, perhaps more than any other character in the whole sordid story, has arrived at something close to a complete reckoning for his many abysmal acts and is best able to assess where he’s landed in life. And why:

“I used to think I was a soldier, ignoring the fact that I never fought a battle in my whole life. I was a poseur. And I thought myself a mentor fostering other men’s natural abilities. But it wasn’t until I was in prison, and I got beaten to within an inch of my life day after day that I finally cut the bullshit and just accepted who I am: a man with no heart.”

Now, Fuches wants Hank to reach the same self-realization:

“I walk away, You’ll never hear from me again. All you have to do is admit that you killed Cristobal, admit that you fucked up, admit that you were scared, that you hate yourself, that there’s some days you don’t think you deserve to live. And the only thing that’ll make you forget is by being someone else.”

Hank wants none of it. There are consequences.

 

 



Now, this wasn’t how the series ultimately ended. Still more grisly jolts are in store. But it figured that Fuches would use his curtain call to sum up the self-deluding, perpetually denying soul of present-day America. Keep his monologue in mind as 2024 unravels like a soggy bedsheet.

 

 

 

 


Scavengers Reign – Further proof that science fiction flourishes best in a television series format, the better to let ideas and themes grow, bend, and metamorphose in the same manner as the flora and fauna on the planet Vesta Minor, where survivors of the calamitous wreck of the cargo ship Demeter 227 are scattered and struggling to cope with the planet’s astounding and hazardous ecosystem. Horror and wonder are weaved into Joseph Bennett and Charles Huettner IV’s conception with as much fascinating dexterity as the characters’ complications which are themselves transformed by the intractable natural elements coming at them from all sides. Even Levi, the dutiful and empathetic AI, is as susceptible to transformation through Vesta’s organic matter as the humans. Whether the changes are good or bad are difficult to gauge; in fact, “good” or “bad” turn out to have as little use in classifying the survivors as the wildlife. The gorgeous animation, owing as much to the comic strips of Jean “Moebius” Girard as to the films of Studio Ghibli, keeps you alert to illumination and revulsion. Because of the relentless progression of new exotica at every narrative corner, you shouldn’t be surprised if, upon encountering the first of this series’ 12 installments, you find yourself compelled to stay with it all the way through. Nor should you be surprised if, after you’re done, you have a whole new reverence for Earth’s increasingly vulnerable ecosystem, which, as with Vesta Minor’s, should be properly regarded as a single living entity worth engaging at eye level.

 

 


Apple TV – I still believe Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the See It Now of the 21st century (and if you don’t know what I mean by that exalted comparison, let’s go to the kinescope one more time). But occasionally, the host will get a little Too Extra for his, or his show’s own good. Recently, Oliver declared that Apple TV carries shows nobody wants to watch, hammering home the point by saying the streaming network is where celebrities go to hide. I get it, on some level. They canned Jon Stewart, and it’s understandable that Oliver would take the spiked baseball bat out of the glass case to vent his displeasure on behalf of the mensch who made him the force for good he is today. But were I he (sic), I’d think more than twice about that “nobody wants to watch” slur. As I write this, I am happily engrossed in both season three of Slow Horses and season four of For All Mankind and have gone through several digital hoops when away from home to make sure I don’t miss a single installment. Also, I’ve found myself keeping up with series that, however unpromising they seemed at first, got their hooks into me even with their quirks and shortcomings jutting out at odd places. I’m thinking principally of Ted Lasso, which overcame some glitches at the start of its third and final season to bring everybody home literally, figuratively, and, in general, smoothly. And despite what Oliver alleges about the network keeping its talent buried, it was the surprising strength of some big-name performers that carried me through their respective shows. Harrison Ford’s droll, affably wooly presence on Shrinking compensated for much of that series’ overreaching New Age-y kitsch and once Brie Larson’s character shook away the icy veneer on Lessons in Chemistry, her magnetism and charm held the show together. The network even carries what may well be my all-time favorite hate-watch series in The Morning Show, exactly none of whose characters make me want to let them into my foyer, much less my living room. And yet Billy Crudup, as the network president, is having such an insanely good time playing the leering, unapologetically two-faced butthole that every time he exits a scene I feel like applauding. Granted, it’s not Paramount/Showtime, FX or HBO Max — but then again, HBO Max doesn’t feel much like HBO used to be, as even John Oliver might agree.


 


Jeffrey Wright – Thelonious Ellison, the character Wright plays in American Fiction, bears the first and last names of artists who, among their many achievements, gave permission to subsequent generations of artists to be as crazy and individualistic as they need to be. Such empowerment isn’t enough for “Monk” Ellison whose complex, resolutely philosophic novels confuse so many people that booksellers put them in the African American section only because he’s Black. But not Black enough until…well, you can read about it here. The point to be made here is that Wright’s whole career has been made up of characters you don’t expect him to play, whether it’s Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig Bond movies or the odd amalgam of A.J. Liebling and James Baldwin he portrays in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021) or the enigmatic man-machine doppelganger Arnold Weber/Bernard Lowe on HBO’s Westworld. Wright’s ability to contain giant waves of emotional complexity has expanded possibilities in almost the same manner as Thelonious Ellison’s two namesakes. As with all great actors, Wright’s brilliance shines even in the tightest, narrowest corners, notably in his portrayal of the flamboyant Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Rustin where the legendary Harlem congressman’s cruel mischief oozes like spilled honey on an expensive carpet. It’s one of those mesmerizing cameos you wish you could pull away from the rest of the movie to expand into a full-length feature all its own. But why stop with Adam Powell? If we’re all serious about widening the stage and screen for color-blind casting, why not place Wright in the role of that great American exemplar of conflicting motives Richard Milhous Nixon? Is it possible that Wright’s Nixon could go deep and broad enough to cut such accomplished renderings as those of Lane Smith, Frank Langella, Dan Hedaya, or even Wright’s old Westworld boss Anthony Hopkins? I wouldn’t bet against him.



Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2023

There’s been so much wonderful music out and about this year that I could have easily plucked a few more from my runners-up without losing any sleep. (A motif to which, as with others baked into this year’s blog, we shall, in roundabout manner, return.) And not to sound like a broken record, as it were, but you wonder why with so much talent and achievement coming from so many directions and from so many generations, jazz remains an afterthought, a marginal presence in the global marketplace. Unless I’m mistaken, nobody’s yet asked Esperanza Spalding – sorry, esperanza spalding – to headline a Super Bowl halftime show. Or even an NBA All-Star Weekend. At least, she headlines this list, or, more accurately, shares top billing.
But then, I often wonder whether music, any music, has much of a place in people’s lives these days. If whatever I’ve been seeing lately on Saturday Night Live’s musical guest shots are any indication, presentation and fashion are what matter more than whatever sounds are being made. (I know, I know, whatever the hell am I doing watching Saturday Night Live lately in the first place? Can’t blame COVID anymore, even if it doesn’t seem to have gone away after all…) So maybe it’s no longer just jazz –whatever people believe it to be – that’s getting hit in the face; it’s all the other genres that are now all merely boutiques. There are now college curricula in Hip-Hop History in case you haven’t heard.


Maybe this explains why lately I’ve been thinking about the way past generations, including mine, used to buy records. Briefly: you went to whatever outlet or department store had people you could trust, and you hung out, browsed, and maybe something was playing in the background that made you go, “What’s that?” The people you trusted were happy to not only tell you, but bring out a fresh copy of the thing that turned our head and you decided you needed to take this “ride” home. And then you shared it with other people who trusted you and maybe if there were little people in your house, they would hear it and start getting ideas…


My origin story. If you’re reading this, it’s probably yours, too.


I don’t know what the equivalent of this process is today unless you count tweets and Bandcamp messages in whatever in-box you reserve for such intelligence. I only know it’s not the same and neither is the world that make those earlier, more haphazard encounters possible.


All I know is that the Good Stuff still somehow makes it out and about. Think of me, then, as that guy in the department store or record outlet – whatever that is – tilting his head at the turntable in the corner. Like that? There’s some more over here…

 

 




1.) Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto) – You need to give this one to the wisenheimers in your life demanding to know what’s so special about jazz, or even what jazz is. It’s possible these people at least remember hearing Barack Obama profess affection for Spalding while he was still president; maybe they’ve heard or even seen live performances of her varied bands showcasing her upright bass, acrobatic vocals, and varied ensembles. For this bare-bones live set at jazz’s Holy Dive with the redoubtable pianist Hersch, Spalding left her bass at home and what results from their collaboration – which I’ve been labeling “Herschsperanza,” and try and stop me from obtaining a copyright! – may be the grandest, most insurgent act of her still-ascendant career. Traditional pop standards are blown up, rewoven, and all-but terraformed into audacious counter-narratives through the interaction of Hersch’s polymorphic variations and Spalding’s serpentine, uproarious digressions. From Ira Gershwin’s lines of “But Not For Me” (“I was a fool to fall and get that way/Hi-ho, alas, and also lack-a-day”), Spalding extrapolates the following strain of vocalese: “Oh, me. Oh, my. What a sad case I seem to be. It’s my fault, letting love to lead the way. I should know that there’ll be skies of gray. I can’t say I’ve seen too many, but they say that Russian plays do boast of many gray skies, all right – and then some words I don’t really understand because it’s, like, old English – hi-ho, alas, and lackaday. That’s how I feel, confused about the whole situation…” She carries this willed ingenuity into smart-alecky battle against Bobby Troup’s ring-a-ding lyrics on Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk, which in her hands becomes a twelve-minute proto-feminist interrogation of male presumptiveness, at one point, veering into issues of “economic sustainability. Reduce, Reuse. Recycle…Am I lying?” while still riding the song’s theme and changes as if she were on a thoroughbred leading the Preakness by a length-and-a-half. Charlie Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes,” in like fashion, weaves a dream of dancing in suede shoes just as Hersch’s “Dream of Monk” becomes, with Spalding’s vocals, a clarion call for diligent, if circumspect weirdness. These tracks were culled from a three-night engagement, and I bet those in attendance felt as you will when this album ends: wishing these two crazy kids never stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 



2.) Matthew Shipp, The Intrinsic Nature of Shipp (Mahakala) –Three years ago, Shipp wrote an intriguing essay/manifesto, “Black Mystery School Pianists” (Monk, Herbie Nichols, Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Hassan Ibn Ali, to name a few examples) who each cultivated willfully idiosyncratic styles constituting “the subconscious of the jazz idiom…a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream.” Shipp’s own body-of-work over the last quarter-century so exemplifies this subversive counter-tradition he’s defined that it’s tempting to think of him as its apotheosis, especially when weighing the considerable assets of this latest solo album, which could be a kind of hypertext to his essay. The performances here feel at once more expansive and more challenging than usual. While he can still pile on the tone clusters with his customary intensity, as on the aptly named “Crystal Structures,” Shipp here lets more air and space flow and settle in his thematic extensions as with the graceful and intricate “That Vibration” and in his enigmatic montage of fugitive riffs on “The” – yes, that’s what it’s called and whatever mood he’s in, there abides in Shipp a punkish “what’s-it-to-you” impertinence hat, oddly and appropriately, makes him more endearing, whether he’s throwing down the sledgehammer on “The Bulldozer Poetics” or letting his ruminative side reach for deeper, wider tonal combinations on “Tune Into It.” Shipp cherishes his “Mystery School” progenitors for giving him permission to be as mad, bad, glad, and unpredictable as he wants, and needs, to be. However far he continues to expand on this tradition (and there’s a lot about this album that suggests a transition, even a breakthrough), this school won’t close with him. And times being what they are, I think the school will only increase its enrollment because there’ll always be outliers in America’s backyards and basements searching, as Shipp once did, for affirmation that it’s not only O.K. to be as weird as Thelonious, Herbie, and the rest, it’s necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



3.) Jason Moran, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield (Yes) – Visionary badass James Reese Europe (1881-1919) helped make the American Century possible, though you likely never heard of him. He journeyed from his native Alabama to New York in his early 20s to write and conduct show music, then organized the Clef Club, an ambitious collective of Black musicians, whose dance orchestra, 125 members strong, performed a significant recital at Carnegie Hall. His ensembles bent the angularities of ragtime closer towards the looser, more propulsive syncopations shaping the jazz to come. He fought in World War I and organized the 369th Infantry Band, better known as the “Hellfighters.” He hadn’t been back home in Harlem for very long before he was stabbed to death, at just 38, by a drummer incensed with the boss’s criticisms of his on-stage deportment. You would think that a legend of this magnitude yielded dozens of contemporary tribute albums by now, if not a whole Netflix series. But you would also figure that Moran, an artist of comparable vision, would leap to the forefront of an eclectic parade in Europe’s honor, carrying the Hellfighter’s legacy across the century by seamlessly fusing Europe’s arrangement of “Ballin’ the Jack” with the late Geri Allen’s rousing standard “Feed the Fire.” A similar, even greater melding of different eras is executed with Europe’s paean to fallen soldiers, “Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain” transitioning to Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” with solicitousness and intelligence towards both forms of 20th century modernism. Throughout, Moran’s wide-ranging pianistic gifts and crafty showmanship honors tradition and extends its possibilities with neither undue solemnity nor gratuitous flourish and his various ensembles, anchored by longtime trio mates bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits and including David Adewumi on trumpet, Reginald Cyntje and Chris Bates on trombones, Logan Richardson on alto sax, Brian Settles on tenor sax, Darryl Harper on clarinet, José Davila (about whom more later) on tuba, acquit themselves on “Clef Club March,” “Castle House Rag,” “St. Louis Blues” and “That Moaning Trombone” with discipline and energy that would have mightily pleased the demanding Europe. (Available on vinyl and from Bandcamp.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



4.) Henry Threadgill Ensemble, The Other One (PI) – The best jazz book I read this past year is Easily Slip Into Another World (Knopf), Threadgill’s autobiography, written with Brett Hayes Edwards. If you only knew Threadgill’s music, for which he’s already received the Pulitzer Prize, you could have surmised he had an extraordinary life. But…wow! Growing up musical in Chicago and helping create the seminal Association for the advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) before touring with an evangelical preacher in the mid-1960s and then heading off to Vietnam, hoping to survive jungle combat and racism…And even these experiences, however vividly rendered, are no less significant than all his spellbinding insights into modernism, improvisation, and using time and space to extend harmonic possibilities. Not that you couldn’t retrieve some of those same insights from listening to this three-movement composition, “On Valence,” conducted by Threadgill, rendered by an arresting 12-member combination of musicians, including pianist Davis Virelles, violinist Sara Caswell (about whom more later), violist Stephanie Griffin, cellists Christopher Hoffman and Mariel Roberts, and Threadgill’s longtime tuba player Jose Davilo. Even bassoonists Sara Schoenbeck and Adam Cordero are given opportunities to break off into their own intricate, elegantly woven musings. The 16-minute “Movement II” is a tour-de-force of roiling, extemporaneous interplay of the string section with saxophonists Alfredo Colón, Noah Becker, and Peyton Pleninger Each movement and subsection can be heard as episodes in an edge-of-the-seat pursuit thriller and its myriad arcane pleasures may be more accessible. But then, even at its most abstract and inscrutable, Threadgill’s music, in any configuration, finds a way of inviting you in. At the precipice of 80, Threadgill’s compositional powers seem, if anything, more formidable than ever. And as both his book and this album prove, he’s a helluva storyteller, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 


5.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension (Nonesuch) – So let’s see: Buckminster Fuller, Levon Helm, Mae West, Bob Brookmeyer, Alan Turing…The far-flung subject matter for this wild and, yes, somewhat wooly program of inspirational big-band adventures comes across like a code waiting to be deciphered. Indeed, the first track on the second disc, a tribute to Turing, whose genius helped break down the Nazis, is entitled “Codebreaker” and its opening bars dare you to write out whatever combination of words and numbers its beat is tapping out – except you’ll be too busy digging that beat to care whether it means anything or not. The pleasures are constant, the inventions surprise. “Dymaxion,” a portmanteau of the album title, was coined by Fuller the merry futurist and the rhythmic mischief makes you alert to possibility and transfiguration throughout from “All In,” a tribute to charter Secret Society member Laurie Frank, to “Last Waltz for Levon,” which honors the memory of the late drummer for The Band to “Wingèd Beasts,” whose silky, tendril-like design is reminiscent of Brookmeyer’s arrangements for Gerry Mulligan’s big bands. Elsewhere, Cecile McLorin Salvant (about whom more later) drops by for “Mae West: Advice,” to have her impudent fun with Paisley Rekdal’s dada-like lyrics mimicking La West’s saucy bon mots (“…date a cad and canoodle/be éclat on a cot…”) As brainy as Argue’s music is, thematically and conceptually, it never fails to hit and sustain a solid groove, even on the epic, near-35-minute “Tensile Curves,” an anthology of tension-release motifs, time signatures, and riff extensions inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Once again, you’ll be tempted to take the track apart, shove its fragments beneath an ontological microscope, and probe for methodology by virtue of its sheer dimension. But as with everything else in this bountiful, sunny exhibition of relentless virtuosity and cheeky intelligence, you’re better off just letting the orchestrations wash over and carry you along with its most of its mysteries intact and undisturbed. Not for nothing, after all, does Argue’s 18-piece aggregation roam the Earth as a “Secret Society.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


6.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch) – She keeps raising the stakes on her range of expression, her repertoire, and her conceptual prowess, both as a vocalist and as a maker of albums. Once again, she shows her fearlessness in not doing the same thing twice with this daring, almost imposing array of French chanson and other music woven around the record’s eponymous half-woman-half-serpent mythic figure from the 14th century. (The short version: she turned into a dragon and flew away after her duplicitous lover came upon her snake-like part.) The song cycle fashioned to tell her story begins with “Est-Ce Ainsi Que Les Hommes Vivent” (“Is This the Way Men Live?”) with lyrics by Louis Aragon and music by Leo Ferre, which is followed closely by Charles Trenet’s “La Route Enchantée” and eventually to Mélusine posing the musical question, “Dites Moi Que Je Suis Belle” (“Tell Me I’m Beautiful”), carrying echoes of Salvant’s “Look at Me” from her 2015 For One to Love. Which is as good a prompt as any to how the singer’s gifts as a composer meld so seamlessly with those of the French composers she honors here, most especially in the startlingly gorgeous title song, which she performs bilingually with only Daniel Swenberg’s acoustic guitar as backup. It would be tempting to say that Salvant, like her heroine here, has taken flight it weren’t for the fact – yes, an irrefutable fact – that she is already her own mighty legend, majestically soaring several hundred miles above any vocalist in any medium you can name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


7.) Sara Caswell, The Way to You (Anzic) – One of those cases where a seasoned, resourceful instrumentalist is matched with a first-rate supporting cast (vibraphonist Chris Dingman as special guest star!) and a far-flung itinerary of genres and styles. And what you get is an album that refuses to sit quietly on the shelf all year long. Caswell’s clear tone, fluid dynamics, and agile phrasing on the violin are what you needed all year round, whether to paint sonic landscapes you can imagine drifting by your car window (“South Shore”), pull your coat in frisky, breathless give-and-take on a crowded dance floor (“7 Anéis”), tear off an aromatic slice of classic hard bop (“Voyage” by Kenny Barron – about whom more later), or bathe the senses in balladry, by turns probing (”Stillness”), impassioned (“O Que Tinha De Ser,” “On the Way to You”), and pastoral (“Warren’s Way”). Caswell led her working quartet of bassist Ike Sturm, drummer Jared Schonig, and guitarist Jesse Lewis for a project that, if the album notes are to be believed, took 17 years to put together. She’s very busy; her dance card has names like the aforementioned Threadgill, Spalding and Argue, and prominent jazz bandleaders crowded all along the genre waterfront in pursuit of her services. I speak here only for myself, but I hope it doesn’t take as long for a follow-up to materialize, even though I don’t expect to get tired of this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


8.) Kenny Barron, The Source (Artwork) – The first thing to mention is the gorgeous acoustics. I’ve never actually been to the Théâtre d’Athenéé in Paris, but after diving deep into this solo recital countless times over the past year, the place is as familiar to me as my family’s basement rec room (where, by the way, I first heard Barron’s piano comping on Joe Henderson’s 1967 album, The Kicker.) As with his immediate surroundings, Professor Barron conveys an imposing, but expansive familiarity in his playing. And yet, as much as you think you may already know about the Strayhorn-Ellington standards, “Daydream” and “Isfahan,” Barron burrows deep within the contours of their melodies rather than spin into virtuosic inventions. The corners, this approach insists, is where you find the gold. He also reasserts his primacy as an interpreter of Monk’s music, speaking fluent Thelonious (while remaining his elegant. dryly romantic self) on “Teo” and “Well, You Needn’t.” But it’s in Barron’s own beautiful and haunting compositions where what once seems familiar is transformed into something you never heard before. “Dolores Street, SF”is a fog-shrouded dawn over a landscape huge enough to contain both possibility and loss and he has you on the edge of your seat wondering how, or if, it reaches resolution. The Brazilian-inflected “Sunshower” has a different, downward trajectory that puts forth its own bittersweet lyricism while the jocular “What If?” and the eerie “Phantoms” are reinvigorated by Barron’s authoritative progressions. The master, all told, is in wondrously durable voice and leaves you waiting for more surprises, alone or with others.

 

 

 

 

 

 



9.) Anat Fort Trio, The Berlin Sessions (Sunnyside) – The world as we know it has been all too much with Israeli pianist Fort, who was forced by the 2020 lockdown to be separated from bassist Gary Lang and drummer Roland Schneider after two decades of working together. Two-and-a-half years later, they reunited in Munich for a one-time gig and then headed for Berlin’s Hansa Studios to release what was apparently a metric ton of pent-up energy. In these sessions, you hear the joy, relief, and exuberance in being able to let chance take its course and play freely with whatever ideas and phrases materialize in their shared space. “First Dance” sets off a four-part, 16-minute suite of reacquaintance that gives the group a chance to loosen up, pitch, catch, and spin off each other’s ideas and, as the cliché goes, it’s as though they’ve never been away from each other. Once they’re settled in, the trio settles in for another series of pieces written by Fort and inspired by pieces of eastern art at New York’s Rubin Museum, making “The Jain Suite” its own gallery of insinuating harmonic and tonal designs. The reunion spills over into another disc with a rollicking blend of Fort originals (“Wish Cloud,” “Fire Drill Blues”), a matched set of old (“All the Things You Are”) and (relatively) new (“Just The Way You Are”) pop standards delivered with conviction and affection, and even a little something from Level 42 (“The Sun Goes Down”) What made this trio session stand out so starkly from others released this year are two meditative pieces that seemed especially affecting given the violent upheavals in Fort’s homeland: “Oseh Shalom,” a rendition of composer Nurit Hirsh’s prayer for peace, and “The World as a Human Being,” which comes across as both a somber lament for squandered opportunities and a defiant plea for renewal and resolution. At least, that’s what I heard. But, as a listener, I’m part of this collaborative process, too.

 

 

 

 

 



10.) Allen Lowe & the Constant Sorrow Orchestra, In the Dark (ESP) – These three discs celebrate (if that’s the right word) a more arduous recovery process. Lowe, a protean composite of saxophonist, bandleader, archivist, producer, composer, sound engineer, musicologist, cultural historian, and gadfly (still not sure whether he altogether approves of my using that last one) has had to somehow persevere through these myriad vocations while undergoing more than a dozen operations for cancer, including surgery for removal of a tumor from his sinus. This left Lowe with a debilitating case of insomnia in which he was at best able to doze for minutes at a time, said times being as early at 5 a.m. or as late as, well, 5 a.m. Throughout this harrowing time, Lowe somehow kept writing and composing music and, with the help of his faithful and highly adaptable musician friends – pianist (and fellow musicologist) Lewis Porter, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, altoist Aaron Johnson, drummer Rob Landis, bassist Kyle Colina, trombonist Brian Simontacchi, trumpeter Kellin Hannas, and baritone saxist Lisa Parrott – assembled a formidably eclectic bounty of recordings that manage to evoke several traditions of jazz and blues in ways that sound both cutting edge and mischievously retro in the manner of Lowe’s previous projects. (In case you need it, there’s even a tango called “Velasco’s Revenge.”) Scattered throughout are compositions prefaced by “In the Dark” suggesting they were written at those midnight-or-later hours when he couldn’t sleep. The rest of those titles suggest his moods of those moments; on the one hand, there are “Night Terrors,” “Tears,” and “; on the other, there’s “Dance of the Apparitions” and “Elvis Don’t you Weep.” Along with the tributes to Eric Dolphy, Barry Harris, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington, there are other crafty gnomish tunes with such crafty gnomish titles as “Kickin’ the Bucket,” “Innuendo in Blue,” “Blues for Old Jews,” and “Do You Know What It Means to Leave New Orleans,” the latter of which could be a teaser for his long-awaited Louis Armstrong project. Yes, he’s working as you read this, despite the ongoing physical challenges and, lest one forget, he sounds pretty good on his tenor saxophone for somebody who’s been through as much as he has.

 

 

 

 



HONORABLE MENTION: Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Continuing (PI), Myra Melford’s Fire & Water Quintet, Hear the Light Singing (RogueArt), Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Prime (Mack Avenue), Brad Mehldau, Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays the Beatles (Nonesuch), Kris Davis’s Diatom Ribbons, Live at the Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic), Orrin Davis, The Red Door (Smoke Sessions) Craig Taborn, Joëlle Léandre, Mat Maneri, hEARoes (RogueArt).


VOCAL
Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto)
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch)
Luciana Sousa & Trio Corrente, Cometa (Sunnyside)

 

 


LATIN
Miguel Zenon & Luis Perdomo, El Arte del Bolero, Vol. 2 (Miel Music)
Luciana Sousa & Trio Corrente, Cometa (Sunnyside)
Arturo O’Farrill, Legacies (Blue Note)

 

 

 

 



HISTORIC
Geri Allen & Kurt Rosenwinkel, A Lovesome Thing (Motema)
Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1966-1968 (Jazz Detective)
Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Jazz in Silhouette: Expanded Edition (Cosmic Myth) 

“The Future of The Future is the Present”: Tuning Back to Marshall McLuhan

 

 

 

I discovered Marshall McLuhan where you were supposed to: on television. It was during the late winter of 1967 in what was in those days referred to as the Sunday afternoon “ghetto” for “highbrow” programming. The series was called NBC Experiment in Television and it featured everything from absurdist theater to unknown Black writers in Watts workshopping their poetry and prose. Even then, my teeming high-school-age brain was a sucker for eclecticism served up fresh and hot and that lizard brain somehow seemed especially primed for a white middle-aged Canadian college professor shooting off aphoristic sparklers about my best and most faithful pal, TV, and why it mattered.

 

 

 


The show was called “This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage” which was basically a filmed adaptation of the paperback book with the same title (the latter half, anyway) and whose hip, flashy visual design was laid out by Quentin Fiore. But the book and the documentary ramped up the heat on McLuhan’s then-burgeoning fame for his ideas about “hot” and “cool” mediums; how electronic media has all but overrun print’s autonomy over civilization and that mass communication has transformed the world into a “global village” that is, as McLuhan characterized it in the film and elsewhere, “as wide as the planet and as small as a little town where everybody is engaged in everybody else’s business.”

 

 

 

 


I was so dazzled by it all that I not only secured a copy of that slick little book as soon as I could get my hands on it, but I wrote my senior AP term paper on McLuhan three years later. On a typewriter, of course, because who knew from computers back then except as those big blocky things with magnetic tape at my father’s workplace. (He, by the way, dug most of what McLuhan was laying down on that NBC special, even if he wasn’t entirely sure of all the specifics.) I ended up reading some of the McLuhan books with no pictures like Understanding Media (1964) and even The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). even if I ended up cherry-picking my way through the latter for material that I found mostly to be similar, at times word for word, as the later book.

 

 

 

 


Which was a big reason why my teenage self connected with him. Even without pictures and fancy graphics to augment it, McLuhan’s prose was what many readers, pro and con, called mosaic-like; I’m guessing what they meant was the way his oracular, inscrutable assertions and observations swooped, doubled back, and swooped again (in case you didn’t get them the first time) in flashy, sometimes puffy and dense, but riveting patterns, much like the panels in the Marvel comic books I was devouring at about the same time. He kept you reading for the same reason as Tom Wolfe, one of his first promotors (“What If He is Right?”). Put a toga on him and the Romans would have had to invent their own word for “beatnik” to classify him.

Even at the time I wrote my school paper, he was getting divebombed by scholars and various other defenders of the status-quo believing him to be too slick to be taken seriously. They thought he was a charlatan, spinning the kind of buzzy phrases (“hot” and “cool” mediums, “global village,” “participation mystique,”) that only baby boomers and the advertising agencies that  catered to them could embrace as higher wisdom. I might even have mentioned some of these qualms in my paper, though I’m sure that if I did, I chose to give them cursory attention.


Still, for most of what was left of the 20th century, cursory attention is what I mostly gave McLuhan and his vision of the future. Like everybody else who saw Annie Hall in 1977, I was charmed by Woody Allen dragging him from off-screen to suavely scold the obnoxious pedant waiting in line to see a movie about knowing “nothing of my ideas,” even though in the years since, I’ve wondered how much space in the soul of that same movie’s writer-director-star is rented by said pedant. The year before, I remember being pleasantly surprised that McLuhan’s observations of the Carter-Ford presidential debate, as registered the morning after on the Today show, were as sour as my own.

But as the 20th century wound down and the 21st began, McLuhan himself seemed less present in the culture than his observations – most of which, thanks to the Internet and its myriad spoils, were coming true. As one writer put it, we were too busy living out McLuhan’s prophecies to go back and read them. Or watch them.

Until I did, for the first time in over fifty years. It’s no longer a matter of, as Tom Wolfe asked, “What If He Is Right?” It’s how “right” is he? Watch the show above. Now watch this excerpt from a 1966 interview. Think he’s just talking about TV? He’s also talking about the Internet…and AI

 

 

Seymour Movies Struggles to Stay Intrigued by 2023 Oscars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 2023 Oscar ceremonies bear down on us all like a vacant, runaway bus on an oil-slicked interstate. And yet, people still can’t stop nattering about what happened at the 2022 ceremonies, when somebody’s husband got so mad at somebody else’s bad joke at her expense that he bitch-slapped that somebody else while ABC did its gosh-darndest to keep us from seeing it happen. Now the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences have assembled a “crisis team” to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Too bad. They could use the ratings. And they know it.

For yet another year, the Academy Awards stagger into view beneath a fog of uncertainty as to whether they should continue to exist at all. In a recent interview, erstwhile Paramount Pictures honcho Barry Diller declared awards season “an antiquity”, along with the movie industry that kept them propped up for more than a century. The business model, Diller says, of a movie “going to a theater, building up some word of mouth if it was successful, having that word of mouth carry itself over” has been overpowered by streams, clouds, and movie theaters closing in America and abroad as a reverberating byproduct of the COVID-19 lockdown. The very definition of a “movie,” he adds, “is in such transition that it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

He’s right, of course. And yet, here we are again, rewiring this tired old circuitry to get audiences in the mood for another night of triumph, tears, suspense, and whatever else Oscar hype used to promise. What’s kind of ironic, if not all that significant, is that this year, there may be real suspense in a few of the major categories given the mixed results along the way in the awards leading up to March 12. As of this writing, all the trade publications and prognosticators are certain Everything Everywhere All at Once will win everything, everywhere, etc. As you’ll note below, I’m not as convinced, at least not for Best Picture.

I’m also not convinced that this will be the last Academy Awards broadcast, nor, for that matter, the next one, or the one after that. Because, as wobbly as things are with the Oscars, and as more people, even movie lovers, wish they would go away already, no one seems to have any ideas as to what, if anything, would fill the void they would leave behind. As with newspapers, all-star games, and other institutions struggling for new identities in the still-new century, the very nature of what a “movie” is and what the criteria is for assessing its value, artistically or commercially is, unavoidably, under review in several quarters. Whatever the case, the movie business as we once knew it may be dying, but movies are not; any more than opera, live theater, even the damn novel, all of which persist, despite no longer occupying the center of the zeitgeist.

In fact, what is a zeitgeist these days anyhow? If the Oscars are little more than a lame excuse to avoid dealing with that question, then, they’re good for something after all.

As always, projected winners are listed in bold with FWIW (For Whatever Its Worth) notes added whenever I feel like it. 


Best Picture

All Quiet on the Western Front
Avatar: The Way of Water
The Banshees of Inesherin
Elvis
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans
Tár
Top Gun: Maverick
Triangle of Sadness
Women Talking

Let’s get this party started by clambering out on a limb. As I’m writing this, the Screen Actors Guild, the Producers Guild of America, and the Directors Guild of America have all given their top honors to Everything Everywhere All at Once with BAFTA dissenting by making All Quiet on the Western Front its choice for Best Picture. That digression, though hardly major, should be a hint that this season’s predictions shouldn’t be, if not set in stone, certainly written in ink. As the New York Times’s Kyle Buchannan tweeted, not since Apollo 13 swept the PGA, DGA, and SAG’s top prizes 28 years ago has a movie winning those awards fell short of winning the Best Picture Oscar. On the one hand, that’s a formidable precedent; on the other, if it happened at least once before…

At the risk of repeating myself (at least to those of you who’ve been paying attention to my annual dithering on these things), the Oscars, even in their present emaciated state, are trade awards, first, foremost, and for however long they go on. In the medium’s customary tug-of-war between Art and Commerce, the latter tends to have the upper hand in the Academy’s consideration. Neither the media nor the moviegoing public are factors in the voting except for those parts of the latter group with craft union cards within the moviemaking industry. Thus, most of the Academy’s final decisions have less to do with the quality of a motion picture and more to do with assessing its overall impact on their industry’s future. Hence, I put it to you: which of these eight movies has done more to bolster whatever’s left of the movie business’s sagging confidence?


Before you answer, I need to remind you that at this year’s annual Oscars luncheon, TG:M’s co-producer and star Tom Cruise made the biggest splash among its record-breaking 182 attendees; he was the Big Man On Campus, its Belle of the Ball, with none of the baggage he’s had to lug over the past 20 years. In a year with as many wide-open categories as this, the top prize may be the widest and most open of the competitions, excepting the feature documentaries. Draw your own conclusions, but at this moment, I can easily see Captain Maverick and his squadron booming and zooming to the winner’s circle. And because the movie was better than anybody had the right to expect, it wouldn’t be the most embarrassing Best Picture award in Oscar history. Too many others compete for that dubious honor.


FWIW: I doubt Prey or Nope, two of my own favorite movies from last year, would have made this list; nor would the tightly wound and ferociously topical Emily the Criminal and the sumptuously Hitchcockian detective story from Korea Decision to Leave. What all these had in common, as far as I was concerned, was a sense of each movie going about its business, doing what needed to be done in their allotted time, and keeping their audiences alert for surprise and possibility within tight corners. In short, they were the kind of movies I sought out in theaters or drive-ins in an earlier, different life.




Best Director

Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inesherin
Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans
Todd Field, Tár
Ruben Öslund, Triangle of Sadness

Fablemans is a Steven Spielberg movie about Steven Spielberg. Some people have a problem with this, and I don’t know why. It’s not getting skunked the same way that his remake of West Side Story did a couple years ago. But you’d think a love letter to movies and moviemaking would be a slam dunk with voters. Instead, Team Daniel has been riding in triumph throughout awards season and there’s not so much as a pebble to trip them up to the winner’s circle.


Best Actor

 



Austin Butler, Elvis
Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin
Brendan Fraser, The Whale
Paul Mescal, Aftersun
Bill Nighy, Living

At the start, this category appeared to belong to Farrell or Fraser, whose SAG win may have put him back in play. But maybe it’s kind of a retroactive referendum on what people admired more about Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Jake La Motta in 1980’s Raging Bull. Was it the all-out depiction in La Motta’s volatile personality or was it the fact that De Niro invested so deeply into the role that he made himself gain weight? Guess we’ll see.


Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Tár
Ana de Armas, Blonde
Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie
Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans
Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everybody I know, including me, is rooting for Yeoh, though Blanchett’s been mounting a doughty and, it would appear, successful campaign to dispel the negative vibes her movie stirred up in the classical music community. Cate’s BAFTA win teases us into thinking this will be a photo finish, but somehow, I doubt it’ll be that close


FWIW: Every year, the Oscars always seem to single out a “little” movie with a broken, put-upon protagonist struggling with some malady that s/he cannot control until they find redemption at the end. This year, that movie is To Leslie and its principal beneficiary is Andrea Riseborough, whose controversial nomination came through an eleventh-hour campaign with big names (Kate Winslet, Amy Adams, and Gwyneth Paltrow among them) pushing her over. This in turn led to cries of foul, especially among the #OscarSoWhite veterans believing Risborough’s candidacy came at the expense of such Oscar-worthy lead performances as those of Danielle Deadwyler (Till) and Viola Davis (The Woman King), both of whom were nominated for SAG Awards, but lost to Yeoh. Till’s director Chinonye Chukwu accused Hollywood of “unabashed misogyny towards Black women.” She’s not altogether wrong. But it doesn’t mean Riseborough’s nomination is a manifestation of this prejudice. It’s legit. You come away from To Leslie with Riseborough’s all-out investment in her serial-fuck-up character resonating in your head. Do I think she’s better than Blanchett or Yeoh? Apples and oranges. Do I think Deadwyler was better in her movie than Riseborough was in hers? I’d say it’s a draw. Do I think Davis was better in Woman King? You bet I do because, as I’ve stated before on this platform, Viola Davis is God! Then again, I also would have wanted Aubrey Plaza represented here for Emily the Criminal. But who cares what I want? Not Hollywood. That, as we were once fond of saying, is show biz and biz-ness of any kind rarely plays fair. So, I say kudos to the coalition behind Riseborough for making their push. Someday soon, Black and Brown people will make their own Riseborough uprising because of the precedent it set. To repeat: that’s show biz.


Best Supporting Actor

 

 



Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin
Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway
Judd Hirsch, The Fabelmans
Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin
Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

By now, a foregone conclusion. And, as with last year’s winner in this category, it’s also a great story: the little boy émigré from Vietnam who played Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Down hitting the jackpot forty years later. Fun fact: Jeff Cohen, who played Chunk to his Data in 1985’s The Goonies, is now his lawyer.

FWIW: Keoghan was a surprise BAFTA winner in this category, and it may be because his poignant presence shined through the outsized personalities of Banshees’ two stars. He’ll get some attention, but, in many ways, he’s already won. As for Paper Boi (Henry), his day’s coming. Count on it.


Best Supporting Actress

 

 



Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Hong Chau, The Whale
Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Ineisherin
Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Curtis’s SAG award shouldn’t have come as a surprise. For starters, she’s totally unrecognizable in the movie, at least at first. And Oscar loves it when the glamorous go all out to distort themselves on camera, especially when, in Curtis’s case, they’re Hollywood royalty. I’m now feeling it’s hers to lose. Bassett’s infusion of power and vulnerability helps ground what could have been an unwieldy popcorn blockbuster and made her an early favorite. But the MCU can’t withstand the accumulated might of ancestral movie legacy. Not this time, anyway.

Best Adapted Screenplay

 

 



All Quiet on the Western Front
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Living
Top Gun: Maverick
Women Talking

On the one hand, giving an Oscar to a Nobel Prize winner like Kazuo Ishiguro (Living) would show elevated thinking on Hollywood’s part. On the other, Sarah Polley has quietly, diligently proven herself to be one of the world’s best writer-directors and I can’t see her walking away empty-handed from another one of these ceremonies.


Best Original Screenplay

The Banshees of Inisherin
Everything, Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans
Tár
Triangle of Sadness

Anything with Martin McDonagh’s name on it is all but automatically placed in this category’s pole position. This one’s an odd chamber piece, an astringent, overextended Laurel and Hardy sketch in which you actually feel the bumps on the noggin and see all the bruises, physical and otherwise. However thin the gruel, I can easily see it winning, though there’s always a chance that the momentum of EEAAO (“…with a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there…”) could sweep this one up.


Best International Feature

All Quiet on the Western Front
Argentina 1985
Close
EO
The Quiet Girl

Given a Best Picture BAFTA and eight other nominations, Edward Berger’s graphic, devastating take on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is the surest bet on the table.


Best Animated Feature

 

 


Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
The Sea Beast
Turning Red


I feel relatively alone in asserting that this spikier, darker take on The Puppet Who Wanted to Be a Real Boy may have been a more imaginative and adventurous movie than any of the Best Picture nominees if only in the way it risked pissing people off who cling to their memories of the Disney version, which, for the record, I love, too. Most of the experts think it’s a lock, but I’m sensing a groundswell of support for M. Shell.

Best Cinematography

All Quiet on the Western Front
Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
Elvis
Empire of Light
Tár

Another close race, this one primarily between James Friend’s work on All Quiet on the Western Front and Mandy Walker’s on Elvis. If Walker wins, she will be the first woman to do so. But Friend’s movie also is nominated for visual effects and production design, which experts say gives him the edge. Screw it. I’m going to put my chips on progress.


Best Documentary Feature

All That Breathes
Fire of Love
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
A House Made of Splinters
Navalny

By far, the widest-open race this year. If precedent alone was a factor, Sara Dosa’s DGA prizewinner, Fire of Love, with its dual themes of nature and everlasting love (married scientists who perish in a volcanic explosion), would have the edge. Then again, voters’ hearts would be just as vulnerable to House Made of Splinters which is set in a home for neglected children awaiting adoption. But the timeliest of these nominees is Daniel Roher’s tense profile of the Russian opposition leader who survived poisoning by Vladimir Putin’s goons, recovered in Germany, and returned home to a hero’s welcome – and imprisonment. The winner may, as in previous cases, depend on whether voters want to assault the turmoil of what’s been happening in Russia and the Ukraine, or run from it towards more hopeful, or at least more heartening stories. I’ll guess I’ll just what-the-hell my chips on Roher’s film. 



Best Score

All Quiet on the Western Front
Babylon
The Banshees of Inisherin
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans

Once more, with feeling, to 91-year-old John Williams, though Carter Burwell still hasn’t won one of these yet. Here as elsewhere, I’m not convinced Banshees is strong enough to pull him over the hump.


Best Original Song

 



“Applause” from Tell It Like a Woman
“Hold My Hand” from Top Gun: Maverick
“Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
“Naatu Naatu” from RRR
“This is a Life” from Everything Everywhere All at Once

With Rhianna (“Lift Me Up”), Lady Gaga (“Hold My Hand”), and one third of David Byrne (“This is a Life”) in play, how is it possible that the showstopper in this bunch belongs to a Tollywood epic that somehow stormed the global marketplace? Everybody seems to have already taken its win for granted, but everybody, including me, has been wrong many times before on this category. 

The Prisoner of the Time of His Time

 

 

 

 

I often think Norman Mailer would have been better remembered on his 100th birthday if he’d used his engineering degree from Harvard to write science fiction. Assuming he’d also retained what he’d absorbed from Dos Passos, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hemingway, James T. Farrell and Rafael “Captain Blood” Sabatini, Mailer might have melded such anomalous elements with the influences of Kafka, Verne, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapleton, Karel Capek, and the pulp magazine prodigies to lift the SF genre to a higher literary standing – and in the process learned not to be so intimidated by the contingencies of plot. Hints of this furtive lyricism with technology can be found throughout the second half of Of a Fire on the Moon, his freewheeling, undervalued reflections on the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing.  (Check out his chapter on “The Psychology of Machines” and tell me if you don’t think Arthur C. Clarke wouldn’t have envied such virtuoso empathy with the mechanical.) If he’d followed this aspect of his muse from the start, Mailer could have been the proto-socialist yang to Robert Heinlein’s libertarian-right yin, an Americanized Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick with the sex, drugs, and paranoia ramped up…

 

 

 

Then again, forget it. For better and worse, we got the Norman Mailer he and we likely deserved. If he’s largely neglected and considered irrelevant in the 21st century, it’s mostly because he made himself so visible in the 20th.  In his Advertisements for Myself, the 1959 miscellany that jump-started his literary reputation, Mailer proclaimed that he “was imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” Of the myriad risks Mailer took with this impulse, however, the biggest was making himself so unavoidable in his own time that his work wouldn’t endure in public renown too far beyond it.

 

 

 On some level, he asked for it. For much of his lifetime (he died in 2007 at 84), Mailer was not only a household name as a novelist, but he was also a provocateur, an enfant terrible whose public displays of rancor and violence often overshadowed his literary output. He’d stabbed his second wife Adele Morales at a November, 1960 party celebrating his impending candidacy for major of New York City. (He didn’t run for mayor until 1969 and finished fourth in a field of five in that year’s Democratic primary.) He behaved badly on television, made independent movies (in one of which he bit Rip Torn’s ear), sealed his legacy as an anti-feminist after publishing The Prisoner of Sex in 1971 and summarily got into a shouting match at Town Hall with feminists on stage and in the audience. (That was all caught on film, too.)

Even in absentia from the known world, Mailer’s still causing trouble. A year ago, there were online reports that Random House cancelled plans to publish a collection of Mailer’s political writings because “a junior staffer” objected to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro.” The publisher, Mailer’s son, and agent denied the reports. But it was a straw fire that made Mailer conspicuous once more and aroused this thoughtful evaluation from Darryl Pinckney, an African American novelist and journalist.

 

 

My own relationship with “White Negro” is complicated and all but sums up how I feel about Norman Mailer to this day. When I started reading his work as a teenager enraptured mostly with his journalism (about which more later), friends, Black and White alike, kept urging me to read “The White Negro” before I read anything else. So, I tried. And tried. And tried again. And I couldn’t get past the first, to me, impenetrable paragraphs of that chapbook edition that made the rounds in those days. I tried again when I finally got around to Advertisements for Myself and even then, I ended up sort of going around it as though it were a dead oak that keeled over in the middle of an intersection.

 

Indeed, it wasn’t until deep into my forties or maybe even fifties, that I managed to read it all the way through and decided that the reason I couldn’t push my frontal lobes past “White Negro’s” first page was that it was totally, ridiculously alien to my own knowledge of what it meant to be Black or, for that matter, to be Hip. In short, I thought it was too absurd (again, not the way he’d likely intended) to be taken seriously as anything more than an anxious glandular discharge.  I couldn’t even get angry with it the way Black people did (and still do) because I think it’s too dumb to get worked up over, even after reading Mailer’s subsequent writing about African Americans, as when he argued against Ralph Ellison’s conception of “invisibility” in Black Americans, saying that we were, in fact, the MOST visible people in America. “That’s not how he meant it, dammit!!” I always shouted back — though in his typically adroit sussing-out of individual psyches, Mailer did correctly perceive the depths of anger simmering beneath Ellison’s patrician scholar’s patina.

(And while we’re passing by Advertisements, what has occurred to me in recent years is that his grandiloquent pastiche of stories, novel fragments, reviews, polemics, and autobiographical spritzing can now be viewed retroactively as a precursor to the blog site or Substack page. I can’t possibly be the first one to notice this, but it would be Very Mailer of me to assume that I am.) 

 

 

You could always count on Mailer being spectacularly wrong when trying to take History’s heartbeat. (I read somewhere that Marina Oswald, no less, was dryly amused by Mailer’s aspirations to be America’s Tolstoy.) But he was so much better with the human than with cosmic than most give him credit for. That was why I kept faith with him even when he self-sabotaged in public and in print.

 

 

Besides which, I owe him too much, even if I haven’t – and likely won’t – read every single book he’s written.

 

 

 

 

 

I remember the anticipation accompanying a magazine article with Mailer’s byline about a major event that, though it happened months ago, was made fresh and new again by his freewheeling imagination, and flamboyant prose style. We all knew what happened at the 1968 political conventions, Ali-Foreman in Zaire, or the Apollo 11 moon mission. But some of us looked to Mailer for deep, wide dispatches from beneath the surface of things, whether dragged from within the subconscious (his and others’) or projected from the outside. This process allowed him to dig up insights or angles that we either dimly suspected or couldn’t perceive in the moment. At its most lucid and vivid, the prose could lead you in the dark towards a light switch you didn’t know was there. Whole continents could be evoked by this style, as in this lead paragraph to the second section of Miami and the Siege of Chicago from 1968:

 

 

 

“Chicago is the great American city. New York is a world capital and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic. San Francisco is a lady. Boston has become Urban Renewal. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington wink like dull diamonds in the smog of Eastern Megalopolis and New Orleans is unremarkable past the French quarter. Detroit is a one-trade town. Pittsburgh has lost its golden triangle. St. Louis has become the golden arch of the corporation, and nights in Kansas City close early. The oil depletion allowance makes Houston and Dallas naught but checkerboards for this sort of game. But Chicago is a great American city. Perhaps it is the last of the great American cities.”

 

 

 

Paragraphs like this made me want to write paragraphs like this; also, pages and whole books. It’s an example of what Joan Didion was talking about in her review of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) when she wrote: “It is a largely unremarked fact about Mailer that he is a great and obsessed stylist, a writer to whom the shape of the sentence is the story.” Maybe that’s why I go back to Mailer’s sentences more often than his books, though I’m one of the few people I know who’s read The Naked and the Dead three times, most recently just three years ago. Though it made history in its time as a contender for Best World War II Novel by an American, Naked and the Dead is, I believe, better viewed as one of the very last novels of the Depression (its flashbacks to the past lives of its soldiers) and among the first to intimate the coming socio-political tumult set off by the Cold War. And even though this once phenomenal best-seller has been somewhat undervalued compared with Mailer’s other work (by Mailer, too) because he hadn’t yet found the “voice” he achieved in Advertisements, the novel’s accumulation of raw details, its depictions of dread, drudgery, and the physical sensations of combat can now be seen as nascent signs of the gifted reporter Mailer would become. (A new edition of the book, published by the Library of America, includes letters Mailer wrote home from the Pacific Theater to his first wife Beatrice, which taken together come across as a working notebook for the novel.)

 

 

 

 

Mailer wasn’t as big on baseball as he was on boxing or football. (You know, the violent sports.) But as with great sluggers like Ruth, Mantle, or Reggie Jackson, Mailer’s swings and misses were as compelling to watch as the home runs, even when the odds were against him. At times, he could be embarrassing, abusive, or thin-skinned; at others, he could be magnanimous, urbane, and warm-hearted. Mercurial as Mailer was, there were two things you could always count on: his self-deprecating humor and his irrepressible candor. You could get mad at him. But you always believed what he said, even when he was wrong. And it was part of his grace that he could cop to being wrong and move on. In fact, being “right,” whatever that meant, didn’t seem as important to Mailer as maintaining an intensity of focus on one’s interior life and a constant, even heedless surge of energy towards acting on what one discovers from such self-scrutiny. This, I now think, was what Mailer meant when he kept using the word, “existential,” though I still don’t know if that’s a precise definition of the word.

 

 

 

Mailer’s honesty, I think, also compelled him to bend and reshape journalism the way his beloved Picasso transfigured representational art. Acknowledging that “objectivity” is a myth, Mailer leaned hard into subjectivity, eventually making himself the protagonist of his own account of actual events. Conventional wisdom still asserts this makes such accounts suspect, but to this day, the intensity of Mailer’s vision of the actual framed with the idiosyncrasies of his personality somehow makes you trust his version of the Pentagon March and the other events. Other reporters envied or hated him for getting away with this third-person approach. But as many found out when they tried it themselves, it could only work with Norman Mailer because he had the knack for simultaneously inflating and deflating his persona to the proper pitch as a trumpeter tests his tone and tempo.

 

 

 

 

And what does this have to do with the Self-Advertising Sexist Monster Ego of the Great White Male Bully Avenger of the 20th Century? While all the hype and bluster is hard to overlook and, in many cases, excuse, I doubt in the very long run it will matter. Because while I agree that much of the nonsense Mailer attached himself to is outmoded and of no use to anybody in the 21st, his renderings of the self, pressed hard by history as it happens, offer plenty of room for writers of all persuasions to probe further. If I were to let every dumb thing  a smart man says and does get in the way of learning from his better side, I wouldn’t learn anything at all. In that spirit, I conclude with a memory of a graduate seminar on the history of nonfiction I taught at NYU sometime in the aughts. One of my texts was a collection of articles about the 1962 heavyweight bout between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston that included such journalistic heavyweights as James Baldwin, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, and A.J. Libeling. To this class of eight women and one (minority) male, I singled out Mailer’s “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” his Esquire essay on the bout notable for its digression into the welterweight bout earlier that year between Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret that ended with Griffith savagely beating Paret into a coma from which the latter never recovered, dying ten days later. That traumatic event, broadcast live on network TV, aroused some of Mailer’s most lyrical and poignant reportage and when, towards the end of that semester, I gave the class the option of writing about any of the pieces we’d discussed throughout, most chose Mailer’s fight piece. 

 

 

 

One way or another, the art always leaks through time’s cages. Fact, not theory.

 

 

 

 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten 2022 List of Everything Else

There’s so much stuff to keep track of these days that it’s easy to lose track of stuff that seemed so great to watch, read, or even glean. So, this took a longer time to assemble than previous lists because it took that long a time to process the maelstrom that was 2022. I’m not going to tell you what I think is missing here because you’ll all have your own lists, some of which will likely include, say, the January 6th hearings or Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Multiverse itself likely deserves a slot all its own, except how do I know I don’t have a whole other list somewhere that’s all different. But there’s no time left to figure all that out. This is what I’m going with, and, except for the very last item, I feel altogether good about it. As always, these are not in any particular order – except, again, for the last one.





Reservation Dogs – Two things, I’ve recently decided, make life worth living: a sense of purpose and an active connection with each other’s souls, no matter how remote or hostile. Such were the animating forces of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s poignant blend of teen anomie, vacant-lot naturalism, and stoner surrealism. As with its predecessor, Season Two found its indigenous American kids adrift in their ramshackle Oklahoma hood, still grieving the suicide of their friend Daniel and still getting haphazard and not altogether lucid counsel from varied elders, living and dead. My personal favorites among the latter demographic include, among the dead, William “Spirit” Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), a Lakota ancestor to confused-and-abandoned Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), whose half-baked advice to his teen descendant include lyrics from “Carry On Now Wayward Son” (yes, that one); among the living, it’s a three-way tie between Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon), a tribal policeman who stumbles his way towards a wholly innate sense of law, order, and even (such as it is) justice; woozy, weed-mongering Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), and the oracular-if-shabby Bucky (the great Wes Studi), with his hard-won cosmic wisdom. Still, it’s the kids who occupy the series’ fitful center; not just Bear, but also Cheese (Lane Factor), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Elora (Devery Jacobs), whose single-minded path towards California anchored the second-season narrative, and now appears ready to affect her friends’ destinies. Whatever happens and wherever all the rest of the grownups and kids end up, I hope I see more of those rapping, bike-riding bros LilMike and FunnyBone. Even if I don’t, I’ll happily settle for more Bucky and Brownie.

 

 

 


The Philosophy of Modern Song — Don’t call it “Bob Dylan’s Pop-Rock Criticism” or apply any socio-political ideology to its 60-plus selections. More than anything else, this is the authentic follow-up to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume One and should be acknowledged as the autobiography of a personal aesthetic. Its illustrations and its text are as illuminating, evocative, cryptic, funny, and exploratory as “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” “From a Buick 6,” “Positively 4th Street,” or any other Dylan song, even those with no numerals in them. Also as with a Dylan song, whatever its intentions or origins, much of the raw content of these mini-essays, addenda, outbursts, and eruptions may arouse your subconscious to something it never considered before but recognizes as familiar. And no, I’m not going to explain what I mean by that. (At least not here. Later on, I do. Sorta.) 





Star Trek: Lower Decks – I’ll always place Matt Groening’s ribald space opera Futurama first above equals among animated science fiction TV series, even above the underappreciated, trailblazing, and scarily prescient Jetsons, which marked its 60th anniversary this year. Nevertheless, after three seasons, this doughty, wily offshoot of the ever-expanding-like-the-universe-itself Trek franchise has not only leaped towards the front of this personal pantheon, but it also threatens to become my favorite among the Trek shows that streamed into being over the last five years. As its title implies, the show moves its focus away from the Alpha Dogs of Star Fleet like Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Picard, Riker, La Forge, and other Heroes on the Enterprise Bridge and more towards the scrubs, swabs, and junior grade drudges several floors down from whose ranks would routinely come cannon fodder with imperiled landing parties in previous Trek incarnations. The series’ core clique waiting and serving on the USS Cerritos (itself a relative second-stringer among Star Fleet ships) is made up of science nerd D’Vana Tendi (Noêl Wells), super-striving Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), sweet-tempered cyborg Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), and last-and-certainly-not-least Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), thorny, determinedly underachieving daughter of the ship’s captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), whose own insecurities and thwarted ambitions are of such comparable dimension that you come away from this ingenious, often touching series affirmed that even in deep space, nobody ever gets out of high school, dead or alive.

 

 

 

 



Percival Everett – Suppose Chester Himes was an actual cowboy who spent as much time working out ontological riddles as riding ranges and fishing in mountain lakes. At age 65, Everett, who claims Himes as an influence, along with Herman Melville, has published more than twenty works of fiction of startling range, deadpan humor, and formidable intelligence. This year, for instance, he published Dr. No, where he borrows both a title and a plotline from Ian Fleming’s James Bond’s novels to fashion a blackout-adventure spoof judiciously seasoned with red herrings and philosophical conundrums. If I told you it’s about Nothing, you’d still read it, right? You’d have to read it. But if I were you, I wouldn’t start with the new one, but the one just before that was short-listed for the Booker Prize: The Trees, a very different, but no less provocative and inspired comedy thriller in which cool, dry Black agents from, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) investigate the serial murders of white racists whose bodies are somehow accompanied by the corpses of long-dead lynching victims, including Emmett Till. It made you almost wish Hollywood had made this into a movie instead of Till. But Hollywood was barely ready for that straight-ahead story to be told on-screen. And I doubt it’ll ever be ready for Percival Everett. But you might be. (Other recommended titles: Glyph, Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, For Her Dark Skin, Damned If I Do.)


 

 

 



Nope – Though I honor the memory of Rod Serling and what he did for me as a child in the warm bath of his Twilight Zone, the grownup I am now is less drawn to those Serling-esque episodes making broad and direct sociopolitical points and more towards those Zone stories written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont that were more interested in pure jolts and unsettling visions for their own sake. Maybe that’s why I think this third feature by Jordan Peele is his best thus far for the same reasons much of the word-of-mouth I’d heard when it came out was so antagonistic: it was all over the map, in both theme and tone; it didn’t sustain a straight storyline or deliver a hard, sharp point. And it left me with more to unravel and think/dream about than either Get Out or Us. Yes, there’s a racial subtext (what Hollywood did for, and mostly to its Black workers, on- and off-camera), but it’s only one of several layers in this aliens-from-outer-space movie that manages to evoke the dry-mouth aura of a 1950s drive-in chiller while being up to date with its eccentric supporting cast, especially the marvelous Keke Palmer as steely, feisty sister to Daniel Kaluuya’s dispirited horse trainer. For the record, Michael Abels’s score reaches new heights here, too. Almost as high, maybe higher, than the big black disc in the sky that causes all the trouble.

 

 

 

 


Abbott ElementaryAs I’ve previously testified in public, I was so much in love at first sight with Quinta Brunson’s tender and whimsical workplace comedy series about an economically challenged South Philly public school that I took its premature cancellation as an inevitability. Now it’s a firmly established hit which may well be single-handedly rescuing the analog network sitcom from oblivion. Somewhere, Mister Peepers is grinning – and idly wondering how he’d cope with a principal like Ava Coleman.

 

 

 



Matthew Goode in The Offer — For most of Goode’s career, I thought I had him nailed down as a pleasant, perfectly comported prototype of the British smoothie capable of an eccentric tic (in the manner of British smoothies) or even a swerve into hysteria because of, say, combat fatigue from whatever beastly war harshed his erstwhile empire’s mellow. Watching him bring Robert Evans back to life in The Offer was a massive revelation. Those who know or have seen the 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture don’t need to be told that Evans was something of a Hollywood superhero in the mid-1970s when the movie business was generally lost at sea while the art form was at its peak. Evans’ one major misfire of that decade was The Great Gatsby and what you see in Goode’s evocation discloses where he went wrong: to do Gatsby right, what Evans really needed to do was to let cameras follow him around for a year and have somebody edit all the raw footage into a feature. That hypothetical verité could have been just as innovative and grand an achievement as both Godfathers and Chinatown. As it was, Goode’s rendering of a Gatsby-esque Hollywood legend, a “Last Tycoon,” if you will, elevated an otherwise middling docudrama to near-classic tragedy.




 



Prey – This was the prequel to the Predator franchise than no one, not even those who don’t care about hunter-gatherers from outer space, knew they wanted until it materialized in front of them. Set in a primeval American Great Plains more than three centuries before Arnold Schwarzenegger was a gleam in his mother’s eye, the film stars the magnetic Amber Midthunder as Nuru, an indigenous young warrior itching to show her brother and the other young tribesmen that she’s as great at stalking and hunting as they are. But the first in a series of hairy, insect-faced extraterrestrial hunters begins to pick off the incredulous young braves, eventually leaving her to figure out how to protect the rest of her village from being harvested. The special effects are, in their elemental way, just as spectacular as the hi-tech pyrotechnics of previous installments. (You will believe a bear can fly.) But Midthunder is, on many levels, the most dazzling of the movie’s assets, her character’s intensity and self-possession announcing both a young woman’s coming-of-age and a screen star’s arrival.

 

 




Atlanta: The Final Season(s) – Where to begin? The crew’s WTAF adventures during Paper Boi’s (Bryan Tyree Henry) European tour, including strange encounters with, among others, a friendly-but-oddly-abusive Liam Neeson, some well-heeled gourmet cannibals, a Blackface Dutch Christmas icon, along with streams of misread signals, overpriced fashion goods, exotic and dangerous drugs, and a missing phone. Or what about the seemingly “free-standing” stories, including the one about the wealthy white Manhattanites who discover their little boy is emotionally and psychically closer to their recently deceased Caribbean caregiver? Things got even weirder when Earn (creator-producer Donald Glover) and his posse returned to Atlanta where things are as dislocated as ever; how Van (Zazie Beets) somehow ends up searching for her daughter within a sinister cult-like entertainment complex run by the exploitative, enigmatic Mister Chocolate (Glover), all of it finishing off somehow with harrowing adventures in sensory deprivation with perpetually stoned Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). And that just scrapes the surface of this layers-within-layers, worlds-within-worlds cultural excursion that resembled exactly nothing else anywhere on any screen. They say it’s over. Not in my head, it isn’t.

 






Top Gun: Maverick – This is on the list primarily for its significance as a cultural phenomenon and not so much because it’s a great, or even very good movie. Not that I didn’t like it. In fact, I liked it a whole lot more than its 1986 predecessor, when its star’s grin was devouring everything in its path, symbolizing both the era’s avarice and obliviousness. TG:M provided such a massive, exhilarating surge to theaters struggling to shake loose from the COVID-19 doldrums that some audiences used the word “great” without qualification or irony. There were great things in it, most having to do with aerial ballet. But as all-American paeans to duty go, I much prefer John Ford’s calvary trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) and even with Ed Harris around for the first act, I’d still rather watch The Right Stuff than either Top Gun movie.

In that first act (and if I’m really spoiling things for you here, then, dammit, go watch it on a streaming channel), Tom Cruise’s Maverick flies a state-of-the-art craft based on the now-decommissioned SR-71 “Black Bird” modified to reach Mach 10. Harris’s crusty admiral is about to shut down the manned flight experiment in place of drones, which kinda sorta makes sense. But “Mav” being “Mav”, he takes the plane up into the stratosphere and not only reaches the optimum speed but decides to stretch that old envelope a tad past Mach 10, which causes the plane to break up in flight. The next thing you see is Maverick, woozily lugging his parachute into a small-town diner, chugging ice water and asking where he is to which a small boy replies, “Earth.”

Now I don’t claim to be an aeronautical engineer. But I’ve absorbed enough histories of test flight and space travel to know that any corporeal being who even tries to eject from a flying object traveling past Mach 5 (a.k.a. hypersonic speed) will at the very least break every single bone and rend almost every tissue in its body, even in the highly unlikely event that a parachute opens. I’ve heard explanations (a.k.a. excuses) that the plane was likely equipped with some manner of “escape pod” that broke away and carried its pilot safely to the ground.

Yes, well…


It’s only a movie, right? And a movie that works so conscientiously to please its audience as Top Gun: Maverick needs to sacrifice credulity to roll the turnstiles and leave everybody happy.

But suppose, just suppose, that what we see when that plane breaks up high in the sky is the death of Captain Pete Mitchell, USN? And what if everything we see afterwards, including – and especially – Maverick’s reunions with his ailing wingman and the embittered son of the Lost Goose, make up an extended posthumous dream sequence, a Sixth Sense with G suits and F-35s? You’d have a less satisfying popcorn epic. You might also have a resonant masterwork of American storytelling.
As it stands now, it’s likely the loudest, most ornately apportioned shout of “olly-olly-oxen-free” ever issued to the moviegoing public. Thus, it’s a masterstroke of some kind. But not quite the one we, or the movies, really needed.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2022

Not one of the better years for recorded jazz, I’ve decided, though what’s listed below is still, as Spencer Tracy once put it, “cherce.” I’ve spent more than three decades insisting that jazz’s yearly yield of recordings showed that its energy and quality was surging despite the relative and not-so-benign neglect of what used to be called the music industry. But I now think we may have finally hit, if not a wall, maybe a bump, or a dip in the road.

Then again, I wasn’t expecting much from this past year since everybody and everything is still recovering from the last couple years of lockdown and loathing. With a couple of exceptions, most of what I heard last year sounded tentative and restrained, as if jazz were feeling its way through the emotional wreckage of the previous six years (or so) to get its bearings; just like you, me, and everybody we know.

Which I wouldn’t have minded so much if 2022 hadn’t also been Charles Mingus’s centennial, reminding me of a time when jazz was ALL affirmation, thrust, and drive. Even the best jazz music I heard on record this year seemed to make its way hesitantly, even diffidently from the edges of space while Mingus, the prototype of whatever’s meant by “force of nature,” went all out, coming at and for you, whether you were amenable to what he was laying down or not. When reacquainting myself with the polyphonic momentum and high drama of “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” “Fables of Faubus” and other Mingus landmarks, I found myself wandering further back to Fletcher Henderson’s deco-dynamics of the twenties and thirties and wondering where all that hotfoot urgency and furious invention had gone – and whether it’ll every come back.

Why wonder? The founder of Rolling Stone was quoted this past year saying rock-and-roll had declined so much that it’s never coming back. “It’ll end up,” Jann Wenner said, “like jazz.” Burn! From wherever he’s calling home, Wenner likely hasn’t even heard of Cecile McLorin Salvant or Maria Schneider or (maybe) even Robert Glasper, no matter how much their work engages the present moment. What I suppose he’s really saying is that rock-and-roll, as with jazz, blues, or even, I’ve been hearing lately, hip-hop no longer own or compel the present moment as they once did. (What does? Podcasts? Hulu? The noises in Elon Musk’s head?)

But as much as it hurts to admit it, Wenner’s right. The dual queens of pop, Beyoncé Knowles and Taylor Swift, now preside over the music zeitgeist without much of a challenge. We could do worse. We could do better. In the meantime, we tend to our gardens and fend off negativity. And it’s hard not to be negative given the losses in the past year of people like Creed Taylor, Ronnie Cuber, Sue Mingus, Ramsey Lewis, jamie branch, Joey De Francesco, Ron Miles, Charnett Moffett, Grachan Moncur III, and Pharoah Sanders. When one or more of them leave, we cast about for replacements until we accept that there are no replacements for any of them. There’s just us, the originals who remain, and those whose names we don’t know yet, but can’t wait to get into the action. Zeitgeist or no zeitgeist, these folks go on, no matter how messed up or constricted the rest of the world is.

 

 



1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song (Nonesuch) – We have a right to expect our best artists to make deep, hard connections to the present from whatever angles they choose. This latest act of insurgency from the finest, shrewdest, most adventurous jazz vocalist of her generation didn’t only connect (as it were); it seemed to be inventing the emotional whirlwind of the entire year as it spun wildly into being, anticipating hope and dread at every shaded turn. Remember that song from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, Toto, and their shabby retinue have escaped the toxic poppy fields and are skipping towards the gates of Oz? The ditty that goes: “You’re out of the woods/ You’re out of the dark/You’re out of the niiight…” Tell me something like that didn’t pop into your head the morning after this year’s midterms and in exactly the wifty, pop-eyed, kewpie-doll fashion Salvant’s rendition does here before it gives way to Gregory Porter’s more ruminative “No Love Dying,” whose lyrics are far less credulous towards life’s possibilities, but instead encourage abiding faith in love’s persistence however many “broken wings” materialize in rebuttal. Salvant has from the beginning of her meteoric rise to the pinnacle of her profession displayed rapier-like smarts towards relevance and applicability of song, which comes through in blending not just Porter and Harold Arlen, but also Kurt Weill (“The World is Mean”), and Sting (“Until”) along with orchestrating, in “Dead Poplar,” a letter Alfred Stieglitz once wrote to Georgia O’Keefe. She’s not just showing off her erudition…OK, maybe she is, a little. But this formidable sound collage is enhanced by her own compositions, some of which play along the edges of introspective passion, if there is such a paradox. (From “Obligation”: “Promises Lead to Resentment/ I could Love You if only it would stop your weeping, and start your smiling/ But is that Love?” Your move, Taylor Swift.) She closes her recital, unexpectedly, yet impeccably, with the old English folk ballad, “Unquiet Grave,” which at once recognizes the pain and depth of loss, while imploring for the necessity of letting go and moving on. It all sounds a lot like what we’ve been thinking lately – and a lot more like what we’ll be feeling forever after.

 

 


2.) Matthew Shipp Trio, World Construct (ESP) – This version of Shipp’s trio – with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker – has lasted the longest and the fruitfulness of their collaboration becomes wildly, emphatically apparent on their fourth – and best – album. Shipp’s virtuosity on the piano is as spiky and as spiny as ever. There’s even a track titled “Spine,” followed by one called “Jazz Posture” and both evoke painstaking, but undaunted ascent to full upright position and forward motion. What compels your attention throughout is the easy-does-it flow of layered motifs between Shipp, Bisio, and Baker. On “Beyond Understanding,” a whisper from the drummer ‘s hi-hat can stir both the bassist and the pianist to reply with their own streams of color and insinuation. Their shared comfort level is infectious, and you get swept up in the momentum of, say, “Abandoned” in the same way you’re riveted by a Hitchcock set piece. The climactic title track, also the album’s longest, has this unit coalescing into one shape-shifting organism insisting on the prerogative to change minds and break through the clouds without holding back or hugging corners. Shipp sustains the spirit of go-for-broke assertion in jazz music and, especially with this unit, has made his progressive vision more accessible without compromise. More than ever, you can’t wait for their next one, and with these guys, you don’t have to wait very long.

 

 

 

 

 



3.) Ryan Keberle’s Collectiv Do Brazil, Sonhos Da Esquina (Alternate Side) – In a handful of innovative ensembles, Keberle has transformed the slide trombone into a nimble, dulcet, near-crystalline singing voice, perfectly suited for, among other things, Brazilian music. The story behind this gorgeous panoply of sonhos (dreams) begins in 2017 when Keberle took time off from directing the jazz studies program at Hunter College to travel to Brazil and get cozy with the nation’s tradition of soft beats and intricate melodies. In the process, he hooked up with the working trio of pianist Felipe Silveira, bassist Thiago Alves and drummer Paulinho Vincente, finding communion and transcendence in live performances throughout Sao Paulo. They recorded these tracks about a year later and you can feel both the air-tight seamlessness of their interaction and how each of them stands out in their soloing. The compositions of both Milton Nascimento (“Cio Da Terra,” “Clube Da Esquina”) and Tonino Horta (“Aqui, Oh!,” “Francisca”) dominate the proceedings and are given fresh reinvention through arrangements by Keberle and Silveira. The intricacy of Brazilian song tradition infuses Keberle’s originals, including the bold, sinuous title track and “Carbon Neutral,” as haunting (ominous?)  an anthem for confronting climate change as one can imagine.

 

 

 

 


4.) Samara Joy, Linger Awhile (Verve) – Working within tradition still delivers decisive shocks to the system. Case in point: this Bronx-born, 22-year-old prodigy whose second album delivers on the bright promise of the first with startling dividends. Her prize-winning vocal chops show both exuberance and intelligence in near-perfect equipoise and their lively reanimation of familiar standards makes those warhorses seem frisky, airy, and ripe for discovery by a new century of listeners. She unravels the unadulterated melodrama of “Guess Who I Saw Today” with plenty of glissando flourishes. But by keeping clear of cocktail lounge mannerisms and gratuitous histrionics, she lets the story tell itself and sticks the landing without wobble or excess. She also knows her way around vocalese and the lyrics she applies to Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia” (which could have been the title track) displays her own adroitness with delivering an absorbing narrative all her own. If you think you’ve heard enough versions to last a lifetime of “Misty,” “Round Midnight,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” you’ll reconsider, especially after hearing her duet with guitarist Pasquale Grasso on the Gershwin tune. The greats of an earlier time, from Ella to Sarah to Carmen to Dinah, are evoked, but she arrives in the here-and-now in early triumph as her own person with rich tones and inventive agility belonging to nobody else but her. Of all the sundry delights that come with this album, the most tantalizing is the prospect of watching her already considerable talent grow with greater refinement, broader resources, and more formidable challenges.

 

 

 

 

 


5.) Marta Sanchez, SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum) (Whirlwind) – At once forbidding and enrapturing, Sanchez’s music confronts the sense of loss endemic (so to speak) to these times with grounded resolve and melancholy rumination. From the opening track,” The Unconquered Vulnerable Areas,” through the keening, wailing harmonies of “The Eternal Stillness” title track to the incendiary closer, “When Dreaming is the Only,” Sanchez’s piano lays down a tempestuous swirl of motifs to galvanize her crack ensemble of saxophonists Alex LoRe and Roman Filiu, bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Allan Mednard. She dedicates this album to her mother Marivi, who died in December 2020 in Spain while Sanchez was moored in New York because of COVID-19-travel restrictions and the two pieces written in her memory, “December 11th (the day she died) and “Marivi” carry added poignance, especially the latter, which is buttressed by Ambrose Akinmusire’s plaintive trumpet and Camila Meza’s limpid vocals.

 

 


6.) Keith Jarrett, Bordeaux Concert (ECM) – He always gave you everything but the kitchen sink at these solo recitals. But in what is now supposed to be his absolute last such recording that will ever be released (which is what they said about 2020’s Budapest Concert, performed three days before this one in July 2016 during his valedictory tour, so I withhold concurrence), that “everything” means something different than it used to. Where he once kept you on the edge of your seat wondering whether he’d stroll, stomp, or bear down on his next steep curve into the next sonic weather system, here he teases out his motifs into mostly (and understandably) elegiac patterns, giving you wave upon wave of lyricism, whether blues-, or folk-based. The pastoral and wistful elements of his solos were always close by, with or without his trios. The first, and longest, of his numbered installments warns of tangled, wayward emotions at the outset, struggling for a calm place where he can lay out and reflect. No splinters or raw edges are in evidence from tracks II to XIII. But you’re still on the edge of your seat in anticipation of some fresh bloom or shaft of sunlight. The way he trails off at the very end may be the one discomfiting moment of the whole performance. This irresolution could be his idea of an appropriate farewell, an ambiguous flight into fading sunlight. Or you could choose to believe it’s a sign that there may well be yet another Absolutely Positively Last Solo Recording after this one. If I were prone to betting, I’d push.

 

 

 

 


7.) Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Mesmerism (Yeros7) – Any trio with Aaron Diehl at the keyboards is a force to be reckoned with. But there’s an excellent reason why this ensemble carries the drummer’s name. Sorey has been widely acclaimed and decorated (with a 2017 MacArthur grant, for instance) not just for his percussive work, but for his compositions in classical and jazz idioms. So, in seizing the reins of a traditional acoustic jazz trio, it’s to be expected that Sorey brings his formidable gifts as a conductor, arranger, and conceptualizer to such standards as “Detour Ahead,” with a sidelong approach to the melody that spurs breathtaking, epochal solos from Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer. The group’s dynamic and, at times, riveting interplay channels the spirit of the late drummer Paul Motian and, appropriately, Motian’s “From Time to Time” is included on the playlist and its thematic essence is lovingly contained, even as it is transformed here into a landscape so impressionistic as to be close to surreal. Each piece, whether it’s Horace Silver’s “Enchantment” or Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Two Over One,” maintains a center of gravity around which each member can either roam freely within the harmonies or stay in his zone and decorate the changes at will. Some suggest that in putting out a “conventional” trio recording, the protean Sorey is taking a breather between more ambitious work. But that point-of-view makes Mesmerism sound like a relative trifle that any trio can toss off. By the time you get to this trio’s version of Duke Ellington’s “Rem Blues,” you’ll be convinced that any group that swings as smartly and as impeccably as this is hardly anybody’s idea of a day at the beach – except for the lucky listener.

 

 


8.) Steve Cardenas, Ben Allison, Ted Nash, Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley (Sunnyside) – Another trio, this one without a drum or piano, strongly redolent of the groundbreaking chamber sessions of the late 1950s featuring Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall. The arresting, resourceful interplay of guitarist Cardenas, bassist Allison, and reedman Nash were last heard working within and around the score of West Side Story on 2019’s Something Else. They now wander into Carla Bley’s comparably fabled precinct of American music and their elemental, lyrical approach to her varied oeuvre gives it plenty of space to breathe and circulate. The album opens with Bley’s best-known work, “Ida Lupino,” whose near-incantatory melody allows each musician to invent their own countermelodies branching off the main theme. When hearing such lithe, witty, and buoyant classics as “Donkey,” “Ictus,” and “And Now, The Queen,” all of which are more than sixty years old, you’re blown away at how up-to-the-minute they still sound. Then there’s “Lawns,” a ballad whose deceptively simple melody barely cloaks the song’s implications of disappointment and heartbreak, much of which are dislodged by Cardenas’s and Nash’s probing, revelatory solos. The case has been made many times over for Bley, now 86, as one of the greatest living jazz composers. We still need to talk about why, whether amongst ourselves or with others. Healing Power is such a fresh addition to this conversation that it makes you feel that it’s only just started.

 

 

 

 


9.) Melissa Aldana, 12 Stars (Blue Note) – The Chilean-born Aldana, who turned 34 this week, seemed to arrive on the scene more than a decade ago fully-formed and already at the top of her game as a master of the tenor saxophone. (One frequently hears the word “athletic” in describing Aldana’s performances.) All she needed was a suitable framework for her expressive gifts and her much-anticipated Blue Note label debut delivers a mature artist with her own style and an insistent, but contemplative point-of-view. Her tenor carries a fluted, at times plaintive tone, cruising the middle and upper registers with fluidity and elegance. She gets the support she needs from bassist Pablo Menares, drummer Kush Abaday, pianist Sullivan Fortner, and guitarist Lage Lund, who also collaborates with Aldana on her mosaic-like compositions, including “The Bluest Eye,” inspired by the Toni Morrison novel of the same name, where she supply knits together an arresting pattern of deep-toned, meditative phrases suggesting what it felt like for her – and, possibly, you, too – to edge up to Morrison’s complex prose. Even when her themes are more direct, as in “Los Ojos de Chile,” inspired by the recent political upheaval in her native country, you can hear her thinking her way towards affirmation and resolve.

 

 


10.) Mark Turner, Return from the Stars (ECM) – As with its predecessor, 2014’s Lathe of Heaven (yeah, it’s been a minute), Turner’s latest borrows its title and, to some extent, its vibe from a modern science fiction classic. In this case, the book is Stanislaus Lem’s novel about an astronaut returning to Earth after what he thought was a ten-year mission only to find that it’s been closer to 130 years. The resulting dislocation, upheaval, trauma, and general unease are all within reach of Turner’s dry-guy aesthetics, as titles like “Terminus,” “Waste Land,” and “Unacceptable” suggest. “It’s Not All Right With Me” is a cheeky reply to Cole Porter’s standard whose thematic reversals arouse pretzel-logic modal mischief that, one suspects, Porter would appreciate for its rambunctious cleverness alone. This edition of his quartet – trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Jonathan Pinson – seem especially attuned to wherever Turner’s radar happens to be pointed. Do we have to wait another 10 years to find out how their interchange evolves? Or is there a way for – what’s it called again? – “time dilation” to make the years fly by?



HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Avram Fefer Quartet, Juba Lee (Clean Feed)

Mary Halvorson, Belladonna (Nonesuch)

Miles Okasaki, Thisness (PI)

Kirk Knuffke Trio, Gravity Without Airs (Tao Forms)

Al Foster, Reflections (Smoke Sessions)

Javon Jackson, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson)


BEST LATIN JAZZ

 



Ryan Keberle’s Collectiv do Brasil, Sonhos da Esquina
HONORABLE MENTION: Miguel Zenón, Música De Las Americas (Miel)


BEST VOCAL

Cecile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song.
HONORABLE MENTION: Samara Joy, Linger Awhile


ARCHIVAL

 

 

Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1963-1964, 1965-1966 (Jazz Detective)

Mal Waldron, Searching in Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert (Tompkins Square)

Charles Mingus, Mingus The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s (Resonance)

Farewell To My Flute

 

I never wanted it in the first place. As I’ve told people over six decades, from Grade 4 on, I wanted almost anything but a flute. A trumpet was my first choice for elementary school music education. With Miles Davis lulling me to sleep practically every night from toddler-hood and other pieces of my living-room soundtrack ranging from Chet Baker and Clifford Brown to Gerald Wilson and Art Farmer, what else could I want but a trumpet?

No dice.

“We. Can’t. Afford. A. Trumpet,” my father said, staring deep into my eyes and enunciating every word as if it were one of those times I’d done something irreparably bad to the sofa or the bathroom sink. “If. You. Want. To. Play. An. Instrument. We. Can. Only. Afford. A. Flute. Now. Are. You. SURE. You. Want. An. Instrument? Are…You…SURE…You…Want…A…Flute?”

Well…No…Dad…I had my heart set on a trumpet. (And Jesus, does that speech stretch longer in one’s memory or what?) Any brass instrument would have been A-OK with me. When, not many years later, my younger brother was given the chance to try the trombone, I picked it up out of curiosity and found, to my surprise, that I could actually get a note out of it on my first try.

As for the flute…let’s just say that I was a slow learner when it came to things like metal mouth-pieces and where exactly to align the mouthpiece beneath my lower lip. “It’s just like blowing into an empty Coke bottle,” others would insist, and I had to take their word for it because I didn’t think empty Coke bottles were useful for anything besides the nickels you could get in those days for their return.

Thus began a near-lifelong grind, a lengthy arranged marriage with scattered intervals of mutual understanding and, once in a great while, unexpected joy. The flute and I decided that if we were stuck with each other, we’d try to make the best of it. Understating matters, I was not the most devoted partner in this transaction, especially in the beginning. I understood perfectly that practice was the gateway to musical proficiency, and I tried. But I simply could not meld my being with this long silver tube, this slender, imperious enigma with padded keys. It never beckoned me to do great things.

Also – and this is unfair, mortifying and fucked up in at least a half-dozen ways (consider this a trigger warning), there was in those ancient early-1960s a consensus stigma attached to young male flautists since most flute players in junior high and high school orchestras were female. (“Whassamatter, Eugene?” one fifth grade wit asked me. “They run out of clarinets?”) My awkwardness in all things athletic and most things social already marked me as, putting things as baldly as my contemporaries did, A Pussy! I internalized this ugliness for much of my early years carrying a flute around and it added to the brick wall of self-consciousness that I lugged around with me along with my flute and briefcase. (Why, yes, I did! Talk about asking to get beat up!)

And in case you think the times we live in are more evolved: sometime near the start of this new century I was casually conversing on the phone with a friend of mine who told me one of her school-age daughters was taking up the flute. My subsequent “Hey, so did I!” aroused a deep sigh at the other end of the phone and eventually the following query: “Were your parents trying to make you gay?” Understand that she was merely commenting, drolly, as ever, on the presumptions and superstitions of a more savage time and place. So I wasn’t offended. I’m betting today there’d be many more who are.

 

 

 

Still, the flute did enable me to read music. It never gave me total facility and absolute confidence in fusing sound with notation, but at least I knew where everything was supposed to be when I practiced sufficiently. And after the flute (by then, the Boosey & Hawkes model you see pictured above) followed me to high school and got me into the marching band and orchestra, I made still another discovery: I could actually seek and find notes with my ears and even string together familiar melodies from scratch. I could poke my way through the first chorus of “The Swingin’ Shepherd” and even the occasional pop hit, especially “(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay.” No one would then, or ever, mistake me for Hubert Laws or Herbie Mann, but it was nice to know that I had at least a modicum of ability, even if there was no teacher at the school in those days who could help me take my jazz leanings to the next level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somewhere in my junior year of 1968-69, I stumbled into what was likely my peak as an instrumentalist: a chance to play flute interludes for The Open Stage, a Hartford-based theater company that was putting on “A Hand is On the Gate,” Roscoe Lee Browne’s staged renderings of African American poetry. There were other, better young musicians my age recruited for a backstage combo and to this day I find it somewhat miraculous that I was able to hold my own with them. One of them even asked me to help her out with an audition tape. Was it possible that, after years of approach-avoidance games with each other, the flute and I were discovering, if not passion, something close to respect for one another? A spark to be kindled into, at the very least, a productive, long-term alliance of sorts?

 

 



Again, no dice. And the person who finally got between us was Eric Dolphy, the nonpareil reed magician whose music I’d only casually encountered at other people’s houses. Not my father’s brand of whiskey, saying the least. He’d seen Dolphy live a couple years before the latter’s death in 1964. It was at a Newport Jazz Festival and Dolphy was honking back at seagulls in mid-solo with his saxophone. Dad thus determined him to be weirder than Roland Kirk, which is to say, too weird for further study. I came to love both of them without reservation, especially Dolphy. “Left Alone,” “Sketch of Melba,” along with the flute solos Dolphy took with Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Chico Hamilton and his own bands were enough to convince me that he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the flute. Any presumptions I ever had of even approaching Dolphy’s magnitude, much less tooling along securely in a slower lane were deflated. It didn’t help that as far as my fellow jazz aficionados were concerned, the flute placed at least third among the instruments conferring immortality upon Dolphy, probably even fourth. Thomas Chapin, another reed master and Rahsaan Roland Kirk devotee who, as with Dolphy, died too soon, also played a killer flute. But also as with Dolphy, it wasn’t the only instrument he played. It wasn’t just that I could no longer imagine myself playing the flute as well as these and other greats. It was that I couldn’t imagine giving as much dedication to playing the instrument as it required – and deserved.

 

 

 


And besides, given that I’d by age 15 fully committed myself to writing, I would find then and in years to come a new outlet for my natural inclination for fusing sound and meaning. I frequently wonder whether I would have discovered that impulse on my own without a flute or any musical instrument at all. I’m sure the flute helped; a significant factor mitigating my earliest reservations, even my grievances over not getting that trumpet I’d wanted at the outset. All I know is that I began to feel more like a musician when I wrote than when I was merely Playing Music.


So I let things go with the flute, even as the aforementioned Boosey & Hawkes followed me in subsequent years from Hartford to three other cities and at least five other homes. After my most recent move back to Philadelphia last June, I took the old thing out just to see if I could still get a sound out of it. I could. But it turned out that a sound was all I wanted, and my flute deserved more attention, certainly less neglect. Not wishing to wait for a buyer, I searched for an appropriate local charity and found one in Play On, Philly, which provides music education to students from Kindergarten through Grade 12. Just before the flute left my long and fitful stewardship, I noodled with it one last time by playing along with one of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s earliest tracks, a 1956 recording of “Triple Threat” on which no flute is heard – except for mine.

 

 

 


Taking everything into account, it was worth the time and — guess what, Dad? — the money, too.




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.