Service

Jan 26: Several updates at bottom of post.

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MR. JOY: A CELEBRATION OF PAUL BLEY

Seven pianists offer thanks, memories, and performances in honor of the late great iconoclast.

Lucian Ban

Ethan Iverson

Frank Kimbrough

Matt Mitchell

Aaron Parks

Jacob Sacks

Rob Schwimmer

February 11 2016

Greenwich House Music School

46 Barrow St NYC

8 PM 

Free admission

Reception to follow

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Special thanks to Bradley Bambarger for helping us create this late entry on his Sound it Out series.

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(Closing out the ECM nights at Winter Jazz Fest with Mark Turner, I got the sense that nobody had mentioned Paul, so I gave an impromptu speech. Bradley asked me for a copy; it went something like this, now fleshed out with more detail.)

We are here celebrating ECM, so it is only correct to say something about Paul Bley, who died a couple of weeks ago.

Manfred Eicher and Bley had a close connection. Manfred's idea and direction about improvised music was greatly informed by the Jimmy Giuffre trio with Bley and Steve Swallow. Eventually Manfred took the (for him) unprecedented step of reissuing two Giuffre Verve records on ECM as 1961.

Two of the earliest and most important records in the ECM catalog, Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and Ballads, were Bley-produced tapes purchased by Manfred.

Manfred even played bass with Bley and Barry Altschul for a few gigs in Europe. 

In his autobiography Stopping Time, Bley credits Manfred with asking him to make his first solo record.* Open, to Love was an early and important example of the long series of beautiful solo piano records from ECM.  (When Aaron Parks recently released his gorgeous and inspiring Arborescence, I joked with him, "Why didn't you title it like a 90's Young Lion record, for example In the Tradition?")

The ECM solo pianist who really made a profound impact commercially was Keith Jarrett. The Köln Concert alone gave Manfred freedom to document whatever Manfred felt like recording. Many of the best-engineered records by resolutely non-commercial artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sam Rivers, Dewey Redman, Kenny Wheeler, and others are the recipient of what one might call, "the Köln grant." 

Jarrett himself, of course, made dozens of fantastic records for Manfred. Jarrett himself, of course, was also deeply influenced by Paul Bley. Indeed, it is impossible to overstate the debt Keith owes to Paul, especially when Keith plays with bass and drums. Keith said somewhere that he listened to Paul's Footloose! hundreds of times. When I interviewed him, Keith told me that he wanted Footloose! bassist Steve Swallow for his first trio before getting Charlie Haden (who had brought Ornette Coleman to Paul Bley when in L.A.)

The other bassist associated with both pianists is Gary Peacock. Manfred was the one to convince Peacock to return to an active career in music after Peacock's hiatus in the 70's, suggesting that Peacock record Tales of Another with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. With Keith at the helm, this configuration would go on to become the now-classic "standards" trio.

In 2000 Keith and ECM released Inside Out, an album of free improvisations with Peacock and DeJohnette. It was kind of a political statement: In the liner notes Keith complains about Wynton Marsalis and Ken Burns not understanding free jazz.

One of the few times I met Paul Bley, he fixed me with his eyes. "Did you hear Keith Jarrett's latest, Inside Out? In it, he proves that he can, at last, play exactly the way I did in 1965."

Paul could say that about Keith. Paul had the right to say that about Keith.

Paul probably recorded too much. He loved to brag about keeping a cab waiting outside the studio. But Paul's ECM records were always still an event, for example the ensembles with John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian or the ensembles with Evan Parker and Barre Phillips.

His last record would be for ECM in 2008. When it came out I was pleasantly surprised: I'd heard Paul needed a cane to get around by that point, but he sounded as strong as ever. Play Blue is a wonderful title, a wonderful record, and a worthy valediction.

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When I saw Manfred at the festival, I said, "I was sorry to hear about Paul Bley."

Manfred replied, "He was the poet."

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The concert at the Greenwich House Music School on February 11 was Rob Schwimmer's idea. Rob is a brilliant musician who can seemingly do anything at a piano or theremin. I visited Rob the day after Paul's death and Rob played Annette Peacock's "So Hard, It Hurts," which he learned from Annette while working with her in the 70's.  I traveled time at that moment, because this piece was one of my absolute favorites from Paul Bley's Ballads, an album I listened to incessantly as a teenager. 

I've belatedly realized that I have never given enough credit to Carla Bley or Annette Peacock. Most of the classic 60's Paul Bley trio music feature themes from those two great composers. A little research has indicated that the composers gave Paul fully-formed pieces. Perhaps at one point I surmised that Paul arranged the composers's music a bit, but now I suspect that he simply played the parts accurately before improvising.  

It was the 60's, so perhaps it is not so surprising that after she broke up with Paul, Carla married Mike Mantler, then partnered with Steve Swallow...and that Annette got with Paul after she had married Gary Peacock. (At this point in the discussion, Rob sang, "Getting to know you! Getting to know all about you...") 

The other important composer for Paul Bley was Ornette Coleman. It's no accident that Footloose! begins with "When Will the Blues Leave?"

Rob also informed me that Annette Peacock's maiden name was Coleman. While I've always known that Paul was married to two of his three important composers, now I also know that two of his three important composers were Ornette Coleman and Annette Coleman. 

Rob's comment: "The ever-tightening circle. Pley Baul!"

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*Update: First version of this post claimed that Open, To Love was first ECM solo record. That's what Paul says in the book. Actually it was fourth, the series began with two volumes of Chick Corea Improvisations and then Keith Jarrett's Facing You

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More Updates:

In the blizzard I was inspired to watch the snow from my window with the soundtrack of Fragments, the 1985 Paul Bley recording with John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian. There couldn't be a more representative album for the best kind of ECM curation: "Idea of north," avant-garde, space, reverb...

Quite possibly Manfred got Surman's stellar bass clarinet in there specifically to suggest Giuffre.

Among the compositions are Frisell's "Monica Jane" and Motian's "Once Around the Park." Bley didn't have much truck with "new" sets of chord changes after about 1959, but here he improvises with rare beauty on forms that he must be looking at for the first time in the studio. Wish he had done more of this kind of thing! 

I emailed Frisell to praise this masterpiece record and commented, "You must have been happy with the take of 'Monica Jane!'" He sent me a long reply, which I am reprinting with his permission:

1st notes I played with Paul Bley. ...and my first trip away from home after Monica was born. Paul Motian suggested the title "Monica Jane" for that tune.
And then [there was a tour where]
We didn't use any written music for the whole tour. Every note improvised. Recorded another record at the end of that tour.
It was incredible getting to hang out with those guys. Paul Bley talked about how someday in the future everybody would just get music on their computers ...no need for CDs or records anymore. I sort of believed him.
Really hit me hard ...the news that Paul Bley had passed. He was one of BIG ones for me.
Boy...these last few years. Heavy. SO many of the guys..the ones that set the bar... that I (we) could always look to ...those moments when you're not sure...all I had to do was think about them for a second...
And now. Orphans.
Up to us now. Whew.

I replied, "If I remember correctly, Paul Motian told me something about this tour, that each gig would start with the band waiting as long as possible to play the first note, and whoever finally gave in and started would have 'lost.' Does this ring a bell?"

Bill's response:

I'm not sure about ..."lost"...
but...yea...that makes sense.
And...what I do remember clearly.
Bley had one of those cheap Casio digital watches.
Each night he would ask the promoter how long they wanted us to play....
and he'd set the timer on his watch. 60 minutes ...45 minutes...or whatever. That's how long we played. On the dot.
It got to be amazing with Surman ...where we could make up melodies together on the spot...and play in unison. I mean...
It wasn't like "Trinkle Tinkle" or anything...you know....it was
s l o w.....
But...we were doin it. Following each other.
And ...a couple times Bley actually played "All the Things You Are"....him and Motian...
and you know...hearing that ...after ...you know ..."Sonny Meets Hawk"...is one of the most brain cell scrambling life-music changer things I've ever heard ...
I would want to get in on that SO bad...just a little taste ...but....soon as I poked myself in there
...they'd turn left and I'd be left out somewhere else. Which was all good too. Just glad I got to be next to that.
Some nights Bley would just tell one of us to start...alone.
One gig...I think in England somewhere. ...was like an old church...REAL echoey ...super live room...and Motian started alone ...
played for a LONG time....and ..It REALLY sounded like an orchestra ...never heard him sound like that. I mean REALLY it was an orchestra.
Stravinsky. HUGE.

The follow-up Quartet from the end of that tour is indeed totally improvised, yet at the same time remains thoroughly compositional. Offhand I can't think of a better example of this sort of aesthetic. A close listen to both albums has also taught me that I have perpetually underrated John Surman.

Back to Fragments: I regret writing my salvo about Paul Bley and ECM above without first consulting these long. poetic, and detailed liner notes from Steve Lake. Somehow I hadn't seen these notes before. (Usually ECM doesn't have liner notes, so that's probably why I never took out pages from Fragments.) At any rate Lake makes it clear that having Bley back on ECM was a significant event for the label, and lays out the history much better than I do.

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In terms of curation and availability, the most important Paul Bley music, his 60's trio, is a mess. ECM has never released a CD of Ballads except in Japan. Footloose! has extra tracks; good luck with finding that set at a reasonable price. Mr. Joy is nowhere. The amazing quartet with Gilmore has more tracks than most people realize (you need the Savoy issue, not the IAI.) 

You can find Closer on ESP-Disk but the speed is wrong! It's a half-step too high. This is a real problem. To heck with it: From Rob, here's a pitch-corrected and slowed-down "Ida Lupino" with Steve Swallow and Barry Altschul. 

Keith Jarrett told me Bley was, "Like Ahmad Jamal on different kinds of drugs." That makes sense especially on this Carla Bley "latin" number. 1965.

Ida Lupino correct speed

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Along with Rob Schwimmer, Frank Kimbrough is part of the "committee" in charge of the celebration on February 11. His discussion with Peter Hum is good reading.

I still vividly remember a Kimbrough gig with Ben Allison and Jeff Williams, playing Monk, Nichols, and standards informed by a free sensibility. An important gig from my first weeks in NYC. A little later a performance at the Greenwich House Music School with Allison and Jeff Ballard was also great. Frank played a funky D minor vamp for a while before the bass and drums came in loose and avant-garde against it. A key moment for young Ethan...

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Other links about Bley: Nels Cline. Mark Polishook. Ralph A. Mirello.   

01/18/2016

 

New Year, Harlem Stride, Don Asher,
Change of Venue, Celesta

Everyone in the performing arts should have the same New Year's Resolution, to get off the computer and go out to see more shows.

Tonight at Jazz Standard: Matt Mitchell's fabulous quartet. All week at the Vanguard: George Cables and Victor Lewis giving a sermon in the tradition. Next week at the Jazz Gallery: Miles Okazaki debuts something called "Trickster" with Craig Taborn. Jan. 16 at Cornelia Street: Sam Newsome/Andrew Cyrille duo. (!) Jan. 21 at Cornelia: Benoît Delbecq with Mark Turner, John Hébert, and Gerald Cleaver (this is really kind of a must-see, Benoît plays NYC all too infrequently). 

There are Stone residencies with Matana Roberts, Rova Sax Quartet (I gotta go to some of that), and Craig Taborn.

We are really just getting started with NYC jazz in January, for there's also the massive WJF. David King is artist in residence, playing with several great groups. One of the headline nights is Happy Apple and Colin Stetson/Bill Laswell.  Reid Anderson will be also performing new compositions for electronics with Bill McHenry and Andrew D'Angelo. (Reid's thing has been in progress for a while but seldom has played out, so this is also a must-see.) ECM is putting on two nights of music; I'm there at the very end in a new duo project with Mark Turner. 

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In a rather different gear, I'll be taking up residence for a month at the new digs for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem talking, listening to recordings, and playing Stride Piano. Four sessions, all free, all at the same location, 58 West 129th Street:

CLASSICAL EXCELLENCE
Tue, Jan 12, 7 pm

James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Donald Lambert, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and others.

What is stride piano and who brought it to its first apotheosis? The lectures and listening sessions will begin with the classics, the men who dominated the form in Harlem in the 20’s and 30’s.

JAZZ PIANO
Tue, Jan 19, 7pm

Earl “Fatha" Hines, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and others.

It’s just a quick leap from from early stride to the greats from the swing era. There was more improvisation and greater harmonic flexibility, but the “oom-pah” from the southpaw remained constant.


YOU’VE GOT TO BE MODERNISTIC
Tue, Jan 26, 7pm

Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, Jaki Byard, Keith Jarrett, Marcus Roberts, and others.

When the bebop era began, it was almost a rout: The pianist seemingly had to abandon any stride tendencies in favor of a less left hand-dominated style. Still, some musicians found a way to be avant-garde while citing the tradition.

CAROLINA SHOUT(S)
Tue, Feb 2, 7pm

Ehud Asherie, Adam Birnbaum, Aaron Diehl, Ted Rosenthal, Jacob Sacks, Christian Sands, and special guest Stanley Cowell all play their version of "Carolina Shout," the classic test piece for Harlem pianists.  

Perhaps a risky venture! This A-list team of ivory-ticklers (and myself) will all attempt the same famous James P. Johnson work. Hopefully the atmosphere will be more collegial than competitive, but no promises. The musicians will also discuss why working on stride today remains relevant.

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My newsletter Floyd Camembert Reports (sign up here) is going out later this week with more notifications (there's another duo gig with Mark Turner coming up at Mezzrow, plus I'm planning some free masterclasses) and a few cute photos.

It seems too much work to put together a "year end summary" like I planned, but I do have a MVP in terms of my personal 2015:

Joshua Redman

Naturally, I tease Josh Redman about having his own named dressing room at SFJAZZ. I also repeatedly make the point that the Blue Bottle Coffee around the corner from the Center should have a named Joshua Redman pull.

Joking aside, Josh has been an invaluable teacher to me both on the bandstand and in conversation. 

Certainly all four members of The Bad Plus Joshua Redman would say this project was a very special one, especially now that it has been so warmly received. The highlight of 2015 for sure.

Josh's next project looks to be killer: Still Dreaming with Ron Miles, Scott Colley, and Brian Blade. The name alludes to Old and New Dreams I suspect. They are at Dazzle Jazz in Denver this week and Jazz Standard the next. 

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In addition to various named rooms, SFJAZZ has an unprecedented outdoor tribute, the Raise Up Off Me Alley. (Photo at SFJAZZ blog.) Hampton Hawes's memoir is one of the greatest, but still I was surprised to see SFJAZZ honor a book. The fog cleared when talking to Robert Mailer Anderson, the board member who proposed the alley's name. Anderson is writer himself (Boonville has excellent reviews) and a big book maven in general. When he showed me a first edition of Raise Up Off Me signed by both Hawes and co-writer Don Asher I may have drooled a little bit.

Don Asher is generally known only for the book with Hawes. However, there is one other Asher that should be on the shelves of the serious jazz book lover: Notes From a Battered Grand: A Memoir: Fifty Years of Music, from Honky-Tonk to High Society. As far as I know Asher didn't record but he was obviously a competent musician. He grew up next to Jaki Byard, and one gets the sense that Asher knew he was never gonna be a Byard so settled for being a superior cocktail pianist. 

In addition to great stuff about Byard, there's much more of general importance in Battered Grand, including how black musicians taught him to swing and a detailed explanation of how 60's rock music was hard for the veterans to play. Asher's voice is amusing and secure. I wish I had interviewed him, or at least been in his presence once: Asher died in 2010, and apparently still played cocktail piano in San Francisco until near the end.

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Writing about music! A tricky profession that I have learned a lot about the hard way. This is the last DTM post at Typepad. Migration is done; now I have the chance to decide what I will keep and what I will discard. The big pages can get a fresh edit and so forth. I don't know how long this process will take but it might be a few months. Floyd Camembert Reports will notify everybody about the next DTM URL. The first major essay will be about Red Garland.

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Sorry to bring up the holidays one last time, but I was so pleased to learn from Yegor Shevtsov that the score to the Nutcracker has a hilarious indication: "Celesta part should by played by a good pianist."

Celesta

Celestas are notoriously stubborn and uneven. However when practicing at U of Minnesota, primo piano tech Bill Sadler showed me a nice axe that he had regulated personally. I was so charmed I made a little video of the WTC 1 C major fugue. This is not a perfect performance! But that didn't stop me from texting it to approximately 30 people as an amusing "happy new year." It's as good a way as any to sign off on DTM for now...

Bach celesta video

(P.S. Again, credit to John Bloomfield for how comfortable my hands look. I admit there are still a few untoward reaches and curls, but I'm working on it!)

(P.P.S. please don't upload to YouTube.)  

01/06/2016

 

The Main Man

Woke up at 3 AM. Something was wrong. Cold in apartment. Felt very strange. Conceded defeat to insomnia, turned on computer. RIP Paul Bley.

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Some assaults are impossible to recover from, especially when they are disguised as liberation. I remember it like yesterday, unwrapping Paul Bley's Hot and placing it on the turntable. The opening surreal motivic piano solo on "When Will the Blues Leave" went through me like a injection of adrenaline. 

The older generation got it from Footloose (1962), universally considered one of Bley's best. In Wisconsin in 1986, there was no goddamn Footloose anywhere. I had to get it from Hot (1985), which is bizarrely almost the exact same repertoire as Footloose.

The older generation would have known that Bley was simply an alternative. Stationed both in the wrong era and in primitive wilderness, I was free to assume that Bley was the foundation. In a sense my entire career has been a reckoning with this mistake.

01/05/2016

 

An Unusual Blend of Poetry and Fantasy

RIP Peter Dickinson.

Looking at the obits, especially those from his home country of England, it becomes apparent that Dickinson is most beloved for his Young Adult speculative fiction, a large and significant body of work admired by contemporary greats like Peter Pullman, Neil Gaiman and Paul Cornell. The only one I've read is Eva, a spectacular tale of a young girl's mind placed inside body of a chimpanzee. On Dickinson's website, he comments, "80% of my mail, almost all of it from the USA, is about this one book."

I'm also lucky enough to have an original edition of the amusing and absurd "pseudo-scientific monograph" The Flight of Dragons. The self-deprecating page at Dickinson's site is well-worth reading, especially for publishing insiders. 

My true bond with Dickinson, however, is with his crime fiction.  The Anatole Broyard quote from the New York Times obit is ideal: "A kind of spoiled darling of people who prefer what might be called avant-garde suspense writing.”

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Unlike his YA work, it seems like Dickinson's mysteries are being forgotten. At the least, none of the many modern crime writers I follow on Twitter mentioned his passing.  That's too bad, for he once was lauded by his peers. Rex Stout, Edmund Crispin, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Sara Paretsky, H.R.F.Keating, and others blurbed him with rare enthusiasm.

Donald E. Westlake was a champion, and included Sleep and His Brother on his list of ten best mysteries. 

Westlake also loved Anthony Powell. Among the many similarities between Powell and Dickinson is an absolute determination not to make it easy on the reader at the top of the book. I still remember my struggle with starting Sleep and His Brother. (The caption above my head the first time I looked at this passage said, "If the author of my favorite Richard Stark books loves this stuff, I should keep reading, but...")

The sack, however prettily beribboned, tends to destroy a man's confidence; and there had never been much of that in the first place.

Pibble halted on the wide and weedy gravel to mime amusement while he studied the hideous façade and nerved himself to face the children. Childless himself, he liked the young in theory but found that he became gawky and gruff in their company—a manner which was sure to be worse with the kids at the Foundation. From one of Mary's rambling parentheses he had learned that it was part of their treatment to open the door and greet strangers; besides, with the Foundation so poor, it saved the wages of a doorman.

The Foundation had the decorators in. Painters nuzzled at windows like bees at a lavender bush; on one of the corner spires workmen spanked copper sheeting into place; the other spire was finished and now its rich metal waited for the subduing verdigris; meanwhile an elderly man was poised at its pinnacle tinkering with a fresh-gilt weathercock; a fuzz of scaffolding blurred the right-hand corner of the building, but even the sections with which the workmen had finished were not exactly clean-lined, so lavish had the architect been with terra-cotta swags and ornaments. It was curious to think of ultramodern, no-nonsense Reuben Kelly toiling away behind those curlicues. Better not tell the lady that one knows him—it'll only cause further complications in an already tedious and embarrassing mission. With a tiny groan Pibble drove himself across the flattened remains of bindweed and trefoil to the porch.

Drab November made it so dark under the arch that he had to peer for a bell or knocker; but before he had located either the hinges moaned and the door swung slowly open as if this had been the opening sequence of Aunt of Dracula. Inside, instead of the predictable Gothic gloom and chill, the air was almost sultry and the colours jazzy but impersonal. Below a huge sweep of carved wooden stairs a solitary figure slept on a modern settee. Wooden pillars sprang from the op art carpet to the wedding cake plasterwork of the ceiling. The total effect was as if some minor hall at the Victoria and Albert had been commandeered and redecorated to be an airlines terminal. Even the sleeper had the look of someone who has fallen asleep not because he needs the rest but because the world has become too boring to stay awake in; so he sleeps here, now, regardless.

Pibble hesitated across the threshold.

"Hello," said a voice from behind the door, a child's voice, very slow but steady. The door began to moan shut and Pibble moved out of its way.

"Copper come. Lost 'is 'at."

That was a different voice, but it had the same strange lightweight drawl.

"Lovely," said the first voice. Now Pibble could see that it belonged to the nearer of the two children who were pushing the door shut. They made it seem an effort—not an effort to move the door but to move their own limbs. Mary had said they'd be fat and sleepy, and they were; mentally and physically handicapped, and that was obvious, too; so all the way up from the bus stop Pibble had been preparing himself to greet some slow, revolting dumplings with piggy eyes above lardy cheeks, and to react with adult friendliness and feigned ease.

"Hello, you two," he said, muffing the rehearsed tone and producing instead the note of surprise and pleasure with which one greets a real friend at a boring cocktail party.

Two circular faces smiled and blinked in the bright lighting: a boy and a girl, he dark, she carroty, both about twelve years old. Their skin was heavy and pale, but not tallowy; both seemed to be wearing several sweaters. Pibble felt an instinct to pat them, as, thirty years before, when the porch would have held a litter of garden twine and mole traps and broken croquet mallets, the visitor to this hall would have patted the large and lazy hound that came to sniff his trouser cuffs. Pibble held out his hand.

The boy's hand rose slowly, like some barely buoyant object wavering up through water. Pibble felt his face stiffen at finding how cold that touch was. The girl, though she seemed to have her eyes shut, must have noticed the change, for she smiled sleepily at him.

"Cold 'and, warm 'eart," she said.

"George," said the boy, drawling the syllable out to enormous length. His eyes were large and soft, and had a ring of darker green round the edge of the light green iris—the cathypnic ring, the first symptom.

If you are lost: James Pibble is a gentle ex-cop: He's been fired. He's sad about this. ("The sack, however prettily beribboned, tends to destroy a man's confidence; and there had never been much of that in the first place.") He's been asked to help out at a foundation for telepathic children. (This is why the girl says, "Copper come. Lost 'is 'at." She telepathically understands Pibble's situation: His hat is gone.) The telepathy seems generated by their cathypnic condition. The kids mostly sleep, eat, and move slowly about the foundation, uttering the occasional premonition.

It's a book that is more fantasy than mystery. The other five Pibble books don't have plot devices as extreme as telepathy.  I should really look at them all again, but at one point I firmly decided that A Pride of Heroes (also known as The Old English Peep Show) was the greatest of the set. Dickinson himself called it a "baroque spoof." At the old mansion now being run as a theme park, Pibble meets first a darling lion cub, then a whole pack of rather charming lions who hurt him a little bit by accident, and finally a serious man-eating lion, who of course is the "murderer" (although Pibble himself just barely escapes). It's one of my favorite sequences in all of crime fiction.

Dickinson's final Pibble, One Foot in the Grave, is set in a rest home for the elderly. His last (non-Pibble) crime novel, Some Deaths Before Dying, has a similar milieu. Other Dickinson themes include mysteries set within an alternate monarchy (King and Joker, Skeleton-In-Waiting),  memoirs of the last gasp of British glamor from between the world wars (The Last Houseparty, A Summer in the Twenties), and tangled politics in former colonial possessions (Tefuga, The Poison Oracle).

(While checking the spelling of "Tefuga", I happened upon this valuable 1986 review and profile by Hammett-biographer Diane Johnson.)

This is all very English stuff, of course. What gives his work real bite is the way Dickinson always dishes the dirt, and not just in fiction: The brilliant essay on maids and butlers "Murder in the Manor" is strongly recommended for fans of Downton Abbey.

As a crime writer, Dickinson's flaw is reasonably standard for his era, which is an over-emphasis on psychology. (I'd enter the same charge against Ross MacDonald and Ruth Rendell.) Crime fiction should be for escapism, not for, say, assessing the mind of a pedophile as in The Last Houseparty.

Hindsight (the book which Broyard rightfully refers to as a spoiled darling) is nearly a masterpiece of meta, yet the great psycho-sexual reveal at the final climax rings hollow.

I'll always love Hindsight anyway. The description from the website is good. (Dickinson is one of the few writers where reading about the plot might help before starting the book.)

Paul Rogers, a crime novelist, gets a letter from the biographer Simon Dobbs, asking why the boys of St Aidan's Preparatory School referred to Molly Benison as "Mad Molly." Dobbs is writing a life of the writer Isidore Steen, and Molly, one of the rackety beauties of the period between the wars, had played some part in the great man's life. Rogers had witnessed the event that led to the nickname, but to give the full flavour of it he finds it easiest to write about his younger self in the third person, as if it were a chapter of a novel. Dobbs, who had also been at St Aidan's, but had left before the Molly incident, accepts this, asks further questions, and in return tells Rogers details about the school staff. Rogers continues the novel, increasingly uncertain whether he is actually recovering buried memories or imaginatively creating incidents.

For fun I copied out two of my favorite pages of Hindsight

…In the end I was surprised to find that the problem the letter chiefly posed was how to answer Dobbs’s casual inquiry about what I thought of Steen.

Isidore Steen, Great Writer, the apposition so automatic as to be almost abbreviable to GW, in my case accompanied by the no-less-honorific GU, or Great Unread. My regular response to the mention of Steen’s name was a collage of ennui, revulsion, and jealousy. Revulsion was strongest. I was repelled for the very reasons that made him attractive to others — the gossip about the man drew them to the books, but put me off. I dislike that whole myth of the artist as shaman, the general larger-than-lifeness, compounded in Steen’s case by his ferocious sexual energies and appetites for both men and women, as well as other forms of rumbustiousness. I really preferred to think of him as a phoney, and there seemed to me quite enough evidence without the chore of ploughing through The Fanatics.  That whole business about the Life Force, for instance, which accounts for much that is tedious in Shaw — I gathered that Steen took it even more seriously. You couldn’t believe that sort of thing and remain a tolerable artist, surely?

My resentment was strong enough to make me feel irritated whenever I read, say, a review or article that mentioned Steen and accepted that his early Saharan explorations had actually achieved anything, or that Baston’s demolition job on the veracity of Steen’s account of his own Lawrence-like exploits in East Africa during the first war had not really demonstrated that To Live Like the Jackal was a pack of lies. I had of course read that book at Eton but unlike most of my friends had not been bowled over by it. The feeling that Steen was not my kind of man or writer was already very strong. 

As I say, the distaste was reinforced by what I learnt about Steen as a person. I tended to shut my mind to anecdotes of his friendliness and casual generosity to young writers short of luck or money; I assumed it was a method of getting them into bed with him. Occasionally I came across a quotation from one of his books, and I remember turning on Radio 3 halfway through what was clearly an archive recording of a talk and then listening with real interest and stimulus before learning at the end that the voice had been that of Steen. It was impossible at times like this not to acknowledge that the style was muscular and uncluttered, the point of view sane, some of the individual ideas perceptive, subtle and occasionally prophetic, and the whole approach far less egotistical than I would have expected.

Despite this I continued to resist, though increasingly swimming against the accepted current of thought. For even without the coming centenary Steen’s reputation would been enjoying an upsurge. Most parties and factions, especially those with an ecological bent, were tending to claim him as a father-figure. I had read only a couple of weeks before a piece in one of the Sunday Arts gossip columns about a film of Steen’s life in the offing.

(...)

But did anyone still read Steen? I had to go into Winchester the morning I got Dobbs’s letter and parked my behind the public library, so it was easy to check. Most of his books were in stock, and had been borrowed at least a couple of times in the previous year. Even The Fanatics, that great white whale of a novel, had a recent date-stamp in it. Mine had more, but then Steen had died in 1927, the year I was born. How many date-stamps did I expect my books to carry in 2027? Ridiculous question.

In the end I overcame the urge to pretend to Dobbs that I knew and liked Steen better than I in fact did, and simply said that I had not read enough to be able to form any opinion other than that he wrote good English.

There are plenty more jewels like this scattered about the Dickinson oeuvre for adults. But it's also understandable that this style has fallen out of fashion. Perhaps it's only correct that his YA fantasy work is currently showing greater strength in terms of continued relevancy.

While looking at Hindsight yesterday I discovered this telling passage near the close:

I was quite a clever child, you know. Not brilliant, but quick. In a sense, that was my peak period. I don’t think, for all its acquired experience, my brain has ever functioned quite as efficiently as it did then.  It seems to me quite possible that I not merely perceived things, but began to make connections between them.

Dickinson's YA books are clearly written for quick children. Surely many of those smart young readers ended Eva, The Weathermonger, or Tulka  just a little more ready for making sense of onrushing adulthood.

01/02/2016

 

Holidays with Vince G.

Another dumb Twitter poll:

Screen Shot Vince

Few musicians have had a diverse career reduced to a singularity quite like Vince Guaraldi.

As any cocktail pianist can attest, the drunken patron who leans against the piano will order, “Play 'Peanuts!'” or "Play 'Snoopy!'" or "Play 'Charlie Brown!'" It almost takes a connoisseur to know that the piece is really called “Linus and Lucy.”

There’s other familiar music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, of course. “Christmas Time is Here” is a very good song indeed, and even "Skating" (rolling thirds in waltz-time) gets heard as background music at this time of year. 

Still, “Linus and Lucy” is the headliner.

The other contender for Guaraldi’s “best” is the moody “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” a bit hit from three years before the television special. In fact, “Cast Your Fate” was the reason Guaraldi was hired for Charlie Brown.

In terms of the jazz language, “Cast Your Fate” is more influential, as the simple but effective techniques Guaraldi pioneered seemed important to all the countrified jazz from a few years later: Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, and so forth. 

The main argument of “Fate” is a strong syncopated even-eighth note melody harmonized in diatonic triads floating over a bagpipe pedal and arco bass. This suspended feeling is answered by a gospel chord section embellished by Horace Silver rumbles in the left hand.

"Fate" is from Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, a rather odd concept album that mostly features straight ahead arrangements of Brazilian music from the famous movie. Monty Budwig and Colin Bailey are really swinging, but the pianist is generally a lite mix of Red Garland and Bill Evans. Guaraldi was an important factor in a gentle jazzy Americanization of various South American musics in the 50's and 60's with Cal Tjader and Bola Sete, so having him swing out on these Brazilian tunes is not an obvious choice. 

At any rate, "Cast Your Fate To the Wind" triumphs over the rest of the disc. It's easy to see why the song became popular and why the producers of Charlie Brown wanted Guaraldi.

There are a few oddities in “Linus and Lucy” that probably only insiders usually appreciate. For one thing, the syncopated bassline is hard to hear correctly. Not for professionals, of course, but for amateurs. I’ve played “Lucy” at least 100 times at parties over the years, and someone always claps in a way that indicates they hear the “and of four” as “one.” I can’t think of another pop piano work that could credibly create this kind of rhythmic uncertainty with a significant number of fans.

One of the reasons the original recording helps “hide the beat” is the sustained arco A-flat, which is carried directly over from "Cast Your Fate."  This, frankly, is a genius bit of arranging.

Since the drums offer only soft brushes with light backbeat high hat, the rhythm is really carried by the left hand piano ostinato, which starts every measure with a strong upbeat. Thus the amateur’s rhythmic confusion. (It might be added that the delightful way the cartoon characters dance is reasonably unsynchronized to the music.)

As far as the right hand goes, it is a very old trick indeed: horn fifths. The same sequence of dyads used by any European composer for hundreds of years to suggest country matters. In classic American fashion, Guaraldi steals that old country material and marries it to African-influenced rhythm in the bottom. Boom: You’ve got a hit.

Just like “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” there’s a gospel shout section that answers the main theme. Both works also have a short central section of  4/4 swing; "Lucy" has a latin bit as well. The jazz improvisations are blocky and just barely acceptable. I seriously doubt any fan waits for those solo sections. The meat is the main tune. While the jazz is going on you talk to your friend until the theme comes back.

These are great pieces, but I don’t think Guaraldi was a great composer. He’s more like other one hit wonders in rock and pop: Through luck and talent, a certain puzzle-box got assembled just right once or twice. However, the composer doesn't have enough practiced skill to work through problems unless there was that magical confluence.  In other Guaraldi music there are seams a better composer would stitch together more smoothly. Even the hits have problems, for example the D dominant near the end of the solo section of "Lucy," an obviously incorrect choice I still find jarring after all these years. (Eb7/ Db7/ C7/ Db7 -- ok, kind of a Spanish scenario -- Eb7/ Db7/ C7/ Db7/ D7: wtf?/ Eb7) 

Flaws doesn't matter. A Charlie Brown Christmas remains the ultimate gateway drug to jazz. That bright, clear, rhythmic piano has undoubtedly made countless casual viewers curious about this music. Merry Christmas to us from Vince Guaraldi!

12/23/2015

 

Doubled Up and Getting Gonged

 My yearly regret is that I see merely a fraction of what New York has to offer. However, last week I was fortunate to attend two memorable gigs.

—-

Henry Threadgill played with his new group Ensemble Double Up at Roulette. I’ve been a guarded admirer of Zooid (which I discuss in "Four Hits and the Ultramodern Blues") but like this new configuration more, partly because the piano players inflect Threadgill’s biting sonorities with more of a tonal atmosphere. Threadgill is a genius of tonal harmony, and the apparent repudiation of tonality in Zooid reminded me of the late period austerities of another genius of tonality, Alfred Schnittke.

In the second half of the Double Up concert, there was a piano cadenza of gospel-ish harmony. Sweet balm of melancholy.

Everybody in the group is excellent (full personnel here), but drummer Craig Weinrib is obviously a special asset, reading the hard charts and supplying solid even-eighth grooves free from cliché.

The pianists were a trio of heavyweights, David Virelles, David Bryant, and Jason Moran. Moran is a Steinway artist, which is undoubtedly one reason why the company furnished a collection of superior instruments for these very special concerts. (Steinway’s artist rep Vivian Chiu is doing a lot for jazz these days, it’s really cool.)

Threadgill said this music was a personal tribute to 50 years of the AACM. How fabulous. I look forward to studying this music on record.

—-

At the Park Avenue Armory, Steinway was also very much in evidence under the hands of Igor Levit and the curation of Marina Abravomvić . In the end, their Goldberg is not really any kind of of abstract or challenging performance art but simply a piano recital, and a great one: I’ve heard several live performances of the Goldberg Variations over the years, and Levit’s was the best so far.

Before the concert the audience had to give up all devices and sit with noise-cancelllng headphones for thirty minutes. This effect may seem pretentious but it really worked, especially since hundreds of people were all doing it at the same time. After the gong sounded, we took off our headphones: When Levit’s hands rose up to gently caress the opening G’s there was authentic magic in the room.

My only quibble was one of acoustics. The massive Armory offers a long reverberation, which was fine for most of the variations, but some of the grittier canons were too much of a wash even with Levit’s stellar articulation. Still, I suppose the churches where Bach played his organ works were also pretty wet.

—-

Somebody asked me recently about my favorite Goldberg Variations on record. I’m not an elitist: I’d vote Glenn Gould, both early and late, just like everybody else. Indeed, there’s no other piece in the repertoire that is owned quite like GG owns the G’s.

However, for an alternate, I’d heartily suggest the harpsichord recording of Ton Koopman, which is passionate, dancing, witty, and idiosyncratic.

Indeed, all of Koopman’s Bach, whether as soloist or conductor, is entrancing and illuminating. If you are in need of some Bach this holiday season, consider Ton Koopman.

12/22/2015

 

Lew Archer at 100

Just learned Kenneth Millar, AKA Ross MacDonald, had his centenary today. 

I've read everything by MacDonald two or three times, in some cases more than that: I suppose I've read The Chill a half-dozen times. Here in my San Francisco hotel room the new Library of America edition Four Novels of the 1950's is at my bedside, where I'm about halfway through The Barbarous Coast.

MacDonald is a must for crime fiction fans. He is also controversial: Many serious students of the genre would argue that he is hopelessly overrated. My own trajectory is probably fairly common. I loved him as a kid, rejected him as a young man, and now concede he deserves a solid place in the pantheon...although in no way should he complete some kind of trinity with Hammett and Chandler.

Some writers just make you keep turning the pages. Once you pick up a MacDonald it is more or less impossible to put it down. At the start the books aren't particularly exciting or dramatic. The settings are fairly sedate suburbia, the people are normal California types. But the story -- admittedly, an absurdly convoluted story, I dare anyone to outline a Lew Archer tale from memory, even if they finished the book five minutes ago -- the story hooks you and holds you willing captive. The best of the books, like The Chill, begin emitting a peculiar high-pitched siren as the final chapters gather the threads and the pigeons come home to roost. 

The pseudo-Freud aspects of the novels get critical attention, but more impressive these days is Archer's compassion towards young men and women. This was the era when the parents who voted for Eisenhower were furious at their hippie kids. Classic crime fiction is frequently pretty reactionary, so Lew's gentle support of young rebels really stands out. 

The Library of America edition has prompted a fair number of unimpressive think pieces claiming high levels of literary mastery for Ross MacDonald. That's nothing new; an older generation still smarts at the 1969 cabal that took over The New York Times Book Review to anoint MacDonald work as, "The finest detective novels ever written by an American."  

Overpraise isn't MacDonald's fault, of course, and he remains a fun read for fans of the genre. Every year for the last 30 or so years I've read some Ross MacDonald, and this state of affairs shows no sign of changing. Indeed, right this minute it is time for me to get back to The Barbarous Coast.

12/13/2015

 

Yeah,
Well,
You Know,
That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man

Everybody's a critic, especially in the era of social media. 

Yesterday, for fun, I threw up three dumb polls on Twitter. As expected, in every instance I disagreed with the consensus. 

Screen Shot Chandler

Chandler might have written some of the greatest sentences in all of crime fiction, but he also serves it up on a plate. Hammett makes the reader reach in to complete the circuit. Chandler is, "Us vs. them." Hammett is, "We are all tainted." Probably James Ellroy says it best:

Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed.

That said, Chandler is endlessly re-readable. I love Chandler. But Hammett is greater.

Screen Shot Kelly

Wynton Kelly had marvelous swing and versatility. But Wynton also can be a little bit in that Oscar Peterson world of "slick." Red Garland is a pure element. He plays only one way, from some deep secure place inside himself that never worries about getting over.

Red is also more avant-garde. Well, perhaps "avant-garde" is a little strong, probably "mysterious" is safer. At any rate Red's chords are hard to transcribe (try the intro to "By the Numbers") whereas Wynton's are easy to transcribe.

Red's purity and mystery places him closer in the pantheon to Monk and Bud. Not that Wynton Kelly isn't really great though. But Red is a better, more direct influence for musicians today. (Big DTM post on Red coming soon.)

Screen Shot Mahler

This is a real rout. Of course Strauss's central symphonic work  Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben, and Symphonia Domestica is not greater than Mahler's 6th and 9th symphonies....

But Strauss is so much more prolific. Not all of it is great, but there's always more than you think, and the most delightful surprises are hidden in the corners of his canon. Mahler has only the symphonies and a few major song cycles.  

Mahler seeks to express the most profound emotions. He succeeds! But his earnestness is strangely unsophisticated, even banal. Stravinsky was suspicious of Mahler's 8th:

I find that the only quality in this symphony is the inflexibility of utter barefaced platitude... Fancy that for two hours you are made to understand that two times two is four, to the accompaniment of E-flat major performed fffff by 800 people.

Strauss is everything Mahler wasn't: cynical, vicious, careless, fancy, casual.  He adored women (for who they were, not as sexual conquests) and created a whole genre of music for female soprano. He takes the most outrageous harmonic risks, then steps back and laughingly responds to those outrages with corny horn fifths. (Try the development section of Parergon zur Sinfonia Domestica.) The greatest opera-going experiences in my life have included not just the most famous modernist Greek dramas Salome and Electra but the delightfully meta Capriccio and the static-but-lush Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Finally, Four Last Songs and Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings are simply two of my favorite pieces. Nothing of Mahler touches me quite as deeply. 

---

I've been thinking about critical opinion and the long view of history as Kamasi Washington's The Epic keeps being so successful.  At least three diverse and well-informed critics, Ben Ratliff, Ted Gioia, and Phil Freeman, have named it a top album of the year. (Ratliff and Gioia #1, Freeman #2.) Elliott Sharp, certainly a musician I respect (UPDATE: not the musician, but a critic of the same name), tweeted, "Kamasi Washington released the only jazz album of 2015." (UPDATE 2: Sharp was actually being tongue-in-cheek: "I was just commenting on how non-jazz pubs seem to think jazz doesn't exist outside of Kamasi.") Flying Lotus, another heavyweight, tweeted, "KamasiW not getting recognized in the jazz category at ALL?!? is heartbreaking."

In light of the consensus I went back and looked my appraisal of The Epic from several months ago. I stand by my assessment.

I wonder what Azar Lawrence, Billy Harper, and Gary Bartz make of the buzz. They played this style when it was fresh -- hell, they helped invent the style.

The reason to celebrate Washington is probably mostly extramusical: His album and tour is breaking new ground with audiences. It is reaffirming the connection of contemporary black culture to jazz. Perhaps Washington is "making jazz relevant again."

However, if Washington wants to be taken seriously by serious jazz musicians, his next disc should really double down on great playing.  At the moment I feel his trajectory is a bit like Chico Freeman, David Murray, David S. Ware, even the great Archie Shepp: Talented and exciting tenor players who have a little too much blather in the surface of their sound to be accepted by the cognoscenti as well as by the critics. 

12/12/2015

 

Ineffective Randomiser

Marina Abramovic's Goldberg with Igor Levit is sold out. There's been some catty online chatter about the elitist conditions of the show (check your phone at the door, sit in silence with noise-canceling headphones for 30 minutes before Levit plays) but I think it's great.

(Sarah Deming wrote an enlightening and amusing piece (with Iverson cameos) about Abramovic's last MOMA show.) 

Levit is a wonderful pianist. Frederic Rzewski's variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated has been established in the repertoire for some time now, but it is still a nice surprise to see Levit place it in an album alongside Goldberg and Diabelli

Rzewski himself recently played People United on a upright piano at Wholey's Fish Market in Pittsburgh, a venue and environment about as starkly different from the Abramovic/Levit Goldberg as can be imagined.

I think Rzewski's deeply proletarian attitude is also great. However I'd love him to get some of that elite NYC art money while he's still around...

---

On Tuesday I had another lesson with Charles McPherson in San Diego. To finish McPherson played me alternate takes from Charlie Parker with Strings. Bird is really different than on the familiar master takes, yet every note is still perfection. I've always liked this music (despite the corny arrangements) but now have even more reverence for Bird's sublime genius.

McPherson is unquestionably one of the most profound sages about bebop left on the planet. Studying with McPherson is highly recommended.

---

While driving around for the Thanksgiving holiday, Sarah and I had John Luther Adams's Become Ocean on repeat. Become Ocean has won a Pulitzer, a Grammy, and just prompted Taylor Swift to give $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony. It's exceedingly rare for a work this worthy to receive this kind of acclaim. 

Some of the best writing about Become Ocean remains the opening salvo by Alex Ross. Don't miss the chart.

Another fabulous listen is the JLA CD anthologizing The Wind in High Places and Dream of the Canyon Wren (performed by the brilliant JACK quartet) and Canticles of the Sky (performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble).

JLA likes tight parameters. One of the string quartets is only harmonics, the other is microtonal growls. Both pieces are absolutely musical and entrancing.

---

Mark Morris was very insistent that we watch Steve Martin's Pennies From Heaven. I knew nothing about it going in, and as a result had a truly surprising evening's entertainment. Essential viewing for lovers of meta. 

---

Vince Keenan applied the right sort of casual pressure in order for me to shut off my mind for two hours with Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. There's some surprisingly good things in this farce, including a refreshing "jazzy noir" score by Daniel Pemberton. However, the greatest music in the movie must be Roberta Flack's "Compared to What." Damn, is Ron Carter ever on fire on that track.   

---

The latest season of Doctor Who has come to a close. As usual I give it all a mixed review. However, like most fans, I admire the stylish puzzle box "Heaven Sent," in part because the truly excellent Peter Capaldi is left alone to give his all.

Many can't stand Capaldi's rock guitar and sunglasses. However their appearance is merely in line with the show's relentless eclecticism. It's simply impossible for Doctor Who to Jump the Shark.

12/10/2015

 

Ducal Updates

Duke Ellington's America by Harvey G. Cohen is highly recommended, especially for those curious to learn more about Duke and race. This book is a worthy counterweight to Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, especially since Terry's book has almost an entirely different set of concerns. It would have been good for me to have known Cohen when working on the Teachout Duplex from a couple of years ago.

Among other gems, Cohen finds a telling moment where Duke is telling Willie Ruff not to be sad that a Yale festival honoring jazz legends was unsupported, under-attended and lost money: "We're honoring all these beautiful musicians because they have become great even in their invisibility. Maybe fate is trying to tell us something about being invisible. Why ruin a good thing, man?"

---

Gramophone unearthed Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington in conversation. An interesting three minutes! Duke is so nice on the surface, but when Lenny doesn't respond to more of a blues idiom way of talking, Duke shuts it down. 

Duke doesn't believe in the line being handed him by interviewers and Lenny, and why should he? 

Sorry, Lenny, but I just had to go back to "Reverential Gesture" and add you to the list (you should have been there already, of course):

At the very least, every commentator who knocks Harlem or Black, Brown, and Beige should also note that contemporary orchestral versions of jazz by Gershwin, Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Leo Ornstein, Samuel Barber, George Antheil, Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, and countless others are even more problematic. 

---

In "Reverential Gesture" I suggested that non-Ellington performances of "C Jam Blues" are "relatively trivial." Recently I've heard a couple of piano trio versions that are so great that I'm considering editing that assertion: Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Art Taylor on Groovy and Horace Parlan, Sam Jones, and Al Harewood on Movin' and Groovin'.

Red plays at his highest level: Horace is killing: but both of these tracks are really features for the bassists, who use the room left by the simple riff tune to establish earthy dominance right out of the gate. Ben Street called Sam Jones here "devastating." Props to the canonical drummers also. Total swing.

12/05/2015

 

There Are Rooms Everywhere

Games on the iPhone are dangerous. I don’t interface with anything that might give me repetitive stress injury.

Slow-moving brain teasers can be fun though, especially on tour with all that endless travel, jet lag, and general ennui.

Recently Fireproof Games released The Room Three, which follows in the steps of The Room and The Room Two. These are the most satisfying point-and-click games I’ve played partly because they aren’t too hard. So often escape games are really random in their esoteric solutions. In the Room series, everything makes sense. There’s no reason to take notes or consult online walkthroughs. The games just flow, and hints come up at the right time.

Three is the longest and best of the trilogy. There must be literally a thousand small puzzles that one needs to solve in order to complete all the levels and the game. Most of the puzzles are easy, but once in a while a really tricky one gets the neurons firing. Then, when you figure it out, the solution is satisfying. 

More important than the puzzles is the environment, a steampunk blend of sci-fi and supernatural. After I had solved everything, it was just as enjoyable to play again while enjoying the design, ambience, and myth.

12/02/2015

 

Book Report

Otto Friedrich, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's.

This was recommended by Megan Abbott. Now that I've read it I'm urging everybody else to read it as well. Seriously, I'm stopping parties to make sure that everybody copies the title down. (The rather unmemorable phrase City of Nets comes from Brecht, who is occasionally featured in the book.) Just read the damn thing. 100% endorsement. Hilarious and educational.

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Macintyre smartly uses the foil of Kim Philby's friend Nicholas Elliott to examine the attitudes of the upper-class English at the end of their Empire. Macintyre never gets bogged down, though. The spy story is a page-turner like Le Carré or Deighton, except that it's all true.

James Kaplan, Sinatra: The Chairman.

H'mm. As it turns out, I'm completely unimpressed and uninterested in Frank except for his extraordinary music. The Chairman made me think of that immortal scene in This is Spinal Tap, where Bruno Kirby (as a chauffeur) is given the cold shoulder by the band. "When you've loved and lost like Frank has, you know what life's about." Kaplan's speculations about the inner life of Sinatra are just Bruno Kirby to me.

Karin Slaughter, Blindsighted.

The first book of modern series with a big following. Certainly a fast and thrilling read, but rather too vicious, bloody, and forensic for my own taste. I might check in with a later installment and see if the desecration of the body gets toned down a bit. (Ellroy's first books are similarly over-the-top violent.)

Sarah Weinman (ed.), Women Crime Writers: Eight Books from the 40's and 50's (2 volumes)

These new anthologies have been celebrated in the mystery world with good reason: A missing puzzle piece has been found. The psychological slant to just about everything is remarkably prescient to modern convention. I had looked at Vera Caspary's Laura a long time ago and didn’t finish it; it’s almost like I needed to absorb more recent developments before going back and figuring out what Laura is really about. The real winner so far is Patricia Highsmith's The Blunderer. I'm taking the volumes slowly, though, making them last...

---

From last week, in related topics:  Claire Vaye Watkins "On Pandering: How to Write Like a Man" and Jennifer Weiner's "If You Enjoyed a Good Book and You're a Woman, the Critics Think You're Wrong."

Watkins's in particular is a hell of a read...

...but I think both pieces could address genre fiction vs. literary fiction. Evan Hunter thought he "pandered" writing his 87th St Precinct books, but they are much better than his “serious” novels. For some, framework is good. And in terms of achieving immortality a frame is probably your best shot. Look at Sarah Weinman's anthologies: If they were called Literary Women: Eight Forgotten Modern Novels from the '40/'50s nobody would care.

Wiener complains that Mary Gaitskill doesn't like Gillian Flynn. Well, of course, Flynn will have her revenge, as everyone will always read Gone Girl forevermore but I've already forgotten the plot to Veronica. (A model goes to New York or something?)

---

Wiener also makes much of The Goldfinch. I admire Donna Tartt: The Secret History is one of the best of that era. I didn't like The Goldfinch, though. It was superbly written but the conceit of losing a mother through the bombing of a museum is self-involved and self-congratulating. “Isn’t it hard to live in our incredibly refined world today because terrorists might blow up our sugar castle?”

Many Americans like to be scared of extremists, especially overseas extremists like ISIS. The planet is burning up, the distance between rich and poor is the most extreme since feudal times, education is a shambles. But no, let's not address those problems, let's put all our time and energy into worrying about ISIS, which is external and obviously not our fault. 

(2003 Point/Counterpoint in The Onion)

11/30/2015

 

Billy Hart's Birthday

The king of swing is 75 today. 

On the phone with the birthday boy just now I was joking that I owed him everything, a hyperbolic statement that contains at least a grain of truth.

Recently I've corresponding with James Newton about his formidable body of formal compositions. (Recommended: Sacred Works.) Newton wrote to me: "You and I are Billy Hart’s children."

Indeed. If you like anything I've written on DTM about jazz, probably Billy was the intellectual godfather. (At the same time, of course, if you don't like something on DTM, don't blame Billy!)

All the DTM interviews began with his from almost ten years ago.

---

The Billy Hart quartet with Mark Turner, Ben Street, and me will be playing more in 2016. Looking forward to that: A new book of tunes is coming together and I think we are playing better than ever.

Thanks Billy!

11/29/2015

 

Toussaint and Craft

Allen Toussaint obit and celebrations from New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Robert Craft New York Times obit.

---

My first serious musical love was boogie woogie piano. Imagine my 12-year old excitement and astonishment when the documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together turned up on PBS one night. Fortunately the program ran again the following week and I was able to tape it on VHS. 

As a kid I watched the program over and over. Looking at it now I still remember every scene very well. During filming, Professor Longhair passes away, leaving only Tuts Washington and Allen Toussaint to play the final selection.

The director Stevenson J. Palfi left little besides this invaluable hour-long documentary. That was not Palfi's intention: Palfi had created a large archive of unique footage of New Orleans musicians waiting for curation and dissemination. However, that archive was lost in Katrina, and Palfi killed himself.

---

Stravinsky, Webern, Schoenberg: When trying to hear the essential works of modernism, it was easy enough to look for the name Robert Craft. At one point I had almost everything by those three under Craft's name, although by now those fairly raw early records are mostly supplanted by more deluxe performances. 

Along with many others, I adore late Stravinsky atonal masterpieces like Agon and Requiem Canticles. There is no doubt that we owe Craft a debt for helping Stravinsky understand dodecaphony.

I sort of met Craft once. As recounted in the Irving Fine essay: "I was only 19 when my girlfriend got me the job of rehearsal pianist for the Gregg Smith Singers. Reading music was always easy for me but I had almost no experience with classical music in general. The first rehearsal was Stravinsky’s Mass with Robert Craft guest conducting."

The "Sanctus" movement of the Mass has an exposed slow quintuplet that used to be a serious rhythmic challenge to the average oboist. In rehearsal with Craft, I somehow kind of nailed that quintuplet the first time (probably a mistake as much as anything). Craft looked over at me and muttered, "Not bad." 

While not an important moment in the slightest, somehow that tiny exchange was an extremely helpful inspiration: almost an injunction to keep learning about classical music.

11/28/2015

 

Brooklyn Studio Space Available, +
Avoiding more Whiplash

From my good friend Mike Kanan:

I am reaching out to musicians to let you know about my rehearsal space called “The Drawing Room.” Many of you have been there already, but for those of you who haven’t, it’s a beautiful, clean, sunny room that can seat 30 people. We have drums, amps, a PA speaker, and of course our incredible 7’4” Steinway model C in mint condition. The room is located in Downtown Brooklyn, easily accessible by 10 different subway lines. It's about 25 minutes from Midtown Manhattan.

We rent out space for individual rehearsals and practice time, or if you are interested in having a regular weekly time slot, we have many available. We also rent the room out for performances. Our rates are reasonable and the room has a great sound and vibe. If you, a student, or a friend are interested, please let me know and I’ll give you more info. Please pass this along to anyone that you think might be interested. Thank you so much for your time.

Michael Kanan
email: info (at) drawingroommusic.com
phone: nine one seven, eight three six, two one zero five

For the last decade or so I've been practicing mornings at The Drawing Room. Terrific people, terrific space, terrific piano. However, I'm changing up my rituals a little bit, getting a second piano in my apartment and consolidating activity, so am going to only be an occasional renter starting in December. I'll be doing a farewell gig/celebration of some sort there on November 30 (the Monday after Thanksgiving). I have a pretty interesting idea for an all-star rhythm section but don't know if they can do it yet...If you want more info on this gig, sign up for Floyd Camembert Reports.

Drawing Room

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Red Sullivan alerted me to this aggravating page in The Independent praising Whiplash.  Red says, "...[There's] a really fabulous quote as a last line (Rodney Dangerfield couldn't have come up with anything so good)."

Chazelle announced that his next project would be a jazz-related musical comedy, "a sort of "Gene Kelly meets Thelonious Monk", also starring Teller.

Dear me. Does nobody in Hollywood read DTM? I thought my blog was really big there... 

(My long post from last winter: 

The Drum Thing, or,
A Brief History of Whiplash, or,
"I'm Generalizing Here")

10/19/2015