TV Series: Ken Burn’s Jazz (2001) – Beautiful documentary but based on flawed premises


hm_jazz_headI have been reading a LOT about jazz lately (see my articles on Monk, Miles, Giddens, etc). Through this reading, I bumped into the existence of the world’s record holding for sheer length (19+ hours) documentary by Ken Burns that aired on PBS back in 2001. It is a comprehensive look at jazz up to about 1961. The footage is classic Ken Burns with loads of black&white photos and videos of New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and especially New York and Harlem. There are officially 10 episodes (the British export has two additional episodes) each of approximately 2h (the one dedicated to Louis Armstrong was just 1h) and it requires a significant investment on the viewer’s part to get through all this footage. The commentary is interesting and interspersed with interviews of critics, musicians, impresarios, and others that either lived in this world or wrote about it. It spends about 6h getting to the 30s and then 6h just swing before spending just 2h on bop and 2h on post bop and then the last 2h on all jazz from 1961 to 2001. While it was deep and moving in addressing the topics of racism (albeit repetitive because unless I am mistaken, they twice show Miles getting beaten up in Manhattan), they clearly took a position from a storytelling point of view that “real jazz” ended with Coltrane’s death and just before Miles’ electric period. This is also borne out by a few other facts: the primary interviewees are Wynton Marsalis (a purist and historically in conflict with Miles) and Stanley Crouch (a jazz critic known for being very iconoclast (see the video commentary here). Some greats such as the late Jackie McLean are interviewed but jazz gods like Herbie Hancock are missing (as is his fusion of jazz and pop in the 70s and 80s), Pat Metheny (and his amazing collaborations with the late Charlie Haden among others), Jaco Pastorius/Joe Zawinaul and their huge contributions via Weather Report. There just seems to be SO much more that this documentary could have covered but refused to and this frustrated me quite a bit.

As a huge fan of jazz, this is a unique and incredibly valuable document for our native American music form up to the 50s but I feel its editorial biases corrupt the message in the last 3 episodes to the point of being distracting to those of us who do not believe jazz died after In a Silent Way. Has anyone else out there watched all of these documentaries?

Posted in Music, TV Series | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa – a true 20th C masterpiece both of literature and cinema


51b82dceOjL._SY300_This summer I actually got some good reading done. I had been plagued with seeing The Leopard by Lampedusa in various bookstores in Italy, but did not really know what it was about aside from the reunification of Italy in the late 19th C. I read Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb and in the 4th chapter of that book, he talked about the book and I was hooked. I scoured about 4 bookstores in Sicily before finally finding a translation into French and I dove it head first. What an incredible read! I was blown away by the text itself – the descriptions, the limpidity of the language, the subtlety of the conversations, the disillusion of the central character Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salinas, and of course the gorgeous Angelica. The book takes place during Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily (he landed in Marsala in April of 1860 with 1086 men (“the Thousand”) and defeated the royalist army which had upwards of 20k troops on the island) but rather at various locations where the Prince was staying (and later dying) near Palermo at at Donnafugata. The descriptions of the meals are enough to make you quit a diet and drive straight to the closest Italian restaurant. It is sumptuous in every way. The famous ball scene in Chapter 6 reminded me of the Bal Masqué in Le Temps Retrouvé. Truly an incredible read. It shows a depth of understanding of history, politics, and human nature that is melancholic but still with a glimmer of hope. The characters of Don Fabrizio, his chaplain Pere Pirrone were based directly on Lampedusa’s own great grandfather and his priest. The other characters were similarly anchored in a real person that lived through that period. We see the year of 1860 pass month by month and then skip a couple of year forward. The telescoping in time also works backwards when Don Fabrizio muses about events that had already transpired and, what I found particularly great as well, we have teasers about the future of various buildings that would be bombed during WWII and the future of various characters. The central characters all have layers of depth to them which I found fascinating. I loved Tancredi’s swashbuckling attitude, Angelica’s seductive scheming and, of course, the disillusioned Prince. All the minor characters are also drawn with a fine brush – this short 400 word essay clearly does not do justice to this monument both of Italian literature (Il Gattopardo is considered the greatest work of Italian literature in the 20th C) and of the Italian language (which translated marvellously into French). By the way, the animal gattopardo is actually not a leopard but a serval (thanks Wikipedia!). The book is relatively short (295 pages) so I would highly recommend adding it to your reading list.

le_guepard-20101119072054The film of the same name by Visconti was released on 1962 – barely 5 years after the book was published (posthumously sadly for Lampedusa) and is a masterpiece. The color, the decor, the casting (Burt Lancaster is spellbinding as the Prince,  Alain Delon is a perfect Tancredi and the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale is fantastic as Angelica. The film is three hours long but never boring in the least. I felt that it was one of the most accurate (word for word in many of the dialogs and speeches) renditions of a book on the silver screen that I have ever seen. The secondary characters also have so much life breathed into them – Romolo Valli’s Pere Pirrone is unforgettable as is Serge Reggiani’s tragic Don Ciccio. The film departs from the book in that it shows a few war scenes that  are extremely well shot. The locations for Donnafugata are unbelievable as is the house near Palermo. Having spent 5 summers in Sicily, I can say that the countryside and the towns were very faithfully represented here. The most famous scene in the movie is the last 30 minutes and it is one of the most sumptuous, realistic, and remarkable sets I have ever seen. The sea of moving bodies dancing, the mountains of food, the impeccable costumes and makeup – you cannot help but ooh and ah out loud as you watch it.

I read the first third of the book, watched the movie up to that point, read the book up to the ball, finished the movie and then finished the book and I was very happy to fully appreciate both. The book actually has an additional two chapters that are not in the movie. The story behind that is that when Lampedusa had first finished his book, he sent the manuscript to a few publishers. Two of the primary editors in Italy turned him down. The first one he sent it to (a draft missing two chapters he finished before sending to the other two) was not read until 18 months later and it was subsequently published in 1957 (Lampedusa had already passed away of lung cancer a few months earlier) with the six chapters that had been sent originally. It was not until 1969 that the final two chapters (and a few fascinating, insightful fragments) were published. All that to say that the final two chapters did not officially exist when Visconti did his screenplay.

Has anyone out there read these or seen the movie? Let me know in the comments.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Thelonious Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley – The Genius


516zIy5ftWL._Continuing in my reading about jazz, I just finished the masterpiece Thelonious Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley. It was an incredible read about a largely misunderstood genius. I have always enjoyed listening to Monk, but never exactly understood why. Now, I understand that he would decompose chords by removing a few notes or flattening or sharpening one of them and that is one of the things (along with complex time signatures) that marked his work. Unlike the biographies of Miles or Coltrane that I read, this book does not go into transcriptions of his music but rather speaks to up musical laymen about how he was inspired by Bartok and Schoenberg and other modern classic composers – this flies in the face of the urban myth concerning Monk’s art being solely inspired by african-american culture. It was nice to see Kelley debunk most of the myths about Monk: he was a very friendly, engaging person when he was not in a bipolar mood swing. He was not completely disconnected with the world around him. He had many close friends in the jazz world (and was deeply moved when they passed away – most notably Elmo Hope and Bud Powell). It is deplorable that his condition was never detected and that a quack doctor supplied him with damaging vitamin supplements that drove him down lower in his sickness. I was better able to appreciate the albums I love most: Underground, Straight No Chaser, Thelonious Alone in SF due to the description of his many sessions and concerts. It is also sad that he never really got his due and struggled most of his life for money – I learned much to my dismay that f0r one of his earliest and most often quoted songs – ‘Round Midnight – he only received 33% of the rights having been ripped off my the person that submitted the lead sheet for royalties.

If you are a jazz fan and especially if you are a Monk fan, this is essential reading. Let me know how you like it.

Posted in books | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Debates about Jazz – Mtume vs Crouch back in 2010


A colleague passed me a link to this Mtume/Crouch debate, and it was fascinating. I am realising that in Jazz Criticism there is a sort of more conservative school lead by Ken Burns / Stanley Crouch / Wynton Marsalis, and there is a more open, modern one like Mtume. Gary Giddens gets pigeon-holed into that conservative school but I think that – having read Visions of Jazz – that he is of course closer to the conservative school but I think he remains open minded. I haven’t read “Reconsidering Genius” By Crouch but I’ll let you know what I think.

As for Miles’ influence, it is incredible – you know that he transcribed Hendrix solos to the trumpet? They were pals up until Jimi died – and that Jimi tried to incorporate Miles into his playing.

Jazz has been in crisis since the advent of rock music in the early 60s. It was never returned to its peak during the swing era. It got close in the 70s when fusion brought jazz closer to rock and r&b…I don’t know how it comes back. It is not really tuned to the ACD mentality of the millenials or to the hyperlinked society were are in. We are spoiled by melody and heavy back-beats. Miles went that direction with Live Evil, but was not really followed there and it dissipated.

I am fascinating to see what what perspective that Don Cheadle brings to his portrayal to the screen during his Miles biopic.

Anyone else wish to chime in on the debate? I think it is a good time to discuss this before the Miles film comes out so that you are all set for it!

 

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

TV Series: Orange is the New Black S02 – Piper and Alex together again?


vibe-new-orange-is-the-new-black-season-2-shotsDuring my business trip last week, I binged on S02 of Orange is the New Black. If you recall, I enjoyed S01 last year and I was impatient to see where Jenji would take the storyline this year. I love the filming style where we get backfill on each of the women and how they ended up in the can. The acting is of extraordinary caliber – particularly Crazy Eyes! The bad woman this season, Vee, was really well-drawn as we didn’t see her as such a purely evil force until late in the season. I also loved how we dealt with the aftermath of S01 in the first episode and spent the entire second episode catching up with the girls in the prison without Piper there at all. The brief re-appearance of Mendez was excellent as was the fall of Fig. I don’t wish to spoil this for you so I won’t delve into the plot lines but suffice it to say that there are no dull moments here – some comedy but particularly great writing and acting. I don’t understand personally why this show is labeled as a comedy because for me it is closer to a human drama than a straight comedy and the depth of each character is beautifully filled in and all of them – well, except for Vee – become so endearing. If you have missed out on S01, I highly recommend a weekend binge – S01 Saturday and S02 on Sunday :)

Posted in TV Series | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miles of Miles


113412DI finished both the autobiography of Miles Davis as well as Ian Carr’s excellent biography a few weeks back. Both were exhilarating reading to be honest. As for the autobiography I love Miles’ style injected with loads of vernacular and honest, brutal self-criticism at times and megalomaniac self-praise in others. It was a fascinating look into how he viewed his contemporaries and acolytes – particularly the respect he always paid to Trane was touching. I was not aware of the conflict between him and Wynton Marsalis – that was a bit of a surprise. It is a great document of the inner workings of genius and fame and just deepened my respect for the Miles mystique. Apparently, he spoke most of the text that Quincy Troupe recorded via audio and then transcribed. That gives the text a real casual, conversational feel and makes it such as pleasure to read.

miles-davis-ian-carrIan Carr’s biography of Miles is of extreme interest to anyone that wishes to explore all the various revolutions that Miles instigated in modern jazz: from his first breakthrough with Bird on Now’s the Time, to the cool jazz debut in The Birth of the Cool, to the epic Kind of Blue, the transformational In a Silent Way, the exhilarating Bitches Brew all the way to his music in the 80s…it is all there. I knew only sketches of his story and found the style highly readable and the level of documentation very impressive. I learned an incredible amount and due to this, the music in my collection of Miles has taken on a whole new dimension. For example, I had never paid any attention to the Live Evil album, but thanks to the biography, I discovered the addictive What I Say which I listen to nearly daily now. How Miles consistently discovered the most incredible talent and developed them until they left and created their own groups: Trane, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Branford Marsalis…it is really mind-boggling the amount of talent that orbited the Miles universe. Despite being an ego-maniac and a lifetime drug addict (having exchanged cocaine for heroin after the 50s), he was an incredible mentor to so many and never shied away from his ideas regardless of how vanguard they were and how the critics would initially grill him. He was a true artist that, for me at least, is up there in a pantheon including Hendrix, Dylan, Monk, Trane, Zappa, Duke…no compromises. I can STRONGLY recommend this book for any jazz fan.

1404918285_milesImagine my surprise when I learned last week that one of my favorite actors – Don Cheadle of House of Lies and Iron Man – has successfully crowd-funded a major biopic on Miles for release later this year. I am breathless with anticipation. The soundtrack will probably be epic.

OK, gotta finish a Monk bio now and then Billy Strayhorn and Reading Jazz…

Posted in books | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

TV Series: Californication S07: The end for Hank?


Californication-300x300This year, Hank Moody flew off into the sunset from LAX back to NY just as he had arrived  at LAX seven seasons ago. Karen by his side and relatively optimistic. It has been a real interesting ride seeing him go through affair after affair, a rape trial, a movie, a TV show, books published and stolen…this was truly a rock-n-roll TV show worthy of Atticus Fitch (season 6) and especially Lew Ashby (season 2). I thought that season 7 was a fairly strong way out after lacklustre seasons 5 and 6. I enjoyed that most of the principal characters were brought back including Becca and Rob Lowe as the outrageous Ed Nero. The cameos of Michael Imperioli (from the Sopranos) and Heather Graham were nice bookends to this show and the plot does give us some closure when Rath suggests that Hank write his own story into a TV script. Of course, Runks and Marcie provide lots of humour with the pathetic and hilarious indecent proposal from Stu Beggs. I am going to miss this show a bit and wonder for ever now whether Hank and Karen can really ever pull it together…or not.

Posted in TV Series | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment