Saturday, June 16, 2012

“A Song For Ourselves” (Third World Newsreel)

“A Song For Ourselves” is a short (35 minutes) documentary film examining the life and legacy of the sadly-overlooked Asian-American singer-songwriter Chris Iijima (1948-2005). In the eyes of the mainstream music industry, Iijima and the other members of the trio Yellow Pearl hardly registered a blip on the commercial radar. Nevertheless, they played a highly significant role in the raising of Asian-American consciousness during the 1970’s.

As with many other politically-aware music lovers of my generation, I first became aware of Iijima and singing partner Joanne (more recently known as “Nobuko”) Miyamoto thanks to a 1973 album on the left-wing Paredon label, entitled “A Grain of Sand”. Although Iijima and Miyamoto were originally a duo, they doubtless attracted considerably more attention after adding a third member, William “Charlie” Chin, who had already enjoyed a small, but significant touch of musical notoriety. (I confess I was one of those who took an interest for just that reason, Chin having become a sort of mysterious underground figure for his banjo solo on Buffalo Springfield’s song, ”Bluebird”, and an above-ground figure when he had a Top 40 hit in 1969 as a member of Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys.) However, it wasn’t until watching this film that I had any idea as to (a) how influential Yellow Pearl had been among Asian-Americans, and (b) what became of Iijima and Miyamoto. (Charlie Chin is still performing.)

However, we are told at the very outset that Chris Iijima “changed the face and the landscape of Asian-Pacific America”. But alas, we also learn that Mr. Iijima is no longer with us, as the film begins at a memorial service for him. (Thankfully, Ms. Miyamoto is still with us, running an arts organization in LA.) What made Iijima such an important figure at the beginning of what we might call the “Asian Power” movement is that he expressed political and social opinions in song that Asians-Americans simply did not dare to express in previous times. His consciousness had been raised by the African-American Civil Rights movement, particularly the March on Washington. But he never felt at home in either black or white protest movements - there was very little for him and other people like him at such events. But seeing t.v. coverage of the Vietnam War helped politicize him, as he watched “people who looked like us” getting killed before his eyes.

We get to see a clip of Iijima and Miyamoto’s folk-jazz-protest performance on the Mike Douglas Show, where they were introduced by no less than John Lennon. But, as Charlie Chim, says in an interview, this was never a “music-driven” band, but existed to deliver a message - that Asian-Americans had a voice, one that needed to be heard and acknowledged.
Despite what could have been a “big break”, Iijima chose not to become a professional musician, as he had no interest in becoming a “star”. He instead chose to become a grade-school teacher. In his 30’s, however, he came to the realization that he needed to reach far more than the handful of students he saw daily. So he went to law school, and went on to teach law at the University of Hawaii. His two bi-racial sons (Iijima’s wife was Anglo-American) were raised knowing nothing about their father’s influential musical activities. We see him continuing his activism, even after contracting amyloidosis, which led to his death at age 57.

Needless to say, Tadashi Nakamura’s film tells Iijima’s story far more effectively than I can in this brief summary, through interviews with family and friends, rare footage, and discussion. His is a fascinating story of a man who accomplished much and asked for little in the way of recognition for himself, but wanted much for his people. The struggle, of course, continues.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Four Blues DVD’s - Moses Oakland, Billy D. and the Hoodoos, Roy Buchanan, Joe Bonamassa

I have four blues DVD’s waiting for review, and rather than drag out the process and post four separate reviews, I’ll discuss them all in one longer piece, even though I have no over-arching “review essay” statement to make. Two are by lesser-known artists, one by a major blues star of today, and a major talent of the recent past.

“Moses Oakland Quartet Live @ Famous Dave’s BBQ & Blues, March 28.2010” (Big Notes Productions) introduces us to a San Francisco-born singer-guitarist-bandleader who has spent over a decade gracing the stages of the Minneapolis blues scene. He is, in a way, typical of the many really solid blues musicians whose reputation remains a local phenomenon despite considerable amounts of talent and know-how, simply because there isn’t a large enough national audience for blues music to support very many bands in a national scale. When I say “typical”, however, I don’t mean to imply that Oakland and company sound like “everybody else”. Rather, it’s the circumstances that work against a skilled local bluesman from reaching a wider audience that are, alas, typical.

Oakland is very much a contemporary bluesman, with a style that goes beyond blues to incorporate rock, Americana, gospel, jazz, and funk influences, backed by a band that can negotiate this wide range of styles with aplomb. With his long white, Z.Z. Top-length beard and denim overalls, Oakland looks as if he just stepped out of a particularly soulful Grant Wood painting.

Things get off in funk mode with a song I haven’t thought about since the days of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “Captain Bobby Stout” (though I believe it was first recorded by the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood). Bassist Charles Fletcher and drummer Donald “Hye Pockets” Robertson lay down a phat groove. Oakland sings with authority, and both he and organist Jason Craft solo intelligently at such length that I can’t but wonder if there isn’t room for this band on the jam-band circuit. It must be well-nigh impossible to play “The Thrill Is Gone” completely removed from the shadow of B.B. King, but Oakland’s singing and the depth of the rhythm section add more than enough originality to keep it interesting on a high level.

“Chicken” is a deceptive instrumental in which Oakland’s guitar solo sounds as if it’s trying to fly away out of his control. But since he finds his way back each time a certain part of the tune is reached, one eventually realizes that it was written this way. The rest of the band keeps the fun going in a string of solos. The band lays down a slinky backdrop for “Spoonful”, a song I’ve heard perhaps too many times, to the point where I just could not approach this with eager anticipation. Next thing I knew, I was tapping my foot and smiling, so it obviously won me over. There’s a somewhat lackluster tenor sax solo, but it passes quickly. “I Got A Mind To Give Up Living” slows the pace down to a crawl, getting deep into the emotional core of the music. Oakland’s half-spoken vocal captures the disconsolate mood perfectly. This time, the languor of the saxophonist’s meanderings works to his advantage. The organ produces some intriguing tone colors during an appropriately funereal solo, followed by a soulful, nicely textured Oakland guitar solo.

The viewer of any concert DVD never really knows how many takes were filmed over how many sets. But if this set is a true indication of what one would hear at a Moses Oakland gig - and I have no reason to suspect otherwise - this is a band which knows how to pace a set in a manner that leaves the audience wanting more. The videography likewise captures a “you are there” quality, as cameras move from one musician to another the way an audience member’s head might move, mixing the sights and sounds together for maximum interest. The 55-minute DVD is available from Amazon.


Billy D. and the Hoodoos are currently based in Portland, Oregon, after a number of years in Santa Fe. “Somethin’s Wrong: The Music Videos” (self-released) is a visual companion to a CD of the same name. As the title indicates, this is not a concert performance, but a collection of videos for Billy D.’s original songs, shot in a Santa Fe studio. Nevertheless, these have the quality of a live performance, being straightforward filmed versions of singer-guitartist Billy D. and his two bandmates in action, without the distraction of pseudo-plotlines, sexy models, overly busy production effects, and all those other extraneous elements that mar so many music videos.

Billy D. (short for Desmond) and the Hoodoos are a very tight little guitar/bass/drums combo, with a blues/rock/etc. mix which brings to mind the freshness and excitement many of us felt when we first heard Z.Z. Top, yet with more of a Chicago-club flair (not surprising, as D. grew up on the Chicago blues scene). This is a distinctly middle-age combo, whose years of individual and collective experience are quite audible. But there’s nothing tired-sounding or jaded about their sound and style. There’s little attempt to hit the listener/viewer over the head with empty virtuosity, even though it seems evident that D. could do this quite effectively if he wished to. Fortunately, he doesn’t wish to. There are occasional overdubs and layers of reverb added to the texture of the music, but one gets the distinct impression that if you caught the band late on a Saturday evening, they’d sound just as tough, yet just as controlled as they do here. These are veteran musicians who know exactly what they want to do, and have the chops to do it, plain and simple.

Most of these songs are straightforward blues or blues-rock, but there are a couple which have more of a nostalgic pop-rock feel, which is equally effective. The one time the DVD makes a complete break from both the musical direction and the studio setting which serves as an austere backdrop for the camera, the change of pace is quite effective. That song, “Blue” is a thoughtful, singer-songwriter-styled ballad, presented as a Billy D. solo and filmed outdoors. The rest of the videos are shot in either black-and-white or color, with red being the dominant color. I confess I find the saturated red of “Miss The Love” a bit garish for my personal taste, but the red works much better on other videos when contrast is added.

Billy D is a fine singer, with a light, yet very distinctive voice and a well-developed sense of phrasing that allows him to communicate the true meaning of the lyrics. He has mastered a variety of guitar styles, and never plays more than he needs to. The bass player adds a counterpoint which serves as a bridge between the foreground and the the beat, while the drumming is subtle and steady.

There are twelve videos in all, running a total of 44 minutes. But add in the Bonus Features, and the total package runs well over an hour, including seventeen minutes of interview segments, in which Billy D. discusses his personal background, musical influences, and career experiences. The viewer has the option to watch short snippets on specific topics, but it’s more interesting (and convenient) when one hits the “play all” button. The features also include impromptu performances of slide-guitar classics by Elmore James and Muddy Waters. Available from

Fans of Roy Buchanan (1939-1988) will certainly celebrate the release of “Live at Rockpalast” (MVD), a 1985 televIsion concert., which MVD has issued in the US at the same time as three other classic concert DVD’s which will meet with great approval among veteran rock fans (Michael Schenker Group, “Hardrock Legends, Vol. 2”; Ian Hunter Band with Mick Ronson, “Live at Rockpalast”, and Public Image Limited, “Live At Rockpalast 1983).

Buchanan was hardly in the same musical territory as Schenker, Hunter, and PiL, but neither was he strictly a hard-core bluesman, much the same way that the other three artists featured in this review are prone to mix rock and other genres into a base of blues. Unfortunately, as with nearly all of Buchanan’s recorded output under his own name, this is very definitely a good-new-bad-news affair. But the bad news is not particularly unexpected, and is - as always - overwhelmed by the good news.

The sad fact of the matter is that Roy Buchanan could not sing and should not have sung, ever. Those Buchanan albums featuring other people singing never quite offered fully satisfactory vocal performances, either, so I guess having Buchanan sing all but one song is a bit of a wash in the long run. What’s more, he hardly ever hired musicians who were anywhere near his level of musicianship and originality - few musicians are, to be sure. But his bands often had to struggle up to the level of mediocrity, and this band is no better. Drummer Martin Yule (who would go on to bigger things with Toy Dolls) is, in particular, a stiff, awkward pounder who seems to fall out of rhythm every so often.

But no one would even consider buying a Roy Buchanan concert DVD for the vocals or the backing band. It’s the unique Roy Buchanan guitar style we want to hear, and there’s tons of masterfully mind-boggling guitar work here, with Buchanan reaching high levels of intensity throughout, fully drawing the listener’s attention away from the sub-par backing. Just as fortuitously, there is a large percentage of instrumentals on this disc, thus keeping his vocal inadequacies from turning the proceedings toward the direction of tedium. He invigorates a number of old instrumental warhorses - “Green Onions”, “Walk Don’t Run”, “Peter Gunn”, “Night Train” - by giving them the special Roy Buchanan interpretive treatment, and does an awe-inspiring version of one of his signature pieces, “Sweet Dreams”, as well as a decent “Messiah”.

The concert is 71 minutes in length, and the disc comes with an 8-page booklet. The songwriting credits contain a couple curiosities - Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” is credited simply to “Hank”, Both Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” and Ray Sharpe’s “Linda Lu” are credited to Buchanan. In the case of “Night Train”, Jimmy Forrest plagiarized the tune from Duke Ellington, so he probably doesn’t deserve the credit anyway. But in the case of the still-living (and, I believe, still-active at age 74) Ray Sharpe, he not only deserves the credit, but could probably use the royalties as well. Perhaps the misspelling of “Linda Lu” as “Linda Lou” complicated the search for the copyright holder.

Guitarists will welcome the opportunity to study Buchanan’s technique (thumb picking, pinch harmonics, bent notes, et. al.) in close-ups and distance shots alike. Fans will love this, despite the flaws. And Buchanan neophytes should check this out as well, flaws and all, because this is one spectacular musician, whose like we may never see again.

Joe Bonamassa is, of course, one of the premier blues-rock artists of our time, a point driven home time and time again by the consistently fine music offered on “Joe Bonamassa - Beacon Theatre: Live From New York” (J&R Adventures). This is a two-disc set (concert on disc one, bonus tracks and features on disc two), and worth every penny of the asking price.

The first disc opens with a blistering acoustic guitar solo played in a subway tunnel. In a “stunt” that brings to mind the famous video of world-renowned classical violinist playing in a subway station, only to be totally ignored, Bonamassa likewise plays his heart out and no one seems to care. Obviously, people going from place to place have WAY too much on their minds these days; smell the roses, folks! Needless to say, no one in the Beacon Theatre audience has their mind on anything but the intense reverberations coming from the stage.

This is big, dramatic music for the most part, played by a powerful four-piece combo who have fully mastered their craft, their art, and their sense of the theatrical possibilities inherent in the blues format. These players are energetic, demonstrative, passionate, and creative. This isn’t a superstar guitar innovator with a mediocre backup band, as we heard on the Roy Buchanan DVD. This is a UNIT, four musicians who know their individual roles, but with one result in mind. Bonamassa’s style may be very different from Buchanan’s, but he is another guitarist with the skills to easily focus all the attention on himself. But by hiring musicians as fine as himself and rehearsing them to the point of oneness, he has concocted a sound that listeners from many musical backgrounds should (and do) find irresistible.

In addition to some solid and very appealing original material, the cover repertoire is culled from a variety of sources, not just strictly hard-core blues, everything from Little Walter to Leonard Cohen, stopping to pick up tunes by early r&b giant Lowell Fulson and blues/jazz fusionist Mose Allison. Bonamassa also pays homage to his blues-rock forbears, with songs by Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore, two artists who drew from many of the same sources as Bonamassa, with results entirely distinct from each other, paving the way for the modern “heavy” approach to blues-rock.

Bonamassa and company also welcome three guest artists, two of whom (John Hiatt and Paul Rodgers) bring their own material with them. Bonamassa and Beth Hart have previously collaborated on tour and on CD. On Bobby Bland’s “I’ll Take Care of You,” Hart lets out an attention-grabbing wail preceding Bonamassa’s intense guitar solo, which may be the single most gripping moment in the entire concert. (Side note - I never realized Brook Benton wrote this song, and would never have guessed it.) Hart’s other feature, Lowell Fulson’s “Sinner’s Prayer”, may not have especially ribald lyrics, but she sure makes them SOUND raunchy!

John Hiatt’s plugged-in hollow-body guitar adds a folkish Americana ambience to the proceedings. But who’s to say that the melancholic lyrics of “Down Around My Place” are not blues, albeit of a different variety, even before Bonamassa’s solo kicks in. “I Know A Place”, in which Hiatt and Bonamassa share vocal honors, is more definably in a progressive-blues vein.

The last guest, Paul Rodgers, works out on two songs from his days with Free. His years with Bad Company may have fattened his bank account to a greater degree, but Free remains at the core of Rodgers’ singing, which is just as gritty after 40-plus years. He is STILL “The Voice”, as he just plain dominates the two songs he performs on. By the way, the titles of Rodgers’ two songs are reversed in the booklet - “Walk In My Shadow” precedes “Fire and Water”.

Do not, however, get the impression that this is one of those all-star affairs that relies on guest artists to make its impact. There are many other highlights throughout the concert. For instance, there’s a rompin’, stompin’ “You Better Watch Yourself” in which Bonamassa illustrates once and for all why he’s often called “Smokin’ Joe”. He turns in a decidedly prog-rock direction on the driving :”Blue and Evil.” (I would have loved to have heard Robert Plant take this song on in the 1970’s.) There are more ballad-like songs as well, such as “Mountain Time”, with its taqsim-like intro. The concert ends with a rousing interpretation of the Mose Allison/Yardbirds classic, “Young Man Blues”, which contrast Bonamassa’s free-rhythm vocals with powerfully rocking instrumental segments.

The concert disc generously runs to 1 hour and 55 minutes, twice as long as so many concert DVD’s. The bonus features on disc two include two more songs from the concert, which are not simply filler, some interesting backstage chatter between Bonamassa and David Crosby, who teaches our star a tuning trick or two, and a segment where Bonamassa talks about the busking experience which opened the film. There is also a photo gallery, not all of the pics relating to the concert.

Musically, and in terms of production, this self-released concert DVD is most definitely on a par with anything on the major music-DVD labels, by far bigger names. Bigger definitely does not equate with better in the world of music, and this is a set that definitely deserves to attract a major-label-sized audience.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

“Under The Boardwalk: A Ukulele Love Story” (Nina Koocher Films)

Way back in March, 2011, I posted a review of a DVD entitled ”Mighty Uke”, a paean to the ukulele and its marvelous comeback in the 21st Century - - In my haste to crowd as much as possible into a manageable space, I did not at that time make reference to the world’s largest ukulele club, the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz (California). I now have a chance to rectify that omission, by telling you about another, equally entertaining uke film, “Under The Boardwalk”, devoted specifically to the Santa Cruz organization.

There are a few spots where this film (understandably) overlaps the other, in giving you a brief look at the instrument’s history and modern-day popularity, and offering additional glimpses into a few of the same people you saw in “Mighty Uke” (most notably the now-deceased Bill Tapia, seen performing with amazing dexterity at age 97). But this is very definitely a film about a specific group of people, focusing on specific members and their unique personalities (musically and otherwise), rather than treading over the same ground the earlier film explored so well..

It is to be expected that a film about a ukulele club would feature the ukulele, and of course it does. But filmmaker Nina Koocher realized that the people who play an instrument are just as important to her story as the instrument itself. So we’re given ample chance to meet a number of very interesting people with distinct personalities, but with a common musical interest - to promulgate the ukulele as an instrument people of all ages and states of well-being can have fun with in a social setting. Yes, there are collectors who show off their impressive collections of historical and unique instruments. Yes, there are performances by a number of well-known musicians, including singer-songwriter Jayme Kelly Curtis, 60’s-rockstar-turned-pop-music-historian Ian Whitcomb, guitarist George Kahumoku, and Herb Ohta, Jr., son of the famed Ohta-San, who brought the ukulele to worldwide, major-label audiences in the 1970’s.

But mostly we get to see just-plain-folks having fun playing the uke, regardless of their individual skill levels. In many cases, the skill level is quite high, but this is a club open to everybody, so members who merely strum along during the club’s entertaining sing-a-longs are just as welcome as those who can wow the crowds during the organization’s open jam sessions. And as we see people having fun, the infectious sounds they make encourage even the passive viewer to have fun along with them.

In case tou’re wondering wqy the film is entitled after a mid-60’s Drifters hit, the song has become one of the staples of the sing-a-longs. The members do a lot of Hawaiian songs as well, both from the islands and from Tin Pan Alley. But they certainly are open to all sorts of music, from Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Tommy James, even a “Hank Williams Night,” to pop songs of even earlier vintage. The idea, after all, is to have fun, not to be “ethnomusicologically correct”.

Of course, life is not always fun all the time. One of the most affecting segments is the memorial service for a key member of the club, Gene Galli, whom we first meet singing “On A Slow Boat To China” with his wife Emily. Galli also built a 12-foot pineapple-shaped ukulele for the express purpose of burning during the club’s “Burning Uke” ceremony, patterned after Nevada’s “Burning Man” ritual. So, it’s only appropriate that someone we see depicted as a colorful personality is memorialized by an event more celebratory than mournful. a surfboard-paddling service in which his ashes are dumped into the surf.

And that essentially sums up the club and, for the matter, the film - colorful, yet respectful of everyone present; lots of fun, but also thoughtful; championing an instrument and a laid-back way of life, but deserving of being taken seriously, albeit in a playful way. It’s a measure of the special qualities of this film that it makes me wish we had just such a ukulele club in MY town.

The main feature runs 74 minutes, but there is a generous offering of Bonus Features as well. Andy Andrews, who pretty much emerges as the main spokesman of the film (though certainly not the only major figure) discusses the derivation of the word “ukulele”. A couple members show us some of the more unusual items in their instrument collections, none perhaps as unusual as Ukulele Ray’s hand-crafted lunchbox ukes. And there are some fine performances, including Herb Ohta, Jr.’s full-length solo uke arrangement of “Over The Rainbow” (excerpted in the body of the film).

The DVD does not seem to be available through Amazon, which is instead selling a documentary by the very same title, about the game of Monopoly. I don’t doubt that’s a worthy film, too, but it has nothing to do with this film. Check out the ukulele “Under the Boardwalk” at

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jazz Icons: Series 5 (Mosaic)

Mosaic Records is best-known for their jazz completist sets, such as “The Complete (name of label) Recordings of (name of artist)”. And they’ve done a tremendous number of these over the years, performing an invaluable service for collectors, historians, libraries, and just-plain jazz lovers. More recently, they’ve turned their attention to the music-video market, taking over the release of the latest in a series of multi-DVD sets under the overall title of “Jazz Icons”, the first four sets of which had been distributed by the Naxos label..

This latest set of six DVD’s, “Jazz Icons: Series 5”, is the first one I’ve seen, but it’s plainly obvious Mosaic has performed another, equally valuable service. It may be an even more valuable service than their audio-CD sets, since most of the music they’ve released in audio form (excepting previously unissued takes) has been previously made available to the public, though generally scattered and in various formats. The music video format, while now a well-established medium, has yet to release many of the treasures which have been filmed and/or broadcast throughout the years. What’s more, many of these treasures have been issued only on the now-disgraced VHS format. (Despite the downturn in DVD sales, I think it may be a while before we can use a similar adjective for the DVD format, since it can be utilized by most computers. I hope I’m not mistaken!)

The first of the six DVD’s comprising this set - each disc has its own case and its own liner notes in a 12-page booklet, but the six are only available together as a boxed set - will doubtless sell the box all by itself. “John Coltrane Live In France: 1965” is a 52-minute black-and-white film recorded at the Antibes Juan-les-Pins Festival, with THE John Coltrane Quartet (McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums). “Naima“ starts out somewhat tentatively, but it begins to flow in an explorative manner once Trane begins to double time.Watching the master working his way in and out of the changes is to see a man lost in his own special world that not even his sideman could enter. From then on, it’s never-look-back, with intense Coltrane solos that reach for the stars while exploring the nether world between inside and outside blowing, probing modal comping and strong solos by Tyner, robust bass work by Garrison, all over relentlessly propulsion by Jones. Garrison’s finest moment is an extended, unaccompanied tour-de-force in between “Ascension” and “Impressions”, in which he strums the bass like a flamenco guitar, as well as plucking and bowing his instrument.

But by far the most important aspect of this disc is that it contains a portion of the one and only live performance of John Coltrane’s masterwork, “A Love Supreme”, which alone makes this worthy of being seen by every living human being who considers him- or herself a music lover. But it’s also the most disappointing aspect of the disc - because, if you’ll read that again, it only has a PORTION of the performance, namely the first twelve minutes of the piece. The original LP version was a four-movement work, but here we have Part 1 (“Acknowledgement”) and a sizable, but incomplete segment of Pt. 2 (”Resolution”). To be sure, this is not something for which Mosaic can be blamed, since the footage of the remaining 2-plus movements simply no longer exists. If ever found, which seems unlikely, it would be a discovery on a par with the mythical Buddy Bolden cylinder. In any case, we must be extremely thankful we have what we have. It strikes me as a surprisingly laid-back and comfortable version of the piece - indeed, Tyner sounds downright playful on Pt. 2. But David Liebman’s liner notes tell us the audio which still exists of the complete performance is highly intense, especially in the third movement. Would we could see it all, but what’s here is well worth savoring, even if it is only partial.
“Thelonious Monk: Live In France 1969” is a completely solo television concert, unhindered by the need to fit in with a band - as if fitting in was ever a major concern of Monk’s. A program of this nature would be hard to imagine on American television during that time period. US t.v. producers like to exert control. But Monk was such an idiosyncratic figure that one never quite knew what to expect from him. And indeed, this set is by no means predictable, which is just what one wants from a Monk performance.

The film opens with a rehearsal sequence. If it weren’t for the sounds of the the t.v. crew setting up. it could pass for an official part of the program. From that point on, it’s all Monk, no extraneous narration or song intros, aside from one point where Monk does make the comment that he doesn’t know what to play. Watching Monk carefully pick notes and chords that defy expectations is watching thought transferred to piano keys. It could ALL be “rehearsal”, it could ALL be “performance”, and is really both at the same time.

There is no differentiating life from art in Monk’s music, especially on the more static, slow-tempoed pieces. On the moderate-tempoed tunes - nothing is really UPtempo - he flirts with the more entertainment-slanted aspect of jazz, calling to mind stride piano and Art Tatum, though without the latter’s dazzle. But he still makes them sound like an intimate party-of-one. “Epistrophy” in particular is refreshingly spare and playful; Monk even conjures up a bright smile at the end of it. Throughout the set, he plays as if no one would ever be listening. Indeed, at one point, he looks up into the camera as if to say, “What are you doing here?”

Since one is never quite certain whether a Monk dissonance is deliberate or a miscue, it’s impossible to criticize any of his playing, aside from the most jarring moments, of which there aren’t many. Just roll with Monk’s flow, and be rewarded. He plays “Monk’s Mood” twice, which I suppose was indeed a reflection of Monk’s mood at the time. There are two ingratiating readings of standards among the Monk originals. The longer the goes on, the more Monk sweats, to the point where one wishes someone had thrown a towel in his direction. But since he doesn’t seem at all comfortable with t.v. cameras trained on him, I doubt any wanted to risk turning his genius off by interrupting him.

The main program runs about 55 minutes, but there are several bonus features which extend the disc by some 10-15 minutes. We see Monk and his beloved wife, Nellie, riding in a car upon arriving in France. The footage is not especially interesting, but it does serve to demonstrate that he was every bit as uncomfortable with a camera in his face offstage as well as on. There is a brief soundcheck which preceded the t.t. performance. But the mosty telling bonus is raw footage of a very awkward attempted interview of Monk by Henri Renaud. The interviewer throws Monk off by asking questions in a mix of French and English. Monk’s confused responses are rather inarticulate, and eventually both Renaud and Monk give up in frustration. But of course, it’s the solo performance you’re buying, not the bonus footage, which you will no doubt not care to watch more than once. A 12-page booklet rounds out the package.
As any true post-bop jazz fan knows, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers had what seemed to be an almost constant turnover in personnel throughout its approximately 35-year career (1954 till the end of the 1980’s). Blakey, who died in 1990 at the age of 71, was the combo’s only constant through the years. Well, no, that’s not really true. Blakey’s unwavering commitment to excellence and his ability to continually discover, mentor, and promote new talent, including many players who would go on to make a difference in the course of jazz history, were also constants.

Blakey’s variety of jazz was known as “hard-bop”, “bop” because it developed out of the rhythmic, compositional, and arranging innovations of bebop, “hard” because of its driving emotional force and its musical influences from blues, gospel, and r&b, styles regarded as the “earthier” genres of African-American music during the 1950’s. To us, today, hard-bop sounds more like what many people consider to the “mainstream” of jazz, meat-and-potatoes jazz, the way it sounded before the various contradictory levels of avant-gardism, commercialization/”smoothing”, and fusion concepts altered the music and its identity. Jazz used to be one thing at a time, now it has become an umbrella term covering many different things. Blakey’s music represents an era when, looking back from the vantage point of 2012, it seems to have been pretty much all-one-thing, even though people didn’t necessarily think so at the time..

The Jazz Messengers seen and heard on the DVD “Live In France 1959” is one of the classic editions of the band, featuring the superb Lee Morgan on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on tenor sax. Morgan would go on to great success as a solo artist (even achieving hit-single status in 1963 wirh his recording, “The Sidewinder”), while Shorter would go on to change the world, during stints with Miles Davis and as co-leader of the pioneering fusion band, Weather Report. Indeed, Shorter is now hailed by some to be jazz’ greatest living composer, Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and Jymie Merritt on bass (Blakey introduces him by pronouncing his first name “Jimmy”; guess I’ve been saying it wrong all my life!) round out the quintet, leaving not a single hole in the process.

There is very little inherently visual about this performance, even when the music sounds as if it’s on fire, which is often. Blakey’s facial expressions and powerhouse arm movements on the drums are as close to a visual element as you’ll find here. Shorter is downright impassive, putting all his emotion into his playing, remaining rod-stiff when playing, and standing statue-like during Morgan’s solos. But then, these men are not faux-hipsters pretending to act cool, they are serious artists and very much aware of that fact. It’s all about the music, and the French audience loves every second of it, as well they should. The.crowd reszponds instantaneously to “No Problem”, played at a barn-burning clip. No doubt they recognize it as Duke Pearson’s theme from the French film “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”, which had only recently been released.

The main program is 82 minutes long. There is an interesting three-minute interview with Blakey, as well an additional partial performance from the concert, “Nellie Bly”, only a brief portion of which still survives, and that is mostly drum solo. The whole concert is a gem.
Johnny Griffin was known as “the Little Giant”, and the name was appropriate for more than just his diminutive stature, He was a giant in terms of imagination, intensity, and technical virtuosity. While he may not have been the sort of innovative force who broke new ground for jazz, his bold, fiery approach to uptempo tunes - Fastest Sax in the West! - and his sensitive ballad style enriched jazz tremendously for several decades.

There are two concerts represented on “Johnny Griffin Live In France 1971”. Both are chock full of creativity and soulfulness. Yes, he could play fast, but these were by no means empty phrases played rapidly to mask a proficiency totally devoid of inspiration, regardless of the speed. The one negative aspect about the first concert presented here (which is actually the later of the two concerts, by seven weeks) is the piano of Vince Benedetti. While he’s a decent enough musician, and probably would fit in nicely with other musicians of like caliber, he simply is not on Griffin’s level. Fortunately, Griffin’s fellow hard-bop expatriate, drummer Art Taylor, an estimable musician with tons of major-name credentials under his belt, is around to take up any slack. The second concert (the earlier of the two) is indeed credited to The Johnny Griffin - Arthur Taylor Quartet, and replaces Benedetti with the far superior Rene Urtreger. Not surprisingly, Taylor gets more solo space on this co-billed concert than on the other. Bass player Alby Cullaz, a French musician little known in the US, but who recorded with such American stars as Hank Mobley, Chet Baker, and Steve Grossman, is a very solid accompanist and a worthwhile soloist as well. The concert with Benedetti finds Dizzy Gillespie making a guest appearance for two songs. While his playing is a bit inconsistent, he seems to inspire Griffin.

Both films are in black-and-white, but the camera work on the earlier film is much more imaginative, with many intriguing angles and moody lighting. Griffin’s theme song, “Blues For Harvey” appears in both segments, first as a quartet tune, the second time as a duet with Taylor. Running time for the two concerts together is an action-packed 77 minutes. No extras, but nice liner notes by Don Sickler in the 12-page booklet.

Freddie Hubbard represents the next generation in jazz, which came to the fore at the end of the 1960’s, rooted in hard-bop, incorporating some of the tonal possibilities and techniques of the 60’s free-jazz revolution (albeit in a manner more palatable to the broader jazz public), and extending the music by introducing the more populist elements of funk rhythms and electric keyboard textures.

“Freddie Hubbard Live In France 1973” gets off to powerhouse start, with Hubbard’s trumpet searing over a strong drum backdrop by Michael Carvin, before “Straight Life” settles into a comfortable groove laid down by bassist Kent Brinkley. Junior Cook bears down on tenor sax, followed by a subtle George Cables solo on electric piano. At less than eight minutes, this is by far the shortest of the three tunes on the disc.

“Intrepid Fox” again opens in a free-jazz vein, before the rhythm section takes us on a sprightly modal ride. Indeed, the three musicians work so tightly that it almost sounds like one mind with six hands. Hubbard’s mastery of his horn and his continually vivid imagination can still bowl a listener over almost 40 years later. Cook approaches his solo with less abandon, more structurally - and one wishes he’s stood a bit closer to the mic - but proceeds to build up to free-jazz screaming emotionalism, before coming down to a somewhat cryptic conclusion. Cables sounds relaxed and melodic in his solo, as Brinkley and Carvin drive the music along. The drummer’s solo is more textural than bombastic, first concentrating primarily on snare fundamentals, mixing in the toms, eventually zoning in on cymbals and kick drum. Someone adds a bit of chanting at one point, as Carvin moves to incorporate his whole kit. The piece lasts about 22 minutes, but it goes by in no time.

The 19-minute “First Light” comes from a different program filmed at the same concert. Once again, we’re given a freely improvised opening, before Cables introduces a Latin-jazz-flavored groove. But this is definitely not easy-listening jazz. Hubbard is all over his trumpet, with some awe-inspiring lines strung together into a coherent solo. Cook switches to flute, which he plays melodically, but without the flair he put into his sax solos. Cables utilizes the sustaining capabilities of the electric piano wisely in his too-brief solo. Hubbard’s restatement of the theme has his most subtle playing of the entire concert.

This is Freddie Hubbard at his artistic peak - brash, brimming in self-confidence, with all the chops and inventiveness needed to back up the swagger, before Creed Taylor’s studio production formula cooled off his fire (at least on records), and before he became too much the showman in live performance (as implied in Neil Tesser’s liner notes in the enclosed booklet).

Only 50 minutes (three songs plus a tag ending), with no extras, but I doubt anyone will go away hungry.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk is no longer considered the major figure he looked as if would become when he was first making his mark as a member of Quincy Jones and Charles Mingus aggregations. Though he virtually defined the term “multi-instrumentalist” with his vast array of familiar (tenor sax, clarinet, flute) and unfamiliar (manzello, stritch, and an assortment of folk and home-made flutes), he was so much the entertainer that many critics came to feel his stage presence overtook his musical legitimacy. ”Live In France 1972” confirms the dominance of the showman in his concert presentations, but it also demonstrates that he was one heck of a superb musician as well.

On this set, he includes a few well-known jazz standards, giving them straightforward interpretations that are refreshingly low on gimmickry, showcasing the skills of a talented band of rhythm players in the process.The opening “Blue Train” is a particularly ingratiating spotlight for the sprightly and tasteful piano of Ron Burton. Bassist Henry Pearson and drummer Richie Goldberg keep things moving nicely, while Kirk’s tenor offers some fine moments before he stretches out a bit too long; self-editing was never one of his strong points. It’s refreshing to watch Kirk apply the time-honored world-folk technique of circular breathing to the tenor sax. which means his phrases never have to pause unless he wants them to. One wonders, though, if this didn’t encourage him to sometimes play a solo longer than he should have.

“Lester Leaps In” is uncommonly calm, and is noteworthy for the way Goldberg plays definite pitches on his tom-toms by blowing air into them through a rubber hose. I would explain further, but I don’t understand it myself! Kirk plays the “Satin Doll” medley on tenor sax and manzello (a variant of the soprano sax) simultaneously, both horns sticking into his mouth at the same time, fingering both at the same time, playing parallel lines and a bit of self-counterpoint. Yes, it’s a gimmick, but one he’s able to pull off with his technical prowess and dexterity. Of the six DVD’s in this box set, this is the one which is most dependent on being seen as well as heard.

The fourth track is entitled “For Bechet and Ellington and Bigard and Carney and Rabbit”. Annotator John Kruth seems to think the term “Rabbit” refers to the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, but from the context it seems far more obvious to me that the reference is to Eliington alto saxist Johnny Hodges, whose nickname was :Rabbit”. Despite the composition being obviously based on Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”, Kirk’s clarinet solo is very much of the then-modern (1972) era. “My Cherie Amour” strikes me as jazz-lite to the point of flimsiness, but there’s no doubt Kirk knew his way around a flute, both played straight and using his influential multiphonic approach of humming into the instrument while he played. He later switches to an array of small flutes and whistles, including a nose flute (makeshift, not the traditional Hawaiian ohe hano ihu) and something that looks like a type of toy harmonica, but sounds more like a piccolo. “One More Winter/Summer” has some humorous multiphonic flute, plus a driving solo by Burton.

Kirk plays Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” on the stritch, a cousin of the alto sax. He uses his circular breathing on the awkward-looking horn to play a sheets-of-sound solo, quoting a few familiar tunes (as he does elsewhere in this concert as well), while the rhythm keeps things moving behind him. Kirk remains on stritch for “Soul Eyes”, in which Burton is in peak form, tastefully supported by Pearson. Kirk picks up the tenor and leads into “Volunteered Slavery”, a funk piece featuring a group vocal, as well as the awe-inspiring sight of Kirk playing THREE horns at once (tenor sax, manzello, stritch)., as percussionist Joe Texidor - barely needed through most of the disc - bangs enthusiastically on a tambourine. Kirk’s tenor sax solo may be repetitious to the max, but the longer it goes on, the more effectively it captures the emotions of the moment. The piece ends in a maelstrom of whistles, bass drone, and percussive texture, before seguing into “The Inflated Tear”, which travels between lovely-ballad and noise-exploration.

In all, despite my occasional misgivings as stated above, this is overall an impressive and highly entertaining concert, by a musician whose like we may never see again. The film is in color, quite attractive color at that, despite the packaging’s claim that it is “B&W”. 74 minutes, no extras except for the 12-page booklet.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sounds and Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher” (ECM)

For over forty years, Manfred Eicher has been one of the most heralded, most creative, and most fastidious of all record producers - fastidious in terms of the quality of the music he presents, and equally fastidious in the quality of sound he bestows upon his ;productions. An artist recording for Eicher’s ECM label knows he/she/they will be expected to make exceptionally fine music, and that his/her/their performances will be heard by the home listener to a degree which is as close to in-person perfection as a musician has a right to expect.

This nearly-90-minute documentary film allows us to watch Manfred Eicher at work, encompassing the major varieties of music issued by the ECM label - jazz (often, but hardly exclusively, European in artist origin and in style), classical, experimental world-music, and unclassifible. The film is both a visual and audio representation of Eicher’s accomplishments, presenting top international artists such as Estonian composer Arvo Part, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and Argentine bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi, to cite the best-known names here. We do not hear from such famed ECM artists as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, or Pat Metheny, which may disappoint a few people, but may be just as well. Too many big names might detract from the focus on the producer and his work.

Essentially, we see Eicher traveling to several different countries to supervise recording sessions, which are interspersed alongside interview segments with the artists participating in those sessions. We also get an occasional glimpse inside the ECM home offices in Germany. Rather than bogging down the proceedings with an unneeded narration droning on interminably, directors Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer represent Eicher’s travels with views from airplane windows, lights on the highway, etc. We witness Eicher listening, directing, thinking. Listening and thinking may be nebulous activities to try to depict visually, but the directors have captured the sense that this is exactly what we are seeing. There is a great deal of presence to thew music in this film, as befits the subject. What’s more, the film is not afraid to lavish its subject with silence, or at least quietude, dimensions that Eicher’s productions have never been afraid to value alongside the sounds.

The interviewees are, of course, ready to sing their producer’s praises. But they also discuss his art as well as their own. Arvo Part tells us a record producer must not only know how to set up mics correctly, he also has to inspire the musicians. Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi, a new name to me, relates the backgrounds of his variegated compositions and collaborations in such a manner that I feel the need to sample more of his music. Saluzzi takes cellist Anya Eichner to meet a group of veteran tango musicians, and talks about music as communication. Oud player Anouar Brahem musically explores the borderline between Western and Middle Eastern music. All these insights tell us much about the music, the people who perform it, and the motives and methods of the man who channels it to the worldwide audience. There is one more scene which is a testament to Eicher’s exactitude and need to approach perfection - we watch a piano tuner working on a piano to be used in a Nik Batsch session. The message is simply - Manfred Eicher cares.

Bonus features include the trailer and A 6-1/2-minute music video for a 2007 piece by Manu Katche, called “Playground” - very nicely done, as you would expect.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

“Fulanito: Greatest Video Hits” (Cutting Records)

For those of you who may not follow developments in popular Latin music, Fulanito is a group of Dominican-Americans from New York who emerged in 1997 with a unique combination of the traditional and the up-to-date.

Their first hit - and to my mind, still their finest achievement - was a record called “Guallando”, which combined the older, accordion-driven style of Dominican merengue music known as perico ripiao with rap/hip-hop vocals. Merengue is known for its very speedy dance tempo and (originally) accordion and/or (in the more commercial merengue of recent decades) saxophone riffs that circle and swirl around the melody line. The band’s mash-up of not just merengue rhythms with hip-hop elements, but specifically accordion-led merengue was a stroke of genius which caught fire throughout the Latin music world and made them near-instant international superstars.

The music video for “Guallando” is here, along with a number of other videos by the group, culled from five CD’s recorded between 1997 and 2004. The group’s star began to fade around that time, but they have since returned to the spotlight, which no doubt encouraged the release of this collection. About half the songs feature the accordion, played usually by Arsenio de la Rosa (their original producer’s father), and those are among the most distinctive tracks heard here. Other songs employ elements of bachata, reggaeton, salsa, and other current Latin pop styles, all combined with both solo and interactive, call-and-response, group-rap, in a style that’s as fresh as it is lively.

As with so many music videos, there’s a lot of visual emphasis on sexy girls in bikinis, which many people may find off-putting. I notice that even my college-age students have tired of the amount of emphasis on physical attributes in music video, but Fulanito only occasionally cross the line into the sort of obscenity that has given music video a bad name. I would consider much of this as racy, rather than pornographic. The worst offender is “Take It Off”, the lyrics of which (In English) consist largely of a repetition of the title phrase, which becomes highly annoying before long. Many people may find the cock-fighting scene in “Pecho a Pechuga” more upsetting than the title, which is bad enough. On the other hand, “Asi Es Que Vivo Yo” is a rather imaginative production which seems to portray an Old West Medicine Show in a Dominican village setting - but don’t quote me on that; I could be misinterpreting!

The “play all” function plays the tracks in a different order from that printed on the case - the trackss from the “Remixes” CD come AFTER those from “Americanazao”, rather than the other way around. There are two bonus videos (which play immediately after the official twelve in “play all”), including a live version of “Guallando” and a special-effects English-language disco version of “Millenium Cookout”. In all, this is a lot of fun, taking into account the caveats mentioned previously.

Total time, including the bonus videos, is about 64 minutes.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

“Troubadour Blues” (Tom Weber Films)

It would be hard to make any statement to the effect that the singer-songwriter, offering original song material to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, has gone completely unnoticed by the commercial music industry. One need only drop such names as Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Leonard Cohen, to name but a few who have risen from the ranks of the so-called “folkie” singer-songwriters to great mainstream success. But those few names that are known by the public at large are a vast minority. In a world dominated by rock, pop, hop-hop, and now dubstep, the modern-day singer-songwriter has become akin to a prophet crying out in the wilderness.

That’s what makes Tom Weber’s film, “Troubadour Blues” a much-needed corrective to mass media’s constant exaltation of the same old insubstantial, uninspiring commercial banalities constantly being exposed on radio and on t.v. competition programs. There are dozens of creative, highly skilled singer-songwriters who have something interesting to say and the ability to say it in a manner that has a great deal of meaning among those listeners open to receiving the message. These performers may be heard on the radio, true, but only if you know when and where to turn, to the “right” station. A few may occasionally pop up on television, but don’t hold your breath waiting to see them, because it doesn’t happen often.

“Troubadour Blues” is a documentary look at the singer-songwriter scene of the past decade. It is by no means an exhaustive study of the phenomenon. Many of the artists seen here in performance and/or in interviews - not everyone interviewed is given a performance spogtlight - have devoted regional followings, some are nationally known. They may be heralded in one area of the country, and completely obscure in others. There are many artists whom I might have expected to turn up here who are not mentioned at all, and a few who ARE here whose names I’ve never encountered.Thus is the nature of the world of the “contemporary-folk” or “Americana” artist, to name two appellations used to lump a diverse assemblage of artists into genres for more efficient marketing. One hears influences from folk, country, rock, blues, and the proverbial “much more”, yet they all share a common attribute, the necessity to make their living by traveling from town to town, playing small venues for nowhere near enough money. Weber’s choice of artists is by nature subjective, but there is not one artist here - borderline-famous or mostly unknown - who doesn’t deserve far more exposure than they have received in the past.

Weber devotes a considerable amount of space to his major “case study” (yes, it’s a pun), Peter Case. Case, who grew up in Hamburg, NY (not all that far from GenEc’s “offices” here in Fredonia), was at one time a rock star, with the Nerves and the Plimsouls. But he chose to “downsize” his career into becoming a solo artist, with or without additional musicians. Early in the film, there is a striking collage of Case singing the same song in many places over a period of time, making it seem fresh for every new audience, despite the rigors of the road. (Case suffered serious heart problems during the time was being made, but is back on the road. Indeed, as I write this, there’s a report of a Nerves “reunion” making the rounds, albeit not the entire band.) The other “rock star” name here is Dave Alvin, who achieved cult status with the Blasters and X before turning toward a more folk/Americana direction. We also hear from Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix, Amy Speace, to name a few of the more widely-known artists. Tracy Grammer is here, with a short memorial tribute to her old partner, Dave Carter, another victim of the hard life independent musicians must endure.

There is a lot to enjoy musically. There is much to learn from the interviews, so that fans of this particular sub-class of music will find this an essential addition to their DVD collections. But with any luck, this disc will reach far beyond the already-committed singer-songwriter audience, to let even those people who may be unfamiliar with ANY of the artists in this film know that there is something very worthwhile, very aesthetically satisfying going on in an underground of sorts that has difficulty attracting large numbers of new listeners. I certainly hope “Troubadour Blues” manages to reach that larger audience, and that the artists in the film can open many new doors as a result.

There are no extra bonus features on this disc. But the DVD case lists this as a 91-minute film. Actually, if you count the credits at the end - which most films do - it’s more like 95 minutes. In an era when some commercial DVD companies have taken to adding the total time including bonus features, trailers, photo galleries, and whatnot into the running time of the disc, I find Weber’s under-statement refreshing.

The film has its own website -