Thursday, June 18, 2009

Amy Winehouse: The Girl Done Good (MVD)

This British documentary DVD came out last year. I decided not to review it at that time, because – quite honestly – I didn’t know if I would be writing a review or an obit. Her tabloid-fodder life had sunk that low. Lately, however, she has managed to maintain a surprisingly low profile, which suggests that it may be time for a re-assessment of her career to begin.
“The Girl Done Good” covers Winehouse’s music and tempestuous goings-on up to the end of 2007. The first half-plus is devoted to a serious examination of her music, career highlights, stylistic influences. Needless to say, as the film progresses, the story becomes increasingly depressing, as the singer seems hell-bent on squandering her talents and, potentially, her life.
Our story begins with a rather plain, unassuming-looking mid-teenager with normal-looking hair and a voice and style far more mature than her years would warrant. As the people who discovered and nurtured her in these years suggest, she seemed headed for a career as a bluesy jazz singer on the order of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington (seen in clips which demonstrate their influence on the young Briton). To be sure, such a career path would most likely not have brought her worldwide fame, and one can only speculate how differently her life might have turned out if she had stuck to this road.
Friends, associates, and most telling of all, a few well-chosen British music critics recount her subsequent moves toward soul revivalism. Almost to a person, the interviewees walk the line between worshipful adulation and bewilderment as to the way things turned out. These on-camera experts include three performers who know a thing or two about the ups, downs, pressures and pitfalls that can befall a rising star. Barb Jungr is known as a cabaret performer, but also works behind the scenes as a vocal arranger and educator. Mari Wilson’s beehived performance style of the 1980’s may have prefigured Winehouse’s visual style, but she also knows how quickly hot careers can cool down when the public gets weary of the flavor of the week. Veteran American soul singer, Geno Washington, who is far better known in the UK than at home, has seen his career take a few bounces since the British Invasion era, never reaching the heights his talents deserved.
Winehouse’s accomplishments and subsequent excesses are discussed in chronological order. This may be especially instructive for American viewers, since her CD’s were not issued in this country in the order they were recorded. Thus, our view of her musical development has been somewhat distorted by the vagaries of the music business. The DVD includes excerpts from Winehouse’s music videos and televised live performances. The more recent performances can be downright depressing, as the emotionalism and vocal skills she displayed in her early jazz performances have all but dissipated. The point is made, though, that she still (as of late 2007) was capable of good days. After seeing the evidence of her self-destructiveness, one can only wonder how.
The documentary lasts a packed 78 minutes. Extras include short bios of the contributors and an Amy Winehouse quiz. (My score was adjudged to be “mediocre”).
In all, this is a very nicely done package with much well-considered discussion and hardly any fluff.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Art Tatum: The Art of Jazz Piano

If I were the sort who believed extra-terrestrials come to Earth and walk among us, I could easily convince myself that Art Tatum was one of them, a benevolent being from a distant planet who was sent to this world to open up new musical possibilities for us. Pretty fanciful, right?
After all, no one but an ET could race through such rapid, harmonically lush piano runs, stop, change directions, and dash off again in dazzling profusion. No one else played like Art Tatum before Art Tatum came to Earth. Well, perhaps Luckey Roberts on a good night. But to my ear, Roberts - a product of an earlier era - had neither the imagination nor the advanced harmonic sense of an Art Tatum. What’s more, we’ve come to think (rightly or wrongly) of Luckey Roberts as a sometimes-memorable composer, rather than an influential pianist. Tatum may not be remembered as a composer, but his intricate pianistic arabesques affected the course of jazz far more than Roberts’ catchy rags.
Without Art Tatum to lead the way, there would have been no Oscar Peterson, not to mention any number of virtuoso Oscars manqué who dazzle us with a lot of flash, and little substance. But it doesn’t stop there. While I confess I had never considered the point before, this documentary film makes an excellent case for Tatum being a major stepping-stone between Swing and Be-Bop. While Tatum may not have thought rhythmically in the same manner as Bird and Diz, Bud and Monk, his harmonic adventurousness took jazz away from its rag, blues, and pop roots into a brave new world of chromaticism and structural upheavals, opening up all manner of artistic possibilities for musicians to absorb and follow – if they could.
This film could serve as a model for other biographical music documentaries. It digs into the details of Tatum’s life and career, it includes a wealth of intelligent commentary by a number of his musical associates and influencees (not the empty-headed ones, but the worthier ones, such as Hank Jones and Marian McPartland), it presents rare film clips of Tatum in action, and as a whole is highly compact and devoid of fluff. The film clips demonstrate that he was a surprisingly unemotional and non-visual player; perhaps the latter is related to his near-blindness?
There are no extras on this hour-long disc, but Tatum’s playing is a “special feature” in and of itself. Highly recommended, not only to listeners who have yet to discover Art Tatum, but to long-time fans as well.