Monday, September 26, 2011

“B.B. King Live” (Image Entertainment)

Ten days ago, Mr. Riley B. “Blues Boy” celebrated his 86th birthday. He’s elderly, he’s infirm, but darn it, he can still sing and play the blues on his electric guitar, “Lucille”, better than most folks a third of his age. Yes, he has understandably slowed down, and he has to sit throughout the proceedings - but then, the old pre-WW2 blues singers sat down when they played anyway. Even so, this concert from the PBS “Soundstage” series, filmed in 2009, certainly serves as a prime example of the Blues Boy in his late-in-life prime.

As a matter of fact, the opener, “Everyday I Have The Blues”, finds him virtually as energetic and soulful as ever. One should not expect innovation or fresh approaches at this late date - he has long since made his most impactful contributions. But this is not simply an elderly icon going through the motions, but a compelling performer and viable entertainer who can still summon up the old fire and put on one heckuva show for his fans.

The songs are largely familiar. However, the Blind Lemon Jefferson standard, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”, was a recent addition to the B.B. King repertoire at the time of this performance, having served as the de facto title song to his 2008 CD, “One Kind Favor”. Since it is no secret that Jefferson was a seminal influence on the young Riley King - a fact he has always acknowledged - it’s quite a treat to hear him adapt the old song to his big-band-blues format. What may seem another lesser-known title, “Downhearted”, is actually a re-titling of B.B.’s classic “How Blue Can You Get”, the stop-time bridge of which is always an audience favorite.

As is the case with so many televised specials featuring performers “of a certain age”, the producers have decided to sprinkle in guest performances by younger, non-blues performers who they no doubt feel will bring their fan bases to the table, thus increasing ratings. Frankly, I find that a deplorable practice, particularly when the older performer is as famous and still highly skilled as B.B. King. He simply doesn’t need them. But the truth is, fortunately they do not cause irreparable harm to the overall quality of the program.

In fact, actor Terrence Howard may actually add to it. He informally trades verses with “B” on “I Need You So”, acquitting himself surprisingly eell as a blues balladeer somewhat on the order of King’s erstwhile touring partner, Bobby Bland. Howard (who released a CD of his own in 2008) gets to sing most of “ I Got Some Help I Don’t Need” by himself, with B.B. and the band. Howard and King display a marvelous rapport during some in-song dialogue.

Less successful is Solange Knowles (Beyonce’s younger sister) who joins B.B. for an under-developed version of his signature hit, “The Thrill Is Gone”. I’d like to hear her do this song about ten years from now, but her voice doesn’t yet have enough of a lived-in quality, and she’s weak on top. Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora (whose name King consistently mangles) tears off a few burning licks on “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother”, but B. is dissatisfied and switches to the uptempo “Let The Good Times Roll”. The two still fail to gel. The pairing works better when King reprises “the Thrill Is Gone,” this time handling the vocal chores himself, with Sambora playing an effective lead guitar.

B.B.’s band is fine throughout. They feature a full-bodied four-piece horn section that sounds like more. One does occasionally wish they were more prominent in the mix. The rhythm section cooks. B.B. and the band get into a downhome gospel groove on a rousing closer, yet another version of :”When The Saints Go Marching In”. And while I could happily live out my days without hearing that overworked song again, this group effort by B, Howard, Knowles, and Sambora is downright agreeable. It may not be the most important piece of art B.B. King has ever been involved with - “Live At The Regal” its not - but it will certainly set your toes to tapping.

In all, unless you are really turned off by the idea of B.B. King having to share the stage with guest artists (and I know for a fact some of you would be!), this is a very enjoyable hour with the Master.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

“Cuba: Island of Music” (MVD)

I confess to being somewhat ambivalent about this documentary on Cuban music from filmmaker Gary Keys (whose films on Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie were reviewed in this blog at

First, the good news. There is a lot of very good Cuban music here in a variety of genres, both traditional and contemporary. The visuals give us a rare glimpse of Cuba as it was at the end of the 20th century. There is also something of an alternative political viewpoint espoused here, in that we are given the distinct impression that people in Cuba during the late Castro era were really pretty happy with life, by and large (despite the nay-saying of American politicians with an agenda to support). And the commentary by Cuban natives Chico O’Farrill (who died in 2001) and percussionist Candido Camero, balanced by some less thoroughly informed yet still insightful commentary by the late, great Dr. Billy Taylor tells much of the story of Cuban music when the narration fails to do so.

But there are problems. First off, it’s a little too obvious that Gary Keys made this film in the wake of the astounding success of “Buena Vista Social Club”. Whereas in the latter, Ry Cooder and his son Joachim tooled around Havana in a motorcycle with attached sidecar, Keys tools around in a vintage convertible,witnessing (much as the Cooders did) the people and the architecture of the island. In addition to that superficial, yet blatant similarity, one might be convinced that Ry Cooder and “Social Club” director Wim Wenders got the cream of the Cuban-music crop to appear in their film, leaving Keys with the leftovers. But I know through hearing CD’s that were issued in the US around this time period that there were many more first-rate musicians left that Cooder didn’t record, whom Keys also seems to have bypassed in his search. Thus, as I said in the last paragraph, this is “very good Cuban music”, but there’s an inconsistency to Keys’ selections which keep it from being a film about Great Cuban Music.

The problem lies at least in part in the film’s premise. Keys discovers Cuban music from a distance (New York), then travels to Cuba to learn more about it and to see what else he can find. This film is an honest documentation of his quest, but it probably would have worked a lot better - and contributed much further to our understanding of Cuban music at the turn of the 21st Century - if he had done more research. This would have given him a more informed idea of what he could uncover and where he could uncover it. His quest seems a bit haphazard, making accidental discoveries which - while certainly authentically Cuban, and thus representative of certain aspects of what was going on there at the time - do not strike me as the best of all available artistic treasures deserving of much-needed American exposure. What we have, in essence, is a fascinating, very personal travelogue which says, “I went to Cuba - this is what I saw, this is what I heard”. And that’s fine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it isn’t necessarily the ideal way to introduce or represent the music of a nation which was culturally cut off from American music lovers over several decades.

Another problem is the lack of a coherent narrative, which would have gone far to more effectively explain to a novice listener what one is seeing/hearing. Keys’ folksy chatting from behind the wheel of a car lacks depth and explication. There is an attractive young woman who is assigned the task of providing more information, but this turns out to be more of an opportunity for the young lady to appear on-camera than a significant exposition of the important points which should be made about music in Cuba. Do I expect ethnomusicological analysis? Not necessarily, but a more knowledgable descriptive account of the musical proceedings would have been very welcome.

Despite these problems, I think there is enough of value here in terms of music and variety to recommend this disc to readers with an interest in Latino music in general, so long as you have a good idea going into it of what this film and what it isn’t.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

“David Lanz: Liverpool - Re-Imagining The Beatles: An Inside Look”

The music of pianist David Lanz has been lumped in with New Age, smooth-jazz, fusion, semi-classical, and no doubt a few other categories. However, his distinctive blend of instrumental idioms really falls into no single genre, yet hints at several. It is within that spirit of stylistic eclecticism that Lanz recorded an album of Beatles songs, “Liverpool - Re-Imagining The Beatles”, arranged in his typically atypical manner. This DVD offers insight into the artist’s creative process as well as three music videos of tracks from that CD.

Lanz tells us he purposely stayed away from the most famous Beatles songs, such as “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude”. But since there are relatively few truly “obscure” Beatles songs (aside from a handful of B-sides), the melodies will pretty much all be familiar to those listeners who were around during the 1960’s. It’s to Lanz’ credit that he makes them sound fresh all over again, and even manages to throw you off the scent on a few, so that their identity is not immediately apparent. We get to see candid footage of Lanz and his fellow musicians in the studio as they bring these magical sounds to life. His cohorts include regular Lanz collaborators Gary Stroutsos on an end-blown Chinese bamboo flute called the xiao, and ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Walter Gray, as well as the late Bread keyboardist Larry Knechtel on organ for one piece.

The interview segments include a discussion by Lanz and Stroutsos (who bears a decided resemblance to Robert DeNiro) on the impact the Beatles’ music made on them. Lanz in particular calls them “my mentors”. They also discuss the songs chosen for the album, the collaborative process, Lanz’ compositional methods (starting with the melody and developing upwards from there, rather than constructing a tune from an existing harmonic structure; for this reason, the Beatles’ songs appeal to him because of their strong melodies), and his wish not to do “cover versions” per se, but to make the songs his own. A few brief portions of the Lanz/Stroutsos discussion are used more than once on the disc, when deemed relevant.

There is also an interview with “Mythodrama” leadership guru Richard Olivier (son of the great British actor Lawrence Olivier; Richard does a voice-over on the CD) concerning the mythology of the Beatles, as well as the affect they had on audiences in both the UK and USA. Perhaps it is because I am totally unfamiliar with the Mythodrama concept, but I confess to not getting much out of this segment.

I can’t help but think this DVD would have been more effective if it had been packaged with the “Liverpool” CD in a CD/DVD combination package. Nevertheless, I would think that most Lanz followers who already own the CD will find this disc to be a welcome enhancement to their listening experience. If you’re unfamiliar with the CD, I would start with that first.

62 minutes. Both CD and DVD are available through

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

“Sonia - Who I Am” (Disappear Records)

Sonia (Rutstein) is a singer-songwriter from Baltimore who is perhaps most associated with her various performing and recording units known as “Disappear Fear”. The name was applied in the 90’s to what might be termed an electric punk-folk band, but has been used more recently as the name of the duo in which Sonia and her sister Cindy Frank sing Phil Ochs songs (check out their CD, “Get Your Phil”). (Cindy was with the earlier band as well.)

This nine-song DVD collects Sonia performances from over a 16-year period, 1994 to 2010, from the days of the earlier Disappear band to more recent solo performances. These range from straight-out live performance clips to more produced music videos. There’s quite a bit of variety, from a song sung in Hebrew and English to protest/topical songs to blues. Most of the songs are Sonia’s own compositions, though there is one Phil Ochs song (“No More Songs, filmed in 2004, not by the current duo) and one (“By My Silence”) written by fellow singer-songwriters Ellen Bukstel and Nick Annis.

Though I personally tend to prefer the solo concert clips, there’s some more “arranged” material that sounds quite nice. Visuals range from photo-collage to the John Densmore-directed video for the disc’s title song, which features a young solo dancer in a rehearsal studio. It’s gratifying to see and hear Sonia in a number of different settings over a period of years, thus giving the viewer/listener a better chance to experience the various aspects of the artist’s musical offerings.

This DVD will probably have the most immediate appeal to Sonia’s sizable fan following. But since it’s being sold on her website -
for less than the price of one of her CD’s, it should make for a most agreeable introduction to the artist’s work. You might click the link to her paintings as well. A woman of multiple talents!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

“Duke Ellington: Reminiscing In Tempo”/“Count Basie: Then As Now, Count’s The King”/“Dizzy Gillespie In Redondo” (all MVD)

The common factor here is that all three films are the work of filmmaker Gary Keys, whose work is currently undergoing a revival of interest and exposure thanks to the folks at MVD. These are but three of several Keys films recently brought to DVD by MVD.

The Ellington film combines elements of the concert-film genre with documentary. A group of Ellington’s friends, associates, and fans were gathered together for a memorial birthday party by Duke’s sister, Ruth Ellington Boatright. They share reminiscences of Ellington the man, the composer, the pianist, the collaborator. Some, such as Bobby Short, Al Hibbler (who alas was WAY past his prime), Billy Taylor, Brooks Kerr, Hiromi, and Adam Makowicz, offer musical tributes as well.

Keys intersperses this with footage of a 1968 concert done in Mexico by Ellington and his band. Though the concert is from late in Duke’s career, the music is still solid, the re-considered arrangements fresh, and the soloists (who include such Ellington stalwarts as Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams, among others) still distinctive.

The highlight of the concert is the rarely-performed “Mexican Suite”, which was never commercially recorded. (It was later expanded into the “Latin-American Suite”, which WAS recorded). The presence of this suite would alone justify purchase of this DVD by the Eliington faithful. While I personally would have preferred that the suite be presented straight, without the travelog photography Keys mixes in, the visuals are fascinating in their own right.

I should mention that a discussion of race relations in America includes a few graphic images which many may find disturbing. Otherwise, this is a very agreeable release, although I wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s first intro to Duke Ellington.

Gary Keys’ Count Basie film is similar in that it juxtaposes footage, recordings, and photos of the band with spoken reminiscences by people who knew Basie well. But whereas the Ellington footage came from a single concert, the Basie film incorporates film and television footage from the 1950’s and later. The Ellington reminiscences came from interviews of a grouping of sophisticates who were all too aware of the camera, but the roundtable discussing Basie is far less formal, displaying a great deal of camaraderie and gentle ribbing, all in good fun.

The participants in the panel include Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Joe Wilder, and Benny Powell, all long-established Basie-ites, trombonist George Lewis (who was briefly in the Basie band in the mod-1970’s; he is mostly context to listen to and learn from the old-timers), and a holdover from the Ellington film, critic Ira Gitler. Gitler is heard so little, one might speculate that his actual role may have been off-camera, feeding ideas to the participants. They talk about Basie the bandleader, the personality, and the musical force. They recall incidents involving some of their fellow classic Basie musicians, and enjoy chatting about their own experiences as members of the Basie entourage. In all, it’s a very enjoyable, one might even say invigorating discussion.

The early Kansas City days are given short shrift in the selection of film clips, though there is a small-combo version of “One O’Clock Jump” from the early 50’s, most likely the earliest fooitage seen here. There are a number of other Basie standards from the 50’s band, such as “Midgets” (with a sprightly Frank Wess flute solo), “Corner Pocket”, and a version of “Li’l Darlin’” which seems to date from the period after Frank Foster took over the band. Billie Holiday is accompanied by Basie on two songs from 1952. We also get to hear from the great singer Joe Williams on “Alright Okay You Win” and “Everyday I Have The Blues” (the latter introduced by Dionne Warwick).

A couple performances might best be termed “Basie-related” - Frank Foster playing with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1980’s, and a clip of the Billy Eckstine big band of the 1940’s, which only becomes Basie-related when we get to hear a later sample of Eckstine and Basie together. There are also three clips which illustrate Basie’s impact on Hollywood. Jerry Lewis mimes to Basie recordings on excerpts from “Cinderfella” and “The Errand Boy”, while Keys was lucky enough to be able to include the incongruous performance of “April In Paris” from “Blazing Saddles”.

Frank Foster offers a lengthy poem (split into segments) on Basie’s life and career. Indeed, Foster is shown to be a “real character”, and is very much the “star” of the panel. In all, this is very entertaining stuff, and can easily be recommended as an introduction to the post-1950 Count Basie Orchestra.

Unlike the Ellington and Basie films, Gary Keys’ Dizzy Gillespie offering is a concert film, apparently part of a t.v. series called “Jazz in America”. I’m not going to beat around the bush - this is one VERY captivating concert film, skillfully assembled.

There are only four full-length performances in this hour-long club date, filmed in 1981. (The fifth title listed, “Jazz America”, heard briefly at the end, would seem to be the series’ theme song.) Even so, it pretty much encapsulates the range of Dizzy’s long-term contributions to the well-being of jazz. Some critics have implied that Gillespie did the great bulk of the innovations one associates with his name during the mid-to-late 1940’s, and that he pretty much coasted the rest of his career - which lasted till around 1990; he died in 1993. I will not argue this point, but innovation is not the only factor that matters. In his mid-60’s, he could still blow up quite a firestorm on this disc, proof positive that he remained an imaginative improviser as well as a first-rate entertainer well into late career.

Dizzy the waggish entertainer gets the proceedings off to a congenial start by “introducing the band”, at which point the musicians shake hands, pretending as if they were meeting for the first time. It may be a standard musicians’ joke, but Diz and the band carry it off so affably, it’s funny again, no matter how often you may have seen it. The band is a top-notch one, so now it’s my turn to “introduce the band”. Alto saxist Paquito D’Rivera burns on the opener, ”Be Bop”, with such assurance, you might think he was one of the originators of the bebop style, rather than a Cuban latecomer. Ed Cherry (misidentified here as “Ed Sherry”) is a deft guitarist who can work his way through a variety of styles with aplomb. Tom Macintosh is a low-key trombonist with a fine sense of rhythmic pacing. Pianist Valerie Capers is aggressive when she needs to be, sensitive when the moment calls for it. There are two bass players, each of whom has a well-defined role. Ray Brown, on stand-up acoustic bass, was born to play with Dizzy Gillespie, while electric bassist Michael Howell, is featured on the more contemporary, funk-flavored tunes. Drummer Tom Campbell, I confess, is a new name to me, though a quick Google search reveals he has solid credentials. In any event, he easily holds his own in this august company.

The repertoire includes not only fiery bop (“Be Bop”) and cooler bop (“Birks Works”), but funk (“Kush”) as well. But the piece de resistance may be a down-and-dirty blues, identified as “Dizzy’s Made Up Blues” on the DVD carton, and “Hard Of Hearing Mama” in the film itself. Both titles are apropos. The lyrics are blissfully off-the-wall in an Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson sort of way. Macintosh’s solo could have been somewhat nastier in this context. Cherry’s solo starts out well, but he loses himself in repetition. Howell, though, pulls things back together with a blues-guitar-like bass solo, while Capers’ piano solo makes far better use of repitition and rolling blues riffs. In all, a highly entertaining performance, Cherry’s stumble notwithstanding.

Anyone other than a musical curmudgeon should find much to delight in on this disc.