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.