Thursday, December 5, 2013

Music Review: Anne Ducros - "Either Way"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

You may think you have heard the songs from the Great American Songbook more than enough times so that you have no desire to hear them again.  Think again; you haven’t heard them like you’ll hear them on Either Way, the new album from French jazz singer Anne Ducros. That she makes these hoary standards her own, doesn’t come close to doing justice to what she does with them. She transforms them, and more important her transformations are absolutely killer.

She takes the original song and pushes its musical possibilities as far as they will go. This is a singer who colors outside the lines. Her vocals are a perfect demonstration of what a jazz singer should be doing. Many jazz singers are content to interpret, Anne Ducros creates. In a sense what she does with a song parallels what her deconstructionist countryman Jacques Derrida does with literature. The original song becomes a remembered shadow that marks just how far she’s taken its ideas.
All this wouldn’t make much difference if the lady couldn’t sing.  No problem, this is a lady with the chops to make her music work. If her performances don’t quite make you forget the originals, they sure give them a run for their money.

The concept of the album as Ducros explains is to work with songs associated with great Ella Fitzgerald and somewhat surprisingly Marilyn Monroe. The two are associated because of Fitzgerald’s acknowledgement of a debt to Monroe for a booking she got at the prestigious Mocambo in Los Angeles, at a time when black artists were discriminated against. Monroe, it seems, called the club owner and demanded Fitzgerald be booked immediately. She promised to show up and take a front row table every night of the gig. With that kind of publicity, how could he refuse?

The album is made up of 15 songs, 14 standards and one, the title tune, original. Although there are some guest performers, the singer for the most part is backed by a quartet: Gilles Nicolas on double bass and electric bass, Benoît de Mesmay on piano, Maxime Blesin on guitars and percussion, and Bruno Castelucci on drums. It is a tight ensemble that not only backs up Ducros to perfection but contributes some fine solo work as well.

The songs— “You’d Be Surprised,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Thou Swell,” just to name a few, all titles you know—need to be heard to understand what Ducros is doing. Check out her version of “Summertime” and you begin to get an idea of the complexity of her art. And classics like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing),” “A Fine Romance,” and “Laura” push the cliché envelope even further.

Either Way is perhaps the finest album from a jazz vocalist, I’ve heard this year, and certainly the most interesting.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

DVD Review: "The Fall"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If the first series of last year’s thriller, The Fall, is anything to judge by, the staid genteel stereotype of the BBC’s dramatic programming has long gone the way of the rotary phone and the VCR. Mrs. Marple has become a modern woman unwilling to take a subordinate role to men in any area of life, and a sexually perverted serial killer is pursuing beautiful young professional women.
Written by Allan Cubitt, The Fall, stars Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, a hard-nosed detective sent to Belfast from the central office to review a murder case the locals have been unsuccessfully working on. Not only is she a no nonsense, demanding professional, she is smart and aggressive in pushing her opinions. Moreover, she is no less aggressive in her own sexual behavior. This is a woman who takes a back seat to no one. Almost immediately she ties the one murder case, to a second unsolved case, and then when there is a third murder, it is clear that she was right.

The Fall is not a who done it. Viewers meet the killer from the very beginning. Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan, is the father of two young children married to a nurse who works in a neo-natal intensive care unit. He works as a grief counselor, and he likes to strangle young women, pose their naked corpses, and take photographs of the bodies. On the surface, he is a model citizen. We are shown him washing his little daughter’s hair. We are shown him packing his kids’ lunch for school. We are shown him counseling a couple who have lost their young son. Of course we are also shown him doodling a nude picture of the woman as he pretends to take notes. We are also shown him breaking into a victim’s house and stealing some of her underwear. He is a perfect candidate for a chapter in Krafft-Ebbing.

Cubitt’s script tends to alternate scenes of the police investigation and some of their outside activities with scenes of the serial killer stalking his new victim as well as his family life. Both Anderson and Dornan give masterful performances. She manages to be both dominating and alluring as she exudes sexuality. He is the model of the young family man, even as he pursues his obsessions. He is an example of what psychologists call doubling, as DSI Gibson points out. One might well argue that she, herself, is also a doubler on some level. Doubling, as explained in Psychology Today, is the creation of two independent selves within a person. Robert Louis Stevenson might have called it “Jekyll and Hydism. Different selves operate in different situations.

It is an interesting thesis and makes for a riveting five episode series, available in a two disc DVD set from Acorn in the middle of October. This first series runs for approximately 300 minutes, and seems to end with a promise of a series continuation, something  for those of us who enjoyed the show to look forward to. The DVD includes a 12 minute “Behind the Scenes” featurette with cast interviews.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

DVD Review: "Alliyah"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

A young Parisian with what a recent romantic attachment calls “existential problems” decides it is time to seek a solution by making his aliyah (emigrating to Israel, a duty many Jews feel as an obligation). Life in Paris for Alex Raphaelson has little, if anything to keep him from the move. He works in a restaurant, but he really supports himself by dealing drugs. His immediate family is dysfunctional. His mother is dead.  He has little to do with his father who has moved on to a new family. His older brother Isaac is a leech who is only interested in what he can get from Alex. His ex-girlfriend is planning to get married.

So when he goes to a dinner for a cousin who has returned from Israel for a visit, and learns that he is planning to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv, it seems like a perfect opportunity for Alex to escape from the morass of Paris to start a new life. Everyone around him finds the idea ludicrous. No Zionist, he has never shown any interest in Israel. Indeed, he had ridiculed the cousin when he decided to make Aliyah. He is not religious, his attachment to Judaism is nil. He doesn’t speak Hebrew. Other than the cousin, he has no contacts in the country. Still he finds his life in Paris so impossibly oppressive that Israel becomes not only a viable option, it becomes a desirable goal.
Things become a little more complicated when he immediately learns that he needs a large amount of money to buy into the restaurant, and even more so when he meets a pretty gentile girl, a student, and there is an immediate attraction. Were he to stay put in Paris, something more than a few sexual encounters would seem a good possibility.

Alex is played with intense conviction by Pio Marmai. Brother Isaac is played by Cedric Kahn, an award winning director and screenwriter. Adele Haenel plays Alex’s love interest, Jeanne. It is a solid cast with a feeling for their characters, and keeping them real.
Directed by Elie Wajeman, who also has a screenwriting credit, the film was an official selection for the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012.  She takes material that in some hands could become a noir thriller, and focuses equal attention on family relationships and emotional stress. Scenes like the Sabbath dinner for the cousin and the brother’s visit to their mother’s grave add a sense of low key realism that give the film its emotional spine. Physical violence is quite limited.

The French film with English subtitles is now available on DVD from Film Movement, a company that calls itself a “Film-Of-The-Month Club for new, award-winning Independent and foreign films.”

The DVD includes an interesting Israeli short called On the Road to Tel Aviv directed by Khen Shalem. It deals with a terrorist attack on a bus and the reaction of an assortment of Israeli’s when an isolated Arab woman boards a bus they are all going to ride on. It is a telling comment on the effects of terrorist activities on the lives of those living under constant threat. While Middle Eastern politics have little to do with Aliyah, On the Road to Tel Aviv sets them front and center in all their complexities.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Music Review: "Art Tatum: The Complete Solo Masterpieces"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

In the liner notes to the Original Jazz Classics remastered re-release of The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1 from Concord Music Group, Tad Hershorn talks about Tatum’s stature as “the greatest pianist jazz has ever produced.” Now whether you agree with Hershorn’s assertion may turn on your definition of greatness, but however you want to define what it is that makes a jazz pianist great, there is no question that Art Tatum belongs in the conversation.

The collection of performances that make up this album from the Concord Music Group goes a long way to making Hershorn’s point. Define greatness in terms of effortless virtuosity at the keyboard, and Tatum can’t be faulted. Define it as inventive originality, define it as emotional honesty, and the man is nothing short of a giant. “Greatest” may be arguable; there is no question about great.

Whether Hershorn’s narrative of the December 1953 session that began the recording process has its roots in mythology as much as in reality. It is easy to be a tad skeptical. Yet, if it is myth, it is the kind of myth that you want to believe. Tatum, he explains, walks into the studio at 9 o’clock with a portable radio. Producer Norman Granz had provided a case of the pianist’s favorite libation. Tatum sits down at the piano, opens a beer, tunes his radio into the UCLA basketball game, and listens for a half hour or so. Then he takes off, producing 69 masters in two days, most on the first take. If it didn’t quite happen that way, it should have.

The Concord classic includes the nine tracks from the original Pablo album released in 1975, supplemented by seven tracks from The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 9. Beginning with a short and sweet reading of “Moonglow,” he then takes off on an exciting ride through Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” playing his signature games with tempos. He finds new ideas in classics like “Body and Soul,” “Embraceable You,” and “Sophisticated Lady.” He develops the themes of lesser known pieces like “Blue Lou” and “My Last Affair” with a sensitivity that suggests they should have been classics as well.

In some sense it isn’t worthwhile singling out individual tracks as highlights. This is an album of highlights. There are 16 songs and there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Some may prefer the complex cascading cadences of his “Have You Met Miss Jones,” some, the melodic phrasing of “Stay as Sweet as You Are.” Some may favor the mellow bluesy “Willow Weep for Me,” some, the swinging “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Most will agree that the better course is simply to prefer Art Tatum no matter what tune he is playing.

Of course, this album barely scratches the surface of Tatum’s solo work. In 1971, Pablo released Art Tatum: The Complete Solo Masterpieces, a seven disk box set. Fans, old and new, then, may have a lot of great music waiting for them.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Music Review: Cannonball Adderly and Milt Jackson - Things Are Getting Better

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Putting together an ensemble of all-star jazz musicians for a recording session sounds like a no brainer. One problem, while it may well seem like it should be a good idea, it doesn’t always produce a great recording. Perhaps expectation are so high, they could never be realized. Perhaps big egos get in the way. Great jazz ensembles require the kind of chemistry that has everyone working together, Whatever the reason, it doesn’t always happen that way.

Fortunately, when Riverside Records’ celebrated producer Orrin Keepnews put together vibraphone virtuoso Milt Jackson and alto saxophone master Cannonball Adderly with an unbeatable rhythm section—pianist Wynton Kelley, bassist Percy Heath and classic drummer Art Blakey, he hit the jackpot. This was one group of all-stars who had what it takes to work together. The chemistry was so good, they even included 44 seconds of banter as they got ready to play the disc’s second number. The album that came out of that session, Things Are Getting Better, is an absolute gem.

The 1958 album is once again available in a remastered CD in the Original Jazz Classics series from the Concord Record group. The new edition adds two bonus tracks of alternate takes not included on the original. While some critics don’t care for the idea of loading down an album with inferior takes (on the theory that had they been any good they would have been used on the original album), it does give the  judicious fan an opportunity to make his own judgments. At any rate the two alternate takes on this disc are in no way inferior filler.

“Blues Oriental” begins the set, a bit of exoticism composed by Jackson. Adderly’s swinging “Things Are Getting Better” follows. Dizzy Gillespie’s take on the chord structure of “Whispering,” “Groovin’ High” which had become something of a bebop staple is ripe for a dynamic Jackson solo. Their version of “The Sidewalks of New York” gives the hoary classic a modern vibe, especially with Adderly’s alto solo. The bonus alternate take seems a bit more mellow. Adderly’s “Sounds for Sid” is a blues number the original liner notes say was dedicated to a favorite unnamed disc jockey. Although the new notes suggest a number of possible Sids, my own guess would be the great Symphony Sid.  “Just One of Those Things,” “Serves Me Right” and its alternate take complete the new album,

In recent months there has been a flood of older material from a number of different companies. Some of the albums were classics; some were merely old. If the combination of Adderly and Jackson didn’t quite produce a classic with this album, they came darned close.

Friday, August 30, 2013

DVD Review: Blandings

This article was first published at

If your idea of British country gentry comes from Downton Abbey, P. G. Wodehouse’s Blandings will orrect that very quickly. Lord Emsworth and his Blandings family are a far cry from Lord Grantham and the Downton crew.

A two disc DVD set of the six episode first series of the British TV adaptation of the Wodehouse stories is scheduled for release in the U. S. on September 3 from Acorn. The series stars Timothy Spall as Clarence Emsworth, the Lord of the manor, a bumbling, but lovable eccentric whose only real interest in life is his beloved pig, Empress. Jennifer Saunders plays his disapproving sister whose main object in life seems to be to civilize her brother. Mark Williams is the dependable butler who is as much a friend of the family as he is a servant, and Jack Farthing is the heir to the estate, a silly fool of a ne’er do well.

Classic stereotypes, these and the supporting characters are all played with broad strokes just short of the kind of thing you’d be likely to see in a Benny Hill sketch. Lord Emsworth can’t remember anyone’s name, indeed he can’t remember much of anything. Saunders’ Connie is a controlling martinet, and Williams’ butler is the essence of practical wisdom. Minor characters are similarly stereotypical: a Scottish gardener with an accent so thick no one can understand a word he says, a fortune hunting widow with a bratty young son, a chorus girl masquerading as a foreign princess. There isn’t an actor in this cast who is unwilling to go over the top. It’s almost as though they were told the broader the better. And not only do they get away with it, they embrace the silliness and it works.

The plots of each of the episodes are farcical enough to justify the acting style. The first episode deals with a contest for the fattest pig, the last with the fortune hunter’s machinations. There are episodes concerning his sister Connie’s attempt to straighten Lord Emsworth out by hiring a controlling secretary, her ploys to keep various nieces away from suitors that she finds unsuitable, and one where the foolish Freddy thinks he’s married a showgirl.

Much of the humor deals with things like pigs with gas, manure, clumsy suitors knocking over furniture, manure, mistaken identities, manure, visiting city ragamuffins, and manure. Did I mention muck? Talk about an excremental vision. If you’re looking for gentile drawing room comedy, Blandings is not for you

By any reasonable meausure, I should hate this show. By any reasonable measure but one; it can be laugh out loud funny. The characters may be unrealistic stereotypes, the acting may be way over the top, the directors may indulge themselves in silly sight gags, but none of that really matters if you find yourself laughing. And there wasn’t an episode that didn’t manage to get me laughing. Frothy perhaps, but how often is it that show aims at froth and falls flat. Certainly not all the gags work, but enough do to make this show a lot of fun. Effective froth is no mean achievement.
Lord Emsworth and his family may not remind many viewers of the Downton crew, they are certainly pale shadows of Wodehouse’s own Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, but how many are there that measure up to bars that high. Blandings is a lot of fun.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Music Review: Christian McBride and Inside Straight - People Music

This article was first published at Blogcritics

People Music, the title of bassist Christian McBride and Inside Straight’s follow up to their debut album Kind of Brown, refers to what McBride calls his “personal mantra as a musician.” Now is a time when some jazz musicians have become so concerned with pushing the envelope that they have pushed beyond the post office’s ability to deliver the mail to anyone but other jazz musicians, and sometimes not even them. Their music has become what one 19th century poet called “the dialogue of the mind with itself.” “People music” is music that speaks to the people. A degree in music theory is not a requirement for its enjoyment. All that’s needed are ears.

What you get on this album is mainstream, hard driving jazz played with passion and consummate musicianship. It doesn’t reject the past. It uses it. In the best traditions of the form, it builds on what has gone before. It is accessible music. If what you want is esoteric cacophony, you don’t want People Music. If you want beautiful innovative jazz, you’re in the right place.

The eight pieces on the album are all original compositions by members of the quintet. Four are by McBride. The album opens with his “Listen to the Heroes Cry,” written, he tells us in reaction to a music awards show which he found more concerned with image than with music. “It made me wonder what Duke Ellington or John Coltrane or Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn would think if they could see this. I think they would be crying.” “New Hope’s Angel” was written in reaction to the death of Whitney Houston and “Fair Hope Theme” is an extension of the main theme McBride wrote for the soundtrack of the documentary The Contradiction of Fair Hope. His dramatically driven “The Movement Revisited” drawn from a larger Civil Rights themed suite is the longest piece on the set.
“Gang Gang,” written by vibes player Warren Wolf, is an Afro-Cuban track. Saxophonist Steve Wilson’s haunting “Ms. Angelou” features the composer playing the soprano sax. Christian Sands, who plays piano on two tracks composed “Dream Train” and pianist Peter Martin wrote the funky “Unusual Suspects.” Carl Allen plays drums on everything but “Dream Train” and “Listen to the Heroes Cry” where drums are handled by Ulysses Owens, Jr.

If what McBride was aiming at was audience friendly music, he got it, but perhaps more importantly he also got audience pleasing music. This is the kind of music you want to listen to, and you’ll want to listen to it again and again.