Sunday, September 26, 2010

Music Review: Black Sabbath Various Artists

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Let's begin by noting that Black Sabbath the CD I am reviewing has nothing to do with either the band, Black Sabbath, or any of its vocalist front men, not Ozzy, not Ronnie, not any of the others. This Black Sabbath is a compilation of songs related to Judaism in one way or another by a variety of African-American artists. Thus what you've got is black and Sabbath, or Black Sabbath.

The roster of artists includes well known jazz and pop singers like Billie Holiday, The Temptations, and Johnny Mathis, as well some lesser known performers, like Johnny Hartman and Marlena Shaw. They sing in Yiddish; they sing in Hebrew, and they sing in English. The songs come from the Yiddish theater and the Broadway stage, as well as from Tin Pan Alley and Jewish folk traditions. But in nearly all cases the musicians make the music their own, sometimes so much their own as to be jarring to the listener familiar with the traditional versions.

Marlena Shaw's rendition of "Where Can I Go" for example uses upbeat Latin rhythms which seem to work against the song lyric's passionate plea for a homeland for those oppressed in the Diaspora. While the song does end with the promise of a homeland, the happy danceable beginning seems out of place. Lena Horne's "Now!" takes the Israeli folk standard, "Hava Nagila" and transforms it into a demand for equal rights. While there is no quarrel with the sentiment, it's militancy seems alien to this classic expression of rejoicing. The Temptations' Fiddler on the Roof medley does some funky things with the rhythms of "If I Was a Rich Man" and the harmonies they use for "Sunrise, Sunset" turn a beautiful melody into something eerily discordant. In general the arrangements of all the songs in the medley are enough askew to annoy anyone who loves the originals.

On the other hand, Cab Calloway's "Utt Da Zay" which begins with very traditional sounding pseudo-chanting and then morphs into some vintage jive with a Yiddish touch makes something exciting out of what is essentially an ephemeral pop novelty song. Eartha Kitt's "Sholem," her version of the traditional religious anthem "Shalom Aleichem," captures its spirit of fervent joy, even discounting her characteristic spoken interpolations. Alberta Hunter's impassioned "Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Leiba" is a beautiful take in both Yiddish and English of the oft recorded classic, usually translated "I Love You Much Too Much." The Cannonball Adderly Sextet's "Sabbath Prayer" featuring Nat Adderly's cornet is an eloquent jazz interpretation of the Fiddler on the Roof ballad.

But it is Johnny Mathis and his bravura rendition of the opening prayer of the evening service for Yom Kippur, "Kol Nidre" which is the highlight of the album. He could easily have been mistaken for a traditional cantor, chanting the High Holy Day services on the altar of your local synagogue. It is a performance that you would probably never expect from the man who crooned "Chances Are" and "It's Not For Me to Say." It is a performance that captures the spirit of the prayer with dignity and passion.

Aside from the aesthetic interest in these explorations of Jewish themes by African-Americans, part of the CD's intention is to "shed light on the historical, political, spiritual, economic, and cultural connections" between them and Jewish-Americans. Both cast as outsiders in the country that had become their homeland, they faced many of the same problems of discrimination and alienation. Though their relations were sometimes awkward and complex, it is not strange that they should find some kinship in each other's artistic accomplishments. After all Jewish-Americans were equally as much inclined to put their own stamp on the African-American experience and their music, if not more so. George Gershwin, represented on this album by Aretha Franklin's "Swanee," built his career on the representation; some would argue the misrepresentation, of the black experience. Then, of course, there were all those Jewish singers who performed in black face. Today we find that kind of thing offensive, and even in that era, it was more than likely an attempt to capitalize on a cultural stereotype, still in some way it must also indicate a kind of admiration and respect. After all, a singer, like Al Jolson, wasn't donning black face to ridicule.

Cultural interaction goes both ways. While one or two of the tracks on Black Sabbath miss the mark, most are an important record of an African-American perspective on the Jewish-American experience as well as a compelling performance in their own right. You only have to hear Billie Holiday's brilliant soulful interpretation of "My Yiddishe Momme" or the understated passion of Jimmy Hartman's "Exodus" to understand the connections they felt with what the material represented and how they capture it in performance.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Imperfectionists: What is a Novel

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, has been one of the most hyped books of the year. That it is an engrossing read is unquestionable, but whether it should be considered a novel, on the other hand, is open to some debate. The book is a collection of short stories all connected by the characters' affiliation with an English language newspaper operating in Rome. One is a freelance Paris correspondent at the end of his career. Another is the obituary writer and editor of the puzzle page. There is the current publisher, the editor in chief and the chief financial officer, not very affectionately known as "Accounts Payable." Characters central in one story are sometimes mentioned in others, but for the most part each story most often deals with the protagonist's personal life and stands alone.

There are certainly thematic connections: the central figures are certainly "imperfectionists." There are older men with problems with younger women. There are lonely women demeaning themselves for faux romance. There are people who are unable to adapt to the demands of the new media environment. Moreover they are all attached to a central spine between stories detailing the history of the newspaper (modeled on the International Herald Tribune), much in the way individual stories are connected in such classics as The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron. These are two or three page glimpses into significant dates in the paper's history: its inception, the hiring of new blood, the changes in the publishing family.

The nice thing about this kind of structure is that if you find one story and its characters not to your taste, there is always going to be another one you may like better. The problem is that the stories that don't interest you may get in the way of those that do. Advantage or disadvantage, is a work of fiction structured in this way really something that should be called a novel?

If by novel you mean a long work of prose fiction, it most certainly is a novel. If, on the other hand, a novel is a long work of fiction with a central through line that unifies the whole, then perhaps you need some other kind of generic marker for Rachman's book. One thinks of other works of fiction that collect shorter pieces with some common theme: James Joyce's Dubliners for example, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. These are collections with even subtler connections than Rachman's that have been sometimes characterized as novels, although most often they have been treated as short story collections. On the other hand, a large scale work like John Dos Passos' U.S.A. that not only tells multiple stories, often stories that have few, if any, connections, but also includes a number of other narrative elements, is usually thought of as a novel.

The novel as a genre has always been difficult to define. From its beginnings, wherever they might be marked, there have always been works that have defied classification for one reason or another: Gulliver's Travels, most of the fiction of Daniel Defoe, Rablais—the list could go on and on. Almost from its very inception, the novel has been a form that has given reign to experimentation of one sort or another, and perhaps this has been its greatest strength. Experimentation can allow the form to meet the needs and tastes of new generations of readers. A generation with an attention span accustomed to the sound bite, flash fiction and the ten minute play may well find they prefer their novels chopped into shorter pieces that can be digested in parts.

Whatever you call it, The Imperfectionists is well wrought piece of fiction deserving of all the accolades it has received. Whether it is a harbinger for the future of fiction remains to be seen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mandelbaum in the Movies

The news that they were looking for extras for the made for television motion picture they were shooting in Kittaning reached Mandelbaum weeks after it reached everyone else in town. Mandelbaum didn’t read the papers. Mandelbaum didn’t communicate much with his neighbors. Mandlebaum would as soon listen to the voice of the devil as WKIT, the voice of Kittaning. Because he had no relatives, he had no relatives to speak with, but if he had had relatives, it is not likely he would have had much to say to them in any case. In fact even the news that there was a made for television motion picture being shot in Kittaning, didn’t reach Mandelbaum until weeks after that shooting had begun.

Had his neighbors thought to tell him about it, they would have quickly put the thought out of their minds, since Mandelbaum, they all knew very well, Mandelbaum was a private person, a massive hulk of a private person who was prone to meet a friendly greeting with a grunt and a scowl under the best of circumstances. And while the whole town might be agape and agog with movies and movie stars, what would such things be to Mandelbaum. Besides for all anyone knew, the man might not even own a television set, and if he did, was it at all likely that he would watch such a thing as a made for television motion picture. So it was with surprise bordering on shock that the good people of Kittaning arose one morning to find Mandelbaum leading the sun down Main Street, made for television motion picture makers beginning their day quite early, to the front of the Super Bee Market where that day’s shooting was to take place.

“Look,” said the early rising paperboy pointing.

“I see,” shrugged the driver of the schoolbus.

Their surprise was even greater when he walked straight up to that eminent man in the baseball cap and jeans, a man of such importance that the fraying of his shirt collar and the scuffing on his shoes went unnoticed, or at least uncommented upon, by all those around him; walked right up to the great man who was clamping his teeth down on a poppy seed bagel shmeared heavily with cream cheese and announced: “I am here.”

“For what?” said the paperboy.

“For what?” said the neighbors to each other.

“For what?” asked the nonplussed minions of the celebrated mucher of bagels.

“I see that,” said the great man, who had not become great a great man by allowing anything as inconsequential as an ignorance of circumstances to prevent him from taking control whatever the situation, “I’ve been waiting.”

He finished chewing his bagel, surveying the bulky body of Mandelbaum as he chewed, waiting perhaps for some clue as to who this man was and what it was that he was here for, perhaps not caring at all. For when no clarification was forthcoming, he simply called to his assistant, pointed to Mandelbaum, and said: “He is here.” This cogent remark he punctuated with another large bite into the bagel which clearly indicated to the assistant that no further explanation would be forthcoming.

“Follow me, please,” the assistant smiled at Mandelbaum.

And Mandelbaum followed him. Followed him to the assistant’s assistant, to whom the assistant said with all the authority of an aspirant to greatness: “He is here.” And with that he turned and walked away in search of his own poppy seed bagel.

The assistant’s assistant looked up Mandelbaum and down, hoping perhaps for some indication of what was to be done, but with nothing forthcoming in a timely fashion, and loathe to indicate indecisiveness by any failure to act he said, “Come with me.”

And Mandelbaum was led to a young man with a note pad who took him to a younger man without a note pad who introduced him to an older man with a neatly trimmed beard who brought him to a red haired woman in a tee shirt that read: “I’m With Stupid,” and showed an arrow pointing to the right. The red haired woman pointed Mandelbaum to a high stool standing before a mirror, covered him with a sheet like cloth, and began to cover his face with some sort of greasy substance.

“You here for the heavy?” she asked.

“I’m here,” muttered Mandelbaum.

“I thought they were bringing in a name from the coast,” she opined.

“Mmm,” mumbled Mandelbaum. Polite converation was an indulgence he allowed himself. Instead he sat quietly as she painted his face, etched a red line of scar on his left cheek, clipped a few hairs from his nostrils, and rose obediantly as she pointed him to a pinstriped suit, a black shirt and a bow tie. Mandelbaum looked at the clothes as if he didn’t comprehend what cothes were for.

“They’re waiting,” the redheaded woman said.

Mandelbaum did not move.

“Put it on,” she said indicating the suit.

Mandelbaum looked for someplace to change.

“Hurry,” she shouted, “they’re waiting.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Mandelbaum dropped his pants and forced his massive frame into the waiting clothes which although a little tight managed to withstand the thrust of his efforts.

The redheaded woman, watching the stuffing of the suit with some fear for its seams, but realizing that it was not her place to question the great or even the near great for that matter, called over to where the camera had been set up: “He’s here.” And she pushed him gently forward.

“Ah, here he is,” said the man with the neatly trimmed beard.

“He’s here,” called the young man without the note pad to the young man with the note pad, who checked his note pad and finding nothing, escorted Mandelbaum back to the assistant’s assistant.

“Here,” he said.

The assistant’s assistant looked at Mandelbaum and as if the addition of the scar to the left cheek had awakened some recognition in him, led him proudly off to the assistant, at whom he smiled knowingly.

“Here’s the man.”

The assistant, disoriented for the moment, didn’t recognize Mandelbaum. He had been busily checking so many things. He stared at the scar. He stared at the pinstripped suit. These he remembered, not on the body of Mandelbaum, but these he remembered. And then it came to him: the great man, the poppy seed bagel, the cream cheese. This was the actor that had been entrusted to his care. And looking at him in make up and costume he had done well.

“We’re here,” he called.

The great man looked at Mandelbaum approvingly. “Well done,” he thought.

“Check his light,” he said.

Two months later when Mandelbaum left for Hollywood, his neighbors may have been surprised, or maybe they were not. Mandelbaum was a private man. They knew so little of him. Who knew what he had inside.