Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book Review: Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, by Alexander McCall Smith

This article was first published at Blogcritics

After a hiatus of some eight years in which the prolific Alexander McCall Smith devoted his attention to his many other popular series, Unusual Uses for Olive Oil marks the return of the hapless hero of his Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series, Professor Dr. Dr.(he is fond of including his earned and his honorary doctorate in his title) Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. It is a long overdue return. Professor von Igelfeld is a comic gem and his misadventures had this fan laughing out loud. Smith skewers the pomposity of academic pretension with an irresistible dead pan insouciance.

Rather than a novel, Smith calls the book an entertainment, and while 'entertainment' may suggest a lack of seriousness on the author's part, it is more likely an indication of humility and a sense of playfulness. Besides 'entertainment' is not a bad characterization of a book that reads more like a collection of short tales than it does a coherent novel. Each of the five sections that comprise what is in truth a slender volume while featuring a similar cast of characters and in some cases flowing from each other feels more like an individual tale than part of a larger whole.

Von Igelfeld (hedgehog field in English as we and he are reminded again and again) is an academic working at the Institute of Romance Philology in the Bavarian city of Regensburg home of the University perhaps best known now for Pope Benedict's tenure there as professor of theology. Von Igelfeld is the self centered author of  the very much neglected academic study Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and he is much impressed with his status, and quite jealous to ward off any perceived lack of respect. His nemesis is his colleague Detlev-Amadeus Unterholzer, an absolutely undeserving (in his opinion)  rival who meets all of von Igelfeld's pontificating with biting sarcasm. Herr Huber, the unpretentious dull librarian obsessed with his aunt in a nursery home but always suitably impressed with von Igelfeld and Prinzel an almost rational colleague round out the cast of major characters.

The narrative itself is episodic. "The Award" deals with von Igelfeld's reaction to the news that Unterholzer has been short listed for a scholarly prize. The second chapter, "An Intriguing Meeting," has Prinzel's wife arranging a dinner for von Igelfeld and an eligible widow. "Lunch at the Schloss Dunkelberg" follows with the date that results from the dinner. The fourth chapter deals with the annual reading party in the mountains that the professor supervises for selected students, and the book ends with the title chapter or story which details von Igelfeld's experience as an after dinner speaker and climaxes with a dinner party at the Unterholzers and a description of the unusual use to which olive oil is put.

This may not be the stuff of serious literature, but it doesn't pretend to be. Besides, it is well written, witty, and most importantly funny as hell.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Music Review: Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship - Song of Simeon

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If you're looking for a  jazz album for the Christmas season with a more spiritual orientation than Vince Guaraldi's evergreen , A Charlie Brown Christmas, you might want to give a listen to Song of Simeon from the Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship. As Scruggs explains in the liner notes, "My vision for this recording was to create a musical journey through the deeper themes of the Christmas narrative." To this end he selected 11 pieces "to formulate a layered chronology that illustrates the profound, spiritual mystery of the radical Biblical story of the birth of Christ." The album he came up with is certainly a testament to his spiritual journey, but it is also a testament to his musical artistry and that of his collaborators as well. Song of Simeon is straight ahead jazz played with skill and spiritual intensity.

Joining Scruggs, who plays tenor and soprano saxophone, are pianist Brian Hogans, guitarist Dan Baraszu, drummer Marlon Patton, bassist Tommy Sauter, and percussionist Kinah Boto Ayah. Trumpeter Joe Granden, along with a horn ensemble, is featured on a Dixieland version of the Black spiritual, "Go Down Moses" in an arrangement, we are told in elaborate artist's notes on Scruggs' website, based on a setting by Louis Armstrong. Although not usually a song associated with Christmas, it is one of the album's many highlights.

The album is divided into two parts.  The significance of these is explained by Scruggs' father and spiritual advisor, the Reverend C. Perry Scruggs, Jr. Based on Luke 2:32 where the "Song of Simeon" proclaims the Nativity as “A light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel," Rev. Scruggs points out that the first part called "the glory" celebrates the "fulfillment of the promise to God's people. The second part, "the light," is the "gift of new light to the world." Both parts utilize musical material both well known and more obscure.

Part I begins with "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" from a 19th century adaptation, and just to give an idea of some of his thinking, he explains: "Three different voices state the theme, each with the same melody but different harmony to symbolize the Holy Trinity."  "The Annunciation—Gabriel's Message" based on a Basque carol is next with a triumphant emphasis. "The Song of Mary—Magnificat" in a 1928 setting and the familiar "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" follow. "Nunc Dimittus—Song of Simeon" and the stirring "Go Down Moses" close out the first part.

Part II opens with "Lo, How a Rose E're Blooming" arranged from a 16th century melody by bassist Sauter. It includes "T'was in the Moon of Wintertime," known as "The Huron Carol," a powerful  "Ideo Gloria" based on another 16th century melody and the very well known "We Three Kings." A swinging version of "Joy to the World" with the return of the horn ensemble closes out the album's second part.

The album includes a little booklet with the English translations of all the lyrics which are also available on the website, along with extensive explanations and analyses of what is going on musically in each of the piece.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Music Review: Big Bands Live: Duke Ellington Orchestra

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Joining the initial release of a 1959 concert of the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the Jazzhaus Big Bandbands Live series culled from the archives of German radio and television broadcaster Südwestrundfunk is a remastered recording of a previously unreleased 1967 Stuttgart concert featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Recorded only a few weeks before the death of the inestimable Ellington right hand man Billy Strayhorn, the set list for the date avoids most all of the iconic Ellington repertoire and dips into the wealth of the orchestra's material less often featured. Still, except for one tune, all the songs on the album are Ellington or Strayhorn compostions, yet for the more casual  fans there may well be more than a few of these dozen tracks they have never heard before.

And that's a shame, because as even a cursory hearing will make clear there is some truly fine music here, and the individual solo work is often as good as anything you're likely to hear on any of the more famous Ellington repertoire. Just listen to Cat Anderson's virtuoso trumpet solo on Raymond Fol's "Salome" or Cootie Williams strutting his stuff with witty perfection on "The Shepherd" and the swinging "Tutti for Cootie." It's not only the trumpets. Lawrence Brown plays some low down 'bone' on "Rue Blue." The bass of John Lamb is featured in "La Plus Belle Africaine" along with Harry Carney.  Johnny Hodges is up front with the alto sax for an elegant take on "Freakish Lights." The final piece on the album is a spot for a show ending ovation for drummer Rufus Jones on an Ellington original, "Kixx."

The album begins with a short nod to the orchestra's theme, "Take the 'A' Train." The rest of the concert includes "Johnny Come Lately" and "Swamp Goo," which features some nice clarinet work from Russell Procope. Paul Gonsalves has the honors on the Latin Anerican vibed "Knob Hill." "Eggo" and "A Chromatic Love Affair" round out the album.  Ellington, of course, handles the piano throughout, and makes sure to acknowledge the featured soloist at the end of each number.

This album is a gift for all fans of big band music--forget that: this album is a gift for all music lovers, big band or otherwise. This is a concert that shouldn't have been moldering in some broadcaster's vault. Turns out those vaults contain about 1,600 audio and 350 television recordings of more than 400 ensembles and soloists—3,000 hours most of it previously unreleased and ripe for the pickings. Jazzhaus with its Bigbands Live  and Legends Live series have barely made a dent in the stash. If what they've put out so far is any indication, there have to be gems to come, and the jazz audience as a lot to look forward to.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Vince Guaraldi and Charlie Brown Xmas

This article was first published at  Technorati.

In the nearly 50 years since its original debut A Charlie Brown Christmas has become as much a tradition of the holiday season as Santa Claus, Christmas stockings and candy canes, for many far outstripping its animated rivals Rudolph, Frosty and even the Grinch. For the sentimental joy of the remembrance of things past, it is unsurpassed, guaranteed to bring a happy tear to the eye of even the most jaded among us. And there is no denying that the film's success is in no small part due to the score created by pianist Vince Guaraldi and played so joyfully by his trio.

So Fantasy Record's newly released 2012 remastered and expanded edition of the original 1965 recording comes as something of an early Christmas gift to the show's many fans. Although the album had been released on CD in 1988, this new edition utilizes many of the advances in digital conversion to enhance its sonic qualities. And while I don't claim to be much of an audiophile myself, I must say that the recording sounds excellent, whether so excellent that it justifies those of you who still have your copy of the '88 disc buying this new one I leave to better ears than mine.

 Audio engineering and nostalgia aside this is a truly important album. As the media release upon the album's induction into the Library of Congress explained A Charlie Brown Christmas was responsible for introducing "jazz to millions of listeners." Guaraldi's score is appealingly melodic. The music is accessible, and while the jazz 'maven' may have found it a bit too facile for his taste preferring something more innovative and complex, the novice has found its simple lyricism a welcoming entry point. This is one of those many cases where simple is better.

Guaraldi may not be the most virtuosic of jazz pianists, but there is no denying he has style, and it is a style all his own. As he told critic Ralph Gleason back in 1958: "I don't think I'm a great piano player, but I would like to be able to have people like me, to play pretty tunes and reach the audience." As early as his Grammy Award winning chart topping "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," Guaraldi  got that wish, and the Charlie Brown themes like "Linus and Lucy," "Christmas Time is Here," and "Christmas is Coming" leave no doubts he deserved it.

The new release includes three bonus tracks not included on the original LP: "Greensleeves,"  "Great Pumpkin Waltz," and "Thanksgiving Theme." There is also an accompanying booklet featuring an introductory essay by Derrick Bang, author of the 2012 study, Vince Guaraldi at the Piano and some nice illustrations with the Peanuts characters.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Graphic Biography Review: Steve Jobs

First published on  Blogcritics.

Steve Jobs: Genius By Design is the latest publication in the Campfire Graphic Novels Heroes Series.  The graphic biography joins previous Campfire studies of the lives of 'heroes' like Harry Houdini, Muhammud Ali, Nelson Mandela, and the Wright Brothers. Now while the selection of subjects may suggest a fairly broad definition of hero, Jobs is clearly quite a significant figure, perhaps the most significant figure in the development of the computer age, in his case 'hero' might be a stretch. The idea of the hero as billionaire business man raises all sorts of ideological political issues, none of which I would imagine were intended by the book's writer, Jason Quinn.

He does after all take a warts and all look at his subject. The Steve Jobs he describes is driven by his desire for control and perfection. He is self centered, opinionated and uncompromising.  He is insensitive to the people he works with. The only thing that saves him from being a total jerk is that he is usually right. The book spends a good portion of time on his life from his birth, his adoption by a couple with a limited educational background, his early passion for mechanical tinkering and his unhappiness with school.  It concentrates on the kinds of things that should appeal to the book's target audience, the older child.

Even when he goes on to deal with Jobs' later career, Quinn keeps that audience in mind pointing to details sure to titillate the young reader. Jobs' peculiar eating habits come up over and over again, as do his personal hygiene problems. His conflicts with fellow workers are always in the forefront. His career at Pixar is highlighted, as well as his early development of Apple and his successful return after his ouster. Parents should note, however, that the book does deal with his relationship with Chrisann Brennan and the birth and initial rejection of his illegitimate daughter, as well as his own illegitimate birth. It notes his early problem with religion. It also points out his failure to get adequate medical attention later in life. There are lessons in his life; what those lessons might be is open to interpretation.

Amit Tayal's illustrations are not quite as dark and gritty as I have found the norm in previous Campfire Graphics.  In general the whole look is much brighter. Indeed much of the series' usual format has been changed for this issue. The book itself is larger in size, and the cardboard covers are stiffer. The black and white front cover is unlike any of elaborate color of their other books.  Although it's ingenious replication of an iPad with an interesting caricature of Jobs is about as clever an idea for a cover as any they have previously come up with. 

While I doubt that Steve Jobs would have been my choice as a subject for the adolescent audience, he is clearly a topical figure worth reading about, perhaps even more so with the recent emergence of Apple as the world's most valuable company. Back in Victorian England, the historian Thomas Carlyle published a book based on a series of lectures he called On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History.  Each lecture created a category of hero—"The Hero as Divinity," "The Hero as Prophet," "The Hero as Poet."  With Steve Jobs, we can add a new category—the hero as businessman.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Music Review: Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album

This article was first published at Blogcritics 

Those of you who want a truly wonderful soundtrack of excellent music performed by talented artists at the top of their game to accompany your reading of titillating two-bit erotica, you've got it. As the album notes proudly proclaim: Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album "aims to provide the perfect accompaniment to the Fifty Shades reading experience, setting a mysterious and alluring atmosphere with just the slightest hint of danger." What more can one ask? Get out your stereo if you're old enough, your iPod if not, and grab one of your well thumbed "Shadey" tomes, and have at it. You might well enjoy the music so much you would be tempted to listen to it on its own.  You might enjoy it so much that you might want to hear some more, and if that happens, well it would be hard to complain about how that kind of result was achieved. I guess sometimes the ends justify the means.

Of course, this is not really about E.L.James' erotic trilogy, a series that has caused much critical hand wringing and popular success.  It is about an attempt to piggy back on that success. In some sense, it is unnecessary to review the music.  It is a selection of some of the greatest pieces of classical music from the 16th century down through the modern period. It is music that had stood and is standing the test of time.

 If it has anything it has variety.

It includes beloved old chestnuts like Pachelbel's Canon in D and Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." It includes lesser known gems like Tallis' "Spem in Allum and  the "Bailero" from Cantaloube's Chants d'auvergne. It has vocal music and instrumentals. It has choral works and pieces for the vocal soloist. It has orchestral works and compositions for the individual instrument. It offers music from countries around the globe.  It is a veritable cornucopia of ripe musical fruit.

Moreover it would be hard to complain about the performances. Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of Saint- Martin-in-the- Field and Ricardo Muti, Maria Tipo and Cecile Ousset, the Choir of King's College, Cambridge and the Tallis Scholars, these are all world class musicians, and their performances are excellent and tasteful. That they are willing to let their work be associated with James' work, may upset others, but If they have no problem with having their work used in this way, who am I to cry shame?

All told there are 15 tracks on the album all selected by E.L.James, who says "I am thrilled that the classical pieces that inspired me while I wrote the Fifty Shades Trilogy are being brought together in one collection for all lovers of the books." She has said in interviews that she listens to classical music when she writes about erotic activity and she listens when she engages in it. Presumably these are the pieces that get the best results, both in terms of prose and passion. These are pieces that have made their way into the fiber of her novels.


For fans of her novels, that will be more than enough. For those yet to crack the spine, the album may well add some romance to spice up its sadomasochism.  For those who have no intention of reading any of the grey shades, the album will make for an hour or so of fine music.  It is impossible to look at the track listing—Bach's Aria from The Goldberg Variations, the Prelude from Verdi's La Traviata, a Chopin nocturne and a prelude, Vaughn Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," just to name a few others—and not find gorgeous music, you can help but enjoy hearing. And if you must read while you listen, you can always try Anna Karenina.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Dvd Review: The Ice House

This article was first published at Blogcritics

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to assume that the recent BBC, Warner Home Video DVD release of the 1997 two part TV movie adaptation of best selling crime novelist, Minette Walters' first novel, The Ice House has something to do with the fact that it features the young Daniel Craig. And, since it just happens that the older Daniel Craig is returning to the big screen as Bond, James Bond, the resulting attention certainly couldn't hurt. Still, cynicism aside, whatever the reason for the current release, it is certainly welcome.

The Ice House is a taut, well paced crime drama in the best traditions of the British "who done it," filled with the kinds of revelations that are surprising, yet develop organically from the narrative. An unidentifiable body is found in an ice house on the estate of woman whose husband had disappeared some ten years earlier. She had been suspected of murdering him, but his body had never been found, and the detective in charge convinced of her guilt had reluctantly left the case unsolved. Now he is sure the newly discovered body is the husband and is out to prove it. Add some sensationalistic plot elements like lesbianism and spousal abuse and you have the makings of a smart piece of work with just enough spice to titillate viewers.

Corin Redgrave, the older Jolyon from The Forsyte Saga, plays the detective in charge with the measured competence one expects from the archetypical British police officer. Craig plays McLoughlin, his younger associate, and it is made very clear early on that he is the center of attention. He has something of a back story. His wife has left him. He has been drinking. And, his first spoken line introduces him with perhaps the most memorable line in the film. Craig doesn't disappoint, his performance is as good an indication that he would be going far as one could hope for.

The rest of the cast, although not particularly well known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is excellent. Penny Downie plays the wife with appropriate emotional distress. Kitty Aldridge and Frances Barber play the friends who have moved onto the estate to live with her. Aldridge is a sarcastic tough talking radical; Barber is a softer character. The three form a protective support group in a hostile community where the locals assume that not only is the one a murderer, but that three women living together must be lesbians.

The two parts of the film run nearly three hours.  There is also a bonus feature on author Minette Walters which follows her has she plans, researches, writes and revises what was to be her seventh crime novel The Shape of Snakes. She comes across as a vibrant lively woman with a real commitment to getting things right in her fiction. She visits a prison to see how visitors are treated. She talks to a pathologist to get information about what can be learned from a body. She scouts locations for the novel much the way filmmakers would.  Perhaps the most interesting revelation in the film is her acknowledgement that three quarters of the way through the book, she still hasn't decided on the killer.  Although the nearly 45 minute film has little to say about The Ice House, it offers a fascinating insight into at least one novelist's modus operandi.



Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dvd Review: Rashomon, Criterion Collection

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I must confess that my first acquaintance with the subject matter of Akira Kurosawa's 1950 classic Rashomon came not from the film itself, but from the 1964 American adaptation, The Outrage. This was unfortunate, because that early experience had something of a retarding effect on my appreciation of what Kurosawa had done when I finally did get to see the original. The Outrage, set in the 19th century American west, was culturally familiar. The cultural idiom of Rashomon, especially its acting, was unfamiliar at best, if not completely alien. It was a cultural ignorance that took a number of viewings over the years to overcome, but since great art given the chance will make its greatness felt, it was an ignorance that didn't last.
Watching it now in a 2008 restoration on DVD from the Criterion Collection, it is hard to believe that there was a time when I didn't appreciate Kurosawa's brilliance. From its intellectually challenging script, its innovative use of the camera, its stylized performances, and its aesthetic play of light and shadow, Rashomon is a virtuoso performance.

Based on two stories, "Rashomon" and "In a Grove," by Ryuwanosuke Akutaga, the film tells the story of a rape and murder from four different points of view. A Samurai warrior and his wife traveling in an isolated wooded area are accosted by a bandit. He overcomes the warrior and rapes the woman.  There is a fight and the husband is killed. What happens after that is subject to the interpretation of each of the people involved (the dead husband speaks through a medium) as well as a wood cutter who chanced across the scene and watched in hiding. Each has a different version of the events. If one of these is the 'true' narrative, there is no indication. In the end, the viewer is left with the understanding that truth in this case, perhaps in all cases, is unknowable.
It is a bleak vision of the human condition emphasized from the very beginning with its shots of the wrecked Rashomon gate drenched in a terrific rain storm as the wood cutter and a priest sit in dismay in the aftermath of the bandit's trial. The woodcutter goes on to tell the story to a newcomer who shows up to get out of the storm. This, of course, removes the story one more step from the actual event, and raises even more questions about the nature of truth .

The scene then shifts to the woodcutter in a sun drenched woods as he walks axe on shoulder only to discover first a woman's hat, then the hat of a Samurai, and eventually the body. The camera follows the woodcutter in a lengthy dolly shot as he treks through the foliage, spots of bright sunshine, deep shadows; it is a setting that seems poetically symbolic. Add to this a score that at times builds with the intensity of Ravel's "Bolero" and the scene takes on a sense of portentous dread. There is an interesting explanation of how the scene was shot in some excerpts from the documentary The World of Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa's cinematographer which is included as bonus material on the DVD.
The excerpt ends with Kurosawa saying that it is the camera that has "the starring role" in the film. Indeed, there is something paradoxical about its visual ambience. Its black and white simplicity belies the inherent opacity of its narrative. Indeed the stylized acting does much the same thing. Nothing is as simple as it seems it should be. It is an interesting   juxtaposition of form and content that mirrors the film's themes.

As usual with the films in the Criterion Collection there is an abundant selection of bonus material. Besides the excerpts from the Miyagawa documentary, there is a short interview with director Robert Altman, an hour long documentary with members of the crew and cast called A Testimony as Image, a radio interview with Takashi Shimura who played the woodcutter, the original and a re-release trailers, and audio commentary by film historian Donald Richie. There is also a booklet which includes an essay by Stephen Prince, an excerpt from Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography, and translations of the two Akutagawa stories.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review: Fat Chance, Robert H. Lustig

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Over the years expanding waist lines have generated a plethora of books aimed at slimming them down. There is nothing like an evangelizing 'get off your couch and eat right to lose weight' manual, especially one that promises maximum results with minimum effort, to get overweight readers into action. Action, that is, at least for some initial weight loss, at least until that water weight is gone. Year after year there comes book after book making promise after promise, and they work for awhile, but they never seem to solve the problem.

From the layman's point of view, facing a variety of often conflicting claims all defended with supposedly scientific testing, it becomes nearly impossible to make a judgment about the validity of any of them. Even simply trying to eat healthily, let alone trying to do so and lose weight, becomes a problem when yesterday's scientific gospel, becomes today's mythology. Remember when all fats were taboo. Remember the food pyramid. Remember olestra. So when a new entry in the fight against obesity genre comes along, one can be forgiven for some skepticism. They all sound so sure of themselves.
Like all the others, Fat Chance, Robert H. Lustig's entry in the anti-obesity sweeps offers answers, and his answers are nothing if not persuasive. But still, while he goes out of his way to demonstrate just where the others have gone wrong and how his answers will solve the problem, one has to wonder. What he says makes sense, but is it practical? What he says about the problem is convincing, but are his solutions simply utopian dreams?  

Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist. Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, Director of the UCSF Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health Program and member of the UCSF Institute for Health Policy Studies and the Obesity Task Force of both the Endocrine Society and the Pediatric Endocrine Society. He is not lacking in authority to speak on the subject. His video with the punning title Sugar: The Bitter Truth has 2,948,953 views at last count. If you have an hour and a half, you'll find that this is a man with both wit and knowledge, but perhaps most importantly a man with a mission. Lustig is at war with obesity, and Fat Chance is another volley in that war.

Obesity is the problem. Dieting and exercise as recommended by weight loss gurus in past years don't work because they fail to take into account basic human biochemistry, a process he explains in detail, perhaps more detail than the layman (at least this layman) can easily digest. His conclusions on the other hand are clear. All calories are not created equal. The body doesn't deal with them all in like manner. Sugars in all forms are a problem. Processed foods, all processed foods, are the villains. They overload us with sugar; they under load us with fiber. We don't get enough exercise. The solution to the obesity pandemic then is obvious. Don't feed yourself and your family any foods with added sugar (that is any processed food that comes in a package or container). Eat fresh fruit and vegetables for fiber. Make sure you and your children exercise.

The book ends with a discussion of the changes in public policies and personal values necessary to facilitate ideal solutions on a large scale. Drastic changes in eating habits will have effects beyond the individual. After all if we all stop eating processed foods what happens to all the workers and General Mills and Coca Cola? If we ban high fructose corn syrup, in his mind perhaps the worst of the offenders, what happens to the farmer? Are the politicians going to abandon all those mid-western votes? How will fresh fruits and vegetables be made available in poor neighborhoods where there may be no access to a super market, let alone a farmer's market? What reaction will libertarians have to the "nanny state" telling them what they should or should not eat? The kinds of changes his solutions demand may well be necessary, but they may also be a long time, if ever, coming.

If you buy into Lustig's arguments in Fat Chance not only will you be kissing Coke goodbye, but you'll be giving up orange juice as well. You won't ever go through a McDonald's drive thru or feast on a large fries. If you eat at a local restaurant, you'll tell the waiter to keep the bread off your table. You'll eat desert once a week at most, but you'll eat a hell of a lot of legumes. These are symbols of what will have to be major life style changes for most 21st century Americans, at least those with the 34 inch waists . Whether those changes are any more likely to last over the long haul than those diets and exercise regimes most of us never manage to stick with after a month or two is the real question. Of course we'll never know if we don't try.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Music Review: Lang Lang - The Chopin Album

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If, like me, your earliest image of Frédéric Chopin comes from Hollywood's A Song to Remember. If the first thing the composer's name suggests is a handsome young man seated at a grand piano on a series of concert stages growing paler and sicker as he plays, wiping the sweat from his brow, and eventually coughing up that one ominous spot of blood on the piano keys, the gorgeous music he was playing has likely embedded itself in the depths of your psyche just as it has in mine. Of course Cornel Wilde playing Chopin was not the virtuoso playing the piano. That was Jose Iturbi certainly one of the most popular of the classical pianists of the period, a man that was to put his recording of Chopin's "Polonaise  in A-Flat" on the charts for a reported four years. And when probably the most popular classical pianist of the current day, Lang Lang, releases his first album devoted entirely to the solo piano works of Chopin, it promises perhaps another classical chart topper.

Lang Lang is nothing if not a charismatic performer, and if there are those that find his playing a bit too flamboyant for their taste, their voices are generally lost in the pianist's overwhelming success with the public. Audiences love him. Besides Chopin's music as much as the music of any of the great composers lends itself to flamboyance, Lang Lang and Chopin would seem a match made in heaven. The Chopin Album is the proof of the pudding.

The album begins with the second set of Chopin's Études (op.25), a dozen studies that the pianist suggests not only provide "training for . . . many elements of technique," but help "develop how your mind works, and how you control the different layers of your emotional response." They are not simply finger exercises, exercises in technique; as the liner notes point out, they are musically sophisticated studies sitting at the "center of Chopin's repertoire." Lang Lang plays them with patented skill and panache.

The album includes three nocturnes, the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise (op. 22), the famous Grande Valse Brillante in E-Flat Major (op.18), and one of the best known show pieces in the Chopin canon, the two minute, one "Minute Waltz." The nocturnes demonstrate that the pianist is capable of restraint when he wants it. The waltzes get the more showy treatment.  As a bonus, for crossover fans there is an encore of Tristesse in duet with Danish singer/songwriter Oh Land. If one needs something to complain about, perhaps another solo piano piece would have been preferable.
In general like Lang's previously released  two disc set,Live In Vienna, The Chopin Album is likely to please those of us who were at first naïve enough to believe that it was Cornel Wilde playing that piano and thrilled to  the playing of Jose Iturbi when we knew better, if not always the critics with finer palates.

A note to those of you too young to have been around in 1945 to see Wilde, Merle Oberon and Paul Muni in that faux Chopin biopic A Song to Remember (indeed for those of you who want to look back on the days of your youth), you can see it complete on YouTube, albeit with Spanish  subtitles. It's worth watching if only for the music.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Moby Dick on the Web

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Those of us who have always felt guilty about never being able to read  Herman Melville's Moby Dick, perhaps the most classic of classic American novels,  from cover to cover and excused that failure by lamenting its excessive length and those endless digressions on whales and whaling, now have a wonderful opportunity to remedy that situation. Check out the Moby Dick Big Read website, and we can now have the book read to us a chapter a day, each day a different reader some well known household names, some of lesser note.

Moby Dick Big Read is the brainchild of artist Angela Cockayne and writer Philip Hoare who were curators of a whale symposium and exhibition at Peninsula Arts a contemporary art space housed at Plymouth University. As the website explains, "inspired by their mutual obsession with Moby Dick and with the overarching subject of the whale, they invited artists, writers, musicians, scientists and academics to respond to the theme." A three day symposium, it turns out was not enough to satisfy the enthusiasm generated, so fast forward to September 16, 2012, and the beginning of the Big Read project.
Hoare and Cockayne have assembled 135 celebrities from a variety of fields each to read one chapter of the novel a day for 135 days. Each episode is available on the website and can be downloaded from there or subscribed to at iTunes. Chapter one is read by Tilda Swinton, and other readers up to now include Simon Callow, Stephen Fry, Chad Harbaugh, Mama Tokus, and Fran King. Length of episode of course depends on the length of the particular chapter, but each of the readings released to date (22 chapters as of this writing) is extremely well done and leaves the reader eager for the next release.

Each chapter is accompanied by a visual contribution by an artist.  These are not necessarily illustrations of anything in the chapter, but rather interpretive works based on the artist's imaginative connection with material of the novel. Thus for example take a look at Matthew Benedict's triptych for "Merry Christmas," chapter 22, "Moby Dick at Breakfast," Oliver Clegg's  silk screen eye chart, "The Question is Not What U Look at But What You See" illustrating chapter 7, "The Chapel, or Boyd Webb's1984 suckling man "Nourishment" which is attached o the fifth chapter "Breakfast."

For those who have never read the book and for those who have read it once or even more than onceMoby Dick Big Read is an opportunity not to be missed. Who knows, with a positive response and a little luck, what other blockbuster classics--Ulysses (after all it does get read on Bloomsday), Remembrance of Things Past (my own bête noire), War and Peace might await their own big reads.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Comedy Review: Demetri Martin - Standup Comedian

This article was first published at Blogcritics

With Standup Comedian, Demetri Martin, a comedian accustomed to coming on stage with a lot of "baggage," hopefully aims to demonstrate that one man up on a stage with good material can be still be funny. He doesn't need the costumes and the screens and the drawings and all of the other stuff. If the one liners are good enough, that will do the job.

And for most of the set he delivers on his new CD proves his point. He does get out his guitar and harmonica at the very end, but as he told The Guardian in an interview about the Comedy Central TV special on which the CD is based, "This time I didn't do any of that. It was just me, and I did some drawings. No piano, no keyboard, no screen with slides. I thought it would be cool to simplify it." This is Demetri Martin unadorned. This is standup pure and simple.

Whether he is calling attention to linguistic quirks and anomalies or unnecessary modern conveniences, he has that finely tuned dry delivery that gets audiences laughing, and he's on to the next joke before they really have time to think more carefully about what he has said. The less time to think about it, the better it sits.  After all, if what you're doing is tossing out one liners, you don't want your audience thinking, you want them laughing. Context is everything. He has a knack for turning the ordinary into the absurd by changing the context. A simple word like "yep," a phrase like "okey dokey"—they can become ridiculous in the wrong context. His bit on training bras is hilarious, that on silent letters somewhat labored.  Overall Standup Comedian is an album with one liners coming fast and furious. If you're not laughing at one, just wait, there'll be another one coming at you soon enough.

While the Comedy Central show was filmed at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, the CD was recorded separately in April of 2012 at the Acme Comedy Co, in Minneapolis and includes additional material. The CD includes a little poster of the album cover. Comedy Central is also releasing an extended and uncensored version of the TV special on DVD.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

TV Review: Cuban Missile Crisis—Three Men Go to War

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Marking the 50th anniversary of what many consider the most dangerous 13 day period in the history of mankind, PBS will be broadcasting Cuban Missile Crisis—Three Men Go to War on Tuesday, October 23. Using information from numerous declassified documents released by Soviet, American and Cuban official sources over recent years, the documentary offers an extensive account of the events of those 13 days from the point of view of many of the political and military figures most directly involved in the crisis, as well as commentary from historians and academics. It is as complete and objective a film study of the crisis as has yet been available. Moreover it is a dramatically compelling portrayal of nations and their leaders on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Contemporary footage of nuclear explosions, school children diving under their desks in standard bomb drills, and people emptying store shelves to stockpile supplies makes clear the terrors facing this nation.  Oddly there seems to be no similar shots of what was happening in Russia at the time, and the film from Cuba, other than some footage of anti- American protesters and soldiers ready to defend the homeland, indicates an eerie calm on the island. Newsreel photos of the various leaders give a good indication of what was at stake.

As the title indicates, the film focuses on the three central figures in the crisis—President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.  It explains Khrushchev's reasoning for the secret erection of missile launching sites on the island nation so close to the US. It details Kennedy's reaction to the discovery of those sites and his quandary over how to counter the Soviet threat. It points out Castro's determination to risk Cuban annihilation rather than give in to what he considered American Imperialistic bullying.

Among the talking heads on the American reaction are presidential speech writer and advisor to Kennedy, Ted Sorenson, intelligence officials like Dino Brugioni who took part in analyzing photo evidence about the missile sites, and Brigadier General Gerald McIlmoyle, a U2 pilot who flew missions over Cuba. There are also voice recordings of presidential advisors and cabinet members like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara and tough talking General Curtis LeMay.

The Russian perspective is developed through commentary from KGB officials and Soviet army officers, as well as Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Russian Premier and author of Khrushchev on Khrushchev—An Inside Account of the Man and His Era and Director of Russian Programs at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., Svetlana Savranskaya. The Cuban perspective, perhaps given the least emphasis, is mainly represented by academics.

In the end the documentary makes clear that faced with the possibility of all out nuclear war, rational human beings like Kennedy and as it turns out Khrushchev as well were unwilling to pull the trigger. In some sense, it would seem to support the theory of mutually assured destruction that fueled the stockpiling of nuclear weapons back in the day. When the real possibility of using those weapons was clear, both sides shrank from the brink. On the other hand, it turns out that fanatical true believers like Castro were quite willing to risk not only themselves but the rest of the world as well in the name of their beliefs. There is a lesson here for nuclear powers today.

In the end, a secret agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev in which Kennedy promised to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey if Khrushchev would first take down the Cuban sites and keep the deal secret was brokered, and the crisis was avoided. Although a recent report on PRI's The World: Latest Edition indicates that there were some missiles in Cuba that the U.S. never knew about and that they were left even after the agreement. Nonetheless, the crisis was over.

Secrets of the Dead "The Man Who Saved the World", a second program on the crisis is scheduled to run immediately following on October 23. It tells the story of a Russian submariner who refused to fire a nuclear missile (shades of Andre Braugher).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Music Review: Andrea Brachfeld - "Lady of the Island"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If you check an on-line list of the 100 greatest jazz flautists which seems to have been last updated in February of 2005, of course you'll find names like Eric Dolphy, Herbie Mann and Rahsaan Roland Kirk leading the pack. Andrea Brachfeld comes in at number 70. Listen to her latest album, Lady of the Island, due out the ninth of October, and I think you'll agree that the list could use some revision. Brachfeld plays passionate hard driving be bop with the best of them, and in softer moments her tone is magic.

The new album offers nine tunes, a nice mix of original compositions, some strays from the jazz song book, and at least one outlier. Coming seven years, she explains in the liner notes, after a disabling personal injury prevented her from playing, the album marks her return to the genre she considers her first love. It's good to have her back.

She is joined on the album by a gang of her friends. Bill O'Connell who coupled with her in producing the CD plays piano on seven tracks. Bassist Andy Eulau and drummer Kim Plainfield play on eight of the tracks. Bob Quaranta plays piano on two and Fender Rhodes on one. The line-up of guest artists includes Todd Bashore (alto sax), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Yasek Manzano (trumpet, flugelhorn), Wallace Rooney (trumpet), and Chembo Corniel (congas, percussion). They are talented musicians who contribute some exciting solo work.

Brachfeld's liner notes offer some fairly extensive commentary about her own compositions as well as the rationale for her other choices. She opens with her own "Be Bop Hanna," written she explains when she heard her niece's three year old daughter saying she wanted "be bop." "Be bop" it turns out was the child's word for candy. The resultant composition is a confection that starts the album with a smile, if not downright laughter especially listening to Wycliffe Gordon's trombone. The other Brachfeld originals are "Little Girl's Song" written for her daughter, "Four Corners," a tribute to the life changing possibilities of Feng Shui, and "In the Center," a collaborative composition with O'Connell.  Manzano's trumpet solo on "Four Corners" is sweet. "Dead Ahead" is an O'Connell original with a fine trumpet solo from Rooney.

The more familiar songs on the CD include Herbie Hancock's "Eye of the Hurricane" arranged by O'Connell and featuring Rooney and Gordon, and some driving solo work from Brachfeld. The Duke Ellington ballad "I Got It bad" gets a soulful treatment from O'Connell and Brachfeld. Freddy Hubbard's "Birdlike" has the kind of Latin vibe that dominated Brachfeld's earlier career. Bashore does some featured solo work on both songs. Graham Nash's "Lady of the Island," the album's title song is the surprise, certainly not the kind of tune you'd expect to find on a jazz album. The sensual beauty of Brachfeld's treatment—she adds a little vocal element—joined with Manzano on the flugelhorn, shows what can be done with a simple melody in the hands of sensitive artists.

Like I said if Lady of the Island is any indication of what Andrea Brachfeld can do, as well as what she may be doing in the future, somebody better take another look at that list of 100 greatest flautists and give some serious thought to its revision.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Chuck Palahniuk's 2011 black comic novel Damned is out this month in paperback from Anchor Books, and it's a good opportunity for those of you who haven't read it yet. There's a sequel on the way, and you will want to make sure you're ready for it. Forget the title, this is one funny book. Palahniuk is a biting satirist and there is nothing it seems so sacred that it escapes his teeth.

Set in the framework of Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, Damned tells the story of a mouthy 13 year old who thinks she has died as a result of a marijuana overdose and wakes to find herself in a cell in hell. Madison "Maddy" Spenser, the privileged overweight daughter of wealthy liberal parents more concerned with themselves than they are with her, is the narrator and for much of the book she takes the reader on a guided tour through the underworld. Joined by four refugees from  The Breakfast Club, (a nerd, a jock, a prom queen and a rebel) she visits cites like the "Ocean of Wasted Sperm," fights with demons intent on snacking on the damned, and works as a call center operator conducting meaningless surveys during dinner hour.

As visions of hell go—think Dante, Sartre—Palahniuk's is equal to the best of them. It is a cesspool of filth and misery, but in the somewhat jaundiced eyes of the precocious teen, the horrors of hell are no more terrible than the horrors of the life she had been living. "Hell isn't so dreadful, not compared to Ecology Camp, and especially not compared to junior high school." Shunted off to a private school in Switzerland while her parents, her mother a movie star, her father a mogul, jet around the world playing aging hippies, she is already in a psychological hell more hurtful than anything Satan can throw at her. Doomed, it seems, to be thirteen forever, she isn't beyond growing intellectually. Hell will be her school of hard knocks.

Combining literary references and mythology with pop culture allusions Palahniuk manages to skewer fundamentalists and liberals, fitness nuts and do-gooders, bullying prima donna nymphets and internet porn. This is satire of Swiftian proportions. It moves from the sublime to the ridiculous. She comes across someone like Darwin in hell and thinks about how her secular humanist parents would shudder to think that Kansas was right. On the other hand she thinks, the torments of hell are nothing compared to the torment of watching The English Patient.

Limited in its plot, dealing more often than not with stereotypical characters, it is Maddy's wise cracking narrative voice that is the joy of this novel. She belongs with the likes of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield in the pantheon of adolescent narrators. Read Damned, you won't be able to wait for the sequel.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Music Review: The Shuffle Demons - Clusterfunk

This article was first published at Blogcritics

It's been close to 20 years since Canadian jazz-funk-fusion band The Shuffle Demons released an album of new material, but this year they're back with Clusterfunk a collection of original tunes likely to get fans wondering why on earth it took so long. More than likely it will garner them some new fans as well. Often compared to Tower of Power, The Shuffle Demons, led by the alto sax of Richard Underhill, really have a sound of their own when they are at their best. Besides Underhill, the quintet features Perry White (not to be confused with the editor of the The Daily Planet) on tenor and baritone sax, Kelly Jefferson on tenor sax, George Koller on electric and acoustic bass and Stich Wynston on drums.  All join in on vocals.

The new album has 12 tracks, seven vocals and five instrumentals. "SelI Me This" opens with a blast against modern consumer culture, a theme which in some ways informs a number of the vocal numbers. "Bottles and Cans" has a man scavenging through the excesses of society looking for treasures wherever he can. "Shanghai Shuffle" talks about working 12 hours a day for a dollar an hour to fill the big box store. "All About the Hang," has a retro vibe addressed to the workaholics out there. Don't waste your time looking for the dough, because "it's all about the hang." Set these vocals in some funky jazz riffs and you've got something going on.

But it is when the band shows off its jazz chops on the five instrumentals that the album really hits its groove. George Koller's "Way After Midnight," the album's first instrumental shows just what these guys can do, and the Underhill composition "Earth Song" has an eerie vibe all its own. If some of the vocal tracks seem dated at times, there is nothing dated about the instrumentals.   Stich Wynton's "Fukushima," dedicated to the Japanese quake victims is a raucous scream at what would seem to be a nature indifferent to man and his suffering. It is a heart wrenching piece. His "Strollin'" makes for a swinging contrast.  "On the Runway," a Kelly Jefferson composition that closes the album is a veritable jazz tone poem. It may well be the highlight of the album, although I must say all the instrumentals are impressive.

All in all, Clusterfunk marks a welcome return to form for a popular band that had done some fine work in the past. It is an album that shows the maturity they have gained over the years. There may still be a bit of that energetic playfulness that is so infectious in the video of "Spadina Bus," the hit from their debut album, but these are now mature musicians.  They can still be playful: listen to "He's the Drummer," but the music that will stick with you stems from the passion of "Fukushima" and the dynamism of "Way After Midnight."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White

This article was first published at Blogcritics

It is a ferociously grim story set in London's filthy alleys filled with poverty and disease.  It is the London of Dickens' dust piles and rivers hiding swimming corpses in Our Mutual Friend. It is the London of Bleak House where the very streets bring their plague to even those who can afford to live away from them. This could have been a Dickens novel but for two things. This is a story about a prostitute, and not some cliché, trampled upon lady of the evening, but an intelligent able woman besides. Then of course there's the sex. Now if there's one thing the BBC has been adept at doing, it is turning Dickens novels into small screen successes; Faber's novel gives them a chance to do it once more, but this time with a large dose of sex and nudity. As usual they manage it with style.

The plot in some sense is a variation on the theme of the woman of ill repute with the heart of gold, she more sinned against than sinning, except not quite. Sugar (Romola Garai), a prostitute living in the brothel of her mother/madame (Gillian Anderson) is taken as a mistress by an ineffectual aspiring writer she has successfully encouraged to take a greater part in his family's business (Chris O'Dowd). He has a wife (Amanda Hall) and child, but the young wife seems to be insane, although her problems are clearly related to sexual trauma as a result of the loss of virginity and childbirth. This is melodrama of the highest order as Sugar grows more and more involved in the family, until the inevitable chickens come home to roost.

The story makes an effective feminist critique against the treatment of women in Victorian England and by extension to woman today as well. Using some of the familiar Victorian tropes, the mad woman in the attic (although in this case it's the bedroom), the eternal governess, as well as the golden hearted tramp, it depicts the plight of many women during the period. There are nods to things like abortion and the somewhat feeble reform efforts. With a title taken from a song in Tennyson's The Princess, a poem about the establishment of a woman's society in which men are not welcome, this should not be surprising.

Performances are somewhat uneven. Garai's Sugar is impressive, a strong competent woman who manages to be a sympathetic character even when she acts badly. Gillian Anderson as Mrs. Castaway seems modeled on Miss Havisham without the bridal ensemble. She makes an effective harpy. Amanda Hall is effective as the doll like wife unable to cope with the physical demands of marriage. Perhaps it has something to do with Bridesmaids, but I found it difficult to buy Chris O'Dowd as a Victorian gentleman, either as an effete aspiring writer at the beginning or as a successful businessman through most of the series. In an interview, director Marc Munden talks about how O'Dowd adds a comic element to the character which presumably was why he was cast. The problem is that it doesn't really work.

The two disc DVD set now available from Acorn Media includes biographies of the characters on the first disc, and interviews and deleted scenes on the second. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: Luther: The Calling, Neil Cross

This article was first published at Blogcritics

As Neil Cross points out in the acknowledgements at the end of his new novel Luther: The Calling, a prequel to his hugely successful BBC series Luther, in the usual sequencing of these things the novel would beget the series. In this case it is the TV series that did the begetting. The novel takes the reader through the opening scenes of the series premiere. With that in mind let me begin by suggesting that anyone who has yet seen the opening episode of the series should forgo that pleasure, and it is a pleasure, until they have read this prequel. As for those who have already made their way through that first episode and the rest of the series' two seasons, the ending of the novel will lose some of its climactic impact, but the insights into character and motivation will make up  for it. Besides, if you're already a John Luther fan, you will more than welcome the back story the prequel provides.

Luther: The Calling is a crisply told thriller that focuses on the darkest depths of human behavior and its effects on the lives and psyches of those who have to deal with it. The plot concerns a psychotic serial killer's massacre of a pregnant woman and her husband to steal their unborn child. It reeks with ugly violence graphically portrayed. It follows DCI Luther as he breaks every rule in the book in pursuit of the killer. It introduces nearly all of the major characters that people the series and clarifies relationships.

John Luther is the kind of tormented soul who fills the page the way Idris Elba who plays him on TV fills the screen. He makes quick judgments, and he acts with complete faith in his judgments. If he is in torment, it is over the evils he is forced to deal with, and what he feels compelled to do to put an end to those evils. It makes things difficult for his colleagues; it makes things impossible for his wife. But his actions must always be judged in the context of the nightmare crimes he faces. It is always a question of ends and means. Of course, once you've watched Elba's performance, indeed the performances of all the actors in the series, it can't help but inform your imagination as you read.

While some readers may find the detective's certainties based less on actual evidence than on gut feeling something of a stretch, Cross manages to bring it off.  When Luther says he knows where the killer has hidden the body, even if we don't quite know how he figured it out, or even when we do know, but the evidence seems a bit flimsy, his colleagues are willing to follow his lead, and so are we. He has that impressive commanding self assurance that sweeps away question and dissent. Besides if and when there is dissent, he pays no attention anyway. He acts; he does what he thinks necessary at the time, and 'damn the torpedoes.'

Cross has created a character of mythic proportions and happily he will be back. Luther is slated for a third TV season in 2013. Even more happily, Luther: The Calling promises more novels to come.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

CD Review: Civilization and Its Discontents

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Civilization and Its Discontents, the 1977 genre bending musical stage production written and composed by Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman, not to be confused with Sigmund Freud's more famous tome of the same title which may bend some ideas but has no music, originally recorded in 1978 has been reissued earlier this year by Labor Records. Whether the appropriation of Freud's title is meant  suggest that the collaborators have something more in mind that satirizing elements of modern civilization, I leave to more analytic minds.  As far as I'm concerned farcical socio-cultural satire is enough for me.
What form a work of art is takes is always an important consideration; you don't want to criticize a novel as though it were a sonnet, a string quartet as though it were a symphony. In the liner notes to the original Nonesuch release, the composers take a lot of time discussing operatic traditions, operetta and musical theater by way of explaining what they see themselves as doing as far as form is concerned. They see their work in the context of those operatic traditions where comic elements often turn up as serious critiques. Musical comedy may do the same thing, but it caters to a more popular sensibility, or at least it often does. In essence, it would seem that as far as Sahl and Salzman are concerned their work looks to take what they need from both traditions.

The music itself is either all over the place or, as New York Times critic Peter Davis called it back in the day, "a brilliant amalgam of jazz, pop, blues and classical forms." The trouble with amalgams is that not everyone that is happy with an evening of jazz is equally happy with pop intrusions; blues lovers aren't necessarily going to love what they might hear as operatic caterwauling. But when it comes right down to it, operatic forms and musical ideas dominate.  This is clear from the show's very opening notes.  It may not be the opera of Puccini or Verdi, but opera it is. That is not to say that there aren't these other formal elements scattered through the show, it is simply to say that pop elements are not emphasized.

This is not a highlights album. It includes the whole of the show which is divided into two scenes following an ABA structure. The first scene opens in Club Bide-A-Wee where the heroine Jill Goodheart and her boyfriend Derek have an argument and he leaves. Jeremy Jive arrives and tries to pick her up with a line  something like: "Can you explain what Patty Smith means to you." There is a lot of internal monologue, against the background of the club's mantra: "If it feels good, do it." The scene ends with a show stopping jazz number.

The second scene is a farcical description of Jeremy's attempts to seduce Jill in her apartment in the face of constant interruptions including the return of Derek. Jeremy and Derek discover a business connection involving a singing chicken. The third scene takes the trio back to the club for an absurdist finale.
Jill is played by Candice Earley, Derek, by William Parry and Jeremy by Paul Binnotto.  Karl Patrick Krause plays Carlos Arachnid who seems to be something of a combination of club owner and master of ceremonies as he invites the audience into the club.  This, with the exception of Parry, was the original cast of the off-Broadway production.  That production was to win an award as the best off Broadway show of the year.  It was recorded for broadcast on National Public Radio in 1980. I would assume with some of the language cleaned up.

Civilization and its Discontents has some very engaging music and dynamic performances.  The show's album manages to capture much of that dynamic appeal.  In the end though, I suspect that this is a musical that needs to be seen for best effect.  The album is fine; a new production would be better.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Book Review: 1Q84, Haruki Murakami

This article was first published at Blogcritics

1Q84, Haruki Murakami's oft praised and just as often panned epic, is now available in a three volume paperback set from Vintage Press.  To be clear from the start, I come not to praise; I come not to pan. I come to do both. 1Q84 is the kind of book that must inevitably generate controversy. But before taking a look at what the book is about, let's discuss length.

Back in the day, a professor of mine suggested a simple rule of thumb with regard to making critical judgments about extra long works of literature: is the reward the reader gets, worth the time and effort the reader has to put in to read it. He was talking about James Joyce's Ulysses, a book he felt clearly offered riches worth not only hours of reading but hours of study as well. Murakami's three volumes run to 1,157 pages in this new edition. It creates a fictional world that can be fascinating at times. It tells a story that can catch readers up in its tentacles and even get them turning pages to see what happens next. It has a resolution that will satisfy some, and leave others scratching their heads. Clearly whether it was worth the time and effort will vary with the individual reader.  Be warned before you embark; 1Q84 is no Ulysses.

The narrative in the first two volumes follows the fortunes of two characters seemingly unconnected.  Aomame is a 30 year old woman who works as a fitness instructor and personal trainer.  She is involved with a safe house for battered women run by a rich dowager and her personal security aide.  Tengo is a 30 year old math teacher and writer who gets himself involved in ghost writing a story originally written by a 17 year old girl who has run off from a religious cult.  In the third volume, a third narrative point of view is added, that of an older agent the cult, a somewhat shady character who had been introduced in the second volume. Chapters alternate between Aomame and Tengo in the first two volumes, and between the three in the last.

The novel begins in the fall of 1984 when Aomame, in a taxi rushing to an important appointment gets caught in a traffic jam on a highway.  The driver tells her about an emergency stairway she can use to get off the road while making some cryptic remarks about the nature of reality, remarks that turn out to be central to the metaphysics of the novel.  Aomame descends the staircase and eventually discovers she is in a world that seems like real world, but is not.  She is sure about it when she discovers that in this world there are two moons. The 'Q' in the novel's title means questionable.  It is no longer 1984; it is a new world, a questionable replica.  The rest of the novel takes place in this replica. The significance of this particular year with its allusion to the George Orwell novel suggests the dystopian nature of the questionable world.

Part fantasy science fiction, part noir crime story—the novel deals with religious cults, murder, and little people with magical powers that emerge from the mouth of a dead goat. It is a story told with intriguing simplicity.  Murakami manages to spin off some weird scenarios with enough verisimilitude and emotional investment in the characters to keep readers happy.  Add to the complexities of plot a bit of mystical speculation about the nature of reality and you have a tale that many will find enthralling. If nothing else he can tell a story.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Tengo picks up a book of stories to read while traveling on a train.  He reads a story about a city of cats.  A man gets off a train and finds an empty town. Intrigued, he begins to explore as the train leaves.  No other train due until the next day, he continues to explore.  When night comes, the town begins to fill with cats, cats that seem to act the way ordinary human inhabitants would.  Morning approaches and they disappear. The narrator stays around for a few days and then when he decides to leave, he discovers he's stuck there. Once Tengo reads the story, the city of cats becomes a theme that runs through the rest of the novel. In a sense it is a metaphor for 1Q84, just as they narrator in the story is stuck in the city of cats, Aomame and Tengo, it seems, are stuck in IQ84.

If like me, you are able to accept the strange world that Alice enters when she falls into the rabbit hole, more than likely you'll find the journey through Murakami's three volumes more than worth your time.  Although you may find yourself less enthusiastic about the journey's end. If speculative fantasy turns you off, don't bother with 1Q84, you'd probably do better with some other three volume tome.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Music Review: The Very Best of Thelonious Monk

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The best thing about Concord Music Group's "Very Best of. . ." series is that it gives jazz fans a chance to hear again a few of those classic vinyl performances that at least some of us have buried away in boxes in closets or dusty attics. The worst thing about them is that it is only a few of those performances. The Very Best of Thelonious Monk is an excellent example of both.  The album collects ten tracks from eight albums Monk recorded for Prestige, Riverside and Jazzland from 1954 to 1958. Now while ten tracks from Monk are always welcome, the trouble is ten doesn't even scratch the surface of the available wealth.

One example: Brilliant Corners a 1956 album featuring four of Monk's original compositions is represented by one tune, "Bemsha Swing."  Brilliant Corners was the first of Monk's albums I every bought, and it breaks my heart that the other three aren't here as well, not to mention the fifth cut on the album, Harry Barris's "I Surrender, Dear." Brilliant Corners is recognized as one of the greatest jazz albums ever produced. This is the pianist's quintet, an ensemble of legends: Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Max Roach and Paul Chambers. Oscar Pettiford and Ernie Henry join in on several cuts, and Monk plays the celeste on "Pannonica." How can any of it be left off a best of album, let alone a very best of.

Brilliant Corners is classic stuff and it deserves better, but it might seem mean spirited to complain about an album which includes things like a solo version of "'Round Midnight" from the 1957 Thelonious Himself album and a live performance of "Nutty" with a delicious solo from Johnny Griffin on tenor sax from 1958's Misterioso. You can't have everything and you know the old saw about pleasing all the people, on the other hand when you're talking about Thelonious Monk, it wouldn't be a bad idea to think about The Very Best of vol. 2 and maybe even vol. 3.
Enough complaining about what isn't there, what is there is Monk at his best in a variety of combos joined with some of the finest musicians of the era.  Every track is a highlight.  Art Blakey and Oscar Pettiford join him in the Fats Waller classic "Honeysuckle Rose," and it is a jewel of a performance. "Blue Monk," the earliest track on the album, is a sweet blues for a trio featuring Blakey and Percy Heath. Monk works with Coleman Hawkins on "Ruby, My Dear," John Coltrane on "Tinkle, Tinkle" and both of the virtuoso sax men on the longest track on the album, "Well, You Needn't."

The album includes excellent liner notes from Neil Tesser. His explanations of this music's place in Monk's development as an artist as well as the history of his relations with producer Orrin Keepnews offer valuable insights that add immeasurably to the listener's enjoyment. 

This is without a doubt an album that will leave every jazz lover, every music lover wanting more.  It got me going to that closet to find that box with the Brilliant Corners album.  Fortunately, I still have a turn table.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Music Review: The Very Best of Dave Brubeck

This article was first published at Blogcritics 

 Dave Brubeck's early music might not always measure up to his later work, but if the Concord Music compilation The Very Best of Dave Brubeck: The Fantasy Era 1949-1953 is any indication, early Brubeck had a whole lot going for it. Featuring 15 songs—14 standards and one Brubeck original, culled from eight different Fantasy albums, these are indeed some of the very best examples of his work from the period before Jazz Goes to College. They are a clear indication of the greatness that was to come, but perhaps more importantly they are magical in their own right.

 The album begins with four tracks from Brubeck's trio originally released as The Dave Brubeck Trio: Distinctive Rhythm Instrumentals. Ron Crotty plays bass and Cal Tjader, best known later as a vibraphonist, is on drums. None much over three minutes in length, the four songs—"Blue Moon," "Let's Fall in Love," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "Body and Soul"--foreshadow the richness and complexity of Brubeck's musical ideas. Of the four, "Body and Soul" with Tjader working the bongos is something special. "My Heart Stood Still," the third Rogers and Hart composition on the album, is a solo piano piece. Its pounding chords and rhythmic changes are vintage Brubeck.

 The rest of the album is devoted to sampling the pianist's work with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond in the justly celebrated Dave Brubeck Quartet. These were two musicians meant to work together. There are live performances of "For All We Know," "Give a Little Whistle," "This Can't Be Love," and a really interesting take on the Hoagy Carmichael classic, "Stardust." Filled with quotations and musical allusions, it is a dynamically inventive collaboration.

 Studio tracks include a whimsical if short version of "Me and My Shadow" and a swinging if short version of "Frenesi." Neil Tesser's liner notes make the point that the short length of nearly all of the tracks on the album was necessitated by the limitations of what could be recorded on 78 vinyl back in the day. Luckily for us, while quantity is nice, quality is what counts, and quality is what you get in all of these tracks. Brubeck's own "Lyons Busy," a song inspired by a local San Francisco disc jockey, Jimmy Lyons who aired the band on his radio show, "Just One of Those Things" and "A Foggy Day" round out the album.

 For those of us who wore out these albums when they were originally released, The Very Best of Dave Brubeck is like welcoming an old friend. For those who weren't around it is an opportunity to hear some of the finest work of a day gone by, indeed some of the finest work of any day.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Comedy CD Review: Jim Gaffigan - Mr. Universe

This article was first published at Blogcritics

August 28th marks Comedy Central's scheduled CD release of comic Jim Gaffigan's standup special Mr. Universe recorded in a live performance at the Warner Theatre in Washington.  The comedian had previously made the special available as a DRM-free download back in April for five dollars, one dollar of which was to be donated to the Bob Woodruff Foundation which aids wounded servicemen and their families. 

The 75 minute set is vintage Gaffigan—precisely honed observational comedy delivered with spot on timing.  Gaffigan finds his humor in highlighting the absurdities of daily living.  He talks about kids and Disney vacations, the multiplication of athletic shoes for any possible occasion and then some, and the creepiness of hotel pools.  He talks about body building and the love of McDonalds French fries.  He mentions the dangers of indulging in Indian food.  He never has to stray all that far from the beaten path to find something funny. 

He speaks to us all. There are those comedians who seem to dwell in the obtuse. Cult figures, they talk to an audience of insiders. This is not Gaffigan. If you've eaten at Subway or bought one of Domino's concoctions, he'll have you laughing out loud.  And if not, you'll just have to agree with one of those little self-deprecating critical asides he habitually tosses into his act over the course of the evening.  "Can you believe it? A diarrhea joke."  Diarrhea and a closing riff on ExtenZe, by the way, are just about the closest he comes to working with anything offensive, and in this day and age you'd have to be living on some other planet to find that offensive. 

Mr. Universe is the comic's fourth album for Comedy Central. His first three--Doing My Time, Beyond the Pale and King Baby--have combined to sell over 500,000 copies. His TV appearances include shows like Flight of the Conchords, Bored to Death, Conan and The Late Show with David Letterman.

Comedy Central has been releasing a stellar collection of stand up albums from some pretty funny comics in recent months: Reggie Watts, Doug Benson, John Mulaney, Hannibal Buress.  Jim Gaffigan's latest is an impressive addition to the catalogue.  Check out a sample and see for yourself.