Friday, February 24, 2012

Comedy Review: John Mulaney - New in Town

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney is out with an extended and uncensored CD of his Comedy Central stand-up special, New in Town, which premiered last month.  It's a comedy set that has Mulaney at the top of his game. 

Mulaney has the kind ofpleasant on stage personality that gets the audience rooting for him.  In an on-line interview with Kimberly Potts on The Wrap, Mulaney says that his favorite parts are the parts where he makes fun of himself, and he's got that right.  He is at his best in that kind of self deprecating humor that gets the audience laughing at you laughing at yourself. Whether he's talking about his bad driving, his inability to deal with problems when his girlfriend is not around, or his childhood when he was mistaken for an Asian, he is at the top of his game.  He's not too shabby getting on others either.  He does a job on Ice T in a riff on Law and Order: SVU that is downright hilarious.  His bit on his lawyer parents' child rearing style is a gem.  At a total running time of about fifty minutes, there's a lot of funny stuff on New in Town.

The problem with reviewing  a comedy album is that you don't want to be a spoiler.  You want to explain what's funny and what's not, but you don't want to give everything away.  Anyone who buys the album ought to have something akin to a virgin experience.  Of course if you don't care some of his routine is available in the usual places.  All I can say is that I found him hysterical at times; if you want to see for yourself, check out Mulaney.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

TV Review: American Masters: Cab Calloway: Sketches

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Continuing its celebration of Black History Month, PBS premieres American Masters' documentary Cab Calloway: Sketches on the 27th of February.  Born in 1907 Calloway was to become one of the best known entertainers of the thirties and the big band era.  His vocal gymnastics combined with his gyrating dancing and flamboyant personality made him unique not only among the black superstars of the period, but among all performers regardless of race.  Filmmaker Gail Levin has created an important study that is less concerned with the details of his life, than it is with trying to understand his success in the context of the socio-cultural environment of the time.

The film traces his career from his initial failure as a bandleader at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom where he and his band were let go after two weeks to his successes at the famed Cotton Club and in films like Stormy Weather, his stint as Sporting Life, a role that was modeled on him by the Gershwins in Porgy and Bess, and his introduction to a new generation in John Landis' 1980 film The Blues Brothers.  He comes to New York at the time of the Harlem Renaissance.  It was a period when African American artists in all genres were demanding recognition beyond the stereotypes common in the segregated white society.  New York City's Harlem, a center of Black migration north, was quickly becoming the black cultural capital of the country.  It was there one could find writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, leaders like W. E. B. DuBois.  It was there one could find musical giants like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. And Calloway was to emerge as a giant in his own right.

Archival footage demonstrates his dynamic performances; this was an artist who knew how to take the stage and command attention.  Whether in a tuxedo or a zoot suit, this was a man who exuded confidence and assurance.  His voice was his instrument, and he played it with virtuoso style and energy.  "Minnie the Moocher," the song that is identified with his name was one of the earliest black performances to go mainstream, and this despite the dark nature of its subject matter. "Hi de hi de hi de ho" was to become a tagline that followed him for the whole of his life. 

Among those interviewed for the film are Calloway's daughters and his grandson, a band leader himself, who gives some insight into how Calloway's big band achieved its particular sound.  The daughters also talk about Calloway's sister Blanche, a bandleader in her own right and her role in his development.  Other interviewees include John Landis, jazz critic Gary Giddins,  and musicians Gerald Wilson, Steve Cropper, Lou Marini, and Donald "Duck" Dunne.

  Jazz historian Stanley Crouch makes some significant points about race and success—the importance of straight hair and light skin.  One of the daughters tells the story of what she calls the "brown bag test."  A dancer for the chorus at the Cotton Club, she says, couldn't be hired if her complexion was darker than a brown paper bag.  Crouch comments that maybe Michael Jackson's physical modifications weren't all that unwarranted.  The Cotton Club, owned by the mob, was a place where blacks could perform, but couldn't patronize.  Some attitudes towards race have changed, some it seems have not.

Reminiscent of some of the old Hollywood musicals there is a sequence at the end of the film where Matthew Rushing dancer and choreographer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre dances with a cartoon version of Calloway that artist Steve Brodner had been drawing throughout the film.  It is a nice creative moment which metaphorically captures the man's originality and helps to differentiate Sketches from the run of the mill documentary.  In the words of Gail Levin: "This film is not just another biopic in the sense of interviews and recollections, but a reinvigoration of the whole Calloway presence—a reprise of a timeless virtuoso."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Music Review: Venrez - Sell the Lie

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I had always thought that freedom was just another word for nothing left to lose, but then I read an interview with Venrez (the artist formerly known as Steven Berez) getting together some information for this review of   Sell the Lie, the debut album of the band he fronts, also conveniently named Venrez (Venrez it turns out combines the last syllable of Steven's first name with the last syllable of his last name).  The interviewer asks him what he meant by the line "freedom's just a state of mind" in the album's title song.  It means, Venrez answers, "that we control how we think and feel. No one can make us feel anything. We have the choice to be the cause or the reaction."

 Nice answer, not as pithy perhaps, but clearly more politic in a song that takes aim at the powers that be and their attempt to control the message.  "Sell the Lie" is the kind of song that could appeal to both Occupy Wall Street protestors and Tea Party patriots, depending on whom you think is doing the selling—big corporations or overreaching government.  In the interview Venrez talks about "corporate monsters," but big government would do just as well for his message. Especially as many would argue that there isn't much difference between the two.  Politics aside, "Sell the Lie" is a rocker with roots in the '70's with an infectious hook that drives home its message.

Infectious hooks are a hallmark of the album's songs in general, most of which were written by Venrez and Jason Womack (guitar, keys and backing vocals) some with credit to Tommy "Joho" Johnson and bassist Mike Bradford.  The one cover on the album is the Steve Winwood classic "Can't Find My Way Home." In addition to Womack and Bradford, Venrez includes guitarist Alex Kane and Ed Davis on drums.

They like to take a key phrase, tie it to the hook, and let it rip.  Take the album's opening song, "Karma," a very personal diatribe about betrayal: "Got no heart and still [?] no soul/What did you get from what you stole/Some things never go away."  The repetition is riveting.  "Yesterday Has Gone" and "Melting" which follow do the same thing.  "Don't get caught up in the sorrow/Because yesterday has gone tomorrow," in the first.  The chorus that begins "Got to be a better way to go," in the second.  These  are hooks that stay with you. 

Asked for a phrase to describe the band's musical style, Venrez always, it seems, a good interview, says "big rockalicious," probably as good a descriptor as any.  Put together some nice vocal harmonies with some dynamic guitar and if you want something stronger than rock, why not "rockalicious."  There are some softer moments, the beginning of the Winwood cover for example, and "My Only Light," the song that closes the album.  Venrez explains that this song was based on a Civil War letter from Joshua Chamberlain.  But other than a few changes of pace, this is a band that rocks.  It's debut album that ought to get them attention.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Music Review: New World Beat - After Carnival

This article was first published at Blogcritics

After Carnival, the debut album of NewWorld Beat, a world music jazz fusion ensemble out of Miami, is the kind of music that seems deceptively simple on first hearing, but grows increasingly complex and interesting each time you listen.  Led by the vibraphone of composer Richard Sprince, New World Beat, runs through a set of exotic melodies played over a torrent of Latin American rhythms that serves as a template for some innovative solo improvisation.  This is not the kind of music that makes for easy listening, no matter first impressions; this is music that rewards continued listening.

Of the eleven tracks on the album, nine are original Sprince compositions and two are covers of Pat Metheny pieces.  Notes on the band's website indicate that "After Carnival is intended to stand as a whole, developing a story and ambience from track to track.  This structure is paralleled by the through-composed nature of each number."  This is somewhat contradicted by the indication that some of the tracks are featured as singles.  I must admit that though I would be hard put to define exactly what that story might be, I will buy the band's assertion and keep trying.  There is, after all, a clearly consistent tone and atmosphere running through the album. 

Stand out tracks include the haunting jazz tango "Adios, Buenos Aires" inspired we are told by a midnight ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata.  It features some impressive solo work by the group's saxophonist, Matt Vashlishan.  Vashlishan, playing both the alto and the soprano sax, also contributes fine solos on the title track "After Carnival" as well as "Fantasia de Carnival" and the album's closing song, Pat Metheny's "Sueno Con Mexico."  Guest artist flautist Jorge Pardo adds a wistful solo to the bolero rhythms of "Song For Brazil," which also has some nice solo moments from Sprince on the vibes.  Like some of the other songs it also uses the vocal harmonies of Tony Cruz and Terezinha Valdis.

Videos of longer live versions of the album's opening song "Beyond the Clouds" and the samba varietal "Partido Alto" are available on the band's website.  The recorded versions of both have similar dynamic solo work on the soprano sax from the ubiquitous Vashlishan.  "The Dance Has Just Begun" introduces guest guitarist Gary Damanti for a solo after the vocalized melody.  He is followed again by. . . .guess who.  "Last Train Home" is the other Metheny compostion slowed down from the original and introducing three year old Alejandro Pino-Sprinz with an a cappella outro—a little cutesy perhaps, but it's hard to get upset with proud parents indulging themselves for a few seconds.

The other members of New World Beat are Diogo Brown, fretless bass, Tom Lippincott, 8 string guitar, Goran Rista, drums, Cezar Santana, nylon string guitar and Dwili Dewongy, percussion.  All in all, After Carnival is an auspicious beginning.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Music Review: The Essential Philip Glass

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Essential is in the mind of the beholder, or in the case of The Essential Philip Glass, Sony's three disc release in celebration of the 75th birthday of the distinguished composer, in the ear of the listener.   If by essential you mean a representative selection of a composer's work, there are certainly those that would quarrel with the selection on the album.  This is a man who wrote a significant number of works in a variety of genres some of which don't seem to have been deemed essential.  For example there is nothing from his symphonies or concertos, and only one from his work for the theater.  If by essential you mean a collection of his best work, the same caveat would seem to apply.  If by essential you mean enough of his work to give a general idea of what a composer's work is all about, perhaps you are coming closer to what essential might mean in the title of the Sony release.

What they have done is put together 31 tracks from the Glass canon, running well over three hours focusing on self contained shorter works and sampling selections from longer works. Instead of sampling 31 different works, often they have chosen to include several selections from what they obviously consider seminal works.  Thus, for example, there are four pieces from the opera Einstein On the Beach and three from Glassworks.  What they give up in breadth, they make up for with depth.  Not necessarily a bad choice, except that they cut short some of the longer selections and instead of putting the selections together they seem to have scattered them around the three discs haphazardly, or if there is some method to the arrangement of the music, I'm not sure I understand what it is.  Why not put the selections from Glassworks together?  Why not chronological order?

That said they have given us over three hours of very fine listening culled from previous recordings mostly from the eighties featuring Glass stalwarts as well as a roster of celebrated collaborators.  Michael Riesman conducts The Philip Glass Ensemble on the lion's share of tracks and Glass himself plays piano of "Metamorphosis IV," "Opening" from Glassworks and "Wichita Vortex Sutra. Other artists contributing include Yo Yo Ma (three selections from Naqoyqatsi), and Linda Ronstadt, The Roches and the Kronos Quartet ("Forgetting" from Songs From Liquid Days.  Robert Shaw conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and chorus in a selection from Itaipu and Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a number of selections from Akhnaten. 

While Glass is probably most often associated with the Minimalist musical movement  that emerged in the sixties, it is a cubby hole he often rejects.  Certainly his earlier work contains many of the characteristics associated with Minimalism—especially the almost hypnotic repetitions, and clearly although his later work has gone beyond Minimalism, "repetitive structures" are still an important compositional element.  In some sense it is this Minimalist element that may well account for the paradox that the man who is thought of as the creator of experimental avant garde music may also be the most recognizable composer of serious classical music of the day. His music is both challenging and accessible, and The Essential Philip Glass is filled with examples of this contradiction.

Long time fans of the composer probably are familiar with everything on this album. Newcomers to Glass will find this an effective introduction to the prolific composer. There is a 1993 single disc album, also called The Essential Philip Glass which has thirteen tracks, eleven of which are also in the new collection.  They were essential then, I guess they are essential now.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

DVD Review:Incendiary

This article was first published at Blogcritics

On February 17, 2004 the state of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson murder of his three children in 1991.  By that time the scientific evidence upon which Willingham had been convicted had been challenged by experts in fire science, the case had become something of a cause célèbre for anti-death penalty advocates, and perhaps most importantly it was a political football of epic proportions.  All his appeals denied, clemency, and even a 30 day stay to investigate the scientific challenges denied by hard line law and order Governor Rick Perry, Willingham ate his last meal and was executed by lethal injection. 

Incendiary, the award winning documentary directed by Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr., is the disturbing account of the Willingham case and its aftermath.  Although the film comes to no absolute conclusion about the man's guilt or innocence, it makes clear that the evidence upon which he was convicted was flawed—a combination of junk science and unreliable witness testimony.  Moreover the legal representation he was afforded by the state was something less than stellar.  Though the film does leave the question of guilt open, it seems clear where the film maker's sympathies lie.  At the very least in refusing to take an objective look at the new scientific evidence the powers that be in the state of Texas failed to give the accused a fair hearing, at worst they executed an innocent man. 
The film maker's interest in the case, as they explain in an interview included as a bonus on the newly released DVD, stemmed from a 2009 article in The New Yorker by David Grann, in which he vividly takes the reader from the house fire to the execution, and introduces all of the key players.  Recognizing a good story, Mims and Bailey began their own investigation.  They managed extensive interviews with those who questioned as well as those who supported the arson allegations so that they were able to create a complementary visual account of the history of the case to that of Grann.  Then when the Texas Forensic Science Commission began to look into the case after the adoption of new standards for fire investigations by the National Fire Protection Association they were able to follow the new attempts to clear Willingham's name.  It is a story that plays like a TV forensic drama.

It has a cast of characters made for TV.  Willingham, himself, as nearly everyone interviewed acknowledges was far from a nice guy.  Indeed, he comes off much better in Grann's article than he does in the film.  Elizabeth Gilbert, a volunteer with an anti-death penalty group, who befriended him in prison, gets much more time from Grann than she does in the film.  She is interviewed but not as extensively as the two major fire scientists, more than likely because she comes across rather blandly on screen, whereas the two scientists, Lentini and Hurst, are attention getters.

The film begins with Lentini ridiculing the original forensic investigation.  He is assertive and acerbic.  He comes across as a straight talker with no tolerance for fools.  Hurst, on the other hand, has the appearance of a street person—a long unkempt grey beard, stooped and thin, he looks in need of a good meal.  Yet when he speaks, he speaks with authority, and it turns out he has the credentials to back up what he says.  He explains the science with the kind of clarity that makes it intelligible even to scientific illiterates.

The other side has its dynamos too.  David Martin, Willingham's defense attorney is adamant both about the quality of the case he made for the man as well as his belief in his guilt.  He teasingly allows that were it not for attorney client privilege, he has enough damning information to prove Willingham's guilt.  Then there is John Bradley, the district attorney appointed by Governor Perry to chair the Forensic Science Committee, who seems to be doing his best to stall the hearings.  Although he is never interviewed for the film, his contretemps with Barry Scheck lawyer for the Innocence Project makes for some real life dramatic conflict.  Later reporting seems to indicate that Bradley is changing his opinions about reconsidering scientific evidence as a result of another case.

It is hard to come away from this film feeling that justice has been served in the Willingham case.  It is almost cliché to say that the death penalty once carried out doesn't give you the opportunity to correct mistakes.  You have to get it right.  There are those that believe that the evidence that convicted Cameron Todd Willingham was flawed; there are those that believe that flawed or not he was a guilty "monster."  Justice would seem to indicate that new exculpatory evidence should at least be considered and evaluated.  This is the message of the film.  It is an important message, powerfully delivered.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Music Review: The Dukes of Dixieland, The Oakridge Boys - When Dixie Meets Country

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong with a labradoodle, I'm sure there are those that love them and rightly so, still I suspect there are those who prefer their labras straight, and their doodles unsullied.  So when a couple of  business types get together and come up with the idea to mash together a couple of stalwart musical groups from differing musical traditions, there are those who are going to cry genius, and there are those who are going to have second thoughts.

As the liner notes to When Country Meets Dixie tells it Dukes of Dixieland manager John Shoup and Jim Halsey, manager of The Oak Ridge Boys are having a casual conversation.  Shoup asks: "What happens when you mix one of the oldest country stars with one of the oldest jazz bands?"  "I don't know, let's try it," Halsey answers.  And so is born (drum roll) a new musical genre: "Country/Dixie," or "Dixtry" perhaps.  When Country Meets Dixie, a twelve track album featuring the Dukes, the Oakridge Boys, who it turns out appear only on four songs, and an assortment of other country singers is the result.

And the result is an album that has some impressive music, but in the end lovers of Dixieland are likely to come away from it happy for the jazz, but wanting more of it, while the country fans are more likely to be content with their piece of the pie. Although like the doodle lovers they may well prefer their country unsullied. 

Of the four tracks with The Oakridge Boys, there is a kind of "rumba-boogie" version of "Bobbie Sue" and funky take on their platinum single, "Elvira." Both will have you tapping your toes. Then there are two hymns­­­--"Little Talk With Jesus" and "Unclouded Day."  The latter opens with some impressive work on the drums by J.J. Juliano and has a real New Orleans street vibe.

The album opens with Dukes pianist Scott Obenschain's jumping vocal on the Phil Harris classic, "That's What I Like About the South," which adds some nice solo work from the rest of the band and a terrific ensemble ending.  Wesley Probst sings Tennessee Ernie Ford's bouncy "Fatback Louisiana" and Ernest Tubb's "Nails in My Coffin."  Besides some mellow brass (Kevin Clark and Ben Smith) the pedal steel guitar of Nashville sessions star David Spires helps drive in some of those nails.  "Back in New Orleans" gets a mellow laid back treatment from 73 year old Bobby John Henry with some sweet work on the sax from Ryan Burrage. Callaway McCord adds a hot medley—"Jambalaya," "I'm Walkin'" and "Don't Mess With My Toot Toot"—which includes some of the most extended solo work from the Dukes. 

Newcomer Lathan Moore is featured on three songs.  "Are You From Dixie" is a rollicking romp and "Can't Fight the Moonlight" is a sweet tender ballad.  But, for me, it is his "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" which is the absolute highlight of the album.  It begins with Ryan Burrage's clarinet and a bit of Alan Broome's bass, and then plays like a duet between the clarinet and Moore. The rest of the band gets in as well, but it is Burrage that steals the show.  The album is worth it for this track alone.

So, labradoodle?  "Dixtry?"  When country meets Dixie and you get a "Closer Walk" like the one on this album, or a "Bobbie Sue," or the "Jambalaya" medley, it's a great combination.  Still, I can't help thinking how much I would have liked to hear more from the Dukes.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Graphic Bios in Time for Black History Month

This article was first published at Technorati.

With Black History Month set to begin in February, parents interested in educational material for their children may want to take a look at two new publications in the Campfire Graphic Biography series.  Nelson Mandela: The Unconquerable Soul and Muhammad Ali: The King of the Ring, both written by Lewis Helfand, are aimed at the older child.  They focus on the biographical narrative to illustrate the importance of the men as dynamic leaders in the struggles of their people for equality and dignity as well as their contributions to the world community.  Both men are seen as inspirational figures. 

Nelson Mandela, illustrated by Sankha Banerjee, begins in 1985 with the future South African President in Pollsmoor Prison.  It then goes back to his birth in 1918 where he was given a name we are told is translated as "troublemaker."  It goes on to highlight his early life, his political involvement with the ANC, his years in prison, and his role in shaping the new society after his release and the end of apartheid. Unlike most Campfire editions, ninety percent of this book is in black and white.  It is only at the end when apartheid has been defeated that the story bursts out in color.

The Muhammad Ali biography, illustrated by Lalit Kumar Sharma, also begins in medias res, with the young Cassius Clay set to fight Cory Baker in 1958, before taking readers back to the boxer's childhood in Louisville, Kentucky.  It talks about his early career and explains how he was encouraged to adopt a gimmick—predicting the round he would knock out his opponent—to capture public attention.  It describes his embrace of the Nation of Islam, his championship fights, his refusal to be inducted into the army, and the stripping of his title.  It details his comeback and his public service throughout the world after retiring from the ring, ending with his award of the Presidential Medal of Honor.

Both editions include posters which can be detached from the book.  The Ali biography has an interesting feature on making graphic novels, and an appendix discussing the records some of the other boxers Ali fought and well as his daughter.  The Mandela biography's appendix is a glossary and a reprint of William Ernest Henley's "Invictus," a poem that Mandela looked to for strength during his darkest periods.