Saturday, April 28, 2012

International Jazz Day Kicks Off

This article was first published at  Technorati.

Kickoff for the April 30th inaugural International Jazz Day  sponsored jointly by UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz is the April 27th concert streamed live from Paris and featuring a stellar line-up of jazz luminaries as well as a full day of coordinated live performances, master classes and discussions.  Participating artists include UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Dee Dee Bridgewater, George Benson, Marcus Miller, Barbara Hendricks and a host of other musical talents. 

International Jazz Day itself will begin with a sunrise concert from Congo Square in New Orleans and end with a sunset concert at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York.  Both concerts will be streamed live, the sunrise concert at 8am EDT, the sunset at 7:30pm EDT.  Herbie Hancock is scheduled to appear at both and once again he will be joined by a galaxy of jazz stars from around the world—names like Terence Blanchard, Ellis Marsalis and Dianne Reeves in New Orleans, Candido, Robert Cray, Tony Bennett and Chaka Khan in  New York.  Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Quincy Jones are scheduled as co-hosts at the sunset concert.

Students and schools around the world have been invited to join in the festivities by playing the Hancock classic "Watermelon Man" along with Hancock at 8:15am EDT on the 30th.  They are being asked to video their performances and upload them to for posting on  The site also offers a wide range of cultural and educational participation possibilities for individuals, groups and institutions.

International Jazz Day was proclaimed by the UNESCO General Conference back in November of 2011 as a means of fostering multi-cultural dialogue and promoting peace through art.  Jazz was viewed historically as an art form that not only encouraged freedom of expression but provided an atmosphere that encouraged tolerance, cooperation and mutual understanding.  International Jazz Day was seen as an opportunity to both celebrate the unique musical genre, but raise awareness of the need for intercultural dialogue and "mobilize the intellectual community, decision-makers, cultural entrepreneurs, cultural and educational institutions and the media to promote jazz-related values."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Andy Warhol on Stage in Pittsburgh

This article was first published at  Technorati

Whether you call it homage to a native son or cashing in on his fifteen plus minutes of fame,  the final production of Pittsburgh's City Theatre's 2011/2012 season which opens on Saturday, May 5th  is the Andy Warhol magical musical mystery tour de force, Pop!. Pittsburgh has long had a somewhat late love affair with Warhol who was born in the city's Oakland section, went to study commercial art at what was then the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and promptly left for greener pastures where his flamboyant persona and his aesthetic vision might be better appreciated.  And appreciated they were, little Andy Warhola became the notorious Andy Warhol, still little, but no longer small. 

So it was not strange when a couple of years after the man died plans were afoot to open a museum in his honor.  If it was not quite in the neighborhood of his birth, it was not all that far away on the North Shore.  There at least he would be close to such other attractions as what would have been at the time Three Rivers Stadium—after all it makes sense to keep potential tourist attractions in reasonable proximity.  Now the area boasts two stadiums, a science center and a casino. The seven floor ex-warehouse opened its doors for business in May of 1994.  It is roundly touted as the largest art museum devoted to the work of a single artist.  From the city's point of view it has certainly been an instrumental element in changing the Steel Town's one time shot and a beer image.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, it just needs a little polishing.  Warhol's panache helped to apply the polish.

Pop!, a musical by Maggie-Kate Coleman and Anna K. Jacobs, was workshopped and premiered at Yale in 2009 and has had successful staging at a regional theatre or two in the years since.  The latest was an acclaimed production at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC.  As explained in the City Theatre's promotional material, the play has Warhol's life flashing before him as "he confronts an unforgettable cast of outrageous suspects and wrestles with the meaning of his own legacy."  Reviewers of past performances have described it as coupling "cartoonish zaniness" with "historical authenticity."

The City Theatre production directed by Brad Rouse stars Anthony Rapp best known for his role in the Broadway production of Rent.    Rapp, something of a Pittsburgh favorite has appeared in the company's productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, his brother Adam's drama Gompers, and most recently in his own one man show Without You.  The show runs through May 27th.

Pop! is not the City Theatre's first venture into the world of Warhol.  Back in 1997 they collaborated with experimental director Anne Bogart's Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI)  Company in a production of Culture of Desire, a play which  metaphorically envisions a hellish journey through the mind of a dying figure called 'A' representing Warhol in one sense and the artist in another.  To emphasize the larger metaphoric sense 'A' was played by a woman.  More a critique of the effect of Warhol and his work on the culture than any sort of hagiography, and perhaps a bit too experimental for Pittsburgh at the time, it received a mixed reception.  Perhaps that accounts for the fifteen year lapse before another attempt, this time one that seems as advertised in a more Pop(ular)  vehicle.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

BBC Looks at Shakespeare's Changing World

This article was first published at  Technorati.

Fans of the BBC's much acclaimed series A History of the World in 100 Objects will probably want to take a look at a new series just getting started called Shakespeare's Restless World.  Hosted by British Museum Director Neil MacGregor, each episode runs for approximately 15 minutes and focuses on a significant object from the Museum and  what it shows about how the playwright and his audience were dealing with a world that was going through turbulent changes as earth shaking as the 20th century venture into space. Episodes are broadcast Monday through Friday at 1:45pm and 7:45pm on BBC 4.  They are also available as podcasts. 

After a short introductory opening, the second episode looks at a medal cast to commemorate Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe and shows how his voyage symbolized the way the world was changed by the wave of exploration throughout Europe.  Not only did it feed the British public's nationalistic pride but it promised all sorts of exotic new experiences and knowledge.  MacGregor points out how exploration informed passages in  plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Comedy of Errors.  He even suggests that the new interest in the wider world as evidenced by the publication of something like the first book of maps might have been one reason for the name given to the new theater built by Shakespeare's company.

The second episode looks at the role of religion in everyday life through a silver communion cup from Holy Trinity Church in Stratford on Avon dating from 1571-2.   The website indicates that the cup was brought to Stratford when Shakespeare was young to reinforce Elizabeth's support for Protestantism.  It demonstrates the significance of religion in politics during the period.

Twenty episodes are planned for the series over four weeks.  The object to be dealt with in each episode is pictured on the Shakespeare's Restless World website.  Included are things like design proposals for a new British flag after the assent of James I to the throne,  a Reliquary containing the right eye of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, and a musical clock. Perhaps a mite less ambitious than its predecessor, this new series is both informative and entertaining.  It is 15 minutes well spent.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Music Review: Ellynne Plotnick - I Will

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Talk about keeping it simple, jazz singer/song writer Ellynne Plotnick's latest album I Will has her singing her vocals with only a guitar and  bass accompaniment, and not only does she manage to make it work, she makes it magical.  It just goes to show, if you have the voice and if you have the material, you don't need all that lavish production.  To coin a cliché, less is more. 
The new album's ten tracks include three covers and seven original compositions.  The covers are excellent, but the originals are something special.  Plotnick writes lyrics with the pen of a poet, and she delivers them with cool elegance.  "Falling," which opens the album, plays tantalizingly with the myth of Icarus, the son of Daedelus who donned a set of wings created by his father, but flew too close to the sun.  The wax that held the wings together melted. The youth fell to the earth and became legend.  Usually thought of as a cautionary tale aimed at over-reaching ambition, Plotnick's song suggests that flying too high may not be all that bad.  The falling woman in her song ends up as a goddess leaving a "broken world." The more you listen to the lyric, the deeper it grows.  It is a good indication of what is to come.

"Rosa Lee" looks at what has become of a girl who "used to chase tornados" and "tip the neighbor's cows" when she is trapped by the hard knocks of life.  "Anywhere But Here" is a bluesy take on lost love with some truly original images: "I'm snowblind in the trees/Stumbling through the cold wet dark;" "If your love was a sailboat?/I'd want to be the sea." Surprisingly since the words are hers,  although these last are the lines in the liner notes, when she actually sings them, she changes them slightly.  In "Please Forget Me," a break-up song, she tells the lover to wash her off "like a fake tattoo" and ends ironically by saying forget me, because "I can't forget you."  These are just a few samples of Plotnick's prowess with a lyric; each of the seven originals offers examples equally evocative.

Perhaps as important, this is a woman who can sing.  She is a mistress of the cool. Her phrasing is stylish.  Her voice is crystalline. She is at home with low key blues, Brazilian dance rhythms, and even an almost folksy vibe in the album's closing song, "I Want a Place in Your Heart."  Her coquettish slyness with "I'm Sorry, I Really Mean It This Time" shows something of her playful side.  Moreover, she is as creative with the covers as she is with her own songs.  McCartney and Lennon's "I Will" and the classic "Manha de Carnaval" are handled with appealing assurance. 

The stripped down accompaniment is terrific.  John Tropea plays guitar and Harvie S handles the bass.  They do some exciting solo work on the vocalist's Latin composition "Sonar Es," as well as "I'm Sorry, I Really Mean It This Time" and "Please Forget Me" which also has a little scatting from Plotnick.  These are three musicians who work well together.  If you like cool jazz singing with songs that will keep you thinking, I Will is an album you'll want to hear.

Friday, April 6, 2012

DVD Review: From Time to Time

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Given the current hoopla around his smash hit series Downton Abbey, there is probably not a better time to be releasing Julian Fellowes' 2009 adaptation of Lucy  M. Boston's young adult novel The Chimneys of Green Knowe, From Time to Time. Not only does the film feature a number of the Downton actors, but the film is shot in Athelhampton House, one of those monumental old mansions that have been the settings for Fellowes' best known work. Unfortunately, From Time to Time, while not without merit, doesn't quite measure up to Downton Abbey or Gosford Park. 

Set in England in 1944 with the war in Europe winding down, 13 year old Tolly is sent to live on the family's decaying country estate with his estranged paternal grandmother while his mother tries to get information about his father who is missing in action.  Things get complicated when Tolly discovers that the house is haunted by the spirits of some of his ancestors from 1809.  Not only can they appear to him in 1944, but he is able to join them in 1809.  He can aid them in their troubles; they can help him with his.  From Time to Time then is both a ghost story and a time travel story. 

It is a testament to Fellowes' abilities as a writer and as a director that he can even manage to get you to buy into the story's fantasy long enough to suspend disbelief, let alone take it seriously.  Certainly the film makes a serious attempt to say something about dealing with loss and the importance of family, but it gets lost in the complications of the narrative.  There is simply too much going on for any real impact. 

Still there is a top notch cast, and their performances are strong.  Led by the matriarch of British actors, Maggie Smith as Tolly's grandmother Linnet, the cast brings life to the fantasy.  Smith is admirable as a woman struggling to connect with her grandson while facing the possible loss of her son.  Alex Etel is effective as Tolly, even as he struggles some to keep up with Dame Maggie.  Timothy Spall, of Harry Potter fame, is Boggis, gardener, handy man and general factotum.  Pauline Collins is Miss Tweedle, the cook and general servant. 

The 1809 segments feature Hugh Bonneville as Captain Oldknow the well meaning head of the family, a character not much different than the Earl of Grantham and  Dominic West (The Wire) as the villainous butler, Caxton.  Unfortunately, the script gives them little opportunity to stretch their talents.  Eliza Bennett is Susan, Oldknow's blind young daughter and Kwayedza Kureya is Jacob an escapee from a slave market saved by the Captain and brought back to England to be his daughter's companion and eyes.  Downton's Alan Leech has a small part as one of the Boggis ancestors.

In some respects it is the house itself that is the star of the film. It is almost as if the house has a life of its own.  "It's a funny old house," Boggis tells Tolly.  And when the RAF is leaving the house which they have commandeered as their headquarters, the officer in charge explains that they were careful not to leave it in bad shape.  "The house wouldn't let us," he says.  More often than not, when houses are treated as living entities--The Haunting of Hill House, "The Fall of the House of Usher"—they are associated with evil, not so here.  It is a house with secrets and the unraveling of those secrets is the key to the story.  The house, though haunted and decaying, is the symbol of the family's roots, the glue that will keep them united through the ages.

Monday, April 2, 2012

TV Review: Magic City

This article was first published at Blogcritics

There are times when imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and then there are times when it is something else entirely.  Consider the preview of Starz new series Magic City following the concluding episode of the second season of Spartacus.  Imagine what the series creators' might have been thinking.

We'll set the show in the past in a fancy beach resort.  We'll make the central figure a local big shot with a strong ethnic identity.  We'll give him connections to organized crime.  We'll make him the kind of guy who is willing to do whatever needs to be done to get what he wants. He'll have a strong   fatherly attachment to a morally corrupt young man.  We'll add some political and social issues.  We'll wedge in some racial tensions.  We'll make sure to find a way to use some of the glamorous stars from the world of entertainment.  And we'll call the series--Boardwalk. . . . Oh, wait a minute.

Well we could set in the '50's instead the '20's, and Miami is a lot more exotic than Atlantic City.  We can make the hero Jewish instead of Irish.  If he isn't a local politico, he has connections with the right people; indeed he has connections with the wrong people as well, and he is willing to use them. His young protégé can actually be his son. Labor unionization can stand in for prohibition, and we can throw in a champion black boxer to connect him to the racial divide. Then there's always the hot button issue of Cuba.  Instead of an Eddie Cantor imitator, we can use the voice and reputation of an even bigger star.  And we'll call the series--Magic City.

It is ironic that Magic City follows Spartacus, considering that it's not all that farfetched to wonder about that series' debt to the 2005 HBO series, Rome.  Spartacus, at least has something going for it.  It glories unapologetically in violence and sexuality.  It flaunts its defiance of good taste.  Besides it is a rip roaring good story with heroes worth  rooting for.  Magic City, if the preview is any indication, in spite of the story's Yiddish connection, doesn't have the Spartacus chutzpah.  There's sex and nudity, but it doesn't come close to the Roman debauchery depicted in Spartacus, and the violence is even less graphic. 

The opening episode spends so much time introducing most all of the series' characters that it doesn't manage to create any great interest in any of them or their problem.  Ike Evans played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan doesn't have the charisma one might expect from a big time operator.  Danny Huston as the ostensible villain of the piece doesn't come across as all that threatening.  Steven Strait, as one of the Evans sons, is handsome enough but one dimensional.  There are plenty of beautiful young actresses, but the first episode gives them little to do other than look beautiful. 

Unfortunately, the obvious comparisons with the material and the cast of Boardwalk Empire make Magic City look like a pale imitation.  One can only hope that as the series moves on things will improve.