Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review:The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking, by Matthew Hutson

This article was first published at Blogcritics

There would seem to be two salient points to be taken away from Matthew Hutson's explanation of what he calls The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking.  First of all you, I, we all engage in some if not all aspects of magical thinking, even those of us who would scream the loudest, "No way!"  Second, that it's a good thing.  Thus the tome's subtitle: How Irrational Beliefs Keep us Happy, Healthy, and Sane. 

Hutson begins by defining magical thinking.  "There's a world of the mind, defined by matter and deterministic forces.  But we instinctively treat the mind as though it had physical properties. . . . We perceive mind and matter mingling together, working on the same wavelength."  Magical thinking is the "mingling of psychological concepts with physical ones."  The book that follows is essentially a collection of examples and anecdotes illustrating the author's catalogue of seven different kinds of magical thinking.  The illustrations are drawn from history and current events; they are drawn from scientific experimentation and a few are even culled from the world of fiction.  Some of the examples are fascinating, some less so; some are convincing, some more of a stretch—but taken as a whole, Hutson makes his points forcefully and with wit. 

On the most obvious level he talks about things like the tendency of pet owners to endow their pets with human qualities and the belief that there are objects that can bring us good fortune or bad luck.  More controversial, especially to believers, would be the belief in a divine being that can exert control over human affairs or the ascription of emotions and feelings to the human fetus.  Somewhere between extremes, he suggests that the use of metaphoric comparisons like angry sea and raging storm indicate a kind of unconscious ingrained magical thinking.  In almost all cases he points to psychological experimentation which supports not only the idea that such magical thinking exists, but that it can in fact have significant positive value.  For example, he sites experiments that have demonstrated that people who attribute events to a divine agency are better able to deal with the evils that life throws their way. 

Perhaps the most interesting reading in the book is the least scientifically convincing and that is the anecdotal material.  In one of the earlier chapters in which he discusses the idea that physical objects have essences that can be transferred, he talks about the effects that people felt when the piano on which the assassinated Beatle, John Lennon, composed "Imagine" toured the country after his death.  People claimed that they could feel the man's presence in the piano.  There are the stories of hospital patients rehabbing with the aid of robotic pets and amputees who can still feel their lost limbs.  There is the story of the construction worker who tried to jinx the Yankees by burying a David Ortiz jersey in the concrete of their new stadium. The book is filled with these kinds of stories to dine out on.

The uses of such magical thinking are varied. It can help us deal with our fears of the unknown.  It can give us intimations of immortality and provide a rationale for altruistic actions.  It can help us to come to terms with our bodies and their often disgusting functions.  It can allow us to feel superior to fellow creatures.  One only has to think back to the 19th century Industrial Revolution to see how magical thinking persuaded many to believe that products made by the hand of a man were superior to those made by the new machines, because a man could infuse his work with his passion for what he does, while a machine could only manage sterile perfection.  Indeed imperfection, as in Ruskin's praise for the great Gothic cathedrals, was an indication of a building's greatness, because it was an indication of the human touch. 

"Whether magic exists or not," Hutson concludes, "magical thinking got us where we are, and for better or worse, it will take us where we're going.  We could no sooner escape it than we could escape consciousness.  We think, therefore we think magically."

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Comedy CD Review - Hannibal Buress - Animal Furnace

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Hannibal Buress is one funny guy.

His new CD Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace, an extended and uncensored recording of his Comedy Central world premiere stand-up special is laugh out loud hilarious.  Whether he is talking about Meghan Fox scatting or jay walking in Canada, he has a real sense for life's absurdities. Sure he takes some shots at easy targets—the TSA, debit cards, but they are targets that deserve all the ridicule they get.  And even when he starts on masturbation, his take is at least something original.  Besides while his humor may be raunchy, it is really not mean spirited.  He looks at what goes on around him and asks can you believe this.  He doesn't quite say it that way, but that's what it amounts to.  His world is a nutty place, and he is a master at showing just how nutty it is.

He talks about the danger a comic might risk by of contacting one of your Facebook fan/friends on the road; he talks about men's health magazines and buying apple juice.  There is a story about late night in Edinburgh. He even manages laughs about lettuce (and there isn't any 'k' in lettuce). It is funny stuff, delivered sometimes with dry wit, sometimes with passion, but always with consummate skill.  Buress is a pro.

Given that the funniest bit in the set, for my money at any rate, is something he calls "Wack Writing," it takes some real nerve to write about Buress's comedy.  He reads some passages from an article written about one of his college shows and rips it to shreds. It's not that he is grousing about negative criticism, it is simply that he recognizes the nonsense and careless writing that too often passes for informed content, even when that content is meant positively.  It is a caution not to be taken lightly.  You have to be careful about what you say when writing about Buress, you might well find yourself taking up five minutes in his act and end up as the butt of a "comedic" joke. 

Comedy Central is also releasing a DVD of show which will also include some 20 minutes of material not in the original broadcast.  It features a behind-the-scenes documentary about how Buresss spent the week prior to filming the show.  Clips are available on the Comedy Central Stand­-up website. 

For anyone in the New York area, Buress will be headlining a Comedy Central Live Presents Hannibal Buress, a free live outdoor show which will also feature comics Kevin Barnet and Josh Rabinowitz.  The show is scheduled for June 24th at 7: 00 pm rain or shine at Red Hook Park in Brooklyn. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Graphic Book Review:Zeus and the Rise of the Olympians

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Parents of superhero drenched comic book fans interested in introducing their children to something a little more culturally substantial may want to take a look at the latest volume from Campfire Graphic's Mythology series, Zeus and the Rise of the Olympians.  Much like the Classic Comics of old, Campfire's publications—novels, biographies, myths—hopefully build upon youngsters' interest in comic books to get them excited about more important literature.  Graphic versions of "the best that has been known and thought in the world" certainly can be one way to motivate interest in the original, and if they don't, well getting the story of Eros and Psyche or The Merchant of Venice from a graphic book, is clearly better than not getting it at all.

Taking the form of a teacher in ancient Greece telling her class the story of Zeus, Ryan Foley's version begins with the legend of the conquest of Ouranos by his son Chronus and the curse that Chronus will in turn be overthrown by his own child.  It describes how Zeus escapes the fate of his five siblings through the guile of Rhea and Gaea, and his eventual fulfilling the curse and imprisoning Chronus in Tartarus.  It is a story filled with fighting, treachery and monsters—much the kind of thing that should easily attract the imagination of any youngster enamored with the likes of Spiderman or the Green Goblin.  In fact, some parents may find it a bit too violent for their taste, so it would make sense to preview the material.  Violence is, of course, endemic to Greek mythology; still, this is not a book for young children.

Jayakrishnan's illustrations are in the best traditions of the superhero genre.  Comic readers will find themselves quite at home with his work.  His vision of the monsters in Pandemonium and Chaos at the very beginning is nightmarish, and his depictions of Brontes the Cyclops, the Hecatonchires (Hundred-handers), and Kampe (a she-dragon) are equally horrifying.  Truly it would be necessary to be a god like figure, if not a god yourself to defeat creatures of this sort.  The art work, often dark and grainy in some of the other Campfire editions, avoids the garish quality of some comics in favor of a grittier vision, a grit eminently suitable to the subject matter.

Like others in the Campfire series, Zeus and the Rise of the Olympiansbegins with a page introducing each of the major characters and ends with a page or two of general information on some topic that should be of interest to the young reader and perhaps spark further study.  In this case, there is some discussion of the Olympic Games, a bit about Greek architecture with examples from around the world, and some information about words derived from the Greek gods. 

Other books in the Campfire Mythology series that could be of interest are Stolen Hearts: The Love of Eros and Psyche. The Legend of Heracles, and Jason and the Argonauts. While there are some adaptations of mythological materials from other cultures in their catalogue I haven't yet seen them, but if they are as well done as the Greek myths, I would imagine they would warrant some attention.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Music Review: Willie Nelson - Heroes

This article was first published at Blogcritics

At the very end of an absolutely swinging version of the 1943 roots gem "Home in San Antone" on Willie Nelson's new album, Heroes, you can hear the singer add, "that's a great track." He's right, it is a great track, and if he had said it about the album as a whole, he would have been right as well.  In Heroes Willie, his sons and a friend or two have put together a compilation of some things old and some things new and produced themselves one great album.  But then it's Willie Nelson, what else would you expect. 

The album opens with a new take on the Wayne Carson composition "A Horse Called Music," the title song of 1989 Nelson album.  It's a great song, and here he is joined by Merle Haggard for one hell of a duet. It is an auspicious beginning.  This is followed by a new swinger "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" written by Nelson himself along with a gaggle of his cohorts.  Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson join Nelson on the vocal. There are three songs written by Lukas Nelson who chimes in on the vocals —"No Place to Fly," "Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her" and "The Sound of Your Memory."  

Producer Buddy Cannon's catchy little three quarter time tune, "That's All There is to This Song" is one of two solo pieces for Nelson. The other is his cover of Coldplay's "The Scientist" which closes the album.  Cannon also collaborated with Nelson and son Micah on "Come on Back Jesus," which looks to Jesus and John Wayne to set the crazy modern world straight.  "Hero," the down home title song, is another Nelson composition.  Jamey Johnson and Billy Joe Shaver are along for the ride.  Lukas joins his father for a cover of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe."

 Complimenting these new pieces, along with "My Home in San Antone," other roots classics included on the album are "My Window Faces the South" and "Cold War With You," a metaphoric stretch worthy of the Metaphysical poets.  Ray Price guests on the track.  Speaking of guests Sheryl Crow steps in with Lukas and his dad for a bluesy version of the Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan tune "Come on Up to the House."   I'm not sure but it's my favorite track on an album filled with favorite tracks.

Musical backing on the album is provided by the "Roll Me Up" Band: Kevin "Swine" Grantt (bass). Bobby Terry (electric, acoustic guitars), Jim "Moose" Brown (piano, Wurlitzer, B­-3 organ), Mike Johnson (steel guitar), Tony Creasman (drums), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), and Lukas Nelson (electric guitar)—not to mention Willie and Trigger.  Listen to them on "My Home in San Antone" and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me."  These guys can swing with the best of them. 

Approaching his eighties, Nelson's voice sounds as good as it ever did, rich and honest.  Whether he's singing something from the roots pantheon or some new pop/rock hit, whether some brand new composition or a song from the forties, he delivers the goods.  This is the first album released under Nelson's renewed collaboration with Legacy Recordings.   With a little luck, Heroes will only be the first of many new albums to come.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mandelbaum in the Movies

Here's a link to one of the first of my Mandelbaum stories in The Big Ugly Review back in 2004:

http://www.biguglyreview.com/firsttime/fiction/goodstein.html .

Saturday, May 19, 2012

DVD Review: Certified Copy (Criterion Collection)

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Iranian ex-pat auteur Abbas Kiarostami's 2010 exploration of the mysteries of the male female relationship in the context of authenticity in art, Certified Copy, is now available as a two disc set in The Criterion Collection.  Disc One has a "director-approved" digital master and the film's trailer.  The second disc has the rarely seen The Report, Kiarostami's second feature from 1977 encoded from an old analog video master made from a subtitled theatrical print damaged from heavy use.  The original was destroyed during the Iranian Revolution.  The quality of the print is poor, but clearly better than nothing for those interested in the trajectory of the director's work.  Also included are a 2012 interview with the Kiarostami and an Italian documentary feature on the making of the film, Let's See "Copia conforme".  Finally the package includes an excellent introductory essay on the director and the film by critic Godfrey Cheshire.

The Criterion Collection gives you your money's worth.  You watch it all and you come away stuffed with information.  More often than not this is a good thing, but there are times when—well, think of the dodgy repletion after a Thanksgiving turkey with too many trimmings.  If you watch all the bonus material, you will learn an awful lot about the film, perhaps too much.  Certified Copy is a film filled with interpretive possibilities, the more you know about what the artists—the actors, the writer/director—think, the more those possibilities shrink.  In interviews they all pay lip service to the need for the audience to draw its own conclusions about characters, about themes, about meaning.  In practice, their ideas and comments are nearly impossible to ignore.  Of course, no one is making you watch the bonus material.  While some of it is interesting and informative, nothing there is essential, and I, for one, am sorry I watched it.

If Certified Copy is a great film, and it is a great film, its greatness lies in its inscrutability.  As I watched, the cinematic ancestor it brought to mind was the Alain Resnais classic Last Year at Marienbad, perhaps the ultimate film enigma.  Technically there were things like the slow pace, the moving camera, the intense close ups. Then there were things like the importance of the setting—as Resnais' camera moves through the rococo hallways of the hotel, Kiarostami  has his actors, Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, drive through the Tuscan countryside, walk through the village of Lucignano and its museums. Most interesting of all by way of analogy, however, is the sense of fractured time in both films and the sense of some elaborate game being played between a woman who has no name and a man she both loves and hates, fears and is drawn to.

What happened last year at Marienbad?   What happened fifteen years ago in Tuscany?  Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script for Mairienbad, were very clear in the case of their film, that that was not a meaningful question.  Ontologically, there was no such thing as a last year.  All there was was a film.  In life there is a last year, in a film there is only what appears on the screen.  Moreover it is not for the artist to tell the audience what a work of art means. Robbe-Grillet is famed as a believer in the dictum that art doesn't mean, art is. 

In some sense, Kiarostami would seem to agree, the trouble is that the more he talks in his interviews, the more he seems to indicate that in fact there is one reading of the relationship between the central characters in the film, that time sequence may not be indicated directly, but once he mentions how he views it, it claims authority. Some viewers will welcome certainty; others, myself included, favor ambiguity. I guess I prefer what I thought I was seeing to what the director thought he was showing me.

Enough about the intrusion of external material, it is after all the film that's the thing, and while some will find it slow going, others will be thoroughly engrossed.  Whether it is dealing with an aesthetic question like the value of a copy in relation to an original work of art—a question which focuses the initial relationship between Binoche's character and Shimell's James Miller who has written a book on the subject, or the nature of the emotional relationship between the two, it offers no easy answers.  We follow the pair as they meet the day after, a lecture in which Miller is promoting his book.  She takes him on a tour of the area to pass the time before his scheduled departure at nine and eventually they wind up in Lucignano, a village famous for weddings.  At first their conversation runs to intellectual argumentation—the witty by play of strangers getting to know one another.  As the day progresses, if it is in fact one day, the stakes are raised, their conflicts become more intense; they become the kinds of conflicts that grow over years.  It is as much the universal conflict between the sexes as it is between the two specifics individuals: in a sense they are copies, themselves.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: Brad Pitt's Dog, by Johan Kugelberg

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I must begin by acknowledging that I have neither knowledge about nor interest in two thirds of the subjects Johan Kugelberg writes about in his collection Brad Pitt's Dog: Essays on Fame/Death/Punk.  I must further admit that having read each of the essays with as much attention as I could muster my lack of knowledge of the subjects remains intact as does my interest.  I must further confess that as often as not I had absolutely no idea what Kugelberg was talking about.  Given all that, let me say that at least in those parts of the book that I thought I understood, Kugelberg is one of the most entertaining prose stylists I have come across in many a day.

His flights of rhetorical flash—gems that often come three or four to a page—are more than worth the price of admission.  I may have had no idea what he was writing about, but I have to say I had a hell of good time reading it. So I can't tell you if I agree with the things he has to say about punk, I have no idea who the Flying Calvittos are and why anyone on earth would be interested in collecting their "hopelessly obscure" record "Lucky to Be an Australian." I don't know the Lurkers from the The Rings, and I wouldn't know The Dictators Girls Go Crazy t-shirt if it was hanging out to dry in the sun, let alone who Eddie Flowers is. Moreover I have no idea what motivates collectors of fanzines, old rock posters, band t-shirts and any of the other passions that Kugelberg anatomizes with excruciating detail.  Come to think of it I have no idea what motivates collectors of anything.  So I can tell you I absolutely find his fetish for collecting absurd, but then I find collectors of rare books, baseball cards and aluminum foil absurd as well. 

I can't tell you if I agree with his critiques of a photographer like Carl Johan De Geer or an artist like Dash Snow, because until I read the essays I had never heard of them.  I did check the internet, and I must admit that what I saw left me unenthusiastic.  I have no doubt I would feel the same way about the music Kugelberg admires, although I must admit to listening to the Velvet Underground with a smile on my face.  Even here, however, I don't think I could manage the same kind of fervor Kugelberg generates.

I guess the point that I'm making is that it's not so much what Kugelberg says , even when I think I understand and agree with it, that intrigues me, it's the way that he says it.  Anyone who can get me to keep reading when I have no idea what he's talking about can write.  Kugelberg can write. Kugelberg has a love affair with language, and I'm happy to watch the romance. The best way to describe what I'm talking about is to check out some samples.  Here is a list (he seems to like lists) of Kugelbergiana:

--Metaphors worthy of the Metaphysical poets:  the musical glory years of 65/66, he tells us "were about to rise like a Phoenix and flush the great white toilet of pop culture."

--Inventive coinages: "Scandihoovians."

--Oh my god puns: cultural expressions may be "hi-, lo-, or uni-brow."

--Internal rhyming: "The unk in the glam-junk, which ultimately is pre-punk, . . ." and "The Masses are asses that need better glasses. . .  ."

--Plays on cliché: some hepcats are "letting plenty o'kittens out of the bag."

--Rhetorical echoes: attitudes of some to drugs are a "picaresque of addict picturesgue."

--Sly ironic allusions: The Molly Bloom yeses of the collector's orgasmic reaction to a bargain at a record fair.

--Not so sly allusions: a prize record discovered is a "scratchy and worn Moby Dick harpooned by an Ahab with coffee-jitters."

­­--What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed: "The sacred ability to capture the anyday grit of everyday life and make it beautiful."

--What ne'er was thought, and ne'er expressed at all: " . . . insights of pure thunka-drum flatulent-fuzztone gnosis."

These are just a few examples, but if you like this kind of thing you'll like Brad Pitt's Dog.  If you like this kind of thing and you are into punk and collecting old records and fanzines of yore, you'll love it.  

Oh!  Brad's dog you ask?  In the essay on Dash Snow, Kugelberg talks about a photo of "a dog taking a crap" which only gains value and importance for some people when they learn that it's Brad Pitt's dog.  He sees this as the aesthetic fallacy of substituting the artist for the art.  I'm not sure I follow the logic, but who am I to argue.  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

DVD Review:Norman Mailer: The American

It would probably be impossible to make an uninteresting documentary about the life of Norman Mailer, director Joe Mantegna's Norman Mailer: The American is not interesting.   It is absolutely fascinating.  Relying on a wealth of film of the never camera shy author himself interwoven with revealing commentary from wives and lovers, friends and enemies, he creates a  warts and all portrait of a complex man who at times managed to be a writer of genius, at times an egomaniacal reprobate.  For all his flaws, and there were many of them, he had the kind of personality that could infatuate some, infuriate others.  Those that loved him seemed to love him no matter what he might do; for those that hated him, he could do nothing worthwhile.

Mantegna begins with some information about Mailer's parents, his childhood, and even his early writing success with a prize winning short story while at Harvard, but the real focus of the film is the prominence that he achieved with his debut novel The Naked and the Dead, a book many people still consider his finest piece of work and his life and work until his death in 2007.  This is a man who had six wives, nine children, and who knows how many mistresses.  This is a man who managed to get a murderer freed from prison only to have him murder again, a who man stabbed his second wife and persuaded her not to press charges, a man who marched on Washington to end the Viet Nam War, and can be seen in a movie doing his best to bite off Rip Torn's ear.

There is a good deal about Mailer's writing.  "Why do I write?"  He has said: "Why did I start to write?  Because it was the only thing I was good at and I wanted to be more attractive to the girls." That's Mailer at his best, a little false modesty, a bit of a wink, and you know damn well he doesn't mean a word of it.  The critical failure of the novels he wrote after the phenomenal success of his first book left him seriously depressed.  He turned to journalism and non-fiction and in effect invented his own new genre for his reportage--History as a Novel/The Novel as History, creative non-fiction. He wrote about people and he wrote about events.  Eventually he returned to the novel, and once a again found acclaim. He won two Pulitzer Prizes and was still writing up to his death.  This is not a man who took his craft casually.

There is a good deal about his personal life.  His sexual peccadilloes are trotted out with gusto.  His brawls, both physical and intellectual, are itemized with special emphasis on the film of the fight with Torn and the contretemps with Gore Vidal on Dick Cavett's TV show.  His career as a political provocateur, from his anti-war activities to his race for mayor in New York, is illustrated.  He is shown in the context of the sweeping societal changes that were shaping the country in the latter half of the 20th century.  The major figures and events of the period, whether the presidency of LBJ or the emergence of Muhammad Ali, are always cited to provide the background needed to understand how the times helped to make the man.

There are touching moments.  Mailer looks back on a copy of his bar mitzvah speech. His wife Adele reads from a letter he sent from the Pacific during the war.  There are moments that make you cringe.  His wife describes the crude language he used where his mother was bound to hear.  There is film of screaming quarrels with his fourth wife.  He can be witty and urbane.  He can be gross and boorish, but he can never be boring, and neither can any decent documentary of his life.  Montegna hasn't merely brought the man to the screen, he has brought him to life.

Cinema Libre's DVD runs 85 minutes.  Bonus features include the film's trailer, a gallery of letters from Mailer to his wife Adele, and some further interview material with Mailer. 
This article was first published at Blogcritics

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Comedy Review: Reggie Watts: A Live at Central Park,

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Watching a comedian like Reggie Watt makes me feel like people of my age must have felt when they first heard the likes of Lenny Bruce or Andy Kauffman.  I mean if your idea of a comedian is Bob Hope or Jack Benny, what on earth are you going to make of these new voices, lauded and praised thought they be.  So along comes Comedy Central's CD/DVD set, Reggie Watts: A Live at Central Park, and I have to ask myself, am I the right person to review it?   I know that a lot of very bright people think of him as a major cutting edge talent.  I know that he as much praised for his musical talent as he is for his comic sensibility.  And I know that I am never quite sure that I get him.  I may find myself laughing at some of his bits, but when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure what's so funny about beat boxing nonsense syllables.

So having confessed my fears of inadequacy for the task at hand let me rush in where I ought fear to tread.   First, here are some of the basic facts about the new release. The set was recorded at Summerstage in Manhattan's Central Park on June 22, 2011.  The CD has 13 tracks.  The DVD has a selection of most of the same tracks plus added sketch sequences in which Watts' tries to determine if the Central Park performance is really a dream, or perhaps even a dream within a dream.  There will be a world premiere showing of I presume a censored version of the evening on Comedy Central on May 11, at 1:00am.  The CD/DVD combo will be released on May 15th.

The set featuring the typical elements that Watts' fans have more than likely come to expect from him will not disappoint them.  There are the vocal gyrations, the beat boxing, the looping, even a little fancy footwork—all both comically absurd and musically inventive.  It's the kind of thing that wouldn't be funny in the hands of a musically inept performer, but that the musically talented Watts can turn into a tour de force.  It's the kind of thing his fans love; it is obvious in the audience reaction to the piece he calls "Reggiohead."  They know where he's going the minute he opens his mouth.  To show my age again: it makes me think of a performer like Victor Borge, whose ridicule of classical music and its performers worked because his own virtuosity was well recognized.

"Tweet Yourself Right" is an impromptu romp that begins with Zippos at concerts and moves to tissues near your computer screen and ends with social media. Going on for almost 12   presumably improvised minutes and showing off some sweet vocal gymnastics, this has to be one of the highlights of the evening. "Having Sex" is another nice piece. "So Good Yeah," a kind of Stevie Wonder take off which is only on the CD is a musical gem. The thing about Watts is that you never know where he's likely to go or how he's going to get there, you just have to sit back and enjoy the trip.

It's the same for the absurdist monologues like his dissertation on time which seems to mean something but that ends in utter nonsense and the little games he likes to play with the audience.  Sometimes, as in "Boroughs" it seems to go on too long before he decides where to take it, but once he gets going, he works it.  He does one of his patented British dialect rants starting with the craziness of performers, gives a nod to Adele and ends in absolute absurdity.  There is silliness, there is profanity, but there is also truth. 

A quarter of a century from now, some old codger will be listening to some new cutting edge comic, and he'll likely be thinking "watching this guy, I feel like someone my age must have felt watching Reggie Watts back in the day." 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Music Revew: Bill Evans- Bill Evans Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate.

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The first time I ever had a chance to really listen to the Bill Evans Trio was back in 1961 when the Columbia Record Club sent me its monthly selection because I had forgotten to return the notification that I wanted some other record or nothing at all that month.  The record that arrived was Waltz For Debby. Certainly I must have heard some of Evans' work on some of the jazz radio shows, but I don't know that I ever really listened seriously.  As pianists went then, the names in my pantheon were Peterson, Brubeck, Shearing and the like.  Waltz For Debby arrived and with it the discovery of something that  more than a few jazz  lovers already knew—Bill Evans was an artist who could play with the best of them, and a good deal better than most.

So when over 50 years from the date of its recording a release of two live sets from an October, 1968 gig at the Top of the Gate, a recording that had had only been heard one time on the Columbia University radio show of George Klabin, now president of Resonance Records and the man who had managed to record it, becomes available, it has to be a cause for celebration.  This, of course, is not the original Evans trio that had played on Waltz For Debby.  Bassist Scott LaFaro had died in a car accident, and a drummer Paul Motian had left some time after.  Eddie Gomez eventually took over the bass and Marty Morell the drums, and this was to become the trio that was to play together through the end of the 60's and into the 70's.  This is the trio playing on the two disc release from Resonance: Bill Evans Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate.

The only thing for fans to lament about this recording is that it took over 50 years to get it released.  Not only does it show the virtuosity of the individual musicians, it clearly demonstrates their collaborative dynamism.  Each disc features one complete set—nine tracks in the first set, eight in the second.  Three of the songs in the first set are repeated in the second ("Emily," the Jerome Kern "Yesterdays" and Monk's jazz classic "'Round Midnight") giving listeners an opportunity to compare the variations in the musician's performances on the same evening.  The only Evans original is his "Turn Out the Stars" which closes the first set, otherwise the sets are made up of some jazz standards and familiar tunes, with perhaps one or two representing some of the trio's earliest live and recorded versions of the songs. 

The first set features a swinging "Gone With the Wind" and an elegant take on "My Funny Valentine."  "Emily," which opens the set begins almost introspectively before taking off with some nice interaction between Evans and Morell.   "Witchcraft" has some inventive solo work from Evans and Gomez.  But if you're looking for some exceptional bass work,  "Autumn Leaves" in the second set is truly something special.  Indeed Gomez makes his presence felt through both sets.  Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" is a sweet reading of the classic tune and "Someday My Prince Will Come" will make you forget Snow White, if not Miles Davis.  The set ends with a subtly moody "Here's That Rainy Day."  These are two sets that show convincingly that Evans, Gomez and Morell are at the top of their game.

The two disc set includes a 27 page booklet with a wealth of vintage photographs and essays and notes by producer Zev Feldman, jazz critic Nat Hentoff, and vibraphonist Gary Burton.  Gomez and Morell contribute some personal memories.  There are some notes from Klabin about the recording where he explains that Evans and the trio had not yet garnered the "respect" they were later to command, and that accounts for some of the background chatter that can be heard during the sets.  It may also account for the sometimes less than enthusiastic applause.  There is also a short piece on Art D'Lugoff and the Top of the Gate by his son Raphael.

All in all this set is a welcome addition to the Bill Evans discography.  Release is scheduled for June 12, 2012. Besides the two disc CD set, Resonance will be issuing a limited pressing of 3,000 hand numbered 3-LP vinyl box sets which will include the content from the CD booklet.  The music will also be available for downloading for those who prefer a digital version.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Music Review: Bill Evans Trio - Moonbeams

This article was first published at Blogcritics
(Note: A comment on Blogcritics says the name of the album should read Moom Beams.  As a matter of fact the CD has it both ways.)

May will be a good month for fans of pianist Bill Evans' trios.  A two disc set of a previously unreleased 1968 gig, Bill Evans Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate is due out from Resonance records, and Jazz Classics is releasing a remastered edition of his 1962 studio recording, Moonbeams.  Moonbeams was the first recording Evans made with his new trio after a period of depression following the accidental death of his first trio's bassist, Scott LaFaro in June of '61.  Drummer Paul Motian was still on board, and Chuck Israels replaced what many thought was the irreplaceable LaFaro.  It and one other, How My Heart Sings!, were the only two albums recorded by this second trio, which soon gave way to the trio—Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums--that played together into the '70's.

An all ballad album, Moonbeams capitalizes on Evans' lyric sensitivity, but producer Orrin Keepnews, according to Doug Ramsey's liner notes for the remastered release, worried that the "steady dose of slower tempos" might make the band lethargic, had them intersperse up tempo pieces throughout the sessions.     He needn't have worried; Evans is a master at playing with tempos.  According to Israels: "The rhythms are more sophisticated, more inventive, more creative than almost any other jazz musician I know."  Turns out there were enough of these faster tunes for the second album.

The original album had eight tracks and included two of Evans' original compositions.  The new release includes alternate takes of three pieces as bonus tracks. It opens with Evans' "Re: Person I Knew" which according to the original liner notes was meant as an anagram of the producer's name, although the tense of the verb seems to have been changed to protect the spelling.   While Evans work is often compared to the 19th century Impressionist composers, it's haunting opening reminds me a lot of Erik Satie, as do a lot of other moments on the CD. The other Evans composition is the waltz time "Very Early" which closes the album.  While the waltz is not typical jazz fare, in Evans' hand you have to wonder why that should be.

In between there is a stunning version of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," for my money the highlight of the album.  It is Evans at his lyrical best.  And the rest of the set is equally fine.  "I Fall in Love Too Easily" is followed by a powerful take on "Stairway to the Stars" which is given a bit of a bluesy vibe. "If You Could See Me Now," "It Might as Well Be Spring, and "In Love in Vain" round out the album.  The bonus tracks are alternate takes of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "I Fall in Love Too Easily," and "Very Early."

Nat Hentoff quotes Bill Evans as saying: "It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem.  It's not.  It's feeling."  There have certainly been those who have made it their business to analyze just what it is that he does that makes him such a great pianist.  He is after all the very model of what you might call a pianist's pianist.  Certainly he is technically adroit, but a lot of people are technically adroit.  As he says, what makes a great pianist, what makes him a great pianist is the feeling.  Evans in his trademark position leaning over the keyboard seemed to audiences to become almost at one with his instrument.  He feels the instrument.  He feels  the music.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Music Review: Drunksouls - Revolution

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Perhaps what makes Revolution the second album from eclectic French indie reggae rock band Drunksouls so revolutionary, its intelligent humor, is at least partially if not completely lost on an English speaking audience because some of the 16 tracks are in French.  It may be chauvinistic on my part to suggest that a French band ought to sing everything in English,, but it is difficult if not impossible to get the full effects of humor if you have no idea what the lyrics mean.  That said, when the lyrics are in English, it becomes fairly easy to see that this is a band with an almost surreal sense of the absurdities of life.  Unfortunately, it just makes the sense that you are missing something valuable because of your linguistic ignorance worse, and you begin to wonder about what you think you do understand. 

On the other hand, if you simply let the music flow—this is a band that will have you up and dancing.  They have an almost hypnotic sound that contrasts with the edgier lyrical content, even when the English only handicapped can understand them.  Take a song like "Human Race."  The lyric talks about looming darkness and the vacuum of life, but the music is absolutely bouncy and joyful.  In a sense the conflict between the music and the lyric defines the conflict in the voice of the song.  The blatantly un-erotic sexuality of "Lust" is another example of the same kind of contrast, although  here the beat is less joyful and more insistent.  Just to call a song with a kind of sentimental pop hook "Happy Death Day" suggests the kind of ironic sensibility that defines the album. 

Songs like "Africa," "Revolution" and "The End" suggest that the band has a socially conscious political agenda as well.  "Africa" begins with the joyful sounds of children playing and laughing and launches into an Afro-pop anthem with very dark overtones, despite its infectious rhythms.  "Revolution," on the other hand, has an almost other worldly opening that gives way to a kind of punk rant.  "The End" opens with a dark jazzy vibe that emphasizes its lyric darkness before merging into something with an almost spiritual quality.

In over an hour's worth of music there really isn’t a bad track on this album.  The fact that it bothers me that I can’t understand the lyrics of songs like "J'ai fait un rêve," "L'amour diététique" and even the seemingly English friendly titled "Sullivan Story," is testament to how good the music is.  If  the music wasn't so captivating, I more than likely wouldn't care what those French lyrics really meant.