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.