Thursday, December 20, 2012

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

This article was first published at Blogcritics

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Music Review: Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship - Song of Simeon

This article was first published at Blogcritics

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Music Review: Big Bands Live: Duke Ellington Orchestra

This article was first published at Blogcritics

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Vince Guaraldi and Charlie Brown Xmas

This article was first published at  Technorati.

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Graphic Biography Review: Steve Jobs

First published on  Blogcritics.

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 3, 2012

Music Review: Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album

This article was first published at Blogcritics 

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

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

 If it has anything it has variety.

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

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

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


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