Thursday, December 5, 2013

Music Review: Anne Ducros - "Either Way"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

You may think you have heard the songs from the Great American Songbook more than enough times so that you have no desire to hear them again.  Think again; you haven’t heard them like you’ll hear them on Either Way, the new album from French jazz singer Anne Ducros. That she makes these hoary standards her own, doesn’t come close to doing justice to what she does with them. She transforms them, and more important her transformations are absolutely killer.

She takes the original song and pushes its musical possibilities as far as they will go. This is a singer who colors outside the lines. Her vocals are a perfect demonstration of what a jazz singer should be doing. Many jazz singers are content to interpret, Anne Ducros creates. In a sense what she does with a song parallels what her deconstructionist countryman Jacques Derrida does with literature. The original song becomes a remembered shadow that marks just how far she’s taken its ideas.
All this wouldn’t make much difference if the lady couldn’t sing.  No problem, this is a lady with the chops to make her music work. If her performances don’t quite make you forget the originals, they sure give them a run for their money.

The concept of the album as Ducros explains is to work with songs associated with great Ella Fitzgerald and somewhat surprisingly Marilyn Monroe. The two are associated because of Fitzgerald’s acknowledgement of a debt to Monroe for a booking she got at the prestigious Mocambo in Los Angeles, at a time when black artists were discriminated against. Monroe, it seems, called the club owner and demanded Fitzgerald be booked immediately. She promised to show up and take a front row table every night of the gig. With that kind of publicity, how could he refuse?

The album is made up of 15 songs, 14 standards and one, the title tune, original. Although there are some guest performers, the singer for the most part is backed by a quartet: Gilles Nicolas on double bass and electric bass, Benoît de Mesmay on piano, Maxime Blesin on guitars and percussion, and Bruno Castelucci on drums. It is a tight ensemble that not only backs up Ducros to perfection but contributes some fine solo work as well.

The songs— “You’d Be Surprised,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Thou Swell,” just to name a few, all titles you know—need to be heard to understand what Ducros is doing. Check out her version of “Summertime” and you begin to get an idea of the complexity of her art. And classics like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing),” “A Fine Romance,” and “Laura” push the cliché envelope even further.

Either Way is perhaps the finest album from a jazz vocalist, I’ve heard this year, and certainly the most interesting.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

DVD Review: "The Fall"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If the first series of last year’s thriller, The Fall, is anything to judge by, the staid genteel stereotype of the BBC’s dramatic programming has long gone the way of the rotary phone and the VCR. Mrs. Marple has become a modern woman unwilling to take a subordinate role to men in any area of life, and a sexually perverted serial killer is pursuing beautiful young professional women.
Written by Allan Cubitt, The Fall, stars Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, a hard-nosed detective sent to Belfast from the central office to review a murder case the locals have been unsuccessfully working on. Not only is she a no nonsense, demanding professional, she is smart and aggressive in pushing her opinions. Moreover, she is no less aggressive in her own sexual behavior. This is a woman who takes a back seat to no one. Almost immediately she ties the one murder case, to a second unsolved case, and then when there is a third murder, it is clear that she was right.

The Fall is not a who done it. Viewers meet the killer from the very beginning. Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan, is the father of two young children married to a nurse who works in a neo-natal intensive care unit. He works as a grief counselor, and he likes to strangle young women, pose their naked corpses, and take photographs of the bodies. On the surface, he is a model citizen. We are shown him washing his little daughter’s hair. We are shown him packing his kids’ lunch for school. We are shown him counseling a couple who have lost their young son. Of course we are also shown him doodling a nude picture of the woman as he pretends to take notes. We are also shown him breaking into a victim’s house and stealing some of her underwear. He is a perfect candidate for a chapter in Krafft-Ebbing.

Cubitt’s script tends to alternate scenes of the police investigation and some of their outside activities with scenes of the serial killer stalking his new victim as well as his family life. Both Anderson and Dornan give masterful performances. She manages to be both dominating and alluring as she exudes sexuality. He is the model of the young family man, even as he pursues his obsessions. He is an example of what psychologists call doubling, as DSI Gibson points out. One might well argue that she, herself, is also a doubler on some level. Doubling, as explained in Psychology Today, is the creation of two independent selves within a person. Robert Louis Stevenson might have called it “Jekyll and Hydism. Different selves operate in different situations.

It is an interesting thesis and makes for a riveting five episode series, available in a two disc DVD set from Acorn in the middle of October. This first series runs for approximately 300 minutes, and seems to end with a promise of a series continuation, something  for those of us who enjoyed the show to look forward to. The DVD includes a 12 minute “Behind the Scenes” featurette with cast interviews.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

DVD Review: "Alliyah"

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

A young Parisian with what a recent romantic attachment calls “existential problems” decides it is time to seek a solution by making his aliyah (emigrating to Israel, a duty many Jews feel as an obligation). Life in Paris for Alex Raphaelson has little, if anything to keep him from the move. He works in a restaurant, but he really supports himself by dealing drugs. His immediate family is dysfunctional. His mother is dead.  He has little to do with his father who has moved on to a new family. His older brother Isaac is a leech who is only interested in what he can get from Alex. His ex-girlfriend is planning to get married.

So when he goes to a dinner for a cousin who has returned from Israel for a visit, and learns that he is planning to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv, it seems like a perfect opportunity for Alex to escape from the morass of Paris to start a new life. Everyone around him finds the idea ludicrous. No Zionist, he has never shown any interest in Israel. Indeed, he had ridiculed the cousin when he decided to make Aliyah. He is not religious, his attachment to Judaism is nil. He doesn’t speak Hebrew. Other than the cousin, he has no contacts in the country. Still he finds his life in Paris so impossibly oppressive that Israel becomes not only a viable option, it becomes a desirable goal.
Things become a little more complicated when he immediately learns that he needs a large amount of money to buy into the restaurant, and even more so when he meets a pretty gentile girl, a student, and there is an immediate attraction. Were he to stay put in Paris, something more than a few sexual encounters would seem a good possibility.

Alex is played with intense conviction by Pio Marmai. Brother Isaac is played by Cedric Kahn, an award winning director and screenwriter. Adele Haenel plays Alex’s love interest, Jeanne. It is a solid cast with a feeling for their characters, and keeping them real.
Directed by Elie Wajeman, who also has a screenwriting credit, the film was an official selection for the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012.  She takes material that in some hands could become a noir thriller, and focuses equal attention on family relationships and emotional stress. Scenes like the Sabbath dinner for the cousin and the brother’s visit to their mother’s grave add a sense of low key realism that give the film its emotional spine. Physical violence is quite limited.

The French film with English subtitles is now available on DVD from Film Movement, a company that calls itself a “Film-Of-The-Month Club for new, award-winning Independent and foreign films.”

The DVD includes an interesting Israeli short called On the Road to Tel Aviv directed by Khen Shalem. It deals with a terrorist attack on a bus and the reaction of an assortment of Israeli’s when an isolated Arab woman boards a bus they are all going to ride on. It is a telling comment on the effects of terrorist activities on the lives of those living under constant threat. While Middle Eastern politics have little to do with Aliyah, On the Road to Tel Aviv sets them front and center in all their complexities.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Music Review: "Art Tatum: The Complete Solo Masterpieces"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

In the liner notes to the Original Jazz Classics remastered re-release of The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1 from Concord Music Group, Tad Hershorn talks about Tatum’s stature as “the greatest pianist jazz has ever produced.” Now whether you agree with Hershorn’s assertion may turn on your definition of greatness, but however you want to define what it is that makes a jazz pianist great, there is no question that Art Tatum belongs in the conversation.

The collection of performances that make up this album from the Concord Music Group goes a long way to making Hershorn’s point. Define greatness in terms of effortless virtuosity at the keyboard, and Tatum can’t be faulted. Define it as inventive originality, define it as emotional honesty, and the man is nothing short of a giant. “Greatest” may be arguable; there is no question about great.

Whether Hershorn’s narrative of the December 1953 session that began the recording process has its roots in mythology as much as in reality. It is easy to be a tad skeptical. Yet, if it is myth, it is the kind of myth that you want to believe. Tatum, he explains, walks into the studio at 9 o’clock with a portable radio. Producer Norman Granz had provided a case of the pianist’s favorite libation. Tatum sits down at the piano, opens a beer, tunes his radio into the UCLA basketball game, and listens for a half hour or so. Then he takes off, producing 69 masters in two days, most on the first take. If it didn’t quite happen that way, it should have.

The Concord classic includes the nine tracks from the original Pablo album released in 1975, supplemented by seven tracks from The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 9. Beginning with a short and sweet reading of “Moonglow,” he then takes off on an exciting ride through Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” playing his signature games with tempos. He finds new ideas in classics like “Body and Soul,” “Embraceable You,” and “Sophisticated Lady.” He develops the themes of lesser known pieces like “Blue Lou” and “My Last Affair” with a sensitivity that suggests they should have been classics as well.

In some sense it isn’t worthwhile singling out individual tracks as highlights. This is an album of highlights. There are 16 songs and there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Some may prefer the complex cascading cadences of his “Have You Met Miss Jones,” some, the melodic phrasing of “Stay as Sweet as You Are.” Some may favor the mellow bluesy “Willow Weep for Me,” some, the swinging “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Most will agree that the better course is simply to prefer Art Tatum no matter what tune he is playing.

Of course, this album barely scratches the surface of Tatum’s solo work. In 1971, Pablo released Art Tatum: The Complete Solo Masterpieces, a seven disk box set. Fans, old and new, then, may have a lot of great music waiting for them.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Music Review: Cannonball Adderly and Milt Jackson - Things Are Getting Better

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Putting together an ensemble of all-star jazz musicians for a recording session sounds like a no brainer. One problem, while it may well seem like it should be a good idea, it doesn’t always produce a great recording. Perhaps expectation are so high, they could never be realized. Perhaps big egos get in the way. Great jazz ensembles require the kind of chemistry that has everyone working together, Whatever the reason, it doesn’t always happen that way.

Fortunately, when Riverside Records’ celebrated producer Orrin Keepnews put together vibraphone virtuoso Milt Jackson and alto saxophone master Cannonball Adderly with an unbeatable rhythm section—pianist Wynton Kelley, bassist Percy Heath and classic drummer Art Blakey, he hit the jackpot. This was one group of all-stars who had what it takes to work together. The chemistry was so good, they even included 44 seconds of banter as they got ready to play the disc’s second number. The album that came out of that session, Things Are Getting Better, is an absolute gem.

The 1958 album is once again available in a remastered CD in the Original Jazz Classics series from the Concord Record group. The new edition adds two bonus tracks of alternate takes not included on the original. While some critics don’t care for the idea of loading down an album with inferior takes (on the theory that had they been any good they would have been used on the original album), it does give the  judicious fan an opportunity to make his own judgments. At any rate the two alternate takes on this disc are in no way inferior filler.

“Blues Oriental” begins the set, a bit of exoticism composed by Jackson. Adderly’s swinging “Things Are Getting Better” follows. Dizzy Gillespie’s take on the chord structure of “Whispering,” “Groovin’ High” which had become something of a bebop staple is ripe for a dynamic Jackson solo. Their version of “The Sidewalks of New York” gives the hoary classic a modern vibe, especially with Adderly’s alto solo. The bonus alternate take seems a bit more mellow. Adderly’s “Sounds for Sid” is a blues number the original liner notes say was dedicated to a favorite unnamed disc jockey. Although the new notes suggest a number of possible Sids, my own guess would be the great Symphony Sid.  “Just One of Those Things,” “Serves Me Right” and its alternate take complete the new album,

In recent months there has been a flood of older material from a number of different companies. Some of the albums were classics; some were merely old. If the combination of Adderly and Jackson didn’t quite produce a classic with this album, they came darned close.

Friday, August 30, 2013

DVD Review: Blandings

This article was first published at

If your idea of British country gentry comes from Downton Abbey, P. G. Wodehouse’s Blandings will orrect that very quickly. Lord Emsworth and his Blandings family are a far cry from Lord Grantham and the Downton crew.

A two disc DVD set of the six episode first series of the British TV adaptation of the Wodehouse stories is scheduled for release in the U. S. on September 3 from Acorn. The series stars Timothy Spall as Clarence Emsworth, the Lord of the manor, a bumbling, but lovable eccentric whose only real interest in life is his beloved pig, Empress. Jennifer Saunders plays his disapproving sister whose main object in life seems to be to civilize her brother. Mark Williams is the dependable butler who is as much a friend of the family as he is a servant, and Jack Farthing is the heir to the estate, a silly fool of a ne’er do well.

Classic stereotypes, these and the supporting characters are all played with broad strokes just short of the kind of thing you’d be likely to see in a Benny Hill sketch. Lord Emsworth can’t remember anyone’s name, indeed he can’t remember much of anything. Saunders’ Connie is a controlling martinet, and Williams’ butler is the essence of practical wisdom. Minor characters are similarly stereotypical: a Scottish gardener with an accent so thick no one can understand a word he says, a fortune hunting widow with a bratty young son, a chorus girl masquerading as a foreign princess. There isn’t an actor in this cast who is unwilling to go over the top. It’s almost as though they were told the broader the better. And not only do they get away with it, they embrace the silliness and it works.

The plots of each of the episodes are farcical enough to justify the acting style. The first episode deals with a contest for the fattest pig, the last with the fortune hunter’s machinations. There are episodes concerning his sister Connie’s attempt to straighten Lord Emsworth out by hiring a controlling secretary, her ploys to keep various nieces away from suitors that she finds unsuitable, and one where the foolish Freddy thinks he’s married a showgirl.

Much of the humor deals with things like pigs with gas, manure, clumsy suitors knocking over furniture, manure, mistaken identities, manure, visiting city ragamuffins, and manure. Did I mention muck? Talk about an excremental vision. If you’re looking for gentile drawing room comedy, Blandings is not for you

By any reasonable meausure, I should hate this show. By any reasonable measure but one; it can be laugh out loud funny. The characters may be unrealistic stereotypes, the acting may be way over the top, the directors may indulge themselves in silly sight gags, but none of that really matters if you find yourself laughing. And there wasn’t an episode that didn’t manage to get me laughing. Frothy perhaps, but how often is it that show aims at froth and falls flat. Certainly not all the gags work, but enough do to make this show a lot of fun. Effective froth is no mean achievement.
Lord Emsworth and his family may not remind many viewers of the Downton crew, they are certainly pale shadows of Wodehouse’s own Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, but how many are there that measure up to bars that high. Blandings is a lot of fun.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Music Review: Christian McBride and Inside Straight - People Music

This article was first published at Blogcritics

People Music, the title of bassist Christian McBride and Inside Straight’s follow up to their debut album Kind of Brown, refers to what McBride calls his “personal mantra as a musician.” Now is a time when some jazz musicians have become so concerned with pushing the envelope that they have pushed beyond the post office’s ability to deliver the mail to anyone but other jazz musicians, and sometimes not even them. Their music has become what one 19th century poet called “the dialogue of the mind with itself.” “People music” is music that speaks to the people. A degree in music theory is not a requirement for its enjoyment. All that’s needed are ears.

What you get on this album is mainstream, hard driving jazz played with passion and consummate musicianship. It doesn’t reject the past. It uses it. In the best traditions of the form, it builds on what has gone before. It is accessible music. If what you want is esoteric cacophony, you don’t want People Music. If you want beautiful innovative jazz, you’re in the right place.

The eight pieces on the album are all original compositions by members of the quintet. Four are by McBride. The album opens with his “Listen to the Heroes Cry,” written, he tells us in reaction to a music awards show which he found more concerned with image than with music. “It made me wonder what Duke Ellington or John Coltrane or Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn would think if they could see this. I think they would be crying.” “New Hope’s Angel” was written in reaction to the death of Whitney Houston and “Fair Hope Theme” is an extension of the main theme McBride wrote for the soundtrack of the documentary The Contradiction of Fair Hope. His dramatically driven “The Movement Revisited” drawn from a larger Civil Rights themed suite is the longest piece on the set.
“Gang Gang,” written by vibes player Warren Wolf, is an Afro-Cuban track. Saxophonist Steve Wilson’s haunting “Ms. Angelou” features the composer playing the soprano sax. Christian Sands, who plays piano on two tracks composed “Dream Train” and pianist Peter Martin wrote the funky “Unusual Suspects.” Carl Allen plays drums on everything but “Dream Train” and “Listen to the Heroes Cry” where drums are handled by Ulysses Owens, Jr.

If what McBride was aiming at was audience friendly music, he got it, but perhaps more importantly he also got audience pleasing music. This is the kind of music you want to listen to, and you’ll want to listen to it again and again.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Music Review: Deborah Shulman - Get Your Kicks: The Music and Lyrics of Bobby Troup

This article was first published at Blogcritics

If all you know about the music of Bobby Troup is his “Route 66” road saga and the kittenish “Daddy,” songstress Deborah Shulman’s latest album, Get Your Kicks: The Music and Lyrics of Bobby Troup, will be a delightful introduction. Certainly the Troup songbook is not as ubiquitous as that of a Cole Porter or a Sammy Kahn, and that is our loss. His music deserves better, and Deborah Shulman delivers. Listen to Shulman’s coy flirtatious interpretations and you’ll begin to get an idea of what you’ve been missing.

 Although Shulman says that other than “Route 66” she hadn’t been familiar with the music before she got involved in the project, she knew that her husband had been a friend of the Troup family, and thought it would “be fun to explore the connection.” They were given access to the family’s musical library. “It was like going on a treasure hunt,” she explains, and the eleven tunes eventually chosen for the disc are treasures she, along with her pianist arranger Ted Howe and his trio, has made her own. “I wanted this to be a jazz album with a party vibe. I wanted this to be a jazz album, with no crossover.” If that’s what she intended, she hit the mark. This is an album that will have you smiling.

She opens with a mischievous version of “You’re Looking at Me” followed by a wild romp through “Route 66” featuring a lot of cool bass. Between the two they set the party tone for the rest of the album. “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast,” delivered with a vocal wink, echoes with delicious irony . She swings with the trio in a dynamic upbeat “Daddy,” that even gets a little raucous as it ends.

Indeed, she packs all of the ballads on the CD with an honesty born, she indicates, from her own “marriage collapse.” Her bluesy “Baby All the Time” that builds to a dynamite dramatic climax is one of the album’s highlights. Bleak though they are, “February Brings the Rain” and “The Meaning of the Blues” are gorgeous tunes sung with intensity. “It Happened Once Before” looks at the emotional peril involved in making a new romantic commitment. The trio—Howe on piano, Kevin Axt on bass and Dave Tull on drums—adds some elegant solo work through all of the ballads.

“The Three Bears” is a whimsical take on the children’s story and “Lemon Twist” goes for some witty word play backed up by some equally witty solo work from the trio. “Girl Talk,” the one song on the album for which Troup only wrote the lyrics (the music is by Neal Hefti) gets a much more haunting, or as the liner notes describe it, darker treatment in Howe’s arrangement than it usually gets.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Music Review: Christiane Noll - Gifts

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Christiane Noll joins Patty LuPone and Norbert Leo Butz in Broadway Records’ 54 Below live cabaret performance series with her album Gifts. Perhaps best known for her role as Emma Carew in the musical Jekyll and Hyde, the talented singer has established herself as a legitimate member of the Broadway aristocracy, and her cabaret act demonstrates why that is.
Of course a good cabaret act assumes a fine voice, but a great cabaret act demands more. The best acts have a theme; they have a narrative arc. In the popular jargon of the trade, there must be a journey. “Gifts,” as Noll explains in a liner note, “from my father I now share with my daughter.” ”Music,” she continues, “was not only our family trade, it was how we expressed ourselves and our inner most emotions.” Family and music are her theme.

 Brought up in a house filled with music, her father was a conductor and music supervisor for CBS, her mother a soprano, she was, as she describes it in her two part medley “Growing Up,” even as a baby enthroned atop a grand piano in the family apartment, inundated with music. Her father would play; her mother would sing, and she gives us a taste, a little Puccini, a bit of Mozart, some Victor Herbert, and some Gilbert and Sullivan. As she grows, she looks to develop her own sound, leaping from “Whistle While You Work” to “What I Did for Love.”

She goes on to run through her career, from poorly chosen audition material to her Broadway success and her father’s pride in her Jekyll and Hyde debut, of course with appropriate musical examples. Then moving on to her pride in her own daughter, whose singing it turns out can tame a playground bully. It is an endearing, if perhaps a mite sentimental journey.

Along the way there is the music. She opens the set with “Somewhere Out There” from “An American Tale.” Highlights include “The Sound of Music,” an intense version of “Send in the Clowns,” and an unexpected choice in “Some Enchanted Evening.” There is a nice change of pace in the “Museum Song” from Barnum, and an homage to her Ella Fitzgerald period in her encore (in an arrangement by her father) “Mr. Paganini.” Of course, no performance would be complete without “In His Eyes,” her Jekyll and Hyde show stopper, and while composer Frank Wildhorn isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, listening to her sing his music, it is enough to make you wonder why.

Christiane Noll is as versatile a singer as you’re likely to come across, and her versatility shines through on this album. She can sing opera and art songs. She can do patter; she can swing. And if it looks like she’s found a permanent home on the Broadway stage, her cabaret act gives her the opportunity to show off her other talents.

You can check out Noll singing “The Sound of Music” and doing a promo video for the show on YouTube.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Music Review: George Shearing & Don Thompson - George Shearing at Home

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Thompson explains: the two men began collaborating in 1982, when after many years working with his quintet, Shearing looked to the greater freedom of the duo format. In a CBC Music,  interview Thompson says: “The duo situation was really a liberating experience for George after so many years of being confined to the rigidity of the quintet. In the quintet, every note is played exactly the same every night. . . .” In 1983, the pair had a six week gig in Manhattan and they would get together in the afternoons in the living room of Shearing’s apartment and play. One afternoon, he says in the liner notes, he suggested that they “lay down a few tracks ‘just for fun.’” Shearing agreed and the result is George Shearing at Home from Jazzknight Records.

As Thompson tells it the reason it took all these years for the album to be released was because Shearing was under contract to Concord Jazz at the time and they were not interested in anything that wasn’t recorded by their engineer in their own studio. Recently when Shearing’s wife was visiting in Canada, he gave her copies of the recordings, and she agreed they needed to be made available to the public. Shearing fans will be forever grateful. This is one great pianist at the top of his game.

The album’s 14 tracks are a mix of standards and jazz classics. There is one original composition: Thompson’s own “Ghoti,” a tune with a bebop flair that features some swinging interaction between the bass and the piano. There are also four solo piano tracks. The album opens with a syncopated version of the Rogers and Hart tune “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” followed by a moody take on “A Time For Love.” The traditional  “Skye Boat Song” is perhaps an unusual choice for a jazz album, but it certainly adds variety. Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” and Lee Konitz’s “SubconsiousLee” are more likely fodder, and the duo rips them.

The solo highlights include a lovely dramatic version of that old chestnut, “Laura.” Shearing gives it new life. There is an atmospheric impressionistic take on “I Cover the Waterfront.” In the liner notes, Thompson says that when they played it at the club, Shearing would joke that it was “a beautiful piece written by Marlon Brando.” “Can’t We Be Friends?” gets a bluesy treatment that comes off as a duet between the pianist’s right and left hand. Thompson says that this is the only time Shearing played “Beautiful Love” which concludes the album.

George Shearing belongs in the piano pantheon with the likes of Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck, and this is an album that makes that very clear.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Annalisa Ewald - Live at the Factory Underground

This article was first published at Blogcritics

For approximately half an hour, no doubt energized by the lively audience, Ewald played a set of 15 classical guitar pieces  chosen she tells us from “Argentine tangos, Spanish folk music, Brazilian choros, and even a couple of ‘cousins’ from the Renaissance courts.” It is an eclectic sampling of the best in the musical repertoire available for the instrument. Perhaps the only thing that’s missing is a transcription of the adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez,” a piece that no guitar recital wherever it is held should be without. Although, it does open the possibility of some future recording of the whole concerto with the full orchestra in tow. Ewald plays with skill and taste; it would be a treat to hear her in all out concert mode, this despite her protestations that the Factory Underground setting was “most unlike Carnegie Hall. Which was all to the good.” I guess I would just like to hear her play what I imagine is the most popular classical piece for the guitar in all its splendor.

She opens with “Soleares” a composition she calls “the mother of flamenco” in her notes to each of the tracks. This is followed by “Farucca,” a “light song” from the Galicia region of northwestern Spain “which speaks of sunny subjects like love and bawdy humor.” “Monotonia” is a composition particularly appropriate, she tells us, for the more informal setting, its composer Rodrigo Riera among those in 20th century Latin America who were celebrating popular guitar music. “Por Una Cabeza” is the first of the tangos on the album, the famous “La Cumparsita” comes later embedded in “Milonga.”

Ewald is joined by her 15 year old student Caroline Golino for two Renaissance compositions: “Mr. Dowland’s Midnight” originally written for solo lute and “Les Buffons,” a variation on a familiar dance theme by W. Heckel which she calls “a perfect pub piece.” There is a “Prelude” by Hector Villa-Lobos giving a nod to the concert hall. She closes with two bonus tracks “Vals Venezolano No.1” and “No. 2” by Antonio Lauro, one of the first guitar composers, she explains, “to meld the European and Latin musical traditions.”
Annalisa Ewald may not have the name recognition that a guitarist like Sharon Isbin has, but if she produces a few more albums like this one, she’ll be right up there. Not only does Live at The Factory Underground show her joy in the music, it makes that joy contagious.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Music Review: Michel Camilo - What's Up?

This article was first published at Blogcritics

First there was John Medeski’s A Different Time, then there was Billy Lester’s Storytime, and now comes Michel Camilo with What’s Up, the third in a trio of excellent solo piano jazz albums I’ve reviewed in the past few weeks. A Grammy, Emmy and Latin Grammy Award winning pianist and composer, Camilo has put together a varied collection of seven original compositions as well as four  Latin and jazz standards highlighting the breadth of his range on the instrument. As the pianist explains: “This recording expresses my desire to explore the contrasts of color, harmonic texture, rhythm and nuances of jazz piano playing. Here is my love for the many musical influences I have been exposed to over the years.”

Whether he is revisiting his Afro-Caribbean roots in tunes like Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” and his own “Island Beat” or presenting his “take on the perpetual polyrhythmic intricacies” of Paul Desmond’s
classic “Take Five,” he is taking up what he calls the biggest challenge for any jazz pianist “to contribute to the rich tradition of solo piano styles.” It is this mosaic of different styles all developed with consummate virtuosity which is the hallmark of the album.

From the upbeat energy of the title song which begins the set with an energetic boogie vibe to the final contemplative coda, “At Dawn” the focus is on stylistic variety. A Camilo original like “A Place in Time” has a darker tone with roots in the classical nocturne while “Sandra’s Serenade” plays like a piece that could have come from the pen of a composer like Erik Satie. “On Fire” is a show piece for the pianist’s flashing fingers as he burns over the keys. It is a pianistic tour de force that will leave you with your mouth hanging open. A classic like “Alone Together” gets a blues treatment, and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” has a long improvised introduction leading to the familiar melody.

What’s Up is the second release in Sony Classical’s resurrection of the fabled OKeh jazz label which is focusing on what they call “Global Expressions in Jazz.” While it is Camilo’s first effort for OKeh, it does mark the pianist’s return to the Sony Music family where he had previously recorded for Portrait, Epic and Columbia.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Comedy Review: Al Madrigal - Why is the Rabbit Crying?

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Al Madrigal’s Comedy Central Stand-up Special Why is the Rabbit Crying? scheduled to close out “Stand-up Month” on April 26th will be available in an extended and uncensored CD/DVD Combo at the end of the month as well. For something a bit over an hour, Madrigal talks about everything from the  Cholo coach of his kid’s midget football team and the competition for snack assignments to his young daughter’s invasion of his “me time” in the bathroom and his ideas for naming wi/fi networks. It takes the comic a while to hit his stride, but once he gets going, he turns in a fine set. He has the kind of pleasant, good natured stage presence that has the audience pulling for him from the moment he opens his mouth.

Perhaps best known for his appearances as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Madrigal has also shown up on a variety of late night shows including Conan, The Tonight Show, Lopez Tonight, Chelsea Lately and Jimmy Kimmel Live. He has been named Best Stand-Up Comedian by the HBO/U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. 

Essentially a story teller, he is at his best spinning out tales at length. His story about the cleaning woman who mistakenly ate some chocolates laced with hallucinogenic mushrooms back in his college days is hilarious, and the punch line of his rant on a strip mall massage is an absolute classic. His riffs on his family and raising his kids are amusing gems about the perils of child rearing. Of course, politically incorrect bits like his explanation of what a Cholo is and his search for a day laborer, he only manages to get away with because of his own Latin heritage. Even the title of the special which is a reference to gang tattoos would be taboo for an Anglo comedian. Sample video clips are available on the Comedy Central site.

Bonus material on the DVD include Madrigal’s half hour special Comedy Central Presents Al Madrigal with audio commentary by the comedian and Louis Katz, his appearance on the network’s Shorties Watchin’ Shorties and his report on the Tucson ban on Mexican-American studies from The Daily Show.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Transcendence: Debut Album of Jaimeo Brown

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The bio on New York drummer Jaimeo Brown’s website describes Transcendence, his debut album as “a tapestry of African-American spirituals, along with East Indian concepts, electronic textures, acoustic jazz and blues.” “I focused on the Black spiritual as the root of the material because of its raw unfeigned expression,” he adds. “Hope is in abundance in these spirituals.” The publicity for the new album hammers home its eclecticism, describing Brown as “a brilliant 34-year-old drummer, composer and conceptualist” and adding hip hop and modern jazz to Brown’s list to make what they call an “intriguing amalgam.” Tapestry, amalgam, mosaic, montage, medley—one metaphor is as good as another to give a sense of what Brown is doing on this album, but only a sense. The only way to get real understanding of the soundscape he is creating is to listen to the album.

And whatever you decide to call it, the one thing that is clear from the very first time you hear it is that this is an innovative album unlike any other. In the tradition of some of the true jazz giants Jaimeo Brown has developed a voice all his own. Like them he has taken the breeze from the trees and the wail from the jail and where they came up with the blues, he’s come up with something just as exciting, but something yet to be named.

Brown is joined by JD Allen on tenor sax and GRAMMY nominated guitarist Chris Sholer as well as a wealth of guest talent including pianist Geri Allen, harmonium player Andrew Shantz, East Indian vocalist Falu, and keyboardist Kelvin Sholar. Add to that some home grown family talent. There’s his parents bassist Dartanyan Brown and pianist/flautist Marcia Miget, his sister vocalist Marsha Rodriguez, and his two year old daughter who makes her vocal debut on a song called “I Said.” He also uses vocal samplings from the Gee ‘s Bend Quilters spiritual singers from rural Alabama, a group he came across while doing master’s thesis research on “How the Black Church Affected Jazz.”

There are a dozen songs on the album’s playlist, but the names would mean little. Suffice it to say that you can hear the influence of the spiritual and the blues translated into a contemporary jazz sound. The album itself is scheduled for release in early April, but right now you can get at least a taste of what Brown is doing with audio samples of “Mean World” which opens the album, “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” and the album’s final piece “This World Ain’t My Home.” This last is also available in an extended video. If you like music that pushes the envelope intellectually with emotional intensity, you ought to check it out.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

DVD Review: Chronicle of a Summer

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Chronicle of a Summer is one of those films which is a significant landmark in the history of cinema, but isn’t particularly entertaining. It is important intellectually, from its sociological roots through its experimental methodology to its philosophical and political conclusions. It is important for its technical innovations synching sound and image and making extensive use of the walking camera. It is important for what it tried to do, even if at the end the filmmakers and many of the participants felt they had failed. Unfortunately, important and entertaining are not synonymous. This is not a film that will appeal to a wide audience, but then it is very doubtful its creators, ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, ever meant it to.

Calling their experiment cinema vérité, they set out to make a film about life in France in the sixties using real people, following them in their daily activities, interviewing them about their hopes and the realities of their lives, getting them to interact with one another over dinners and a glass of wine. Given the filmmaker’s leftist leanings, especially those of Morin, it is not strange that the “real” people focused upon were unhappy factory workers, radical students and militant activists.  Morin and Rouch hoped that these people would bond in friendship as a result of their interaction in the film.

 Angelo, Marceline and Mary Lou are in many respects the most compelling characters in the film, but that very captivating screen presence raises one of the central aesthetic questions surrounding Chronicle.  The film is after all a documentary. It is presumably a faithful representation of the reality of these people. But can people be themselves when placed before a camera and under a boom microphone? Doesn’t the observer affect the observed?

Angelo works for Renault. He and his fellow workers spend their days as appendages of the machines they service. He complains about the boredom of the work he despises. He complains about the overseers constant badgering. He complains about the job’s insecurity. We follow him through one of his days: we see him awakened and wolfing down breakfast in his bed; we go with him to work and walk with him home. We are led into the factory and see the actual workers seemingly tied to their machines, even eating their lunches seated at their work stations. Of course Angelo is not happy with his job.

Marceline is a Holocaust survivor in a relationship with a younger student, a relationship that isn’t going particularly well. They have been involved with a group protesting the war in Algiers, one of the hot button issues in the summer of 1960, the summer chronicled in the film. Interestingly this information doesn’t come out in the film. She is both involved in interviewing others and subject of study herself especially with regard to her unhappy romantic relationship.

Mary Lou is an Italian working in Paris in an ill paying job. She lives in an unheated attic and at times seems almost suicidal. If by the end of the film she seems in a better place, it is the result of a new happy relationship, rather than anything that happens in the film. Her interaction with the rest of the interviewees is very limited. Moreover the film doesn’t mention the fact that she was now working in the offices of the Cahiers du cinema where she met the new unnamed boyfriend.

To many viewers, some of the most famous scenes in the movie involving these characters—Marceline’s stroll through the place de la Concorde where she recalls something of her life in the concentration camps, Angelo’s conversation with the African student, Mary Lou’s despairing descriptions of her life--seem sincere because these people are consciously emoting for the camera. The film illustrates the paradox that reality can often appear insincere, sincerity appear to be artifice. One has to ask to what extent the people in the film are being true to themselves, to what extent they are playing the versions of themselves they want the audience to see, preparing the “faces to meet the faces that you meet,” as the poet would have it.

Indeed there is a sense in which the very act of making a film negates the “reality” of what is filmed. At  best, it is reality as shaped by the artist to create the impression of truth to life. After all, Rouch and Morin didn’t simply turn on a camera and present the results.  They shot multiple takes. They edited from what they filmed. They presented their vision. Even as they themselves appear in the film, they present themselves as they want to be seen. And in the famous ending where after their walk through a museum discussing their feelings about what they’ve done, where they failed and where succeded, when Morin leaves Rouch on the street with the somewhat cryptic comment: “nous sommes dans le bain,” often translated as “we’re in trouble,” but newly translated in the Criterion version as “we’re in it,” the suggestion is that they have in fact fallen short of the objective truth they were after.

Their active intrusion on the film is emphasized in the Criterion edition by the inclusion of Une été + 50, a 75 minute documentary from 2011 containing interviews with Morin, Marceline, several of the students and others, plus a great number of outtakes which give a real insight into the filming process. Other bonus features include filmed interviews with Rouch and Marceline and an interview with academic Faye Ginsberg. There is also a thirty odd page booklet filled with still photos, production information and an excellent essay by Sam Di Iorio.

Chronicle of a Summer is a seminal film. If not the kind of film that will appeal to the general movie goer, it is a must see for anyone seriously interested in the history of cinema. And, if you can’t see it on the big screen, the Criterion Collection offers a good alternative.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: The Levanter, by Eric Ambler

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Change a few details and Eric Ambler's thriller The Levanter published over 40 years ago in 1972 could well have been written today. The story, set in Syria in 1970 with most of the Middle-East still in turmoil less than 30 years after the creation of the state of Israel, deals with a Cypriot business man who gets himself caught up in a terrorist plot hatched by a Palestinian splinter group--the kind of terrorist plot that might well be keeping the 24 hour news channels as busy, if not busier than an oil field raid and hostage taking. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Once again Ambler builds on his patented plot device where an ordinary citizen finds himself thrust into a cloak and dagger world where spies, terrorists and agents, secret and otherwise, ply their trade, a world very much outside his normal experience. As early as Ambler's very first venture in the genre, The Dark Frontier, when he had used the device to parody the thriller genre, Ambler had been enamored with the possibilities created by the idea of the novice in danger. By the time he gets to The Levanter, some 14 novels into his career, it is a device he has perfected. Essentially, it gives the reader a protagonist with whom he can identify, even as there is some reasonable question about his ability to handle the situation. The superhuman heroes like James Bond and Jack Reacher may inspire wish fulfillment, but there is rarely any question about their success. The more realistic protagonist lends the narrative his realism and creates greater suspense about the possible outcome.

Michael Howell has been effectively running a variety of family businesses based in Syria, but reaching throughout the Levant, the Middle East. He is well versed in the baroque bureaucratic chicanery necessary to conducting business. He understands the practicalities of the situation. He knows which palms to grease, which egos to pump. In other words he knows how to get things done. One evening, after his office manager and mistress Teresa reports some questionable purchases at one of his enterprises, he discovers that his factory is being surreptitiously used by members of the Palestinian Action Force to produce detonators to be used in a bombing raid in Israel. To his horror, not only does he find himself unable to stop them, but he finds himself and Teresa forced to join with the terrorists, and use his business acumen to move their plot forward.

In a fast moving first person narrative, mostly from Howell attempting to explain and   justify his actions, but also from an outside journalist and one section from Teresa to lend some further credibility to his story, Ambler manages to keep up the kind of infectious excitement that gets readers joyfully turning pages. Interestingly, sex is nearly absent from the story, and violence is minimal. There are lessons here for the modern thriller writer. Suspense is possible without pages of gore. The threat of violence left to the imagination is often more terrifying than its literal description.

Readers familiar with the work of Ambler will welcome The Levanter's new release in the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard series, as they would welcome an old friend. Readers unfamiliar with his work will find it an opportunity to meet with one of the truly great masters of the thriller genre.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Music Review: Patti LuPone - Far Away Places.

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Who better to headline the opening of 54 Below, a new night club adjacent to the heart of Manhattan's theater district, than perhaps the reigning Broadway diva, Patti LuPone? What better way to inaugurate a new series of recordings of live cabaret shows that with that diva's performance? No better way, given the critical reaction to the LuPone show, no better way by a long shot. Fans will get their chance to hear the set on January 15th when Broadway Records releases the debut disc in their "Live at 54 Below" series, Patti LuPone's Far Away Places..

From the moment LuPone opens her mouth, she has her audience in thrall. These are people, friends and fans, who know what she's selling and can't wait to buy. Their excitement is palpable and she feeds on it. It is an excitement that comes through even on the CD.

Wanderlust is the theme of the evening, as the singer takes the audience on a journey over water to far away places, interspersed with the kind of clever banter you've come to expect from a cabaret performer. While the clever jokes can get old with the repeated play the album is likely to generate, whether she is talking about her talent for accents or even her Sicilian heritage, they are certainly entertaining enough in the moment.

Still no one is going to buy the CD for the incidental comedy. The music is the thing, and the music can be 'fabulous.' She opens by setting the theme with "Gypsy in My Soul" and follows with a swinging jazzy take on Willie Nelson's "Night Life" in which she redundantly introduces herself and welcomes her audience. The first of four Kurt Weill tunes, "Bilbao Song" is next. According to the liner notes, LuPone was especially keen on performing Weill and her versions of "Bilbao" and later "Pirate Jenny” are among the evening's highlights. Somewhat surprisingly, she ends the show with "September Song" in spite of its opening lines.

Variety is the key to the set list. There as atmospheric, smoky "I Cover the Waterfront," a bluesy "Traveling Light," and a sprawling disco attack on the Bee Gee's "Nights on Broadway." There is a playfully cheeky version of "By the Sea," from Sweeny Todd and a dramatically stylish performance of Edith Piaf's "Hymn to Love." She does some jazzy phrasing on "I Wanna Be Around" before turning in a comic direction. Cole Porter's "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking" takes her on a romp all over the musical world, ending in an homage to "New York, New York." A sweetly yearning treatment of the album's title song "Far Away Places" and an exotic version of Friedrich Hollaender's "Black Market" that will make you forget Marlene Dietrich round out the album.

Accompanying LuPone are Antony Geralis (accordion and keyboards), Larry Saltzman (guitar and banjo), Andy Stein (violin and saxophone) and Paul Pizzuti (drums and percussion). Music director and arranger Joseph Thalken plays piano and helps with vocals.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Les Misérables 10th anniversary concert: Review

This article was first published at Blogcritics

The newly remastered DVD of the glorious 1995 tenth anniversary concert of Les Misérables with 5.1 Surround Sound  released last November by BBC Home Entertainment has got to be the definitive recorded version of the much beloved musical to date. Not only is it a presentation of nearly the compete show, but it gathers together what is often thought of as the dream cast for the performance. Music is in the hands of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with the addition of a chorus 150 voices strong. It is nothing less than a complete joy.

That it comes so close in time to the opening of its Academy Award nominated celluloid cousin is perhaps a mixed blessing. No doubt it will profit some from the hoopla and publicity surrounding the film. Those movie goers who enjoy the film may well want to hear what it sounded like on stage. On the other hand there will be those so impressed by the star power of a Hugh Jackman and maybe even an Anne Hathaway that they choose to wait for the film DVD. That would be a mistake. As effective as the film is, it can't compete with the stage version. Even in concert, where the cast is in costume but performs before microphones at the front of the stage, the show is an emotional powerhouse. One gets caught up in it and it is very easy to forget they are on stage.

There is, of course, a more recent concert version celebrating the 25 anniversay of the show available on DVD, and for those of us who thrill to the music of Schönberg and Boublil, it has its excellent moments as well, what it doesn't have is Colm Wilkinson, the original and the definitive Jean Valjean. Not that there is anything wrong with its star, Alfie Boe. He has an operatic voice that soars with power, but he is not Wilkinson. Wilkinson has a voice that is unique and his version of "Who am I?" is a dramatic tour de force, his "One Day More" stirs the soul, his "Bring Him Home" is unmatchable. Indeed once you've heard him, he becomes the measure by which to judge all the Valjeans since and all still to come.
Other definitive performances in the 10 anniversary concert are Alun Armstrong and Jenny Galloway (who also appears in the 25 concert) as the Thénardiers. Lea Salonga who sings the tragically doomed Fantine in the newer version sings the tragically doomed Éponine in the 1995 concert, a role she did in the Broadway production. Moreover in the 1995 concert you get the excellent Michael Ball playing Marius instead of the boyishly miscast Nick Jonas. As for the villain, Philip Quast an Australian, though no Russell Crowe) is a perfect Javert.

From some of the critical reaction to the current film, there are those it would seem, not quite enthralled with the music. They find much of the recitative puerile. They call much of it treacle. They dislike the repetition of the melodies. Of course, they are not the first to find fault with the show. London reviewers dumped on it when it opened in 1985; the London reviewers were wrong, and if popular reaction is any indication so too are the current complainers. While the verdict is still out on the film and its handling of the music, the verdict on the music has long been in. Puerile, treacle, repetitious be damned—audiences love it. There are musical moments in this show that stay with you forever—the comic "Master of the House, "the majestic finale of the first act, Javert's suicide, the death of Valjean, the. . . . but why go on, you really have to list every musical number in the show.

Bonus material on the two disc set includes some twenty minutes of newly discovered interview material with producer Cameron Mackintosh, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. There is also a British documentary from 1988, Stage by Stage: The Making of Les Mis which was included on the DVD's original release. It features performance footage from a number of productions from around the world. There is also a little commemorative booklet with some nice pictures, but no complete cast listing, and a replica of the ticket to the London reception after the show. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

DVD Review: The Tin Drum (Criterion Collection)

This article was first published at Blogcritics

In spite of the critical success of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum, the first volume of The Danzig Trilogy, after its publication in 1959, for many years it was considered a daunting if not impossible project to adapt to the screen.  There was the great span of time it covered, the proper tone required to handle its fantastic events, as well as the salacious nature of some of the content. But even more problematical was the novel's central character Oskar Matzerath, a child who on his third birthday refuses to grow any further. He it seemed would have been impossible to cast. That director Volker Schlöndorff and his collaborating screen writer Jean-Claude Carrière were able to come up with a script that impressed Grass with its possibilities and then find a child actor small enough in starure, yet old enough to play Oskar is among the most remarkable things about this most remarkable film.

Originally released in 1979, the film which won both the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film was a shortened version of Schlöndorff's initial cut which ran well over the producer's requirement that it run no more than two and a quarter hours. With the film's great success, Schlöndorff wanted to restore the cuts, but producers were adamant that it would be a mistake to tamper with a winner. When in 2009 Schlöndorff was made aware that the original film negative which was being stored in Berlin was about to be destroyed, he agreed to take charge of it and convinced the powers that be to restore the cuts, adding  about 30 minutes to the film's running time. 

This restored director approved high-definition digital transfer of the complete version with a newly translated English subtitles is the centerpiece of the new two disc set in the Criterion Collection.
Although the film begins with a scene in which Oskar's grandmother squatting in a potato field hides a man running from a pair of decidedly Keystone-type Kops under her skirts, the man who is to become Oskar's grandfather, most of the narrative takes place after Oskar's birth, the period after WWI and the rise of the Nazis in what was then the free city of Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk. While the novel carries through to 1959, the film ends in 1945 with the Russian invasion of the city and the removal of much of the populace. Of the terms used to characterize the film, absurdist and surreal are the most apt. Schlöndorff, talking about Grass's reaction to their initial screenplay, says that he found it too logical. It needed to emphasize the fantastic. In the end it had to be treated as dark or black comedy, almost slapstick.

Oskar's refusal to grow up, when on his third birthday he receives what is to become his ubiquitous tin drum, is seen as a rejection of the responsibilities that come with adulthood. He wants a darker version of a Peter Pan-like freedom to do as he pleases. Not only does he want to march to his own drum, he wants everyone else to march to it as well. When he discovers that his high pitched screams can shatter glass, he learns that he can manage the adults and get them to do what he wants, without any responsibility for his behavior.  On the other hand, given the childish often immoral behavior of the adults around him, his rejection makes sense. His mother, father and uncle are engaged in a love triangle. They do little to keep their sexual peccadilloes quiet. The German neighbors and townsfolk fall prey to the Nazi pomp and propaganda. If this is what it is like to be an adult, why not remain a child?

Punctuating Oskar's narrative of some of the major historical events of first half of the last century are a series of memorable set pieces, unforgettable moments and images that will bury themselves deep in the consciousness: Oskar's birth as we emerge with him out of his mother's womb almost fully grown, the horse's head filled with eels pulled out  of the ocean by a fisherman as the family walks the beach, the Nazi rally that turns into a waltz fest, the Nazi attack on the nuns walking on the beach. Not to mention the troublesome sexuality of the scene in the bath house between Oskar and Maria the young girl who is destined to become his stepmother—a scene, along with one or two others that was to create some trouble for the film with censors in Canada and Oklahoma.

The Tin Drum is a challenging film that defies easy interpretation. It depicts a world in chaos, a world where traditional values have lost their meaning, and if there are any new ones they aren't working. It is that world where that famous beast has already slouched toward Bethlehem and been born. Schlödorff presents an insane vision of that insane world, a nightmarish vision that is shocking in its visceral accuracy.

Besides the trailer, this new Criterion Collection set includes an illuminating hour long interview with Schlöndorff filmed in 2012, a recording of Grass reading the passage from the novel describing Oskar's disruption of the Nazi rally illustrated by the scene in the film, and a number of early French television interviews with Schlödorff, Carrière and a few of the actors, most notably David Bennent who plays Oskar. The accompanying booklet has an essay, "Bang the Drum Loudly," by critic Geoffrey Macnab and some comments from Grass about the adaptation. It does not include the documentary Banned in Oklahoma which was included as bonus material in Criterion's 2004 release.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Near the end of The Flame Alphabet Ben Marcus's rhapsodic apocalyptic novel of a world where language has become toxic, Sam, the narrator, commenting on a fable of a young bird blindfolded as a rite of passage, says: "I am no fan of stories, perhaps because they seem more like problems that will never be solved. . . ." And although in many respects, The Flame Alphabet may be the most accessible of Marcus's books, he will find few fans among readers who like Sam prefer problems with solutions. Certainly there is a story here. Certainly that story seems to be saying something about language, communication and human socialization, but just as certainly, exactly what that story is saying may indeed seem like a problem that will never be solved.

Set in an America where adults are becoming mysteriously sickened by the speech of children, the story chronicles one man's attempt to find an antidote and save his family from the growing menace. Sam and his wife Claire seem a normal family with a young teen age daughter. Or at least they would be, if it wasn't that every time the girl speaks, indeed every time they hear any child speak they are sickened. Claire is wasting away, drying up, calcifying. And it isn't only them, all the adults  all over the country are having the same problem. Sam, an amateur, is doing his bumbling best to find a cure. 

They are members of a sect of reconstructionist Jews who worship secretly in huts in the forest, where they listen to sermons piped in electronically from holes in the ground. It is suggested that at least some people think that the sickness originated with these Jews and that somehow there are answers to be found in these hidden "Jew holes." Whether this is an anti-Semitic society looking for scapegoats is never really clear. Much of what is done to deal with the problem is at least a metaphoric allusion to Nazi solutions, final and otherwise. Children are carted away to unknown destinations on buses. People are forced out of their homes. People are used in medical experiments. These measures however are not particularly aimed at the Jews.

If at first the sickness is caused by the speech of children, gradually all language—written or spoken, indeed any form of human communication from any source becomes poisonous. While this would seem to suggest that Marcus is saying something about the existential betrayal of language, it would also suggest that using language to make a point about the failure of language is doomed to fail.  It goes beyond language: "This was not a disease of language anymore, it was a disease of insight, understanding, knowing." The book in a sense becomes the ultimate example of itself. Of course it provides no definitive answers; no answer is the answer. Like the blindfolded bird in the story which learns to live with the blindness, we must learn to live without the noise of language. Yet when it comes right down to it, Sam like Marcus turns to language. This is the ultimate paradox for the writer. Language is as likely to confuse as not. Words don't work, but what else does he have?

On the other hand, if in fact, Marcus is maintaining the inadequacy of language it is as likely as not that everything I have just said is inadequate. In the end, what can one say about The Flame Alphabet with any definitiveness. Certainly nothing definitive about what it all means. Any reader looking for definitive would do well to look elsewhere. On the other hand the reader happily willing to be teased out of thought by the venom of language will find The Flame Alphabet one of the most interesting of books of recent years.