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.