Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rediscovery: Johannesburg Street Band "Dancin' Through The Streets"

A Hugh Masekela album in everything but name, Dancin' Through The Streets (UNI, 1968), credited to the non-existent "Johannesburg Street Band," is an extremely obscure album of hi-lite jive, or African jazz, that's unlikely to ever appear on CD.

Masekela recorded the majority of the album in Los Angeles in January 1968, a couple of months before laying down his number one hit "Grazing in the Grass," with several members of his band at the time (Bruce Langhorne, Al Abreau and Henry Franklin) and Wayne Henderson and Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders.

Like Africa '68, another Masekela album not credited to Masekela, recorded and released on UNI around the same time as this album, Dancin' Through The Streets catches a side of Masekela's personality - or his past - that wasn't exactly to be heard on the more commercial albums released at the time under his own name.

Oddly, this record gives no musician credits whatsoever other than what Masekela hints at on his sleeve notes, leading one to suspect that the musicians performing the music are very much in Johannesburg, prisoners of Apartheid's terrifying régime:

"Almost all the gentleman who play this music will never be able to leave South Africa even if they were ready and able. These sounds are to be heard only in the municple "native" townships. The music is recorded for "native" consumption on breakable 78 rpm discs or played at the all-night-till-daybreak dances that come with gang stabbings, shootings and frantic dancing. Most of the music is centered around the same three chords repeated over and over and memorized by ear because of the remoteness of musical education possibilities. Everyone has to learn in these 'MARABI' or 'MBAQANGA' bands. Many of these gentlemen will leave this world through frustration, sclerosis, insanity or some homicidal accident as they did when I was learning to play, but the love with which they play their music is immortal. We dedicate these their sounds to their beautiful souls and to the hope that their beautiful music will finally be heard everywhere." -HUGH MASEKELA

This apt description of the music and the musicians who make it also reflects well upon the album under scrutiny. The ever well-spoken Masekela has endeavored to share this exciting music with people outside of the terrifying confines of South African townships.

The ten songs heard here, which amount to a measly 24 and a half minutes (skimpy even by LP standards of the time), are all repetitive, up-tempo dance tunes that recall some of those great shebeen and hi-lite (hi-life) bands of South Africa, of which the African Jazz Pioneers are probably best known. Masekela came up in these sorts of groups while still a teen in Johannesburg.

Side one opens with trumpeter Elijah Nkwanyana's beautiful "Thimlela," the album's single best number. This was also the sole single released from the album (UNI SS-73022), but probably didn't garner the radio play it richly deserved. In 1956, Nkwanyana named Masekela as his replacement in the African Jazz & Variety Show, which Masekela credits as his gateway to what he went on to achieve. Masekela later dedicated "Elijah" to Nkwanyana on his 1989 album Uptownship and revisited the composer's "Thimlela" most wonderfully on his excellent 2002 album Time.

South African chanteuse and songwriter Dorothy Masuka's "What's the Matter Zulu?" follows. Rising to fame in the African Ink Spots for her talent as a singer as well as her striking beauty, Masuka (b. 1935) has always been a most accomplished songwriter, though her political concerns got her exiled from South Africa for 30 years. Miriam Makeba performed many of Masuka's songs, including "Cameroon," "Khawuyani-Khanyange," "Khawuleza" (which Masekela later performed on Black To The Future and Live At The Market Theatre), "Ha Po Zamani" and others probably incorrectly credited by record labels to Ms. Makeba, bringing the singer/songwriter the international attention and acclaim she finally enjoys today.

Then comes South African ex-patriot Ben Mrwebi's (d. 1973) party anthem "Gwigwi," the song which gave Mrwebi his adopted first name. Saxophonist Mrwebi was in a band called The Jazz Dazzlers with Masekela and Kippie Moeketsi that recorded three tracks for the Gallo label in 1960 (which were issued on a 1991 CD titled Township Swing Jazz! Vol. 2 ) that swing just as madly as "Gwigwi" does here. Masekela also recorded Mrwebi's "Sipho" on his 1965 album Grrr.

Masekela contributes three of his own numbers to the program, the rather familiar sounding "Special Branch" (named for the feared, lawless police in Apartheid-era South Africa), "No Passport" (also known as "Awe Mfana," the title it appears under on the 2006 CD compilation Hugh Masekela Presents The Chisa Years 1965-1975 (Rare And Unreleased)), and "Foyi-Foyi." Each of these is instantly recognizable as coming from the pen of Hugh Masekela and if he's done them elsewhere, then I just haven't figured it out yet.

Masekela's former wife, Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), is credited with two songs here, the well-known "Pata Pata," her huge hit from the year before, which is actually said to have been written by Dorothy Masuka, and the uplifting "Letter To Prospect Township," which doesn't seem to have been covered anywhere else. Masekela gives "Pata Pata" a most rousing arrangement here, as he would years later to another song from this Makeba album, "Ring Bell," on his 1977 album with Herb Alpert.

Makeba's daughter, Bongi (1950-85), who was sort of adopted by Masekela during his brief marriage to her mother, had already proven to be a remarkable songwriter by the time of her teens and contributed "Isangoma" to this disc. By the early 1970s, Bongi was not only featured in her mother's band but contributed the majority of the songs to the repertoire. Her mother even turned the stage over to the miraculously talented daughter for features of her own. Sadly, Bongi died during childbirth in 1985 and rests forever in Guinea, where she and her mother were living at the time. Miriam Makeba would later cover this song as "Witch Doctor" on her 1978 album Country Girl, which was arranged and produced by Hugh Masekela.

The album wraps up with what is, perhaps its best known piece, Alan Silinga's poetic "Ntyilo, Ntyilo" (also known as "Ntjilo, Ntjilo"). Silinga (1921-2007) had quickly become a very popular songwriter in South Africa during the 1950s and it was he who was responsible for getting Miriam Makeba some of her first recording opportunities. He wrote this song, which is also known as "The Love Bird" and "The Bird Song," especially for Miss Makeba, who first recorded it while still in South Africa. The song became a huge hit, but Silinga's writing talents did not equal his business sense (or whatever agreements he was forced into) and he never got the proceeds this song and many of his others truly earned for him. "I always have difficulty in explaining 'Ntyilo Ntyilo'," Silinga once claimed. "All things must be in the imagination. I heard a bird singing in the bush and as I came close to it, it was singing very sweetly. It was heard to sing a thrilling song, Ntyilo Ntyilo. The song is supposed to be beautiful, and if I achieved that, I achieved what I set out to do." Masekela has covered this pretty song throughout his career, starting with The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba (1962), as "Unohilo (The Bird)" on The Lasting Impression of Hugh Masekela (1965), the celebratory video Homecoming Concert (1991), Hope (1993) and with pianist Bheki Mseleku for the video promo for Timelessness (1993).

While Masekela pays sincere and sympathetic tribute to his past and his country's musical heroes here, what's missing on Dancin' Through The Streets is some of the joy and fun this music must have possessed and inspired among its township patrons. Perhaps it's the surprising lack of improvisation present on the album. It almost seems as if there was no joy in it whatsoever for the musicians.

Unfortunately, all of the words I've devoted to the music here confounds the rather boring presentation. It all deserved something a bit more memorable. Maybe that's why no one paid attention to it in the first place. It's certainly not going to help revive this music on CD. Still, any Hugh Masekela fan will want to hear this music and, I hope, this summary can aid in either its importance or the significance it should have.

Despite the album's relative obscurity, it is worth noting that a long-standing band called the Sun Sounds Orchestra, based in Detroit, Michigan, covered five of the tunes heard on Dancin' Through The Street ("Ntyilo-Ntyilo," "Special Branch," "Letter To Prospect Township," "Foyi-Foyi" and "Isangoma") on their 1990 Eastlawn CD Open The Doors.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rediscovery: Africa '68

While South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has recorded scores of great records since the mid 1960s, one of his very finest achievements is this little-known triumph called Africa '68 (UNI).

This mysterious album was recorded in late 1967 between the trumpeter's Hugh Masekela Is Alive and Well at the Whiskey (UNI, 1967) and the career hit of "Grazing In The Grass" from The Promise Of A Future (UNI, 1968).

The album bears no credit whatsoever except a promo sticker affixed to the front cover stating "Hugh Masekela Presents the Exciting Sounds of Africa And Its People" and descriptive liner notes from the trumpeter himself, who served as co-producer (with partner Stewart Levine) and - obviously, though not stated - musical director of this grand project of mbaqanga music.

It probably goes without saying that this album has never appeared on CD. Hardly anyone even knows about it. And, despite its American origins, it is truly one of the finest examples of South African township music from the 1960s you could ever hope to hear.

A lot of hugely talented young musicians had fled the tyranny of South African Apartheid in the early 1960s and a surprisingly cogent contingent ended up in Los Angeles around the mid-1960s (another contingent ended up in London, but that's another story). A sort of community developed, where these folks got record contracts and helped each other out on their respective recordings.

Hugh Masekela was undoubtedly the best known of all of them at the time. He had already been married (and now separated from) the great Miriam Makeba, "Mama Africa," who sort of nurtured all of these young South African musicians.

By this time, Masekela had relocated to California, where he formed great friendships with great West Coast musicians and some of Hollywood's elite. Also there was the great composer, singer and musician Caiphus Semenya (who'd written a number of incredible tunes for Masekela, most notably "Ha Lese Le Di Khanna"), and his wife (and one of the finest singers to ever enhance our planet) Letta Mbulu, and Jonas Gwangwa and his wife at the time, the strikingly lovely and provocative singer, Mamsie.

The beautiful and ethereal Mbulu, who was more or less "discovered" by Cannonball Adderley, and Gwangwa, whose catchy instrumentals assured him of some promise, had already secured recording deals in the US. In 1966, Masekela had partnered with friend and producer Stewart Levine to form Chisa, a production company allowing him to do whatever he wanted, as long as he delivered the "pop" records UNI wanted - which, of course, he did.

Africa '68 was one of the first and very few such productions - a true reflection on Masekela's South African musical ideals, and one of the most honest expressions of music he ever recorded (another one, recorded shortly after this in early 1968, is a studio concoction called the Johannesburg Street Band on its 1968 UNI record titled Dancin' Through The Streets, a good Township Jive venture, but nowhere near as noteworthy as Africa '68).

There are no musician credits on the record, but it's pretty obvious that Masekela - who probably served as musical director - is on trumpet, vocals, background vocals and probably many of the arrangements heard here too. Letta Mbulu obviously leads on many of the songs. And it's a safe bet that Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya make significant contributions to the music too.

I stumbled across a copy of this album at my friend Jerry Horton's long-gone and lamented store, The Record Mart in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1990 for five dollars and 95 cents. It's safe to say that he had no idea how incredibly valuable this music is. I had no idea when I bought it either.

My favorite songs here are probably my favorite songs of all time: Caiphus Semenya's "Uyaz' Gabisa" and "Kedumetse;" Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya's "Noyana;" and Philemon ("Grazing In The Grass") Hou's "Thokozile." For the record, here is the album's lineup:

Side One:
1. Uyaz' Gabisa (Caiphus Semenya) - 3:15
2. Noyana (Jonas Gwangwa/Caiphus Semenya) - 2:45
3. Pretoria (P. Hou) - 2:07
4. Joala (E. Mohlami/C. Semenya) - 2:00
5. Aredza (Caiphus Semenya) - 2:35

Side Two:
1. Kedumetse (Caiphus Semenya) - 2:53
2. Umoya (Miriam Makeba) - 2:08
3. Thokozile (P. Hou) - 2:52
4. Bopedi (Hugh Masekela/E. Mohlomi) - 6:15

The album's original issue number is UNI 73020.

On LP, "Uyaz' Gabisa," "Aredza," " Kedumetse" and "Umoya" were also said to be included on the South African only issue of Letta Mbulu's album I'll Never Be The Same. "Aredza" and " Kedumetse" were also issued on the European compilation titled Letta Mbulu - Gold.

If you want to hear any of this music on CD, "Joala," "Aredza," and "Za Labalaba," another title that's probably from this session but not included on this album can be heard - performed under the weird alias "The Zulus" - on the CD Hugh Masekela Presents The Chisa Years 1965-1975 (Rare And Unreleased).

Of course, Ms. Mbulu had also recorded "Aredza" around the same time for her 1967 Capitol album Letta Mbulu Sings, which can also be heard on the 2005 Stateside CD Letta Mbulu Sings/Free Soul and Ms. Makeba had recorded her own "Umoya" for the breathtaking Warner Bros. album Makeba!, featured on the 2002 Collectables CD Miriam Makeba In Concert/Pata Pata/Makeba!.

Truly bountiful, beautiful and beneficent, this music absolutely should be heard by anyone who likes or cares for the music of Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, Caiphus Semenya or Jonas Gwangwa. It is among the best work any of these great artists have ever done.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Steve Kuhn "Life's Backward Glances"

Where pianists are concerned, jazz and its patrons are vocal about their signifiers. It's difficult to pick an era in the music that doesn't have at least one representative one can argue about or one abstractor who leads the art into the next era.

So how does one "peg" pianist Steve Kuhn?

Perhaps it's wise not too. The Harvard educated pianist had his earliest affiliations with Kenny Dorham, Stan Getz, Art Farmer and John Coltrane. All high-profile names to be sure. But Kuhn's music, as commanding as it was, didn't seem to fit in with any one these revered legends. Indeed, Coltrane fired the pianist after only two months.

It seems to echo what it must have been like to work in the Bush White House. Tow the company line - in the name of whatever - or you'll get booted.

Kuhn is not about doing what's expected. Even though the Steve Kuhn of the 1960s (Three Waves, The October Suite) is hardly the Steve Kuhn of the 1970s (Steve Kuhn, Trance) and nothing at all like the Steve Kuhn of the 80s, 90s and 00s, whose vast recorded output has been courtesy of labels all well outside the bounds of his native United States, Kuhn has never ever stooped to the predictable or declined to the marketable.

He is an artist, through and through. And judging by the sadness of so much of his music, he has suffered as an artist often does. That's probably why he's never earned an American recording contract. American record companies don't generally buy in to such rabid iconoclasm. Some of us, though, do. And, thankfully, there are great artist-oriented labels like ECM that do too.

Following last year's Japanese-only release of Steve Kuhn's The Early 70's, featuring the entire contents of Steve Kuhn (1971) and six never-before issued tracks from 1973 (four of which were later recorded for the ECM album Trance), ECM has issued this "three-fer" set titled Life's Backward Glances, featuring three of the eight albums Kuhn has recorded for ECM (unfortunately 1978's Non-Fiction remains out of print, even though it would have been perfect for this collection).

It's probably not the set I would have put together. But it's a remarkable set none the less, spotlighting Kuhn's solo Ecstasy (1974), the often brilliant Motility (1977) and Playground (1979).

Ecstasy is a solo piano date. Motility finds Kuhn in a quartet with Steve Slagle on soprano sax, alto sax and flute, Harvie Swartz (now Harvie S) on bass and the unfortunately departed Michael Smith on drums. Playground is another quartet, with vocalist Sheila Jordan trading licks with Kuhn and Swartz again on bass and Bob Moses on drums.

The first disc, Motility, contains many of the set's greatest charms. Kuhn contributes some of his strongest playing on his own "Oceans In The Sky," "Deep Tango," "The Child Is Gone" and "A Danse For One." Swartz contributes what are arguably the set's two best tunes, "Catherine" and "Places I've Never Been," which also elicit some marvelous passages from the pianist.

Playground, the set's second disc, is obviously more geared to Kuhn's "songs" as they all feature vocalist Jordan emoting Kuhn's plaintive and poetically simple and painful lyrics. Kuhn had performed some of these tunes before, singing himself on "Tomorrow's Son" (aka "Time To Go") and "The Zoo" (aka "Pearlie's Swine") - both heard on the 1971 album Steve Kuhn, featuring arrangements by Gary McFarland - and "Poem For No. 15" (aka "The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers") and "Life's Backward Glance" from Ecstasy. Jordan seems to be recorded somewhat in the background here, which is a little strange at first, but becomes much more engaging as it goes on. Kuhn almost bristles with magic here, freed from the demands of singing himself, and expounding on his extremely unusual yet still entrancingly melodic songs.

The set's final disc, Ecstasy, is Kuhn's very first solo recording, caught at producer Manfred Eicher's insistence on the day after recording the excellent and more electric Trance (which is not included here) in November 1974. Featured here are the lovely and lyrical "Silver," an ode to Kuhn's former lover, vocalist Monica Zetterlund, "Ulla" (aka "Remembering Tomorrow") and the eponymous "Life's Backward Glance."

The beauty of Life's Backward Glances is its artistic strength. There is a vitality here that justifies not only a significant facet of Steve Kuhn's musical career but also showcases an iconoclastic artist with his own vision, his own voice and his own view and individual artistry. This is a highly recommended musical achievement by an iconoclast who still gets many recording opportunities, mostly thanks to the brilliant Japanese label, Venus Records.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra "Chariots of the Gods?"

Today, the German arm of Universal Music Group is releasing a CD of the complete version of composer Peter Thomas' magnificent soundtrack score to the 1970 film Chariots of the Gods? - aka Erinnerungen an die Zukunft.

(By way of full disclosure, I was involved in the production of this particular CD and benefit in absolutely no way from the promotion or the sale of the CD.)

Based on the first two books by Erich von Däniken proposing that ancient wonders of the world are the result of alien intervention, the film has had a history almost as strange as Däniken's initial proposition.

Directed by the famed German genre specialist Harald Reinl (1908-86), Chariots of the Gods? opened in Germany in April 1970 and, despite hardly any American attention whatsoever, garnered a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, losing out to Woodstock - perhaps the more positive reflection of who we were and where we were at the time.

Despite the rabid popularity of Däniken's book, most Americans didn't even know a Chariots of the Gods? film even existed. The rights to the film were eventually purchased by an American producer, who sliced it and diced it down to a 1973 NBC-TV special narrated by Rod Serling called In Search Of Ancient Astronauts. Finally, another American distributor, Sun International Productions, purchased the rights to the film and gave it a proper American premier in 1974, at which time it did quite well playing cheap theaters for a couple weeks at a time. Now derided as a "pseudo documentary," the film maintains a pretty strong cult following to this day.

The soundtrack has also had a weird history. Polydor issued the Erinnerungen an die Zukunft soundtrack in 1970, combining 18 of Peter Thomas' cues into two suites, one on each side of the record.

On side one is the 17:40 suite titled "Erinnerungen an die Zukunft" (which translates as "Memories of the Future," the German title of Däniken's first book, titled Chariots of the Gods? in America) and on side two is the 17:21 suite titled "Zurück zu den Sternen" (which translates as "Return To The Stars," the German title to Däniken's second book, titled Gods From Outer Space in America). This version of the soundtrack was also issued in Germany on a now long-out-of-print CD in 1998.

In 1972, Polydor issued this soundtrack on vinyl in other parts of Europe, using the same cover graphics and suite combinations, though replacing the German title with the better-known English title. Finally, when the film won its 1974 American release, the American Polydor label issued a soundtrack album that actually broke the suites up into their original 18 cues and used the American film poster art for the LP's cover.

This new CD maintains the individuality of the LP's original 18 cues and the American cover art PLUS adds 10 additional cues from the film that have never been released in any form before. As one of the disc's producers, I wanted to be sure to include as much of Maestro Thomas' music as humanly possible (anyone who has seen the film knows that it is filled with music - only about six out of the film's 93 minutes features no music at all). We opted against adding a few pieces of electronic sound effects that really didn't add anything musical to the proceedings and probably only totaled about 2 minutes of time.

The film tends to repeat certain cues quite often, which explains why there isn't an 80-some minute score, and some of the cues on the CD were never even used in the final film.

We also tried programming the disc in such a way that makes sense for the film but, more importantly, works as a great piece of music, with the requisite drama and adventure of something grand, like a symphony.

The end result is nearly a full hour of one of Peter Thomas' most glorious musical works ever. There are many wondrous musical moments here. My favorite is probably "The Bible: Book of Ezekiel." But I would need both hands to count the many highlights present in this genuinely thrilling musical journey.

Another bonus we've included here is Peter Thomas' nearly Blaxploitation-like version of the film's main theme, recorded in New York with American musicians in early 1974. American Polydor had asked Thomas to record an "American version" of the film's theme to release as a single, timed to the film's American opening that year. For whatever reason, though, the single was never issued in America.

The single was, however, issued in Germany and Thomas also included it in Reinl's next filmed voyage into Däniken's theories, Botschaft der Götter/Mysteries of the Gods (1976), and on the Polydor soundtrack of the same name, which was only issued in Germany (the song also appears on an out-of-print CD from 1992 titled Peter Thomas Film Musik).

Chariots of the Gods? should be pretty readily available at most of the online outlets. But it's a sure bet that Dusty Groove in the US and Movie Grooves in the UK will have it if you want to support the better shops that tend to carry this kind of music. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as we did bringing it together.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Louis Bellson - RIP

Louis Bellson's website today announced his Febrauary 14 passing in Los Angeles. The great jazz drummer had been recovering from a hip-breaking fall in November. Born July 6, 1924, in Rock Falls, Illinois, Bellson went on to become one of the best known jazz drummers of all time, playing with all the greats like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, JATP and leading bands of his own right up until the last few years.

In 1964, the drummer showcased his range and extensive percussive talents on Explorations (Roulette Birdland), a fairly brilliant meeting with composer Lalo Schifrin. The composer would modify these pieces to form a concert work titled Three Pieces For Percussion And Strings (1966), which also featured Bellson, and later utlize certain individual pieces for his soundtrack work ("Variations," from this album, for example, was used extensively during the first season on Mannix).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gerry Niewood and Coleman Mellet - RIP

How sad it was to get the news today from my good friend Arnaldo DeSouteiro about the passing of reed player Gerry Niewood, who shares my April 6 birthday, but his was in 1943, and guitarist Coleman Mellet, who grew up in my neck of the woods, the Washington, DC, area, and was only 33 or 34 years old.

Both were among the 50 who perished in the February 12 crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence, New York. The two musicians, both New Jersey residents, were on their way to perform with Chuck Mangione for a concert in Buffalo, New York.

While Mellet was a veteran of the Sugarman Three, his wife Jeannie Bryson's group and an organ trio featuring Blue Note vet Ben Dixon, Niewood, a child friend of Mangione's, had played with Chuck Mangione since the late 1960s, when the reed player was still in high school.

I'm sorry to say that I don't know much about Mellet's music.

Niewood, however, had a beautiful tone on sax and an especially lovely touch for the flute. He also had a special knack for accompanying such singers as Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Cleo Laine and Esther Satterfield as well.

Niewood had tried making a go of a solo career several times, recording for A&M (Mangione's label at the time) in 1975 and 1976, DMP in 1985, Perfect Sound in 1988 and Native Language in 2002.

But while his solo career never really took off, he also accepted session work in the 1970s that led to some sessions for CTI Records (Grover Washington, Jr.'s A Secret Place, Lalo Schifrin's Towering Toccata, Patti Austin's Havana Candy) and Bob James's Heads (Tappan Zee) among others.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Endless Night

At first blush, it may seem surprising that Alfred Hitchcock never touched upon the work of Agatha Christie. Both were contemporaries in British arts, prolific and exceedingly popular, and each made successful careers out of the intricate and fascinating art of murder. But Hitchcock had very little use for whodunits and the bulk of Christie's work reveled in the form.

Endless Night is a pleasant exception in Christie's work. It's still a whodunit of sorts. But like some such later novels as the wonderful Miss Marple adventure, Nemesis (1971), the motivation is much more psychologically driven than before.

First published in 1967, Endless Night is a late-period novel that contains none of Christie's famed "sleuths" as Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple or Tommy and Tuppence. The mystery itself unfolds to reveal buried layers of psychology, in a manner most unlike any of Christie's previously prodigious who-benefits-by-the-will murder mysteries.

Most startlingly of all for Agatha Christie, the story is told in the first person, from the main male character's point of view. Like the novel D'Entre Les Mortes, which was the basis for the film Vertigo - or, to a lesser degree, the novels of Strangers on a Train and Marnie - Endless Night seems written especially for Alfred Hitchcock. One has to wonder if Hitchcock, following the failures of both Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), wasn't considering something very much like Endless Night (he ended up doing the fine Frenzy, his first British film in over three decades).

In this 1972 film, British director and screenwriter Sidney Gilliat (1908-94) crafted Christie's story very much in the Hitchcock tradition. Gilliat had earlier worked with the master, writing scripts for Hitchcock's brilliant The Lady Vanishes (1938 - which was remade in 1979) and the less exciting Jamaica Inn (1939), the last two films Hitchcock made in Britain before coming to Hollywood. His direction here is hardly outstanding. But the script, where his real talent lies, is worth discussing.

The cast features a notable group of character actors including George Sanders (who appeared in Hitchcock's first two American films, Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny in James Bond) and Britt Ekland (a Bond girl in 1974).

The film benefits most by a very Hitchcock-like score from the magnificent Bernard Herrmann (1911-75). This is a classic in every sense of the word and one of those Herrmann masterpieces that has, despite my attempts in the past, regrettably never been issued on CD or LP.

Living in a sort of exile in London at the time, Herrmann hadn't really recaptured the magic he lent to such Hitchcock classics as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds or Marnie.

Until Endless Night, a film which shares much of the psychological drama of both Vertigo and Marnie, Herrmann sort of floundered - dealing with a new generation of expectations for film scoring (trying to attract the teen market with pop songs). This score is tremendous; often using a Moog synthesizer (in my mind, to suggest a haunted soul) in place of what probably would have been a Theremin in years past.

The score's only drawback is the delivery of the main theme, which is set to a fragment of a William Blake poem that lent Christie's story its title. During the main titles, it's an instrumental set against crashing waves with crashing string arpeggios, which seems just a bit over the top. It's also performed as a vocal piece that finds a soprano (who is played by Hayley Mills in the film) singing in a way that sounds contrived, nearly unreal. Maybe that's the point. But it detracts from Herrmann's otherwise wonderful score - and the film's beautiful presentation of his music.

Mike Rogers (Hywel Bennett), a young working class man who drifts from job to job, discovers a beautiful plot of land for sale called Gipsy's Acre and dreams of building the perfect house on it. One day there, he meets the beautiful young Ellie (Hayley Mills), who also appreciates the beauty of Gipsy's Acre, but both are startled by a strange woman who warns them that the property is cursed and will only bring misfortune to anyone who purchases it. Mike later discovers that Ellie is in fact "the sixth richest girl in the world" and, having turned 21, is now in control of her own vast fortune. She reveals that she has bought Gipsy's Acre and will build the house that Mike wants and, despite the obstacles in their divergent backgrounds, the two decide to marry and move into the house together. Their marriage shocks everyone in Ellie's "family" but is welcomed by Ellie's companion and former tutor, Greta (Britt Ekland). After the house is built, Greta comes to visit and, much to Mike's displeasure, Ellie encourages her to stay on.

The death, such as it is, comes much later in the story here than it would in a Hitchcock story, which probably explains why many viewers consider this film a poor imitation of Hitchcock. But this isn't fair. It comes as a dramatic crescendo, indicating that Agatha Christie had larger fish to fry than merely providing a boring police procedural, elusive investigation or even a basic whodunit. As in reality, death here comes as an unexpected surprise. It seems impossible that it should be murder. What's even more confounding is not who did it, but why it should have occurred in the first place.

The film, unlike the book, also hints throughout at Mike's bi- or homosexuality. Certain scenes suggest Mike's father molested him as a child. Even at the bitter end, Mike professes that he only ever really loved his father, the Clare Quilty of Mike's life. Mike's love of "beautiful things," which is not in the book and a trait Mike claims he inherited from his father, can also suggest that Mike is "not the marrying kind."

Additionally, the film finds architect Santonix (Per Oscarsson) more than obviously attracted to Mike and the younger man seems somehow to welcome the attention and, possibly, reciprocate it. What's more, Santonix constantly hovers over the young man, touching him frequently. Early on, when talking about houses, the two seem to be involved in some sort of dreamy, post-coital conversation. Santonix's stated love for Ellie pales against his apparent desire for Mike.

There are other hints and glances along the way, but nothing that would make it anything more than merely suggestive. While many of TV's Poirot and Marple fans object to the infusion of homosexuality in a Christie story, I think it often helps to add context to a character that Ms. Christie had either only hinted at or just didn't bother to flesh out properly (I suggest this not because sexuality defines a person - it does not - but it does tend to illuminate, in one way or another, the other choices an individual, or in this case, a character, makes). It does here too.

(Spoiler alert!) There can be little to argue that Mike achieves his objective here, not for love of another woman but because he gets the house he wants. It matters not (much) that he has to kill one woman to get it and let another move in. A woman is merely decoration in Mike's house.

This also helps underscore what I think is the most significant psychological part of this story. Despite Mike's sexual or avaricious inclinations, he ended up loving Ellie. This was probably true in the book. In the film, Mike declares his love for Ellie in a weird sort of rage that seems questionably convincing - especially to anyone who has ever wrestled with whether or not they actually love someone they're supposed to love.

Maybe it's because Ellie's sincere love for Mike was the first experience he'd known of being loved or being loved for who he is. To paraphrase some of the film's dialogue, it's like Vertigo in reverse. It's difficult to call something murder when the victim may have committed suicide knowing that that would make her beloved happy. And Mike's realization of this is probably the cause of his real madness - he killed the love he always needed.

So how does this make Mike homosexual? That's the beauty of life. It doesn't. It's more complicated than that. Hywel Bennett gives a pretty decent performance as Mike and, for the most part, does a good job showing these different shades of Mike's truly unknowable character - though, I think the part calls for a different sort of actor (first thoughts run to Ian Ogilvy; seconds to Jon Finch).

Gilliat's film stays pretty true to Agatha Christie, but adds some depth of drama that fleshes out the main characters more than Christie had done or, perhaps, even in 1967, felt able to do. Let's face it, neither Christie or Gilliat were spring chickens at the time they presented their stories, but Gilliat presents the braver and, I feel, more honest version of Endless Night.

Hitchcock may have strengthened the story even more - and certainly would have shot it more artistically (and with stronger leads, despite Hayley Mills' most lovely performance) - but what is here stands strong among Christie's best filmed works. It deepens Christie while remaining very true to her work. Best of all, it's very Hitchcock-like, the sobriquet often used to both praise and damn the film. It's just a shame Hitchcock never opted to do it himself.

Maybe one day, if there's any interest, I'll tackle the interesting oddities of Ordeal By Innocence, another unusual and fascinating Agatha Christie story from 1958 that features none of her regular sleuths. This story was turned into a strange, yet compelling cable-TV film in 1984 (with a wonderful Dave Brubeck score that was first, far too loud and wholly inappropriate for the film and, second, never issued as a soundtrack) and was, even more bizarrely, turned into a Miss Marple mystery for the fairly awful ITV series, Marple, in 2007.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Video: Chaz Jankel "Questionnaire"

While watching the DVD release of a strange, nearly unknown TV anthology series called Chillers, based on the short stories of one of my favorite writers, Patricia Highsmith (1921-95), I've been making some equally strange discoveries.

This brief series, also known under such titles as "Mistress of Suspense," "Patricia Highsmith's Tales" and (in France) "Cadavres Exquis," most likely never had a broadcast run on US television and remained completely unknown to me until now. The series is more than usually unusual. Even in the wake of Twin Peaks, you'd hardly ever see anything like this on American television - for reasons that go from overt boredom to surprisingly topless women occasionally popping up.

Each of the 12 episodes, filmed in and around 1990, features prologue and epilogue commentary by the great actor Anthony Perkins (1932-92), a chattier and less droll Alfred Hitchcock presence (let's not forget that Highsmith's initial success came from having her first novel adapted by the master for Strangers on a Train, a film which characters from this series' "Puzzle" episode actually attend and discuss).

The stories are, just like Highsmith's short stories, exercises in twisted psychology. But there's something excruciatingly slow in almost every tale, even "The Old Folks At Home," the brutally punishing episode written by the great Gerard Brach (1927-2006), who wrote many of the great Polanski screenplays including Repulsion and The Tenant among many others.

Apparently, the first six shows were filmed in the UK and feature such British legends as Edward Fox, James Fox, Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Peter Vaughan (the last three all appeared in Terry Gilliam's brilliant film, Brazil) and many other recognizable British character actors. The remaining episodes were filmed - for some reason - in France and while they often feature extremely attractive actors (rather poorly dubbed), they're awkward at best.

The great American director, Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor, White Dog), even directed an episode - one of the French ones - the unbelievably weird "The Day of Reckoning," which oddly enough calls to mind the equally strange Giallo, La Morte ha Fatto L'uovo/Death Laid An Egg.

I bring this up because the episode titled "A Bird Poised To Fly" turned out to be scored by the great ex-Blockhead, Chaz Jankel, whose all-but forgotten 1982 hit, "Questionnaire," remains one of my favorite tunes and videos of yesteryear. I am glad the episode reminded me to revisit Jankel's great, great piece of work.

I remember buying this mid-priced A&M album for $2.83 at Jerry's Records in Pittsburgh - which was probably still called Garbage Records at the time - in the spring of 1982 and loving almost every second of it: the title song, the brilliant "Glad To Know You," "Now You're Dancing" and the tremendous "3,000,000 Synths."

Aside from Jankel's punky Blockheads past (he had something to do with the fabulous "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and the nearly as-cool "Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3)"), he was riding high on the spectacular success of Quincy Jones's cover of the hypnotic "Ai No Corrida" (Jankel's original version of the song sounds remarkably similar to Jones's cover - but Q added some of his nearly magical touches that, of course, make it even better than the original).

Shortly thereafter, the cable channel HBO, which was new to us at the time, began running music videos between film presentations. "Questionnaire" ran quite frequently back then. This was probably one of the very first music videos I've ever seen and I still think it's one of the best.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Antony and the Johnsons

Someone as unwilling as me to leave the house for much of anything other than groceries isn't likely to attend many concerts, even performances I want to see. So it should hardly be surprising that I go kicking and screaming when dragged to some sort of show by someone I've never even heard of.

My wife, Diane, had been watching David Letterman one night and was immediately drawn to an appearance of Antony and The Johnsons. This moved her enough to pick up the group's CD, I Am A Bird Now, whose cover features a startling image of Candy Darling on her deathbed. When Diane found out that Antony and the Johnsons was coming to Washington, DC's historic Sixth & I synagogue, she immediately got two tickets. No questions asked. I was going. "Just trust me," is all she said.

"You Are My Sister," from the David Letterman show.

I had no idea what to expect but was startled by this transgendered performer much more than I ever thought I would be. Singers and pop music usually don't appeal to me. But Antony Hegarty is a singer like no other and his music is anything but poppy. I'm not sure I possess the words to do justice to Antony's singing or even to his music, but it's absolutely arresting and ultimately enveloping.

The synagogue itself is a beautiful place and an unbelievably perfect setting for a concert, especially for the almost painful intimacy of the music that I experienced. Antony's music seems to require a beautiful setting such as this, with no props or phony staging; naked and bare, lovely and human.

I was immediately drawn in by the very first song, though I don't know what it was, even though the stage was so oddly lit that the star was completely in the dark throughout the entire number (strange considering we were told the event was being filmed).

The video for the haunting "Another World."

Even more notably, I was struck by the make up of the band: piano (Antony Hegarty), electric bass (Jeff Langston), violin (Maxim Moston), cello (Julia Kent), a violinist/guitarist (Rob Moose), a drummer/percussionist (Parker Kindred) and a guitarist/saxist/clarinetist (Doug Wieselman). With this unique line-up, things had to be artistic and compelling. And, of course, they were.

The lights eventually came up a bit to the point of candlelight to slightly reveal the main attraction, who peppered his set with occasionally oblique commentary. It was kind of like being in the guy's living room, cozy, warm and friendly. He even talked "with" several people in the house. The audience seemed to recognize many of the songs that were all completely new to me; cheering when tunes kicked off, calling for other songs that the group hadn't yet played.

By the middle of the set, Antony launched into "Another World" (the title track to an EP issued last fall) and I was transfixed. This hymn-like ode to suicide is quietly captivating, carried along by the consistent drone of the strings delivering one long sustained discordant chord. Another song whose title I didn't know followed and I remained engrossed. Then the sensationally rousing "Shake The Devil" came right after that.

One of the evening's best performances was the moving, chill-inducing "Fistful Of Love" (from I Am A Bird Now), which - if I recall correctly - boasted an electric (in all senses of the word) solo of gut-wrenching, wailing blues from Wieselman, who easily garnered the audience's loudest ovation until the very end (despite working the crowd into an elated frenzy, Antony only offered one encore, much to the disappointment of everyone there).

"Epilepsy Is Dancing," the newest single.

While much of the music heard that chilly Tuesday night last week came from Antony and The Johnson's newest disc, The Crying Light, and the recent Another World EP, I also recognize a fair number of pieces I've since heard that appear on I Am A Bird Now, including "Hope There's Someone," "For Today I Am A Boy," "Man Is The Baby" and the almost anthem-like "You Are My Sister" (performed on Letterman).

Antony's music is so profoundly personal and unquestionably unique that it cannot be easily forgotten once it's experienced. It feels almost as if it's an internal soundtrack to pain and loneliness, something that certainly touched me right away and has haunted me ever since. But it's never abstract or purposely strange, something that could provoke but become forgotten almost immediately. I've heard it described as "otherworldly" but probably by people who don't recognize the vast emptiness of the world within. It's the sound of one man's - or woman's - soul.

I can't think of too many other performers that make so immediate and indelible impression as Antony and the Johnsons made on me. Only Laurie Anderson springs to mind as an artist who mixes the profound so perfectly with what's universal.

Another very striking impression one gets is the collaborative partnership each member of this band shares with one another. Each player listens to the other, supports each other and helps drive one another. Each is rapt within the music, animated and dedicated to it and each - particularly percussionist Kindred, who, I think, provides the very lifeblood of the band - not only buys into Antony's unique musical vision but contributes so profoundly to it as to bring it vividly to life.

Rediscovery: Tender Aggression "Fly Disco Fly"

"If Presley was the sound of the fifties and The Beatles the sixties then Disco has to be the music beat of the seventies." So goes the liner notes to this little-known disco classic, a 1976 concoction from some of Germany's finest musicians, led by composer, arranger and keyboardist Dieter Reith, best known for his jazz work on the MPS label during the 1970s.

Joining Reith here are guitarist Siegfried Schwab, heard on many German jazz, pop, TV and film recordings including Peter Thomas's Chariots of the Gods? and his own remarkable soundtrack to Jess Franco's Vampyros Lesbos, trumpeter Ack Van Rooyen (Clarke-Boland Big Band, Bert Kaempfert, The United Jazz + Rock Ensemble), trombonist Bob Burgess (Stan Kenton, Louis Jordan, Maynard Ferguson), bassist Dave King (Donna Summer, Peter Herbolzheimer, Billy Cobham and Reith's previous MPS record from 1974, Knock Out) and drummer Curt Cress (Passport, Boney M, Nena, Meat Loaf, Falco and, amazingly, Milli Vanilli) along with additional horns, percussion, strings and, on several tracks, a choir of background vocalists.

First issued as Power Sandwich on the German Intercord label, this instrumental disco album was one of many issued by studio groups assembled to cash in on the disco phenomenon (e.g., Love Unlimited Orchestra, Munich Machine and the Salsoul Orchestra, a.o.). The worldwide success of Silver Convention's 1975 hit, "Fly Robin Fly," a nearly instrumental disco classic that boasted several of the musicians who are heard here, inspired the small American label Morningstar to call the album Fly Disco Fly.

Call it what you will, it is one of disco's best kept secrets, brimming with grooves that seem so prototypical as to be clichés. In truth, though, the 10 tracks heard here serve as blueprints for what disco would come to be - especially as heard so frequently at the time on many TV and film soundtracks. Tender Aggression was there first.

(In all fairness, it's very likely this music was initially recorded as "production music" or "library music," intended for use only in TV and film programs. But with disco's success and, more likely the success of such German exports as Silver Convention and Donna Summer around this time, it was probably decided to issue the music on record.)

The album's best moments come on the funky "Cryin' Wind," the pick hit here and still spinning on, the righteous "Blackjack," the inspiration for Fantastic Plastic Machine's 2001 dance hit "Love Is Psychedelic (Full Spoken Mix)" and the ultra groovy "Extra High." Ralf Nowy's pretty "Nanny" is something of a respite from the beat, but perfectly in keeping with the mood of the proceedings, offering an ideal platform for both van Rooyen and Reith to reflect on the occasion.

Despite the presence of players better known in the jazz world, Reith's focus here is on tightly constructed arrangements - alternately voiced by either strings or horns - over the rhythm section's funky backings (King and Cress had previously worked together on the drummer's highly sought after Curt Cress Clan, so their rapport was already well established). There is the occasional improvised solo, but voiced softly and correctly on flute, flugelhorn or electric piano, almost behind the groove so as not to get in the way. The only time a solo dominates the proceedings is when Schwab helms one. But it's usually brief and seemingly constructed to muscle up the proceedings.

Surprisingly, the album yielded no singles (to my knowledge) and, less surprisingly, no hits. Still, Reith's aggregate managed to issue a follow-up album in 1977, European Maid (Intercord), before it disappeared for good. But this one never made it out of Germany, so copies of it are extremely rare. There's also an extremely rare 45-only release of Tender Aggression's 1977 theme to the German TV film Die Kette, which appears on Frank Jastfelder and Stefan Kassel's inspired 2001 CD The Mad, Mad World of Soundtracks Volume 2 (Boutique).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rediscovery: The Mysterious Flying Orchestra

Bob Thiele (1922-96) is best remembered as a producer who oversaw a great many historic jazz sessions from the 1940s through the 1990s, most notably supervising Impulse recordings during its golden period (1960-69). The producer is most appreciated by jazz listeners for giving John Coltrane carte blanche to record exactly how he pleased and as much as he pleased while at Impulse.

What's not so well known is that Thiele recorded a number of albums under his own name, including Thoroughly Modern (1967), Do The Love (1967), Light My Fire (1967, with Gabor Szabo), Head Start (1970, with Tom Scott), Those Were The Days (1971), The 20s Score Again (1974), I Saw Pinetop Spit Blood (1975, with Oliver Nelson), Sunrise Sunset (1991, with David Murray), Louis Satchmo (1992) and Lion Hearted (1993).

It's an odd lot, to be sure, and there's not a classic in the bunch. Thiele, whose participation on these records was limited to "musical director" and occasional percussion, gathered some of the high-caliber talent he'd nurtured elsewhere to play some music that was probably a little outside their usual scope of interest. No doubt, they were glad to get a paycheck. But, even as strange as some of it is, there are buried little treasures to be found here and there that will have appeal to fans of each record's almost legendary musical participants.

One of the more notable treasures in this lot is a Bob Thiele album that doesn't even bear his name - or anyone else's! - called, enigmatically enough, The Mysterious Flying Orchestra (TMFO - one wonders if the letters were meant to convey something else). Issued in early 1977 on RCA, where Thiele's Flying Dutchman had recently been folded into extinction, this LP - which is unlikely to ever see the light of day on CD - comes across almost as a joke…until you listen to it.

The LP's cover is enough to put off even the most ardent crate digger. It bears the strikingly strange airbrushed image of the middle-aged Thiele, thumbs up Fonzie style, in a vintage 20s-era pilot's get up. Wasn't Snoopy doing this sort of thing in The Peanuts too? This goofy pose inspired the equally silly icon for Thiele's Doctor Jazz logo and again (!) for his later Red Baron imprint. The back cover lists no song titles and criminally neglects musician credits (mysterious, indeed!) and sillies up the proceedings by picturing a number of musicians as bats - yes, bats - flying around a hilltop castle.

TMFO, though, is a star-studded fusion bacchanalia that, unlike so many other projects under Bob Thiele's name, gets much more right than wrong. An impressive array of jazz soloists are present here, including Larry Coryell, Steve Marcus, Eddie Daniels, Bob Mintzer, Lonnie Liston Smith and Charlie Mariano and the cream of New York's session players: Jon Faddis, Lew Soloff, Don Grolnick, Gene Bertoncini, Jerry Friedman, Wilbur Bascomb (a key point of the album's success), Andy Newmark and Guilhermo Franco.

This mysterious orchestra really gets down to it and flies particularly well on the record's first side, or "side one" for those of you that remember LP-speak.

Horace Ott's "Improvisational Rondo For Saxophone And Guitar" starts things off in a roaring way, fading in from the ether to reveal a rambunctious, startling piece of jazz funk. The groove may call up disco to many, but what's going on is clearly freeform jazz engaging with orchestral flourishes in a soulful, get-down setting. Ott lays down a thumping funky rhythm that seems to pick up a pace firmly in line with the players' adrenaline. Driven by Wilbur Bascomb's energetic bass patterns, Ott embellishes with some striking and playful string work that evolves and grows more interesting as the groove deepens. On top of all that, Larry Coryell's guitar matches wits with Steve Marcus's soprano sax and both play freely in and around all the fascinating lines Ott spins. Coryell featured on Marcus's earliest recordings, which explains the ideal synergy the two share here on this first-rate funk jam.

Lonnie Liston Smith contributes two pieces to the album, including the wonderfully moody "Shadows," up next. Smith, whose earliest records were supervised by Thiele, had already recorded "Shadows" and "Summer Days" for his 1975 album Expansions (Flying Dutchman). Smith's melody is rather slight, which requires TMFO, in Ott's arrangement, to create the right atmosphere, perfectly voiced by the horn section. Smith is heard beautifully dancing throughout the piece on electric piano, offering a voice that was already one of the instrument's most distinctive at this point. Marcus solos on tenor sax.

Next up is "A Dream Deferred," Bob Thiele and Glenn Osser's tribute to Oliver Nelson, a frequent Thiele associate, who had died shortly before this recording was made. It's vexingly appealing. It's like a waltz that never gets going, but manages to sustain interest through some well-considered playing. Horace Ott's gorgeous strings carry the melody and the solos are by Don Grolnick on electric piano and Eddie Daniels on flute. Thiele would later resurrect this theme, to decidedly lesser and lazier effect, on David Murray's MX (1992), but here the title - which comes from Langston Hughes - gets a cheesy dedication to "JFK, Malcolm, John Coltrane, etc." with no mention of Nelson whatsoever.

Side two of TMFO is substantially less interesting, but not altogether awful, with Smith's "Summer Days," a MOR fusion number showcasing worthy solos from brother Donald on flute and Charlie Mariano on soprano sax (Lonnie does not play), and Horace Ott's mildly funky "Nice 'N Spicy" (in a David Matthews bag), featuring Daniels on flute and Marcus and Bob Mintzer on dueling tenor saxes. The less said about Theresa Brewer's vocal feature on the sappy "There Was A Man Named John" (for John Coltrane), the better. Mariano solos here too.

TMFO is a strange, not altogether perfect album. But if funky fusion made by some of jazz's best improvisers appeals to you, this record's first side is absolutely essential. Considering side two as the album's "bonus tracks" makes the meaty content seem pretty brief. But it's 19 minutes of exciting music that's worth hearing over and over again.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ripley's Game

Perhaps one day literary justice will be served by recognizing American ex-patriot Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Certainly there were many other great writers that produced much great work during her lifetime. But few have caught the loneliness and desperation of lonely and desperate (mostly) men in a lonely and desperate time nearly as well - and as consistently - as she did. She had a way of suggesting that all that is beautiful has an inherent ugliness and all that is easily regarded as ugly can, indeed, be beautiful. Her words nearly made reality seem fantastic or otherworldly, yet so commonplace that you or I could be the victim or the protagonist in her wicked world. It's a world so ridiculously common that we traverse it each and every day.

Known primarily for her first novel, the source of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train (1951), Highsmith has crafted many other fine thrillers that have become the source of other film adaptations: This Sweet Sickness (1960), probably my favorite Highsmith book and the subject of an odd 1977 French film from the otherwise tremendous Claude Miller (Class Trip); The Cry Of The Owl (1962), which was also filmed in 1987 by the great French director, Claude Chabrol; and, of course, the often brilliant Ripley series, which launched two films from the first book, The Talented Mister Ripley (1955) - Rene Clair's often stunning Plein Soleil (1960), with the utterly beautiful Alain Delon, and Anthony Minghella's film of the same name (1999) with the equally beautiful Matt Damon - one film from the second book, Ripley Under Ground (1970), and two films from the third book, Ripley's Game (1974) - Wim Wenders' impeccable The American Friend (1977) and Italian director Liliana Cavani's 2003 film of the same title, which is under review here.

Even in the many ways it departs from the book (Tom's excessively large but extraordinarily beautiful villa, the change of its location from the south of France to Italy, Tom's beautiful and accomplished wife, and, the brilliant John Malkovich as Tom Ripley, who seems a bit too old and unconvincing as Tom, but pulls it off anyway, among a number of other changes), this film remains an absolutely astonishing experience. I didn't think so at first. I bought this when it was first issued on DVD in the US (2004) and thought then that it paled against The American Friend, long one of my favorite films, which is roughly based on the same story. But after revisiting Liliana Cavani's film some five years later, I think it stands up extraordinarily well. Indeed, I find it more moving as time goes on. Even if, like The American Friend, it gets some points of texture wrong, it gets the overall feeling right. And that's what makes it such a great piece of work.

Tom Ripley (John Malkovich), an American of questionable background who is living extremely well in Europe, finds himself insulted by a neighbor, picture framer Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), a family man with a life-threatening medical condition. Out of revenge, Ripley involves the framer in a murder scheme provoked by Ripley's shady associate, Reeves (Ray Winstone). Reeves convinces Jonathan to murder an underworld business competitor in Berlin by suggesting that he could earn money for the hit that will provide for Jonathan's family after his imminent death. Jonathan agrees and succeeds in his job, but Reeves forces him to do another killing. Ripley, who has had his revenge, is very much against involving Trevanny any further and is compelled to involve himself in Trevanny's murder of another of Reeves' enemies, and his various bodyguards/henchmen. This hit doesn't go quite as planned, causing dangerous repercussions for Reeves, Ripley, Trevanny and, of course, Trevanny's family.

While it's easy to conclude that John Malkovich is hardly the ideal Tom Ripley, it's not hard to dismiss previous movie Ripleys - Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper and Matt Damon - on other grounds as well. Like the best characters in fiction, Tom Ripley is best personified in one's imagination (actor Andrew McCarthy is probably highest on my list of perfect candidates - even for this feature). Malkovich, however, seems too old for the part (his Ripley should be - or look - about 10 years younger), not as attractive as his role would require him to be and with his patented misanthropy, he seems to lack some of the slimy charm Tom Ripley should possess. Still, after one jumps these hurdles of disbelief, Malkovich turns in a tremendously transforming performance, alternating nasty aggression when necessary with a beautiful and questionable sincerity that very few people could ever pull off effectively in this type of performance. Dougray Scott as Jonathan Trevanny is even more remarkable, projecting a fear that's greater than his life and questioning his humanity in a way that anyone at the abyss might. The development of interplay between Malkovich and Scott becomes even more interesting than the oddly developing relationship between Ripley and Trevanny - a tribute to both actors' skills of inhabiting their characters and their character's relationship with other characters.

Ms. Cavani's direction is without peer. She has a way of effectively capturing many pivotal moments with precious few words. Whether Malkovich's prototypical mumbled half sentences were part of the script or his own invention, something about his man-of-few-words persona (and utterly hilarious sense of humor) works extremely well here. There are many unspoken intimations and undeclared suggestions along the way that provoke glances, action or emotion. When it comes out as dialogue, you know where it comes from. It's not telegraphed - like in so many American films. Cavani sweeps you along, no matter where her camera takes you. You understand and you understand why - even when some of the other characters in the drama don't get it.

Cavani also displays an uncanny ability to capture something between the two main male characters (Malkovich and Scott) that goes well beyond "homoerotic." It's easy to project homoeroticism when two males in a film embark upon something - especially murder - together. It's easy to read that in Highsmith's novel too. It's not so easy to detect it in Cavani's film (it's absolutely not in Wenders' film - and it probably should have been). Here, it's unknowable and rightly so. Cavani shows how these two males, who may not even understand the reality of their own relationship, have a kinship that goes beyond friendship and, at least in this case, beyond sexuality. The true stroke of brilliance here - like in many of Highsmith's books - is that, yes, these guys may or may or not be (fill in the blank), but there's something deeper going on here. If you want to make it about sexuality, go ahead. But it probably goes beyond that.

One thing this film does get wrong is that Trevanny doesn't appear to be as hard up for cash as his predicament warrants. If that is meant as a comment on consumer culture, then it's lost among all the glamour and ugliness the film parades before us. Trevanny lives in a seemingly large, astoundingly beautiful Italian home that seems to be fitted with all the niceties that would keep his beautiful wife and young son quite comfortable upon his death. Jonathan's wife makes many comments about the family's financial status ("we can't afford that," etc.), but their opulent home, seemingly expensive parties, masses of friends - especially in Ripley's overly classy neck of the woods - suggest they're much better off than Jonathan's fear of his family's future would suggest.

But beyond any textual or contextual flaws, one can hardly discount the classy cinematography of Alfio Contini (Zabriski Point), the high production design of Francesco Frigeri (The Passion Of The Christ) and, of course, one of the film's greatest contributors, composer Ennio Morricone's superbly grand score. Morricone's music recalls the best of his Giallo and crime thriller scores from the 1970s - with dashes of classical motifs (signified by the harpsichord) that he has introduced in countless film scores and, most welcomingly, the rock-ish impulses flourished by the nice addition - especially in this day and age - of the electric bass. (For anybody still reading, I would very much like to get a copy of the soundtrack CD, issued only in Italy in 2003. Can anybody help?)

Together, these artists have all collaborated to fashion an arty thriller that mixes the trashy class of the Giallo (an Italian genre of sexy, graphic thrillers from the early 1970s) with the high art of European classics from Resnais, Fellini, Bertolucci and Pasolini.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin "Holon"

Holon is the second ECM disc of "zen funk" from Nik Bärtsch's Ronin and the eighth in Bärtsch's series of "Ritual Groove Music" sets since 2001 (the first six are available only through the leader's web site). Composer and pianist Bärtsch (b. 1971, Zürich, Switzerland), together with Sha (b. 1983, Bern) on bass clarinet and alto saxophone, Björn Meyer (b. Stockholm) on bass, Kaspar Rast (b. 1972, Zürich) on drums and Andi Pupato (b. 1971, Zürich) on percussion, has forged yet another superb outing, laced with unfettered emotion, uncommon brilliance and uncompromising collaborative artistry.

The instrumentation is slightly altered from the group's previous and equally beautiful Stoa (2006), with the pianist foregoing his otherwise merely decorative Fender Rhodes and reed player Sha ditching his contrabass for alto sax on a very few occasions. But no one will notice the difference.

This July 2007 recording, issued in February 2008, like previous Ronin recordings, consists solely of Bärtsch compositions. The composer again gives his songs such erudite titles as "Modul 42," "Modul 41_17" (the first of the disc's notable moments and 15 minutes of ecstatic engagement), the filmic "Modul 39_8," "Modul 46," which has interesting echoes of Claudio Simonetti, the playful "Modul 45" and the alternately winsome and dramatic "Modul 44."

But the lack of emotion and artistry in the titles is not at all reflected in the passionate delivery of the music. There is something here strongly reminiscent of such abstract expressionist painters as Barnett Newman, who also gave many of his beautiful paintings equally abstract and academic titles. Like a painter, Bärtsch and company are clearly more interested in providing the listener with a palette that he or she can interpret in his or her own way - without any juxtaposition of the artist's intentions of prosaic and self-meaning titles.

By way of a minor digression, I previously made a comment suggesting that Nik Bärtsch's Ronin eschews the seemingly predictable course ECM takes, from its prevailing European austerity to the cash-cow recordings of Keith Jarrett, who I unfairly named (or blamed) in particular, for the great expanse of work ECM issues in many different musical genres. This unnecessary insult to ECM and Keith Jarrett was intended to flatter Bärtsch and what his Ronin accomplishes. But it's just wrong and I apologize whole heartedly for it.

As I delve more deeply into the fascinating sphere of Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, I can connect some dots that I hadn't heard before. Most notably, it's easy to hear how ECM has laid the foundation for Ronin with its many piano-based recordings (from Paul Bley at one end to Tord Gustavsen at the other) and how Jarrett himself is much more fundamental and innovative in the ostinato jazz realm than he's ever been given credit for.

There is something especially European about Nik Bärtsch's music (the group is, after all, European and if they don't sound like it, then I can't think of much American music of late that's this inviting, inventive or involving), which is why Holon as well as the group's previous Stoa have found a particularly good home at ECM.

But it's hardly austere. It consistently hypnotizes (ritual), it swings (groove) and it has a surprisingly strong impact (music). And, like the best of Keith Jarrett's own compositions on ECM since the Trio recordings (particularly "Flying - Part Two" from Changes, "Dancing," "Lifeline" and the rest of Changeless, "The Cure" from The Cure and "The Out-of-Towners" from The Out-of-Towners) - these are patterns, or modules in Bärtsch's world, that work well on many levels; creating a basis of hypnotic music that prompts and provokes exciting intervention.

Bärtsch mixes something of the East - a tradition, but not exactly an Eastern tradition - with something of the West - a feistiness and a fury, but not exactly the Western recklessness or predictability that calls itself jazz lately - and ends up with something that is compelling and renews itself pleasingly with each listen.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Gabor Szabo In Budapest

Rather surprisingly, this extremely limited edition recording first showed up in Hungary a good 34 years after its inception. This particular issue is limited to a pressing of only 330 LPs and 500 CDs - so if you're interested, hurry up. It's a strong and valuable addition to the Hungarian guitarist's recorded legacy - and one that deserves a wider hearing than even this outstanding release affords.

Gabor Szabo hadn't been back to his homeland since he was forced to flee in 1956. In the mean time, he became a renowned jazz guitarist in the United States and was accorded some modicum of crossover success throughout pretty much everywhere in the world except Hungary.

Still, he was treated like musical royalty upon his first return to his homeland in 1974 (oddly it was his last trip to his native land in 1981 where the guitarist fell ill and died). Hungarian TV offered him a program performing the music of his choice with Hungarian musicians of his own choosing. The program, recorded on September 12, 1974, was broadcast in Hungary only in two parts in May and August 1975 - the first such show ever devoted to jazz music broadcast on Hungarian television.

The program, nearly an hour in length, is mostly remarkable in every way, musically, artistically and, more importantly, one of the strongest official recordings Szabo made during the time. If there was to be one single recording of Szabo's during the 1970s to hear and or to have, this is the one.

The unique packaging of the CD (which is what I got a hold of) has the glossy mini-LP sleeve fold out into an eight-panel poster with many photos from the show (color on one side, black and white on the other) and extensive liner notes - in English! - by László Kovács detailing the origins of the program, a translation of the interview Szabo provides during the program, a reference to the guitarist's Hungarian biography (by Károly Libisch), the guitarist's Hungarian discography and filmography and biographies of the participating musicians.

For additional detail about the program and this performance, please refer to the Jazzpodium 74: Szabo Gabor (USA) Musora page from my Gabor Szabo web site. While I am unable to suggest a good place to purchase this LP or CD, I would suggest contacting the label, Moiras Records, in Hungary.

(Many thanks to Béla Simády for alerting me to this release and providing the opportunity for me to acquire it.)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Hank Crawford - RIP

What a terrible month for jazz this has been. Alto sax giant Hank Crawford has now left us and gone on to that great band up in the sky - nine days after fellow Ray Charles band-mate David "Fathead" Newman, 14 days after another fellow Charles section man, Leroy Cooper, and exactly one month to the day following another musician who, like Crawford, helped set the tone for the CTI label in the 1970s, Freddie Hubbard. Jazz also lost Hank's musical partner, Jimmy McGriff, in May 2007, and Ray Charles, of course, left this planet in 2004.

Hank, or "Bennie" as he was born and known early in his career, was 74 and passed away quietly in his Memphis home on January 29 (thanks to my great friend Arnaldo DeSouteiro for passing this sad news along to me). Crawford was another of jazz's distinctive soloists and recorded scads of albums until his stroke in 2000. With an unmistakable wail of the blues, "so full of emotion and poignancy," as All Music Guide's Thom Jurek beautifully states, Crawford made a huge impact on music, especially the soul jazz he contributed so much to.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on December 21, 1934, Crawford got his start in music playing piano. He eventually switched to the alto sax and in high school, he befriended Phineas Newborn, Jr. (he'd record with his brother years later), Booker Little and George Coleman. Upon graduating, Crawford played in bands fronted by Ike Turner, B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. In 1958, Crawford went to college in Nashville where he met Ray Charles. Charles hired Crawford as a baritone saxophonist, but eventually he switched to alto. He remained with Charles' band - becoming its musical director - until 1964.

He recorded many albums for the famed Atlantic label over a full decade, starting with his 1960 debut, More Soul, featuring both Newman and Cooper and one arrangement by Charles, his boss at the time. He started recording for Creed Taylor's soul-jazz label, Kudu in 1971, staying until the label's end in 1978, recording a few hits along the way, including I Hear A Symphony (1975), his first of four well-conceived meetings with arranger David Matthews. By 1982, he signed with the Milestone label, where he recorded for the remainder of his solo career, including six titles co-led with organist Jimmy McGriff (the pair also recorded two rather laconic titles for the Telarc label in the mid-1990s), ending with the oddly-titled The World Of Hank Crawford (2000).

Hank Crawford never made the perfect "must have" album, but his music was always utterly soulful and never less than 100% sincere. He came close a few times, most notably on It's A Funky Thing To Do (1971), Don't You Worry Bout A Thing (1974), I Hear A Symphony (1975 - I had the great privilege to write notes for a Japanese release of this album several years ago), Tight (1996) and most especially on one of my favorites, Tico Rico (1977). He also recorded notable material with the CTI-like Versatile label in the late 1970s and is heard to good effect on Grant Green's final album Easy (1978) and one of his own, Centerpiece (1979). One of the best - and my favorite - ways of hearing Hank is on his very first and little-known foray with Jimmy McGriff on the organist's 1978 LRC album Outside Looking In, which for the most part (one track is missing) was issued on a now out-of-print but highly worthwhile CD titled Jimmy McGriff Featuring Hank Crawford (LRC CDC 9001). As an aside, he and Newman often worked together throughout their careers and can be heard together on a bunch of discs under both their names.

I would also recommend checking out these other songs to hear the beautiful soulfulness of Hank Crawford: "It's Too Late" from Johnny Hammond's Breakout (1971), "Corazon," "Mr. Blues" and "Good Morning Heartache" from Wildflower (1973), "Big Sur Suite" from Johnny Hammond's Higher Ground (1973), "Down on the Deuce" and "Survival" from Down On The Deuce (1984), "River's Invitation" and "Something For Bubba" from Steppin' Up (1987) and "Jimmy's Groove," "Tuff" and"Hank's Groove" from On The Blue Side (1989) - a sound that jazz will sorely miss.

More on Hank Crawford: Low Flame, High Heat (Label M), Memphis Ray And A Bit Of Moody (32 Jazz) and Road Tested (Milestone).