“Hope Springs” Bubbles Below the Oscar Radar

I feel like going out on a limb from which I might fall into a sea of rolling eyeballs among the perpetually hip.

But it’s interesting how Hope Springs has bubbled below the radar of most people’s year-end assessments of best movies. And with such superb but ponderously Oscar-seeking “masterpieces” like Lincoln and Argo, it’s no wonder that so many presume slightness to such an autumnal romance drama, even with the heavyweight star power of Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.

The discriminating yet populist-measuring Rotten Tomatoes critical review site complied a a comparatively grudging 73 per centile ranking among critics for the flick, and only 61 per cent among its viewers. I sense RT readers may not want to be caught in a less-than-serious posture in a social-media arena where everyone’s a critic.

I think the movie suffers from typical critical biases against comedy-dramas geared toward domestic and relationship issues. And despite the trend to a “new sincerity,” the ironic viewpoints that have dominated cultural discourse since the post-WWII existentialists may prompt many to reflexively dismiss a video title like Hope Springs. I did too, until I need a pick-me-up movie after a stressful full week.

I watched the movie last night and felt plenty in my gut and my brain as I laughed through superbly nuanced moments of situation comedy and brilliant acting. And today it feels like something of substance, filled with delectable and uneasy moments that ring as true as an iron gavel pounded in the court of public consciousness, if not opinion.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers — the most nominally “hip” among high-profile critics and, yes, a Rex Reed-ish blurb machine — notes that the movie “has all the earmarks of a mawkish Lifetime movie.” And yet Travers concludes, “Hope Springs knows happy endings are provisional.’’ That’s a succinct measure of the story’s spectrum of expectation and realization.

Strung between these two storyline poles is a surprisingly tough-minded movie about hetero relationships and marriages. And yet, in a comic twist, the couple gets sex tips from a gay author’s book.

Both main characters wear spectacles throughout, signifying the self-imposed perceptual and psychic walls they’ve built up over 30-plus years. Yet Kay (Streep) yearns to rekindle the love and sexuality they once enjoyed. So she virtually blackmails hubby Arnold into a plane trip to see a renowned marriage counseling specialist.

As much as Streep sparkles and plucks heartstrings like a wounded angel, we can thank Jones for that the movie’s sinewy strength, because his repressed, stick-in-the-mud Arnold has a sharp mind and with pointed, if flawed, repostes to marriage counselor Steve Carrell’s probings. It’s true that Arnold and Kay’s characters don’t develop much but beyond typically wronged wife and insensitive husband. Within those limits these two give us as much laughs and gut twistings as one might hope for. Playing it completely straight, Carrell convinces as the therapist partly because of his usual persona’s tension of between goofy romanticism and mocking cynicism.

So his foil to Streep and Jones’ comic turns works with surprisingly consistent emotional plausibility and at times tense gravity. After all, Jones is essentially a dramatic actor and there a few craggy faces and manners that undercut creeping sentiment as well the man who tracked down the fiendish mass murderer in No Country for Old Men, among his many other gritty dramatic roles.

Full disclosure: Part of my response to the film derives from my personal experience with marriage counseling. Sadly my spouse and I were “fired” by the counselor who felt we weren’t on-task enough.

But that guy, a therapist with a somewhat successful book, was a little too self-servingly careerist to bother with our unsure missteps to the core of our issues (I never mustered Jones’ screw tightenings on the therapist’s presumptions, but I was in overwhelming  pain at the time.)

Yet Carrell’s counselor remains nonplussed with his eye calmly on the ball, and he cheerleads after the couple fails in their first full sexual re-encounter: “You guys fumbled the ball on the one-yard line and a few days ago you weren’t even in the stadium!”

Scenes from Hope Springs courtesy www.google,com

Hope Springs reaches way down in the flinty depths of Arnold’s long-dry well. A series of such determined probings by Kay and the therapist are painful and sometimes hilarious.

The couple experiences mortifying and heart-wringing setbacks in the series of “intimacy exercises” the counselor assigns them. AndArnold proves the most vulnerable, with unsurprising performance issues for a man who can’t remember the last time he had sex with his wife.

Their two actors’ largely physical comedy in an “exercise” in a movie theater at a French movie is as visually effective and touching as anything Chaplin could’ve mustered.

They finally open up directly to each other in one therapy session: “Watching the boring golf shows with you is like being married to ESPN,” Kay says, which leads to a classic male-female dichotomy:

“I didn’t complain because Kay didn’t want sex,” Arnold says.

“Love, that’s what I wanted,” she responds. “I wanted you.”

One of the film’s most powerful and poignant scenes occurs when the counselor cajoles from Arnold his best sex memory – – getting Kay on the kitchen floor when she was deeply pregnant, with surprising tenderness. “She had a little bitty apron that was getting too small because her round belly…”

So his sexual attraction seems also for the fecundity of motherhood and the incalculably powerful promise of a new family.

Yet this plays as strictly an empty empty-nesters story with their children, Brad and Molly, virtually invisible in the background, a large issue the movie probably should’ve addressed.

Nevertheless, this is a PG-13 yet “uncool” movie that parents might encourage their teens to see, to gain insight into relationship challenges that undo many marriages and send offspring into a wrenching tailspins. (Imagine inserting into this story a vividly depicted teen on such a precipice, like the gifted Morgan Saylor as brooding Dana Brody in the brilliant Showtime series Homeland.)

Baby boomers with empty-nest struggles are accumulating like cast offs in a massive junkyard of the lovelorn, so this movie does feel like a kind of Zeitgeist touchstone.

And within its genre limits, the steady counterpoint among the film’s three central characters sustains an emotional suspense that heightens the tension-releasing comedy.

Such storytelling quality in the hands of such masterful actors is something worth acknowledging and considering for the substantial relationship content this movie trafficks in.

There ought to be an Academy Award for Best Comic Dramas, or even for Best Romantic Comedy, instead of movies like this butting up against the granite long-shadow Lincolns of the world.

(Spoiler alert:)  The innate chemistry between these two tough-hearted spouses makes the final inevitable “feel good” payoff plausible and gratifying. Kay vows to watch more golf programs with him and Arnold vows to watch fewer. Between them, you sense they can aim at a par, with the steadying confidence of shared hope.

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http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/hope-springs-20120809#ixzz2GMh7sjfV
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The “Magic Book” of Weather Report and Zawinul interview

I think this image beautifully captures the particular genius of the late Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, playing his two ARP 2600 synthesizers.

In a recent blog, I alluded to how advances in the ARP 2600 opened new creative vistas for the innovative jazz group. Then I happened to be perusing some old Down Beat magazines and came across this striking image from an advertisement for ARP Instruments Inc. from the June 1976 issue, shortly after the album Black Market had been released and at the dawn of of their biggest hit “Birdland” from Heavy Weather.

In the ad, Zawinul comments, “I have my own ‘magic book’ of sounds I’ve created on the 2600. Melody lines from Black Market, “Scarlet Woman ” lots of music and sound effects from other albums I’ve done. I tape some nice stuff just playing around. With the 2600, you never have to listen to the same sound twice, if you don’t want to.”

Musical technology has advanced exponentially since then, of course, but this is a wonderful portrait of a creative music pioneer frozen in time’s amber.

Down Beat magazine courtesy of Bill Schaefgen.

As a bonus, here’s an excellent interview with Zawinul at age 65 with Howard Mandel:

http://www.artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz/2007/09/joe_zawinul_at_65_the_wire.html

Garry Wills exposes the cultural roots of America’s gun mentality

Survivors of the Newtown massacre. Photo: policymic.com

Like so many, I’d love to change the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms,” but saving more innocent people from random gun violence will take more than that. Laws would not stop outlaws or disturbed people, although stricter gun registration would logically help restrict the odds of tragedies continuing.

But the problem is deep-rooted and our peculiar American culture must change because this is a self-perpetuating view of “reality,” in the sense that a certain percentage of people in America are still cultivated to our self-destructive Wild West mentality of protecting oneself and one’s property with a gun. The powerful NRA gun lobby has saturated much of our mainstream politics with its influence, and contorted, stuck-in-the-mud-with-my-gun rationalizations for “let ’em be” firearms laws. And gun sales have flourished, partly from reactive fear of whatever the future might bring.

That’s why Garry Wills’ essay is so insightful and I think important for everyone — and especially for conservatives of conscience — to read and consider, because much of their moral grounding is Bible based. Wills’ argument derives from the Bible as well, so it’s an argument that might speak to them and break the stasis of dialogue that we suffer from today, between secular liberal and evangelical conservative mindsets.

He speaks of the evil Old Testament god named Moloch and it’s important to understand our culture through such mythology which reveals truth and archetypes of the American sense of self, for better and worse.

Wills understands the American Christian mentality as well is anyone, as he demonstrated in his wonderful book Head and Heart: American Christianities. Among other things, it probed the oppressive darkness of America’s Puritan psyche, which retains a strong grip on our collective psychosis as a culture.

In that book, he notes America’s elevation of the value of “individualism” – a word our ancestors did not even possess, a term “which we have created for our own use.”

Wills quotes the first great observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville: “Egoism dries up the very seed of every virtue; individualism initially crushes only the impulses to public virtue, for over time it turns on and obliterates every other virtue and at last it disappears into egoism.”

Wills continues, this antisocial urge could be blunted by “the individual’s partial re-entry into society by way of voluntary associations, which served as buffers between the individual and the state” (Wills, Head and Heart, 79)

The problem is that we have turned the urge into a sunny virtue, erased the negative meaning and made “rugged individualism” more of an ideal principle of the American way of life.

The way we allow leeway for vigilante gunner rationalizations — like George Zimmerman’s about killing Trayvon Martin – is also symptomatic.

Another problem I see is the pervasiveness of broken families in America. It’s unclear whether the socially misfit Newtown mass murderer Adam Lanza had paternal guidance from his divorced father, or from his parents as a coherent and supportive familial unit. And his murdered mother’s Wild West zeal for guns surely facilitated the tragedy. She would have seemed to suffer from the Moloch mentality that Wills writes about in his New York Review of Books blog.

Wills’ other books include What Paul Meant and What Jesus Meant, which show his knowledge of biblical literature and its significance to us today. Then there’s his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, which reveals his insights into the wisdom, challenges and leadership of our greatest American president at the peak moment of our most violent historical crisis, which, of course, resonates to the present, as Stephen Spielberg’s new Lincoln film underscores.

Due to Wills’ deep historical erudition, the blog essay is somewhat high-toned and didactic, but as often it’s powerfully pointed. I think many of the people who have already commented on it do get it and have very good down-to-earth responses and ideas which show that Americans can address this profound and festering problem.

Here’s the link to Wills essay: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/dec/15/our-moloch/

Note: Garry Wills, Head and Heart American Christianities Penguin Press 2007

My best albums of 2012 in roots vernacular music

Here’s my list of best albums of 2012 in roots-music vernaculars. This was also posted at NoDepression.com.

Field Report is the debut album of the Milwaukee folk-rock band Field Report (previously incarnated as Conrad Plymouth) which has received plenty of national press raves and provided the group with strong touring.

Best albums of 2012

  1. Various ArtistsThis One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark * (2 CD set) When writers as esteemed as John Prine, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Darrell Scott and Ray Wylie Hubbard interpret a man’s songwriting, you know he’s a “songwriter’s songwriter.” But Clark’s no esoteric technician. He carves rough-hewn tales illuminated by glimmers of the heart, traced with bittersweet memory, toughness and love — battered and resilient, as in the insouciant hope-against- fate of the long-distance love ode, “Dublin Blues,” a smaller-canvas variation of Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Clark’s jaunty melodies invariably fit the lyric and sentiment like a Randall knife swinging in a perfectly woven sheath.
  2. Various ArtistsWe Walk the Line: A Celebration of The Music Of Johnny Cash CD/DVD Note blog on this at http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/they-have-the-back-of-the-man-in-black-a-johnny-cash-celebration 
  3. Jamey JohnsonLiving For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran. Like Guy Clark, Cochrane cut to the heart of the matter with uncanny precision and insight, Clark with perhaps a bit more color. But here’s poetry stripped to its essence (“I Go to Pieces” of course; the terse jukebox ode “A-11” replays insistently like any “our song”) Johnson, a wise young traditionalist, exquisitely complements another heavyweight lineup, including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Elvis Costello, Ray Price, Bobby Bare, George Strait, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Cochran’s own voice, reciting a few lyrics.
  4. Iris DeMentI Sing the Delta. DeMent struggles with writer’s block, I suspect, because her creativity is so entwined with the nagging particulars of living (think of her classic “No Time to Cry”). Here she plumbs the depths of the Delta, allowing its soulfulness and mysteries to seep up through her singing and songs. Her clarion voice, for me, often catches healing sunlight to warm its hardest heartache. Her parallel struggle with faith abides with life as a wordless prayer to traditions that die off and rise again.
  5. Tedeschi Trucks Band LiveEverybody’s Talkin.’ It’s a tossup between DeMent and Susan Tedeschi for my favorite contemporary roots singer, rating DeMent’s disc slightly higher as a stronger personal statement. But no woman interprets others with more soulful zeal and sensitivity than Tedeschi. A fine guitarist, she has a musician’s mastery of her vocal instrument. Add arguably the greatest living slide guitarist, Derek Trucks and, on this live set, a stone jammin’ horn band, and you’ve got roots music gumbo boiling to the heavens, “Bound for Glory.”
  6. Kathy MatteaCalling Me Home. Mattea’s disarmingly conceptual album calibrates the universal human longing for home as a timeless refuge. The dramatic and poetic friction arises as she deftly frames her Appalachian hills as threatened by the very industry — coal mining — that sustains it; one of contemporary America’s most pressing environmental/societal conundrums.
  7. Dr. JohnLocked Down. Black Key Dan Auerbach’s poised reins facilitated this outrageously shambling parade of lusty self-mythologizing swamp-and-gutter groove. Dr. John has lived the quintessential New Orleans street hustler-hipster life. The music’s chug-a-lug roiling and left-handed aphorisms excavate comedy, tragedy and human possibility. His exotic yet sly wit exudes empowerment, as if he’s tossing out fistfuls of mojo like Mardi Gras talismans.
  8. Fiona AppleThe Idler Wheel is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Yes, she’s a self-conscious artiste, yet Apple tells a musical tale as vividly as any vernacular folk artist, and with such idiosyncratic brilliance that it’s too this-that-‘n-the-other-way not to feel authentic. That’s how this artist manages the balance between her most arch conceit and the primal cries that sear a streak to the tip of her consciousness.Justin Townes Earle. Photo: blog.washingtonpost.com
  9. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel about Me Now. Earle’s double-dose of nominal paternal legacies (Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt) may help explain his personal struggles as he tries to be his own kind of singer-songwriter. He makes this warts-and-all confession-and-reflection work with slushy stylistic mélanges and a voice as palatable as tawny port, aged by time’s missteps and lessons. And he’s loosening up his style, which sweeps away any glimmers of preciousness.
  10. Field Report – Field Report. Few recent songwriters have fingered the crusty surfaces of life’s pains, confusions and compromises with more openness, honesty or deftness. So depth arises, in breaking buds of poetry. Christopher Porterfield and band add just enough harmonized refrains and ratty-couched sonics to deliver songfulness as quietly wounding experience. He opens up key moments as if experiencing them for the first and fiftieth time.

Re-issue:

Howlin’ WolfSmokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters, 1951-1960 He’s still baaaad! And eevilll!

* Released in December 2011, the Guy Clark tribute album missed most 2011 “best of” lists, but won the 2012 Americana Music Association album of the year award.

Weather Report: From the First Lightning Bolt to the Rise of a Jazz Tsunami

Weather Report The Columbia Albums 1971-1975

Albums included in this collection: Weather Report, I Sing the Body Electric, Live in Tokyo, Sweetnighter, Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinnin’

Imagine recasting the musical Zeitgeist of the early 1970s as a weather report, with the music of the innovative jazz group Weather Report as the context and “soundtrack for your imagination and head.”

A weather report, of course, is a meteorological interpretation of how our planet’s natural atmospheric environment unfolds through our lives. We begin to see how aptly named this group was, a name both unassuming and yet deftly encompassing. It’s as quotidian as your dullest local drone before a daily weather map, and as an essential to one’s experience as the ceaselessly shifting winds and tides, of time and nature.

The band’s co-leader and dominant, if not necessarily best, composer Joe Zawinul, * knew what excitement lay in the shape-shifting winds. His big-idea conceptualism made Weather Report plausible as the heady soundtrack he characterized it as above, in describing the first eponymously titled album from 1971.

In the process they also opened the floodgates for jazz to expand creatively and commercially, like no group of the era. They helped usher in the jazz fusion era, but always did fusion on their own terms – and without ever using a guitar player.

Critics and music fans appreciated immediately the risks the band took, and the allure of this fresh and strange music, voting that debut Weather Report “Album of the Year” in the 1971 Down Beat magazine’s readers’ poll. That album and the last two of this collection — Mysterious Traveller and Tale Spinnin’ — also won Down Beat readers’ “Album of the Year” awards. The band would continue amassing an unprecedented consecutive run of four such awards, with the two albums following this collection’s time frame.

Let’s see how this jazz tsunami grew. A big part of their innovation was breaking free of mainstream jazz’s over-used head-solos-head format.

“We were talking about doing music that had mountains and streams and valleys and going over hill and dale,” the group’s co-founder and saxophonist Wayne Shorter recalled to his biographer. “We were trying to do music with another grammar, where you don’t resolve anything, like writing a letter where you don’t use capitals.”1.

You get a sense of the band’s openness to abstract possibility and beauty from the sinuously shifting winds suggested this stunning cover photo by Ed Freeman for their debut album.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I still don’t know what the hell he photographed — it sort of looks like a windblown clothesline strung with a few white sheets, shot in a time exposure, but I’m not sure because its beauty teases the imagination so far beyond that specific boring daily chore, like you’re hearing a weather report from Mars.

So the band concept was of a piece from the start, yet it wasn’t just about formal abstraction or innovation. The band persistently snared startling and gorgeous colors, textures, rhythms and voices. And by the time the first album’s “soundtrack” reaches the fourth tune, “Orange Lady” we plunge into human emotions. The title suggests a specific woman who possesses a quality of “orangeness,” – radiant yet tough on the outside, sweet and tart — as a human embodiment. As Zawinul’s synthesizer and Wayne Shorter soprano sax meld into a melody of tenderly keening remembrance, the experience becomes deeply grounded in the human heart, to the point of contrasting “despair and hope,” as trumpeter-composer Tom Harrell has noted of the tune.

Yet Zawinul is pushing this past the implications of a rainy, weepy Bridges of Madison County sentiment. So, while the next two tunes are titled “Tears” and “Eurydice” (named for Odysseus’s seemingly drowned lover, whom he dives to save), the music veers away from sentiment to the open air of shape-shifting Nature. “Tears” and “Eurydice” were written by Wayne Shorter, a very different but complementary sensibility to Zawinul, one that is emotionally true as it is elliptical.

This seemed like jazz impressionism, which wasn’t new but it had emerged usually in orchestral settings, like those of Gil Evans.

But Weather Report showed that a tight, sleek, grooving combo could muster transporting impressions as a new sonic magic, driven by sharp percussive textures. So contemporary music suddenly acquired some of the power of the visual and cinematic arts.

And yet, as with much modern art, the group managed a balance between a larger artful experience of exploration and basic human impulses.  The group’s latent funkiness is evident in the first album’s second tune “Umbrellas.”

The second Weather Report album, I Sing the Body Electric breaks through into a more conceptually ambitious evocative arena. I remember thinking; okay they’re starting to go for it, after first album which, for all its beauty and striking moments, was sometimes too studied in its artful spaciness.

The title is borrowed from a Ray Bradbury novel, which was borrowed in turn from a Walt Whitman poem, so it has deep lineage in American literary expression as perhaps signifying a strange celebration of the self, in concert with the force of electric power as a natural element that humans come to terms with in both harnessed and unfettered forms.

Listen to Whitman:

I SING the body electric;
The armies of those I   love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me   off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them,   and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.

1

The passage is sort of the inverse of a spiritually and mentally dying King Lear, who raged at the lightning storm railing down upon him.

Whitman offers a kind of redemption for Lear and all kings who wield armies like corrupt playthings, while ignoring loving offspring in their hubristic shadow. Whitman says you love both armies and kindred as souls, electrified by your own.

We hear something like that redemptive yet unblinking generosity in the face of death, especially in “The Unknown Soldier,” the album’s opening piece. The work echoes with sepulchral voices, fallen warriors and angels. As the album’s original annotator Robert Hurwitz eloquently comments, “We are not told of the insanity of absurdity and horror of war in “The Unknown Soldier,” we already know that. Rather we’re guided through a tone picture. We share impressions. The mind wanders to the innocence of childhood, simple sweet joys to youthful mysteries, and silence and moments of wonder… To the moment of war, of tragic realization…”

From there we moved through equally evocative tours of “The Moors” and “Crystal” to “Second Sunday in August,” where we hear the majestic lyricism Zawinul is capable of, here in a celebratory mode which would become utterly festive in the group’s biggest hit “Birdland” (which immediately post-dates the spectrum of these albums).

By now the band had built up a strong following internationally, especially in Japan which seems to have cultivated a strong fixation on American culture. This is energetically evidenced by the two-CD set Live in Tokyo, recorded in January 1972, comprising interpretations from the first two albums.

Yet another breakthrough occurs with the following album Sweetnighter, where the band really gets its groove mojo. The opening tune is the 13-minute “Boogie-Woogie Waltz,” which began a bit like the sort of electric jungle music Miles Davis was exploring — a pulsing, humid atmosphere. Zawinul’s wha-wha synthesizer and Wayne Shorter’s head-snapping saxophone accents build tension. Underneath the percussion is utterly exotic: Dom Um Romao plays bell, tambourine and Chucalho; and Muruga plays Moroccan clay drums, along with Herschel Dwellingham on traps drums.

This was a new sort of world music in 1973, presaged partly by Shorter’s Super-Nova and Odyessey of Iska albums. The tune’s marvelously gyrating main riff theme doesn’t arrive until almost nine minutes in, although it’s been hinted at. The effect of the delayed payoff is a deep hook on the listener’s musical consciousness. “Boogie-Woogie Waltz” was too long to be a radio hit, as “Birdland” would become, but it proved how capably funky this band could be and (along with another new jam piece “125th Street Congress”) helped turn their concerts into part electro-impressionistic tripping, and part pure get-down.

The band was evolving far from a jazz blowing band, even if it was heavily improvisational in an entirely new way.

The year 1974 brought yet another peak — for my money their artistic pinnacleMysterious Traveller. This advance occurred partly, as annotator Bill Milkowski points out, due to improvements in synthesizer technology, particularly the ARP 2600, which helped Zawinul produce a more musical line on the electronic instrument, amid its shifting sonic textures.

On Mysterious Traveller, the band pulled back somewhat from the crowd-pleasing funk-outs, nevertheless  infectious rhythms pull you in from the start — “Nubian Sundance” sounds like you’ve land smack in the middle of an African village amid a wondrously pagan celebration.

Then, “American Tango” zooms back across the Atlantic to a descending melody that lands as elegantly as a large sea bird, exalted by female voices and a supple backbeat, illuminated by a brief sunburst of the kind of emotionally engorged expressivity Shorter had developed on the soprano sax.

“Tango” segues to “Cucumber Slumber,” with a tempered funk groove dressed up with a sinuous bebop-ish line, which brings to my mind a soused Charlie Parker walking a sobriety test line — his stride is so stylish the officers stand back and clap, before arresting him.

But Weather Report by definition always reaches beyond terra firma, so we encounter the title tune “Mysterious Traveller,” reflecting especially Shorter’s fascination with metaphysics and science fiction.

But here the funk hook is another ingenious rhythmic configuration — one of the band’s consistent achievements was how it elevated the conventions of funk grooves to almost a Baroque intricacy. Nor does the tune’s mood try to scare you with this alien visitor as much as open your mind to the implications of its existence.  It’s more akin to spirit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but with the childlike sense of wonder having matured.

“Blackthorne Rose” is one of Shorter’s patented musical portraits of a female spirit and “Scarlet Woman” does much the same with Zawinul’s synth flair, again re-grounding us in humanity as “Orange Lady” had.

Mysterious Traveller concludes with “Jungle Book,” a tour de force of creativity and serendipity. A distant voice seems to be singing a folk song from deep in a valley. The melody and rhythmic backdrop include Indian tambura, tabla, ocarina, kalimba and, most ingeniously, a tac piano,3 which spins variations on the folk melody. Another low-tech circumstance is that Zawinul recorded the whole thing by himself overdubbing various instruments on a home cassette recorder. Zawinul’s children happened to run into his studio during this recording and their playful voices were left in — adding a real-life vibrance to this strangely enchanting creation.

Another increasingly evident Zawinul trick was singing wordlessly through a vocoder, which added a disembodied vocal aura to the wizardly mix.

Listening to the album Mysterious Traveller seems like a travel through light years, and yet it passes as quickly as a few blinks of an ear.

This re-issue version of the album includes two bonus live renditions, of “Cucumber Slumber” and “Nubian Sundance,” which prove that this ensemble was not a phenomenon of a recording studio, like many pop groups, although their style demanded and rewarded high production values.

Perhaps the driving force for the group’s imaginative elevating of coloristic detail and everyday energy is best expressed by Shorter in the liner notes of the debut album:

“Life to me is like an art. Because life has been created by an artist…some people can only relate their soul to God. They think that the soul in relation to the universe has to do with religion all the time. They can’t see any practical use in relating their soul to a table, to a bug on the windowsill, to musicians on a bandstand, or a picture hanging on the wall, or salt and pepper. You can say that’s going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but is it? It’s like saying, ‘a bird does not fly because it has wings. It has wings because it flies.’”

Weather Report has wings, concluded that first annotator, Don DeMichael.

They prove that again in the final album of this box set, which marks the approximate midpoint of the career of a band of extraordinary duration for a jazz group.

Tale Spinnin’ recasts the now maturing band concept in terms of storytelling, which has always been part of jazz’s African-American oral tradition, if not in quite so technically enhanced terms. One tune is called “Five Short Stories,” and the harmonizing Shorter and Zawinul exquisitely suggest related episodes.

But the group also tightens up their songs and percussive thrust. However, the album suffers a slight drop-off in overall imagination — compared to Mysterious Traveller. Still, Tale Spinnin’ opens with “Man in the Green Shirt,” a tune that rekindles Zawinul’s melodic knack for the celebratory buzz, which “Birdland” would soon top, in terms of mass audience connection (on 1976’s Heavy Weather, not part of this collection).

The enigmatic, green-garbed man evokes a more handsome and elegant melody than “Birdland,” evoking personal charisma, aspiration and affirmation. The stranger could be a disarmingly friendly Martian or a godlike figure, or just a colorful tourist which, of course, might be one interpretation of God, the sort of down-to-earth artist/spirit that Wayne Shorter was talking about.

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*Before joining Weather Report, Wayne Shorter had already established himself as arguably the greatest modern jazz composer since Charles Mingus, with his classic series of Blue Note albums and his contributions to the Miles Davis Quintet, in the 1960s.

The classically trained Austrian Zawinul had revealed compositional ambition in the 1967 album The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream and was a crucial aspect of Cannonball Adderley’s popularity. His tunes for Adderley included “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” which remarkably was a pop hit twice in 1967, first for Adderley, reaching Billboard’s No. 16 in February. Then The Buckinghams added lyrics and turned it into a No. 6 hit in August. His 1971 solo album Zawinul introduced his composition “In a Silent Way,” which would become a standard for Miles Davis.

  1. Michelle Mercer, The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter, Tarcher/Penguin, 2004, 142
  2. Walt Whitman, “I Sing the body electric,” from Leaves of Grass: The Deathbed Edition, QPBC, 1992, 72
  3. A tac piano is a piano prepared by attaching tacks to the key hammers, to obtain a metallic sound.

The remainder of the group’s Columbia albums were reissued in a 2011 box set as Weather Report: The Columbia Albums 1976-1982.

My Best Jazz Experiences of 2012 (in memory of James Hazard)

 

 

Here are my choices for best jazz albums and experiences of 2012

Links are to blogs I posted about this artist or recording.

  1. Ryan Truesdell/Gil Evans Project – Centennial (artistShare) http://kevernacular.com/?p=702
  2. Sam  Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul – Reunion: Live in New York (Pi)
  3. Amina Figarova – Twelve (In+Out)
  4. Vijay Iyer Trio  — Accelerando (ACT)
  5. Brad Mehldau Trio – Ode (ECM)
  6. Joel Harrison 7 — Search (Sunnyside)
  7. Henry Threadgill — Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp (Pi)
  8. Luis Perdomo — Universal Mind (RKM)
  9. Philip Dizack — End of an Era (Truth Revolution) http://kevernacular.com/?p=963
  10. Torben Waldorff – Wah-Wah (artistShare)

Honorable mention: Hafez Modirzadeh — Post Chromodal Out! (Pi), Matt Ullery — By A Little Light (Greenleaf), David Virelles, Continuum (Pi).

Reading Tom Piazza — Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America — (A 2011 copyright but I read it in 2012 – recommended.)

Hearing the Jamie Breiwick Quintet doing two whole sets of Monk, include Bright Mississippi and Think of One. The Jazz Estate, Milwaukee.

Best Historical/Reissues

Charles Mingus — The Complete Columbia and RCA Albums Collection (Columbia Legacy)

Dave Brubeck —  The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (Columbia Legacy) http://kevernacular.com/?p=1194

Weather Report — The Columbia Albums 1971-1975 ( Columbia Legacy) * An in-depth blog on this set will be posted here shortly.

Stan Getz – The Clef & Norgran Studio Albums (Hip-O Select) (In memory of James Hazard, poet and cornetist)

Note: James Hazard was a very gifted writer and a dedicated jazz cornetist who died in 2012. (disclosure: he was a professor of mine in grad school, 22 years ago. He was a warm, funny, soulful and deeply supportive teacher, and continued to champion my career efforts over the years. He loved especially Chet Baker and Stan Getz, among many jazz musicians) 

 

 

Writer and cornetist Jim Hazard with his spouse of 38 years, poet Susan Firer.

Coincidentally or not, Hazard and I both wrote Stan Getz poems. Hazard’s, “A True Biography of Stan Getz,” is great modern poetry, from this 1985 collection New Year’s Eve in Whiting Indiana, a masterful book-length ode to his hometown, shedding light on myriad shards and stories of naked, radiantly quirky humanity obscured by grimy smokestacks.

Jim’s poem suggests how Getz’s inimitable saxophone style channeled the romantic impulse in the young Hazard. My Getz poem is based on an actual encounter with Stan Getz (1927-1991), and quotes from his hit song “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Here are excerpts from:

A True Biography of Stan Getz

By James Hazard

“When you change the modes of music, the society changes.” — Confucius, via Gary Snyder

“Place yourself in the background.”, rule one , “An Approach to Style” — Strunk and White

I. 2013 Davis Ave., Whiting, Indiana

The place of his first grade appearance, 1950 or 1951. I was doing the Forbidden in the bathroom: listening to the radio while I bathed, heedless of electrocution and hoping for a jazz record , on the rhythm-and-blues Gary radio station.

Stan Getz played “Strike Up the Band” and I was heart-struck. I was already a heart-wreck, having seen Gene Tierney, her face hitting the screen as a flash flood in LAURA…

(Hearing for the first time that sound, the long and many noted phrases of it, but the sound itself carrying those long phrases out to the ends of breath as if Stan Getz’s lungs and heart would fall in on themselves, wreckage. And Gene Tierney filled one entire wall of the Hoosier Theater and like the bathroom radio – electric, fatal — could not be touched.)…

______________________________________

Bossa Not So Nova

Fattening and 57, Stan Getz

sweats out a melody, red-faced

“Hey thanks for the article. Can you carry my horn?” he croaks.

The sax sings light blue

Small, and tan, and young and handsome, a boy comes walking for an autograph.

Stan stops, signs, walks and goes ”Ahhhh, I’m bee-et. Just go slo-ow.

Hey can you find a doctor?”

They all sleep or smoke butts in cold ward halls.

Stan Getz wonders where Mader’s is.

His round belly rumbles.

The sax sings effortlessly,

“Tall and tan, and young and handsome,”

the boy from Ipa-nema is wheezin’

looking for a doctor or sauerbraten

while a woman somewhere dreams…

to the scratched record,

the sax singing effortlessly.

— Kevin Lynch

 

Out There in the Life and Time of Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

The death of Dave Brubeck on Wednesday — Thursday was his 92nd birthday — summons indelible anecdotal memories, though I can’t resist mentioning that my voice recognition software just dictated his name as “debris back.”

A random shred of dark humor from the netherworld of electronics is something I doubt Brubeck would object to, as a man who exuded prodigious creativity, industry and generous spirit over his long, deeply influential career.

The first adolescent memory is of my father’s almost incessant playing of the 1959 Time Out album. I’m sure most of my six sisters have that peculiarly perfect tune’s 5/4 vamp etched in permanent memory. Years later, all of Norm’s favorite albums were stolen and presenting him, on his 80th birthday, Time Out on CD, gratified all of us. (It was also dad’s last birthday party, see photo at bottom, after notes).

Brubeck has said he had to cajole Columbia Records into releasing the album of odd-time signature tunes. It became the label’s biggest-selling jazz album of all time.*

 

Back when dad bought the Brubeck quartet’s LP Live at Carnegie Hall, he’d play all four sides on a Saturday morning during chores, and it’s surely the first concert-length live recording I ever experienced and absorbed. I recall especially the bounding, breathtaking 9/8 meter contractions of “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” Those two albums lit the fire for my lifelong passion for jazz.

Of course, as a baby boomer, I also quickly immersed in my own generation’s music and soon jumped to modern jazz as an essentially African-American art form. I came to understand that many white artists practiced this form on a par equal to anyone, but admit to becoming a bit of a Brubeck pooh-pooher. The rub was the seeming clunkiness of his attack on the piano (metronomic even, on “Take Five,” set against altoist Paul Desmond’s mellifluous swing, drummer Joe Morello’s deftly colored dynamics and the breathing pulse of the band’s black bassist, Eugene Wright.

Yet the tension created among these rhythmic and harmonic forces was palpable, and it was Brubeck who always pushed the edge of experimental time signatures that messed with conventional swing. Plus the often dense-voiced block chords he heaved from his piano gave a vibrance to dissonance, which often cast a forbidding aura in contemporary classical music.

I would later learn that the brilliant avant-garde jazz pianist-bandleader-composer Cecil Taylor counted Brubeck among his formative influences. At that point, I began to shed my bias about Brubeck’s alleged pianistic squareness.

Indeed my friend Frank Stemper, professor of composition at Southern Illinois University and a longtime jazz pianist, credits Brubeck with “the greatest (recorded) jazz piano solo ever,” on from that Carnegie Hall album, where on the seminal American standard “St. Louis Blues,”: “He’s soloing in four keys simultaneously — and swinging to boot.” Brubeck’s two-handed riot of sharp chordal counterpunching is stunning. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFrnCnbEJMQ

Brubeck shouldn’t be remembered as just a mathematical-musical nerd; his beguilingly romantic melody “In Your Own Sweet Way” has become a jazz standard.

Such forces keep a fan-turn-journalist on the Brubeck trail, which leads to the ultimate comedy of errors of my professional career. In the late 1980s, Brubeck and his musical sons Chris and Dan played a concert in Milwaukee double-billed with in fellow pianist Ellis Marsalis and his celebrated sons, Wynton and Branford (with younger bro Jason on drums).

The rare event cried out for a feature on “fathers and sons in jazz.” I pitched the story idea to Down Beat magazine which gave me a green light. So I arranged for post-concert interviews with representatives of both families.

I was fortunate enough to snag patriarch Ellis Marsalis and the voluble and intelligently opinionated Branford. I clicked my recorder button and began asking questions, and they gave me fine, thoughtful answers and I thought “Man, this is a great story.” Then, right at the end of the interview, Branford peered down at my recorder and said “Is that thing going?”

I looked down — I had hit the “play” button on the soundless blank tape rather than “record,” and never stopped to double check while juggling my two interview subjects. Against habit, I’d also failed to take any written notes.

I was aghast, and yet I still had an interview with the two Brubeck sons arranged. They agreed to slide over to Dunkin’ Donuts on Wisconsin Ave. My spirit lay quietly crushed and yet I remember Chris Brubeck, the bassist-trombonist who physically resembles his father, offering an exuberantly genial chat about life with old man Dave. I never mentioned the god-awful blunder tormenting me. Without the Marsalis material, the Down Beat story never materialized.

It’s a good, hard lesson for journalists – to take care of your business but I also take from that memory the generosity of both the Marsalises and the Brubecks, the latter sons whom I’m sure inherited much of that spirit from their father.

I won’t chronicle Dave Brubeck’s long, auspicious career and refer you to Ben Ratliff’s excellent New York Times obit piece for that. 1 But do recall Brubeck’s ahead-of-his-time explorations of world music forms, his sacred music a la Ellington, and his large compositions for social justice. One Brubeck cantata “Truth is Fallen,” “lamented the killing of student protesters at Kent State University in 1970, with a score including orchestral, electric guitars and police sirens,” Ratliff writes.

Fast forward to the third anecdote, which occurred just a few weeks ago, at Milwaukee’s fall Gallery Night opening reception at the King Drive Gallery for the fascinating and moving show of Underground Railroad-inspired quilts “Hidden In Plain View” (which I blogged about recently). A highlight of the event was alto saxophonist Larry Moore’s trio doing a soulful rendition of “Take Five,” squeezing all the bluesiness imaginable from that oddly percolating meter. The mostly African-American crowd ate it up. As the tensile flow rose, drummer Kim Zick soloed — quoting from Morello’s famous recorded solo of stutter phrasing and silence. Meanwhile, the black woman next to me spent virtually the whole tune tracing the 5/4 tempo with her forefinger moving up and down, to and fro.

There’s something powerful, elemental and beautiful about that rhythmic connection, which is a significant part of Dave Brubeck’s culture gap-bridging legacy (and, of course, that of Desmond, who wrote “Take Five.”) As Brubeck said, “The oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart.”

Ratliff comments about how, with the wildly popular Time Out album, Brubeck “saved jazz” at a time when the quintessential American art form was seemingly disappearing under the unruly barrage of rock ’n’ roll and, soon, the psychedelic fireworks, illuminations and delusions of the counterculture. Through it all Time Out sold steadily and Brubeck’s presence persisted, the almost cavernously wide grin and his equally smiling, bespectacled eyes, and the zeal with which he attacked the piano and helped reinvigorate the art form.

Yes, he played categorically “cool jazz” but he had as much smart muscle in his own musical style as anyone.

The pleasure that Brubeck transmitted, the depth of expression and revelation of form that he mustered, make for a career that time brands deeply into human consciousness — the surprising zenith of popularity, the long productivity and his high, irrepressible human spirit.

___________

Special thanks to John Kurzawa and Frank Stemper

*Columbia/Legacy this year issued two Dave Brubeck Quartet recordings, Their Last Time Out, and The Columbia Studio Albums Collection: 1955-1966.

Perhaps the last recording of Brubeck at the moment is Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play Live at Arthur Zankel Music Center ( in June of 2011) on Blue Forest Records. Material ranges from the stalwart blues “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “St. Louis Blues,” to Dave Brubeck’s Japanese-influence “Koto Song” to “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk.”

1 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/06/arts/music/dave-brubeck-jazz-musician-dies-at-91.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1

photo (at top) of the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet (clockwise from bottom: Brubeck , Joe Morello, Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright) courtesy www.bluenotemusicblog.com

portrait photo of Brubeck from www. independent.com.

(Below) Norm Lynch’s 80th birthday party, July 20, 2009. Norm (1929-2009) is seated at center with Brubeck’s Time Out CD ( a gift from Nancy Aldrich) on table to his immediate left. Dad had hoped for an 81st birthday party.

photo courtesy of Anne Lynch