Month: December 2012

“Cinema is between the frames”

Still from Walden, Jonas Mekas (1969)

Still from Walden, Jonas Mekas (1969)

One gloomy night in my hometown about 10 years ago, I was hanging out with a bunch of friends and watching a Jonas Mekas short that one film buff among us had brought. The film basically consisted of boats zipping in and out of a harbor in some kind of fast-forward motion. Maybe we had one drink too many back then but I remember feeling pretty bored (do you guys remember?) and wondering if I would ever connect with so-called experimental “underground” cinema, an art form I was largely ignorant about.

Last night I went to see Mekas’ film diary, Walden (Diaries, Notes and Sketches) projected on a cinema screen at the Centre Pompidou (excerpt here) And I was blown away. I guess you could call it one of those epiphanic moments when you first go “ok, how am I going to get through this 3-hour experimental downer WITHOUT grabbing my neighbor or tearing up my seat” and find yourself drawn into its magnetic beauty, surprised that it’s already finished three hours later.

In a fascinating echo to writer Henry D. Thoreau’s classic, Mekas’ Walden is a poetic celebration of detail, an impressionistic ode to the most commonplace and yet extraordinary manifestations of life. Admittedly, the Lithuaninan-born filmmaker documents an era and a place, mainly New York City in the 60s, whose aura has reached mythic proportions in our collective psyche. But somehow Mekas’ photographic eye captures a vibrant cultural environment that feels timeless and refreshingly alluring. The most striking thing about this film, I thought, was how naturally these fleeting impressions fit together despite Mekas characteristically jumpy editing. We just zap through snow-capped NY, sunrises that “you usually don’t see over New York”, leaves falling through Central Park, circus performers going about their acts in repeat mode, portraits of experimental filmmaker’s Stan Brakhage’s family in their countryside lodge, among myriad vignettes of indoor and outdoor scenes. The filmmaker’s voice steps in occasionally to briefly contextualize an event or relate funny anecdotes (for example, when he, Brakhage and other avant-garde filmmakers get talked into a trip to New Jersey for German TV and try to act “underground” by climbing trees and eating plain bagels!).

The film also documents the major art movements burgeoning in the 60s and one is stunned by how much Mekas witnessed and captured of this momentous era. It’s like a time capsule of the NY underground/pop art scene seen through the eyes of a Lithuanian exile who carves out his own path alongside living icons, including Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground, among others. Mekas juxtaposes this plethoric footage with deeply personal craftsmanship, creating kaleidoscopic vistas that are truly beguiling.

I’m no expert on the art of filmmaking but this is a compelling case for a no-frills attitude to creativity. What Mekas does with a 16mm Bolex camera proves that what is essentially a neatly assembled collection of home movies can make for lasting art. Whether he zooms in on Danish film director Carl Dreyer’s hands, anonymous kids roller-skating down the street, women handing out pamphlets for peace in freezing weather, flowers in bloom or dinner scenes of himself and relatives, the images take a life of their own. As Mekas comments at some point in the film, “cinema is light, movement…it is the sun…cinema is between the frames”.

I’m glad I got a chance to change my mind about Mekas’ luminous cinema.

And happy new year to all

The Sound of Soul

The year-end top ten lists are rolling in on the Internet and I still don’t know where in the world 2012 went. A good excuse not to go through the ordeal of finding ten albums actually released in 2012.

The adjective soulful has to be the hardest to define and translate into French (presumably into any language). Yet it immediately comes to mind when I reflect on the music I’ve listened to ad nauseam this year. Pianist Geri Allen and bassist Charlie Haden clearly stand out from the pack when I try to condense a year’s worth of intense listening. Both musicians have incorporated wide-ranging influences into their playing and artistry. Both have a profound sense of soul.

Charlie has a deeply resonant tone that’s immediately recognizable, a unique way to reach into the depths of the bass and extract its earthy substance. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to trace this sound all the way back to his boyhood days in Iowa as a bluegrass singer in the family band. One thing that keeps blowing my mind about his bass lines is their consistently singing quality, no matter who he plays with, from Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett. His style could be described as economical, lyrical, and deeply grounded. He often goes for a few well-chosen notes that he breaks down into descending or ascending motifs, like a melody moving in half or whole steps. One record I’ve been playing a lot this year is the Mehldau, Konitz, Motian Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011). Everyone plays ridiculously great here even though I wish Charlie’s accompanying lines had been a little higher in the mix. But when it’s Charlie’s turn to give his rendition of the standard, his lines unfold with amazing clarity and even the subdued but very present Paul Motian lays out. They all want to hear Charlie’s song.

Charlie also has a knack for quoting, and his inspirations range from La Marseillaise (I forgot on which tracks but he definitely digs this one!) to Lady Sings the Blues, on Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. The way he brings that up casually in his solo as if it was part of the tune is just insane. The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson is a huge fan and you can probably track down his insightful analysis of Charlie’s playing somewhere on DTM.

As for Geri Allen, she is definitely my favorite of the year. Her album The Life of a Song (2004)with heavy players Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette has been on the player about 50 times this year. Boy, can she lay down the groove and still sound highly melodic and inspired. Like Charlie, Geri runs the gamut of improvised music, equally at ease with free or straight-ahead jazz.  Mix in Herbie Hancock’s funkiness, McCoy Tyner’s modalism and Cecil Taylor’s percussive attack and you get Geri Allen. In fact, her solo album Flying Toward the Sound references these influences explicitly. How she synthesizes this lineage and still sounds like her distinct self commands attention. That, and her ability to imbue every song she plays with deep sensuality without succumbing to sentimentality. When I went out to hear Geri with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel earlier this fall in Paris, my jaw dropped so low I thought it might come off. Geri’s playing is so tight she’d put James Brown and Otis Redding to shame, with all due respect to these masters of soul. Am I right or am I right?

Selected recordings of Charlie Haden:

With the Ornette Coleman Quartet: everything!

Charlie Haden and Hampton Hawes,  As Long as There’s Music (Verve, 1976)

Charlie Haden, Geri Allen, Paul Motian, Etudes (Soul Note, 1987)

The Golden Number, duets with Keith Jarrett, Don Cherry, Hampton Hawes, Archie Shepp (Horizon, 1976)

Brad Mehdlau, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011)

Selected recordings of Geri Allen:

The Life of a Song (Telarc, 2004)

Flying Toward the Sound (Motema Music, 2010)

Twenty One, with Ron Carter and Tony Williams (Blue Note, 1994)

Etudes (Soul Note, 1987)

The Gathering (Polygram records, 1998)

browsing serendipity

credit: Diacritica, Creative Commons license

credit: Diacritica, Creative Commons license

Moseying around the deserted jazz section of my local library is a favorite pastime of mine. With everyone keeping a safe distance from the aisle in case some kind of pepper spray spurts out automatically (you never know), you have plenty of room to peruse the shelves and enjoy the randomness of browsing. The music is all there for you. Just grab it.

I walked in with a couple of ideas for my once-every-three-week pickup, including some early Billie Holiday with the Pres, some late Paul Motian, the improbable Monk bootleg I hadn’t heard, and if I was really lucky, that damn Mal Waldron Black Glory record some unethical borrower never seems to return, and then I’d take it from there.

Here’s what chance (or destiny?) put into my hands:

Lester Young, The Quintessence, 1936-1944 (Frémeaux et Associés)

Billie Holiday, The Quintessence, 1935-1944 (Frémeaux et Associés)

Steve Lacy, Plays Thelonious Monk (with Mal Waldron on piano!) (Prestige)

Paul Motian, On Broadway Vol.1 (W&W)

Marc Copland with Gary Peacock & Bill Stewart, Modinha (Pirouet)

Hank Mobley, Another Workout (Blue Note)

Ahmad Jamal, Blue Moon (Jazz Village)

Brad Mehldau, Highway Rider (Nonesuch)

Wayne Shorter Quartet, Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve)

Interesting, isn’t it?


Ursina Commedia

Credit: Rick Smit, Creative Commons License

Credit: Rick Smit, Creative Commons License

I seem to be obsessed with animals these days. But when one of them happens to be a talking bear that plays the alto sax and waxes philosophical about the human, uh, bear condition, I feel compelled to go ahead and look under all that fur.

The Bear (or alternatively Bear), as he is simply referred to in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home (Norton, 1998) has gotten sick and tired of the freak show routine under the friendly supervision of his sidekick Jones ( a human).  Getting up on his hind legs to impress the incredulous crowds is a bit undignified for a bear that can play the clarinet part of the Mozart quintet with a few snout adjustments. But the musical odyssey he embarks on with the benevolent assistance of Jones, now become a proactive manager, presents an equally daunting challenge: Coming into his own on the saxophone without compromising his musical vision, making it through the late-night gigs as police squads prowl around, keeping a band together as the success of a recording contract comes with the drawback of touring US backwaters where mediocre gigs are sapping group morale. To add insult to injury, Bear is in love with the stunningly beautiful and tormented Iris, and this improbable but passionate relationship is proving too overwhelming for his big-hearted self. Their dialogue often has a bantering yet fairly intellectual edge:

“My thoughts ain’t worth that much,” he said.

“I don’t’ believe you.”

“You know that line of Rilke’s? Beauty is nothing but the beginning of a terror we are just able to bear?”

“You think it might be a reference to you? That’s rich.”

Amazingly enough, for all the Bear’s quirks and witticisms, there is never any doubt about his genetic identity. He is a bear, a talking four-legged mammal striving for beauty and love in the tumultuous world of humans.  And it is precisely his hard-edged humanness that causes him to experience the most uplifting moments of life (playing his heart out alongside his musical heroes, making love, rambling through the wilderness and teaching a bird how to sing Monk right!, etc) as well as the darkest hours (a dreary time in prison with a wacky German doctor who has “trouble with ze dipdthssong”). Meanwhile, Jones, also has his share of troubles and when a gang of angry kids beat up on him in Washington Square Park, he comes to reflect on his own humanity:  “How to be human, how to be human, I don’t know how it’s done. What is a man anyway?”

The bear, “on the other paw”, is incessantly engaged in a soul-searching quest to transfigure his gigantically awkward self into a caring and dependable presence (for Iris, Jones, or his band members). Filled with humor and insightful descriptions of the tribulations of jazz life, the book features an impressive cast of fictitious and genuine characters including bassist Charlie Haden or drummer Billy Hart among others. This is obviously a gem for music lovers, replete with highly detailed musical analysis and jazz memorabilia. But the book doesn’t let down the neophyte, who will also find food for thought aplenty. As he picks his way through a second solo during a fast and eventful tune, Bear ponders on the music playing out around him, revealing the compelling urgency at work in the most fervent artistic pursuits:

            “Listen to these guys, he thought, hearing Haden and Billy’s accompaniments and insinuations, the flex of beat, the suggested harmonic divagation, the threat or promise of distant thunder, eventual rain. Where else could you find a music like this? Where else encounter such simultaneous discipline and abandon? It was a whole rich multifarious world, and if you went outside its visible parameters you could draw from anything out there and bring it back in without bowing obeisance to any foreign gods. All you had to do was be able to play. All you had to do was know how to put it together. All you had to do was see how it already was together in potential, articulate and complete, and at the same time throw yourself wholly into the maelstrom of unknown process. All you had to know was the little secret that made it swing. It was no big deal. It was life, is all, no more no less.”

 By the end of the novel, the Bear is still struggling with the vagaries of life but he seems closer than ever to resolving the existential dilemma: “Who could have imagined how large joy is once you’re cut loose from the farce of having to be someone”. While the book does get a little lengthy in places, the serpentine sentences have a musical quality that seems entirely justified here. Jazz fans will revel in the inside stories sprinkled in throughout the narrative and the characters’ dialogue but beyond the music, or accompanied by it, it is the bigger picture of social alienation and the quest for the healing power of art that is depicted here. That should speak to quite a few of us furless humans.

The Bear Comes Home (Norton, 1998) is the first novel by writer and jazz drummer Rafi Zabor. Thank you D. for hipping me to this one. Amis francophones, le livre est paru sous le titre Un Ours à Manhattan (Denoël, 1999, traduit de l’anglais par Philippe Rouard)