Jazz blog: notes, tips, recommendations
The phenomenon of “your next box set”, an evening in with a DVD set of typically some quintessentially Scandinavian crime epic noir for company, a luxuriant soaking in uninterrupted subtitled emblazoned grisly goings-on in chilly climes, and fodder for the next vaguely passable social gathering is now well established in media land. To wit: the very words “your next” assuming it’s a regular pastime akin to gardening, happily flagged up in a regular spot in The Guardian. So clearly, instead of spending an evening down the pub, ruminating about the next must-attend piece of performance art, shopping for trainers, or dressing up for Halloween, it’s the thing to do. And why not while you’re at it, unless you actually prefer to go to a real-life cinema, that is, or opt for being really old fashioned and actually watch TV episode-by-episode when they’re actually on. Somehow, though, even if it is appealing with a bit of forward planning, the “all you can eat” all-of-the-time aspect of the box set-as-evening-entertainment is a little too good to be true, and it strikes me as though you need to be a bit of a glutton for punishment to really get it, chaining yourself to the TV no less, in the hope that the plot gets somewhere by the end although you’re bracing yourself just on the off chance that there’s some ending worth waiting for and not the kind, beloved of the arthouse, when the action grinds to a halt or, the big come on, stops… as if mid-sentence making sure a new series isn’t out of the question.
By the yardstick of the box set evening a four-hour opera is for softies although the path to the fridge is that bit more direct from the comfort of your sofa. But what about the “CD box set” night in? An outlandish concept you might say. Who in their right mind would listen to hours and hours of music, it’s fair to speculate, with only a few pictures of the artwork for visual stimulus, and nothing to stare at but the wall, should arty pics of image-conscious bands scowling begin to suddenly pall?
Well, shockingly, an evening in with a box set could work OK with the help of a roaring fire very possibly, a friendly hound by the hearth, hearty fare, suitable beverages, and a goodly mix of female company, with the hi-fi tinkling at just the right volume in the background.
And for the first running of this newly invented concept evening? Step forward Beat, Square & Cool, the second box set from boutique reissue label Moochin’ About. Last year the label put out the critically acclaimed Jazz on Film… Film Noir box set, and label founders record distribution sales executive Jason Lee Lazell and jazz writer Selwyn Harris have followed suit with a batch of films that retains the general concept, recognising the need for good mastering, a rarity in the world of public domain reissues where releases are often copied from less than pristine sources, the provision of detailed notes, again as rare as hen’s teeth, and plenty of pictures including original poster artwork reproduced along with the five CDs, each disc covering extracts from sometimes two films. So there’s The Wild One from 1953 and Crime in the Streets from three years later on CD1; I Want to Live! from 1958 given a whole disc; Marcel Carné’s Les Tricheurs from the same year bunking up with Paris Blues from three years later on CD3; while the fourth CD has The Subterraneans from 1960, with music by André Previn; and finally Shadows from 1959, and The Connection, from two years later, are on the last CD.
A foreword from Jazzwise editor Jon Newey sets the scene: “Out of the twilight murk of post-war film noir emerged a new strand of shadowy cinematic concepts,” and then Selwyn Harris, who writes the regular Jazz on Film column in Jazzwise, in his introduction charts how the films in question emerged from those shadows, firstly marking the teenage revolution in the making via films such as The Wild One while jazz was similarly in flux with cinema trying to encapsulate both the bohemianism of the jazz community’s take on the world they find themselves unwillingly part of, and the transformation of attitudes to music and society in The Subterraneans, as well as in Paris Blues, with music by Duke Ellington, and French film Les Tricheurs.
Harris finds the society of the day’s racial taboos are shied away from in some of these films, particularly Paris Blues and The Subterraneans but points to the growing confidence of independent film making in the United States with figures such as director John Cassavetes who in Shadows with wonderful music by Charles Mingus and an semi-improvised ethos in the film making process Harris contends allowed for greater complexity and representation of issues that few before Cassavetes would have been capable of tackling with the same degree of commitment.
While the music for The Connection is better known, the inclusion of Shadows plugs a gap in many people’s record collections, and the notes about this important though cultish film are good on details about the Mingus octet and the story of how the film came to be made.
It’s not surprising to discover where Harris’ heart lies in the selections here (with the clue in the booklet cover image bled on to the back of Cassavetes’ hands in the air, with Shafi Hadi emerging on the far left on the back cover recording the score for the film). And it’s the later noticeably more modern material that the main interest in this superlative box set lies. These Moochin’ About releases take on the marker for film and jazz set down by the quality of numerous Proper Box series, although the design is that much more appealing and the notes so much more readable and interesting.
As full migration to digital threatens to mothball CDs at some point in the near future, detailed readable information and properly presented audio that is worth its place on your shelf for frequent reference particularly in the realms of reissues is so very valuable as it won’t be around for ever in current formats and who knows what online solutions will be found as the buccaneering spirit of digital format-finding gathers pace in the years to come. It’s extraordinary and short sighted, though, that record labels concentrate on putting out poor quality digital music as downloads (not even reissuing so much on CD these days especially if it’s owned by the majors).
So the age of “your next box set” may yet take on a different dimension. Breathe life into an old format by taking it home for an evening in and not a Wallander in sight. The 300 minutes of music on this set would make a very full and entertaining evening no matter how beat, square or cool you happen to be.
When an artist has a signature sound, and David Sanborn, whose two-CD anthology Then Again is released today, clearly has, then a few things happen. First and foremost a lot of people copy it or modify it, and this is clearly the case with Sanborn whose sound has spawned a great many imitators on this side of the Atlantic as well as in the US.
Sanborn can also be seen as a player whose work is adjacent to smooth jazz, even though he has retained his credibility although empirically his style is not too different to generic smooth jazz as we now understand it, as this compilation covering Warner albums starting in 1975, and continuing until 1996, easily shows.
The compilation features the work of a variety of leading producers, and people who hate commercial jazz should sit down and listen to this set to either banish their prejudices or confirm them. Highlights for me are ‘Lisa’ and ‘Hideaway’ from the first CD, and the Don Grolnick arrangement of ‘Lotus Blossom’ on the second. Never underestimate Sanborn, it’s wise to say; and this well put together 2-CD set provides plenty of reasons for such caution.
Saturday lunchtime is an unusual and quite brave time for an album launch that didn’t nonetheless affect Cloudmakers Trio too much despite the modest turn-out at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London yesterday. Kicking off with ‘Snaggletooth’ “dedicated to the noble art of British dentistry", quipped vibes player Jim Hart above, the band were performing material from new album Live at the Pizza recorded on the very spot here with Ivo Neame octet drummer Dave Hamblett deputising for Cloudmakers sticksman Dave Smith who is touring South America with Robert Plant, Hart patiently informed the audience, the latter mainly quietly intent on munching pizza in the darkness of the Dean Street basement reserving their applause for later. Fresh over on the train from Paris in the morning the trio were joined by alto saxophonist Antonin Tri Hoang (it’s trumpeter Ralph Alessi on the album) whose tone and general style at times resembled the approach of a master like Lee Konitz, and who excelled particularly on Monk’s ‘Bye Ya’ in the first set, and in the second on the bebop pioneer’s ‘Epistrophy’ with Hart explaining that everyone on stage were keen appreciators of Monk. The original material complemented the original inclinations of bebop to some extent with a vertical harmonic orientation that revelled in keenly carved out structure and strong momentum, the confidently insistent bass lines of Janisch and idiomatic drumming from Hamblett maintaining sustained interest, despite this being Hamblett’s first live performance of the material. Must have been a bit of a roast! You may have heard both Hart and Hamblett on Ivo Neame’s superlative octet release Yatra recently. ‘Social Assassin’, dedicated to Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David, was an exuberant way to open the second set, and later ‘Passwords’, from the album, was the pick of the original material, a very fine composition for a variety of reasons, particularly the shape of the piece and the fact that the band produced some spontaneous polyrhythmic lift-off, in other words, whether it was the intention or not the tune swung. I also liked the avant garde ‘Post Stone’, named after a night at John Zorn’s New York downtown venue The Stone. Maybe Saturday afternoon gigs need to catch on a bit more to gain the extra bums on seats, but Cloudmakers are worth catching live on any day of the week even in the afternoon.
A film and its soundtrack, they go together; or do they? It’s not always obvious and I’m talking about the continuity dialogue-and-music version, not the music-only separately issued one. It’s all about context, stating the obvious, choice; and above all the interpretative ability of the composer and the allied decisions to use song-based or instrumental material that already exists that can amplify the story. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master the director is reunited with film composer Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, following their previous work together on There Will Be Blood.
The music that Greenwood didn’t compose reflects the film’s period setting to an extent, and it has a jazz-tinged and popular music quality to it, relating to the 1940s following victory in Japan, the beginning of a new era as traumatised navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes part of The Cause, the cultish Scientology-like group led by charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, above). Greenwood’s music harnesses electronic textures via acoustic means and dense harmonic strings-laden clusters that particularly in the second half of the film, past the one-hour mark, uses clarinet a great deal. Some of the instrumentalists on the score, released by Nonesuch records on 5 November, are jazz people including former Humphrey Lyttelton sideman the veteran mainstream musician Jimmy Hastings, and a voice of the new generation, Sons of Kemet clarinettist Shabaka Hutchings, along with Zed-U bandmates Neil Charles and Tom Skinner.
The key non-Greenwood music comes in three main varieties each with particular justifications in terms of plot and context.
The first is the inclusion of the Ella Fitzgerald version of the Irving Berlin song ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’, chosen I suppose for its playful hint of menace and played against a show of photographs.
The second is ‘No Other Love’ (the spooky song that owes much to Chopin’s ‘Tristesse’) sung by Jo Stafford, which belongs to the Arizona section of the film where the Master finds himself, in Phoenix, addressing the first congress of The Cause. While impactful it retains a non-literal ambivalence in terms of narrative.
And finally the third song is Helen Forrest’s version of ‘Changing Partners’ in waltz time accompanied by the Sy Oliver orchestra (think the feel of ‘Tennessee Waltz’ a tune that Sonny Rollins interpreted in its definitive jazz treatment). This last song charts the ultimate choice of Freddie after his final dealing with Dodd in his mansion in England where the action moves to after some wanderings in America and quite some time after the seafaring episodes in the early part of the film.
The Greenwood soundtrack itself in the context of the film, leaving aside the songs referred to, and they are important, has a great deal of depth and an abstract logic to it unlike much modern cinema composition that relies on mood-setting minimalism as a jumping off point, or anthemic electronica even no matter the period. Texturally Greenwood’s approach adds gravitas and provides parallel, although properly allusive, commentary on the drama. It also never distracts and integrates itself organically. The Master is absorbing, stimulating, a quite brilliant piece of film-making and thought-provoking storytelling, beautifully acted and shot. It’s a film that people will, hazarding a wild guess, be talking about for a long time to come. Stephen Graham
In cinemas from Friday