Saturday, July 9, 2011

Urban Bustle: James Farm

For an album of music dressed as a rural excursion, James Farm (Nonesuch, 2011) seems awfully urban to my ears. Formed in 2009, the group James Farm is clearly a collaborative ensemble interested in exploring different rhythms and harmonies to create something new. To me, this is the core of what jazz, as a musical form, should be in spite of those people who support the so-called "Smooth Jazz" sounds. If it's smooth, it ain't jazz, as far as I'm concerned. For James Farm, led by saxophonist Joshua Redman, it's about tapping into one's experience, playing with a swinging sound and challenging the audience. Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland, (piano, bass and drums respectively) make up the quartet. 

Their new self-titled, debut album opens with the introspective "Coax" composed by bassist Matt Penman. It offers Josh Redman room to solo in a quizzical way opening the door to Aaron Parks on piano teasing us with delicate notes designed to draw us closer. Followed by the very funky "Polliwog," written by Redman, this pleasing tune features the tenor sax player performing as lyrically as I've ever heard him. The lazy ballad "Bijou," composed by Aaron Parks, shows a lighter touch. But the mood changes again with a piece called "Chronos," also written by Parks, but clearly led by drummer Eric Harland. His brand of percussion is similar in style to Jack DeJohnette, who loves to mix it up on the kit marking the transitions of fast and slow that is the predominant feature of this composition. Clearly, James Farm is a band that is only interested in the musical pull of the ensemble as opposed to a rhythm section backing a horn-player.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Neglected Gems #4: Baran (2001)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Wendy and Lucy, Ballast) acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the latest entry in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Co-winner of the grand prize at the Montreal World Film Festival, Baran marked a stylistic leap forward for Iranian director Majid Majidi. It was also a less angry film than his previous two movies, Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise, both of which had also won the top prize in Montreal. Those films were heavier--and cruder--than Baran, which is, finally, a sweet story of unconsummated love.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #20: Toni Morrison (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, in the late sixties, the momentum of the Civil Rights movement seemed to wane. No leader could fill that vacuum and black voices in the eighties became fragmented. Often the question of black identity came up during interviews. While many of the individuals I spoke to were male, author Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon, Beloved) brought perspective on black culture from a woman's point of view. On the day she came in, we discussed her then new book Tar Baby. The novel portrays a love affair between Jade and Son, two blacks who came from different worlds. While Jade is a Sorbonne graduate and fashion model who was sponsored into wealth and privilege, Son is a poor, strong-willed man who literally washes up on the shore of the wealthy white family home in the Caribbean where Jade's uncle and aunt work as servants. Although Jade and Son try to make a home in the United States, the compromises each makes (dictated by their class differences) doom the affair.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

From Stage to Screen: Peeking at a Political Underbelly

Howard Dean.
As a “press advance man” for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s presidential bid, Brooklyn playwright Beau Willimon spent the last three months of 2003 crisscrossing Iowa. So it’s hardly surprising his gripping make-believe account of a modern campaign would be set in that Midwestern state. Farragut North, which opened off-Broadway in late 2008, was about back-room machinations and dirty tricks among political operatives.

Yet Willimon, who had stumped for other Democratic candidates in the past, made it clear in an interview three years ago that his piece was not a Deaniac docudrama. “I drew on all those experiences to create a fictional but authentic world,” he said, while sipping orange juice at a cafe in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “My intention is to present a universal story about power and ambition.”

It also seemed to be a story appropriate for cinema. The action has been relocated to Ohio in the script Willimon wrote after Farragut was optioned by Warner Bros, in conjunction with George Clooney’s production company. Clooney co-adapted and directed the film, now titled The Ides of March, and he also stars, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood. It will open the Venice Film Festival on August 31, before an October 7 release.

John Gallagher Jr., Chris Noth and Kate Blumberg in Farragut North.

The dynamic original version, under the aegis of the Atlantic Theater Company, featured Chris Noth of Law & Order fame and John Gallagher, Jr., who won a 2007 Tony Award for his performance in the hit Broadway musical Spring Awakening. The cast included Olivia Thirlby, Ellen Page’s sidekick in Juno, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., perhaps best known for HBO’s The Wire. Doug Hughes, the director of Farragut, had earned a 2005 Tony Award for Doubt.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Irreverent Enchantment: Shakespeare by the Sea’s Robin Hood

If you live in Halifax or are travelling to the wonderfully laid-back city this summer, you must go and see Shakespeare by the Sea’s (SBTS) The Adventures of Robin Hood. The theatre company originally preformed a rendition of this classic tale in 2005, but this year’s version is a much more refreshing take. You can enjoy Alfresco Shakespeare in many Canadian cites: SBTS (Halifax and St. John’s), Dream in High Park (Toronto), Free Will Players Theatre Guild (Edmonton) and Bard on the Beach (Vancouver), to mention some of the more cleverly named. Take your snacks and sangria (er, I mean cranberry juice…most venues don’t officially allow booze) and enjoy a thespian adventure by starlight. Each year SBTS Halifax does two Shakespearean productions and one fairy tale “kids” play. Until now, I’ve been a purist and attended only plays by the Bard himself, but my tune has changed. You can take much more dramatic and theatrical liberties with a folktale like Robin Hood than with a five-act stage show with a definitive playwright. And take liberties they did. Sherwood Forest enchanted us all.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Return of the Invisible Man: J.D. Souther’s Natural History

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, David Kidney, to our group.

“There’s talk on the street it sounds so familiar

Great expectations everybody’s watching you

People you meet they all seem to know you

Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new

Johnny come lately…the new kid in town.”

The Eagles – “New Kid in Town.”


John David Souther isn’t quite the new kid in town anymore. Back in 1970, he joined together with Glen Frey to form a duo called Longbranch Pennywhistle. They released one album and then Frey went on to help found The Eagles. While Souther was invited to join this soon to be iconic band, he figured the addition of one more guitar would not have made much of a difference to their sound. Nonetheless, he stayed close at hand and co-wrote some of The Eagles’ most memorable songs, “Best of My Love,” “Heartache Tonight” and “New Kid in Town.” Souther also had a reasonably healthy solo career releasing a handful of albums for Asylum Records while providing hit songs for Linda Ronstadt and collaborating with James Taylor. Then he just seemed to disappear.

He showed up as an actor on television in thirtysomething and in film (Postcards on the Edge) but for over twenty years he didn’t release any music. That changed in 2008 with a jazzy album called If The World Was You. He added trumpet solos and sophisticated piano and steered clear of the country-rock guitar stuff he’d been known for. The album was a surprising hit. When I saw him that year at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room he played a couple of sunburst Gibson guitars and was a surprisingly clumsy guitarist. But he more than made up for it with his warm supple voice and winning stage presence. Souther was charming, rather than the arrogant character he’d portrayed on TV. The album was only a month old, and when he moved to the piano to play one tune, he couldn’t remember the words. He asked if anyone had bought the vinyl version at the merch table, and borrowed the lyric sheet to read the song. How endearing is that? Now he’s back with a follow-up album, Natural History.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rallying Support: The Effort to Save Showcase's Endgame

It's not often that I choose to write about a current TV show that is already cancelled, but this is a special case. This past March, the Canadian specialty channel Showcase launched Endgame to critical acclaim. Its first episodes did well, but then it started to slip. In June, Showcase pulled the plug and ever since there has been a feisty fan movement afoot to convince them to uncancel it. The best way to describe the thoroughly entertaining Endgame is to call it a whodunit with a somewhat unique twist. The solver of crimes is Arkady Balagan (Shawn Doyle), a Russian chess master who suffers from severe agoraphobia: the fear of going outside. We learn in flashback that the agoraphobia hit while he was staying at a luxury hotel called the Huxley. The condition developed when he witnessed his fiancée (Lisa Ray) getting blown up by a car bomb just as he was exiting the hotel to join her. He now spends his days either in his suite (a suite he is having trouble paying for), bugging the head of security (Patrick Gallagher), wandering the hotel corridors (often barefoot and in a housecoat) or hanging out in the hotel bar manned by the beauteous Danni (Katharine Isabelle).

Since he is very logical, people start coming to him to solve various crimes: murders, thefts, assaults, etc. They all offer to pay him a lot of money, money he desperately needs. He solves the crimes with his mind. He is ably assisted by the youthful Sam (Toorance Coombs – The Tudors) who is a chess nut. Arkady “pays” him with chess lessons whenever Sam does external investigations. A sympathetic maid (Carmen Aguirre) also pitches in by running interference for him with the hotel management and security. The show gets creatively around the Arkady-stuck-in-the-hotel scenario by having him fantasize conversations with the victims or probable perpetrators of the crimes. This allows him, in his head at least, to go outside. Frequently, they turn into rather comic encounters shot in a hyper-real manner.