Saturday, January 14, 2012

Throwing Down the Gauntlet – The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field

In the late Fifties, Ornette Coleman, a Texas-born saxophone player who would eventually sojourn to L.A., took a leap into space with a quartet that completely abandoned form when they played jazz. With drummer Billy Higgins, Walter Norris on piano and Don Cherry playing trumpet, The Ornette Coleman Quartet first shook up the jazz world with the aptly titled Something Else!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958). But, by the next LP, when Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come, adding Charlie Haden on bass, his blues-based harmonically free improvisations dramatically opened up a whole new direction for the music.

When Coleman then appeared at the Five Spot nightclub in New York in the early winter, he inspired a small riot among jazz artists and critics. This 1959 skirmish would in many ways resemble the much larger one Igor Stravinsky had instigated in 1913 with his radical ballet score Le Sacre du Printemps. Why the commotion? By abandoning harmony on The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman sought rhythm the way abstract expressionist painters went after sensation. At the Five Spot, therefore, his melodies were experienced by the audience as if they were swirling in a musical maze, driven by an acceleration of tempo, which challenged these stunned listeners to follow along as he gleefully rejected jazz's adherence to strict time. "It was like I was E.T. or something, just dropped in from the moon," Coleman later recalled.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Gothic Shadow – Bob Douglas' That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War

When people talk about 'gothic' culture today it could apply to pretty much anything with dark clothes, dark hair and pale skin. Author and historian Bob Douglas, on the other hand, has a deeper awareness of the true origins of the Gothic tradition. He has written about that tradition, as well, in a fascinating study titled That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011). In the book, Douglas uses the Gothic literary conventions – especially those contained in Bram Stoker's Dracula – as a means to understanding the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, right through to and including World War One. Douglas's full study doesn't stop with the Great War; however, he is currently working on a second volume that covers both the Nazi and Stalinist era up until the post 9/11 culture.

James FitzGerald, the author of the award-winning memoir What Disturbs Our Blood (who we interviewed last year) aptly writes about That Line of Darkness that "Douglas reminds us, with erudite, page-turning prose, how life is forever imitating art. Forbidden, atavistic desires lurk under the thin skin of our civilization, and with equal parts horror and fascination, we are transfixed." Douglas has himself been transfixed by this project. Since 1998, when it began as a study of art in ten different historical periods, the book soon became what is now an epic and engrossing historical study of how the demonization of the other and blood purification became a compelling metaphor that continues to haunt the culture. Bob Douglas, whose website is, will be giving a talk on Thursday January 26, 7PM to 8:15 at Palmerston Library two blocks west of Bathurst just off Bloor St. Recently, he had a few minutes to talk to us as well about the project.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dreamy: Joe Henry's Reverie

Joe Henry and I have something in common. The esteemed producer, songwriter and musician is also crazy about a unique jazz record called Money Jungle, which was recorded in one day in 1962 and it featured three of the most compelling people in music: Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. It was the only time they all ever came together in the studio. The result was an intimate record of Ellington compositions, some played for the first time. To me, it was remarkable how these three artists were able to get along, let alone the skill in which they played. To my knowledge, it wasn’t necessarily a super group either. Yet it was far from being a regular session.

Reverie (ANTI-, 2011) is Joe Henry’s attempt to capture the immediacy, excitement and love he heard on Money Jungle, but it’s not a jazz record by any stretch. It’s a pop album with a difference. And it’s that difference, in feel, phrasing and songwriting that makes Reverie one of best new records I’ve heard. But I didn’t come to this album as a fan of Henry’s music; it was his excellent work as a producer that made me look up and take notice.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Alternative Air Force: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

The Napoleonic wars form the backdrop of many classic works of historical fiction. Epic battles, perilous sea voyages and political machinations lend themselves easily to countless adventures, several of which have translated to screen adaptations in recent years – think Master and Commander, or Horatio Hornblower. The era seems to provide no shortage of inspiration to the budding writer. One seems hard-pressed to find anything that would make an already fascinating period of history more exciting.

Well, what about dragons?

At first, this idea conjures up unsettling memories of unfortunately gimmicky dragon movies (I’m looking at you, Reign of Fire). The notion of playing this premise straight would seem even more outlandish, but Naomi Novik's His Majesty’s Dragon does just that – and does it well. Trying to weave the iconic fantasy beasts into such well-trodden literary ground seems a gutsy choice for a first novel, but Novik has managed: first published in 2005, it is the first book in the Temeraire series, which has now reached six novels and will last for at least seven. While perhaps not the most challenging read, the novel still manages to pose enough questions and provide enough seafaring fun to please both fans of the fantastic and historical fiction buffs with a quirky imagination.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dale Carnegie Reconsidered

Unless you’re embarking on a career in monk hood, chances are, you may have to interact with other people at some point during the day. And you are not guaranteed an easy ride. Even if you are someone who loves people, and understands people, the best of us can still be emotional, unpredictable, and unstable. Whatever the complexities in our behaviour, we are always forced to interact with others. So there is always a probability of friction. (And not always the friction that Harlequin’s are made of.)  Interpersonal skills, let's face it, are as necessary in job interviews as they are at family dinners. Because of this challenge, I recently picked up Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1981).

Carnegie originally self-published his work in 1936 and it went on to sell over fifteen million copies. With so many social trends, and self-help crazes, coming and going, I was especially curious as to why and how this work still had a home on bookshelves today. Perhaps there's a good reason. It offers very relevant common sense about how to strategize with phenomenon that will never change: inherently complex human emotions.

How to Win Friends is divided into four sections: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People, Six Ways to Make People Like You, How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, and Be a Leader. In each portion, Carnegie delivers several concise essays, each one concluding with a sound principle to support each objective. For instance, in the first section, he examines the art of handling people. Carnegie reminds us that the best communication comes with an effort to understand the other. But the advice that resonated most with me was to “never assume” that you understand. This chapter suggests not to judge someone who maybe short tempered, or otherwise unpleasant, because we might not have any idea of what they are going through. They could be going through hell, a break-up, a rough morning, the loss of a loved one. Carnegie tells us that “[i]nstead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do.” 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Klezmer Fable: Shlemiel the First

Shlemiel the First may be the best practically unknown musical comedy of the last twenty years. In the mid-nineties, during his tenure as artistic director of American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Robert Brustein adapted the script from a play Isaac Bashevis Singer had culled from some of his own folk fables. The music by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek was written for a klezmer band, with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein, and in a further burst of inspiration Brustein hired the choreographer David Gordon, who helms the witty Pick Up Performance Company, to stage it on a marvelous ramshackle expressionistic set by Robert Israel. It was the highlight of A.R.T.’s 1993-1994 season, and audiences tumbled for it; the company brought it back the following year.

 But when it closed the second time, the show vanished; the infectious songs have never been recorded (though one or two of them have been playing in my head for a decade and a half) and except for a production in San Francisco, as far as I know it’s never been produced again. That is, not until last month, when Gordon restaged it on a modified version of Israel’s set at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. (The set is pretty much what I remember from 1994, but Skirball’s stage is more compact than the one at A.R.T.’s Loeb Center.) Getting to see it again was an unexpected holiday treat.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Pod Culture: The Reagan Era (Excerpt from Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors)

First things first. Although technically yesterday was the second anniversary of Critics at Large, today commemorates when we actually began two straight years (and counting) of daily posts on the arts. We started with only three writers feeding coal into this literary furnace and today we have thirteen active scribes who've taken up the shovel. Thank you and congratulations to all –especially those of you who have been actively reading and supporting our efforts every step of the way.

To kick off our third year, here's an excerpt from Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism, my latest book currently in progress (which also explains my periodic absence from
Critics at Large). But it just so happens that I'm also about to begin a nine-part lecture series on Reflections a week from Monday at the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto (see details here). While I considered posting material from the Introduction ("If History's Taught Us Anything...") which covers the first lecture where I examine The Kennedy Era (through The Godfather, Part II and The Manchurian Candidate), the section was just too long to include here. Therefore, I'm jumping ahead instead to a portion from The Reagan Era where I discuss Phil Kaufman's 1979 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a post which is still long but I beg your indulgence).

I know that, in the literal sense, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made in
The Carter Era, but Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors is not a literal interpretation of the American movies in each Presidential period. I work from the notion that since movies operate like waking dreams there is an unconscious nation that lies beneath the conscious one. In this post, I've tweezed together the opening portion from the book's introduction and the section on Invasion from the chapter Mourning in America: The Reagan Era. The students from my recent film criticism class, who composed terrific reviews of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, will no doubt recognize most of this material from a review of the movie that I also wrote for the class.