Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jazz of La Mancha: Kenny Wheeler's Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote

Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote (BGO Records), originally released in 1969, is a welcome re-issue. It was the first record by Canadian composer and jazz musician, Kenny Wheeler, who was born in Toronto in 1930. Wheeler was raised however in St. Catherines, Ontario, a small city in the Niagara Region of the province. His father Wilf, played trombone in dance bands that traveled around the country, but he eventually settled in Montreal. Due to his father’s nomadic occupation, Kenny studied music and learned to play trumpet at an early age, but his most significant influences were composers, John Weinzweig and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Wheeler actually moved to London, England in 1952 to study with Bennett. Working in England, proved beneficial to his career, which was significant because most jazz musicians went to New York to play be-bop. Wheeler continued to play in British dance bands earning him a chair in the trumpet section of the John Dankworth Orchestra. Dankworth, who later became the leader in mainstream jazz out of England, inspired Wheeler to compose for his orchestra. The result was Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote, a suite written for large orchestra and small group. After its first release on the Fontana label, it was forgotten for many years, until now.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Promise Broken & Promise Kept: The Promise & Trigger

When Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was released in the late spring of 1978, it seemed to make everything else around it seem insignificant. “This isn’t just a great record,” The Who’s Pete Townshend exclaimed upon first listening to it. “It’s a fucking triumph.” Darkness not only arrived after a three-year period of contractual war with his former manager Mike Appel, one that forced the artist into a self-imposed hermitage, it also came on the heels of his worldwide hit album, Born to Run (1975). The consequences of furious expectations and the frustrations of a musician trying to maintain his integrity led to an album that was not only a powerful rock & roll record but also a stunning work of self-revelation.

Rather than simply provide a random collection of songs, Springsteen and his E Street Band crafted a work that took the early aspirations of rock & roll (which they celebrated on Born to Run) and uncovered the possible consequences of acting on those aspirations. As a result, songs like “Racing in the Streets,” which took Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ infectiously hopeful call of “Dancing in the Streets” and The Beach Boys’ pining reassurances of “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and revealed the grim realism beneath the hope. Sometimes a memorable and exciting rock hook, like the guitar intro from The Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul,” would be used to slice the voyeuristic lust of “Candy’s Room” in half. In songs like “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Prove it all Night,” Springsteen stripped pop drama down to the basic task of one man’s desire to speak of only what feels true to him; to bring adolescent dreams into adult realities.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Off The Shelf: Edward Yang’s Sublime Yi Yi

It’s a sad irony that Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang died of prostate cancer, at the young age of 59, just when his final film, Yi Yi, was garnering him the best reviews of his career, not to mention his first American distribution deal and the Best Director award at the 2000 Cannes film festival. The death of Yang is really one of the most devastating losses to hit the film world, as there’s no question that he would have gone on to make many more significant features. Unfortunately, curious movie buffs won’t be able to find any of Yang’s other six films on DVD in North America, which is a real shame as his contemporary urban dramas Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986) are first-rate and his four hour opus A Brighter Summer Day (1991), a meticulous period piece that recreated a scandalous murder from his youth, is magnificent. But at least, Yang’s last feature is available for their enjoyment and illumination.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dream Pop: "Be My Baby" & "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

The other morning while having breakfast, I put my Mp3 player on shuffle because I always enjoy the element of surprise. After all, you never know what to expect from song to song. As I was preparing my coffee and cereal, I was first treated to an excerpt from Anton Webern's beautifully spacious Symphony op. 21, which was followed by The Channels' elegiac 1956 doo-wop song, "The Closer You Are," and then the LA punk band, X, with their propulsive 1982 track "Blue Spark." While it's always enjoyable to create a virtual time machine out of music, where you can be dropped any place in time, these three tracks didn't pull me out of the moment of making my breakfast. They instead added something new to the daily routine, an incongruent and appealing soundtrack which roused me from slumber. Once the brittle harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka stopped their song cold, though, the next track to follow was The Ronettes' "Be My Baby." At which point, I forgot what I was doing and breakfast went into suspended animation for a little over two minutes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book: Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

Though I’m a great lover of French cinema, I must confess that I’ve never been to Paris. It’s a trip I still intend to take some day. Having just finished reading Graham Robb’s fascinating Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (W.W. Norton and Company), he's helped to firmly cement that desire. In Parisians, Robb, an Oxford-based Englishman who writes on all things French (Balzac: A Biography, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War), has crafted a gripping, rich and provocative history of the city and its inhabitants. It begins around the time of the French Revolution in 1789, right up to the present reign of President Nicholas Sarkozy and the part he played in the city’s recent race riots. Robb’s does this in 20 chapters, roughly corresponding to 20 different arrondissements (districts) of the city. In the process, he describes the intricacies of the City of Light in a way that has a novelistic veneer to it. In short, it’s a history that almost feels like a fiction, which incidentally is a good thing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Groovy Hooks: Small Sins' Pot Calls Kettle Black

I’m a sucker for musical hooks be they guitar licks, trippy bass lines, or vocal gymnastics. In most music I listen to today, no matter what genre, just to hear one of these hooks would be enough for me to consider a whole album. But Small Sins' Pot Calls Kettle Black, on the Indie label Arts&Crafts, has all three going for it making it one of the freshest pop records of the year. No drudgery, or moody revelations typical of a lot of independent bands out of Canada, Small Sins is about pop music in its purest form: bright, positive, filled with appealing grooves (and all under 4 minutes).

Small Sins is led by Thomas D’Arcy, the bass player and principal songwriter for this group from Toronto. His work has been called “wistful chamber pop … [as if] Jack White had a crush on Kraftwerk.” This is the third album from the band and it’s got everything you want from a so-called chamber pop band: up tempo R&B dance tunes and delicate synth-pop ballads with a lot of charm.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Promises That Can And Can't Be Kept: Grant Goodbrand's Therafields

Grant Goodbrand's Therafields: The Rise and Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalytic Commune (ECW Press, 2010), the story of one of the largest and influential therapeutic communes during the sixties and seventies, is an absorbing, insightful and contemplative study of the failure of good intentions. Therafields, an experimental psychotherapeutic collective was formed by British-born lay therapist, Lea Hindley-Smith, in the mid-sixties. The commune was part of that period’s utopian spirit to create an alternate society which, by the end of the '70s, came apart in division, death and suicide. “The experiment had ended in tragedies and bitter animosity, traumatically turning friend against friend in ruptures that never healed,” Goodbrand writes. Therafields might have been sparked by an egalitarian impulse, but it was one that was undone by false expectations, fantasies, idolatry and promises that couldn’t be kept. In Therafields, though, Grant Goodbrand keeps his own promise by trying to heal the breach in that history.