Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dmitri & Michael: Michael Bates's Acrobat

Michael Bates is originally from Canada’s West Coast, namely Vancouver. For the past decade, he’s been living and working in New York as a jazz bassist/composer. But I met him in the mid-90s at a record store, the first choice for employment by any struggling musician, when he lived in Toronto. (Even though we were paid low wages, we enjoyed the luxury of listening to music 40 hours a week). In those days, Michael worked part-time while continuing to play jazz in the evening, when he could get a gig. He was a friendly young man, full of energy, humour and a strong focus on being only one thing in life: a working musician. He loved to play and he loved to talk about music, especially jazz.

I lost touch with him after I left the record store in 1996; hearing through the grapevine that he relocated to New York and was pursuing more formalized study and the art of composing. Occasionally I’d see his name in the paper or at a gig in Toronto, usually with his group, Outside Sources. In recent years, he became inspired to issue his own recordings as a leader on Sunnyside Records, an independent label established in 1982. On his new recording Acrobat (Sunnyside, 2011) , his inspiration comes from the superlative Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 -1975). The subtitle of the album is Music for and by, Dmitri Shostakovich and it offers up a challenge to any listener, whether you are a classical or jazz fan.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Strictly Genteel: Michael Sucsy's The Vow

When you fall in love, it can strike out of the blue, in serendipitous ways, totally out of your control. Michael Sucsy's The Vow, on the other hand, is so predictable and controlled that you can set your watch to it. The picture is also based on a true story, but usually when a movie has to remind you of such things it offers the opposite. Now I've seen a lot worse romantic dramas, including popular ones that are especially disingenuous and effective in wooing audiences (Sleepless in Seattle immediately springs to mind), but The Vow isn't one of those. It wants to wear its heart on its sleeve, but it falls victim to its lack of conviction even in its own formula plot.

The story follows a happily married couple, Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum), artist bohemians out of Chicago, whose lives are shattered one night when a car accident seriously injures Paige. After coming out of her coma, she wakes up with severe memory loss without remembering that she is married to Leo. Since we quickly discover that Paige originally came from a wealthy family that she abandoned for reasons explained later in the picture, we know that the film is going to be a battle of wills between the sensitive artist husband she's forgotten and the rich rotters who want her back. Guess who wins?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Lilyhammer: Netflix’s Impressive Entry into New Original Programming

Steven Van Zandt stars in Lilyhammer on Netflix.

It’s been a big week in new media: as speculations about the future of Apple iTV reached a fever pitch, and Amazon announced a new partnership with Viacom that adds over 2000 new titles to its service, Netflix, the granddaddy of streaming media, premiered its first original television series: Lilyhammer, a low-key wiseguy-out-of-water comedy starring The Sopranos alum Steven Van Zandt. This is only the first of three series that Netflix will be offering exclusively to its subscribers. Last week, it was officially announced that Netflix would air an original new season (with full original cast and writers) of Fox’s beleaguered but brilliant sitcom Arrested Development (2003-2006) in 2013. And later this year, 26 episodes of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards will be available exclusively on Netflix. Spacey will star and Oscar-nominated director Fincher (The Social Network) is directing the pilot.

But its innovative delivery system is fortunately not the only original feature of Lilyhammer. The show, a co-production by Netflix and NRK1 (the main channel of Norway’s public broadcaster), is a quirky black comedy, starring one familiar television face and a whole cast of Norwegian actors. What was completely unexpected, at least for me, was the fact that it is very much a Norwegian show, and much of the show’s dialogue is in Norwegian. When the show premiered on Norwegian television at the end of January, it broke all ratings records for the country with one in five Norwegians tuning in.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Revisting the Past: Peter Gabriel's New Blood

I've never been one to see a singer/performer more than once, maybe twice in concert. I've always felt why ruin the wonderful memories of the first time, especially if the concert knocked me out. So I've only seen David Bowie, Genesis, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, kd lang, Femi Kuti, Youssou N'Dour, Chicago, Sergio Mendes, Tito Puente, Santana, REMJethro Tull, Ultravox, Jamie Cullum and The Guess Who and others just the one time. (Okay, maybe I saw The Guess Who twice, but it was 15 years apart; and I saw N'Dour three times, but only once fronting his own concert.) The exception? Peter Gabriel. Between 1978 and 1988, I saw him in concert 5 times. Each concert was as good as the others, sometimes the next one topped the one before. The last time was during the Amnesty International tour in 1988 (that is also where I saw Sting, Springsteen, and kd lang).

Gabriel's music first captured my attention around the time he left Genesis in 1976. As the years rolled on he pushed himself by embracing world beat, reggae, jazz and, of course, rock, As his interests changed, so did mine. He introduced me to the wonders of African artists like Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keta, Thomas Mapfumo, King Sunny Ade and several others. His discoveries became my starting point for other discoveries. His concerts continued to attract me because, like his musical tastes, his presentations evolved and morphed from one idea to another. No one concert was the same as another. Eventually, as Gabriel stopped recording actively, my interests drifted away. My musical tastes began to evolve and change as I experimented with jazz, hip hop and sounds and music from countries all over the world. But, that curiosity and interest in exploring different music was first inspired by the works of Peter Gabriel.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Our Minds and Playlists: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr

The Beatles are a big part of why I listen to music at all. Twist & Shout (a compilation Capitol Records in Canada made out of their official UK releases) was the first album I ever owned. I was going to write, ‘the first album I ever bought,’ but of course my Mom and Dad bought it, and my brother Al and I shared it until the grooves were worn down. In fact, we didn’t even have a record player that would play 33 1/3 vinyl albums when it came along. We had to sit and stare at the sleeve for a week while my Dad took the old 78 rpm turntable into the local radio shop and had a new multi-speed turntable dropped in. The excitement was palpable as we came home from school that afternoon and counted the minutes ‘til Dad walked in with the new and improved record player! It was soon after hearing The Beatles that I asked for (and received) my first guitar. It was a Sunburst with a neck that was already warped, which made it very difficult to play. Lessons were frustrating, focusing on songs like “When the Caissons Go Rolling Along” instead of the really important tunes like “Anna” or “Boys,” “Please Please Me” or “Love Me Do.” Soon enough though I was able to strum along. That first Beatles’ album gave clues to the later development of the Four Mop Tops. Here we are nearly fifty years later … and in one week we’ve seen the release of new albums from Ringo and Paul.

John Lennon was gunned down in the street outside his apartment in New York over thirty years ago, but his son Julian just issued his fifth album. And George, who was claimed by cancer in 2001, was recently celebrated in a long-form documentary by Martin Scorsese. Paul and George featured on two Mojo magazine covers in 2011, and Rolling Stone issued two different special editions devoted to the band. The Beatles continue to be on our minds … and on our playlists. So let’s look at these two new releases.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Befogged: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

David Turner, Jessie Mueller, & Harry Connick Jr. in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo: Nicole Rivelli)

It’s rather fascinating to sit through the new Broadway revival of the Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever because you keep trying to get into the heads of Peter Parnell (who revised the book) and Michael Mayer (who re-conceived and staged it). They must have thought it would work, but it’s hard to imagine how, even given the level of delusion on which the Broadway musical theatre sometimes operates – think of Twyla Tharp’s Bob Dylan musical The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and didn’t someone just close a musical based on Bonnie and Clyde? On a Clear Day has a sumptuous score, but the book has always been trouble. When it began in Boston in 1965, before the original leading man, Louis Jourdan, had been replaced by John Cullum, Lerner was struggling with so many plot strands that the show ran nearly four hours, and after he’d trimmed it down to a presentable length for its Broadway opening it felt truncated, still excessively busy and random, as if he’d taken an axe to whichever overgrowths he could get at rather than melting the whole scenario down to a viable dramatic form.

The premise is complicated, to say the least. A psychiatrist named Mark Bruckner is approached by a nervous, chattering young woman named Daisy Gamble who hopes he can hypnotize her to stop smoking. He puts her under – she’s so susceptible that he barely has to say anything before she’s snoozing in his chair – and when he regresses her he discovers she had a previous life as an aristocrat in late-eighteenth-century London whose sexy portrait-painter husband wouldn’t stay faithful to her. In the course of interviewing Daisy’s witty, literate, elegant, independent-minded alter ego, Melinda Wells, Mark finds himself falling in love with her. So he spends as much time as he can with Daisy, who falls for him, mistakenly believing he’s courting her twentieth-century self – the only personality she’s aware she possesses. Mark is certainly a relief from her square fiancé Warren, who’s looking for employment with the company that can offer the best pension and who is happiest with Daisy when she’s at her most conventional.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Rough Diamond: The DVD Release of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons

For years now, Orson Welles’ flawed, mangled masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the follow-up to his legendary debut, Citizen Kane (1941), has languished in the public domain. Often looking like an old photograph that’s been left in the sun, it would show up periodically on television in a faded print, sometimes scratched and occasionally hard to hear, resembling a rough diamond dug out of the sand. The fact that the film, based on Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, is about the fall of an American aristocratic family in the early 1900s just as modern industrialization consigned their fortune and social position to history’s dustbin was no convenient irony. Orson Welles’ own claim to fortune, his struggle to climb to the pinnacle of becoming America’s great dramatic film stylist in the early years of sound, would find its own dustbin in the years to follow. Years of promising projects damaged by lack of funds (Chimes at Midnight, Othello), or great work marred by studio interference (Touch of Evil), would become the norm rather than the exception.

Since Welles’ career had been marked by small victories between broken hearts, the fact that Warner Brothers has finally acquired the rights to release The Magnificent Ambersons on DVD is good news indeed. It can now finally be seen in a digitally mastered print with much improved sound quality. But the bad news, and bad news always stalked the director like an unearned curse, is that there is no supporting material included; that means no commentary from a critic or historian, no documentaries, or even a booklet to tell the story of how the man who made Citizen Kane lost final cut of a movie that had more substance than his stunning entrée.