Saturday, June 20, 2015

Still Sticky After All These Years: The Special Edition Reissue of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers

For a broadly acknowledged classic of its form and format, the Rolling StonesSticky Fingers (1971) gets surprisingly little respect. It’s always on the list of greatest rock albums, but always far below Exile on Main Street, its 1972 follow-up. Where the Sticky reissue has gotten minimal media push, the 2010 Exile reissue was a major story, leading the New York Times Arts and Leisure section and spot-lit for a week on “The Jimmy Fallon Show.” According to the Rolling Stones—the band’s authorized oral history-pictobiography—mentions Sticky pretty much in passing, while giving several pages to the gestation, creation, and fermentation of Exile. In his 2010 autobiography, Life, Keith Richards gives Exile a dozen or so dedicated pages; Sticky gets about one and a half.

Nor does there seem any particular reason for the reissue to have occurred right now. Sticky is 44 years old this year—not 45, per a notable anniversary or class reunion. Though it comes garnished with a not-bad bonus disc of alternate takes and contemporaneous live recordings, the Sticky remaster is the same one first released in 2009. But no reason doesn’t mean no rationale. The Stones’ current North American tour, begun May 24 in San Diego, is labeled the Zip Code Tour; the Andy Warhol-designed cover of Sticky Fingers famously features a zipper—called a “zip” in the UK. That’s what the commercial confluence amounts to: zip. In lieu of the new product that has historically eventuated a Stones tour, the band are shoving out, at staggered (and at the top end staggering) price points, multiple repackagings of the album that I, along with a few others, consider their finest. The lasting album serves the perishable tour, rather than the reverse. No respect.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Expanding the Jazz Experience: An Interview with Kurt Elling

Photo by Anna Webber.

Kurt Elling grew up the son of a Luthern church Kapellmeister and learned early on that music is transporting. “It can move people’s imaginations,” says the Chicago-born jazz vocalist and composer in advance of his appearance at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on June 23. Elling’s own imagination is moved in a variety of different ways. Considered the most influential jazz singer at work in the world today, Elling, 47, constantly gathers material for his expanding repertoire from a variety of sources: pop music and the American song book in addition to ballads in foreign languages discovered while on one of his many global tours. These disparate musical influences become one in the skilled hands of Elling. Passion World, which he released on June 16 on the Concord Jazz label, is a pastiche of European songs and musical styles rendered into jazz, and with Elling’s own distinctive stamp on the final product. Elling, who today resides in New York, will perform selections from the new album at his upcoming Toronto concert along with highlights from his other albums which have paid tribute to Frank Sinatra and also John Coltrane by reinterpreting them using vocalese. With his rich baritone and four octave range, Elling is a master of the genre of jazz that uses the voice as a kind of musical instrument. Words become melodies as they are improvised with a tune. When Elling does vocalese, it’s a tour de force performance, and one of the reasons he’s an in-demand performer. There are other reasons besides, not the least of which is the inquiring mind which Elling uses to enliven and elucidate the songs he sings, breathing into them new life. He explains some of that process with me here in advance of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Charlie Don't Channel Surf: Aquarius

David Duchovny as Detective Sam Hodiak on NBC's Aquarius.

There’s a classic show business trick that producers and directors have sometimes stooped to when working on material with a central figure who, it’s feared, may seem too unusual or unsympathetic to seem “relatable” to the mass audience: miscast the role so ostentatiously that no one could ever believe that the person they’re watching really wants to do the things he’s doing, or believe the things he’s saying. Sometimes, this results in the star winning both popular and critical acclaim, and even awards, since a skilled performer being unconvincing in a big role is plainly acting his ass off. It certainly worked out well for William Hurt when he played a Latin American transvestite in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and for Meryl Streep as the sexually taunting, working-class free spirit Karen Silkwood; the makers of Bonfire of the Vanities were hoping it would work for them when they convinced the young Tom Hanks, with his vast reserves of likability and goofy Everydude aura, to impersonate Tom Wolfe’s arrogant, antiheroic Master of the Universe Sherman McCoy.

Now, on NBC’s Aquarius, we have David Duchovny, as Sam Hodiak, a rule-breaking, head-busting Los Angeles police detective in 1967, casting a cold eye on all the toxic spillover from the Summer of Love. Sam is meant to be an old-school cop with a racist streak, though he also seems to recognize his limitations and to be capable of overcoming them; although he does a double take when he sees that the shaggy-haired, new-style undercover (white) cop (played by Grey Damon) he’s been partnering with has a black wife, he’s protective of the couple when they’re picked on by racists in their new neighborhood. And in his exchanges with the excellent Gaius Charles (formerly Smash Williams on Friday Night Lights) as the representative of the local chapter of the Black Panther party, he mainly expresses frustration with the Panthers for discouraging black people from co-operating with police who are investigating murders in the community. Even when Sam is steamed, he doesn’t throw around racial epithets, and he’s clearly more evolved than the other cops who are his age or older, who can’t understand why he even bothers to investigate the murders of blacks and homosexuals, or why he encourages the token woman in the station house (Claire Holt) in thinking that she might someday be able to do more than make coffee.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Essence and Process: Jean Grand-Maître's Balletlujah!

Canadian chanteuse k.d. lang wonders out loud in Balletlujah!, a new film documenting her 2013 collaboration with the Alberta Ballet, why director Grant Harvey failed to include her way of dancing as part of the on-screen choreography. She asks the question impishly, saying she’s going to have words with him about it, and it’s clear that she’s only joking. Yet she has a point. Her way of dancing is perhaps the only thing missing from a prime time movie that bravely, and with great sensitivity, excavates almost everything else about her, her lesbianism and Buddhism included. Taking as its title the name Alberta Ballet artistic director and choreographer, Jean Grand-Maître, gave to the k.d.lang inspired production he debuted on a Calgary stage two years ago, Balletlujah! is a dance film as biography with an appeal as big as an Albertan sky.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Freak of Nature: Jurassic World

Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins in Jurassic World.

A summer blockbuster that toys with self-awareness is a living oxymoron, like an advertisement that reminds you it’s an advertisement in an attempt to disarm and charm you, while still asking for your money. It’s all too rare that a huge, studio-led tentpole film – especially a sequel in a “classic” franchise – can have its cake and eat it, too. Jurassic World does its damndest, though, and though it’s as cobbled together from disparate genetic material as the dinos it portrays, it manages through sheer, fitful effort to shuffle off its obligations and expectations and deliver an ultimately satisfying spectacle. Life – or in this case, director Colin Trevorrow – found a way.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Moor and Two Jews: Shakespeare and Marlowe in Stratford and London

Phoebe Pryce and Jonathan Pryce in The Merchant of Venice. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy in which Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who goes to court to collect his pound of flesh from the bankrupt merchant Antonio, is merely the obstacle the hero and heroine must overcome in order to get to their deserved happy ending. He vanishes from the play at the end of the fourth act, so that the entirety of the fifth can concentrate on the trick Portia and her maid Nerissa play on their new husbands, Bassanio and Gratiano, getting them to give away the rings that were their brides’ special gifts to the supposed young judge who rescued Bassanio and his law clerk (really the two women dressed in men’s clothing). The ingenious legal trick Portia employs to release Antonio from his bond to Shylock is necessary to ensure Bassanio’s and Portia’s marital happiness because Bassanio entered into that unholy agreement with the moneylender in order to bankroll Bassanio’s courtship of Portia. Once the case is over, frivolity can resume. And though high school English classes still, apparently, teach The Merchant as a serious drama about anti-Semitism rather than an example of it – just as they did when I was in high school in the sixties – the fact is that, as directors have proven in productions since the Holocaust made the play at least a bone of contention, the only way to fix the problem in it is to rewrite it. I’ve seen three Merchants that did so brilliantly. In the famous Jonathan Miller production from 1970 (televised in 1973), with Laurence Olivier as Shylock and Joan Plowright as Portia, Shylock is presented as a tragic hero; Miller cut the lines that put him in an unflattering light, like the aside that includes his feeling about Antonio, “I hate him for he is a Christian.” Both Trevor Nunn’s 1999 version at the National Theatre, set in the Fascist 1930s, with Henry Goodman as Shylock and the Broadway production Al Pacino starred in, under Daniel Sullivan, in 2010, in different ways, sketched a landscape of such racial hatred that Shylock’s conduct toward Antonio seemed like a lamentable but completely understandable response to his own treatment at the hands of Christians. (The young men Antonio hangs out with in Nunn’s version are little more than privileged thugs.)

Jonathan Pryce gives an intelligent, often tender performance as Shylock in a new production at Shakespeare’s Globe, directed by Jonathan Munby, that does a more than adequate job of rearranging the context so that Shylock isn’t just a villain who gets what he deserves. What he gets in the play, when his suit collapses under Portia’s scrutiny, is poverty – half his goods go to Antonio (Dominic Mafham), the other half to Lorenzo (Ben Lamb), the Christian who has eloped with his Shylock’s daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s daughter Phoebe Pryce) – and a forced conversion to Christianity. (Jessica has already converted to marry Lorenzo.) Munby stages a baptism scene, in which Pryce’s Shylock cringes as the priest pours holy water over his head; meanwhile Jessica, reading the letter from her father Portia has handed her, intones a Hebrew prayer in counterpoint to the Latin one everyone else on stage is singing (and which she, too, finally joins). She’s the last person on stage as the lights go down. Munby was obviously thinking of the way Miller ended his Merchant, with Jessica (Louise Purnell) alone reading the letter while in the background we hear the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which is also recited by Orthodox Jews when a son or daughter marries out of the faith.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Charlie N. Holmberg’s Paper Magicians Trilogy: A Page-Turning Fantasy with Both Heart and Brain

I love books – both paper and electronic. Paper books and e-books provide different and unique experiences of reading, and I am often at pains to explain that the fact that I am joined at the hip to my e-reader does not mean that I love paper books any less. Living in an urban condo with limited space, e-books help me to feed my reading addiction while maintaining some semblance of floor-space. And precisely because it does not contribute to the clutter (my current desk is in fact about to literally collapse under the weight of stacked books), I will often let myself just try out a book on the e-reader that I might not have brought home from the bookstore. If I am feeling able to spend three to five dollars on a book, I can curl up and browse through the bookstore and pick something, virtually at random, to try out. That is precisely how I stumbled last November onto The Paper Magician, the first book in Charlie N. Holmberg’s Paper Magician Trilogy (published by 47North, an imprint of Amazon Publishing). I read it fast enough that I was disappointed when it was over; it was good enough that I was thrilled to find that the second book in the series, The Glass Magician, had already been released, and when I finished that one I immediately went ahead and pre-ordered the last book in the trilogy, The Master Magician, which was magically delivered to my e-reader on June 2nd. (And yes, the thrill of having a pre-order appear just when you have forgotten about it is one of the greatest things about e-readers.)