Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Review: Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komicsedited by Craig Yoe

The IDW Books imprint have been hard at work over the past few years reissuing landmark comics in beautiful, oversized coffee-table editions. A few of their great titles are Blondie: The Courtship And Wedding, Polly And Her Pals (1913-1927), and Felix The Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails. IDW’s recent Golden Collection Of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics is another fine example of what they do best.

As the name implies, this is a compilation of comics specifically drawn for kids. Although I read kids comics once upon a time, it has been a while. What is so fun about this book is the opportunity to relive some of those tales, and just how incredibly surreal and fun they are.

Editor Craig Yoe has collected of number of very famous (and some forgotten) masters here for kids of all ages. These include Dr. Suess, Syd Hoff, Walt Kelly, and Jules Feiffer — among others. One of the most fascinating selections is "The Adventures Of Mr. Tom Plump," which was published sometime in the 1850s. It is the earliest known American comic book for kids, and the artist’s name has been lost to time. The reprint is from the only extant color copy.

Yoe has broken this collection down into nine different categories. The first, “Old Skool” is where Mr. Tom Plump appears. The other sections include “Fairy Tales And Fantasy,” “Kid Stuff,” “Funny Animals,” “People Are Funny,“ “Super Duper Heroes,” “Nonsense,” “Total Nonsense,” and “Now It’s Your Turn.”

We find Dr. Suess’ entry in (where else?) the “Nonsense” chapter. Suess-o-philes may be aware that he had a weekly newspaper strip called “Hejji” in 1935, but I certainly was not. Interestingly enough, the strip was never properly concluded, so writer Clizia Gussoni and cartoonist Luke McDonnell were commissioned for the book to supply a possible ending to the story.

Otto Messmer’s Felix The Cat makes an appearance in “Funny Animals,” as does one of Messmer’s lesser known titles “Jungle Jumble.” “Pogo” creator Walt Kelly is represented with a fantasy story called “Goblin’s Glen” from 1946. Syd Hoff may be best known for his classic children’s book Danny And The Dinosaur, but his “Tuffy And Clee O’Patra” from 1950 shows that he was well-suited to the kid’s comics genre.

Beneath each strip, Craig Yoe has provided interesting details about each of the cartoonists included. These short blurbs contain many illuminating gems of trivia that I for one was unaware of, and most likely many readers may find quite intriguing as well.

Taken together, the Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics collection is a great history of the genre over the past 150-odd years. As has been the case with all of the IDW titles I have had the good fortune to see, this is a definitive edition — and a worthy addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Article first published as Book Review: Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics, edited by Craig Yoe on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Car 54 Where Are You: The Complete First Season

In 1961, a show debuted on NBC called Car 54 Where Are You. The man behind it was Nat Hiken, who was already something of a television legend for creating Sgt. Bilko. As funny, and wild as Bilko was however, Car 54 raised the bar for TV comedy to a new level. According to comedian Robert Klein: "The show was one of the finest television series ever produced.” After viewing Car 54 Where Are You: The Complete First Season it is hard not to agree.

Unlike many of the popular series from the Golden Age Of Television, Car 54 has not enjoyed much of a run in syndication. Most likely this is because the show only ran for two seasons. Where I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Andy Griffith have all seemingly been on the air in one form or another since their respective debuts, Car 54 has not.

Hopefully Shanachie Entertainment’s four-DVD set of all 30 (yes 30) episodes from the 1961-1962 season will alert people to the brilliance of this show. To begin with, Car 54 had an outstanding cast. The stars were a former strip-club comic by the name of Joe E. Ross (who looks like he is straight out of The Bowery Boys), and the refined (and very tall) Fred Gwynne. As Officers Toody and Muldoon, the two were like a Mutt and Jeff or even Laurel and Hardy combo. The situations Hiken wrote these guys into were hilarious, and often escalated into deliriously over the top scenarios.

One of these is “What Happened To Thursday?” In it we find our heroes trying to save the career of fellow officer Leo Schnauser (Al Lewis), who gets into loud shouting matches with his wife Sylvia (Charlotte Rae) every Thursday night at precisely 11:00 pm. Toody and Muldoon have been breaking up the bickering matches every week before the Schnauser’s neighbors have had a chance to call the station, but are getting awfully tired of it.

They come up with the idea to trick Leo into thinking that Thursday is actually Friday. In this way, the two think that they will be breaking the Thursday night curse, and the cycle will end. To keep up the ruse, they get a fake Friday newspaper printed up, change the sign-in book and calendars in the station, and talk to Leo about his Friday night plans. Soon the whole 53rd Precinct believes that Thursday is Friday, which results in complete chaos. The episode is comedic gold, and is deservedly legendary among fans.

With a total of 30 shows, the first season has plenty of other examples of brilliance. Whether we find Toody and Muldoon trying to change their schedules to go on a fishing trip, or dealing with Gypsies, or even appearing on The Jack Paar Show - Car 54 Where Are You is as funny as TV has ever been.

The level of respect the program was afforded early on is reflected in the caliber of guest stars who appeared during the first season. The aforementioned matriarch of the Gypsy family is Maureen Stapleton, on the episode where both Toody and Muldoon wind up on The Jack Paar Show, a young Hugh Downs is filling in as guest host. Other notable cameos come from the great Wally Cox, Shari Lewis, Alice Ghostly, and Jan Murray.

As a bonus, there is a recently filmed round-table discussion led by Robert Klein, featuring series regulars Charlotte Rae and Hank Garrett (Officer Nicholson). Klein was a huge fan of the show, and gently leads the two actors into reminiscences of their experiences. One of the more interesting tid-bits was the reason Car 54 went off the air after only two seasons - evidently NBC wanted a 50% ownership stake, which Hiken rejected.

Car 54 Where Are You was filmed in The Bronx, NY at Biograph Studios - sans audience. One of the tricks Hiken used for the program’s laugh track was to show the completed episode to a live audience, then use their reactions as part of the show. At the time, critics called it “canned” laughter, but it really was not. The people at Shanachie have gone back to the original 35 mm prints for this DVD reissue, and all 30 black and white shows look fantastic.

I had heard that Car 54 was a TV masterpiece for many years, but had never previously seen more than a couple of episodes. With this DVD release, the show’s reputation as one of the great sitcoms of all time is secure. Car 54 Where Are You really was one of the best. Check it out.

Article first published as DVD Review: Car 54 Where Are You: The Complete First Season on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Elonkorjuu - Harvest Time

Elonkorjuu released one of the all time great blues/psych/prog LPs in 1972 - Harvest Time. You are excused if the name is unfamiliar, unless of course you were hanging out at rock festivals in Helsinki, Finland, in the early seventies. Just prior to recording Harvest Time the five-piece played to a crowd of over 100,000 at the Turku Festival, which is no small feat for any group.

The term “Big In Finland” probably means about as much as “Big In Nome, AK” to most people. To hardcore prog fans, who live and die for such great obscurities, Harvest Time has been something of a Holy Grail. Shadoks Music, who specialize in resurrecting forgotten classics like this one, have just reissued the album, and it definitely lives up to its reputation.

Elonkorjuu were a young band, leader Jukka Syrenius was just 20 years old when Harvest Time was recorded, and drummer Eero Rantasila only 17. Bassist Veli-Pekka Pessi and multi-instrumentalist Ilkka Poijarvi were 23, and vocalist Heikki Lajunen 20.

As was de rigueur for proggers at the time, there are an abundance of solos on the album. The majority are from the guitar of Jukka Syrenius, who makes himself known early on the first track, “Unfeeling.” Ilkka Poijarvi shines with an outstanding organ solo during “The Ocean Song” - which was apparently a fan favorite at Turku.

One of the hallmarks of progressive rock were the LP side-long “epic” tracks. Bands such as Yes or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were notorious for these, and stoned FM deejays would play them to grab a lengthy doobie break. None of the tunes on Harvest Time even reach the five-minute mark, however. The longest is “Praise To Our Basement” (4:44). It is a fairly self-descriptive title, as groups have been practicing in basements since time immemorial. The guys came up with a strong jam piece here, with lyrics literally praising their basement. Incidentally, all ten of the songs are in English.

The few mentions I have found of Elonkorjuu online compare them to Cream, Black Sabbath, and Colosseum. Of these I would say Colosseum is the most accurate. But honestly, Jethro Tull are the closest match I can think of. Singer Heikki Jajunen often sounds like Ian Anderson to these ears, and there is a fair amount of flute playing as well. Elonkorjuu never get as obnoxious as Tull could however. The flute is used as a nice accompaniment to the songs, along the same lines as what Peter Gabriel was doing with Genesis during the same time period.

Harvest Time is a fascinating glimpse into what was going on in music outside of the well-documented US/English scenes during the early seventies. It is well worth checking out for fans of classic progressive rock.

Article first published as Music Review: Elonkorjuu - Harvest Time on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Ketil Bjornstad and Svante Henryson - Night Song

Night Song is a brilliantly appropriate title for the latest ECM outing from pianist Ketil Bjornstad and cellist Svante Henryson. The disc contains 16 duets between piano and cello, and was recorded in Oslo, Norway in 2009. Like so many releases from Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, the resulting music is not easily described. It is obvious that he as a producer gently pushes his artists towards their best work, it is also just as clear that the visions of the musicians are of paramount importance in the process.

The 16-song cycle Night Song is a pure example of this approach. According to Bjornstad in the liner notes: “It is always special for a musician when an ECM production evolves through a dialog with Manfred Eicher from the very beginning. It can perhaps be compared to what an actor feels when working with a film director. His own aesthetic sense and creative techniques can be so compelling that the actor, or musician, willingly defers to a conceptual universe that may have a wider scope than the ideas he or she may have been working on.”

While I have no way of knowing what (if anything) was altered from Bjornstad’s 12 compositions, or Henryson’s four - it seems that a way was found to blend them into individual pieces which nontheless tell a fascinating story. Again in the liner notes, Bjornstad reflects on what his ideas were at the time of composition. “I took my own ideas of Schubert as a point of departure…Night Song was conceived as a musical dialogue with Schubert and as a tribute to him.”

The disciplined chamber music Bjornstad and Henryson belie the wealth of emotion texture each track evokes. In fact, one of the more enjoyable elements of listening to this incredibly soothing piece of work is picking out the various “quotes” (mostly indirect) that the composers utilize in realizing their own sense of nighttime.

From the very beginning, Night Song is meant to evoke the hours between sunset and sunrise. This is set forth with track one, “Night Song (Evening Version).” The piano of Ketil suggests a slowly darkening horizon, while Svante’s cello traces the steps beside him - with both walking out of the light and into the dark together.

“Visitor (for Manfred Eicher)” seems to wish to acknowledge effect that the producer/label owner had upon these sessions - maybe to get it out of the way. It is a beautiful tune, but the true journey into night has not yet begun.

In fact, while there are a number of noticeable clock-ticks, and the sky gets progressively darker - we are still quite a ways away from the night-time magic hours. That is not to say that “Edge” is anything less than gorgeous, and very much an 8 or 9 pm reminder that it is probably time to go home.

“Melting Ice” and “Serene” put the listener into a nice place, but of course it does not last. The calm before the storm is next, and is titled (with the utmost sincerity I am sure), “Serene.” This may be the prettiest track on the CD, but there is a reason for it to show up in this location.

The late-night journey of Night Song has begun, and it is what makes the entire experience so memorable. There is no dramatic, jarring moment of awareness - just a few less than expected notes. If one is listening, “The Other” signifies what may rest around the corner.

While never quoting “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” directly, “Own” certainly pays homage to the piece inside. Enough to give goose-bumps and completely understand what the composer is trying to accomplish.

That strange moment of darkness gave Night Song its bit of “drama” and I think it was a great choice for the musicians and producers to attempt to tell story. Night Song does tell a fantastic story. It is the soundtrack to the tales we create as dreams.

Article first published as Music Review: Ketil Bjornstad and Svante Henryson - Night Song on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Plastikman - Arkives

Plastikman, aka Richie Hawtin, has been nothing if not prolific over the past 18 years. It is actually pretty hard for me to believe he has been recording for that long. The music he created nearly two decades ago sound as fresh and as forward looking as ever before. Plastikman’s monumental new retrospective Arkives drives this point home in no uncertain terms.

The early nineties were a golden age for a type of electronic music known variously as chill-out, ambient techno, or (my personal favorite) intelligent dance music. None of these monikers ever stuck; eventually it was all just lumped together as electronica - and by the time Madonna released “Ray Of Light” the moment was over anyway.

But in 1993, artists such as The Orb, Autechre, and Aphex Twin were making some truly ground breaking music. It was into this world that Plastikman arrived with his instant classic debut Sheet One. Plastikman’s sophomore effort Musik followed a year later, and proved that this was an artist with a lot to say. He developed an international following, and has continued to release music under a bewildering array of pseudonyms ever since. There have also been countless remix commissions and the like over the years as well.

Arkives 1993 - 2010 contains 15 CDs and one DVD - all of which will feature unreleased material, remixes, remastered originals, digital extras, and more. It is quite an undertaking and will be issued in four distinct packages. The previously described 15 CD/single DVD is being labeled the “Reference” edition, and also includes a 100 page book. In addition, however, there will be a six-LP vinyl "Analog" version, and a downloadable version, simply titled “Digital.” Finally there is “Komplete,” which will contain vinyl, CDs, the DVD, digital access, and the book for the truly hard core.

All formats of Arkives will be an instant collector’s items as they will be made to order only for those who have pre-ordered them at Arkives. There will be exactly as many copies manufactured as are ordered - insuring your copy will be unique. The time to order is now - as Hawtin says the sets will begin shipping at the end of April 2011. It is an interesting marketing scheme, and one that will probably prove to be quite successful, as Plastikman has a very loyal audience.

Hawtin’s record label has made available a two-disc sampler to the press - and it has certainly whetted my appetite for the full set. Plastikman’s earliest work is represented on disc one - “The Albums” with three tracks from Sheet One. These are “Plasticene,” “Koma,” and “Ovokx." Sheet One is an album I had not listened to in quite some time, and these songs reminded me of just how brilliant it was (and remains). “The Albums” also contains pieces from later recordings such as Musik, Consumed, and Closer.

Disc two of the sampler, titled “The Extras,” contains live appearances on the famous BBC Peel Sessions, as well as incredible remixes of songs from System 7 and others.

Obviously, Arkives is intended for the hard core Plastikman fan, and looks to be a treasured item. For those who may not be fully committed to such a set, but curious nontheless - I recommend starting out with Sheet One or Musik. Both are excellent. For not much more, however, one could go the digital route and really get to know the music of Plastikman.

For me, it is going to be “Komplete” I am afraid. I find this musik irresistible

Article first published as Music Review: Plastikman - Arkives on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Various Artists - Dirty Water 2: More Of The Birth Of Punk Attitude

When former Zigzag editor Kris Needs assembled the first Dirty Water: The Birth Of Punk Attitude collection late last year I was all for it. His eclectic taste had always been one of the hallmarks of the magazine. It also helped in assembling one of the more interesting mix-tapes featuring the artists and songs who paved the way for punk.

The line connecting garage-rock classics such as “Dirty Water” by The Standells, or “Psychotic Reaction” by The Count Five to songs like “No Fun” by The Stooges is pretty direct. And when the Sex Pistols themselves covered “No Fun,” the point was made crystal clear. “Punk” was just the latest name for a long history of rebellious music. What I enjoyed the most about the first edition of Dirty Water were Needs’ offbeat choices. Putting The Last Poets, The Silver Apples, and Sun Ra in the company of the MC5, The New York Dolls, and The Seeds was inspired.

So when it came time for Dirty Water 2: More Birth Of Punk Attitude, my expectations were for basically more of the same. Maybe it was the passing of Needs’ idol Captain Beefheart (to whom the set is dedicated) during the compilation process. But volume two is far more adventurous than the original was.

Fittingly, the opening track is “Zig Zag Wanderer” by the good Captain and his Magic Band. This is a monster blues track, from Safe As Milk (1967). We then take a journey straight down the rabbit hole of Kris Needs’ all-encompassing taste. Some names are quite familiar, such as The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Big Star. On the other hand, The Edgar Broughton Band, The Misunderstood, and Kilburn & The High Roads are going to be pretty unfamiliar to U.S. listeners - but their tracks are some of the strongest on the set.

What I cherish here are the extremes. While I would never doubt the rebelliousness of a guy like Dizzy Gillespie, the inclusion of his “Bebop” in a punk collection definitely pushes the envelope. The same holds true with Parliament, represented by “Oh Lord, Why Lord” from Osmium (1970). Placing these “unconventional” tunes next to surefire winners as “Suffragette City” by David Bowie or “Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer takes no small amount of balls.

I like how Eddie Cochran (who wrote “Summertime Blues”) is here with his classic “C’mon Everybody,” which itself was covered by Sid Vicious in 1979. Another cool nod is given to Junior Marvin late in disc two, with his original version of “Police And Thieves.” The Clash did a magnificent job covering this on their debut, but it is nice to hear what inspired them.

Like the first Dirty Water, this is a two-disc set containing 39 songs in total. With Dirty Water 2, the once fairly obvious links between one punk era to another were not hard to follow. As previously stated, however, Needs has dug much deeper this time around. Two more names that I did not expect to find, yet cannot argue with are those of Woody Guthrie and Albert Ayler.

Without getting too “Dean of Rock Journalism” on y’all - Woody Guthrie’s leftist folk songs have pretty much been accepted as the “original” protest tunes. As we all know, Bob Dylan famously modeled himself after Woody, and that whole A Mighty Wind world can be debated ad infinitum as for its (real or imagined) rebelliousness.

There is no doubt that Albert Ayler belongs here though. Remember those honking saxes on the first two Stooges LPs? They were a direct result of Ayler’s influence (and probably Coltrane’s too). It is nice to see Ayler get some recognition, he was making some of the wildest music in any genre before his (still unsolved) death in 1970.

Kris Needs spells it all out in the 76-page book included with the set. I recommend it for a number of reasons, but maybe the biggest is the opportunity for discovery - I mean really, where else are you going to hear “Man Enough To Be A Woman” by Jayne County?

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Dirty Water 2: More Of The Birth Of Punk Attitude on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Bill Evans - The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy

With all due respect, I have to say that Bill Evans (1929-1980) is my all-time favorite jazz pianist. The fact that Evans recorded for the small Riverside and later Fantasy labels for nearly his entire career bodes well for The Definitive Bill Evans On Riverside And Fantasy. With this collection we are blessed with the truly best of the best.

New Jazz Conceptions (1956) was his studio debut, and from it comes the collection’s opening track “Speak Low.” Much of Evans’ finest work was done in a trio format, and on this track he is joined by Paul Motian (drums) and Teddy Kotlick (bass).

The trio Evans is most fondly remembered for was with Motian and Scott LaFaro (bass). Bass prodigy LaFaro brought something special to the mix, and the two albums the trio recorded live at The Village Vanguard are legendary. Both Waltz For Debby (1961), and Sunday At The Village Vanguard (1961) remain stunning examples of the nearly psychic connection these three musicians shared. “My Foolish Heart,” “Waltz For Debby,” and “Gloria’s Step” all hail from those magical albums.

When Scott LaFaro’s life was cut short in an auto accident, Bill Evans entered an intense period of mourning. Months later he emerged with the ever-loyal Paul Motian, and Chuck Israels on bass. Israels’ style was very different from LaFaro’s, which seemed to be exactly what Evans needed at the time. “Very Early,” and a version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” are great examples of this trio at work.

It was right around this time that Bill Evans decided to do a couple of “super-sessions.” He invited some of the biggest names in jazz at the time to join him in recording the albums Interplay (1962) and Loose Blues (1962). The musicians included Freddie Hubbard, Jim Hall, Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, Zoot Sims, and Ron Carter.

One of Evans’ most famous collaborations was The Tony Bennett/ Bill Evans Album (1975). “Young And Foolish” is a great example of these two giants working together.

For some of us, the purest distillation of Evans’ amazing talent is his unaccompanied piano pieces. “Peace Piece” may be the most famous of these, it is certainly an incredible track. Then there is the medley of “Spartacus” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis.” The 8:40 solo cut is something I could listen to all day long. The man was a genius.

Despite his losses over the years, and a habit he struggled with all his life, Bill Evans remained as sharp as ever right up to the end. This is exemplified in no uncertain terms on pieces such as “Eiderdown” and the title track from his final Fantasy LP I Will Say Goodbye (1977).

Although it took a while for Evans to receive full acknowledgement as the basic architect of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue - one listen to that album makes it fairly obvious who was leading the band. It is that type of quiet, yet insistent leadership that makes his solo work so compelling as well. It would be hard to imagine a better introduction to the genius of Bill Evans than this two-CD set.

Article first published as Music Review: Bill Evans - The Definitive Bill Evans On Riverside And Fantasy on Blogcritics.

Music Review: The Tunnel - Fathoms Deep

The Tunnel are a three-piece band based in San Francisco, who revel in the darkness. Jeff Wagner’s vocals ooze the type of venom Nick Cave once did with The Birthday Party. Alongside him bassist Sam Black and drummer Patrick Crawford set up the deep, ugly and unrelenting rhythmic wall of sludge we used to associate with Swans. Their new album, Fathoms Deep is fun like waking up in a nest of snakes.

The opening instrumental “Wraithers” sets the tone. The guitar and keyboards set up a spooky ambience that draws you in. It even feels good in its own way. Then the malevolent voice of Wagner comes in to open track two, “Strange Haven,“ with the line “You hear your footsteps walk down the middle of the street,” behind the blues walk of his guitar. Things are no longer looking quite as bright as they were before.

By the time “King Of The Impossible” rolls up, we are in good-time rock and roll territory - for desiccated former Batcave dwellers. Crawford gets in some serious drum action towards the end of this one. On the last song of side one - (on vinyl), they launch “Fathomless Deep.” This mostly instrumental bit serves notice that you have indeed arrived right where The Tunnel have wanted you all along. There is nothing left to do but turn the album over and see if there is a way out.

Despite the title, “The Beast-Catcher” (musically at least) offers a ray of hope. The Birthday Party used to trick us that way too though. A cursory listen to the lyrics (thoughtfully provided with the LP) reveals the truth: “The virgins are few and far between, he’s looking for you and he’s looking for me.”

“Scurvye Dreams” suggests our trio have been listening to some Leadbelly on their mission to freaky haunts in Northern CA. “The Bitter End” is a transitory piece. The surf qualities of “The Bitter End” show that The Tunnel have not only a sense of humor, but a great sense of timing. The best surf musicians - guys like Dick Dale, always made their guitars sound very dangerous. Their songs might be played on the radio, but those strings could slit your throat.

The record ends with “A Storm.” Has it all been a dream? Or are you sinking, fathoms deep? The Tunnel never spoil it by revealing their intentions, although my guess is the latter.

In any event, The Tunnel are one of the great bands in the SF area right now, and have put out an amazing second album. I must confess to not having heard the first, but if it is anything like Fathoms Deep, I would like to.

As mentioned previously, Fathoms Deep is available in all the formats, but my suggestion is to get it on vinyl. It is totally set up old-school, with a definite side one, and side two. They did a great job here, and are worth checking out. The Tunnel can be contacted at The Tunnel

Article first published as Music Review: The Tunnel - Fathoms Deep on Blogcritics.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Music Review: Stan Getz & Cal Tjader - Stan Getz/Cal Tjader Sextet

In the mid-to-late-'50s, small jazz labels such as Fantasy often put ad-hoc groups together in the studio, and released the results under a variety of names. If there was extra material, it could end up as filler under the name of one of the “sidemen,” or just stay in the vault (awaiting the emergence of the CD reissue craze). The six musicians gathered under the credited leaders of Cal Tjader and Stan Getz for Sextet may have thought that would be the case with their sessions on February 8, 1958. If so, they would have been very mistaken.

Sextet has taken its rightful place as a jazz classic all these years later. The reason for this may have surprised the likes of Ralph J. Gleason (who wrote the original liner notes). But with the benefit of hindsight, one is able to clearly see the reason the date was so successful. In a word, it is talent. The date was something of a summit meeting of jazz giants, although nobody realized it at the time.

Getz’s saxophone had already garnered a lot of attention, as had the vibes (and songwriting) of Tjader. Vince Guaraldi (piano) had yet to discover his Charlie Brown muse, but his piano provides splendid accompaniment throughout the seven tracks. Then there is Eddie Duran (guitar), who offers equally empathetic melodic lines.

And how about that rhythm section? Although Billy Higgins (drums) was still relatively unknown, that would change soon with his long-term association with free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Finally, we come to Scott Lafaro (bass), who redefined jazz bass playing forever during his all too brief career, especially as a part of the Bill Evans Trio.

With the level of musicians in the room, the pieces were in place to be sure. However, there is one other crucial element for a successful collaboration, and that is the compositions themselves. With what has since become a jazz standard, Vince Guaraldi’s “Ginza Samba” leads the album off in a supremely winning way

Tjader’s vibes, Getz’s sax, Guaraldi’s piano, and Duran’s guitar all solo extensively during “Ginza’s” bossa nova part, but always stay true to the spirit of the song. Scott Lafaro may have been the least known member of the sextet at the time, but his bass solo during Tjader’s “Crows Nest” is a wonder.

Cal Tjader’s vibes never sound brighter than as the main voice of the Lerner and Lowe classic ballad “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” Getz shines brightly on the final track of the set, “My Buddy,” a Gus Kahn-Walter Donaldson composition.

The Sextet album is something of an anomaly in the Original Jazz Classics Remastered series as there are literally no leftovers from the original sessions. Everything those six men played that long ago afternoon was released at the time, which is saying something. Sextet remains as impressive and absorbing as it was all those years ago. Give it a listen

Article first published as Music Review: Stan Getz & Cal Tjader - Stan Getz/Cal Tjader Sextet on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers Live At Birdland - Ugetsu

Birdland, NYC June 16, 1963. What a place to have been for 98 lucky souls. Yes, you read that right. The most famous jazz club in the world has a capacity of just 98. Those fortunate enough to have attended that night were treated to an incredible performance by Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers. Although it was Blakey who inaugurated the “Live At Birdland” genre of albums (which has grown to over 100 individual titles by now), Ugetsu proved to be his third and final recording there. I must say, they went out in style.

Blakey was one of the finest drummers in jazz, but it was the people he surrounded himself with who were the real story. Blakey’s Jazz Messengers were always the cream of the crop. Much like it was with Miles Davis, a stint with Blakey could be considered something of a graduate course in musicianship.

Right from the top, the band is on fire. The great Cedar Walton’s piano opens up “One By One,” the horns of Curtis Fuller (trombone), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), and Wayne Shorter (sax) state the theme — then Blakey himself pounds a nice little drum break, opening the song up for a fine Shorter solo. Holding it all together is the rock-solid bass of Reggie Workman.

The eleven-minute title track “Ugetsu” is up next, and is a tour-de-force. Wayne Shorter wrote this one, and structurally it is remarkably similar to the modal form that John Coltrane brought to his version of “My Favorite Things.” The piano of Walton is key. In much the same way Kind Of Blue that the piano of Bill Evans “led” Miles’ group through the tracks on ue, so does Walton’s here. It is a remarkably subtle display of directorship.

The reinterpretation of standards was all the rage back in those golden New Frontier days of jazz, and some great things came out of it. “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” written by Rodgers and Hart, is an example. Wayne Shorter is afforded ample space to stretch out, and as he does one cannot help but notice the empathy he and Walton enjoy. The only contemporary comparison I can make is to that of Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.

The original Riverside LP closed out with “On The Ginza.” Like “Ugetsu,” “On The Ginza’s” title references Japanese culture. I really have no idea why, while both tracks are phenomenal, I do not hear anything that could be traced to Japan in them. In any case “On The Ginza” provides everyone with excellent solo opportunities and was a great way to cap off the show.

With this remastered reissue of Ugetsu, we are treated to four bonus tracks. Time permitting, they certainly would have made the cut on the original release. “Eva” is a beautiful ballad, and is not anything like the previous six high-energy tracks. It definitely brings a better perspective to the evening’s proceedings.

Curtis Fuller wrote “The High Priest” in honor of Thelonious Monk, and it is nice to hear it here. Again, it adds to a richer understanding of the night with the somewhat angular, dissonant tones utilized to pay tribute.

It is interesting that the original liner notes mention that Blakey rarely took drum solos, and that there is nary a one on Ugetsu. There was at least one recorded that night, however, although it was not released at the time. This came during George Shearing’s “Conception.” Not only does Blakey take an honest to goodness solo turn, but so does stalwart Reggie Workman with his bass. Finally there is a short nod to Miles Davis, with his traditional closing (at the time) tune, “The Theme.”

Art Blakey’s status as a jazz legend was already set in stone when this album was recorded, so it is really no surprise just how good it is. But it truly is a powerhouse performance, from a band who together and individually would continue to shape the course of music for decades to come. Ugetsu is the real deal, folks — seriously cool beatnik-coffeehouse jazz for your pleasure.

Article first published as Music Review: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers Live At Birdland - Ugetsu on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Mike Watt - Hyphenated-Man

Hyphenated-Man certainly describes Mike Watt. In fact, the man is so hyphenated one wonders where to begin. Mike Watt - punk legend, Mike Watt - bass player extraordinaire, Mike Watt - founder of the Minutemen, the list could go on and on. Mike Watt - survivor, may be the most appropriate descriptive term. It is a phrase I doubt any of his famous fans (and the rest of us) would argue.

Watt’s new album, Hyphenated-Man, is his finest solo effort yet. It also seems to be a bit of a homage to the Minutemen’s most famous set, Double Nickels On The Dime.

Mike Watt’s 30-plus year career as a musician began in the late seventies, when he and best friend D Boon got together in their hometown of San Pedro, CA. After recruiting drummer George Hurley, the trio christened themselves the Minutemen. Their third album, Double Nickels On The Dime, was released in 1984. It was a double-LP containing 45 songs, from a wide variety of sources. Although it never garnered the kind of mass attention that Prince’s 1999 did, Double Nickels has steadily grown in critical stature over the years, and remains the band’s best seller.

One year later D Boon was killed in an auto accident, and the Minutemen were tragically over. Since 1985, Watt has remained active in music. He formed a new band, fIREHOSE with Hurley, recorded as a duo with Kira Roessler as Dos, toured as a member of The Stooges, and has four solo albums out now. Of all of these projects, Hyphenated-Man is the only one that seems to address the enduring legacy of Double Nickels On The Dime.

The similarities are pretty obvious. The single disc Hyphenated-Man contains 30 songs in total, all running around the two and a half minutes mark. Stylistically, the two recordings have a great deal in common as well. One of the reasons Double Nickels is so revered is the fact that it dabbled in so many genres - thought to be punk suicide back in the day. Hyphenated-Man takes a broad approach also.

Opening track “Arrow-Pierced-Egg-Man” references one of Watt’s acknowledged heroes, the late Captain Beefheart. In fact, he offers credible variations on the good Captain repeatedly. “Hammering-Castle-Bird-Man,” “Finger-Pointing-Man,” and “Thistle-Headed-Man” are but three more outstanding tracks that seem to invoke the spirit of Mr. Van Vliet.

There is much more territory to be explored on the album. Another “controversial” influence for rigid punk rockers in the early eighties was that of John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Watt remains an unabashed fan, most notably on “Hollowed-Out-Man.”

A number of other musical sounds are explored on the disc, including funk, country, spoken word, even a bit of jazz. A marked difference between Double Nickels and Hyphenated-Man is the fact that the former was simply a collection of songs, while the latter is referred to by Watt as a “punk opera.”

The inspiration is reportedly the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, with each of the titles being Watt’s nickname for the surreal characters who inhabit Bosch’s world. The return to the short song format was inspired by Watt‘s work on the documentary of the Minutemen titled We Jam Econo. Both the film and Hyphenated-Man are reminders of just how talented this founder of So-Cal punk has always been.

Article first published as Music Review: Mike Watt - Hyphenated-Man on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Paolo Fresu/ A Filetta Corsican Voices/ Daniele di Bonavetura - Mistico Mediterraneo

Although Paolo Fresu’s most recent collaboration with Ralph Towner Chiaroscuro was incredibly well received, his latest, Mistico Mediterraneo, is something far more challenging. While the trumpeter’s name appears first in this collaborative effort, the recording is dominated by the incredible seven-voice ensemble known as A Filetta Corsican Voices.

A Filetta’s history stretches all the way back to 1978. Jean-Claude Acquaviva joined them during the first month of their existence, and now leads them. In the following decades they have moved far beyond their original mission of reprising revered Corsican polyphonic-vocal music. They are a living, breathing unit, continuing to update and develop new music constantly.

Paolo met them quite a number of years ago, and had always harbored a desire to work with the group. When the opportunity of adding Daniele di Bonaventura on the bandoneon arose, the project Mistico Mediterraneo began to take shape.

The 13 tracks that make up the disc are led by the wonderful a cappella vocals of A Filetta - but both Fresu and Bonaventura do an excellent job in improvising as well. In fact, their improvisations around the fixed points A Filetta sang in the compositions are what make Mistico such an enduring recording.

A brilliant example of this give-and-take interplay comes early on with the track “Da te a me.” Paolo’s high, lonesome style complements the vocals perfectly, then when Daniele’s bandoneon comes in for an instrumental duet the results are simply beautiful. The vocals, trumpet, and bandoneon make for a wonderful mix of sounds. Although the collaboration might look to the outsider as a difficult one to pull off, the participants’ respect for each other and the music is absolute. It is a gorgeous noise they produce.

“Gloria” is another stunning success. Opening with an upbeat trumpet solo from Paolo, soon Daniele joins with his bandoneon, setting the stage for A Filetta’s triumphant, rhythmic chanting of “Gloria in excelsis Deo…” A particular favorite for me is “Gradualis,” co-written by Daniele di Bonaventura and Jean-Claude Acquaviva. Again, all three components in the endeavor are most sympathetic to each other, with the whole adding up to much more than the sum of its parts.

The final track, “Sanctus,” is credited to Daniele di Bonaventura alone, and says a lot about the man. This is certainly no bandoneon solo piece, although the instrument is definitely present. It is the gorgeous (and very Miles Davis-ish) trumpet solo one notices the most. Paolo has readily admitted that the sound of Miles on his landmark Sketches Of Spain has been a major influence, and we certainly hear it here. A Filetta are a world-class vocal unit - their brilliance throughout Mistico Mediterraneo is a joy to behold.

This is an album with such taste, forward vision, and grace that I simply cannot recommend it highly enough. It was clearly a treat for those involved to make, and an incredibly satisfying set of music for the audience. Very highly recommended.

Article first published as Music Review: Paolo Fresu/ A Filetta Corsican Voices/ Daniele di Bonavetura - Mistico Mediterraneo on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: The Genius Of Design

Ponder the word "design" for a moment. Practically every object in the world we live was designed by someone, somewhere. As Denis Lawson, narrator of the new two-DVD five episode set The Genius Of Design notes, “The story of design offers an alternative history of the modern world.”

The Genius Of Design looks at this phenomenon in depth. What emerges are some wonderfully informative discussions of the objects we all take for granted, and how (for example) you favorite chair came to be built the way it is.

The first episode is titled “Ghosts In The Machine.” The origins of design are shown with individual craftsmen designing and building their products. This is illustrated perfectly with the potter - whose cups, bowls, vases and other ceramic objects are handmade, and one of a kind. With the arrival of the 20th-century industrialists, the art of design was taken from the workshop and put into effect on the factory floor. Standardization became the rallying cry. As Henry Ford once famously said about his Model T cars “It is available in any color, as long as it is black.”

Episode Two, “Designs For Living” shows how the social and landscapes of America and England had changed - and how the art of design evolved with them. Here we see the cult of Modernisms (as exemplified by Bauhaus) reshaped architecture and consumer goods. One of the great elements of design that was introduced in this time was how the designers would put non-essential accessories on ordinary items, to give them a sense of motion.

There is also an original desktop black telephone from 1937 - the Model 302. “This was the American telephone for decades, used by upwards of a 160 million Ma Bell customers by the middle of the century.” At around the same time, Wally Byram was producing the first RVS: his famous Airstream. By melding the artistic elements of design with the practical functions of the product, these items were the definitive versions for decades.

These consumer items appealed to people by appealing to their utilitarian, and personal preferences. As Lawson notes at the beginning of episode three, “A Bluprint For War,” “Here’s what they don’t teach at art school, when nations go to war design goes to the frontline.”

As we move forward in the Twentieth century, and into the second World War - aesthetics are clearly the least of our considerations. In a total war environment there can be only one goal - victory. The second world war became a brutal design contest. “In the lead up to the Second World War, nobody thought as deeply about the strategic power of design as the Nazis,” says Lawson.

The designs of objects are neither good nor evil in and of themselves. It is what they are used to do which defines their purpose. The Third Reich were filled with genius level artisans, who were able to create proto-types, and useful weaponry which allowed them such initial superiority in the first years of World War II. It is a sobering thought when once considers the stakes in play during the war.

In 1936, the prototype of a new German car was introduced, the Volkswagen Beetle. Designed by Ferdinand Porsche, it would become the most successful car in the world. As explained by the narrator, “Beneath the Beetle’s simple, yet striking design - lay a master class in the German pursuit of excellence.”

In Episode Four, “Better Living Through Chemistry,” we find a much different group doing battle. In the first scene, we find a group of ladies at a Tupperware party, pondering one of the mid-centuries’ most ubiquitous new products. With plastic Earl Silas Tupper created one of the most durable products of the twentieth century, Tupperware.

The overwhelming public desire of “clean up” after such a hideous event as World War II became personal. “Airtight” Tupperware seals were seen as a way domesticate such unruly items as leftovers. This was popular in the household. But the desire was to remove all of the unruly, messy, and unregulated elements of life from society.

The Bauhaus mantra that “Form should follow function” was thoroughly re-embraced by post-War German designers, and is typified by the Braun Corporation. Lead designer Dieter Bram stripped away all artifice, and simplicity remains the optimal look for thousands of products of the past 60 years.

Where plastics enabled designers to create virtually unhindered in terms of shapes and styles, and the German modernist-minimalist unadorned look became hugely popular in the post-War world, it was the Japanese whose influence has been the most significant. Since the miniature transistor radio, introduced in 1956, the march to create smaller and smaller products has been relentless. In a very real way, Japan built itself out of the rubble of World War Two by designing and marketing the “portable lifestyle.” Thus the Walkman, the Discman, laptop computers, and the like have overwhelmingly changed peoples lives in the present day.

The fifth and final episode “Objects Of Desire” opens with LP cover artist Peter Saville who has designed sleeves for Joy Division and New Order, among others. The world of designer and fine artist have now come together, and at an auction of the Lockheed Lounge the designers unique chair sells for just under a million pounds.

The series ends with a discussion of the computer revolution over the past 30 years, and the many design improvements that have been made to them over time, and what is still being worked on. There is even a question towards the end as to how connected is too connected in the world we live in. The computer graveyards shown is pretty remarkable, in that it shows landfill after landfill brimming with already worthless computer components.

Recycling through the “cradle to cradle” system is one way in which this endless cycle of improvement leading to the discarding the old sounds like a promising way towards the future. But as ever, nobody know what will eventually appear and the new face of normal.

As for bonus materials, there are text based biographies of influential designers profiled in the series such as Eal Silas Tupper, Jonathan Ive, Ferdinand Porsche, and Le Corbusier to name a few. There is also an informative 12-page booklet featuring an article titled “Behind The Scenes At Bauhaus,” “The American Factory Rethought,” and “Famous Design Flops.”

Most of us go through our days barely noticing the objects around us. The Genius Of Design is a reminder that even seemingly most mundane item one uses was developed through a great deal of time and thought. In short, the series will make you think, in a most delightful way about the world around you.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Genius Of Design on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series - 40th Anniversary Edition

Upstairs, Downstairs is the most popular and successful British television series of all time. The show debuted in 1971, and ran for five incredible seasons. It has been seen by an estimated one billion people in 40 countries over the years - and won a slew of awards including seven Emmys. The Acorn Media Company has outdone itself in celebration with Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series - 40th Anniversary Collection

This is a pretty incredible set, containing 21 DVDs, including a disc full of exclusive bonus features. Unlike many television series, each season of Upstairs, Downstairs was conceived of as a stand-alone individual series. The first spans the years 1903 to 1909, the second 1908 to 1910, the third 1912 to 1914. The fourth series covers World War I from 1914 to 1918, and the fifth and final season is concerned with the years 1919 to 1930.

It is a remarkable storytelling achievement, made all the more impressive as nobody had ever attempted anything like it before. In the most basic terms, Upstairs, Downstairs explores the lives of an upper-class British family (upstairs), and those of their servants (downstairs). One thing becoming instantly clear is that the hierarchical roles of those who live upstairs are reflected by the staff living downstairs. The endless variations of the dynamics between all are uniformly fascinating.

One element of which I was previously unaware is that due to a British technicians strike, the first six episodes were filmed in black and white. When the strike ended, the cast and crew went back and re-shot the pilot “On Trial” in color. The other episodes were never re-done however, and appear here in the original black and white. Evidently the original pilot has been lost however, although as one of the extras the alternate version of the episode is included - with a completely different ending.

Upstairs, Downstairs broke all kinds of new ground during its run. There were episodes dealing with suicide, homosexuality, extra-marital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, and many many other television taboos. Far from being a British soap opera, which a lot of people mistakenly assumed, each episode was a completely stand-alone work - and the writing was fantastic throughout.

Every series from the five years the show aired had its merits, but I think series four was the most poignant. The 13 episodes directly dealt with World War One, and the years 1914 to 1918. Everyone in the house, both upstairs and downstairs were affected by the war in one way or another. Many of the class distinctions fell away between the characters as they were all faced with great loss and sacrifice.

It is little surprise that Upstairs, Downstairs were honored with a plethora of awards over the years. These include seven Emmys, two BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award.

In addition to the 68 original episodes, spread out over 20 DVDs, there is also a full disc of bonus materials, for a total of 25 hours of extras. These include a five-part behind the scenes documentary (one about each series), a 25th anniversary retrospective, loads of interviews with stars, writers, and others involved, and much much more.

All in all, this treatment of Upstairs, Downstairs is as thorough as one could possibly be. Amazingly enough, after forty years, this little British show that nobody thought had half a chance of making it past six episodes has become an unqualified television legend. There is no better way to experience it than with the Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series package. It is an incredibly beautiful set.

Article first published as DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series - 40th Anniversary Collection on Blogcritics.