Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Monday, August 20, 2007
Obituary: Max Roach / Innovative jazz drummer
Jan. 10, 1924 -- Aug. 16, 2007By Matt Schudel, The Washington Post
Max Roach, dazzling drummer who helped create the rhythmic language of modern jazz while expanding the expressive possibilities of the drums, has died.
Bloomberg News reported that he died early yesterday at a care facility in New York City. He was 83 and had been ill for several years.
Mr. Roach was a founding architect of bebop, the high-speed, harmonically advanced music of the 1940s that helped elevate jazz from dance-hall entertainment to concert-stage art.
In dozens of landmark recordings with such musical giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk -- including a 1953 performance that has entered legend as "the greatest jazz concert ever" -- Mr. Roach pioneered an approach to jazz drumming that remains the standard to this day.
An influential force in music for 60 years, Mr. Roach expanded the borders of improvised music by incorporating elements of other artistic traditions, including African and Asian music, dance, poetry and hip-hop. He led performances with as many as 100 percussion instruments on stage, but he also played minimalist solos using only the high-hat, a pair of cymbals mounted on a metal stand and worked with a pedal.
"Nobody else ever had the nerve to come out on stage with a cymbal under his arm and say, 'This is art,' " jazz critic Gary Giddins told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.
He later became a strong voice for racial equality through his compositions and his recordings with singer Abbey Lincoln, to whom he was married for several years. In 1988, he was among the first jazz musicians to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, or so-called "genius grant."
Mr. Roach's most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and another jazz drummer, Pittsburgh's Kenny "Klook" Clarke, devised a new concept of musical time. By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard 4/4 time on the "ride" cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, Mr. Roach and Mr. Clarke, who died in 1985, developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely.
By matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument. He often shifted the dynamic emphasis from one part of his drum kit to another within a single phrase, creating a sense of tonal color and rhythmic surprise.
Virtually every jazz drummer plays in that manner today, but when Mr. Clarke and Mr. Roach introduced the style in the 1940s, it was revolutionary.
Mr. Roach played briefly with Duke Ellington's orchestra when he was 16 and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, but his real education came in the all-night clubs of Harlem.
In 1944, Mr. Roach played drums with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on Mr. Gillespie's "Woody 'n' You," widely acknowledged to be the first true bebop record.
Mr. Roach worked off and on with Mr. Parker until 1953 and for a time acquired Parker's taste for narcotics. Mr. Roach overcame his addiction and in the 1950s helped trumpeter Miles Davis kick his own heroin habit.
In 1949, Mr. Roach appeared on pianist Bud Powell's groundbreaking "Tempus Fugit" and "Un Poco Loco," then turned up on the influential 1949-50 sessions led by Mr. Davis and Gerry Mulligan called "Birth of the Cool." In 1951, he was the drummer on "Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2," an important work by pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.
Taken together, these recordings defined the vibrant language of bebop, which remains the dominant form of modern jazz. In the view of many fans, bebop reached its zenith on May 15, 1953, when Mr. Roach joined Mr. Parker, Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Powell and bassist Charles Mingus in Toronto for "the greatest jazz concert ever." It was captured on the album "Live at Massey Hall," released on the Debut record label, founded by Mr. Mingus and Mr. Roach.
In California in 1954, Mr. Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown formed a widely admired quintet that came to include saxophonist Sonny Rollins. They created a sensation with their earthy but elegant music, which became the foundation of the jazz style known as hard bop.
Friday, August 17, 2007
My housemate owns an Xbox360 and was thoughtful enough the other day to show me the Bioshock demo. I was immediately blown away by the Art Deco aesthetic that pervades the game. The story involves an Ayn Randian utopia built at the bottom of the sea where something has gone terribly wrong. It looks like your standard inmates-take-over-the-asylum scenario, one into which you have to navigate your way with a nice array of weapons and talents.
But the scenery-! The city is absolutely dazzling for anyone with even a passing interest in the Art Deco style. It harkens to a mythical fifties, in which all the B-movie SciFi tropes are true: scientists have succeeded in improving humanity through genetic experiments, and the resulting "better world" is awash in tuxedoes and martinis and Gotham-style architecture. Think Dark City-meets-Atlantis.
This could be the next greatest FPS of all time, and hopefully will inspire a sequel, in which events go back to an even earlier era, the Belle Epoque.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Philip Dick's midperiod novel Ubik was published in 1969 and for me represents his peak as an author of speculative fiction. It also typifies what makes his works so great. The themes are fantastic but grounded in rich characters, and he uses the story to sound out serious questions about spirituality and what's real. Dick has a preoccupation with spiritual existence and the basic human need to experience faith. In his thorough and arguably profound exploration of this need, he comes to define what makes literature in the second half of the century important.
What stands in the way of spiritual enlightenment is nothing less than the world itself, or to put it more simply, consensual reality. A passage from Ubik elucidates this problem in a concise and humorous fashion, as is characteristic of Dick's writing:
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. "I'll pay you tomorrow," he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. "What I pay you," he informed it, "is in the nature of gratuity; I don't have to pay you."
"I think otherwise," the door said. "Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt."
In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.
"You discover I'm right," the door said. It sounded smug.
William Faulkner, on the other hand, represents a keen understanding of human society, as represented in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. He is preoccupied not so much with the spirit as with the moral girding of people in the cruel and feckless world. Nowhere in his vast and epic catalog is this better illustrated than in what I feel is his finest hour, the novel Light in August. Unlike Dick, who uses fantastic situations to point the reader to home truths, Faulkner brings us down to earth and lets us taste of its grand and fickle bounty. He represents what was most important to the first half of the twentieth century, a time of world wars and vast economic hardships.
His lens fixes less on the human relationship to a cruel and unrelenting reality (as Dick does) and more on the interstices of emotional causality between people and the consequences of tangles and misapprehensions therein. A passage from the novel:
Naturally I am only scratching the surface with these brief glimpses, but having been in a reading frenzy of late and experiencing these authors anew (was it Samuel Delany who said you never read the same book twice?), it has been brought home that their combined contribution to literature of the last century is without price and brings timeless gain.
Friday, August 10, 2007
I've always found the idea of having a guilty pleasure to be highly suspect. It strikes me as a way to keep other people from noticing your poor taste, be it in books, fashion styles, or what-have-you. Usually when somebody else points out a guilty pleasure, it is something truly awful. Then again, it wouldn't involve guilt if it was sublime, would it?
My own poor taste is clearly evident. One has to look no further than my dvd collection (which admittedly is quite small) to see an irrefutable example. I recently added to it one of the worst movies ever committed to celluloid: Black Belt Jones.
Long days back we used to rent this movie almost weekly, and I thought we had found the blue sapphire diamond of blaxploitation flicks. You could hear laughter in the house late into the night, orchestrated by corny dialogue and lo-fi karate explosions. That was years ago, and recently I got to thinking how long it had been. What would it be like to revisit BB and friends? I decided to find out, located a cheap copy on ebay and purchased it.
Sitting down to watch this gem from 1972, I found myself laughing, yes, just like old times. Yet it was laughter borne more of pain than joy: Black Belt Jones had not aged well. It may very well be the worst movie I have ever seen. It is like a home movie that should have stayed in the vault. It is bad -and I don't mean baaaadaaaassss, I mean BAD bad. Look up the word "bad" in Webster's and it cites BB.
Here's an example of the grade school dialogue. BB has been called in by his government superior -he's some kind of agent for an unnamed group that appears to part of the FBI. His superior (inevitably white) tells BB that he has to go into the ghetto and help break up a criminal scheme. BB refuses, saying, "You ought to write comedies for television."
His superior replies, "But can it be done?"
To which BB says, "Don't believe the myth that all (black people) are invisible."
When BB leaves the room, his superior starts chomping on a cigar and tells his partner, "He'll do it." Apparently BB has worked out some kind of code with his minders that the audience isn't privy to, because to me it sounded like they just spewed a bunch of gibberish. But I guess I don't know how to write good movie dialogue, do I?
BB has to help a friend called Pop save his karate school from a bad guy named "Pinky". Pop is ostensibly a teacher of kung fu, but apparently nobody told that little bit of information to the actor who portrays him, the seventies icon with the seventies icon name, Scatman Crothers. The scenes in which Scatman uses his "skills" to defeat thugs are so laughable that they go beyond the laugh horizon into a dark, lonely void of despair. Not since Margot Kidder's drug-addled turn as Lois Lane in Superman II (where she is visibly intoxicated most of the time) has a noted actor been so humiliated onscreen.
Fortunately Pop doesn't last long in the movie. Enter the daughter: Sydney.
When Sydney enters the scene, she delivers the most memorable dialogue and action in the movie. She is clearly a product of her times. The early seventies were not only the age of Gloria Steinem but Angela Davis too: feminism combined with black revolution. Sydney all but personifies the Black Panther movement, and she takes guff from no man, woman or pimp, a kind of third-rate Foxy Brown. BB quickly finds his hands full when Sydney shows up to preserve her father's school.
When BB receives a hot tip, Sydney offers to come along. BB replies by telling her, "Why don't you go do the dishes or something?" He points to the sink, where we can see a pile of dirty plates and mugs.
Sydney pulls out a revolver and shoots up the entire sink, reducing the dishes to powder. "They're done," she says.
You just don't mess with Sydney.
Later, on the beach, BB propositions her and she rejects him. "My cookie would kill you," she tells him.
There are many other citable instances of why Black Belt Jones is the worst movie ever made. Pinky's "rap" for instance, burned in my memory forever but to which I will not expose my tender readers' hearts and minds.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
That lyric comes from the band's smash hit and signature song of the eighties decade, The Safety Dance. Another memorable line from the still-catchy tune gives the listener permission to "dance like you're from out of this world". Surely these are words to live by.
In my teenaged years I was a big fan of Men Without Hats. I even saw them perform live and found the experience to be very strange (and therefore, in teenage terms, "totally rad"). The lead singer and mastermind behind the band, Ivan Doroschuk, was given to talking at great length between songs and providing weird and esoteric explanations for what his lyrics "really" meant. I remember the rest of the band sort of milling around, hands laid idly on their instruments, waiting until they were needed to play again, usually after a five-to-ten minute interlude. Needless to say, it was a memorable and long night.
It's important to note that no one was wearing hats at the show, not on stage or in the audience. This is of interest beyond just the obvious homage to the band's sobriquet. Originally formed by Ivan and two of his brothers in the late seventies in the cold climes of Montreal, the band in its nascent form was known as Men WITH Hats. This was soon changed, however, since the band always threw off their hats at the end of each show. Thus Men Without Hats was born into legend.
Now, it's fine and good to have a hit pop tune instruct the listener to "act like an imbecile". Who doesn't hold that freedom as dear? I wonder, though, if Ivan didn't take this axiom to mean that he could also write lyrics like an imbecile. As evidenced in other tracks on Rhythm of Youth, there is a cause to wonder.
One of the joys of listening to pop songs -from the eighties in particular- is their regular penchant for celebrating self-evident truths. Pop songs let us in on the heretofore secret knowledge that girls just want to have fun (Cyndi Lauper) , and that one thing can lead to another (The Fixx). In keeping with the times, Men Without Hats also provide precious insight into the hidden corners of existence.
In the song Things in My Life, while thinking that he's walking in a rainy Scottish forest, Ivan sings the words, "There are things you can buy in the drugstore/There are things you can hang on your wall/There are things you can read in the paper/There are things that do nothing at all". The reek of Ultimate Truth is all over this quartet. Lending even greater weight is the song's chorus: "We can never remember the things we always forget". If this stuff was alcohol, I'd be on a bender dawn to dusk.
My love for Men Without Hats is undeterred, even so, because in hearing again the continuous keyboard chartings that provide the skeleton of every track, I am transported to the end of the rainbow, where not only is Truth plain to see, it's danceable. Safety dance, indeed.
And that is what I think Ivan and his band want to do: give the world a reason to dance. In one of two tracks exclusive to the cassette version of Rhythm of Youth ("not included on the LP"), Ivan asks the nation of China if it wants to dance. The response is a lusty wave of applause. We can safely interpret that to mean, "Yes, Ivan, we wants to dance."
In another song, Ivan sings, "I have done a good thing/You're really dancing/Everybody's happy."
Since I saw them perform only the once, I cannot say if Ivan perfected his ability get crowds dancing. I remember people were dancing at my show, but only in spurts. Maybe if he had talked less-! But that was early in their career and for a number of years after the band did go on to have a couple more hit songs. Who can forget Pop Goes The World? Therefore it is entirely possible that he finally did remember what he had always forgot.