Category Archives: Jazz Musicians

SIFF 2017: Bill Frisell: A Portrait ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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He doesn’t “shred” or do windmills on stage. In fact, he looks more like a college professor who drives a 1972 Volvo than a peer-revered guitar slinger that most people have never heard of. I will confess that even I (an alleged music geek) couldn’t name one Bill Frisell song. Yet, this unassuming Seattle-based virtuoso has 35 solo albums and scores of sessions with more well-known artists to his credit. He’s also tough to nail down; All Music Guide files him under a dozen genres, including Modern Creative, Post-Bop, New Acoustic, World Fusion, and Progressive Folk. Emma Franz’s film, while perhaps just a smidgen overlong for anyone but a super-fan, nicely conveys the joy of creating, and as its title infers-delivers an amiable portrait of an inventive player.

Sour notes: Max Rose **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2016)

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“Have you heard about the restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere.” For better or worse, that’s the best line in Max Rose, Jerry Lewis’ first starring vehicle since Peter Chelsom’s 1995 sleeper Funny Bones. Not that Max Rose is intended to be a comedy…far from it. Writer-director Daniel Noah’s film has much more gravity (ahem) than that timeworn groaner may infer.

Lewis is the titular character, a retired jazz pianist grieving over the recent death of his wife (Claire Bloom, relegated to flashbacks and the odd hallucination). Understandably, Max is a little morose (endless static shots of a brooding, stone-faced Lewis ensure that we “get” that). Even his sunny-side up granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishe) can barely get him to crack a smile. Again, Max did just lose his wife of 60 years; yet some deeply buried injury seems to be tugging at him.

Max’s eulogy at his wife’s funeral turns into an oddly self-deprecating rant, alarming both Annie and his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak). Soon thereafter, Max has a health scare while alone at home that prompts The Talk (the one we all dread…about assisted living). Max reluctantly acquiesces and checks in to a nursing home, but remains stubbornly aloof toward staff and fellow residents, until he gets liquored up one night with a posse of lively codgers (Mort Sahl, Rance Howard and Lee Weaver). Defenses down, Max now opens up about his deeper hurt, something he discovered about his wife’s past while sorting through her personal effects after her death. He realizes the only way he’s going to have closure is to go meet face-to-face with an involved party.

Despite the bevy of acting talent on board, this film (an uneven mash-up of The Descendents with The Sunshine Boys) ultimately feels like a squandered opportunity. Lewis has proved himself to be a capable enough dramatic actor in the past (particularly in The King of Comedy, Arizona Dream, and the aforementioned Funny Bones), but here his performance flirts with mawkishness. To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was doing his best with the sappy script. There are good moments; a protracted scene between Lewis and the always interesting Dean Stockwell hints at what could have been, but is not enough to raise the film above its steady level of “meh”.

Sketches of pain: Born to Be Blue ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2016)

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My pebble on the beach is gettin’ washed away                                                       I’ve given everything that was mine to give                                                              And now I’ll turn around and find                                                                               That there’s no time to live

-from “No Time to Live” by Traffic (Winwood/Capaldi)

The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide. There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died).

Baker has a mystique that has inspired filmmakers over the years. Jess Franco’s 1969 cult film Venus in Furs  (my review) was seeded by a  conversation the director once had with Baker (the protagonist is a haunted jazz trumpeter, who falls in love with a woman who may or may not exist). Bruce Weber’s beautifully photographed 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost is a heartbreaking portrait of Baker toward the end of his life. Which brings us to writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue (limited release and pay-per-view).

Budreau’s film is a highly stylized “re-imagining” of the jazzman’s slow, painful professional comeback that followed in the wake of the beating that virtually destroyed his embouchure. In a super-meta opening scene, Chet (Ethan Hawke) is on a movie set, working out a scene for a biopic about himself, with his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo). An off camera romance ensues, with Jane pulling triple duty as lover, muse and drug counselor; trying to keep him off the junk as he struggles against the odds to regain his playing chops with a fractured jaw. Along the way, the couple takes a road trip to Chet’s boyhood home in Oklahoma, where he introduces Jane to his parents (Janet Laine-Green and Stephen McHattie) and feebly attempts to patch things up with his estranged father.

Jane isn’t the only person in Chet’s orbit who find themselves fulfilling a caretaker’s role; his long-time manager (Callum Keith Rennie), musical mentor Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard), and his parole officer (Tony Nappo), continue to prop him up, against their better judgement (you know what they say: “Never trust a junkie.”). How much of this aspect of Baker’s life is being “re-imagined” here is up for debate; but it’s interesting to observe that in Weber’s 1988 documentary, even Baker himself admits (in so many words) that he knew he was a natural-born charmer, and he was never afraid to exploit it.

While the “junkie/alcoholic (musician, artist, writer, or poet) with God-given talent and a maddening gift for self-destruction” narrative is a cliché, Budreau’s film is bolstered by a very strong performance from Hawke; it’s an immersive portrayal that ranks among his best. Supporting performances are excellent as well. Overall, the film is moody, highly atmospheric, and evocative of the time period, with striking cinematography (by Steve Cosens). The dearth of original Baker music is glaring (copyright issues?), but Kevin Turcotte’s faux-Chet trumpet provides a reasonable facsimile thereof. Hawke does his own singing; very convincingly capturing Chet Baker’s essence (if not his exact tonality).

Let’s get lost again: Low Down ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 22, 2014)

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I will admit being unfamiliar with jazz pianist Joe Albany prior to watching Jeff Preiss’ fact-based drama Low Down, yet the late musician’s career trajectory seems depressingly familiar. Credited as a be-bop pioneer, he made his bones in the 1940s, accompanying the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Unfortunately, he suffered an early “lost period” due to heroin, and spent most of the 50s and 60s chasing the dragon and collecting ex-wives. He came out of seclusion in the 70s, recording a number of albums through the decade (still battling smack). He died alone, in 1988. Oddly enough, that was the same year trumpeter Chet Baker died. Baker, whose career was beset by similar woes, was profiled in Bruce Weber’s outstanding 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost. One of its most compelling elements was the moody, noirish cinematography…by a Mr. Jeff Preiss.

Preiss’ film (which marks his feature-length directing debut) covers a 3-year period of Albany’s life in the mid-70s, when he was living in a seedy Hollywood flophouse with his teenage daughter Amy (Elle Fanning). Albany (John Hawkes) is struggling to stay focused on the work, jamming with his trumpet-playing buddy Hobbs (Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, giving us a taste of his first instrument). Amy is cheer leading for her Dad, doing her best to keep him on track. Speaking of tracks, a surprise visit from his parole officer reveals Dad isn’t quite holding things together, and he’s whisked off to stir. Amy goes to stay with her grandmother (Glenn Close) until Joe is released. Dad still has issues. Amy tries to keep sunny, but it’s tough to be Pollyanna when your social circle is surging with hookers, junkies, drug dealers and, er, porno star dwarves (Peter Dinklage!).

The screenplay (by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien) is based on Albany’s memoir about life with her father. Albany’s recollections about the extended family of eccentrics she encountered inject the film with a Tales of the City vibe. The naturalistic performances and Preiss’ cinema verite approach also recalls Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drama, The Panic in Needle Park, an episodic character study about a community of junkies. Some may find the deliberate pacing stupefying, waiting for something to “happen”, but as John Lennon sang, “life is just what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Taken as a slice of life, Low Down just lets it happen…improvising on grace notes while keeping it in perfect time.

Girls just wanna play 7th flat 9th chords: The Girls in the Band *** (& a Top 5 List)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 15, 2014)

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“I have a dream that my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by the content of their character, but can also be appreciated on the merits of their creativity, or the pure aesthetics of their artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of their skin…or perhaps even gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

Of course, in these (allegedly) enlightened times, these might be considered trite questions. But there was a time, not so long ago, in a galaxy pretty close by, when these questions would be considered heresy by some. For example, back in 1938, the venerable (and otherwise progressively-minded) music magazine Down Beat ran an article entitled “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior”. This is but one of the eye-openers in an overall eye-opening documentary by Judy Chaikin called The Girls in the Band, which aims to chronicle the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form.

I know what you’re thinking. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington…they’ve had plenty of press over the years, right? Yes, they have. But (and not to denigrate those jazz giants) there is an important distinction…they are vocalists. Traditionally, as Chaikin points out in her film, that was a woman’s most accepted “place” in jazz. Piano? Sure, that was “allowed” (Hazel Scott, Jane Jarvis, Dorothy Donegan were early pioneers), but drums, vibes, guitar, horns, sax…fuhgettaboutit. Those take a man’s strength and stamina! But it turns out that female players have been acing it all along, having no problem keeping it (as my friend’s dad, a veteran jazz pianist, was fond of saying) “in the pocket”.

Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. Among the veteran interviewees, 88 year-old saxophonist Roz Cron gives the most fascinating perspective regarding the double roadblock of sexism and racism that she and her contemporaries bumped up against time and again (and not just from their male counterparts, who at times out-and-out mutinied against band leaders who invited female players to join or even merely sit in). As the only white musician in the all-female outfit, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, she experienced some Kafkaesque moments, especially while touring the deep South. Thanks to the pretzel logic of then extant Jim Crow “laws”, Cron was once arrested and jailed on a charge of “associating with negroes”.

While things have since obviously (and thankfully) loosened up on the “judging by gender” front, some of the old prejudices die hard. One interviewee, composer/band leader Maria Schneider recounts one experience with an interviewer, who opened with “So, what’s it like to be a woman composer?” To which she replied “What’s it like to be a male journalist?” But there is optimism as well. As Schneider offers later in the film “I hope we get to the day soon where it’s not something people think about, and categorize.” I suppose you could say that Maria Schneider also has a dream…and it is a good dream.

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In keeping with the spirit of jazz, I thought I would improvise a bit on tonight’s theme and offer all you hep cats and kittens my righteous picks for the Top 5 jazz movies. Dig:

All Night Long– Directed by Basil Deardon (The League of Gentlemen, The Assassination Bureau) this 1962 UK film stars Patrick McGoohan (still a couple years shy of achieving international fame as TV’s Secret Agent Man) chewing all the available scenery as an ambitious, conniving jazz drummer. Nel King and Paul Jarrico based their screenplay on Shakespeare’s Othello, with the action taking place in an upscale London jazz club over the course of one evening. While it’s quite entertaining on its own merits, the film’s rep is bolstered by the then-contemporary jazz heavyweights who appear onscreen (most notably, Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus). Richard Attenborough and Betsy Blair are also on board, and McGoohan proves that he isn’t half bad on the skins!

Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a pristine, richly colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the formidable chops of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but the film is equally captivating whenever cameras turn away from the artists and casually linger on the audience or the environs (like showing sailboats lazily puffing past the festival grounds), while the music continues in the background. The effect truly is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, half the fun is people-watching; rarely do you affix your gaze on the stage the entire time. In fact, Stern is breaking with film making conventions of the era; you are witnessing the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t flower until nearly a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

Let’s Get Lost– The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide. There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died). The nodded-out Chet Baker we see in Bruce Weber’s extraordinary warts-and-all 1988 documentary (beautifully shot in B&W) is a man who appears several decades older than his chronological age (and sadly, as it turned out, has about a year left to live). Still, there are amazing (if fleeting) moments of clarity, where we get a glimpse of the genius that still burned within this tortured soul. One scene in particular, where Weber holds a close up of Baker’s ravaged road map of a face while he croons a plaintive rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue”, has to be one of the most naked, heartbreaking vocal performances ever captured on film. Haunting and one-of-a-kind, this is a must-see doc.

‘Round Midnight– Legendary sax player Dexter Gordon gives a knockout performance in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 drama (set in the late 1950s) about an American jazz musician who is invited to Paris for an extended engagement. Gordon’s character, Dale Turner, has been fighting a losing battle with the bottle, which has led to a dearth of gigs stateside. Turner is initially taken aback, but soon bolstered by his apparent cachet among the French (it’s no secret that African-American musicians were held in higher regard and treated with more respect abroad in those days that they were back home). Still, every day is a struggle for an addict, and as they say, “Wherever you go-there you are.” Excellent performances and magnificent playing from Gordon make this film a winner.

The Warped Ones– The protagonist in this New Wave-influenced offering from director Koreyoshi Kurahara may not be a musician, but the film itself is permeated by an energetic jazz soundtrack, and assaults the senses like the atonal screeches in an improvisational sax solo. Tamio Kawachi gives a surly and unpredictable turn as Akira, a jazz-obsessed young hood who bilks tourists at the seedy jazz club he hangs out at every night with his hooker girlfriend (Noriko Matsumoto). A nosy reporter narks him out and he does a stint in jail. After Akira gets out, he and his girlfriend are tooling around one of their favorite beach haunts in a stolen car when they happen upon said reporter, strolling with his fiancée. On the spur of the moment, Akira runs the reporter down and kidnaps his fiancée; launching a spree of uninhibitedly narcissistic and decidedly anti-social behavior by this rebel without a cause. Not for all tastes (the film truly lives up to its title) but a prime sample of Japan’s unique take on the late 50s/early 60s youth rebellion genre.

…and here’s the “next five” that I’d recommend for your queue: Bird, The Gene Krupa Story, A Man Called Adam, Pete Kelly’s Blues, Sweet and Lowdown.

SIFF 2012: The Savoy King ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 9, 2012)

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I’m glad I caught Jeff Kaufman’s The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America, because I learned quite a bit about a period of American music that I’m a bit rusty on-the Jazz Swing Era. Specifically, the story of a diminutive, hunch-backed drummer named Chick Webb, and the impact he made over the course of his relatively brief career (1927-1939). Crippled by TB of the spine (the result of a childhood injury), the self-taught drummer and band leader was not only a significant and respected player in his own right, but instrumental in fostering the career of one Ella Fitzgerald. With all due respect to the late Dick Clark, it turns out that his role in integrating America’s dance floors, while of significance, may have been overstated; it seems Webb was the true pioneer in that arena, thanks to the cross-cultural appeal of his music (years before American Bandstand). The archival footage is fabulous.