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miles ahead

The general consensus among the uninformed is that jazz is messy music. Arching back to my pop vs. classical post, people are comfortable with familiarity. Saxophones, trumpets, and the like are rarely found in music consumed by the masses, so no reason to believe anyone without a predisposed penchant for the music would take kindly to music rooted in jazz.

My awakening to the genre stemmed from my love of all things rock. Around sophomore year of high school I branched my classic rock upbringing into a realm of improvised rock, namely the bluesy improv of the Grateful Dead and the prog-based free form stylings of Phish. And as most die-hard fans of either group will tell you,  their tendency to stray from composition can be linked back to a solitary icon: one Miles Davis.

So this being an age where searching out an unfamiliar artists entire discography is easy as a google search and click of a mouse, I turned to the internet to begin what has since turned into the arduous task of uncovering an entire genre. And while many artists curse the internet’s ability to aid in piracy, it is a consumers dream, especially when considering the catalog of an artist like Miles who has gone through countless shifts within the realm of jazz that mark his earlier work in the 1940s as completely different from what he was turning out in the 70s.

My first order of work was to seek out Kind of Blue, his iconic 1959 album considered by many purists to be the defining point in American jazz history. Not immediately impressed, mainly from lack of visible improv I was led to believe he honed, I only came to realize the greatness of the work when placed into context, notably the realization that the other jazz legend, John Coltrane, contributed half of the sax work on the album along with Cannonball Adderly.

Coltrane and Davis

Not willing to dismiss jazz on the strength of a then underwhelming introduction, I turned to late 60s Miles next. What I discovered on his back-to-back-to-back turnout, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, completely dominated my music consumption for the next few months. Tracks straddling the 20 minute mark (and with guitar!) provided the template for the dark and deep sounds I so coveted.

Although far from a jazz connoisseur, Miles has led me to discover other jazz greats I  now cherish, namely Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock. But when I crave hearing an artist collaborating and build off his peers in unmatched fashion, it is always Miles that I first turn to.

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miles davis

-Born May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois, before moving to East St. Louis in 1927

-Began trumpet lessons at age 13 with local musician Elwood Buchanan

-Moved to NYC to study at Juilliard in 1944; Linked up with Charlie Parker, participated in jam sessions, dropped out of Juilliard

-Replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Parker’s quintet; marked beginning of period where he performed mostly freelance work

-Along with Gil Evans birthed ‘cool jazz’ – divergent from bepbops aggressive tempos

-Developed life-long heroin habit amid state of depression from lack of respect attributed to his aid in ‘cool jazz’ and loss of girlfriend

-Following return to form at Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, he linked up with little known John Coltrane to form “First Quintet”; recruited alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to form sextet

-Released most successful/popular/acclaimed album Kind of Blue in 1959

-Formed “second great quintet” in 60’s with Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams

-Began incorporating acid rock and funk influences into his late 60’s work; Chick Corea replaced Hancock and John McLaughlin to pursue jazz-fusion sound

-Serious car accident in 1972 and retirement from 1975-1980 are largely responsible for the spottiness of the remainder of Davis’ musical career

-Died on September 28, 1991 from stroke, pneumonia and respiratory failure

Documentary

Interview for Playboy with Alex Haley

From Left to Right: Coltrane, Adderley, Davis, and Evans

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the act of acting

As a critic examining theater performance, the method acting styles preached by Uta Hagen and Stella Adler sort of become a standard bearer by which all acting should be judged if for no other reason than these two women subscribe so deeply to their own teachings.

Obviously there are the rare cases where someone is a born natural and can switch in and out of character at will. The method approach seperates itself from those rare instances because mastery of the technique demonstrates a supreme dedication to a craft. Just by the videos we saw that provided us glipses of what the two women at work in their respective classes, we can see that the method technique is a learned process involving much trial and error. The actor is not necessarily acting, but rather drawing from a multitude of talents to convey what the viewer sees on stage. They are contorting their image to convey a particular feeling, as well as drawing from past experience that allow them to give a realness to their portrayal, all while maintaining complete control over their every action from hand gestures to facial contortions. What I can only assume is an arduous and acute task.

Again there are some rare instances of solid actors who need not completely immerse themselves in the method technique, but when witnessing someone who completely captivates the audience, I now realize that the process entails a much greater understanding than simply knowing how to act.

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pop class

In order to craft a comparison of popular and classical art, it would be of foremost importance to relegate a working definition to both terms. For purposes of this post, popular art refers to works created with mass consumption in mind. Classical referring to works of art with a more distinguished history, specifically many of the forms we have focused on in this class – dance, opera, symphony, etc.

The primary difference between the two forms can be drawn from the above definitions and is rooted in their respective audiences. As someone who’s history of performing art ended following f0urth grade chorus, I am speaking from a purely speculative and observatory perspective here. If you are a pop music defender, take your qualms elsewhere, but the major differences would be the target audience and main inspiration. As I mentioned before, popular music is crafted for the most part without a target audience in mind. Sure, acts have built in fan bases to worry about, but I think the idea behind popular music is that anyone should be able to get behind it if they in fact enjoy what they’re hearing.

Classical music tends to pay tribute to a particular era. This is why we see concert performances from orchestras depicting works that were crafted centuries ago. They also have a subscribed audience for the most part who enjoys that classical artists remain consistent with their output, whereas pop music tends to be more willing to try something new: incorporate a new instrument, blend genres,  step outside the box. Classical seems really regimented, as if it is a wealthy country club with a strict admittance guidelines. You are either classical or you aren’t.

Maybe my ignorance is showing here and my knowledge of groundbreaking classical music is not up to par. I’m sure there are classical musicians who are thinking differently and pushing the art form in a new direction. There is plenty of room for the melding of the two forms. Pop artists have collaborated with symphonies for as long as I’ve been around (Metallica and Led Zeppelin immediately spring to mind). But it won’t be until a classical musician crosses into the pop realm that I feel any collaboration point will be reached. As stressed in my opening paragraph, pop music is for the masses and classical is not yet there and for all I know, may not ever or even be looking to reach that status.

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The Rite of Spring

Igor StravinskyIt is impossible to assess Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring without touching on the history of the piece, notably the initial reaction upon its opening night performance. By the accounts of the DVD and Wikipedia page the premiere essentially erupted into a riot. And if The Joffery Ballet’s interpretation is in fact the closest thing to a reconstruction of the original performance, it is not difficult to see why the audience would react in such a manner.

While traditional ballet is typically rooted in flourishes of gracefulness, The Rite of Spring is truly anything but. Not only is the pagan theme of a girl who dances herself to death rather gruesome, but the actual music and accompanying dance is also quite jarring. Picture the audience sitting and awaiting the rise of the curtain. Instead of plucking strings and swirling violins, they are greeted by a purported “misuse” of the bassoon and off kilter drums. And the dancing is equally offsetting, as the long, flowing motion typically associated with ballet is replaced by jittery, up-and-down movements – quick and choppy. Jaws must’ve been hitting the floor throughout the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

If not for the thunderously omniscient score, interpreted to varying degrees of success since its inception, the performance would still remain revolutionary in its motion to completely break down the confines that defined ballet and interpretive art in general during that time.

No post on The Rite of Spring would truly be complete without mentioning Fantasia. Although there are claims that Stravinsky was not happy with the outcome of the segment tied to his piece, the sheer wonderment of the animation tied to the depiction of evolution from single-celled organisms to the eventual demise of the dinosaurs still stands as one of the greatest achievements of Disney to this date. If it took a misrepresentation of Stravinsky’s work to come up with such a moving portion to such a monumental film, then I say, so be it. Like The Rite of Spring in ballet, Fantasia is a groundbreaking work that will be carried on throughout the annals of film history.

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Freestyle

The most noteworthy thing I observed about Anita O’Day from watching her documentary, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, is her brash attitude that remained with her throughout her life. During her younger years, she did not seem to fear the negative repercussions that could have been slung her way for working with African-American artists during a time period when it was beyond taboo. Even the way she interacted with him on stage in their back-and-forth dialogue was done in a way that came off as carefree.

In her elder years, she maintained that similar attitude that would generally come off as rude and crotchety in most older people, but is dismissed by her bright sense of humor. The clip of her toasting herself with what appears to be a whiskey drink for being chosen in one of her early performances is especially amusing.

As for her music, my initial reaction was one of awe when I realized that she was actually improvising most of the singing in her live performances. Often times in live performance we see interaction between the singer and the band to drive the piece as a whole. With Anita, it seems as if she lets the band make the first move and then proceeds to fill in based on the music they’re creating, but never in sense where it seems lagging. The best analogy I could come up with is that of a rapper riding a beat. The best at their work know how to fill in the holes and complete a track rather than letting the beat control them. Anita perfectly demonstrates this. Mastering the music, while not overtaking the music.

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Opening Night

Not being familiar with Michael Tilson Thomas, Dawn Upshaw, Thomas Hampson, or any of the players associated with the Carnegie Hall Opening Night 2008 cast (aside from Yo-Yo Ma, for no reason other than his eccentric name), I can say I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself tapping and swaying my chair in time with their performances of Leonard Bernstein.

Thomas and company succeed in transferring Bernstein’s work into grandiose, sailing compositions fit for orchestral performance all while maintaining the thematic playfulness associated with the originals. This is especially true for the pieces featuring singers that actually got to work with Bernstein, each victorious in providing their own unique flare to the tribute. Christine Ebersole contributes bombastic, bouncy vocals to her war-time ode to womanhood, “I Can Cook Too” from On The Town, and Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson lend their operatic voices to their respective pieces.

Christine Ebersole

Christine Ebersole

The music itself, provided by the San Francisco Symphony, sets the tone and creates the driving force that distances Thomas’ interpretation from the Bernstein originals. The percussion section is especially poignant here with their echoing thumps cutting above the rest. Yo-Yo Ma, who has been performing the music of Bernstein for 15 years, reminds us that we are witnessing a symphony and not a Broadway musical with his somber performance of “Meditation No. 1” from Mass. The look of precision on his face and in his hands moving around the cello fret brings down the tempo of an otherwise romping performance, but to an effective degree as it provides the viewer with a glimpse into the shear virtuosity of Bernstein’s work.

“Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story closes out the program and the five drama and vocal arts students from The Julliard School leave us with a warm lasting impression. They jaunt around stage, sitting on one another’s shoulders and impersonating mothers, police officers and psychiatrists to tell the story of a troubled youth. Their vibrancy and vocal buoyancy provide just another layer to the brilliance that is Bernstein.

The PBS program itself really benefits from the interviews between Thomas and the featured guests that open five of the seven performances. They tell the history of the music and allow the participants to converse over Bernstein, providing visual evidence of just how inspired they are by this man’s work. One particular conversation between Thomas and Jamie Bernstein, Leonard’s daughter, is especially touching as they go back-and-forth gushing over Bernstein’s incorporation of Latin flavor.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

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