Monday, November 28, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #167 - Stevie Wonder - Music of My Mind

Music of My Mind highlights a key moment in Stevie Wonder’s transition from child prodigy and Motown star to independent adult artist responsible for some of the best music of the 1970s. Wonder’s previous album, 1971’s Where I’m Coming From, exhibited his increasing willingness to break free from the Motown mold, but it was with this album that Wonder defined the hallmarks of his imminent run of classic albums: extraordinary pop song craft, idiosyncratic humor, social commentary, technological innovation, unparalleled music virtuosity, and unbridled creative expression. Music of My Mind documents the sound of a young genius gearing up for a legendary string of critically and commercially successful albums that stand alongside the best works of modern pop music.

Stevie Wonder opens Music of My Mind with “Love Having You Around” and “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” two expansive songs that explode the expectations and limitations he had grown up with as a part of the Motown family in the 1960s. By the time these two songs have finished, Stevie has treated us to over fifteen minutes of music that provide him ample opportunity to warm up, stretch out, and set the terms of his career as an independent artist. Up next, “I Love Every Little Thing about You” finds Wonder returning to the virtues of the joyful, three-to-four-minute pop song and demonstrating how to do it just right. Wonder’s frequent collaborator and one-time wife, Syreeta, would go on to kick off her 1974 sophomore album, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, with a ramped up and fully embellished cover of this gem. The impressive pacing of Music of My Mind falters somewhat with the fourth song, “Sweet Little Girl,” a stop/start study in the kind of characterization that Wonder would use much more effectively on later songs like “Living For The City.” Whether or not Wonder’s experiment with this lonely/drunk rebuffed suitor character really works, the song has some fun moments like when he drops a reference to Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. “Happier Than the Morning Sun” establishes Wonder’s knack for sweet, bright intimations of love and devotion and might just be one of his best, most underrated songs. “Keep on Running” injects a heady dose of funk and energy into the album’s second side and presages Wonder’s forthcoming heavy funk classics like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” Although Wonder would refine the focus of his social commentary in the next few years, “Evil” allows a young, gifted artist to rail against the fundamental injustice of the world with confidence, anger, and righteousness. “Evil” concludes this remarkable album on the kind of sobering yet optimistic note that would come to define so much of Wonder’s work throughout the rest of the decade.

Just weeks after arriving at the White House in 2009, President Obama presented Stevie Wonder with The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, formally recognizing and celebrating Wonder’s cultural contributions and legacy. At the time, I hoped this achievement would inspire people to explore Wonder’s amazing, but surprisingly overlooked body of work. Wonder released Music of My Mind in March of 1972, just seven months before the first entry into his stretch of quintessential albums, Talking Book. Although Talking Book often tops lists of Wonder’s best albums, Music of My Mind unfortunately tends to fall by the wayside. If you’re looking for a point of entry for Wonder’s music in the 1970s, I strongly recommend spending some time with this warm, rambling, and powerful collection of songs.

-         John Parsell

Monday, November 21, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #153 – Superman Returns (2006, dir. Bryan Singer)

After setting the bar for modern comic book movies with X-Men and X-Men 2, Bryan Singer abandoned the third installment of that series to direct a new Superman movie. Singer chose to pick up where Richard Donner and Richard Lester left off with Superman and Superman II over twenty-five years before and cemented connections to those films by securing the rights to John Williams’ unforgettable theme music and accessing unused footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father. Despite commercial and critical disappointment, the resulting movie, Superman Returns, prevails as a curious experiment in recent blockbuster movies, an unfinished chapter of a superhero’s legend, and a testament to the appeal of Superman.

One afternoon while visiting my father a year after I first saw Superman Returns, I handed him a recent issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s excellent comic book series, All-Star Superman. Later, I asked my dad what he thought about the comic book and with a furrowed brow he replied, “Well, I don’t mean to slight these creators, but I stopped reading Superman comics when I was teenager in the ‘50s and reading this one I felt like I was able to pick back up without missing a beat. Surely, something should have changed in fifty years.” I reframed my dad’s critique and told him that Morrison and Quitely would probably be delighted to hear that their story achieved this manner of timelessness. With Superman Returns, and all of its ties to the first two Christopher Reeve movies, Singer aimed for a similar kind of endurance. From Brando’s posthumous performance, Singer forged new dramatic vitality and threaded a powerful theme of father/son relationships that propelled Brandon Routh’s Superman into uncharted territory for the character and anchored the most successful elements of Superman Returns. However, the links to the previous Superman movies proved to be troublesome by inviting comparisons, especially among the principal actors, that distracted from what worked in this movie. Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth were not Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder and they certainly did not share the same kind of chemistry, but Singer created a more subtle universe that allowed Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane to live and struggle with greater dimension than their earlier counterparts. Unfortunately, Superman Returns laid the groundwork for a new series that would never see the light of day, but deserved at least as much of a chance for continuation as another unexpected and highly scrutinized DC Comics adaptation from the previous year, Christopher Nolan’s first segment of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman Begins. The true essence of Superman may remain elusive throughout this movie, but the nobility of Singer’s efforts deserve recognition and, most importantly, by the time the credits roll, Superman Returns looks, sounds, and feels like a Superman movie.

In the summer of 2013, just a few months after my father’s death, I watched Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, and came away feeling bludgeoned by a grim and joyless movie that bore little connection to a character who can inspire so much wonder, hope, and awe. Superman has had such a challenging recent history with big screen appearances because he isn’t just a character from another planet, he’s from another time, as well. Wolverine and Batman may thrive in morally ambiguous quagmires, but Superman’s idealism and goodness have fallen out of step with the demands of today’s Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe it’s time to go back to comics like All-Star Superman for a reminder of what still makes Superman so great and why we need him now more than ever.

-         John Parsell

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #166 - Shelly Manne & His Men – At the Black Hawk Vol. 1

Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot. John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard. Miles Davis Quintet at the Plugged Nickel. And... Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk? Why doesn’t that seem to fit when we’re looking at historic runs of jazz groups playing live at clubs? Mainly because West Coast jazz gets short shrift when histories of jazz are written up. To be fair, it’s also because many jazzers move to New York City to make their mark, seeing as it was (and remains) the center of the jazz recording industry and maintains a thriving culture for the music. And thinking through that list, you go down the famous sidemen with these groups – Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Elvin Jones, Eric Dolphy, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and, um, Joe Gordon? Monty Budwig? Hmmm… another disparity there. Maybe it’s time for some introduction.

Shelly Manne cut his teeth in the 1940s in New York with harder swing music, but the bebop revolution fired him up, and his work playing alongside many of the bop greats and regularly in Woody Herman’s group allowed him the ability to play the music. He also worked in Stan Kenton’s progressive group, which gave him the ability to sharpen his skills in a very different style. But in the early 50’s Manne packed up and moved near L.A., becoming a vital force in West Coast jazz and bringing his firsthand experience with bebop to the scene. He was also the drummer on Ornette’s second album Tomorrow Is the Question!, from before Ornette made the opposite trip across the country that Manne had made a few years earlier. But in September 1959 he took his exciting new hard bop group out of town to San Francisco and immediately phoned his label, Contemporary, to tell them that they ought to get up to the Black Hawk and record the group. From the liner notes: “The original intent was to make one album. Later, in Los Angeles, listening to the playback, it was apparent that the performances were so consistent any choice would be arbitrary and whatever was left out of the album would be just as good as what went in.” So one LP became four LPs and then a few decades later, four LPs became five CDs, with bonus tracks. It should also be noted that the sound, for something done on the fly, is exemplary throughout, and also represents one of the first times a jazz group was documented extensively in a club setting.

And who are His Men that created such excitement for the label? First up, we’ve got Joe Gordon on trumpet. He’s another East Coast émigré, trained in bebop through his work in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, who moved to L.A. in the mid-50’s and joined Manne’s Men in early 1959. Then we’ve got Richie Kamuca on tenor sax. Like Manne, he’d worked with both Herman and Kenton before moving to the West Coast. He also joined Manne in early ’59. Next up we’ve got Victor Feldman on piano. Feldman is a UK-born pianist and percussionist who moved to the States in the mid-50s. He too passed through Herman’s band en route to the West Coast where he lead his own groups and also worked with Manne’s group. Feldman went on to work with Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and others before branching out into other genres that included work with Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits (again, following the lead of Manne, who’d recorded on Waits’ jazziest album, Small Change years before Feldman played alongside him), and others. Last but not least is bassist Monty Budwig, who in addition to a lengthy tenure with Manne, also played in Vince Guaraldi’s trio and may or may not be the bass you hear on one of the best selling-jazz albums of all time: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

So these are Manne’s Men. And in the time they’d been playing together through 1959, they developed the kind of rapport that makes any of the other groups mentioned so special – they’re perfectly in sync, know how to listen to and complement each other, and best of all, they all kick ass. The first tune on this disc is the well-worn “Summertime.” Once they state the primary melodic themes of the tune, the band keeps the song’s ballad feel in a series of solos that show off the sensitive communication of the group. Next up is “Our Delight,” which ups the tempo considerably. This is where Manne, with his bop background, shines, playing a supportive role but also throwing in so many accents, rolls, and fills of his own that he’s essentially soloing alongside the main melodic soloist without ever showing him up. “Poinciana,” the third track, is the show stopper – everyone here is on fire, but Manne slyly steals the show with his fire and Budwig’s bass right in line with him. And as fine as Gordon, Kamuca, and Feldman play, the ear keeps going back to Manne’s dazzling performance. But I mean, it IS his group after all! Lastly (not counting the 17-second closer), we get two versions of “Blue Daniel” – another lovely slow one in waltz time. There is little to choose between the two versions, but that only speaks to the uniform excellence of the entire set.

I mentioned it before, but I’m as impressed with the entire set as the label was. Is four volumes too much? Five? Absolutely not. Start here, but recognize that this is only the tip of the iceberg of this great group. So how do those other groups stack up? Ornette at the Five Spot in November ‘59? We’ll never know, because Atlantic didn’t have the foresight to record it. Coltrane at the Vanguard in November ’61? Stellar and out of this world. Miles Davis’ great Second Quintet at the Plugged Nickel in December 1965? Amazing deconstructive work as well. Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk in Sept. 1959? A perfect living specimen of Hard Bop at its finest. And Manne, it might be noted, did it first.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, November 7, 2016

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #152 – Wings Of Desire (1987, dir. Wim Wenders)

Damiel: When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn't life under the sun just a dream? Isn't what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Does evil actually exist, and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who am I, wasn't before I was, and that sometime I, the one I am, no longer will be the one I am?

Wings of Desire is Wim Wenders’ gorgeous, philosophical, poetic love note to humanity. When I first stumbled upon this film I was in a very strange place in my life, trying to find my footing and direction, and working toward a somewhat unknown goal of the future. The tone, tenor and the inquisitive yet hopeful nature of this film resonated with me on an unforeseen level. The beauty of human kind is that we all have a story, and that the journey, filled with good, bad, and everything in between, is what makes life worth living. The preceding lofty statement is what Wenders successfully attempts to encapsulate in this beautiful and timeless piece.

The narrative follows Damiel, an angel constantly in love with humanity and engaging in the intense mental battle of whether to fall and become a human to create his own narrative. Damiel is accompanied on his journey through Berlin (during the tumultuous time before the fall of the wall) by another angel named Cassiel. Both of the angels are tasked with observing and cataloging the day-to-day lives of humankind as they walk unseen among them, listening to each person’s every thought. They spend time discussing the simplest, seemingly mundane activities with an infectious adoration. The film follows the angels as they observe a number of interesting characters. There is Homer, “The Aged Poet,” who wanders pondering the great mysteries of life and what lies ahead for him as he nears the end of his life; Peter Falk (playing himself) is an actor shooting a film set in WWII Nazi Germany and questioning the nature of art and his place in the world; and finally there is Marion, the beautiful trapeze artist who steals Damiel’s heart through her poetic ruminations on life and love.

The film, which was shot by Henri Alekan, strikingly moves in between stunning black and white representing the world of the angels and luscious color representing the world of mankind. This creates an amazing dynamic that mirrors the idea that Damiel, Cassiel, and the rest of the angels are merely there to observe and cannot affect the work around them, or fully experience or appreciate human life/existence. This visual cue/metaphor is incredibly effective in creating that divide, which is key to the motivations of Damiel.

With a film that is so philosophical, where the majority of the dialog is in thought, the actors are truly put to the test. Being able to convey certain emotions without actually speaking any line (except that of the mental voiceover) can be difficult to do without falling into the trap of overacting. This is yet another facet where this film shines. Bruno Ganz, as Damiel, and Otto Sander, as Cassiel, are perfect in the roles as the pensive but lovingly optimistic angels. Curt Bois brilliantly plays the aged poet with reserve and subtlety; Peter Falk brings some well-placed levity to the story; and Solveig Dommartin is perfectly seductive as the melancholic yet hopeful goth-rocking trapeze artist. There is true depth to the acting talent in this film.

To recap, this is quite possibly one of the most poignant and poetic cinematic love letters to human kind. It’s beautifully shot and acted, the narrative is brilliant but pensive, and if you need any more of a push to check out this film there is an awesome cameo from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It’s hard for me to fully express how much this film means to me, but I would just honestly love to turn you on to this movie, so please check it out!

-         Edward Hill