Monday, March 25, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #214 - Maniac Cop (1988, dir. William Lustig)

            Though I am starting to come around on horror films lately, as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, horror and slasher films have never really been my thing. Even in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when slasher films seemed to be oversaturating the VHS release market, I never managed to stumble across any that I really loved. I was always more of a comedy or action flick kid myself, and one of my favorites when I was that age was a buddy cop film called Tango & Cash. To this day, I love that film, its stars Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone are both in their prime, fighting a parade of drug kingpins and ex-cons. One of my favorite antagonists from this film was a character named simply Face. He has one memorable scene in which he comes out of the shadows to square off against a trapped Tango and Cash. When he does, it is revealed how aptly named he is. Face, played by character actor Robert Z’Dar, has a tree-trunk neck, atop of which sits the equivalent of a Goodyear tire with a face on it. He’s got the biggest, squarest jaw you’ve ever seen and he is built like a wall made of cinder blocks. Of course, Tango and Cash felled him with one punch and the scene was immediately over, but as a kid, I NEVER forgot that face. I would occasionally see Z’Dar show up in other films (always playing scallywags villains and ne’er-do-wells) and it was always to my sheer delight.
            This review is not about Tango & Cash, though. Over a decade after my first cinematic encounter with him, Robert Z’Dar moved to my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa where I would run into him quite often. Over the years, I got to know him pretty well. He was always regaling my friends and I with stories of his time in show business and was never unwilling to answer anyone’s questions about his career or acting in general. He was active in our community and, when his health would allow it, was seemingly always working, acting in new films or producing new films. He was one of the nicest, most pleasant people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and I’m proud to have been able to call him a friend. Sadly, Z’Dar passed away in 2015 while attending a comic book convention in Florida. But his impact is still felt in my hometown to this day and he is dearly missed.
            One thing I didn’t know about Z’Dar when I first met him was that his hands-down best-known role was that of Officer Matt Cordell in the 1988 cult classic slasher film Maniac Cop. Come to think of it, I probably missed a lot of awesome horror films over the years because of my abstinence from that particular genre. But again, I am coming around and starting to catch up. That’s neither here nor there. Back to Maniac Cop. I just wasn’t familiar with it. When I finally did see it, I was mad that I hadn’t seen it sooner. It’s since become one of my favorites. Director William Lustig had already established himself deep within the slasher genre with 1982’s Vigilante and 1980’s Maniac. What sets Maniac Cop apart from many of the other slasher films of the era, to me, is that it is also kind of a pulpy police drama. It stars three of exploitation cinema’s most recognizable faces: Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins and Richard Roundtree. Atkins plays veteran detective Frank McCrae, who is investigating a rash of seemingly random murders by an unidentified “boy-in-blue.” McCrae eventually traces the crimes to Officer Matt Cordell, a once clean, uncorrupted cop who was sent to prison on some trumped-up charges. While there, Cordell is jumped by a throng of inmates and was thought to have been murdered. Evidently back from the dead, and with the help of an ex-lover (Sheree North) who works in the police records department, Cordell is not only out for revenge, but out for blood. In his quest for vengeance, Cordell also kills the wife of rookie cop Jack Forrest (Campbell) and sets Forrest up to be the fall guy. McCrae tries to explain his theory to his superior, Commissioner Pike (Roundtree) to no avail, as Pike and just about the rest of the NYC police force, are convinced that Forrest is the maniac cop. Now its up to Forrest, McCrae and fellow officer Therese Mallory (Laurene Landon) to clear Jack’s name and stop Cordell.
           If anything, Maniac Cop (and its two sequels) puts a unique spin on a mostly played-out subgenre. Lustig and screenwriter Larry Cohen put the supposed good guys in the antagonist role, creating an air of paranoia for citizens and other police officers alike. Add to this the motive of revenge due to a system that unjustly imprisoned and innocent man and the gritty back drop of 1980s New York and you have the makings for a refreshingly good horror-action flick. R.I.P. Bobby Z.
            - Jonathan Eagle

Monday, March 18, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #227 - Keith Jarrett - The Köln Concert

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston S. Churchill
Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert is a remarkable piece of music. It has substance technically, and it is a prime example of a when all the circumstances align, good and bad, to create a masterpiece that defines a genre. As much as ECM is enjoying a creative resurgence over the last few years, this record is still ECM’s best-selling record without a question. When I first listened to the record I was struck by the range of genres that Jarrett draws from and utilizes. Clearly it is a jazz record, but within that he shows us aspects of classical, gospel, blues, and rock. I listened to it a lot. As with many records, the more I listened the more it seemed to open up for me and reveal new secrets and treasures. This was before I really knew the story of the circumstances around the recording, which in my opinion makes the record even more remarkable.
In January of 1975, Keith Jarrett, suffering from a lack of sleep and severe back pain,
arrived in Cologne (Köln) Germany to play a concert at the Opera House. To his dismay he discovered that the piano he requested to play had not been obtained, but instead, a smaller, inferior piano in need of repair had been wheeled on stage. Faced with either the prospect of cancelling the show or performing on the smaller, inadequate instrument he chose to perform on the ailing piano. Certain characteristics of the piano were weak: the bass register was underwhelming, the high register was thin and frail, forcing him to play the majority of the music in the middle register. In addition the sustain pedal, which allows a piano player to hold out notes for extended durations, was malfunctioning. Which brings me to the quote at the top. For whatever reason Keith Jarrett decided to play this concert as opposed to cancelling it, and we have the legendary result.
ECM is a label that has a different philosophy than some other jazz labels. They did not have the blues, swing, or style of Blue Note, or the new funk of the CTI label. Rather ECM had a concept of reflection and meditativeness, or awareness. This awareness was balanced with a coolness and a distance. This concept was often reinforced with a naturalistic cover art that showed a harsh and bleak northern European outdoors. An exception was made for the cover art for The Köln Concert. It features a black and white photo of Jarrett with his head slumped over, playing the piano. He seems immersed or entranced. Rather than market the distant landscapes of an icy north ECM chose to market a personality. It seemed to work. The sales have been prolific.
It has been said that this record was one of the bedrock records for “New Age” music. However ECM’s cerebral detachment and headiness is the opposite of music that is put on for yoga, inspiration, or stress management. This record may be in the center of a certain Venn diagram that allows for people to speculate that it is “New Age” but they would be mistaken. The musical language is too sophisticated. This record might be in somebody’s record collection next to Ornette Coleman, Black Sabbath, or George Winston. It has also earned a reputation as chillout record or stoner record. So yes it has a reputation, but to dismiss it as “New Age” would be incorrect.
The concert is divided into four parts. Over two LPs Pt. 1 takes up side A, and then Pt. 2 is split into A, B, and C, over the three remaining sides (or tracks on CD). Part One begins with a reflective and melancholic melodic exploration. This gives way to a progression of major chords that leads to a brief ostinato, or recurring melodic motif. After the ostinato, melodic ideas and runs begin to occur. The right hand flourishes gain in frequency over a left hand ostinato and then start to fade out. These cascading runs continue for a few minutes then the intensity of the ostinato increases by way of thickening chords. Jarrett must sustain all the motion and energy with his fingers since the sustain pedal is broken, which makes the pure sound generated much more impressive. Around the 11-minute mark, harmonic variety is introduced and changes the tone of the piece. Instead of just alternating between a few chords he allows a progression to develop, which allows a broadness and depth into the music. Near the 15-minute mark another slower, reflective section is introduced. He explores the upper register of the piano in a way that would not necessarily exploit its deficiencies. By gently probing the upper register and not exploring it in full force he can make the instrument speak without making it sound overly trebly. Much of the chordal movement in the next few minutes seems to be an exploration of the mid register and low register, a gauging of the piano’s capabilities. At the 21-minute mark another ostinato, or rhythmic bed is established. This ostinato is a thicker bed, in the middle register where the piano is most fundamentally sound. The vamp gradually expands with melodic statements, explorations into the bass region, and increases in density through rhythmic activity. This motif closes out the first improvisation.
Pt. 2 A begins with Jarrett again setting up a rhythmic figure in his left hand which he can play a short melody over and begin to improvise. He sets up the tonality and mood by repeating the melody a few times and letting the vamp settle over the first minute and a half. He then begins to improvise with quite a bit of energy. At almost six minutes into the improvisation Jarrett seems to work into some block chords that provide relief from the rhythmic figure for a moment; they also provide a glimpse of a different texture, one that he will work his way towards. He then returns to the ostinato with more vigor and reinforces the figure in the bass register to work it to a climax. Around eight minutes into the piece he shifts moods to a much more somber, exploratory, and harmonically rich improvisation. The melody jumps between registers as chords search for resolution, giving the section its weighty feel. Eventually, with a couple minutes left in the track, a theme in a major, more hopeful-sounding key is incorporated. Jarrett works thru the resolution and the track ends, suspended in the high register of the piano. The track was originally split to be placed on LP and even listening on CD when looking at the tracks switching over it makes the listener consider if the cuts are precise, or if they left a second or more out.
Pt. 2 B starts out firmly in a minor key and Jarrett once again sets up a vamp that he can improvise over. He stays in this intense atmosphere for six or seven minutes before expanding the harmony further out in a minimalist expansion. He uses full chords in the midrange of the piano at loud volume for maximum emotional intensity. To compensate for the broken sustain pedal he uses a rocking set of inner voices creating a sound reminiscent of minimalist composers Steve Reich or Philip Glass but with more harmonic motion. Just before the 12-minute mark a new major, or lighthearted, theme is introduced. This is my personally my favorite track. It seems as if he has figured out the instrument and opened up the faucet of his creativity. The improvisation content of these next few minutes always blows me away if I am listening carefully.
The record has an additional track but I am out of space. I could write more about it but you should listen to it. It’s inspired; it is great music. Plus, it almost never happened! In his book Free Jazz Ekkehard Jost suggests “In Jazz it is not always appropriate to ascribe the initiative for shaping new principles of creation, or abandoning old ones, to an individual or a small circle of innovators.” His theory is that only in the “rarest instances” does an individual provide a beacon of genre defining work. It seems to me as if The Köln Concert captures one of these rare instances.
-         Doug Anderson

Monday, March 11, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #213 - American Graffiti (1973, dir. George Lucas)

          Nostalgia is a funny thing. It’s like fashion in general. One never knows exactly what will become an object of the public’s past-looking obsession, but the when is a little more predictable. People often idolize their childhoods, and 15-30 years later will look to their own past for comfort. This happens right about the time adulthood starts slapping them down. It is natural that our own history might offer us solutions to new and uncomfortable situations. A decent set of parents or a good teacher can make a young person feel like the world is less confusing. Dealing with marriage, career and children can make anyone yearn for the simplicity of childhood. Thus it is not surprising that popular art attempts to capitalize on this phenomenon. It rarely works. More often than not, nostalgic songs or movies feel hokey and predictable. Indeed, they tend to sully our memories, or confuse with cheap anachronistic jokes, the very real yearning we have for a time when our lives made sense. George Lucas’ second movie, 1973’s American Graffiti rises above nostalgia, and uses the building blocks of his own youth to create a universal tribute to coming of age in small-town America at the birth of the 1960’s.
Set in Modesto, California, it is the final night of summer vacation and four friends (Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith and Paul Lemat) are going to spend one last night cruising the strip of their hometown before heading off to…adulthood? Ron Howard’s Steve and Dreyfuss’ Kurt are both ostensibly heading off to college, while Smith’s Terry and Lemat’s John are staying put, as Steve says early on, “ to be a teenager for the rest of your life.” The film busies itself with a series of widely-drawn pranks and romantic sub-plots, but as it unwinds, it becomes clear that there is a much more serious and poignant subtext to everything that is happening. The four main characters start to become Jungian archetypes, each representing a potential outcome for a prototypical American youth at the end of the 1950’s. The film is critically set in 1962, just on the precipice of all the changes the 1960’s would bring, and George Lucas succeeds in capturing a last fleeting look at a more innocent time, while acknowledging that something big is stirring just over the horizon.
American Graffiti succeeds so wildly for three different reasons. First and foremost: ROCK AND ROLL! When Lucas started making this picture, the first thing he did was get his older sister’s collection of 45 records and a portable record player, and he used the music of his own memories to help him map out the action of his movie. In today’s world it is hard to imagine a time when this was such a revelation, but it is true, that Lucas was really the first director to use wall-to-wall songs to punctuate, and sometimes even explicate the story he is telling. The soundtrack to this movie actually is a character, and the way the sound of the songs are manipulated, modulated and magnified makes them behave more like dialogue than incidental noise. Songs get louder and softer as people enter rooms or cars drive by with open windows. The audio realism of this movie adds to an already documentary-like feel. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler does an amazing job of making everything feel spontaneous, as though scenes are being caught on the fly and lit by streetlights and dashboards. The film truly has a breathless, you-are-there feeling of immediacy.
The second factor that makes this film so successful is the casting of a group of largely unknown (except Ron Howard) young actors who turn out to be almost miraculous in their depictions of American stereotypes familiar to many. The four male leads are paired with four tremendous female leads whose performances outshine the men in many ways. Cindy Williams is heartbreakingly believable as a sixteen-year old cheerleader-type experiencing her first breakup as she navigates her relationship with the sweet but dull Ron Howard. Candy Clark mesmerizes as the girl from just the other side of the tracks, who takes Charlie Martin Smith on an adult ride to first experiences with sex and alcohol. Suzanne Sommers is alluring as the mysterious blonde in the white T-Bird who beguiles Dreyfuss’ character, but stays maddeningly out of reach, and most touching of all is a teenage Mackenzie Phillips who walks the perilous line between innocence and womanhood with such sweet grace that the wreckage of the actress’ later life is made especially painful. Her evolving relationship with Paul Lemat’s tough greaser character - from babysitting to crush to mutual respect - is one of the sweetest parts of the film.
The final aspect of American Graffiti which sets it apart from other nostalgia films is Lucas’ masterful editing job. It is now hard to remember a time when dramas were not told by introducing several plots and winding them together over the course of a story. It is the way virtually all modern cable TV dramas and films unfold. It was unheard of in 1973 and a controversial move by Lucas. I remember seeing this film for the first time in the theatre and being exhilarated by the seemingly disorienting quick cuts in action. It was like watching four movies at once. The emotional impact was breathless excitement that felt like real life.
The sun must rise, childhood must end, and time moves on in our home towns. The last scenes of American Graffiti bring these themes home in stark fashion. The four young men meet at the airport to say goodbye. Who leaves and who stays and what happens to them in the rest of their lives is revealed and leaves us with bittersweet feelings, because their fates are so similar to any four guys from any small town in 1962 America. We are brought in by both the familiarity of their lives and simultaneously at the extraordinary nature of the times we have lived through this century.
-         Paul Epstein

Monday, March 4, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #226 - Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit

Once upon a time there was a magical land called Southern California. In the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s a group of musicians inhabited this land and created some of the best sounds of their century. Names like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Brian Wilson, The Byrds, and later The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat and even Steely Dan came to embody this shaggy sound and the lifestyles it implied. Like all good things its time came and went, leaving lasting stylistic impressions on both the collective ears and hearts of the listening public. Alas, another movement come and gone. And yet! In 2011, a new name appears on the scene: Jonathan Wilson, a young North Carolinian who made several albums with a group called Muscadine in the late 90’s. Wilson was building a buzz around his analog studio and production skills at his compound in Laurel Canyon (the spiritual home of that SoCal sound that had seemed to pass into history) and released his first album, Gentle Spirit, on the great Bella Union label.
The first time I played Gentle Spirit my jaw hit the floor. Here it was, finally. A completely legitimate and heavenly return to that beautiful California sound. A delirious mix of great songs played by a bunch of amazing modern musicians totally embracing pastoral songwriting, meaningful lyrics and all, wrapped in a gauzy haze of psychedelia and recorded with analog signals burning their way directly into your ears. One can’t really overemphasize the sound of this recording. On LP it is a sublimely warm and satisfying listening experience. The thirteen songs on this album veer between smoky ballads of love and loss and more upbeat rockers. Everything has that appealing California laid-back appeal, with great care being given to vocal performances and the juxtaposition of acoustic instruments and crushing electric guitar. Coiled underneath it all though is a tie-dyed snake that bares its fangs on "Desert Raven," "Natural Rhapsody," and "Woe Is Me" with washes of keyboards, swelling waves of bass and heavenly spiraling guitar lines.
"How can a debut album be so accomplished?" you may be asking yourself. A fair question, and it does seem almost counterintuitive that a relative newcomer could create an album of mature songs with rapturous musical accompaniment and an almost too-good-to-be-true analog sound. That, indeed, is the mystery of Jonathan Wilson. In answer, all that can be said was that in short order after this album was released Wilson was hosting jam sessions with the likes of Tom Petty, Bob Weir, Chris Robinson and David Rawlings among others. His studio and his own production skills have become very in-demand as he assists artists like Father John Misty, Dawes, and Conor Oberst in realizing the sounds in their heads. Then, in the last two years he could be found traveling the world in Roger Waters’ band as the guitar, keyboard and vocal ringer on one of the biggest and most emotionally satisfying tours of the new century. Quietly and unobtrusively, Wilson has woven his way into the modern sound. He is an artist to be reckoned with.
It has been a rocket ride to the top for this guy, and he has produced two more superb solo albums, but, it is Gentle Spirit that brings me back over and over. The guitar tones on songs like "The Way I Feel," "Ballad of the Pines," or "Valley Of The Silver Moon" strike just the right note. Wilson has clearly absorbed the lessons of Hendrix, Pink Floyd and classic Neil Young and melded them together in a crucible of song to produce sturdy pillars of sound. The album loses nothing with repeated listens. In fact it seems to continually unfold, revealing a profound opening musical statement from one of the most promising musicians on the scene today. Do the sounds of cranky digital guitars and endless loops of other people’s samples leaving you cold? Take two Gentle Spirits and call me in the morning.
- Paul Epstein