Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jamie Cullum in Concert: Shhhh! This is called "Jazz!"

(Reflections after seeing the concert by Jamie Cullum and musicians at the Cobb Energy Center north of Atlanta, Friday night, March 13.)

I hear the word "Jazz," and my pulse starts racing immediately. But for a generation or more, "Jazz" has become a word of scorn. Some women I know, older than I am, think of jazz as ugly, formless, annoying; students in my middle school classes use "jazz" the way my generation used "elevator music." So maybe it's good marketing for Jamie Cullum to play down the core of his strength as a performer.

In an interview broadcast on NPR the morning after I saw Jamie Cullum, the young singer / pianist told of playing jazz clubs in London where audiences were sparse and much older than he was, until word of mouth got around about, in his words, "the type of show I do," and he drew in fellow twenty-somethings.

He has since attracted an audience as wide as a continent, and an ocean away from that little jazz club. On the Grand Tier level of the house at his concert in Atlanta Friday night, there were elderly couples, young women who screamed "Whooo!" and "Jamie!" whenever he ripped off an article of clothing, college-aged Asian Indian groupies who posed with their Jamie Cullum posters at intermission, my friend Suzanne who is JC's age, and this fifty-year-old fan of piano jazz and show tunes.

So, does he still have to step up on the piano and jump off? Does he still have to kick the piano stool over and stand pounding chords on the grand? The promotional material extolled his "spontaneity," but some of these "spontaneous" actions seemed to be a requirement. Standing at the top of the piano, his body language and a long pause seemed to ask us, "Do I really have to do this?" I don't fault him for giving his audience what they wanted; I fault the audience for wanting all that when he was offering so much more!

For his show Friday night, he treated us to a wide range of musical styles and textures. He sang ballads alone at the piano, including an original composition "Grand Torino," composed for the movie that strikes me as an instant standard -- moving, thought-provoking, tuneful, well-crafted. He made a point of stepping away from the microphone to rely just on his voice. He sang a new rendition of a song that I've heard him sing on TV and on recording, Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," this time arranged simply for his voice and an upright bass. He improvised at the key board while other band members played solo trumpet and guitar.

He worked an intense, slightly abstracted version of Stephen Sondheim's "Nothing's Going to Harm You" into the middle of another song.

His real spontaneity is the kind that qualifies him as a jazz musician, and that's what happens when he and his band surprise each other with twists and sparks in the music. He's in his thirties now, and he doesn't have to jump off pianos any more. Unleash the jazz, and let it work on a new generation or two, or three.

Colette Collected and Recollected: Sweet and Sour

(reflection on COLETTE, a musical entertainment by John Dankworth, original 1980 cast album released by Stagedoor Records, and THE COLLECTED STORIES OF COLETTE. edited by Robert Phelps.)

Singer / Actress Cleo Laine and her husband composer / lyricist John Dankworth opened previews of COLETTE in London the very week that my summer in England ended in 1979, and listening to it brings back that time sweetly. The sweetness is increased because their loving marriage came to an end with Dankworth's death from long illness just a few weeks ago.

I also caught up on reading the works of the eponymous writer, expecting to enhance the experience. But I wish I'd taken the sweet "musical entertainment" without the sourness of the writer.

Mr. Dankworth must have enjoyed writing this musical "entertainment" for his wife. It opens with a waltz set at a reflective tempo, with rich jazzy chords arpeggiated behind Cleo's smokey observations about the changing colors of seasons, and how "You Can Be Sure of Spring." Other numbers are spritely marches, a little girl ditty for little girl Colette, and more waltzes. It's a little jarring when sounds that were hip in 1980 intrude, sounding extremely dated. Dankworth arranges the songs the way he arranged his wife's concerts, saving her high notes for an anthem of self-assertion midway through the score.

The show originated at the summer arts camp that the Dankworths ran together for decades, and there's a little summer camp quality. The lyrics rhyme playfully and frequently without ever saying a whole lot. Dankworth settled for repetition and stereotyped lines ("He was a sight to see!" and lots of lines with "really" and "quite" filling out the meter). The story -- there is no script mentioned in the credits -- is about a country girl who marries an urbane young bounder who uses her talents for his own self-promotion. Later, she creates a line of cosmetics, she acts on stage, and she divorces number one and marries two more.

It's a pleasant relic from a time when Cleo's voice was at its peak of clarity, suppleness, range, and stamina. The show was light, and a way for Cleo to wear lovely costumes, show off in bright songs and in thoughtful ballads. It was a lovingly crafted gift from Dankworth to Cleo.

The real Colette comes across in her stories as a fine craftsman -- if one can judge from translations -- but also as disdainful of the people she describes. "Cheri" focuses on a narcissistic young man through the eyes of the older woman who keeps him. We read about his skin, his hair, his muscles, his pouting, his wearing her pearls, his dancing around the bedroom while she watches. One blogger observes astutely that this is a reversal of the usual point of view, and that's interesting.

In a suite of stories set backstage at a 1920s music hall in Paris, Colette evidently draws on her own experience as a "mime" to show us monstrous behavior, cheapness, drabness, and insecurity back stage. One portrait of "The Quick Change Artist" shows sympathy for the young woman who dances herself into a state of quivering exhaustion, runs backstage to change costume in under a minute, and runs back on stage for another desperate dance in another style.

Some other stories are brief glimpses of criminals: stupid men who have lashed out stupidly at girls we never see except as corpses. We see how these men self-destruct.

I don't have time to think this through right now, but I have observed many times in this blog that certain artists -- Updike, Sondheim, Shakespeare, Buechner, and mystery writer Sue Grafton -- feel a love or at least a sympathy for their characters, and they work hard to get us to appreciate them. Colette's ability to observe is as acute as anyone's, yet I feel from her only disdain, though she sometimes condescends to feel pity for someone.

After reading stories from each of the sections in this collection, I've had to give up. I was getting depressed.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Greece's Tantrum: When Safety Net Becomes a Crib

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(reflections on recent street demonstrations in Greece and health care debate in the US.)

In Greece, we're seeing lots of demonstrations. We're also seeing a demonstration of what happens when the State becomes Daddy for its people. Naturally, those people become like adolescents -- dependent, feeling entitled, petulant, short-sighted -- but without the charms of youth or the adolescent's excuse of a disconnected frontal lobe.

Today, the AP reports up to 30,000 demonstrators including masked "youths" who hurt people and property, while some units of the police, also dependent on government largesse, stood by in silent approval.

Earlier this week on NPR, I heard one of those demonstrators against the Greek government's austerity plans ask, "What will the government ration next? The air we breathe?" She thought she was making a clever rhetorical point about the current government's callousness, but she unwittingly demonstrated how decades of Greek voters' clamoring for more protections, more programs, more subsidies have made those same voters frighteningly dependent on their Daddy.

That image of the "safety net" has long since lost its original meaning. The acrobat who falls into a safety net is supposed to jump right out and get back up on the trapeze. But now, when liberals speak of "safety net," they're thinking of a floor beyond which no one can drop by reason of old age, disability, illness, location, temporary unemployment, chronic unemployment, unemployability... regardless.

Greece demonstrates that the safety net can become a crib, infantilizing its people. Where's security when a large chunk of the population is dependent upon the state for salary, health care, transportation, retirement income, utilities, and an ever-growing list of services promised to attract votes from an ever-larger chunk of the population?

A Greek union official, quoted on NPR, called the government "hypocrites" for making "the people" pay for the mismanagement of the previous government. Again, he's revealing something scary: In the birthplace of democracy, where voters chose the previous government on the basis of its promises of benefits, who's to blame for the mismanagement?

I've heard further analysis about the government's failure to collect taxes, because some 80% of the population is involved in some form of "black market," bypassing taxes. The Greek economist scolded his own people: "Corruption causes poverty, not the other way around."

While Greece is tangled up in its erstwhile "safety net," the US Congress is considering a federal mandate to purchase health insurance in order to spread risk for companies.

It's hard for me to see this as quite the threat that Republicans' rhetoric makes it out to be. Nor can I see the government takeover of GM and purchase of stock in AIG as creeping European Social Democracy. My very conservative Republican state of Georgia has long mandated that everyone purchase auto insurance for exactly the same purpose as the proposed health insurance mandate; and Ronald Reagan oversaw the buying up of Savings and Loans and the bailout of Chrysler -- temporary measures to stabilize the markets.

But it's easy to see how temporary "safety net" provisions have become permanent parts of everyone's plans for their own futures, Republicans' as well as Democrats'. That's how, thread by thread, the safety net becomes a different kind of net, a snare.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Theology of Crosswords: A Shortz Sermon

(reflections on the New York Times Sunday Crossword Omnibus, a series edited by Will Shortz.)

Photo by: Donald Christensen

Will Shortz, editor and NPR's "Puzzle Master," whose games have been a highlight of my Sundays since the Reagan administration.

When you begin a new puzzle, it's creation all over again: a paradise of potential.

Inspiration comes amid the perspiration: You suddenly know that "_ _ _ _ _ R I N" must be MANDARIN, and out roll the words "muMs," "basAl," "eleNa,""larDs," and, fittingly, "ahA!"

Like the cornerstone that the builders rejected, a three-letter word can be the key to solving one-fourth of a puzzle

Little sins have consequences that spread wide: so many words "across" went awry because I misspelled "Omar Kaayyam!"

Sins can be erased, once you recognize that none of the "across" words make sense until you've changed one bad answer "down"

How wonderful to perceive a pattern! ("Whoa! Birds are concealed in miCROWave and T. E. LaWRENce!")

Often words mean more than they seem to mean: "English channel" can be the BBC.

Reincarnation makes sense. How else could I know instantly that a "leafy vegetable" is chard?

Trust that the creator has a plan, even though you can't see it (and you won't peek in the back!)

Z: When you fit the final letter in place, it's time for renewal: Next page!

(Another of Will Shortz's puzzle collections inspired somewhat more serious reflections, detailed in a blog entry in 2007: )

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Learning to Love Verdi: Transcending his Time

(reflections on recently seeing productions of AIDA and SIMON BOCCANEGRA via HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, and AIDA last night performed by the Atlanta Opera. Also have heard STIFFELIO and ATTILA on the Metropolitan Opera's live radio broadcast.)

When I think of art, fiction, theatre and opera of the early - to - mid nineteenth century, I think of overripe scenery, plots contrived to force characters into sacrificing themselves for romance, and militaristically grand music that chugs along with "oom-pa" accompaniment overlaid with strings. Women are portrayed as collateral damage in conflicts between martial men. Verdi worked within the conventions of his time, but I'm struck by how he transcends them.

In the hands of good musicians, Verdi's music is "transparent" and "modern." So said conductor Ricardo Muti, in an interview broadcast with ATTILA this afternoon. The "oom - pa" accompaniment doesn't have to be hokey.

Last night at the Atlanta Opera, I was thinking "modern" -- specifically, Bartok, "Music for Strings, Celesta, and Percussion" -- when the strings began their quiet statement of Aida's personal theme, immediately layering in occasionally dissonant counterpoint. The opening of the third act has a Phillip Glass-y ostinato that suggests to me, at least, the flowing of the Nile mentioned in the libretto. Other times, there were lovely stretches when accompaniment dropped down to just one instrument (a flute, a clarinet) or dropped out all together. These quiet orchestral moments were, for me, even more thrilling than the rousing martial music. There was more contrast of color and texture than I would expect from music of this time -- which may be Verdi, or it may give the lie to my conception of mid-19th century music.

While Verdi does choose stories that place women in the middles of conflicts of soldiers and men in authority, he chooses to emphasize the qualities of mercy. SIMON BOCCANEGRA and STIFFELIO both end with men of authority who choose forgiveness and mercy. Even Attila the Hun comes across as a man of action who has qualities of integrity and faithfulness; he is almost naive in his trust for the woman who seeks to kill him.

Last night's production of AIDA, unlike the Met's and an earlier Atlanta production that I've seen, left me thinking more for the regrets of jealous princess Amneres. The light lingered on her, after it faded on the tomb beneath her where her friend Aida and her fiance Radames have perished.

I've seen other Verdi operas on the Met HD series, and some at the Atlanta Opera. I've liked them all, but without being swept away. One reason is that I always feel like the story takes love for granted. Radames sings how "celestial" Aida is with great high notes, and that's fine, but, so far as we know, they hardly have had any contact with each other. My friend Mike leaned over to whisper to me after the duet last night, "All this trouble, just for hormones." Contrast that to the inchoate but affecting relationship of Peter Grimes to the school teacher.

I've heard often how Verdi had to persist to get his operas past government censorship, how he encouraged the unification of Italy during his lifetime, and how he declined offers of political power and authority.

I've also heard that his operas are unremittingly grim, except for a forgettable first comedy, and his final opera, FALSTAFF. I saw that in Atlanta, and remember little, except that I much preferred his version to Shakespeare's MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, and that it ended with a full - cast hymn to forgiveness and the pleasure of life that choked me up.

He's an artist whose work I should get to know more.