Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jazz e altre visioni: Jazz Films by Gianni Amico

One of my latest discoveries in the world of European jazz films comes from Italy. The films in question are two shorts directed by a largely unknown Gianni Amico whose early death (1933-90) and the fact that many of his films were made for Italian TV has added to an unjust obscurity.

However, his name might have a special resonance for those who have seen the chapter of Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma dedicated to Amico. Why when Godard aspires to praise Italian cinema in his film history project he chooses Amico as a symbol of that cinema and certain tendencies in it? The answer could be in one of Amico's films, released on DVD by Cineteca di Bologna.

Histoire(s) du cinéma

Cineteca di Bologna has put together a collection of three of his films, two of which (Noi insistiamo! Suite per la libertà subito and Appunti per un film sul jazz) about jazz, and the other one, Il cinema della realtà, mostly about cinema, featuring interviews with masters of Italian modern cinema such as Rossellini, Antonioni, and Pasolini.

Johnny Griffin in Appunti per un film sul jazz
Biographical information and first hand observations about Amico, his cinema and his politics can be found on a 40-minute long documentary featured on the disc, in which, among others, Bernardo Bertolucci, whose Prima della rivoluzione (1964) was co-written by Amico, reminisces about his late friend and collaborator. A combination of personal passion and political commitment connected Amico to the avant-garde jazz of the 1960s out of which at least two films were produced.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Listening to Duke Ellington - The Conny Plank Session, '70

Duke Ellington in Berlin's Tempelhof, Feb 15, 1963.

The Duke and the Dom

Death is not the end. If one doesn't agree with such statement from a theological point of view, it's impossible to reject it from a jazzological one. The evidence to the argument is a wealth of material discovered and released years after the passing of jazz musicians, anything from first class unissued studio recordings (which is the subject of this post) to poorly recorded airchecks whose sound of hiss is sometimes stronger than the lead saxophone. If posthumous releases are signs of life, then no other jazz musician has been more alive than Ellington whose death in 1974 was the beginning of a new musical life with many first-time issues hitting the market, mounting to hundreds of hours of good quality live and studio sessions.

One of these momentous and (almost) first-time issues, recorded in Germany in 1970, will be released on 10 July 2015 by Grönland Records, exactly 45 years after the fact.

Imagine the Duke standing next to the Dom, the celestial Cologne Cathedral, just two years after his second Sacred Concert and three years shy from the Third and the last, gazing at the dark, wounded stones, looking pensive. Then a young record engineer by the name of Conny Plank approaches him, invites him over to Rhenus studio, and play him some tracks. The mutual respect grows, Duke begins to like Conny's sound, and he records 6 tracks (2 compositions x 3 takes each) at the young man's studio.

The young engineer was on his way to international fame when later he recorded Kraftwerk, NEU!, Cluster, Eurythmics, Ultravox. (If you forgive my ignorance, none of these groups I've heard before. Browsing them on the YouTube wasn't a terribly rewarding experience. Sometimes I feel It wasn't entirely bad for me that western music was banned when and where I was growing up. Instead, I spent the first two decades of my life listening over and over to a few tapes of Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong.)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Harold Land's Invitation

Harold Land: various liner note transcriptions and an exclusive video

"The evolution of Harold Land as a jazzmaker has brought to focus certain facts about this perennial master of the tenor saxophone. Aside from his unique inflections, personalized expressions, there is his engaging capacity to bring out in a performance extremely rich and rewarding moments of creativity and innovations." -- Leroy Robinson

"A soft-spoken man whose personality rarely suggests the incandescence of his instrumental sound, Land was born December 18, 1928 in Houston, Texas. The family moved to San Diego when he was five; it was during his high school years there he became interested in music and in 1945 was presented with his first saxophone. His early influences were the big, warm tones of Coleman Hawkins and Lucky Thompson; later Charlie Parker's new concepts helped determine his direction. He was just out of high school when a bass player named Ralph Houston helped him join the Musicians' Union. After working in Houston's band, he spent a long while soaking up experience at the Creole Palace where a small combo, usually five or six pieces, was led by Froebel Brigham, a trumpeter. "During both these jobs my closest friend and musical colleague was the drummer, Leon Petties," Harold remembers. "We played the floor show and jazz sets too. Sometimes men like Hampton Hawes, Teddy Edwards and Sonny Criss came down from Los Angeles and worked with us—this provided a great stimulus." Later, Land and Petties went on the road for about a year, first with a group led by guitarist Jimmy Liggins, and then in the band of his celebrated brother, Joe 'Honeydripper' Liggins. Harold recalls this rhythm-and-blues experience as valuable in rounding out his musical education. After putting in additional time back at the Creole Palace, Harold decided in 1954 to try his luck in Los Angeles. For several months there were various odd jobs, none very rewarding. The turning point came one night when Clifford Brown took his combo-leading partner, Max Roach, to hear Harold play in a session at Eric Dolphy's house. "Eric had known me since the San Diego days, and after I moved to L.A. we became good friends," Harold says. "He was beautiful. Eric loved to play anywhere, any hour, of the day or night. So did I. In fact, I still do." The unofficial audition led to Harold's being hired by Brown and Roach. As jazz night club audiences around the country were exposed to the freshness and vitality of Land's playing, he seemed to be well on his way; but in 1956 he had to leave the quintet and return to Los Angeles because of illness in the family. If, during the balance of the 1950s, he had continued to tour with name groups, there is little doubt that his reputation would have been established sooner and much more firmly on an international level." -- Leonard Feather

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cinema at 33 1/3 RPM

Ten jazz takes on film music that prove the interconnectedness of the two art forms.
Read/listen here.

Jazz music has long expressed its capacity to borrow from various, sometimes contradictory sources in order to create something which in every sense transcends the original elements. Since the earliest days of jazz as a musical form, it has been inspired by military and funeral marches; has stylishly interpreted popular songs; and even brought the classical intricacies of Wagner into the domain of swinging brasses and reeds. This multiculturalism and eclecticism of jazz likens it to cinema which, in turn, has transformed pop culture motifs into something close to the sublime and mixed ‘high’ and ‘low’ artistic gestures to remarkable effect.

In the history of jazz, the evolution from ragtime or traditional tunes, to discovering the treasure trove of Broadway songs was fast and smooth. The latter influence was shared by cinema, as the history of film production quickly marched on. The emergence of ‘talkies’ in the United States meant rediscovering Broadway, its stars and directors and above all its musicals and their songs. In the 1930s, jazz became the incontestable rival of cinema in extracting tunes from the American theatre and transforming them into immortal standards. Both arts, film and jazz, used popular songs as a structuring framework, around which band leaders, musicians, directors and choreographers could develop more sophisticated and daring ideas.

Just as the emergence of television began to make itself felt at picture houses across the States, where declining attendance figures reflected a shift in the culture, jazz experienced a similar deadlock which contributed to the decline of the big bands. The effects of the war for returning Americans, and the new possibilities for enjoying entertainment in the home gave rise to very different strategies of survival: The film studios began to produce more sumptuous, glossy and costlier motion pictures to overshadow television, while jazz bands were downsized, becoming more intimate – or “indie”, if you like. Instead of big bands, modest outfits of three to six musicians was jazz’s answer to the times. In this respect, one might find the origins of John Cassavetes and 1960s independent cinema not only in Hollywood, but in Coleman Hawkins Quartet.

Cinema, for a very short time, managed to beat the odds with the help of Cinemascope, stereophonic sound, majestic scores and other gimmicks which expanded the affective potential of the big screen. After the invention and popularity of 331/3 rpm discs, releasing film music on LPs became a good source of income too. This market blossomed in the 1960s; in some cases, it was not only music but dialogue from the films that were presented on record (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Romeo and Juliette). Jazz labels took note, and saw no reason to deprive themselves of such guaranteed success. Soon the themes from films were added to an expanding repertoire. Bringing film music to jazz wasn’t only a trend in keeping with the change in the public’s taste, but also a challenge for the musicians’ creativity in harmonic innovations and free improvisation – the way it had started two decades before, with Broadway songs.

The ten jazz takes on film music that I have selected here, rather than being a case of one art form riding the coattails of the other, prove the interconnectedness of the two and a motivating force that they both passionately share: creating images.