2011 Sundance Film Festival

February 7, 2011

Hi folks. I know it’s been a while. Please see my coverage of the 2011 film festival on my tumblr blog. More to come…

Not many seven-year-olds are nostalgic for times past, but I was. There were summer afternoons spent lying on the hammock listening to my little transistor radio with the one tinny speaker, religiously writing down song titles on a yellow legal pad for no other reason than that I could look at that list later and remember that day. Later, there was a reoccurring memory I had as a ten-year-old of some other summer when I was very small, laying on the beige, corduroy couch at the lake condo my parents shared with friends. There was a crystal pendant hanging in front of the sliding glass door beaming flickering rainbows across my hands. Christopher Cross’s Sailing was playing on the record player. I was happy. The people around me were happy. No cares in the world. But, there was also a photograph of me in my baby album taken around four or five-years-old laying on that couch in the rainbows. Was this a real memory—or an invented one? It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was I was happier then. Life was easier, made more sense. And somehow, at ten, I knew it would never be that good again.

Hence, nostalgia­–believing that all the good moments are already gone and feeling the constant ache of the current moment sliding away while you helplessly age–has always been a part of me.

I have started to put together a list of songs that capture this feeling of nostalgia to me.

1. Clair de Lune – Claude Debussy

Debussy wrote this gorgeous solo piano piece when he was 28, a bohemian in Paris hanging with Symbolist poets like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarme. In fact, Debussy originally named his song Promenade Sentimentale (Sentimental Stroll), after a Paul Verlaine poem. Symbolist poets, much like Impressionist painters of the same period, longed to capture feelings and small moments in their works  rather than portray reality or make grand statements. And, to me, the memories captured in Clair de Lune (moonlight) are rich and visceral, even if I don’t actually know the memory behind the notes. My first exposure to Clair de Lune was on a my grandma’s Swiss music box that rested on the dressing table in the guest room at their grand old house. After doing a brief search on youtube, I’ve sadly discovered that Clair de Lune has been co-opted by the teenage vampires of the Twilight series. Sigh.

2. September Song – Kurt Weil

Kurt Weil, famed German composer of Berlin’s Cabaret heyday in the twenties, is probably most famous for composing the music for the Threepenny Opera, a collaboration with legend Bertold Brecht of Theater of the Absurd fame (the opera features Weil’s most famous song, Mack the Knife). He wrote September Song after he had moved to New York in 1935 to compose for Broadway and Hollywood, narrowly escaping the War. September Song was his first American success from the Broadway Musical, Knickerbocker Holiday. I first heard this song as a small child; my grandma used to play it on the piano, sans lyrics. The melody is sad–in a minor key. A song about the changing of seasons and time marching on, September Song is rich with nostalgia. In fact, it’s one of those songs that predicts the feeling of nostalgia one will have later in life when “these precious days” are gone. A classic  jazz standard, September Song has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sarah Vaughan to Lou Reed. Here’s a link to 38 different versions. My favorite has to be Ella’s though. Strange, because I don’t usually love Ella’s ballad’s. But this one is special.

3.  Stardust – Hoagy Carmichael

Could there be a more fitting homage to nostalgia than Stardust? Composed by Indiana boy Hoagy Carmichael in 1927, the song wasn’t actually recorded until 1931 by Bing Crosby. It was an instant hit. The lyrics were written by Mitchell Parish, beloved Tin Pan Alley lyricist who also wrote the words to the Christmas favorite, “Sleigh Ride” and another of my favorite standards, “Sophisticated Lady” (a Duke Ellington tune). The lyrics center on dreamy memories of young love: “When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration. But that was long ago. Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.” Here’s Nat King Cole’s seminal performance.

My 45 Minutes of Fame

April 22, 2010

You know that secret dream you have deep down inside–the one you’re afraid to say out loud because it might sound silly? Mine has always been to be an expert commentator on NPR. Today, my simple dream came true. I had the honor of appearing on WNYC’s excellent music talk show, Soundcheck, with British Ska Legends, The Specials (p.s. They’ve aged a bit since this photo was taken).

Brian Wise, a producer at Soundcheck, contacted me after he read an article I had written on ska music that was published on PopMatters. That was a shocking day. In the weird world of cyberspace, you never think anyone is reading what you write. I did the interview from home in Boulder, Colorado–was nervous as hell–but pulled it off pretty gracefully. Host John Schaefer even called me “an authority” on ska. A great day indeed!

Battle of the Babes

March 3, 2010

Skiing was the most-watched sport during the Olympics for a reason. We watched the slope opera unfold between US skiers Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso during the Vancouver Games. Both of these hotties know that talent is important, but it’s the swimsuit competition that counts.

Check out more of my blog posts here at SKI Magazine.

Star Wars: The Musical

December 13, 2009

If you’re a Gen-Xer, I can bet you love Star Wars. It was our Harry Potter–our morality tale of good versus evil, our way of relating with kids on the playground and finding common ground in unfamiliar situations like sleepovers and summer camp. Empire Strikes Back was probably the first movie I ever remember seeing. My dad took me; I was four years old. By the time Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, I was bona fide fan. My brother, cousins, and I saw that movie at least three times in the theater. We had the action figures, the Millenium Falcon, the Ewok village, the comic books, the bed sheets, the posters, the awesome t-shirts with the iron-on decals, and of course, the soundtrack. Last night, for the first five minutes of Star Wars in Concert at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, I was transported back to that thrilling time of Star Wars wonder and mania.

The “Star Wars Main Theme,” as performed by the Royal Symphony Orchestra can still invoke magic and emotion, albeit slightly bittersweet when mixed with childhood memories. It was lovely to see Gen-X parents with their young kids last night, both generations enjoying the drama of John Williams’ beloved score. Without John Williams, George Lucas would probably be some guy who directed a decent movie. The marriage of music and film in Star Wars is sublime and still powerful–to hear it performed live is a rare treat.

Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) narrates

Anthony Daniels, the voice of C-3PO, narrated the two-hour event, which features a large screen behind the orchestra where scenes from all six films are projected in tandem with the music. Daniels’ background in live theater is evident. He’s corny but believable. The man obviously loves being a part of this event. Though it did run long, and the pieces featuring the prequels are considerably more boring, Star Wars in Concert ended on a high note—a reprise of Dark Vadar’s Imperial March. In the words of George W. Bush, it’s quite obvious Lord Vadar “hates freedom”….just listen to the music.

CGI Friday’s

November 25, 2009

Roland Emmerich’s disaster flick 2012 is a traumatic experience. The earth surface cracks; hot lava explodes into the air; merciless tidal waves flood entire cities; the North and South Poles reverse; the earth’s crust shifts as the core bubbles. It’s fire and brimstone, people! Now, as I lounge in front of the fireplace in the quiet, rural town of Staunton, Virginia, the wall clock ticking peacefully in the background, I can imagine the waters of the Atlantic ocean hurtling over the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance into our fair valley washing me away in an instant. According to the Mayans, this exact scenario will occur in two years. Nowhere is safe. Not Virginia. Not even Wisconsin. There’s nothing we can do but repent and meet our maker. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m storing up my lethal dose of morphine now.

How is all this death and destruction depicted on the silver screen? CGI, of course. I may be old-fashioned, but, to me, computer generated images are cartoon-like and unrealistic. Watching a video game that you can’t control really isn’t that fun. This movie isn’t a lot of fun either, even with addition of real live actors like John Cusack and Woody Harrelson. The fantastic, intricate models of vintage George Lucas made films more realistic–not to mention better for the economy. Think about all the sets and costumes that had to be manufactured! 2012 could have been a public works project for the recession. At least it would have had more impact that way.

I think people are getting tired of CGI, and low-budget, box-office surprises like Paranormal Activity are a testament to that. There are a few scenes at the end of 2012 that are shot tight and close in digital video with a handheld camera, and these are the most frightening and compelling. Computer images are merely crude simulations of reality. Reality is much, much scarier.

Let ‘er rip!

November 13, 2009

The-Rippingtons-Photo-credit-Sonny-Mediana-Lo

There are a couple of different types of music I generally cannot stand: techno, contemporary Rn’B, but nothing comes close to my distaste for smooth jazz–instrumental music with all the interesting edges buffed out till you have a kind of cloying white noise perfect for the dentist’s office. So imagine my surprise when I ended up at a Rippingtons’ concert yesterday at Indy’s Music Mill. Granted, the tickets were free, and I had been told that these legendary kings of smooth jazz were actually a jazz fusion band. However, any element of jazz improvisation was ripped from the Rippingtons long ago, and replaced by tightly orchestrated melodies seemingly written for corporate videos.

perfect-strangersThe Rippingtons are the aural equivalent of a Perfect Strangers episode. You could imagine their music in some humorous montage of Larry and Balki strolling in Central Park. Unchallenging and mushy, there’s something almost Soviet or propagandistic about The Rippingtons’ sound–music created by big brother to reassure the populace that their every move isn’t being controlled. Does that sound paranoid and libertarian? But really. How can people possibly enjoy it? I just don’t understand. And people were REALLY enjoying it last night…dancing in the aisles! Giving standing ovations! Take a listen. I know the following video is from the 90s’, but, believe me, they sound just as lame today.

It’s so soulless! All their songs are named after postcard pictures of beautiful places: Los Cabos, Kilimanjaro, Morocco, A Night in Brazil, Weekend in Monaco, Tourist in Paradise. It’s Conde Nast Traveler set to music. I think it would be fun to hear the Rippingtons’ take on Southeast DC or Detroit. Would they still kick up the reverb on the acoustic guitar or give it a grittier sound?

Sax player, Jeff Kashiwa, plays tenor and soprano sax in the Kenny G/Dave Koz style. But last night, he played mostly the EWI (electric wind instrument), probably one of the most annoying instruments known to man. The painful screeching of the EWI was exacerbated by the fact that sound man had no clue how to mix this band, favoring instead a hard rock sound–all drums and bass at excruciating decibel levels. I put bar napkins in my ears! At a Rippington’s show!

About an hour in, all my companions were in agreement that we should leave. One of them, a musician and jazz fan, said of the Rippingtons’ sound, “It’s not free at all.” He’s right. It’s contrived and artificial–evocative of safely-contained emotions. But, to me, the experience is far from pleasant.

brian_williams_snlI’ve got a crush….on Brian Williams? How is this possible you ask? I heard the incredibly witty and hilarious anchorman on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! on Sunday, where he quipped on Balloon Boy, Fox News, Bill Clinton, and, finally, his unfortunately named music blog, BriTunes on MSNBC. Up until now, I thought Brian Williams was all hairstyle and charm school–a bit stiff perhaps, but android-perfect and groomed for TV from a young age. I was wrong. Dead wrong. This guy is hilarious. Please check out this link from this weekend’s show and become a believer in Brian.

A Brief History of Ska

October 6, 2009

theskawillgoon-splash

Yesterday, the popular online magazine Pop Matters published my ska thesis, The Ska Will Go On. For this article on the rise and fall of ska music, I interviewed several of the scene’s movers and shakers including musicians, record producers, and DJs. The piece is already spurring controversy in certain ska circles because it fails to mention some bands and gives too much space to others. But, all comments have generally been positive. It’s always hard to write a comprehensive history of a cultural movement, because, ultimately, cultural histories are subjective. Just look at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. My video about the Three Floors of Ska event held at the Knitting Factory in NYC is posted here and on the Pop Matters site.

Indianapolis Indeed!

September 23, 2009

IA

It’s that time again. Oh, wait. Not really. The Indy Jazz Fest, usually held in July, has moved to September.  In fact, we’re in the thick of jazz mayhem right now. And it’s divine…

The Indy Jazz Fest launched last Saturday night with a concert at Clowes Hall by famed saxophonist, Joshua Redman. Last night, I attended a record release concert featuring Mark Buselli’s Big Band at the Jazz Kitchen. And I was blown away. This is a world-class big band, smack dab in the middle of the heartland. Buselli, who also joins in on flugelhorn and trumpet, writes gorgeous arrangements of standards, contemporary jazz compositions, and orginal material. Last night, he had a 17-piece band–14 horns in all. The sound is powerful, like a wave of sparkling brass washing over you and the smile plastered on your face. Another new discovery last night was the vocalist Kelleen Strutz who joined the band for two numbers each set.  Her rendition of Angel Eyes was stunning thanks to her mix of va-va-voom 40s’ sex kitten style and dynamic vocal chops. I particularly enjoyed the moments where vocals and brass sang duet on the same harmonic line. Beautiful!

Mark Buselli

Mark Buselli

My two favorite moments, however, were the band’s renditions of two Charles Mingus tunes, Fables of Faubus and Pussy Cat Dues. The exquisite joy of hearing hard bop played big and loud by a tight orchestra–with solos by Indy’s best sax player (and up there as one of the best playing today) Rob Dixon. Was I moved? Let’s just say, there were goosebumps. And then my goosebumps had goosebumps. Afterwards, I thought this is just what I want to hear when I walk through the gates of heaven–weird, wonderful Mingus like I’ve never heard him–even if it’s just on my celestial iPod.

This weekend marks the culmination of Indy Jazz Fest–two days of live music downtown at White River State Park. On saturday (the day I wouldn’t miss) check out Soullive, Pancho Sanchez, and Branford Marsalis.  Saturday, the headliner is Marcus Miller. I saw him back in 2005 in St. Petersburg. High-energy funk.

I’ll be there both days volunteering. Let’s pray for sun!

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