Fall Hiatus

Linda Evans and Gretchen Corbett.png

My desktop wallpaper: Linda Evans and Gretchen Corbett in THE ROCKFORD FILES

DTM will be back around December. Probably I’ll be tweeting once in a while. The newsletter, Floyd Camembert Reports, will include an “email lesson about blues piano” composed for my NEC students for while I’m away on tour.

Tomorrow, October 25, Mark Turner and I play duo at Mezzrow.

November 22 I’ll be playing a standards gig with Ben Street and Eric McPherson as part of Konceptions Music Series at Korzo. We are at 9, the estimable Ches Smith is at 10:30. This is kind of a warm up for January 24-19, when the Iverson/Street/McPherson trio joins forces with Tom Harrell at the Village Vanguard.

The Bad Plus will be on tour in November and December, including a stop at a new (to us) NYC venue, Rough Trade on November 21.

The new site has been reasonably busy since opening doors in late April. Thanks for reading.

Interview with Ben Ratliff

Evolution (RIP Bobby Hutcherson)

Interview with Alvin Singleton

Praise for Hail, Caesar!

James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential

Listening to Lowell Davidson

Gershwin Comes Home (Aaron Diehl plays Concerto in F)

Interviews about NEC and TBP

Down There (David Goodis, Philippe Garnier, Eddie Muller, Peter Plate)

Memories of Connie Crothers (by Marta Sanchez)

Interview with Patrick Zimmerli

Interview with Ken Slone (creator of Charlie Parker Omnibook)

Steinway, Sweeney, Paulson, and Trump

Modern Composition (Guillermo Klein, Tim Berne, Marc Ducret, Jason Moran)

Interview with Charles McPherson

Albert Ayler at 80

Interview with Houston Person

Hall Overton, Composer

Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (Frederic Rzewski)

Red’s Bells (Red Garland)

Interview with Wayne Shorter

Briefly Noted

The following miscellany is dedicated to the recently deceased Ed Gorman, indefatigable writer, reader, and editor. Gorman’s short stories could be really great: “False Idols” uncovers some dark truths about those of us who love to collect the past, perhaps just like Gorman himself, who did so much to keep the names of a certain generation of pulp authors in print. (“Fallen Idols” is found in the utterly marvelous collection The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, naturally edited by Gorman himself.)

Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake. Lippman has moved into a kind of Ruth Rendell or Donald Westlake-type situation, where books about a series character (in Lippman’s case P.I. Tess Monaghan) alternate with more experimental stand-alone novels. Her latest is a surprise, a piece of Americana somewhat in the tradition of “the narrator comes of age” tale beloved by Joe Lansdale and Stephen King. Wilde Lake is perhaps even some kind of response to To Kill a Mockingbird. Lippman’s prose is superb, and the compelling story is supported by rich Maryland detail. There’s no doubt that Lippman has become one of my few “must read” authors.

Ruth Rendell, Dark Corners. The final Rendell is good, but truthfully I found the ultimate Inspector Wexford, No Man’s Nightingale (2013) a stronger statement. In general, I prefer Rendell when she’s navigating a conventional mystery. Dark Corners succeeds at a kind of creeping psychological terror, of course — it’s by Ruth Rendell, after all — but the absence of any kind of whodunit undercuts the forward motion, possibly because the details of modern English life don’t ring quite true. (No such complaints about her non-whodunit masterwork A Judgement in Stone.)

Alex Marwood, The Darkest Secret. I picked this up thanks to a rave blurb by Lippman. Marwood’s milieu is horrible wealthy English families, and truthfully this work is essentially harrowing. Marwood looks at her characters with an unflinching gaze, but also has compassion for the innocent children begat from these tainted souls. Excellent, depressing, edgy, very much of our current moment.

Keigo Higashino, A Midsummer’s Equation. The tradition of proper mystery is in good hands with Higashino. Simple and unglamorous detection — knocking on doors, chasing the clues, never a gunfight or a chase — seems to suit a Japanese aesthetic, or at least it suits Higashino, whose relatively slender output contains some of the greatest straight murder mysteries ever written.

Domenic Stansberry, The White Devil. This is an unusual tour de force, a reworking of the Jacobean tragedy The White Devil by John Webster (1612) into a modern American noir with a heavy emphasis on corrupt Italian religion and politics. The classic nexus of sex and death is given an extra frisson with a hint of near-incest. A compelling read, I’ll be looking for more Stansberry.

Anne Holt, The Lion’s Mouth. Settled and productive societies are a good backdrop for crime stories. Holt’s Norwegian books satisfy, modern thrillers of taste and just enough action. The Lion’s Mouth is best when going behind the scenes in the Oslo political system.

Kazuaki Takano, Extinction (AKA Genocide of One). These days some of the most exciting work seems to be in the genre of the techno-thriller. When I picked up Extinction I did little else until finishing it. While the godfather of the techno-thriller, Michael Crichton, essentially had right-wing politics — and his heir Tom Clancy was even worse — more recently this genre has offered stunning political exegesis. Charlie Huston’s Skinner (DTM review) remains a favorite; Takano also joins the top-tier with this thoughtful tale of the next stage in human evolution.

All the above books are new, but I also finally experienced an important book from a couple years ago.

Wesley Stace, Charles Jessold Considered as a Murderer. Stace’s mainstream novel has some of the finest writing on music I’ve ever seen in fiction. (The research notes at the back of the book are extensive.) It’s worth reading for the music alone, but I’m not meaning to imply that the rest of it isn’t exceptional as well. Anthony Powell might be a slight influence on Stace’s breezy yet passionate portrayal of the atmosphere in England between the world wars. Jessold is work of great ambition, and also justly acclaimed. Alex Ross gets a cameo.

The next Lee Child, Night School, is due in November. I’m enough of a Jack Reacher fanboy to have immediately thought of how pleased Reacher would have been with this massive full flask of “Real American” coffee at the hotel breakfast in Rouen.


On the plane home I watched three movies, something I never do, but I guess it was time to catch up.

Fast & Furious 6. I didn’t know this was a documentary! Actually: Watching a movie that was only cliches was oddly soothing. Every single scene was something I’d already seen several times before, so the film took on a kind of humorous “meta” aspect. The biggest problem was the CGI for car chases and stunts. I want that squealing Detroit iron to feel like actual human experience. Where’s Bill Hickman when you need him?

Batman: The Dark Night is one most ethically challenged wastes of time imaginable. It’s okay to like it if you are eleven or twelve years old, but if you are eleven or twelve years old you shouldn’t be watching this kind of graphic violence and torture. Of course, some of the acting is good…but what whole lot of false moralizing from a man who dresses like a bat.

The Nice Guys was great! I went in with no expectation and ended up laughing uncontrollably. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling kill it in comic roles. Of course the last half hour isn’t as good, standard operating procedure for comedies that think they need to go big or go home.

While on the surface The Nice Guys may seem like the most corrupt or reprehensible member of this random set (in the first scene, a porn actress dies after a car crash while posed like a centerfold), in truth in it soars in a much purer atmosphere than Fast & Furious or Dark Night:  The Nice Guys is the only one of these three films that seems to know that it is a sin.


The Coen brothers just keep at it. Hail, Caesar! is a sophisticated meditation on art, politics, and religion. What do you believe in? Why you believe it? Is simply making a good piece of entertainment worthy of faith?

The story takes place on the set of early Fifties Hollywood, where the Coen’s get to recreate the glories of the dream factory while simultaneously making fun of the conventions. Channing Tatum’s delightful dance number leading a group of sailors though benign destruction of a bar works on multiple levels.

The hero, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin in the role of a lifetime), is a fixer. He does whatever job needs doing to make the pictures happen. Mannix’s morality is in question, but not more than the morality of anybody else: Communists, Capitalists, Christians.

At one point the Coens have a kind of stand in, a sophisticated and outspoken rabbi. When the rabbi growls (asked about the ethics of portraying Jesus a movie), “I haven’t an opinion,” this actually means “It’s too complicated to really know.”

Another loaded answer is when the boy playing Jesus is asked (on the cross) if he is a principal or an extra. “I think I’m a principal” he stammers. (Or is it, “principle?”)

Hail, Caesar! is packed with those incredible surreal comic moments that remain a Coen signature. The precise and subtle lines in the script encourage the cast to give their all. Highest recommendation.

“L.A. Confidential” and “L.A. Commonplace”

James Ellroy’s thoughtful and appreciative note on the late Curtis Hanson in Variety sent me back to take another look at the adaptation of L.A. Confidential. It’s a very good movie, especially good for the era, but not worthy of inclusion in the pantheon. The movie attempts to invoke gritty crime films from the Seventies and the film noir from the Forties but inevitably offers a homogenized product from the Nineties.

I admit my criticism is mostly informed by my admiration of the book, which remains one of Ellroy’s finest achievements.

SPOILER WARNING: I’m about to give away all the surprise plot twists for both book and movie.

The very first scene in the book stars Buzz Meeks in a massive shootout at a hotel, which Meeks doesn’t survive:

Dudley Smith stepped through flames, dressed in a fire department greatcoat. Meeks saw his suitcase – ninety-four grand, dope – over by the mattress. “Dud, you came prepared.”

“Like the Boy Scouts, lad. And have you a valediction?”

Suicide: heisting a deal Dudley S. watchdogged. Meeks raised his guns; Smith shot first. Meeks died – thinking the El Serrano Motel looked just like the Alamo.

“Alamo”: a massive shootout is indeed a trope of the classic Western, which Ellroy subverts by placing at the beginning of his story and killing off the first protagonist. It also subverts the idea of a conventional whodunit, as Ellroy tells us right away that Dudley Smith is a villain. The movie restores the conventional mystery plot and Western ending.

At the conclusion of the movie shootout, the two remaining heroes live and Smith dies with a bullet in the back from Exley. In the book, Smith stays active, essentially untouchable. He is never completely killed off or dishonored, not even in Ellroy’s sequel, White Jazz.

Dudley Smith’s demise is framed as a way for Exley to play by Smith’s rules. Early on in the movie, Smith tells Exley he shouldn’t become a homicide detective unless he is willing to shoot a guilty man in the back if that man couldn’t be convicted in court. Exley eventually “makes good” on Smith’s rules. This is conventional, even hokey movie writing.

In the book, Exley is driven mostly by ambition. He wants glory for himself within the LAPD, partly because he is competing with his decorated police officer father. It is his father who delivers the sermon about shooting men who can’t be convicted, but Exley already knows how game the system: He’s supposed to be a war hero who killed a lot of Japanese but actually Exley faked the evidence.

In both book and movie, Exley shotguns three black men (innocent of the Nite Owl murders but guilty of rape) after they escape prison. In the book Exley is on a secret solo mission and the culprits are meek, unarmed, with their hands in the air. In the movie, those deaths become a shootout where the black men shoot an officer before Exley returns fire. The director wants the hero to be less complex, more of a clear “good guy.”

In the movie, Bud White has a big fight with Exley over a woman. The rather sad truth is that in the book, women are just not that important for any of the men. White and Exley are at odds with each other, both have an affair with Veronica Lake look-alike Lynn Bracken, but the crime story brings them together to solve their differences. They don’t butt antlers like two stags over a doe. This big explosion of male passion rather undoes the ending of the movie: what do all the men and the women now feel about each other? In the book, there was less passion on the table — even the “movie actress look-alike” conceit helps show how women exist only on the surface for these heartless men — so the organization of the couples for the final wave goodbye makes a little more sense.

Another big movie fight, where White and Exley join forces to beat up D.A. Ellis Loew, isn’t from Ellroy. Indeed, Exley’s snarky line, “Was that how you used to run the ‘Good Cop-Bad Cop?’” seems lifted out of a banal crime film starring Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson. In Ellroy, when White wants an answer from a recalcitrant but essentially harmless witness, he just shoves the man’s hand into a garbage disposal, a shocking technique again unacceptable for a hero in a Hollywood movie.

Ellroy’s slick Jack Vincennes is has various reasons to feel guilty but his waters may run deepest: Vincennes is finally drawn into becoming a valuable detective partly because he is aroused by perverted smut linked to the Nite Owl massacre. He achieves a kind of redemption before a random shot from a tangential criminal kills him off.

Before Vincennes dies, though, he joins a meeting with Exley and White where they figure out the whole conspiracy together. This is a great scene, one of the best “chain of logic” scenes in crime fiction. In the movie, we never see the three protagonists come together. This is really the whole moral of Ellroy’s story, such as it is: three dark men find a little light when they join forces against a greater evil, with brainwork and teamwork being the most important binds between them.

Admittedly, Vincennes does have a good death with a good clue in the movie. It works so well that it was lifted wholesale by Steven Spielberg a few years later for Minority Report, a cinematic adaptation likewise considerably less dark and complex than Philip K. Dick’s short story. Still, it is rather frustrating that this shocking death of a main character has to “mean something,” at least when compared Ellroy’s hard-core existentialism. In the original, Vincennes dies not to leave a clue, but simply because he is in a story by James Ellroy.


I’m not saying all movies need to follow the book: Point Blank veers from The Hunter to wonderful effect; The French Connection dwarfs the source. There is an argument that the recent adaptation of No Country for Old Men could have actually used a little more license taken by the Coen brothers..

I’m coming on so strong because I think Ellroy’s esoteric vision is worth standing up for. The reason to read Ellroy — the reason to spend time in that sewer — is to look unblinkingly at tarnished souls. Do we dare redeem these rogues? Is it acceptable to root for a hero that has a rotten core? How can there possibly be a satisfying ending to this sadness?

Making the heroes and the plot more conventional demean the ethics of the author. “There is no Hollywood sign!” proclaims Ellroy: with Hanson’s adaptation, that Hollywood sign gets a fresh coat of paint.


(image stolen from hollywoodsign.org)