Affirmation 1

It’s all too easy to get caught up in doomscrolling Twitter. I’m trying to stop, but at this point I’m certainly an addict. The recent article “Human Sacrifice and the Digital Business Model” by Geoff Shullenberger was helpful.

It is an arena for perpetual conflict driven by an accumulation of grievances collected in a mass program of decentralized surveillance. We are incentivized, by the coded logic of the social media platforms where public engagement now takes place, to find reasons to hate each other. The algorithms that encourage and reward particular behaviors on Twitter and Facebook play on our deepest human instincts and desires to create spectacles of symbolic violence and sacrifice.

Until I turn off the app for good — it’s hard to give it up while one’s career is hanging by a thread during a pandemic — I’m doing what I can to be a positive force, celebrating what I love.

Recently American classical music Twitter theorists — a small but noisy bunch — were all over the timeline. Opening progressive shots included comments like, “‘Bach wrote some of the greatest music known to mankind’ is the kind of language we need to change if we’re going to begin breaking down classical music’s racist problems,” and, “Beethoven was an above average composer—let’s leave it at that.”

Fine. Germany and associated European empires can make their own rulings on Bach and Beethoven. Americans could practice leaving that dominance hierarchy alone, anyway…

…For what I find relentlessly irritating is that Americans have their own great (I’m not afraid of the term) musicians, and this heritage seems to get further obscured by these academic culture wars. In essay after essay by those seeking to demand multiculturalism and racial justice, names like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane are rarely present.

Irritation produces scolding, and I’m trying so hard not to do that (let alone succumb to “our deepest human instincts and desires to create spectacles of symbolic violence and sacrifice”). Instead, I tweeted out the following:

A lot of American musicians are arguing about music theory on twitter. There’s no one theory of music that’s gonna make you a finished American musician. Americans are blessed to be impure from the git-go. It’s fabulous. FWIW, I have already written a lot about this topic:

1) “…acquiring old-world academic tools was frequently a step along the way to being a professional American musician.” Black Music Teachers in the Era of Segregation.

2) “In 2019, our feverish culture war includes hand-wringing about the participation of African-Americans in ‘classical music,’ in this case referring to music that holds European-based presentation as the ideal.” Remembering Harold Mabern, Larry Willis, and Richard Wyands.

3) “Charles McPherson suggested to me that the songbooks are generally how jazz musicians learned European harmony, and I suspect he’s right. Indeed, before fakebooks, the piano players had to have the sheet music.” Deepening Your Relationship to Musical Theatre.

4) “Early black jazz musicians worked over the European harmonic system to include an African aesthetic.” Lil Hardin Teaches the Blues.

5) “Music theory is bunk.” Are Polychords Problematic?

6) “In some circles, ‘jazz harmony’ is held to be a valid discipline. It’s not. ‘Harmony’ is the correct discipline.” Theory and European Classical Music.

7) “Consecrated jazz drummers have less metronomic time than rock and fusion drummers for a reason. The beat is connected to the cycle of life and playing with an ensemble.” Rhythmic Folklore.

8) “Magic happens at the drum kit when the four limbs are slightly desynchronized. Any truly swinging or funky drummer does not always place the articulations of the two hands and two feet at exactly the same time.” Threepenny Review Table Talk bit on Hands and Feet.

9) “Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and McCoy Tyner all share the basic European information but their non-European information is harder to pin down. They relate harmony to rhythm in a ‘jazz’ way but intellectual analyses of these procedures are rarely convincing.” Theory of Harmony.

I maintain that great jazz fixes diversity issues in a flash. Much more to come from DTM about this astonishing and endlessly satisfying music.

Noir City, Baby

The latest issue of Noir City is out, which includes my appreciation of the Johnny Mandel scores for Harper and Point Blank.

There’s actually quite a lot of music-related material in this issue: David Mamet talks the motivic appeal of Glenn Gould and Bach during his interview with Eddie Muller, Brian Light looks at Odds Against Tomorrow with a famous score by John Lewis (Paul Motian told me that was some of his favorite music), Martyn Waites makes a case for The Small World of Sammy Lee starring Anthony Newley, better known as the lyricist of “Goldfinger,” and there’s even a redemptive reading of Sinatra’s Tony Rome by Christopher Chambers.

In what is a rather bizarre crossover in my own life, Vince Keenan reviews Wendy Lesser’s book Scandinavian Noir. Vince and Wendy are two of my editors and friends but have never met — maybe I’ll be able to arrange that at some point…

The whole issue is a knockout. (David Mamet and Walter Hill fans seriously need this one.) Subscribe at the Film Noir Foundation.

Quarantine Projects (1)

My next gig with Ben Street and Nasheet Waits is Monday, streaming free of charge at the SmallsLive site and associated FB page.

There are quite a few streamed performances happening — I’m planning to check out the Immanuel Wilkins Trio with Joel Ross and Lesley Mok tonight from the Jazz Gallery — but I’m also impressed with private quarantine projects from artists I admire. People who are just setting up their video cam or iPhone and documenting a kind of creativity that probably wouldn’t be happening except for quarantine conditions.

Miranda Cuckson offers the Six Caprices for solo violin by Salvatore Sciarrino. This astonishing music truly lives at the outer edges of expression, yet it also retains some kind of sublime grace and humor. The Caprices are very difficult, and the effort required by the performer is an important part of the message. As it turns out, lo-fi home videos of these short pieces are a perfect medium. Miranda discusses the Caprices further at her blog post.

Timo Andres is a composer/pianist I’ve been keeping my eye on. His Moving Études are in the surreal rhythmic process tradition of Ligeti and Adès, but Andres has his own concept of “tonal” harmony and the middle etude “swings.” American music, no doubt about it. It’s exceedingly impressive that he can knock ’em out on a home piano in a single take.

I wonder if Andres would be recording standard repertoire if there weren’t a pandemic? On his YouTube channel are quarantine performances of Debussy, Schubert, and an unexpected pairing of Copland with peer Scott Wollschleger. For Schumann’s relatively obscure Six Canonic Etudes, Op. 56, Andres made his own transcription. (The original was for a forgotten instrument, the pedal piano; Debussy’s transcription for two pianos hangs on the fringes of the repertoire.)

A few years ago I wrote up Vicky Chow’s record of Micheal Gordon’s Sonatra for the New Yorker Culture Desk. Chow and Gordon are collaborating again in quarantine. Each day in July, Chow plays a new short Gordon piece for Instagram. What an astonishing project! And what a good use of everyone’s time! I’ve been enjoying the varied works immensely, Gordon and Chow are giving us a unique snapshot of contemporary composition.

In the jazz world, Ron Carter is blowing everyone’s mind with frequent lecture/demonstrations on Facebook, while Billy Hart is preparing to give a talk on The Evolution of Contemporary Jazz Drumming for the Healdsburg jazz series. Marcus Gilmore and Eric Harland are two of Jabali’s favorites; it’s safe to say that the stream this coming Sunday is a must watch. Registration is free.

For myself, I keep shedding famous solos. Two more McCoy Tyner classics went up on my socials this past week. Social media rewards scolding more than positivity, and it remains up to the artist to keep bringing the light.

“Bessie’s Blues” with Coltrane, Garrison, Elvin:

“A Night in Tunisia” with Garrison and Tootie Heath:

The Shadow of Johnny Mandel

RIP to a deep cat, someone who knew his way around the thorny environs of American entertainment and always left beauty in his wake.

Naturally, it was time for a quick rendition of “Suicide is Painless” for all my socials. During quarantine I had done two dozen TV themes, thought that was probably enough, but Johnny Mandel’s passing prompted a gentle encore:

I have been working on Johnny Mandel lately, specifically an appraisal of two of his greatest film scores Harper and Point Blank, to be published in the next issue of Noir City. You’ll have to wait for that, but for now, a few bits and pieces….

Bill Kirchner interviewed Mandel for the Smithsonian.

Marc Myers interviewed Mandel for JazzWax.

From 1958, there is audio of Leonard Feather giving Mandel a blindfold test. Mandel generally impresses with who he recognizes, even though Feather pitches him a few unfair curveballs. Mandel is also strikingly critical: “The recording quality is bad enough to be Norman Granz, who has put the worst sounds on records ever made with probably the best talent involved.”

Thanks to Loren Schoenberg for sending along the relevant pages from DownBeat.

Mandel wrote a few songs that were among the last “standards,” conventional themes generally taken up by jazz singers and instrumentalists. After The Sandpiper was released in theaters, dozens of eminent jazzers recorded “The Shadow of Your Smile.” One of the earliest was by Eddie Harris with Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, and Billy Higgins.

Carter told Mark Stryker, “I got a call from Eddie Harris saying he was going to do a song called “The Shadow of Your Smile” and so far he didn’t have a lead sheet. That was the theme song for the movie The Sandpiper. I was in Boston working with Tony Williams and Gábor Szabó, so I had to go into a theater in Copley Square with a pencil, a pad and a flashlight and write down the melody of this song…”

Mandel didn’t begin as a songwriter. He’d be the first one to tell you: He began as an arranger. As an appropriate memorial, Mark Stryker offers a careful listen to Mandel’s arrangement of “In the Still of the Night” for Frank Sinatra.

Two of my favorite Mandel songs have definitive performances. “I Never Told You” is played by Toots Thielemans over Quincy Jones’s sparse orchestration on Walking in Space. Shirley Horn sings and plays “Close Enough for Love” all by herself on the album of the same name.

The correct adjective is “haunting,” which the dictionary defines as, “poignant and evocative; difficult to ignore or forget.” These are the songs and the performances you need at certain points in your life. Don’t worry about finding them: They will find you.

Most of Mandel’s work was for the movies.

In the later 20th century, movies became the great connector in American society. A personal anecdote:

When I was very young I saw Point Blank with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson on television. However, I was just too young to understand the expressionist language employed by director John Boorman. Later on, in college, I took a course on film music, and ended up with a copy of Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music by Irwin Bazelon. Mandel is interviewed in the book, and talks quite a bit about Marvin, Boorman, and Point Blank. Mandel’s comments made me curious, so I rented the VHS tape and watched again. The penny dropped and I started telling everyone I knew that this was one of the greatest movies of all time.

The movie was based on a book by Richard Stark, a name unfamiliar to me. Eventually I found a copy of The Green Eagle Score. Huh. Weird but good. Oh, Stark is a pen name. Who’s Donald E. Westlake?

In time I read all of Westlake, chased him down in person, and produced a major overview after he died. So, one could say that thanks to Johnny Mandel, I met Donald Westlake.

I write many more words about Mandel and his — why not use this adjective once more — haunting score for Point Blank in my forthcoming essay for Noir City.

However, space there didn’t allow for much comment on “Count Source,” a big band chart briefly danced to by Angie Dickinson oncreen.

The two minute cue can be heard on YouTube.

It’s a tribute to his old employer Count Basie, of course, and probably took Mandel all of half an hour to write. Still, “Count Source” is perfectly scored and perfectly played…a reminder of the breadth of American music, especially in those heady post-war years before rock, pop, and eventually hip-hop controlled the market.

New from Lawrence Block

One of our greatest releases a book for his birthday: Dead Girl Blues.

Just left the following 5 star review on Amazon:

DEAD GIRL BLUES is a surprising late triumph: one of a kind, touched in equal parts with genius and sin. The author has been heading this way for a while — probably his whole life — but recent sensationalist tales like GETTING OFF (2011), THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES (2015), RESUME SPEED (2016) and A TIME TO SCATTER STONES (2019) now seem like sketches for the real deal. Donald E. Westlake shared a lifelong friendship with Block. For me, the dark standalone THE AX is Westlake’s masterpiece; when the dust settles, I suspect I will give the same honor to DEAD GIRL BLUES. Not for the faint-hearted. If you have any trigger warnings around, put them on this book. Put ’em *all* on.