Staff Picks Category: Jazz

Ball of Fire by Howard Hawks []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

In this delightful romantic comedy Gary Cooper plays Bertram Potts, the youngest of eight professors who have lived together for years, devoting their time to the production of a new encyclopedia. When a trash collector asks the professors for help answering questions for a trivia contestd Bertram is baffled by the garbageman’s language and realizes his article on American on slang is badly out of date. In order to correct this he must leave his reference books behind in order to do some research in the field.

Bertram’s field research brings him in contact with Sugarpuss O’Shea, a witty and jocular nightclub performer portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck. Sugarpuss has no interest in helping Bertram with his research until her mob-boss boyfriend gets in trouble and she needs a place to hide from the police. What better place to hide than among these quiet and respectable professors?

Having taken refuge with the encyclopedists, Sugarpuss delights in teasing the stodgy Bertram and soon makes friends with the other professors (who, unlike Bertram, enjoy her company from the beginning). Bertram, however, worries that her presence will interfere with progress on the encyclopedia. “Now, when the Foundation launched our vessel”, he proclaims, “it very wisely followed an old rule of the sea, no women aboard. It chose a crew of single men with nothing to distract them from the course they were to sail.” Sugarpuss recognizes this as nonsense, but can’t risk a fight under the circumstances. Still, it is with evident sarcasm that she offers “to sit on her legs”.

Bertram almost redeems himself when he replies, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind”. However, he continues with, “unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”, a statement which comes across as almost redeeming—Bertram wasn’t concerned for the sake of the other professors, but for himself. Fate will, however, keep Sugarpuss and the professor together, and despite flying wisecracks and bullets (remember the mob-boss boyfriend?) they soon grow to enjoy each other’s company.

Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss is refreshingly strong, independent, and easily the most complex character in the film. Gary Cooper’s Bertram is understated and reserved. Many of the characters come across as cartoonish, which is just what you want from the supporting characters in a screwball comedy. The dialogue is fast and witty and, of course, full of period slang, familiar and not.

By the way, Ball of FIre would later be remade as the musical A Song is Born starring Danny Kaye. The dialogue in the two films is in large parts identical, despite the different scenario and very different portrayals. Folks who have seen A Song is Born will be relieved to know that in Ball of Fire the dialogue actually makes sense!

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday by Alexis De Veaux []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

This book is written as a prose poem that the tells the story of American jazz singer, Billie Holiday’s life. De Veaux writes,

“It was 1935.

American was in between wars.

Harlem was between jobs and riots.

Billie was between 20 and stardom.”

Tagged: , , ,

Kisses on the Bottom by Paul McCartney []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

It’s been an awfully long time since Macca has been discussed on the Forbes Library staff picks blog.  So, here I am to recommend a romantic offering from the melodious, ex-Beatle. Kisses on the Bottom, Paul’s tribute to the music he heard around the house as a boy, is a marvelous collection of standards with two originals tacked on for good measure.  Diana Krall, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Robert Hurst, John Pizzarelli and Karriem Riggins are among the many fine musicians who make up McCartney’s backing band.

The title comes from a lyric from the opening tune, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” by Fats Waller.  The introduction’s syncopated piano line, upright bass and brushes on the drum kit, set the tone for this swinging affair.  Recorded at the famed Capitol Studios on Hollywood and Vine, Paul, singing with Nat King Cole’s microphone, taps into the crooning spirit of yesteryear.

Highlights include “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, “My Valentine” (a Paul original), “The Inchworm”… well, I recommend ’em all!

Tagged: , ,

Tap []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

Have you ever seen the Nicholas Brothers dance? If you haven’t, take a look at some of their clips on YouTube. You might want to start with their famous performance in Stormy Weather (of course, you can borrow Stormy Weather from the library and watch the whole film). I’m also quite fond of Lucky Number, a charming song and dance routine performed by a younger Fayard and Harold. That’s some fine dancing.

Tap is a 1989 film that celebrates the kind of syncopated, jazz dancing practiced by the Nicholas Brothers. Gregory Hines stars as Max Washington, a talented tap dancer who gave up dance for what he saw as a more profitable life as a burglar, got caught and went to prison, and then rediscovered dancing as a way to cope with his solitary confinement. The story follows Max after his release, and as he is reunited with old friends, all of whom seem to have an opinion on how he should live his life.

There is some great dancing in Tap. This is hardly surprising given the cast. In addition to the talented Gregory Hines, we also find a number of old tap greats, including Harold Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers!), Jimmy Slyde (of the Slyde Brothers), and most recognizably, Sammy Davis Junior of Rat Pack fame, in his last film role. Representing a younger generation, we also see a young Savion Glover. (Glover would eventually do the choreography for the the dancing penguins in Happy Feet, a fact that is hard to forget, though it is insignificant compared to his other accomplishments.)

Tap isn’t a great film. It too often falls into cinematic cliches, and its final scene, which is supposed to be an inspiring combination of rock and tap, is a disappointment. Still, it is an enjoyable film, worth watching if you love dance, and a wonderful reminder of the great tradition of jazz tap, which has, sadly, fallen out of cinematic favor.

Tagged: , , , ,

Kansas City by Robert Altman []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

It’s 1934 and on the eve of a local election in Kansas City, Missouri.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Blondie, a comically fast talking wife of a petty thief. When her husband gets picked up by an intimidating local jazz and gambling club owner stroke gangster named Seldom Seen (played by the great musician and activist Harry Belafonte), Blondie hatches a kidnapping scheme of her own. At gunpoint she drags Carolyn Stilton, the opium addicted wife of a local senator, along through the city in an attempt to free her husband. Miranda Richardson and Altman mainstay Michael Murphy are cast as the seemingly loveless Stilton couple.

Tension enters the film only moments after it begins and it continues to build and build throughout. The backdrop of this chilling drama is the soulful and swinging jazz music that pulsates from Seldom Seen’s Hey Hey Club. In addition, Steve Buscemi, in a role that seems to have served as a warm up for his stint on Boardwalk Empire, is one of the many actors who appear in memorable smaller parts.

Kansas City, though not as loose and off the cuff as many classic Altman movies of the 1970’s, is possibly the director’s most suspenseful.

Tagged: , ,

Black Dynamite by Adrian Younge []

book-jacket

view/request in library catalog

Seeing that this is most likely my last post of the year 2010, the natural thing to do would be to compile a best of scroll displaying my favorite things (much like Miss O. Winfrey) from the last three-hundred and sixty some odd time tracking units we shall call “days”. My reply to the reader’s expectation will be as follows, “why, I’m an improviser… I don’t even bring a list to the grocery store!”

And so we raise our glasses to the great compromise. In an action packed year filled with exceptional new music, I will have to award Adrian Younge’s Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra for putting on the best concert of this year. It was a small, intimate show at Ars Nova that cooked and cooked and cooked… and then cooked some more. The band, decked in matching white tuxedos, was gracious enough to corral the audience upstairs for cocktails following their first blistering set. After meeting this very friendly group of musicians, I was invited to see the evening’s second show.

Before attending the concert over the summer, I was familiar with the record pictured in this post’s left hand corner and enjoyed the funky, dirty and melodic blaxploitation soundtrack stylings. I say “blaxploitation” because the album is a soundtrack to a new film that very successfully (in the most comedic sense) rubs elbows with the likes of John Shaft, B.J. Hammer and Dolemite films. Younge, composer/multi-instrumentalist/film editor, hearkens back to the music of these 70’s classics by working with vintage equipment and recording straight onto analog tape. While retaining the spirit of something like Mayfield’s Superfly with chilling vocals by many guest artists and tapping into haunting arrangements reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, Younge somehow takes this retro sound and genre and carries us into a completely new listening experience.

And so at the curtain of 2010, it is announced that Younge and co. are finishing up a follow-up and a release date has been set. It appears we have our first candidate to help keep the pace of this wonderfully musical year.

Tagged: , ,