The news last week that archaeologists rooting around an Oregon cave found coprolites containing human DNA and dating back 14,000 years has shaken Art Scatter right down to the toes of its foundation myth. Art Scatter emerges from lithic scatter, the circle of rock shards and shavings that stone-age men and woman created as they bent themselves to the task of making objects.
The findings in the Paisley Caves in central Oregon on what were then the shores of once-great Summer Lake, connect us to that image — and expand it. Because along with flaked stone spear points, grinding stones and other tool-making remnants, the archaeologists based their most important claims on the coprolites, a word we use to avoid the less elegant “dried dung” or worse. Art Scatter’s concept of itself, it turns out, was a sanitized idea, and the shudder generated by the new evidence involves the implications of this addition to our “image.” Continue reading Cave doings→
The Stephen Sondheim-Frank Rich question and answer session, staged by Literary Arts at the Schnitz Tuesday, was about as delightful as it possibly could have been. Rich was a terrific interrogator: smart, prepared, completely aware that his role was to spark Sondheim into memorable bits of reflection, story-telling, even emotion. He succeeded brilliantly at all three, succeeded to such an extent that the nearly full house (which would be 2700 or so) sang “Happy Birthday” to Sondheim at the end, in anticipation of his birthday on March 22 (when he turns 78, by my count). Sondheim had won us over completely, as though we needed winning over to begin with.
What did they talk about? Musical theater, of course, from Sondheim’s particular, insider perspective. So there were anecdotes about Oscar Hammerstein II (Sondheim’s mentor and father-figure) and a couple of great Cole Porter anecdotes (more about these a little lower), recollections of putting West Side Story together, Gypsy, Company, Sunday in the Park With George and of course Sweeney Todd, which led to observations about the difference between film and theater (film is more propulsive; theater allows more imagination from the audience), and much more. Marty Hughley gives an account of it all on Oregonlive. With actual quotes!
Many of the anecdotes were familiar ones, especially to those who’ve read Meryle Secrest’s biography of Sondheim. But what a difference hearing the stories from Sondheim’s lips. So, he describes walking over to play his songs for Cole Porter in Williamstown, Mass., (where he went to Williams College) and we can feel the trepidation he must have felt, the awkwardness, the Porter-esque parody he played and his relief that Porter not only enjoyed it but helped him make the ending even better. Sondheim helped us understand the meaning of the encounter for a young artist, the joy it gave him, the inspiration. All of which is missing from Secrest’s book, which deals with the incident quickly. Ditto, the last time Sondheim played for Porter, when he was seriously ill, both legs amputated, and managed to elicit a gasp of recognition from the dying man, a smart turn and unlikely rhyme. And this is in microcosm the power of theater itself — to attach feeling and meaning to words that might slip by unattended by either. Continue reading Sondheim speaks, we gladly listen→
A quick note to the Portland Jazz Festival: Thanks for making the “Portland” in this year’s festival more prominent. The cluster of “outlying” shows at the hotels and clubs seemed better organized and feature more of the best local players. And featuring both the new-ish Portland Jazz Orchestra and legend Nancy King — that was sweet. In all possible ways.
Let’s start with Nancy King,who played Friday night. The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley turned me on to Nancy King: Live at the Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch a couple of years ago, and things started to fall into place for my relationship with jazz, specifically with jazz vocalists, whom I used to find irritating — at best. King brought me in from the cold. I listened to that CD — a lot. I’m listening to it right now (she’s scatting a chorus of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” as I type), and it’s still a delight.
King’s singing style is so unadorned — easy on the vibrato, light on the pyrotechnical displays — that it’s tempting to call it “unpolished,” as Nate Chinen did in a variable review in the New York Times in 2006. But Chinen got the basics right. Her voice is expressive from the “raspy” bottom to the “reedy” top. And she scats with the best of them (including Kurt Elling who sang with King on Friday night at the Newmark Theater), thanks to superior pacing and musical logic. Continue reading Putting the PDX in the Portland Jazz Festival→
Maybe if your weekend started out, as mine did, listening to “Howl” and then winding its way toward the Portland Jazz Festival, you’d be figuring out a way to combine the two, too. Not that it’s THAT difficult. Ginsberg, we know from his early journals (“The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice,” edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan), listened to jazz — it was unavoidable at Columbia College in the ’40s and Manhattan in the ’50s. His tastes were pretty broad. He lists Lionel Hampton and Glenn Miller. Billie Holiday and Pearl Bailey. Dizzy Gillespie and Artie Shaw. Coleman Hawkins and a bunch of classical stuff (Mahler, Bach, Beethoven).
“Howl” itself has some jazz references, though none more direct than in Ginsberg’s introduction. He says “Howl” was “built on a bop refrain” — “the ideal being, say, Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938, blowing 72 choruses of “The Man I Love” until everyone in the hall was out of his head.” Which leads us back to Billie Holiday. Who was NOT performing at the jazz festival, more’s the pity.
We did have Ornette Coleman on hand, of course (in the clip it’s Spain 1987 and he’s playing with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden), though it’s hard to imagine him blowing 72 choruses of “The Man I Love.” It would have violated his Prime Directive against repetition, for one thing. I imagine him exploding the first chord of the first chorus and then spending the rest of the evening picking over the debris field for sounds he hadn’t heard before. Which would have been hard to capture in a poem, at least one that made sense in a representational sort of way.
That’s what Ornette did on Friday night, and if it didn’t strictly “follow” (see below) in the way we’ve come to expect from our music, that’s our problem: He’s been blowing this way since 1960 or so. We’ve been warned. Sharp objects are involved and the sweetness of the sound means that projectiles coming your way may seem closer than they appear.
“Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse!” Ginsberg writes in the “Footnote to Howl.” And here he might have referred to the SFJazz Collective, which played after Ornette’s concert on Friday, but not really. They are smart, savvy, and they’ve dedicated their season to Wayne Shorter, who could groan, I suppose, but maybe not the apocalypse part. More quicksilver or thoughtful, even caring, which is how Joe Lovano played his 1964 “Infant Eyes,” a melting opening solo.
OK, the key jazz lines of “Howl,” at the end of Part I: “…the madman bum and angel…rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio/with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”
Mercy! As carnivorous as The Bad Plus seemed Saturday afternoon, big and, well, hungry, hunting down big game with their covers of Ornette Coleman, Milton Babbitt (!), David Bowie and Nirvana songs, firing salvos of percussion (thank you David King) and a general lurching, staccato approach that re-loaded mid-song and emptied the clip — even as aggressive as they were (and in fairness, they could also be sweet as pie (thank you Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson), and the audience loved them for it), Ginsberg’s naked desire for ecstasy and deliverance outstrips them.
Maybe not Ornette, though. You just can’t tell about Ornette.
I tried to keep up with Ornette Coleman’s onstage conversation Friday with jazz writer/historian Howard Mandel, one of the many Portland Jazz Festival activities this week.
It wasn’t easy. Was what he was saying at any given time actually making sense? Was there a thread to his interview, a philosophy embedded somehow? Was he answering the questions, or questioning the answers? Was he here with us, and if so, could I remember enough of what he said, once I’d figured out what it was, to record it in my notebook? Ornette, you are one tough cookie to convert to print. And the heroic Mandel was by turns bewildered and frustrated as he attempted to corral Ornette’s responses into something the rational mind might contemplate without throwing up its hands.
As I was squeezing the things that made sense out of my notes and reciting them to Marty Hughley, longtime arts writer for The Oregonian (after Ornette’s evening concert but before the SFJazz Collective played Friday night), a music fan behind us piped up: “I can’t believe you got all of that from the talk.” And another friend had earlier described what Ornette had said as “gibberish.” But come on! Ornette Coleman! Even random sonic expressions are going to have meaning! Aren’t they? Yes, they are…
Five life-changing things Ornette said on Friday.
1. “You don’t have to make a sound to hear, right?”
2. “We’re all breathing life, but what is life breathing?”
3. “I don’t think I’m making music. I’m translating something because of what I feel.”
4. “Everything we do is about being better and more precise… We would never exchange creativity for repetition.”
5. Mandel: “Is your music improving?” Ornette: “Every day (emphatically). The only thing I have to do is learn how to play it.”
6. “We cry and we pray because that’s all we know how to do. I cry because of the meaning I can’t express of the quality of the thing that’s making me feel that way.”
OK. I know. That was six. A bonus! It could have been 10. Maybe. Some sentences in my notes started out promisingly but dwindled into nothing as I struggled to make sense of Ornette’s thoughts. We can look at them one by one.
You know, that music-hall, theatrical-underbelly, up-from-the-depths, cut-loose, anything-but-grand collaboration with the audience: the sly wink.
Wagner’s a mighty guy, but he’s no winker. Puccini’s plenty theatrical, but he wouldn’t wink if a butterfly fluttered past his eyeball. OK, Mozart winked. A lot. And I suppose you could call the elephant stomping around the stage in “Aida” a wink, but really, that’s more of a giant-size goggle.
There’s plenty of joy in the music: Listening to Leontyne Price or Maria Callas or Renee Fleming or Jessye Norman or Dawn Upshaw can transport me to places I love to visit again and again. But so often the staging (especially in the cavernous halls where most opera is performed), and the Deep Seriousness of the composition (I’m talking to you, Ring of the Nibelung guy), seem designed to dwarf the audience into a state of insignificance.
Still, I can’t help thinking things were somehow looser in opera’s early days, in those intimate Baroque halls where you didn’t need opera glasses to see the expressions on the singers’ faces, and where gilding the lily — essentially, making a virtue of the showy art of ornamental improvisation — kept things loose and lively and less High Art than living entertainment. Show biz, if you will.
So when I saw last weekend that a group called Opera Theater Oregon was presenting Georges Bizet’s glorious-sleazy “Carmen” at a downtown Portland nightclub called the Someday Lounge as live accompaniment to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent-movie version of the 1875 opera, I was there.
I’m listening to River: The Joni Letters, Herbie Hancock’s interpretation of Joni Mitchell songs that won the Album of the Year Grammy on Sunday. This was a surprise, if only because this little album had sold so few copies (50,000 according to Soundscan) and was facing the twin Goliaths of this year’s Grammy awards, Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. OK, calling Winehouse a Goliath is perhaps going too far.
But apparently it wasn’t a surprise to Ben Ratliff of the New York Times with whom I’m about to have an argument. Which isn’t smart on my part. Ratliff is knowledgeable about music, I bet even obsessive. Worse for me, from reading him, you can tell that he hears music with the keenest of ears. And finally, he writes about it clearly and intelligently. I’m a fan of his book “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.” So I have no doubt that this is going to go badly…
OK. Tina Turner is singing “Edith and the Kingpin,” Wayne Shorter is finding some impish sax lines and Lionel Loueke has this funny clucking going on his guitar, while Hancock himself is enjoying himself by finding some chords that clearly amuse him. Tina Turner? Yeah, and she’s just fine, thanks.
Ratliff’s argument in the Tuesday New York Times: If a “jazz” album was going to win Album of the Year, it’s predictable that it was an album like River, because it resembles the non-jazz albums that frequently win — “soft-edged, literate and respectable.” And these are fighting words for jazz fans, though Ratliff also praises elements of River. But it’s not REAL jazz, he implies; it’s a combination of jazz and singer-songwriter. And jazz fans shouldn’t take any comfort in Hancock’s victory, by considering it some sort of sign of the form’s return to the middle of the musical discourse. Continue reading Herbie Hancock v. Ben Ratliff→