Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Music Week

February archive (in progress).

Music: Current count 32778 [32759] rated (+19), 242 [241] unrated (+1).

Late again, but short as weeks go, given that last week's Music Week didn't appear until Thursday, February 13. My excuse then was that I was in the middle of a series on Duke Ellington's Chronological Classics (up to 1940, anyway). I decided not to bother with the 1940-1953 releases, figuring they're redundant to in-print albums on RCA and Columbia (and maybe Capitol?), but I've continued to trawl through Napster's offerings, using "ellington" as my titles search. That netted a few albums by other doing Ellington songs -- including titles by Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Zoot Sims, and Sarah Vaughan, below. I haven't hit the end of that list yet, so I'll keep plugging, and see what else catched my fancy. I briefly considered doing more individual albums from The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books, which I bought long ago and gave an A- to without subdividing, but I haven't followed up on that. (If I recall correctly, the best volume is the Harold Arlen, possibly followed by Irving Berlin or Cole Porter; the weakest may well be the Ellington, which is surprising given how much I like the later Ella and Duke at the Côte D'Azur -- a 2-CD sampler from a larger box I haven't heard, but which I believe is on Napster.)

All this old music digging has kept me off from new music, with only a few of my queue offerings this week. Robert Christgau sent his Consumer Guide out to subscribers last week, and included two new 2020 releases among his picks (Eminem and Drive-By Truckers) among his late-breaking 2019 picks (catching up with his Dean's List). Normally I'd jump on them, but this hasn't been a normal week.

Christgau followed that up with another list, Ten Movies I Love. I can't argue, not least because I've only seen four of those movies, and don't even recall hearing of most of the rest. [PS: Make that five: I've seen, but forgot the title of, Make Way for Tomorrow] I doubt I could even construct such a list, but I'd hate to leave out:

  • Babette's Feast -- Gabriel Axel (1988)
  • Before Sunrise -- Richard Linklater (1995)
  • Hairspray -- John Waters (1988)
  • High Hopes -- Mike Leigh (1989)
  • Johnny Dangerously -- Amy Heckerling (1984)
  • Made in Heaven -- Alan Rudolph (1987)
  • Moonstruck -- Norman Jewison (1987)
  • The Mosquito Coast -- Peter Weir (1986)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- Ethan & Joel Cohen (2000)
  • Ordinary People -- Robert Redford (1980)
  • The Purple Rose of Cairo -- Woody Allen (1985)
  • The Remains of the Day -- James Ivory (1993)
  • Stars and Bars -- Pat O'Connor (1988)
  • Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown -- Pedro Almodovar (1988)

First of all, I'm surprised to find these so concentrated in time: 1985-1995 accounts for all but two, one from 1980, the other 2000. The obvious explanation is that I watched a lot more movies then than any time before or since. I hardly ever watched movies before, aside from minor binges, but started renting tapes after my first wife died, and watched even more when I dated and moved in with Laura. My movie watching has tailed off in recent years, but not as dramatically as the omission of post-2000 movies in the list above suggests. Perhaps I was just more impressionable in that first decade. I did a quick search through the notebook, and found a lot of good movies, but the only ones that tempted me to add to the list were: Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000); The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003); De-Lovely (Irwin Winkler, 2004); Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006); The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2007); The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009, in Swedish); and Boyhood (2014).

A second point is that these are mostly small movies. (Three were nominated for Oscars, and one won.) A glance through the Oscar list and other lists at { IMDB, TimeOut, MSN } suggest some better-known epics that I like (in many cases a lot), in chronological order (while generally avoiding repeating directors from above):

Modern Times (1936); Grand Illusion (1937); His Girl Friday (1940); Sullivan's Travels (1941); Casablanca (1942); The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957); Dr. Strangelove (1964); Blazing Saddles (1964); Ship of Fools (1965); Once Upon a Time in the West (1968); Z (1969); The Godfather (1972); Cries and Whispers (1973); The Godfather II (1974); Chinatown (1974); Nashville (1975); Atlantic City (1981); The Last Emperor (1987); Do the Right Thing (1989); Unforgiven (1992); Pulp Fiction (1994); The Shawshank Redemption (1994); L.A. Confidential (1997); Shakespeare in Love (1998); Moulin Rouge! (2001); Brokeback Mountain (2005); Slumdog Millionaire (2008), La La Land (2016). Most frequently listed movies that I haven't seen (or don't recall) date from before 1960, including a fair number of "foreign" films. Too bad I didn't maintain a list, like I did for albums.

Contributing to this week's delay, I cooked a rather fancy dinner Monday night. I made a couple stabs at Hungarian cuisine last fall, and had a few more recipes I wanted to try. My cookbook was Silvena Johan Lauta's The Food & Cooking of Hungary, but it didn't offer any promising vegetable side dishes, so I slipped a Greek fave into the menu:

  • Rabbit Goulash Stew
  • Venison Meatballs
  • Hungarian Dumplings
  • Green Bean Ragout
  • Transylvanian Stuffed Mushrooms
  • Somloi Trifle

Not sure I got the first three quite right. The meatballs were quite delicious, but could have used more sauce. I had a lot of trouble cutting up the rabbit, which made everything come out late. The one piece I had was a little tough and dry, but others disagreed. The mushrooms (stuffed with ricotta, bacon, and herbs) perhaps should have been cooked longer. Still, all came out pretty tasty.

The dessert wasn't in the cookbook, but showed up repeatedly when I was attempting to survey Hungarian recipes online -- along with a fancy multi-layer cake called a dobos torte. I wound up consulting several web recipes, mostly following this one, but taking a few liberties along the way (e.g., after my caramelized syrup burned, I went with a much safer non-caramel recipe; I missed the liquor store, so substituted amaretto for rum; I substuted apricot for strawberry jam, as all other recipes specified [PS: what I actually used was Bonne Maman Mango-Peach Preserves, made in France; picked up accidentally when I was reaching for the apricot]). The dessert is a pretty complicated affair: first make three sponge cakes (one plain, one with walnuts, a third with cocoa); make a light syrup with liquor (in my case, amaretto), and brush it over the cakes; make a "gruel" out of milk, sugar, flour, eggs, vanilla (more like a pudding -- other recipes use a pastry cream); build a stack of the three cakes, each one topped with a shmear of jam, raisins (soaked in syrup), walnuts, and "gruel"; sprinkle cocoa on top and chill for 12 hours. Make a chocolate sauce, with liquor (amaretto again). Whip cream. To serve, scoop out chunks of cake, top with chocolate, then with whipped cream. Before I was done, I doubted I'd ever do it again, but it turned out to be remarkably delicious.

A few links I had meant to include in Sunday's Weekend Roundup, but somehow didn't get to:

  • Kos: Sanders wins New Hampshire by being the least-weak of a suddenly weak field. This was a "hot take" after New Hampshire, but since then I'm less persuaded of Bernie Sanders' "weakness." Sanders now seems to be ahead in Nevada, possibly ahead in South Carolina, indeed close to leading pretty much everywhere (FiveThirtyEight still likes Biden in Alabama). I've also seen polls that show his favorability ratings are high enough to give him a reasonable expectation of gaining vote share as other candidates drop out (much as Trump did in 2016, though Bernie's are higher than Trump's were, at least up to the 2016 convention, maybe even the election). Also, this article makes some really dumb points, such as:

    No white male has ever gotten 63 million votes in a presidential election. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both hit 65 million. When our nominees look like our base, we perform better.

    That doesn't prove anything, least of all its "looks like" conclusion. (Sure, it would disprove the opposite assertion, that you have to run a white male in order to win, but that's not the point here.) I remember when Clinton promised a cabinet that "looks like America," but all they looked like to me was a bunch of well-heeled lawyers. He throws out other meaningless facts, like Bloomberg was "major of a city that is larger than 38 states" [each of; the 9 least populous states + DC have more people combined than NYC], and he invents a ridiculous euphemism for dollars, as in "he spent another 3.5 million electability units on advertising in black newspapers."

  • Joel Kotkin: You think Trump's a danger to democracy? Get a load of Bloomberg. Side note more relevant to the Kos article above: to win his third term as mayor of New York, Bloomberg spent $174 per vote; to match that running for president, he'll have to pony up $12 billion.

  • Alexander Rubinstein/Max Blumenthal: Woke wonk Elizabeth Warren's foreign policy team is stacked with pro-war swamp creatures.

I should also note that a Guardian article I linked to about Bill Gates buying a £500 million superyacht has been pulled, due to "a fundamental error in facts reported." Evidently, Gates hasn't bought any such boat.

New records reviewed this week:

The Coachella Valley Trio: Mid Century Modern (2019 [2020], DMAC): Guitarist Doug MacDonald, backed by bass and drums, with Big Black on djembe for 6/11 tracks. Four MacDonald originals, the rest easy flowing jazz standards. B+(*)

Lara Driscoll: Woven Dreams (2019 [2020], Firm Roots Music): Pianist, from Chicago, trio with Paul Rushka on bass and Dave Laing on drums. Not much to say on this, other than that she always seems spot on. B+(***) [03-06]

Lara Driscoll: Woven Dreams (2019 [2020], Firm Roots Music): Pianist, from Chicago, trio with Paul Rushka on bass and Dave Laing on drums. Not much to say on this, other than that she always seems spot on. B+(***) [03-06]

Kuzu [Dave Rempis/Tashi Dorji/Tyler Damon]: Purple Dark Opal (2019 [2020], Aerophonic): Avant sax-guitar-drums trio, did a couple albums last year including one that I belatedly got behind (Hiljaisus) and one (Lift to Drag) I missed. Maybe slow on this one too, but for now: B+(***) [cd]

Purna Loka Ensemble: Metaraga (2018-19 [2020], Origin): Indian string quartet based in Lawrence, KS, where violinist Purnaprajna Bangere teaches mathematics and music. With second violin, bass, and tabla, with a guest spot for clarinet, rooted in classical Indian music, but not stuck there. B+(**) [cd]

Old music:

Duke Ellington: The Best of Early Ellington (1926-31 [1996], Decca): Twenty songs from Decca's 3-CD Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings of Duke Ellington 1926-1931, which appeared a couple years earlier and is worth owning complete (my grade: A+). Two caveats here: I've long deemed the Bluebirds from the same period to have better sound, not that I have any complaints here (and they're way better than the Okehs and the Classics archives); and I miss some of the covers on the box. Still, these are the essential songs from the first great Ellington era, and they're as perfect as music gets. A+

Duke Ellington: The Centennial Collection (1927-41 [2004], Bluebird): BMG released five volumes under this title, the others Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and Fats Waller -- all recorded for Bluebird before 1945, so these work as single-disc primers, each packaged with a DVD I have no reckoning of. Don't have dates, but initial recordings range as above, though most of these pieces are live shots, possibly tied to the DVD. Some great music here, but I don't find this to be particularly useful. B+(**)

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: The Great Paris Concert (1963 [1973], Atlantic, 2CD): Three concerts, actually, nicely organized for its original 2-LP release (total 87:35), so much so it might serve as a suitable introductory overview for neophytes -- even includes a full suite, and one vocal track to remind you Ellington never had a knack for hiring singers. Even more freakish is Cat Anderson's stratospheric trumpet -- one of many wonders. A-

Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington's My People (1963 [1964], Contact): A short-lived Broadway musical, "conceived, written and staged by Duke Ellington," orchestra conducted by Jimmy Jones (but "under the personal supervision of Billy Strayhorn"), headlined by Joya Sherrill. Ellington tended to get stilted in projects that aimed beyond the music (e.g., his later "sacred music" concerts), but this one moves right along, and his black history points are well taken. B+(**)

Duke Ellington/Ella Fitzgerald/Oscar Peterson: The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World (1967 [1990], Pablo, 3CD): The CD reissue added the principle artist's names above the title, a banner missing from the original 1975 4-LP box, although their primacy was made clear by centering their portraits, surrounded by an outer ring with Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, T-Bone Walker, and eight current members of Ellington's Orchestra. This was one of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic productions, actually two shows, one in March at Carnegie Hall, the other in July at the Hollywood Bowl, varying from his usual all-star jam formula mostly in Ellington's dominance: 21 cuts, including 5 with Fitzgerald (of her 9). I'm on the fence here: Peterson's intro and the jams are fun, the Ellington set is above par, and Fitzgerald has a spark here that is never really captured in their studio albums. Still, doesn't really merit the hyperbole. B+(***)

Duke Ellington: In Sweden 1973 (1973 [1999], Caprice): Late, the fabulous orchestra starting to fall apart (no Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Cat Anderson), so local reinforcements are welcome: Rolf Ericson (trumpet), Åke Persson (trombone), Nils Lindberg, and featured singer Alice Babs. B+(**)

Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books (1956-64 [1993], 16CD): One of Norman Granz's more successful "get rich slow" projects was having Ella sing every song in "the great American songbook" -- I suspect that phrase came later, and were you to look it up, the most succinct definition would be: "songs Ella Fitzgerald sang." They were released on many LPs, eventually collected in this box, as well as released on separately available CD sets. I bought the box, gave it an A- (my standard at the time for multi-disc boxes was weakest link), but didn't break it down further. Maybe it's time to do that.

Ella Fitzgerald: Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1956-57 [1991], Verve, 3CD): Key thing here is the band: Ellington and His Orchestra. They got co-credit on the origial 1957 4-LP set, before "songbook" became a single word and a Fitzgerald trademark. She is, of course, miles ahead of any singer Ellington ever hired, adding import and sass to lyrics that often just an afterthought -- but that may be because the band never really needed them. Two real solid CDs here, although I like some of their later live recordings even better. Third disc bogs down a lot, and not just the alternate takes and chatter. B+(**)

Ella Fitzgerald: The Very Best of the Duke Ellington Song Book (1956-57 [2007], Verve): Second attempt at reducing the original 4-LP (3-CD) set to a single CD, following 1995's Day Dream: The Best of the Duke Ellington Songbook (B+, long ago), the "very" justified by reduction (12 tracks, 56:09, vs. 17 tracks, 70:08) and by picking more obvious titles: only 5 tracks appear on both, and you can easily guess them if I give you the adds here: "Sophisticated Lady," "Satin Doll," "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me," "Prelude to a Kiss," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Caravan," and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Should be foolproof, but you can hardly hear the band through the ballads, and while the singer is artful enough, you just know she'd rather bust loose and scat. B+(***)

Ella Fitzgerald: Ella at Duke's Place (1965 [1966], Verve): Studio date in Hollywood with Ellington and His Orchestra, ten songs, only two repeated from the 1956-57 sessions. Divided into a "Pretty, Lovely, Tender, Hold Me Close Side" and a "Finger-Snapping, Head Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side" -- the latter is more fun, but still not as much as a live set like Ella and Duke at the Côte D'Azur (1966). B+(**)

Nina Simone: Nina Simone Sings Duke Ellington (1961 [1962], Colpix): Simone's arrangements, produced by Stu Phillips, backed by the Malcolm Dodds Singers, no credits for the band (but Simone no doubt holds court on piano). The obscurities don't stick with you, but the mainstays are tastefully done (especially "Satin Doll"). B+(*)

Zoot Sims: Passion Flower: Zoot Sims Plays Duke Ellington (1979-80 [1997], Pablo/OJC): Tenor saxophonist, sources list him only as leader but this sounds like him, in front of a big band with stars like JJ Johnson, Frank Wess, and Jimmy Rowles, arranged and conducted by Benny Carter. B+(**)

Sarah Vaughan: How Long Has This Been Going On? (1978, Pablo): Despite her remarkable voice and exquisite control of nuance, she rarely makes albums I like. But Norman Granz grabbed her when he launched Pablo, and teamed her up with his default band: Oscar Peterson (piano), Joe Pass (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and Louie Bellson (drums). Cover inserts a spurious "between" between the title and artists -- the singer first in only slightly larger type. Still likes them slow, but the band's light touch saves the day. B+(***)

Sarah Vaughan: Duke Ellington: Song Book One (1979 [1980], Pablo): Billy Byers' strings are suspect here, but the rest of the band -- with Waymon Reed on trumpet, JJ Johnson on trombone, Frank Foster and Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Bucky Pizzarelli or Joe Pass on guitar, Jimmy Rowles or Mike Wofford on piano -- is impeccable. B+(***)

Sarah Vaughan; Duke Ellington: Song Book Two (1979 [1980], Pablo): Same group, same sessions, eleven more songs, most excellent, only a tad less impressive. B+(**)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Joyce Grant: Surrounded by Blue (Craftedair/Blujazz)
  • JC Hopkins Biggish Band: New York Moment (Twee-Jazz) [04-05]
  • Chanda Rule + Sweet Emma Band: Hold On (Blujazz/PAO)
  • Paul Shaw Quintet: Moment of Clarity (Summit) [03-27]

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