Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

by

Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on antisemitism soon enough, but I must take two detours, one into jazz and a second into the theory and practice of sovereignty based on a conference I attended Friday.

I am not a jazz aficionado. I have no record or disc collection. And though I listen to Jazz FM91 on the radio, I would not say I do it regularly. But I do ensure I get my fix by attending the jazz series at Koerner Hall that Mervon Mehta puts together each year.

It was not always like that. I used to teach in the evenings. In the seventies, after my graduate seminar, I would drop into one of the clubs for one set as a way of unwinding before heading home. I was not a fan of rock and missed many famous concerts – such as the one in 1977 before I moved to Israel for a year when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performed and then was busted for heroin possession on an occasion made even more famous because he was consorting with Margaret Trudeau, the mother of our current Prime Minister, who had just split with Justin’s father when the latter was Prime Minister. I missed Richard’s concert at the El Mocambo, even though I often went there when a blues band was playing.

I was not a purist, for I often went to the Horseshoe Tavern on the north side of Queen Street to listen to country, though I stopped when the venue switched to emphasizing punk. I loved listening to the Downchild Blues Band at Grossman’s Tavern in my childhood district on Spadina Avenue between Dundas and College Streets. However, my favourite place was the Chick’N’Deli on Mt. Pleasant just south of Eglington, partly because the scene was so intimate, partly because the venue was en route from Glendon College to my home, but mostly because some of the greatest jazz greats played there.

What takes me down this nostalgic lane was listening last night to one of the most terrific jazz concerts I have ever heard. Jason Moran and The Bandwagon were featured at Koerner Hall last night. The trio, which included Tarus Mateen on the bass guitar and Nasheet Waits on drums, played one tune by Fats Waller, “The Sheik of Araby.” Sometime in the seventies, I had heard Fats Waller play that very tune at the Chick’N’Deli.

However, Jason said that was the tune he was playing. If he had not told me, I would never have known, perhaps the absolute proof that I am not a jazz aficionado. When Fats Waller played at the Chick’N’Deli, it was wild and the place was literally jumping. Jumpin and jivin! But last evening, Jason made the music soar instead. It cascaded up and up. Just when my heartbeat said it could not swirl faster and higher any longer, the music would go up again, faster at even greater heights and with more twists and turns, not once again, not twice again, but four or five times. I thought I would burst.

Jason Mason’s music whooshes and reaches crescendo after crescendo. Evidently, when he was in high school in Texas, he was an avid skateboarder. Jazz music clearly usurped skateboarding because it allowed him to almost escape the pull of gravity and to take us with him. This is not just a metaphor. While Waller would interweave Dixieland and blues, stride and swing, Jason was more of a classical artisan weaver who cut each strip from the trunk of a swamp tree and interwove those strips in new ways by infusing the music with both classical and post-modern atonal elements to create a synchronized whole.

In his porkpie hat and fashionably stubble beard, Jason Mason is a creator not a curator. He gives homage to traditional flare, but with complex rhythms that take you on a roller coaster that is no longer anchored to the ground. Yet he allows you to savour each and every note.

It is hard to choose which was the best number. His piece, Thelonious, that he played last evening was one of Monk’s own compositions. The playing was both a tribute and one personified by Moran. Jason Moran regards Thelonious Monk as the greatest jazz pianist in history. You can listen to a full tribute at http://www.npr.org/event/music/446866440/jason-moran-plays-thelonious-monks-town-hall-concert. By intersecting modernist elements, the composition is refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated in an absolutely new way. It should not be surprising that the first album that Jason released in 2002 was called Modernistic.

Last night, Jason Moran played Body and Soul in a way that took out the conjunction and turned the body into soul. It was like having a religious experience. But his music is also political. He has written compositions to convey the feeling of both slavery in America, apartheid in South Africa and, in the movie, Selma, the struggle against institutionalized discrimination against blacks that continued into the sixties in the United States and has taken new forms since. Moran fuses intellectual analysis with empathetic re-enactment. He will infuse pop genres unfamiliar to me, but also combining African beats and stride. He played a portion of Wind taken from the soundtrack that he wrote for the famous 2016 documentary 13th on race, and incarceration rates in the U.S. injustice system that I have yet to see, but I have read enough about it to know I must watch it. The music he played last night made me move it to top place on my bucket list.

I Ain’t Misbehavin and I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, but when I do, Sweet Honey Bee in the hands of Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits takes me upward into the clouds to suck sweet nectar from extra-terrestrial flowers. At the same time, like Fats Waller’s most famous tune, the music takes me home, takes me on a nostalgic trip when my first brood were just entering their teens, and when I was totally immersed in my teaching and research career. That is more than a metaphor. Moran and his trio opened with a tune called Gangsters or something – I did not catch the title – or perhaps I heard it totally incorrectly because I was thinking about an Australian mobster and drug dealer by the same name as Jason Moran who had become infamous when I was visiting Australia fifteen years ago before I even became a research professor there from 2005-2008. Until I heard that number, it never occurred to me that jazz could really be about murder and mayhem.

Moran is no gangster. Instead of killing, he is truly a genius well deserving of all the awards he has accumulated, including a Genius Award and MacArthur Fellowship (2010). He has had many nominations and several times won as best jazz pianist of the year. For, in addition to his own original works, he allows artists to be born again in a new way for a contemporary audience. He himself is an artist pure and simple, so it is no surprise that he composes works that accompany art installations and creates video artworks collected by MOMA.

 

If he comes your way, do not miss him.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Hell of High Water – a movie review

Hell or High Water: a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

There is a very revealing scene in the movie that we saw last evening, Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie. Jeff Bridges, a crusty retiring Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton, and his partner, the Comanche Texas ranger, Alberto, played with puritanical stoicism by Gil Birmingham, are riding in their police vehicle attempting to track down two men responsible for a series of bank robberies in western Texas. They are stopped on the highway by old-style cowboys herding their cattle across the blacktop in flight from a prairie grass fire. This is the new West – of oil rigs (and wind energy towers, the latter not seen in the movie because the film was shot in New Mexico). The cowboy tells Jeff Bridges that this is a hell of a way to make a living. “It’s the 21st century. No wonder my kid doesn’t wanna do this shit!”

The movie title harks back to a time when the expression was not “in”, “come” or even the more modern, “through” hell or high water, but just hell or high water. It was a period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when ranch hands drove their longhorns to rail heads through the high water of river crossings rather than travel long distances across a parched landscape to find shallows where they could ford the stream with ease. All obstacles, however high, are surmountable. Attacking them head on is a better choice than the hell of taking a circuitous route. This was the ethos of the cowboy. But it is also the grand metaphor of the film. For these Texan white males, there seems to be only two options – they are either struggling to surmount incredible obstacles or they live in a hell of their own and their society’s making.

Texas may still be gun country, but it is no longer cowboy country. Instead of the broad immense rich blue sky of Texas, black clouds from the grass fire blot out much of the sky. The atmosphere is one of gloom, despair and hopelessness. What we are watching is the death of a whole way of life with its deteriorating small towns and crotchety elders. The Texas of the old West is decaying in full view as we watch the strange beauty of this hard-crusted landscape and the human flotsam left over who spend their time shooting at each other in a state where even old men doing banking carry a gun and are ready to use it. “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I take along Samuel Colt.” (Dust of the Chase)

In another insightful vignette, the two rangers stop to eat at an old-fashioned restaurant called the T-Bone, evidently the only eatery in town. The crotchety old waitress (Margaret Bowman), who has been waiting tables for eons (the actress is 84 years old and deserves an Oscar for her brilliant brief performance), asks the two what they don’t want. The two rangers look first puzzled and then downright totally bewildered. She says that the only thing they serve is T-bone steak. It comes with green beans and a baked potato. Which of the two choices, if any, does each of the rangers want to leave out? As an aside, the old crone tells them that she once had a customer from New York who asked for trout.

I cannot recall her words disparaging the New Yorker, but I immediately thought of how rural America and the rust belt elected Donald Trump and thumbed their noses at the sophisticates of urban America.

Hell or High Water is a study in contemporary rural cultural geography and in character revealed as much through all the silences as the witty dialogue of Taylor Sheridan’s script. There is almost no plot. Of the two brothers who are the bank robbers, Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father with two sons with a sense of his own personal failure. As the movie unfolds, it becomes evident that he is driven by a determination that his own sons will not face the same bleak existence that he and his brother, Tanner, did. The latter (Ben Foster) is an ex-con who served ten years in prison. He “double crossed the State of Texas and they gave (him) a little time.” (Dust of the Chase) He is the wild card of the pair. A sociopath whose only moral compass seems to be loyalty to his younger brother, Tanner is the foil to the deeply pained and suffering persona of Toby, so steeped in guilt and a sense of failing to fulfill his responsibilities. The two rob a series of branches of the West Midland Bank. Two rangers chase them down. The end of Tanner is foreshadowed in the lyrics of Dust of the Chase.

“When the times at hand and I kill a man, I say a little prayer.
I come down from Oklahoma with a pistol in my boot
A pair of dice, a deck of cards and a bible in my suit
How small a part of time we share ’till we hear the sound of wings
I’m lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings.”

That’s it. That is the plot. However, all four characters are united by one theme – they are all lonesome would-be cowboys, except perhaps for the Comanche ranger, who evidently has an extensive and close family off screen, but has to spend his professional life being teased in a politically incorrect manner by Jeff Bridges about his half-breed nature as an Indian and a Mexican. This film pays ironic veneration to stubborn individualism writ large, individualism as atomic as it gets. In the lyrics of From My Cold Dead Hands:

“Do what I wanna do
Say what I wanna say
They wanna take it away
From my cold dead hands
The price of being free
And what it means to me
They wanna take it away.”

It is clear throughout the movie that the ranger, Marcus, really loves his partner, Alberto. That is verified near the end of the movie. But instead of intimacy between the two, there is only mutual razzing and the entertainment of dissing. The two brothers also love one another. In one scene, they even engage in some physical play and shoving. But that is the closest one views any caring between two humans. In another scene, Toby sits in the scrabbly backyard of his ex-wife’s home and talks to his son, from whom he is clearly estranged. Toby asks after his son’s brother (he’s at a friend’s house), but cannot express his deep love for his boys except through his efforts to rob banks to ensure his mother’s ranch, which has oil under its ground, is inherited by the boys, debt free. For it is the bank that is viewed as responsible for his troubles, for its efforts,

“to hold us,
Held by our necks.” (From My Cold Dead Hands)

There is no sense of love between a man and a woman in the whole movie. Near the beginning of the film, the lyrics to Mama’s Love portray the situation of a character who cannot sleep at night when the pain comes out, who has sex only to use a woman. The song begins:

“Something’s got my fear,
And then won’t get through my head,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.
Here I go again,
React without a plan, oh,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.”

And it is conveyed in the lyrics of You Asked Me To.

“Feel simple love is simple true
There’s no end to what I’d do
Just because you asked me.”

No male-female love, of either son to mother or between a man and his “gal.” Just chasing one’s tail and watching and waiting.

In another scene, the rangers view a tele-evangelist in their motel room. Jeff Bridges opines, “He wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit his pecker.” In the land of evangelical rural America, there is really no depth of faith, only religion as entertainment. God has become a snake who does not entice men into sex, but bites off a man’s penis.

But there is deep love in the movie, even though it is repressed and deformed. The father, Toby, is devoted to his two boys even though he cannot connect with them. He is attached at the heel to his sociopathic brother. Toby and Tanner clearly love one another and are willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. The two rangers, Marcus and Alberto, even though they pretend to have only disdain for one another, also share a deep love as confirmed in the climatic last scene. When Marcus learns the reason for the robberies, in the post-climactic encounter between Marcus and Toby, Marcus seems to have learned to replace his desire for revenge with a respect and even concern for the bank robber who got away. Toby in turn invites Marcus to drop in to his place in town for a drink.

The devil, as in all the old Western movies, is still the bank, in this case, the Midland Western Bank and the four branches the two brothers rob to “earn” enough money to pay off the reverse mortgage and the back taxes owed by their recently deceased mother, the same Midland Western Bank that moved to foreclose on the mother’s ranch after oil was discovered on the property. The film seems both contemporary as well as lifted from the dirty thirties. The instinct for survival is the dominant motive for living, even when Tanner is engaged in futile self-defence. The brothers simply try to retrieve what they feel is owed them from the institutions that seem to have betrayed them so much. The politics of resentment is on full display.

I cannot recall a film where the movie with such sparse (and very witty) dialogue relied so fully on the soundtrack of songs (evidently available in a separate CD), most by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The songs drive home the full meaning of the movie. The titles are an indication:

1. Comancheria (the original film title, the locale in Texas and New Mexico)
2. Dollar Bill Blues (Tones Van Zandt)
3. Mama’s Room (Aaron Bruno, Jamin Wilcox, Drew James Stewart)
4. Dust of the Chase (Billy Jo Shaver and Ray Waylon Hubbard)
5. Texas Midlands
6. Robbery
7. You Ask Me To (Waylon Jennings)
8. Mountain Lion Mean
9. Sleeping on the Blacktop (Colter Wall)
10. From My Cold Dead Hands
11. Lord of the Plains
12. Blood, Sweat and Murder (Scott H. Biram)
13. Casino
14. Comancheria II
15. Outlaw State of Mind
16. Hate Me (Christopher Fronzak, Sean Heenan, Christopher Link, Nader Salameh and Kalen Biehm)
17. Bakerman (John Guldberg, Tim Stahl and Arthur Stander)
18. Playing the Part (Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor)
19. You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ (Billy Jo Shaver)
20. I’m Not Afraid to Die (Gillian Welch)

The twenty titles alone provide the whole plot and the settings for the various scenes. In the song, Commancheria, a simple chord progression with pauses, carries with it a sense of longing and a lost world. As Alberto, the Comanche ranger, tells Marcus, my people once owned all this land. You dispossessed us and now you are being dispossessed by the oil companies and the financiers.

The lyrics of Dollar Bill Blues start with the chorus:
“If I had a dollar bill
Yes, I believe I surely will
Go to town and drink my fill
Early in the morning.”

The song then refers to a darling as a “red-haired thing” who makes my legs sing and a golden girl mother, whose throat he slit. There’s only going down and no saving of one’s soul.

Hell or High Water is a bleak and melancholic western presented with a sense of humour and irony. Released in August, it is now available on Netflix or I-Tube, I cannot recall which. Much better than a tele-evangelist!

Seattle

Seattle, Washington

by

Howard Adelman

We traveled from Victoria via the Victorian Clipper to Seattle on Sunday. Unfortunately, the windows were so salt encrusted that it was hard to discern what we were passing or to see the pod of Orcas that we passed en route – unless you went outside and braced yourself against the cold. I did for a short time, but my timing was not right for, at best, all I saw was the flip of a tail. Nevertheless, the sail was very smooth. There was what was regarded as a spectacular sunset by our fellow passengers, but given our experience with Georgian Bay sunsets, we were not equally overwhelmed.

Monday morning we spent in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market and Nancy resisted buying any more spices. Pike Place Chowder lived up to its famous reputation; the clam chowder we had for lunch was the best I have had ever tasted, including my fondest memories of eating chowder in Halifax. We spent the afternoon in the Seattle aquarium which is superb and should not be missed by any visitor who loves fish, colourful coral or watching otters being fed very expensive shrimp – they eat 25% of their weight. We just love a top notch aquarium, and the Seattle aquarium ranks among the best. We topped the day with a great Italian dinner at the Assaggio right next to the hotel where we were staying. My veal chop was tender and cooked to perfection. The vegetables were steamed just enough to retain their texture and flavour. Though I usually do not like gravy, the mashed potatoes with gravy from the veal were great. I am a confirmed meat and potatoes man.

Tuesday was a day for architecture and artisans. We began with a visit to a glass-blowing gallery. The most fortunate part of the visit is that the beautiful vases, bowls and other glass objects – including many gorgeous Christmas tree decorations that I usually dislike – were all made of glass. That meant that we could not purchase any glass artifacts because we could not take them with us given their fragility and the various changes of venue on our trip. But the visit was terrific and a great start to a day that would end with a visit to the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition.

Our next stop was the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle public reference library that was opened just over ten years ago. From both the outside and the inside, the shell is a futurist placing of geometrical diamond-shaped glass panes in a steel mesh in blocks each at odd angles that makes brutalism suddenly suave. Strength and playfulness are successfully combined. The structure reminded me of how a two-year-old plays with building blocks. The interior is really cool in the modernist sense of the term, but also very functional as you circle the central elevator shaft and watch readers, people working on their computers and even sleepers. Brutalist modern plywood impressed concrete is more or less restricted to the core.

What use is a library in a computer age? This structure shows how modern technology and our age-old reverence for hard copy books can be integrated as well as private study, meeting rooms and an auditorium with an excellent series of talks. The details speak for themselves. On the first floor, I could not figure out how they made the floor of slightly raised wooden letters from a multiplicity of alphabets – I assumed they were carved out of the wood, but, if so, that was very labour intensive. I loved the aluminum walkways, the polished concrete floors and the sense of space viewed from almost any angle. I also appreciated the way sound was kept from boomeranging, from the use of what looked like large silver-coloured puffy cushions on the ceiling to another ceiling with a surface that looked like an array of egg cartons.

We went from the library to the Northwest Woodworker’s Gallery in Belltown in Seattle, an area well on the way to complete gentrification. That was a great visit but I wished we were there with my son Daniel who has such an intimate knowledge of various woods and artisan techniques. The show was called the Box and Vessel s Since the featured artifact was a very playful and complex carving of a fantasy Noah’s ark, I assumed the show would be about carved boxes and ships. But the vessels referred to liquid containers of various sorts. There were very few of the beautifully made pieces that I would not have loved to have in our home.

The most exciting part of the day was the one I least expected. After a lunch at a restaurant, the Tilicum Place Café two blocks from the Space Needle, celebrated for its use of local produce and healthy food, that I had to admit was excellent – the spicy butternut squash soup was as good as Nancy’s – we went to the EMP Museum. This is a Frank Gehry designed structure. The Experience Music Project (EMP) design was evidently inspired by Gehry cutting up a guitar and the various parts influenced the shapes he used in creating the forms and shapes of the museum. I would not have recognized that had I not read the brochure and then saw a sky-view picture of the building revealing what was unmistakably akin to one of those broken guitars that rockers like to smash up in their performances.

Funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as a modern cathedral to his personal love of both rock and roll and science fiction movies, the EMP building is clad in coloured sheets of either aluminum or stainless steel. It certainly conveys fluidity, but not the beat of music. And certainly not the fear that is so celebrated in the section of the museum on horror film – concentrating almost exclusively on horror film of the gore variety. The building is a sculptured shell that reminded me, viewing from the ground, of the broken shell of a mollusk rather than of pieces of a broken guitar.

I thought the museum would be a nostalgic visit for Nancy to relive her experience of music as she grew up. However, the experience was surprisingly different. The monumental mountain of guitars as the sculpture at the centre of the building, with the guitars actually programmed to play various types of music – folk, country, bluegrass, blues as well as various varieties of rock – I did not listen to the latter – was really impressive. As it turned out, we did not spend much time in the galleries dedicated to Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, but instead explored in detail the gallery on horror films even though the exhbits overwhelmingly featured gore rather than psychological horror film makers. Even if I abhor such films, the history of the genre was interesting to follow, though the rationales the film makers gave for their love for that type of film was superficial and simplistic. But what can you expect from a genre that celebrates superficiality and simplicity in complex masquerades.

The science fiction section was far more into science fantasy films, with the greatest stress on fantasy and virtually none on science. Monsters, aliens, superhuman powers – all came to the fore. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating, informative and well-presented exploration. But the key reward was the section on music videos. I learned so much. I was surprised to find out that music videos went back to the origins of film, even earlier than The Jazz Singer. And some of the music videos we saw blew our minds (using pop cultural lingo). They were fascinating creations. Even though we sidestepped the galleries dedicated to video games, the three hours or so we spent in the museum were terrific, perhaps more so because I had been expecting only to endure the visit.

The Chihuly Garden and Glass building was far more exciting even than our visit to his installation at the King David Citadel and Tower in the Old City of Jerusalem that we saw in 2000. What a show! What a display of artistry using glass, though I must admit that after a few hours when I walked through the garden I had become overloaded and bored by the repetition that, in spite of claims to resemble nature, was different. Nature is never boring. My favourites were not the magnificent chandeliers and the glass forest and gardens, or even the magnificent Persian ceiling, but Macchia Forest and the exquisite bowls. It is so impressive how one artist can have such a profound and widespread effect on one artistic form. I never knew Chihuly came from Washington State.

We never took a ride on the Flash Gordon monorail since the hotel was halfway between the Space Needle and the next station. We also only walked around the Space Needle.

This morning we head further south along the Pacific Coast by car.