From the archives: July 2009

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Kung fu pandering

Sunday, 12 July 2009 — 6:09pm | Animation, Film

Every now and then I chip away at a series of critical essays about why Pixar Animation Studios is head and shoulders above everybody else in modern commercial American cinema. I will probably never finish it. It has expanded to the point where I’m not sure whether to stretch it just a little further to cover the studio’s entire feature-length output (and a few of the shorts for good measure), or condense it by scrapping the more platitudinous arguments; because a lot of what Pixar does right is, in my mind, obvious.

It is far more succinct to inspect an example of animation done wrong. And so I present John Kricfalusi’s illustrated horror story about a pitch meeting with DreamWorks executives tragically dispossessed of a clue. Here is the DreamWorks process:

  1. Pick an “arena”—like woods, or the sea.
  2. Put funny animals in it.
  3. Match every species with a celebrity voice.

Is anybody surprised?

(For the record, I found Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, and the first Shrek to be capable entertainments: there was a competence to them and an ambition to do more than game the market for laughs. With the tacit exception of the short-lived distribution deal with Aardman that gave us Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, I’m not sure if I can say that for anything else with the DreamWorks Animation stamp.)

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Greenie’s Blues

Saturday, 11 July 2009 — 10:23pm | Jazz, Music

Prowlers of Wikipedic biographies may have come across the factoid that Alan Greenspan was once a Juilliard-educated jazz musician who played with Stan Getz. What you may not know, however, is that “Greenie” was allegedly a very good jazz musician—or could have been, were he not intimidated out of it by the best. As Joe Queenan reports in The Weekly Standard:

Napolitano was in the room the night Greenspan’s supernova career fizzled out. It was September 14, 1949, and Greenspan found himself in the same Greenwich Village club as John Coltrane. Coltrane, a convivial sort, went out of his way to be friendly to the youngster, but Greenspan was having none of it. Sax at the ready, he challenged Coltrane to an onstage showdown. It was a mistake he would regret for the rest of his life.

“Trane smoked his ass,” Parnell remembers. “Greenie foolishly tore into ‘Cherokee,’ Charlie Barnet’s old standby, but Trane knew that tune inside out from his days in Kansas City. Greenie tried to keep up, but no chance. Trane didn’t rile easily, but something about the way Greenie carried himself didn’t suit John. Trane took him apart.”

(No, it isn’t true. But, much like the Orson Welles film of The Bat-Man, it’s a story one wants to believe.)

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You’ll know the real thing when you hear it

Monday, 6 July 2009 — 9:16pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Kenny Werner performed in Edmonton on Thursday with his touring quintet (Randy Brecker (trumpet), David Sanchez (tenor sax), Scott Colley (bass), Antonio Sanchez (drums)). I am pleased to say it was one of the most complete jazz concerts I’ve seen, full of vitality and character at every turn.

Let me put it this way. After Werner whistled along to his own piano outro at the tail end of his lovely, lovely composition, “Uncovered Heart”—which he introduced as the song he wrote on the day his daughter was born—my classical composer companion leaned over to me and whispered, “So I’ve decided on his behalf that he is going to have more children.”

In retrospect, were we unable to plead ignorance it would have been a callous remark. What Mr Werner did not tell us was that his beloved daughter had perished in a car accident two years earlier. I suppose he trusted the music to speak for itself—and it did.

The band played a set consisting mostly of originals from his 2007 album Lawn Chair Society (“New Amsterdam”, “Uncovered Heart”, “The 13th Day”), but in a wholly acoustic setting, plus an unrecorded tune (“Balloons”, a lilting piece that bobbed up and down in thirds) and John Williams’ signature melody for the Harry Potter films (“Hedwig’s Theme”).

One can go on forever about how jazz is the quintessentially American music, and nowhere is it more American than in its ideal of individual liberty as the wellspring of greater collective achievement. This was one of those bands where every musician was consistently interesting to listen to, yet never selfish. Brecker’s dizzying bebop lines were an ample foil for David Sanchez’s wide expressive sweeps, and Antonio Sanchez was a real listener who clearly thought in ideas much bigger than patterns and strokes. Colley was a discovery for me, particularly the way he used pizzicato bass to trace smooth legato shapes and do far more than walk. And of Werner’s facility for drawing singsong melodies out of the piano, the more said the better. Elsewhere he cites Joni Mitchell as his primary musical influence, and I believe him.

Werner’s quintet was current, situated in the here and now and doing something fresh, while staying within an accessible jazz aesthetic with traditional instrumentation. The funk-and-swing pastiche of “New Amsterdam” highlighted the continued richness of acoustic instruments in predominantly electric forms, and the screaming intensity of “Hedwig’s Theme” harked back, however distantly, to what John Coltrane did to “My Favorite Things” decades ago. (I don’t hear nearly enough John Williams in jazz: up to the 1960s the adaptation of iconic themes from contemporary cinema and Broadway productions was a matter of course, and one would think that Williams, the definitive composer of film music from 1970 to present, would elicit more widespread treatment.)

There’s plenty of good jazz in the world. But great jazz? You’ll know it when you hear it—and I heard it.

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