Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Music Notes--Blast of Brass 2009

On July 17, I had the opportunity to take my daughter to the Blast of Brass performance at Eastfield College, thanks to my friend and colleague Oscar Passley. I was treated to some fine music and an enjoyable evening. The performance featured the instructors and other professional performers that had been working all week with young brass players at the school in workshops and classes.
Each song played made me marvel at the versatility of instruments I guess I didn’t know that well. I was particularly impressed by the guest soloist, Scott Hartman, a trombone player I had had the chance to hear the day before in recital. His rendition of “Londonderry Air” (best known as “Danny Boy”) was marvelous.
Two interesting highlights for me were the student ensemble performance and the surprise guest. Playing the “Overture to H.M.S. Pinafore,” a student group calling themselves The Beastie Brass entertained the crowd of mostly students and their parents. Trumpet student Danial Gerona had many in the audience laughing and saying “Wow!” to his part of the show.
Another treat was the “unscheduled” entrance of Kurt Bradshaw, artistic director of the Dallas Jazz Orchestra. He led the group in an unrehearsed playing of “My One and Only You,” sung by the Darla Meek, narrator for the evening, to her husband, trombonist, conductor and Blast of Brass founder, Keith Meek.
The concert ended with the students joining the professionals on stage for Bach’s “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (“Sheep May Safely Graze”). There were lots of people up there, but the result was nice.

Blast of Brass is a wonderful way to support not only the young people working hard to improve their chops, but the mentors and performers who make that possible. I look forward to going again next year.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Music Notes--Random Axis at the Harbor

Last night I sat with my wife and friends to listen to Random Axis playing The Harbor in Rockwall. I really don’t have much to say about them. They were adequate, though they played a lot of mid-tempo songs like low tempo songs. They also played several tunes I’m not either not a fan of or I’m really tired of hearing. (I know it is darn near sacrilegious, but someone has to say “We Are Family” was never that good a song.) Don’t get me started on the plodding rap sections.
I did like the little Motown medley they began with. I laughed when one of the singers said they were going to “slow things down” a bit. But then they launched into “Georgia On My Mind,” which was the strongest performance of the evening. Then the group played a handful of dance numbers to close the set.
All my criticisms are likely moot. There was plenty of dancing and the crowd did ask for an encore. Though several people had left about an hour into the show, those that stayed seemed to really enjoy the performance. It seems most of the music Random Axis plays is not really for me, but that doesn’t make it bad. Kids dancing near the stage doesn't mean it was good either.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Music Notes--Quartet Live!

Ever since I read that Pat Metheny was working some dates with his Berklee mentor, Gary Burton, I have been anticipating this album. Adding to my giddiness is the fact that one of the best bassists in jazz, Steve Swallow, and the heir apparent to Jack DeJohnette, Antonio Sanchez, are on this recording.
The disc opens with the lively Chick Corea composition “Sea Journey.” At once I could see this was a Burton led ensemble, with four mallet vibes blazing away, but there is plenty of room for the other players. Metheny’s solo, as on the other tracks is delicious.
Next comes “Olhos de Gato,” one of two tunes written by Carly Bley, who composed many of the songs recorded by Burton’s groups when Metheny was the guitarist. Next is Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace,” a treat every time it is recorded. Metheny’s solo here is one of his usual masterpieces in controlled fury.
Dreamy without being sleepy, both Burton and Metheny give inspired solos on the next tune, a Keith Jarrett piece entitled “Coral.” Then we have Burton’s tribute to Hank Garland, “Walter L.” This is one of the most rockin’ bluesy songs in the collection, Metheny shredding like mad.
Three Pat Metheny compositions find a place on Quartet Live. One is the ballad “B & G”. Burton’s solo on this one demonstrates where pupils like Metheny got their sense of timely improvisation. This is a song from Metheny’s early days, and his own solo impressed me. At one point he is playing very fast notes, but in the midst of the slow tempo song it sounds right. Fine backing from Swallow, Sanchez, and Burton make a big difference here.
“B & G” is followed by “Missouri Uncompromised,” a bopping number that features a fine solo from Antonio Sanchez. Hearing it made it even more jealous for the people at Yoshi’s that got to see it live. Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine (Little African Flower)” comes right after this, and it shows these musicians can make a classic sound modern without losing the flavor of the original.
“Hullo, Bolins” is next. On Pat Metheny’s website, this song is described as “a catchy jazz waltz that suggests what Chopin might have sounded like if he was reborn today as a jazz musician.” I don’t think I could say it any better. This is followed by the other Carla Bley composition on Quartet Live, “Syndrome.” This was one of the first songs I heard on a Gary Burton recording, and I really like the treatment it is given here.
Quartet Live closes with one of my favorite Pat Metheny songs, “Question and Answer.” Clocking in at just over thirteen minutes, not a single moment is wasted. We are treated another nice solo by Sanchez. Here is the only tune with Metheny soloing on the guitar synth, which might throw a few listeners, but is it does work. He moves deftly from this to a regular guitar riff until the sounds dissolve into the applause of the enthusiastic crowd.
This recording is a reunion of three of members of the original Gary Burton Quartet and the songs have all been captured before. But Quartet Live is fresh and new, the production so clean that it sounds like the band is playing in your living room. Get this and hear four great musicians who play as if jazz was invented for them.

Music Notes--Four Duke

I ran across this CD in my library and wondered why I had not listened to it in awhile. For the past couple of days, it has accompanied my work.
Four Duke features Jay Leonhart on bass (and the occasional scat singing), Gary Burton on vibes, Joe Beck on guitar, and Terry Clark playing drums in a tribute to the great Duke Ellington. All the players are in top form, and the recording sounds as fresh as if it had been recorded yesterday.
This disc demonstrates (as if proof was necessary) that Ellington is one of this country’s greatest songwriters. It is hard for me to pick a favorite tune, but perhaps their version of “Caravan” is one of the most exciting I’ve heard in years. “Azure” and “Satin Doll” had me swaying in my seat at the computer. “In a Mellow Tone” and “Cottontail” had me tapping my toes (I would have been snapping my fingers, but I did have stuff to do). And “Take the A Train,” a duet between Leonhart and Burton, is plain fun to listen to.
If you like good jazz, or if you want something tasty to listen to while you work (not that this is wallpaper music), get Four Duke. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself nodding your head or dancing in your cubicle.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bookmarks -- The Devil's Tour

Mary Karr is probably best known for her memoir The Liar’s Club. In the past few years, she has become a bit infamous for her essay, “Against Decoration,” in which she lambasts the kind of poetry that says nothing and hides behind “ornaments,” the kind of verse Donald Hall would later call McPoems. These little verses come out of workshops and graduate programs whose main goal is to pad the vita and land teaching assignments for its participants.
Karr’s poetry comes from life -- joyous, painful, and real -- and if more volumes were like those in The Devil’s Tour, we would have no reason to believe poetry in America was dying.
Her second volume of verse, The Devil’s Tour is much about the hells we make and endure in our own lives. The book opens with the brutally beautiful “Coleman,” about a black friend viciously murdered by boys in town who could cover up their crime by calling it a “hunting accident.” The event of the poem is not just the murder, but also joy of their friendship beforehand and the memory after: “you rode that ghost horse/hard and recklessly against the dark,//but could not break it.” Events like these are addressed in this book are the building blocks of a soul wandering the earth, not mere recollections.
Many of the poems in The Devil’s Tour are centered around the relationships the author has as mother, daughter, friend, and lover. Those that I found most moving and honest were the poems addressed to Karr’s parents. One does not have to have read The Liar’s Club or Cherry to understand the struggle to take from one’s parents only the good and the difficulty of giving back to them as much as our love contains. In “Her One Bad Eye,” Karr writes,
We are dead to each other
that way, though she opened
her body to let me shine
weeping into this world,
and sometimes I feel her
looking through me to
that other world. Blind, this way
we stare at each other like corpses.
Dan Chaisson, staunch defender of the McPoem, ironically criticized Karr for writing poems that seemed to come from the workshop or that were unaware of their audience. But these salvos come from the offices of a magazine that openly criticizes Karr and other Christian poets (like Franz Wright) merely for being Christian. I don’t know if Karr had yet entered the Catholic Church when she published this work in 1993, but one sees in these poems a sacramental vision of the universe, where the things of the earth (including suffering) become the avenues where grace can enter. These are poems from someone who has something to say.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Movie Notes--The Wrestler

Last week, I watched The Wrestler, and I saw why so many feel that Mickey Rourke has begun a comeback as an actor. I can’t remember a better performance from him.
Rourke plays once great wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Years have passes since his heyday, but The Ram keeps plugging away at the only thing he’s ever been good at. He has lost some of his hearing and his body has nearly been crushed by the pounding it has taken. He is forced to augment what little he makes in the ring with a nothing job at WalMart like establishment, dealing with a boss that belittles his other career. Drugs and alcohol have become routine, and Randy spends most of his spare time in a strip club looking at Marisa Tomei. But it is hard not to cheer for this guy.
Much of the story centers on Randy trying to reconnect with his daughter, played ably by Evan Rachel Wood. While there are moments that get sweet and may look to be cliché, the whole tale is painful, raw and honest. The sadness here is real.
While the “sport” of pro wrestling here an act, it is one that demands greatly physicality and athleticism on the part of the participants. I was really impressed by not only the fight scenes themselves, but the conversations and planning sessions between wrestlers. Much of the film was shot in a documentary style, which provided the viewer a chance to feel emotions honestly, not in some cheap, contrived way. The movie may move a little slowly for some, but the payoff is great.
I suspect some wrestling fans will not like this film, and that those who do not like wrestling will shy away from it. But wrestling here is not merely a metaphor for how one deals with life, but also for how one accepts and shapes reality. The Wrestler is a good, rich movie, period.

Music Notes--The Pictures at The Harbor

Austin’s party band The Pictures played The Harbor last Thursday night and pleased the large crowd with mostly dance tunes, though a couple of rock and pop songs augmented the set. Lots of people got up to dance, and it looked like most everyone was having a good time.
Though well done, the band did play three Michael Jackson tunes. That was overkill to me, but as I said, they did a fine job with them. Most of the dance songs came off well, except their version of the Bee Gees classic “Stayin’ Alive,” the band sounding as if they were not in sync. Even though at least four of the tunes were also played by last week’s group (Moving Colors), including Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl,” they showed why they have a full performing schedule.

Speaking of sync, one criticism I have of the performance is the use of prerecorded or synchronized music. It was most apparent in the second tune of the night, Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September,” a horn laden song where neither of the two keyboards were played. Something made those sounds, and it wasn’t any of the instruments on the stage. In some songs, I could tell that there was more percussion going out than was being played. For me, this was distracting. I don’t think most in attendance cared, however.
All these problems aside, The Pictures does know how to work the crowd. There was a lot of dancing in front of the stage. My own kids got pretty worn out. I was disappointed that near the end of the set, when they played a nice version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” so many people started to go. But enough stayed to ask for an encore and the band did a rousing rendition of AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long.”

Saturday, July 18, 2009

T.V. Notes--Harper's Island

I watched every episode of the CBS mini-series Harper’s Island and I now feel like a survivor—a survivor of an attack on art and time. The show was just good enough to keep interest, but as the series rolled along, I was interested not in who the killer would turn out to be or which person was going to meet a gruesome death, but in just how many times the writers would pull plot devices out of their asses.

Harper’s Island is bit like a horror film soap opera, only tame enough for primetime television. The story revolves around the wedding of Abby Mills’ best friend (a guy by the way). Abby has come to the island for the first time in seven years after John Wakefield killed her mother and several other people. The homecoming isn’t all about dealing with her grief and terror, but also her relationship with her father and the abrupt end of her relationship with cute and rugged Jimmy Mance. In each episode, one or more the group are killed in some gruesome fashion, and of course fear and suspicion reign as they all try to figure out who is behind all the dastardly deeds.
The series has what every bad horror film and soap opera seems to need: stupid young people. Nearly every character makes brash statements and then acts most real people, even heedless youngsters, would not. Of course, sometimes these actions lead to someone’s death, but most often they just drag the story around. The side narratives (infidelity, a bag of money found near a dead man, a man trying to propose to his witless lover) do not deepen the chronicle, but are just tedious detours that help the viewer either endure or prolong the agony of the hackneyed main story.
As a mystery, I think the writer’s cheated the viewers. The flower girl, for example, after being abducted and released keeps providing the others with clues and interesting details, but only when it serves the plot. When we get to the end and find out who the bad guy is, we are not really shocked so much as we are appalled that the motivation for the killing spree seems to come out of nowhere. And any characters that are halfway interesting get killed off. I’m not proud to say that I kept hoping for the flower girl to get it.
Harper’s Island might have been fine for a two hour movie or possibly a couple weekly slots, but on the whole it was just thin and messy. Watch it at the risk of losing many hours of your life.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Music Notes--Moving Colors at The Harbor

We caught Moving Colors last Thursday at The Harbor, and were treated to a really fine set. The band played with a lot of energy and enthusiasm matched only by the crowd. I was impressed that group performed tight arrangements of a number of hit songs, but never seemed over rehearsed. Moving Colors also managed to move well through a diverse playlist of tunes from artists like Journey, U2, and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Beyonce and The Commodores.
One reason Moving Colors impressed me is that they managed to keep me interesting in songs I really don’t like, such as Christiana Aguilara’s “Ain’t No Other Man” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Tunes I do like came off pretty well too. I enjoyed their version of Prince's "1999" and their little Michael Jackson tribute. They did interesting rendition of U2’s “Vertigo,” adding some drumming on plastic tubs. The video I took of them (that I can't seem to upload to Blogger) doesn’t do much justice to how they performed the tune.
During the set, members of the band contributed to a painting in the background. The painting was only mentioned briefly once, but it was interesting to see. The beach ball bouncing around the audience was an interesting way to get people to recognize their website name, but it became comical watching people fail to move the ball along. An elderly lady in front of me must have gotten knocked in the noggin about four times.
My only knock on the performance was that they seemed to hide the sax player, whose name I cannot find, in the back of the stage. I suspect he is not a regular member of the band since they mentioned the absence of another musician, but this guy could wail. He made a huge difference in the sound, reminding me of Charlie DeChant from Hall and Oates. There are only a handful of horn players who alone can make a group sound better (it is difficult to follow in the footsteps of Clarence Clemons). Many horn players are relegated to soloing on a couple of tunes and tossed off stage for most of the set. The group would do well to feature him a bit more.
If you get a chance to catch Moving Colors, do it. If you need to make room in your calendar, do it. You are very likely to have a good time with this fun and exciting band.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Publication Notes--July 2009

Well, it has been awhile since I updated here, and there isn't much to say. I went for some time not submitting work for a variety of reasons, mostly because I was very busy with school. Now that I am home for the summer, I have begun sending work out again.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my poem "Cares" was published at Pond Ripples Magazine in their May issue. The nice editor had accepted another piece from a batch I had sent her, and I had assumed she was not interested in the other poems. Now I am in the unusual position of having to withdraw the piece from a submission elsewhere.

This morning read an email saying that my poem "Moments Before the Voice Lesson" has been accepted at The Houston Literary Review. Now I have to find a halfway decent picture to send them.

Wrestling Light (my Geocities website) is going away soon, so I have been making plans for a new site, one that will likely be a bit leaner. I plan to include a page to list publications with links to where my work can be found on the web. I'll place a link here when that happens. Feel free to drop me a line with any suggestions.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Movie Notes -- Forgetting Sarah Marshall

When this flick was first advertised, I thought that it looked interesting. Then in the chaos of life, I forgot about it. Now I wish I could get it out of my head. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is as terrible as a movie can get. As one is a long list of romantic comedies, it is neither romantic nor funny.
The absurd plot involves Peter Bretter (played by Jason Segal) who takes a vacation in Hawaii after his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), breaks up with him. Unfortunately, Sarah and her (sort of) new boyfriend, rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) is not only in Hawaii, but also in pretty much every place Peter goes. Hotel clerk Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis) helps Peter have a good time (even putting him in an expensive suite he cannot afford in a move that does nothing but advance the story) and the two become attracted to each other. Yip-freakin-ee.
In the first five minutes, viewers are treated to Jason Segal’s penis three times. First time was chuckle worthy. After that, it was just stupid. We get one more shot before the movie is over. Before one accuses me of being a prude, I could help but think that we don’t get to see any female parts (unless you count the picture of Mila Kunis topless, which I don’t because it is not real).
I suppose the intent here might be to make fun of the sex as love idea in movies, but what we get in the sex scenes is really some sort of comic porn. Well, maybe not so much because it isn’t really funny and nothing to get aroused by (unless the viewer is an adolescent). What we get is at best a silly story with lots of uncomfortable jokes about sex and Segal’s member on screen four times. The subplots involving the brother in law and the newlywed couple were more interesting, though they distracted from the overall story.
One of the bits of hype for this film is that it came from the producers of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. I haven’t yet seen the latter movie, but The 40 Year Old Virgin was hilarious and clever. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was just goofy. But now I can see why it garnered nominations for Teen Choice awards. In its few good moments, it is juvenile.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Music Notes--Petty Theft at The Harbor

On a hot July evening, as I sat at The Harbor in Rockwall, I came some realizations about the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It has always seemed laid back, enjoyable in its way, but not really my thing. Something that is nice in tiny doses, but not for long periods of time. It occurred to me as I listened to the tribute band Petty Theft that I had never listened to Tom Petty for more than a few minutes at a time, probably during some kind of rock block on one of the local stations.
Not that Petty Theft couldn’t pull off a fine set. They managed to get through much of the better known tunes adequately, though they also left off a handful of notables like “You Got Lucky and “Breakdown.” People in the audience who were real fans of Tom Petty seemed to enjoy the performance. I noticed a few singing along even with tunes I had only heard a couple of times.They even spiced things up with a couple songs by the Byrds in the middle of the show.
There were a couple technical problems. Particularly in the beginning of the show, the vocals were not harmonized as tightly as one might hope with a group that’s been around as long as this one has. Also, I got the impression that they didn’t want the audience to hear any solos since when the time came for one – on both guitar and keyboards—it was either very low or couldn’t be heard.
If you are a fan of Tom Petty, these guys are probably worth checking out. They seem to get many gigs in the DFW metroplex. This was third year at The Harbor, and I suspect they’ll be back next year. But I may skip that show.