Wednesday, November 28, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1963

In many ways, 1963 was the last year of the '50s. The repressed social mores were still intact, pop culture was largely conservative and non-threatening, and the world we knew was mostly quiet and boring. Most people will argue the '60s --or at least what we consider to be the '60s-- didn't really began until after President Kennedy's sudden and tragic assassination that November. In fact, some of the seeds were planted in the year or two immediately before that fateful day in Dallas. Surf rock was king, the Brill Building was queen, folk blared from the coffee shops, and the British Invasion was in its planning stages.

Looking at the big picture, 1963 was mostly about jazz. This was a year that could almost rival 1956, 1959 or 1964 as one of the greatest 12-month spans ever for the distinctly American musical genre. '63 was also a banner year for the legendary Blue Note label, as evidenced by nine of the twelve jazz albums listed below. The giants of the era (Miles, Mingus, Monk) could be depended upon for masterpieces and career-defining works, while the young guns (Hancock, Hill, Green) were challenging the form and building formidable reputations.

1. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Charles Mingus. As much a conceptual piece about love and struggle as it is Mingus' most personal work, this is probably the greatest achievement in orchestration by any jazz musician ever. Written as a ballet in six parts, Mingus and his eleven-piece band bounce between haunting blues and dancing vivacity with equal precision. Famously deemed "The Angry Man of Jazz," Mingus was in treatment for much of Black Saint's production and his psychotherapist famously wrote the album's liner notes.
2. Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Davis. Going into '63, Miles was in flux. Health problems forced him to cancel several concert dates, and amidst the uncertainty his original quintet left for greener pastures. Landing on his feet Davis launched his second great quintet, including Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and a teenage Anthony Williams. The result is fresh, startling blend of new and old, with the instant classic title track tag-teaming with Louis Armstrong's "Basin Street Blues."
3. Back at the Chicken Shack, Jimmy Smith. The finest session by the man who "invented" the jazz organ contains probably his defining composition, a 10-minute jam that spotlighted then-unknown saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Recorded in 1960, Chicken Shack inexplicably sat on a shelf for three years; it likely found daylight when Turrentine broke out as a leader and composer. Is this a strong soul-jazz effort, or a fore-bearer of funk?
4. Monk's Dream, Theolonius Monk
5. Black Fire, Andrew Hill
6. Idle Moments, Grant Green
7. The Sidewinder, Lee Morgan
8. One Step Beyond, Jackie McLean
9. Our Man in Paris, Dexter Gordon
10. My Point of View, Herbie Hancock. Speaking of Herbie, his second full-length as a leader was simultaneously daring (five original compositions), adventurous (two words: "King Cobra") and incredibly skillful. Featuring Grant Green and several past and present members of Miles Davis' quintet --drummer Tony Williams was so in-demand at 17 years old, its absurd-- Hancock's versatility and innate ability to arrange his supporting cast bode well for his later work.

Honorable Mention: Good Move!, Freddie Roach; Never Let Me Go, Stanley Turrentine.

1. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan. His second album (and first of mostly original music) and the one that defined who Dylan was, what he was doing, and where he was taking folk music. The protest songs steal the show, with "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and the vicious "Masters of War" being the album highlights. Until Blonde on Blonde three years later, this was the folk album to beat.
2. Please Please Me, The Beatles. Much like the debut albums of their contemporaries Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, the Fab Four's first full-length is a fine listening experience trumped only by their later, more essential works. The Beatles' template is already there, though there's a certain innocence and naïveté not heard in their other albums. Recorded in 24 hours, Please Please Me sounds effortless.
3. Live at the Apollo, James Brown. Give it up for Soul Brother Number One! Capturing a certain panache and swagger that his studio recordings could barely capture, JB drives through his early hits as an exuberant audience eats out of his hand. A candidate for the best live album of all time, in any genre, in any era.

Honorable Mention: In Dreams, Roy Orbison.

"Louie Louie," The Kingsmen
"Walk Like a Man," The Four Seasons
"One Fine Day," The Chiffons
"It's My Party," Lesley Gore
"Pipeline," The Chantays
"Wipeout," The Surfaris
"Surf City," Jan & Dean
"Rhythm of the Rain," The Cascades
"I Will Follow Him," Little Peggy March
"Be My Baby," The Ronettes

Your thoughts?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

My Eighth Annual Thanks/No Thanks List

Happy Thanksgiving, or to all my Canadian friends, "happy Thursday."

I suppose some of you are wondering what happened last week. My current temp job and my other pursuits had overwhelmed me, and long story short for the first time since December 2005 I sat out a week from the blog. When something like this happens, I take a quick step backwards and try to figure out how this could happen. For the past three months I've been averaging between 6 and 6 1/2 hours a sleep per night, and rarely napping in between. My temp job is in Aurora, IL (a 35 to 45 minute drive from Downers Grove) and I'm at the office 40+ hours each week. Outside of work, I drive to the city for various improv activities (about two or three nights a week) and for a period of three weeks or so I had to do household chores and finance-related tasks that are normally performed by my mother. Real life took priority, and something had to give in.

As for my mother, though she's had more critical health issues in the past --which I've described in dramatic detail in the past-- I want to emphasize that she's okay at the moment. She went to the hospital the night of October 24th with stomach pains, which was later revealed to be a swollen gallbladder. (This was her second time in ER last month, after having a reaction to her Parkinson's medication.) She ended up spending the next two weeks in a hospital bed, than another 10 days in a physical rehab center.  For the time being, she is hobbling around the house with a mini-catheter until her gallbladder is removed sometime next month. Again, she's not in dire straits by any means, but I'll take any thoughts and good vibes you send our way.

With that said, I give thanks to...

  • The Chicago improv community
  • My temp agencies
  • Those annoying campaign ads are over with (for now)
  • Twitter and Facebook
  • The support of my friends and family

Also, I give a hearty "no thanks" to...

Next week: at long last, my look at the year in music 1963.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

My Thoughts on Anne Hathaway/Rihanna (SNL, 11/10/12)

As some of you know, I edit the Saturday Night Live episode guide at, as well as moderate the adjoining show discussion board. I cut and paste my thoughts on the show from Wordpad, but this past week I had great and inexplicable difficulty loading my review onto the site. It's a problem I've never encountered before and hopefully never again. After eight days of headaches (and no other blog  entry to write this week) I finally share my two cents on Episode 38.7, hosted by Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway:

+ Tonight's cold open was a fine capper to a zany election season. While it wasn't entirely a character assassination of Mitt Romney, it poked holes at the right wing and how the GOP lost the race more so than the candidate. Compared to her Weekend Update appearance six weeks ago Kate's Ann impression was subdued, veering into docile; save for the voice it didn't feel like a real imitation. I loved the gag about Mitt's lookalike sons, though.
+ For those of you that aren't into show tunes (I'm certainly not) the monologue was a parody of the Les Miserables showstopper "One Day More."  The meta jokes with the cast (Suds was a writer for parts of two years, Robbo and Aidy are gasping for airtime) felt unnecessary, yet refreshingly honest.
+ Of all the filmed segments this season, "Mokiki and The Sloppy Swish" was probably the closest to a real Digital Short we've seen all year. At times, it also felt like it a potential novelty hit along the lines of "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick in a Box."  The clip felt like an Instagramed fever dream, a reggae-meets-dubstep jam about a deranged man in kabuki gear, dancing (limping?) around various New York sites.
+ Last week's "Homeland" reference in a cold open might have been a teaser for tonight's lampoon. Anyone who gripes that SNL doesn't do enough movie/TV parodies should have been placated... as long as they subscribe to Showtime, I guess. Plus, I love a good jazz freakout.
+ "Four... more... years... of... gridlock!"
+ Even though "Ellen" was a spot-on parody and K-Mac's impression was aces, it often felt too detailed to connect. In fact, there was a weird lack of momentum until Anne reprised her Katie Holmes impression. More bread than sandwich, really.
+ First the Apple sketch last month, now "American Gothic." Somebody at SNL must have an intense dislike for Asians.
+ My congratulations to Rihanna upon being the first musical guest ever to appear on SNL four seasons in a row. Also, congrats on being the third scheduled musical guest to appear twice in a six month span (Leon Redbone, Levon Helm). However Miss Fenty, your new jam "Diamonds" is an audiovisual hot mess, a mashup of cheesy green-screen and unintelligible thumping. The live debut of your ballad "Stay" was dainty but tolerable.
+ Also, thank you Flaritin for finally calling people out on their gluten and yogurt "allergies."
+ I had some skepticism, but Anne is turning into a fine go-to host. Anne's not afraid to wear wigs, she runs well with the cast (especially the soon-to-depart Suds), and she has energy to spare. However, by a sliver this was probably the weakest of her three stints on SNL. After last week's triumphant Louie C.K. show, a letdown was expected but the general effort was competent enough for a passing grade.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Morning After, 2012

With my hectic schedule of late (improv, temp work, etc.) it has been a daunting challenge to post a weekly dispatch by Tuesday evening. The only advantage to a looser deadline in lieu of my usual rigid, self-imposed cutoff is that I comment on news when they happen. I knew I wouldn't have time on Monday or Tuesday to write anything so, therefore I can write about the election almost as it happens.

+ In the words of Michael Steele: "This was not a repudiation of conservatism, but the way the our party presented conservatism." It's not so much that Romney lost as the GOP did. As the party keeps shifting further to the right, their best hope against the incumbent president was forced to flip-flop and tweak his stance on certain issues. Say what you will about Romney being an out of touch opportunist, but he is a dyed-in-the-wool moderate conservative and he was never going to appease Tea Partiers.

+ Claire McCaskill didn't win reelection in Missouri so much as Todd Akin lost. Ditto for Joe Donnelly and Dick Mourdock in Indiana. There was a sharp uptic in female voters in both states (and the nation in general) and it had a lot to do with the bullheaded comments Akin and Mourdock made about sexual assault. As a result, the second-most vulnerable branch of the government --that it to say, the U.S. Senate-- in this race tips slightly more in favor of the Democrats. (Not to salt wounds, but I also extend my congratulations to Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, the first lesbian ever elected to the U.S. Senate.)

+ Florida is still up for grabs? Gee, what a surprise.

+ The network and cable news coverage alike was a tad over the top. NBC had what looked like a skating rink dyed with Mio, and CNN had a long, tacky graphic/musical overture combo that announced every state result. An exhausted Diane Sawyer spent all night acting like somebody's drunk aunt at a family get-together. Fox News' all-around meltdown after Obama clinched Ohio was a like a car wreck; almost unwatchable, yet you couldn't look away...

+ Finally, a point to ponder. You know all those internet memes and "shared" photos that painted President Obama as a socialist/fascist/communist/Kenyan-born radical with no evidence behind them? Or better yet, all those accusations of taking away the guns, apologizing to world leaders, and shutting down America's churches, also without any proof? How about the hack writings of Dr. Jerome Corsi and Dinesh D'Souza? You know, the empty bombast that overwhelmed and distracted from any serious, concrete criticisms of the president?

That sure worked, didn't it?

Next week: the year in music, 1963.

Friday, November 2, 2012

My Final Thoughts on the 2012 Election

Every election year, I've been writing a pep talk of sorts to the American people. That may sound grandiose, but during a contested election it helps me put the whole ugly process into perspective, and with any luck I'm helping you as well. It seems every election has grown in importance and cruciality since the last one, and the need to our faith in the state of the nation via voting constantly grows more imperative.

With Decision 2012 looming near, a fair percentage of the nation is pretty distracted. Hurricane Sandy and the lingering superstorm has caused great duress along the eastern seaboard, providing a sobering alternative to non-stop election coverage. When compared to the petty bickering and character assassination that dominates modern politics, the endless cycle of lies looks petty and irrelevant when you see the damage done in Staten Island and certain parts of New Jersey and Delaware. From the perspective of a native Illinoisan, separated from various natural disasters by hundreds of miles in every direction, part of me wonders whether I'm lucky to be where I am, or if a comparable tragedy is overdue. I'm don't feel I'm the right mindset and more than likely neither do you.

With that said there's an old saying that when if you don't vote, you lose your right to complain for the next four years. In today's polarized political arena, that couldn't be more true. For every person that intentionally stays home, a tiny sliver of democracy dies. Public opinion of President Obama and Governor Romney borders on apathetic, and their support mostly begrudging, but we have to exercise our right to vote regardless. The stakes are too high to pretend to not pay attention.

This will probably be my last missive before the election, so I implore anyone reading this to vote on November 6th. Regardless of your opinion of either presidential candidate, the fate of the nation rests in the hands of its people. As exasperating as the current establishment may be, you have to believe in America, and this is the best way of expressing that faith. Is our country better off than it was four years ago? You can tell me on Tuesday.