Thursday, February 28, 2008

Boudin, Le Roi Du Ciel

Now, with the last of winter tumbling into spring, the two seasons share a common space and the skies reflect the push and pull between them.

It's a time when I appreciate Eugene Boudin - the 19th century French painter to whom the master of the poetic landscape, Corot, proclaimed one day "You are king of the skies!".
Boudin,who was born in Honfleur in Normandy, spent most of his life painting in this vicinity, where the winds off the English Channel hit the seashore resorts of Deauville and Trouville. Here he loved to counterpoint his skies against the shoreline where the crinoline-clad ladies and top-hatted gentlemen, children and umbrellas, were all scattered and grouped across the horizon like so many colored stones or nestled villages.

Only on occasion would he venture abroad, notably to the emerald coast of Brittany where he met his wife, then in later years to Venice where he captured the calmer skies and watery reflections.

Though early in his career, he barely scraped out a living (at times facing starvation and contemplating suicide) he was already applauded by fellow artists and poets of renown. Baudelaire, as was his fashion, (at least with a chosen few) waxed rhapsodic after seeing a showing of Boudin's work.

"At the end, all these clouds in their fantastic and brilliant forms, these chaotic darknesses, these suspended and added the one to the others green and pink immensities, these gaping volcanoes, these firmaments of black or purple and crumpled, rolled or torn satin, these horizons in mourning or flowing of melted metal, all these depths, all this magnificence went up to my brain as a heady drink or as the eloquence of opium...."

I believe Baudelaire was referring, here, to some of Boudin's watercolors which were looser than the early oils. His oil renderings of the skies were not so much
spectacular in themselves but subtly suffused and enfolded the landscape beneath in the embrace of their delicate whims and dramatic moods.

Like Daubigny, Courbet, Corot, Whistler, and even to some extent Edouard Manet, Boudin was a godfather to the Impressionists; revered and even sharing exhibitions with them but always on the periphery of the movement. He never quite gave himself over to (and I'm personally relieved at this) the overriding absorption with light and color - "impressions" - that his early admirer Monet became noted for. Boudin retained a solidity of form and composition that was a remnant of an earlier time, despite the free flowing strokes that formed his skies and seas.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Giulietta, Lo Spippolo

Today is the birthday of Giulietta Masina, the Italian actress noted for her roles in the most well known of Fellini's early films, La Strada and Notti Di Cabiria. She also happened to be Fellini's wife for 40 some years until they passed away within months of one another; he in October 1993 and she in March of 1994.

Despite the close connection between the two, creatively and as polar personalities and physical opposites, Giulietta was a great talent regardless, winning accolades and awards as a supporting actress before appearing in her husband's films.

Giulietta had the natural whimsical grace of a mime and dancer and was often referred to as the female Chaplin in Europe. At a little under 5ft. she had waif-like appearance that made her a comic natural and an amusing counterpoint to Anthony Quinn's strongman, Zampano, in La Strada.

Fellini's own nickname for her was Lo Spippolo which is a slang word meaning "any small thing that inspires tenderness".

Early in life she displayed musical talent but with fingers that were to small to progress at the piano, she had more success at the violin. Her appearance on the dancing stage appeared comic or limited by her appearance and so, she was, in a sense, derailed into the theatre and radio where she found her niche preceding her film roles.

For myself and many others, the culmination and fulfillment of her screen talent was in the role of Cabiria, the resilient but perennially ill-fated prostitute in
Le Notti Di Cabiria
My favorite scene featuring Giulietta in this movie occurs when "Cabiria" wanders into a vaudeville house where a hypnotist ( masterfully; dare I say "hypnotically"? What the hell!) played by Aldo Silvani, is performing, taking volunteers from the audience. After he brings up the local jeering louts onstage and transforms them into amusing buffoons, he manages to convince Cabiria to "go under". What follows is a wonderful scene, a tribute to both Giulietta and Fellini at their poetic best.

see it here
.. i don't think you have to know Italian to appreciate it!
Andiamo amici!

* thanks to blitzey's posting on youtube for this marvelous scene!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Wardell at One O'Clock

The scene is the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, April of 1948. On the stage are gathered a collection of jazz luminaries; Benny Carter, Howard McGhee, Red Callender and Vic Dickenson to name a few.

The pianist, Arnold Ross, takes an intro and kicks into a medium-up swinging blues, One O'Clock Jump and the Basie-style rhythm sections falls in, a sandy soft-shoe chug-a-chug chug train leaving the station, for the piano's two choruses in the familiar key of F concert....
then, in a surprise shift, there's a turnaround to the key of Db just as the thin-as-a-rail young tenor player, Wardell Gray, steps up to the microphone, signals his entry with a descending diminished triad, lands back up on the Db, and proceeds mow everyone down for 18 choruses of the swingingest jazz tenor solo ever taken.

Throughout the proceedings, on this live recording, a man in the background - I don't know if he's a fan or someone in the band - is clearly heard relentlessly inciting Wardell, like the crackle of kindling fire "Go! Go! Go!". Rather than this being the annoyance that it might be to the hi-fi connoisseur (who is already doubtlessly derailed by the roughness of the recording), I am RIGHT THERE with him, exhorting Gray to let it rip.

This solo is from a peak-time in Wardell's career; fresh from his sessions with Charlie Parker but still swinging in the Lestorian mode and playing with that gorgeous round bell tone that would gradually give way to a slight vibrato-buzz in the 50's before his untimely death in 1955.
This solo on One O'Clock is the longest on record from Wardell (his take on Blue Lou from the same performance, I believe, is another delightfully extended one) and I can only pine for the one's that got away.

An interesting, if brief, interview with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco was conducted by Abraham Ravett for his documentary on Wardell called Forgotten Tenor. Buddy played alongside Wardell in one of his short stints with the smaller version of the Count Basie band in 1949-1950. Here he has some insightful remarks regarding Wardell's playing and the rhythm of the Basie band:

"Wardell's ability to swing musically, maybe even now, I don't know what the younger musicians talk about but we used to talk about swing, whether swing isn't on top of the beat, behind the beat right on the beat, but I think swing has nothing to do with behind the beat, in front of the beat, or on top of the beat or on the beat. I think it has everything to do with the combination of the inherent gut or soul of the musician playing. In other words, I've heard some very intense players and if you analyze for instance, the great John Coltrane, some of his ballads especially, where he would play a million notes across a very slow four, none of the notes would be on the beat or off the beat at any given time. It would be on, off, late, forwards, and yet the pulse, the inherent pulse from the soul of the player was there, of John Coltrane. And Wardell had just a natural way of swinging and he could play, he could fool with the time, he could play behind, or forward or on it and make certain statements but there, the way he made certain statements is the way that made him swing so to speak.

I know so many school bands throughout the United States that say we're going to play like Count Basie, so our ensemble is going to play behind the beat, which is basically how Basie's band operated. The rhythm was steady and the ensemble played behind the beat. However, it's not so much that they played behind the beat, as they inferred that they were behind the beat and that the soul, the feeling was from the depth of the organism. Late, of course, behind, a little bit behind but you couldn't put it into a computer and say here's how far behind the beat Count Basie's band played. You see? There were a lot of times where they played right on the money though, maybe a couple of times they might have gone ahead a little. So sum it up, swing is like feeling, it's like the feeling of Jazz. Swing is the ambiguous mysterious element, it's either there or isn't there. And Wardell had it."

This from Ravett's interview with Jimmy Lewis who played bass behind Wardell and Buddy in the same basie line-up:

"He used to seem to create as he went along, you know?, on his solos. You can always tell when something new pops into his mind while he's playing, because he'd always smile, you can see him smiling while he's playing his horn.

You know I'd like to see him featured in a film, where he could really show off his talent. Really show it off, say, it was just the band playing in the background, and put him out front. I think, when I was with Basie in his big band, and Wardell was featured on a tune, Wardell he gets out and he plays the first chorus, and right in the middle of the thing he says, come on, let's play, let's play now. Now this is right while the recording was going, and he played that thing, he played his heart out man, he just played and it looked, he gave the whole band a lift because he had so much to offer you know? He tried to put everything in his tunes, so Basie would say let him go, he wasn't supposed to have maybe one or two choruses and he ended up playing five or six choruses of the same tune you know?"

At the end of Wardell's solo on One O'Clock, I swear that I can hear our "inciter" saying to him, "Do it again, do it again!"

I highly recommend the website for Abraham Ravett's Forgotten Tenor. Aside from numerous interviews there is an excellent biography, discography, and a wonderful live clip of Wardell taking a chorus on "I Cried For You" with the pared-down Basie Band. Incomparable (except for Prez, of course!)

The above mentioned recording of Wardell on "One O'Clock Jump" can be found on
Wardell Gray on the Giants of Jazz label.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Charles Daubigny

Today commemorates the birthday of Charles Daubigny (1817-1878), a painter of the French "Barbizon" school.

Daubigny is one of those artists who are a link between the "plein air" painters of the Barbizon school and the Impressionists. Though he was invited to exhibit with the Impressionists, he remained independent of the "movement" and though his style became looser and more atmospheric he never quite abandoned himself to the effects of light over matter, continuing to remain comfortable with both.

In 1857 he bought a 29 foot houseboat for himself, called "Le Botin", converted it into a studio, and for much of the remainder of his life sailed up and down the rivers Meuse and Seine basking in the world of the riverscape.

I've often mused on the river-barge life. John Renbourn, the English guitarist who has been a longtime idol of mine, once lived on a houseboat in France, traveling about leading the young bohemian musician's life on the river.
Myself, though quite relishing the familiarity of a neighborhood and the rhythm and ritual of familiar friends and haunts, can well imagine traveling down the river; painting, playing guitar, stopping now and then to play saxophone in a local jam session, sell a painting to get by for awhile, and reconnect with the human race - knowing full well that the boat and the watercourse always would be there, waiting for me to come back to my senses.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Slow Light of Atget

Today, almost passed, marks the birthday of the French photographer Eugene Atget.

The great irony of Atget's life is that he considered himself merely an artisan, recording, first "documents for artists" and then, almost exclusively, the streets buildings, parks, vendors, prostitutes and ragpickers of his beloved "Old Paris" which was passing away into memory with the advent of cars, cinema, and advertisements. When his neighbor, the American surrealist, Man Ray asked him if he could include some of his prints in an avante-garde journal, Atget demanded that his name not be mentioned.
Yet, as it appears to the legion of great artist/photographers that revered him, it was the very innocence and denial of his personal "specialness" that allows his photographic subjects to speak through him, as if through a dream.

Atget used an old bulky, 36 pound, large format wooden bellows camera that favored slow, extended exposures and gave his photos a twilit, somnambulist air. When Man Ray offered to secure a more advanced up-to-date camera Atget demurred, saying that this model would be too fast for the slower workings of his mind. Atget had likely gone through too many years, taking an early morning train out to the suburbs, or arriving at a scene somewhere in the sprawling center with his old mechanical companion, the two of them poised for that just-right ephemeral afternoon light.
Many of his favorite subjects were to be found on streets just around the corner from a bustling crowded avenue that would have registered as so many blurs. In fact an occasional blurred figure will appear, ghostlike, in front of one of his shop-front or stairway scenes, unexpectedly and unavoidably captured, like a prehistoric firefly in amber.

In his youth Atget had worked as a sailor and actor in a traveling theatrical troupe. It was in this group of repertory players that he met, in 1886, the woman who was to be his lifetime companion, Valentine Compagnon. When she died in 1926 Atget soon followed suit, passing away on August 4, 1927. Berenice Abbott, the young American photographer who was an assistant to Man Ray, befriended him in his last years and she took a photograph of him only two days before he died. He never lived to see this photo, nor did he live to see the acclaim his photos would gather due to the tireless archiving of his works by Abbott who was to become a photographer of renown. Her photographs of New York City in the 30's are works of reverence much like Atget's prints of Paris.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Ora Cogan

Just a quick note for those of you enamoured with the likes of Jolie Holland, the Be Good Tanyas, Alela Diane, and Mariee Sioux; Ora Cogan is a Vancouver-based songbird (as are the Tanyas), who shares some of the appealing qualities of the above while striking out on her own musical path.

Although, like the aforementioned, she is immersed in the "old-timey" Appalachian, southern blues, and gospel stylings there is a gentle mystery about her songs that sets her apart and her guitar style underlines this. She also plays a very expressive fiddle that touches perhaps on her ventures into experimental music with other cohorts.
Like Jolie, she conjures the warm, clear, tones of the early Billie Holiday rather than her later style, which is evident in Karen Dalton's voice, and more overtly in Madeleine Peyroux and others. I don't know if it's just a coincidence or direct influence; whether "early" or " late", both Ora and Jolie list Billie as prominent among their influences.

I must admit I was struck by her picture; wondering what sort of ethnicity she arose from. Like Billie Holiday she has a Creole look; then I think "no, definitely Native American or maybe some oriental or Algerian...howabout Adzerbaijani?" Conclusion: forget about it! However, I did glean from a radio interview there is a definite Israeli connection and her father (Uri, a photo journalist) and mother (Susan, also a musician) met in Israel.

Ora hails from Salt Spring Island in the Gulf Islands grouped off the west coast of Canada; lying north of Washington's San Juan island and east of Vancouver Island. Descriptions of the place evoke a beautiful setting, consciously preserved, and a cultural environment that nurtures those "off the beaten path".

On hearing Ora I can only offer a grateful toast to such places and the people therein.

Ora's songs can be heard off her myspace site, here
and her website: