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VIFF Docs

December 2, 2012

This is a bit late, but it’s my blog, and I’ll blog when I want to. (Apologies to Leslie Gore.)

I did what I always do in October: see some music documentaries at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). Every year after the VIFF program is announced, I look forward to going on the festival’s website and searching for some music docs to watch. This year’s crop was fairly extensive, but I narrowed it down to three that I had to see:

Beware of Mr. Baker

I really enjoyed this film, but I felt a bit guilty about liking it so much. Director and writer Jay Bulger crafted an insightful and funny look at the adventures of legendary drummer Ginger Baker. With the help of extensive archival footage and many scenes he shot with Baker, Bulger captured the whole story: from Baker’s early days as a jazz drummer in London; to playing in supergroups Cream and Blind Faith; playing with Fela and developing an obsession with playing polo in Nigeria; the failed marriages, estrangements with children, financial woes, and miscellaneous lunacy; drum battles with jazz icons Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, in which Baker held his own; and a clear picture of how influential Baker’s exhilarating drumming has been, based on interviews with Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland, and other ace drummers.

Why the guilt? Because Baker isn’t Mr. Nice Guy. Over the course of the film, he doesn’t exactly distinguish himself as an exemplary figure. He’s left some wreckage along the way, and in the very first scene Baker wacks Bulger square on the nose with his cane. Not nice to break the nose of the person making a film about you. Despite all of that, I found myself rooting for Baker and quietly cheering when he’s shown near the end of the doc at a comeback gig. But I guess it’s often like that with movies: taking the side of the flawed protagonist, who in this case is also his own antagonist.

The Sound of the Bandoneón

If there’s a film about tango music playing, I’m there. Automatically. I’m a tango music lover, plus movies about tango typically show the old world elegance of Buenos Aires, and I’m down with that. The Sound of the Bandoneón, directed by Jiska Riskel, didn’t disappoint – musically or visually. I loved the scenes with virtuoso bandoneónist Néstor Marconi and the shots showing historic tango halls. The scenes with the master bandoneón refurbisher are also interesting and informative – I had no idea that tourists and collectors taking bandoneóns out of Argentina are a threat to tango’s survival.

I assumed a documentary on the bandoneón would talk about Astor Piazzolla, the greatest ever bandoneónist and tango composer, but there wasn’t a single mention of him. That’s actually refreshing because notwithstanding Piazzolla’s brilliance, paying tribute to him is an unoriginal cottage industry that gets tiresome.

What really surprised me was the emphasis on Daniel Vedia, another great bandoneón player, but one who plys his trade as a musician and teacher in Argentina’s countryside. I had never thought about tango as anything but an urban phenomenon, so the scenes with Vedia broadened my knowledge of tango. Some of the scenes in the country and in the city were slow-moving but affecting. Like tango itself.

Play Like a Lion: The Legacy of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan

Just like films about tango, if there’s a documentary about Indian classical music, I’m there. Again, it’s about the music and the visuals of the country. I’m an India nut: I’m enraptured by Indian food, Indian classical music (north and south), and the place itself. Short of going there, which I was lucky enough to do 20 years ago, a film can take you there. Actually parts of this film take place in San Rafael, California, where the late master (yes, another master) sarod player Ali Akbar Khan set up a college of Indian classical music in the sixties – one of the first institutions of its kind in North America. But there are also scenes in India, showing Alam Khan continuing his father’s legacy on the sarod and talking about the challenges of doing so.

So I got my India fix from Play Like a Lion, which like the tango film and unlike Beware of Mr. Baker, tells its story with subtle cinematic textures. I stuck around to hear the Q&A with director Joshua Dylan Mellars. I have no memory of what Mellars talked about (note to self: blog much closer to the time when I see something I want to write about), but I remember being impressed with his persistence in getting the film done. (Coincidentally, his first documentary was on tango music. His second doc was on fado.) As he said in this interview in CineSource, Mellars focuses on conveying “emotional life” and “emotional depth” in his films, which involves a long gestation process. He succeeded in conveying exactly that in Play Like a Lion.

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Chucho at VCC

November 2, 2012

Thank God for Facebook. That’s where I learned that the great Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés was giving a masterclass at Vancouver Community College. “Open to the public and free,” said the post from John Korsrud, trumpet player, composer, leader of Latin jazz big band Orquesta Goma Dura, and VCC faculty member. I hesitated at first, but on the morning of the masterclass, I committed to going. That turned out to be an excellent decision. Not only was it a musically satisfying event, but there were so many moments that personally resonated with me.

I had no idea what a masterclass with Valdés would entail. I was wondering whether it would be geared to pianists, and how the Spanish-speaking Valdés would communicate with the participants and teach them his prodigious technique. I interviewed Valdés in 1998 before he performed at the Chan Centre – where he’s performing again tonight (November 2) – and his English was basic. I didn’t have to wait long to find out how it would work. Sal Ferreras, Dean of VCC’s School of Music, explained to the large audience in the College’s auditorium that the masterclass would involve various VCC student ensembles playing some tunes, and then Valdés offering comments. Ferreras, who years ago led a fiery band called Salsa Ferreras that influenced my love for Latin jazz, would provide translation.

An example of Valdés’ prodigious technique (not from the masterclass):

The first group, taught by bassist Laurence Mollerup, played interesting arrangements of songs by a jazz/funk/world music group I had never heard of Snarky Puppy. (Wonder if that’s a play on Skinny Puppy?) I  generally liked the tunes and the musicians’ playing on them. Chucho’s comments for the entire group, not just the two keyboardists, were very complimentary. Looking at the young players on stage, I thought about my son Miles and wondered whether the playing opportunities he’s getting at the music school he’s attending thousands of kilometres away are as good as this one. (He did tell me on the phone that iconic drummer Jack DeJohnette will be a guest artist at his school, so that’s not too shabby, especially considering Miles is a drummer.)

Next up was VCC’s Latin Jazz Ensemble, taught by Korsrud. Again, I thought the students played well. A surprise bonus was Hugh Fraser, who sat in as a special guest on trombone. I’ve been following Fraser’s career for more than 30 years, since he led the incendiary big band VEJI (Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation), and I interviewed him many times in my jazz journalism days. Fraser still plays with a lot of fire, as he showed on his vigorous solos with the Latin group. In his comments, Valdés praised the students, Korsrud for his arrangements, and Fraser. Valdés and Fraser have worked together a number of time over the years, so there’s a lot of mutual respect there.

Then two students each played solo piano. If that had been me up there playing solo for Chucho Valdés, teachers and administration at my school, and a full auditorium, I would have been freaking out. But both of them seemed pretty calm, as they were in their relaxed playing. Once again, Valdés had nothing but good things to say. I was beginning to realize that he wouldn’t be giving anyone a critique, even though he could have mentioned some areas that could be improved. But I was OK with that. It must have been an invaluable confidence booster for the young musicians to be told by someone of Valdés’ stature that they did well.

Next Ferreras invited to the stage a 10-year-old boy who confidently played a tune from the Buena Vista Social Club repertoire. This kid had a very steady left hand that he used to keep a bass rhythm going while his right hand played the melody. Valdés commented on how difficult that is to do. After the song, the boy went to meet Valdés and he had the courage to ask if they could play a tune together: “The Peanut Vendor”, only one of Cuba’s most famous songs. When they sat down on the piano bench the boy initially chose the right side, which meant he would need to do the tricky melody. He’s obviously a smart kid because the Latin piano prodigy quickly realized he should play the bass part and let Valdés do his thing with the melody. So they switched places and sounded wonderful together, with the kid holding down the bass parts and the 71-year-old Valdés going all over the rest of the piano in his inimitable style.

Chucho and the wunderkind:

Chucho & 10-year-old prodigy

It was hard to follow that duet but the last student to perform, a pianist named Sasha with a quartet, changed things up with a engaging take on a Serbian tune. Again I thought of Miles because Sasha is also a guitarist and he played with my kid in the TD High School Jazz Intensive. Going way back, they were each in bands that were part of a School of Rock-type program when they were in their pre-jazz, early high school years. They’ve both come a long way from playing rudimentary classic rock.

Finally, the program concluded with Valdés playing together with a VCC faculty ensemble, including some of best jazz musicians from here. It was basically a descarga, a Latin jazz jam session, and all of the players held their own with Valdés. At one point he motioned to them to stop, and Valdés did this amazing solo that encapsulated his immense knowledge of Cuban music and jazz, and his skill. Then he played a montuno that signaled the musicians to seamlessly come back in. During the descarga I thought of Miles one more time because his drum teacher of the last few years, Bernie Arai, was among the faculty musicians, sounding terrific behind the kit.

Chucho, Hugh Fraser (trombone), Bernie Arai (drums), Laurence Mollerup (bass), and Jack Duncan (congas):

Chucho & VCC Faculty

So that’s what I was lucky enough to experience yesterday afternoon. If it was special for me, I can only imagine what a thrill it was for the students and faculty to play for and with such a master musician.

Trivia about the Valdés family:

  • Chucho’s father Bebo is another great Cuban pianist.
  • Bebo is 94.
  • Bebo and Chucho have the same birthday: October 9.
  • Chucho’s son Chuchito is also a stellar pianist, and I saw him perform at the Green Mill in Chicago. As far as I know he has a different birthday.
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Shelby Lynne: “This shit doesn’t happen to Joni Mitchell”

October 30, 2011

I didn’t know for sure that I was going to Shelby Lynne’s solo concert at the Rio until the moment I bought a ticket at the door. That’s not my usual way.

Typically I get tickets at the exact millisecond that a presale starts to absolutely ensure I get in. But I couldn’t do that with this show because of circumstances. Miles was playing in a concert the very same night, all the way in Richmond, and I wasn’t sure what time it would be over. So as a supportive parent, I couldn’t commit to Shelby. Luckily, the band Miles was in (BCMEA Honour Jazz Ensemble, which sounded great by the way), played first before the choir that we really didn’t need to hear. So as soon as Miles packed up his gear (drummers always take a long time), I shooed the family out of the church where he played, dropped mother off, dropped the family off, and high-tailed it to the Rio.

I even got a seat in the third row of the classic old theatre. As it turned out, I was about 25 minutes early. That whole time before the concert began Lynne’s music played through the PA. It was her new album, Revelation Road. I overheard a man behind me say that the entire album had cycled through three times, and he had never heard anything like that at zillions of shows he had attended over the years. It was in fact odd to hear recorded songs that we were about to hear live. Whether it was for marketing purposes, or due to a lack of imagination, playing the headliner’s music before the gig was a misguided decision.

Why I wanted to be at the show: I have a thing for female singer/songwriters like Lynne, her sister Allison Moorer, Tift Merrit, Patty Griffin, and Julie Miller, who all have country roots but don’t necessarily stay where they came from. I saw Lynne perform at Richard’s on Richards (miss that place) in 2008. It was a much different show, with a band, that focused on songs from her Dusty Springfield tribute album (Just a Little Lovin’). And I liked it, a lot, mainly because of Lynne’s spot-on singing and stage presence.

A clip from Lynne’s Portland show, the night before performing in Vancouver (and wearing the same vest):

Why I enjoyed the Rio show:

The evening started slowly, with the odd choice of pre-concert music, and she looked and sounded kind of indifferent during her first few songs. But Lynne loosened up, especially after she picked up a guitar that clearly wasn’t tuned the way she wanted it. After her guitar tech grabbed the guitar to give it another go, Lynne said, in a deadpan voice: “This shit doesn’t happen to Joni Mitchell.”

Later, someone requested “Old #7”, a great drinking tune from her Tears, Lies, And Alibis album. Lynne shot darts in the direction of the requester and said “I don’t normally take requests.” Then she proceeded to perform the song.

She won me and the rest of audience over with both incidents. Lynne can be very gracious with audiences, but she also has an edge that makes her so interesting.

Other reasons why I enjoyed the Rio show:

  • She did “Killin’ Kind”, which is a perfect pop song, and “Leavin'”, which is a perfect soul song.
  • Lynne performed solo – accompanying herself on guitar – which isn’t all that rare, but I still marvel at the ability of artists to do it. I know I would be scared shitless.
  • She was generous in giving a fairly long show, starting with tunes from the new album (hmmm … sounds familiar) and thanking the audience for listening to the new material, then giving a cross-section of songs from her career.
  • Lynne talked just the right amount between songs, giving context to some tunes, and indirectly conveying the sense that she’s found her way through challenges.

Next time I’m buying a ticket right away.

Another clip from Portland:

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Best music doc at VIFF: Michel Petrucciani

October 29, 2011

As I always do when the Vancouver International Film Festival rolls around, I saw a bunch of music documentaries. This year’s crop that I caught included Morente (about a flamenco great), Andrew Bird: Fever Year (about a difficult but productive year in the life of a brilliant alternative musician), and Michel Petrucciani. The film about Petrucciani, who was three feet tall and one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists before he died young, was by far the best music doc I saw. It was insightful about his music and funny, as it showed how he lived life full-on, despite his physical challenges.

I have a thing for characterful cemeteries, like Père Lachaise in Paris. I’ve been there a number of times, and on the last visit, I saw Petrucciani’s tombstone. So he’s there with Chopin, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, and other iconic artists. When I visited, I didn’t know what I know now about Petrucciani’s extraordinary life after seeing the film. But I’m glad I saw the resting place of a master musician.

Michel Petrucciani's, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

How masterful was he? Check out this mind-blowing version of “Caravan”:

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Braving the River Rock for the Zombies

October 28, 2011

I’m a little behind in the blogging, despite my recently stated pledge to be more prolific (ie blog more than once a year). So here’s a catch-up item.

I’ve always resisted going to see shows at the River Rock Theatre. I cringe when I see the likes of Air Supply and Chicago in the River Rock’s weekly Georgia Straight ad. Although I’ve always said I would go if Merle Haggard showed up. (I’ve seen Johnny Cash and George Jones but not The Hag.)

Well, I finally caved when two sets of friends said they were going to see The Zombies at the River Rock. I didn’t know much about the band, aside from their great song “She’s Not There”, which the band I play in covers. So I bought a ticket. (Why are River Rock tickets so expensive? Another deterrent to going there.) I took the Canada Line directly to the Rock and walked by the depressing scene of mainly Asian people throwing their money away in the casino to get to the theatre.

The Zombies & The Strawbs on the River Rock Theatre Marquee

The Zombies at the River Rock Theatre

I’ll talk about both musical and non-musical aspects of the evening. Musically speaking, the Zombies were very good. I could see why the band has been so influential (many artists – from Elliott Smith to Neko Case to the Foo Fighters – have covered Zombies songs). They wrote great, ahead-of-their-time songs (like “Time of the Season” and “Care of Cell 44”) and still perform them with a lot of vigour.

The show was part of the Zombie’s 50th anniversary tour. Think about that for a second – that’s mind-boggling longevity (regardless of the long hiatus they had). Colin Blunstone is still a wondrous singer and Rod Argent is still the quintessential rock keyboardist. As a keyboardist myself, it was a thrill to hear Argent live. And Jim Rodford, longtime Kinks bassist, was also in the band, which was a bonus.

Check out Argent’s killing, multi-keyboard solo on “She’s Not There”:

And here’s the original version of “She’s Not There”, with beautiful women in arty poses:

I didn’t care for the Strawbs, who opened for the Zombies, mainly because I found lead singer Dave Cousins’ voice grating. They haven’t aged well like the Zombies.

Now for the non-musical report. The audience at the River Rock was pretty much as scary as I thought it would be. Many older men with receding hairlines (including myself) and pot bellies. (I’m not judging, I’m just sayin’.) Then there was the Man from Glad sitting in front of me. He tried very hard to pick up the woman seated two over from him. He talked her up, and she wasn’t resisting, talking as loudly as he was – in the middle of the concert! Glad Man eventually wormed his way over to the seat next to her and soon had his arm behind her seat. After the show, however, he walked away empty-handed. She’s not there, indeed.

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Letter to a friend re: Bon Iver

September 29, 2011

Dear E:

June 27, 2008. That’s the date when you emailed me with a recommendation to listen to a band I had never heard of: Bon Iver, who had put out an album called For Emma, Forever Ago. In the email you nailed it when you said, “Let the song “Flume” make you weep like a baby.”

Sometimes when you get deeply into an artist, you lose sight of how the enchantment began. To be honest, I had forgotten how I got turned on to Bon Iver (Justin Vernon and his bandmates). I vaguely recalled learning about Vernon from a friend in email, but I didn’t remember who and when. Gmail search gave me the answer in a millisecond.

So now, more than three years later, I’m writing to say thank you. Thank you so much for knowing me well enough and taking the time to suggest that I check out Bon Iver’s music. I had no idea at the time where the music would take me. And it’s taken me to unexpected places.

Specifically, it took me to Raleigh, North Carolina. Months ago we were lucky enough to get tickets to this week’s Bon Iver show at the Orpheum Theatre. Awhile later we booked a trip to North Carolina to visit family, and M found out that Bon Iver was performing in Raleigh, an hour and a half drive from where we were staying. The brilliant idea came up of going to the concert, even though we already had tickets to the Vancouver show.

After mulling it over we decided to go for it, because we thought it would be special given that Vernon lived in Raleigh during a critical period in his musical development (read this very good feature on Vernon’s Raleigh years in the Independent Weekly), and simply because when you have a chance to see Bon Iver, you take it. Plus I’ve never seen an artist twice on the same tour, so this gave a unique opportunity to compare performances two months apart. Finally, I love going to shows in foreign places; some of my best concert memories are from other cities – being somewhere else adds to the uniqueness of a performance.

So the three of us, including Miles (who has become a huge Bon Iver fan – those screamo/death metal days are a distant memory) made our way to the concert at the Raleigh Amphitheater, an outdoor venue. The heat in Raleigh that day was insane – the high was about 104°F. By showtime in the evening, it was still pretty hot, so that might have affected our ability to enjoy the show. That said, it was a wonderful concert. Aside from Vernon’s magnetic falsetto singing and all-round musicality, I was struck by how much was going on with the eight-piece band. The musicians adeptly switched between multiple instruments – from electric guitar to violin to keyboards to french horn and beyond – which made for a sumptuous aural palette. Despite the heat, and the somewhat soulless venue, we were glad we went to the show.

Art shot (ie photo that didn’t turn out) of Bon Iver at the Raleigh Amphitheater:

Bon Iver in Raleigh, North Carolina

Vids I took of Bon Iver in Raleigh:


We went to the Orpheum with the kind of anticipation you have before seeing an extraordinary artist for the first time, even though it wasn’t. The anticipation paid off – it was as perfect a show as I could imagine. The Raleigh concert was early in the tour, so the band was still developing chemistry. At the Orpheum, the musicians sounded completely in sync. The songs – from Bon Iver’s two albums and one ep – sounded like they were fully realized versions of Vernon’s vision (that alliteration wasn’t intentional).

There were some differences between the shows. In Raleigh, Bon Iver did a terrific obscure cover of Björk’s “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)”, featuring multi-instrumentalist Reggie Pace as a human beat box; they didn’t do that tune in Vancouver. But here, there seemed to be more opportunities for the musicians – like saxophonist/circular breathing whiz Colin Stetson and drummer/keyboardist Sean Carey – to stretch out. The sound was also better at the Orpheum, not to mention the non-sweltering temperature.

In my world, getting a tip on a new band is the best possible gift. Through a casual email, you gave me that gift. So thank you.

Cheers,
C

Jian Ghomeshi did an insightful interview with Justin Vernon on Q – check out the interview.

Compare and contrast – “For Emma” and “The Wolves (Act I and II)” in Vancouver:

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Camper Van Sly, and Memories of Sly in Paris

September 25, 2011

The New York Post broke the news today that Sly Stone is homeless and living in a van. According to the story in the Post, the 68-year-old is living in a camper van parked on a residential street in the rough Crenshaw neighbourhood of LA. The story says a retired couple makes sure Sly eats once a day, and he showers at their house. Sly, who once lived in a Beverly Hills mansion, makes music inside the van with a laptop. He posed for a photo with his Taser.

Very sad. It’s hard to believe that it’s come to this for one of the greatest ever soul and funk artists.

The news today is reminding me about the time I saw Sly perform (and I use that word loosely) in Paris. In July 2007 we lived in Paris for two weeks. Before arriving in the City of Light, I did what I always do before travelling somewhere: I researched what concerts would take place during our stay. Part of my research was seeing what was on at the Olympia, a legendary music hall in Paris (everyone from Edith Piaf to Led Zeppelin has performed there). Fifteen years earlier, while living in Paris for two months, we went to a bunch of memorable concerts at the Olympia (David Byrne with his Rei Momo Latin band, Khaled, Les Negresse Vertes).

So I thought I hit the jackpot when I saw that Sly & The Family Stone were scheduled to perform there on July 23, 2007. But I knew all about Sly’s long history of erratic behaviour, so I hesitated. I decided in the end to go for it, because when would I get another chance to see Sly?

Sly Stone at the Olympia in Paris

All of the seats in the Olympia can either be in place or removed, and it was the latter that night. The sold-out hall was completely packed with people, including many who had probably gone through the same inner dialogue that I had before spending 55 euros on a ticket.

The show started well with the opener Martha High, who sang for years with James Brown. Martha’s soulful voice was in fine form, and her band the Shaolin Temple Defenders (great name) brought it. Then Sly’s band came on. It didn’t include the great bassist Larry Graham, but it did include original Family Stone member Cynthia Robinson on trumpet and vocals. Plus family members Vet and Lisa Stone were in the group. This version of the Family Stone sounded great as they performed a number of tunes. But where was Sly? I was starting to get nervous, and thinking that I should have listened to my intuition and saved my euros.

He eventually came on stage. His voice reflected the hard life he’s led since his glory days, but still had enough of that character I love from the classic Sly & The Family Stone tracks. He played a keyboard and also came out to the front of the stage and generally showed a lot of energy for a reclusive/aging/fading rock star. The problem was Sly only performed for about 15 minutes (his band was up there considerably longer). Sly left the stage at least twice, and the video below of “I Want To Take You Higher” captures his immortal words before one of those exits: “I’m going to go take a piss. I’m old.”

While I didn’t get my money’s worth, somehow I didn’t regret going to the show. I got my 15 minutes of Sly, in Paris no less, and that was enough to qualify as a memorable concert experience. In light of Sly’s situation now, it probably was my one and only chance to see the soul/funk master.

Videos I took of Sly & The Family Stone at the Olympia in Paris:

Postscript:

September 27, 2011

After Sly was outed as a homeless person, I had a feeling that it was just a matter of time before goofy things started happening, given America’s obsession with alternately worshipping and bringing down celebrities. It’s starting. Today, TMZ posted a video interview with Sly, who did the interview while lying down in his van. As one of the commenters on the video put it, you can smell a reality show coming. Meanwhile, whatever shred of dignity Sly has left is being further eroded.

Sly & The Family Stone, more than 40 years ago when they were at the height of their powers, on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: