Thursday, October 30, 2008

Soundtrack Review: Death Defying Acts-- Original Motion Picture Score

A score of magical proportions...


After you watch Australian director Gillian Armstrong’s gorgeous period film Death Defying Acts, which surrounds an unlikely love story set in Scotland among a phony psychic con artist (Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Harry Houdini (Memento’s Guy Pearce), you’re left wanting to learn more about the legendary “escapologist.” However, after you listen to the film’s score, you become fascinated by an altogether different magician — not Houdini, but the imaginative composer Cezary Skubiszewski instead.

Born and raised in Warsaw “in the midst of an arts and theatre focused family,” consisting of his pianist mother, prima ballerina aunt, and theatre manager father, Skubiszeweski still recalls the moment that the sound of the blues “blew his mind” at age twelve. Yet “it would take another 20 years, and the death of his father, before Skubiszewski was true to his own desire to make music.” After leaving Poland for his adopted homeland of Australia and studying veterinary medicine in Melbourne, he journeyed to the outback in New South Wales, packing a precious few items including a piano which he practiced all the time while living in an army tent.

Working only one day a week to support himself and slowly gaining the self-belief he said one must have “to be a creative person,” Skubiszewski notes that it was about that time that he became much more serious about dedicating himself to music. While he credits inspiration in a wide range of sources from Miles Davis to American Beauty composer Thomas Newman to Radiohead (“because they always try to challenge themselves,”), Skubiszewski takes a similar approach in his own work, saying that he still believes he’s on “a journey to discover more about myself, about what I can come up with.” To this end, he should be extremely pleased with one of the most breathtaking and creative scores of 2008 with the Lakeshore Records release of Death Defying Acts.

As someone who notes that he loves “very talented people” and “despise[s] mediocrity,” it’s only fitting that director Armstrong (Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda, Charlotte Gray) would seek out a talented perfectionist to tackle a score about one of history’s most talented perfectionists. Boldly opening with an old-fashioned “Death Defying Suite,” which introduces every major theme that will work its way throughout the entire score, including those for the lead characters and diverse settings, Skubiszewski begins the album as though it was recorded in the era of Hollywood’s Golden Age where MGM musicals began with extended musical overtures and credit sequences to showcase the compositions. Running nearly eight minutes and changing from a playful folk styled opening to melancholy, romantic, and Celtic throughout, the album continues on, later picking up on the threads he’d introduced in the opener with the tracks named for two of the characters in the film.

In “The Great Houdini,” he relies on a mysterious string-based start to a piece that many critics have noted seems to augment Houdini’s Jewish ancestry, thus “mixing in klezmer style… to heighten character.” In one of the most colorful and inventive tracks on the album, we’re introduced to Zeta-Jones’s stage character "Princess Kali" — a psychic who works in tandem with her daughter (played by Atonement Oscar nominee Saorise Ronan) — in tricking her audience with psychic visions. Using a flute and employing an Eastern based Egyptian and Indian blend of folk, it’s both seductive and tongue-in-cheek at the same time as Zeta-Jones works the audience with her obvious beauty and the great ease with which she falls into character and the music helps us buy right into her act right along with the audience.

Skubiszewski returns to the teasing motif he introduced within the opening seconds of “Death Defying Suite,” with the Danny Elfman-esque “Hello Edinburgh,” announcs Houdini’s arrival to Scotland and we can practically envision the stampede of eager fans, newspapermen, and photographers in this catchy, fast-paced track. It alternates between strings and a chorus chanting breathy “ahs” that punctuate each pluck of the string in building anticipation.

And a few tracks later, the characters coincide as Zeta-Jones’s Mary answers Houdini’s $10,000 challenge to channel his deceased mother in the afterlife, in “The Audition.” Fighting the urge to be sentimental as we see the way Houdini is bombarded by fortune-hunters, Skubiszewski heightens the ridiculousness of the situation in which the otherwise rational Houdini who adamantly disbelieves in the idea of a medium still wishes to be proven wrong as an overgrown boy who misses his mother. Musically, it works quite well. The silly exuberance of “The Audition” gives way to the lush, melancholic tones of “You’re the One,” that begins to introduce the mysterious connection between the two characters whose business agreement blossoms into a romance, yet one that’s still tinged with precaution and apprehension. It finishes abruptly, as though in the middle of an incomplete question.

Using the 1926 backdrop to perfect effect in “Maid Does The Dishes,” Skubiszewski mimics the musical styling of the era in a ballroom worthy track to which you can easily dance. The romance between the two leads culminates in the delicate piano laced number “Just Like Falling,” as the escapologist realizes that he’s unable to escape as a man from the lure of the beguiling possibility of true love. However, just when it starts to border on too sentimental, Skubiszewski brings back the same vocal chorus from “Hello Edinburgh” and with a few somber notes, seems to foreshadow the end of Houdini’s life which would ultimately conclude the film’s events.

Paying homage both to the romance of the visually stunning picture as well as the Celtic backdrop, Skubiszewski follows up “Just Like Falling” with the extremely Scottish, lovely “You Saved Me.” Although the film, from The Weinstein Company and Genius Products failed to gain much notoriety in its theatrical run and indeed, failed to open in my home state so I had to wait for it to appear on DVD, Skubiszewski’s score elevates Armstrong’s work into a miniature epic. And given the film’s poor timing following Neil Burger’s exceptional The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s dark puzzler The Prestige, it may be easy to overlook a third magical film. However, if I were Skubiszewski’s agent or working for The Weinstein Company, I wouldn’t hesitate to send this soundtrack to as many Academy voters whose addresses I could find. Moving, unique, endlessly unpredictable and artistic — Skubiszewski’s score has pulled off a musical trick of rare beauty worthy of Houdini himself.

Track Listing

1. "Death Defying Suite"

2. "Immoral Souls"

3. "The Great Houdini"

4. "Princes Kali"

5. "The Star Picture House"

6. "Hello Edinburgh"

7. "Houdini’s Angel"

8. "My Immortal Soul"

9. "The Audition"

10. "You’re The One"

11. "Scott’s Monument"

12. "Benji’s Nightmare"

13. "Foxtrot Foxtrot"

14. "Love Or Money"

15. "Maid Does The Dishes"

16. "Just Like Falling"

17. "You Saved Me"

18. "The Final Curtain"

View the Film's Trailer

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Music Review: Terrence Howard-- Shine Through It

From Iron Man to Sinatra Man,
Actor Terrence Howard releases his debut album.


An interesting thing happened when I first sat down to listen to Oscar nominated actor Terrence Howard’s debut CD, Shine Through It. Having preferred to play it via iTunes, I accidentally listened to the disc in the reverse track order. Then when I began making notes on certain songs with my instant reactions by “track number,” I realized my mistake and listened again and again — this time in the correct order. Honestly, I think I preferred it the other way around.

There’s an awful lot to like about Howard’s album — such as his sheer love of music and passion for arranging, weaving textures through a song one wouldn’t expect by layering on near Broadway styled intros until it grows into something much more delicate. However, there’s an awful lot involved that just doesn’t feel that right about it either.

While, thankfully it couldn’t be further away from the rap sounds of his Oscar nominated character DJay from Hustle and Flow, whom he “hated,” even Howard admits that he’s not sure how it will reach what he calls “my own people, black people.” Further continuing in The New York Times that since he believes “they’ve become accustomed to this hip-hop sound,” he admits he may “have to go to a different crowd first,” and even the publicity department at Columbia has seconded his concern, noting that as “it’s definitely not about first week sales,” Shine Through It may instead be a “music critics’ album.”

Yet, overall, some of the critics have been less than kind. It's been dubbed “often goofy,” by Blender and the subject of a scathing piece and some pretentious YouTube footage in New York Magazine online titled, “How Bad Is Terrence Howard’s Album Anyway?” As both a listener and fan of Mr. Howard who has enjoyed his work for many years as a film critic, I am relieved to say that it isn’t the disaster that some online news outlets have been labeling it.

Experimental is probably the best word to use when trying to describe it. Or, perhaps more pointedly, the album doesn’t quite flow the way most records do, which is probably why I didn’t notice the album order the first time around. Moving from Spanish flamenco to R&B, to 70’s style soft-rock by singer/songwriters (or musical storytellers as I like to call them) to something completely different one minute later, it seems as though Howard was so excited to finally be fulfilling his original passion to become a musician he wanted to work in a little bit of everything including every kitchen sink he’s ever owned. And throughout the course of Shine Through It, that he does which both hinders and helps the uneven album.

Howard’s tremendous versatility and range as an actor is his main strength vocally. From sweetly singing the opening track “Love Makes You Beautiful” to becoming far more playful with “Mr. Johnson’s Lawn,” he turns into a suave would-be player on a few tracks before conquering the album’s most superior track, the final, epic “War,” in which he goes from singing to growling within a moment, completely in sync with the driving Broadway-worthy structure.

A few other vocal highlights include the pretty “Sanctuary” which the press release noted was inspired by a “chance meeting with Seal and Heidi Klum.” His voice does seem to recall Seal’s at times amidst a breathy female chorus along with the retro Paul Simon and James Taylor-like 70’s sounding “I Remember When,” as he waxes nostalgic about childhood memories.

Additionally, he uses the album as a near confessional in places. He relates both the unraveling of his marriage in the far too crowded lyrics that comprise “No. 1 Fan,” which he said he wrote “as a stalker” watching his ex “come home from a date after we divorced,” as well as the temptations that probably contributed to the end of love in “Plenty.”

And while the positivity and clever arranging of “Love Makes You Beautiful” and “Shine Through It,” make one forgive the clich├ęd and hokey lyrics (that do show up here and there throughout the entire disc), I was far more taken in by the largely instrumental tracks “Spanish Love Affair” and “It’s All Game,” which works as a phenomenal showcase for Howard and his co-arranger, Miles Mosley.

Although initially he’d aspired to become a physicist as a boy growing up in Cleveland, it’s in these alternately delicate and seductive compositions that we really see the talent of Howard and get a sense of the young boy who was first introduced to music by his great-grandmother Minnie Gentry, a fellow actor and musician. In an NPR interview, Howard shares that “she would make me sit down at the piano and would teach me the relationship between A and D and G and C, why they were best friends, why they were relatives. She talked to me about music in terms of family, so it’s become part of my family.” And Howard blends his “musical” family together with his real one as his daughter contributes to “Love Makes You Beautiful” via a “spoken passage… recorded over the telephone” and his son “sang backup vocals” on “Shine Through It.”

While on the surface, it seems as though the biggest push and most obvious tracks one would gravitate to initially would be the three you can stream here — namely “Sanctuary,” “Shine Through It,” and “Love Makes You Beautiful,” I’d encourage interested listeners to dig further into the album to find the few truly hidden gems like “War,” “I Remember When,” and “Spanish Love Affair.”

So in the end, the album is a toss-up and while to The Times, Howard shared his concern that he didn’t “know if… his own people… will hear it right away,” ultimately, I’d say to look beyond race, class, and gender to advise everyone to listen a bit harder and decide which tracks you’re drawn in by yourself, even if it means flipping the track order around in iTunes.

Track Listing

1. “Love Makes You Beautiful”

2. “Shine Through It”

3. “Mr. Johnson's Lawn”

4. “Sanctuary”

5. “No. 1 Fan”

6. “Spanish Love Affair”

7. “ Plenty”

8. “I Remember When”

9. “It's all Game”

10. “She was Mine”

11. “War”

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

News: What Scares Danny Elfman?

Hint: She Wears Glasses and Looks Like Tina Fey


From Batman to Nightmare Before Christmas to Edward Scissorhands, Danny Elfman is not only one of the most talented film composers ever to lend their talents to the big screen but news reports reveal that the man who's helped add scary musical ambiance to memorable films and television shows has found himself shaking in his own shoes. And the culprit isn't Johnny Depp raising scissors or Jack Nicholson dancing with the devil in a pale moonlight but the very real prospect that we could find ourselves faced with President Sarah Palin.

However, he isn't content to take things lying down and instead, much like the heroes of the scores he's created, he's decided to take action in the form of "a powerful new TV ad airing today, produced by Elfman's newly formed political action committee (PAC)," According to a recent press release, the previously politically inactive Elfman has decided that "the threat of a Palin presidency is so credible, Elfman explains, [that] it has driven him to get the message out to voters before the November 4 election."

In his own words, he reveals that, "Undecided voters need to think about the fact that John McCain's advanced age and his continuing battle with cancer mean that the probability of his not completing his term simply too high. And the very real possibility of Sarah Palin... as Commander-in- Chief of the most powerful military force in the world is unacceptable- - even unimaginable! " Continuing on, he shares that, "We're running this ad in critical swing states Ohio and Pennsylvania, and hoping concerned Americans will offer their support to get the ad into Florida and Nevada."

Whether one shares his political views or not, in this critical of an election, it's always good to gather facts before voting to make an educated decision. And to learn more about Elfman's stand, to view his ad, or explore more about his new political action committee, you can visit the site by clicking here.

Music Review: The Best of Bond... James Bond

Bring Bond Home

Read the Quantum of Solace Blu-ray Review


During the phenomenally successful forty-six years of the James Bond franchise which has released twenty-two movies since our first introduction to the British Spy in 1962's Dr. No, a wide variety of musicians have all contributed to the Bond landscape. As the gadgets grew more high-tech and the clothing changed with the times, so did the musical genres via an increasingly diverse group of artists as the old fashioned swinging sounds of the legendary Shirley Bassey (who performed three tracks for the series) were replaced by Paul McCartney & Wings' stadium-rock approach, the easy listening ballads by Sheena Easton and Carly Simon, 80's smashes by A-Ha and Duran Duran, Madonna's techno driven inclusion and many others.

While some were far more successful than the rest, every time a new Bond title track was released to be played over the ridiculously expensive, masculine Playboy style credits, fans couldn't wait to check it out. Now, today with this wonderful collection of twenty-four solid tracks from the series (including one previously unreleased "James Bond Theme" by John Arnold) available on CD, CD/DVD and digitally, it's the ideal way to build up anticipation for the next film--Quantum of Solace-- arriving in theatres on November 14. Additionally, it offers a great chance as well to look back on the many ways in which the series has evolved.

However, this time you get the unique chance to do so primarily with your ears instead of the immediate differences you notice visually with your eyes (when comparing Goldfinger with Goldeneye, for example) as the Capitol Records/EMI album opens with the original, instantly recognizable "James Bond Theme" by the John Barry Orchestra.

One of those awesome and unforgettable themes that one can place within seconds such as the opening notes of Jaws, The Godfather, Pink Panther, Star Wars, Psycho, and Indiana Jones-- the theme not only begins the album but sets the mood for the 60's portion of the disc. From Matt Monro's lush and underrated "From Russia With Love," we move right into the show-stopper, Ms. Shirley Bassey's first Bond track and arguably her greatest-- "Goldfinger"-- which would later be followed by her performances of "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker."

While the rest of the 60's and early 70's tunes are fun but slightly forgettable including Tom Jones's "Thunderball," Nancy Sinatra's "You Only Live Twice," the John Barry Orchestra's second piece "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," the otherwise magnificent Louis Armstrong's "We Have All The Time In The World" doesn't quite fit the Bond oeuvre. Similar to the way that the decades-later Madonna's track "Die Another Day" seems out of place as well, we realize that Armstrong's and Madonna's offerings would've been better off on the artists' own albums instead.

However, Paul McCartney and Wings pick things up considerably with "Live & Let Die" that still sounds extraordinary by today's standards. And after that song, the success of the pieces are kind of off and on as the tunes begin to reflect more of what was happening musically at the time-- sometimes helping to keep James Bond "in fashion" and other times calling to much attention to the works themselves as opposed to the man we're all paying to see.

For my money, Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" for the film The Spy Who Loved Me is quite possibly the best Bond song ever created and certainly the best one since Bassey's sultry "Goldfinger" matched her voice to the sounds of her brass band. While Sheena Easton's "For Your Eyes Only" has power-ballad written all over it, it's a lovely feminine number that managed to stand out in the 80's when the series would score greater hits on the Billboard Charts with Duran Duran's "A View To A Kill" and a-ha's "The Living Daylights."

And while the 90's found some intriguing numbers and worthwhile contributions by Tina Turner (who along with Pierce Brosnan helped resurrect the dwindling popularity of the franchise following Timothy Dalton's films in Goldeneye), perhaps the most underrated song on the album is the gorgeous and sweeping epic "The World is Not Enough" performed by Garbage or more appropriately, another Shirley who managed to recall the elegance and orchestral movements of the big sounds of the earliest Bond songs.

Following Madonna's skippable "Die Another Day" which worked about as well as that particular film, Chris Cornell provided a healthy dose of adrenaline straight into the heart of Bond with his rockin' and masculine "You Know My Name." One of the few songs on the album not to be titled after the film it's written for, "Name" makes perfect sense for its particular soundtrack-- specifically Casino Royale-- chronologically the first James Bond story as he earns 00 status and a film that stood head and shoulders among the rest, introducing us to our newest Bond, Mr. Daniel Craig.

A solid album filled with some songs you may not recognize by name and artist alone but Bond devotees will be surprised to discover how they come flooding back once you pop the album into your player. While I was kindly sent the CD for review, the CD/DVD combo provides a documentary on the Bond legacy and also numerous video performances you can stream below for your listening and viewing pleasure.

Duran Duran “A View To A Kill” Video Streams:

a-ha “The Living Daylights” Video Streams:

Tina Turner
“Goldeneye” Video Streams:

The Best Of Bond… James Bond (CD, CD/DVD, Digital Album)
1. “James Bond Theme” - John Barry Orchestra
2. “From Russia With Love” - Matt Monro
3. “Goldfinger” - Shirley Bassey
4. “Thunderball” - Tom Jones
5. “You Only Live Twice” – Nancy Sinatra
6. “On Her Majesty's Secret Service” - John Barry Orchestra
7. “We Have All The Time In The World” - Louis Armstrong
8. “Diamonds Are Forever” - Shirley Bassey
9. “Live & Let Die” - Paul McCartney and Wings
10. “Man With The Golden Gun” – Lulu
11. “Nobody Does It Better” - Carly Simon
12. “Moonraker” - Shirley Bassey
13. “For Your Eyes Only” - Sheena Easton
14. “All Time High” - Rita Coolidge
15. “A View To A Kill” - Duran Duran
16. “The Living Daylights” - A-Ha
17. “Licence To Kill” - Gladys Knight
18. “GoldenEye” - Tina Turner
19. “Tomorrow Never Dies” - Sheryl Crow
20. “Surrender” - kd lang
21. “The World Is Not Enough” – Garbage
22. “Die Another Day” – Madonna
23. “You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell
Bonus Track
24. “James Bond Theme” - John Arnold (previously unreleased)

1. “A View To A Kill” - Duran Duran (music video)
2. “For Your Eyes Only” - Sheena Easton (music video)
3. “GoldenEye” - Tina Turner (music video)
4. “The Living Daylights” - A-Ha (music video)
5. “All Time High” - Rita Coolidge (music video)
6. “Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey (Live at Royal Albert Hall, 1974)
7. Documentary: “The Music Of James Bond”

Check Out the Newest Bond Song
By Alicia Keys & Jack White

The World of James Bond:
An Amazon Product Slideshow
(Click the Item to Explore)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Review: The Mental Floss History of the World

(pictured from top: Will Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur and Steve Wiegand)

Complete Title:

The Mental Floss History of the World:
An Irreverent Romp Through Civilization’s Best Bits


The first time I became acquainted with mental_floss magazine, it was catching brief glimpses of the bi-monthly American periodical being flipped through at Central Perk by Courtney Cox- Arquette on NBC's Friends. While product placements are nothing new-- instead of Cosmopolitan or In Touch-- it was amazing to see an actress actually insert her own prop into the show (as she and husband David Arquette confessed to being fans in an Entertainment Weekly interview years ago) and far more impressive that the prop in question was the witty and infinitely wise mental_floss.

With a tagline encouraging readers to "Feel Smart Again," creators William E. Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur conceived the idea over a meal shared in the Duke University cafeteria, upon realizing "the need for an educational magazine that was funny and entertaining." While the president of the university disliked the name, he was impressed enough to allow the two ambitious writers a chance to publish the magazine in its earliest form, when it was known as the "Campus Edition."

Officially, the mental_floss that readers and subscribers would come to know and love first officially hit the market at its home-base in Birmingham, Alabama with its 2001 launch. Amazingly, the first issue (pictured below) caused such a stir that "8,000 copies were distributed, and 60% sold out on newsstands." From then on, it just continually grew stronger appealing to those, like me, who have an insatiable appetite for knowledge.

Presenting the wildest facts penned in the wittiest of ways, blending together pop culture and history so that it's reader friendly first and foremost, the "edutainment" magazine proved to be illusive to buyers as more and more stores ran out of copies quickly after it hit shelves. And the magazine it seemed was just the beginning as the editors and writers moved onto share their knowledge in a number of books, a board game, and a series that includes such titles as Law School in a Box and Med School in a Box.

And on Tuesday, October 28th, their latest book will hit the shelves from the good folks at Harper Collins. Aptly named The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits, authors Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand along with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur condense 60,000 years of human civilization in twelve chapters.

View the Trailer
(yes, the book has a trailer)

Breaking everything down into timelines, each section opens with what happened "In a Nutshell" as well as a timeline and some of the subheadings like "Spinning the Globe" are taken right from the magazine itself, making it an easy transition for devotees of mental_floss to their latest opus. A far cry from college textbooks, History uses pop culture references such as "Who's Your Daddy? (The Founding Fathers in Four Minutes)" to titles like "Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin Walk Into a Bar...," "Name that War"and perpetually ranks "who's up" and "who's down" at any given moment. Also, amusingly the authors season the book with strange quotes like Ronald Regan's assertion that "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do."

While there will be a tendency for some reviewers and readers unfamiliar with the magazine to compare it to Jon Stewart's book America, the writing by the mental_floss brainiacs is top notch and you won't see pictures of naked supreme court justices in this one (thank goodness). Humorous and all-encompassing from the discussion of early "aboriginal beliefs [which] have been credited as forerunners of modern ecological science," (p. 14) to documenting the Pope's decision to start sending out text messages, no group or time period is left unexplored.

Helping to break up the text, they even provide sidebars filled with odd facts including one that states that carrying brides over the threshold and having a best man at a wedding "probably date from the third-century practice of Germanic men abducting brides from neighboring villages and carrying them home, with the aide of a loyal companion," (p. 111). Offering "A Cheat Sheet" for the Enlightenment and breaking down the major who's who of certain important periods or "Four Goofy Things About the Crusades" or "In Case You Haven't Heard of that 'Renaissance Thing,'" they lead into each topic with a welcoming friendly and humorous vibe and one is never sure where the authors will take you next.

Whether it's chronicling the earliest headache cure which involved a practice called "trepanning" as a hole was bored into one's skull (p. 28) to discussing that Spartan women's ownership of roughly "forty percent... of the agricultural land... [made] them far more 'liberated' than other Greek women," in their accumulation of "property and power" (p.41), you're almost guaranteed to learn something new or at least discover it in a way you wouldn't expect with every turn of the page.

While those familiar with the magazine know that because mental_floss writers and editors cram so much knowledge into each and every page, it's not exactly a periodical you can speed through quickly, the book is far more dense and careful attention should be paid to ensure you're absorbing the information. However, thankfully we're not quizzed on everything as in the magazine but in the same token, I did wish for an index (which may be included in the official version and wasn't available for my "review copy"). A must-own book that I think history buffs and especially those who continually fall asleep with their heavy textbooks dropping onto their chests will want to be sure to pick up.

A great and far friendlier way to "feel smart again," while laughing yourself silly in the process in learning about the Russian origins of fast food, Iceland's "grandmother of parliaments," or carnivals that charged "a penny for a minute's worth of intoxication by laughing gas," mental_floss is sure to provide more than enough fodder for the trivia fan in all of us.

Hitting the shelves of your local bookstore (or via Amazon below) on Tuesday, October 28th from Harper Collins, the global history as told by the men of mental_floss proves their belief that "just because it's true doesn't mean it's boring" indeed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Music Review: The Dave Brubeck Quartet Featuring Paul Desmond - On the Radio Live 1956-57

Reading is not fundamental
When it comes to great jazz.


Upon just hearing a few notes of his astronomically famous piece “Take Five,” one would never guess that the man designated a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, Mr. Dave Brubeck had never mastered the art of reading sheet music. Called one of the undisputed “vanguard[s] of the so-called West Coast school of cool jazz in the 50’s,” by Acrobat Music on their release of this fascinating vintage collection of rare live broadcasts, he eventually became the first jazz artist to “sell over a million copies” with his 1959 recording Time Out.

Having been born into a musical California family, beginning “piano lessons with his mother at the age of four” and performing “in local dance bands” at the age of fourteen, originally his vocational goal was to study veterinary medicine to help out on his family’s ranch. However, while earning enough to fund his studies with music, he changed his tune (so to speak) and discovered “the lure of jazz” was so undeniable that he switched majors but was nearly kicked out of the University of the Pacific when one of the professors uncovered his secret that he couldn’t read sheet music. Having blamed poor eyesight as a kid, luckily “several of his professors came forward” on his behalf and eventually he graduated but only with the condition that he promise he would never “teach piano.”

While it’s incredible to believe that one of America’s most naturally gifted pianists wouldn’t be allowed to educate another generation directly, Brubeck found a way to inspire on his own. Returning from World War II with his fellow soldier Paul Desmond. they banded together later to form a musical quartet. Following advanced education at Mills College with Professor Darius Milhaud “who encouraged [Brubeck]… to study fugue and orchestration but not classical piano,” Brubeck managed to arrange his own entirely unique brand of jazz.

With a musical penchant of employing “unusual time signatures,” Brubeck experimented with this throughout the rest of his career whether it was offering listeners unorthodox pieces performed in 5/4, 6/4, 7/4 or 9/8 time. Yet, surprisingly his own interest in mixing things up didn’t make him nearly the acquired taste that some of his other contemporaries were. By serving up his own individual brand of cool, sophisticated, almost classical sounding jazz, or “jazz for the rest of us,” he was far more mainstream than most of his colleagues and the proof wasn’t only in the sales of Time Out but also by finding his portrait on the cover of Time Magazine in 1954.

In this remarkable rare collection from Acrobat Music Group, chronologically we catch up with Brubeck following the early success of their Jazz Goes To College Album. Featuring The Dave Brubeck Quartet and (as the liner notes reveal) his “long-time colleague and musical sparring partner Paul Desmond,” Acrobat includes twelve live recordings from 1956 gigs at New York City’s Basin Street Jazz Club and three from Chicago’s renowned The Blue Note in 1957. While the announcer cuts into the songs and sometimes it’s hard to guess which tracks comprise an entire twenty-five minute show, the quality of the music is first-rate.

Kicking off with Brubeck’s own famous jazz standard “The Duke,” it strengthens considerably with the follow-up track “Stardust,” which gives the rest of his band including Desmond on alto sax, bassist Norman Bates, and drummer Joe Dodge a chance to shine. This is especially evident in Desmond’s wonderfully catchy start to “Gone With The Wind,” that brings Brubeck in significantly nearly two and a half minutes late and given the extraordinary musicality, one can almost sense the good natured musical rivalry between the two as they play. Although Bates would eventually be replaced by Eugene Wright and Dodge with Joe Morello, the phenomenal and sophisticated inclusions make the perfect background CD to unwind with after a hard day’s work.

Unfortunately, because it is a live show, there are times that the announcer must stop tracks just when they’re really beginning to jam such as in the superlative cool jazz number “Out of Nowhere” as Desmond was really getting warmed up. As the album continues, we hear a great call-and-answer style as the men play off one another especially given Brubeck’s great interplay with his percussionist on “A Minor Thing.”

Featuring one of Brubeck’s signature pieces, “In Your Own Sweet Way,” I was even more surprised by some of the offbeat tracks, including what seemed to be an improvised last minute decision to play “The Trolley Song” (made famous by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis), complete with unexpected sound effects, to meet radio time requirements. It’s this laid-back and versatile vibe offered up by the group that makes them just so downright likable as Dave’s dubbed an all around nice guy by the announcer.

Later on, it moves into some excellent other pieces that are instantly recognizable to devotees of standard jazz repertoire including yet another reprisal of “The Duke” which served as Brubeck’s introduction. While it’s an excellent disc overall, in one of my favorite numbers, “Love Walked In,” we experience a piece that’s truly epic in scope. Running extraordinarily long and earning applause after various members shine, moreover we’re quickly reminded just what makes great jazz so infectious to the ears.

Namely, it’s the variations in color and mood that run throughout, almost inviting us to swing along for a moment, we’ve broken through a barrier of time and space and have joined Brubeck and the band. Of course, as soon as we’re ready to quit our day jobs and run away, again, they’re back, this time with “Here Lies Love” and the rest, making us realize that in the end, jazz is best left to the pros, whether they can read sheet music or not.

Track List

1) “Theme (The Duke) & Introduction”

2) “Stardust"

3) “Gone With the Wind”

4) “Stompin’ For Milli”

5) “Out of Nowhere” (Incomplete)

6) “A Minor Thing”

7) “In Your Own Sweet Way”

8) “The Trolley Song”

9) “Introduction & The Duke”

10) “Love Walked In”

11) “Here Lies Love”

12) “All The Things You Are”

13) “Theme (The Duke) & Introduction”

14) “I’m In A Dancing Mood”

15) “The Song Is You”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Music Review: Rosemary Clooney-- On the Air

By “showing up day after day,”
Rosemary Clooney left a legacy
of remarkable recordings including this one.


As she sings in the eighteenth and final track — "I Get a Kick Out of You" -- in this remarkable collection from Acrobat Music, Rosemary Clooney opens with the lyrics, “My story is much too sad to be told.” Little did listeners tuning into these radio broadcasts realize that when it came to that particular phrase, she may as well have been referencing herself. And this is precisely because from her very first recording Rosemary Clooney possessed that innate gift that few singers have. Namely, she managed to find the heart of each unique song while interpreting the lyrics completely in the character of the piece.

While by now it’s become nearly a prerequisite for jazz musicians and vocalists to have dealt with enormous personal tragedy, as so many of the giants of that era are no longer with us, when you even glance at the shortest of summaries about the life of Ms. Rosemary Clooney: “Girl Singer” as she so dubbed herself in her 1999 autobiography (adding to her original 1977 memoir This for Remembrance), you realize that she overcame many, many more than her fair share.

Right from the start, Clooney survived an immensely difficult childhood of abandonment by both her dress-maker mother, who fled to California with Clooney’s brother to marry a sailor, and her alcoholic father, who took the household money and vanished one evening. Fortunately, Rosemary and her sister Betty first earned their big break and enough money to buy their own school lunches in their darkest hour winning “a spot on Cincinnati’s radio station WLW as singers” in 1945. After working alongside bandleader Tony Pastor for a few years, Betty returned to Cincinnati and later Rosemary ventured off to New York City at the tender age of 21. It was there that she ultimately became a recording artist with Columbia Records, striking her first big hit with the song she loathed, “Come-On-a My House.”

It was around this same time, in the early 1950s that Rosemary Clooney became a staple on popular “star-studded variety programs” crafted by radio executives to combat “the growing magnetism of television.” In this extraordinary reissue of some of these vintage recordings that were originally made for radio, we hear a Clooney whom Acrobat Music’s press notes reveal had begun “validating her position among the fine jazz-based vocalists in American music.” While she would later become far more famous for her versions of standards and novelty hits in the same vein as “Come-On-a My House,” including “Botch-a-Me” and “Mambo Italiano,” in this wonderfully diverse release of rare performances, we hear some of Rosemary’s earliest professional recordings as she was still finding her vocal style.

With a natural gift that’s evident right away in such classics as Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow’s “My Old Flame,” and George and Ira Gershwin’s “But Not For Me” from the show Girl Crazy, the wistful and melancholic Clooney gives way to a more polished vibe midway through. Soon she teases us with “If This Isn’t Love,” from Finian’s Rainbow and the Rodgers and Hart song you can float away on, “Manhattan." With that, she warms up with the first of a hat-trick followed up by a great delivery of “You Make Me Feel So Young” and an intriguing maternal sounding take on “All the Pretty Little Horses,” which was recorded years before she gave birth

to the first of five children with husband Jose Ferrer (whom she married and divorced twice).

Later, the album moves into some of her most unabashedly romantic tracks like “I’m Only Ambitious For You,” and the slightly shocking “Thrill Me,” which seems to foreshadow her marriage that took place in 1953. And ending this era of recordings with the sixteenth inclusion, “Too Much Conversation,” it marks a great progression from the sixteen first tracks to the bonus final two. The album ends with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” recorded in 1959 after years of experience as well as personal struggles and battles with addiction found Clooney’s voice sounding far more mature and worldly. In doing so, it was an awesome decision to break popular protocol of only including tracks from one specific and succinct time-period to illustrate the ways that Clooney had changed with more vocal mastery.

Yet the sheer gorgeous arrangements and exceptional nostalgic recording made with accompaniment from the Earl Shelton Orchestra in 1951/2 which as the press release stated, perfectly “captures Rosemary as her star is rising,” is a must-own for devotees of the singer whom the late great Frank Sinatra once called not only “a symbol of good modern American music” but one with that “great talent which exudes warmth and feeling in every song she sings.”

A remarkable woman, she found herself surviving an endless number of personal ups and downs as she stood just a few feet away from her close friend and Presidential nominee Robert F. Kennedy when he was assassinated which led to a very public breakdown.

The 1970s found Clooney back on a personal and professional upswing when her good friend Bing Crosby included her in his 50th and final anniversary tour in 1976. While that same year marked her comeback, it also came sadly along with the death of her sister Betty from a brain aneurysm. Rosemary, who was always devoted to her immediate and extended family (including her nephew Mr. George Clooney who lived with his aunt during his own rise to fame) created the Betty Clooney Center in Long Beach, California which was a facility dedicated to “brain-injured young adults,” and one that was the “first of its kind in the U.S.”

The humble woman who said that her accolades were just “for showing up day after day,” later added to the Washington Post that as “the only instrument that’s got the words… I’ve got to be able to get that across,” and the proof is as simple as in listening to any one of her phenomenal recordings, none more so than in some of her earliest served up in this one-of-a-kind collection from Acrobat Music Inc. releasing on 10/21.

So while in the end she sang that her story was one that was far “too sad to be told,” perhaps her greatest testament not only with regard to her loyalty to family and friends was in inhabiting the characters of so many songs. And in the same token, by inviting us to share in her interpretations as she honored all kinds of individuals whose stories should be told including her own and honored us at the same time — both in celebration of her listeners and in “showing up day after day.”

Track List

1) “This Can’t Be Love”

2) “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me”

3) “My Old Flame”

4) “But Not For Me”

5) “Our Love Affair”

6) “If This Isn’t Love”

7) “Shine”

8) “Manhattan”

9) “You Make Me Feel So Young”

10) “All The Pretty Little Horses”

11) “As Long As I Live”

12) “I’ll Never Forget You”

13) “I’m Only Ambitious For You”

14) “Love And Nuts And Noodles”

15) “Thrill Me”

16) “Too Much Conversation”

17) “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”

18) “I Get A Kick Out of You”

Monday, October 20, 2008

Soundtrack Review: Wanted-- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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Music By Danny Elfman. Need I Say More?

For more than twenty years Danny Elfman has composed some of the most recognizable scores in film and television. While it would be easy to say he just simply has a gift for musical accompaniment, he takes his job extraordinarily seriously. Likewise, he continues that, “Working closely with a director is the main job a film composer. Interpreting what he perceives as a color, an emotion, or mood is very abstract. A director tells you something he wants and then you have to run back to your music and respond with, ‘I think he meant something like this.’”

The self-taught musician who first picked up an instrument at the age of eighteen would eventually grow into the multiple Oscar nominated and Grammy Award winning Danny Elfman. Having dropped out of high school and followed his older brother to France prior to journeying to Africa, Elfman managed to absorb musical styles from every place he’s lived which is evident in every one of his eclectic, offbeat, and memorable scores including Wanted which is his best in years.

From his beginnings as a rock musician in the band Oingo Boingo to becoming a frequent collaborator of director Tim Burton — his main musical Batman theme from Burton’s 1989 film marked the very first time I became aware of the art of film scoring. In fact, I was so distinctly affected by it that I begged for the sheet music and tried to learn it on the piano myself, but only managed to make it through a page and a half. And although he’s provided such instantly recognizable and remarkable scores for Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the theme songs for TV’s The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives, among others, he was the cruel subject of much unfair criticism and speculation when he first made headlines.

After being snobbishly charged by academics that a rock star couldn’t move into scoring and insinuating that perhaps Elfman wasn’t the brains behind the music in the earliest part of his career, Elfman fired back by defending himself and others with similar backgrounds as well. However, the best revenge was the quality of the work itself, going on to move endlessly from one high profile project to another.

Spending more than a dozen hours a day on any given score, seven days a week for several months, the prolific Elfman, who also composed the music for three additional films this year aside from Wanted, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Standard Operating Procedure, and Milk, seems to take a Batman-like approach to making music. Retreating to “his basement musical laboratory,” he compares his work to screenwriting, telling the L.A. Times that, “a movie starts with a writer alone in a room conjuring something out of vapor… And it ends with a score composer talking to himself in a little room, conjuring something out of vapor.” And when it came to crafting the music for Russian director and Night Watch series creator Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, based on JG Jones and Mark Millar’s graphic novels about a cubicle nerd who quickly discovers his fate to join an elite squad of assassins, Elfman was able to use an approach that was deeply personal to him and incredibly beneficial to the Russian filmmaker. Having told the Jewish Journal that he finds himself “drawn to [his] Russian and Eastern European musical roots,” since he considers that his “strongest link to [his] Jewish background is musical,” he admits that although he’s never been there, “I feel a kinship with Russia,” which is “very much a part of.. [his] consciousness.”

You hear this fairly quickly into the roughly fifty minute running time of Wanted’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Consisting entirely of Elfman’s music, the phenomenal score opens with the musician’s first vocal performance in three years (since Burton’s Corpse Bride) with the catchy, masculine and guitar fueled vehicle “The Little Things.” Launching right into a heavily techno and eclectic, largely Russian and Eastern European influenced score, he follows up “The Little Things with fourteen instrumental tracks guaranteed to hook you on the first listen alone and Wanted just gets stronger with repeat plays.
While usually with films scores, one main musical theme or motif gets recycled ad nauseam throughout or some songs are so ridiculously short (like 45 seconds), repetitive and dull that it’s fairly easy to spot the stand-outs. As far as Wanted is concerned, there isn’t one track that sounds out of place. Much more successful in this film critic’s opinion than the film itself, Wanted is Elfman at his very best and you can see a brief interview with the graphic novel creators, Elfman and journalist Rebecca Murray.

Building towards the intensity to come with his sweeping orchestral track “Success Montage,” that’s fairly heavy on the use of strings until more than halfway through it’s infused with some electronic techno, it alternates between the classic and the modern in a way that sets up what’s to come. We hear some of the hook from this track throughout the album although he slows down the pace with what sounds like Monks chanting in the aptly named “Fraternity Suite,” and mixes things around considerably until the immediate four-star track, “Fox in Control.”

Apple iTunes

Nearly painting the action with the music itself, it makes the ideal counterpart to Angelina Jolie’s tough but sexy character Fox and flows very well into “Welcome to the Fraternity,” which is uniformly excellent but ultimately serves as a bridge into the album’s change-of-pace track “Fox’s Story.” “Story” begins with a melancholic and somber opening but adds in beautiful female vocalization past the one minute mark that’s deceptively angelic and precious. Later, we realize that despite Fox’s surface beauty, there’s a deadly woman underneath who is revealed musically after three minutes when the violent sounds of the electric guitar come in.

“Exterminator Beat,” picks up on the more masculine and firm sounds evidenced earlier on in “Success Montage,” and others with its techno and electronic heavy sounds until strings work in and it feels like a call and answer between old and new, very similar to the fraternity of assassins themselves. Additionally, in its own way, it felt reminiscent of some of the thematically similar compositions of Clint Mansell on his score for Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

And while the rest of the album is solid, Elfman really cuts loose on the addictive track “Revenge,” breaking out strings, guitars, techno, and more in the frantically paced rock 'n' roll, no-holds-barred sounds of one of Wanted’s most superlative tracks after “Fox in Control” and “The Little Things.”

And although one may say in the end it’s all “The Little Things” Elfman manages to mix together in his masterful approach that make Wanted a true-standout for the composer both musically and personally, as it feeds into his own kinship with his Russian Jewish roots, there’s nothing little about the album nor the man who’s been quietly composing some of the most extraordinary film music in the past few decades.

Track List

1) “The Little Things”

2) “Success Montage”

3) “Fraternity Suite”

4) “Wesley’s Office Life”

5) “The Scheme”

6) “Fox in Control”

7) “Welcome to the Fraternity”

8) “Fox’s Story”

9) “Exterminator Beat”

10) “Rats”

11) “The Train”

12) “Revenge”

13) “Fox’s Decision”

14) “Breaking the Code”

15) “Fate”