Sunday 21 November 2010

Film Review: Chico & Rita, Duke of York's Picturehouse

Great jazz films are all too infrequent. Animated films about jazz non-existent. Chico & Rita is a full-length animation set against a background of Havana and New York in the Forties and Fifties set to a soundtrack of Be-Bebop and Afro-Cuban rhythms. If you like be-bop, you'll love Chico & Rita.

Chico is the best pianist in Forties Havana, playground of the American rich. He plays the local clubs and gets a break when he sits in with Woody Herman's Four Brothers at The Tropicana to sight read Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto. He meets the beautiful Rita, a nightclub singer. The couple spend a passionate night together before being disturbed by Chico's lover. The women fight and then both walk out on Chico. This is the start of a fifty year on-off romance. Rita finds fame in New York shows and Hollywood movies. Chico becomes a leading pianist playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Ben Webster.

Fiction and reality merge. Chico and his agent are in a Harlem club with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo (who wrote Dizzy's hit Manteca) when he is gunned down by a drug dealer he has accused of selling him oregano instead of weed. This is based on fact. They walk into a club to hear Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk playing. Rita goes to the Village Vanguard to listen to Chico playing with Ben Webster. Chico is busted when drugs are found on him after a raid on a club and he is deported to Cuba where the revolution is in full flow.

The film was directed by Oscar winner Fernando Trueba (Belle Époque) and leading Catalan designer Javier Mariscal. Mariscal created the "look" of Barcelona in the Eighties and Nineties - his illustrations making it looking like Havana on The Mediterrean. His images dominated the Barcelona Olympics (remember Cobi the dog mascot and those cartoon city maps?). The movements of the characters are life-like (based on live action) and there is a sensuality about the dancing and sex scenes that is really unusual for animation. There is plenty of action - car chases in huge Buicks and Cadillacs, police raids, fight scenes - and wonderful cityscapes of Havana, New York and Paris. Though an animation, it is definitely aimed at adults.

Plenty of great jazz too. As well as the classic be-bop recordings of the era (Blue Monk, Manteca) Chico sits in a bar playing Bud Powell's beautiful Celia (the theme of the film is a tune Chico writes called Rita). Ben Webster playing in The Vanguard is actually Jimmy Heath and Nat "King" Cole is sung by his brother, Fredy. The music was written by Cuban bandleader, pianist and composer Bebo Valdés, who lived through the period and, like Chico, spent time in the States and Europe.

Obviously this was not a film created for jazz fans. It has the production values of a box office hit and pretty much any adult could enjoy the love story, the music, the action and the scenery. It may also change people's perception of Cuban music as it places Cuba at the cutting edge of modern jazz in the Forties.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Stan Getz "Dum! Dum!" featuring Renè Thomas, Eddy Louiss, Bernard Lubat

Thanks to Niall for sharing this wonderful clip featuring Renè Thomas performing with Stan Getz. This band made one of Stan Getz's best live recordings - Dynasty - and was clearly a very tight outfit when they made this TV appearance. Renè's solo starts at about 5:06. It's only very short but it moved me. I hope some more clips like this turn up.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

London Jazz festival: Brad Mehldau & Martial Solal

Two contrasting gigs this week - Brad premiering Highway Rider with the Britten Symphonia at The Barbican and Martial Solal solo at The Wigmore Hall.

I'be been enjoying the Highway Rider record a great deal recently. It describes a metaphorical journey from, and eventually back to, home. Each piece along the way opens up and explores a world of sound and emotion - strong melodies, interesting tones, great interaction. It's an intimate chamber piece with the small orchestra used to add texture or describe a dimension of the music that wouldn't be apparent through a regular jazz group.

On stage it took on a different character. Broadly the same music but in a huge concert hall. Some great playing and interaction from Brad on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, Jeff Ballard & Matt Chamberlain on percussion, and Joshua Redman on saxes. But the Britten Sinfonia stood out as being under utilised, spending much of the performance waiting patiently for the next orchestral contribution. I really liked the textures from the orchestra when it did contribute, particularly the bassoon, and along with some fairly standard American film score writing, there was some really interesting stuff, particularly one piece of rising & swirling atonality that must have had our poor traveller very confused and disoriented.

Highway Rider an ambitious piece of music and one that is typical of Brad Mehldau. He loves making jazz modern and relevant (with his covers of Radionhead, Nirvana, Nick Drake etc.)  and he also likes to dive into the romantic tradition (the Highway Rider concept is similar to Schubert's Winterreise).  His music is often personal and intimate but then he brings it to a large stage with an orchestra. Perhaps on some levels he was less successful but I would happily sit through the set several times over in order to appreciate the richness of what I was hearing. Themes are still popping into my head and I will continue to enjoy the recording for some time yet.

Frenchman Martial Solal was occupying the solo piano spot of the stage of The Wigmore Hall where I had seen Brad in early summer. Very sprightly and virtuosic for his 82 years, Martial treated us to a set of, largely standards such as There's a Small Hotel, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, Cherokee, Have You Met Miss Jones, Body & Soul and Tea for Two ("One that I wrote on the train over from Paris this morning," he quipped). This was no ordinary set of standards. Much of the music was very free time-wise and, after playing a fragment of melody, he would dive into the cracks between the chords, do some exploring, and then continue where he left off. He clearly loves ideas and has a great sense of humour. Introducing All The Things You Are ("Here is a tune you all know - how many of you know the words?") he then played that first very familiar note of the melody, held it for 15 seconds before playing the second note, holding it for 10 seconds, going off on an excursion a and then coming back for the third note. When he has enough of improvising he would play the head and suddenly break off, often before the end, standing up from the piano as if to say "Baah, I've had enough of this!".

Once I has stopped playing spot the tune I was very happy to let myself be overwhelmed by the music of the piano in that beautiful hall, much as you might be overwhelmed by a landscape, a film, pleasant aromas and powerful emotions.

Portrait of Martial Solal in The Daily Telegraph

Sunday 14 November 2010

Ed Cherry Trio "Mogadishu"

Great Guitar/Organ Trio playing from guitarist Ed Cherry. The balance of tones from drums organ and guitar is just right. Everyone is grooving along, doing their own thing yet keeping their ears wide open. Everyone gets a chance to stretch out without any one instrument being too dominant.

I've only got a couple of tracks recorded by Ed so it's time I did some more investigating.