Orson Welles round-up on 100th Birthday

May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

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On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles, here is a round-up of my pieces about the filmmaker.

Orson Welles and the Death of Sirhan Sirhan (Bright Lights Film Journal, 2015). Part I: The Conspirators (February 20). Part II: The Safe House (February 26)

Orson’s Charmed Circle of Fragments: A conversation with Josh Karp on his new book Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind (Bright Lights Film Journal, April 30, 2015).

Too Much Johnson: Interview with Scott Simmon at Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource (January 26, 2015)

Mr. Arkadin: A look at the film locations at Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource (October 11, 2013)

T For True: review-essay on three Orson Welles books (Senses of Cinema, issue 68, September 2013)

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Orson’s Charmed Circle of Fragments

May 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Other-Side-WindJosh Karp’s new book Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind has just been published by St. Martin’s Press. It is the first detailed account of the production of this most unorthodox of film projects. Based on interviews with surviving participants and in-depth research of primary documents, Karp tells an often amusing tale of 1970s Hollywood. It’s a story of creative genius, irresistible chicanery, devastating betrayal, and wild times with some of the era’s most interesting personalities.

I first met Karp in Chicago during the winter of early 2014. To coincide with the publication of his new book, we continued our conversation on Welles by long distance email for a new piece at Bright Lights Film Journal called Orson’s Charmed Circle of Fragments

Introduction to Contrappasso: Writers at the Movies

April 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Writers at the Movies, the new special issue of Contrappasso Magazine I edited with Noel King, contains essays by Luc Sante, Sarah Berry, Richard Lowenstein, Richard Hugo, Clive Sinclair, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, and Anthony May; fiction by Barry Gifford; poetry by Michael Atkinson, R. Zamora Linmark, and James Franco; and my interviews with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Emmanuel Mouret, Scott Simmon, and Richard Misek. Some pieces are republished, some appear for the first time. In this instance, the common theme is ‘literary cinéphilia.’

Some of the pieces focus on a single film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), Orson Welles’s rediscovered Too Much Johnson (1938), Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1955), and Robert Siodmak’s Custer of the West (1968). The approaches vary. Other pieces zoom in on an individual: Eric Rohmer, Jean Negulesco, Claire Danes, the Black Dahlia, Sal Mineo, Montgomery Clift, Elmore Leonard, and Emmanuel Mouret. We also explore the kind of cinéphilia that escapes the page and becomes filmmaking itself.

The issue is for sale at Amazon.com. The long introduction, which I co-wrote with Noel King, is now online at the Contrappasso website.

Duke Ellington: A Guide to the Stockpile

April 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Here are links to the three parts (and new epilogue) to my 2012 article ‘Duke Ellington: A Guide to the Stockpile

Part I (1974-1986) | Part II (The Private Collection, 1987-1989) | Part III (1990s-now) | P.S. (Posthumously Recorded Works)

Duke Ellington: Stockpile P.S. (Posthumously Recorded Works)

April 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

This is a 2015 postscript to my 2012 three-part listener’s guide to the Duke Ellington Stockpile: his posthumously released studio sessions. See Parts 123.

Aside from his mammoth tape archive, Ellington left additional works unreleased, unrecorded, or unfinished at his death in 1974. Here is a brief list of the various attempts by others to complete/reconstruct those works for record. It’s not complete.

THREE BLACK KINGS and THE RIVER

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Mercer Ellington completed his father’s final symphonic work Three Black Kings (Balthazar, Solomon, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). It was orchestrated by Luther Henderson. In 1980 Mercer led the Duke Ellington Orchestra (still going strong) in a live recording with the Warsaw Philharmonic. Unfortunately the LP has never been reissued on CD and is rare.

The album also marked the first appearance on record of Ellington’s 1970 ballet The River, orchestrated by Ron Collier. Stanley Sloane writes, “If you wanted to have an idea of what the ballet might have sounded like if Ellington’s men had joined forces with a small symphony orchestra in the pit… this is the recording to have.”

Ellington’s 43-minute demo recording of the ballet with his band (recorded 1970) appeared years later on the Private Collection Volume 5 (see here). Stanley Dance described that recording as “the blueprints on which [Ron Collier’s] orchestrations for the ballet company’s own orchestra would ultimately be built.”

There are several later recordings of these Ellington symphonic works, sometimes paired with orchestral versions of works originally written by Ellington for the big band: Maurice Peress conducting the American Composers Orchestra, Akira Endo conducting the Louisville Orchestra, Lowell L. Graham conducting the United States Air Force Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic, and Neeme Jarvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

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TIMON OF ATHENS

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Duke wrote incidental music for a 1963 Stratford Festival of Canada production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. The play was directed by Michael Langham. Ellington originally utilized six musicians. When the production moved to England’s Chichester Festival in 1964, the instrumentation was enlarged.

The score was revived in 1991 for a new theatrical production by Langham at the 1991 Stratford Festival. Stanley Silverman adapted Ellington’s “sketches and partial score” and added some vintage well-known Ellington pieces that fitted into the play’s interwar European setting. This recording is from that production.

The liner notes are here.

POUSSE-CAFÉ

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Music from another failed Ellington Broadway musical. This one, a New Orleans version of The Blue Angel, closed after three performances in 1966. On this 1990s revival for CD, a small band led by Ellis Larkins is fronted by vocalists Marshall Barer (also the original lyricist) and Barbara Lea. I like the title song.

SATURDAY LAUGHTER

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Saturday Laughter was an unproduced 1958 musical based on Peter Abraham’s anti-apartheid novel Mine Boy. Ellington and Strayhorn wrote twenty-two songs with lyricist Herb Martin. The project was partially revived in the form of a 2002 CD called Secret Ellington: twelve of the songs performed by various artists.

BEGGAR’S HOLIDAY

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David Serero’s is the only professional recording of this 1946 Ellington musical (with lyrics by John LaTouche). It was based on the The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, the same source material as Brecht & Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Serero’s is a recording of a 2004 reworking by Dale Wasserman. The vocalists here seem totally unsuited to the material.

QUEENIE PIE

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An unfinished and long-gestating Ellington jazz opera. I don’t want to get into the convoluted posthumous history of this one. There have been various stagings over the years. This is a solid recording from a 2009 production starring Carmen Bradford with the Butler Opera Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

ELLINGTON: FRENCH TOUCH

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A labour of love from the world’s finest Duke Ellington repertory orchestra, led by Laurent Mignard. This 2012 release contains a number of pieces otherwise unavailable: Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s complete incidental music for a 1960 production of Alain-René Lesage’s Turcaret, transcribed by Mignard from a lo-fi collector’s tape; a cue from Paris Blues that didn’t make the original soundtrack LP (plus extended versions of others); and three outcast movements from Duke’s Goutelas Suite (two of these reconstructed from Ellington’s sketches).

Here is my 2012 review of this CD at PopMatters.com. And in 2011 I published a two-part feature at the same site on Duke Ellington in Paris. Part 1: Busy Winters and Part 2: Interview with Laurent Mignard.

Duke Ellington: A Guide to the Stockpile, Part III (1990s-now)

April 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

[Originally published at my defunct blog Honey for the Bears on 3 May 2012]

In the 1990s the administrators of the Ellington stockpile licenced recordings to budget labels, but in the 2000s the distinguished jazz label Storyville took over.

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Never Before Released Recordings (1965-1972) (released Music Masters, 1991). A couple of tracks from 1965, 1966, 1967, six from 1970 (including four remakes of movements from The New Orleans Suite, this time recorded in Italy), one from 1971, and one from 1972. This is a strong collection with some exclusive compositions. And finally we get studio versions of great mid-sixties numbers like ‘Swamp Goo’ and ‘That Old Circus Train Turnaround Blues’. Wild Bill Davis contributes the otherwise unknown ‘Naidni Remmus’ and ‘Sans Snyphelle’ . This album was reissued in 2010 on a Nimbus CD as From His Treasure Chest: 1965-1972.

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Cool Rock (1965, 1972; released Laserlight, 1992). This low-budget label release draws from two periods: a May 20, 1965 date in Chicago and some June 1972 recordings from NYC and Toronto. Five world premiere compositions.

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Togo Brava Suite (Feb-June, 1971; released Storyville, 2001). A very important release. In the sixties Ellington had been honoured with his face on a stamp of the Western African nation of Togo. He repaid the favour with an impressionistic seven movement suite which has close ties to the contemporaneous Goutelas and Afro-Eurasian Eclipse suites.

Until the release of this Storyville CD, the Togo Brava Suite existed only as a four-movement work on an October 1971 live album The London Concert (released United Artists, 1973; reissued by Blue Note in 1995 as Togo Brava Suite). Another movement, ‘Soso’, appeared on The Eastbourne Concert (recorded December 1973). Yet another, ‘Afrique’, appeared in a very different arrangement as part of The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

This Storyville album presents a full studio recording of the suite. The seven movements were recorded in the studio June 28-29, 1971. There’s an additional ten unreleased stockpile tracks from 1971 of slightly lesser interest, including several blues jams (eg. ‘Hick’) and not particularly impressive vocal performances by Nell Brookshire and Tony Watkins. ‘Checkered Hat’, Norris Turney’s tribute to his predecessor Johnny Hodges, is lovely (and also on The London Concert).

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The Jaywalker (1966-1967, released Storyville, 2004). All but two tracks come from 1967, a great and under-appreciated Ellington year. We have never-before-heard incidental music for a play called The Jaywalker, enjoyable Crime Jazz with an emphasis on percussion. The other compositions are either exclusive to this CD or tunes that never previously appeared in studio versions – some will be familiar to those who have The Yale Concert or various 1967 live records. Finally a studio version of both parts of ‘Little Purple Flower’ (part 2 is here called ‘Eggo’, known elsewhere as ‘On The Fringe of the Jungle’).

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The Piano Player (1961-1970; released Storyville, 2005). A great set of unreleased solo piano performances from a variety of sources. We have blues improvisations, works-in-progress including ‘Nagoya’ (ultimately part of ‘Ad Lib On Nippon’), a partial piano version of Ellington’s ballet The River, and a medley of ‘T.G.T.T.’ and ‘Little Purple Flower’. This is an essential piano album with a focus on Ellington the composer.

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New York New York (1970-72 ; released Storyville, 2008). The riches keep on coming. Thirteen previously unheard compositions and six unreleased remakes. Flautist Norris Tunney distinguishes various pieces, as does organist Wild Bill Davis. Another version of ‘Afrique’.

What’s next?

Duke Ellington: A Guide to the Stockpile, Part II (The Private Collection 1987-1989)

April 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

[Originally published at my defunct blog Honey for the Bears on 2 May 2012]

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In the 1980s Mercer Ellington donated his dad’s stockpile tapes to Danish Public Radio. A report from the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors (IAJRC) claimed this consisted of “120 studio sessions, 35 location recordings and 50 interviews.” In other words – this archive isn’t anywhere near exhausted.

A huge number of stockpile tracks appeared in one hit in the late 1980s as a ten CD (or cassette) Private Collection. They are available individually or in various boxes. Several different labels have reissued the series. The artwork on the Unidisc or Saja editions is superb (see above). The UK Kaz label versions (below) look low budget – and maybe they are? It doesn’t really matter too much, because these recordings are essential.

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For a full listing of recording dates across the ten CDs, see the page at the Duke Ellington Panorama. Be warned that some reissues renumber the volumes just to confuse us. Ellington on the Web provides comparisons of the various CD editions of the series (the album cover images here are from their website).

Volumes 2 and 6 are excellent live dance dates from 1958, but I won’t consider them here.

Vol. 1: Studio Sessions, Chicago, 1956. ‘Feetbone’ is a swinging blues chart that features the newly returned Johnny Hodges, who also plays a characteristic ‘Prelude To A Kiss’. The other highlight is a quick version of 1940’s ‘Jump For Joy’ centred around Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet. It’s probably the best version out there. Gonsalves reads ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ at the right pace. Mostly from January and March 1956, but despite the title a couple of the tracks were taped in 1957.

Vol. 3: Studio Sessions, New York, 1962. Sessions from July and September, jumbled out of recording order. There is a lot of Paul Gonsalves on this set – it’s practically a companion to the Featuring Paul Gonsalves album taped that May (see Part I). Gonsalves was central to the success of Duke’s Newport renaissance in 1956, but I’m not much impressed by Gonsalves as a fast player. There’s too much of that here: The cracking E.S.P., for example, screams for a competent bop soloist, but instead we get Gonsalves riffing pointlessly all over the place. But on the slow numbers his work is excellent, such as on ‘Blue, Too’ and ‘Tune Up’, early incarnations of ‘The Shepherd’, and also on ‘Take It Slow’, a lovely, too-obscure Strayhorn tune. And Duke covers Monk! An excellent arrangement of ‘Monk’s Dream’, and an Ellington tribute called ‘Frere Monk’ featuring Cootie Williams.

Vol. 4: Studio Sessions, New York, 1963. Good to have Ray Nance out front on a lot of cuts, even on the Hodges vehicle ‘Jeep’s Blues’. Hodges is there for a very early run-through of ‘Isfahan’, which would later appear in The Far East Suite. These cuts are from April-July. The orchestra’s recent feverishly busy winter in Paris is reflected in the Spring sessions in New York: Duke brought along ‘Bloussons Noir’, while ‘Elysee’ is another lovely Strayhorn number.

Vol. 5: The Suites, New York, 1968 & 1970. A very important addition to the Duke canon. First up from late 1968 is The Degas Suite, intended as the soundtrack to an unreleased 1968 documentary about Degas’s racehorse paintings by Sam Shaw (a photographer and the producer of Paris Blues). The narration was by Anthony Quinn and (according to Claude Carriere at La Maison du Duke, Paris) Charles Boyer and Simone Signoret. See The Toledo Blade of December 29, 1968. The other work is a band sketch version of a ballet score called The River, which premiered (in an unfinished state) at the Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater on June 25, 1970. See here. A clip from a TV production is here.

Vol. 7: Studio Sessions, 1957 & 1962. Johnny Hodges gives us ‘Something Saxual’ and a nice reading of Strayhorn’s ‘Passion Flower’. Gonsalves tests my patience with a 12-bar ‘Wailing Interval’ à la Newport, but then gives one of his best solos to ‘I Cover The Waterfront’. There’s a lot of blues: trumpeter Willie Cook gets his own tune, and ‘Deep Blues’ is a fascinating dirge with Gonsalves purring low. Cook, Nance and Terry pass around ‘Three Trumps’. And there’s Milt Grayson’s nice vocal run-through of the Paris Blues theme song – no other vocal recording seems to exist.

Vol. 8: Studio Sessions, 1957, 1965, 1966, 1967, San Francisco, Chicago, New York. Only one track from 1957. The late sixties incarnation of the band is in fine form. The familiar ‘El Viti’ (aka ‘The Matador’) is a Mariachi-Blues groove for trumpeter Cat Anderson, a kind of sequel to 1958’s ‘El Gato’; the Cat also stands out on ‘The Last Go-Round’. This volume contains two cues from Duke’s 1963 Timon of Athens incidental score – ‘Skillipoop’ and ‘Banquet Scene’ – the rest of which is only available on a reconstructed 1993 recording by Stanley Silverman. And Duke experiments with a rock beat in 1967: ‘Ocht O’Clock Rock’ would later be re-recorded and included in Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

Vol. 9: Studio Sessions, New York, 1968. Rather than taking the schmorgesborg approach, this record is all of a piece drawn from several late 1968 sessions. Harold Ashby is now in the band. By now Ellington was using a lot of four-letter codes for titles such as ‘Knuf’ and ‘Gigl’ (actually ‘Giggling Rapids’ aka ‘Grap’, a part of The River). ‘Reva’ has particularly pretty harmonies. ‘Ortseam’ is a hard-driving big band chart by Louis Bellson. ‘Cool and Groovy’ is sung by Trish Turner. ‘Elos’ is a slow gospel piece that later appeared as the Martin Luther King movement of Ellington’s posthumously performed symphonic work Three Black Kings. And it’s always nice to have another performance of the piano piece ‘Meditation’.

Vol. 10: Studio Sessions, New York & Chicago, 1965, 1966 & 1971. Perhaps the most important volume of the collection, and a perfect introduction to Ellington at his most ambitious. Although it’s not promoted as such, this CD is the elusive and (nearly) complete Black, Brown and Beige, a mid-60s re-recording of Duke’s 1943 Tone Parallel to the American Negro. Only a few sections of the ‘Beige’ movement are missing – probably because Ellington was never really satisfied with the rush job he did on ‘Beige’ in 1943. The full 1943 Carnegie Hall recording is listenable but rough; the 1958 album with Mahalia Jackson only covers the ‘Black’ movement. This one is in excellent stereo sound.

In other words – you gotta get Private Vol. 10. The CD is rounded out by performances of two excellent later Ellington long-form works: Harlem and Ad Lib on Nippon.

To be continued…