27 January 2010

Ken Vandermark
Work series : Musician
Work series : Musician DVD cover
a film by Daniel Kraus
2008 / US / color / 58 minutes (+ additional footage)
DVD (region 1) from Facets Video
Work series : Musician 003
photo by Juan-Carlos Hernandez
Anyone who has ever known anyone who worked as a musician should be well-aware of what a tough career it is – whether the performer is in a part-time local band or one who tours widely and often, with varying degrees of success and recognition. Suffice to say it’s not an option normally offered up by a high school job counselor. As difficult a road as this might be for anyone pursuing fame and fortune through relatively popular forms of music – rock & roll, singer-songwriter, country – imagine now how much more close to impossible it would be to actually earn a living and survive (both practically and artistically) when one’s chosen genre is avant-garde, experimental jazz. Chicago-based reed player Ken Vandermark has done just that – and I think it’s safe to say, looking over his career (and he’s still only in his 40s, with hopefully a long and fruitful future ahead of him), that he’s managed to do just that…and do it very well. Vandermark was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, which raised some eyebrows among those who were unfamiliar with his work (or his work ethic). I won’t claim to have heard everything he’s done – he has over 100 recordings to his credit, working with something like 40 ensembles, including his main band, The Vandermark 5, as well as collaborations with many of the brightest talents in his field, such as Peter Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson, Ab Baars…the list goes on and on…) – but I can vouch for the stunning quality of everything I’ve heard. The sheer volume of his recorded output would limit the quality level when applied to most artists – but his dedication and imagination, as well as the depth and brilliance of his composition and performing, make every release something to anticipate greatly. He tours an average of 8 months every year, and when coupled with the time needed for composition, rehearsal and self-management (to say nothing of his home life!), Vandermark is, to say the least, a busy fellow.
Work series : Musician 005
photo by Amanda Kraus
Daniel Kraus turns the camera of his acclaimed Work series on Vandermark for this documentary – the cinema verité style he employs is absolutely perfect in bringing the viewer into Vandermark’s world. We see Ken in the sometimes agonizing process of working on new compositions at home, alone; listening to phone messages and returning calls; setting up tours and negotiating concert fees and accommodations; rehearsing with his various bands, working out arrangements; traveling from gig to gig (no luxury limos here, folks – one has to really want, or be driven, to this specific calling); schlepping equipment in and out of cramped, hard-to-access performance spaces; &c, &c…you get the picture. It’s not a glamorous life – it’s one that the artists who choose it are compelled to pursue for the sake of their art, which springs from their souls and, in most cases, will not be denied. In not concentrating on performance footage, per se, Kraus has imbued his film with a deeper sense of reality than other documentaries that mostly show a band going through the same motions night after night, every movement on stage choreographed to the nth degree. This is the real deal, with no make-up, no pretension.
Work series : Musician 007
photo by Juan-Carlos Hernandez
The filmmaker also eschews the direct interview – sometimes we see Vandermark speaking with audience members or others about his work, but briefly. For the most part, Kraus allows the audience to become a part of the experience by immersing them in it without additional commentary – the images are so vivid, without the façade of ‘acting’, that the film is completely successful in this and all other regards. I can recall only a handful of music-related documentaries that were this perfect – Straight, no chaser, Charlotte Zwerin’s great film about Thelonious Monk; Step across the border, Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel’s document of Fred Frith’s travels (musical and otherwise); Agujetas cantaor, Dominique Abel’s brilliant portrait of possibly the greatest cantaor flamenco of our time; and Triumph of the underdog, Don McGlynn’s film on Charles Mingus all come to mind. These are all pinnacles of the form, and it’s easy to see why Musician made the list of ‘7 masterpieces of the 00s you’ve likely never seen’ on movieline.com.
Work series : Musician 004
photo by Amanda Kraus
This is a film that can be enjoyed by anyone even remotely interested in understanding the life of a working musician – and for jazz fans, especially those already familiar with Ken Vandermark’s fine work, it’s an absolute treasure. Although there is little actual performance footage in the body of the film itself, there’s plenty of on-stage material here in the form of nearly an hour of ‘deleted scenes’ – Ken is featured in various clips with The Vandermark 5, The Territory Band-6, Bridge 61, Cinc, and in some solo and duo improv sessions as well – all of it beautifully performed, filmed, and presented. There are also some brief segments of interviews and moments of relaxed conversation – all of it adds greatly to the effect of the body of the film itself.
Daniel Kraus
Daniel Kraus...photo by Amanda Kraus
Watching it again in preparation for putting this piece together, I found it hard to limit myself – the temptation every time I put the DVD on is to view it again in its entirety…which I’m sure I’ll do again and again. It’s a wonderfully drawn portrait of someone who works very hard in pursuit not only of his livelihood but his artistic fulfillment…and an extremely compelling one. In closing, I’ll leave you with a short clip – I think you’ll get a good sense of both the mood and quality of this film from this brief excerpt…

The work series website

Ken Vandermark official website
The window (La ventana)
La ventana - DVD cover
written and directed by Carlos Sorin
2008 / Argentina / color / 77 minutes
Spanish with English subtitles
DVD (region 1) from Film Movement
La ventana 002
In Carlos Sorin’s gently poetic film The window, Time is as much a character as any of the humans. The quiet, insistent ticking of a clock in the hallway and the swish of the swinging pendulum echo almost subliminally through the house and reverberate in the lives of the people with a strength that belies the subtle sounds – but Don Antonio is acutely aware of Time’s presence in his life, looming larger with the passing of each minute. The film opens with a dream – Don Antonio sees visions from his youth 80 years before, of his mother introducing him to his babysitter for the evening. He can almost see the young woman’s face – a tantalizing memory made more poignant by his inability to bring it completely into focus. He can hear music in the house – his assumption is that his parents were entertaining at home.
La ventana 013
Reality asserts itself when he awakens and is troubled that he cannot remember the babysitter’s face – he wonders where he lost the memory, how it slipped away from him. Don Antonio is bedridden, apparently recovering from some unspecified heart-related problem, in San Juan, his ancestral home, remotely situated on the pampas of Argentina. He is under the care – and watchful eyes – of Maria del Carmen and Emilse, who function as housekeepers, cooks and caregivers, along with a longtime handyman. Their lives are pursued with little contact from the outside world – the occasional visit from a deliveryman or repairman, and of course regular visits from Don Antonio’s doctor and friend. They have no telephone, depending on a two-way radio for communication.

The film takes place over the course of a single day – a special day, with the impending visit of Don Antonio’s estranged son Pablo, who is a famous concert pianist now living in Europe. His return after many years is an opportunity for reconciliation with his father, and Don Antonio is determined that his son will be made welcome, and that the occasion will be celebrated as it should. Maria del Carmen and Emilse are pressed into readying a room for Don Pablo, as well as making sure that San Juan’s piano is properly tuned. Don Antonio’s doctor pays a call to examine his patient and check on the progress of his recuperation. He gently refuses Don Antonio’s request that he be allowed to receive his son outside of his bed, telling him that the time is not yet right for him to be more mobile. The nature of his long friendship with Don Antonio is illustrated by his calming assurance that the two of them will go fishing together when the old man’s health is better – but the look in Don Antonio’s eyes reveals that he knows more about his own condition than those around him might think.
La ventana 012
The tall window in Don Antonio’s bedroom looks out onto his land – a panoramic view of the wind-swept fields under the beautiful canopy of the Argentine sky. He longs to walk his property again, to pace through the fields, to see the condition of his beloved garden – but Maria del Carmen and Emilse keep him on a short leash, concerned about his health and the doctor’s orders. The IV constantly in his arm acts as a tether – he can move about the room from time to time, when his bed is being made, or when he sits in a chair to have his hair trimmed, but it’s easy to see that it feels more like a ball and chain to him. The aching in his eyes and on his face as he gazes out of his window is palpable.
La ventana 019
Don Antonio is a writer – one of the few modern conveniences visible in the film is his laptop computer, on which he works sporadically. During the doctor’s visit, he asks the physician to retrieve a book from the shelf – a first edition of A universal history of infamy by legendary Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. As he brings the book to Don Antonio, the doctor notices that the book is signed by Borges, with a dedication to Don Antonio, making it a very special item indeed – and he is all the more astonished when the old man insists that the doctor take the book as a gift from him. It’s a touching moment – Don Antonio conveys, through this selfless gesture, the value he places upon their friendship, at the same time letting the doctor know that the patient is aware that his time might not be long.
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La ventana 009
After a brief ‘escape’ for a walk around his property leaves him in a weakened state, tempering his hopes for a proper celebration around the return of his son. Don Pablo arrives not alone, but in the company of a woman named Claudia, apparently his girlfriend – she is evidently a performer herself, and is only partially present, concerned about the lack of communication with the outside world interfering with an upcoming booking. She greets Don Antonio with a combination of petulance and detached respect that clearly show she would rather be back in the ‘real world’ instead of stranded in the middle of nowhere. Antonio insists on having a bottle of champagne brought up from the cellar for a ceremonial toast – his son notes that the handwriting on the label is that of his mother, which his father acknowledges wistfully. As the bottle is uncorked, the lack of the characteristic ‘pop’ tells everyone that it is flat – another instance in which Time makes its presence and effects noticed. Afterwards, alone, the son explores the house, unfamiliar to him after the ensuing years. He approaches the piano, finding two tin soldiers on the top. They were retrieved earlier from inside, wedged among the mechanism, by the piano tuner, where they had evidently fallen many years ago, when Pablo was a child. He pockets them – a quiet, perhaps unconscious attempt to capture Time.
La ventana 020
The film is shot beautifully – there are long scenes with little dialogue, but volumes are spoken, nevertheless, by the eyes and facial expressions of the characters, as well as by the movement of the natural world, which of course has a life of its own. There is tangible poetry in the cinematography, and a completely unpretentious grace in the characters – something that cannot be taught, which must have its source deep within. The actors embody their roles, immersing themselves in them, becoming the characters they portray – it’s an essential element too often missing in modern filmmaking, and refreshing to see in such quantity and quality as in this film. Sorin’s script is neither heavy-handed nor naïve, dealing gently and openly with mortality and memory, two elements of our existence that are completely under the sometimes cruel thumb of Time. There is a sort of informed sentimentality present – it is never maudlin or simplistic, gifted to the viewer by the director and cast as an undeniable element of life. We are born, we live, and we die – what we experience over the course of a life molds us and shapes us according to our own sensibilities, directed and nudged by the events through which we pass. Don Antonio’s ghostly dream from his boyhood attains a clarity he never imagined it would reach, delivered by a messenger completely unexpected – it is all the more of a treasure for this, just as this film is a moving cinematic treasure for the viewer. It is touching without being manipulative, filled with beauty that is completely free from artifice, visual poetry that moves and flows with the natural rhythm of the wind through the grass.

03 January 2010

Olivier Themines Trio

Olivier Themines Trio - Miniatures
Yolk, 2009

The musical form of the miniature might well be viewed in the same light as the short story in literature, or the film short in cinema – arguably more challenging to the creator of the work than longer forms, in that the ideas expressed must be presented in an extremely succinct manner, without the luxury of slow development. There is no time to spare, no space to waste – every note, every rest, each rhythmic form and variation must be precisely designed toward the creation of these small bits of carefully crafted music. Clarinetist Olivier Themines rises to the occasion brilliantly on Miniatures, presenting a programme that shines from first track to last, performed in the able company of Guillaume Hazebrouck (piano) and Kit Le Marec (vibraphone). All of the compositions save one are originals, the lone cover being a piece written by the extraordinary American pianist Ran Blake – ‘Glaciation’, here reduced from the original length of 0’55 to an even more concise 0’32.

Even considering the sparse instrumentation, the arrangements are drawn frugally, in some cases featuring only one or two instruments at any given moment – but nothing is left to chance, with every piece of the musical puzzle falling into place beautifully, creating thoughtful interplay driven by perfect execution. I know that Themines and Hazebrouck are members of the extended Yolk collectif of composers / performers / improvisers – Themines has worked with the Bruno Regnier Xtet, and Hazebrouck has his own sextet as well as performing in a duo with reed player Pierre-Yves Merel. I’m not familiar with the work of vibraphonist Kit Le Marec beyond this recording, but no doubt he, Themines and Hazebrouck keep busy – the music they offer here is on a level that belies the relaxed feel it projects, something that is definitely not casually produced.

There’s a palpable sense of the spirit of Érik Satie hovering over much of this recording – that’s not to say it’s derivative, only that it has an almost dreamlike quality, one that gently reanimates the memory echoes whose resonances have faded almost to silence in the subconscious of the listener. Also present is the very real influence of Jimmy Giuffre, , the American clarinetist / composer whose ground-breaking trio with Paul Bley (piano) and Steve Swallow (double-bass) brought a thoughtful stream of dynamic, forward-looking minimalism (not as much of a contradiction as it might seem at first glance) into the jazz scene of the 50s and 60s, proving that a drummerless ensemble could be both swinging and thought-provoking – one track on Miniatures is entitled ‘Giuffrian sketch’ as an hommage to the inspiration his work offers to Themines and his bandmates. (I highly recommend checking out some of Giuffre’s work, especially the double-disc hatOLOGY re-release of Emphasis and Flight, two albums recorded on a concert tour of Germany in 1961)
The clarinet, piano and vibraphone spin out melodies that intertwine one moment, shifting focus and sending one instrument soaring into solo flight the next, with the others alternately offering up a quiet counterpoint or dropping out altogether, only to reappear moments later to make their own statements. Far from being flights of improvised fancy, however, I’m left with the feeling that each note is placed in the score precisely where Themines intends it to be – there are doubtless short bursts of improvisation within a framework, but for the most part this seems to be strictly composed music. There are moments when the jazz backgrounds of these players are evident, others when they sound as if they would be equally at home in a classical chamber ensemble – but throughout the recording, they perform with care, emotion and an enthusiasm that enlivens the delicate nature of this music. While Themines is the leader of record here, and the composer of all but one track on the disc, this is without question a cooperative effort – the three players work together seemingly without the fences that the human ego can throw up to block equal interaction. The instruments themselves seem perfect in reflecting the intentions of the composer – the timbre and attack of the piano and vibraphone allow them to play off each other naturally, with the voice of the clarinet sliding in and out as gracefully as the breath that drives it. A trio without bass or percussion to drive the rhythm might seem weak on paper, but Hazebrouck and Le Marec never allow the music to drag. The three instrumentalists draw from their respective palettes with sensitive consideration, the resulting musical image being a delicate, spare filigree that leaves the listener holding breath as the images form and dissipate. No one seems determined to enter into every single ‘conversation’, to vie for attention – these arrangements are about as perfect as they could be, especially given the chosen form, and the experience is a rich one.

Yolk has been a source of some of the most rewarding music I’ve come across over the past 3-4 years – the label, as well as the collectif itself, seems to encourage and nourish the creativity of its participants by allowing them apparent near-total control over their individual recordings. Only in such a freeing atmosphere could musicians and projects like this one thrive and come to such complete fruition. Click on the link below to go to the label’s website – there, you can check out all of their releases and artists, as well as listen to the occasional sample tracks from their releases. If you hear something that strikes your fancy, I urge you to order it from them – they accept PayPal (the safest way to pay online that I’ve found), their prices are much cheaper than one would expect to pay for products from Europe, and their shipping is fast and securely packed. In the world of creative musical endeavors, it's a combination that's hard to beat.

Yolk Records