Mini Movie Review: “Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives” (documentary)

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives
Documentary, 2015.
3/5*

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives doesn’t intend to teach you much; it’s basically a love letter to Adrian Bartos and Robert Garcia, who hosted “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” from 1990 to 1998, on the Columbia University radio station, WKCR. (You can learn a lot more from this NY Times article.)

I watched this documentary on Netflix over the weekend, and I liked it enough to recommend it, with some warnings: This isn’t an entry-level rap documentary. If you don’t already know the fundamental difference between a DJ who makes music, and a DJ who talks between playing tracks on the radio, this documentary won’t be for you. If you don’t already know the difference between rap and lyrical hip-hop, this won’t explain it. If you’re not intimately aware that the 90s rap scene in New York was unlike anywhere else in the world, well… you get the idea.

Stretch and Bobbito were the gatekeepers of, and introduction to, a whole generation of rap music, discovering (to name a few) Jay-Z, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., and Ol’ Dirty Bastard before they were signed. They showed a light on now-legendary artists before they got airtime anywhere else, elevating the careers of Cypress Hill, Eminem, and the Fugees, among others. If you understand the gravity of these events, then this movie will bring together dozens of names, familiar — and fading — artists who’re happy to recount the moment where the radio show changed their lives. You’ll get to see and hear freestyling clips from a range of artists, mostly unrecorded anywhere else.

There’s a lot of clips, some laughs, and a few quick moments of secret lore that are well worth watching, but the documentary avoids exploring the relationship between the two men behind the show in any real depth. We hear that Stretch didn’t like Bobbito getting all of the credit, and both of their musical tastes evolved in different directions, but that’s it. These two were important to the history of rap music in a big way, and yet… we don’t know any more about them than we did at the beginning. We just know that everyone loved them, because they assembled a bunch of people to say that, and no one who didn’t.

So, don’t watch it to learn anything about the show’s creators. Watch it for over an hour of largely-unseen video of some of the greatest rappers to come out of New York in the early 90s. It’s worth it for that, I promise.

Dearly Beloved, We Are Gathered Here Today

Prince is dead. Long live Prince.

We just watched this movie a few days ago, and aside from the rampant misogyny, it’s held up pretty well. Enough that, given the news, I think we ought to watch it again.

I always was a sucker for a New Romantic.

Prince’s music has been a part of the fabric of my life for as long as I can remember. His first album came out when I was five, and by the time I was old enough to have an active interest in the radio (or at least, was old enough to have some say in what station it was tuned to) he was a huge star. He was monumentally gifted, an outsider because he was different, who passionately wanted to be loved, but for who he was instead of trying to be someone else. Yeah, he appealed to me.

He died today at 57, younger than my mother, older than I am now but not by a lot. He was still making music until the end, getting rave reviews for his new tour, and still inspiring. He’ll be missed.

Hang tough, children.

On Vinyl: The Jazz Piano Quartet, “Let It Happen”

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)

thejazzpianoquartet-letithappen

Date: June 10 & 11, 1974
Location: RCA Studio A, New York City
Label: RCA, limited release in Quadraphonic sound
The Jazz Piano Quartet (ldr), Roland Hanna, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Marian McPartland (p)

10 songs laid down by a quartet of jazz pianists with no other instruments, without rehearsal, with only the barest of notes written beforehand – usually as a jumping off point – and recorded simultaneously without overdubbing… It could have been a disaster. Instead, Dick Hyman, Roland Hanna, Marian McPartland, and Hank Jones nailed every song on the first take.

The soloists are not identified, other than noting that Hyman and McPartland are playing through the left speaker, and Hanna and Jones through the right speaker.  The record starts with a melodic presentation of “Lover Come Back to Me,” then moves into a lower pace on “Maiden Voyage” and “Let It Happen.” The tempo picks back up again with “Here’s That Rainy Day” before side A ends. The B side is more experimental, beginning with the almost-atonal jazz fragments embedded in “Solace” — though never breaks all the way out of the box on that tune. They push the arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” enough that you might not recognize the song until you get to the chorus line; the whole thing reminds me of a more-melodic version of a Bad Plus variation. The third track on side B is the star of the show, putting on display a fully improvised jam inspired by only a 6-bar fragment of a Erik Satie song. The grand finale is the most intense, dramatically-keyed track on the whole album, and literally ends with a bang.

Overall, the album is so excellently played that it’s hard to believe this is the result of a couple of seasoned pros sitting down, playing for two days, and calling it “finished”. Yet that’s exactly what it is. I love this album for the piano, for the way it pushes without taking the listener so far out of their comfort zone that they get turned off, and because it’s a reminder that we don’t always need to edit/revise/edit/revise our work to death. There’s something to be said for being fully confident of our skills, and just getting it done.

Listen to this if you can find it. You won’t regret it.

Track List:

a-01 Lover, Come Back To Me – 2:22 (Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-02 Maiden Voyage – 3:55 (Herbie Hancock) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-03 Let It Happen – 4:21 (Ettore Stratta) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-04 Watch It! – 3:03 (Dick Hyman) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-05 Here’s That Rainy Day – 4:43 (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-01 Solace – 3:38 (Scott Joplin) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-02 You Are The Sunshine Of My Life – 3:45 (Stevie Wonder) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-03 Improvviso – 6:48 (Marian McPartland, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Roland Hanna) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-04 Warm Valley – 3:38 (Duke Ellington) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-05 How High The Moon – 3:00 (Nancy Hamilton, W. Morgan Lewis) / arr: Dick Hyman

Notes: All titles on: RCA LP 12″: CPL1-0680 — Let It Happen (1974) “Solace” listed as “Variations on Scott Joplin’s ‘Solace'” and credited to Scott Joplin and Dick Hyman. “Improvviso” is based on a fragment by Erik Satie.

Movie review: FRANK (2014)

5/5*

FRANK is a brilliant, introspective, and illuminating film based partially on real events. It follows a bumbling, seemingly talentless, wanna-be musician (Jon) as he gets sucked into the world of a charismatic and mysterious Frank – a man with a paper mache mask for a head. At first, it seems Frank and his pals are the ones with the vision, and Jon is desperate to be someone more than who he is. He craves fame and respect and Frank, he is immediately sure, will help him get there. It quickly becomes obvious to the viewer what John doesn’t realize until later: Frank is severely mentally ill, along with at least a few of his bandmates. His genius isn’t in his wackiness, but is obscured by it; the sad truth is that Frank’s musical talent wasn’t set free by giving in to his illness, but his illness robbed him of the chance to truly express his talent. Outside of the carefully manufactured and strictly guarded world that Frank allows Jon to be a part of, the outside world – let in by John’s tweets and blog posts (part of his desire to connect with others and find his audience) – can clearly see what Jon doesn’t.

John think they’re making avant garde art. The world thinks they’re making a joke.

Warning: vague spoilers ahead Continue reading

On Vinyl: BENNY GOODMAN – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Vol. 2 (1956)

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)

Click for larger image

DIGITAL CAMERA

The oldest record I currently own is BENNY GOODMAN – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Vol. 2, though the music in it is slightly preceded by The Swing Years Collector’s Edition, 1936-1946 (not pressed ’til 1966). I have other records which contain music written earlier (performed by Nat King Cole, BB King, etc), but the actual tracks weren’t laid down until the ’60s or later.

Goodman’s January 16, 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City was called “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz’s ‘coming out’ party to the world of ‘respectable’ music.”(1) Put together by his publicist, Wynn Nathanson, Goodman’s performance made him the first jazz bandleader to perform at Carnegie Hall. Goodman was nervous about doing it, but his latest movie, Hollywood Hotel, had lines of fans waiting outside the Paramount lot to see him, so he went ahead. Why was he nervous? At the time, the Hall was considered “An import house of Old World traditions where snobby smirks toward American culture had a way of making status-sensitive Yankees feel like Babbitts for comparing Gershwin to Wagner or Tatum to Horowitz….”(2)

It’s important to know that this was one of the first public concerts to feature a racially integrated group, which helped to convince white audiences that jazz could be an “elevated” form of music, though they were aware of its beginnings with mostly-black bands. The show sold out, even with a higher than usual ticket price. It started with a couple of contemporary songs, segued into a history of jazz, including some guest appearances by Count Basie (his Hall debut) and members of the Duke Ellington band, before heading into the songs that had made Goodman famous. Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, shown in the photo below, were there, as were Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Walter Page, Lester Young, Harry Carney, and Freddie Green.

The event—one of the first public concerts to feature a racially integrated group—helped elevate the status of swing music, and included some of the brightest jazz luminaries of the day. Count Basie, making his Carnegie Hall debut, appeared as a guest, and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra also participated. Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, shown in this photo, were there, as were Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Walter Page, Lester Young, Harry Carney, and Freddie Green.

Continue reading