Tag Archives: jazz

Late for the Sky

american music

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Vintage, $15.00, 256 pages)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time, too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”   Jane Mendelsohn

This one  is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.   Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is  one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who we are and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices  during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the theater?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,” Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with  her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his work.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   

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The Book of the Year

Last year, I selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   This year, I’m selecting a novel that is just as daring, powerful and unique – American Music by Jane Mendelsohn.   A long review of American Music was posted on this site on August 22, 2010.   To find that initial review, enter the terms Other Voices, Other Rooms (a tip of the hat to Truman Capote) in the Search It! box on the right and hit enter.

Here is a shorter review that I wrote for Sacramento Book Review:

“He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

Author Jane Mendelsohn has produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year.   The storyline is truly unique:  A severely injured Iraq war veteran is treated by a female physical therapist at a U.S. army hospital.   As she works on him, she sees and hears stories that radiate from his body – these stories involve events in 1623, 1936 and 1969.   What’s the meaning of these past lives, and what is their relationship to each other and to the wounded soldier?   The typical reader will want to race through the pages to find the answers.

A love of music is one common factor, from the creation of the modern drum cymbal to one of jazz’s greatest concerts.   But this is a story that involves more than just mortal humans and their musical creations, there are ghosts and guardian angels in the mix.   Suffice it to say that Mendelsohn brings to life the words of Jackson Browne, “Tracing our steps from the beginning…  Trying to understand how our lives had led us there.”   There are few writers other than Jane Mendelsohn who would tackle something this brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.

Joseph Arellano

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When I Paint My Masterpiece

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $22.95, 208 pages)

“Music can take us beyond literate sequence and consequence.”   Wilfred Mellers

“If you didn’t hear from him, that just means he didn’t call.”   Van Morrison

Sometimes a complete portrait of a person, or an artist, requires that one explain and explore both their positives and their negatives.   Although rock-critic-writer Greil Marcus is clearly infatuated with Van Morrison and his music, he decided to write this profile – in a sense, a collection of essays about the subject – in an honest fashion.   On the one hand, we see Morrison as a musical genius who can sing songs without a musical arrangement, leading and requiring his backing musicians to follow him.   He’s been a musician who can recruit a record producer by simply singing a new song to him one-on-one, like an actor seducing a director by reading from a promising script.

Then there’s the difficult Morrison, the singer who often avoids looking at his audience; a performer who can storm off of the stage when he’s angry; a singer who sometimes hates being bothered by the joyful participation of those in his audience.   As noted in this account, one night Van was performing for a San Francisco audience when he got tired of their clapping and yelling.   He yelled out, “Just shut up.   Just shut up!   We do the work here on stage, not you.”

And so we see that Van Morrison is a musician-artist of both sequence and consequence.   As Marcus writes, “What defines great singing in the rock and soul era is some underlying tension in the space between singer and song.”

Van Morrison did not start out great.   With the band known as Them he released the notable single “Gloria” (first released as a 45 in a rather weak 2 minute and 35 second cover version by Shadows of Knight of Seattle) and also “Here Comes the Night,” and the much lesser known “Mystic Eyes.”   But the band members did not click as a group, and the newly-freed artist went on to write and record what is today his most played song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”   Yet, there was something about his rock and soul voice that was not totally distinct; he tended to be confused in people’s minds with Eric Burdon of The Animals (it didn’t help that both Morrison and Burdon covered Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It On Home to Me.”)

Morrison’s solo career went on to be a steadily successful one, but Marcus elects to place the focus here on Van’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   Greil, who owns thousands of recordings, confesses to us that, “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any other record I own.”   The tale of how the album came to be created is worth the price of admission, for this was not a tightly structured creation.   Instead, it was the product of near-magical jazz-like improvisation.   The record’s producer, Lewis Merenstein of Chicago (who didn’t know who Morrison was before the recording began) was to say:  “I don’t want to sound existential, but there was Van and that was it; there was no band, there were no arrangements.   The direction was him singing and playing – that was where I followed.   That’s why it came out the way it did…  There obviously was a direction from somewhere in the sky.”

Marcus makes clear in Rough God that Morrison himself does not know the intended meanings of many of the songs he writes, one such song being “Madame George.”   That’s alright, such is the nature of genius.   Vincent Van Gogh would likely not be able to produce a scholarly treatise on each of his paintings.   But Morrison – like his female counterpart Joni Mitchell, is one of those artists who has demonstrated for us lesser mortals that, “There’s more to life than you thought.   Life can be lived more deeply.”

Thank you, both Van and Greil.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Greil Marcus is also the author of Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs, 304 pages, 2006).

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 237 pages, $23.95)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

This one is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.

Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the movies?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,”  Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his job.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Live Dead

The Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Improvisation (edited by Jim Tuedio and Stan Spector; McFarland, $35.00, 355 pages)

“Where I enjoyed the music, the audience was immersed in it; they were tuned to the slightest nuances coming from the stage.”   Cristian Amigo

The Grateful Dead in Concert is a non-essential but fun collection of essays about the Dead’s live improvisation, and other things related to the band in its heyday.   This reviewer sees it as non-essential because the notion of writing academic essays on the Dead’s intentionally sloppy musicianship is a little silly.   A comparable book would discuss the classical elements and phrases in the music of Bruce Springsteen.   And does anyone really need a list of the seven Requirements for Strategic Improvisation? 

But there’s some great writing in here, such as the article by Cristian Amigo that calls to mind Junot Diaz; Rebecca Adams’ essay on seeing the Dead play live for the first time; and Joan Millay’s wild and wooly tale of sharing drugs with the band members.   The latter will take Boomers back to the time when they read magazines like Cream, Ramparts, and the then-rebellious Rolling Stone.

This might make a nice gift for an egghead that’s been a closet Dead Head.   Just warn the recipient not to take it too seriously.   As musician Wynton Marsalis said about jazz, “Anyone can improvise, but any improvisation is not jazz.”   Writing about music is not music.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Hello, Louis!

Pops – A Very Good Yet Flawed Biography

He is the beginning and the end of music in America.   Bing Crosby on Louis Armstrong

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout makes for very good reading, at least for most of its nearly 400 pages (475 with source notes and index).   As a young person learning the cornet and trumpet, I was well aware that Armstrong was considered the greatest horn player of all time, but not quite sure why.   Teachout makes a very good case for Armstrong’s being the person who did so much to give birth to, and advance, modern jazz in America.   “You can’t imagine such energy, such musical fireworks as (the young) Louis Armstrong…  (he was) the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century.”

The entertaining tale of Armstrong’s early years is of a poor boy from a one-room shack who is sent to reform school and then joins the Colored Waif’s Brass Band of New Orleans.   Armstrong never knew his father so he tends to make father figures of his band instructors and band leaders.   We go on in Pops – the word Armstrong used to describe himself – to see how Armstrong was a seminal figure in jazz and it’s a bit like watching a Ken Burns documentary.   So far, so good…

As with Sugar Ray Robinson in the recent biography, Sweet Thunder, we have two young men who grew up in extreme poverty (one in The Bronx, the other in N.O.) yet overcame their circumstances to become favorite citizens of the world.   The stories of both Robinson and Armstrong are cinematic in nature.   Yet the Robinson in Thunder comes off as a multi-dimensional character in a way that Armstrong never does in Pops.   True, Teachout is quite fair in showing the reader that Armstrong had his flaws as a man and human being – he was married and divorced too often; he liked his musicians to smoke pot before recording – but we never quite understand why Armstrong loved music the way he did.   We get very nice quotations, such as “Music became his reason for living…” but no real depth.

In Pops we also learn that Armstrong was self-taught and thus had very poor form as a horn player.   Despite this, he was amazingly talented, naturally gifted; but we never learn or even see a guess ventured as to where his talents originated.   Were they hereditary, or was he just an anomaly?

At the back portion of this biography, it is interesting to learn about how many years passed between Armstrong’s recording of the song It’s A Wonderful World – an initial flop that languished in sales – and its popularity once it was included in the soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam.   Fascinating, as is a great deal of Pops…   Still, the subject seemed a bit out of Teachout’s reach.   Apparently the great Satchmo remains larger-than-life and the printed word.

Now, who has the courage to attempt to write the definitive biography of Miles Davis?   Anyone?

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Boxer

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood (Chicago Review Press, $18.95, 480 pages)

sweet thunder

“It was a savage sport, but it held a kind of sacredness to him – a mystery.”

Few biographies of great athletes manage to conquer the legend; to place the athlete in context as a walking, talking, human being.   It may be because they tend to be either fawning – relying on “good stories” without regard to their accuracy – or they’re overly bloodless and academic.   (None of the biographies of Michael Jordan, for example, have seemed to capture the man behind the uniform.)   There have been some exceptions…   Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegal was fascinating and brutally honest/factual, as was Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy, and Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Ben Cramer.   But these remain the exceptions that prove the rule.

Now add to the exceptions list Wil Haygood’s biography, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.   Haygood – who earlier wrote a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. – manages to capture the personality of the man in addition to the accomplishments of the athlete.   Robinson was, no doubt, one of the handful of best boxers who has ever lived, yet he was notoriously envious of the skills of other public figures and entertainers – most notably musicians.   (“He wanted desperately to know about life on the road for musicians.”)   Haygood uses this angle to produce some excellent comparisons between Robinson and jazz players such as trumpeter Miles Davis.   But the analogy only goes so far, as musicians’ errors are masked by other musicians.   The boxer enters the ring alone and stands or falls on his own.

Haygood fully acknowledges the fact that Robinson – a kind man on his own – could be vicious in the boxing ring.   After killing Jimmy Doyle of Los Angeles in a fight, Robinson was asked at the inquest if he knew or suspected that Doyle was in trouble.   His response was that, as a professional fighter, it was his job to get men “into trouble.”

This period piece is also a glorious overview of post-World War II Harlem, a time when jazz was at its peak and the issue of civil rights was about to break.   The general acceptance of black public figures like Robinson (the third African-American/Negro to have his face on the cover of Time magazine) made them pioneers in the then-burgeoning movement.   But the author does not take things too far in this direction as this is not a sociology or history textbook.   Nor does he bore us with literal blow-by-blow accounts of every single amateur and professional fight that Sugar Ray Robinson fought.   No, instead he tells us just enough to understand and recognize the greatness of this late athlete’s (1921-1989) life within and outside the world of sports.

This, then, is the well told story of a man blessed with great skills:   “I had it tonight; yes, sir, I had it tonight when I needed it – thank God.”   This is the true tale of the man who did so much to advance The Sweet Science, which is perhaps why he was the first of three highly gifted boxers (Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Shane Mosley) to be known as Sugar.   A New York Times reporter once wrote of Robinson, “He’s too incredible, too colossal to be true.”

Highly recommended.   Haygood captures both the man and the legend.   Excellent!

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“The French had called him Le Sucre Merveilleux – the marvelous Sugar.”

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