Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Macbeth" at the Guthrie

I saw the Guthrie Theater's production of "Macbeth" a few weeks ago, and it was quite impressive. I've read "Macbeth" before, I think in both high school and college, but for whatever reason, I had never seen it on stage before. The Guthrie chose to present it without an intermission, which made for an intense experience. With a running time of two hours, it definitely makes sense, because the play is so compact and thrilling, but it's so bloody that the tension level just goes up and up until finally, mercifully, the play is over.

"Macbeth" is quite a fascinating play. Does Macbeth have free will over what happens, or is he doomed by the witches' prophecy that he will become king? There's no easy answer to this question. Macbeth could simply wait and see if somehow he will become king without killing Duncan, the current king. Macbeth even alludes to this, saying, "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir." (Act 1, Scene 3) But then he and Lady Macbeth decide to go ahead with their evil plan and slay Duncan as he sleeps in their castle. It could be that the witches merely plant the idea of becoming king in Macbeth's head, that they tap into the latent ambition that is already inside of him. Reading the introduction to my handy Bantam Classics edition of "Macbeth," editors David Bevington and David Scott Kastan say something similar. Bevington and Kastan remind us that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have discussed killing Duncan before, thus "the witches appear after the thought, not before." Furthermore, "Elizabethans would probably understand that evil spirits such as witches appear when summoned, whether by our conscious or unconscious minds." According to this reading, Macbeth's murderous thoughts summon up agents of evil, which in turn strengthen his ambition to become king, whatever the costs. And since the witches say that Macbeth is to be king, who is he to argue with them?

In a way, "Macbeth" reminds me of "Oedipus Rex." Both characters are faced with a prophecy. The prophecy that Oedipus hears is that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus's reaction is to run as far away from the prophecy as he can, but he unwittingly fulfills it. Macbeth, on the other hand, runs as fast as he can towards the prophecy that he will be king, and, of course, fulfills it. The problem is that both men do not know how to interpret the prophecies. After Macbeth is king, he is told by the witches that he cannot be killed by a man "of woman born." Macbeth then becomes full of hubris, blind to the fact that there might be a loophole. (The loophole is Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped.") Does hearing the prophecy change Macbeth's actions, or would he have acted in the same way even if he didn't know of the prophecy? Perhaps the prophecies just bring to the surface the evil that lurks under Macbeth's surface.

The Guthrie's production was quite good, with a number of striking visual tableaux that seemed very cinematic to me. The blood on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's hands in the murder scene was disturbing, it made me nearly sick to my stomach. It made the murders seem much more real. The acting was fine, with a particularly good performance from Michelle O'Neill as Lady Macbeth. Erik Heger was good as Macbeth, but he didn't bring a lot of charm or personality to the role. There is a wonderful quote from a poem, "The Cup," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that was included in the program:

"I heard a saying in Egypt, that ambition

Is like the sea wave, which the more you drink,

The more you thirst-yea-drink too much, as men

Have done on rafts of wreck-it drives you mad."

What fitting lines for this strange and terrifying play.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Oscar Peterson-Exclusively For My Friends

I finished listening to Oscar Peterson's 4-CD set "Exclusively For My Friends" last week, and it is a great introduction to this very talented jazz pianist. These recordings, which date from 1963-68, were taped in Germany at the private home of a record producer. For whatever reason, they were apparently some of Peterson's favorite recordings of himself. Considering that Peterson recorded heavily from the early 1950's into the late 1990's, that's really saying something. So what separates these sessions from the other 100 or more records that Peterson made? I don't have an easy answer for that, but it sounds like Oscar was very relaxed when these sessions were made, and maybe he felt that these sessions captured his style better than any others. (One album from these sessions was called, "The Way I Really Play.") They're certainly my favorites of all the Oscar Peterson CD's that I own. It feels like he and his trio have more room to stretch out than on his 1950's sessions for Verve.

Oscar Peterson was a true virtuoso. He was probably most influenced by the playing of Art Tatum, and he is probably the pianist who comes closest to replicating Tatum's style. Which means that Oscar played a lot of notes, very quickly, and he wasn't afraid to show off now and then. Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal are kind of at opposite ends of the jazz piano spectrum. Where Ahmad would play one note, Oscar would play ten. Personally, I tend to prefer Jamal or Dave Brubeck's playing over Peterson's, but that's just a matter of taste. There is no denying the immense talent that Peterson brought to the keyboard. Peterson's playing was always impeccable. Like Tatum, his technique was almost overpowering. There's almost too much going on in his playing. Listen to his solo rendition of "Someone To Watch Over Me," on Disc 4, for a great example of his style. As the song starts, Peterson keeps interrupting the melody with fancy fills and expansive runs up and down the keyboard. It's as if so many ideas are simply pouring out of him at the same time that he can barely get the melody out. It's incredible to listen to.

The last CD on this set is all solo piano, which is a rarity for Peterson. I would think that, given his virtuosic technique, he would have recorded more solo albums, but he almost always worked in a trio format. (How other players kept up with him, I don't know!) His solo version of "Lulu's Back in Town" is another great example of his blindingly fast skills. But Peterson was also a skilled interpreter of ballads, as his lovely version of "Emily" on disc 3 shows. This whole set features great interplay between Peterson and his trio, which includes Ray Brown and Sam Jones on bass, (but not at the same time) and Ed Thigpen on drums. It's 4 CD's of great trio playing, and if you're an Oscar Peterson fan and you don't own this set, you really need to pick it up.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Concert Review: John Hammond at the Dakota

This week I saw John Hammond at the Dakota Jazz Club. Hammond might seem to be an odd choice for the Dakota, since his music is folk and blues, but he fits the vibe of the Dakota just fine. For those who don't know, here's an intro to John Hammond. His father, John Hammond Sr., (although Wikipedia tells me John the younger is not actually a junior, but for simplicity's sake I will refer to the elder John as senior) was a producer and talent scout, responsible for discovering, or at least popularizing a diverse bunch of artists, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, George Benson, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. The younger John Hammond was a friend of Dlyan's, coming up in the New York City folk/blues scene at the same time, and Hammond actually recorded with The Band before Dylan did. (Okay, so it was before they were called The Band, but it was the same group of guys.) That album, "So Many Roads," has been thought by some to have influenced Dylan's later decision to "go electric." Hammond's style hasn't changed much over the years, he still plays blues and folk songs, and he is really a one-man band. To see Hammond live is really something else. He comes on like a freight train, playing fast and furious slide guitar, blowing his harmonica, stomping his foot, and singing his heart out. Hammond puts everything he has into performing live, and the passion he brings to these songs is electric.

Hammond is a terrific guitar player, he alternates between acoustic and a National guitar. He is a brilliant slide guitar player, I'm amazed at the speed of his licks. Hammond really cares about the songs that he sings, and I would guess that he sees himself as a caretaker, a link on the chain of performers handing these songs down to a new generation. Hammond is old enough to have met most of the great blues musicians in the early 1960's, so now he's our link to these musicians. One of the things that impressed me the most was that Hammond shared a bill with Phil Ochs at Gerde's Folk City in 1963! Ochs is one of my favorite folk singers, and he's also the subject of the very first post on this blog. And sadly, Phil has been dead for so long that I'm impressed to see someone who actually knew him. (I have met Tom Paxton, who wrote a beautiful song about Phil Ochs called "Phil," but I met Paxton before I was really into Phil Ochs.) Anyway, that's slightly off topic. John Hammond puts on a great live show, and all blues fans should see him. And I overheard some of Hammond's conversations with fans after the show, and he is just a super nice guy. He just sat at the merchandise table smiling his broad grin and happily chatting with people. He doesn't think he's a big deal, which is pretty cool. I overheard him say to an Australian fan, "I played at the (whatever venue) in 1981, no, it was 1982, great place." He was asking fans how to spell their names, it's nice to see artists being nice people.

Oh, I almost forgot, Hammond did an album of all Tom Waits songs, "Wicked Grin," and he's a great interpreter of Waits's songs. There's something special when he plays those songs live. The encore he played was a beautiful, haunting version of Waits's song "Fanning Street." It ended the show on a high note.

Concert Review: Ahmad Jamal at the Dakota

Last week I saw Ahmad Jamal at the Dakota jazz club. It was a great show, and even though Jamal is turning 80 this year, he shows no signs of slowing down. To those who don't know, Ahmad Jamal is one of the most significant jazz pianists of the last 60 years. He has almost always recorded in a trio setting, and his early recordings from the 1950's heavily influenced Miles Davis. Miles would tell his piano player Red Garland to "sound more like Ahmad Jamal." And Miles covered some of Ahmad's tunes, like "New Rhumba" on "Miles Ahead." That's a pretty big deal, to influence Miles Davis. Miles even said, "All of my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal. I live until he makes another record." Wow. Ahmad's use of space in his solos seems to have influenced Miles the most. Like Miles, Jamal was not a virtuoso, and was able to say more with less in his solos. Interestingly enough, despite how much Miles liked Ahmad, as far as I know, he never made an attempt to record with the pianist. It's too bad, they could have made some beautiful music together. But Jamal was always a frontman, and he might not have been happy playing second fiddle to Miles. Jamal had a major popular hit with his recording of the song "Poinciana" in 1958, which propelled the album, "But Not For Me: Ahmad Jamal Live at the Pershing," to near the top of the pop charts. Jamal never again captured so much mainstream attention, but he has remained a fixture on the jazz scene.

How do I describe Jamal's playing style? He's not a virtuoso like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, and he's not as bluesy as Ramsey Lewis. He doesn't have the same rhythmic drive that Dave Brubeck does. He has some of the same lyricism that Bill Evans had, maybe this is why Miles Davis liked Bill Evans so much. Jamal is quick on the keys when he needs to be, but he never shows off his technique. Suffice it to say, he has a style all his own. Jamal is still a force to be reckoned with in concert. He pounds out powerful chords, and the dynamics of a song will change several times, from soft to loud in an instant. His group is totally in sync with him, bass and drums in close conversation with his piano. (There was also a percussionist, but honestly, he wasn't my favorite part about the concert.) Jamal really listens to his sidemen when they solo, and his concerts seem like true collaboration. Most of the songs they played were from his latest CD, "A Quiet Time." Songs like "Paris After Dark," "After Jazz at Lincoln Center," and "The Blooming Flower," showed that Jamal is still writing and performing at a very high level. He still takes such pleasure in playing, and that makes him fun to watch. And he still plays "Poinciana," not exactly the same way he did in 1958, but he still incorporates many of the improvisations he added then. And it still sounds fresh. If you ever have a chance to see Ahmad Jamal, go see him.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Decline and Fall of Gore Vidal

Christopher Hitchens had a good little article in the February issue of Vanity Fair, "Vidal Loco," about how the quality of Gore Vidal's writing and public statements has fallen off since 9/11. It's an interesting article, and I have to agree with Hitchens. I have been a fan of Vidal's writing since high school, so it pains me to admit this. I think Vidal's best essays are nothing short of brilliant, and his best novels are witty and sharp. He is, as Hitchens says, the 20th century's Oscar Wilde.

I would actually say that Vidal starting losing the plot slightly before 9/11, when he starting corresponding with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. McVeigh wrote to Vidal from jail, sensing that he had found someone who shared some of his anti-government views. Now, most people would have said, "I don't want to have anything to do with this nutjob." But not Vidal. For whatever reason, his ego was stroked, and he wrote back, starting a correspondence between the two men. Vidal has never condemned McVeigh's actions. There's a difference between being a patriot and being a terrorist, but Vidal chose not to see it.

In a crotchety interview with Johann Hari of the London Independent, Vidal rants and raves about many things, but one thing he pointedly does not do is place any judgement on McVeigh's murderous actions. Vidal says that McVeigh was "too sane for his place and time." He goes on to call McVeigh "a noble boy." Hari tries to prod Vidal, asking if McVeigh showed a callous disregard for human life. Vidal's response, "So did Patton! So did Eisenhower! Everybody's rather careless about it once you start getting involved in wars." But McVeigh's act was committed in peacetime, against his fellow American citizens. Even if it were committed in wartime, it would be a war crime. Hari then asks Vidal if there were more people like McVeigh, would that be a good thing? "It strikes me as a perfect nightmare. Of course I don't want more people like McVeigh." Hari then writes: "I don't understand. I try again and again to tug him back and get him to say whether this means he thinks McVeigh was wrong to plant the bomb. He won't. Finally, he jeers: 'You are trying my patience.'" How sad that this great thinker is unable to see a monstrous act for what it truly was.

Vidal has an inability to say anything nice about anyone else, which has grown worse in the last few years. His ego has consumed him. In talking about his fellow writers, he used to be quite funny. In the past, Vidal would have had a sharp comeback or a witty bon mot, but now he is simply bitter and angry. When asked about John Updike, whom Vidal never cared for, he says contemptuously, "Updike was nothing." Really, Gore? Or are you just jealous of his 2 Pulitzer Prizes? Vidal's worst instincts have unfortunately taken over, and he seems to be content to simply be a parody of himself as an angry old man. He couldn't even find much of anything nice to say about his friend and rival Norman Mailer. "Mailer was a flawed publicist, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain." That's about as close to a compliment as Vidal gets these days. As Hitchens writes, "One sadly notices...the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the absence of any wit or profundity." Well said.

In Vidal's interview with the Independent, Vidal says that China will surpass the US as the world's great power, and then China will "have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport." This is a familiar sentiment coming from Gore. Whereas now it's the Chinese who are out to own us, back in the 80's and 90's, it was the Japanese who we would soon be serving, he said. I remember reading those essays in the late 90's, after Japan's economy had collapsed, and thinking, "Well, that didn't quite happen Gore."

Vidal seems to have simply run out of gas. He hasn't published a novel since 2000's "The Golden Age," and his essays just re-tread the same old subjects. His 2006 memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," reads as just a re-tread of his 1995 memoir, "Palimpsest," which was a truly great book. It's difficult to criticize someone who has had an immensely prolific and varied career for slumping after the age of 75, but it is a sad way for Gore to exit. Nothing seems to interest him any more, and he has run out of things to hate. I suppose after 24 novels, more than 200 essays, 6 plays, and 46 books overall, it's expected that Vidal's energy would eventually run out. But no matter what he does in his old age, the post-2001 Vidal will not be the one I remember. I'll remember the Vidal who rubbed shoulders with the Kennedys, who was a great friend of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward's, who made the Roman empire come alive in "Julian," who created a bizarre and funny world of his own in "Duluth," who wrote with skill about a disgraced Founding Father in "Burr," and who made me laugh and question the world in his essays.