Sunday, October 30, 2011

Concert Review: Herbie Hancock Solo at Orchestra Hall

On Friday night, I saw Herbie Hancock perform solo at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. It was pretty incredible. I’ve been a fan of Herbie’s music for the last twelve years or so, since the end of high school, and as far as I know, this was the first time he’s been to the Twin Cities since I’ve known who he was, so I jumped at the chance to go see him. Especially since this was Herbie performing solo, which I thought would be fascinating. It was.

Herbie took the stage attired in a red and black shirt and black pants, looking very fit and much younger than his 71 years. He started telling us a story about performing at the Guthrie Theater in 1973 with his Headhunters band. Partway through the concert, a fan jumped down from the rafters and landed on Herbie, knocking him to the floor. (To illustrate this, Herbie laid down on the floor of the stage as he told this part of the story.) Lying on the floor, he reached up for his keyboard and kept playing! Herbie is a natural storyteller, and he radiated a warm and open personality as he talked to us several times in between songs. On stage Herbie had a grand piano and an electric keyboard, with a couple of computer monitors set up as well. He opened with a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” on acoustic piano. Herbie and Wayne played together on the original version of “Footprints,” recorded in 1966 when they were both part of Miles Davis’s “Second Classic Quintet.” The song is on the “Miles Smiles” LP, which I would highly recommend to any fan of Davis, Shorter, or Hancock. The way Herbie played “Footprints” I certainly didn’t recognize it. He played it with a lot of stops and starts, and there wasn’t much of a jazz groove to it. As Herbie said in his intro to the song, “This isn’t your garden variety footprints.” Next he played a solo version of his 1965 classic “Dolphin Dance.” Again, it was very different from the original version. While these first two songs weren’t my favorite performances of the night, it was still fascinating to watch Herbie improvise. When you’re performing solo, you’re really working without a net. My thought going into the concert was that I would definitely be satisfied in seeing the process even if I didn’t care for the results that much. Obviously, I wanted to hear great music, and I did. Seeing a genius like Herbie Hancock creating music all by himself on stage was reward enough, even when I wasn’t really following where Herbie was going. It was still interesting to hear, and never dull. Herbie’s next song was “Sonrisa,” which he wrote for his 1997 album “1+1,” an album of duets with Wayne Shorter. Like the first two songs, “Sonrisa” was pretty long, probably about 10-15 minutes.

After the more far-out explorations of the first three songs, Herbie returned to more familiar territory with a lovely version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” which was beautiful. Hancock has certainly not lost any of his touch on the keys. “Embraceable You” settled into a jazzier groove than the previous songs, and I definitely enjoyed it more than the other songs. Herbie then played one of his most famous and grooviest songs, “Cantaloupe Island,” from 1964. Herbie used some samples to help with the beat, and he moved to the keyboard after starting the song at the piano. About halfway through the song, he switched to keytar, and energetically moved around the front of the stage-he was obviously having fun playing the keytar! “Cantaloupe Island” had more of the funky, soulful feel that Herbie is most well-known for, and he was really digging into his solos on it. It was definitely my favorite song of the night, and it's one of my all-time favorite Herbie Hancock songs. Herbie then played “Chameleon” for the encore, again with a lot of awesome keytar soloing. All told, Herbie played for an hour and a half. Hancock clearly seems to still enjoy performing and is still creating something new every night he performs. He still loves performing, and I think that always makes for a great show. Friday night was an amazing chance to see a jazz legend perform solo.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Belated Concert Review: Ben Folds with the Minnesota Orchestra

I saw Ben Folds in September with the Minnesota Orchestra. It was a terrific show, as Ben performed his perfect punchy piano pop with the Minnesota Orchestra. His songs are very well-suited to be played with an orchestra, and the arrangements of his songs were very well thought out. Of course, Folds has performed with orchestras for a couple of years now, so it’s not like this was the first time he’s done this. I have to confess, I don’t know a lot about Ben Folds’s career, and I’m just starting to get more familiar with his songs. (My wife and my best friend have both introduced me to Ben’s music.) I like his intelligent, witty lyrics and his catchy melodies. (“Steven’s Last Night in Town” has been stuck in my head for the last two days.) Folds puts on a great show, he really seems to love performing, and he seemed to get such a kick out of the orchestra playing his songs. He performed a lot of his best-known songs like “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” “Brick,” “Zak and Sara,” and “Army.” The highlight of the show may have been Ben performing “Annie Waits” as the orchestra left the stage. Ben then proceeded to make up a song about the Minnesota Orchestra, and how they have to quit playing because they have strict union rules. He then ran around the stage and played any instrument he could find on stage. It was awesome, a fun way to end the show, and it showed how much enthusiasm Folds has for performing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in "Run Silent, Run Deep" (1958)

Burt Lancaster was the producer and star of the 1958 World War II submarine thriller, Run Silent, Run Deep. He co-starred with Clark Gable, in what turned out to be one of Gable’s last movies. (Gable died of a heart attack in November, 1960.) Run Silent, Run Deep is a very good submarine movie, with a lot of suspense, and a battle between commander Gable and officer Lancaster. (I think every submarine movie features tension between the captain and the crew.) Submarines are a great subject for movies because they’re really creepy and terrifying for anyone who likes the open air. The enclosed setting and the constant sense of danger is a great recipe for drama. Lancaster gives a good performance, similar to his character in From Here to Eternity, the tough but fair military officer. Gable is also very good as the driven Commander Richardson.
As the film opens, Commander Richardson has his submarine sunk by the Japanese in the Bungo Straits, off the coast of Japan. He is then relegated to desk duty, even though he longs for another chance to command a sub and sink the Japanese ship that torpedoed him. Every day he “sinks” the Japanese boat on his desk, as his adjutant officer, played by a ridiculously young-looking Jack Warden, recreates the circumstances under which Richardson lost his sub. Lancaster plays Lieutenant Bledsoe, who is looking forward to command a sub of his own. Bledsoe is expecting to get command of his own submarine, but he gets the news that he will be serving under Richardson. Bledsoe quickly figures out that Richardson used Bledsoe’s good record to argue that he should be given command of a sub again, with Bledsoe on board as a “back-up.” Bledsoe resents this, and tells Richardson this before the sub leaves port. The crew of the submarine, featuring a very young Don Rickles, has worked with Bledsoe before, and they begin to resent Richardson’s constant drilling. It turns out that Richardson is planning a very risky maneuver to sink Japanese boats, which has everyone nervous. Richardson is also taking the submarine to the Bungo Straits, which is not part of their mission. During an attack on the sub, Richardson falls and sustains a skull fracture, and Bledsoe takes command of the sub.
Gable is very good in a role that isn’t very sympathetic. His Captain Richardson is reminiscent of Captain Ahab, given his monomaniacal obsession with the Japanese boat that sank his sub. Richardson is willing to put his crews’ lives in danger just so he can settle a score. Lancaster is excellent as Bledsoe, and he exudes confidence and competence when he takes over the sub. There was tension between Gable and Lancaster off the screen, as well. No doubt some of this was due to their different career trajectories. Gable, known as the “King of Hollywood,” hadn’t had a hit movie in a long time, and had left MGM, his longtime studio, in 1953. Gable was also aging, and had put on weight. In contrast, Lancaster was at or near the peak of his popularity and good looks. And even though Gable had top billing, Lancaster’s company was producing the movie, meaning Burt was calling the shots. When the time came to shoot the scenes where Lancaster would take over command of the submarine, Gable said, “I’m not going to do it. He’s not going to take over the boat.” Because the rest of the movie depended upon this plot twist, there was no way that Gable could keep commanding the sub for the rest of the movie. Gable walked off the movie, and shooting was suspended for two days. Scriptwriter John Gay and producer Jim Hill finally worked out a solution where Gable’s character would be injured, and thus could no longer command the sub. Satisfied, Gable went back to work. (Quote and story from Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, by Gary Fishgall. Pg. 166-7.) One can only wonder what Lancaster thought about Gable’s behavior! Gable must have seen Lancaster’s taking over the submarine as a threat to Gable’s own masculine screen persona. Lancaster could also be difficult to deal with at times, and I wonder how he was able to control his temper after Gable’s outburst.
Lancaster, and director Robert Wise, strove for authenticity with all of the submarine sequences. All of the underwater shots of the sub were shot in a water tank with models, which was as realistic as special effects could get in 1957. Don Rickles said of Lancaster’s drive for realism, “He always wanted to know what the depth was and what this gear meant…He’d say ‘Don, do you know what you’re looking at?’ I had no idea what I was looking at, but to humor him, I’d always say, ‘Yes, I do, I do.’” (Fishgall, pg. 169) Typically for one of Lancaster’s movies, there were also clashes with director Robert Wise, and when Lancaster and Hill edited the picture themselves, Wise quit. (Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, pg. 185.) He was certainly not the only director to be infuriated with how a Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production was run.
After the commercial failure of the amazing Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt and Tony Curtis, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster needed a hit. They figured Run Silent, Run Deep would be a big commercial success. It was not. Although the movie was not a flop, it was not the smash that Lancaster needed at the time. Run Silent, Run Deep is still a good war movie, and I would definitely recommend it.