Monday, August 3, 2009

I WAS THERE . . . Terence Blanchard @ Jazz Standard 07.26.09

Terence Blanchard returns to the place where it all began—as one of five working jazz musicians jamming in front of a crowd. Photo by G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times.

As four musicians walked onto the stage, with a tinge of trepidation, the fifth one slowly followed them—Terence Blanchard. The crowd began to applaud as each one gradually wandered over to their chosen instruments. To see Blanchard pick up his “ax,” the trumpet, in person is definitely a rare treat.

For over 20 years, Blanchard has worked as a musician and composer for filmmakers like Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) and Spike Lee (Clockers, Inside Man). The project most personal to Blanchard was his original score for Spike Lee’s 2006 HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. A native of New Orleans, Blanchard also appeared in the documentary alongside his mother. Like so many others in The Big Easy, they returned to find their home destroyed by the floods of Hurricane Katrina, their possessions ravaged and gone, and their once fond memories of home completely shattered. This certainly was the fuel for some of his finest work to date, including his 2007 album, A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), a beautifully realized work that covers the spectrum of emotions—rage, sadness, empathy and hope.

Many of the musicians appearing with Blanchard tonight have worked with him on recent projects, notably Houston-born drummer Kendrick Scott. With musicians like Scott and Cuban-born pianist Fabian Almazan, Blanchard surrounds himself with his own crop of “Young Lions,” a term that was once used to describe Blanchard himself while he played with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers in the 1980s. In between sets, Blanchard teased a few of his fellow musicians about their youth (especially Almazan being the youngest at 25) but added that these musicians were great players in their own right. And he was correct.

The first piece opened up with such a booming, confident trumpet. The other instruments soon followed, but Almazan’s piano was a little shy, lurking in the background. Blanchard soon allowed his tenor sax man, Walter Smith III, to completely take over the piece and that he did. For a few moments, it felt more like a recording session with the original The John Coltrane Quartet. During that “session,” the musicians were still working out the kinks or perhaps still warming up, which might explain why Blanchard allowed Smith’s tenor sax to dominate the piece. As it winds down, you hear a familiar voice saying things like “all imitation is suicide” and “find your voice.” You think, “That person sounds a lot like Cornel West.” If you watch Real Time with Bill Maher, then you know you’re right and then wonder if he’s going to walk out on the stage. Of course, he never does.

Blanchard explained that he taped a long conversation/interview with the venerated Princeton University professor about life choices and particularly how we need to take “new paths of expression,” especially in music. This theme of individuality tied in well with not only Blanchard’s eagerness to still perform, but also in his choice of emerging musicians to accompany him.

The musicians finally began to relax more by the second piece entitled “Him or Me,” a composition by Walter Smith III. Almazan definitely stepped up with his melodic take on the piece. Blanchard’s signature resonance and hard-bop lingering echoed all over the room with not only long notes, but such wonderful circular flourishes that really showed us that at heart, he too will forever be a “Young Lion.”

The third piece, “Touched by an Angel,” a composition by Kendrick Scott, was perhaps the standout of the evening. It is traditional hard-bop in that it’s much more contemplative; a great unison between the musicians and Almazan’s talent is really evident in his melodic trills alongside Scott’s military-style drums and Blanchard’s beautiful, lingering notes. Blanchard’s phrasing on this piece really summoned the spirit of the late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

The final piece closed out the show very nicely as the crowd was now fully engaged. The sound was a wonderful hybrid of hip-hop, James Brown, Bo Diddley, Sonny Rollins—this mash-up of different styles is none other than the sound of New Orleans. It was fun to actually see different people in the audience dancing in their chairs while the music played. There was a really fun ode to the “call and response” tradition between Blanchard’s trumpet and Smith’s tenor sax and no one wanted it to end.

Blanchard is really the spirit of New Orleans. He embraces the past (Louis Armstrong, gospel, the blues) and present influences and despite setbacks, he continues to look ahead.

Shannon J. Effinger

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson: Gone Too Soon

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

The refrain (above) from Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" is perhaps the best way I could make sense of the news of the loss of our "King of Pop," Michael Joseph Jackson.

In recent years, many of us (including myself) have turned our backs on Michael Jackson. With his numerous plastic surgeries, his eccentric, childlike lifestyle, and more importantly, the allegations of child molestation, it grew more difficult to see him as the perfect entertainer and not as the reclusive "freak." But the fact that we will never see him perform again leaves an undeniable pain, shock and sadness to all of us who were raised on Jackson and his music.

On Thursday, June 25th, 2009, at 2:26 p.m., Michael Jackson, the man who changed the face of popular music, was pronounced dead at the age of 50. Although the exact cause of death is still unknown, it is believed that he went under cardiac arrest. Simply put, his heart just stopped beating. And when I initially heard the news, so did mine.

I was meeting with a colleague in Manhattan when news of Jackson's untimely death broke during the evening rush hour. At first, I laughed thinking that this was some sort of sick joke. Then I thought (and still want to believe) that it was a promotional stunt created by Jackson himself for the upcoming tour in London. But while riding home on the D train, as it rose above ground and onto the [Brooklyn] Bridge, many of our cell phones were buzzing with text messages that confirmed his death. I still refused to believe it.

As I walked through the streets of Brooklyn that same night, I could hear songs like "Thriller," "Off the Wall," "Billie Jean," and "Smooth Criminal" blasting, almost simultaneously, out of car radios everywhere. This forced me to accept this loss and I just wasn't prepared to ever do that.

For those of us who grew up alongside Michael Jackson, his death almost seemed impossible because in our eyes, he was like a god. And throughout my childhood, he was a god!

I can still remember watching Jackson on Motown 25 as if it were yesterday. The special aired on my birthday and although I wasn't old enough to start school yet, I remember almost every detail of watching Michael Jackson that night. As I sat in front of my Zenith floor TV, I just tuned everything and everyone out. My foster mother kept yelling at me to move back and not sit so close to the screen, but that only made me inch forward even closer. I wanted to touch him as he "moonwalked" across the stage with his shiny black shoes and glittery white socks. I tried to copy his incredible toe stand only to fall on my face but I didn't care. He was absolutely mesmerizing.

I owned every piece of Michael Jackson' memorabilia you can imagine--including a red belt with the glittery white glove as the buckle and a Michael Jackson doll that my dog Shady got hold of and eventually chewed off its legs.

But perhaps my favorite keepsake was the music itself. I would spend hours just staring at the vinyl covers for Off the Wall and Thriller and I eventually read all the liner notes cover to cover. As a teenager, my older sister created her version of the Thriller album cover in a free hand sketch. I especially remember how she depicted Jackson and Paul McCartney floating side by side in space for the track "The Girl Is Mine."

Jackson's voice possessed a "man-child" quality to it, in that despite his youthful sound, he could bring the right amount of passion and maturity to any song. And of course no one moved quite like he did. With influences ranging from James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Fred Astaire, and young breakdancers everywhere, he combined them all and made choreography an essential component for the careers of many aspiring pop stars. Thriller alone changed the course of music. This album gave us big-budget music videos, higher earnings for artists, culture, fashion, swagger, MTV, BET, VH1 and for the first time, a black man had full command of the entire world--long before Oprah and President Obama.

In recent years, he began to lose a little bit of that luster and agility. He didn't sound flawless or move so well and the thought of him not being "perfect" was too much for me to grasp. However, I would have definitely been one of the millions of fans screaming in the crowd at one (or several) of his London performances that was scheduled to begin in just a few weeks.

With over 750 million albums sold worldwide, Michael Jackson was not only a widely successful black artist, but he was the most successful artist--period. He broke every record that he set out to break and artists alive today have yet to catch up to him. He was the consummate perfectionist in all that he did and because he gave so much of himself in every performance and in every song, that is what I will remember the most.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Boycott the New York Post!!

I'm sure that most of you have heard about what happened in Stamford, Conn., this past Monday:

Sandra Herold's "pet," (maybe even paramour) Travis the chimpanzee, violently attacked her friend, Charla Nash, who's now recovering in the critical unit of The Cleveland Clinic. Travis was shot and killed by the police soon after the attack.

Sean Delonas, whose best known for his satirical cartoons that appear daily on "Page Six" of the New York Post, has received nationwide attention for the cartoon published this past Wednesday (shown above).

(Choose "February 18th, 2009" to view a larger image of the editorial cartoon):

The cartoon shows two police officers standing over a dead chimpanzee and the caption above reads, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," which links the "Travis the chimpanzee" incident to the stimulus bill written by President Barack Obama. That's the punchline. I'm not laughing.

Delonas and the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Post both stand behind the cartoon and its satirical intentions.

When you look closer at Delonas' cartoon, you'll also notice a "Beware of Dog" sign hanging off of a post. Probably just a weird coincidence--or is it?

I thought about brushing it off as just another form of institutional racism that I've learned to live with in America. But as the day grew longer, so did my anger, my rage. I was enraged not only because of how this seemingly intelligent cartoonist could pass this cartoon off under the guise of satire, but more so because I didn't feel like I could do anything about it.

For years, America has involved black people in their sick sense of humor: coon songs, blackface, minstrelsy, bulging eyes, smiling white teeth to hide the fear and pain, and one-dimensional characters on film and television (butlers, mammies, buddy roles).

Just like the penultimate scene in Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, when will black people finally shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"?

Now is the time to shout and demand real change. Don't do it for President Obama. Do it for yourself. Do it for our children.

Stop supporting companies that do nothing to support and uplift the black community. We have the power to cut off any and all financial support to these companies, who continue to not hire us, to demean and ultimately ignore us altogether.

Stop buying the New York Post!!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I WAS THERE . . . Paul Mooney @ Carolines on Broadway, 02/01/09

There wasn’t a stadium-packed crowd here tonight at Carolines on Broadway, mainly due to the fact that it is Superbowl Sunday. The crowd is definitely an intimate one, where at every turn you can easily see the range of people: old, young, white, black, etc. We all had one thing in common that night—to laugh our asses off in order to forget about the real world for just a few hours. And with tonight’s headliner, the legendary Paul Mooney, we were geared to do just that. Mooney has written for several shows, including In Living Color, where he created characters like “Homey the Clown.” He started out in comedy by writing for his longtime friend and perhaps the greatest 20th century comic, the late Richard Pryor. In recent years, he’s gained younger fans from his appearances on Chappelle’s Show. Despite his many years in show business, Mooney has never considered himself to be a “star”: “I’m not Hollywood, I’m neighborhood,” he states proudly. Mooney never censored his voice as both a writer and comedian in order to gain mainstream acceptance. His gift as a comedian is his fearlessness. He is not afraid to make the subject of race the focal point of one of his shows and people can relate to him. We all related to him tonight because there’s no pretense, no need to hide anything. Instead, Mooney is engaged in a conversation with his audience and we’re all eager to listen to what he has to say.

Shannon J. Effinger

Thursday, January 15, 2009

FILM REVIEW: Notorious

Jamal "Gravy" Woolard stars as Notorious B.I.G.

(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

I grew up just a few short blocks away from Christopher Wallace and his family in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and yet I only knew him as the rest of the world did, as the late Notorious B.I.G. AKA Biggie Smalls. He changed the face of hip-hop with his many gifts—his powerful delivery, an effortless flow, incredible timing, and his ability to paint vivid pictures of street life with his lyrics. Notorious, the new biopic from director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor), chronicles the life of the emcee whose journey was cut short by an assassin’s bullets (a crime that has yet to be solved) at the age of 24 in 1997.

The common thread throughout this film is time as each pivotal chapter of Biggie Smalls’ life is marked with a date. At age 11, he was an honor’s student raised by a Jamaican mother, Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett), who spent most of his spare time memorizing the lyrics of his hip-hop heroes and started writing rhymes about his own life. He became a father at age 17 and provided for his family by drug dealing on street corners. But his passion for hip-hop never died. Once a demo tape landed in the hands of Bad Boy Records’ founder Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), the Notorious B.I.G (Jamal Woolard) would soon be introduced to the entire world.

Ready to Die, Biggie’s first album, brought his life to millions of hip-hop fans, but his success also came with its problems. He juggled his music career with young fatherhood and women (two in particular): fellow Bad Boy artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Kimberly “Lil’ Kim” Jones (Naturi Naughton). But perhaps the most controversial aspect of Biggie’s short life was his friendship, which turned into the bitter “East Coast-West Coast” rivalry with the late Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), whose life was also cut short at the age of 25, almost six months before Biggie’s death.

Bassett, Luke and Naughton all give strong performances, but the most powerful scenes in Notorious come from newcomer Woolard, who captures not only Biggie’s cadence and flow, but also his sense of humor and loyalty (“I got you”) to those he loved. Tillman’s Notorious encapsulates Biggie’s life well enough for those who are either not familiar with Notorious B.I.G. or are too young to remember what had occurred just 12 years ago. But for someone who doesn’t fall into either category, it merely scratches the surface.