Documentary Movie Review: Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959) #atozchallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter J that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: Jazz on a Summer’s Day
Release Date: August 1959
Director: Bert Stern & Aram Avakian
Production Company: Galaxy Attractions | New Yorker Films
Summary/Review:

In the first half of the 20th century, jazz rose from being a music played by African American people in the Southern states to being the primary form of American popular music.  In the second half of the century, jazz evolved into a form of art music primarily enjoyed by white audiences.  This concert film captures the time of transition as some of the top jazz artists of the 1950s perform in the prosperous vacation spot of Newport, Rhode Island, concurrent with the yacht racing trials for the America’s Cup.  Although, I did notice that the audience while primarily white people, was a lot more integrated than I expected for 1958.

Jazz On A Summer Day is not just a concert film, but a work of art in it’s own right.  The way the cameras take advantage of lighting and angles almost makes it feel more like it’s painted than filmed.  Most shots are in tight on both performers and viewers lending a feeling of intimacy to the proceedings.  And the music is great.  Performers include Anita O’Day and Dinah Washington each bringing their unique vocal stylings to standards.  Big Maybelle and Chuck Berry bring rock & roll to the jazz festival.  Louis Armstrong kicks off his set with stand-up comedy.  And the festival ends with Mahalia Jackson taking everyone to church.

Everyone in the movie looks looks so relaxed and carefree, more than I’ve felt in my entire life.  This makes me envious but not resentful.  It would be interesting to compare and contrast this concert film against a rock documentary, like Monterey Pop from a decade later, because I feel they have a lot in common.  But we’ll talk more about that movie on April 15.

Rating: ****1/2

BONUS Album of the Week: Summer of Soul soundtrack


Album: Summer of Soul ( … Or,  When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised…)
Artist: Various Artists
Release Date: January 28, 2022
Label: Sony Music Entertainment
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Uptown” by The Chambers Brothers
  • “Why I Sing the Blues” by B.B. King
  • “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine” by The 5th Dimension
  • “Oh Happy Day” by The Edwin Hawkins Singers”
  • “It’s Been a Change” by The Staples Singers
  • “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by The Operation Breadbasket Orchestra & Choir feat. Mahalia Jackson
  • “Sing A Simple Song” by Sly and the Family Stone
  • “Are You Ready” by Nina Simone

Thoughts:

While this new album dropped last week, it contains the soundtrack to 2021’s best documentary Summer of Soul, and was recorded in the summer of 1969 at The Harlem Cultural Festival.  The crew that restored these songs have done a great job of capturing the dynamic performance of the artists as well as the raw energy of the crowd.  The 5th Dimension may be considered hokey, but they totally kill it with the support of the Harlem fans.  David Ruffin hits high falsetto notes in “My Girl” that soar above the thousands watching that day.  And whether its gospel from The Edwin Hawkins Singers, rock from Sly and the Family Stone, or a revolutionary chant from Nina Simone, the people are there to sing along.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art by Will Friedwald


Author: Will Friedwald
Title: Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art
Publication Info: New York : Da Capo Press, 1997.
Summary/Review:

Rather than a straightforward biography, which in the case of Francis Albert Sinatra would include a lot of drama and scandal, Sinatra! The Song is You : A Singer’s Art focus on Sinatra as a singer.  Because of the musicological approach, I found the book challenging to read – and indeed have been reading it on and off for 4 months – but nevertheless still enjoyed it.

Friedwald has an encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every song in Sinatra’s discography, including rare recordings only made for the military in WWII and recordings from Sinatra’s radio programs.  He discusses the creation, innovations, and effects of Sinatra’s music in a largely chronological order. The book is arranged in era’s of Sinatra’s career mainly based on collaborations with others like bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Axel Stordahl and arrangers Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins.

The book discusses Sinatra’s role in performing the types of songs of that became known as “standards” and the singers role as interpreter (not to mention the challenges Sinatra faced when the music business shifted to a model where songs were “covered” rather than interpreted).  Sinatra lead the shift in prominence of bandleaders to singers during WWII and achieved unprecedented stardom.  But Sinatra’s real strength was reinventing himself consistently so that he could be a hitmaker over six decades.

I found this a unique and informative book. If you’re interested in the work of Sinatra, or in musicology in general, I recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Sinatra, on the other hand, positively celebrates his unhappiness. It seems totally typical of Sinatra that he recorded a song called “Winners,” which is dark and somber, highly depressing.  The flip side of this is “Here’s to the Losers,” which is joyful and upbeat … The implication is that winning is something to be taken seriously, something that carries with it grave responsibility; but losing is something you can have fun with.  The real joy in life is in losing.”

 

Where other singers, at best, work with lyrics and melodies, Sinatra dealt in mental images and pure feelings that he seemed to summon up almost without the intervention of composers, arrangers, and musicians as vital as their contributions were. (In fact, Sinatra was so sure of his relationship with his audience that he gladly acknowledged orchestrators and songwriters in spoken introductions to each number.  How could it take away from what he did to mention the men who put notes and words on paper when it was he who imbued them with all their meaning?)

Recommended books:

Rating:

Album Review: Really From by Really From (2021)


Album: Really From
Artist: Really From
Release Date: March 12, 2021
Label: Topshelf Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Quirk”
  • “Try Lingual”
  • “I’m From Here”
  • “In the Spaces”

Thoughts:

This Boston-based band gets its name from the question asked of its mixed-race members, “Where are you really from?”  The lyrics explore identity and social awareness, set to music that is virtuosic and eclectic.  In one album you can hear jazz fusion, aggressive indie rock, and acoustic singer-songwriter styles seamlessly blended.  The Pitchfork review of this album is very insistent on calling Really From’s style as emo and “math rock,” a genre I’m pretty sure they just made up.  But whatever the style, I know that I really like it.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 10


99% Invisible :: The Real Book

How a book of pirated sheet music became a must have for students in jazz music programs.

Throughline :: Policing in America

A history of police in America and how it has served the purposes of white supremacy.

Unf*cking the Republic :: Mass Incarceration: The War on Drugs

A  profanity-laden summary of the work Michelle Alexander and others have done to detail how increased policing and imprisonment is being used to infringe the rights of Black Americans.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Album Review: Three Little Words by Dominique Fils-Aime


Album: Three Little Words
Artist: Dominique Fils-Aime
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Label: Ensoul Records
Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: Dominique Fils-Aimé, a vocalist from Quebec, explores the sounds of soul music with hints of jazz on her third album.  The songs draw on influences from Do-Wop and classic Motown to more recent performers like Amy Winehouse.  Lyrically the songs celebrate Black history and music and the ongoing struggle for liberation. Everything seems to be arranged and produced to perfection.  Really the only flaw to the album is that it ends with an unnecessary cover of “Stand By Me.” If you like beautiful vocals and souljazz arrangements, this album is for you.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Dialectic Soul by Asher Gamedze


Album: Dialectic Soul
Artist: Asher Gamedze
Release Date: July 10, 2020
Label: On the Corner
Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts:

I don’t know much about jazz, but I know what I like. South African drummer Asher Gamedze draws on free jazz and Black liberation traditions of the 1960s and 70s and fuses them with contemporary jazz and protest music.  The standout track “siyabulela,” a slow tune with vocals by Nono Nkoane cuts to the soul.

Rating: ****

 

 

 

Album Review: National Freedom by Lonnie Holley


Album: National Freedom
Artist: Lonnie Holley
Release Date: July 3, 2020
Label:Jagjaguwar
Favorite Tracks:

  • Like Hell Broke Away
  • Do T Rocker

Thoughts:

Lonnie Holley of Alabama works in many art disciplines, visual media and sculpture, as well as experimental blues music.  This album collects music recorded in a 2014 session. His music is rooted in blues with his gravelly vocals reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf but his performance draws on the improvisation of jazz (particularly on the 11-minute final track “So Many Rivers (The First Time)”).  The result is oft-time weird, but not inscrutable, and evocative of deep human emotions.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Rejoice by Tony Allen, Hugh Masekela


AlbumRejoice
Artist: Tony Allen, Hugh Masekela
Release Date: March 20, 2020
Label: World Circuit
Favorite Tracks:

  • Agbada Boudou
  • Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same)
  • We’ve Landed

Thoughts:

Tony Allen was a drummer from Nigeria who was key in defining the genre of Afrobeat when working with Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70 band.  In 2010, he collaborated with the equally legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela on the sessions that would lead to this album.  Masekela died in 2018. Allen completed the sessions with some of London’s top jazz artists.

Allen died on April 30, just a little over a month after this album’s release, so it stands as a memorial to him as well.  Nevertheless, it is a joyous recording as the title proclaims.  I don’t have the language and experience to adequately describe Afrobeat and jazz, but I like what I hear.  Most of the album is instrumental, with exceptions like “Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same),” a tribute to Fela Kuti.  In the music you can hear the freedom and friendship of two great artists pushing one another to greater heights.  It’s also a very crisp recording where each instrument resonates richly and deeply.

This is a terrific album and makes me want to dive into the back catalog of both artists.

Rating: ****

 

Revenge of the Two-Sentence Album Reviews


Album: Deserted
Artist: Mekons
Release Date: March 29, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Lawrence of California
  • Mirage

Thoughts: Mekons are an original UK punk rock band from the 1970s who remain fresh and relevant 40 years later.  The folk rock/punk rock sound of Deserted is reminiscent of Billy Bragg, and is inspired by the landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park.
Rating: ***

 

 


Album: Gnomes and Badgers
Artist: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
Release Date: March 8, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • What if You Knew
  • Millvale, PA
  • Something Sweet
  • Smart Boy

Thoughts: I heard this playing in a coffee shop and through the magic of Shazam, I learned about a new band.  The album is an excellent collection of funk/jazz fusion from a former member of Lenny Kravitz’s backing band (so basically it’s the good part of Lenny Kravitz music without the bad part of Lenny Kravitz music).
Rating: ***


AlbumThe Seduction of Kansas
Artist: Priests
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • The Seduction of Kansas
  • Good Time Charlie
  • I’m Clean
  • 68 Screen

Thoughts:

A punk rock epic that draws inspiration from a book by Thomas Frank?  Yes, please!

Rating: ***1/2