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Peter M. Knapp
Patriot Ledger, January 2006

Fans of Astor Piazzolla will not want to miss BBC Opus Arte’s DVD, ‘‘Astor Piazzolla in Portrait,’’ 3-½ hours of film clips, narrative and interviews illuminating the life and music of the Argentine tango master.

The DVD contains two major segments. ‘‘Tango Maestro,’’ a film written, narrated, filmed and directed by Mike Dibb, is a 106-minute biography of Piazzolla, with archival film, interviews with his children and friends along with comments by such renowned musicians as Yo-Yo Ma, Daniel Barenboim and Gary Burton.

Piazzolla (1921-1991) emerges as a complicated person, a musical genius but a selfish egotist who could be cold and indifferent in personal relationships. He simply abandoned his first wife and two teenage children. On the other hand, he composed a moving tribute to his father, ‘‘Adios Nonino,’’ as well as a beautiful lyrical piece for his second wife - and his dog - called ‘‘Mumuki,’’ an endearing nickname they shared. (Honest - Piazzolla said this on camera.)

The DVD’s other part, ‘‘Tango Nuevo,’’ concentrates on the composer’s music. Produced and directed by Tony Staveacre, ‘‘Tango Nuevo’’ shows Piazzolla and his ensemble in his last studio recording session in 1989. Between steamy performances of ‘‘Milonga del Angel,’’ ‘‘Mumuki,’’ the spooky ‘‘Zero Hour’’ and other well-known pieces, Piazzolla tells about his music, his instrument, the bandoneon (a melancholy cousin of the accordion) and how his ‘‘new tango’’ style developed, became popular and was resisted by traditionalists. Indeed, Piazzolla says, he and his family were threatened and he once was beaten in the street because he was changing the music.

The tango, Piazzolla points out, is Mediterranean in nature, essentially sad and introverted, with elements of Spanish flamenco and Cuban dances. The tango originated in the bordellos of Buenos Aires. The dance, says Piazzolla, ‘‘is vertical rape.’’ In his composition ‘‘Sex-Tet,’’ sexual connections are explicit.

Had he been born in the 20th century, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) probably would have been one of the jazz greats. Much of the German baroque master’s music has a terrific beat and his keyboard music has an improvisatory character. That said, it is not easy to create effective jazz improvisations on Bach’s music because it’s difficult to fly free of its powerful orbit.

French pianist Jacques Loussier is one musician who has brilliantly succeeded, delighting audiences for decades with his imaginative ‘‘takes’’ on Bach’s music. Loussier has been fascinated by Bach’s music since age 10 when he played one of the master’s simple pieces over and over - and started tinkering with it. In 1959 Loussier became famous with his ‘‘Play Bach’’ recording and before breaking up his trio in 1978, he sold more than 6 million records.

In 1985 - the tercentenary of Bach’s birth - Loussier formed a new trio and now a Euroarts DVD captures the group’s exciting performance on July 28, 2004, in St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig where Bach worked and is buried.

Loussier’s mastery of keyboard touch, from feathery light to large sonorities, his keen sense of rhythm and counterpoint are on display, as well as his extraordinary ability to take Bach’s music and turn it into an organic new creation.

Loussier arranged the music on all of the tracks, which include such familiar pieces as the Air on a G String, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and a movement from the Harpsichord Concerto in D. There are also beautiful renditions of Debussy’s ‘‘Arabesque’’ and ‘‘L’Isle Joyeuse’’ and a sensational version of Ravel’s ‘‘Bolero’’ in which the pianist, with bass player Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer André Arpino, sound as richly textured and colorful as any orchestra. On a bonus track, Loussier discusses his career and his approach to Bach’s music.

Vocalist, composer, conductor, Bobby McFerrin is certainly another innovator. The son of opera singers (his father, baritone Robert McFerrin Sr., was the first African-American male soloist at the Metropolitan Opera), Bobby McFerrin spans musical categories from classical to jazz and a unique style of a cappella improvising that manipulates sounds, rhythms and words.

In ‘‘Try This at Home,’’ McFerrin captivates his audience with his informal manner and outgoing personality in a Euroarts DVD filmed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2001. In jeans and barefoot, the entertainer spans the octaves from high soprano to low bass range, vocalizes a variety of sounds and nonsense lyrics and has his listeners sing along individually and collectively.

‘‘Staccato Groove’’ is a tour de force of rapid, instrumental-like vocalizing; ‘‘Opera-Style’’ is a spoof in which McFerrin mimics characters in an opera. Not everything clicks: ‘‘Head in My Bed Blues’’ is plain silly; ‘‘In the Morning’’ stretches an idea wafer-thin. ‘‘The Shirt-Scratching Song’’ is fun, as is ‘‘The Name Song,’’ in which McFerrin conjures up tunes around his listeners’ names. The audience loves him.

Everything is improvised on another EuroArts DVD featuring ‘‘The West Coast All-Stars’’ at a concert at the 2001 JazzOpen in Stuttgart, Germany. The six musicians joined to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Lighthouse All-Stars in Hermosa Beach, Calif., by former Stan Kenton bassist Howard Rumsey. Some, like trumpeter Conte Candoli (and his brother Pete), had played with the great and innovative Kenton bands of the ’50s and ’60s that were always an experience to hear. Before their Stuttgart gig, however, they had never played together, had no written arrangements and limited rehearsal time.

No matter. These veteran jazz musicians - in their 60s or so - more or less jammed and the results are certainly worth hearing in 10 swinging, bebop-laced tracks. The West Coast All-Stars lived up to their billing as each player spun out a specialty.

Candoli (who died of cancer just a few months later) showed his agility and inventiveness in his own Latin-rhythm ‘‘Secret Passion,’’ pianist Pete Jolly brightly romped through ‘‘Diablo’s Dance’’ and Teddy Edwards plumbed emotional depths with his tenor sax in ‘‘Lover Man.’’ Perhaps most remarkable was trombonist Carl Fontana’s upbeat, probing and technique-pushing exposition of ‘‘If I Only Had a Brain.’’ Whoever thought the Scarecrow’s song from ‘‘The Wizard of Oz’’ could be taken on such an exhilarating trip?

Alan Artner
Chicago Tribune, January 2006

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra closed its centennial celebrations in 1991 with a gala recreating its first program, conducted by the two living music directors, Georg Solti and Rafael Kubelik, and music director designate Daniel Barenboim. Kubelik appeared last on the program, conveying a humanity and warmth absent from the rest of the concert. Those qualities illuminate the present two-hour film, as well they should, given that Kubelik was a composer/performer who viewed life and art as one, with personal ethics being as important as musical education and understanding. His 60-year career is traced through excerpts of concerts and rehearsals as well as fragments of interviews, most revealingly with his wife, son and Kubelik himself. Director Reiner Moritz has not produced a thing of beauty--both images and editing are seldom more than serviceable. But the film clearly shows how Kubelik's optimism and honor suffused his musicmaking, as if he were a humanist from an earlier time unaccountably dropped into the 20th Century. And if that always was rare in the musical world, it became that much more so in the decade since his passing.

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