July 31, 2009

At The Movies

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WATE, Italian Style

WATE, Italian Style

There was a full house last night at Film Forum to see Wind Across The Everglades (Warner Bros., 1958) — among the rarest films in FFs current Nicholas Ray retrospective and one that has never been released on DVD.

WATE takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the Florida Everglades, where the fad for wild bird plumes as adornments to women’s hats is fueling a voracious trade in the skins of egrets, herons, ibis, and other semi-tropical species. City-bred birder Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer) arrives to teach high school in a rough backwater town and is promptly recruited as an Audubon Society game warden charged with enforcing new Federal statues designed to protect the birds from the depredations of a grubby gang of swamp rats led by Cottonmouth (Burl Ives). Complications ensue, Cottonmouth dies, Murdock lives, and we’re left with the hope that the birds will survive, given efective legal protection.

WATE was written by noted screenwriter Budd Schulberg (still kicking at 95) and produced by his younger brother Stuart Schulberg (1922-1979). Stuart’s daughter Sandra Schulberg, founder of the Independent Film Project and a vital force in the field of film preservation and restoration, was on hand to introduce the picture, in which she very briefly appears. To my surprise (and likely not just mine), Ms. Schulberg stated that Nick Ray “was so strung out on heroin” that he had to be replaced after three weeks of shooting and that her uncle Budd directed most of WATE uncredited. She described both Stuart and Budd Schulberg as ardent environmentalists at a time when the word was barely part of the American lexicon, and said that the brothers had fought to overcome the resistance of Warner Bros. executives to making a “message movie” about a bunch of birds.

The Florida location shoot was “very chaotic and very difficult for the adults involved,” she recalled, “but a wonderful time for the children” on the set who delighted in playing with trained animals and became acquainted with some of the locals cast in supporting parts. Prior to the 7:15 p.m. screening that night at Film Forum, Sandra Schulberg had not seen Wind Across The Everglades since she was fifteen years old.

Nicholas Ray (1911-1979)

Nicholas Ray (1911-1979)

After this lengthy introduction, I wish I could proclaim WATE a masterpiece on the order of such Nick Ray films as In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life, or Rebel Without a Cause (as did Jonathan Rosenbaum in a 2002 essay on the direct0r). However, it is decidedly not a masterpiece and in fact “doesn’t feel anything like a Nick Ray movie,” to quote my always-observant wife.

The ungainly script, held together with spit and Spanish moss, rambles through pointlessly prolonged fight scenes, unconvincing bouts of moonshine drinking, and tiresome, empty death threats muttered in the direction of Murdock. The naturalist also engages in a brief romance with Naomi (Chana Eden) but their fling ends as suddenly as it began when he lights out for the interior of the ‘Glades. In parting, Naomi adorns Murdock with her gold neck chain…with a Star of David attached. (I took this as a portent of the ethnographic future of South Florida, much as another scene in the film celebrates a two-block extension of Flagler Street in embryonic Miami.) Events take another unexpected turn when a black singer/pianist (Rufus Beecham, his hair impressively processed) sings the blues a la Nat King Cole in the parlor of a whorehouse presided over by Gypsy Rose Lee!

And yet, and yet…In Wind Across The Everglades, there are scenes of the Everglades so stunningly beautiful that my heart rose in my chest.

Anhinga in the Everglades

Anhinga in the Everglades

Despite its many “clunkers,” to use Sandra Schulberg’s apt term, the film ultimately succeeds in communicating a passion for the natural world of wild Florida and in drawing the viewer deeply (if too sporadically) into that world. It’s amazing how much one can feel from the sight of a Seminole woman silently poling a dugout pirogue through a river of grass or of a vast flock of white ibis taking flight across a blue sky. The pleasure of these scenes is matched by a genuine sense of horror as we watch Cottonmouth’s gang unleash slaughter in a rookery (nesting area), knowing that the adult birds will not abandon their fledglings and thus will make themselves easy targets. But in the end, even Cottonmouth undergoes a sort of deathbed conversion: Fatally bitten by a water moccasin, he finally sees the birds, his prey, for the precious and irreplaceable creatures they are.

Wardell Quezergue, Honored While Living

Wardell Quezergue (Honored While Living)

Sunday night’s Tribute to Wardell Quezergue at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall was a triumph for all concerned, and my hat’s off to Dr. Ike and the Ponderosa Stomp crew for the concept, planning, and execution of this memorable concert. A nine-piece band (including five-man horn section) was assembled and imported from New Orleans to give flawless support to a stellar lineup of vocalists including Dr. John, Robert Parker, Jean Knight, the Dixie Cups, Dorothy Moore, Tony Owens, and Tami Lynn. All these performers had worked with veteran writer/arranger/bandleader/producer Quezergue (on sessions dating back to at least the early Sixties) and all of them showed They’ve Still Got It — “it” being the right combination of vocal chops, enthusiasm for the stage, and the physical ability to deliver an engaging if sometimes too-brief performance.

This sold-out concert topped a Ponderosa Stomp triple-header at Lincoln Center, following on the R&B-themed The Get Down (7/16) and rockabilly party The Best Dance in Town (7/17) — both presented by the estimable Bill Bragin as part of his summer-long Lincoln Center Out Of Doors series in Damrosch Park. Jon Pareles wrote a thougtful and detailed NY Times review of Sunday’s show but I’ll add a few personal highlights:

Tony Owens & New Fan at Alice Tully Hall

Tony Owens Meets A New Fan

Although previously unknown to me, Tony Owens met the considerable challenge of standing in for several New Orleans singers now gone on to that Golden Juke Joint In The Sky. He did fine with Earl King‘s “Trick Bag,” less well with Willie Tee‘s “Thank You John” (Willie’s pimp-flavored insouciance seemingly impossible to recreate), but laid me out with a truly soul-stirring version of Danny White‘s immortal “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” Come back soon, Tony, you hear?!

Dorothy Moore sang her career-making hits of 1976, “Misty Blue” (#2 R&B/#3 Pop) and Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” (#7 R&B/#58 Pop). “Misty Blue” was lovely but “Funny…” just killed me. Dorothy’s rich, dark voice hovered near the celestial territory of Mahalia Jackson, had Mahalia ever sung a secular country-soul ballad (she didn’t).
I’ve heard Tami Lynn live three or four times since her surprise appearance at a Willie Tee show in the fall of 2005. But she’s never sounded (or looked) better than in her three-song set on Sunday, with old friends Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) on piano and the incredible Zigaboo Modeliste on drums: “Mojo Hannah” was especially intense, with Mac adding flawlessly funky keyboard flourishes while Zig pounded out the rhythm on his floor tom, never touching his snare.
And speaking of Zigaboo: The ex-Meter’s powerful lead vocal and fierce drumming on “Hey Pocky Way” brought the raw street feel of the Mardi Gras Indians to this prestigious concert stage — the roughest, toughest moment of the evening.

thunderbirdThe most gifted and accomplished jazz singer of her generation, Cassandra Wilson strikes out in new directions—with spectacular results—on her latest Blue Note album, thunderbird.

Set for release on April 4, 2006, thunderbird is Cassandra Wilson’s sixth Blue Note release, the fifteenth album of her stellar career, and her first collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett.

At first glance, the contents of thunderbird may seem familiar to those listeners who have embraced such albums as Cassandra’s Grammy Award-winning New Moon Daughter (Best Jazz Vocal Performance, 1996). There’s a classic blues, a folk ballad, a couple of entries from contemporary songwriters, and three originals co-written by the artist.

But no other Cassandra Wilson album has had a sound quite like this one: dense, humid, almost tactile, characterized by live-on-the-floor performances accented by studio technology but still retaining their essential organic qualities. An acoustic bass line may play subtly throughout the tack, then move into the foreground with sudden and dramatic impact. A lone slide guitar, intertwined with Cassandra’s voice, can conjure the weight and density of a full band.

Credit Cassandra Wilson with once again breaking free of familiar formulae and easy routes. Credit producer T Bone Burnett with thunderbird’s atmospheric magic, and for assembling an exceptional supporting cast in sessions that took place between November 2004 through January 2005 at various studios in L.A. (Capitol, The Village Recorder, The Green Room, and T Bone’s own Electro Magnetic) and New York (Dangerous Music).

“You know, most modern recording studios are pretty much the same,” Cassandra notes. “That is, unless you doctor them. I think great producers know how to do that, and T Bone Burnett is certainly in that group of great producers.

“He makes certain modifications that I can’t really go into detail about, because I think they’re secret. There are personal techniques that he uses in order to cater the studio, to get the sounds he wants to get.”

T Bone Burnett

T Bone Burnett

(Not for nothing was Burnett named Non-Classical Producer of the Year in the 44th Annual Grammy Awards. That 2002 ceremony celebrated his work on the multi-platinum soundtrack album O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its sequel Down From the Mountain as well as on the album Fan Dance by singer/songwriter Sam Phillips. T Bone has worked with everyone from Elvis Costello to Ralph Stanley, and produced and/or composed music for such films as The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain, and the forthcoming All the King’s Men starring Sean Penn and Jude Law.)

About that supporting cast: Keefus Ciancia (piano, keyboards, programming) has worked with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Fishbone, Macy Gray, Allison Krauss, and Elvis Costello, and with vocalist Jade Vincent in the duo Vincent & Mr. Green. Electric bassist Mike Elizondo has become a marquee name on the on the charts through his songwriting and production for 50 Cent (“In Da Club”), Eminem (“Just Lose It,”), and Eve (“Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” featuring Gwen Stefani).

Canadian slide guitarist Colin Linden first worked with T Bone Burnett in 2000, when he contributed a version of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” to O Brother Where Art Thou? Cassandra Wilson’s thunderbird crew also includes two members of her most recent touring band, Reginald Veal (acoustic bass) and Gregoire Maret (harmonica); guitarists Keb’ Mo’ and Marc Ribot; and the drummers Jay Bellerose, Jim Keltner, and Bill Maxwell.

Cassandra Wilson Talks About Songs From thunderbird

“Go To Mexico” – Cassandra, Keefus Ciancia, and Mike Elizondo created “Go To Mexico” from a studio jam. The vocal sample—the only such sound source heard on thunderbird—came from a vintage recording by the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a legendary tribe of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. Cassandra later added lyrics to the instrumental track.

“‘Go To Mexico’ was something we did at the tail end of the sessions. Mike started playing that sample, and we just started playing along with it. The sound and the tempo of those [sampled] voices is not a mechanical thing—it has a very life-like quality, and it became almost like another musician in the room.”

“Collaborating with more than one writer to this extent was a whole new experience for me, and I really enjoyed it.”

“I Want to Be Loved” – Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones recorded this Willie Dixon composition in up-tempo arrangements. But Cassandra’s version is slowed-down and playfully sensual, her voice framed by the guitars of Keb’ Mo’ and Colin Linden and the loose, funky duel drumming of Jim Keltner and Bill Maxwell.

“Colin Linden is someone I’d just met through T Bone, and he is wicked on that slide guitar! Colin turned me on to the song. I like to do these vintage blues songs, to make them part of my projects whenever I can.”

“Closer to You” – Composer Jakob Dylan introduced “Closer to You” on the Wallflowers’ 2002 album Red Letter Days. Cassandra plays acoustic guitar on this beautiful interpretation, with its remarkable Reginald Veal bass solo and Keefus keyboard accents. Even before the release of thunderbird, Cassandra had begun including “Closer to You” in her live shows.

“T Bone introduced me to that song and I fell in love with it. I really fell in love with the lyrics—I learned a lot about intimacy from singing the song and studying the lyrics. I think Jakob Dylan is like his father, an incredible songwriter. There’s so much depth of emotion in his simple words and plain language.”

“Easy Rider” – Cassandra transforms a Blind Lemon Jefferson classic of the Twenties into a dramatic, intoxicating seven-minute blues epic for the 21st century. It’s as close as we’ve ever heard her come—at least on disc—to the sound and spirit of Jimi Hendrix.

“There are two different blues songs known as ‘Easy Rider’—the one that’s often titled ‘C.C. Rider,’ and this one. I gravitated towards Blind Lemon’s song because of the lyrics, which are very strong, very powerful, and not typical: ‘There’s gonna be a time when a woman don’t need no man/So hush your mouth, stop raisin’ sand…’

“I’m a big fan of Blind Lemon Jefferson and that whole Texas crowd. I like to study all those different country blues styles—from the Delta, from southern Mississippi, from Louisiana and East Texas.”

“Lost” – This romantic ballad, with its echoes of Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, is one of two tracks (along with “Strike a Match”) composed by T Bone Burnett for the Wim Wenders film Don’t Come Knocking (2005, with Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange). Co-produced by J.D. Foster, the song is perfectly rendered with nothing more than Cassandra’s tender vocal and Marc Ribot’s electric guitar.

“’Lost’ is definitely from that ‘standards’ school of songwriting, and this track was a whole performance with Ribot—a master, one of my favorite guitar guys.

“I always work from an entire performance. If you have problems with the sound—say, if there’s leakage—then you might have to go in and fix something. But I try not to go back and change that performance, because you can feel the difference even if you alter one line.”

Cassandra describes the thunderbird recordings as “a blueprint for the way these songs will be performed live. I still consider myself a jazz musician and a jazz vocalist, so improvisation naturally becomes a part of whatever we do on stage.

“You want the songs to grow in public, to develop a life apart from the recording—and I’m sure they will.”

April 2006