Monday, August 08, 2005

Too High, Can't Come Down

Jessica Williams is probably my favorite living jazz pianist. So, it's a little weird to discover that you can even get her to play in your house ("sorry, no uprights"). While rock icons regularly sell out arenas, what does that say about the economic health of jazz as an art-form?

Oddly enough, jazz and movies are about the same age. In 1895, when the Lumière brothers were making the very first movies — their minute-long actualités — in France, Scott Joplin had his first two ragtime pieces published as sheet music in Texas, simultaneously sowing the seeds of jazz.

Jessica's playing is cinematic in that you can almost see in its panoramic sweep the entire history of jazz piano from Joplin to the present. 1920's stride, 1930's Teddy Wilson, 1940's bop, 1950's hard bop, 1960's free and post-bop — it's all in there, filtered through her own strong personal style.

• Before there were blogs, before the online film mag down under, cinephiles roaming the web were sure to find themselves sooner or later at the door of Acquarello's vast museum. For his quiet devotion and longtime dedication to international cinema, he's darned difficult to beat. Last week, he commented earthily on the Antonioni segment in the omnibus film Eros: "I was really hoping that Antonioni was turning over a new leaf with this film, but when that Kenny G.-like makeout music played again in the background to the sex scene, it felt more as though he were still stuck in that same randy old man vibe of Beyond the Clouds...". I couldn't agree more.

• My computer, large though it is, contains but one Britney Spears song. But what a little masterwork "Toxic" is — the tightly coiled string sample and hair-raising chord changes, the acoustic rhythm guitar (how wonderfully absurd in the hyper-processed context of the production), and that monster three-note electric guitar line. Especially for about 30 seconds from 0:55 to 1:25, it takes absolute and lethal possession of your brain.


Blogger Tuwa said...

My computer is Spears-free. You make me want to change that, though, to give this one a listen.

August 08, 2005 11:28 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

I must admit that I never got into jazz, it just seemed like such a cultivated form of music that you needed a certain degree of particularity to understand its complex "coding". Is Jessica Williams' music fairly accessible?

By the way, I'll play nice and refrain from repeating the Antonioni boobage comment but yeah, he does seem to be watching a lot of late night Cinemax these past ten years. ;)

August 09, 2005 10:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, I was idly wondering to myself how radically different the late films of Bresson and Antonioni are. Can you imagine, comparing Beyond The Clouds and Eros one the one hand with L'Argent and The Devil, Probably on the other? It's almost hilarious.

Hmm, the jazz question is a difficult one. Jessica's playing is allusive, but what first captivated me about jazz is something instinctively appreciated: its central idea of swing, or syncopated rhythm. I'll be sure to send a little CD mix of her stuff your way for you to check out.

I'm also taken by how Jessica's playing confounds received notions of what it means for a musical style to be "masculine" or "feminine". People stereotype female players by expecting their music to contain "feminine" qualities like lightness of touch, elegance, grace, etc. Jessica does all of that (effortlessly) but also much more, being equally comfortable in what stereotyping might think of as "male" territory [playing that is visceral, hard, raw, etc]. She upsets these reductive notions, and I love her for it.

August 09, 2005 12:32 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Wow! How right you are about Toxic. I never imagined I would find myself liking a Spears tune, but damn it if this isn't infectious!

That string sample is pure Bollywood -- I keep expecting to hear Asha right after it.

August 10, 2005 9:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

You read my mind, Filmbrain.
I felt the blast of an Asha flashback too.
And that electric guitar melody line kills me every time. It's so matter of fact and to the point, but beautiful.

August 10, 2005 10:55 AM  

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