Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thoreauly Bearable

If that punning headline bearly escapes being a self-defeating prophecy, I’m pretty sure some readers will consider it, not oxymoronic, but beary moronic indeed.

Undaunted, still I come, not to beary, but to praise author-illustrator D.B. Johnson who has created five incombearable works of wonder, a real handful, literally and figuratively, of picture books designed to please young readers, that are also wowing parents, librarians, kids’ book critics, and other adult readers—a nearly unbearalleled feat!

Who knew that Henry David Thoreau could be so much fun--aside from Johnson, that is. Intelligent and cranky? Yes. Confident to the point of arrogance? Sure. Full of Yankee ingenuity, yet uncannily attuned to the natural world? Goes without saying.

But a big, no-nonsense brown bear not so much roly-poly as brusque and solid, and still chockablock with dry wit, and folk wisdom, and expansive imagination? (Coulda fooled Emerson, I bet.) As the central conceit
for a series of children’s books, Thoreau the Bear works well, and Johnson has a great knack for ferretting out a few sentences or a single paragraph from Walden that he can expand visually, to present some aspect of the man’s social conscience or scientific method or Nature aesthetic—while also portraying Henry’s quiet, usually solitary discovery of beauty or connectivity or wonder.

Like many college students, there was a time when I was fascinated by Walden and its author, imagining that his hard-headed innocence—his native curiosity and cussed stubbornness--spoke to me directly. In fact, one year I worked as a gate guard, manning a lonely outpost on the University of Washington campus—specifically, the gatehouse and (then) dead-end
road leading to parking areas down behind the University Hospital and Health Sciences complex. Undisturbed for half-hours at a time, not only could I get classwork done, but I also scribbled a goofy journal of urban(e) observations--stealthily taking notes on the behavior of bearded doctors and chatty nurses, harried students and unhurried faculty, burly truck drivers and cadaverous cancer patients, and composing pithy philosophical dicta and witty remarks that such sightings inspired. Oh yes, I was convinced I was shaping a modern, city-wise Walden for bright, later 20th century minds… but of course after a few weeks my big plan faltered and fizzled and stopped.
(Right, I lost interest.)

Lethargy and self-doubt may have overwhelmed me, but clearly D.B. Johnson is made of sterner stuff. His books’ simple titles pretty much tell the story: Henry Hikes to Fitchburg; Henry Builds a Cabin; Henry Climbs a Mountain; Henry Works; and Henry’s Night.

Ah, but what visual magic animates those words, appearing on every page of the telling! The medium Johnson works in blends radiant color
pencils and richly colored paint; and the full-page illustrations offer a fractured perspective--sometimes the false geometry of all-sides-at-once Cubism, sometimes the irregular shards of a faulty kaleidoscope. But these uncommonly intriguing elements plus the simplified Walden text together make one smile happily as each story proceeds.

Thoreau for young kids (and wise adults)? Hey, works for me… and likely would for you too. Consider the plots of my two favorites:

Henry Builds a Cabin has the frugal bear buying lumber from a torn-down shed, assembling tools and plans, and then as he does the piecemeal construction having to explain to neighbors “Emerson,” “Alcott,” and others how his “too small” cabin grows considerably more spacious when the bean patch serves as his dining room, a sun-and-shade nook next to his cabin
becomes the library, stone steps leading down to the creek magically ‘morph into a ballroom for dancing, and the entire cabin is his umbrella when it rains. (And rain in Johnson’s rural New England landscapes is a particular visual wonder!)

Book 3, Henry Climbs a Mountain, gradually becomes a game of “Can You Top This?” as the principled bear—wearing only one boot and having refused to pay the taxman--is escorted to the local
hoosegow. (If the same famous incident, there is no visit by Emerson depicted, when he supposedly asked, “Henry, why are you in there?” and was answered, “Emerson, why are you out there?”)

Using crayons from his pocket, Henry first sketches his missing boot and then covers the walls and ceiling with drawings that carry him right out of the cell, over rocks and streams, and straight up a neighboring mountain where he views… a hawk gliding overhead, far-off terrain below, and a stranger walking toward him--who turns out to be an
escaped slave “riding” the Underground Railroad, following the “Drinking Gourd” and Northern Star on up to Canada. He is (of course) bear foot and still has a slave shackle around one ankle.

The two bears enjoy their world for a while, then Henry gives the escapee his boots and stumbles hurriedly back down the mountain, “arriving” in his cell just in time for breakfast and the news that someone has paid his taxes. He’s free once more; how does that feel? “Like being on top of a very tall mountain.” And so Henry departs—to buy a new pair of shoes!

The passage in Walden reads thus: “One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.”

Using those words plus another quote, along with climbing experiences Thoreau wrote about, and a smidgin of magic realism, author-illustrator Johnson fashioned a
tale to remind us of that first Henry’s other important work, “Civil Disobedience,” the speech that gradually became a whole non-violent resistance doctrine, used so effectively by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and other proponents of peace and freedom around the world. The list now also includes this year’s citizen actions in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, Athens, and… New York, Chicago, Oakland, Madison, Montreal, and more.

As the first Henry almost wrote,"The most of men lead lives of quiet occupation"--except for the millions who are underemployed and trying to live through the world recession and the sham of modern global capitalism. And all those folks must occupy themselves in other ways and other places, to reclaim their dignity and their rights… including the right to be there, anywhere, and their right to be here, period.

I doff my high-hat to both Henrys, with thanks, and to those who have bravely and angrily and desperately taken to the streets, I say:

Happy Trespass. Happy Transgression. Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mingus Misprized, Duke Reprised

I’ve been thinking about Duke Ellington’s four-year loose affiliation with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records. Sinatra signed him on as an artist, presumably with a contract for X number of albums; then he did something more radical and innovative (or maybe risky): he also gave Duke a title and sometime job as A&R man for the label’s Jazz interests.

I should have bought the Mosaic set back a decade ago that revisited Ellington’s own albums for Reprise, not only because I quite like a few of them (especially his treatment of tunes from Disney’s Mary Poppins, plus the Afro Bossa and Symphonic Ellington LPs),
but also because I’d love to read and learn from Mosaic’s special essay/discography booklet—a highlight of every set; a treat and an education no matter who or what the subject.

For example, Duke was soon responsible for producing the debut albums, cut in Paris the same day in 1963, of pianist Dollar Brand (better known as Abdullah Ibrahim) and stylized beginner vocalist Bea Benjamin (soon to become Ibrahim’s wife, and add “Sathima” to her name). The Brand album merited some critical attention and praise, but Benjamin’s equally intriguing
session was shelved by Sinatra and only released in the Nineties. (More about Bea’s forgotten album below.)

Ignoring A&R Duke’s other hits and misses (from Bud Powell to Alice Babs), I have sometimes wondered… What if Charles Mingus had been without a contract at the time (rather than recording piecemeal for Atlantic and RCA and Impulse)? The bassist/bandleader greatly admired Ellington--openly competed with him too--and his big band compositions paid homage to Duke’s elastic but painstakingly crafted approach, building his compositions around the particular talents of each
Ellingtonian. It’s a major loss for Jazz that the two great leaders only ever got to record as “equals” on the prickly but remarkable, and occasionally brilliant, Money Jungle trio date with Max Roach. (Mingus threatened to quit midway through the session but Duke calmed him down--a bit ironic considering that Mingus was the only band member that Duke ever fired outright.)

But fiery Charles was definitely one who broke the mold, a volatile mix of sensitivity, creativity, and orneriness, of gospel soul, sophisticated vision, and impolitic pugnacity. Only the contra-bass was massive enough to match big, bullish, master musician Mingus; and that “contra-“ prefix suited him too since he measured himself against… well… not to put too fine a point on it, the world: white racists,
Ellington, record labels, other bassists, players he hired who didn’t “burn” with the same “orange, then blue” flame (those three words the title of one of his best-known compositions). Like Walt Whitman, Mingus embraced multitudes.

I assume that all these elements will—like the artist himself—loom large in the new documentary titled Mingus on Mingus, directed by his grandson Kevin Ellington Mingus (interesting name) and currently in the midst of filming. Except, to be strictly correct, the crew is on hold at the moment because, from November 7 to December 18, the core backers and creators are seeking to raise an additional $45,000. (You can read all about the project at www.orangethenblue.com, and also watch a brief trailer here. Then give whatever financial support you can muster!)

At any rate, any later creative interaction between Duke and Mingus was away from public view, if such occurred. In fact Ellington’s A&R work soon fizzled; he didn’t
submit (m)any more productions other than his own orchestra’s—and some of those, recorded between ‘63 and ’65, actually turned up on the Atlantic label. Was Duke miffed at the lukewarm reception several of his projects received? Did Sinatra have second thoughts, wanting material more pop/commercial in content? Or did the souring relations result from new parent company Warner Bros. getting involved?

Apparently given short shrift were the second half of some “Duke-revives-the-Big-Bands” sessions, and a fiddlers-three project recorded around the time of the (pending) Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin-Brand-Ibrahim’s day in the
studio--a Jazz violinists' summit of Ray Nance, Stephane Grappelli, and Svend Asmussen plus Duke and a couple of sidemen.

Asmussen, in fact, was a major addition to Bea Benjamin’s recording session, with all 12 songs cut, as the album title says, in the course of A Morning in Paris. Featured on the dozen were 1) some subtly Africa-tinged drum-work by Makaya Ntshoko; 2) a regal trio of pianists (Duke, Ibrahim, and Billy Strayhorn) taking turns at the keyboard; 3) then-still-Ms. Benjamin’s kittenish and slightly husky voice; and 4) the unplanned, unexpected addition of Svend—but plucking his violin’s strings singly or percussively rather than bowing them.

Curious and often compelling was the sound of those four features blended together—excellent takes on “Darn That Dream,” “I Should Care,” “Lover Man,” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” But there are some irritants too. For too many tracks—and this is hard to fathom--the three pianists are so subdued as to be basically phoning it in over a failing long-distance line. Instead, Asmussen’s pizzicato commentaries are allowed to take the lead. At first I thought his staggered plucks to be oddly akin to the “speaking voice” solos of reedsman Eric Dolphy (Mingus’s revered cohort around the same time), or even some sort of weak and thin version of a bass player’s freeform accompaniment. Then I came to my senses and realized it was all just a novelty, a
misguided momentary lapse by the ever-curious, willing-to-risk-it Duke.

If Ellington had intended a stripped-down, maybe simple bass-and-guitar backing, he surely could have made that happen. From Wellman Braud and Jimmy Blanton to Aaron Bell and Ray Brown, Duke usually relied on top bassists only, and if he’d had Jimmy Woode or John Lamb (or Mingus!), say, to provide the backing for Benjamin, rather than inadequate Johnny Gertze (yes, there was a bass just barely present) or bizarre Svendisms, her debut album might have appeared
on Reprise in ’63 or ’64 rather than vanishing into the vaults full of no-hopes and not-likelies.

Even though Bea went on to a vocal career still continuing in South Africa today, it was only in 1997 that A Morning in Paris ever “dawned,” when the original recording engineer was found to have kept his own copy of the tapes for 35 years! By then, her album seemed a quirky curiosity instead of a lost masterpiece.

Maybe if Ellington had put a little more thought and effort into prepping the fledgling singer and the pick-up session men, rather than relying on the moment’s happenstance (which he could do reliably with his Ellingtonians, and did for 45 years
or so), the Benjamin story might have taken a different course, and Duke might have had a more lasting A&R career, earning a solid reputation as producer of other major Jazz artists—which might also have helped Reprise’s anemic bottom line.

Ellington might even have persuaded Sinatra to give misprized Charles Mingus a chance.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ill Wind

Autumn has hit the U.S. with a vengeance: early snows, more flooding, storms hurling the fall-color leaves away to some other part of the world… and El Nino, or La Nina, or the Pinta and Santa Maria, or all four, threatening to wash America back to Vespucci and Isabella.

Nor are we alone in facing nature’s wrath. Whether you place your bet on Global Warming or climate change or warped statistics or Mayan prophecy, the arriving winter of 2011-2012 looks to be a doozy…

It’s 25 years now since Sandra and I and various children spent a chilly fall and icy winter skirting
the Mediterranean from Provence to Portugal’s Algarve in search of warmth. The “coldest European winter in decades” was foretold, even heralded, that year by a particularly fierce mistral wind sweeping down and across Provence.

(Perfectly apt: that raw and raucous wind from hell is also the surname of the great Nobel-prizewinning poet Frederic Mistral, champion of the Provencal language. My slight whisper of air to be read below would be quickly lost in the storm gales and summer zephyrs he unleashed.)

I seem to remember, from Lawrence Durrell’s South-of-France quintet of novels (less known and less important than his dazzling, and bedazzled, Alexandria Quartet), that a mistral sometimes blows hot air rather than cold.

But not in early November, 1986…

Le Mistral

Ice-hard and unyielding,
the autumn whirlwind bruises,
pummels crisp clouds askew,
and shreds the huddling trees
of their sharp, shriveled leaves.

Rapacious, falcon-fierce,
le mistral grips Provence;
chill talons rake the Rhone
from Arles back to Avignon,
beating the soul to its knees

with all fall’s cold at once.
Now the late grapes vein blue
like Papist folk new-shriven,
and the last vineyards lose
their golden cypress shielding.

Now the blood-earth grieves
a troubadour’s song of years,
dry hectares crying woe
for the region’s tans and creams,
burnt reds, bright blues, driven

in hiding, gone to cover
in halls of bauxite bone:
a blanched rotogravure
the dull, vainglorious end
of summer's sun-drenched dreams.

Le soleil’s ancient foe,
the bandit mistral wind
demands his droit du seigneur,
pillaging Aix to Vaucluse,
till stripped to dust and stone,

Provence arrests the reiver.