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Chances are that even if you’re not a jazz fan you’ll have heard the above song, ‘My Funny Valentine’ as sung by Chet Baker. He’s the subject of a new biopic Born to be Blue starring Ethan Hawke which I saw in The Lighthouse last weekend. I read Deep In A Dream by James Gavin years ago so I was familiar with Baker’s story: a trumpet player who exemplified West Coast cool jazz as opposed to the harder, more experimental East Coast players like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, a guy with James Dean good looks that he famously ruined with hard living, and who died when he was just fifty-eight, falling out of a hotel window high on coke and heroin.
The film is factual in some respects. Yes, Baker’s life took a tragic turn at the age of twenty-seven when he discovered heroin. It’s true that his teeth were kicked out in a fight, so he had to learn to play again with dentures, a grisly process depicted in detail in the film. (I went to see this with my Dad who is a sax player and who has had problems with his teeth in the past, so he easily related to Chet. He couldn’t watch the scenes of Chet practising, gums bleeding, obviously in tremendous physical pain, but also desperate to play again.) Yes, Chet was imprisoned for drug use in Italy and America, and he fucked up his romantic relationships due to his addiction, although Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo) is a composite character.
Other elements are clearly fictional. The shots of Baker playing trumpet in the surf, on top of a caravan, resting on the roof of a snow covered shed, in corn fields, on the edge of a cliff, in the bath, struck me as being the kind of romantic notions a director might have about a musician. (What serious trumpet player brings his horn into the sea? Sea salt + brass = disaster!) While the individual shots are beautifully composed, the montage gets a little cheesy.
The film is stylised, with flashbacks in black and white and then returning to colour to show the events of 1966, the year Chet lost his teeth, had to learn to play again and made his comeback playing in Birdland. Ethan Hawke is excellent as Baker, conveying his charm, vulnerability and insecurity. Apparently Hawke was first approached about playing Baker fifteen years ago and he has obviously done his homework since. He learned how to play trumpet for the film and also wore dentures to correctly portray Baker’s mumble.
Fittingly Born to be Blue struck me like a jazz tune, an interpretation of Chet’s life rather than factually rigorous. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Christine and the Queens seem to have come out of nowhere in the last couple of months, generating huge hype with performances on Jools Holland and Graham Norton, some well-received festival gigs and album Chaleur Humaine reaching number one on the Irish album charts in July. In fact Christine released her first EP five years ago and is a well-established star in her native France. Chaleur Humaine was originally released in France in 2014 but has been slightly retweaked for its international release, with some new English language songs and some of the original French lyrics translated.
Christine (real name, Heloïse Letissier) is an interesting pop star. She describes herself as pan-sexual, she is interested in gender identity, dance and performance art, and the ‘queens’ part of her stage name is in tribute to a group of inspirational drag queens she met in London when she lived there in 2010.
When interviewed she is thoughtful and intelligent with a feminist sensibility, telling Dazed Digital that her first song ‘iT’ was about ‘wanting to have a dick in order to have an easier life’, and explaining to TIME magazine that, ‘My songs exist already with the beats and the bass lines, [but] because I’m going into the studio with a sound guy, everything changes for people—they assume the guy did the production… The real fight will be when girls will be able to do what Kanye West does. Kanye West is never questioned as an artist and is working with, like, 10 producers at the same time.’
The album is definitely worth buying, not just for lead single ‘Tilted’ which you’re bound to have heard on radio recently. I also love her live version of ‘Pump Up The Jam’, the classic Technotronic tune. Check it out.
One of the great things about not having a TV is that you don’t get sucked into brain-drain channel surfing and so the only reality show I have ever been a rabid fan of is RuPaul’s Drag Race. I first discovered it in 2013, reviewed it here, then recommended it to everyone I thought would appreciate it, creating a few new fans in the process.
Drag is an art form, a unique expression of a personal creative vision, and the show has given me a look into a world I knew nothing about before. I am often blown away by the queens’ charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent (for an explanation of this phrase and a general resource for newbies, this is a comprehensive guide).
The Lipsynch For Your Life is the great leveller of Drag Race, the last chance to prove the queen deserves to stay in the competition. Stellar performances have come out of left-field to save the day, and seasoned queens have unexpectedly been sent home.
Having watched all eight seasons of Drag Race more than once, my favourite lipsynch is from season four: Dida Ritz doing ‘This Will Be’ by Natalie Cole. Cole is on the panel and her reaction sums up what the viewer is feeling. Dida lives the joy and energy of the song, and she’s so on point it’s jaw-dropping. As legendary queen Latrice Royale says, ‘that is what a lipsynch for your life is…that is high-drag at its finest.’
After a sixteen year break, Australian band The Avalanches are back with Wildflower. You’ll remember them from their first album Since I Left You, which saturated the airwaves in 2000 and was notable for consisting of almost 3,500 vinyl samples.
‘Frankie Sinatra’ is the first single from Wildflower which will be released in early July. It’s a pleasingly shambolic affair, with boom-parp circus horns in the chorus and guest vocals from Danny Brown and MF Doom. The album has received early rave reviews and although I’m not totally crackers about this single I’ll be interested to hear the rest of it.
There are some songs that transcend genres, decades, and fashions, and end up being an inspiration for the ages. ‘Under Pressure’ is, as the staff in Whelan’s will tell you, one of my favourite songs to end a DJ set, and one of my favourite songs of all time.
Two geniuses on one track is rare. Freddie Mercury ranks among the superlative singers in any genre of the last century, and Bowie’s style and influence is inimitable; together they created magic. ‘Under Pressure’ is twenty-five years old this year but has the true hallmark of a classic: it sounds just as contemporary as the day it was recorded.
And the lyrics are pretty powerful:
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
This version has been doing the social-media rounds recently, I suppose due to Bowie’s death and a renewed interest in every detail of his career. It’s the vocal track from the song, just Mercury and Bowie, no other instruments, no autotune, no bullshit, just two gifted singers at the top of their game. Do yourself a favour and check it out. It sends shivers up my spine.
The Heavy, the band that sound like they’re from New Orleans but are in fact from Bath, the band beloved of music supervisors everywhere, release their fourth studio album Hurt & the Merciless on 1st April 2016. Irish people might be familiar with their track ‘What Makes A Good Man’ from the Guinness ad, ‘Sapeurs’, which brilliantly depicts La Sape, the elegant dandies of Congo.
‘Since You Been Gone’ is the first single and the black and white video tells the story of a couple having a fight. (As a rather long aside, my jukebox brain tends to associate certain words or phrases with songs, like when I first downloaded the Hailo app and got the Foo Fighters’ song ‘Halo’ stuck in my head every time I used it. The title ‘Since You Been Gone’ has reminded me of the Kelly Clarkson pop hit, but I’m hopeful that repeated listenings to The Heavy will knock that on the head.)
I prefer the recent single ‘Turn Up’, which will be a stormer live and no doubt the soundtrack to TV shows in the near future. It has no official video yet but here’s the lyric placeholder.
So far, the two lead singles don’t indicate new territory for the band, but I’m still interested to hear the album. And when the vibe is this good, there’s something to be said for not fixing what’s not broken, right?
Bessie Smith. The Empress of the Blues. A hard-drinking, hot-tempered, stubborn, fascinating, warm woman, and a singer with a voice that sounded like she knew every sorrow in the world but decided to celebrate life anyway. A biopic of this icon is long overdue and last year HBO released Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, which covers Smith’s life from her childhood in Chattanooga in the 1900s, to just before her death in 1937 in a car accident.
Bessie adheres to the Hollywood biopic formula (including the ‘based on an incredible true story’ line in the trailer): from her poverty stricken early days raised by her sister Viola, to the hubris of the young performer overshadowing Ma Rainey, the fame and adoration, then the inevitable isolation and downward spiral.
There’s a great article on Slate by Laura Bradley on the accuracy of the film, fact versus fiction, and there are some surprises, such as the fact that Bessie really did chase the KKK away from one of her gigs, and that she was stabbed by a man she had punched for coming on to one of her girlfriends. But the film’s downfall is that it leans towards scandal and sensationalism, especially towards the end, making it feel more like a Lifetime movie than an HBO one.
The performances in Bessie make it worth watching. Mo’Nique plays Ma Rainey, a renowned blueswoman, and Bessie’s mentor and friend. Michael K. Williams is Bessie’s husband Jack Gee, a passionate man who loves her but who is volatile and manipulative. The cinematography is also gorgeous, and I adored the costume design by Michael T. Boyd, coveting every beaded flapper dress and satin chemise.
The film was twenty-two years in the making and Queen Latifah was always the first choice for the lead role so she had ample time to get under Bessie’s skin. Given that Bessie was singing during the 20s and 30s, all we have left are low-quality recordings, some photos and various biographies. From this Latifah manages to create a magnetising and complex character. Latifah recorded her own vocals for the film and she beautifully captures the power and emotion of Bessie’s voice. Latifah won the Screen Actor’s Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie and the film won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.
Bessie Smith has been claimed as a major influence by artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson and Norah Jones, and Janis Joplin was such a fan that she paid for Bessie’s tombstone after her grave had gone unmarked for thirty-three years. If you want to check out the woman herself have a listen here, and watch her only film performance here, in St. Louis Blues. Enjoy!
I have posted before about some of my favourite Christmas songs, from the sublime to the ridiculous. As well as the classics, my seasonal playlist includes some jazz be-bop tunes that might not be on your radar, so here are three of my favourites in case you feel like expanding your Christmas playlist. Enjoy!
Firstly Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong doing ‘Jingle Bells’:
Secondly, Bill Evans playing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’:
And lastly, Charlie Parker playing ‘White Christmas’:
Whenever I have people over to my house I always ask them to choose the music. I do a lot of that in my professional life so it’s good to hand it over to someone else while I’m preparing dinner or opening wine. Sometimes my guests raid my iTunes and play tunes I’ve neglected and sometimes they head for Soundcloud and introduce me to music I haven’t heard.
I particularly look forward to my mate Sinead coming over as it’s her business to discover new music. It’s also of course been her lifetime passion and we have very similar taste so I always get great recommendations when she comes over.
The last time she was here, she played Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, an artist and album I hadn’t heard. She had seen the band live and been blown away.
The album opens with ‘I Need Never Get Old’, an old-school soul stomper with a big horn section. ‘S.O.B.’ starts with handclaps and backing vocals that sound like the forgotten track from O Brother Where Are Thou. The last track ‘Mellow Out’ ends with a Van Morrison influenced vocal refrain.
The disparate influences come together to sound somehow familiar but still have a distinctive musical stamp. Rateliffe’s vocals are seasoned and heartfelt and it makes for a feel-good vibe and great listening.