Film

'A Great Day in Harlem' Is the Story of a Great Photograph and Much More

On that particular long day, the musicians were surprised and glad to see each other, recognizing in each other a fraternity that didn't see much daylight, that "lived hard".


A Great Day in Harlem

Director: Jean Bahch
Cast: Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Hinton, Marian McPartland, Art Blakey. Art Kane, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer, Scoville Browne, Quincy Jones (narrator)
Rated: NR
Studio: Beat Thief Productions
Year: 1994
US date: 2014-02-25 (Stranger Than Fiction)
Website
Trailer

"Jazz is in the genes and it's always there. It just needs the right soil to grow in, you know. It's there already, just needs to be nurtured, you know." Sonny Rollins here does as good a job of defining jazz as anyone, apprehending its simultaneous urgency and elusiveness, allowing its mystery. But if jazz might show up in unexpected genes, in the bodies and souls of disparate individuals, the soil tends to be circumstantial, at once material and metaphorical, even metaphysical.

Like so many other jazz artists, Rollins found his soil in New York City, pulsing and beguiling, ever shifting. It was and still is home to "guys that live very hard," Rollins goes on, "They surrender themselves to just the art. But what's the point of living to be 100 if you don't do anything in life?" Rollins is remembering artists he's known, specifically, artists who assembled for a photograph on a brownstone stoop in Harlem, during the summer of 1958. That photograph, by Art Kane for Esquire magazine, has come to signify widely, a moment in time, a veneration of brilliance, a document of an event that seems altogether improbable, even in hindsight.

The photograph is also the focus for Jean Bach's wonderful documentary, A Great Day in Harlem. Originally released in 1994, the film is screening for the first time in New York City since Bach's death last May, on 25 February at Stranger than Fiction, where it will be followed by a Q&A with producer Matthew Seig and editor Susan Peehl. It's not often that a film about jazz artists can get at anything like jazz, but this one comes close, in its manifest reverence for its subjects, its joy in their lives and their humor, and its own creative backbeats.

The story of the photo is a good place to start, and Kane here recounts his own inexperience at the time. "I wasn't a photographer," says the man who went on to become renowned for his portraits of fashion and music icons, but instead, an art director at Seventeen magazine. Robert Benton, then the art director at Esquire (who went on to direct Kramer vs. Kramer, among other films), thought the kid "had a lot of talent," and agreed to what seemed a crazy idea, to bring jazz musicians together for a shoot at 10am, outside on the street, because, well, "I didn't' have a studio," says Kane. "I was new enough and dumb enough to try all kinds of risky things," he says.

Some of those musicians laugh now at the very notion. "In those days, most musicians, myself included, didn't get to bed until, say, four o'clock in the mornings," says Bud Freeman. He sits now on a big beige sofa, his pale blue jacket not quite the color of his pale blue shirt, his eyeglasses gigantic. "You wake up as a rule, at 12 or one, ravenously hungry, wondering what you were gonna do with the long day coming."

On that particular long day, the musicians were surprised and glad to see each other, recognizing in each other a fraternity that didn't see much daylight, that "lived hard." Kane remembers that it was thrilling to watch "them all move into the street. The only thing was, you couldn't control it because they were all musicians who hadn’t seen each other in one solid congregation in probably ever before."

But if they weren’t inclined to pose or even hear the kid with the camera, that sort of energy is visible in the photo, a sort that's not quite accidental, but seems improvisational. Kane's assistant for the day, Steve Frankfurt, was even younger and less experienced than he was. He remembers loading the film into the camera backwards and having to redo it, worried that their subjects would get bored and disperse. "They were just waking up," he says "and all focused or trying to focus on that kid across the street with the camera."

The subjects who sit down with Bach remember each other too. Looking again at the photo to pick out faces and jackets. As the camera zooms close to Thelonius Monk in the photo, his glasses dark and his hat pushed back, Johnny Griffin remembers his effect on any room: "Monk would walk around and everybody's, 'Blah blah,' and he may not say a word… for 20 minutes." The camera pulls out, to show Monk the only person of this group who's looking at it. "Then all of a sudden, he'd say three or four words and destroy everything we had been talking about for the last half an hour. He washed it out. Just like that." Griffin waves his hand. "Timing." Cut to Monk on the piano. Timing.

Art Blakey remembers Monk too. "I loved Monk because he had high morals." "Really?" asks Bach from off screen. Blakey nods. "He always told the truth. If you want to know something and you asked him a question and you're ready for the answer, he's gonna tell you the truth. That's what people don't like, that's why they were afraid of him." Rollins remembers his idol, Coleman Hawkins, telling Bach he was the reason Rollins chose his own instrument: "I liked the alto, but after listening to him, I wanted to play tenor." Rollins also has vivid memories of Lester Young, his original style in clothes as well as music: "It was like he came from another planet for a short visit, then went back," smiles Rollins, "Just fantastic."

It's a description that might fit the photograph as well, an instant captured, so strange and so perfect, so resonant and so immediate. As the film pulls together the memories of participants -- including one of the kids who sat on the curb next to Count Basie, as well as some of the musician's children, now grown up -- it also creates its own rhythms. Just so, when Rollins and by Dizzy Gillespie each remembers Coleman Hawkins, their interviews are cut together come together, offbeat and connected too, an odd time signature that reminds you you're watching an assembly of memories, of an assembly of greats.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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