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Monday, December 10, 2007


To begin this week: A little holiday greeting. Every December I do a super-hero Christmas Card. There are people who—I’m told—look forward to this every year, and I take them at their word. This year’s Card is the 19th in the series. My Cards utilize (primarily) characters of my own creations, in whimsical situations poking fun at both the holidays and super-hero comics. For this year, my lead characters, the Environauts, stage a somewhat farcical reenactment of the cover of Fantastic Four #49, “If This Be Doomsday!” To have a look at my twisted little parody, “If This Be Yuletide!” click on the URL below or copy and paste it into your browser:

So, last Tuesday I was looking in our local paper, the Albany Times Union, for an article that I noticed about George W. Bush--or, as I like to call him, the Creature from the White Lagoon--and the latest development in stem cell research. The Shrub's position on research with the curative and restorative properties of embryonic stem cells is, to say the least, conspicuously anti-scientific and superstitious. ("We're sorry, those of you who are sick or impaired; we can't make you well and whole because some of us can't distinguish a mass of undifferentiated cells from a person, and we think the Old White Man in the Sky doesn't care for this sort of thing...") I thought the article would incite me to a properly righteous indignation. As it happened, I was even more indignant about a Letter to the Editor that I found on the opposite page. A nun in the suburb of Latham, right outside of Albany, had written the following:

All Christians should be alerted to an upcoming movie, The Golden Compass, written by an outspoken English atheist, Phillip Pullman.

Though Golden Compass is being promoted as a child-friendly film, in reality the book from which it is taken teaches children the virtues of atheism, and the evils of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. In addition to The Golden Compass, Mr. Pullman has authored two succeeding books in each of which the hostility to Christianity becomes more palpable.

Though there are indications that the first movie version is being toned down so as not to anger Christians, the fact remains that unsuspecting parents may take their children to see the film--and then buy the trilogy for them as a Christmas gift.

One critic has observed, "The atheists have driven God out of the classroom and off the TV and radio, and have done a pretty good job of expelling Him from the churches as well. Now comes an opportunity to dethrone Him and supplant his books with others which proclaim the death of God to the young."

It is one thing to be indifferent toward religion; quite another to unleash an anti-religious crusade--a dogmatic plundering of religion, especially Christianity, done in the name of tolerance.

Well, that was all I needed to see. Immediately the words of a rebuttal came flying into my head, and by the end of that evening I had written:

This is in response to the Letter to the Editor from [I won't disclose her name] in the December 4 edition ("Golden Compass May Not Be a Children's Film"). I'd like to respond to the specious, groundless, and conspicuously anti-intellectual claims that [the Sister] makes about a film that the majority of people have not even seen, given that it has yet to be released to the general public.

As I have inferred from having seen the trailers, The Golden Compass is a fantasy film dealing with a scientist who discovers and wants to explore a parallel universe that he has discovered, the existence of which is considered a threat to the political authorities and religious doctrines of his world. Taken purely in that context, The Golden Compass seems to be an allegory about the eternal clash of science and reason versus faith and dogma, and the desire of people in power to use religious doctrines to control the thoughts and lives of others. While it is a fantasy, on that basis it is a very "true" story--which is to say, it is true to life. For I hasten to point out that the very Catholic Church that [the Sister] believes the story is attacking is known to have put Galileo, the father of astronomy, under house arrest after he proved that we are not the supernaturally designated center of the universe. Far from attacking religion or anything else, The Golden Compass appears to be using fantasy to illuminate one of the recurring themes of real-world history. I'm reminded of the book Pale Blue Dot, in which the late Dr. Carl Sagan, in a sequel to Cosmos, spends an entire chapter discussing "The Great Demotions," or how science has systematically de-mystified the universe, demonstrated that its workings are accessible to rational thinking, and taken man out of the exalted position at the center of the Cosmos to which religion had assigned him, and the hostility of religion against science for doing so. The same real-world principle is at work in this entirely fictional story.

And it should be emphasized that the film is indeed a fantasy, and I very much doubt that it is meant to be taken as anything else. Whatever the supposed intent of the author of the original book may have been, this is a Hollywood movie, and I have every belief that its true purpose is to tell a story that will entertain an audience and make money at the box office. Nothing more, nothing less.

[The Sister's] position on parents taking their children to see The Golden Compass and having the kids get a manifesto on atheism is alarmist at best and absurd at worst. Time and again, religiously motivated people bring out children as a weapon and a shield against things they find personally threatening. It never gets any less despicable any time it happens. People who want to project their own fears as presenting a danger to children ought to consider the nature of their fears and why they really feel that way, and leave children out of it. Children have minds and ought to be taught to use them. I have news for [the Sister]: If we're not going to teach kids to think for themselves, the stories in motion pictures are going to be the least of society's problems.

It is ludicrous to think that The Golden Compass is an instrument of any "anti-religious crusade". It is an instrument of profit for a Hollywood studio, plain and simple. Every time there is any work of entertainment that might appeal to forward-thinking, imaginative people, there is always someone out there to cry, "God save us from free and rational thought, the exercise of our imaginations, and the ability to have a good time at the movies." It is a small and petty God to whom the content of a cinematic fantasy poses such a threat.

I E-mailed my rebuttal to the paper the following day, and before close of business I got a phone call from the paper to the effect that they wanted to use my letter. It should appear, I'm told, some time during this week. Now bear in mind that I am really much more of a devotee of science fiction than fantasy. (And yes, there is a difference, but let's save that for a future Blog.) However, I am also a devotee of, as I put it above, "free and rational thought" the the free and open exchange of ideas and imagery--things to which people like the nun in question seem bitterly opposed. Which is why, last week, a nun in Latham managed to tick me off even more than the prehistoric monster presently ensconced in the White House. So take that, Sister!

A while ago, I was channel-surfing on Cable past the public-access bulletin board channel. You know, a lot of channels like that keep music constantly running and rotating under them to keep you stimulated while you read their messages, and ours is no exception. Well, on this particular evening, I found myself lingering on the Cable bulletin board instead of surfing past it, because of what was playing. It was a new version of the Stevie Wonder tune "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing", a version I had not heard. And it was gorgeous! Really beautiful! The first thing that enters my head whenever I hear a piece of music that I find beautiful is the same thing I'm sure you think when a recording strikes your fancy: I've got to know what that song is, who the artist is, and where I can get my hands on a copy. Now, in this version of "Don't You Worry...," I was sure I recognized the vocal style. It was a jazz arrangement, sung in close and luxurious harmony. It sounded like The Manhattan Transfer--but I was sure it wasn't. I know the vocal signature of Tim Hauser, Alan Paul, Janis Siegel, and Cheryl Bentyne, and this was similar but not on the nose. I made a mental note to myself to find out who recorded that song at my first opportunity.

And then I did what I so often do when I make myself a mental note. I moved on to my next thousand thoughts and forgot about it. That is, until my family gathered at my brother Mike's house in New Jersey for Thanksgiving, and the new version of "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" turned up again, this time on Mike's digital Cable jazz channel. And this time I thought, Okay, now you have really got to find out who that is! I thought about jazz vocal groups who sound like The Manhattan Transfer, and at once came up with two suspects.

Suspect number one: Rare Silk, a quartet of the 1980s who did two utterly delicious albums, New Weave and American Eyes, and then a third one that wasn't so hot, after which they disappeared. In one of my stupidest feats of procrastination, I failed to buy either Weave or Eyes when they were readily available on CD. I kept putting it off, and now they're both out of print. I have them only on vinyl, which I no longer listen to. If I want them on CD, I must seek out the discs on line and pay exorbitant prices for them, or have the vinyl LPs sent to a disc-transfer service to be digitized, or get one of those digital-transfer turntables and do it myself. (Sigh...) But I very much doubted that Rare Silk would have reunited after two decades of being totally off the radar, which left suspect number two.

Suspect number two: New York Voices. I had (and still have) one of their CDs also, Hearts of Fire, which contains goodies including their inspiring vocal version of a jazz instrumental called "Giant Steps," which they didn't perform the one time I saw them live in spite of people (like me) shouting for it from the audience. (By contrast, Rare Silk did all their good stuff the one time I got to see them.) These guys, I had a good feeling, were still out there recording, and a search on exposed them as the culprit. The gorgeous new version of "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" turns up as the eleventh track on a brand-new New York voices CD called A Day Like This. One trip to the brand-new Barnes & Noble that just opened in Colonie Center, and I bagged the tune and all the beauty that goes with it. And believe me, there's lots of beauty to be found on this disc.

As an aside: When I was a boy, I thought jazz was ancient music of my parents' generation, performed by people named Fats, Thelonius, and Jelly Roll. I somehow didn't connect jazz with music that I enjoyed even at so tender an age, most notably the work of Vince Guaraldi on the animated Peanuts specials. And by the way, even though "Linus and Lucy" is by far the most ubiquitous of the Guaraldi Peanuts compositions, in my opinion there are even better tunes in that body of works. For example: "Skating," "Oh Good Grief," and "Pebble Beach." The Peanuts music has been extensively committed to CD, not only in Guaraldi's versions but in newer ones by my favorite artist, David Benoit. (Though it's generally best to hear them as Guaraldi did them.) You really ought to look up these discs and listen for yourself.

There was other jazz-influenced stuff on TV too. Does anyone remember a series called Mannix, starring Mike Connors? Does anyone remember its breathtaking theme song? Mannix was a rather common-denominator private-eye show, but its theme is perhaps the finest work of Mission Impossible composer Lalo Schifrin. Mannix opened every week with a rough-and-tumble-sounding jazz waltz! No, really, the theme was a waltz! You could actually listen and count the beats: one-two-three, one-two-three... And it was great! I never cared a damn for the show; only watched it a couple of times in fact. But I would tune in just to hear that song!

I also loved Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good," which was a big hit on the radio when I was in school. It was one of the last jazz compositions to make the Top 40. But I just never did the math about it. Somehow it never occurred to me that I was a jazz fan. I spent years both loving it and ignoring it. And then came my senior year of high school.

In Albany we had a radio station, WQBK-FM, that in those days held the format that people my age remember as Album Rock. This was popular music for adventurous listeners. They'd play all the most popular artists, and all the classic rock artists--but they wouldn't confine it to just the hits. They'd play the tracks of the albums that you'd otherwise hear only if you bought the albums. And at 10 PM every weekday evening, they'd play one album in its entirety. WQBK-FM was an acquired taste for me. A lot of my classmates used to listen to it, and they'd come into school all wired over the punk rock and new-wave stuff that the station was playing, which I thought was all about drugs and violence and anti-social tendencies and bad clothing and horrific hairstyles (and it pretty much was), and it totaly turned me off. It took a bored Saturday afternoon to make me curious enough to tune in to the station and risk exposure to all the "riff-raff" music that my classmates were loving. And it was on that Saturday afternoon that my musical enlightenment began. For that was the day I first met...Spyro Gyra.

Jazz purists right now are wrinkling their noses in distaste at the mention of Spyro Gyra, the vanguard of that musical genre called "Smooth Jazz" which is driven by melody rather than improvisation. I understand that. They and I should compare notes on jazz purism and Marvel Comics purism; I'll bet we have some of the same sentiments in common. But what I hadn't reckoned with was that our Album Rock station sprinkled its format with jazz. In fact, they had a dedicated jazz program every Sunday night. All I knew is that on that Saturday afternoon when tedium and curiosity got the better of me and drove me to the station full of weirdly eclectic and bizarre music that my classmates liked, one song stood out in my head: The title track of one of smooth jazz's greatest hit albums, Spyro Gyra's Morning Dance. I thought that I had never heard anything so beautiful in my life. And little did I suspect that afternoon that "Morning Dance" was just a sliver of the musical beauty that Spyro Gyra had to offer. Well, "Morning Dance" made me a fan of WQBK-FM and Album Rock stations in general (which really turned out to be far more interesting than anything else on commercial radio--it wasn't just punk rock, new wave, and weirdness, and some of it was really fun) until the format sadly became extinct. (I still miss it.) And it also sent me on an excursion to a section of the record store where I had never been before. Unable to find Morning Dance anywhere else in the store, I stepped for the first time into...the jazz section! Once there, I never looked back.

Making friends with Spyro Gyra also introduced me to Bob James (whose work I already knew from the TV series Taxi), The Manhattan Transfer, Larry Carlton, and a host of other new musical friends. WQBK turned me on to Michael Franks (I first heard "Popsicle Toes" when my brother Mike sang it, and I thought it was a joke--I really should have been paying better attention to the music Mike listened to; I could have learned a lot) and Al Jarreau and Dan Siegel and Dave Grusin and David Benoit and Steps Ahead and Pat Metheny and Weather Report ("Birdland"--the anthem of jazz!), and gave me an identity that I'd never had as a music listener. I finally understood what it was that I liked. It was my musical "coming out".

After the demise of what had been WQBK, Albany got its first smooth jazz station. It was the first of two; they both died sudden and unexpected deaths, switched to other formats during the night, much to the ire of their devoted listeners like me who awoke the next morning to unwanted music. For some reason, the Albany market has been unable to keep a jazz station; there has been no other to replace the ones we lost. But that's another story for another Blog. But I remain, now as then, a devotee of the music that one magazine calls "Art for the Ears".

Well, as for A Day Like This by New York Voices: I got it for "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" and found myself showered with track after track of musical loveliness. Another standout is their rendition of the old Fifth Dimension tune "Stoned Soul Picnic." The scatting chorus at the end of "The World Keeps You Waiting" is worth waiting for. "As We Live And Breathe" will take your breath away. "Chamego (Betty's Bossa)," done entirely in scat, is the boss. "Noticing the Moment" is another bit of musical inspiration. "A Day Like This" is beautiful, and "Jackie" is pure fun. This disc is one of the finest collections of music I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. If this group is going to keep doing work like this, one day The Manhattan Transfer is going to be "the group that sounds like New York Voices." Give it a listen. Your ears and your spirit will thank you.

1 comment:

  1. If you want, I'll explain how to get the picture actually in the midst of the text.

    Some Catholic bishops actually LIKE Golden Compass.

    I have THAT New York Voices album Hearts of Fire, my only one, and listened to Spyro Gyra as a result of Q-104, though not so muchh now (I have some on vinyl).