The Dark Knight Rises But Falls Short of Greatness

Batman vs. Bane: whose voice is harder to understand?

Some spoiler-free thoughts about The Dark Knight Rises

1.  It makes me want to watch The Dark Knight again.
2.  Christopher Nolan makes some long-ass movies.
3.  It ties up Nolan’s Batman trilogy in a big bow.
4.  Epic length does not make an epic movie.
5.  It’s no Avengers.

It was awfully generous of Christian Bale as the hero to defer to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as The Joker in the last movie.  He’s not as charitable with Tom Hardy’s Bane.  It’s unfair to compare Bane with The Joker, but I will anyway.  The Joker’s plan (and lack of one) in The Dark Knight makes far more sense than Bane’s scheme, which makes no damn sense.

This was a superhero summer what with the The Avengers which finished off what five previous Marvel movies began, the “ready or not and like it or not, we’re rebooting The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises.

I’m just like Catwoman, but don’t call me Catwoman.

Now I’m out super-heroed OUT.  I am not looking forward with breathless anticipation for Iron Man 3,  Thor 2,   Captain America 2 and I definitely do not even a little bit about Man of Steel because Superman sucks ass.   Zack Snyder shot his creative wad with Dawn of the Dead.  Everything after that?  300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch have their fans, but include me out.  I’ve had quite enough of CGI and bombast, thank you.  Now I’d like something simple like Beasts of the Southern Wild, thank you very much.

Good things about The Dark Knight Rises:  Christian Bale suffers well.  Anne Hardaway and Marion Cotilliard are major assets as much as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Katie Holmes were major whiffs.  Gary Oldman is the underrated link between all three pictures.   The big set pieces (and the third act is nothing but big set pieces) work great.  Nolan is on top of his game here.   The movie is ambitious and it delivers on most of its ambitions.

Bad things about The Dark Knight Rises:  Tom Hardy had the thankless task of following Ledger’s performance and while he bulked up physically to play Bane, he can’t make him an interesting character or foe.   Hans Zimmer’s score got on my nerves.   Nolan still hasn’t figured out how to choreograph a convincing fight scenes.  Almost all the “surprises” aren’t surprising at all.   There are too many scenes that “tell” instead of “show” and raise questions of “Wait…how did that happen?”   There is just too much going on in a movie that goes on too long at two hours and 45 minutes.

I have some problems with The Dark Knight Rises.  I liked it, but I don’t love it.  It’s better than Batman Begins but it can’t touch The Dark Knight (no shock there).   It’s deep, but it’s not much fun.   Batman inhabits a much different (and uglier) world than The Avengers.   Nolan doesn’t play scenes for laughs the way Joss Whedon does.   This is a movie with far more serious things on its mind than alien invasions and scheming demi-gods getting their ass kicked by green-skinned gamma monsters.

 Gotham City is a bleak, grim and unhappy place and its hero is every bit as bleak, grim and unhappy and I don’t think Nolan gives a crap if his movie is more “entertaining” or not.  He’s a serious man making a serious movie.   This is a hero who wants to feared, not cheered.  He prefers to suffer the hatred and suspicion of those he’s sworn to protect.  Batman wouldn’t know what to do with crowds cheering him for saving the day.  Nolan has elevated what a comic book movie can be.  Under his vision of Batman he has shown how you can take an utterly ridiculous concept and make audiences not only lose themselves in the world of the Dark Knight, but not even question its probability.

Nolan avoided doing a Spider-Man 3 and making a jumbled movie with tons of money and no coherent story.   The Dark Knight Rises is a labor of love and it shows.   But not all those labors work successfully and that shows as well.

Mitt Blows It In Britain

“I went to Britain and all I got was this stupid mask.”

Four years ago, a first-term U.S. Senator and presidential candidate made a curious decision. He left the campaign trail to travel overseas on a tour of five countries. The senator had taken much heat from the press and his opponent as lacking in foreign policy experience. The trip was designed to burnish the candidate’s credentials, but it also established Barack Obama was not simply a rising star in America, but around the world as well.

Obama traveled to the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq and Europe and solidified his rock star persona with a stop in Germany where he spoke to over 100,000 in Berlin. A German diplomat said of Obama’s popularity in Germany, “They see him as a black JFK. Expectations are so high they would not be surprised to learn that he walked across the Atlantic rather than flew,” he said.

I wonder if playing “follow the leader” was on Mitt Romney’s mind when he decided to pull a Obama and go overseas to Great Britain, Poland and Israel. As a one-term governor, Romney’s foreign policy resume is even skimpier than Obama’s in ’08. For Obama, going overseas only enhanced his larger-than-life persona. There’s no way Mittens was expecting thousands to turn out to hear him speak, but if he could grab some headlines and get a few good photo ops with world leaders that would impress the folks back home by appearing presidential.

Yeah…not so much.

Here’s the thing about Romney. He’s fine, if wooden as hell, when he’s on script. But when he’s off-script he’s terrible. As a man far more comfortable around money and privilege than people, Mitt is prone to do and say dumb shit when he hasn’t been prepped sufficiently and he must have snoozed through the briefings for this trip because the moment he landed in Britain he promptly started tripping over his own tongue.

In little more than 24 hours in London, the U.S. presidential candidate has gotten Britons to stop complaining about bumper-to-bumper traffic, cringing about cost overruns and fretting about shoddy security — and instead start taking pride in their country’s long-awaited day in the sun.

From Prime Minister David Cameron to ordinary Londoners rushing to work, Britons recoiled at the visiting American’s suggestion that the logistical problems encountered so far were “disconcerting.” Many who have themselves been slamming organizers as incompetent, and the massive competition as an expensive fiasco, are suddenly rallying around the flag.

“Mitt the Twit” screamed Friday’s headline in The Sun, which just days ago was trumpeting an embarrassing incident in which an official bus carrying the U.S. team from Heathrow airport got lost and spent hours in traffic.

“Who invited party-pooper Romney?” asked the Daily Mail.

“Nowhere Man” declared the more reserved Times of London, a reference to a biting comment by the famously diplomatic Cameron, who implied that Romney lacked the experience to offer advice to one of the world’s great capitals since the Olympics he helped organize in Salt Lake City, Utah, took place “in the middle of nowhere.”

“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” Cameron said.

Colorful London Mayor Boris Johnson also got in on the act, using Romney’s criticism as a rallying cry to stoke up a crowd of tens of thousands gathered at Hyde Park on Thursday night: “There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we are ready. Are we ready? Yes, we are!”

It’s incredibly bad form to go to another country and immediately start insulting your hosts. It’s no surprise Mitt elicits yawns of indifference than screams of excitement.  Mitt trying to jock ride Obama’s smooth move of 2008 is like following up Prince with Pat Boone. It’s just not going to get anybody all hot and bothered.  He wanted to make himself look like the candidate from central casting, but he just came off as a dumb dick.

Even before Team Romney invaded the Motherland, despite his declaration not to criticize the president while on foreign soil (a major political faux pas), an anonymous adviser told a London newspaper, “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.

How can you read that as anything but a White president in the White House will renew ties with White Anglo-Saxons? Romney disavowed his own unnamed adviser saying “I don’t agree with whoever that adviser is.” Way to go, Mitt! Let everybody know who’s calling the shots in this campaign. Whoever that might be.

Before jetting off to Merry Ole England, Romney was enjoying watching Obama put on the defensive over the misquoting of the president’s “you didn’t build that” remark. The White House began to push back against that non-issue and Romney handed them a gift by making an asshole of himself in front of the Brits and exposing himself as a not-ready-for-prime-time-rookie.

When Mitt gets to Poland  and Israel, for his own sake he’d better skip the jokes about circular firing squads and proclaiming  “Damn, there’s a lot of Jews here!” or he’d better be wearing his magic underwear.    This could end up right, but damn has it started off WRONG.

“Hey Mitt, this is how to see Europe.”

Steve Smith and Vital Information: Giving the Drummer Some (Respect, that is)

“Journey? Do we LOOK like Journey?”

Even now, the two questions probably most asked of Steve Smith go something like, “Hey, are you the Steve Smith who played drums in Journey?” and “What’s Steve Perry like?”

This is clearly unfair to Smith, who spent ten years in Journey but 30 years in his own band, Vital Information, and One Great Night is a live CD/DVD celebration of its high energy, fusion infused performance. .

Yes, this is the same Steve Smith and while pounding the drum kit behind the hairy likes of Perry may have been Smith’s most high-profile gig, he has some serious jazz chops that includes stints with violinist Jean Luc-Ponty, bassist Stanley Clarke, pianist Hiromi, Steps Ahead and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Some of Smith’s finest recorded moments are on Luc-Ponty’s jazz-fusion masterpiece Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1977). Smith once auditioned for trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose and was offered a place in both bands. He opted to join Montrose, the opening act for Journey before it tabbed him as its drummer.

Smith’s approach to the drums incorporates breath-taking speed, raw power and impressive precision. He won Modern Drummer magazine’s Number One All-Around Drummer award four consecutive years and has been named as among the magazine’s Top 25 Drummers of All Time, so there’s little doubt this is a serious man with serious chops.

So why does it seem that when it comes time to name the best rhythmatists in the biz, Smith is overlooked? Is it because Vital Information is unapologetically a jazz fusion group and those are dirty words to purists? Is it it his rock and roll past? Is it those kinda, sorta, terrible Journey music videos?

All will be forgiven once One Great Night cues up and “Cat Walk” kicks in as Smith and his Vital Information band mates tear through over an hour’s worth of high-energy and innovative playing. The other information specialists, bassist Baron Browne, guitarist Vinnie Valentino and keyboardist Tom Coster are in perfect sync with Smith’s “lead drums.”

Sharp-eyed readers of album liner notes will puzzle over Smith and Valentino being credited as playing “konnakol.” If that’s an unfamiliar instrument that’s because it’s not an instrument at all. Konnakol is the South Indian art of performing percussion syllables vocally. Fans of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s Shakti project may be familiar with konnakol. To the untrained ear it might sound almost like scat-singing. “Interwoven Rhythms: Synchronous” and “Interwoven Rhythms: Dialogue” feature Smith and Valentino demonstrating their konnakol skills.

Fusion is notable for being propulsive and dynamic and as Smith’s drums are pushed to the front this occasionally pushes the other instruments to the background. This occasionally leads to a minimizing of Coster’s formidable keyboard skills. Browne and Valentino make fine contributions, though they seem be along for the ride. It isn’t that Smith doesn’t play well with others, but that playing with him is a like with having Lebron James on your side for a pick-up game of basketball: he’s so good at what he does even his teammates stand around watching him.

One oddity about One Great Night. For a live album the audience doesn’t seem all that lively. Perhaps that’s a result of a faulty sound mix or maybe the people were simply stunned by the virtuosity of Vital Information. Whether it’s listened to or viewed, One Great Night is absolute proof of how dominant a drummer Smith truly is. Maybe it’s time now to stop asking him what Steve Perry is like?
Tracks: Cat Walk; Time Tunnel; Interwoven Rhythms: Synchronous; Seven and a Half; Khanda West; The Trouble With; Interwoven Rhythms: Dialogue; The Closer: Jimmy Jive.

Personnel: Vinny Valentino: guitar, konnakol, voice; Baron Browne: bass; Steve Smith: drums, konnakol; Tom Coster: keyboards.

This review originally published at All About Jazz

Living and Dying In the Country of the Gun

This is the face of insanity. The insane love of guns.

A friend wrote on Facebook: My thoughts on the shooting in Aurora, Colorado: For the most part, we seem to be a nation of broken people who are lost in our things, our success, our technology, our pain, our isolation, our wants.

Senseless acts such as these are committed by broken, lonely, angry people, who desperately want attention. The shooting last night in a public movie theater was no doubt committed by a young man with serious mental health issues. That is where our focus and analysis needs to be. Not on new gun laws or on taking arms from the people. The time has come for us to STOP making excuses for people like this–people like the ARMY Major in Texas that killed his fellow soldiers in a rant. Or the many other incidences where we see a lone gunman “go off” and kill innocent people. These people were time bombs, just waiting to go off.

While I concur with my friend’s sympathies, I’m not as quick as she is to play the 2nd Amendment card. The problem is not just crazy people getting their hands on guns. It’s also that organizations like the NRA make it easy for crazy people to get a gun.

Take away James Holmes’ weapon and substitute it with a knife. The body count goes down, not up. The connecting cord between Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Gabrielle Giffords shootings and the daily slaughter on the streets of Chicago and other urban areas is the GUN.

I don’t want to ban guns. Far from it. People have a right to protect themselves, but I’m waiting for the first yahoo to say, “Well, if only someone was legally carrying a gun they could have returned fire.” In a darkened, crowded theater with families? Please! They would need dump trucks to haul away all the bodies caught in the middle of a fire fight.

In the wake of the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 dead and 58 wounded, there will be investigations into how it happened, discussions about the mentally ill, and conversations on how to stop a future James Holmes from carrying out a similar deadly attack (we can’t).

We will have all kinds of conversations about what happened in Aurora.  All except the conversation we need to have.  The one about the all-too-easy access to guns and why nothing will be done about it.

The battle over gun control is over and gun control lost.  The NRA won.   President Obama won’t take on the gun lobby.   Mitt Romney won’t take on the gun lobby.  A few in Congress will introduce legislation and maybe even hold hearings into placing limits on guns, but nothing will come of it.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said,   “In this case he had a hundred rounds,” she said of James Holmes, the lone suspect in the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting. “He didn’t have to stop to reload. There was no chance for people to try to overpower him or to escape and I don’t believe that these military-type weapons and these magazines should be out on the streets of America.”

All talk, but no action.

“There is no reason why you have 100 rounds of ammunition. That is just an assault weapon killing machine and I personally believe these magazines should be banned. They serve no purpose, but to kill people, so why in the world are we allowing this,” Maloney added.

But Romney predictably said there is no need for new laws and reaffirmed his belief in the Second Amendment (as if anyone doubted it).

“I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment and I also believe that this is — with emotions so high right now, this is really not a time to be talking about the politics associated with what happened in Aurora,” Romney said, “This is really a time, I think, for people to reach out to others in their community that need help or a comforting hand. Let’s do that for now and then we can get on to policy down the road.”

Ah yes.  The predictable “this is really not the time” to have meaningful discussions on issues that actually mean something.   Romney doesn’t want to talk about the politics behind the free-flowing access to guns and ammunition.   So what if Holmes had stockpiled 6,000 rounds of ammo and booby-trapped his apartment into an IED with wall-to-wall carpeting?   Let’s talk about something else.  Anything else but some psychopath armed to the teeth on a mission of mass murder.

Not that Obama is any better.  In some ways he’s worse.  White House press secretary Jay Carney says the president is committed to preventing gun crimes with “existing laws.”

Existing laws?  There was an existing law that banned the AR-15 assault weapon Holmes used to kill innocent moviegoers but it was repealed in 2004.    A surly New York Daily News editorial railed against the men who would be president and their weak-kneed empty platitudes to the dead and wounded while offering no new attempt to limit the unfettered access to guns.

The police chief in Aurora, Colo., said he is confident that massacre gunman James Holmes acted alone. The police chief was dead wrong.

Standing at Holmes’ side as he unleashed an AR-15 assault rifle and a shotgun and a handgun was Wayne LaPierre, political enforcer of the National Rifle Association.

Standing at Holmes’ side as he sprayed bullets and buckshot into a crowded movie theater were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a President and a would-be President, who have bowed to the NRA’s dictates and who responded to the slaughter Friday with revolting, useless treacle.

 Standing at Holmes’ side as he murdered 12 and wounded 59 were the millions of zealots who would sooner see blood flow and lives end than have to check a box on a gun registration form.

In a vain claim of innocence, the fanatics will say Holmes is a monster and a maniac, that he fired and fired and fired as a man possessed. Each protestation clamps their fingers with his around the trigger.

Because they made sure that virtually everyone, Holmes included, has unfettered legal access to heavy weaponry. And they made sure he was permitted by law to drive to the kill scene with a fully loaded arsenal.

Such is the conscienceless extremism of America’s gun lovers that they accept wholesale slaughter as akin to a fatal highway pileup. Accidents happen, in their grotesque view, and so do mass killings by firearms.

There will be no profiles in courage from the president or his challenger.  The race is too close and the stakes too high for Obama or Romney to risk it.  The NRA is too formidable an opponent for Obama to take on.  A handful of states will decide the winner of the presidency and Romney pledging anything less than total loyalty to gun rights or Obama coming on too strong against the millions of weapons already in the hands of law-abiding citizens is enough to tip a blue state into the red.

Damn sorry about your loss, but don’t expect me to DO anything..

There will be no debate.  The matter is closed.  With the exception of a few editorial boards and irrelevant blogs such as this one, the anguished cries and the pitiful screams of the dead and wounded in Aurora will go unheeded.   Human life is precious, but in America, the gun is sacred.  Neither Obama nor Romney will be heretics.

We will hear there is no way to predict or deter madmen like Holmes.   It might be helpful if there were some system in place to monitor the stockpiling of deadly arsenals by disturbed people, but means talking about privacy rights, unwanted and massive governmental intrusion, gun confiscation and the forcible treatment of the mentally ill, just to name a few hot buttons that would be pushed.

The United States of America is the most heavily armed country on the planet with 90 guns for every 100 citizens. A free society that cannot protect children from being shot down in a movie theater isn’t free at all. It’s lost its damn mind with its crazed lust for weapons. The bigger the firepower the bigger the body count. Nobody needs 6,000 rounds of ammunition. NOBODY.

James Holmes killed and wounded 70 people in less than four minutes. Constitutional rights don’t mean a damn thing if you’re too dead to enjoy them.

Senseless acts of violence may not be preventable, but allowing bloodthirsty psychopaths free and unfettered access to guns, ammo, and explosives is preventable.

The flip side of freedom and law and order is anarchy and chaos.  And madness.   This is a gun-crazy country and we are so crazy about our guns if a 6-year-old girl is shot down by a madman, that is an acceptable loss.

America has a love affair with the gun and that love is literally killing us. We need to break up.

No Regrets, No Remorse and No Reason to Believe

“Hi, I’m George. I like shooting Black kids and saying I’m sorry, but not really. Send money.”

Previously, I have expressed my belief that George Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara was a pretty smart guy.   That said, this week he made some curious calls and in the process may have handed the prosecution an unintended gift.

Zimmerman sat down for an interview with Fox News and noted booster, Sean Hannity.   Between swatting away the easy softballs Hannity pitched him, Zimmerman issued yet another insincere apology, but said he wouldn’t have done anything differently and that it was “God’s plan” that he gunned down Trayvon Martin.

With a straight face, Zimmerman told the sympathetic Hannity, “I’m not a racist or a murderer.”    Which makes him both a liar and a sociopath.

George tried to play “let’s make a deal” with Barbara Walters in exchange for an interview. She turned his sorry ass down.

Barbara Walters walked away from an interview with Trayvon Martin shooter George Zimmerman after the former neighborhood watchman demanded at the last minute that, in return for the chat, ABC put him and his wife up in a hotel for a month, a source told Page Six.

Walters flew down to Florida early yesterday and met with Zimmerman and his lawyer to discuss the possibility of a lengthy TV sitdown. Her interview would have taken place after he was done talking with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, a situation that already made the newswoman leery, we’re told, as she prefers to land exclusives. But we’re told that Walters was “appalled” by Zimmerman’s hotel demand, and told him the deal was off.

Even the ladies of “The View” didn’t want any part of Zimmerman’s image rehabilitation.

An ABC News spokesman confirmed that Walters met with Zimmerman, but refused to confirm what he asked for.

“She went down there with every intention of doing an interview, but Mr. Zimmerman made a demand at the last minute that we could not and would never agree to,” the rep said.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Zimmerman and his attorney called into The View to ask Walters to reconsider doing the interview.

That went over like a big, smelly fart.

“Mr. Zimmerman, if you could not do the interview yesterday, I don’t think we should do a quick one today. In the future if you feel differently, we will consider it.” Walters sniffed.

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin (remember him?) responded to Zimmerman saying it was “God’s will” that he kill her son.

“I really think that’s ridiculous,’’ Martin’s mother, told TODAY’s Matt Lauer. “I wish Trayvon was here to tell his side of the story. I don’t believe that it’s God’s plan for him to kill an innocent teenager.’’

If Zimmerman’s attorneys claim he can’t receive a fair trial in Sanford, Florida it will be in part because they did their best to create an atmosphere of bias.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano doesn’t think Zimmerman did himself any favors by consenting to the television interview.

While Napolitano found Hannity’s questions to be “superb,” he ultimately thought it was a bad idea on the part of Zimmerman’s lawyer to allow his client to do an interview regarding the case.

The Judge specifically pointed to a portion of the interview when Zimmerman and Hannity discussed whether Martin had been “running,” as Zimmerman had originally stated, or whether he was “skipping” or simply walking quickly. The speculation over whether the young man was “running or walking or skipping provides a field day for the prosecutors to explore,” said Napolitano. What essentially happened, he said, is that Zimmerman took the witness stand with Hannity acting as cross-examiner.

Host Gretchen Carlson asked whether comments from the interview — specifically Zimmerman telling Hannity that the events of that night were “God’s plan” and that he has “no regrets” — will factor into the case. Napolitano thought they could very well be used as statements in court.

The killer and his mouthpiece are ready for their close-up.

When exactly did it become a good idea for lawyers to allow their clients to go on national television and speak publicly about their cases and what their state of mind was and is?

I don’t want to read Word One from anybody wringing their hands over pre-trial publicity making it impossible for Zimmerman to receive a fair trial. Not a word. If this dickhead wants to go on Fox News to tell his bald-faced lies that’s his prerogative, but I hope the prosecution finds something in his carefully prepared statements that ends up hanging him by his balls.

Seems to me Jerry Sandusky‘s attorney made the decision to have his client talk to the press and we see how well that worked out. Dare I hope Zimmerman lives to regret his little sit down for the folks tuning in at home?

A truly innocent man doesn’t try to game the system and work the refs. A truly innocent man doesn’t tell the parents of a murdered child he’s “sorry”, but claim he has “no regrets.”

A truly innocent man doesn’t try to secure a hotel room from a television network. A truly innocent man doesn’t claim it is the will of God that he shot and killed an unarmed teenager who was trying to find his way home in the rain and the dark.

A truly innocent man has remorse. A truly innocent man has regrets.

Reports from the FBI’s investigation into the shooting were revealed last week.  People who know Zimmerman say he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.   But it’s the thoughts in his head, not the bones in his body that lead him to kill an unarmed kid.  The same ones who say Zimmerman isn’t racist against Blacks probably never dreamed he’d kill one either.

George Zimmerman isn’t innocent. He never was. He can give all the interviews he wants to as many friendly non-journalists like Hannity. It won’t change the facts of the case that he killed Martin based upon racially profiling him.

Keep digging your own grave, George. Keep digging…

It’s all so vulgar.

Santana Shape Shifts Back To Relevance

Have guitar, will play sideman for pop stars.

The sticker plastered to Shape Shifter proclaims this is the Santana album 20 years in the making. Actually, it’s the first album in 13 years where the guitarist doesn’t just seem like a sideman on his own records. Nobody was more deserving of a career-reviving success story than Mexican-born Santana who was rewarded after years of falling sales and critical disinterest by the nobody-saw-it-coming success of Supernatural (Arista, 1998) which sold a whopping 15 million copies and won 11 Grammys.

Unfortunately, Santana would spend the most of the next two decades chasing further Supernatural sales, by following Arista Records executive Clive Davis’ formula of pairing the 64-year-old guitarist with younger, of-the-moment chart-toppers, no matter how ill-matched the pairing, reducing the band to token appearances or sidelined completely. All the while, Santana insisted in interviews how much he loved jazz and the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, whom he toured with in 1988.

After Guitar Heaven (Arista, 2010) failed to reach gold record sales, Santana has now rewarded the patience of the faithful fan with an honest-to-goodness Santana album. Shape Shifter is an album of instrumentals played by his regular band with Carlos’ son, Salvador playing piano.

Shape Shifter is infused with an energy and furious guitar solos and Carlos sounds like he’s having a lot of fun, but it is not jazz. For all his professed love of the genre, Santana isn’t a jazz guitarist. What he is is a rock guitarist who plays on jazz albums, as he did when he stepped in for Shorter on This Is This (Columbia, 1985) the last Weather Report record.

A few of the songs on Shape Shifter are little more than loose jams. “Dom” begins nicely with Chester Thompson‘s keyboards, but doesn’t build, instead just meanders to its conclusion. “Metatron” is an introduction for a song that seems incomplete.

“Never the Same Again” is more successful, as Carlos opens with a nylon-string acoustic guitar intro before switching over to electric for a gliding solo. The album is pretty, but most of the songs are built around Santana’s guitar and Thompson’s keyboards. Percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo aren’t given much to do until “Macumba In Budapest,” which is a quintessential Santana jam. “Mr. Szabo” is a nod of Carlos’ hat to Gabor Szabo, while the lone vocal track, “Eres La Luz” gives Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay an opportunity to strut their stuff.

Shape Shifter may not be a full-fledged return to the classic Santana sound, but it is the first recording in over a decade that harkens back to the band’s glory days and is a welcome respite from Santana “the pop star.”   This isn’t a full-fledged return to rock royalty, but damn, it’s nice to have a genuine Santana album after a decade’s worth of increasingly worthless music.

Track Listing: Shape Shifter; Dom; Nomad; Metatron; Angelica Faith; Never the Same Again; In the Light of A New Day; Spark of the Divine; Macumba in Budapest; Mr. Szabo; Eres La Luz; Canela; Ah, Sweet Dancer.

Personnel: Carlos Santana: guitars; Chester Thompson: keyboards; Benny Rietveld: bass; Dennis Chambers: drums; Raul Rekow: percussion; Karl Perazzo: percussion; Andy Vargas: vocals; Tony Lindsay: vocals; Salvador Santana: piano (7, 12, 13).

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz

Donny Hathaway: If Not the Best, He’s In the Conversation.

A brilliant artist waiting for his renaissance.

Have you ever woke up in a mood where you knew before the day was done you had to hear a particular singer and no substitutes would do?

I woke up today wanting to hear some Donny Hathaway.

Donny Hathaway is perhaps one of the greatest singers most people know nothing about. He ranks right up there with his contemporaries of the time, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and even Stevie Wonder, but due to his short recording career and tragic death, he has been largely ignored and undiscovered by the public.

If they’re cruising down the radio dial, maybe they’ll stumble past “The Closer I Get To You” or “Where Is the Love,” two of his duets with Roberta Flack. During the holidays they may even be strolling through one of the hipper malls and Hathaway’s classic, “This Christmas” is being piped through the sound system.   They may even know Donny’s daughter, Lalah Hathaway has enjoyed some success as a vocalist.    Unfortunately,  for far too many that’s where their knowledge of Hathaway ends.

When my father brought Everything Is Everything home and started playing it, Hathaway’s voice grabbed me first and then how brilliantly a song like “The Ghetto” took me along with him on a trip through some pretty mean streets.   “The Ghetto” should be the flip side of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”  Both capture the frustrations and to a lesser extent, the pleasures of life on the edges of polite society.

Hathaway was both blessed and cursed. Blessed with a rich and expressive voice that poured out deep, heartfelt, soulful sentiments that could deliver soul, blues or gospel. Hathaway was a gifted songwriter and pianist as well. The curse was he suffered from depression and debilitating mental illness that required hospitalization. This is in part why Hathaway’s discography is limited to three studio albums and a pair of live recordings. The best starting point for anyone curious about this immensely talented, but troubled artist is the 1990 compilation, A Donny Hathaway Collection from Atlantic Records.

I have serious problems with this compilation, but it’s a good enough starting point before diving into Hathaway’s solo recordings. I agree with All Music Guide that Everything Is Everything and Extensions of A Man are his best work. The go-to place for his duets with Roberta Flack is The Very Best of Roberta Flack,  but  after 22 years, Hathaway is long overdue for a better anthology of his music.   There is a four-disc import from France, Someday We’ll Be Free, that is pretty exhaustive, but is still missing the music from his collaboration with Quincy Jones for the movie soundtrack, Come Back, Charleston Blue.    It’s probably as good as it gets for the committed collector like me, but it’s far too much for the casual listener.    Time for someone at Atlantic to step up their game and put together a better introduction to the greatness of Donny Hathaway.

Where is the love? Right here with Roberta and Donny.

In 1979, Hathaway either fell or jumped to his death from a hotel room in New York. He was in the process of recording a new album with Flack. The two completed songs ended up on her 1980 record, Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway. He was 33 years old.   That’s a lot of potential lost far too early.

Mental illness has destroyed its share of troubled souls in music.  Hathaway and the late Phyllis Hyman, who ended her life at 45 with a drug overdose.   Talent and acclaim were not enough to pull them out of their downward spiral.   The same could be said for the late Amy Winehouse, who gave Hathaway a shout out in her breakthrough hit, “Rehab.”

They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no
Yes I’ve been black and when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
Just try to make me go to rehab I won’t go, go, go

I’d rather be at home with Ray
I ain’t got seventy days
Cos there’s nothing,there’s nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Mr Hathaway

All lists are by nature, purely subjective and subject to be rejected by the reader, but Rolling Stone ranked Hathaway at #49 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers.   I can’t argue too strenosuly when I’m glad Hathaway was remembered at all.   The rock n’ roll magazine said of Hathaway,  Donny Hathaway died in 1979, but his warm, suave soul has never been more influential. He’s been name-checked in songs by Amy Winehouse, Nas, Common and Fall Out Boy (the new “What a Catch, Donnie”), and Justin Timberlake calls “(Another Song) All Over Again,” from FutureSex/LoveSounds, “my homage to Donny Hathaway.” It’s easy to hear why Hathaway still appeals to modern-pop and neo-soul singers alike. He was equally comfortable with smooth ballads (“The Closer I Get to You”) and rolling funk (“The Ghetto”). He was a master of melisma (while never overdoing it), and his smoky voice wrapped superbly around his female duet partners, most notably Roberta Flack. No wonder Timberlake calls him “the best singer of all time.”

I won’t go as far as Justin Timberlake and declare Donny Hathaway the best singer of all time, but he’s certainly in the conversation of who the best singer is.

Albright and Brown Are Bringing It “24/7”

Two great taste sensations together.

No instruments dominate smooth jazz more than the guitar and saxophone, which is why Gerald Albright and Norman Brown, two of the genre’s most dominant players, make such an inspired pairing. Both musicians are on the top of their game and while 24/7 breaks no new ground, it does provide perfect listening for warm summer nights when a cool groove is required.

Multi-instrumentalist Albright’s array of saxophones and robust tone tends to slightly overshadow Brown’s deft guitar playing at times, but never overwhelms it. Brown recedes a bit from a soloist to sideman, but seems comfortable allowing Albright to do the heavy lifting while he follows his lead.

There’s a definite “back in the day” vibe to 24/7 with ample amounts of funk, soul and a taste of quiet storm to “In the Moment,” “Champagne Life” and the title track which features the striking vocals of the saxophonist’s daughter, Selina Albright.

Above all, Albright and Brown are experts at entertaining the audience. There’s no pretense of anything historical or monumental in 24/7. The duo have secured their place in contemporary jazz and even if they aren’t breaking new ground, they clearly have a synergy that makes this stylish collaboration work so well.

So cool you can turn your air conditioning off.

On a personal note, a few years ago I caught  Norman Brown doing it live at the Columbus Jazz & Rib Fest and Albright last year at the gone and now forgotten Vonn Jazz and Blues Club and he torn the roof off the sucka.     They are doing some gigs together to promote their collaboration, and it’s just too bad they are playing at Jazz and Rib Festival this year.    The weak line-up of acts isn’t giving me much reason to grab some lawn chairs and a cooler and venture out into the summer heat.

Guess I’ll just stay home and turn up 24/7 in the comfort of my home.  Spare myself of paying for parking, fighting for a good spot to hear the show or not having enough wet-napkins to wipe the barbecue sauce off my fingers.

Track Listing: In the Moment; Keep It Moving; Perfect Love; Buenos Amigos; Tomorrow; Yes I Can; 24/7; Champagne Life; The Best Is Yet to Come; Power of Your Smile

Personnel: Gerald Albright: alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, flutes, bass guitar, percussion, programming; electronic wind instrument; background vocals; Norman Brown: lead guitar, rhythm gutiar; Tracy Carter: keyboards (1, 7, 8, 10); Rick Watford: rhythm guitar (1, 4, 8); Jay Williams: drums (1, 4, 7, 8); Herman Jackson: keyboards (2, 3, 5. 6, 9): Byron Miller: bass (2, 3, 5, 6, 9); Charles Steeter: drums (2, 3, 5, 6, 9) ; Ramon Ysalas: percussion (2, 5, 6, 9); Rochella Brown: vocals (3); Demille Cole-Heard: vocals (3); Phil Davis: keyboards (4); Selina Albright: vocals (7, 8) ; Ricky Lawson: drums (10); Mark Cagill: strings, harp and bell programming (10)

Originally published at All About Jazz.