Quick Hits (November 2006)

Here’s volume 2 of the smash hit inaugurated last month. I’m mixing it up a bit more this time, with comics, books, and movies to go along with the music. This one’s a Chicago edition. Enjoy.

Jazz Record Mart (444 N. Wabash, Chicago, Illinois): I spent too much here, because I knew I’d never find half of the CDs I was looking for again without online assistance. So cool that it even had large separate sections for pre-WWII jazz, performance DVDs, and Cuban jazz, it’s ground zero for Chicago jazz aficionados. I took my list of wanted CDs, expecting to find a third of them—JRM had them all. Every one. I had to pick and choose which Masada CD to pick up (see below), which has never happened to me before. Plus, one clerk knew who Maria Schneider was, and the other was a cutie who played trumpet in an avant-garde ensemble. A+

Billy Goat Tavern (430 N. Michigan, Chicago, Illinois): It’s below street level, and I had to ask someone to point out where it was. I descended into an aroma of stale beer and piss. Once you get past the staircase, though, there’s a clean, unshowy structure that looks sunken into the wall. The tavern’s menu is unpretentious in the extreme, but it’s got super-cheap cheeseburgers—ahem, cheezborgers—and $2 Miller Lite. Billy Goat’s is nestled between several buildings belonging to the city’s great papers—the Chicago Tribune building, with that glorious mock-medieval façade and archway—is across the street, and the interior is lined with headlines, blown-up articles, and photos of Chicago’s finest journalists. Everyone from Roger Ebert, Mike Royko, Jonathan Rosenbaum (seriously!), and Studs Terkel is represented. The clientele was lively and informed, braying raspberries at Rush Limbaugh as he denounced Michael J. Fox, cheering on Borat in commercials for the movie, and getting all the questions right on Jeopardy!. B+

The Bourgeois Pig (738 W. Fullerton @ N. Halsted): Smack-dab amidst the DePaul University chatterboxes and the hospital workers in scrubs, there’s a droll, woodsy eatery with the best sandwiches I’ve tasted in years (all named after literature or literary figures), with a waitstaff that encourages you to linger and read. Lincoln Park—tree-lined, with brick houses and funky shops and beautiful undergrads—is a great neighborhood for walkers and people watchers, and the Bourgeois Pig is a great symbol of the area. I fit right in. I ate there twice. “The Sun Also Rises”—smoked turkey, melted Swiss cheese, tomato, fresh alfalfa sprouts, red onion (sliced, not chopped), with generous portions of a homemade hummus slathered onto the sourdough bread—is a perfect sandwich. The Grasshopper is a big cup of hot mocha coffee laced with mint and topped with cream. Divine. A

Shortbus (2006), directed by John Cameron Mitchell: The movie’s hardcore sex often funny—three men sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” into each other’s anuses during a romp on the living room floor. It’s nice to see people actually having a good time making love in an American movie, and without gauzy lighting or the harsh glare of amateur porn. But it’s still distracting, never quite becoming normalized because the characters having it are too one-dimensional to draw attention away from the in-your-face action to other parts of their lives. Each character has basically one emotion to work with. Mitchell’s women seem especially styrofoam; one character is even named “Bitch,” which tells you everything. Sook-Yin Lee and Lindsay Beamish, though, each do their best; the uneasy relationship between the two is the best thing in the movie. Like the movie’s cardboard-and-watercolor construction of the Manhattan skyline, the narratives and characters are too cutesy by half. Mitchell tries to connect the soap-opera foibles of his audacious avant-garde commune to post-9/11 malaise, but his dialogue is too corny and his eyes are tinted chartreuse. As a canvas for showing off pop music and fashions, however, Shortbus is a smashing success. And, yes, that’s a backhanded compliment. B-

Comic Art #8 (2006): This issue inaugurates the magazine’s new annual format. That’s sad—that means we’ll see it less frequently. Oodles of gems are here, including Jeet Heer’s piece on how early cartoonists used the Southwest in their work, a long critical profile of satirist Drew Friedman, a detailed history of the development of the speech balloon in comics (more fascinating than it sounds), and a Douglas Wolk essay on Warlock. Best of all, there’s a section on illustrator and avant-garde cartoonist Richard McGuire—an interview, brief essays by Chris Ware and Francoise Mouly, a reprinting of his 1989 comic “Here,” and beautiful full-color reproductions of his New Yorker covers. Comic Art has astonishing production values, good editing sense, and is incredibly informative without sinking into jargon. Its design and strong writing led me to comics I’d never heard of, subjects I was sure I would be bored by, and cartoonists that I longed to know more about. If it came out more than once a year, it would give the Comics Journal a run for its money. A

Masada Birthday Celebration #1: Masada String Trio (2004): Barking mad alto saxophonist. Way-out-there jazz composer. Impresario of New York’s oddball and experimental jazz scene. John Zorn wears a lot of hats, and is justly celebrated for each fit by those who stop ducking for cover long enough to listen to him. In 2003, he held a monthly series of concerts at Tonic, his homebase, in which various combos of his design would play the 100+ tunes he’s written using the Jewish scales over the last decade. He recorded most of the Masada groups’ performances, and released the live performances as albums. It was his 50th birthday party, writ large. Arrogant? Oh, sure. Ballsy? Without a doubt. Great? You bet your life. This concert (4 September 2003) features Mark Feldman on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Greg Cohen on bass, with Zorn conducting. The music sounds like gypsy scores for short films—acoustic, loose, mournful. Feldman and Friedlander bow, pluck, and strum their instruments with wild abandon, soaring and swooping around each other. Cohen’s bass, bouncing along and tightening the reins, would feel right at home in a classic bebop group. “Tahah,” “Sippur,” and “Moshav” are highlights but, then, they all are. It might sound like Russian folk, or like the accompaniment for a great cantor, but most of all it swings. For all the Eastern European baroqueness and gravitas, this is (almost unbelievably) jazz—improvised, sexy, focused, fast, surprising. A+

Malgudi Days (1982) by R.K. Narayan, with a terrific new introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri: 32 marvelous short stories, each short and simple enough to be read over a quick lunch, on the bus, or between stops on the El. (I know; I did all three.) In seven or eight pages, Narayan introduces us to a character, his relationship to others, his predicament, and the resolution. Each story feels like a fully realized vision of the world, even though each is just a quick glimpse into a character’s life, because Narayan chooses just the right glimpse. Narayan’s prose is so concise that, ironically, it’s not easy to cherry-pick quotes out of context. Though his stories share the lucid language and moral drive of fables, he’s not interested in crafting anything with a clear-cut moral, and the only proverbs given are those spoken by his characters—usually right before said proverbs are undercut. For a writer with such clear sentences, his stories are surprisingly ambiguous. A

The Roger Kellaway Trio (1965): Pianist Roger Kellaway shone bright even before he discovered string sections and oddball ensembles. (His cello quartet consists of piano, cello, upright bass, and marimba—its feel is sprightly but a little too ethereal and austere without a proper drummer.) Here, it’s a straight-ahead bebop piano/bass/drums combo. Highlights include the bouncy stride-piano-driven “Organ Morgan” and “One Night Stand,” both written by his wife Patte Hale. Even here, Kellaway’s “Brats” stretches for the avant-garde. Mostly, though, Kellaway proves he’s a popster at heart—his cover of the Beatles’ “I’ll Follow the Sun” is delightfully noodly, and only three of the ten tracks goes over the five-minute mark. The album flies by. B+

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Quick Hits (November 2006)

  1. agi says:

    So actually Bitch is of the band Bitch and Animal (to whom I’ve never actually listened), not an invention of JCM. The credits sequence literally read: “Bitch Bitch.” Also, I generally dig your reviews (and hate to finally drop in to comment on such a petty point!), but I think Shortbus has more going for it than you’re giving it credit for. Alas, the life of a science grad student leaves little time for attempts at critical description of my own…

  2. Wax Banks says:

    I concur w/Agi on Shortbus – as on several other topics – but I’m here to give props to that Masada Strings album: unfuckingbelievable! I bought it when I first discovered Zorn and it remains my favourite of all his music I’ve heard. I like Masada a lot, and the Masada Guitars album alternately more and less (Frisell’s contributions are wild, damn! But the collection gets repetitive), but the strings just boggle my mind, they’re so fleet and groovy. Search for ‘zorn’ on YouTube and you turn up video of the trio with Zorn conducting – I like his style at that. Some great Masada quartet clips too – I didn’t know Douglas looked like such a nerd! You might just die. :)

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