Here Come The Docs (Movies, That Is)

They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! And I ain’t talkin’ about nail salons or Buffalo chicken wings or right-wing crazies.

Documentaries, that’s what I’m here to discuss. Docs are out there by the thousands, old ones and new ones. You can catch them on the small screen on HBO, SHOWTIME, PBS (NOVA and Independent Lens, are two of its documentary series), CBS (60 Minutes), etc., etc. Not to mention the oceans of docs you might peruse via Netflix.

Now, I’ve seen various documentaries on the tube over the last few years, but I’ve watched more on the silver screen than at home. That’s partly because I haven’t been partial to plopping myself in front of the magic box too much. On the other hand, my cinema attendance always has been robust. Another reason, the more important of the two, is that, starting in the early aughts, many documentaries have found their way into theaters around much of the globe. That’s very true in the Philadelphia region, which I call home. My wife Sandy and I, fans of the genre, approve.

Here’s a cool thing about documentaries, which tend to be low-cost affairs and never rake in dough à la, say, Logan or La La Land: Once in a while one of them will settle into the theatrical marketplace and take nearly forever to depart. In saying this, I have in mind a doc that Sandy and I saw with friends in Philadelphia last November.

The Eagle Huntress, the film to which I refer, opened in The States one month before we viewed it. Remarkably, it’s still in some theaters across this fair land and still in the Top 100 of money grossers, as measured by the fascinating website Box Office Mojo. That’s staying power, folks, that few movies of any sort possess.

A nice movie, The Eagle Huntress spins the tale of a young Mongolian girl who is drawn to the historically male-only endeavors of taming and bonding with eagles and training them to race and to hunt in specific ways. Its central Asian scenery is gorgeous (what’s not to like about deserts and glacial mountains?), and the story line is not your everyday fare. But, to me, the plot didn’t ring quite true. I’m convinced that the final test of the girl’s gifts — to have her eagle chase down and kill a fox on treacherous mountain slopes  — didn’t go as neatly and smoothly as the director hoped for. I believe he’d have stayed out in the wilderness, filming take after take, until the desired outcome was achieved. Otherwise the movie would not have had a clean and tidy ending.

Enough quibbles. On to the three docs that Sandy and I went out to see in the past month: Kedi; In Search Of Israeli Cuisine; and I Called Him Morgan. As with The Eagle Huntress, they are playing here and there in cinemas around the USA and other countries. And if they haven’t yet made their way to Netflix or the like, indubitably they fairly soon will.

In a nutshell, I recommend these movies highly. Kedi tells the tale of street cats (felines, not hipsters) in Istanbul that have developed beneficial relationships with various humans with whom they share space. In Search Of Israeli Cuisine is a flick for foodies and for travel buffs. The goods on display in this movie, and the rural and urban settings in which they are grown, cooked, and consumed, look great. As for I Called Him Morgan, well, it made my knees go weak, as it is about one of my jazz heroes, trumpeter Lee Morgan. It also is about Helen Morgan, Lee’s common-law wife who shot him to death in a Manhattan jazz club in 1972. When Lee passed, the world lost a magnificent talent. He could play like nobody’s business and penned irresistible songs, from the nimble and fleet to the panoramic.

It’s a funny thing about Kedi. Sandy, a cat lover, liked it, but not as much as I did. That’s saying something because I decidedly am not a cat person. You’d have to pay me a few thousand dollars weekly to house one in my abode. But Kedi put me under a spell. I suppose it was the cinematography, more than the story, that got to me. I don’t know where, other than in Kedi, you’re going to see the world from cats’ perspectives. What did the director do, train a coterie of cats to become cinematographers and to follow their feline buddies around town?  Wow, seeing Istanbul from inches above the ground was, I thought, the coolest. On the opposite hand, so were the aerial shots of the city, for which feline cameramen had no input. Those images served no particular purpose, as far as I could tell, other than to look amazing. And amazing they did look.

After viewing In Search Of Israeli Cuisine I started thinking about a movie that hasn’t been made but could be: In Search Of American Cuisine. That is, it’s not easy to define what a nation’s cuisine is. Or was, for that matter. As with most issues and subjects, things often are more complicated than you might at first assume. In the Israeli case, culinary traditions from many dozens of countries and cultures have been brought to, or already existed in, the land of Israel. There they have intermingled, evolved, and been experimented upon. I went into the movie thinking that there would be an emphasis on Eastern European Jewish cooking (brisket of beef, smoked meats, kugels, etc.), but in Israel those dishes are not dominant in the least. Today’s Israeli cuisine draws more from Middle Eastern and North African cultures than from any others. Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and seafoods are what Israelis, as do many peoples the world over, place into their mouths. I left the movie hungry for grilled fish and for hummus, Israeli staples.

What can I say about Lee Morgan? I’ve been listening to his recordings for almost 50 years. I’ve been in the long-defunct, grubby jazz club, Slugs’, where he was murdered. And for years I’ve wondered about the circumstances that led to his death. Possibly I’m wrong, but it always seemed to me that not much information ever came out about his shooting. If it did, I don’t know where. But now, lo and behold, Kasper Collin, a Swedish director and jazz lover, has seized upon and told Lee Morgan’s story, its bright beginnings and sad ending. But not fully, because that ending does not fit itself into a tight package. It never will be completely understood.

Would you have to be a jazz fan to enjoy I Called Him Morgan? Well, I’m going to say that even the non-aficionado will go for this one. The movie has a brooding, moody quality, especially in the snow-filled wintery sequences leading up to and following Lee’s death. And, in marvelous film clips, it shows off his bristling musical chops. What got to me the most, though, was the telephone interview, captured on cassette tapes, that Helen Morgan gave to Larry Reni Thomas in North Carolina, where she lived after serving hard time in New York for her crime. Thomas, who has worked as a writer, teacher and radio host, conducted the interview in 1996, a few months before Helen’s death. The slow relating of her life story in her creaky voice and her explanations of why she came to pull the trigger were, I thought, the movie’s core and backbone. And maybe its heart. Without the interview there’d have been not much of a movie.

Lee Morgan, famed though he once was (his hard-bopping song The Sidewinder was a pop hit in 1965), has faded into semi-obscurity. I Called Him Morgan might help to reverse that truth a bit.

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Guys With The Same Initials: Terell Stafford, Thomas Shields And Thomas Sully

The Philadelphia Museum Of Art is loaded, duh, with works by famous folks. Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Cassatt, O’Keefe, etc., etc. The other day at the museum I walked past creations by all of them with barely a second glance, not to mention a first glance. Instead, on a goofy mission I spent a bit of time looking at objects produced by the hands and minds of Thomas Shields and Thomas Sully, names that ring a bell with just about nobody. That’s all I wanted to see before settling down with my wife Sandy in the museum’s Great Hall for an evening jazz concert led by the very a-ok trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Here’s why I did what I did: “Does the museum have anything on display by people with the same initials as tonight’s bandleader?” I wondered at home a few hours before Sandy and I headed museumward. “If it does, that’s what I’ll look at before the show.” Had any PMA visitor ever had the same sort of game plan as this? Yeah, right. Why did I come up with this idea? Uh, our orb is awash with cockeyed people.

PMA has a searchable online database. I scoured it. There were 33 artists whose first names and surnames began, respectively, with T and S. Of them, only three had works on display in the galleries (in other words, not in storage), according to the database. But one of those works, by a guy named Thomas Stretch, was the inner mechanism of an old grandfather clock. Stretch hadn’t designed the parts of the clock that anyone cared about. Namely, its cabinet or face. I’d have to disassemble the clock to see the gears et al that Stretch had fashioned, and I had a feeling that the museum’s guards, let alone its CEO, wouldn’t approve. Ergo, I scratched Stretch’s name off my list and, at the museum, went to check out what Shields and Sully were all about.

img_1013img_1031A silver sugar bowl. From the 1770s. Made in Philadelphia. That’s the Shields piece I looked at and admired. It’s beautiful. Shields was a well-known Philadelphia silversmith in his time and obviously damn good. If he were alive today I’d buy one just like it from him. It would look a whole lot better sitting next to Sandy’s and my Mr. Coffee machine than the bowl we’re currently scooping out of.

img_1016-2And Sully? Long ago he was a successful Philadelphia portrait painter. A few of his oils were on display at PMA. Mostly I looked at the one he did in 1833 of Thomas Cadwalader, a lawyer, landholder and military general. Man, Thomas looks great in this picture. Can you believe it, though? He was in his early 50s when Sully put him on canvas yet looks to be . . . what? . . . 35 at most? His skin glows with dewy freshness. His sun-lightened locks are enviably tousled. Bummer: TC might appear to hold the key to eternal youthfulness, but he lasted only eight more years before saying goodbye to Planet Earth.

Okay, show time was approaching. Back I went to a cocktail table in the Great Hall where Sandy sat. We have been to many dozens of jazz concerts at this venue since discovering the museum’s Friday night music series in 2002, one year after it launched. But we don’t go anywhere near as often as we used to, because you have to arrive at least an hour early to nab a decent seat. Which is a pain that we got tired of enduring. The show’s first set began right on time (5:45 PM), a miracle in the music world, and ended exactly one hour later. Being kind of anal, I admired those examples of precision and efficiency. And I also admired the limited amount of between-song patter that Terell Stafford engaged in. Out of the 60 minutes that he and his mates were on stage, sounds came out of their instruments for about 55 of them.

img_1028But what I admired above all was the quality of the music that the Stafford quintet produced. They played with a whole lot of heart and soul. They were into it. You could tell by watching Terell arching his back, his knees pushing forward — all in the name of generating thrust — when he ripped hard and fleet notes from his horn during certain solos. And by watching pianist Bruce Barth’s noggin bopping side to side, front to back, when he reached the heady parts of his improvisations. And by watching Stafford and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield smiling big smiles and nodding their heads in lockstep as they watched drummer Billy Williams unload a wham-bam solo near the end of the set’s first song (Hocus Pocus).

img_1567Hocus Pocus, composed by the late, fantastic and Philadelphia-born trumpet player, Lee Morgan, began with Stafford and Warfield pouring out the tune’s careening, irresistible melody with panache. After which Terell took the tune’s first solo, Barth pounding out heavy chords behind him. Cutting loose, TS spent mucho time in his instrument’s high register. Next to grab the solo spotlight was Warfield. He began studiously, exploring and probing, and when he found the door he was looking for the hot notes began to fly. A few minutes later Barth’s turn arrived. His left hand struck broad, loud chords while his right danced exuberantly. Throughout the tune the band was tight and relentless. Hard to believe that the upright bass player, Drew Gaunce, was a last minute fill-in for the gig. He, to my amateur ears, was rock solid all night.

Speaking of Lee Morgan, I realized after the fact that he composed four of the set’s five numbers. And that the remaining tune (Candy) was a song that he covered on his 1958 album of the same name. And I also was late to learn that the songs that TS and company played comprise the first five tracks on Brotherlee Love, the fine Morgan-honoring album that Stafford released last year. Of the four Stafford compadres appearing with TS at the museum, two of them (Barth and Warfield) played on that album. If you click right here you’ll hear Hocus Pocus as it appears on Brotherlee Love. And if you click here you’ll catch the Brotherlee Love version of Candy. On the album, Candy is performed by a trio, sax and drums sitting it out. At the museum the Candy personnel shrank even further. And the performance was lovely, a languid and captivating two-person discussion between Stafford and Barth.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Terell Stafford is known to jazz musicians and jazz fans in many places on the globe. Ditto for Barth and Warfield and Williams. And that TS, BB and TW also have long histories as jazz educators (all three teach at Philadelphia’s Temple University, for example). As for Gaunce, well, he’s in the wee stages of his career, so we’ll find out where the winds and his talents take him. After the first set ended, those winds carried me and Sandy out of the museum to a nearby tavern. There, we chowed down on good pub grub and drank good beer (me) and wine (her) before motoring home to the burbs.

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