Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Albert Namatjira and Chet Baker – “The Wind”

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Superficially, his paintings give the appearance of conventional European landscapes, but Namatjira painted with 'country in mind' and continually returned to sites imbued with ancestral associations. The repetition, detailed patterning and high horizons—so characteristic of his work—blended Aboriginal and European modes of depiction.”
- Sylvia Kleinert, Australian Dictionary of Biography

“Chet Baker was a man who breathed beautiful music.”
- Ira Gitler

I was having a difficult time finding suitable music to use as the audio track to the video tribute to Albert Namatjira that appears at the end of this piece.

And then I happened on trumpeter Chet Baker’s version of Russ Freeman’s The Wind and it suddenly just all came together.

The title of Russ’ tune and the lightness of its melody seemed like the perfect fit for Albert’s watercolors of the windswept Australian landscape. The Wind seems almost audible when viewing Albert’s paintings.

Russ Freeman wrote music for and performed with Chet for many years in the 1950’s, both in clubs and on a number of records. Johnny Mandel’s string arrangement marvelously enhances the melody that Russ wrote for The Wind.

Chet’s playing nearly always leaves me shaking my head at its originality.

Ira Gitler expresses the reasons why in his insert notes to Chet Baker with Strings: “The way he approached his art transcended any mechanical thought processes. The notes and phrases were at his lips and fingertips without his consciously having to think about them. The overall effect imparted by his delivery makes one feel this way. He was a man who breathed beautiful music.”

As Ted Gioia comments in his book about West Coast Jazz: “Despite the travails of his offstage life, Baker stands as one of the finest soloists that Jazz ever produced.”

Gene Lees declared: “I consider Chet Baker an enormously under-rated musician. I didn’t always get the point of his understated music. But one day I came to love the gentle, lyrical beauty of his playing and the trusting sensitivity of his singing.”

Charles Champlin, the late entertainment editor of The Los Angeles Times mused: “He and his contemporaries played the score for the Los Angeles I knew. In its go-ahead optimism, its mobility and its congeniality, it reflected for me the excitement and sense of promise of Southern California itself.”

Bernie Fleischer, President of the American Federation of Musicians Hollywood, CA Local 47 from 1986-1991 maintained: “If genius can be defined as knowing more than one could possibly learn, Chet Baker was a true genius.”

Chet Baker sensed and felt his way through Jazz. His was not a studied conception, yet he could play sometimes with amazing accomplishment.

As some critics have argued, he did stick to the middle range of the horn, but so what? If you want to listen to bass clef, go hear a trombone player.

Chet played the middle range of the trumpet with a quiet beauty and an inventiveness that simply have no place in the upper range of the instrument. Why be shrill and scream-like, when you can play scintillatingly long lines with an almost Lennie Tristano like logic in the pretty register of the trumpet?

Perhaps Albert Namatjira’s watercolors and Chet Baker’s trumpet playing go together so well because each, in its own way, was a modest proposition.

Albert’s work focuses on landscapes that “pull” the readers focus in-and-out of them. His images are at once arresting and simple. Much like Chet’s music, the viewer takes away an impression of moderation, restraint, and self-possession from looking at them.

Albert Namatjira [1902-1957] was an Aboriginal or indigenous Australian artist who was born. into the Arrernte community at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, near Alice Springs, Northern Territory in the Western MacDonnell Ranges of the subcontinent.

He was one Australia’s most notable artists. His work, watercolor landscapes of Central Australia, is represented in all of the Australian State art galleries.

Namatjira met Australian artist Rex Battarbee who visited Hermannsburg in 1934. Battarbee tutored Namatjira in the western tradition of painting and helped him to organize his first exhibition in Melbourne in 1936. This exhibition was a success and Namatjira was encouraged to exhibit his work in Adelaide and Sydney. Other exhibitions of his work followed, especially during the 1950s.

The capacity of light to flatten, fragment, illuminate or hide the forms that comprise the land, as perceived by the eye at unique moments in time, were not the only qualities that inspired Albert Namatjira. Solid matter that we know to be red, brown or green is seen by the eye as mauve, purple or blue when viewed from a distance. The steep rays of the noonday sun falling directly into a narrow gorge can change subtle shadows into a vibrant orange within a matter of minutes. Sunrise and sunset ignite solid matter into fire.

Namatjira's early paintings of mountains rely on alternate placement of light and dark areas within broad, relatively flat shapes, to establish the effect of the sun in defining its unique topography and enclosing folds. Later works go on to explore the complex ways in which light both shapes and dissolves three-dimensional form. Namatjira achieves this through the introduction of linear patterns that intersect as they curve around the mountain's perimeters and sweep down its slopes to establish the illusion of shadows.

Like Chet Baker’s solos, Namatjira’s work is defined by allusions and changing patterns of textures; it’s constantly “moving” if such a thing can be said about an art form that is portrayed in a one-dimensional setting.

See what you think of Albert’s art and Chet music together; two “naturals,” each in their own way.

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