Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Alec Guinness - "All The Things You Are"

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


“Gather all the trades and talents that he displayed onscreen, and you end up with the most curious of amalgams: prince, priest, bank clerk, shrink, dictator, Jedi, vacuum-cleaner salesman, thinker, sailor, soldier, spy. Much was revealed in the serious games that Alec Guinness played. More remains unknown.”
- Anthony Lane


“I am tempted to say that All the Things You Are is my favorite jazz standard. But I would need to immediately clarify my statement. Frankly, I am not especially entertained by the song as written by Jerome Kern—the melody, with its predictable whole notes and chord tones, moves with an austere, quasi-mathematical precision that leaves me cold — but the piece represents, to my mind, an exciting set of possibilities as a springboard for jazz improvisation. I love this song less for what it is, than for what it can be.


In my twenties, I would play All the Things You Are almost every day, often at great length, and I found constant solace in constructing melodic variations over its chord changes. I'm sure I'm not alone in this regard: many jazz artists have returned to this song, over and over again, during the course of their careers. I recall talking to saxophonist Bud Shank a few months before his death at age 82, when he noted that he never felt he had exhausted the possibilities of this specific song, which he had first recorded almost 60 years earlier. Pianist Lennie Tristano and his acolytes have also demonstrated a quasi-obsessive fixation on this composition, apparently finding in it a zen-like inspiration for higher-order creative improvisation—an attitude I must admit to sharing….


...the salient virtues of this piece may well be lost on the general public. To the uninitiated listener, the second eight bars may sound identical to the first eight bars, yet musicians will appreciate the unusual modulation that brings the same melody down five scale steps, a shift that appeals to me as a deepening of the underlying mood of the song. Throughout most of the form, the bassline moves through the circle of fifths with such zeal, that when Kern departs from the pattern, at the end of the bridge and in the elongated final A theme, it imparts added piquancy to the proceedings.”
- Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards [pp. 15-16] [Ted is a Jazz pianist.]


Reasoning by analogy is fraught with all sorts of pitfalls as are comparisons that cross artistic borders.


But the process of creation is just that - a process. It uses different tools for creative writing than those that are employed for creating roles in film acting; the personas thus formed may have little to do with manipulating a musical instrument to create Jazz improvisations.


Aristotle once said that we are all different with regard to the things we have in common.


So while the processes for the Act of Creation may be different for each of the creative arts, they are interrelated as a process.


I often see these interrelated processes as complementary forms of artistic expression which is why frequent visitors to these pages sometimes find themselves viewing video montages of sculptures or paintings or film actors and actresses set to Jazz. [The late Jazz pianist Marian McPartland used to “see” music in colors having once told the Jazz author Whitney Balliett that “‘D’ is for daffodil.”]


Such is once again the case in the video that closes this feature in which images of of the late actor Sir Alec Guinness are displayed along with a performance of All The Things You Are by pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. accompanied by bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke.


Leonard Feather, the late Jazz critic and author considered Phineas to be one of the three greatest Jazz pianists of all time along with Art Tatum and Bud Powell. Not bad company, eh?


Smart Alec


“THE CENTENARY of Alec Guinness's birth fell, without fanfare, on April 2nd. He would not have lamented the lack of trumpets. His life had begun with a blank, the space for his father s name left unfilled on his birth certificate, and, to judge by the titles of his memoir and journals ("Blessings in Disguise," "My Name Escapes Me"), he never lost his taste for a vanishing act. Alone among the great performers, he resolved a paradox: how to be a star without being the center of attention — or, at least, while giving no sign that you crave such a prominent spot. When Laurence Olivier played King Lear onstage, in 1946, it was Guinness, pattering around him as the Fool, with a mime-white face, and with his lines shorn to a bald minimum, who stuck in the mind's eye. They also shine who only stand and serve.


Nonetheless, as though by accident, Guinness grew into a hero — or, rather, into one of life's supporting players who had heroism thrust upon him, whether he liked it or not. He oozed or scampered through one Baling comedy after another, making "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "The Man in the White Suit" in a single year, 1951, and British moviegoers, canvassed for their favorites, kept putting Guinness on the list. Cool at times, even remote, he gave them something to warm to. Shifting shape, he remained unmistakable; who knew that chameleons possessed so robust a soul? Where Peter Sellers — who worshipped Guinness, and scrutinized him avidly when they worked on "The Ladykillers" (1955) — would spend himself in a fury of impersonation, Guinness gave no hint of a hollow core. He found a still point in the turning world.


Late but loyal, Film Forum is running a Guinness series, from June 13 to July 3. Most of the obvious candidates are there, including "Kind Hearts and Coronets," of which nobody could tire, and the six movies that he made with David Lean. (So fair and fresh does he seem as Herbert Pocket, in Lean’s "Great Expectations," from 1946, that it's hard to remember that Guinness was already over thirty, and that he had commanded a Royal Navy landing craft in the invasion of Sicily. He was tougher and more seasoned than he looked.) Embedded in the retrospective are semiprecious gems: "The Mudlark" (1950), in which Guinness, relishing the role of Disraeli, holds the House of Commons in his practiced palm, and "The Scapegoat" (1959), adapted by Gore Vidal from a Daphne du Maurier story. Guinness fails to mention the film in his memoir, but Vidal, in his own memoir, "Palimpsest," recalls it all too well, not least Guinness's attitude toward the author: "Alec, a very literary man, was not only patiently tactful but treated her with all the skill of a slightly edgy psychiatrist soothing a potential werewolf at dusk."


Certainly, few actors have been more expert at the smoothing of feathers, or had more of a knack for the mot juste. Invited to comment on a seedy German night club, in the miniseries "Smiley’s People," Guinness replies, "It was very artistic," with the faintest of pauses before the final word. Gather all the trades and talents that he displayed onscreen, and you end up with the most curious of amalgams: prince, priest, bank clerk, shrink, dictator, Jedi, vacuum-cleaner salesman, thinker, sailor, soldier, spy. Much was revealed in the serious games that Alec Guinness played. More remains unknown.”
—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, June 9 and 16, 2014.


Mr. Lane’s reference to “ … gather all the trades and talents that he [Alec Guinness] displayed onscreen, and you end up with the most curious of amalgams: prince, priest, bank clerk, shrink, dictator, Jedi, vacuum-cleaner salesman, thinker, sailor, soldier, spy…” brought to mind the play-on-words reference to the All The Things You Are song title and the version of it that Phineas Newborn, Jr. performs in the following video.


See, I told you it was all a process.



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