Monthly Archives: November 2009

Truly Madly Tati

One of the greatest cinematic love affairs of the past half-century has been between British film fans and an angular, accident-prone beanpole of a Frenchman named Monsieur Hulot. The iconic comedy character created by the mime-turned-star and writer-director Jacques Tati has been tickling the funny bones of filmgoers since the release of the movie which introduced him – M. Hulot’s Holiday – in 1953. And it’s a love affair which is being celebrated at this year’s French Film Festival, with a retrospective of all of Jacques Tati’s screen work.

Tati may only have made a handful of films, but they have made a lasting impression on generations of viewers – and it’s not just the popular vote which they’ve earned. His admirers have included Orson Welles, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg and Belleville Rendez-Vous creator Sylvain Chomet who is currently transforming a previously unfilmed Tati script into an animated film.

Tati’s brilliance as a comedy actor has influenced at least two generations of comedians: John Cleese, Paul Merton and Rowan Atkinson, who described seeing M Hulot’s Holiday as “a defining moment in my life” (and paid homage to it in his 2007 film Mr Bean’s Holiday), are just some of the British comics who owe a clear debt to Tati and his very physical comedy style.

But what is it about Tati that makes him so well-loved – even by viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily go to see a foreign film? The main reason has to be his “everyman” appeal. Tati created easily identifiable types who everyone can recognise from their own experience – the postman who takes himself and his work too seriously in his 1949 film Jour de Fete (could he have been the inspiration for Cliff Clavin, the super-officious mailman in the sitcom Cheers?) and the eager-to-please social misfit M Hulot, who creates chaos out of order and is baffled by the technological trappings of modern life.

M Hulot’s fellow holidaymakers are also brilliantly drawn and would fit in to Fawlty Towers as comfortably as they do the Hotel de la Plage. There’s the veteran soldier who drones on about his wartime experiences, the meek, middle-aged sweety-wifey of a husband who is always several steps behind his banality-spouting spouse (“Oh, there’s another boat … and another … oh!”) during their saunters around the beach, and the workaholic businessman whose holiday is punctuated by frequent trips to the telephone (rather like the Tony Roberts character in Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam).

The humour in Tati’s films is very physical – and therefore universal. Tati said that the way a comic actor used his legs was paramount, and he used his to maximum comedy effect, mixing loping strides with hesitant little shuffles as he tries to ingratiate himself into new people’s company. Physically, M Hulot is every bit as recognisable – even in silhouette – as Charlie Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp.

The characteristic Hulot pose is of him tilting forward, with his head at a quizzical angle, his hat tipped over his eyes, his ubiquitous pipe at a right angle to his long nose, his arms bent behind him with his hands resting on his hips. Like Chaplin’s alter ego, he always wears the same kit – trousers that aren’t quite long enough, his Tyrolean-esque hat and stripy socks. He nearly always has his umbrella handy. He walks with a lolling gait, on well-sprung tiptoes and is undoubtedly a French cousin d’un certain Basil Fawlty.

Tati’s background as a mime meant that he was most at home devising visual gags, rather than writing and delivering one-liners or trading witter banter with another actor. Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python team member who became a director, has said: “One of Tati’s great qualities is that his films contain almost no dialogue. I find this particularly brilliant – these divinely French films that create no problem when it comes to subtitling. In terms of dialogue, Monty Python learnt everything from Tati. We owe everything to him.”

Tati’s films feature soundtracks of exaggerated, cartoon-like noises which heighten the effect of the visual comedy – the putt, putt, putt of M Hulot’s old jalopy as it chugs along the road, the be-doing of the restaurant door as the motley crew of hotel guests assembles for lunch, the crashing noise made by our hero’s racquet as he serves in the funniest tennis match in movie history.

The gags which Tati created for his films worked on a number of levels. Many of today’s Tati fans have grown up with M Hulot’s Holiday and have found that their appreciation of it has only increased with time, as they find more and more humour in it.

There’s the obvious, laugh-out-loud slapstick sequences, which appeal enormously to children, but most of the humour lies in the beautifully observed, often whimsical, details which are not flagged up, but are quietly unfolding in a corner of the screen. It pays to see Tati’s films in the cinema as so much happens in the background – and he actively avoided filming close-ups. Orson Welles once said: “There are performers who are only good in full figure. Move in on Tati and he literally disappears.”

Of course, the films also appeal to anyone with a fondness for France and the French way of life. They celebrate the quaint, the eccentric and a lifestyle which Tati saw being replaced by a faster, more consumer and technology-driven one. Jour de Fete and M Hulot’s Holiday are lovely to look at, since they are set in unspoilt rural France, and they move at such a leisurely pace that you can soak up the detail of both the comedy and the setting.

Terry Jones, another Monty Python graduate, has said of Tati: “He was a visual genius. His films, without being silent, all have the qualities, the beauty and the richness of silent film.”

Even by the time he made his third film, Mon Oncle (1958), Tati was beginning to show signs of self-indulgence in his work. His subsequent films – PlayTime (1967),  Trafic (1971) and Parade (1973) – are reviled and revered in equal measure. But Jour de Fete and M Hulot’s Holiday are perfect comedies that showcase Tati’s comedy at its most pure – and most appealing.

* The Totally Tati retrospective is on at the Glasgow Film Theatre and the Edinburgh Filmhouse now. The BFI’s new box set of five Tati films is out now.

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Group of Groups

One of my favourite releases of recent months is the double Arbors CD of music by the 1970s supergroup Soprano Summit – much of it previously unissued. Browsing through the CD’s booklet this week, I realised that it’s 30 years since this small, but perfectly formed, outfit disbanded – though its members did get reunited in the 1990s and occasionally thereafter. Here’s a timely, 30th anniversary, tribute…

Soprano Summit was a band which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (seven years), has become something of a legend in the jazz world. Certainly, its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a jazz party organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that the late clarinettist Kenny Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Bob Wilber, enjoyed telling.

By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said in his Alabama drawl: ”Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet”. The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

”We got a rhythm section together – by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden, and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number. We finished it off on two high notes in thirds and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972 the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album, the only difference in personnel being that busy bassist Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier. Then, after a follow-up LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born.

The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go. Rhythm guitarist Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work.

For Grosz, the invitation to join Soprano Summit was a lifeline – as well as a launchpad for the solo career he’s enjoyed ever since. “It was great for me because I’d been toiling in the vineyards – I’d been playing all the crumby jobs in Chicago and wondering if this was all there was in life for me,” recalled Grosz in a 1995 interview. “This band had a feeling of experimentation about it – and I love that.”

Grosz had already heard Soprano Summit on the radio and couldn’t wait to get to New York to take up his new job. “Soprano Summit was a sterling quintet, a peppy, interesting band sort of like the little Jimmie Noone Apex Club group with Jimmie Noone and Joe Posten on clarinet and Posten sometimes on alto sax.”

Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love for tunes that were off the beaten standard track. (He passed the test with Davern by being au fait with the Red Allen-Pee Wee Russell number Oh Peter.) Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic groundplan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz they also had ”a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning”. Davern said: ”That was the basic sound of the group: two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue”.

The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music but both have their own views on how it should be played. ”Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they would bounce the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. Then several rounds of musical jousting would take place, with each front man vying for musical supremacy – especially, remembered Marty Grosz, on their “big, next-to-closing number, Song of Songs,” a schmaltzy tune that Sidney Bechet used to play. “They way they did it, they’d uilt and build and build it – and people loved it.

“They would build up a head of steam and it would bring the house down.I don’t think either of them would have the horn out of his mouth during the whole number. They’d egg each other on, and try to outdo each other. Then, when they ran out of gas, they’d pass it on to me – and I’d be like a drowning man struggling to keep his head above water..”

There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, and the only clue to the planned nature of the programme was the fact that they had music in front of them. Indeed, Grosz pointed out: “They were the only band I ever came across who could somehow surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts. I thought it was good that they had little arrangements – otherwise if you don’t play together for a long time, every night in the same club with the same bass player and drummer, then you’re going to end up playing common denominator tunes. This was a chance to do out-of-the-way material.”

Bob Wilber was modest about the way he and Davern worked. “A lot of it was intuitive. We would find out what worked by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.” Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: ”Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”

Although Soprano Summit split up in 1979, both Wilber and Davern, who thereafter played clarinet exclusively, continued to discuss their musical rapport in the present tense because following the recording of the Chiaroscuro album Summit Reunion (with their original line-up) in 1990, they increasingly found themselves being booked together for concerts, albeit with different rhythm sections. Indeed, plans were afoot for some Wilber and Davern concerts when Kenny Davern died suddenly in December 2006. As he had said, during a mid-1990s reunion, ”people still throw their babies up at this band, at this combination of instruments”.

Thankfully, there are plenty of recordings of this near-mythic band to testify to its ability to give the hairs on the back of the neck a work-out, even three decades after its demise. As the recent Arbors CD of highlights from the tapes recorded by the New Jersey Jazz Society in 1975 demonstrate, the Soprano Summit sound is as fresh, exhilarating and downright thrilling as ever.

***

MARTY GROSZ remembers:

“I joined Soprano Summit in 1975 for a concert at the Carnegie Hall. There I was, with my knees knocking together. Somehow, playing the Carnegie Hall is an unnerving experience. I had to put one foot up on a chair to stop my knees from clacking like castanets while I played the guitar and sang the Milenberg Joys.

“Around that time, we did The Today Show a couple of times. One time we were doing The Today Show and I was singing How Can You Face Me, and Kenny started mugging, pulling his fingers at the corner of his mouth and making all kinds of faces and obscene gestures. It was all I could do not to just give up in the middle of live television and crack up.

“I like that kind of thing in a band. I’d much rather they’d come out with water pistols and soda water bottles than those deadly bands where everybody sits there like zombies and the leader comes out and makes one of those deadly earnest announcements. In this band, we had a chance for craziness like Theatre of the Absurd, which I personally am a fan of.

“Soprano Summit was the only group I ever played with who managed to read music on the stand and not have it have a negative effect on the audience. Usually, when you have a little combo – especially – and the musicians have their eyes down at the paper, you lose contact with the audience. But, for some reason with Soprano Summit, they could surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts.

“We had these little orchestra stands and I sat in the middle – I was the guy who stopped Kenny and Bob from killing each other at times. Kenny was the outspoken one, and Bob was quiet – always thinking about the music; about arrangements.

“Soprano Summit was the band I actually looked forward to playing with. I’m really sorry it had to come to an end. Sometimes when Kenny and Bob were wailing away full tilt, and the rhythm section was boiling, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And I’m an atheist.”

* The Soprano Summit in 1975 and More (Arbors Records ARCD 19328)

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