“Emshwiller is mad, truly mad. Only mediocre craftsmen are like everyone else. The truly great craftsmen are creatures with demons at their service. And thus the borders of art and craft disappear in the mystery of created and found reality.” – Jonas Mekas
Charley Varrick might not be the last of the independents after all. Ed Emshwiller is so underground he’s more like an earthworm than a visual artist. He’d already contributed cover art to over 500 sci-fi books and magazine before he dropped his first film, “Dance Chromatic”, in 1959, and the deeper you delve into his work, the more idiosyncratic he gets. “Dance Chromatic” is a narcotic soldering of action painting and dance, “Lifelines” (1962) nimbly combines animated line drawings with photography of a naked model, "Film with Three Dancers" - made 5 years after “GDP” - achieves movement through superimposition and multiple imagery.
“George Dumpson’s Place” is set around a destitute Black handyman who squatted in the Long Island area, and is one of several Emshwiller short films on artists who he felt connected to in spirit ("I felt he was an artist because my definition of an artist is a person reorganizing the world, creating a world in his internal likeness .....He put together what things he could in such a way as to satisfy some inner need, just as I had to make this picture of him and his place."). Emshwiller, in an original and entirely convincing way, fills up all 8 minutes of “GDP” with broken dolls and other curiosities scattered about Dumpson’s backyard museum. Yet, “George Dumpson’s Place” is versed in realism: the emotional tone of the film something quite apart from say a Svankmajer film where dreams and reality usually merge in a threateningly playful way. The close-up of Dumpson’s eyes at the end is a disquieting image if ever one existed. He didn’t live to see the finished film.
The double bass/guitar duet works well here, especially on the long and lengthy reveal of a motionless Dumpson, when Bill Lee drops an ostinato figure (5:22) and Jay Berliner answers the call. Lee features on a number of Odetta, Bob Dylan and Harry Belafonte recordings as well on Strata East’s Descendents of Mike & Pheobe, and would later write film scores for his son Spike ("Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads", “She’s Gotta Have It”, “Do The Right Thing”, “Mo Better Blues”). Berliner was another frequent Belafonte collaborator (during the same period as Lee) who also played with Mingus and Deodato.
22. Carol (Ed Emshwiller, 1970)
Unknown Thumb Piano
Beautiful, though even more subdued than “GDP”, “Carol” is Ed’s portrait of his wife, experimental sci-fi writer Carol Emshwiller. By repute, one of THE experimental sci-fi writers.
The identity of this thumb pianist remains a mystery, though if Emshwiller was loitering in Strata East circles – albeit before the label was launched - then Stanley Cowell (the label’s founder) is a fair shout. Cowell started playing one a couple years before Emshwiller cut “Carol”, recording it in Tolliver's Music Inc band and then later with the Heath Brothers.
The thumb piano is usually referred to as a Kalimba even though that only covers the Kenyan incarnation. At least 3 other thumb pianos (Zimbabwean Mbirwas, Rwandan Ikembes and Ghanian gyilgo) are similar in appearance and sound, so it isn’t even certain which instrument is played here.
23. Day of the Dead (Charles Eames, Ray Eames, 1957)
“In Mexico, an intimate acceptance of death extends far back into pre-Hispanic times. In the Aztec culture which preceded the coming of the Spaniards, death shows itself again and again — a familiar image. These ancient things of this land were joined over the centuries with the Spanish celebration of All Souls. Together they form a universal festival of many facets and many dimensions — the Day of the Dead.” Narrator
Brazilian Laurindo Almeida scores this short doc on Dia de los Muertos, Mexico’s All Soul’s day honouring those who have passed on. I spent Dia de los Muertos in Guanajuato once. The cemeteries were elaborately decorated with sugar skulls and families holding vigil. My experience, at least, was a magical combination of jovial and sedate.
It’s quite something that Almeida’s is able to create such a spacious and deeply atmospheric score with guitar alone. He isn’t strictly a jazz guitarist, almost as often playing classical – even on his LA4 and MJQ recordings – or amalgams of jazz and samba: A well-honed versatility that equips him to capture the full emotional range of the celebration.
24. Keep Cool (Barrie Nelson, 1971)
Oscar Brown Jnr
Oscar Brown Jnr gets jazz hipster points for his part on Max Roach’s “We Insist”, where he contributes lyrics to protest pieces like “Driva Man”, “Freedom Day” and “All Africa”. He also gets jazz hipster points for his mimicry of the jazz hipster.
Like Randy Newman, Brown Jnr is at his best when he’s bitingly sarcastic. When the persona he inhabits is so frighteningly close to the real thing that you start checking the album sleeve for hard evidence that you’re listening to parody. “But I Was Cool” is Brown Jnr at his sardonic best, playing a hipster character (Jalal of The Last Poets must have collared him for his Lightnin’ Rod creation) who’s lifestyle choices get him into all sorts of bother.....but he’s cool.
The animation reminds me of Ralph Bakshi’s “Coonskin” work, but it’s definitely Barrie Nelson. It’s more like a music video than a scored film.....but it’s cool. Too cool to pass by.