Loose Strife

An MP3 blog

Monday, September 18, 2006

#29 - A luncheon at Per Se; an ethical quandry

“How Long Has This Been Going On?”Ray Charles, singing in the mid-1970s, with the Count Basie Orchestra (minus Count Basie), performing in 2005-6

Today I took a day off from work at the Small World day care center to attend, for the first time in my life, what I am told is an increasingly rare event: a record label press junket. Okay, apparently it wasn’t a real junket---none of the journalists had been flown in from anywhere, as far as I could tell. But I was certainly transported---first by subway, then the Time-Warner Center escalator---to food heaven, aka: Per Se, what some say is the best restaurant in New York City. It’s sister restaurant, the French Laundry in Napa Valley, also run by super-chef Thomas Keller, has been called the best restaurant in the country.

Reading guys like Lester Bangs, it seems that record companies had more money to wine and dine journalists back in the ‘70s. Now, with downloading cutting into their profit margins, I guess they don’t anymore. Or maybe I just don’t get invited to them. But since bloggers are the new media stars---or so the old media keeps telling us (without actually coughing up any work, at least for this boy)---some of us were invited to this event, organized to pimp a new Ray Charles record.

Yes, he’s still dead. The record, Ray Sings, Basie Swings was constructed from vocal tracks recorded at a live concert in the ‘70s with his backing band, and newly-recorded backing by the Count Basie Orchestra (sans the late Count, of course). The idea was partly serendipidous, we were told, spurred when the producer of Ray’s final major release, the umpteen-million selling Genius Loves Company, found a tape of Charles’ concert on a reel that also included a set by the Basie Band. The men didn’t play together that night, but now, thanks to the miracle of technology, they do.

Figuring this was gonna be a hard sell, especially to the crusty old-guard jazz hound culture in New York, the marketing/pr folks pulled out all the stops. I don’t know why the big fuss, thought. Dead people come out with new records all the time, between reissues and cameos on hip-hop singles and mix-tapes. Biggie and Tupac have probably released more material post-mortem than when they were alive; Ol’ Dirty Bastard is catching up fast. And since many of the tracks on Genius Loves Company were supposedly assembled with pre-recorded vocal performances by duet partners not in the room with Ray, what’s the difference whether the participants are dead or alive? If the music is good, the technology is simply a footnote.

Is the music good? Sure. Ray’s vocals are strong, and the Basie band arrangements are dapper, notwithstanding a couple of sappy bits. It's airless at points, yet really not bad.

But the lunch? Lord Jesus. It began with a very amusing amuse bouche of salmon carpaccio flecked with microscopic chive stems atop a black sesame seed studded cone, whose interior contained a blip of creme fraiche---a fantasy of sesame bagel/cream cheese/lox as ice cream cone. Understated and exquisite, and perfectly matched with the a chardonnay-tocai-pinot grigio blend from Friuli (the aparatif was a wonderfully fresh Basque country white Txakoli). The salad was a pickled endive surrounded by tiny architectures of dense, razor-shaped melon cubes and tiny pickled baby red onion circles, deployed between drizzles of ultra-virgin olive oil and aged balsamic. The tartness of the endive parryed the sweetness of the melon to a gentleman’s draw, which danced beautifully with the wine.

The entree was a lovely square of grilled black cod atop a succotash sitting in a creamy pool of some sort of intensely concentrated fresh corn reduction, a perfect use of late-September produce. It was boldly paired with a Zinfandel, which made a suprisingly perfect match, the wine holding its juicy own against the corn's sweetness while the charred cod skin and bits of hardwood-smoked bacon brought out a gentle smokiness and oak notes.

“Fish with zin, very Per Se,” said the diner beside me, a writer for some Conde Nast publication, I didn’t catch which---meaning, I gather, how typically California-foodie-renegade.

The Zin also worked well with the dessert, a deconstructed something-or-other that set a tablespoon-sized scoop of intense, fresh ginger ice cream in a nest of graham cracker crumbs beside a glob of exquisite caramel goo and what looked like a Joseph Schmidt chocolate egg truffle, but tasted even better. Along the edge of the plate was a thin, hardened line of bittersweet chocolate which only the boldest guests dared to smear up with their fingers. (Of course, I was among them.)

I must sound like a foodie. I am not. I can’t afford to be a foodie. I just like to eat. And read food magazines.

At the end of the meal, following a push for the assembled to “please cover this record” in their magazines and newspapers and TV shows and blogs, I staggered out into the sunlight of a perfect fall afternoon and walked across the street to Central Park, feeling full and bought. I had no intention of writing about this record before I went to this event, which I attended purely to get into a restaurant I’d never be able to afford otherwise. But here we are.

Does the music deserve coverage? Hey, it’s an interesting story and an engaging record---which despite some of the ridiculous hyperbole flying at the lunch, can’t hold a candle to his greatest recordings, but what can? Listen to the track above and judge for yourself.

I guess this is how it works. Did the lunch, and this posting, constitute payola? Is Eliot Spitzer going to send his boys down to the day care center? I’ll let you know. In the future, I promise to police this sort of conflict-of-interest more diligently in Loose Strife. But for now, I’m going to enjoy the little packet of Per Se chocolates with a cup of coffee from the Starbucks dark roast beans I got in my Ray Charles gift bag.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

#28 - Fellini on the danger of music

(Above, Federico models a crown on the set of Fellini's Casanova, 1975)

There’s something about people who spend all their time listening to music---not musicians, but armchair music fans, whether they’re professional critics or record store clerks or just layfolk. It’s a bitterness, a sort of loss of empathy, as if the emotional songs they covet and fetishize and analyze were, like science fiction parasites, sucking their own emotions out, or acting as surrogate expressions of feeling they themselves have become incapable of.

It’s a strange and, frankly, rather scary phenomena; I worry about it, since I spend a great deal of time coveting and fetishizing and analyzing emotional music.

I’ve always been fascinated by this quote from Federico Fellini, which seems to have some relevance to what I’m talking about. It appears in the LP Amarcord Nino Rota, a tribute LP to the Italian film composer who scored most of Fellini’s greatest films.

I can listen to Nino for days on end, sitting at the piano endlessly reshaping a musical theme, intent only upon finding the exact musical phrase to coincide with the sentiments and particular emotions which I am trying to convey in a sequence of film. Yet funnily enough, outside of the work context, I actually can’t stand listening to music; it conditions me, it alarms me, it tries to possess me and consequently I am forced to defend myself---to push it away from me, like a thief trying to escape from the temptations of the bargain basement. I don’t know, it’s probably another case of our “catholic conditioning”---but music makes me melancholy: it fills me with remorse. And useless as remorse always is, music attacks me with the voice of admonishment, a voice which I feel destroying me because it sings so loudly, conjuring grandiose dimensions of harmony, of peace and of accomplishment, and yet quite clearly leaving me excluded---a total exile! Music is cruel---it stuffs you with nostalgia and regret and when it’s finished, just leaves you utterly directionless: music introduces you to the unattainable. Marvelous, but how sad!

Food for thought.